“I couldn’t handle that,” Mom says. “Poor Carol. I don’t know what I’d do if Jack ever left me. I’d never be able to take my college classes and manage a house and raise two kids on my own. And she has four.” Mom shakes her head. “Poor Carol.”
She’s talking to our next door neighbor, Mrs. Camacho. They’re sitting on lounge chairs in our backyard, supervising us kids, me and Katie and Liam, as we splash around in the kiddie pool. Katie calls out, “Watch this, Mommy.” She clambers over the edge of the plastic. Standing in place, she winds up, then leaps in, sploshing water over us.
“That’s nice, honey,” Mrs. Camacho says. She continues her conversation with Mom. “He emptied their joint savings account, too.”
“He didn’t!” Mom’s eyes narrow. “That bastard.”
Liam calls, “Mommy, watch me.” He imitates Katie, only making a bigger splash, and almost drowning me. But I don’t care; it’s fun. We all giggle.
Mom says, “He could’ve at least taken the kids.”
Mrs. Camacho laughs. They both do.
Katie stands up and yanks on the rear end of her swimsuit — again. She high-steps out of the pool and runs across the grass. “This is too itchy, Mommy.” She tugs the elastic lace around her leg, stretching it out.
“Oh, come here. I knew the lace on these legs felt too stiff and stickery.” Mrs. Camacho tells Mom, “She just had to have this Hello Kitty swimsuit.”
Liam asks me, “Can you do this?” He skims like a salamander along the bottom around the perimeter of the pool. I copy him. When we’ve come full circle, we see Katie skipping back.
I stand up. “Can I take mine off too, Mommy?”
Mom waggles a limp wrist. “Go ahead.”
I strip as Katie jumps back in.
Liam pretends to tread water, but I know he’s really sitting on the bottom. He can’t swim yet. He looks at Katie, then me. I show Katie how to be a salamander and we skittle around the pool. A movement makes me look up. Liam’s trunks are around his ankles and he’s kicking them off. For a minute he just stands there in the water, looking at himself.
Katie points to him and giggles. I giggle, too.
Liam grabs his penis and starts to pull. “Take it off,” he says, almost in a whisper. He sloshes toward Katie and repeats, “Take it off.”
“Okay.” She gets up.
I hear Mrs. Camacho ask, “What is he doing?”
“Liam!” Mom shrieks. “Get out of there.” Her shrill voice makes us all wither in fear. Mom races across the lawn. She grabs Liam’s hand and jerks him out of the pool.
“Take it off,” Liam says to her.
“Take what off? Where are your trunks?”
“Mommy, take it off.” Liam pulls at himself again.
“Stop that.” Mom slaps his hand away. “That’s nasty.” She retrieves his swim trunks from the lawn and shakes them out. Liam backs away from her. “No,” he whines. “I want it off. Take it off, take it off, take it off.” He starts slapping at his penis and stamping his feet, throwing a fit.
Katie and I huddle at the far side of the pool.
“You stop that, young man. You stop it right now!” Mom orders.
“No!” Liam shouts. “No, I’m not a young man.” He’s acting like a baby and it makes me and Katie snicker behind our hands.
Mom grips Liam’s arm and hauls him toward the sliding glass doors. “You go to your room. Don’t come out until you can behave yourself.” She drags him inside the house.
“Are you girls okay?” Mrs. Camacho squats beside us. We both nod.
“It isn’t nice to touch each other down there,” she says softly. “Do you understand?”
I nod hard.
Katie says, “He made me do it.”
“No, he didn’t.” I frown at her.
Mom comes back outside. She exhales audibly and says to Mrs. Camacho, “I figured I was due. He’s been such an easy child, so much easier than Regan. Jack keeps saying, ‘Any day now, he’s going to turn on the testosterone.’” She rolls her eyes. “I guess he chose today.”
Mrs. Camacho smiles. “Boys. I’m glad I don’t have any.”
They resume their seats; pick up their conversation.
Katie says, “Let’s play Samantha dolls.”
“No.” I salamander off. I’m mad at Katie now. She’s a liar.
The phone rings in the house and Mom pushes up off her lounger. I hear the sliding screen open and close. A second later the air explodes with Mom’s scream. “What have you done? Oh my God. Put that knife down.” She appears behind the screen, clutching Liam in her arms. “Connie, I need to run Liam over to the emergency clinic.”
Mrs. Camacho rushes across the yard. “What happened?”
“He cut his... his leg. Will you watch Regan?”
“Of course. You want me to call Jack?”
“No,” Mom replies quickly. “No, I can handle it. He doesn’t need to know.” Mom says something else, but all I see is the blood running down her leg.
She knew. I stood in Mom’s doorway, staring at her back as she paced around the room with her cell suctioned to her ear. She’d always known.
Why hadn’t she helped him? Been there for him? Why hadn’t Mom acknowledged Liam’s difference? She could’ve made his life so much easier. She could’ve raised him as a girl. Why didn’t she?
Dad. Of course.
He didn’t know. She should’ve told Dad. All these years he’d tortured Liam with the sports, the sports. His unrealistic expectations. He’d made Liam feel like a failure, feel inadequate as a son.
Which made Dad feel inadequate as a father.
Mom could’ve given Dad time to come to terms with it, accept Liam for who, and what, he was.
Another memory resurfaced, along with a question. After that time Liam stole Mom’s pills to commit suicide and I’d flushed them down the toilet, why hadn’t Mom interrogated us? Gone crazy? Asked where all her pills went?
Unless she knew.
Unless she left them out on purpose. She had a purpose. She gave Liam easy access. “Here, Liam,” I could hear her thinking. “Help yourself. Something to help you sleep. Something to ease the pain.”
Slowly, numbly, I backed out of her room.
My God. My mother was a monster.
I didn’t tell Luna. I didn’t want to discuss it. I didn’t want to confirm it. Luna had been through enough today. It was her birthday. She’d removed the wig, but was still dressed in the skirt and sweater, clicking away on her laptop, coding her game, or whatever she was doing. She was back in her element. Back in her world of make-believe.
I didn’t want to leave her alone — not today. Not like this. I wouldn’t. Settling on the sofa, I grabbed the remote control and switched on the TV, surfing for an all-night movie marathon.
“Don’t you have a date tonight?”
Her voice made me jump. I thought she was totally spaced.
“Maybe you should start getting ready. It’ll take you that long to do your hair.”
I sneered at her. “I think I’ll stay home and rag on you.”
Luna swiveled all the way around on her desk chair. “You don’t have to baby-sit me, Re,” she said.
“I’m not.” My face flared.
“Yes, you are. Are you still punishing me for losing you your job?”
I threw the remote at her. She caught it midair. “Wow,” I said. “You should go out for baseball.”
She didn’t crack a smile. “You’re doing it again. You’re very good at it, you know.”
“Making people feel guilty.”
I let out a little huff. She should talk.
“I’m all right,” she said, tossing the remote back to me. “Stop worrying about me. Don’t you dare cancel your date with Chris because of me. I’ll be really, really upset if you do.” She pouted, poufing out her lips.
The lights flickered. Luna and I whipped our heads around in unison. The creaking on the stairs announced the last person I ever expected to see here again.
“Hey.” Aly stood on the landing. She looked ... determined?
“Hi.” Luna shot to her feet. “Hi, Aly.”
Aly’s eyes darted up and down Luna’s body. “Happy birthday,” she said, her wavering voice betraying her confidence. “Hi, Re.” Aly smiled in my direction.
Before Luna or I could react — however we were supposed to react — Aly waltzed over to the PCs and picked up a joystick. “We have a game to finish,” she said. “I need to figure out how to get out of that f**king alley.” She flopped on the floor at Luna’s feet.
Luna widened her eyes at me. I shrugged. Was that hope surging through my veins? It was filling Luna, too. She seemed to grow taller; her skin less sallow, eyes more focused.
Aly gripped the joystick in her lap with both hands and let out a long breath. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to be okay with this.” She spoke to the empty space between us. “It’s hard. You know?”
Luna lowered herself slowly to the floor beside Aly. “I know,” she said quietly. “Take however long you need.”
Aly heaved a tremulous breath. “Could we finish this game, please?” She jammed her joystick into Luna’s middle and snared another one for herself. “It’s giving me nightmares.”
Luna switched to Play mode, then settled more comfortably on the rug. She smoothed her skirt over her bent legs. Aly said, “Start us when we’re nine. I want to play that birthday again.” She turned her head to look at Luna, for the first time, eye-toeye contact. “You can’t be serious about that outfit,” she said.
Luna’s back stiffened. “What. What’s wrong with it?”
“A sweater set? Please.” Aly refocused on the screen. She pressed a button and her clone’s scream split the air — Aaah! In its echo, Aly added, “I hope you’re not getting fashion advice from Regan.”
“Hey!” I cried.
Aly didn’t acknowledge, but I could sense her smile. My heart burst apart with song. I loved Aly. I loved her more than I ever had. I loved her like a sister.
We were sitting in the movie theater, Chris’s arm snaking across my shoulders, when the last conversation I’d had with Luna replayed in my mind. Aly was gone after having finally won a game of Aly Oops. I think Luna let her win. Luna was hunched on the floor, screwing together the casing on a mother board, and I asked if she’d help me pick out something to wear.
“I can’t, Re,” she’d answered. “I have to finish this. There isn’t much time left.”
What did she mean by that — there isn’t much time left? For who? Why?
“Where are you, Regan?” Chris tapped my shoulder.
“What?” I jerked to the moment.
“You really go away sometimes, you know that?” His voice was a whisper in my ear. The movie had begun. When had the movie begun? “Is anything wrong?” Chris asked. “You don’t really seem like you want to be here tonight.”
Perceptive. All that had happened today with Dad and Mom and Aly weighed on my mind. It preyed on me. I couldn’t get Luna out of my head, out from under my skin. I never would. She wasn’t as happy about Aly’s acceptance as I thought she’d be. I expected her to be dancing on the ceiling, singing Dana International. Instead she was moody, uncommunicative, distant.
What? God. “I’m sorry,” I said to Chris, lowering my head. “It . . . it isn’t you. I do want to be here with you.”
The couple behind shushed us and Chris removed his arm from my shoulders. He stood, jammed our tub of popcorn in the crook of his arm, and took my hand. “Let’s go.”
I didn’t resist.
Out in the car, Chris said, “Do you want to talk about it?”
Yes, more than anything in the world I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to tell him what was going on, reveal the truth about Liam. I wanted to get it out there, get it out of me, deal with it, see how he would deal.
My brain said, “Speak,” but my mouth wouldn’t work. I couldn’t do it. This secret had been with me so long, it was a part of me now. If I let it out, I’d be opening myself. To hurt, ridicule, loss.
Chris said, “I have an uncle who’s gay.”
“So?” I whirled on him. Liam’s not gay! I wanted to cry. I wish he was. It’d be easier, more acceptable. Better understood, at least.
“I’m just saying, I don’t have a problem with ... you know.”
He didn’t know. How could he know? I couldn’t tell him. I couldn’t form the words.
This was too new to me. Trusting someone. I wasn’t ready. I was scared. If I told him the truth, I might lose him, and I’d only just found him.
Chris was watching me, waiting.
I wondered how long he’d wait. Letting out a long breath, I said the only words I could manage, “I ... can’t ... yet.”
“Okay,” he said quickly. “No problem. I’m cool.”
He was. He was so cool. If we sat here another minute, though, I wasn’t going to be. “Could we go?” I asked.
“Whatever you want, Regan.” He cranked up the car and drove me home.
As we pulled into the driveway next to the Spyder, Chris turned off the ignition and shifted to face me.