(That other Thanksgiving where Mal drags Alex home.)
Mal rents a car to get us to the mountains. It’s not a pleasant drive. Mal spends most of it cruising twenty miles an hour over the speed limit. I can’t even complain. This is probably a stroll by his standards and the one time I mentioned something, the speedometer spiked again. It’s a small miracle we don’t get pulled over by the cops. By contrast, as soon as we hit the town, Mal starts dragging his feet.
Mal’s mom kicked him out soon after he’d been expelled from school. I don’t have all the details, but my guess is there were compounding factors. The town’s small. Maybe twenty families total. It’s hard to imagine Mal growing up in a place like this. Brain his size, he’d be a big fish even if the pond was the size of the ocean. Even so, he’s hugging his arms to his chest, squinting at the corner shop.
“Quick Stop,” I read, raising an eyebrow. “A little on the obvious side.”
“I changed my mind,” Mal mutters. “I’m going to run back to the District.”
I catch him before he bolts. “No way in hell do you run off and leave me here. I hear banjo music in the distance.”
“I like banjo music,” Mal snaps.
Guessed that much after two hours in the car. Mal’s sole requirement for music is that it’s up-tempo. Banjos played at breakneck speed are his favorite. “Looks like the shop’s closed,” I say, trying to change the subject. “Come on, you said she knows you’re coming. There’s probably food.”
Mal’s stomach growls on cue. He scowls down at it like it’s betrayed him. He sets off into town at a pace so fast I need to jog to keep up. He eventually comes to a rest in front of an honest to god Log cabin, smoke curling up through a brick chimney. Mal bounces on his toes in front of the door, glaring at it like it’s about to bite him. I reach past his shoulder and knock for him.
A few seconds later, the door opened wide. “Malcolm,” the woman says.
“Mama Q,” Mal returns.
They stared at each other for a moment and then Mama Q wraps him up in a hug. They couldn’t have looked more different, Mal’s slight build against her sturdy one. Pale skin against dark. I clear my throat. “So, you’re adopted then.”
Mal pulls back from the hug, hiding his smile. “Nah, can’t you tell flesh and blood?”
“Table the sarcasm, boy. I did all the work on you. I sure as hell deserve the credit. Now introduce me to your guest.”
“Ma, Alex. Alex, Ma.”
“Ms. Quick,” I say, reaching out to shake her hand.
A smile curled up her lips. “Oh, you are absolutely not what I was expecting.”
I can see red sweeping up Mal’s neck at her words. This might turn out to be fun after all.
Mal’s drafted to help with the dinner prep. As a guest, I’m not allowed. Instead, I hover at the kitchen door, watching the two of them circle each other, speaking in oddly polite bursts as Mal dices veggies. “Pork, this year?” Mal asks, looking at the meat.
“Dale Tucker had one of his hogs slaughtered a few days back. We worked us out a deal.”
“Ma works the barter system half the time,” Mal calls to as he starts slicing a pepper. “Only folks she charges full prices are the kids looking for a trail head. And me.”
His accent is slipping through the edges of his voice. It usual only escapes when he’s been drinking, a
perceived weakness carefully hidden. I lean forward, resting my elbows on the counter. “Aw, Malcolm,
you don’t really strike me as the hiking type.”
Mal sputters. Mama Q snickers. “Friend’s got you pegged. Malcolm only went to the woods when he was about to blow something up.”
“No one proved any of that,” Mal whines.”Ain’t like anyone got hurt.”
“You hear him, Alex? That’s good as an admission.”
Dinner is different from my usual Thanksgiving. Pork instead of turkey. Cornbread. Baked Macaroni and cheese. A huge scoop of what looks like a cross between rice and gravy that I poke at with a spoon until Mal steals the bowl from me instead.
After the meal, Mal begs off to his own for a few moments and I’m left sipping hot cider in front of the fire with Mal’s adoptive mother, hating every inch of my life. She sips her drink slowly, head tilted as if waiting for an explosion from outside. When she doesn’t hear it, she shakes her head and turns to me. “How’s he doing?”
“Mal?” I shrug. Never quite sure what I’m supposed to say in situations like this. It’s not like Dodger ever asks me to cover for his secret identity. “He’s here isn’t he?”
“Been trying to figure if that makes it better or worse. And well, I reckon that depends on you.”
She takes a long sip of cider. “Mal never had many friends. Or… any friends. Side effect of being a skinny asshole with a big brain and a bigger mouth.”
It’s not a flattering picture, but it’s also not inaccurate. “Seems like he came by it honest.”
The drink pauses halfway to her mouth.
I hadn’t meant to say that out loud. I close my eyes, like that will somehow save me from the inevitable
explosion, but Mama Q just laughs. “Good. I was starting to worried you didn’t have any bite to you at all.”
“Think I could keep up with Mal if I didn’t?”
“I wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t kidnapped you,” Mama Q says mildly. “You do know he’s Malevolence, right?”
I choke on my drink. “What?”
“Malevolence. Saw one of the fights on the internet. I can recognize my own boy anywhere. The spandex
does not flatter him.”
“A supervillain,” she says. “I threatened to kick him out plenty of times when he was knee high, but I will not aid and abet.”
I squeeze my eyes shut. “Ms. Quick… why would you think I’d know any of this?”
“Because he brought you here. And Malcolm’s not the type to suffer fools. If he didn’t tell you, you fixed
it out yourself.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Why’d you invite him back if you were so against Malevolence?”
“Mal announced his coming back. Boy never saw much use in asking permission.” Mama Q leaned back on the couch, smiling fondly. “Pictures on the news made it look like he could use a decent meal. Besides, I missed the rascal. He were a handful, but town was more interesting with him here.”
“District wouldn’t be the same without him,” I concede.
“You actually like him don’t you?” She looks me up and down. “You know when he said he was bringing Alex, I’d expected a girl.”
Mama Q chuckles. “You’re honestly better than I could have hoped for. He adores you.”
I duck my head tracing the rim of the cup with a finger. “I’m pretty fond of him myself. I honestly don’t know if I’d still be here without him.”
“Sounds like y’all are good for each other. I just need to know one thing.” There’s a loud crash outside followed by a string of cursing. Mama Q presses her eyes shut. “He didn’t steal that car outside, did he?
“Of course not!” I reply automatically.
He rented it. Because twenty-one year old Malcolm Quick whose cruising speed is just over two hundred miles an hour totally has a valid license to use to rent cars.
Mal pokes his head through the door. “Interesting side-note. I was wrong. Don’t think I’m going to install flight capabilities.”
…he definitely stole the car.
(Enjoy the holidays everyone. May your travels be swift, your families be... sane, and your turkey be awesome.)