Marla gets up early and opens the door to Gavin’s room a crack, excited at how easy everything feels now that he’s here. She wishes she’d invited him sooner because he’s clearly missed her loads. He’s asleep, a hairy foot outside the blankets. Marla should leave, walk out before he wakes up, but she doesn’t.
The few pictures he’s sent haven’t done him justice: first, he’s huge, and his face has broadened since she saw him years ago, with a wide, low-slung mouth. His loose hair is long, past his shoulders. She can see glimpses of his six-pack in the mashed-up blankets, the way his waist tapers below his ribs. Gavin’s body is that of a track star, she thinks, all muscles and precision power. He has giant quads.
She opens the door further to find Dani reading the scrapbook Marla made Gavin when he was a little boy. The spine is duct-taped, and the pages are falling out. She hisses at Dani. “Are you snooping? Get out!”
Dani thinks about it. She speaks in her regular voice. “Nope. I got here first.”
Marla giggles. “We shouldn’t be here.”
Dani shrugs and points at Gavin. He sleeps with his mouth slightly open.
So, Marla looks around. Gavin’s clothes are folded at the foot of his bed like he’s in the army or something. Discount jeans that aren’t terribly flattering, and an oversized plain T-shirt. Marla digs in his bag to see what else he brought: notepads, running clothes, more silly jeans and super tight underwear. And a fabric-covered book with ‘A Handbook for Beautiful People’ on the cover in someone else’s writing. She opens it and reads:
“Today bohemian waxwings at park. Bobbing plump bodies, peck rotten apple on snow. Yellow tail feathers, black curve around eyes—terribly fem, old women with fur coats. Noticed me—jerked heads. One open beak for sing.
Want hear my voice. Practice mirror, mouth open, sounds fall, splash in sink. No one hear.”
Gavin farts in his sleep and wakes himself. Marla drops the handbook, but he has seen her reading it.
He rises, alarmed, holding the blanket around his bare torso with one hand. On his notepad, he writes, SOMETHING WRONG? I LATE?
Marla scrambles to give Gavin his handbook. “Sorry, I didn’t realize it was your journal.”
He holds it to his chest and combs his hair with his fingers, his eyes darting to Dani. WHAT U THINK IT BE?
Marla didn’t want to make him embarrassed. She hates herself, but just a bit, because she refuses to think she’s like all those other people who have taken advantage of his disability. How else will she ever know if there’s stuff he’s not telling her? She wants to apologize, but Dani interrupts.
“Let me see that.” Dani slips the handbook out of Gavin’s fingers and skims a few pages. The softness in Dani’s voice is unexpected. That’s the voice she reserves for Marla .
Gavin shifts his weight from one foot to the other, glancing down at his plaid pyjama pants. NOT ALL DARK, he writes.
Dani nods. “I really like the idea. Romantic.” She’s over-enunciating her words, making these huge mouth shapes.
“Dani, he’s not stupid, he’s just deaf,” Marla says, but Dani ignores her. She’s pressing her hand over a page of writing, drawing an outline, watching Gavin’s face.
Marla grabs the handbook away from Dani and points to the cover. “This isn’t your writing,” Marla says, not sure when Dani and Gavin became so close.
FOUND IT BUS.
“What is it?”
Gavin smiles. WAITED WEEK TO OPEN. PUT POSTERS: FOUND, HANDBOOK. NO RESPONSE.
He shrugs. EMPTY.
Marla flips through. “Really? Even with that title?” The covers are worn and soft. Someone must have carried it for a long time. All that time without writing anything.
I USE NOW.
“What do you write?” Dani asks.
MY LIFE. IT AS ALMANAC. HOW I RIPE TO CHANGE WHEN MOST RELATEABLE TO SEASON.
“Wow,” Marla says, trying not to be sarcastic, because he is her brother even though he uses words like almanac. “How does it work?” OBSERVE NATURAL. RELATE TO SELF. TRY BE BETTER, MORE IN HARMONY.
YEAH. Gavin hesitates. YOU CAN USE IT TOO, IF YOU WANT.
Marla imagines Dani crushing pills on it, or using it as a pizza plate while she digs for the remote. Dani and Gavin are staring at each other, and Marla feels weird about it. He’s Marla’s little brother, a boy she has always looked after, not some man with hairy legs and huge farts.
She waves her hand in front of her brother’s face, a plan materializing as she speaks. “Get dressed. We have all day before you get to meet Liam for Christmas dinner. We’re going out.”
“Come back after so we can party.” Dani smiles at Gavin. “You too. It’s my birthday tomorrow.”
“Yep. Just like J.C.”
Marla pushes Dani out the door so Gavin can get dressed, but not before she catches them sharing something she didn’t know either was capable of unless it was about her. A feeling, she thinks: a big one.