Martha is the next one to find out, after Fatin.
It is quick—so quick that Toni almost doesn’t notice Martha noticing—and it happens seconds after Rachel is pulled in from the water, mostly by Nora, and there is a bloody, mangled chunk of flesh where Rachel’s hand used to be, and Nora is covered in blood but Toni isn’t sure whether it’s her own or Rachel’s or a mixture of both.
Toni would be expected to be the tough one, especially standing next to a girl like Shelby, a pageant princess who on the face of it looks like she wouldn’t hurt a fly. But in reality, Toni is completely not prepared to see what she sees, and Shelby hunts and then dismembers her animal kills in her spare time.
So what actually happens is that as the girls rush toward Rachel and Nora in a panic—even Leah, whatever reason she had to be angry momentarily cast aside—Shelby steps away from Toni to help, and Toni immediately doubles over and vomits onto the sand beneath her feet.
And Shelby hesitates. Rachel’s hand isn’t a hand anymore and Shelby hesitates just because Toni has gotten sick at the sight of it, and her pause comes with an uncertain palm on Toni’s back, and suddenly Toni is fumbling to grasp at the material of Shelby’s shirt like it’ll help ground her somehow. Toni can distantly hear someone else throwing up, too, but Shelby doesn’t go to offer them comfort, and it takes about two seconds too long before Shelby thinks with her head instead of her heart and slips through Toni’s fingers to rush over to help with Rachel.
When Toni straightens up and wipes at her mouth, she sees Martha hovering nearby, looking to help Nora once she finally lets the other girls take Rachel away. Her eyes flicker to Toni, and then to Shelby, and Martha knows Toni better than anyone, knows that Toni does not seek comfort from anyone she hasn’t connected deeply with in some way, does not like to be vulnerable unless she’s already been given proof that she can be, and Martha knows how much it means that she had sought out Shelby and that Shelby had obliged her, even momentarily, when Rachel is at risk of dying right there on the beach and Nora may be as well.
Toni looks back at Martha and she knows right away that Martha knows, and that if they manage to make it out of this mess somehow, that they’ll be talking about it the first chance Martha gets to bring it up.
Rachel doesn’t die—thanks to Shelby, who separates the flesh cleanly at the wrist with one precise swing, and Dot, who cauterizes the wound, and then Shelby again, who sews it back up.
But Nora does, maybe.
There had been a gash on her thigh, and they’d treated it just like they’d treated Rachel’s injury; they’d worked late into the night, and then all agreed to watch the twins in singular shifts, but when morning hits Fatin has passed out for maybe half an hour during hers and Nora has vanished. There is still a pool of blood where she’d been laid out on the beach, and Dot screams at Fatin for so long that she loses her voice. Rachel would do worse to Fatin if she could, Toni knows, but she hasn’t even been properly lucid since the attack.
Toni doesn’t have enough information to fill in the blanks regarding Nora’s fate; she only knows that she’d still been there during Shelby’s shift, and then during Toni’s, directly afterward. They’d spent both shifts awake together in secret, sitting mostly in silence on the sand halfway between Nora and Rachel, and Shelby had prayed for a lot of it, her head bowed and her hands clasped, and Toni had not found it comforting but had wished privately that it helped Shelby somehow.
But there had been something like regret in Shelby’s voice, and Toni had looked at her and whispered, “You did the best you could, Shelby. You did so well,” and Shelby had let her hands fall to her sides and her eyes fill with tears.
“I had an awful thought today,” she’d confessed, and then had gathered herself and said, “I sat there stitching her up, and I actually had the quickest thought that it could’ve been you, and then I was relieved that it wasn’t. She could have died today and that was what I thought about instead. Isn’t that so selfish and horrible?”
And Toni had swallowed thickly and then replied, “It makes sense that you’d have a strong personal interest in me keeping my hand, though,” and thankfully it had worked; Shelby had leaned into Toni’s side and laughed through her sobs, and it’d been the first joke Toni had cracked to try to cheer her up—and also their first time making light of this thing between them—but it hadn’t been the last.
Now, in the morning, Nora is gone, and Leah is the only one that isn’t worried for her.
Toni sits through her ramblings along with everyone else, about how something is weird about the island, about how Nora is involved somehow, about how the pit Leah had fallen into had definitely been all Nora’s doing, about how Leah had been high on drugs and had seen her talking to a tree, and Toni can see that even Leah knows how insane it sounds and is just pushing through it anyway in hopes that someone will take her seriously. Only Fatin seems even mildly sympathetic.
Toni thinks that even with Nora gone, they’re going to have to put someone on watch for two girls anyway, because Leah can’t be trusted to do anything other than maybe hurt herself or someone else in her current state. Fatin gets saddled with that job while the other four of them decide to search the island in hopes of finding out what’s happened to Nora, just in case she really had just wandered off in some kind of injury-induced hallucinogenic state, and Toni wants to go with Shelby but winds up paired with Martha and heading west into the woods while Dot and Shelby head east together.
There is tension between them right away, because they both know what Martha wants to ask and they both know that they both know it.
Toni breaks first, just to head it off and get it over with. “I don’t know what I’m allowed to say, Marty.”
“I thought you hated her,” Martha says, and then gets an odd look on her face, like she’s thinking about something she’d have a hard time wrapping her head around, and then asks, “Do you still hate her?”
Toni does a double-take because the idea is so unexpected, coming from Martha, and the idea of Shelby losing her virginity in some sort of hate-fueled, lustful, meaningless encounter is so absurd given how it’d actually happened, how it’d been so soft and gentle and how much they’d had to reassure each other that it was all okay before every line had been crossed.
Toni gets warm thinking about it for a moment and then just says, “No.”
“So you like her now?” Martha presses. “And she likes you?” She sounds like the idea wouldn’t have occurred to her in a million years had she not seen evidence of it with her own eyes, like she can still hardly believe it even though Toni’s words are proof.
“I don’t know what I can say,” Toni repeats, and Martha glances over at her with a tiny smile.
“That’s really sweet of you, Toni,” she says, and there’s just enough of a mocking edge to her tone that Toni scowls and rolls her eyes, aware she’s being teased.
“Fuck off, Marty.”
Martha just keeps smiling to herself as they maneuver over a fallen tree together, and it’s a nice break in the somber mood that has befallen their group, actually, Toni decides. It’s nice to focus on something else, just for a moment—something lighter than what’s happened to Rachel and what they’ve yet to determine has happened to Nora.
But after that, they both leave it be.
Life continues on the island as normally as it can, given that they find no evidence of where Nora has gone, that Rachel is distraught days later when she finally processes what’s happened to both her sister and her hand, and that most of the group is convinced that Leah’s mental state is deteriorating at an alarming rate. They don’t mourn Nora, though—not without a body, not when it’s clear that deep down most of them are holding out hope that something else might explain her disappearance, especially with Leah constantly fueling that hope with her theories about cameras and test subjects. As ridiculous as it is, it’s an alternative explanation, and it causes just enough doubt that they don’t use words like “was” or “had” when they talk about Nora.
Toni tries her best to stay present, to be helpful in the ways she knows how. She gathers wood to keep the fire going, stands ankle-deep in the ocean with a pointed stick to try to catch something for them to eat, and stays up late into the night when she’s ordered by Dot to keep an eye on Leah and Rachel.
But Toni does think that Nora’s dead, privately, and that her body was likely washed away by the tides, and she doesn’t believe that they’re being watched like Leah does, that someone knows where they are and is eventually going to save them, and she’s pretty sure that they’re all going to starve to death on this island at some point, even if it takes a year or two, given that not even a plane flying overhead had spared them from that fate.
So she throws herself into her favorite things to do on the island, when she gets moments to herself: taking running leaps into the spring by the waterfall, staging wrestling matches with Dot and even Rachel, eventually, when she’s finally started to heal enough, both physically and emotionally. Eating the rest of the edibles with Fatin’s help. Shelby.
Shelby initiates it three more times before Toni dares to even sneak her a suggestive look and a sideways nod toward the waterfall, but when she finally does make the first move, Shelby’s up in a second and blurting some excuse about going to look for more lychees, and when Toni suggests she come with her to help, Fatin exchanges a knowing look with Martha—Toni’s positive they’ve had private talks about it, when it’s just the two of them—and smirks a little but says nothing.
“Honestly, I’d have taken ‘Rachel loses a hand to a shark’ on the island bingo card before I’d have ever guessed ‘Toni and Shelby start getting along’,” Dot says, and it’s only been two weeks but Rachel manages the smallest of rueful smiles anyway. Toni notices Leah watching them both suspiciously as they get to their feet.
“Gotta do what we gotta do to survive,” Toni says with a shrug, and Shelby rolls her eyes and shoots her a glare that might look withering to some of the other girls, but Toni’s seen what it looks like when it’s real plenty of times, and she knows this one isn’t remotely the same.
Shelby has this way of kissing and touching her like she’s the most important person in the world in that moment, always—it’s in this reverent, almost worshipping way that Toni hasn’t ever experienced with someone before, and it makes her feel so special and so loved, even though this is only the fifth time, even though they aren’t in love; they barely even know each other in the grand scheme of things. Toni’s nails dig into Shelby’s back and Shelby sounds breathless when she tells her, “Lord, you’re beautiful,” and the things Toni moans out are way too loud when she comes undone in the water just feet away from the falls. And that, as it turns out, is how Leah finds out.
“Oh my god.”
Shelby jerks away from Toni and Toni winces and squeaks out a quiet, “Ow,” and Shelby at least spares her an apologetic look before their eyes find Leah where she’s emerged from the brush by the cliff.
“Were you two just—?”
“No,” Shelby blurts way too defensively, and the pang in Toni’s chest is small but it’s there.
“Actually, we came here to talk to the fucking trees,” Toni cuts in, because as much as she doesn’t care who finds out she knows that it matters to Shelby, and so it fully pisses her off that Leah had almost certainly sought them out on purpose due to her own paranoia and then found them here as a result.
Leah’s eyes narrow. “Fuck you.”
Leah spins on her heel and storms off back into the woods, and Toni’s eyes fall to Shelby, who blinks rapidly at the spot where Leah’d been standing and then recoils from Toni a little. Toni reaches down into the water and tugs her underwear back up as Shelby swims to the edge and pulls herself up and out. “Shelby…”
“I’m fine,” Shelby says, sounding the exact opposite of fine. Toni joins her by the pile of clothes at her side: both of their shirts and shorts, which of course Leah had to have seen, too, as if what they’d been doing hadn’t been obvious enough, given how closely they’d been pressed together and the words and noises Leah’d no doubt overheard from Toni.
“We aren’t doing anything wrong,” Toni tells her, but Shelby flinches away from the hand Toni places on the small of her back and Toni feels like curling up in a ball and crying, a little.
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“You still think it’s a sin,” Toni realizes. A part of her had wondered, but there’d been so much going on around them, and Shelby had seemed willing to keep going, to give this a try and to just be, for a little while, and talking it out any further than they had on the hill had so easily fallen to the wayside in favor of just enjoying each other’s company.
“A lot of things are a sin,” Shelby replies shortly. “I think it’s perfectly fine for me to not want mine aired out in front of everyone.”
And for the first time in over two weeks, Toni feels a flash of the old anger she’d felt toward Shelby burning hot in her chest, taking over her senses and sending words pouring out of her mouth before she can filter them in her head. “You don’t get to touch me like I’m… like that, and tell me I’m beautiful, then act like I’m some dirty thing to be ashamed of afterward. I’m not asking you to wave a flag and throw a fucking parade, or even to tell anyone, I’m just asking you not to hurt me by acting like the idea of anyone knowing you like me completely repulses you.”
Shelby blanches and Toni remembers her words on the cliff, remembers “I’ve hurt people very badly”, and she’s pried enough since to realize that Shelby doesn’t like talking about her past, but this is the first time she’s considered that she isn’t the only girl Shelby’s done things with—not sex, but maybe something less, maybe kissing, or maybe just feelings that were never acted upon, requited or otherwise.
“We’re free here, remember?” she goes on. “It doesn’t have to be like however it was before for you. No one here is judging you.”
Shelby closes her eyes and there’s a long silence that passes between them, while Toni waits for her to say something. She almost thinks she won’t, that Shelby has shut down completely and will refuse to have this conversation, but at last, Shelby says, “When the plane came before, after we kissed, you were cheering and celebrating just like everyone else. You hugged Martha and you didn’t even look at me. If you had, you’d have seen that I was upset. For me, even a place like this is better than home ever was.” Her eyes open and she glares down at the water by their feet. “If Nora’s really gone, I think she had the right idea. I hope I die on this island.”
“We probably will,” Toni admits. “So maybe we should stop pretending like we have all the time in the world and start acting like we don’t.” She bites her lip, watching Shelby mull her words over. “Carpe diem, and all that, you know?”
Shelby turns away from her and doesn’t reply, just starts picking through the clothes pile to retrieve her shirt and her shorts and then starts to pull the former on over her head, but as she tugs the hem down at her waist she looks thoughtful, and Toni lets herself hope that they might be getting somewhere.
Leah doesn’t say anything to the other girls, as angry as she’d been by the waterfall, but three days later, while they’re all sitting around sharing a bottle of vodka by the fire, Shelby clears her throat and says in a way that immediately indicates she has an announcement to make, “Excuse me.”
Six pairs of eyes are on her right away, and Toni is immediately wary from across the fire, because they’ve been drinking—and Shelby certainly isn’t fully sober but her words aren’t slurred, so Toni supposes she can’t be that drunk, either.
“Most of y’all know this anyway,” she goes on, and Toni straightens up instantly, because of course she’d had the fleeting thought when Shelby’d spoken up, had wondered maybe and then dismissed it right away, but it’s clear that Shelby wants to tell the group something and that there aren’t many secret somethings about Shelby that Toni can think of that a few of them know and a few of them don’t. And then Shelby confirms it, with a slight waver in her confident façade, “Toni and I…”
Toni looks around the fire. Dot and Rachel, who are the only ones who don’t know, react very differently: Dot cocks her head to one side in a way that is very reminiscent of a dog, partway through chewing on one of the crackers from a pack they’d found buried in a pocket of Fatin’s suitcase, and Rachel is totally expressionless as she barely raises her eyebrows.
Martha is already smiling, her eyes alight with obvious excitement, Fatin looks like she could really use a bucket of popcorn right about now, and Leah pokes at the fire with a stick and doesn’t even look at Shelby.
And Shelby had started strong, but now she wavers even more, stumbles over her words a little bit, and avoids Toni’s eyes as she tries to keep up the even-keeled, pageant-bright demeanor, “Well, I just thought I’d say—that people should know… because even though we’re all very different, we are, so much—we’ve become so much like a family, I think. Sometimes I think we’re like more than a family—”
“Jesus fucking Christ, Shelby,” Fatin mumbles under her breath, shielding her eyes with a cupped hand to her eyebrows and shaking her head like she’s been overwhelmed with secondhand embarrassment, and Toni considers jumping in for about a half a second and then thinks better of it, because this is probably something Shelby should do on her own, if she’s truly ready for it.
Shelby falters and then just breathes out, “I have something to say.”
“We’re listening, Shelby,” Martha says with a soft smile, and for about the billionth time Toni is thankful that she has such a perfect best friend.
Shelby nods and starts again. “I know that I said some hurtful things. And that… well, I’ve tried to make up for that, and I do think now that maybe… maybe the Lord doesn’t make mistakes.”
Dot chews and swallows. “Shelby, if this is your way of saying you don’t hate gay people anymore, I don’t think you needed to give a whole dramatic speech about it while we’re trying to let loose for once. Toni, you forgive her?” She gestures between Toni and Shelby suggestively, then bites down on another cracker.
Toni opens her mouth while her mind races for an appropriate response to that, but Shelby beats her to it when she rushes out, “Toni and I are having sex.”
Dot’s mouth drops open and the chewed up mass inside spills out onto the sand, and next to her Fatin absolutely loses it, like she’d have never dreamed in a million years that those words would ever come out of Shelby’s mouth even if she’s known for a while that they’re true. Even Martha bites her lip like she’s trying not to laugh, and Leah just kind of blinks and then shakes her head a little, like she’s embarrassed for Shelby, too. Rachel looks back and forth between Toni and Shelby, taking in the blush that’s painted across both of their cheeks, and then lets out an amused huff before she leans over and steals the crackers out from in front of Dot.
Shelby looks mortified. “That’s all,” she finishes, lamely, and then sinks down a little like she wishes she could crawl into a hole and then never come out.
Toni’s uncertain, at first, if it’d be too much too soon, but eventually she gets up and squeezes in between Shelby and Leah instead, wraps a comforting arm around Shelby’s back and pats her carefully on the knee.
“This is already bizarre,” Dot says, watching them, which makes Fatin laugh all over again, and Toni is extremely uncomfortable but it also feels like they maybe needed a night like this, finally—where the tension has been taken down a notch and they’re all just laughing and goofing off, even if it’s a little bit at Shelby and Toni’s expense.
“Okay, but I’ve been dying to ask this,” Fatin pipes up, when she’s finally done cackling. “Is it good sex?”
“You knew?” Dot asks Fatin like she’s been betrayed, and Fatin ignores her because at the same time Rachel says dryly, “It must be, or else they wouldn’t keep doing it,” which makes Fatin laugh harder than anything else anyone’s said yet.
Even Leah gets in on it with a sly smile and an, “I mean…” and Shelby tenses at Toni’s side and even Toni thinks it might be too much when Leah’s head tips back and she faux-moans the things she’d heard by the waterfall, “Like that, Shelby, I’m really close—”
The other girls egg her on with varying levels of shock and enthusiasm, wolf-whistles and all, and it reminds Toni of the day with the mussels, and so she’s barely surprised when Shelby pulls out of her arms and scrambles to her feet with a venomous look at Leah, then storms off down the beach.
“Shelby, we’re only kidding around!” Dot calls after her guiltily, and Toni sighs and then goes after Shelby, jogging to catch up to her.
Shelby sits by the rocks where she’d drank alone what feels to Toni like years ago, now, and Toni scoots into place beside her and openly rolls her eyes at the girls in the distance. “They don’t get it.”
“I shouldn’t have said anything,” Shelby whispers.
“You didn’t do it for them; you did it for you.”
Shelby shakes her head. “I did it for you.”
Toni blinks dumbly at her, momentarily stunned into silence. “Oh.”
“I don’t want you to think I’m ashamed of you, because I’m not. I’ve told you that.”
“I don’t think you’re ashamed of me.”
“That’s not what it seemed like before.”
“Then I said it wrong. Or I was angry and… I was being stupid. I know how hard this is and I know you like me. And I didn’t mean to push you.”
“I do like you, Toni,” Shelby breathes out, and slips her hand into Toni’s, lacing their fingers together. “I like you so much that sometimes I can’t believe I ever couldn’t stand you.”
“I liked you right away,” Toni confesses, and Shelby pulls back a little to give her an odd look, like she doesn’t believe her for a second. “I know it sounds weird. I mean, I didn’t like you, but I did. I mean, obviously I could tell you were—” And she knows that Shelby has figured out what she’s getting at, now, with the way a slow, vaguely amused smile starts to form on her lips. “What? It’s not like you don’t know what you look like.” She imitates Shelby for a moment, asks, “You do pageants, remember?” in her best impression of a southern accent, and Shelby’s smile spreads into a grin and she leans in close and laughs into the kiss she presses to Toni’s cheek.
“That was very terrible.”
“I thought you were hot,” Toni elaborates, just on the off chance it isn’t clear, “and I also really hated that I thought you were hot.”
“I flirted with you on the first day,” Shelby says, and Toni looks taken aback, then tries to wrack her brain for a memory of it and comes up empty. Shelby raises her eyebrows expectantly. “Toni. ‘Don’t you ever think maybe your brain could use a good scrub?’ Not that I ever would’ve acknowledged that’s what I was doing at the time, but looking back I definitely thought you were cute.”
“Cute,” Toni scoffs out, but she blushes anyway.
“Plus I kissed you first,” Shelby adds, offhandedly, as though it earns her points in some imaginary competition between them, and Toni scoffs again.
“As if I would’ve ever after the shit you said; for all I knew you would’ve drowned me in the ocean for trying it.”
“That’s fair,” Shelby admits, and this time they both chuckle a little. “Does that mean you thought about it, before the first time?”
“I thought about it a lot.”
Something in the low way Shelby says it makes Toni’s stomach flip. “Oh.”
“Even though I didn’t want to. I couldn’t help it. I was always looking at your mouth.”
Toni groans out, “Shelby,” and then they’re kissing hard where they’re nestled in between the rocks, mostly out of view of the others, and they’ve snuck away to do this plenty of times but it’s never been anything but soft and careful and tentative, and Toni knows it was still passionate like that but this is the first time it’s felt like a different kind of passion: hungry and wanting and like this is something they need to do to make the feeling dissipate rather than something they’re doing to build it up.
Shelby breaks the kiss first to move her mouth to Toni’s neck, and that is also new; it’s something they’d had a rule about not doing, because leaving marks behind when they were trying to keep it a secret from their friends would’ve been a recipe for disaster, and now Toni clings to Shelby tightly and tries not to make too much noise, but she does make a little—just enough that they don’t hear the footsteps coming toward them in the sand.
“Oh, shit, uh, sorry,” Dot’s voice cuts through the fog in Toni’s head and Shelby pulls away from her immediately, and then they both look at where Dot’s standing about twenty feet away, her hands awkwardly shoved into the pockets of her cargo shorts. “I wanted to talk to Shelby, but if you guys want me to go—”
“No,” Toni jumps in, before Shelby can undoubtedly say the opposite, “you guys should talk.” She stands, a little wobbly on her feet, and doesn’t quite look Shelby or Dot in the eyes when she squeezes Shelby’s hand encouragingly and then makes her way back down the beach to the rest of the girls.
She hears Dot laugh nervously and tell Shelby, “That’s still gonna take some getting used to,” before their voices fade away completely.
“We’re douchebags,” Fatin declares to Toni once she’s back by the fire, and Toni heaves a sigh and accepts the crackers Fatin offers her.
The big thing that happens over the course of the following week is that Dot decides they should move their makeshift camp close to the waterfall and build a proper shelter there.
It’s a massive undertaking, building a real shelter: they take down trees and bamboo and collect palm fronds, and it takes several days to get it all made to Dot’s satisfaction—and she gets plenty annoyed with Shelby and Toni, who get the idea to make what Fatin calls their “love nest”, even though it’s meant to be something any of them can use, which is a very comfortable palm frond bed laid out on top of a bamboo structure. Shelby and Toni do kind of monopolize it, though, which winds up spawning several knockoffs from the other girls, once they realize how much softer it is than sleeping on the ground.
They build the others in a cluster that’s noticeably far away from Shelby’s and Toni’s, even though Shelby and Toni don’t ask them to, which embarrasses Shelby and just makes Toni laugh. Leah, Dot, Fatin, and Martha all build single beds, but Rachel makes one fit for two people, and Toni almost asks her why and then realizes, but Rachel catches her questioning look anyway and responds, “In case she ever comes back.”
Toni tells Shelby about Regan a full five days before Shelby tells Toni about Becca, and Toni holds her close while she cries and reassures her that it wasn’t her fault—Toni believes every single one of her own words, and doesn’t think a single worse thing about Shelby for it, even though she knows Shelby’s terrified that she will. She understands more and more, as she learns little details and then major ones about Shelby’s home life, why Shelby hadn’t wanted to go back there.
The group starts to master their rudimentary methods of food-gathering, gets better at starting fire, and develops more efficient routines to make sure everything that needs to be done each day is accomplished without issue. Leah talks less about her crazy theories and the few times she does Dot threatens to put her on watch again, but Toni catches her alone in passionate conversation with a sympathetic-looking Fatin every now and then, and once she even overhears Fatin explaining right back, “I wasn’t even tired that night, and I kept hearing this rustling from the trees but at the time I didn’t really think anything of it—"
When she asks Shelby if she thinks there’s anything to what Leah’s been saying, Shelby replies, “It seems pretty out there,” but Toni notices that technically that isn’t a no.
In what Toni will later decide with humiliation is her most unhinged moment on the island, she happens across the lychee tree and spends a couple of minutes looking around for some sign of anything she’s heard Leah ranting about, like a hidden camera in the trees. She finds nothing and berates herself for letting Leah’s bullshit get to her.
One day, she lays out with Shelby alone on the palm frond bed, and Shelby interlocks their fingers while Toni tangles their legs together, and Shelby asks, “If we never went home, do you think you could be happy here?”
“Assuming we don’t starve to death?” Toni checks, and Shelby smiles and nods her head.
“Assuming we could live here forever.”
Toni thinks about home, remembers Regan, who isn’t in love with her anymore but no doubt is worried sick about her, and about Martha’s mom, who she misses dearly. But beyond that, there is nothing and no one else to think about, and Shelby is still looking fondly at her and brushing her thumb over the back of Toni’s hand, and Toni’s answer isn’t what she would’ve expected it to be even as recently as a week ago, but she says, “I think I’m already happy here.”
It feels like they’ve built a little life together—all eight of them, and then all seven of them, but also just Toni and Shelby, too. “Is it sad that this is the happiest I’ve ever been?” Shelby asks. “Just spending half my days lying on this little stack of leaves with you?”
“Always nice to appreciate the simple things,” Toni quips, and Shelby purses her lips and nudges Toni with the hand that isn’t busy holding hers.
“I am, too.”
“Hmm.” Shelby just stares for a moment, that soft smile back on her lips, and then leans in close and finds Toni’s mouth with her own. It’s sweet and simple and when Shelby breaks their kiss she keeps their noses pressed together, and when she speaks next she sounds like she’s forcing the words past her lips, like she’s a little bit terrified to say them but like she’s wanted to for a while now. “Is it okay if I might be falling in love with you?”
“Yes,” Toni breathes out before she can even think twice about it. Her heart pounds hard in her chest and she nods. “That’s very okay, Shelby.”
She doesn’t say it back, and it’s not that she can’t say she feels the same, it’s just that Toni’s emotions run wild inside of her sometimes, and when that happens she finds them hard to articulate, especially when it feels so monumental to say them aloud.
Shelby knows, maybe, or else is just content for now with what’s already been shared between them, because she just mumbles, “Good,” and kisses Toni again, then rolls her onto her back and slides her hand low, taking advantage of the moment while they’re still alone together.
Martha asks Toni the following evening, when they’re out on the beach searching for crabs together, “Have you and Shelby talked about what’ll happen if we ever get out of here?”
“No,” Toni says shortly, because they haven’t and she also isn’t very eager to talk about it—not with Shelby and not with Martha here and now, either.
“Maybe she can come visit us in Minnesota,” Martha says excitedly. “I bet her family has enough money that one plane ticket would be nothing to them. Or we could always get summer jobs, save up for us to fly down to Texas—”
Toni knows deep down that Martha must mean well, but she’s just so ignorant about this shit, so privileged in that she hasn’t even had to bother putting the puzzle pieces together, because Shelby had obviously struggled so much with her sexuality for a reason, had had a reason to make those comments about Toni’s “lifestyle” early on, and before she can stop herself Toni bites out, “Don’t be fucking stupid, Marty.”
Martha’s long silence makes guilt bloom in her chest in seconds, and she wishes she could take it back.
Toni softens her tone and explains, “Shelby’s family isn’t going to want us to see each other after this.”
“Did she tell you that?” Martha asks, a little defensive.
“She doesn’t have to.”
“Then how do you—?”
“Where do you think she learned the shit she was spouting a few weeks ago, Marty?” Toni blurts, and she has to take a deep breath and reel herself in again, because it feels a lot like explaining that the sky is blue and then getting pushback on it. “Why do you think it took her so long to admit she likes girls? Not that she even has admitted that…” She hasn’t, technically, even though she’s said and done plenty of other things that make it apparent. “They pumped her full of hateful Bible-thumper bullshit her whole life, and she’s only just started un-brainwashing herself.”
Martha looks at her, crestfallen, and Toni feels even worse for going off on her a little. “So you’ll just break up?”
“I don’t fucking know.” Toni spots a crab, finally, and stabs it hard right through the center of the shell with the stick in her hand, then lifts it into the air and declares, “I’m taking this back now.”
“But Dot said we should try to find at least—”
“I don’t care,” Toni snaps, and sets off quickly, eager to get away from Martha before she has to keep thinking about this any longer.
She does think about it, though, for days, enough that she can tell Shelby starts to notice that she’s a little off, a little distant, and horrifically it happens to pretty much coincide with Shelby’s confession on the palm frond bed, which Toni doesn’t even consider at all until Shelby’s trying to make out with her in the water by the waterfall and Toni’s just a little too distracted to get fully into it.
“I thought you said it was okay,” Shelby pulls back and blurts out abruptly, and Toni legitimately has no idea what she’s talking about at first as she takes in the nervous, frustrated way Shelby’s biting at her bottom lip.
“What I told you before,” Shelby says, like it should be obvious. “About how I felt.”
“I… yes.” Toni only feels more lost, now that she has an explanation. “That is definitely okay.”
“You’ve been weird ever since then,” Shelby explains, and Toni lets out a huff, understanding now.
“That’s about something else.”
“Oh.” There’s an awkward silence, and Shelby’s cheeks flush with embarrassment at the misunderstanding but she also looks incredibly curious. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t think I should say.”
Shelby arches an eyebrow, and then threatens, playfully, “I’ll kick you out of our bed if you don’t.”
“You’d get cold.”
“I’ll make you swap with Martha.”
Toni doesn’t laugh and Shelby seems to realize, then, that it’s serious. She reaches up, brushes Toni’s damp hair from her face and gently says, “You can tell me anything, Toni.”
So Toni does. “I’m worried about what’ll happen to you if we ever get back home.”
“I worry about that every day,” Shelby says right back, and Toni’s caught off guard by her honesty.
“Then it makes sense for me to worry about it.”
It’s a little bit of a question, and Shelby answers like she knows it. “Not because of me, or anything I want.”
“Okay.” And it’s a little relieving, actually, to know that Shelby would be willing to fight for this if the worst came to pass, if she wound up back in Texas and trapped with her family, maybe threatened with being kicked out or disowned or sent away somewhere. She would fight, and Toni would do the best she could to fight alongside her all the way from Minnesota, however she could. “I feel the same way,” she says before she loses her nerve, and Shelby looks confused.
“About wanting to be with me after this?”
That’s true, too, but it’s not what Toni had meant. “About falling in love with you.”
Shelby kisses her so hard that Toni almost tips over into the water, and Toni still thinks they’re probably going to die on this island, but the idea feels more and more appealing with each passing day.
A lot of time passes and one night they’re back at their old camp on the beach, drinking late into the night and playing truth or dare, and there are two big milestones for Shelby and Toni that happen then.
The first is that Fatin gets a little rowdy, or maybe a little too sexually frustrated, but either way she’s had too much to drink and thinks it's funny to dare Toni to “kiss the hottest girl here aside from Shelby”, clearly anticipating in her drunken, obnoxious state that it’ll be herself and also that it’s just a joke kiss at worst, that it won’t be a big deal.
Shelby flushes red and looks both alarmed and extremely upset until Toni abruptly says, “no,” in a tone that is very pointed and leaves no room for argument, and then Fatin looks guilty and also very embarrassed.
“Shit, I didn’t realize—sorry, fuck. My bad,” Fatin stammers, and Toni gets it, a little bit, because Shelby and Toni keep their sweeter, more intimate moments to themselves and take a lot of jokes from the other girls about “getting laid” and “letting off steam”, and of course none of them genuinely think there aren’t any feelings there, but also Shelby and Toni have been pretty content to not go around declaring the depths of those feelings, because Shelby is still carrying around a lot of heavy shit and Toni isn’t really one to express that kind of thing when she’s worried she might be mocked for it. So even though they share a bed, maybe to everyone other than Martha it looks a little bit like a fling born of convenience, because Shelby and Toni are very different and they hadn’t even really started getting along until they’d kissed each other.
“Are y’all in love?” Dot teases, right away—because of course she does; there it is, immediately, the exact attitude that justifies their decision to avoid saying anything in the first place—and Shelby and Toni just look at each other like they’re both a bit lost, like they aren’t sure who should say something first or if they should say anything at all, and Dot’s smile falters and then she just says, “Well, shit.”
“Nobody else kiss Toni or Shelby,” Fatin declares like she’s suddenly their number one protector, and like they’d ever need protecting from anyone other than a drunk-off-her-ass Fatin anyway. “They’re in love and monogamous, and that’s their decision.”
“You’re trashed,” Toni tells her, and Leah shakes with laughter at Fatin’s side as Fatin keels over to lie comfortably in the sand.
The second thing that happens occurs maybe fifteen minutes later; they’re still playing, and when Shelby picks truth Martha requests, “Tell us something about yourself you’ve never told anyone before.”
It’s a softball, honestly, and Toni knows the kind of stuff Martha is expecting to get back from Shelby, because she’s expecting the same sort of answer that Martha is: maybe a funny, embarrassing story from Shelby’s childhood, or some obscure fact about her that none of them really care about.
But Shelby is silent for a long moment, and then she looks at Toni and whispers, “I’m a lesbian.”
And there are more opportunities for joking and mockery, Toni knows; someone could so easily say, “Well, obviously,” or make some joke about Toni converting her with her skills in the bedroom, or, in Leah’s case, given her constant meme mentions, drop an “I thought you were American”. But nobody does any of those things; they’re better this time, evidently having learned from their past mistakes, and they tell Shelby that they’re happy that she’s figured stuff out, and the ones who are close enough to her reach out and pat her on the back, and Toni hugs her close and kisses her on the temple and whispers to her that they can talk more about it later tonight, if she wants.
They leave the group early that night, but not to talk about it; Shelby takes Toni to their bed and makes it very clear what she wants in the frantic way that she kisses her and then reaches down to unbutton her own shorts, and Toni touches her late into the night, until they can hear faint shouting and laughter from their friends as they make their way back from the beach to their own beds to turn in for the night.
Toni kisses Shelby’s forehead as she cuddles into her to sleep, and she hates that their friends had said it for them before they could truly say it for themselves, but she clarifies anyway, “I do love you, just so you know.”
She feels Shelby smiling shyly against her neck. “I never thought you’d be the one to say it first.”
“Shelby,” Toni sighs out expectantly, and the air Shelby exhales when she laughs tickles her skin.
“I love you more than I’ve ever loved anything or anyone, Toni.”
Toni takes several seconds to let that sink in and wash over her, to let her heart fill with warmth and with the comfort of feeling so secure and safe and content, with Shelby here in her arms.
But she can’t resist joking, “More than Jesus?”
She earns a scoff and a smack to her abdomen for her troubles, and this time it’s her who turns and buries a laugh into Shelby’s skin.
When the next plane flies overhead some weeks later, just hours after Martha takes a fall on the rocks and hits her head so hard that it gives her a concussion, this time there are two of them who don’t celebrate, who reach out for each other’s hands and hold on tight, worried that they’re leaving home instead of returning to it.
Leah’s paranoia had never truly let up; about two weeks before their rescue, Dot had put her foot down and declared that they needed to let Nora go, to do the healthy thing and finally have a proper funeral for her to say their goodbyes, and so they’d taken a vote. Toni, Dot, and Martha all thought that Nora was dead, Leah and a slightly embarrassed-looking Fatin had voted that she wasn’t, and Shelby and Rachel had been uncertain. They’d had the funeral.
On the day the second plane flew by, even Dot hadn’t been able to shut Leah up. She’d told them everything she thought she knew, including that if her hunch was right, the only people who’d ever rescue them would be the same people who’d arranged their arrival, and that they’d probably stick them somewhere secret and debrief them while trying to appear to be some sort of neutral party, or some sort of authority figures with good intentions.
Toni’d heard whispers of a plan on the plane ride to whatever bunker they’ve settled into: mostly among Leah and Fatin, and even Dot, for a minute or so, but Shelby has likely gotten herself involved to some extent, Toni thinks, because she looks a little furtively at their surroundings as they’re led inside, shown to different rooms, and promised they’ll get to see each other again soon—as though she’s memorizing the route, or at least taking in information for some reason that Toni doesn’t see the need for herself. They aren’t going to starve to death on a deserted island, which is the best thing about being rescued, and the worst thing is that now she has to find a way to navigate things with Shelby out in the real world.
Toni forgets about everything else for just a little while in favor of focusing on the checklist of things that matter most to her in the moment: Martha is getting treatment for her concussion and Shelby is still safe and doing well, according to her interviewers, and there are Takis for her to eat.
She passes the hours in her room with a small garbage bin and a piece of paper they’d given her for “journaling purposes”, which she scoffs at and then crumples up into a ball to shoot baskets with. She’s called in and out of the interview room a couple of times on the first day, and allowed to roam around a little bit, but not to see her friends yet—they tell her it’s for everyone’s safety, while they run medical tests and make sure everyone is fully healthy, but Toni doesn’t get any medical tests done, and she also really wants to see Shelby and Martha.
After she asks after them for the eighth time in one and a half days they start refusing to let her out on request, and that’s when she starts to get uncomfortable. It gets worse when she notices the camera in the corner of her bedroom, and the red light that indicates it’s always on, even when she goes to sleep on the second night.
On the third day, she hears footsteps out in the hallway, brisk and purposeful, and when she presses her ear to the door she catches a brief voice, deep and male, as he says, “no word yet on the location of subject six—”
“What the fuck?” Toni mouths, and then she glances up at the camera again, still trained on her, and slips into the bathroom, out of sight, and has a little bit of a panic attack. She fumbles around for something useful, not even sure what she has in mind, because Leah’s bullshit theory is immediately starting to sound like it has some validity, if the people who are supposed to be helping them and figuring out what’d happened to them are going around calling people subjects.
She comes up with a toothbrush, feels pathetic and stupid because what the fuck is she going to do with that, and tucks it into her shoe anyway. Hours later, a knock comes at her door, and when it swings open and the man on the other side greets her, “Toni,” she recognizes his voice as the one she’d heard out in the hallway earlier, and recognizes his face as one of her interviewers. He’d gone by Agent Young before. “Would you come with me?”
“Why?” she asks, skeptical, hanging back at first.
“One of your friends has asked to see you.”
Toni practically leaps forward at that; she doesn’t even question whether or not it’s true until she’s following him down the hall and realizing that he could be taking her anywhere.
But he takes her to another door just down the same hallway, unlocks it and pushes it open, and Toni doesn’t expect Shelby to be right there, immediately, standing directly by the door, but that’s not the only thing about Shelby that is unexpected.
Toni barely gets out half of her name before Shelby tugs her away from Agent Young, further into the room, and pulls her tightly into a hug. He hangs back in the doorway, watching their reunion, and Toni’s fully wrapped up in just standing here with Shelby, holding her close, but it immediately becomes apparent that the feeling isn’t mutual, because Shelby kisses her on the cheek and then takes the opportunity to whisper, “Just follow my lead, please, if you can.”
Toni hones in fully on Shelby’s words and nods imperceptibly, and Shelby pulls back and looks self-conscious, suddenly, and Toni finally has the opportunity to fully take her in. She’s been cleaned up, removed of the gunk and grime just like Toni has, and the tangled, matted hair she’d struggled with for the better part of three months is completely gone. Shelby reaches up like she wants to run her hand through her hair, a nervous habit of hers, then realizes there’s nothing there and drops her hand to her side. Her eyes shift past Toni’s shoulder to glance at Agent Young, and then she leans in close to Toni again, whispers, “Do you think you can still kiss me? Because I need you to kiss me, for this to work.”
When she pulls away to study Toni’s face for an answer, Toni looks at her like she’s lost her mind. “Shelby, you’re beautiful,” she says, and Shelby’s expression softens.
They kiss, and Shelby leads it, and it feels like it isn’t part of whatever Shelby’s cooked up; it’s soft and Toni pours so much emotion into it, tries to tell Shelby how much she’s missed her, how determined she is to make sure everything works out between them once they get out of here, how little it fucking matters whether Shelby looks like some picture-perfect pageant queen or not, because she’s gorgeous to Toni inside and out no matter what her hair looks like.
Shelby kisses back like she’s missed it too, like she has so many things she wants to say, and like she’s frustrated to be cut off early when Agent Young clears his throat uncomfortably and says, “Alright, ladies, I think it’s time we got Toni back—”
Shelby breaks their kiss and Toni watches her transform into a version of her Toni’s rarely seen: an angry, biting version, but one that’s somehow more intimidating and more filled with fury than the Shelby she’d seen back when they’d bickered with each other. “You people served me a meal that sent me into anaphylactic shock, so no, I don’t think two minutes with my girlfriend is enough, actually.”
Toni has a lot of questions and concerns about the anaphylactic shock thing, but what she winds up doing instead is focusing on the girlfriend thing, because they’d never talked about that, even if it went sort of unspoken in a way that still made it very obvious what they were to each other.
“So we’d like some privacy,” Shelby continues, her voice going sickly sweet, with the undercurrent of a threat still present beneath, and Toni almost shivers unpleasantly at the sound of it, because as it turns out, Shelby can be kind of terrifying when she wants to be. “And this visit’s about to get conjugal, so I’d suggest turning the camera off, too, unless you’d like to be guilty of felony—”
“I can give you ten minutes,” Agent Young says hastily, because Shelby’s already grasping for Toni’s shirt and tugging her forward a little aggressively, like they’re going to do this whether he signs off on it or not, “but that’s all.”
He slips from the room and lets the door close gently on its own behind him, and Shelby starts kissing Toni immediately again, hungrily this time, and Toni groans and lets herself be pushed up against the wall, all thoughts of what the hell Shelby’s up to forgotten, because this new side of Shelby isn’t necessarily her favorite—that will always be reserved for the sweet girl who whispered that she was in love with her on the palm fronds—but it’s definitely the hottest side, and Toni doesn’t really know what to make of it but she isn’t really complaining, either.
Shelby’s fists grip Toni’s shirt and then she steps back, and their kiss gets messy when Shelby tugs Toni with her, toward the bed, and then collapses back on it and pulls Toni down on top of her, and if Toni were thinking clearly she’d notice that the camera in Shelby’s room is over her left shoulder—the same shoulder Shelby glances over when she tugs on Toni’s hair and makes her kiss Shelby’s neck instead.
But Toni has forgotten that there’s a plan at all, and she’s just genuinely focused on making Shelby feel good, so much so that when Shelby groans out, “Toni, you can…” Toni sucks harder on her neck and mostly ignores her. Shelby arches into her at first, but then collects herself and pushes her off, and Toni sits back on her calves and stares at Shelby, her pupils blown and her heart racing. “The camera’s off,” Shelby explains, and Toni glances over her shoulder and sees that the red light is dead.
“Okay,” she says, because so do we have sex now? seems a little forward and she still isn’t fully sure what’s going on. Shelby grabs her hand and slips from the bed, tugging Toni onto her feet and then leading her to the door.
“We have to go now, before he comes back.”
“Go?” Toni echoes dumbly, and when they get closer, she sees what she hadn’t noticed before, and what Agent Young had failed to notice too: Shelby has jammed her own toothbrush into the door hinge, and resultingly in his haste to leave he’d left the door wedged open, just by half an inch, just enough that when Shelby pushes on it, it swings wide open.
Toni thinks of Martha, first, as they start off down the hallway together, and Shelby knows her so well that she beats her right to it. “We have a plan. Leah’s already out. I said I could take care of you and me. Fatin and Dot are helping Rachel and Martha; mostly Fatin, because Dot’s the one who got me the sushi.”
“Nobody told me anything,” Toni points out, offended.
“It took you about thirty seconds back there to forget there was a plan in the first place,” Shelby replies, and Toni feels her face beginning to flush.
“You called me your girlfriend and kissed me; it was distracting,” she protests, and Shelby only laughs and squeezes her hand, and Toni lets herself be led through the halls of the bunker—toward sunlight, toward her friends, toward a future that seems brighter, despite the trials Toni knows they’ll face, because they’ll be facing them together.
Home is not an island, or a house in Texas, or a trailer in Minnesota, Toni thinks—home is wherever Shelby is, because that’s right where Toni wants to be.