It was the feel of her presence in my room that woke me — again. I rolled over in bed and squinted at the clock on my nightstand. “What time is it?” My voice slurred. The blurry numbers came into focus. Two thirty-three. “Two thirty-three? Don’t you ever sleep?”
She didn’t respond.
I scooted my pillow against the headboard to sit up, see what she was doing. “What is that?” I asked.
“Like it?” She shimmied in front of the mirror. The layered fringe on the dress she was wearing swayed in waves. “It’s an old flapper dress I found at Goodwill,” she said. In her stockinged feet, she performed a little Charleston for me. “It’s vintage. Totally retro. Don’t you think? I’m wearing this baby to prom.”
I snorted. Her eyes met mine in the mirror and sobered me fast. She couldn’t be serious.
Examining the length of herself, she hooked her long hair over her ears and wiggled her h*ps again. She’d chosen the blonde wig tonight. It wasn’t her favorite, since she thought it made her look cheap. Like a slut. It did go well with the red dress, though. She caught me looking at her and smiled. “I’m going to run for prom queen, too.”
I burst into laughter, then clapped a hand over my mouth to smother the sound. Wouldn’t want to wake the parental units upstairs.
She wasn’t laughing.
She was joking. Wasn’t she? “Lia —”
“Luna,” she said. “I’ve taken the name Luna.” Her eyes fixed on mine. To gauge my reaction, I guess. Or seek my approval. What did it matter what I thought?
“Why change?” I yawned. “You’ve always been —”
“Lia’s too close. Lia Marie. It’s just too close.” She crossed my bedroom, blazing a trail through the layer of clothes and other crap on my floor. As she passed under the window, she stopped and pivoted. The moon cast an eerie glow through my basement window. A spotlight. A spray of luminescent beams.
“Luna,” she repeated softly, more to herself than me. “Appropriate, wouldn’t you say? A girl who can only be seen by moonlight?”
Exhaustion overwhelmed me suddenly. Or my weariness of it all. “Go to bed, Luna.” I snuggled down into my comforter and punched my pillow, willing myself back to sleep. It’d take me hours to drift off again, especially if she stayed to do her makeup. And she would.
I studied her through a slit eye. Something was different. A change had come over her. Nothing physical. More a shift in her cosmos — or maybe a crack.
“I can see your bra straps,” I told her. “You need to buy a strapless.”
“Really?” She twisted her head to peer over her shoulder. “Do you have one?”
“Get real. Even if I did, you’re not wearing my underwear.”
“It wouldn’t fit anyway. I’m at least a C cup.”
I blew out a puff of air. “You wish.” Rolling over, I muttered, “You’re such a freakshow.”
Her hair splayed across my pillow, tickling my face. “I know,” she murmured in my ear. “But you love me, don’t you?” Her lips grazed my cheek.
I swatted her away.
As I heard her slog across the floor toward my desk — where she’d unveiled her makeup caddy in all its glory — a sigh of resignation escaped my lips. Yeah, I loved her. I couldn’t help it. She was my brother.
“Don’t tell Mommy when she gets home,” Dad says. “I want it to be a surprise.” He smiles at me and Liam. Liam’s six and I’m four and we’re sitting on the couch watching Dad slice through the card-board around Mom’s new washer and dryer. He pauses to loosen his tie and roll up his cuffs. “Did I tell you guys I got a promotion? You’re looking at the new appliance manager for Sears. Next stop, King of the World.” He winks at me.
“Yay, Daddy.” I clap.
Dad looks at Liam and frowns a little. Liam’s found the instruction booklet for the washer and is poring over it. He reads everything now. He tries to teach me, but it’s too boring. I just want to watch TV.
His head shoots up.
“Here, take these boxes out back,” Dad tells him as he carves out a door flap in one. “You and Regan can play fort.”
Liam slides off the couch and the two of us drag the cardboard cartons through the sliding glass doors to the yard. We set them up next to the overturned kiddie pool. I can stand inside the boxes, but Liam’s already too tall.
“Go get your Samantha doll,” he orders me. “Get all her clothes, too. Bring the crib out and her bottles and diapers. Bring everything.”
“No.” His eyes dart around the interior. “I have to set up.”
By the time I get back, Liam’s hooked the two boxes together and lugged my play table inside. He’s got my Little Tikes Kitchen in the corner and he’s setting the table. “Put the crib over there.” Liam points to the opposite corner.
On my way past, he takes my Samantha doll from me and cradles her in his arms. Smiling sweetly down on her, he informs me, “I’m the mommy.”
“No,” I whine. “I want to be the mommy this time.”
“You can be it next time.”
“You always say that.” I throw all the baby clothes on the ground and stomp out the door.
“Wait, Re.” Liam runs after me. “You be the daddy. Daddies are cool. You can come home with a surprise for Mommy. Like you won a million dollars, so you bought me a new house and a car. Better yet — you can pretend my Big Wheel is a Harley. Vroom, vroom.” He mimes revving up the handle bars.
I fold my arms, thinking about it.
“Come on, Regan. Just this once?” He retrieves Samantha’s pink dress from the grass. “Please?” he asks real soft.
I drop my arms. “Okay.”
Liam re-enters our playhouse. I know what he’s going to do now — change her clothes. That’s all he ever does when he’s the mommy, dresses and redresses the babies...
My alarm blared and I bolted upright. Blindly thrusting my arm toward the nightstand, I punched off the buzzer. Was that a dream or a memory? It was too vivid to be imagined. Too real. Was his fascination with playing house the first indication I had that Liam was different? In his head and heart he knew he was a girl? That he was transgender.
No, there was something else. An earlier event, when we were even younger. My mind was too fogged with sleep to conjure up the image. Either that or I didn’t want to remember. There were a lot of things I didn’t want to remember.
I stumbled to the shower in a coma. The bathroom was still steamy, which meant Liam was up and dressed. I let the warmth seep into my body as I stripped. Then, bracing for the shock, I wrenched the cold water faucet on and plunged in face first.
Dad was chuckling at the comics when I trudged up the basement steps and into the kitchen. Next to him, at the dining room table, Liam absently spooned Wheat Chex into his mouth while scanning a textbook into his mega brain. Advanced Placement Physics, I noted with more than a twinge of resentment. He couldn’t share a few IQ points with his only sister, could he? Liam was dressed in role, as he called it. Boy role. His long-sleeved shirt was pressed and buttoned to the chin; tucked into his khaki Dockers, which were ironed with military precision.
I couldn’t even spell iron. My outfit consisted of faded carpenter pants and whatever shirt from the heap on my floor was closest to the door.
“Morning,” Mom greeted me at the refrigerator with her perfunctory removal of the juice carton from my mouth. “You look like a zombie,” she said, returning the OJ to the shelf. “Are you sick?”
“No. Just tired. From lack of sleep.” I widened my eyes at Liam as I slid into my chair across from him. He flipped another page, soaking up quantum physics at Pentium speed.
“Why aren’t you sleeping?” Dad asked, glancing up from the paper.
“No reason,” I mumbled.
Mom took her chair at the other end of the table. She punched buttons on her cell phone and put it to her ear while Dad said to me, “You need to sleep. Girls have to get their beauty rest.”
Liam’s eyes met mine. I expected him to smirk or something, but instead he glared.
What? Dad was joking. God. Liam was so sensitive sometimes.
“Yeah, hi Andy,” Mom spoke into her cell. “It’s me. Did we ever get our reservations confirmed on the Hartford house for the Sorensons’ wedding? I can’t seem to find the paperwork.” She stirred her coffee.
I caught Dad rolling his eyes. He wasn’t crazy about Mom’s job. Specifically, her elevating her own status from Wife and Mother to More Significant Other. Not that he was sexist or anything, just boring and conventional. How could he resent her working? Since he got downsized by Sears and had to take a flunky job at the Home Depot, somebody had to earn our lunch money.
“Hmm.” Mom sipped her coffee. “Maybe I’ll call again just to be sure. Did you hear that Yarrow girl ask if she could order black frosting for her cake? Black. On a wedding cake.” Mom listened for a moment, then burst into laughter. “Oh, Andy,” she wheezed. “What would I do without you?”
My eyes cut to Dad, who bristled.
In an effort to drown out the sudden static in the air, I retrieved my chemistry book from my backpack and set it on the table. The thought of what we were doing today in class made me queasy, so I put it back. Out of sight, out of mind. My philosophy of life in a test tube.
I snatched a bagel off the lazy Susan in the middle and smeared a glob of strawberry cream cheese on it.
Dad said, “A guy goes to the doctor for a checkup and the doctor says to him, ‘I have bad news and worse news.’”
Liam and I groaned in unison. Dad folded the newspaper closed.
Mom continued, “I wrote up the cake order, but I might hold off a while before sending it in until I talk to her mother. She’ll be mortified, I’m sure. I can’t wait to see the wedding gown. What?” She listened, then laughed at Andy again. Nothing was that funny this early in the morning.
“‘What’s the bad news?’ the guy says.” Especially not Dad.
“‘The bad news is you have terminal cancer.’”
“‘Oh my God.’” Dad held his heart. He gasped and panted for effect. “The man asks, ‘What’s the worse news?’”
“The doctor informs him, ‘The worse news is you have Alzheimer’s.’”
“The guy breathes a huge sigh of relief. He says, ‘Thank God I don’t have cancer.’”
Liam chuckled. It took me a minute, then I cracked up. I tried to stifle it so as not to encourage Dad.
He beamed. “Good one, huh?”
“Andy, before I forget, I need to pick up a prescription on my way in, so I might be a few minutes late.”
For some reason, that piqued Liam’s interest. Mom disconnected and rose from her chair. Leaving her phone and Day-timer on the table, she bustled down the back hallway. To pop another upper, no doubt.
“I talked to Coach Hewitt yesterday,” Dad said.
The hair on my arms stood up. Liam’s hair would’ve too, if he had any there. Dad continued, “He says to come see him this week about getting on the team. Since that whole Diaz family moved back to Mexico, he’s got a few open positions. He can’t guarantee varsity, but JV for sure. Tryouts are Wednesday. Skip asked me what position you played, and I told him first base. Unless you want to pitch.” Dad reached over and jabbed Liam’s arm playfully.
Liam looked so brittle, I thought he’d break. He resumed eating his Chex as if grinding sand between his teeth.
Dad added, “Stop by his office after school today.”
Liam swallowed. He said evenly, “I don’t want to play baseball, Dad.”
My breath caught. I looked at Dad. Liam had never said it out loud. Never.
Dad’s expression didn’t change, but his voice did. “Skip’s doing this as a favor to me so you can participate in sports your senior year. It’ll look good on your transcript, you know.”
That made me snort.
Dad riddled me with eye bullets. I felt the shrapnel and squelched any smart remarks I might’ve considered adding. “All you ever do is sit on your duff downstairs and play those mindless computer games. No wonder you’re so pale. Both of you.”
I tried to send Liam a silent message like, Blow it off. But he was closed to the outside world, the way he gets. Staring into the depths of his cereal bowl, drowning.
Dad creased the newspaper in half lengthwise, then quarters. Slow. Deliberate. He said to Liam, “Do this for me.”
That wasn’t fair. That was so unfair. Liam’s Adam’s apple bobbed. If Dad made him cry —
“I’m terrible at baseball,” Liam said quietly. “You know that. I’m terrible at sports, period.”
“Aw, come on. You’re not that bad.” Dad whapped his arm again. Liam absorbed the blow like a deflated punching bag. “You just don’t work at it,” Dad said. “You don’t stick with it. You’ve got the size and speed, you know. You could bulk up some, build your strength. We could go to the Y together and work out on the weight machines. Skip said he’d sneak us into the batting cages after hours. He says he’s been trying to recruit you since your freshman year when he saw you play soccer.”
Liam lifted his head and locked eyes with Dad. “Which I did for you.”
Dad shoved himself away from the table, rattling the dishes and silverware. He stormed into the kitchen. Liam and I eyed each other. Before I could say anything, Mom rushed back in, grabbed her cell and stuffed it into her purse, then opened her Daytimer. “I may be late again tonight.” She flipped a page. “I have a hair appointment at four. Regan, why don’t you throw together a tuna noodle casserole for dinner. You know the ingredients.”