I've never felt quite right in my own skin. Ever since I was little something's always felt off. At first it was just when I was swimming and had to wear a skimpy swimsuit, or when my older cousins would use me as their own personal Barbie doll to try new hairstyles and makeup combinations on my long hair and feminine features. But then it grew into something more.
This year is my fresh start. When the admin hands me my schedule, I take a quick peek. Lucas Larkin, it reads. My chest fills with excitement as I stare at my name. Lucas. So much better than Lily.
I walk through the halls to my first class, and am surprised by how many guys I pass say, "Hi," or "What's up?" But then I remember this is how it's supposed to go. I'm Luke now. I mean, I've always been Luke, but this time people can see him when they look at me.
I take a seat in the back row of my new English classroom, and adjust my tie, because it's starting to strangle me. But I'd take it over the skirt I used to have to wear, any day.
The teacher, Mrs. Cameron, calls me up to introduce myself. "Class, we have a new student. He's just transferred from St. George's." He. I can't help but notice how natural it sounds.
I clear my throat, and run a nervous hand through my now-short hair. "My name is Lucas Larkin, but you can call me Luke."
"Tell us a little bit about yourself, Luke."
I think for a second. There's a lot I could tell them. Like how this summer I cut my hair and started wearing a chest binder and changed my name and replaced all the dresses and skirts in my closet with sport shorts and baggy t-shirts, all the pinks with blues.
But that's not all that I am, and I'd hate for that one small part of me to become what I'm known for. "I'm a gamer, and I love sports. Rugby's my favourite, though I also play football and cricket." My eyes unintentionally shift to the faces of every single boy in the room. "Really, I'm just your average guy. I sleep in till noon, I binge Stranger Things on Netflix, I watch too much YouTube, and if you put one in front of me, I can eat a whole bag of crisps in one sitting."
I don't know why I said that last bit. It's not like I have to convince them; they never knew Lily.
Maybe it's to convince me. Because no matter what people see when they look at me now, I will always know what's underneath these khakis and this jumper. And it doesn't match what's truly inside.
"Well, welcome to Chelsea Prep, Luke," Mrs. Cameron says.
I take my seat again, and try to push those thoughts out of my head as Mrs. Cameron tells us to take out our Lord of the Flies books and turn to chapter one.
As I walk towards the cafeteria for lunch, I feel my phone buzz in my pocket. I take it out and look. I smile. It's from Sam.
Sam has been my best friend since basically day one. Most after-schools are spent at either my house or his. I know his top ten favourite Eurovision songs, ranked, and he knows which five athletes I'd meet if I had one wish (well, if it wasn't going to be to one day wake up a real boy).
Without Sam, I'm not sure if I would know that I'm Luke. Around the time secondary school began, I started paying close attention to him. I noticed the way he walked, the words he used when he talked, his particularly masculine habits — and I copied them. I tried to hang with him every moment I could, but I didn't just want to be around him. I wanted to be him.
There was a moment when I was 13 where I was overcome by this suffocating feeling that I would never look like Sam, never fit in like Sam, never be a boy like Sam...
And that was when I knew.
I'd always known I was different from the other girls, but just how I couldn't put my finger on. In that moment I knew: I was never meant to be a girl. I'm in that less-than-one percent of people whose brains don't match their bodies. The skin around me isn't right.
Sam was the first person I told. A year after my revelation, he dragged me to Topshop with him. Clothes shopping had never really been my thing, mainly because I was terrified that clothes I wanted to get — the ones labeled boys' clothes — would give away my secret.
But when we were inside, I couldn't make myself go to the girls' section; it felt so wrong. So I followed Sam. I'd always envied his style, but whenever I borrowed his clothes they never looked right, not with the curves I hadn't figured out how to hide.
"Oh, hi Lily!" he exclaimed, finally noticing me. "If you wait one sec, I'll come over with you to your section." The way he said "your" made my stomach churn. It wasn't my section—this was. But I couldn't blame him; he didn't know any better.
"No, Sam." Something in me snapped, and I just couldn't keep who I really was locked away any longer. "Sam, I..." I couldn't do it. I couldn't look him in the eye and say it. "Sam, I'm a boy."
I slowly moved my head back up, afraid to see Sam's reaction. I imagined all the possibilities: confusion, disgust, disbelief, concern. His face was stone solid for a moment ... and then he broke out into a huge grin.
"Wait, really?" He started bouncing up and down on his toes and talking really fast, like he always does when he's excited. "Oh my gosh, this is so cool! This is great! Now we can talk about cars, and sports, and... well, I guess we already kinda do that anyway." He went on to explain how I was pretty much already a dude to him and this didn't really change anything.
Best. Reaction. Ever.
He helped me become the person I saw myself as — he taught me how to be a boy. He told me how to sit and showed me how he greeted his friends. He helped me pick my name, rattling off a list of L's until I heard Lucas and something clicked. He squeezed my shoulder while I came out to my parents.
Sam was the one who convinced me to switch schools this year, year 11, even though we both knew we're going to miss each other like heck. He knew it would be best for me, even if it would be hard. Somewhere new, I might be able to pass, because no one would know me from when I lived as a girl.
So far, he's absolutely right.
How's it goin', Lukey Pookey? Sam texts. I send him an eye roll emoji, but it feels good to see my name in writing, and I know he knows it.
LOL, he responds. But really, how's it going? Passing?
I look around at the unsuspecting students filtering into the cafeteria. Not one of them stops for a second glance at me.
Yup. My chest swells with pride as I send it.
So proud of youuuuuu. Our chat is silent for a moment. Crap. Miss Sanders saw me. Byeee Lukeyyyyy.
I laugh to myself. Breaking the no-phone rule, huh? And in class? Sounds just like Sam O'Leary.
I step into the cafeteria with a new air of confidence. I am passing, and I am as much a boy as any of the others here. The parts I have don't define me. That's what Sam always says.
After I get my food — a limp sausage and gray, cold lump of potatoes — I get to do what I've always wanted to do.
I slide my tray between two boys. They part and I sit down. "Hey, guys," I say, hoping my voice sounds as deep in real life as it does in my head. "What's up?"
"You're that new kid, Luke, right?" the boy to my right asks. I nod, grinning that he knows my name. "Welcome to the team, man. Name's Louis."
He goes on to introduce me to every boy at our table. All the while my smile reaches my ears, because not once do I notice a suspicious eye on me. For the first time ever, I'm one of them.
But then my secret creeps up on me, and my shoulders slump a bit because no matter what, I'll always be different from them. And maybe one day they'll find out, and it'll all be over.
But that day doesn't have to be today. I won't let it.
I get all of the boys' numbers before heading out, along with promises of hanging out soon that make my heart soar. My next class is maths, which is one of my strengths, and then history, which I was failing miserably at my old school. Final class is gym. In the locker room, it bugs me a little when I see all the boys changing out in the open, because I know I'll never be able to do that no matter how well I pass with layers of jumpers and hoodies. I hurry with my gym clothes to a stall in the bathroom and change as fast as I can.
We're playing rugby today, and I get to play with the boys for the first time ever, which is amazing in ways I can't even describe. I'm signed up for the team before heading back to change.
I've just slipped on my shirt when I hear something thump to the floor, and then a whispered, "Oh, crud," from the stall next to me. I look at the ground, and see something rolling beneath the divider towards me.
Is that what I think it is?!
"Hey, um ... Could you hand that back?" the voice asks. "No questions asked. Please." His voice is strained.
I pick the thing up, stare at it for a quick moment to make sure I'm not seeing things, and hand it back, sticking my arm beneath the stall.
"Thanks." And then there's a whispered, "God, I'm so stupid!"
My friends, what he dropped on the floor was indeed a packer. For those of you who don't know what that is ... I'd rather not explain. Let's just say people like me put it in their pants to make it look like something's there. I have yet to get one, but it's definitely on my list.
But it means that I may not be alone.
When I step out of the stall, there's a kid waiting for me, and from the way his cheeks are on fire, I think it's the kid. He pulls me by the arm outside the changing rooms and off to the side.
"What you saw back there," he says, "never happened. Understand?" His grip on my wrist is tight; he's not letting go any time soon.
I nod furiously, trying to hold back my smile.
"No, seriously. I need you to swear on your life." He's sounding desperate now. "I've been going stealth way too long for some new kid to sweep in and ruin it." He winces at the thought.
I lean in. Should I do it? Can I trust him? But I figure he knows how it is, and we can share this secret together. "I won't tell," I whisper, "as long as you don't tell my name used to be Lily."
I take a step back, and look at his expression: It's one of pure shock. His mouth hangs open, his eyes are bulging. His pupils dart all every which way, looking me over, before finally fixing his gaze on me.
"You — You too?" he stammers. Neither of us need to say the word; we both know we're thinking it.
I nod. "This is my first year going stealth." I extend my hand. "Luke Larkin."
He shakes it. "Jaxon with an X. Fourth year."
We stand there for a minute, so much to say but not knowing quite what to start with.
The bell rings for the end of the day, and boys run by us with their heavy backpacks, desperate to leave after a long first day back. I'm not quite so urgent.
"Hey, wanna walk home together?"
This is all too good to be true, only it is true.
On the way home, we talk about sports and movies. He likes dramas, and I enjoy them as well, although I'm more of a sci-fi guy. We both bet with our dads on Wales to win Six Nations every year, even though England is of course our favourite team. We have so much in common, I can see us being friends for life.
Then we start talking about being trans. We both have had the same ups and downs, and it's nice to get to talk to someone who can relate. Sam's always a good listener, but I can't help thinking he doesn't really understand, not really. Not like Jaxon does.
Jaxon's much further along in his journey than I am. He started testosterone last year, I find out. He already has tiny whiskers growing in all over his chin. (I have to admit: I'm totally jealous.)
These things that seem so normal to all other boys are huge accomplishments for us. But now I know I'll have someone to celebrate with.
I text Sam at the corner of our block. Come over? New friend.
Yuuuhhh. Need to hear all about your first day, he texts back. Plus I'm intrigued by this "new friend." Though there's no way he's as awesome as me.
I dunno, the way we met is pretty legendary. I chuckle.
Ooooo, do tell.
I stifle a full-on laugh attack. He dropped his packer in the bathroom.
There's a huge pause on Sam's end. Then finally, OMG. No freaking way.
Oh yes freaking way.
Okay, maybe this friend is as awesome as me. But definitely not more. I must meet him immediately.
Whatever you say.
I look over at Jaxon. "Wanna come over? My friend Sam will want to meet you." I squint, and then my face lights up. "In fact, he does want to meet you." I point at Sam's figure dashing towards us, and Jaxon laughs at the urgent expression on his face.
I have a good feeling about my future, at Chelsea Prep and even after that.
I may very well still be uncomfortable in my own body, maybe for the rest of my days, but for the first time in my life, I feel like I'm in the right skin. Right now, my parts don't define me. I finally feel like one of the boys.