Katie Elton had just fallen asleep when her adrenal gland crawled from her body. It felt like raw liver. There was no pain, just a pulling sensation in her stomach.
She knew it was a dream, but her limbs were dead marble. She couldn't even scream. If Daniel had been there, he might have heard her whimper, but Daniel had left a phone message cancelling their trip to the park. Her son had cried himself to sleep.
The tiny piece of meat nestled under her chin like a lover. After a while, she stopped struggling.
The next day, she checked herself in the mirror. She didn't see anything stranger than a few grey hairs mixed with the brown, not too bad for thirty-six. She pulled on her waitress uniform from the day before, smiling a little.
Mitch hugged her knees as soon as she entered the living room.
She basked in her son's affection. "What's up, Tiger?" she asked.
"I'm looking for a slice-bird, Mommy!" Mitch said. He was a grin in Doctor Dentons, Daniel's broken promise forgotten. That was the great strength of being eight years old. Adults hang on to their hurt forever.
Katie put on water for coffee. "Did you make your bed?"
"Yep! I pulled up my sheets and everything, and the slice-bird flew out of my pillow!" Mitch pulled a wad of dust from under the couch.
"Get dressed, Hon. The bus is coming. I'll help you find the slice-bird later." Probably an old rag he found under the sink, she thought. God knew where he got his imagination from. The last original thought she had was painting the bathroom teal, and Gene's only creativity lay in avoiding child support.
"I gotta find it!" he said, stomping to the cheap kitchen cupboard.
"Don't start, Mitch," she said. A headache was creeping up from her neck.
"Help me find it!" he yelled. He pulled out all her pans in a clatter.
"Mitch!" She grabbed his arm. "Get dressed now. I'm not going to tell you again."
"I don't have to do what you say! Daddy says you're a bitch!"
His hand flew to his mouth. "Mommy..." he managed to say before bursting into tears.
"Shhh, it's okay, Hon, Mommy's not mad," she murmured as he cried in her arms.
"I didn't mean it," he sobbed. "I didn't."
Damn you, Gene, she thought. Her son's eyes were the same shade of blue as her ex-husband's.
"Let's look for the slice-bird for a bit, then I'll drive you to school?" she said, wiping his face with her shirt-tail.
Mitch sniffed. "Won't Mr. Short-stuff be mad?"
Katie smiled. Her manager, Mr. Shornstaff, barely came up to her shoulder, even in elevator shoes. Mitch had coined the name the day she brought him to work with her.
"Mr. Short-stuff will just have to wait," she said. "You can tell me a story on the way."
"How about the fairy princess who stole the prince's car for the afternoon..." He was still telling the story when she dropped him off. She went to work grinning, even through Short-stuff's expected tirade.
Her boyfriend Daniel called that evening.
"Don't," she said.
"Something came up. Why don't we try again on Saturday, when I get off work? We'll go to the zoo?"
"Mitch was crying all night because of you."
"I said I was sorry. Can I come over tonight?"
"You don't have a moral bone in your body, do you?"
"That's right, I'm incorrigible." His voice flattened into a perfect Daffy Duck impression, and she laughed despite herself. "I do have a moral bone, though. I'll show you later."
"Promises, promises," she whispered.
She cooked dinner, and he spent the night. She clawed his back when she came. Sleep had almost taken her when her adrenal gland came back.
It had grown, flattened into a triangle like a pale manta ray. A stiff beak protruded like a paring knife carved from bone. Sweetbread, she thought. Daniel snorted, rolled over onto her. His hand found her breast, squeezed. Don't, she thought. She didn't want to scare the sweetbread.
"I don't want to," she tried to say, but his mouth smothered the words. His hair hung in her face like a horse's mane. She tried to wiggle out from under, but he outweighed her by forty pounds. He wedged his knee between her thighs, prying them apart. His manhood bobbed against her.
The sweetbread flopped forward and drove its beak into his hand.
Daniel yelped, leaping like a drop of water in a skillet. She heard him cursing over the gurgle of water in the bathroom. She smiled at the sweetbread as it flew out the window.
Daniel was gone when she woke up, leaving dirty dishes in the sink and no note. She sighed, feeling like a blow-up doll. She cleaned up the kitchen and flipped the sheets off the bed.
A single drop of blood dotted the groundsheet. Daniel likes it rough, she thought. She had clawed his back. The rest was a dream. Forget about it. She dropped the sheets in the hamper.
Thursday night, Gene's Reliant pulled up to the curb. I won't lose my temper, Katie thought.
Gene got out of the car with a slight grunt. The rugged good looks that had gotten him into her panties behind the high-school bleachers still peeked through in places, although his football-hero frame had gained a few pounds around the fifty-yard line.
"Hi, Mitchy," he said, ignoring her. She hated that nickname, and he knew it.
Mitch grabbed his father's knee in a familiar hug. Gene grinned at her. His teeth were yellow from two packs a day.
"Hon, could you wait in Daddy's car?" she asked.
"Okay," Mitch said. "Can I honk the horn?"
"Not yet. I need to talk to Daddy for a sec."
"Sure you can, Mitchy. All you want."
"That was low," she said as Mitch ran to the car.
"I don't know what you're talking about, dear."
"By playing stupid mind games with my son, to get to me?"
"He's my son, too."
"He told me what you said."
"It's important for a boy to know his mother."
"I'm telling the judge next week."
"Funny, I was going to tell Judge Henders a few things myself. About your boytoy, for example."
Katie froze inside. "Mitch loves Daniel."
"I'm sure he does. In a lot of ways. Henders will see I'm protecting my son from harm."
"You try to take Mitch from me, and I'll kill you."
"Death threats, even. I'll have to tell Henders about this, of course. We can't have Mitch in an environment of physical danger. Have a good weekend."
The Reliant roared off. Mitch didn't wave back, engrossed in something Gene was showing him. Katie stood on the curb, hands clenched white. A fat grey bird burst from a hedge as she turned away.
That night, as she tossed alone in bed, two sweetbreads came to her, cool and soft. She hugged them to her chest like suede gloves. Their beaks didn't hurt at all. She awoke, remembering her date with Daniel.
Damn, she thought. She had to get Gene's permission to take Mitch on Saturday. She called, knowing he would rather chain Mitch to the stove than give him to her. Gene answered on the sixth ring.
A confused pause. "Katie, is that you?"
"Gene, are you drunk?"
"Did you want to talk to Mitch?"
"Actually, I wanted to know if I could have him on Saturday. We were going to the zoo." She gritted her teeth.
"What?" Katie shook her head.
"Sure, I don't mind."
"Gene, is everything okay?"
"I didn't sleep too well last night. The birds kept me awake. I loved you, you know."
Katie swallowed. "Can I talk to Mitch?"
The phone clicked. "Hi, Mommy!"
Katie smiled. "What's up, Tiger?"
"Daddy took me for ice cream, then we went to a movie and he bought me a Power Ranger jacket..."
"Mitch, I want you to tell me the truth now."
"Has Daddy been drinking?"
"No. Are you and Daddy fighting again?"
No, she thought, and that's what's bothering me. "We're just talking, Tiger. I'll see you Saturday. Daniel's taking us to the zoo."
"Hooray!" Mitch's scream nearly deafened her. She forgot about Gene until much later, when it was too late.
Saturday rolled around, with no Daniel. She drove to Gene's place with Mitch. Katie expected Gene to point out the tear-stains on Mitch's blanket, would have almost welcomed it, but Gene accepted the sleeping bundle without comment.
She drove thirty miles over the speed limit to Daniel's apartment. A girl answered the door, wearing a bathrobe that barely covered her buttocks.
"Are you Danny's mother?" the girl asked.
In the car, Katie beat the steering wheel until her fists bled. She didn't even notice the pale shapes that drifted into Daniel's window.
Sunday morning, she awoke from a beautiful dream to find Daniel sitting on her bed.
"Get out, or I'm calling the police."
"I love you," he said.
"I don't want you in my house. I don't want you near Mitch. You've hurt us enough."
"I know. I was going to dump you. I can't now."
"No, you can't. Because I'm kicking you out. You have three seconds."
"You don't get it. Caroline told me you showed up. I thought, 'Good.' Then I couldn't sleep. All I could think of was you. I started crying, honest to God. I haven't cried in years."
Katie didn't say anything. Daniel's face looked puffy, and his eyes were red.
"I need you. I never needed anyone this much. Please take me back. If I screw up, I swear I'll never bother you. Please." Horribly, his eyes watered. He looked fifty years old.
She touched his hand, and he jerked as if she'd burned him.
"One more chance," she said. "No more Caroline, no more blowing off Mitch."
"Thank you," he whispered as she pulled him down to her.
The sex was different this time, less insistent, a slow-burning fire instead of an explosion. Usually Daniel plowed full-steam ahead, leaving Katie to catch up. This time he waited for her, reacting to her every sigh and shiver. When he came, instead of rolling off her, he kissed her face, like a china doll.
As he slept, she trailed her fingers over his back. He has changed, she thought. She kissed his shoulder, then froze.
A smooth scar lay on his back, just over his kidney. If Caroline did that, she must have had railroad spikes for fingernails.
"Birds," he said, very clearly.
Despite the warm sun on her skin, Katie shivered. She got dressed for work without waking him.
Gene returned Mitch on Monday. Katie made sure her coffee mug was pointing towards him when she knocked it over.
In the laundry room, Gene asked, "Why did you leave me?"
She rubbed stain remover on his shirt and dropped it in the washer. "When I applied for school, you told the Financial Aid Office we didn't need any. I had to drop out after a semester. I tried to get my own checking account. You closed the account behind my back. The only time you left me alone was when I was pregnant."
"I loved you," he said.
"You controlled me," she said, hoping he would turn around.
"Is there any way we can make it work again?"
Gene sighed. His breath left him like a stone. "I'll be leaving town then."
Katie stared at him. "You can't."
"Without you, there's nothing here for me."
"You're not taking Mitch, you son of a bitch." Take me back, or I'll take your son. Bastard.
"I won't contest custody."
"Why not?" she heard herself say.
"Mitch loves you more than me. I've always known that. Just... don't hate me anymore."
"I don't hate you," she said. It was simpler than the truth. She accepted his hug without struggling. Her fingers traced the scar over his kidney.
When he left, Katie sat carefully, remembering her sweet dream. Three sweetbreads had cuddled her, stroking her hair with their beaks, soothing her hurt under their wings.
The birds keep me awake.
"Mommy, did you find them?"
"The slice-birds. They miss me." He tugged the cushions off the couch.
"Honey, don't!" she shouted.
"Why not?" he demanded. "They're mine!"
She thought of the scars. "They might be dangerous. I want you to leave them alone."
"You just don't want me to have them!" He threw a cushion at her. Dust poked at her eyes.
She grabbed him by the shoulders. "Go to your room. We'll talk when you've grown up a little."
"I hate you!"
"I'm giving you three seconds. One."
"You're a shitty mother!"
"You don't love me!"
"I want to live with Daddy!"
She slapped him.
His eyes went round. Katie could see her fingers red on his cheek. Without a sound he ran to his room. The door clicked softly shut. She nearly made it to the bathroom before vomiting.
That night, the sweetbreads covered her face. She couldn't breathe. "I'm sorry," she tried to say, but her mouth filled with warm skin.
She jerked awake. Something tickled her nose. Feathers drifted from a slash in her pillow. The edges were clean, as if cut by a scalpel.
Something came out of her that first night, born of anger and hurt. It cuts the vital spark out of anyone who threatens her. Gene tries to take Mitch, Daniel sleeps around on her. Now, they're docile.
A great weight rolled away, leaving her light enough to float out the window. Her life would no longer be a list of men who use and cast her away like a whore. She and Mitch were safe forever. No one could ever hurt them again.
She took her time dressing. Mr. Short-stuff would understand. And if he didn't, he might find himself a little under the weather tomorrow. She knocked on Mitch's door. "Rise-and-shine, Tiger!" she said.
Silence came through the door.
"Honey, I'm sorry. I was wrong." That was the funny part. The slice-birds would never touch them. They were hers to control.
"Hon?" She opened the door.
Mitch sat on the edge of his bed. His eyes were dusty glass in the dark. A silver thread of saliva lolled from his open mouth. Something pale flopped under the bed. For some reason, it looked too small.
Her foot crushed a glass snowglobe. Blood flowed unnoticed. He has the chicken-pox, she thought numbly. Mitch catches all kinds of diseases. It's part of being an active, healthy boy. He probably has them all over his back. She'd better check. It's what a good mother would do.
"Tell Mommy a story," she whispered as she lifted his shirt.