The door swished closed behind him, cutting off the bustle of administrators, all preoccupied with hundreds of other cases. It comforted him to shut out all the bodies under sheets out there. He focused on Sky not watching him, her eyes directed at her peppermint green skirt. She’d sewn it with Lita, and colored her white tennis shoes green with a magic marker so they’d match. He realized he knew more about how she was dressed than how he’d dressed himself – and that was perhaps part of why he didn’t understand her. Sky was only even a ‘she’ to him today because of how she’d dressed; if it was jeans and a sweater, Sky would be a ‘he’ to him now. It was an imperfect system for dealing with a question he couldn't ask.
He put his back to the door and slid down to almost eye level with her from across the room. He asked, “Can I tell you a secret?”
Still, Sky wouldn’t look at him. She preferred to examine the flaking grey paint on her stool, careless that she only had half an hour left this way. So he confessed.
“I was always afraid you didn’t like me. I was sure you liked your mom better, which is fine, because I like her better than me too. That’s why I married her.” He smiled, and she didn’t, and he spoke a little faster, “But when we first met, and I called foster care – you were so mad at me all the time. It was only Mom who saw that you thought I didn’t want you. I did. I do. I love having you. I was just petrified that your birth parents were looking for you, and then, that I wouldn’t be a good enough father. You were never a pain. Those nights we stayed up playing Fallout, you in my lap, being so good at picking everything up, then making me fight the mutants, until you fell asleep? I loved that. Even the time you wet your pants, and thereby mine. You got so mad when I laughed, but I laughed because I loved having you. The things I do come off wrong sometimes. It’s part of who I am.”
He found his hands climbing his shins, rubbing at his knees. Where had he picked up that habit? Maybe from his father.
Sky was holding her knees with her little hands, as though to make sure they wouldn’t get away. She wanted Mom – she’d been calling Lita ‘Mom’ since the day they’d found her behind their bakery. Of course she wanted Mom, rather than this man she’d never once called ‘Dad.’ Something between his lungs and guts felt sore.
“And I’ve always respected your secret. It’s yours, and you get to tell who you want. Mom never told me, and I’ve never asked her to. If you feel like a girl today, you’re a girl. Tomorrow you can be a boy. Tuesday, you can be both. Wednesday, neither. Thursday to the end of time, you’re whatever parts of whatever feels right. You’re who you are. When I first met her, Mom was the biggest tomboy I’d ever met, while wearing sugar-pink bows, and the longest skirts I’d ever seen,” and he gestured to his legs, mime-signing for the skirt Lita had helped her sew, but it failed to translate and he had to keep rambling, “I wish she was here now, but she’s too far away, and we don’t have enough time. Hedinger’s Disease, Honey—”
She twitched, and he knew it’d been a mistake. Some days she lit up for pet-names, and others ‘Sport’ or ‘Sweetheart’ or ‘Captain’ landed on the wrong spot. Now she burrowed her face down, hiding it against her knees. It took a magnitude of will not to push across the room and drag her out of here, but that was the wrong thing he could do, even though she was dying by minutes.
“Sky,” he called to her as softly as he could. “At least seven children from your class have this disease, and so do both of your teachers. Probably everyone in the school has it, and that means you almost certainly do too. It’s very serious, but it acts very differently in… you see, when it gets up inside a girl, it… and, in… You see, they can’t give you just any set of shots. It has to match or it will only make the disease go faster.”
Every time he blinked, he saw one of the people dead under white sheets on gurneys in the halls outside, blood spots demarcating the sex they’d been. At least two short sheets, two kids – one a boy, one a girl, either or both kids that Sky could have known. Could have seen on her way into this room, as she fled from nurses demanding she tell them which she was.
He crawled on his knees to her stool, canting his head in a silent prayer for her to look at him and see what he meant, even if he couldn’t say it. “I always thought you hated me because, maybe, you thought I wanted you to pick, or to tell me what you ‘really’ were. I know some adults are ugly to you about that, but… you’re not simple to me. I don’t think you’re one hidden word. This disease – listen, whatever your body is, that’s just what it is. You’re whatever you feel. I wouldn’t even ask for this much, and I wouldn’t take it from you. This is your choice, and I know it’s too big. But it doesn’t take away whoever you think you are. It’ll just help us keep this disease from taking you away from me. So… please.”
He fought not to sigh at himself. Any doctors in the vicinity would think he was an idiot for talking this long. Even Lita would have dragged Sky out the room by now, but he didn’t have the same relationship. He wasn’t even ‘Dad,’ and such a man could not simply drag you down a hall and expose your soul to a stranger with a needle. His left hand rose as though to defy his conscience, to grab for her, and his right caught it by the wrist. He was fiddling with his cuffs when Sky stirred.
She rolled on her heels, narrow spine rising against the corner of the room, fingers rubbing over her knees and tucking her skirt behind them. So ladylike, so like Lita. Then one hand wove around the legs of the stool and clasped his left wrist, fingers so small they scarcely wrapped halfway around.
She tugged, and he rose around the stool, letting her draw herself to his side. Her whole front was feverish against his calf, but her dress was dry. The only moisture on her face was a trickle of tears and snot, and she murmured in her raspy voice, “Okay, Daddy.”