“We’re gonna flush you down like the worthless turd you are,” a hot voice snarled in Tobias’ ear, and a hand between his shoulder blades shoved him down harder. The water covered his nose and mouth now, and he thrashed around in panic. He was going to drown! But the push against his back was joined by harsh grips on his feet, and he couldn’t escape.
“He’s so weak,” the other guy said, the one holding his feet. “He can barely even kick. He’s like a little girl.”
His cheeks burned in the cold water. Did they know? Could they know? How?
“Let him go,” a loud, calm voice said.
“You do know this is the boys’ bathroom, right, Jude?” said the boy at Tobias’ back. Jude, he thought. Jude Berenson. That tomboy who plays basketball.
“You do know this is a bathroom, right?” she said. “I don’t see any of you pissing. Let him go.”
The pressure on his back and feet lifted. He let his head loll to the side, too weak to pull his head from the bowl. He coughed out a stream of water, then took in ragged breaths. He could still feel the bigger boys looming over him.
“Get out,” Jude said.
“I could tell Chapman you were in here,” one of them said.
Jude just laughed, like at a five-year-old who just said a ghost knocked the lamp over. They left.
Strong hands pulled at Tobias’ shoulders, dragging him away from the toilet bowl. Water was dripping from his hair onto his face, and every breath still hurt a little. “Thanks,” he said. “Oh no. I’m getting your sleeves wet.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jude said. “You’re Tobias, right?”
“Yeah,” he said, leaning forward so more water would drip on the floor instead of Jude’s clothes. “So. Why were you in the boys’ bathroom?”
“Promise to keep my secret if I keep yours?” said a voice near his ear, much gentler than the one before.
“I use it, sometimes. When I’m pretty sure no one’s there to see.”
“Why?” Tobias got up the courage to look in Jude’s face. It was soft but steady, with a small crease between the eyebrows.
“Because this is the bathroom I’m supposed to use,” Jude said.
“How do you know?” Tobias had never been sure, his whole life. Was he really a boy, or really a freak?
“Because I know. No one knows me better than I do. Not even my doctor. Not even my parents.”
“I wish…” He wished he were sure. As sure as Jude was. If Jude wasn’t a freak, then maybe he wasn’t either. “I wish I were like you.”
Jude smiled. “You might be the first person ever to say that.” She – he? – stood up. “Need a hand?”
Tobias didn’t like being pitied. By anybody. But this wasn’t pity. This was kindness. “Sure,” he said, and reached for Jude’s outstretched hand.
As he demorphed from Dude’s form, Tobias thought about his body. The parts he liked, though there wasn’t much. His hands, he liked those. Solid, delicate, could throw a ball or hold a pen. His feet, smooth and neat, not ugly and hairy like the boys’ in his grade when they wore sandals, or when they changed in the locker room where Tobias couldn’t be naked. Yeah, he had nice feet. As if anyone but him cared. He focused on that, ignoring the horrible groans as his bones realigned themselves. He screwed his eyes up tight. He didn’t want to see himself. Only in his mind’s eye, where he could see only the good parts.
When it was over, he checked over himself to make sure he was the same. He liked Dude, but he didn’t want to walk around with some bit of cat still stuck to him. Face flat, clawless hands, hairless body, tailless butt. Quick check between his legs. Oh.
The memories came back to him, in shards of misty glass, as memories from a young age do. Loren left us with a freak. She never even fixed him. Her. It. It’s disgusting. We have to do something about it. Doctors poking at the place mommy said no one was allowed to touch. Days in the hospital, horrible pain, even more when he tried to pee. Never take all your clothes off in front of other people. They might see the scars.
Morphing is from DNA. That’s what Elfangor said. It heals all wounds. It cured what they did to me. Tobias touched himself, not like he’d tried to do before (but stopped, because it didn’t feel right, and anyway it hurt too much toward the end) but just to feel himself whole. His penis, smooth, unscarred, with a forward curve. His – what should he call it? – warm and open to his touch. He dipped a finger inside, a little. So soft, in there. Like a tongue, but even more. There was so much inside of him that he’d never known about.
Oh God, he thought, pulling his hands away. Uncle Barron can’t know. I can’t let him see. And what do I tell the others?
He’d never said anything to Jude, of course. He’d never told anybody. It wasn’t like Jude would judge him, of course. He knew that. Reuben wouldn’t either. But did they all need to know this? This was personal. This was private.
Later that day, when he demorphed in Jude’s room, he said, «Turn around. I can’t morph clothes.»
What Tobias hadn’t expected, and should have, was the hard, hurt look on his face. “Why should I? Is it because I’m a girl?”
«Nothing to do with that. I’m just… shy,» he said.
He folded his arms and raised an eyebrow. “I have a brother. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”
«Please, Jude. Just turn around.»
Jude only really believed Tobias the next time, when he told Marco to turn around too.
He told Jake, «I have a scar from when I was a little kid that’s gone now because of the morphing. Pretty cool, huh?»
“I don’t know,” said Jude. “I have a scar from a bike accident that’s gone now. I kind of miss it, you know? It’s like losing my history.”
Tobias shrugged. “I think it was a part of my history I’d rather lose.”
This was Marco’s first time at a Berenson family reunion, and he was so excited. Jude was his best friend, of course, but her brother Tom was cool too, and even her cousin Reuben, though he didn’t like playing video games or basketball.
“Do we get to eat yet?” Marco asked Jude. “I’m hungry.”
“Not until Uncle Dan and Aunt Naomi get here,” said Jude. “Oh, look! There’s their car!”
A minivan pulled into the driveway. Jude’s parents and grandparents called out hello as the doors opened and Dan came out holding a baby, Jude’s cousin Sara. Naomi helped out little Jordan, and Reuben came out of the passenger door wearing a dress.
Marco stared. He wasn’t surprised, exactly. Reuben liked playing with girls, not boys, and he did gymnastics instead of soccer or baseball, and he always wore the girliest clothes he could that weren’t actually girls’ clothes. So it kind of seemed like the next step, and anyway, people thought Jude was a boy all the time because of how she dressed, and Marco didn’t care. It was just that he’d never seen a boy wear a dress before. He didn’t know it was allowed. Reuben looked… nice in it, though. Happy. Definitely happier than Jude had been, the one time Marco saw her in a dress. He wondered what it would be like to wear one.
“Reuben,” Jude’s Grandpa G said with a surprised laugh. “Why are you wearing a dress, boy? It’s not Halloween yet!”
“It’s not a costume,” Reuben said, lifting his chin up. “It’s my dress. I picked it out and Mom bought it.”
“Naomi is letting him wear it for the party,” Dan said. “He really wanted to.”
“I can wear it whenever I want! Right, Mom?”
Naomi gave her husband a sharp look. “Dan, we discussed this. Reuben hates his boy clothes. If he wants to dress up sometimes, I don’t see a problem.”
“Yeah. Judy dresses in boys’ clothes all the time and she looks cool. I think the dress looks nice on you, Reuben,” said Tom.
“Me too,” said Jude.
“Me three!” Marco said, because it was true.
The adults gave each other weird looks. Jean’s face was turning pink. She said, “Ribs are on the grill, everyone. Let’s sit down and get ready to eat.”
Marco looked at Jude. She was staring at her cousin, but in a different way, sort of wide-eyed but focused. “One minute,” she muttered to Marco, and pulled Reuben aside to talk to him. Marco shrugged and sat next to Tom at the picnic table. Tom smiled and ruffled Marco’s hair.
Jude came back just as Marco was starting on some potato salad. There was a look on her face that he’d never seen before. Her face was serious, but there was a look in her eyes like there was a fierce smile back there. She plucked on his sleeve. He looked mournfully at his plate and followed her behind a tree.
“What is it?” he whispered. He had a feeling he was supposed to whisper.
“Reuben told me he wants to be a girl,” Jude said.
Marco thought about it. “Can he do that?”
“Why not? He looks like one already. I think he’d be happier as a girl.”
“Yeah. Sure. I guess that fits.” He tilted his head. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I’ve figured it out. I want to be a boy.”
Marco felt his forehead wrinkle. “Aren’t you kind of a boy already?”
Jude bit her lip. “Am I?”
“Yeah!” Marco said. “If you say you’re a boy, then I’m with you all the way, man. As far as I’m concerned, you’re one of us already.”
“But you can’t tell anyone! Well, except Reuben.”
“OK, Jude. But when it’s just you and me? You’re my main man. That’s how it’s gonna go.”
“Judith!” Steve yelled. “Marco! Ribs are ready!”
“Race you!” Jude screamed, and Marco went running after. No fair. Jude had longer legs than him. He was so going to lose.
Marco’s dad didn’t ask him what he wanted twenty bucks for. He never did, anymore. Marco supposed it was for the best. He wasn’t sure how he’d react if he knew.
As he walked through the mall to the Macy’s, he planned his approach. Should he try to sneak, or just act like it was no big deal? He guessed he should just play it cool. It wasn’t like he was likely to see anyone he knew in there anyway.
He stopped and pretended to browse some windbreakers near the entrance. Then he casually walked toward the juniors section in the women’s department.
There were so many types of clothes here. Marco had never seen so many patterns and styles. Boys’ clothes were boring compared to this. But it was so hard to narrow down. He just wanted a shirt. What color would make the right statement? What cut would look good on him? Would anything here look good on him?
Marco heard footsteps behind him. He jumped and turned around. It was Reuben. No, Rachel. Jude had told him she was Rachel to people in the know, and if he got it wrong in front of her she’d tell Jude, and he’d think Marco wasn’t on board, and he was. He was going to prove it. “Hey, Rachel.”
Rachel raised her eyebrows. “Marco? Decided to talk a walk on the wild side, huh? Caught people staring at me and Jude and decided you want in?”
Marco blushed. “It’s not like that.”
“What’s it like, then? Buying clothes for your non-existent girlfriend?”
“No! It’s just that some people have been calling Jude a dyke and stuff, and they act like I want to be in on the joke because I’m Mr. Funny Guy, like I’d ever joke about Jude like that. So I want to show everyone that I’m on his team. If they want to make fun of him, then they have to make fun of me too.”
Rachel nodded. “Transsexual solidarity. I like it.”
“Trans-what?” Marco said.
“Transsexual. That’s what me and Jude are.”
“OK,” Marco said slowly. “So, uh, can you help me find a shirt?”
Rachel laughed. “Sure.”
It turned out that Marco didn’t know what he’d signed up for. It took Rachel half an hour to find a shirt for less than $20 that met her standards. It was a sleeveless collared top with thin horizontal black-and-white stripes. She went with him to the men’s fitting room to try it on. He avoided eye contact with the employees in the fitting room, while Rachel smiled at them sunnily.
He took off his T-shirt, feeling a little weird changing in front of a girl even if she had all the same parts he did, and put on the top Rachel picked out. “Wow, Marco, that actually makes you look kinda good,” she said.
Marco stared. The top hung a little loose, but not enough to be baggy. The lack of sleeves made his arms look longer. It went well with his cutoff jean shorts. With his longish hair, it made him look a little like a girl. Not as much as Rachel, but somewhere in between. She was right. It looked of kind of good. And it didn’t feel wrong. The opposite, actually. It was cozy, like an old familiar sweater. He was glad his skin was dark enough to mostly hide his blush.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’ll show everyone in school. Thanks, Rachel. I got what I came for.”
And maybe even more than he’d bargained for.
Rachel met Cassie in second grade, after they all did a round of show and tell on the second day of class. Cassie did show and tell with some feathers from a raven her daddy rescued. Its wing was broken but her daddy was a veterinarian so he fixed it.
Rachel came to the front of the room with a cassette player. She was nervous but didn’t want to show it. For a second she thought everything was going to go fine, until one of the boys, whose name she didn’t know yet, said, “Why is Reuben wearing flowers?”
Rachel, she thought. My name is Rachel.
Most of the other kids giggled. But Cassie didn’t. She was looking at the flowers with a look like she was trying to figure out what kind they were. Tulips, Rachel wanted to tell her. They’re tulips.
The teacher said, “Derek, what are we supposed to do during show and tell? Put on our listening faces! Eyes forward, ears open, mouth zipped!” She made a zipping motion across her mouth, and everyone copied her.
“I’m wearing tulips because they come in orange, and orange is my favorite color,” Rachel said. “Anyone else have questions?”
Cassie nodded and smiled, like Rachel had answered her question. No one said anything else.
“This is a cassette tape of Ray Charles,” she said. “He was blind, but he could still play the piano really well, because he knew where all the keys were just from his fingers. Listen. He’s really good.” She pressed play, and the classroom filled with the sounds of women singing, Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more…
Cassie tapped her foot along with the music. After show and tell, Rachel asked Cassie, “Can I see your feathers? I’ll be careful, I promise.”
She smiled shyly and gave Rachel the feathers. She held them up to the light from the window. “They’re so shiny. Like metal. See the purple and blue?”
“Yeah,” said Cassie. “It’s great to watch them fly. When the sun’s on them, they’re so bright.”
“What other animals does your daddy take care of?”
“Not just my daddy. My mama does it too. She works at the Gardens. She gets to help with the wolves and the rhinos.”
“Wow! That’s so cool!” Rachel picked up some paper and crayons. “I want to draw a picture of your mama taking care of a wolf. What does she look like?”
“When she’s working she wears all blue. Like that.” Cassie pointed to a crayon. “She has her hair in cornrows, like me, so she has ten braids coming off the back of her head.”
“I like your braids,” Rachel said, drawing a red smile on Cassie’s mama’s brown face. “I want beads in my hair too.”
“You can’t!” Rachel’s heart fell for a second, until Cassie added, “Your hair’s too straight! They’d never stay.”
“Aww,” Rachel pouted, feeling warm inside, and started coloring in the wolf in black and gray.
Later that year, Rachel told Cassie her secret: that she was really a girl. Cassie said, “I know. There are some birds, y’know, that you can’t tell apart the boys and girls just by looking. My dad says you have to watch them to see if they do boy things or girl things, like build a nest and lay eggs, and that’s how you know. I wasn’t sure about you, but I watched you, and you did girl things. So I knew you had to be a girl.”
Rachel stopped Jude outside the locker rooms at the end of gym class. “Hey, Jude,” she murmured, touching him on the shoulder. “How’s it going with your family? Any better?”
Jude opened his mouth to speak, but then a bunch of kids came out of the boys’ locker room. Woo, a meathead kind of guy, said, “Oh, look. It’s the Berenson queers.”
Rachel sneered at him. Jude acted as if he hadn’t spoken.
It wasn’t the reaction Woo was looking for. He came closer to them. “Get out of the way. What’s wrong with you two? Can’t decide which locker room you belong in?”
“Ugh, stop it, Woo!” said Melissa, looking back over her shoulder at him. “Reuben’s sweet. What did he ever do to you?”
“He stank up the boys’ locker room with the smell of his pussy,” Woo snarled.
Marco had come out of the boys’ locker room behind Woo, freshly changed into jeans and a tight pink shirt. “Oh, Melissa, you should feel bad for poor Woo. Reuben kicked his ass so hard at handball – without even chipping his nail polish! – that he’s become delusional. He thinks he’s come close enough to a pussy to know what it smells like.”
Everyone around the locker rooms laughed. Woo scoffed, “As if you’ve ever seen one, you fairy!”
Marco smiled lazily. “Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t. But I’m pretty sure announcing in front of everyone that you think they stink isn’t a winning strategy if you wanna get laid.”
The girls present besides Rachel tittered in agreement. Woo’s face turned brick red and he started walking away like he had something really important to do somewhere else. Victory. Marco grinned, a fierce light coming into his dark eyes.
“Give me a minute,” Rachel said to Jude. She put a hand on Marco’s shoulder and steered him back into the now-empty boys’ locker room.
Marco looked a little nervous for a second, like he was worried she was going to scold him. Instead, she squeezed his upper arm, taking a moment to appreciate the sight of the baby blue half-moons of her nails against Marco’s olive skin. He was right. The polish hadn’t chipped. She hadn’t even noticed, but he had. Even though the polish would be gone tonight, after she morphed and demorphed for their latest mission.
“Thank you,” Rachel said. Then she trailed her hand up to smooth the side against the pink sleeve of Marco’s top. This close, she could see it had a pattern of lighter pink checks. He’d come a long way since she’d helped him buy his first top from the women’s department. “This shirt looks great on you, by the way.” And with that, she pulled him toward her and crashed her mouth against his, not really knowing what she was doing, but figuring, I’ve never been bad at anything except being a boy, so I definitely won’t be bad at this.
Marco made a startled sound against her lips, then opened his mouth to hers. She sucked on his lower lip, felt tingles race all over her skin, felt a heaviness between her legs that was both welcome and not. Rachel pulled back and looked down at Marco. His mouth was shiny, his eyes half-closed. His eyelashes were so pretty. “You should grow your hair back out,” she said. “I like it long.”
“Me too,” said Marco breathlessly, eyes wide, pupils blown huge.
As Rachel walked out, she saw him press a few fingers to his mouth, then look at his fingertips, as if he couldn’t quite believe what had just happened. Rachel smiled. She couldn’t quite believe she’d done it. But if he wore that shirt again, if he did something like that again, she wouldn’t be able to stop herself.
As Aftran seeped into every corner of Cassie’s brain, she found the merger was not one-way. Some of Aftran flowed into her, too: memories of hosts she’d had before. Each was so different it was like living on a different planet, even Karen. Cassie experienced the world with senses she could give no name, and felt Aftran’s greedy delight as she sampled these same experiences. She thought of herself as an orphaned young Gedd, as a female Hork-Bajir separated from her husband, as a daughter to parents who spoiled her rotten.
Shocking as it was to feel what it was like to think of oneself as a member of another species, it was maybe even more surprising to experience what it was like to think of herself as female, down in the deepest vaults of the self. Cassie realized that she had one thing in common with the Gedd that she didn’t with the others: she had never felt that way before. No one had ever told the Gedd it had to be a boy or a girl, and it wasn’t. Everyone told Cassie she was a girl, and it didn’t bother her, exactly, but she’d never really felt it. She felt new understanding for how Jude, Rachel, and Marco felt. The Hork-Bajir’s and Karen’s sense of femaleness was so strong. But was it even possible to feel like no gender at all? Was there something wrong with the Gedd? With her?
«There’s nothing wrong with Rrramarrri,» Aftran said, amused. «Gedd just don’t have any notion of gender. Neither did my people, before the Andalites came.»
«Does that mean you’re not a girl?» Cassie wondered.
«I am,» said Aftran. «I didn’t start out that way – no Yeerk does – but like Estril my pool-brother, and many others besides, the gender of my hosts kind of… rubbed off on me.» Cassie flinched at the mention of Aftran’s brother who she’d killed, but Aftran ignored her. «It’s easy, when you spend every day feeling your host’s feelings. My hosts have given me many gifts over the years – their sight, their memories… and their femaleness, in the case of Mal Hrageet and Karen.»
«Could you give it to me?» Cassie asked. «I’m supposed to be a girl, but I don’t know how to feel like one.»
«No, Cassie,» said Aftran. «I can’t. I guess you’ll just have to be something else. Like Rrramarrri, the Gedd whose eyes and ears first showed me the world beyond my pool. Rrramarrri, who, like you, gave me a whole new horizon.»
She stood in front of the mirror, and saw Cassie.
She took a deep breath in and out. Rachel and Jude and Marco had their puberty blockers from the Chee. Tobias had the healing power of the morphing technology, which had fixed his body back to how he wanted it to be. Ax had his morph made by Frolis maneuver, which made his human body into a shape that worked for him. And now, with Marco’s DNA and his permission, she was going to find her own way. She was going to find Cass.
She was also going to try to find a better pronoun, but a hunt through her parents’ dictionaries only turned up “thon,” which just sounded silly.
Cass chose Marco’s DNA, because she may be a good morpher, but she wasn’t sure how fine her control was over individual facial features, and no way was she going to use Rachel’s DNA and let her gender experiment morph turn out white. At least if she lost control of her skin color with Marco’s DNA, she wouldn’t feel like she was running away from being black when she used the morph.
She focused on the parts she wanted. Jawline, that would be good. Hers was so soft. She saw her face become firmer, more defined in the mirror. Her skin took on an olive undertone, but she clamped down before it could lighten her shade. Smaller hips. Yes, she liked the way that changed the shape inside her overalls. Flat chest, all planes. The front of her overalls and shirt sagged inward, and she tugged down on the clothes to rearrange them.
There was no Cassie in the mirror. There wasn’t a boy or a girl. There was just a kid, ready to go work in the barn.
As Aximili acquired DNA from the human Animorphs, he considered what he wanted this morph to look like. They all looked equally strange to him, so he was not concerned about aesthetics. If he was going to have no natural weapons, though, he wanted to be strong, so he decided to incorporate Cassie’s and Rachel’s muscles, which he had seen before they had put on additional pieces of clothing.
Also, he had seen lumps of fatty erectile tissue on the chests of Prince Jude and Cassie and between the legs of Marco and Rachel, which he could only assume were sex organs they kept hidden with their clothing, since they did not keep their sex organs on the inside like sensible creatures. Aximili shuddered at the thought of having vulnerable external sex organs and no tail. He would combine the chests of Marco and Rachel with the lower bodies of Cassie and Prince Jude to create a more practical shape. Everything else could be left to chance.
His mind made up, he began the morph.
His front legs were going, gone! He held out his tail instinctively for balance while his spine realigned itself with his back legs. Then his tail was gone. He felt unmoored and weak.
“Should we, uh, give him some privacy?” Cassie said.
Rachel made a loud noise with her mouth Aximili guessed was a laugh. Prince Jude said, “Do you want us to turn around, Ax?”
«Why?» he said. A silence fell. No one answered. «Oh. You want to know if I wish to keep my sex organs private. No, it makes no difference.»
The humans exchanged looks, which he saw in a strange distorted view, since his stalk eyes were gone. His face split open, and some of his fingers fused together. His blue fur melted away into light brown skin. The morph was complete.
“Uh,” said Marco. He was staring. They all were, Tobias the nothlit on his branch most intently of all. Aximili wondered what was so strange. Was it odd for them to see part of themselves in him? “Ax, are you a boy or a girl? Or, uh, fill in the blank?”
“I am male. May-ull,” Aximili said. The translation technology still worked in morph, as expected, but the automatic knowledge of how to use this mouth was unexpected. He held out his fleshy mouthparts and tried to get a better look at them, but the angle was all wrong. “No female, feeee-male, would have a tail blade my size. Zzzuh.”
“You do know that, uh…” Marco made vague hand gestures.
«Marco,» Tobias said sharply.
“Oh, never mind,” Marco said, throwing up his hands. “Human gender is complicated enough. I’m not getting into it with an Andalite.”
“Let me help you get some clothing on,” Rachel said, picking up two clothes whose purpose Aximili could not guess. “Ugh, we need to get him better clothes next time. He’s kind of cute, really. He deserves better. Hey, Ax, would you rather wear clothes like mine or like Jude’s?”
“Zzzuh,” Aximili said. “That is an interesting sound. Zzzuh.”
As Aximili ran through the woods, he instinctively leapt behind a tree at the sight of a human lying on the ground.
He let one stalk eye peer around the edge of the tree. There were feathers on the human’s face, rapidly disappearing. The human did not wear artificial skins. But it was not Rachel, Marco, Cassie, or Prince Jude.
It was Tobias. It had to be. But that was impossible.
Tobias was pale, like Rachel and Prince Jude, with irregular red and brown dots on his face, arms, and flat chest. He was shorter than Rachel and Prince Jude, but taller than Marco and Cassie. He had hair the color of sand in soft curls, not tight curls like Cassie’s, but like Aximili’s own hair when he was in human morph. The sand-colored hair was finer on his arms and legs, and coarser on his jaw and around his sex organs, which were external, but not as much as other human males’ seemed to be. He got up on his elbows and said, “Huh,” his long eyelashes batting rapidly. He seemed well-formed, to Aximili’s inexpert eye, if lacking in muscle.
Aximili stepped out from behind the tree. «Is this your human form, Tobias? How did you come by it?»
Tobias whipped his head toward Aximili and stared, open-mouthed. His brown-green-gold eyes widened, and his face turned pink. He curled his knees to his chest and circled them with his arms, tucking himself into a ball. “Ax, I, uh…”
«I do not mind,» Aximili said. «Andalites do not wear artificial skins. It makes no difference to me whether you wear them or not.»
“Trust me,” Tobias said quietly. “You don’t want to see my body.”
«I saw it. It is similar to the other human bodies I have seen without artificial skins. But since it is yours, my shorm, it is of special worth to me. I wish I could have used your DNA in the Frolis maneuver that created my human morph. It would be a fitting addition.»
“You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?” Tobias said, staring at me over his knees.
«What is there to tell? That you are able to morph your human body again?»
“No. That… I’m not normal.”
«You seem normal to me,» Aximili said, confused but trying his best to be polite about it. «Now tell me, Tobias, how were you able to acquire your own human DNA?»
Slowly, Tobias uncoiled himself from his posture, so he sat with his legs curled to one side. “I’d say you wouldn’t believe it.” A ray of sun shone between the trees and lit his hair golden, and the corners of his mouth upturned, just a little. “But it’s no stranger than anything else that’s happened.”
It wasn’t so hard to find her house. David flew overhead as an eagle as she walked home from school. Then he followed her to Cass’ barn and listened in on their plans.
He felt almost hurt that they were totally focused on the world leaders’ summit instead of him. Wasn’t he the real threat now? But they actually thought they could change the outcome of the war with the Yeerks, this merry band of freaks.
So Cass got him before he could kill them, that night. No one could blame him. Cass was the most dangerous of the Animorphs. David would aim for their weak points. He would go after Rachel.
David slept in her backyard that night. Hey, it wasn’t creepy, he just didn’t have any place to sleep, and their hammock was hidden from view by trees and pretty damn comfortable. When morning came around, he morphed fly and flew in through her bedroom window.
It looked like any other girl’s bedroom, as far as he could tell through his fly eyes. She had yellow curtains, a white vanity, and wallpaper in a yellow and white pinstripe. It smelled like dried flowers and powdery deodorant. Rachel was on her bed with a girl who must be her sister, hugging her and giving her some speech about why she shouldn’t be afraid just because her cousin got hit by a car. He stared at Rachel’s hand on her sister’s shoulder. Rachel still had this. He might never have this again. It wasn’t fair.
He followed her into the bathroom. He worked on her. He was going to get to her. She’d realize she should have respected him all along.
«Enjoy your shower,» he said, feeling secure in his victory.
“Is that what all this is about?” Rachel sneered. “You want to see what the tranny has under her clothes? You’re pathetic.”
David stared at her face in the mirror. Long blonde hair around her face in rumpled waves. Delicate face with long eyelashes. A red nightgown with white polka-dots. He’d had a nightgown a lot like it, kept in the back of his closet, that he could wear to bed, where not even his parents would see. Rachel didn’t have to hide hers.
«You have no idea how lucky you are, do you?» he said, and flew away.
The Andalite wasn’t listening, not really. He would never listen. There was no point trying to sway him.
But Rachel. If David could just get to Rachel before his two hours were up, she could free him from this hell.
«You know what it’s like, Rachel?» he said, in a sudden, desperate burst of inspiration. «It’s like what you feel. Your body doesn’t match what’s in your head. But it’s even worse. I mean, it’s not like you hate every part of your body, right? Some of it’s OK. But every part of me is disgusting now. None of it will feel right, ever again. You know how bad that is, right? Right?»
Through the glass of the jar, I saw her face twist with revulsion. “How dare you say that to me. You have no idea what it’s like!”
«Is that what you think? Only boys who look like you or Marco want to be girls, huh? Well, maybe not all of us get to show it. Maybe some of us have dads who are police officers and would have fucking killed us if we were even a tiny bit sissy!»
Rachel stared at him, open-mouthed. “You… you’re saying you’re like me.”
«I don’t know, OK? Maybe I’m more like Marco. I don’t know. I’ll never know, because I’m going to spend the rest of my life as a rat!» he seethed. «It was bad enough when the beard started growing in, and you, damn you, this is so much worse!»
Rachel bit her lip, and shook her head. “I’m sorry, David. I’m sorry your dad was a dick to you. But you’re not like me. Not in the ways that matter.”
And she was right. He would never have the body or life he wanted, whatever they might have been. But he would lose riding his bike, watching TV, hugging his parents, forever. That was what really mattered. And the nightgown in the back of his closet had probably been destroyed with the rest of his room, anyway.
“What should we get Reuben for his birthday?” Mom said to Dad over dinner.
Dad took a slow sip of wine. “A good suit? That’s what we got Tom for his 13th birthday. I know a Bar Mitzvah is a bit much, but it still feels like a coming of age, right? Something he can wear to look like an adult.”
Jude stared. “Reuben isn’t going to wear a suit, Dad. He’d hate it.”
“Judy, honey, it’s just a phase. Reuben will grow out of it. Just like I grew out of my tomboy phase when I was a girl.” Mom smiled at him indulgently.
Jude felt his face prickle. He’d been waiting for an opening, and he wasn’t going to get a better one than this. “Actually, Mom, it’s not. I’ve been talking to Reuben and Aunt Naomi. They’ve been going to PFLAG.” He took the brochure from his pocket and set it on the dining room table. “Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Aunt Naomi said there were other kids like Reuben. Boys who want to be girls and girls who want to be boys.”
Tom laughed. “Like The Crying Game? Or that guy in Ace Ventura? Transsexuals?”
Jude flushed. “Yeah, I guess. But not stupid or evil.”
“Judith,” Dad said slowly, picking up the brochure and studying it. “Why are you telling us this? About PFLAG?”
Jude took a fierce swig of water and swallowed it hard. “Because I’m a transsexual too. Like Reuben. I’m not just a tomboy. I want to be a boy.”
Mom took the brochure from Dad, looked at it, and put it back down on the table. “Oh, honey. I’ve lived in San Francisco, you know. You don’t have to be a boy to like girls. If you think you might be a lesbian, I support you.”
“I know what a lesbian is, Mom. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m only 12, I don’t even know if I like boys or girls or whatever. But I’ve known I want to be a boy for years. I’ve never liked being a girl. I don’t want to be called Judy, I don’t want to have babies, and I don’t want to be a little sister. I want to be a brother. Like Tom.” He glanced at Tom, who was watching with raised eyebrows, but said nothing.
“Judith,” Mom said, reaching for his hand. “Being a woman isn’t all bad. I know it’s hard sometimes, but the answer isn’t running off and saying you want to be a boy. The answer is standing up for yourself. I’ve written for so many employers who said no one would read my work if I wrote under a woman’s name. But they were wrong.”
He didn’t take her hand. “Mom, Dad. You should talk to Aunt Naomi about this. She’s OK with Reuben being a girl. She even calls her Rachel when they’re at home. She’d explain. It’s not so bad or different.”
“Your Aunt Naomi has been encouraging that boy’s flights of fancy since he was in first grade. I agree with your Uncle Dan, as nasty as that divorce was – if she had just laid down some rules when he was younger – ”
“You didn’t lay down any rules about me playing with Tom’s trucks and I’ve turned out fine.” Jude looked at Tom, who had been quiet this whole time. “Tom, you didn’t mind me playing with them. Did you?”
“Of course not. Girls who do guy things are cool.” He slapped Jude on the back. “Listen, Judy. You don’t need this PFLAG thing. You should check out the Sharing. My mentor there is this gay guy who might even be as fabulous as Reuben. Guys and girls just hang out and play sports together all the time, and no one cares what you dress like. You’d fit right in.”
Jude’s stomach dropped. Tom hadn’t listened to a word he said. He’d always had Tom on his side, before, when he fought with his parents over what he could wear or what sports he could play. Without him, Jude didn’t know what to do.
“Listen,” said Dad. “We won’t buy Reuben the suit, OK? You don’t have to wear anything you don’t want to, and if you do bring a girlfriend home, like your mother said, we support you. Just give the transsexual thing a rest. Got it?”
Jude felt sweaty and dry and shivery all over. He wished Rachel were here. He wished Marco were here. He wished Tom would say something, anything, to make it better. But all he had was himself. “Got it,” he mumbled, and cleared his plate, feeling like a ghost floating outside his own body.
«You want to laugh at my fantasies? Shall I delve into a few of yours? Let's see what's hidden deep in your brain, human.»
To Jude’s horror, he wasn’t tied up in the cabin anymore. He was in a basketball arena. He was tall, six foot two, like Tom. And … he was playing on a men’s team.
Five seconds left to the game. Four, three. He shot, he scored! The crowd went wild with cheering. “Jude! Jude! Jude!” His parents and Cassie were cheering his name, too.
Afterward, Tom clapped him on the back. “Great game. As usual.”
It made Jude feel small. Embarrassed. Transparent. It wasn’t as if the Yeerk didn’t know he was transsexual, but he’d never shared that fantasy with anyone. Even Rachel would have thought it was silly, probably.
At least the Yeerk didn’t make fun of him for wanting that. But he did lord his power over Jude, twisting in the knife. He fought back, because it was all he had left.
«Shall I play one of Tom’s memories for you?» Jude went cold with fear. He didn’t want to know. «I can feel you cringe. I can feel your fear. Yes. Yes, I will. Here, enjoy a preview of your future.»
And he saw the breakfast table, from three days ago, through his brother’s eyes, as if he were trapped in the same skull with Jude and the Yeerk. With a shock, Jude saw himself eating cereal. He looked… like just a tired boy, getting ready for school. Much more like a boy than what he saw when he looked in the mirror, anyway.
“Hey, Judy. What’s up?”
“Not much.” The boy – Jude – stared distractedly into the middle distance as he munched cereal. “How about you?”
Jude remembered what Tom had said. Another Sharing pitch. But he hadn’t known Tom’s emotions. He didn’t know what he’d felt, on the inside. He felt the despair, now, the silent desperate pleas for mercy. How long had Tom been suffering like this?
«Not Jude,» cried Tom. The name sent an electric pulse through Jude’s brain. He’d never heard Tom call him that before. «Leave Jude alone. Leave my brother alone. I’ll never trouble you again, I swear it. Just leave Jude alone. Not my brother.»
The Yeerk was taunting him, but Jude barely listened. He was tearing up inside for Tom. He couldn’t bear that he was in so much pain. But no matter what the Yeerk said, he hadn’t broken Tom. The Yeerk had toed the party line, went along with his parents, made fun of him for wanting to be a boy. But that hadn’t been Tom. He’d seen Jude for who he was, and made his own choice. No matter what the Yeerk said with his mouth, Tom knew that Jude was his brother.
«Thank you, Yeerk,» said Jude. «Thank you. If – when – I get out of here, when I go home, no matter what my parents say, no matter what Tom says, no matter how bad it gets – I’ll always have that. I’ll always know my brother believed in me. And even if you do somehow keep me as your host, you can’t take that away from me.»