by Takiguchi Aiko (滝口アイコ)
illustrated by serenity_winner
Surprisingly, given the clinically precise lines of the architecture and the modern, open-air sensibilities of the lobby, the inner offices of the Ceridian Communications building’s thirty-fourth floor were decorated like a Victorian library. Everything was mahogany and embellished with rounded flourishes. The chair where Dylan was currently crossing and uncrossing his legs, trying to swaddle his fidgeting in an air of thoughtful deliberation, was cushioned with red velvet and horse hair. It prickled through his jeans.
They were dark jeans, good jeans, designer in fact, according to Fiona, his business partner Amir’s girlfriend, who lived with Dylan and Amir in everything but name. She picked out his outfit for this meeting – once Amir’s stomach flu hit the 72-hour mark and it became clear that Dylan would have to go it alone – with so much care you would have thought it was Oscar night. Dylan was originally just going to wear his suit, but when he put it on for the first time in five years it turned out the pants had a mysterious new giant hole in the crotch that the Greek tailor down the block couldn’t or wouldn’t fix.
Fiona told him he didn’t want to wear a suit anyway, image-wise. What he and Amir would be bringing to Ceridian’s marketing campaign was freshness, creativity, a revolution not only of ideas but the media through which they could be expressed. And this was best demonstrated by jeans and a blazer, apparently. Amir seconded this when he was able to remove his head from the toilet bowl, which is why he usually handled pitch meetings. That and because the other reason Dylan kept twisting one leg behind the other was he had stepped in paint on the way to the N train.
When he had been kept waiting for fifteen minutes – long enough to become genuinely absorbed in tracing the curlicues sloping down the armrest – someone said, “Mr Harris?” and he looked up.
The someone had probably never had anything approaching Dylan’s suit crisis. He looked like he was poured into this one at least – it fit like a thick coating of varnish and probably cost more than Dylan’s rent. Still, the way models could wear a suit impeccably and present with a vague cognitive dissonance, a haze of wrongness about them because it didn’t fit their youth, their cheekbones, that’s what was going on here. He was even slouching a little, like a bored kid at a wedding.
“Mr. MacCordrum is ready to see you now,” the man said. He was younger than Dylan, maybe, with just astonishing eyes, like when the plane descended through the cloud barrier and you got your first glimpse of the ocean. “He apologizes for the wait.”
Dylan swallowed a couple times, working his way through a suddenly irregular heartbeat. He realized he hadn’t stood up or maybe even technically acknowledged that anything had happened. The man just watched impassively. His nose and mouth and jaw had a softness to them; it took a moment to appreciate their symmetry. He was so beautiful frankly it was almost alarming or amusing.
Dylan finally found it in himself to rise, clutching his laptop case to his chest in a way that made him feel like it was a copy of The Watchtower. “Oh. Um, that’s great. It was nothing. The wait, I mean. Thank you. Thank you…?”
“The office is just down the hall,” the man said, turning on his heels to lead him there, apparently in lieu of responding to Dylan’s fishing for his name. Okay, Dylan told himself, glancing at oil-painted portraits positioned between half-opened doors, okay, reprioritize. This was not who he needed to impress.
The man he needed to impress, Neil MacCordrum, had a corner office that occupied a fourth of the floor. Except for the windows comprising the two exterior walls, the stodgy Victorian theme extended to or perhaps originated from here. There was even a bookshelf with a wheeled ladder. His computer monitor made the room look like one of those children’s puzzles – What’s Wrong With This Picture? MacCordrum himself would also be circled in that game. Whatever affectations he had, he didn’t look like the type of man eccentric enough to carry around a pocket watch. Neil MacCordrum was tall, almost as tall as Dylan, and severe. Entirely without frills. Frown lines were chiseled around his mouth and forehead. Most of the important men Dylan had freelanced for had become comfortable or preoccupied, let their outlines go round. Neil MacCordrum was in his mid-sixties with not a whisper of retirement about him, and looked like he had decided some time ago to stop visibly aging. If he seemed comfortable, it was with the security of authority and diamond-edged intelligence. He stood up at least when Dylan and the man entered the room. Manners.
“Dylan Harris.” He had a firm handshake that Dylan tried to match. “Pleasure to meet you. I was a big fan of the Gillette campaign. That thing with the bonsai tree, very funny, very clever stuff. You think Parris Advertising can do the same thing here?”
When they were first starting out, Amir and Dylan had called their new media advertising/consulting firm Amir and Dylan’s Fun Time Happy Picture Selling Very Yes. Eventually though they had stopped being twenty-three and just portmanteaued their last names. Precisely thirty now, Dylan was caught on an awkward crux, feeling old, awkward and unstable in the personal sphere but approaching a tier of professional success where he was considered youthful and promisingly dynamic. He liked his job though and although this wasn’t his favorite part, it was easy enough to follow the script.
“Not exactly,” Dylan said, sitting down across the desk from Mr MacCordrum. The chair squeaked slightly with his weight and he tried not to wince. “But then again, that’s not the point, right? Ceridian needs something glossier, less silly, more smart, and it needs to extend further into the internet landscape-”
MacCordrum waved his hand, a surprisingly effective dismissal. “My ad guys told me about their meeting with your partner. I’ve got the idea. Today’s about getting a chance to see each other face to face, know who we’re dealing with. Unless there’s anything in there,” he nodded to Dylan’s laptop bag. “That’s so different from your original mock-ups it would change the game at this point.”
“Well, uh, we tweaked how we wanted to handle the fouresquare page, but other than that…” said Dylan.
MacCordrum didn’t even appear to register this. “You’ll report to the marketing director. You kids have some good ideas, but he still gets ultimate veto power. That was made clear in the meeting.”
Amir had told Dylan as much after he, as the business end of the partnership, had had the actual pitch meeting with Richardson, whom he described as uninspiring. Dylan hadn’t been there himself, but MacCordrum, Dylan was beginning to see, was not a man who often added question marks to the end of his sentences. “Yes sir.”
MacCordrum was also apparently a man who took being called ‘sir’ in stride. “Great. So we’ll hash out the rest of the details over lunch. Unfortunately I have my guys from Taiwan waiting for me on Skype in the other room. It’ll take twenty minutes at most. My assistant Malcolm can make you comfortable, keep you company in the meantime.”
Dylan followed his gaze back to the door, where the man who had lead him in was picking at his cuticles. “Oh… Yeah. Sure. That’ll be… super great.”
“Malcolm,” MacCordrum said, louder, like calling a dog. Malcolm clearly heard, his body tensed, but he was slow in responding. “Why don’t you bring this young man to R&D, let him see one of the new smartphones. That’ll keep him interested.”
It was a fairly curt dismissal, but no one had mentioned the paint on his shoe so Dylan was willing to say the introduction was a success. Malcolm shrugged and opened the door for them both with one hand. MacCordrum exited first, brushing Malcolm’s shoulder with his own as he passed. Malcolm’s expression after the touch was more like a waxed cast than a face.
The elevator was empty when Malcolm and Dylan entered. Malcolm pressed the button for the seventeenth floor and stared at the doors when they closed.
“So that must be a big perk to working here,” Dylan said after a few moments where silenced pulled between them like taffy. “Access to all this awesome first gen technology. You must get amazing discounts. Or is it just free? Or a Christmas bonus?”
“You can ask Mr MacCordrum if you’re interested in any particular item,” Malcolm said. He had a fuzzy twist to his vowels Dylan was just picking up on. “But if you want to take anything, you’ll have to sign an NDA.”
“Oh, uh – no,” Dylan said. “I meant you. You personally must get cool stuff.”
“I guess,” said Malcolm.
The lights on the elevator buttons flickered off one by one.
“You know, they did this study where they found that native English speakers are the least comfortable people in the world with conversational gaps?” Dylan said. “They generally can only tolerate a silence of two or three seconds where the average for most other languages is three to five.”
Malcolm looked at him out of the corner of his eye with pearly disdain. “That must be hard for you.”
Dylan twisted his mouth, confused. “So what, you’re not one? Do your parents speak Gaelic?”
The elevator dinged open just as Malcolm whipped his head around, a movement surprisingly vicious given his previous lethargy. He didn’t say anything though, just stared with manhole cover eyes. He looked like a ghost in a Japanese horror movie, dead and angry.
Dylan said weakly, “Because you’re Scottish, right?”
“Sure. Why not,” Malcolm said, accent identifiably Scottish now. He pointed at the woman in front of them, sitting at the station below the Ceridian logo. “That’s Margot. She’ll show you around.” He jabbed the button for the thirty-second floor.
“Nice to meet you!” Dylan called to the closing doors, stumbling his way out.
Margot was youngish and very pretty and looked conspiratorially amused when Dylan approached her station. “Ah,” she said. “The new ad guy, right?”
“So you got the ice princess your first day,” she said. “That’s a shame. Don’t let it ruin your opinion of the rest of us.”
“Yes,” Dylan said. Then, “Sorry, what?”
She laughed, flicking a pencil between her fingertips. “Don’t take it personally. He’s like that with everybody.” She leaned in over the counter and Dylan did too, caught in that dumb little thrill of an attractive stranger wanting to share something exciting. “He’s got a major superiority complex from sleeping with the boss.”
“What?” Dylan squeaked. He cleared his throat, aiming for a lower range. “Really?”
Margot nodded. “Oh yeah.”
Dylan glanced at the elevator like it could confirm or deny. “Are they like – is it a thing?”
“It’s not anything official,” Margot said. “Mr. MacCordrum is pretty closeted but he always had these gorgeous young guys around. And then five years ago he comes back from a trip to Glasgow with a new PA who looks like that and types maybe thirty words a minute. At first he didn’t even know you needed to dial out.”
“Still,” Dylan said. “Maybe he’s just, like, eye candy being admired from afar…”
“Malcolm lives with Mr. MacCordrum in his penthouse,” Margot said.
“Well yeah, okay,” Dylan conceded. “That’s a pretty solid pile of evidence.”
She laughed again. Women sometimes thought Dylan was adorable. “So he’s a jerk but don’t worry about it. He pretty much keeps to himself anyway. So do you want me to take you to Rog’s department? They’re working on more intuitive autotext.”
Dylan did and said as much. And the keypads themselves even were pretty awesome, let alone the predictive text. But Malcolm niggled at him, like a stone caught in his shoe, all through the awkward power lunch with MacCordrum and on the subway back home. The Empire State Building, he noticed when the Q went above ground, was lit blue and green and he wondered what the occasion was and who was celebrating.
He and Amir were given a pretty nice office to share as part of the advertising department’s attempt to pretend that they didn’t resent needing consultants. They were able to move their stuff in the following week, once Amir had stopped dying. He still looked a little green though as they hauled in Dylan’s three Apple LED flatscreen monitors. They were helped by Richardson’s executive assistant and a few of the junior members of the department. Apparently only MacCordrum’s personal floor looked like it came from an Agatha Christie novel, Dylan was relieved to note. The advertising department was as generic a labyrinth of cubicles as they came. Dylan hadn’t been expecting Malcolm to be there – he clearly spent his time in the executive branch; he would stick out in a normal bullpen like a Greek statue come to life – but he felt a little flicker in his chest whenever he caught someone in the corner of his eye, anticipation trapped in the second before his vision adjusted.
Amir came back from the flu firing on all cylinders, chagrined at having been sick at the first place. Dylan was willing to chalk the illness up to stress. The Ceridian campaign was their largest account yet in terms of both the size of the company and the scope of the project. Amir basically hadn’t slept for two days in preparation of the pitch until, Dylan only semi-jokingly suspected, Fiona drugged his coffee. Stung with the betrayal of both his fiance and his immune system, Amir was now a man determined and Dylan himself wasn’t usually able to keep perspective when swept up in an idea. By the end of the first week they were staying in the office for ten, eleven hour stretches at a time.
Ten o’clock every morning, they met with the department executives because it saved on hospital bills compared to ramming their heads directly into a brick wall.
“It’s not that I don’t understand the need for an internet presence,” Richardson would say. “But fifty-five percent of the budget?”
“We were hired to expand your brand recognition,” Amir would say. “And that happens on the internet. The people who watch TV already know who you are.”
“You keep saying that – the people who watch TV?” Richardson would say. “Who doesn’t watch TV?”
“People who don’t have TVs,” Amir, probably because he had an MBA, kept his voice measured but by this point Dylan could usually see veins appearing on his neck. “The people who make up your 18 to 35 demographic, they’re statistically more likely to be the ones voluntarily going without a television. Those are the ones who need extra convincing your product isn’t a half-assed Blackberry but something they’d want to buy. Under forty, everyone lives on the internet and the people on the internet are the ones interested in evolution of cellphones.”
“Believe me, we at Ceridian understand that better than anyone,” Richardson would say. “And we do have a Twitter account and a Facebook page.” And then Dylan would step on Amir’s instep as hard as he could until Amir would say they’d look over the executives’ notes.
Eleven thirty, when the meeting was over, they’d go back to their office and throw out the notes and actually get to work. Amir lying on the loveseat, feet dangling off the edge and Dylan at his computer. Usually they ordered takeout a few times a day. A week and a half in, Dylan overheard one of the ad execs refer to their station as ‘the cave.’
That itself wasn’t what convinced him to go to the commissary instead the next Tuesday. He and Amir — particularly Amir, Dylan thought uncharitably — were hitting a block on the spokescharacter they were trying to create, going a little stir crazy and nothing on seamless web looked interesting. Amir, fussy from unsuccessfully trying to explain what tumblr was to a collection of sixty-year-olds, kept throwing a squishy ball shaped like the moon he had gotten from the Natural History Museum against the wall, making a damp thud. It wasn’t so much giving Dylan a headache as it was vaguely depressing him, like a very dour metronome.
“Will you stop that?” he asked.
“It helps me think,” Amir said.
“It makes me want to strangle you,” said Dylan. Amir responded by throwing it at his head, hitting his temple so the dull squish reverberated in his ear even louder than before.
“That was a mature move, buddy. You’re all class. I’m getting lunch,” Dylan declared and felt very purposeful striding towards the elevators, even though he had to ask the receptionist where the cafeteria was.
The Ceridian commissary was designed like an upscale restaurant with round tables and limited but intriguing set menus. It shouldn’t have reminded Dylan of a high school cafeteria, except most situations where he felt an unwelcoming lack of choices in where to sit did. He surveyed the view, hands in his pockets, and almost turned to slink back to Amir and his squishball and some Mexican takeout, until he saw Malcolm at a two top tucked into the back. His head was bowed over a book, face in shadow, but Dylan could already recognize the curve of his neck.
In his sister’s words, Dylan liked people fine but he wasn’t very good at them, like they were a resource he wasn’t quite sure how to utilize. Like people were an oil well and Dylan had a nice assortment of petroleum lamps. He had to concede there was some truth to this. But in his opinion, where he fell down wasn’t so much on basic understanding but in execution. Dylan understood people. He knew what they liked, what they wanted, how they would react to a various unexpected event like a volcanic eruption or an intriguing new cheesecake advertisement. And a step removed, using the lens of commentary or art, he could respond to that. Dylan shot up to 6’2″ when he was fifteen and spent the rest of his adolescence as a collection of knees and tics and scabs, too tall to ignore but too shy to demand attention. Even now, adult and grown into his looks, he was still always anxious and aware of his physical presence, like he was never quite sure he remembered to remove the price tags. So he spent a lot of time studying people but not interacting, studying beautiful people in particular, and on the surface Margot the R&D receptionist’s assessment of Malcolm seemed dead-on.
But Dylan knew anger – everybody did, really – if again, at a slight distance. That look in the elevator had gone beyond the bored, supercilious disdain of the privileged. It could have burned the world. And Dylan was sort of fascinated by endless, simmering rage, that level of passion, which partially explained why his last three partners were eventually diagnosed with personality disorders. He went over to Malcolm’s table. Malcolm didn’t seem to notice.
“Anyone sitting here?” Dylan asked, voice forced and jovial.
Looking up was apparently a lengthy process for Malcolm. He surveyed Dylan with a blankness that conveyed mild disbelief rather than confusion. Still, to fill the void, Dylan said, “Dylan Harris? We met two weeks ago? I’m the new media consultant.”
“The native English speaker,” Malcolm said. The side of his mouth twisted in private amusement. “It’s a better language than Welsh at least.”
“Uh… I guess?” Dylan said, shifting his weight. “I heard it has a lot of ‘y’s, so it’s hard to pronounce? Like the names in Torchwood are pretty but you couldn’t figure out how to spell them.”
Malcolm rolled his eyes with an almost imperceptible sigh and returned to his book. Dylan felt he had failed an arcane but critical test. “Can I join you?”
Malcolm turned a page. “I doubt I can stop you.”
Dylan pulled out the chair. He should probably quit now. Something told him this was where most people quit with Malcolm and that struck him as a little depressing. “I appreciate it. I see you’re into your book and all, but I’m just still new here. I don’t know anyone else.”
“But you know me?” Malcolm said. The sentence had all the vowels that brought out his little burr. It seemed to come and go.
“Well,” Dylan said. “I know you definitely don’t like me. If I introduced myself to someone else here, I’d have to make conversation, try to impress them, and then get all anxious about whether they actually like me or were just being polite. You’re a known quantity. It takes the pressure off. I don’t even have to try.”
Malcolm tilted his head, perplexed like most people were at Dylan’s stream of consciousness. He tapped his chopstick against the table – he was the only one in the room with chopsticks, Dylan noticed. Every other table was set with forks – and eventually said, more explanatory than conciliating, “Dylan is a Welsh name.”
“Americans don’t know anything. Dylan ail Don,” Malcolm said, voice gone not dreamy, exactly, but far away. “Was plunged into his baptismal waters and turned into a sea creature. He swam away, as perfect as any fish. Dylan of the Waves.”
Malcolm sounded wistful. Dylan asked, “Did he ever come back?”
Malcolm flipped another page of his book although he couldn’t possibly have finished reading it. Whatever reverie he had been in evaporated as quickly as it came. “It’s just an old story. Anyway he was killed by his uncle.”
“That’s…” Dylan said. “a pretty unusual piece of information. So I guess I know two facts about you now. You don’t like me, but you do like Welsh trivia.”
Malcolm looked like he was going to say something, but just then the waiter came, carrying a tray of sashimi. That explained the chopsticks. The waiter looked at Dylan with surprise but handed him a menu from his apron. It did not, Dylan notice as he skimmed it, offer sushi.
“Give me just a minute, thanks,” he told the waiter. To Malcolm: “You order off-menu?”
“It’s a perk,” Malcolm said with sour irony. Like he couldn’t picture anything as really being a perk. His tie today was green, vivid emerald against the charcoal of his jacket. A platinum watch peeked out from behind his sleeve, diamond placeholders for numbers. Dylan didn’t know many people who were dismissive of luxury, but Malcolm’s attitude annoyed him less than it should for reasons he couldn’t explain.
Watching Malcolm eat turned out to be an experience. He didn’t bother with soy sauce or wasabi or ginger, just went straight for the salmon. He held his chopsticks like pick-up sticks and mostly stabbed at his food with them, shoulders hunching a bit with the effort. Dylan was slightly horrified, but it was a little comforting to see a chink in his perfection.
“I’ll have the turkey club,” he told the waiter when he came back, smiling blindly at him as Malcolm’s chopstick hit the plate hard enough to rattle it. “You must… really like sushi,” Dylan said as Malcolm shoved a whole piece of sashimi in his mouth and chewed, cheeks bulging out.
It took Malcolm a moment to swallow and answer. “It’s good enough. It misses the point.”
“The point? The point of what?”
This was another question apparently too pedestrian to answer. Comraderie flipped off like a switch, Malcolm found his place in his book. Dylan had misjudged the jump, fallen into a spike pit and had to start at the beginning of the level. “What are you reading?”
Dylan knew the name but not the work. “Any good?”
Malcolm shrugged. Dylan suspected he might be using the novel mostly as a prop.
“That must be something you have in common with Mr. MacCordrum,” Dylan said cautiously, trying to convey tacit understanding and the innocence of his own attempts at conversation. “I saw all those books in his office. He must be a big reader.”
Malcolm hunched his shoulder in further, protective, bristling. “MacCordrum doesn’t read. He collects.”
Dylan struggled to keep up with the sudden swell in the depth of the conversation. “He collects books?”
“Everything,” said Malcolm. He shut the book with a sound like a flinch. “Anything rare or pretty or old.”
“Well…” Dylan said, uncomfortable now. “He’s a multi-millionaire. It’s his right to spend his money on expensive stuff if he wants to.”
Malcolm looked up at him. He had a scattering of freckles across his nose. Dylan could see them for the first time because he had otherwise gone pale with anger, eyes narrow. He took a deep breath, shook it off, smirked scathingly. “It was stupid to try to talk to you.”
“Hey, what?” Dylan said, hurt. It might have been stupid to talk to Dylan on many levels, including a basic existential one, but he couldn’t guess why that comment in particular had garnered this response. “Was that really called for? I was just making conversation, you don’t have to…” And then he thought about the hard authority in Malcolm’s voice when he talked about MacCordrum’s choice of collectibles. He looked at Malcolm, a rare, pretty thing.
Later, Dylan would remember this moment as the first time he felt the wrongness of the situation. His first glimpse into true mystery and ugliness and the dark. Right now though, the insight was fleeting, swept away quickly by various coping mechanisms in his brain eager to return to equilibrium.
“Look, I’m sorry,” he said, gentling his voice. “I didn’t mean to make you sad.” Dylan had meant to say ‘upset you’ or ‘piss you off this much’, but sad was what came out and sad rang true.
Malcolm’s features melted into surprise, for once unguarded. He looked down, pushed his plate away. “Nothing you could do can make me sad.” It aimed for dismissive but came out hopeless, like the sadness already bore too deep for Dylan to touch. He stood up. “But I still shouldn’t talk to you.”
Dylan looked at Malcolm’s leftover fish once he was gone. It glistened. Naked, unappetizing muscle.
A few days later, Dylan had an epiphany on several fronts.
“Hey,” he said to Amir, who was staring up at the stucco ceiling like he could divine his fortune from it. “You know MacCordrum’s PA?”
Amir wrinkled his nose. “You mean the rent boy?”
“I mean – what? How…? What?”
“That’s what I heard from Omar in accounting,” Amir said. “It’s the scuttlebutt. That Mr MacCordrum found him while trolling for rough trade in Glasgow or maybe saw him in some porn, then flew him here and stuck him in a suit to parade in front of everybody.”
It wasn’t actually that unreasonable a theory, which was probably why Dylan found himself going on the defensive. “Who goes to Glasgow for male prostitutes? Come on. And how do you even know anyone in accounting?”
“I leave our office. Unlike you,” Amir said. Which was, as far as Dylan knew, a lie.
“Whatever. Anyway, I was thinking…”
“You wouldn’t actually be the actor if you don’t want,” he told Malcolm, who was sitting in front of his computer, looking at Dylan with what was now a familiar expression of uninterested, disdainful bemusement. “I mean, if you are an actor, that’s obviously fantastic, but otherwise we’ll hold auditions for that. But we need a model for the character to get a sense for how we would write for him in different formats and how he would react in different periods.”
“Different periods?” Malcolm said. His eyes flickered to the screen and he clicked the mouse. Looking over, Dylan saw he was playing solitaire. He apparently had decided to erase their lunch from his memory, but he radiated slightly less hostility when Dylan was around.
“Yeah,” Dylan said. “That’s the premise of the campaign. We want to work with a central character, like the Old Spice guy, except tell more of a narrative, maybe even make it sort of an ARG. So cellphones, right? Communication – we want ads where a guy is a time traveler in different eras and he’s using his Ceridian phone to contact us, the audience, to help him get out of jams. Which is why fouresquare in particular is so important, once we figure out a way to monkey with the code to change the date, so once people figure out where he is, like in a battle in the American Revolution – or space! – and how he can get out okay and tweet that information to him…”
Malcolm looked both bored and utterly confused, which required a fair amount of talent. The flatness of his expression made his cheekbones even more prominent.
“Anyway,” said Dylan, slowing down. “We don’t want it just to appeal to history or physics nerds, so we need to make it funny. And I thought it would be funny if the guy was really… you know… like you.”
Malcolm put a red eight on a black nine, quirking his eyebrows. “Like me?”
“You know…” Dylan was aware he was treading on quicksand territory. “All ‘oh great‘ sarcastic, but sympathetic anyway. So consumers will want to rescue him.”
“Rescue me,” Malcolm said flatly.
“Well not you,” Dylan said. “Necessarily. The character. Is the one who needs rescuing.”
Malcolm drummed his fingers on his desk. “You’d have to ask Mr MacCordrum.”
“Like if he can spare you?” When Malcolm didn’t answer immediately, Dylan pressed on. “But if it’s okay with him, you’ll do it? We just need you down in our office a couple hours a few afternoons a week.”
Malcolm nibbled on the side of his lower lip. “Maybe. What’s an ARG or an Old Spice guy?”
“You’re joking, right?” asked Dylan. But it was clear from Malcolm’s expression that he wasn’t. Dylan began to hear a faint roar of blood in his own ears. He loved media, how the internet was changing media. He loved marketing enough to be an idealist about it, to think it could be its own artform. It physically hurt, knowing Malcolm didn’t have the Old Spice guy in his life. “Okay, move over. We’re going to youtube right now.”
Malcolm, with his mildly scornful delayed reaction time, rolled his chair slightly to the left so Dylan could wedge himself behind the desk, and lean over him, where he shrieked, “Oh my god!”
“What?” asked Malcolm.
“What have you done to this computer?” Dylan said. “There are pop ups every- this thing must be riddled with viruses. And you still use Internet Explorer as your browser? Can I?” He gestured to the monitor.
“Whatever,” said Malcolm.
Dylan clicked a document at the bottom of the screen. “What version of Excel are you running? This is taking a full minute to maximize the file.”
Most luddites had the self-awareness to at least be ashamed, but Malcolm just leaned back in his chair, arms folded loosely. A sunny day was peaking through the window and the natural light made him look even more ethereal than usual. He said, “I don’t know much about computers.”
“How did you get through college?” Dylan asked. Malcolm just quirked an eyebrow again, but Dylan had a horrifying rushing recall of the rentboy rumor and stumbled over his words to keep going. “Anyway, how’s this for a trade? If you help Amir and me brainstorm, I’ll fix your computer. Reformat your hard drive, install some better software, teach you how to use it. The works. I’ll even throw in Bejeweled. You must be getting sick of solitaire.”
“I really don’t care about computers,” Malcolm said.
“Then let me do it just for my own peace of mind. You’re practically abusing this one. If it were a kid, you’d be imprisoned for criminal neglect. I can’t just ignore that – all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
Malcolm’s mouth folded in on itself like he was biting down a smile. His skin was a texture Dylan hadn’t even seen before; it looked like it could reflect light. Malcolm was almost ridiculously lovely – and that was a word he never would have used to describe a man before, lovely. But Malcolm was composed of rounded edges of prominent features, willowy where he should be gawky, and it all compiled itself into inspiring tenderness. Dylan realized he would be happy to spend a lot more time grinning at Malcolm and wondering if Malcolm wanted to grin back.
But then Malcolm’s big eyes went even bigger and he turned his head. Dylan looked up and saw MacCordrum, looking at the scene Dylan was now visualizing from his perspective: Dylan tented around and over and gazing sweetly at MacCordrum’s, well, probably his boyfriend. He put distance between them in a way that couldn’t possibly have been subtle. “Hello, sir.”
MacCordrum had one hand braced on the door of his office, a study in relaxed friendliness. “Dylan. Good to see you again. I’ve been hearing good things from Richardson about you two.”
Dylan nearly had vertigo until he realized MacCordrum must be referring to him and Amir. “Thank you, sir. I actually, well, Malcolm said I should talk to you-”
“His computer really is disgraceful, isn’t it?” MacCordrum said. “He won’t even install Norton.”
Malcolm stared out the window, for all purposes deaf to this conversation.
Dylan forced out a chuckle. “Actually I wanted to talk to you about the ad campaign.”
“Sounds important then,” MacCordrum said. His tone was difficult to read, but not at all natural. “I should have a few minutes available on my schedule right now. Do I, Malcolm?”
“You do, sir,” Malcolm said with a sudden clipped professionalism. He turned to his computer and started typing, not reacting when Dylan crab-walked his way free of his workspace.
MacCordrum moved out of the doorway to let Dylan through. He listened to Dylan’s proposal sitting at his desk with his fingers steepled, a cross between a high school principle and a therapist. He listened too intensely for it to be anything but an intimidation tactic. Either it was so ingrained a practice he used it on Dylan of all people or he was operating on a higher plane where it seemed important to keep Dylan in line.
Either way it worked. Dylan stammered a lot and scratched at his ear when he wrapped up with, “And, um, we were thinking we could, uh… borrow him.”
MacCordrum was silent for half a beat, brows lowered. When Dylan started rubbing his palms dry on his pant leg, MacCordrum buzzed the intercom. “Malcolm, I need you.”
Malcolm waited that same half beat before he came in. He shut the door quietly, holding himself straight.
“I like you, Dylan,” MacCordrum said, like he had just decided this now and it needed proclamation. “You’re the creative type, but you’re ambitious. You think big picture. If this campaign does as well as your projections say, I’d seriously consider incorporating Parris Advertising into my full-time staff.”
“Thank you, sir,” Dylan said, puzzled. At both the non-sequiter and how MacCordrum seemed to actually be speaking to Malcolm, keeping him locked steady at the top of his gaze.
“So if Malcolm can budget his time, I suppose I can let you borrow him a few hours a week to help the cause. Farm out some of his duties to the other PAs.” MacCordrum leaned back in his chair, a portrait of comfortable authority. “But that all depends on whether Malcolm’s interested. Are you interested, Malcolm?”
There was tension in the room; Dylan’s shoulder muscles were seizing with it. Malcolm, standing alone, was expressionless, face carefully schooled. For the first time since Dylan had met him, he seemed vulnerable, faced with a question that glittered with the razor tip of a threat.
Malcolm said, “Anything for the company, sir.” And he smiled like drawing a knife.
MacCordrum nodded at Dylan, satisfied. He stood up and went over to Malcolm, casually untying his tie. It was blue today, navy, darker that Malcolm’s eyes. “Always becomes loose this time of the afternoon, doesn’t it,” he said, to no one in particular. Then, over his shoulder to Dylan, “Have you ever been to the Vineyard?”
Dylan was helpless to look away from them. Malcolm looked serene, even, at this intimacy, or at least he had slid back into his usual indifference. Dylan said, “I’ve been to a vineyard.”
MacCordrum laughed. “Martha’s Vineyard, I mean. I have a house up there, lovely this time of year, really beautiful.” MacCordrum looped the knot into a windsor. “You ever been?”
“I never got the chance I guess, no.”
“Tell you what,” MacCordrum said, hand nearly at Malcolm’s throat. “You and that partner of yours have been working some long hours. A good-looking young man like you, that’s got to cut into your social life. Can’t get a girlfriend if you’re in the office all day.”
“Ha ha?” Dylan attempted, dutifully. On Mad Men, this would be where someone made a crack about the secretarial pool. Malcolm seemed less lackadaisical now. He was staring at a fixed point on the wall like he could bore a hole through it and escape.
“But don’t think that goes unnoticed,” MacCordrum continued. “You deserve a break. How about we take this Friday off and head up for a long weekend? Amir’s engaged, isn’t he? He should bring his fiance along. You’ll never want to vacation anywhere else. Right, Malcolm?”
Malcolm had gone pale again, displaying freckles that spread across his cheekbones. His fists were clenched. MacCordrum turned to face him again, cinching the tie tight. “Really something up there. Gorgeous view of the ocean.”
“We have to go,” Amir said.
“We really can’t go,” Dylan said.
“I want to go,” said Fiona.
“You guys don’t understand how weird it got in there,” Dylan said. They were sitting around the living room of their Astoria apartment, eating Chinese. “It was like… unspoken layers of incredible weirdness. All this power stuff. MacCordrum practically peed on him.”
“I get it, Dylan, but when the CEO of a Fortune 500 company invites you for a weekend getaway at his home in Martha’s Vineyard, you go,” Amir said. “That is the essence of good business sense. Bam, I just saved you the trouble of getting an MBA, right there.”
“I think he just invited us to prove a point,” Dylan said.
“So stop hitting on his boy toy and the problem’s solved,” Amir said. “We can still use the opportunity to network.”
Dylan felt color rush into his cheeks. “I’m not-”
Amir rolled his eyes. “This is the worst part, Fiona, he thinks he’s being subtle. Say, Malcolm, let me fix your computer. Oh, let me take you out to lunch! Oh, let me lure you into my office to have you act out my secret fantasies!”
“That’s not even a little bit what’s going on here,” Dylan said. “And you think a guy with a smartphone getting trapped in the Jurassic period is one of my sexual fantasies?”
“Amir, don’t be a dick,” Fiona said. “Look though, Dylan. I really do think it’s in our best interest to go. You said he was talking about putting you on staff, right? Wouldn’t it be nice to stop freelancing?”
This was Fiona genuinely wanting what was best for him laced through with the subtext I would like to have a baby one day, Dylan. Their firm was burgeoningly successful, but jobs didn’t always line up neatly and there had been lean years and debts to pay. They were old enough now that instability didn’t seem romantic anymore, or at least not nearly as sexy as health insurance. Maybe that was adulthood, when the definition of authenticity became selling out.
They reserved a zip car for the weekend.
He didn’t see Malcolm for the rest of the week. It would probably be flattering himself to say Malcolm was avoiding him. His presence loomed large around the office though; he was water cooler talk. Dylan gleaned a surprising amount from casual conversation. Nobody liked Malcolm. They thought his eyes must be contacts. He once tripped Vanessa from HR and was never made to apologize. Nobody liked him. He definitely lived with Mr MacCordrum; they took the same town car home every night. That mouth had to be collagen, probably from his porn days. Nobody liked him.
The only thing Dylan conclusively proved from any of this was the Ceridian offices were kind of gay. And unhappiness could be a hard thing to recognize, maybe, if you weren’t familiar with a particular shade of it.
By Thursday night, Amir and Dylan had outlined two time periods, putting them ahead of schedule. Perfect timing really. Amir called them a car, still getting a kick out of the novelty of that, and then went to the bathroom for some privacy while he called Fiona. Dylan didn’t know why he bothered. It was eleven thirty. They were the only ones there. Dylan decided to celebrate with a candy bar and wandered his way to the vending machines. He got sidetracked though, following the emergency lights to the common area, when he heard rustling by Richardson’s office. Papery sort of rustling and then something slamming shut. Richardson and his assistant had been gone for hours.
Dylan felt a little adrenaline jolt. Mice were his first thought, or maybe burglars. He called out, “Hello?” and the rustling immediately stopped. Dylan congratulated himself on his ingenuity until he realized that didn’t rule out the possibility of either mice or burglars. “Um, I’m going to count to five and then call security?” No answer, just heavily-laden quiet. “One…”
The door creaked open. Malcolm’s hair was messier than usual and he blinked it out of his eyes. Hie looked a little panicked, breathing hard, until he recognized Dylan. “Oh,” he said without inflection, closing the door behind him. “You.”
“Hi,” Dylan said. In the grainy half-light, Malcolm looked less substantial, more porcelain. It was harder to see the luster of his eyes, and without the vivid color they became somewhat unsettling. “What’re you doing?”
“Mr MacCordrum sent me down here to retrieve some files,” Malcolm said quickly.
Dylan looked down at Malcolm’s empty hands. “Wow,” he observed. “You’re kind of a terrible liar.”
Previous attempts being unsuccessful, Malcolm tried to blow his hair out of his face. The gesture was childlike. “You interrupted me.”
“In getting the files?” Dylan asked.
“Yes,” said Malcolm.
Dylan put his hands in his pockets. “Uhuh.”
Malcolm’s shoulder’s slumped, tired already of this. “If you tell MacCordrum you saw me here, it won’t go well for either of us.”
“Well, yeah, for you, definitely. He’ll think you were stealing,” Dylan said. “Were you stealing? If you’re in corporate espionage, it would explain some stuff.”
Malcolm at first gave him that look like Dylan was not remotely worth his time, which was almost impressive in its snobbery given the circumstances. Then, seeming to digest what Dylan had actually said, Malcolm leaned against the wall, blinking at the skylight which was worthless now in the dark. He laughed a little, harshly. He seemed exhausted and wired, somehow both very young and very old. Androgynous to begin with, he was a mess of contradictions, impossible things. He rolled his head to stare at Dylan, gaze so piercing and bitter Dylan held a breath much too long.
“Believe me,” Malcolm said. “Anything I would ever take from this place would already be rightfully mine.”
“Malcolm,” Dylan said. “Are you – is everything okay? Do you need help?”
Malcolm shook his head, annoyed. “You couldn’t possibly… Well. You wouldn’t even understand.”
“I think I understand that you’re miserable,” Dylan said. “I just have no idea why.”
Malcolm just shook his head again, hugging his arms close. Maybe it was drugs. It wasn’t a hard stretch, imagining Malcolm as a club kid or fresh off the street – the suits and the expensive haircut seemed there only to mask an essential wildness after all. But Malcolm had such a ferocious stillness to him. His wasn’t an itchy desperation.
Eventually Malcolm looked up at him through heavily-lidded eyes, composed again and weakly smirking. “I think you have to have more of yourself in you than I do to be miserable. Actually, tell MacCordrum whatever you want. None of you can touch me.”
With that, whatever it was – it did sound like drugs, honestly, or some kind of zen koan – Malcolm walked away. Dylan watched his back and wanted to touch Malcolm’s shoulder. Malcolm did look like there was less of him than most people at the moment actually, an unweighted unsteadiness to his gait. Like a great hand had hollowed him out. Like if someone didn’t anchor him firmly he would drift away.
Later, again – years later – Dylan would reflect on how it never even occurred to him to tell MacCordrum about finding Malcolm that night. Part of him must have already seen the line in the sand. Dylan was a ditherer, it was too easy for him to see both sides of an issue. But he could always be proud that with Malcolm, from the very beginning, he held firm.
It was a five hour drive to Martha’s Vineyard, not including the ferry. Amir, Dylan and Fiona left relatively late in the day, around one o’clock. It was entirely Dylan’s fault. He slept in too late, hadn’t bothered to set an alarm. Fiona glared a hole through his back the entire walk to pick up the zip car. It was an unfiltered July day, the sky a tacky ’70s sort of color, the oversaturated sun oversaturating everything else. The asphalt heated the world into a lizard’s terrarium. The kids littering the street, their excitement about vacation dying down in the doldrums of summer, watched them listlessly as they argued over directions to the lot. Amir and Fiona were in their vacation tanktops and Dylan wore his sunglasses. He offered to drive because he understood they were pissed at him, but he couldn’t actually find it in himself to feel guilty. He’d had weird dreams all night.
Dylan had grown up in a Connecticut suburb, where driving was basically the only thing there was to do. He found it easy enough to pick it back up again. By the time they made it to the ferry, the weather had cooled off somewhat, the sky shaded and slightly more merciful. It was a twenty minute wait for the ferry and they got beers. Amir kicked around the pier. Fiona, relaxed now, lounged on top of a picnic table near the dock. She had tied her hair up into a knot and Dylan, by her side, felt a familiar wave of affection for her.
“So what should I expect,” she asked. “In terms of cuteness?”
Dylan dragged his toe into the ground, making a divot. “You mean Malcolm?”
Dylan squinted at the water, searching for words. “It’s like… every time you look at him, you notice something new. Like, faces just shouldn’t fit together the way his does.”
Fiona shaded her eyes, scrutinizing him. “Oh honey,” she said, patting Dylan’s back.
Mr MacCordrum met them at the dock in the Vineyard about half an hour later, wearing a polo shirt and khaki shorts. He shook each of their hands in both of his and said, “Now I hope this isn’t too informal…” and kissed Fiona on the cheek. Republicans were always off-puttingly gregarious when they were on vacation. Malcolm wasn’t in the car in the parking lot. Dylan had a queasy, fervent flash of hope that he wasn’t actually there this weekend. The drive was lovely, very peaceful and jewel-toned. Amir and Fiona made conversation as Dylan stared out the window. The upholstery was the color and texture of warm butter.
The property, MacCordrum told them, was eighteenth century, three acres, right on Nantucket Sound. Meals and such would be taken in the main house, but the three of them would be sleeping in the carriage house, which had two of the eight bedrooms on the estate. “And the three hundred feet or so of beach out in front is private, of course.”
“Of course,” Amir agreed. Dylan made a face at his reflection in the glass.
When Amir was around, Dylan tended to let him mop up most of the smalltalk. He found himself slouching, fuzzy-headed and vague from the drive. It was around six when they pulled up to the house, wheels crunching on the gravel shells of the driveway. The clouds were darkening into lavendar.
MacCordrum swore suddenly and quietly under his breath as soon as he shifted into park. He undid his seatbelt immediately, verging on clumsy. “I’ll be just a minute.” Dylan followed his line of sight and saw the back door to the porch, leading to a long, narrow dock, had been left open. He, Amir and Fiona got out of the car more slowly, weighting their footsteps a little, exchanging glances as MacCordrum made his way with surprising urgency towards the dock.
Dylan walked more in the direction of the beach and then he stopped too, the waves lapping softly to his right. Malcolm was sitting at the very end of the pier, barefoot, one knee drawn to his chest, wind whipping his hair. He was dressed liked someone who didn’t really care – jeans and a white T-shirt. Dylan was in direct line of his profile and its clean, sloping curves.
Malcolm was looking at the water, off towards the horizon maybe, with an intensity of expression Dylan had never seen from him before. Focused and smudged around the edges with melancholy, like he was thinking of sunken ships or a lover gone to war. A picture of sincere and unexpected longing. Something sharp and unsettling lanced itself through Dylan’s breastbone.
MacCordrum was making his way down the pier, mouth set hard, stride purposeful. He said something, too far away for Dylan to hear over the wind, which Malcolm ignored. MacCordrum scowled and yanked Malcolm up by the meat up his bicep. Malcolm looked surprised, stumbling as he got to his feet. For a second he leaned against the pull; if MacCordrum let go, Malcolm would have fallen into the ocean. Turning his head away, Malcolm stepped back and shook his arm, indicating his was calm enough for MacCordrum to back away. Which he did, looking winded and relieved. They made their way off the dock, Malcolm first, MacCordrum rounding him in like a sheep dog. Malcolm’s mouth was a determined line as he stared at the house. Out on the water, sailboats bobbed. They looked like origami from this distance. The thing in Dylan’s chest twisted and there was a faint taste of bile in his mouth.
“That’s the boyfriend?” Fiona asked Amir quietly behind him.
“Yeah,” Amir said.
“And it’s just the five of us for the weekend?”
“Oh,” she said. “Hooray.”
Dinner was simple and Italian: caprese salad and melon and prosciutto. All of it was from the farmer’s market. White wine too, although MacCordrum told them he brought it from New York. After the incident on the dock he had morphed back into himself, relaxed and effusive in everything. Malcolm was the only one who didn’t really drink, just a few perfunctory sips. His silence was less sullen than usual and therefore much less noticeable. Dylan snuck peaks at him when Amir was in the middle of anecdotes. Malcolm looked like a man intent on waiting something out.
Dylan himself got pretty buzzed. Amir and Fiona did too, he noticed, and they at least were socially capable enough to try to restrain themselves. Dylan thought they must feel edgy too, judging from the full-bodied, self-conscious quality of Amir’s laugh. Anxiety frayed the edges of the table and they were all trying to avoid the splinters. After dinner Malcolm trailed MacCordrum into the main house without hesitation, just a matter of habit.
Dylan’s room was an intentionally rustic converted attic, the bed incongruously white, crisp and downy. It had a canopy; he suspected MacCordrum was making a sly insinuation about Dylan’s masculinity. Between that and the alcohol and the general off-kilter feeling of a day spent traveling, Dylan crashed pretty quickly. He woke up with his head feeling a lot more solid than usual and having kicked the covers off in the middle of the night. He couldn’t see an alarm clock anywhere and it was still dusky out, the charcoal of an early summer morning. He wasn’t as hungover as he first assumed, a glass of water from the tap taking care of the worst of it, and he could already feel the ocean wind, damp and energized.
He drew the blinds, looked out the window. The sun was coming up now, turning everything a Wedgwood blue. It was high tide maybe, although Dylan wasn’t very experienced with these things. The beach had been reduced to a thin strip of sand though. The permanence of the ocean somehow always made Dylan impatient, its stark contrast to his own mortality inspiring a rare spirit of carpe diem. He was always the one clamoring by the door on family vacations to the Virginia shore the first day, and then the one who had to stay inside the beach house the rest of the trip after swimming for five straight hours gave him a head cold.
It was good running weather, the breeze making the air just a touch cooler than comfortable. Dylan had brought his shoes and beat up mesh shorts. Getting up early and doing his usual weekend five miles on the beach had actually been one of the few things he’d honestly been looking forward to on this trip, comforting himself beforehand with a mental snapshot of running in concert with the sunrise. When he opened the back door everything smelled salty and clean. He jogged to Spoon like he usually did to warm up, limbs complaining for the first mile before they went loose and accepted the new order of things. Dylan had been on the cross-country team in high school; running was one of the few things that made him feel like the entirety of himself actually fit together. Repetitive motion had a tranquilizing effect.
Thirty minutes in, he was well beyond MacCordrum’s 300 private feet. The sun high enough now that there was a hint of glare on the water, Dylan slowed down in order to skip the second half of Layla. He rubbed the sweat out of his eyes and looked up out towards the waves to measure the tide.
There was a outcropping of rocks about thirty feet into the water, making a broken semi-circle. Dylan had been using it vaguely as a marker when it was distant enough to be mostly a blur. There was something pale on top a bird or a flag or something. He was close enough now to really make out the shape of it; corded arms and tapering sides, a back thin enough to see the grooves of the spine like a ladder, a shock of fine brown hair drying curly in the wind. Malcolm, sitting naked at least to the waist, on the rock, facing away from him.
Dylan stood still, turned off his iPod. Immediately he heard a noise like a clown car horn, a lot of them, overlapping and rising and falling in a discordant riff. It didn’t smell so great either anymore. Still breathing hard, a little nauseous from the abrupt stop, he walked a little closer, up on the shore, trying to see.
Around and on the rock were seals, maybe ten of them. Spotted, goofy, sausage-shaped seals. Some were swimming around the outcropping in circles, some were sunning on it. They all were craning their heads, barking up at Malcolm. Malcolm, who was on closer inspection, entirely nude and dangling one foot in the water. Malcolm, who was smiling, who was talking, directing his attention to the seal in front of him although whatever he was saying was lost in the general cacophony. Malcolm, who looked, for the first time Dylan had ever seen, relaxed and entirely happy.
It was terrifying and surreal and peaceful and beautiful and it lasted maybe ten seconds before one of the seals saw him. It wharked more stridently than even the others and Malcolm whipped his head around, staring at Dylan at first with panic and then perfect horror. The seals fled, heads bobbing under the water without a splash, and just as effortlessly, Malcolm dove off the rock and disappeared.
“Wait!” Dylan said. He started running, lungs hurting now, tripping over himself trying to follow Malcolm’s progress as he occasionally saw a pale arm arc out of the water. Maybe half a mile out he tripped in earnest and realized his feet had caught in a pair of sweatpants. He stopped, bent over gasping, hands on his knees.
His hair dripped sweat onto the bridge of his nose, but Dylan blinked it away enough to see Malcolm as his head breached the surface. He walked towards the shore in a tender-footed way, water sluicing off his sides. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on him, his muscles slight but defined, thighs and shoulders in particular rounded in a way that suggested use. His skin was cream colored, the color of the spots on those seals. His hair was dark and slicked back from the water, eyelashes clumping together. His face was twisted frightfully, murderous.
“What,” Dylan panted. “What the hell?”
“You,” Malcolm fumed, feet caking with dry sand. He seemed a lot less concerned about his nudity than Dylan was. “You! Why is it always you? You ruined everything. Get off of my pants.”
“What the hell was that?!” Dylan said, taking a step back to kick the sweatpants away from him. Malcolm bent down to retrieve them but just wadded them under his arm and stalked back in the direction of the house. “Malcolm!”
Malcolm turned on him like his anger had been uncorked. “That’s not my name. You couldn’t even pronounce my real name.”
“What did I ruin?” Dylan asked. “What were you doing? What was that?”
“Nothing,” said Malcolm. “You didn’t see anything. You’re sleepwalking. Just go back to bed and forget about it.”
“I’m not an idiot, Malcolm,” Dylan said. He at least could see the significance in something even if he didn’t understand it. “Please. You can tell me.”
Malcolm sighed, expression pinched, anger teetering on exhaustion now. He didn’t answer immediately and he was calmer when he did. Calmer and resigned. A man forced to reveal a bad hand. “Those were my kin. My brothers and sisters.”
Dylan swallowed. “What?”
Malcolm looked at him directly. The effect was humbling. He was smirking wryly now, daring Dylan to believe him without actually caring. “Cousins, actually. The pods out here are from different clans, of course, but go far enough down the bloodlines and we’re all related. I’m from the Moray Firth selk, myself. My real brothers and sisters are very far away.”
“You’re… what?” asked Dylan.
“I’m a selkie,” Malcolm said. Patches of salt were drying and flaking off him now, and his chest was mottling pink, unprotected from the sun. “I’ve lived a hundred years before you were born, turning from seal to human and back again whenever I pleased. There, everything clear now?”
Honestly — and he wasn’t proud of this — Malcolm’s nakedness was the only thing keeping Dylan feeling remotely normal, the relatively bizarre nature of it distracting him from the utterly bizarre nature of everything else. Dylan said, “Not even a little.”
Malcolm snorted. “All you need to know,” he said, condescendingly. “Is that I’m very far from home.”
“Look,” Dylan said, scrubbing his fingers through his own damp hair. He had almost gotten his breath back even if he were floundering in every other respect. “Do you – look, this is crazy. We should get coffee. It’s – it’s a long walk back and it gets rocky. Do you want to borrow my shoes? My feet are bigger than yours, but…”
Malcolm gave Dylan a peculiar look, like Dylan was a technical impossibility, more puzzled than amazed. He sighed again, slower this time, shook the sand off his pants and sat down to put them on. Dylan realized that at some point during his mad dash his iPod had switched itself on again and was playing tinnily to itself, earbuds dangling onto the ground. Malcolm scrubbed his forearm over his eyes, which was, if nothing else, a very human gesture. He didn’t make a move after that, just sat staring at the ocean, which didn’t even look back, mercilessly unconcerned and inviting. After a minute, unsure of his options, Dylan gingerly sat down next to him.
Seagulls were calling to each other, out there somewhere. Malcolm rested his chin on his kneecap, blinking at Dylan. “Listen. I don’t know if I can trust you. But I need help.”
That, Dylan could not argue. But for once, Malcolm wasn’t masking himself in layers of scorn. The request sounded genuine, timid because of it. Malcolm’s big eyes were nearly puppyish. The thought came to Dylan, unwanted and unbidden, that seals also had strange, large eyes. “I’m still not sure I understand.”
Malcolm started drawing aimless patterns in the sand. “My people have to abide by very strict rules. MacCordrum trapped me by them and now I can’t go home.” He bit his lower lip. “I need to go home.”
Dylan asked, throat dry, “Where’s home?”
Malcolm gestured towards the ocean.
“Does… does Mr MacCordrum know about this? The seal thing?”
Malcolm smiled thinly. “You don’t believe me. Or do you think I’m crazy?”
“I’m – I’m not really sure what to think.”
Malcolm dismissed this attempt at diplomacy. “He counted on that when he bought me. The nature of the deal itself meant the secret was safe.”
“He bought you?” Dylan asked.
“The selk’s power is also our weakness.” Malcolm’s burr was unusually strong; he sounded like he was quoting. “Balance in all things.” He sighed again. “We change from selk self to human self by taking off our seal skin. We change back by putting it on again. If a human finds it and takes it, we belong to them for as long as they have it. Humans took my skin and sold it to MacCordrum. He’s hidden it somewhere. I’ve searched for five years but I can’t find it. I’m running out of options.”
The mind could contort itself into knots to deny something that didn’t fit into its existing notions of the world. Like the earth being round or matter exploding into existence out of nothing – anything that changed the shape of reality. What Malcolm was saying suggested a universe that was much bigger and much nastier than Dylan could have ever suspected. His brain wasn’t rejecting the idea, but it had just… stopped. Dylan had reached the end of his map. Beyond this point literally were monsters.
“Malcolm,” he said. “I don’t…”
“You asked if you could help me.” Malcolm grabbed Dylan’s arm. His hand was cold and rough from the water. “The other day at the office, you wanted to help.”
Dylan tried to focus on a piece of driftwood closer to the waves. The tide was definitely going out. “That’s true, I did. Just, you’ve got to understand, this is-”
“You don’t believe me,” Malcolm concluded. He didn’t seem surprised. He stood up, brushing off his knees, face neutral, leaving a hot, heavy spot on Dylan’s arm where he’d touched him. Dylan imagined he’d have to have honest expectations in order to be disappointed. “Fine. Just think it through a little better the next time you say you want to know the truth.”
“Wait!” Dylan scrambled up after him. “Malcolm, just – wow, you go straight to the judgmental zone, don’t you? Look, this is a lot to take in. I can’t just – I grew up in Connecticut, this is really outside my wheelhouse. I don’t not want to help, but I need more to go on than… naked seal escapades.”
Malcolm’s posture turned a little less defensive. “Escapades?”
“Well,” Dylan said. “You know. Whatever.”
Malcolm crossed his arms over his chest, almost amused now despite himself. “They were keeping me up to date on gossip. Selks keep the conversation light when they meet stranded kin. It’s considered insensitive otherwise.”
“Oh,” Dylan said. “Well, naturally.”
Malcolm’s hair had dried now, wavy and stiff, layers sticking out like hay. “Proof though. I can show you proof. If that’s what you want.”
Part of Dylan really didn’t want that at all. Right now the lucidity of the morning itself was comfortably out of focus. But Malcolm had already started walking, freckles prominent on the tops of his shoulders, and he didn’t even look back. It wasn’t a question that Dylan was going to follow. It was a long way back and Dylan felt his own arms beginning to turn red and sore, the beach not offering anything as kind as the promise of shade.
When they came in sight of the main house, Malcolm put a hand on his chest, halting him. “MacCordrum won’t wake up until ten, but the cleaning lady might be there. I need to make it look like I’ve been in bed. You go around back. I’ll meet you in twenty minutes at the northwest corner of the carriage house.”
Malcolm rolled his eyes. “The part by the outdoor shower. I’ll be as quick as I can. You go now though, I’ll stay here so no one sees us together.”
Dylan nodded uneasily and took off in a halting little jog. The corner with the metal shower spigot mounted in concrete – northwest, apparently – was in the backyard and gated by trees, cool and mossy, and Dylan’s eyes had to adjust now that they were out of the glare. He twisted the knob until the shower came on and had to duck his head substantially to get it wet. The water came out cold and stinging and gave him goosebumps.
Malcolm acting like a spy, like they had to work together not to be caught, that sort of fit in with this whole thing being a paranoid delusion. But he gave instructions the way he did everything else, competently and bored. Like it was just habit now, sneaking around MacCordrum. Dylan thought, unwillingly, of a dog waiting until everyone left the room to steal scraps off the table.
Malcolm was still barefoot when he approached, but he must have hosed off too, changed into an undershirt and pajama pants. He also had, incongruously, a shovel. He gave Dylan a cursory and disapproving once-over. “Your hair looks ridiculous.”
Dylan had a specific type of loose curls that were pretty much doomed to always look ridiculous. He tried to keep them short, but the long hours at work lately had postponed a few haircuts. He ran a sloppy hand through it. “Well, hello to you too.”
Malcolm nudged him aside, eyes narrowing until he paced over to one of the bushes planted by the side of the house. He slid between it and the wall and began to dig, foot pushing down on the top of the shovel’s blade, at the loose dirt until the clapboard of the house gave way to the brick of the foundation. Eighteenth century and it had been renovated, but apparently no one had replaced the original mortar with concrete. Malcolm dug until he reached three bricks down, wiped his eye with the heel of his palm and crouched down, wedging the bottom brick out. Dylan crept in next to him, squatting on his haunches.
The back of the brick was crumbling, leaving a little alcove. Malcolm set it aside and reached in, fishing around until he pulled out a dusty ivory box the size of a Kleenex container. It was inlayed with a pattern that looked vaguely Turkish.
“I took it from his collection,” Malcolm said, watching Dylan turn it over in his hands, wiping off the dirt. The ‘him’ had to refer to MacCordrum, like he was the only noun in the world. “He’s never even noticed. Open it.”
Dylan did. There were papers inside, folded into neat fourths. The first few looked like regular white office copy paper, drawn on by hand. There were a lot of squares, divided into smaller squares, each labeled in spidery handwriting that was difficult to make out, and each filled with an X. Dylan eventually squinted and puzzled out the word ‘Grant.’ The name nagged at him until he remembered Grant was a VP in accounting. He fished through the next few pages, containing similar designs. “Are these maps?”
Malcolm nodded. “These are of the different floors of the Ceridian building. This one’s of MacCordrum’s apartment. The X’s are everywhere I’ve looked.”
The papers were dense with Xs. “Is this why you were in Richardson’s office?”
Malcolm nodded. “MacCordrum has a master key to the building but he keeps it in his wallet. I don’t get a lot of access to it, so I have to be methodical when I look. I’m on my second go-through of advertising.”
“How – how do you get his key?”
“I drug him,” Malcolm said, matter-of-factly.
“If he stays past midnight, I dose his scotch,” Malcolm said, again very calm, but with a small amount of pleasure. “Just Benadryl. It keeps him out for a good few hours. But that’s not what I wanted you to look at. He fished through until the bottom of the box and handed Dylan a paper. His hands were shaking. “You’ll like this. Humans like their documents these days.”
This was fax paper, creased into deep grooves, the ink smudged. Dylan couldn’t recognize the typeset but he liked the flourishes on the ‘S’ in the header. Bill of Sale. Dylan glanced at Malcolm, whose eyes and mouth made hard, flat lines, giving away nothing. Dylan looked down, continued reading, half-murmuring the words under his breath.
“Be it known that payment in the sum of-” Dylan’s voice squeaked on the next part. “3.2 million dollars, the full receipt of which is acknowledged by the undersigned, the S&S Memorial Foundation hereby sells and transfers ownership to Neil H. MacCordrum the following item.”
“One Grey Seal pelt.” Again, Malcolm’s voice was oddly flavorless, very rote, maybe the only dignity he could present here. “My skin.”
Dylan ran a finger over the signatures at the bottom. MacCordrum had signed with initials. “Are Grey Seals endangered?”
“Even if they were,” Malcolm said. “Three million dollars?”
Dylan had trouble keeping his own voice steady. “Why do you have this?”
“He gave it to me.” Malcolm sat back on his hands. “He wanted me to see it in writing that he owns me. It’s the same reason he brings me here. To remind me how close I can get to my home and still belong to him.”
The casual, arrogant possession with which MacCordrum treated Malcolm had always struck a discordant note. And apparently it was just a thin skin wrapped around a huge travesty. Dylan usually thought of the banality of evil in terms of conscious neglect; how he could order frappacinos with full knowledge of world hunger, that sort of thing. But this was overt, this casual cruelty. So now Dylan lived in a world where you could still notarize a document giving you legal ownership of a person. You could laugh at bad golf jokes made by a man who’d delight in trapping something beautiful in a cage. Dylan had a feeling like tar treacling down his throat, scorching his ribs. “Does he… does he hurt you?”
Malcolm laughed, a deeper sound than expected but unsurprisingly thin. “He fucks me.”
Dylan cringed. He folded the paper up again and put it back in the box.
“I’m lost,” Malcolm said. “And I need to go home. Will you help me?”
Dylan said, “Yes.”
‘Don’t act like you know,’ Malcolm had said, and ‘Don’t tell your friends.’ Both pretty self-explanatory pieces of advice, but fairly hard to execute. For one thing, he was pretty sure the next time he saw MacCordrum he was going to want to stab him with a serving fork. For another, when he trudged inside the carriage house, damp, chafed and shell-shocked, Amir crowded him against the door and said, “Don’t even tell me this is what I think it is.”
“I don’t know if I can,” Dylan said slowly, shoulders flattened against the wood. “Because I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Whatever you were out there doing,” said Amir. “Just please, please, for the love of god tell me it wasn’t Mr. MacCordrum’s twink.”
“I was running!” Dylan said feebly, waving around his iPod as proof.
“For two hours?”
“Maybe I’m marathon training,” Dylan said. He wasn’t remotely self-possessed, but then again that was fairly par for the course, so letting some of his flustered feelings leak out was probably helping his case. Even if he wasn’t sure yet what his case actually was. “You don’t know my life.”
Amir groaned, rubbing a hand over his face. “This is – how can you not get what a bad idea this is?” His mouth went imploring. “Do you see the way MacCordrum looks at him? It’s not just a bad idea professionally, Dylan. Jesus, the guy’s rich enough that if you went missing no one would ask questions.”
“He’s not Tony Soprano,” Dylan said. “Jesus, Amir.”
“Just tell me…” Amir held his hands up, half-beseeching and half-resigned. “Actually, no. Don’t confirm anything – maybe the less I know about it the better. But seriously, Dylan. Be careful.”
Amir was selectively but doggedly protective of Dylan, had been since college. He had vetted all of Dylan’s boyfriends and girlfriends and grudgingly judged very few of them good enough. It was exasperating but endearing. The lie of omission made Dylan feel sleazy, but it would help if Amir deluded himself into the wrong idea. Although it occurred to Dylan in the shower, navigating the bar of soap around his sunburn, that what he actually intended to do with Malcolm would make MacCordrum vastly more angry than simply sleeping with him.
The weekend passed pretty quickly after that, all things considered. Amir, Fiona and Dylan mostly kept to themselves, puttering around on the motorboat. MacCordrum and Malcolm were almost always in the main house, making looking at it from the water feel ominous. Like an establishing shot in a David Lynch movie, secret and sexual and unsettling. Still, Dylan was surprised by his own lack of reaction whenever he saw MacCordrum. He could still make awkward smalltalk with him during the three mandatory breakfasts, trying to remember what adults discussed over eggs. Dylan wondered why it was relatively easy until the last morning, when in the middle of an otherwise unrelated monologue about stocks, MacCodrum beckoned Malcolm over. “Come here, try this tomato.”
Malcolm was barefooted, slightly bedheaded, luminous. He was hunched over the sideboard, flipping through a National Geographic, which probably explained his absent tone when he said. “It’s too early for tomatoes.”
“Malcolm,” MacCordrum said, with the sort of patience that suggested he could let it slip away fairly easily. He gave Dylan a look like they both knew and were amused by Malcolm’s absurdity, affectionate co-conspirators. “These are from the market.”
“I’m really not hungry,” Malcolm said quietly.
“It doesn’t matter what you are,” MacCordrum said, letting that hang in the air before adding, normal again. “They’re so sweet it’s like eating candy. Here, take this one.”
Watching Malcolm being forced to eat off MacCordrum’s plate, which he did more gingerly than angrily, Dylan realized he had always intensely disliked his boss and just hadn’t let the emotion fully crest the surface of his consciousness until now.
The only time he saw Malcolm alone again that trip was when he caught him at the carriage house again the last day of the trip, taking the box out of his hiding place. Dylan had come to hose off from the ocean and stood there in his swim trunks while Malcolm cradled the box to his chest.
“I take it with me everywhere,” he said, a little defensively. He looked like a slash of white paint against the greenery. “This is just where I hide it at the summer home.” He needed the maps, obviously, but Dylan also wondered if the box itself wasn’t significant in some way, a torch or a statement of purchase.
The drive back took longer. It rained and they hit traffic on the BQE. Dylan, in the backseat this time, his legs jackknifed nearly to his chest, looked at the grey watercolor mess of the road and thought about insurmountable barriers arising three miles from where you needed to be.
It put him in a quiet mood, which lasted until one thirty the next workday when Malcolm knocked at the door. Closing it behind him, he looked as uncertain as Dylan had ever seen him. “Hello.”
Dylan felt himself sitting up straighter at his desk. “Hi.”
“Mr MacCordrum said I should use my lunch hour to help you with the campaign,” Malcolm said. He was wearing grey and lavender today, an actual three-piece. It washed him out slightly and he didn’t seem quite sure what to do with his arms, keeping them stiff by his sides. “Like you proposed last week.”
“Oh, right,” Dylan said. “The campaign.”
Amir blew out a noisy breath and wedged his squish ball into the couch cushions. “I’ll be in the atrium,” he announced to the world at large and stalked out of the room.
Malcolm looked at the slammed door and then back at Dylan. Dylan found himself trying to explain mostly with his hands. “He thinks we’re… um. You know.”
“Oh,” said Malcolm.
“That dares not speak its name,” Dylan said.
“You’re very odd,” Malcolm said, just observing. He sat down in the chair across the desk, his posture perfect. “But it’s good he’s gone. Have you thought about it?”
Dylan was basically trapped in a prism of it. He hadn’t slept a full night in four days. “How we can…?”
Malcolm nodded. He was looking at Dylan patiently, expectantly.
Dylan swallowed. This didn’t feel unlike a sale’s pitch. “Sort of. Mostly what I was thinking was, it seems like you’ve done a pretty thorough job on your own.”
“Not thorough enough,” Malcolm said with a bit of an edge.
“Obviously,” Dylan said. “But hands-on searching? That’s got to be what you’ve done with your life for five years. I found blueprints of the building online and they’re more or less identical to your maps. Roughly, anyway. Did you try to use a ruler?”
Malcolm’s mouth pursed to one side, annoyed.
“Anyway,” said Dylan. “If it was anywhere physically near MacCordrum, you would have found it by now. You’re too smart not to. So maybe, it seems like the only other option is he’s storing it somewhere you’ve never been.”
“That’s impossible,” said Malcolm. “I’m his assistant. I go everywhere he goes. Here, home, business trips, everything. He knows better than to leave me alone.”
“What happens when he leaves you alone?”
Malcolm glanced down to pick at the cuticle of his thumb. He mumbled, sounding almost sheepish, “I break things.”
Dylan leaned forward incredulously. “You break things?”
Malcolm actually flushed. “He bought me and stuck me in a lot of rooms by myself. They were full of things he loved. I figured maybe destroying some of them might convince him I wasn’t worth the trouble of keeping.”
Like a new puppy, Dylan thought, chewing shoes when it was lonely and bored. Malcolm’s logic was feral logic – ignoring what he couldn’t use or didn’t understand, fighting at every opportunity, treating callousness as common sense. Even this meeting, in its way, was him pacing the cage. Half-human. It seemed right. “What did you break?”
“A Sumerian tablet,” Malcolm said. “A jeweled mask. A card table. His first edition copy of David Copperfield. I shredded that. He kept it on display in the dining room so I knew it was important to him.”
“Yeah, it’s a good book,” Dylan said faintly. “So you went around breaking stuff, and he put you on salary?”
“He wants me where he can see me,” Malcolm said. He flicked his wrist, exposing the platinum watch. “And where his colleagues can see me. I’m on display too.”
It was two-parts ostentatious. Not just that Malcolm was beautiful, but he was a man. For someone who amassed his wealth in the seventies, subtly flaunting his homosexuality in every boardroom meeting had to be an incredible demonstration of power. Malcolm being a magical, imaginary creature seemed almost beside the point.
Except it couldn’t be, could it? It must have been most of the allure. Or had MacCordrum seen Malcolm on the shore, like Dylan had, and loved him and needed him close at the sacrifice of any number of card tables. “How did he find you?”
“He stole my skin.”
“No,” Dylan said, tapping two fingers compulsively on the ‘a’ and ‘s’ keys. “I mean – did you meet him before he took you? Was he just, like, on vacation and you washed up into his life?”
Malcolm cocked his head a little, mouth twitching up too, full, colorless and amused. “You’ve been reading up on us.”
Dylan turned his monitor around, displaying a bright yellow website with blue Garamond font. For all the inherent silliness Dylan was finding in most Celtic mythology sites, Wikipedia just didn’t feel like the way to go. “That’s how skins get taken, isn’t it? Third paragraph – selkies dance in a circle by the surf and then a lonely fisherman sneaks up-”
“I’ve never danced in a circle in my life,” Malcolm said. He sounded vaguely insulted. “That’s what selk women do.”
“Okay, noted. I’ll have more respect for magical seal gender roles,” Dylan said. “When do selkie men, uh. Change?”
Malcolm closed his eyes, shielding himself from the memory. For the first time Dylan could believe he was as old as he said he was. “Years ago, women lost their husbands easily. War, fishing, men would sail off and never return. Most of the selk folk like humans, you know. You’re funny and misguided but you can be quite pretty. Most of you mean well. So we like to help when we can. A woman missing her husband can wade into the water and shed seven tears into the sea. Then one of us will come ashore and give her comfort.”
“And by comfort you mean…” Dylan said. Malcolm just opened his eyes with a superior sort of expression. Dylan cleared his throat. “So, huh. Wow. You’re not gay?”
Malcolm shrugged, indifferent apparently. Well that just added another awkward layer to everything.
“So what happened to you? You came, uh, to offer comfort?”
Malcolm’s knuckles went white where he was gripping his armrest. “It was a trap,” he said.
Dylan was waiting to hear more, but there was a knock on the door like a gunshot. Amir, muffled but loud on the other side of it, said, “I am back from the atrium!”
“I should go,” Malcolm said, rising fluidly from his chair. “We’ll talk more tomorrow?” He sounded like he was asking for conformation.
There were so many barriers between Dylan and Malcolm’s unfailing grace. And Dylan was terrible for even acknowledging them. “Of course.”
Seals were different from sea lions in surprising ways, according to the internet. Sea lions had exposed ears and swam with their front flippers, which were therefore strong enough to hold their weight, enabling them to walk. They were as suited to life on land as water – they were the ones who did tricks at the zoo. Seals were roughly as intelligent but much less mobile on the ground. They swam with their back flippers and in general seemed to be more designed for the ocean.
“You were trapped,” Dylan said to Malcolm the next day, picking the bamboo shoots out of his thai green curry and eating them first.
Malcolm was looking down mournfully at his sea bass, prodding it a little with his finger. “Poachers. I was stupid. The crying girl stabbed me with a needle and I woke up handcuffed to a chair in Glasgow.”
Malcolm seemed fairly detached from the story, but Dylan abruptly lost his appetite, stomach souring. “And you never saw MacCordrum before it happened.”
Malcolm shook his head and pushed his takeout container away. “No, not that I remember. This is awful. Americans should eat more herring.”
“Maybe you should get a whitefish spread. Like from a Jewish deli,” Dylan said. He looked out the window, thinking. Malcolm seemed to be right; MacCordrum was a collector, not an excavationist. Dylan had been staying up nights, drinking coffee until his mouth tasted burnt, reading everything from compilations of myths for children to literary and psychological analysis of folktales. Selkies were relatively uncomplicated. They were beautiful, everyone agreed, and docile when captured but always longed for the sea. Beyond Malcolm’s personal vendetta, it seemed like almost an universal instinctive drive. So it made sense that a collector of unusual, exquisite things who was also a garden variety sadist would want a mate like that.
But there was a huge difference between searching out first edition manuscripts and engaging in human trafficking. It leapfrogged another step too; a fetish as specific and strange as Malcolm couldn’t manifest fully formed from the ether. Dylan couldn’t quite put his finger on what was bothering him, but he found himself asking, “Does MacCordrum have anything else, like, magical?”
Malcolm nodded easily, like he was responding to a very mundane question. “Lots of things. They’re what he focuses on now. He has a secret room for them in the apartment. It was the first place I looked.”
Dylan was helpless to ask, “What kind of things?”
“Spellbooks,” said Malcolm. “Mermaid scales. A few magic boxes. This and that.”
“Yeah,” Malcolm settled in his chair, hands resting on his stomach. “They live in deeper waters than we do so I haven’t met many, but they’re there.”
“What do they look like?” Dylan asked, almost morbidly fascinated. “Is it really disappointing and they look like manatees? Old sailors thought manatees were mermaids.”
“Mermaids look like you think they do,” Malcolm said. “Sailors just thought manatees were a very ugly breed of mermaid.”
Dylan surprised himself by laughing. Malcolm looked almost alarmed to see it at first before he apparently realized it wasn’t at his expense and smiled tentatively.
“So MacCordrum has stuff,” Dylan said eventually. “Magical stuff.”
“Where did he buy it?” Dylan wondered. “What if he has a supplier? Collectors don’t just find stuff off the street, there are brokers, distributors. Malcolm, where did he buy you?”
Malcolm looked at him, suddenly alert. “It’s on the bill of sale. The S&S Memorial Foundation.”
It was a promising lead, an entryway to a blackmarket that by definition would have expertise in hiding forbidden things, but the trail went cold from there. Preliminary google searches only turned up scholarship funds and Malcolm said he couldn’t find anything with the name among MacCordrum’s papers. After a fruitless week, Dylan thought Malcolm might get impatient and dismiss him as useless after all. But their lunches continued, Amir stomping off to various foodcarts to give them privacy, and trickled into late nights. Even the conversation sometimes bled into the frivolous. Malcolm was a blank slate and in the right mood he could be surprisingly indulgent of Dylan’s attempts to edify him on the finer points of modern culture. Dylan had the impression Malcolm was used to disappointment, and lonely.
He was mercurial though and could turn sullen or angry without provocation. In a supply room, while Dylan was stealing paper, he once snarled, “Are you always this stupid?”
Dylan raised his eyebrows, fairly used to this by now. “More or less.”
“Not you,” Malcolm said. “All of you. People. I’m so tired of all these useless things, these stupid chores! I’m just… I’m so tired.”
He never thought of Malcolm as fragile before, not really, but his thinness now was like the stem of a champagne flute, very fine and easy to snap. Wouldn’t it be easier if your prison was the size of the world? But Malcolm’s radius wasn’t actually that large. He was as tethered to MacCordrum as if he had a collar around his neck. Dylan had a sudden absurd urge to ask Malcolm to take his tie – red today, poorly suited to him – off. Dylan had looked at a lot of youtube footage of seals lately. In the water they swam like they were flying.
“What’s the worst?” he asked. “What’s the absolute worst thing that could happen if we never find your skin?”
Malcolm scoured a hand over his eyes, grappling for control of himself. “What do you mean?”
“Would you get sick? Would you die?”
Malcolm shook his head, but he looked raw still, shaky. “It’s more complicated than that. Humans, you’re only one thing. That’s what makes you stable. I’m a duality. I’m only even myself if I’m the two parts at once. Right now I’m barely… I’m a shadow. It hurts.”
“So a selkie’s never chosen to stay human?” Dylan asked. “They’ve never not wanted to go back?”
“What do you care?” Malcolm asked, sulky and suspicious.
“You’re my friend,” Dylan said. “I mean, I consider you a friend. And yeah, we’re going to keep looking for it, but if we don’t find your skin I want to know that you’ll be okay.”
Malcolm sighed out a slow breath, appearing to be thinking. Eventually he sat down on the concrete floor. “One of my sisters. My father’s kin.”
“It’s just a story,” said Malcolm. “From before I was born. She never told me whether or not it was true. But they say she fell in love with a man, who was very handsome and kind and brave. He saw her during the change and loved her back. They were married and hung her skin above the hearth, in full view, like a wedding gift.”
“So she stayed with him?”
“He was a fisherman,” Malcolm said. “And got caught in a storm and called to her. She ran to the water and threw on her skin and rescued him from drowning. After that, he lived on the shore and she returned home to the sea and never saw him again.”
Dylan felt an inexplicable bubble of anger. “Why not? You said they were in love. Wasn’t it her choice? Why didn’t she just take it off again and stay with him?”
“She loved him,” Malcolm said. “But when she joined with the other part of herself, the pull was stronger than love.” He looked up at Dylan, cool and aware. “We’re born already knowing the other half of our souls, Dylan. A human can’t serve that purpose.”
Dylan’s bedroom was the farthest from the front door, so the intercom seldom woke him up. It didn’t the next night either, exactly. He heard the buzzing but it incorporated itself into his dream. Suddenly he was in an air raid.
The lights flipped on, sudden and yellow, and Dylan scrambled up to sitting with a yelp, covering his eyes with his hand while he adjusted to it. Amir was standing there in his boxers, scowling. “Your booty call’s here.”
“What?” Dylan asked hoarsely.
“It’s three o’clock in the morning,” Amir said, an angry dad. “You two are seriously playing with fire. He’d better be a fantastic lay.”
“Get out of my room!” Dylan said.
“He’s in the den. I’m going back to bed.” He added, like he couldn’t help himself. “This is a really stupid idea, Dylan.”
Malcolm was pacing in front of the sofa, wearing old man silk catalogue pajamas, green and striped white. He was wild-eyed when he saw Dylan pad into the room and his hair was a disaster. “I found it.”
“How did you get here?” Dylan asked. “Does MacCordrum know-”
“I spiked his gimlet and took a cab,” Malcolm said impatiently. “Now listen, I found-”
“A cab to Astoria has to cost like forty bucks,” Dylan said, a little judgmental.
“You’re being an idiot,” Malcolm snapped. He shoved a magazine in Dylan’s face, glossy paper, an artful wide-lens photograph of what looked like a ring made of mother of pearl on the cover. “Pay attention. I found it.”
Dylan took it from him and squinted. Smith and Sutton, it read. “S&S Memorial Foundation…”
“I looked in his phone,” Malcolm’s words were running together in his excitement. “You’re always on your phone, so I thought… and there were three contacts labeled broker. The second one said they heard of S&S and I told them Mr MacCordrum had misplaced some information and this came by courier at midnight.”
Dylan flipped through it. On some inspection it actually looked more like a cross between a pamphlet and a catalogue. “It’s probably better to talk about this in my room, come on.”
Malcolm, whom Dylan had noticed was not always one to pay careful attention to his surroundings, looked at Dylan’s poster of The Strokes and his Red Sox banner with vaguely disapproving fascination, very princess forced to mingle with the common folk. He refrained from comment though, unusual for him, and sat down on Dylan’s bed while Dylan settled on the floor, the magazine in his lap. “2011 brochure,” Dylan read on the inside cover. “The theme of this decade: Rebirth. Have you looked at this yet?”
“A little,” Malcolm said. “I’m not a fast reader.”
That Malcolm could read at all, let alone touch-type, was a mystery probably better left for another day. Dylan turned to the back flap. Smith and Sutton prides itself as the foremost purveyor of fine wares for a discerning clientele. Entering the 21st century, our range of collections for auction and unwavering focus on expertise and client service continue to remain our hallmarks. “I think they might be an auction house.” And then, in eight-point font, as if grudgingly acquiescing to the modern age, Dylan saw a url. “Hand me my laptop? It’s on the nightstand.”
Malcolm crowded over his shoulder as Dylan’s Mac booted up, breath hot on his ear. Dylan had to type more carefully than usual; his fingers were shaky. The website was understated in design, white on grey and grey on white, and obtuse in copy. Dylan read aloud for Malcolm’s benefit. “The Smith and Sutton Memorial Foundation are excited to announce that we’re going digital! Auctions will be announced on this page beginning January 1st, 2011. Auction locations and other information will be still be handled strictly offline. To view the items the Foundation has and has had the pleasure of assisting in sale, please log in with the information you were provided.” He clicked on password log-in, more absently than anything else, then turned to Malcolm. “MacCordrum doesn’t have a standard password, does he? I don’t think I can just hack it.”
Malcolm shook his head, distracted. “What do they mean, auction locations?”
“Maybe there are a couple houses,” Dylan suggested. “Like Sotherby’s is in New York and London.”
“I was sold in Glasgow,” Malcolm said, as if this struck him as a significant point or he just didn’t have a very high opinion of Glasgow. “Auction location information will be handled offline. What does that mean?”
“I’m not sure.” All the language was so posh and coy. Did spellbooks count as fine wares? It seemed almost tongue-in-cheek, a throwback to 1920s wordplay or a very sophisticated inside joke. How did wealthy dabblers in the occult keep their hands clean? “But that broker you talked to, did you get his name?”
“Craig. I don’t know if that was his first or last name though.”
“And he knew about the auction?”
Dylan felt more than saw Malcolm nod, the tips of his hair feathering against Dylan’s ear. Malcolm smelled like expensive shampoo and quality leather, subtle things that lingered. “He said something about how MacCordrum was a repeat client.”
“He must know where the auction house itself is. And if he handles the sales, maybe he knows who handles storage. I think this is the guy we need to talk to.” Dylan turned to face him, unexpectedly almost nose to nose. “Do you still have his number?”
Malcolm seemed very solemn, but his gaze kept flitting around the general area of Dylan’s face. “No. But I can get it tomorrow, before our hour.”
Dylan felt himself smile a little, awkwardly. “Our hour?”
“The hour we have together,” Malcolm said. “Or sometimes we get two.” They both paused, Dylan measuring the weight of his indrawn breath.
Malcolm sat up, smoothing out his pajama top. “I need to go back.”
“Right,” Dylan said, getting to his feet, laptop tucked under his arm. “And we’re getting closer. This seems like a really promising lead.”
“To Manhattan,” Malcolm clarified. He was holding his shoulders back now, a magnet repelled. “Before he wakes up.”
“Ah. Yeah.” Dylan rubbed the back of his neck. “Gotta be sure you made those gimlets strong enough, right?”
Malcolm gave him the usual condescending look Dylan got for a lame joke, but his heart didn’t seem quite in it. It was almost impossible now to imagine he could be human. For all his insistence he was half himself, Dylan always thought Malcolm just existed on a different frequency, was made of a different texture. He was more immediate, more vivid, painted with oils in a world drawn in crayon. When he left a room, as he left Dylan’s room without a backwards glance, it had to readjust to his absence.
Dylan and Amir had to prepare their presentation for some executives, he guessed. Dylan was fuzzier on details more specific than that. Likely Richardson would be there. They were presenting more finalized mock-ups and hard-selling the more ARG-like aspects of the campaigns. It was on either tomorrow or Thursday. Alone in their office for once and unsure why, Dylan found himself scrolling through his browser tabs, letting his eyes go out of focus.
“Knock knock,” Fiona said, entering the room, which was what she did instead of knocking. She had a visitor ID badge clipped to her jacket.
“Oh,’ Dylan said. He stopped slouching, tried to scrub his hair into presentability. “Hey, kid. Are you meeting Amir for lunch?”
Fiona’s mouth went into a little curl of surprise, maybe disappointment. “Amir’s coming in late. He got held up talking to your director. Didn’t he tell you?”
Dylan looked down at his phone, which promised him six unopened texts. “Ah, I guess so. Sorry. Do you still want lunch?”
“It’s ten fifteen.”
“So, what brings you here?” Dylan said, rocking back on his chair, temper a little frayed.
Fiona sat down on Amir’s couch and almost immediately found his squishball, tossing it from hand to hand. Couples sometimes got like that, Dylan had noticed, the way a person could repeat themselves absently because their mind looped in the same general patterns. People in love maybe synced up the same way, reverberated with the echoes of each other. Dylan wouldn’t really know personally. Fiona said, “We’re worried about you, Dylan.”
“The campaign’s nearly done. Amir’s the one who usually handles it from this point anyway.’
“That’s not what I’m talking about,’ Fiona said. “I know… I’m sure this guy has to be amazing, honey, it’s clear how much you care. But you’ve been a wreck. It’s like, remember when Vicky-”
“This isn’t-” Dylan found himself biting back a mildly hysterical laugh. “This isn’t anything remotely like Vicky.”
“Are you sure? You’re always trying to save people from themselves, Dylan,” Fiona said.
Dylan felt suddenly tired, the cords holding him together corroding. He leaned his head against the side of his computer monitor. “I think… I’m definitely in over my head.”
“If you want to step down, make a clean break, Amir can handle the rest of the campaign.”
“It’s not like – please hear me out here me here, Fiona.” And she would, he knew. “It’s not another crazy boyfriend. I can’t tell you exactly what’s going on but… this could get dangerous.”
Fiona squeezed the ball hard. “You know how this sounds, right?”
“Believe me, I do,” Dylan said. “But if anything – if anything weird happens in the next couple weeks…”
“Yeah?” Fiona eventually prompted.
Dylan looked at his shadowy reflection in the monitor screen. He was all dark-rimmed eyes. “Then I’m sorry.”
He was a little more lucid and focused when Malcolm came down for what Dylan inevitably thought of now as their hour. Malcolm gripped a paper ripped from a reporter’s notebook. His palms must have been sweating, as the ink smeared. Something gleamed, reflective and alarmed, particularly strongly about him today, especially around the eyes. As if he existed at the intersection of two mirrors. Dylan took out his cellphone and put it on speaker.
A man picked up, too hoarse and brusque to be a receptionist, somewhat edged down in tone due to the sound quality. “Craig.”
“Yes, hello, hi,” said Dylan, pleasantly panicked. Malcolm glared at him, a very keep it together sort of look, and Dylan cleared his throat. “I was hoping to speak to Craig?”
“You’ve got him. And you are?” The voice wasn’t rude, just not yet interested.
“I’m, well, I guess you can say… you can say I’m a colleague of Neil MacCordrum. And he put me in touch with you as we, uh, share mutual interests?”
Craig sounded like he was paying more attention now. “Mr MacCordrum has quite a few very distinguished interests.”
“Specifically,” Dylan had to clear his throat again. “Specifically he mentioned that I might like some of the items up for auction at Smith and Sutton.”
Craig definitely relaxed at this, a man ready to do well-established business. “Well, Mr…?”
“Blockovich,” Dylan said. Malcolm rolled his eyes, a world of you’ve got to be kidding me.
“Well, Mr. Blockovich, it’s always a pleasure to meet someone with discerning taste. Do you have a particular area of interest in this field?”
“Reliquaries,” Dylan said. He had looked up the word the night before and wasn’t sure he pronounced it correctly. “But in general all kinds of, you know, curios. For now I just wanted to know a little bit more about the auction itself. Like how it… works.”
“You sound American,” Craig said and didn’t wait for conformation. “You’re in luck then. Next week’s auction will be held in Boston. As always, it arrives the previous Friday and the bidding itself takes place that Tuesday. If you’re interested in attending, I can send you the key and directions.”
“And,” Dylan said, trying to keep his voice rising half an octave with tension as it tried to mimic the movement of his shoulders. “Let’s say, for example, any item I do, uh, acquire, I wouldn’t feel comfortable keeping in my home. For reasons of… various. Various reasons. Would you happen to know of a service or a-”
“Due to the occasionally hazardous nature of some of their wares, Smith and Sutton is very used to this type of concern,” Craig said smoothly. “They have a policy in place that for a small additional fee, the item in question will remain in their care, in vault security, until such time as the customer wishes to retrieve it.”
Malcolm sat bolt upright. Dylan shared with him a wary, excited glance. “And where is this vault located?”
“It travels with the auction house itself,” Craig said. “Guaranteeing that it’s under surveillance at all times.”
“Then yes,” Dylan said, scrambling for a pencil. “I’d be – I am extremely interested in attending the next, uh, meeting. For sending me the address, would a PO Box be okay?”
“He doesn’t even have it!” Malcolm spat the moment they hung up. He was pacing the room, tugging on his hair. He stopped to kick the couch. “The entire time he didn’t even have it!”
“Malcolm, calm down. Someone’s going to hear you.”
“Five years,” Malcolm said, ignoring him. Dylan doubted Malcolm needed him in the room for this conversation. “Five years! The whole time! I’ll kill him, I swear-”
“Malcolm!” Dylan caught him by the shoulders, hot and bony even through his clothes. “Malcolm, calm down.”
Malcolm looked at him and animals snarled out of terror, didn’t they? He didn’t fight Dylan though, after an initial instinctive twist away. His chest moved as he panted. Something had cracked, Dylan understood, and something else was pouring out.
“You don’t know what he makes me do,” Malcolm said and no, Dylan was too much of a coward to ever seek out that information. “I’d say no and he’d threaten to burn it. He wouldn’t even let me swim.”
“He’s not – hey, then he’s not worth it,” Dylan said, repackaging the truth. Honestly, if Dylan were better at sculpting anger into something useful, the whole aim of this endeavor might have gotten a lot bloodier. Dylan meant more that MacCordrum likely didn’t have the empathy to understand the full scope of his cruelty. It would take torture on an equal scale or, like, a slide show and they simply didn’t have the time for a revenge that would actually be satisfying. “All that matters is getting you away from him.”
Malcolm stilled enough that Dylan let him go, but he didn’t look calm exactly. He was eying Dylan like he was toying with the idea of picking a fight. “Why?”
“Uh – excuse me?”
“Why does it matter?” Malcolm said, with aggression and not an ounce of fear. “Why does it matter to you?”
Dylan’s pulse made a big, irregular jump. “Why shouldn’t it matter?” Malcolm still seemed puffed-out, suspicious and almost insulted by the evasion, like he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Dylan almost added that he didn’t want anything from him, except that wasn’t precisely true. It was more he didn’t expect anything from Malcolm and he knew better than to think he could earn it. “We’re so close. We’re Boston close. We just need to plan.”
Malcolm didn’t exactly seem convinced, but he was nothing if not goal-oriented. He settled down on the couch. Two days, Dylan thought, opening a new tab of Firefox, watching Malcolm contort himself elegantly on the sofa. Two more days of this.
They passed in a blur, the days, time going inconsequential. Dylan was distracted by nerves and general exhaustion and the particular acute sense of fatigue he associated with forcing his brain to think in a direction in which it was unaccustomed. Malcolm was better at subterfuge though and ended up doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to the sneakier stuff. It was another of the endless mysteries about him; his instincts seemed to lean towards bluntness but he was a diabolical liar. Dylan could only assume it was a learned habit.
Thankfully, Dylan’s part of the campaign was over for the time being and Amir could forgive him for flitting off. He was busy himself, planning the presentation for what did turn out to be Thursday morning. Dylan just had to show up and watching Amir go through the powerpoint and answer questions, he was a little amazed at how checked out he had become. He had spent his entire adult life creating little thirty second stories and now he was caught up in one so much more sweeping. Malcolm sat shadowed in a corner with a netbook, barely pretending to take notes. The type of advertising he helped pioneer wasn’t straightforward, but it always wrapped up neatly. Dylan would probably be tripping over the loose ends of knowing Malcolm for the rest of his life. The general attitude towards their work was favorable and Dylan didn’t even care that he didn’t care.
They were filing out when MacCordrum stopped him by the door by touching his elbow, parting the haze somewhat. “Oh, Dylan. By the way.”
Dylan turned to him. It hit him too late that they were the only people left in the room. “Yes, sir?”
“Reliquaries?” said MacCordrum.
There was a sudden influx of white noise in Dylan’s brain. But MacCordrum didn’t look angry or even that sly, more companionable and knowing. “Sir?” Dylan said.
“Craig traced that call. Queens area code. I didn’t know you had an interest,” MacCordrum said.
Denial would only be digging himself in deeper. Dylan croaked, “They have a fascinating history.”
MacCordrum patted his shoulder. “You look like you’re going to piss yourself. Don’t worry so much. Believe me, people look for a window into Smith And Sutton for years. Next time, just ask before you use my name. I would have been happy to refer you.”
“I just. I thought… well,” said Dylan. It felt like a real irony that the actual physical door was maybe half a foot away.
“No, no, it’s all right. You know, I knew I liked you, Dylan,” MacCordrum said. And then, with all the cunning in the world. “Malcolm’s taking a liking to you too. You and I are just peas in a pod, aren’t we?”
Dylan forced out a laugh. It sounded more like a duck call. “I’d love to talk to you about this more, sir, but Amir asked me for this flash drive and he’s already in the elevator…”
MacCordrum waved a hand. “This is hardly the time or the place, anyway. We’ll talk later.”
“Later,” Dylan echoed and did his best not to bolt out of the room.
Malcolm, when exiting a crowd, tended to artfully position himself towards the middle of the back, unobtrusive and ignorable. Looking like he did, it must have been necessary to cultivate a talent for being dismissible. Dylan, power walking, grabbed him by the arm and veered them off to the left. Malcolm started at the contact, but didn’t really react otherwise except for a vague, interrogative sound.
“Change of plans,” Dylan muttered, gunning for the bank of elevators on the other side of the floor. “We can’t wait for tonight. We have to move now.”
In the elevator, Malcolm turned to him, eyes wide and worried. “Did he-”
“I don’t know how much he knows,” Dylan said. “But he definitely knows way too much. “Is there anything you need to go get?”
Malcolm shook his head. It was a pointless question, really. There was only one thing tying him here.
“Dylan, hey!” Amir said as he blasted through the door to their office. Noticing Malcolm behind him, he whined. “Oh come on, guys, I’m getting really tired of the shwarma stand, plus it’s like eleven in the morning.”
“Amir.” Dylan grabbed him by the arms, stared at him full in the face with enough desperation or determination that it managed to shut him up. “You need to listen to what I’m about to say really carefully, okay?”
Amir squinted. “… Okay.”
“In fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, MacCordrum or members of his security are going to come down here. They’re going to be really angry and they’re going to want to know where I am. And when they ask,” Dylan fished out a flash drive. “You show him this.”
Amir took it gingerly. “What is it?”
“It’s a pitch for a commercial for Sony,” Dylan said. “Where a Scottish guy kidnapped into the sex trade escapes by using his smartphone.”
“That’s a terrible idea for a-” Amir said, clearly before his brain caught up with him. He focused on Malcolm, who was himself staring grimly, and his expression emptied out. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“If he threatens you or Fiona or your families or my family,” Dylan said, forcing his voice steady. “Tell him that I have other copies but you don’t know where.”
“I’m so sorry to do this to you,” Dylan said. “But promise me, okay?”
Amir looked from Malcolm to Dylan and back again. “Okay. Yeah, of course.” He nodded jerkily and Dylan was overcome with equal parts terror and relief. The light could look very beautiful when the bridges are in flames.
“You’re my best friend and an amazing person and you and Fiona are going to have gorgeous kids,” he said. “And maybe in five, ten years, I’ll come back and see them.”
“Years? Dylan-” But he was interrupted when Dylan gave a very stiff, very firm hug.
“Goodbye, Amir.” And Dylan, later, would spend some time puzzling over why he couldn’t remember Amir’s expression in that moment until he remembered he hadn’t turned around to see it.
They had to stop at a Men’s Wearhouse on the way, seeing as Dylan had thought to reserve the car under a false name the night before but hadn’t packed. The drive from Manhattan to Boston usually took a little over four hours and they hadn’t wanted to add much to that or at least Dylan hadn’t. Malcolm had been uncommonly unopinionated for most of the trip, staring out the window and holding himself still with rigid energy. It was like they were taking him to an organ transplant and Malcolm was quietly thinking about the surgery rather than life after the recovery period. Dylan was too tall for maybe all but three of the suits, including the only ones that fit his shoulders. He ended up buying one for a hundred and fifty bucks where the pants hit him half an inch short on the ankles. He was wearing dark socks, at least, and they were able to get back on the road. Dylan didn’t think they were being followed but if he were honest with himself he also had no actual way of telling.
The key Craig had sent him was heavy brass and maybe a quarter over-sized. It felt like a piece of jewelry more than anything useful, totem-like, emblematic. Malcolm carried it for most of the tense, silent trip, occasionally taking it out of his pocket to study it, measure its weight in his hand. Dylan bought sunglasses when they stopped for gas and tried to wet his hair down into something professional in the bathroom.
The address, written by hand and delivered with the key, lead them to a street in the Bay Village neighborhood. It felt like like stepping into 1830, rows of brick townhouses lining narrow streets, actual gas lamp peaking out from behind the trees. Dylan slowed considerably to find the right building and didn’t bother to roll up the windows or turn on the air-conditioning for a full five minutes, partly because he was busy concentrating but also the area was so tidily presented it seemed like it could landscape the heat into something manageable.
The auction house was in a thin brownstone in the middle of a crooked street. The building itself reminded him of Park Slope, most brick did, but it also shared that old-money sense of whimsy, neoclassical details tucked everywhere like private jokes. When Dylan rang the bell and was buzzed in he was hit by a wall of busy, warm air. Not air-conditioned then, but well-ventilated. He walked into a parlor that shared MacCordrum’s taste in velvet lining and dark woods. A woman of indeterminate age, wearing a ruby necklace, sat at a desk, writing primly in a ledger. There was no sign of a computer anywhere nearby.
She looked up and smiled at Dylan. She seemed very friendly, actually, and her manicure was impeccable. “May I help you, sir?”
Dylan smiled back, all teeth. “Yes, my name is Pat Richardson. I’m here on behalf of Neil MacCordrum.” He flashed her a quick look at his Ceridian ID tag, hiding most of the name under his thumb. He felt bad for making Richardson take the fall except MacCordrum would know pretty much instantly he wasn’t involved. “Apparently there’s been some safety issues with a certain item he acquired from Smith and Sutton, nothing on your end of course, but some rattling from a competitor. He’d feel more comfortable taking it into his personal possession for the immediate future.”
She blinked. “I see. Would you happen to know the item in question, Mr -” Dylan slid Malcolm’s copy of the proof of sale across the slippery finish of the table, unobtrusively wiping his damp palm on his pant leg afterwards. She read it, mouth pursed with concentration, before looking up at him brightly again. “Oh yes. I remember that auction. The bidding got very fierce. I can understand why Mr. MacCordrum would choose to employ his own security. Actually, I think we got a call about this earlier. It was somewhat vague.”
It would have to be, if Amir were convincingly threatening. Dylan nodded, serious. “I was dispatched as soon as the problem was discovered.”
“I’ll just be a moment then,” she said. “Please, have a seat.”
Dylan did. The chair was straight backed and uncomfortable. The woman walked up a winding staircase and he could hear her measured footsteps on the floor above. Dylan’s heart was rabbiting in his chest. This was easy – far, far too easy. Shouldn’t they be doing ocular scans, background checks, confirming microchips embedded in the paper? But that would defeat the point, betray the arrogance of the whole anachronism. That’s what the key symbolized, wasn’t it; if you knew enough to know the name Smith and Sutton, you automatically belonged.
It took five minutes, ten at most, before she came down with a package the size of a vanity mirror, wrapped in what looked like yellow parchment paper and string. Dylan jammed a hand in his pocket so he wouldn’t grab at it like a toddler. “If you’ll just sign for it, Mr. Richardson. And let Mr. MacCordrum know we’ll discuss the renegotiation of his fee at the next auction.”
Dylan scribbled something onto a clipboard, took the parcel and went back out the door. Outside the filters had been removed from the world and everything was the color of a headache. He sagged against the building for a second. A three million dollar heist and it had taken a grand total of fifteen minutes.
Adrenaline kicked in belatedly and he felt giddy, jubilant, jogging back to the car. He giggled, opening the door, Malcolm peering up at him as if from the door of a cave. “Oh my god. Oh my god, it worked!” He slid into his seat, shut the door behind him and buckled up while balancing the package in his lap. “I can’t believe it, it worked! Look, Jesus, here it is, see-”
“Don’t give it to me,” Malcolm said, clipped, veering back when Dylan tried to hand it over.
Dylan frowned, turning over the ignition. “No?”
Malcolm was staring at it like it was in spotlight, but he said, “Not until we’re near the water. I won’t – I won’t be able to control myself once I touch it. Just put it in the back.”
It was anticlimactic, sure, but at the next light, Dylan tucked the package gently onto the backseat. Malcolm leaned his head against the window, liquid-colored eyes not looking at anything at all.
The plan had been to drive up the coast and wait until it was late enough that tourists would have left the beaches. They hadn’t discussed any alterations, so Dylan headed out of the city, taking winding side roads towards the shore once they were clear. The atmosphere in the car was heavy though, stuffy and uneasy. Dylan felt weird turning on music and Malcolm said nothing for two hours. Dylan would sneak glances at him and Malcolm’s body and expression kept turning darker and more twisted in on themselves. Dylan was anxious in a way that tasted like tin, eerily familiar, although it took him passed the interstate to recognize the sense-memory. It felt like being young and hiding in his room while his parent were fighting. It was the helpless dread that made villagers sacrifice goats even when they knew in their bones the volcano was going to keep rumbling.
Around four, when they reached a quiet enough road that the shoulder wasn’t gated off from the surrounding underbrush, Malcolm ordered, “Pull over.”
“Now?” Dylan asked. “Here?”
“Pull over,” Malcolm said, more stridently. The minute Dylan did, engine ticking as it started to cool, Malcolm stumbled out of the car. He made it a few feet before falling on his hands and knees, the curve of his back suggesting he was dry-heaving.
“Christ,” Dylan murmured, more incredulous than anything else. He called out, “Are you okay?” Malcolm didn’t answer and Dylan got out too, locking the doors out of habit, and walked over to Malcolm, hovering uncertainly.
Malcolm was resting his forehead on the grass like he was trying to cool himself, eyes squeezed shut. He seemed to be ignoring Dylan but then he said, “I hate it here.”
Dylan looked around, somewhat theatrically. The scenery was pastoral, peaceful, the deep jungle green of July giving way to August. He sat Indian-style and tried to cajole Malcolm out of whatever this was. “Yeah, I wouldn’t buy property here, but that’s why we have this car…”
Malcolm opened his eyes, focused on the ground with a glassy expression. “Everything. I hate everything about the land now. It’s the worst thing MacCordrum did, he ruined this world for me. I hated living in a metal city. I hated being stranded on the crust of the earth. Everything’s ugly here, all the noises, all the colors, all the mean, stupid little people.” He looked at Dylan. “And I hate you. I really do hate you.”
It should have been too grossly unfair to even register, but it cut deep. Dylan’s voice went dull. “Yeah?”
“You have my skin,” Malcolm said.
“We have your skin,” Dylan said. “It’s in the car.”
“No,” Malcolm corrected impatiently. “I haven’t touched it. You took it from MacCordrum. You own it now.”
“You didn’t want it when I showed it to you,” Dylan said slowly. “So… it’s in the car.”
Malcolm rolled over on his side, facing Dylan in a fetal position, catlike. “You want me, don’t you.” He said it without room for doubt, a lick of a challenge to it.
Dylan felt himself go kind of numb. “Malcolm…”
Malcolm was definitely sprawling now, self-aware and lovely. It was a bullying move. “Well, it’s true, isn’t it? That’s why you helped me. I saw you this afternoon, your big, touching goodbye to your only friend. You’ve lost everything. You risked your life. Just because you want to fuck me.”
Dylan looked away, swallowing. “Why are you doing this?”
Malcolm scrambled to a sitting position, an unfamiliar light to his eyes, trying to impart a message Dylan couldn’t quite decipher. “You have my skin! Don’t you get it? You want me, you have me!”
Dylan felt himself laugh a little, angry. “Son of a bitch. What kind of monster do you think I am?”
“You idiot!” Malcolm exploded, pushing at Dylan’s shoulders. He sounded on the verge of tears. “This is why I hate you. I hate it here, I can’t survive here, and you still make me want to not go back home.”
Malcolm’s shoulders were hunched, defeated. Cicadas filled the wake of his announcement, in the moment at least sounding as implacable and eternal a juggernaut as any ocean.
“So that’s what you want?” Dylan asked, voice tight. “You want – what? You want me to keep you?”
Malcolm muttered, “It would be easy.”
“Easy,” Dylan repeated, almost under his breath. “You know what, Malcolm? I call bullshit. I don’t think you want to be here and I know you don’t want to be owned. If I took your skin and hid it, I think you’d go looking for it again. You’d hate me just as much as you hate MacCordrum. I think what you actually want is to avoid having to make a choice.” Dylan stood up, aiming for the car. “I’m here, Malcolm. You’re right, I’ve always been here. You’re not an animal, you know how to choose. Take responsibility and make up your damn mind.”
Malcolm grabbed his hand in a surprisingly strong fist, halting Dylan in place, and just held on. “I’ve told you. It’s not that simple.”
Dylan felt incredibly tired. “Why not?”
“I’m not an animal,” Malcolm said. “But I’m not human either. My nature isn’t anything you can understand and it’s not something I can change. When I get my skin… it’s more than kin. It’s more than home. It’s those things too, but I’ll be me again. I won’t ever be able to come back. I won’t be able to help it.”
Dylan changed the grip so they were holding hands, fingers interwoven. He asked, quietly, “How will you know until you’ve tried?”
Malcolm looked at their hands. His lip twitched into a smirk, just a sliver of his usual self. His face was blotchy red, eyes watery, altogether a limp figure in the bedraggled remains of his suit. He stood up, a bit of a saunter to it, crowding Dylan against the car. “You’re an idiot. That’s the first thing I thought when I met you. What a sweet, handsome idiot. I loved your hands and I wondered how brave you were.”
Dylan abruptly felt much less tired. “You, uh, hid that really well.” The trunk was blazingly hot against the back of Dylan’s knees and he hissed.
Malcolm cupped his face. His fingers were slim and damp from the grass. “You liked me. No one’s liked me in a really long time.”
Dylan turned into the touch. “I do like you.” Malcolm smelled sweet and sun-baked and like a promise. Dylan confessed, “And I do want you.”
Malcolm smiled. “I know,” he said, and kissed him.
There was that same sweet flavor to Malcolm’s mouth but it was very faint, diluted like cantaloupe, and Dylan found himself grabbing for him, kissing back as deeply as he could. Desperate to define the taste. In a month full of stupid ideas, making out with a man by the side of the road when they were essentially fugitives potentially being hunted by a privatized army still topped the list. Parts of Dylan were pointing this out, but the rest of him was combing through Malcolm’s hair, mouthing his adam’s apple as Malcolm arched his neck. Dylan muttered, “I’m taking off this goddamn tie…”
Malcolm laughed like he understood. He anchored his arms on Dylan’s hips while Dylan struggled with the knot. The tie was indigo today, patterned with darker blue diamonds. It fell into the dirt weightlessly, an inconsequential thing now as Dylan explored the dip of Malcolm’ throat. Malcolm wrestled off his jacket, looking lighter and free.
Dylan yanked off his own tie, struggling out of the noose. When he looked up, Malcolm had opened the door the backseat and was staring at him impatiently.
“Are you sure?” Dylan asked. It wasn’t so much gentlemanly as, well. He wasn’t entirely sure. Hesitation at the unexpected and all that it implied.
Malcolm’s mouth was a little bruised-looking, kiss-swollen. “I’m sure about this.”
Dylan took it for the compromise it was and hit his head getting into the car.
Getting Malcolm naked was a clumsy process in this tight a space. Dylan, at least, kept giggling while tugging off his pants and they kept tripping each other up with fumbling fingers. Malcolm was sinews more than muscle, streamlined and simple as an orchid, miles of that freckled pearly skin. He was straddling Dylan, who by the end of the process only had his shirt and pants open, and kept batting Dylan away when he tried to explore. He reached a deft hand into Dylan’s boxers and wrapped it around his erection. Dylan’s head fell back and he hissed, “yes,” before changing his mind and going, “no, no, no,” jostling Malcolm off him and crowding him against the window, which had already fogged over from their breath. Dylan crouched in the footwell, ignoring Malcolm’s bewilderment as Dylan stroked his cock a few times, rubbing his thumb around the slit, before replacing it with his mouth.
Malcolm breathed, “oh,” and when Dylan looked up, he was biting his fist, flushed and staring, rapt. Dylan wrapped a hand around the base of Malcolm’s dick – too dry, he knew, but also too late for that now – and concentrated his mouth on the head when that started making Malcolm whimper in this deep, helpless way. His thighs were clenched so tight they were shaking and he put his other hand in Dylan’s hair, not to guide, apparently, just to touch. Malcolm’s cock tasted like the rest of him, although foreskin wasn’t something Dylan was adept at manipulating, just a little warmer, skin thinner and closer to the blood. Malcolm’s hips starting bucking, and it was nice to see him being his demanding self again. Dylan wanted to preserve this moment precisely because he knew he couldn’t, that his memories of Malcolm’s body and his unrestrained amazement would fade one day into a wistful sheen.
Malcolm said, “Dylan,” peevish for all that he was gasping and yanked on Dylan’s hair – off off off. Dylan whined, pleading, but Malcolm was insistent and he came with just Dylan’s hand around him, splattering his own chest with come. He was ragdoll-limp, crumpled against the side of the car, eyes half-opened and glazed. Dylan put a hand down his own pants without consciously intending to.
That seemed to snap Malcolm out of his stupor and he lunged forward, somehow manhandling Dylan back onto the seat, getting him on his back again. Dylan could see the mark on his hand where Malcolm had bitten himself. Malcolm looked determined now, focused, wiping Dylan’s come off his chest and smearing it on his palms.
“Oh holy christ,” Dylan groaned, pretty much all one word, and let his head fall back, squeezing his eyes shut.
“Look at me,” Malcolm said. Dylan just gripped the side of the seat. He felt like the fabric was giving him rugburn. “Dylan,” Malcolm repeated. “Please. Look at me.” Dylan cracked an eye open and Malcolm was hovering over him, a very misguided kind of angelic, before taking Dylan in hand, stroking with easy confidence. He kissed Dylan, a very gentle press of mouths, murmuring, “It’s okay.”
Dylan surprised himself by letting out a sob, hugging Malcolm so close his shoulderblades pressed into the meat of Dylan’s arms. “It’s okay,” Malcolm said again and then it became a susurrus echo of itself, something Malcolm used to fill the time between kisses. Dylan moved with his hand, helpless not to, even as it became increasingly clear, maybe to them both, that beneath the sensation, the desire, he was miserable. Dylan didn’t think this was Malcolm’s way of thanking him or giving him a gift, but he was saying goodbye.
When he came, Dylan felt like it was pulled from deep within him, everything important coalescing into nothing.
When his vision focused, he saw Malcolm peering down at him, serious and peaceful and resigned. He was tracing a circle around Dylan’s nipple absently, sweaty and filthy with come. “I love you,” Dylan said, because it wouldn’t change anything.
Malcolm bowed his head. He was silent for a minute. “I’m sorry.”
Dylan flopped back against the seat to regain his breath. He sat up painfully, trying to extricate his legs from Malcolm’s. His pants had smeary white patches on them as well, he noticed. Dylan looked around before he saw the skin wedged up against the rear windshield. He took it gingerly and tilted his head, looking up at Malcolm.
Malcolm bit his lip, then nodded. Outside the pocket reality of the car, the heat of the day had burned off, leaving only evening.
“I think there’s only an hour left to drive,” Dylan said.
Malcolm nodded again, not looking at him. “Okay.”
The beach they found was deserted this early into the evening by virtue of being unappealing. It was a small half-moon, gravel instead of sand, and was a forty-five minutes walk from the road through thickets of brambles. Still, Malcolm said the depth dropped off quickly, which was primarily what he needed. Dylan had no idea how he determined that, but believed him.
Everything looked and felt sort of purple, the sky over the water, the water itself, the bruises under Dylan’s eyes when he glanced at himself in the rearview mirror. Malcolm had wiped himself off with tissues and put his pants back on, but left it at that and Dylan himself hadn’t bothered to redo his shirt. Clothes seemed very superfluous and imposed by a frivolous set of standards. Dylan held the package under one arm. It was probably his imagination, but he felt a warmth radiating from it now.
They stood side by side, staring at the waves, which were sluggish here and seemed cold. Malcolm’s jaw was set and Dylan thought he was preoccupied in thought until he said, “Look.”
It took Dylan a moment to see because all there was was dark liquidity against dark liquidity, but then he made out the shape of bodies. Sleek seal heads breaching in and out of the water, swimming in lazy laps around the bay. Waiting.
“How did they know?” Dylan asked.
“They didn’t,” Malcolm said. “They were already here.”
Dylan, with shaking hands, undid the string of the package, unfolding the paper. It was an animal pelt, littered with cream-colored spots, slick when he touched it the right way against the grain. He never would have guessed it was anything special. “So this is yours now. Again. I guess it always was.”
Malcolm, for a weighty heartbeat, hesitated before draping the skin over one arm, running a hand through the fur reverently. “Thank you,” he said. He smiled, a little twinge. “Dylan of the Waves.”
Empty, Malcolm had always described himself. Half-finished. Dylan said, “I’m not though.”
Malcolm reached up and traced his jaw. “But you’re a good man.”
Dylan closed his eyes, pressed Malcolm’s palm to his mouth, kissed it.
“Thank you,” Malcolm said again, quietly. He took a step back, breaking the contact and kicked off his pants. He looked at the water, then back at Dylan, and then at the water again. And then he smiled in a way Dylan had never seen before, unhinged and joyful and entirely free. He took a running start, skin in hand, and dove into the water.
The seals started to bark, deafening. They kicked up froth, diving in and out of cresting waves, swimming on their back and switching to their bellies before swooping around again. And Malcolm said he’d never danced.
Eventually the churning died down and the seals lowered themselves into the water, swimming out deeper. Their noise was gradually replaced by summer noises, mosquitoes and crickets and the gentle rush of habitable waters. Dylan walked closer, gravel crunching under his feet, wind yanking at his shirt. One last seal poked its head out, indistinguishable from the rest except for how it stared at Dylan for a long, unwavering moment before melting back into the sea.
Dylan sat on the beach, legs hugged loosely to his chest, until the sky pinkened into morning.
Dylan woke up early these days. He hadn’t bought a coffeemaker, wary about the wiring in his building, so he fell into a routine of showering in his cramped tub, humming in time with the clanking plumbing, before walking to the cornershop for a cup of coffee and a sleeve of Hobnobs. It was grey out, and muddy.
The heavyset woman behind the counter, whose name he had yet to learn, tsked like she always did when she saw his choice of breakfast. “You’ll need more protein than that if you’re heading out today, love. Catch a fish or two.”
Dylan gave her five pounds and pretended not to see it when she made change. “I’ll just end up with a hook in my thumb again.”
“You barely nicked yourself,” she said dismissively. “Give it another go and catch yourself a proper breakfast.”
Dylan saluted her with the Hobnob packet as he went back outside, hunched inside his hoodie against the raw wind as he scurried down the uneven sidewalk past buildings painted bright blue and yellow. It would be warmer on the dock, less protection from the sun, even he’d end up wet and freezing by midday. He only showered to wake himself up. His hair was always a snarl after a morning on the water.
The first thing Dylan had done when he moved to Scotland was get a buzz-cut, which was less about affecting a disguise than attempting liberation, starting over. It worked, sort of. He’d gone through several cycles of it now, growing out his curls and shearing them off again, and was now at the halfway point where it probably looked the least silly.
The coastlines surrounding Moray Firth were all greens and blues and cresting hills, fog rolling in like a blanket every morning. Scotland smelled different than America, more honeyed and salty and raw. The locals were nice enough to the American who popped in to stay, if not exactly welcoming. He heard, distantly, that they thought he was an eccentric novelist or a musician working on his masterpiece in seclusion. Dylan tried not to dissuade them from this impression.
He had rented a small house in town and bought an even smaller boat that he spent his time teaching himself how to sail. Dylan liked to go out in the early mornings once the fog cleared, the ocean the only flat thing for miles. The sky was endless; it could swallow him up. Usually there were clouds looming above him, grey and lit by the sun, like they were trying to impart a message about the divine. Dylan wouldn’t say he was unhappy, even if he wasn’t at peace. He certainly didn’t feel trapped.
Dolphins chased the boat when he hit high speeds and they made him laugh, slippery, rubbery little things. Dylan would see clumps of seals along the shoreline sometimes, sunning themselves and bonelessly content. He’d watch them, not knowing what exactly he was looking for, but trying to suppress a snag of excitement and resentment. There were only a few times he felt lonely or crazy enough to honestly think they were watching him back.
Today, Dylan was out far enough that the coast was an impressionist murmur in the distance, lying on his back and half-heartedly protecting his eyes from the sun, when the boat rocked like it was being shaken by a great hand. Scrambling to the rigging, he saw everything was in order. Standing up however turned out to be a mistake, as the boat rocked again and Dylan flailed back against the sides. He braced himself but then he saw it, an actual hand, white and tapered, very much not the wrath of god, but climbing up the ladder.
Dylan rushed over to it, stumbling to his knees, and the sudden distribution of weight was too much for the boat, which finally knocked him into the water.
You couldn’t survive in the North Sea for very long. It was simply too cold and Dylan hadn’t been wearing a wetsuit or a life jacket. The air felt winched out of his lungs as he went under, the pain sharp, and he thrashed at first and even thrashed for a few seconds after arms wrapped around him, blind panic keeping him from recognizing they were trying to buoy him up, carry him somewhere, strong and assured if not exactly reassuring.
Dylan gasped from the gut, like a defibrillatory shock had gone through him, when he surfaced again, coughing as his head hitting something hard. He was shaking uncontrollably as something dragged him by the collar further out of the water. He must be on rock, he realized, and opened his eyes.
He was on a hard, grey outcropping in the middle of a Scottish sea, the light peaceful and soft. Malcolm, wet hair hanging in his eyes, naked, was scowling down at him as he rubbed Dylan’s hands between his own, trying to get the circulation going.
“I would have thought if you had a boat you would know proper safety etiquette,” he snapped. “Honestly.”
It had been so many months Dylan couldn’t say how many for sure. Maybe eight. Maybe he was hallucinating in his death throes. He managed to rasp, “You capsized me!”
Malcolm had the grace to look a little embarrassed. He was every inch the marvel Dylan remembered, that he had half-convinced himself couldn’t actually be this astonishing. “I was trying to find you. You were lost for a while.”
“I’ve been right here,” Dylan said.
Malcolm curled around him, giving off an impossible warmth that assuaged Dylan’s shivering for the moment. He tucked his face in Dylan’s neck, like this was an ordinary liberty for him to take. The discomfort of the water trickling from his hair down Dylan’s collarbone was the only glitch that made this seem real. “I was born near here,” Malcolm said, dreamily. “I told you that once.”
Dylan cautiously put a hand on Malcolm’s back. His skin was slick and soft. “You did.”
Malcolm lifted his head. His eyes were a darker blue than Dylan remembered or maybe they were just reflecting a deeper sea, homecoming refracted. “I’m going to right your boat in a minute,” he said. He smirked a little and it seemed odd to Dylan until he realized the expression was entirely playful. More than elegant, nude on a rock on the north tip of nowhere Malcolm seemed, for the first time, at ease. Comfortable in himself. The whole of him and all the more the same for it. “Dylan of the Waves. But first there’s something I want to show you.”
Dylan scooted into a sitting position, avoiding the splash of the breakers flirting with his ankles. He could breathe again now. Malcolm ducked himself into the water up to the chest, fishing around, and come up with a seal pelt, also darker than Dylan remembered but obviously from the water, which he laid carefully on the rock.
“Malcolm,” Dylan said.
“It’s mine,” Malcolm said. He darted his eyes up with a little smile. “I’m not giving it to you, don’t worry. But if you want… if you like, we could take care of it together.”
Birds, white and brown ones, were circling above them, lazy and unconcerned. Dylan found himself playing with Malcolm’s hand, the knobs of his knuckles, the sun finally penetrating enough to warm him through his shirt. “Keep it above the hearth?”
“If you want,” Malcolm said, almost timid. He added, more practically. “And if you have a hearth.”
“I don’t,” Dylan said. “But we can work around it. What made you change your mind?”
Malcolm nestled his head on Dylan’s chest, drawing the skin over them like a blanket. Dylan found it wasn’t uncomfortable, dryer and lighter and warmer than he had expected. The colors comprising Malcolm, Dylan noticed — blue and black and cream — for once blended easily with the colors of the landscape. “I was myself again. All of me. I thought I couldn’t fight against my nature and I can’t. It just lead me back to you.”
The pelt smelled dark and greasy and Malcolm smelled bright and sharp, like salt. The thing and the whole of the thing. Dylan’s throat felt too crowded for words so he kissed Malcolm, who kissed back. The water was cold and the sun was warm, and Dylan’s boat would be seaworthy again soon enough.
This was a ton of fun to write, so I hope it was fun to read.
The idea of the magical wares auction house, Smith and Sutton, was gracefully borrowed from its creators, relvetica and ylfdragon. I am not nearly clever enough to come up with such a wonderful concept on my own.
Incredible thanks to serenity_winner, whose art really captured the spirit of the piece.