and beige scrunchies and bitten-down nails painted silver with glitter glue, which she peeled off at the end of the school day and collected in a pile on her desk, like snake scales. Shelly was my best friend, and she was shy, like me, so we were also each other’s only friend—but even if I’d had others, I would’ve loved her the most.
Shelly’s father was a mailman and her mother was religious. Her mother believed that God created the earth in six days and then took a nap, and that there was no Santa but there was an actual flesh-and-blood Devil, an angel called Lucifer with red skin and curved horns, and that if you got thrown into the fire you’d only need to sing Amazing Grace and God would make you fireproof, like water. Her father played Santa every year, dressing up with a beard and a fake belly, sitting kids on his lap at the local garden store, and because of his day job he knew a lot of the kids’ names, even some of their addresses, which kept them believing years longer than they would have otherwise.
I already knew her father was Santa and her mother was crazy—we were eleven, kids talked—but I acted impressed because that’s what Shelly wanted, or maybe because her soft, feathery voice made everything sound impressive. Around Christmastime, Shelly brought in a tin can with a slot in its plastic lid, collecting spare change for her church’s toy drive. For neglected children, she said. A lot of the teachers donated, and parents in the drop-off line, and a few boys who wanted a shot with her. And me. Shelly let me hold it while I shoved my quarters through the slot. I shook it and the coins jangled and I felt holier just by touching it.
My mom didn’t like me hanging out with Shelly, but she never said that. She said: That girl’s family is so interesting, and: Does she ever wear jeans? Every day at school, before the final bell, Shelly peeled off her glitter-glue nails, because her mother said that God doesn’t like it when girls pretend to be grown-up. Her mother said beauty begins and ends with modesty, but Shelly said God isn’t like that. I imagined God as a hummingbird flitting around her house, poking twigs and straw into the hollow of her chest, resting there sometimes. Her peeled-off glitter-glue nails had grown into a mountain of curled silver. I stole them when she wasn’t looking, placed them on my tongue, waited to see if they would dissolve and become part of me. When they kept their shape, I swallowed hard. Forced them down.
That spring, when Shelly invited me to a sleepover for her twelfth birthday, my mom asked who else would be there. I lied and told her all the other girls, too, Francine and Molly and Courtney, but when I showed up it was just us, Shelly and me, and wholesome snacks like apple slices and peanut butter, and Shelly’s bedroom with the door wide open so her mother could peek her head in. On her dresser, I noticed the tin can she’d used to collect coins over Christmas. It was still half full. There was a coloring page taped to the can, showing a woman with long hair bent over steepled hands: forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
Shelly’s mother thought we seemed too giggly, so she put on a video for us to watch. In the show, half of the kids in the world were gone, and the rest were wandering around searching for God in dumpsters and rose bushes and dresser drawers. That’s not really how it went, but I wasn’t paying attention. I was watching Shelly watch the show, her eyes reflecting the orange tongues of fire at the end. She hummed along with the song the kids were singing. It wasn’t Amazing Grace, it was something I’d never heard before, woods and forest glades, stars, trumpets. I didn’t see her father, not even once. There was no cake. Her mother gave us large chunks of watermelon topped with a swirl of reduced-fat whipped cream. She showed me where I would be sleeping: a lumpy couch in the basement, surrounded by storage bins and old books and an exercise bike. Mom was right, I thought, but I wasn’t sure what she’d been right about. I could feel the clump of silver nails sitting heavy in my stomach, hard and dense as a fist.
That night, when the house was quiet, when I’d already spent an hour tossing on the scratchy plaid couch, Shelly came downstairs for me. She was wearing a pajama top and underwear with tiny stars on them and the brown pleather purse she carried at school.
Shh, she said, showing me a tube of glitter glue she’d stolen from the art room. Red.
We sat face to face on the rug, cross-legged. She colored in my nails, then I did hers, and I felt God flickering between us, making our sin glisten like fish underwater. Shelly pulled out a twin pack of Hostess Cupcakes, each topped with a squiggle of white halos. How’d you get those? I asked, thinking of her cupboards full of shredded wheat and unsweetened applesauce and dried apricots, thinking of the watermelon, pale and seedless. Shelly giggled. They’re a gift from God, she said. I believed her. I wanted to know her God. She pressed her mouth to my mouth, and I could feel the pennies she’d stolen scraping against my teeth, hard and flat and round, the coppery taste of blood passing from her body to mine.
Lindy Biller is a writer based in the Midwest. Her debut fiction chapbook, Love at the End of the World, will be published by The Masters Review in Spring 2023. Lindy’s stories have recently appeared at Cobra Milk, jmww, Tiny Molecules, Fahmidan Journal, and Roi Fainéant Press. She can be found on Twitter at @lindymbiller.