I exhaled a long breath. “So what happened next?”
He traced an index finger across the lower arc of the steering wheel. “The mom was sympathetic. Extremely kind. She apologized to Teri Lynn and scolded her little girl. Teri Lynn was pretty traumatized, she said, but it’d taken her so long to get to this point, to build up the courage to dress as herself, that she wasn’t going back. She said she’d die if she ever had to go back.” Liam’s chest rose and fell.
“So . . . ,” I cocked my head at him, “I guess she lived.”
His eyes found mine.
“You can do this,” I told him. “You can.”
A long moment passed. Then an expression I’d never seen before seized Liam’s face. Determination? Resolve? His jaw set. He nodded once and opened his door.
I stood guard outside the women’s restroom on the second floor of Sears. Sears. Why did it have to be Sears? I didn’t expect to see any of Dad’s old cronies, since this was a new store, but it was Dad’s territory. He didn’t work the store floors much after Corporate transferred him to Human Resources, where he’d had to issue his own pink slip.
It felt creepy being here. I shivered in my parka. The door inched open and Luna’s hand extended, yanking me inside.
“Okay, how do I look?” She posed in front of me, trembling.
Her face collapsed.
“No, I mean good. Really good.” Surprisingly good. She’d chosen a pair of Levi hipsters, a little tighter than I would’ve worn, and a cornflower blue sweater with a pale yellow blouse underneath. Black ankle boots. Stylish. “You look ... ordinary.”
She beamed. She must’ve scoured all the thrift shops in town for stuff this good. Next time she was taking me with her. “And your wig definitely does not scream Mistress of the Dark.”
Luna smiled. She feathered her auburn bangs in the mirror. It was a flattering color for her pale skin and freckles. What was I saying? This wasn’t Cosmo girl.
“You think anyone will read me?” Her eyes met mine in the mirror. “Tell me the truth.”
The truth was, I thought she’d stand out. Not because she looked like a guy. She was tall, and more attractive than most GG’s our age. GG’s — Genetic Girls. That’s what Liam called us, as opposed to TG’s or T-girls. “You look gorgeous, Luna,” I told her, repositioning the collar on the blouse to mask her Adam’s apple.
“Teri Lynn had hers shaved.” Luna stretched her neck in the mirror. “She says you can hardly see it now.”
“Can we go?” The thought of her throat under a knife made me queasy. Not to mention, once Luna began preening in the mirror we’d be here for days.
She exhaled a shallow breath. Looping her purse strap over her shoulder, she hefted her duffel off the counter and said, “They have lockers down this hall where I can stash my bag.”
How’d she know that? Had she been here to scope out the territory? Probably. It’d be like Liam. Paranoid, prepared.
There was one last, tense moment when my fingers curled around the handle and Luna pressed the restroom door shut. She’s going to chicken out, I thought. She can’t do it.
She dropped her hand, licked her lips, and pronounced, “I’m ready.”
The first person we ran into was an appliance salesman. He barreled down on us like he was on a search-and-destroy mission. Luna clamped a tourniquet over my arm with her hand and whimpered.
“Just keep walking,” I said.
A few feet away the salesman called, “Hey, Ralph. Did you get my overtime report for January?” He rushed by us like we were display racks.
Luna steadied herself against a refrigerator. She pressed a hand to her chest and wheezed, “Oh goddess. I’m having a seizure.”
“No, you’re not.” I was. My heart was breaking ribs. “He didn’t even see us,” I told her. “Luna. You passed.”
She blinked down on me. A slow smile radiated across her face. “I did, didn’t I?” Her eyes illuminated. “I did.”
The aisles were devoid of humanoids tonight — thank the weather goddess. One cashier eyed us suspiciously, but I think she saw us as juvie d’s out to lift a little merch. After every encounter, I found myself glancing back over my shoulder to check out people’s reactions. Only one person did a double take, a bored clerk at the camera counter, and it appeared to me he was checking Luna out.
“Nobody’s reading me,” Luna said as we crossed the Sears entrance into the main mall corridor. “This is such a rush.”
Yeah, I was flush with excitement. Quit it, Regan, I chided myself. This is hard for her.
We sauntered past the Hallmark and the Williams Sonoma, Luna clutching her purse so tightly against her side I thought she’d rupture her spleen. “Don’t do that.” I loosened her grip. “You look like a terrorist.”
“Okay, thanks.” She cast me a nervous smile.
She was stiff, taut, and wired. She kept walking faster and faster. “Slow down.” I caught up with her at The Gap. “Look, we’re just two sisters out slumming the mall on a Saturday night. Losers,” I added, “or why else would we be here?”
“Speak for yourself,” Luna said. “We’re here to hit on guys.”
I snorted. Yeah, right. “You’re kidding, right?”
She was kidding. She wasn’t kidding!
“Relax.” She bumped my shoulder. “It seems early in the season to have all the spring fashions out. Does it to you? What do you think of that mock-neck shirt?” Her finger grazed my nose as it rose to point through the open entrance to The Gap.
“I don’t know. Let’s go look.”
She grabbed my arm. “You mean, inside?”
“No, out here in the mall. You did bring binoculars, didn’t you?”
She didn’t respond.
I added, “Unless you want to come back in August when the shirts go on sale.”
She swallowed hard, gazing into the depths of the store. The belly of the monster.
Maybe it was too soon. “We don’t have to —”
“No,” she cut in, dropping her hand. “We do. We do have to.” She took the first step, but I still had to practically prod her over the threshold. The saleslady was helping the only other deranged person to be out on a night like this, so it gave us freedom to browse. I sensed Luna relaxing a little.
“Is this me?” She unfolded a pink tee and held it up to her.
“It’s all over you,” I said.
We both jumped. Oh, great. Another clerk had been lying in wait. “Can I help you?”
Luna looked from me to her. “Do you have this in teal?” she asked.
The clerk said, “No, just what you see here.”
The saleslady shrugged at Luna. Then it happened. Her eyes expanded, took Luna in. She stepped back, away, and began to blink real fast.
I felt Luna shrinking in place, shriveling. I reached for her hand. It was trembling, cold.
“They don’t have your color,” I said. “Let’s go.” I tugged her out into the mall.
Hurtling away from The Gap, my heart in my throat, I croaked, “Have you had enough? Can we go home now?”
No answer. I turned to her.
“Not yet,” she said. “We just got here.”
Yeah, a year ago. I’d had enough. That clerk’s reaction made me feel like crawling into a hole. “Dad’s going to kill us. Or ground us for life. He’ll probably call the Y and figure out you were bullshitting him. We should go. Have you seen a phone? I better call him and check in. Breathe heavy in the background so it sounds like you’re working up a sweat.”
“Hey, Blockbuster.” Luna pointed. “I want to get the sound-track for Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” She hurried away.
Without me to protect her.
I raced to catch up.
Inside the music store Luna headed directly to the movie soundtracks in back, while I shadowed close behind, cursing under my breath. I just wanted out of here. As she passed the Pop and Rock section, this trio of guys appeared out of nowhere. One of them jostled his friend on the left and whispered under his hand.
Thirteen, I figured. Going on six. Insignia jackets with matching baggy jeans. Oh God. They were following Luna.
I sped up and wedged between them. Closing in on Luna, I shoved her from behind around the end of the CD racks and back toward the entrance.
“What are you doing?” She tried to slap me off.
That’s when she saw them, over the median of CDs between us.
My ears burned. Luna’s spine fused.
A girl in the rock section, reading liner notes on a CD, raised her head. She caught my eye. Did I know her? Keep moving, I thought.
The lights flicker and the door to the basement slams shut. Liam pounds down the stairs. He flings his backpack over the sofa, where I’m sprawled out doing my homework. The backpack smacks the coffee table and knocks off my cup of soup.
“Liam! Nice going.” I retrieve the mug but not before the contents have bled all over my map assignment. “Look what you did!”
He throws himself into the overstuffed chair across from me, hugging his knees. I don’t catch whatever he’s muttering because I’m trying to salvage my homework. Shaking off the chunks of chicken and noodle and daubing the broth with my T-shirt, which is smearing the Magic Marker on the poster board where I’d just spent an hour delineating all the countries of Africa. “Dammit, Liam!”
“I am not,” Liam swears under his breath. “Don’t you call me that. You ignorant pissant.”
He’s talking to himself again. Conducting a conversation with an invisible being — someone other than me. He’s such a head case. I’m not sure when he started talking to himself, but I think it was the beginning of eighth grade. Last year. He seemed to recede more and more into himself all year.
Dad noticed. He asked me about it. I told Dad that was just Liam. He said he didn’t understand that kid. But then, he never had.
Then Aly noticed. She’d be having a conversation with Liam, or they’d be doing homework together, and he’d disappear. Mentally. Physically. He’d simply fade away.
“It isn’t you,” I informed Aly. She seemed so worried. “He does it to everyone.”
“Where does he go, Re?” she wanted to know. “He goes somewhere. In his head. I don’t know. He gets so... lost.”
I wish I could tell her. I want to tell her.
“Cannot put up with that. I won’t. I am not a fag.”
“Liam, what are you saying? Who’s a fag?”
He snaps to attention, as if he just crash-landed to Earth. His eyes slowly focus on my face and he says, “I’m not a fag. I’m not gay. Tell him that.”
Liam shakes his head, looking straight at me. “I’m not gay. I’m trans.”
“I know that. Who says you’re gay?”
His eyes darken. He doesn’t have to say who. Hoyt Doucet. Was he on Liam’s case again?
“Hoyt’s a pus pocket,” I remind Liam.
He jumps to his feet and storms off to his room. Funny thing is, I think, if anyone’s g*y it’s Hoyt Doucet. He just won’t admit it. He even dates girls. I don’t care if he lies to himself; hates himself for being gay. He has no right making Liam’s life a living hell. Liam hasn’t done anything to Hoyt. He sure isn’t interested, if that’s what Hoyt’s afraid of, or wants. Hoyt’s not his type. Not even his species.
Liam returns a minute later with a slab of poster board, which he fwaps down on the coffee table. “We did the same assignment in Trumbo’s class.”
It’s my map. Beautifully colored in with pastel pencils, all the countries outlined in black pen. An A+ circled at the top.
“I’m not gay.” Liam spins away. “It’s not the same. I’m a girl.”
“Whoo hoo. Faggy boy.”
They were coming after us.
Luna forged ahead of me, almost knocking over this gorilla dude in a blue suit. A blue suit?
“Hey.” I wheeled around, snagging the suit. “Those guys back there? They won’t leave us alone.” I pointed. “I think they’re stalking us. Luna!” I called for her to wait.
All the security guard had to do was evil-eye the wastoids and they bolted. Punks.
“Thanks,” I mumbled to the guard before tearing off after Luna. She’d ducked into an alcove between a cigar kiosk and a frame shop, where she was doubled over, hyperventilating.
“It’s okay. They’re gone.” I rubbed her back trying to calm her. Calm myself. I scanned to get our bearings. “There’s a girls’ restroom down the hall by that shoe store.” I showed Luna. “Wait for me. I’ll go get your stuff so you can change and we can leave. Give me the locker key.”
She unlatched her purse with a shaky hand and dropped the key into my palm. Any second now she was going to disintegrate, implode, disembody. “Oh God. Luna.” I squeezed her hand. “I’m sorry.” What else could I say? What could anyone say?
Dad grounded us for life. Until he decided we could be trusted, he said, which might be longer than life. He’d waited up. Probably called the Y. In addition to the prison sentence, he impounded Liam’s car — took away the keys and didn’t say for how long. Like that was going to work. Liam had that car wired with a fingerpad remote so that anyone who tried to break in would get electrocuted. At least, that’s what he’d told me. For years, though, Dad had been aching for any excuse to separate Liam from his beloved car. On Liam’s sixteenth birthday Dad had towed home this junk heap of a VW and said, “Hey, son. We’re going to rebuild this baby together. Won’t that be fun? I know it isn’t much to look at now, but wait’ll we get it running and do the body work. . . .”