Alex Hale is thirteen when he meets Jason Cormack. Jason is fourteen. He’s taller than Alex. He’s blond, and he has a friendly smile, and he’s on the basketball team. He’s smart, and he’s funny, and he’s nice to Alex even though most kids think Alex is a freak. Alex maybe wants to be Jason’s friend. He also maybe wants to be his girlfriend.
Alex is a boy, but his wolf is a girl. Around full moon, when the pull of the wolf is strongest, Alex sometimes wears dresses and paints his nails, and pees sitting down with his eyes closed so he doesn’t have to see his dick. His pack knows about the dresses and the nail polish, but Alex doesn’t tell them about the way the sight of his own body makes him feel sick, and makes him want to rip his way out of his skin.
He’s a girl.
Around full moon he’s a girl, but there’s a boy staring at him from the mirror.
Sometimes he hates that boy, and wants to hurt him.
He hates his flat chest and his narrow hips and his dick.
He hates that there are two parts of him that don’t match up.
When his mom takes him to his first psychologist, they talk about something called transitioning. Alex thinks that means that he could become a girl, like properly. Except Alex can’t transition. Or, rather, he transitions every fucking month. If he looked like a girl on the outside, it wouldn’t solve the problem, would it? It’d just mean that instead of staring into the mirror on the full moon and hating the boy staring back at him, Alex would be staring into the mirror every new moon, knowing he was a boy, and hating the girl staring back.
Alex tries to pretend he isn’t different at all, but everyone knows. The other kids at school know too, because the first kid Alex tells—Sean, his friend since second grade—tells everyone. Alex knows the second he walks into school the next day and the other kids start whispering things and talking behind their hands, and when he goes to sit with his friends at lunch there’s no room at the table and he has to sit by himself. And he tries not to cry, but everyone sees that too.
His little brother Matty comes and sits with him, but that makes it worse somehow, because Alex has made Matty choose between his freak of a brother and his friends, and Matty should have picked his friends.
It takes a few months of eating with Matty, or hiding out in the library at lunch time, but eventually Alex finds some new friends. The loser kids. They aren’t really losers though. The other kids say they are because maybe their parents are poor, or maybe they’re fat, or maybe they just don’t wear the right clothes, or maybe, like Harriet, they’re deaf, but it turns out they're kind of cool. They don’t care that Alex sometimes feels like a boy and sometimes feels like a girl so long as Alex doesn’t care about the stuff that made them freaks or losers. It still hurts sometimes when Sean doesn’t talk to him or sit next to him in class, but Alex doesn’t cry at school anymore.
Not until Jason Cormack makes friends with him.
It’s weird to start with when Jason walks over to their table at lunch and starts talking like they’re friends, and then it gets weirder when he asks if Alex wants to shoot some hoops with him after school. Alex looks around at his friends before he answers, and they look as startled as he does, but nobody is giving him any warning signals that Jason is setting him up to beat him up or something.
“Um, okay?” he says.
“Cool,” Jason says, grinning. “Cool.”
And then he walks away.
“Alex,” Mackenzie says, chewing on the end of one of her uneven braids, “what was that?”
Alex’s heart is beating really fast. “I don’t know!”
After school Alex heads to the basketball court. He’s supposed to be going to the high school to meet his sister Cora and their cousin Malia to get a lift home, but he texts them instead to say he’ll walk. When he pushes open the door to the court, he’s kind of expecting an ambush or a bucket of pig’s blood or something, but it’s only Jason waiting for him, sitting on the bottom row of seats in the bleachers, bouncing a basketball in the space between his spread knees.
Alex is really, really careful not to look up his baggy shorts.
“Hey,” Jason says when he sees him. “Cool. You made it.”
“Um, yeah.” Alex shrugs his backpack off.
“You ready to play?”
Alex is pretty bad at basketball. He can sometimes hold his own when he’s shooting hoops with Matty, but this is totally different, because Matty’s pretty bad at basketball too, but Jason is on the team and everything. So, when Alex actually gets close enough to the hoop to try and shoot, of course he misses. Spectacularly.
So much for werewolf reflexes.
Jason throws the ball back. “You almost got it.”
Alex raises his eyebrows. Almost? He was like miles off.
He really has no idea why Jason asked him to play. He knows Jason’s going easy on him, too. Like there’s no way Alex should be able to get past him. Jason doesn’t even complain when Alex forgets to dribble the ball.
The next time Alex shoots, the ball doesn’t even hit the backboard, just sails right on past it and rolls under the bleachers.
“I think you’re getting better,” Jason says with a goofy smile.
Alex is too out of breath to argue the point.
He does not look at Jason’s ass when Jason commando-crawls under the bleachers to fetch the ball. He can feel his face burning when Jason stands up again.
“I, um, I have to go,” he says.
Jason’s face falls. “Oh, okay.”
Alex scurries to fetch his backpack, holding it awkwardly in front of him because he can feel himself getting hard.
“Do you want to play again tomorrow?” Jason asks him, and he looks so weirdly hopeful that Alex really doesn’t know how to refuse.
“Um, okay,” he says, then turns and hurries away.
The Hale house is built out in the Preserve, a couple of miles from town. Alex doesn’t mind walking though. He’s got a lot to think about. He doesn’t know if Jason is trying to be his friend, or trying to set him up to humiliate him, or what’s going on.
Maybe he could ask Derek.
Derek’s his second-oldest brother. He’s twenty-two. He’s also Alex’s favorite brother. Talia, their mom, says that he and Derek are like two peas in a pod, but Alex doesn’t really get that. Both he and Derek are pretty quiet compared to the rest of the pack, but Derek’s quiet because he’s thoughtful and kind, and Alex is quiet because he hates drawing attention to himself nowadays. When he was a kid he was as loud and boisterous as the rest of the Hales. It’s only been in the last year or so that he’s changed. Also, Alex is pretty sure that Derek doesn’t hate himself.
As he gets closer to the house, Alex’s chest tightens up.
No. He won’t ask Derek.
Last week Derek and Cora were out in the Preserve and they found a human, a real live human, except the human doesn’t know he’s a human because he’s been living with foxes. He’s feral. He can’t even talk.
Mom says that nobody can find out about the human, or someone will come and take him away and put him in a zoo or something. So nobody outside the immediate pack is to be invited back to the house, in case they catch his unfamiliar scent. Cora and Malia were pretty pissed about that, but Alex doesn’t mind. It doesn’t really affect him, because who’s he going to invite back to the house anyway?
He tightens his grip on the straps of his backpack and pushes thoughts of Jason Cormack away.
If Jason was being nice, that was all it was.
And if he’s being an asshole and setting Alex up for something, well... Alex wants to believe that he can deal with it, but it’s a lie, probably.
He thinks of Charlie.
Charlie was his friend too. Not his best friend like Sean, but still his friend. The day after everyone found out, Charlie sat behind him in math like always, and tapped him on the shoulder and passed him a note.
- You ok?
Alex had scribbled back a reply:
They’d passed the note back and forth a few times, and very slowly the tightness in Alex’s chest had eased, and the pain in his stomach had disappeared. It would be okay. He was sure it would be okay.
- Want to come to my place on Friday and watch a movie?
Alex had chewed his lip before he’d replied.
- Will the other guys be there?
He’d heard snickering behind him as Charlie had written out his answer. He’d felt everyone staring at his back. When he’d got the note back, he’d unfolded it with shaking fingers, understanding what was happening at last, waiting for the punchline.
- I thought you’d want to be alone so you could suck my dick like a real girl.
And underneath that, written five different times in five different hands, the same word:
Alex had folded the note up and shoved it in the bottom of his backpack while the boys behind him started howling with laughter. Then he’d sat there, pen clutched tightly in his hand, trying not to react as the bemused teacher demanded to know what was going on.
After school he’d run most of the way home, stopping only to tear the note into shreds and bury it in a hole in the Preserve so nobody would ever find it.
Even now the humiliation is as sharp as it was when it happened.
No, he can’t fall for a trick like that again.
He won’t meet Jason tomorrow.
He’s quiet at dinner. Nobody notices. Everyone else is so rowdy that it’s easy to get lost in the noise. Derek usually sits near him, but not tonight. Derek’s down in the basement eating with the kit.
Alex eats quickly, then takes his plate into the kitchen and leaves it by the sink. He escapes upstairs before anyone can ask him about his day, and hides in his room. He reaches under his mattress and pulls out the glossy fashion magazine he took out of the recycling last month. He thinks it was either Malia’s or Cora’s.
He flips through the pages, frowning.
It’s a new moon still, a fingernail moon.
Alex looks at the pictures of the models and thinks they’re hot. But last time he looked at these pages, two weeks ago, he didn’t get hard looking at the models. He didn’t want to make out with them, he wanted to be them. He wanted to wear the same clothes they wore, and the same cosmetics that made their eyes smoky and huge and their mouths bright. He wanted to imagine that he could walk down a street looking beautiful, and a boy would like him for it.
He hates the way he is.
He shoves the magazine back under his mattress and curls up in a ball on his bed.
He thinks of Jason, and of Sean and Charlie.
He thinks of that note he ripped into pieces and buried in the dirt.
Doesn’t matter what he did with it.
He can still remember every word.
Two days later Jason finds him in the library.
“Hey,” he says. “You, um, you didn’t show yesterday.”
“Yeah,” Alex says, staring at the toes of his trainers. “Sorry, I couldn’t.”
“Oh, okay,” Jason says, and then just stands there for a bit longer.
Alex chews his lip. Why isn’t he going away? Alex isn’t going to snatch the bait, so there’s no point Jason hanging around trying, right? He’s not going to fall for whatever joke Jason’s trying to play on him.
“Do you want to hang out this afternoon?” Jason asks, his voice soft.
Alex looks up at him before he can stop himself, and is surprised to see Jason’s wide-eyed, like he’s nervous or something. He stares quickly at the floor again. “I can’t. Sorry.”
“Oh, okay.” Jason’s trainers scrape over the threadbare carpet as he finally gets the hint and goes away.
Alex turns and leans against the stacks. The books smell old and stale. He closes his eyes and slowly unclenches his fists. He takes a few deep breaths and tries not to second-guess himself.
Jason wasn’t serious. It was a trick. It had to be.
Anyway, even if Jason is from another planet and actually wanted to be his friend, Alex just did him a favor.
The popular kids aren’t friends with the losers and the freaks.
That’s how school works.
That’s how life works.