It made me laugh. He had a knack. He was cute.
“I suck at math. And I couldn’t fail the class. I’ve got to keep a C average to play ball. You know?”
I nodded, like I did.
Someone wrenched open the entrance door and stuck his head in. “What are ya doin’, man? We’re ready to go.”
“I’m coming. Don’t get your balls in a sling.”
The guy glanced over at me, then back at Chris. He rolled his eyes. “One minute, man.” The door swung shut behind him.
“I would’ve helped you with the math,” I told him. “You didn’t have to drop.”
“Yeah, I did, Regan.”
My name again. It made my stomach flutter.
“I knew the only way to pass that class would be to use you, and . . . okay.” He ground his shoe into a chunk of taco shell on the floor. “I confess that was sort of my plan. At first.” He raised his head and met my eyes. “I noticed you got A’s on the tests when we were memorizing elements and stuff the first couple weeks in class. But I just couldn’t do it. You were too cool. I liked you.”
My heart raced. What did that mean, he liked me?
“Oh, shit,” someone said in my face. A woman with a screaming toddler. She twisted around and whined to her friend, “It’s out of order.”
Shit was right. I checked my watch. What was Luna doing in there? It’d been forty minutes. The bigger question was, what if she made her grand entrance at this very moment? A horn honked out front, snagging Chris’s attention. “You better go,” I told him. I willed him away. Far away.
“They can wait.” Chris raked his fingers through his hair. Nice fingers, not slender and shaved like Liam’s. Guy fingers. “You never told me what you were doing here. Do you come downtown a lot? Because my sister has a loft right around the corner.” He thumbed over his shoulder. “We could maybe meet there. I could stay downtown today if —”
“No!” My bark echoed in the hallway. “I mean, I never come here. I’m just waiting for someone.”
He followed my eyes down the corridor. I felt his whole demeanor alter, shift. Same way it had before. A horn blared and, out of the passenger side window, Chris’s friend flipped him the bird. “You really should go,” I said.
Chris pushed off the wall. “I guess so.”
His tone of voice suggested . . .
The door slammed shut behind him. Out of order on the girls’ room. Me waiting for someone. Someone in the men’s room? Is that what he thought?
“No, Chris. Wait!”
I’d taken two steps toward the door when car tires squealed out of the lot and, at the same moment, Luna emerged from the restroom.
“What a rush. What a total rush.” She kept repeating it on the way home. “What a rush. A total rush.” She was like Mom on the phone with Handy Andy — yammering away a hundred miles a minute, faster than anyone could listen or re-spond. “No one read me. They didn’t know. They didn’t even blink.”
Luna was wrong. Several people did more than blink. After we got our orders at Taco Bell, the cashier grabbed one of the assembly goons and whispered to him, pointing at Luna. They both snickered, then alerted the other employees. Every hair on my body stood at attention, afraid one or more of them might come over to our table and make a scene. A guy in a jumpsuit across the room had spotted Luna and glommed onto her. He gawked at her the whole time we ate. When he finished his meal, he made a point of meandering through the aisles, taking the long route to the exit, deliberately passing our table. He slowed and stood for a moment, staring. The expression on his face — God. Disgust, loathing, I don’t know what it was, but it made me cower in fear.
I prayed he’d go away and he finally left.
Thank God Luna hadn’t noticed. She just kept eating her tostada and sipping from her straw. How could she not have noticed? She had to have noticed. She wasn’t blind.
After lunch we’d wandered around the renovated area of lower downtown. Luna was bolder this time out, leading me into Banana Republic, the Sharper Image, a leather store to look at purses. She bought a purse on sale for fifty-eight dollars. Last purse I got was a Wal-Mart special — $4.76, marked down from $5.53. The whole time we were out it felt as if people’s eyes were on us. Undressing us. Exposing her, and me. How could she not feel it? How could she miss the stares?
It was bizarre. Unreal. As if she knew what was happening and didn’t even care.
Liam’s whole life was caring what other people saw when they looked at him. What if, after he’d done his best to appear as Luna—to be her, the girl he pictured inside — all people saw was a boy in girls’ clothes?
When Liam talked about the cost of transitioning, is this what he meant? Because this was more than I could bear. This was costing him his dignity.
Luna didn’t wake me at two A.M.I was already awake. I couldn’t sleep. The scene with Chris in the hallway played out in my head like a tragic opera. The soprano and the baritone. She wins him. She loses him. She longs for him. At last they reunite, then she dies in his arms. In my opera, though, I wasn’t in his arms. I was alone at the end, a dying swan.
I must’ve made Chris think I was putting him off. The other time, too, when he asked me to the rave. Shopping with my sister — I’m sure. It had to make Chris feel diminished, rejected, unwanted. I couldn’t stand that. I had to talk to him. As soon as possible. Monday. I’d find him, explain how I was waiting for my brother at Taco Bell. The other time, too. My brother again.
It’s always about my brother.
My brother was a black hole in my universe. He was sucking the life right out of me. It seemed as if I was being pulled into this crater by a force I couldn’t fight. Liam was already down there. We were together at the bottom. The crater was deep and dark and closing in on us. We couldn’t move, couldn’t rise, couldn’t see to find our way out.
Chris had to know it wasn’t about him. It was me, and my duty to Liam. Chris didn’t have to know about Liam. I was interested, available. That’s all the information he was required to have.
Third period, during study hall, I set up surveillance at the gym. I figured Chris had to show up there eventually.
Bingo. Right after lunch he jogged past my stakeout behind the open door. Through the wired security window, I saw him drop his backpack on the floor and lope over to a couple of guys who were shooting hoops. He asked if he could join them.
Damn. I sank to the floor again. I couldn’t barge in there now like I was some love-starved groupie, stalking him. Which, in actuality, I was.
I cursed myself for not revising Act II of my tragic opera. It needed a climactic moment where the conniving diva figures out a way to lure the unsuspecting baritone into her lair.
Liam’s goddess must’ve been smiling down on me — for once. The bell for fifth period rang and the other two guys hustled off to class, leaving Chris alone, dribbling around the foul line and under the basket. He layed one up. Whoosh.
The shot was beautiful, and so was he. Not in a movie star way, or a jockster way, or even a tall, dark, and hot kind of way. He wasn’t as tall as Liam, or even perfectly proportioned. His parts were all in place, for sure. But he needed a shave. His nose was crooked, like it’d been broken. He wore faded jeans and a crewneck sweater that he’d chopped off above the elbows. Sloppy, shabby even. But cool. I don’t know what it was about him. He was a regular guy. Nice. Ordinary. Maybe that was the attraction.
“Do it now,” I heard myself say.
My feet didn’t obey.
“Okay, don’t get your balls in a sling.” Was that me? Who was I talking to? There was no me. I was without matter, with-out form. I stood, walked around the open door, and took one step inside the gym. Then pivoted and skittered off down the hall like the spineless chicken I am and always will be because I’m such a coward and disgust myself for being so scared of everything and everyone that I’ll never have a life, ordinary or otherwise.
Dad’s crusty VW — the one he’d rebuilt himself — was parked in the driveway at home. He’s home early, I thought. Or did they change his schedule again at the Home Depot? His boss, who was like eighteen, was always doing that to him. Forcing him to work the graveyard shift so he could inventory the nails and wood screws. Or transferring him to Interior Design and Window Coverings, which Dad dreaded. He said he came off looking like a numbskull every time a customer had a question about how to measure miniblinds. For about a year after he got tanked at Sears, Dad had babbled on and on about how no one is indispensable and that loyalty means nothing anymore.
Must’ve been one of those pearls of wisdom.
It was pathetic, really, to see what my father had been reduced to. I always thought he was King of the World, Lord of the Rings. Guess Liam did, too.
Dad wasn’t glued to the TV the way I expected, although there was a bottle of beer on the coffee table, half empty. He was probably in the john. I made my own pit stop at the fridge for a Coke before heading to the basement.
My breath caught. The basement door was open.
The door was never left open.
It couldn’t be Liam. The Spyder was gone. It wasn’t Mom. She said this morning she’d be working late. It could only be . . .
“Dad?” I called from the top of the stairs.
I stomped down, flatfooted, the creaking sound effects ricocheting in the stairwell. Across the row of PC’s at Liam’s long workstation, screensavers built skyscrapers in silent unison. Which wasn’t unusual. He had a habit of leaving his computers on all day. What freaked me out was seeing Liam’s bedroom door open. He never left it unlocked when he wasn’t home. Never.
Maybe he was home. “Liam?” I called.
“Regan, is that you?” Dad.
My feet paved a path through the computer components spread out on the floor. “What are you doing?” I drew up at Liam’s door, eyes sweeping the interior of the room. Everything seemed in order. Liam was too careful to leave evidence out in the open. Except, he had. There was a purse on top of his treasure chest, that tapestry bag. “How did you get in here?” I said.
“The door was unlocked,” Dad replied.
“What are you doing home from school early?”
My face flared. “I, uh ... ditched.” Actually I’d sped out the nearest exit from the gym and just kept running.
A smile snaked across Dad’s lips. “At least you’re honest.” His smile faded. “You’re grounded. You don’t ditch.”
“Am I grounded again? Or still?”
Dad fixed on me. “Oh, forget it.” He waved a paw in my direction. “You’re ungrounded. Both of you. I don’t want you staying home because you’re forced to. I want you here because your old man’s such a stud you can’t wait to show him off to your friends.”
I snorted. Right, Dad. Sick. Suddenly my backpack weighed a ton. I let it slip off my shoulder and thunk to the floor. I had the strongest urge to run to Dad and hug him, the way I used to. To hold onto him, feel him lift me in the air and make me fly; spin me around until we were both giddy with glee. Daddy’s girly whirligig.
Instead, I took a glug of Coke.
“Let me ask you a question, Re. Come here.” Dad motioned me inside.
I didn’t like the sound of this. “Liam doesn’t want people in his room, Dad. Especially me.” You even more.
“Why? What’s in here? There’s nothing to take. I can’t even find his drug money.”
“I’m kidding — I hope. I wasn’t going to steal anything. I was just —” He stopped. “What’s in that box?” He pointed to Liam’s treasure chest.
My blood froze. “How should I know?”
Dad looked at me, through me. “Because he tells you things. He talks to you. Which is more than he does with me or your mother.” Dad charged out the door, forcing me to jump aside or get trampled. “What is all this crap?” He waved an arm over the computer parts stacked along the wall, some still in shrink wrap. “Is he stealing this stuff? Selling it?”
“No.” I screwed up my face. “He builds PCs for people. You knew that.” What did Dad think Liam was? A stoner? A dealer? He was so not what Dad imagined.
Dad grunted. Surveying the components, all meticulously arranged and sorted, Dad said, “Well, at least he didn’t lie about that.”
As I reached over to close Liam’s door, Dad shocked me by saying, “Tell me this, Re. Is he gay?”
My hand melded to the doorknob.
“I need to know. Is he?”
Slowly I turned. “No.”
Dad’s eyes narrowed; burrowed into me. “You’re lying,” he said. He lumbered over to the sofa and perched at the edge, covering his face with his hands. “I’m not stupid, you know.” His voice muffled.
“Dad, I’m not lying.” I felt this sudden surge of sympathy for my father. Or empathy. I went and sat beside him, setting my Coke on the coffee table. “Believe me. He isn’t gay.”
Dad raised his head and twisted to face me. He blew out a shudder, the way you do after you’ve had a bad scare. “I don’t know. All this time, with Aly and everything. He’s always got girls down here so I figured he was all right. It’s just that lately —”
“He is all right,” I snapped.
Dad studied my face. “Does he date? You know, take girls out? Buy them meals? Go to the drive-in?”