All I can say is God bless Shelly.
There I was standing in the middle of the street. My blouse sopping with milk, arms draped across my engorged breast and I was on the verge of tears in embarrassment. Without missing a beat, Shelly whipped off her windbreaker.
“Shell, no,” I said. “I don’t want to ruin your nice jacket.”
“Oh, hush up,” she waved me off as she slid my arms into the sleeves and zipped the jacket up. “It’s washable. Besides, what kind of person would let their best friend walk around covering their breasts like they were doing the Scarlet Letter walk of shame?”
“Um, wasn’t the Scarlet Letter about adultery?”
“Gimme a break here, you know what I meant. This is a lot to process at one time and my brain’s running on automatic.”
“Imagine how I feel.”
“And stop looking so embarrassed, will you? This is totally natural for the mother of a newborn. Your baby is a newborn, isn’t it?”
I hesitated before answering, “I think so,” because I honestly had no idea.
“All right, we’ll save all the hard questions for later. The first order of business is to get you home so you can change,” Shelly said as she whipped out her phone and ordered a Lyft. “And you can show me this nameless baby of yours while we’re there.”
“My baby has a name,” I said defensively. “I just can’t remember it at the moment.”
“That was crappy of me. I’m sorry, Gingerbread.”
The car ride home was mercifully quick. Shelly was going on about something that I really wasn’t paying attention to because my breasts wouldn’t stop leaking and they hurt so much and the tacky feel of my blouse matted to my skin made me incredibly uncomfortable.
When we arrived at my address, Shelly stepped out of the car and stopped dead in her tracks.
“What’s the matter, Shell?”
“What the hell is this?” she said, staring past me, shell-shocked.
“Um, where I live?”
“No, it isn’t.”
“1561 Warburton Drive? Pretty sure I live here.”
“I don’t have a problem with the address, my problem is that it’s a brownstone.”
“You hate brownstones all of a sudden?”
“Yeah, especially when it’s supposed to be an apartment building.”
“Sweetie, you can’t afford to live in a brownstone, hell, you couldn’t afford it when it was an apartment complex. Do you not remember the argument we had when you first told me you were moving out of your parent’s house? I wanted you to share a place with me, 1) because how awesome would that be living with your bestie, and 2) it’s walking distance from college. But you wanted to live here in the hub of this faux bohemian artsy-fartsy mecca, with its posh bistros and designer boutiques…”
“Look, can we not do this right now? My breasts are killing me…”
“Ginge, you don’t live here! You share an overpriced converted one-bedroom flat with the weirdest group of people put on God’s green earth, Mina, Paul, Nancy, and the one who looks like a chipmunk, what’s his name…?”
“Chip, of course, how could I forget that? So, what I don’t understand is how can you remember not having an insta-family before this morning but not recall living with the Fratastic Four?”
“Of course, I remember them, but that was at the other place, before I moved here.”
“What other place? It was this place, only not in that building.”
“Shell, I really need to get inside. If I don’t nurse or pump I’m literally going to burst!”
“Yeah, okay, you know what, open that door. It’s your house, so you should have keys for it, right?”
I fished the keys out of my handbag and dangled them in her face. “Right here.”
“Great. Prove me wrong.” Shelly said, gesturing at the front door.
The key slotted in roughly and offered resistance when I attempted to turn it in the lock. Although Shelly said nothing, I felt her smugness pressing down on me. I gave the key a jiggle but it wouldn’t move. I jiggled harder and harder to the point of becoming frantic and just as I was about to admit defeat…the key turned and I felt the lock tumble. The house alarm system began beeping when I opened the door and without thinking about it, I stepped to the alarm panel and punched in a four-digit code to disable the house alarm. Four numbers that had no significance to me. My husband must have set the code.
I wanted to turn to Shelly and gloat but instead raced upstairs to the nursery. It was empty. I should have checked the rest of the house but instead, I went to the bathroom, ripping off the soiled windbreaker, soaked blouse, and saturated bra, and milked myself over the sink.
Eventually, Shelly entered the bathroom. I wasn’t embarrassed being topless in front of her, she had seen me naked before, we used to change in front of each other all the time, but even if she hadn’t, at the moment, I couldn’t have cared less. The entirety of my focus was on the relief from the pressure I was feeling.
“I had a little rummage around, I hope you don’t mind,” she said, showing off the fresh bra and blouse, as well as a brand new and unopened breast pump box and bra pads in her arms. “You’re going to have to get used to carrying these around with you as well as a spare t-shirt, just in case.”
Shelly helped me assemble the pump and read the instructions out loud.
“Shell, this might be a weird question but should I be concerned that my milk is thick and yellowish?” I asked as I took a seat on the toilet lid, positioned the breast shield over my right nipple, and started pumping at a slow speed.
Shelly was on her phone with a quickness, scouring the internet. “Is this the first time your breasts have leaked?”
“I think so.” I hated not having solid answers to the most basic of questions.
“Then it’s most likely colostrum, a sort of practice milk for newborns. Supposedly it’s more salty than sweet, but full of antibodies and protein to coat the baby’s stomach and intestines with antibodies. Your milk will eventually turn white, sweet, and sloshy after a couple of days when sugar enters it and pulls water into it.”
“I—I can’t thank you enough.”
“Stop it, it’s what we do for each other, right?” Shelly smiled for an instant before turning serious. “Since you seem more relaxed now, mind if I ask you a few questions? I just need to wrap my head around a few things.”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Who do you live here with?”
“My husband and baby, of course.”
“And where are they right now? Because the house is empty.”
“He must have taken the baby out for a stroll.”
“And you still can’t remember your husband’s name?”
“I—it’s right there on the tip of my tongue.”
“That’s a no, then. What about your baby’s name?”
“I know it, I mean of course I know it, but I just can’t recall it at the moment.”
“Okay, is it a boy or a girl?”
“It’s a…” I paused. “I don’t know.”
“But you’re sure it’s yours?”
“Let’s move away from your family for a second. Can you tell me what happened to your roommates?”
“I don’t know, maybe they’re still living together at the old place?”
“There is no old—” Shelly caught herself, regrouped, and continued. “Okay, how long ago did you live with them?”
“It’s been a while.”
“A while as in days? Weeks? Months? Years?”
“I don’t know, Shell! Who keeps track of stuff like that? Why are you so concerned about them?”
“Because I was in your apartment last week at this very same address when you still lived with them. Now, there’s an entire apartment building that’s completely vanished and so are all the people who lived it in. How do you expect me not to be concerned about them?”
“I’m sure they’re fine wherever they are.”
“I sure hope you’re right,” Shelly said, more to herself. “This next question might seem a little bizarre, but all things considered…”
“Just ask it.”
“Did you cornfield them?”
“Did I what?”
“Did you send them to the cornfield with some sort of latent wacky mental power that turns apartment buildings into brownstones and creates husbands and babies out of thin air? You know, like in that Twilight Zone episode with the Lost in Space kid.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this but I haven’t cornfielded anybody because it’s impossible but even if I could I wouldn’t do it because that would be cruel. When have you ever known me to hurt anyone in my life?”
“Tommy Preston, tenth grade.”
“I didn’t hurt him, he hurt himself by not taking no for an answer. How long have you kept his name locked and loaded for a moment like this?”
“I don’t know. He just popped into my head for some reason. But forget him, are you done pumping? If so, get dressed. I want to show you something.”
After giving myself a birdbath and putting on dry clothes, I followed Shelly from room to room, from the master bedroom to the nursery to the downstairs kitchen and living room, opening every closet, drawer, and cupboard. It felt slightly bizarre, her giving me a tour of my own house.
“I had a quick look around before I found you in the bathroom,” Shelly said. “Do you notice anything unusual?”
We were standing in the living room. I took a look around and answered, “No, not at all.”
“Really? Because it hit me almost instantly.”
“Can you just get to your point? It’s been a trying day and it’s not even half over yet.”
“Your house is pristine, Gingerbread. Nobody’s house is this perfect. A fully stocked home with a place for everything and everything in its place. Each room looks like a photograph copied and pasted from the Better Homes website. What it doesn’t look like is a house that’s lived in.”
I felt my defenses erecting again. “So, suddenly it’s a crime to keep a tidy house?”
“A tidy house is one thing, but this place makes Felix Unger’s spotless apartment look like Oscar Madison was the housecleaner.”
“How old are you? Do you have any references from this decade?”
“Shut up and stop acting like we don’t watch the same shows on Hulu,” Shelly said, walking over to the mantel above the bricked-in fireplace and plucking a framed photo from it. “How about this? Notice anything odd?”
Shelly placed the frame in my hands. It contained a photograph of me holding my newborn baby in a hospital bed with my husband standing beside me. An ordinary enough picture, except that the faces of my baby and husband were blurred out.
“The nurse took a bad photo, so what?” I said.
“Did that same nurse take all these as well?” Shelly gestured at all the frames on the mantel. In each one, while I appeared sharp and in focus, my husband’s face was either blurred or smudged or obscured by a thumb. “I only have one last question for you, Ginge.”
“What is it?”
“Who the hell are you married to?”
Not The End.