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let's write our names (so we don't forget)

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For the first three years of Toni’s life, it doesn’t happen at all.

For the next few, it happens twice a year: first on Toni’s birthday, and then again on Halloween.

She cries for a lot of her third birthday, surrounded by unfamiliar and confused faces: a blonde man and woman with strange accents look at her like she’s lost her mind when she wails that they’re not her mommy and daddy, that she wants to go home. They comfort her at first, call her “Shelby” even though she tells them her name is Toni, and then give up eventually—the man says something about “getting her to shut her damn mouth” and Toni’s alone with the woman for a while, getting plied with lollipops and cookies and shown cartoons. She even sings “Happy Birthday” for Toni when Toni insists it’s her birthday. By the time her new mom is tucking her into bed she’s exhausted and calm; this bed is so much softer than the bare mattress she curls up on back home.

The next day, she wakes up and she’s back on that old, lumpy mattress, and when she tries to tell her mother about her adventure she gets the cold shoulder and a few comments about being a complete pain the day before during her birthday party. There are new markers on the floor in her bedroom where Toni hadn’t left them and a drawing of a blonde man and woman with a little blonde girl. Toni’s a late bloomer and isn’t all that smart yet; she tears the picture in half and gets in trouble later for eating some of the paper.

She remembers the man and woman and the cookies and candy, so when she wakes up with them again seven months later on Halloween and learns she’ll be going trick-or-treating with the woman, she’s perfectly happy about it, especially when they also sing her “Happy Birthday” again and give her cake and presents. She’s less happy about the old man and woman who visit and coo and pinch her cheeks, about being told she’s Shelby again and that she’s turned four today when she knows she’s Toni and that she’s still three and a half, and about the pink princess dress she has to wear while she collects candy when she knows she’s got a perfectly good Red Power Ranger costume waiting back home. She doesn’t cry this time, and when she wakes up at home the next morning on November 1st her mother doesn’t seem angry with her, either.

It happens again when she turns four, and again on Halloween when she’s four and a half, and then when she turns five, and again on the Halloween after. Each time she’s a little bit older and wiser and each time they call her “Shelby”, and she learns the day goes a lot better when she just lets them play pretend. She kind of likes celebrating her birthday with this other family better anyway, because even though they don’t know it’s her birthday they still give her more food and stuff to play with on a normal day than her own mother ever does on any day. Her other birthday on Halloween is even better, because she gets to enjoy all the cake and presents and candy she wants for the day, and eventually she even has younger siblings to play with her too; back home, Martha’s only allowed to visit every other weekend, and on the days she’s being called Shelby things feel a whole lot less lonely.

She catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror while she’s going to the bathroom on her sixth birthday and practically screams herself hoarse and scares the hell out of “Jobeth” and “Dave”—her “birthday parents”, as she starts to call them in her head—but it all blows over. Toni’s always thought blonde hair was nice, anyway, and she mostly just thinks it’s cool that she looks different on Shelby days.

Sometime after she turns seven, the Shelby days ramp up to once a month: always on the last day of the month, just like her birthday in March and just like her second fake birthday on Halloween. She knows the rules to avoid getting into trouble: play pretend, answer when people at home or at school call her by her different name, go to sleep in a comfy bed and wake up in an uncomfortable one. She talks to Becca, her best “birthday friend”, and even plays a soccer game once—poorly, because she doesn’t know the rules at all even though they seem to expect her to—with another birthday friend named Dot and several other girls she slowly comes to recognize.

She’s eight when she gathers the courage to ask Martha about where Martha goes on her birthdays and on Halloweens. Martha screws her face up and answers, “Last birthday I went to Sparkles for roller-skating, remember?” Toni does remember. “And on Halloween we go to that neighborhood where the rich kids live because their parents give out more candy.” Something uncomfortable twisting in Toni’s gut tells her not to ask again.

She turns ten, eventually, and if she could do the math she’d know that she’s had somewhere around forty Shelby days by now. She visits Martha’s house and watches a movie with Martha’s family—it’s Scooby Doo, which is one of her favorite cartoons—and there’s a part where the characters all start talking and acting like each other; Velma calls it “changing bodies” and Toni watches the screen enraptured, like everything in her life suddenly makes sense.

She’s always wondered what her Shelby self does when Toni isn’t there to occupy it, and what her Toni self does on the days she’s busy being Shelby, but this is the first time she’s considered that there’s another person actively doing things and having thoughts and feelings the whole time too, instead of something like a second Toni operating on autopilot.

The next time she has a Shelby day, she finds a pen in her bedroom and scribbles, “Hi, is your name always Shelby? I’m Toni except for when I’m here,” onto a sheet of notebook paper, then leaves it folded in half and trapped beneath her own shirt when she falls asleep.

She waits a month but doesn’t forget about her note, and on her next Shelby day she wakes up in that now-familiar comfy bed with the note under her shirt. Underneath her own message is one that says, “I’m mostly Shelby. Are you the one who played a soccer game for me once? If you did then you are very bad at it because I woke up with bruises all over my legs and a twisted ankle.”

Toni giggles until her stomach hurts and then writes back, “You ate too much cake on my fifth birthday and I wound up puking in the middle of the night!”

A month later, Shelby writes, “I l-o-v-e LOVE cookie cake. I’m sorry!”

A month after that, Toni tells her, “Me too! We like a lot of the same things!”

They do, and Toni’s noticed; they both get cookie cake every birthday, they both eat the blue raspberry flavored lollipops and jolly ranchers out of their Halloween bags first, they both own and sleep with those soft squishy beanbag pillows—Shelby has several and Toni just has one—they both draw birds the most when they doodle animals, they both owned the same Hilary Duff and Hannah Montana CDs growing up and still listen to them sometimes, and they both don’t talk to boys. They exchange notes every chance they get, and sometimes they’re short but most times Toni writes until her hand hurts or until she runs out of room on the page, and usually Shelby does the same. Sometime after Shelby’s twelfth birthday but before Toni’s, Toni writes her, “My best friend Martha talks about boys ALL the time and it annoys me so much.”

Shelby’s reply reminds her, “I know who Martha is, Toni!” and for some reason it doesn’t dawn on Toni until then that of course Shelby just knows things about her life without needing to be told, just like Toni knows things about Shelby’s life, because for every Shelby day Toni’s lived out, Shelby’s been living out a Toni day of her own.

She’s pretty sure Shelby can’t feel the things she feels, though, even if they occasionally occupy each other’s bodies, because she’s never been able to feel anything from Shelby. But Toni’s at that age where she’s starting to feel things she’s never felt before, and there’s a cute girl in her class, and she’s a little terrified by the idea that Shelby might have some way of knowing what Toni thinks and feels when she looks at that girl, especially given what she knows about the way Shelby’s parents are. A few of her Shelby days have been Sundays over the years, and things at her church can get pretty… intense.

It’s a few months later that she brings up in one note, “Your parents have always been so religious. I don’t get it.”

Shelby doesn’t really address any of that in her response, just says at one point, “I ask God sometimes why you and I do this every month, but he hasn’t answered me yet.”

Toni turns twelve and everything changes: she wakes up the morning after, back in her own body, and there’s a cell phone on a charger next to her bed and a note from Shelby beside it telling her, “Your mom got you this for your birthday!” There’s also a phone number and a smiley face scribbled beneath the message.

Her hands shake as she grips the phone and opens up her contacts to put Shelby’s number in. They’d discussed this before, in some of their lengthier written messages: texting or calling or even meeting up sometime, but Toni doesn’t have a landline and she’d been a little anxious to finally speak with Shelby back and forth live, or to hear Shelby’s voice from somewhere other than inside her own head as it comes out of her own mouth. She knows meeting in person isn’t an option though, at least not for a while. Toni lives in Minnesota and Shelby’s all the way down in Texas.

She makes herself send, “Shelby? It’s Toni,” and then waits.

It takes Shelby ten minutes. “Toni!!! I freaked when I unwrapped your phone! Your mom definitely thought it was weird. Even after all this time I’m still not the best at being you.”

Toni says, “That’s okay, your mom’s gotten onto me like three times now for sulking through trying on dresses for her.”

And they slip into conversation from there, so quickly and easily, and Toni knows they’re similar to each other in a lot of ways but they’re also different, too: Shelby is girly and bright and exuberant and uses too many emojis and exclamation points, but Toni feels like she’s talking to a part of her own self anyway, like there’s a bit of Shelby in her after all these years and a bit of herself in Shelby, too. It’s not like this with anyone else, not even Martha, and once they start, they don’t really stop. Shelby becomes Toni’s best friend, and Toni doesn’t go a day without texting her unless they’re both really busy, and by the time they’re thirteen, Toni feels like she knows Shelby almost as well as she knows herself.

They talk about the pressure Shelby feels from her parents to be this perfect pageant girl, and about her flipper, which of course Toni’s known about for several years and has taken out and cleaned herself before, and about how Shelby wants surgery someday but can’t have it yet. Toni tells Shelby about the reason she’s never had a dad around, and about why sometimes Shelby wakes up in Toni’s body at Martha’s house instead of her own, and about how important it is for Toni to find something she’s good at so that she doesn’t end up like either of her parents.

Toni’s always kept secrets from Martha, who doesn’t even know about Shelby, but eventually she doesn’t keep secrets from Shelby. Aside from one.

She’s fourteen when she kisses a girl for the first time. It’s at a sleepaway camp her mother’d sent her away to for part of the summer before her freshman year to get her out of her hair, and Toni doesn’t know anyone there, and it’s just a silly game of Spin the Bottle and it’s with a girl she’ll probably never see again. It makes her heart feel like it’s beating out of her chest anyway.

She lays in bed that night thinking about it over and over again, her heart racing all the while, and eventually her phone buzzes with a text from Shelby that says, “This is gonna sound so weird, but about two hours ago my heart just started pounding for no reason. I thought I was having a heart attack but I’m good now. How’s camp?”

Toni texts back, “It’s fine. Kinda boring,” more terrified than she’s ever been.

Two weeks later, she’s at home relaxing and listening to music when her heart gives a jolt and adrenaline shoots through her body; in seconds she goes from half-asleep to feeling like she’s just run a mile. She fumbles for her phone and asks Shelby, “What’s up, you busy?”, trying to play it cool.

It takes twenty minutes—Toni spends all of them going insane with worry—before Shelby tells her, “Yeah, I’m out with my mom. This jerk wasn’t watching where he was going and nearly hit me with his car, though. Still trying to calm down.”

“What an ass. I’m glad you’re okay,” Toni sends back, and presses a hand to her own heart, feels it beating beneath her chest and wonders if it’s pulsing at the same pace as Shelby’s is all the way down in Texas.

Shelby’d suggested phone calls and even Facetimes here and there when Toni’d first gotten her phone, and Toni isn’t sure why she’s made so many excuses not to. She’s obviously seen what Shelby looks like, kind of knows what she sounds like—at least from the inside—and they’ve been texting back and forth regularly for over two years. Fortunately, Shelby’d dropped it relatively quickly and hasn’t pushed it since.

Phone calls become necessary, though, when once a month abruptly shifts to once a week instead, starting the week after Shelby’s fifteenth birthday.

Neither of them has any idea why it’s changed again, but they text openly about how this is clearly a pattern, given that it used to be never, and then it was twice a year, and then once a month, and now once a week, and at once a week it starts to be a problem, starts to intertwine and mess with their lives in a way that makes Toni incredibly uneasy.

The days are Wednesdays, always, which means that Shelby starts having to take tests for Toni and vice versa, and Shelby has to go to her basketball practices, and Toni has to do pageant training even though they’re on Saturdays so she’ll never have to actually be in one, and they both have to really learn each other’s daily routines beyond the rough skeleton they’ve been working with for a while now. They also have to brush up on conversations and give each other more intensive rundowns of what they’ve missed, and Toni has to really start to remember all the details about the important people she’s gotten to know in Texas over the years: Shelby’s family and Becca and the people from her church and some of the classmates she speaks to. There’s a boy named Andrew that flirts with her sometimes and Toni never flirts back, but with the way he continues on like he’s never been dissuaded she starts to wonder if Shelby does, and the thought makes her stomach turn.

The difficulties don’t stop there; Toni spends at least 96 hours a month in Shelby’s body, and Shelby is growing, and pretty, and Toni starts to feel guilty when she has to shower; she doesn’t look when she changes or uses the bathroom but it’s much harder when she has to wash herself, when she’s naked for several minutes at a time. She knows they should be like sisters, maybe, or at least something similar, and she genuinely doesn’t want to feel the things she feels but sometimes she does anyway. Sometimes she does Shelby’s makeup in the mirror, once she’s learned it, and she genuinely just gets distracted looking into Shelby’s eyes, or touching her face. It makes her feel unbelievably creepy, and it makes a part of her resent swapping once a week.

They get good at it, though. Shelby practices basketball in her own body but tells Toni that it’s easier in Toni’s body somehow, maybe because Toni’s body has the muscle memory; Toni’s not sure how any of that works, what’s hers and what’s Shelby’s and what stays where when they switch, but she supposes it makes sense. She finds it easier to walk in heels in Shelby’s body than she does in her own.

They study when they need to, over the phone; Toni’s hesitance to speak to Shelby voice-to-voice is finally dwarfed by something else: her desire to A) not have Shelby flunk Toni’s tests and fail her out of high school before she can secure the basketball scholarship she needs to get the hell out of her shitty hometown, and B) not have this entire bizarre body swap thing exposed when they can’t remember details from their respective Wednesdays; Toni’s pretty sure they’d be sent to like, a lab to be experimented on or something.

Toni answers her cell for the first time with a nervous, “Hello?” and it takes a moment before Shelby says anything.

“Wow, you’re—You don’t sound quite like that when I’m you.”

Shelby’s voice is sweet and warm and a little higher and more accented than Toni’s used to hearing it, but Toni knows right away that she loves how Shelby sounds. “You don’t, either,” she says.

“Kinda feels like I’m hearing myself talk, in a way,” Shelby jokes, “after all this time.”

“Maybe a little. I like it, though.”

“I like it, too.”

Toni pretends Shelby means it the way she does, pretends she’s actually saying “I like listening to you” even as she tries to ignore the butterflies she gets every time Shelby says her name into the line.

They keep swapping once a week for another year; Toni’s sure she’s reached at least a hundred Shelby days in total by now. They both start to change.

Toni’d grown up hating country music and now she starts to like it without ever really listening to it often, like the affection for it is coming from somewhere that isn’t solely within Toni. She gets a pang of fear or excitement or a burst of happiness sometimes for no particular reason and she knows it’s from Shelby. Shelby tells her one day that as a kid she hated broccoli but she’s tried it again recently and it’s delicious to her now; Toni loves broccoli. Shelby can nail a three-pointer most of the time in her own body even though she doesn’t actually ever practice those, not even when she’s being Toni. Toni’s singing gets more and more on-key without her trying, even though that used to be a talent reserved solely for Shelby. Toni’s handwriting gets neater until it starts to eerily resemble the notes Shelby used to write to her.

“Sometimes I start to forget,” Shelby says one night over the phone, her voice so soft and careful, “where I end and you begin.”

Toni gets a fleeting crush on a girl named Regan and ignores it until it goes away, because she can’t date a girl when Shelby’s in her body every Wednesday and might hate her for liking a girl in the first place. She can’t do anything that risks screwing things up with Shelby when she’s not just Toni’s most important person, she is Toni sometimes.

Shelby says yes to a date with Andrew during their sophomore year. Toni puts up with holding hands with him every now and then on Wednesdays but never kisses him. She knows Shelby does kiss him, because Shelby always tells her everything, so she gets to hear every detail and pretend she isn’t dying a little inside.

Toni doesn’t tell Shelby everything anymore, least of all that she’s pretty sure there’s a part of her that’s always been in love with her.