Malcolm is hungry. He knows he made tuna salad last night, that it is sitting in the cool, dark of the refrigerator, a swirling pink and white mass speckled by tiny cubes of relish. He thinks of the creamy sweetness, the smoky fish flavors, the bittersweet crunch of the pickle bits, all over warmed mashed sweet potatoes. It would take two minutes to add garlic butter toast to that. It would be a good meal.
Malcolm pinches a few pills between his finger tips and leans back so he can drop them into his mouth. They hit the back of his throat and he gets the vodka bottle spout to his lips and a splash of the burning spirit into his mouth just before he chokes. The pills go down with the vodka and then he leans forward to cough into a clenched fist. Tangled strands of gray hair fall across his face and drape themselves over his knuckles. He winces against a pain in his chest. He lays back, knowing the pain will lose its teeth in a few minutes.
The tuna meal swirls through his head as he leans back in his recliner. He looks up at the cracks in the ceiling and coughs again. He closes his eyes and feels the room. The room is what someone might loosely declare the apartment's living room. It is the room where he lives, where he spends more time collectively than any other place. It is living room, dining room, entertainment room, drinking room, storage room, library, and on particularly dark days, a restroom. He looks to the floor five feet to his left. He was on his hands and knees scrubbing and rinsing and scrubbing and rinsing for twenty minutes a few nights ago. The carpet looks pretty clean. Someone who didn't know there had been vomit there probably wouldn't noticed the slight discoloration. But Malcolm can see it. He can see the outline, can still see the full puddle of the food and drink and bile that came out of him. He can see the red streak through the middle. When he first saw blood in his vomit three months ago, it scared him. It felt ominous, a declaration. A few nights ago, the blood went into the trash with the mess and towels and felt more like a sign of something to which he could look forward.
Malcolm's mind returns to images of tuna and potato. He can feel the warm plate on his lap, can smell the mixture rolling through the tiny apartment. But when he thinks of getting up and actually making the meal, the chair holds him, pulls him down, fuses with him. He considers the thought of the chair actually taking him captive. He wonders if he could struggle to break free from the grips of a living, greedy chair. How many of the fused fibers could he pull free from? How much longer would he be able to sit here and let the chair take him over before it would be too late?
He knows he could get up if he tried even a little. There is no force holding him here outside of himself. This thought, that he is trapped here by his own choice, is a crushing weight. He knows he isn't going to pull free and he knows why.
There is a small end table to his right. It is big enough to hold a coffee table book about high speed jets, a bottle of Stoli, and a small file folder, fattened by a quarter of an inch of loose papers stacked together. He won't look at the folder. He doesn't need to, it glows in his mind and lets off a heat he can't escape. Whether he closes his eyes, sinks into the chair, throws blankets over his head, the heat is still there. No matter how deeply he dives into the bottles of pills and drink, the heat is there. It claws at him.
When he knows he isn't going to eat dinner, and he feels the first vibrations of the hypnotic hum of the meds and alcohol behind his eyes, he reaches for the folder. He begs himself not to reach for it. When his fingers graze the edge, he begs himself to withdraw his hand. His fingers pinch the edge and he slides it closer. He slides one corner off of the end table's edge so he can grip it and pull the whole thing onto his lap. When it hits his thighs he tells himself not to open it. The feel of the folder, the smell, the scrape of his fingertips against the slightly wrinkled edges, quiets his protest. He knows he will open it, just like he knows he isn't making the meal tonight, just like he knows the Stoli will be gone within the hour. Of all the things this room has become, more than anything else it is a room for this.
It is a room for remembering.
Though his eyes know what they will see when he pulls the folder cover back to reveal the top page, he notes the recognition in his mind. He can feel the electrical exchange, deep in the center of his brain, followed by a flutter in his chest just above the solar plexus. He can hear the blood flow change in his ears.
The paper is clean, a slight crease in the top right corner. Malcolm's fingers go there and lift the first page from the others. The image is mostly blue, a tropical beach and bright blue water under an even brighter and bluer sky. A man stands by a palm tree. He is holding a coconut in each hand and smiling like a conqueror. Malcolm slides his thumb across the man's face. There are pencil notes on one side:
Jerry Portal, twenty-eight, online marketing strategist
The list continues, the handwriting more hurried and uneven as it moves down the page:
Girlfriend – Stephanie Morrow, nursing student
Malcolm's finger traces down through each fact. He presses into the paper, feeling the indent left by the original pencil work. He follows the etched letters through immediate family, education, personal hobbies, all the way to the bottom:
Killed in the crash of Jetblue flight 385 from Bridgetown
Malcolm looks at Jerry's face one more time before flipping the page over, face down.
The next page is similar, a beach and beautiful sand under a raised resort hut shaded by palm trees. A young man is cradling a young woman in his arms. Her hair is being played with by a breeze. Malcolm looks at each of their smiling faces for a few seconds before his finger tip finds the frantic pencil scrawls at the edge:
Adam Page, twenty-three, PE teacher
Kimberly Page, twenty-two, barista
Malcolm winces and flips the paper over before he gets to the end. He can never read to the end, but he knows the last word on the page. The word plays in his ears. He can feel his lips and tongue move to form it, can see a happy couple dressed in bright colors and drinking from each others glasses and taking tours of hidden lagoons and ancient ruins and lying and laughing in bed together. Honeymoon.
He continues, scrolling and reading, scanning the faces, remembering the hair and the looks in each person's eyes. He sees the curve of the smiles and remembers the outfits and the backgrounds and the histories. He skips words he knows he doesn't want to see, but they shine in the front of his mind. They glow and blink in neon, they hum with electricity and give off heat and demand to be seen. The pills dim the lights slightly, but a glare breaks through. The hum is still there, below the silence, waiting. It is patient. It will wait out the pills and booze and be ready to rise in Malcolm's mind again. If he manages to get the pills down again, the hum will wait. It will wait for as long as it takes.
Malcolm knows this.
The pages continue to turn. Malcolm knows where he is in the stack. There are signs now after all this time, like tracks in the snow. Harold Starling's page, thirty-one, has a small blue stain in the upper left hand corner. Malcolm doesn't know from what. Gregory Dean's page is rough, damaged by spilled water. Page fifty. Sarah Colson's facts were written in pen, the only facts written in pen, on page seventy-seven. A few are dog-eared, and Malcolm knows each by the size of the dog ear. The face up pile shrinks and the face down pile grows heavy. He knows where he is by the feel of the paper, by the smell, by the clock ticking away in his mind. The clock ticks down to eight pages left. It goes to seven pages left, six. When he sees an image of an older woman smirking into camera, the alcohol and pills can't keep up anymore. Malcolm's nostrils flare and his eyes redden. Tears pool up and pour from the inner corners of his hazel eyes. He can't make out the letters but he knows what they say:
Angela Brooks, fifty-nine, wife, mother, grandmother, flight attendant.
The top of the page says page 152. This page is different, not quite as clean or pristine as the others in the stack. The page is rippled in spots, and before Malcolm can flip the page over, one of his tears hits the page and quickly soaks in. When he turns it over, two more tears fall onto the next page before he can wipe his eyes.
Another picture, a man standing with friends all dressed as super heroes. The man is dressed as Loki.
Christopher Price, twenty-nine, flight attendant
Killed in the crash of Jetblue flight 385 from Bridgetown
A woman, kneeling so two children can kiss her, one on each cheek.
Stacy Kerrigan, twenty-six, married, mother of two
Killed in the crash of Jetblue flight 385 from Bridgetown
He flips over the page, and the next, and the next, before the flood takes him. His head drops and he tries to shut his eyes against the tears. His body is rocked by sobs and he slides the folder over the chair's arm and it falls to the floor.
“I'm sorry,” he says amid the crying. The words sneak out in between gasps and screams. He sends them out like flares in a storm. The mad cries don't sound like his own. He can hear the words and feel them passing through his throat and out of his mouth but they seem to be from someone else, someone behind a wall he can't get through. His apologies bang against the wall like fists. Nothing gets through, and soon the bottle is back at his lips and after three hard pulls he slaps his hands over his face and screams into his palms. The recliner squeaks under him, jerked by the force of his convulsions, and Captain Malcolm McKormack sets his elbows on his thighs and his face in his palms and screams through the storm. He sees the view from the cockpit that morning. He sees the horizon shift hard to the right as engine one explodes and he loses half of the wing. The control panels light up with orange and red warnings. Alarms pull the cockpit into chaos. The sudden loss of engine one and its wing sends the plane into a roll. He screams into his headset for everyone to assume crash positions. He hears the plane buckle under the torque of their spiral. The metal moans under the pressure. Bolts pop and sheets of metal and plastic are ripped away toward the deep blue water below. When the horizon is vertical, engine two catches fire. Catastrophic duel engine and structural aircraft failure shortly after take off can't be trained for or effectively piloted.
Malcolm writhes in his chair and yells through his fingers.
“Brace for impact!”
Captain Malcolm McKormack, pilot of flight 385 from Bridgetown, Barbados, lost consciousness immediately upon impact, along with nearly every soul on board. Ruptured fuel tanks sent a fireball through the back half of the plane, killing a large portion of the passengers almost instantly. The plane broke into four main pieces, the front of the plan detaching and tumbling across and then down into the relatively calm waters three miles from Barbados. People on shore saw the crash and emergency service boats and choppers responded.
In the end, one hundred and fifty-eight people died. Six passengers, one flight attendant, Malcolm, and his first officer, David Bennett, survived. Malcolm thinks of David, paralyzed from the neck down, being bathed and clothed and helped by his wife into and out of his wheelchair, his car, his bed. The word “survived” stabs him in the chest.
On the floor, most of the pages have fallen out of the folder. One of them is a list of survivors. Malcolm hasn't looked at this page in a long time. He has thought about throwing that page away. He has thought about burning it over the stove or flushing it down the toilet. He has considered eating it. But he keeps it in the back of the folder to remind him. The page should be a source of peace for him, knowing that not everyone died in the crash. It isn't. It is, in some ways, harder to read than the pages and pages of the dead. It reminds him of the cost of his failures. Paralysis, severe burns, lost limbs, brain trauma, no one made it out without paying a high price.
It makes him feel that he will pay for all of this someday.
He knows, if it were his family members, he'd find the person responsible. He would find their address and knock on their door and put a bullet in their head. He knows the family members should be tracking him down. He thinks some of them might be. Whenever he answers the phone and no one speaks, he assumes there is someone on the other line and they have finally found him. The last time he got a hang up call, he sat in the apartment for five days and waited for a knock on the door. He waited for a brick through the window, or a molotov, or machine gun fire, or a battering ram against the door and a team of angry fathers and sons and mothers and daughters armed with knives and guns and vengeance. When no knock came, when no bullets flew, Malcolm didn't find relief. He wanted them to be there. He wanted to open the door and find an end. He wanted an angry mob to take him and beat him to death, to punish him for what he did. He wanted justice.
When there is a knocking sound, Malcolm can't tell if it is real or imagined. He waits, tries to stifle his crying so he can listen. The room is quiet. The door out into the hallway is still.
This time there is no question. The knocking is present and real. Two shadows have appeared at the base of the door and three more knocks sound through the apartment. Someone is out there. Someone has finally come for him.
Malcolm smiles. He doesn't bother wiping his eyes. The day has finally come, someone is at his door ready to claim a payment for his sins. He is ready. As he rises from the chair he apologizes again. He is still whispering “I'm sorry” when he gets to the door.
Three more knocks, quiet.
He is ready.
As he reaches for the door knob, he considers something for the first time. What if the victims come for him? What if the ghosts of the one hundred and fifty-eight dead have been, for all of these months, slowly making their way back to him? As he grips the door handle, the image of the bodies, still in their ravaged forms, staring at him with eyes bleeding in burned faces, reaching for him with bloated, waterlogged hands, legs broken, necks twisted, heads hanging at awful angles, joined in their moaning thirst for retribution. When the door cracks and the first slivers of light slide through, he imagines them seeing him for the first time. He imagines their excitement at the product of their search, the source of their death and torment, finally in view. He imagines arms reaching out and eyes widening and mouths dropping open. He imagines a surge of bodies overtaking him.
He imagines this and still opens the door.
The light crashes down over him. He hadn't noticed how dark he'd kept the apartment, and when squinting isn't enough he puts an arm up to shield his eyes. He can almost hear their fingers wriggling through the air toward him, their knuckles cracking as muscle and ligament and tendon pull and twist and wait to grab a hold.
The first movement he sees makes him flinch. It isn't reaching hands. It isn't an army of the dead. Below his forearm, two small red shoes filled with bright white knee-high socks slide back and forth on the old gray carpet. The socks lead up to a red dress with puffed sleeves and a white sash for a belt. Two little arms wrap around behind the dress, linked by tiny clasped fingers.
No, please. Not one of the little girls!
The voice is small and short. Malcolm doesn't want to lower his arm and reveal the girl's face. If they are going to take him, he wants them to just take him. He doesn't want to see the mangled face of a little girl he killed.
Malcolm's mind flashes through the folder and the pages of the dead. There was a little girl named Lisa, and Isabelle, and Courtney. There was a thirteen-year-old girl named Grace. The little red shoes in front of him are not from a thirteen-year-old, and there wasn't a Lily on the flight list.
“I heard you...” she starts, then shuffles backward and looks down the hallway. After a confirmation from someone down the hall, she steps back forward. “I heard you... crying.”
Malcolm lowers his arm. He squints in the light but his eyes are adjusting. The little girl isn't burned. She isn't missing limbs. She isn't rotting. She isn't here to claim his soul.
“I cry sometimes, too,” she says. “Momma says it's okay to cry sometimes. She said sometimes it's rude to ask people why they are crying, but I asked her if I could ask you and she said I could. You don't have to tell me if you don't want to.”
Malcolm looks down the hallway. The door at the end is open and a woman is leaning out of her doorway. She has the same curly black hair as the little girl, and she smiles when Malcolm's eyes meet hers.
Malcolm looks down again. The little girl has taken his hand. She is inspecting it.
“Did you get hurt?” she asks, her voice rising at the end as her eyes get close to his hand's skin. The burns start at his fingertips and move up over his hands and forearms and, if he weren't wearing a shirt, Lily would see that they spread up to his shoulders and across his chest and back, as well. Most second degree, some third degree, and when Lily runs her little fingers over the scarred ripples along the back of his hand, Malcolm jerks his hand away.
“I'm sorry!” Lily says quickly, wincing as if she herself had been burned. “I'm sorry.”
Malcolm rubs his hands and steps back. He reaches for the door.
“Do you like fish sticks?” Lily asks. The door closes halfway and Malcolm stops it.
“What?” he grumbles.
Lily looks back down the hallway. Her hands go behind her back again and she stands up straight. Her words bounce around the doorway, carbonated by the light in her eyes.
“Do you like fish sticks? I do. When I'm sad, momma makes me fish sticks. I eat them with ketchup. Fish sticks always make me feel better. So I was wondering, if you, if maybe you, if you wanted to feel better because you're sad, if you want some fish sticks? I can make you some fish sticks. If you want. Do you want some fish sticks?”
Lily wants to say more. She talks more when she is nervous and doesn't know what to say, but a quick whisper from down the hall makes her stop. She rocks back and forth from her heels to her toes and smiles up at Malcolm.
Malcolm shakes his head. “No,” he says, his voice quiet and rough. He clears his throat and repeats the “no” and closes the door.
Malcolm said no that first night. He said no and sent Lily away and he went back to his recliner and fell asleep. He didn't eat with her, but he also didn't finish his bottle of vodka. The next night when Lily came knocking on his door again, Malcolm shook his head. He didn't say no out loud, but he shook his head and Lily said okay and trotted back down the hallway to her mom.
The next night, Malcolm sat in his recliner. He took two sips from the bottle and then put the lid back on and put the bottle on the ground. He wouldn't drink anymore, not if Lily from down the hall was going to knock on his door. He didn't want her to see him spinning. He didn't want her to smell the booze on his breath and ask her mom why he smelled like that. He told himself after she'd come by and asked and after he'd sent her away again, he would return to the pills and to the bottle and he would finish what he'd started. He imagined sending her away again. He wouldn't say no, he wouldn't grumble. He would simply shake his head again so as not to upset her and he would listen to her skip back down the hall to explain to her mother what happened. He told himself he didn't like seeing her face when he opened the door. He told himself he didn't like hearing her stuttering run-on sentences and seeing her bouncy hair and her big shining smile and her bright shining shoes. He told himself she'd lose interest soon and he wouldn't have to see her anymore and he wouldn't have to say no to her and that would be the end of that and everyone would be better off. He told himself he hoped she didn't show up that night.
There were three knocks on the door. He felt a jolt in his chest, but quickly reminded himself that he should send her away quietly and not bother her or her mother anymore. When he opened the door it was Lily, this time with her mother at her side. They shared curly black hair and bright smiles and Lily stepped forward to talk.
“This is my momma,” she said. Her introduction made Malcolm reach out his hand. It was something about the joy in her voice and how she stepped sideways and held her arms out to present her mother. It made Malcolm step forward. He didn't notice what he was doing until Lily's mother had his hand in hers and was telling him her name was Louisa and she was pleased to meet him. He nodded and grunted in return, mumbling “Malcolm,” before sliding his hand out of hers and sticking it back under his armpit. As he did, the smell from their apartment hit him: baking bread, buttery potatoes, and fish sticks. When Lily noticed him smelling the air, she giggled.
“It smells good, doesn't it?”
Malcolm pressed his lips together and blew air out through his nose. He couldn't deny it. He nodded.
“We have plenty,” Louisa said.
“We made extra,” Lily chirped. Then she leaned in and cupped her hands around her mouth, preparing for a secret. “We made extra on purpose!”
Louisa smiled. Lily grinned and giggled.
Malcolm smiled. When Lily took his hand, he closed his door behind him without thinking. As they glided down the hallway, Lily asked him if he wanted ketchup or tartar sauce, and if he wanted milk and that she always had milk with dinner unless she was eating pizza and then she could have one soda because momma said soda was a special treat and you don't want to ruin special treats by having too much of them. Malcolm didn't hear much of it, but he felt her hand in his and the itching in his skin died down. He felt her pull on his arm and the burning in his shoulders and neck cooled. When she pulled out his chair and put down his napkin and fork, the fire behind his eyes flickered and dimmed slightly. His chest wasn't crying out for pills. His mouth wasn't aching for alcohol. Louisa poured three milks and laid out plates of mashed potatoes and green beans and fish sticks and warm rolls and Malcolm McKormack remembered, for the first time in two years, what it was like to enjoy a meal.
They finished the entire plate of fish sticks.