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Rainbow Crush: Light-Hearted LGBT Fiction for Teens

 

 

Rainbow Crush © 2014 by Foxglove Lee

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, organizations, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Cover design © 2014 Foxglove Lee

Photo Credit hyena reality

Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

I Hate Love, The Secret to a Perfect Latke, I Know What Gay Is, and Happy Birthday, Klutzface! were first published by Prizm Books.

 

Rainbow Crush

 

Light-hearted LGBT Fiction for Teens

 

 

By

 

Foxglove Lee

 

Table of Contents

 

#
p<{color:#000;}. I Hate Love

#
p<{color:#000;}. Happy Birthday, Klutzface!

#
p<{color:#000;}. I Know What Gay Is

#
p<{color:#000;}. Dress like a Dude

#
p<{color:#000;}. The Secret to a Perfect Latke

 

 

[]I HATE LOVE

 

 

“Ugh! I got pro.” Laura dropped her chin to the cradle of her hands. “What did you get, Mila?”

 

“Pro.” Mila clicked her teeth. “I hate debates. I always get stuck arguing a case I don’t agree with.”

 

Jaden turned around in his seat. “You two are nuts! How can you not be pro-Valentine’s Day?”

 

“It’s stupid,” Laura said.

 

“Uh, good point,” Jaden teased. “I’m so glad you’re on my team.”

 

“You got pro, too?” Mila asked, snatching the little piece of paper out of his hand. “Well, at least you’re debating something you actually believe in.”

 

“Freaks!” Jaden grabbed back the slip of paper he’d picked out of Mr. Godfrey’s hat. “You’re just anti-V-Day because you hate love.”

 

Laura knew Jaden was just kidding around, but that off-the-cuff joke was like a knife in her heart. She couldn’t believe how fast the tears welled in her eyes. God, she didn’t want to cry in class, but the tears were coming.

 

No. No way.

 

Bolting from her desk, Laura muttered “Bathroom” to Mr. Godfrey and ran out. The moment her foot crossed the threshold, tears raced down her cheeks. She felt like such an idiot. This wasn’t her. She wasn’t the kind of girl who cried in the hallway, but Jaden’s jab really hurt.

 

Laura’s locker wasn’t far from class, and she stuck her head inside, digging around for tissues. When the bell rang, she kicked herself for leaving her books on her desk. Now she’d have to go back to Mr. Godfrey’s room looking like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer… if he was drunk and high. She grabbed her compact and tried to pat on enough powder to cover up the redness.

 

“Hey, you!” Mila’s voice was unmistakeable over the clatter of students. “I brought your books.”

 

“Okay, thanks.” Laura didn’t even look out from behind her locker door. “Just toss ‘em on the ground.”

 

Her cracking voice must have been the giveaway because Jaden pulled her locker wide open. “What’s with you, pooh?”

 

“Wait, are you crying?” Mila cackled, then covered her mouth. “Sorry, sugar. Just, I didn’t think you had room for tears in that teeny-tiny body, there.”

 

A stream of anger coursed through Laura’s body, and before she could stop herself she’d smashed her locker shut. “Well I do, so why don’t you shut up?”

 

The whole hallway went dead quiet.

 

People were looking. Everybody was staring at her. God, why was she acting like such a freak?

 

Laura’s head buzzed as she yanked her books out of Mila’s arms. She was trying so hard not to look Mila in the eye that she ended up brushing the back of her hand against her friend’s big breast. It was just an accident, but the touch shocked her body. Even after she’d stormed away, her hand kept getting warmer. By the time she’d stomped through the stairwell doors, her skin was actually tingling.

 

From the top of the stairs, Laura looked down at the stream of students. Thank god it was the end of the day. If she had to get to another class right away, she’d have wanted to jump.

 

Resting her books against the railing, Laura looked at her hand. It didn’t seem any different than usual: short stubby fingers, chipped purple polish, nails chewed to the bone. But it felt different -- like it was glowing or something.

 

“Look at Laur-the-bore,” said a guy from her bio class. “She’s staring at her hand!”

 

Laura turned just in time for another guy to say, “You on drugs, Laur-the-snore?”

 

“The Ice Queen’s high!” a third guy grunted. They all brushed by her, laughing as they pounded down the stairs.

 

Where’s a girl to go when every direction is the wrong direction?

 

Without really thinking, Laura raised her hand to her nose and inhaled deeply. Was she totally nuts, or could she smell Mila’s body spray on her skin? It was like mangos and vanilla and field berries -- everything Laura loved. That’s what Mila smelled like.

 

“Ice Queen!” Somebody smacked Laura’s hand against her face hard enough to drive her head into the wall.

 

A shock of blackness streaked across Laura’s field of vision. It was so pronounced she almost didn’t know whether her eyes were open or closed. By the time the stairwell came hazily back into view, the crowds had dispersed. She didn’t know who’d struck her, but the jolt had dropped her books from the railing. They’d slid down the stairs, all the way to the landing, and Laura followed them, picking them up and hugging them tight to her chest.

 

Mila and Jaden were watching through the glass doors. When Laura caught the pitiful looks on their faces, she felt like a total dweeb. Had they seen the whole thing? It was so weird that they weren’t racing to her, asking if she was okay, but they both looked frozen in place.

 

“I left my backpack in my locker,” she said, walking by them and hoping they wouldn’t follow -- but knowing they would.

 

“Are you okay?” Mila asked.

 

“Yeah,” Jaden said. “That girl hit you pretty hard.”

 

Laura touched the back of her head, where it had slammed against the wall. “It was a girl?”

 

“You sound disappointed,” Jaden said with a stifled laugh. “Uh, yeah, it was that redhead Tracey. The one with the big bazongas.”

 

Mila punched Jaden in the arm. The motion made her breasts sway. Her tight purple top wouldn’t have looked low-cut on someone like Laura, but Mila’s boobs rested so heavy against the fabric they actually stretched it down. Laura tried not to stare, but Mila’s little gold cross glowed like sunlight against her brown skin, tempting Laura’s eye into that danger zone of cleavage. From there, she was transfixed.

 

“Can you believe him?” Mila asked. “Even gay guys be staring at boobage.”

 

Laura’s hand throbbed, and she shook it out at her side. No, that wasn’t good enough. She had to look away from Mila. Snapping open her locker, she buried her head inside.

 

“Well, sorry for living!” Jaden said, checking his hair in the mirror on Laura’s locker door. “But if boobs are around, you know I’m gonna look.”

 

“Do you look at mine?” Mila asked.

 

“All the time!”

 

“He does,” Laura said. “I’ve seen him.”

 

And if Jaden stared at boobs, maybe everybody stared at boobs. Maybe Laura wasn’t weird after all. Maybe people were all just giant babies who couldn’t resist the sight of big breasts.

 

That didn’t explain why her hand was hot as hell, though.

 

Grabbing her coat from her locker, Laura pulled it on and then dragged her bag up her back. One of these days, her spine was going to collapse under the weight.

 

As she summoned her strength, adjusting the heavy straps on her shoulders, her gaze accidentally met Mila’s, just for a second, but in that second she saw way more than she wanted to.

 

Mila looked quickly to Jaden and asked, “Want to come over and teach us freaks the meaning of Valentine’s Day?”

 

Jaden’s cocked his head. “Ooh, kinky!”

 

“No, not kinky.” Mila smacked his shoulder. “For the in-class debate tomorrow. Come over, and we’ll prep for pro.”

 

“Sorry, can’t!” Jaden said, taunting. “I’m ringing in V-Day with my candy-man Stan!”

 

“Ugh, I hate that guy,” Laura said. “Why do you hang out with him?”

 

“He’s a total pedo,” Mila agreed from down the hall. She kept talking while she opened her locker and pulled out her coat. “And he’s, like, a thousand years old. Can’t you hook up with someone who was at least born in the same decade as us?”

 

“He’s losing his hair,” Laura added as she zipped up her coat.

 

Jaden’s eyebrows arched down in the middle. “Shut up. No, he’s not.”

 

Laura giggled. “He is, at the back.”

 

“And the front,” Mila shouted across the hall. “I bet he has ED. Does he need a little blue pill to get it up?”

 

“Fuck off!” Jaden cried. His boots squealed as he turned around… and came face to face with Mr. Godfrey.

 

“Three-forty,” their teacher said, looking at his watch. “Why are you still haunting the halls?”

 

“I’m outta here,” Jaden said, storming past Mr. Godfrey. He pushed open the glass door to the stairwell, then turned swiftly around. “Those two hate love so much they can’t stand to see someone else happy!”

 

Jaden fled down the stairs before the heavy glass door slammed shut behind him.

 

Mr. Godfrey stood in the middle of the hallway with his corduroys tucked into his winter boots. Laura stared past the dorky sight, to the place Jaden last occupied. She and Mila had really hurt him. Even though she’d meant every word, she felt bad. She wasn’t just teasing him out of jealousy.

 

“Ladies,” Mr. Godfrey said.

 

“Yeah, we’re leaving,” Mila muttered, stomping toward the stairwell.

 

“Just one moment, please.” He held out his hand, escorting them into his classroom. “I’d like a word, if you don’t mind.”

 

Laura’s stomach plummeted. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”

 

“Yes, I know. You’re not in any trouble.” Mr. Godfrey tramped into his classroom, pulling his knit vest down over his belt. His boots looked like they were from the ‘70s, and they squeaked against the floor every time he moved. Normally, Mila would have laughed behind his back, but even she went silent.

 

Laura didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything.

 

“I know this is a sensitive topic and you’re inclined to feel a certain loyalty toward your friend, but a teacher has a responsibility…” Mr. Godfrey leaned back against his desk. He ran his hand through his greying beard before saying, “We have a legal responsibility to report these speculations to Child and Family Services.”

 

Mr. Godfrey seemed really uncomfortable, and that made Laura’s stomach churn so hard she thought she might throw up. She wanted to look at Mila for some indication of what this might be about, but Mila was standing behind her and she couldn’t bring herself to move.

 

“I couldn’t help overhearing your… uh, conversation with Jaden.” Their teacher kept tripping over his words. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds as though your underage friend is involved with in a sehhh… uh, an intimate relationship with a maaa… uh, a person who is quite a lot older than himself?”

 

“You’re just picking on Jaden because he’s gay!” Mila said, so abruptly it made Laura jump.

 

“No, no, I assure you, Ms. Ngatu, that is not at all the case.” Mr. Godfrey’s eyes looked tired. Laura felt sorry for him. “It’s a teacher’s legal obligation to report any suspicion of assault or abuse to Child and Family Services. It isn’t a choice, you see. Jaden is a minor. I would be breaking the law if I didn’t report what I just heard.”

 

“That’s true,” Laura said, turning toward Mila. “He isn’t making it up. I’ve heard of that before. Anyone who works with, like, kids or whatever, they have to report stuff like that.”

 

Mila’s hard expression fell, and Laura could see the panic in her eyes.

 

“We were just teasing him,” Mila said, toying with the cross around her neck, pressing it hard against her skin. “He’s dating this dude he works with part-time at the movie theatre, right? He’s not really old old. He’s just, like, a year older than us. We don’t like the guy, that’s all.”

 

Mr. Godfrey considered them both. His soft gaze moved between them like angels’ wings, gauzy and giving.

 

“Sorry we got you all worried,” Laura said. She knew her face went bright red when she lied, but at least she could blame that on her heavy winter coat. “Jaden’s our friend, but we tease him. That’s all.”

 

“That’s all?” Mr. Godfrey asked. It made Laura nervous, the way he looked at her without moving, without even blinking. “You swear to me it was only a joke?”

 

Laura nodded fast while Mila said, “We swear, Mr. Godfrey. Can we go now, to start our debate homework?”

 

Mila was pulling at Laura’s arm even before Mr. Godfrey said, “Thank you for your time, ladies. Safe home.”

 

“Oh my god,” Laura moaned when they got to the stairwell. “I think I’m gonna puke.”

 

“Not on my watch.” Mila zipped up her jacket with one hand and pulled Laura along with the other. “That was seriously not good! Was he for real?”

 

Laura burst through the metal double doors and out into the crisp February afternoon. “Yeah, my aunt works in a daycare, and it’s the same for her. If she thinks a kid is being abused, she has to call it in.”

 

“But we’re not kids,” Mila said, adjusting her backpack on her shoulders. “It’s none of their business what we do.”

 

“I know, right?”

 

When Laura pictured comb-over Stan doing all sorts of nasty things to one of her best friends, she shuddered. She didn’t agree with Mila, not completely, but she didn’t want to argue. Poor Mr. Godfrey. Did he really believe them, or was he going to call Child and Family Services after all? It would suck if Jaden had to go through some weird investigation just because he’d slept with a dirty old man. Shouldn’t that be Jaden’s choice? Shouldn’t a horny teenager get to screw whoever he wants?

 

“Are we going to your place?” Laura asked, trying to shake all that Jaden stuff from her head.

 

“I thought so. Aren’t we?”

 

“Yeah, just checking.”

 

The two-bedroom apartment Mila shared with her father wasn’t the fanciest place on earth, but Laura liked going there. Mila’s dad worked the night shift at a cookie factory on the other side of the city, so they always had lots of privacy and lots of treats.

 

“What’s on tap?” Laura asked, pawing through the bags of broken cookies on the counter.

 

“Those are the vanilla wafers you don’t like.” Mila pushed a different bag in Laura’s direction. “Here -- the chocolate-covered ones with that stuff in the middle.”

 

“Ooh, my favorite!”

 

Mila turned on the TV, and they vegged-out completely before starting homework. Laura couldn’t believe how fast time had gone by when her mom called at six-fifteen.

 

“What’s wrong?” her mother asked, sounding so suspicious Laura wondered what she’d done wrong.

 

“What? Nothing. Why?”

 

But Laura knew what she’d done wrong. She’s lied to Mr. Godfrey, and her mother always knew when she felt guilty about something.

 

“Your voice sounds… I don’t know… have you been drinking?”

 

“What? No! I’m at Mila’s.”

 

“Oh.” Her mom’s voice always changed when she mentioned Mila. “How’s she holding up? How’s her poor dad?”

 

Laura turned away from her friend and walked as far as the bathroom. “Mom, they’re fine. You don’t have to ask every time…”

 

“It isn’t easy for a girl to lose her mother so young.”

 

“Mom, it was like five years ago…”

 

“I can’t even imagine,” Laura’s mother went on. “When I was a girl, my sickly aunt lived with us, and, well, losing an aunt is one thing.”

 

It made Laura squeamish when her mom started talking about mushy stuff -- death, love, anything emotional. And she wondered why people called her the Ice Queen…

 

“And then selling the house to settle up medical bills? Laura, can you imagine if we had to move into an apartment at this stage? How would you feel?”

 

“Mom, I don’t care.” Laura bit her lip. What a thing to say. Of course she cared; she just didn’t know how to say so without… falling apart. “We’ve got debate homework. Can I stay over?”

 

“Not on a school night.”

 

“But Mila…” Laura knew which cards to play. “She doesn’t like to be alone.”

 

Worked every time.

 

“Okay, but eat something real for dinner. Not just cookies.”

 

Laura’s mother knew her too well.

 

“I like your mom,” Mila said without looking away from the TV.

 

Laura wasn’t sure why she took that as such a high compliment, but it made her smile. “Yeah, she’s okay. But she feels so sorry for you. It’s kind of annoying.”

 

Mila didn’t respond. She sat on the couch with both feet propped on the coffee table, her Spanish exercise book in her lap, the textbook open beside her.

 

“What’s for dinero?” Laura asked.

 

Mila laughed. “Dinero doesn’t mean dinner.”

 

“Fine.” Laura shrugged, then grabbed the fridge door. “I tried.”

 

“Do you have any money?” Mila asked. “I feel like pizza.”

 

The fridge was empty. Not empty as in there was nothing good to eat. Empty as in there were condiments in the door and milk in the jug, and pretty much nothing else.

 

“Yeah,” Laura said, closing the fridge and rifling through her backpack. “There’s a wallet in here somewhere.”

 

Pizza was a good idea. Laura ordered more than enough, pretending she was super-hungry, just so there’d be leftovers for Mila’s dad when he got home. Cold pizza was just as good as hot pizza. Maybe even better.

 

By the time they’d finished eating, it was getting kind of late and they still hadn’t prepped for Mr. Godfrey’s debate assignment. Every time Laura thought about it, her stomach turned. Had he called Child and Family Services? Had he made a report about Jaden and candy-man Stan?

 

“You okay?” Mila asked.

 

Laura was holding her stomach with both hands, curled up in the big-bear embrace of a tattered recliner.

 

“Yeah, fine. Just ate too much.”

 

Laura sat up straight as Mila unzipped the hoodie she’d been wearing all evening. Oh no! Not the cleavage! Mila’s purple top dipped down so low Laura could see the black lace of her bra. Mila either didn’t notice it was showing, or didn’t care, because she did nothing about it.

 

“Want to start on the V-Day debate stuff?” Mila asked.

 

Laura’s hand warmed as she ogled the bit of Mila’s bra that was showing. Why couldn’t she stop staring? She was acting like a total perv. Had Mila really not noticed?

 

“Laura?”

 

“Huh?” She grasped her hot hand with her cool one. “Debate? Yeah. Where should we start?”

 

Mila leaned back on the couch. “Well, we already know the enemy. We are the enemy. So, if we were arguing that Valentine’s Day was crap, what would we say?”

 

“That’s easy,” Laura said while Mila took notes. “V-Day is just an excuse to sell greeting cards, overpriced chocolates, fancy meals, crappy date-night romantic comedies, you name it. It’s a made-up holiday.”

 

Mila chewed on the end of her pen. “Okay, then we could say Valentine’s Day has roots in, like, Roman times when the emperor outlawed marriage because single men made better soldiers.”

 

“Seriously?”

 

“Yeah, and Valentine was a priest who was like, ‘No way, that’s not fair,’ so he performed marriages in secret. When the emperor found out, Valentine was put to death.”

 

“Really?” Laura asked. “Where’d you learn that?”

 

Mila shrugged. “I don’t know. History Channel?”

 

“Kind of reminds me of today, how some priests or whatever perform gay marriages even where it’s not legal, just because they think it’s the right thing to do.”

 

“Yeah, for sure.” Mila jotted it down while Laura joined her on the couch to see what she was writing. “I don’t know how that fits with our argument, though.”

 

“No, true.” Laura closed her eyes, because that was the only way she could stop staring down Mila’s top. “Okay, we can say the obvious: that all those purchases of flowers and candy contribute positively to the economy.”

 

“Eww, skeevy.”

 

“I know, but it’s a solid defense.”

 

Mila’s pen raced across the page. “What else?”

 

“Umm…” Laura pressed her palms against her eyelids, until she saw swirling stars across a black background. All she could think about was Jaden. Why was he so hot for V-Day? “Maybe if you’re greedy and you like getting presents, then it’s good?”

 

“Or if you like romance,” Mila said. “Or, like, if you’re shy and you don’t know how to tell someone you love them. Or if you want to do something special like cook them dinner but any other day they’d think it was cheesy? You can do all kinds of stuff on Valentine’s Day that you wouldn’t get away with the rest of the year.”

 

“That’s kind of dumb,” Laura said.

 

“No it’s not.”

 

She pulled her hands away from her eyes, but the stars still swirled around Mila’s face, sparkling and popping like magic.

 

Snapping her pen onto her notebook, Mila looked Laura plain in the face and asked, “Why do you hate love?”

 

“Why do you?” Laura shot back. Why was she being so defensive? She shook her head. “Sorry. I mean… I don’t hate love. I just think it’s, like, overrated or something.”

 

Mila didn’t pick up her pen. She didn’t move. “Did you love Ryan?”

 

A groan streaked from Laura’s throat, and she tossed her head back on the couch. “I don’t want to talk about that.”

 

“Never?” Mila asked. “Come on. I’m, like, your best friend, and you never even told me what happened.”

 

“Nothing happened,” Laura snapped. “Nothing. At all. Why do you think the whole school calls me the fricken’ Ice Queen?”

 

“I heard he wanted to do it, and you didn’t. So what? That’s not exactly headline news.”

 

Laura seriously didn’t want to talk about this, but she’d held it in so long it just exploded out. “It’s not just that I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t even want to, like, kiss him. He’d try to warm me up, but everywhere he touched just turned to ice. It was so wrong.”

 

“But you loved him,” Mila said. “Or, you told me you loved him. Did you?”

 

“Yeah.” Laura chewed her fingernail as she thought about Ryan. “I mean… I think so. He was my favorite person to be around, to talk to or whatever. He’s really smart and funny and all that.”

 

“But something was missing,” Mila said as Laura tucked her warm hand under her chin.

 

“The heat,” Laura said. Her hand was on fire. “I thought there was something wrong with me. There wasn’t any passion or tingly… stuff… oh my god, I sound like such a dweeb.”

 

“Do you think Jaden feels the heat for candy-man Stan?” Mila asked. “I mean, if he works part-time at a movie theatre, he can’t be rich. He can’t really be a candy man. Maybe Jaden actually likes the guy.”

 

“There’s no accounting for taste,” Laura said. “Do you think it’s wrong, what they’re doing?”

 

“Why? Because they’re gay or because of the age thing?”

 

“No, not because they’re gay,” Laura said quickly. They were sitting so close to each other on the couch she could hardly breathe. “I don’t care about stuff like that. I mean, do you think comb-over guy’s taking advantage of Jaden? Or do you think they’re a real couple and they’re going to grow old together and adopt fourteen golden retriever puppies?”

 

“I really have no idea.” Mila set her notebook on the coffee table and turned toward Laura. “Can I tell you something?”

 

“No.” Laura tried not to look into Mila’s cleavage, but she couldn’t face the dull glow in those beautiful black eyes, either. Her heart was hammering in her throat. She was practically choking on it. “Please don’t.”

 

Mila took her hand, the warm one, and held it tight. “What are you so afraid of?”

 

Everything was melting. Laura struggled to keep the ice castle together, but there was no use. She was a hot, wet mess in Mila’s hands.

 

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Mila whispered. Her full lips hovered close. So close.

 

“Please…”

 

But it was too late. The moment Mila’s lips met hers, Laura knew what she needed. It wasn’t much. Just this. Just this, for now.

 

They leaned into the couch and kissed deeply. Laura wasn’t brave with her hands, and neither was Mila, but that didn’t matter. Mila’s heat flooded Laura’s system and fried her brain -- singed her hair, probably. Her whole body felt hot, right down to her toes.

 

Mila was right. There was nothing wrong with her. Ever since Ryan, she’d thought she was broken, but here was proof -- proof that she wasn’t. New joy bubbled through her limbs, making her feel light as air.

 

They kissed forever, or what felt like felt like forever, until Mila pulled away, laughing.

 

“What’s so funny?” Laura asked.

 

“I feel like my tongue just ran a marathon.” Mila massaged her jaw. “You’re a good kisser.”

 

Laura knew her cheeks must be crimson. “I am?”

 

“Yeah.” Mila pointed at her mouth. “Oh my god, your lips are huge.”

 

“Oh.” Laura covered them with the one hand that was still hotter than the other.

 

“No, you look good. They’re really red, too. People pay big money to look like that.”

 

“Thanks.” Laura tried not to smile because her jaw ached from kissing, but she couldn’t help herself. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt this happy. “Do you think this is how Jaden feels when he’s with mister comb-over candy-man?”

 

“I don’t know.” Mila picked up her Spanish books from the floor. “What do you care? What difference does it make?”

 

“Just…” Laura’s mind was so inflamed from the heat of their kisses that she couldn’t find the right words. “I keep wondering if we should have told Mr. Godfrey the truth. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong. The law obviously says it’s wrong. Do you think Stan would go to jail for, like, corrupting a minor or something?”

 

Mila’s expression went blank, like she’d never considered that possibility. “Maybe they’re not even sleeping together. We don’t really know. We only know what Jaden tells us.”

 

Laura’s mind turned over like an engine, again and again, until her brain hurt. She would do the right thing in a heartbeat, if only she knew what the right thing was. “Ugh, I can’t think about this anymore.”

 

“Fine,” Mila said, kissing her warm hand. “Then think about me.”

 

They sat together, so close their bodies touched every time they breathed. Another kiss consumed them, like they couldn’t help it, like a giant that gobbled them up in one big bite.

 

When their lips parted, it was Mila who said, “You know what? I’m glad we got pro-V-Day. I don’t feel like arguing against it anymore.”

 

“Yeah,” Laura agreed, closing her eyes to the night. “Me neither.”

 

 

[] HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KLUTZFACE!

 

 

“I don’t know how you talked me into this,” Mila groaned. Grocery bags dug into her hands as she heaved them along. “And, hey, how come I’m lugging all the heavy stuff, and all you have to carry is a light little box?”

 

“I love you,” Laura said, “but you’re a notorious klutzface. No way I’m letting you carry a birthday cake.”

 

Mila’s cheeks blazed. Laura never used to say “I love you,” but lately she’d been saying it all the time. It was kind of embarrassing, especially when they were at school, with other people around. Luckily, she and Laura were the only two people walking down Mila’s aunt’s street at the moment.

 

“There, that’s Aunt Qeisha’s house.” Mila pointed to number seventy-two.

 

“Oh, it’s a bungalow?” Laura tilted her head and looked at the house as if it were some kind of weird sculpture. “It’s smaller than I thought. Didn’t you say your aunt was rich?”

 

“This is a super-expensive neighborhood, you know. Even the smaller places on this street are probably more expensive than your house.”

 

Laura rolled her eyes. “Doubt it.”

 

Mila’s teeth clenched, but she just set down the grocery bags and dug out her key. She wanted so badly for Laura to be impressed by something pertaining to her family. It’s not like the ratty two-bedroom apartment Mila lived in with her father was going to win any awards.

 

“Just wait until you see inside.” Mila stuck the key in the lock. “Aunt Qeisha’s an amazing decorator. Oh, and she’s very particular -- that’s what my mom used to call her -- so don’t move anything.”

 

“I know, I know!” Laura laughed. “You’ve only told me, like, a million times!”

 

Out of the corner of her eye, Mila spotted a big white SUV rolling down the street. Her breath hitched, and she shoved the door open. “Get inside. Fast!”

 

“Okay, I’m going. Sheesh!”

 

When the SUV rolled into the driveway next door, Laura was safe inside the house. Mila scooped up the bags of groceries. Aunt Qeisha had told her to go next door if she had any problems with the house, but she still felt like the neighbors would report back and get her in trouble if they witnessed any questionable activity.

 

The car door slammed shut, and Mr. Singh greeted her with a smile. Just as she’d crossed the threshold, thinking she was home free, she heard him holler, “Mila! Come quick!”

 

Dropping the groceries, she stuck her head out the door. He sounded panic-stricken, and she wondered if he’d hurt himself or something. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

 

“Your aunt’s cat -- he darted right past you.” Mr. Singh pointed as Apricot leaped like an acrobat onto the roof of his car. “He’s not allowed outside, is he?”

 

“Crap,” Mila muttered, racing down the drive and scooping up the cat. “Every time I open the door he makes a run for it.”

 

“You should pay closer attention,” Mr. Singh said, in a gently scolding voice.

 

“Yeah, thanks.” She tried not to be rude, even though she wished he would mind his own business. Her aunt had definitely asked the neighbors to keep an eye out while she was house sitting.

 

“What was that about?” Laura asked from the kitchen.

 

Mila’s heart slipped. All week she’d looked forward to giving Laura the grand tour. Closing the door with her butt, she set Apricot down. “I guess you showed yourself around, huh?”

 

“Just the kitchen,” Laura said, as she peeked in every cupboard. “You were right -- this place is swanky! Look how the light shimmers off the granite countertops. And is this a gas stove? I’ve never used one before.”

 

“Uh-oh,” Mila teased. “If you can burn mac and cheese on an electric stove, God only knows what you’ll do with gas. Probably burn the house down!”

 

“Very funny.”

 

“It’s true -- you did burn the mac and cheese. Do you know how long it took me to scrub that pot? We don’t all have dishwashers, you know.”

 

Laura wrapped her arms around Mila’s waist. As they stood like that, all tangled up together in the middle of the kitchen, Mila closed her eyes and smiled. Laura smelled so yummy -- or maybe it was the cake. Something smelled like vanilla, and it was making Mila’s stomach growl.

 

“Want to show me around?” Laura asked.

 

“Sure,” Mila said, but she didn’t move.

 

Neither did Laura. “Happy birthday.”

 

“Thanks. I’ve been looking forward to this.”

 

“To my cooking?” Laura laughed.

 

Mila smiled hazily. “Well, to being together -- being domestic together. Cooking, cleaning, all that stuff.”

 

“But we cook all the time at your place, and we help with the dishes at mine.”

 

“I know, but this is special.” Mila unlocked her body from Laura’s. “I can’t explain it. Never mind. Let me give you the grand tour.”

 

Laura seemed impressed by the house. Mila was glad. She’d worried maybe Laura wouldn’t get the African influence in the patterns and sculptures, but Laura had only nice things to say.

 

“So, this is where we’re eating dinner?” Laura asked, pulling out one of the dining room chairs.

 

Mila laughed. “I don’t think we’ve ever not eaten in front of the TV.”

 

“A few times, we have. At my house.”

 

That was true. Laura still had family meals at her house, if everyone was home. Mila almost never ate dinner with her dad. He worked nights, so he wasn’t usually home for meals. She missed him a lot, sometimes. She missed her mom more, but there was nothing she could do about that.

 

“This is a great table,” Laura said, running her hand across the surface.

 

The wood was just about the same color as Mila’s skin, and when Laura touched it, she sort of felt like it was her being touched. Weird.

 

“You have to take really good care of it,” Mila said, as Laura wandered toward the kitchen. “We’ll use placemats, for sure. If we leave any rings or chips or burn marks on this table, my aunt will kill me.”

 

Laura laughed. “You’re paranoid.”

 

“You don’t know my aunt.”

 

“Okay, okay.” Laura started unloading groceries onto the counter. “I’m gonna get started on dinner.”

 

“I can help!”

 

“No, you don’t have to. It’s your birthday.”

 

Mila hopped into the kitchen and yanked open the refrigerator door. “I don’t mind. I want to help. Hey, you know what I was thinking? Once I had twice-baked potatoes, and they were the best things ever. They were baked potatoes, then you hollow out the potato part, mix it with a bunch of stuff, and cram it back in the skins.”

 

“I don’t know how to make that,” Laura said flatly.

 

“It won’t be hard.” Mila pulled a tub of mayonnaise from the fridge. “Aunt Qeisha’s got all the ingredients. There’s no real cheese, but I guess we could add this crumbly parmesan stuff.”

 

The parmesan must have piqued Laura’s interest, because when Mila grabbed it out of the fridge, she took it in hand. The plastic tub was see-through, and Laura gazed judgingly at the cheese. “Why are there clumps in it?”

 

“They’ll come apart if you—”

 

It happened like a slow-motion scene from a horror movie: as Laura started shaking the tub, the plastic lid popped off and flew into the fridge, followed by a snowfall of parmesan. Laura must not have noticed, not right away, because she kept on shaking the tub. Crumbly bits of cheese exploded all over, coating the condiments in the fridge door.

 

Parmesan everywhere! In the fridge, on the floor, and all over their socks…

 

Laura gaped when she saw what she’d done. Mila’s brain burned. Laura had no idea -- no idea! -- how irritated Aunt Qeisha would be if she came home to find her fridge full of parmesan. And her floor! There were bits of cheese between all the tiles. That would be hell to clean up. Mila wanted to scream.

 

But she didn’t scream. She could tell that Laura felt awful for making a mess. What good would it do to bite her head off? Mila didn’t want a little parmesan to ruin her birthday.

 

“Sorry,” Laura said. “Really. I mean it. I’ll clean everything up.”

 

“No, you don’t have to.” Mila didn’t feel much like smiling, but she smiled anyway. “You’ve got a birthday dinner to cook, remember? Chop chop!”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Yeah, yeah.” Mila grabbed a dishcloth and ran it under the tap. “I’ll clean the fridge. It’s fine.”

 

Laura laughed. “Looks like your aunt’s cat will do the floor.”

 

Mila looked down to find sweet little Apricot licking parmesan off the tile. “I don’t think she’s supposed to eat cheese.”

 

“Why not?” Laura teased. “Is she lactose intolerant?”

 

“Aunt Qeisha’s just really particular about things. Apricot’s food is like forty dollars a bag from the vet. It’s holistic or something.”

 

“What’s that mean?”

 

Mila shrugged. “Beats me.”

 

“A little cheese won’t kill her.”

 

Laura started washing potatoes while Mila swept cheese out of the fridge and onto the floor. It was so crumbly that she had a hard time massing it up with her dishcloth. She tried really hard not to be mad at Laura for making this mess -- after all, Laura had offered to clean it up -- but she could feel her stomach clenching in annoyance.

 

“Oh wow, this gas stove is really cool!”

 

Mila turned around. “Yeah, I know. Makes me want to roast marshmallows.”

 

Laura turned on one of the burners, and a flame popped up, making her jump. “Ooh, that’s kind of exciting.”

 

“I guess so.” Mila tried not to laugh at her girlfriend, but Laura sure was cute. “The pots and pans are in that cupboard there.”

 

“Yeah, I saw, but I should probably get the meat started. It’ll take the longest to cook. Is there a roasting pan?”

 

“Umm…” Mila didn’t want to admit that she didn’t know what a roasting pan was. “I think… maybe?”

 

Laura opened the oven. “Here it is. Perfect!”

 

“Turn off the burner first!” Mila shrieked, reaching for the knob as Laura set the pan on the stovetop. “Sheesh, you’re gonna burn the place down!”

 

“Oops.”

 

Mila turned back to her mess, tripping over Apricot, who was still eating cheese off the floor. Oh well. One less thing to worry about.

 

It took forever to clean the fridge. Mila had to bring out all the condiments and wipe them down, then clean out the basket that held them. It was like trying to scoop up little bits of styrofoam. Laura seemed to have a much easier task, placing the marinated pork they’d bought in the oven and setting water to boil for potatoes and veggies.

 

When Mila tossed the last of the spilled cheese into the sink, Laura looked up from the potato she was chopping. “I know we got off to kind of a rocky start, but I’m sure dinner’s going to be g—ahhh!”

 

“Oh my God!” Mila screamed when blood dripped on the cutting board. “What did you do?”

 

“My thumb! I cut it.” Laura dropped the knife and grabbed her thumb. “It hurts! It hurts!”

 

“Oh my God! Oh my God!” Mila didn’t know what to do. “Don’t panic!”

 

“I’m not panicking. You’re panicking.”

 

“You are too panicking.”

 

“No I’m not,” Laura howled. “I’m just screaming because it huuuuuuurts!”

 

“Here.” Mila turned on the tap. “Run it under some water.”

 

“That’s for burns, not for cuts.”

 

“It’s for cuts too, to get the germs out.” Mila grabbed Laura by the wrist and shoved her hand under the tap.

 

“Owwww!” Laura jerked her hand away, nearly throwing Mila across the kitchen. “You turned on the hot water, stupid!”

 

Mila gasped. “How dare you call me stupid? It’s my birthday!”

 

“Well, sorrrrrry! Blame it on the blood loss.”

 

Laura wrapped one of the pristine linen tea towels around her thumb before Mila could stop her. “What are you doing? You’re going to stain that!”

 

“I’m only dying here, and you’re worried about what your aunt will think?”

 

That was a way more loaded statement than Laura probably meant.

 

“Look, I’m sorry.” Mila hooked her arm around Laura’s and shuffled down the hall. “Come on, there must be gauze and bandages and stuff in here.”

 

The bathroom was snow white, and Mila worried that by the time they were done, it would be spotted red. Maybe Laura was right -- she was worried about all the wrong things.

 

“Can you unwrap the tea towel?” Mila asked. “I need to get a look.”

 

“It’s throbbing.” Laura seemed close to tears. “What if I need stitches? What if we have to go to the hospital? It’ll totally ruin your birthday.”

 

“No, it’s okay. I don’t care if we spend my birthday in the hospital, as long as we spend it together.”

 

Laura tilted her head and gave Mila a mushy look. “Awww, that’s so sweet. I love you so much!”

 

Being sweet sort of embarrassed Mila, and she held Laura by the wrist. “Here, I’m going to run this under some water and take off the towel.”

 

“Cold water this time!”

 

Laura cringed as Mila gently peeled back the tea towel. Her stomach tumbled like a washing machine because she was so sure Laura’s finger was going to start spraying blood all over the place, like in a horror movie.

 

But it didn’t.

 

Mila and Laura both leaned in for a closer look.

 

“Where is it?” Mila asked.

 

“It was definitely bleeding before. I mean, I felt it.”

 

“There’s blood on the tea towel,” Mila said, in agreement.

 

“Yeah, I know,” Laura snapped. “I’m sorry, okay? Where are the bandages?”

 

Mila pulled one out of the medicine cabinet, but she wasn’t sure where to stick it. Suddenly, a rich, hazy odor met her nostrils. “Wow, dinner smells good.”

 

Laura smirked, rinsing her thumb, then drying it on the linen towel. “Gimme that bandage.”

 

Mila followed the scent of meat into the hallway. “Hey, actually, I think it might be burning.”

 

“No way.” Laura wrapped the bandage around her thumb and admired her handiwork. “It’s only been in there a couple minutes.”

 

Mila crossed the hall. The closer she came to the kitchen, the more certain she grew. “Definitely smells like burning.”

 

“No, it can’t be.” Laura raced past Mila, yanking open the oven door.

 

Plumes of smoke kissed their cheeks, and Mila jerked away, coughing. “What did you do?”

 

“I don’t know! This shouldn’t have happened. It must be because it’s gas, and I’m used to electric.”

 

Fanning the smoke with Aunt Qeisha’s tea towel, Mila took a closer look. “Why’s it set to broil? Shouldn’t it be on bake?”

 

Laura’s eyes opened wide and blinked fast from the smoke. “I don’t know. Should it?”

 

Beep beep beep.“Fire!” Beep beep beep. “Fire!”Beep beep beep…

 

“Oh my God, what is that?” Laura covered her ears with both hands.

 

“The smoke detector. What do you think?”

 

Beep beep beep.“Fire!” Beep beep beep. “Fire!”Beep beep beep…

 

The deafening alarm shrieked through the house. Mila could feel it in her skull, ringing like a churchbell. The alarm itself was on the ceiling in the hallway, just outside the kitchen, and Mila flapped the tea towel at it, trying to make it think the air wasn’t quite as smoky as it really was.

 

“Shut up!” she screamed, barely able to hear her voice over the terrible wail. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”

 

It did shut up.

 

“Thanks.”

 

“What?” Laura asked from the kitchen.

 

“I was talking to the smoke detector.” Mila threw the tea towel over her shoulder, nearly tripping over Apricot as she made her way back into the kitchen. She still hadn’t swept the parmesan off the floor. She really was counting on the cat to eat it all. “So, what now?”

 

“The top of the pork loin was super-burnt, but I flipped it over and switched the oven to bake. Shouldn’t be long. I’ve got the potatoes boiling and the carrots in another pot.”

 

Mila’s heart went out to Laura. She was trying so hard to make this dinner special, and everything was going wrong.

 

“Smells good,” Mila said.

 

Laura grimaced. “Smells burnt.”

 

“That’s okay. I like a bit of burntness.”

Throwing an arm over Mila’s shoulder, Laura said, “I love you.”

 

“Is it hot in here? I’m sweating like a pig.”

 

Stupid. What a stupid thing to say.

 

Mila felt jittery, and she pulled open the oven to check on the meat.

 

Beep beep beep. “Fire!” Beep beep beep. “Fire!”Beep beep beep…

 

“No! Not again.” Mila ran away from Laura, fanning the smoke detector. It didn’t work this time.

 

Beep beep beep. “Fire!” Beep beep beep. “Fire!”Beep beep beep…

 

“Take the batteries out!” Laura called from the kitchen.

 

“It doesn’t have batteries. It’s hooked up to the electrical system or something.”

 

“Oh God, it’s going to call the fire department, isn’t it?”

 

“We better hope not. If my aunt finds out I had a friend over…”

 

Laura looked up from her steaming pot of potatoes. “Just a friend?”

 

“Now is not the time, Laura!”

 

Mila fanned the smoke detector so hard her arms started to hurt.

 

“Mila?”

 

“What?”

 

“Why don’t you try opening some windows?”

 

“Oh.” She’d been sure Laura was going to rant about how Mila had said friend instead of girlfriend. “Windows. Good idea.”

 

But Mila spotted the front door first and went there instead, opening and closing it swiftly to drive some fresh spring air into the house.

 

Beep beep beep. “Fire!” Beep beep beep. “Fire!”Beep beep beep…

 

“When will this end?” Mila cried, as she spotted Mr. Singh stepping out of the neighboring house. His eyes shot wide open. He could obviously hear the alarm.

 

“Is everything okay, Mila?”

 

“Yeah, fine.”

 

He approached Aunt Qeisha’s front porch, and his daughter followed along with a book of piano music. They were obviously on their way to her lessons.

 

“Anything I can help you with?” he asked, trying to peek past her.

 

“No, no,” she shouted over the alarm. “Just cooking dinner. I’m not great at it, obviously.”

 

On cue, the smoke detector stopped wailing. Mila could still hear its piercing tone echoing inside her skull, but her muscles relaxed. “Night, Mr. Singh.” She didn’t know his daughter’s name, but she closed the door on them before they could even reply.

 

“Thank the lord!” Mila breathed a sigh of relief and moseyed into the kitchen. “Everything under control in here?”

 

“I think so.” Laura poked at the potatoes with a fork. “Almost there. Would you mind setting the table?”

 

Mila smiled because it was so domestic, wasn’t it? The pair of them preparing a meal, sitting down together…

 

But when Mila glanced over Laura’s shoulder, her heart seized. “The sliding glass door. You opened it!”

 

Laura looked to the kitchen door and nodded. “Yeah, to let in some fresh air.”

 

“But you didn’t close the screen!” Mila rushed to the door and slammed it shut. “Oh God, where’s Apricot?”

 

Mila raced into the dining room, looking under the table because Apricot liked to sleep on the cushioned chairs. But she wasn’t there now.

 

“What’s the problem?” Laura asked.

 

“Apricot!” Mila scoured the living room. “She’s not allowed outside.”

 

“Oh. Well, she’ll come back.”

 

“How?” Mila raced from the guest room to her aunt’s bedroom. “She’s not an outdoor cat. Who’s to say whether she’ll find her way home? Lauraaaa! My aunt’s going to kill me!”

 

“I didn’t see her leave. She’s probably still in the house.”

 

Mila raced to the front hall and crammed her feet into her shoes. “I can’t find her anywhere. I’m going out to look.”

 

“But dinner’s almost ready,” Laura whined. “Let’s eat first, then we’ll go out later. Together.”

 

“I’m going now.” Grabbing her hoodie off the hook, Mila threw open the door. She went out, circling the house, whispering, “Apricot? Apricot!”

 

She didn’t want to shout, because she didn’t want to attract the neighborhood’s attention. When she reached the backyard, she gazed through the glass door at Laura mashing potatoes like a maniac. Wow, either she was really serious about creamy potatoes or she was seriously mad at Mila for leaving the house.

 

Who is she to be mad? Laura didn’t understand responsibility. She had a mother and father to take care of her, to give her everything she needed, to cook and clean, supply her with cash. Laura had everything handed to her on a silver platter. Of course she didn’t know how to show respect for someone else’s house, or how to take care of a cat.

 

But she did know how to take care of Mila. Look at her in Aunt Qeisha’s kitchen, struggling to make me the perfect birthday dinner. It’s really sweet. All this for me. Mila hastened her steps, touring the yard, running around the block. Apricot could be anywhere. She was so little. She could be hiding somewhere Mila would never think to look.

 

Laura was probably right. The cat would come back on her own. Animals were smart that way. And, if Mila was smart, she’d sit her butt down at the dinner table and allow Laura to present her a special birthday meal.

 

When Mila came in from outside, the first scent that hit her was burnt meat. Still, her stomach rumbled. All that running around reminded her how hungry she was.

 

“Okay,” Laura said from the dining room. “Time to eat. It’s… it’s…”

 

Mila crossed the threshold, expecting something amazing: candles, roses, and a gourmet meal. What she got was Laura looking like she’d been hit by a truck and burnt meat stacked beside a heap of potatoes and cooked mini carrots.

 

“I’m sorry.” Laura’s lip started to quiver. “It didn’t turn out very well.”

 

“No, no, no.” Mila’s heart gushed, and she wrapped her arms around her girlfriend. “No, honey, it looks great. I’m sure it’s delicious. Let’s eat, okay?”

 

“Okay,” Laura whimpered, falling into her seat.

 

Mila smiled at her sweetheart and tried to hold that smile as she looked down at her food. Maybe the potatoes were okay? She scooped some onto her fork. “Hey, not bad!”

 

Laura’s eyes brightened. “Really?”

 

“Yeah. You sure know your way around a potato.”

 

“Thanks, I…” Laura made a face and cocked her head. “What’s that noise?”

 

Mila could hear it too. “Sounds like… no, not the heating vents. Maybe…” All at once, she knew what it was. “Oh my God.”

 

Scrambling from her chair, Mila stormed down the hall and into the guest room, where she slept. “Apricot!”

 

The cat hadn’t escaped. She was sitting in the middle of the plump white duvet, vomiting mountains of parmesan.

 

“Uh-oh,” Laura said, watching over Mila’s shoulder. “I guess cats shouldn’t eat cheese after all.”

 

“Aunt Qeisha’s going to kill me if it that stains!”

 

“Aren’t you concerned about the cat?” Laura slipped by, into the room, but when she got close to the bed she turned promptly around, looking like she was going to throw up. “Oh my God, Mila, that really stinks.”

 

“It’s just cat puke. It can’t be as bad as all that.” But when Mila got a whiff of Apricot’s vomit, she promptly changed her tune. “How can it smell like that? It smells like… like…”

 

“Like baby sick,” Laura said. “Like sour milk. Must be the dairy.”

 

“Christ Almighty!” Mila tried to shove her nose in her armpit while she reached for the zipper on the duvet cover. “Help me take this off, would you?”

 

“No, it stinks! Ugh, I’m gonna puke.”

 

“Just help! We’ll do it fast.”

 

“Nooo!” Laura cried as she grabbed one end of the cover and yanked it from the duvet. They tossed the cover on the floor like a biohazard, then looked at the duvet itself. “Is it stained?”

 

“I don’t think so,” Mila said, though she didn’t dare come too close. “We got it just in time.”

 

“Oh my god, Mila, I am seriously going to puke. That stuff stinks so bad it hurts.”

 

Mila couldn’t agree more, but she tried to stay strong. “Open the door to the basement, turn on the lights, and get the washing machine ready.” Scooping the balled-up cover with both hands, she cried, “Here I come!”

 

Laura ran ahead, smacking on the basement light and opening the front-load washer. “Get it in! Close it!”

 

With the puke-covered cover contained, they could breathe a little easier. Still, Laura opened a tub of laundry detergent and took a big whiff. “Oh, that’s better.”

 

“Let’s add some bleach, just to be safe.”

 

“You really know how to work this thing?” Laura asked, pouring liquid detergent into the cap. “How much do I put in?”

 

“That’s enough!” Mila yanked the cap away while Laura was still pouring. “Oops. Sorry.”

 

Laundry detergent ran down Laura’s hand, but her scowl quickly turned into a grin. “Thanks a lot, Klutzface.”

 

“Yeah right.” Mila fixed the settings on the machine, then turned it on. “Who’s the one that cut her finger, burned the meat, let the cat escape…”

 

“The cat didn’t actually escape,” Laura said, then giggled. “If she had, she would have puked outside, and I wouldn’t be feeling like I just ate a bad egg.”

 

Mila couldn’t help laughing. “I know what you mean.”

 

“Well, you said you wanted an evening of domesticity.” Laura shrugged, flashing a smile. “Careful what you wish for.”

 

Leaving the washing machine to its own devices, Mila followed Laura back upstairs. “You’re not going to believe this, but I’ve had fun tonight. Or… maybe fun’s not the right word…”

 

Laura laughed as they sat down in front of their cold meals, just staring at their plates.

 

After a while, Laura said, “I’m looking at those potatoes, and all I can see is…”

 

“Cat puke?” Mila asked.

 

Laura turned up her nose and nodded. “It’s soooo grossing me out!”

 

“Same here.” Mila felt terrible, after all the trouble Laura had gone to. But, hey, at least they could laugh about it. “Want to go straight to cake?”

 

“God, yes!”

 

Laura disappeared into the kitchen, taking their plates and returning with a cake. Candles blazed on top of the chocolate frosting. In blue letters, it said, “Happy Birthday Mila.” She stood to get a better look, and Laura hugged her waist.

 

“Better blow out your candles,” Laura warned. “Before the smoke detector goes off again…”

Mila laughed so hard she couldn’t even attempt to blow out the little dancing flames. Wiping tears from her eyes, she said, “You’ve given me a night to remember, that’s for sure.”

 

“It wasn’t too terrible?”

“No, it was terrible -- too terrible to ever forget.”

 

“Well, thank you very much,” Laura snorted.

 

“Sorry. I just mean… it’s one of those stories people tell their grandkids -- our first birthday together, when we burned the meat and lost the cat…”

 

“Oh, blow out your candles!” Laura said, chuckling.

 

She did. She blew them all out, all in one go. “Look! No boyfriends.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“When I was a little kid, every time you blew out candles on a cake, you’d have one boyfriend for every candle you missed. If you blew out all the candles, no boyfriends. That was the goal. Didn’t you do that with your friends?”

 

“Nope. It’s cute, though.” Laura turned her around and kissed her -- a sweet happy birthday kiss Mila hoped would never end.

 

But when it did end, four words slipped from Mila’s lips, out of the blue. “I love you, Laura.”

 

“I love you too.” Laura hugged her close.

 

“I’m sorry I was hiding you from the neighbors and everything. Only, my aunt specified no visitors while she was away, and especially no boys.”

 

“And you didn’t tell her, ‘I’m not interested in boys, Aunt Qeisha. I have a girlfriend, and I love her to pieces.’ You let her think exactly what your dad thinks -- that we’re just good friends.”

 

“It’s easier that way. My family’s had enough to worry about since mom died.” Tears welled in Mila’s eyes, and she set her head on Laura’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I really am.”

 

“Don’t be sorry,” Laura said, with a smile in her voice. “Anyway, I’m one to talk, right? My family’s totally oblivious.”

 

“Do you think you’ll ever tell them about us?” Mila raised her head from Laura’s shoulder. Laura’s eyes shimmered. They were gorgeous, like jewels.

 

“Maybe one day.” Laura kissed Mila’s nose and smiled. “But we don’t have to worry about that now. We’ve got an entire chocolate cake to eat.”

 

Laughter bubbled up in Mila’s belly. “Come on, then. Let’s get started!”

 

 

[] I KNOW WHAT GAY IS

 

 

“I know what gay is.”

 

Jay choked on his grilled cheese. “Oh, yeah?”

 

Sarah gave a resolute nod after wiping her milk moustache off on her sleeve. “Gay is when boys marry boys and girls marry girls.”

 

Jay gulped down his milk. “It sure is.”

How in-depth should he let this discussion go? Sarah’s parents, his next-door neighbours Annie and Wayne, seemed to way overestimate Jay’s experience with little kids. Sure he liked children, he helped out with his younger brother and sister, but babysitting was a job for a twelve-year-old girl, not a guy in high school.

 

It seemed weird that Annie and Wayne asked specifically for Jay to watch their daughter for the two weeks her regular nanny was on vacation. People usually thought it was weird for guys to spend too much time around kids—especially gay guys, for some stupid reason. Like all gay men were child molesters or something. Ridonculous.

 

But Annie and Wayne next door obviously didn’t think that way, so that was pretty cool. And he couldn’t complain about the money they were dishing out. Most of the guys at school had picked up Parks jobs for the summer, but Jay was too scrawny for a physical work. And lazy. And who wanted to spend all day outside, toiling away under the hot sun?

 

“Jay?” Rolling a cherry tomato around her plate, Sarah looked up, looked right into his face, and his stomach clenched. What was this kid going to say next? “I don’t like tomatoes.”

 

Thank God! Picky eaters he could handle.

 

“Eat your tomatoes. They’re red like your hat.”

 

“It’s my brother’s hat.” Sarah popped a tomato in her mouth and chewed without seeming to notice what she’d done. “He went to camp.”

 

“That’s cool. Why didn’t you go to camp?”

 

Sarah wrinkled her nose. “I’m not old enough.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“And they said I’m not a boy.” Her expression went rock hard, little lips pursed in a pout, blond brow furrowed. “They said even when I’m old enough I have to go to girl camp instead. I said I’m a boy too, but they said no, so I’m gonna sneak into the boy camp and say I’m a boy and they’ll believe me because I am one even if dad said I’m not.”

 

She spoke a mile a minute. It was hard to keep up.

 

“That’s too bad,” Jay replied, though he hadn’t understood half her little tirade.

 

“Too bad, so sad.” She ate another tomato.

 

“Yeah, that totally sucks.” Should he say sucks in front of a kid? It was one of those words his mother never liked, but learned to live with, because you really couldn’t stop kids from saying it. “So what do you want to do this afternoon?”

 

“So what do you want to do this afternoon?”

 

“Are you copying me again?” Jay picked his hat up off the table and put it on backwards.

 

Sarah turned her hat around and grinned. “Are you copying me again?”

 

“Fine, then. If you’re going to copy me I just won’t say anything.” Jay stood and swigged the last of his milk, then took his plate and glass to the dishwasher.

 

Gobbling up the last of her tomatoes, Sarah brought her plate to the dishwasher too, going back for her glass. She was small enough that she had to grasp her dishes with both hands. It was actually kind of cute.

 

“Can we go the park and play soccer?” Sarah asked.

 

Apparently she’d forgotten her copy-cat game already.

 

“Sure. Soccer’s my favourite.”

 

“Mine too!” Her eyes sparkled. “I’m on a team, but there’s all girls on it and they suck.”

 

Ooh…did Sarah learn that word from him? He’d have to watch what he said around her.

 

“And they make us wear a pink uniform. It’s so ugly. It’s for girls.”

 

Jay reached into his pocket to make sure Annie and Wayne’s house key was still on his chain. “Okay, get your soccer ball, kiddo. And try to go pee before we leave.”

 

Taking his own advice, Jay used the main floor bathroom while Sarah went upstairs. He waited for her in the front hall, but she took a strangely long time and didn’t respond when he called her. When he jumped up the stairs, the first thing he noticed was the bathroom door wide open. He wasn’t a perv and he didn’t mean to look, but his eyes just naturally went there.

 

Sarah was standing in front of the toilet, facing it, her stiff jeans down around her knees. Her oversized plaid shirt covered her backside. She had the seat up, and was sort of leaning forward against the bowl. He couldn’t see—he wasn’t trying to see—but in the split second he caught a glimpse of her, it seemed like she was trying to pee standing up.

 

Taking a couple steps downstairs, Jay turned toward the wall and called out, “Everything okay up there?” His heart was racing, and he didn’t know why.

 

The toilet flushed. Sarah spoke over it, but Jay couldn’t make out the words. When she emerged from the bathroom, he wanted to ask why she was peeing standing like that, but it was too embarrassing. Plus, he didn’t want to get into trouble.

 

Sarah grabbed her soccer ball, and they took off down the sidewalk. While she babbled about her favourite video game, he couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d said at lunch: “I know what gay is.” Maybe that was just the sort of thing kids said, but maybe it was some kind of veiled accusation.

 

No, kids were never that subtle.

 

“Hey, let me ask you something.” How to put this? “You know when you said about gay people—boys marrying boys? Where’d you learn that?”

 

Sarah had been bouncing her soccer ball against the pavement, but she clung to it now, both arms wrapped around the sphere. “I heard Mom say to Nana that maybe I’m gay, and I asked her what gay is and she told me.”

 

At first, her response was a relief—he’d thought Sarah’s family was maybe talking about him behind his back. But they weren’t. They were just talking about her.

 

They were talking about her?

 

But Sarah was barely school-aged. She wouldn’t start Grade One until the fall. How could they know? Though, thinking back, maybe that was a stupid question. Jay’s mom said she’d suspected him from an early age. That was a good thing, according to her, because it gave her time to adjust to the idea. She knew Jay was gay before Jay even knew what gay was.

 

Now another thought occurred to him: Had Annie and Wayne sought Jay out as temporary babysitter so he could be some kind of gay role model for Sarah? That seemed a little weird. Didn’t they know any lesbians? He could hook them up with his friend Theresa, except she was always saying how much she hated kids.

 

The park was crowded now that the heat wave had broken and temperatures were bearable. Thank God Sarah didn’t want the playground, because it was packed with little kids all bustling around, pushing and screaming. Sarah had her eye on the soccer field—the big one, not the mini patch. And good thing, too, because when Jay spotted the shirtless guy working over there, his stomach clenched. He felt a little guilty, being so turned on in front of Sarah, but that was Darien! Without a shirt!

 

“Hey,” he said to Sarah. “See that guy over there? He goes to my school. Wanna see if he’s any good at soccer?”

 

Sarah beamed. “Yeah, and tell him I’m a boy.”

 

“Okay…” Jay tried to focus on her, but he kept looking up at Darien, who was tracing new lines around the field with one of those rolling chalk machines. Darien hadn’t noticed him yet.

 

“Tell him my name is Frank.”

 

God, the way Darien’s back muscles surged when he pushed that contraption past divots! His T-shirt was shoved in the back of his pants, and it flapped against his butt as he moved. Jay felt dizzy just watching.

 

“Tell him I’m Frank, okay?”

 

Sarah tugged on Jay’s top until he snapped out of his daydream.

 

“Huh? Frank? That’s a funny name.”

 

“I like it,” Sarah said. “Tell him that’s my name and I’m your friend who’s a boy.”

 

Something in Sarah’s intense expression told him this was more than just a child’s prank. In the back of his mind, little puzzle pieces started fitting together. He knew he should ask why she wanted to say she was a boy and her name was Frank, but he couldn’t wait even a second longer to call out, “Darien! Hey, Darien!”

 

Darien looked up, shielding his eyes from the sun. A winsome smile crossed his lips as Jay jogged over. Sarah followed, but her legs were shorter so she trailed far behind.

 

“Hey, man!” Darien pulled his T-shirt from his pants and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead. “You following me all around town or something?”

 

Yes. Yes he was. Most days. But not today.

 

“Nah, I’m looking after the neighbour kid.” He glanced back to find her dribbling the soccer ball foot to foot, but always kicking it too hard and having to chase it across the field and try again. “Oh yeah…she wanted me to tell you she’s a boy and her name is Frank.”

 

Jay chuckled, but Darien cocked his head to watch her. “That kid’s a girl?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Now that Jay looked at her with fresh eyes, he saw what Darien meant: it wasn’t just her brother’s hand-me-downs or the short hair she’d cut herself, much to her parents’ dismay—it was the movements and the mannerisms too. Sarah looked like a boy head to toe. And then Jay remembered her peeing standing up, and the thought made him feel weird, like a twisting sensation right in his gut. Maybe Sarah was a boy. Maybe…

 

“Hey, man!” Darien called to Sarah. “Nice moves, there.”

 

Sarah looked up at him and smiled. “Wanna play with me and Jay? You can be on my team. I’m Frank.”

 

“Good to meet you, Frank. I’m Darien.” Darien strutted over to Sarah and they bumped fists. “Let’s put Jay in goal and take shots on him, yeah?”

 

“Awww, goal sucks.” Oops—he said sucks again. Jay ran toward the goal frame. With all this pent-up energy from seeing Darien in the flesh, it felt good to blow off some steam with a little exercise. He sidestepped goal post to goal post, tapping each with his hand. “Fine, you two. Bring it on. Show me what you got.”

 

Sarah passed the ball to Darien, who dribbled like a pro, but came in too close for comfort. No way Jay could block a shot from way inside the penalty area. He watched Darien’s bare calf as it drew back and then forward. That big foot made contact with the ball, launching it to the left corner. Everything happened in slow motion, and still Jay couldn’t stay on top of the action. He jumped, extending himself, reaching toward the ball, hands cupped tight.

 

No use. It was a perfect set-up. Jay didn’t have a hope in hell of stopping that thing. The goal was good and, since it wasn’t game time, the nets weren’t up. He had to chase Sarah’s ball half way to the tennis courts.

 

“Lucky shot!” he called to Darien as he jogged back. “Betcha you couldn’t do that again.”

 

“Oh, I’ll show you!”

 

No sooner had Jay launched the soccer ball in Darien’s direction than a loud voice called, “Pass it over here!”

 

Jay and Darien turned in unison, and Jay’s stomach clenched. “Sarah! What are you doing? Put your top back on.”

 

If Annie and Wayne found out about this, he’d be fired for sure—and maybe worse!

 

“My name’s not Sarah, it’s Frank.” Her plaid shirt and T trailed from the back of her jeans. “Me and Darien are skins.”

 

In truth, Sarah looked just like a boy. It wasn’t as if the parents or nannies or other kids in the park would know this was a girl running topless around the soccer field. Even so, Jay felt really uneasy about her naked chest.

 

“Fine, okay, Frank.” Jay didn’t know how else to make her listen. “I still want you to put your T-shirt on. We all know who’s on whose team.”

 

“But we’re skins!” Sarah hollered.

 

He could feel her rage, but he wondered why she was so mad about something so unimportant.

 

Thank God for Darien! He pulled his shirt out from his waistband. That thing must have been totally sweat-soaked! He’d been working in the sun all morning, but he put it on anyway and said to Sarah, “Look, Frank! Now we’re shirts and Jay is skins. Okay?”

 

Sarah reluctantly agreed and put on her T-shirt, tossing the plaid layer off to the sidelines. That was the joy of Darien—nobody could say no to his smile.

 

“You’re skins, Jay,” Sarah called out as Darien passed her the ball. “Take off your top.”

 

“Yeah, Jay.” Darien grinned. “Take off your top.”

 

At least he could face them while he did it. His back had way more pimples than his front. That’s one thing he’d always been jealous of Darien for: pimples weren’t so obvious on darker skin. Darien claimed he had a ton of acne, but Jay could never see it.

 

Jay tore off his top and Darien cheered, which made him feel like a million bucks. Nobody had ever cheered for his gaunt chest before. The hungry look in Darien’s eyes built his confidence up and he yelled, “Okay, you two. Hit me with your best shot!”

 

And, man, did they ever! Darien and Sarah double-teamed him again and again. Darien’s shots on goal were unstoppable, and his effort got Jay’s blood pumping. Sarah was giving her all, so Jay let a couple shots slip past the goal line. And she gloated relentlessly because of it.

 

“Jeeze, you guys, I’m exhausted.” Jay held the stitch in his side, exaggerating his weariness. He just wanted to get a couple minutes alone with Darien before he had to get Sarah home.

 

“I’m not tired yet.” Sarah stepped on her soccer ball, trying to balance, but tumbling to the side. She picked herself up and tried again.

 

“Why don’t you ask some of these other kids to play? We’ll be right here.” Jay pointed to the bench between the soccer field and the playground.

 

Sarah ran off to a small group of boys on the outskirts of the playground while Jay and Darien sat next to each other on the bench. Close, but not too close. Not quite touching, but almost touching. Jay could hardly breathe, and he couldn’t blame the humidity. It wasn’t the air that was thick, it was his blood—thick with lust. In a way, he hoped Darien couldn’t sense it, and in another way he hoped Darien could.

 

“I gotta get out of this thing, man.” Darien pulled off his T-shirt. “That’s better. I was really sweating out there.”

 

“Yeah, me too.” Jay gazed at Darien’s chest, down his solid abs, down farther. He tried not to be too obvious. Every time Darien glanced at him he pretended to watch Sarah playing trucks in the sand.

 

“You’re really good with kids,” Darien said, nodding to the playground.

 

“No.” Jay stretched his arms across the back of the bench. “You’re good with kids.”

 

Where was all this confidence coming from?

 

Darien didn’t argue the point. “Yeah, they’re fun.”

There were so many things Jay wanted to say now that they had a moment to themselves: “You looked damn hot out there” or “I think about you all the time” or even something as innocuous as “Ready for school?” or “How’s the job going?”

 

Why couldn’t he force the words out?

 

Darien was just as bad. They just sat there, keeping an eye on Sarah. When another boy threw sand at her and she pushed him in retribution, Jay hollered, “Hey, cut that out. No pushing.” He knew better than to yell at someone else’s child, but the nanny rushed over to have a talk with the sand-thrower. It was all good.

 

“Neat kid.” Darien nodded in Sarah’s direction. “Reminds me of a cousin I got in Vancouver.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Jay was happy to talk about anything. He wanted to know everything about Darien—family stuff, school stuff, future stuff, didn’t matter what.

 

“Ethan.”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“My cousin in Vancouver.” Darien leaned back in the bench, and his slick back touched the naked skin of Jay’s arm. Jay swallowed hard, but his throat was dry as cotton. “He’s older—in his twenties. Lived not too far from here until a couple years ago. But he was Cheryl then.”

 

Jay’s mind struggled to compute. Darien’s blazing body fried his brain. “Who was this, again?”

 

“My cousin Ethan. Growing up, he was Cheryl. He was a girl, but not really. I mean, he was just like your neighbour, there. Didn’t want nothing to do with other girls, not until he was a teenager—well, he was still she then. In high school, he came out as a lesbian. Family wasn’t happy about that, but am I ever glad someone else came out before I did. Made my job a whole lot easier.”

 

Jay didn’t know what to say. Should he be like, ‘You’re gay? I’m gay too!’ That would sound so stupid. Darien obviously knew. Everyone knew. There was no such thing as a secret at their school.

 

“Ethan says a lot of guys who are trans think they’re lesbians when they’re teenagers.”

 

Jay sat up straight as recognition sparked. “Sarah’s parents think she’s a lesbian. She told me that—she told me she overheard her mom talking to her grandma about it. I thought that was so weird because she’s, like, five years old. How could she be anything yet?”

 

Darien turned to face him and their knees touched, sending bolts of electricity through Jay’s body. “Maybe she’s trans.”

 

“Yeah?” Jay felt short of breath, and he wasn’t sure why. Was it being so close to Darien, or was it this topic?

 

Darien shrugged. “My cousin Ethan always said he was a boy, growing up. When he was a kid no one would listen, but now he’s an adult, so he can live however he wants. He’s even taking hormones and he’s got a beard growing in and everything.”

 

“Wow.” Jay always thought of himself as so worldly and open-minded, but he didn’t remember ever hearing about girls who changed into guys—only cross-dressers and stuff, guys who dressed like girls. Of course, he didn’t want to admit that to Darien. “So, you don’t think Sarah’s just playing? Maybe Frank is like…I don’t know, her imaginary friend. Or maybe it’s a game about being a boy. You know what kids are like.”

 

“Yeah.” Darien drew the word out. “Yeah, I do.”

 

Jay knew what kids were like, too: honest. And sensitive. In a lot of ways, they were much better people than adults. If you want a candid answer, ask a kid.

 

All too soon, Darien rose from the bench. Jay’s pulse surged into his mouth and he blurted, “You’re not leaving already?”

 

“The Man is paying me to work.” He shrugged one shoulder. “Gotta get back.”

 

Darien leaned in—oh God, he’s leaning in!—and Jay knew they were going to kiss. But Darien’s full lips only brushed Jay’s cheek en route to his ear.

 

“You can watch me work any time you want,” Darien whispered. “In fact, I like it when you watch…”

 

Darien’s mouth was so close his hot breath warmed Jay from the inside out. And maybe Jay imagined this, but as Darien eased away he was pretty sure those full lips caught his earlobe and gave it a tug. Did that really happen? Right out in public? Jay couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t even move.

 

“Wait!” he called, but it came out as a squeak.

 

Darien was half way to the soccer field. Not only did he turn around, but he came back within earshot.

 

“What do I do?” Jay stood and stepped closer to Darien. He already missed the sharpness of his sweat, the sweetness of his body spray. “What do I do about Sarah? Should I…I don’t know. What would you do?”

 

Darien’s dark eyes glowed with just an ember of heat, far off in the background. He turned his gaze to Sarah, who was now kicking the soccer ball around in the sand with the same group of boys. “Ask the parents. That’s what I’d do.”

 

Jay’s guts twisted at the thought. “Ask them what?”

 

“If they’ve read up on transgender kids.” Darien casually tossed an arm around Jay’s shoulder. He made life look so easy. “You could ask if they know anything about trans people. You could ask if Sarah’s talked about being a boy all her life. Maybe they’ve already had this conversation between themselves. You don’t know until you ask.”

 

“But what if asking makes them mad? What if they blame me? Or they might tell me it’s none of my business and it has nothing to do with me anyway.” He gasped. “What if they fire me?”

 

Darien clapped him on the back before stepping away. “Then I guess you spend the rest of your days watching me sweat.”

 

He broke off in a sprint and, when he got to the middle of the soccer field, leapt into a handspring. That lean body soared, flipping in mid-air, and Jay looked on in awe. After a perfect landing, Darien ran backward to the far sideline, waving all the way.

 

Jay waved back, in disbelief, until Darien got to work pushing that chalk machine, marking bright white sidelines across freshly cut grass. He didn’t want to go, but he hadn’t remembered to make Sarah put on sunblock like her parents insisted, and judging by her rosy nose and cheeks, she’d had more than enough outdoor fun for one day.

 

It wasn’t like Jay was best friends with Annie and Wayne or anything, but they seemed like nice people. Not just nice, but open-minded and, more importantly, open-hearted. Darien was right—he should just talk to them, ask what they thought it meant that Sarah insisted she was a boy. Could be that she wanted to be like her big brother. Could also be that the parents knew more about transgender stuff than he did. Jay really didn’t know all that much.

 

“Okay, Sarah, time to pack it in.”

 

Jay stood on the wooden ledge where grass gave way to sand. A bunch of moms and nannies looked up at him, but Sarah didn’t. The soccer ball sat motionless. They’d all gone back to the trucks.

 

“Sarah, grab your soccer ball. Time to go.”

 

He felt conspicuous, like a cat among the pigeons, when Sarah didn’t answer. Was it just his imagination, or was everybody staring? He couldn’t take his eyes off the kid who wouldn’t acknowledge him, not for a second. She didn’t look up. Until she did.

 

It took only a split-second for Sarah to convey her distain. She glanced at him, seemingly casual, until Jay met her gaze and spotted fire there. All at once, he understood.

 

“Frank,” he called. “It’s time to head home. Say bye to your friends.”

 

Gazing up at Jay with a cheeky but grateful grin, Sarah picked up her soccer ball.

 

Frank picked up his soccer ball.

 

And when he said goodbye to his new friends, the kids all waved back with a chorus of, “See ya later, Frank!”

 

 

[] DRESS LIKE A DUDE

 

 

Mila couldn’t stop glancing at Laura’s hand as they walked back from The Goof. She’d saved five dollars from her allowance just to afford Thursday’s almond beef special, but totally worth it. Even if The Good Food Café couldn’t afford to fix their burnt-out neon sign, they sure made delicious stir-fries.

 

Now her belly was full—almost too full, actually—and all she could think about was hooking her pinky around Laura’s pinky. Her girlfriend’s pinky. Nobody would notice. Jaden probably wouldn’t even notice as he walked on Laura’s far side, on the sunbaked September grass.

 

Not that it would matter if he saw. Jaden knew about them. Nobody else did, really, but they trusted him. Jaden was gay too, so who was he to judge?

 

It was sort of weird, coming back to the structure of school after a summer of lolling around. Not that Mila didn’t work—she did, she worked as a junior camp counsellor for the world’s most adorably annoying kids—but at four o’clock her day was done. No homework. No papers. No projects. Just free time spent with Laura, kissing on the couch when her dad wasn’t home, being together and feeling like an actual couple. Like a real couple.

 

And then September rolled around. The moment they walked through those green double doors they were right back where they left off in June. Secretive, closeted. Nobody could know.

 

But maybe that’s the way Mila wanted it. She really wasn’t sure. Was she ready to deal with the repercussions of coming out at school? Coming out to more than just Jaden? Because if she did, even if it went okay, one of her teachers might mention it at parents’ night and then what? She’d have to talk to her father about being a lesbian. The thought sent a chill right through her.

 

Look at Laura’s fingers!

 

Look at the way she sort of curled them as her hand swung with every step. Laura had such pretty fingers—oval nails, no polish, unbitten. Long white fingers, like a model’s. Mila’s were short, stubby, brown with a tint of pink in the creases. She’d painted her nails with White-Out for no reason in particular. In class, she’d coated the shiny surface with highlighters and then drew flowers and checkerboard patterns on top in pen. Her hands were so ugly that even when she tried to make them look better they only ended up looking worse.

 

Laura’s fingers were so pretty…

 

Just as Mila swung her hand close enough to hook her pinky around her secret girlfriend’s pinky, Laura stopped in her tracks.

 

“Sorry,” Mila said, but Laura was obviously listening to Jaden and not her.

 

He pointed up ahead, pointed at the school and said, “What’s going on over there?”

 

Oh yeah… everyone was out on the lawn. Usually it was just the dance girls and the smokers, although the smokers were supposed to stand across the street because they weren’t allowed to smoke on school property.

 

“Maybe there was a fire drill,” Mila said.

 

“Or a bomb threat!” Laura covered her mouth with both hands and gasped. Oh, those pretty fingers! Moving her hands to her cheeks, she asked, “Do you think there was some kind of… you know… something bad? Something really bad?”

 

“Like a shooter?” Jaden asked. “Nah, there’d be police cars and SWAT teams and stuff. And look—those guys have signs. Maybe it’s a protest.”

 

“A protest?” Laura’s hands slid down the clean white straps of her backpack. “I hope afternoon classes are cancelled. Mr. Lin’s been giving pop quizzes every day. It’s so annoying.”

 

“What are they protesting?” Mila asked. “I can’t see what those signs say.” They were written with Sharpie on broken-down cardboard boxes. Not very creative.

 

“If it’s political stuff, who cares?” Jaden asked. “Let’s just go home.”

 

Laura grabbed his arm before he could leave. “No, I want to find out. Maybe it’s about the cafeteria raising the price of fries. Sandy and all her people were really mad about that.”

 

“It’s not Sandy and the humanitarians this time.” Mila didn’t recognize the kids putting on the protest. “Minor niners? Look how young they are. And it’s mainly all guys. That’s weird.”

 

“Maybe Coach Kinney’s been supervising showers after gym class,” Jaden joked.

 

Laura said, “Maybe Coach Kinney’s jumping in the showers after gym class!”

 

Jaden laughed along, but Mila was too intrigued by the strange scene to really pay attention. Ninth graders making a spectacle of themselves? That didn’t usually happen, and definitely not at the start of the school year. They should all be hiding in fear of whatever imaginary threats were lurking behind every corner of their active imaginations.

 

Mila crept onto the patch of grass that divided school property from the neighbouring houses—an island between the driveway and a chain link fence. She wandered far enough to see what was going on without running the risk of becoming part of it.

 

Dress Like A Dude!

 

Guys Shouldn’t Wear Girl Clothes!

 

You’re A Boy So Act Like A Boy!

 

Ducking under a tall pine, Mila checked to make sure Jaden and Laura had followed. When she spotted them just behind her, she said, “I wonder what that’s about.”

 

From behind the aging pine, a young man’s voice crackled, “If you’re so curious I can tell you.”

 

Mila nearly jumped out of her canvas running shoes when she spotted the surly-looking guy seated against the fence. He was dressed in black from head to toe and sitting with his back somewhat hunched, his forearms resting on his arched knees. His skin gleamed like polished bronze and he had a mop of black curls that shone even though he was cast in shade.

 

“Sorry,” Mila said. “I didn’t realize anyone was over here.”

 

He stared at her with eyes rimmed in black liner. Something about him made her feel awkward. When she looked away, she caught herself focusing on his silver rings: skulls and bones and gory gloomy things.

 

The way he fixated on her felt so threatening she didn’t know what to say. So she simply said, “Sorry, I missed that.”

 

“I can tell you what they’re all worked up about,” the boy replied. “Because they’re all worked up about me.”

 

“You?” Laura asked over Mila’s shoulder. “Why? What did you do?”

 

“They feel threatened because I don’t conform to arbitrary gender norms.” The young boy folded his knees down to sit cross-legged, and as he did Mila realized that his black pants were actually an ankle-length skirt made of long, flowing fabric. “I wear what I feel like, and I don’t care what they think. Look at them all in their matching jeans and T-shirts—uniform of the masses. What a bunch of sheep.”

 

Mila felt like she was in a dream. This was really odd. The boy’s voice sounded so young, but he was incredibly well-spoken. He sounded smarter than most of their teachers.

 

“What’s wrong with jeans and a T-shirt?” Jaden asked. That’s what he was wearing. So was Laura, for that matter. Only Mila was dressed a little differently, in threadbare cords and a tank top she’d made out of canvas tote bag. She’d thrown one of her dad’s old work shirts overtop to complete the ensemble.

 

“Gee, I’m so sorry.” The guy in black tilted his head sarcastically. “Sounds like you don’t want people critiquing your fashion choices. Now you know how I feel.”

 

Jaden looked taken aback. “All those kids are just wearing normal clothes. There’s nothing wrong with dressing like a normal person.”

 

“But there is something wrong with dressing like a freak, right?” The boy in black grinned. “Wouldn’t want to be different. Wouldn’t want to challenge the status quo, because then we might have to ask why… and once we start asking why, it’s like pulling a thread. All of white North American society falls apart right before your eyes.”

 

Laura looked quickly at the ground, and Jaden took one angry step forward. Mila knew exactly why. It was just one word: white. Neither Laura nor Jaden was all that comfortable talking about the impact a person’s skin color had on every little part of their life. It was easier to buy into all that “post-racial society” nonsense. Easier not to think about it.

 

The young man stood slowly, giving them the full effect of his unusual outfit. He didn’t just have on a long black skirt, but also a long, tailored jacket. His look reminded Mila of The Matrix. He looked really… good!

 

“I like your coat thing,” she said.

 

He raised an eyebrow. “That makes two of us.”

 

Was he flirting with her? A minor niner boy flirting with a tenth-grade girl? Now, that was unheard of! Even though she didn’t usually like it when guys came on to her, the novelty of the situation amused her.

 

“I think you look like an idiot,” Jaden said. “You’re just trying to get attention.”

 

“Jaden!” Laura smacked him.

 

“Have you never seen Middle Eastern men wearing thawbs—long robes that go all the way down to their feet?” The boy remained completely calm. “Do you think they look like idiots too?”

 

“Yes!” Jaden shot back.

 

Laura smacked him again, harder this time. “Jaden, shut your mouth! I mean it!”

 

“Ignore him,” Mila told the boy.

 

“I try, but they’re all like him.” He glanced over her shoulder, to the minor niners protesting his apparel. “They’re all the same—small-minded pricks.”

 

“Excuse me?” Jaden stepped forward, but Laura caught him by the arm and tugged him back.

 

“Do you wear this for cultural reasons?” Mila asked, trying to be sensitive.

 

The boy laughed. “No. Do I look Middle Eastern to you?”

 

He sort of did, but she wasn’t about to say so and risk sounding stupid.

 

“I wear what I feel like wearing. I don’t care what other people consider girl clothes and boy clothes. It’s all so stupid. They’re all so stupid. They call me faggot.”

 

Mila’s gaydar was spot-on, and this kid wasn’t sparking a reaction. “I don’t think you’re gay. I mean, I can tell you’re not.”

 

“And what’s wrong with being gay?” Jaden asked, spitefully, as Laura held him back. “You’re gay, Mila. Or had you forgotten that because you spend so much time in the closet?”

 

She breathed in sharply. Tears needled her eyes, though she wasn’t sure why. She wasn’t ashamed of being a lesbian, but as she glanced at Laura’s moon-like expression she realized she was ashamed of herself for another reason. She was ashamed of being so afraid of coming out. If only she could be more like this kid, who didn’t care what other people thought.

 

Just when the tears threatened to fall, something happened to scare them right out of her system. Another kid swaggered up the parking lot, walking like a little tough. A Nazi, neo-Nazi, whatever they were called. Just look at him, with that eerily shaven head, military fatigue cut-offs and a ratty sort of jacket-vest. Without any sleeves, it showed off a huge range of swastika tattoos. How was that allowed in school? How come the ninth graders were protesting one guy wearing a skirt when another looked like this?

 

“Hey, Trent!” the Nazi called out, raising his hand in a heil salute.

 

Oh God, he was going to kick the crap out of this boy in black, this boy named Trent. Maybe he’d beat them all up! Nazis weren’t so nice to gays and lesbians, were they? This swastika kid was short and slim, but he looked scrappy. He looked like a fighter. Oh God, oh God oh God…

 

Oh wait a minute… that wasn’t a Nazi salute. He was just waving. Just a normal wave.

 

Trent waved back. “Pawell!”

 

When the kid came closer, Trent put an arm around the guy’s shoulder. Mila realized those weren’t swastika tattoos up and down his arms. They weren’t tattoos at all. His skin was a field of tic-tac-toe games, drawn in pen. Mila glanced down at her fingernails, which she’d scrawled on during class, and she felt guilty for thinking such mean things about this guy, who was obviously a friend of Trent’s.

 

Pawell asked, “These kids hassling you?”

 

“Only that one.” Trent pointed to Jaden. “But it’s fine. When he can’t sleep tonight, he’ll realize he’s only being a jerk to me because he’s so uncomfortable with himself.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jaden piped up.

 

The punk kid, Pawell, said to Trent, “The Principal’s looking for you.”

 

Trent’s eyes widened, and for a brief moment he seemed overcome with a childlike brand of fear. That quickly dissipated, and his expression of snarky dismissiveness took hold. “What does she want?”

 

“Pfft!” Pawell nodded toward the group of protesters outside the front steps. “What do you think she wants?”

 

With a grumble, Trent let his friend lead him toward the side entrance. He didn’t say goodbye. Mila wasn’t sure why she thought he would, but as she watched his long skirt kicking around his feet she really wished he’d turn back and wave or something.

 

“What a freak,” Jaden grunted.

 

In a small, calm voice, Laura asked, “Why? Because he’s wearing a skirt? Who even cares?”

 

“All those kids over there care enough to make signs and protest at their new high school.” Jaden set his hands on his hips and stood with a self-righteous hip popped. “If you ask me, that takes guts.”

 

“No it doesn’t.” Mila couldn’t stand his smug reproaches. “So what? A bunch of white males upholding the status quo. Whoop-de-doo! So revolutionary!”

 

“They’re not all white.” Laura’s voice grew so small it receded into her before she’d even crossed her t and dotted her i.

 

“I just think he’s making people look bad,” Jaden said.

 

Mila shook her head. “What people?”

 

Laura’s tiny voice jumped in to say, “It’s not like there’s a dress code here, like at schools that have uniforms. I mean, there’s nothing that says boys have to wear boy clothes and girls have to wear girl clothes. Right?”

 

Mila wasn’t sure how to respond. Laura was only skimming the surface of the issue, and probably only to show she was on Mila’s side.

 

Laura tried again. “It’s a human rights violation to discriminate against someone based on their gender identity.”

 

“But this isn’t about the kid’s identity.” Jaden tugged his arm away from her grip. “That kid, he identifies as a guy, right?”

 

“I think so,” Laura said, looking to Mila for answers. “That’s the impression I got.”

 

Mila asserted herself, even though she wasn’t one hundred percent sure. “Yeah he’s a guy, but a gender-nonconforming guy. A guy who doesn’t buy into stupid social expectations.”

 

“Gender-nonconforming? Is that an identity?” Laura asked, innocently. “I don’t know much about this stuff.” She looked to Jaden this time.

 

“Hey, don’t ask me! I’m only gay, I’m not some freaky drag queen or whatever that guy is.”

 

“I don’t think he’s a drag queen,” Laura said, like the mom settling a dispute between her naughty children. “It’s not like he’s pretending to be a girl or acting like a girl or whatever.”

 

“So he’s a cross-dresser,” Jaden said, flatly. “He probably sucks off closet jocks behind the dumpster.”

 

“No, that’s just you.” Laura was obviously trying to lighten the mood, but her joke fell flat.

 

“He’s rejecting binaries and social constructs,” Mila said. “Why is that so hard for you to wrap your head around? What difference does it make in your life whether some minor niner wears pants or a skirt?”

 

“Look,” Jaden said, like he was trying to negotiate with her. “It would be different if he were trans or whatever. Because then it’s like… if you identify as a girl, fine, you’re a girl. If you identify as a boy, fine, you’re a boy. It would be easier to deal with.”

 

Laura stepped forward and asked the absolute perfect question: “It would be easier for him or easier for you?”

 

Jaden furrowed his brow. He obviously felt the sting planted in her voice, because he shook his head and said, “Whatever.”

 

Hopping down the curb, he crossed the driveway and walked toward the same side entrance Trent and Pawell had disappeared into. Half way there, he turned around and opened his mouth like he was about to say something, but then he just waved his hand and walked away.

 

When he got to the door he turned around again and shouted, “All this in-between stuff is just… ugh! I don’t get it!”

 

They watched him enter the school, in disbelief. Jaden often overreacted, but not about things like this. His reaction was so… extreme.

 

“What’s his problem?” Laura asked.

 

“Who knows?” But Mila wondered if maybe she did know. “Do you think Jaden’s mad because gay guys always get picked on for being effeminate, being sissies, all that?”

 

Laura’s eyes widened. “What do you mean?”

 

“Well, like, maybe it bugs him to see another guy who doesn’t care what everyone thinks. Trent is pretty brave. A minor niner coming to a new high school wearing a skirt? He’s not even trying to fit in. We’re older than he is and we’re not even that brave.”

 

For a brief moment, Laura looked as if she might argue, then she thought better of it. “You’re right. If anyone’s a sissy, it’s us.”

 

Reaching out, Laura took Mila’s hand and squeezed it tight.

 

“What do you think the principal will do?” Laura asked.

 

“About Trent’s skirt and the protesters?” Mila shrugged. “Put it to a vote, probably. That’s what she usually does.”

 

“You think she’ll let us vote on whether or not a guy can wear girls’ clothes to school?”

 

“Yeah, she lets us vote on everything else. Well, except the price of fries.” Nervously, hoping she wouldn’t get an answer she didn’t want to hear, Mila asked, “Do you know which way you’d vote?”

 

“Of course.” Laura took a step back and cocked her head, giving Mila an odd look. “The same way as you, obviously. Even if we’re the biggest cowards in the world, I still think everyone should have the freedom to be who they are. And part of that is expressing themselves through the way they dress.”

 

“I’m so glad!” Falling into Laura’s open arms, Mila hooked her chin over her girlfriend’s shoulder, fighting with that bright white backpack. “When you think about it, Trent’s right: it’s pretty arbitrary, what passes for girl clothes and what passes for boy clothes.”

 

“We can get away with so much more than guys can.” Laura lifted the hem on the oversized work shirt Mila wore—the one that belonged to her father. “We’re lucky that way.”

 

Pulling back just far enough to gaze into Laura’s lovely eyes, Mila said, “I’m lucky in a lot of ways.”

 

They’d never kissed at school. Not once. Not ever. But, as the warning bell rang before the start of fourth period, Mila took a chance and pressed her lips to Laura’s, expecting a fight.

 

But Laura didn’t fight, and Mila let her eyes flutter closed, and they kissed under the tall pine beside the driveway. The whole school was focused on Trent’s ordeal, anyway. Nobody would notice two girls kissing by the parking lot.

 

And even if they did… so what?

 

 

[] THE SECRET TO A PERFECT LATKE

 

 

Her face lit up when he told her, and she wrapped him in one of her trademark mother-bear bear-hugs: tight and inescapable.

 

“Did you hear that?” Judith called to the crowd. Almost everyone in the room was family, so they were used to the noise. “Did everybody hear what my Noah just said? He’s going to appear live on national television! Paul, did you hear that?”

 

Noah’s uncle nodded slightly, signalling with his hand for Judith to lower the volume. Even a family celebration couldn’t tear the guy away from television, not that Noah could blame his uncle. After all, the candles were lit, dinner already devoured, aunts on clean-up duty. The dishwasher did most of the work, but he never dared to say those words out loud.

 

All these family visits over the holidays had been fun when he was a kid, but now everyone had grown up and turned into boring tools. Noah was the only person in the family who planned to do something interesting with his life. After high school, he’d be off to a culinary institute in France, far away from all these losers. What he wouldn’t give to be up in his room right now watching Iron Chef: Hanukkah Edition or whatever was on the food network. Instead, he was stuck making small talk with his older cousin, Sam the Mortgage Broker.

 

“That’s pretty exciting, being on TV.” Sam had the fakest smile you ever did see, like her lips had been stapled that way. Maybe they had been. The women in his family were quietly obsessed with plastic surgery. They went in for it early and often. “How did you end up getting picked for the Sunny and The Bear show?”

 

“Yeah, I’ve been wondering the same thing.” By the time Noah’s girlfriend spoke up, he’d already forgotten she was hovering. Megan was the only girl in the entire world his mother liked—or, at very least, the only girl his mother didn’t fanatically dislike.

 

Noah looked between his girlfriend and his cousin. He knew precisely what they were implying. The show focused on home décor, style, and cuisine. It was popular with straight women, but (or maybe because) it was hosted by a pair of gay guys—a skinny Asian dude named Sunny, and Phil “The Bear,” a gentle giant with a handlebar moustache.

 

Could Sam and Megan have been any more obvious? They were suggesting that if a man was chosen to be a guest on the show, that automatically meant he was gay too. Come on!

 

“They booked a gourmet chef and they wanted a Jewish kid to come on the show to help out. I think they booked someone who wasn’t Jewish, so they wanted a helper who was.” Noah knew his voice was high, almost screechy with defensiveness. “They’re doing a Hanukkah special. They’ve got their style guest and their artsy-crafty guest, but the original student sous-chef had to drop out at the last minute.”

 

Oh great, and now his mother was listening in on this conversation. Perfect!

 

“But how did they find you?” Megan asked. “Do they have some sort of…” Her eyes narrowed to slits. “…some sort of directory?”

 

“Directory of what?” Noah asked, but his mother stepped in before Sam and Megan could prod any farther.

 

“Well, of course they would call on Noah!” Judith threw both hands up in the air. When they came back down, one landed against his far shoulder, yanking him in for a sideways hug. His arm pressed up against mom-boob, and he tried to shift away, but Judith was like a boa constrictor. “I’m amazed the TV stations haven’t called on my Noah sooner. I always said he’d be a star. Sam, you remember what a little performer Noah used to be when he was young. He’ll have his own program by the time he graduates.”

 

Sam nodded and laughed in a way that struck Noah as strangely accusatory.

 

“It’s just daytime TV, Mom.” Noah felt embarrassed, but he smiled nonetheless. Despite her hyperbole, it was nice to know his mother would always be in his corner.

 

“Well, what do they want you to cook? Do you need any of the old family recipes?”

 

What he needed was a drink, already!

 

“No, Mom. I’m sure the gourmet chef has his own recipes.” Noah managed so squirm away from her snake arms and mom boobs, but she followed him as he edged toward the alcohol. He was allowed a bit of wine on special occasions.

 

Megan and Sam flanked Judith, one at each shoulder, like haute couture henchmen. “What does a gourmet chef know if he isn’t Jewish?” Judith’s eyebrows went up so fast they looked like they were going to fly off her forehead. “Noah, my recipes have been handed down through the generations!”

 

Funny how nobody’s managed to perfect them in all that time, Noah thought.

 

“Yeah, Mom, I know.” He reached for a glass. It was dirty, but cooties were the least of his concerns as he poured himself some sickly sweet Jewish wine. “But a gourmet chef does all this for a living. Doesn’t matter what religion you are or where you’re from. If you’re a really good cook, you can make curry one day, jerk chicken the next day, and blintzes after that, and everything tastes delicious. I’m sure the chef knows what he’s doing.”

 

“And your great-great-grandmother? She didn’t know what she was doing?”

 

Sam folded her arms across her chest and nodded. Megan stood behind Judith like a mannequin. She never came to Noah’s defence, but he couldn’t begrudge her that. Moms could be scary as hell. He felt surrounded, though he could have escaped in either direction.

 

Noah fantasized about the day when he could run. Go out. Any time. One day, he’d make a nice living, maybe stay in France after culinary school, or come back home and buy a condo downtown, close to work, close to…everything. Life.

 

“You know what, Mom?”

 

Imagine the freedom…

 

“Noah?” Judith’s eyes narrowed and she cocked her head to one side.

 

Sam hovered over Judith’s shoulder, scowling. He almost wished his cousin would say something, just so he could tell her to mind her own business. Though, what point would there be in that? She would only reply, “Family business is my business.”

 

With a deep breath, Noah harnessed his strength. “You know what, Mom?” He tried to say no. He tried to say it. “Why don’t you write down a few of those old family recipes? I’ll ask the chef if we can use one on TV.”

 

All at once Judith’s cheeks lost their blush, and she staggered toward him, mouth gaping. “My recipes are going to be famous!”

 

So now they’re your recipes, are they?

 

“Maybe one of them, yeah.” He tried to come across non-committal, but with Megan’s squealing, Sam’s clapping, and his mother’s incessant jabbering, he was sure they’d missed that minor detail.

 

“Well, what should I start with? Which ones should I write out? These television people, did they ask for anything specific, Noah?”

 

“Yeah, actually they did.” He took another gulp of wine like a pleasant pill. “We’re making latkes.”

 

“Well, of course you are, of course!” Judith threw her arms around Noah’s neck and kissed his cheek. She then turned to Megan and explained, “I know the secret to a perfect latke, and it’s nothing a gourmet chef can prepare in his fancy restaurant.”

 

When they headed off to the kitchen, Noah stayed behind. Uncle Paul had taken his spot on the couch, but there was just enough room to squeeze in between his uncle and his young twin cousins, who’d fallen asleep with their curly little heads resting together. All his agitation melted away when he saw the girls like that, all tired out after an evening of Hanukkah fun. He took another sip of wine, feeling pretty damn mature for his age, and he nestled in.

 

  • * * *

 

Noah couldn’t recall if she’d introduced herself as producer or director, this woman named Leslie who was giving them a quick tour of the studio. Judith had insisted on coming along. It didn’t take much convincing to get Megan out for the big event. In the end, Noah was glad to have them along for the ride. Everything happened in a whirlwind, and his mother always had the presence of mind to ask pertinent questions.

 

“Who is your fancy gourmet chef going to be?” Judith asked poor Leslie. “Don’t you think my son should get a chance to discuss a few choice recipes with him before they go on the air?”

 

“Absolutely,” Leslie said, but she was obviously distracted by her clipboard. It was so full that papers were falling everywhere. “Chef Troy is around here somewhere. As soon as I spot him, I’ll introduce you and he can explain what he’ll have you doing during the show.”

 

“Do I get to meet Sunny and The Bear soon?” That’s all Noah really wanted to know.

 

Leslie nodded weirdly, like she was trying to roll a kink from her neck. Her voice was very high when she said, “Hopefully, yeah. I mean…sometimes they don’t roll in until closer to air but… oh, hey! There’s Chef Troy now!” She waved at the tall guy who’d just walked on set, and his mom and Megan both took a seat in the audience. “Let’s go meet him and I’ll leave you two to double check that your ingredients are laid out right.”

 

Good, okay. That should take Noah’s mind off his nerves. Right!

 

“Hey, there. You must be Noah.” For such a big man, Chef Troy had a pretty lispy voice. “Leslie tells me you’re going to teach us the secret to a perfect latke.”

 

“The secret? Me?” Noah’s throat ran dry as he looked up at Chef Troy. His pristine white uniform practically glistened against his dark skin. He had the kind of warm smile that made Noah stutter. “No, I’m here to help you. You’re the chef.”

 

“From what Leslie tells me, you were making latkes before you were out of diapers.”

 

Noah knew that was only a turn of phrase, but the thought of Chef Troy picturing him in diapers made his skin prickle. He knew his cheeks must be patchy and red with embarrassment. He could only hope that would die down before they started filming.

 

“I’ll let you two get started.” Leslie gripped Noah’s arm like a vulture and said, “You need anything at all, you just ask for me. We’re going to take good care of you, kid. Nothing to worry about.”

 

“Well, then, let’s get to work,” Chef Troy said with a smile. He took a recipe printout from his folder to double check nothing had been mislaid. For some reason, Noah had figured the studio would provide all the food already measured out, ready to go for filming. Nope. Chef Troy had prepared pretty much everything they would need. All that was left to do was grate some potatoes, measure out ingredients, and put everything into clear glass bowls so they would look good on TV.

 

There was something about television coming at you from a box that made it seem magical. In real life, it was a lot of grunt work, but Chef Troy didn’t hand it off to Noah. They worked together. Chef Troy taught Noah stuff he didn’t know about measuring out ingredients, plus tricks and shortcuts he’d never even seen on TV. In no time, he even felt comfortable enough with Chef Troy to show the man his mother’s recipes.

 

“Wow, these are great,” the chef said, flipping through the deck of recipe cards. “I never would have thought of that. It’s too late to incorporate these ideas today, but I sure am glad you shared this stuff with me.”

 

Noah’s heart swelled so big with pride that he barely noticed his mother waving from her seat in the audience. When she wanted to catch his eye, she wasn’t usually so subtle. “Noah? Noah, honey, remember to tell the boys, Sonny and The Bear, tell them why we make the latkes at Hanukkah.”

 

Noah rolled his eyes. She was embarrassing him in front of the chef. “Mom, I’m just here to help cook, not give a history lesson.”

 

“Did you hear me, Noah?” Her voice was that low mother-bear growl. She meant business.

 

“Sorry, mom. I’m just trying to concentrate, here.”

 

Noah hoped Chef Troy would start talking to him so that his mother would stop, but no such luck. In fact, Chef Troy seemed interested in what she had to say.

 

“People don’t know these things, Noah. These nice boys asked you on their television program for a reason: you’re the expert.”

 

“Mom, I’m not an expert—”

 

“Tell them it’s all about the oil.” It didn’t even seem to register to Judith that Noah had been speaking, but he’d learned, over the years, to shut up and let her talk. “Just talk about the oil while Chef Troy is cooking. He won’t mind. You see? He’s nodding. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. As the chef is frying up the latkes, Noah, you tell the audience we eat so much food cooked in oil during Hanukkah to celebrate the miracle.”

 

“Mom…”

 

“Hey, I want to hear about the miracle,” Chef Troy said, offering Noah’s mother a friendly grin.

 

“You see? Chef Troy wants to hear!” Judith chided. “So you tell them all about the Maccabees. Tell them how King Antiochus oppressed the Jewish people, how he tortured and murdered loyal Jews. How Judah the Maccabee and his brave warriors defended the Torah only to return to the Holy City and find the Temple strewn with idols and filth, offenses of all kinds. And so they put together a menorah, but they found only enough oil for one night.”

 

“A menorah,” Chef Troy said. “That’s the special candleholder you put in the window, right?”

 

“That’s right! I might just take you home with me if you’re not careful.” Judith batted her eyelashes at the chef. “I said to Noah in the car, we’ve got people from every culture living in this country. Not everyone in the audience will know our stories. So tell them it was a miracle that this oil burned for eight days. That was our miracle. Tell them that’s why we eat latkes fried in oil, to be reminded. Will you do that, Noah?”

 

Chef Troy gazed at him as expectantly as his mother. What else could he say? “Okay, I’ll mention it.”

 

“I’m so proud of you, Noah.” Judith gripped Megan’s arm. “I’m so proud of my boy.”

 

“I’m proud of him too.” Megan unlatched Judith’s hand and stepped up on the slightly raised stage. Even though Noah was covered in flour and potato skins, she gave him a little hug around the middle. “Are you nervous? I would be.”

 

“Yeah,” Noah admitted. He felt weird because Chef Troy was listening. He felt like the chef might get the wrong idea about him, and that thought made Noah’s stomach plunge into his shoes. “I never pictured myself on TV.”

 

Megan’s smile soothed him like a balm, but he felt another twinge—this time not of nerves, not in his belly, but in his heart. When Leslie came back to feed him yet more information, the plucking sensation calmed, but every time he breathed he felt a weight. He couldn’t figure out what it was.

 

Megan and Judith were shown to their seats while Noah and the chef were bustled off to the Green Room. It wasn’t really green.

 

Somebody put makeup on him so his forehead wouldn’t shine on TV. They did the same for Troy, but used a different colour powder. When the chef sat beside Noah, his knees stuck up in the air because he was so tall. It reminded him of when his father had picked him up from school back in kindergarten, and taken a seat in one of those teeny-tiny chairs to make him laugh. A big man in a little chair. A big man with a big heart, who didn’t know how soon he’d be leaving this earth.

 

Noah smiled, remembering his father, and the chef smiled and said, “You’re going to do great.”

 

The other guests arrived—all women, and all looking very confident and fashionable—and Noah found himself too nervous even to nod or mumble, “Hi.”

 

Two of the guests went deep into a session of “Remember the time when…?” The Asian woman with the funky shoes looked really familiar. He must have seen her on the show before. For a moment, Noah felt a little star-struck, which made him wonder how he’d react meeting Sunny and The Bear.

 

“Do you think I’ll get to meet the hosts before we go live on national television?” Noah asked. It wasn’t a question aimed at anyone in particular—more like a sudden outburst—but it managed to silence the room. Everyone, all the women and even Chef Troy, looked at him, their faces unreadable.

 

And then they all relaxed into smiles. The woman he half-recognized said, “They usually do a little walk through the Green Room just before air time. They give a quick intro, shake hands with anyone they haven’t met, that sort of thing.”

 

“You must be new to the show,” said the curvy blonde with a head full of ringlets. “Don’t worry too much. Just focus on Phil and Sunny. Try to forget about the millions of people watching from home.”

 

“Millions?” Noah’s throat ran dry. “It can’t be millions.”

 

The blonde woman shrugged. “I don’t know—millions, thousands, whatever.”

 

Noah kept checking his watch even though there was a clock in the Green Room. He didn’t trust it—time couldn’t possibly move so slowly. He was getting so agitated his insides were itchy. He wished he could reach inside his skin and scratch.

 

And then, out of the clear blue sky, Sunny walked into the Green Room with Phil “The Bear” following close behind. Sunny threw his hands up in the air and cried, “We’re heeee-eeeere!”

 

The women and Chef Troy did the same and shouted, “We’re queeee-eeer!”

 

Everybody laughed, leaving Noah feeling stunned and out of touch as the guys did their “How’ve you been?” rounds with everyone they knew. And then they got to Noah. The Bear shook his right hand while Sunny shook his left.

 

“What’ve we got here, Phil? Looks like fresh meat!”

 

“Oh, I’m not very…meaty.” What a stupid thing to say, but everybody laughed so it must have been funny. “I’m Noah. I’m helping Chef Troy make latkes.”

 

“Right!” Sunny turned to Phil. “That’s right—we’re doing the Hanukkah cooking segment today, aren’t we?”

 

“And décor!” the ringlet blonde piped up.

 

“I read our notes to you in the car,” Phil hissed at Sunny. “Don’t you ever listen? Why do you think I wore blue and white today? As a fashion statement?”

 

Noah loved watching the guys go at each other. They did it on the show, too, and Noah’d always figured it was shtick, but apparently not. There was something about two guys in a relationship, nattering back and forth, that made Noah surge with…what? Jealousy, maybe? He and Megan never argued. She tried to bait him sometimes, it seemed, but Noah knew better than to engage.

 

“So, Leslie went over everything with you?” Phil asked. He had blue eyes, and they sparkled like ice diamonds. That didn’t come across on TV. Noah could actually feel the warmth pouring out of this man’s heart. He was incredible.

 

Noah realized he hadn’t said anything in response, and mumbled, “Oh…yeah.”

 

“You’re ready to go?” Sunny asked. “Feelin’ groovy?”

 

He had a nice smile, Sunny did. Noah nodded while Leslie slipped into the Green Room and gave the guys another nod.

 

“All right, people.” Sunny started clapping when applause rang out from the studio. “Have a great show. Let’s get this party started!”

 

Sunny and The Bear and all the other guests cheered, but Noah felt a sinking terror in his stomach as he watched the monitor in the corner, up near the ceiling. The show had started! The feed was going out live, being watched by thousands or millions of people—depending who you talked to. Now he was starting to feel sick for sure.

 

The guys were out there being goofy as they introduced the show. “Chef Troy and his young helper Noah Perlman will be on later to teach us how to make the perfect latke. You’ll have to sample them, Bear, because I’m off carbs again…”

 

When he heard Sunny talk about him like a genuine guest and someone deserving of a place on this show, it boosted Noah’s confidence to the point where he wanted to go on right away. Suddenly his desire to be next overwhelmed him, and he got that itchy feeling in his chest again. The ringlet woman must have noticed him twitching, because she set her hand on his and said, “It’s okay, honey. You’re going to do just fine.”

 

“That’s right.” Chef Troy grabbed his other hand, and his heart swelled. “If you chicken out on me, how am I going to make perfect latkes, huh?”

 

Noah was sweating all over, right through his clothes, but he smiled anyway. Chef Troy believed in him. Maybe there were scarier things than being on TV.

 

A girl with a headset, who didn’t look much older than Megan, raced into the Green Room and waved at the blonde. As one of Noah’s two security blankets disappeared, he started asking himself who in the world he’d want comfort from in this moment, if he could have anyone. He wanted so badly for the answer to be Megan, but it wasn’t. Not even his mother, though that was probably a good thing. As he searched the mental index of faces he’d seen, people he’d met, he realized whoever it was, this magical person who could calm all his fears, he hadn’t met them yet. That realization was both earth-shattering and exhilarating.

 

When the girl with the headset finally called Noah and Chef Troy to action, they released their handhold with a shared chuckle. “Don’t want to go on TV holding an old man’s hand, huh?” Chef Troy asked.

 

Noah could feel his cheeks bristling, but he picked up his folder full of family recipes and followed him into the studio. The show had gone to commercial, but Sunny and The Bear were still on the other section of the soundstage. The lights were much brighter than he’d expected, and the glare hurt his eyes. The camera seemed larger than he remembered from the tour, and that black box surrounding the lens reminded him of those old-timey cameras where the guy had to get under a cover and then expose the plate for hours, and everyone would just have to hold still.

 

His mother was waving at him. He waved back. Megan smiled politely.

 

He’d been suited up with a microphone, and the box part felt ridiculously heavy all of a sudden. Was it on yet? Could the audience hear him breathing? Could they hear his heart pounding? What were the symptoms of a heart attack?

 

“Don’t worry, little buddy.” Chef Troy’s smile shone like the sun. “It’s not as hard as you think.”

 

Noah’s hands started shaking just as Sunny and The Bear began to introduce the segment. He tried to shove his folder in the notes cubby, but something fell out—note cards, the recipes handwritten by his mother. The segment would begin in seconds. Noah knew he should leave the cards on the floor—it’s not like he needed them—but he couldn’t contain the urge to pick them up.

 

As he bent down, Sunny and The Bear inched ever closer to the little kitchen spot. Chef Troy’s eyes were burning into his back—he could feel that warm, caring gaze searing his skin through his sweat-drenched shirt. His legs were trembling now, in addition to his hands. The note cards seemed like they were glued to the ground. He scraped at the floor with his short nails and got the cards up just as the hosts closed in.

 

Sunny and The Bear were still talking about Chef Troy, so Noah stole a glance at the cards in his hands. Right on top was his great-great-grandmother’s latke recipe. He hadn’t even looked at it when his mother handed him the stack, but he looked at it now. He read where his mother had written: The secret ingredient is love.

 

Noah’s heart grew so big inside his chest he was sure it was about to explode. He looked for his mother, but the mammoth camera blocked his view. Chef Troy was talking to Sunny now, but Noah couldn’t hear a word they said. Their voices were wonky and weird, like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Had Sunny just asked him a question? Everyone was staring at him expectantly, so odds were good. What was the question? His tongue felt huge. His throat ran dry.

 

The camera’s red light glared at him accusingly, like it was saying, “You don’t belong here. You shouldn’t be on television. Look at you, frozen like a—”

 

“I think I’m gay!”

 

Noah gasped when he heard the words, and again when he realized they’d come from his mouth. He gazed up at Chef Troy, who looked back down at him with all the warmth and encouragement in the world. What the hell had happened, here? Had he just come out of the closet on national TV?

 

The tilted world snapped into place when Sunny wrapped an arm around his waist. Phil said, “That wasn’t in my notes,” and the audience laughed.

 

“No, it wouldn’t be.” Noah stood a little taller. “I’ve never said it before. Maybe I thought I could push it far enough down that it would get buried and I’d never have to say it at all. But that’s a stupid thing to do, isn’t it? You can only be who you are, can’t be anyone else. Seeing all you guys who are happy and successful and stuff… well, it tells me that I don’t have to hide who I am. I’m gay.”

 

“You mean you’re coming out…on our show?” Sunny’s squeals were underpinned by bells and music. “Ooh, Bear, I love it when this happens. Because now it’s time for a…”

 

“Coming out party!” the audience cheered. Confetti fluttered on their heads as they hooted and hollered. Balloons bounced down from the ceiling, and they batted the big balls of latex all around the studio.

 

Next thing he knew, Sunny and The Bear were pulling him away from the kitchen to the part of the stage where Ringlet Blonde was setting up décor stuff for her next segment. Noah just about fainted when two drag queens in gowns and tiaras pushed a corkboard with a giant counter out on stage. It read: 00137.

 

“That’s right,” Sunny said. “Noah, you’re the one hundred thirty-seventh person to come out on our show!”

 

“One thirty seven already?” Ringlet Blonde said from behind him. “Wow, and I was number four!”

 

“You’ve got me beat,” Chef Troy said. “I was number six.”

 

“We were eighty-five and eighty-six.” One of the drag queens handed Noah flowers, and the other handed him a top that read I came out on Sunny and The Bear (and all I got was this lousy T-shirt).

 

“Would you like to say a few words?” Phil asked over the audience’s thunderous applause.

 

That’s when Noah realized the camera wasn’t blocking his mother anymore. It wasn’t blocking Megan either.

 

“Oh crap.” He looked from The Bear’s beaming smile to their stricken expressions, and he didn’t know what to say. “Oh, Megan…”

 

She hopped out of her chair and leapt over cords until she reached the stage. Noah backed away like she was a knife-wielding maniac, but not fast enough. She went in for the kill and…hugged him around the neck, kissing his cheek. “Oh, Noah!”

 

“Turn and face the camera, honey.” The Bear spun Megan around and she let out a nervous titter.

 

“Who have we here?” Sunny asked.

 

“Megan,” they both said.

 

“My…girlfriend,” Noah mumbled. “Oh, Megan, I am so, so sorry.”

 

“I love you, Noah. I always said—”

 

Phil pressed her head down against Noah’s chest. “Talk into the microphone, honey.”

 

“Sorry. Okay.” Megan looked up at Noah awkwardly, hunched over, one cheek smudged against his clean shirt. “I know I said before that I’d always love you, and I always, always will. But, Noah, I’m not in love with you. You’re a great guy and your family is wonderful. That’s why I was waiting until after Hanukkah to break up with you. I didn’t want to hurt you or your mom, but I want a boyfriend who takes my breath away. We’ve got no chemistry. No offence.”

 

“None taken.” That was a bit of a blow, but also a relief. “I love you too, Meg. A lot. I hope we stay friends. I know people say that, but I really mean it. I didn’t see any of this coming, trust me.”

 

Noah wasn’t sure yet just how hurt his pride would be when he looked back on the tape of this program years from now, maybe when he was a famous chef. Maybe when he had a hot foodie boyfriend. What a thought!

 

And then… “Mom!”

 

She appeared before them, arms outstretched. The cameras struggled to shoot around her. “Noah, my Noah!”

 

“Oh no…” Even surrounded by two gay TV hosts, two drag queens, one gay chef, a blonde lesbian, and his ex-girlfriend, Noah wasn’t sure he could take on The Momster.

 

“Noah, my son! I’ve been waiting sixteen years for you to realize this.”

 

Everybody gasped, and Noah asked, “What?”

 

“I’m your mother, Noah. A mother knows her son better even than her son knows her son.”

 

She took him in a bear hug, surely wreaking havoc with his mic feed. What a circus! This was definitely not how he expected his first live TV appearance to go. Oh God, I’m on TV right now! Millions—or thousands—of people are watching! Noah was never going to live this moment down. It would be known in family history as the time Cousin Noah came out on national television.

 

He smiled.

 

“You know, your uncle has a nice Jewish boy working as a co-op student at his office. Maybe I talk to his mother, we have him around for coffee, you boys get to know each other? You know I would never try to take over your life, but I’m your mother—I do what I can.”

 

“Okay mom. Sounds like a plan.” Noah kissed the top of her head and laughed as Megan tickled his ribs. The studio audience cheered.

 

“Speaking of student placements,” Chef Troy said. “My restaurant has a very special apprenticeship program. We don’t usually take on high school kids, but maybe I could pull a few strings, get you on for the summer months. Does that sound appealing?”

 

Noah’s smile beamed so wide his jaw ached.

 

“What a lovely offer,” Judith said, shaking the chef’s hand. “Noah, where are your manners? Say thank you to the Chef Troy.”

 

A flash of heat streaked across Noah’s cheeks, and he felt oddly bashful as he said, “Thank you, Chef.”

 

The audience went wild in celebration of Noah’s coming out, of his mother’s acceptance, and his promising future as a chef. And they hadn’t even starting frying latkes yet!

 

Cut to commercial…

 

The End

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

 

Foxglove’s fiction has been called SPECTACULAR by Rainbow Reviews and UNFORGETTABLE by USA Today.

 

Foxglove Lee is a former aspiring Broadway Baby who now writes LGBTQ fiction for young adults. She tries not to be too theatrical, but her characters often take over. Like Rebecca from her debut novel Tiffany and Tiger’s Eye, who is convinced an evil doll is trying to ruin the summer of 1986. Or Kenny from her Evernight Teen book Truth and Other Lies, who keeps secrets from everyone in his life when his first novel hits it big! Or Noah from OmniLit Bestseller “The Secret to a Perfect Latke,” who comes out live on national television. Or Mila and Laura, who celebrate Valentine’s Day in “I Hate Love” and destroy a family member’s kitchen in “Happy Birthday, Klutzface!”

 

Follow Foxglove on Twitter @foxglovelee or stay tuned to her blog http://foxglovelee.blogspot.com for new releases!

 

 

Also by Foxglove Lee

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For Middle Grade Readers:

The Secret of Dreamland

Ghost Turkey and the Pioneer Graveyard

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For Young Adult Readers:

Sylvie and the Christmas Ghost

Tiffany and Tiger’s Eye

Rainbow Crush

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For New Adult Readers:

Truth and Other Lies

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Also:

Embarrassing Period Stories

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Sylvie and the Christmas Ghost

By Foxglove Lee

 

Every family has its ghosts…

 

It’s December 1994 and Sylvie’s spending Christmas in a small Canadian town while her father renovates the creepy old house he grew up in. According to local lore, the house is haunted. The whole town is so obsessed with spotting a spirit they camp out on the front lawn eating hot dogs, snacking on popcorn, and waiting for something ghostly to happen.

 

Sylvie’s father doesn’t believe in ghosts, but maybe there really is an entity hiding in the walls. Is it someone familiar? A relative, perhaps?

 

When Sylvie meets Celeste, an unusual girl who’s pretty as a Victorian Christmas card, they get off to a rocky start. Celeste claims she can communicate with spirits. Could that be true? If they pool their energies, maybe they’ll unearth a family secret… before it’s too late!

 

Available as an ebook and in print!


Rainbow Crush: Light-Hearted LGBT Fiction for Teens

Five fun fictions from the author of Tiffany and Tiger’s Eye & Truth and Other Lies! In Rainbow Crush, revisit five favourite short stories featuring gay and lesbian characters: In “I Hate Love,” Mila melts Laura-the-Ice-Queen’s heart as Jaden learns that dating an older man could have repercussions he hadn’t anticipated. Mila and Laura are back with impossibly high expectations in the side-splittingly funny housesitting comedy “Happy Birthday, Klutzface.” In “I Know What Gay Is,” Jay the teenaged manny and his young charge Sarah, who insists on being called Frank, find an unexpected ally on the soccer field. School is back in session and tempers flare when Mila, Laura and Jaden stumble into a protest where classmates insist a gender-nonconforming new student “Dress Like A Dude.” In our final story, aspiring teen chef Noah comes out of the closet in a most surprising way during his first television appearance in “The Secret to a Perfect Latke.”

  • Author: Foxglove Lee
  • Published: 2016-06-28 23:35:12
  • Words: 22185
Rainbow Crush: Light-Hearted LGBT Fiction for Teens Rainbow Crush: Light-Hearted LGBT Fiction for Teens