“I need a man who will kiss me like he’s about to be sent to the firing squad,” Shelby declared between drags of a half-smoked cigarette. “What kind of man are you looking for, Julia?”
“Dunno,” I said, picking at my scabs. “Somebody nice, I guess.”
We’d been sitting on the football bleachers, watching the junior boys on their warm-up run. They were a small army made up of sharp elbows and concave chests, rosy cheeks marred by freckles and acne. Shelby insisted they were handsome.
I looked over to her, admiring her near-translucent skin and Vidal Sassoon–inspired bob. A delicate blue vein pulsed on her temple.
Shelby had spent that summer living in France with her aunt and uncle. She had developed an impressive vocabulary and world-weary attitude.
And also breasts.
I’d noticed that the boys were noticing her now.
I remained invisible.
The mid-September air that day was as oppressively hot as it was in mid-July. Remnants of summer remained. Near my toe, a bottle cap caught the late afternoon sunlight in such a way that I remember thinking that it was a very large, very still blue beetle.
When the boys started doing jumping jacks after their laps, I tried not to laugh at the pallid, sweat-stained marionettes. Shelby applauded and let out a flirtatious whoop.
“Tommy looks a little bit like Burt Lancaster, don’t you think?”
I squinted hard. I couldn’t see the resemblance at all, but I nodded sagely before getting back to picking the scab on my knee. It bled around the edges, but it itched.
“Darling, don’t pick at your scabs!” Shelby slapped my wrist. “C’est vraiment grossier!”
I never even tried to keep up with her French. I only knew bonjour and pomme and the French word for “seal,” but only because it sounded like something rude.
I stopped picking my scab and headed straight for my cuticles. Shelby sighed.
“Whatever will we do with you?”
I didn’t know who else she meant, because we were the only ones there.
When practice was over, Tommy waved in our direction. Shelby waved back. He barrelled over to us like an oversized Saint Bernard, grinning and glistening.
“Hiya, Shelby,” he gasped.
She acknowledged him with a demure cheek kiss and I winced at the sight of her cool cheek on a collision course with his sweaty jowl.
“Aren’t you forgetting someone?”
“Oh hey, Julia. Good summer?”
I mustered up the necessary levels of enthusiasm for a sincere-looking nod. Tommy was something of a dolt. I didn’t want to confuse him by using complicated language.
Shelby and Tommy moved down the bench and chatted for a while. She’d purr run-on sentences and he would answer her in sheepish monosyllables. I made no effort to participate or even eavesdrop. I was too busy weaving some dandelions into a chain—a complex task that demanded my full attention.
“We’re leaving,” Shelby announced. I felt relief wash over me until I saw Shelby and Tommy lock hands. “Get home safe, my darling girl.”
It sounded like a taunt.
“I made you a bracelet,” I said, extending thin arms toward her.
Shelby smiled and held out the hand that wasn’t all tangled up in Tommy’s paw.
Underneath the old stone footbridge. That was our hiding place. Every Wednesday evening, when our mothers thought we were at choir practice, we would make our way there. Sometimes together. Sometimes separately.
“There used to be water here,” I told her once. “When I was very little, we would play in this creek. We’d catch tadpoles sometimes. But it’s all dried up now.”
“I can still feel it,” Shelby whispered.
“The memory of water.”
Shelby brought a flashlight sometimes so we could see well enough to read chapters of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to each other and string found buttons onto dental floss. She would show me how to pull the thread taut taut taut so that the buttons would vibrate in mid-air. We pretended that they were magical fleas at a flea circus and we were their ringmasters. For the grand finale, we would touch them to our tongues.
The footbridge was not a footbridge. It was actually a bomb shelter in disguise. Invisible glass surrounded us.
One day, we imagined the bomb came. And when we re-entered the outside world, everybody was dead. Our mothers. Our fathers. Our teachers. Shelby’s pet rabbit, Ginger. An H-bomb would drop while we were innocently playing gin rummy and we wouldn’t even hear a thing. Not a whisper.
“It’d be like that episode of The Twilight Zone,” Shelby said.
I hadn’t seen the one she meant. She told me that we would have all the time in the world to read books to one another, so long as our glasses did not break. Shelby seemed relieved to hear that I had perfect 20/20 vision.
Shelby was always so beautiful in the half darkness. In the half darkness, so was I.
I can’t really remember how it started.
Except, no. That’s a lie.
She had been very quiet one afternoon. I was worried that she was upset with me about something. She told me that she had half-Frenched a boy at overnight camp when she was eleven, but hadn’t done anything with anyone since. She asked if I had ever been kissed and I shook my head no. She said that I could practice for the real thing with her if I wanted.
Everything went perfectly still. It was as if the big one really had happened and we were all alone in the universe. I couldn’t process anything except Shelby’s unsteady breathing and the scent of laundry detergent and the sound of running water, but there was no water anywhere to be found near that bridge, so maybe I was just imagining it.
Shelby wasn’t at school the day after we watched the boys’ football practice. During attendance, Mrs. Macpherson announced, “Shelby is excused.” After class, I asked and she told me Shelby’s mother had called the school to say Shelby wasn’t feeling well.
I hopped on my bike during lunch period and rode to Shelby’s house. I was going to take her the orange my mother had packed in my lunch. I decided I would give Shelby’s mother a little break from playing nurse. I would read Keats aloud to Shelby and feed her chips of ice with a spoon and smooth her hair away from her sweaty, feverish forehead. And she would feel better. And maybe she would teach me some French words. She’d be so grateful that she had a friend like me.
“Shelby’s upstairs, resting,” her mother said, barely looking up from her rapid-fire knitting. Knit one, purl one. Green and yellow yarn.
I walked upstairs and quietly entered Shelby’s bedroom. She was facing her window, her body curled up tightly, like a snail or a sea horse. Her breathing was steady and rhythmic. Inhale, exhale. Silence in between.
I sat on the corner of her bed.
“I brought you an orange,” I whispered.
She didn’t say a word.
I remember thinking that she must really be sick if she didn’t feel like talking.
I slowly unravelled the orange so the skin stayed all in one piece—something I learned from an old camp counsellor. I lay the orange peel down in front of her face, hoping my trick would make her laugh.
Shelby didn’t speak, and she didn’t move. She continued breathing steadily. I put my hand on her cool, exposed shoulder and started to hum a French lullaby. I wanted to sing it properly for her, but I didn’t know the words.
Shelby’s breathing got less steady. I thought she had the hiccups until I realized she was crying. My hand was still on her shoulder. I got to thinking about electrical circuits in science class and how I didn’t ever want our circuit to break so I was never going to take my hand off of her shoulder. I would keep it there forever. Or until I ran out of lullabies. I started to hum another.
Shelby finally turned her beautiful, swollen face toward me.
“It’s not like in the movies,” she sobbed. “It’s nothing like the books say.”
There was a loud noise. The room tilted and Shelby’s bedroom filled up with water. Cold water. Dark. It crept up so fast. Her bedside lamp sparked and the bulb popped like a champagne cork. Shelby’s bed began to float, like Noah’s ark. The sound of rushing water filled my head, but instead of the ghostly rustle of a creek that had since wasted away into nothing, the whole of the ocean surrounded us now. I could hear the waves collapsing around our two warm bodies, waves that pushed and pulled sand and debris in its wake, accompanied by a greedy undertow that clutched onto anything and everything it could carry along with it.