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Walking Out of Stride

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Jackalope Hills, Arizona, was a tiny hole of a town a few miles south of the middle of nowhere and a couple blocks east of who the hell cares. Most of the time nobody even knew the name of the place. It simply got swallowed up by the Phoenix-Metro monolith.

Constantly quiet and sleepy, whether from the heat of the summer or the darkness of the winter, it was the kind of town people did everything they could to escape from. It was the kind of town that only held onto those with family obligations or too little money or few opportunities to start over elsewhere.

It was the kind of town that was much, much too small for someone like Caleb, with dreams of big cities and opportunities and freedom, but at sixteen years old, he was just as stuck as everybody else.

 

Winter vacation was over. The music had gone back to the top 40s and the Christmas lights and decorations had come down. The once carefully decorated store displays were torn down and scattered across clearance aisles. The fun part of winter was over. Now came the short days and too-cold nights and constant grey, but never with snow, never with rain. In February, the blue skies and warm afternoons would come back. But they’d have to make it through January, first.

 

The only difference between being a sophomore and a junior was having the option to take semester-length classes rather than only year-round ones. While Modern American History was generally reserved for seniors, it wasn’t a hard rule, merely a suggestion, and Caleb’s grades -- while not perfect -- were good enough to convince the principal to allow it.

It was his first class of the day, and he was early, as always. Any excuse to get away from his house and his family, even for a few minutes. The teacher wasn’t even there yet. Caleb sat outside the door, knees tucked up to his chest, trying to obscure his hoodie enough that nobody would be able to see him tug his binder down a little bit more. Whether each student loved him or hated him, it was no secret at the school that he was transgender, but that didn’t mean he wanted to draw any attention to it. If someone was going to pay attention to him, he wanted it to be for the right reasons -- he was nice, he was interesting, he had notes they needed to copy, whatever -- and not because of his gender.

He finished fixing his binder, spread his legs back out, and tugged his hoodie back down over his hips, pulling his mp3 player and headphones out of his backpack. As he hooked his left one in, a big, heavy, boot-covered foot stepped down near his feet and he glanced up. It was Elijah Abrams, his nose stuck in a book like always, stepping over Caleb’s outstretched feet.

Caleb tucked his feet in so he wouldn’t risk tripping him, or anyone else. He glanced up, trying to be casual, although with the intent with which Elijah was reading, Caleb probably could have broken out into a song and dance number and the older boy wouldn’t have noticed.

Elijah was tall, even for a senior. He was built solid and sturdy, like a man rather than a teenager. He looked more like he belonged on a football field than in a library surrounded by fantasy novels, which was what Caleb always saw him reading.

And oh, he was gorgeous. The strong nose and jaw of his profile, his always alert hazel eyes, the way his barely wavy brown hair stuck out a little at the ends. The arms that always seemed to be almost too big for his shirts didn’t hurt, either.

Caleb quickly hooked the other earphone in and looked down at his mp3 player. With his tiny hands and soft limbs and round face, his curved waist that the binder could only flatten so much -- no guy would be interested in him, and the only girls that would be would be ones who went for butch girls, which he wasn’t. He’d dated a few, in the past, but they’d always been a spectacular failure when eventually it came down to the point that no, I’m not a butch lesbian, I’m a pansexual trans guy. It blew up like a hoard of fireworks left unattended with a pyromaniac. Caleb stopped trying to keep track of the rumors, but more than a good amount were probably started by disgruntled ex-girlfriends.

He looked up again at the muffled, “Morning, boys,” over his music. Mr. Bingham was unlocking the door, the clinking of his keys boisterously loud in the nearly empty hall. Caleb pulled his earphones out and wrapped them up.

“Hey, Mr. B.,” Caleb said.

“Caleb.”

Everyone knew Mr. Bingham, even if only through stories and rumor, but the only thing that Caleb cared about was that he never made an issue of his name. As a minor, he couldn’t legally change it, yet, and at the start of each new class with a new teacher, Caleb tracked down e-mail addresses and phone numbers and speak to each one in private about it. Some were accepting, like Mr. Bingham. Some refused but compromised by calling him by his last name. Others made a point to use his birth name as much as they could, as if they were trying to teach him a lesson. You think you can be different? Unacceptable!

“Elijah.” Mr. Bingham nodded toward the bigger teenager as he opened the door.

“Sir.”

It was always ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ with Elijah. It was all he called anyone, except other students.

Caleb uncrossed his legs and started to push himself up. When he chanced a glance in Elijah’s direction, the older boy had pulled his attention away from his book long enough for his eyes to land on Caleb.

“You need a hand?”

Caleb chuckled and offered a small, lopsided smile.

Elijah smiled back, small and almost gentle, and held out his hand.

His sand-gold skin was a sharp contrast against Caleb’s dark brown, but most importantly, Elijah’s hand was warm and callused and wonderful, and for a brief moment of insanity, Caleb wondered what it would be like if he could hold that hand any time he wanted.

“Thanks.” Caleb’s already high voice hitched and squeaked and Elijah chuckled. Caleb coughed awkwardly into his hand and cleared his throat. “Thanks,” he repeated, a little lower, but still barely on the edge of androgynous.

“No problem,” Elijah said. He pushed the door open and held it behind him for Caleb to follow.                                                                                               

Caleb slipped into the back corner seat, his favorite place -- out of the way and a little bit quieter, even if it did mean he had to put on his glasses to better see the white board. He slid the thick black frames onto his nose and pushed his dark, curly hair out of his face, where it fell right back again. It was barely at the edge of reaching his chin. He’d need to cut it, soon.

He looked up at the scrape of the desk feet against the floor to see Elijah readjusting his seat with one hand, book still open in the other. He slid into his seat with a gracefulness uncommon for his size, and he stuck out his feet and crossed his ankles as he slumped forward onto the desk. It was almost too small for him, curled up on himself, knees bent in at awkward angles. But it didn’t seem to bother him. He turned the page.

Caleb looked back to the board and pulled out his notebook and a pen. This class didn’t have a textbook and was apparently taught entirely through handouts and multimedia. Mr. Bingham was fiddling with the stereo tucked on the shelf behind his desk, and after a small crackle, My Generation by The Who began to play.

Caleb grinned.

More students filed in, slowly filling up all but two of the desks. Full classroom. There were a few faces Caleb recognized and many he didn’t. The final bell rang, and the first class of the semester began.

 

“Now, I want all of you to look to your left and to your right.” Caleb looked back up from his notebook as he slid it into his backpack. The bell had already rung. Was he keeping them? No! His next class was with Mrs. Reed, and she hated him. He couldn’t be late.

But he did as Mr. Bingham asked. To his left, a wall. To his right, Elijah Abrams. Elijah glanced at him and nodded, then looked back to the front of the class.

“That person, or those people, are going to be your buddies for the semester. Swap phone numbers with them in the case of an absence or sickness so you can keep up with the work. Text them if you have questions on an assignment and school is already out. Work with each other to help each other succeed! A lot of college professors won’t give you make up work and make it your responsibility to find out from each other, so let’s start practicing now.” The class started shifting and moving, and he raised his voice. “Read that packet I gave you for tomorrow!”

Caleb slid his phone out of his pocket and looked at it hesitantly. He looked over at Elijah, who was talking to the girl on his other side. Caleb couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she was bright pink. Elijah stood and she followed, taking a step closer. She opened her mouth, but Elijah had already turned back to Caleb.

“Hey,” he said. “So, phone number?”

“If you want to?” Caleb asked. “I mean, that would be helpful.”

Elijah half smiled and slid his phone open. “It’s Caleb, right?”

Caleb nodded.

“Shoot.”

Caleb rattled off his phone number. Elijah’s thumbs flew across his phone, then he slid it closed again and slipped it in his pocket.

“Sent you a text,” he said.

Caleb’s phone vibrated. He unlocked the screen.

Elijah Abrams

Caleb locked it and slid his phone into his pocket to deal with later.

“You don’t talk a lot, do you?” Caleb asked.

Elijah chuckled and scratched the back of his neck. Something about such an awkward movement in such a sure-seeming body was adorable.

“Guess not.” He gently nudged Caleb’s shoulder with a loosely curled fist. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He hiked his bag over his shoulder and was out the door before Caleb could finish processing the touch and whether or not it meant anything, and if so, what.