DiscoverContemporary Fiction

People As Scars

By Aaron Black

Synopsis

Jess cut herself. Pink spirals and dark scars covered her biceps and thighs and other hidden places. Like those long dead cuts, some people cut through her life to stay. Her brother Jessie was one of them. Jessie’s excitement about starting his senior year of high school has Jess trapped in a small town with no friends. This year is their first outside the psychiatric facility in which they grew up. At age 13, Jessica Jiménez entered institutionalized life. She and Jessie share the same disease. Though they see themselves as different people, they inhabit one body. Locked together, they work to accept each other as each is a reflection of the other’s self.

Early readers have said “a really compelling novel” and “…liked this book both for its bravery and understanding.” People As Scars deeply explores issues related to CIS gender and accepted gender as well as mental health rights and how these issues play out in daily life for someone coming of age in today’s world. Those who have been able to engage with these sensitive subjects have found People As Scars to be driving and well thought out.

You’d see the scar my father left first. For six years, his mark had defined me. It whispered my story to everyone who looked. 

Other whispers around my new school held my attention as I moved from class to class. I could see kids titter and gossip. 

 “Is she trying to be a boy?” 

“Do you think she’s OK. Like is she gonna stab us ’cause a voice in her head tells her to?” 

“I wonder if there’s a real ‘her’ in there somewhere?” 

I tried to ignore the stares. It’s not like I could blame these kids. I’d spent plenty of time staring in the mirror asking myself the same questions. Well, when Dr. Grace had let me near a mirror, I guess.

Questions lingered with me constantly. Like—“What am I doing here in high school?”—a year older than everyone else and insane. I didn’t belong with these children.

The classes offered no surprises. The teachers were reluctant to introduce me. Maybe they’d been counseled not to draw attention to me, not to draw me out of my shell. They had the wrong person if that was the case. My alter Jess is the introvert. I’m a rockstar. I’d have been happy to take center stage and stand in the spotlight.

As it was, the spotlight wasn’t offered and—happy as I’d have been to bask in it—I didn’t really have any drive to seek it out. I was enough of a featured attraction without having to work at it. So I sat in the back and did my best not to sleep.

The one regular performance I had to put on came at 1pm in the guidance counselor’s office. The institution I’d left had intentionally chosen a small school for me out in the boonies. Someplace calm and quiet. Because of that, the guidance counselor also served as the social studies teacher. He had a Bachelor’s in psych, as I understood it, which made him qualified for both roles when coupled with a Masters in education.

“Hey, Jessie,” he said as I stepped into his office.

“Sure,” I replied. I took a seat across from him at his desk and made eye contact. He and I would get to know each other really well over the next nine months. Check-ins regularly per Dr. Grace’s orders.

“How’s the first week going?” he led with. A nice, safe start. Nothing could be wrong with a “How’s your first week of school?” I’d learned to read people pretty well in the institution. If you’re around psychs enough, you pick up a trick or two. Mr. Halberd was nervous as all hell. He wasn’t really cut out to deal with me. A 17-year-old boy—well 19-year-old girl to him—who was certifiably insane. He was a part-time guidance counselor and full-time social studies teacher. But him meeting with me was the only way I could stay in this school. Good of him to agree to it, I guess. Though I suspected he craved some limelight of his own.

“Not bad. Only half over,” I answered without commitment. It took Dr. Grace months to get me used to her. Jess was pretty easy for a shrink. She was blunt and open about her feelings once you got her over her shyness. Me? I talked around my feelings. 

He tapped nervously on the notebook in front of him. He had one of those stereotypical black and white covered Mead notebooks that schools kept around. He must have grabbed it from the supply closet. I saw over his shoulder that he had a squat bookcase with a few shelves of notebooks. Must have a Mead for each kid he dealt with. Easy way to keep a file, I guess.

I wondered what he kept in those other notebooks? Couldn’t be anything too interesting going on in most of these kids’ lives. Some virginities lost or stolen here and there. A bunch of kids who didn’t know what adults they wanted to be. Maybe a couple of kids who really would have been better helped by juvi than being written down in a Mead notebook.

He let out a deep breath and smiled at me. “Can I be frank? I don’t really know how to start a session like this. Usually I just hand out career aptitude tests or slip girls Planned Parenthood pamphlets on the sly when they need them.” He looked me dead in the eye. “Got any suggestions?”

I’d done this one before. The co-conspirator approach. To get me to open up and feel comfortable with him, he was going to be in on a few little secrets with me. First admitting that he didn’t know what he was doing and then that he offered girls advice that might not be school board sanctioned. This was probably a great tack to take with kids who should be in juvi. It absolutely was the wrong tack to take with a young victim of secrets so awful they literally printed them in the papers.

“Not really, man. I’m just told to show up. This is your show,” I answered. Not in an aggressive way. At least, I didn’t think it was aggressive.

He leaned back in his chair and took another big breath. “You know,” he started, “You’re the first person with D–I–D I’ve ever even met?”

DID—dissociative identity disorder. Those three letters were what defined me. Back in my disease’s media heyday, it was known as MPD—multiple personality disorder. Since then, psychiatrists had largely wanted to distance the disease from its media portrayal. So the name was shifted to reflect another of its symptoms. Dissociative episodes were common even outside multiple personality disorder and widely accepted in the psychiatric community. The focus overall had moved to the disease as a form of dissociation rather than a fracture into separate personalities. Honestly, the majority of the psychiatric community had taken to rejecting the idea that wholly separate personalities were really present in patients with DID at all.

I shrugged, causing the zippers on my leather jacket to jingle. “Haven’t you heard that DID is a bullshit diagnosis? It doesn’t exist. Just a myth of the psych trade.”

“Damn the man,” he replied with a laugh on his lips. Adjusting in his chair, he kept his eyes on mine. I’m not ashamed to admit I let mine drift away and to the notebooks behind him again. “So, if DID is ‘bullshit,’ then who am I talking to? Is this the introverted, intelligent Jess I’ve heard so much about?”  He flashed a warm smile and I felt her kick in my uterus for a moment.

“No. I don’t know if she’ll be coming here much. School’s not really her thing. She’s too smart for all this. And too mature. I’m the one who wants at least one year of being a regular kid. Or so Dr. Grace says.”

“Really? She said that this is just for your benefit, Jessie?”

I shrugged again. “OK. She didn’t quite say that. But I’m the one she made the deal with.”

“And what does Jess think of it? Of being a high school senior one year behind?”

“She and I don’t talk a lot. You’d have to ask her.”

“OK. Can I talk to her?” he prompted.

How naïve was this guy? Hadn’t they prepped him for dealing with me? Probably not. I mean, when would they have? Dr. Grace maybe spent a phone call or two talking to him. My checking in with him wasn’t replacement for quality therapy. It was just a lifeline to make sure I didn’t go completely off the deep end. To make sure the Coco Man didn’t eat me.

“Didn’t Dr. Grace explain how that works?”

It was his turn to shrug. “How’s it work?”

“I’m not a sideshow act and neither is Jess. We don’t just swap back and forth like that.”

“How comfortable are you with me asking questions about your…” he looked around for a word and found a terrible one, “condition.”

I rolled my eyes. “Condition? Really? You would have been better off just saying psychosis.”

He cocked his head to the side and nodded. “Probably right. I told you I’ve never done this before.”

“You’ve already seen her, right? Dr. Grace sent you videos of both of us?” Oh God, I thought of something. “Of all of us?” I corrected myself.

“Just her and you,” he answered to my relief. “She seems very bright, but shy.”

“Look, is this my session or hers?” I asked.

“I honestly don’t understand the difference as well as you’d like or as well as Dr. Grace might. I’d like to meet Jess.”

His honesty was a bit disarming. More disarming than I’d have liked. He was better than I’d first given him credit for. “Well, she’s not here right now.”

“And so I have you, Jessie,” he conceded. “How have the other kids been treating you?” A right hook to distract me from his left jab.

“Haven’t really had a chance to talk to anyone the first few days. Been getting some looks going into the boys’ room. Don’t know how they see her so easily.” My leather jacket hid her tits fairly well. And I had on a tight t-shirt beneath the baggy REO Speedwagon tour shirt I’d found in a thrift store. And a tight sport bra under that. I did my best to hide her body with my personality, too. But somehow, the other guys could see her.

“I can imagine,” Mr. Halberd said.

To be “frank,” that pissed me off. “Can you imagine?” I leveled a hard stare and raised eyebrow at him.

He took it in stride. “I can. Not from your perspective, I’m sure. But I can imagine how awkward that would be for both sides. Them and you. You’re welcome to use the ladies’ room.”

“They’d look at me even more,” I assured him. At least with the guys, I knew what they were thinking. Maybe a little shame or excitement at having a girl catch a stray glimpse of their dick. Maybe some desire to find out if I had all the parts other girls had. But mostly I could handle it.

Girls on the other hand, they were catty and mean and you didn’t always know what they were thinking. Here’s this cross-dressing lesbo, ’cause how else would they see me, walking into the ladies’ room. I’d be a laughing stock and not even to my face. Rumors would float around. It’d be a whole thing.

Plus, nothing made me feel like I wasn’t me faster than being Jess. I’m a boy, she’s a girl. If I started hanging out in the girls’ room, I’d be her. Just her in my clothes. Neither of us ever enjoyed that kind of switch. Waking up and finding myself in one of her long hippie dresses with her longhaired, chestnut wig on. No thanks.

“OK,” he conceded. “I guess this is more just an introduction to each other than anything today. Is there anything you’d specifically like to discuss before I send you off to study hall for the rest of the period?”

Study hall. Never really done that before, but I’d seen movies with it. Sounded better than a two-bit shrink cross-examining me.

“No, I’m good to go right now.”

He wrote something in his Mead notebook. It was the only thing he’d written up to this point. I imagined it was something like “She reports no significant issues with integrating into the school environment at this time.” I couldn’t be bothered to try and read it upside down.

“OK, Jessie, I think we’re good for today then. If anything does come up, feel free to have the office page me out of class.”

I smirked at that. “Oh, I’m sure that’d go over well. ‘Mr. Halberd, please report to the guidance counselor office because Ms. Jessica Jiménez is having a dissociative break.’ That won’t make me even more of an outsider than I am.”

Mr. Halberd was nice enough to smile at my school PA impersonation. “I’m sure Ms. Carlos at the front desk can keep it more discreet than that. And I want you to know you’re supported. You don’t have to be here, as I understand it, and you chose to. I think that’s a brave choice. Are you planning to go to college?”

Study hall sounded further and further away. “I don’t know. Maybe. I just wanted to try and be a normal teenage boy for a year, first. Well, as normal as possible given the circumstances,” I ran my hand over my shaved head. “And I’ll have to work it out with Jess. I want to go to school. She’d like to travel the world a little, I think. I don’t know.”

“Do you really have such different goals?”

“It’s easiest to think of us as Siamese twins. Two different brains joined at the hips.”

“More than two?” he prompted.

So Dr. Grace had discussed all of us with him. Us, me, Jess, and the Other.

The Other’s voice whispered on the edge of your perception. When the Other was around, you didn’t think like yourself and had trouble focusing on the present. Your thoughts became just you and him. 

You heard a locker slam out in the hall and jumped in your seat a little. Mr. Halberd wrote something down in his Mead notebook. 

“Sure,” I answered, snapping back to myself. Mr. Halberd knew the truth, so no use denying it. But I also had zero desire to go into it right now.

“Alright, you can go for the day Miss…” he caught himself. Or did he? Was he just dicking with me? “Mr. Jiménez. Study hall’s in the library. You know how to get there?”

“Already been doing it this week.”

“Right. Well, learn good things.”

“Thanks,” I said, standing up and taking my backpack with me.

The hallway was empty. The school only had about 400 students. So it was quiet when everyone was in class. There wasn’t a lot of room for people goofing around without being noticed. And with such a small student base, the percent of them available to be doing some extracurricular activity during classes was pretty small.

The conversation with Mr. Halberd left me jittery. He was so frank. He had that smugness that comes with middle-aged men. A bit of a stereotype with a salt-and-pepper beard and coffee breath.

Were those my thoughts? Sounds more like Jess. 

Go away, Jess. I’m the one who goes to school.

No one really paid any attention to me when I reached my study hall. The librarian watching over us just directed me to find an empty seat. I sat at the same empty table near the opposite end of the library from the door that I’d been using all week. The library was pretty small. Nothing like that one in the Breakfast Club. Just a single level with some shelves around the perimeter and some half shelves in the middle. Enough to hold just a few books and several large tables for studying.

I couldn’t keep my mind on my book and scanned around me. Something about that meeting had put me on edge. Finally, I found a cute blonde to distract me. She’d apparently missed the memo that the 90s had been over for 20 years. She wore mom jorts, pink flip-flops, and a green t-shirt that barely covered enough to pass dress code and probably less. Her long, curly blonde hair drew my attention. I was a sucker for blondes.

I managed to kill the rest of the 30 minutes left to me stealing looks at her. If she noticed, she didn’t make it obvious. And I don’t think she noticed anyway. In fact, no one was really paying any attention to me here, which was nice. They were all so engrossed in their cell phones or textbooks or whispered conversations that they didn’t have time to pay any attention to the new boy at the back of the room.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. And really comfortably. I mean, the staring continued. But no one really took any interest in me other than to gawk occasionally. Pretty much par for the course so far. Some of the guys got nervous when I’d enter the men’s room. But others didn’t even pay attention.

When the final bell rang, I headed for the girls’ locker room. So far this was the consistently most awkward part of the day.  I’d managed to avoid it one day. It wasn’t a requirement that I give Jess some time. But I could tell she wanted out.

There were three entrances to each of the locker rooms. One off the gym, one off the hall near the wrestling room, and one off the pool. I’d been told to use the one off the hall if I didn’t want to be noticed and they’d given me a locker near that door and away from where the extracurricular sports girls were mostly clustered.

I slipped in as quietly as possible, looking around nervously. I’ll admit, the temptation to go find those girls I was trying to avoid pressed on me a little. I mean, I was living every teenage boy’s wet dream. I was in the girls’ locker room. But, if they saw me, that would completely destroy my cred as who I was. All they would see from then on would be another girl. And I definitely didn’t want that.

I set my backpack on the bench and fished the tote out of the locker. I could hear girlish chatter and giggles a few rows over, but I was more or less hidden in this part of the locker room. Quickly, I stripped off my jacket, Speedwagon t-shirt, tight undershirt, Converse, socks, and jeans. 

Jess didn’t like to pack on the layers of clothes that I did. She didn’t really have a need to hide our female body. I slipped on her airy, long hippie dress. It featured a brown floral print that looked so her. Finally, I fished her wig out and laid it over my shaved head.

The thing is, the change comes when it wants. And so there I was, cross-dressing as my twin sister and feeling completely uncomfortable. I slipped her Birkenstocks on.

Jess eyed Jessie’s backpack distastefully. Clichéd, it was covered in pins advertising emo bands and social movements. It wasn’t really her thing. She folded up Jessie’s shirts and bra and jeans and put them in the tote with his jacket. It was too warm for a leather jacket anyway. 

Grabbing her purse out, Jess transferred her basic necessities from Jessie’s jacket pockets. She shut the locker. Having less to lose than Jessie, she moved closer to where the girls were giggling and talking because that’s where the sinks and mirrors were.

It was always odd to see her reflection in the mirror. She looked so much like Jessie. Of course, that’s because she shared a face with him. Jess knew that. She might be crazy but not delusional. Well, not all the time anyway.

Jess set her purse down and put a little makeup on and straightened her wig. A couple of the girls saw her, and Jess could swear she heard them whisper something. Who knew if it was good or bad?

Finally, the torment over, Jess went back to the tote and backpack. She collected them, and left the school.

She almost managed a smile as she walked through the warm Fall air. Another school day survived without anything too awful happening. And the weather was idyllic. Blue skies, warm air, and summer lingering.

The halfway house was only a few blocks from the school. The town wasn’t all that big. So it wasn’t like anything was too far from the school.

She felt stupid walking down the street looking like a kid who just got out of school with a backpack on her shoulder. She wasn’t a kid. 

But then if that were true, Jess wouldn’t be on the way home to momma. Not her own momma, of course. Mom was far away. Ms. Hinkle, who provided the halfway house, was just trained and willing to rent a crazy person a room and some monitoring for a while. Of course, Dad was paying for it like everything else.

Ms. Hinkle and Dr. Grace had conspired and colluded to set this arrangement up for Jess. Like Mr. Halberd, Ms. Hinkle was another control measure. She worked for the county mental health clinic. She was a psych nurse, not a shrink. But she knew enough to deal with Jess. And she routinely rented her attic loft out to abused women seeking shelter. The description fit Jess, even if she wasn’t quite sure she was who Ms. Hinkle had in mind when she’d started the service.

“Hi Jess,” a painfully skinny woman named Teresa called out from a neighboring yard as Jess walked up to the door of the house. 

“Hi,” Jess replied cordially. “How’s the gardening going?” Teresa had taken to using the flowerbeds in front of her house as her primary form of therapy. They did look really lovely. 

“Not bad. Really nice sun today.”

Jess nodded, “Well, it’s looking great.” She headed into the house.

The house wasn’t all that old. Nothing in this town was. In the 40s and 50s, what had been pretty much a farm turned into a little bit of a hub after the highway cropped up nearby in the 30s. So most of the town was no more than 60 or 70 years old. Of course, some older places were around. And nothing was much newer than 30 or 40 years, either. The place had existed in a sort of stasis since sometime in the 1970s.

Jess had grown up somewhere much busier. But like a maiden sent off to stay with her “aunt” during an unwanted pregnancy, Jess had been sent to a secluded place to recover. Which worked just fine for her. Someplace bigger would have made it harder to monitor her anyway.

She took the stairs up to her room and finally dropped the heavy bag. Maybe she could find a backpack they both liked. That would make it all a little less awkward. Thankfully, she had plenty of money for backpacks and whatever. Stealing around here wasn’t a good idea. Jess didn’t want to risk winding up in juvi. They’d never let her back in school again, and they might even cut her off from Dr. Grace. No, she needed to stay on her best behavior possible.

Stupid! I wouldn’t even go to juvi. What was I thinking? Hard to remember that I’m not a high school senior. Well, I am. Dr. Grace got me in. They’re not going to take that away from me. But Jess isn’t. She’s 19. I’d be in with the grown-ups. If they didn’t institutionalize me again instead.

I looked in the mirror to see I was frowning. My thoughts were weighing on me. Jess wasn’t invested in being in high school. She’d have been happy to get a GED and head out into the world, I think. But I wanted to have one year, just one year as a teenage boy.

I fished my homework out of my backpack and we worked through it. It was always unusual when we set our mind to an academic task like this. I’d find myself drifting in and out of dominance. I could never decide if it was cheating. Some subjects she was stronger in and some I was stronger in. But all the homework was technically mine. So letting her take over for math wasn’t necessarily fair. Though, all that was in our head, I guess. To the rest of the world, we were the same person.

After finishing up, Jess went down to help fix dinner. Everything here was a group effort. It hadn’t taken her long to adjust to that. The institution hadn’t been exactly DIY—there were a lot of orderlies around to do quite a bit of the manual labor and just make sure the nuts didn’t hurt themselves or others. But the shrinks did encourage everyone to work on projects they could be trusted with. Obviously, nothing involving knives.

Ms. Hinkle trusted Jess with a knife even though Jess didn’t try to hide her scars. Her dress sleeves were short and anyone that cared to really look at her arms could see the intricate, minute, faded scars of spiral after spiral carved into her biceps over the years. She’d been with Dr. Grace for six years now, and Jess had mostly been incident free the last two. But the old spirals were still there if you looked closely enough.

Jess told Dr. Grace it was a way for her to control the pain. Apparently, Jessie wasn’t enough of a coping mechanism. Of course, the more Jess worked to get along with Jessie, the less the cutting happened. So maybe he was enough.

Jess sliced up onions and peppers to top the pizza dough Ms. Hinkle had out. Ms. Hinkle herself was in her office. Jess could hear her typing away. Ms. Hinkle did that—caught up on her life after work. She didn’t like men or conversations all that much. So Jessie mostly stayed to himself or pretended to be Jess when he was here. He could fake Jess pretty well. God, that sounded nuts. How can you fake being yourself?

Not that Jess was the real us any more than Jessie was the real her.

“These onions are making me cry,” Jess said to Ms. Hinkle as she came into the kitchen. She was a blonde lady, about 35 or so. The tears weren’t a criticism, mostly just a conversation starter.

“The trick is not to feel sorry for them,” Ms. Hinkle joked.

Jess gave her a complimentary laugh. “I’ll have to try that next time I’m cutting one. But they’re just so cute.”

Dinnertime was probably the most awkward for her. Not the meal but the event. When Ms. Hinkle ate with her, she left space for Jess to talk. Jess never really knew what to say.

Tonight was the first night in the week she’d been here where conversation came easier for Jess. She managed some small talk about the day after school and the neighbor’s garden.

Ms. Hinkle talked about the usual things—situations she was facing now at work and in her limited social life. Most of the small talk seemed overblown to Jess. Ms. Hinkle had some idea of what real trauma was. But largely her little worries were benign and uninteresting.

The evening finished itself out, and I finally found myself staring at my bed. Jess had taken off her wig because it was impractical to sleep in, and put on one of my shirts because they were baggy enough to work as a nightgown. I was happy to be in my own clothes with my own stubbly scalp showing.

I turned away from the bed and fished my contraband out of Jess’s desk. She’d managed to sneak a steak knife up here. I know, keeping a knife around when you’re a cutter is a bad idea. 

I opened the window wide and pulled a chair over to it. I ran my fingers along the edges of the blade as I stared out at the quiet street. It was dark and I could see lights on in the houses around us. It wasn’t like there was a sign out front to advertise that a psycho lived here. But in a small town like this, all these neighbors must have known. 

I let out a long breath. My lungs relaxed. It felt good to have a quiet moment. The volume seemed so turned down here. With no orderlies or threats of treatment. 

I was out.

About the author

Aaron Black is an award-winning author at the collegiate level who has worked professionally in publishing since 1999. In writing People As Scars, he engaged in extensive research in the topics of gender identity and multiple personality disorder as well as integration of self. view profile

Published on May 20, 2019

90000 words

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

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