A House Divided/Part2

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Author: Trismegistus Shandy

I was still thinking about that during Algebra and Biology and P.E. I talked to Will briefly before Biology, and he said he was going to the Saunders' party with Arnie. That worried me, distracting me so much that I didn't hear at first when Ms. Killian called on me to ask me what distinguished the corolla from the calyx. (She'd taught about the new discoveries being made about the Valentine's Day changes for almost three weeks, but she finally had to get back to the unit on plant reproduction.)

I was still angsting about it during P.E. I told Tyrone and Latisha about it, and they commiserated with me, which made me feel a little better, but we didn't have much time to talk before Coach Renfrew divided us into teams to play a new game he'd been working on; it was a modified version of volleyball, with particular positions on each team for people with particular body-forms and abilities -- the two guys with tentacles were in the same position on different teams, for instance. He kept tweaking the rules often enough that I never did figure them out.

I was still worrying about it when we went to shower after the game. I'd just pulled my towels off the curtain rod and wrapped one around my waist, then pulled the shower curtain open, and started to step out --

The next thing I knew, I was laying on my back, my head in the shower stall and my feet sticking out, and several guys were standing around me talking.

"We need to get his head elevated," one of them said.

"We shouldn't move him; what if he broke something?"

"Elevating the head a little should be okay."

"Has somebody already gone to get help?"

"Hey, Jeffrey, are you okay?"

"How do you feel?"

"Why is it nobody's saying what we're all thinking?"

"Yeah, does it seem odd to anybody else that Jeffrey's a girl?"

I was feeling too dizzy to stand up, and too stunned to do anything else, but at that point I realized the towel around my waist had come loose when I fell. I feebly tried to cover my crotch -- closing the barn door after the horses are gone, my grandpa would say.

Tyrone cut through the arguments and knelt beside me, lifting my head slightly and slipping a rolled-up towel under it. "How do you feel?" he asked.

"Dizzy," I said.

"Don't try to move," he said. "Somebody should be here soon."

Coach Renfrew barged in about then, asking what the hell was going on, and when he saw me, he yelled at the other guys to get out of the way, and knelt beside me.

"What happened?" He kept his face and voice calm, but his tail was twitching like mad.

"He slipped and fell coming out of the shower," Tyrone said. "He says he's dizzy."

"I'm starting to feel a little better," I said, which was true in a way, but even as my dizziness and confusion faded, I was panicking about my secret being out. I tried to sit up, and Coach Renfrew put a hand on my chest.

"Don't try to move," he said. "One of you boys run to the nurse's office. The rest of you, get some clothes on before she gets here. And get me some more towels." He took the towel that had slipped loose from my waist and covered my middle with it, then took some other towels the boys handed him, wrapped some around my legs and covered my chest and arms with another.

I was thinking frantically about what to say. What could I say? The coach had seen, all the guys in the locker room had seen -- the school nurse was going to see in a couple of minutes...

"Could somebody get my clothes?" I asked. "Before the nurse gets here?"

"I don't think you'd better move," the coach said. "I'll get you some more towels if you're cold."

"A little," I said. He didn't leave my side, but barked orders at some guys who were nearly finished getting dressed; they gathered more towels and brought them. I could hear them whispering as they approached, and though I couldn't hear what they were saying, I could guess. Coach Renfrew took the towels and spread them over me, covering everything but my head.

"I'm not going to ask you --" he said in a low voice, and then looked around at the guys who'd brought the towels -- Tyrone and a Kennesaw chameleon named Jack, whom I didn't know well. "What are you looking at? Finish getting dressed and get to your next class. Except -- Tyrone, wait for the nurse just outside the gym and direct her when she gets here."

He said that pretty loud, and the rest of the guys still in the room, those who hadn't already left, took the hint. When they were all out of earshot, Coach Renfrew continued quietly:

"I'm not going to ask you about your condition -- where you were during the changes. Not until your head's been looked after. But we need to talk about it later."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't want everybody to know."

"Later," he said. About that time the school nurse came in, flanked by Tyrone and another guy I didn't know well, an Allatoona otter.

"I'm Nan Turner, the school nurse," she said, kneeling beside me. "How do you feel?" She was a Smyrna wolf, with darker fur than most. I'd never met her before the changes or since, not having had any injury or sickness since I'd started high school.

"Still a little dizzy," I said. "Not as bad as right after I fell. And my butt and back are sore, but I don't think I broke anything."

"Let me take a look," she said, and started removing the towels.

"Tyrone, Sam, thanks for your help. You can go to lunch now," Coach Renfrew said. They left.

Ms. Turner gasped when she removed the towels covering my crotch. "That's normal," I said in a small voice. "Been like that since Valentine's Day." Not exactly, because I'd lost the last of my pubic hair less than a week ago, but you know what I mean.

She examined me and poked me in various places, asking if I could feel anything -- I could feel everywhere she touched, and nothing she poked at was horribly painful, so she decided I didn't have a spinal injury or major broken bones. She asked me if I thought I could sit up, and I said yes.

She and Coach Renfrew supported my arms as I did so, then tentatively let go; I didn't fall back or start screaming in pain.

"How do you feel now?" she asked.

"Still sore, but the dizziness is about gone."

"Sit there for a minute or so more before you try to stand up."

I did, covering my crotch again with a towel. None of us said anything for a few seconds, and then the nurse said:

"What were you doing in the boys' showers?"

I stammered. Coach Renfrew came to my rescue, sort of:

"Jeffrey's change was such as to be covered by normal clothing. I suppose he didn't see any need to tell us about it."

"So you've kept your sex change secret this whole time?"

"It's not a sex change," I said. "I -- I'm not a girl, whatever it looks like. Making me use the girls' showers would be wrong."

"Oh," she said, as though she'd figured it out. "So your penis is retracted most of the time...?"

I thought, for one crazy instant, of saying yes. But I didn't know any specific place where people had that change and nothing else, not like I knew the Huntsville telepaths; and I was probably going to the hospital or at least the school clinic, where they'd soon figure out the truth if I didn't tell them.

"No, I don't have one. But I don't have girl parts either -- no womb or ovaries or whatever. Obviously no breasts either. I was in Athens; everybody lost all their reproductive organs."

"Hm," she said. "Well, let's decide about that later, when you're well enough to return to P.E. Can you try to stand up now?"

I could, and did; they supported my arms, but once I got standing I didn't need the help. "I'd like to get dressed now," I said.

"Sure," she said. "Take your time. We'll go to the clinic when you're done."

They walked on either side of me as I went over to my locker and sat down on the bench. I opened the locker and started getting dressed, then stood up to pull my pants on -- and suddenly felt dizzy again; I grabbed the locker to steady myself, and Coach Renfrew took my other arm.

"Let's get you to the clinic," he said.

He and Ms. Turner escorted me to the clinic, where she had me lay down on a cot. "I'm fixing to call your parents or guardians," she said. "What's your name?"

"Jeffrey Sergeyev."

She looked me up on the computer, and then read out my home phone number, asking if that was the right emergency contact number.

"Yeah," I said. "Mom's at work, but Dad's off today. If you can't get him at home, I can give you his cell phone number."

She didn't, and I did; he didn't answer his cell phone either. She left him another message.

She was in and out of the room checking on me for a while. She asked me if I was an omnivore, and I said yes, and a few minutes later someone brought me a tray from the cafeteria.

I had eaten about half of it when the nurse came in, saying my Dad had called her back and was on his way to the school to pick me up. Hearing that, I quit eating the school lunch, figuring I'd eat something better when I got home. I worked on algebra homework until Dad arrived.

I heard him talking with the nurse in the outer office before I saw him. At first I couldn't hear what they were saying, but then I heard him raise his voice, and could make out something like, "-- later, I want to see him now." A moment after that the nurse showed him in.

"How are you feeling, Jeffrey?"

"Better," I said. "My butt and back are still sore."

"He doesn't have any broken bones," the nurse said. "Just bruises, as far as I can tell -- but I'm afraid he may have a concussion. He's not confused, but he's had some intermittent dizziness."

"Should I take him to the emergency room now, or schedule an appointment with our doctor for next week?"

"I would recommend taking him to the emergency room today. If his symptoms were any worse I would have called for an ambulance first, and called you second."

"All right. We'll talk about the other business next week."

I was putting my algebra book and stuff into my backpack while they were talking. I waited until Dad and I were out of the building before I asked him, "What was the other business you said you'd talk to her about later?"

He sighed. "The coach and several of the boys in the locker room saw you today, right?"


"Well, she thinks you should be using the girls' showers and bathrooms and so forth."

"I can't!" I said, panicking. But the idea of going back to the boys' showers again, after they all knew -- that wasn't much better.

Dad was thinking the same thing. "I know there would be problems with you using the girls' bathrooms or showers," he said, "but -- after today, there might be just as bad problems showering with the other boys."

I was so glad he'd said "with the other boys" and not just "with the boys." We walked the rest of the way to the car and got in without saying anything.

"I know," I said finally. "Fifteen or twenty guys saw my -- saw me naked. They'll tell all their friends about it today, and their friends will tell their friends, and by the middle of next week everybody in school will know -- something." I suddenly realized that the story would get distorted into ten different rumors by the time the last person at school heard it; in some of them I would be an actual girl, with breasts and all, and in some I'd have a retractable penis like a lizard, and in most of them my name would get lost, it would just be "some freshman" or even "some guy."

But certainly the guys I had P.E. with knew enough to be creeped out about showering with me, or worse, keen on showering with me, hoping for another glimpse of my crotch sooner or later...

"I think you should try to tell the truth to as many of your friends and acquaintances as you can before they hear the rumors. If we're still at the hospital when school lets out, I'll let you use my cellphone to call Will and Arnie and whoever else you want."

"Will already knows," I said. "But I'll try to call Arnie."

There were a bunch of other people waiting in the emergency room. Dad called Mom's cell phone while we were waiting, but got her voice mail. A few minutes after we got there, a nurse checked my vital signs and asked me a few questions, and Dad gave her some paperwork the nurse at school had given him; then it was hours before I saw an actual doctor. I called Arnie's house as soon as he might possibly have gotten home; he wasn't there yet, so I asked his mom to have him call me as soon as he got home.

Then I dug through my backpack, found my biology notebook, where I'd written down Tyrone's and Latisha's contact information, and called Latisha. Someone I didn't recognize answered; I couldn't be sure if it was a man or a woman.

"May I speak to Latisha?" I said. "It's Jeffrey, from her biology class -- we're working on a project..."

"She just got home; I'll go fetch her," the voice said. Then, in the background, a muted shout: "Tish! Phone!"

Moments later she said: "Hello?"

"Latisha, it's Jeffrey. Did you hear...?"

"Yeah. Are you okay?"

"I think so. I'm still waiting to see a doctor, but I guess they figure I don't look too bad or they would have examined me sooner. Do you know what people are saying about me?"

"When we were coming out of the lockers to go to lunch, we met some of the guys, and they were talking about you. I asked them what happened -- they said you fell and hit your head, and, um -- they said you -- they saw your privates."

"Did you tell them anything?"

"No! Of course not."

"Well, please do, next time you hear people talking about that. I figure at this point the truth is better than most of the guesses people are going to come up with."

"Oh... Okay. I'm sorry."

"Yeah. I should have seen it coming. Not falling and hitting my head, exactly, but I was stupid to think I could keep showering with other guys for four years of high school and not let anybody see me naked for a single second..."

"You're not stupid," she said fiercely.

"Thanks," I said. "I've got to call some other people. I'll talk to you again after I see the doctor."

I called Will's house; he answered the phone.

"Dude, what happened?" he asked. "Are you okay?"

I told him. "Who did you hear about it from?"

"Todd Mendoza has P.E. with you and fifth period algebra with me. He said you slipped and fell in the shower, and they were taking you to the hospital, and that everybody saw your junk, and you looked like a baby girl down there."

"That's pretty much it. They took me to the school clinic and let my Dad take me to the hospital."

"So what did the doctors say?"

"They haven't seen me yet. I'll let you know when I find out something."

I was about to call Tyrone when a nurse called my name. Dad and I got up and followed her down a crowded hallway to a little room with just a curtain, no actual door. She gave me a hospital gown to change into and asked if I wanted help.

"We can manage," Dad said. She walked out and closed the curtain. I undressed and put on the gown.

I'm not sure, but I think that was the first time Dad had seen my new crotch. He didn't say anything about it; he was busy looking at my back and butt, which he said had several large bruises. He tied up the gown in back and helped me onto the stretcher -- if I didn't have so many sore places I could have done it by myself. I wasn't feeling dizzy anymore.

A few minutes later the nurse came back, and checked my blood pressure and temperature and so forth, and asked me more questions. Then she left and said a doctor would see me soon.

A while later, the doctor came in. He was a Kennesaw chameleon, younger than Dad. He'd just started asking me questions -- some of the same questions the nurses had asked me, and some new ones -- when Dad's cellphone rang. He gave Dad a severe look and said, "You're not supposed to use those in here."

"Sorry," Dad said, and turned it off.

The doctor asked me a bunch more questions, and looked at the back of my head, and the bruises on my back and butt. "Hmm," he said. "Your chart says you're male...?"

"Does that have anything to do with the bruises or the possible concussion?" I asked.

"Maybe not," he said. "Where were you on Valentine's Day? In Athens?"


"Ah. Is this the first time you've seen a doctor since then?"


"Hmm. Well, it probably doesn't have anything to do with your injuries today, but you should go see your primary care physician soon, to follow up on these injuries and to, ah, examine your new equipment."

After that, he tested my senses and reflexes, and said if I had a concussion it was a very mild one. He told me some things to watch out for and said to take it easy for a few days and go to the emergency room again if I started getting dizzy or confused. He also gave me a prescription for some pain medicine.

As we left the emergency room, Dad turned his cell phone on again. "I'm going to try your mother again."

He called, and got her voicemail, and left another message.

"Tell you what," he said. "Let's go find her."

So we walked around the halls of the hospital, from the emergency room lobby through an unmarked door to a long twisty hallway that let out into the main hospital lobby, and then up an elevator to the third floor, where we went down some more hallways until we got to the unit where Mom usually worked.

"Is Darlene around?" Dad asked the receptionist.

"Yes," she said. "Let me call her," and she picked up a phone and dialed. "Darlene," she said, "you've got company at the nurses' station."

That was one of the hospital's own internal cell phones, not Mom's personal cell. A few minutes later Mom came down the hall.

"Pavel? Jeffrey? What are you doing here?"

"We just got done in the emergency room," Dad said. "Have you got your cell phone turned on?"

"I, um, I think I left it at home this morning," Mom said. "Emergency room? Who...?"

"Dad picked me up at school and took me there," I said. "I slipped and fell in the shower, but the doctor said I probably didn't have a concussion, just a lot of bruises."

"Oh!" she said. "I'm glad you're all right," and she hugged me, carefully so as not to squeeze where I was bruised. Then she said: "You fell in the shower?"

"Just as I was getting out," I said.

"Did anyone see...?"

"Everyone saw. All the guys in my P.E. class, plus the coach and the school nurse."

"I didn't think you could keep it hidden for long," she said. "But -- I don't want to say 'I told you so.' I'll always love you, whether you do the smart thing or the right thing or neither." She hugged me again, and said: "I've got to get back to work -- I've already had my lunch break. Let's talk more when I get home tonight."

Dad and Mom hugged too, but not very hard, and they didn't kiss. We said goodbye and left.

As we walked out toward the parking deck, Dad handed me his cell phone. "I think that was Arnie calling back when the doctor asked me to turn my cell phone off," he said. He handed me the phone and I called Arnie.

"Hello?" his mom said.

"It's Jeffrey. Is Arnie at home?"

"Just a moment..." We'd reached Dad's car; we got in and he drove out of the parking deck.

Then: "Dude, what the -- where are you?"

"On my way home from the hospital. The doctor said I probably don't have a concussion, or maybe just a mild one -- I haven't had any dizziness since we left the school --"

"What happened to you? I heard a couple of different guys talking about it, one was in your P.E. class and another heard from somebody who was -- they said --" He paused, and I figured his mom was probably nearby, listening in.

"Yeah," I said. "I'm sorry -- I should have told you earlier. I wasn't in Huntsville, like I said --"

"I figured that. I looked up the Huntsville telepaths, and there was nothing about them having, um --"

"A pseudo-vagina, is what the doctors in Athens are calling it."

"Damn." Then, quieter, probably with the phone away from his mouth: "Sorry, Mom." And to me again: "You were in Athens? You've got an uncle there, right?"

"Yeah, I was spending the weekend with him. Same thing happened to him and all the other guys in Athens, and the girls lost their wombs and stuff. You can see why I didn't want anybody to know."

"Yeah, but you could have told me!"

"I'm sorry. I should have trusted you. But -- I don't know, it just seemed simpler not to tell anybody who didn't already know."

"Well, that business today was the worst possible way you could tell people."

"I know."

"Dude, how did you keep anybody from seeing before now? Even with the separate shower stalls... How long did you think you could keep it hidden?"

"It was stupid, I know," I said. "Don't keep rubbing it in, okay?"

"All right. Listen, I'm glad you didn't get hurt too bad. And I'm mad at you for lying to me. I don't know what to think."

"I'm sorry," I said again. "Can you please let it go?"

"All right," he said. "Let's talk later. We're going out for my Dad's birthday tonight, and I've got that party tomorrow, so I've got a lot of homework and not much time to do it in."

After I hung up, Dad asked me if I wanted to stop to eat on the way home. I said yes.

We picked up my pain medicine at the pharmacy, and I took a dose right away; then we went to the Steak and Shake for supper. After we placed our orders, I called Latisha and Will back and told them what the doctor had said. Dad and I didn't talk much more until after we'd eaten most of our food.

"Have you thought any more about what you want to do?" he said. "I mean, about the bathrooms and showers at school... If the school administration wants you to use the girls' rooms -- the nurse could be exceeding her authority, so maybe nothing will come of that, but if it does, you know your mother and I will back you up if you want to fight it."

"Thanks," I said. "I don't know yet. It would be creepy and embarrassing either way. It might depend on how the guys, and the girls, in my P.E. class treat me when I see them again... but that might depend on which of them I'm changing with before class."

"Have you --" he started to say, and then, looking around: "Let's talk more later."

In the car on the way home, he said: "Jeffrey... have you felt any sexual attraction since your change? For anybody, of either sex?"

I felt hot, and suspected I was probably blushing bright red enough to stop traffic. "No," I said. "Not really. I still have a, I guess you'd call it a sense of beauty. I can tell pretty from ugly, and beautiful from pretty. But it's not any more acute, or more visceral, looking at people than at animals or trees or abstract art."

"Well," he said, "think about how that affects your decision. I think you would be justified either way."

"I guess."

When we got home, I went to my room and did homework and school reading until I was too tired to focus on it. I kept my IM client open, but nobody I knew well came online. I went to bed, lying on my stomach because of all the bruises on my back, and fell asleep pretty early, before Mom came home from work.

When I got up, Mom was already up, cooking whole-wheat pancakes. She'd been experimenting and talking to other centaurs at work and at church about stuff they could eat, and had figured out a recipe that tasted a little weird at first, but was tasty enough to suit me as well, at least with a lot of butter and syrup.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

"Pretty okay," I said, "just sore."

"You can take some of the pain medicine if you want. No more dizziness?"

"Yeah, I guess I will. No, I haven't been dizzy since we left the hospital."

"Good. I'll make an appointment for you Monday with Dr. Borenstein. We should have done that sooner, really, as soon as you came home from Athens..."

Oh, no. Well, I guess it had to be done eventually.

"All right," I said. "Where's Dad?" I got out plates and silverware.

"He's running some errands," she said. "He should be back in an hour or two."

We sat down to eat, and once we'd taken the edge off our hunger, she said: "Your father told me what the nurse said. About --"

"She wants me to use the girls' locker room and bathrooms. Yeah. Dad said not to worry about it until somebody with more authority than her says so."

"Not to worry about it, sure, but you should think about it. Do you think you should, now that your secret's out?"

"No. Losing my penis didn't make me a girl."

"But the boys might think of you as a girl... I don't know. We'll support you, whatever you decide."

I frowned. She'd said "the boys," where Dad had said "the other boys." Did that mean she really thought me as a girl now? Or was it just a slip of the tongue? She had been casual enough about me seeing her naked, the first few days when she needed help in the bathroom a lot, as though we were the same sex... I didn't ask her what she meant; I was afraid of what she'd say.

"I've got a lot of homework to finish," I said when I finished eating. I went to my room, but I didn't start working on homework right away. I looked at my IM client. Nobody local I knew was online, but I chatted with a couple of guys I knew from DeviantART for a while, and scanned and uploaded a few of my best recent drawings, before I settled down to read some excruciatingly dull stuff by Ernest Hemingway for American Literature.

I didn't leave the house that day, barely left my room except for meals. I was getting tired easily, my body using a lot of energy to heal from those bruises I guess, and I took a nap after lunch. Dad still wasn't back from his errands when Mom and I ate lunch, and Mom didn't seem very concerned about it. She asked me again if I'd decided about showering with the boys or the girls when I went back to school, and I said I was still thinking about it.

Later that evening Latisha was online, and we chatted for a little while.

obsidian14: feeling any better?
scribbler371: still really sore.  no more dizziness thank god.
obsidian14: good.  i guess.
scribbler371: did i tell you what the nurse said?
obsidian14: no.  didn't you see a doctor too?
scribbler371: yeah, at the hospital.  i mean the school nurse,
 ms. turner.  she said i should use the girls' showers and bathrooms.
obsidian14: oh.  that's going to be weird.  it sort of makes sense,
 but not really.
scribbler371: i'm glad you think it doesn't make sense.  anyway, i'm
 going to fight it and my parents say they'll back me up.
obsidian14: good luck
scribbler371: hey, what about your brother?  does everybody know
 about him?
obsidian14: yeah...  that's weird.  he hasn't talked much since we
 went back to school, he never talks as much as me, but it still
 seems weird i haven't heard him say anything about p.e.
scribbler371: do you know if they're making him use the girls' showers
 and bathrooms and stuff?
obsidian14: no.  i assumed not, because i thought i would have heard
 if they had, but i don't really know.  i don't see him much at school
 and he doesn't talk much at home.  stays in his room most of the
 time, the last month or so.

Our school's classrooms were arranged so that junior and seniors generally had their classes at the far end of the building from the freshmen and sophomores.

obsidian14: i'll go ask him
scribbler371: wait.  if he hasn't said anything about it he might have
 a good reason...

But she didn't reply for over fifteen minutes. I'd gone back to doing algebra homework when the IM client plinked again.

obsidian14: they did!  he's been showering with the girls and using
 the girls bathrooms for three weeks and didn't say anything about
 it!  i asked him if he protested and he said no, what would be the
scribbler371: man
obsidian14: i told you he'd been depressed, i didn't realize how bad.
 before the changes he would have fought about that, like you're doing.
scribbler371: what did the girls say about it?
obsidian14: i couldn't get a clear answer out of him.  i think they
 didn't like it at first but they got used to it, or the teachers
 told them to shut up about it, or something.  so many weird things
 are going on after the changes that a sort-of guy showering with the
 girls maybe isn't weird enough to fuss about.
scribbler371: well, i'm going to make a fuss about it.

Sunday, we went only to morning church, and only to the worship service, not Sunday School. Several of the kids my age had apparently heard about me from friends at school; I could see them staring at me all through the service, though only a couple of them talked to me after the service while Mom and Dad were chatting with friends.

"Hey," Abraham Mitter said, "I heard some guys at school talking about you -- they were saying weird things, like you changed into a girl on Valentine's Day, and I said no way, I know Jeffrey from church, but --"

"It's not true, but I know why people are saying it," I said. "Did they say anything about me falling and hitting my head?"

"No... what does that have to do with...?"

"I slipped and fell in the shower after P.E. Several guys saw my crotch while I was knocked out for a few seconds, which I'd managed to keep them from seeing since V-Day; I look sort of like a girl, but I'm not really."

"Were you in Athens?" Tom Porter asked. "I thought you said you were in Huntsville..."

"Yeah, I kind of lied about that." Tom nodded understandingly; Abraham looked shocked.

"Why would you lie about it?"

"Dude, think about it. Have you ever lied to keep people from finding out something embarrassing? If not, go ahead and throw stones at me." I turned around and walked over to where Dad was talking to Mr. Barnes.

Mr. Barnes said I should probably take a few days off from helping with the homebound ministry, to recover from my injuries. I said I was already a lot better, but I'd probably better rest after school for two or three days anyway, and maybe I could help out again toward the end of the week.

That afternoon, after lunch, I called Will's house and asked his mom if it suited for me to come over. Mom heard me and asked if I felt recovered enough to go over there; she suggested I invite Will to come see me instead. I felt a lot less sore than I did Saturday, but I humored Mom and did as she suggested.

Will arrived about twenty minutes later. He chatted with my Mom for a minute, and then we went to my room.

"Dude, I'm sorry," he said. "People were talking about you at the Saunders' party -- nobody'd seen you, but it seemed like everybody knew somebody who had."

"Did you tell them about me like I asked?"

"Yeah, some people listened when I told them I knew you and what really happened. But they weren't very interested in hearing about how you just had bruises and no concussion, they wanted to know about your junk. Sorry."

"It was all centaurs, right?"

"Yeah. Keith and Tara wanted to dance, and they didn't want any two-legs around making fun of us while we were figuring out what dance steps work for us now."

"I guess that makes sense." It was logical, but it didn't make me feel any less left out. Of course, as bad as I was hurt I wouldn't have enjoyed a party much anyway, but still.

He told me about the party, but it was an awkward subject; he asked me again how I was feeling, and I told him the bruises were better and I still hadn't had any more concussion symptoms. Then we started playing Labyrinth of Knossos and were much more comfortable with each other as long as the game lasted.

Monday was as bad as I'd feared, or worse. Dad was sleeping late before going to work in the afternoon; Mom had the day off. She hesitated about letting me go back to school so soon, but I said I felt fine, my bruises were mostly better. That was an exaggeration; it still hurt a little to sit normally -- but I figured the sooner I went back to school, the sooner I could start correcting the rumors about me before they had too much time to spread and mutate.

"I'll call Dr. Borenstein's office to make an appointment as soon as they open," she said just before I went out to catch the bus. "If she can squeeze you in today, I'll call the school and tell them to pull you out of class and I'll come pick you up."

"I'd rather have a whole day at school," I said; "I want to talk to people, tell them I'm not actually a girl whatever they might have heard, stuff like that."

"Don't push yourself too hard. Remember how tired you got Saturday... They'd better excuse you from P.E., but if your regular classes are wearing you out too much, have them call me and I'll pick you up."

"Bye," I said.

As soon as I walked into homeroom, Mrs. Jessup said: "Jeffrey? Are you feeling all right?"

"Lots better," I said. I could feel everybody staring at me.

"Ms. Turner sent me a note saying you might be out sick, but if you did show up, to send you to her clinic first thing."

"I'm really okay," I said, but I went to the clinic. So I didn't have a chance to talk to anybody in homeroom, and I wouldn't see Arnie again that day unless we happened to run into each other in the halls. I hoped he'd contradict any false rumors about me he heard, as I'd asked him to, but I wasn't sure.

The nurse, Ms. Turner, looked surprised to see me.

"Did your father take you to the emergency room Friday afternoon as I recommended?"

"Yeah," I said. "It was like you thought, lots of bruises but no broken bones or concussion. Thanks for taking care of me," I made myself add, though I was starting to dislike her.

"I'm glad you're feeling better," she said. "I can excuse you from P.E. for as long as necessary... do you have any paperwork from the emergency room or your doctor?"

"Um, no. I can ask my Mom or Dad for it and bring it in tomorrow."

"Thank you. I'll send Coach Renfrew a note -- let's say you'll be out of P.E. through Wednesday at least, and longer if your doctor says you need to."

"Okay. Thanks." I turned to go, hoping I could talk to Arnie and other people in homeroom for a few minutes before first period.

"Wait," she said, "there's something else. In view of your change, I think it's appropriate that you use the girls' locker rooms and showers when you return to P.E., and the girls' bathrooms at other times."

I hesitated, trying to find the most polite way to say "No way in hell," and came up with, "I don't think that would be appropriate, ma'am, and my parents agree."

"Do you have a note from them to that effect?"

"No. I can get one tomorrow if you want."

She pursed her lips, maybe wondering how far to push it. "I've spoken with the principal," she said, "and he agrees with me. There's precedent -- we have another boy, former boy I should say, who was in the same change-region as yourself -- she's a senior, and the principal and her P.E. teacher ruled that she should use the girls' locker rooms and bathrooms."

That was probably Latisha's brother. "That's interesting," I said carefully. "Did the girls put up a fight about having a guy shower with them, or letting him in their bathroom...?"

"Briefly," she said. "The girls in her P.E. class saw the need as soon as she changed clothes in front of them; I spoke with some other girls myself."

"Have you been talking to people about me that way?"

"Only the principal, Coach Renfrew, and your other teachers."

"Good. Because you don't have as many people to apologize to when you go back and tell them I'm not actually a girl."

Her eyes widened for a moment, then she bared her teeth, and said: "Come with me." I followed her, reluctantly, to the principal's office.

"Come in," the principal said absently, and looked up at us from the paperwork on his desk. He was a Smyrna wolf, and after seeing my Dad and the wolves at church wearing less and less formal clothes as more time passed since the changes, it was surprising to see him in a suit, though it was probably of a looser cut than the ones he used to wear before he grew fur.

"Nan," he said. "What can I do for you?"

"This is the boy I mentioned to you Friday afternoon. Jeffrey Sergeyev. He's an Athens neuter, but he was keeping the fact concealed until last Friday."

"Hmm," he said. "Yes, we have a couple of other Athens neuters among the student body. One was a girl, so there were no particular issues affecting her interaction with other students, but her older brother..." He turned from us to his computer and tapped several keys, probably switching windows to a student database, I figured.

"Hmm," he said. "Coach Watson and some of the other students in his P.E. class fussed about having him shower with the boys, and we decided he should shower with the girls. And use the girls' bathrooms, too, -- more for consistency than anything else."

"Exactly. I told Jeffrey that was the policy, but she doesn't accept it and says her parents disagree as well."

There she was, not only saying I should use the girls' bathrooms but calling me "she" and "her". Somehow, illogically, that made me madder than anything else.

"Sir," I said, trying to stay calm and respectful, "could you please ask Ms. Turner not to refer to me with female pronouns?"

"Well," he said, "we have to use some pronoun or other. Perhaps one of the English teachers can recommend a good gender-neutral pronoun."

"I still identify as male, sir, although I've lost my male parts. I certainly haven't gained any female parts, so there's no reason to consider me a girl."

"She has a vagina," Ms. Turner put in. "That makes it inappropriate for her to shower with the boys. She urinates sitting down; it makes more sense for her to use the girls' restrooms where there are more toilets."

"A pseudo-vagina, the doctors in Athens say. It's not a vagina because it doesn't connect to a womb, which I don't have, and there are other differences too." I was blushing bright enough as it was without going into details about those differences.

"It's a vulva, anyway," Ms. Turner corrected herself, scowling at being caught in a mistake. "It's the external anatomy that's relevant in this situation; in a case of Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, for instance, when someone has male genes and female external anatomy, they're always considered female for purposes of using showers and restrooms even though they have no womb or ovaries."

"Yes, exactly," the principal said. "Jeffrey, I'm sorry, but this is school policy and I don't see a good reason to make an exception. If your parents have an issue with it, I welcome a dialogue with them."

"I don't look like a girl at all, except with my pants down," I added desperately. "If I walk into a girls' restroom they'll scream and yell at me to get out, before I have a chance to duck into a stall or explain or anything."

"We had some incidents like that with the other student I mentioned, but they were transitory," he said. "Once the other girls learn your situation, they'll be sympathetic and understanding -- most of them, and the ones that don't will hear from me personally about it. I guarantee that. That is all."

I was so angry and frustrated that I didn't think of asking the principal, or Ms. Turner, for a note to explain why I was late to Algebra. I explained to Ms. Tang after class, and she just nodded. "I had a note from Ms. Turner saying she wanted to examine you before first period, and you might be late to class, if you weren't absent entirely due to your injuries. I'm glad you're well enough to return to school." She didn't say anything about me supposedly being a girl, and I was glad.

Latisha had waited in the hall for me while I was talking to Ms. Tang. I walked with her as far as Ms. Killian's biology class.

"The nurse wanted to see you again before school?" she asked.

"Yeah. Supposedly to examine me, but she didn't actually look at my bruises again -- she just laid down the law about me using the girls' restrooms and showers."

"Sorry. My parents just found out about the school making Lyndon use the girls' showers and bathrooms, and Dad said he should have put up a fight about it, but Lyndon said there's no point now. I guess he might be right, but that doesn't mean you can't fight it."

"I did, and the nurse dragged me into the principal's office and then he told me the same thing. They said Lyndon was a precedent, and also talked about somebody a few years ago, I'm not sure who, with some disease that makes you have a boy's genes and girl's body? Anyway, we argued about it and I lost."

We parted when I got to Biology and Latisha continued on to her second-period American Literature class. I had a minute to talk to Will before class started, but we didn't say much; I didn't have time to tell him about the business with the nurse and the principal. It was hard to concentrate on the lesson, as interesting as Ms. Killian always made it, when I could feel people staring at me and hear them whispering about me. Ms. Killian interrupted and reprimanded a couple of people, but the staring continued.

After class, Ms. Killian asked me to stay for a little while.

"Ms. Turner sent me a note," Ms. Killian said quietly when everyone else had gone. "She said you might be out of school a few days, from your injuries last Friday."

"They weren't as bad as we thought," I said. "I'm still sore, but I can walk around and stuff."

"She also said you were an Athens neuter."

"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry I lied to you about that. I didn't tell anyone; it wasn't just you."

"How can I trust you? You're doing this project on the Huntsville telepaths, and you lied about your relationship to them --"

"Not in the paper itself, ma'am. I just talk about what the people I interviewed said, and what the scientists studying the telepaths are saying. There's nothing in it about what happened to me."

"Hmm. Tell me about your study group -- how is that going? Latisha is researching the Athens neuters; are you helping her more than just suggesting ideas for research?"

"No, ma'am. I just pointed her to some things to read, and reviewed her list of interview questions, and suggested some people she might interview. She did a lot of the same things for me and Tyrone."

"Well... I'll be looking at both your reports very carefully. I'm disappointed in you, Jeffrey. Don't disappoint me again."

"I'm sorry, ma'am. I won't. Is that all?"

"You may go."

The second bell for third period had rung by the time I left, and the halls were mostly deserted as I walked toward study hall. I needed to pee, and nobody was around to care which restroom I used; I did my business the boys' room, maybe for the last time.

At lunch, I got my tray and went to sit in my usual place; Tyrone and Lindsey were there, but not Latisha.

A minute or two later, Latisha came over, dragging her brother Lyndon by the hand.

"You two should talk," she said. "I told Lyndon how you're not giving in to them."

"Is it doing any good?" he asked. He and Latisha sat down.

"Not yet," I said. "But my parents said they'd support me -- I'll bring a note from them tomorrow, and one of them will probably go talk to the principal when they've got a day off work."

"Hmm," he said. "Good luck with that."

"Why didn't you fight over it?"

"There didn't seem to be any point. I mean, I knew the girls would act weird about me showering with them, but how was that different from how the guys were treating me?"

"Um. I don't know. I kept it secret until last Friday, from everyone but a couple of friends. And since it got out... I haven't seen most of the guys I have P.E. with. In my other classes, people are just staring at me and whispering about me so far, nobody's made fun of me out loud yet..."

The staring and whispering was going on even now; kids further up and down the table from us seemed to be listening with great interest to our conversation.

"Give it time," he said, and laughed, a sharp cynical bark. "We're not guys anymore, there's no use pretending."

"But we sure aren't girls," I argued.

"No, but everyone's going to treat us as one or the other. Nobody knows what to do with us otherwise. Probably things are different in Hartwell and Athens, but around here they want to put you in the pink box or the blue box, and once they've seen you naked they can't imagine putting you in the the blue box anymore."

He got up and left us. Latisha told me that was the most he'd said in her hearing about it since they went back to school. We talked a little more during lunch, but I was so uncomfortable feeling all the eyes on me and seeing people stare at me that I couldn't concentrate on what she was saying. Keisha and Wanda came by with their trays while Lyndon and I were talking, but they glanced at each other and kept walking, sitting down somewhere else with some other wolf girls. Tyrone and Lindsey didn't talk much; only when we were done, Tyrone said: "Keep your chin up, man," as he got up to take his and Lindsey's trays back to the kitchen, and Lindsey gave me a shy smile.

It was the same for the next couple of classes; people stared at me and whispered, and one or two of them asked me questions about what happened to me, but not many. I told the truth to anybody that asked, but I couldn't work up the nerve to break into people's whispered conversations and tell them they were full of shit.

Between fifth and sixth periods I needed to pee. I decided to press my luck, and went into the boys' room near my American History classroom. I was opening the door of a stall when a Smyrna wolf who'd been standing at one of the urinals zipped up and turned around. It was a sophomore, I think, nobody I knew.

"Hey!" he said, looking at me. I ignored him and started into the stall. He grabbed me by the shoulder, right on one of the bruised places, and I yelped.

"What are you doing in here, cunt?" he said. "I heard about you. You're really a girl."

Another couple of Smyrna wolves, both taller than me, were at the sink; one turned to look at us and the other looked at us in the mirror while he washed his hands.

"No, I'm not," I said. "Let me go."

"So why's a girl coming into the men's room?" he said. "You want some of this...?" He was still holding me by the shoulder; with his other hand he started to undo his zipper.

"Leave him alone, Carl," one of the guys at the sink said. "Long as he does his business in the stall, it don't matter what he's got or don't got."

"'Sides, she's not pretty enough for you, is she?" said the other, fastidiously drying his hands and looking at us in the mirror rather than directly. "All hairless and flat-chested. I heard she's hairless down there, too. Ugh!"

The guy who'd been holding me by the shoulder pushed me away. "Get out," he said, and growled.

Instead of leaving the restroom, I ducked into the stall, slammed the door and locked it. I didn't drop my pants yet, though; I crossed my legs and held it as long as I could, hearing the wolves arguing and laughing, wondering if the big guy would try to climb over or crawl under the wall. The voices finally faded as they left the room, and I could finally relieve my bladder.

I was late to American History; Mr. Meredith might have excused me if I'd said I'd run into some bullies -- I knew he was serious about that kind of thing -- but I'd have had to tell him I'd been in the boys' room against the principal's orders. I decided to keep quiet about it.

I told Will some of it on the bus on the way home; he commiserated with me but seemed kind of distracted. The jouncing of the bus made my bruises hurt worse, and by the time I got home I was ready to lie down on my stomach for a while. Mom wanted to know how my day went, though.

"The school nurse wants a copy of the paperwork from the hospital," I said, figuring I'd start small. "And I need a note from you or Dad about using the boys' restrooms and showers and stuff."

"I can do that."

"It might also help if you go to the school and talk to the principal. He sounded like he'd made up his mind and wasn't going to pay any attention to a polite note, but he might listen if you threaten to go to the school board with it or something."

"Oh...? Did you talk to him, or just hear what he'd said?"

"The nurse wanted to see me as soon as I got to school. Then she took me to see the principal, and he told me it was school policy for guys like me to use the girls' restrooms and showers, and he wouldn't listen to anything I said, but he said you were welcome to come talk to him."

"Guys like you... Are there other boys at your school who were in Athens that day?"

"One other guy, a senior. I've met him a couple of times, but I don't really know him."

"Do you know if he and his parents objected to this policy?"

"He didn't put up a fight over it, or even tell his parents, apparently, until a couple of days ago."

"Really? How do you know that? I thought you said you didn't know him..."

"I know his sister; she's in my biology study group."

So then Mom wanted to know about Latisha, how well did I know her and when I'd met her -- she could tell she wasn't a casual acquaintance or she wouldn't have told me that about her brother.

"Are you interested in her?" she asked me.

"Well... not like that. We're friends, we're the only Athens neuters in our grade, but she's not, like, my girlfriend. That wouldn't make sense."

"How did she feel when she found out you'd been lying to her?"

"I wasn't -- not for very long. I told her just a few days after school started back."

"Hmm. So she's a closer friend than some of the guys you've known for years, it sounds like -- you didn't tell them until you had to, did you?"

"Just Will." I didn't remind her that Will had already known I was going to spend that weekend in Athens.

"Well, I'm glad you're making new friends in spite of all this trouble. How are other people treating you?"

I told her some about people staring at me and whispering, but I downplayed it, and I didn't say anything about the bullies in the restroom.

"They'll gossip about it for a few days, I expect, and then they'll move on to some other scandal. Be patient. I'll go talk to the principal tomorrow, probably, just before I pick you up for your appointment with Dr. Borenstein."

"When's that?"

"Tomorrow at two."

Tuesday, I went to study hall after Biology. I was summoned from there to the office; Mom was waiting for me.

"I've signed you out," she said; "we're running late for your doctor's appointment. Let's go."

"Did you talk to the principal?" I asked as we left. "Oh -- how are we getting there?" Mom was as strong as she was going to get, but we still didn't have a car whose driver's seat she could fit into.

"On the bus." One of the new county bus routes stopped right by the school, but we had to change buses in downtown Marietta before we got to Dr. Borenstein's office.

"I talked to the principal," she continued as we got to the bus stop. I sat on the bench; Mom continued standing. "He... I think he made some good points."

"Mom! You said you were going to stand up for me!"

"I know, honey, but -- it wouldn't be honest to just go to him and tell him I insisted on you using the boys' locker room and bathrooms, without listening to what he had to say."

"What did you decide?"

"Nothing final. I said you felt uncomfortable using the girls' showers or bathrooms, and he said it was more important whether the boys or girls would be more uncomfortable having you shower with them. There's going to be some awkwardness either way, we can't avoid that. And -- I said you were biologically no more a girl than you are a boy, now, so there was no reason the school should make you use the girls' rooms, they should let you use whichever you're more comfortable with. I thought that would give you more flexibility, if you change your mind later --"

"I won't." The bus pulled up in front of us, and we got on.

"Well, it seemed like a good idea to keep your options open. After a while you might decide the boys are too hostile to you showering with them and you want to take your chances with the girls."

"It's not going to be easy, I guess, but I need to stick to my guns, or people won't take me seriously." I thought about the bully in the bathroom yesterday, and whether that was going to get more common or less; I had no idea.

"Anyway. He agreed that I was right about the basic biology of it, but disagreed that it was relevant -- he said your external anatomy is all the school cares about, and that's basically feminine, even if you can't have children. He said they didn't inquire into whether other staff or students were fertile, just -- um -- what plumbing they have."

"Yeah, that's what he said yesterday."

"So he didn't give way, and I didn't have anything more to say, but I didn't want to give up, so I repeated myself a couple of times, and he repeated himself a couple of times, and then I saw what time it was and said I needed to take you to the doctor."

"Okay... Thanks for trying." I didn't say much else for a while. I wondered if I would have been better off having Dad argue with the principal instead; maybe so, but it would have meant waiting several days, maybe until after I'd already gone back to P.E., before Dad would have another day off and could go meet the principal. Dad still thought of me as a boy, and fully agreed with me that I ought to be using the boys' showers and bathrooms, while Mom -- I wasn't sure. I suspected she thought I was wrong but was humoring me anyway, that she thought of me as a girl who hadn't figured out she was a girl yet. Or maybe she was just more realistic about what it meant for me to be a neuter, neither the one nor the other -- that would make sense of her saying I should keep my options open.

When we got to the clinic, I told Dr. Borenstein's nurse, Mindy (a centaur), about falling in the shower Friday, and what the doctor at the emergency room had said. Mom gave her a copy of the discharge paperwork from the emergency room, and said: "Jeffrey needs a full physical, too. He hasn't been to the doctor since Valentine's Day."

"Where were you then?" Mindy asked me.

"Athens," I said.

"Athens, Georgia?"


"I'll let Dr. Borenstein know." She finished checking my vital signs and left us alone for a while.

"Jeffrey," Mom said when we'd been sitting there quiet for a minute or two, before I could focus again on the section of my algebra textbook I was trying to wrap my brain around, "Dr. Borenstein is going to need to examine your new parts."

"Oh... yeah. I guess so."

"Do you want me to stay in the room for that, or leave?"

I wasn't sure. "Um... what's it like?"

"I'm not sure it will be the same for you, exactly, but..." She explained what was involved in a pelvic exam, for an old-style human woman, and I blushed red enough to give Joe McCarthy a heart attack. I dithered for another minute or two about whether it would be more embarrassing to have her with me, or more scary to go through it alone, and finally asked her to stay.

Dr. Borenstein turned out to be an Allatoona otter. She walked in looking at the papers from the hospital, and she asked me some questions about the accident, and how I'd been feeling since then; but also about all sorts of other things -- everything she would ask about every time I came to see her -- and about the Athens change. Then she finally started examining me.

As it turned out, the (pseudo-)vaginal exam was both worse and better than I expected. Worse, because Dr. Borenstein was constantly muttering under her breath about how odd and fascinating my nethers were. Better, because I don't think it lasted as long as it would have if I'd had everything she would have needed to examine if I'd had it. The pseudo-vagina was just a shallow cavity that didn't connect to a womb, and it didn't have the complex structure she expected a girl's parts to have. And I'm not as sensitive down there as a girl is -- or a boy, for that matter; maybe that's why it didn't hurt like I expected.

The rest of the physical was about like usual, except that she did some extra tests of my reflexes and stuff to make sure I didn't have delayed symptoms of a concussion, and she spent extra time checking the bruised areas too. She said I could go back to P.E. next Monday, which gave me more time to argue the school into letting me use the boys' showers.

I asked her if she could write a note to the school saying I wasn't actually a girl and didn't have any business using the girls' restrooms or showers.

"Hmm," she said. "You still think of yourself as a boy, correct?"

"Yes, ma'am. Sort of. I mean, I know I'm not a boy, biologically, but I still think like one, and I'm certainly not a girl either."

"Well... I can write a note saying that you're neither a boy nor a girl, medically speaking, if that's what you want. And I could say that you identify as a boy and ought to be treated as one... but that might sound more convincing coming from a psychologist or psychiatrist than a general practitioner."

I looked at Mom. "I don't think I need a psychologist," I said, "but if it would help convince the principal to let me use the boys' showers and bathrooms, I guess it would be worth it."

"Maybe it would help," Mom said slowly. "Some counseling about the things you're going through at school might do some good -- you mentioned people staring at you and gossiping about you in the last couple of days. Dr. Borenstein, could you write us a referral?"

"Sure," she said. "Do you have someone in mind, or do you want me to recommend someone?"

"Yes and yes," she said. "I know someone at church who's a clinical psychologist and does counseling, but if you can recommend someone too, I'll check with our insurance and see if either or both of them are in the network."

We changed buses twice on the way home; the last bus stop was at the entrance of our subdivision, and we had a fair way to walk to get home. I was tired long before Mom was, mostly I guess because I was using a lot of energy to heal from those bruises. The suspension on the county public transit buses were better than on the school buses, but they still hadn't done my back any favors; I crashed as soon as we got home, reading my history textbook for a few minutes and then falling asleep.

I took Dr. Borenstein's note to the office next morning before going to homeroom. The receptionist asked if I needed to see the principal or just wanted her to give him the note; I figured there wasn't any point in confronting him again, since he'd already conceded what Dr. Borenstein said in her note, and didn't think it mattered.

I got to Algebra early enough to talk to Latisha for a couple of minutes. "Where were you yesterday?" she asked.

"I had a doctor's appointment," I said. "Following up with my family doctor after the emergency room visit last week."

"Oh. What did they say?"

"The bruises are healing fine, and there's still no sign of a concussion." I kind of wanted to talk to her about the exam, and about being referred to a psychologist, but not in front of other people.

When I saw Will in Biology, I didn't say anything about being referred to a psychologist; I told him my parents were arguing with the school about me using the boys' or girls' restrooms and neither side had backed down yet. Latisha and I talked again at lunchtime, but not about anything important.

I was thinking I'd call Latisha or IM chat with her that night, but what with taking half a day off school the day before and not helping with the homebound ministry for the last few days, I'd forgotten what day it was; Mom and I went to church that night, and I didn't have time to talk to Latisha -- or Will -- privately until Thursday after school.

In spite of the principal's edict, I kept using the boy's restrooms, and for a few days nobody reported on me. Some guys gave me dirty looks, and a couple of times they made fun of me, but there was nothing as bad as the bullies I'd run into on Monday.

Thursday evening, I ate supper with Dad -- it was the first time I'd seen him since Sunday, with him sleeping until I was gone to school and being at work until after I went to bed. We talked about school and the principal's stupid policy and Dr. Borenstein referring me to a psychologist.

"It might be a good idea, but you should be prepared to take it seriously," he said. "You want someone to tell the school they ought to let you keep using the boys' showers and bathrooms, but a good psychologist, like Dr. Ceccato at church, isn't going to just rubber-stamp what you've decided to do -- he's going to dig into your thoughts and motivations and help you figure out what you ought to do, whether you like it or not."

"And you think maybe he would agree with the principal -- and Mom?"

Dad flattened his ears. "I don't know. Your mother and I both want what's best for you, but -- maybe Henry Grady High just isn't it. I'm afraid trouble with the boys or the girls or both is going to be inevitable, if you're the only one like you at your school. Would you want to go to school in Athens, if we can work it out?"

I gaped at him. "You mean, we'd move there? Close to Uncle Mike?"

"Maybe. It depends on various factors, whether your mother or I or both can find jobs in Athens over the summer, and whether Athens has good enough public transit for your mother's needs. We probably can't afford a car customized for her build, not if we're moving this year. But another possibility -- I talked with your uncle about it this afternoon -- is that you could live with him during the school year, and come back to live with us in the summer. We'd visit often on weekends, of course, one direction or another..."

"I don't know. It would be... It would avoid a lot of trouble, I guess, but all my friends are here; I don't know anybody in Athens except Uncle Mike."

"Let's think about it more later, then. See how these issues at school work out. And if you think it would help to talk to someone other than us about it, we'll find someone -- Dr. Ceccato or somebody just as good."

A little later, after I'd gone to my room and done some homework, Latisha came online and we chatted.

scribbler371: have your parents talked about moving to hartwell or
 athens or somewhere around there?
obsidian14: a little, yeah.  but there aren't as many jobs in
 hartwell.  that's why we moved here when i was little.
scribbler371: my parents are talking about sending me to live with my
 uncle mike next year.  or moving the whole family there if they can
 find jobs in athens.  so i won't be the only athens neuter boy in my
obsidian14: that might be good for you.  but i'd miss you.
scribbler371: i'd miss you too.  and will, and arnie, even though
 arnie doesn't have much time for me lately with his new friends.
 all my friends are here.
obsidian14: so tell them you want to stay.  even if you lose this
 fight with the principal and have to use the girls' rooms, that
 wouldn't be as bad as losing contact with all your friends, right?
scribbler371: ...probably not.
obsidian14: what's the worst that could happen?
scribbler371: i dunno. people get used to seeing me going in and out
 of the girls' restrooms and start thinking of me as a girl?
obsidian14: that bad, huh?
scribbler371: be serious!
obsidian14: i am.
scribbler371: but no, it could be worse.  i didn't tell you yet about
 that wolf who threatened me monday
obsidian14: what???
scribbler371: in the guys' bathroom, monday afternoon. this wolf
 grabbed me and called me a girl, and bad names for girls, and asked
 if i wanted to have sex with him, and stuff.  there were a couple of
 other wolves there, maybe his friends.  one of them told him to
 leave me alone, and he did after a minute.  the other was making fun
 of me too but didn't hit me or anything.
obsidian14: omg!  what did the teachers do when you told them?
scribbler371: i didn't.  i don't know the guys' names.
obsidian14: you've got to tell somebody next time.
scribbler371: sure, if they do worse than call me names.
obsidian14: even if it's just that.  promise me.
scribbler371: i'm not sure it's a good idea.  i don't want to get a
 reputation as somebody who runs to the teacher whenever something
 bad happens.
obsidian14: promise me.  at least if they touch you, even slightly.
 much less grab you like that, or hit you.
scribbler371: ...okay. anyway, nothing that bad has happened since
 then.  eventually i figure they'll get used to me, probably, and
 stop picking on me when they see i can take it like a man.  but if i
 start using the girls' rooms like the principal wants...
obsidian14: some girls are going to pick on you too.  call you a
 peeping tom or whatever.
scribbler371: yeah, and the guys, too, worse than before.
obsidian14: you just have to stand up to them, guys and girls both.
scribbler371: yeah.
obsidian14: in athens or hartwell the bullies wouldn't pick on you
 for the same reasons, but you'd have to make new friends from
 scratch.  and you might get picked on for being new in town or being
 geeky or anything else.
scribbler371: yeah.  might not be any better.  i'd rather stay here.
obsidian14: i hope you do.
scribbler371: so, i told you i went to the doctor
obsidian14: yeah, they said you're getting better right?
scribbler371: yeah.  the bruises are healing, and still no sign of a
 concussion.  it was a routine physical, except.  um.
obsidian14: ?
scribbler371: it was weird and embarrassing but i sort of want to
 talk to somebody about it and maybe you don't mind...?
obsidian14: what?
obsidian14: ...oh.  i see.
scribbler371: so, yeah.  the doctor poked around between my legs and
 muttered about how fascinating it was. i don't think she'd ever seen
 one of us before.
obsidian14: probably not.  i haven't been to a doctor since the
 changes.  i don't know if it's going to be worse or better than last
 time.  i'm sure it was worse for you than usual.
scribbler371: yeah.  it was like, i've gotten used to sitting down to
 pee and that doesn't bother me much anymore, i can still think of
 myself as a guy, but now my doctor is poking around inside me as if
 i were a girl, in ways she couldn't poke around if i were still a
 guy, and... i don't know.
obsidian14: you still act like a guy.  that's the important thing, i
scribbler371: thanks.
obsidian14: and she couldn't poke around very deep, like she would on
 real girl.
scribbler371: thank god.  yeah, it could have been even worse.
obsidian14: don't i know it.
obsidian14: what i think is, we're something new, and we shouldn't
 let people tell us that we're girls or guys, or assume that we want
 to be girls or guys just because we used to be.  but we can be if we
 want.  it's cool if you want to keep being a guy, as much as being a
 guy is about how you act instead of what parts you have.  does that
 make sense?
scribbler371: yeah.  thanks, i needed to hear that.
obsidian14: it's like, the wolves can't digest anything but meat now.
 like we can't have kids.  and for some of them, like vegetarians,
 that hurt a lot.  but mostly, they haven't let that get them all
 depressed.  and being wolves doesn't say who they are, it's not like
 all wolves have to be aggressive because they're carnivores or
scribbler371: yeah.  i mean, lyndon and i didn't react to this thing
 the same way, and my uncle mike is different again, and all the
 other guys in athens or hartwell or in between reacted to it a
 little bit differently.
obsidian14: but it's not just reacting.  it's deciding who you want
 to be.
scribbler371: yeah. -- i asked my doctor to write a letter to the
 principal saying i was still a guy inside -- in my head, you know
 what i mean -- and she said she wasn't sure she should, she's a
 family doctor and not a psychiatrist.  or is it psychologist?  but
 she wrote a letter to our insurance company saying maybe i should
 see one.  one of those.
obsidian14: oh
scribbler371: she didn't say i was crazy or anything, just that it
 could be good if i talk to somebody like that about the way kids at
 school are treating me and stuff.  i haven't gone to see one yet.
 mom and dad are figuring out who to send me to.
obsidian14: i hope that goes okay.
scribbler371: thanks.

With their work schedules, it wasn't unusual for me to go all day sometimes without seeing Mom, or Dad, or both. When I was little, they would arrange their schedules so one of them was always off work when I was home from school, which often meant they didn't see much of each other during the week. But in the last couple of years, since they trusted me to take care of myself at least for a few hours after school, they would try to both work the same days so they could both be off at the same time.

Not so much since Mom went back to work after the change. They didn't have full control over their work schedules, of course; they often had to work inconvenient times to cover for co-workers who covered for them at other times, or in crises when they needed more nurses or paramedics on duty than usual. So I didn't put it together right away. But while I was eating breakfast with Dad before school Friday morning, I realized I hadn't seen Mom and Dad at the same time since we got home from church last Sunday, and the only time I saw them together during the previous week was when Dad and I went to see Mom at the hospital. Either one was working while the other was off, or Dad was out running errands -- errands that took longer than they should -- while Mom was at home, or Dad was working in the yard while Mom did stuff in the house. They must have talked together about me and my problems at school sometime, but I didn't know when; obviously not at mealtimes, and not in bed at night since Dad started sleeping in the guest bedroom. I started worrying even more about them; were they systematically avoiding each other, or was it just bad luck with work schedules the last couple of weeks? And if they were avoiding each other like that, could they stay married? And if not, what would happen to me?

I still couldn't bring myself to ask Dad outright about that stuff during breakfast. And by the time I got through the first couple of periods at school, I was worrying more about my own problems. This was the last day I was excused from P.E., and unless something changed over the weekend, Coach Renfrew would probably make me use the girls' locker room and shower next Monday. Weird, right? Two months ago, the idea of going in the girls' locker room -- or being ordered to do so by the coach -- would be like "Please don't throw me in that brier patch!" But now, well, it was like it would be the last irrevocable stage of becoming a girl, socially. And without any of the benefits of being a girl, like in one of those vaguely perverted manga where a guy gets turned into a girl. Just the worst of both worlds, being seen as an ugly girl by the guys and as a peeping Tom by the girls.

By this time I was trying to avoid drinking much with breakfast and lunch, and then avoid dehydration by drinking a couple of big glasses of water as soon as I got home after school. But I still needed to go to the bathroom a couple of times Friday. The first time, between study hall and lunch, wasn't too bad -- there were a couple of other guys in there when I went in, and they looked at me oddly but didn't say anything. When I came out of the stall after doing my business, a centaur who was just coming in called me a bitch and said I should go to the girls' room, but I just ignored him and washed my hands. He went into the stall I'd vacated. (A male Marietta centaur can pee standing up just fine, of course; but the way they're built, it's tricky for them to use a urinal built for old-style human males without risk of messing up their clothes or getting pee on the floor. Eventually the school and most other public places around Marietta installed trough-urinals designed for centaur males in their men's rooms, but at this point the centaurs were using the stall toilets whenever they were available.)

The second time, just before American History, I ran into Mr. Meredith, who was just zipping up his pants and heading for the sink when I walked in.

"Jeffrey," he said, before I could go into the stall, "I saw your name mentioned in a memo from Ms. Turner. She said that you're supposed to use the girls' restrooms."

I had known something like this would happen eventually, and I'd rehearsed a response. I managed to remember most of what I'd planned to say.

"My parents and I are disputing her arbitrary ruling, sir," I said, though really nothing more had happened since Mom's wussy talk with the principal Tuesday. "As you can see, I'm still male in general appearance, which makes it inappropriate for me to use the girls' facilities."

A couple of centaur guys walked in while I was talking, and they took the last couple of unoccupied stalls.

Mr. Meredith frowned. "I sympathize. But for the moment, that is school policy, and I have to enforce it even if I don't agree. Please leave."

I stood there for a second or two, and then walked out. I stood in the hall, kids rushing past me in both directions, thinking for several seconds about trying to hold my bladder all through sixth period and the bus ride home -- and regretfully walked into the girls' restroom.

Just my luck: it was pretty crowded. All the stalls were occupied, there were three girls at the sink, two centaurs and a chameleon, and a wolf and another centaur were standing around waiting for an empty toilet stall. All of them reacted to my entrance.

"Yah!" -- "What are you doing here?" -- "Get out!" -- "Pervert!" -- "Hi, Jeffrey."

"Hi, Kelly," I said to the only girl I recognized, the chameleon -- she was in my P.E. class. "Ladies, believe me, no one regrets my presence here more than I do, but I have no choice; I am under orders from Mr. Meredith, who is under orders from the principal."

"It's okay," Kelly said, "I know him. He's really a girl, kind of. The nurse told us that he's going to be showering with us when he's well enough to come back to P.E."

"You're not helping," I said. "It's true that I have to sit down to pee, since Valentine's Day, but that's about all I have in common with you. The school nurse and the principal seem to think that girls are defined by the plumbing facilities they require -- I suggest you add your complaints to mine, and perhaps we'll get somewhere."

As I spoke, the centaurs who'd been washing their hands or freshening their makeup or whatever stomped out, glaring at me as they passed. The door of one of the stalls opened and Lindsey Babcock came out.

"Jeffrey!" she said. "Are they making you use the girls' bathroom now?"

"I'm afraid so," I said. The wolf who'd been waiting stepped into the stall behind her, giving me a strange look as she closed the door.

"So what's up with you?" the other centaur asked. "Kelly said you're sort of a girl? You don't look like one."

"I'm not," I said. "But I'm no longer male, strictly speaking -- nobody who was in Athens on Valentine's Day is either male or female."

"Oh, yeah. I heard about that. So you've got a vagina, but no breasts?" she asked.

"It's not really a vagina," I insisted, but Kelly was saying: "Yeah, the guys in our P.E. class were talking about it after they saw him in the showers."

"All right," the centaur girl said, "I don't like it, but if they won't let you use the guys' bathroom, I'm not going to kick you out."

Not helping. Lindsey washed her hands and listened in, but didn't say anything more for the moment.

"What do you mean, it's not really a --?" Kelly asked, and then interrupted herself: "I'm sorry. Are you okay? They said you hit your head pretty bad --"

"I was just bruised," I said. "They excused me from P.E. this week, but I'll probably be back Monday. I'll be showering with you unless I can get the principal to change his mind by then -- it would help if you and the other girls in the class all complain and get your parents to phone the principal too..."

"I guess it's okay," Lindsey said. "I mean, I've noticed you don't stare at girls' breasts like other guys do. You're not going to stare at us in the locker room, are you?"

"I'll try not to," I said, "but I'd rather --"

A sophomore wolf girl came out of a stall, and the centaur went in after her. "What's he doing here?" the wolf asked, and bared her teeth.

"It's okay," Kelly said, "he's like an honorary girl, everything but boobs."

"No ovaries or womb either," I added hastily. "I'm neither one nor the other, biologically, but I'm still a guy psychologically."

"Hey, if you think like a guy then you shouldn't be showering with us," Kelly said.

"That's what I keep telling the principal, but --"

"I heard some of what y'all were saying," the wolf interrupted. "I think she should show us what she's got before we let her do her business in here."

"Gross!" Lindsey said, and stuck out her tongue. When a Valdosta frog sticks out her tongue at you, you know you've been tongue-stuck-out at.

"Not going to happen," I insisted. "And don't call me 'she.'"

"Whatever," the wolf said. "I've got to get to class." She ran out without washing her hands.

I took the next open stall, without giving the astonished centaur sophomore coming out of it time to say anything. I was late to class, but Mr. Meredith didn't say anything about it.

I had a fair amount of homework to do that weekend, but I procrastinated Friday evening, going over to Will's house to play video games after school and then staying up late chatting with Latisha. Late Saturday morning I dragged myself out of bed to go to the bathroom, then sat down at my desk and looked at the pile of papers and textbooks confronting me. I decided to procrastinate a few minutes more, and checked my email and IM.

Latisha was on IM.

obsidian14: are you there?  have you checked your email?  read it

I had several new emails, including one from Uncle Mike and one from Latisha. The subject line on the one from Latisha just said: "OMG read this!!!!". The one from Uncle Mike was more helpfully titled: "Hermaphrodites, not neuters". I opened both of them.

Uncle Mike had sent me a link to an article in that morning's _Athens Banner-Herald_. I clicked on it, and read about how a couple from Athens on their honeymoon -- honeymoon? what was the point of getting married anymore, for us? -- had gone camping in the Florida Everglades, where something about the environmental conditions had apparently triggered a metamorphosis. They'd grown huge white flowers in their crotches, right above the pseudo-vagina, and the flowers lasted several days before the petals fell off. And when they returned home to Athens and doctors examined them, they found that they had wombs -- both of them, the former man as well as the former woman.

And apparently, both of their flowers had both pistils and stamens. Thanks, Ms. Killian, I know what that means.

I opened Latisha's email. She'd sent me links to that newspaper article, and to an article in the _Flagpole_, the Athens alternative weekly, and a couple of blog posts talking about it -- one guy was posting from a motel in Valdosta, where he and his wife were staying the night on the way to the Everglades to "try to reproduce the experiment."

I sat there reading for a few minutes before I remembered that Latisha was online waiting for me to reply. I switched to the IM window.

scribbler371: ok, i read those articles.  wow.
obsidian14: it's pretty awesome.  i went and woke mom and dad up and
 told them as soon as i checked my google alerts this morning.
scribbler371: yay google
obsidian14: they were pissed until they woke up good and understood
 what i was saying
scribbler371: and then?
obsidian14: mom started dancing, and dad smiled and kissed her.  and
 they shooed me out of their bedroom.  and i went and emailed you.
 what have you been doing?
scribbler371: sleeping late.
obsidian14: so what do you think?
scribbler371: i'm still taking it all in.  i was just barely getting
 used to being neuter, and now i'm apparently a hermaphrodite.  i
 don't think that's going to change the principal's mind, but it's
 worth a try.
obsidian14: cause you're both a guy and a girl, not neither one.  and
 so am i!  hey, maybe i could tell him i want to use the guys'
scribbler371: better not
obsidian14: j/k
scribbler371: so i guess now you've got a lot of extra work to do on
 your report
obsidian14: oh yeah.  i'm gonna email you some more interview
 questions in a little while, before i send them to the people i
 interviewed before.  tell me what you think about them?
scribbler371: okay
obsidian14: and hey, can i interview you now that you're out?
scribbler371: sure.  i'll go through those questions you sent earlier
  and answer them.
obsidian14: thx
scribbler371: so what do you think it was?  the banner-herald just
 said "environmental conditions", and the flagpole was talking about
 insect pheremones and stuff -- they said there were a bunch of
 athenians going to beaches in florida since the changes and the heat
 down there didn't trigger this metamorphosis
obsidian14: i don't know.  it might be it's more humid in the swamp
 than on the beach?  or the salt air hinders it?  thing is why in
 florida, and not in athens?  do we have to be like migratory birds,
 going south to mate?
scribbler371: maybe the weather in athens will be right for it later
 in the year
obsidian14: maybe.  it's kind of weird and scary, though.  we might
 grow those flowers any time and then we could get pregnant whenever
 a bee or butterfly lands on our flowers...
scribbler371: now that's a scary thought
obsidian14: catholics aren't going to be allowed to use bug spray
scribbler371: yeah, drugstores are gonna keep bug zappers and flypaper
 behind the counter like condoms
obsidian14: and beekeepers are gonna be really popular.
scribbler371: eww.  human-flower honey?  wouldn't that be cannibalism?
obsidian14: no, it would be like milk.	there was a company that made
 ice cream from human women's milk but the government made them stop.
scribbler371: i bet they won't allow people to sell honey made from
 human flowers either.
obsidian14: ohh...
scribbler371: what?
obsidian14: i think mom and dad just turned the thermostat up.	way up.

Mom had to work that Sunday, so Dad and I went to church by ourselves. We talked with Mr. and Mrs. Barnes after service; I said I felt pretty much recovered, and we decided I'd go visit some people after school Tuesday with Mr. Barnes and some others Thursday with Dad.

Monday arrived, and I still didn't have a solution for P.E. When I arrived at the gym, the coach and the nurse were both waiting for me.

"I heard you've been ignoring school policy and using the boys' restrooms," Ms. Turner said. "I came here to make sure you understand that we're not going to ignore you and let you do whatever you want."

"You need to use the girls' locker room," Coach Renfrew said. He looked like he wasn't sure he agreed with Ms. Turner, but wasn't going to disagree with her in front of me.

"My stuff is in my locker in the guys' locker room," I pointed out.

"I'll go with you to get it," he said.

"The girls don't want me showering with them," I said as we walked toward the door of the locker room. "Y'all are going to be in hot water with their parents by this time tomorrow."

"Maybe," he said. "Ms. Turner came by and gave the girls a talk after class last Friday. I think most of them understand your situation now."

"You know about what they just discovered over the weekend?" I said. "We're not neither male nor female like we thought, we're both."

"Yes, Latisha told me a few minutes ago. I'm afraid it doesn't change anything."

When we walked into the locker room, everybody stared at me. Before anybody else could say anything mean, Tyrone said: "Hi, Jeffrey. Good to see you're well again."

"Jeffrey is just here to get his things out of his locker," Coach Renfrew said. "As Ms. Turner explained Friday, he will be using the other locker room from now on."

"Makes sense," someone muttered.

Even though nobody was naked, they all seemed a little tense while I was getting my stuff out of my locker; nobody took anything off while I was there and a couple of guys who'd been partway through changing put their gym shorts on over their jockeys in such a hurry that they stumbled over their own feet. I could see they didn't want me there any more than the girls wanted me showering with them.

Ms. Turner was waiting for us outside the boys' locker room, and she walked with me across the gym to the girls' locker room.

"This will be a little awkward at first," she said, "but it's really what makes most sense. I'm sure you know that, even if you won't admit it to yourself."

I didn't reply. We walked in.

"Most of you already know Jeffrey Sergeyev," Ms. Turner said in a loud voice. None of the girls were naked, but a few were in their underwear, and one was in the process of changing into a sports bra; she kept her back turned to us. "She will be using the girls' facilities from now on, as I explained Friday. Please be courteous to her."

"Ignore the bit where she called me 'she' and 'her'," I said to the girls nearest me.

"Jeffrey, find an empty locker and get changed. I'll be back near the end of class before you shower." Ms. Turner left the room.

"Take your stuff and go change in yonder behind a curtain," one of the girls said, pointing to the showers, "not here in front of us. We'll figure something out about the actual showering later."

"That's a good idea," I said, starting to move in that direction. "If you all ask your parents to phone the principal and complain, we won't have to put up with this for more than a couple of days --"

"A couple of days is too much," Teresa Tapley said angrily. She had four arms, and was still struggling into her imperfectly modified T-shirt. "What about if you just don't shower after P.E.? The kids in the rest of your classes can put up with your sweat stink for as long as it takes us to get the principal to change his mind. You can tell them we wouldn't let you near our showers and the coach wouldn't let you into the boys' showers."

"Yeah," Kelly said. "I mean, Jeffrey's a nice guy, and I know the nurse says he doesn't have a guy's equipment anymore but he says he still thinks like a guy. He shouldn't be looking at us while we change clothes, much less shower."

"Stop being silly," Latisha said. "I've been trying to tell you -- we just found out we're hermaphrodites, not neuters. That means Jeffrey's got as much right to be here as I do --"

Or as you have to be in the boys' locker room, I thought.

"-- And my brother's been showering with the senior girls for a month now, and they've gotten used to it. It's a stupid policy, sure, but you don't have to be crybabies about it."

"Thanks, Latisha," I said. "I'll go change in one of the shower stalls -- we can talk more about this later."

By the time I came out of the shower stall in my gym clothes, all the girls had finished changing and left the room except for Latisha. I stashed my regular clothes, towels and toiletries in an empty locker and went out into the gym with her.

I don't even remember what we did in gym that day, I was so distracted. We might have been playing Coach Renfrew's new mutant volleyball game, we did that a lot, but I'm not sure. No, it was probably his mutant basketball, because the teams were mingling chaotically instead of staying on opposite sides of a net. I do remember that a couple of guys who bumped into me in the course of the game said "Watch where you're going, bitch," or worse things. It was an active game, whatever it was, and I was as sweaty as I ever get when I went off to the locker room with the girls.

Ms. Turner must have gotten held up by a crisis with an actual sick or injured student, because she didn't come back to chaperon like she'd said. I walked into the locker room to find Teresa and a couple of like-minded girls standing in the doorway between the locker area and the showers.

"You're not coming in here," Teresa said. "Change into your long pants and get out of here."

I wondered if that might be a good idea. Latisha spoke up before I could decide what to say:

"You must not want me in there either," she said. "I'm as much a guy as he is. If he can't shower today, I can't."

"Suit yourself," Teresa said with a shrug. Four arms and as many breasts made for an impressive shrug.

"Oh, come on," Lindsey said. "When Jeffrey said he still thinks like a guy, he means he still likes violent video games and superhero comics and stuff like that. But he doesn't look at your breasts instead of your face when he's talking to you, like most guys. Look; Jeffrey and I are going to undress and go in yonder to the showers, and we're going to have a conversation, and he's going to maintain eye contact with me the whole time. Right, Jeffrey?"

"Right," I said, and swallowed hard. I started taking off my clothes as she did.

"Ms. Turner's a bitch, isn't she?" Lindsey said as she pulled her T-shirt off.

"Cast-iron," I said. "On a power trip." I took off my T-shirt, then my shoes and socks.

"I bet she's sleeping with the principal," Lindsey said, taking off her sports bra and her shorts.

I thought about that while I took off my gym shorts. "You might be right. She does seem to have more influence over him than you'd expect from her official position..." I took a deep breath, stood up and pulled down my underwear. I made sure I was standing facing Teresa and her cronies, not toward the wall of lockers, and I took a long pause before I wrapped a towel around my waist and headed toward the showers beside Lindsey.

"No," Teresa said, but she was starting to look uncertain. Lindsey ignored her, and said to me, "Why do you reckon she's got it in for you and Latisha's brother?"

"Probably just a power trip," I said, keeping my eyes on hers. It wasn't all that hard. "She sees an excuse to meddle with our lives for supposedly medical reasons, and she gets bored sitting in that clinic all day with not as many students getting sick since the changes..."

Finally Teresa's friends moved aside and Lindsey and I walked into the showers. We kept gossiping about the nurse and the principal until a free shower opened and I stepped into it, nodding casually to the chameleon girl coming out of it.

I hadn't actually maintained eye contact with Lindsey at every moment. I looked at my shoes while I was untying them, and I think I did glance over her body briefly. But we managed to convince the girls that I wasn't going to be ogling them all the time; things were a lot easier after that. Still, enough of them complained to their parents, who complained to the principal, that by Tuesday of the following week he backed down -- more than a week before Dr. Ceccato finally gave me a note saying I was psychologically a guy and should be treated as such.

Going back to the boys' showers was hard at first. Three or four guys were pretty mean about it, calling me names and joking about how I wasn't pretty enough and they weren't desperate enough... And at first I got stared at as much as the Waycross possum with two penises had been when the class was first put together. But I pretended it didn't bother me, and eventually the bullies stopped picking on me except when they were really bored.

That Monday, when I got home from school, I had a pleasant surprise. Nobody was home, but there was a note on the refrigerator:

"This is the first day your father and I have both had off work in a while. We're going out to dinner and a movie. There's leftover vegetable stew and curried chicken in the refrigerator. -- Love, Mom."

I whistled and went to my bedroom. Latisha was on IM.

obsidian14: you and lindsey were awesome.  i wish i'd thought of that.
scribbler371: you were pretty cool too.  and honestly, if it were
 you, i'm not sure i could have kept my eyes on your face the whole
obsidian14: flatterer. :)  really?
scribbler371: i don't know.

I thought hard about whether I wanted to say this, and how.

scribbler371: i mean, i don't obsess over your body the way i did
 over some girls i had a crush on before the changes.  but i care
 about you a lot more than about lindsey.  she's nice, but she's
 tyrone's girl, and a different species from me.  from us.
obsidian14: so you could be casual about her, but maybe not about me?
scribbler371: yeah.  maybe?
obsidian14: you weren't staring at me when i was naked, either.
scribbler371: not staring at your boobs and crotch like a horny
 teenage guy would.  but i was glad to see you. not sure if that
 makes sense?
obsidian14: yeah.  i was glad to see you too.  it's like, i wasn't
 hot and excited about it, but it was nice to... um... get to know
 you a little better?
scribbler371: that's it.
obsidian14: man, life is weird.  did i tell you my dad bought a
 humidifier yesterday? :)

I'll spare you Latisha's gossip about her mom and dad's experiments with the thermostat and the humidifier. They didn't work; it was several years before scientists figured out why we "Athens magnolias," as they've started calling us, will flower in the Everglades or the Okeefenokee in the early spring, or in north Georgia along about July or August, but not indoors in a temperature and humidity-controlled room. It's a combination of several triggers -- the temperature and humidity, but also the presence of suitable pollinators, as the _Flagpole_ article had speculated.

When Mom and Dad learned about this, they dropped their plans to send me to live with Uncle Mike; they didn't want any chance of me getting pregnant. Latisha and I both flowered on the Fourth of July weekend that summer, and spent a miserable three days indoors, forbidden by our parents to go outside or open a window. Mom and Dad hung several bug zappers outside every window and door of our house -- and then nailed the window of my room shut. Latisha's parents lay sunbathing in their back yard, letting the bees and butterflies pollinate them, while their children stayed inside in their separate bedrooms until their flowers faded and fell off several days later. Being in bloom and not getting pollinated was so agonizing that I didn't even think about the fireworks and cookout I was missing until later; it was a whole year of teenage horniness compressed into seventy-two hours, and I could hardly think of anything except Latisha, naked, with bees and butterflies crawling in and out of her blossom... and then fluttering over and crawling into mine. But when it was over, I could think straight again, and was glad I hadn't gotten pregnant, as I might have if I'd been pollinated by one of the same bees or butterflies that had visited Mr. and Mrs. Bailey's flowers a couple of miles away, or if I'd been in Athens where almost any bee or butterfly of the species attracted to us would visit multiple people's blossoms during our flowering. (It was another two weeks after that heat wave hit Atlanta before Athens, Danielsville and Hartwell experienced the right weather to trigger everyone who hadn't already flowered while traveling to the Everglades or Okeefenokee or somewhere.)

Latisha and I celebrated our freedom by going to a movie together a couple of days later. I took a county bus that went by her subdivision on the way to the mall, and saved a seat for her; she smiled as she sat down beside me.

"I am so glad that's over," she said.

"Hell yeah," I said. "I hope it's only once a year."

"Probably so; nobody's reported flowering more than once since the change."

Latisha had gotten an A+ on her extra credit report on the Athens magnolias -- it was twice as long and thorough as Ms. Killian had asked for, three or four pages longer than mine on the Huntsville telepaths and ten pages longer than Tyrone's on the Valdosta frogs. It had brought her up to an A- for Biology, and a B+ on her overall GPA for the year. I hadn't done quite as well, but Ms. Killian didn't fail me outright for lying about what species I was and my parents didn't ground me for getting a C. Latisha had kept following the research on Homo athenanthus during the summer; she said she was thinking about double-majoring in botany and reproductive biology at UGA.

"You know," I said after a pause, "I kind of feel sorry for the species that are in heat all the time."

"Yeah," she said. "I know what you mean. I know it's not so intense all the time for them as it is for us when we're in bloom, but still -- I remember it being pretty bad, sometimes, when I was Homo sapiens. Worrying about whether boys would notice me, and obsessing over them -- scared of sex and wanting it at the same time -- I'm glad I don't have to deal with that very often now."

"Yeah. Don't take this wrong, but I'm glad your sexiness only distracts me from your beauty for a few days a year."

"You know just what to say to a girl," she said with a grin, and squeezed my hand.

We looked out the window for a while, and chatted about inconsequential stuff the rest of the way to the mall. The movie was an awful mess, but kind of fun. They'd been most of the way through filming it when the changes happened, apparently, and the producers decided to change the story so that it happened just before and after Valentine's Day. But of course they film scenes out of order, based on when various sets and locations are available, so some of the scenes early in the movie, when the characters were still Homo sapiens, had to be filmed when the actors no longer were, and adjusted in post-production by not entirely convincing CGI. In the later scenes, the plot took a total left turn as the changes threw ten kinds of monkey wrench into the characters' romantic and heroic and villainous plans; most of the actors had become Hollywood capybaras, but there were three other California and Nevada neospecies among the main characters and a dozen others among the minor characters. Latisha and I both laughed so hard our rib muscles hurt.

After the movie, we went to the ladies' room. By the end of the school year, I'd decided Mom was sort of right; I wanted the flexibility to use whichever public restroom had a free toilet stall at the moment. And by then, both Latisha and I looked androgynous enough that we could get away with using whichever restroom we wanted. Her breasts had gradually atrophied to nothing, and my face had softened to where strangers occasionally called me "miss," especially when I went a little too long between haircuts. By that time it didn't bother me much.

We hung out at the mall for a while, and ran into Arnie and Tara and some other centaurs we knew from school when we were getting gelati at the food court.

"We missed y'all at the fourth of July party," Arnie said.

"Sorry," I said. "We were both... indisposed."

"I hope you're feeling better," said Kirsten.

"All better," Latisha said. "It's just something Athens magnolias get this time of year."

"Why do they call y'all magnolias?" one of the guys asked. Latisha giggled; Arnie blushed; Tara looked annoyed.

"Let me explain," I said, and whispered in his ear.

When I got home, walking the last few hundred feet from the bus stop, I found Mom and Dad working together in the front garden. Along about Easter, Mom had gone insane with her spring planting; she'd planted not only the annual flowers she'd usually done, along the edge of the sidewalk and driveway and mailbox, but had plowed up almost all the lawn and planted a zillion different kinds of vegetables. Dad and I helped, sometimes. Now they were weeding the patches of tomatoes and okra, Dad wearing nothing but shorts and Mom nothing but a short skirt. Sure, her breasts weren't on her chest anymore, but it still felt a little weird to see her going bare-chested in hot weather.

"Did you have a good date?" Mom asked.

"Yep," I said. "The movie was unintentionally funny -- funnier than a lot of movies that are supposed to be comedies."

"Latisha seems like a nice girl," Dad said. "I hope you don't -- You know why we had to keep you inside until it was over, don't you?"

"Sure," I said. "When I'm in my right mind I know I'm not old enough to have a baby. Latisha knows it too. Ignore everything I said for the last three days, I wasn't thinking straight. I'm sorry I screamed those things at you..." This was getting awkward. "Hey, let me go change and I'll come help you with this."

"Thanks," Mom said. "I'll get a hug after you change into your gardening clothes."

Mom and Dad never told me exactly what had happened between them, but over the years I picked up hints here and there from things I overheard. I think that day when I came home from school and found Mom crying and Dad off running errands, they'd tried to have sex, maybe for the first time since the changes, and it was a horrible failure. Then Dad started sleeping in the guest bedroom, and they avoided each other for a while. I worried that they were going to get a divorce, but they didn't believe in divorce, and they did believe in each other. After a few weeks of giving each other plenty of space, they tried again to see how much affection they could give each other without making each other frustrated with almost-but-not-quite-right sexual signals; it turned out to be just enough.

Most of the drawings and paintings I did before I was seventeen or eighteen look embarrassingly crude to me now. I threw away a lot of them, except some that I gave Mom that she won't give up. But the earliest painting that I'm still proud of is a portrait I did of Mom and Dad for their twentieth anniversary. Dad is standing next to Mom, and they have their arms around each other; they're in our front garden, looking off at the sunset to the viewer's left. And you can tell from their expressions that, barring accidents, they're going to be standing there together in twenty years, and in forty, never mind that they were sitting on different sides of the change-region boundary that Valentine's Day. They won't let a little thing like being different species divide them.

I have the best parents in the world.