High school is a minefield. Even as a junior, Alex still feels awkward, like she's all elbows or her skin is too small for her skeleton. A square peg in a round hole. Insert other cliche here. Alex rolls her eyes at her own melancholy. She's sixteen and ridiculous.
It's not like she doesn't have friends. She does! Some of them are even halfway popular. Alex is halfway popular, which makes Haley halfway proud of her, even though Haley's away at college now. Still, Alex likes when her sister is proud of her, even though she wouldn't admit that unless she was under oath or being tortured to death or something. Maybe not even then. Another thing she won't admit is that she misses her sister being in the same room with her. Sure, not having to share a bedroom is nice, since she's had to do it her whole life, but it's not the same chatting online or texting in third period pre-calculus, where Alex is so ahead of the rest of the class that she shows up every day just for the attendance.
Not that Alex would ever dream of cutting pre-calc. Her mom would kill her if she started cutting. God, just imagining the look on her mother's face is enough to send a shudder through Alex's body.
Anyway, it would help to have Haley around in times like these -- even when Haley's making fun of her, she usually manages to be a little helpful, and seriously, Alex has the wrong sibling at school with her right now. Yeah, she should totally go to Luke with her problem. She can just imagine it: "Hey, Luke, so your big sister thinks she likes girls, not boys! No, it's not like those magazines you stole from Dad." Alex shudders again.
Her family is the worst.
"What are you doing after school, Alex?"
Alex knows someone's trying to get her attention, but she's pretty engrossed in her Spanish textbook and has to pull her earbuds out to hear properly. She looks up and McKenzie is standing over her, smiling and looking expectant. Alex's cheeks heat up before she can even do anything about it. God, her body is so stupid sometimes.
"What?" Alex says.
"After school. You," McKenzie says and points. "Do you have any plans?"
Okay, so McKenzie and Alex have known each other practically forever. When they were in kindergarten together, all the kids flocked to McKenzie, who wasn't the smartest girl in the class, but had the prettiest hair and the nicest laugh. Alex spent most of elementary and middle school resenting her, half because she sometimes wished she were in McKenzie's shoes and the other half for reasons she couldn't -- wouldn't -- quite articulate. Well, she's older now, and she's a little surer about what that other half was about, but it doesn't explain why McKenzie decided in eighth grade that she and Alex should be friends. And Alex is a little grateful about that still, but if McKenzie had never bothered, maybe her life wouldn't be one big ball of confusion now.
Oh, who is she kidding? Of course it would be. It'd just be confusing in another way.
"Nothing," Alex says, smiling. "National Honor Society had a meeting today, but it got canceled."
"Overachiever," McKenzie says and she sounds a little fond. "Do you want to come over? My mom texted because she's working until, like, nine and I could use the company."
Alex really can't relate to an empty house, but she knows McKenzie gets lonely being an only child, especially now that her dad's moved out. "Yeah, I just have to check with my mom, but it should be fine since it's not a school night."
"Great! I've got my car today. Come out to the lot after school."
"Did you have fun, honey?"
Alex nods and buckles herself into her mom's minivan.
"What did you girls do?"
"Um, nothing much. We just heated up some leftovers for dinner, then watched a little TV. Then McKenzie's mom came home."
She kind of hates lying to her mom, but it's not like she would have let Alex walk home by herself at night so she could avoid the minivan small talk, and it's really not like Alex could tell her the truth. Yeah, it was fun. We ate dinner, turned on the TV, and then McKenzie kissed me and straddled me on the couch. I really liked it. I let her put her hand up my shirt. Alex can't imagine saying those words out loud ever. For God's sake, she hadn't even kissed anyone since Jeremy, and they'd broken up over a year ago. And they'd certainly never dry humped in Jeremy's living room. Hell, that was one of the reasons Jeremy had dumped her -- she distinctly remembers him throwing the word prude around.
"McKenzie's a nice girl," Claire says.
So I think I like girls. Like like them. Alex finally breaks down and texts Haley, as much as it kills her. But she's sort of desperate and has to tell someone. At least Haley won't tell everyone in Alex's school.
Duh, comes the reply minutes later. I told you that years ago!
You told me Jeremy would think I was a lesbian if I didn't kiss him!
DUH. I was right, wasn't I?
Alex thinks it's really unfair that Haley sounds smug even through text messages. Well, rub it in later. What should I do?
IDK. If I wanted to do girls, I'd probably talk to my gay uncles. I mean, close enough, right?
She has to admit that Haley had a point. Thanks.
Don't worry about it, sis. No one will care. It runs in the family, after all.
Shut up. Don't fail out of school and expect to share a room with me again.
Love you, too. Give me all the gross details later.
Alex smiles at her phone.
Alex spends most of Saturday dithering around and pointedly not going over to Uncle Mitchell's house. She helps her mom with cookies for the freshman bake sale, even though that's not even her class. But Luke's a walking fire hazard and can't be trusted around baked goods at any stage in their development. After that's done, she's actually feeling avoidant enough to help her dad clean out the garage.
"What a nice surprise," Phil says. "I don't think you've ever helped me out here." He looks suddenly alarmed. "I'm not dying, am I? Are you dying? Is something wrong with Luke or your mom? Are they dying?"
"No one's dying!" Alex shouts. "Can't a daughter just want to spend some time with her father?"
"Oh," Phil says, smiling. "That's sweet, honey."
Finally, on Sunday, Alex gathers up her courage -- after ten texts from Haley that say DID YOU TALK TO THEM YET? in all-caps -- and heads over to Mitchell and Cam's. Lily answers the door with her usual dour look, but she also gives Alex a hug before running back to her room, which is pretty cute.
"We're working on her greetings," Cam tells her. "She likes hugging."
"She's a good hugger," Alex says politely. She sits down on the couch and accepts tea and cookies from Cameron. The cookies are better than her mom's, but Alex knows never to tell Claire that, unless she really wants to see her mother have a complete nuclear meltdown.
"So, what brings you here?" Uncle Mitchell asks. "Not that we don't just like having your company, of course."
Alex shakes her head. "I-- I just had a question. I mean, if you're busy or something, I could come back later, but Haley suggested I talk to you guys and you really are the best people I know of to ask --"
"What is it, sweetie?" Cam interrupts.
Alex is really grateful. She ducks her head, and stares down into her teacup. When she speaks, it's just above a whisper. "Uh, what was it like for you, being gay in high school?"
"Awful," Mitchell says. Alex's head snaps up. "It was day after day of hiding who I was, but getting beaten up anyway. It was having crushes on guys who'd never reciprocate, and with the few who did, there was still a fifty-fifty shot of them beating me up."
She can't help it; her eyes get wider and wider as Mitchell talks, until Cam puts his hand over Mitchell's. "Shut up, honey," he tells Mitchell sweetly.
"No, it's okay," Alex says, but her voice comes out more like a squeak. "I wanted an honest answer."
"Mitchell's exaggerating a little," Cam says.
"But not by much," Alex says.
"No, not by much," Mitchell says. "But I did meet some really supportive people then who got me through it, and I just kept thinking to myself, 'Once you're out of high school, remember that you never, ever have to go back there.'"
"That goes for you, too," Cam tells Alex pointedly.
She nods. "Yeah, I know." Alex doesn't even fight it when her uncles both envelop her in a hug. It's easy to see where Lily gets it from.
On Monday, Alex takes a deep breath and walks up to McKenzie in the cafeteria. "Hey, do you want to come over to my house after school today? You can have dinner with my family."
The smile McKenzie gives her is brilliant, and Alex feels a little like a minefield is going off inside her chest.