The girls above them eyed each other and giggled. They skittered down the stairs and scurried off, their laughter ringing in my ears.
Classrooms drained of people and the hall began to clog. There was a sudden back up at the juncture of Hoyt and Luna.
Over everyone’s heads, Luna’s eyes found mine. She opened her mouth to say —
“Regan, hey. You forgot your purse.”
I whipped around. Chris had sidled up beside me. He was smiling, but his gaze drifted from my face to the crowd by the stairs and his jaw went slack.
“Thanks.” I grabbed my purse from under his pullover where he was hiding it, naturally. He wouldn’t want to be seen with a purse. “There’s something I forgot to give you, too,” I said. Taking his arm, I spun him around. My vision narrowed, honed, located the sign. EXIT. “Outside.” I tugged on Chris’s sweater, about ripping it off.
The door slammed shut behind us. I flattened myself against the brick, gasping to catch my breath and quell the imminent eruption in my stomach.
Chris was breathing hard, too. I’d made him run the length of the hall. Not far enough. Never far enough. I opened the flap on my pack and withdrew the thick folder. Handed it to him. “Here. You can use these next year.” I pushed away from the wall and charged off in the opposite direction.
“Wait,” he called. “Regan. I forgot to tell you there’s a surprise in your purse.”
I had to get out of there. Put as much distance between me and the school, between me and Chris, between me and Luna . . .
He’d seen her.
“When’s a good time to call?” Chris’s voice penetrated the roaring in my ears, the rumbling in my stomach.
Never. It’s never a good time.
“How could you!” I cried aloud. “How could you do that to me?”
The words echoed in my room, in my ears. How could you?
How could Luna show up at school? People knew we were related. Chris knew. Liam and I would never be dissociated now. Me and Luna. They’d always see me as Regan — the one with the transgender brother. I’d never be able to separate from him. Never have my own identity.
Even worse, people would think I was like him. Her. Different. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to be the same. I wanted to be accepted, loved, liked for who I was.
Who was I? I didn’t even know.
I knew Luna better than I knew myself. I knew what she wanted — acceptance, love. The same exact thing as me.
She had to be aware, though, that this transition affected not only her. There were consequences for everyone in her life. For me. It hurt me to see people staring at her, pointing at her, laughing at her. What if they laughed at me? Or made jokes. She’d be the butt of people’s jokes. I would. What if Chris laughed at me? What if he looked at me differently now?
I couldn’t stand that. It embarrassed me what my brother was. He humiliated me. He betrayed me. How could he?
He betrayed me.
A voice inside my head said, “Really? Who betrayed who?”
Shut up. What did that mean? Liam’s the one who never thinks about anyone but himself.
The voice asked, “What does Liam’s transition have to do with you?”
Everything. It embarrasses me. He embarrassed me. She did.
“Embarrasses you,” the voice repeated. “Wow. She’s out there putting herself on the line and it embarrasses you? You left her in danger. You left her with Hoyt.”
I stood for a moment, examining myself in the full-length mirror. The length of me, the breadth of me, the depth. Lack of it. How shallow was I? Embarrassed? I left Luna in Hoyt Doucet’s filthy hands. I left her in danger. How could I do that to my own brother, sister? I deserted her when she needed me most.
A dark veil descended over my eyes. “You traitor,” I said it aloud. “You hypocrite.” Without warning, my knees buckled and I crumpled to the floor. “You coward.”
I was a traitor. I was a coward. I abandoned Luna in her hour of need. I betrayed her the same way Aly had. Luna trusted me. She believed in me. She counted on me for her life.
What kind of person did that to someone? Someone she loved? What kind of sister was I? Friend? Human being? I promised her — I promised myself — I’d always keep her safe. Then, when she was at her most vulnerable, I failed her.
I failed myself.
How small a person I was. I felt ashamed. I was weak. I’d given in to the fear. My reputation was more important than defending my brother against attack. What reputation? I didn’t even have one.
It scared me, this whole transition thing. Every time she went out in public I was terrified what people might say or do. Hoyt.
Others like him. What if the violence extended to me? The bigotry? And hatred. I couldn’t deal with it. How could anybody deal with it? I didn’t have the strength, the character, the strength of character.
“No,” the voice said. Then louder, “No! Your fear is justified. Anyone would be afraid. You’re a person. You’re human. Yes, you thought of yourself first. You ran. But if you’d come to her rescue this time, you’d be doing it forever. Nothing would ever change.”
That was true. Nothing would change if I was always rescuing her. And something had to change. We couldn’t go on this way. We were hurting each other.
The last sight of Luna crystallized clearly in my mind again. Help me, Re, she’d pleaded with her eyes.
No, I’d responded. I won’t.
And in that moment when she realized I wasn’t there for her, she’d looked inside of me and known the truth. She’d seen me for the coward I was.
She knew, she knew she was utterly alone in the world.
The tears started slowly, then built until they gushed from my eyes in a torrent. They’d never stop. Never.
I cried for her.
I cried for me.
I cried for a world that wouldn’t let her be.
I don’t remember going to bed, closing my eyes, falling asleep, but then Luna was there, bouncing around on my mattress. Crush me, I thought. Bury my shattered bones. An unmarked grave where no one will ever come visit.
Her hair draped across my face. “Thank you,” she said in my ear.
She was cruel. I gulped an audible sob.
“What’s wrong?” Luna climbed over my dead carcass and slid off the bed. She kneeled on the floor beside me, her face level with mine. “Re?” she said softly.
“I’m sorry.” My voice was raspy. That’s all I could say, I’m sorry. It sounded as hollow as I felt. I was so confused; I couldn’t reconcile my feelings. I loved my brother, but I hated this transition.
“You did what you had to do,” she said.
No, I didn’t have to. It was my choice. “I didn’t mean to leave you there with Hoyt. Not on purpose.”
“I know. I’m sorry I put you in that position. I didn’t think you’d be there after school. I wasn’t thinking. It was selfish. I’ve been expecting too much of you —”
“Yes,” she insisted, squeezing my forearm. “Yes, Re. I’m always in here crying on your shoulder, asking your advice, taking up your time. It isn’t fair to you. All these years, I haven’t been fair to you.” She sat back on her haunches. “I’ve been so self-centered, so self-absorbed. I haven’t taken your feelings into consideration. I’ve leaned on you too hard. Depended on you too much.”
No, I wanted to argue. I wanted to say, I’m your sister. You can depend on me. You should. But the words wouldn’t come. I couldn’t force them out. “Why did you dress at school?” I asked her. “Why did you have to do that?”
She lowered her eyes. “You said it: I had to. I had to test myself. To see if I could go through with it. I needed to know that I had the self-confidence, the will to do it every day.”
She was going to do it every day? I’d never have a life. She didn’t get it; my feelings meant nothing to her.
Luna reached over and smoothed my messy hair back off my face. I flinched at her touch. “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” she said quietly, “or humiliated you in front of Chris. I was only doing what needs to be done. This is life or death for me, Re. If I don’t transition, I don’t want to live.”
All the blood drained from my face. How could she say that? She couldn’t mean it.
Our eyes met and understanding flowed between us. Total comprehension.
Life or death.
I got it. I finally got it. The change had to come in me. My acceptance of Luna, my support of her transition, my seeing her as a real person.
“Did Hoyt hurt you?” I asked.
Luna exhaled an irritated breath. “That moron. No, I survived.” She clenched my arm. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Re. I survived. I lived. I proved myself today. I want to live. I can. You did that for me. You made me stand on my own two feet, gave me the push I needed; you required me to face it alone, which is what I have to do eventually.”
My tears welled again. I hated that she had to do this alone. I hated her struggle, her battle, her war with herself, with me, with everyone in the world. This was just the beginning.
Luna stood and padded across my room to the full-length mirror. Pulling the silk-screened tee she was wearing over her head, she examined her left shoulder under her bra strap. “Oh, lovely,” she said. “I’m going to have an ugly bruise. Do you think foundation will cover this?” She twisted around to show me.
It was a huge welt, big as a fist. Hoyt had left his mark on her. I hoped he was proud of himself, beating up on a girl. Luna may have to survive this transition, I thought, but she wasn’t alone in the world. Throwing off my covers, I said, “Go get your makeup. Bring your stuff back in here. We’ll fix it so good no one will ever know.”
The mirror on the medicine cabinet was cracked down the middle. I had to bob my head around to get a full view as I braided my hair. It wasn’t as long as it used to be, and I hadn’t worn a French braid in years, and I’d forgotten how to plait it...
Liam’s hands covered mine. “Let me,” he said.
I relinquished the mess to him.
He smiled at me in the mirror. One side of his face was higher than the other, split in half. I noticed behind him by the door he’d dropped a duffel. A surge of panic rushed through me.
As if reading me, Liam said, “I won’t put you through that again. I’m not going to dress at school anymore. It’s enough to know I can. I don’t particularly relish the thought of getting pounded to a pulp every day. I’ll drop you off if you want.”
Relief flooded through my veins. I didn’t want to feel relieved. I wanted her to be herself, to know I’d support her. I wanted not to care so much about me.
Liam banded the end of my braid and added, “I’m going to the mall to buy myself a birthday present. Do you want anything? Hey, you found your other shoe.”
I followed his eyes to my feet. “Yeah.” I couldn’t smother my grin. “Chris found it.” He’d washed it off and buried it in the bottom of my purse. Inside the shoe he’d stuffed a tiny music box that played Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. How sweet was that?
Liam wiggled his eyebrows. “Do I hear wedding bells?”
“Shut up.” I shoved him out of the bathroom, shutting the door on his smirking face.
As I was heading to the cafeteria for lunch, Alyson materialized at my side. “Would you give this to Liam?” She handed me a present, adding, “Or Luna, or whoever he is today.”
Had she heard about yesterday? That kind of news would have spread like an e-mail virus. I was bracing for the fallout, but so far nothing. If people were avoiding me, it’d be hard to tell.
The present was wrapped in Rugrats birthday paper. My gaze lifted to Aly. She didn’t look so good. Her eyes were red and bloodshot.
“It’s men’s cologne,” she stated flatly. “Tell him I would’ve gotten him perfume if I’d known. He can exchange it.” She slapped the receipt on top of the present and took off.
“Aly,” I called.
She was speeding away, halfway through the atrium before I caught up with her. I grabbed her arm. “I just want to say one thing.”
She turned, and nailed my coffin with a glare.
The entire spirit squad flounced by us, laughing and joking around. We both waited until they passed. I lowered my voice and said, “He’s still the same person you’ve always known. Just happier as a girl.”
She opened her mouth, and shut it. Shaking her head at the skylight, she said, “But I’m not the same. What does this make me? A lesbian? I don’t think so.” She broke away from me and stalked off.
I shouted at her back, “If you really loved him, it wouldn’t matter.”
She lowered her head and ducked into the nearest restroom. That was cruel, Regan, I admonished myself. How would you feel? You’re so noble.
I wanted to go after Aly, but didn’t know what else there was to say to her. And I couldn’t stand to see her cry.
My eyes dropped to the box in my hand. The receipt. Wow. She’d spent sixty-five dollars on his present. That was another factoid I’d never divulged to Aly — every bottle of men’s cologne Liam had ever received as a gift got flushed down the toilet.
Sixty-five dollars. His birthday was Saturday and I hadn’t bought him a thing.
Hmm. I could exchange this cologne for a bottle of Passion, I thought, Luna’s favorite perfume. I’d tell Liam it was from Aly, that she was beginning to come around.
No, it would only cause him more pain when he found out the truth. And he didn’t need any more hurt in his life. No more lies. I’d give him the perfume as a present from me, even if Luna already had three gallons of it stowed in her treasure chest.