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Author’s Note: This story is a collaboration with Maria_McGeorge. This story contains dark themes. You have been warned.
“Knock, knock,” Shelby said, as she pushed open the big sliding door of her sister’s apartment space. “Ames?”
“Present,” came the echo of her sister’s voice.
Shelby smoothed out her dress around the waist for the hundredth time, fussed over the hemline for the thousandth, and tried to adjust the neckline for the millionth. She’d agonised over what to wear for a week, going back and forth through her wardrobe. It had to be right; not too much, but not too conservative. The day before, she’d finally made up her mind and picked with a safe, middle option she didn’t think Amelia would see through immediately, and then at the last minute she’d pulled on a daring number with a deep plunge in the front that she’d initially rejected out of hand. The moment she left the house, she’d been sure it was a mistake. The dark blue silk wraparound dress was too short, cut too low, and was distressingly tight around the middle. It wasn’t going to work.
Shelby was convinced her waist cincher was showing. It had been the cincher — and the new matching underwear she’d bought the night before— that gave her the sudden bravery to reject her sensible choices and go all out. It had felt so good to finally have some undergarments that fit properly, even though it felt so wasteful to spend so much on something that would only fit for a few months.
She really hoped it would only be a few more months. It felt like it was taking much longer for her figure to bounce back, though in truth she was struggling with time. She kept losing track of how old her youngest was, or what month it was. Two months, she thought to herself, as if trying to pin the memory in place. She felt so tired all the time, like days and nights had become interchangeable and indistinguishable. She could vaguely remember being more on top of her son’s progress, step by step, as he progressed through the infant stages, and the guilt from not knowing where Kelsi was, progression-wise, instantly added to all the other guilts and worries that constantly churned inside her.
She gulped and shut the door behind herself, already regretting a myriad of things.
“I brought Champagne,” she announced, as she set her purse down behind one of the canvas stands. She continued across the open space, carefully picking her way around the nebulous art studio that took up about half of the floor area.
Her heels clacked loudly on the shellacked concrete, and the sound was distracting. Each stiletto strike seemed to ricochet in her ears, an acute reminder of how long it had been since she’d worn heels at all let alone her fuck me now five-inch black patent court heels. She wasn’t sure she’d ever worn those particular heels outside of a hotel room, and even then only after significant prodding. The last time had been a lifetime ago, and Davis hadn’t taken her on the road for years. Not since Ian had come along.
Shelby pushed the thought aside. She forced out the guilt and doubt by concentrating on making it look like she could walk in the heels, and that they weren’t already crippling her feet. In the back of her mind she could hear one of her old coaches griping about the damage high heels could do to a gymnast’s feet.
She wasn’t a gymnast any more. She wasn’t sure she was a wife or a daughter either, and barely a sister. At the thought of Amelia her stomach twisted hard, and she almost ran, but years of training had forced her to face her fears and work for what she wanted. Repeated earth-shattering fantasies were one thing, even if they brought the only temporary relief she’d been able to find, but that was very different from the real thing. In the fantasies there were no consequences.
And then, once her resolve was affixed in place, her phone blipped. Shelby scooped it out of her black clutch, that of course matched her heels, and saw a message from her mother-in-law. She typed in her passcode with her stomach in her throat, heart leaping at the potential excuse to run home and abort her desperate plan.
Babies fine and all asleep, see, us mother in laws do have some uses. 🙂 have a great night, see you in the morning.
Shelby read the message again and again. How could her mother-in-law have settled them so easily? It was barely past eight! She couldn’t help but jump straight to feeling like a complete failure, and tears threatened to ruin her subtle application of eye liner.
She typed: Thank you Sue. Have a good night. There’s lots of milk for Kels in the fridge. Should be enough. Call me if you need me.
The response came quickly.
I’m all good, I got this, have you considered formula though? You’d save a load of time, that’s what I fed all of mine and you can’t say they didn’t turn out big and strong.
Shelby locked her phone with shaking fingers, anxiety switching to anger. Why did everyone feel kağıthane escort so comfortable telling her she was feeding her child wrong? What business was it of theirs? It was her choice.
Then Shelby saw Amelia in the open kitchen, hovering over the stove, running a long spoon through a simmering pan, and her courage pretty much nailed itself to the sticking place.
“Does that… does that go? With…” She sniffed. “I wanna say… something with alfredo sauce? Champagne and alfredo?”
“Should do fine.” Amelia’s voice sounded distant, distracted.
Her sister looked much like she always did anymore, in a paint-splattered t-shirt and jeans. Her hair was shorter than it had been the last time Shelby had seen her, close cropped on the sides and back, and a little longer on top. It had been dyed black for so long that Shelby had almost forgotten Amelia was a blonde underneath. The cowlick in the front, which she’d always managed meticulously with bangs, gave her new haircut a splash of attitude. If there was one thing Shelby did not need, it was for her sister to go from goth princess to punk queen.
Amelia glanced over at her briefly, seemingly just to acknowledge Shelby’s presence, and then did a longer double take. “Jesus, Shel.”
Her middle turned into a block of ice.
Shelby blinked innocently — perhaps the finest piece of acting she’d ever done — and then, following her sister’s eyes, held out her arms and looked down at herself. “Oh! Th—no. No, I just came from a thing for the Curve.” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder, and held up the little tote bag she’d been given. “That’s where I got the Champagne. All the wives and girlfriends got one of these little gift bags.” Her voice quivered as she said this, and to her own ear she knew she’d given herself away. The best she could hope for was that her natural tendency to babble would hide the fact that she was shaking.
Amelia looked at the bag and frowned, doubtful lines writ large across her brow, but she said nothing further and returned to tending her pan. Shelby breathed a quiet sigh of relief, and set the bag down on the counter. There were two demi bottles in the bag, each only 375 ml, and Shelby pulled one out. Without looking away from the pan Amelia leaned over and opened a drawer that Shelby knew to contain her bottle opener, but after removing the foil cap Shelby went after the knobby cork with her bare hands. It gave way with a loud, satisfying pop, and she set the bottle down next to the stove for her sister. It felt good to work out some of her pent up anxiety with a little good, old fashioned exertion.
“Is this dress too much?” she asked, aiming for innocence, as she went into the fridge and pulled out a bottle of water for herself. She realized, as she reached for a high bottle near the back, that the hem of her dress was riding up the backs of her thighs. It was far too short, and she was so out of practice. Amelia was going to think she was a total slut. She quickly stood up and tugged it downward. “It’s too much, isn’t it? I brought some jeans. I’ll change.”
“It’s fine,” Amelia said, cutting in agitatedly. “Whatever.” Then she looked over at the way Shelby was nervously fiddling with the cap to her water bottle and added, “Bad day?”
“Something like that, though, honestly, I’m not sure I can remember what a good day looks like.” Then she added, mumbling, “Dammit I really want a drink.”
Her black-haired sister shrugged easily, and said, “So have one,” like it was the easiest thing in the world.
Shelby shook her head and sighed, letting her hands flutter over her chest for a moment. “I don’t… I can’t take any chances. It gets in the milk.”
Amelia picked up the bottle and took a long swig, giving Shelby side eye the whole time. “Uh huh.”
“We had a checkup today,” Shelby said, finding more of her usual energy and pep. “Kelsi is twenty one inches now, and she’s up to seven pounds! And,” she added dramatically, “Ian held her today!”
Amelia raised her eyebrows slowly. “Had he not?”
“No! I know! We kept offering, but he didn’t want to!” She folded her arms and shook her head. “I think he’s feeling left out of the whole thing. He was so excited about getting a sibling, and then when he got one? Nothing. I can’t really leave them alone together. I know he loves her, but, like, there’ve been times when I’ve left the room and she’s been happy, and then like all of a sudden she’s crying. I mean, I’m sure it’s nothing, but I also can’t stop worrying.”
Then she caught herself, and sighed. “I’m sorry. You don’t want to hear all this. It’s just… It’s been so long since I had an actual conversation with, you know, an adult. Even Davis is… you know. It’s the season, so he’s all numbers and facts and… and, um… oh, stats. God, that word was hard to remember. You’ll have to tell me if I’m rambling. I feel like I’ve forgotten how to talk to a grown up. All kartal escort I do is babble.”
Amelia rolled her eyes, which somehow made Shelby feel more of a person than she had in months.
“This is almost ready,” Amelia said, “if you wanna sit down.”
Shelby nodded. As soon as she turned her back to her sister, she immediately and discreetly slipped her hands down into the plunging cleavage of her dress and gave each breast a little scoop to help them sit higher. They ached, and it was distracting how good that felt.
“It smells amazing,” Shelby said, as she slid into one of the chairs. It was hard to keep her mind on the plan she’d sorted out. No part of what she was doing came to her naturally. The lying, the posturing. The cover story. Shit, she thought. The cover story! “Uh… They had this… I think it was supposed to be Chicken Cordon Bleu at the function earlier, but the chicken was soooo dry.”
Amelia pulled some roasted veggies out of the oven, and Shelby’s stomach gurgled noisily.
“I take it you didn’t eat much?” Amelia said, chuckling.
Shelby laughed nervously and said, “I did not.”
This was true, from a certain point of view. She hadn’t eaten all day. The tote bag had been given to her at a function for her husband’s Double A baseball team, the Altoona Curve, where dry Chicken Cordon Bleu was served, but that had taken place more than a year earlier. Shelby licked her lips and tried to contain herself. It was all a lie. The dress was for Amelia, and Amelia alone. The direct approach was not going to work a second time, so she had to be subtle.
A few minutes later, after Amelia had set down their plates and they’d both exchanged a few delighted comments about the meal — along with a few subtle moans from Shelby that she’d attempted, poorly, to mask as appreciative grunts at the wonderful flavor — Shelby ran the plan through her mind twice over.
It wasn’t much of a plan. In fact, had she drawn a map of it, it would have looked like an X in one corner, for the destination, with a curling dotted line running here and there along which were written the words BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. If she drew out that metaphor a bit more, there would be thirty or forty versions of the same plan crumpled up and tossed in the trash can, or littered all over the floor. Shelby bit her lip and pressed her thighs together firmly. She had been agonizing over this for what felt like ten years, ever since the first time, though in truth it had been in the months since Kelsi’s birth that her need had become uncontrollable: the fantasy, all consuming. Even then, she’d almost ditched the plan entirely a dozen times just on the way over.
“So, how are you?” Shelby asked, feeling the need to fill the silence while twirling a bit of penne from the end of her fork.
Knowing that was the most she was likely to get out of Amelia, Shelby nodded and moved on. “Have you talked to Mom lately?”
Amelia did not look up from her plate before she answered, “No,” curtly.
Shelby bit her lip, gleefully drawing out the moment for an extra nth of dramatic delivery, and said, “She has a boyfriend.”
Her little sister seemed to pause, carefully masking her reaction. Amelia was quite good at that when she wanted to be. She had the face for it too, like a porcelain mask, and affected disinterest was her favorite. Her default. She wore it least around Shelby, as near as Shelby could tell, but she could summon it at will and Shelby was as helpless as anyone at seeing through it.
God dammit if that didn’t work for her too.
She said, “I think it’s serious,” took the bite, and smiled while she chewed.
Amelia looked up and made very direct eye contact. “You know I haven’t talked to her since Ian was born, right?”
“No,” Shelby said, shaking her head. “Ian is… five now? You haven’t talked to Mom in five years? How did I not know this?”
Amelia gave her a mirthless smile, like the fun had been extracted via needle, and shrugged.
She looked away, blinked, and said, softly but deliberately, “I guess we haven’t talked all that much since Dad’s funeral. Not really. That was, what, the year before?”
Her sister coughed, and made a sound in her throat that might have meant ‘yes’.
Shelby realized she was dangerously close to overplaying her hand. She’d succeeded in reminding Amelia of that day, and so those memories would be running around her head, but it was too soon. She coughed politely, and tried to bring the conversation back around their mother, saying, “He seems pretty nice. He really likes Mom, so—”
“Sure. Who wouldn’t want a sycophant following them around and blowing smoke up their ass twenty four seven?”
The sound of Shelby’s fork, as it fell from her hand and bounced off the plate, was only the second most jarring thing she’d heard in the previous seconds.
Amelia glared at her küçükçekmece escort and shook her head. “Don’t play dumb, Shel. That might fool everyone else, but I know better.”
“What are you talking about?”
“She failed both of us! Like, monumentally failed us. Putting aside our entire childhoods, and the way she never fucking once stood up to Dad and his bullshit, that fucking cruise—”
“She and I are past that,” Shelby said, interrupting.
Amelia slammed her opened palm down onto the table, and the clap was deafening. “No! No, Shel! You can’t just…” She trailed off as Shelby gently laid a hand over hers, and she stared down at it. The intensity of her stare was a familiar tick. Then she tilted her head sharply, shoulder twitching like she wanted to do something and stopped herself.
“It’s okay,” Shelby said, softly. “I’m here.”
Amelia nodded. “I’m okay. I mean, I’m mad, but I’m okay. God, I still get so mad at her.”
She smiled sympathetically, and gave her sister’s quivering hand a squeeze.
“Mom should’ve been there for you.”
“I had you though,” Shelby said, leaning her head down to try and make direct eye contact. “I’m fine. Ian is fine.”
As usual, Amelia glanced away and shook her head. “I can barely take care of myself,” she said, “and she doesn’t get a pass because things worked out in spite of her fucking non-refundable reservations. She was still packing when they induced you two months early! She could’ve…”
Shelby reached over, placing both hands on top of her sister’s, as Amelia’s eyes gained a slight red coloring at the edges. “Hey.”
“Don’t,” Amelia said, driving the palm of her free hand into her eyes one at a time. “Okay? Just…”
“Is that really why you’re mad at her?”
Her sister said nothing as she continued to compose herself.
“I mean, let’s be real. Between her and Dad, growing up, you have plenty of reasons to be mad. Her little singles cruise is why you aren’t talking to her anymore?”
“She should have been there for you,” Amelia croaked, still not looking at her directly. “Yeah.”
“Well,” Shelby said, clearing her throat roughly, “in case I didn’t say it enough at the time… and let’s face it I might not have, I was barely holding on for a while there… I’m glad you were there. I needed my sister. Even though we weren’t really…”
Amelia nodded emphatically, which was as close to a you’re welcome as she was likely to receive, and it meant the world. She continued to hold Amelia’s one hand tightly in both of hers until Amelia rolled her eyes and tugged.
“How is…” Amelia cleared her throat, and it looked like she let go of something. “Ian’s in, what, kindergarten now?”
She smiled and sat up straighter. “He’s doing good. He was telling me… um…” She had to really focus to make her mind put the details in order. “There’s a girl. In his class.”
Amelia made a brave show of acting interested, even though Shelby knew she wasn’t, and that made Shelby smile.
“He’s had a couple girls in daycare who would, like, glom onto him and want to spend a lot of time with him, but suddenly this Vanessa girl is all he talks about. All the answers she gives in class, and every time she raises her hand, and how smart she is, and ooo she wore a barrette today. I don’t think he’s aware of how focused he is on her, which makes it so much more adorable.”
Amelia sat up and looked around, brow furrowing, and then shook her head and smiled, but Shelby knew the tight lines around her eyes. Amelia had heard something. For the first time in minutes, they were looking at each other. Shelby knew, and Amelia knew she knew; there hadn’t actually been a sound. It hadn’t been real. Her little sister had hallucinated it. It all passed quickly between them, in the way that only siblings can do, and Amelia gave a small nod for not making a bigger deal out of it.
“She’s a dancer,” Shelby added, belatedly, and when Amelia gave her a blank look she added, “Vanessa.”
“Other than that,” Shelby said, with a soft sigh, “he’s mostly doing okay. I don’t get a lot from him when he gets off the bus. It’s all school was fine, mooooom and eh and meh and ugh!” The last delivered on her own frustration.
“Kids are the worst,” Amelia said, dryly, and to Shelby’s sleep-deprived brain it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. She laughed until her sides hurt, and until there were tears tracking moist streaks along her cheeks. When she’d finally caught her breath, Amelia asked, “How’s Davis doing?”
“He’s good. The team is doing good,” Shelby said, excitedly. “Real good! They’re 30 and 10 on the season. He’s on a five game road trip right now, through next Tuesday, playing down in Alabama. I talked to him last night.”
“Oh,” Amelia said, her eyes going wide, “I’m surprised he was able to find the time in his schedule.”
Shelby rolled her eyes. Amelia had never been a big fan of her husband, but that was nothing new.
“Yeah. Plus, the whatshisface? The, uh…” Her tired brain sparked and popped. “The center outfielder on the Triple-A affiliate? Ortiz? He hurt his leg. They’re not sure how long he’s out for, but if it’s gonna be a long recovery they might bring Davis up!”
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