Chapter 3: How It Will Always Be

Melika was on Tumblr.

She hadn’t been dragged out to Terre. Melika was happy to be at the gallery. She was celebrating Sabine’s big night. Melika wanted to be present for Sabine, and she was… sort of.

Melika had been fine when Sabine was with her. A close friend was the only emotional support system Melika still needed to function in crowded, public spaces. She’d come so far since college. Her days of intense, total seclusion were mostly behind her.

Melika had been fine when Severin had stopped by and asked how she was doing. They always took a special interest in Melika when she came in to Terre with Sabine. Severin did have a habit of studying Melika intently and not apologizing for the stares. She could handle Severin’s looks though. Melika knew why they stared. Unlike most folks in the ‘Burgh, Severin couldn’t have cared less about Melika’s visible Adam’s apple. Her visions were of far more interest.

Yet, Melika still felt like she would rather cease to now be or have ever been than be left by herself at shows like this.

This is how it will always be.


Orchid

Vol. 1: Overture

By Dawn Saas and Nic Frankenberry

Powered by the Apocalypse and the work of D. Vincent Baker

as well as

Urban Shadows by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman

Microscope by Ben Robbins


Content Warning: Depictions of Gender Dysphoria. Discussions of self-harm, drug use, and anxiety.


Melika had been with Sabine when they saw the teen girls kissing in front of Sabine’s painting. Melika was so envious of the Iranian sixteen year old. When Melika was sixteen, she hadn’t accepted that she was queer… let alone that she wasn’t a man. Were this girl’s parents Muslims too? Did they know their daughter was queer? Melika guessed that the girl’s family was Shia. Melika still considered herself Sunni, but she hadn’t been to a mosque since she was eighteen. There were very few where she felt welcome, and there weren’t any trans-inclusive mosques in Pittsburgh. Melika had found other queer and trans Muslims to worship with in the city when she felt the need. Those moments were coming more and more often lately.

After the teen girls walked away, Melika was struck by how long it had been since she’d kissed someone.

Has it really been four years?

Melika didn’t date much although she and Sabine had maintained a platonic intimacy and their current living arrangements for eight years. Melika’s relationship with Sabine was the longest of her life. She was fine with sex being off of that particular table.

Even before Melika transitioned and accepted the truth of her feminine nature, she had been too femme to date the straight women she was so certain she was meant to pursue. The relationships just never worked. Women knew Melika wasn’t a man, even when she didn’t. Melika was 6’4″. She took almost fetishistic care of her long, thick hair. Anyone that saw her smile felt that beam in the pit of their stomach. Melika had looked just enough like a man and carried enough of her masculine socialization to occasionally meet heteroflexible women that didn’t know it yet. Melika’s brief flings would end when the other woman knew there was something fundamentally different about Melika from everything that woman had been taught to want from a man. The women would break up with Melika, and Melika could never figure out why until she accepted she was a woman and began her transition.

Melika had developed coping mechanisms to help her deal with the loneliness. Dr. Zhi had ensured that Melika could take care of herself. Thank god for therapy… and SSRIs. Melika knew that her self-worth and her womanhood weren’t dependent on the judgments of cishet stares. She knew that what happened in the Thibodeaux dorms a decade ago happened because abusers prey on women. Melika knew that abusers found folks like her who wanted to trust other people… to be close to and vulnerable with another person because society and family that were supposed to love them isolated them instead. Melika knew that Todd’s assault hadn’t been her fault. She understood this, and Melika had been done letting the memories of that evening define her life and her possibilities for years… although Melika was a lot more careful about what drugs she did with which strangers these days.

Melika’s recovery had been difficult. She had barely survived the months that followed Thibodeaux. If she hadn’t started seeing Dr. Zhi and if Sabine hadn’t come barreling into her life, Melika was certain she would not have made it to her late 20s. She wasn’t ashamed to admit how essential both her therapist and her best friend had been to her recovery. Everyone needed someone, and, by necessity, Melika had spent so much of her life cutting out all of the folks that had hurt her. She knew she needed to start putting in the work to foster the healthy relationships in her life.

Dr. Zhi helped Melika recognize and avoid her self-destructive behavior patterns. She helped Melika chart a path to healing and a better future. She encouraged Melika to join Omikron Epsilon Delta. Melika had been seeing Dr. Zhi for as long as she’d been seeing Sabine. Sabine reminded Melika of what familial, unconditional love looked like. Sabine helped Melika remember the intensity of a friendship that lights your entire world on fire. Both Melika and Sabine considered themselves to be poly and pan, but there was never a sexual element to their relationship. There was an intense intellectual and interpersonal attraction. Sabine had been the first to say “I love you,” and Melika reciprocated the phrase without having to think in response. Six months after they moved in together, Sabine held Melika in their arms as they fell asleep on the couch watching re-runs of True Blood. Sabine told Melika they couldn’t wait to grow old with her, but they never kissed. They never had sex.

Melika and Sabine had discussed taking their relationship to a different level. Neither was ace. Melika had sex with a handful of partners after the Thibodeaux incident and her recovery began. Sabine had a revolving cast of poly sex/romantic partners. Melika and Sabine conceded that they felt a sexual attraction to each other. However, they both needed the stability a purely platonic relationship would provide. Of course, they soon realized that sex-less relationships could be just as messy as sexual relationships, but Melika and Sabine had weathered every storm they’d faced. Melika joked that they weren’t having any less sex than her parents and they were sure as shit fighting less. Sabine was still trying to come up with a gender-neutral term for them being Melika’s common-law non-binary spouse.

Melika’s last sexual relationship had ended when her lesbian partner had tried to make Melika choose between her and Sabine. Melika’s choice was never in doubt, and Melika hadn’t gone out of her way to date since. She was happy enough with Sabine.

Still, Melika’s dysphoria in public was intense. Melika would see young people in groups — either as couples or as friends — and her mind would fall down a rabbit hole of her own trauma and her past isolation and all Melika could think about was all of the nights she spent at home and later in dorm rooms where she couldn’t make herself go out or be around anyone. Of the evenings where she’d look in the mirror and see a man’s face staring back at her. A face that told Melika that her external identity would never match the softness and warmth she knew that she contained inside of herself. Of all of the stares from everyone over the years who couldn’t figure out if she was a man or a woman. Who wanted to make sure that she felt othered in every space she occupied. Melika would find herself unable to breathe to this day if she hadn’t taken her medicine in a while and she was left by herself. Melika loved Melika, but being alone was a reminder of the fate she knew could always be just around the corner.

Melika used her phone and social media as a way to distract herself when the anxiety was too much to bear. It centered her. Melika felt a little weird about being almost 30 and still being as attached to her Tumblr as she was, but, until Melika had as many queer/trans friends in Pittsburgh as she did on the internet, she wasn’t going to make any apologies for needing a safe place.

Terre was better for Melika’s lingering dysphoria than her stock-girl work at Arlo’s Electronics. Most folks at Terre knew what the word “cis” meant. Melika worked in the back at Arlo’s. She rarely interacted with customers. Sometimes, though, there would be staff shortages. Melika would have to work on the sales floor, and she knew why the majority of the customers asked other people for help. Melika could get all of the therapy she wanted. She could spend as much time in Sabine’s embrace as she liked. She could receive all of the affirmation in the world from people that mattered to her, but spending every day knowing that your existence is an affront to so many others… that it triggers existential confusion and anger in so many… it takes its toll. Melika was done feeling guilty about choosing to disappear to places where she didn’t feel afraid or unwelcome when her mental health was at its most vulnerable.

Melika was scrolling through Tumblr, using tags of fan art for her favorite shoujo magical girl manga, when she saw Sabine’s painting, Home.

Melika was confused. She knew Sabine didn’t have a Tumblr even though she had tried to convince them to set one up for their art ages ago. Sabine tried to use as little social media as possible. They tended to get calls from their mother when they actually spoke their mind on Facebook and Twitter. Sabine did not like getting calls from their mother. Melika was fairly certain Sabine hadn’t uploaded Home.

Melika figured someone else in the gallery had uploaded a photo of the painting. She was impressed by the editing job someone had done, presumably on their cellphone. The photo didn’t include the painting’s oak frame. Melika couldn’t figure out why Home was showing up in the tags for Koko and Friends though. There wasn’t a clear original poster either. Melika figured her phone’s app was acting up. Her phone was five years old now and Melika hoped she could keep it for another five. She didn’t need anything more fancy than what she already had, but Melika had to admit the phone was breaking down as often as it worked anymore.

Melika tried to scroll past the photo. She decided the painting was in her timeline because of geo-data her phone was transmitting. Melika thought Tumblr was just trying to show her something it thought she’d be interested in. However, when Melika attempted to scroll past the photo, the next image on her dashboard was Home again. This time, the barest edge of the oak frame was visible.

Melika started to sweat. This was not a computer error. She knew that she was about to have a prophecy. Ever since her vision in the elevator, Melika had been plagued by foretellings.

Melika didn’t have warm, fuzzy visions. She had come to terms with the fact that she wasn’t going to wake up one day with the lottery numbers… or if she did, that surely meant the world was coming to an end. Melika’s visions showed more catastrophic futures.

Just a month before the Art Crawl, Melika walked to the window of her bedroom in the second story apartment that she shared in Lawrenceville with Sabine. She needed to go out and buy some groceries, and Melika wanted to know what the weather was like. It was a cloudless day. Melika looked down at the streets, and, suddenly, she saw herself walking out of her building and onto the sidewalk. Melika made it a block before a torrential storm arrived. Rain was falling like a special effect in an apocalyptic storm movie. Melika watched from her window as her doppelganger was struck by lightning in the streets, the electricity arcing from her fried corpse to the cars and buildings around her. Melika never went to the bodega that day, and, sure enough, a freak thunderstorm whipped through Alleghany County, and lightning struck the exact spot Melika had seen in her vision. There were still black scorch marks on the sidewalk.

A couple years back, Melika and Sabine had made plans to go camping with some of Sabine’s friends at Cooper’s Rock in West Virginia. Melika had been excited for months. She’d gone with Sabine to all of the stores as they’d purchased their tent and supplies for the getaway. In the days leading up to the trip, Melika had made all of the snacks she and Sabine would have needed to survive a weekend in the woods. Sabine had helped Melika make some THC-infused brownies. Melika hadn’t been this excited for an outing since she was a little kid. Then, Melika had a nightmare about her tent being ripped open as she had to watch as Sabine was mauled by a bear. The bear began to advance on Melika before she woke up. Sabine listened to Melika’s visions. They didn’t go on the trip. A bear chased their friends out of their campsite before the trip was over.

Two weeks after the elevator incident, Melika had the vision that got her into therapy. Melika was walking through the Hodges campus in Oakland. She wasn’t paying any attention to the world around her. Melika couldn’t believe she was making herself still go to class. Failing out of college came much later. Melika couldn’t look any of her teachers or classmates in the eye. She couldn’t talk in class. However, she had to force herself to not stay at home, in her dorm, because she knew that she’d kill herself if she didn’t leave. Melika was walking past the Rhodes Tower and trying to keep from having a nervous breakdown on campus when she heard screaming from far above her head.

Rhodes Tower was the tallest building on the Hodges campus. It was one of the tallest buildings in Pittsburgh period, and the only buildings that towered over it were downtown skyscrapers like the McDonald Financial Building. The construction of Rhodes Tower had been ordered by Nelson Hodges himself, the steel magnate/education enthusiast that had founded Hodges University and whose name was stamped across half the city in one form or another. Nelson Hodges had a fixation on Greek mythology, and Rhodes Towers was to be his colossi. His towering phallus in the heart of the school district. However, like most of Hodges’ more aesthetically minded students, Melika had to admit that the building’s aggressive, classical design was a welcome, stark contrast to the endless banks, offices, and hospital towers that dominated the city’s skyline.

Melika heard the screams as she walked across the sprawling green that housed Rhodes Tower. She looked up and she saw a body hurtling towards the earth. Melika screamed and leapt out of the body’s way which came crashing to the sidewalk in an explosive red mist. Melika could feel warm blood dripping down her face and arms and legs. Melika knew who the body was before she knelt down to turn it over. Melika recognized her own floral print maxi skirt and orange sweater. Melika looked around and although folks had turned towards her scream, no one seemed to notice or care about the misshapen corpse or the corpse’s blood-spattered doppelganger. Melika knew no one had seen or heard anything but her. Melika turned the body over and saw her own dead eyes staring back at her. Melika knew she wasn’t ready to die and she made an appointment with Mental Health Services through Hodges as soon as she got home. She met Sabine a month later.

Melika had a seeing at least once a week. They weren’t always about her. She had plenty of visions about Sabine which Sabine always took seriously. Melika’s brothers and sisters in OED also tended to treat her second sight with respect. The Caretakers knew how rare it was to have a genuine prophet in their mix. Melika had talked to Chad a couple month’s before Sabine’s gallery show. She had a nightmare that he’d totaled his Prius in a multi-car pileup on his normal route from his apartment in Oakland to the Hodges campus where he was now teaching. Chad took a slightly longer route to work and avoided a twelve-vehicle accident that dominated the local news for two weeks.

Melika had gotten much better at staying calm when she saw her nightmares brought to life. If she started to scream or make a scene every time she saw herself get decapitated or watched a building burn in a fire no one could see but her, Melika would have been institutionalized. She’d been down that path once. No thank you. Never again.

And, so, while in Terre, as her phone began to scroll so quickly that the images of Home looked like choppy, projected film reel, Melika did her best to stay calm. The view of Sabine’s painting gradually pulled away from the tight zoom that had initially been presented to Melika. Home was resting on a desk that Melika recognized. The desk was in Tracy Houston’s office at Hodges. Melika had gone to Tracy’s office with Sabine on a couple of different occasions. Tracy had been Sabine’s advisor when Sabine was in school, and they’d stayed on close terms since. Just as Melika began to mentally place whose desk Home was resting on, a knife entered the frame on her phone and slashed a huge gash in the painting.

The framing of Home continued to pull back until Melika could see the hand holding the knife. The hand was large. There was an engagement ring on the ring finger. The knife continued to hack away at the painting until it was torn to shreds. The framing pulled further back and Melika could see the arm holding the knife. The arm was covered by a rolled up, lilac men’s dress shirt. The framing kept pulling back until Melika could see the back of a man’s head with a thinning mane of auburn hair that fell just past his shoulders. The man stopped slashing Home and breathed heavily in anger and exhaustion. He turned around and left Tracy’s office.

It was Professor Arnoldson.

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