title is from "Over My Head" by FLETCHER
The first time Toni sees her, it’s inside of the gas station right outside of town. Martha is outside, waiting in the car while she’s supposed to pick up snacks and something to drink.
If Toni lived in any other place, one that had more than a handful of citizens, she probably wouldn’t have thought much of the blonde girl at the front of the line for the register. Since she doesn’t, she notices that she’s never seen the girl before.
Now, Toni doesn’t have that many friends - she likes to keep to herself, thank you very much - but that doesn’t mean she is completely unaware of the people around her. Which is why she immediately knows that the girl in front of her must be new to town, or just on her way through to go somewhere else; probably somewhere less shitty , Toni thinks to herself.
It’s the most likely option. She seems a little out of place here, a little too polished for the gas station that is mostly frequented by truckers and alcoholics that hang around at the edge of town.
Her blonde, shiny ponytail almost whacks Toni as the girl turns around to leave the shop after paying.
Toni scoffs and means to say something inevitably rude, but her eyes catch on the plastic bag with the gas station’s logo printed on it. She does not mean to be nosy — she herself can’t stand people who don’t mind their own business and get all up in hers — but the unmistakable blue lettering of Absolut Vodka shimmers through the thin synthetic of the bag.
Like that, the moment in which she could have complained about being assaulted by a peach-smelling pony tail passes and the girl stalks out of the door into the Minnesota sun.
“You know that that girl sure as hell isn’t over 21, right?” Toni says to the cashier as she dumps her bags of Takis and two bottles of Coke on the registry.
“I have seen you down Tequila like it’s water, so I’d stay in my line if I were you,” Rodrigo says and drags her items over the scanner. Rodrigo is three years older, but he had to repeat junior year twice before he gave up and dropped out, so Toni knows him from around school. And parties, apparently.
“You know they could fire you for selling alcohol to underage girls just because they’re pretty,” Toni replies with a quirk of her eyebrow.
“I never said she’s pretty,” Rodrigo smirks. “That’s five thirty-nine.”
Toni hands him the money and watches him pack her stuff into a plastic bag, the same kind that the girl before her carried her bottle of vodka in.
“Alright, Shalifoe. I’ll see you around, yeah? Maybe I’ll come to one of your games once school starts.”
Toni snorts, “Maybe we can watch together as they go down without a captain that isn’t utter shit.” Rodrigo’s face is a single question mark, so she adds, “They kicked me off last year. Misconduct.”
“Hell, Shalifoe. You gotta get your shit together,” he says, looking taken aback.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” she grunts, dragging her feet over the floor. Toni doesn’t even know why she brought it up, it’s not like they are close friends.
Back in the car, Martha has the AC on blast and music playing loud enough to drown out the sound of it. Toni can hear it before she even opens the door.
“Turn that crap down, Martha. People will think you’re a basic white girl,” she says as she climbs into the passenger seat and tosses a coke at her. There’s no weight behind her words, and Martha just rolls her eyes before she asks Toni what took her so long.
“‘Had a chat with Rodrigo,” Toni answers. She’s not sure why she doesn’t mention the new girl.
The last two weeks of summer break pass like that, with Toni camping out on a mattress next to Martha’s bed in favor of her newest foster family and helping Bernice out around the house, even though she insists it isn’t necessary.
“I got an email from the school,” Martha says the sunday before school starts again with a frown chiseled into her forehead.
“You got into trouble before school even started? Way to go, Marty B,” Toni grins but sits up in interest anyway. “What does it say?”
“There’s a new student, apparently. They want me to come in a bit early tomorrow and show her around.”
Toni’s mind automatically skips to the girl from the gas station, the one that bought vodka in a plastic bag and whose hair smelled like peach shampoo. She doesn’t know why her brain held onto those facts for the past two weeks, she hasn’t even thought about that girl since.
It’s probably not her anyway.
“Of course they’d ask you to do that. You’re so boring,” Toni groans, laughing, “I thought you actually stepped off the right track for once.” Except she didn’t. Martha is as good a person as they come, with all the right amounts of kindness in her heart and care in her mind.
Not that Toni thinks she herself is a bad person. But she’s definitely a lot rougher on the outside, and it’s not a secret.
“Maybe I’m not boring, I just don’t pose a threat of debasing someone’s character,” Martha claps back without looking up, already typing out a response. The blue light of her phone illuminates her face and the twinkle in her eyes, and Toni knows she’s kidding. She’s also right.
Toni climbs up on her bed, smushing her face against Martha’s and says, “We’ve been friends for ages and I haven’t debased your character yet.”
“Yes, but that’s because I’m immune to your charm so you can’t lure me in,” Martha replies and hits send.
“You love me.”
“True. And you’re gonna hate me because we are going to school early tomorrow,” Martha says, pocketing her phone.
Toni groans, “I hate living with you.”
“I bet you do.”
It turns out — oh wonder — that Hopewell Lake High is completely deserted an hour before the first day of school starts. Martha dragged Toni out of bed at the asscrack of dawn, even earlier than she announced the evening before, and forced her into the car and out of it again when they pulled up in front of the school.
To Martha’s surprise, it all happened with much less complaining than she had initially feared, but that was just because Toni was too grumpy and tired to form full sentences yet. Now, she’s hovering in the hall in front of the principal’s office where Martha had disappeared into ten minutes before.
She’s not sure what to do, since there is nothing to do. The hallways are empty, she doesn’t have her schedule yet and waiting in the cafeteria is out of question — the lunch lady is probably still mad at her from when she and that guy from her science class got into it last semester and ended up trashing an entire trolley of dirty plates. In her defense, it was definitely not her fault. The other guy started it.
Well, he asked for it with the bullshit that came out of his mouth. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.
“Toni, hello. You’re early today,” a voice rips her out of her thoughts. When she whirls around, she’s faced with the image of her coach, standing tall over her.
Former coach , she corrects herself.
However looming Coach Jones might appear, the expression on her face is friendly and her tone is welcoming.
“Hi, Coach,” Toni says, doing her best to offer her an honest smile. It’s not the easiest thing to do, her words from last semester still ring in Toni’s ears. She can still feel her own embarrassment and shame hot in her chest, too. How small she felt. How angry she was.
Coach Jones is a hard person to let down, at least for Toni she is.
“My office is down the hall,” Coach Jones offers, and Toni just nods and follows her.
She wasn’t planning on asking to be let back on the team. If that’s what’s happening here. Martha suggested it and Bernice too, but Toni would never. She’s too proud for that and not in a good way. In a way that’s more self-destructive than it is helpful.
Coach sits down behind her desk, and motions for Toni to take a seat on one of the chairs in front of it. As she starts talking, Toni looks at the framed pictures on the wall. Years and years of team photos, she’s in each one of the last three years. On the one from last year, she’s in the middle and wearing a yellow captain’s armband.
“I don’t know what happened last year, Toni, but you went off the rail and I couldn’t let you stay on the team, least of all have you be captain after what happened. I don’t want to set any precedents, no matter how much I respect you and your talent,” Coach Jones says.
Toni can feel all the emotions from last year ball up in her stomach again, and she closes her eyes.
“I know,” she says. It comes off a lot more curt than she intended it to. “I’m sorry, Coach. I just — I get it, and I don’t need to be reminded that I blew it.”
Coach sighs and gives her a one over, before she gives a quick nod, like she just made a decision. “I have a deal for you,” she says, locking her gaze with Toni’s. Her eyes clearly state that she’s serious about this.
Toni doesn’t reply, doesn’t do anything. She doesn’t even think , too afraid to get her hopes up. Hope is a dangerous feeling, it betrays you more often than it doesn’t.
“I’m willing to let you back on the team,” Coach Jones says, still not averting her eyes. “Now, don’t get too excited. You’ll have to try out again next week. But,” her expression softens, is almost fond, “I’m sure you have nothing to worry about.”
Is this real? This can’t be it. It’s almost too easy. Toni kicks ass in basketball, and she knows it. Some people would call her cocky, but she just knows what she can and can’t do.
She opens her mouth to thank her, really thank her, because she’s not so sure she deserves a second chance like that, without even asking or working for it. But Coach stops her, holding up a hand. There’s a catch to it. Of course there is.
“I let you back on the team, and you’re going to volunteer at the youth center downtown. Think of it as a favor for me,” she says and then folds her hands in front of her face. “Do we have a deal?”
“Why the youth center? Can’t I do something else?” Toni groans. She’s been there twice, maybe. Once when she was still living with her mother and she needed a place where little Toni could do whenever she was God-knows-where, doing God-knows-what. It didn’t end up working out, because Toni got into a fight with an older girl after an hour.
The second time was maybe three years ago, when one of her foster mothers needed her to pick up one of her foster siblings. It was loud inside and crowded, to many children yelling and laughing and running around at once.
“It’s the youth center or no basketball, you decide,” Coach says. She looks at Toni, then sighs, “Look, Toni. They need someone to coach a basketball team, the kids aren’t any older than ten. It’s only once a week.”
“I need to study,” Toni lies.
“On a Saturday morning?” Coach asks, eyebrows raised in an amused expression.
“Saturday mornings? Fuck no,” Toni says and immediately regrets cussing at the stern look Coach tosses her. “Sorry,” she mumbles.
“If you don’t want to do what it takes, we don’t have to have this conversation. I can find someone else. For the youth center and the team, I suppose,” Coach says, already motioning to get up.
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Toni already blew it last year, she can’t do it again. She would never forgive herself. And a whole year without basketball would make a very sad senior year.
“Stop, Coach. I’ll do it,” she rushes out.
Coach Jones sinks back into her seat, a pleased smile on her face. “Good. Thank you, Toni. Besides, it’s a win-win for you. Colleges love seeing voluntary work on the application.”
“I haven’t thought about that much,” Toni says quietly, twisting the fabric of her shirt between her fingers.
“Let’s talk about it once you’re back on the team, alright? I bet we could find you a scholarship,” Coach Jones says, coaxing a smile out of Toni.
“Toni, before you go: I just want to make sure you know that I usually don’t do this. When you’re out, you’re out. So take this seriously. I want to see you try hard, at the youth center, on the team and in school.”
“I will, I promise,” she says, and means it.
“No slip-ups,” Coach says as Toni is already on her way out.
“Thank you,” she says before she slips out of the door and into the hallway. It’s fuller now, most students are trailing around with their friends. A glance at the clock hanging from the ceiling tells Toni that by now, she’s already almost late for her first class and still hasn’t gotten her schedule. So much for no slip-ups.
Toni doesn’t reunite with Martha until lunch. She’s sitting in their usual spot outside on a bench under the big oak tree.
“You’re not gonna believe what happened, Marty,” Toni grins as she sinks down next to her, throwing her backpack to the ground.
“Judging by the look on your face, something not-terrible” Martha says, offering Toni the apple off her tray in exchange for Toni’s soggy sandwich.
“Coach is letting me back on the team,” Toni says, biting her lip in order to contain herself while she waits for Martha’s reaction.
“Wait, really? Just like that? That’s amazing!”
“Well, no, not just ‘like that,” Toni rolls her eyes -she can’t stop herself, “I have to volunteer at the youth center. The thought of that alone makes me want to barf, but, you know. I take what I can get.”
“Who’s gonna barf?” someone asks. Toni looks up, squinting into the sun to see who’s talking. It’s the gas station girl. “Hi, I’m Shelby.”
“Hi…” Toni says with a frown, “Toni.”
“She’s the new student I showed around this morning,” Martha offers.
It turns out that gas station girl aka vodka girl aka Shelby talks a lot, is apparently already besties with Martha and has a southern drawl that makes Toni’s ears ring. It’s not just that, she also mentions the fact that she’s from Dallas, Texas obnoxiously often, almost as much as she mentions God.
Most of that knowledge accumulates in Toni’s brain during the first week of school, when she realizes she has two classes with her, AP Lit and Spanish.
“And then she said, I shit you not, ‘ I do real. I do family, I do Jesus, I do pageants. ’ Like, of-fucking-course she does. She’s like a walking stereotype that crawled out of the hellhole that is Texas and now has to go on my nerves with all her Jesus and beauty contest bullshit,” Toni rants, staring at the ceiling of Martha’s bedroom.
When they were fourteen, they stuck stars that light up in the dark to it, and they mostly still work, glooming in the dim light of the room.
“Just let her be, Toni. I bet she’s not trying to annoy anyone, it’s probably not that easy to move to a different state right before senior year,” Martha says, rolling onto her side to look at Toni laying on the floor.
“Yeah, why did she do that anyway? Did she tell you? You’re friends with her, right?” Toni asks.
Martha shrugs, “I don’t know. Some kind of family trouble? I don’t think she wanted to talk about it, so I didn’t ask.”
That’s the kind of person Martha is. She stops digging for dirt as soon as she notices someone is uncomfortable. Toni could never. When it’s that easy to rile you up, you do it automatically to other people. If they go off first, it takes the attention off of yourself.
“Family trouble. Interesting,” Toni says. She thinks about the bottle of vodka she bought at the gas station that day, and what that might have to do with the family issues.
“Stop. You’re becoming, like, Malfoy-level obsessed with her,” Martha says. Toni sits up abruptly, “I am not. Also, stop referencing your gay Harry Potter ships in my presence.”
“You just don’t get it,” Martha sighs dreamily, letting herself fall back onto her bed, “They’re so gay for each other.”
“Don’t you think I would know that? You know, as your resident gay friend?” Toni laughs, throwing a pillow into Martha’s direction.
“No. You’re as daft as it gets, Toni. Your gaydar doesn’t work,” Martha says decidedly, throwing the pillow back.
Toni grins, “And you’re the judge of that? You’re as straight as they come.”
“I’m the judge of everything, honey. Now go to sleep, you have to coach a bunch of six year olds tomorrow morning.”
Right. Toni almost forgot about that. If she doesn’t make the team next week — a very unlikely scenario — she’ll make Coach Jones pay her back that time of her life she lost trying to teach toddlers how to throw a ball.
“Coach better appreciate what I’m doing for her,” Toni mutters the next morning. It’s still early, the sky painted a cool blue by the sun and Toni rests her head against the smooth glass of the car window, watching the houses pass by on the side of the road.
The closer they get to the center of the town, the closer the properties are pressed together, every front yard smaller than the one before until the houses have none at all.
“Stop complaining, T. You should be thanking God or whoever is up there that she’s letting you back on at all,” Martha says without averting her eyes from the bumpy road ahead of them.
Most of the time, Toni wonders what she did to deserve a friend — a sister — like Martha. Someone who gets up early to drive her to the youth center that she only has to go to because she royally fucked up in the first place. It’s somewhat amazing that Marty has stuck with her through everything. The foster families, all of her battles with herself and the people around her. Regan.
Not that Toni wants to think about her.
“Hey, uhm. Have you spoken to Regan at all last week?” Martha asks in that exact moment. Fucking mind reader.
Toni shakes her head and bites back a snort, “We’re not exactly on speaking terms, so. No.”
For a second, Martha looks like she wants to say something else, but she just nods slowly, more to herself than to Toni, and that seems like the end of the conversation.
Except, she picks it up again later that evening, after dinner. The two of them are stretched out on the lawn in the backyard, staring into the clear night’s sky. The noise of rubber outsoles squeaking on the floor of the youth center’s gym and kids laughing and talking still reverberates in Toni’s ears, even if she only was there for two hours.
It turned out not to be as bad as anticipated, not that Toni would ever admit that to anyone.
“So, about Regan,” Martha starts, definitely ruining the inner peace Toni had tried to build up within herself.
She interrupts her best friend before she can say anything else, “Would you please stop bringing her up?” She clenches her jaw. “There are people I’d rather talk about.”
“Hey,” Martha says softly, and Toni can feel her gaze on her skin but refuses to look at her. She knows she should be over it by now, and she is, but there’s this tiny part of her still holding onto what they had. She hates herself for it.
“I just wanted to tell you before someone else does,” Marty tries again, her hand touching lightly against Toni’s shoulder.
“Tell me what?” she bites. She knows it’s not fair, but a cold feeling of dread pools in the pit of her stomach and she’d rather not hear the end of the sentence.
“Regan’s dating again,” Martha says. The words hit her like a slap in the face, although she suspected they were coming.
“She can do whatever she wants, I don’t care,” Toni grunts. It’s a lie, one so obvious she doesn’t even have to look at Martha to know she saw right through it.
“Her name’s Elisa, I think. I heard she’s from two towns over,” Martha continues.
Toni can feel her emotions boiling hot, can hear her blood rushing in her eyes. Her hands ball into fists without her telling them to do so, and before she knows what she’s doing, she’s up on her feet. “ Stop , Marty. I don’t want to hear it, I don’t fucking care !”
“Toni, come on…”
She can’t hear the rest of the sentence, she’s already stormed off.
Inside Martha’s room, she buries her face in a pillow. The thing is, she doesn’t want to care. She wishes it wouldn’t matter to her what Regan does or who she’s with. They have been over for ages, and the initial hurt and anger subsided a while ago.
But then the memories come back, how happy Toni was whenever they were together, and it makes her go ballistic. Fuming at herself for letting someone else in just to have them leave again, for ruining something good. She can’t really blame Regan for ending things either, not without lying to herself.
Regan made the right call by dropping her like a hot potato, Toni thinks. She deserved it.
Toni feels the mattress shift when Martha sits down at the edge of it, her left hand finds the crook of Toni’s neck and strokes it with soft pressure.
“I’m sorry,” she says quietly, “I know this sucks.”
“Yeah,” Toni mumbles into her pillow, “It does.”
Toni smashes tryouts. Not that she ever doubted that, but when she gets changed in the locker rooms afterward, she knows she’ll make the team before Coach Jones even walks in to tell her.
It wasn’t even a challenge, really, when you think about it. It was Toni, a senior and former captain of the team, versus a bunch of freshman and sophomore girls. It’s a bummer, still, that she won’t be captain anymore, but when Coach hands her her uniform, black and yellow, the number 3 printed on the back, she forgets all about it.
“You’re giving me back my old jersey?” Toni asks, the surprise in her voice more apparent than she intended it to be.
“Well,” Coach smiles, “You deserve it. That is, of course, as long you stay in your lane.”
“Yeah, I know. I promise I will,” Toni says.
Trying to prove herself is something she has done for as long as she can remember. Trying to impress Coach Jones is something she’s done ever since freshman year. So trying to not fuck up again shouldn’t be that hard.
And it isn’t, for the most part. Now that she’s back to training with the team, she definitely has less spare time on her hands. Which equals less time to get herself into trouble. At home, meaning Martha’s room, Martha forces her to do homework together and quiz each other for upcoming tests.
The only person making Toni’s life harder than it has to be is Shelby fucking Goodkind, who, apparently, absolutely had to sit in front of her in Spanish class. Staring at that perfect blonde ponytail day after day is infuriating enough, she doesn’t need to also listen to whatever nonsense leaves her mouth. But, because God resents Toni, Shelby is one of those people that are keen on making everyone like them, including teachers. And so she participates every single class, her hand shooting up into the air before Mr Sanchez even finishes his question.
And because that isn’t enough, Shelby’s Spanish is heavily drenched in her Texan accent that is annoying enough in English, and maybe Toni would think it’s cute if it were any other girl.
“Hey, Toni,” Shelby whispers and turns around in her seat, “¿Tienes un bolígrafo de repuesto?”
“You know you can speak English in class, right? Like, Mr Sanchez is not going to cut off your head for asking me for a pen in your mother tongue,” Toni sneers, crossing her arms in front of her chest.
The corners of Shelby’s smile tense just the tiniest bit as she asks, “Do you have one or not?”
“Do I really look like I have more than one pen and a loose sheet of paper in my backpack?” And an entire bag of snacks, of course, but she’s not going to say that.
“Now that I think about it,” Shelby scrunches her face up, “Not really.”
She turns back around, tapping the person in front of her on the shoulder to ask them for an extra pen, and leaving Toni with a pleasant smirk on her face. So perfect Shelby Goodkind does have some fight in her.
Over the next weeks, it becomes Toni’s favorite thing to try and get a rise out of Shelby. The only problem is that, apparently, the latter also found out which buttons she has to push in order to do the same to Toni.
“Oh, so God hasn’t shown you the way yet?” Toni asks when Shelby asks Martha during lunch where the next gym is that offers spin classes.
“Really, that’s your go-to insult? God? You’re getting slow, short stack,” Shelby says over her shoulder while still waiting for a response from Martha.
“First of all, you’re not a giant yourself. Second of all, you’re right. I should have gone for the fact that you want to attend spin class . What are you, thirty and in your quarter-life crisis?” Toni nods to herself and then digs back into her lunch, tuning Martha’s and Shelby’s conversation out for the most part.
Much to Toni’s own dismay, she notices how a summer of not playing basketball took a toll on her stamina. While she used to float through cardio sessions after school without breaking so much as a sweat, she now has trouble keeping up with the front part of the team when they are running rounds on the track outside.
No one says a word about it, not even Coach Jones, who seems satisfied with her performance on the field, but it messes with Toni’s mind.
“You know you don’t have to be the fastest on the team?” Martha asks one night from her spot on the bed, watching over the brim of the book she’s reading as Toni ties her runners.
She jumps up to her feet and stretches out her arms and says, “Yeah. But I want to be.”
“You’re too competitive for your own good,” Marty comments and waves as Toni leaves the room.
It’s already dark outside, but Toni knows the streets around Martha’s house like the back of her hand, so she puts her headphones in and cranks up Kid Cudi as she speeds up her steps until she reaches a comfortable jog.
Summer has been fading out over the last couple of weeks, and the cool night air blows around her legs that stick out of her basketball shorts. Maybe she should have put on warmer clothes, Toni thinks. Or, she could just go faster to avoid freezing.
So she does, and it all works out fine for the first half of the run. Her blood pumps through her veins fast enough for it to be the only thing she concentrates on, her breathing is even and her feet hit the asphalt in a regular pattern.
Everything is great, until Toni turns around the corner. Her headphones are ripped out of her ears and she hits the ground before she fully registers that one of her feet must have caught on something.
“Fuck, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” someone asks. The voice is familiar, so is the southern drawl in it.
Toni looks up at Shelby who is hovering over her. “You say your prayers with that mouth, Goodkind?” She smirks. Shelby rolls her eyes in an over dramatic gesture, “I guess that answers my question.”
“You’re bleeding,” she states matter of factly, pointing at Toni’s knee. It’s true, Toni realizes when she looks at it. The grainy asphalt ripped open the skin right under her kneecap, and blood is now dripping down her leg in a sad little stream. The metallic taste of blood is also in her mouth, she notices, she must have bitten her lip when she fell.
“It’s fine,” Toni grunts and pushes herself up to her feet, wincing a little when she puts weight on her injured knee. Upon further inspection, she sees pebbles and dirt in the wound. She should probably clean that.
“You need to have that cleaned up and disinfected,” Shelby says.
Toni rolls her eyes, “You think so, Dr. House?”
“I’m just tryin’ to help, is all,” Shelby shrugs, “Come with me. I’ve got a first aid kit in my car.”
Of course she does. Since her options are blood poisoning or getting a bandaid from Shelby and then going home, she chooses not to complain for once and follows Shelby to her car.
“What are you doing here anyway? Don’t you live, like, on the other side of town?” Toni asks as she hobbles behind her.
“Spin class, remember?” Shelby says, and only then does Toni notice her matching set of white leggings and cropped top.
A cropped top that very much exposes her pierced belly button. Toni wishes for the sweet release of death.
Shelby opens the door to her truck that’s parked at the curb. “Sit,” she says.
When Toni doesn’t move, she grabs her by the shoulders and maneuvers her onto the passenger seat.
“You’re not very gentle, you know?” Toni complains when her right shoulder hits the doorframe.
“Awe, does itty bitty baby-Toni need to be babied?” Shelby asks in a voice she probably talks to puppies in, only now it’s dripping with sarcasm. Toni watches as she grabs the first aid kit and a bottle of water from the backseat and unzips the bag in an energetic motion.
She takes out a tissue first, drenches it in water from the plastic bottle and cleans the dirt and blood from Toni’s skin, leaving out the part where the skin is open and leaking wound secretion. Over that, she only pours the water to wash out the dirt. The water runs downs Toni’s leg, soaking into her socks and shoes.
There’s not much to say, so Toni closes her eyes and just lets her do whatever she needs to do. From what she’s gathered about Shelby over the past weeks, it’s that there’s no use in trying to stop her when she wants to do something. In that regard, they are kind of alike, Toni realizes.
It’s not a realization she’s very fond of.
Shelby sprays something onto her knee that immediately causes a burning sensation, making tears shoot into Toni’s eyes. “Fuck, that hurts. Are you trying to kill me?” she snaps at Shelby, opening her eyes again.
“Pretty much the opposite, actually. Who would have thought you’re such a wimp, small fry,” Shelby grins a shit-eating smirk and it takes all of Toni’s willpower to not kick her in the shins. She’s helping her, after all.
“All done,” Shelby announces after she’s smoothed out the bandaid over Toni’s knee. “I’m not gonna put anything on your hands, just rinse them with lukewarm water when you get home and disinfect them.”
“Thanks,” Toni says quietly, looking down at her hands. She hadn’t even noticed she grazed them.
“What are you doing?” Shelby asks when Toni starts moving to get out of the car. “I’m giving you a ride home.”
“You really don’t have to,” Toni says, “I’m fine.”
Shelby smiles a somewhat mysterious smile at her and gives a shrug, “I know.”
When Shelby twists the ignition of the truck, the speakers start blaring ‘When I Kissed The Teacher’ so loudly, it startles a laugh out of Toni, “You listen to ABBA?”
Shelby honest-to-God flushes , averting her gaze. “Would you believe me if I said it was my aunt’s?”
“Nope,” Toni replies with a smirk, popping the ‘p’.
Shelby laughs quietly and admits, “It makes me feel good, I don’t know. I can turn it off if you want.”
The thought of Shelby listening to ABBA for comfort makes Toni smile against her will, so she shakes her head, “No, leave it. I like it.”
They drive in silence to Martha’s house, only interrupted by Toni giving directions from time to time. When they pull up in front of it, Toni asks, “Hey. Why do you live with your aunt?” before she can stop herself.
It’s none of her business, especially since the both of them aren’t exactly friends. And if someone would ask Toni the same question, the chances of getting a reasonable answer were insignificantly small.
Toni might be wrong, but she thinks she sees a hint of sadness hush across Shelby’s face. After a fraction of a second, it’s gone again, replaced by her usual neutral but friendly expression.
“Family stuff,” Shelby says quietly without looking Toni in the eyes. “Me and my parents don’t really get along anymore, so. It’s the best for all of us.”
Her answer is not what Toni expected. She’s not sure what she thought Shelby would say, but her general idea went into the direction of “Stay out of my business.”
Toni turns to her, reaching out and then dropping her hand after half the way. “I’m sorry. That’s really shitty.”
“Yeah,” Shelby lets out a sad little laugh, “It is.”
And maybe, if Martha’s mom hadn’t come outside and knocked on the window, Toni would have told her how she’s not alone. How Toni’s mom was no use as a mother, and how she’s changed foster families like underwear ever since she was six years old. But Bernice comes outside and knocks on the window, startling both of them, and so Toni offers only an empathetic smile and a ‘Thanks’ before she gets out of the car.
One would think that their relationship would change after that, but it doesn’t. They still snark at each other during lunch and Toni still makes a game out of how many paper balls she can throw at Shelby’s ponytail in Spanish class until she notices.
Her record is eleven, in case anyone was wondering.
“So, for this project I need all of you to pair up. I’m going to give each pair a topic, and you’re going to write a paper on it. Ten pages, double spaced in Times New Roman. You each get three weeks to complete it and hand it in,” Mr Sanchez is saying in Spanish, right as Toni throws her tenth paper ball at Shelby’s hair. It rolls off and falls to her t-shirt clad shoulder, where it stays.
Shelby turns around, “Could you stop that? Some of us are trying to take notes.”
“Miss Goodkind, Miss Shalifoe,” Mr Sanchez interrupts, this time in English, before Toni can respond, “I’m quite tired of the two of you having a nice coffee chat in my class.”
“Oh, that’s not what’s happening,” Shelby says, sounding offended. Toni nods her head in agreement, “We don’t even like each other.”
“Perfect. You two will be working together then,” Mr Sanchez says, “Maybe if you start liking each other, you’ll stop interrupting me.”
The both of them groan in unison. Working on a group project with Shelby is the last thing Toni wants or needs. She has reason to believe the feeling is mutual.
“I say we start working on it this weekend,” Shelby says to her when they leave the classroom and make their way to the oak tree together. “We could get a head start. Besides, the sooner we’re done, the better.”
“You mean ‘The sooner we’re done, the less you have to hang out with me’? I agree. But I can’t do this weekend,” Toni says.
“Why not?” Shelby asks, surprise visible on her face.
“I’m allowed to have plans, aren’t I?” Toni scoffs. They reach the oak three, and she shoulders off her backpack before slumping down on the bench.
“I’m just wonderin’. You live with Martha, so you’re not hanging out with her. You don’t have any hobbies besides basketball, you generally don’t hang out with other people from school, so…” Shelby ticks the point off with her fingers, then shrugs.
“So now you’re stalking me?” Toni laughs, but it comes out dry and stifled. She’s too caught up on the fact that Martha apparently told Shelby that Toni lives with her. It’s not exactly a secret, but it’s still not everybody’s business.
“Just observant. So, what are your important plans?”
“Did Marty tell you that I’m staying with them?” Toni asks instead of giving an answer, staring at her Vans. They’re covered in gray dust from the dirt road behind Martha’s house.
“Oh. She didn’t. I just figured, you know. You come to school and leave together, you call her your sister, and when I dropped you off the other day I saw her mom,” Shelby says, shrugging again. “It’s not a big deal, I don’t care.”
“You can care about whatever you want,” Toni grumbles, dragging her feet over the floor. She hates this conversation.
“Also, I don’t know why it would be any of your business,” she throws Shelby a poignant look, “I volunteer on Saturdays and have a game on Sunday. Sorry.”
“Friday it is, then,” Shelby says triumphantly, “You can come over to my aunt’s house after school.”
“I have practice on Friday after school,” Toni retorts while digging through her backpack for her lunch. Where is Martha when you need her? She’d really like an out of this conversation, since she’s not interested in spending her weekend with Shelby.
“No worries, I can pick you up.”
“I’ll be sweaty and stinky,” she challenges with a cocked eyebrow.
“They have showers in your locker rooms, don’t they?” Shelby says. “Stop trying to get out of this, ‘cause you’re not. We’re going to get an A on that paper, I don’t care if it’s the last thing I do.”
“Wow, you’re invested in this,” Toni snorts, “It’s only Spanish, chill out.”
Shelby doesn’t say anything to that, only flicks lint off her t-shirt and that’s the end of the conversation. Martha shows up a little later, loudly complaining about her maths teacher which is enough to take Toni’s mind off the Friday afternoon she’s going to lose.
Friday comes around and before Toni knows it, she’s walking up to Shelby’s truck after practice. She feels good about herself, since training went well and she senses they have a good shot at winning the game on Sunday.
A few girls from her team wolf whistle when they see it’s not Martha but Shelby picking up Toni, and Amanda, their small forward, even shouts, “Go get it, Shalifoe!”
Toni flips them off over her shoulder and can hear them cackle behind her.
“This is not becoming a thing,” Toni states as she climbs into the passenger seat and shuts the door behind her.
“Don’t worry, no one said it was,” Shelby says. “Hello to you too.”
Toni rolls her eyes, “Hi.”
Shelby shifts the gear wordlessly and they slowly roll off the parking lot and onto the streat.
“I already made the outline while I was waiting for you,” she says eventually.
“Nerd,” Toni comments. She doesn’t need to see Shelby’s face to know she’s throwing her a look. “Also, no ABBA today?”
“Watch it, shortcake. Can we talk about the Spanish paper now?”
The lack of commentary on Toni’s side must seem like an invitation to elaborate on the outline of their paper, and the rest of the drive to her aunt’s house is taken up by Shelby’s voice as she talks about statistics on drug abuse in south america and who should research what.
Toni doesn’t listen for the most part.
“Question: Do you have any other hobbies than studying?” she asks once they are in Shelby’s room. If she didn’t know better, she wouldn’t have guessed Shelby only moved in this past summer.
The wall facing the window is painted a light blue, the rest of the room in white, and pushed against it is a shelf on top of which are multiple trophies, all in gold and one taller than the other. Right. Toni almost forgot about the pageant thing.
Her bed is a queen sized monstrosity, covered in throw pillows. Toni wonders if she actually sleeps with all of them on it or puts them away every evening only to line them up again the next morning.
The rest of the room is sensible enough though, with a large green plant in the corner next to the bed and a nice dresser on the opposite side of the room. One thing Toni notices is that there aren’t a lot of pictures.
One of Shelby with two younger children, one girl and one boy, and another one of her with a curly girl, their faces squished together. It’s a silly picture, a shaky selfie taken on a rather shitty phone camera, but Toni can’t help but think that that’s a version she hasn’t seen of Shelby yet.
“Answer: Yes. I just like to be organized, you know,” Shelby says, pointing to the neon post-its on her desks in four different colors with matching highlighters, and the flashcards that are organized by class.
“Oh, you’re going to hate working with me,” Toni laughs, it blubbers out of her before she can stop it, “I’m the least organized person in the entire state.”
“I’m taking it as a challenge,” Shelby squints her eyes at her, then points to the second, smaller chair in front of her desk. It’s obvious she put it here before so that two people can sit at the desk at the same time. “Sit down, we need to get started.”
Working with Shelby is horrible. Zero fun. There are no breaks, not even when her aunt sticks her head in and offers to bring snacks (which Shelby denies before Toni can get a word in. Rude. She’s hungry).
When Toni takes out her phone to answer some texts, Shelby actually slaps it out of her hand before throwing it onto the bed, leaving Toni speechless for once.
She also refuses to use Google Translate to write that stupid paper, the only method Toni has ever used to get anything done in that class.
“That’s cheating, shortstop,” she says without looking up from where she’s breeding over her notes whenever Toni brings it up.
“It’s not cheating. It literally says here we’re allowed to use, and I quote, ‘the internet for research’. I’d call that research,” Toni argues, but it gets her nowhere.
After two hours, she straight up gives up. Her back hurts from the small chair she’s been sitting on, she’s starving and has to go to the toilet.
“I’m going to go pee and then I’m gonna look for your kitchen to find something to eat, since you rejected the snacks from your aunt,” she states. It doesn’t get much of a reaction from Shelby, and when she repeats her plan, she just nods, “Go knock yourself out.”
The kitchen isn’t hard to find. She walked by it when she entered the house, and the fridge is stacked to the top with actual food. Food Shelby refused to offer her every single time Toni complained about being hungry.
What a shit host.
Toni grabs two bottles of soda out of it and a bag of nut mix she finds on the counter and turns around to go back up to Shelby’s room. Except, she almost bumps into her aunt that appeared noiselessly behind her while she was filing through their fridge. Awkward.
Toni winces, and says, “I’m sorry, I was just — “
“Oh, it’s alright, darlin’, don’t worry,” she smiles. Toni waits for her to say something else. She’s wearing a sort of expectant look on her face, but Toni doesn’t know what she wants to hear.
She’s shit at talking to adults.
“I like your house,” she eventually comes up with and wants nothing more than the sweet release of death, “It’s nice.”
“Thank you. You know, I’m very glad Shelby found some friends here, I was scared she wouldn’t,” her aunt starts.
Oh. “Uhm, we’re not really, you know, friends ,” Toni says, meaning to add ‘we’re just working on a project together’ but she is interrupted before she can get to it.
“ Oh ,” a knowing look takes over her aunt’s face, and she nods like she’s in on some sort of secret (that Toni has no clue of what it is), “I know. That’s so nice, I’m very happy for you. Her parents, my brother to be exact, aren’t the most supportive , if that’s what you want to call it, but all I care about is that my little Shelby is happy.”
What the actual —
Toni just stands there, gaping at Shelby’s aunt like she’s a dinosaur come back to life before she comes back to her senses and manages to mutter a ‘Yeah, yeah’ and then sprinting back up the stairs as if her life depends on it.
Nothing in life could have prepared Toni for the impact the knowledge that Shelby
be into girls would have on her. It’s like her brain fogs over, rumbling with possibilities. Which — the fuck? She can’t even
Shelby looks at her in confusion when she bursts into the room. “Are you okay?” She asks, mild concerning swinging in her tone.
“I think your aunt thinks I’m your —” Toni doesn’t even dare to voice the last part of the sentence, the thought of it alone seems too absurd to her, “you know. Girlfriend.”
Shelby’s eyes widen in horror. “What did you tell her?” she asks with so much force, Toni thinks she might get a whiplash from it.
“Nothing, I swear! She kind of brought up your parents or something and when I told her we’re not actually friends she got this look on her face and that was it.”
Shelby just stares at her, not moving at all. She’s not even blinking. It almost seems like she’s stuck in that moment, frozen in place.
A single look at her face is enough for Toni to know that something is wrong, and she fumbles desperately for something to say, but the words don’t come. Her mind is blank, she can’t come up with anything that could loosen up the situation and free Shelby of whatever has got a hold on her.
The problem is, Toni doesn’t even understand what’s wrong. She knows next to nothing about the blonde girl crouched on her desk chair in front of her, so how is she supposed to figure out what to say, what to do?
“It’s not like it’s a bad thing,” Toni finally manages to get out. Once she starts talking, it gets easier to find some words, “It’s nothing more than a misunderstanding. Look, if you want me to, I’ll just go down again and — “
“You have no clue what you’re talking about,” Shelby spits out, suddenly coming back to life. Something flashes in her eyes, but Toni can’t decipher what emotion it is.
Anger, maybe. Fear.
“It’s not a big deal,” she repeats, but now she’s not as confident in her words anymore.
Everything about Shelby’s reaction tells her that, for whatever reason, it is a big deal.
“I need to — “ Shelby jumps up from her chair and is out the door before Toni can say or do anything else. From where she’s standing, she can hear Shelby’s footsteps on the stairs, quick and hectic, and then her voice as she presumably talks to her aunt.
Toni can’t hear a word they are saying, only the panicky tone in Shelby’s voice, and somehow that’s enough for her.
It’s a ripcord pulled taut, and Toni can’t stand it anymore.
Shelby Goodkind is a guessing game, at least for her. One minute she’s kind, puts bandages on grazed knees and gives her rides home, and then she’s quick on her feet and has a comeback for every jab Toni makes at her. A second later, Shelby is insufferable, talking about religion and church and Texas and has to prove to everyone how good a person she is.
And now this?
Toni grabs her notes, stuffs them into her backpack and jogs down the stairs. Shelby and her aunt are still in the kitchen, talking. Well, it’s not really talking.
There’s Shelby’s voice, pitched and shaky, words tumbling over one another. Her aunt sounds more calm, trying to get a word in sideways every now and then. And — What are they even fighting about?
It was a misunderstanding, no reason to make this entire thing out of it.
Toni doesn’t know why it bugs her so much that Shelby couldn’t just laugh about it or make a snarky comment and leave it be. Why she’s acting like the idea of her and Toni together is — is something bad .
Because it isn’t, right? There’s no way she could actually think that. Right?
Except, Toni thinks as she steps onto the road, maybe it is. At least in Shelby’s mind. And maybe it’s not about Toni (who couldn’t care less about that, by the way) but about the whole thing in general.
Shelby with all her belief in God.
The pieces fit themselves slowly together in Toni’s brain as she takes the first bus she sees, past the school in the direction of Martha’s house.
Sometimes, believing in something can be suffocating, sucking the air straight out of your lungs. Toni knows that. When she was six and with her first foster family, she told everyone that in a few days, her mom would be back and pick her up, and then they could be together again.
And she believed it. Believed it so much that, no matter what anyone said, she waited up every night for a knock on the door and her mother’s voice telling her foster parents that she would take Toni home.
It never came.
Maybe it’s the same thing with religion for other people. For people like Shelby.
Shelby, who apparently likes girls but talks about Jesus like she personally met him. Shelby, who doesn’t live with her parents anymore because “they don’t get along”. The picture on her dresser, with that other girl.
It all clicks into place as Toni steps off the bus again, walking the last two blocks. In her back pocket, her phone is buzzing, but she ignores it.
“How was your thing with Shelby?” Martha asks when Toni sinks down on her mattress. She lets out a heavy sigh and shakes her head. Where should she even fucking start?
“Not good, then,” Marty looks up from her laptop, “You know, I don’t get the two of you.”
“You’re not the only one,” Toni mumbles under her breath. “Are we going to that party tonight? Amanda mentioned it,” she asks.
The thought of it is appealing. Getting a little alcohol into her system, hanging with her teammates. Forgetting about the train wreck that is Shelby.
“Don’t you have that thing at the youth center tomorrow?”
Right, that. Toni almost forgot about it. “Yeah, well,” she flips onto her stomach, hugging the pillow under her head, “If we’re back by midnight, I can still get, like, six hours of sleep.”
“Toni …” Martha says. Toni knows that tone all too well; it means whatever idea Toni just had, she doesn’t approve of.
“Come on, it’ll be fun,” Toni makes her best puppy eyes, but Martha shakes her head. “It’s not my scene, you know that. The music is too loud, and somehow the floors are always sticky. And I don’t even like drinking.” She makes a gagging sound that sounds so real, Toni has to laugh.
“Please? For me? Because I’m your bestest friend ever?”
Martha sighs defeatedly. “I’ll give you a ride,” she says, “But I’m not staying.”
Three hours ago, Martha dropped Toni off at the curb in front of a house on the other side of town.
Two hours ago, Toni saw a familiar brunette shock of hair and heard a familiar laugh in the living room of said house, and decided to fuck it and drink until everything goes pleasantly blurry. If she is hungover tomorrow, that’s definitely a problem for future-Toni.
One hour ago, Amanda and Reign from her team pulled her into the kitchen to play beer pong against three girls from the cheer squad. Even under the influence of beer, their aim is much more precise than any of the cheerleader’s, and they end up winning with ease.
Ten minutes ago, fucking Zach from the fucking football team made a mysogynisic comment about women’s sport teams, pointing out that half the members were ‘dykes’ anyway, and a waste of school money.
For a second, Toni’s brain got caught on the fact that this entire party seemed to be crowded by jocks and cheerleaders.
Approximately nine minutes ago, Toni’s blood boiled over. All her emotions that had been sizzling right under the surface since the afternoon become too much for her to keep under control.
She launched herself at Zach, the noise, voices and music and laughter, from the crowd in the kitchen fading into the background. Maybe it just stopped the second her balled up fist hit his jaw, she can’t be sure.
Eight minutes ago, she felt two hands on her arms, fingers painfully digging into her biceps and pulling her back and away from Zach and his dumbass homophobic remarks.
Toni remembers shaking the hands off once they made it into the hallway, whirling around to see who they belonged to. Only to look straight into Regan’s face. That heart-shaped face of hers, with her straight nose and pretty eyes and a smile that always made her heart flutter.
Except there’s no smile right now.
There hasn’t been a smile in a while, at least not directed at Toni.
“The fuck are you doing?” Toni spits out as soon as she’s gotten her fogged-over brain to work again.
“I could ask you the same thing,” Regan replies, weirdly calm, “You’ve got to stop pulling this crap.”
“Oh, so now you suddenly care?” she bites back.
She can feel the metallic throbbing of her blood in her veins, and it feels unnatural. So much so that Toni has the urge to rip off her skin or run away or do anything to make it stop.
“That’s not —” Regan stops herself, as if she’s deciding that this is not a conversation worth having. Maybe she’s right. “Just say thank you and leave it at that,” she sighs.
Under her attentive gaze, Toni feels fidgety and uncomfortable. It’s like she’s looking right through her, through all that abrasive surface and anger, right into what’s hidden underneath. Toni can’t say that she likes it.
So she does the thing she does best, launch forward and attack, “I don’t need your fucking help, Regan! I don’t need to be saved or protected or whatever bullshit it is you think you’re doing.”
Regan closes her eyes, taking a deep breath. “Yeah, but you do. They’ll kick you off the team again, and then what?”
“Then it’s none of your fucking problems ,” she snaps. She brushes past her, needs to make room between them. Their shoulders knock together, but Toni doesn’t care.
On second thought, she stops and turns, “Say hi to your fucking girlfriend from me.”
The grass Toni is sitting on is wet, it must have rained at some point during the last few hours. She can feel the water soaking into her jeans, cold and uncomfortable, but it’s not enough to make her get up.
A hand touches her bare shoulder, but this one is soft and kind.
When she looks up, she sees Shelby’s blonde hair, her face cast in the darkness of the backyard.
“What are you doing here?” Toni asks, but there’s no energy behind it. She doesn’t have it in her anymore, not after already fighting two people in the past hour.
Shelby sits down next to her on the lawn, “Looking for you, actually. Martha told me where you were.”
Toni doesn’t reply. What happened earlier that afternoon is now shoved in the back of her mind, overshadowed by talking to Regan for the first time in months. Shelby can do or say whatever she wants, Toni doesn’t have the energy to care about it.
“What happened in there?” Shelby asks softly, like she’s giving Toni space to decide if she wants to respond.
“Do you mean the guy that called me a dyke or the ex-girlfriend that suddenly seems to care about what I do again?” Toni asks. It’s none of Shelby's business, and it comes out too sad and Toni hates it, but she also just doesn’t care anymore.
What does it matter, anyway?
“Yeah, I saw you launching at that guy. You’ve got a pretty good right swing,” Shelby jokes.
“Are you a boxing expert now?” she asks, but a laugh slips out with it.
Shelby pushes her shoulder into hers, “Obviously.” After a pause, she adds, “I’m sorry about the girlfriend thing.”
“It’s whatever,” she digs her fingers into the grass, ripping out stalks, “It’s been over for a while. Just don’t need her up in my business like it’s still her place.”
“So, you’re not on good terms?”
Toni scoffs, “We’re not on any terms. Radio silence since we ended things.” Since Regan ended things.
And, only God knows why Toni is telling Shelby that of all people, but it helps. It must be the alcohol, she decides.
“I can’t blame her, but — It still sucks. To lose someone like that.”
When she looks up, it’s right into Shelby’s eyes. In them, she recognizes the same pain that has been pulling at her ever since the night in the parking lot last year, the same pain that made her yank her backpack off her back and swing it against Regan’s rear window.
Toni is surprised to see it there, right there in Shelby’s green eyes in the dark backyard of a houseparty, even though she’s been grappling with thoughts about it all day.
“I know,” Shelby whispers, not tearing her gaze away like Toni expected her to. It makes Toni wonder what she lost back in Texas, or rather, who. If it’s the girl from the picture in her room.
She’s not sure why she suddenly cares so much.
“Can I tell you a secret?” Toni asks, pushing the feeling of caring back, into the farthest corner of her consciousness.
Shelby nods, so she continues, “I hate your ponytail.”
A smile creeps onto her face at Shelby’s shocked expression, that startled little laugh that escapes her throat, “What?”
“I don’t know. I feel like it thinks it’s better than me.”
This time, Shelby actually laughs. It bubbles out of her like champagne out of an expensive bottle, bright and sweet.
“I’ll keep that in mind, half-pint,” she grins, and Toni rolls her eyes at the nickname. And maybe, Toni thinks, Shelby is kind of okay.
They win their game on Sunday.
The entire team had kept their mouths shut about what happened at the party Friday night, and Toni appeared at the youth center on Saturday morning like every week, and everything seemed fine for once.
Even though Toni could feel the guilt of betraying Coach Jones’ trust like that hanging over her head, she managed to get through the warm up and the game without letting anything slip.
And winning , man.
Winning the game makes Toni feel like herself for the first time in months , the familiar cheer of her classmates in the stands, chants of Go, Firebirds! carrying her out of the gym and into the locker rooms afterwards.
They must be loud and obnoxious for any outside parties, jumping around, hugging and yelling and laughing as they’re getting changed, but Toni revels in it. In the way Amanda and Reign hook their arms around her shoulders as they’re walking out, not caring about how sweaty and gross they all are.
In the way she finally feels like part of something again, like everything that had been off-kilter in the past slid right into place the second she made the winning shot.
Coach Jones walks in right as Toni shoves her dirty jersey into her bag. She directs a few words at all the girls, how proud she is of them and that they will talk about what went wrong next week.
“Toni, stay back a minute, would you?” she asks as everyone starts leaving, chatter reverberating in the tiled locker room.
Panic spreads out in Toni’s mind. What if someone else that was at the party on Friday talked to her?
But it’s none of that. Coach Jones starts talking about college instead, for some reason, and Toni immediately relaxes.
“You’re obviously not the only one on the team that’s up for consideration, I already talked to Reign and Jane before the game, but I just wanted to let you know that you’ve got a good shot. Especially with your performance today,” Coach Jones says, and Toni gapes at her for a beat or two.
The words don’t really click in her brain.
“Shot for what?” she asks lamely.
“A scholarship. Maybe it’s not a full ride to college, but you impressed the scouts the last two games. Good job, Shalifoe. You should be proud of yourself,” Coach Jones nods approvingly, pats her shoulder twice and then leaves the locker room again.
Toni just stares at her retreating figure.
College. A scholarship.
A way out of this godforsaken town.
“What took you so long? I thought you slipped in the shower and hit your head and died, or something,” Martha asks when Toni emerges into the hallway, and hugs her tight. “That was such a good game, I’m so proud of you!”
“Marty, you don’t understand a single thing about basketball,” Toni laughs. She wraps her arm around her best friend’s shoulders anyway, and together they head to the exit.
“I do too,” Martha insists, laughing.
Toni scoffs, “Last week, you called the basket a ‘goal’, so.”
As a response, she only gets an eye-roll.
“But you’re right. I did crush it today,” Toni smirks.
“No, that is the professional opinion of the three college scouts that attended the game today.”
“No way,” Martha stops in her tracks, staring at Toni wide eyed. It probably resembles the way Toni looked at Coach Jones five minutes earlier.
Toni keeps walking, backwards now to look at Martha. She stretches out her arms and looks at the hallway ceiling, not able to hide the grin on her face. “I’m going to college, baby.”
In Spanish class on Monday, Toni slides into her seat and notices that Shelby is wearing her hair down, with the front parts clipped back.
Gone is the offensively shiny ponytail that Toni had to stare at since the beginning of the semester.
It probably doesn’t mean anything.
“Agree to disagree,” Toni says offhandedly from her position on the bed, staring at the white ceiling of Shelby’s bedroom as she tries to throw Takis into her own mouth.
Shelby snorts, and Toni doesn’t have to see her face to know that she’s frowning. “This is not something we can ‘agree to disagree’. We can agree to disagree about literally everything else, like whether pineapple belongs on pizza —”
Toni interrupts her, “It totally does.”
“ — but not about the thesis of our paper,” Shelby finishes, ignoring Toni’s comment.
“It’s fun to see you get all riled up about this,” she smirks. Shelby groans in response.
It’s Friday again, time for them to brood over their Spanish paper.
“I’m just going to put what I want to write since you haven’t written a single sentence yet,” Shelby decides, already typing out her bullshit idea of a thesis.
Toni totally would help writing that thing if Shelby only let her use Google Translate. It’s not her fault she’s shit at Spanish.
She rolls over onto her stomach and props her head up on her hands, “God, I love it when you do all the work.”
“Do you ever not use the Lord’s name in vain?” Shelby asks without looking up from the laptop.
It makes Toni laugh. “I’ve never tried. God’s such a joke.”
“Offensive, but okay,” she jerks her head in a weird motion, but doesn’t say anything else.
“Do you, like, actually believe that he cares or has control over the stuff that’s going on down here?” Toni asks, out of mere interest. She makes an effort to keep the sarcastic edge out of her voice, to make sure Shelby knows she’s not making a jab at her.
Now, Shelby turns around, abandoning their half written paper behind her. The look on her face tells Toni that she’s carefully selecting her words and putting them in order.
“I grew up in this super religious household. The sort of household with bible study and church twice a week. I read the bible, I have my favorite quotes and I pray every day. So, yes, I do believe that He exists and that He takes care of everyone. But I don’t think — I can’t believe everything I was taught,” she says slowly.
“What does that mean?”
Shelby pulls her knees up to her chest and hugs them. Her gaze catches on the bible on her night stand.
“God wants us to be instruments of love, yes?” She looks expectantly at Toni, so she nods.
“We are supposed to be instruments of love,” she repeats, “But I’ve seen how your belief can hurt others, and, ultimately, can hurt yourself. I grew up around that, too, and they told me that it was God’s way of punishing those who — who don’t follow His words, I guess. I don’t have it in me to believe that, you see? If I believe in something or someone, I’d rather believe that it is good and kind and helps others. And doesn’t hurt them.”
Toni studies Shelby’s face for a second. She’s careful in her words and speaks slowly, but it’s obvious that she doesn’t doubt what she says for a single second. It’s clear that this is the conclusion she once came to and that she won’t back off.
“‘You mean that whole ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ bullshit?” Toni asks.
“Yeah,” Shelby nods and says quietly, “That.”
The words hang between them in the air, suspended, until she adds, “My parents — they’re not, you know. They’re the living version of ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’. Did you know that that’s not even a biblical thought? Gandhi said it,” Shelby says.
Her green eyes have a sort of spark in them, and her face flushes as she talks.
Toni has to look away.
“Well, he didn’t even say the love part. He was just like, ‘hate the sin, not the sinner’, and all those homophobic christians took it and made it into ‘love the sinner’, as if that would change anything,” she says and gets up, sitting down next to Toni on the edge of the bed.
“How do you know all of that?” Toni asks, turning to the side to look at her face again.
Shelby shrugs, “Fighting with my dad, mostly.”
“Is that why you panicked the other day?” It slips out before Toni can stop it, and she bites down on her lower lip, feels her heart picking up speed. What if she crossed a line?
“I mean,” Shelby sighs, “kinda. I don’t live with them anymore, and it’s whatever. Especially my dad, he doesn’t want a daughter like that. He’d rather pretend I go to a boarding school than admit that his —”
She stops, takes a deep breath. “That all his attempts at conversion therapy and prayers didn’t work. That there are things you can’t pray away.”
A whisper escapes Toni, lined with emotions that she’d been pushing away, “Shelby.”
“It’s okay,” she gets up and walks to the window, shaking her head. “He acts like it’s my fault, you know. Like I’m refusing to ‘see God’s way’, or whatever. I just think that God had a different way for me. Besides, my aunt is real cool. It’s a win-win for me, if you think about me.”
Except it’s not, Toni thinks. Because Shelby, who ‘does real, does family, does Jesus and pageants’ is a million miles away from her family, the people she obviously still cares about.
Her gaze wanders over to the pictures she already looked at last week, but this time she doesn’t stop at the photo of Shelby with that girl, but at the portrait of her with two younger children.
It suddenly clicks. The eyes, the nose. They are her siblings.
She wonders, for a moment, if Shelby has seen then since she moved here, but then she thinks of what she said about her father, and — If Toni had to guess, she’d bet on no.
“I’m glad you got out of there,” Toni says. She doesn’t mean to say it, really, but once the words are out, she realizes it’s the truth.
No one deserves to live in a homophobic household, and if Toni is filling in the gaps correctly, the home Shelby grew up in ended up not being one the second her parents figured out she might be gay.
Shelby turns away from the window to face Toni, “I’ve never thought about it like that,” she says quietly, “Like their house was a place I needed to get out of. It always felt like it was me they needed to get rid of. Not the opposite.”
Only then Toni notices that her voice is shaky. But her gaze is firm and sure.
“Thank you,” she says.
From that conversation on, things seem to shift.
Two weeks later, they hand in their Spanish paper. Martha later remarks that they made it through without killing each other, and while both Shelby and Toni scoff and laugh it off, Toni doesn’t miss the small, secret smile on Shelby’s lips when she catches her eyes again.
Absurdly enough, it happens again.
And then again, and again, and again.
Shelby will turn around in class to make a comment about Mr Sanchez’s handwriting, and their eyes get caught. Like burr in a dog’s fur.
It takes more effort for Toni to look away than it should.
She decides not to dwell on it.
Toni has more important things to think about anyway. Things that are way more important than the way Shelby hums Yazoo under her breath or how the gray crop top she wore the other day that showed off her pierced belly button.
She has way more important things to think about, like scouts and coaching basketball to literal children and the tension on the team.
On a rational basis, Toni knows she should back off when Lian, their new captain and a year younger than Toni, makes decisions on the court. In her defense, Lian’s decisions are stupid. Not all of them, but some, and Toni doesn’t have it in herself to keep her mouth shut.
Coach Jones has warned her before, but she must know that it puts Toni in excruciating pain to see someone — in a position that should be hers — murk up their game.
Which is why she isn’t that upset when Lian trips on the court Friday after school and leaves hobbling on one leg, supported by her parents on each side.
And maybe Toni should be worried; they’re in the middle of a game with their captain out, and they need that win, having lost the last two games.
Coach Jones bursts into the locker room at halftime. Her usually tight ponytail now hangs loosely over her shoulder instead, and her eyes search the room frantically for someone.
Everyone is quiet, knowing better than to ask her questions in stressful situations.
Coach’s eyes stop on Toni.
“Toni, you’re up,” she says, her tone final and decided.
Some of the girls start mumbling something about what happened last year, but Toni ignores it. The first thing that comes to her mind is — “Me?”
“Lian is on the way to Urgent Care right now, and you’re the only one who’s done this job before, so yes,” Coach says, tossing something yellow at Toni’s chest.
She catches it. It’s the captain’s armband, in all its glory. Her fingers wrap tightly around it, and she nods. “Thank you.”
“If something like last year happens,” Coach says, eyes calm and firm on Toni, “You’re off the team. Forever.”
“Yeah, I know,” Toni says, “I promise.”
Coach Jones’ voice fades into the background after that, all that Toni can hear is blood rushing through her veins, surged on by adrenaline.
Determination rises up in her, and something else underneath. Something softer and fragile. Hope. There are scouts here today, and she’s been playing fairly good today. If she impresses them as team captain, she has a chance.
This is her best shot at getting into college.
“Three minutes and then I want to see you back out there,” Coach calls, leaving the locker room shortly after.
Toni fumbles for her phone in her bag.
R u here? Need moral support , she texts Martha. The reply comes second later. Nope, sry. Didn’t feel good so I went home. What’s up?
Toni groans and punches the next message into her phone, Coach made me captain, Lian’s out.
I came with Shelby, she’s probably still there.
“Toni, we need to go!” Amanda calls and Toni glances up from her phone. Fuck. She needs Martha there, her sister, not Shelby who drives her insane half the time. Scratch that. All the time.
I need u here, not her. Of all people. She frantically types out, and then Amanda is pulling at her arm, so she hits send while already pushing the phone back into her bag.
It’s fine. She can do this.
Turns out she can. Even without Martha in the stands. The first two minutes, she has to will herself to not look up and search for that annoyingly blonde ponytail, but then she gets her head into the game and they ace it.
Well, it’s always easy to say that after you won, but Toni really feels like it was one of their best games. The eagles certainly didn’t let up on their defense and offense after they saw Lian wasn’t coming back, feeling like they had a better shot at winning than before.
Too bad for them that Toni is the better captain, with more experience and — let’s be honest here — more brains. She knows she’s being cocky, but how could she not be? They won by two points after a great and excruciating game and Toni’s life is finally going well for once.
Her, Amanda, and Jane are laying on the floor of the locker room, feet up on one of the benches. It’s only a little disgusting and most of the team is already on their way out, but Toni is just staring at the ceiling, a dopey smile on her lips.
“We should probably get up,” Amanda says, already shuffling around, “Or we’ll be late.”
Toni props herself up on her elbows and watches her teammates scrambling to their feet. She follows them a second later, slinging her bag over her shoulder, “Let’s go, I’m seriously so hungry.”
But she doesn’t even make it to the parking lot. In the hallway outside of the locker room, Shelby is leaning against the wall, apparently waiting for Toni.
She looks pissed.
“Can we talk?” she asks, and, God, Toni is in trouble. She’s not sure what she did, but she must have done something, because Shelby’s tone is cold as ice and her eyebrow twitches when she talks, like she’s trying hard to control herself.
Jane grins, that little bastard. “We’ll meet you at the diner, yeah?”
Toni nods, even though she’s not so sure she’s going to make it there alive, judging by the impatient tap of Shelby’s foot against the linoleum floor.
“You wanna go…?” Toni asks, pointing over her shoulder with her thumb.
Shelby nods and then brushes past her. Toni raises her eyebrows, a little impressed, and follows her.
“So, what’s got you all,” she makes an encompassing gesture with her hands, “Hulk-y?”
“Not funny, Toni.”
“No rude nickname? I’m offended.” She sinks down on the wooden bench she had her feet on just two minutes ago.
“You’re so — Can you just, like, take me seriously for one second?” Shelby snaps, almost startling Toni. Usually, Toni is the first one to snap, to get actually mad.
She raises her hands in defense, not saying a word. Not because she doesn’t want to, but because she has no idea what’s happening.
“Or do you hate me so much, you can’t even have a single conversation with me?” Shelby goes on.
“I don’t hate you.”
It slips out before Toni can think about it and seemingly catches Shelby off-guard, because she stops talking for a second.
“Really? ‘I need you here, not her. Of all people.’ Sound familiar?”
Toni’s head snaps up. Her text message to Martha. She reaches for her phone, she must have accidentally sent it to Shelby in all the hectic.
“You have some nice fucking shit to say behind my back,” she says. For the first time, hurt shines through all the layers of anger that coat her voice.
“I don’t — Shelby, come on. I didn’t mean that.”
“But you said it,” Shelby stares at her, then closes her eyes. She takes a deep breath, “And here I thought we were actually — friends. Or something.”
“Look, I was stressed and nervous and I just wanted Martha to be there. It wasn’t personal, and I wasn’t thinking,” Toni says, standing up again and taking a step in Shelby’s direction.
“Sounded pretty personal to me,” Shelby spits. “Why do I even try with you when you’re just —”
“When I’m what? Tell me, Shelby, what am I?”
“You fight everyone around you. You lash out, even at your friends, even at Martha, and just expect everyone to be fine with it. I don’t know why I thought —,” she cuts herself off, or maybe Toni interrupts her. She’s not sure.
“I don’t expect anyone to be anything. It’s my shit, alright, and if that is a problem for you, fuck off,” Toni bites back.
Only after she closes her mouth she realizes that she just did exactly the thing Shelby accused her of doing. Lose control. Lash out. Go off like a fucking bomb. Call it what you want.
“You can’t — Toni, you can’t go around hurting people and pretend it’s none of your business,” Shelby says, crossing her arms in front of her chest.
“I don’t need a fucking lecture from you! I’m sorry about what I said, I really am, but apart from that, I’m not sure what you want me to say,” Toni says after having taken a deep breath.
“I don’t want you to say anything. But maybe you should think before you do shit that hurts others,” Shelby says quietly.
“Okay,” Toni sighs, “I’ll try. Whatever. Are we good?”
She looks at Toni with surprise written on her face. “I guess so.” After a second, she adds, “Do you need a ride to that diner thing?”
“No, I’m fine. Thanks.”
She’ll just take the bus back to Martha’s house. She’s not hungry anymore anyway.
Martha has a migraine, the reason why she left the game early, so Toni slips into her room through the cracked door silently, making sure no light comes in.
“How was the game?” Martha asks, turning to her side.
“Good,” Toni smiles and settles down on her mattress, “We won. I got two free shots and they didn’t catch up afterwards. How’s your head?”
“Fine,” she says, “Took a tylenol earlier. I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”
“Don’t worry about it, really. Not your fault. I’m sorry I made you feel bad about it,” Toni sighs. She rolls onto her stomach, hugging her pillow under her head. The fabric is soft against her skin, and she only now notices how exhausted she is.
“Hold on,” Martha sits up, “Are you apologizing to me? Toni Shalifoe, every time I think I figured you out, you surprise me.”
She’s clearly being over dramatic on purpose, but it still brings the thing Shelby said earlier back up.
“Shut up. I apologize all the time.”
Martha throws her a look that clearly says ‘ Yeah, sure ’.
“I do,” she insists, but it sounds whiney.
It’s not exactly the truth, is the thing. Her track record of apologizing isn’t the best, and if you excluded all the times she apologized and didn’t actually mean it, it’s even worse. There’s no reason or rhyme to why she doesn’t, much like there isn’t much of that to anything she does.
“I am sorry, though,” Toni adds, more serious now.
Maybe it’s time she starts owning up to shit.
“It’s okay. Besides, Shelby was there, so you did have some support.”
“Yeah,” she draws out, mind going back to what happened in the locker room.
“What did you do, T?” Martha’s voice is resigned, but a chuckle underlines her tone.
Toni turns to look at the ceiling. “We fought.”
“ Shocker .”
“No, this time was different. I said something stupid and it pissed her off, but it wasn’t — not just insults and banter this time, you know? She seemed actually hurt.” Toni’s mind winds back to Shelby in the too bright light of the locker rooms, that look in her eye and the quiver in her voice.
Martha is quiet, the only sound filling the air is the rattling of the heater, so Toni starts talking again, if only to fill the silence. “I don’t understand her. Like, at all.”
“Is that why you’re so obsessed with her? Trying to figure her out?” Martha asks with a shit-eating grin.
She groans. “I’m not .”
“Oh, but you are.”
“I’m not having this conversation with you again.”
“You know what they say; teasing is a sign of affection,” Martha chirps.
Toni sits up abruptly. “One: No one ever said that. Two: What are you even trying to say?”
“Nothing. Just — Have you ever thought about why you two are at each other’s throat all the time? That the reason is maybe not that you can’t stand the other but that there’s some sort of — I don’t know, chemistry?” she asks. Something has shifted, she’s not teasing anymore or making fun of Toni, she’s picking her words carefully and looks at Toni with that concerned look.
Toni hasn’t. Or maybe she has and then always brushed it aside.
This can’t be it, though.
There obviously is tension between them, no one can deny that, but it’s not because of attraction . That would be ridiculous.
Shelby is as annoying as it gets. She’s so —
Toni realizes, then, that she can’t come up with why she finds Shelby so infuriating. In the beginning, it was her accent and her speeches about religion and her constant optimism. But now she knows it’s not the entire picture.
The belief in God and her blinding positivity hold everything in place Shelby wants people to see. She wants them to see the person that is in a good mood and laughs a lot and is easy to talk to, a person you could be friends with.
Someone who will wear their hair down because you once drunkenly told her you hated her ponytail.
Under all that, though, there is what happened with her parents, how she hasn’t seen her siblings in months and the battles she’s fighting with coming to terms with who she is and accepting that person.
Toni doesn’t want to think about what other demons might be buried there, ones that she doesn’t know about.
And, let’s be honest, the texan accent is hot, if you think about it.
So. Maybe there is some truth to Martha’s words. Not that Toni is going to say that out loud, but. Yeah.
Over the following weeks, Martha develops the very pesky habit of teasing Toni about having a crush on Shelby (she keeps denying it) and mentioning that she ‘called it’ months ago.
Usually, Toni wouldn’t mind the comments and jabs coming from Martha. They’re best friends, no, sisters, and have definitely said worse things to each other than that, but it’s just—
Shelby seems to catch on without Martha telling her anything (Toni made sure of that. So, maybe she’s not being as subtle about any of this as she’d like to be). And she makes a hobby out of driving Toni literally insane, at least it comes across as that.
She’ll catch Toni looking at her for a second too long for it to be a passing glance, and wink at her. Or, during lunch, she’ll sit way too close to her, their legs pushed together and will let her finger dance over Toni’s knee, so absentmindedly that it seems like she doesn’t even realize she’s doing it. And there are those looks . Like they’re the only ones in on some secret.
It’s frustrating and annoying and so damn on brand for Shelby, it’s ridiculous. It leaves Toni’s heart racing every single time.
And maybe Toni would act on it, if she had any opportunity to. She’s not exactly shy, and the thought of shutting Shelby up by kissing her during an argument definitely has crossed her mind, but they haven’t seen each other outside of school at all and since their Spanish paper is long handed in, there’s not really any reason to.
Except the one where Toni thinks about Shelby almost every night before she falls asleep.
It’s not really a reason she could tell Shelby about. Without completely losing what is left of her dignity, that is.
“You know you could just ask her out, right?” Martha says one day when one of Toni’s frustrated groans apparently distracts her from the essay she’s writing.
“Right. Definitely not gonna do that,” Toni grumbles. She tells Martha that she’d rather not embarrass herself like that, but it’s more than that. She’s not sure where Shelby’s at with the entire gay thing, and she’s not about to put even more pressure on her.
“Why am I always the one getting you to talk to pretty girls,” Martha sighs, pulling out her phone.
Toni scrambles to her feet, “What are you doing?”
“I am going to parent trap you.”
“Parent trapping doesn’t work if you tell me about it. Also, stop.”
Martha grins and shrugs, holding the phone to her ear without breaking eye contact. “Hi, yeah, Shelby, it’s me,” she says sweetly.
Toni stares at her and waves her hands around, motioning her to stop. She doesn’t.
“Oh, nothing. I just was wondering if you wanted to go grab dinner with me and Toni tonight,” she says and pausing as she listens to something Shelby is saying. “Yeah, my mom is out of town.”
“Bernice is literally in the living room right now. I can hear the TV,” Toni says exasperatedly, but Martha shuts her up with a pointed look.
“Perfect. Okay, we’ll meet you there. I still have to finish that essay for history, so …”
After that, the conversation turns to school and Toni stops listening.
“Are you planning on chaperoning, or…?” Toni asks as soon as Martha hangs up.
“No, silly. But it would’ve been weird if I called her to tell her that you want to get dinner with her, wouldn’t it?”
“‘S weird enough as it is,” she grumbles, wrapping her arms around herself. This is going great already.
“You’re a literal toddler,” Martha remarks. “Go shower, idiot. You stink anyway.”
“I’ll have you know that I smell fabulous. All the time,” Toni grins, but gets up and grabs her towel anyway.
Under the shower, as the hot water hits her shoulders and massages her scalp, she thinks about Shelby. How she used to think so many bad things about her, and how Shelby proved every single one of them wrong.
Oh, how the tables have turned.
When she comes back into Martha’s room with damp curls and only in underwear, her towel wrapped around her shoulders, Martha has finished writing her essay and is sitting on Toni’s mattress, a pile of clothes next to her.
“What are you doing, Mom?” Toni asks slowly, closing the door behind her.
“I’m not going to let you wear another outfit consisting of basketball shorts over leggings,” Martha states.
“First of all, rude. Second of all, you’re not actually my mom and this is not actually a date. You know that, right?”
Martha throws a pair of faded out jeans at her. “Shut up and get dressed.”
She does, if only to get her best friend off her back. Kindly enough, she’s allowed to pick the top out herself — if only under the condition of it not being a tank top, because that apparently is a sin now — so she picks her favorite green crew neck.
They meet Shelby in front of the diner. She must have been early, since she’s leaning against her truck, typing something into her phone.
“I almost froze to death. And I’m hungry. Can we go inside?” she asks as soon as she spots them walking in her direction, pushing herself off her car.
“Hello to you too,” Toni grins. “I didn’t take you for the hangry kind of person.”
Shelby rolls her eyes. It’s easy to slip into their usual routine of teasing each other and looking for every opportunity to get a jab in sideways.
Before they even order their drinks, Martha looks at her phone and excuses herself afterwards (although she clearly didn’t get a text that her goldfish died. She doesn’t even have a goldfish).
Toni stares at her as she walks through the front doors of the diner. She turns back to Shelby, looks at her. Scratches her eyebrow. “So, Marty is a terrible liar.”
A laugh bursts out of Shelby, and she nods, “Yeah, no shit.”
“In my defense, this was entirely her idea,” Toni says. She feels the strong urge to bury her head in her arms. On the other hand, it was her fault for believing Martha could be subtle about something.
“I figured that when I heard you say that her mom is home,” Shelby grins and bites her lip.
God. She’s going to be the death of Toni. She’ll have Martha put ‘ Here lies Toni Shalifoe. She died as she lived, staring at pretty girls until her heart stopped working. ’ Or something like that.
“Yeah. You weren’t supposed to hear that one,” she says.
“Okay, I vote we ignore that this,” Shelby circles her hand over the table, “was our best friend’s idea and get some food, because I’m seriously gonna pass out in, like, seven minutes.”
So they do, and once the initial awkwardness passes, Toni feels herself relax a little.
Especially because Shelby devours her burger like it’s nothing, and then starts stealing fries off of Toni’s plate.
Toni slaps her hand away with a stray straw. “Leave my food alone, would you?”
“Do you want to deal with a hangry Shelby again?” she asks, already reaching for another fry. Toni lets her, mostly because the way her teasing smile reaches her eyes distracts her, not because she actually wants to share.
“Thank you, shrimp,” Shelby grins.
And. Toni alway thought of Shelby’s eyes as green, and in bad lighting they may look like that, but now she notices that they’re actually the color of honey, a dark gold.
“Aren’t you, like, deadly allergic to shellfish?” she manages to get out and rip her eyes away from Shelby’s.
“How do you even know that?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugs, trying her best not to blush (she fails), “You once told me that story about you almost biting it at your cousin’s birthday party, or something.”
“Wait, have you actually been listening to me all this time, pretending not to?” Shelby asks, grinning, and shoves two more fries into her mouth. By now, Toni doesn’t even bother anymore to stop her.
“Don’t let it get to your head, Miss Texas.”
“Miss Minnesota now,” Shelby says.
“You’re doing pageants here?”
“Not really, uhm,” she looks down and crosses her arms, “I stopped when I moved. It’s expensive, you know, and a lot of work.”
“Did you really like doing all of that?” Toni asks.
“Yeah. The pressure is a lot, but it’s still fun. I like wearing fancy dresses and performing. Sue me.”
“No, I’m not — I’m not trying to shit on you, or anything. I just don’t really get it, to be honest.”
“Well,” Shelby says and drags a fry to the puddle of ketchup on her plate, “I don’t really understand basketball either, so.”
Toni watches her and shrugs. It kind of is the same, she supposes.
By the time they have paid for their food and walk out to the parking lot, it’s pitch black outside and a cold wind is blowing through the streets.
“I think I need a ride,” Toni says, her hands buried in the pockets of her jacket, “You know, since Martha’s goldfish died and she’s probably too busy grieving to come and pick me up.”
“Right, her goldfish,” Shelby laughs. “I almost forgot about that. I bet she’s real sad.”
They both chuckle lightly, and walk the rest to Shelby’s car in silence. Gravel crunches under the soles of their sneakers. Between them, there is a considerable amount of space, and to any stranger, they’d probably look like every other pair of friends.
But it feels like the air is buzzing between them, loaded with sparks of electricity. Toni’s throat is weirdly dry, too, and she can’t come up with anything to say, no matter how hard she tries. It’s not something that she experiences often. Most of the time, she has more trouble with shutting up than with talking.
“Hey, uhm,” she turns around before opening the passenger door of the car, “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry for what I said during the basketball game. It was a shitty thing of me to say, and I should have been glad that —”
She doesn’t get to finish her sentence.
Shelby’s hands cup her face before she can, their bodies so close together, Toni completely loses her train of thoughts. It’s overwhelming, really, and she freezes for a second, but then her hands find Shelby’s waist underneath her jacket.
She notices how her own fingers hold on to the soft fabric of Shelby’s shirt and she takes a deep breath to calm herself down.
“‘You sure?” she asks quietly.
Their faces are already so close together, she can feel Shelby’s breath on her skin and their noses almost touch.
The dark washes out the details of Shelby’s face, but Toni can make out her nod anyway, curt but sure.
In the end, Toni doesn’t remember who kisses whom first, and it doesn’t really matter either. Fact is, she’s kissing Shelby Goodkind in a parking lot in the middle of winter, and her heart races in her chest.
A song flashes through Toni’s brain, one that she has listened to a million times, never quite grasping the concept behind it. And she smells like lemongrass and sleep, she tastes like apple juice and peach. You would find her in a Polaroid picture, and she — means everything to me.
Maybe she gets it now. Now that she’s found out that Shelby kisses exactly like that song sounds over headphones at three in the morning; softly and caring and with intent behind every movement.
Toni smiles despite herself, and Shelby backs off only far enough to ask, “What?”
“Nothing,” she huffs out softly, shaking her head as she looks at her. Staring would probably be the more fitting word.
If someone had told her six months ago that this would happen, she would have called the ambulance for them.
And then she starts to laugh quietly, her head falling forward onto Shelby’s shoulder, and Shelby starts laughing too and wraps her arms around her.
The Waterboys are playing quietly in the background on the ride home, mixed with Phil Collins and Taylor Swift songs. Toni thinks she might never figure that girl out.
Street lights pass by outside of the window, and Shelby doesn’t talk much, but she’s smiling and Toni reaches out slowly, watching for change on Shelby’s face, until she finds Shelby’s hand that is resting on her thigh.
When Toni slips her hand into hers and entangles their fingers, she squeezes her hand.
They pull up at the curb in front of Martha’s house and Shelby puts the car in park.
It’s silent for a minute, then the light on the front porch is switched on, and they both laugh.
“Bernice gotta Bernice,” Toni says.
Under different circumstances, she’d maybe be annoyed. Instead, she has to bite back a smile at the thought of Bernice treating her like she’s her actual daughter and not just Martha’s friend who had bad luck in the lottery of life.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?” Shelby says, but it sounds more like a question, so Toni nods as she steps onto the pavement. “Tomorrow sounds good.”
On her way to the house, she turns back around once. Shelby hasn’t started the engine back up yet and is watching. Toni waves, smiling, and is glad that the darkness of the night is covering up the blush that is sitting high on her cheeks.
“You look oddly cheerful,” Martha says when Toni enters her room, toeing off her sneakers before she squeezes onto Martha’s bed next to her.
“You too. Considering your goldfish just died,” Toni says instead. She knows the grin on her lips is snarky.
“You should thank me, you know. I am once again handling your relationships for you.”
Toni throws a stuffed animal at her face, “‘S not like I asked you to. But thanks. Whatever.”
“So, how did it go?”
“I’m not telling you,” Toni groans, rolling over and burying her face in Martha’s pillow. There is no need for her to see the grin on Toni’s face that she can’t seem to hide.
“What, you don’t kiss and tell?”
“No one said anything about kissing,” she says, her words are muffled by the pillow.
“Your dopey grin did when you walked in here.”
“Oh my God, shut up. Shut all the way up.”
They don’t have any classes together the next day, but Toni gets a text from Shelby the period before lunch.
Meet me in front of the library.
Toni texts back with her hands under the desk, no phones in class.
But once the bell rings, she shoulders her backpack and pushes her way through the stream of students. Most of them are on their way down the stairs to the cafeteria and since Toni isn’t exactly a giant, it takes her longer than it usually would to get to the third floor.
“Did you crawl up here, hotwheels?” Shelby asks. She’s sitting on top of one of the round tables that are in front of the library with her legs dangling in the air.
“That one doesn’t even make sense,” Toni comments. It’s kind of a relief to know that their dynamic hasn’t really changed. “What are we even doing up here? I’m starving and the cafeteria is literally on the other side of school.”
Shelby hops off the table, the soles of her white chuck taylors squeaking against the floor. “You’re such a baby,” she says, apparently waiting for Toni to follow her.
So she does. Follows her into a small room at the side of the library that Toni has never been in, didn’t even know it existed.
“What’s this?” Toni asks as she looks around the room. Two double seaters pushed against opposite walls, dusty blankets in one corner and a stray desks with three chairs under the tiny window.
“This,” Shelby extends her arms and spins in a circle once, “is the old teacher’s lounge. Well, they have two and since the new one is bigger and nicer, no one uses this one anymore.”
Toni just gapes at her for a few beats.
“How do you even know that?”
Seriously, this girl knows more about their school after seven months than Toni does after almost four years.
“I have my sources,” she says, shrugging. A small blush creeps up her neck, coloring her cheeks a faint pink.
All Toni can do is stare at how Shelby’s biting down on her lower lip, in a gesture that seems to ask, ‘Is this okay?’
It’s very much okay. So okay in fact that Toni crosses the room and kisses her, like she’s been thinking about ever since last night in the parking lot.
“This is okay, right?” she asks, breaking contact for a second.
Shelby just pulls her closer again, hands settling on Toni’s hips, and kisses her back, all mouth and tongue and the soft touch of her fingers right above the waistband of Toni’s jeans.
The skin of Shelby’s neck is warm as Toni lets her hand wander upwards.
“Hold on,” Toni breathes. Shelby backs off immediately, looking at her questioningly. “Am I allowed to touch your hair or is that, like, a holy grail?”
“I literally hate you so much,” she replies, pressing their mouths back together.
Toni assumes it’s a yes.
Kissing Shelby is sort of like arguing with her. It’s teasing and addictive and infuriating and it leaves her wanting more.
Everything else fades into the background, time and space and whatever else there is, the only thing that is left is the taste of Shelby in her own mouth and the easy rhythm of giving and taking and breaths and giggles.
“One more thing,” Toni asks when she finally manages to partially clear her head of the fog that has covered all of her thoughts. Shelby rolls her eyes, but smiles. “Did you only lure me up here to make out?”
“Would that be a problem?”
“No,” Toni decides. “Not at all.”
“No, but actually. Uhm,” Shelby raises her head to her forehead, scratching at her hairline. She falters, obviously grasping for words.
“Hey,” Toni says and softly squeezes Shelby’s hips, “It’s okay. We can do or not do whatever you want.”
Shelby closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, in and out. “I’m just — I’ve never really done this before, you know? Whatever this is.”
Toni moves her hand, cups her face, thumb grazing over her chin. “I don’t care, don’t worry. And this,” she moves her other hand around and lets it fall back to Shelby’s waist, “can be whatever you want it to be. I’m cool with anything.”
Except, Toni thinks, it would probably kill me if this doesn’t mean anything to you.
Because, after less than twenty-four hours, she’s completely invested in this. She’s in too deep, too fast, and she knows it, but she finds it too hard to actually care. Looking at Shelby right now, with her honey eyes and shy smile, she refuses to let the thought of something bad happening occur.
After all the shit she’s been through, she thinks she deserves to believe that something could genuinely be good.
Shelby turns her head slightly, presses a quick and soft kiss to the palm of Toni’s hand. She has to close her eyes, holding her breath, hoping for something that isn’t a rejection.
“I want this to be real,” Shelby says quietly, hesitantly. “Not just some stupid makeout during lunch.”
The thing Shelby said back during her first month here pops back up in Toni’s mind, it’s a stupid thought. ‘I do real, I do family, I do Jesus, I do pageants.’ Seems like little Miss Texas stays true to her words.
She doesn’t say that, though, doubts it would do any good in this situation. Also, her heart is hammering in her chest, bringing her back into this tiny room.
“I’d like that,” she whispers.
Then, the bell rings, signaling the end of lunch.
In her next class, Toni’s stomach complains about being empty multiple times, but it’s not enough to erase the ‘dopey smile,’ as Martha would put it, from her face.
After a team vote, Coach Jones agrees to keep Toni in the position of the captain since Lian is still recovering from her injured ankle. She watches from the sidelines though, talking to Coach about everything from technique to strategy.
A few months ago, it probably would’ve pissed Toni off, but now that she’s actually listening to what Lian has to say, she realizes she has some fair points.
Not all of them, of course, but it’s a start. It seems like she’s better at spotting things from the bench than she is on the court.
“Okay, yeah,” Toni nods, wiping sweat from her brow. Her breathing is ragged, and her muscles are burning. All the other girls are already back in the locker room, but she stayed back to have a talk with Coach and Lian. “That’s good. Let’s do it.”
“Okay,” Coach smiles, “See you tomorrow. Now go shower, it’s time you get home.”
Practice ran late today and outside, the sky is already darkening. Toni can’t wait for winter to be over.
“Toni, we’re going to the diner now, d’you wanna come with us?” Amanda asks. She and her other teammates have almost all changed already and are just sitting around now, chatting.
“Sorry,” Toni replies, pulling her sweaty shirt over her head, “Can’t. I already have plans.”
“You know you’re a shit captain, right? You never hang out with us anymore,” Amanda crosses her arms and pouts.
Toni laughs, “Fuck you. We won the last two games and I’ve literally spent two evenings this week alone with you lot.” She pulls her clean sweatshirt out of her bag, puts it on.
“You could always bring your girlfriend. It’s not like it’s team exclusive,” Reign chimes in.
Toni freezes and turns to her slowly. “What makes you think I have a girlfriend?”
“Do you really want me to answer that question?” Reign asks, laughing.
She shrugs, busying herself with tying her shoes. Reign isn’t entirely wrong, but Toni isn’t so sure that Shelby would be comfortable with other people knowing. They haven’t talked about it much, but she has a feeling.
“One: You always disappear right after practice and games. Two: The few times you don’t, you’re basically glued to your phone. Three: I’ve known you since freshman year. If you think you can keep secrets from me, you’re wrong,” Regan lists, counting the points with her fingers. She smiles a winning smile.
“Four: You’re a shit liar,” Amanda adds.
“Okay, I hate all of you,” Toni says, wrestling a hair tie out of the monstrosity that is her hair, and combing through it with her fingers.
“Just tell us,” Reigns says, “We’ll be super nice to her. That is, if she doesn’t go to Crestview.”
Crestview High has been their rival school forever, they are always head to head in basketball and football.
Toni rolls her eyes, stifling a laugh. “Goodbye.”
Outside, the air is pleasantly cold after a long afternoon in the dry air of the gym. She spots Shelby sitting on a bench next to the entrance, wind blowing to her hair. Wrapped in a down coat and a pink beanie, she looks positively adorable.
“Hi you,” Toni grins as she stops in front of her.
Shelby looks up, her cheeks are flushed from the cold. “You’re late, smurfette. I thought maybe you fell into the toilet and couldn’t get out.”
“You’re the worst,” Toni laughs and pulls her up by the elbow. “I’m sorry, though. Coach made us do extra drills.”
“Is that why you smell so bad?”
“You know what, I don’t like you.”
Behind them, she can hear the voices of her teammates coming outside. Shelby must notice it too, because she inches minimally away from Toni.
Toni doesn’t say a word, just smiles at her reassuringly.
And it’s okay, it’s all going to be okay.
It’s pitch black in Martha’s room. It tells Toni that, really, she shouldn’t even be awake, she should be fast asleep.
From Martha’s bed comes a muffled groan, “Turn it off.”
Right. Under Toni’s pillow, her phone is buzzing. It must have startled her awake.
Her hand searches for it until she finds it. She wants to turn it off, but at the last second, she realizes that it’s not an alarm she set on accident, but an incoming call.
“Shelby?” she whispers, voice hoarse and sits up sleepily.
“I’m outside your house,” she replies.
“Hold on,” Toni mumbles. Her brain isn’t up to speed yet — she’s a slow starter, sue her — but she manages to scramble out of bed and put on a sweatshirt.
Shelby is sitting on the steps to the front porch when Toni tiptoes outside. Although sitting might be the wrong word. She’s crouching, arms wrapped around herself.
Toni hangs up and sits down next to her, shoulders bumping together. “Are you okay?”
It’s the stupidest question she could have asked. It’s the middle of the night, and Shelby is sitting on the Blackburn’s front porch like she’s protecting herself from a tornado. Of course she’s not okay.
“I don’t think —” She falters, her voice quivers. “I don’t think I can do this,” she tries again. The words hang mid-air, suspended.
“Do what?” Toni asks carefully. It’s obvious, but still. She reaches out to touch Shelby’s arm, and she lets her. Toni takes it as a good sign.
“This,” Shelby says, finally looking up. Her eyes are red-rimmed and watery. She stares at Toni for a second, then shakes her hand and averts her gaze again.
“Because— I’m not a good person.” It’s so quiet, Toni almost misses it.
But she doesn’t, and the words crash right into the middle of her heart, shattering into a million pieces.
“Shelby. You’re not a bad—” she starts, but is interrupted.
“I’m not a good person, and I don’t want to hurt you,” Shelby says, more fiercely than before.
“Hey, stop,” Toni says, “You’re spiraling. I get you’re scared and this is hard for you, but you’re not a bad person. I know that, all right?”
“I’ve hurt people before,” Shelby says sharply. It’s like she’s trying to push Toni away with her words, but she stays where she is, with one arm wrapped around Shelby’s shoulders.
“We all have some weird shit buried down there. Me, and you, and everyone else too. There’s bad in every single one of us, Shelby.”
“You don’t know what I’ve done.”
“No, I don’t,” Toni says decidedly, moving away a bit to be able to look at Shelby’s face. “I don’t, and it’s up to you if or when and how you want to tell me. But I have hurt people before, too. I’ve hurt
before, and you still don’t think that makes me a bad person.”
Shelby shakes her head and her tone is drenched in desperation. “You don’t understand. That’s different.”
“It’s not. Shelby, you’re maybe the kindest person I’ve ever met. Fuck, your criteria for good songs is literally that they should make you feel good. You’re a good person, I don’t care what that brain of yours is telling you.”
“I’m not all that, Toni. In my head, it feels like this super thin wall, holding back all this — ugliness .”
“You know, all these things that you’re telling yourself right now? You don’t believe them because they are true, but because that’s what you’ve been told your entire life. And, like, look at me, okay?”
Shelby actually looks up at that, the desperation in her eyes has ebbed out.
“I don’t have all these messed up anger issues because I want to be angry,” Toni continues, “I have them because life fucked me over one too many times and left me like that. The things that are bad in us aren’t bad because we made them so, they are bad because others did that to us. It’s not your fault.”
At that, Shelby starts crying. It’s like a dam broke, and everything comes pouring out of her at once.
Shit , Toni thinks.
She wraps herself around Shelby’s shaking body, holding her tight as the tears run down Shelby’s face.
“It’s all going to be okay, yeah?” She whispers. “I’m right here. I promise it’s going to be okay.”
Toni doesn’t know how much time goes by until Shelby’s breathing evens out again and she stops shaking. All Toni knows is that she never wants to see her like that again. All the hurt is obvious in Shelby’s eyes, in her voice and in the way she’s holding herself right now.
Maybe the wall she was talking about isn’t holding back ugliness, maybe it holds back all the hurt and trauma of growing up in a household like hers.
Anger flares up in Toni, hot and itchy, and she thinks that if she ever met Shelby’s father, she’d probably punch him.
“I’m sorry,” Shelby says quietly, but Toni shakes her head, “Don’t be. I’m here for you, okay? Whenever you need me.”
“Thank you,” she whispers and leans forward, softly kissing her.
Toni can taste the tears when she kisses her back. She runs her hands through Shelby’s long hair and thinks about how she wishes she could single handedly take all of it away, everything that hurts.
She can’t, she knows that, but she kisses her like she can, and maybe it’s enough for now. It’s a start, at least.
Weeks go by, and finally the days get longer and the trees outside the school start carrying green leaves again. There are only two basketball games left for this season. The half-finals and the finals.
They have a good chance at getting through to the finals, especially since Lian is back. She and Toni are better at working together now, making for a strong offense.
“Let’s go, girls,” Coach Claps her hands, “One more round!”
They’ve been doing sprints for forever, and Toni has a feeling her lungs might explode. She leans forward on her knees, trying to catch her breath.
The sound of someone else entering the gym makes Toni turn around. It’s Shelby, wearing a light blue skirt combined with a white top that instantly makes Toni want to die. She’d maybe run over to her to say hi if she didn’t feel like throwing up right now.
It’s sort of odd that she’s here, making herself comfortable on the bleachers, she usually waits outside or in her car when they have plans after practice.
She doesn’t get to think about it any more, though, because Lian claps her on the back, “You’re up, Shalifoe.”
Toni groans, “I want to die,” but gets into place on the floor next to Amanda, lying flat on their stomachs.
Coach blows into her whistle, and they push themselves up to their feet, speeding up their steps. If Toni was less competitive, she might have just done her best and left it at that, but instead, she concentrates on the wall at the other end of the court, on the way her feet hit the floor rhythmically and on her breaths. In and out.
About half a minute later, she sinks to the floor, pulse metallic in her ears.
Coach gives them a moment to catch their breaths, then calls them back to the middle of the court.
Once she’s finished her list of announcements and motivational speech, she sends them off to the showers and Toni jogs over to where Shelby is sitting on the bleachers. She ignores the poignant looks Amanda and Reign throw her.
“You’re as red as a tomato,” Shelby offers as a greeting, getting up.
“I feel like I should tell you that insults are not a love language,” Toni says and takes a gulp of water from her bottle.
“No one said it was,” Shelby grins and hops off the bench. “Maybe I just like insulting you.”
“I didn’t doubt that for a second, believe me,” Toni laughs. She wants to add something else when Reign appears beside her. “Hi, Shelby,” she smiles a sweet smile, and Toni wants to smack the back of her head. “T, we’re going to get some food at the diner. You guys should come.”
“Uhm,” Toni says, “We’re actually—”
Shelby interrupts her, “Sure, we’ll come. I’m hungry anyway.”
Toni stares at her. Just a few weeks ago Shelby had told her that she wasn’t sure she wanted others (apart from Martha, obviously) to know about them.
“Perfect. I’ll see you there,” Reign grins like she’s won the lottery, and Toni rolls her eyes at her.
“We’re going?” she asks Shelby once Reign is out of ear shot, her surprise is still apparent.
“I mean, yeah,” she replies with a shrug. “Unless you don’t want to.”
“No, I want to. I just didn’t know you wanted to.”
“Go shower, Thumbelina. I’ll wait for you in the car, yeah?”
They go to the diner Toni and Shelby went to that night Martha’s goldfish died. It’s not like they have much of a choice, though, there are only two diners in town and ever since they all got food poisoning after a game at the other one, they avoid it at all costs.
Jane was the first one there and got them the best table; the one in a nook in a more hidden corner of the restaurant but within full view of the TVs, so they can still yell at whatever game is being shown.
Toni spots them immediately from the entrance, it’s the loudest and most chaotic table. She turns to Shelby, “We can still leave, if you want to.”
“No, I’m good,” she smiles, and then does something Toni wasn’t expecting. She carefully slides her hand in hers, intertwining their fingers and squeezing her hand.
“I want this to be real, yeah? Just hanging out in my room doesn’t feel very real to me,” she says.
Toni wants to kiss her right then and there, but she settles on squeezing her hand too, and lets Shelby take the lead to their table.
“This is not how it works,” Shelby’s laugh rings through her aunt’s kitchen, “You’re literally doing it all wrong.”
Toni scoffs, “There is no right and wrong to cracking eggs. Now, move, I’m trying to woo you with my cooking skills.”
“One, you’re going to get eggshells into your batter, and I’m not going to help you. Two, making breakfast from pancake mix is hardly considered cooking.”
“I’m an excellent cook, thank you very much. Also, you can go make your own breakfast if you don’t want my delicious pancakes.”
Toni, of course, gets eggshells into the batter, and Shelby, of course, takes a spoon and fishes them out.
“Don’t say it, I don’t want to hear it,” Toni grumbles.
Shelby rolls her eyes and laughs, “I wasn’t going to.” She kisses the tip of Toni’s nose, “You’re cute when you’re frustrated.”
“Great, that totally is what I wanted to hear,” she protests, but her facade cracks before she can even get the entire sentence out, and she presses a quick kiss to the corner of Shelby’s mouth.
The sound of a key being turned in a lock comes from the front door, and two beats later Shelby’s aunt appears in the kitchen, “Good morning, girls. How was your game night?”
“Good. Thank you for letting us use your living room,” Toni replies.
Ms. Goodkind works as an ER technician at the local hospital and gave her okay for Shelby to host a game night with some of her friends last night while she was working a night shift.
“Of course, don’t even worry about it. Although, I wouldn’t say no to a couple of those pancakes as payment,” she says, setting down her bag on the kitchen table.
Shelby gets the milk from the fridge and asks, “How was work?”
She launches into a long winded story about a group of drunk teenagers while Shelby and Toni exchange secret glances and finish up the pancakes.
As they sizzle in the pan, Toni thinks about families. How she never really had one, and how the Blackburns came along and basically adopted her. And how she feels at home in Martha’s room, with the glow in the dark stars and messy shelves.
This also feels like home, she realizes. Standing in her girlfriend’s kitchen in basketball shorts and one of Shelby’s hoodies, fighting over how to crack eggs and talking to her aunt about underage drinking.
She suddenly remembers something.
Shelby turns around, the spatula in her hands, “What’s up?”
“Do you remember that first day we met? At the gas station?”
“Why were you buying a whole bottle of vodka?”
Shelby laughs, “Is that what keeps you up at night?”
“I sent her to buy some, I know those guys at the gas station don’t give a single damn about who they sell their stuff to,” Miss Goodkind jumps in, “And I use it to clean the bathrooms. I can’t stand the smell of chemical cleaners.”
“What’d you think I was buying it for?” Shelby asks, crossing her arms.
Toni shrugs, “I don’t know. Maybe you’re a secret alcoholic? I didn’t know you.” She feels herself flush as Shelby and her aunt laugh.
“Marty is right,” Shelby laughs, hugging her from behind, “You really were Malfoy-level obsessed with me.”
Toni wrangles herself out of Shelby’s embrace. “I hate you.”
“You sure do,” she giggles and continues flipping the pancakes.
Toni watches her, how her lip gets caught between her teeth as she concentrates on the pan in front of her. Her laughter is still visible in her eyes, and her hair messy bun is slowly falling apart from a night of hardly sleeping.
And, Toni doesn’t even know if it’s the first time or not, but she thinks, I love you.
She’s not ready to say it yet, and she might not be for a while, but she knows it. The feeling sits clear and bright in her heart, underlining every beat of it.