Sheila sits on the front porch, cradling a cup of tea, wishing it were coffee, and watching Charlie throw everything he owns into the trunk of his car. He had promised to teach her stick when she got her permit but it looks like that’s not going to happen now. Sheila takes a sip, tries to acquire a taste for Earl Grey, and makes promises to herself: no more coffee, no more cigarettes, no more Charlie. The only promise she knows she’ll keep is the one she has no control over.
Charlie turns to look at her. It occurs to him that there is something he should say. Sheila holds her breath. She doesn’t blink. Maybe he’s going to stay. But Charlie doesn’t stay, he doesn’t say anything. He drives away without looking back a second time. Sheila’s mother stands behind the girl, wondering if she made the right decision, wondering if she sent Charlie away in time to stop things. She pushes Charlie out of her mind before she can get to wondering what things there were to stop. She heads back to the kitchen, yelling over her shoulder for Sheila to start cleaning Charlie’s room for the next boarder. Sheila drags her feet as if someone is holding her back. She is still cleaning the room when a car turns in the driveway and she watches a woman sit in the driver’s seat gripping her seatbelt as if she can’t remember how to take it off.
Alice parks in front of the old Victorian, sitting in her car for a long while before letting out a breath and opening the door. She lets Sheila help her with her bags. They drag them awkwardly up the stairs, throwing up a wobbly tower in the far corner of the bedroom before tramping back downstairs. Sheila’s mother lays out a plate of cookies and the rules of the house. Alice nods and nibbles on a cookie and thinks about changing her mind, dragging her bags back down the stairs and driving home.
After school most days Sheila sits on Alice’s bed staring at the slowly shrinking tower of not yet unpacked belongings. Alice watches her move around the small rented bedroom as if she belonged there, as if Sheila was more comfortable in other people’s lives than she was in her own. Sheila sings as she touches things in the room. She picks up a picture of Alice and her mother at the aquarium. “Where is this?” Alice looks over briefly before returning her attention to the book she isn’t reading. “Baltimore.” “Oh, Baltimore.” Sheila stares at the photograph for a little while. “We have an aquarium too.” “Every city has an aquarium.”
Sheila stares out the window during class, remembering how she would sneak out of the house when her mother was asleep, Charlie waiting for her in the backyard. She can still feel the wet grass between her toes and smell the cigarettes they would pass back and forth between them. The past tense of it all makes Sheila want to scream. She pushes Charlie back down where he belongs and makes herself think about anything else. She thinks about algebra, for a little while. Sheila copies down equations from the blackboard but grows bored before even beginning to solve them. She thinks about Alice. Alice has a secret.
Alice has a question mark perched up between her hipbones. Some nights she dreams she can see it wriggling and squirming, swimming through her abdomen, her limbs, like her body is a fishbowl; translucent skin cradling fake plastic sea plants and a sunken pirate ship and little blue rocks bouncing around when she walks. When she wakes she thinks that she can feel it trying to push its way out, rolling up her esophagus, suffocating her. She knows that’s not how the human body works, but still, she feels it.
Alice lets Sheila lead her to the lake on Saturdays. They sit on the dock, feet dangling, toes barely touching the water. They eat sandwiches and watch the faraway fishermen casting and reeling and waiting and releasing. Alice frowns at the fishermen and pats her belly, like Morse code or a drum solo. Sheila knows that this is it – the moment where she will get the answers she wants if she just asks the right questions. She can feel Alice loosening, unspooling the words she has been protecting. But the questions float away from Sheila and her mind fills up with Charlie.
Charlie called himself a vegetarian but Sheila knows now that was just another thing he was lying about. She looked it up and says the word in her head sometimes when she needs to remind herself that she’s okay: pescetarian. Charlie could explain it though. “What do fish feel? Nothing. Their brains aren’t complex enough to process pain, not like people do, or cows, or dogs. Fish can’t feel anything so it’s okay.” Charlie had an answer for everything.
Alice slides her foot under the water up to her ankle and kicks, watching the arc and the spray. She feels the thing slithering, lurching, an almost amphibian leaping as she swallows the last of her sugary purple drink. There are salmon inside her, swimming upstream. Alice thinks, Shhh, shhh, be still. And somehow the fish feels what she feels and the girl next to her feels what she feels and they are all quiet together for a while.
Alice looks at Sheila, hungry for a friend. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, the wind knotting their hair together, they could almost be sisters. Alice almost tells her about that one day last summer that follows her like a school of fish. She wants Sheila to hold her hand. Instead, Alice touches herself oddly, awkwardly but softly. She presses her palms into her pelvis. She traces a question mark across the thin skin of her belly with her fingertips. Every day the question demands more of her.
Sheila lets herself into Alice’s bedroom. She tells her that she knows a place, that they’re really nice there. She tells Alice that she has her learner’s permit now so she can drive her there, and back, because you’ll want someone to drive you back after. Sheila smiles, sadly lifting up one corner of her mouth, and Alice wonders where she learned to smile like that.
Alice throws up in the toilet. She locks the door and lets herself cry. Everything is blue in the upstairs bathroom; the towels, the walls, the shower curtain, even the delicate decorative soaps shaped like seashells that you aren’t supposed to use. The bathroom is an ocean surrounding her, the tide swelling, swallowing her slowly. She listens to the seashells and lets the ocean carry her far away for a while. Alice’s breathing settles as she tells herself over and over like the waves washing through her; when I wake up I’ll know what to do.
Michelle Orabona is a cubicle drone who dreams of one day inciting rebellion and leading the other drones to freedom. Until then she writes stories and bakes cupcakes. Her work has appeared in DOGZPLOT and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal.