The crickets are out already, and Thyme’s got her toes curling into your thigh. She’s folded her legs up under her but she’s managed to touch you while she does it. You glance across at your wife, but she’s not paying any attention at all. Hector’s arm is across the back of the opposite couch; she’s leaning towards him and they’re murmuring. The fairy lights bob on wires above the patio. They’re pretty, but they cover the stars. The girls are upstairs together, flashlights swinging against the shade in Maddy’s room. It’s past their bedtime; they think they’re getting away with something.
You put your hand on Thyme’s foot; she raises an eyebrow and cocks her head, not mad but surprised. But she smiles and puts her legs across your lap, and now your hands are on her calves. She’s wearing a long skirt, sort of hippyish. Your wife would never wear a skirt like this.
Peggy’s noticed the leg move, and you finally catch her eye. “Aren’t you two cozy,” she says.
“I’m glad you’re getting along,” says Hector in his faint Spanish accent. “Your wife is such an interesting person, Matthew.”
“Thanks,” you say. “Um—your wife is, too.” You’ve made it weird, talking about Thyme like she’s not there. “You’re cool, Thyme.”
She grins. Her teeth are a little crooked. “It’s true,” she replies. “I’m cool.”
Peggy giggles like she might be getting drunk.
“Well then, we are all cool,” says Hector, raising his glass. “To the beginning of a long friendship.” One of your hands has slid under the edge of Thyme’s skirt.
As you’re toasting, there’s a muffled shriek and a fit of laughter from the upstairs window. Peggy looks up. “The girls seem to get along well.”
You’re afraid that bringing up the kids will kill the mood, but no one seems to mind. Thyme nods. “Willow can be quiet. I’m glad Maddy could draw her out.”
“Yeah, well, Maddy can be boring, so.”
Peggy mimes throwing her wine glass at you. “Matt! She is not boring!”
You fake duck. “Sorry! Charming and perfect.” Stage whispering: “A little boring.” You’re trying to entertain your new neighbors with this little betrayal. They seem cooler than you, and it’s making you nervous and babbly. “You want to hear something wild? She never plays with her toys. She just organizes them. She sets them up in rows.”
Thyme laughs again and digs her feet into your lap. “God, I wish Willow would do that. I caught her flushing a My Little Pony down the toilet last week. She said she wanted to see if it was a witch.”
Your hand is moving up Thyme’s leg. She hasn’t shaved her legs in a few days; you can feel the stubble. How far up is your hand going to go? Will no one stop you? Hector and Peggy are talking again, facing each other and close; he’s playing with her hair now. You feel like you should feel jealous, but all of your thoughts are on this woman’s legs. This new person and her new body. It’s been a long time since you’ve touched someone else’s thigh.
“Can I use your bathroom?” Thyme says suddenly. She keeps making eye contact for slightly too long.
“Yeah, of course, it’s–you want me to show you?”
“I’m gonna just show Thyme the bathroom.”
“Have fun,” says Hector, and winks at you.
You try not to idle outside while Thyme pees, but you can hear her anyway. A tidy fart near the end. When she comes out into the dim hallway, you stand near her and she moves back against the wall. You put your hands on her waist and then she puts hers on your waist too.
“Are you okay with this?” you ask.
“We have to promise not to make things weird, is all. We’re neighbors.”
“I’m not going to promise not to make things weird.”
“Well, not weird and bad, then.”
“I’m not going to promise that either.”
“Would it be okay if I kissed you?”
She kisses as though kissing is an activity. It’s been a long time since you’ve felt someone’s tongue. It seems gauche, at a certain age, like something kids do. Urgent and sloppy and a little gross.
“Can we go to the guest room?” she asks. “I’d feel weird if we were in your room.”
“I feel like I should–like, should I text Peggy? Just to make sure everything’s cool?”
“Please don’t ask me if you should text your wife before we fuck, Matt.”
“Sorry. Hold on.”
You pull the dining room curtains aside an inch and peer out. Peggy and Hector are tangled together.
“I think it’s cool.”
Later that night, you lift the guest room curtains and look again, but they’re gone.
You’re having a dream where you’re walking away, or towards something else. It’s misty and wet and everything is gravel and it’s making a rhythmic crunch, crunch, crunch as you walk. You wake up in the guest bed in the secret gray dawn, Thyme snoring slightly next to you, and follow the crunching downstairs. Their kid is sitting at your kitchen counter eating cereal. She must have helped herself. She’s wearing Maddy’s clothes. They’re a little too small for her. There’s no milk in the cereal and it’s unbelievably loud when she eats. For a minute you stand there and look at each other. She tips a spoonful into her mouth and crunches and crunches. Muscles work in her jaw, fragile pistons twitching under her skin. Like the legs of baby chickens.
“You want some milk with that?”
She shakes her head.
Thyme shuffles into the kitchen. “Hey you,” she says. Willow’s eyes go back and forth between you and Thyme. She opens her mouth super wide, delivers another gigantic spoonful of dry cereal and keeps on crunching.
Both houses leave at the same time. You and Thyme, the girls Willow and Maddy, all pulling your shoes on as you tumble onto the stoop. Hector and Peggy come out next door looking perfect. They look like they coordinated their outfits. Hector hands Willow her unicorn backpack, identical to Maddy’s unicorn backpack, foam horns arcing over both their heads, and you join the torrent of families walking to school.
“How was last night?” Hector asks.
You flinch. “I feel like that’s sort of an awkward question.”
“Oh god, I’m sorry, I meant the sleepover,” says Hector. “I mean the other sleepover. I mean the girls.”
He seemed so cosmopolitan last night, but this morning you’re both nervous. Maybe, with the wine, you mistook his accent for confidence. “Oh! Sorry. It was fine,” you say. You laugh together, relieved. “It’s fun to hang out with other people’s kids, right? Interesting to see whether your parenting tricks will work on them.”
Peggy and Thyme are up ahead. You’re imagining what they’re talking about. Comparing notes? “Absolutely,” says Hector. He’s watching them too. You’re both talking too much. “I often wonder how much of Willow is because of my decisions,” he says, “and how much is simply her being her. I either help or am in the way. You know? I’m jealous of your experience. Next time, you’ll have to send Maddy over to us.”
“Are we swapping children now?” laughs Peggy. They’ve fallen back; maybe they’ve run out of things to talk about. You smile and take her hand, but you usually hold her right hand and now you have her left. It feels all wrong.
“Strictly a social experiment,” says Hector, smiling at her. “Nature versus nurture.”
Thyme grimaces at you behind their backs and you give her a tiny shrug.
Peggy catches you trading signals with Thyme. She gives her a pleasant smile. “It’s fine with me if it’s fine with you,” she says. Her hand feels alien in yours, like a completely new hand.
“It’s fine with me if it’s fine with them,” says Thyme.
The girls have run ahead, slouching under their backpacks, horns in the air, glittering unicorns both. You let go of Peggy to wave at them.
Peggy cooks self-consciously that evening, as though she’s on a cooking show and you’re the live audience. Willow’s at the kitchen island. She’s drawing a person in magic marker. Halfway through she frowns at it, takes another piece of paper, starts over.
“How are you?” You haven’t really talked to Peggy since last night, and you’re not sure what to say.
She’s concentrating on cutting tomatoes. She keeps her tone light. “I’m good. That was a fun night, huh? Fun little change of pace. Did you have fun?”
Willow puts another piece of paper on top of the first two and starts over. You can see the old drawing through the new one. “Sure, yeah. It was–you know, different.”
Peggy stops chopping and looks up at you. She looks curious, like you would if an acquaintance said something interesting at a work event. “Would you have liked it if it wasn’t different?”
She starts chopping another tomato. It’s really a mountain of tomatoes at this point. You’re not sure what the plan is with them. “I don’t–how would I know?” you say.
Willow starts the drawing over again and Peggy says, “That’s a lot of paper you’re using, honey. It’s bad for the environment. Those people all look the same anyway.”
“I’m allergic to tomatoes,” says Willow.
There’s a whooshing sound coming from her bedroom later that night, as though something is taking off. When you check on her, a minor storm has manifested inside.
She’s taken every toy and attached them one by one to the ceiling fan with varying lengths of scotch tape. They’re all spinning quietly in different orbits, making a shifting and fractaled shadow pattern on the walls. Willow is asleep in the middle of the floor with no blanket. You’re not sure how she reached up there. You didn’t know you had that much scotch tape.
“This is weird,” whispers Peggy.
“It’s sort of cool, isn’t it?”
“I feel like we should maybe text them?”
“She seems okay to me.”
“I’m gonna text them.”
Thyme texts back: I’ll come over.
“Sorry,” says Peggy.
“Maddy does weird stuff too.” You feel defensive on Willow’s behalf. “With the toy lines.”
“It’s just–this is different weird, is all.”
Thyme has let herself in. She peers at the tape storm. “Oh wow. You guys really had a lot of scotch tape.”
“I don’t know, she seems a little–I almost texted you.”
The women look at each other. “Do you–”
Peggy laughs softly. “We could swap back, or–”
“They’re both asleep, though. You and I could just–”
“Why not,” says Peggy, and she pads off down the hall. She turns before she goes down the stairs. “You can sleep in the master bedroom if you want.”
“Feels weird,” says Thyme.
“It felt weird to me too.”
“Hey,” you whisper to Thyme, as you ease Willow’s door shut. You’re alone and close in the quiet hall.
“Hey,” she whispers, and leans into you.
Next morning you all step out together again into the torrent of families. You find yourself next to Maddy. She’s small and sparkling. All the girls have unicorn backpacks this year; all of them sparkle.
“Did you have fun?”
Maddy nods. “Willow has a cool room and I pretended to call Hector Daddy.”
You wince, but hide it quickly. You don’t want to make her feel bad. Everyone’s trying different things. It’s cool. “Sounds like a cool game. Is he nice?”
She squints up like you’re a traffic cop and she’s trying to figure out which words will get her out of a ticket. “Daddies are always nice,” she says.
She joins with Willow into the herd of unicorns, moving together, skittish. Up ahead Peggy and Thyme are talking together, heads close. Thyme looks back at you, saying something unintelligible. They smile and nod to each other.
“It’s less weird than I thought it would be,” you say to Hector next to you. “I don’t know, I mean sometimes it feels like, what’s the difference, you know?” You’re looking down at your feet. “I thought I would miss Maddy, but it’s fun to get to know Willow instead. She’s a cool kid. And, I mean–but it’s all the same basic stuff, right? We still have dinner and watch TV. It’s just the vibe that changes.”
The guy next to you laughs pleasantly. You were mistaken: it’s not Hector at all. It’s some other dad. “Totally,” he says, moving ahead.
Hector is up with Peggy. Maddy’s between them, holding their hands. She lifts her feet up as they go, giggling, suspended through the air.
You look around for Thyme and Willow, but you don’t see them. You’re alone in a sea of glittering, waist-high unicorn horns.
That night Thyme puts a show on TV that you can’t follow. Outlandish monsters dance and then take off masks, revealing themselves to be people. The people take off masks, revealing themselves to be smaller people. Thyme has her laptop open and she’s watching Youtube videos with the sound on. She’s scrolling on her phone.
“Which thing are you watching?” you ask.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’m sorry, is this too much?”
She puts her feet in your lap, like she did that first night. It seems like a long time ago. They feel heavy and you feel a fart coming. “It’s a lot,” you say.
“What do you normally do in the evenings?” she asks.
“I don’t know. Nothing much.” You’re going to try to slip the fart out. You think you can do it. It probably won’t smell much, and you think you can ease it out so she doesn’t notice.
“No seriously, you have to do something,” she says. She’s making eye contact for too long again. On TV, the smaller person takes off their mask. Surprise! It’s another monster. You hold your breath and let it go. Was that quiet? You could feel it inside your body, but was it audible?
Her face wrinkles. It does smell bad. It’s laying there like a miasma, sinking around you both. At first she pretends she doesn’t notice. Maybe it’ll go away? But you can tell it won’t. This one’s just going to hang there. You have to acknowledge it.
“Sorry,” you mutter.
Her feet are uncomfortable in your lap. You try stroking them, hoping it will feel like it did before, but they just feel heavy. She still hasn’t shaved. Her leg hair has gone past prickly and become soft. “What are we even doing?” she asks.
“I don’t know. None of this was my idea.”
“I thought it was going to be interesting and wild,” she says. “But it’s just like everything else.”
There’s a calamitous crash from Willow’s room, and then wailing. You scramble off the couch.
Willow’s been trying to attach more things to the ceiling fan. You don’t know if she hung on it or what, but the whole thing has fallen. She’s in the middle of the room holding it in her lap like a star, looking up at you anguished and guilty. Toys spread around in a corona on their scotch tape tethers. There’s a big hole in the ceiling and plaster all over the place. It’s going to cost a fortune to fix. “What did you do, Willow?”
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I thought it would be cool.” You’ve snapped at her, and she’s freaked out. She barely knows you.
Thyme is next to you. “Oh, Willow,” she says. “This is his house! How could you be so careless?” Her anger feels performative, the way parents act when they’re embarrassed in front of outsiders. You feel like an outsider.
Everything is cheap and flimsy; it gives way at a tug. None of this is Willow’s fault. Maybe the fan in Willow’s old room was stronger, or maybe she didn’t have a fan before. You look up at the hole and imagine it going all the way through, out the roof, the stars gleaming behind it. But it’s just lathe.
“Hey,” you say. “Do you want to go for a walk?”
“It’s the middle of the night,” says Thyme.
“I thought maybe–sometimes when things feel weird, you just need a reset.”
“I think it sounds cool, Mommy.” Willow looks wide-eyed. This is exciting. She’s probably never been outside this late.
You go hoodied out into the soft neighborhood and every house is dark. The night feels like a secret for only you three. You walk down the middle of the street and the moon is just another streetlamp. You all hold hands, Willow in the middle, and watch the lights make your shadows long, then short, then long again behind you. “The tape thing really was cool,” you tell Willow. “I was more upset at the ceiling than you.” You squeeze her hand, and she squeezes Thyme’s, like a little game of electricity, and the current comes back to you.
You smile at Thyme over Willow’s head. “Do you know the names of the stars?”
“No, what are they?”
“I don’t know either. I was hoping you would.”
“You can call them whatever you want,” says Willow. “They won’t know.”
You wake up early in the morning and Thyme is standing at the window, watching the dawn. Her silhouette is an indistinct blur. It’s only when you come up behind her that you realize she’s naked. “Aren’t you cold?”
She leans back into you. “Freezing.”
“Do you think it’ll all go back to normal today?”
“I don’t know.”
You push your face into her hair. No matter what happens, something will be lost. She cranes her neck to smile back at you with her crooked teeth. “Oh, hon,” she says. “I mean, all of it is temporary, isn’t it?” But she grabs your hand and turns around, into you.
You’re running late for school in the morning. Hector and Peggy have already left with Maddy, and Thyme and Willow are up ahead. You get to school just as the unicorns are disappearing inside.
“Have a good day, honey!” Hector is next to you, waving.
“You too, daddy!” call all the kids.
“Have a good–” The door is already closing, and you trail off. The two of you stand next to each other. It’s awkward.
Peggy and Thyme come up and you all stand in a row, looking at the blank school walls.
“What an interesting experiment we’ve had,” says Hector.
“You two seemed to get along well,” says Peggy.
“You did too, right?”
Hector smiles and nods. “Peggy is such an interesting person.”
“Thyme’s cool too. You’re cool, Thyme.”
“It’s true,” she says. “I’m cool.”
“Well,” says Peggy.
“Well,” says Hector. None of you are looking at each other.
“Well,” you say finally. “I guess we should–”
“We should all get together for drinks again sometime soon, don’t you think?” asks Peggy. She smiles brightly at you, taking Hector’s hand, and cocks her head.
“What a nice idea,” says Thyme. She holds your hand and turns towards Peggy, and now you’re in a circle.
Hector looks between Thyme and Peggy and you. “Absolutely,” he says. “Next time,” he says to you and Thyme, “You should come over to our house.”
“Sure,” you reply. “That sounds nice.” There’s a silence, and you all smile at each other. Everyone is friends. Everything is cool. It’s not that weird.
Sasha Brown lives near Boston. He’s got work in McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Prime Number. He can be found on twitter @dantonsix and online at sashabrownwriter.com.