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And then I crawled back to the life (that I said I wouldn't live in)

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2 months. That’s how long they last.

2 months apart and it’s almost a worse hell than being stuck in that god forsaken facility. Almost.

It happens through a series of trickle-down effects, and once the ball starts rolling it doesn’t stop. Some say misery loves company, that trauma bonds people together. Being stuck on an island together 24/7, clinging to hope of survival and then working to escape a compound that desperately sought to drive them insane… yeah, that would definitely fit the criteria.

 

-

 

Saying goodbye at the airport had wrecked Shelby. Watching each one of her friends—her family—walk away, tore her battered heart apart piece by piece. Each broken shard trailing behind them one by one until only a tiny, bleeding, and bruised sliver was left for her to hang on to. One piece left just for her to hold, fisted between both hands in order to keep it from crumbling to dust and drifting away on the wind.

The pain is unbearable, but somehow, she doesn’t cry. Even through the agony of her shredded soul ripping from her chest, the tears remain at bay (at least for the time being).

 

-

 

Shelby hadn’t considered what being on a plane again would feel like. But boarding the massive death contraption is like taking the first step toward recovery and a hundred steps back. Everything is too cramped, the air too thick and stale to suck down a real breath. Everyone seemed to be staring at her, admonishing the wild monstrosity atop her head as the hair grew back in untamed clumps.

Blackness began to ebb into the edges of her vision as the engines roar to life. The screeching hum sounding like a battle cry straight out of her nightmares. Dot’s fingers thread through hers as the plane jerks into motion. Shelby knows it’s meant to be a comfort, but the white-knuckle grip exposes the fear clenched in Dot’s chest too.

The bones in her hand crack and ache from the painful hold, their palms slipping against each other, clammy and slick. But they don’t let go the entire flight, stay clasped together as they wage war against the nausea of being in the air.

Her t-shirt is soaked with sweat by the time they land, but it doesn’t really bother her. Not anymore, not after weeks of tattered, stained clothes crusted with salt and sand. The uncomfortable dampness clinging to her skin is a luxury compared to that. They say nothing as they exit the plane, just flex and clench their fingers as they walk out, willing blood back into the appendages.

Baggage claim goes smoothly, but Dot’s uber idles on the curb ready to take her away too and Shelby’s insides knot painfully as she throws her arms around the girl. Logically, she knows they will probably see each other at school (if they go back), but it feels like an end of a chapter. Being left on a devastating cliff hanger with no idea where the story goes next. A long minute passes before they bring themselves to disentangle, Dot’s eyes red rimmed and lined with silver.

Shelby doesn’t have to wait long alone, but secretly she wishes she could just stay in this limbo forever. For a brief moment, standing on the sidewalk in the open air it is almost as if she can take her first full breath in months. Inhaling the familiar, dry, Texas breeze, dust kicking up around her and no expectations or experiments locking shackles to her ankles.

She considers running, just taking off with the clothes on her back and never looking in the rearview again. But a white van is already whipping into the parking space in front of her, barely rolling to a stop before her mother is clambering out the passenger side door and careening into her.

Her father sobs, blubbering and apologizing, but the tears don’t quell the bubbling anger threatening to boil over in her chest. She remains stiff in his embrace, arms lax at her sides as tension creeps in between her shoulder blades.

Shelby tells them in the car, not having the energy or desire to be afraid anymore. When her parents ask how she’s feeling an hour into the drive, she declares right then and there that she’s great and gay and in love. They don’t say anything back, the weighted silence deafening, but honestly it is a far better reaction than what she expected.

If she learned one thing on that miserable island it’s that if God had forced her to endure that special brand of hell, then He was going to have to suck it up and deal with the fact she wanted to be with a woman. She’d knock down the pearly gates herself if need be, she at least knows she’s strong enough now.

Sometimes she wonders if it was by design, a divine plan to show her He was ready for her and that maybe love was the most important thing. But she just wasn’t ready to forgive Him enough yet to look at it that way. To be grateful. Martha might still wear rose tinted glasses and freely hand out compassion as if nothing had happened, but Shelby was under no such illusions.

 

-

 

Being home is strange. The vanilla scented candles burn on the mantel and her brother’s soccer cleats sit haphazardly by the door like always, but this place doesn’t feel like home anymore. Oddly, she’s struck with the memory of those documentaries Andrew used to watch about ghost town conspiracies and it somehow seems fitting. As she meanders through the halls, fingers lazily grazing along old picture frames, she feels the memories reaching out with gnarled talons. They whisper sweet nothings in her ear, tug at the cuffs of her jeans, dart in and out of her line of sight like phantoms hiding in the shadows.

Becca’s glorious laughter leaks out from beneath her bedroom door, but disappointment sinks heavy into the pit of her stomach when she opens it to find the pristinely made bed exactly as she left it. No hint of soft ringlets or shining blue eyes. This house, she realizes, is filled with skeletons of the past that she no longer craves to unearth. Shelby might as well be the ghost drifting through the mundane shell of an old life.

Maybe this is purgatory. God’s way of punishing her for the sins committed on that island, stuck between worlds filled with lies and unspeakable horrors. Whatever this is, she refuses to remain trapped. She didn’t crawl out of hell, bruised and beaten, to sit idly by as the earth continues to spin without her. Those girls taught her better than that—her newfound family taught her better than that.

She draws a deep breath, swallowing thickly, and prepares for new fight for survival.

 

-

 

Falling into a routine creates a monotony that loosens the knot twisted in her gut. It had taken hold after the first night, nervous energy curling and planting roots that weave between her ribs and wrap around her windpipe. Sometimes they squeeze her lungs when dreams of cement walls and P!nk albums invade her sleep, but her mother makes pancakes and eggs every morning, chattering mindlessly about the weather or her sister’s recent artwork hanging on the fridge—careful to avoid the topic of her retainer that she hasn’t worn in days. It helps, how hard she tries.

Their guilt chokes any hate about her recent revelation for the time being, but Shelby can feel it simmering below the surface. While her mom’s opinions are harder to read, too preoccupied with attempting to reconnect with her daughter, her dad can barely stand to be in the same room as her. He averts his eyes, mouth twisting with disgust before storming out.

Shelby sort of enjoys the torment, a wicked part of her relishing the irony and his self-appointed vow of silence. She takes care to flash him sickly sweet smiles, gap teeth and all, whenever she gets the chance.

She knows it’s wrong to punish them for the atrocities she underwent, but they put her on that plane. There is no doubt in her mind that a ‘feminist retreat’ was the farthest thing they intended when they signed her up, so she forgives herself for the pleasure she gets playing hardball with her affection. They deserve to pay a small penalty for that initial blatant lie at least.

Fatin helps too. She messages their group chat every day with anything from the chocolate croissant she ate to current life updates, as if she can’t quite remember how to function without them knowing her every move. The only one who responds regularly is Martha, but they all know it is a half-hearted attempt to keep in touch.

Shelby reads each message over and over, clinging to them like they are the sole lifeline keeping her afloat. They become as revered as the bible verses she recited when she was young, but she just doesn’t have the strength to reply. She knows they all watch; all study and trace the letters on the screen just as Shelby does. But no one is ready yet to face the reminder: the innocence and normality ripped away with such carelessness.

 

-

 

It is a week and a half before her mom dares to approach her room. Even her siblings avoid the cursed space, as if barbed wire and giant yellow warning signs barricade them from her domain. Of course, it might be due to the chaos she created when the stiffness in her shoulders needed release. A fortress of torn posters and broken pageant trophies strewn about like a minefield. Their inability to look at the disarray—the ugliness—makes her feel a bit like Rapunzel locked in the tower (only without the hair). Maybe a better comparison would be a dragon standing guard, threatening to turn any knight who ventures too close to ash.

Yet, after a week and a half of awkward breakfasts and tense dinners her mother tears through the caution tape, paying no heed to the scales armoring her skin or smoke wafting from her flared nostrils. She merely barrels past all of Shelby’s flimsy defenses, perching on the edge of her bed with unwavering determination and remorse plated on her face.

“What was her name?”

Shelby eyes her warily for a moment, ready with a venomous strike at the first sign of dishonesty. But when she is only met with open sincerity the walls of her castle splinter and crumble.

“Toni.” She answers steadily, unwilling to defile the sacred name with hesitation or quavering confidence.

Then she falls apart. The words come tumbling out before she can even begin to reel them in—slowly realizing she doesn’t want to either. Tidal waves of emotion crash into her like those ocean currents she remembers washing over the beach. She tells her mom of the great love story, of the girl with a fire in her belly and starry skies captured in her eyes.

Shelby doesn’t talk of the traumas or the other girls who each built a home in her heart. Reliving their fairytale is as joyous as it is sad, and it takes all her energy to fully convey the brutal aggression that turned to unyielding patience and vast comfort amid their trials of survival.

Even though Shelby left a piece of herself with each person from that island, Toni took the biggest. Stole the center and left a gaping hole in her absence.

Those tethered roots reluctantly unwind from her bones, cut free by the love coursing through her veins. Not all fall away, there’s still too much to unravel, but enough to allow her to suck in ragged breaths between sobs. Because the tears do come then. The image of Toni with her dusting of freckles and soft smiles burst through the dam with reckless abandon.

Her mother lurches across the bedspread, wrapping her up in solid arms. Holds her through the watery saga, and tightening her grip when Shelby begins to shake uncontrollably. When she finishes, sniffling and exhausted, she inhales deeply. Reveling in the sweet strawberry scent that clings to her mom’s skin from the garden.

It reminds her of nights spent cuddled up on the couch while they watch trashy reality television and coming home after a long day of school needing the relaxation that only her mom’s hug can provide. Maybe, Shelby thinks. Maybe not everything has changed.

She doesn’t ask where Toni is now or why Shelby hasn’t returned her call; that red voicemail notification taunting her at all hours. Instead, Shelby buries her face in her mom’s neck and shoves the misery of missing Toni into a sealed box behind her ribs. Ignoring the way it rattles against the iron chains holding it shut.

Carefully, she reapplies tape to the sliver of her heart left that cracked at the mention of Toni’s name, and wipes her eyes.

 

-

 

Another week goes by and Shelby finds herself knocking on Dot’s door. Her chest feels a little lighter now, but dreamless sleep still evades her. Dot takes one glance at her haggard appearance and welcomes her inside. The house is small, but cozy and looks exactly how Shelby imagined it would.

They make dinner together and only broach shallow topics of conversation, but it still flows easy and effortless. Shelby’s knees feel steadier beneath her than they have in weeks and her smile curves upward without concerted force. It’s nice.

Dot makes her a bed on the couch when the sun sets, not bothering to ask if she is staying. The cushions are a bit lumpy and the rough fabric scratches against her skin, yet somehow the couch is still more comfortable than her bed. She pictures uneven ground shifting under sore back muscles and grains of sand rubbing along bare arms. The thought lulls her to sleep, one that’s a bit less restless than the night before.

Leaving again doesn’t even occur to her.

 

-

 

To her surprise, Mateo drops by three days later bearing groceries and placing a lingering kiss to Dot’s cheek. Jealousy and genuine happiness at their affection rolling in her gut, has Shelby turning away. There is a bittersweet quality to Dot’s explanation later that night at dinner. And Shelby understands well enough, hanging on to the last comfort of an old life that doesn’t quite feel right anymore.

What has her standing awkwardly in the bedroom doorway, fiddling with the ends of her fingertips Shelby doesn’t know. Relief floods through her anyway when Dot lifts the covers, beckoning her over. Another root shakes loose from her chest when she slips under the warm blankets, and she sighs heavily, sinking into the mattress.

Everything was too quiet after the island. Shelby had gotten used to the waves crashing on the shore and the sounds of wildlife ceaselessly exclaiming their feats of victory or defeat at all hours. But being in that facility was endless maddening quiet. Dark and cramped without windows to bask in the sunlight she was accustomed to. Outside the mechanical clanking when an occasional door opened, a pin drop could have been heard within the dead stillness of that silence.

Even the rowdy ruckus of her siblings at home faded during the nighttime, leaving Shelby with only her thoughts for company. A condition she despises. But here, with the bed dipping under the weight of the body next to her, Shelby savors Dot’s soft snoring. Listening intently to the rise and fall as air passes her lips. Shelby can almost picture music notes between the exhales and lets the melody flow into her first dreamless sleep.

 

-

 

They somehow brave talk of Fatin one morning over breakfast. Commenting on her recent move to L.A., where she had indeed cashed in that outrageously expensive watch and hired an agent to help her write a book about their experience. They tease and joke about Fatin’s unique eccentricities. Giggling over her latest text, a detailed video tour of her new apartment (“with an extra bedroom in case any of you bitches visit me”).

Shelby catches herself doubled over at one of Dot’s faux impersonations of Fatin keeping her toothbrush enshrined on the bathroom counter. The laughter fades, however, when Dot jests,

“Shit, we should just move in with her like we said. Fatin could take care of us all after that book deal.”

 Fatin answers the facetime call after the first ring and their bags are packed by nightfall.

 

-

 

L.A. smells different, is the first thought Shelby has when they land. The heat is less sticky, and the sky seems brighter. Nothing about it feels familiar and Shelby falls in love immediately.

They don’t even see Fatin coming. Only hear the war cry of her gleeful squeal and then they are hurtling to the floor in a heap of tangled limbs and suitcases. She peppers wet kisses over both their faces, laughing maniacally as they scramble out from under her. For an exceptionally skinny human being, her arms are deceptively strong.

Fatin prattles on about her influencer status and local bars the entire drive and Shelby’s cheeks ache from grinning so wide. The apartment is expertly decorated, not that she expected anything less from the Gucci queen herself. Still, there are empty spaces where she clearly made room for their belongings and fondness swells in Shelby’s chest; Fatin’s plethora of kindness apparently extends beyond the island.

The cackle that erupts from of her throat when she does in fact see that fabled toothbrush enshrined is truly embarrassing. Granted it sits framed on the mantel rather than the bathroom counter as they predicted, but Fatin explains “it kept me human, it deserves proper appreciation.”

 

-

 

Life in L.A. moves at warp speed. Drivers fly down the highways with no regard for citizen safety and Fatin bounces from place to place in high demand. Shelby and Dot follow along dutifully, taking in the sights and buzz of the city. For the first time since the island, Shelby begins to feel at ease, relaxing into the pace of an entirely different world.

Music plays on a continuous loop in the apartment; Fatin apparently hating silence just as much as Shelby and she thrives on it. The beat pulses in time to her heart, veins filled with joyous harmony as the melody floats lazily up her throat and settles on the pad of her tongue.

It’s only when she catches Dot and Fatin staring with matching shocked expressions from the kitchen table does Shelby realize she had been singing. Gradually recognizing the magnitude of the moment, she beams back at them. Moving quickly to the stereo and turning the volume knob all the way up. Shelby grabs both their hands, yanking them up to their feet.

Pure happiness thaws the cold numbness that gripped her the moment she woke up in that facility as they sing and dance. Holding onto each other with heads tilted back, belting at the top of their lungs.

 

-

 

Leah moves in shortly after Dot and Shelby. She had taken one look at the pictures of the three of them in L.A. and uprooted her life. Her shaky grin greets them at the door before she is being unceremoniously pulled inside and smothered.

Shelby still shares a room with Dot, separate beds now, but that doesn’t stop her from listening to the soft sounds of her slumber to fall asleep. Leah and Fatin easily adjust their shared space to fit both their styles, and they all rapidly slip into a seamless routine as roommates.

In the mornings, Shelby watches Leah as she writes in her journal, enjoying the fancy coffee Fatin can’t resist buying. Sometimes she helps Dot make lunch when Fatin doesn’t need her videographer skills; work that feels oddly rewarding and cathartic, but maybe it’s just seeing Fatin’s wild antics on full display. Each night they explore new restaurants and bars, making fun of the way men fall at Fatin’s feet everywhere they go.

While Dot refuses to abandon her cargo pants (and “the storage”), Shelby even lets Fatin doll her up when they go out. Wearing her teeth again, once the reflection in the mirror no longer acts as a terrifying reminder. Her hair is still a mess of wayward strands, but with a little product magic she manages to smooth it down in a semi-presentable manner. Despite the guys (and girls) that attempt to flirt with her, none snag her attention.

The voicemail sitting in her inbox weighs heavily in her pocket and no one’s eyes quite match the dark gold and amber shades she craves.

 

-

 

Almost in planned sequence each of the girls individually approach her, as if scared to startle her, when news of Toni and Martha’s imminent move appears in the group chat. Shelby doesn’t know how to answer any of the questions they ask, can’t label the whirlwind of emotions swirling in her chest. Her body runs hot and cold with restless anticipation as soon as Martha calls Dot to announce their arrival.

Only a few short feet separate the respective doors, their apartment conveniently located directly across the hall. Only a few short feet separate Shelby from the girl whose name is inked in pretty cursive lettering across her heart. She seriously considers running (for real this time), but then Leah is there. Placing a comforting hand on the small of her back and gently directing her out with the rest of them.

The moment they cross the threshold all hell breaks loose. Shrill shrieks of excitement bombard her eardrums as they all tumble into each other. The commotion explodes with striking speed: a flurry of haphazardly thrown limbs, some tears, more squeals. All of the chaos overwhelms her senses, yet Shelby can’t help but feel like she is watching it happen in slow motion.

Movements stilted and voices muted as if observing from the outside in. Somehow stuck behind a barrier with a strange sort of awareness like looking through a windowpane that obstructs her from experiencing it firsthand. Her breathing seeming too loud as it fogs up the glass where she has pressed herself trying to get a better view of the unfolding scene.

Shelby has never tried drugs—never wanted to, but she imagines this is how it must feel. Tingling numbness that starts in her toes and tips of her fingers progressively creeping up through her limbs. The hairs on her neck stand on end while goosebumps prickle along her skin at the cool liquid sensation slithering down her spine. Her body simultaneously light and heavy with the high, almost like it wants to float away but ropes wrapped around her insides tether her in place.

She doesn’t really get the chance to analyze whether she enjoys the feeling or not, because suddenly her stomach plummets three stories down before rocketing straight back up into her throat. Toni is actually here.  Somewhere lost in the horde of bodies grabbing and tugging for a turn. Of course, Shelby knew that fact in theory, but watching the reality of it materialize before her is like a fever dream coming to life.

It reminds her oddly of the vignette effect she uses sometimes to edit Fatin’s Instagram photos, blurring the edges while bringing the subject forward with razor-sharp clarity. The focus of which right now is Dot wrangling Toni into a headlock in order to plant a smacking kiss to her forehead. And once Shelby has her secured into her line of sight, she can’t break away.

Sporting a wide toothy grin, Toni wriggles free with half-hearted protests only to be swept into Leah’s awaiting arms. A beacon of light beckoning Shelby to safe shores as she drifts out to sea. If only she could remember how to swim, how to put one foot in front of the other to close to distance.

The churning waves are just too daunting, and someone has nailed stakes into her soles, fastening her to floor just inside the doorway. Her fight or flight response starts to kick in, suddenly claustrophobic and cornered by her warring emotions. Escape seems like the only viable option, and she has nearly gathered enough courage to dart back out the entryway when Martha’s sweet face appears before her.

For a brief moment Shelby’s brain short circuits. All thought process powering down as she blinks at the sunny smile beaming up at her. Then a breaker flips, rebooting the system, and sending her into action. She launches at Martha with enough force to rock them off balance, and they sway backward, Martha’s giggles like a familiar cheery tune in her ears.

She smells like airplanes and sunshine and Shelby breathes it in deeply. The previous panic subsiding temporarily as she basks in the warmth of the embrace. God she truly missed this girl. Shelby says as much when she finally brings herself to pull away, hands resting on Martha’s shoulders and shaking them vigorously to convey her sincerity. Martha laughs again, genuine happiness tipping her head back, before stepping out of Shelby’s grasp. She shoots her a knowing look, lips curving upward as she gestures to the person waiting off to the side.

For the second time, Shelby wonders if the power cord to her brain function has been pulled from the electric socket. Standing there, awkwardly shifting her weight back and forth with hands shoved deep into her pockets is Toni. All the oxygen gets sucked out of the room as Shelby’s breath stalls in her lungs. The thundering of her heartbeat knocking painfully against her ribs as she is transported.

Dropped back on a sandy beach with sunburnt cheeks and kisses that taste like ocean breeze. Toni looks exactly the same and entirely different. Dressed simply in jeans and a white t-shirt that hangs off her lanky form, she is just as beautiful as Shelby remembers. Her freckles have faded without the constant sun exposure and the dark waves falling over her shoulders seem a few inches shorter, but a blaze still burns in those amber eyes and that steady hum of energy still ripples in the space between them.

Shelby blinks a few times, not quite trusting her vision. Not quite believing the picture before her; gut twisting as she waits for the other shoe to drop. To wake up and realize this was all some sick nightmare meant to torment her with a life she can’t have.

Guilt swirls there too. That damned voicemail looming like a storm cloud above her head.

“Hey,” is all Toni says, dark eyes crinkling at the corners as her mouth tugs toward a smirk.

It’s all she needs to say. All Shelby needs to accept that this is real. She is real.

Her hand is flying out before she even processes the command, fisting in the collar of Toni’s shirt and yanking hard. They stumble into each other simultaneously, meeting in the middle with a collision that sparks all of her synapses firing at once. Staggering at the impact as her heart lurches violently.

Toni’s arms are strong where they encircle her waist. Supporting both their weight as her knees buckle slightly at the feeling of their bodies molding together. Face buried in her hair, Shelby inhales the scent of her shampoo. Clinging tightly to Toni’s neck as if she might suddenly evaporate at any moment.

A slideshow of memories begins to play out in front of her so Shelby screws her eyes shut, warding off the images. They are still too painful to relive and she wants to be present in this moment. In this singular instant of glorious oblivion. Where the only thing that exists is the searing heat that brands her skin through the fabric of her clothes wherever Toni touches her.

Somewhere she registers the stillness of the room. The distinct lack of fanfare from the other girls as they watch the exchange with rapt attention. Shelby doesn’t pay them any attention though, too distracted by Toni’s hand sliding up her back to cradle her head, somehow bringing them even closer.

Shelby has absolutely no idea how long they stay like that, wrapped up in each other, but she knows she never wants to let go.

 

-

 

They do untangle themselves, at some point, which gives Shelby another reason to curse whatever higher power is at work. The following days are mostly filled with everyone assisting Toni and Martha unpack and set up their new apartment. Takis and Gatorade stockpiled in the pantry.

 Rachel and Nora are supposed to fly out as soon as Rachel finishes her physical therapy, so it becomes a true testament of patience to finally be reunited.

 

-

 

It gets fractionally easier to be around Toni. Well, maybe not necessarily easier, but Shelby gets more accustomed to the overstimulation of being in her presence. She still catches herself staring for too long, wondering if this is another elaborate scheme. A new experiment to gauge her mental stability after feeling semi-whole again and having it ripped out from under her.

And she does feel almost whole again. Once Rachel and Nora join the party and things settle down. Like all those jagged fragments of her soul are finally all in one place. The puzzle pieces don’t quite fit perfectly anymore, too damaged and discolored, but she glues them together anyway. Stained glass, she thinks, is far more beautiful.

 

-

 

Life becomes monotonous, boring even, but Shelby likes it that way. She likes knowing Tuesdays are spaghetti night because Leah doesn’t actually know how to cook anything else, and she likes that Sunday mornings are reserved for helping Martha at the local animal shelter.

Rachel enrolls in classes at the community college. Their diving team is subpar, but they hadn’t looked twice at her disability, so the training keeps her busy most days. That obsessive drive no longer results in harmful behavior, for which they are all grateful (however that doesn’t stop her from putting them to shame with her workout habits).

Shelby understands the need to stay active though, to have an outlet to keep the darker thoughts at bay. She actually picks up jogging. Sometimes Nora joins her, but usually she goes alone. Not that she minds the solitude, relishing the beads of sweat on her forehead and the time to sort out her more troubling emotions. It’s the knowledge of the family awaiting her return at home that keeps her going, pushing past the satisfying ache in her legs to see their gorgeous happy faces.

They spend afternoons packed into the little coffee shop down the street where Toni works. It is unbelievably soothing to talk about their days; to have problems that are so exceedingly normal. Listening to Fatin brag about her ever-growing follower count and Dot complain about rude customers at the restaurant she picks up shifts at, Shelby cannot believe they spent so much time apart.

It took 2 whole months. 2 months separated from the only people who shared her experience. 2 months from the girls who had become more than family, who had nestled without even trying into her chest and made a home, giving her strength and unconditional love.

 

-

 

The weeks seem to pass with quiet comfort. Each day without the threat of death hovering takes a load off Shelby’s shoulders. But no amount of running or group game nights can relieve the unnerving emptiness in the pit of her stomach though, and she knows why.

Toni has changed. It is not blatantly obvious at first, but Shelby notices after a while. Her eyes studying each minute shift in expression or demeanor, always hyperaware of their proximity. It might not be obvious, but there is an undeniable change.

Jokes usually met with a sneer now receive candid smiles and the typically strict physical boundaries have extended beyond Martha. Toni lets Fatin lay across her lap without question and allows Nora to snuggle under her arm during movies as if no longer afraid of losing control of her body. The rigid shaft of tension normally lodged up against her spine seems to have lost some of its stiffness. Even the shades of her eyes have lightened, bright with an appreciation for life that cools some of that hot-headed temper. She still buzzes with stubborn restlessness, but that impulsive aggression has dissipated slightly. A livewire yes, but no longer a fuse ready to blow.

Shelby admires it. The ability to adjust to their new way of life, but kind of hates the changes that revolve around her in particular. Toni is just so careful. Always leaving a few inches of space between them that feels more like a vast canyon. Never broaching the topic of their precarious relationship status when they are alone, even though the elephant lurks in the corner, taking up precious space. Sometimes Shelby could swear she glimpses that old softness in her gaze, but when she tries to get a better look Toni throws up a wall. Staunchly guarding whatever emotions simmer beneath the surface.

It makes her feel like a porcelain doll, cautiously encased in a glass box. She seriously despises the fragile treatment—not that she voices her concerns. For all the times Toni stays silent, so does Shelby. There is just too much unknown, too many unanswered questions she isn’t ready to ask.

Because every time she glances at Toni, she sees that glaring red notification on her phone screen.

Of course, Shelby has tried. Opened the voicemail a hundred times, thumb hovering over the play button, and yet here she is months later with no idea what the message says.

If the other girls notice the tension, they don’t comment on it. Maybe they are letting the two of them figure it out on their own, maybe they don’t care enough to intervene, but Shelby guesses that neither of those explanations are 100% accurate. While Toni might have come out of their ordeal with a few beneficial skills to add to her arsenal, not everyone fared quite as well.

No one is healed yet—might never be back to the carefree people they were before the island. Martha’s mask of positivity slips whenever they pass men in tailored suits on the street and they have learned to pretend not to hear Rachel’s stifled grunts of phantom pain when she pushes too hard in a workout. Nora spends a little too much time looking over her shoulder and Shelby can hear Fatin consoling Leah in the early morning hours through the thin walls of the apartment. Even Dot crawls under the covers beside her on nights when sleep seems elusive.

 

-

 

The lingering effects of their trauma is painfully apparent one evening after they have finally worn Fatin down enough to give them a performance. Not one to do anything halfway, she makes a grand entrance, dressed to the nines with a full face of makeup, hair meticulously styled, and a lacy black dress that hugs every curve. Shelby wolf whistles in appreciation when Fatin emerges from her room, lugging the massive cello out to center of the living room with impressive strength.

Toni sits next to her on the couch (those few inches of space making an expected appearance) with Dot on the opposite end. Leah gets comfortable on the floor, while Nora claims the armchair. Rachel unsurprisingly chooses to stand as Martha pulls up a kitchen chair. Excited anticipation zips through the air, capturing everyone’s undivided attention.

They clap and holler loud enough to guarantee an angry note from their neighbors slid under the door, when Fatin bows dramatically. Her white teeth gleaming as she grins broadly and settles onto the stool, cello situated firmly between legs. Shelby knew Fatin was a prodigy but watching the natural grace with which she lifts the bow to the strings, a part of her wonders just how different Fatin’s life would have been if certain events had never happened.

Her inner musings are cut short, however, when the mood in the room shifts. The atmosphere turning hushed and heavy as an unmistakable haunting melody drifts out of the beautiful instrument. Fatin closes her eyes, a single tear escaping as she plays ‘Raise Your Glass’ purely from memory.

Shelby feels her body go rigid, sparing only one fleeting thought to whether Fatin spent those 2 months learning this song, before her mind is flooded with a thousand unwanted images. Out of the corner of her eye she can see Leah retreating into herself, curling into a tight ball of anxiety, and Rachel standing stock still, arms crossed over her chest and jaw flexing. She can’t fully process anything happening around her though, can’t focus on anything other than the way Fatin’s delicate fingers move solid and sure along the strings.

This version is slower, sadder, filled with soulful emotion Shelby knows they all feel reverberate deep in their bones. The exquisite smooth notes dance across her skin, weave between the gaps of her ribs, and drape around her heart. Then she’s falling.

Fast and hard down into a dark abyss, pictures and memories flying by too quickly to grab onto. Shelby can see the ray of light above her getting smaller and dimmer the farther she falls, not knowing whether she will eventually reach the bottom or be stuck in this black void forever.

Just as rapidly as she had fallen someone is catching her. A hand reaching down into the darkness, lacing their fingers through hers to bring her back to the surface. Shelby searches frantically for her savior and meets Toni’s eyes, who squeezes once, holding Shelby’s gaze.

There is silver glinting in the corners, but Shelby can only see the soft browns and flecks of golds blending in her irises. Toni doesn’t break, doesn’t let go, simply allows Shelby study the churning emotions in a way she hasn’t been able to since they left each other in the airport all those months ago.

Shelby lets the music wash over her, lets it ravage her soul and claim her body. She just keeps looking at Toni, feeling the warmth of her hand. A thousand messages pass between them in that infinite stare. Finding beauty within tragedy, boundless joy and companionship mixed with immense sorrow and heartbreak. A legendary love story discovered in horrific circumstance.

Toni permits Shelby to see it all without walls, laid bare as she lives through it with her. The song reaches a deafening crescendo and Shelby holds on for dear life, using the strength in Toni’s depthless gaze to tether her to solid ground. Even when the final notes fade away. Even when Dot gets up to hug a sobbing Martha. Even when Rachel storms out, Nora chasing close behind.

Shelby just holds on, just keeps looking at Toni. And Toni looks back.

 

-

 

Her mom is the one to ask about the voicemail first. They skype every week or so and Shelby keeps her updated on recent events, knowing the woman worries with the distance between them. She has made leaps and bounds with her acceptance and Shelby answers all her curious questions as gently and clearly as she can. But honestly, she hadn’t really expected her mom to ask this particular question.

“What’s stopping you from listening to it?”

“I’m scared…”

“Why?”

Shelby considers for a moment, surprising herself when she answers truthfully,

“I don’t want it to be over.”

“…What if it’s not?”

She leaves it at that, moving on to lighter topics, but Shelby is only half listening. The thought has crossed her mind before. She has spent countless nights analyzing and rolling the idea around in her head until a migraine pierced her temples. But hearing someone else say it, having someone else confirm the possibility sparks dangerous hope in her chest.

 

-

 

The rest of the day drags by. Desire and fear duking it out as her mind runs in circles, pondering the implications of what her mother suggested. She knows what she wants, but she isn’t sure if she is ready. If she can handle the rejection and heartache if she’s wrong. Shelby plays through every interaction they have had, a continuous loop of memories from the island and the complex exchanges since then.

No one questions her subdued behavior, leaving her to contemplate in peace (at least for a little while). Shelby’s food is growing cold as she pushes it around her plate, still stuck in reflection when Fatin has apparently had enough,

“Jesus fucking Christ! Just go already!”

“She works late tonight,” Leah adds, not bothering to look up from where she cuts off a chunk of chicken.

It should maybe be alarming how well they know her, but Shelby doesn’t waste time second-guessing the notion, already throwing on her shoes and grabbing her coat on her way out the door. The walk down to the coffee shop feels both remarkably long and terribly short in her haste.

She bursts through the front doors with a bit more force than necessary, bells jingling obnoxiously to announce her arrival. Thankfully only a few customers are here this late, so she only has to endure about four sets of concerned eyes at the grand entrance, cringing internally. Despite the rapid pace of her heart, Shelby has enough sense to take more care in closing the door gently behind her.

She spots Toni easily, dressed in her all-black uniform with the shop logo displayed proudly on the apron tied around her waist. Silent laughter crinkles the corners of her eyes as she signals Shelby to wait until she finishes with her current customer. So Shelby steps off to the side of the counter, taking a deep breath to settle her jumbled thoughts and dredge up some courage.

For a moment, Shelby merely watches Toni work, not often getting the opportunity to observe without distraction. Her dark hair is tied back into a messy ponytail and Shelby can’t help but flashback to the island and the chaotic state of that very ponytail by the end. It almost makes her giggle, affection swelling in her chest.

Less than a year has passed, but Toni seems so much older somehow. Moving with relaxed confidence as she deftly pours creamer into a mug; it’s different from the feigned arrogance she wielded to defend herself from the world before. Shelby had found it strangely endearing back then, but now it’s undeniably attractive.

Toni wanders over as soon as she finishes taking care of the older gentleman, leaning against the counter casually. Shelby’s heartrate kicks back up into high gear, bravery faltering and Toni must sense the gravity of the situation or possibly see the plain terror written on Shelby’s face, because she nods toward an open table at the back of the shop and Shelby follows diligently.

They sit down across from each other, table forming a safety barrier between them, and Toni stays quiet, offering an encouraging smile as Shelby fidgets nervously. Her mind races a mile a minute, sweat beginning to pool in her palms and she rubs them together as she gathers what is left of her frayed conviction. She needs to get this out, to ask, to know for sure what they are or could be.

“I’m sorry,” is what comes out instead. It’s not what she meant to say, but the sincerity rings true. Toni tilts her head quizzically, brows furrowing in confusion at the unexpected declaration.

“For what?”

“I-I don’t know. For everything.”

Recognition strikes a match in her dark eyes, as some kind of realization dawns across her expression. Then Toni is rising from her seat and rounding the table to stand above her.

“You have nothing to apologize for,” and to Shelby’s shock, Toni leans down to press a featherlight kiss to the corner of her mouth, instantly setting her entire body flaming. “I’ll see you tomorrow Shelby.” A hint of a smirk plays on her lips, eyes glinting with knowing amusement before turning on her heel and walking away. Leaving Shelby reeling and quite frankly flabbergasted by the abrupt end of conversation.

This is not how she intended for this to go. Fervently shaking her head to clear the dizzying sensation that ghost of a kiss left her with, Shelby tries to piece together her scrambled thoughts. She has absolutely no clue what just happened. It feels monumental. Earth shattering, ground shifting beneath her type of significant. But in what way? What does it mean?

Shelby wants to take a guess. Wants to take a chance.

 

-

 

Her legs carry her on autopilot all the way back to the apartment. Dashing straight to her room on mission. Dot chances one look at the determination and plea on her face and accepts her leave, grumbling about “dramatic pageant queens” the entire way out.

 Finally alone, Shelby settles down at her desk. Inhaling slowly to calm her storming emotions. Every nerve ending stands at attention, pins and needles running along her spine as her limbs tingle with anxious energy. It takes all of her mental fortitude to stop the shaking in her hands as she carefully pulls out her phone and places it in front of her.

With one more measured inhale, Shelby closes her eyes, coming to terms with what is about to happen next. Because for the first time since those early days on the island she prays. She prays to a God she had given up on, to a God that has cursed and blessed her. She prays for forgiveness, for strength, for guidance, for survival. She lays down her fragile, tattered, stained-glass heart and offers it in sacrifice. She prays for hope and she prays in thanks for brining all of these incredible women into her life.

When she opens her eyes, she feels lighter than she has in months. Feels complete. Whole. And irrevocably ready. Shelby opens her eyes, and presses play.

 

-

 

“Hey-um, it’s Toni. I guess I just wanted to say that I’m here... And I’ll still be here, whenever you’re ready. No matter how long it takes… I love you.”