Make way, make way, for the first bigender MC in traditionally published YA! (Or at least that I know of, but I feel pretty good about this.) This is a very exciting cover for me to be revealing in particular because the author is the person who taught me the very time “bigender” lo a bunch of years ago, so I’m thrilled to be showing off the cover of Somebody Told Me by Mia Siegert, which releases from Carolrhoda on April 7, 2020 and tells the story of a Russian Jewish bigender teen who discovers they can overhear confessions to their priest uncle and takes it upon themselves to become a “guardian angel.” Here’s the story:
After an assault, bigender seventeen-year-old Aleks/Alexis is looking for a fresh start―so they voluntarily move in with their uncle, a Catholic priest. In their new bedroom, Aleks/Alexis discovers they can overhear parishioners in the church confessional. Moved by the struggles of these “sinners,” Aleks/Alexis decides to anonymously help them, finding solace in their secret identity: a guardian angel instead of a victim.
But then Aleks/Alexis overhears a confession of another priest admitting to sexually abusing a parishioner. As they try to uncover the priest’s identity before he hurts anyone again, Aleks/Alexis is also forced to confront their own abuser and come to terms with their past trauma.
And here’s the brilliantly bi-coded cover, designed by Kimberly Morales!
But wait, there’s more! Want an excerpt? We’ve got you covered with the entire first chapter, so come check it out!
(cw: internalized transphobia)
The last place I ever thought I’d live was next to a Catholic church.
I stared at the street view on my phone screen. The building I would live in looked pretty normal. You know, two stories, flat roof and brick siding and a fire escape. And the church itself was pretty humble-looking too. Not some huge cathedral with gothic architecture and creepy statues of Jesus getting crucified. At least on the outside.
“The rectory’s actually very comfortable, according to your aunt,” Mom said, knuckles clenched so tightly around the steering wheel that they were blanched. “Very homey, aside from the church office. It’s basically an apartment. The couple of other priests attached to Saint Martha’s live in a separate space, so you’ll have a fair amount of privacy.”
“Yup,” I said, putting my phone away. We’d been over this before.
Mom’s eyes remained locked on the road ahead of her. Not one glance behind. “And the cemetery is right across the street. Your uncle said you’re welcome to treat it like your backyard and use it anytime. Well, almost anytime. No barbeques during a funeral.”
I snorted. “He actually said that?”
“Mm-hmm. He was dead serious, too.”
Damn. What sort of heathen did he take me for? Granted, I hadn’t even seen the guy in years. Not since he went from being an Episcopal priest to a Catholic one. According to my internet research, there are only about two hundred people in the country who’ve gone this route—marry, convert, become a priest—so it was no surprise that Uncle Bryan took his new calling seriously. But you’d think that if he got to keep his wife, he would’ve been allowed to keep a sense of humor too. “What does he think I’d do if someone died? Tie a badminton net up on the statues? Play horseshoes with the American flags?”
Mom chimed in: “Croquet through the headstones, stomping over letters and stuffed animals for the deceased.”
“Damn, Mom. And I thought I was brutal.” I waited for her smile. It never came. She gazed ahead, unblinking. She’d never admit she was hurting, that my decision tore her to bits, but she radiated so much pain I could feel it in my chest.
I sank in my seat. Well, no need to keep riffing about the cemetery. Wasn’t like I was planning to set foot in there anyway. Not because I was afraid or thought cemeteries were eerie, even though they kind of were. They just made me sad. Maybe a little angry. I wasn’t really sure why. Last year, maybe I’d have taken advantage of it with my cosplay group just to get an edgy photo for tons of likes. Something provocative by the inevitable statue of Mary. I’d done that sort of stupid shit a lot, especially with him.
Don’t go there, Aleks, I reminded myself. That part of my life was over. No more trolling, no more CAPSLOCK LOLZ, and definitely no more being an asshole just for a bunch of likes. I was going to pretend that segment of time didn’t exist. I’d always been good at pretending.
Although I should have, I hadn’t deleted my social media accounts. Believe it or not, Mom was the one who convinced me not to do it. She thought that one day I’d get nostalgic and not have anything to look back on. I’d taken her word for it because she’d been in tears as she said it. Figured that came from personal experience, maybe with my aunt. So I just disabled notifications and comments and logged out of everything. I didn’t want to deal with the messages from my friends. Former friends, I mean. Why was past-tense so hard to say? To think?
I didn’t want to deal with the other bullshit either. You know, the “faux trans” or “ugly girl” crap that made me nauseous. I’d dealt with that for years, people refusing to believe my identity was legit, people insisting that I was calling myself bigender for attention. I was done with going to conventions where at least three girls would approach me, asking me if I was a boy or girl and, if I said boy, ask “Are you sure?” about seven times before adding, “because you’re really hot.” And I didn’t know if that was because they were lesbians or because they wanted to make sure I was an effeminate guy because that meant they were still straight. And my friends would laugh, especially him, saying, “Yeah, you’re such a hot guy” while the voice inside said something else:
Where’s your dick at? Huh?
Who does that?
That voice still made me shudder. It crept in like a waiting storm, then suddenly it was there, breaking down my mental walls like a hurricane, destroying everything in its path. It was there way before I got in trouble. And afterward, it never went away. Sometimes the voice sounded just like one of my exes. Ring, ring, ring. Buzzing in my ears. No matter how many times I tried to tune it out, it wouldn’t leave me. No. It became louder. Faster. Pulsed like my heartbeat. Like its own breathing, living thing.
Louder, louder, LOUDER.
The noise was almost unbearable by the time we pulled up in front of a sign that read SAINT MARTHA ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH. Loud enough for me to scrape my nails against my scalp, sliding down to rub my fingers against the back of my neck, getting the tension out. Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut—
“You doing okay, Aleks?” Mom asked, her voice shaking.
Trying to sound convincing, I said, “Yep. I’m good.” After all, this was my idea.
“Because if you’re having second thoughts, we can call this off. I could ask for an emergency leave from work—”
“Mom, we’ve been over this.”
“Seriously, don’t.” And then to prove my point, “If you do, I’m going to feel guilty as hell. So don’t. Please.”
She fell silent.
The second I’d told my parents I wasn’t safe, Mom had started looking for transfers. There weren’t any openings. I couldn’t let her quit, not when she’d spent so long building her career, trying to get her twenty years to collect pension. And Dad was stationed in Iraq. It wasn’t like I could say “come home” when he was on active duty.
There were only two options I could think of.
One: Do nothing.
Two: Move in with Aunt Anne Marie and Uncle Bryan while Mom waited for a transfer to go through or until I went to college, whichever came first. I had two more months of summer break before I had to decide where I’d spend my senior year of high school, so it was the perfect time to move.
“You know what kind of people they are, right?” Mom had asked me once she’d regained the ability to speak.
“Yeah, I know,” I’d said, although I was mostly guessing based on offhand comments she and my dad had made. My parents had strong opinions on Catholicism, so strong I used to fear that if I ever met a Catholic, they’d curse me simply for existing. But then I got older. I learned that extremists and shitty people exist everywhere. Sure, some Catholics might be scary, but a person could say that about members of literally any group. I was trying to be a less shitty person myself these days, so I didn’t want to make assumptions about my aunt and uncle. Especially because I wasn’t like anyone else I knew, even in the cosplay communities I’d belonged to.
The last time I’d seen my aunt and uncle, I was little. So little, I didn’t remember how old I’d been. I didn’t know if they had converted to Catholicism yet or if Uncle Bryan was still an Episcopal priest. I did remember being entranced by Aunt Anne Marie’s sewing machine and liking Uncle Bryan’s laugh. But I also remember an argument through the walls and the door slamming. Mom’s sobs: What happened to her?
What happened, I guess, was that she was a good Episcopalian girl who grew up to marry an Episcopal priest, and then gradually both she and her husband got into Catholicism. Fun fact, courtesy of my internet research: Protestant clergy are sometimes allowed to switch teams and become Catholic priests, and if they’re already married, they’re allowed to stay married. I still didn’t get it though. Like, did celibacy laws still apply? In which case, what was the point?
My aunt was a puzzle even without all that. My grandparents on Mom’s side were pretty liberal, always vocal about equality, just cool in general. They died a couple of years ago, but back when I was twelve, after Mom told them about me coming out as bigender, they called to tell us all about joining their local PFLAG group. But Aunt Anne Marie wasn’t like them. I had so many friends who’d broken away from their conservative families as they discovered more inclusive values. I didn’t think I’d met a single person who came from a family as chill as Mom’s and left for Faux News. It was different. Weird.
Living with them still had to be better than what I was running from. Coming here was the safest option, because it was the last place anyone would ever think to look for me.
Mom parked the truck and turned the ignition off. “We’re here.”
The rectory—the priests’ residence—looked just like it had online. Right up against it was another building that I knew was the church. It actually looked like an extension of the same building, except the windows on the church part were more arched and the double doors at the front looked more imposing.
We climbed out of the truck. I approached the building and traced my fingers along the cracks in the brick facade. Up close, it looked nicer than in the pictures. They must have done some renovations recently.
There was some chattering and commotion as people came out the front doors of the church, a few yards away. Don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact—but they went the other direction, oblivious. I exhaled, relieved. For now, I was still invisible. Just the way I wanted.
The front door of the rectory opened. Immediately, I withdrew from the wall, moving to stand next to Mom. An older woman clattered down the steps with an uneven stride, like she was in pain but trying not to limp. Surely that couldn’t be . . .
Mom cleared her throat. “Hey, Annie.”
The old woman corrected her: “Anne Marie. Please.”
I barely kept from gawking as Aunt Anne Marie approached. This didn’t make sense. Aunt Anne Marie wasn’t that much older than Mom. Like a few years. This wrinkly-faced woman looked like she should have been my grandma instead of my aunt.
She embraced Mom stiffly and briefly, like she was being polite even though she couldn’t stand to be near her. Judging from Mom’s expression, the feeling was mutual. Next, she moved to me hugging me for just a second, if even. Like she wasn’t sure it would be welcome. “It’s—it’s good to see you, Alexis.”
A rock formed in the pit of my stomach.
Before I could open my mouth, Mom said, “It’s Aleks today. He and him.”
“It’s fine,” I told Mom quickly. I’d already decided I wouldn’t publicly present as male here. I didn’t know if that counted as going back in the closet or whether it was self-preservation.
Mom frowned. “Pronouns are important.”
“I know, but not today. Okay?” I touched her arm. “It’s fine. I promise.”
Mom frowned but dropped it. Good. Last thing I wanted was super high tension around me before I even moved in. Besides, this was their home. I was a temporary guest. Coming here was my idea. I knew what I was getting into. Sort of.
Aunt Anne Marie didn’t respond to my mother. She looked at me, smiling. It seemed genuine but also strained, like it’d been so long since she smiled it ached. She looked so old. So tired. So thin. Had Uncle Bryan aged that quickly too? “I was worried you’d look more . . .” She trailed off, leaving me to fill in the gap:
Butch? Queer? Covered in glitter with rainbows shooting out of my butt?
Aunt Anne Marie tried again. “I was worried you’d stand out. If you stay like this, you’ll fit right in.”
I exhaled with relief. Good. Fitting right in was exactly what I needed, even if boy-me was going to hate it in about 0.0008 seconds, and probably girl-me too. It didn’t matter how much this place sucked because it would be safe. If I hid inside my skin, I wouldn’t be in direct danger. No one would notice the ugly girl. She was innocuous and easy to ignore, which was perfect, even though sometimes, just sometimes, I wished she wasn’t so ugly.
Here’s the sad part: I never thought she was ugly until people told me again and again that she was. All those school formals, me standing awkwardly by the wall as everyone was asked to dance except me. That kid who threw a tape dispenser at me in class, telling me to put it on my upper lip to rip the mustache off. The classmates who called me an ugly slut for wearing layers of tank tops in winter when, really, I just got overheated and sweated through my clothes. I guess the masochist in me preferred the bullying to the silence I now was seeking. Any attention was better than no attention, or so I’d thought. I knew better now.
How would people here react if they saw two different people with the same face? If I left the house as a girl one day and a boy the very next? Would they think I had a twin? Think it was a costume? Condemn me to hell? Hold signs outside the rectory and shout slurs at me?
I could picture all that so clearly. Images of horrible things happening to me, worst-case disasters, gleefully narrated by “the voice.” No matter how many times I told it to shut up, it was always there. Left ear, right ear, crashing like a turbulent sea.
“This is just temporary,” Mom said to Aunt Anne Marie. Then, almost as an afterthought, “Thank you for doing this.”
Aunt Anne Marie looked at me instead of my mother. “We’re family.” Like she was erasing Mom from existence. The tension was so thick, it was almost visible. Was there ever a time when she and Mom were close? Like when they were children? Had they confided in each other, whispering secrets in the dark? It was hard to imagine. The few times I’d asked Mom about Aunt Anne Marie, she’d said, “I don’t want to talk about her.” I never pressed. My parents had taught me that if someone doesn’t want to talk about something, you should leave them alone. Don’t prod snakes.
“There are going to be a few ground rules,” Aunt Anne Marie said.
“Ground rules?” Mom asked. “You didn’t say anything about ground rules on the phone.”
Aunt Anne Marie turned on my mother. “I haven’t seen you in years. Not a word of communication. When you called me out of the blue, I gladly stepped in. Money doesn’t grow on trees—”
“Fine!” Mom reached in her purse for her wallet. “If you want money—”
“I don’t want your money. I want to get to know my niece. Is that a crime?”
I flinched. From that perspective, she sort of had a point, even though she’d called me “niece” after Mom had requested male pronouns today on my behalf. Although it was hard to swallow, I could forgive it for now. Tons of people made mistakes, misgendering people out of ignorance rather than cruelty. I’d known to expect it here.
I’d never heard the term bigender until I was twelve. Honestly, I can’t remember if I’d ever heard it. One day I woke up and, out of nowhere, said, “I’m bigender.” Everything immediately felt right, like I’d had a massive epiphany. Simultaneously, it made me really . . . lonely. I couldn’t even find much use of the term online. Of course, the internet is full of people who identify outside of the male or female boxes. Genderqueer and genderfluid have floated around in the mainstream for a little while, but those terms never fit me. There’s a lot of crossover in those brackets, a lot of beautiful transition and blending, but for as different as I was, everything was black and white. There was no gray space. I’d wake up in the morning and know whether I was a girl or a boy. Rarely, in the middle of the day, I’d change. When that happened, it wasn’t a gradual shift. More like a light switch. Off on, on off. And almost always, that sudden shift felt bad.
But now wasn’t the time to think about that. Now was the time to play “blend in” and avoid rocking the boat so that I’d stay safe. My aunt and uncle, despite their religious views, were safe. Thou shalt not kill. Maybe I could suggest an addendum: Thou shalt not be a douchebag to thy nephew.
“What are the ground rules?” I asked.
Aunt Anne Marie looked delighted that I was talking to her. “We eat dinner together at six unless your uncle is helping a troubled parishioner.”
I wondered if “troubled” meant a depressed person or a sinner. Or were depressed people automatically considered sinners?
“If he’s late, we wait for him . . .”
Ooh, toxic patriarchy! Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!
“. . . unless he tells us ahead of time that we should eat without him, which is the case today. He’s helping out with the summer day camp over at the school.” She nodded toward a building across the way: Saint Martha Elementary. “We’ll eat without him. He’s a very busy man.”
I’m sure he is.
“Also,” Aunt Anne Marie said, “do you have a nice dress?”
Define “nice dress.”
“Um . . . yeah? I think,” I said cautiously as the voice in my head screamed, It’s a trap. “If not, I could sew one, I guess. Why?”
“You’ll need one for Sundays, when we go to church.”
Mom’s eyes widened. “You can’t make Aleks—”
“Mass is nonnegotiable,” my aunt said. “If Alexis is going to stay here, it’s what we do. Can you imagine a priest’s niece not attending?”
Mom grumbled beneath her breath, “Unfortunately I can imagine a lot of things.”
“Do you want us to help or not?”
Mom glanced at me, like somehow she was failing even though she was trying her absolute hardest.
I touched her arm. “It’s just a dress.”
“It’s more than just a dress.”
She was right, but that wasn’t a problem for today. “Mom, really. It’s okay. I can deal.”
At least for the next few months.
Mom hesitated but then sighed. “No making Aleks say grace before meals or any of that.”
“That’d be her choice.”
I flinched. Was the emphasis on “her” intentional, or was I extra sensitive today?
When Mom called my aunt and uncle to bring up the idea of me staying there temporarily, one of the first things she said was, “Alexis is bigender. That means some of the time, they identify as female and Alexis, and some of the time they identify as male and Aleks. They’re also queer. If either of you make them uncomfortable or spout homophobic, nonbinary-phobic nonsense, I’ll rip out your throat.”
Mom could be a little theatrical sometimes. And by sometimes, I mean all the time. I had to inherit it from someone. I’m sure my aunt and uncle weren’t impressed, but I thought it was pretty damn funny. And it certainly couldn’t have sent a clearer message.
Let me give my aunt the benefit of the doubt just for today. Maybe for the next week, since there would have to be an adjustment. A learning curve.
What if it’s longer than a week? I tried to ignore the nagging worry. What if she uses only female pronouns forever?
Aunt Anne Marie continued, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Alexis finds that this is the right path for her.”
Sure. I might also find that I enjoyed bashing my head against concrete.
Aunt Anne Marie looked at her watch. “As I said, your uncle will be working late tonight.” Was he really working late or was he deliberately avoiding Mom?
. . . or me.
“Let’s get your things to your room, get you settled, and have a little dinner. Okay?” She forced another big smile. “I’m so happy I’ll finally get to know you.”
“Sounds good,” I said, forcing some pep into my voice.
As we walked to the back of the truck, Mom latched to my side. Quietly, she said, “If you need an escape . . .”
“I’ll let you know immediately. I promise.”
I embraced my mother, cutting her off. I turned my face against her neck, trying to remember the smell of her perfume and the way her huge hoop earrings jingled. “Thank you,” I whispered. “For letting me do this.”
“I’d do anything to protect you.”
“Is there anything else I should be doing?”
“No, Mom. It’s not you.” It’s them, I thought. It’s their fault.
“Aleks?” Mom asked, worried.
“I’m fine,” I said instinctively. Then, with the bravest face I could muster, I grabbed the first box.