Benny's Birdcage

She'd been painting him again. The story of her late Tuesday night was written in half-finished drafts and muted pools of grey and blue.

Von herself was curled by the only complete piece, the side of her face surrounded by clouding colours. The tip of her thumb rested against her teeth, shiny with the salty damp of her mouth. She was all arms and legs and delicate misery. Suffering made her brilliant.


Eyelids flapped and struggled over the surface of her eyeballs.


He licked his finger and rubbed at the black and blue smudges on her cheeks. Beneath his thumb, Von flinched and twisted, but let him.

"You've been crying yourself to sleep again."

She nodded, swallowed. "I'm a defective artist."

He picked up the complete painting, peered at it, and smiled. When he narrowed his eyes and squinted, he could almost forget it was him, and then he could accept that it was close to perfect.

"You're not a defective artist."

Benny rose and picked his way over to the kitchen, stuck the kettle on and waited for it to boil. Named countries as he waited. He could usually reach two hundred when he ran through them alphabetically. Afghanistan to…

She stood in the doorway, hair sticking up on one side, face still smudged with paint. Her hands twisted in the sleeves of her jumper, then fumbled at the droop of her mouth.

"If I'm not a defective artist, I'm a defective person and that's worse. I can't sell. No one will take anything. It might be a charisma problem. I can't make people like me. Defective."

"Right," he said, stuck on Kiribati. He glanced at the pictures of dead presidents on her fridge, wondered at the mind that wanted to collect them there. On top of the fridge, stale cupcakes festered, made lovingly, but never eaten. "No, Von, you're perfect."

"I'm going out," she said, running her fingers through the frizz of her blonde hair, looking down at the sandstone floor with her eyes heavy and hooded. A black smudge at the corner of her mouth was in the exact shape of Germany. He imagined microscopic people living there, germy happiness and misery and life and death.

"You have…" He moved his hand up to his own face.

She shrugged, shuffled away, and the kettle boiled as the door closed behind her. She left a mellow little feeling behind her. He drowned it with coffee.

He'd met her at Starbucks, had been reading and drinking and minding his own business when he'd noticed the small blonde woman gazing at his table. He looked over his shoulder, looked back at her, then smiled nervously.

She blushed, then waved a little. And then she stood up. Awkward. He dog-eared his page with some sort of puny, moody satisfaction.

"What do you think of it?" she asked.

"What?" He looked down at his coffee. "Generic," he muttered. "Black. Why?"

But she was smirking. "Not the coffee, the painting."

"Oh." He looked up and saw the blue beach scene he was sitting under. It was bright, pretty, saccharine. "It's…sweet."

"You didn't even notice it."

"Was I supposed to?"

"It's awful. I hate it."

"Oh." He looked down at his coffee. So yes. Awkward.

"It's mine. I'm Veronica Ashley. This is the one thing I've ever sold and I hate it. Isn't that funny?"

He sipped slowly, glanced up at her and wondered if she was in a bad mood, or if she was always like this. Did she just wait around, sitting pretty to interrogate every poor sucker who sat beneath the little beach scene? Maybe she did it for fun. Hate as a hobby. The idea made him like her more; he was a person full of diffuse and fleeting emotions, and hate was something definite.

"I'm Benny," he said.

"I'm…" She pointed at the painting again, at the name scribbled across the bottom of it.

"Veronica," he said. "Yes."


He finished his coffee, crushed the cup and exhaled. She gave him a waspish smile and pulled up a chair.

Being in Von's flat without her there was a strange, quiet little existence. Her television played an endless stream of daytime shit, and he vegetated in front of it, sweating into the clothes he'd slept in. After three hours, he called work, played at sick.

He wanted to tell them that he had two months to live – that he was dying quickly, filled with a pain so much bigger than himself. And they'd remember him laughing and making small talk around the water cooler yesterday and they would gape at his audacity for lying so big. He longed for them to scream at him, to fire him right now. And he would ask for a reference, just for fun, just in case the nameless killer disease subsided.

It wasn't even that he hated his job; he had loved it once, had spoken articulately to other men in suits, and convinced them to buy this, buy that. Some part of him had believed he was shaping the economy in his own tiny way, and he had enjoyed spending his salary on a rented flat in Greenwich. But then his self had settled and slowed down, and now he didn't care about success as much as he cared for tying things up and ending them. He would whittle his life down, piece by piece, until there was nothing left but him.

"I'm so sick," he whimpered down the phone. "Food poisoning."

The secretary sounded nervous. "Ben, I hate to ask, but this is the third sick day in two weeks. You're not looking for work elsewhere, are you?"

He laughed, licked his lips, tried his best to remember her name, but couldn't.

"Not exactly. What are you doing for lunch? Do you want to get…crepes or something? I could cook for you. We've never talked properly before. I think that should be rectified."

"Cook? With your food poisoning?"


There was a long pause.

"I'm an excellent cook," he said, as if it mattered. Down the other end of the phone, he could hear her breathing. Soft and quick; it told him everything. "So come over, if you feel like it."

He gave her Von's address, then hung up.

Better clean up, crunch up and emulsify and arrange the filth of Von's imperfect life. By his feet, a painted Benny reclined on a painted sofa, looking serene. Sometimes he wondered if Von could see inside him, and painted him deliberately in miserable tones. Now, he doubted it. He wasn't serene; he was empty. If she couldn't see that yet, she would soon.

He reached down to the picture, scratched at its face, collecting sky-blue beneath his fingernails. The painting was better like that, and he was sure she could've sold it if she really wanted to.

He whisked pancake mix as the secretary waited in the lounge. He didn't even really remember what she looked like. Was she tall? Young? Pretty?

Why was he even thinking of these things that clearly didn't matter? Frustrating, really, and he remembered his mum's face smiling at the nice new Veronica-girl he'd settled down with. And would there be a wedding soon? Kids? He hadn't spoken to the woman for four years, but still, here she was, looking at him all disapproving.

He slammed the half-cooked pancakes down into the sink. White curls of fat grew in the cold, pale brown water; a coral reef of could-have-been. Von would maybe ask him about it when she came back (whenever that would be), but probably wouldn't. She didn't really ask so many questions anymore; sometimes she could be as numb as he was.

The secretary was flicking through TV channels.

"Your flat's strange," she said.

He looked around, focussing on the various paintings of gore hung up on the walls – Von's favourites were always the ones with guts in them. Personally, he preferred the beach scene in Starbucks.

Still. "Thank you."

"Are you okay?" she asked. "Rich's worried about you being so ill all the time. He thinks AGC are stealing you away. They're not, are they?"

He shook his head. "No."

She settled on the channel he'd been watching anyway. All those channel-hops, just to return to nil. "You just…what…got lazy?"

He yawned, smiled. "Sort of. More wine?"

She looked down at her empty glass. "I should get back," she said, standing up. "I can't exactly be drunk at work, can I?" But she looked at him a little like she was asking for permission.

"Stinking drunk," he said, grinning. "Roll in stinking of sex and alcohol for the sake of it. Walk funny. See how they look at you then. See what Rich thinks."

Benny had done this very thing several times before, but she clearly hadn't noticed because her eyes widened as if the concept was entirely new. But she smiled and he wondered if self-destruction was contagious as well as addictive. If he crawled out of Von's bedroom window and jumped, would the secretary follow him? Would Von?

"I told Rich I was meeting a girlfriend," the secretary admitted.

"You lied to your boss?"


He smiled and kissed her, slowly exploring the strange new mouth, forgetting the girl it belonged to as soon as he closed his eyes.

Guiding girls into Von's bed was always easier than he expected it to be. He wasn't deep or interesting (he found it difficult to hold conversations that lasted longer than fifteen minutes – even with Von), and, although he'd once gone to the gym twice a week, his body was thin, rather than lean; just a soft collection of fat and skin, set around bones.

Perhaps sex with strange girls was easy for anyone who tried it – it was just something that most people were afraid of.

The secretary was slightly tipsy, and she was soft and sweet and agile. Although her face and body were mostly unremarkable, he pretended to be fascinated with the oddities of it – the mole on her chest, the great soft mass of her breasts. And he lasted long enough for it to be not completely embarrassing, and she at least had the grace to pretend to climax. He lay beside her, looking up at the ceiling.

"I have two months to live," he whispered. "Maybe less."

She slid out of bed and redressed, pushing her sweaty hair back from her face. "We should do this more often," she said, looking over her shoulder.

"You want to form relations with a dead person?"

She gave him an odd look, gathered the rest of her clothes around herself, and left.

He sighed, and looked out of Von's big windows. The sky seemed so close in this big grey bedroom, like they were living among the clouds. On foggy days, he told Von that they were. Would she smell the secretary's perfume when they slept together tonight? Would she curl up in the stink of her body, smell sex, and feel her own little forbidden arousal? Would she kiss him or kill him after that?

He washed, shaved and put on some clean clothes. Then, he shuffled into the lounge again to remove evidence of the secretary.

But although the secretary had gone, and Von wasn't back, the lounge wasn't empty. A large, grey shape was careering around the room, bouncing off of walls, filling the flat with the sick sound of whistling feathers. Benny felt his tongue swell at the thought of them, and he cried out at the thing, attempting to usher it over to the open window, without getting his eyes clawed out in the process.

The bird settled as soon as he yelled at it. It perched on the back of Von's couch, tilted its head, and looked at him inquisitively.

It was a grey parrot. Someone's pet, probably. And it was pushing out shit from the space beneath its tail – white streams mixed with black – a pretty little Jackson Pollock impression on Von's magnolia carpet. He picked up the bottle of red wine and downed a few gulps of it, enjoying the way it mussed his mind.

"Who are you?" he asked the parrot. "You talk?"

If it knew how to talk, it didn't show it off. The parrot simply took off and landed itself on his shoulder. It was surprisingly heavy, and he became acutely aware that he held an entire life on his back. A little grey dinosaur, pecking at his ear, scratching at his skin.

"You belong to someone?"

He walked over to the window, angled his shoulder, and pushed the damn creature out.

Claws bit into his skin, and he yelped.

"Fuck off!"

But the parrot flew back to the sofa, and tilted its head at him again.

"So, what? You got the chance to fly around the world, and you just want to stay here?"

He gulped wine again, and realised that he couldn't exactly criticise the parrot for feeling that way. He closed the window slowly, then glared at the animal and tried to be logical instead of…weirdly sympathetic. He peeled off his jacket, his shirt, and ran fingers over the bleeding little holes in his shoulder. Best not to clean them; if they went septic, his body would start destroying itself, and that would be interesting.

"You must have a reward on your head, right?"

Like he cared about money. All he really wanted to do right now was to get hopelessly drunk or hopelessly mind-fucked, and maybe copulate away with another meaningless nobody.

But now he was a bird-sitter or something.

It was dark when Von returned. On a whim, he'd cooked for her, set out a meal on a white tablecloth decorated with knives and forks and the rest of the red wine. He'd lit candles. The parrot had watched.

"The fuck is that?" she asked, glaring at the bird.

"A parrot," he said sweetly.

"It pooped on my carpet."

"I made steak."

"I'm a vegetarian."

"Since when?"

"Since forever."

His lack of thought actually surprised him for a moment. But she must've been lying, must've been messing with his head, just fucking with him. There were times he could almost think of her eating fish, chicken, lamb… Hadn't she tried guinea pig when they went to Peru? Hadn't she?

Worried, he realised that all of his memories of her eating were about as consistent as his memory of the secretary's face. Maybe she hardly ever ate. She was painfully thin, certainly – a waifish little blonde thing in a purple dress.

"Should I be worried about you?" she asked him.

He wondered if he should be worried about himself, then looked at the parrot and felt a little better.

"It won't leave," he muttered. "It's a bird, but it prefers it here. What do you think about that?"

"It shat on my carpet."

"You said that already." And he wasn't sure what else to say. "So… What have you been doing all day?"

"My job." She glared down at the steak he'd fried for her. Medium rare – he'd thought it was her favourite. It was her favourite. If she was vegetarian, why was it even in the house? Surely not just for – not just for him.

"You don't have a –"

"And what have you been doing all day, Benny?" she asked, suddenly sweet, suddenly the most interested person the world had ever known.

"Thinking. You know, my mum always thought we should get married. What do you think about that?"

She didn't reply. Just shovelled food into her face, avoiding the steak like it was ricin-enriched and not very tasty.

"How old are we now? Twenty four?"

She nodded. "Oh, aren't you drunk!"

"I am," he said, because it was true. "But not very drunk."

"Drinking alone…"

"No." A pause. "With a parrot."

She snorted.

He wasn't sure if she noticed the smell of the secretary or not. She curled up in her usual way and whimpered softly as the night closed in on them. Was he the reason she cried? It was a nice idea, but how could he be, when they barely even saw each other anymore?

He touched her hip, felt her roll over, heard her sigh.

"I love you," he told her.

He relished every strained second of silence, pulled the moment out in his head, made it taut. His emotional core quivered as she sobbed, and he…felt something. Something real and sad and frightened. It was good, fresh, healthy.

But then, "I love you too, Benny."

And the world was his to fuck with again.

He'd taken to cruising the internet to buy shit he didn't need with money he barely had. It had been a few months now of little packages arriving at work, filled with t-shirts or video games or porn, and he would eagerly await each one, obsessing over tracking information, counting down days.

There would be no more packages at work because there would be no more work, but home packages would be just as exciting.

He'd given up on subtlety, and had called work to inform them that he was dying of ebola. He described the details of his fever, his worries about the future, his misery that he'd never have kids.

They'd told him to call back tomorrow, see how he felt then.

"Well…I might be dead."

"See how you feel, Benny."

So they didn't believe the ebola, but the woman had sounded sympathetic rather than pissed off. As he browsed Amazon, he wondered vaguely what she did think was up with him. Münchausen's? Hypochondria? Depression, even. Something wrong and abnormal, rather than something true.

The parrot watched him, tilting its head. It had peppered Von's flat with shit and feathers in the night. There were bald patches on its chest now. A stress thing, he thought.

"Well, if you don't like it here, you know where to go."

But the parrot clearly didn't want to leave. Benny had marks on his hands, arms and shoulders now that proved that. The parrot liked in here more than out there.

And so, he switched from Amazon to Gumtree, and searched for birdcages, sending messages from his brain to his fingers, which were not the fingers of a sick person.


And he found a cage, found a phone number, put on a pathetic voice and called it.

"See the problem is I'm agorophobic," he said. "I don't suppose you could bring it over here? I'll pay extra for delivery."

The woman at the other end of the phone seemed agreeable enough. "Oh wow. Okay. When do you want it?"

"As soon as possible, please. I'm having a bird situation."

"Okay. I'll be over in a couple of hours."

He smiled brightly at the bird and hung up, then returned to looking up less sensible, more destructive purchases. Engagement rings and suchlike. Because that would be a trap he'd love to strangle himself with.

The birdcage arrived in the arms of a woman arriving in a dress covered in roses. Her breasts were pressed into it, and Benny thought about a story he'd heard once about Chinese methods of torture – about wrapping people in nets or something, and cutting off the bits that popped through.

Her first words were a little offensive.

"My husband's waiting in the car."

And his first words were quick little lies, uncontrolled, and unhelpful.

"But I was so looking forward to raping and killing you."

She frowned, backed away a little.

"Sorry." And he remembered that he was only dressed in his underwear, which was awkward. "Oh. Yeah. I…" He took the cage off of her, dumped it by Von's trainer collection. "Hold on, let me get your money."

Von had a weed and takeaway fund hidden beneath the sofa. He figured he was probably doing her a favour by shrinking it a little, and had been doing so for the past couple of months. He'd used it to experiment in class As, bought a new tie, and had a nice little prostitute over to watch the news and drink tea.

Now, he was buying a cage, and his cheeks ached with…smiling. And he felt a belated burst of happiness that was so pure that it caught him off guard.

And he was in love. He loved Von, he loved the bird, he loved the cage and the strange, middle-aged woman whose husband was waiting in the car.

He paid her, grinned, and felt nothing when she left. There was no regret about a missed-out fuck in Von's bed; there was no need to piss off his girlfriend to feel something today.

The parrot regarded him as he returned to Von's lounge.

"Got you a present," Benny said. "You'll like it."

The parrot stretched its wings, clicked its beak, looked beadily at the cage in Benny's hands, and flapped over towards it.

"Knew you would."

He opened the cage door, and the bird quickly pressed itself into the metre-cubed space that would confine it quite nicely. When Benny shut the cage door, he felt the bird's pleasure all over him. The bird preferred the cage. It could have gone anywhere in the world, but it chose a little metallic cube. It chose restraint, control, rules.

It made him a little breathless. Could he fit inside there? Would the bars cut squares into his skin? And how long could he stay in there before his bones twisted?

He saw himself hobbling around Von's flat, red lines in his skin, clothes creased into his body. What would she think? Would she paint him like that? All curled up and mutilated?

So Benny clambered in, and the bird let him, shifting away, scrabbling. Cool feathers brushed against his skin, oily, grey and half-hard. It was a strange sort of feeling, but not an unpleasant one, and there was a fondness for the bird now that hadn't been there before. Touching the bird was a greeting, and handshake, an understanding. And, with his knees up around his face, Benny forced the cage door shut on them both so that they shared space.

Down by his hip, the bird shuffled. And there was a sharp little pain in his leg as the bird pecked at it. Yellow eyes fixed on his, and, neck bent, jaw aching, Ben sniggered.

What was he doing?

The bird pecked his leg again.

"And you. You don't even talk. What sort of a parrot are you? Glorified bloody pigeon, if you ask me."

Another hard peck, the shift of feathers against him. Benny thought of eggs, of this creature curled up within one. To grow within walls until they broke, to develop within such constraint… The womb seemed so soft and flexible in comparison, so accommodating. Envy sank deep into his chest, nibbled at his lungs, but he only admired the bird for it. His fingers crawled over to its body, stroked its neck. And it was so wonderful to feel so connected to something so fundamentally different to himself – something not even mammalian.

He sighed and clambered out of the cage. The bird looked so small and lonely and disappointed inside it, and it shuffled up to the bars until its body pressed against them. Benny was compelled to apologise, and wonder pointlessly at what the bird had wanted. And he choked up a little at how damn hurt the thing looked.

And then he went and spent all of the money he owned on a bloody damn engagement ring.

"I want to paint you again," Von said. "Do you mind? I want to paint you in red this time." She eyed the painting above her television; a corpse covered in bruises and blood; some woman with a broken neck, but a mouth bent on screaming. "I want to paint you like that. I want to paint you dead. What do you think of that, Benjamin?"

He poured her some more wine, watched her drink it. He loved the way she drank the red, like she was supping blood. His little blonde vampire, his sweet, dark darling.

"You know I've always loved your paintings," he told her.

She drank some more, stumbled over to her easel, picked up her paints and mixed reds wildly. She had come home drunk, and seemed happy to get drunker.

"People've been saying things about you, Benny. Saying you've been sleeping around."

"Who's been saying that?" he asked innocently, although some part of him was a little amused at having a bad reputation; bars were there to be bashed against.

She glared at him. "Fuck you. People." And she gestured at the bird. "And that thing's not staying. Find its owner. Get rid of it. If it's not gone tomorrow, I'll strangle the damn thing."

He moved over to her, wrapped his arms around her stomach, spoke softly into her ear.

"I love you, Von," he said. "Honest to God."

"You're fucked up," she muttered. "Let me paint you dead."

And she was crying suddenly, twitching and crying and whimpering. Her paints fell to the floor, splattering her feet with red. She brought her hands to her mouth, bit her fingers until they were red too.

"I started this," she whimpered, falling back into him. "I haven't been right for months. I know I haven't. I just…I don't deal with failure too well. I push people away – I know I do. I…"

He kissed her jaw. "I love you."

She clutched his wrist. "I love you too."

And he didn't mind her saying it this time; there were feelings other than hurt today. Not happiness, but something rich and complicated and not entirely miserable. He had no money – soon would have no job and no flat. Then there would just be Von and Von's things and he thought that maybe he could appreciate those before he lost them. The idea was exciting, and when he looked at her, he saw all of her broken pieces slotted together, saw all of her desperation and felt all of his. In some sick way, they were perfect for each other. And damn, she could still make him hard.

"I want a disease," he whispered, almost breathless. "Something shameful and disgusting. Maybe syphilis. Maybe I could be deformed. And people would look at me and feel sick, and I would have no money, and no home, and I would die on the street for my mistakes." He paused, looking down at the short little dress she wore, and the bare thighs beneath it. "Could you paint me like that, Veronica?"

She narrowed her eyes. "Not enough blood," she said blankly. "You, I'll decapitate."

"I love you," he said again, sitting her down on top of the birdcage. She was so thin, so light, so disturbingly weak. And she moved with a drunken sort of grace that was so easily manipulated.

When she sat, her fingers curled around the bars, and her head tilted back. The closer he got to her face, the more upset she looked, but when he pressed his lips against hers, she turned touches into salty kisses.

"I love you," he muttered. "I love you, I love you…"

He inched down her knickers, pulled up her knees, and fucked her urgently, his hands around hers, his eyes on the parrot. Von whimpered and cried and laughed, and he felt every one of her emotions running through him. He became entirely parasitic again, and grinned as she grinned and sobbed as she sobbed.

"The bird prefers the cage," he said, panting. "The bird…prefers…"

And as he came, he pressed his hands hard against the bars, wishing to God that he was on the other side of them.

Von dug her chin into his shoulder, and he felt, for a second, that she could have asked him anything without surprising him. There could be a break up or a proposal or just a 'you're really weird, you know, Benjamin'. It was as if they were living outside time and consequence; the world was just nowand nothing else mattered.

But Von said nothing. And the dampness on his shoulder told him that she was still crying. He stroked her yellow hair and looked at the bird again. The parrot's eyes were still oh-so-hurt, still oh-so-longing. The bird preferred the cage, but the cage wasn't enough.

The next day, work called up at ten because they were concerned about him.

"Oh yeah," he said nonchalantly. "It's actually syphilis, not ebola."

There were a few moments of silence, and Benny wondered if the girl on the other end was the secretary he'd fucked. He didn't think so, but the idea made him smile.

"I'm dying," he said.

"Benny, have you seen anyone about this?"

"I don't want to waste my last hours talking about this shit anymore."

He hung up the phone and sighed. Maybe he'd go into work tomorrow and be all sunny and bright, just to screw with them. And then the next day, he'd just go back to dying again.

Jesus, they had to fire him soon…

Von sat on the sofa, flicking through channels and smiling at him blandly. Apparently she wasn't going off to the gallery or whatever she did today, and it annoyed him. He needed time to figure out what to do with the bird, and space to be able to do it privately.

There was the issue too that she wanted him to get rid of it. The idea made him feel lost.

"I'm getting rid of the bird," he muttered, lifting up the cage. "I'll be back when I'm back."

Although he'd been living with Von pretty much full time for the past two months, he did still rent his own flat (although he'd been receiving repeated angry calls from the landlord over missed payments). Once, it had been a nice little place – very expensive and carefully decorated – curtains-match-table cloth-match-sofa kind of shit. He'd had pot plants and fish, and a trashy big 3D television. Now, fish floated in green water, pot plants wilted, and the TV was covered in a thick layer of dust.

Benny propped the birdcage up on his dining table, and stared at the parrot inside it. To care so much about what the bird wanted had surprised him, and he felt that such strong feelings had to be cherished and listened to.

"So what can I do?" he asked it. "You look sad. Can I help?"

The bird waddled around the cage, pecking it chest. It hopped up onto its perch and ruffled its feathers, before pressing itself up against the bars again.

"You want a smaller cage?" he asked it. And it made sense; the cage had been good for him, but he was so much bigger than a little grey bird.

Thanks to the internet, he was on track to grab a smaller cage within the hour. The cage lived in a house the other side of London, but that was okay; travel kind of made it special. He knocked twice on the door of the Victorian terrace, and waited patiently for it to open just an inch.

A single blue eye peered out at him.

Damn woman had the door chain on. What sort of person did she think he was?

What sort of person was he?

"Hi! I'm here for the canary cage."

There was a long pause, before the woman said, "I thought you were agoraphobic."

He narrowed his eyes. "Do I know you?"

"I brought you the parrot cage," she said, clearly annoyed. "Wait there."

The eye disappeared, but the door stayed open an inch. He peered through to try and discover things about the bird-lady's life, but he could only get a glimpse of her grass-green carpet. Disappointing.

"Really, it's more of a claustrophilia type thing," he called after her lamely. "And I'm recovering."

He counted countries as he waited for her, and idly watched the street, biting his fingernails. There was a click as she unfastened the chain, and let the door open fully. She was standing with a Tweety Pie cage held up against her chest.

"Why are you getting rid of all of these?" he asked the lady. "Do you have some dead birds or something?"

She thrust the cage at him pointedly.

He looked at it. "Do you have anything smaller?"

Curling up in something smaller. Impossible, but imaginable. All blood and muscle, torn up skin, bones at jaunty angles. It made him so hard just to think about it.

"This is the smallest one I've got," she said coolly.

"Can I see your dead birds?" he asked, running his eyes over her average middle-aged body, moving up to her face, framed with a brown ruff of short hair. Her eyes were made-up nicely, but were miserable little blue things that looked so damn tired.

"I don't have dead birds," she said.

And his brain was running around, putting things together. "Then why are you getting rid of all of these cages?"

"I sold my birds."


She glared at him, then sighed. She was a suspicious, grumpy woman, but maybe she was usually less suspicious, less grumpy. Maybe she'd smiled once in the last month.

"Thirty pounds," she said.

"Your husband's birds?" he asked, thinking aloud. "And…you split up? Or something? I guess you lied to me yesterday about him waiting in the car. Jeez, what did you think I'd do to you? I mean, I'm a nice guy, you know?"

She looked a little wary, and started to close the door. He stuck his foot in there as she struggled with the chain. And then he smiled at her a little awkwardly. The door was chained shut again, and his foot hurt.

"So your husband's not here?" he asked. "Guess you're probably all alone."

And he wanted to fuck her so badly. Wanted to do it against the bars of a birdcage and watch her cry and hold her mouth as she screamed, and he would long to be her, be the bird in the cage, be anyone but him, anyone but him.

He wanted his hands to ache and stink, wanted to be covered in scooped scratches and bruises. He wanted to be broken, wounded, dead.

"My bird prefers its cage," he said quietly. "What do you think about that?"

The parrot crawled into the canary cage as soon as he let it. All curled up and stooped, its bent neck was one of the most arousing things he'd ever seen, and he was tempted by a quick little jerk-off. Damn it, this bird was probably someone's pet.

"Why don't you talk?" he asked it after a while, teasing one of its wings out through the bars of the cage, extending it fully. "Is it because you don't want to? Or is it because you don't know how?"

The bird didn't reply, but Benny didn't mind. He ran his fingers over the bird's feathers and shuddered a little at the smoothness of them.

"I could make it better, you know."

There was a thing called pinioning he'd seen in a movie once. You could permanently take away a bird's ability to fly if you cut its wings in the right place. And wasn't that the best thing imaginable? A bird that couldn't fly?

The diagrams online were funny little things with cut-lines drawn across wing tips, as if describing how to build cardboard castles out of Happy Meal boxes. He followed them and it was…easy. His dad had got him a pair of gardening shears for his pathetic balcony garden. Never been used until now, but finally perfect for something – funny how that happened sometimes. He positioned them carefully and smiled as he pulled them shut. There was a little snap, a little blood, and a little joint falling onto his carpet. And that was that.

The parrot shifted as much as it could within the tiny new cage, restless, crying out and breathing hard through its beak.

"Well, obviously, it would hurt. But look at how trapped you are. You have to be happy now, right?"

And the bird calmed down a little. The blood dripping down from the tip of its wing filled Benny with a sudden burst of jealously – something so rich and painful that he had to look down to check that he hadn't gone and shoved those shears between his ribs.

And then he cried deeply, happily, because there were ways he could restrict his freedom too, only they were too dark to really consider before half a bottle of vodka.

Well, he had vodka…

When he first saw Von, he was convinced he was hallucinating. Time had slipped since the pinioning and self-mutilation – call it self-orchiectomy. Light had atrophied, swelled up, atrophied again. And the world was a close, cold place. Less pain now, more dizziness. And although the cage surrounded him, he found parts of himself floating, trickling out through gaps between the bars. Death was freedom, so his world of confinement was at best a temporary one. It was a heavy, grey thought that clogged in his chest and anchored him, at least for now.

She drifted into view, a reflection on water. Her noises dragged him down some more, embraced his body. And he loved her – oh God, how he loved her.

"Benny? What the hell?"

It was Benny she was talking to, but it was the parrot she was walking to, the parrot she was staring at. The parrot's cage was the one that she lifted, the one that she opened, the one that she brought to the kitchen window and tilted.

"What the hell have you been doing, Benny?"

He tried to speak, but his words were drowsy fuck-ups with no place good to go.

And then she shook the cage, and the bird inside it fell out. Fell-fell-fell all the way to smash its little brains out on the concrete four storeys below them. And the bird was so free again. And it was Von's fault.

Another heavy, grey thought.

She pretended not to notice it didn't fly so she could pretend he hadn't noticed it didn't fly. And she swivelled and turned and stared at him with her hands on her hips.

He wanted to take her out, buy her ice cream, and scream at her repeatedly for killing his parrot. He wanted to kiss her wrists and break her fingers, lick her lips and bite her tongue.

"You're bleeding, Benny," she said finally. "Why are you bleeding? God, you shouldn't be…you should not be bleeding like that."

Should probably not be so faint and screwed up in some parrot cage either, but there you go. And Von was shaking, like she'd taken his desperation away and shrugged it over her own shoulders.

"Christ, what did you do to yourself?"

And she was taking him out of the cage now, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and crying and crying and crying. And he was naked and in pain and castrated and lost and lonely and broken and trapped-for-now, trapped-for-now, trapped-for-now. And he loved her fully and painfully and cruelly and wonderfully, and although he couldn't stand, she held-him-up-and-up-and-up-and-up.

"What did you do?"

And she would leave him soon, and she would break his heart, and he would have nothing, and everything – everything – would be awful. Awesome. Same difference. And the more he leant on her, the more there was to lose.

And he swallowed hard and made his mouth move.

"I need you, Von," he moaned. "I need you."

"We need to go to the hospital," she said. "You're lucky you're not dead – oh God, Benny!"

"I need you…"

She lay him down on the floor, and he gazed at the empty cage staring at him skullishly.

"Marry me," he muttered. "Oh please, Von. Marry me. Did you get the ring yet? Did you get it? Is that why you came here? Is that…"

She stared at him like he was proposing something crazy, mobile phone halfway up to her ear, mouth half open.

"Marry me," he cried. "I'll get better. Just promise you'll…"

But what did he want her to promise? What did he want? Her to accept his life and throw it away? Well, surely now was the time to throw, not the time to take. He was sick, cut up, rambling. If this didn't make her leave him, he didn't know what would.

"Oh God, we could really be together forever," he said, realising this maybe a little too late.

She mumbled things down the phone to whoever she was speaking to, tears rolling down her cheeks. And then she hung up and looked at him dead-on.

"Okay," she said. "I'll get you through whatever…whatever this is. I'll be there for you."

"There won't be kids."

"I don't want kids; I want you."

He smiled, barked with laughter, and imagined the bird on the pavement. The smashed up beak, the broken bones. Perhaps she would never let him fall, and never let him become that sad, grey parrot. But perhaps that was only because his cage door was always open, and his bars were just daydreams. She could never make him so awfully free; their relationship was not the cage he wanted it to be. Von was flexible. Perhaps she would always love him.

And he choked and wept as she held his hand and stroked it. He had never felt more disappointed.

Author's note: This is a completely normal story. Shh. If anyone reads this, I'd love to hear what you think! I wrote this last year for a contest on the-write-away - prompt was to be divergent. I HOPE Benny is divergent? Because. Um. Yep. Balls.