Jailyn pierced Winnie’s ears behind her house. She was in middle school, three grades up, and worked at the mall doing this, so Winnie trusted her. They sat on the cement outside Jailyn’s screen door. It was the door you had to force open, because it always jammed. And when it ran off the track, Jailyn’s mother would holler from the kitchen. Winnie didn’t mind this, though, because she liked how Jailyn’s mom was cheery and always had the house smelling of poblano peppers.
When they were younger the pair spent entire days playing in Jailyn’s yard. It used to be lush and green, and her mother had a garden in the corner, and her father would spend his lunch breaks weeding and mowing and mulching. Now it’s browning, dying, and Winnie never bothered asking to play anymore. Her mother had told her that Jailyn’s father had bad stuff in his car, and the police found him out. And when Winnie approached Jailyn about this, the girl stuck her tongue out, and said at least her father will come back someday. That shut Winnie up for good.
Jailyn began with the left ear. To ignore the pain, Winnie focused on the Martinez boys messing around on the street. She used to play with them, three-on-three basketball on the asphalt that got so hot their skin peeled off. Mrs. Martinez had brought them sneakers from the church, but they were already worn and two sizes too big. Whenever Lorenzo would try to dunk, his shoe would fly off and hit Winnie. Yet it sounded as if today they brought the sprinkler outside. Winnie yearned to head over, but she wanted to seem grown up with a middle-schooler around.
“You think I’m gone look like Terrell?” Winnie asked her friend.
“That tranny down the street?”
“Don’t say that. It ain’t nice.”
“It’s what my ma says. I don’t know what it means.”
Winnie knew she’d show Terrell her ears before anyone else. Terrell wore big, gold hoop earrings that Winnie wanted for herself. They glimmered so much that Terrell told her they collected all the sunshine, and that’s why the moon came out at night. Because the earrings stole all the light. She wanted to surprise her mother by coming home wearing them.
When Jailyn finished with the right ear, she warned Winnie to stay put, that they may swell. But eager, Winnie hopped up and ran across the street, jumping through the sprinkler and keeping an eye out for uneven spots in the sidewalk. She passed two cops, but knew better to acknowledge them. When she was in kindergarten she used to think the police were tourists, because they were the only outside visitors she saw. She never mentioned this to her mom though, because she would turn angry and call them sharks, or something much worse that forced her to drop a nickel into the swear jar.
Winnie’s house was red, with a black roof and a broken window at the top that her mother sealed with tarp. Winnie kept a few flowers by the mailbox, but the trash collectors would consistently throw them away on accident. Her street was a cake of homes that all looked the same, and her house was just a slice of it. Winnie’s mother wanted nothing more than to move. Her parents were screwed over by their landlord some decades back, and when she inherited it she got a mortgage and was now stuck with it.
Every day Winnie’s mother woke up early, went to work, came back to send Winnie off to school, then went to her second job, returned to make dinner, and put Winnie to bed. She had to be a mom and a dad. Like any good parent she wanted nothing but the best for her daughter, but years of the same monotony turned her cynical. One evening at the supermarket some white woman called her a welfare queen, and she slapped her hard in front of Winnie. That was the day she had her first breakdown, and Winnie had told her that she knew her mom was tough, because if those people had her life they wouldn’t make it a day.
Winnie had to cross the street to Bluebird Avenue, and at the corner was Terrell’s tiny abode, just like Winnie’s but with purple shutters. They always kept their door locked, because they kept pet doves that they let fly around all day. They didn’t believe in owning cages, and let the animals roam free. But Winnie knew to pass around back to find the key underneath the potted plant. There was a fence, but it was chainlink, and Winnie learned last year how to climb it. It had a hole in the bottom where opossums liked to sneak under and bury themselves in the garbage.
She had done this a million times; it was a routine every afternoon following school. Since her mom was working and didn’t want her to be alone, she went to Terrell’s. Terrell took care of her. When white girls at the schoolyard tugged Winnie’s hair and called it nappy, Terrell styled it with beads and glitter. When they told her her skin looked like mud, Terrell told her that paintings are beautiful because of color, and it’s the same with skin. When they teased her for how she spoke, Terrell said she spoke just fine, and it was them who don’t listen well enough. They taught Winnie all about Malcolm X, and Marsha P. Johnson, and Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, and Chinua Achebe, everybody they thought she needed to know about.
Terrell wore long purple dresses, their hair done in an afro, with those hoop earrings Winnie loved. They swore by blue eyeshadow and red lipstick, loved how they looked in the mirror with fake eyelashes and a little highlighter on their cheekbones. Winnie thought their face looked like a beautiful watercolor painting, and that their skin glowed like pennies at the bottom of a fountain.
“Terrell is the most pretty woman I ever seen,” Winnie said to her mom once.
“He wants to be a woman,” her mother had told her.
“So I reckon they just a woman then.”
Her mother muttered, “I guess,” and went back to scrubbing dishes.
Naturally, Winnie had relayed this conversation to Terrell one day. When they heard about it, Terrell rolled back on their rocking chair and guffawed.
“Why you laughin’?” Winnie asked.
“I’ll tell you a secret, darling,” Terrell told her. “I hate labels, hate pronouns. They’re so confining. They like some bird cage, y’know? Or prescription medicine. Some days I feel one ole way and some days another. Ain’t that natural? Just call me ‘they,’ ‘them,’ whatever you need to make your ma happy.”
Winnie had told her mother this, and the latter grumbled in the way people do when they don’t want to understand something. She told Winnie not to catch any weird ideas.
That afternoon, Winnie rapped on Terrell’s door fifty-two times. She counted. She used to barge in until she found Terrell with their nose in some white powder. Terrell said it was pixie dust, but that it was their secret. No one could know. Terrell had levitated from the ground for a moment to join their pet birds. Winnie had watched, awestruck at Terrell’s smile, but when her friend came down all they could do was cry. Winnie couldn’t comprehend why.
Taking his daily stroll, Darius heard Winnie’s incessant knocking. He was a man Winnie’s mom told her to stay away from. He lived under the freeway, and wandered the neighborhood constantly begging for spare change. One night a lost white woman had stumbled into the neighborhood, and when Darius asked for a dollar she got scared. And like anybody who doesn’t like being rejected, Darius grew mad and hollered at her. So she screamed bloody murder, so loud that everybody across the state was rustled awake. Terrell had heard all this happening outside and took Darius in, and since that day the two have shared every lunch with one another.
Darius heard Winnie’s voice shout, “It’s me! It’s me!” and reached in his trench coat for a piece of paper. He knew Winnie’s mom prevented them from interacting, so this was how he chose to communicate with her. Folding the paper into an expertly crafted plane, Darius waited for a gust to catch it, and threw it towards Winnie. It landed next to her, and only had Hello! scribbled in barely legible penmanship.
Eventually Terrell found Winnie and welcomed her inside. In their house, if you glanced past the turtle doves, were loads of mirrors. Terrell said it’s because everybody gives them weird looks, and it’s nice to have one pair of eyes soaking them up. But Winnie enjoyed them, because no matter how she looked in them—whether she was sobbing or raging mad—the reflection back would always smile. Winnie would try explaining these things to her mother, but she never bothered to believe her.
Terrell prepared Winnie’s after-school regular: a peanut-butter-and-marshmallow-fluff sandwich. Winnie’s mom couldn’t afford school lunches—Terrell knew this without having to ask. They prepared Winnie a hot cocoa, too.
“So,” Terrell sat down with her, “What’s the sugar today, sugar?”
Winnie batted her eyes and protruded out her freshly pierced ear.
“Ain’t that something!” Terrell exclaimed. “C’mere. I gots just the thing for you.”
Winnie engulfed the remains of her sandwich and followed Terrell to their vanity. On it was a red box with rhinestones jeweled at the edges. When they opened it, a tiny ballerina popped up and twirled to a song. But reflected in one of the mirrors, the ballerina appeared life-size and dancing beside Winnie.
Terrell dug inside until they pulled out two pearls. They adjusted them into each of Winnie’s ear, then led the girl to their closet for a purple dress of her own.
“Growing up too fast, is what I say,” Terrell mumbled.
Winnie threw the dress overtop her clothes. It was massive on her, bagging at all sides and flowing like drapery onto the floor. “It’s so big!”
“I wore it at my first show.”
Winnie studied her reflection. “Hm?”
“I thought I done told you. I used t’be a singer, ‘fore I came round these parts. I was a damn good one, too.”
Winnie spun, trying to float the dress with a breeze. “What happened?”
“Life, I s’pose. My parents had it good, sent me to a real nice school on a hill. Imagine I gots a tad too comfortable, and when I told them ‘bout me, they ain’t handle it well. Cut me off, so I din’t have the money to pay for school or nothin. Now I’m here.”
Winnie was too young to understand. “If you hadn’t’ve come ere, you wouldn’t’ve met me.”
“Yes child,” Terrell said, “I s’pose you’re right.”
Winnie didn’t notice Terrell’s sad smile, and poked at her new pearls. “When am I gone get to wear those big gold hoops?”
“One day, one day,” they said.
Suddenly the clock on the wall struck the hour, and when a tiny door at the top flew open, a dove burst out like a bat out of Hell. Terrell swore loudly, and Winnie told them they owed her a nickel. When they ignored her, Winnie asked why they were frantically sorting through the house, grabbing at their coat and purse and shoes.
“Because baby, your Terrell done forgot something,” they said.
“What? What is it?” Winnie asked, but Terrell didn’t hear her. They were too focused on everything else, cussing under their breath so much that Winnie stopped asking for change. “What is it?” Winnie repeated over and over, until Terrell stopped what they were doing, paused, and kneeled down to her level.
“It’s for adults,” they told her.
“I’m grown up—I’m old.”
“I know you are, hon. There just some things in this world you too young to know ‘bout. Things a person ain’t ever should know. An I plan on keeping you young for long as I can.”
Winnie wasn’t satisfied. She stormed in front of the door and blocked it. “I ain’t movin’ till you tell me the matter.” All the doves in the room had found somewhere to perch. They watched Terrell with wings down, beaks up.
“Girl, don’t be this way,” they said. “Remember that pixie dust I done told you ‘bout? Well, your friend here done got their self into a fix. I hadda be some place, and I long forgot. An the fairies tole me they only gone wait so much more. Your Terrell needs their pixie dust, hon.”
Winnie recalled seeing her friend float. That smile on their face. She wanted to try some, and she made it clear to Terrell.
When Terrell heard her, they realized what they had done and lobbed their head back. “I ain’t ever want to hear you say that ‘gain.”
“It ain’t fair you can have pixie dust an I can’t. I wanna fly with the birds.”
Terrell fell at Winnie’s feet and grabbed her face in their palm. “Listen, sweet. You ain’t need pixie dust. You already a bird. You Terrell’s bird, my dove. An you remember that.”
And with that, they nudged Winnie to the side and burst out of the house, dashing down the sidewalk to the bus station. Winnie followed them out and stood at the fence. Darius was seated in the street digging through a trash can. He spotted Winnie, grinned, and waved a gloved hand with a hole at the index finger. He was missing some teeth. Winnie ignored him and ran back to her house.
The next day, Winnie’s mother woke her up extra early, cautioning her to dress quickly and rush downstairs. Breakfast wasn’t even prepared. Her mom sat impatiently in the kitchen, tapping her foot rapidly on the tile and grinding her teeth. She kept glancing out the window.
“What is it?” Winnie asked, stumbling into the room, trying to fit on her sneaker. She still wore the purple dress from yesterday.
“It’s your friend, Terrell,” her mom said. “C’mere.”
She led Winnie to the window, lifted her onto the countertop so she could see clearly. There was blinding light, a beacon of it beaming in the distance. Like Heaven shot down a spotlight, or a star exploded.
“That his house?” her mom questioned.
“Their house,” Winnie said like a reflex. But the more she studied, the more she believed that it was indeed her friend’s home.
Instantly, she jumped off the counter and ran outside. Her mother tried to keep up. Neighborhood folks, policemen, reporters—they surrounded the proximity. Religious radicals screamed that Christ had been reborn. Women fainted. Everyone wore sunglasses so they could see. Winnie shoved her way through the sea of people, past the news vans, and under the police tape.
It reminded Winnie of a tunnel, or the cylinders she played with in math class. Like someone had taken one full of light and placed it directly around Terrell’s house. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. The light was impossible to stare into, for fear of blinding. When Winnie gazed up to the sky, she noticed the sun wasn’t there. It was as if it had fallen onto Terrell’s house.
Out of notice, Winnie tiptoed around back. For some reason, the light didn’t affect her. Stepping into it, she felt nothing. She climbed the chainlink fence, reached under the plant for the house key, allowed herself inside. She beckoned for her friend, only to be answered by a silence so loud it was like a secret. The mirrors had all disappeared. Winnie took the stairs to Terrell’s room, where on the bed she found Terrell’s gold hoop earrings. They glowed and buzzed, as if they were alive. Winnie took the pearls from her ears and laid them back in the ballerina box, replacing them with the hoops. It was all she could think to do.
Back outside, everyone had scattered. For some reason, unbeknownst to everyone, the light beacon had evaporated into the atmosphere. The sun was back, and everyone had grown bored and returned home. Winnie’s mom waited on the sidewalk, yelling for her daughter.
Winnie meandered onto the lawn. A paper plane flew and struck her on the face. She picked it off the ground and unfolded it, identifying Darius’s handwriting. On it said: I watched em fly up and up to the clouds, and they ain’t stop.
Winnie peered upwards, imagining her friend sprinkling pixie dust and floating to the sky. But she forbid to believe that they’d do that to her, and not tell her.
She wandered over to her mom, stepping off the property in her purple dress and big gold hoops.
“What in the hell,” her mother uttered, her jaw agape.
For a split second, the woman didn’t recognize her daughter. All four-foot-six of her appeared a thousand years older. Sunlight bounced off her earrings like an arrow from the gods.
That was when a dove landed on Winnie’s shoulder. She looked up to the sky, pondering why, if Darius was right, Terrell’s birds didn’t follow them upwards. They always flew with their birds.
Then the dove began to sing in her ear.
“Ma!” Winnie finally shouted, “Ma! It’s Terrell! I hear them! I hear Terrell, ma!”