One boy is about to learn that he has already passed such an event, and nothing will ever be quite the same…
Kelly had just finished her breakfast Sunday morning when Nurse Fran peeked into her room.
“How are you this morning, Kelly?”
“Alright, but I’m usually getting ready to go to Mass about now.”
Fran looked at Kelly’s chart and noted that Kelly was Roman Catholic.
“If you’d like, I can ask the Catholic chaplain to visit you, or if you prefer, I can take you down to the Chapel for Mass.”
“What time is Mass?”
“Could you give me a few minutes to get dressed, please?” Kelly asked. “I’d feel naked going in just my pyjamas.”
“Of course,” replied Nurse Fran. “Just buzz me if you need help with anything.” She picked up the breakfast tray on her way out as Kelly made her way to the shower.
Billy folded his arms tightly across his chest, looking defeated, frightened, and anxious. Nancy and Lauren carefully worked on his face and hair to conform the style from Maxine’s New House of Glamour to the pretty blue dress that they had for him to wear. He merely sat passive-aggressively at the seat of his sister’s vanity, wearing a white slip over a padded bra, panties, and pantyhose.
“Do I hafta go to church like this?” Billy whinged more than asked.
“Yes!” chorused the two young women and his mother, giving him a serious look before sputtering into giggles.
“Mom, what is it about guys that makes it so hard to get them dressed up?” Nancy asked while her mother checked her own hair in a mirror.
“Oh, I don’t know, dear,” she dismissed the question. “Except maybe they have no eye for color or fashion. Billie certainly doesn’t appreciate what looks good on her.”
“Môm, I’m a guy,” objected her son. “I’m not supposed to look good in a dress.”
“Well, you still do, Billie!” Lauren added, eliciting a yet redder face from him. “I love the way pantyhose caresses your legs, especially after you step into a pair of heels. I just wanna rub my hands up and down your legs. Y’ know, we should play footsies together in our pantyhose.”
Billy bolted from the vanity, up-ending the seat, rushing into the bathroom, and locking the door behind him.
The rector of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, vested in cassock, surplice, and stole, approached the pew where the MacDonalds were sitting. “Good morning there, Nate, Libby!” the Rev. James Gilchrist addressed his parishioners, shaking hands with each. “You too, Sheila, Brandon! How’s everyone doing?”
“We’re doing quite well today,” answered Nathan on behalf of the family. “How ’bout you and your wife?”
“Doing well we are,” the rector replied. “But I come to you with a special request. May I talk with your son?”
Guessing the topic of conversation, Brandon sighed before looking at the Rev. Gilchrist. “Father Jim, I’m supposed to have today off,” he whinged.
“The verger told me as much, but George Edwards called to say that he overslept today,” explained the priest. “Something about partying too late after the Homecoming Dance. So now I need a thurifer. You’re the only one here today who knows how to do it.”
Yes, Brandon had already suffered enough thanks to Homecoming Week activities. Yet it continued in church Sunday morning.
“But I can’t do all those fancy swings and loops that he does.”
“Brandon, you don’t need to do his yo-yo tricks,” Fr. Jim assured him. “Just swing the thurible gently to keep the charcoal hot, make sure there’s incense burning, and hand me the chain when I ask for it.”
“Alright, Father Jim, it’s against my better judgment, but I’ll do it,” agreed Brandon reluctantly. “This is playing with fire—literally!”
Fr. Jim chuckled to assure the boy of his confidence. “You’ll do fine, Brandon.”
“Sis, Mom, Dad, I gotta go,” Brandon said to dismiss himself. “But please, don’t blame me if the church burns down!” As everyone else laughed, Brandon dodged his family’s knees as he clambered his way out of the pew.
Miss Brenda San-Giacomo had attended the early Mass at eight o’clock so she could get started on her day. Most Sundays she’d sleep a little later and attend the eleven o’clock service, but if she were going to get a new cheerleader to fill in for Abby, she had to continue working today.
The coach had approached Kelly Harrigan for help with finding a possible substitute. Since she, too, had been injured along with Abby, and would be unable to participate fully until her wrist healed, Kelly was more than eager to become involved in some of the administrative needs of cheerleading. And that would take away some of the stress that Brenda felt.
Unfortunately, stress followed what had happened in more than one way. Brenda had met with Abby’s parents and physicians. She had to comfort and reassure other girls on the squad; several were still upset over the events of Friday night. Brenda certainly was, herself. There would of course be meeting after meeting with the principal, Abby’s counselor, likely an attorney investigating for the School District, maybe the School Board itself, insurance adjustors, et cetera. And she hadn’t even filed an incident report yet, but the rules for that required her to wait until Monday.
Of course, as cheerleading coach, she had practical problems with her two best junior varsity cheerleaders injured. Without someone to take Abby’s place soon, Brenda would have to change much of her cheer squad’s choreography, or else give weaker performances for the rest of the football season. But that would be unacceptable to her girls as well as to herself.
Yet Brenda’s greatest concern was for Abby. The coach struggled with the pain that she felt seeing such a fit young woman, now lying in a hospital bed, fragile and broken. Brenda cried as she thought about what her girls had gone through. She had lit candles and offered prayers for Abby and Kelly in the Lady Chapel after Mass.
Billy sank into the front passenger seat of his mother’s car, arms tightly folded over his padded breasts. He wore the muted blue dress that Lauren had chosen for him along with a pair of navy pumps and a matching purse. But the blue ribbon tied in his hair by a big bow above his right ear was really over-the-top, he thought.
“Mom, I look stupid like this,” he complained. “I look like a boy in a dress.”
“Billie, you look fine,” Patricia tried to reassure her son, “even if you are a boy in a dress.”
“Dressing like this for school is one thing, Mom,” he allowed, “but showing up at church in drag, I think, is pushing my luck. Besides, after what’s happened to Abby, someone might see it as disrespectful.”
“Yeah,” affirmed Billy. “I kinda think so, myself.”
Mrs. Danziger thought a moment and drove her car to a stop on the side of the road. Her daughter pulled her car up behind her. Patricia opened her door and stepped out of the car and walked back to her daughter’s. Nancy rolled her window down to talk to her mother.
“Your wiley brother came up with an excuse to get out of church today,” reported Mom. “And it’s actually a good one.”
“Aw, Mom!” Nancy whined while Lauren’s demeanor betrayed her shared disappointment. “You’re not letting him off that easy, are you?”
“Well, he did raise an objection that because of Abby’s injuries, his going to church in drag could be seen as disrespectful after what’s happened to the pastor’s daughter over the weekend.”
“I guess Billie does have a point,” Lauren admitted to her friend from the passenger’s side of the car. “I can see how people might take it the wrong way if your brother shows up crossdressed today.”
“That’s prob’ly true,” concurred Nancy. “But we went through so much effort to get him all dolled up for church.”
“Oh, don’t you worry!” Mrs. Danziger assured them. “I’ve planned quite the day for us together with your little ‘sister.’ You girls go on to church and call just as soon as you get out. Billie and I will meet you for brunch somewhere. We’ll keep ourselves occupied until we hear from you. Alright?”
“That’s great, Mom!” Nancy quickly agreed. “Sounds like a plan.” She rolled her window back up and took advantage of the lighter traffic to drive her car back onto the road.
Patricia was smiling as she sat down in the driver’s seat and closed the door. “Well, you made your point,” she conceded. “We won’t be going to church with you dressed like that.”
“Alright!” Billy celebrated his small victory by raising his fist in the air and pulling it down in line with his forearm. “Can we go home now? I’d like to change outta this.”
“Oh no, Billie! We have such a big day ahead of us, and it starts right now.
Vesting himself in cassock and surplice had never bothered Brandon before. As an acolyte, a thurifer, or a crucifer, he’d done so many times, maybe hundreds since he was big enough to hold the candlesticks and tapers. But today, instead of seeing the liturgical garments as vestments, he saw them as long dresses. He began to feel light-headed and to shake slightly. According to Dr. Windham’s instructions, he should try relaxation first. But there really wasn’t time. Morning Prayer would begin in five minutes or so. Yet the last thing he needed was to carry around burning charcoal with his hands shaking or himself passing out. No, that would not be good for anyone including himself.
Brandon reached into a slit at the side of his cassock which allowed access to his own pockets and withdrew his wallet. He took out a strip of two alprazolam and broke one plastic blister open, then went into the sacristy and ran a cup of water from the faucet of the piscina.
“You okay, Brandon?” Fr. Jim asked as the thurifer swallowed his pill.
“I’m a bit nervous this morning,” the boy answered.
“Nervous about handling the thurible?”
“Well, that’s part of it, yeah, but there’s more to it than just that,” he confessed. “My doctor gave me something to take for it, though.”
“Just remember to swing the censer only enough to keep the charcoal hot. Don’t try to copy George’s tricks with it. Timmy will carry the incense boat ahead of you,” the rector reminded him. “Anything else?”
“Why do all of the vestments look like dresses?”
“Interesting question, I think,” noted Fr. Jim. “There’s not really time to discuss it now, but we can later.”
Nurse Fran had pushed Kelly back to her room in the wheelchair. “Your mom will be along to take you home soon, so you should get your things together while I go check on your paperwork.”
“Thanks, Fran,” Kelly offered the nurse as she stepped out of the room. Immediately, Kelly turned her attention to putting her books and laptop computer into her bags while thinking about the chaplain’s homily at Mass on entering the Kingdom of God as a little child. She felt herself struggling to hold on to the child yet hidden deep within.
She had put most everything away and was about to begin texting her friends when she heard a knock on the door.
“Can I come in?” asked a familiar voice.
“Coach Brenda!” Kelly exclaimed. “Good morning! How are you?”
“I’m doing okay,” the coach assured her, “although I’m worried about Abby.”
“I am, too,” agreed Kelly.
“I think we all are,” Brenda reminded her. “We’re worried both for her own sake as well as for us as a team.”
“My injury doesn’t help, either, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t,” agreed the coach. “But then again, you’re not entirely out of the game. You can still cheer and chant, sing and dance—well, some dancing, anyway. How’s your wrist and hand doing today?”
“It’s still aching, but I thought it would be worse,” said Kelly holding her bandaged left forearm up by her right hand to show her wiggling fingers. “Doctor Singh said I need to keep my fingers moving as much as possible so my hand and wrist don’t get stiff.”
“That makes sense. How’s your keyboarding?”
“I’m kinda doing it one-handed today. I mean, I can move my left-hand fingers alright, but the cast across the palm of my hand gets in the way.”
“You’re left-handed, aren’t you?”
“Of course!” Kelly giggled. “I’m a southpaw, alright. Why else would I have broken my left wrist?”
“Oh, is this some Murphy’s Law thing?”
“Well, isn’t Murphy Irish, after all?”
“Kelly, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who enjoyed annoying people by just being Irish quite as much as you do.”
Kelly flashed an impish grin at Miss San-Giacomo, with half-closed eyes, a dimpling of her mouth, and a wrinkling of her button nose, that drew a strong, healthy laugh from the coach. Brenda embraced Kelly carefully to avoid her bandaged arm while the schoolgirl returned the hug as best she could. But once again, Kelly felt an unexpected tingle surge throughout her body.
“I needed that laugh, Kelly,” Coach Brenda thanked her, smiling. “I don’t think I had laughed once since our pre-game rally Friday afternoon.”
“We’ll need to getcha in a better mood for next Friday’s game.”
“You’re right, of course,” conceded Brenda. “Besides, Abby certainly must want us to cheer the team on.”
“I plan to be out there with pom-poms in hand and megaphone raised even if I can’t do anything else.”
Brenda smiled. “I know you will. But I’m hoping you can help me this afternoon as well.”
“I’ve heard that you know how to do database searches?”
“Uh-huh! My friend Brandon showed me how to structure queries and everything.”
“Well, I need a list of candidates who could fill in for Abby.”
“But I would need access to the fully secured students’ database. That data’s confidential or restricted,” observed Kelly. “I don’t have the necessary passwords and security codes for that.”
“I can authorize you for that,” said Coach Brenda. “But you can only use the full database from a secured computer on campus. Could you come over to the gymnasium this afternoon? You can get access from the computer in my office while I start working on the incident report for Friday night.”
“I’ll have to ask Mom, but I don’t know why I couldn’t,” answered Kelly, reaching for her purse to get her smartphone. “Let me call her.”
The rector invited Brandon into his study. “Come on in, Brandon,” said Fr. Jim. “I’d like you to read something that I wrote. This was my master’s thesis.” He took a tall, thin volume bound in black from a shelf behind his desk and handed it to the boy. “You asked me why vestments look like dresses. Well, you might find some of what you want to know in there.”
Brandon accepted the book from Fr. Jim, opened it, and quickly found the title page:
Robes of Righteousness:
A Practical and Spiritual History
“So you wrote this?” Brandon asked for clarification.
“Yes, I did,” the minister reiterated. “But I don’t think anyone’s read it since then. Still, when you asked your question earlier, I thought it might help you understand, if you read it, or at least browse it thoroughly. Then we can talk about it more if you want.”
“Okay, I’ll take a look at it, then,” promised Brandon. “It might help. It’s cool you wrote about it.”
“We aim to please,” said the clergyman flashing a quick smile at his young parishioner. “Now I gotta get back out there and shake hands with everyone.”
Billy nestled himself in the corner of the booth, seeking concealment from passersby in the restaurant. Nervously, he stretched the hem of his dress as close to his knees as he could. No one had to tell him to sit with his knees together—his own anxiety enforced that easily enough. He clutched his purse to his chest, attempting to hide the outline of his padded brassiere from view.
“Billie, you really should just go with it,” his mother commented. “You’re only drawing attention to yourself by trying to hide it.”
As she had calculated, his mother’s remark only served to increase his anxiety. Her son’s body language became increasingly closed. She knew that not much more of a nudge was needed to push him where he needed—where he had asked—to go.
Billy put down his purse next to him and began perusing the menu for Sunday brunch. The huevos rancheros looked good to him, so he thought that he’d order those, or maybe the buffet. He’d like a mimosa—orange juice mixed with champagne—with it, but there was no way he could get that past Mom. He’d have to settle for just orange juice.
Suddenly, Nancy and Lauren showed up at their table. Lauren slid into the booth next to Billy while his sister sat across from her next to Mom. Then Lauren kissed him on the cheek.
“What’s that for?” Billy asked.
“Just for being so sweet,” said Lauren as Nancy and her mother giggled. “And so much fun! You’re a good sport to go along with all this.”
“When I asked Sis for help, I shoulda guessed she’d have something like this in mind.”
“Well, it’s not like you’re the first boy whose big sister dressed him up like a girl,” remarked Nancy (as Lauren squelched her urge to giggle by tightening her lips). “And as you mentioned, you did ask me for help.”
“But I was worried about coolness,” objected her brother. “I’m just trying to get my cool back.”
“So, Billie,” asked his mother, “what’s that really mean—to be cool?”
“I don’t really know, I guess,” he admitted. “That’s why I’m sitting here in this get-up.”
“Then what did you think it means?” Mrs. Danziger followed up.
“Acting like nothing really matters?” Billy postulated quite weakly.
“No, that’s not it,” his sister replied, “although I can understand why you’d think so.
“Being ‘cool’ doesn’t mean nothing matters to you. But it means you know what really does matter and you won’t let anything else bother you. And when something that matters comes up, then you do something about it.
“Now, when I say you know what really matters, you’ve paid attention to the world around you and to your own conscience to figure it out. But what really makes you ‘cool’ in the eyes of everyone else, is that when you act on something that matters, you show confidence that you’re doing the right thing.”
“So, Billie,” his mother addressed him, “if you’re really ‘cool,’ what mattered for Gender-Bender Day and what didn’t?”
“Apparently wearing something of a girl’s mattered quite a bit,” he answered.
“No!” Nancy contradicted him. “In fact that didn’t really matter at all.”
“Okay, Sis,” he acknowledged her. “Now you’ve got me completely confused.”
“Billie,” Lauren addressed him, “what your sister’s trying to get you to see is that Gender-Bender Day wasn’t about boys dressing up like girls. It was about showing school spirit and support for your team.”
“But that’s not really important to me,” objected Billy in his own defence. “All that Homecoming stuff doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“And that’s your other mistake,” his mother emphasized. “It’s not all about you! It is important to most of your classmates but you ignored it and even stepped on their feelings, although you prob’ly don’t realize it.”
“The other side of being ‘cool’ is that you make an effort to recognize, understand, and acknowledge what’s important to others even when it’s not important to you,” explained Nancy. “And that’s when everyone else will start to see you as cool. Anyway, that’s how it works for me.”
“So, you’re saying that I really miscalculated about Gender-Bender Day?” Billy more confessed than asked.
“From the get-go!” Nancy affirmed.
“Coach Brenda, this doesn’t look too hopeful,” announced Kelly flexing the fingers of her left hand. “I’m really having trouble finding anyone who meets all the requirements.”
“That’s unfortunate,” commented Miss San-Giacomo tersely. “So, which criterion excludes the most girls? Grades?”
“No, it’s time slot availability. You told me we can only take a girl who’s in either another physical education course or a study hall during the period we have Cheerleading One. Otherwise, she’d hafta get, like, multiple schedule changes.”
“Not gonna happen this late in the term,” the coach observed. “The principal, the counselor, or any one of the faculty involved could veto the whole thing.”
“Anyway, that requirement excludes, like, nineteen out of every twenty girls. In fact, it excludes more girls than grades, physical fitness profiles, or medical permission.”
“Not surprised,” conceded Coach Brenda. “The only other girls’ physical education course at the same time is Aerobic Dance Two and there aren’t any freshmen in there. How ’bout those who did meet all the search criteria?”
“Even though you didn’t ask for it, I thought to check them for sports and other extra-curricular activities,” explained Kelly. “Of the eight remaining freshman girls, two are, like, on the soccer team, two in the Marching Band, one in the Majorette Corps, and two on the Dance Line-Pompom Squad right now. After football season, one’s already made the volleyball team and three have filed forms intending to play basketball and two for girls’ ice hockey. In the spring, they wanna try out for track and field, tennis, golf, lacrosse, and/or softball. A few will try out for more than one sport to increase their chances of making a team. Meanwhile, cheerleading is a year-round activity, so if they do it, they can’t join any of the other teams.”
“Cheerleading is just one choice an athletic girl has now,” observed the coach. “Many girls who have what it takes are now attracted to other sports. Sometimes I have to work hard to recruit good cheerleaders.”
“I can see why,” agreed Kelly. “But couldn’t we talk at least one of them into cheerleading instead?”
“We can try,” said Brenda. “But don’t count on it. Most of those girls already have their hearts set on whatever it is that they’ve signed up for.”
“Well, some girls who otherwise would’ve been good cheerleaders might’ve been discouraged from trying out,” observed Kelly.
“I used to think that, but the longer that I’ve coached cheerleading, the more I’m of the opinion that a good candidate knows she wants it and goes after it.”
Kelly peered at the screen:
No records returned
She looked back over her work, especially how she had structured the queries. Maybe she could run them again, just in case? No, that wouldn’t change anything unless she were to relax at least one criterion. But then she looked back at an erroneous query. She hadn’t even looked at its output because she forgot to set one of the usual parameters for a cheerleader candidate:
gender = female
Because she had forgotten that setting, the query had returned a boy’s name.
Kelly peered again at the monitor. Just to be sure, she added one more criterion to the query: intent forms filed for sports or other activities. The new query returned the boy’s name again:
His record showed him enrolled in no extra-curricular activities. Kelly knew that he was on the chess team, but he likely hadn't filed an intent form because he was already competing.
“Coach Brenda, you’ve told us that creativity means thinking outside the box,” Kelly reminded Miss San-Giacomo. “Like, just how far outside the box are we supposed to go?”
The question surprised Coach Brenda. “What d’you mean?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I found a student who meets all the requirements you’ve listed for a new cheerleader.”
“Who is she then?”
“That’s why we’re outside the box now,” warned Kelly. “She’s a he!”
“In an earlier query, I’d forgotten to specify gender, so I didn’t even bother looking at the output,” recounted Kelly. “But after coming up empty, I reviewed my previous work and noticed that the query had returned a boy’s name.”
“The guy who taught you to do database searches?”
“He’s the one!”
“Sheila’s younger brother?”
“I still wish we could get her back,” the coach mused sotto voce. “How well do you know him?”
“The three of us, with Sheila I mean, have been friends since, like, forever!” Kelly admitted. “Brandon and I were in the same kindergarten class, Sheila and I took ballet together while I took gymnastics with him.”
“You were in gymnastics with him?”
“Yes. And he’s really good at it, too.”
“Good enough to do our stunts?”
“How’s he for school spirit?”
“Very much into it—more so than most guys, I think. Nothing lacking there.”
“So d’you think he’d be a good cheerleader?”
Kelly thought back to what Holly had told her only a few days earlier.
Y’know, I can see that. If boys could be cheerleaders, he’d be a good one.
“If he were a girl, he’d be on the squad already,” affirmed Kelly. “I’m sure he’d be, like, an exceptional cheerleader—if we can get him past the obvious hurdle.”
“Wearing the uniform?”
“It might take some effort, but he does look sweet in a dress,” giggled Kelly. “When Brandon wore one for Gender-Bender Day, he was, like, very convincing. I should show you the video.”
“So, how do we get him to do it?” Coach Brenda inquired.
“We ask him,” suggested Kelly. “Doctor Van de Meer says it’s an underused technique.”
“How about the other girls?” Coach Brenda asked. “Shouldn’t we ask them how they’d feel about cheering with a boy on the team? We need everyone on board if it’s to have any chance of working.”
“That’s a good idea,” conceded Kelly. “I can try calling around to get their opinions right now.”
The Rev. Abernathy had just left Abby’s recovery room to get fresh coffee for his wife and himself when their daughter began to stir, trying to flex what muscles that she could. But finding much of her body immobile, she emitted a small whine, barely audible, yet immediately heard by her attentive mother’s ear.
“Nurse! She’s waking up!” Florence cried springing to the door. “Please!”
Nurse Valerie Martin responded to the call immediately and pressed a button on a console that sent a signal to a physician’s pager, then went into Abby’s room to see what she might need. Viewing the monitor, Valerie knew that the girl was coming out of the coma.
Florence went to the side of her daughter’s bed and took her hand. She squeezed her mother’s hand firmly, smiling as best she could with a tube taped to the corner of her mouth. Mom relaxed when she felt the strength of Abigail’s grip. As wounded as the girl may have been, Florence knew that her daughter was ready to begin her recovery.
“What happened?” the Reverend asked at the threshold with fresh cups of coffee for his wife and himself.
“She’s awake, Phil,” his wife answered. “She’s finally awake!”
Kelly tried the number for Mathilda James one more time, but it switched directly to her voicemail.
“Coach Brenda, I’ve polled all the other junior varsity cheerleaders, except Tillie didn’t answer, so I left her a voicemail.”
“Was there a consensus?”
“Surprise! Except for Penelope Bennett, they all sounded okay with having a boy on the squad, and I think even she was more weirded out by the idea than opposed to it.”
“No specific objections, then?”
“Not objections,” remarked Kelly. “More like an expectation. Two or three mentioned that he’d have to wear the same uniform.”
“That’s just part of being on any team.”
“For us that’ll be part of the fun!” Kelly giggled.
“Slow down a moment, girl. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, here,” Coach Brenda advised. “We don’t know if Brandon will do this just yet. Also, I’d like to find out what the varsity squad thinks about it. I see them tomorrow morning. And I have to run this whole thing by Doctor Van de Meer and Doctor Lansing, too.”
“How long do you think it’ll take to find out?” Kelly asked.
“I already sent Xee an email and she can see me during homeroom period tomorrow,” said Coach Brenda. “I’ll have her send for you and Brandon to come to her office then. The hard part of this will be taking it to Doctor Lansing.”
“Does she have to approve it, too?”
“Yes, she does,” confirmed the coach. “Any change to a student’s schedule this late in the semester requires the principal’s signature.”
“That’s why you wanted a girl with a gym class or study hall at the same time,” observed Kelly. “So that Doctor Lansing would be more likely to go along with the change.”
“Just transferring a student from one physical education course to another? Not a problem. From a study hall to a credit earning course? There’s more paperwork but she likes to see students go for more. Switching from the boys’ gym to the girls’, though?” Coach Brenda wondered to her young assistant. “I don’t know if she’s even open to the idea.”
©2014 by Anam Chara
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