Chapter 1: Chapter 1
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.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Toni’s half asleep one night the summer before her junior year when she feels a jolt that brings her back to full consciousness. This time it’s not in her chest, though.
She colors rapidly, because this is a new one, and she’s only just stopped texting Shelby maybe half an hour ago—they’d talked about the basketball camp Toni’s currently attending, because at this point it’s routine that her mother sends her away for at least a couple weeks of summer, and Toni’d complained about how lame it is and how no one there actually takes basketball as seriously as she does even though her mother had sold it to her as a way to receive extra experience and coaching. Everyone else is just there for fun, not to get better, and even the “uniforms” they’d given them to play their practice games in had looked like cheap knockoffs; she’d sent Shelby a picture of herself in her lame, multicolored jersey as proof while she complained to her.
Toni swallows thickly and mulls her options over for a moment, lifts her head to look out at the other girls asleep in their bunks, and then groans quietly to herself and rolls onto her stomach, burying her face in her pillow. She thinks about texting Shelby, because if their roles were reversed Toni’d probably want to be tipped off, but then something occurs to her that makes her blood turn to ice: Shelby might not be alone.
It makes sense, actually, aside from the fact that Shelby’s talked about wanting to wait until marriage. Because certainly she’s done this alone before, and Toni’s never felt anything then, and even though it’s possible that this is just how it’s going to be now, that this is another change just like there have been so many changes between them before, it’s equally possible that it’s different now because this is the first time that Shelby isn’t alone, and maybe that’s made it way stronger now, or something; Toni wouldn’t have the sexual experience to know herself.
They’ve been so irrevocably connected for nearly thirteen years now and this is the first time that Toni starts to actively wish that they weren’t.
She ignores the receding heat in her lower abdomen and feels her bottom lip start trembling, and before she can help herself tears are leaking out of her eyes and soaking her pillow.
It happens again, a week later, and Toni’s home alone this time and can’t bring to herself to suffer through this over and over again, so she just snatches her phone up and decides to head it off before it can become a regular occurrence, texts Shelby, “Are you with Andrew right now?”
It takes her a moment to realize that if the answer’s yes then she’s probably not going to get a response, because Shelby’s definitely busy cuddling him or something. And then she wonders about what’d happen if Shelby wasn’t with Andrew after all, and what if she did reply, and what that would mean Toni’d be checking in on instead, and so of course it’s when she’s in the middle of processing that that she just gets a text that says, “Omg. That’s SO embarrassing. Toni I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
Toni’s stomach flips at the realization that Shelby’s figured out what’s going on, then plummets at the lack of a denial from her. “No big deal, this is only the second time. Sorry for interrupting you guys.”
She plans on setting her phone aside and sliding under her comforter to have another long, good cry, but her phone lights up seconds later. “I’m not with Andrew. Waiting until marriage, remember?”
Toni blinks at her phone, feels her sadness evaporate and swallows thickly, her fingers hovering over the screen. “Oh.” She sends that, hesitates, and then adds, “So I guess this is just how it’s gonna work now, then?”
Shelby just says, “I guess,” which doesn’t surprise Toni given how evasive and nervous she usually gets about anything remotely sexual.
She tries to play it off, sends, “It makes sense. It’s been happening with really strong feelings for a while now, and in a way this is just another really strong feeling.”
“Omg. Stop,” Shelby replies, and Toni actually laughs, feeling a little lighter.
“It’s natural. We’ll probably get used to it just like we have with everything else.”
“No way. I’m never doing it again.”
Toni chuckles, sends, “Well, it won’t stop me,” and the longer she thinks about it the more she knows it definitely won’t. “Let’s just agree to keep it to late at night so we don’t ambush each other in public or something. I don’t wanna get off in math class because you’re home sick that day and bored.”
“Stopppp,” Shelby says again, and Toni grins at her phone while she waits for her to finish typing another message. It takes a full minute, like Shelby’s hesitating. “Is it seriously, like, that strong?”
“Not THAT strong, but I felt it. Only for a few seconds.” She knows what she’s implying, that they both know that they only typically share those flashes of intense feelings, seconds long at most, but she doesn’t dare elaborate.
Shelby loses some of her shyness, apparently, and does it for her, “Great, so you can tell exactly when I have an orgasm. Perfect. NEVER again.”
“Okay, Shelby,” Toni sends, still grinning, and then sets her phone aside to go to sleep.
They get used to it.
Toni does it during church hours on Sunday just the one time, just because it’s too funny to not, and gets a text from Shelby an hour later that just says, “If I ever come to Minnesota it’ll be to murder you.”
“Try it, pageant princess,” Toni teases, even though she’s been on enough hunting trips with Dave Goodkind to hear all about how Shelby’s pretty deadly with a rifle.
The next Thursday, she wakes up back in her own body fresh off a Shelby day, sees herself in the bathroom mirror and stares at the giant target Shelby’s drawn on her forehead in permanent marker. She tries to wash it off, mostly fails, and has to skip school to avoid the humiliation while she works on getting rid of it.
“Okay, truce,” she texts Shelby that evening, and gets a request for a Facetime call in response. It’s their first one, and its only purpose is so that Shelby can laugh at her red, rubbed-raw forehead live and to her face. Toni can’t stop smiling anyway.
Martha brings up boys again on their next sleepover and asks Toni if there’s anyone she likes, and they’ve been friends for so long—longer than even Toni and Shelby—and so Toni finally cracks and tells a half-truth that’s been a long time coming, whispers quietly into the darkness of Martha’s bedroom, “I don’t like boys, Marty.”
“I’m happy you told me,” Martha says like she’s known for years; Toni starts to think that she definitely has, and that some of her boy talk has to have been a calculated effort to nudge Toni toward confessing the truth. “Is there anyone at school you’re interested in?”
Toni thinks of Regan, who’s always been around, always been pretty and lately has been glancing at Toni from the band section during her basketball games, but even more present is the thought of Shelby, who Toni knows she loves but also knows she’ll never have, because Shelby is straight and in Texas and kind of a part of Toni herself, in a way, so maybe it’s just not meant to be like that regardless of how Toni feels about her.
“Regan,” she offers, and Martha giggles at her.
“I knew it! I think she has a crush on you, too. You should ask her out.”
“Sure you can. Don’t worry about being nervous. If you want, I can help you out.”
“I really can’t,” Toni says firmly. “I think she’s cute but I don’t want to date anyone right now.”
“Toni, no one’s gonna be rude to you, and even if they are—”
“Just promise me,” Toni cuts her off, growing increasingly worried as she realizes what she’s just done. “I know it’ll sound weird. But promise me that on Wednesdays, we don’t talk about any of this.”
“What?” Martha asks, understandably bewildered, and Toni squeezes her eyes shut and tries again.
“Just on Wednesdays. Just don’t bring up any of this stuff.”
“If you say so,” Martha relents, never one to argue with Toni for long.
But Toni knows it’s only a matter of time now.
She decides to head it off after the third Wednesday in a row of panicking about Martha slipping up; calls Shelby on a Thursday night and tells her, “I need to tell you something,” with her heart pounding hard in her chest.
But Shelby’s completely distracted, doesn’t even seem to hear her and just rushes out, “I’ve been doing some research and I found something so completely fascinating, Toni; you have to hear this.”
So Toni just says, “Okay,” and waits.
“Alright, so. There’s this Greek myth that says that humans were originally created with four arms and four legs and two faces. But Zeus thought we were too powerful like that, so according to Plato, he split people in half and separated them. So we all have another half out there somewhere; a soulmate we’re meant to find someday so we can be reunited. And I was thinking: what if this happens to everybody and it’s just that no one ever talks about it? And what if us finally meeting in person is what’ll make this come to an end?”
Toni wants to challenge the idea that it happens to everyone, considering Martha’d seemed pretty lost the one time Toni’d brought up the idea of “going somewhere else” on a special day, but her brain gets stuck on one word instead.
“Soulmates,” she tries it out on her tongue. It all sounds so… romantic, and for a moment, she hopes. She hopes so hard that she doesn’t think before she speaks, that the question enters her head and then doesn’t stay there like it should. It slips past her lips and she blurts, “But do you like girls?”
She wants to crawl into a hole and never come out as soon as she realizes she’s said it aloud. There’s a long silence on the line and Toni thinks about apologizing, or maybe just hanging up, or maybe throwing herself off the nearest cliff.
Shelby finally says, “I think soulmates can be platonic, too,” but there’s a slight stiffness to her tone that hadn’t been there before.
“Yeah, me too,” Toni replies instantly, all hopes of coming out to Shelby dashed in that moment. “I’m glad you think so.”
And Shelby audibly relaxes, goes on, “Do you think it’s worth a try to meet up? We’d probably have to wait until after graduation, so it’d be nearly another couple of years, but maybe we should just do it and see what happens. It’d be nice to have our lives to ourselves, wouldn’t it?”
“I think we should try,” Toni makes herself agree, even though what she wants to say is Yeah, but I think I’d miss you.
Two months later, Toni realizes that Shelby knows.
She isn’t sure how it’s happened, or when—if Martha had slipped up on a Wednesday after all or, even worse, if Toni had said something to give herself away.
But she reflects one night, realizes that it’s been weeks and Shelby’s not talked about Andrew with her like she usually does even though she’s still dating him, or asked Toni if she’s interested in anyone at her school, and that she’s made a couple of comments about sneaking an episode of Queer Eye or about how she thinks Kate McKinnon was pretty funny in an SNL sketch she watched on Youtube.
Toni knows she knows and she also realizes that Shelby’s trying her best, so she takes a deep breath one evening and just sends the text: “Her name’s Regan and she’s in our school’s band.”
Shelby takes seconds to reply, “So that’s why she’s always looking at me! Want me to ask her out for you?”
Toni’s trembling for some reason, even though Shelby’s being so cool about this right away; she can still remember that stiffness on the phone: Shelby’s unspoken displeasure with being accused of being “like that” even if she acts like it’s fine that Toni is. “Very funny.”
“I’m serious. I’ve made you put up with Andrew. You deserve to be happy too.”
And the longer Toni thinks about it, the more she starts to grow fond of the idea of having a girlfriend, and even fonder of the idea of not even having to suffer through her own rejection, were it to ever occur. “Okay, then,” she says, calling what she thinks might be Shelby’s bluff, “you can do it.”
“I’ll get you a date this weekend,” Shelby promises.
That Wednesday, Toni gets a late-night text from her own phone while she’s in Shelby’s body; it says, “Check your text history tomorrow.” She goes to sleep torn, her stomach filled with butterflies at the thought of Regan but her heart sinking a little at the reminder that she’s not Shelby.
She wakes up to an extensive texting session with Regan: it’s clear that Shelby’d asked for her number, and there is text after text of them flirting back and forth—Shelby’s remarkably good at it and doesn’t seem uncomfortable at all, which is both bizarre and confusing, but Toni also knows she does theater and so she chalks it up to good acting. Shelby has played the role she needs to play, and she can see in the messages that she and Regan will be seeing a movie on Saturday night.
The date happens, and they make out in Regan’s car afterward, and for a few short hours Toni almost forgets about Shelby.
Regan and Toni are more physically affectionate than Andrew and Shelby; Toni notices right away and isn’t sure what to make of any of it: how often Regan kisses her at school, how they both constantly reach for each other’s hands or link their arms together, how Regan hops onto her back or pinches Toni’s hip or pulls Toni close just to give her a lingering hug.
It’s nothing like her experience with dating Andrew through Shelby; he never tries to kiss her, barely holds her hand, and only occasionally slings an arm over her shoulder. Compared to Regan, he seems detached and disinterested.
Toni gets worried that it’ll be too much for Shelby to handle once a week, because she definitely doesn’t want her to have to hold hands with a girl, or to have to awkwardly find ways not to kiss Regan on Wednesdays. But Shelby just seems happy for her, and never complains, and Toni shares stories about their dates and fills her in on what she and Regan talk about, just in case any of it ever comes up while Shelby’s living her life for her.
She thinks her feelings for Shelby will probably never fully go away, especially with them still swapping back and forth like they are, but she talks to her a little bit less and talks to Regan a little bit more, and when she’s with Regan she does less thinking about Shelby than she ever has.
Regan sleeps over one night when Toni’s mom isn’t home, and Toni’s told Shelby that it’s happening, so when Regan rolls onto Toni and starts pulling her shirt up, Toni feels hot everywhere and gives a brief thought to Shelby, to what she knows Shelby will feel if they keep going, to what she knows Shelby will know.
But Shelby is straight, and probably won’t even care, and had encouraged their relationship in the first place to the point of asking Regan out on Toni’s behalf. Toni lets Regan touch her, and touches Regan back afterward, and it’s clumsy and awkward but it’s how she always hoped her first time would be, even if she’d pictured it with someone else.
She lays awake afterward with wave after wave of overwhelming sadness crashing over her, and for the first time she can’t tell if it’s coming from herself or from Shelby. But it doesn’t make sense for it to come from Shelby, so she decides she must just feel worse than she thought she would about losing her virginity to a girl without blonde hair and green eyes. She vows to do better, to work harder at getting over Shelby and to focus more of her energy on Regan.
The next time she talks to Shelby, Shelby says, “Things are going well with Regan, right?” and it’s the closest either of them gets to acknowledging it.
“Yeah, it’s good,” Toni replies, and then they change the subject.
One night, Toni’s making out with Regan in her car again, slowly and carefully, and Regan squeezes her thigh and tells her, “You were so hot the other day.”
Toni’s cheeks burn and she just asks, “Yeah?”, kissing her neck instead so that Regan can keep talking.
“You’re never usually like that,” Regan goes on. “All, like… aggressive.”
Toni’s eyebrows furrow and she tries to think back and remember the instance in question. “Hmm.”
“I thought you were gonna start taking my shirt off right there under the bleachers.”
Toni freezes and pulls back immediately. “Wait, what?”
Regan laughs. “Relax, I don’t actually think you’d try to hook up at school, but it was just hot seeing you like that, is all.”
“Like what?” Toni says, her voice thick with the dawning realization of what’s happened, but Regan’s eyes go darker and Toni knows her tone’s been mistaken for something else. She uses it to her advantage, presses, “Tell me what I did.”
“Well,” Regan starts slowly, giving her a teasing kiss, “you found me at my locker, grabbed my hand and led me outside, and then pushed me up against the wall under the bleachers and kissed me. Like you hadn’t in forever and you couldn’t hold it back.”
Toni swallows hard and tries to sort through her emotions in half a second, feels anger and confusion at first, and then heat, and hope, and more confusion. “Was I a good kisser?” she breathes out, and she knows the question’s fucked up the instant she asks it, that this isn’t what she should be concerned with, but she feels her stomach flip when Regan nods at her. “Better than usual?”
Regan shakes her head this time, just says, “I like when you’re so passionate, though. It was just… different.”
Toni struggles with what to do with this information, whether she should confront Shelby or leave it be, and when she doesn’t bring it up the next time they speak it’s only mostly because she’s hoping Shelby will say something first. Shelby doesn’t, just goes on like usual, filling Toni in on the Trig test she’s going to have to take for Shelby next Wednesday—they’ve coordinated it so that they’re mostly taking the same classes this year, so Toni’s at least has Trig too to make it easier—and Regan’s name doesn’t even come up at all.
The following Thursday, Toni catches up to Regan in the hall and makes small talk for a minute or two before she screws up her face like she’s trying to remember something and asks, “Hey, did we kiss yesterday?”
Regan gives her a funny look and laughs a little. “Is that a genuine question you want me to answer?”
“It’s been a long semester; the days are starting to blur,” Toni thinks up. “Just trying to remember what happened on what day. Was movie night Monday or Tuesday?”
Regan laughs again. “You’re so cute. Monday was movie night, Tuesday I had band practice but you texted me afterward for a little while, and yesterday we didn’t hang out after school but you did give me a very nice kiss goodbye after I drove you home.”
Toni’s stomach flips and she blurts, “Who started it?”
“You were there,” Regan teases, and then tugs Toni toward her by her shirt. “You tell me.”
They kiss, briefly, right there in the hallway, and something about the way Regan melts against her a little like she wants Toni to lead it has Toni thinking she knows the answer.
She can’t hold it back the next time she gets Shelby on the phone, especially when she’s just sitting there on the line listening to Shelby ramble on in her thick southern accent about Dot Campbell trying to convince her to break up with Andrew because she thinks he’s cheating on her, like Regan’s nothing, like there isn’t something so much bigger going on that they should be talking about instead.
Toni probably should be tactful about this, given how sensitive a subject it is, but she feels her anger and frustration boiling over and she finally just blurts, “You’re cheating on him, though.”
Shelby falls silent for a moment, then sounds genuinely confused when she replies, “No, I’m not.”
“I know, Shelby,” Toni pushes. “I know about Regan. Did you think I’d never find out?” A wave of fear and panic in Toni’s chest doesn’t come from herself and she hurries to add, “I just think we should talk about it. Even if it’s just to talk about how she’s not your girlfriend. I don’t kiss Andrew—”
“You don’t even like Andrew,” Shelby cuts in sharply, and Toni falters.
Her next question is asked as gently as Toni can manage. “So you like Regan?”
“No!” Shelby blurts, and the panic in Toni’s chest flares; she hears it in Shelby’s voice, too. “No, but you do.”
Toni tries to process that one for a moment, not sure if she’s implying what it sounds like she might be. “Are you saying you can feel it?”
“I don’t know.” Shelby speaks quickly, like she wants to be talking about anything other than this. “I guess.”
“I don’t feel anything about Andrew,” Toni says, which is kind of a lie, because she actively dislikes him. She thinks through it some more, and what Shelby’s saying doesn’t make sense, because, “And I don’t like your friends any more or less based on how you feel about them.” When she’s Shelby, she kind of gets along better with her acquaintances like Dot more than she does Becca, even though she knows Shelby adores Becca.
“Well, I’m older,” Shelby fires back, “so maybe it’s just affecting me first or something. I don’t know.”
“It’s never—” Toni starts to say, because everything new has always begun for the both of them at the same time, but something about this conversation feels so uncomfortable, like it might cause more problems than it’s worth, and so Toni lets Shelby have this one for now, as much as she wants to pursue it, as much as she wants to ask about Shelby going from that stiffness on the line over ‘Do you like girls?’ to actively kissing one in Toni’s body. She pivots and says, “Okay, maybe. But you have to hold back with Regan. She thinks it’s me, so it’s like…” Toni wavers, because Shelby had been the one to ask Regan out, had flirted with her plenty, and must get along with her during the one day a week they hang out, and when Toni finishes her sentence it’s a question, instead. “…Isn’t it wrong?”
They’ve been like this since age three and it’s only escalating. Toni remembers Shelby years ago, whispering into the line, “Sometimes I start to forget where I end and you begin,” and she wonders if it’s even fair to think of think of them as separate individuals. She remembers Shelby’s response to hearing about Toni’s crush on Regan—“she stares at me,” Shelby had said, because she’s been living a part of Toni’s life for almost as long as Toni has.
Shelby hasn’t replied yet, and Toni’s throat feels like closing up. “Is she even mine?” she asks, and for a moment she feels like she imagines Shelby felt back in middle school, praying by her bed for answers from her God.
Regan's stared from afar for so long, at her face, at her body, watched her play basketball with skills she developed long before Shelby did even if they both have them now, even if they both share everything sometimes. But Toni’s seen the texts when it’s Regan and Shelby, and Regan is so happy then, too, and had said yes to a first date based on Shelby’s words, and her eyes get so dark when she talks about the way Shelby kisses her.
Toni thinks of Andrew, too, who’d just looked at her one Wednesday after a long conversation about sports like she’d surprised him a little and said, “You’re actually really cool sometimes,” and then went in for a kiss she’d had to make up a quick excuse to get out of.
“There are things she likes about you and things she likes about me,” Shelby says slowly, like she’s thinking it through, too. “Maybe it’s complicated. Sometimes it feels like we aren't really two different people, you know?”
“I see you as a separate person,” Toni confesses; she can’t not, given the feelings she still harbors, even if the lines feel more and more blurred by the day.
“Me too,” Shelby says, “but sometimes it feels like we don’t really count. Like it wouldn’t be cheating and like Regan and Andrew shouldn’t mind. They might not know it, but they like both of us.”
“Maybe that’s not for us to decide for them, then,” Toni offers.
“We can’t tell them, either.”
“I know.” Toni sighs into the phone and waits for Shelby to say more, and the silence stretches awkwardly between them. Toni feels anxiety spiking in her chest again and breathes out, “What is it?”
Shelby’s laugh sounds forced and surprisingly watery, and Toni realizes with a jolt that she must be holding back tears. “I forgot that you’d feel that.”
“We can’t hide much from each other,” Toni says kindly. “Believe me, I remember trying. And being so scared of what you’d think, worrying you’d hate me and we’d still be stuck doing this anyway.”
“I could never hate you, Toni,” Shelby whispers.
“I could never hate you,” Toni echoes, and closes her eyes and waits, feeling Shelby’s anxiety reflected in the way her own pulse continues to rise.
Shelby starts slowly. “There are lot of things I have to be when I’m in this body. Some of them I don’t always wanna be. Others I don’t wanna be at all.”
She pauses, like she wants reassurance that Toni’s still listening and that she understands, and Toni gives it to her. “I know.”
“The only time I ever truly feel free is when I get to leave it.”
Toni’s hand slips to her heart and she feels it pounding, and it takes a moment but she realizes this feeling’s coming just as much from herself as it is from Shelby now. “I thought you wanted this to stop.”
“Not for my sake,” Shelby confesses. “I wouldn’t wish my life on anyone.”
“You have a family,” Toni points out. “I was always jealous. I remember being a kid and loving how soft your bed was and all the stuff you had.”
Shelby gives a forced laugh. “I remember being jealous that you could run off somewhere for a whole day and no one would bother to come looking for you.”
“I like that you have siblings,” Toni blurts.
“I like that you can kiss girls,” Shelby whispers.
Toni closes her eyes and feels her heartrate slow, lets Shelby’s sadness wash over her and the pounding turn to a deep ache she feels all the way down to the tips of her toes.
“Regan likes us,” she decides.
“Don’t do that,” Shelby says. “Don’t choose me over her.”
“Shelby,” Toni murmurs, and she thinks this is the most honest she’s ever been with her, “I’ll always choose you over anyone.”
Shelby laughs but it sounds like she’s crying. “Me too, Toni. I’ll always choose you too.”
Toni’s eyes stay closed, and the ache in her chest gets stronger.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Shelby breaks up with Andrew over the summer and Toni doesn’t ask any questions when she gets filled in over text, just sends back, “Okay,” and hopes it’s what Shelby had wanted—to just have it accepted with no push for her to elaborate, because they both know what Toni knows and why it’s finally happened.
She knows a couple of other things, too: that Shelby’s parents come down hard on her about the breakup, because even Toni’s gotten a question or two about it on a Wednesday. And she knows about what goes on with Regan—vague things, because it’s only a comment or two over the course of several months, little remarks from her like, “I like when you kiss me here” about a spot Toni’s never really bothered with or the one time she says, “you’re less grabby today” on a Thursday, and Toni hates it a little bit, and hates herself a little bit too, because maybe she should feel guilty about the things Regan doesn’t know or frustrated that she’s sharing Regan with someone else or sad that in some ways Regan actually seems to prefer Shelby, but instead she just feels a desperate longing for the things Regan gets to feel that Toni almost certainly never will.
They’ve been together for almost a year by the time they reach New Year’s Eve, and when Regan pulls Toni outside onto Martha’s front porch to have a moment alone as the ball drops in New York City, she kisses Toni and then pulls away with furrowed eyebrows and asks, “Why is it that sometimes you seem insanely into this and other times it’s like you’re just going through the motions?”
Toni’s heart cracks and she says hoarsely, “I think we should break up.”
Later that night, once she’s on a pallet on Martha’s bedroom floor, she sends Shelby a text to let her know.
“Okay,” Shelby replies, and Toni wonders if Shelby’s on the other end wondering the same things that Toni once had, if Shelby hopes she’d done the right thing by not asking Toni why it’s happened.
Toni wouldn’t tell her the truth anyway: that she’s never loved Regan and that she worries Shelby does, and that a part of her only kept up the relationship for so long out of some twisted sense of duty to Shelby, because she knows it’s the only way Shelby could ever take the opportunity to be herself for just a little bit.
“Is it?” she sends back.
Shelby takes an agonizing ten minutes to reply. “It’s your life.” Toni thinks wryly that she’s never been so blatantly lied to before, and her mother’s told her plenty of obvious ones. “Happy New Year, Toni.”
They move forward like none of it ever happened, and the few times Toni brings up girls she finds hot—celebrities or some random girl on Instagram, never her actual classmates, never anyone real enough for her to actually date—Shelby just laughs or hums and doesn’t offer any substantial commentary of her own. Toni’s patient: she knows what she knows and that’s enough, for now, and so she just waits for Shelby to be ready to talk about it again.
Shelby gets into the University of Texas, and it’s the final step in a plan they’ve been working on ever since they decided they’d meet someday. Toni’d spent most of her junior year working her ass off in hopes of getting attention from a Texas university, and now they’ll both be going to the same college in the fall. Toni feels giddy when Shelby delivers the news over the phone, like her heart’s going to explode from joy, and she knows it’s too much emotion to just be coming from herself.
“Should we room together?” she wonders. “It might make things easier. We won’t have two different roommates to keep up with that way.”
“Assuming we keep swapping once we meet,” Shelby points out, and Toni feels some of her own happiness ebb a little.
“We don’t know for sure what’ll happen. Maybe just in case?” She convinces herself that she has no ulterior motives here, that it makes sense, but she feels like she’s still hiding something from Shelby anyway.
“Just in case,” Shelby agrees after a moment. “It is one less thing to keep up with.”
It turns out to be the right decision, because one day, about a couple of months after graduation and toward the tail end of their summer, Toni wakes up in Shelby’s body and it’s not a Wednesday.
It’s a Friday, and she’s just done this already two days ago, and then spent Thursday back in her own body. Toni blinks up at Shelby’s ceiling and panics a little, then fumbles for Shelby’s phone.
Shelby’d woken up first and so she already has a text waiting about it that just says, “Call me when you wake up.”
Toni does, listens to Shelby’s voice come out of her own mouth when she asks, “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know,” her own voice says back. “It’s Friday.”
“What do we do?”
“We can’t do anything,” Shelby reminds her, “except for get through the day.”
It feels foreign to Toni; she hasn’t done Fridays at Shelby’s in years, and thankfully it’s summer so there’s no set class schedule for her, but Shelby has to unexpectedly send her the plans for the day: she’s meeting Becca at the pool, and then in the afternoon she’s supposed to go see a movie with Shelby’s family, and then they’re getting dinner at Spencer’s favorite restaurant because he’d gotten his tonsils out a while ago and it’s his first day of being able to eat solid foods again.
Toni breathes a sigh of relief when she wakes up on Saturday back in her own body, then calls Shelby and briefs her on what she’d missed on Friday, and gets her own briefing from Shelby in return. But she carries a ball of anxiety in her chest for the rest of the day and can tell that Shelby does too.
On Sunday, she wakes up in Shelby’s bed again, and she knows right away that this is how it’s going to be now. She curls up into a ball, slides the comforter over her head, and cries quietly.
Shelby calls her at noon and says, “I think it’ll go away when we meet,” but Toni hears in her voice that she isn’t certain.
“I don’t know if I can do it when it’s like this,” Toni replies, and for the first time she hopes Shelby’s right about them finding a way to end it somehow. “We aren’t gonna get to be ourselves anymore if it stays this way. We won’t get to live our own lives. I wanna play ball professionally. You wanna teach. How can we do that like this?”
“We’ll just take it day by day,” Shelby murmurs quietly, like she’s trying to keep Toni calm. “Just make it through today. We can call each other first thing every morning and catch up. We’ll adapt. Just like we’ve adapted to everything else, right? It’s gotten worse before and we always made it work.”
“It’s every day,” Toni breathes out. “Every day, and it won’t even be the same days each week; it’ll switch so we can’t even get a regular schedule going—”
“I know, Toni,” Shelby interjects sharply, and Toni feels the panic creeping into her tone a little. “We just have to do our best.”
The rest of the summer crawls by, and slowly but surely, Toni adjusts. She splits her time equally between her own family and Shelby’s now, between Martha and Becca, between Minnesota and Texas, between pickup games and pageantry. She feels herself split into two halves, feels her brain filing away Shelby stuff and Toni stuff, accessing what she needs every other day and leaving the unneeded files tucked away into the back of her brain. She settles fully into her new double life.
They’d gone from one in about every thirty days or so to one in every seven last time: from one day a month to four or five days a month. It goes up to fifteen days a month and everything picks up speed, like they’d always been headed toward something and like now they’re hurtling there instead. Martha laughs at Toni once when she slips into a southern accent, and Toni gets the urge to do her own makeup and has to actively fight against it and remind herself that it’d be out of character if she followed through, and one night words swim around in Toni’s head until she looks them up and realizes they’re from a book Shelby’s listed as one of her favorites.
She sits on the floor by her bed with her head tucked between her knees after the last one and whispers, “You’re Toni Shalifoe, your birthday’s March 31st, you live in Minnesota and your best friend is Martha Blackburn,” and any other facts she can think of until they replace the lines from the book she’s never read.
Shelby texts her the same night: “This is getting scary.”
“I’m scared too,” Toni sends, and now more than ever this feels like a curse rather than a blessing, but it helps to know that Shelby is out there somewhere going through it too, feeling just as worried and confused as Toni is.
She goes to sleep and dreams of them meeting and of all of it going away the instant their fingertips touch, and it makes the next day a little easier.
She waits for the day she can finally make the trip to Texas.
It turns out that Toni’s in Shelby’s body on the day of her flight, so she spends it packing up the last bit of Shelby’s things with the help of a written list Shelby’s left by her bedside. She loads it all up into Shelby’s car with the help of Dave and Jobeth, who follow her in a car of their own as she makes the two-hour drive to the University of Texas.
Shelby’s moving in the day before Toni, and she thinks wryly to herself that she’s going to have to do this two times over, but she throws herself into it anyway, gets everything set up the way she knows Shelby would like—both from experience and from instinct—and then hugs Shelby’s parents goodbye. Jobeth’s tears leave a wet spot on her cheek.
She walks around campus in the evening when they’re gone, resists the urge to text Shelby given that she knows she’s on a plane anyway, and eats dinner alone at one of the on-campus dining halls. A boy checks her out while she’s there and she almost gives him a sour look but the urge fades before she can act on it. Two months ago she’d have done it, and she knows it’s the ever-growing Shelby side of her that keeps it at bay. She wonders idly how long it’ll take before being in love with Shelby officially makes her a narcissist.
She texts Shelby pictures of their dorm before she lays down to sleep, but her heart is pumping so hard that she lies awake until midnight. The clock hits 12:00 AM and with a tug on her chest she’s suddenly in a hotel room, back in her own body with her eyes open; evidently Shelby hadn’t been able to sleep, either.
The midnight thing hadn’t been a hard and fast rule back at once a month, or even at once a week, but it’s been consistent since they’ve progressed to every day. Toni doesn’t mind it; it makes things simple, even if it’s also led to some abrupt and uncomfortable transitions like the one they’d just had.
Her anxiety and the building anticipation of finally meeting Shelby in person keeps her up for another hour, but finally she lets her eyes flutter shut. When she wakes up, it’s to an early alarm, and right away she grabs the two suitcases she’d brought with her and calls an Uber to the storage unit she’d had her stuff flown and delivered to a couple of weeks ago. She beats the U-Haul there by half an hour and then gets another Uber after it’s all been loaded up, and follows the U-Haul all the way to the dorm she recognizes from the day before. She texts Shelby with trembling thumbs that she’s arrived, and Shelby texts back that she’ll come down to help Toni and the movers bring her stuff up, even though they both know the heaviest things in the truck are a desk chair and a nightstand and that the movers have it more than handled.
What winds up happening instead is that Shelby arrives and gives them her room key, since Toni doesn’t have hers yet, and Toni hangs back by the U-Haul with her eyes a little wide and her face hot while she watches the exchange, because Shelby’s one thing in a mirror or a picture or on camera, or even when Toni’s viewing her through Shelby’s own eyes, but she’s another entirely like this: in person, and separate from Toni, and interacting with people; Toni realizes right then that she’s never seen Shelby talk to anyone else aside from herself and that it isn’t the same. She doesn’t look at them like she looks at Toni, doesn’t smile quite as widely or light up quite as easily or laugh quite as loudly.
Her eyes slide to Toni once the movers are gone, and Toni gives her a tentative wave. “Hey.”
Shelby practically fast-walks to her and throws her arms around Toni with so much force that Toni collapses back against the truck a little. Her arms encircle Shelby’s waist and then tighten, pulling her closer, and they clutch each other for several long seconds, just breathing together. Toni tucks her face into Shelby’s neck and feels her heart racing and her stomach doing somersaults, and everything in her longs to get closer somehow, to press into Shelby until their bodies start doing what their minds have been doing for years now.
“I’m sorry,” she says after a long moment, when she still hasn’t made a move to release Shelby and she starts to worry that she’s forced this to go on for too long, and Shelby just shakes her head.
“Don’t let go.”
Toni closes her eyes and holds Shelby close, wonders if this is the moment, if it’s all over now and if they’re going to stay in these bodies forever. The thought is bittersweet, but the sweetness wins out when Toni thinks about spending the next few years at Shelby’s side with them both living separate lives. She knows she’d miss the connection, but at least they’d both have some semblance of freedom. And maybe when they aren’t so consumed with swapping, maybe after Shelby’s had enough time away from her parents and can get to a place where she can be herself as herself… maybe then there’s a chance they’d…
“Do you think it’s over?” Shelby asks, because of course she’s thinking about it too.
“I don’t know. I guess we’ll see tonight.”
Toni waits for Shelby to release her first, but it doesn’t happen, and it’s not until the movers show up for the next round of Toni’s things that they both pull away at once to avoid having an audience. Shelby’s fingers brush over Toni’s anyway and linger like she wants to keep the physical connection between them, and Toni feels warm.
They ascend the several flights of stairs to their dorm room, and Toni sees that the room across the hall has the door propped open when they arrive. A girl with dark hair peers out at them and then gives them a friendly smile, “So this is Toni?” she asks Shelby, giving Toni a once-over. Toni spots a brunette girl sitting in the background behind her, watching the exchange silently with a book in her lap. “I’m Fatin, and that’s Leah.”
“They just got in this morning,” Shelby explains to Toni. “We figured we’d all get lunch and explore campus this afternoon.”
“Sure,” Toni agrees, nodding at Fatin and Leah. “Nice to meet you.”
“You guys randoms or do you know each other?” Fatin asks. “Leah and I went to high school together.”
“Randoms,” Shelby says before Toni can decide how to answer. “We got matched up over the summer and got to know each other beforehand, though.”
“Thought so,” Fatin says with a smirk. “You seemed local with that accent and Toni doesn’t have one. Anyway,” she glances back to Leah, “as you can see, my roommate has the communication skills of an antisocial child, but she’ll start speaking once you get to know her. I’ll let you two finish your move-in. Just knock when you’re ready to walk around.” Leah scowls at Fatin as Toni watches their door close.
The rest of the day goes smoothly: Toni finishes unpacking with Shelby’s help, and they laugh their way through commentary on each other’s closets, recognizing almost everything they’ve placed in them. Toni tries not to stare at Shelby, even when they join Fatin and Leah in exploring the campus, and Fatin gives Toni a sly look while Leah and Shelby are distracted upon discovering the university library and mumbles to her, “Be more obvious; I don’t think you’ve burned any holes in her face yet.”
Despite the callout, Toni and Fatin get along well, and it’s clear by dinnertime that Leah and Shelby share several interests, too. By the time Toni and Shelby are turning in for the night and preparing to change into pajamas, Shelby’s deciding, “I like them. I think we’ll all be good friends this year.”
“Good friends, yeah,” Toni echoes, glancing from the tank top and shorts in her hands to where Shelby’s still digging through her own closet. She hesitates for a moment, then turns around to put her back to Shelby and pulls her shirt over her head. She feels eyes on her back right away and hears the shuffling sounds by the closet pause for a brief moment before they resume. Toni’s whole body feels hot as she takes off her sports bra next, and then tugs her pants down and off.
It’s as she’s wriggling into her tank top that she hears Shelby ask, “Is it weird if we see each other?”
Toni freezes and then glances back, sees Shelby’s eyes right on hers and her pajamas in her arms. “I don’t know.”
“Just since,” Shelby says slowly, “I mean… we’ve seen it before. Hundreds of times.”
Toni feels the tension between them pull tight like a rubber band, and immediately seeks out a way to ease it. “So you’re saying I should just stare at you while you change, right?”
It works; Shelby smiles and rolls her eyes. “I’m just saying that it shouldn’t be weird, is all.”
“Okay,” Toni says, but she makes sure she’s facing away from Shelby when she pulls down her boxers anyway, mostly so that Shelby can’t see her blushing. She pulls the pajama shorts on afterward and when she turns around Shelby’s got her shirt halfway up over her face. Toni swallows thickly at the sight of her bra, then gets distracted when Shelby seems to struggle with her shirt for a moment. “Need help?” she asks, stepping closer and reaching out, but Shelby tugs it off at last and then lets it drop to the floor with a glare at it, and Toni’s just left standing awkwardly in front of her, her arm falling uselessly to her side. “Oh. Never mind.”
“That one’s always tough,” Shelby says like she’s talking just to speak, and Toni glances down, identifies the article of clothing all over again and remembers it. Shelby’s right.
“Yeah, it’s tight around the…” She gestures to her ribs and Shelby nods, and then they just stare at each other for a moment, and Toni feels her whole body getting hot and her brain starting to scream at her to step away before things get any stranger.
She’s about to force her feet to move when Shelby abruptly reaches back and unhooks her bra, and it drops away from her front immediately and lands on the floor atop Shelby’s shirt. Toni’s mouth goes dry and her eyes flicker downward and then back up to Shelby’s. Shelby chews on her lip and stares right back, and when their eyes lock Toni feels an unbearable heat roar through her, find a home in her chest and then rush down to her abdomen. After years of this, she recognizes its strength: too much—just like sadness and joy and anxiety before it—to have come from just herself.
“You’re right,” she blurts out anyway, so incredibly nervous, “it’s less weird when we’ve seen it before.” But she lingers anyway, her hands itching to reach out, the fire inside of her twisting and coiling and spurning her on so strongly that it feels painful to fight it.
“Do you think there’s something else,” Shelby asks her, too quietly, “that we have to do to make sure we don’t switch back?”
If Toni’s mouth was dry before, now she feels completely parched. “I don’t know. Like what?”
“I don’t know,” Shelby echoes, but like she does know.
“I don’t know, either,” Toni says again, but the connection between them feels stronger than it’s ever been, after switching every day for weeks now and then spending the day together, and now standing so close with just inches of space between them. And it’s only been a few hours of them trying to exist in the same physical space, but Toni can already feel a whisper in the back of her mind, swirling around and growing stronger, and she can’t discern what it’s saying but she can feel the intent in it, the wanting tone and the way it pleads with her. “I think I hear you,” she confesses before she can think about it.
“Okay,” Shelby whispers, and Toni feels their fingers brush and then slide together, intertwining. “Me too.”
Toni’s eyes drop low again and this time she follows her instincts, lifts her hand and feels Shelby’s breath catch when it ghosts along her collarbone, but it settles over Shelby’s heart, ultimately, and Toni feels it pounding hard in time with her own. Toni swallows thickly again, drags her eyes back up to Shelby’s face and says, “Whether anything we try works or not, we’re our own people. This has always been yours.” She brushes her thumb over Shelby’s skin, over the pulsing organ beneath her palm. “It’ll always be yours.”
“Toni,” Shelby breathes out, like she’s letting out something she’s been holding in for years now, like she’s been waiting until the moment she could finally look Toni in the eyes and say it, “it’s never been mine.”
Then she tugs Toni in by their intertwined fingers and reaches out for her cheek, bringing their mouths together.
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
Bumped up to M just in case for this final chapter, but it's definitely a soft M.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Toni’s thoughts explode into a mess of sensations and colors and clipped words—she hears Shelby’s voice in her head: a fleeting, half-moaned, “I want—” before she’s distracted by the desperate heat spreading out to her fingertips and her toes, and then there’s the overwhelming urge, again, to press herself into Shelby until they’re impossible to separate, to be inside of her, and the last part isn’t even intended to be sexual until Toni’s brain thinks the words over and then it very much is; it’s all she can think about.
“I heard that,” Shelby pants into her mouth even as she pulls Toni closer, and Shelby’s voice sounds so low and so unlike Toni’s ever heard it, and there’s something so incredibly thrilling about discovering something new about Shelby after so many years of knowing her inside and out.
“Good,” she blurts, and they kiss again, fast and frantic at first like they need to get it out of their systems, and when it finally slows a little Toni tries to take in everything and finds that it’s too much, that her senses feel overloaded: she can hear longer sentences in her head now, phrases like “we should be on the bed”, and she can feel Shelby’s annoyance at the fact that she wants her hands on Toni but also needs them to take her pants off, and Toni’s skin burns in all the places she’s being touched but also in the same places she’s touching Shelby’s, and most overwhelming is the love; it fries her brain once she acknowledges it and it makes her feel like her body alone isn’t strong enough to contain it. Shelby loves her and she can feel the strength of it, like it’s been held back for so long and the dam has finally been allowed to burst.
She steers Shelby toward one of the beds and for half a second her mind goes to Regan, wonders about Regan and Shelby and if they’d ever—And she doesn’t even complete the thought before a confident denial echoes in her head and she feels a desperate longing pouring out of Shelby’s heart into hers, telling her nonverbally that it’s always been her, that Shelby’s always wanted it to be her and that she’d only kissed Regan because it was the closest she could get to Toni.
Toni says the words aloud because she thinks they need to be said, lowers Shelby onto the bed and murmurs, “I’m sorry,” against her lips, thinking of that overwhelming sadness on the night she’d lost her virginity, and of how she’d felt it over and over again after every time with Regan and had taken so long to put a stop to it anyway. “I just wanted you too. I’m sorry I didn’t wait.”
She feels a dozen regrets sweep through Shelby, too, and she can feel that Shelby wants to voice them but she knows right away that they both know Shelby doesn’t have to, because Toni’s spent too many days under the Goodkind’s roof, so happy to have a real family for the day but so sad with the knowledge that they’d never accept the real Shelby.
They communicate everything in seconds, through fleeting, frantic emotions and broken, silent phrases, and Toni’s mouth stays pressed to Shelby’s all the while, still kissing her intensely and trying to hold herself back from moving too quickly even though the instant she has that concern everything in her mind and body screams at her in response that Shelby wants her to keep going.
She gives a brief, half-second thought to how quickly they can both communicate like this and how easily she can feel what Shelby feels, and what that might mean if they really went through with this, if she unbuttoned Shelby’s pants and then knew just how—And she doesn’t finish that thought, either, because Shelby arches into her and whimpers and then Toni is frantically peeling clothes away and Shelby is helping her, and Toni is right; it’s surreal and mind-blowing and almost magical, touching Shelby and feeling what she feels—both the touches and the emotions—and everything about it is so raw and unfiltered.
They don’t speak because they don’t have to, because Toni knows everything and feels everything without having to be told about it, and it doesn’t last long at all but Toni feels sparks below her navel as it ends, so much more intense than when they’d done this alone with several states between them. Toni doesn’t count the seconds when it’s her own turn, but by the time Shelby rolls them over and touches her, she can hear Shelby’s thoughts loud and clear like they’re her own, and the running mental commentary about her own beauty combined with half-finished, carnal thoughts about how exactly Shelby feels about doing this with her leaves Toni pretty certain that this time it’s even more short-lived than Shelby’s turn had been.
They stay pressed together beneath the covers afterward, and Toni feels overwhelmed with Shelby’s mouth at her neck and Shelby’s voice murmuring, “again, again, again,” in the back of Toni’s mind. More haphazard words and phrases toss themselves around and Toni catches “taste” and it feels harder for her to breathe, suddenly. Shelby’s mouth dips lower, to her collarbone, and then lower again, and Toni doesn’t stop her; in fact she’s certain this is going both ways, that Shelby can hear every fleeting thought she has too and knows exactly how Toni feels about this, because her cheek feels hot when Toni reaches down a minute later to gently cup her jaw.
Eventually they pass out sometime before midnight, tangled up in each other with their hearts still thrumming in tandem, and as Toni falls asleep she doesn’t think at all about what might await them in the morning, far too focused on the girl in her arms and the way Shelby’s eyes are so dark and warm and soft when they look into her own.
They have a few more days before classes start and no plans the following day beyond a vague commitment to hang out with Fatin and Leah again at some point, so neither of them has set an alarm. Toni wakes up sometime just before noon to Shelby adjusting her position at Toni’s side, and feels a gentle hand run through her hair and settle at her cheek as her eyes start to flutter open.
She blinks until her vision comes into focus, and they’re still pressed together tightly in the same way they’d fallen asleep, Shelby’s slightly longer legs tangled with Toni’s, an arm that belongs to Shelby’s body thrown over a waist that belongs to Toni.
Toni looks at dark hair and brown eyes and squeezes her own eyes—Shelby’s eyes—shut immediately, feeling her own sense of hopelessness mixing with Shelby’s emotions. She feels her own lips pressing against the forehead of the body she’s now stuck in for the day, and her own raspy voice murmuring a quiet, “Let’s just stay here for a while, Toni.”
Shelby’s thoughts still echo faintly in her head after last night and Toni listens to them for a while, hears her wondering if anything will ever fix this and cycling through every concern about how this will affect them if it goes on forever. Shelby gives a fleeting thought as to whether or not it’d be strange for them to kiss when they’re swapped like this, and when Toni gives a short, dry laugh at that, Shelby seems to remember that her thoughts aren’t entirely private anymore, and Toni watches her close her eyes and hears her trying not to think at all.
“I don’t think you can hide it like that,” she murmurs, and when Shelby opens her eyes Toni studies them for a moment, stares at her own face and finds it’s already starting to feel like it’s their face now, after doing this daily for a while—or maybe it’s just that she’s cynical enough to already be on her way to accepting that things aren’t going to change. “I don’t know if it’d be weird,” she murmurs, addressing Shelby’s earlier concern. “After a while won’t it start to feel like we’re both just us? I mean, we’ll always know where we started and where we spent more time, but by the time we’ve graduated we’ll have spent two years in each body. We’re probably close to six months total right now and we’re already like this. It’ll just get stronger.”
“You’re already talking about it like it’s a foregone conclusion,” Shelby notices.
“What else is supposed to fix it?” Toni wonders.
“I don’t know,” Shelby replies, but Toni hears her thinking about them having a repeat of last night when they’re like this, like maybe it needs to happen both ways for some reason. Shelby doesn’t seem thrilled by the thought.
“Hey,” Toni says, and when she earns Shelby’s focus she gives her a sly grin, trying to cheer her up. “Do you think it’d technically count as masturbation?”
Shelby huffs and slaps her on the arm. “I’m gonna hate having you in my head, aren’t I?”
They don’t try it, not at first, and everything gets even more difficult when classes start the following week. Toni has practices too, and right away she feels the impact of their situation on Shelby’s life—Shelby doesn’t say anything aloud but Toni hears enough broken thoughts about a Christian sorority on campus to put together that Shelby’d considered joining it at first and then had decided it’d be too much to add to their plate.
“Join it anyway,” Toni insists at the end of their first week, and Shelby just smiles sadly at her and shakes her head. Toni joins it for her the next time she’s in Shelby’s body, and they have their first big fight over it: Shelby shouts at Toni out in the parking lot that she doesn’t get to choose for the both of them, that they have to discuss things like this now and make a joint decision, but then she doesn’t quit the sorority, either.
They both make friends—mutual ones, like Fatin and Leah, but also separate ones, like the girls from Toni’s basketball team or the girls in Shelby’s sorority. Except they aren’t really separate, of course, and Toni dislikes some of the basketball girls Shelby gets along with, and actually likes a couple of the sorority girls Shelby doesn’t tend to speak to.
They take turns attending each other’s Monday-Wednesday-Friday and Tuesday-Thursday classes every other week, but it’s not as difficult as Toni thought it’d be. There is some part of their minds that has become shared, or maybe has always been shared and has just grown stronger now. Toni knows things sometimes she only could’ve learned in Shelby’s classes even though she’s confident she hadn’t attended the relevant session.
It feels strange calling Shelby her girlfriend, but they go out together too, on days when they’re in the right bodies. Fatin barges in on them making out on Toni’s bed one night and gives a sharp gasp as they break apart, then beams at them and goes, “Oops. Shocker, the twins are also both into each other. Have fun!”
Toni looks at Shelby once they’re alone and asks, “Was that okay?”
Shelby gives her a reassuring nod. “It was bound to come out eventually. I can hardly keep my hands off of you.” Toni gives a stray thought to Shelby’s parents and Shelby clarifies right away, “I don’t know when I’ll tell them. But I feel safe here. And I don’t expect them to do much visiting.”
“Okay,” Toni concedes, and then she thinks back to Fatin’s words and adds, “I always thought we were really different.” She feels like something’s shifted that she’s missed, lately.
Shelby kisses her and then says, “Yesterday I was eating lunch and I burped so loudly it turned heads. Didn’t even put my hand over my mouth.”
Toni laughs and recalls, “I don’t hate everyone like I used to. And I don’t get angry nearly as easily.”
“I think that could be a good thing,” Shelby replies, cupping Toni’s face in her hands and kissing her again. “Maybe it’s not all bad.”
Toni reflects on the past few weeks with a slow exhale, letting her eyes dip to Shelby’s soft smile. It hasn’t been easy, but they’ve been making it work. And she’s so quickly gotten used to having Shelby as such a constant part of her body and mind that she starts to think she might feel incomplete without her. “I don’t hate it,” she agrees. “I wake up sometimes and know about most of your day without you having to fill me in.”
“Your face is still the face I fell in love with,” Shelby tells her quietly, “but the more time I spend in your body the more I start to feel like what I actually love is…” Shelby furrows her eyebrows. “Your spirit? Soul? Whatever you believe makes us what we are on the inside.”
Toni thinks it over, pictures something ridiculous like Fatin suddenly being thrown into the mix; she isn’t Toni’s type at all but she imagines Fatin and Shelby in each other’s bodies and knows right away she’d only have eyes for wherever the real Shelby wound up. “Me too,” she confesses. “I love the way you look. I think you’re insanely pretty. But I think I’d love you no matter what.”
“What are we getting at, here?” Shelby asks gently, and her thoughts are guarded and quiet, like she’s trying to keep her mind blank to keep Toni at bay.
“I think we’re thinking the same thing,” Toni confesses. “But I also think that if it doesn’t work, I’m not going to be heartbroken over it.”
Shelby nods a silent agreement, but her eyes skate over Toni’s face and Toni can see and feel that she’s nervous. “Maybe with the lights off, though,” she suggests.
“Yeah.” Toni gives a forced laugh.
They wait until close to midnight but start beforehand, lay out on Toni’s bed and kiss and touch with Toni overtop of Shelby, and when the clock hits 12:00 AM Toni feels the familiar tug at her chest, squeezes her eyes shut and then feels a soft mattress under her back and hands touching her new body where she’d been touching Shelby’s.
“Okay?” Shelby checks, and Toni hears her own voice and thinks very loudly that Shelby shouldn’t speak, gets a wave of amusement in her chest that she knows comes from Shelby but then Shelby goes quiet and just kisses her for a while, and the strangeness goes away much faster than Toni thought it would, especially with it being too dark for either of them to really see each other.
They lay together afterward, like always, and Toni stares up at the ceiling with wide eyes, because it really had been different, but in a way she hadn’t anticipated—Shelby’s body is a little different from hers, feels things a little differently, and she’s just felt something that’s so intimate in the way that Shelby feels it. She can’t stop thinking about it.
“I don’t think I want to fix this,” she whispers, finally, and Shelby’s dark eyes flutter open to look at Toni’s pale cheek. “I don’t want you to go.”
“Whatever happens,” Shelby murmurs, tangling their fingers together, “I’m not going anywhere.”
They have to wait two days to find out, because of course they swap back to their own bodies the next day, and on the morning after that Toni wakes up, turns her head, and sees blonde hair fanned out over her pillow. She feels relief flood her chest and she bites back a smile.
Shelby wakes up a few minutes later and rolls over so that they’re facing each other, and they both stare for a long while, Toni into brown eyes and Shelby into green.
“So,” Shelby breathes out after a long while, “I guess that’s it, then.”
She doesn’t sound disappointed, or uncertain, or afraid, and Toni just nods at her. “I guess so. For now.”
“For now,” Shelby echoes, and then looks thoughtful. “Yeah. Maybe for now.”
“Maybe forever,” Toni wonders, pondering it too. Even after everything they’ve done, all of the days they’ve spent swapping and the things they’ve made happen, there are still no answers. Toni has no clue why this ever started, and why them, and why like this. But she mulls it all over and slowly concludes that they may just never get an explanation.
“I think that’s okay,” Shelby says, maybe responding to Toni’s words or maybe reading her mind.
Toni lifts a hand to her chest, feels Shelby’s heart beating beneath her fingertips like she’s felt it dozens of times before. She hears Shelby’s thoughts, echoing Shelby’s words and confirming that she means them, and she feels a calmness in herself that she knows is reflected in the girl laying feet away from her.
“It’s okay,” she agrees, and means it.
There’s a spot they’d visited during their first weekend on campus, on the rooftop of the university library. Shelby’d found it and taken Toni there on their first official date, laid out a blanket and watched the stars with her.
They go there that night, just before eleven o’clock; there’s a clocktower on campus nearby that they can see clearly from their spot on the roof, and it chimes eleven times while they’re lying together, holding hands with Shelby resting her head on Toni’s chest.
They talk about everything, even though talking’s becoming less and less of a necessity each and every day, given how quickly they can read exactly what they’re both thinking and feeling. Toni wonders about the future, about the basketball career she wants, but makes sure to let Shelby know that she isn’t worried, because Shelby’s always been better at three-pointers than Toni anyway. Shelby talks about being a music teacher and reassures Toni that she’s just as good as Shelby is now at hitting the right notes when she sings.
“I like being called Shelby sometimes,” Toni confesses eventually, her eyes skating over the night sky. “It feels like I’m being confused for something bigger and better than myself.”
“I like being called Toni,” Shelby says, “because it reminds me that I’m not alone.”
Toni bites back another smile and gives a light shake of her head. “You were never alone, Shelby. Ever.”
She feels Shelby squeeze her hand, hears warm thoughts bouncing around in her mind with Shelby’s voice behind them, and feels love emanating throughout her chest in slow, comforting waves.
It’s almost midnight.
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