In If We Shadows, Jordan is a transgender boy who wants to get through his senior year safely. However, he also wants to try out for the fall musical with his brother, and he wants the role of Puck in the musical mashup of two classic plays by Shakespeare. At this point in the story, he’s just found out that he will not be Puck. Instead, he will play Viola, a boy cast into a girl’s role, a possibility that he has been dreading since auditions.
My throat tightens; the light in the room seems to fade as things start to swirl around me. I grip the edge of the stage with my fingers, trying to force myself to stay upright. I could swear I hear James’s voice calling my name, and I push away, shoving at whoever is near me as I race for the door.
It closes with a thunk behind me, leaving me in a hallway that seems too dark, almost like a horror movie. I pause, struggling to breathe, then move with echoing quick steps down the hall to the bathroom. I go into the farthest stall and lock the door behind me. I climb up and perch on the toilet, toes on the edge, head bowed down by my knees as I crouch there, fighting for consciousness.
Because how fucking embarrassing would it be to pass out locked in a toilet stall, right?
Hours pass in a haze of warm breath and chills. I hear the door open and the water run, and I wait to hear the door again, for whoever it is to leave.
A girl’s voice. Am I in the wrong bathroom?
I open my eyes, blinking into the light which seems so much brighter than it was before, and look to my left and right for a telltale wastebasket on the wall of the stall. No, not the girls’ room. Thank God.
There’s a soft knock on the door to the stall. “Are you okay, Jordan? You didn’t look very well when you ran out. People are worried.”
I slowly unfold my body and stand. My hand shakes when I twist the lock and let the door swing open to find Pepper there, her brow furrowed and hand still raised to knock again.
She’s several inches shorter than me, built as tiny as her brother. The spray of freckles across her nose is scrunched together, slowly spreading out as her expression eases when she sees me. Her red hair is in her face, and I have an absurd idea to nudge it back. My hand half raises, then I remember: she cast me as a girl. She has somehow seen through the mask. “I can’t do this,” I say quietly, my voice hoarse and rough.
Disappointment shows in her jade eyes, but also resignation. “I was afraid you were going to say that,” she admits. She backs up, giving me room to come out, then hands me a paper towel soaked with cold water.
I press it to my eyes, feeling the cool on my forehead. The panic is fading, leaving me cold and empty. “I’m sorry.” I hate disappointing her. What a great second impression, huh? At least her first impression was of me helping save her brother. Maybe I earned enough points with that to counteract this mess.
She turns away from me, ratcheting out another long string of paper towels, and soaking those as well. She offers it to me silently. I give her the towel that was warmed by my skin, and put the new, fresh one over my closed eyes, not wanting to look at her right now.
“Your brother’s really worried about you.” Her voice is slow and cautious. “I told him I’d check up on you, because I wanted to talk to you. Maybe tell you why I cast you.”
Why she cast me. Not Dower. Did he tell her the truth about me? He wouldn’t do that. Would he? I shiver, and breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, struggling against the darkness again. This is ridiculous. I can’t let it take me over. “Go on,” I say.
“It’s your voice,” she says. “You have this amazing, rough, smoky voice that’s so perfect and haunting. You’ve got the low notes perfectly, and you nail the higher ones when you sing, but it’s not like you go into falsetto. I can believe you’re both female and male, and you don’t seem like you’re trying to be fake as Viola. And that’s hard for a guy, really hard. Your brother’s a good actor, but what he did—it’s what most guys do. They turn it into a farce, but you didn’t. You were uncomfortable, yeah, but you treated her like she was just anyone else.”
I drop my hands away from my face, blinking in the light. “She is just anyone else.”
Pepper smiles then. “Exactly. We’re not aliens, but most guys seem to think we are. Or like the only way to be a girl is to put on tight clothes and prance around in high heels. Viola’s just another human being, and she needs to be played straight like that. And I knew you could do it. And you and James are so perfect standing next to each other. Dower really wanted to give him Oberon, but I wanted him for Sebastian because of you.”
My laugh sounds a little strangled. “Don’t tell James that; he’ll be blaming me forever for his losing Oberon.”
Pepper touches my shoulder, squeezing lightly. “Come back in and do the read-through, please? And think about it over the weekend. You can tell me Monday if you really can’t do it. But I promise you, no one’s going to be laughing when they see you on stage. They’re just going to be thinking about how awesome an actor you are to pull it off.”
I swear, my brain short-circuits as soon as she touches me, and I’m nodding before I really think about what I’m saying yes to.
Her smile is worth it.
I can’t resist this time and reach out, one finger hooking in a dark red curl, nudging it back behind her ear. She flushes, warm rose under the freckles, but she doesn’t pull away. I’m playing with fire even thinking anything about her, and my heart’s rushing so hard I’m starting to shake again. It’s the good kind of nervous, anxious and waiting for something to happen, like that moment before going downstairs on Christmas morning to see the packages under the tree.
The moment breaks as she lets go of my shoulder and takes a step back. “C’mon. Let’s go get that read-through done. There’s a script in there with your name on it.”
I stand there, looking at her. “Is there going to be a roster handed out? Your brother suggested that a bunch of us could get together and run lines. I know we all gave you our info when we signed up.” It seems like one way of subtly getting her number and e-mail.
Her smile sparks impish, and my heart trips over itself in a syncopated beat. She steps forward and picks my phone from where it peeks out of my pocket. She carefully taps for several moments, then holds it out at arm’s length to take a picture of herself. She hands it back to me, showing her name, phone and e-mail woven in with her smiling image. She curls my hands around it. “There.” She blinks innocently, adding, “You can use the home number to reach Paul, too, of course. You should text me soon, so I’ve got your number, too.”
She steps to the door, and looks back at me as she opens it. I can see James standing down the hall. He walks toward us, and that jars me into motion. I shove the phone back in my pocket and walk through the door that Pepper’s opened for me.
You can buy If We Shadows as an ebook or a trade paperback directly from Harmony Ink Press. It is also available on Amazon and B&N.
When D.E. Atwood was in second grade, she finally grew tall enough to see the shelf above the mysteries in the bookmobile. She discovered a rich landscape of alternate worlds, magic, and space and has never looked back from the genres of fantasy and science fiction.
When she was twelve, she declared that she was going to be a writer and share the stories that she saw happening all around her. She wanted to create characters that others would care about and that would touch their lives, like the books that she read had touched her own life.
Today she has combined her interests, creating genre stories about the people who live next door, bringing magic into the world around us.
When not writing, D.E. Atwood is a mother (to two children, a cat, and a dog), a wife, a reader, a knitter, a systems administrator, almost a black belt in tae kwon do, and a music aficionado. Sleep, she claims, is optional.