Mike Westover is dead, but his name still has power.
Michelle shuts her apartment door, locks it, and takes a deep breath in the quiet of the dark kitchen. She slips out of her heels and secures them in their cubbyhole, then sheds her coat and hangs it on the wall, hands still shaking.
Lights on, the apartment is spic-and-span, but comfortable. One year ago, before the hormones and electrolysis, before the name and gender changes, before she had shed every clinging scale of the old self, the place had been radically different: mismatching, messy, uncertain. The habitat of something not quite human.
She hadn’t felt human in those days. She’d felt grotesque, as if she were squeezed inside a maze-like skin that could be molted only with a very complex pattern of wriggling.
I should have moved as well, she thinks. Should have. Should have. Her address was the one tag of her former life that has remained constant. Well, there’s still time for that. But for now, no trace of the place’s old self remains.
The voice of the police officer, Officer Lynch. Scott Lynch in some former life, the pimple-faced, tuba-playing, class clown.
Michelle had smiled tightly into the flashlight beam. “Hi Scott.” Then added, “Or should I call you Officer Lynch now?” Hoping he would take the hint.
She connects to her stereo and plays Mazzy Star’s She Hangs Brightly. The music is a salve.
Officer Lynch hadn’t taken the hint. A taillight out. That’s why she’d been pulled over. She’d had two martinis (three counting the spilled one) at The Speakeasy with a blind date that made exaggerated (martini-spilling) gestures, but Officer Lynch had been more interested in an innocent catch-up with his high school class of ’01 classmate, than her sobriety. Had likely already heard rumors. Hadn’t meant anything by it, she thinks. Yet throughout the encounter “Mike” had cropped up again and again.
Each time she had felt a bubbling up inside her. Not anger at Scott (Officer) Lynch, but the sensation of how she had felt for the past thirty years of her life, before Mike had been buried. A sluggishness, like her body had been coated in a heavy slime.
As she puts on the kettle, she can still hear the tone of incredulity, can see the rain dripping off the brim of Scott’s hat, glinting blue in the police lights.
Her tea preparations aren’t as smooth as in normal circumstances. She goes to the cupboard multiple times, changes her mind about the mug, decides for and then against milk. The kettle rattles.
No longer a question.
The blue indicator flips off.
She pours the steaming water over the tea bag, then notices the mug on the counter expelling steam. Chipped, the ceramic faded, a souvenir from a trip to Niagara Falls she had taken with an ex-girlfriend ten years ago. In her attempts for a clean slate, Michelle had donated or trashed almost everything from Mike’s life.
Including this mug.
And yet ….
She carries the tea into the living room, then stops at the threshold. Here, superimposed over her life, grows the castoff skin. The faux leather couch bulging out of the cream-colored fabric of her loveseat, red paint bleeding through the slate-gray walls. The glass of her current coffee table has married with the dark mahogany of Mike Westover’s, creating a strange translucent creature of wood. The lightbulbs of the floor lamp flicker between the bronze light of the Edison bulb to the LCDs Mike used to buy.
Everything is still. The thrash of the rain, the traffic from the distant interstate, the ticking of an analog clock she had boxed and brought to Goodwill several years ago.
Seated on the growing couch is an empty skin wearing jeans and collared shirt — the uniform of an IT worker. Its gaping mouth and eyes are black holes.
“Have a seat,” the skin of Mike says. “We have to talk.”
Michelle does not comply so much as fall forward into the room as if the floor had tilted beneath her.
Someone drugged my martini, she thinks.
“Drink up, Michelle.”
The thing moves its arms to pantomime the action of drinking, and Michelle’s body, as if attached to strings, follows suit, spilling a little onto her dress. Scalds her lips and tongue.
“Wh-what do we have to talk about?”
“I’m back. Needless to say.” The skin’s lips never move, the eyes never blink. The voice echoes from somewhere deep inside.
“Please, Mike. You’re going to have to leave.”
“You had no right. To discard me the way you did.”
“But-but … we’re the same person.”
“And yet you get to live on without me. No, Michelle. I need blood and bone and viscera, and we both know only one person in this world is a match — even if we don’t agree about… everything. So drink.” The thing puppeteers Michelle to have another sip.
The mug appears to have grown in Michelle’s hands: a giant bowl of Earl Grey.
“I think I’ve had enough,” Michelle whispers. The mug has grown too heavy for her to hold onto, and she drops it onto the floor, as she herself shrinks down into the folds of her dress. She struggles to climb free of the endless, smooth folds of glittery blue. Panicking, sure she will drown here in this sea of fabric, she is suddenly lifted free and is soaring through the living room, which had become an enormous universe, now fully Mike Westover’s — every inch of Michelle having been consumed beneath the regrowth.
“I just have to keep going,” the Mike-skin says, dangling the tiny body of Michelle over the gaping black mouth. “Nothing personal. Purely instinctual.”
I’m not in my right mind, she thinks, plummeting into the darkness.
I’m not myself.
Tim Boiteau is a Writers of the Future winner and is the author of The Drummer Girl, a dark fantasy novel. He lives in Michigan and is currently finishing up his second novel.