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September 3, 2001

It had been a long time since Alex and Andy had last been down to the creek - well, as much as it could be called a “creek.” In reality, it wasn’t much more than a shallow series of puddles at the bottom of a drainage ditch, winding its way through the dead zones of suburbia all the way to the culvert that went under the old highway. But when they were kids, this is where Andy and Alex would play, imaginations transforming the scraggly underbrush into a deep forest and the muddy trickle into a grand ocean.

But that was an eternity ago, back when they were different people. Things had been a lot easier then, or at least less complicated. Now, with senior year just starting, decisions about colleges and futures and who you wanted to be seemed to hang over everything with a heaviness that was inescapable. Alex couldn’t help but see the creek for it really was now, one more reminder of the stark difference between hopes and bleak reality.

Alex shook her head and sighed, trying in vain to push the doubts out of her head. She took a seat on the big boulder that marked the midway point between her house and Andy’s, pulling her knees up to her chest and shrinking down even further into her hoodie. Andy didn’t seem to notice. He was stomping around, crunching dried-up bushes and leaves under his boots.

“Hey Al, remember when we spent like twenty bucks on firecrackers and brought them out here?” he said. “And old Mr. Johanssen heard and was certain the Russians were invading and called the cops?”

“Heh, yeah,” Alex said, unable to muster up much enthusiasm. Andy didn’t seem to notice.

“Good times,” he said. He sauntered over to the rock too, then went through a whole routine, patting each of the pockets of the beaten-up army jacket he always wore. “Fuck,” he abruptly announced. “Old habits die hard, huh?”

Andy had only smoked for a few months, primarily because he thought it made him look tough and cool. But when he had gotten together with Em, she got him to knock it off fast. Alex liked Em a lot. She hung around the same weird outsider circles that Alex and Andy floated around in, but despite her mall-goth aesthetic and occasional performative brooding, she was a really friendly and nice person. And importantly, she proved to be surprisingly good at keeping Andy in check when he veered too close to obnoxious or creepy.

All three of them would probably have been hanging out together now, if it wasn’t for Alex catching Andy after first period and asking if they could talk privately after school. Andy had been the one to suggest the creek, which meant he probably figured this was something serious. Alex could tell that even now, he was curious as to the whole reason they needed to talk, but he was hiding it well, giving Alex the space to think for a minute and only speak when she was ready.

“So…” Alex said. Her eyes flicked up to Andy but then immediately went back to the creek, where she stared intensely at a patch of dead grass like it held the answers to her problems.

“So.”

Alex didn’t have to say anything, she thought abruptly. She could just pass this whole thing off as a joke or that she was worried about college applications or something. They could have a laugh, and then go over to Andy’s house to play stupid video games. She could get through one more year, and leave this whole town, and become a different person, and maybe then one day run into Andy at K-Mart and get in an argument over whether toaster pastries were supposed to be iced or not and they could become friends all over again.

Or to return to bleak reality, at least that way when Andy found out what was really going on, it would be secondhand from someone else. And then then it wouldn’t be like it’d actively hurt when he was disgusted and decided to never speak to Alex ever again.

“Dude, are you okay?”

“No,” Alex said immediately, before she even had a chance to think about it.

“Uh, okay.” Andy rolled his shoulders, frowning up at the overcast sky. “Whatever it is, man. You… you know you can talk about it with me, right?”

Alex stayed silent, feeling something twist up in her chest. She wanted to. She wanted to let everything out, puke her guts out metaphorically, but also at the moment kind of literally. But it was so terrifying and unthinkable that she was stuck, frozen.

Ironically, it was Andy who rescued her by saying the totally wrong thing. “Is this about that Sammy girl you’re always talking about? Did she dump you?”

“It’s not like that,” Alex quickly said.

Andy was looking at her carefully. “Sure,” he said, clearly unconvinced. “Look, at first I thought it was one of those whole ‘yeah I got an internet girlfriend, she lives in Canada’ things. But it’s been years now and you’ve stuck with it so okay, I believe she exists. But in that case, c’mon, man. I’ve heard the way you talk about her. Man up and make the first move already!”

Alex groaned, burying her face in her hands. “It’s not about— Ugh.”

“You need some pointers? I’d be glad to give you a few lines or something.”

Alex shook her head. “No, no. We’re— look, I didn’t ask you to come here to talk about her.”

“Then what?”

“I wanted to talk about me,” Alex said, so quietly that at first she thought Andy hadn’t heard.

But Andy had. He kept gazing off into the distance, silent for a long moment.

“Fuck,” he finally muttered. “I really do need a smoke.”

Alex could feel the tears starting to come, welling up in the corner of her eyes and causing her breaths to get shuddery.

“Hey.”

When she looked up, Andy still wasn’t looking at her, but he didn’t look angry either. Just… uncomfortable.

“Alright. I, uh… Sort of saw this coming.”

“You did?” Alex said.

“Yeah, I mean it’s not like you’ve ever been that great at hiding things. Look dude, it’s okay. I… uh…” He let out a sigh. “I don’t care if you’re gay.”

Alex couldn’t help it. She let out a sharp bark of laughter, then clasped both hands over her mouth.

Andy was staring at her now, his face flushed red. “Fuck dude. I just thought— Shit. Sorry. Fuck. Man, you gotta believe, I didn’t mean—”

And something about that did it, something about Andy looking vulnerable for once, about him trying to be supportive but screwing it up like always. And something about him still using ‘man’ and ‘dude,’ each time a prick of a needle in a place that was far too sore.

“I’m a girl,” Alex said, before she could stop herself.

Now Andy was really staring at her. He opened his mouth, and then closed it. His lips twisted into a smile for half a second before dropping away again when he realized it hadn’t been a joke. He looked completely flummoxed, as if Mrs. Duquesne had called him in front of his whole Algebra II class to solve some advanced calculus problem.

“So…” he finally said. “You’re… Isn’t that like just… super gay?”

“What??”

“Cause like you’d want guys to… uh.”

Alex grimaced. “I said I’m a girl, so if I was gay I’d like other girls.”

“Well, do you? Do you like girls?” Andy insisted.

Alex shook her head. “I— I don’t know. It’s complicated! But, like, that doesn’t even matter? It’s not about who I like, it’s about who I want to be.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Yeah, I can tell,” Alex murmured, wishing she just had a hole to crawl into. “Look, like… you’re happy being a guy, right?”

“Hell yeah. Obviously.”

“I’m… not.”

Andy was just shaking his head now. “Al, look, just because some dipshits rag on you sometimes, it doesn’t mean that… you know.” He paused. “…Right? Fuck, I shoulda done something. If we had just hung out more, I could have helped. We could have done some more manly stuff, gone to the gun range—”

“Andy!” Alex cut in. “Shut up, this isn’t helping.”

Andy did, rubbing the back of his head awkwardly as he stared into the sky. He let out a sigh. “Fuck.”

“…Yeah.”

“But like… you can't. You’re not, you know? You’re a guy. You— Wait.” Andy’s eyes abruptly widened and his gaze lowered. “Holy shit, did you cut your dick off?”

The look that Alex gave him could have stripped paint off a wall. “Sometimes you’re a real fucking creep, you know that?”

“Well, are you going to? Man, uh... Fuck.”

“Why do you care?” Alex shot back. “Do you plan getting into my pants any time soon?”

Andy took a literal step back, and now he was staring at Alex like he didn’t even know her, the expression on his face frozen between disgust and fear.

The indignation keeping Alex going suddenly melted away, leaving nothing to keep her going, and the weight of it all felt newly crushing. This is how she had known this would turn out, at least somewhere deep down inside herself. And now the tears arrived in full force, and as she pressed her palms into her eyes and tried to keep the sobs contained, she just hoped that Andy would walk off, that he’d leave her here, and never speak to her again, maybe never even see her ever again so that at least the wound wouldn’t just reopen to bleed again every time they met.

Then, something happened that she couldn’t quite process. Arms were around her, solid and reassuring, and her face was pressed into scratchy green fabric that smelled ever-so-faintly of smoke.

And Alex cried even more, and Andy kept holding her, patting her back gently until she had let it all out.

When she finally pulled back, she could see a big wet spot on the shoulder of his jacket, but he didn’t even seem to mind. Andy just smiled, the expression tentative but his eyes still serious.

“You know people are gonna give you all kinds of shit for this, right?”

Alex didn’t trust herself to talk, so she just nodded.

“Okay, and when they do, you know you have to come to me to tell me whose ass I need to kick.”

Alex choked back another sob, and gave him a watery smile. “Th-thanks,” she finally said, her voice sounding raspy to her own ears.

“I don’t get it, Alex, I really don’t,” Andy said. “But this is obviously important to you. You’ve always been there for me, even when I was a total shitheel to you and everyone else. You were the one who helped me get my head on straight. And so I’m always gonna be there for you too, no matter what that means. You’re my…” He cut himself off abruptly, shaking his head slightly and grinning wryly. “You’re my sis.”

Alex moved forward again, grabbing him in a hug so tight that he let out an ‘oof.’ He patted her on the head and laughed. “Huh,” Andy said. “Is this why you’re so scrawny still? I mean what with the hair and all you already kinda look like a girl.”

“Uh, yeah...” Alex bit her lip. “So when I told my dad—"

"Seriously? That had to take some balls." Andy froze. "Fuck, sorry."

Alex shook her head. "Yeah. He didn't understand at first but we talked, like a lot. And I did get him to let me see a doctor who... Well, it's complicated, but stuff that blocks puberty for the time being. But my dad doesn’t want me to go on real hormones until I’m 18 and can make a legal decision about it or something.”

“That sucks.”

Alex let out a weak laugh. “Yeah. It kind of does?”

“Are you gonna tell anyone else about this? Like at school?”

Alex twisted her hands in her lap. “Um. No. I mean I kind of want to, but it’s just…”

“Yeah.” Andy let out a sigh. “Well, if you do, I’ll have your back, and if you don’t, that’s also fine. You might think about talking to Em though? I think she might understand.”

“Really?”

“Uh.” Andy’s eyes scanned the underbrush, as if worried that his girlfriend might have been lurking right out of sight. “Don’t tell her I told you this, but on at least one occasion she has told me you would look adorable in one of her dresses. And I just kind of laughed and figured she was being weird like usual but. I think she was kind of serious?”

Really?

“Yeah," Andy muttered. "And maybe if she gets to dress you up as a girl she’ll quit trying to talk me into it again.”

“What?”

“What.” Andy’s cheeks were definitely a little red now. “Shut up.”

Alex grinned. “Again?”

“Hey, at least I’m getting some.”

“Please tell me there are pictures.” When Andy only turned brighter red, Alex gasped, both hands over her mouth. “There are.”

“I swear to god, Al. Just because you’re a girl, it doesn’t mean I still don't know how to hide a body where no one will ever find it.”

Alex just grinned. “I love you too, dumbass. Wanna go back home and play video games?”

Andy punched her lightly in the arm. “Fuck yeah.”