PART ONE: MORE HUMAN THAN HUMAN
I was pretty sure I’d had sex with Mallory Worner, which would’ve been great, really—Who finally got laid? Pincer-monster me, folks! —but I was also pretty sure we’d killed someone last night.
The headache woke me. A headache like an icepick up my nose. A throat dry enough to burn. Some rank chemical taste in my mouth. I was spooning her on my sofa, her dark frizz of hair smushed into my face, her smell—cigarettes, artificial jasmine, sweat—thick in my nose, her freckled body blazing fever-hot in my arms, tight against me. Both of us nude from the waist down. I’d already popped a boner.
My Hands were caked in dried blood.
Not hands. The Hands. My pincers.
I held one up, wrapped in its usual cocoon of cotton bandages. Dried blood encrusted the cloth. I flexed a Hand. Flakes of the stuff rained down on Mallory, getting caught in her hair. I brushed them off her.
I lifted my head. Just enough to see her face.
Splatters of dried blood adorned her freckled collarbone and neck and face. Bruises laced around her neck, like someone had tried to—
My stomach twisted.
“Babe?” I asked.
She made a sleepy sound.
Early sunlight stabbed through window blinds, throwing bars of orange across everything. Made my eyes water from the brightness. Half-drunk bottles of generic vodka and Fireball littered my coffee table, along with a ceramic bong, a pile of DVDs, and a velvet ring box. Congealed booze stained the living room carpet. It reeked like weed and cherry Robitussin.
Why am I this hungover? We didn’t drink that much last night.
She grunted. “Yeah, Triple-Six?”
“Why are we covered in blood?”
“Because we got too drunk to shower,” she said.
She nudged her weight into me. I didn’t move. Well, one part did, but Jesus, could you blame me?
“Wanna shower now? Together?” Mallory said.
Her hand spidered down my chest. Went lower. She hooked a finger around me, around the base of it, and said, “Want me to take care of this?”
Light struck a vodka bottle on the table. It illuminated the lines drawn onto the glass with a fine-tipped Sharpie. A line for every milliliter. It’d tasted…. salty. Not right. But she’d brought it over. We drank. We smoked. Then…we went somewhere. She’d dragged me out the door. Blood. There was blood, yeah, bleeding, and a man slumping to the ground and—
What the fuck did we do last night, Mallory?
One of the DVDs lay open. The title read, Mallory Worner: Born to Evil?
It was stupid. All that stuff was fifteen years ago. She was twenty-two years old now. It wasn’t like she chose to kill people—
—Turn his head for me, Triple-Six, she’d murmured, in the half-dim of the lone halogen lamp outside the bedroom window, booze and strawberry nicotine gum cloying her breath, me inside her, so velvety so warm, thrusting, groping with a Hand for something as Mallory said, Turn his head so I can see it, and then greasy hair met my Hand, grabbing, tilting something limp (something dead) close enough to see—
Oh God. We killed Blueing.
It’d started with that shitty DVD.
“Could you do it permanently?” Mallory had asked.
“Paralyze someone with the Hands,” she said, “If you touched them enough. Would it be permanent?”
We were baked to oblivion on my couch, smoking up the last of Ma’s stash. I still wore the funeral suit. My Hands hung out, bandaged up, white against black, and I didn't know what to do with my hair, so that frizzed out too. Three-day-old stubble and hair like a homeless crackhead. Just the look for a twenty-two-year-old freakshow. Weren’t you supposed to lose your mother when you turned fifty? Her—the house, it was my house—the house was silent. No Ma. None of her Jordanian soap-operas jabbering on the TV. No her, spitting bits of Arabic at me from the couch, saying, You think that’s dusted? This is how good you cook? And always, you leave me, I’ll die. Well, Ma, I never left you. You still died.
“Don’t ask,” I said.
“How many mice did you kill when they ran those experiments?” Mallory asked.
“Thanks for the reminder, babe.”
I stared out the window. Red buttes crumbled just outside, dwarfing two saguaros. Fruit rotted on the sand below them. Mallory’s trailer looked like a toy miniature from here. A single dirt road stretched beyond the horizon. We lived deep in some empty part of Texas. Roy Pike had dragged Ma and I here when I was about three months old. Ma still hadn’t given me a name by then. She never did. I was Project 0666. Even on my birth certificate.
Off a nameless road in Texas, there’s a gravel turnoff. Maybe you drive down it for a joke, maybe you’re curious, but after fifteen minutes or so of flat brown nothing, you’d probably turn back. If you went down it long enough, you’d see a microscopic town—ten houses, all of them painted in the pastel sugary colors of Jordan almonds, a gas station, a playground sinking into a pit of pebbles—but you wouldn’t drive another thirty minutes. Nobody does. Except Roy Pike and his bevy of lab assistants.
If you drive further along the road, it ends in a dirt clearing. There’s a two-bedroom shack here, its sun-bleached paint peeling off in strips, and a gray trailer without a vehicle. There are no vehicles here, except when Roy Pike visits. He always carries a gun. No internet. No cable, no city water or sewer connections. No phones, except a landline that only calls Roy Pike. No escape.
Mallory Worner and I rotted away side-by-side in this isolated pocket of desert hell.
Me, I understood. The Hands. Roy Pike had never needed to explicitly say, Son, you can’t live in society if you can paralyze folks by touching them. But Mallory?
The jury was still out on whether Mallory counted as a serial killer.
They threw her here when she was seven years old. Right before the State of Texas fried her mother in the electric chair. Mallory’s primary skill set had included corpse disposal, brewing trailer-park GHB, and luring victims to serial killer mom. You could’ve put a tiny picture of either lady—Mallory or serial killer mom—on a box of Little Debbie’s, and nobody would’ve batted an eye. Both were covered in freckles.
A fist-sized burn scar marred Mallory’s right cheekbone. She stood a whopping five foot zero, compact and intense. A massive tangle of dirt-brown curls fell to her waist. Her eyes flattened into lifeless black dots when she got pissed.
A hard edge crept into Mallory’s voice. “Doesn’t feel good to get asked stuff like that, right?”
“If you don’t like the Saran Wrap, you can just say so.”
“I love the Saran Wrap. I’d like a Handful of Saran Wrap in me later.”
“I can’t just—c’mon. Ma died. There’s gotta be like, a 24-hour celibate period after that. I’m gonna go soft inside you anyway,” I said. “Like always.”
She scrubbed her hands.
“Don’t pretend you’re sad if you’re not. I wasn’t when mine died,” she said.
“Yeah? Well, my ma didn’t murder thirty goddamn people.”
Mallory’s face went taut. Mask-like.
“Could you kill someone? If you touched them long enough?”
I tensed. Oh god is she having another blank spell? I scanned her wrists for necrotic spots. None. Okay. Okay, the sedatives were locked in the kitchen, twelve steps away. It’d be fine. Everything was always fine. Prepped syringes were good to go.
“Does it feel good? To use the Hands?” Mallory asked.
No drawl. Her voice still sounds the same.
“Tell me, man. Does. It. Feel. Good?”
My throat felt bone-dry. “I—I don’t—”
Mallory stormed over to my DVD cabinet, clutching a bottle of booze. Her knuckles gleamed white. Flies buzzed against window glass. A blood-red sun grazed the horizon.
She tore open the cabinet. Scooped out DVDs.
I faked a laugh. “My porn stash? Really?”
She dug behind the bootleg copies of Hot Succubi XXX and its sordid sequels.
“Roy Pike called earlier. I asked if you could move here and ditch Blueing,” I said. “He said he didn’t want us ‘havin’ sex like rabbits’ so, uh, I kind of thought of a way around that. Um, don’t open the little box that’s in there.”
“Quit distracting me. I know you’ve stashed it in here—ah!”
Mallory hurled a DVD onto the carpet, picked it up, and thrust it right in my face, shaking. An old close-up shot of Mallory—she couldn’t have been more than four-years-old in the picture—took up the DVD cover, rendered in grainy black and white. They’d photoshopped her eyes red. In dripping blood font, the title read, Mallory Worner: Born to Evil?
“Why did you buy this, Triple-Six?” She asked.
Because I had to take a lighter from you last week. Because you almost burned down my house. Maybe I had a death wish. I didn’t know. I’d found the DVD in a pawn shop, on my once-a-year-expedition to civilization, and Roy Pike had let me get it. Along with the other thing. The thing in the velvet ring box. The thing I’d pawned my best set of kitchen knives for, the thing I’d been trying really hard to not think about, and then Ma’s pancreatic cancer finally killed her, so I’d stashed the thing in the black ring box behind the DVDs, where Mallory wouldn’t look.
Except now she was looking there. Mallory continued rummaging through my DVDs. She found the ring box. Didn’t open it. She tossed it over her shoulder like an empty beer can.
She stormed up to me. “That the only one?”
“I—I didn’t mean to be weird about your childhood—”
“Why the fuck did you buy one of those shitty DVDs about it?”
“I just thought—your mom—”
“Lorraine,” Mallory said, jaw working, “Was not my mom. She was a fucking monster. She had me. She used me. There’s a reason I don’t talk about that shit.”
I swallowed. Hard. “I’m worried about you. You keep having these psycho spells, and I don’t—Jesus, Mallory, I thought there’d be some key to the insanity, in your childhood or something.”
Mallory glanced at the ring box. Her shoulders relaxed.
“Okay,” she said.
“I believe you. It’s something you’d do. Like all those vitamins you put in my food, whenever I come over—”
“Dude. I was drugging people when I was five. I know you do it, Triple-Six. Let me make something very clear,” Mallory said, slithering closer to me on the couch, “You are never ever going to pull one over on me. Okay?”
My face burned. “Okay.”
“Can we not bullshit each other, man?”
Ma used to get real dramatic and refuse to eat, so I got good at… I sort of laced her food with these powdered vitamins, and then I kind of started doing that with Mallory, because Mallory would happily live on Kraft singles, beer, and cigarettes if I didn’t cook for her, and that was totally fine. She basically lived here. When you loved someone, you cared for them.
“So, we getting drunk or not?” she said.
Sunset cast the living room in shades of red, like a seedy bar lit by neon. The outline of her nipples poked through her tank top, good nipples, soft boobs. Her lips glistened. Pink. Swollen. Warmth buzzed through me and down in an oh-so-good rush. Felt everything down there. Cotton, rubbing. Jesus, what’s wrong with you? Ma died this morning, you managed to hurt Mallory’s feelings—no easy feat there, champ—and you still wanna get laid?
Mallory threw the DVD onto the coffee table. “You watch it?”
She’d brought over a bottle of booze. It’d been chilling in the fridge for the last few hours. Now, she sauntered back to the fridge and yanked out every last bottle of booze, lining them up on the counter in front of me. Our current booze situation was grim. We were down to vodka, Robitussin mixer optional. I squinted at the bottle she’d brought. Little lines had been drawn at precise intervals over the glass. Mallory just kept staring into the open fridge. Maybe there was a prize inside I didn’t know about. Maybe Ma’s head was in there or something.
Hey, babe—are we losing it? Are we both losing it together? You want me to stare into the open fridge with you until we both lose our fucking minds? I’m cool with that. I am now A-OK with that. I shouldn’t be.
“Uh, so Roy Pike said he wanted to talk tomorrow morning,” I said. “Something about his higher-up wanting me out? He was pissed. Made it sound like he wanted to put a bullet in my skull. But Ma’s dead. I—I might have a way to stay together.”
Mallory slammed the fridge. "They’ll never let either of us out. Unless we’re in body bags.”
Roy Pike had called earlier. He ran my life. To date, he’d thrown me into sixteen solitary confinement stays, sometimes in other places, but mostly in the reinforced basement cell below my house. I called it Bubblegum Hell. He made me eat nothing but communion wafers for six months when I was fourteen. Lots of other fun things. He was a crucial part of my education. If he wasn’t calling me a raghead, a camel jockey, or a dirty foreigner kid, I might’ve forgotten what ethnicity I was.
I was very brown. Probably Middle Eastern brown, if I had my ethnic slurs right.
“You see the little box on the carpet? You want to open it? I was thinking we could, uh, live together. You could move in. Blueing’s gotta get off that court-appointed gravy train sometime,” I said.
“I already asked. They’ll never let it happen.”
“Look, I know it’s been a while since we really tried to leave—”
“Escape,” she said. “Use the right word.”
I yanked up my shirt. A bullet scar gleamed sickly pink on my stomach, close to the navel. Fun fact: I could heal from a bullet wound in, like, three days. So many fun facts around here.
“Sorry for not wanting a redo of my twentieth birthday dinner,” I said.
“Would’ve worked if you’d used the Hands like we’d planned. Took me months to cook up that ANFO. We had the explosion. Got to the car. I told you to use the Hands on whoever came, while I was hotwiring it. They came. You didn’t,” she said.
Great pep talk, as usual. Mallory bustled around the kitchen, staging shot glasses along the stained Formica.
“This place is gonna kill you soon,” she said, shaking her head. “The last time they pulled you out of solitary—”
“So, they turned the lights off for a month. Big deal.”
She pounded the booze on the counter. “You were a skeleton. They didn’t feed you, didn’t give you water—you should’ve died.”
“Sorry to disappoint.”
I plucked the jewelry box off the carpet and held it in my Hand, stroking the velvet. Die? Not me, babe. My brain went kaput around hour four. Because of the number of times I’d been subjected to Roy Pike’s tender mercies, I knew exactly how my brain liked to break. It broke happy, not scary. I’d start hallucinating chicken strips and fried pickles and strippers. Sometimes the strippers had, like, horns and succubus stuff going on. All those reruns of Hot Succubi Babes XXX had leeched into my subconscious.
Mallory poured shots. “You want popcorn or not?”
“You’re not off the hook. You wanted to watch the true-crime junk. So, we’re gonna watch it. And I’m gonna tell you every last detail that they left out.”
Maybe part of me had been curious. Raised by Lorraine Worner, the Barbeque Butcher? The Texan pyromaniac serial killer? What was that like?
“I, uh, wanted to show you something. It doesn’t have to mean anything, but legally, I think Roy will have to let us live together, and that’ll get you away from Blueing. I pawned some stuff when I went on my birthday outing, so don’t worry about—”
“Show me tomorrow.”
Something twisted in my gut. Heartwarming start to this whole proposal thing, champ. Great sign.
Mallory slid the disc into the DVD player, cords standing out on her neck.
She froze. “Said I wouldn’t do this tonight. God—what’s wrong with me?”
She turned. Sunset haloed her hair in blood-red light.
She presented me with the bottle, tilting her head. “Wanna get out of here?”
I blinked. “Yeah, but what does that have to—”
“Do you want to get out of here or not?”
The Hands pulsed. Hungrily.
She smiled, exposing her canines. “Then, let’s get wasted for the movie.”
Seemed counterintuitive, but hey, what did I know about escaping the clutches of a quasi-kidnapper, or whatever Roy Pike and his lab assistants were? It wasn’t like we lived, gee, sixty-nine miles away from the nearest town or anything.
Mallory swigged off the bottle. Then she smirked, licked her lips, and deliberately swallowed, making solid eye contact the entire time. Those lips. Was I about to successfully get laid? As in, finish through without losing my nerve? Was I a terrible person for caring? Probably.
She pressed the bottle into my Hand. My thoughts blurred. I chugged—and gagged. Salty. Way too salty. Like bilge water and vodka. But hey, any port in a storm. So, I forced it down and almost immediately started wobbling. What was this, Russian boat stripper? I’d been pickling my liver since the age of fourteen, and Mallory’s booze made black spots dance around the edge of my vision.
“C’mere,” she said, and got the movie going.
She lured me onto the couch as the credits rolled, slipping the suit coat off, unbuttoning the shirt. Warm body against mine. I shivered. Oh, yeah. I got to the edge of her tank top and awkwardly fumbled with it for a few seconds before she took over. Me and my goddamn pincers.
Her lips on mine, darting wet tongue. Tasting her artificial-strawberry nicotine gum.
Maybe we can actually make this work. Ma’s finally dead. Maybe…being trapped here won’t be so bad.
I’d made a deal, but I didn’t know it yet.
Last night gets dim here.
Half-recalled memory fragments from the credits on. Thoughts that sort of slid out of my skull. My inhibitions? Zero. Ability to hold a train of thought? None. And that was peachy, because when Mallory Worner began to spit out fun facts about her life… Well, it got bad.
It was the verbal equivalent of dry-heaving bile. She talked in godawful spurts, half-slurring them out.
“…Tripoli Hospital Fire? Yeah, that was a fucking nightmare. I can’t believe what they’re saying—dude! I was five. She held a gun to my knee and said either I’d overdose on Benadryl or have no kneecap. I was getting in that hospital one way or the other…”
“…We got Charleston Chews before burning warehouses. Strawberry-flavor…”
“…These actors are terrible. It didn’t happen like that. She bashed his skull in before she hauled him into the van…”
“…She never wanted a kid. But. She’d killed a sixteen-year-old boy. Then she saw how much everyone flipped out about that compared to drifters. Plus, women with children get away with a lot more…”
“…It didn’t look like that. It was a red notebook from Family Dollar. Not some leather-bound book of evil. We couldn’t even afford real milk, man…”
I finally said, “But you never—we never talked about this stuff, Mallory. We don’t talk about my Hands. We don’t talk about her…”
“…Lorraine told me not to get annoying, because she’d kill me. She meant it. I knew in my gut that if I stopped being useful, she would. Her temper got that bad. Especially when she drank…”
“…We both hooked a lot.”
“…You ever done meth, man? I still crave it. The last time she smoked some with me was…when she killed that Marine. Oh God. Oh God. Him…”
Half-sobbing, “He tried to save me, he tried to escape, so I blew his head off with the shotgun, and I didn’t want to, but I did because I knew whatever she’d do to him would be worse. Oh God. I had to get that off my chest.”
“…She knew Blueing before they caught her… Nobody believed me when I told them. He wasn’t some idiot groupie. Not the way they show him. Dude, he’s killed people…”
I wanted to hurl. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how.
“She’s been dead for twelve years, and I still see her sometimes.”
Midway through, she grabbed my Hand, cupped it around her boob, and kept repeating, Tell me I’m good. Tell me. Tell me I’m a good person. I slurred something. She blinked and started jerking me off desperately as I sat there, numb and drugged. She repeated, You like this, right? Tell me I’m good. Don’t leave me. Tell me—
All I could do was sit and think blankly, Am I normal yet?
My Hands tingled. Faintly pulsed.
Eventually, at some point, she calmed down.
Anger. Heat. No wonder Mallory had issues. I clutched her to me. She shook.
I made a garbled sound.
“Good. I need you angry. I’m gonna tell you about Blueing, and you’re gonna drink four more milliliters of this,” she said, tapping the bottle. “Then we’re going somewhere.”
“Roy Pike never said I couldn’t use you to do it.”
Drinking. Salty. Burning. Trying to stand. Failing.
“C’mon. Get up,” she slurred.
She hoisted me by the arms. Half-dragged me to the door.
She unwrapped the Hands, fumbling. She took another swallow of booze.
“I don’t…don’t wanna remember this. But I do,” she slurred.
Gray paint flaked off the trailer door. Click. She unlatched it. Called out.
Pulse. Pulse. Pulse. The Hands throbbed.
Blueing was strangling her, grubby fingers dug knuckle-deep into her neck and grunting. She batted at him, freckled face reddening and reddening as she wheezed, and red warmth trickled down my arms. But he kept choking. Oh God. She was purple now, oh fuck. What did I do? I sucked in humid, dank air, legs burning to run away but no—Rip. Tear. Protect—but I wasn’t a monster. I couldn’t… I couldn’t…
Black shark’s eyes met mine. Help me, she mouthed.
He bled on the ground, paralyzed, raw red smile gashed across his throat, spasming. Broken glass gleamed in her hand. Blood everywhere. She smiled.
A keening, inhuman shriek.
Eardrums vibrated. She loomed over the body on the floor, in the half-light and—
Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud-thud-thud-thud.
Wet sounds. Squishy sounds. Blood. Saliva filled my mouth. Red flew up and splattered across her cheekbone. Pulse. Pulse. Pulse.
Mallory, I slurred, and I slurred something else, something important. But she ignored me.
Thud. Thud. Crunch.
Dragging something. Heavy. Sand scraped my raw Hands. Wait, they’re unwrapped?
Back at my house. Stumbling around. Every step ached. My arms felt stiff. My bandages half-flopped off the Hands. We slid onto the couch. She bundled an afghan around me. When had I put the suit on again? Shit. The movie… The menu played across the TV. Was it over? My brain hurt. She picked up the battered velvet ring box. She opened it.
The ring glinted. Cubic zirconia bits sparkled on a hair-thin gold band.
She looked so sad.
“Are you okay?” I slurred.
Everything spun. Her face remained. I focused on it. I tried to hold her, the way I’d done a million times before.
“I can’t get on one knee, I’m too drunk. I’m sorry. Will you marry me?” I slurred.
"I did all that in front of you. And you still—”
I always did, Mallory.
Her pupils dilated.
“You wanna have sex?”
“Fuck yeah, babe.”
Grinding. Heat, building in an oh-so-good rush. The taste of strawberry and spit, wet and sweet. Her hand frenzied down there. Nipples hardened. I hardened, too. Straddle her. Yes. I moved. She fumbled, unzipped my fly, and I slid everything off.
Soft. Fever-warm and velvety. Like a half-dream, it slipped in and out on me. Slipping. Slick. So good. And she bucked her hips, ground them into me, laughing, as I drifted in and out, in and out like the tide, salty wet—I can still taste it, taste her—on the edge of passing out. Need you. Twined my arms around her torso. Boobs. So soft, so good, so warm please, and pulsing heat, hot heat, red heat, her and me, oh God yes, her mouth over mine, soft moving slick. Slick. All of her, slick—fuck she’s wet, does she really want me?—oh God the Hands, is she looking at them, at me?
Exhaustion. Fake strawberry smell, her body on mine…
I sank into ocean-deep blackness, not all at once, but in broken pieces, like a doomed ship.
So, I was pretty sure we’d killed Blueing.
“Let’s shower,” Mallory said, “Did we have sex last night? I feel tingly. Pretty sure we did.”
Neither of us looked at the ring box resting on the coffee table. Mallory proceeded to feel herself, channeling all the sexiness of a prostate exam. Schlorp.
I couldn’t breathe. Was she going to go femme fatale on me? Give me a morning-after breakfast of rat poison? Drown me in the shower? She’s gonna seduce me again. Seduce me to my goddamn grave.
Mallory coughed up a wad of butter-yellow phlegm and hawked it into a shot glass.
“I need to pee before I get a UTI,” she rasped.
Apparently, some days are like that. Kill a guy with your semi-boyfriend, bang afterward, you know. Normal people stuff.
“Try to stay calm. I think Roy’s still got six cameras scattered around this house. Forgot where he put the mics,” Mallory said, “Hey. Was my childhood entertaining enough for you?”
“Was it good for you too?”
She got up and walked to the bathroom. I staggered over to the kitchen to make breakfast.
The bathroom shower hissed. Mallory kept her shampoo right next to mine. She liked it if I made pancakes, but not with milk. The only time she’d ever drink milk was if I reconstituted powder. Okay, babe. You can’t get pancakes from scratch if you kill a fucking guy. Sorry, I don’t make the rules. I grabbed a bowl and Bisquick. A giggle chittered out of me. I mixed pancake batter.
The Hands itched. They felt swollen and inflamed on top of everything else, like I’d turned into the Tin Man overnight. Ma was dead, I might’ve killed someone, and now my Hands felt like going haywire. What, were they infected? Was it stress? Everyone always told me it was ectrodactyly. Some mutant variation gone awry. But c’mon. Ectrodactyly doesn’t turn you into a paralyzing freak of goddamn nature. There’s variation, and then there’s…whatever I got stuck with.
Instead of four fingers and a thumb, I've got two fat, fused fingers. Imagine a normal hand, laid out, fingers together, nice and relaxed. Take that hand and jam a skin-colored sock over it. Tuck in the thumb. Split it down the middle evenly, going deep into where the webbing should be, but don't add any fingernails yet. We haven't gotten that far. Congratulations, you've got my hands.
But you still don't have the Hands. Remember what I said about the fingernails? About midway down each of the ‘fingers,’ my dark skin begins to harden, morphing into something keratin-esque, and bleaching dull white. Until we reach my fingertips. There they end in sharp points. Like talons. Lobster claws. Spurs. Skin merging into bone.
But I don't need to break the skin to paralyze you.
I ignored my itching Hands. I dumped artificial-pancake glop into a heated griddle and ripped open the fridge for real food. I wasn’t raised eating sweet stuff for breakfast. Ma and I were too brown for that.
I snuck a few spoonfuls of raw hamburger. Felt good. I liked meat raw. It made my throat tingle, warmed my stomach—but tell Mallory? Or anyone? Hell no.
Half a roasted lamb’s head sat on a bed of rice. Mallory probably wouldn’t have poisoned that. Mostly because I had a bottle of Heinz and some mustard and a jar of mayo and a bottle of rose water that could’ve been poisoned way easier than the lamb’s head. Those poor innocent condiments were just asking for some drops of dissolved strychnine or arsenic. You’d have to dump a lot of suspicious-looking powder on the lamb’s head to poison it… Or dissolve some strychnine or cyanide in a spray bottle and spritz the entire surface, and then you couldn’t guarantee a deadly dose on the first try. I mean, c’mon. Mallory was smarter than that. More efficient. What a smart girlfriend I had. What a great relationship I had.
Well! As far as I was concerned, Bisquick was already poison. I grabbed a fork. Dropped it. Grabbed it again, Hands shaking. It was fine. Totally fine. Everything was peachy-keen here. Probably just a fever dream, right?
“I didn’t do it,” I said to the drywall. “But if you saw anything, don’t snitch.”
Another giggle welled up in my chest. Don’t snitch. I ate bits of meat off the lamb’s face, chewing the cheek meat. Salty, fatty, delicious lamb.
Mallory bounded out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel. Water droplets beaded her curls. “You’re pale, Triple-Six. Something wrong?”
“What did we do last night, Mallory?”
Smooth-faced, she said, “We watched a shitty movie.”
“Does it matter?”
I flipped the pancakes.
“Maybe not. I guess some nights are like that. You get drunk, burn the toast, and, gosh, I don’t know—wake up with half a memory, covered in bruises. Average bender. Who really needs details?”
“Speaking of,” she said.
I threw the pancakes on a paper plate. Mallory waltzed through the living room, collecting every bottle, including the ones with boat-stripper booze. Then she scooted past me to the sink and poured everything down the drain.
“That’s a waste,” I said.
“How much do you trust me?” Mallory asked.
I started the coffee pot. “What did we do last night?”
“Let me handle the food. You look like you’re about to faint.”
Hey, babe, I almost said. Did we kill Blueing or not?
But it died somewhere en route.
“Don’t go into your bedroom,” she said.
“Just don’t, man.”
I sat down at the dining table, scratching my bandaged Hands. I watched her bustle around. No rat-poison or broken glass in sight. She fried eggs. Made coffee. Black. As the itch worsened on my Hands, I finally snapped and started unearthing them.
“Free admission to the freakshow,” I said.
“Do I ever stare?”
“Lot of firsts around here, Mallory.”
“God, will you just spit it out? Whatever the fuck you’re building up to?”
She picked up a plate in each hand and walked over. “Don’t grope under the couch cushion either.”
Is it Xanax time yet? When Mallory had her psycho episodes, her eyes went blank. Or she’d get this weird Texas accent. Or kill random animals. Set things on fire. I’d force-feed her a sedative cocktail to limit the casualties, so maybe we both sucked at being normal people.
I glanced at Mallory as I unwrapped the Hands. Her eyes weren’t dead. Yet.
I got to the final layer of bandages. A cool breeze whispered against the fabric, easing the itch.
Hey, champ, ever think you might just be freaking out?
I ripped off the last of the bandages.
Mallory hissed. She froze, stock-still, and stared at the Hands. You never reacted—
I glanced at my Hands.
A brand-new network of vivid red veins pulsed on them. Like rivers of slime mold. Between them, blister pink skin flared and itched. My breath hitched in my chest.
My mouth worked, but nothing came out. These new Fun Veins weren’t random—they emerged from the bony tips of my Hands, branching down the rest like a demon’s fishnet stocking, ending around my wrists. They faded back into the skin. Everything itched. Did I mention that? The Hands now felt like balls of living mosquito bites chained to my arms. Scratch these new nightmares? God, no.
Something warm clamped down on my shoulder and squeezed.
“That’s abnormal,” Mallory said, in the dry, matter-of-fact tone of a biologist explaining sex.
“Gee, you think?” I said.
“They don’t look bad. Eat now, worry later."
She plopped down next to me and ate, cutting her eggs into precise squares.
“Did we kill Blueing last night?” I asked.
She leaned in. Her voice hardened. “This place is going to kill you. It’s going to kill me. So, I said it wouldn’t. I need your help.”
“Dead. Dragged him to your room. Sorry, man.”
Something made the Hands shake. Maybe it was me.
Edward Sal Blueing had been a grungy Australian dude who’d liked to call me a ‘little demonspawn shite.’ Dusty hair, dusty skin, all topped with a sweat-soaked Stetson hat. Two thick tattooed lines encircled his neck, like blue chokers. When I was twelve, he’d seen me looking at Mallory. He’d leered, grabbed her ass like she was a possession, and he—
Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, you can’t get angry.
—kissed her on the lips, and even then it’d made my stomach hurt, made the Hands throb, made me want to—rip tear kill—say something, but he was her court-appointed guardian—Lorraine gave him custody of me before they fried her, she’d said once—so what did I know, and he’d smirked at me after, and Mallory just went blank and silent.
We thought we’d be free once Mallory turned eighteen. Then Roy Pike chained Blueing to her via the legal system, citing mental instability. Mallory Worner couldn’t live in society. Mallory Worner was a danger to herself and others.
Blueing’s killed people, Triple-Six. They never caught him.
I shoveled eggs into my mouth, trying to numb my brain before it showed me Blueing’s maggoty corpse—
—Turn his head, Triple-Six, she’d said, skin on mine, pulling away as I stood, Turn his head for me. Like that—
“Did… did we… did we fuck in the same room as his body, Mallory?”
“Speaking of. Things are getting time-sensitive. It’s July.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Nope. Not hearing this. I couldn’t even look at my own Hands right now. Now I’d helped kill—done something—and Mallory wanted me to handle a dead body? Why did she have to be like this? Why couldn’t we just be together and be happy? I loved her. Why couldn’t she love me?
You know why, champ! The Hands! If you ever forget, just look down when you’re jerking one off.
Mallory glanced out the window.
“Shit. Roy Pike’s here,” she said.
Sure enough, Roy Pike was strolling up to my shack, clipboard under his arm.
Copyright © 2023 Drew Huff