Women's Health

Bailey Cunningham

Shelly is fifteen years old, and she is alive today. Shelly is only sometimes alive. Sometimes she is dead.

In the bleachy mall light, a girl’s land looks so very big. Shop entrances line the walls, portals into mysterious and expensive worlds. There are hoodies and yoga pants stretched over invisible bodies, heels the height of pinecones, five-step soap kits. At the center of the walkways, vendors write initials into grains of rice. A cart offers samples of mint pops. 

Every few moments Shelly taps her jeans pocket, the one holding her father’s credit card. She isn’t sure, but she speculates this is where the good part of the world starts.

“I hate him,” Shelly’s friend, Danielle says beside her. “I thought I loved him, but now I know I hate him.” Danielle has long hair dyed the color of a swamp and shiny eyes like two drawn arrows pointed right at you. In five weeks and two days, Danielle will encounter a man as she is walking home from school. The outcome of this event is still unknown.

“I hate him too,” Shelly agrees. She clicks her heels on the linoleum. The tiles are so shiny she can see herself vaguely reflected in them, a halfway girl. The man she has agreed to hate is Mr. A, her sophomore-year history teacher.

Across the way, a security guard grinds something small beneath her shoe. She pockets a silver gum wrapper and does a big swallow. Her neck bones ripple inside their vase.

In six years and four months, Shelly’s little sister Ruth will trip in the doorway of a restaurant and a man will steady her with a kind hand. Ruth will date this man for many years, and then one late summer evening, he will kill her.

This is not a story, because a story should contain an element of surprise, and no one will be surprised by Ruth’s murder. Not even Shelly, who will spend the weeks before attempting to purchase her sister a gun. The salesman will have a mustache like a driveway and a mouth that smiles gold. He will ask Shelly what she is hunting, his laugh an unkind shadow. She will say men and then point to the row of pocket pistols. The pistols make her think of her grandmother’s tins of sardines, the slips of meat she claimed would make her live forever, until they didn’t. The salesman won’t be laughing as he looks from Shelly to the pistols and back. “Men?” he’ll say, thinking of himself. He’ll tell her to leave. Even then, after all those years, all those girls.

The man who kills Ruth will taste fame for a short while. A local celebrity, when the cameras flash at the courthouse, he smiles back.

Right now, back at the mall where nothing has happened yet, Shelly and Danielle walk into Bodies R Us. They are met with an explosion of fragrance and a woman wearing a white tunic looking like a nurse.

“Sample?” the woman asks and holds out a platter of little plastic cups. Inside each cup is a dollop of red cream that smells vaguely of dryer sheets.

“Cherry Carnelian,” the woman says. She smiles.

“Carnelian is a rock,” Danielle says.

“Yup.” The woman nods. “It’s in the quartz family. Very beautiful. Carn stems from the Latin word for flesh. Carnes. Meaning this carnelian-scented lotion is perfect for your flesh!”

Danielle blinks the way young people blink at adults who attempt to pass off ridiculous information as completely normal.

“You’re saying you made this lotion smell like rocks?”

 “Oh no.” The woman begins shaking her head, then changes her mind and nods. “Well, yes. Yes, that’s exactly what we did!”

Shelly takes a plastic cup and smears its contents over the back of her hand. She rubs it into her skin, watches it disappear. The woman points her to a tiny metallic garbage can for disposing her cup. When Shelly presses the foot peddle to lift the lid, there is already a small pile of them. Empty shells sitting out in the dark.

“We also have body wash,” the woman says. “And candles.” The woman’s eyes canvass a wall of colorful cylinders, spires of soap standing at intervals around the room.

Shelly feels at once that she is this woman’s savior. She collects fragranced objects in her arms, filling the crooks of her elbows as if she were cradling a baby. Sugar scrubs and slender bottles of perfumes and canteens of bubble bath. So many ways to tend to flesh. She sets them on the counter and pulls out her father’s card, thin and perfect as glass. 

“Your dad’s going to be so mad at you,” Danielle says after they leave. Shelly is swinging a large plastic bag from her wrist, enjoying the sound of her new possessions clanging against each other. 

Escalators chug along, carrying people into different stratums of the mall. Little yellow birds tap their feet against tile, wondering where the earth is. The next store Shelly and Danielle enter is called Depraved. It’s a shop for older girls who want to get boyfriends and attend illegal raves.

Shelly likes to think of herself as an older girl, even though she isn’t one. She enters the store the way she believes a confident older girl might walk, swinging her hips slightly, her eyebrows raised like something has upset her. There’s a smell in the air that irritates her nose the way pepper or cinnamon would. A strobe light in the corner illuminates rows of studded belts that seem to quiver and spasm as if they are tied to living things.  

“I just can’t believe Mr. A had us do that,” Danielle whispers to her as she eyes the storekeeper, a nineteen-year-old with silver jewelry dotting his pale face.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Shelly says, though she was and still is. The boy reminds her of someone she knows, someone from school. She slips a wand of lip gloss in her pocket just for the fun of it. “He was empowering us to defend ourselves.”

Both girls look at each other. At what this sentence might mean to them years down the road.

“Hey, you’re going to pay for that, aren’t you?” The boy with the piercings appears behind Shelly, his hand tight on her shoulder.

“Of course I am,” she snaps and shimmies out of his grasp. She grabs two neon tutus, a packet of fishnets, and a fake leather jacket. She feels like a rich movie star. She pays for everything and asks for cash back.

“It’ll be a two-dollar fee,” the boy says. Shelly nods. He hands her twenty dollars, and she throws it back to him. “For your troubles,” she says and hopes he has lots of them.

For lunch Shelly has Pad Thai and Danielle has a smoothie made with peanut butter. They split a cinnamon roll the size of a human heart, forks colliding over rivers of microwave-warmed frosting.  

In a classroom a few hours into the past, a teacher, Mr. A, is allowing a pair of boys to debate a pair of girls over the competency of females. He wouldn’t let them debate abortion or the death penalty. This is his compromise.

Periods and mood swings are brought up. Pregnancy and the softness of motherhood are brought up. Hormones. Emotions. Crying. Physical weakness.

The girls stand no chance. They mention Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth. They mention empathy and studies proving equal intellect. They want to mention the miracle of their own mothers but hold their tongues. The girls leave the room red-faced. Their cheeks patties of bitter carn. 

In the hallway, a laughing boy will rush past them with his arms spread out like wings, like a few more steps and he will be airborne.

Are you seeing it? The ways a story becomes not a story, but something else entirely. A shoreline. A sampling of someone else’s soul.

Here’s another view: Three years before, a middle school teacher taught Shelly the proper tone to use when saying no. “If it’s said with a giggle, then it’s really a yes,” she said. “This is how you voice your displeasure. I should know.” The teacher’s face flickered pain, a memory bubbling up from a stew of strange animals. A porcupine. A badger. A starling. If Shelly stood there gazing into the face of her teacher long enough, she would be able to identify all of them. An entire boiling zoo.

Being alive today, Shelly straddles two worlds. One in which her womb is an empty shell, another in which it is not. She pictures pregnancy not as some contained organ blooming humans, but a free-floating vat of amoeba, the early organism, undergoing the entirety of evolution within her—from slime molds to fish to lizards to rodents to monkeys to cavemen to homo sapiens. And onward it would go. By the end she would be filled with something beyond human, a species one hundred million years into the future, unrecognizable in its shininess.

Once in biology class, a teacher had them unfurl a scroll of paper so long it spanned the perimeter of their classroom. “This is the timeline of earth,” he said. Then he took a pencil and marked off a few inches of width. “This is how long humans have existed. Look at how unimportant we have been to the turning of the universe.”  

Body ownership is a debatable currency, Shelly is learning.

“I think I’m getting my period,” she says to Danielle. “I’m feeling very moody.”

“PMS isn’t real,” Danielle says back.

They are nearing the central corridor of the mall, a place where the ceiling becomes a quilt of skylights. A man stands at the center of the space staring up at the sun.

When Shelly was an amoeba in her mother’s belly, someone was killing off all the teenage girls in the neighborhood. The newspapers gave him a horribly silly name, The Lady Killer, and sent out a profile sketch that looked like everyone’s father. After that, Shelly’s mother had nightly dreams of waking in a truck bed, her body curved over a large pile of indiscernible things, the stars passing overhead as bright as break lights.

Before that, in another state hundreds of miles away, a woman was suing a hospital for a forced caesarean section. As she was wheeled into the operating theater, she said, “No.” She did not giggle. They cut her anyway.

A few ticks forward and a pregnant woman is jailed for getting shot in the stomach with a pocket pistol. A few ticks back, a woman who attempted suicide is being charged with attempted murder of the amoeba evolving inside her. Five steps forward, a girl dies in the woods, no one hears her say no. Jumping ahead, a woman lays the remains of a miscarriage she dredged up from the toilet into a bag for investigators to peruse, their tongues cracking eggs against the roofs of their mouths. 

Before, after, before, after, before, after.

In a few weeks Danielle will watch a small shadow on the sidewalk grow to the size of a man.

Being almost alive today, Shelly remembers her mother telling her about The Lady Killer. How his signature involved mailing strands of hair in tiny white boxes. The kind you would receive jewelry in. The DNA didn’t always match the particular daughter whose parents it had been sent to. It didn’t matter. The pain was the same.

Shelly watches the man stare up at the mall skylights, his feet spread wide as bedframes. His body a beast unrecognizable to himself. Seconds later she and Danielle are turning into a convenience store, walking side by side like twins in horror movies.

“Welcome to Poppy’s!” a friendly looking cashier lady says to them. Danielle goes right to the makeup, to the tacky lipsticks and the shadow pallets full of neon. Shelly follows, then detours into a neighboring section labelled “Women’s Health.” Shelly is a woman now. She must be; the aisle name proves it. She lets this knowledge warm her against the chill she feels as she reaches out for the cardboard box. The feeling rises and expands, makes every inch of her tingly, more real than she was before.

The cashier frowns when Shelly sets down the pregnancy test box. “Oh,” she says, pursing her lips as if she’s just seen something dead in the street. She scans it then looks down at Shelly and then at Danielle. “How old are you?” she asks.

“Twenty,” Shelly says.

“Uh huh.”

“We’re both twenty.”

“So am I,” the cashier says with a short laugh. “Good thing these don’t require IDs.”

“Why would they?”

“Some people think little girls shouldn’t be getting themselves knocked up.”

“Maybe you’re just rude,” Danielle says. Shelly’s cheeks go pink. She’s having trouble gathering her words. Finally she says, “I’ll buy your whole store if you’re not careful.”

The cashier snorts. “Have at it.”

Shelly is finding it a little hard to breath. “Let’s try there,” she says. She points to a jewelry store with long glass cases not dissimilar to the gun shop she will one day enter. A man in a suit stands behind the counter, eyeing the two of them like scabs that have begun to bleed.

“Are you sure?” Danielle asks. Shelly ignores her. She approaches the counter.

“Do you have anything in carnelian?”

“Carnelian?” the man says darkly. He has a large bald spot that glistens like olive oil. He glances around the room as if searching. “No, only precious stones here.”

“What makes a stone precious?” asks Danielle.

The man closes his eyes. “Hm. Heat, mostly. Some pressure.”

“I like that,” Shelly says. “I’ll take some precious stones.”

“Will you?” The man tilts his weight from one foot to the other. The store is empty, Shelly and Danielle are his only customers. He sets his palm out on the glass case and then raises it so that his fingers look like spider legs. He walks his spider-hand towards them. “Pick what you want to see, and I will show it to you,” he says. “Because that is our policy. But I will know if you steal from me. And there’s nothing in this store that you can afford.”

“Says you.” Shelly watches the spider-hand reach the edge of the case. It clutches the brink, and then returns to the man. Becomes just a hand again.

She goes to the left case. Over here the glass is full of sapphires and emeralds. Sparkling candies blinking up at her. She hovers her hand over the glass as if summoning the pieces to her. A blue rose hangs from a long golden chain, each of its petals a fatty flap of stone. Next to it is a tiara made of silver lattices and emeralds nesting in the weave like pears. Five identical rings lie on stubby velvet fingers with gems the size of quail eggs.

“I’ll have a look at the rose,” Shelly calls to the man. He trots slowly over to her, raises his eyebrows, and then unlocks the case with a small key. His hand beneath the glass looks like something in the process of disappearing.

“Here it is,” he says and holds it up.

“I’d like to hold it,” Shelly says. “Before purchasing.”

“It’s twenty-five hundred dollars,” the man says. He moves to put it away.

“I’m planning to purchase it.” The man doesn’t stop. He doesn’t even glance over at her.

 “Please wrap it for me. I’m buying it. It’s mine now.”

The man places the rose on the counter. It makes a tinkle like the sound of an old heater turning on. “Cash or card,” he says.

She leaves the shop wearing the rose around her neck. It makes her feel like a popstar or a priestess of an important village somewhere high in the mountains where the clouds stop at waist-level. The security guard eyes them as they walk past, another round of gum splitting her mouth into intervals of tension.

Shelly bought Danielle the tiara, which Danielle is wearing as a choker. She tilts her head up, watching the world from the highest possible point of her. They are giggling, ecstatic in their new ownership.

“A lot of bags you have there,” the security guard says to Shelly.

“Yes. I own a lot of things,” Shelly says.