Melvin O’Neal is due to start the ninth grade at Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies in September. At the orientation tour, his parents had picked up a brochure for Macdonald Hall, another private school across the highway.
“Won’t it be nice that Edward will go to school just across street from you?” His mother smiles, taking in the stately, ivied brickwork of the Hall.
“Yeah. Nice. ” Melvin looks away from his mother and smiles tightly.
He spends the summer swimming, and playing street hockey, and stalling. Melvin puts off his decision for so long that his mom is pulling into the driveway of the school before he realizes- well fuck, we’re here.
He honestly thought he might be able to handle Scrimmage’s. His roommate, Diane, is a total sweetheart, and Cathy Burton from down the hall is a riot. Already he has a place on the girl’s rugby team. Things are going great. Swimmingly.
Every time he has to hear about becoming a sophisticated young woman, the giant, curdling knot in his chest ( fuck his chest, seriously) winds up a little tighter.
Melvin uses the phone in the school’s office to call his parents. His hands are shaking as he dials. His bra itches at his back, too tight, too close. Edward picks up.
“Dammit,” Melvin sighs.
“I’m telling mom you swore at me,” Edward says smugly.
“Edward, give the phone to mom” Melvin says. He doesn’t know what comes through in his voice, but he has been lying awake for three nights in a row, ruminating over the best and worst case scenarios. The best involve him and his family singing kumbaya and dancing around a campfire together. The worst involve him fending for himself in the harsh wilderness of the greater Toronto area.
He thinks Edward hung up on him, but a second later, his mother is on the phone.
“How are you, honey? Everything alright at school?”
“Yeah, mom everything’s great.” he says automatically. “Um. Actually it’s not. Mom I have to tell you something that’s- that’s really important to me,” Melvin’s stomach churns, but his heart rises a little in excitement.
The Hall’s headmaster, Mr. William Sturgeon, is initially reluctant to accept his enrollment. It is Miss Scrimmage who ends up clinching the deal for him.
Boots will never be able to rail against her as much as Bruno does in the years to come, even while held at gunpoint.
In the present day, Melvin sits in an uncomfortable chair and stares into the cool, blank eyes of William Sturgeon.
“Would it not be easier for Ms. O’Neal-”
“Mr. O’Neal.” Melvin interrupts. He’s probably not winning himself any favours here, but goddamnit if he’s going to spend another second being an educated young lady.
“- Mr . O’Neal to attend a co-ed school? Macdonald Hall is proud to be a… fairly progressive institution, but many aspects of student life would be complicated for-for him.” Sturgeon presses his lips together, looking at him imploringly. “Sharing a dorm, for one, bathroom usage, locker rooms...” Mr. Sturgeon goes on. And on. And on. Like Melvin hasn’t been considering this for basically his entire short life. He shrinks a little.
Miss Scrimmage had accompanied him to the meeting. His parents had talked to Mr. Sturgeon over the phone earlier, but weren’t going to make the seven hour drive from Sault Ste. Marie on a Wednesday night. He stares very hard at the wall behind Mr. Sturgeon’s head to keep from crying. Melvin nearly has a heart attack when Miss Scrimmage interrupts Mr. Sturgeon’s monologue.
The complete antithesis of all her lectures on etiquette, Miss Scrimmage roars.
“ WILLIAM STURGEON, in all my years as headmistress of this school I have respected you, YOUR STUDENTS, AND YOUR SCHOOL!”
She springs to her feet in a very surprising way, for a woman her age. Melvin blinks as Miss Scrimmage proceeds to absolutely demolish Mr. Sturgeon. He wonders if Cathy had drugged his breakfast that morning, as he watches Miss Scrimmage slam her hands down on Sturgeon’s desk for emphasis.
“ Well, TODAY YOU HAVE PROVED MY RESPECT TO BE UNDESERVED AND UNFOUNDED! NEVER WOULD I HAVE DREAMED THAT YOU-”
Mr. Sturgeon looks a little shellshocked under Miss Scrimmage’s rain of hellfire and fury. It doesn’t look like she’ll run out of steam anytime soon. Melvin is so grateful that now he is crying, but also grinning.
Two weeks later, Melvin O’Neal attends his first class at Macdonald hall.
The rest of the boys write letters home, but Mr. Sturgeon lets him phone his family once in awhile, a special case.
He thinks that his mother has the hardest time with his transition. Melvin has never really been his mother’s daughter, but that had always been ok-his mom was just as athletic and sporty as any of them, so Melvin chopping his hair brutally short (boy short) and spending his time playing hockey and generally acting like a boy was pretty ok with her until he was a boy. She asks him why a lot, and he can’t answer her.
Melvin’s father is more difficult to read, but he only ever asks about how he’s doing in school, clubs he’s joining, sports he’s taking. Melvin is still the same person his father taught to fish, all those years ago, and his father seems to see that.
When his parents put Edward on the phone, Melvin is prepared for anything-for his little brother to be angry, to not understand, to not want to speak to him.
“So… mom and dad explained to you? Everything? I’m a boy, and-”
“Yeah, yeah, sure, I… I don’t really get it. But whatever, I don’t care.”
“Thanks, Edward.” Melvin isn’t sure thanks is the right word, but Edward’s so self-absorbed he counts it as a win. They’re both silent for a beat. He expects that to be the end of the conversation. He opens his mouth to tell him goodbye, when-
“The part I don’t get the most,” Edward interrupts, “is of ALL the guy names on this planet , you went with Melvin . Melvin!” Edward cackles.
Well, Melvin thinks resignedly, it could have been worse.
“Seriously, An- Melvin, you could have named yourself something cool, you could have named yourself Rocky Balboa! Anything! Melvin!” and howls some more. Melvin hangs up when it becomes apparent that Edward isn’t going to stop laughing anytime soon.
Melvin asks to be treated like any other student at the Hall. With Miss Scrimmage’s backing, he shares a dormitory and Mr. Sturgeon folds.
Bruno Walton is out to lunch, but he’s passionate and single-minded and doesn’t question why Melvin arrived a month after the term started or why he always gets dressed in the bathroom. He re-christens Melvin as Boots.
Boots finds himself being pulled into more and more elaborate schemes as the year goes on. He’s never been in so much trouble or had so much fun in his life. The absolute thrill of being treated like himself, all day, every day, buoys him, even when the Fish decides enough is enough.
The Fish separates them, but not even divine intervention could stop Bruno Walton on a mission.
One night Bruno gets it in his head that the young ladies of Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies is being deprived of his presence.
One snowy night, they slink over to “-visit, Boots, we’re just visiting.” Bruno reassures him as they’re humping through a foot of squeaky snow and sliding across the highway onto Scrimmage’s property.
It’s minus five out and Boots is “- freezing my ass off, Bruno! How is a late night soiree into Scrimmage’s going to solve anything?!”
It’s unlikely they’ll be caught on a chilly night in December, but just being on the school grounds again is making Boots uncomfortable.
“It’s not,” Bruno admits, marching determinedly on, “we’re just being neighbourly. Boots, as model students of Macdonald hall, we should always be working on diplomatic relations between our two establishments!”
Boots snorts and checks him into a snowdrift. As they’re wrestling to shove one another deeper into the snowbank, Bruno grinds out “Uncle, uncle! We don’t have to go inside!”
So together they slink around the school grounds that Boots already knows, and it’s a little thrilling, he thinks, that he isn’t allowed here anymore, that for all intents and purposes, he is a no-good male hoodlum from Macdonald Hall terrorizing a girls school.
They stop to take in the sight of the orchard glittering under the ice and snow. The orchard is dark and silent, veiled by their frozen breaths puffing out in front of their faces.
It looks like the students at Scrimmage’s have been constructing some pretty architecturally sound snow forts. “Wow,” Boots says softly. “These are so cool.”
He approaches the gilded entrance to one built up between two trees.
“HI-YAHHHHH!” an animal shriek rips through the tranquility of the night. Something leaps down onto Boots from a branch above him. Bruno shrieks, while Boots goes down silently, the wind knocked out of him, too terrified to make a sound. A girl is holding a large pair of hedge trimmers to his throat. He can hear Bruno, not too far away, placating someone who also seems to be armed with hedge trimmers.
“What are you doing here?” Cathy Burton demands of him from where she is now straddling his waist.
“Uhhhhhh, I, we um, just had-a-just, just out for a stroll.” Boots says smoothly. Bruno at least, had kept a cooler head than he, and charms Diane Grant into letting him go.
“Cathy, they’re fine, let him up,” Diane calls. My hero, Boots thinks. Cathy gets off him, but she’s still eyeing Boots with suspicion that morphs into curiosity.
“Well, uh, it’s a lovely night for a walk, and so walk we shall. Away. Let’s go, Bruno,”
Boots begins to pull, nay, drag Bruno back towards Macdonald Hall.
“Stop,” Cathy says commandingly, pointing with her hedge trimmers. Diane, looking a little mortified at how out of hand this is getting, moans quietly.
“Cathy, let it go,”
Cathy looks Boots straight in the eye and asks “Have we met before? I know you.”
He makes a split second decision, likely fueled by shock and stress hormones. “Yes. We met at the start of the school year. I’m Melvin. Melvin O’Neal.” he takes a visibly shaky breath but his stare is unwavering. He sees when Cathy puts it together, then Diane.
“O’Neal?! Weren’t you my…” Melvin shakes his head a little. Diane looks confused, but shrugs.
“Nice to meet you, Melvin.” Cathy gives him a firm, mittened handshake.
“It’s nice to see you again. Melvin.” Diane says sweetly. He shivers when she says his name. She is so cute, Boots thinks. He blames his blush on the cold, and the near death experience.
“Boots. How do you guys know each other.” Bruno is staring between him and the girls, looking nonplussed.
“Shush, Walton, you’re ruining the moment.” Bruno throws his hands in the air, like what moment?
They stand around, eyeing each other. Cathy breaks the stalemate.
“Soooo, we’re making icewine. You can have some if you help us get the grapes.”
Her wicked smile is a mirror image of Bruno’s.
They stumble back into room 306 three hours later, exhausted and clumsy with cold. Bruno immediately starts peeling off his wet clothing. He’s down to his underwear by the time Boots gets to his shirt and pauses. Not tonight, he thinks heavily, as he fiddles with the hem of his shirt.
Bruno has noticed Boots deliberating over his shirt. “Penny for your thoughts?” he asks, chucking a loonie at him. Ouch. Jerk. “You always get dressed in the bathroom. What is it? Scars? Burn victim? Bad suntan? You know I wouldn’t care.” Bruno’s tone is light but his face is earnest, standing there in his boxer-briefs.
Boots almost does it. He opens his mouth to tell him the truth, but Bruno is standing there in his underwear, and all Boots can do is stare at his friend’s body, so different from his. Not tonight.
“Not tonight, Bruno,” he says quietly, looking away. Bruno’s nods.
Boots gets changed in the bathroom. He spends so long staring at himself in the mirror, naked, looking at the way his hips curve, the way his breasts swell out from his chest, that Bruno is asleep when Boots’ head hits the pillow.
During his grade ten year, Boots runs cross country, plays soccer, captains the school’s hockey team, and manages to squeeze in intramural volleyball besides.
It is quietly noted that Boots never changes in the locker room with the other guys, always chooses to use a stall.
“Maybe he’s got a really bad rash.” Boots overhears Wilbur saying. He’s changing in a bathroom stall, running late for fourth period. He can’t find his left sock, and the next PE class has already arrived in the changeroom.
“You know, the other day I walked straight into this bush, and now I’ve got a rash. Does it look bad to you?”
“Ew, Sidney, yes it does, go see the nurse about it!”
“Maybe he had his appendix removed or something, and he’s got a really gnarly scar.” Chris speculates.
“Seems kinda weird, right, that the captain of the hockey team doesn’t even use the locker room.”
“I fail to see how Boots’ usage, or lack thereof, of traditional change facilities has any effect on a team’s athletic performance.”
Good old Elmer. The guys lose interest, and it just becomes a fact: Boots is shy, Boots has a rash, Boots is horribly disfigured, whatever. Boots doesn’t use the change room.
He really does miss swimming, though. Swimming had always been his favourite sport. It makes him feel more like himself. He misses the powerful feeling of pulling himself through the water. He misses the driving focus of lane after lane, the burn in his lungs, the ache in his shoulders after a race.
Boots really, really, misses swimming. Even if Macdonald Hall had the facilities, which it doesn’t, he’s sure the Fish wouldn’t allow it. Boots would be too exposed, too obviously different. He’s beginning to think he wouldn’t mind it. Being different, being out there. Coming out, he ponders.
Boots doesn’t spill everything to Bruno, but god, he really wants to, tell him everything he’s feeling, all the frustration and fear filling him up. He wants to tell Bruno this like he tells Bruno everything else about him.
Bruno must catch on to his blackening mood. Boots only says that he misses being on the swim team.
Well. He says more than that. He maybe waxes a little too poetic about it. Boots knows he sounds truly pathetic, but he just can’t stop himself once he starts.
That’s his first mistake. His second mistake is waxing poetic about it to his parents. All things considered, he’s truly touched by how much they love him.
Except their next letter to him is full of concern, asking him if he’s happy, if his classmates are treating him well, if anyone knows about him after a year of being at the Hall. The letter after that says they want to send him to York Academy, York Academy that has a swimming pool, and a single, vague line in their code of conduct on discrimination based on orientation.
Boots sighs as he reads this. He’s already been on the receiving end of the kind of shit talk the York turkeys throw at Macdonald Hall’s hockey team. It may be in writing, but it sure as hell isn’t in practice. He loves his parents dearly but what his parents think will make him happy and what he thinks will make him happy often don’t correlate. Things like eating vegetables. Being a girl. Attending York Academy.
And that’s his third mistake. Telling Bruno an abridged version of said letter. A rainy saturday afternoon finds Boots lying facedown on his bed, moaning about swimming and York Academy and
“-my fucking stomach hurtsssss.” He’s on his period and everything aches. Bitch.
Boots has mostly tuned out Bruno at this point, opting instead to wallow in peace on his side of the room. Bruno, true to form, is making himself harder and harder to ignore. Oh shit, Boots thinks as he starts hearing the words coming out of his best friend’s mouth.
Bruno is pacing around the room, and at one point leaps onto the bed, gesturing grandly and yelling about a pool. A pool, Boots thinks. He wants to build a pool that I will never use.
“Bruno,” Boots says, mostly into his pillow.
Bruno is ablaze, burning with passion and other fiery adjectives. Boots panics a little, because Bruno already has what sounds like a money laundering scheme worked out to fund the construction of a pool, and Boots cannot be Bruno’s right hand man for an entire school semester, building a pool he won’t get to swim in. Christ, he doesn’t hate himself that much.
“Hey. Bruno.” he says, looking up.
He hates to smother the flame. This is Bruno at his most electric, bouncing with potential energy. None of his ideas are yet tangible, so they are all possible.
This is Bruno at his most beautiful, and Boots has to stop him. Right. Now.
“ Bruno! ” Boots says sharply. It comes out shrill. Boots is sitting up on the bed now, but still mostly hunched over in menstrual agony. He breathes in through his nose, out through his mouth.
“I am not going to York Academy, ok? I’ll talk my parents out of it, and you can still build Macdonald Hall a pool if you want to, just don’t do it for me. I wouldn’t be able to swim in it anyways. Don’t know why my parents would think York will be any different.” He rubs at his face, wishing he could be anyone else.
The twisted up feeling is back, tighter than ever, boiling under his skin. Boots closes his eyes. He feels so, so sick right now. Bruno is blinking at him, looking a bit stunned. They’ve never really argued before, sniped at each other. They just weren’t those kind of friends.
Bruno sits down next to him. “Melvin. You have been whining about how much you miss swimming for a week straight.” He nudges him gently with his shoulder. “What gives?”
Boots makes a small, pained noise in response.
Boots clasps his hands together tightly, white knuckled so he doesn’t shake. “I can’t...swim,” he begins, and stops. Idiot. Bruno opens his big mouth to say something. Boots slaps a hand over it.
“I can swim, Bruno, not what I meant.” Bruno, paragon of maturity and stoicism, licks his palm. Boots wipes it on Bruno’s face. He shifts around to look at Bruno, because he clearly enjoys suffering. He wants to be looking Bruno in the eye when he tells him.
“Bruno,” Boots tries again.
“Will you shut up and let me finish?”
“Alright, alright, spit it out, you’re scaring me!”
Boots keeps staring at Bruno, chewing the inside of his cheek. He’s sitting in a pair of spiderman pajama pants. Bruno winks and waggles his eyebrows. Boots is so nervous and tired and sick he starts giggling. He puts his head in his hands and laughs until he cries. Bruno looks increasingly concerned as he shuffles closer and curls his arms around him.
Bruno is the best friend Boots will ever, ever have. He clings to him.
Later that night, blankets gripped close to him, Boots turns over to look at the shadowy lump in the bed next to his.
“Bruno,” he whispers.
“Bruno, I’m transgender.”
Then, sounding more alert. “ Oh! Uh. Okay. That’s okay!”
The lump shifts and springs up, Bruno tripping out of the sheets. He wavers for a moment, hands flailing, words failing. He’ at an uncharacteristic loss for words.
It’s getting creepy, Bruno looming over him. He sits up.
“Well?” Boots prompts.
“Well...I...hey!, ” He claps his hands together. “This is the perfect occasion to try Scrimmage’s booze!” and he springboards over Boots’ bed to where they had stashed Diane and Cathy’s home brewed concoctions.
“Thanks, Bruno.” Boots’ is smiling so hard his face hurts.
Bruno drops the pool thing. Boots is grateful. Maybe some day he will be ready to tackle that cause. But for now, he has enough.
After all, there’s still the Terry Fox Run to organize-
“Mr. O’Neal, Mr. Walton, I cannot begin to impress upon you the amount of time and resources we do not have to stage a relay race to Thunder Bay, let alone-”
The Remembrance Day assembly-
“Mr. O’Neal, Mr. Walton, while I am reassured that the veterans took your...performance...in good spirits, I must remind you of our school’s dress code policy-”
The Christmas concert-
“ WALTON! O’NEAL! Return the livestock at once and see me in my office!”
And of course, New Year’s, Martin Luther King Day, Groundhog’s Day, Valentine’s day.
The First Inaugural Macdonald Hall-Scrimmage’s Finishing School Goodwill Valentine’s Day Dance (or TFIMHSFSGVDD for short) has both Miss Scrimmage and the Fish on edge. Every day leading up to it begins with a talk on appropriate student-on-student contact. The week is sprinkled with several very stilted sexual health lectures from Mr. Fudge. Boots get in trouble for ditching the lecture. He doesn’t see the point in spending forty-five minutes of his time listening to the Macdonald Hall student body giggle when Mr. Fudge says words like “erection” or “testes”.
Cathy and Diane report that Miss Scrimmage is taking up a more combative approach.
“She had me fill out the paperwork for an express shipment of pepper spray.” Diane says, legs swinging from her perch in a cherry tree. “She was really impressed with my administrative skills.”
Bruno looks to Boot with dawning horror. “Boots,” he says faintly “this is going to be a bloodbath! ”
“Mmm-hmm, yeah.” Boots says, too busy drooling over Diane’s smooth, brown thighs.
Boots spends an embarrassing amount of time in the bathroom fixing his hair, his shirt, his tie. He’s wearing two sports bras and a vest, and he’s grown taller and broader this year, but he still feels too slim, oo willowy and pretty.
He tries slicking his hair back for a third time, but Bruno barges into the bathroom, puts him in a (friendly) chokehold and noogies him.
“ Gckkk- Bruno! Let me go, come one, I ironed my shirt for this!” Boots manages to punch him in the stomach and Bruno releases him.
“ Whuff -you look very handsome, Mr. O’Neal.” he tells him in posh accent.
“Why thank you, Mr. Walton. You look very dashing as well.” Boots says with a pompous wave of his hand. He can’t stop himself from glancing in the mirror once more, though, worriedly adjusting his vest.
“Hey,” Bruno pats his cheek. “You look great. Foxy. Rowrrrr,” Bruno does the thing where he rolls his ‘r’s and slaps him on the shoulder.
“I hope Diane thinks so,” Boots grimaces.
“Whoo-oo, Diane, eh?”
“Let’s go,” Boots grumbles.
The dance is being held in the ballroom at Scrimmage’s. Bruno and Boots are shuffled across the highway in a group with Wilbur, Sidney, Mark, and Larry. Predictably, Elmer had elected to stay in to analyze his latest experimental results.
The ballroom is bedecked with balloons and shimmering ribbon streamers. The snack table is bending under the weight of the refreshments. The lighting is soft and sparkling, lending a fairy-tale feel to the room. Boots has to admit, the coalition force between Scrimmage’s and Macdonald Hall had truly outdone themselves.
It’s charged with a bit of awkwardness. They had, after all, thrown five hundred teenagers into a steaming pot of pre-pubescent nerves and spiked punch.
Boots hovers around the hors d’oeuvres table with Wilbur for a few songs before he spots Bruno with Cathy and Diane. He and Cathy are...krumping? Jiving? They’re doing something involving a lot of really enthusiastic limb movement, and have carved out a nice little corner of the dance floor for themselves in the process.
Diane is watching them, laughing when Cathy executes a particularly spectacular slide. Boots stares at her in a way that is probably super obvious and unnerving. He doesn’t give a crap. She looks so beautiful. His heart beats a happy thrum when she waves him over.
“Wanna dance, Boots?” She holds out her hand. Boots takes it and pulls her close.
Boots has never danced before in his life. He learns quickly, and spends almost the whole night twirling Diane around and around in her pretty silver dress. They dip and shimmy and jump around until too much punch and Diane’s mouth whispering into his ear make him dizzy.
“Let’s go outside,” Diane’s hand is warm in his as they slip out into the orchard. There’s a few scant centimeters of snow on the ground. It could still be slippery, and Diane is wearing heels-at least that’s his excuse when he quirks a smile at her and offers to carry her, bridal-style.
He picks his way through barren trees. Boots hopes he doesn’t trip and pitch them both into the cold, snowy dirt. Diane’s face tucked into his neck is very distracting. He can’t think about anything else, actually, apart from the feel of her knees over his arm, her hair brushing his fingers.
Boots is high on disco lights and Diane.
Boots opens his mouth “Uhh…so…. did you want to... “
“Yes?” Diane raises an eyebrow at him. Jesus, take the wheel, Boots prays.
“Put me down, Boots,” Diane takes the wheel. She pushes him back against a peach tree and kisses him senseless.
Diane and Boots tumble back into the ballroom together, long after the dance has ended. Boots misplaced his tie at some point during the night’s- activities. Ahem.
Miss Scrimmage spots them and lets out a scandalized screech.
Boots runs for his life.