Chapter One

Jami stomped up the stairs, dropped her pack on the floor, shrugged out of her jacket, tossed it on the railing and plopped down on the orange beanbag cushion in the center room of their apartment. She grabbed her hair with both hands, pulled it up, twisted it tightly back and said loudly, "Carys? Would you still love me if I shaved my head?"

In the bedroom Carys stood up from using the desk computer, where she'd been reading their group's community posts. She walked the short distance to where Jami was sitting and sat on a pile of pillows next to the beanbag. She took a mental deep breath. "Jami, I will love you no matter what you do. Even, and perhaps especially, if I can't figure out what's going on between your ears. Hints, please?"

Still holding her hair, Jami chanted, "Binary gender sucks! Heterosexism sucks! Invisibility sucks! I suck!"

"Oh, honey." Carys went on her knees and leaned forward to put her arms around Jami, giving her a quick kiss. "What happened, love?"

"I hate being pretty," said Jami, making a face.

Sitting back again, Carys pushed a sleeve up, made a fist and grimaced. "Tell me who said what, and I'll go pound 'em!"

"People don't have to say anything. I have long blond hair, blue eyes, a feminine face, perky little boobs,..."

"And you are attentive and polite to a fault, at least in public. A perfect young woman."

"I'm intersex! I'm queer! Arghh!" growled Jami.

"Hmm," said Carys, walking the fingers of one hand slowly along Jami's nearest leg up toward her waist, "what you need is..."

"Oh, yes!"

"...an image consultant."

"Crap!" Jami let go of her hair, grabbed Carys's hand and tried to pull her closer. The beanbag slipped off to one side and Jami ended up on the floor with Carys. "Ooof! Image consultant my ass." She shook her hair out of her face, looking dejected.

Carys wrapped her arms around Jami from behind. "Hon, this has been happening more and more often lately. You go out to work, or on a photo assignment, dressed and behaving the way you always have, but you come home upset and pissed off."

"Yeah, you're right." She leaned back against Carys.

"We've been living together on our own for six months now. You've changed a lot in those six months, Jami."

"I'm not scared of my own shadow anymore?"

"I don't know that I'd put it exactly that way, but you are more self-assured and confident."

"No," mused Jami, "I like that metaphor. Because I was afraid of my own shadow. Afraid that the shadow I cast was visibly different from what I see when I look in the mirror."

Carys nodded, remembering what it had been like for Jami to work up the courage to talk about herself and let Carys in on her fears. "You know, Jami, in a way I think you're coming out. You've reached a comfortable place in your head, and now you want to tell the world how you feel."

"Radical! I'll cut my hair, dye it deep purple, get some body piercings, and truly get some punk grrrl duds!"

"Yes, dear. But as your image consultant..."

"Phhbbt!"

"How about as your lover and life partner?"

"Am I being difficult?"

"You have no idea how difficult you are."

Carys felt Jami tense up. "Honey?" No response. She let go of Jami and scooted around so she could see her face, which was now blank. Shit.

Jami asked slowly, her lips barely moving, "Are you really upset with me?"

Carys took Jami's hands. "No, honey. I'm not upset with you. Believe me, I understand about not wanting people to draw the wrong conclusions from the way a person looks. But I also have to admit I feel easier about your safety when you do blend in."

Jami scowled. "I know it's safer, Car. I remember very well the harassment you took in school because you were out, and had—what was that cute phrase Linda used?—'a little freak' for a girlfriend."

"Oh, Jami."

"I'll be okay. I'm just frustrated right now."

"You know what else, Jami? I think we had an insanely hectic spring and summer, with my school trouble, the play we were in, the pride march, getting me out of my house, finding this apartment and starting our own life. Now things are slowing down, and you're not willing to go back to being the Jami who stays at home and keeps a low profile. Have I corrupted you?"

Jami leaned toward Carys to touch noses. "If you hadn't spoken to me in that hallway at the arts camp, Carys, I'd probably still be sitting in my room in my parents' house, looking at the world through my web browser."

Carys breathed in Jami's ear. "Jami, you were sitting in a window with light shining through your hair, surrounded by a halo of rainbows. How could I ignore you? My heart almost stopped when I saw you. I love you so much."

"I love you, too, Car. I'm sorry I'm being such trouble."

"I think we need a long cuddle, dear. Here, or on the bed?"

"Um, the bed would be warmer," said Jami, beginning to unfasten the bottom buttons on Carys's shirt.

"A point. To the bed, then."

* * *

Jami had fallen asleep after they had cuddled for a while. Even after six months together, being in bed with another person was still stressful for her, though she craved the intimacy. They did sometimes have sex, but most of the time they were simply close and safe and loving.

For her part, Carys was quite pleased that Jami was not a demanding lover and understood the issues Carys had with her own body.

I don't have big boobs, thought Carys. I just have a big chest. Jami had understood immediately about the importance of letting Carys describe her own body in her own way. For the thousandth time, Carys thanked whatever chance of fate had brought Jami into her life and given them both the patience to reach the place of trust they now had with each other.

Moving slowly so she didn't wake Jami, Carys slipped out of bed, used the bathroom, dressed and returned to the desk computer where she had been reading and approving posts in their group's online community. She checked the weather, scanned her email and was returning to the community posts when her cell rang.

Cursing under her breath as Jami woke, Carys walked over to the chair in the center section of the apartment, took the phone out of her coat pocket, and answered.

"Hello? This is Carys. Hi, Crystal. Huh?" She folded her legs under herself to sit on the floor and lean back against the chair, which was filled with her pack, coat, scarf and hat. "Okay, now I'm sitting as down as I can get. What's the big deal? What? Who? No. No way. No!"

Jami untangled herself from the bed sheets and ran the few steps to Carys, sliding onto the floor next to her. "What is it?"

Carys was holding her cell at arm's length, staring at it. Jami could hear someone talking, so she grabbed the phone. "Hello? This is Jami. What's going on?"

"Jami? Oh, God. This is Crystal. I have horrible news. It's Kathy; she's dead in an automobile accident. And there's worse. There's a rumor spreading that she killed herself."

"What happened?" Jami punched the volume up so Carys could hear.

"I don't have any hard facts. Word's going around the high school kids in her class. Everyone texting everyone else. What people are saying is that she was out in her car, alone, and ran into an overpass or something at high speed."

Carys covered her face with her hands, making a gulping, sobbing sound. Kathy had been a junior when Carys was a senior. She had looked to Carys as a role model.

"You still there, Jami?" asked Crystal.

"Yeah. Carys is taking this pretty hard."

"So am I. I need to go find Sandy." Sandy was Crystal's girlfriend.

Carys scrubbed her face with the back of one hand and took the phone from Jami. "Crystal? When you find out anything for certain, would you let me or Zoe know, in case people in the group ask us for information?"

"Sure. I'll do that, Carys. But right now I gotta go find Sandy. I need somebody to hold me, real bad."

"You do that, hon. I'll talk with you later." Carys closed her phone and looked at Jami.

"Should we post something for the group?" asked Jami.

Carys thought for a moment. "I'll just make a quick post to remind people to contact me or Zoe for information and to please not spread rumors."

Carys stood up and headed for the desk computer again, a bit shaky on her feet. She sat down hard and jiggled the trackball to clear the screen saver.

"Are you going to be okay, Car?" asked Jami, coming to sit on the bed behind her.

"No, but I need to do this before I fall apart." She glanced at Jami. "Put some clothes on before you freeze."

Jami was dressing when she heard Carys say, "What the? Oh, shit." She hit the desk with her fist and put her head down on her hands.

Once again Jami ran to her. "What now?" She leaned over Carys to read the screen. It was a post made by Kathy, waiting for mod approval.

Guess what, folks? I was handed some news this afternoon by my dear mother. Seems my fun times are over. I'm to be packed up and shipped off to teen boot camp next summer to have my behavior modified. Guess I shouldn't have been so obvious about trying to be nobody-but-myself in this stupid, fucked-up world. And here I was trying so hard to not be gay or hang out with girls who can stand up to their parents or, horrors, seriously write poetry that expresses my true feelings. Well, shit. I think I'll do a little of my friend's feel-good one last time and drive around until I get lost. Good-bye, y'all. Oh, and Mother? I will see you in hell.

"Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn!"

"Carys..."

She looked at Jami with tears in her eyes. "So the rumors are true? Her parents might as well have killed her! Murdering bastards!"

"Look at the time on that post, Carys."

Carys peered at the screen through blurry eyes. "It was posted just after five o'clock this afternoon."

"Right about the time I came home and distracted you."

"I suppose so," said Carys, afraid she saw where Jami was going with this. "But she could have gone out the door thirty seconds later."

"Maybe," said Jami. She read the post again. "You sure as heck can't approve this post. People are going to be upset enough without seeing that. And I'm not sure what the line about the 'feel good' means, but if she's talking about getting alcohol or drugs from someone..."

Carys re-read the post. "Shit. Sure sounds like it. That and a car and being pissed off. Yeah, I'll leave it in the queue for now." Carys stood up and went to the bathroom to splash cold water on her face.

* * *

Neither Carys nor Jami slept well Friday night. Crystal called early Saturday morning, to confirm what she'd said yesterday. "Kathy was the only person in the car, she was going way too fast, and not wearing a seat belt." Crystal sounded tired, her voice rough. She'd been crying, and hadn't slept much last night, either.

"Thanks, Crystal. Did you call Zoe?"

"No, just you."

"All right, I'll call her. Did you find Sandy last night?"

"Sure did, and she sure did hold me. And stuff. Gotta go. See you tomorrow."

Carys called Zoe, who co-facilitated the group's meetings. She relayed what Crystal had said, and told her about Kathy's post.

"Damn, Carys. That does sound bad. Let's keep that private for the time being. All we need is for word of that to get out and have the police reading through the all the group's community posts looking for clues."

"Oh, crap," said Carys. "I hadn't even thought of that."

Zoe said she would try to call the group members, to make certain they all knew before the group met tomorrow.

The remainder of the day passed slowly. The weather was cold and dark, with snow falling. Neither of them could keep their thoughts from straying back to Kathy. Then they would hug and touch, but neither could think of much to say.

Carys was angry and sad and restless. As one of the group facilitators, she kept thinking she should have done something more to reach out to Kathy, even though Kathy's parents had kept such a close watch on her that she rarely could sneak away to participate in the group in person.

Jami remained quiet, choosing to concentrate on a photo essay she was putting together.

As afternoon turned into evening, Jami was sitting on the window seat, using her laptop to review and organize photos. Carys was using the desk computer to read blogs and search the web for information about survivors of suicide. Now she pounded the desk with her fist. "I need to do something!"

Jami looked up. "We could watch a video? Or practice magic or juggling for the clown act? I can show you the photos I shot this week?"

"No, no. I'm sorry, Jami. I'm just too upset." Carys pushed her chair back and stood up. "I'm going for a walk."

"Car, it's dark, and cold, and snowing."

"I need to walk, Jami. I have to do something physical. I'll be okay. I'll stay out of dark alleys." Carys walked to the chair in the center area, moved her pack to the floor, sat down and pulled on her boots. She stood up, tucked her jeans into her boots, then pulled on her coat. Before she buttoned it up, Jami walked in from the bedroom, put her arms around her waist and gave her a hug and kiss.

"Don't stay out long, please? I'm going to worry about you, and I really don't want to be alone very long."

"Okay, love. I'm sorry, but I feel like I'm going to explode if I don't work off some of this energy that I can't do anything useful with." Carys quickly went down the stairs, out into the main hall, and through the front door of the house.

Jami had walked back to the front window to watch Carys leave. Now she picked her laptop up from the bed and returned to the window seat, covering her legs with a blanket against the chill seeping in around the window.

She woke up her laptop and checked the time. Six fifteen. Carys should be back in at most an hour. She just needed to work off some energy. She'd have some ideas when she came back, too. I'm more the sit and think type. Carys needs to move, physically do something. She'll be okay, Jami told herself.

She settled down to work on her photo essay. When she checked the time again, it was half past seven. She looked out the window and saw nothing but the falling snow. Where are you, Car? Panic suddenly made her guts clench. She closed her laptop and stood up. As she walked past the desk, she noticed Carys's cell, lying next to the keyboard. Oh, no! She forgot it! I can't call her. Jami half ran, half skated across the floor in her socks and slid down the stairs.

Jami opened the front door and stared out through the storm door glass. There were no footsteps visible on the steps or sidewalk. It would do no good to go look for her. I have do idea where she is. Oh, Carys!

"Well, now, Jami. What are you looking for in the snow and all?"

Jami started, and turned to see Mrs. Carmichael, their landlady, wiping her hands on her apron. When Jami and Carys had come to the house last summer looking to rent an apartment, Mrs. Carmichael had at first turned them away, uncertain of having what she took to be a lesbian couple in her own home. Frustrated after several days of apartment hunting, Jami had blurted out that she was intersex. Because Mrs. Carmichael's niece also was intersex, she was willing to talk with them.

"Carys went out for a walk over an hour ago. I'm worried about her."

"A walk? Alone in this weather?"

"She likes to walk when she's upset. She can't just sit and think. She has to do something physical, even if it's only walk."

Mrs. Carmichael looked at Jami. "Upset? Not with you?"

"Oh, no!" said Jami.

"Well, it does happen, dear," said Mrs. Carmichael. "All couples have their disagreements from time to time."

"No, we're fine." Jami hugged herself. "Something really bad happened last night. I mean really, really bad." Jami paused, looking at Mrs. Carmichael, who was frowning, but listening.

"There was a girl, Kathy, at the high school Carys went to, who was having a rough time with her parents, because they're very conservative, religious conservative. Apparently Kathy found out that her parents were planning on sending her to some kind of behavior modification camp." Jami took a deep breath. "Last night we heard that Kathy, that she, she died in a car accident and, well, it kind of looks like it might have been suicide."

Mrs. Carmichael's hands flew to her face. "Oh, my stars! A girl in high school? Why ever would a young person do such a thing?"

"The fact that Carys and I know her should give you a clue." Jami paused. "Remember, you weren't going to rent to me and Carys because you thought we were a couple of dykes, and you didn't want to deal with that. Kathy is—was—a gifted and unusual person who just doesn't fit into the world the way her parents demand that she does."

Mrs. Carmichael frowned. "I admit that knowing you two has certainly opened my mind in many ways. But a girl so upset with her parents that she kills herself? Are you saying she was gay, and her parents against that?"

"I don't think she knew what she was, but her parents apparently weren't taking any chances. Kathy said they were going to send her to what amounts to a concentration camp, the kind of place that tries to break you of any deviant thoughts or desires. Like loving whoever loves you back, or saying how you really feel about things through your poetry."

"Concentration camp?"

"Basically. I've read about some of those places. They try to break people. Brainwashing. Drugs. Electroshock. Forced sex, by which I mean rape. Anything is justified to expunge the ultimate horror of being different." Jami canted her head. "People like me, of course, have it easy. They just cut us up as babies so they can pretend we're like everyone else."

"Jami!"

"Sorry, Mrs. C, but you know that part's true. So is the rest. Anyway, Carys is really upset. Kathy wasn't able to come to our group very often in person, but she was part of the group online. She really looked up to Carys, wished that she could be as strong as she saw Carys as being."

"I haven't heard anything about this on the news, Jami."

"Of course not. Suicides are always hushed up. Kathy was 17 and living at home. No one's going to know what really happened. That's part of what's tearing Carys up. This happens more often than anyone thinks, and it's always hushed up."

"Jami, think how this girl's parents must feel."

"Like murderers, I hope."

"Murderers? I'm sure they thought they were doing the right thing!"

"Then they can try to plead insanity because of their religious beliefs."

"Jami."

"Oh, nothing of the sort will happen, of course. Everyone will feel sorry for her parents, and secretly happy that Kathy is no longer a problem."

"Jami, you're crying!"

"I'm sorry, Mrs. C. But there are so many kids who have to fight the people who should be looking out for them, and so many who never really have a chance to fight."

"Now, Jami. Don't work yourself up so. You don't want to be crying when Carys comes back. Here, let me get you a tissue."

Jami blew her nose, and wiped tears away from her eyes. As she tossed the tissue in the little trash can by the hall table, Mrs. Carmichael called out from the doorway.

"Oh, look, Jami. There's someone on the street. Is it our Carys?"

Jami rushed to the door to peer through the glass panel. "Yes! Carys!" Jami was through the door in her stocking feet, running down the sidewalk to grab Carys and hug her.

Carys gave Jami a quick kiss, then noticed how she was dressed. "Jami! You idiot! You don't have a coat. Blast it, you don't have shoes!" Carys picked Jami up and carried her back to the porch.

"I don't care what I don't have, so long as I do have you. You didn't take your phone. You've been gone almost two hours!" Jami was crying again.

Mrs. Carmichael shut the door and brushed snow from Carys and Jami. "Carys, take off that coat, and those boots. Jami, your socks are solid with snow! You sit down and take those off. Mercy, me. I'll make something hot. Carys, can you get dry socks for Jami?"

Carys shucked off her boots and coat and ran upstairs to find socks for Jami. Mrs. Carmichael had taken a towel from the downstairs bathroom and dried Jami's feet. "You just sit on this sofa until Carys brings you your socks. I'll be right back with something hot."