Tossing his phone onto his comforter, Alex pushes himself up against his mattress and looks to the sliver of light pouring in from the doorway, partially obscured by a figure as familiar to him as his old teddy bear that he’s had since before he could hold his head up on his own: Georgia.
“You had to text that?”
“You weren’t moving and I didn’t want to wake you if you really weren’t,” she says, poking her head inside.
“Obviously, I am.” After what happened a few hours earlier, that’s the only thing he could be. His sister’s mouth falls into a downward slope. “You want to come in?”
Georgia nods, slowly closes the door behind her, and flops on the bed beside Alex, jolting one of the bed’s many old springs into his spine. It reminds him of years before when, despite their parents’ scolding, Georgia snuck into his room after nightfall, Care Bear pajamas and all, to regale him with ghost stories by flashlight. Most of the time, they left Alex a nervous but exhilarated mess, and he’d burrow into Georgia’s side, believing that the one who had summoned the ghosts could keep them away, too.
Both of them turn their eyes to the ceiling, where a couple posters of sports stars are pasted along with the remnants of torn down paper idols that he’s been too lazy to remove. He should probably do that, he thinks, although it’s far from a priority right now.
“How are you doing?” Georgia asks.
“Yeah, I get that,” she says. “But, Matty.” She doesn’t finish the sentence with words, but a whistle. “Who knew he was hiding all those abs under those ironic t-shirts?”
In the dark, Alex’s face goes as red as a pepper—and as hot as one. He throws his palm onto his face, and groans. “Come on. Seriously?” Georgia laughs, her giggles shaking the bed, and Alex whips towards her, his face pinched in indignancy. “You think this is helping me be less mortified?”
“No, no sorry. It’s true, but sorry.” Alex won’t admit it out loud, but Georgia is right. Back when Matty moved into the house on the other side of the fence at the end of fifth grade, Alex didn’t expect to have a crush on him, let alone spend his days thinking about how cute and kind, and well, in shape, he is. He may have known he was inclined to have those feelings, but he compressed the inkling into the tiniest shape he could manage, and filed it away in a place he knew was there, but tried to pretend it didn’t exist.
“Did Mom and Dad catch you with your shirtless boyfriend—who they didn’t even know was your boyfriend?” he asks before his voice peters out to almost nothing. For the umpteenth time in the past 6 hours, he bites his lip, the taste of iron that follows no longer phasing him. “When they didn’t even know you liked guys.”
“No,” she says. “But, remember, Dad did catch me with Tommy once, and let me just say, he wasn’t just shirtless because he had just come out of a pool. At least you had that as an excuse.”
Alex does remember, particularly the forcefulness of their dad’s words as he commanded Tommy to put on his shirt and marched him out of the room. With Matty, he did tell him to put a shirt on—well, both of them—but it was different, quieter, more startled. His dad’s reactions could’ve come down to pure sexism—varying standards for his daughter and his son—but Alex didn’t believe that was the reason.
“But it didn’t change the way they saw you, not really. Not as a person. They won’t see me the same way anymore. They don’t already, I can tell.”
Until he went to bed, Alex could feel his parents’ eyes fixated on the back of his skull, only disappearing when he turned to look at them. Even when he was out of their gaze, he could hear their whispers:
What’s keeping him awake is the the fear that by being who he really is, he has become someone his parents don’t recognize.
He should’ve told them earlier, maybe, explained to them that this boy with the shaggy blonde hair, and the gap between his front teeth had been able to find that small piece Alex had hid away and, for the first time, made it feel safe to come out into the open. Admitting
to others something you’ve just been able to admit to yourself isn’t easy, though.
“Do—do you think they won’t love me the same way anymore?” He catches on the words, and when he looks at his sister, he sees her as if he’s 5 feet underwater. But, there’s no separation in the way he can feel her embrace, her head shaking against his shoulder.
“No, Alex, no. They don’t want you to feel like that. Do you know they were asking me after dinner?” Georgia asks.
He sits back, hopeless, with no energy for guesses or rhetorical questions. “They asked what they can do so you feel comfortable talking about this with them and so you know everything is okay. They were acting weird because they’re terrible at doing anything covert, not because they don’t know you anymore. You aren’t any different than the person we thought you were.”
“Yeah?” he asks.
She could be feeding him a pile of saccharine shit, but he sticks by the belief he’s had since he was a child: that anything that came out of her mouth was true. She was only a year older than him, but she had a knowledge of the world he didn’t.
“What do I do now?” he asks.
“Tell people when you’re ready, put a tracker on Mom and Dad so you know where they are at all times, and lock yourself in your room for any PDA—well, I guess that would just be DA—but you know what I mean.”
He laughs. “I do.”
“And.” She releases him just enough to meet his gaze. “Maybe invite Matty for dinner. I think we’d all like that. And if he wants to come shirtless, that’s fine.”
He pushes her back onto her pillow, a grin wide on his face and hers. “Shut up.”