Ellis left work at five o’clock. It was their first day. Xantan County Hospice and Day-Time Adult Care wasn’t exactly a dream job, but it was something. A foot in the door. They’d spent the morning filling out paper work and fielding questions from an antsy looking coworker named Janet, who kept throwing them sideways glances and chewing on her pen cap.
“So what are you, I mean, biologically,” she’d said after about half an hour of dancing around the subject. Ellis couldn’t tell if the question was malicious or genuinely curious but either way it made the room feel small.
“I was DFAB,” Ellis said. “But I’m agender, specifically, and, in general, I prefer they pronouns.” It came out rushed and more than a little rehearsed, but it was a big step from freezing up anytime someone asked them something like that.
. Janet had just stared, slack-jawed and blank. Ellis had opened their mouth to explain further just as Herc, the guy they were supposed to be shadowing, came in to show them around. Ellis was happy for the change of scenery and Herc seemed nice enough. He was a tall older guy who had the same kind of low-key, smoky sort of voice they’d always imagined for themself.
When they got home that night they could breathe again, stripping out of their binder and into an oversized hoodie. They ate Nissin Chikin Ramen with red wine and Henry on a table made out of unpacked moving boxes.
He was all grins and smiles, like he usually was, “A toast,” he said, “to my very best squish and their illustrious new career cleaning bedpans for dying guys.”
Ellis laughed. “At least I have a real job.”
Henry just smiled and said, “We should get a cat.”
Before bed that night they tossed a colored bead into the cracker jar sitting on their desk. It was a new anxiety-relief technique they were trying. Colors for good days, black for bad. So far it was working. The few black beads in the jar didn’t seem as important next to all the colored ones.
Four months later, all the moving boxes were finally unpacked. Henry had quit his temp job and started working as a sous chef at a new restaurant downtown called Demeter’s.
“It’s like thirty bucks for a potato, babe. A lousy god damned potato,” he’d said after his first night. “And there are people that don’t even eat all their food. Seriously, half eaten plates everywhere. Rich people are fucking nuts.” He flopped down on the couch beside them. “How was your day?”
“Same as always,” they said with a shrug and he grabbed one of the hush puppies from their bowl. “I started looking into getting my top done.”
He smiled a little and patted their knee. “I’m proud of you.”
They smiled back. “I’m proud of me too.”
Three years after that and Henry was now executive chef at Demeter’s. Ellis was still working the same job as ever, only now they were three months on T, wondering when the mood swings and hair growth were going to balance themselves out. Whenever the family asked about them their mother would always just shake her head and say, “She’s going through some things…” An answer that always led to a big bag of salted caramel popcorn and marathoning procedural cop shows until three in the morning.
It was a few days after Thanksgiving when Henry finally got back from visiting his family. He had his hair tied back in a loose bun and they were sitting together on the roof, splitting a six pack of something cheap and bitter.
“Your voice is definitely starting to change,” he said. “I know you don’t think so, but I can totally hear it.”
“Well you’re pretty biased on the subject,” Ellis said.
“Biased? Me? You’re just cynical about it.”
“I’m realistic.” They turned the bottle around in their hands. “I think I’m going to quit my job.”
Henry took a swig of his drink. “Good.”
“Yeah, I can’t believe you kept it this long. Doing what you do? I couldn’t handle it.”
“They want me to start helping out with bereavement care.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I said I’d think about it. I think I’m just burned out.”
He put a hand on their shoulder and squeezed.
The next day Ellis was tied to a computer for the majority of their shift. They were supposed to help update the website since apparently no one else had the skills for dragging and dropping stock text and photos into a template. The last section was a question and answer FAQ for potential new employees.
Q: Is it hard to adjust from working in a hospital environment to the more intimate environment of Hospice care?
Q: How can I best learn to become an effective caregiver in this environment?
Q: Isn’t it depressing working with terminally ill patients every day?
Q: Isn’t it difficult to let go?
The day after that they called in sick.
“What do you think about Iceland,” Ellis said when Henry came in from work. They were curled up on the couch in one of the fleeces and looking at photos of apartments in Ísafjörður on their laptop.
“Iceland?” he said. He picked up the cat on the way over and sat down beside them, glancing at the screen. “What would we do in Iceland?”
“I don’t know, I could work on a fishing boat.”
“You get seasick.”
“I’m not saying it’s a perfect plan.”
Henry laughed and kissed their cheek.
“I have always wanted to see the northern lights,” Henry said. He put an arm around them. “Maybe for our honeymoon.”
Ellis tensed slightly. “I haven’t said yes yet.”
Henry shrugged. “You haven’t said no either.”
They got up. “I have to take a shower.”
Before bed they tossed a black bead into the jar and tried not to think about how over whelming they were becoming to look at.
The next morning Ellis found a photo of Jökulsárlón printed out and sitting next to a plate of German pancakes. Henry had scrawled a note on the back that just said I hope today is better. Ellis wrote a thank you note on the back of some old envelope and put it up on the fridge.
When they got to work they found out Mrs. Ulyanov in two C had passed sometime during the night.
“It was peaceful,” Herc said. “Her husband even managed to make it in time, they talked right up to the end.” He patted them on the back. “Come on we’ve got turn down duty.”
Ellis just nodded and went to grab some clean sheets from the cupboard. They packed all of Mrs. Ulyanov’s belongings into a few empty copy boxes. Six family photos, an extra night gown, a small mirror, a leather bound journal. There were a series of notes addressed to different people, all on rosy paper, all with to be opened after written on them in sharp boxy letters. They kept those toward the top of the box.
Ellis stacked the boxes behind the front desk and Herc said something about Mrs. Ulyanov’s kids coming to retrieve them later.
The rest of the day went smoothly, but when they were going to sign out they found a lost looking guy near the front counter. They looked around for Janet but she was out making a call.
“Can I help you sir?” they said.
“Uh yeah, I’m here to pick up my mother’s things.”
“Oh, you’re Mrs. Ulyanov’s son, I’m sorry for your loss.”
“It’s a relief in some ways,” he said. “At least she’s not suffering.”
Ellis went to grab the boxes and put them on the counter. They handed him a clipboard. “If you could just fill out this release form.”
He took it, filled it out quickly and handed it back.
They handed over the boxes.
“Thanks,” he said. “You know you’d be prettier if you smiled more.” He put on a small smile and winked before walking out the door. Ellis just stood there for a few seconds not really sure what to do. They took a deep breath.
Janet came back into the cubicle. “Ellis?”
Ellis glanced over at her and held out the clipboard. “Mr. Ulyanov…the young one.” They cleared their throat. “He got her things.”
Janet looked concerned. “Are you ok? You look pale.”
“I think I might still be sick—I have to go.” They quickly signed out and grabbed their coat. Ellis hated how tense they felt. They rung their hands. The entire bus ride home was stifling. Stupid things like that comment should not still set them off. They were supposed to be done with this.
At home they rummaged around in the closet until they found their old binder. The one that was too tight. They put it on and stretched out on the bed. When Henry got home he came in and lay with them.
“You know you’re not supposed to wear that one,” he said, but his tone wasn’t scolding.
“I just need to right now.”
He nodded. “Want to talk about it?”
He moved closer and leaned over to kiss their shoulder.
“Did you eat today?”
They shook their head.
He got up and held out a hand. “Come on.”
“I don’t want to Henry.”
“We’ll get Charlie’s and root beer floats. Come on, Sunshine. That always makes you feel better.”
They sighed and got up. “You’re lucky you’re cute.”
“Tell myself that every morning, babe.” He smiled and Ellis pulled on their coat.
Not fifteen minutes later they were sitting on the curb outside Charlie’s eating chicken fries from a greasy paper bag.
“And he really just said that to you?” Henry said.
“Yeah and I froze up it was like Thanksgiving all over again…” Ellis said.
“What the fuck?” Henry frowned. “You’ve got a stronger will than me, I would have decked the guy.”
Ellis turned the straw around in their drink. “His mom was a nice lady.”
Henry put an arm around them.
“Why do you want to get married?” Ellis said.
“Tax benefits,” Henry said.
They shoved him lightly. “I’m being serious.”
“Because you’re my best friend, do I need another reason?”
“Just feels like you’re settling.”
He shook his head. “Give me a little credit here, handsome, I would know if I was just settling.”
They shook their head. “You put up with too much.”
He kissed their cheek. “I don’t ‘put up’ with anything.”
They leaned into his arm and relaxed a little.
That night Ellis stayed up until three drafting a letter of resignation signed, simply, “Staff” because that’s what it said on their name tag.
They put the jar of beads in the closet.
Sunday was the one day both they and Henry had off together.
The restaurant closed after brunch and Henry came home smelling like oranges and waffle batter.
“We’re going out,” he said and tossed his apron on the counter.
Ellis looked up.
“There’s a farmers market today.” He took their hands and pulled them up. “We’ll buy some nice steaks and fruit. “I’ll make you a five star meal at the low low price of hanging out with me for the afternoon.”
They laughed. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Yes I do, you’ve had a rough week, you deserve a break. We could both use the fresh air.” He kissed their hands. “Now grab a coat, it’s chilly.”
He went off to the bathroom to change.
The farmers market was about twenty minutes outside the city on a flat piece of ground that used to be the drive-in. There was only one permanent building near the back end of the lot. In the heyday it must have been the concessions stand and it was still done up in atomic fonts and garish colors. The person who ran the stand now had a farm somewhere up north. He sold pumpkins and apples, and there was honey in Mason jars and baskets of varying sizes that his wife made.
Henry already had an arm full of things by the time they made it to the stand. Ellis picked up one of the smaller jars and held it up to the light.
“You should get that,” Henry said. “We could use it and it might help with your allergies.”
“I think that’s an old wives tale.”
“It makes sense. Local bees, local pollen.” He shrugged and took the jar to pay for it.
On the way home they ate honey roasted walnuts from a wax paper bag and Henry sang along with every bad pop song on the radio.
Ellis leaned their head against the passenger seat window.
“Still thinking about Iceland?” Henry said.
“I think I’m just dreading another day smelling like disinfectant.”
“Oh you mean that’s not just your cologne?” he said.
They smiled a little.
“Look I’m not pushing you one way or another,” Henry said. “But maybe you ought to really do it this time. We’re doing fine now. We can afford to coast for a while till you find something else.”
“It’s not that easy,” they said. “I actually like my job, I like the people. I’m just…tired. I don’t think it’s just work.”
“You just need to figure out what makes you happy.”
“Maybe,” they said.
He pulled the truck into his parking spot.
“Do you remember that video you made right before you started hormones?”
“You mean the one you made me make?”
“I think it’s about time for an update.”
“Henry, no. You said every six months.”
“Well you need a pick me up now. We’ll do it before dinner.”
“It’s not even going to be that different.”
“I guess we’ll see.”
That night before dinner they sat on the couch and recited their name, the date, and the first stanza of North while Henry held the camera. They looked anywhere but forward while he recorded and when they were done he kissed their forehead.
“How do you want your steak?” he said.
“What, I don’t get to see it?”
“Not till later.”
“Medium,” they said and they got up to go sit in the kitchen. They always liked watching Henry in his element.
After dinner they made s’mores in the microwave and took them to the living room to eat them.
“Alright, you ready?” Henry said, licking the marshmallow from his thumb.
“If we have to.”
He pulled out his phone and brought up the first video.
By the end of the second Ellis was quiet. There wasn’t some dramatic difference. But there was a difference. A clear one. Their voice was richer and slightly deeper.
“Do I really sound that different?”
Henry smiled. “Yeah, you really do.”
Ellis leaned up and kissed him. “Thank you…”
Henry hugged them.
That night Ellis stayed up late and edited their letter of resignation. That night they didn’t print it out. That night they dozed off with Henry and the cat in front of the TV.
Monday morning they went to work.