Nathaniel is seven, and squirms when the woman kisses the man on the screen. He’s allowed to make noise, because Father is in Japan on the other side of the world, and it’s just him and Mom for the weekend. Mom wanted to watch a movie from when she was a kid, but he’s not sure why anyone would want to watch people doing this- so he tells her, loudly, about his disgust.
“Why do they do that, Mom? It looks icky. I don’t want anyone’s tongue in my mouth.”
She smiles slightly, even though she doesn’t look happy. He knows she has a broken arm, so maybe it’s just the bruises and the pain, but her eyes are welling up slightly as she watches the happy couple embrace on-screen.
Nathaniel thinks she’s going to elaborate, but she just turns back to the TV. He knows, after living in this household for seven years, when grown-ups don’t want you to interrupt them. So they watch the movie, and it has a happy ending where no one gets hurt, and the whole family eats Christmas dinner together.
He knows that Christmas is just for movies, and that eating dinner with your parents is nothing to smile about, so he isn’t surprised when he looks over at Mary when the credits roll and sees her eyes full of tears. He would cry too, but crying isn’t allowed.
Alex is ten, and a girl in his class tells him that she has a crush on him. He decides that he has a crush on her too, because she sits in front of him in class and he likes to look at her hair. It’s a huge cloud of tightly coiled dark curls, nothing like most of the girls in Texas, with their straight hair that’s just like his own.
So he tells her he likes her hair, and she lets him touch it until his hand gets stuck in the curls, and Alex is happy. He doesn’t want to kiss her, because everyone knows that kissing involves spit, but when she asks him to be her boyfriend he says yes, because it’s the first time anyone’s been nice to him since he’s been Alex, and since he had to leave his school in Baltimore.
Texas isn’t so bad, he thinks.
So when he gets home, to the apartment with only one bed where his mother looks ten years older than she did a month ago and has an ever-present crease between her eyebrows, he shows her their school photo, and happily tells her about Aniya, and how he has a girlfriend now.
Emily slaps her son, and they’re in Oregon two days later.
Chris is twelve, and there’s a girl in his class with hair just like Aniya’s, but he knows that he’s not allowed to talk to girls like Aniya any more. He’s not allowed to tell anyone about himself, or know too much about them, or form attachments, in case someone gets concerned about his home life and calls CPS, like they did when he was Max, back in Toronto.
He’s not allowed to stand out, because then people would remember him.
Chris never did like his original birthday, but now he doesn’t like the newest one, the one on his brand new social security card, either. When he was Alex, Emily let him take in cakes for his class and order whatever take-out he wanted, for his then-birthday, but now he’s Chris, Nora has decided that if he told the teacher it was his birthday, they’d want to take a photo of him for the wall, and that would be leaving a trail.
So Chris doesn’t bring cake, or tell the teacher, or get sung “Happy Birthday”. What he does dare to do, is tell Joseph, the boy who sits next to him.
“Oh, sweet, dude. What are you going to do?’
Chris shrugs. “Nothing.”
Joseph’s face falls. “You know, if you didn’t want me to come to your party, you could have just not brought it up at all. I bet you’re inviting Jake.”
Joseph doesn’t talk to him for a week, and Chris doesn’t know what he did wrong. He’s not sad to leave Chris behind, two months later.
Stefan is fourteen, and Greta in his English class wears blue lipstick that he thinks is beautiful. His eyes catch on the bright pop of color the way they do on the abstract paintings in museums, or butterflies in the summer.
She sees him staring, and sits next to him the next day. She asks for help with her English, because Stefan is the best in the class, and he agrees if she helps him with his German, because even though his accent has been carefully cultivated into perfection, he doesn’t know enough vocabulary.
The sit together at lunch, and he grins back at her when she laughs at his joke, even though he doesn’t understand why it’s funny because the pun doesn’t work in English. Maybe it’s a German cultural reference or something- he saw it in one of his textbooks.
He doesn’t see it coming, when she kisses him. His Mom taught him to flirt, to do the movements and subtly arch his back, because they needed to steal supplies and the cashier had been eyeing Stefan. He doesn’t see the appeal, but the guy sure did, and he didn’t take his eyes off Stefan to notice Tessa stuffing rubbing alcohol into her handbag.
So he knows how to flirt, but he hadn’t been doing it here. Sure, he liked her lipstick, and made jokes, but-
He realizes that Greta has been doing the thing with her eyelashes for two weeks, and that her back was arched, and that this was probably flirting.
He kisses her back, but he’s slightly glad when it ends that she didn’t try to use her tongue. He doesn’t really understand kissing. In movies, it seems like so much more than just lips pressed together. Maybe it is, to her, but for Stefan it’s just slight disappointment at the realization that lipstick doesn’t taste as good as he thinks it should.
When Tessa sees the smudge of blue, she rips out a chunk of hair. With two fingers broken, scalp burning, and bruises down his arm, the message sinks in that girls are dangerous.
Tessa tells him again that he cannot be memorable, cannot form attachments. She tells him that it’s just him and her, against the world, and that if he allows himself the weakness of trusting anyone else, he’ll feel pain a lot worse than this when his father catches up to them. They’re gone the next day.
Dylan is fourteen, and Michael eagerly shows him the porn magazines he got from his older brother. He looks at the photo of a girl in a cheerleader skirt and stockings and not much else, and wonders how she braids her hair to look like a crown. Michael frowns when he sees Dylan’s lack of reaction.
“You used to live in America, didn’t you? You’re telling me you were in a country with actual cheerleaders, not just on telly and in High School Musical, and this isn’t even doing it for you?”
“Have you ever even kissed a girl, mate?”
He shrugs again. He does a lot of shrugging. “Yeah, once. Me mam wasn’t very happy, though.” Dylan hates the Manchester accent, because it is exceedingly hard to fake. He almost got punched when asking directions when they first arrived in England, and he hadn’t had time to practice yet, because the guy thought he was mocking him.
At this, Michael grins. “Alright, then. Was she hot?”
He sees the way Michael looks considering, and fear curls in his gut. Michael looks like he knows something, and if he knows something they need to get out of the country before he spreads that information around and-
The fear goes away, because Michael only says “Are you gay?”
Dylan shrugs. He doesn’t think he’s gay. Girls are pretty, but he knows to stay away from them, and boys can be interesting to look at too, but he doesn’t think he wants to kiss them any more than anyone else.
“It’s alright if you are, y’know. My Aunt Mia’s a lesbian, because she went to uni in Brighton, and apparently there’s loads of gay people in Brighton,”
Amelia gets antsy a few weeks later, so they move on- incidentally, they do pass through Brighton. Dylan sees a man in a wig, but he doesn’t think he’s gay yet.
Marc is sixteen, and Jacques is definitely gay, because he told him so. Jacques has very blonde hair, and it draws Marc’s eyes like Aniya’s hair, and Greta’s lipstick, and Jason’s leather bracelets and paper wristbands like the ones you get in public swimming pools and concerts.
He knows that he’s not allowed to be memorable, or form attachments, but even though Jacques is nice to him and they hang out at lunch, he’s not particularly attached.
This is the perfect test subject, he decides. Objectively, Jacques is attractive. There’s lots of people who are attractive, people who Marc stares at because they’re beautiful or the light hits them the right way, but that doesn’t mean that he’s attracted to them.
Jacques is fit, with a swimmer’s body, and a nice jawline, and he seems very eager when Marc asks if he can kiss him.
It feels exactly like kissing Greta when he was fourteen, except without the waxiness of her lipstick. It is lips pressed together, and this time he even lets the tongue thing happen, so it is mouths sliding over each other, and hands on his shoulders and one in his hair, and teeth and tongue and Marc feels nothing.
He does feel something when Jacques hand drops down even lower, because of course he does, because he has a body and it’s going to respond when people do those things. Except Marc doesn’t know if he wants to do those things with Jacques, because it looks good in the movies but then, so did kissing.
So he moves back, and Jacques smiles, and they go back to doing what they were doing before, which was maths homework. French maths class is a lot harder than the ones in Manchester, although he’s not sure whether that’s a general thing or just a testament to how shitty their area had been when they lived in England.
So Marc decided that maybe he doesn’t like boys or girls, and he wonders briefly if this is due to his mother or his childhood or just how he was born, and decides it doesn’t matter because he’s alive, and he won’t be if he and Sophie don’t leave the country.
Neil is seventeen, and his mother is dead. He buries her charred skeleton in a floral-printed backpack on a beach in California, and walks away. He doesn’t speak for a while, just drifts between towns and hitchhikes with truckers. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but he’s decided he doesn’t particularly care.
He makes it to Millport, Arizona, a dead beat town full of pensioners, and takes one look at the high-school Exy court and gives up running. He dyes his hair dark, this time, and trades in his last box of grey contact lenses for a pack that are mud-brown. He finds an abandoned house to squat in, but ends up sleeping in the Dingo’s locker room anyway.
He ignores the girl from his Chemistry class who tries to flirt with him, and wishes that people would leave him alone when he says ‘I don’t swing’, and wonders what it is about his face that people like so much.
Neil is nineteen, and Andrew hates him. They sit on the roof, not quite touching, and he breathes in cigarette smoke and smiles when Andrew tells him he’s a junkie.
Andrew tells him he’s a pipe dream, and maybe Neil was a pipe dream, once. Neil Josten had been nothing more than a fake ID, a duffel bag, and a thousand lies that fell off his tongue like honey.
Neil has never been real- Neil has been 22 names in 7 countries, has been a figure at the back of class photos that his classmates will look back on in twenty years and wonder why they can’t remember his name.
But there was the FBI and Baltimore and the Ravens, and then there was Andrew, telling him to stay. Andrew, who makes him real, who only tells the truth when Neil’s whole life has been a lie.
And he’s happy. Andrew gives him truth, and Neil gives him choice, and he has never felt more solid in his life.
He looks at Andrew, with blonde hair shining in the moonlight, and hazel eyes like pools of honey that pull him closer when he asks ‘Yes or no?’, and Neil finally understands the appeal of kissing.