This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Child death
- Drug use
- Mental health issues
- Trans misgendering or other transphobic depictions
It’s a lot of blood. Granted, Mal thinks that every time. Too much blood in the human body. Too much blood splattering on the shower floor. Where it pools in the cracks between tiles it’s almost black. He shifts his stance and watches red-orange water run down the insides of his legs like afterbirth.
It’s under his fingernails, flaking in his cuticles, tracing the lifelines in his palms. It makes the whole shower stink metallic. Last week, running errands—picking up toilet paper, hormones, disinfectant—he picked up a bar of lavender soap in the aisle of Walgreens. He liked the thought of smelling like lavender. That’s how he’d like to be—bright smile, soft voice, the kind of scent that soothes people. Now he works the bar through his hands, wets the washcloth, and starts scrubbing. He scours every inch of his skin, kneading his muscles like he’s tenderizing meat. Up his legs, over his stomach, behind his ears. Like he’s trying to learn his way around himself again.
Hair last. He could just rinse his hair, maybe, but he doesn’t want that iron tang to cling to him. Plus sometimes he ends up teasing out blood-stiffened strands he didn’t catch in the mirror. Next week he’ll have to pick up more dye. He could always grow out the bleach. But he’s been blond for six years now, and he barely recognizes himself in the mirror as is.
Most of the blood’s washed down the drain by the time he steps out onto his towel. There are still streaks on the outer edges of the tub, though, and at the edge of the water’s reach. Mal takes the detachable showerhead down and rinses with one hand. In the other hand he grabs his phone from the counter, using his damp thumb to type out a painfully slow how much melatonin is too much. Google gives him a broad range of three to thirty milligrams, which doesn’t really help. In the tub, the last of the red-orange water puddles around the drain and slides out of sight.
When the light in the bathroom goes off, the house is plunged into complete dark. Mal navigates the hallway on silent feet. The melatonin’s on the bedside table; he tips three pills into his hand and replaces the bottle without knocking over the alarm clock or the tissue box. Livia is a muddled shape at the far edge of the bed, swallowed by the blankets, buried up to the bridge of her nose.
Mal tugs the very edge of the comforter up so he can slip under it. Water-warmth still lingers in his muscles. His hair is still damp; he catches a whiff of lavender. Livia doesn’t smell like anything much anymore, except cold iron. Her side of the bed is freezing.
“Mal,” she says into the pitch-black room. Quiet. Toneless. “Fix the blanket.”
Mal tucks the edge of the comforter underneath him, shutting out the house’s nonexistent cold drafts. He leaves a few inches of space between their bodies.
By some definitions Malcolm Mori’s life could be considered an office drama. Which he’s fine with. Well, sort of resigned to, at least. He spits toothpaste into the sink and doesn’t startle when he faces his reflection in the mirror. His resting face is a smile now. It wasn’t always, but now that he’s transitioned and he passes and he’s six-two and built like a tank in an argyle sweater—now he makes sure it’s a smile. It’s sort of the least he can do.
Shirtless in the mirror, though, there’s no one to pretend for. He looks … anxious, a little, but mostly just tired. His body is a map of old battles. The faded scars on his chest: two years post-op. The faintly visible stretch marks on his stomach: nine months postpartum. The bruise-dark hollows under his eyes: three months posttraumatic. Post, post, post. Like he’s living the aftermath of a life.
Mal read once that smiling can make you happier. It tricks the chemicals in your brain, or something. He sticks his toothbrush in the cup beside the sink and then steps back to beam at himself in the mirror, crinkling up his eyes and bunching up his cheeks. A tilt of his head sends lavender-scented hair flopping into his face. He feels a little warmer. Maybe it’s working.
He used to meet Livia at the kitchen table every day, when she was working from home—he with his briefcase, her with her laptop open and the glow washing her face blue. She typed with the speed and emphasis of a court stenographer, pausing every few seconds to listen to the baby monitor propped beside the keyboard. Not that Aiko ever cried much. But Livia was ferociously attentive. That’s how she used to do most things. Ferociously.
Now she drifts past the counter as he steps into the kitchen. These days she’s always wearing her wool shawl. She’s cold all the time. It warps her shape, hanging heavily on her small frame, turning limbs and curves into one uniform mass. Only her hands emerge from beneath it, fingernails clicking against her bottle of estradiol. Her nails get longer every day. Mal thought they were acrylics at first.
She’s home, still, but she isn’t working anymore.
Mal comes over to stand behind her. He’s almost a foot taller. They don’t touch, but he’s close enough that she knows he’s there.
Outside, in the yard, he can hear crows cawing. He doesn’t look at them. He doesn’t look at Livia’s fingernails, at the black hooked … well. Talons is an ugly word. He doesn’t like the way it makes him feel.
“Are you having breakfast?” he says softly.
She’s probably telling the truth. The receiver for the glucose monitor badging her arm would be beeping if she hadn’t. Unless the shawl suffocates it, somehow. Or she took it off. But he shouldn’t be worried about that. Livia’s not stupid. She knows how to keep herself alive.
“Thank you,” she says, tapping the estradiol bottle without turning around. “For getting this.”
In high school, the first time she wore a dress to class, someone said something transphobic to her. She filled his locker with used cat litter. It’s one of Mal’s favorite stories. His smile widens a little thinking about it, and taking her in, her ink-black hair and her dark narrow eyes and the set of her shoulders when she stands.
He lets himself look once, and only once, at her black-clawed hands.
“You’re welcome,” he says finally. “Always. Have a good day, dear.”
“You too.” Livia inclines her head.
Mal holds his breath, leans in, and kisses her forehead. Then he picks up his bag and departs.
There’s a father and daughter in line at Starbucks.
It hits him like a baseball bat to the head. He doesn’t see them until he’s halfway across the room to the line, and then he can’t very well turn around. Not a heel-face turn. Not when he has his smile firmly affixed to his face, the kind where his eyes crinkle up at the edges and his teeth show but only a little, the kind that other people see and feel compelled to return.
So he edges carefully past a table. He shows his teeth. And he gets in line behind the two of them.
The cash register dings. The coffee machine grinds. The line moves forward. The whole place smells of coffee and pastries. The girl can’t be older than two. Her little red skirt has ladybugs on it, and her little shoes are red, and so is the bow in her hair, of which there isn’t much, and what there is is mostly fuzz. Her smile is almost entirely toothless.
Her dad holds her in the crook of his arm. She tugs at his tie with chubby little fingers; he makes an indignant noise and bats her hands away playfully, and she giggles, a bright ebullient sound. He smiles and nuzzles his forehead into hers, bouncing her on his arm.
Mal’s throat is closing up. He wipes at his suddenly prickling eyes, blinking fast, focusing on keeping his smile pasted on and unwavering. He has pollen allergies, he thinks. Is it pollen season yet? Last spring he sneezed every time they went outside, and Livia laughed and said it made him all blushy. “Here,” she said, “I’ll kiss it better,” and pressed a kiss to each of his cheeks.
The line moves forward again. “It’s our turn, babygirl,” the dad says to his baby girl, and she tugs at his nose as they step forward. Mal doesn’t step any closer to them. He ignores the muttering of the elderly woman behind him, who’s clearly raring to move ahead. He stares at the counter, then at the ceiling, then at the floor.
“We’ll take a black coffee and a cake pop,” says the dad.
Mal reaches into his pocket for his phone. Maybe he has emails to read. He hopes not. He doesn’t like emails very much. But—
There’s a black feather in his pocket.
They’re always crunchier than he expects, the feathers. Stiffer. Smoother, not fluffy. This one’s shorter than a fresh pencil, tinted brown at its edges, with a white stem.
If he’s surprised about anything, it’s that it’s in his pocket. Usually he finds them scattered around the house. Like the world’s worst treasure hunt. Cleaning them up is like tracing her daily path, from the kitchen to the couch up the stairs into their bedroom. Into Aiko’s bedroom, too, sometimes, which always hurts the most. Still, his pockets are new ground. Maybe she was wearing his coat? Or—
“Sir?” says the woman behind the counter. “Sir?”
Mal looks up. He’s greeted with the sight of the dad handing a pink cake pop to his daughter, who squeals and throws her chubby little arm around his neck so excitedly that the dad fake-staggers sideways, laughs, pats her back.
“Um,” says Mal. “Uh. A black coffee and a cake pop. Please. For Mal?”
He directs her to pick the pink one. He stands at the edge of the counter and stares down at his hands. Sometimes he imagines seeing a smear of red across his thumbnail, or a flake of blood embedded somewhere near his cuticles. Something that will make someone look twice. It’s never there.
“Black coffee for Hal?” someone calls. Mal collects his drink and the baggie with the cake pop in it. When he looks up, the father and daughter are gone, and he should be glad about that, probably.
In the parking lot he takes the feather out of his pocket again. He considers letting it float away in the wind. In the end he puts it back where it was, pats it to ensure it’s safe, and fishes for his car keys.
The car has seen better days. The house, too, has seen better days; they’re twins in that regard, creaking when he enters, constantly smelling. The car in particular needs an oil change. The lights on the dashboard are always blinking. Whenever he leaves it parked somewhere, he comes back to find oil puddling beneath it on the pavement like blood.
The news crackles from the staticky car radio. “Next up on the Dell Daily: another brutal murder shocks the town of Dell’s Bend, bringing the death toll over the past month to four. Local politician Harvey Duncan was found in bed with his throat slit. Police believe the string of killings may be politically motivated, though the variety of methods suggest multiple killers …”
They need a new car, Mal decides as he turns the radio up. That’s what they’re going to do after they finish paying off the rest of his top surgery loans. And Livia’s transition costs. Their hormones and their doctor’s visits and her future facial feminization surgery, if she wants it. And her insulin. And the nine-month-old hospital bills and the three-month-old funeral bills. After they pay for all of that—then they’re getting a new car.
“Residents are encouraged to remain indoors after dark and to report any and all suspicious behavior. Next up: community responses to the opening of …”
Mal changes the station; he only ever pays attention to one running story. He plays around until he finds old rock, and settles on ABBA. “Dancing Queen.” He’s always liked that song.
Mal’s in sales, which is less boring than everyone thinks. At least in his opinion. Byron’s the office manager, and she runs a pretty tight ship, but sometimes they have wacky hijinks. Like plotting surprise birthdays for other employees. Or the time Laura’s service dog had an accident in the front hall. Or the time they all had to evacuate because Vinny set off the smoke alarm trying to do necromancy in the staff microwave.
Vinny has part of Mal’s job now. Mal does sales because people like talking to him. He makes things understandable. He speaks as gently as he can. Over the phone, when no one’s first impression of him is big, he’s even better. But he used to do data entry, too, in his spare time. Now Vinny does all of that from their swivel chair at the front desk, along with answering the phone, scowling at people, and sorting the mail.
Mal doesn’t mind. That’s what happens when you’re off work for months on family leave. He likes Vinny, anyway. They’re young and spiky and shrill-voiced and they shit-talk in French. Mal’s the only other person in the office who speaks French.
When he comes in early, like always, Vinny is already perched at the front desk, like always. Mal isn’t really sure where they came from. They can’t be old enough to be a college grad. But they’re always here.
They’re staring at their computer, foot tapping a manic rhythm on the floor, teeth gritted, dark circles under their eyes. The keyboard clicks and pops under their fingers. It reminds him of Livia a little. How she used to be. Vinny does numbers fast enough to frighten the Sesame Street Count, which is probably why they haven’t been gently let go for doing things like starting fires in the microwave trying to reanimate dead pets. (Mal is not a squeamish person, in general, but he’d like to forget the smell of burnt hamster.)
“I love the kid,” Byron confessed to him, after said event, “but they’re a little—” And she twirled a finger next to her head. “I tried to get them to calm down and they were all out of breath talking about how it should’ve worked. Apparently they’ve got hereditary magic. You believe that shit?”
There’s an ever-present metallic smell that hangs around Vinny. It’s something that makes Mal’s shoulders stiffen. Something just a little bit off. It’s the same smell that lingered in the break room for days after the busted microwave had been cleared out and replaced. Mal didn’t tell Byron that he’s not so sure.
Now, as he makes his quiet way into the office, he slides the cake pop bag onto Vinny’s desk and taps the counter next to their keyboard. “Casse-croûte,” he says softly. “Pour toi.” A snack. For you.
Vinny looks up, but Mal’s already on his way to his cubicle.
When Byron pokes her head in, Mal’s well into his groove. Crunching numbers comes so naturally that he doesn’t have to think about it; he’s barely awake. Coffee on the desk. Computer whirring. His desktop background is his favorite picture from the wedding, the one where he has Livia in a full bridal carry. Even four years ago, pre-HRT for both of them, she was laughably small next to him, frail as a bird but with a stunning ferocity in her gaze. She’s leaning back in his arms, entirely relaxed, one high-heeled foot pointed forward like she’s modeling, dress flowing out around her. He’s beaming, eyes shut, face glowing.
“Look who’s here,” Byron says, whistling. “You just on permanent overtime now?”
Mal smiles at her. “You know me. Can’t stay away.”
Byron must take that as an invitation, because she hops up to sit on top of his desk, running a hand through her dreads. Mal helps her out by moving his stapler and coffee, so she won’t knock either over. He used to have a framed photo of Livia and Aiko here, too. So he could look at his girls during the day. But three months ago he folded it up and put it in the top desk drawer and he doesn’t open that drawer anymore.
“Tired?” Byron nods at his coffee cup. They’re not old friends, really. But she’s the best work friend he has. Part of it’s gotta be bi/trans solidarity; their first one-on-one conversation was about their respective wives.
Mal takes a sip of his coffee. He grimaces. He does not actually drink his coffee black. Livia does, or at least she did when she drank coffee, but he prefers to dump in enough sugar that it makes his teeth ache.
Still. By this point in the morning, the exhaustion’s hitting. He stifles a yawn, wipes watery eyes.
“I think you have to be more assertive with the Starbucks employees when they mess up your order.”
“Not their fault,” Mal says, forcing himself to take another sip. “I messed up ordering it.”
Byron leans a little closer. Her voice softens. “Hey. Mal. For real. You look like you haven’t slept since the dinosaurs died.”
Mal pinches the bridge of his nose. Maybe he should have dabbed some of Livia’s concealer under his eyes. His search history is full of “melatonin addictive???” But Byron doesn’t need to know that.
He doesn’t stop smiling. That’s how he deals with half of his problems, these days, by smiling.
“It’s fine. It’s been … a weird few …” Weeks. Months. “It’s been a little weird.”
Byron nods, mouth thin. “How’s Livia?”
Mal thinks of nails like talons, a shawl like a shroud, a quiet voice picked bone-clean of emotion. He thinks of feathers on the carpet in front of Aiko’s doorway.
“She’s,” he says. “You know. Um. Good. Fine. As good as … she could be. Right now.”
At least Byron called her Livia. People are overly kind these days. They try to lean in, pat her shoulder, call her Liv. She hates being called Liv. She says she picked the name Livia for a goddamn reason and if she’d wanted to be Liv then she would have inked that on the name change forms. Mal’s the opposite. The only people who call him Malcolm are the people who don’t know him very well. (Which, these days, feels like too many people.)
Byron nods. She’s looping his paperclips into a chain. “Well, if she’s ever down to repeat the infamous beanbag-toss tournament, we’ve got a staff party coming up. Plus-ones allowed. Tell her she’s gotta defend her crown.”
They grin at each other for a moment. Then Byron’s eyes go dark again. “You don’t have to come in every day, you know,” she says quietly. “It’s—I mean, no one would fault you for staying home.”
Mal thinks of the stiff silence at home, the smell of iron in the house, the way Livia prays silently on her knees, the way he never knows who she’s praying to. The other week he came home to find she’d made a pentagram out of sticks and weeds, arranged on the living room floor. It was gone the next day. She said it didn’t work very well. Sometimes he catches the smell of blood and wonders if there are scratches hidden under her shawl.
He shrugs; he smiles. “It’s nice to be out of the house sometimes. Gives me something to do.”
“Yeah,” Byron says, “I get that, but …” She bites her lip. Her voice drops to almost a whisper. “You know if it’s a money thing, Mal, I can help.”
No, she can’t. Not with the kind of money he needs, surgeries and insulin and the car and the mortgage. Besides. It’s too late. He’s not worried anymore; he solved the problem; the payments come in every week in unmarked envelopes. He solved the problem. It’s fine.
He smiles at her, eyes crinkling, cheeks bunched up. “I’m okay. Really.”
“If you ever needed me to spot you something—”
“Byron. Seriously. It’s okay.” Mal grins at her, takes another sip of his very bad coffee, and shrugs. “I think you worry too much.”
Byron sniffs, feigning offense. “S’my job, Mal, it’s right in the description. Office manager and general worrywart. PhD.”
“You have a bachelor’s in worrying,” Mal says, “at most,” and spares her another smile before he returns to his work.
Work calls are automatic now. He has his salesman script; he says yes and no and uh-huh in the right places. He sits at his desk with his head propped up on one hand, stifling yawns, and his mind drifts to and fro, and Byron’s questions sit heavy in his chest.
Two months ago, both of their eyes were still raw, and Livia’s face was still colorless. He remembers it so clearly—the way she stood in their bedroom and stared out at the lawn below. Birds pecked at the grass. The crows cawed. Livia said, without turning to look at him, “My mother turned into a crow.”
Mal didn’t say anything.
“After my dad died,” Livia said. “People said she died of grief. But she didn’t die. She just left. She was wasting away, and she kept telling us it was happening, to look for her in the trees, and we didn’t believe her. And then she was just gone. Feathers all over the house. She said womanhood was like a cage and her body was the bars.” Mal watched her reflection in the mirror curl its lips back in a bitter snarl. “I never believed her back then.”
“Yes,” Mal says into the phone. “No. Yes. Uh-huh. That’s right.” He drums his fingers on the desk and swallows bitter coffee.
Lunch is soba noodles leftover from last night’s dinner. Mal eats in the staff break room at Byron’s urging; otherwise he would have probably stayed in his cubicle. But then again, the staff break room has windows, and while the view doesn’t extend beyond the parking lot, there are trees growing up against the building. There’s a black bird building a nest where three branches meet. Mal hovers by the window, trying to get a good angle with his phone camera, until Byron flags him down from a table.
“What’re you doing?” she asks, stealing a forkful of his noodles.
Mal aims the phone her way, covering his mouth as he yawns. “Hard to get a shot through the window screen.”
Byron squints. “I see it, though. Brewer’s blackbird?”
“How do you know?”
“It’s the kind of green tint to the feathers, see?”
She points. Mal squints. The pixels in the image blur; his eyes water. For a moment he forgets what he’s looking for. He’s just thinking of black feathers and the black behind his eyes when he closes them—
Byron waves a hand in front of his face. “Wake up, champ.”
Mal shakes his head, refocuses on the photo. “Sorry. Do you … you have a degree in birds, or something?”
“Ha. Close enough. I used to work at a nature preserve. Taught little kids bird calls and stuff.”
She says it and then she winces, eyes going a little wider. She has crossed the unspoken boundary; she has mentioned little kids. Mal does the polite thing and pretends he doesn’t notice. Instead he leans back in his chair and asks, “So what does a Brewer’s blackbird sound like?”
“Uh—um. Let me try.” She tilts her head back and emits a slippery little rasping noise. Mal tries to duplicate it and has to cough the tickle out of his throat.
He texts the pictures to Livia, writing underneath, “Brewer’s blackbird—your cousin? :P”
“what is :P” she writes back, and a moment later a notification pops up informing him she’s hearted the image. This constitutes Mal’s victory for the day.
You can’t get addicted to melatonin, but you can get used to it after long enough, which will make it stop working. You can also overdose on it, but usually the worst that happens is that it gives you stomach cramps. This is what Mal has learned by the end of his work day. Probably he’s done some things with the numbers, probably he’s made some sales, but he doesn’t pay much attention to that kind of thing. His life is an office drama, and he lets it play in the background of his brain, a dull hum never fully loud enough to wake him up.
He passes Vinny on the way out of the office. At this point they’ve abandoned their computer for scratch paper, smudged by their inky fingers. They’re scribbling symbols on it, shapes, equations.
Vinny glances up, teeth bared in a preemptive scowl, and then they register it’s him and relax. Even so. One hand slides over the paper. “Hi, Mal.”
“Hi, Vinny.” They have a lot of piercings. Their ears, their nose, their left eyebrow, all studded with silver. Mal wonders when they got them. If it was a teen rebellion thing. If they fought with their parents about it. “How are you?”
“Thank you for the snack.”
Mal smiles brightly at them. He nods at the paper. “What are you writing?”
Vinny shrugs their bony shoulders. “Oh,” they say vaguely, “you know. Family stuff.”
They reek of metal. It’s funny, Mal thinks, that witchcraft and blood seem to smell the same.
“Bonsoir,” he tells them as he leaves. Good night.
When he gets home there are black feathers scattered across the kitchen floor.
For one horrible moment he’s sure he’s really lost her. Heart clattering in his chest, he races through the house and bursts into the living room. Livia’s asleep on the couch.
Mal stands very still in the doorway. It takes him a few minutes to calm his breathing down. Even then, he has to lean back against the wall, sudden exhaustion pushing down on his shoulders. His eyelids have been drooping all day. He has half a mind to give in and sink down to the floor and cry. But then, he hasn’t cried at all lately. It’s like he’s forgotten how.
She’s sprawled out like debris, like refuse, like she blew onto the couch in the wind and only stays now because she’s weighted down by blankets. She’s always covered in blankets these days. She’s cold all the time, even when he holds her.
She’s frailer every day, too. Fragile bones and faraway eyes. Livia used to approach womanhood the same way she approached motherhood, the same way she approached almost everything: like it was a prize, a privilege, that had been given out to everyone else but that she needed to earn for herself, tooth and nail. As long as he’s known her he’s watched her build her own womanhood. Now he watches her take it all apart, bone by bone, prayer by prayer, head bowed, calling on a family power he can’t touch, leaving a trail of feathers behind her.
Sometimes, the doctor said when Aiko died, there’s nothing you can do. Sometimes these things just happen.
He gets the broom out and sweeps all the feathers off the floor into a dustpan. He doesn’t know what to do with them then, not sure if she’d want him to throw them out, so he leaves them in the dustpan as they are.
He doesn’t think to check the counter until he sees the white corner of the envelope. They don’t usually come two days in a row. He reaches for it; then he pauses, hand hovering in midair. The very edges of the pressed-flat dollar bills are poking out. The envelope’s already been opened.
Most nights they eat dinner together. Sometimes he comes home and Livia is gone, a note left on the kitchen counter explaining that she’s out in the city—doing what, he doesn’t know. Sometimes he comes home and she’s asleep and she sleeps through the night until the next morning. In both cases he eats alone, and he leaves something for her in the fridge, for whenever she wants it. But most nights they eat together.
Tonight it’s stir-fried udon and silence. Just the house creaking around them. Livia’s eyes are fixed on the window, a thousand-yard stare out into the yard. What she’s looking at he doesn’t know. She twirls one noodle around one chopstick, slowly, hypnotically, unconsciously, and her fingernails are too long, and too black, and too hard to keep his eyes off of.
“Do you watch TV?” He means to say it quietly; it still feels too loud. “When I’m gone.”
Livia’s head moves, very slightly, to the side. She’s not looking at him, but it’s a response. As is her lackluster shrug. “Sometimes.”
Mal bounces his leg under the table. His head is full of fog. Maybe he should invest in caffeine pills if he’s going to keep having late nights. “Would you want a new computer?” he says. “I know the old one is slow.”
Now Livia looks at him, though her gaze is distant, glazed like she’s waking from a deep sleep. “I don’t use it for work anymore.”
“I know. That’s—that’s why I ask. Because you’re … you have free time. You might want a better TV. Or a better computer. Something nicer to—to have around the house.”
“Something nicer,” she repeats. “Like we have money to throw around.”
“Well,” Mal says, and his voice wobbles on the word.
Both of them go silent. It sits there, like a centerpiece, on the table. Well.
“Be careful,” Livia says quietly.
“When you go out tonight. Please.”
Now she turns her gaze full-force on him, a floodlight, and Mal has nowhere to look. The ceiling, the floor, out the window—
Livia’s glucose monitor beeps sharply. She hisses, turning with a scowl to dig for the receiver in her pocket, and Mal exhales. Horrible of him to be relieved, really, when minutes ago he was begging for her to look at him. But he doesn’t want to look her in the eyes anymore. He doesn’t want to see fear there. Instead he stares at the far window, at his reflection in the now-darkened glass. It’s like he’s swimming in thick fog. He doesn’t recognize the person who opens his mouth and says, “I will be.”
“I liked the bird,” Livia says quietly.
I think it’s nesting, Mal thinks, but it feels like a cruel thing to say.
The after-dinner hours are a haze. Sometimes they sit on the couch together, Livia tucked into Mal’s side, and watch TV. Stupid TV. Sitcoms that play laugh tracks after the kind of jokes that used to make Livia scoff. Most often they drift around separate from each other, haunting their own house. Mal’s working on a jigsaw puzzle on the living room table. He’s working on fixing Livia’s old bike, too, though at this point he should probably just buy her a new one. Maybe if he buys a new bike she might actually use it. Maybe she’ll smile for once. Maybe at least she can take it around the city.
He finds her curled in an armchair by the bookshelf. She watches him shrug his coat on; she watches him do up all of the buttons with careful fingers.
“I’m going to work,” Mal says softly.
This time when he kisses her she kisses him back. This time he doesn’t hold his breath. The smell washes over him so strongly that he tastes it, iron in his mouth like blood.
She pulls back before he does; her teeth bump against his lip.
“Sorry,” Livia says, but Mal just shakes his head, checks his mouth to make sure he’s not bleeding, smiles at her, murmurs, “That’s all right, dear,” as he rises.
As he opens the front door, he imagines it, suddenly: the future. Three, four, five years from now. A gleaming chandelier in the front hall; a sports car rumbling in the driveway; champagne in the pantry and marble in the floor and all of their debts paid off. A computer for Livia, and a bike, too, and arms that are free of feathers, and eyes that are free of tears, and hands that look like they did when she first put on the engagement ring five years ago. And he imagines himself in the doorway, with his coat buttoned up, still.
He’ll be out all night.
He thinks, as he leaves, that he hears Livia say, “I am sorry, Mal.” But it’s so quiet that he can’t be sure.
He keeps the baseball bat in the shed out back. It’s dark by now. The yard is silent except for the creak of the shed door, hinges he needs to oil, a task he adds to the ever-growing list in his head. The bat is aluminum, heavy and solid in his hands.
He doesn’t take the car. Too much risk of staining the interior. Too much risk of someone getting his license plate. It’s barely a getaway vehicle, anyway; the thing whines when he pushes fifty miles an hour.
There was a name in the envelope, on a slip of paper tucked inside the bills. A name and an address. He doesn’t know who it is. He doesn’t know what the purpose is, what the reason is. He knows there’s another envelope awaiting him at the end of this week. Another stack of bills. Another name. Mal walks along the dark street, bat propped up on his shoulder, the night air cool on his neck, his face, his hands. He walks and he turns the name and address over and over in his head.
Sometimes he thinks he might be dead. Like he might have died and no one noticed. Like there’s nothing inside him at all. No bone, no blood, no thoughts.
Now there’s blood pumping in his neck, his arms, his hands, his ears. He readjusts his grip on the bat. His footsteps beat a steady metronome against the pavement. His eyes are wide open; his senses have cleared. He can feel everything at once. He can hear for miles and miles.
It’s incredible. How tired he isn’t.
When he’s there, when he swings the bat for the first time, when the crack of a skull reverberates all the way back up to his hands, his smile is different. This time it’s real.
There’s blood pooling on the floor, blood in his mouth, bones breaking under his hand, and he is so alive. He’s so alive it’s hilarious. The night air is cool on the back of his neck, his blood is thrumming in his veins, their blood is dripping off his coat, down his legs like afterbirth, and he thinks of blood on the ground and in his veins a year from now, and a year from then, and Mal lifts his head and laughs and laughs.