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    kbois
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

For Better or For Worse - 1. Chapter 1

Some days are easy. Some aren’t. Today was one of the latter. 

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not the easiest person in the world to figure out. It took me forever to discover I didn’t fit into a world that expected me to act a certain way. Even as a little kid, I never felt truly comfortable in my skin. 

My parents didn’t know what to do with me. By the time I hit puberty, I was a mess. Their solution? Therapy. Lots of it. In the beginning, I was a real pain in the ass, and I gave everyone a hard time. The first therapist was an idiot, a so-called Adolescent Behavior Specialist. Specialist in Adult Stupidity was more like it. The second tried to tell my parents I was making everything up just to get attention. 

It took three more therapists, a consultation with my pediatrician, a diagnosis of ADHD, and me nearly throwing in the towel before I heard about Dr. Frasier Kelly. He was amazing. I’m pretty sure he had me figured out within the first ten minutes. It took another six or seven sessions for me to finally admit who I was. 

I’m non-binary. It’s a letter on the LBGTQIA+ which falls under the plus sign. Being non-binary is personal. It means something different to everyone. I happen to identify with both male and female genders. Does it matter how I was born? Not to me. It shouldn’t matter to anyone else either, but all too often, it does. 

Which brings us to today. Did I mention my parents didn’t know what to do with me? I think I did. Well, my being different really hit Mom hard. She struggled with using my preferred pronouns; they and them. At the beginning, so did Dad, but he eventually got it. He always understood me a lot better than Mom did. From the beginning, as soon as I explained how I felt, he made every effort to learn what he could and help me cope. 

Mom was a different story. She struggled with anxiety and depression on the best of days. Having a child who didn’t conform to what society expected was not within her coping-skill set. It finally got to be too much. 

On the third anniversary of my announcing that I was non-binary, she committed suicide. I was the one who found her. It was my eighteenth birthday, three years ago today. Anniversaries suck. 

My name is Shay, and this is my story.

*****

“SHAY! GET YOUR ASS OUT HERE!”

The demand shouted from outside my window had me grabbing the key for my bike lock and bolting down the stairs. My best friends, Tori and Andy, were waiting impatiently in the driveway. I hauled the heavy garage door up, my puny not-quite-thirteen-year-old muscles straining. 

Within minutes, we were pedaling down the lane all of us lived on, hellbent on making the most of our last day of summer freedom. School started tomorrow, eighth grade for us, our class now the top dogs of middle school. Supposedly it was our time to rule.  

My goal this year was to lie low and fly under the radar. There were a lot of cliques in our hallowed halls of education, even though our class was small — only eighty students. Our building was on the same campus as the high school, but interactions were rare. Typical Mid-western rural community. 

The county’s main employer was the food-canning plant ‌on the outskirts of town. If you’ve ever eaten canned corn or peas, chances are they came from my hometown. Dad is the plant manager, providing enough of a salary to allow Mom to stay at home. Tori’s parents both work on the line, and Andy’s dad is one of the loading-dock supervisors. His mom works for Dr. Robbins, the local dentist. 

Most of the kids at school have at least one parent who works at the factory. It seemed like your social status was in part determined by how high up the ladder your mom or dad was. You would think I’d be the most popular kid in school if Dad’s position was any indicator, but no, my naturally shy personality negated any benefit that his standing should have given me. 

Other than Tori and Andy, I don’t really talk to anyone else. My penchant for solitude placed me firmly in the weird kid category back in kindergarten and nothing has changed since. I guess hogging the Barbies and Tonka trucks the first day didn’t help either. Luckily, Tori and Andy didn’t care, and they took me under their wings when Griffin Rittenhouse tried to clock me when I refused to hand over a dump truck. I’m pretty sure Griff still holds a grudge. 

The late August sun was already warming up the air as we pedaled towards the quarry. One more day of swimming, high-jumping from the ledge, and general horseplay is on the schedule. We were the first to arrive and managed to stake out one of the prize spots in the shade. Tori had a cooler strapped to the rack over her back tire, filled with sandwiches and snacks her mom packed. Andy had another filled with bottles of water and lemonade. 

I shucked the backpack I’d grabbed from the garage and took out three beach towels and the sunscreen Mom insisted we use. I spread the stuff on my arms and legs, swiping at my face too, before tossing it to Tori. She applied it more liberally to her fair skin. Andy shook his head. He never burned, his skin already a rich dark brown. 

Andy peeled off his shirt, revealing a torso beginning to lose its prepubescent scrawniness. His flip-flops got kicked off to the side. “Last one in is a rotten egg!” he yelled as he raced across the sand to the water, splashing as he ran in. 

“I don’t know why he always does that. He knows I have to slather the sunscreen on,” Tori huffed as she pulled her t-shirt over her head, revealing a blue-and-purple-striped bikini top. She was the most physically mature out of the three of us. She already had boobs, which filled out her top quite well, and she’d been getting her period for nearly a year. I helped her cover her back while she spread the white lotion over her stomach, then stripped off her shorts to reveal the matching bikini bottom before ensuring her legs were also covered. 

Puberty hit me with a two-by-four as well, and the changes made me uncomfortable with my body. Hair in weird places, and a growth spurt during which I grew four inches over the past six-months had me feeling awkward and off-balanced, my limbs too long for the rest of me. I kept my t-shirt and shorts on, self-conscious about my appearance. 

Andy had already swum to the base of the quarry wall, harboring the perfect ledge for jumping off. It was a relatively easy climb up the rough-hewn rock face to a spot about twenty-five feet above the water. The jump was not for the faint of heart. This was the first summer we had dared to make the leap. It seemed like that first attempt back in June was a lifetime ago. Truthfully, once I took the first plummet, the rest of the summer was a breeze. Granted, I pissed myself on the way down, but no one noticed. I was already wet. 

Tori and I raced toward the wall, me beating her by mere inches. Laughing, we clambered up the uneven surface, clinging to well-worn hand and footholds, to where Andy waited. The ledge was just big enough for the three of us to line up side by side. Grasping hands, we counted to three before hurtling ourselves out over the abyss, free falling at maximum velocity, all while screaming at the tops of our lungs. 

Sputtering, we surfaced, three heads popping up like corks before trying to dunk one another, then racing back to the wall to do it all over again. 

We had the quarry to ourselves for an hour before another group arrived. Somewhat tired, we relinquished our claim to the launch pad and swam for shore. I grabbed a bottle of water and chugged it as I flopped onto a towel. 

“What are you going to do for your birthday?” Andy asked as he downed his own bottle of cold liquid. 

“Nothing special. Mom and Dad said they’d take me out to dinner. I was just hoping Mom doesn’t have one of her moments”. In addition to tomorrow being the first day of school, it was also my thirteenth birthday. Happy, happy, joy, joy, I got to go back to the drudgery of education on my goddamn birthday. 

Lately, Mom had been super moody. Dad said it’s her anxiety. Whatever. She yelled at me because I came home from the mall wearing a cute skirt with these kick-ass combat boots I found on sale for seventy-five percent off. I was proud of myself for finding such a good bargain, and she had to go and ruin it. 

Why should she care how I dress? 

Lately, I’d been expressing this need I felt to wear both girl and boy clothes. Skirts were cute and comfortable, not to mention cooler in this damn heat, but there’s something to be said for a baggy pair of basketball shorts and a tank top. I got the feeling she was ashamed of me. I wished she’d just chill. 

“If your plans fall through, you can always come over to my house. Mom’ll make you fried chicken,” Andy offered. 

“Thanks, I just might take you up on that, anyway. Your mom makes some fucking good chicken.”

“You damn well better invite me!” Tori chimed in. 

We chilled for a bit in the shade, watching as more kids arrived, some on bikes, like us. Others, who were old enough to drive, came in vehicles which were packed full, like clown cars. One little Ford Focus unloaded four good-sized football players and five cheerleaders. How the fuck did they fit in there? I couldn’t help but notice how buff the football players were, especially Riker Lyndon. His body was pure sculpted perfection. 

Soon, the sandy beach area was filled with teenagers, blankets, coolers, and umbrellas. The two volleyball nets set up in the soft sand were in full swing with kids waiting their turn to play the winners of the current game. 

We spent the day alternating between swimming, eating, and horsing around with a few of the other groups. Tori turned red, despite reapplying sunscreen faithfully. I felt my shoulders heating ‌by the time the sun slanted to the west, touching the top of the quarry wall. At this time of year, it meant dinnertime. 

Reluctantly, I gathered up the towels, now soggy with repeated use, while Tori and Andy got rid of the remaining trash. I packed up what was left of the food and drinks before helping Andy secure it to the back of his bike. 

We waved at whoever was paying attention as we pointed our bikes toward home. Several other riders did the same. The older kids would be there until after dark, pulling out the alcohol and weed once us younger kids were gone. I knew that would be me, Tori, and Andy in a few years. 

I parted ways with my friends, hollering that I’d meet them at the bus stop in the morning. My house was the furthest down the lane, a two-story farmhouse with a wrap-around porch. By the time I put my bike away and unloaded the dirty towels in the laundry room I was a hot, sweaty mess. 

The cool interior of the air-conditioned house was a welcome relief. Mom was in the kitchen as I passed through.

“Did you swim in that all day? I don’t know why I bothered getting you a bathing suit this summer. Did you even wear it once?” she admonished, looking at my tattered cut-off shorts and ragged t-shirt with disdain.

“Shay, why don’t you run up and take a quick shower before dinner, okay, kiddo?” Dad suggested, tactfully deflecting Mom’s comments. 

I hung my head, feeling ashamed of myself. Mom hated me. 

From the top of the stairs, I could hear them arguing.

“You need to stop being so judgmental, Sonya.”

“I’ll stop being judgmental when that child stops with this nonsense and starts dressing appropriately!”

“We’ve been over this a thousand times. Shay is different than other kids.”

“Different? You call wearing skirts and combat boots different?”

“I call it being expressive.”

“Playing piano is expressive. Oil painting is expressive. Not knowing how to dress is just plain freakish!”

I couldn’t listen anymore. It was one thing to be berated for the clothes I chose to wear. It was another to find out your own mother considered you a freak. 

Closing the bathroom door, I stripped down and looked at the clothes in my hands. Disgusted with myself I chucked them in the trash before stepping under the lukewarm spray, letting the water hide the tears I knew were streaming down my face. 

I hate myself.

*****

Looking back, that day at the quarry was the last true day of my carefree childhood. Soon after, it started to go to shit and snowballed downhill from there. I wish I could say my last year of middle school was all fun and games, but in reality, it sucked. It started on the first day. Adrian Mueller decided I was the next target in his bully bullseye. Adrian was part of a clique, which included Griffin Rittenhouse, my kindergarten nemesis. I couldn’t fully fault Griff. Even though he didn’t participate in the ridiculing and name-calling, he didn’t do anything to stop it, either. 

Adrian made a unilateral decision I was the class faggot, and he and most of his friends made sure to remind me every day. Equal-opportunity slurs, like cocksucker and dyke, were thrown my way, all depending on what I was wearing. I ignored them as best I could, but after a while it grates on you, y’know?

Granted, I didn’t do anything to dissuade them from their mission. My new thirteen-year-old attitude included a fuck it all clause, which granted me the courage to express myself however I saw fit. Well, as long as it stayed within the parameters of the dress code, that is. You see, our school did not have a clearcut policy on what any specific gender could wear. So, in other words, there was nothing in writing which prohibited boys from wearing skirts, or girls from wearing basketball shorts or combat boots. I did both, which of course, brought the wrath of Adrian’s army down upon me. 

“Shay, you need to report them. If you don’t, I will,” Andy said, after seeing me get slammed into the wall as Adrian passed by. 

“What the fuck will the adults do, Andy? I’ll tell you what. Nothing. Principal Thompson doesn’t give a shit. I heard two of the fifth-grade teachers saying he was just biding his time until he retires in two years. There’s no way he’s going to lift a finger. I’m nothing to him, and all the rest of the grownups, pfft!” I scoffed.  

Andy sighed. He gave me a look of disapproval, but finally nodded. “But if it gets worse, promise me you’ll go to the school resource officer. Thompson can go fuck himself.”

I agreed, just to get him off my back. I knew Andy’s insistence came from a place of genuine concern, but I wasn’t in the mood. We’d just gotten back from Christmas break, and Mom was on another one of her depressive kicks after a two-month manic period. Her mood swings were getting harder and harder to predict. 

My reaction to everything was to be as pissy as I could when she was around. I considered it retaliation for the way she treated me. I’m pretty sure Dad was fed up with both of us. 

I made it through the day without any more confrontations. As soon as the bus dropped me, Tori, and Andy at the end of our lane, we picked our way down the uneven road, careful not to slip on the icy areas covering everything like a patchwork quilt. I slogged the last few hundred feet by myself after waving to my friends. 

I knew as soon as I stepped inside that shit was about to hit the fan. Mom was waiting for me in the kitchen, an official-looking piece of paper in her hand, and steam practically shooting out from her ears. 

“Care to explain this?” she demanded, throwing the letter on the table. I could see the school’s logo at the top. 

I picked it up and read the contents:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hillman, 

Please see the attached progress report for Shay. Current grade point average has decreased from the start of the academic year from 3.85 to 1.90, which is extremely concerning. We would like to schedule a conference with you to address the situation. If improvements are not made, Shay will be at risk of repeating eighth grade. 

Sincerely, 

Robyn Masters

Guidance Counselor

Oh fuck! Mom shot daggers at me. Fail a few tests, conveniently forget about some projects, and the grade-point police come storming in like a SWAT team. Only their battering ram is a fucking red correction pen. 

“Nope, got nothing for you,” I retorted, throwing the letter back at her. If I was going to be grounded, I might as well make it worth it. I turned my back on Mom and headed to my room, determined to get some game time in on my Xbox before it got taken away. Dad wouldn’t be home for at least three hours. Mom could rant and rave all she wanted until then. 

SHAY HILLMAN! GET BACK HERE NOW!” she screamed after me, her shrill voice grating on my nerves. 

I ignored her, slamming my door for good measure and then pushed my dresser in front of it in case she decided to try something stupid, like going all Kung-fu and kicking it in. If so, I hoped she broke her foot. I grabbed my new headphones, grateful I’d asked for the noise-canceling kind for Christmas, and booted up my gaming system. Soon I was immersed in a Call of Duty battle with a few of my online friends. 

When I finally looked at the time, I was surprised to see it was after seven. Dad must’ve gotten home at least an hour ago. Wonder why he didn’t bang on my door? I logged out and shoved my dresser back where it belonged. After using the bathroom, I listened carefully for any signs of life in the house. Quiet stillness greeted me. 

I tiptoed out to the kitchen, a little afraid of what I might find. To my surprise, Dad was sitting at the table in semi-darkness, his features lit only by the dim light given off by the fixture over the stove.

“Have a seat, Shay.”

I sat across from him, folded my hands on the table, and bit my lip nervously. 

“Your mom decided to spend the night at Nana’s. She was a bit worked up over your altercation,” Dad explained. 

I snorted. Mom thought our brief exchange was an altercation? Man, she really was delusional. 

Dad gave me a knowing little smile. “Regardless of what it was, Shay, it’s a serious matter she was trying to address.”

“I know, Dad. She practically accosted me with the letter as soon as I stepped in the door.” 

Dad held up a hand, stopping me in my tracks. He could always read me so well. He knew I was about to flip out defensively. It was my default reaction lately. 

“How about you tell me what’s really going on? It’s hard to believe your grade point average has slipped so drastically. You’re a smart kid and have always done well in school. What’s changed?”

Dad’s calm approach was the right way to go. I instantly felt remorse for my knee jerk reaction. 

“I’m not really sure. I feel so angry all the time,” I told him, not sure if I should mention the bullying.

“What’s making you so angry?”

I hesitated before biting the bullet. “No one understands me. I get teased because of the way I dress, but why should I have to cater to somebody else because they don’t agree with what I’m wearing? Then there’s Mom. She’s so hot and cold all the time. I never know if I’m coming home to Dr. Jekyll or Mrs. Hyde. I know she doesn’t approve of me. And before you disagree, don’t. I’ve heard her. She hates having a kid like me. I feel like I have no idea who the fuck I am anymore.” My eyes filled with tears. I blinked them back rapidly, determined not to let them fall.

Glancing at my father, I saw a look of concern, mixed with maybe a smidge of pity and a healthy dose of resignation. 

“Shay, being thirteen’s hard enough without having to deal with a manic-depressive mother. Now, I won’t pretend I understand some of the choices you make, but I recognize the fact you have every right to make them. You are the one who has to come to terms with how you respond to the way others react. Being different isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but how you deal with it can be good or bad. Your choice.”

Why did Dad have to make so much sense? “How do I know what’s a good choice?” 

Dad reached across the table and took my hands in his. “I hope that your mom and I have given you the tools you need to choose wisely, but even so, you won’t always do so. Just know that I’ll always be here for you, especially when your mom can’t.”

The tears welled up again, and this time they slowly spilled down my cheeks. I was ashamed of how I behaved. I accused Mom of being Jekyll and Hyde, and I was no better than her. 

“Hey, it’ll be okay. I’ll call the guidance counselor tomorrow and set up the meeting. Do you think you can bring your grades up?”

“I hope so,” I replied, not really sure of anything at this point. 

“We’ll figure something out. Are you hungry? I can order some pizza.”

Dad’s remedy for any difficult situation was pizza, so I nodded, even though I didn’t have much of an appetite. 

I wish I could say the meeting with the guidance counselor fixed everything, but it didn’t. It was a temporary band-aid at best. Ms. Masters meant well, but like so many others in social work, her best intentions weren’t enough. When all was said and done, she didn’t get paid enough to cure me. 

Sure, an educational action plan was created, which boiled down to me needing to shove my nose against the grindstone and pull my damn grades up. Thankfully, all of my teachers let me do extra assignments to help boost my grades. Even still, I needed to score at least an eighty-five or higher for the rest of the year on tests or projects if I wanted a snowball’s chance in Hades of making it to the high-school campus in the fall. 

After unloading my tale of woe upon her, Ms. Masters suggested seeing a therapist to help me figure out my identity issues. Of course, Mom jumped on the idea like a life preserver thrown to a drowning victim. I’m sure her thought process brought her to the conclusion therapy could mold me into what she wanted. 

Thus began the next year of living hell. Mom took it upon herself to research adolescent-behavior therapists, because with her extensive knowledge of the mental-health field, she knew best. Ha!

Enter Bradley Sterner; MA, LMHC. Translated, that’s Licensed Mental Health Counselor with a master’s degree. Lunatic Mental Health Clown and certified Master Asshole was more like it. Mr. Sterner, and yes, he insisted on formal titles, decided I was having a gender-identity crisis when I showed up for our first appointment wearing fatigues with a freshly shorn military-like crewcut. The chunky wedges didn’t exactly go with the look, but what the hell, the olive green totally matched the camo print. Then it blew his mind when I arrived at our second session in a burgundy leather skirt and beige Henley with a hot pink cropped denim jacket over it, capping off the look with black combat boots. Yeah, I did that on purpose. 

Next came Tara Pratt. More letters, same lack of common sense. After three sessions, she determined I was acting out to seek attention. My greedy behavior was an attempt at diverting focus away from my mother and her important issues and redirecting it to me, lover of the spotlight, center of everyone’s universe. 

The beginning of sophomore year brought Lawrence Bressler, Jill Motzenbeck, and Darlene Zhao into the picture. They were the next rungs on the ladder of my growing despair. Over the course of me rolling over from thirteen to fourteen and all the way to fourteen and a half, I tolerated my mother’s attempts to pair me with the perfect therapist. Needless to say, her idea of perfection and mine were vastly different. Even an in-depth assessment by my teachers and pediatrician only served to get me a diagnosis of ADHD and enough Ritalin to turn me into a zombie. I threw out the pills after a month. 

The silver lining in all of this was the fact I managed to haul my grades up enough to earn me a desk on the high-school campus. And I dropped the extra twenty pounds I put on when puberty hit as a result of walking twice as far everyday getting to classes. Our little class of eighty students became a larger potpourri of hormonal scholars numbering nearly two hundred. A much bigger environment in which to become just another acne-speckled face in the crowd. 

In the middle of sophomore year, another argument between my mother and me regarding our respective mental-health issues, ended with Dad stepping in and sending us to our respective, proverbial corners. 

Mom skulked off to Nana’s, her fortress of semi-solitude, while once again, Dad and I sat at the kitchen table for a heart to heart. 

“Here we are again, Shay. What now?” Dad’s shoulders slumped in defeat. He had been caught in the middle of the never-ending battle of wills Mom and I had waged over the course of a year and a half. To his credit, he always listened to both sides and tried, as much as humanly possible, to be the voice of reason. 

“Dad, I want Mom to back off. Every therapist she’s chosen has been a total crackpot. I’ve done some research, and I think I’ve found someone who can help me. His name is Dr. Frasier Kelly. He’s an expert in adolescent behavior, headed some acclaimed studies, and is a leading researcher into gender issues kids face and how it affects them. Best of all, he’s in-network with your insurance.”

Dad chuckled. Of all the accolades, the last statement was the one he was probably most concerned with. 

“What’s the catch?” he asked. 

“He’s in Chicago.”

Dad’s lips pursed at the news. Chicago was a two-hour drive each way. It was a long shot, but I had to try. 

“Please? I don’t know what else to do. I feel so lost. It’s like my skin doesn’t fit me. Tell you what, if this doesn’t work out, I promise to go back to dressing and acting the way everyone wants me to. I’ll be normal again,” I pleaded, willing to do anything for this one last chance at getting the help I so desperately needed, even if it meant becoming someone I hated. 

Much to my surprise, a single tear slipped down Dad’s cheek. He stood up and came around to my side of the table, pulling me up and into a fierce embrace. 

“You are normal, Shay. It may not match everyone else’s idea of normal, but there’s nothing wrong with you. Go ahead and make an appointment. I’ll make it work.”

Thus began my journey of self-discovery. The only request Dad had was to schedule any appointments for the end of the day. Lucky for us, Dr. Kelly had evening hours two nights a week. I’m not going to lie, it was hard getting home from school at four o’clock every Tuesday, driving two hours, grabbing a bite to eat before a fifty-minute appointment at seven-thirty, getting back in the car, and hauling ass down the interstate to get home. Homework was done in the car and staying awake in class on Wednesdays was not always easy. Many nights after a session, I found it hard to sleep as my brain tried to process what had been discussed.  

The first appointment I had with Dr. K, as he liked to be called, was not the typical getting to know you session. Instead, he hit me with the hardball questions right from the get-go. It went something like this:

Dr. K: “Why are you here, Shay?”

Me: “Um, I need help.”

Dr. K: “With what?”

Me: “Figuring out why I’m so different.”

Dr. K: “What makes you different?”

He stares intently as I’m sitting in a chair across from him dressed in a pink and lavender, leopard-printed sundress and Converse high tops. I sat with my knees sprawled wide, tapping my left foot as I contemplated his question. Was he really serious? Did he not see me? See how I didn’t conform to what was supposedly normal for my gender?

Dr. K: “Do you see yourself as a boy or girl, Shay?”

Me: “Is there another choice?”

Dr. K smiled like he hit the lottery. I guess it was the right answer. “Let me rephrase the question. Do you identify as being male or female? Maybe both, or neither?”

The question baffled me. I wasn’t sure what he meant by identify, nor did I realize the last part was an option.

Me: “Both, I guess?”

Dr. K: “Have you ever heard of the phrase non-binary?”

That one question changed my life. Until that moment, I didn’t know there was a word that could put a name on who I was. A lot of people don’t need labels. I wasn’t one of them. I needed someone to give me the right expression so I could put myself in the right box. I needed something as tangible as words to tell me who I was. The dictionary defines the term non-binary as; not relating to, composed of, or involving just two things. It was as if the sun suddenly peeked out from behind a wall of clouds. 

The rest of the appointment was spent discussing the various meanings of the word. In simplest form, it was people whose gender was neither completely male nor female. Gender being distinct from biological sex and sexuality. It took another six months of weekly sessions before I was comfortable enough with the idea to use it and to come to the conclusion I wanted to use the pronouns they and them. Dr. K explained how being non-binary was not the same for everyone who identified with it.

So, the morning of my fifteenth birthday, I decided to officially come out to my parents, and then later, my best friends. It came as no surprise to Dad. We’d already had plenty of conversations centered on the topic during our long drives to and from Chicago. 

Mom was a different matter. Even though Dad assured me he had broached the topic with her, you would have thought I told her I was a monster who ate small children for breakfast, blind dogs for lunch, and vulnerable senior citizens for dinner. She went so far as to claim I was giving her the vapors. Yes, she used the word vapors. Unbelievable drama queen. I turned my back, abandoned the birthday pancakes Dad made for me, and grabbed a package of Pop-tarts petulantly before tossing my backpack over my shoulder and headed for the door. I threw an apologetic look at Dad before leaving. 

At the bus stop, Tori and Andy started to wish me a happy birthday. I held up a hand to stop them, then spewed out the details of my morning so far. Dismissing the idiocy of my mother, they peppered me with questions when I disclosed my non-binary status. Aside from needing a lot of reminding, they soon switched to using my preferred pronouns. I took the bull by the horns and in homeroom, asked my teacher if I could make an announcement. By third period, the whole school heard about that weird sophomore kid who wasn’t a boy or a girl.  I tried not to roll my eyes as I answered questions as best I could.

Getting my teachers and most of the other kids in my classes to come around took a little longer. Some just plain refused. My generation was lucky. Society had become more accepting of those of us who weren’t cis-gendered heterosexuals, but there were still many obstacles and ignorance was a biggie. 

It frustrated me, knowing my peers and the majority of adults in my life couldn’t wrap their brains around the fact I liked different aspects of what was labeled male or female. I enjoyed putting on makeup and wearing dresses just as much as I enjoyed watching football on Sundays with Dad or playing video games for hours. I wish I could get people to understand my actions didn’t define my gender. 

The most common reaction or question I get is people saying "I don't get it. What do you mean you're not a boy or a girl?" That’s not what I said. It irked me every time. I was convinced mankind's auditory receptors had devolved to the point where sound goes through selective filters and can only be interpreted incorrectly. No matter how I phrased it, people automatically confused non-binary with transgender or even inter-sexed. A throwback term is hermaphrodite to the old-school types. They were baffled by the idea that biological anatomy had nothing to do with gender. Yes, I knew what body parts I was born with. No, I hadn't had an operation to change them, nor did I want to. 

Dr. K and I had many conversations revolving around the complexity of navigating the non-binary world. It wasn’t as cut and dry as say, homosexuality. If a girl says she’s gay, it’s understood that she is attracted to other girls. Ditto for guys. 

Trying to get others to understand gender is almost impossible. It’s separate from biology and sexuality. Despite a multitude of in-depth discussions with Dr. K, I still got bogged down trying to figure it out. Adding to my confusion were the many different labels; genderqueer, gender dysphoria, bigender, agender, so many flavors it puts Baskin Robbins to shame. 

On the home front, Dad had just as many, if not more questions than Andy and Tori combined. He made it his mission to go online and find out as much information as he could. Mom was a stubborn mule, refusing to honor my request. Dr. K suggested my parents join PFLAG, which Dad did. Mom outright threw the idea out the window. 

During the first half of my sophomore year, her behavior grew more erratic. On more than one occasion, Dad had to leave work because one of the neighbors would text him, concerned because she was in the garden, naked, when it was forty degrees out. Another time he was called because she kept opening the front door and yelling out, “Purple cattle dogs eat green toilet paper. Go shit yourselves!” 

Each time, he would calm her down, call her doctor, who would adjust her medication, and all would be on an even keel again for a few weeks. Until her body got used to the new dosage and the cycle would repeat itself, the only difference being the phrases yelled into the neighborhood. 

Once in a while, I heard Dad’s end of the conversation when he was on the phone with Mom’s doctor. I have to admit, it scared me a little when I heard the words, involuntary admission. Could he really have her committed? I guess if her condition got worse, he might have to. 

Despite Mom’s hot and cold faucet of emotions, she did have her moments of clarity. I looked forward to those. It was like stopping at an oasis in the desert for a much-needed drink of icy cold water. One of these moments lasted just over a month, not long after the debacle of turning fifteen. 

She convinced Dad to get an Airbnb on Lake Clinton for the weekend and even let me bring Tori and Andy. We had a blast, the Indian summer weather warm enough for Dad to rent a ski boat. It was hysterical riding shotgun, watching my best friends wobble and falter as they tried to get their legs steady while the boat hauled them out of the water. I recorded at least a dozen face-plants for each of them. I wasn’t much better, but by the middle of the first day I no longer looked like a newborn foal trying to stand. 

As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Mom’s good mood lasted into the middle of October. It was the last time she would ever come close to being her old self. Right up until the arrival of the new year, her behavior spiraled until it came to a head the day we went back to classes after the holidays. 

Shortly before lunch, I got pulled out of my American history class and called to the principal’s office. As soon as I saw Dad sitting there, I knew something happened to Mom. 

Sure enough, Mom had snapped. Neighbors called 911 when they saw her running down the street in her underwear, yelling incoherently. It was dangerously cold to be outside nearly naked. The responding police officer was able to get her calmed down. By the time the ambulance arrived, she was sitting on the curb with a blanket around her shoulders, rocking back and forth, singing The Itsy Bitsy Spider at the top of her lungs. 

She ended up at the hospital, liberally dosed with Haldol and being monitored while waiting for a bed to open up at a psychiatric facility. Dad didn’t have any choice but to have her committed. He was due back for a meeting with the doctor and social worker who was trying to find her a placement. He didn’t want me to be alarmed when I got home. Apparently, she trashed the place in her hallucinatory state. 

The principal was kind enough to suggest taking the rest of the week off to deal with the trauma of Mom’s mental-health crisis. He even went as far as assuring me he would see to it that Andy or Tori brought me my assignments. How very thoughtful of him. I considered telling him ‘thanks, but no thanks’, when the little devil residing on my shoulder whispered “get-out-of-school-free card asshole”. I merely gave him what I hoped passed for a smile of gratitude, not a Cheshire cat grin.

I went to my locker to get whatever books I might need and met Dad in the visitors’ parking lot. He was silent as he drove away from the school. My heart broke for him. Despite all of Mom’s issues, Dad loved her. He didn’t understand the extent of her mental illness, but he always tried to do what was best for all of us. 

“I’ll call you after the meeting and let you know what’s going on. Do you want me to call Nana to keep you company?” he asked. 

I shook my head. I loved Nana, but she wasn’t exactly unbiased when it came to Mom. “No, I’m sure Tori and Andy will head this way when school’s out.”

“Okay, kiddo. Don’t stress over the mess in the house. I’ll help as soon as I get home,” Dad promised. 

He wasn’t kidding when he referred to the state of our home as a mess. It looked like we’d been ransacked. At first glance, it seemed like the kitchen got the brunt of it. Every breakable item was shattered across the floor. The refrigerator and freezer had been thrown open and water puddled in front from shit melting. In the living room, all the cushions were torn open, foam padding scattered, lamps were broken, the large flat screen TV spider-webbed with cracks. 

I walked down the hall, my stomach knotted with dread and anxiety. I passed by Mom and Dad’s room and stood in front of my door, frozen with fear of what I would find. My fears were confirmed as I pushed it open. Everything I had was destroyed. My bed looked as if Edward Scissorhands had gone on a rampage. My Xbox lay in pieces beneath a large hole in my wall. It didn’t take a forensics expert to figure out it had been thrown with great force. In all honesty, it looked like Mom had taken all of her frustrations out on my possessions, and the rest of the house was trashed just to cover it up. 

I slid to the rug and cried. Soft tears at first, gradually building until sobs wracked my body as I sat amid the wreckage of ripped and ruined clothing. Nothing, and believe me, I mean nothing was left untouched, right down to my drawer of socks. Her not-so-subtle fuck you to who I was. I was sure her breakdown was my fault. I could see clearly in the rearview mirror. My birthday announcement had thrown her off the Cliffs of Sanity into the Chasm of Craziness. My voice grew hoarse from wailing uncontrollably. 

Tori and Andy found me curled up into a ball, my blubbering all but soft whimpers now. Andy dropped down behind me and pulled me onto his lap, Tori kneeling and plastering herself against my back. I let their strength flow into me along with the warmth of their love.

Together, their presence calmed me down. After a bit, I lifted my head. Tori swiped at my cheeks, brushing away the remnants of my waterworks. Andy placed a soft kiss on top of my head before releasing me. 

“You can stay with me tonight,” he offered. 

“Or me,” Tori parroted. 

I shook my head. “Thanks, but I’ll be okay. Dad will be home later, and I don’t think he should be alone.” My friends nodded understandingly. 

Looking around, I sighed. “I don’t think anything is salvageable. Let me go get the trash bags so we can throw everything away.” 

I bypassed the kitchen, instead opting to rummage through the garage, an area that was oddly out of place with the rest of the house. Mom must have run out of time or energy. Everything was still neatly organized, just the way Dad and I set it up. I walked over to the shelving unit on the back wall and grabbed two boxes of the heavy-duty, contractor garbage bags Dad kept for when he worked on his various projects. 

Andy and Tori were gingerly sifting through the detritus scattered every which way in my room. 

“Don’t bother. I doubt if she left anything intact. If it’s broken, ripped, or ruined, throw it away. If by some miracle it’s not, just put it in the hall,” I instructed, handing them each a bag. 

Silently, we went to work. Having three of us made the job shorter, if not easier. Throwing away one’s possessions was never easy, especially under these circumstances. It took us nearly two hours. By the time we were done, I was emotionally strung out. It was as if my mental state was a washcloth wrung out until there was very little left. 

Not long after we dragged the last bag to the back patio, Dad pulled up with three large pizza boxes in his hands. I doubted pizza would come anywhere close to making things better this time. His normal, exuberant greeting was missing. He looked exhausted. 

“C’mon kids, you look like I feel. I brought dinner. Let’s go find somewhere to eat,” he said, his voice devoid of its usual enthusiasm. 

Despite the decor-by-destruction motif, we cleared the debris from the table. Dad had the pizza place provide paper plates and bottles of soda. Tori found a roll of paper towels to use as napkins. I chewed thoughtfully, deliberately avoiding eye contact with my dad. 

We ate in silence, not exactly awkward, but not the normal, comfortable kind which friends and family often shared. As soon as we were done, Andy and Tori made their excuses and headed home, promising to stop by tomorrow after school with my assignments. 

I couldn’t put off the inevitable any longer, especially when Dad leaned forward with his elbows on the table, dropping his head into his hands. 

“How’s Mom?” I asked, afraid of the answer. 

Dad looked up, pinched his brow before answering. “Not good. She’s been admitted to the hospital’s secure unit, for now. It looks like they’ll be able to transfer her the day after tomorrow to Choate.”

“Where’s that?” I asked, having never heard of the place, but then, why would I have?

“It’s south of here, about four hours.” Dad sounded resigned. Four hours was much too far to make a daily commute to and from. It was pushing it for a day visit as well. I didn’t know if either of us was up for making a trip like that every weekend, either. 

“How long will she be there?”

“I don’t know. However long it takes — or until the insurance says otherwise.” 

My thoughts were somber. Was it wrong to feel relieved? I mean, I loved my mother, but to be brutally honest, I didn’t care for her as a person, her mental issues notwithstanding. If she had been an aunt or a cousin, I would have been perfectly happy seeing her at the occasional wedding or funeral. She wasn’t the type of person I wanted to foster a relationship with voluntarily. 

Dad must have seen the conflict of emotions on my face. He reached across the table, like he had so many times before, and grasped my hands. 

“This doesn’t change anything for you, Shay. I don’t expect you to go visit her, and I certainly don’t expect you to stop seeing Dr. K. I think you need him now more than ever. Our insurance’s excellent. It’s one of the few things your Mom and I really argued about. She didn’t want to spend the extra money on the better plan. I’m glad I insisted. We’ll get through this. It might not work out the way everyone wants it to, but we’ll push through the best we can, okay?

I nodded. 

“What’s the status of your room?” he asked. 

I grimaced. “Not good. She destroyed everything. We turned the mattress over, so I can sleep on it tonight, but the other side was shredded. All my clothes and electronics are destroyed. I…I don’t have anything left,” I whispered.

Dad cried softly when I led him down the hall to see the result of Mom’s mayhem himself. The room was now devoid of everything except my bed, desk, and dresser. All of those items would need to be replaced, mostly damaged beyond repair. 

I heard my father, my pillar of strength, draw in a shaky breath when he realized the extent of her rampage. I’m glad he didn’t see the state of my room a few hours ago. If he saw it earlier, I mean really saw it before I got home, he would have been wrecked. Instead, he was too focused on getting Mom squared away. 

“Where’s all your stuff?”

“On the back patio,” I replied.

“We’ll go shopping tomorrow to get you some new things. I won’t be able to replace everything right away.”

“Don’t worry, Dad. I’ve got some money saved up. I can buy some of my own stuff.”

Dad gave me a wry grin. 

Back in the kitchen, I cleared away the plates and looked around for some foil or a zip-lock bag to store the leftover pizza in. My eyes happened to land on the calendar Dad gave Mom for Christmas, each month’s picture a different butterfly. Circled in red was today’s date. Goddammit. It was their twentieth wedding anniversary. What a way to fucking celebrate. 

I picked it up, gingerly holding the nearly torn in half page together as I stared at the ruined photo of a monarch butterfly. “She’s such a bitch,” I whispered. 

“Yeah, she can be,” Dad admitted. It startled me to hear such a confession from him. 

“Does it bother you that she did this today?”

“Yes and no. I know she most likely didn’t choose today deliberately. She’s mentally ill, Shay. She’s at the mercy of her brain misfiring and muddling up reality. To be honest, I’ve seen it coming but haven't been able to do anything about it. Our health-care system is fucked up. Even with the best coverage plan, the insurance company denied the request her doctor made to get her in an inpatient program months ago. They said she wasn’t sick enough. He wanted her medication changed, but the one he said would be best wasn’t covered, and the out-of-pocket cost was exorbitant. It’s a shame our healthcare is dictated by insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Her doctor had no say.”

“That’s totally fucked up, Dad.”

“I agree. So, back to your question. It doesn’t bother me that she had a breakdown. I’ve been expecting it. It does bother me that she picked our anniversary, although I’m not sure she really knew what day it was. What bothers me the most is how much she hurt the both of us with her actions, especially you. You don’t deserve any of this, and I promise to do whatever I can to make up for it.” 

By now, tears were flowing again. Dad pulled me into a hug, and I felt his body quiver as he fought to hold back his own grief. He lost the battle and together we cried softly, holding each other, mourning the loss of the family we once were and would never be again. He and I knew that even if Mom came home, things would never be the same. 

After a while, I pulled away. “I love you, Dad.”

“I love you too, Shay. Go try to get some sleep. We’ll go shopping in the morning for some new clothes and stuff. Will you be alright if we reschedule your appointment with Dr. K? I don’t think I should be too far from the hospital until they move your mom to Choate.”

I’d forgotten about what day of the week it was. Even though my emotions were all over the place, I knew I had enough tools in my mental bag of coping mechanisms to get me through another week. I assured Dad I’d be fine and gave him another hug before heading to the bathroom to see if she left my toothbrush in any sort of usable condition. When I found it floating in the toilet, I sighed and hunted for a new, unopened one. I lucked out and opted for a brand-new tube of toothpaste I found, not trusting the old one to be untainted by anything unsavory. 

Sleep eluded me for a while, but I finally managed to drift off, tossing and turning fitfully. I felt like death warmed over the next morning, and Dad didn’t look much better. He let me borrow one of his sweatshirts, even though it was at least three sizes too big for me. I made do with yesterday’s underwear and jeans, knowing I could change once we bought some new stuff. Neither of us was very hungry, so we settled for take-out coffee and a couple of doughnuts each. 

Dad let me get whatever I wanted, as long as it didn’t exceed the generous budget he gave me. I got the basics out of the way first. Jeans, t-shirts, both long and short-sleeved, joined a couple of sweaters in the cart. Underwear was next, and Dad never batted an eyelash the way Mom would’ve when I threw two packages of boxer briefs on top of a stack of cute panties in a variety of colors and patterns. He did veto the miniskirt I was eyeing, but only because it was January and not exactly practical. Instead, I opted for a knee length pencil skirt and a cute dress. 

Once I was stocked up with enough clothes to get me through until spring, we decided to get lunch. Shopping built up our appetites, which had been non-existent until now. Nothing said comfort food like burgers, fries, and double-thick milkshakes. My stomach bulged, and I was glad the jeans I wore were loose. 

Next on the agenda was new stuff for my bedroom. We stopped at a value furniture outlet, and I picked out a simple full-size platform bed, but Dad pointed to a queen set which was on sale. The bed, dresser and nightstand were reduced, and the set only cost a little more than just the full-size bed alone. No brainer. He sprang for the memory-foam mattress, too, rationalizing the purchase by stating how much he saved on the rest of it. The salesman threw in two free sets of sheets and a couple of pillows when he heard what happened. Not all the details, of course. No sense in airing our dirty laundry for all to see. 

The furniture would be delivered the following day, and Dad was okay with me staying at Andy’s or Tori’s. I decided to let the two of them flip a coin. Any more decision making was beyond my capabilities today. We got stuck behind the bus, and when my friends hopped off, we gave them a ride to our house. Tori won the coin toss, and I threw some of my new clothes into a bag. I could wash them at her place. In a way, I was glad she won the toss. Andy’s mom was a better cook, but she also had a tendency to smother us. She meant well. 

Tori’s mom and dad were sympathetic but didn’t make a big production out of what happened. They extended an offer to help if we needed anything. It was reassuring, knowing Dad and I had people we could count on. 

I can’t say the next couple of months were easy, but they were calm. Without Mom and her whirlwind of emotions in the house, Dad and I fell into an easy routine. School, work, trip to Chicago for therapy once a week, and every other weekend I would stay with Andy or Tori while Dad made the trip to see Mom. I hated those weekends because he always returned looking haggard around the edges. 

During this time, Dr. K made it a point to center our conversations around Mom and her current condition. He helped assuage my fears that someday I would end up just like her. Granted, there was no guarantee, but statistically speaking, the odds were in my favor. 

Surprisingly, Nana turned into one of our biggest allies. Shortly after the whole thing went down, she came over, looking a little strung out, I must say. She vented to me and Dad, ranting how disappointed she was in herself, not us, for enabling Mom for so long. We didn’t deny it; it was fucking true. She truly seemed remorseful, and by the end of the evening we had all reached a new understanding, a sort of truce, actually. 

Nana apologized and acknowledged she didn’t do anything to dissuade Mom from her opinion about me and how I viewed myself. She even started using the correct pronouns, at least some of the time. Old habits were hard to break. Unlike my mom, Nana was making an effort, and that had to count for something. 

As March went out like a lamb and April’s spring showers became reality, Dad came home bearing the news; Mom was making progress. If she continued to improve, they would consider discharging her to come home. I had mixed feelings about it. I was scared of disrupting the peace which had been established. Dr. K had a hard time convincing me I was ready to handle such a challenge. 

Mentally, I was still on what I considered a teeter-totter. Once the initial shock of having a classmate come out as non-binary died down, I stopped being the topic of daily conversation. I still got the occasional side glance or shoulder brush, but for the most part, things had settled. It wasn’t difficult to sway the minds of hormonal teenagers from one thing to the next. Today the kid who couldn’t make up their mind if they wanted to be male or female was big news, the next it was the pregnant cheerleader. Okay, so that wasn’t exactly big news, but when the rumor mill churned out accusations of the football coach being the father, it changed things. 

In the end, what I thought didn’t matter. Mom came home at the end of April with the blessings of her care team. She looked different. Twenty or thirty pounds heavier, a result of her medications, Dad said. Her brown hair was now threaded with gray, and a lot of it. It seemed as if my mom had gone straight from forty to sixty, bypassing her fifties altogether. Honestly, it shocked me when I saw her get out of the car.

Regardless of how she looked physically, when I caught her eye, I swore I saw a flicker of disapproval, just like before. As quickly as it came, it was gone. In its place, a shy smile, as if she were meeting me for the first time. That unnerved me just as much. 

“Shay!” she exclaimed, embracing me in an uncomfortable and awkward hug. “I’ve missed you.”

The latter statement wasn’t very convincing. Dad shot me a pleading look, silently begging me to play along. 

I pulled out of her squishy hold and gave a begrudging, “I missed you too.”

We got Mom settled in, Dad helped her put away her things. Nana arrived shortly after, bearing containers of Chinese food, my favorite. I think it was her way of showing solidarity with me. I silently gave thanks to the take-out gods for blessing us with the best steamed dumplings in the state. 

I wish I could say the next few months were good, but they weren’t. Mom had everyone fooled. I’m the only one who saw it. On the outside, she seemed docile, capitulating to everyone around her. 

Sonya, would you like to watch TV?”

“Okay.”

“Darling, do you want to go for a drive?”

“Okay.”

“Sweetheart, it’s time for your meds.”

“Okay.”

Okay. Okay. Okay. It was her standard answer to damn near every question posed to her. Except when I asked. 

“Mom, would you like some tea?”

“No.”

“Mom, can I get you anything?”

“No.”

“Mom, have you seen my backpack?”

“No.” 

It was on the table in front of her. I threw the question at her deliberately. It confirmed my suspicions she still hated me. 

The first few weeks following her return, things seemed to settle into a pattern. I would leave every morning as early as possible, most days stopping at Tori’s for breakfast. Her mom didn’t question why I suddenly preferred her Peanut Butter Crunch over the box at my house. Days were spent at school and afternoons at Andy’s doing homework or playing video games. Most nights would see my ass at his kitchen table for dinner, too, although some days I showed up at Tori’s just for a break. 

I wanted to get a job but discovered the state’s restrictions on underage labor meant not many places would hire a fifteen-year-old. I refused to put myself out there for babysitting. There were three families on our lane who had little kids in need of the occasional sucker to watch them. Holy fucking terrors, each and every one. It wasn’t worth the extra dollars in my pocket. On the weekends, I helped Dad out around the yard. Spring cleanup was underway, and there was plenty of raking, tilling, planting and general groundskeeping to do. Nana hired me to do her yardwork in the spring and summer. It would be a good distraction. The money was an added bonus. The homemade cookies icing on the cake.

*****

Summer flew by way too fast and at the end, I turned sixteen. Mom decided to mark the occasion with her first suicide attempt. Dad found her, passed out with a nearly empty fifth of vodka and an empty bottle of antidepressants by her side. It was a blessing in disguise. It earned me three months of peacefulness in the house while she was back in a psych hospital, this time in Chicago. Dad managed to arrange his hours so he could take Tuesdays off. My teachers agreed to accommodate his request to give me a separate assignment, basically teaching me whatever was on the lesson plan for that day. We did this for twelve long weeks, leaving right after breakfast, Dad meeting with Mom’s care team while I parked my ass in the lobby with my new laptop, working just as hard as if I’d been in class. After lunch, we’d haul ass across town, where I’d meet with Dr. K for an earlier session. 

Honestly, it was a lot, and considering the only thing in it for me was getting home at a decent time every Tuesday, the rest of it sucked. Some of my classmates resented the special treatment and hassled me about it. For real? Did they really think I preferred having a bat-shit crazy mother over being in class every day? Fucking idiots. I ignored them. Tori and Andy had my back.  

Getting my learner’s permit was the next major step toward independence, even though I couldn’t drive by myself until I got my actual license. Andy managed to fill that gap. He was six months older and earned his license a couple of weeks before school started. His mom let him use their family station wagon to drive us back and forth. While it wasn’t top on any teenager’s wish list of vehicles, it was better than the goddamn bus. Plus, the extra half hour of sleep each morning was heaven, especially after one of our trips to Chicago.  

Junior year was one of the toughest ones, schedule-wise. No study hall or P.E. to pad our time. Plus, our teachers were on our case about the year’s grades being the most important and prepping us for the SAT and ACT exams. Overall, my classes weren’t too difficult and even with the disruption of Mom’s stay at the Holidaze Inn, I managed to get all A’s and B’s.

After her release back home, I spent the rest of the academic year avoiding my mother. I busied myself with after-school activities and even got involved in the school play. It was a fun distraction. Too bad Dad had to miss opening night when Mom threw a hissy fit. Nana stepped up to the plate and came to see me as ‘Munchkin number three and Flying Monkey four’ in our mashed-up version of The Wizard of Oz meets The Wiz. Dad came to the closing night performance, so it all worked out in the end.

On the employment front, I started working at a trendy bistro downtown, bussing tables during the breakfast rush on the weekends. It wasn’t much, but it kept me occupied and gave me a little bit of cash in my pocket. I had to rely on Dad to give me rides, but as soon as I turned sixteen and a half, I took my road test and passed with flying colors. Dad handed me the keys to Mom’s old car, a five-year-old Kia Sportage. Tori jumped ship along with Andy, abandoning the station wagon as soon as the keys to the Kia were in my hands.

Sitting in the open courtyard one beautiful spring day, eating lunch, Tori asked, ”How do you do it, Shay?”

I looked up from my roast-beef sandwich, confused. “Do what?”

“Deal with your mom’s bullshit.”

I saw Andy shoot her the death glare, which told me they must have had a discussion about this without me. I didn’t mind, and her question was valid. 

“I dunno. I just do. I stopped caring about her a while ago. Dr. K told me I have the power to control what to be concerned about and what to brush off. I usually brush everything off. It still bothers me sometimes. I mean, how would you feel if your own mom didn’t hide the fact she didn’t approve of you?” Most of the time, I justify her asinine behavior by attributing it to her mental illness. Anything else hurts too much.” 

It was the most I ever said to my best friends regarding my mother and her attitude toward me. Neither had asked before, and I didn’t want to hang a heavy curtain of pity over our friendship. I should have known better. Tori and Andy shrugged it off, and we finished our lunch.  

I’m pretty sure my blowing off Mom’s constant attempts at getting on my nerves backfired and ended up getting on hers. By the end of junior year, she ramped up the snide comments and disgusted looks she shot in my direction. Always when Dad was nowhere to be found. I didn’t bother mentioning it to him. I didn’t want him to worry, so I ignored her. It was an interesting summer, to be sure. 

Senior year, of course, had to start with a bang.

It started with her second suicide attempt over Labor Day weekend. Not on my birthday, but close enough. This time, she tried to induce hyponatremia. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, in simplest form it means she tried to drink herself to death with water. After her previous attempt, Dad removed all liquor from the house. She remedied that by guzzling two gallons of water in less than an hour. 

Our bodies, specifically our kidneys, were not designed to process that much liquid in such a short amount of time. Two things happen, neither of which is any good. First, sodium levels become dangerously diluted. Short term, we can handle it, but long term it’s detrimental. The most immediate danger comes when the water, having nowhere else to go, moves into other body cells, causing them to swell. This can cause changes in mental status and usually leads to seizures. 

In Mom’s case, it’s hard to accurately determine what an altered mental state is. Dad found her on their bedroom floor, weak, confused, and having small seizures. It wasn’t until later that doctors pieced together what happened. When they were able to stabilize her, and she wasn’t completely zonked out, she happily admitted what she’d done. This earned her a new stay at the psych hospital’s version of the Comfort Inn, complete with padded rooms and straight jackets instead of complimentary bathrobes. The scenario was starting to become routine. 

During this time, a surprising turn of events found me questioning whether there was a glitch in the matrix. Remember Griffin Rittenhouse, Joker to my Batman? Lex Luthor to my Superman? Well, it turns out, he wasn’t quite the villain I’d built him up to be in my mind. 

Shortly after Mom returned home at the beginning of November, a group of soccer players cornered me on their way to practice. Soccer players, of all things. The fall season was coming to a close. The team lost the last game due to Erik Loughman missing a penalty kick. They had to win the next one if they had any chance of making it to post-season play-offs. While it might account for their being pissed off, it didn’t excuse what they did. 

I guess I wasn’t weird enough to rate the jeers of the football team, or maybe I was too weird for them. Whatever the case, the key players on the soccer team intercepted me one day as I headed to the bus. Why the bus? My car was being serviced and Andy and Tori were both down with a stomach bug plaguing the hallowed halls of our school.

Getting back to the soccer team, they flipped my skirt up to “see what was underneath” and shoving me down to the ground, ripping a rather large hole in the leggings I’d worn under the skirt as it was November and fucking cold.

I saw a sneakered foot heading my way. I threw my hands over my head and braced myself for the incoming pain. The blow never came, instead replaced with a loud ‘oof’.  I cautiously peered out from my arm blockade. Griffin Rittenhouse was hovering over Shane Rivers, who was now doubled over, clutching his balls. Didn’t expect that. 

“Get the fuck out of here,” Griff growled, taking a menacing step toward the other two asshats, standing there, mouths agape like a couple of village idiots. They scampered off, hauling their teammate away, dragging him by his armpits. 

Griff’s hand extended out toward mine. Mindlessly, I reached up and grabbed it, allowing myself to be hurled upward. Jesus, it seemed someone’s been working out. 

“Thanks,” I muttered, confused as to why Griff would bother defending me. 

“It’s okay. It was a totally unfair fight. Three against one isn’t right,” he replied, letting go of my hand after realizing he still had it in his grip.

“Still, you didn’t have to.” I averted my eyes. My cheeks flamed as I noticed how he’d filled out since the last time I’d bothered to really take a good look at him, which was probably two years ago. We didn’t have any classes together and didn’t run in the same circles. Occasionally seeing brief glimpses in the hallway or at an assembly was the closest contact we’d had since eighth grade. 

Griff bent down to pick up my backpack, which had gotten kicked across the floor, and handed it to me. I checked to make sure everything was still there and then swore as I looked toward the parking lot. 

“Fuck! There goes my bus, goddamn it!”

“Hey, it’s okay. I can give you a ride,” he offered. 

I stared at him like he had three heads. Even though we were in the same grade, Griff was actually nearly a year older. His parents had delayed his starting kindergarten because his birthday was the last day of eligibility and they didn’t want him struggling to keep up. Our birthdays were only a month apart. Mine was September 1st, his was September 30th. Despite being born in the same month, I was one of the youngest in our class, while he was the oldest. 

“Why?” I blurted, my mouth not getting the memo from my feet that walking was now completely optional. 

Griff blushed. Actually, fucking, turned-red-in-the-face, blushed. 

“Look, Shay. I know we’ve never run in the same circles, and you probably hate me for all the shit I gave you back in elementary school, but I was an asshole back then, and I’m sorry. I can at least try to make it up to you by giving you a ride.” 

Still leery, not completely trusting his motives, I hesitated. 

Sensing my reticence, Griff upped the ante. “I’ll even stop at Casey’s and buy you a burger as a peace offering.”

Casey’s was the local diner, renowned for its giant hamburgers, and fries made with fresh-cut potatoes, not frozen. 

“Tempting.” I tapped my finger against my chin as if contemplating the offer. 

Griffin laughed and gave me a playful shove toward the student lot. 

If I’m being honest, I was a little weirded out by the whole encounter. Not only was Griffin Rittenhouse my savior, having saved me from having my face smashed in, he was actually nice.

It was a little awkward as we sat in a booth at Casey’s, chowing on thick, juicy burgers, fully loaded, accompanied by steaming, crispy fries. Conversation may have been a little stilted, but overall, wasn’t horrifying. I managed not to embarrass myself too badly. We both avoided the subject of my family. I wasn’t stupid. The whole school knew about my domestic situation. I had to live with it every day and didn’t need any reminders. 

Griff seemed to pick up on it. He talked about school, mostly. We had almost all the same classes with the same teachers, just at different times. We found common ground amid discussing the pros and cons of each one of our mutual proctors of learning. We came to the same conclusions; Ms. Carpenter was the best looking, Mr. Battisti was everyone’s favorite, Ms. Krupa was a religious nutcase who had no business teaching a bunch of hormonal teenagers, Mrs. Deroscher was a bitch, and Mrs. Kulig a complete pushover. We had different teachers for biology, Griff had Mr. Kremins who was okay, while I had Ms. Beecher, who was a little lazy, if you asked me. 

I was surprised when our waitress came over to ask if we wanted anything else. I politely declined, as did Griff. True to his word, he picked up the tab, even though I protested. I could pay my half. I had plenty of money saved from working, and Dad gave me a decent monthly allowance which covered gas and lunch with a little left over most of the time.

Griffin settled up and drove me home. I thanked him for the ride and said I’d see him around. I wish I could say that night had been the start of a new and amazing friendship, but that wouldn’t come until later. 

*****

The holidays that year were a strained affair. Dad tried hard to make things seem normal. Mom didn’t try hard enough. Nana and I were caught in the middle, comforting ourselves by making double batches of every Christmas cookie imaginable at her house. It was a nice reprieve for me. 

Spending as much time away from home as I could manage helped immensely. When I wasn’t working at the bistro on the weekend, I hung out at Andy’s or Tori’s. They had jobs too, but most weekends our schedules coincided enough to allow for decent time together. An added bonus was getting all of my Christmas shopping done early. 

My suspicions that I was not Mom’s favorite person were confirmed when I opened my Christmas gift from her. It was a collector’s edition of stories by her favorite author. The very same collection I’d given her last year. Some of the pages were dog-eared and stained. I politely thanked her and put the box aside. Later, when I chucked it into the recycling bin, Dad shook his head sadly.

By this time, I was only seeing Dr. K once a month. It was more or less maintenance therapy. He said he’d seen significant progress in my maturity level and coping skills. I made sure to make every minute of each precious session count. He was the only one who witnessed my tears when I recounted Mom’s choice of Christmas gift. Silently, he handed me the box of Kleenex, waiting until my crying had run its course. Then he told me how proud he was of me. 

At the end of January, I got another reprieve when Mom made her next half-assed suicide attempt. This time she drank laundry detergent. Dad found her, but I was hot on his heels, close enough that I’m sure she thought I’d be the one home first. As it was, I made the call to 911. What a bitch. 

Her stint only lasted thirty days this time. After her homecoming, I was dealt a blow on the employment front. The owner of the bistro passed away suddenly and his kids wanted nothing to do with running the establishment. Within a week of the funeral, the doors were shuttered until a suitable buyer could be found. The oldest son gave everyone two-full-weeks’ severance, regardless of their full- or part-time status. 

I applied at a few stores at the local mall, but really wanted a job I saw posted online. Realistically, online openings were notoriously hard to get. Algorithms, not actual people, determined if your application/resume would ever see a live set of eyes. It was a long shot, but I gave it a go.

The position was for a local veterinarian. Sure, it was scut work, cleaning kennels and mopping floors, but I’d been enamored of most furry creatures with four legs since I was little. Mom managed to ruin that, too. Allergies. 

The online posting was one of the rare ones which actually listed the name of the employer. So, instead of taking chances with the computer, I drove over after school. Pawsitive Vetting was in a brick building not far from school. Next door was a grooming business, Pawsitive Images. Cute. 

The glass double doors led to a bright open lobby. Chairs for humans, as well as bench seats along the wall for animals, were currently occupied by a few creatures, large and small. A Great Dane sat with its butt on the bench and paws on the floor, his human next to him on one of the chairs. A lady with two cat carriers, one of which contained an angrily hissing pussy, sat as far away from the huge drooling beast as possible. An older man was holding the leash of a scraggly looking mutt, whose tail thumped whenever anyone glanced its way. 

A friendly looking, older lady looked up from the reception desk as I walked in. 

“Can I help you?”

“Um, yes, please. I saw your posting online for the kennel-assistant position. Well, my laptop is on the fritz and my phone doesn’t format properly, so I was wondering if you were accepting applications in person?” Yeah, so I may have lied about the computer, but hey, who the hell’s really going to believe a teenage kid wanted to stuff the ballot box and get their application into the right hands?

The receptionist laughed. “Oh, thank god! I thought I was going to go blind from sorting through all of those online forms. Not that we’ve had any responses, but here–” she handed me a paper application on a clipboard and a pen. “Just bring it back over when you’re done, and I’ll see if Doc can spare a few minutes.”

The application was straightforward enough and didn’t take long to complete. It’s not as if I had an extensive work history. I handed it back to the friendly receptionist. Karen, as her name tag read, told me to sit tight before she disappeared into the back. I’m not sure what I expected, but the petite, red-headed woman wearing jeans and a polo embroidered with ‘Pawsitive Vetting’ on the left side was not it. 

“Hi, I’m Doc Sheehan. You must be Shay. Why don’t you come on back and we’ll do a quick interview?”

Still surprised I was being given the time of day, I followed her through a set of double doors, behind which the vaguely disgusting scent of dog breath, animal pee, along with poop and something I couldn’t place, was mixed with some sort of bleachy disinfectant. I mean, I didn’t expect it to smell like Yankee Candle, and once you got used to it, it wasn’t all that bad. 

Doc Sheehan looked over my application, then asked a few standard questions. What made me apply? When was I available? Any allergies? How do I handle stress? Any animals I’m afraid of? 

I answered as honestly as I could, not knowing what else I could do. It was only the second job interview I’d ever had. The question about handling stress sort of threw me, but I had nothing to lose. I disclosed that I had a rough few years without going into detail. I was upfront about being non-binary, even though I knew it was something they couldn’t legally ask. I needed to be sure I’d be respected. 

Doc Sheehan was pretty chill. She offered me the job and had me fill out the necessary paperwork. I struggled trying to figure out what the hell to claim on something labeled W-9 for the government. The bistro had paid me under the table, so these forms might well have been written in a foreign language. 

In the midst of my brain-wracking, I heard Karen greet someone with a familiar name. That certain someone pushed through the double doors and my mouth dropped open in surprise.

“Griffin?”

“Shay?”

Surprise reflected off both our faces.

“I didn’t know you worked here?” I said, more of a question really.

His neck flushed red. “Yeah, I’ve been working here since the fall. Have you applied for the other kennel-attendant position?” 

“Um, yeah. Actually, Doc Sheehan just hired me. I start Monday.” 

“That’s awesome! Welcome to the team.”

I stared back, feeling as though I’d slipped into an episode of The Twilight Zone. I didn’t know it at the time, but that particular day was the start of a special relationship.

*****

Mom’s recent return home after her latest vacation at Schizo Spa, as I referred to it in my head, was uneventful. I knew it wasn’t polite, nor anywhere near politically correct, which is why I kept the nickname to myself. This time was slightly different, but only because she was on a new drug. I also knew what it meant for Dad. Brand-spanking new drugs usually came with a hefty price tag, even if covered by insurance. 

The strain of juggling our family’s finances showed on his face. Despite earning a significant income as plant manager, his paycheck only stretched so far. I caught him one evening, sitting at the kitchen table, his head dropped into his hands in defeat, bills fanned out in front of him like enemy soldiers lurking just behind the line of fire. 

“Hey, Dad.” 

“Hi, Shay.” 

“Are you okay?”

Dad smiled at me. I could practically see the mask of fortitude drop over his weary face. Always the protector, not wanting me to be the one worrying. If only he realized the extent and depth of my disquietude most days. Knowing this, his answer surprised me. 

“No, Shay. I’m not okay. I think you’re old enough that I don’t need to sugarcoat things for you any longer. I’m worried about your mother. I don’t know how much more of this roller-coaster ride I can take. She drains me. Emotionally, mentally, physically, not to mention financially. It’s just…” his voice trailed off.

“A lot. It’s a lot, Dad. Anything I can do to help?” I asked. 

He shook his head. “You’re already doing it. You have a part-time job, and I don’t see you messing up your grades anymore. You help out here, more than you really should.” 

He was partly right about that. I did help out a lot, but only with matters which he would have had to take care of, like cleaning, laundry, and yard work. Anything to do with Mom, however, was a different story. I was loath to give her the time of day. 

Dr. K tried to reason with me, telling me her mental illness was likely the root cause of her animosity toward me. Rationally, I understood. It didn’t nullify the hurt she’d caused over the years. I was convinced her hatred took root when she realized I was different. There wasn’t anything anyone could say to change my mind. It was a topic we agreed to disagree on. 

“I can do more. All you need to do is ask, even if it’s just listening.”

Dad lifted his head. I thoroughly expected him to brush me off, but instead he took a deep breath. “Did I ever tell you about the early years of our marriage?” he asked, leaning back and crossing his arms over his chest. 

I shook my head. I’d seen pictures of their wedding, of course. My parents, looking impossibly young as they stood at a church altar. Close up shots of their hands, light glinting off their brand-new rings. Candid shots from a reception where it looked like everyone was having a good time. It was hard to believe twenty years had gone by. 

“Your mom was so beautiful the day we got hitched. Stunning really. We were so much in love I nearly choked on it. Sappy, I know, but that’s how I felt. We had a bit of a rough start. Back then I was fresh out of college with a degree in business management, completely oblivious to how the real world actually worked.” He laughed at the memory. 

“No one was going to hire a twenty-one-year-old to manage anything. I had to start at the bottom, just like everyone else. Your mom was a real trooper about it. She put a smile on her face every time she walked out the door to work at an insurance agency. The first couple of years we were married, she made more money than I did. It rankled a bit, but she was so gracious about it, never throwing it in my face, even when we argued, which wasn't very often. Then I landed a job working the line at the plant.”

I stood up and motioned for him to keep going. Grabbing two bottles of water from the fridge, I slid one in front of him, before slipping back into my chair. 

“It took two years for me to work my way up to a lead position, another three before I went for a supervisor opening and didn’t get it. During this time, we had you. Your mother went back to work when you were four-months old. Her making that decision is what allowed us to buy this house. We moved in when you were two, and I told your mom I would bust my ass to get to a point where she didn’t have to work so we could make ends meet. A year later, I was given a different mid-management-level job and was able to make good on that promise.” 

I took a long pull from my water bottle, fascinated at Dad’s recollections of his and Mom’s early days.

“Your Mom did everything she could to run the house, chauffeur you to and from school and any after-school activities. It was her idyllic dream. When we were dating, she talked about taking care of a family. We wanted more kids, but she developed endometriosis severe enough it contributed to three miscarriages.” 

“I…I never knew that,” I said. The thought of potentially having siblings was sobering. How much different would things be if I had brothers or sisters to soften the blow of having a kid who diverged from her perception of her idyllic child?

“Shay, I wouldn’t change things for the world. Giving you siblings would have been nice, but only because it may have given you a broader support system.” 

“Or potential allies for Mom’s team,” I blurted out before I could stop myself. Dad didn’t admonish me, though. 

“Possibly, but I doubt it. Your mom didn’t handle the miscarriages very well. Each one seemed to bring her down more. It was the start of her depression manifesting. She hid it from us well, I have to admit. It wasn’t until you were eleven or twelve that I even noticed. Granted, I was working fifty to sixty hours a week, but still, I should have paid more attention.”

“Dad,” I interrupted. “We both could have paid more attention. She didn’t make it easy. I know she was — and still is — embarrassed by me. Maybe if I had a brother or sister who wasn’t like me, she would’ve had someone else to focus on and maybe things wouldn’t have spiraled. But we’ll never know, and if there’s one thing Dr. K’s emphasized, it’s we can’t dwell on the what ifs.”

“Dr. K’s a smart man. You know, part of our marriage vows included promising each other we’d be there for better or for worse. We enjoyed many years under the for better part. Now, we’re dealing with the for worse. My point is, Shay, your mother used to be quite different before her mind decided to take a permanent vacation from us, from the responsibilities of this family. I blame myself for letting it go so long. I saw the warning signs, but instead of listening to them, I listened to her telling me she was okay. That is why I am not okay.” 

I didn’t say anything for several minutes, his words making an unexpected impact. At that moment, I knew he’d just taught me a very valuable lesson I could never learn in a classroom. It was okay to not be okay. 

When I finally spoke, it was to say two words. Two simple words which spoke volumes. “Thank you.”

Dad nodded and pushed back his chair, walking behind me, pausing long enough to place both hands on my shoulders and give a gentle squeeze before kissing the top of my head. It was a memory which would stay with me for the rest of my life. 

*****

Dad’s worry was somewhat alleviated when Mom didn’t tolerate the new drug very well and her doctor took her off of it. The downside was, we were back to walking on eggshells around her. Luckily, my new job proved to be the perfect distraction. 

My first week, Doc, as she preferred to be called, paired me with Griffin. He showed me the ropes. Our shifts started at four, giving me just enough time to get home, grab something to eat, and figure out what needed to be done for homework.

Senior year wasn’t as brutal as the previous year, but still, in order to cow us into not slacking off, most of our teachers hung the fear of not getting into college over our heads. I took it seriously. Well, at least seriously enough to not get harped on. Not like Andy, who was more interested in Anna Cruz, a cute Latina cheerleader with big boobs.

I scored well the first time I took the SATs at the end of junior year. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take them again. I wasn’t Mensa material, but my grades and scores were good enough to get me into any of the state schools. I was accepted into the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It was close enough to home to commute, which I wasn’t thrilled about but would save on room and board costs. I didn’t want Dad stressing anymore, nor did I want to saddle myself with unnecessary student loans. Veterinary school would be enough, thanks.

My new job was easy enough. Griff and I started an hour before the clinic closed. Karen, the receptionist, was always out the door by five-fifteen. Doc had four vet techs, Craig, Regan, Marta, and Janice. Most days they were gone by five-thirty. Doc was the last of the full-time staff to head out the door. She generally finished her charting by six o’clock, six-thirty at the latest. 

Griffin showed me where all the supplies were kept and how to add something to the list if it needed to be ordered. We spent the next couple of hours cleaning and sanitizing kennels, washing bedding, cleaning the reception area, and other housekeeping chores. We walked the dogs whose condition allowed and made sure towels and linens were stocked for the next day. 

Occasionally, a dog or cat needed to be monitored continuously. Normally, one of the techs would stay late, and Doc had an on-call one available to stay overnight. On nights when there were no cats or dogs needing continuous care or those rare occasions when every animal had gone home, we made sure the clinic was secure before locking up. 

I’d been working at the clinic for over two months when our conversation turned to post-graduation plans. I discovered Griff shared the same dream of becoming a veterinarian. His ultimate goal was to get into the pre-vet program at the University of Illinois Chicago campus but was going to do some prerequisites at our local community college for his first year to save money.

“Nah man, I wouldn’t want to go there,” I told him. “Big cities are a little too much for me. Besides, I spent two years riding back and forth once a week for therapy. I’m over it. I’d rather save money on room and board for actual vet school.” 

“I hear you. I just want to get as far away from this place as I can.”

“Why?” I didn’t stop to think how intrusive my question could be. 

Griff got quiet. 

“Hey, I’m sorry. It’s none of my business.” His hesitancy reminded me we weren’t best friends like I was with Tori and Andy. We were work friends, not really socializing at school, merely nodding if we passed in the halls. 

“Nah, it’s alright. I’ve just never talked about it before. Never had anyone ask.” 

It was my turn to be quiet. If Griffin wanted to share, he didn’t need me prodding. 

“Can I ask you something?” he said. 

“Sure.”

“What’s it like? I mean, what is it like to be you?”

I looked at him, puzzled as to what he really wanted to know.

Griffin put a pile of towels in the linen closet before closing the door. “I’m saying this all wrong. What I’m trying to say is, what does it mean to you, being non-binary?”

I stared at him for a moment, trying to work out A) why he was asking, and B) how to answer. I bit my bottom lip before deciding option B was easier to deal with than wanting to know about option A. 

“In simplest terms, it means I like things that are traditionally associated with males and females. The more complex answer is, regardless of the anatomy I was born with, I feel most comfortable having the choice between going the male route, like farting, burping, drinking beer, and driving big pickup trucks. Or choosing the girl route and wearing makeup and dresses, drinking fruity cocktails with little umbrellas. Most importantly, it’s me knowing I’m comfortable with whatever choice I make.” 

That last part was what I struggled so much with in the beginning. It was incredibly difficult to accept I had every right to wear what I wanted, when I wanted, within the dress code, of course. Dr. K and I spent countless hours ping-ponging back and forth the pros and cons of embracing my non-binaryness. 

He nodded and looked down. Something was still troubling him. I didn’t need to be a mind reader to figure it out. So, I did the only thing I could; I tackled option A. 

“Why?”

Griff blushed, a pretty shade of pink which crept up his neck, into his cheeks before traveling up and over the curved shell of his ears. 

“A couple of reasons,” he admitted. “First, right after Halloween last year, my cousin attempted suicide.”

My eyes flashed up and met his. Damn. 

“We aren’t really all that close. He’s a lot older than us. Twenty-eight. He’d been struggling with gender issues. My aunt explained how he came out to her and my uncle as transgender over the summer. I guess my uncle freaked out. It doesn’t surprise me, the homophobic pig. Anyway, he disowned my cousin, his own son. I don’t understand why. I guess my aunt didn’t take the news very well, either, but she didn’t outright throw him out. Instead, he decided to leave and moved in with a friend. He made up his mind to transition, and most of his friends disappeared. Apparently, he had a rough time and the stress got to be too much. His roommate came home early from a date and found him on the floor of the bathroom with his wrists slashed. Luckily, he was taken to the hospital in time.”

“Griff, I’m sorry that happened to him. How is he now?”

“Auntie says he’s a lot better. She pulled her head out of her ass and got him into a good therapy program. He likes his doctor. I hope it works out for him. It scares me.”

Griff’s eyes gravitated to mine, as if he hadn’t meant to say that out loud. Of course, I had to jump all over it.

“What scares you?”

Now it was his turn to bite his lip. 

“Griff, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.” 

“No, it’s not that. I want to; I just don’t know how to say it. It’s the second reason I asked you what I did.”

“My shrink always told me the best way to get something off your chest is to throw it out.”

Griff snorted, then averted his eyes. “I’m gay.” 

What? I didn’t expect that. 

He turned his head but looked at me sideways, tentatively gauging my reaction. 

“Okay.” I said, not knowing what else I should try to come up with. 

“I…I haven’t ever said that out loud to anyone.” 

“Wow, Griff, I’m flattered. I think. I…I mean, I’m glad you trust me with something like that. Believe me, I know how hard it is.” 

“That’s not the only reason I told you.” 

I raised an eyebrow, silently prompting him to continue. 

“Um, I was kinda hoping you liked boys. You know, in that way.” 

Bowl me over Rover with a fucking boa feather. 

My face had to have shown how shell-shocked I was. I could do nothing but stare at him until it became awkward. 

“Y’know, nevermind. It’s stupid.” 

The word stupid pulled me out of my idiot paralysis. As Griffin Rittenhouse, my kindergarten nemesis, my Joker, my Lex Luthor, stood up to leave, I jumped up and blocked his way. Without an ounce of finesse, I grabbed his shoulders and pretty much threw myself onto his face. As far as first kisses go, I wish I could say the world momentarily stopped spinning before fireworks exploded. Instead, our lips slammed together and our teeth clacked. Our noses got in the way, and I think I may have inadvertently bit his lip. 

I pulled back, embarrassed. Now whose ears were red?

Griff laughed. It took a moment before my brain registered the hilarity of the situation, and I joined in. When our giggles subsided, I’m pleased to say our second kiss was much, much better. 

His lips were soft, his jaw covered with a hint of scruff, rasping against my cheek as he trailed his mouth across my face a few times before returning to my lips. His tongue tentatively traced the seam, and I let him in. It was everything I could have ever wanted in a first, wait, second kiss. 

When we pulled apart, I rested my forehead against his. “Yeah, I like boys. In that way.”

*****

As the end of winter melted into spring, Griff and I kept our new friendship/relationship on the downlow. After the first couple of weeks, Andy and Tori suspected something was up and called me out on it. 

“Okay, what gives? That’s the third time you’ve checked your phone in as many minutes. Unless you’re expecting a text from a Nigerian prince wanting to give you ten-million dollars in exchange for your bank-account information, let’s have it,” Tori said, snatching at my phone. I held it just out of her reach. I expected the move out of her. I didn’t expect Andy to reach over from behind me and snag the electronic lifeline to Griffin. 

“Hey! Give it back!” I exclaimed, elbowing my friend in his ribs.

“You’re right, Tor, he’s been hiding something from us.”

Tori smirked. “Or someone.”

I glared at her then rolled my eyes. These two knew me better than anyone. I’m surprised I made it two weeks before they figured it out. 

“Yeah, yeah. You caught me. I’ve sort of been seeing someone for a couple of weeks,” I admitted, grabbing my phone when Andy held it up like a pagan offering in exchange for information. 

“Deets,” Tori demanded. 

I hesitated. Even though I’d already told them I worked with Griff at the clinic, they thought we had merely buried the hatchet. They both knew my longstanding history of whatever it was I used to feel toward Griff. I can’t really say it was hatred. More like, I thought he was a jerk. My opinion had definitely shifted. He was far from a jerk. 

We spent every shift we had together just talking. We hadn’t even been on an official date yet. We hadn’t moved past a few heated kisses. Both situations were going to be remedied this Saturday. The first one for sure; I was hopeful on the second. Griffin had tickets for Yellow Jackets, a local band playing a few shows at the amphitheater in Champaign.

“I was planning on telling you after our first official date this weekend. Griffin’s taking me to see Yellow Jackets.”

Rarely did I ever render my best friends speechless. As a matter of fact, this was the first time I could recall causing such a look of priceless shock on their faces. 

Andy recovered first. “Gr-Griffin Rittenhouse?” 

Heat rushed up my cheeks, and before I could reply, Tori rediscovered her vocal capabilities. I wish she hadn’t. Her squeal caused momentary deafness. 

Countless heads turned our way, the other students gathered in the courtyard startled by the sound. 

“Shut up!” I hissed, then grabbed her arm, pulling her down on the concrete bench close by. Andy followed blindly. 

“Look, I know it seems highly unlikely, but Griff and I got to know each other while working and, well, he kinda told me a few things, personal things, and we sorta kissed.” I’d stressed the part about personal things so they wouldn’t press for details. Griff’s story about his cousin, as well as his admission of being gay, was his to tell. 

“Sorta kissed? Shay, my friend, one does not sort of kiss.” Tori laughed. 

“Aw, leave them alone, Tor, look how red they’re getting!” Andy teased. 

I rolled my eyes. A few more questions, most of which I was willing to answer, and they were satisfied I hadn’t completely lost it. The rest of the week was blissfully uneventful. 

As a matter of fact, the remainder of the school year was blissfully uneventful. 

Our first date was a success. The concert was fucking killer and afterward, well, let me just say being brought to orgasm by someone other than myself was an experience I planned on participating in as often as we could. Griff was on board with the plan, too. I found myself ensconced in my very first love. It seemed the feelings were mutual. We no longer hid our relationship. He met my parents and, after breaking the news that he was gay to his, they welcomed me with open arms. It seemed too good to be true. These things usually are. 

Graduation was a big deal in our little community. We suffered through the tedious speeches and even more tedious cafeteria-like line to walk across the stage and get handed our diplomas with a decidedly anti-climactic handshake from the principal. All to get to the endgame: freedom from the doldrums of high school. I was looking forward to the summer. 

As summers go, this one went by much too fast. Griff and I took things to the ultimate level, and I have to admit, it was amazing. Doc let us make our own schedules as long as everything got done. She even gave us a little bonus each week. What for, we never figured out. 

As the first day of college approached, Mom went off on one of her quirky phases again. Instead of yelling at imaginary dodo birds in pink tutus, this time she became obsessed with cleaning. It’s one thing to be a little OCD with keeping things neat and tidy, another altogether to scrub every little thing in the house. Windows? Check. Curtains? Check. Windowsill? Check. Unscrewing the hardware holding the curtain rods and cleaning the grooves of each one? Well, you get the picture. 

It got to the point where Mom was following me and Dad around, just waiting for us to touch something so she could clean it. The tipping point for me was when I caught her cleaning the soap. Yep, she was rubbing every opened bar of Irish Spring we had with Dawn dish detergent. My mouth gaped as I watched, completely fascinated by the extent of her mental slide. 

Dad was concerned enough to make an emergency appointment with her shrink. A new bottle of meds was on the counter the next day. As with all of her medications, this new one came with a list of side effects a mile long. Dad and I kept a close eye on her the first week. It seemed like it was doing its job. No more soap bars got scrubbed. 

A few days before classes started, I turned eighteen. I made plans with Griff to drive over to our campus bookstores and get what we needed. Most of my textbooks were electronic, but I needed actual lab workbooks and a few others for an English class I had. Griff and I window-shopped the overpriced college merchandise for both schools, opting to pass on the logoed gear. I had better things to spend my hard-earned money on, like condoms. 

“You sure you can’t come over for a little while?” I asked as we parked in his driveway. 

“I wish I could. Dad needs me to drive him to the shop to pick up his car before they close. Mom said she’d kill him if she had to haul his ass back and forth to work one more day. I promise I’ll pick you up at six for your birthday dinner. I might have a little surprise for dessert.”

I laughed. Leaning over, I kissed my boyfriend, settling for knowing I would be getting laid tonight. “I’ll see you later.” 

I turned up the music as I drove back to my house, singing along to the lyrics. Dad’s truck wasn’t in the driveway, so I figured he was working a little late. I can’t say what exactly it was that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up as I walked in the house. It was as if the energy of the house itself was disrupted. 

“Mom?”

No answer. While that wasn’t entirely unusual, today it felt ominous. Especially today.

“Mom?!” I called again, louder, throwing my keys and wallet on the counter. My heart started doing a peculiar staccato beat within my chest. Everything was eerily silent. 

Trepidatiously, I searched the house. I wish I could say it was all in my imagination and Mom was out with Dad somewhere, but I couldn’t. I found her in the tub in my bathroom. She’d cut her wrists. This time I knew it wasn’t just an attempt. This time, she had succeeded. 

I won’t give you any of the details. It’s a sight that will be burned into my memory for the rest of my days. I immediately called 911 even though I knew it was too late. The dispatcher tried to keep me on the line when I insisted I had to call my dad. I ended up hanging up on her. 

Dad’s truck came to a screeching halt moments after the ambulance and a police officer arrived. It didn’t take the paramedics more than a minute to realize there was nothing they could do. The responding officer took Dad aside before letting him enter the house. I sat on the curb, silent. The flashing lights brought out the neighbors, and it wasn’t long before Tori was running down our lane. Andy wasn’t far behind.

I wish I could say I was sad, but in reality, I was happy. Does that make me a horrible person? Maybe. Probably. My mother had been such a thorn in my side for so long, I could feel nothing but an overwhelming sense of relief. It was as if pressure had been building up inside me, a gigantic cyst of discontent and then, all of a sudden, it burst. 

Tori and Andy sat next to me, one on each side, joining in my silence. I took my phone out and sent Griff a text. Call me ASAP plz. I never asked him to call. I knew it might take him a while. The garage where his dad’s car was serviced was two towns over. Knowing his dad, they’d stop to get something to eat. 

My phone rang ten minutes later. “Shay? What’s up?”

“My mom’s dead. She killed herself.” I know my delivery could have been better, but my mouth opened before my brain engaged. 

“Oh no! I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” 

I didn’t bother to say goodbye. 

Tori leaned into me and whispered, “What happened?”

“Let’s wait until Griffin gets here. I only want to say this once.” 

Dad came out to see how I was doing and asked if I could come back in for a few minutes. The responding officer had a few questions. Looks like I’d have to tell the story twice. By the time we were done, my boyfriend was hanging out with my best friends. I motioned for them to follow me. 

I led our little group around the house to the back deck. After we were seated, I gave them the not-so-gory details of finding my mom. Griffin scooted closer to me on the wicker loveseat and kissed the side of my head. I even told them how I felt relief rather than grief. My amazing friends understood.

I wish I could say I understood. After Mom was carted away by the coroner, and the neighbors were back behind their curtains, Tori and Andy hugged me and told me to text if I needed anything. Griffin went home rather reluctantly. 

Dad and I sat at the kitchen table, lost in thought. It was a scenario we played out countless times before, only this time, it was different. 

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

He looked up sharply. “Shay, what do you think you need to be sorry for? You didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, you did everything right.”

“I know. It’s just…please don’t hate me, but I feel so relieved. I know I should be sad and crying, but I can’t. She made my life hell off and on since I was thirteen. I should have been able to navigate my high- school years with her support, not whatever it was she thought she gave me.”

Dad’s eyes softened. “I could never hate you, Shay. The last ten years have been difficult. In a way, I’m relieved, too. Your mom didn’t have the quality of life she should have had if her mental illness hadn’t taken over. We’ll get through this.”

I knew he was right. What I didn’t know was how long it would actually take. 

Dad refused to stay in the house until it was professionally cleaned. He told me to gather some clothes and whatever else I needed for a few days. We’d stay at a hotel until then. I trudged up the stairs and grabbed my large duffle bag, cramming stuff to wear. I gathered my laptop and the chargers for it and my phone, shoving them in next to clean underwear. I avoided looking at the bathroom door, knowing Dad would stop for whatever toiletries I needed. I made it to my threshold before stopping. I turned back, walked to my bed and snagged my pillow. What I saw next made my heart stutter.

A pink envelope, like the kind that comes with greeting cards, lay on my sheets. No writing adorned the outside, but I knew what it was. The police had even asked about it. I knew it had to be her suicide letter. Under my fucking pillow. 

Idiot, naive me, stared at the envelope before rashly opening it and reading the contents. I knew I should have thrown it away, unread. Nothing good had come out of that woman’s mouth in five years. Why did I think her written words would be any different? It was pure vitriol. In the letter, she blamed me for everything. Her mental illness, all her previous suicide attempts, her stays in the psychiatric hospitals, hell, even her three miscarriages. Everything. 

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Sobs of rage tore through me. I yelled and screamed. Dad rushed in, in full panic mode. I threw the letter at him, not wanting him to think I was crying with grief. It took over an hour for me to calm down. 

When I finally stopped making a scene, I was a different person. Her hatred hardened something in me. I refused to attend her funeral. I refuse to speak about her at all. 

Classes started, and it was the only thing I focused on. In my mind, it was my ticket out of this nightmare my life had become. I had to get good grades if I wanted to escape. It was my new mantra, one which followed me through the next few years. 

Tori and Andy commuted with me. That they put up with my shit was a testament to our friendship. Even so, things became strained. 

Worst of all, Griff and I drifted. He tried consoling me, but I didn’t want to be consoled. No one besides Dad knew the contents of Mom’s suicide letter. I didn’t make any effort to change it either. Gradually, me and Griffin started arguing. There was only so much he would take. I admit, I pushed too hard. In the end, it was too much. Not long after the first of the year, we broke up. My heart was too hardened to care. My first relationship sank in less than a year.

Other than school, I became a recluse. I holed up in my room, working on assignments or reading. Andy and Tori stopped asking me to do stuff with them. Dad tried to get me to go back to seeing Dr. K. I wanted no part of it whatsoever. 

*****

I drifted through the next three years, bringing us back full circle to today. It’s my birthday. I’m twenty-one. 

Six months ago, I pulled my head out of my ass and finally went back to Dr. K. We had much to discuss. He helped me, once again, rediscover who I am. I’m not the same person. Time has changed that. He helped me work through the residual anger I’d battled since reading the damned letter. I was once again in a good place. 

Even though my birthday will always be a tough day, I now realize my mother’s mental illness overtook the woman she was and left someone unrecognizable in its wake. Dad was able to move on. He started dating again. Nothing serious, but he’s putting himself out there. 

I haven’t had anything other than hookups since breaking up with Griff. Losing him is my biggest regret. 

Dad is taking me out to an early dinner. I haven’t been into birthday celebrations since I turned eighteen. As we pull down our lane, there is an unfamiliar SUV parked in front of our house. I glance in the driver’s window as we pull into the driveway. I smile. Dad parks and wishes me a happy birthday before waving at the man getting out of his vehicle. 

Griff. 

I met him halfway. “Hi.”

“Hey, Shay.” His tone is warm, more than I could have hoped for. I wasn’t the most pleasant person toward the end of our relationship. 

“What brings you here?” I was curious. 

“I’ve been thinking about you lately, wondering how you’re doing. I remembered it’s your birthday, so…happy birthday.”

His grin is cute. He’s changed for the better. Griff was always good looking, but now he’s stunningly gorgeous. His body has filled out, lost the last of the teenage lankiness, and it’s obvious he knows what the inside of a gym looks like. 

“Thanks. I’m glad you came. I’ve been thinking about you, too. I, um, I went back to therapy and Dr. K has made me face a lot of issues. I know now I was a complete asshole to you. I’m sorry.”

A smile lights up Griffin’s face. I’m not sure what made him come see me, but I really am glad he did. 

“Thanks. That means a lot. I…uh. I’ve missed you.”

Those three words shatter the last of the shadow of despair enveloping me since the whole debacle of my eighteenth birthday. They give me hope. I remembered a conversation Dad and I had when he mentioned the vows he and Mom made: for better or for worse. Maybe Griff and I weathered our for worse and Fate was giving us another chance at for better.

“I’ve missed you too.” 

“So, can I buy you a beer for your birthday?” His eyes are full of mischief. 

“I’d love that.” 

Maybe anniversaries aren’t so bad after all.

Thanks for coming along for this little slice of something new for me. I hope you enjoyed it!

Copyright © 2022 kbois; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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