Feeling the Spirit

By  |  June 12, 2018
“Dive in; float,” by Samantha French “Dive in; float,” by Samantha French

Instead of coming to my birthday party, Shelby decided to become a Mormon. Every year since I turned nine it was me, my Nan, and Shelby eating meringue and lighting off snakes and spinners. Then her new church threw her a potluck, and she picked deviled eggs and dip over me. I got so mad I wanted to tell her what I really thought. That she was only getting saved—converted, dunked, brought into the light, whatever—because her dad said he’d pay for BYU. She knew her tips would never cover West Virginia, so she was going along with the God stuff. 

Now she thinks a short stack at Dingo’s will fix things between us, but even the Lumberjack Platter won’t change how she’s Mormon now. I guess she feels guilty. 

 

By the time I get to Dingo’s, I’ve decided to be a better sport. “Feel any different?” I ask.

“Nah,” she says, but I’ve known Shelby since the Bunnies, and she’s definitely lying. “What did I miss?” 

“Nan made meringue.” 

“The slow-bake kind?”

I nod. “And the rockets worked.” 

Shelby groans. In the past, Nan wouldn’t let us use Dad’s old mortars, on account of it being too easy to blow ourselves up, but this year I developed a remote fuse-lighting system. When I described my precautions, Nan said I must have cashed my check from the Brain Trust early this year (which is a joke we make since what I actually get is a real check every April 15 from the bank where my dead parents’ money is). Nan says the Lay’s Trust is all well and good, but she’s more invested in the Brain Trust (which is code for my intelligence). 

“We shot off horsetails right over the swamp.”

“Did the cops show up?” 

“Yeah,” I say. “But we said they came from Cooper.”

“Oh man.” 

I sip my coffee, which Nan said I could start drinking now that I’m not liable to grow any taller. I’m trying to learn to drink it black. Shelby was trying this, too, but today she doesn’t order any. 

“What about you?” I ask. “How was the dunking?”

“It’s not called dunking, dummy. Weren’t you baptized?”

“I was sprinkled. I read on the internet you had to be fully dunked to be converted.”

“It’s not so different.”

I give her the look that says, come on, but Shelby only pushes her pancakes around.

“Fine,” I say, “then I’m picturing a dunk tank.”

Shelby rolls her eyes. “It’s actually more like a swimming pool.”

“There’s a swimming pool in your church? That’s so cool.”

“It’s not for swimming.

“I hope you wore a polka-dot bikini.”

Shelby leans across the table. “Be serious, Cass.”

I give her my solemn nod. “So that’s it? Dunk and you’re done?”

“There’re loads of prayers and things, obviously.” She glowers and begins to chant all deep: “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ in the name of—” she opens her eyes. “Okay, I forget the middle part. But once you’ve done everything right, they say: Then shall he immerse her in the water, and come forth again out of the water.” Her normal voice returns. “That’s the important part.”

“So it’s like St. John’s.” I mimic her chant: “Watermelon, watermelon, come forth again out of the water.” 

Shelby laughs. We’d been kicked out of choir for “grossly and chronically” botching hymn lyrics.

 

The next day at St. John’s I see Shelby’s parents. Or Holly, her mom, and her stepdad, Derek. 

“Peace be with you,” says Holly, clasping my hand.

“Peace be with you.” 

“Peace be with you,” says Derek. 

“Peace be with you,” I say, and really mean it. I like Derek because he thinks I’m a good influence on Shelby. He told me so one time. Now Shelby calls me a suck-up. 

After the recessional, Holly pounces. She wants the inside scoop. I understand, of course, but am not sure how to act, since historically, Holly can be a real spaz. “I bet it’s just a phase,” I say. “Like the puppy petition.”

“You think so?” Holly’s eyes go wide. 

“Sure.” I unhook my arm from the crook of her freckly elbow and Derek winks as I duck into the stairwell. I take the steps to the steeple two at a time.

  

Jimmy Hathaway asked me to be his girlfriend last week, but I’ve still got to work out if it was for real. He was smashed when he said it, but his friend Dario asked Shelby the same night, so we’re pretty sure they planned it. The four of us found the steeple attic during a youth group lock-in last fall, so we’ve been sneaking up here instead of going to Confirmation class ever since. Now Jimmy and Dario hang with us at school, too, and invite us to parties. They’re even friends with Cecelia Reyes, who has a pool.

Up behind the steeple clock, Jimmy and Dario pass a bottle of SunnyD they swiped from the kitchen. “Where’s Shelby?” Jimmy asks, when I show up without her. 

I don’t know how much I’m supposed to tell, so I play up the panting, buy time.

“She switched churches,” says Dario. “Went Mormon.” 

“But I saw her parents,” says Jimmy. 

Dario squirms, big-nosed and broad-shouldered. He’s the catcher for the baseball team. Jimmy pitches and is skinnier with thick blond hair all over his legs and forearms, and strong, tendony wrists I try not to stare at. Jimmy’s face is in shadow, but it’s clear he’s confused. 

“You know how Shelby’s dad remarried a Mormon lady in northern Virginia and converted?” I say.

“It’s not that big a deal,” says Dario. “Their youth group does better stuff.”

“Like what?” asks Jimmy.

“Like, I don’t know—Busch Gardens,” says Dario. 

“Aren’t Mormons kind of—” Jimmy pauses, “intense?”

“If they’re all like her dad,” says Dario.

“Did she tell you he was behind it?” I ask him. “That he’s making her?” I was sure it had to be something like that. 

Dario peers at me, then shrugs, standing to leave. “He just seems pretty strict.” 

I stand, too, and think we’re following until Jimmy stays put. When Dario takes off, I sit back down. Suddenly it’s like we’re in a Jacuzzi. My whole body feels hot except for my face. Jimmy scoots until our shoulders touch. “That’s pretty weird, huh.”

“You mean Shelby?” 

“Is she even allowed to date him now?”

“Sure,” I say. “There’s just stuff she can’t do.”

Jimmy considers, our shoulders still touching. I glance at him through my bangs and decide I need answers. “Like this,” I say, kissing him on the mouth. After about a minute I remember my plan and stop. “So like, if we were boyfriend–girlfriend, then that’s allowed. But if we weren’t, it’s not.” Jimmy looks addled. Or perhaps wary. It’s important I discover which. “So, for the sake of the example, are we?”

“Are we what?”

“Boyfriend–girlfriend.”

“I mean, do you want to be?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Okay. I mean—”

“What?”

“I thought we already were.”

“Of course. Great. I was just checking.”

“Cool,” he says.

I try to remember what we were talking about before. “So then, even if we were Mormon, that would be allowed.”

“Nice,” Jimmy nods. “Good to know.”

 

That night, Nan makes key lime pie. “Nan made you a pie again,” I tell Shelby over the telephone. “You should probably get over here.”

Nan makes pies for people when she thinks they’re going through something. I’ve been getting coconut cream on the anniversary of my parents’ car crash ever since I was eight. Then Holly got cherry when Shelby’s dad remarried, and Derek got pecan when he lost his job. Nan’s been making key lime a lot this year, though it isn’t clear what for. The only bad thing about Shelby’s life is her control-freak dad, and the way he and Holly drop her at different entrances to the Clearbrook mall every other weekend rather than risk meeting in the parking lot. And maybe also how they both refuse to pay for her wisdom teeth surgery, even though Mr. Aldo has loads of money and the teeth are giving Shelby migraines. Still, with Derek and Holly and Nan and me, she’s got plenty of normal people to love her, too. Though tonight I get it. Nan must’ve talked to Holly after Mass. 

Shelby and I bring our pie onto the porch, where Nan takes her after-dinner brandy. “You girls have homework?” 

“Just my column.” I started writing horoscopes for the school newspaper in September. Nan even bought me a bunch of books after she got sick of me complaining how the library discriminates against New Age science. I go inside for the books. It’s due in the morning and I’m only on Scorpio. 

When I return, they’re talking about God. “It’s just a pretty big adjustment,” Shelby’s saying, “to learn He had a body.”

“That does sound strange,” Nan says. From the doorway I can see her squinting.

“But I like that He can talk to us now. You know, to clarify things or change His mind. The radio-silence just never made sense.”

I intervene when Nan begins to wince. “Dario’s a Pisces,” I announce. “You can do his.” 

 

Later we take our seconds to my room. I’ve been dying to tell her about Jimmy, but she starts in right away. “So Dario called me earlier.”

“Yeah?” 

“About whether I was converted ‘against my will.’” 

I suddenly understand I’m being glared at. “I didn’t say that!”

“You totally spooked him.”

“But is it way off?”

“Cass—” Her mouth is full of meringue. 

“It was totally out of the blue!”

Shelby sits up, studies her pie. “My dad isn’t making me do anything I don’t want to do.” 

“I told Dario the Mormon thing was no big deal. I swear.”

“Well,” she resumes eating. “It sort of is.”

“What do you mean?” 

Shelby pauses. “It’s a pretty big commitment,” she says, “but I think it will be good for me.”

“How?” I ask, and I really mean it. 

Shelby’s eyes drift up to the ceiling. “Everyone is so supportive there—the church feels like a big group of friends. Or a family.”

I take her hand, an old habit, and squeeze. “But you have that.”

Shelby looks down from the ceiling and smiles her wide, zany smile. “Of course I do.” 

She squeezes back. “This is a totally different thing.”

I feel better, and silly for getting so worked up. “A shame about the sex though.”

Shelby hits me with a pillow and rolls her eyes. “There’s a whole committee about the sex,” she whispers.

“That sounds awful.” I groan with sympathy. I don’t actually know any more about sex than Shelby does, but I’ve been experimenting with talking about it like it’s imminent. 

“They even have a committee for baptizing dead people.” She looks stricken. “You can’t tell anyone I told you that.”

I shrug. “I read about it on the internet.”

“It’s not as bad as it sounds.” 

I snort. “I don’t know, they sound pretty bad.”

“They’re actually really nice. Like, nicer than people in Watson.” 

I’m almost positive I’ve kept my face blank, but apparently Shelby has the decency to feel bad all on her own for throwing our whole town under the bus. She pivots fast: “Of course, it’s exhausting relearning everything and all those rules, but Cass—you should see my dad, he’s like a different person lately.”

“So—not a crazy jerk?”

The look Shelby gives me is sharp, almost annoyed. 

It used to irk her, how her dad would talk about his life like everything good in it came after he met Paula and found his faith, and by default everything bad—his marriage to Holly, Shelby’s birth—came before. Why Shelby is defending him now is a mystery. 

I change tactics. “Do you have to go up every weekend?”

“Only at first.” 

“Oh man.” Having Dario and Jimmy is great and all, but they’re just boys. 

Shelby scoots nearer. “Don’t worry.” She rests her head on my shoulder. “I’m not going anywhere.” 

 

It turns out this is a lie. For the rest of April and most of May, Shelby is almost unreachable. The Wednesday before Cecelia Reyes’s annual pool party I have to hunt Shelby down just to talk to her. I go to Chowder Chad’s and sit in her section. “Are you here with Nan?” she asks. “Because I’m swamped.” She’s wearing a yellow pin that says, ASK ME ABOUT OUR FRESHEST CLAMS.

“It was either this or a milk carton.” 

“I saw you at school today.” 

It’s true, but she’s adopted the habit of studying through lunch. “We need to talk pool party.”

Shelby screws up her face and tugs at the yellow button, which she hates. Chad uses frozen clams in his chowder, but it’s a firing offense to say so. Personally, I don’t know what people expect. It’s West Virginia.

“You’re going,” I say, before she can tell me she’s bailing on yet another weekend. 

“Cass, I really am busy right now.” 

“You working tomorrow?”

“No,” she says.

“Then we’re going shopping after school.” 

At first I think she’ll argue, but at the last second, she doesn’t.

 

Cecelia Reyes’s Memorial Day pool party is a very big deal, and it’s the first year we’ve been invited. We drive Shelby’s new Camry to Macy’s. 

“Holy shit.” Shelby reads the tag on a halter embroidered with ducks. “Sixty bucks?” 

“That’s just for the top.” I find my size. 

“Jesus.” She steps away from the rack like it might burn her. 

“Are you supposed to be cursing this much?” I’ve decided my new tactic is to innocently point out all the stuff Shelby won’t be able to do if she stays Mormon. I figure it’s way craftier than a full-on intervention. 

“Baby steps.” She toys with the clasp of a polka-dotted bandeau. 

“That would look so good on you,” I say. “Early birthday gift?”

“You know I’m not allowed.”

“Just try it on, dummy. Think God’s peeping into the ladies’ dressing room?” 

She grumbles but pulls out her size. “Does Nan know you’re using your trust money on swimwear?”

“Of course not.”

“I didn’t think you could even use it until you were eighteen.”

“Birthday check,” I say, nodding skyward. “They may be dead, but they never forget!” 

We find facing stalls in the fitting room, each with gapey drapes, and Shelby shows me three one-pieces she’s picked out of the Mom section. One’s lumpy teal, the other’s got a senior citizen skirt, and the third has cutouts that are surprisingly slutty. Shelby, for all the good it does her now, has actual curves. 

I find a seersucker string bikini that makes my torso look longer than it is, but when I step out to show Shelby, she hasn’t emerged. I spy polka dots and sneak closer. She’s standing in front of the mirror in the forbidden two-piece, turning slowly, like a ballerina on a music box, smiling at her reflection. I step back toward my own stall. “Got anything to show me?” 

Silence and shuffling. “Nah,” she says, emerging two minutes later fully dressed and clutching an armful of suits. “Guess I struck out.”

I’m flabbergasted she could have found the perfect suit, her soul mate suit, and be this serene. Especially since she wouldn’t get caught. She has to drive two hours just to see another Mormon, over where her dad lives with Paula and their five pudgy children. But I don’t want to admit I was spying on her, so I stay mum.

 

Jimmy and I are squaring off against Dario and Cecelia for a chicken fight when Shelby gets to the party. She’s two hours late, and the sun’s already setting. The pool is positively swarmed.

“What the fudge?” she says, when I climb out after annihilating Cecelia in under forty-five seconds. 

“Fudge?” I say.

“My home teacher says I need a transition word.”

“Well, it’s dumb.”

“What’s Dario doing with Cecelia?” she whisper-spits.

“He wanted to play. Where’ve you been?”

“I had to find a stupid suit,” she says, yanking off her tank top. She’s got on our old swim-team one-piece, but in seventh grade she didn’t have boobs, so the letters in WATSON WHALES are stretched and squat, straining across the new terrain. She crosses her arms over her chest. I want to say it’s fine, but I also want to warn her that going to Virginia every weekend is hardly the way to keep a man.

Dario calls for Shelby to get in the pool, and when she turns, she appears calm. She starts to run, shaking out her hair in a pallid, knock-kneed version of Pamela Anderson. When she gets to the edge, she kerplunks into the water, and Dario zombie-walks right for her. Sometimes I think they only like each other because they’re both really, really weird.

Jimmy fixes me a Malibu and Coke. Cecelia likes to tell people she only drinks Malibu, so that’s all there is. Cecelia asks Jimmy to make her one, too. “So Cassie,” she says, “is it true Shelby joined a cult over April break?”

“Uh, no.” I’m no good at talking to people I can’t size up. Cecelia’s friendly enough, but back when Shelby and I started tagging along to parties, she asked my name six times between January and March. So was she fake-forgetting, to remind me I didn’t belong? Or was she just an airhead? 

“I heard she has an arranged marriage,” Cecelia says, throwing back her entire drink.

“Not yet,” says Jimmy. 

“I hear they do it young though.” 

I want to say something snarky, but I don’t, since it’s Cecelia’s party. I don’t like that Shelby’s gone all the time, but she doesn’t seem unhappy. Busy, sure, and stressed, but bubblier than usual. She’s even begun telling customers, all hush-hush of course, about the less-than-freshest clams.

“Cassie will save her,” says Jimmy, swaying. “Maybe we could use Cece’s pool to re-dunk her.” I want to step on his toes. I should never have told him all that.

“Like an intervention?” Cecelia asks, all nosy and eager. 

If the Mormons could baptize dead people without their consent, I didn’t see why we couldn’t rebaptize Shelby, but obviously I don’t say this in front of Cecelia. Instead, I grab Jimmy and drag him toward the pool. “Let’s go lick them in a chicken fight.” 

 

The boys duck beneath the water and hoist us onto their shoulders while the rest of the party looks on, picking sides. Shelby and I are still relative outsiders, so the people around the pool aren’t cheering for us so much as for Dario and Jimmy, but I hear a couple of boys, members of the baseball team, egg me on by name. With Shelby gone, I’ve been spending loads of time with Jimmy, so it feels nice his friends are cheering for me, too.

We’re in the thick of it when I start hearing other things. Like Cecelia chanting. I’ve just sent Shelby reeling back after a lunge, so I have a split second before she recovers to glance toward the edge of the pool. Cecelia’s holding the crucifix pendant that usually hangs from her skinny, tanned neck out over the water. She’s saying the Lord’s Prayer, and the people around her are joining in. 

Shelby pounces in the next moment, grabbing my upper arms as Dario charges Jimmy. I decide to go full savage, to distract Shelby from whatever Cecelia’s doing, and by now most of the poolside is cheering my name, but while I mostly hope Shelby doesn’t notice, I also don’t care if she hears, since it isn’t my fault I’ve been here and she hasn’t—that I’ve had to figure out how to handle Cecelia, and hold my liquor, and have sex, all without her—while she’s been in ritzy Virginia eating deviled eggs and spending quality time with her huge spare family and wholesome new youth-group buddies. And now I’m pulling on Shelby’s hair, though it’s against the rules, and she’s going down, her feet flailing up over Dario’s shoulders, and when she falls back into the unholy pool water, I feel good because I’ve won and bad because I cheated and strange and giddy that everyone’s cheering, so when Shelby surfaces, sputtering, I can’t help myself.

“Come forth again out of the water!” I crow. And since it seems she hasn’t fully appreciated my cleverness, I repeat it. “Come forth again out of the water!”

This is all it takes for the crowd around the pool to catch on, and since no one knows any better it becomes a chant, and instead of finding it funny, like it is, Shelby looks at me like I’ve tried to drown her for real. She gets out of the pool, stalking off around the side of the house without even a towel. 

Dario follows, but when I try to tag along, Jimmy catches my shoulders from behind and holds on. “Better not,” he says, squeezing. 

 

I call the next day, but Holly says I just missed her. “Shelby left for Virginia first thing.” 

“On a Tuesday?” 

“Wouldn’t say why. I told her father it was too much for him to get her that car. Need the number over there?” 

“It’s okay.” I avoided calling “over there” in general. Paula’s nice enough, but I’ve never liked talking to Mr. Aldo. Originally because he abandoned Holly when Shelby was still in the womb. But also because he caught me flirting with Shelby’s half-cousin one time, and instead of doing something normal and dadlike—clearing his throat, mumbling, glowering—he dragged me into his “study” and gave me the Mormon version of a sex talk.

“But I wasn’t even doing anything!” I kept saying. We’d been sitting on the couch and the cousin’s arm was thrown over my shoulders and I was laughing at his dumber jokes, but that was it. “Sometimes, it isn’t just avoiding the sin itself, but the appearance of sin,” he’d said. He’d said other things, too, but this I remember best. I think about it sometimes, and I’m pretty sure if I were to call Shelby over there and Mr. Aldo were to answer, I might just scream at him. I’d yell, “You may have gotten pretty good at avoiding the appearance of sin, Mr. Aldo, but I know you’re full of it.”

 

Shelby isn’t at school Wednesday either, but Thursday I spy her strawberry-blond head in the hall between French and Biology. I show up at Chowder Chad’s so she’ll be forced to talk to me, but she sends another server who launches into the clam spiel with gusto. I head Shelby off between the kitchen and patio, her arms full of plastic baskets piled high with popcorn shrimp. “I’m busy,” she spits, angling left.

“Could you pencil me in?” I block her path.

“Fudge you, Cassie,” she hisses as she charges through. “Fudge the heck out of you.

 

Nan tells me to let her cool off. 

“It’s been five days!”

“Then perhaps an apology?” Nan’s sitting on the porch reading the Watson High Gazette and braiding her steel-colored hair into a bun the size of a softball. 

“She should be apologizing to me!”

Nan holds out her top-heavy margarita glass. “Freshen my drink, would you, honey?” 

“Can I have one?”

“You can have half of one,” she says, without looking up. “With extra ice.”

I pour myself a whole one from the pitcher and slurp quickly before returning to the porch. “Perhaps working on your column will take your mind off things,” she says.

Sipping from my very own, non-sneaked alcoholic beverage, it seems unwise to argue. I do up a list. Normally I make star charts and track the planets through the houses, but lately I’ve just been winging them.

As a rule, Virgos, Aries, and Geminis get fuzzy, good-time horoscopes: Friends and family will begin to appreciate your wisdom. Jupiter is ascending, so look around for love. A special someone will begin to see you in a new way. But I still like to tank Sagittarius. Nan says I shouldn’t punish people for being born in the same month my parents got run off the road by a Lay’s truck, but I say I’m the conduit. Come to think of it, Cecelia’s annual birthday luau is in August, so this week Leo gets a falling Uranus: Trouble lurks on the horizon. Retreat from society until the waxing of the gibbous moon.

 

“Oh good, it’s you,” Holly says, when I show up without calling. “Dario was here earlier, and even he couldn’t cheer her up.”

“Good kid,” says Derek, from the couch.

“We just love Dario,” says Holly. 

“Staying for dinner?” Derek asks. “I’m making tacos.” When Holly told Shelby she was dating someone and it was serious, the first thing she said was: Don’t freak out until you taste his tacos. It’s true Holly never was a particularly good cook.

“Let me talk to Shelby first,” I say, and head for the back of the house. I feel, for the first time, well, ever, like I should knock. 

“It’s not like I can’t let you in,” Shelby says, cracking the door. “They’d think I’ve gone mental.” 

I decide not to be deterred by the cold and wounded way Shelby is glaring at me and push through to my usual beanbag. “You didn’t tell them?”

Holly and Shelby fought a lot, but they had always been close. “And give my mother more ammo for why converting is ruining my life?” Shelby flops back onto her bed. “No thanks.” I give the splayed BYU catalogue a wide berth and pick up the paperback beside it, but the blurb feels off: In a sea of high school drama, a handsome bad boy, late-night parties, and the sweetness of first love, can Gracie find the strength to follow her own path?

“Oh my god,” I say, before I can stop myself. “Is this a Mormon book?”

Shelby darts off the bed and yanks it away. “It’s none of your beeswax,” she says, marching to the door. “If you’re going to keep being like this, you can go.”

“I just wanted to see how you were.” 

“I’m fine. Great, in fact, when I’m not being actively persecuted.” 

I’m momentarily befuddled by the term persecute. “I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t know you’d get so upset.”

Shelby squints. She doesn’t believe me. 

“The party was stupid anyway—we don’t need those people.”

Derek pops his head in. “Dinner’s in ten but—” He lowers his voice. “If you girls wanted to split a beer,” he continues, “I could look the other way.”

“Thanks, Derek!” I say. He winks and closes the door.

“Pathetic,” says Shelby. “It’s like they think a pilsner will lure me back into the fold.”

“The fold?” Sure, Derek was acting a little desperate, but since when did we start sneering at gifts? “Are they injecting the Kool-Aid, or are you drinking it willingly?” I ask, before I can think it through. Shelby could do whatever she liked, but she couldn’t turn into a different person overnight.

“I can’t do this with them and you.” Shelby throws herself back onto her bed and presses a pink pillow to her face. 

Eventually I approach. I feel like a creep, hovering over her. 

“Maybe after the summer,” she says, through the pillow, “everyone will have chilled the fudge out.”

“The summer?” I lift the pillow. Summers were sacrosanct. We had standing plans at the pool and in the woods and around the swamp and on the tennis court. “What do you mean ‘the summer’?”

“I’m moving to Virginia for the summer, okay?” 

I can’t take it in. I throw the pillow down and stomp out the back only to meet Derek by the grill. 

“Just wait until you taste this tequila glaze!”

I give him a thumbs up and pivot back inside. What was going on? The whole summer? I hover outside Shelby’s door. Finally, I whisper through it. “Shelby, I’m sorry.” No answer. “I wrote a crappy horoscope for Cecelia earlier, want to read it?” Still nothing. “Look, I have an idea,” I say. “And it’s a really good one.”

I’m lying, of course, but Shelby is the curious type. She opens the door. What was a good idea? What could fix things? The grinning, clean-cut dumbos from the cover of the BYU catalogue cringe up at me from the rug.

“I have money,” I say.

“Congratulations.” She folds her arms across her chest.

“No—we can share it. For college.” The idea becomes clearer. It’s actually ingenious. “We can both stay in state, and you can use the Lay’s money from the trust, and you won’t have to move to Virginia or become a Mormon, or kowtow to your dad anymore, and we can just—”

Derek passes with the chicken. “Dinner in five!” 

“What do you think?” I ask once he’s gone. 

For once, I can’t read her face. She’s surprised, sure, but beyond that, there’s a new blankness. She looks down at the book in her hand like it’s an object she doesn’t recognize. She turns to place it on her bedside table. “We should eat,” she says, and follows Derek into the kitchen.

  

It’s when Shelby offers to say grace that I begin to believe her. That we shouldn’t all be squinting down at our tacos waiting for her to snap out of it, when for months she’s been dead serious. Her eyes are shut tight and she’s talking about the poultry farmers now, and even though I’m tempted to chime in about the cabbage growers and salsa tasters and the nice people at Minute Rice, I figure it’s better I don’t, if it’s all for real. 

“I hope Nan doesn’t mind us borrowing you,” says Holly, like always.

“Don’t tell Nan, but Derek’s chicken beats her chicken in a fight.”

“We’ll be grilling all summer.” Derek smiles. “You’re always welcome.”

I glance over at Shelby, hoping she’ll smile or nod or do something normal like try to eat her taco vertically or cross her eyeballs or sip casually from Derek’s beer while he isn’t paying attention. But she won’t look in my direction at all, won’t even glare when I accept Derek’s invitation, say, “I’d be delighted” in my finest suck-up fashion. 

I knock her knee under the table, but when she looks, it’s with that face again, sad almost, though not for herself. I concentrate on stuffing my taco and begin to compose the next edition’s horoscope for Gemini, her birthday week.

You will wake as if from a dream, with fences mended. Uranus has passed from your house, taking its strife and discord. Beware agents of change. Trust again in your oldest friends and they will endeavor to deserve it. As the crescent moon waxes, give in to the handsome bad boy and celebrate the solstice in the bosom of your true family. Remain where you are needed. Come forth again just as you are.


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Caroline Beimford’s stories and essays have appeared in Zoetrope: All Story, TriQuarterly, Ninth Letter, the Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Arkansas and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, New York State Summer Writers Institute, and Arkansas Arts Council. She is currently a Sturgis International Fellow in Madrid.