Camber called goodnight over her shoulder, then ushered Tina out of The Pineapple’s back door. Before the club’s door slammed behind her, Tina heard Nadine’s tart reply from inside.
“Did you hear that?” Tina said to Camber. “What a bitch.”
“Oh, ignore her,” Camber said. “She’s full of it now she’s had her op.”
Tina glanced back at the door. “Does no longer having a dick mean she gets to be a major cunt?”
Camber laughed. “She’ll want to rub it in for a while, but she’ll get over it. Besides, she may have got rid of her dick, but she’s still ugly. And have you listened to her singing lately? She says it’s the hormone treatments. Her voice is all shot to hell.” Camber threw an arm around Tina’s shoulder and leaned in close. “Whereas you, sweetheart, are still a knockout. And you still sound like an angel every time you open your gob.”
“Aw, thanks.” Tina checked the time on her mobile phone. 4:32 a.m. “Fancy a nightcap?”
Camber shook her head. “This girl needs sleep. Rain check?”
They stood by the back door of the club as if reluctant to go their separate ways into the night. A breeze blew the length of the alley, and a light rain touched Tina’s face. It felt soothing after all the scraping off of makeup. She glanced towards the lights of the main road and saw a group of men passing along the mouth of the alley. For some reason, she thought about a dream she’d had the night before, where she’d woken up and tried to get out of bed, but had floated upwards instead and thumped against the ceiling. Looking over her shoulder, she’d seen that she had huge butterfly wings. She could remember, in the dream, looking at the wings in wonder and thinking: I’m transforming. Then when she woke up for real, her cheeks had been wet with tears. She thought they might’ve been tears of joy.
Camber took a pack of cigarettes from her jacket pocket and tapped one out. “What about you? Any nearer to your big day?”
“Not even close. I try to put a bit of money away every month, but you know how it is.”
“A girl’s got to eat.”
After taking a deep drag on her cigarette, Camber glanced to the right. “Well,” she said. “I suppose I’ll see you Monday.”
“You know it.”
They hugged. Then Tina watched Camber vanish into the dark. She remained by the doors of the club a while longer. What was this reluctance she always felt to begin her journey home? An unwillingness to return to reality after the costumes and the stage lights and the applause? Didn’t she always wish it could go on just a teeny tiny bit longer?
Sighing, she set off. Still a good distance from exiting the alley, she heard a noise like footsteps behind her and stopped to look back. In the half-dark she could see nothing except the outline of a skip.
She let out her breath.
“Camber?” she tried. “That you?”
No reply came, so she faced forward and started walking again, faster this time. She felt something rushing at her from the dark, then a body colliding with hers, knocking her off her feet. The air went out of her in a whoosh. Her thoughts reeled. What was this? A mugging? Queer-bashing? Rape? She’d been warned about men in the audience who became obsessed. That was why she and the others always stripped off their makeup and costumes before heading home. Why they made themselves unrecognisable from their stage personas, almost ending up looking like men again. They may not have liked it, but it was safer that way.
She heard her own strangled voice shouting: “Help! Hel…”
Shoving against the body that trapped her with its weight, she crabbed backwards so that her movements set off a motion-sensor security light she knew was fixed to the wall behind the mini-supermarket next door to The Pineapple. But as she raised one hand against the sudden glare, her attacker fell on her again. The assailant was now on top of her, pinning her against the cold concrete. She struggled and managed to roll onto her back. Seeing the flash of an axe blade—a fucking axe blade!—she lashed out on instinct and managed to deliver one solid punch into her attacker’s face. As the body on top of her fell back, Tina arched her hips and threw the weight from her. She gasped for breath as she struggled to her feet. The attacker came at her again. Tina’s fear gave way to anger. You want a fight, I’ll give you a fucking fight. Just like the boys at school. How many had she had to punch before they stopped calling her names? Poof. Fairy. Queer. Bender. Those bastards were full of it—until she showed them she wasn’t afraid. One punch to the nose was usually all it took to silence them. But sometimes you had to grapple. Roll around. Tina reached up, felt for hair and clutched onto it. She spun her attacker around by the head and threw whoever it was amongst some wheelie bins.
How’s that, you bastard?
I’m going to get out of this. I’m not going to be anyone’s victim. No, not me. Not me.
She knew she should have made a run for it, but something made her look back. Her attacker was half-crouched on the floor by the bins. To Tina’s surprise, she saw it was a woman. She wore a dark-coloured hoodie, but a long blonde fringe spilled across one side of her face. And yes, that was a small axe she clutched in one hand. But even this realisation didn’t get Tina moving. The anger, the defiance was still in her. She held the woman’s eyes. There was something about her… something familiar. Both of them were frozen, waiting for the other to make a move.
When the security light clicked off, Tina’s heart leapt up to her throat, and she turned and ran as hard as she could. She ran until she was out of breath. She never knew if the woman pursued her, or how far. Out on the main street, she narrowly missed being hit by a bus. Long clear of the alley, she chanced a look over her shoulder, but all she saw were concerned faces looking back at her. She realised she was sobbing. Seeing a brightly lit bus stop, with people waiting, she sat down on the bench. It was only then, as she tried to regain control of her breathing, that she realised what had been so familiar about her attacker. That hair she’d grabbed onto was just like the blonde wig she wore on stage. That face she’d looked into was her own.
It was Camber who convinced Tina to go to the police. Everyone at The Pineapple was scared. Simon put a security guard on the back door, but no one would go out that way. At the end of the night, they went out the front instead, in packs of three or four, arms linked. Axe murderer on the loose. No one was taking any chances. Only Nadine laughed at Tina’s story, swiping one flat hand past her crotch and saying, “Don’t you know an axe is as good as a scalpel, honeybun?”
Tina had insisted Camber go with her to the station. There they were taken into a back room and seated in front of a desk where a thick-set, steely-gazed policewoman took Tina’s statement whilst retaining an air of skepticism. When Tina got to the part about how the attacker had looked just like her, the woman stopped typing and narrowed her eyes.
“I thought you said it was a woman with long blonde hair.”
“When I perform, I wear a long blonde wig.”
“At The Pineapple.”
When the woman still looked confused, Camber interjected. “In drag. She’s a drag queen. You should hear her belting out a bit of Cyndi Lauper. Voice of an angel.”
“Only her hair—this woman’s hair—it wasn’t a wig,” Tina said. “It was the real thing. I know because I swung her around by it at one point. If that’d been a wig it’d have come right off in my hands.”
“So…” the policewoman said, her steady gaze fixed on Tina’s face. “You’re saying the attacker looked exactly like you when you… dress up?”
“Yes,” Tina said. “Only on her it was all real. The hair. The tits too, probably. Everything.”
“Just a moment,” the policewoman said, and got up from her chair. She walked to the far end of the room where she spoke to an older man seated at another desk. The man glanced at Tina and Camber, then took out a mobile phone and spoke into it.
“That’s it,” Tina said to Camber. “He’s calling the men in the white coats.”
“It is a crazy story,” Camber said.
The policewoman returned and said, “I’ve some colleagues who’d like to speak to you. If you don’t mind waiting.”
Almost an hour passed. Camber was getting restless. That’s when three men in black suits appeared and approached the desk where Tina and Camber sat.
“Will you come with us… miss,” said the oldest of the group. When Camber started to get up too, he showed her his palm. “We’d like to speak to Miss Garrick alone.”
“What’s going on?” Tina said, glancing back at Camber as the men escorted her away. “You’re not taking me to the loony bin are you? I’m telling you, I saw what I saw.”
“No, Miss Garrick. We just think you could help us with an ongoing enquiry. That’s all.”
“Who are you guys? Special branch? MI5?”
“Something like that.”
“What did they do to you?” Camber said, jumping up from her seat when the men returned Tina to the waiting room.
“Do? Nothing,” Tina said. “Let’s just go.”
“What was all that about?”
“I’m not supposed to talk about it. They made me sign something.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“They want me to help them, that’s all.”
“Help them? Help them do what?”
“Help them catch that woman who attacked me.”
“Why? Who is she?”
In her mind, Tina turned over what the men had told her. There were things, they said, these creatures called—she couldn’t remember—creatures that could shapeshift. The creatures would find someone they wanted to become—then they would kill that person, cut up and dispose of the body, and take over their life.
Like invasion of the body snatchers, the men said. Did you ever see that movie?
Tina had wanted to laugh at first. Is this some kind of windup? she’d asked. Those things don’t exist. It’s not possible.
But then she remembered what she’d seen that night. She had looked into her own face, her own eyes. And unless she had a twin somewhere who wanted her out of the picture, what other explanation was there, other than that she was losing her mind?
They’d been tracking one of these things, these — God, what had they called them? — for months. They’d known it was in the general vicinity, and had an alert out for any stories like Tina’s. They said Tina had drawn it out.
Me? she’d said. What do you mean?
It must have seen you on stage, they told her. That must have attracted it. Your image. The glamour. It must have liked what it saw. It wanted to become you. Be you. It wanted to kill you that night in the alley. Then it would’ve taken your place.
Tina felt a chill down her back when they said this.
It’s still out there, they continued. If it’s already made the change it’ll try again to take you out of the picture. Tina knew what they were going to say next: they wanted her to help them capture it.
You understand, Miss Garrick, we can’t have something like that at large amongst the general populace.
What’s in it for me? Tina had said.
There’ll be a reward.
Oh yeah? How much?
They mentioned a figure. It was half of what she needed for her surgery. Only half, but a good start.
Tina shook her head, and noticed Camber staring at her.
Tina shrugged. “I don’t know. What they told me… it didn’t make a lot of sense.”
Stop acting like a girl, Tina’s father used to say. Don’t be such a big girl. Stop crying. Toughen up. Be a man. Be a man, for Godsake. Tina—or Max as she’d been called back then—found it baffling. Her father talked as if femininity was something to be ashamed of. As if glamour and sensitivity and compassion and nurturance and gentleness were traits to be despised. In the house Tina grew up in, women were dismissed as broads or babes or bitches, or a bit of skirt. As if the women Tina saw on TV—these exotic creatures—were not to be looked at in wonder, but in contempt. As if Tina’s mother, with her beauty and her patience and her good humour could not be a role model, but instead had to be seen as somehow weak and contemptible. Don’t be like her, Tina’s father seemed to be saying. Be like me. Drink beer. Play football. Make crass jokes.
Tina was twelve years old when she first tried on one of her mother’s dresses. She’d wept afterwards. Wept because all she’d wanted to do was walk down the street wearing that dress, to let everyone see her. But she knew she couldn’t. And she’d thought then that she never would. The name they’d given her. Max. Horrible, blunt, masculine name. Like a stone in her shoe. Like a rock tied to the leg of a drowning boy. Max.
The men instructed Tina on what she had to do. She would go on stage and sing as normal. Then she would leave the club alone via the back door with a surveillance mic affixed to the collar of her coat. She was to walk slowly down the alley behind the club. Men would be stationed at each end. If anyone approached or attacked her, they would know about it and they’d be there in seconds.
Tina couldn’t help thinking: Bait, that’s what I am. Like a little fishie on the end of a hook.
The first night she was so terrified she barely made it through her opening number: Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.” She couldn’t help looking at the faces in the crowd, wondering if that shapeshifting thing was out there somewhere, watching, biding its time. Her number one fan. It was funny in a way. As a child, she’d dreamed about being famous and having hoards of adoring fans trying to look like her. Now she had one that could actually become her. After a pitchy “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” she gave up and relinquished the mic to a gloating Nadine. Backstage, her hands shook and she was sure she was going to puke.
“I can’t do it,” she said to Camber. “I’m scared. I can’t do it. I can’t go out there.”
Camber offered to walk down the alley with her, but the policemen, or whatever they were, wouldn’t let her. Sometime after closing, they fitted the mic to Tina’s collar and led her to the back door.
“We’re right with you, all the way,” one of the men said.
She stood looking in each direction along the alley, her heart hammering, wanting nothing more than to go back inside. She tried to calm herself by thinking of the money, how it would get her closer to her transformation. But how long would it take her to scrape together the rest of the cash? She’d be lucky if she could save a hundred a month. Not wanting to stand in the dark by the door of the club, she set off walking along the alley. She imagined the man back at the club, listening through her mic with his headphones. All he’d be hearing was her heavy breathing. She tried to control it. The light from the mini-supermarket surprised her and she gave a little yelp.
“It’s ok,” she murmured into the mic. “It’s just the security light. It made me jump.”
She was trying to look everywhere at once, scrutinising every shadow.
When she made it, unmolested, to the end of the alley, she didn’t know whether to feel relieved or disappointed.
“Never mind,” one of the men waiting there told her. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
So they tried again, and again. By the end of the week, Tina was walking the alley at a fast trot with her head down, sure that the woman or the thing or whatever it was that had attacked her was long gone. She wondered if she would still get the money.
It was on Saturday night, when the light from the mini-supermarket clicked on and she happened to raise her head, that she saw it. Naked. A pale body stood stock-still behind some bins with its back against the opposite wall. Tina froze. Her eyes widened. Its eyes were fixed on her. Tina made a noise, a little intake of breath, not enough to alert the man listening in on her collar mic. The woman, the creature, made no move. It simply held her with an unblinking stare. Tina knew she had to say something, make a noise so the men would come running, but she was transfixed. Why had it chosen to appear to her naked? Was it showing her what she could be? The face was hers, but the body—no. The body was a woman’s, rounded and curved in the ways hers could be only if she tucked and stuffed and corseted. This was it. This was the dream made real, more real than she ever could have hoped, this was what she’d always wanted to be, standing right before her.
Her mouth opened. Still, the woman—the thing—made no move. Glancing down, Tina saw the axe held in one hand. Tina should have yelled, screamed—something—but she didn’t. She was silent. Holding her breath. The thing waited, as if allowing her time: time to see. Tina saw the version of herself she’d always wanted to be, the dream that never seemed to get any closer, no matter how much she scrimped and saved. Here you are, it seemed to be saying. This is it.
Something strange happened then, something even Tina herself didn’t fully understand. She began to undress. First the coat, which she set aside on the ground, careful of the collar mic. Then her boots. Then her jeans. The other woman watched her. Tina slipped off her shirt and held it out to her. When the other woman still didn’t move, Tina encouraged her by smiling and nodding her head. At the same time she thought: What the fuck am I doing? The other woman snatched the shirt from her hand then and put it on. Her face remained inscrutable. Next Tina handed her the jeans, then the boots. In only her underwear, Tina shivered and wrapped her bare arms around herself as the woman struggled to dress without setting down the axe. Then Tina remembered the surveillance mic and crouched to remove it before handing the coat to the other woman. Turning away, she saw a drain, went to it, and pushed the mic in through the grill. She heard a ploop and wondered if that sound would’ve been picked up by the man with the headphones. What would he have made of it? Would it have alarmed him?
The night was silent, as if the whole world had stopped.
Tina squeezed her eyes shut, and thought: This is it.
Before Tina had a chance to stand and turn around, the axe struck between her shoulder blades. As the pain ripped through her, before the second blow came, she thought of a time-lapse film she’d seen of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. She remembered how the cocoon broke open at the bottom, and how the butterfly slowly forced its way out. Then came the beautiful moment when the butterfly emerged and showed the world its big colourful wings. It lingered a while, hanging onto the dead, useless remains of the chrysalis, as if it were afraid to fly. Its wings flapped and it appeared to realise what it now was: something new, something reborn, a dream of its old self.
Then, leaving the old skin, the old weight that had grounded it, the butterfly spread its wings one more time and finally flew away.