The girl slammed the front door, making the living room windows shudder, and ran down the hallway to her room. Flinging her backpack in a corner, she threw herself onto the bed.
“How could I be so stupid!” she howled into her pillow.
Tarat sighed and put down his pen. Part of him cursed the unlikely series of events that had made cowering in the bedroom of an adolescent giant the most prudent course of action for the moment. This was a part of himself he tried hard not to pay attention to. It did no good to curse the past; one had only to live with the results of one’s actions. And it did no good to curse the girl, either. She may have been several thousand times Tarat’s size, but she was maybe a third his age, and the pains of adolescence seemed to be a universal constant. Tarat remembered his own childhood on his home planet with a certain abhorrence that made him rethink his policy of not cursing the past.
So now, when the girl came home with a fresh set of miseries, small social woes and petty embarrassments, he swallowed his own troubles, got up from the table that sat atop her enormous desk, and made his way across the plastic gantries that had been set up across the room for his benefit to her side.
“Tell me, child. What has happened?” he asked gently.
The girl sniffled and turned her head to look at him. As always, she was somewhat alarming close up. Had she been some sort of reasonable scale, her alien-ness would be easy enough to deal with; Tarat’s people had interacted with other races before, and this girl’s people were form-wise less bizarre than some. But the sheer size of her made interaction difficult. The first few weeks he had lived with her, he had been in constant fear of being stepped on.
Now, though, he was used to her. And he was learning to read her face, the physical manifestations of the emotions raging within, almost more easily than he could have read that of one of his own people. He could see the blood vessels of her nose dilating, the redness of the eyes, the widened tear glands. She was extremely upset.
She gulped and gasped a bit. “I’m sorry, Tarat,” she snuffled. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. I know you’re busy.”
He doubted this very much; she had other places she went when she truly wished to be alone. Which meant that she needed to talk to someone. Tarat was somewhat irritated at having been disturbed from his work, but he would have stopped for any friend in need. The fact that this friend’s needs were usually somewhat petty from an adult perspective was of no consequence. He shrugged and sat on the pillow.
“It is your private space,” he said. “I am merely borrowing it from you. Please, tell me. Perhaps I can help.”
Her laughter was a coarse, hopeless bark, and she rolled away from him to lie on her back, arm flung across her face. “Not with this,” she said. “This is just me being an idiot.”
“Why do you say these things?” he asked her. “You are very intelligent. Untrained, perhaps, but time and experience will remedy that…”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it.”
Tarat did know it. He also remembered making similar complaints in the awkwardness of youth, and being given similarly unhelpful statements in return. He forged ahead. “You mean you have done something or thought something or felt something you feel is foolish. I tell you, it is not. You are an intelligent person—no, do not interrupt!—you are intelligent, I say, and possessed of remarkable reason and judgment for a person of your age. Whatever you think you have done, it is of small consequence.”
“No, it’s not!” she raged. “I just ruined every chance I have for future happiness!”
“Child,” he started, but she cut him off.
“Don’t tell me it’s not important!” she snapped. “Adults are always saying that these things aren’t important! You don’t know! You’re not me! And maybe it is just a stupid high school crush, and maybe it is just me being young, but damn it, it’s not helpful to hear that! And it doesn’t change how I feel! And it doesn’t change that I made a complete ass of myself and she’ll never talk to me again!”
Tarat sighed, trying to think of how best to respond to that. The girl was uncommonly introspective for one of her age, and had likely already thought of his potential responses. Then he stopped. Something was different.
“She? Did I hear correctly the female pronoun?”
“Always before it has been the male pronoun.”
“…yeah. I know. I know! This is awful! And the whole school knows and now I’m gonna be the victim of a hate crime or some shit and it’s not like I’m actually like that, it was just this one-time thing, and I was stupid enough to think that she might have felt the same way, but no, she freaked out like nothing else and told everyone and the whole rest of the day everyone avoided me like I had the goddamn plague!”
Tarat considered this. This was not the normal frivolous adolescent problem. And he was honestly not sure how to handle it, not being a member of her culture.
“You should perhaps talk to your parents about this,” he suggested.
“I really don’t want to,” she said. She looked genuinely worried.
Tarat, feeling very much out of his depth, shifted uncomfortably. “Please understand,” he said, “this type of issue is dealt with differently on every world my people have visited, and is dealt with differently by the different cultures on my own world. I lack reference…”
“Look, it’s not that big a deal, really,” she said, which he didn’t believe for a moment. Her face said otherwise. She continued. “It was a one-time deal, like I said. I just need to figure out how to fix the damage I’ve done to my social life before this blows up into way more than it is.”
He didn’t move.
“Say something,” she said, quietly, nervously.
He sighed. “I do not know how to advise you,” he said.
“You’re not freaked out by this, are you?” she asked, brow furrowed. He could see her sweat glands widen slightly and a faint sheen cross her face.
“Of course not!” he said, realizing with a twinge of guilt how his silence had been misinterpreted. “Child, my people have met hundreds of races. Some have two genders, some only one, some have more. Some have multiple genders in a single individual. Some are tolerant of sexuality among members of the same gender, some are repulsed by it, some would consider social sex between members of opposite genders abnormal and disturbing. For me, it is of small importance. But in your culture, I know it is of great importance. I have seen the turmoil this thing causes in your news reports. I worry for that reason.”
“Yeah, me too,” she said. “I mean, I know my parents are pretty tolerant. For crying out loud, my dad told me about S&M when I was ten, just because he thought it was something I’d be interested in knowing. But it’s different when it’s their own kid, you know? And high schoolers are the worst. It’s like, if you even hint at being gay, they just eat you alive. And I did a hell of a lot more than hint. Which is crazy, ‘cause I’m not gay, I like guys. There’s just the one girl, and she’s a fucking bitch anyway, apparently, and…” She broke off, sobbing.
“You are right. In this instance, I do not know what you are feeling. I cannot begin to imagine all that you are feeling.” Tarat stood up, unhappy, and made his way carefully across the bed to climb onto her shoulder.
“What am I gonna do?” she moaned.
“I do not know.”
“You’ve got to have some idea. You’re always so damn full of answers…”
“Not for this,” Tarat said. “I do not always have answers. Some questions have no answers, and I believe this may be one of them.”
“…So not helpful.”
“I am sorry.”
She sat up abruptly, and Tarat clung to the folds of her shirt. Over the months, he had become adept at keeping his balance when she moved, and she had adapted her movements to accommodate his presence. But this was a more violent lurch than most, and Tarat hissed with annoyance.
“Sorry,” she said grumpily.
“No matter. You are upset.” He could see she was weeping, quietly, her face impassive but tears falling down her cheeks.
“I feel awful,” she said, leaning forward to rest her head in her hands.
“That is understandable.” Tarat wrapped an arm in her hair for additional safety, since she seemed inclined to move around with no warning. “Child, you do not want to hear this. But you must. What you are experiencing, this fear, this uncertainty, this does not go away with age. As you grow older, you will find many times you do not know what to do, and you will feel scared and uncertain. And there is nothing you can do about that.”
She sniffed. “I’m gonna feel like this forever? That sucks.”
“No, not forever. Sporadically. ‘Off and on,’ if you will. You find yourself now in a situation that age and experience would not help you with. This happens. But you will find ways to cope, and ways to be happy, even in the midst of uncertainty.”
“I still say it sucks.”
“Yes. And you must find your own answers, your own way through this. But you can do that. I said before, you are intelligent and prudent. You will find a way.”
“I wish I had your confidence. Right now all I can see is a lifetime of despair. All for one stupid, stupid crush. It took me weeks to figure out what the hell I was even feeling, you know that? And I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. Not even you. I just feel so…lost.”
“I cannot help you with that.” Tarat braced himself as she shuddered wordlessly. “I am sorry. I cannot tell you how to find your way in this instance. I can suggest, though, for the moment, you make an infusion, hot tea. I know it will help calm you.”
“Tea? That’s your answer?”
“Not an ultimate answer, to be sure. Just to clear your head.”
“…yeah, I guess.”
“Also, you must talk to your parents. They can help protect you.”
“You think I need protection?” She was alarmed; he saw the muscles around her mouth contract.
“I said before, I have seen the news reports. I am concerned, and they will be as well.”
“Damn. I dunno. I just want someone to talk to. I know you don’t have answers…”
Tarat looked at her. “I will always listen. Come. Let us make some tea. And I will listen.”