A Dinosaur Without Feathers Is No Dinosaur at All
by Izzy Wasserstein
The Mei long was nearly complete before Grace worked up the nerve to ask Samantha about the feathers. Grace had started on the dinosaur after she’d been diagnosed with the Canine Flu, and it had taken most of the loneliest year of her life, but now the gears and wires were in place, the casing all but finished. She had held off on the cortex, feeling that the tiny, wide-eyed dinosaur shouldn’t wake until it was complete. Dinosaurs had feathers. The Mei long had feathers. She had no choice but to talk to Samantha.
Samantha spent almost every afternoon either at home with her dogs (the thought made Grace’s chest tighten horribly) or in the school’s craft room. That day she’d chosen the latter, her long fingers deftly working the soldering iron. Students were supposed to be supervised while in the craft room, but no one hassled Samantha about it. She was 14, like Grace, and better with tools than the shop teacher, and Grace suspected that adults thought it best she be given her space. Grace sat down beside her and watched her work, sealing the ends off small, delicate tubes of metal.
Samantha unhurriedly finished the work, turned off the iron, and lifted her goggles.
“What do you want?” she said. Not unkind, but flat.
“Hey, Samantha,” Grace said. “I’m working on a project, and I can’t finish it on my own.”
Samantha studied her face, and Grace forced herself not to look away. It has been a year since Samantha had transitioned, and Grace knew from the whispers and derisive words of their fellow students that most of them still refused to see Samantha as a girl. Grace had different problems.
“Show me,” Samantha said at last.
Grace carefully pulled Mei from her pack. She wasn’t heavy, but still heavier than the actual dinosaur would have been. Grace could only work with the materials she had.
“Wow,” Samantha said. “This is…wow.”
“She’s almost ready,” Grace said. “But she needs feathers.”
Samantha blinked. “Feathers?”
“Yeah,” Grace said, defensive. “On the edges of her forelimbs, and down her spine. The Mei long was a feathered dinosaur, and it has to be right.”
Samantha nodded. “I get that. Show me where they fit.”
Grace insisted on helping with the feathers. She didn’t like not being able to do it herself, and Samantha’s instructions helped fill the silences. Once those silences had been companionable, but the last year had transformed them. The girls clipped fine lengths of wire, cut the feathered shapes, soldered them together.
“They need to be as light as possible,” Samantha said. “Heavy, clunky feathers would be all wrong.” Grace was so glad she understood. Together, they scoured junkyards and unattended construction sites for what they needed.
Within two weeks, they had the rough cuts of the feathers assembled. Each was a tiny, dull object, but Samantha assured Grace they’d look elegant when they were finished.
“This is so cool, Samantha,” Grace said, momentarily forgetting her embarrassment. “Thank you for making my dino dreams come true.”
Samantha smiled broadly, and Grace felt her cheeks flush.
Samantha’s text arrived a few days later: Can you come over tonight?
She hadn’t messaged Grace in almost a year, even though they’d once hung out almost every day, tearing apart old drones and reassembling them, expanding the massive fort in the woods behind Grace’s house, or scrawling elaborate scenes in chalk on the weed-infested basketball court nearby. The message made Grace’s heart race. Then she remembered.
Can’t, she wrote. Dogs.
Oh, came the response. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I’ll come to you.
She arrived an hour later, lugging a suitcase full of supplies. Grace was waiting for her in the garage.
“I’m sorry,” Samantha said without preamble. “I didn’t know you’d caught it. And you and Rex…” She sniffled.
Grace didn’t think. She just hugged. The two girls stood there, crying in one another’s arms.
“You couldn’t have known,” Grace sniffled. “I couldn’t…couldn’t talk about it.”
People called it the Canine Flu, but that was a misnomer. The virus was asymptomatic in most people, but in some, like Grace, it manifested as an acute allergic reaction to dogs. A year ago, Grace had Rex, and been best friends with Samantha, and then she’d caught it. Rex was sent to a new home, and Grace lost her dog and her best friend.
“I should have told you,” Grace said, wiping at her eyes. “But I didn’t want to think–to think about not seeing your dogs again.”
“Let’s get your dinosaur working,” Samantha said, firmly.
She’d cut the details in the feathers, the notches and the fine lines that transformed them from blank strips of metal to something that was clearly a feather. Together they worked at shining each feather until it gleamed.
“Have you thought about its color?” Samantha asked, and when Grace shook her head she grinned. “I have some ideas.”
Mei darted through the undergrowth, happily pecking at the ground in search of grubs or small animals. She never managed to catch anything, which was just as well, since she had no digestive tract.
Her head darted up, dark eyes scanning back and forth, then she made a series of excited click-clicks with her jaws and darted up the forested hillside, a blur of gold and crimson, to meet Samantha.
Grace couldn’t keep up with an excited dinosaur, and by the time she was halfway up the hill, Samantha had already scooped Mei up into her arms.
“She adores you,” Grace said, trying to catch her breath. Mei stuck out her metal tongue and began licking Samantha’s cheek.
“She imprinted on the two faces that were there when we booted her up,” Samantha said.
“Her moms,” Grace said, and both girls blushed. Grace stared at her feet.
They walked in silence back down the hill to their old fort. Mei darted off to resume hunting, and they sat side-by-side against the corrugated wall.
“I’m glad we’re hanging out again,” Samantha said.
“I…um…thought maybe you didn’t want to hang out. Once you learned I was a girl.”
Grace’s eyes widened. “No!” She shook her head fiercely. The dinosaur looked up, then returned to its scavenging. “It wasn’t that, Samantha.”
Grace thought she’d never stop blushing. “First I got the Canine Flu, and then,” she hesitated. “Then I was too shy to tell you… that I had a crush on you,”
“Oh.” Samantha blinked repeatedly. “Oh!” A slow smile spread across her face. “I wish you’d said something sooner.” She leaned in and pressed her lips to Grace’s cheek. Now both girls were smiling and shifting their weight.
“Me too,” Grace said, sheepish, thinking of the last, lost year.
Samantha took her hand. “But then we wouldn’t have Mei.”
The small dinosaur ran around, clucking with interest, her metal feathers gleaming.
© 2020 by Izzy Wasserstein
March 27th, 2020
Izzy Wasserstein is a queer, trans writer of fiction and poetry. Her work has been widely published in places like Clarkesworld, Fireside, and Transcendent 4: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction. She believes in the power of hope and of community. You can find her work at izzywasserstein.com. She’s on Twitter at @izzyxen.
Rekka Jay is a graphic designer, illustrator, and writer from New England who is passionate about kindness and dinosaurs. She illustrates using traditional and digital mediums. She writes SFF under her pen name, R J Theodore. Her art and design work can be found at rekkajay.com. Her written works can be found at rjtheodore.com. She pings as @bittybittyzap on Instagram and Twitter.