It’s time yet again for another sneak peek of one of the queer Young Adult books I’m currently working on, this one tentatively titled Man Up. It features a nonbinary protagonist (Alfie, he/they) who finds himself in the peculiar position of discovering the popular school football star living in his grandfather’s old woodshed for **Mysterious Reasons**.
Venture below to check out a blurb in-progress and read the first chapter!
When Alfie wakes in the middle of the night to a mysterious light in his grandfather’s old woodshed, he’s expecting a ghost, a burglar, or maybe a raccoon with a flashlight. What he finds instead is Mateo Perreira, popular football star and well-known dater (and dumper) of half the girls at school.
When Mat begs Alfie to let him stay, confessing that his parents have kicked him out (but refusing to reveal why), tender-hearted Alfie agrees. During the day, Mat is his usual popular, girl-loving self, but at night, he and Alfie share secrets and bond over campy eighties movies. As they grow closer, Alfie begins to suspect that his feelings for Mat may be stronger than friendship—and, even more strangely, that Mat may feel the same way.
Someone’s in the woodshed.
I’m sleepy and disoriented, blankets pooled at my waist and my breath coming fast. I wonder vaguely if I’m dreaming, if Grandad himself might be about to float into my room in ghostly night clothes or something. The glaring red light from my alarm clock resolves into “1:32 AM” when I squint at it, and I fumble my glasses onto my face as I half-climb, half-fall out of bed.
My breath fogs up the window glass, and I wipe it away with an impatient hand.
The house I share with Gram sits on a vast, hilly yard bordered by a cow pasture on one side and an overgrown field on the other. The woodshed rests at the edge of the property, backed up against overgrowth and trees, and I know for a fact that not a soul has been inside of it since Grandad died over a year ago.
But there’s a light in the window, a flickering glow that I am definitely not imagining. And given the decided lack of spectral grandfathers—and the very real twinge in my neck from where I slept on it wrong—I’m pretty sure I’m not dreaming. Which means someone is really out there, creeping around in our woodshed at 1:30 in the morning.
I stumble over to my closet and, after some quiet rifling in the back, come out with my old Little League baseball bat. I should probably wake up Gram, but the idea of sending her out into possible danger makes my stomach twist. Anyway, I’m seventeen years old, dammit. Next year I’ll be an actual, legal adult, capable of voting and going to college and making Big Decisions about my future. I can handle this on my own.
I slip on a worn pair of sneakers and tiptoe out into the hallway. Gram’s door is open a crack as usual, and I hear the soft sound of her breathing from inside, the rhythmic hiss of ocean waves from the relaxation tape she plays every night to get to sleep. I creep past her room and down the stairs, and then I’m breezing through the dark, silent kitchen and out the back door.
It’s a chilly October night, the sky clear and black above me, the crisp air smelling like overripe apples and dry, brown leaves. The grass is cold as it tickles my ankles, and I realize I should’ve put on pants over the shorts I wore to bed. And while I’m thinking about things I should’ve done, I also probably should’ve stayed in my bedroom and called the police instead of creeping out here alone, but I tell myself it’s too late to turn back now.
Which is just completely untrue. I could turn back right this second if I wanted to. But maybe I’m thinking about Uncle Jack laughing when Gram said she felt safer with me in the house with her, or the guys in gym class making their dumb comments about my skinny arms and general inability to catch a ball or do anything remotely athletic. I feel like I have something to prove, and so I keep tiptoeing toward the woodshed.
When I reach the shed door, I pause to listen. Over the frenzied percussion solo going on in my chest, I hear a rustling, like someone shifting position, and a sigh that definitely belongs to a human intruder who is currently separated from my scrawny seventeen-year-old body by only a rickety wooden door.
You can still not do this, my brain reminds me helpfully. You can still turn around and go back into the nice warm house with no midnight murderers in it.
But instead I lift my bat, fling open the door, and give a wordless bellow as I leap inside.
It takes a second for me to realize my eyes are squeezed shut. I force them open as I hear a muffled curse and someone scrambling backwards—away, I assume, from the crazy shouting person in the doorway with the bat.
“Alfie, it’s me! It’s Mat!”
Confusion and relief tremble through me, and I squint into the dimness of the woodshed. In the yellow light of what looks like one of Gram’s old scented candles, I make out a crouched figure with curly brown hair, a green and gold letterman jacket, and wide eyes staring fearfully up at me.
Mateo Pereira. What the hell.
I lower the bat and try to settle my racing pulse. “Mat? What the hell are you doing here?”
Mat raises his hands, palms outward, like he’s afraid I’m about to leap forward and pummel him with the bat. Which…fair. “Look, I know this looks bad, but I can explain, okay? Just let me explain.”
I try to focus on the earnestness on his face, but all I can think about is earlier at school, when I was sitting in seventh period Algebra talking to Sadie.
“I’m serious,” Sadie was saying, her pencil darting back and forth over a sketch of a very handsome, very muscular fox man. “Ever since Muffin died, Dad just, like, refuses to make hamburgers. They were Muffin’s favorite, and I guess they remind him too much of her? Grief does weird things to people.”
“Hey, I get it,” I say. “Gram was the same after Grandad died. He used to do all this carpentry work out in the woodshed in our backyard, and Gram hasn’t been in there since he died last year. She doesn’t even like me going in there, so we have this abandoned museum to Grandad’s woodworking sitting there getting dustier and dustier. I wouldn’t be surprised if she never went in there again, honestly.”
It was just as I said this that I happened to glance over Sadie’s shoulder and catch Mat Pereira, of all people, gazing back at me. The second our eyes met, he looked down at his textbook and pretended to be super absorbed in reading about linear inequalities, but I knew what I’d seen. He’d been staring at me.
Which was weird, because people like Mat Pereira didn’t look at people like me. Or if they did, it was just to make some dumb comment about my sexuality or how much I sucked at whatever variety of sportsball we were playing that day in gym class.
But the look on Mat’s face hadn’t been disgust or even mockery. It had been more like…revelation. Like he’d looked at me and glimpsed something he hadn’t been expecting. And even though I’d seen with my own eyes the endless montage of girls Mat had dated and then dumped over the last couple of years, I still felt a little quiver in my chest. For just a second, I wondered what it would be like to date a super-masc football player with curly brown hair and intense greenish-gray eyes. Would we be Prom Kings? Would he ask me to wear his letterman jacket? Would all his exes hate me or just be in awe of me, the one who finally got Mat Pereira to commit?
And then Sadie smacked me on the shoulder and I snapped back to reality.
“Hey,” she said, dark eyes sparkling under her neon-blue bangs. She gestured at her drawing. “Too many muscles? I want, like, Chris Evans level musculature but I’m afraid I’m sliding into pro-wrestler territory here.”
I glanced at the fox man sketch and grinned. “Looks pretty Chris Evans to me. Are you posting this one?”
“Nah, it’s for a commission. I’m getting fifty bucks for it, though, so it needs to be perfect.”
“Dang, fifty bucks?”
She grinned. “And Mom said I’d never make any money with my art.”
“She clearly underestimated the bank accounts of an internet full of furries.”
Mr. Abrams strolled in then and got class underway, but I struggled to pay attention, my eyes drawn over and over again to Mat in his seat next to Sadie. I never caught him staring at me again, but there was a thoughtful expression on his face every time I looked at him, his fingers tapping absently on his book, which wasn’t even open to the right page.
When the bell finally rang, I said my goodbyes to Sadie—who had to book it to the band room to get ready for marching band practice—and kept Mat in the corner of my eye as I gathered my stuff. He exchanged a few words with some of the other football guys and started following them out of the room, but I swear he lingered for a second longer than he normally would have, and it felt like his attention was on me even if his eyes weren’t.
And then he sauntered out into the hallway after his friends, and I was alone.
Since the weather was nice—cool but not cold, and beautifully sunny—I bypassed the bus in favor of walking home, since it would only take about twenty minutes and would give me more time to listen to the queer YA audiobook I’d been dying to get back to all day. Sadie had rudely ripped the earbuds out of my ears at lunchtime, claiming that I wasn’t “living in the now,” so I hadn’t made any progress in the story since this morning before school. Which seriously sucked, because the two main guys were finally starting to realize that they liked each other, and I had a feeling a passionate first kiss was on the horizon.
The narrator had barely spoken two sentences before I became aware of someone walking beside me. I glanced left—and nearly tripped over my feet.
It was Mat.
I tugged out my earbuds and shoved them into my pants pocket. “Uh, hey,” I said.
He had a nice voice, warm and low and smooth. For all that he spent most of his time with rowdy jocks, he never really said much, and all the times I’d seen him with the other football guys, he was generally the one smiling in the background at what other people were saying instead of volunteering conversation himself. The whole quiet/mysterious aspect was probably a big reason why so many girls fell all over themselves to date him, and I wondered if it was a careful act or if he really was just a quiet, shy kind of guy.
I tried to think of something, anything, to say that wasn’t, Why are you here?
Before I could find my voice, Mat cleared his throat. His eyes were on his shoes, illogically clean red and white sneakers that had probably cost more than I made in a week at the pizza place.
“Mind if I walk with you?” he asked.
He sounded nervous, like he was afraid I was going to turn him down. My skin started to prickle with the impossible notion that maybe he did like me, but I shut those thoughts down immediately.
Don’t be stupid, Alfie. This very hot straight boy does not have a thing for you, and thinking he does is only going to lead to a world of pain.
“Sure,” I said, because what else was I going to say? No, hot football boy, please go away?
He seemed to relax a little, and a hint of a smile touched his lips.
We walked in silence for a while, no sound between us but the scuff of our shoes on the sidewalk. I was starting to wonder if I should give up on conversation and go back to my audiobook when Mat made another throat-clearing sound like he was going to speak. He was still looking at his shoes, hands in the pockets of his jacket, brown curls hanging low over his forehead and almost covering his eyes.
“So, you’re friends with Sadie,” he said.
Oh, jeez, was that what this was about? “If you’re hoping to score a date with her, I can already tell you she’s not interested. You’re not exactly her type.”
Mat blinked at me owlishly before directing his gaze downward again. “No, it’s not that. I just… I was making conversation.”
“Oh. Then, yeah, we’re friends. Best friends, really. We’ve known each other since we were, like, four, so we’re pretty much siblings. Which I’m totally okay with, because Sadie is awesome.”
Another small smile from Mr. Mystery. “Yeah, she seems cool.”
I narrowed my eyes, but he didn’t sound like he was pining after Sadie or anything, just stating a fact.
“What’s her real name again? Sudoku or something?”
“Sadako,” I said, giving him a side-eye. “Don’t call her Sudoku. She will murder you. I’m not even joking.”
He gave a little huff of a laugh. “Noted.”
It seemed like he was expecting me to ask, so I said, “How about you? You’re friends with the other football guys, I guess?”
“Yep.” He didn’t sound pleased or upset, just neutral.
A silence fell and I thought, Okay. Good talk. But then Mat shifted a little uncomfortably and shoved his hands deeper into his pockets.
“I mean, I guess they’re my friends. We hang out and all that, but we don’t really… I mean, we don’t talk about stuff. Not important stuff, anyway. Not like you and Sadie.”
There was something like longing in his tone.
“Do you listen in on our conversations or something?” I was mostly joking, but Mat shook his head earnestly.
“Not on purpose, but I can’t help hearing you guys sometimes. It’s not like I’m trying to eavesdrop, but I’m sitting right there, so I don’t really have any way of not hearing you—”
“Hey, it’s fine. It’s cool. I know what you mean.”
“Just… Sometimes I wish I had that, you know? Somebody I could talk to about important stuff.”
I frowned a little but didn’t reply. What was even happening here? Was he trying to say he wanted to be friends with us? I tried to imagine Sadie and me crammed in with the football guys at their rowdy lunch table, having deep conversations with Mat while the other guys threw french fries at each other’s heads. It was so ridiculous I almost laughed out loud.
Mat and I walked on in silence for a while, past the boarded up windows of the out-of-business ice cream shop and onto the winding, tree-lined road that led to my neighborhood.
“You don’t live out this way, do you?” I asked.
A dark expression flickered across Mat’s face, so quickly I would’ve missed it if I hadn’t been watching him at that exact moment. “Nah, I’m over on Vincent, by the elementary school.”
Which was in pretty much the exact opposite direction of my house. “You visiting somebody over here or something?”
“Something like that.”
I waited for him to expand on that, but he didn’t. He just kept putting one foot in front of the other, keeping pace with me like my much buffer, much more attractive shadow.
Finally, we crested the hill and started down the last stretch of road, and I couldn’t help letting out a soft sigh of relief.
“Is that your house?” He nodded at the bright yellow A-frame with green shutters that was just visible behind the trees.
“Yep. My gram’s house, anyway, but I’ve lived there for so long that I guess it counts as my house by this point.”
“You live with your grandma?”
“Yeah. She and Grandad took me in after my dad died when I was twelve, and I’ve lived there ever since.”
Mat went quiet, and there was a heaviness to it this time. “Man, I’m sorry, I didn’t know. What about your mom?”
“She left when I was little. No idea where she is now. She didn’t even show up for Dad’s funeral, or Grandad’s last year, so I’m not super eager to see her again, even if she ever does decide she wants to come back.”
“Shit,” Mat said. “Sorry.”
I shrugged. “It’s fine. It’s just how it is.”
“Yeah, but I mean, all of that, your mom leaving, your dad dying, and then your grandpa…” He was looking at me properly now, his green-gray eyes boring into my face as if searching for something. “How can you be okay after all that? You always seem so, I don’t know. So upbeat. How do you do that?”
A quiet desperation lurked in his tone, like he didn’t just want to know the answer, but needed to know.
“I don’t know. I mean, obviously it was really hard to lose my dad, and then Grandad last year. But I know both of them wanted me to live a good life and be happy, and the best way I can honor their memories is by trying to do that. It still hits me sometimes, and I get sad, but I try to stay positive. I’ve still got Gram, after all, and I’m pretty sure she needs me just as much as I need her. If I shut down, who would be there for her?”
We’d come to a stop by the mailbox, from which I rescued a catalogue, a few pieces of junk mail, an official looking piece of mail with “FINAL NOTICE” stamped across it (I made a mental note to ask Gram about that later), and a handwritten envelope addressed to MRS. ALFRED HAYES. Which, seriously, why do people still do that? Haven’t we moved past the years when a woman’s whole identity was centered around who she was married to? I mean, really.
“It sounds like your grandma’s really lucky to have you,” Mat said quietly. I blinked at him, surprised, but he just gave me a crooked smile and tapped my arm gently with his knuckles. “Guess I better get going. See you around, Alfie.”
He turned and started walking back the way we’d come, and I stared after him for a good fifteen seconds before it occurred to me that I should probably go inside.
And now it’s the middle of the night and he’s hunched over a lavender aromatherapy candle in my grandad’s woodshed, and I have a whole freaking lot of questions.
“Is this why you wanted to walk home with me today?” I demand. My voice sounds too-loud in the quiet, but I’m furious and can’t hold it back. “So you could find out where I lived and sneak in here?”
“Okay, yes,” he says, “but that wasn’t the only reason. I mean, it was the main reason, but I also really liked talking with you.”
I laugh sharply. “Yeah, sure. What are you even doing here? Are you doing drugs or something? If my grandma gets in any kind of legal trouble over this, I swear to God—”
“No!” He lowers his hands to his lap and sighs. “I’m not doing drugs. I’m here because… The truth is, I don’t have anyplace else to go.”
My eyes narrow. “What do you mean?”
“My parents kicked me out. I crashed a few nights in Mason’s basement, but his mom found me and told me I had to go home. I was trying to figure out where else to go, and then I heard you telling Sadie about your woodshed, and I figured it might be a good place to hide out for a little while.”
Mortification creeps over me in a hot flush. That’s why he was looking at me in Algebra. Not because he’d developed some sudden, violent crush on me, but because he wanted to camp out in my grandad’s shed. Naturally.
I open my mouth to tell him he’ll have to find someplace else to stay, but then my brain catches up with the first thing he said. “Why did your parents kick you out?”
Shame is etched in every line of his face. His shoulders slump and he doesn’t look at me. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“Was it drugs?”
He throws me an irritated look. “No. Seriously, I’m not on drugs.”
The anger and embarrassment bleed out of me, and I drop down onto the floor next to him. It’s super dusty in here—probably because we’re the first people to set foot in this place in over a year—but the shed still smells like Grandad, cedar and sawdust and the faint, musky scent of his cologne. It smells like safety, like comfort, like warm Sunday mornings watching him hammering away until Gram called us in for lunch. It smooths the rough edges of my frazzled, sleep-deprived self and makes me feel a little more kindly toward certain deceptive athletes in my immediate vicinity.
I press my back against the wall and look over at Mat. “What you were saying earlier, about wanting to be able to talk about important stuff with your friends? I know we’re not exactly friends, but if there’s anything you want to talk about…” I shrug. “I’m happy to listen.”
He stares at me, eyes wide, then looks away and shakes his head. His voice is a mumble, barely audible. “I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about it. But thanks. That really… It means a lot. Especially after I kind of tricked you today.”
I give a breezy sigh. “It was my own fault. I should’ve been more suspicious that a popular football bro was suddenly being nice to me. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen unless there’s an ulterior motive involved.”
Mat frowns. “First of all, I object to being called a ‘bro.’ And second, that’s not true. Or…it shouldn’t be true. You’re really cool, Alfie. I mean, you’re nice, and smart, and you’re sitting here talking to me instead of calling the police or something, which I really do appreciate.”
I laugh a little. “That’s me, nice, smart Alfie who doesn’t call the police.”
He smiles, but it fades into something soft and nervous. “So, can I sleep here tonight? I swear I won’t touch anything, and your grandma will never know I’m here. I just really need a place to stay.”
I look around the dark, dusty room and get to my feet. “You can’t stay here like this.”
Mat slumps, dejected, and I can practically feel the disappointment rolling off of him.
“What I mean is, you can’t sleep on a wooden floor. I’ll go get you a mattress and blankets and stuff. Wait here, okay?”
Mat full-on beams at me, and it’s dazzling. It occurs to me that this is the first time I’ve ever seen him smile properly, and I suddenly don’t mind so much that I’m awake at 1:30 in the morning trying to turn a dusty woodshed into an impromptu Airbnb.
Before Mat can thank me and push me even further into the dangerous land of liking him, I hurry out the door and back to the house. I find the inflatable mattress in a big plastic bin in the basement, and the sheets, blankets, and pillows that go with it are packed neatly in the bin next to it. Perfect. I drop them off for Mat, and while he’s pumping the mattress full of air, I head back to the house and carefully liberate a few bottles of water, a family-sized bag of chips, and two bananas from the kitchen. I’m about to head back outside, but then I remember that the little half-bath attached to the woodshed probably hasn’t had toilet paper in it for over a year. I grab a few rolls of Angel Soft and a bar of soap from the downstairs powder room before starting what I hope is my last journey across the yard for the evening.
“Here,” I say, lowering my haul carefully to the floor. “If you need anything else, you can text me. I wrote my number down for you.”
The mattress has been pumped full of air, and Mat is struggling to get a fitted sheet stretched over its new dimensions. I hurry forward to help him, and between us, we manage to get the sheet locked into place and the blankets and pillows arranged on top.
I’m about to back out the door when he catches my wrist.
“Seriously, Alfie, thank you.” His voice is soft and full of emotion. “You didn’t have to do all this, and I— I really appreciate it. You’re a good guy.”
The word ‘guy’ crawls under my skin and itches, but I push away the sensation and focus on Mat’s soulful green-gray eyes. “Hey, it’s fine. I’m not going to kick you out in the middle of the night. And if you need to stay here after tonight… That’s okay, too. Nobody’s using this place, and it’s kind of nice to have someone in here again. Just make sure to blow out that candle before you go to sleep, okay? I’m not really built to carry anyone out of a burning building.”
He smiles a little. “Understood.”
I shift awkwardly from foot to foot. “Well, get some sleep then, I guess. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
His hand is still on my wrist, a fact I only realize when he pulls it away. “Yeah. G’night, Alfie.”
When I crawl back into bed and tug the covers around myself, I can’t help my gaze going to the window and the woodshed beyond it. I’m just in time to see the golden glow of the candle whiff out, leaving only darkness behind. But it’s a warm darkness, cozy and full. I imagine Mat lying there on the air mattress, gazing up at the ceiling and thinking about me like I’m thinking about him.
I press my face into my pillow and groan.
Seriously, it is not gonna happen, so stop thinking about it.
I’m just starting to drift off when a buzz from my phone jars me back to consciousness. I fumble for it on the bedside table and squint into a wash of eye-searing white.
There’s a text from an unfamiliar number.
It says: thanks again
Right after the message is a big red heart.
I toss the phone back onto my nightstand, roll over so my back is facing both window and phone, and squeeze my eyes shut. But it’s no use. That stupid heart superimposes itself over my vision, and it doesn’t fade until I fall asleep a long time later.