Aly stared at me as if I’d just told her her best friend had died. Which, I suppose to her, he had. That disbelief-before-reality-smacks-you-in-the-face look. Denial. Fear of facing the truth.
I forged ahead. “It’s horrible because you want to be this person you are in here,” I pressed my heart, “and here.” I touched my temple. “But you can’t because you don’t look the way you should. You look like a guy. And that’s what people expect you to be. Every day you have to put on this act, play a role, and the only time you can ever be free is when you’re alone, when nobody’s watching and you can let yourself go. In your world, your private world, you can present yourself the way you want the world to see you and treat you. That’s how Liam explained it to me. Does it make sense?”
Delayed reaction. Slowly sinking in. Not wanting it to. Aly shook her head from side to side. “What you’re telling me is, he’s in there,” she thumbed over her shoulder, “putting on girls’ clothes?” Her voice rose.
“More than that. He’s transforming. She is. You’ll see.”
“He’s a ...a cross-dresser?”
“No! God. Don’t call him that.” My face burned. “It’s not the same. Liam’s dressing because he wants you to see what he sees on the inside. His true identity. Hers, I mean. Luna’s. There’s all kinds of psychological mumbo jumbo and names for this stuff. Dysphoria, Gender Identity Disorder, I don’t know. She can explain it better than me.”
“She?” Aly smiled sardonically. She raised her Sprite to her mouth and tipped the can. It was empty so she put it down.
“That’s another thing. When she’s dressed, she wants you to address her by her chosen name — Luna. And use ‘her’ and ‘she’ It won’t be hard. She really is a girl.”
Alyson’s smile stuck to her face.
“Don’t you remember that time at her ninth birthday party when she asked for a bra?”
“No,” Aly said.
“Or that time at my slumber party when she absolutely loved having her nails polished?”
“No,” Aly said faster.
She remembered; I know she did. “There’s always polish around her cuticles, Aly.”
Aly shook her head.
There had to be other traces of evidence, other instances. All the time she and Liam spent together? Luna couldn’t have hidden from Aly entirely.
Aly bent forward and began to scrape the side of her Sprite can with a fingernail. “If this is some kind of game you two are playing —”
“It’s not a game.”
She looked at me, hard.
“Aly, you had to have seen.”
Her mouth opened and words spilled out, but I was distracted by Luna, who had emerged. She pressed a finger to her lips and slipped into my room, carrying two pairs of shoes to try on.
I tuned into Aly. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“When did you know?” she repeated. “How long have you known? When did he tell you?”
Tell me. Did he tell me?
“Hurry up, guys. All the good prizes are going to be gone.” Dad comes out of the hallway, fastening his watch band. I’m sitting on a kitchen stool while Mom is French-braiding my hair. Liam’s leaning over the counter, reading a comic book. Or pretending to. I can feel his eyes on me. He’s always watching, watching.
“Pat, come on!”
“Oh, hold your horses,” Mom says. “I don’t know what the big rush is. You never win anything anyway.”
“Hey, I represent that.” Dad punches his fists into his sides. He winks at me and I smile. He wins games all the time. He just always gives me the prizes.
We’re on our way to the school carnival, which is fun. For me and Dad. Liam’s in sixth grade and he thinks it’s babyish. Mom goes because all the moms do. It’s what moms do. Dad spends about four hours at Whack-a-Mole with me, then drags Liam over to the baseball toss. Last year Liam actually knocked over the stack of milk bottles on his first try and won a huge stuffed panda. Which I begged and pleaded to have. He’s so stingy, though. He never gives me anything.
The only thing Dad’s ever won at the baseball toss is the free giveaway — a number two pencil engraved with “Eagle Elementary.” He must have a drawerful.
Dad points to Liam. “This year, buddy boy, it’s the O’Neill grudge match. Winner take all.”
“If you ever lose your job, you can always sell pencils on the street corner.” Liam smirks.
“Why you.. .” Dad threatens him with a fist, but he’s grinning. “Come on, girls.” Dad throws up his hands. “Let’s gooooo.”
Mom bands my braid and sighs wearily. Liam trails us to the foyer, then stands with his hands in his pockets as we start out the door. “I’ll meet you guys there,” he says. “I told Aly and Jessica I’d go with them.”
“No,” Mom snaps. “You’re coming with us. I’m not leaving you here alone. We’re all four going together.” This surprises me. Dad’s the one who’s always griping about how we never do things together as a family. How everybody’s too busy with their own lives, their own activities. He’s the one who insists we sit down and eat breakfast together every morning. He calls it our family time.
Liam runs his shoe in an arc across the quarry tile. “I promised Aly I’d go with her.”
Mom says, “I don’t care if you promised Aly the moon —”
“Pat,” Dad cuts in. “Let him go with his girlfriend.” He slips an arm around Mom’s waist to steer her out the door. On the front stoop, I see Mom twist back and narrow her eyes at Liam through the screen.
Liam steps out of view. I hear him murmur, “She’s not my girlfriend.”
Dad calls to him, “One o’clock, buddy boy. You be at that pitching booth at one. I’ve got money riding on this. And don’t forget to lock up when you leave the house.”
We drive the ten blocks to school. As we’re pulling into the parking lot, I remember: “Mom, we forgot the cakes.”
“Oh, for chrissakes. Jack...?”
Dad groans. “Do we have to?”
Mom eyes me over the seat back.
“You’re the one who signed up for the cake walk,” I remind her.
Mom sighs heavily. “We’d better go back.”
Dad grumbles under his breath, but turns the car around. When we pull into the driveway, Mom tells me to run in and get the cakes. She hands me her house keys.
The two angel food cakes are sitting on the dining room table where we left them. They’re beautiful, and perfect. I balance one in each hand and head out. Just as I get to the door a noise in the house stops me, drawing my attention back. There’s a presence in the house.
I hear the noise again — singing. It’s coming from down the hall, from Mom and Dad’s bedroom.
I set the cakes on the buffet. I should be frightened. What if there’s a burglar in the house? For some reason I’m not afraid. Just... curious.
The door’s ajar and I push it all the way open. My eyes fix on the girl who’s sitting in Mom’s vanity seat, spreading lipstick over her stretched-back lips. She has long blonde hair and she’s wearing a sweater exactly like Mom’s. It is Mom’s. The new cashmere sweater Dad bought for her birthday last week. The radio’s playing softly on the bureau — golden oldies — and the girl stops putting on lipstick for a moment to sing along. “First time, ever I saw your face.”
I’m mesmerized. This girl, whoever she is, is in her own little world. She caps the lipstick tube and laughs suddenly. She speaks to herself in the lighted mirror: “I know. Could you believe he said that to her?” She clucks her tongue and flips a lank of hair over her
I say, “Hello?”
The girl jerks around. She stands and knocks over the vanity seat.
It takes a moment to register who she is, and when it does, my jaw unhinges.
“Regan.” My name escapes his painted lips like a whisper in the woods.
I want to laugh. I squelch the urge. Something tells me this isn’t a joke. The sheer terror on his face, maybe.
We stare at each other for a long moment, neither of us knowing what to do, I guess. I take a step backward.
Liam surges forward. Not only is he wearing Mom’s sweater, he has on her pearls and my black stretch pants and a pair of Mom’s summer sandals. I don’t know where he got the wig.
“Re, please.” He catches my arm as I’m whirling to flee. “Don’t tell Mom you saw me in here. Don’t tell Dad. Please. Pleeease.” He grips my arm. “Don’t tell Dad.”
At once I relax and turn around. “I won’t.”
He smiles, tentatively. “You can never tell anyone. Ever.”
I look deep into his eyes — deep inside his eyes — and ask, “Who are you?”
He mimics this gesture of Mom’s, where she runs her hand down the back of her hair, stopping at her neck. His head tilts to the left and he rests his cheek on his arm, his elbow on his breast. His... breast?
He’s wearing a bra.
“I’m Lia.” He smiles shyly, dropping his eyes to the floor. “Lia Marie.”
“Okaaay,” I say slowly.
She lifts her eyes and adds, “I’m a girl.”
The door to my room swung open. Aly and I both whipped our heads around as Luna stepped out. “Here I am,” she said.
It wasn’t a shock to me, of course. I glanced over at Aly and saw her scanning Luna up and down. What did she see? A girl, dressed in jeans and a velour top. The girl’s cheeks were flushed, partly from blusher and partly embarrassment. Light blue eye shadow. Pale pink lip gloss. Nothing garish or outrageous. She’d styled the blonde wig in a ponytail to match Aly’s.
“Let’s finish our game.” Luna strolled over to the computer. She curled cross-legged on the rug and added, “I believe I was beating the crap out of you. Oh yeah. A hundred thousand points to ten.” The monitor beep-beeped to life.
Aly rose and crossed the room, then slowly lowered herself to the floor. She lifted her joystick and set it in her lap.
Luna said, “If you think just because I’m a girl I’m going to let you win, you are mistaken beyond belief. If anyone advocates equality of the sexes, it’s me.”
Aly went, “Ha, ha.”
My heart sang. She was going to be okay with this. Everything was going to be —
“Oh God. You know what?” Aly shot to her feet. “I told my mom I’d pick up some milk on my way home. She’s probably waiting for me.” Aly grabbed her backpack and purse off the floor and charged up the stairs.
Luna called at her back, “E-mail me later?” The lights flickered and the door slammed.
Luna didn’t meet my eyes. Smiling oddly, she maneuvered the game characters into position and fired her bazooka. Aly’s scream split the air. Again. And again. And again.
By the time I hit the front porch running, Aly was backing down the driveway. I waved frantically for her to wait, but her eyes remained focused on the rearview mirror. “Aly, stop!” I yelled. I smacked my hand against her front windshield.
Her 4Runner lurched to a halt. I motioned Aly to roll down her window. It took a minute.
“Don’t do this to her, Aly. She needs you.”
Alyson stared at me, through me. “Don’t do this to her?”
“Look, I know it’s weird. Not weird, just different. But you’ll get used to it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Her voice oozed with anger. “I thought you were my friend.”
“I am. Aly —”
Her searing glare cut to my marrow. Tears sprang to my eyes.
Aly hit the gas pedal and squealed into the street. Sand and salt spewed from her tires as she roared off, leaving me to eat her dust.
I was still questioning whether I’d betrayed Aly when I got to school the next day. Was I the one who should’ve told her? Did I betray our friendship? Was it my fault she couldn’t deal with the truth? I’d been up most of the night thinking about it, agonizing. The look on Luna’s face yesterday when Aly deserted her . . .
I’d warned Liam, hadn’t I? I told him she couldn’t handle it. Not yet. Not ever.
After Aly fled, Liam had shut himself in his room, doing what, I don’t know. If it were me, I’d be burying that treasure chest. Burying myself. He wasn’t crying. No sounds had penetrated the wall between us. All I could visualize was Liam lying prone on that na**d mattress, staring at the ceiling, wishing himself gone.
Maybe I could’ve made it easier — softened the blow or prepared Aly. I could’ve dropped a few hints, given Aly time to digest the news. She might’ve been able to —
“To what?” I finished aloud. “Accept the fact that the guy she’s been in love with all her life is really a girl?” How do you deal with that?
Why didn’t Aly see it herself? Why didn’t Liam see that Aly was more than a friend? Or wanted to be? Maybe he did see. He saw, but couldn’t see what he was supposed to do about it.
Tell her, that’s what. Not leave it to me. Not always leave it to me.
School. Again. I couldn’t decide if I hated it more here or at home. I had nowhere to escape now. No job. No friends. I wrenched open my locker and an object fluttered to the floor. I picked it up. An envelope, addressed to me, note card size. Someone must’ve slid it through the vent in my locker.