Undercover Dancer

 

Undercover Dancer
by Melanie Brown
Copyright  © 2018 Melanie Brown

Alex wanted his article to be authentic

 


 

“This is highly unorthodox Mr… um…”

“Stromberg. Alex Stromberg, sir,” I said to Mr. Baxter, the school’s principal. “And yes, I’m more than aware of how unusual the request is.”

“To embed yourself into our school’s dance team seems more like ridiculous to me,” said Mr. Waters, the band director. “I mean, this is ludicrous. You’re obviously not a girl. And why this school?”

I looked back and forth between the two men sitting across from me. “As I said. I’m a freelance writer and I thought seeing a high school band performance from the perspective of one of its dance team members would be of interest to some readers. It’s a story that doesn’t get the publicity of other school activities. And as far as selecting your school, well, it’s already been made famous by a book and a movie and a TV show about high school football and your dance team has won several state and national awards.”

Mr. Baxter leaned back in his chair, clasping his hands behind his head. With an amused grin, he said, “But why you, Mr. Stromberg. Why not a female journalist? Or just interview some of our girls?”

I leaned forward. “For starters, it’s my article. And just interviewing a few participants just doesn’t provide the perspective of actually being one of the participants. Being a member of the team, going to rehearsals and participating in some of the activities really bring more understanding than just an interview can provide.” I paused as I leaned back in my chair and looked back and forth again at the principal and band director. “I’m not asking that I replace someone already on the team. I know actual performances must be done by students and all that. I just want to know intimately, exactly what it feels like, and what’s mentally and physically required to be member of Permian High School’s Panther Paws dance team.”

Mr. Waters laughed. “But it all comes back to the fact that you’re not a girl. And you’re not a high school student. I… and I’m sure Mr. Baxter as well, appreciates your interest in our school, but as a male wouldn’t you prefer to embed yourself with say, the football or some other sports team?”

I made a face as I waved my hand dismissively. I said, “Oh please. There’s been a surfeit of stories, articles, movies and TV shows about football players as well as cheerleaders. But the dance team is a small group of students who are more than cheerleaders and an integral part of your band’s half-time show. I want to tell their story.”

Leaning forward, hands on his desk and twiddling his thumbs, Mr. Baxter said, “I’m not really sure you’ve thought everything out. I’m not comfortable with the idea of you trying to pass yourself off as a high school girl. I’m sure you can see how this situation could easily be misconstrued…”

I laughed and sat up straight in my seat. I said, “This would seem really weird for a forty-something male to ask to do this. I’m nineteen. I’m a freshman journalism student. I pitched this idea to my instructor back in December last year and he suggested I pitch it to a sports magazine. With all this gender stuff going around these days, they thought it’d make them seem trendier. So they gave me a green light to do the article. I’ve been growing my hair out and I’m just naturally skinny and shorter than the average male. I really think I can pull it off.”

Mr. Baxter stood up. “I think we’re done here, Mr. Stromberg.”

*          *          *

“Madison?” I stood up as a high school girl and an older woman entered Mr. Waters’ otherwise empty office. He was kind enough to give me use of his office for my initial meeting with the leader of the dance team and their coach.

The pretty girl with long, dark brown hair smiled and said, “That’s right.” With her Texas accent, it sounded more like she said ‘that’s riot’. “Madison Lewis.” I pointed at a chair indicating a place for her to sit.

I looked at the older woman. “Coach Hall? Nice to meet you both. I’m Alex Stromberg. Just call me Alex. Please sit.”

As Coach Hall adjusted her seating, she said, “Just what is this about Mr. Str… Alex? I thought I heard Mr. Waters say you wanted to be a Panther Paw?” Her expression indicated that she did not approve.

Madison looked at me and giggled.

I leaned back in my chair. “That’s right. For two weeks at least, maybe longer, I want to go to practice sessions, dance team classes and band rehearsals. I want to know everything Madison knows about being a member of a high school dance team but from a more intimate perspective; something you just can’t get from an interview.”

Coach Hall wrinkled her brow. “Mr. Baxter and Mr. Waters both agreed to this? You’re a boy, correct?”

Madison grinned and said, “He looks like a girl.”

I smiled back at both of them. “Yes, I’m a boy. I’m pretty much just out of high school myself. And outside of Misters Baxter and Waters, you two are the only ones who will know about this. To everyone else, I’m just a new girl at school. To fit in, I’ll even be taking some classes. Mr. Baxter insisted. I know what you’re thinking. Here is my letter from my university, and the clearance from the police department to show I’m not a pedophile or anything. I’m only taking a few classes to give the impression I’m a student here.” I handed Coach Hall a small bundle of documents.

As she read over the documents, Coach Hall said, “This is certainly very unusual Alex. I mean, mixing you in with girl students…?”

I raised my hand. “Any time I need to change clothes, I’ll do it right here in Mr. Waters’ office. If I need to use the facilities while dressed as a girl, I’ve been instructed to use the unisex restroom in the mechanical room. Staff there have been made aware they may see a female student use that restroom. Fortunately, there’s almost never any staff in the mechanical room.”

Coach Hall looked at me sideways. “You know you’re not allowed to participate in the half-time show.” It was a statement, not a question.

I smiled. “Yes. But Mr. Waters said I can still be down with the girls to cheer and dance during a game. I’m to shadow one of the girls during rehearsals. All I need is cooperation from you two and also hopefully Madison can help me with my girlish appearance.”

Madison laughed.

Coach Hall handed me back the documents. “Mr. Waters said to cooperate with you and help you as much as I can. But the real girls on the team come first, Alex. I’m not going to short-change them just to accommodate your crazy idea.”

I shrugged. “I wouldn’t expect you to. Obviously your students come first.”

Shaking her head, Coach Hall said, “And what do we call our new student?”

I smiled. “Just keep calling me Alex. That should keep things simple. I’ll be on record as Alexandra.”

Coach Hall frowned and handed me some forms. “You need to fill these out. Also, even though you’re not an actual student, you’re still incurring a cost. Everything is in the information sheet and in the dance team constitution. We’ll have to fit you for your uniforms and to cover our costs; I’m still going to impose on you the same fees we charge the other dancers to be on the varsity team.”

As I glanced over the documents, I gave a low whistle. “Holy crap, ma’am. A ten dollar fee is something I was actually expecting. But twelve hundred dollars? Ouch!”

Coach Hall shrugged, “This is the cost for every girl who wants to be on the varsity team. We have to buy you a lot of things like practice uniforms, shoes, a team bag, warm ups…”

Madison leaned over towards Coach Hall and interrupted her. “Why don’t we act like Alex is a returning varsity member? The costs are half. She’s only going to be doing this at most until the end of football season, maybe less. She wouldn’t be able to go to any of our spring competitions anyway.”

Narrowing her eyes, Coach Hall said, “You’re right. HE won’t. Okay, Mr. Stromberg, I’ll cut you some slack as far as fees go. But if you’re going to wear a Panther Paws uniform, you’re going to be required to abide by every rule in the dancer constitution and in the information sheet. Mr. Waters and I will have to get together to decide exactly what you may participate in, but just like every dancer on the team, you will be required to show up for rehearsals, the final period class each day, rehearsals with the band, attending football games, both home and out of town. Everything.”

I spent a minute glancing again at the papers I was handed. I shook my head, “There’s a lot here. You certainly expect a lot of just high school girls.” I looked over at Madison, “And I didn’t mean that as an insult or anything.”

“That’s why we win awards Alex,” said Coach Hall with a bit of pride in her voice. “And I won’t allow you to hurt our reputation.”

I looked at the coach and said flatly, “That’s my challenge in writing about being embedded in a girl’s dance team. I’m here to be a dancer, not a rodeo clown.” Looking back down at the documents, I chuckled, “You definitely won’t have to worry about any public displays of affection.”

Giving me a stern look, Coach Hall said, “I hope I don’t have to worry about anything.”

I held up the application form, “Do my parents have to sign this?”

Coach Hall just sat there, her eyes boring a hole through my head. She said simply, “No.”

*          *          *

“Thanks for helping me out tonight, Madison.”

Madison giggled as she pointed at the chair in front of her vanity. “I think this will be a hoot. Coach still isn’t really buying it. Good thing you came here dressed as a girl. Mom would never allow a boy, especially an older one to come to my room.”

I shrugged. “I don’t blame her. Go ahead and leave your door open. Hey, we’re just two girls playing with make-up right?” I was looking forward to this. It would be great to finally get some help with wearing make-up. It was both my secret pleasure and shame that, in private, I liked to dress as a girl on occasion. It was one of the reasons I decided to try this idea of being a Panther Paw. I could dress as a girl every day and nobody would be the wiser.

Madison nodded. “I’ll try to do something with your hair too. You already kinda look like a girl anyway. You have some feminine features. When you came to the door, dressed in those skinny jeans and tank top, I didn’t know who you were at first! I love your earrings, by the way.”

I smiled. “Thanks. I thought they were pretty.”

“Did you get the items I asked you to bring with you?” Madison started studying my face. She’d asked me to get my own make-up, which makes sense. Foundation, blush, a compact, mascara, eye liner and an eye shadow palette and a couple of brushes were among the items she requested. She was going to let me use some of her own nail polish to start off.

I held up the bag from Walgreens and shook it slightly. “It’s all here.”

Madison grinned. “Cool! Let’s get started!” I think Madison was taking a bit too much pleasure in her effort to feminize me.

Instead of me just sitting there while she made me up, she had me do all the applying. She was a good coach on covering how to apply each product. The eye liner was probably the hardest part for me.

“Omigod! Just look at you!” squealed Madison when I was done. “You’re beautiful! You’ll have to fight off the boys!”

I leaned in to look into the mirror on the vanity. I couldn’t stop smiling. I thought I made a decent looking girl just wearing the clothes and having my hair long. But looking at myself wearing make-up genuinely astounded me.

“I don’t believe it,” I said in awe of my own appearance. “This is amazing!”

Madison laughed. “The power of make-up!”

I turned my head left and right and made kissy faces at the mirror. “Thank you so much, Madison! I don’t think anyone will guess that I’m not a real girl now.”

Madison grinned wide. “Well, Alex. Get ready to be treated like a real girl. I’m not kidding. Guys will be hitting on you. Especially since you’ll be the new girl. And expect the other girls to act catty to you as well.”

I laughed. “I know how to say no. It might be fun to flirt though.”

“Be careful with that,” said Madison seriously.

I stood up and started putting my make-up back into the plastic bag. “I should probably go. Thanks so much again for your help!”

Madison beamed, “You’re so welcome! Don’t forget to be at the band hall tomorrow morning no later than six forty-five so the director can make sure you’re on the roll and so he can decide what he wants you to do.”

“Ugh!” I groaned. “That means getting up at least by five thirty to get my make-up on!”

“Don’t worry, Alex. It’ll get easier.” Madison grinned at me. “Good night, girl.”

I smiled back at her. “Good night, Madison.” She gave me a quick hug. She then led me back to her front door and let me out.

Though it was dark, I kept looking at my reflection in the rear-view mirror on the drive back to my apartment. I looked down at the bag of cosmetics. I surprised myself thinking that I was going to have to get more lipstick shades and mascara that makes my lashes longer and fuller. And though when I looked at one in the store, and it reminded me of some medieval torture device, I probably need an eyelash curler. I patted the bag resting on the passenger seat. I decided that make-up was fun.

*          *          *

My God, make-up is a royal pain. I was getting short on time and trying to rush putting on my make-up, which is not a good idea. I had to start over twice on my eye liner. I hope Madison is right in that it becomes easier the more I do it. I kept finding myself also getting distracted by the unusual sight of nail polish on my fingers.

After forty-five agonizing minutes I was finally done. I checked myself out in the mirror and surprised myself on how cute I looked. Up until this moment, I had my own doubts I’d really be able to pull off this little project. But my confidence started to soar as I slipped into my tight jeans and shoes. Even though it was mid-September, it was still around seventy-five degrees at six in the morning so instead of a sweater, I just opted for a black t-shirt that said “Go Mojo” in white letters on it. I tied my hair into a pony-tail and then lastly, I topped off my look with a pair of large hoop earrings.

One last check in the mirror, checking not just my make-up but to make sure my boobs looked correct and no unfeminine bulges, and then I was hurrying down the stairs from my apartment to my car. It’s only a ten minute drive to the school. Madison said to be at the band hall around six forty-five. I was hoping to get there a bit earlier than that.

It was still dark when I drove my car into the parking lot. There were more people there than I thought there would be. There were not just band students, but students in athletics as well hanging about.

As I parked my car, I grimaced at the bright lights shining down on the area of the parking lot that was cleared and marked off with yellow tape so the band could march without cars in the way. They were also blasting music from large speakers. And of course shortly the band would be playing. I’m sure the neighbors loved it.

I sat there a minute and stared at the steering wheel. This was the moment of truth. Could I actually pull this off? Or should I just call the principal and tell him I’m too big of a pussy to pretend to be a girl. It wasn’t like I was going to get paid a lot for the article. Or write the great American novel about my adventure, or even expect a movie.

No, the only thing I was going to get from this was the satisfaction of doing something this audacious.

I looked out the windshield at the kids getting set up for the morning’s rehearsal. I let out a huge sigh. There’s only me to blame for such a hare-brained idea. Well, Alex. What will it be? Do I just drive off and forget it? I grunted a laugh to myself, turned off the car’s ignition and stepped out onto the parking lot. Along with a growing number of students, I walked briskly to the band hall.

Even though most people gave me only the most casual of glances, I felt glaringly conspicuous. Being out in public not only trying to pass myself off as a student, but as a female student to boot made me feel that I was under a microscope. I paused for a moment while a wave of nervousness washed over me. I took a few deep breaths, squared my shoulders and continued on my way to the band hall.

“You’re here!” squealed Madison from across the band hall. She motioned for me to come over to her. When I got up to her, she said, “Follow me. The Panther Paws meet in this other room.”

I felt pretty intimidated entering the room. There were around twenty-five girls plus Coach Hall. The coach grinned when she saw me.

“Well, look at you!” exclaimed Coach Hall. “I never would have believed it.”

Madison stood next to me. “Guys! I want you to meet our newest Panther Paw! This is Alex. She just transferred to this school. That must really suck to transfer in your senior year! But we’re happy to have her with us.”

There was a nervous chorus of greetings from the girls. I just smiled and waved.

One girl shook her head. “Are your parents just evil or something? To move you in your senior year? My parents moved to another state in August, but let me stay here with some friends of their’s to finish school at Permian.”

I shrugged. “What can you do? It sucks, but I’m hoping to make new friends here.”

Mr. Waters walked into the room and glanced around. “Come on. Y’all need to get outside for rehearsal.” He looked over at me. “You must be the new girl. Alex, right?” Of course he knew exactly who I was.

Madison, who also knew who I was and knew that Mr. Waters knew who I was, touched my shoulder. “Yes Mr. Waters! This is Alex, our new Panther Paw. She was on the dance team of her previous school.”

Mr. Waters smiled…sort of. “Welcome, Alex. We’re happy to have you. Coach Hall has told me a lot about you. She’s thrilled to death to have you on board.” Did I detect a tinge of sarcasm?

“Thank you Mr. Waters. It’s great to be here.” I smiled sweetly at him.

Pointing to the door leading to the outside, Mr. Waters said, “Since you’re new, just stand to the side and watch. Madison will show you where and show you who you need to shadow to be their alt.” He turned and walked quickly from the room.

Madison and I stood alone in the room. “Mr. Waters isn’t exactly thrilled that you’re doing this, is he?”

I frowned. “Nope. But they all agreed. I just want to learn what you all do. I promise to stay out of the way.”

Madison flashed an effervescent smile. “Mr. Waters told me that he and Coach Hall felt this was a mistake. But we’re going to prove him wrong! You seem sincere, so I know you’re going to be a great member of our dance team. And you can’t stay out of the way. You’re part of the team. And you certainly seem like a girl to me, so I want you to hang out with me and my friends. It’ll be fun!”

I laughed. “Well, you certainly have convinced me!”

Madison grinned at me. “Let’s get out there so you can start learning.”

As we ran out onto the parking lot which was painted in a football field grid, Mr. Waters shouted through his megaphone. “I’m glad you two decided to join us this morning.” He was standing on a catwalk mounted on thirty foot poles so he could observe the whole band in action.

Looking embarrassed, Madison waved to Mr. Waters as we ran past the band. We stopped next to one girl holding a flag. “Alex, this is Shelly. Watch what she does. You’re going to be her alt. For now, stand over by that yellow tape.”

I nodded and ran over to the tape. There was a yellow tape stretched between barrels marking off the section of the parking lot the band needed to practice on. I watched Madison run, carrying her flag, out to her position. A moment later the drum major blew her whistle and the band snapped to attention. Then Mr. Waters began his daily chew-out of the band. The Mojo band was going to the state band competition even if it killed every member of the band.

I didn’t just goof off the next hour. I watched Shelly intently, watching her moves and where she stepped. I could hear all the dancers counting as they carried and swung their flags to the music. I was excited. This was happening!

Madison came running up to me after the band was dismissed and we all started walking back towards the band hall. “Well, Alex. What did you think?”

I glanced at Madison and laughed, “Wow. I don’t see how you all do it. Looks pretty complicated.”

Madison grinned at me, “It’s not that hard. That’s why we practice. Just follow Shelley and you’ll do fine. Later in class, we’ll practice our yells and dance routines.”

*          *          *

I was already tired. I grinned to myself and shook my head. I must be nuts to put myself back in high school. And as a girl to boot. It wasn’t that I hated school. It was just that I had never really fit in. I had few friends. But that was okay. I just wanted to get through it. I thought college would be more interesting. But here I am back in high school.

The arrangement I had, required me to do the class work and even homework. Like everyone else taking extra-curricular activities, I had to maintain good grades. And actually, I agreed with them. It was all part of being on the dance team.

I slung my book bag over my shoulder and stood there for a moment, looking up and down the hall trying to get my bearings. I couldn’t remember if the cafeteria was to my left or my right. It didn’t matter, a fellow dance team member spotted me standing there, grinned at me and waved. Her name was… umm… Steph. That’s it.

“Hey Alex,” said Steph as she approached me. “Madison wanted me to find you.”

“Oh?” I gave her a puzzled expression. “Am I in trouble?”

Steph laughed, “No. Some of us are going across the street to Subway. Would you like to come with us?”

I shrugged, “Sure. Lead the way.” I’ve never been a big fan of school cafeteria food anyway.

As we threaded our way through the crowded halls, Steph raised her voice to be heard over the sound of scuffling feet and dozens of conversations. “Madison said you were from out of town. Where from?”

I thought it’d be easier to just say where I was actually from rather than make something completely up. Leaning close to her, I said, “Chicago.”

Steph smiled, “That must be quite a culture shock.”

Actually, it was. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live here. Well, there was oil. That seemed to be the only industry here. I had driven around the area and found it amusing to come across one place that was little more than a post office, called Notrees. There were a couple of trees there.

“Yes,” I said to Steph. “It is. There’re no lakes, or rivers and no forests and towns are miles apart. You can drive out of Chicago and be in Wisconsin without ever seeing a gap in the buildings, but then you can make another turn and wind up in a forest.”

Steph frowned, “Yeah. When we want to take our boat out, we have to drive a hundred miles. But we do have the largest oak forest in the world here.”

I stopped and gave Steph a curious look. “Oh? I did some driving around this area I didn’t see any forests.”

Steph laughed, “It’s up around Andrews. And the trees are only about a foot high. I’m serious!”

“I’m not sure if I believe you,” I said with a smirk. “Oh. There’s Madison.”

Madison and a few other girls were standing in the hall by a door leading outside.

Madison looked at Steph, “Oh good, you found her. Let’s go.” She turned to exit the school and head across the street to the Subway, followed by the other girls and myself. For lunch, the campus was closed to all students except seniors.

I followed their lead and just got a six inch BLT though I was rather hungry and knew that sandwich wasn’t going to cut it. After paying, I looked around and saw Madison and the other girls at a table on the far side of the Subway. Madison had left the seat next to her empty and pointed at it indicating she wanted me to sit by her.

After swallowing a bite of her BLT, Madison pointed around the group, “Have y’all met Alex? This is her first day. And she’s a new Panther Paw.”

“Hi guys,” I said with a little wave as I looked around me. We all weren’t at the same table of course, but we were grouped close.

Giving me a dirty look, one girl said, “Wow. And you didn’t even have to try out like the rest of us.”

Madison frowned, “Give her a break, Carla. She transferred here way too late for tryouts. Coach and I gave her a tryout. Don’t worry. She’s not replacing any of you.”

I looked over each face. “Hey guys. I’m just here to have fun and be a part of this great team. Madison is right. I’m not trying to replace any of you. I just want to learn to be a Panther Paw.”

One girl at another table stood up. “Well, I just want to say welcome, Alex. Not just to the team, but to Permian. It won’t be long before you’ll be bleeding black like the rest of us!” She giggled and sat down. The school colors are black and white.

Madison glanced over at me and grinned.

*          *          *

“Okay girls. Settle down,” said Coach Hall in a loud voice. “First, I hope everyone had a chance to welcome Alex to the team. This is her first day.”

Grinning, Steph said, “She’s from Chicago.”

I smiled, “Yep. The windy city.”

One girl grunted. “Wait until you see the wind here.”

Before I could say anything else, Coach Hall said, “Okay. We have a lot to do today, girls. We’re still a little weak on the pep rally dance for this week, and I have a new recording of the band to rehearse with. Go change into your training uniforms.”

Madison touched my shoulder. “Just stand next to Coach and watch. We’ll start working you in tomorrow.”

Everyone ran off to the locker room, doors banging open and closed. Coach Hall and I stood alone for a few minutes.

Coach glanced over at me, her arms folded across her chest. “So Mr. Stromberg, what do you think so far?”

I frowned. “Please call me Alex or at least use a feminine pronoun. You don’t want to use the wrong one by accident when others are around.”

Coach Hall nodded. “You’re right, Alex. I’ll try not to be careless next time.”

“And to answer your question,” I stared at the locker room doors. “I think it’s going great. I’m accepted. I’m learning. I’m feeling pretty good about this so far. The only downer is that I have Algebra homework tonight.”

Coach chuckled. “Math’s hard?”

I nodded as I glanced over at her. “Actually it is. It’s never been my best subject.”

Coach Hall sighed as the girls started to burst through the locker room doors. “Unlike the other girls, you only have a month or two of this. And try to get here a little early, okay? That way you can change in my office.”

The girls came up to the coach and sat on the floor. I felt conspicuous standing next to Coach Hall so I sat down near Madison.

The coach pointed to Madison. “You need to pair Alex up with one of the girls so she can learn the routines. Jan might be out Friday, so we could be a girl short for the pep rally. We need to get Alex up to speed and work her in.”

Madison beamed. “We’ll have her ready, coach!”

Coach Hall looked at her clipboard. “Okay. Let’s get to work on these dances.”

I leaned over and whispered to Madison. “I thought I couldn’t participate.”

Madison shrugged. “The pep rally’s different I guess. The half-time show is actually building up to the big UIL contest and you definitely can’t be in that.”

Madison had me watch Jan since she wasn’t going to be at the pep rally Friday. All I could do was watch at this point as I didn’t change clothes. Coach Hall worked her girls hard. I started to wonder if I’d be able to keep up. I smirked. If girls could do it, I could do it! Later I was glad I didn’t say that out loud.

*          *          *

I stepped out of the class into the busy hall. The day was finally done and all the students were hurrying to get out of the building. Or to football practice or a band sectional, or any of a dozen after school activities. We didn’t have after school practice every day.

But what a day my first day had been! I sighed deeply as I looked around at the rapidly emptying halls. I shook my head and looked around and sighed again. I thought I finally had all this school crap put behind me. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. I actually have homework. No. I can’t quit now.

I picked up my book bag and headed towards an exit that I hoped was somewhere near where I had parked my car.

Just as I was going through the door, a cheerful voice called from behind me, “Hey, girl! You disappeared on me.”

I turned around and smiled, “Hey Madison. I was just heading out. I can’t wait to get home.”

Madison nodded, “Oh, I understand. This will just take a second and I have to get home too. Are you busy tonight?”

I looked curiously at her, “Not really. Other than some math and English homework. Why?”

“It’s no big deal, but a bunch of us from band like to meet up at Taco Villa the night before a game,” explained Madison. “I thought since you started school today on a Thursday, that this would give you a chance to get to know some of us so you can fit in better.”

I knitted my brow, “You don’t think I’m fitting in? Am I trying too hard or not enough?”

Madison shook her head, “No, no. I think you’re doing fine so far. But, this is just a chance to hang out and let the other guys get to know you better. Away from school and all.”

I smiled, “I’ll think about it. What time and where is this place? I’m not promising anything.”

Looking thoughtful for a moment, Madison said, “Everyone gets there around seven-ish. It’s the Taco Villa kinda across the street from Permian.”

I looked thoughtful myself for a moment, “Oh yeah. In that big parking lot next to Starbucks. What should I wear?”

Looking serious, Madison said, “Everyone shows up in a long flowing evening gown, with five inch heels and their hair up...” She paused when I gave her a curious look. She laughed, “I’m kidding. What you have on now is perfect. Well, I need to get going. I hope I see you there tonight.”

As Madison started to turn away, I said, “Hey, wait just a second. I have a question.” She turned and looked at me expectantly. “Just how am I fitting in? I know it’s just been one day, but are the kids accepting me?”

Madison smiled broadly, “I can’t speak for everyone, but I know most of the guys on the dance team seem to like you. No one thinks you’re a boy. I like the way you’re not trying to act like a girl. You’re just being natural. Keep doing that.”

I smiled shyly back at her. “I’m glad I’m doing that right. I thought it best to just be me.”

Madison gave me a thumbs up, “I really got to go. See you tonight.” She waved and hurried back out into the hall towards the exit she uses.

*          *          *

I had just finished writing up my notes for the day on my laptop when I looked down at the clock. It was twenty-five after six. I had thirty-five minutes to get ready to go meet up with Madison and her friends. I was tired from having to get up so early and going to classes this morning. I frowned as I stood up. Of course I’m going. I’d be crazy to pass this up.

I looked down at myself. I guess I won’t change my clothes. Madison did say what I was wearing was ok. It was just some friends getting together after school; not some big social event.

I stepped into the bathroom and flipped the light on. I just stood there a moment staring at myself in the mirror. My make-up definitely needed attention. And my hair. I started to idly brush my hair as I ran over the events of today in my mind once again. I leaned in towards the mirror to check my make-up. I smirked at my reflection as I looked down on the bathroom counter to look for my compact. I definitely needed to even my face up some. As I was sliding the pad from the compact around my face, I decided I needed to add more mascara and of course all my lipstick was gone so I had to reapply that as well.

After I was done, I stared at my face in the mirror as I turned my head from side to side and tried different smiles. I shook my head and decided I really did not like make-up. At all. The results are amazing, but it’s just too much trouble.

My eyes trailed from my face, to my now femininely styled hair to the large hoop earrings down to my painted nails. Why do girls put up with this shit? I stood for a moment staring at the pretty teen girl in the mirror. I laughed. I think I just answered my own question.

It was about five minutes past seven when I drove my car into a parking spot at Taco Villa. Through the window, I could see Madison and about a dozen others sitting around her. I checked my make-up for the millionth time in the rearview mirror, took a deep breath and sighed. Deep down I really didn’t want to be here, but I really needed to get familiar with these guys and they needed to accept me.

I walked through the doors and Madison smiled broadly and quickly waved me over to where she was sitting. She stood up and pointed at me as I arrived at the table.

“Hey guys!” exclaimed Madison. “In case you haven’t met her yet, this is Alex. She just transferred to Permian today and she’s our newest Panther Paw.” The group was a mix of dance team members, cheerleaders and band members.

One girl just looked up at me. “Yeah. I’ve met her already.”

There were greetings from those assembled. I just gave an embarrassed wave, “Nice to meet you all.”

As I took a seat next to Madison, another girl said, “I heard you’re from Chicago. What’s a big city girl like you doing down here in the sticks?”

I smiled. “This isn’t exactly the sticks, but you know, you go where your parents go. My dad got a job down here.” I hated to lie, but what else could I do?

One boy grinned and said, “Hey. The more cute girls the better!” Several other guys nodded.

Madison pointed at the kids one at a time and told me their names. Some I already had met. She pointed at the boy sitting next to her. “And this is my boyfriend, Tyler. He goes to OHS.” There was a chorus of light hearted boos. “And people say mixed relationships don’t work.”

I noticed one boy kept staring at me. He’d look away when I’d look over at him. I leaned over and whispered to Madison. “What’s with that big guy on the end by himself?” He was larger framed than the other boys and was wearing a leather motorcycle jacket.

Madison smiled as she whispered in my ear, “That’s Nick. He asked me earlier if you were single. I think he likes you.”

I frowned. “Terrific.”

Madison shrugged and whispered. “Don’t let his size fool you. He’s basically a nice guy, but does break a lot of hearts. He’s a trombone player.”

I whispered back, “It really doesn’t matter how nice or not a guy he is. I hope he doesn’t hit on me.”

Madison smiled knowingly. “Just tell him you’re not interested.”

One of the girls at the table, Karen I think, leaned forward and asked, “What did your boyfriend think of you moving down here?”

I smiled and said something really stupid. “I didn’t have a boyfriend when we moved down here.” I thought I was just being honest, because obviously, I wouldn’t have a boyfriend. All the boys without girlfriends suddenly sat up straighter and grinned.

One boy, whose name escapes me, grinned at me. “Maybe we can fix that right now. How about going to a movie Saturday? Unlike these uncouth slobs, I actually enjoy romance movies.”

Karen whacked his arm with the back of her hand. “You liar!”

The boy swatted Karen’s hand away. “She doesn’t know that!”

Another boy in the band, a cornet player named Tom laughed. “She does now, bro. But hey. Pizza party at my house Saturday. It’d be great if you came.”

Ralph waved his arm in an air of sophistication. “Gents. Alex is far too fine a lady for pizza and cheap movies. She’s obviously used to wine and fine dining!”

Madison laughed. “Neither one of you are old enough to order wine!”

I just rolled my eyes and laughed at the sudden attention.

Nick just looked around the table and grunted a laugh. “Y’all are wasting your time, guys. She’s going to be my girl.”

Tom frowned. “You always get the girls. How about leaving one for us?”

Ralph slapped Nick’s shoulder. “Yeah man!”

Nick looked slowly over at Ralph and just stared at him a moment without changing his expression.

Ralph suddenly paled as he acted like he was dusting dirt from Nick’s shoulder. “Hey, sorry man. You good?”

Nick just nodded. He turned to look at me and winked.

Madison raised her voice. “Okay y’all. Just knock it off. You’re going to scare her away.”

The one boy whose name I still didn’t know said, “But seriously. Let me know if you want to go see a movie.”

Ralph smiled hopefully at me, “Or pizza!”

I looked at Madison and grinned. “Saturday, I think I’ll be washing my hair.”

Nick chuckled. “I doubt it.”

The manager of Taco Villa popped his around the corner. “Can y’all keep it down a bit. You’re getting kinda rowdy.” I recognized him as the bass drummer in the band.

I picked up my purse. “Well guys. This was fun. But I do have homework to get done.” And that wasn’t a lie. “I’ll see y’all tomorrow.”

Karen nudged Madison. “She’s already saying ‘y’all’.” She giggled.

Madison smiled at me. “Thanks for coming, Alex. See you bright and early tomorrow!”

I waved at everyone and left the Taco Villa. As I walked out, I stopped to look at a sleek, black motorcycle parked near the front door. It was an Indian Scout.

From behind me, Nick asked, “Do you like it?”

Startled at the voice, I turned around and after a moment I got my composure back. “Oh, hey Nick. Yeah. It’s a nice bike.”

“Maybe I can take you for a ride someday.” Nick slid his fingers along the leather saddle.

Oh God, here it comes. I have to admit, I didn’t consider having to deal with guys while pretending to be a girl. I figured some might try to hit on me. Like that one time I was dressed as a cheerleader for Halloween where three guys kept asking me out, no matter how many times I told them I wasn’t a girl.

I shook my head. “Probably not. My dad wouldn’t approve.” I lied. My dad rides his bike to Sturgis every year. Or… then again he might object to me going for a ride with a boy who wants to date me.

Nike laughed. “He doesn’t have to know.”

I started to walk towards my car. “Well, it is a nice bike. But I really do have to go.”

Nick started to follow me to my car. My muscles stiffened as I started to grow pissed that he wasn’t taking the hint. I reached my car, opened the driver’s door and turned around. Nick took me by surprise by already standing next to my car, leaning on the roof. He was only a few inches away from me. I doubted he would try to harm me, but it still unnerved me for him to be so close.

Nick rapped his knuckle on the car’s roof. “You really ought to get your daddy to get you a better set of wheels. A classy chick like you should have a classier ride.”

True. The car wasn’t great. It was actually a cheap rental the magazine buying my article is paying for along with a monthly per diem. I wasn’t exactly getting rich doing this article.

I shrugged. “It’s all we can afford. It was nice meeting you, but I need to go now. See you at school.”

Nick shook his head slightly. “Before you rush off, would you mind telling me some likes and dislikes? You know. What kind of food. What kind of movies. Shit like that.”

I frowned as I edged closer to the open doorway to my car. “Why would you want to know that?”

Nick shrugged. “Just trying to get to know you better. You seem like a very interesting girl. Don’t take this wrong, but you have the most beautiful, deep blue eyes.”

I knitted by brow together. “They’re brown.”

Nick took another step towards me and leaned in very close to my face. “Wow. You’re right. My bad.” I felt so small standing next to him. He was taller than me and his shoulders were broad and muscular.

I smiled weakly. “I’m glad we got that settled. I need to go.”

Nick slid his arm along the roof of my car and got very close. “I’m glad too. I would have hated to have the wrong impression about your eyes. Especially such beautiful eyes.”

I closed my eyes as I shook my head in growing frustration. “Look. Nick. I know what you’re doing.” I looked into Nick’s face as I placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’m just not interested in seeing anyone. I’m flattered and all…”

Nick grinned as he placed a finger on my lips and shushed me.

Irritated, I pushed Nick’s hand away from my face. “Please stop. I really don’t …”

He placed his finger on my lips again and again shushed me. “I know. I know all about you.”

My eyes widened. “What? What do you think you know?”

Nick’s grin widened. “Madison told me everything. Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.”

I sputtered, “I … I asked her not to say anything! Wh… why would she do that?”

Nick shrugged. “Sorry. Again my bad. I kept pestering her with questions about you. So to try to put me off, she told me all about you and your article.”

My frown deepened. “So why are you hitting on me?”

Nick gave a slight shrug. “You’re the most interesting girl I’ve ever met. You’re cute. You’re funny. You’re…um… mysterious. I find you fascinating.”

I couldn’t back up any more as my back was against the open car door. “Since you know about me, we can stop this game. I need to go.”

Nick leaned in a bit more and touched my hair. “You look like a girl who desperately wants to be kissed.”

I grunted a laugh. “That’s crazy. I’m not a girl and why would you suggest I want to be kissed?”

Nick smiled as he studied my face. “Because you’re still here.”

I took a quick glance at the open door of my car and then turned back to look at Nick. Before I could react, his lips were touching mine. Oh my God! He’s kissing me! I pulled my head back a little and pushed against his shoulder. I whispered, “No. No. Stop.”

From several feet away, I heard a groan. “Oh shit! Lansing’s already done it! You can forget about her.” Three boys from our get-together walked to their cars shaking their heads.

I looked into Nick’s eyes and grinned allowing myself to be amused by the comment by the three boys. I pulled away from Nick, pushing against his chest. I took a deep breath.

“Okay, Nick. You got your joke. You got the reaction you wanted from your friends.” I tried to take a step back from him, but was still blocked by my open car door.

Nick smiled at me as he massaged my arm with his knuckles. “Girl, I just saved your butt.”

I shook my head. “By kissing me? What an ego you have.”

Nick leaned closer and ran his finger down the bridge of my nose and across my lips. “Because, girl, by the time school ends tomorrow and before the game, everyone in school will know that you’re mine so they won’t be bothering to hit on you. Saves you from having to say ‘no’ a lot.”

I frowned. “Bull shit, Nick. Nobody is interested in me.”

Nick smirked and shook his head. “Alex, you have a lot to learn. At least three guys I know of, have said they intend to nail you before the next game. Just look at you. You’re pretty, you’re new, you act naïve, and you’re quiet. You’re the perfect target for these guys. And I doubt they’re the only ones.”

I tried to bend down to get into my car. “Bull shit again, Nick. Who the hell would want to have sex with me? And even if I was a real girl, I’m not going to let some boy talk me into having sex with them.”

Nick chuckled. “That’s what the other girls who got their cherries popped by those guys said too.”

I scowled at Nick. “They must be your heroes. Now please move so I can get into my car.”

Nick got suddenly serious. “No. No they’re not. They hurt a friend of mine once. They only care about making a conquest. It’s a challenge. And you’re a major challenge.”

I softened my expression slightly. “Thanks for the warning, but I can handle myself.”

Nick shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m sure you can, but these guys won’t give up easily with one exception.”

I shifted my weight to one leg. “And what’s that or should I ask?”

Grinning a toothy smile, Nick said, “Be my girl. It’s protection you can take to the bank. I just ask for one thing in return.”

Frowning, I asked, “And what would that …?”

My words were cut off from him leaning suddenly into me and pressing his lips against mine. I tried to push him away, but he put his arms around me and drew me close. His kiss was long and passionate. I wanted him to stop, but I also have never been kissed like this before. Granted I’ve never been kissed by a boy before, but it was so full of fire and passion that I couldn’t stop. It was a kiss that would curl your toes and my own body betrayed me by a growing tightness against the gaff in my crotch.

I should have pushed away, but instead I weakened. I moaned with pleasure as I slid my arms around his neck. This was crazy. I’m being kissed by a boy. It’s so wrong. But why did I enjoy it so much? How many times did I daydream of a moment like this one?

He pulled away from me and smiled. “Now that was a kiss! I hate to break it to you, Alex, but you’re a girl.”

I felt my face flush. “Will you stop it? I’m not a girl, okay? You took advantage of me. You had no right to kiss me.”

Nick laughed. “You’re right. I didn’t. But I don’t apologize. Maybe you won’t admit it, but I could tell. You liked it.”

I frowned and shook my head. “I’m going home now if you’d please back up a little. I have homework and both of us have to be up early tomorrow.”

Nick nodded and stepped back. “Good night, girl. See you at band practice tomorrow.” He turned and started walking towards his car.

I sat down in my car and turned the engine over. I looked back over my shoulder to see Nick getting on his bike. What an asshole I thought. How dare he take advantage of me like that! Kissing me! Really? I mean we’re both guys. I shook my head as I watched Nick’s bike exit the parking lot and roar up 42nd Street. Just pisses me off that he did that.

I studied the steering wheel for a minute. Who am I kidding? I enjoyed his kiss. I enjoyed it a lot. I’d never admit it, but I’ve been waiting for a kiss like that.

*          *          *

Madison pulled me to one side as I walked into the band hall to where we couldn’t be overheard. Sounding shocked she whispered to me a statement, not a question. “You kissed Nick! That’s insane. And he’s letting everyone know that you’re now his girlfriend.”

Feeling embarrassed from this invasion of my privacy, I whispered, “Well, his kiss surprised me. And we came to an agreement that seems to make sense.”

Looking very annoyed, Madison folded her arms. “And that is?”

Folding my arms as well, I frowned at her. “It’s really none of your business what I do, but I agreed that if he says he’s my boyfriend, that will keep other guys off me.”

Madison wasn’t satisfied. “Doesn’t that violate your agreement with the school? With me? That you’re here to learn about the Panther Paws, not to get a boyfriend?”

Scowling, I whispered with annoyance in my voice, “I didn’t come here to get a boyfriend. But I thought Nick was right. If I have a boyfriend that everyone is afraid of, then I’ll be left alone.”

“You fell for that?” Madison shook her head. “He didn’t believe me when I told him you’re not a girl. He thinks anyone as pretty as you can’t be a boy.”

I looked at Madison. “He thinks I’m pretty?”

Frowning, Madison said, “He’s playing you. I’ve known Nick for years. He can seem nice, but he never sticks with a girl for long. He just wants to reduce the competition.”

I sighed deeply. “He seems nice. And besides, we’re not really going to date. This just throws everyone else off.”

Madison touched my arm. “Just be careful, girl. You don’t seem to know much about boys.” She turned away and walked back to the squad.

I just stood there, feeling puzzled. “What does she mean by that? I am a boy.”

The morning rehearsal went great. We were only yelled at three times by the band director. It’s only the second day, but I feel I’m picking up the routine of the girl I’m shadowing. By next Friday I’m confident I could substitute for her with ease.

As we were returning to the band hall, Madison ran up to me. “Don’t forget about the pep rally at nine. You’re a Panther Paw so you’ll be excused from class. Jan managed to be with us today, so just hang in the back. Next pep rally we’ll have you in the show with us.”

I laughed. “How can I forget about the pep rally? What about the game tonight. Did my uniform come in yet?”

Madison shook her head. “Coach expects it to be delivered this afternoon. Go by her office after school to pick it up.”

Nick suddenly came up from behind and slapped my butt. “Hey babe. Don’t forget. After the game we all head over to Rosa’s for a late dinner.” He then ran off.

Madison frowned at me. “Didn’t you say no dates?”

I shrugged. “Isn’t it something y’all do anyway?”

“That’s beside the point,” sniffed Madison. She looked at me for a moment, then said seriously, “Don’t forget your red lipstick.”

Just before nine o’clock, we all ran out onto the gymnasium floor to get ready for the pep rally. Our fellow students were already filling the bleachers. It was already pretty noisy. I looked up into the crowd. Most of the students were trying to crowd down towards the front. But the stoners and the loners were taking the top rows.

Madison touched my arm to get my attention. “You can stand almost anywhere, but us and the cheerleaders need this space in front of the band.”

I nodded. “I got it.”

Mr. Waters, the band director walked past me to take his post in front of the band. He turned to me and smiled, “Great job so far.”

I smiled back. “Thank you sir.” I have been trying hard and I guess he’s noticed.

I walked to the back of the band to a spot where I was out of the way but still able to watch the show. Nick looked back and saw me, grinned and waved his trombone in the air.

I overheard one of the Bass players say to his friend, “Man, how does he do it? She’s been here what? Two days?” The other guy just frowned and shook his head.

When the students had finished filing in, Mr. Baxter made a few announcements, and then the band started to play. The Panther Paws went into action along with the cheerleaders. Mr. Baxter then introduced the year’s varsity team and the players came walking out and took their seats next to the band. The cheerleaders and the dance team riled up some cheers for the team. The football team just sat there with an attitude like they were above it all.

The band played again and the cheerleaders clapped along. Then a boy walked out dressed in an opposing team’s cheerleader uniform, wearing an ill-fitting wig and big, cheap clip-on earrings. He was followed by three other boys dressed as the other team’s football players. All were looking sad. After a few pathetically lame jokes, the cheerleaders and the dance team combined to put on a very dazzling and professional looking show, dancing and cheering around the fake cheerleader and players.

I watched in amazement. I thought to myself, was I going to be able to do that as well? I’m expected to participate at the next pep rally. I still won’t be allowed to participate in the half-time show since it’s preparing for UIL contests. But with the exception of the actual contest, they would allow me to substitute if the dancer I was shadowing couldn’t show up. Mr. Waters had already told the band that the only excuse for not showing up for contest was a death…yours.

When the show ended, all the students with the exception of the stoners sitting on the top row of the field house applauded and yelled. Frankly I was shocked that the student body had so much school spirit.

When it was over, Madison walked up to me grinning. I smiled back at her. “Great show, Madison. Wow. I’m not sure if I could do all that.”

Madison laughed. “Well, you’re going to have to. Coach and I will work with you. It’s not that hard really.”

I shrugged and shook my head. “I don’t think I could do those splits.”

Madison nodded. “We might let you skip those. Okay. Follow me. Once everyone is back in class us, the band, and the cheerleaders are going to parade up and down the halls for a bit.”

“That should be fun,” I said honestly. I followed Madison to where everyone was lining up to march through the halls.

And it was fun. And loud with the band playing a march called Grandioso at full volume. We went through all our yells. It really got me excited. And it made me wish I could have done this when I was in high school.

*          *          *

It felt weird riding in a bus full of high school girls. Especially since I was one of them. The cacophony of teen voices flying in all directions. Laughing. Singing. Madison was sitting next to me, but she seemed unhappy about something.

I nudged her with my elbow. “Is something wrong?”

She just looked at her hands. “This whole Nick thing bothers me, Alex.”

I leaned in closer to keep from being overheard, which considering the noise level probably wouldn’t happen anyway. “I told you. It’s an arrangement for convenience. I get left alone and he gets to brag he’s dating me. Not that that’s much to brag about.”

Madison looked over at me. “I’m not so sure. Coach and Mr. Waters isn’t going to like it. They were worried about you hitting on some girls. They never thought you’d hit on guys.”

I frowned. “I’m not hitting on anyone. Nick approached me. After YOU told him about me. I suddenly became ‘interesting’ at that point.”

Madison scowled. “So it’s my fault?”

I shook my head. “It’s nobody’s fault. Look. It’s just for a few weeks. I’m not really dating and hell, I’ll be gone in a few weeks. Certainly before you go to play-offs.”

Madison looked at me like I was crazy. “Don’t you get it? Nick likes you. He like, likes you.”

I shook my head. “I honestly don’t know why. Look. Don’t worry. Nothing’s going to happen. And I really doubt he likes me. He’s just playing a game.”

Madison frowned. “Don’t be so sure.”

I laughed. I looked around to make sure nobody was paying us any attention. “I know guys like Nick. He’s spent years building his tough guy image so everyone is afraid of him. Do you think he’s going to risk that by dating a boy?”

Looking very serious, Madison said, “Nobody knows you’re a boy.”

I chuckled. “Everyone will know when my article comes out.” At that moment, our bus turned into the entrance of Ratliff Stadium. I looked out the window as the bus pulled up behind the band bus.

I grinned at Madison. “The shit is about to get real.”

She grinned back at me. “Go Mojo!”

We filed out of the bus and hurried through the gate. A few of us broke off from the group to stop to talk to some students hanging around. The rest of us went up the ramp to find the area where we were to sit. To our left was a section marked off for students. On our right was where the band would be sitting. Everyone was talking and laughing.

I started to get nervous. I wasn’t going to go out on the field for the half-time show, but I would be lining up with some other girls to go out on the field for the opening of the game because Mr. Waters wanted a lot of people on the field. Even several band members who weren’t marching during the show were lined up along the sidelines. There were a lot of people in the stands. I squinted into the sun still hanging above the top of the stadium’s press box. I’d be glad when the sun finally goes down a bit.

As the band came filing into their section, Nick saw me and waved. I smiled and waved back. He didn’t say anything out loud, but I could read his lips. “You look hot.” I returned an embarrassed smile. I turned away as Coach Hall started talking to us.

Nick’s words caused some confused feelings. Our so-called relationship was supposed to be just a convenience for me and bragging rights for Nick. Could he actually be interested in me? And what do I think about that?

As I sat down on the bench, the girl next to me leaned in and said, “Just a word to the wise. Nick goes through girls like there’s no tomorrow.”

Feeling suddenly catty, I smiled at her. “Not with me. I plan on dumping him when I’m through with him.”

The girl rolled her eyes. “Good luck with that.” She turned to listen to Coach Hall.

“Okay girls,” said the coach trying to speak above the noise surrounding us. “Watch me or Madison for cues to cheer along with band and sync with the cheerleaders. The band is about to go down to the field. We’ll follow them. Find your positions quickly.”

I was going to get to participate in the opening. I was going to line up behind several band members. After the band played the National Anthem and Permian’s fight song, I was to hurry to the end zone on the side of the field closest to the Permian side of the stadium and join the gauntlet of girls, Panther Paws and cheerleaders, that the football players will run through as they break through the large plastic banner. Then it was hurry from the field and then run back to stands behind the band.

As I watched the majorettes step onto the field in front of the band, wearing their very short sequined dresses, a thought flashed through my mind that maybe I should have tried to infiltrate them instead. I quickly dismissed that. It was far too late; the majorettes are just too small to have an outsider join them. Plus, there’s just no way in hell I could twirl those batons.

Coach looked up through the stand and shouted, “Okay, girls. Let’s go.” The band was already starting to exit the stands using a stairway at the bottom row of stands. We all lined up waiting our turn to take the stairs down to the field.

As I passed Coach Hall, she touched my arm. “Stay here with me, Alex. I need to talk to you.”

Now what? Am I not going to participate in the opening ceremony after all? Am I not going to get to cheer?

After the last girl filed past us, Coach Hall turned to me with a serious expression. “I’ll make this quick. And I need the truth. I heard you’re dating one of the boys on the band. Is this true?”

That story got around quick. “No ma’am. Well, not exactly.”

Coach Hall frowned. “What does that mean? We were worried that you were going to try to date one of our girls. We never thought about boys.”

I sighed deeply. “There was a boy who was very interested in going out with me. He pestered Madison endlessly about who I was. So she told him to make him stop. She made him promise to keep our secret. So we made an arrangement to appear we’re dating so we wouldn’t have this problem with other boys. He’s just a beard, coach. That’s all.” I avoided saying Nick’s name. No point in him getting into trouble.

Not exactly looking convinced, the coach asked, “Are you sure you’re not dating one of our students? I’m responsible for their safety.”

Keeping my voice steady, I said, “Absolutely, coach. For one thing, I’m not interested in guys. And two, does it make sense to come all the way from Chicago to date a boy in this band? He’s just protecting me. That’s all. You might see me hanging out with him or holding his hand. We have to sell it. But we’re not dating.” And as far as I was concerned, that was the honest truth.

Speaking grimly, Coach Hall said, “That better be true.” She hesitated a second before continuing. “And if not, like I tell my other girls, be sure he uses a condom.”

I just nodded, trying not to smile at her ridiculous comment.

I joined the other girls on the field, lining up behind the band members I was supposed to be with. I looked around for Nick. I couldn’t see him. I think he was on the other side of the field as the band completely encircled the football field.

The announcer said a few things about the start of the game. The opening ceremonies started with a color guard marching down the fifty yard line and then the band played the National Anthem followed quickly by the fight song. Then the band turned and marched to the end field opposite of where the players would enter.

As I ran to line up with the girls on the other side of the plastic banner, I surprised myself that I wasn’t all nervous. The crowd in the stand seemed to become an abstract as all their faces just blurred together. They were just too far away to bother me I guessed. As I took my place in the line with the other girls, I found the idea funny that the football players would run between two rows of cheering girls. None of the girls seemed to care that they were in a subordinate position with regards to the boys.

One thing I found odd was that when the opposing team was announced, they ran through a large, inflatable football helmet that I’m sure wasn’t cheap. But it was surprising that with all the money Permian spends on football, that its team would just break through a large plastic banner.

The band, which had moved to one end of the field, started playing the fight song as the team burst through the banner, nearly pulling the poles the banner was attached to from the hands of the cheerleaders holding them. Me and the other Panther Paws stood as a gauntlet of girls, clapping and cheering as the players passed. Once the football team had passed through, the banner and poles were quickly moved from the field. The dance team and I then just walked to stand behind the band. We quickly left the field just as the game actually started.

There were tables set up with water bottles. I was already thirsty and I quickly grabbed a bottle and then followed the other girls back up into the stands to the section designated for us. We were sandwiched in between the band and a student section.

I thought it was funny that Mr. Waters seem to think he was the lead cheerleader as he’d start a cheer the cheerleaders had to follow as the band played short, repeating clips of songs. We had our pom-poms too and we stood and cheered along with them.

I have to admit that I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to the game being played. I just reacted when Madison or Mr. Waters gave us cues. There were several yells that helped to have long hair as you tossed your head forward and back and let your hair fly. I don’t mind saying I was having a blast being part of the cheering section.

I glanced over at the band while they were playing. Nick saw me looking and grinned and waved. I waved back with an embarrassed smile. Nick was definitely an unexpected element to my crazy plan to embed with the dance team.

After what seemed forever of dancing and cheering, it was finally half-time and we and the band started filing out of the stands and down to the field. I wasn’t part of the show, but I would participate in the opening fanfare when the band formed the giant word “MOJO” on the field. I lined up with some other girls next to a line of band members. I got to hold a wispy flag along the sidelines. There were other girls who didn’t participate in the show, but we got to hold flags. Still, it was exciting to be down on the field and look up at the stands full of people and the bright lights shining down on us and just being a part of it.

I was surprised when I looked around that some of the girls were actually crying because the score was zero to fourteen. Permian had the zero. I had a bit of a hard time understanding that. I think I went to one game when I was in high school and that was it. Our school almost always lost. But back then, I was on the outside, merely watching. But this time I was part of the whole team.

When the band finished spelling “MOJO” and started moving to the start positions for their show, the other girls and I who weren’t part of the show set our flags down and walked off the field. We all lined up together on one side and held hands as we watched the band perform.

I kept a close eye on the girl I had been shadowing during rehearsals. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to have to go out with the band and remember the steps and turns as well as when to swing the flag around, but I was confident I could do it. Actually, I was sure if I could get a card to look at before the show, I could probably substitute for most of the dancers on the field.

During the show, I knew where Nick would be and I’d take a quick look over at him as he marched. I know I spent some time in the past day-dreaming about being a girl and being swept off my feet by a cute guy, but I never once considered a boy actually liking me. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. In all honesty, I didn’t need the distraction. Bottom line; I’m not interested in guys.

The band performed the show perfectly. I’d be surprised if the band didn’t make it to the state contest this year. The band filed off the field to a drum cadence and the girls and I fell in line behind them as the other school’s band started to line up on the field.

After I grabbed my water bottle and snack from the table before going back up into the stands, Nick shouted and hurried up to me.

Breathless, Nick said, “Hey Alex. What did you think of the show?”

I smiled at him. “Y’all did great. You didn’t whack that majorette with your trombone this time like during practice yesterday.”

Nick laughed. “While it was funny, I’m sure I’d get into trouble if I did that again. I was careful.” Everyone started moving back up to the stands. “A bunch of us usually go to Rosa’s after the game. Want to come?”

I continued to smile. “Sure. Which one?”

“The one by the mall!” Nick shouted as we had to separate as we reached the stands.

I frowned as I found my seat back in the stands. I really hoped it wasn’t going to be just me and Nick there.

The rest of the game was fun. Not that I paid much attention to what was going on the field. The chatting, the yelling, doing cheers and just being part of this event was very exciting. The volume level of the roar of voices suddenly spiked as our team managed to stop a touchdown at the last minute by the other side which meant we won. I guess. I don’t really follow football. The band started playing the victory song.

I was tired and hoped we would be heading to the buses to transport us back to Permian. But instead we all had line up on the field in front of the football team and cheerleaders and all of us linked arms and swayed back and forth as the band played the alma mater. After things had quieted down somewhat, Mr. Waters got out his bullhorn and proceeded to tell the band what mistakes they’d made and how he expected next week’s performance to be perfect.

As we finally lined up to leave the stands and head for the buses, Coach Hall said to us Panther Paws, “Y’all did great tonight! A really great job. I’m really proud…” she turned and grinned at me. “…of all of you!”

On the ride back to the school, I discovered that a bus full of girls after a winning game is quite loud. Laughing, talking and singing filled the spaces inside the bus. It was loud, but I loved every second of it. I hoped I could remember everything when I jotted down my notes later tonight.

After climbing out of the bus, Madison touched my arm. “Are you coming to Rosa’s with us?”

I nodded. “Of course!”

Madison waved as she turned to find her car. “See you there!”

As I approached my car, I heard footsteps behind me. I turned around to confront whoever was following me and saw Nick.

Grinning, Nick asked, “Did I give you a scare?”

Feeling annoyed, I said, “Yes. You did actually. Say something next time.”

He stepped up pretty close and ran his fingers through my hair. “Sorry. I’ll let you know next time I’m behind you. You going to Rosa’s?”

I nodded. “I told Madison I’d be there.”

Nick put his arm out and leaned against my car. This brought him close enough to touch me. “Cool. Why don’t you ride over there with me?”

I frowned as I tried to back up. “Or, I could take myself there and just go straight home when I’m done.”

Touching my cheek, Nick said, “I have my bike. You said you wanted to ride it.”

I pulled his hand away from my face and looked down at my feet. “I dunno, Nick. I uh…um…”

Nick smiled as he took my hand. “Are you afraid you might like it?”

I smiled at him. “That’s not it. It’s just…”

Nick interrupted. “It’s just a few blocks. When you’re ready, I’ll bring you back here to your car. Deal?”

I just stood there a moment with my hands on my hips before I shook my head and said, “Are you insane? Look.” I ran my hand down in front of me. “I’m wearing a dress.” I’d just gotten off the school bus so I still had my Panther Paws uniform on.

Nick shrugged. “So?”

I scowled, “I’m not getting on a motorcycle wearing a dress!”

Nick laughed. “You’ll be behind me. Nobody’ll see your panties.”

Pointing at the bike, I announced, “I’m not getting on a bike with a dress and that’s final!”

The evening air was starting to get a bit chilly. Especially so on the back of a motorcycle. Nick had let me use his helmet and jacket, but that blast of cold air up my skirt was freezing my balls off. I’m glad tights were part of the uniform. And thankfully it was only for a few blocks. I scooted up close behind Nick and held on tight.

As we pulled up into the parking lot, I was thankful to see there wasn’t anyone milling around outside. I had been worried about providing a peep show when I got off the bike. I could see kids from school inside Rosa’s when Nick stopped his bike and killed the engine.

Turning around to talk to me, Nick said, “Got you here in one piece.”

“I appreciate that,” I said as I started to swing a leg over the saddle. I discovered my tight dress wouldn’t let me lift my leg high enough without exposing myself to the world.

Nick laughed at my predicament. “Hold on.” He leaned the bike over far enough so I could slide my leg over the seat without showing anyone looking what color panties I was wearing.

“Thank you,” I said after taking a few steps from the bike. Whenever I’d ridden a motorcycle before, I of course was wearing something sensible… like pants. I handed him back his helmet, which he rested on one of the mirrors.

Nick grinned as he dismounted the bike. “You’re welcome.” He took my hand. “Shall we go?” He didn’t wait for answer as he started leading me towards the restaurant. I made a tug on my hand, but I couldn’t free it from his grip.

As we entered Rosa’s, several kids waved at us. Several tables had been pushed together to make one long table. Madison waved at me and pointed at two empty seats next to her. She had saved two seats? Guess she’d figure I’d show up with Nick.

Nick led me to the counter. “Whatcha want?” He still held my hand.

I shook my head. “You don’t have to get me anything, Nick. I can get it myself.”

Nick grinned at me. “My girl never pays for her own dinner. Whatcha want?”

I sighed. I knew it was pointless to argue with him. Not really sure what anything was, I studied the menu for a moment, then told the cashier what number I wanted. Nick placed his order and paid. He took my hand again and led me over to where Madison was waiting.

As we neared the table, Madison jumped up and turned to hug me. Grinning, she said, “You did great, girl! I’m proud of you.”

I laughed as I sat down. “I didn’t really do anything.”

Before sitting, Madison lightly punched Nick in the shoulder. “Did you ever get that case of gonorrhea cleared up?”

Nicked smiled at Madison as he sat down next to me. “You’re just too funny.”

Madison touched my arm. “Girl, you were great tonight. Really. Coach will tell you herself on Monday, I’m sure. But she told me she was really impressed with you. She thought you’d just blow everything off for your story. But you were right in there, cheering and dancing. She said she was proud of you!”

I smiled at Madison. “Cool. I’m glad she noticed. I wasn’t sure how well I was doing, but I was trying very hard.”

Nick leaned over. “I think even Mr. Waters was impressed. Seriously.”

I looked between the two. “I’m glad. Honestly, my goal wasn’t just to observe the Panther Paws. Anyone can do that. I wanted to be a Panther Paw.”

Madison laughed. “Well Alex. I’d say you succeeded!” She paused for a second and then looked at me as if for the first time since my arrival. “Is that Nick’s jacket?”

I looked down at it. I’d forgotten I was still wearing it. “Yep. He let me borrow it. It was a chilly ride over here.”

Madison’s eyes widened. “You rode on his motorcycle?” She frowned at Nick.

Not sure why she’d be bothered, I said, “Hey, it’s not like the first time I’ve been on a bike you know.”

Nick tossed his arm over my shoulder. “It’s not like anyone could see her fruit basket, if you know what I mean.”

Madison lowered her voice. “Nick. You’re going a bit too fast with her. She doesn’t have any experience with boys.”

Nick laughed and leaned across in front of me to talk to Madison. “Seriously? I’d say she has a butt-load experience with boys.”

Frowning, Madison said, “You know what I mean! She doesn’t have any experience with boys as a girl. Especially boys like you.”

Nick leaned back and laughed a bit too loudly. He leaned back in. “What do you think I’m going to do with Alex? I know what’s going on. I’m just trying to help her. Other guys are leaving her alone because they think she’s mine. And excuse me all to hell for trying to have some fun at the same time.”

Letting herself get angry, Madison snarled, “She’s not prepared to deal with boys like you.”

I held up my hands. “Guys. You forget I’m sitting right here. Yes. Because I’m naïve, I’m letting Nick get away with too much. But I have to admit, I’m enjoying the attention I’m getting. It’s a completely new experience for me. I know it’s helping me fit in with the other girls.”

Nick held an open palm towards me. “See? I’m helping her.”

Madison took a deep breath. “Alex isn’t too different from some other girls I’ve known who didn’t have a lot of experience with boys. You hurt them.”

Some of the bravado left Nick’s demeanor. He studied his hands a moment. “Look. I’m sorry about your friends. Seriously. Is it really my fault girls are attracted to bad boys? I’m good at playing a bad boy.”

Looking serious, Madison said, “I don’t want Alex hurt. I was afraid you pretending to be her boyfriend was a mistake.”

Nick looked over at me and took my hand. “I have no intention of hurting her.”

I glanced at both Nick and Madison. “Hey. I’m cool with all this. I let myself get carried away too. Too much of this is new to me. I’m having fun. This is a kick, right?”

Both Nick and Madison looked glumly at the table. I sighed deeply and fought down an urge to cry.

*          *          *

Madison had offered to take me back to the Permian parking lot to pick up my car, but I had told her riding back with Nick was okay. It was a little chillier ride than going to Rosa’s, but not too bad. Thankfully, after we got our food, the atmosphere lightened up and we were able to have a good time.

It was fairly late, about midnight when we rode through the gates. It was easy to spot my car. It was one of the few left in the parking lot. Nick parked his bike next to my car and killed the engine. He leaned it over again to make it easy for me to hop off.

As I handed Nick his helmet, I said, “Thanks for the lift, Nick. It’s been a while since I’ve been on a bike.”

He set the helmet on one of the mirrors again and then looked down at his feet. “I’m glad you enjoyed the ride. Maybe I can take you again when you’re better dressed for it.”

I took the jacket off and handed it back to him. “Sure, Nick. I think I’d enjoy that.”

Nick was quiet for a moment as he slid his jacket on. He looked at me for a few moments in continued silence. “Alex. Look. I’m sorry about the little fight with Madison. I know she’s a close friend of yours.”

I chuckled a moment. “Sometimes she’s more like my mother.”

Nick grinned slightly. “Yeah. You have become her special project. But that’s good. She could have just ignored you and let you deal with this situation on your own.”

I nodded. “I’m very grateful for her help. I have no idea how to be a girl.”

Nick smiled and shook his head. “I disagree. I think you’re doing a great job. Too good, in fact.”

I laughed. “Yeah, right.”

Nick stepped closer to me and looked down at my face. “Seriously. You’re a very beautiful girl with a certain sexiness about you. No, seriously. Like tonight at the game. If you’d put any boy in the band in that dress you’re wearing and sent him out to dance and cheer, everyone would laugh and consider him a joke. It’d be an obvious boy. But you… you’re a girl. Everything about you says you’re a girl.”

I blushed. Dammit I blushed! “Thanks, Nick. I have been practicing. Madison has helped me a lot in learning how to walk and move.”

Nick stood a little closer as he shook his head. “It’s more than that. Even from the first time I saw you, you seem to have two conflicting qualities about you. You seemed both inviting and unattainable. That immediately attracted me to you.”

I was up against my car so I couldn’t back up. I can’t believe I let him position me like this again. “Madison knows you all too well. That’s why she brought you into our secret, so you wouldn’t try to add me to your list of conquests.”

Nick chuckled. “That did explain why you didn’t seem to be interested.”

I folded my arms to keep him from getting closer. “So why did you agree to be my fake boyfriend?”

With a wry smile, Nick said, “Several reasons. Dating you increased the bad boy lady killer reputation I had with the guys. And it made girls want to be with me more. There are a lot of girls jealous of you. And…”

I raised my eyebrow. “And?”

Nick flashed an embarrassed smile. “And… well, I like you. You’re beautiful. You’re nice. You’re sexy…”

I folded my arms more tightly. “I have a penis.”

Nick winced. After a moment, he said, “All I see is a girl. A very pretty girl.” He ran his fingers through my hair and touched my cheek. I couldn’t help but feel a tingle at his touch. He slid his fingers under my chin and lifted my face up as he bent down towards me. I should have turned and ran, but instead I lowered my arms, closed my eyes and parted my lips. And then his lips were pressing into mine.

This was crazy. I suddenly found my arms sliding around his neck as we kissed. He pulled me closer to him. I moaned with pleasure as his tongue slid into my mouth. I sucked on his tongue as I pressed our lips together with a pent up desire I didn’t know I possessed. We kissed for a very long time.

We finally separated to catch our breath. Nick ran his fingers down my cheek as he smiled at me. “I could kiss you all night, but that’s the second time I’ve seen that police car drive by. We should probably go.”

I just nodded. That kiss had left me emotionally exhausted. I kissed a boy. I should have hated it. But instead I loved it. God help me, I loved it.

Nick held both my hands. He looked earnestly into my eyes. “I was wondering. Would you like to go out tomorrow night? A movie and something to eat?”

Oh my God. Nick…a guy… was asking me out on a date. I should have told him no. That we just need to stick with the fake relationship. But with the pink fog I was in at the moment, I just smiled at him. “Sure Nick. I’d love that.”

Nick’s grin broadened. “Great. I’ll pick you up about six. I’ll bring my car so you can wear a short skirt. You look so hot in a short skirt.”

I giggled. “Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

He bent down and gave me a quick kiss. He then turned and put on his helmet. I stood there a moment and watched him ride out of the parking lot. I got in my car as I saw the police car driving by for the third time.

*          *          *

“Alex. Are you okay?” asked Madison over the phone. “You sound stressed out.”

I sat down on my bed. “I am stressed. “I did something really stupid.”

Madison paused a moment. “After last night at Rosa’s, I’m afraid to ask what it is.”

I sighed heavily. “I told Nick I’d go on a date with him. Tonight.”

“Girl, what were you thinking?” asked Madison incredulously.

“I wasn’t, apparently.” I sighed again.

“He remembers you’re a boy, right?” asked Madison.

I nodded uselessly at the phone. “Yes. He doesn’t care.”

There was a pause from Madison of several seconds. “You may have a problem. I think he really likes you. Which is strange, considering.”

I lay back on the bed. “I’m sure he likes me. Not sure how I feel about that.”

“So why did you say yes to him?” asked Madison.

I sat up again and sighed. “I have to say I was caught up in the emotions of the moment.”

“You let him kiss you, didn’t you?” Madison was almost accusing me.

I was suddenly embarrassed for letting a boy kiss me. “Yeah. I did.”

“Alex, you need to be careful tonight,” Madison said seriously. “You’re vulnerable. All these emotions are new to you. He’s playing you, like he’s done with other girls. Tonight he plans to reel you in.”

I huffed into the phone. “Horse pucky Madison. It’s just a date. You’re right. It is all new to me. I’m never going to be a girl again, so I want to experience going on a date.”

“That’s fine. Oddly I can even understand that,” Madison said with a tinge of worry in her voice. “Look. We’re girlfriends and girl to girl, I’m asking you to be careful with Nick. Girls who have a lot more experience with boys than you have been sucked into his little trap.”

I laughed. “You make him sound to be a monster or something. He seems really nice to me. And besides, I’m a guy. He’s not likely to charm his way into my panties or anything.”

Madison said simply, “He kissed you, didn’t he?”

I sighed. “Well yes. He did. He kinda trapped me.”

Madison huffed. “I’m guessing the kiss wasn’t your idea?”

I cleared my throat. “Well no. Of course not.”

Madison took a deep breath. “Hey girl. If you want to experiment being a girl and kiss a boy and let him hold you close, that’s fine. It’s great having a boyfriend. I’m just asking you to be careful.”

I uselessly held my palm up. “I will. I promise. Okay. It’s almost three-thirty now. He picks me up at six. I have no idea how to get ready.”

Madison laughed. “I think you do so don’t panic. I really don’t think I need to tell you to take a shower, change your panties, wear a casual skirt and one of your cute tops. Don’t forget to wear a bra.”

I looked at the clothes laid out on the bed. “I’ve picked my clothes already. I’m not sure how to do my make-up. I’m looking at magazines and they’re not really helping me get my evening look. All this contouring looks complicated.”

Madison laughed again. “Girl, you’re over thinking this. Put the magazines away. Look. You have great skin so really you don’t even need foundation. But just go light with your foundation. Basically, just do your same routine as you do for school. The only changes would be in your eye make-up. I’d use a little more liner and some smoky shadow. Just don’t get carried away. You don’t want everyone to think Nick just beat you up. And use some lip gloss of course.”

I frowned. “I thought I needed a dramatic look.”

I heard Madison sigh. “Is your man taking you dancing at some exclusive nightclub or is he picking you up for a movie and Taco Bell?”

I let out a chuckle. “You’re right. I guess I’m just over-thinking this. But this is all new to me. I’ve never been on a date, as a girl, with a boy before.”

“You’ve got this, girl. Don’t worry. Just be yourself.”

I grunted. “Thanks. The thought of going on a date kinda scared me.”

Madison laughed again. “We all get butterflies. Oh. Just in case be sure to take a condom or two.”

I sat up straight. “A condom? Are you serious? I have no desire to even see his dick, much less get poked with it.”

Giggling, Madison said, “You never know. Being a girl seems to come naturally to you. Hey, I need to run. Have fun on your date! See ya.”

“I’ll try. See ya.”

Madison clicked off the phone.

*          *          *

I paced back and forth in my living room, waiting on that fateful knock on the door. This was insane. I had no business going on a date with Nick. Knowing who and what I am, he should never have even asked me. And I should have said no. Shit man, why did I say yes?

For the thousandth time I stepped into the bathroom to check my make-up and check my skirt. I re-felt my legs to make sure they were smooth. Getting ready on this side of a date was certainly more involved than it is for boys. I’d say it was a dumb joke that guys just sniff their shirt to see if it’s still okay to wear except for the fact I’ve done it myself.

I was posing in front of the bathroom mirror when there was a knock on the door. I froze. Oh my God, Nick is here! It’s not the first time I’ve been with him. I’ve seen him a school and at the game. Even our kiss in the parking lot last night. But this was different. This was a date. This time I’m deliberately and intentionally involving myself with a boy. And I was scared. Mostly scared of what I was setting myself up for.

Nick knocked on the door again. I heaved a heavy sigh and walked briskly to the door. I picked my purse up from the couch and checked the contents. The usual stuff: make-up, my cell phone, keys and … I frowned at myself for this stupid idea. I had made a quick run to the drug store and bought some condoms.

“Hey Nick!” I said as I opened my apartment door. “Right on time.”

Nick stood there for a moment with a stupid grin on his face. “You look fantastic. Really. This is for you.” Nick handed me a single rose.

I sniffed it. “You shouldn’t have.” Really, he shouldn’t have. He had obviously picked it from the apartment garden as it still had a bug crawling on it. As Nick stood in the doorway, I quickly filled a small glass with water and set the rose in the water.

“Ready?” Nick asked as he stepped one foot into my apartment.

I slung the purse strap over my shoulder. “Ready. Let’s go.” Nick placed his hand on my back as I turned to lock my apartment door.

He smiled at me as I turned and we quickly descended the stairs to the ground floor, hoping desperately not to trip on my high heeled sandals. My tight denim skirt prevented me from taking too large of a step.

After we got off the stairs, Nick took my hand and led me to his car. He wasn’t really walking fast, but it annoyed me he didn’t take my restriction to short steps into account, so I had to walk quickly in heels to keep up. Or maybe it was on purpose.

Nick had a really nice car. It was a black, late model Mustang. He surprised me by opening my door for me. After he slid into the driver’s seat and cranked the engine over, he turned to me. “I thought we’d go see ‘Armageddon Highway’. I heard it’s a pretty good flick. Lots of action and shit like that.”

I smiled at Nick. Actually, I had been wanting to see that. “What? No romantic comedy?”

Nick winced. “Well, ‘Footsteps in the Snow’ is showing at the same theater. Would you rather see that?”

I laughed. “Oh no. I was kidding.”

Nick chuckled as he started to drive from the apartment parking lot. “That’s a relief. I really didn’t want to see that one. But hey, if my lady wants to see it, we’ll go.”

I lifted my hands defensively. “That’s okay. I’m good.”

Nick grinned. “I knew you were the right girl for me. And seriously, you really are beautiful.”

I smiled feeling self-conscious. “Thank you. And you look great.” I think he was wearing the same t-shirt he wore to school yesterday.

We drove along mostly in silence. Nick talked a lot about his plans for after high school. He hoped to get into robotics.

Looking over at me when we stopped for a red light, Nick asked. “Do you plan to go to college after you graduate?”

I giggled. “I already am in college, remember? I’m a journalism major.”

Nick shrugged. “I keep forgetting. You seem like such a high school girl.”

I just shook my head and grinned.

Nick took a turn a bit too sharply and my purse fell over on the seat next to me. I had forgotten to zip it back closed and few items fell out onto the car floor. I didn’t think about it when I reached down to pick the things up to return to my purse. Prominently displayed in my fingers were the condoms I had bought. I quickly put them in my purse hoping Nick hadn’t seen them. I looked over at him. He pointed at my purse and grinned broadly.

I narrowed my eyes at Nick. “Don’t get any funny ideas.”

Nick laughed a bit too loud. “Now why would I get any ideas just because my girlfriend has condoms in her purse?” I’m going to kill Madison.

I turned to look out the windshield. “Are we there yet?”

He smiled and patted my knee. “Almost, babe.” I picked up his hand and moved it.

After a relatively short drive we arrived at the mall parking lot. Nick surprised me by quickly coming around and opening my door and then helping me out. Swinging my legs out first and keeping my knees together did keep me from flashing the parking lot. But Nick’s extended hand gave me something to hang on to ease standing up.

Nick took my hand and again started walking too fast for me. “Can we go slower? This isn’t a race, you know.”

He turned around with a grin. “Sorry. I forget your stride isn’t very long.” He slowed down. “Is this better?”

“That’s a lot better. Thanks.” The last thing I needed was to have to walk fast and trip and fall.

There weren’t many people hanging around outside the mall entrance. I have to admit, it gave my ego a boost to see what boys were hanging out would turn their heads to look at me as we walked passed. I felt like I had some kind of magic power.

That ended as soon as we entered the mall. The area next to the theater appeared to be a congregation place and there were a ton of kids standing around. Suddenly there were dozens or more boys turning to look at me. I couldn’t hear most of the comments, but one I did really shook me.

A group of boys standing by the entrance of the movie theater all turned to leer at me. Above all the noise, I heard him talk to his friends. “Shit man. Can you imagine getting to fuck that every night?” The guys around him laughed and voiced their agreement.

One of the other boys elbowed the one who spoke. “Hey Buck. She’s looking at you.”

Buck grinned. “Of course she is.” He patted his crotch. “No bitch can resist this….” I couldn’t hear any more as we walked past them to get in line at the theater.

I took a deep breath and tightened my grip on Nick’s hand. I was so thankful to have him beside me.

Nick looked down at me with a serious expression. “Want me to kill him for you?”

I looked up at him and grinned. “Yeah. But can you wait until after the movie?”

Nick laughed. “Anything for you, babe.”

He let go of my hand and he slid his arm around my waist and pulled me close to him. Even though it was Nick, I relaxed and felt safer.

A short line was already forming in front of the ticket booth. We got in line just before a large group came in behind us. From snippets of conversation, it was a good bet most everyone was here for the same movie. A lot of people seem to like a crowded theater. I usually don’t. I almost suggested we go to the chick flick instead.

As we stood in line, I started to become aware of how small I felt. It wasn’t just height though even me wearing heels, Nick is taller than me. It wasn’t physical. Nick was being pretty much like every other boy there. He stood right next to me as if claiming me. He played with my hair. If I had come here as a boy, I’d be standing more or less as Nick’s equal.

No, Nick was taller than me in more ways than just height. When the line stopped moving again, Nick wrapped both his arms around my waist and drew me close. He set his chin on top of my head and we swayed back and forth slightly. While I didn’t mind him holding me -- I liked it in fact – it did make me feel more like a possession. Maybe I was just over thinking, but I felt more like he was showing me off. And I didn’t feel like I was a full adult. He was paying for my movie, my snacks and most likely, for my dinner later.

That’s when it dawned on me what was bothering me. The last time someone else paid my way into a movie was my dad when I was a kid. I looked up at Nick and he smiled at me. I mentally slapped and scolded myself to stop analyzing my date and just enjoy the free movie.

We finally got our tickets and headed for the snack bar line. Thankfully they had several lines running so we got through it fairly quickly. Nick got the tub of popcorn so we could share. We entered the theater that was already starting to fill up. Nick picked a couple of seats for us and we sat down just as the lights dimmed.

After almost two minutes of logos, a scene of a stark highway disappearing into vanishing points as two motorcycles roared from behind the frame and blasted out from either side of the screen. I scrunched down in my seat and grabbed a handful of popcorn. Nick draped his arm around my shoulders.

The movie was pretty good if you weren’t interested in acting, clever dialog or plausible story. There was plenty of high-octane, testosterone fueled action though. I surprised myself when I realized I was gripping Nick’s hand during some intense scenes.

When finally there was a quiet scene where the hero and the girl he was helping to escape from the villains, I looked up at Nick to whisper a comment about the movie. He looked down at me and with only a moment’s hesitation, he bent his head down and his lips were pressed against mine. The music from the movie seemed so appropriate as he pulled me closer to him and kissed me deeply.

In the times before when I dress when no one was around I’d daydream of a moment like this; a guy totally treating me as a girl. And was he! I was breathless from the depth of passion in Nick’s kiss. I moaned with intense pleasure as I slid my arm around his neck. I met his kisses with just as much passion. It was if I had been waiting my whole life for this kiss. Maybe I had…

I closed my eyes and melted into his arms. He slid his tongue into my mouth and I sucked it in. I really needed to watch my emotions and not allow myself to get carried away and think crazy thoughts like being in love. It’s just a kiss. Nothing else.

And then as if to cement that idea, Nick pulled away with a grin. “The action is back on.” He turned to watch the screen and tossed a handful of popcorn into his mouth.

We walked out the theater and into the lobby, my arm around Nick’s waist and his arm across my shoulder. I felt so warm and fuzzy being held by him.

“How did you like the flick?” asked Nick.

“I thought it was great. Lot’s of action.” I nodded to the rest room. “I need to pee.”

Nick nodded. “I’ll wait over by the games.”

I walked confidently into the women’s restroom. I was pretty sure no one would think I didn’t belong there. The restroom was pretty crowded. You see so few people in the men’s room and no one talks that I was kinda taken by surprise.

I knew it was crowded because a couple movies just let out, but still. I wasn’t expecting so many. I had to wait in line for a stall to free up. A lot of girls were lined up in front of the mirror, brushing their hair, touching up their lipstick and such. And everyone talking! It’s almost stony silence in the men’s room. If it was possible to like a restroom, I preferred the women’s.

As I exited the restroom, I stopped dead in my tracks.

“Hey Buck. Look. It’s that girl.”

Buck grinned at me. “It sure is. And no boyfriend this time. Hey babe. What’s your name?”

I didn’t even look at him. I just started to go around him. His friends moved to block my way.

Buck scowled. “That’s kinda rude. I’m just trying to get to know you. You’re much too pretty to be here by yourself.”

I just looked at Buck in silence for a moment. I pointed in the direction of the game room. “My boyfriend is over there. Do you mind letting me by?” I started to walk towards the game room. Buck moved in front of me.

Nodding his head towards the game room, Buck said, “You mean that big guy with the mean face? He’d rather play some dumb computer game and leave such a fine girl like you on your own? If you were my girl, I’d never leave your side.” He grabbed my arm.

I jerked my arm free of his grasp. I shook my head. “I don’t think you’d go into the women’s restroom with your girlfriend. Don’t ever touch me again. Now move. I need to get by.”

Buck moved in front of me again. “I just want to know your name. Is that too much to ask?” He grabbed his crotch. “Don’t you want some of this?”

One of Buck’s friends looked nervously to one side. “Hey Buck. I think we should go?”

Buck jumped when from behind him, Nick said, “Yeah prick. I think that would be a great idea.”

Buck turned and gave Nick a sheepish grin. “Hey. I was just keeping an eye on your lady for you. Making sure no one bothers her and all. But hey. I think I’ll be going now.”

As they started to back away, Nick leaned towards them and in a low voice, “Don’t ever come near my girl again. Understand?”

Buck nodded and he and his buddies turned around and quickly left the theater.

Nick put his hands on my shoulders. “You okay?”

I lay my head on his chest. “Yes. Thank you so much!”

He put his arm around my shoulder and kissed the top of my head. “I’m hungry. Let’s go get dinner. I know this fabulous Mexican restaurant.”

Nick drove his car down the street from the mall and parked in front of Taco Villa.

I laughed. “This is your fabulous Mexican restaurant?”

Nick shrugged. “The other places are closed by now and we went to Rosa’s last night. Besides, they have a great grilled chicken burrito here.”

After we sat down and Nick started unwrapping the paper from his burrito, I just studied him for a minute. He was definitely a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He has this reputation of conquering girls and then discarding them when the new wears off, but he’s been nothing but nice to me. And why is he even attracted to me since I’m not really female? He’s a tough guy, and the bullies fear him. I’ve asked around and nobody has any memory of him actually beating anyone up. He has a bad boy persona, but he’s been nothing but gentle to me. While he’s definitely an alpha male, I can’t help but think he’s hiding behind that bad boy exterior.

After swallowing a bite of my taco, I asked, “So Nick. Do you have any immediate plans after high school? You said you wanted to get into robotics?”

Nick poured some hot sauce into his burrito and took a bite before answering. He shrugged. “Eventually. My grades are good, but my folks can’t afford to send me to college, except maybe Odessa College. My dad is unhappy that I didn’t go into football. He was sure I’d get a scholarship from playing. I was thinking about going into the military for a scholarship. While it’s big money, I don’t want to work in the oilfield. My dad has two missing fingers. He also owns a truck he paid eighty thousand dollars for. Cash. But I don’t know if that’s worth body parts. I’d rather go into computer science.”

He looked at me curiously. “You smile. Why?”

I shook my head. “Sorry. You just don’t seem like a computer geek.”

He laughed and then took a big bite of his burrito. While chewing he said, “Hey. You’ve only seen my dashing, lady-killer side. I’m a big time gamer and a whiz at Javascript. Ultimately though I do want to get into robotics.”

I smiled at him. “You’re a lot deeper than I thought you were. It seems you’re not the drooling, knuckle-dragging brutish oaf everyone sees you as.” Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.

Nick took a drink of his Dr. Pepper. He studied his cup a moment. Without looking at me he said, “Really? That’s what people think?” He then turned to me and grinned. “But then, that’s why you love me.” He chuckled.

That comment shook me to my core. How do I feel about Nick? It bothers me that I do have feelings for a boy, but I don’t think I’d call it love. Love takes longer than a week or two, right? And how can I love a boy?

I looked down at my other taco. “Sorry. I didn’t really mean that the way it came out. But you do have to admit that you have a bad reputation with a lot of girls.”

He smiled at me without humor. “And yet I always have a date.” He took another drink and looked at me for a moment. “You didn’t argue with me saying you loved me, though.”

I felt my face flush. “I… I… I mean I…”

Nick took my hand, smiled and gave me a wink. “I’m playing with you, babe.” He took another drink and studied his cup again. “What I need to sort out is why the best and prettiest girl I’ve ever gone with has a dick.” He grunted a humorless chuckle.

I put my other hand over Nick’s. “Nick, I…”

Nick shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s late. I should probably take you home.”

The few blocks we drove back to my apartment were in silence. Both of us were lost in our own thoughts. I’d look over at Nick and his face was an emotionless mask. I’m sure I hurt his feelings and I was afraid he now hated me. At least I had a boyfriend for one night. Deep down, where my secret, most innermost thoughts are locked, I had to admit I liked the idea of having a boyfriend.

Nick parked in a space not far from my unit. I tried to smile as I turned towards him. “Thanks for the movie, Nick. I enjoyed going out with you.” I put my hand on the door handle to open it when I felt fingers gently sliding down my cheek.

“God you’re beautiful.” said Nick without emotion. “To me, you’re a girl. I don’t see anything else.”

I sat there a moment, a riot of emotions bubbling through me as I looked deeply into Nick’s eyes. I let go of the door handle and leaned towards him, closing my eyes and parting my lips. Next thing I knew, his hand was sliding through my hair and holding my head as our lips met.

Our kiss exploded into a passion so deep it left me breathless. I pulled back and looked deep into his eyes through half closed lids. In a breathy whisper I sighed, “Oh Nick!” He pulled me close to him and we kissed with a passion as if it was our last moments on this earth. I felt so warm and gooey inside. Was I feeling love or lust? I didn’t care. All I wanted, at this moment in time was to be with Nick. I felt intoxicated by his desire for me as he held me tight. I shouldn’t be feeling this way. But I didn’t care. I kissed his neck and nibbled his ear. I couldn’t breathe. I’ve never felt this way about anyone ever.

While we were kissing, my hand slipped to the crotch of Nick’s pants. Oh my God! He was totally turned on. The bulge in his pants was quite large and very hard. Without really thinking about it, I started to massage his hardon through his pants. In a breathy whisper, Nick said, “Don’t start something unless you intend to finish it.”

I gave his cock one last squeeze and pulled my hand away. Caught up in the wild passion of the moment, I wanted Nick so desperately bad. But given a moment to think a rational thought no, I don’t want him inside me. That’s a road I really don’t want to go down.

We kissed for a very long time.

*          *          *

“Hey girl!” called out Madison as we started walking out to the parking lot for another morning of marching practice. “How was your date?”

I stopped and let her catch up to me. “It was great. I think I could get used to dating as a girl. And sorry I didn’t call you Sunday to talk about it. I was busy working on my article. I’d gotten way behind on updating my notes.”

Madison grinned. “I’m glad you had a good time. I’ve noticed you seem more relaxed about being a girl. How was it to date Nick? I’ve heard a lot of stories.”

I stopped and looked at her with a dreamy smile. “He was very nice. I can’t wait for him to ask me out again.”

Madison gave me an odd look. “Alex, maybe you’re getting too relaxed being a girl. I think you’re getting a bit carried away with this.”

I frowned a bit. “I shouldn’t enjoy being a girl?”

Madison shook her head. “Well yeah. Of course you should. But you’re just enjoying the surface of being a girl. The clothes, the make-up, attention from boys and that kind of stuff. You don’t have a period and you can’t get pregnant. But when things start getting too tough for you, you can just say, ‘that was fun, but I’m going back to being a boy.’ Which is what you’re going to be doing in a few weeks.”

My frown increased. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. But it’s impossible for me to find out what it’s like to be a Panther Paw without also finding out what it’s like to be a girl.”

Madison touched my arm. “I’m not offended. I’m happy to call you one of my closest girlfriends. I’m so glad that doing this isn’t just a big joke to you. That’s what Coach Hall was worried about. She told me Friday during the game how impressed she was with you. How you’ve stepped up and taking being a Panther Paw seriously. Friday night, I was so glad that I didn’t see a boy mocking and parodying us, but a girl dancing and cheering with the rest of her team.”

I smiled hesitantly. “Coach Hall really said that? She was impressed?”

Madison nodded. “Yes. She did. And the same for the rest of the team. Several girls told me they didn’t think you’d do well or fit in since you just popped up one day. I don’t hear that anymore.” She paused for a moment. “But a word to the wise, Alex. Be careful with your feelings for Nick. Don’t forget who you really are and honestly. Nick has hurt every girl he’s dated. I didn’t think it’d matter at first since you’re still really a boy. But now I see his charms have worked even on you. Please be careful. Don’t open your heart too much for him.”

I looked down at my feet. “Maybe I’ve gotten carried away. But I’ve never been treated that way before. It was overwhelming.”

Madison opened her mouth to say something when Mr. Waters said through his megaphone from high up on the cat walk, “Madison and Alex. Would you two care to join the rest of us for rehearsal? Now?”

Madison grinned. “We’ll talk later.” She ran off to take up her position. I walked quickly to the girl I was shadowing. She gave me a dirty look.

The rehearsal went really well. While watching the rehearsal, I kept thinking about what Madison had said. I was getting carried away with many superficial aspects of being a girl. But can dating a boy be considered superficial? That seems to me be cutting into the core. And am I allowing my emotions to go too far with Nick? He’s just my pretend boyfriend, right? A pretend boyfriend that I almost went too far with.

*          *          *

Coach Hall had caught me during lunch and asked that I come to her office before the start of the last period class.

The door was open, so I knocked on the door frame and entered her office. Coach Hall looked up from her desk and smiled. “Alex! Please come in and have a seat.”

As I sat down, I asked, “You wanted to see me, Ms. Hall?”

She clasped her hands in front of her face and smiled at me. “Yes, Alex. I wanted to mention a few things. First, I’m very proud of you. I admit. At first I was very skeptical of you and your motivations. I thought for sure I’d be kicking you out for looking up skirts and other sexist acts. But you didn’t. You’ve been a perfect little lady this whole time and I appreciate that. You do all the things we ask of the girls without complaint.

“And at the game Friday, I was most impressed. I really thought you’d just sit there and watch the game or just not do anything. But there you were, dancing and cheering with the other girls. I didn’t see an awkward boy in a short dress. I saw a girl. A girl dedicated to being as much of a member of the team as the other girls.

“So it’s obvious now that this isn’t a joke for you. That you really do want to be a Panther Paw and are willing to work hard. Sadly, my hands are tied so I can’t put you in the halftime show or let you go to contest. But I can feature you more in the pep rallies and other activities. You’re actually one of my more graceful dancers.”

I just sat there a moment with my mouth hanging open, trying to digest what the Coach just said. “Thank you, Coach. I don’t know what to say. I’m glad you think I’m doing well as a dancer. I am trying very hard. I do understand that I can’t replace an actual student in things that count for grades. I’ll try not to disappoint you.”

Coach Hall smiled as she stood up. “I’m sure you’ll do fine. I really do wish you could be an actual student. I’d love to get you more involved. Okay. Let’s get to class.”

*          *          *

“Don’t be nervous, Alex,” said Madison as she adjusted my “costume”. Because Coach felt I was very girly, I was chosen to ironically dress as boy in a Permian’s across town rival, OHS Bronchos, jersey, pads and football helmet and oddly, a horse tail.

“That’s easy for you to say,” I said as Madison adjusted the helmet over my hair.

Madison laughed. “Hey. I’ve done more pep rally skits than I can remember. You’ll do fine. You look cute.”

“I feel ridiculous,” I said as the helmet slipped over my eyes. The football uniform didn’t fit at all. Which is guess is the point. Are football players that big or am I really that small? I never thought of myself as being petite. For effect they probably got the largest uniform they could.

“You’re supposed to look ridiculous!” chuckled Madison. “Do you remember your lines?”

I smirked. “Yeah. Not much to them.”

“Good. Just stay in that tent thing until I give you the signal.” Madison giggled. “Don’t worry. Even if you screw up, it’ll be fine. It’s just for fun.”

“Since the OHS’ mascot is a horse, why don’t I just wear a pony-boy outfit? That’d be funny.” I grinned.

Frowning, Madison said, “That was tried a couple of years ago. Coach Hall said we don’t do S and M shows.”

I shrugged. “I guess that would be a bit much.”

“Just remember. You and the girls dressed as OHS cheerleaders just stand in the middle of the tent as we move it to the floor,” said Madison trying to sound like she was in charge.

Just before the student body started rolling into the Field House, we moved our “tent” to the back of the band where we had to wait. Inside the tent was me and four other girls dressed as OHS cheerleaders. Well, kinda. They were wearing farmer’s style boots, inserts on their teeth to resemble gaps, a couple wore over-sized horned rimmed glasses and they all wore beat up, straw cowboy hats. It seemed a bit over the top to me, but Madison said OHS does similar skits at their pep rallies.

The pep rally started. The band played school fight song and then the Panther Paws danced. I knew the football team was coming out to sit in their chairs lined up along the opposite wall as the band played “Grandioso.”

Madison patted the tent from the outside. “Get ready girls.” Not that I was in a hurry to run out and humiliate myself, but I was growing restless hunkering in the tent. The football pads were uncomfortable and didn’t smell all that good. But the cheerleaders had several cheers to go through and the Panther Paws were going to do a dance routine. And then it’s show time, folks.

The air was growing stale inside the tent when someone hit the side of the tent and said, “Okay, go!” We nodded at each other and the girls dressed as OHS cheerleaders ran out of the gap in the tent and out onto the Field House floor whooping and hollering. After they perform three fake cheers for the Bronchos it would be my turn to stumble out to the floor.

The third cheer ended. People were laughing as the cheerleaders dressed as OHS cheerleaders tripped each other, slipped and fell and dared to suggest OHS was a better team.

That was my cue and I ran out, rattling my pads with my over-sized helmet falling over my eyes. I was carrying a football. My pants were too big and they slipped down. I stopped running and put the football under my arm so I could pull the pants up. It wasn’t planned but it still got a laugh. Tripping a couple of times from my boots, I stopped in the middle of the floor and raised my arms, holding the football in one hand.

In as girly a voice as I could muster, I shouted, “Fear me! I am the mighty Bronchos! I cannot be defeated!” I bent over and said, “Here kitty kitty kitty.” I wiggled my butt to get the horse tail swishing. While I was doing this, some cheerleaders set up a cardboard goal post behind me.

While bent over calling for a kitty, out walked Jayden, the Permian quarterback dressed in his tailored, perfect fit Permian uniform, his muscles stretching the jersey. He cast a very imposing image as he put his hands on his hips and grinned as he said, “Did you call for a cat?” He towered over me.

I slowly straightened up and yelped as I took a step back and dropped the football. Jayden casually bent down and picked up the football and then just as casually picked me up. It was if I weighed nothing. I started kicking my legs and hitting my fists against his back while yelling, “Put me down! Put me down you big meanie!” Don’t blame me, I didn’t write the skit.

He walked slowly to the goal post and walked under it as another cheerleader dressed as a referee gestured the touchdown signal. The cheerleaders and Panther Paws started yelling and dancing around as the band played the Permian victory song. The kids in the audience, in a rare showing of spirit were shouting too.

As Jayden set me down on the floor, he grinned, “I think those pads weigh more than you do, girl.”

I laughed as I took my helmet off. “Probably!” The cheerleaders were all scampering around the floor to clear it for another Panther Paw dance.

Pointing at me, Jayden said, “You want to get together after the game tonight?”

I was shocked he’d ask. I was pretty sure he had to beat girls off with a stick. I smiled and said, “I have a boyfriend.”

Jayden laughed. “That’s not what I asked.” He grinned as he turned to run off the floor.

I walked behind the band. I was done for the pep rally. I wasn’t going to dance with the others for the final dance. Madison ran up to me on her way to the floor and touched my arm. “Good job, Alex! You were great!” She was gone before I could reply.

I wouldn’t say great. I was petrified and quite frankly felt silly. But hey, I did something I never dreamed I’d do.

*          *          *

The game that night was pretty intense. I usually don’t really pay attention to them, but this game you couldn’t help but watch. The scores were low the whole game with both teams playing extraordinarily hard. Permian finally got the game winning point. The cheering was deafening.

The original plan was for me to wear the same costume I did during the pep rally, but Coach nixed it. I was glad. It was uncomfortable. At the start of the game when we lined up for the players to run through our gauntlet of girls, Jayden looked at me and grinned. I hoped he wasn’t really interested. He’s such a big guy, that I’d sure he’d intimidate even Nick who is supposed to keep other boys away from me.

After we were done singing the Alma Mater and started heading back to the buses, I finally found Nick.

“Hey, Nick!” I said as I ran up to him. “Where are you parked so we can go to Rosa’s.”

Nick turned when I called his name. “Oh, hey babe. Hey, something’s come up and I won’t be able to go to Rosa’s tonight.”

I shrugged. “That’s okay. Are we doing anything tomorrow night?”

Nick shook his head as he continued walking to the band’s bus. “Sorry, babe. But like I said, something’s come up. Maybe next time.” He turned and walked away before I could respond.

I just stood there and watched him walk away. I surprised myself for finding that I was so disappointed at not getting to see him later. I mean, after all, he’s not a real boyfriend. And bottom line, it’s ridiculous that a guy like me would want a boyfriend. But I really haven’t felt much like a guy lately. Feeling a bit sad, I turned and walked slowly to the busses.

Grinning, Madison ran up to me just as I got to the bus. “Hey girl! Why so down? We just won the big game!”

I laughed without humor. “Is it showing?”

Madison’s smile faded. “What’s wrong, Alex?”

I looked at the ground and shook my head to fight off crying. Crying would be really stupid. “I guess I’m just upset that I won’t get to see Nick tonight or this weekend.”

Madison shrugged. “That happens. And it’s not like you’re really dating or anything.”

I stopped walking and continued looking at the ground. “I know. But I find that I miss him when he’s not around. I feel something’s missing. And when we’re together, I feel complete. And happy just to be near him.”

Madison put her hand on my shoulder. “Well shit. Alex, you’re in love, girl. You need to scale this back. Maybe Nick was feeling you’re getting too close.”

I started to cry. “Madison. I do love him. I know it’s stupid. I know I shouldn’t. But I love him.” I couldn’t believe what I just admitted. I was in love, as stupid as that sounds. Madison handed me a tissue she’d fished from her bag. Girls always seem to have tissues handy. I wiped the tears under my eyes.

Madison bit her lower lip. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. Remember who you are and why you’re here. The principal better not find out you’re in a relationship with a student. From what I understand, that breaks the deal you made.”

I nodded. “You’re right. I shouldn’t feel this way about Nick. But feelings are hard to control.”

Madison laughed slightly. “I don’t think you’re pretending to be a girl anymore. Look. Don’t waste tears on Nick. He’s hurt every girl he’s been with. Don’t let him hurt you too.”

From the bus, Coach Hall shouted, “You girls want to walk back to Permian?”

Madison waved. “We’re coming!” We started walking to the bus.

Sniffling, I said, “It’s not like he said he didn’t want to see me anymore.”

Madison playfully punched my shoulder. “See? No big deal, right? I’m sure it’s nothing to be crying about.” She’s right. I felt really stupid about crying. What’s going on with me?

As we boarded the bus, Coach Hall said, “Thank you for joining us. I thought we might have to leave you here.

Madison laughed. “I think you’d get into trouble for that.”

Coach looked at me curiously. “Have you been crying? Is something wrong?”

I shook my head. “It’s nothing.”

Coach Hall smiled at me. “You did great today, Alex. I’m proud of you. You’ve really come through.”

I smiled weakly and sat down next to Madison. I sat quietly the whole ride back to school.

*          *          *

The parking lot of Permian was its usual confusing mess. Parents picking up their kids who didn’t drive, other kids finding their cars and others trying to gather friends. I should have just gone home since Nick said he wasn’t going to Rosa’s as usual. But I still looked for him so we could have a quick visit.

After a few minutes of searching, I saw the rear end of his car, but that was all as it was parked next to a van. I was happy to see that his car was still here. That would mean that he hadn’t left. I rounded the van and stopped dead in my tracks.

There was Nick, his hands in the hip pockets of a girl with long blonde hair. She had her arms draped over his shoulders. Nick’s head was bent down so they were almost touching noses. I took a few steps towards him and folded my arms.

“So is this the other thing you had to do tonight?” I asked with acid dripping from every word.

Nick straightened his back, jerked his hands from the girl’s hip pockets and reached up to pull her arms down. A look of total shock crossed his face.

“Babe! Alex honey,” said Nick nervously as he stepped towards me. “This isn’t what it looks like. Honest!”

“Of course it isn’t!” I spun around to storm off.

“But, babe! Wait.” Nick ran after me.

Nick tried to grasp my arm, but I jerked it away. “Don’t you dare touch me!”

Nick’s eyes flashed as he barked, “It’s not like I’m your boyfriend or anything!”

I turned around and shouted, “Then it’s a good thing I didn’t suck your cock!” I turned from him and started walking quickly away.

The blonde who had had Nick’s full attention until I showed up angrily asked, “She sucked your cock? You told me you weren’t seeing anyone!”

Nick turned to her and shouted, “No she didn’t. Are you deaf? And my relationship with Alex is…um complicated.”

The blonde whacked Nick on his head with her purse. “My friends were right. You really are an asshole! Don’t call me!” She pun on her heel and stormed off.

Nick turned towards her. “But babe! Wait. I can explain.” The girl kept walking.

I stopped walking to avoid being hit by a car going through the parking lot. The car stopped and Jayden poked his head out. “Hey girl. We’re going to Taco Bell. Want to join us?”

I looked in the car. Three girls were already in the car with Jayden. I said, “Sure!”

Jayden asked, “Sure your boyfriend won’t mind?”

I turned around to look at Nick who stood a few feet away. To Jayden I said, “I don’t have a boyfriend.”

Grinning, Jayden said, “Well get in!”

I got in the car and we sped away. Nick raised his arms and shouted, “Wait!”

The three girls in the car were all cheerleaders. One of them turned to me and said, “You’re …um, Alex, right? I’m surprised Madison didn’t warn you about Nick.”

I looked out the car window and sighed. “She did.”

Another girl laughed. “Yeah. Every girl thinks she’s going to be the one. It’s best to just stay away from him.”

The third girl said, “He’s so immature.”

As we drove the block and a half to Taco Bell, I quietly berated myself. Why am I so upset at Nick? Technically, he’s not my boyfriend. I shouldn’t even have a boyfriend. I’m not even a girl. Why did I get so jealous, and that’s what it was, at seeing Nick with another girl. No. Not another girl. A girl. Man, I’m letting this girl shit get out of hand. I’ve almost forgotten what my goal here was. Not to become a girl, date boys and become a good dancer. I was supposed to be finding out what makes a Panther Paw tick. Instead I’ve actually become one. Maybe I’m learning more than I bargained for.

As we climbed out of Jayden’s car, he looked at us all and said, “I hope you bitches all brought your own money. I can’t afford four girls.”

“Why did you invite us?” scolded one of the girls. “You call this a date?”

Jayden laughed. “I don’t call four girls a date. It’s more like heaven! I invited y’all because I didn’t think cheerleaders ever ate.”

A couple of the girls actually seemed to be getting pissed at the thought of having to buy their own burritos. The girl who had recognized me earlier said, “Guys, he’s joking.” She looked over at Jayden. “You’re joking, right?”

Looking serious, Jayden shook his head. Then he grinned after a hard laugh. “Of course I’m joking. I treat my women right.”

As we walked to the entrance, one of the girls asked, “So. Are you taking us all to a movie tomorrow night?”

Jayden shook his head. “Sorry. That’s only for my special girl.” He gruffly put his arm around my shoulder and squeezed. “And this is her.” He took my hand as we walked through the entrance.

When we got inside, Jayden said, “You guys go ahead and order.”

With Jayden still holding my hand, I said, “Hey. Thanks for the invitation and all, but I’m not sure if…”

Jayden interrupted with a laugh. “I know you don’t have a date tomorrow night.”

“Well, I don’t even really know you,” I said feeling embarrassed. The last thing I needed was to date other guys.

The girl who first talked to me…Cindy…that’s it. Anyway, Cindy laughed and said, “He picked you up and carried you halfway across the field house. You’re practically married.” All the other girls laughed.

Jayden still held my hand. I said, “Where I come from, marriage is a bit more complicated than that.”

My cell phone started ringing in my purse. I pried my hand away from Jayden’s grip and checked the caller id. It was Madison.

“Hey girl, where are you?” asked Madison. “We’re all at Rosa’s. Are you with Nick?”

I turned away from Jayden and the other girls to try to make the conversation a bit more private. “Hey Mads. I’m at Taco Bell with Jayden, Cindy and a couple of other cheerleaders. I broke up with Nick tonight.”

“You did what?!” yelled Madison over the phone. “You can’t break up with Nick! What happened?”

Frowning uselessly at the phone, I said, “I caught the asshole with another girl.”

Sounding really pissed, Madison said, “Nick, that idiot! He just can’t help himself. You’re with Jayden?”

“Yes,” I said calmly into the phone. “He picked me up right when I was breaking up with Nick.”

Growing more upset, Madison said, “This is bad. You can’t date Jayden! You’re not really a girl, remember?”

I looked back at Jayden and flashed a quick smile. “What does it hurt? I was dating Nick, so what’s the deal?”

Exasperated, Madison said, “Alex. Are you out of your mind? If Mr. Baxter finds out you’re dating another boy, he’ll kick you out. That was part of the deal, remember? Nick was to keep other boys away from you. You were never supposed to actually date him. And it sure as hell isn’t fair to Jayden. He thinks you’re a girl. How do you think he’ll feel if he finds out you’re really a guy. Especially if he kisses you.”

“Madison, you’re not my mother,” I said sounding irritated. “I don’t need your permission to date someone.”

Sounding more angry than I’ve heard her before, Madison almost shouted over the phone, “In this case, I *am* your mother! If you want my continued help, don’t you dare date Jayden! I’ll call you later!” And with that she disconnected the call.

I turned around trying to find where everybody had gone too. I saw Jayden and the girls sitting at a table. Jayden waved. The seat next to him was vacant. I walked over and sat down in the empty seat.

Jayden immediately threw one arm around my shoulder. “That was one long-assed phone call. Who called? Your mother?” He then laughed.

I frowned as I dropped my phone back into my purse. “Yes. Yes it was.” I really hated to admit it, but Madison was right. I had no business trying to get a date from Jayden. Or really getting a date from anyone. Including Nick. How did I become so boy crazy? Not only would I be lying to him or anyone else, but I’m also going to be heading back home a few weeks.

Jayden leaned into me. “Damn, girl. You need to tell her to cut you some slack. I went ahead and ordered for you.”

I tried to move away for a little breathing room, but Jayden had a good lock on my shoulder. In fact, he pulled me a bit closer to him. I smiled weakly. “Yeah she does. But it’s hard to argue with her, for sure. And thanks for ordering.”

“So Cindy was telling me that you and your parents just moved down here from Chicago.” He paused for a moment as he pointed to one of the other cheerleaders at the table. “Hey, Carla. That’s our order. Would you mind bringing it over here? Anyways, I was going to say I have a cousin who lives in Chicago. Do you know him?”

I didn’t know if he was joking or what. So I looked at Jayden questioningly. “Oh. So he’s *your* cousin? I didn’t know.”

Jayden pointed at me and laughed. “You’re funny. I can’t wait for our date tomorrow night. I’ll pick you up at six.” He was telling me, not asking me.

I looked down at my hands. “About that. I just met you. I… I don’t think we should rush into a date.”

Jayden raised his eyebrows. “You shittin’ me? Making out at the movies is a great way to get to know each other. Ain’t that right girls?” All three girls giggled and nodded in agreement.

I touched his hand. “I appreciate you asking. I’m flattered, really. But I think I’m going to have to pass this time.”

Carla looked at me with genuine surprise. “You’re turning down Jayden?”

Jayden raised his hand. “It happens. She just needs more time. But she’ll come around.” He kissed my cheek. “I have faith.” He grinned at me.

I was annoyed by his kiss. I really thought he was expecting too much from me. I didn’t say anything. I had a feeling Jayden likes a challenge.

We sat around for the next half hour eating and listening to Jayden telling jokes. He was actually pretty funny, cute and well built. If I had different plumbing I might let him pursue me. It’s something I just can’t chance. After my Nick experience it’s all too easy to get carried away with the moment.

Carla looked at her phone. “Oh shit! It’s getting late. Dad is going to kill me if I’m not home soon.”

Cindy frowned. “Yeah. Me too. Jayden. Can you take us back to the parking lot?”

Jayden threw up his hands and frowned. “Talk about party poopers! But yeah. I’ll take you guys back. I thought we had a good time tonight.” Everyone nodded in agreement.

On the drive back, Jayden had made sure I sat next to him in the front seat. He threw his arm behind me and played with my hair. When we arrived at the parking lot, the lot was mostly empty with a few scattered cars. Jayden parked somewhere in the middle of the other cars.

“Good night guys,” said Jayden waving as the other girls started exiting his car. I felt his fingers suddenly entwine in my hair. His grip kept me from leaving. A bolt of fear flowed through me. Surely he’s not stupid.

He turned to me, his fingers still in my hair. “Hey Alex. Before you go I just wanted to talk a bit.”

“Can you let go of my hair first?” I asked placing my hand on the door handle.

He relaxed his fingers, but they remained in my hair. He laughed. “Sorry. I didn’t want you to leave before we talked.”

“About what?” All my muscles were tightening.

Jayden continued to play with my hair. “About tomorrow night. Are you sure you won’t change your mind? I mean, most girls would jump at the chance to get my attention. You got mine without even trying.” Wow. And I thought Nick had an overblown ego.

I pointed to myself by putting the palm of my hand on my chest. “Jayden, for me you came on too strong. Just too fast for me. I’m not in the habit of falling for someone just because they give me a ride in their car.”

Still playing with my hair, Jayden leaned towards me. “I get it. Sometimes I’m a bit too intense. But you sometimes have to hit hard and fast, babe. I’m not the only guy at school who’s been waiting for Nick to be Nick and chase you away. You’re hot, girl. There’s something exotic about you.”

I laughed nervously. “Thanks. I think. But look. I’m really not interested in jumping into another relationship right now. I think Cindy likes you.”

Jayden shrugged. “Cindy’s easy to get. But you. You’re the prize.” He stopped playing with my hair and slid his fingers down my cheek. And before I knew it, his lips were pressed against mine. He held my head so I couldn’t pull away. He kissed me after I told him I wasn’t interested! I grunted as I tried to pull my head away from him. He leaned more into his kiss.

I managed to put both hands on his chest and pushed. But he was much stronger and with his fingers wrapped in my hair and holding my head, I could do little to resist him. His kiss was hard and rough. Not the gentle romantic kiss like I got from Nick. He was trying to conquer me.

I started to cry, both from the pain of my hair being pulled and from being scared out of my mind. He kissed harder as he grabbed my fake boob. If I didn’t stop him, this wasn’t going to end well for me. I leaned into his kiss, sucked his lower lip into my mouth and bit. Hard. I tasted blood in my mouth as he pulled away from me and howled.

Pressing his fingers with his free hand to feel where I bit him, he jerked on my hair again. “Bitch! You bit me!” There was blood dripping from his lip and down to his shirt. He then slapped me hard across my cheek. He still held my hair.

Crying uncontrollably, I gritted my teeth and raised my hand to hit him. He caught my wrist and shook his head. He yelled, “No! You stupid bitch!”

Still crying, I tried to shrink back from him. “Just let me go. Please. Please let me go.”

He stared at me intently for a long moment and then wiped the blood from his lip. Still gripping my hair, he asked, “What’s wrong with you, girl? I just wanted a kiss. That’s all.”

I didn’t say anything. I was just crying and shaking.

Shaking his head, he said, “Jeez, girl. Are you going to go around now and tell everyone I tried to rape you or something? Well, that’d be a lie!”

I took a deep breath, tears running down my cheeks. I shook my head. “No. I won’t. I promise. Please let me go. Please.”

Scowling, Jayden said, “You’re right. You won’t. You came on to me, cunt. Everyone at school knows you’re nothing but a slut. Get out of my car!” He let go of my hair. I opened the car door and practically fell out.

I heard his tires squeal as I ran for my car. Jayden’s car roared out of the parking lot. I fumbled in my purse to get my car keys. I got inside my car and locked the doors. I then buried my head into my arms folded on the steering wheel. I cried harder than I had in my whole life.

*          *          *

“No you’re not,” said Madison as she sat beside me on her bed and handed me a clump of tissues to dry my eyes.

I looked at Madison in shock. “Are you saying I should just ignore almost being raped?”

Looking serious, Madison said, “Alex. I know you were scared. Who wouldn’t be? But let’s be real. Yes. Jayden was an asshole. Yes. He carried things too far. Yes. It’s unforgivable that he hit you. But girl, no matter what you do here, you’ll come out the loser. And in my opinion, I very sincerely don’t believe he was going to rape you. He has an ego the size of Texas and thinks he’s God’s gift, but he’s not stupid enough to risk jail, losing his lucrative scholarship and a shot at a national big league team by raping a girl.”

I let my jaw drop. “I can’t believe you’re taking his side! I have to at least go to the principal about this!”

Madison scowled. “I’m not taking his side. But to be honest, whether Mr. Waters believes you or not, he’s going to kick you out of school and send you back home. Is that what you want? After all, you were specifically told you couldn’t have relationships with students. They looked the other way with Nick because you two were supposed to be dating.”

I folded my arms and looked away from her. “So he just gets away with it?”

Madison coughed a laugh. “Getting away with being a guy? Trust me, you’re not the first girl in history to be your situation. And here’s your situation. If you go to Mr. Waters with this, it puts him in a bad spot. He already doesn’t like you, reluctantly agreed to this and has no investment in you. The school has a lot riding on Jayden who they feel will take Permian to the state play-offs, not to mention his scholarships and chances of a spot in the big leagues. Yeah, Jayden’s a jerk and probably deserves to lose those things. You’re not the first girl here. But even if Mr. Waters sides with you and expels Jayden, you still lose. You become the most hated girl in school and he still sends you home. But it won’t go that way.”

I frowned fiercely at Madison. “Why not? I’ve got the truth on my side.”

Madison shook her head. “Mr. Waters will never see it that way. Cindy and the other girls that were there will say you were flirting all night with him and couldn’t keep your hands off him. Truth doesn’t play into it. You’re competition. They want you out. And Jayden will only have to say he was going to give you a friendly good-night kill and you, without any reason hit him hard enough to bust his lip. Everyone at school is going to hate you or think you’re crazy because they’d all like to have a good-night kiss from Jayden. And Mr. Waters will still kick you out for violating the agreement.”

I closed my eyes to fight back the tears. “But I’m the victim here!”

Madison gave me a sisterly hug. “You’re the victim no matter what you do. For everyone, it’s best to drop it.”

I looked down at my hands. “I can’t believe you don’t care.”

Madison took one of my hands. “I do care, Alex. A lot. You’ve become like a sister to me. I don’t want to see you hurt, but I don’t want to see you kicked out of school either. That’s the end result no matter what. Promise me you won’t take this to Mr. Waters. Please promise me.”

I sniffled and then sighed. “Okay, Madison. You win. I won’t go to Mr. Waters. But it pissed me off that guys like Jayden get away with this.”

Madison put her arm around my shoulder and kissed my cheek. “Me too, sister. Me. too.”

*          *          *

I opened my apartment door and there stood Nick. Scowling, I slammed the door, but he put his hand up to stop the door from closing.

“Nick. Get lost, okay?” I said standing in the doorway, my arms folded. “I have nothing to say to you.”

Still holding the door open, Nick said, “Actually, I think we do. Madison told me all about your ordeal with Jayden. I’m sorry you had to go through all that.”

I grabbed the doorknob getting ready to slam the door again. “Well gee. Thanks so very much. Now get lost.” I wondered how much Madison told him. I wasn’t expecting her to blab our heart-to-heart talk.

Nick caught the door again. “Just hear me out, okay? Madison said I should come over. I really am very sorry about Jayden. He’s an asshole. What can I say?”

“How about good-bye?” I tried to close the door again.

Looking frustrated, Nick took a deep breath. “Look. I sincerely apologize for that other girl. I don’t even know what I was thinking…”

I scowled at him. “That’s your problem Nick. You don’t think. Now get the hell out of here.”

“Will you listen, please?” Nick begged. “That girl meant nothing to me. You mean more to me than her.”

“I could tell.” I tried vainly to push the door against Nick’s strength.

“Will you just listen for a minute?” Nick yelled. “This is important.”

Now I was getting worried that one of my apartment neighbors would call the police about a domestic disturbance. I opened the door wide and stepped aside. “You have five minutes. Make it quick.” Nick stepped through the door and I closed it behind him.

“Thanks,” said Nick with a sigh. “First, let me say again that I’m really very sorry about the other girl. I realized something when I saw you get into Jayden’s car. But what we need to discuss is the fact that no matter how angry you are with me, you still need me to be your boyfriend.”

I folded my arms. “How about no boyfriends? I’m only here until the end of November. I think I can survive another month and a half.”

Nick laughed. “I don’t think so. You think Jayden was an isolated incident? You’re going to start getting hit on. A lot.”

I let out a short laugh. “I do know how to say no, you know.”

Nick grinned. “Can you? You were ready to say yes to Jayden until Madison reminded you of who you really are. It’s pretty obvious you like boys now. You need me to keep you safe.”

I laughed out loud. “I need you? To keep me safe? Really?”

Nick’s face shifted to a serious expression. “Yes. Really. I know about you. I’m not likely to beat the shit out of you when I find out the girl I’ve been making out with has a dick.”

“Maybe whoever I choose to date won’t care?” I said shifting from one foot to the other.

“Maybe. These are enlightened times. But your secret is safe with me. With someone else, who knows? Word will most likely get out. There will be those who want to beat you up, or worse rape you just because they see you as a sissy fag. And another reason you come back to me.” Nick paused and looked down at his feet.

Frowning, I asked, “And that is? …”

Nick raised his head and looked me straight in the eyes. He paused for several long moments. “Because I love you, Alex.”

I dropped my arms and felt like I had just been hit by a truck. “Love me? Y… you can’t love me. I’m a guy. And besides, you have an odd way of showing it!”

Nick stared at the floor. “It’s crazy I know. That girl was a mistake. I wanted to prove to myself that I didn’t love you. I don’t like guys. But you’re not a guy to me. When I look at you, I just see a girl. A girl who’s smart and funny and warm. A girl you can’t help but fall in love with. When I saw you get into Jayden’s car, I knew then just how much I loved you.”

I was shocked. I was a mixed bag of emotions. I had admitted to Madison that I loved Nick. I was pissed at him for being with another girl. My heart was sent soaring when he said he loved me. But he’s such an asshole. He’s my asshole.

I suddenly felt numb and weak. I wanted to rush to his arms. I took a step to him and then stopped. I asked, “Are you just saying that so I’ll come back to you?”

He looked down at his feet for a moment and barked a laugh. He looked sideways at me. “I have never told a girl I loved her. Ever.”

I smiled at him and took a step towards him. Nick put his arms around my waist and drew me up against him. He brushed the hair from my eyes. He whispered, “I never want to lose you.”

And we kissed. For a long time.

*          *          *

Band practice was especially grueling Monday morning. The coming Saturday was a pre-contest contest. Mr. Waters wasn’t happy about anything the band did. I thought the band performed perfectly at the game Friday, but he was pissed about a lot of small things. He bitched about everything during Monday practice.

As we all walked slowly back to the band hall after practice, all feeling we had let Mr. Waters down, Madison came running up to me.

“Hey, girl!” shouted Madison brightly. “Sorry I didn’t call or anything Sunday. Things were busy. But I wanted to ask how things are between you and Nick? Were you able to iron something out?”

I smiled. “Yeah. He’s my boyfriend again.”

Madison sighed heavily. “I’m so glad.”

I looked at her while we walked. “He gave me his glass ring.”

Madison stopped walking. “Oh wow. He’s serious about you! Can I see it?”

I shrugged. “It’s just a class ring. It’s in my purse. It’s too big for any of my fingers to be able to wear it. Of course he wants it back before I leave for Chicago.”

Madison grinned. “I have a necklace chain with nothing on it that you can borrow. You can slide the chain through the ring and wear it like a necklace.”

I smiled back at Madison. “Oh, cool! Thanks. That’ll work.”

Madison shook her head. “I can’t imagine what you’ve done to Nick though.”

Knitting my brow, I asked, “Why do you say that?”

Madison laughed. “Nick has never gone steady with anyone. You’re the first.”

*          *          *

There was a lot of grumbling about having to be at the stadium on a Saturday. Everyone was on edge though after a week of harder than normal practice. Today’s performance of the show was for the Bands of America contest. It wasn’t UIL, but still an important regional band contest.

The Panther Paws were there of course because we’re part of the show, running around with flags and props. Even though I shadowed one of the girls, I wasn’t allowed in the show because I wasn’t an official student. Coach Hall tried to change Mr. Waters mind a couple times after she came to feel that I was serious about being one of the Panther Paws. But Mr. Waters always said, “Rules are rules!”

While we were waiting for the two bands ahead of us to finish their shows, a grinning Coach Hall and an obviously pissed Mr. Waters approached and pulled me to one side.

Coach Hall handed me a small sheet of paper. “Alex. Do you think you can memorize these steps in half an hour?”

I took the paper and examined it. I nodded. “They’re very close to the ones I learned for the girl I’m shadowing.”

Mr. Waters probably couldn’t frown any further. “Excellent, girl. Memorize it and practice what you can.”

Still holding the paper, I said, “I’m confused. What’s going on?”

Coach Hall grinned. “You’re in the show, Alex! Don’t worry. You’re one of my more devoted girls. You’ll do great.”

I tried to hand the paper back to Coach Hall. “But I can’t, remember? I’m not a student.”

In a pissy voice, Mr. Waters said, “Technically you are enrolled as a student, remember? That’s why you still have to go to class. You’re just not a regular student. Alex, any other time I would never ask. But we’re all out of alts. Even though I told them death was the only excuse to not be here, we’ve had several call in sick today.”

Coach Hall frowned. “Rachel, the one hit by the car and is in ICU has a solid excuse I think.”

Mr. Waters nodded. “I’ll yell at her last.” Turning back to me, he growled, “So you’re in. Don’t let it get out that you’re not supposed to perform. If there was any other way, I wouldn’t do this. Don’t make me regret this decision.” He spun on his heel and walked away.

Coach Hall handed me the flag I was to carry along with a costume change. The dress was a bit too large, but workable. It seems everyone is bigger and stronger than me.

Coach Hall smiled at me. “You’re going to do great, Alex. I have faith in you.” She turned to follow Mr. Waters.

Madison ran up to me as I picked up the dress wondering where to change. “Holy shit girl! You’re in the show! You can do it. Just believe in yourself.”

I took a deep sigh. “I’ll try.”

Madison grinned as she switched to a funny voice. “Do or do not. There is no try.” She laughed. “You’ll do great. Go change in the bus. I’ll stand guard.”

I changed quickly. Madison came on the bus to help adjust the costume and make sure my gaff was in place.

“Got the steps memorized?” asked Madison as she stepped back to evaluate my appearance. “We’re up in fifteen minutes.”

“Madison, I’m really scared. What if I screw this up?” I asked Madison, genuinely scared.

Madison hugged me. “Don’t be. You’ve been training for this moment for over a month. You’ve practiced similar steps. You’ve got this, girl.”

I took a deep breath. “Let’s do it!” We hurried out of the bus.

I started getting nervous again as we lined up to march out on to the field. I ran the counts over and over in my head. I had a sneaking suspicion that if I screwed up, Mr. Waters would use it as an excuse to kick me back home. But if I pulled it off, would he start to like me? Probably not. Well, I’m not wanting to pull it off to make Mr. Waters happy. Granted. It wasn’t exactly a major part in the show, it was my moment of truth as a Panther Paw. Not only did I want to do this for me, but for Coach Hall, Madison and yes, even Nick.

The girl behind me touched my arm. It was a girl named Sandy. When I turned around she said, “I’ll help you if you get lost. Just watch me if you’re not sure what to do.”

I smiled at her. “Thanks. I really appreciate it.”

As we marched out onto the field, I shivered. Not just from nerves. It was late October and the dress I was wearing was pretty skimpy. I looked up into the stands. A good sized crowd, but hardly full like it was for a game. I’m sure it was mostly parents. For just a moment I scanned the crowd for my parents. I sighed. My parents weren’t going to be there to watch their daughter perform. I shook my head as I imaged what my dad would be saying right now.

As we entered the field, everyone started to split off to their starting points. “Follow me,” said Sandy. Not sure otherwise where to go, I followed her.

Sandy pointed to the spot behind her. “Stand there and follow my lead.”

When I did, the pattern that I’d memorized now made perfect sense. I closed my eyes and took another deep breath. I held my flag in a death grip. I got this, I kept telling myself.

I watched the Drum Major as she started the performance. I raised the flag I was carrying and ran several long paces to my right, swinging the flag left and right, making sure I was in sync with the other girls.

Sandy said in a voice only the people around her could hear, “Spin left, now two steps back.” I think she was just making sure everyone stayed together in her group rather than just directing me.

Everything was going pretty much the way I rehearsed it when shadowing that one girl. I was in a different position and had a few different turns, but it was close enough that I didn’t have any real problems remembering what to do. Well, once I almost missed my cue to put the flag down and run to move a prop into place. I don’t think anyone noticed.

I was exhausted and a nervous wreck when the show finally ended after close to fifteen minutes. I picked up my flag and helped move a prop off the field. Sandy ran by and said, “Great job!”

Everyone was quiet as we left the field in a long procession. There was only the drum cadence. We were going to have go up into the stands and await the results. I was really nervous about the results. The bands were ranked. If we made it to the top ten, we’d have to do another performance. We had to wait for two other bands to perform and then a half hour delay while the judges made their decisions. Finally the band officers were called to the field where they announced the results for each school. We got number three, which meant we were marching again in about an hour. I was tired, but I was no longer nervous.

The second time out we got number six. It just meant more rehearsing to make sure we got a Division One at UIL. But my marching career was over. Even if they needed an alt, there was no way I’d march at UIL. And that’s fine. At least I got to experience being in the show at least once. Well, I guess that’d be twice since we had to march two times. Now I don’t think for a second that the band succeeded because of my brilliant marching. I just filled a gap and managed not to make an embarrassing fool out of myself.

As I was walking to the bus, I was met by both Coach Hall and Mr. Waters. Coach Hall was beaming. “Alex! You did great, hon! I knew you would. Thanks for helping out.”

Mr. Waters almost smiled. “You did alright. Thanks.”

Just as I was about to get on the bus, I was almost tackled by Madison. She gave me a big hug. “You did it, girl! I just knew you’d nail it. Great job!”

I hugged her back. “Thanks for helping me through it. It was a great experience.”

Nick was already on the bus with the band members. He saw me through the bus window, grinned and gave me a thumbs up. I waved to him and got on the bus.

Nobody had said anything about meeting up later. I was glad. It was almost midnight when we started loading up the busses. It’s only fifteen minute drive from the stadium back to the school. But I was beat. I could probably finish my article with today’s events.

I had managed to do just about everything I could do as a member of the Panther Paws. I was pretty happy about it.

*          *          *

I stepped into the bathroom to check my make-up for the fortieth time. It was still perfect. I struck a few poses in my new dress, a chocolate brown sweater dress with matching hose and knee-high, high heeled suede boots. Nick’s class ring necklace dangled about my neck. I checked the time. Nick should be here any minute.

Madison had invited Nick and me to her house for Thanksgiving dinner. Her boyfriend was going to be there too of course. It was both a Thanksgiving dinner as well as a going away party of sorts. I would be heading back to Chicago on Friday after Thanksgiving. My mission was complete. And though I had no hand it in, the Permian Band won a Division One at the UIL contest. We’d had a less personal going away party the Saturday before at Rosa’s. Many Panther Paws and band members showed up, sad that I was leaving. Even Mr. Waters was there and shook my hand. Coach Hall cried.

There was a knock on the door. I checked my make-up, hair and dress one last time before hurrying to the door. I opened the door and there stood Nick, holding a bouquet of flowers. I was shocked. He was wearing a button down shirt and what looked like a sport jacket. It kinda went well with his jeans. At least they were clean.

He extended the flowers towards me. “Here, babe. These are for you. Are you ready?”

“These are gorgeous!” I said as I took the flowers and took a big whiff of their fragrance. “Let me put these in water and grab my purse.” A few months ago, you never would have heard me say that the flowers I was receiving were gorgeous or that I had to get my purse. Would I ever be able to go back to normal? I’m definitely never going back to guy’s underwear. I’ve been a guy for nineteen years and acting like a girl for only a few months. Yet I can’t imagine not being a girl.

I filled up a pitcher with water and put the flowers in it. I picked up my purse, checked the contents and turned to Nick. “I’m ready.”

Nick gave a low whistle as he looked at me. “Alex, you are absolutely beautiful. I’m serious.” He leaned in to kiss me.

I pointed to my cheek and just said, “Lipstick.”

Nick rolled his eyes and kissed my cheek. He took my hand. “Let’s go.”

It only took fifteen minutes to get to Madison’s house. I had been there several times, but Nick never has. She lives in a large house in a very nice neighborhood. Her father is a petroleum engineer and can easily afford it.

Nick held my hand as we strolled up the walkway to Madison’s front door. I reached up to punch the door bell. Nick wagged a finger at me. “Ringing door bells is men’s work. Let me do it.” Nick pressed the button and a series of electronic chimes began to play. Nick grinned. “Well that’s cool.”

Madison, wearing a nice dark blue dress, opened the door and smiled at us. “That’s a very pretty dress, Alex. I like it a lot.” She looked over at Nick and rolled her eyes. “And thanks for showering, Nick.”

Nick grinned and acted like he was tipping a hat. “Well, duh! You said it was semi-formal. If it had been formal, I’d worn a clean shirt as well.”

I laughed and shook my head. “Nick, you crazy. Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving, Madison.”

Before Madison could answer, Nick said, “If we’re done with the fashion critique, can we come in? It’s cold out here.”

Madison laughed. “Of course. Welcome to our home.” Nick let me enter first. Madison held up her hand as Nick started to enter. “Wipe your feet first, Nick.” She laughed. “Come on in guys and meet my parents. Tyler, my boyfriend you both have already met.”

Her parents were standing by the entrance smiling at us. They looked to be somewhere in their late forties.

Madison pointed at us. “Mom. Dad. I’d like you to meet my very good friends Alex Stromberg and um…what was your name again?”

Nick frowned. “Can you knock it off for once?”

Madison’s mother said, “Be nice, dear.”

Madison grinned. “Okay okay. And this is Nick Lansing.” She pointed at the couch. “And that one holding a game controller is Tyler.”

Tyler looked up long enough to say, “Hey.”

I smiled. “Mr. and Mrs. Lewis. It’s nice to see you again.”

Mrs. Lewis smiled back. “And you too hon. You look lovely, by the way.”

I felt myself blush slightly. “Thank you.”

Nick looked around the living room. “Nice place you guys have. I hope someday we can have a house this nice.”

Madison looked over at me questioningly. I just shook my head and shrugged.

Mrs. Lewis took my arm. “I could really use some help in the kitchen. I think the boys want to watch some football.”

Madison shouted to Tyler. “Tyler! Hey. Get off your game. Pops wants to use the TV.”

Tyler dismissed her with a wave. “Okay, okay. Give me a minute.”

I turned around to see Nick shake Mr. Lewis’ hand. Nick said something and Mr. Lewis laughed. I guess they’re going to get along. Mr. Lewis walked over to the game console and shut it off and got a complaint from Tyler. He changed the TV to a channel showing sports. I followed Madison into the kitchen where several things were being heated, cooked or boiled.

Mrs. Lewis said with a sad tone, “Madison said you’re going back to Chicago. So soon?”

I hated lying, but I said, “Yeah. Dad is being transferred back. He’s not happy. He’s already used to not having to deal with snow.”

Mrs. Lewis shook her head. “Well, these things happen. But still, it’s sad you have to go. You and Madison are such good friends. You know, you could stay with us and finish out your senior year here.”

“That’s very generous of you, Mrs. Lewis,” I said sincerely. “I’d love to take you up on that, but my dad would never go for that.” I’d love to do that, actually, but I needed to get back and write my article. The money they're paying me for this endeavor ends on November 30th.

Mrs. Lewis looked a bit disappointed. “The offer stands if you can talk your father into it.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Lewis. I’ll keep that in mind.”

Madison broke the awkward silence. “Mom. What do you want us to do?”

Mrs. Lewis turned to me. “Hon, would you mind making the mashed potatoes? Madison, could you get the salads ready?”

Madison whispered in my ear. “It’s easy. I’ll help you.” I was glad to hear that as I had no idea what to do.

I looked out of the kitchen and saw the guys gathered in front of the TV watching some pre-game show. Not that I’m all that interested in football, but I wanted to be with Nick.

After the potatoes, I was asked to set the table. That I could handle because I used to help Mom with that. I’d help Mom out in the kitchen some too, but not with cooking anything.

Instead of slicing the turkey at the table, Mr. Lewis came into the kitchen right after the turkey came out of the oven and sliced it then and put the meat on a platter. After he finished, I took the heavy platter to the table and set it in the middle. Nick and Tyler were already seated. After we finished bringing everything out, the girls finally got to sit down. I of course sat down next to Nick.

Nick said smiling, “Everything looks great, Mrs. Lewis.”

Tyler said as he tried to see the TV, “I second that.”

Mrs. Lewis smiled back. “Thank you. The girls helped. Madison, would you like to say grace?”

“Sure Mom,” said Madison as she bowed her head. I looked over and even Nick bowed his head and closed his eyes. “Dear Lord, bless this food we are about to eat, bless Mom and Dad, and bless good friends. And thank you for helping Permian get to the play-offs. Amen.”

There were “Amen”s around the table.

Mr. Lewis’ eyes lit up. “Okay! Let’s eat!” He looked over at Nick. “Please pass that turkey, son.” Nick picked up the platter and handed it to him. All the food started making the rounds.

As we stuffed ourselves, the conversation was kept to a minimum, except to discuss the game coming up or Permian in the play-offs.

Nick patted his stomach. “We’re lucky the game tomorrow takes place at Ratliff. Otherwise all of us would be on the road and would have had to miss this great meal. Well, not Tyler. His school lost.”

Tyler frowned. “Thanks for that reminder.”

Nick took a drink of his iced tea. “You’re more than welcome!”

Mr. Lewis leaned back in his chair and looked towards the TV. “Hey. The game is on.” Nick and Tyler started to get up.

Mrs. Lewis just shook her head. “I guess y’all are excused.”

As I started to stand, I said, “Mrs. Lewis, that was absolutely wonderful. It was just like being at home.”

Madison hugged her mother. “It was great, Mom!”

Mrs. Lewis smiled. “Thank you dears. Now go ahead and watch the game. Don’t worry about cleaning up. I’ll take care of it.”

Madison looked at me and rolled her eyes. “Come on, Alex. Let’s take these plates to the kitchen. Clean up will go faster with the three of us.”

Again, not that I’m all that interested in football, but I did want to sit on the couch next to Nick. I sighed. But Madison is right. We can’t leave all the cleaning up to Mrs. Lewis.

I looked over at Nick. He was yelling at the TV and shaking his fist. I think he’d probably forgotten I even exist at the moment.

The game was more than half over by the time we had finished cleaning up. I quickly plopped down next to Nick and he put his arm around me and pulled me close. He kissed me on the cheek. With his mouth full of pie, he said, “We’re winning.”

I waved my index finger in the air and said sarcastically, “Yah. Like, go team and everything.”

Nick frowned at me. “You can go back into the kitchen if you want to.”

I just giggled, closed my eyes and snuggled more into Nick. I don’t think I ever enjoyed a football game more.

The game finally ended. Nick poked me in the side. “We should probably go. You still have to finish packing for your flight tomorrow.”

I stood up and stretched. “I have to agree.” I laughed. “I’m probably the only person to fly back with more luggage than she arrived with.”

Madison frowned. “Leaving so soon?”

Nick helped me on with my coat. “Yes, sorry. Right now I’m tired and stuffed silly. I’ll probably just go to bed when I hit my apartment. I spent most of Wednesday cleaning so I get my deposit back.”

Madison suddenly said, “Oh! You can’t go yet.” She hurried off to her room. She came back a minute later.

She stood in front of me holding a box. “All the girls chipped in to get you something to remember us by.” She handed the box to me.

Genuinely touched, I said, “You guys really shouldn’t have gotten me anything.” I opened the box and pulled out a necklace with a pendant spelling “Mojo” along with two little pink panther paw prints. I laughed when I held it up for everyone. “That’s so cute! Nick. Can you help me with it?”

I handed Nick the necklace and turned my back to him. He clasped the necklace chain behind my neck. I kissed Madison on the cheek and hugged her. “I love it! Tell everyone thank you!” I looked at Madison for a moment then pulled her in for a big hug. “I love you, girl!”

Madison was tearing up. “I love you too. You have my number so you better call!”

Nick grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the door. “This is starting to get deep. Night y’all. Thanks for everything . It was great.” And then we were outside.

I frowned at Nick. “Well that was a quick exit.”

Nick laughed as he led me to his car. “If I hadn’t, we’d be there for another hour or so hugging and crying.”

I huffed. “Maybe.”

We stood for a moment on the sidewalk next to Nick’s car. It was getting dark and there were even some snow flurries coming down. It wasn’t cold enough to stick though. I turned to Nick and looked up at his face. I felt a lump in my throat and I started to cry again.

“Nick. We’re never going to see each other again!” I cried. I threw my arms around his neck and started to cry on his shoulder.

Nick patted my hair. “We’ll see each other. We have phones you know.”

I grunted. “Not the same thing. I want to feel you hold me. I want to kiss you.”

Nick smiled. “I don’t want you to leave either, but you know you have to. In a week or two you’ll be back to being a guy and all this will fade into just a memory.”

I looked earnestly into Nick’s eyes. “I’m never going to forget you, Nick. Never. I love you. I love you with all my heart.”

Nick brushed my hair from my face and bent his head towards me. “I love you too, Alex. God help me, I love you more than anything.”

After a moment of hesitation, his lips brushed against mine. His arms around my waist he pulled me into him. I felt the passion in him as his lips pressed harder into mine. His tongue slid into my mouth and I sucked hard on it. We kissed and gasped for breath. Nick’s hands were squeezing my ass cheeks and I felt his hard cock press into me through our clothing. The kissing became furious and more passionate. I wanted him to rip my clothes off right here on the sidewalk.

There was a shout from Madison from her front door. “We have a couch. You might be more comfortable.”

I took a step back from Nick, breathing hard. In a breathy voice I turned to Madison and shook my head. “Naw. We’re good.” I turned to Nick. “I guess we should go.”

Catching his breath, Nick laughed. “Well, she did offer their couch.”

I wacked him on his chest with my purse. “Let’s just go, goofball.”

Nick opened the passenger door of his car and helped me get in.

On the drive to my apartment, my emotions were an insane swirl. I’m excited about going back home, sad to leave the friends I’d made, almost horrified that I had expressed love for a boy, and elated to be in love. Or maybe this was all just indigestion.

Nick drove his car to a parking spot in the lot at my apartment complex. He just sat there staring out the windshield. He kept looking forward. “I guess this is it.”

I looked at him curiously. “You’re not going to walk me to my door?”

Nick shook his head. “I think we should say our good-byes here. If I go with you to your apartment, you’ll invite me in for a minute, we’ll start necking and I’ll just wind up fucking you. It’s best if we just do a clean break here.”

I’ve thought several times over the past few weeks what having sex with Nick might be like. We came close on our fist date. It’s a path I’m not sure I want to go down. Or take Nick down. There’s no denying I’ve enjoyed being a girl, but I’ve been a boy for almost twenty years and only a couple of months as a girl. Who’s to say that once I’m back home, I won’t want to just put this insanity behind me?

I looked down at my lap. “If that’s what you want, Nick.”

He lifted my chin and stared intently into my eyes. “Why did I have to fall in love with you? I don’t fall in love. I don’t stick with one girl. Ever. I’ve never been that guy who wants to be with just one girl. But I love you. Tomorrow, when you return to your normal, everyday life, remember that there’s a guy down in Texas that loves a beautiful, impossible girl named Alex.”

I smiled at Nick. “How long did you rehearse that?”

Nick shrugged as he laughed. “I wrote it last night. But it’s true. Every word.”

Softly, I said, “I love you. I shouldn’t, but I love you.”

Nick smirked. “Well, girls are attracted to us bad boys.”

I smiled at him. “You’ll always be my bad boy.”

I leaned in towards him and he bent his head down slightly and our lips met, most likely for the last time. We kissed our good-bye kiss in Nick’s car for a very long time.

*          *          *

“This is Madison. I Can’t take your call right now. Please leave me a message!”

Disappointed I got her voice mail, I said, “Hey Mads. Sorry for not calling in a while. It’s been crazy here. Can you believe it’s been three years today that I first met you? Wild, huh?

“I’ll call you later to talk, but I just have to get this out now. I’ve done it! I’ve been cleared for surgery. Living as a woman has become so natural for me. Dad hates it of course, but I think he’ll come around. My confirmation surgery will be in six weeks! I can’t wait. Nick can’t wait either. He says hi.

“And then the second thing. We’re getting married! Can you believe it? Next June. And Madison, I won’t take no for answer! Please be my Maid of Honor? If not for you, not only would I not be getting married to Nick, but I doubt that I’d even be a woman. I know. I’ve had those feelings all my life, but I doubt I would have acted on them without you. And can you believe it? Dad said he’ll give me away at the wedding. Said he’ll be happy that I’ll then be Nick’s problem.

“Please call me when you get this. I’m about to bust not being able to talk to you right now.

“Bye now. Love you lots…”

*          *          *

The End



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