Alabama hadn’t changed a whole lot since Grandpa’s time. Born in 1993, had he lived just a smidge longer, he’d’ve lived in three centuries. As it was, nineteen-year-old Sam was riding in the backseat of Papa’s car boat, watching the murky waves of the swamp lick the boat’s anonymous sides as they headed to clean out Grandpa’s “estate.” It was too grand a word for a house built in what was a 100-year flood path in 2035, but Papa called it an estate on the news so he didn’t look bad to voters.
The sea air blew through the cracked windows and over Sam’s blond hair, just long enough to be tied back into a ponytail and keep journalists from asking questions. Fortunately, Papa actually let Sam wear pants instead of a skirt today. He claimed this decision was spurred by the muck in the New Marshes; Sam knew Papa didn’t want anybody recognizing their governor and his kid out in the sticks.
“I’m just dropping you off, you hear?”
Papa’d said that a dozen times. Sam muttered, “He’s dead. Least you could do is apologize to his ghost or something.”
“I will turn this boat around.”
“Y’ain’t even held a conversation with him in ten years—”
The boat slowed in the marsh, drifting past concrete tendrils of flooded relics and the swamp trees that’d taken over.
“Your job is to clean his place out before that woman of his comes through, and nothing else, so help me god.” Papa’s white, white teeth peered out from his sneer. His tan face—just tan enough to appeal to a specific working class, not too tan to annoy the rich—was carving new canyons into itself.
Sam had a thousand retorts. But he didn’t speak. Just held Papa’s ideal blue eyes and thought, One day, you’ll notice we ain’t talked in ten years either.
“Shouldn’t’ve fucking named you after him, should’ve known that’d bring trouble.” Papa cursed as he steered the boat forward, around dark splotches in the brown water, and cut through blue algae that spread as far as the eye could see.
When the stern hit the mud, the tires lowered and pulled the boat across the half-liquid shores. Eventually, they got off the back waterways and onto the wet, paved main road. It was old and partially submerged, constructed before municipalities were required to install floating streets, but that was poverty life in the south. They still had foot-deep sewer lines bursting in their lawns out here, too. As Grandpa’d say, if Birmingham didn’t have to smell it, it didn’t get fixed this century or the next.
They pulled up to Grandpa’s blue house just long enough to read the signs staked in the mud—The Necessary Wars were Unnecessary!—and drop Sam off before the boat rolled on, Papa not even sparing a glance at the house that built him.
Cinderblocks now raised the house off the muddy lawn. Sam’s oversized boots squeezed water out of the dirt with every step toward the front door. Guess he didn’t have to worry about tracking mud in anymore.
But he took off his boots all the same. Just because Grandpa was dead didn’t mean he wasn’t Sam’s favourite. After all, Grandpa’d been the only one to call him Sam until Mama gave in last year. He always said the little wins would pile up, always left baggy clothes for Sam in the closet so Sam could get out of the Catholic-school dresses. Cooked all-veggie meals in the cast iron because neither of them gave a damn about posing for the cattle farmers or the dairy industry.
Now Sam stood in his grandpa’s kitchen alone, looking for a name or a number for his second flame, the woman he’d started dating after Grandma died ten years ago. Miss Angela Dean. Papa’d never forgiven Grandpa for moving on, even though he’d never looked happier, and never brought his sweetheart around Sam. Maybe no one’d even told her Grandpa was gone.
There were bills on the telecom in her name, mostly hers actually. The only things addressed to Samuel Stonewall-Jackson were the big, rarely paid things, like the homeowner’s insurance, or the medical stuff.
Grandpa’d been sick for a long time.
Sam always knew this was coming, but he’d hoped it’d be decades down the road, even if no one in the New Marsh zip codes tended to live too long. Hoped he’d give Sam a safe place to land a little longer. Craved that freedom only found in Grandpa’s presence.
Mama and Papa weren’t letting Sam go to college until he stopped “acting up” so much and played his expected role. Went for a pretty social degree. Found a nice man with white, white teeth and a last name that’d won a few battles in the Civil War.
Cleaning out the fridge should’ve been the least painful thing. But there was no pretending in the food choices, and the ice cream pops Mama wouldn’t let Sam eat were in the freezer. Said it’d make Sam round. Sam ate one tenderly, tears welling up as he carried on about the house.
He played the telecom a few times just to hear Grandpa Sam’s voicemail, yearning for the day he himself was old enough to be Grandpa Sam, and hoping he had some other accepting family members by then. The world was already too vast, too empty, and simultaneously too oppressively small without Grandpa.
At least Grandpa had found love in the end. Sam didn’t remember Grandma as particularly nice or harsh, but the house had blossomed without her. Grandpa’s sweetheart had an eye for colourful rugs, and a brilliant closet that took up all but one short rack for Grandpa’s clothes. He’d never been a fashion man, the sort to wear a holey shirt until it gave up the ghost, but this lively lady had embroidered gowns in every hue with more sparkles than the night sky in a blackout. She had church hats for days, their wide, flowered brims swaying like the marsh in the first hint of a hurricane, and of course, a purse to match every hat.
Maybe she and Sam could remember Grandpa together. Grandpa’s eyes always lit up when he spoke of Miss Angela Dean, or Miss Angela Virginia Hallelujah Dean if he was feeling good. She had to be heartbroken to have lost so deep a love, yet her number wasn’t in the contacts or written on any note, and not one of her names popped up on a quick Citizen Search. Well, there was a Miss Angela Dean, but she was twenty-eight and a former Miss Alabama. Sam was fairly sure she wasn’t dating his grandpa.
If she was, Papa’s anger wouldn’t seem so awful for once. Ten years ago, Grandpa dating a then-eighteen-year-old beauty queen? Sam would have a couple of questions. But right now, all he questioned was where her toothbrush was, considering the shower was full of what had to be her choice of shampoo.
Papa was going to be back before sundown so they didn’t have to drive the swamp at night, but if Sam didn’t find her number by then, he’d come back the next day and look. Even if he had to hail a water taxi. He had a couple thousand bucks he’d been saving for uninsured T injections. He could use that to honour Grandpa one last time.
There were two bedside tables, one clearly used more than the other, or more carelessly so, considering the cup rings in the wood. In the marred one’s drawers were books, tissues, sex toys—
Sam shut that drawer quick.
In the less used bedside table was a single envelope marked Do Not Toss.
“Appreciate it, Grandpa,” Sam murmured, lips twitching with a sugar-sticky smile.
Maybe he shouldn’t crack the envelope’s wax seal alone. But it felt like one last conversation to be had, just Grandpa and Sam, and Sam yearned to speak to him one last time. So, he peeled the seal. More paper—some handwritten, some typed—fell out.
Oh god, the typed one was a will.
Sam tossed it on the bed like a curse, like getting it away from him could deny Grandpa needed a will, had died at all. But he had. Miss Angela Dean’s number might be in there.
It wasn’t. She wasn’t mentioned in the damn thing at all. Neither was Papa or Mama, just Sam, Grandpa’s name, and an obedient little signature. There wasn’t a lot of money, practically none at all, but he’d left the whole damn house to Sam.
Grandpa knew Sam didn’t want to live in Alabama for one more second. Wanted to go up to New York or Seattle or London—
The handwritten letter addressed him. Somehow knew it’d be Sam that found it. The scrawling, looping cursive was beautiful, almost perfect, and difficult for Sam to read.
If you’re seeing this, I’ve passed. I’m sorry to have left you so soon. I hope you know, I wanted to stay longer, to meet the bride you chose, and admire the things you accomplished—and you will accomplish so much, don’t you think you won’t—but the cancer is hitting too hard.
Already, Sam was crying. Sitting on the bed. Wishing it were all different.
I worry about you on your own. I worry about you having a roof over your head now that I’m gone, as it seemed like my stability was the only thing keeping your parents from threatening you with homelessness sometimes.
“It was, Grandpa, it was.” Sam choked up, remembering Papa’s threats in the garage, and Mama throwing out shapewear, bandages, duct tape, and anything in the house that could be used to flatten breasts down.
I’ve never told you this—your parents said they’d never let you see me if I did—but when I was young, I was kicked out for the same reasons. How history repeats itself. It was impossible to get my feet under me while on the streets, and my folks used that to mold me into the man they wanted. I won’t let that happen to you. So have my house.
Sam had to stop. He fled into the bathroom to blow his nose. This opened the world for him. It was easier to pay for college on his own if rent was not an issue. The health insurance people could telecom this address instead of his parents’—
What did Grandpa mean he was kicked out for the same reasons?
Puffy, Sam eased back into the bedroom and trembled as he took up the note.
I’m glad someone wanted the name Samuel. It’s a good name, and you fill it out well. You deserve to live your whole life under the name you want, rather than only your last ten years.
Sam stared at the walk-in closet of casual and radiant dresses alike.
I had to write this letter to you because you were the only one I trusted to understand and care. I can’t go into that dark night misnamed and misremembered. So, get me a funeral, however small, and promise me this: you’ll send me off as the most weed-smoking, wise-cracking, beautiful old lady in all of Alabama: Miss Angela Virginia Hallelujah Dean. Or Angie, if I like you. Remember me this way.
As for you: you are so much more than just that politician’s trans son. You are strong, you are handsome, and you come from a long history of trans people. Never forget that. Never forget your family is more than your parents.
And never forget that I will always be with you.
Grandma’s signature was as beautiful as her dresses, and her home felt like the warmest hug. Suddenly, the world was wide with hope, and welcoming, and had as much potential as birds must find in the sky. Sam hugged her note with all his might, “I’ll send you off right, Grandma Angie, I will. I promise.”
Copyright © 2022 M. V. Pine
M. V. Pine fixes some of the Pacific Northwest’s largest dams. Often, these close calls are the spark of inspiration for a scifi story. When Pine isn't writing or investigating a dam’s cracks, they can be found on abandoned logging roads, asking “Where does this lead?” One day they’ll end up in a portal fantasy. In the meantime, you can reach them on Twitter: @Madeline_Pine.