Chapter One

 

 

THE EYES, the lips, the nose, the mouth, the cheeks—even Stella’s walk screamed of femininity—but as she stared in the vanity mirror that morning before school, Stella didn’t look back at her. No, the eyes of a lost, scared, and lonely little boy who’d been shoved into the wrong body glared from the steamy glass. Youth made his features soft, but his chin wasn’t free of stubble unless he shaved every single day. Makeup helped, but didn’t make his skin smooth. Nothing would make him shorter or his hands and feet smaller. Nothing made him feel 100 percent… right.

Stella knew that body was all wrong. Steven knew that body was all wrong. Yet there wasn’t enough courage in the universe to make her tell her parents something wasn’t right.

“Steven, you’re going to be late for school,” Stella’s mother yelled from outside the bathroom door.

Stella slipped her size-ten feet into the blue-and-black men’s Nikes her mother had bought her for Christmas, then pulled a polo shirt over her head and down to her factory-faded jeans. She fingered the hem of her shirt, praying the burn in her throat away, praying the tears would stay down for just one day. It seemed like the more she hid behind fake façades and pretended to be something she wasn’t, the more the tears fought to break free of her eyes and the harder it was not to let go and send them tumbling down her warm cheeks.

Stella looked at the reflection of her very masculine wardrobe and her very feminine body and rubbed her hand down her shirt.

The look—that rugged preppy-boy thing her mom and dad had been forcing on her since puberty—made her stomach knot. It didn’t matter what kind of clothes they put her in, how manly the attire looked on a hanger. On Stella, it looked ridiculous because it was all wrong. She looked like a damn girl in boy’s clothing. She was a damn girl. Despite what her birth certificate said and what her parents called her, despite the school and the kids and the teachers… and everyone else in the world calling her a boy, Stella was meant to be a girl.

God got it all wrong.

Exhaling sharply, Stella pulled her long blonde hair back into a ponytail at the nape of her neck, not high on her head like she would’ve if she was going out into the world as the real her. She used a black rubber band instead of a bright pink ribbon, and though her green eyes screamed for a little liner, she let it go. She double-checked her fingernails to make sure there was no leftover polish like she did every single morning, just to make sure there was nothing there to get her caught. She ran the side of her forefinger over each side of her jaw to make sure there was no hair she might’ve missed. They could force her to dress like a boy all they wanted, but that didn’t mean she had to let hair grow out of her face. This was her daily routine, as much a part of her as breathing and eating and sleeping.

At least it was Friday. That meant after school and homework and family routines, she could go to Jenna’s house and get dolled up, then ride with Jenna and Ashlynn to the youth group meeting. And if things went really well, she might get to see Robbie tonight. Since Robbie and Ashlynn were in a band together, it sort of went without saying the four girls would end up together at some point.

Stella liked Robbie—not in a seriously dating sort of way, but more in a fun and friendly sort of way. They might make out. They might not. Robbie knew her secrets just like Jenna and Ashlynn, and Robbie didn’t care or judge… just like Jenna and Ashlynn. Robbie made Stella laugh, made her forget about the secret crush at school and the things she hid from her family. Robbie made things… better.

At least Stella had that to look forward to.

“Stevie, come on.” Stella’s little sister banged her fist on the door.

Little. Hah. Jess turned sixteen this year, and if all went well, she would be inheriting Stella’s crappy compact car, and Stella would be getting a nice new crossover for graduation.

Wonder if they would change their minds if they knew….

“You take more time than I do,” Jess yelled again.

“I’m coming, Jess. Give me a break.”

“I promised I would meet Charlie before school.”

Stop whining.

“If you make us late, I can’t meet Charlie.” She paused long enough to inhale. “I’m gonna be pissed if I can’t meet Charlie.”

Charlie?

Stella yanked the door open and eyed her sister hard. Up and down. Up and down. Her brow arched. She crossed her arms over her painfully flat chest and leaned against the jamb.

“Who’s Charlie?”

Jess glared.

“Tell me.” The tone of Stella’s voice softened dramatically.

Her sister was a mirror image of Stella. In fact, some of Stella’s skirts had been absconded from Jess’s closet. Most of her accessories were hand-me-downs Jess had been ready to throw away. Jess knew Stella’s secret. She’d even said Stella felt more like a best friend and a sister than a big-brother type.

“Jessica. Steven.” Their mother stood at the foot of the stairs, calling up to them in that nagging way all mothers did. Every time Stella heard her given name, she cringed. She hated it. She hated people saying it. She hated hiding behind it for her parents’ sake.

“We’re coming,” Jess called back.

“Not until you tell me about Charlie,” Stella whispered.

Sighing, Jess let her head hang from her slumped shoulders, and she crossed her arms over her chest, black-painted fingernails biting into her elbows. Her B-cup cleavage pushed up to the neckline of the solid black tank top she had on under her pinstripe hoodie. Stella was so damn jealous of those boobs. What she wouldn’t give to even fill an A-cup.

Jess took a step back and leaned against the wall, skinny jeans hugging her long, slender legs. Her tiny feet were probably two-thirds the size of Stella’s, and she was easily a foot shorter. Sad thing was, Jessica Anne Marshall was about as tomboy as they came and built like a tiny girl. Steven Allan Marshall was as feminine as any princess… and built like a prince.

Yeah, whoever was responsible for matching souls to bodies royally screwed up on us. Too bad there isn’t a complaint department with the powers that be.

“Jessica. Who’s Charlie?” Stella asked again, more authority in her tone this time.

“Promise not to tell anyone?”

“Of course.”

When her little sister looked up again, her bright blue eyes were glassy and her tiny lips were pinched tight together. She looked… scared, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense. She’d never been afraid to share anything with Stella, and vice versa. They were close. Always had been.

“Jessica?”

“I’m sorta kinda seeing Charlie.”

“Okay….”

Something wasn’t registering here. Stella knew their dad had said no dating until they turned eighteen, but they’d both been secretly seeing people for a while now. School gave them… well, gave Jess a great palette of people to choose from. Stella hadn’t been so lucky. That was part of the reason she’d found the group. At least there she could be herself and be with people more like her.

“I don’t get it, Jess. What’s the big deal? You never worried about dating the last guy.”

With a frown, Stella kicked away from the jamb and leaned against the wall beside Jess. The edges of their shoulders touched. Stella wrapped her fingers around Jess’s dainty hand and touched their temples together.

“Why does ‘seeing’ Charlie bother you so much?” Stella asked. “Is he special? I mean, do you feel something big for him?”

Jess didn’t immediately answer. Stella felt her sister’s fingers ticking against her palm. She glanced over and found Jess chewing on her bottom lip, as if she were on the verge of spilling something huge and just couldn’t make herself do it.

“Jessica Anne! Steven Allan!” their mother yelled for the third time that morning. “I’m not going to tell you again. Get to school!”

Stella pushed up from the wall, intent on heading to her room to grab her books and things for school. She’d taken about two steps when her sister’s voice stopped her.

“Charlie’s a girl….”

Slowly swinging back around, Stella closed her gaping mouth around a long, airy, and lingering “Oh.” Well, didn’t that complicate things for everyone?

Stella turned her head straight forward, stare hitting the wall beside her sister and all the pictures of their childhood, the family photos depicting normal, average, happy suburbanites.

“So, um… when—”

“I’m not a lesbian,” Jess immediately said. She frowned and flopped her head toward Stella. “I mean… I don’t think I’m a lesbian. I liked Danny. I was attracted to Danny. I, um—” She swallowed hard. “—made out with Danny, and it was okay.”

“Have you made out with Charlie?”

Jess grinned a little wider.

“Maybe you’re bisexual or pansexual.”

“I don’t know.” Jess pushed up from the wall. “I just know I promised to meet her before school and you’re going to make me late.”

“Fine.” Stella righted herself and held up both hands. “Don’t get your panties in a twist. I just need to grab my backpack, then we can go.”

Jess charged down the stairs to the living room while Stella ducked into her bedroom. She closed the bedroom door behind her, stopped, and took a deep breath. Now, not only did she have to come out to her mom and dad about her little secret, but it seemed her sister had one of her own. Boy, wouldn’t that be a fun family supper? Mom, Dad, I’m really a girl, and your other daughter’s not completely into boys. Pass the potatoes, please.

“Oh God, kill me now,” Stella groaned as she snatched her backpack from the hanger on the back of the bedroom door.

She spread the bag wide open on the bed, then spun around to the closet. Buried way back in the pitch dark, hidden beneath piles of jackets and jeans she never wore, were the skirts and tops and shoes she never broke out in front of the family.

The pile of fabric was quickly dwindling down. More times than not, Stella’s wardrobe stayed at Jenna’s house—the place where she changed back to Steven before coming home. Jenna was a sweetheart, though. She took care of Stella’s clothes, washed, laundered, or dry-cleaned if the outfit called for it, then hung Stella’s belongings up with care. The clothes received a hell of a lot better treatment in Jenna’s closet than they did in Steven’s.

Stella carefully folded a long black peasant skirt and set it aside, then pulled out a colorful top that hugged her body. Thankfully, she had a slender waist and fairly broad but not overly wide shoulders, so with the right clothes, she appeared to have curves. A padded bra helped her bust. Long legs gave her grace. When everything came together, Steven made a beautiful Stella, and everything in the world felt absolutely perfect.

She put her textbooks and tablet on top of the pile of clothes, then zipped her backpack up tight so no one would see what was in there. Explaining the skirt and bag of makeup at the bottom would prove harder than the calculus homework she’d had last night.

With a sigh, she hiked her backpack up on her back, then headed out of her bedroom, closing the door behind her. The soles of her clunky tennis shoes hit the top of the stairs, then the next step, and the next. Stella jogged down the stairs like she would’ve any other day of the week, but for some reason today felt different. Maybe because her sister had come out to her. Maybe because Stella was finally giving her own coming-out some serious thought. Who knew? It just felt… different.

She hit the bottom step, and all thoughts of Stella were gone like flipping a switch. The lights shut off, and the world became the dark and dreary place it was when Steven took control and had to pretend Stella didn’t exist. It sort of felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room, and no matter what, she couldn’t breathe. She knew she couldn’t keep living a lie, that something had to give, and soon.

Stella stepped up to her sister’s side, shoulder to shoulder. Their mom started toward the door. Stella looked over at Jess and said, “Secrets suck, but I’ll keep yours as long as you want me to.”

“I don’t even know what my secret is.”

“Jess—” Stella stopped and Jess turned toward her. “—you don’t have to put a label on yourself. You be who you are. I’ll love you just the same.”

No words could’ve ever been more honest. Nobody else had to like them or even understand them.