Elliot wasn’t surprised when Darlene decided to stay in Salt Lick and start looking for a place for all of them to live. She was staying with Elliot in the tiny trailer he’d lived in all those months ago. Nothing about the trailer had changed, and the farmer had been more than glad to let them stay out there while they looked for a house.
Terry went back to Evansville and began going through their house and started the selling and retirement process. Elliot would bring Darlene back for her doctor visits, and her doctor would help her find a new doctor in Lexington, which was the closest place with heart and lung specialists.
Sandy put Elliot to work right away. He helped rework some things on the menu and run ads for new servers and bussers. They would be closed Thanksgiving Day, but open on that Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. After that, Sandy was going to close the restaurant on Monday and Tuesday to let everyone have a belated holiday.
Darlene and Caroline had their heads together trying to figure out if there was a spark left between Cara and Elliot. Caroline had watched the young love blossom from the friendship Jenna and Cara had shared. Caroline understood that Cara felt a little betrayed because Elliot hadn’t been honest with her about who he was, but Caroline had seen the way Cara looked at Elliot when she didn’t think anyone was looking. She was still in love with the person Elliot had always been, but Caroline realized that Cara was having a hard time with Elliot being a man. Although, Caroline didn’t think that Elliot had had any surgeries, so the package was essentially the same except for the wrapping. Caroline loved the look Elliot was sporting now. His blond hair was longer, and he was letting his beard grow out. He was extremely cute as far as Caroline was concerned.
Cara’s problem was letting go of her lesbian identity. Caroline had to admit she didn’t understand the politics of it. She was still learning about the LGBTQ community, but she’d found that there was just as much, if not more, prejudice within that community as there was on the outside. There were lesbians who didn’t consider women who had been previously married to a man true lesbians. There were lesbians who wouldn’t date bisexual women because they thought they were playing both sides of the fence. Several of the interviews Caroline had read about how lesbians felt about female-to-male transsexuals were very negative. Everything from accusations of wanting to be straight to wanting to use the male privilege.
The gay men seemed a little more forgiving about men who’d been married before and dating bisexuals, but drew the line with transsexuals. Most would not consider dating a man transitioning to a woman. The negativity stemming from everywhere had Caroline terrified for Elliot. She wondered how many people in Salt Lick and Morehead knew his whole story. Hopefully very few.
Thanksgiving was upon them before they realized what was happening. Caroline insisted that Darlene and Elliot join their family for Thanksgiving. Terry wouldn’t get there until late Thursday, so they were holding off dinner until close to five.
Elliot slept in Thursday morning. Caroline drove out to the trailer and picked up Darlene so she could help with the dinner preparations. Darlene’s condition was getting better every day, but she promised Elliot she wouldn’t over do it. He wasn’t planning on going over to Ralph and Valerie’s house until later in the day. He wasn’t interested in spending several hours with Cara and Bonnie. College football wasn’t one of his favorite sports, but he’d be happy to watch it with Terry and Ralph and avoid the women.
Finally dragging himself out of bed around noon, Elliot showered and shaved. He ran his hand over his chin checking its smoothness. It was one of the compromises his mother had asked him to make. She wanted him to stay cleanly shaven so she could see that hint of Jenna. He was happy to do whatever he could to make her happy.
It was cold outside, so Elliot opted for a blue University of Kentucky hoodie and comfortable jeans. The great thing about the hoodie was that he could get by without wearing his binder. His breasts could barely be seen now that he’d built his chest up.
He arrived at Caroline’s house at close to four. His timing was perfect because Terry had also just arrived. “Oh man! It smells good in here,” Elliot said as he entered the house.
“Come on into the living room, Elliot,” Ralph called. “The women have banned us from the kitchen.”
“It’s Ralph’s fault,” Terry said. “He’s apparently been in there picking at the food.”
“Couldn’t help it,” Ralph said and handed Elliot a beer from the cooler at his feet in front of the couch.
“Are you old enough to have that?” Terry asked.
“Yep, turned twenty-one twice this year,” Elliot said.
“How’d you do that?” Ralph asked turning his full attention from the game to Elliot.
“My real birthday is July twenty-third and my made up birthday is August fifteenth,” Elliot said and opened the beer. He took a long drink and let out a loud belch. “Excuse me.”
“Gross,” Cara said as she came into the room and then stopped dead in her tracks. She stared at Elliot’s shirt for so long he was afraid she could see his breasts. Finally, she said, “You did not come into this Eastern Kentucky University household wearing a UK shirt.”
Elliot grinned in relief. “Sure did. Wildcats all the way.”
After Elliot had sat down on the couch in between Ralph and Terry, Cara tipped toed up behind him and messed up his nicely combed hair.
“Hey!” Elliot cried and tried to straighten his hair.
“You said you were a Wildcat fan, so you might as well have the wild hair to go with your sweat shirt,” Cara said and walked back to the kitchen.
Cara stopped at the kitchen door and turned back to look at Elliot. She’d actually done it so she’d have an excuse to touch his hair, which was just as soft as she remembered it being. Sighing, she turned away from the door to find her mother and Darlene watching her. She lowered her head and went to the cabinet to get the plates down.
Caroline and Darlene shared a knowing look. They both wondered how Cara would be toward Elliot since she came home and announced that she had broken up with Bonnie. Cara had gone to the window several times and looked out. Caroline knew it was because she was watching for Elliot.
Darlene told Caroline that the two of them had been texting a little bit and talking online. Elliot hadn’t indicated that anything had changed between them, except that Cara was telling him about the classes she was taking.
“Dinner’s ready,” Valerie called into the living room and started taking the food dishes into the dining room and putting them on the formal dining table. Elliot, Ralph and Terry had picked up the items, like the turkey that were kind of heavy and brought them to the dining room.
Once everything was set up, and everyone was seated, Darlene said, “I’ve never been an overly religious person, but I’d like to say a little prayer today if you all don’t mind.”
“Sure,” everyone agreed.
Darlene lowered her head, closed her eyes and began, “Dear Lord the past couple of years have been horrible for our families. We thought we’d lost Jenna forever, but then we met Elliot. Michael put all of us in danger with his careless ways and almost took Cara’s and my life in his evilness. Now we are free of him and presented with a new day and a better tomorrow. Thank you, Lord, for carrying us through to the other side. Amen.”
“Amen,” sounded quietly around the table as each person processed what that meant to each one of them.
The dinner conversation circulated from the food to football, shopping, Cara’s classes, and Elliot’s new dishes. It was a light and easy conversation the way it should be among friends. No one said it, but everyone was glad Cara had not brought Bonnie home for the holiday. Cara made an official announcement about the breakup after her grandfather questioned her about Bonnie. “She decided she couldn’t be with someone who was going to cut up dead bodies,” Cara said with a shake of her head and a shrug.
Elliot was glad because he knew Cara would not be happy with Bonnie. He was still hurt about the way things had ended between them, but he wanted Cara to be happy. That was what was most important to him.
The women shooed the men out of the kitchen while they cleaned up. Elliot gladly joined Ralph and Terry back on the couch for the next game, which just happened to be the University of Kentucky Wildcats against the Florida Gators. The game was close and more than once the three of them had yelled obscenities at the referees. Every once in a while, Valerie would poke her head in the living room and yell, “Language!”
At one point, Ralph muttered, “I don’t know why she’s getting on us. She knows more cuss words than a sailor.”
“Holy Cow!” Darlene cried from the front door. “Did you guys not see that it was snowing?”
“What?” Terry said, jumping up and joining her by the door.
Elliot followed them. “Wow!”
There was easily an inch on the ground, and the snow was coming down hard. “I thought it wasn’t supposed to start until tomorrow night,” Caroline said as she looked out the front window.
“Dumb weatherman doesn’t know anything,” Ralph grumbled.
“Well, we’re definitely going to have to get a hotel room,” Terry said. “There’s no way I’m trying to find that trailer in this.”
“Nonsense!” Valerie said. “You can all stay here. We’ve got plenty of room.”
“We don’t want to impose,” Darlene protested.
“We’d feel better knowing you were safe here and not out in this,” Caroline insisted. “Cara can sleep with me. Terry and Darlene can sleep in her room, and Elliot can sleep on the couch.”
“Sounds like a plan to me,” Valerie said. “Ralph?”
“As long as no one tries to take my spot on my side of the bed, I don’t care,” Ralph said.
“Then it’s settled,” Caroline said.
Cara and Elliot looked at each other and then away. It would be the first time they had been in the same house together overnight since the last time Jenna spent the night with Cara almost two and a half years ago.
Elliot and Terry made a run out to their vehicles for clothes. Elliot had his gym bag, which thankfully had clean clothes in it. Terry had his suit case he’d brought from Evansville. By the time they got back inside and stamped off the snow, Valarie and Caroline had produced a blanket, sheet, and pillow for Elliot on the couch. Caroline loaned Darlene a nightgown, and everyone started settling into their assigned rooms. Thankfully there were two full bathrooms, or it might have been a long night.
Within an hour of the decision for the big sleepover, there were light snores coming from the various rooms. Elliot lay on his back and stared at the ceiling. It always took him forever to fall asleep unless he was super tired. It was left over from always being on alert when he was in the witness protection program. He thought about his time to testify before the Supreme Court in Evansville. The DA said it would take all of thirty minutes. The court was going to allow Elliot to testify as himself. The DA convinced the judge that the fact that Elliot found his true identity while he was hiding was an important statement about how much fear and control Michael Matthews had over his family.
When Elliot thought that everyone else was settled in bed, he got up and went to the restroom. He needed to give himself a shot of testosterone, which he always kept in his truck. He used the bathroom, washed his hands, and then administered his shot. “Wow,” he whispered at the stick of the needle. He wondered if he would ever get used to that.
Elliot opened the door to find Cara standing there in a pair of pink flannel pajamas. Elliot smiled in recognition of Cara’s favorite sleepwear. Cara looked Elliot up and down much the same way he had her. He was wearing a loose white t-shirt and gray men’s sweat pants. Cara’s eyes stopped at Elliot’s chest. There was just the slightest hint of breasts.
“You haven’t had the top surgery yet?” Cara asked quietly.
Elliot looked down at his chest. “No. I’m not sure I’m going to. My breasts are so tiny now and stretched over the muscles in my chest that I could probably go shirtless and people wouldn’t know I have breasts.”
Cara nodded, and her eyes traveled lower. Elliot’s mouth went dry at her perusal. Cara licked her lips and looked up at him. “Are you going to, you know?” she asked and nodded at his pelvic area.
“No. It’s too expensive and pretty much useless as far as I can tell,” Elliot said. “Plus the risks for problems outweigh any reason I could come up with for wanting to do it.”
“I like your hair like that,” she said and reached up to push a blond strand away from Elliot’s face. “You kind of look like Keith Urban.”
Elliot grinned. “That was the idea. I’m going to have to work on getting a few more tattoos though.”
Cara’s eyebrows shot up. “You have tattoos?”
“Yeah.” Elliot shrugged.
Elliot pushed up his sleeve and showed her the tattoo of an orange and black caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Cara reached up and touched the beautiful butterfly. It felt smooth and soft.
Elliot pushed up his other sleeve and showed her the transgender symbol tattooed on the inside of his arm. Leaning over, he had to lean to the right so that he didn’t hit Cara with his head because she was standing so close. He lifted up his sweat pants leg and turned so she could see the tattoo of fish swimming upstream.
Cara knelt down to look at the tattoo. She touched his leg where the tattoo was. “That is really beautiful.” She looked at him as he was still bent over, their faces inches apart. “Is that it?”
Straightening, Elliot whispered, “No, but I’m not sure you want to see that much of my body.”
“Where is it?”
“On my back,” he answered.
“Is your back hairy?” Cara asked, mischief twinkling in her eyes.
Elliot rolled his eyes and shook his head. “No, silly. I have not become a gorilla or anything like that.” Elliot stepped further into the bathroom and lifted his shirt revealing the tattoo on his upper left back. There was a feather that was changing into birds with the words “Beyond fear lies freedom.” All of it in black ink.
Cara raised her hand and touched the tattoo. “Wow,” she whispered. Her fingers continued to trace the tattoo. She looked at the length of Elliot’s back that was exposed and the side of the tiny breast that was revealed by his shirt being lifted up.
Elliot shivered when Cara let her fingers flow down his back to his waist. He was dying, but he didn’t dare interrupt Cara’s exploration.
“Your skin feels the same,” she said quietly. “But you have more muscles.”
Nodding was the only thing Elliot trusted himself to do. He watched Cara’s eyes darken to indigo, something he’d seen them do many times before. He held his breath as her hand moved around his waist to the tight six pack stomach he worked so hard at. Her fingers briefly touched the small trail of hair that was making its way up his belly before sliding up his rib cage. Cara moved in front of him and pushed his shirt up further as her hands moved up his chest. He was too helpless to stop her. The feel of her hands on him was completely overwhelming his senses.
“It has been so long,” Cara whispered. “Your skin is the same, but the muscles are more pronounced.”
Elliot closed his eyes briefly, and when he opened them again, he realized the bathroom door was still standing open. “Cara,” he whispered. When she looked up at him, the desire in her eyes was almost his undoing, but he couldn’t let himself forget that they were in her grandparents’ house.
Cara looked up and followed his line of vision and saw that the door was open. She gently pushed it shut and returned her gaze to Elliot’s eyes. Cara had always been the aggressor in their relationship and tonight was no different. She kissed him with such fervor that he thought he was going to fall into the tub. Her hands moved over his chest, and she touched his nipples as if to make sure they were real.
When she finally released him from the kiss, Elliot gasped, “Jesus, Cara.” He cupped her hips and pulled her against him even as he tried to regain control. “We can’t do this in your grandparents’ bathroom.”
Cara laid her head against his bare chest where his shirt was pushed up and started giggling. “You’re right. I can just imagine the look on Grandpa’s face if he were to walk in on us accidentally.”
“How about we go out to the couch and talk,” Elliot suggested.
“Okay,” Cara agreed and took Elliot’s hand. She opened the door and peered out. No one was up, so they made their way to the living room.
They sat down on the couch next to each other. “Sorry about attacking you in the bathroom,” Cara said after a few minutes.
“It’s okay,” Elliot said. “I was completely enjoying it.”
Cara brought his hand to her lips and kissed his knuckles. “I’m really confused, Elliot.”
Elliot nodded. “I know.”
“I miss Jenna so much and I know she’s right here,” Cara said pointing to him. “But then she’s not.”
“But she is, Cara,” Elliot said. “I always wanted to be a boy and do boy things but my father was so violently against me doing anything boyish, I had to suppress all those feelings with everyone except you. When I was with you, I could be as butch and boyish as I wanted and you didn’t care. You seemed to like it.”
“Yeah, but that was you without testosterone, massive muscles, and a beard,” Cara said.
“But those things are not what makes me who I am.” Elliot turned and sat Indian style facing Cara. “Sit like this facing me,” he instructed.
Cara did as he said so their knees were touching and they were facing each other. “Tell me something that you liked about Jenna.”
“She was beautiful,” Cara said.
“Do you think I’m cute?” Elliot asked.
Cara blushed and grinned. “You know I do.”
“Okay,” Elliot said. “Tell me something about Jenna’s personality that you liked.”
“She was smart, funny, and sweet,” Cara said.
“I’m all those things,” Elliot said. “What else.”
“She’s a good listener. She was always my cheerleader. We both liked the same music,” Cara said and was feeling a little at a loss now. “Where is this going?”
“I’m trying to make you see that I’m still all the things you loved before, it’s just all in a different package.” Elliot pursed his lips. “Granted we can’t go to the same bathroom now. I wouldn’t want you to paint my nails. I love the way you laugh and how you can talk for hours about science, which I find totally interesting.”
“Jenna liked sappy romantic comedies and writing poems,” Cara said.
“I haven’t been able to watch sappy romantic movies because they make me think of you. I’ve written a few poems about what I’ve been through. I’ve kept a journal of the whole journey,” Elliot said.
“Can I read it?” Cara asked.
“Sure,” Elliot said. “It might help you understand what I’m going through.”
“Why is it so important to be a man versus a butch woman?” Cara asked.
“Because now my outside matches my inside,” Elliot said and took Cara’s hands in his. “It’s really difficult to explain. A butch woman is a woman who is comfortable being a woman. I don’t feel comfortable being a woman at all. I feel like I should have been born a boy, and yes that would have changed our destinies, and we would probably never have been together, but this is the hand fate dealt me. When I go out in the world now, I feel like I’m who I’m supposed to be.”
“Even without the man parts?” Cara asked.
“Having the man parts would make it better, but not if they are not going to be useful and potentially dangerous,” Elliot said. “But being a man is much more than having a penis. It’s a state of being. I want to be the provider for my family. I want to protect my family, and as a man, I have the strength to do that. As a woman, I felt weak and helpless. I don’t feel that way anymore. I like having under arm hair, leg hair and facial hair. Women try everything they can to keep from having hair in any of those places.” He kissed Cara’s knuckles. “I love being the lover of a special woman, and I want to make sure she is happy and satisfied.”
Cara looked in the direction of her grandparents’ room. “That might still be going to happen.”
Elliot shook his head. “I would be more than happy to do that for you, but I don’t want it just to be sex. I never stopped loving you, Cara. I think about you all the time, but I want you to feel like you could be happy with me. Yes, I know that your lesbian friends will flip out. It’s a sad part of the prejudice in our community. They might accuse you of selling out to play straight, but that’s not the truth. You will be the girlfriend, and hopefully, eventually, the wife of a transgender man, not a regular run of the mill man. Even though I’m all man on the outside, in the bedroom, it will be a similar experience to what we had before as lesbian lovers. Ultimately, it’s up to you. We don’t have to tell anyone who we are under our outer images, or we can take the bull by the horn and live as an open couple. A lesbian loving a trans man.”
The weight of the truth settled between them. Cara knew that she would have to decide what she wanted the rest of her life to look like. She looked up at Elliot’s beautiful blue eyes and realized that she didn’t care what her life looked like on the outside as long as she had this person. She fell in love with Jenna in seventh grade but didn’t tell her until they were sophomores in high school. She started falling for Elliot last summer and was willing to consider herself bisexual to be with him. What did what other people thought or have to say have anything to do with the fact that this man sitting before her made her heart do a flip flop every time she saw him. When he kissed her, she felt like melted butter in his hands.
She wasn’t going to let the outside world rob them of their chance to be happy together ever again. Cara leaned forward and stopped a breaths width from Elliot’s lips. “I choose to love you, Mr. Elliot Judson Cross, just as you are.” She kissed him lightly and then said, “I really mean that. Will you stay exactly as you are now? No surgeries?”
“Yes,” Elliot agreed and kissed Cara lightly and then with more intent. He looked over his shoulder at the bedroom doors. “Do you think they will hear us if we make love on the floor?”
“I’m willing to risk it,” Cara said and pulled Elliot to the floor.
Elliot sat next to a window in the building across from the court house where Michael Matthews was being sentenced for dumping three bodies, human trafficking, interfering with police and FBI investigations, tampering with evidence, and two counts of attempted murder. There were probably other charges, but Elliot didn’t care. Michael Matthews was going to get life in prison. He would most likely go to the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. Elliot just wanted to watch them bring him out and put him in the police car. Today would be the last day of Michael Matthews’ life when he would be outside prison walls.
The course that finding the body in that freezer put Elliot’s life on had been an interesting journey. He’d gone from being an abused teenage female to a man who had an amazing life. When Elliot’s mother found out that reporters were trying to hunt her down, she got a lawyer and changed her name and all her legal information so the reporters couldn’t find her. She became Shawna Erica Howard. Terry helped her pick out her names, and they got married on Valentine’s Day a few months after Terry retired from the police department.
Cara still has another year of school. She and Elliot were talking about getting married afterward. There’s a good possibility she might find work with the FBI, especially if Dana and Mark could help it. They’ve become very fond of Cara.
For Elliot, his life couldn’t be better. He had the job of a lifetime, the woman of his dreams, and a future wide open to possibilities. That was something the victims of the Cobra Cartel human trafficking ring didn’t have. Some of the victims, like Jennifer Lake, She’lia Smith, and Amanda Carson didn’t survive their captivity. Some of the older victims had become petty criminals, stealing and prostituting for drugs. Some of the victims were returned to what family they had. The Cartel specifically targeted young boys and girls who had no family they could count on, kids that had been in and out of the foster home system, and in and out of juvie. The Cartel counted on no one missing them, and sadly too many of the victims had not been missed.
Noise rose up from the court house across the street, and the reporters pushed their way to the doors of the court house. A couple of security officers were pushing the crowd back so the Sheriff’s deputies could get Michael Matthews into the patrol car. They would take him to the county jail until he was moved to Terre Haute.
Suddenly there was a loud explosion, and Michael Matthews fell to the ground. Elliot picked up his binoculars and looked down at the scene. “Damn,” he muttered when he saw the mess that the gun had made of Michael Matthews’ head. So much for him having to suffer captivity the way his victims had. Elliot suspected it was one of the members of the Cartel who had not been arrested. Matthews was probably trying to plead down his sentence by offering up some of the other Cartel leadership. Groups like the Cobra Cartel were like roaches. You might kill all the ones you can see, but that doesn’t get rid of the others hidden in the nooks and crannies that you can’t see. Eventually, after the traps lose their effectiveness, the roaches who are hiding will come out and start taking over.
Elliot put his binoculars down and started gathering his things. He was disappointed that someone had given Michael Matthews and easy out. But now his mother, Shawna and he could move on with their lives without worrying about him getting out of jail, or doing something that would put their lives at risk again. For them, this was finally over.
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