PART ONE

Auditions

 

 

JOURNAL: Monday, October 5

 

 

I DREAMED last night about Puck. It was a crazy, mixed-up dream, about auditions and everything I’ve got going on today: the play, my birthday, and my appointment with you. I don’t think I need to talk much about that last. You know why I’m anxious, and I really hope you finally give me the go-ahead. I’m seventeen. It’s time.

But the dream.

I jerked awake in the middle of the night because something was rustling around in my room. I thought maybe it was the cat, but he always sleeps in with the girls. Or maybe it was James doing some stunt for my birthday. I sat up and blinked, trying to get my eyes to see in the moonlight.

That’s when I saw the boy, and I knew it had to be a dream. He was standing past the end of my bed, small and slim, staring at something in his hand. I cleared my throat and he looked at me. The sudden grin was like a bright white light in the darkness, and he leaped up, landing on the wrought-iron footboard, his long, bare toes hooked around the top rail, one hand down to balance himself.

Yeah, it was that vivid. And totally weird. He just looked at me, his head cocked like I was the alien thing in the room. And my whole body was frozen. I heard my heartbeat in my ears, thundering along. “Who are you?” I finally managed to ask.

He didn’t answer, but I figured it out without him needing to say it. There were streaks of brown and green on his face, and his ears were gently tilted, his chin coming to a sharp point as well. And there was a mischievous light in his eyes. He was Puck, just like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I guess it made a kind of sense that I’d dream about him, since that’s who I’m trying out for today. I was reading the play just before bed last night.

He leaned forward, still precariously balanced, and held out one hand. There were three tiny glass bottles resting on his palm, each filled with several droplets of liquid that shimmered in the moonlight. “I give thee three potions: true sight, true seeming, and true love.” He paused, the musical lilt of his voice fading into the silence of the night. Head cocked, he regarded me solemnly and added, “Don’t mix them up.”

“Shouldn’t those be flowers?” I asked because I felt like I needed to ask the question. I mean, I’ve read the play several times, and that isn’t how it goes. The only potion is true love, and he drops the nectar from the flowers on Lysander’s eyes. Then havoc ensues.

Yeah, like I’d ever even think about using some kind of potion like that.

He laughed then, the ringing of bells tolling deep. A toss of his head pushed bangs back from his forehead, letting me see his eyes, narrowed and green like the slits of a cat’s eyes. “Dost thou imagine that life never changes? Modernization, Jordan, even amongst the Faerie.” Another pause, and he thrust his hand forward even more, the long blue nails on his splayed fingertips brushing against my T-shirt. I shivered. “Take them,” he told me.

Fine. It was just a dream, so I held out both my hands, cupped together, and watched as he spilled the little glass bottles into my grasp. One liquid was pale blue, one purple, one green. I frowned at them. “Which one is which?” Because suddenly it seemed incredibly important to know, like maybe I would actually use them. Like maybe giving someone true sight or true love would really work. Then there’s “true seeming”—I had to look that one up online this morning. That means looking like myself. Like I really should look.

I think you know just how much I’d like that.

Anyway, he didn’t answer. I looked up and he was gone, like he’d poofed out of existence. Again, dreaming, so I wasn’t entirely surprised.

I don’t remember anything else until I woke up in the morning with James pounding on my door to tell me that my alarm had been going off for fifteen minutes already and was I ever planning on getting out of bed? He had some other things to say, but you get pissy when I swear, so I won’t repeat them.

I yelled out that I was awake, and he barged in. I really hate that there’s no such thing as privacy when I’ve got four siblings. Even though Karen’s gone off to college, it’s bad enough with just James and the two younger girls around.

James plunked down on my bed, all dressed and ready to go, his hair standing up spiky and wet from the shower. He shoved a box at me, the corner of it poking me in the chest, and that’s when I remembered the dream. I opened up both hands and looked, but nope, no little thingamajiggers full of potions. I was still half-asleep enough that it almost seemed like I ought to’ve had them, I guess. I shook off the last of the haziness and focused on the gift from James instead (a vest, which isn’t magic, but looking in the mirror might as well be, the way it changes my shape).

Today’s going to be a good day, I can tell. There’s chocolate cake for breakfast, and I’ll tell you how the auditions go when I get to my appointment. I’m nervous. I’ve always stayed with a role in the chorus before, and I’m not sure I’m ready to be front and center. But if I want to go into music someday, I’d better get used to it. Singers don’t belong in the background. Being on stage is easy; it’s being in the spotlight that scares me. But I love Midsummer, and even if it’s some weird musical version, I know I can sing, and I know I can rock the part. It’s mine.

Anyway, I’d better get going. Just remember, when I come in, you’re going to give me the letter for my GP so that I can start T as soon as he lets me.

I’m seventeen today. And I’m ready for everything to go my way.

 

 

CHAPTER 1: Breaking Up Fights

 

 

IT’S HARD to keep still on the drive to school. I cross my legs, pushing my toe up against the dashboard, watching the small dent in the vinyl and the dusty mark left from the bottom of my shoe. James leans over and slaps my leg, and I elbow him back. He’s supposed to be driving, not paying attention to what I’m doing. “It’s my car, too,” I remind him. “I mess it up, I clean it up.”

“And I promised to give Britney Jenkins a ride home after auditions.” He shrugs like that doesn’t mean anything, but I know it does. She’s one of the hottest girls in the senior class, and I should probably congratulate him for getting even a second look from her. On the other hand….

“I’ve got my appointment at four thirty,” I remind him. “I need the car to get there.”

“I didn’t forget. I’ll drop you off at that, then I’ll take Britney home and hang out there for a bit, then I’ll swing back and pick you up, okay?” He reaches across to ruffle my hair, like I’m six or something, and I roll my eyes. “Today’s the big day, right, bro?”

“God, I hope so.” I pull down the visor and pop the little mirror open, peering into it while I push my bangs back into my face where they belong. “Dr. Hewitt said we’d ‘revisit the issue’ when I turned seventeen. If she gives the go-ahead today, I’ve already got my physical set for next week, and if my doctor says the blood work’s okay, I could have my first dose by Halloween.”

Yeah, this is a big deal. Testosterone. T. The thing that will change my whole life.

James’s breath lets out in a soft rush, his expression tight, and I know there’s a lecture coming. What I don’t get is why. He already knows how important this is to me, and that I’ve been researching it for years, and there isn’t anything about hormone therapy that I haven’t read, or already experienced, since I’ve been doing hormone suppression therapy since I was eleven. I’m not going into it blind. And even more important, it’s something I need.

He doesn’t say anything yet, just parks the car in the student lot. I cross my arms, my jaw tight and stubborn. “What?” I ask.

“Are you sure?” His lips pressed together. “Absolutely, positively, completely sure? It’s a big step and you can’t really go backwards after you start.”

“I don’t want to go backwards, James.” Like he really needs me to remind him about the details of my life; he’s been there all along. I glare at him, as if that’s going to help. “You know that. I can’t go backwards from where I am anyway. I stopped being female when I was eleven. I’ve been waiting for T for years, now, so I’m not going to suddenly start wanting it any less. This is what I am. Who I am. I’m your brother. I deserve to finally go through puberty as much as any other teenage boy.”

Okay, so maybe no one really deserves puberty. But I actually want mine, as long as it’s the right one.

“It’s dangerous,” James said flatly. “And there are side effects. Like the guys who end up with heart problems, or roid rage.” It wasn’t as if taking steroids was a complete unknown in the high school experience. There were guys who tried it, to bulk up. But they weren’t me, and they weren’t doing it the right way.

My jaw sets and I end up staring at the roof of our car. There’s a rip in the fabric, and I fix my gaze on that, thinking about anything else but yelling at James. I don’t want to start the day fighting with my brother. I don’t want to ruin my birthday. So I think about the car, and how we bought it two years ago when James turned sixteen, a whole year before I was ever going to be able to drive it. We did it together like we’ve done just about everything together since I was born less than a year after him. And my throat feels tight and painful, like I’m going to cry.

“Why are you arguing with me about this?” I force the words out without looking at him.

“Because you’re my brother, and you’re the only brother I’ve got.”

Did he seriously just say that? “And that’s exactly why you should stop worrying,” I snap. “Because I’m your freakin’ brother.” I push the door open and step out, slamming it behind me. Sometimes it’s like my family gets so stupid. They understand, and they love me, I know that, but they still keep trying to second-guess me. Can’t they just shut up and support me like they say they will? I know what I’m doing, and I’m not being rash or reckless or stupid. I’m making me right.

If they’re like this now, I can’t even think what they’ll be like when I save up for surgery someday.

James touches my shoulder, and I glance at him. “Hey,” he says. “You’re still on for auditions, right?”

It’s like we weren’t even fighting. I guess if he’s letting it go, I should too. But I can’t. Not quite yet. “You sure you really want me to do that? Someone might notice something funny about me when we’re getting changed into costumes backstage.” James is protective of me, and I’m digging at his insecurities. It’s petty and mean, but it feels good.

Thing is, they’re my insecurities too. I love acting, and I love singing even more. I’ve been a theater kid ever since we moved to this school district, but I’ve always managed to hover under the radar. I’ve just stayed in the chorus, never trying out for a lead role that would make me stand out. My voice is good, so I get a solo during a big group number sometimes, which is enough for me. But this play has a small cast, and no matter what part I get, I can’t hide in the crowd. And I really want to play Puck, which would be putting myself front and center.

But what I said is true; who knows what they’ll see in the dressing room? I could play it safe and not try out, giving myself a better chance of getting through senior year without anyone ever having the chance to guess about me. Or I could try out, get the part, and show everyone just how good I am. I guess I’m willing to take that risk. I nod slowly. “Yeah, I’ll be there.”

James already knew I would. He claps me on the shoulder. “You’ll be a perfect Puck.” He starts walking, and I follow along in his wake.

I hate this part, when we’re walking into school. It’s like running the gauntlet. There’s a group of tough guys that hang out on the stone wall next to the stairs. It’s a suburban school, with about four hundred kids in each grade, and in a town about as white as white gets. But these guys try to pretend they’re gangsta, and they don’t even know what it means. To them, it’s wearing wife-beater shirts with their jeans hanging off their butts, and a lot of chains, and saying “yo” while they talk about the weed they’re getting together to smoke during third period.

Usually they bug the hot girls with their wolf whistles and give me some of that, mama calls. Sometimes they pick on the freshmen, especially the small geeky ones. I guess you can’t look tough unless you’re giving someone a hard time. I know there’s absolutely no reason for them to pick on me, just a guy walking into the building with his brother, but I’m still wary around them. And I worry that they can smell fear, like dogs, that they’ll somehow know that I’ve got something to hide. Stupid, I know, since these people don’t even suspect that there’s anything different about me.

I tell myself James doesn’t know how I feel, but he keeps me talking and focused on him, so yeah, I’m sure he actually does. We’ve just made it to the top of the stairs where I can see safety in the form of the door into the school when we hear the shriek.

It’s a girly sort of shriek, high-pitched and short, cutting off sharply. I can’t help it; I look back over my shoulder to see who’s so upset.

They—and by “they,” I mean the tough-guy-wannabes—are tossing a phone back and forth between them. And there’s a kid standing there with a deer-in-the-headlights look. He makes a face and leaps onto Brandon Josephson (the self-proclaimed leader of the toughs), clawing at his shoulder.

The kid’s got guts, but maybe no brains, because that’s when things get nasty. Toby Miller throws a punch, and the kid lashes back. And while everyone else takes a step back, James starts down the steps toward them.

It’s the right thing to do, stopping the fight. I know that. But I’m scared, and rooted to the steps, and can’t make myself do it.

I hear the grunt as one of them gets James with a solid blow in the side.

Then Toby calls the kid a girly-boy who can’t throw a punch to save his own life. Which is starting to look like it might be true.

Then the insults get rude, and they threaten to strip the kid and show his girly body to the school. One of them grabs the collar of his shirt and the first few buttons come undone.

I see red.

I don’t remember wading in, just that I’m in the middle of things, and I do have a really good right hook and I’m strong from lifting weights. I get a few good shots in and take a few in return before I manage to get the kid behind my back and safe while James rescues the phone Brandon stole. Three of the thugs stand, fists clenched, and James and I face them down best we can. We’ve reached a standoff, and everyone’s bruised.

“Stop fighting right now!”

The thugs look at the top of the stairs and immediately try to scatter. Principal Jackson may be small, but she’s tough, and even Brandon’s a bit afraid of her. She comes down the stairs, grabs him by the collar, and pushes him toward the door to go inside. She glances at me and James, lips pursed before she turns back to Brandon. “I saw who started it.” Her voice is firm and carries that note of you’re not getting off this time. “Into my office, Mr. Josephson. All of you.”

She doesn’t look at James or me again, so we hesitate. When she walks the thugs away and leaves us behind, I can finally relax and look back at the kid.

He’s smaller than me, maybe coming up to my chin; he probably hasn’t had that growth spurt most guys get around freshman year. And he’s skinny, his chest hairless and flat. Definitely not a girl. Crap. My face heats up as I try to pretend I didn’t look.

His back stiffens and he buttons his shirt up with careful dignity. “It’s the voice,” he says with a soft lilt. “They’ll stop saying it once it changes.”

“Not every guy’s voice is deep,” I assure him, even though I hope mine will get deeper eventually. Someday. That is why I need to start T.

He considers me and James, then nods politely. “I’m Paul,” he says. “And thank you.” He smiles when James hands him back the phone, checking to make sure it hasn’t been damaged. “My dad keeps telling me that if I turn the other cheek, they’ll ignore me.”

“Your dad’s an idiot,” James and I both say, and we laugh. James taught me to fight a long time ago, just in case. I rub my knuckles against my side, trying to pretend they don’t hurt as much as they do. It was my first actual fight, and I’m still in shock that it happened, and that I didn’t get into trouble for it. Although there’s still plenty of time for Principal Jackson to change her mind and call us down to the office. At least she saw that Brandon and his group were bullying Paul and that was how it started.

As people go into the school, Britney Jenkins and another girl slip out around the edges, coming to join us on the stairs. And oh. Wow.

Just.

Wow.

So this is what speechless feels like.

The other girl is pretty. Not model-gorgeous, like Britney, but there’s something about her, even while she’s fussing over Paul, that just pulls me in. She has red hair—dark, not carroty orange—pulled back with a thick headband, and her eyes are a sort of jade green. Her brow is furrowed with worry. She’s short and a little curvy, and she’s dressed like someone who wants to be herself and doesn’t care what everyone else thinks. I like that in a girl.

“I can’t believe you jumped him,” she chides Paul. Not just scolding, chiding. I can hear it in every word. “Are you nuts?”

“Dad would’ve killed me if I lost my new phone,” Paul protested. Looking at them together, I figure they’ve got to be brother and sister. Same face shape, same nose, just different eyes, and his hair is more brown than red.

The girl turns to look at me, smiling.

Um.

“Thanks for helping Paul out.” She holds out her hand, and after a moment, I realize she’s expecting me to take it. So I do, and it’s warm and oh right, shake, that’s what she’s doing. When she lets go, I’m still standing there, hand out, and she giggles just a bit. “I’m Pepper. I don’t think I know you.”

“Jordan.” And that’s about all I can manage coherently.

“Well, Jordan, you’re sweet, and there aren’t many guys that’d do that for someone they don’t know. So thank you. Both of you.”

Both of—oh right, me and James. “That’s James,” I tell her. “My brother.” I’ve mastered cave man speak. Go me.

“Hey.” James greets her. He has moved next to me, pressed close in like he can somehow move me bodily up the stairs without quite touching me. Britney is on his other side, just watching.

I take a step up the stairs, then another step, and Pepper paces right along next to me. We inch toward the door, this odd amoeba of people, slightly bruised and apparently lacking in English skills.

“Look, it was nice to meet you, but we’ve got to go.” Pepper takes a step away from me, Paul with her. “Maybe we’ll see you around.”

“Maybe,” I manage to respond.

Then she’s gone. Air rushes back into my lungs, and coherent thoughts enter my brain. Holy freakin’ God is she ever gorgeous. Amazing. Beautiful. Wow. Okay, less than coherent thoughts, but still, there are words, and I might even be able to express them.

I blink when Britney giggles, and try to glare at her, but glaring isn’t really my mood right now. She only giggles more.

“If you could see your face,” she says. “Oh, that look. I could use your picture for my vocabulary homework. Flummoxed.”

James snorts. “Jordan was flummoxed when he met the girl of his dreams.”

What? Wait. Oh hell. “I can’t,” I protest. I can’t like her. I can’t even think about her like that.

“Why not?” Britney asks. “She’s pretty. Just ask her out.”

She makes it sounds so simple. Britney knows the things about us that everyone knows. That James is ten months older than me so we’re in the same grade at school. That we act like twins, and some people treat us like twins, but we’re not. But she doesn’t know I wasn’t born a boy.

James looks at me, and I know what he’s thinking, because I’m thinking the same thing: I can’t have a crush on Pepper. At least not one that can ever have a hope in hell of going anywhere. My parents would absolutely kill me before they’d let me go on a date. My life is just too complicated, and they think it’s too risky for me to get involved in a relationship.

His expression softens and he claps my shoulder. “We’ll get it figured out, Jordan. You probably don’t want to be a monk forever.”

I don’t want to be a monk. But if I want to survive high school, it might be easier if I just avoid relationships. It’s too much of a risk.

James and I may be in the same grade, but we’ve got totally different tracks of classes. He punches my shoulder as the bell rings. “Happy birthday, Jordan. Make it a good one, and I’ll see you at tryouts.”