Suitcases built a little fort on the front step, and an Uber idled in the driveway.
“Don’t give your sister trouble,” she said to him, as if it wouldn’t be the other way around. She pushed the curly hair from his face, thinking it a loving gesture. To him it was like being unmasked. He dodged.
Dad hugged Delia and snuck a look at his lock screen. Then his parents were off on their second honeymoon, looking as if they desperately needed it. He watched them leave, feeling the pressure build like a creeping mass in his chest.
Delia waited all of ten seconds before diving into her messenger. “I’ve got to go to the store.”
“Mom already bought us groceries.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s for the party, Dex.”
His stomach lurched, as the thought of being overrun by a stampede of ridiculous teenagers crashed through his mind. He pushed up his glasses. “We can’t have a party here!”
She slid bare feet into sparkling sandals and grabbed her purse from the table. “Duh. It’s at Carter’s house.”
Declan looked away, just as his face started to burn. Carter Aadenson, always first on the roll sheet, first in line, first place, first in mind. First.
“I thought he dumped you,” he mumbled, poking his fingers through the hole in his ancient, second-hand jeans. He hated them, but they were perfectly ugly. When Declan wore them, no one saw him, or the smooth skin beneath.
“We parted company. Mutually.” She scowled at her face in the hall mirror. Her lipstick was too dark for her. It looked better on him.
Declan glanced at the stairs. “How long will you be gone?”
“I’m fine like I am. I’ll probably just go right over. His parties usually end around midnight, because he makes amnesty bargains with the neighbors.”
“You still like him, don’t you?”
The bite in his voice must have been obvious.
“What’s not to like? But we’re just friends. Don’t worry. He’s not going to break your dear sister’s heart.”
Declan pictured Carter as he had been that snowy day over Christmas break. Never had an ugly sweater been so sexy. He had his perfect hair, his perfect face, his perfect blue eyes, and without a second thought, he’d folded up his perfect long legs and played Minecraft beside Declan, their arms brushing at least ten times. He was an athlete, which meant he gave off enough body heat to melt Antarctica, and Declan could feel it radiating off of him. Watching Carter’s fingers grasp the controller, he had counted breaths and fought for self-control. And when Carter got up, a perfect hand tousled Declan’s mop of dark hair. To Carter, Declan was, “A pretty cool dude.”
At once, the greatest compliment and blackest insult Declan had ever received.
“It’s probably going be a big party, this close to the start of the year. Not sure how many people will be there, but because of me, you know half the—”
“I’m not going.”
“I know Mila is going to be there, and Priah too.”
He looked back at the stairs longingly, feeling the itch. “Whatever. Have a G-D blast.”
“That time of the month?”
“You know, if you pulled your head out of your games for like five seconds, you might think high school was fun, not the seventh circle of hell.”
“That’s the one for Instagrammers, right?”
She avoided looking him in the eye as she scrawled out a shopping list. “Look, you left Saint Catherine’s for a reason. This is a chance to do things differently. My friends aren’t like those prep school assholes! If we cleaned you up, Priah might be willing to be seen with you.”
He gagged involuntarily and ducked away from her outstretched hand. “Leave me alone. I don’t want to date your bitchy friends.”
Delia stared at him. She had to be confused, worried. Saint Catherine’s had taken a huge toll on him, and with every confrontation, black eye, and night spent crying himself to sleep, he’d shut her out. It was because she was just too smart, and he had spent a long time as her shadow, idolizing her. If anyone would see his secret, it would be her, and so she became the first enemy. It was unavoidable.
But that night was especially bad, because the moment was waiting.
Declan gazed fixedly at the ground, and Delia gave up.
“Fine. Stay in your room and be a dick. Enjoy jerking yourself off for the rest of your life.”
She slammed the door on the way out. He waited until her bright red Beetle pulled away, feeling the pain in his chest more acutely than ever. Switching schools was supposed to fix their relationship, but it was just possible that he had forgotten how to be a brother.
He swallowed down his anxiety as he locked the deadbolt. He could forget about everything when he sat down at her dressing table. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, Declan pushed his hair back from his face and shed his glasses on the way up.
A pile of shoes and coats blocked her door. He stepped over them carefully, glad that her messy ways concealed his invasion of her privacy to a large degree. The dress was where she left it, hooked over her desk chair like a dirty towel, the tags still on it. He ran his fingers over the rouging and winked back the sting.
It was so effortless and inborn for her that she could toss her femininity around like nothing. She left her cast-offs in her wake, giving him only a few stolen moments of peace. It was unfair. But nobody ever said life was fair.
He pulled his shirt over his head and caught sight of a skinny torso in her dressing mirror. If he just didn’t look, it would be okay, he told himself. Away went the jeans. He tugged the dress over his head and into place. Delia was curvy. Tailoring darts made it hang on his chest. He considered socks stuffed into a bra, but a bra would show through the sheer back. He wandered into her closet to dig out her strappy stilettos from winter formal and found the silver bangle bracelet on the way.
He was one dress size smaller, and one shoe size larger, but for the moment, he could deal with these discrepancies.
Brushing his tangle of hair back with some water, he pretended not to notice how boyish it looked. Pinterest told him that to do the eyes right, he had to find a makeup brush. Her makeup tools were always scattered around her pigsty of a bathroom, caked in cosmetics. He dug out the mascara there too, but she had taken the dark lipstick with her. Declan settled for the pink gloss. The YouTube vids always said it was better to have either a dramatic eye or a dramatic lip, and his eyes were a saving grace.
“Carter Aadenson,” he whispered. The sort of boy put on this earth to torment, and he had unwittingly tormented Declan for two years. Kissing his sister on the porch, cuddling her on the couch, sharing his private jokes in the hollow of her ear.
One day, when he could escape, Declan would do it right. He would be himself at last, not who they always thought he was. Maybe then, he could walk up to Carter, or some blessed angel like him, and buy him a drink.
“It gets better.”
The old armor was a wrinkled husk on the bed. The straps cut into his skin but made him feel more powerful than ever before. He tipped the mirror and turned in profile.
So strange to think that the real person had to be put on, drawn out like poison, bled out from inside.
He spotted the movement behind him much too late. In the span of a gasp, she appeared in the mirror and dropped her purse. Her mouth hung open in a hideous “O” as his legs, those gangly things, went weak.
Not a word was spoken. Cold burned through Declan and was replaced with fire. Like a newborn foal, his gallop to the safety of the closet ended in a haphazard pile on the floor. One of the chic strappy shoes had snapped, and a livid mark appeared on his ankle. But Declan could not focus on that. He folded himself up into a pile of her laundry and did not have the strength to lift his head.
“Dex?” she choked out finally.
That he had a voice amazed him, and before Declan could stop it, it was sobbing out horrifying pleas. Balled up, buried, he hid. He wept until every last tear, saved for this rainy day over his supposedly formative years, was squeezed out. His body had gone numb. The room was an abyss beyond the warmth of his shameful little cocoon, and he lacked the courage to stand and flee.
“It’s okay. Dex… It’s okay.”
Shivers tore through him like little lightning bolts. Her hand impeded an arc and sent it bouncing over his naked arms. He could hear her picking her whispers, feel her hesitate as each new phrase was discarded before it could be uttered. This was an unthinkable occasion, for which no person could ever be prepared, but he loved her even more for the attempt.
“Don’t.” Her forehead pressed to his neck. “Is this…is this why?”
His face, covered with snot, stuck to her denim jacket. “Why what?”
“Why you’re so…you know, upset all the time. I thought you were like, on drugs or something! I thought you hated me and I couldn’t figure out what I’d done.”
Sniffling and shifting, Declan surfaced. He couldn’t yet look at her, but she had always been his second mother, when the real one stopped understanding him. She hooked his chin and forced the smeared face up to the light.
“God, you look terrible!” A kiss landed on his brow and before he knew it, he was bundled up in her lap like the basket-case he was. Her fingers worked through the tiny belts on the broken shoes and tugged them off. “Come on, get up. Go take a hot shower. Let’s do this right.”
She smiled, and even though there were little black dribbles beneath her eyes, she had never looked more lovely.
“Clean yourself up, and let’s try again.”
Delia helped him to his feet. The ankle was sore, but undamaged. He hobbled to the bathroom and pressed his face into the towel that landed on his head.
“We’ll talk when you’re finished, okay?”
Declan shut the door without thanking her. He didn’t know how. He didn’t even have the wisdom to put a situation like this to words. If he could have done that, explaining why they slowly drifted apart would be easy. Telling her that every time he watched her get ready for a date, he hated her a little more would have been a walk in the park. He stared at the clown in the mirror in humiliation.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she said through the door. “I would have understood! You’re my brother! Plus I’ve seen every episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race!”
Declan stood under the water and went through his logic again and again. She hung out with the kind of kids who usually made a sport of harassing the uncomfortable and awkward, and it didn’t matter that she was the nicest among them. The idea that she might in any way ridicule him or leak his secret to her cronies had been enough. That feeling had found combined with his greater self-loathing, and had become hard fact; Delia would not understand, because Declan himself could not.
If she was bothered by his lack of response, she didn’t seem it. “Make sure you use that face wash. It will take all the makeup off. You have on way too much eyeliner.”
A fresh bevy of sobs assailed him, but they ended in a laugh.
“That dress was all wrong. I’m going to pick you out a new outfit, okay? I’ll be right back.”
Away she went. He had ten minutes of scrubbing to himself before she opened the door and stuck her head inside.
“Okay, so I’ve totes got this. I am a fucking genius.”
Relief was slowly taking hold, twisting through doubt and flourishing. He wasn’t alone anymore. He didn’t have to spend the evening by himself in a borrowed skin, scanning forums for transgender teenagers, deciphering which posts were real and which were traps laid by sexual predators.
“I can even deal with the hair! Hurry up and get out here.”
And she was gone again.
He stepped out and toweled off, wondering if she’d spent time working through the decision to dress him up like a doll, or if it just came to her like the rest of her spontaneously good-natured ideas. If anyone could make a profession of being spunky and conspiratorial, it was Delia. She was a born event-planner and/or crisis management specialist.
Declan emerged, sheepishly wrapped up in her purple bathrobe. “Dee, I—”
“Don’t!” She sat on the bed, digging through her treasure trove of nail varnish. “You tell me what you want, when you want. For now, I’m just going to absorb the idea that you like wearing dresses, and run with my Barbie fetish.”
His laugh shook, but she shored up all his crumbling resolve with yet another hug.
“Okay, I lied. Let me just ask some questions that are strictly yes or no.”
“Do you want to be a girl?”
He pursed his lips and looked around. “I….don’t know. I know I feel…better…when I’m…not this.”
Delia’s gaze was as focused as it was when she was doing her French homework. “Right. I think I get it.”
“I like being in between.” He shifted from foot to foot. “It’s called being non-binary or gender-fluid, I think. I…I’m not sure if that makes sense. I don’t know if I make sense…”
She made a dismissive noise. “As long as you make sense to you, what’s it to me? Do you like girls or boys?”
That was, strangely enough, an even more difficult issue, but the fact that she asked it so matter-of-factly made it easier to finally whisper out loud.
“So…you’re basically a straight tomboy trapped in a boy’s body?”
The translation was as good as any he was likely to mumble. “I really thought you’d hate me if you knew.”
Her face crumpled up on itself. “Is that the kind of person you think I am?”
“Fear makes people stupid.”
“Did you ever try to tell me?”
“A couple times. I finally quit when I heard your friend Nick make a gay joke at your birthday party. You laughed, so…”
She sighed and took his hand. “I’m so sorry if I ever did anything that made you feel bad. I don’t think like that. I promise you. I shouldn’t have laughed. It wasn’t cool.”
Declan nodded and glanced over the clothing items spread out on the bed. She was right; she was a genius. He picked up a self-adhesive silicone bra and shook his head. “So—”
“I figured we stick this to you. It makes the shape right? And then you wear my other push-up bra over the top, see? Instant cleavage.” She nested the two together and grinned. “I’m not an expert in dangly parts, though. What do you think? I have these Spanx shorts and these…”
Declan ran his hands over his face and was amazed. Had she just sat around nights trying to put him in her shoes, or had this all come to her in the twenty minutes since she found him?
“We’re just lucky you're a waif, because this would be so much harder if you were built like a football player.” She threw the undergarments at him and shoved him into the closet. “Put these on and then come back out.”
Before an hour had passed, they were back in each others’ confidence in a way they never had been, and Declan was sitting in a new, elastic suit of armor, having his face and nails expertly painted. The mirrors were covered, so that the great reveal could have its full effect, but Delia would lean back every so often with a wide smile and shake her head as if pleased with herself. She’d forced him to put in his special contact lenses, plucked his eyebrows, and glued on false eyelashes. She had even managed to work with his overgrown mop of curly hair, flat-ironing, spraying and pinning it back so that one of her old cheerleading hairpieces could be fitted. And as if that weren’t enough, she explained everything as she went, boggling his mind with how much knowledge of fashion she actually had. His image of her changed, from a carelessly beautiful girl who could be unwittingly cruel, to a meticulously self-made diva.
“This is the dress,” she affirmed, tossing out a garment of royal blue. “The peplum will create the illusion of a curvy hip, and it’s sexy without showing off cleavage. We don’t want to draw attention to the fake stuff. We want to augment the natural, like your legs, which by the way, make me want to punch you. Did you use my razor?”
“No. I wax them.”
She tugged the dress over his head and zipped him up, then wedged his feet into a pair of black ankle boots. Last but not least, she strapped a leather cuff on his left wrist and stood back to admire her handiwork. The perusal ended in a squeal and jazz hands.
“Okay, okay! Now, you’d better prepare yourself, because this is gonna blow you away!”
The curtain was lifted from the full length mirror, and a gorgeous young lady stood looking back at him. She had dramatic, soulful eyes and long legs, a messy bun and beauty mark, a punk rock look and sporty curves. Declan’s jaw dropped, and her luscious mouth fell open.
This was the moment. More momentous than any previous moment had ever been, and his heart soared in jubilation and pride. The costume was finally gone, and the true soul set free.
“So what shall we call this gorgeous bitch?” Delia asked, snaking her arms around his girlish waist.
“Layla,” he replied, without even a thought.
“Like the Eric Clapton song?”
The beauty in the mirror nodded, her eyes glittering.
“Oh! You need a purse!” She vanished into the clothing cave and emerged with a sparkling black clutch.
“Why do I need that?”
“For the party!”
And the moment passed in a sensation of intense vertigo.