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After two years together, Alex has been dreading the inevitable moment when Damon learns the truth: that Alex is a shifter, part of a small percentage of the population able to switch genders at will. Thanks to a forced implant, though, Alex is suddenly static—unable to shift—and male. Overnight, he’s out to a world that neither understands nor tolerates shifters . . . and to his heterosexual boyfriend.
Damon is stunned to discover his girlfriend is a shifter, and scared to death of the dangers the implant poses to Alex’s health. He refuses to abandon Alex, but what about their relationship? Damon is straight, and with the implant both costly and dangerous to remove, Alex is stuck as a man.
Stripped of half his identity and facing serious physical and social ramifications, Alex needs Damon more than ever, but he doesn’t see how they can get through this.
Especially if he’s static forever.
Winner: Best Science Fiction Romance in the 2013 EPIC Awards!
Finalist: Best Transgender Fiction in the 24th annual Lambda Literary Awards!
Winner: Best Bisexual / Transgender Sci-Fi / Paranromal / Fantasy in the 2011 Rainbow Awards!
(This award-winning title is a revised and edited second edition of Static, originally released in 2011 by Amber Allure.)
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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When my girlfriend’s cell phone went straight to voice mail for the fourth time in twenty-four hours, “worried” didn’t even begin to describe it.
I paced beside my kitchen table, eyeing my phone like it might suddenly spring to life with her ringtone the way I’d been begging it to. Alex had planned to visit her estranged parents yesterday, and after those get-togethers, it wasn’t unusual for her to hole up in the house and block out the world for a while. I always worried myself sick when she did that—the woman could drink like nobody’s business when she was upset—but the next morning always meant a text message saying she was okay. Hungover, probably depressed as hell, but okay.
This morning, that text hadn’t come.
More than likely, things hadn’t gone well. They never did. I’d told myself all day long that she just needed some space, some time. I didn’t want to crowd her, but damn it, something about this raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
I looked at my watch. It was almost eight. Over thirty-six hours since she was supposed to meet them. Almost forty-eight since I’d heard from her at all. Something was wrong. It had to be.
I grabbed my phone and keys. Hopefully she’d be irritated with me showing up at her door. Annoyed by the intrusion, aggravated by me coming to her before she was ready to interact with the outside world again. At least that would mean she was home safe.
I pulled out of the driveway and ignored the posted speed limit. We lived about twenty minutes apart, and I was determined to get there in under fifteen. Ten if I could swing it.
I’d never met Alex’s family. She’d told me little about them, but just the way her hackles went up at the mere mention of her parents’ existence spoke volumes. It wouldn’t have surprised me if they had abused her when she was young, and not just in the emotional, manipulative ways I assumed they still did. She was prone to unpredictable bouts of deep depression, which had been more frequent and severe in the last six months or so, and not just after she’d seen her family. She went through phases—hours, days, weeks—when she’d balk at any suggestion of physical intimacy. Sometimes she didn’t mind an affectionate touch, but recoiled at the first hint of anything sexual. An arm around her could make her melt against me or shrink away like a beaten dog, and I never knew when to give her space and when to give her a shoulder.
Then, almost overnight, she’d be insatiable in bed. Whenever I asked her about it, she clammed up. Apologized, avoided my eyes, changed the subject.
What did they do to you, baby?
Turning down Alex’s street, I took a few deep breaths and willed my pounding heart to slow down. She was fine. Probably drunk and upset, but no more worse for wear than the last time she’d seen her mother and stepfather. I was overreacting. I was being too protective.
Or maybe I wasn’t.
Her house came into view up ahead. Her car was parked in front of the garage, and the faint glow of a single lamp illuminated her living room window. There were no other cars in the driveway or on the street, so presumably she was alone. Assuming, of course, that she was home. Someone else could have driven her somewhere, or she—
Easy, Damon. Don’t jump to conclusions yet.
Heart still pounding, I parked beside her car. On my way up to the porch, I hesitated, wondering for the hundredth time if she’d be upset with me showing up when she clearly didn’t want to see anyone.
After almost turning back twice, I made myself get all the way to the front porch, and before I could find another reason to talk myself out of it, I knocked. Waited. Craned my neck a little, listening for movement on the other side of the door.
My heart beat faster. I knocked again, harder this time.
I rocked back and forth from my heels to the balls of my feet, staring at the door and wondering if I should give it one more try or leave. In my coat pocket, my keys ground against each other as I ran my thumb back and forth over them. Her house key was on the ring. I could let myself in. Damn it, where was the line between caution and intrusion?
One more try, and if she doesn’t answer, I’ll go.
Knock. Knock. Knock. Silence.
I exhaled hard, a knot twisting in my gut. She wasn’t here. Or she wasn’t answering. Whatever the case, I wasn’t going to stand here all night, so I turned to go.
Movement inside the house stopped me in my tracks. I froze, listening, and the muffled sound of approaching footsteps sent a cool rush of relief through my veins.
The dead bolt turned. I exhaled.
Then the door opened, and that relief turned to something else. Something much colder.
“Who the—” Confusion and fury slithered through my veins as I stared at the man on the other side of the threshold. He leaned on the door and rested his arm on the doorframe. Vague surprise flickered across his expression and straightened his posture, but the heavy fatigue in his eyes kept his reaction subdued. I wondered if he was drunk. Or maybe he’d been asleep. In my girlfriend’s bed. That was all too likely, I realized. He was pale, sleepy-eyed, dressed only in a pair of gray sweatpants, and his short hair was disheveled enough to imply far more than I ever wanted to know.
Alex, baby, tell me you didn’t . . .
I found my voice again. “Who the fuck are you?”
Barely whispering, barely even keeping his eyes open, he said, “You might want to sit down for this. Come in and—”
“Just tell me what the fuck is going on.”
He flinched, closing his eyes. “I can explain.” His voice was quiet. “This isn’t what it looks like. Not even close.”
I laughed bitterly. “Oh, I’m sure it’s not.” With every word, the barely contained fury rose, as did my volume. “I suppose you’re just keeping her company? Where the fuck is she? Where—”
“You . . . you know who I am?”
“Yes, I do.” His hand went to his temple, and he grimaced as he whispered, “Please don’t shout. You’re upset. I get it. I understand, and I’ll explain, but . . .” He winced. “Please. Don’t. Shout.”
Anger made me want to grab his shoulders and show him the meaning of the word “shout,” but I held back. Quieter now, I said, “What’s going on?”
He stepped back and gestured for me to come in. I hesitated, but then followed him into Alex’s house. He closed the door and leaned against it, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. A low, pained sound escaped his throat. The light in here was dim, but not enough to hide just how pale he was.
“Are you—” I eyed him. “Are you all right?”
“No.” Lowering his hands, he rested his head against the door. Dark circles under his eyes and a dusting of five-o’clock shadow along his jaw only served to emphasize his alarming pallor. After a moment, he opened his eyes. He winced and brought his hands up again. “This is going to sound weird, but bear with me. I need to lie down.”
“Because when I stand, my head hurts so bad I can’t see straight.” With what looked like a hell of an effort, he pushed himself off the door, paused when his balance wavered, then started toward the living room. I wasn’t sure if I should be impatient or concerned. But at this point, he was the only one who might know where Alex was, so I followed him.
As he walked ahead of me, I noticed a small white bandage in the middle of his back. Perhaps two inches square, taped in place over his spine a few inches above his waistband. My own spine prickled with goose bumps. Contrasting sharply with his pale skin was a smear of something brownish-red. I thought it might be blood at first, but even in the dim light, it looked too orange. Iodine, maybe? The remnants of something used to sterilize skin before a medical procedure?
Eyeing the bandage and the iodine and this stranger in my girlfriend’s house, I wasn’t sure this situation could get any weirder.
He eased himself onto Alex’s couch like he had every right to do so, and I took a seat in the recliner. For a long moment, he kept a hand over his eyes and didn’t speak. He took a few long, deep breaths, jaw clenched and cheek rippling as if trying to keep himself from getting sick. I might have suspected he was severely hungover, had it not been for that bandage.
I waited. A million demands, accusations, and pleas for information were on the tip of my tongue, but I waited.
Without lifting his hand, he finally spoke in a low, slurred monotone. “None of this is going to be easy for you to hear, and I’m sorry I didn’t explain it a long time ago.”
I blinked. A long time ago? I’d never seen this guy in my life. Just how long had this been going on? Was he the reason she didn’t want to get married? I bit my tongue, though. Let him explain, then get pissed.
“Damon, I’m a shifter.”
My heart stopped. “What?”
He swallowed. “I’m a shifter. This”—he gestured at himself with the hand that wasn’t shielding his eyes—“is my male form.”
Confusion kept the pieces from falling into place for several long seconds. Then those pieces did fall into place, and the air left my lungs in a single exhalation.
No way. No fucking way. But, how? She was . . .
I somehow managed to pull in another breath.
“Alex?” I whispered, almost choking on her name.
With a single, slow nod, he jerked the world out from under my feet. Had I not already been sitting, my knees would have buckled. I sat back against the recliner. Two years. Two damned years together, and I’d never caught on. She’d never said a word.
Fuck, this wasn’t going to fit into my head. Not for a while, anyway. I didn’t know how to feel. Furious? More confused than before? Relieved to find out she was all right—well, sort of—and she hadn’t been cheating? Deceived? I didn’t know. I was simply . . . numb. Stunned.
He took a deep breath. “This isn’t how I wanted you to find out.”
“You’re . . .” Skepticism, suspicion, maybe a little denial worked their way into the tangle of emotions. “How do I know it’s you?”
The hand over his eyes didn’t move. “Giving a foot massage relaxes you almost as much as it does whoever’s getting the massage.” His bare foot rubbed against the other, toes curling like Alex’s always did whenever I suggested giving her such a massage.
I gulped. Leaning forward and resting my elbows on my knees, I said, “She could have told you that.”
“The night we met, you were so scared to ask me to dance, by the time you’d worked up the nerve, you were almost too drunk to string a coherent sentence together.”
Normally that memory made me laugh. Alex, too. No one in the room cracked a smile.
I cleared my throat. “She could have told you that, too.”
He drew a ragged breath. In an equally unsteady voice, he said, “You just found out why I’ve changed the subject whenever you’ve brought up getting married, and right now, you have your hands folded so tight in front of your lips that your knuckles are turning white.” He lifted his hand off his eyes and looked at me.
I unfolded my hands and let them fall to my lap, pretending not to notice as the blood rushed back into my fingers.
He rested his forearm over his eyes. “I’m sorry, Damon. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
I swallowed hard. “But, why now? You’ve always been female around me, but . . .”
Alex clenched his jaw, his lips thinning into a taut line. When he spoke, his voice threatened to crack. “Because I can’t shift now.”
A sick feeling churned in my gut. “Why not?”
“An implant,” he said through his teeth. “In my spine.” The bandage on his back flashed through my mind. “My parents, they . . .”
Oh, God . . . “What?”
“They forced me to get it. Drugged me. Said it was for my own good. By the time I knew what was going on, I was too doped up to fight back.”
“Oh, my God. But, why would they force it on you?”
“Because I’m an abomination,” he growled. For the first time since I’d arrived, he abandoned the quiet monotone he must have maintained to keep the pain at bay. “Ever since the implants came out on the market, my parents have been trying to badger me into getting one. They’ve always hated what I am, and it’s—” He swallowed hard and then took a deep breath. Held it. Let it out. Drew another. Then he muttered, “Shit,” and put a hand to his mouth. He flew to his feet and down the hall, and when he got to the bathroom, I cringed at the sound of him getting sick.
I rubbed the back of my neck, grimacing for him and trying to get my head around all of this. It didn’t help that his condition had him unusually subdued and, aside from the sprint to the bathroom, moving in damn near slow motion. I could only imagine the emotional toll this was taking on him, and my presence was no doubt compounding his stress, but he was in too much pain to show it. It would have been hard enough to reconcile the Alex I knew with the one in front of me without pain muting her personality.
A moment later, about the time I’d stood to go see if he was okay, Alex returned. When he stepped into the faint light, my stomach flipped. His alarming pallor was worse than earlier.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Fuck, sorry about that.”
“Nothing to be sorry about.” I stepped toward him. “Need a hand?”
He made a dismissive gesture and pushed himself away from the wall. “No, I can make it.”
“Is this a normal side effect? Of . . . what they did?”
“I don’t know. It’s been—” He stumbled, catching himself on an end table. I grabbed his arm. When he’d more or less regained his balance, I held him steady while he eased himself back onto the couch.
“You sure you’re all right?”
“I don’t know,” he whispered hollowly. “This headache, it’s unreal. It started last night, and it just keeps getting worse.” He cleared his throat and winced. “It’s like the worst migraine I’ve ever had, times ten.”
I winced. “Jesus. Can you take anything?”
“Nothing’s helped. Anything I’ve been able to hold down hasn’t done a damned thing.” He laughed humorlessly. “I thought about drinking, but figured I shouldn’t add a hangover to the mix.”
I pursed my lips. That was a hint of the Alex I knew. Her drinking had worried me for some time, and it didn’t surprise me at all to hear she—he—was tempted to drink now. The fact that he hadn’t given in to that temptation was more than a little worrisome.
“At least when I lay perfectly still and flat, it’s better,” he said. “Not much, but better. But every time I get up . . .”
“Would turning off the rest of the lights help?”
“Doubt it. I’ve been in the bedroom all day with the lights off, and it hasn’t done much.”
“Maybe we should take you to the emergency room. Just to make sure it’s nothing serious.”
I expected him to fight it. The Alex I’d known the last couple of years had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the doctor, never mind the ER. This Alex just released a breath and gave a subtle nod. Either this was a sign that the man in front of me wasn’t really Alex, or this headache was bad enough to make even Alex think something was wrong. Neither option loosened the knots in my gut.
“Let’s go then,” I said softly. “Can you make it out to the car?”
“Yeah, I think so.” He started to get up but groaned and lay back again.
“I can call an ambulance. That might—”
“No. I can make it. Just . . .” He swallowed. “Just let me lay here for a minute.”
He was right, he made it. By the time he got from the couch to the car, he was near tears from pain, and I wondered a few times if an ambulance was a better idea after all. As he stretched across the backseat, though, it occurred to me that waiting for an ambulance would mean waiting. By the time the paramedics got here, we could have been halfway to the ER. That, and he was in the car now. No sense dragging him back into the house.
No paramedics, then. I turned on the engine and backed out of Alex’s driveway. I drove as fast as I could without jarring him, cringing on his behalf whenever I had to make a turn or slow to a stop.
The whole way to the emergency room, neither of us spoke. Aside from the occasional groan, Alex was completely silent. A few times, I thought he might ask me to pull over so he could puke again, but he didn’t.
In between worrying about him and watching the road, I tried to comprehend this whole situation.
A shifter? Alex? All this time, I’d assumed she was a woman. And she was. A woman and a man. It wasn’t that I’d never known a shifter, or that I assumed every shifter was out in the open about it, but after two years together, I didn’t know?
Part of me wanted to be pissed that she’d lied to me about it. Part of me felt guilty, wondering why she hadn’t thought she could tell me. And the rest of me just didn’t have a fucking clue what to think, what to feel, or what to do. Tonight was simple enough: get him to the emergency room and make sure he was physically okay.
But was he okay emotionally?
Could we be okay?
I shook my head and exhaled. All of that could wait. It had to. I glanced in the rearview, which I’d tilted down slightly. The passing streetlights flickered across him like an old black and white film, illuminating at split second intervals the hand draped over his stomach. The other hand was probably over his eyes, shielding them from the shards of light that threatened to worsen his pain.
I turned my attention back to the road. The headache was worrying in its own right. Alex was prone to the occasional migraine, including one or two that had knocked her on her ass for days. Never like this, though. Coming so close on the heels of some medical procedure with which I wasn’t at all familiar, and putting her—him—in enough pain to warrant going to the ER without a fight, this one scared me.
This whole situation scared me.
Lying on the hard bed in the emergency room, I breathed as slowly and deeply as I could. The lights were off and I was alone, and with every breath, the nausea and headache receded ever so slightly.
This wasn’t a migraine. The pain was similar—a couple of white-hot blades digging in behind my eyes and trying to pry off the top of my skull while a steel band wrapped tighter and tighter around my head—but I’d never experienced anything so intense. Light, noise, movement, everything made it worse. Sitting up? Agony. Standing up? Kill me.
For the moment, at least, everything was still and quiet. The triage nurse had taken me back to a room immediately once Damon told her what was wrong. Thank God. Another minute in the waiting area with all its lights and sounds would have had me on my knees and begging for death.
Meanwhile, Damon had gone to park the car. I cringed, and not from the pain this time. He must have been appalled. Disgusted. I tried to tell myself he’d understand. Eventually, somehow, he’d understand. The fact that he hadn’t turned tail and run after learning the truth said something. Then again, Damon was the type who’d take a stranger to the hospital if he thought they needed help. That didn’t mean he’d stick around once the danger had passed. He could walk away without worrying he’d abandoned me to a life-threatening injury.
Fuck. Why hadn’t I told him? All this time. All those opportunities. Maybe if I’d told him sooner, he’d have been gone sooner. Months ago. A year ago. Long before I’d had a chance to fall for him like I had.
I blew out a breath. Go, me. The queen of making things difficult for myself.
A light tap on the door sent pain ricocheting off the insides of my skull. The door opened, spilling blinding fluorescent light into the room for a few seconds before once again shutting me into darkness.
“Sorry I took so long.” Damon’s voice was soft, and the relief it sent through me would have made me shiver if my body had dared move enough to allow it. “Couldn’t find a place to park.”
“Don’t worry about it.” My own voice echoed painfully inside my head.
“You doing okay?”
“Don’t know yet,” I murmured.
Something rustled softly. “They want you to put this on?”
I didn’t look up. “The hospital gown?”
“Probably. And when I can move without wanting to die, I’ll gladly put it on. For now, no.”
He didn’t push the issue. A chair creaked and his jacket whispered as he got comfortable. Neither of us spoke. It was easily one of the most awkward silences that had ever fallen between us. So many questions, so many answers to which he was very much entitled regardless of whether or not I could find the words. The silence soothed my head to a more bearable throb, but it didn’t do much for settling my nerves.
Another knock on the door made me flinch. Then the door opened again, letting in some of the light and sounds from the hallway before clicking shut and restoring the room to a tolerable noise level. Shoes tapped on the hard floor. Paper hissed across paper.
“Mr. Nichols?” The male voice was mercifully quiet.
I licked my dry lips. “Yes?”
“I’m Dr. Erickson,” he said. “I understand you have a severe headache after an intraspinal implant?”
“Severe headache doesn’t quite describe it, but yes.”
“Can you sit up? I’d like to have a look at the implant site.”
I groaned. “Would now be a bad time to mention that sitting up makes it hurt like hell?”
“That doesn’t surprise me if it is what I think it is.” He paused. “Can you shift onto your stomach?”
Shift. Now there was something I’d have been thrilled to do. I nearly rolled my eyes at my own thought. The throbbing in my head suggested that wasn’t such a hot idea, so I concentrated on changing position.
I managed to get partway up, but the room listed violently, and when I grabbed the edge of the gurney for balance, more pain shot up into my skull.
“Easy,” Dr. Erickson said. “Here, I’ll check it as quickly as I can, then you can lie back again. Can you sit up a little more?”
Bracing against the pain, I did as he asked. The room spun and tilted and jerked, and I held my breath as the back of my head threatened to cleave right open. Something clicked. A handheld light, I guessed. I was distantly aware of him peeling away the bandage. There may have been some gentle pressure from his fingers, but the only pressure I was acutely aware of was above my neck and increasing by the second.
God, please, hurry up, please, please, this hurts so bad I can’t fucking breathe. Please—
“Okay, go ahead and lie down again.” He kept a hand on my shoulder and guided me back onto the gurney. “You all right?”
“Peachy,” I muttered. “That’s why I’m here.”
He patted my arm gently. “Still have your sense of humor, I see.”
I just breathed while the pain receded to a more bearable level.
Dr. Erickson cleared his throat. “Anyway, the incision looks fine. No immediate signs of infection, which is a good thing. As for the pain, you have what’s commonly called a spinal headache. During the insertion procedure, the dura mater around your spinal cord was punctured, and it’s leaking cerebrospinal fluid. The decrease in pressure from the loss of fluid around your brain creates a severe headache.”
My eyes flew open for a split second before a flash from his penlight forced me to close them. “Come again?”
“It’s fairly common after lumbar punctures and spinal anesthesia, and I’ve seen it on occasion with recipients of these implants.”
“Can anything be done about it?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Dr. Erickson said. “There’s a procedure called a blood patch. We’ll take a small amount of your own blood and inject it into the same site. The clot will stop the leak, and the pain should stop shortly after, once the cerebrospinal fluid around your brain returns to its normal pressure.”
On so many levels, that made my skin crawl.
Forcing back a fresh wave of nausea, I said, “It’s not . . . dangerous?”
“The procedure?” he asked. “Or the headache?”
“Either, now that you mention it.”
“No, the blood patch is a very simple procedure, and while the headache is extremely painful, it isn’t life threatening.”
I exhaled. “I swear, I thought it was going to kill me.” Something in my chest sank a little. Jesus, was I disappointed that this thing wouldn’t kill me?
Oblivious to the inner workings of my twisted mind, the doctor went on. “A lot of people feel like they’re going to die with something like this, but you’ll be fine. Once we get that blood patch in place and make sure you’re in the clear as far as infection goes, you’ll recover quickly.”
“What about taking the implant out?” I asked.
“You just had it put in. Once the fluid leak is taken care of, you shouldn’t experience any further discomfort. This is a side effect of the insertion procedure itself, so there’s no need to remove the device.”
“It’s not that. I don’t want it. I want it out.”
He cleared his throat. “Well, it’s not unusual to experience some regret after an elective procedure, but—”
“It wasn’t an elective procedure,” I growled through clenched teeth. “I wasn’t given a choice, and I want. It. Out.”
“You were forced to get the implant?”
He pulled in a breath. “That could be a problem.”
“If whoever performed it was willing to do so without consent, then there’s a good chance it wasn’t done under sterile conditions. Back alley procedures usually aren’t, so the risk of developing an infection, even if it looks clean at this point, is markedly higher than if it had been performed in a proper surgical environment. That, and there’s a significant possibility the implant is one of the unsafe black market devices.”
Ice water filled my veins. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the implant itself could be dangerous. “So, how do I get it removed?”
“This isn’t my area of expertise, but I can recommend a few neurosurgeons in the area. They’d know better than I would what the procedure involves.” He paused. “Where was the surgery performed?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even remember leaving my parents’ house.”
Fingers tapped on a hard surface, echoing painfully along my nerve endings, but it was Dr. Erickson’s words that made my breath catch. “You may not have left their house.”
“There are a few black market, back alley ‘surgeons’ performing these procedures anywhere with a flat surface. I’ve had a few of their patients come in with complications, including what you’re experiencing.” Something made a quiet scratching sound, so I guessed he was writing. “If it was performed without your consent, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was done under such conditions. With that in mind, I think we’d be wise to admit you overnight.”
“Great,” I muttered.
“It’s just a precaution. There are no signs of a problem at this point, but I’d rather err on the side of caution. And as long as you’re admitted, we can also see if IV analgesics will help with the pain. Then we can get you that blood patch first thing in the morning.”
“How long will I need to stay?”
“Assuming no infection develops or any other complications,” he said, “you’ll most likely be discharged tomorrow afternoon with a prescription for antibiotics.”
“Even after having something put into his spine?” Damon asked.
“The insertion itself is a minor procedure. Alex should be back to normal within twenty-four hours or so.”
“Aside from the part where I can’t shift, right?” I asked dryly.
“Right. Aside from that.” He muffled a cough. “Anyway, I’ll have a nurse come down and take you up to your room. For now, just hang tight in here.”
“Don’t think I’m going anywhere.”
After the doctor left, Damon’s chair squeaked softly. “Your parents seriously drugged you, put this thing in your back, and then dumped you off at home?”
I shrugged in the near-darkness. “I guess. I vaguely remember coming around at my folks’ house. Next thing I knew, I was at home. My mom was still there. She said she was supposed to stay with me for twenty-four hours to make sure I was all right.”
“But she didn’t?”
“I kicked her out.”
“You kicked her out? Alex, what if something had happened while you were alone?”
Another pointless shrug. “Then maybe I’d be dead.”
He didn’t say anything. He’d seen me through a few depressive phases that had me teetering on a suicidal edge, and maybe he thought this could drive me over that edge. Maybe it would.
After a while, he asked, “I just don’t understand why they would do this to you. I mean, if it’s so painful . . .”
“I told you. I’m an abomination. They hate what I am. They’re part of one of those crazy denominations that think shifters, gays, transgendered people—anyone who isn’t heterosexual and static male or female—is hell-bound.”
“What a lovely thing to think about your own child,” he muttered.
“Tell me about it. They’ve spent the last ten years or so trying to save me from myself.” I rubbed my forehead to soothe the relentless throbbing. “Remember how I told you I ran away from home a few times and tried to get my aunt in Los Angeles to let me live with her?”
“This is why.” I swallowed. “She’s the most devout Catholic you’d ever know, has a picture of the Pope in three different rooms, but she’s never said an ill word about ‘my kind.’ As far as she’s concerned, God doesn’t make mistakes.”
“And your parents’ sect believes differently?”
“Quite. They believe this was caused by sin. It’s not God’s mistake, it’s ours. Or some bullshit like that.” I scowled into the darkness. “On the bright side, at least they were considerate enough to do it on a Friday. Mom wanted to make sure I was recovered enough to go back to work on Monday.”
“You really think you’ll be up for that?”
“I have to eat.”
“You have sick time.”
“Which I should probably save up until I know how long I’ll be down after getting the stupid thing out.”
“True,” he said quietly.
Silence fell. Fortunately, it didn’t last long because a nurse came in to take me up to my room.
Though I kept my eyes closed the entire way out of the emergency room and up to the other floor, the trip was anything but pleasant. Worse than the drive in. Every sound—and, Christ, there were plenty of them—made the pain worse. Clattering wheels, beeping monitors, ringing phones, slamming file drawers, voices talking over voices. Quieter sounds I never would have noticed before added to the unbearable cacophony: clicking pens, shuffling papers, scraping chair legs, crinkling wrappers, rattling pill bottles. Fuck, I was in hell.
At some point, the noise faded. Then a door closed with a heavy thud and cut off every sound except the gurney’s rattling and squeaking. A moment later, that too stopped. Something clicked, and a steady, quiet beep penetrated the stillness.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
On and on, while the nurse adjusted this or that machine, hooked me up to God only knew what, the beeping persisted.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
So this is what Chinese water torture feels like.
I took a few long, deep breaths to settle my stomach, and the headache slowly receded to something a little closer to tolerable.
“Alex?” A high female voice met my ear like the sharp end of an ice pick. “I just need to—” She stopped abruptly. Damon said something I couldn’t hear. Then, almost whispering, the nurse said, “Oh, sorry, hon. Listen, I just need to hook up an IV and go over a few things with you about the blood patch procedure.”
“Is there any way we could turn the lights down?” Damon asked softly. “I think he’s still sensitive to light.”
“Sure, sure, let me take care of that,” the woman said. Footsteps tapped on the floor. Something clicked. Then her footsteps returned. “Is that better?”
Cautiously, I opened my eyes. The room was dim. Not dark, but not excruciatingly bright. It was long past nightfall, so no blinding beams of sunlight poured in through the windows.
“Does that help?” she asked.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
“I don’t suppose there’s any way to turn that off?” I asked.
“What?” she said. “The monitor?”
“I can mute it.” With a click, the beeping ceased. “Better?”
I released my breath. “God, yes. Thank you.”
“Do you have someone who can drive you home after the procedure tomorrow?” The nurse glanced at Damon, then turned to me, eyebrows raised.
I looked up at Damon.
He cleared his throat and turned to the nurse. “Yeah, I can do that. When?”
“Depends on when the procedure is scheduled. He’ll need to spend some time in recovery, but I would guess we can discharge him late in the afternoon. Give us a call in the morning, and we’ll let you know what time.”
“Sure, yeah, I’ll be here.”
A mix of relief and guilt twisted in the pit of my stomach. He wasn’t deserting me, thank God, but was he staying out of pity? Obligation? I doubted he wanted to be the dick who ditched me while I was in the hospital in agony. Heaven knew he wouldn’t be the first to walk away after finding out what I was.
Maybe that was why I’d never told him. Deep down, I knew he’d leave.
“Alex?” The nurse’s voice pulled me back into the present.
“I asked if you’d eaten anything in the last twelve hours.”
“Nothing that’s stayed down, no.”
“Well, we’ll get some fluids in you to keep you hydrated,” she said. “Nothing by mouth until after tomorrow’s procedure, though.”
“I’ll live.” I supposed I was hungry. Maybe. My stomach had been pretty busy kicking back anything I’d tried to eat since yesterday. Hell if I knew when I’d last tried to get anything down.
While she put in the IV, I closed my eyes. The light was as bearable as it was going to get. I just couldn’t bring myself to look at Damon.
The nurse finished getting the IV going and fiddled with some of the various monitors. Then she left.
And there we were again, alone in this awkward silence.
Damon took a breath. “I, um, I guess I should let you get some sleep.”
“I don’t see that happening any time soon.” My voice was more slurred than I’d expected. I forced my eyes open. “Who knows, though? This shit might be kicking in.”
He laughed halfheartedly. “Well, do you want me to stay a bit longer? Or let you try to sleep?”
Don’t go. “You don’t have to stay.” Please, Damon, don’t leave. “Thanks for, um, everything.”
“Anytime.” He paused. “I’ll get out of your hair, then. I’ll be here to pick you up tomorrow afternoon. Call me if you need me to be here sooner.”
“Okay, I will.” No, no, don’t leave. “Thanks.”
Our eyes met briefly. He dropped his gaze. I looked away. Under normal circumstances, he’d never leave without a kiss, but I didn’t expect it this time. Probably not in the foreseeable future, if ever. My skin crawled. Nothing quite like being something your own boyfriend wouldn’t touch.
With murmured good-byes and fleeting eye contact, Damon left.
I closed my eyes and sighed. I couldn’t really justify being disappointed. He’d stayed with me longer than I’d expected. Certainly longer than I had any business asking him to. The fact that he hadn’t run for the hills—yet—was something I was grateful for.
Damon wasn’t phobic of shifters, transgendered people, gays, or anything like that. Quite the opposite. He was good friends with at least one coworker who was a shifter, and he didn’t bat an eye at the people who came to the everyone-friendly bar where I worked. I’d hoped a few times he’d get a clue from the fact that I worked there. Foolish me, when he’d asked, I’d said I liked the atmosphere.
I wasn’t a dishonest person. Just scared. Once bitten and all that. And out of all the guys I’d dated, Damon was the one I’d been most afraid of losing. I’d sworn up and down I’d tell him, but every time I tried, I choked.
Come on, Alex. It’s not like he’s never heard of shifters. But then, anyone who hadn’t been living under a rock had heard of us, even if we were a rarity. Plenty of people carried the gene but couldn’t shift. Many shifters were completely stealth, living as one gender and shifting only behind closed doors. They told no one and didn’t answer censuses with their true status for fear of persecution. And why would we? Fuck the census and everyone else if revealing ourselves meant being targets for torches and pitchforks.
Or repulsing loved ones.
Chances were, most people knew a handful of us without even knowing it. I doubted anyone at my day job had a clue about me. Oh, weren’t they in for a shock when I came strolling in on Monday?
If I could have done so without causing myself more pain, I’d have groaned. Monday wasn’t going to go well at all. I had one coworker who knew. And, damn it, I’d promised him and his wife I’d watch their kids on Wednesday night while they went to some church function. Somehow I doubted I’d be up for that. Hopefully they’d understand if I bailed on them this one time.
Hopefully a lot of people would understand a lot of things. One person in particular, though I wasn’t holding my breath.
Between the pain banging around in my head and the guilt and fear twisting in my gut, I didn’t expect to get much sleep. The painkillers had other plans, though, and I eventually drifted off.
I dreamed, and by morning, wished I hadn’t.
Fingers laced behind my head, I stared up at my bedroom ceiling. I hadn’t slept last night because I was worried about Alex, and in spite of my body aching for sleep, tonight was shaping up to go the same way for the same reason.
Alex was safe for the time being. That headache had scared the hell out of me, and I didn’t envy the pain she—he?—was undoubtedly in, but he wasn’t in danger because of it.
Our relationship, though? Fuck.
I wanted to be pissed at Alex for not telling me, but I couldn’t be. I knew too much about how society viewed shifters to be upset she’d kept it a secret. I’d known a few over the years, some who were completely out, others who confided in a handful of select, trusted friends. They took a lot of shit for what they were. I empathized, I sympathized, but how the hell was I supposed to handle this?
And what about between now and when the implant came out? Alex was a man. I could be there and help him through this, but I wasn’t gay.
My own thought made me cringe.
No, Damon. What you are is a dick.
I rubbed my eyes and swore under my breath. Alex was still the same person. When the implant came out, she’d be able to resume her female form, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about being with someone who was also a male. I wasn’t sure how dual genders affected her sexuality. Did she need someone to satisfy her male side as well as her female side? I had no idea.
Sorting this out would be anything but simple.
At least she was more or less okay. Damage control on our relationship wouldn’t be pleasant, but I’d rather sit through some awkward conversations than attend Alex’s funeral.
I rolled onto my side and let that cold comfort, combined with sheer exhaustion, carry me off to restless sleep.
By the time I got to the hospital the next day with a double shot espresso in hand, Alex had already gone into the operating room. The nurse had permission to update me on Alex’s condition, and apparently the pain had worsened this morning, so they’d gotten her—him—in sooner rather than later.
“Is that a bad sign?” I asked. “The pain getting worse?”
“It’s not uncommon for spinal headaches to worsen,” she assured me. “It’s not dangerous, just miserable for the patient. Most patients come out of this procedure feeling much better, though, so hopefully it’ll help him.”
“You’re welcome.” She squinted at something on her computer screen. “Oh, and it looks like he’s in recovery now. The waiting room’s a little crowded, so if you’d prefer to wait in his room, he should be down within the hour.”
As she suggested, I waited in Alex’s empty room, jumping out of my skin every time a gurney rolled by outside. Even if this was a relatively minor procedure, I was worried. Every minute that went by without Alex being wheeled in unnerved me a little more.
And who was I kidding? The prospect of any one of those passing gurneys being his also wound me up. I was nervous about seeing her. Him. About the conversations we needed to have. Would I say the wrong thing? Were things between us supposed to stay the way they’d always been? Christ, this wasn’t going to fit in my brain.
Forty-five minutes or so after I’d arrived, one of the passing gurneys slowed, turned, and rolled into the room. Alex’s eyes were closed, but there was a hell of a lot more color in his face today.
“Looks like you have a visitor,” the nurse said to Alex as she pushed the gurney into place.
Alex opened his eyes, and when he saw me, his eyebrows jumped slightly. “Damon.”
I forced a playful lilt into my voice. “Who else were you expecting?”
He started to speak, but then just closed his eyes and shook his head. “Didn’t think you’d be here.” He paused, then quickly added, “This early, I mean.”
“Do you even know what time it is?”
He managed a tired laugh. “Now that you mention it, I don’t even know what day it is.”
“It’s Sunday, for the record.”
He looked up at me with wide eyes. “It is?”
“Yeah, it is.”
“So much for my weekend,” he muttered, rubbing his forehead.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Tired, but a million times better than I did last night.”
“Sounds like a good sign.”
“It’s a very good sign,” the nurse said. “The doctor wants you to stay in here for a couple more hours, Alex, and then you can go home. Is there anything I can get you to make you more comfortable?”
“I don’t suppose a scotch on the rocks is an option.”
She laughed. “No, I’m afraid not.” She patted his arm. “Just press the nurse call button if you need anything.”
The sedative they’d given him for the blood patch procedure had him fading in and out for the next hour or so. At least it was an excuse not to have a serious conversation. We talked about nothing in particular when he was awake. When he was asleep, I’d kick back with a magazine.
I also stole a few glances at him while he was out, searching his features for the woman I knew. He’d kept his hand over his eyes most of the time last night, and even when he hadn’t, we’d been in darkness or close to it. Besides, I’d been too shocked last night to take in any details, so this was the first time I’d been able to really look at him.
Daylight illuminated a stranger who was startlingly familiar. If I hadn’t known who he was, I’d have sworn he was related to Alex. A brother, a cousin, someone who shared enough DNA to have the same shape nose, distinctive cheekbones, and, I realized whenever he was awake, blue eyes. She was fairly tall as a female; I was almost six-two, and only had three or four inches on her. As a male, he was the same height—I assumed, since I’d really only seen him struggling to stay standing at all, never mind straightening up to his full height—and his bone structure was slightly heavier than his female form, but on the finer end of the spectrum for a man. Not feminine per se, but uncannily similar to the Alex I knew.
I couldn’t decide if that resemblance made it easier or more difficult for me to comprehend all of this.
About the time Alex was coherent enough for us to stand a chance of dipping our toes into more awkward subject matter, a nurse came in with his discharge papers.
“Stay on your back as much as you can today,” she said. “Take it easy, relax, don’t push yourself. Tomorrow, move around as much as you’re comfortable, but don’t overdo it.”
“This will be fun to explain to my bosses.” Alex scanned the paperwork she’d given him.
“There’s a letter in there you can give to your employer,” she said. “And don’t worry, the details of your condition are kept to a minimum. You can just explain you had a minor surgical procedure, and that should be enough. Tell them you had a lumbar puncture.”
Alex arched an eyebrow. “Which my boss would probably buy if I wasn’t saying it in a male voice.”
The nurse stiffened a little. “Oh. Well, yes I suppose that could be a problem.”
Alex made a dismissive gesture. “I’ll figure something out.”
When we arrived at Alex’s house, I parked in the same place I had when I’d come to check up on her last night. I tried not to dwell on how much my world had shifted—
Oh. Yeah. Nice choice of words. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes as I got out of the car and went around to the passenger side.
Alex opened the door and started to stand but faltered.
“Need a hand?” I asked.
“No, I’m good. Thanks.” He stood gingerly, gripping the car door to steady himself. Once he was on his feet, he stopped, taking a few deep breaths before he closed the door and started toward the house.
“Is it the drugs or your head?” I asked.
“I think it’s the drugs.” He took another step and wavered slightly. “My head doesn’t hurt. I’m just fucking dizzy.”
“Here.” I offered my elbow.
He met my eyes, probably weighing whether or not to accept. The need for balance evidently won over pride, because he put his hand on my elbow. “Thanks.”
On the porch, I pulled my keys out of my pocket and found Alex’s house key. He leaned against the railing while I unlocked the door, and once we were inside, he started toward the living room.
“Don’t you want to lie down in the bedroom?” I asked. “Might be more comfortable.”
“This is fine. And at least then you can watch TV if I fall asleep.” He lay back on the couch and sighed. “Ah, much better.”
“I think I’m okay.” He paused. “I could go for something to eat, though.”
“They didn’t feed you at the hospital?”
“Not before I went into the OR, no.”
“That’s probably why you’re so dizzy, then,” I said. “I don’t care what they say, an IV is not a substitute for the real thing.”
“No, it isn’t, but have you seen the shit they serve in hospitals?” He wrinkled his nose.
I laughed. “I’ll give you that. I’d take airline food over hospital food any day.”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far, but right now, I could seriously go for some kind of food.” He started to get up.
“Wait. Why don’t you just relax for a minute, and I’ll go make us something to eat. What are you in the mood for?”
He hesitated, then settled back onto the couch. “Anything that doesn’t smell like a hospital.”
“That narrows it down.”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Nothing too crazy. Just a sandwich or something.”
“That’s not too much for your stomach? After the drugs and not eating?”
“Only one way to find out.”
I raised an eyebrow.
Alex laughed quietly. “I’m kidding. I’ll be okay. My stomach’s fine.”
I chuckled and shook my head. Then I went into the kitchen. I knew my way around, so I got out everything I needed to make a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches.
While I made our food, I looked around the kitchen and dining room that had long ago become familiar, taking them in as if for the first time. If the situation had been reversed, if I’d known Alex as a man the first time I’d set foot here, nothing about the house would have tipped me off that a woman lived here. Not that women were required to have frilly, flowery decor while men were forbidden from anything without an NFL logo on it, but everything in Alex’s house—from the furniture to the simple decorations—was as neutral as it could possibly be.
Every appliance in the kitchen was black or stainless steel, and there wasn’t a single adornment except for a couple of newspaper comics under pizza delivery magnets on the refrigerator. In the living room where he was waiting for me, several large prints hung in simple black frames on the stark white walls. The images themselves were photos of wolves, something Alex loved and, as an added bonus, her mother hated. Besides the wolves, the walls were mostly bare.
There were few decorations on shelves or tables. It wasn’t an aversion to clutter; God knew Alex and I were both the types who let old mail and “I’ll get to it eventually” paperwork stack up on counters and desktops. I’d never paid a great deal of attention to the way she dressed, but now that I thought about it, most of her clothing was as neutral as her house. Jeans and T-shirts, slacks and polos. If there’d been any distinctly male clothing in her closet, either it blended in with her other clothes, or I’d simply never noticed.
Scrutinizing the whole picture, I realized there was very little on display to tip anyone off about Alex’s personality.
Or, more to the point, gender. Genders.
It made me wonder what other lengths she’d gone to over the years to keep her identity a secret. She’d fooled me. I’d spent countless nights here over the last two years, and I’d never seen anything to hint that a man lived under this roof. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what other details she’d thought of, what little tells she’d masked to keep them from giving herself away to me or anyone else.
And in the space of one weekend, all her efforts had been blown out of the water.
Sighing, I pulled two cans of Coke out of the refrigerator, then picked up our sandwiches and went back into the living room.
Alex sat up. “You’re a lifesaver.”
I handed him a plate and a soda. “Shouldn’t you stay on your back?”
“I’ll manage for a few minutes.” He popped open the can. “No point in choking to death trying to eat lying down, right?”
I laughed. “I suppose not.”
After he’d taken a few bites, he washed it down with some Coke. Then he closed his eyes and exhaled. “My God, I needed that. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until now.” He looked at me, a shy smile pulling at his lips. “Thanks, by the way. For everything.”
Neither of us spoke for a moment. A million questions hung in the air. There was so much we needed to discuss, but we were both exhausted. He was still recovering physically. The doctor had told him to take it easy, and upsetting him wouldn’t do any good. Best not to go there just yet. Not until he’d recovered and we’d both gotten some sleep.
Right, Damon. Just keep on rationalizing.
This was certainly nothing new. Alex and I were experts at avoiding conversations about difficult topics. The two of us could pretend a room wasn’t on fire if discussing it was too uncomfortable.
I took a drink, then set the can on a coaster. “I’m kind of curious about what happened. Your folks just invited you over, drugged you, and blindsided you with this implant?”
Nodding, Alex scowled. “They asked me to come over to talk about some things like they always do.” He rolled his eyes. “Because that always goes so well. Definitely should’ve known something was up when their asshole pastor showed up. Anyway, I guess they put something in my drink, and good night, Alex.”
“Who put the implant in?”
Alex shrugged. “The pastor, maybe? I’m not really sure. He thinks he’s a master faith healer, so God knows what else he thinks he can do.”
“Unreal,” I said. “I just can’t believe a parent would force their adult child to get any kind of medical procedure like that.”
“They’ve been after me to get this thing for the last few years. Ever since it’s been available.” He shook his head. “Thank God my sister’s static. She’d have had an implant the day they hit the market.” Alex shuddered.
“Are the implants . . . dangerous?”
“Don’t know. I’ve never taken the time to read up on them. I don’t want one—no shifter I know wants anything to do with them—so it didn’t seem like something I needed to know about.” Just before he took another bite of his sandwich, he added, “Famous last words, right?”
I shivered. “What I really don’t get is how your folks think, regardless of how they feel about you being a shifter, that they can make this decision for you. You’re an adult.”
“They did, didn’t they?”
“Well, yeah, but legally? And, my God, ethically?”
He gave a sniff of sarcastic laughter. “I’m an abomination, Damon. A freak. The law, what I want, all those things are irrelevant.” He took another bite of his sandwich. After a moment, he sighed. “I guess I shouldn’t have put this sort of thing past them. I figured they’d keep twisting my arm, but I never thought they’d take it this far.”
“Why did you even go over there? You said yourself it never goes well.” And God knows I’ve seen the aftermath enough times.
Alex sighed. “What can I say? Hope springs eternal. That, and they’d brought up possibly letting me see my sister. I haven’t seen her in like three years, so . . .” He exhaled and ran a hand through his hair. “Don’t know why I bother there, either. They’ve brainwashed her to hate what I am, so I have little doubt she hates who I am, too.”
Both of us fell silent. I wasn’t hungry, but I finished the sandwich anyway just to give myself something to do besides start the conversation we needed to have. When we’d both finished eating and my Coke was getting toward the bottom of the can, I sat back in the recliner.
“You going to press charges?” I asked quietly.
Alex tapped his finger on the edge of his plate for a moment. Then he met my eyes. “I don’t know.”
“Why not? That has to be assault and battery at the very least.”
He gave a weak, one-shouldered shrug and absently played with the tab on his soda can. “But what would I gain? It’s not like it would get this thing out of my back.”
“Alex, they just forced a life-altering implant on you, not to mention—”
“Yes, I know,” he snapped. Our eyes met—mine wide, his narrow—and I swallowed hard. Then he put up a hand and exhaled. “Sorry. I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to bite your head off.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Our eyes briefly met again. Alex dropped his gaze. “I don’t know if I should press charges or not. Like I said, what would I gain?”
“Well, they’d be in jail, for starters.”
He twisted the tab on his Coke can around. “And my sister would, for all intents and purposes, be orphaned.”
“Probably just as well, if they’re as bad as they sound.”
“The thing is, what’s done is done.” He snapped off the tab and dropped it into the can with a clink. “There’s no reconciling with them now, so I’m not worried about severing ties. I don’t care about getting revenge. Even if I was, they’d just consider themselves martyrs.”
“Let them be martyrs, then.”
“And what about Candace? She’d end up in foster care or something.”
“Better than being raised in that house, I would think.”
Alex sighed. “Yeah, I know. I’m torn about it. I know she’s better off miles away from them and their bullshit, but I’m worried about shaking up her entire life like that. The kid’s sixteen. She’s got enough crap to deal with.”
I leaned forward, resisting the urge to reach across the divide and put a reassuring hand on his knee. “Your parents should’ve thought of that before they committed a crime against their other child.”
“True.” He rubbed his forehead. At first I thought it was a frustrated gesture, but then his fingers moved to his temples, and he let out a low groan.
“Yeah.” He grimaced. “Still hurts a little.”
“Why don’t you lie down, then?” I stood and picked up the plates and cans. “I can take care of this stuff. You relax.”
Alex didn’t argue.
When I came back from putting our plates in the sink and the cans in the recycling, he had moved onto his back, resting his head on one hand.
“Better?” I asked.
“Much. And, hey, at least it isn’t nearly as bad as it was before.”
“There is that.” As I took my seat again, I said, “Well, better or not, the doc says you’re stuck with me for the next few hours.”
“Can’t promise much conversation.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Even if conversation is exactly what we need right now. “Besides, I think the game’s on.”
“Is it? Crap, it is Sunday, isn’t it?”
“What a way to spend the weekend,” he muttered. “Want me to put it on?”
“If you want to watch it.”
“Like you have to ask.”
We both laughed. In the back of my mind, I wondered if Alex’s love of football should have been a clue. Except of course, women liked sports, too, for God’s sake. My Steelers-obsessed mother and Yankees-loving sister could attest to that.
Alex reached for the remote but paused and looked at me. “Thanks again for helping me out. And sticking around.”
“No problem. I wasn’t going to leave you high and dry.”
We held eye contact for a few seconds, letting another opportunity to discuss the situation slip through our fingers. It was Alex who finally broke away, turning his attention back to getting the remote off the coffee table.
“What channel is the game on?” he asked.
“Four, I think.”
He clicked on the TV and changed it to channel four.
The game had just started, so we watched it and let the room keep burning down around us.
[A] triumph of storytelling.
[A]n awe-inspiring story.
This is the sort of book that should be required reading for everyone.
[A] fabulous read.