When Penny wakes up on Tuesday morning, all thoughts of self-doubt are forgotten. She puts her uniform on with a song in her heart, regardless of its ugly boy-ness, and eats breakfast in a similar manner. After all, she’s got a weekend of freedom to look forward to.
Once she’s brushed her teeth, she digs an old spare shoelace out of a drawer in her room and threads it through the stone she got from Yarn — the “cover glamour”, to be precise — so that it makes a sort of makeshift necklace. She uses the remaining time before she has to leave weaving its reality-fibres together with her own, topping her work off with a glamour to discourage people from noticing it. It’s not exactly uniform-compliant, after all.
Penny’s journey to school takes about twenty-five minutes. It’s a drab-looking concrete building surrounded by asphalt playgrounds, a utilitarian structure that displays as little humanity as is possible. She gets there a minute and a half later than she technically ought to: late enough that people notice, but not so late that it’s worth anyone’s effort to complain.
The inside of the school’s pretty much what you’d expect from the exterior, with classroom furnishings that look like they’re significantly older than the students. Penny takes her seat at the back of the form room without incident, just before her form tutor starts to take attendance.
Penny makes her invitation to Michelle during the morning break, in the library: one of the few places in the building that is occasionally pleasant to be in. The discussion happens by note, just in case someone’s listening; after all, if people heard Penny was dressing up like a girl she’d never hear the end of it. Even nice people have a tendency to turn on you over something like that.
The first note in the discussion comes from Michelle.
“I was sad I didn’t get to see more of you as a girl,” it says in carefully-drawn letters. The slip of notebook paper it’s written on carries a cartoon sad-face, hurriedly-drawn but still somehow carrying an air of deliberateness. Penny hunches over as she reads the note, in case anyone’s shoulder-surfing. She puts it carefully in her pocket where it won’t be found.
“My parents are away this weekend,” she writes in response. “You could come over?”
Frowning at the scruffiness of her handwriting — it’s probably silly of her but a part of her can’t help but think of messy handwriting as less girly — she folds the slip of paper in half and passes it back. It takes Michelle a moment before she looks up from her book, reads the note and writes a two-word reply.
Saturday takes an age to come round, and every time Penny’s in her room she can feel the clothes’ presence in her wardrobe. She’s not sure if it’s in her head, or if it’s some weird magic thing she doesn’t understand. There’s a couple of times where she almost gives in to the urge to dress up in those clothes — the one girl-outfit she has — but she clamps down hard on those feelings, burying them as deep as she can manage. It’s not safe with parents in the house: you never know when they might want to snoop.
Because no person can get by entirely without outlets, Penny spends a large chunk of her free time practising glamours. She weaves them upon herself every night before bed, waking up each day with a small pair of illusory breasts that only she can see. She weaves them when she has a bath too, not even bothering to make it that selective, thanking gods and devils alike for bathroom locks. She weaves them on the way home from school, changing the colour of her nails to shades that subtly but unambiguously imply femininity. She’s always careful to take the glamours off any time she might have to interact with people, but the rituals give her a kind of mental strength. It helps, a little.
When Saturday finally rolls around it’s still a hell of a relief, though.
Penny wakes up at about 8:15 AM, which is abnormally early for her: it’s probably the excitement. Her parents are still making noises downstairs, so she pretends to be asleep until they finally leave at around 9 o’clock. Once she’s absolutely sure they’re not about to come back in search of some forgotten essential item, she practically jumps out of bed, rolling to her feet and landing by the wardrobe.
She throws the wardrobe doors open and grabs the bag of clothes at the back, taking a few minutes to inspect the contents in a sort of hushed awe. Finally, the planets are in alignment, the stars are right and the prophecy shall be fulfilled. Today, Penny Reed is a girl!
Yes, it’s silly, but it’s her gender today and she can do what she likes with it.
Penny lays the clothes out on the bed, taking great pains to lay each item out as carefully as she can, before stripping off her pyjamas and running naked to the shower. The bathroom mirror reminds her that she’s still englamoured from the night before. Her breasts — yes, illusory, but still breasts — jiggle slightly in her reflection in time to her gleeful laughter. She’s smiling so much it hurts.
One she’s done in the shower, Penny towels herself dry. Her hair’s kind of stubborn when it comes to moisture, so she grabs her special coin from the pocket of yesterday’s clothes and twirls it over her fingers. Heat’s just vibration, she recalls from some past Physics lesson, so all she needs to do is wiggle some fibres and voilà: instantly dry hair! She shakes her head, watching the steam rise away from her scalp, the small amount of remaining moisture producing a slight, momentary itch. Usually, she’d just use a hairdryer, but this is so much more cool.
While she’s at it, she removes last night’s girly glamour from her body. Michelle wouldn’t notice, of course — the glamour’s selective to Penny’s eyes only — but it’s a good habit to keep, at any rate. Before doing anything else, she takes a few deep breaths to calm herself: she’s got the whole day, after all, so there’s no use in getting overexcited this early on. She puts the coin down on her desk and gets dressed.
Michelle turns up at about 10 AM bearing two bottles of fizzy drinks (one lemonade, one cola), a packet of posh crisps (“sea salt and balsamic vinegar”) and a DVD copy of the film “Alien”. She’s wearing her school backpack, and dressed in a sort of casual tomboy style with jeans and a t-shirt.
Penny’s a little surprised when she sees the DVD case. “Does your mum know you have that?” she asks. The words sound a little more like an accusation than she intends.
“No,” Michelle replies carefully. “And she’s not going to find out, either.” She follows Penny to the kitchen and sets the food and drink down on the counter. “I was saving it for a special occasion.”
Penny turns to her friend, smirking a little. “So that’s your idea of a girly film night?”
Michelle shrugs. “It’s more relevant than you might think,” she says mysteriously. “Besides, the speculative biology’s pretty cool.”
Ah. That explains it. …maybe.
“Cool,” Penny says. She’s standing on tiptoes to grab a large green plastic bowl from on top of the kitchen cabinets when she notices Michelle’s gaze lingering. For a moment, she wonders if she’s messed up a glamour. “What?”
“Uh, nothing,” Michelle blurts apologetically. “Just… you look really good?”
Penny blushes, fancying that she can see a similar redness on Michelle’s cheeks. She doesn’t really believe it, but it’s nice of her to say it, at least. She smiles weakly as she mumbles her thanks.
Neither girl has any great desire to start the day with gory xenomorphia, so there’s a bit of discussion over what to do first. Both of them fancy a film; Penny kind of wants to try the whole “chick flick” experience, while Michelle’s preference is for something a bit more action-packed. At first, Penny thinks that’s backwards, but she reminds herself a) not to think that kind of sexist bullshit and b) that she is a girl, anyway. They settle on a compromise: “Mr & Mrs Smith”.
Penny puts the DVD in the player as Michelle sits back on the sofa. Penny grabs the remotes — one for the TV, one for the player — and sits next to her, turning the TV to the appropriate channel and selecting the option to play the film. For the next one hundred and twenty minutes they just exist together, away from the hassle of everyday life. Occasionally, one girl or the other snakes a hand into the bowl of crisps, taking care not to chew so loudly as to distract from the action on the screen.
When the credits start to roll, Michelle gets up from the sofa and walks over to rummage around in her bag.
“It should be around here somewhere…” she mutters as she goes through the contents with more haste than speed.
“What should be?” asks Penny.
Michelle doesn’t answer; she just keeps digging until she’s found what she’s looking for. “Aha!” she exclaims, presenting the item to a bewildered Penny: it’s a bottle of dark green nail polish.
“Where the hell’d you get that?” Penny asks, for a moment losing her grip on her incredulity.
Michelle grimaces. “Mum went through a phase of wanting me to be all girl,” she says. “As though that’d make me less gay or something.” For a moment, it seems like she’s about to spit from the disgust, but she doesn’t. “Anyway, you can have this. Along with anything else she got me back then, really.”
Penny nods solemnly, her gaze fixed on the bottle. “Thanks,” she says quietly, taking it delicately into her hand. She keeps staring at it the whole time, almost as though it contained a genie rather than a pigment.
“D’you, er, want to put it on?” Michelle asks. “I brought some remover as well. When do your parents get back?”
“Tomorrow.” The reply is quiet, almost to the point of being inaudible. “Evening, I think.”
Michelle nods, her face breaking gradually into a smile. “Shall we?”
It turns out that neither Michelle nor Penny is particularly good at putting on nail polish. It makes sense: after all, neither girl has much experience in cosmetic matters — unless you count magic, of course, but those skills aren’t really transferable in this instance. The first attempt at painting Penny’s nails fails drastically when she manages to leave obvious fingerprints on the still-drying polish. In the second attempt, the polish dries unevenly, leaving rather unsightly lumps of semi-molten colour. The third attempt is the most successful by far, with only a handful of imperfections, so the girls decide to quit while they’re ahead.
“It matches your skirt,” Michelle points out. It kind of does; Penny keeps noticing the unexpected flash of colour and smiling.
By the time they’re done with the nail polish, it’s time for lunch. Penny’s parents have left her a pie to heat up, but it’s not quite enough for two people, so she augments it with a batch of oven chips. Michelle’s a guest, but she helps out nevertheless, and the two girls between them manage to make a passable meal. They eat it in front of the TV, listening to pop radio and talking about this and that.
“Did you know,” Michelle says conspiratorially, “that clownfish can change sex?”
Penny shakes her head. She didn’t even know clownfish were a thing.
“It’s true,” her friend continues. “When there aren’t enough females in a population, males will spontaneously become female.” She puts a forkful of food into her mouth, pausing to chew and swallow. “It’s pretty cool.”
Something tickles Penny about this observation, and she bursts out into a fit of giggles.
“What?” Michelle half-demands. “What’s so funny?”
Penny, having no idea how to put her amusement into words, just keeps laughing.
“What?” Michelle demands, even as the smile creeps onto her face.
“I’m…” Penny begins, before bursting out laughing again. “What’re you saying, I’m about as manly as a fish?”
It takes Michelle a moment but soon she’s laughing just as much. It’s not even that funny, but that’s sort of not the point. They finish their meal, occasionally breaking for further giggling fits.
Once lunch has been eaten and the dishes cleared away, the two girls head up to Penny’s room to play computer games for a while. It’s a rare thing for Michelle — her mother thinks games are a bad influence or something — which is probably why Penny’s so much better than her. They pick a racing game, on the grounds that it’s the only thing Penny owns with decent multiplayer. Penny wins three races to one, a score Michelle’s more than happy with. Fair’s fair, though, and Michelle takes her revenge by trouncing Penny at scrabble.
Finally, the pair sit down to watch Alien. Penny never does work out why Michelle thought it was relevant: the whole male pregnancy analogue’s a potential candidate, but she’s not convinced: it’s a little too crude a connection for Michelle to draw.
Michelle’s gaze is fixed on the screen through all the gruesome bits, even the bit with the severed android head, which for Penny is the creepiest part. She’s not sure what that says about her. It’s not like she’s immune to fear: several times she gets frightened enough to grab Michelle’s hand for comfort. It’s a reflex, mainly, but she doesn’t pull away.
Once the film’s over, Michelle has to leave.
“I told my mum I was working at the library,” she explains. “She said to be back by six.” It’s 5:30 when she says this.
“Okay,” Penny replies. She can’t help but feel sad to watch her friend leave, but it is what it is, she supposes. “Um… see you on Monday?”
Michelle nods and turns to go, but stops. She looks back at Penny with an awkward look on her face.”D’you… d’you want a hug?”
Nobody’s ever asked Penny that before, at least so far as she can remember. She’s somewhat stunned, but nods mutely.
Michelle’s embrace is warm: she holds Penny with both arms for what seems at once too long and nowhere near long enough. When she lets go, it’s decidedly bittersweet.
“Monday,” she says, nodding, and sets off home.
Penny closes the door behind her, catching a glimpse of dark green nail on the doorknob. She smiles.