Sure. Eye of newt. Tongue of snake.
She added, “Since you’re taking Skills for Living, it’ll be good practice.”
For what? I wondered. Poisoning my family? “I have to baby-sit,” I said, a little too gleefully.
Mom opened her mouth to lecture me again about being more help around here, more subservient, less of a guilt trip on her, when Liam piped up, “I’ll do it.”
“No, you won’t,” Dad barked. “That’s not your job.” He loomed in the doorway between the kitchen and dining room, arms folded.
“Why is it my job?” I flared. Forget what I said about him not being sexist. “I hate to cook. Let Liam do it if he wants to. He’s a better —”
“Regan.” Dad held up a hand to silence me. “Your mother asked you. It wouldn’t kill you kids to be more help around the house. Both of you.”
“It might,” I said under my breath. “We could choke to death on the dust.”
Mom shot me a scathing look.
“I’ll be happy to help,” Liam jumped to my rescue. “Just tell me what to do.” He turned to Mom. “What can I do?”
She sighed wearily. “I don’t want to argue about it. I’ll just reschedule.”
“Who’s arguing?” I asked. “If Liam’s willing —”
“Don’t reschedule,” Dad ordered Mom, ignoring me. “Regan is more than happy to help.”
“Dad, I told you, I have to work. What do you want me to do, quit my job so I can stay home and cook your dinner? Clean your house? Wash your clothes —”
I stopped. Why did that sound familiar? Mom and Dad both glowered at me, avoiding eye contact with each other, of course.
Mom shoved her Daytimer into her purse. “I don’t need my hair done today. I can reschedule.”
Dad’s fiery eyes scorched my face. Why? He should be happy he’s getting his freaking tuna casserole.
On her way by me to retrieve her portfolio from the kitchen counter, Mom placed a hand on my shoulder. I must’ve flinched because she said, “For heaven’s sake, Regan. What’s the matter with you? You’re tense, not sleeping. Do you need something to help you sleep?”
“No.” I twisted out of her talons. “I’m fine.” She was the junkie, not me. Her medicine cabinet was crammed with uppers and downers and equalizers and mood stabilizers. I think she was going through the change — mental pause. I just wish she’d lock up all her pills.
Mom didn’t leave. She lingered behind me, catching my eye in the glass patio door, actually looking concerned.
“I’m fine,” I repeated, swiveling my head up to her. “I just have a couple of tests this week.” Which was true, even though I wasn’t sweating them. Not as much as chemistry today.
She continued on her mission, snagging her portfolio and hurtling toward the door, jangling keys. “Have a good day,” she said to air, mostly.
Liam called after her, “You too, Mom.”
Dad rose to make his final pit stop before heading off to Home Depot, where today he’d be demonstrating the joy of caulking.
“Can I get a ride?” I asked Liam.
He didn’t answer. I took that to be a yes. We slammed down the rest of our breakfast in silence.
The sound of the toilet flushing signaled Dad’s imminent return, so Liam and I packed up. Dad paused in the foyer, zipping up his jacket. “Don’t take pills, honey,” he said to me. “Just get to bed earlier.” He pointed at Liam. “Go see Skip after school. Do it.”
“Yes, sir,” Liam said.
The door whooshed open and shut.
I crossed my eyes at Liam, which he missed because he was charging for the exit.
I snared my backpack and parka, hustling to catch up, but by the time I locked the front door behind me he was already backing down the driveway. “Liam, wait!” I flew across the yard.
He gunned the engine and swerved into the street.
I lunged for the door handle.
Slowly Liam turned his head. The look on his face — the sheer force of it — made me drop my hand and stumble backward.
We’re down the street at the Walshes’ for our weekly backyard barbecue.
No, it was more eventful than that. The memory jogged loose. A birthday. It was Liam’s ninth birthday party. The day was warm enough to have the party outdoors.
We’re celebrating Liam’s and Alyson’s birthdays together. Alyson is Liam’s best friend — has been since kindergarten. Our parents and her parents have been friends for years. We do lots of stuff together, like celebrate both birthdays.
Except that was the last year we did birthdays. Why?
Liam and Alyson are jumping around, hyper about opening presents. They invited a bunch of kids from school to their party. All girls, Dad notices. I hear him say to Mom in the Walshes’ kitchen, “How come there aren’t any boys at this party? Doesn’t Liam have any of his own friends?”
I climb onto a stool at the breakfast nook and spin around; pretend I’m not listening.
“He has lots of friends,” Mom says, arranging candles on the cake. “They all just happen to be girls. What’s wrong with that?”
Dad strikes a match and begins to light the candles. I count them to myself: one, two, three...
He shakes his head. “A boy his age.. .” Dad doesn’t finish. “I found his birthday wish list on the dresser.”
Mom jams her hand inside her apron pocket, like she lost something.
“A Prom Barbie? A bra?” Dad arches his eyebrows.
“He was kidding, Jack,” Mom says. “It was a joke.”
“A joke, huh? Why didn’t he show it to me? I would’ve gotten a kick out of it.”
Mom doesn’t answer.
Dad exhales a long breath. “I don’t get that kid. I really don’t.”
... seven, eight, and one to grow on.
Dad adds, “Sometimes I think we don’t connect like a father and son should. Maybe I’m doing something wrong —”
“Daddy, can I put it out?”
Dad jerks around, like he’s surprised I’m there. “Hey, my little Ray gun. Come on over here and zap it.” He smiles and holds out the match to me.
I hop off the stool and run over, wet my fingers with spit the way he showed me, and smash the match tip between them. “Ow,” I yelp when it hisses, even though it doesn’t hurt.
Dad kisses my fingers. Then he clamps his big hands around my waist and lifts me over his head. Balancing me by my stomach on his head, he swings me around in a circle until I squeal and Dad gets dizzy. I know I’m too old, but I still like to play Daddy’s girly whirligig.
I spy Liam in the doorway. He’s watching us, watching me go round and round. Dad finally sets me down. We’re both laughing and staggering. I see Liam’s eyes fix on mine and he gives me that look —
That was the look. He hated me.
Why? Because of the way Dad treated me, treats me still, different from him? Dad never played favorites, if that’s what Liam thought. In fact, since his birthday was in March and mine fell a week after Christmas, Liam always got more presents than me. What did Liam want, to be the girly whirligig?
It struck me like a hammer to the head. Well, duh, Regan. That’s exactly what he wanted. It’s what he’s always wanted. If Liam could wish for one thing in the world, one birthday present, he would ask to be born again. Born right, in the body of a girl.
Liam had stranded me in Siberia without a sled. It had to be a hundred below today, and the high school was two miles away. I’d only walked half a block and my feet were already ice floes. “Damn you, Liam,” I seethed aloud. “I hate you.”
No, I didn’t. He didn’t hate me, either. He was just angry about his life, which I could understand. It must be horrible to be in the wrong body, to have this dual identity. I knew he suffered. I just wished he wouldn’t take it out on me. It wasn’t my fault I got the body he wanted. I wanted Britney Spears’s body. Did I get it? No.
Okay, so that was minimizing Liam’s misery. But damn. It was cold.
As my toes cracked and fissured inside my frozen Nikes, the question lingered: Why was that the last year we’d celebrated Liam’s and Aly’s birthdays together? Something else had happened. What?
“Here we go.” Mom pivots in place, balancing the sheet cake across her forearms. It’s decorated two ways. One half is a football field with miniature players; the other is a pink ballerina twirling on a painted lake.
Liam’s eyes light up. “Cool,” he breathes. “Can I have her?”
I see Dad look at Mom. She avoids his gaze. “Get everyone rounded up,” she tells Liam.
“Hey, Aly,” Liam calls down the deck steps. “Wait’ll you see this cake.”
We sing and eat cake and I hear Liam pleading with Alyson to let him keep the ballerina. She doesn’t care. She’s into unicorns now. She’d give the ballerina to Liam anyway just because they’re best friends. She likes to make him beg, though. Same way I do.
Liam and Alyson chant, “One, two, three, go!” They tear into their presents.
I sit by Alyson as she passes me everything she gets. Jewelry and clothes and hair scrunchies. Liam has to see, too. He oohs and aahs and touches and holds her presents. He keeps them too long because Mom has to say more than once, “Pass it on, Liam, so everyone else can see.”
The gifts dwindle and finally all the packages are opened. But Liam’s still riffling through the wrappings. Frantically.
“That’s it, Liam,” Alyson says.
“No, it isn’t.”
“I’m telling you, that’s it.”
Liam checks under the table, behind his chair. He turns to Mom. “Where are they?”
“What?” Mom asks.
Liam tilts his head at her. “You know. My presents from you.”
“We got you the basketball hoop and the scooter,” Dad says. “Isn’t that enough?”
“No, because he’s a greedy bastard,” Alyson blurts out.
“Aly, really!” her mother scolds. Mrs. Walsh blushes and shields her face behind her hand. Dad and Mr. Walsh howl.
Liam stands up fast. He hoists his hands onto his h*ps and says, “Come on. Where are they?”
Dad bends over and grabs Liam’s new basketball. “Let’s go hang the hoop and I’ll show you the O’Neill oopsy-daisy drop shot.” He tosses the ball to Liam.
Liam catches it, but throws it on the ground. “That’s not what I asked for. Where’s my bra?”
A couple of girls behind me titter. Alyson giggles and covers her mouth. Mrs. Walsh does, too. I’m not laughing. I see Liam’s face turn red. Dad’s spine goes rigid.
Liam steps away from him. I do, too. The look on Dad’s face . . . Liam whirls on Mom. “You asked me what I wanted and I told you.”
It happens so fast it’s a blur. Dad clutches Liam’s hand and almost wrenches his arm from the socket. He yanks Liam toward the house. I hear Dad snarl under his breath, “We’re going to have a talk, young man.”
Liam whimpers, “No, Daddy.”
Dad hauls him up the steps and into the house.
Mom and Mrs. Walsh start clearing the table while all the girls paw through Alyson’s stuff. Aly takes me aside and whispers in my ear, “Liam’s so funny. Isn’t he?”
I nod. Force a smile.
She bites her bottom lip, gazing wistfully up the deck stairs. “I’m going to marry him, you know. Then you and me’ll be sisters.” She squeezes my hand.
I squeeze back, thinking, I already have a sister.
Had I really thought that? If I could see the girl in Liam, why couldn’t Mom and Dad? Why couldn’t everyone?
Whatever Dad had said in the house that day had caused a rift in Liam’s universe. A black hole had opened up and swal-lowed him whole. Swallowed her — Lia Marie, her first chosen name. She’d receded, retreated, withdrawn.
But not forever. Not for long.
Weird. She was nine and asked for a bra? I was eleven before I got up the guts to ask Mom. But then Lia Marie always accused me of suffering from arrested development.
Tires screeched at my side and in reflex I hurdled a snowbank.
Liam’s eyes met mine through his car window. He motioned with his chin for me to get in.
I considered making him beg. Oh, forget it. I’d already lost three toes to frostbite.
I climbed into his Spyder. At least he had the top up today. Sometimes he drove with it down, even in winter. As if he couldn’t feel the cold; as if his body wasn’t connected to his brain.
We rode in silence, me trying to coax circulation back into my fingers, Liam staring ahead with those uninhabited eyes. As we ascended Heart Attack Hill, Horizon High rose like the lost city of Atlantis. Then sank back into the sea as we roared past.
“Liam, drop me off,” I said, panic rising in my chest. “I have to go to school today. I have a test first period and a paper to turn in in History.” Not to mention Chemistry, which I didn’t. “Liam!”
“I can’t do this,” he murmured, running a stop sign. “I want to kill him.”
“Who, Dad? I’ll help you. Just not this morning, okay?”
Liam switched lanes and veered onto the highway ramp. Great. Here we go again, I thought. He can ditch every other day and still get straight A’s. His scores on the SATs have colleges recruiting him. I miss one day and flunk out. The only college that’s going to be interested in me is F.U.