by Christi R. Suzanne
On my thirty-third birthday, I took a mental health day and went to the discount grocery store. I meandered like a river through aisles of produce. Someone behind me sighed. I turned around. A waif-like woman pushed a cart and wore all pink, bright pink, her shirt matched her capri pants exactly. Even her lip and nail shades matched. She glanced away when I tried to make eye contact with her. I wondered if she did this every day, wore a different bright color that matched everything, even her underwear. I decided it was the only color she ever wore. It reminded me of my sister. She hated pink. In fact, the last time I talked to her, she told me she had given away the pink coin purse I crocheted for her. She said she didn’t like the color because it reminded her of watery blood. She didn’t say thank you.
I wondered if I would ever look like the pink lady. Kind of glamorous. Overdone, really, but still pretty. She wore a ring on her index finger, it looked like a fake eyeball and seemed out of place. I walked slowly, deliberately. Considering a tomato then an avocado I felt the woman’s impatience and her loud sighs swept up dust bunnies around me. I lingered by the grapes.
Normally I hated grocery shopping. The glaring fluorescent lights made human faces look greasy and harsh. Hideous. Plus, I didn’t like the way other people meandered, but it was my birthday. I was allowed this simple pleasure, a digressive birthday wandering. Besides, this past year hadn’t been my best. After getting fired from the coffee shop, I’d had trouble paying rent. And then I got hit by a truck, my car was totaled.
I headed for the bananas and added a bunch to my basket. When we were kids my sister and I used to play unicorns, it entailed holding bananas up to our foreheads. Our unicorns were fighting ones, bred to defend our honor. After a while, we ended up with limp mushy horns in our hands. Her unicorn often defeated mine and I usually ended up with a sore eye socket. That was fun. It had been over a month since we’d last talked. I lived ten miles away. She had been generous with helping me out, rent-wise. I had yet to pay her back, but I did have a new job, cashier at a yarn and café store. That’s where I learned to crochet. My beta fish died the first day I started. He was blue with one long red streak. Like I said, I’d had a rough year.
Flies congregated around the strawberry display. The Pink Lady pursed her perfectly painted lips and passed me. The distinct smell of overripe fruit hit my nostrils. That’s when I noticed the little white paper sticking out of the woman’s back pocket. It moved up slightly at every step, her butt cheek pushing it, almost out, of her pocket. Something was written on it. That’s when the urge came over me. I reached out and snatched up the paper. That simple. Besides, it was about to fall to the ground. I pretended to bump into her. She turned toward me and threw me a drop-dead look. I smiled as brightly as I could and pretended like the paper was my grocery list.
There was a note written in blue ink, in a light feathery script, that was so delicate I had to squint to read it. Imports in. Ice cream section. 2:35 sharp, it said. It was signed: Together we could rule the world, Shirley. I looked at my phone. 2:34.
A woman wearing a hairnet stood behind a table next to a freezer. All of her hair was pulled back except for a clump of dark bangs. Small white paper cups of ice cream lined the freezer next to her.
“Looks good,” I said.
“Would you like a sample of some triple strawberry cherry delight ice cream?” the woman asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“It’s very good if I do say so myself.” The woman looked past me, around the store, as if she were looking for someone. Her make-up was caked below her chin and around her nose. The red rouge was too high on her cheekbones and went up in a great swoop toward her crow’s feet. She turned toward the freezer to grab me a sample.
“Is your name Shirley?” I asked.
Her whole body went rigid. She turned around with the sample in her hand and forced a smile. Her lips quivered around the gap in her teeth and the rouged crow’s feet deepened. “Who may I ask is inquiring?”
“Someone lost a note.” I held it up. “Thought it was important.”
She softened a little. “Oh, I see. Yes, it’s important. My sister, she left her keys at my house. I hope she didn’t forget to come pick them up.” The woman winked like I was in on some bad joke.
“I have a sister too.”
“Isn’t it nice?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer her question. “I guess. I wish we were closer.”
“Make time. Sisters may last a lifetime, but you never know how long you have.”
She was right. I should try harder. “I guess we never really got along. We’re different,” I said. I pulled out my phone and checked it. Nothing. I punched out a quick text to my sister, just a hello to see if she would respond.
“Different can be good when you get older. I’ve always had a close friendship with mine, but I guess we were lucky. Any special plans for the rest of your day?”
“I’m taking the day off. It’s my birthday.”
“Never hurts to take some time for yourself. Wait,” the woman said. She crouched down to grab an oversized bag she had sitting next to her and pulled out a small ring. “My birthday gift to you.”
I opened my palm and she dropped something into it. A small pinkie-sized ring¾a green eyeball. “Thanks.” I pushed it into my pocket.
“No, try it on. We make them, me and my sister. It’s our thing.” A small black and green tattoo in the shape of a cat’s eye peeked out from under her t-shirt sleeve.
“Oh, cool.” I tried it on my right-hand pinkie finger. It fit. I tapped the top of the eyeball. Glitter circled the outside edge and it felt pliable.
“It’s a yen ring. We’re just starting out. It’s kind of underground right now,” Shirley said and smiled a strange smile, a knowing smile, but I was left confused.
I held my ring hand up. Yen. I looked down at my phone. “I don’t think anyone remembered,” I said. “No messages yet.”
“You didn’t remind them?”
I bit my lower lip.
“That’s no way to feel sorry for yourself.”
“I’m going to make my own cake and see if anyone calls. If they do, I’ll invite them over.”
“Sounds like you’re in for a night of solitaire.”
Maybe she was right. I looked at my phone. No calls. No texts. “Or Russian roulette, since there’s only one bullet, my chances are pretty good,” I said.
“Except, you’re the only one playing a winner’s the loser game. That bullet has your name on it.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” I said. I tapped out another quick message to my sister: Just wondering what you’re up to later. Today’s my birthday.
“Have another sample?” she asked pushing another one my way. “The cherry chunks look like bloody flesh, don’t they?” She studied the ice cream, “Though, really, if you think about it, flesh wouldn’t freeze this way,” she said pointing to one of the cherry chunks. “It wouldn’t be this dark red.” She smiled and tongued the open space where her canine no longer lived.
“That’s some way to sell a pint of ice cream,” I said.
“Oh, I’m no good at sales. I always say the wrong thing,” she said. “Call your sister today. Connect.”
Shirley was right. I knew my sister cared about me in some way. Sometimes I couldn’t feel it though and I had to make sure. I hated doing that. She always took it the wrong way like I was bothering her or that I was too needy. Last week I asked her if she could bring me some orange juice because I was sick. When I hadn’t heard from her I followed up and said that I was okay and didn’t need anything anymore. I did stuff like that just to let her know I was still around, I guess. Maybe it was a bad habit, but it felt important.
I found the cake mix aisle. My back felt tight and my stomach churned like I had eaten something rotten. I selected a box of yellow cake. I checked my phone again. I saw a couple of texts, one from my friend Meredith and another from a guy at work. Nothing from her,I had known her all of my life, over thirty years. I mean, geez, we played UNICORNS together. I started to sweat. I pulled the yellow cake mix close to my chest. My throat felt thick. Maybe if I could pay her back that might help.
I looped back to where Shirley had been. The aisle was empty. A small swarm of flies hovered where her table had been. I caught a glimpse of the Pink Lady walking down aisle seven, paper towels and toilet paper. She followed Shirley. They were laughing and talking to each other. The last time I had laughed with my sister was half a year ago. It was that time I spilled chocolate ice cream down the front of my shirt,the whole top scoop landed at my feet. She had moved away to avoid getting splattered.
I followed Pink Lady toward the back of the store. They looked so happy together. She ditched her cart and they both darted through a swinging door into what looked like a stock room. I waited a few minutes before I followed.
There were stacks of brown boxes on shelves. A ledge of what looked like jars full of pickled vegetables lined one of them. Then I heard mumbling and the very distinct crrrup sound a box makes when you rip open the top and reveal what’s inside. The two women sat crouched low in the middle of the shelving area.
“Imported from Italy,” Shirley said.
“They look perfect,” Pink Lady said. “You’re the best at getting the best.”
The sound of their laughter was like flutes in a duet. The Pink Lady gave Shirley a side hug. The last time I hugged my sister was the day she graduated with a Master’s in Forensic Science about five years ago.
Then I saw each of them hold up a jar of what looked like albino olives in a yellowish substance. I tried to get a closer look.
A matching cat’s eye tattoo on Pink Lady’s left arm under her t-shirt revealed itself.
I held my breath. Would my sister ever get a tattoo with me?
“Let’s get these loaded in your car, ” Shirley said. I immediately turned and walked out of the storeroom the way I came.
I made my way to the self-checkout and paid. The whole time I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching me. I twisted the small ring on my finger and watched the green iris closely. Maybe it was a cat’s eye, but it was too small. I walked into a sunny spot and watched the eye’s pupil contract. Impossible. I stuffed my hand deep into my pocket and then checked my phone. Still nothing from her and it was past noon.
On my walk home I texted my sister again: come over for cake and strawberries tonight. I rubbed the eye ring willing my sister to text me back then weighed the chances of her showing up. This time I had a story to tell her about Pink Lady and her sister. She would never believe me. If I could only share this story with her, I knew it would change us, make us better. Like we were both in on the secret eyeball ring business and she could go back with me and meet the two sisters, see how strange yet how close they were.
The eyeball ring glinted in the sun and I rubbed its squishy pupil hoping for a better birthday and a better year. There was no way the pupil had contracted. I shook my head and pushed the eyeball, felt it squish down. The sisters from the grocery store drove by in their van and Shirley waved.
A text from my sister came through: Iris, stop texting me. I’m in a meeting. I know it’s your birthday. I’ll see you tonight.
My eyes grew wide. She had texted back. Maybe this year would be different. I rubbed the pliable pupil ring. The corners of my mouth formed into a smile.
Christi R. Suzanne has work in Midwestern Gothic, the online journals The Gravity of the Thing, 101 Words, and The Splinter Generation. Incidentally, she is a sleeping dog enthusiast.