Jessica Lee Richardson
Arundel loved Francophone and his winter mouth, but she wasn't going to wait around forever. In fact, she wiggled the curtains and drew them back. She did a movie impression of a girl on the go and then was one. She took one more breath of the apartment's stale paint smell and vowed. No more frozen tongue. No more blizzard teeth. The pine forest will give way to the palm trees! She raised her fist.
On the way out of the apartment complex, though, Arundel spotted a package sitting upright with its shiny tape in the middle of the meridian. No homes there, no people, just a circle of grass. She pulled over and hopped out to grab it. A thrill took her organs as musical hostages. She was trembling strings. So instead of opening the box and peeking in as she intended, she threw the box in her backseat with a panic arm and peeled out.
She heard whispery sounds almost immediately. Fuck, she thought. A shift sifter. Of course. Why would someone leave something good in an unattended box in a meridian? Especially in Winterside, where everyone is trying to thaw out. She didn't really have time for a shift sifter right now.
Now she would have to go through the questions. Shift sifters always mean questions. Ay ay ay, thought Arundel, shimmying in her seat. She would wait to open it until she got to the beach. For now she would pick up Rabby as planned, see what she had to say about sifting. Maybe she had more experience. Arundel had only done it once, and hers was mild because her mom left while she was in the middle of it. The shift sensed her elsewhereness and let her off easy.
Packed in the generic van and hot Arundel cleared her throat three times waiting for Rabby's wobbly pink shirt to descend bearing her head. She tapped her knee and licked her lips. Here were Rabby's cheeks, the embarrassing flush and flounder. Her hands darting wildly in jazz hellos. Her hair rose to meet the greeting and Arundel patted down her own crumpets of frizz. "Hey, Slimeball," she said as Rabby got in. She giggled and slapped her arm. Gave her those big welcome eyes, a little pleading and over-wide.
"What's up, Killer," Rabby said in imitation but it didn't suit her.
Arundel called Rabby Candybear when she was like this. Candybear just gels when she talks, coats all in the shine of her. Candybear should not be old enough to get pregnant but Rabby is. Her ankles show it and Arundel just knows. Immediately. She can see that pink line in her eyes, how the corners of her mouth stick.
"Don't look, shift sifter in the back."
"Holy flipping savior figure, are you kidding?"
Arundel gave Rabby a look that said let's just go to the beach please, and they did.
The drive was punctuated by I don't want to talk about it sing alongs and crusty car butt rest excursions, but they still got there under time because Arundel had a heavy foot. They could barely hear the whispers of the shift now that the roar of the ocean was streaming in the windows. Their skin was tacky with sea already and their girls-at-the-edge-of-the-world mood lightened.
They unfluffed their blanket by a protected dune and unboxed the beast. Sifters always look like their surroundings, so in this case sand. But don't be fooled. It was time to respond when the shift started to sift. Their job was to sit on the towel and wait until the first question presented itself. Rabby was, for some strange reason, hoping to be included in the wondering. They rubbed coconut sunscreen on their knobby girl knees. Rabby did a cartwheel and Arundel got judgey about the handling of the offspring in there, which Rabby had confessed, tersely, to harboring in the car. So she did a back handspring too. Banged her belly. Said, she's a toughy, don't worry and tightened her eyes.
After a couple of swims streaked with spindles of wish and a few magazines, Arundel had a sinking feeling that plunked in confirmation when Rabby asked, in Candybear fashion, "Why are you leaving Francophone again?"
"Oh no," she said. "Rabby, you are my first tester."
"That's the first shift question."
She looked disappointed that she was being used by an electric rectangle in an unmarked box. Then she started laughing. "Well then I'm gonna make you eat jellyfish and sing an aria while you recite the constitution, Bitch," and a cackle.
Never take a pregnant girl on your free-yourself road trips.
The first question sounded like an easy: Why are you leaving Francophone again? But the shift is rarely easy. She thought about Francophone's armpit pockets and how they fit the shape of her head and then about his arrogant comments on films and food and almost anything. She refused to speak just yet and went for a solo swim. Time is alright when in a shift. The ocean knocked her into the froth of itself and slammed shells into her feet. She caught a high one and got a bloop out of it.
He was not in love with her. She tried to go limp but the waves splashed in her nose.
He was depressed. She did a flip and a kid laughed at her.
He was boring her. She sat on that one like it was water and was held. She sent the answer to the sand. The sand said, so what? Everyone is boring. That's not it.
Just chips of rock upon chips of rock.
Rabby was napping on the blankets and Arundel felt gummy and heavy from the sea anyway. She squeezed her hair out, graying the sand, and then curled up next to her snoring friend.
Arundel's snooze was interrupted by the back of her head crinkled against something and she flipped over. A piece of paper was sitting there on the blanket. It said, "Take a walk to the docks and write down the first boat name that feels like an answer. Love, R."
Rabby could be the sweetest buttmunch. She would do it to get through the shift, Arundel thought, but drifted off into nap again. Her dream was restless with illustrations. A bald head here, a shadowed hat wearer there, hunks of ant-ridden rolls. She could win a prize if she drew the best response to a riddle. But she couldn't draw so she invented her own riddle. A silver fist in a square of squares. She woke up to the black tip of a seagull beak poking into a bag of their potato chips. Rabby yelling git, git. Arundel got up to take her walk and the bird stretched its wings but only moved a few feet. Rabby turned back into her nap.
The walk through the dunes was ridden with noises. Frog, turtle, snake, bug? She didn't know, but she knew the bird mothers were guarding something. One pretended to have a hurt wing as a decoy. Another dive-bombed at her face.
The boats came into view again after her feet stung from crossing a gravel parking nook. Large now. Named in pinks and reds and sober blues. The first one she saw was called, "Gratitude." That was too cheesy to be the answer she brought back to Rabby/the shift, even though it was true enough.
The next one was called, "Nauti Maiden." So no.
A child played with a truck on the warm slatted wood. The sails made a sound between subtle thunder and fluffed bed sheet in the merry maid wind.
This boat name gave Arundel pause for some dumb reason. She thought of how Francophone asked her where she was going even when she was clearly just on the way to the bathroom. It inspired warmth and physical expulsion in the same breath. I don't want to be anyone's first anything, she thought, much less lady, and she felt the shift sifting even though it was across a lot and dunes.
For good measure, she took in a few more boats before returning to the towels. "Busted," "Alimony," "Lolligag." She missed her calling as a captain.
Rabby was awake in full gull combat when she returned. "You got the first question," she said with over-pointed birdslayer eyes. "It shifted."
"How did you know the boats would help me?"
She shrugged into Candybear. "A game of Scrabble can be divination," she said and stared off. Her pregnancy test lips clamped like she wanted to say more.
Arundel felt like the first boat. She plopped to take Rabby into a love noogie. The bird finally gave up on them. The love noogie was its limit.
The sands under the shift became oddly pink.
They decided to split a hotel room, but the little beach shanty type places were all full or closed, so they got back on the interstate. Tire slivers curled like squirrels in the road. The radio echoed them. It was Rabby's turn to talk, but she wasn't doing it. Those glossy little lips of hers were stuck quiet or pearled around banal pop lyrics. Pines poked the undergray of a golden sunset. They found one of those corporate type places with a fake "urban" living mall around it and leaned into the beige.
As soon as the key card was in the slot it began. The girls got a wiggle in their underwear. Rabby went all the way Candybear for their two-woman/one-shift dance party. Once they got sweating and lost in the swivel of background instruments they began it. Subtle touch. Here and there. A finger to a hip. At first it was just girls flirt. Then it was the sugar bubbling beneath them and the shift too, so question two became, "Are we really gonna fuck right now?"
Softly, in the bed at first, a wonder of boobs on boobs. Later on the balcony of the sleeping hotel. In the morning on the bathroom sink. By the time they were done their bodies were lashed with marks and their hair was knotted. There was the big round smell of wet root. Finally they took a shower and got the giggles on their two pairs of legs that would not stop wobbling.
The shift was back to normal. That one was a silent question and it meant more to Arundel then she let on, or could articulate. The answer wasn't so simple as, oh, maybe I'm a lesbian, after all, and that's why I left Francophone. Not that being a lesbian is simple. But the answer seemed to have less to do with identity and more to do with taking a pregnant woman between her legs and squirming together into a howl. Something of her had been put to sleep that could only be fully awoken this way.
"Okay," said Rabby rubbing oil into her waves. "I'll talk."
"It's about time, Butterbean," and Arundel's arm shot out, "What kind of an Assface—"
"I don't know," and Rabby was spitting now and red suddenly, "who the father is."
There was a long silence.
Oh no. Oh no. Oh no, Baby.
This was one of those nightmares you just know will never happen to you, but when you really think about it, in your mid-twenties or so, when you lived in the big city, it totally could have. Rabby put her fragrant hair in her mouth and numbed her eyes over, the way she did when she cried. Arundel tried kissing her but no. This was not what was called for here.
What was called for, after they heaved for a little while, was pizza. She ordered some from the urban environment mall but they didn't deliver. So they squeezed themselves into their jeans and dried their faces and left on foot for civilization.
By a garbage can one kid turned his phone into a mini boombox and his skater friend got down to the hip-hop. Both boys looked too clean to be teenagers, though. The whole place did. Even the bushes weren't dirty. They were so perky they were practically smiling. The silent oxidation of man. It would be so positive. The girls' legs still shook.
The pizza place was all white. White counters, floors, tables. They didn't fit in exactly, so they went to sit on an outside bench with their pizza like the too-clean youth. The slices were slimy and the crust too thick but it was delicious in a mall kind of way, and in a we're-in-trouble kind of way.
Arundel clutched Rabby's thigh under the pizza box. "Listen, I got you. You don't need either one of them." The "either ones" of possible paternity were only two at least, could be worse. Mort, the older wealthy New Yorker Magazine type she had been dating on and off since it was illegal, but who kept her like a display case feature, or Perry the moody musician who lilted the ends of his sentences down and preferred not to get too serious. She would rather it be Perry, but the baby would survive with Mort, thrive maybe. She hadn't told either of them. Anyone.
Rabby pinched her. "Don't say you can take care of me, Delly. Don't be an Assnugget. You don't even have a savings account." It was true. "We're just fucking for the weekend because we're both desperately alone right now." Ouch. The clovered imitation mahogany benches were American and upright and so was Arundel's back when pushed by the shaming truth.
Rabby wasn't done, though. "We might not even know each other in five years!"
That was too much. Arundel slapped the back of her head. "Yes we will!"
Rabby was giggle-stunned. But it turned out to not be the slap that giggle-stunned her, not fully. She was looking at something over Arundel's head. Arundel swung her head straight backwards instead of around and there was Francophone's big dumb face that she was fully, and uselessly, in love with. Ugh.
"What do you mean, how?"
"Did you find me?"
"I was just here."
"With my mom."
His mom did live around here. Some part of her had thought of that when picking the excursion destination.
"Where is she?"
"Looking at pocketbooks."
A long drink of jaw.
Rabby just grunts. Walks away. Her look is an inversion, unreadable as a cloud.
They are quiet. Some man does business on his phone, pacing. A woman clomps around on her walker. Pigeons have a turf war over Arundel's discarded crust. She has a belly of black and red checkers kinging each other.
"You didn't have to be so dramatic about it," Francophone finally says.
"I'm sorry, Alfredo." Arundel wishes her temples had zippers. Release valves. Rubs them.
"Don't call me that."
"It's your name."
"You never call people by their names."
He sat down. His smell all oatmeal cinnamon. Nothing wrong with him. She had made it all up. Just restless, just so restless all the time, all the time trying to get out of the traps that she herself set. His skin was brown with sun love. She rested her hand on his inner arm like today was always instead of tomorrow. His arm knew it was tomorrow, though, and pulled away, reached for his own face.
Their sneakers almost matched with their awkward yellow stripes. She had made a terrible mistake.
His soft face knew it. She didn't know if the rest of him would, in time. People hardly ever know anything in time. It's our great tragedy. His hair was so black and shiny she wanted to swallow it.
Then his mom. Great. Some hi how are yous. Strained inquiries into gardens, jobs. Mother-son looks. A decision made over arched brows to go shop for new sneakers. A see you around. An "I'll call you," at least. The backs of them waddled a little as they left. His mother's butt sagged slightly and her hair clip was loose. These tender little lives lived in bright painted malls. Never quite as clean or as perky as the bush selection is.
Arundel called Rabby's name like a second grade answer. It was a shout. Something she knew.
"Jesus," she said. Right there, not fifty feet away. Hunched a little. Walking over.
"What's the matter?" Arundel asked. Her eyes were the double o of doors.
"I think that nausea thing might be really real." She put a hand on her stomach and plopped.
"Yeah. How about you? You okay?"
"No. But I bet the shift is shut down."
"Shift shells make good souvenirs."
"The fossil is more complicated than the fish."
But Arundel didn't fully know the answer the shift knew, or at least she didn't know she knew it. Only that it had something to do with her measuring her distance from being a first lady.
Perhaps she should give up on measuring.
On the way back to Winterside some strangeness seeped in and for a while the girls quietly lip-synced. When they finally pulled into the lot of Hollow Grove planning to eat together, probably a mannered, hand folded meal of unspicy food, Francophone's car was there. Arundel felt a woosh go up her legs and belly and chest and face. Rabby slumped. Her cheeks were edged with blush. As Arundel's energy lifted, Rabby's drained.
"I'll drive you home?" Arundel said. Just a small dead-faced nod from Rabby.
Rabby did Candybear as she got out of the car, but it was, for the first time ever, a half-assed glaze, just to comfort Arundel in her dawning realization that she may have just used a pregnant girl for comfort sex. Rabby reached into the back to grab her stuff and they shared a shuttered love stare, one that said, "Yeah, it'll be better and great again, just not for a while." Her hair strawberried in the sun. She walked away slowly. Arundel wanted to help her but couldn't tell if she was heavy with questions or answers. For now she said nothing. She felt like a shit but she had to go.
She felt the chill of Winterside all through her and welcomed it. She pulled back into Hollow Grove and her favorite parking spot next to Ms. River's Jeep was open. She looked in the windows hoping for a glimpse of Francophone's mood. It wasn't until she went to grab her bag from the backseat that she noticed the shift shell was gone.
She hoped it would turn on again for Rabby. She hoped Rabby would need her for her sifting. She hoped Rabby would need her body.
The wind chime tinkled. This was the diamond, the crest. She fixed her hair and spritzed herself and turned the handle, home.