It began with a red flower.
Seven years have passed since Zoe’s adventures in the world of Quidam. The family grew closer despite never mentioning events from that world. It was a welcome change from the isolation and boredom of Zoe’s childhood.
As if to make up for lost time, her parents often left physical reminders of their affection throughout the house. Post-it notes on doorways, flowers, treats, Zoe rarely made it through a day without discovering another trinket. She found it childish but couldn’t bring herself to complain. It was good to see Mother and Father joke again.
The red carnation appeared on Zoe’s windowsill after another disastrous date. She had returned home well past her curfew to find an angry Father and concerned Mother sipping tea in the kitchen. One look at her crushed expression and they both ran to hug her. She was fine, she assured them, nothing injured but her pride.
Father offered to give the boy a stern talking to, but Zoe was happy to leave things be. The red carnation appeared on her windowsill the next day. She groaned and threw her sheets back over her head. Leave it to Mother to try and cheer her up with something as overtly feminine as a flower. Zoe returned to sleep, and when she awoke the flower is gone. She forgot all about it.
“Maybe the problem is, well, boys?” Mother kindly asked over breakfast. “Maybe you’re not interested in them?”
“We wouldn’t love you any differently if that was the case,” Father reassured her as he squeezed her hand.
Zoe hugged them both. She turned her head to prevent a discovery of her frustrated tears. They couldn’t possibly fathom what Zoe herself was still unsure of. Something was wrong, very wrong, but she couldn’t put words to the sentiment. It was an itch in the back of her mind whenever they spoke her name, a shadow that appeared whenever she caught her reflection in a mirror. The family had already experienced enough tragedy for a lifetime. She couldn’t bring herself to trouble them further.
It was three days later, when Zoe finds herself overwhelmed at the thought of choosing what dress to wear to school that day, that she first heard a scrape behind her closet door. She opened it and discovered a deep red, buttoned shirt peeking out from behind a frilly monstrosity purchased by Mother. Zoe slipped into the shirt and a slim pair of trousers. Her reflection no longer fit someone else.
She departed the room before catching a shadow and whisper of feathers.
“Did you know the prettier birds are actually male?”
Zoe was startled out of her daydreams by a young woman’s voice. The girl appeared to be Zoe’s age. Her bobbed blonde hair was mess and her blue dress speckled with red paint. Zoe dropped her sketchbook in surprise and the stranger stooped to pick it up.
“I see you in the park every day, drawing the birds. That red one, there. You’d think she’s a she, but she’s not. The males are the showier ones.”
The girl returned Zoe’s sketchbook. Their hands met and Zoe’s heart skipped a beat.
“I’m Zoe,” she introduced herself.
“I’m Scarlet,” the stranger in blue responded.
“Is that your real name?” Zoe asked curiously. It was not a name she was familiar with.
“Heard the name in a movie, but why not? Your real name is whatever you say it is,” shrugged Scarlet as she tugged Zoe’s wrist towards a remote area of the park. “C’mon, Zee. I found a better view of the nests from the other side of the park while practicing.”
Zoe let herself be swept up in the young woman’s enthusiasm. Scarlet offered to teach Zoe how to ribbon dance, but after one disastrous attempt that ended with the ribbon clinging to a tree branch, Zoe sketched her companion instead.
They remained in the park long past dark and Scarlet drove her home. Zoe’s parents were ecstatic to discover her accompanied by a new “friend” and teased her mercilessly. She rolled her eyes and hurried upstairs.
She passes her mirror and, for a moment, doesn’t recognize herself. This reflection was not Zoe and, she realized with startling clarity, not a she; they were some wild thing, leaves caught in their brown hair, one button already missing from the new shirt.
Zoe uttered her name and the almost-reflection shook their head.
“Alright, Zee then.” Now the reflection fit them once again. Zee thought she heard a soft, tinkling laughter and dismissed it as wind in the trees.
The next morning, Zee tripped over the discarded blouse from their adventures in the park. The buttons, previously red, had turned white. The colors stirred a memory. They recalled a man, no, a creature in red and white. There was validation in the comparison.
“Mother, Father,” Zee called downstairs. “I think we need to talk.”
“How’d you know, Scarlet? That you’re different. That I’m different.”
Scarlet’s head rested in Zee’s lap as they curled up together on the back porch. Their parents were not home, and it was too hot for a run through the park. Scarlet sat up and tilted her head.
“You never really know for sure. You work things out as you go.”
Zee pulled Scarlett close. In the dim light, Zee imagined they held someone else entirely. Scarlett sensed the change and pulled away.
“I know you’re thinking about someone else,” she snorted.
“I’m not…that’s not what I-“ Zee stammered, mortified.
“It happens,” Scarlet held Zee’s hands tightly. “First queer person you meet, boom! It’s love. It’s not them, it’s who you can be with them. I get it.”
Zee heard a swirl of feathers and stiffened at the familiar sound.
“Whoever it is you’re seeing instead of me? I don’t mind being them for a little while.” Scarlet mischievously continued. She ghosted her hands down Zee’s arms. “I do, however, mind an audience.”
Zee tracked Scarlet’s gaze. The rocking chair had been empty. Now it held Zee’s old red-and-white clown doll, stitched back together. They laughed and reached for the doll.
“Yours, I’m assuming?”
“Mine from when I was someone else,” Zee beamed, lost in thought.
“And who’s the Zee I’m holding right now?”
“Someone…someone a lot happier than they ever hoped to be again.”
Scarlet pulled them down for a heated kiss. They were too distracted to catch a solitary figure peeking from the shadows. Target silently clapped xyr hands in glee and vanished once again.
Mother and Father bustled in the kitchen on a leisurely weekend morning. They enjoyed these few moments of companionable silence before Zee to awakened.
“Zee is so much happier, don’t you think?” Mother began. “Not just happy but…calm? Centered? They haven’t been like this since, you know. That little trip we took.”
Father conceded the point. A slight frown creased his forehead. “Still. I discovered white quills outside on the porch this morning. And, in the light, I almost thought I saw a purple hat.”
The silence was deafening.
“Darling,” Father pulled a heartbroken Mother to sit beside him. “If Zee could go to a world where no one judged them, where everyone understood, would you let them have that? Even if it meant losing them?”
“Yes,” replied Mother without hesitation.
“Then why are you so unhappy?”
“I wasn’t ready yet. But then,” she sighed. “Maybe we never are.”
Three weeks passed. The room was dark when Zee awoke to a faint scratching at the closet door. They glared at the offending commotion and attempted to block it with a pillow over their head. The scratching grew to a more insistent rapping. Now fully awake, Zee rubbed the sleep from their eyes and opened the door only to reveal the impossible.
Years may have come and gone, but Target hadn’t changed at all. Zee liked to remember this creature, the one that smiled and held their hand through the strangeness of Quidam’s world. It was a memory that lit up their life whenever it returned unbidden. This, though, this was no memory, it was Target hiding in their closet of all places.
Their eyes met. A giddy Target pulled them close, tumbling them both into the bedroom. Xe pressed a kiss to Zee’s forehead and giggled at their astonishment. For a moment, Target let Zee’s head fall to xyr shoulder, safe and content.
“Target, what on earth are you doing here?” they chuckled. Zee felt their mind cloud as if in a fog and another’s thoughts came through.
I’ve missed you. Have you not seen the reminders I’ve left you?
Zee thought back on the last few weeks. The red flowers, birds outside her window, even the buttons. Target had been reaching out. Zee shook their head at their own ignorance.
“Why now, Target? After all this time, why now?
Target lovingly tweaked Zee’s nose.
Quidam is a world for those that can see the beautiful strangeness beyond the everyday, Zee. You can only return once you embrace that which you were always intended to be.
The next morning, Mother awoke to the rustle of feathers, and she knew. Father learned once they found a purple bowler hat on Zee’s pillow.
In a world of blue and grey, fabric and steal, Target and Zee dance. And the Quidam, as always, taps the beat.