This is a piece I wrote in 2008; it is a first draft and has already been workshopped, but I would always like more input please. I haven't begun to work on the second draft, not really, although I will get it done one day.

Strong Woman

When I was a kid, Mom baked cookies every Monday.

She left them on the counter, covered in saran wrap, for us to find after the bus dropped Kimmi and me off. She also left dinner in the fridge so she knew we would eat while she worked.

One Monday, Mom was in the kitchen, but the cookies she had in front of her were store-bought, the plastic container open already. She looked tired. We climbed into the seats next to her, and she smiled. I grabbed a cookie to nibble at but Kimmi didn't.

"Why're you home, Mom?" Kimmi asked.

"My night job decided to downsize. As a result, they let me go. Do you understand?"

"Yeah. Okay." Kimmi finally took a cookie.

"You girls remember Grandma, right?"

We nodded.

"She's going to watch you for a few days while I see some nice men about a lump, and I want you both on your best behavior."

"'Kay."

* * *

My mother only hit me once when I was a child, and even then, the hand on my cheek was weak, cold, and soft with the feel of new paper, blue-green veins pulsed against the surface of her skin. I had only told her she wasn't going to die--wasn't allowed to. She hit me then, told me I was a spoiled, conceited child, and died a week later.

It must have been the quiet I fell into that made Kimmi hold my hand for those next seven days, or maybe she was scared, too.

We didn't know where we would go after she died. The state had a hard time figuring it out as well. The woman who came to speak at my sister and me told us that Mom's will only required that we not spend more than a month out of the year with our Grandmother, so we couldn't stay with her. With our father dead or gone or with another family, and our mother without siblings, they shopped us off to her uncle directly from the funeral.

Uncle Grayson--Jeff, kids, Jeff--was a painter and very old. He had made some kind of a lot of money on an artistic rendering of the Eiffel Tower or something. I don't think we were actually related, but he was able to take care of us and claimed that he was a relative.

Uncle Grayson also liked to pretend he still had his youth. He dyed his hair dark brown, wore youthful clothing, and hung around with people--mostly artists--half his age. He drank their cheap wine and beer and mostly ignored Kimmi and me.

Mom's uncle lived in a loft with a wall full of windows, one bed, one lumpy, green couch, and nearly seventy plants. A kitchen area sported cooking equipment that needed more than a little repair, but Jeff insisted, as he attempted to heat a can of soup to lukewarm, that he would never have to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning because of his plants. Kimmi tried to correct him, but he gave her the I'm-an-adult look, and she stopped trying quickly.

***

In the months between my twelfth and Kimmi's sixteenth birthday, Jeff bought a used sleeper-sofa and sheets to fit the thin mattress hidden in the folds. It was burgundy and matched nothing else in the loft other than random splashes of color on one or two of the canvases. He paid movers to bring it in.

The movers were two big, bulky men with rectangle faces and no hair. They probably curled cars when they weren't lifting couches, and the weight of the sofa barely made the muscles of their arms strain. Jeff gave orders from the corner where he kept his works in progress.

"Careful, careful!" he yelled. His arms flapped.
I giggled from my place between Kimmi and one of the largest hydrangeas. I had to admire these men. They were strong—big but not heavy-handed. They knew how to fit into their own skin. I had never seen mountains, but I could almost sense the appeal after looking upon the mens' bodies.

Instead of replacing the old couch, he decided to move around many of the unsold paintings to make room for the piece of furniture. Along with it, he made the men reposition his work as well. The two men held painting after painting steady in strong hands, but our uncle seemed to freak out at their slightest movement. His loud exclamations bounced off their shoulders.

"I wanna be like that when I grow up," I whispered to Kimmi.

She snorted and snapped off a leaf of the plant. "You can't change your gender that easy."

"I don't want to be a boy! That's stupid. I just wanna be big and strong and like a boy."

She sighed and tickled the inside of my ear with the leaf.

That night, we slept together on the thin pad. For the past three years, we had switched off between the old couch and the sleeping bag, so Kimmi and I spent the time relishing the almost-comfortable padding beneath us and listening to our uncle snore.

***

Sometimes, Kimmi brought boys to the new apartment. She would never have dared at Uncle Grayson's, but, here, we felt a little more at ease. It was those nights she made me sleep on the couch in our apartment. I suppose it was her apartment because I wasn't old enough to get a job to help pay rent yet; she promised I wouldn't need to, even when I turned sixteen. It was a nice thought, but I would help her any way I could. We had moved a week after Kimmi's eighteenth birthday, though she had been shopping around for apartments for nearly seven months before that.

Spending the night on the couch meant I didn't sleep. Especially if the boy of the night snored. I could only press my hands into my ears so far before my head started to ache. Most of these nights my mind crawled about, and I remembered Jeff and Mom and those stupid, Christmas-colored couches.

Next morning, she frowned at me as I slurped my cereal. "You've got bags beneath your eyes."

I grunted and shrugged.

"I promise we'll get a new apartment soon. One with two bedrooms."

I shrugged again, slurped another spoonful of cereal into my already-full mouth so that some of the milk dripped back into the bowl. She didn't understand. I liked this apartment and all the grime that came with it. I didn't like the boys.

The clock on the microwave was slightly broken so two of the green bars never showed up and it was impossible to tell if the second to last number on the clock was a five or six. This gave me good a good exit strategy. I stood up and grabbed my backpack.

"I'm going to the gym after school. Don't wait up."

She looked at me as if we had plans that I had forgotten but didn't say anything. Just sigeds. She probably planned some surprise dinner or something, but I could never hang with her after she'd had some guy over. Not for a few days, at least.

"Don't forget to do your homework. They'll take you back to Jeff, even if he isn't fit, if your grades slip too low."

***

The only things Kimmi knew about my steroid use were the physical effects she saw. I don't think she knew what to make of them. Over the first six-month period, my voice dropped, and I gained some muscle weight. She probably thought I was taking testosterone, and she wouldn't be far from the truth, although I was taking a different form for different reasons. She never confronted me about them, and I never told her.

One night, she brought home a large man. He let his eyes crease together when he saw me eating ice cream on the couch.

"Good night, Rex," she said when she closed the door to our apartment. She didn't tell me his name or where she had been tonight. He didn't snore, but I stayed up as long as I could, anyway.

Two months later, he had breakfast made and was flipping a pancake with a spatula when I woke up. I hadn't known we had supplies for pancakes. I knew we didn't have bacon or eggs. In fact, I'm pretty sure all of our meals came in boxes--cereal, school lunch, mac and cheese. He laid out a plate in front of me. There was even syrup. I would be hyper all day, now.

The man's name was Gordon, and he was a chef, he told me.

I frowned. "You're rather bulky to be a chef," I told him. I had always imagined chefs as poufy, whimsical creatures with large stomachs and heads but small muscles.

"I work out regularly. Your sister told me you do, too."

I smiled. "Yeah." Then I shrugged. "It's not a big deal."

"She also asked me if working out could cause your voice to drop."

I frowned. "What'd you tell her?"

"Sometimes. And sometimes there are other factors that lead to a voice drop--puberty, steroids."

I looked at him. He knew--or had guessed, perhaps--and hadn't told my sister. I took a bite of my pancake and couldn't stop eating. Delicious. I could probably even have more. There was an entire plate of them.

"What'd she say to that?"

"Said her sister couldn't possibly be on steroids and that it was probably puberty." He set aside another plate, made one for himself, and began to eat. "You're careful, right?"

"Definitely. I'm not stupid." I shoved most of the pancake in my mouth.

"You're watching out for bubbles every time? Making sure you stretch?"

"I stretch, but what are you talking about--bubbles?"

Gordon set his fork down. "If you inject a bubble, it can kill you."

"I'm not injecting!" I was, but why should I tell him?

He held his hands up and smiled. "Sorry. Didn't mean to assume."

***

I stopped injecting about two weeks later. Even if his advice was crap, no one had actually tried to warn me against them before. It was a strange sensation swallowing pills, though, and I stopped that, too, six days later. I worked out harder than ever, but I was slowly loosing the almost-masculine definition I'd had before. And I liked it.

Gordon slipped me an article about a grandmother who lifted a meteor or something from her grandson. He fixed us breakfast nearly every morning, now, and he taught me about eating properly. That meant I had to give up my Frosted Generic Brand Cereal, but I could deal with that.

He'll probably marry Kimmi, he told me during a workout one day. That's okay. Except, my arms went slack and the weights almost crush me. Good thing he spotted me, or I might have been in trouble.