Unconditional Love - Diane Arrelle
The Finger Gave Itself -Nik Houser/ 2nd Place
Apart at the Seams - Sealey Andrews
Long Shadows - R.S. Pyne / 4th Place
"You've found it down in the cellar?" Janet asked. fighting off a shudder.
“Yeah, Mom,” Buddy said in a breathless rush. “You know… where the cellar stops and that dirt shelf goes the rest of the way under the house!”
Janet frowned, “I’ve told you not to go into the crawlspace. It could be full of rats or something.”
“Aw, Mom, come on, rats? I haven’t seen a rat since we moved. Anyway, nothing happened except I found this locked crate down there. Can we open it?”
“I…don’t…know,” Janet said, hesitating. As much as she loved this old, ramshackle row house, the cellar just gave her the creeps. Jim said he’d fix it up so she’d never have to be afraid again. He even promised to cover over the crawl space with drywall.
She smiled at the thought of Jim. After she got that huge insurance settlement from the accident, she knew that things were finally going to be all right. She had always said that if it weren’t for bad luck, she’d have no luck at all, but that money proved her wrong. Her luck was finally turning.
She glanced at Buddy and felt a twinge of guilt. That child was the cause of all her bad luck. His loser of a dad had knocked her up. Sure, they married, but he’d become abusive and when he finally left, he took what little money they had, as well as the TV, stereo and the truck. He left her to deal with all the unpaid back rent on their public housing apartment and, even worse, with a ten-year-old boy classified as emotionally disturbed and neurologically impaired at the hands of a few bad beatings from his father when he’d been a toddler.
The insurance settlement came and turned her life around. She was still smiling as she remembered purchasing this place. It had been a wreck but like a knight on a white steed Jim showed up on her door looking for work the day after she moved in.
“Mom, quit daydreaming and answer me, can we open it?”
Janet stopped smiling. “Why don’t we wait for Jim to get home?” she said and realized her mistake immediately.
“I don’t need to wait for him,” Buddy snapped. “I don’t need his permission to do anything anymore!”
Janet opened her mouth to protest as Buddy grabbed the hammer Jim left out this morning and smashed the lock on the wooden box.
“NO,” she screamed. The lock held but the wood frame around it splintered. She had no idea why she was breaking out in a cold sweat and panicking, but she felt a sick churning in the pit of her stomach as she stared at the box. She was suddenly afraid of what was inside. She knew it had to be something awful. “Please stop!” she cried, grabbing at Buddy’s hands, but he was faster and threw open the lid.
“Oh God,” she moaned as the churning turned to pain. She thought maybe she was having a heart attack as the breath froze in her throat. What horrors had her son impulsively unleashed? she wondered as she doubled up in agony. She wanted to cry out and beg Buddy to slam the lid, but instead, she fell to the floor and the world drifted away out of her grasp.
Janet opened her eyes. She was confused. Why was she lying on the floor? Then she remembered. Buddy was sitting next to her. He was holding a black piece of silky, shiny cloth and he was crying.
Buddy was sobbing. “Mom!” he said excitedly. “You’re alive! I thought you were dead.”
She managed a weak smile. Sitting up slowly, she was surprised to discover that she felt fine. No weakness, no nausea. She reached over and patted her son’s head. “I guess I…I fainted,” she said, red with embarrassment.
How typical and melodramatically weak to faint at a climatic moment. She remembered her terror, the fear paralyzing her. “Budd, honey, what was in the box?” she forced herself to ask.
“This!” Buddy exclaimed with total, childish excitement as he held up his hand.
Janet stared at a small black and white tuxedo partially covered with a shimmering black cape. After a second’s hesitation she realized she was looking at a hand puppet. Her eyes focused on the wooden face and she smiled, it looked like a handsome, classic movie star. It even had a tiny top hat.
She started to laugh. A puppet, an old fashioned child’s toy. She’d fainted over a puppet!
Suddenly the laughter froze in her throat. Why was it in a locked box?
“Buddy, take that filthy thing off your hand, you don’t know where it’s been,” she shouted.
Buddy looked down at the puppet then up at his mother. “Aw, Mom, it’s fine.”
“Put it down!”
“No!” Buddy shouted back. “I’m keeping it and you can’t stop me!”
Janet stopped yelling. She could tell by Buddy’s tone that he was about to go over the edge and spiral out of control. God, I hate my life, she thought. I hate Al for doing this to Buddy. “Okay honey, keep the puppet for now.”
It didn’t work. “For now? He’s mine for always. I hate you, I hate you! I love my puppet. He’s the only friend I’ve got and you aren’t going to take him away from me.”
She watched with resignation as he escalated into a full tantrum, kicking the television stand and knocking over the end table. She didn’t react as he ran from the house; she just hoped he wouldn’t hurt anyone’s pet or damage their property.
“It is all right and I love him,” she reminded herself. “He’s my son and I love him. He’s a good boy.” She hated that her litany was getting increasingly difficult to repeat. She despised the fact that she was so tired of being on the losing end of life. She wondered why she always seemed to make the wrong choice; why she was always stuck with all the problems that others had created. Why she had to be the caregiver when all she really wanted was for someone to take care of her and give her unconditional love.
She glanced out the window at the sidewalk and street and didn’t see her son anywhere. “I’ll throw that nasty thing out after he goes to sleep,” she muttered and looked at the broken crate.
She walked over to it and gasped. It was full of dolls, very old and fragile dolls. Even to her untrained eye, she instinctively knew that they were worth a small fortune.
When Jim came home that night, he looked at the dolls as she stood by. “What do you think?” she asked.
“I think maybe they are worth something, just don’t get your hopes up. I’ll take them to a dealer tomorrow.”
She nodded and made dinner. As she was cooking she felt a soft caress on the back of her neck. She smiled and turned around to kiss Jim. She jerked back as Buddy lowered his arm. That disgusting puppet was still on his hand.
“Hi Mom,” Buddy said and rubbed the puppet tenderly across her cheek. “The puppet wanted to say Hi. What’s for dinner?”
Janet shuddered. “Don’t touch me with that thing!”
She immediately felt guilty. Buddy couldn’t help the way he acted. She knew he needed more help than she could give and she worried that he was eventually going to have to be locked away if his outbursts got worse and he became a menace to others.
So far he’d only hurt himself, which was bad enough, but at least she’d been able to get him medicines for that, when she could afford it. Maybe if the dolls worked out, she would have enough money to get insurance. All she needed was a little more fortune and some good luck and she could get the house fixed up and pay off all the debts Al had left her. The insurance settlement would be a good start, but it wouldn’t last forever.
Buddy didn’t even blink. “Come on, Mom, the puppet is great. He says he likes you a whole lot. He says he loves you. So can I keep him? I really want to keep him.”
She could tell by the tone of his voice that she better not argue or else he’d lose it again. “I guess, if you really like that dirty, old thing that much, we can wash it.”
After Buddy went to bed that night, Janet went into his room to get the puppet. It was still on his hand and she had to struggle with it to get it off. She tugged and finally it came off in her hands. She was surprised that it wasn’t that dirty after all. In fact, it felt nice in her hand, still warm from Buddy. She studied the puppet in the yellow laundry room light and smiled.
It had such a handsome face: dark eyes, smiling lips, a pencil- thin mustache under a perfect nose. So handsome, and yet, the smile was just the smallest bit cruel, turning up slightly at the corners and the painted, flat eyes looked, she groped for the word, looked…sort of sinister. She laughed at herself. Too much imagination, Janet. “Get a grip,” she muttered and dropped it next to the washing machine and went up to her bedroom to watch TV with Jim.
The next morning when she went to wake Buddy, she saw the puppet back on his hand. She frowned. The kid was definitely being difficult. “Come on, Buddy, give me the puppet so I can clean it.”
Buddy opened his eyes, “Morning Mom, I’ll give it to you later. It wants to stay with me right now.”
Janet sighed and left the room. She just didn’t have the energy this morning. Buddy played all day with the puppet on his hand. Every time Janet tried to get it, he insisted that the puppet didn’t want to leave him.
When Jim came home he held up five one-hundred dollar bills. “Look what the dolls brought in!” he shouted and hugged her. “A windfall!”
She looked at the money and felt a letdown. She hoped the dolls were worth more, she had been sure of it, but once again, her luck wasn’t really good. $500 was nice, but wasn’t going to solve any of her problems.
Janet hugged him back, but she couldn’t shake off that hollow feeling in her gut that things just weren’t right.
After dinner, she went to bed early and woke startled. Someone was in bed with her, touching her thighs, caressing them. It wasn’t Jim, he’d gone out for a few drinks with the guys, and besides, it wasn’t his touch. He didn’t know how to be gentle. She lay perfectly still and held her breath. The soft warm touch moved a little higher.
As the hand moved up even more, the paralysis left her and she sat up and reached for the light. “Who’s there?” she screamed. She felt lightheaded, feared she’d faint again, as the room lit up and she saw her son on the bed next to her. The puppet was on his hand and Buddy looked startled.
“Buddy!” she screamed. “Buddy, what are you doing?”
“Huh?” Buddy mumbled looking around the room. “What am I doing here? Why’d you wake me?”
Janet felt like throwing up. Buddy was sleep walking and acting out his fantasies. What was she going to do? Her little boy had almost molested her in his sleep.
She jumped out of the bed and took a few steps away from him. “Buddy, don’t you ever, ever do that again!”
“Buddy looked confused and hurt. “Do what, Mom?”
She didn’t know how to answer. “Don’t…don’t touch me.”
“Yes, you did!” she shrieked, starting to lose control. “Don’t ever touch me again. Now get out of here and go back to bed.”
Watching him get up, Janet and felt the tears on her cheeks. He was only a little boy, her little boy, and she could tell by the look on his face that she had hurt him. Suddenly, she moved around the bed and hugged him. “I’m sorry, Honey. Mommy loves you. I’m sorry. I just had a bad dream.”
“I love you too, Mom,” Buddy said and hugged her back. She felt the puppet gently rub her hair, a soft, lingering touch, and Buddy added, “And the puppet says he loves you too.”
Janet avoided being too close to Buddy the next couple of days. She was ashamed about the way she was acting, but she just didn’t know what to do. He hadn’t touched her since, but still, what was a mother to do when her young son makes sexual advances? She had no one to ask advice. It was times like this that she felt the loneliest, when she realized that no one really loved her the way she needed. No one was there to take care of her, to ask nothing of her at all, but instead to give.
After lunch, she watched him talk to the puppet. He was sitting there in the dirt in the fenced-in back yard, having a one-sided conversation. He was getting upset and his voice was growing louder and louder. Soon he was shouting. “I can’t…I won’t!”
She watched from the window, fascinated. Without warning, he slapped himself across the face with the puppet. Hard. She heard the smack through the glass. Then he smacked himself again. She started for the door as he picked up a flowerpot and cracked it over his head. She saw the blood and ran to him.
He sprawled the ground and cried.
“Why’d he do it Mommy?” he wept as she wrapped a towel around his head. “I thought he was my friend. I thought he liked me. But he likes you better.”
“Shhh,” Janet crooned and started to rock him in her arms. She wondered what he was talking about. She was pretty sure she knew the answer, that her son was starting to hear voices in his head. He was becoming schizophrenic.
She washed him up, took him on the bus to the emergency room, explained that he had fallen while playing and let them bandage him up. After she got them home, she gave him a sleeping pill and put him to bed.
She’d have to talk to Jim later. In the meantime, she wanted that puppet gone. During the entire ordeal, that thing never left Buddy’s hand. He even insisted on bathing with it earlier that day. And now he was convinced that it was talking to him, telling him to hurt himself.
She tiptoed into Buddy’s room and tried to remove the puppet. It didn’t budge. She struggled, pulled, tugged, even ripped at it, but Buddy’s hand must have been balled into a death grip.
Wiping the sweat from her forehead, she stopped struggling and gave up. Jim would have to get it from him when he got back from where ever it was he went.
Some three hours later when Jim came in she rushed to him. “Jim. Buddy got hurt today. I had to take him to the emergency room.”
Jim frowned. “You did? How much did it cost?”
She ignored the question and the implications that he never asked how Buddy was or whether he was hurt badly. “I need you to help me get the puppet off his hand.”
Jim’s expression changed. “The puppet? What on earth are you talking about?”
There was a desperate edge to her voice as she retorted, “Don’t ask me anything, just help me!”
Jim walked into Buddy’s room with Janet right behind him. Buddy was out cold. Jim went over and grasped the puppet. He pulled, but only succeeded in jerking the boy to one side of the bed. “Tough,” he grunted and gave it a yank.
The puppet…the hand…the arm; all three at once lashed out! It grabbed at Jim’s throat, throwing him off balance. Buddy had Jim, a full-grown man, down on the floor. And he was trying to choke him. “Don’t you ever touch it!” Buddy screamed. “Don’t you ever bother it. Die! Die! Die!”
Jim rolled over and tried to pry the puppet-covered hand off him. Janet stared, not knowing what to do. She felt a like a deer caught in headlights. Mesmerized. She watched as his strong fingers worked at puppet’s tiny arms, clawing at it. She gasped as she saw him punch Buddy full in the face.
Buddy fell backwards, blood gushing from his nose and mouth.
“Stop it,” she screamed and ran to her son. She was cradling him in her arms when she heard grunts behind her. She turned and saw the puppet was still attached to Jim’s throat.
She gasped and started pulling at the puppet. Finally, it popped off and she fleetingly wondered what had held in place since it was free of Buddy’s hand.
She started crying. Buddy really needed help.
Jim got up cursing and went to the phone. “That boy needs to be put away,” he said in a raspy tone. He rubbed his reddened throat. “I’m calling the psych ward.”
Janet spent the rest of that night as well as the next day and night at the mental asylum. She nodded dumbly as the doctors explained about mental illnesses and the treatments available. She realized that they were going to lock her baby up in a charity ward at a loony bin, but at least he’d finally get the help he needed.
Janet was numb by the time she got home. She went into Buddy’s room to clean the blood and get rid of that horrible puppet. To her surprise, it wasn’t there. She shrugged and washed the stains off the floor. Struggling against exhaustion, she put up a load of laundry and went to find Jim. She figured he’d be asleep; the sun was just coming up. Janet stumbled into her bedroom, and stopped, the exhaustion forgotten.
Her eyes were riveted to the sight of Jim.
He was standing, his back pressed to the wall, his face distorted with terror. She saw the puppet. It was on Jim’s right hand and gripped in both its tiny hands was a large, serrated, kitchen knife.
Janet watched in disbelief as the blood glinted off the shiny blade. She saw the bloodstains on Jim’s pant leg and tee shirt. He looked at her and their eyes met. He pushed at the puppet covering his fingers with his free hand trying to keep it away from his body. She could see his muscles quivering as he struggled with himself. “Make it stop!” he screamed. “Get it off me!”
Janet jumped into action. She grabbed at the puppet-clad arm and pulled with all her might. The arm seemed to move away from Jim. She relaxed a little and before she could react, the puppet ripped from her hands and plunged the knife into Jim’s stomach. She grabbed and pulled it back, then ripped the knife from its grasp as Jim’s shrill scream echoed in her ears.
She threw the knife to the side and helped Jim slide to the floor. He held the wound with his free hand and said, “I’m…I’m sorry. The...mon...money is in the garage, I’m sorry…just get it off my hand and make it stop…”
His head bowed forward and Jill watched his ragged breathing to make sure he wasn’t dead. The blood was leaking from his gut and he groaned. She took his hand and removed the puppet. She was still carrying it when she called the police and was still carrying it when they loaded Jim onto the ambulance. She absently rubbed the smooth, satiny fabric against her face as the police officer repeated, “Lady, you are so lucky you stopped him. Jim Owens is wanted, killed three women in two states. There’s a huge reward posted for his arrest. Consider yourself very, very lucky.”
She nodded and showed them to the door. Let the police think what they liked, she decided. Let them think she’d done this to Jim in self-defense. She had too many things to worry about without the police being involved.
After they left and the house was quiet, she went out to the garage and found Jim’s toolbox. There was a check for $55,000 from a rare, antiques collection house. And it was made out to cash. That bastard, she thought, now beginning to feel emotion again. This has to be the money from the dolls!
Janet looked at her hand was shocked to discover the puppet on it. A surge of fear began to work its way from the tip of her head down to her toes. About halfway down, the icy horror turned into a rush of warmth. “I love you,” echoed in her head and she nodded, realizing that it did. After all her trauma in dealing with her son and Jim alone, the puppet was the only one looking out for her.
She went back into the house and climbed into bed; exhaustion returning and slamming her like a physical force. She had known all along that the puppet was something evil, that it was more than a puppet. She knew it from the start.
“I have to get rid of it,” she mumbled and promised herself. “But first I need to get some sleep.”
She slept and dreamed, and when she woke, she was smiling. She was rich. Between the dolls and the reward, she was really, really rich. As the puppet on her hand lovingly caressed her breasts, moving down between her legs, her smile widened. She wasn’t sure if it was her own hand unconsciously doing it or the puppet. Either way, she didn’t resist the tender touch.
Yet one thing was for sure now: She was finally unconditionally loved.
Diane Arrelle, the pen name of South Jersey writer Dina Leacock, has been writing for more than 20 years and has sold over 150 short stories and 2 books. When not writing, she is the director of a municipal senior citizen center. She is married with two sons in college and a husband and cat at home on the edge of the Pine Barrens in Southern New Jersey (home of the Jersey Devil.) She makes her riveting debut here at SNM Mag.
The Finger Gave Itself
After twenty-five years in the prosthetic limb business, Lyman Peel still introduced himself as an arms dealer. Didn’t matter how many times he said it on how many doorsteps in how many towns, it never got old. Mostly because it got their attention. And as Lyman would have told you, just as he told the night clerk at the North Platte Ramada Inn, who was the last person to see Lyman alive, a salesman has to get his hooks in.
Especially in a business like his.
“Looks like the storm followed you in.” Behind his desk, the teenage clerk nodded a constellation of zits at the four steamer trunks that surrounded the stranger. “All that luggage for you?”
Lyman grinned. It was a common question to which he had an uncommon fondness. It made him feel important, even in a small town like North Platte, Nebraska, where they had more chickens than cars.
Lyman put out his hand. The young man took it. Outside, the wind hacked and choked on a throat full of dust.
“Well, I just wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving them in the van,” he explained. “Feels too much like leaving my own kids in the car, you know?”
Lyman looked down and saw that he was still holding the kid’s hand. He told his fingers to let go. They refused.
The clerk smiled politely. “Right,” he said, speaking to his hand.
Clearing his throat, Lyman gave his shoulder a little shake, and commanded his stubborn hand to release the boy’s sweating palm.
“Well, they’ve kept me in good stead, so I try to return the favor,” he said, “Kindness is a boomerang, son. It comes back only as often as you send it out.”
By now the kid had stopped paying attention, fixed on Lyman’s words. His attention was on his captive hand, callused fingers and a hairy palm back from this weirdo’s death grip. Lyman said nothing. He just gave their joined hands an awkward jiggle. His suit sleeve rode up his arm, revealing the array of wires, screws and steel hidden beneath the cuff.
Panic swept the kid like Lyman had taped a bomb to his chest. He jerked away with a child like, “Eeughh!” At last the stranger’s mechanical hand released him.
The stunned employee staggered backwards as his shoulders slammed square against the rear wall.
“I…,” he offered after a moment. “Sorry. Sir.” The clerk avoided eye contact, his cheeks painted red by a broad brush stroke of embarrassment.
“No need to go there, son.” Lyman held up his left hand. His real one. “My fault entirely. Should’ve warned ya I was Robocop in a cardigan. The TMR can get twitchy at times.”
“TMR?” the kid asked.
Lyman held the right robotic arm aloft. “Stands for Targeted Muscle Reinnervation. It's supposed to take commands from whatever muscles are left in this bony stump of mine. Only sometimes it doesn’t like being told what to do. Gets cranky. No hard feelings, I hope.”
“Uh, no sir.” Reluctantly, the uniformed youth returned to his desk, eager to return to the homework which covered it. “Your room’s all set, Mr. Peel. Here’s your key. If there’s anything we can do for you. . .”
“No thanks, kiddo. I’m good,” Lyman replied. Once more, he'd become one of Them: Those people who made you concentrate extra hard so as to not stare at their hairy upper lip, their lazy eye, their missing limb.
“Although, now that you mention it, there is one thing,” he continued, “Has any mail come for me? My company has my itinerary and they should have sent a package in advance of my arrival.”
“No, sir, nothing’s come today.”
Lyman frowned. “Really? Nothing?”
“Nope. Sorry. I’ll let you know if anything shows up.”
“Please do. No hour’s too late.” With a resigned slouch in both his shoulders and tone, Lyman turned back to his luggage. He rubbed his arm and winced at the sound of cotton sleeve on stainless steel. “I’ll be up all night.”
Lyman sat back against the headboard of his still-made bed, staring at the four steamer trunks lined up across from his bed. Each bore a different label: ARMS, HANDS, FEET, and LEGS. He eyed the last trunk. Lyman hated legs. Of all the prosthetic enhancements he peddled, they were the most obviously fake, the easiest to spot on a moving body. Their sole benefit was their practicality. You couldn’t sell a customer a thousand dollar leg based on the smoothness of the polymer thigh or the high shine on the knee bolts. There was no wiggle room. They either wanted to shell out the dough for a leg or they didn’t.
Arms were also hard sells — too much metal in the joints. They looked better than the legs, but they still didn’t sound real. Damn things squeaked if you walked too fast, like a fugitive mannequin from Macy’s front window.
Hands and fingers were easier, but eyes were the best. As a rule, the smaller the prosthetic enhancement, the more realistic it appeared, which meant you could appeal to a customer’s sense of vanity as well as necessity. The half dozen eyes Lyman kept in a flute case atop the FEET trunk were like bullets -- they never missed. Ordering another eye for his display was like buying a hundred dollar bill with a twenty.
Hands, fingers, eyes — those were Lyman’s bread and butter. Traveling through America’s breadbasket, a rare find was the farmer who’d give you a penny without keeping the heads side for himself. Even rarer, however, was the farmer who wanted to look different from his neighbors.
Yet even those were nothing compared to what lay in the stainless steel briefcase at the foot of the bed. Within it lay the Stradivarius of prosthetic enhancements: the TMR. He called her Tamara, kept her in the case when he wasn’t out in public.
Some kids wanted to fly. Others dreamt of riches beyond their imagining. All Caitlyn Murphy wanted was to clap. It had been nine months since the accident and she was already back in school. She could write her name with her left hand now. She could put on her new Velcro shoes like a pro. She could even dribble a basketball and sink a shot or two if nobody tried to block her.
But Caitlyn still couldn’t clap. Not with just one hand.
Sure, she could still slap her palm against her thigh during the B-I-N-G-O song and applauded in a likewise fashion at her brother’s games. But it wasn’t the same. That satisfying snap of palm-on-palm that said Hey world, I’m a happy kid! just wasn’t there.
Three days before her eighth birthday, a car had slammed into the family station wagon at thirty miles an hour. Caitlyn’s mother had been loading a cart of groceries into the trunk. The woman’s knees had been shattered. Caitlyn was handing her mother a jug of milk at the time. Her arm was pinned between the two fenders for five hours. Every option was explored. In the end, the arm just had to go.
Six months later, when Lyman Peel passed through Nebraska with his list of potential clients, Caitlyn was the only eligible candidate for North Platte. And Tamara was meant for a little girl named Caitlyn.
She was the only recent amputee within a three hundred mile radius of the town, at least that’s what the GPS continued to remind Lyman, politely recommending he take the next right, the following left, or the upcoming turnaround while the limbs salesman deviated from his prearranged route because Caitlyn was almost nine now, and she still wasn’t allowed to pick up her new kitty because whenever she tried, she dropped it.
About half of Lyman’s female clients cried when they first tried her on, and nearly all of the men. The simple pleasure of tying their shoes or hugging someone with both arms was enough.
Lyman had sold more TMR’s for United Prosthetics than all the other salesmen in all the other territories combined. Of course, the fact that he used one himself didn’t hurt. Still, it wasn’t for everybody. Not everyone needed something so specialized.
Some of them just wanted to clap.
At the end of their first and only meeting, Lyman promised Caitlyn Murphy that she would be clapping at her big brother’s Little League championship game on October 30th. That was tomorrow. And her new hand had still not arrived.
Whenever he could, Lyman delivered his orders in person. Not only because it made a more lasting impression (it was said throughout United Prosthetics that when someone lost a limb in the Midwest, the first two words out of their doctor’s mouth was I’m sorry, and that the next were Lyman Peel), but because the look on their faces made all the flat tires and busted gaskets and ice storms and crappy motels worthwhile. They made the road worthwhile.
Lyman didn’t answer the phone when it first rang. He was out the door by the time it rang a second time.
The rusted metal claw skewered Lyman’s bare foot the moment he stepped back into his room.
Captain Junior’s hook was an authentic pirate hook that Lyman had bought at auction years ago. It gave the kids something to gawk at while he counseled their folks about their prosthetics needs. The rusted point jabbed into Lyman’s arch just hard enough to scrape away a film of skin and cause the package he’d pick up at reception to fly from the man’s hands, smack against the TV’s dumb blank screen, and landed smack in the middle of the bed.
Shoved up from the floor on his elbows, Lyman glared back at Junior’s hook, dumbfounded. It wasn’t like him to leave things out. Then again, it wasn’t like him to leave the door open or go out in public in his t-shirt and boxers.
He picked up the cold metal hook and used it to cut the box’s tape down the center. Lyman imagined the look on Caitlyn’s face when she put on her new hand the following day and clap as hard as she could, all by herself, for the first time in nearly a year. It was a sound he never wanted to forget, like the way your father says, “I’m proud of you.”
The hand was even smaller than he expected. He had taken a rubber cast of her remaining arm for size comparison, but had forgotten just how small and fragile she was. In his hands he was holding a dream, sent cross-country by overnight express.
He slid the hand down the front of his pants and gasped a sigh of relief.
Hands were his favorite. Each one had a different personality and its own unique voice. Perhaps it was the fact that they were made with specific customers in mind that made it so. After twenty-five years in the business, Lyman knew how to listen to them, how to hear their voices and gauge their personalities.
Some were rough. Others gentle. Many were eager, though a good number hesitant. He spent one night in bed with each hand he sold before delivering them to their new owners. Even the men. Surprisingly, the men were usually more gentle than the women. More timid. More often than not, Lyman had to coax the men. Sometimes gently, sometimes roughly. Down his pants. Around his cock. Between his balls. Up his ass (not the whole hand, of course, just a few fingers, though in Caitlyn’s case, her carefully sculpted palm was so small and so smooth, he might have to make an exception).
Naked on the bed with her silicon fingers scratching at the hair on his chest, Lyman nearly came again at the thought of Caitlyn Murphy’s tiny knuckles pressing at the lip of his anus as they struggled to fit all the way—
His hand froze. Caitlyn’s, too. The salesman’s chest stiffened, the skin over his heart stretched taught as though it had shrunk in the wash.
The eyes were watching him.
Lined up in a row, carefully arranged according to size and color, six glass prosthetic eyes watched Lyman from the edge of the bed.
The salesman sat up. Caitlyn’s hand slipped out and fell to the side. Had he put the eyes there? He didn’t think so. Couldn’t remember doing so. Lyman was good at eyes, sold them across the Bible Belt like popsicles in Hell. But he never entirely had taken to them and could never bear to look right at them. It felt too much like ringing the doorbell on a grave.
Lyman reached out with his bare foot and swept the half dozen glossy orbs off the bed. They hit the carpet’s shag like perfect, spherical leavings of some unnatural thing. Boogeyman pellets.
When he turned back, Caitlyn’s hand was gone.
Lyman drew up the sheets and threw them back. Standing on the bed, he cast about the mussed covers, his penis pointing dumbly at the curtained window and the howling wind beyond. Outside, the storm was picking up. Inside, there was no sign of Caitlyn.
A rich, metallic clack filled the room, like a solid gold mouse trap coming down on its prey. Lyman turned and strode to the edge of the lumpy mattress on wobbly sea legs.
The case marked ‘ARMS’ became unlatched. The trunk’s cold brass fittings swung loose under the faint influence of the air conditioner’s hum. Caitlyn’s arm lay on top of the case -- palm up like a gesture of innocence. See, Mommy, I didn’t sneak any cookies.
Careful not to touch the floor, Lyman reached out and snatched up Caitlyn’s hand.
The floor is lava, hushed a voice in his head. He realized with some disquiet that it was Caitlyn’s voice. Don’t touch the lava.
Hovering at the edge of the bed, Lyman considered snapping the latch shut on the ‘ARMS’ trunk. An image flashed in his mind of the trunk’s lid snapping his fingers off like a crocodile at a wildebeest’s watering hole. He drew back his hand, gave the case a hard look from the corner of his eye, and retreated with Caitlyn to the head of the bed.
Sometimes he used two hands at once. One for the front, one for the back. Not tonight, though. Tonight was special. To use another prosthetic in tandem with Caitlyn just wouldn’t feel right to him. It would feel like he was cheating on her.
He slid her fingers into his mouth. Let the tip of her middle finger graze his uvula. Lyman gagged, shuddered, pushed the hand in further with a groan of pleasure that became a shriek.
The eyes were watching him. All lined up at the edge of the nightstand, arranged according to size and color, they gazed.
He spat out Caitlyn’s probing fingers.
“What?” Lyman asked the eyes. “What?!” he swatted the eyes to the floor. The last one, the sea green one, sailed into the corner and clattered down into the waste basket.
“Whatever. Whatever,” he said, his eyes closed. Deep breath. Another. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and examined his haggard appearance in the mirror. “Jesus. Now see, this is how you end up falling asleep at the wheel and running yourself off a bridge, being this run down.”
He squinted, frowned, inspected his teeth, gums, tongue. “Also how you end up talking to your reflection.”
Lyman shut his eyes, breathed deeply through his nose and mouth, enjoying the head rush of oxygen flooding his brain. He reached back blindly to entwine Caitlyn’s fingers with his own and let out a scream.
Junior’s hook lay in the center of the pillow.
Lyman’s hand recoiled from it as if touching the hissing edge of a hot skillet. A congealed film of rust and salty mucilage was webbed between his fingers, almost as if the damned thing had just moments before been pried loose from its owner’s bloated stump at the bottom of some forgotten abyss.
The salesman leapt from the bed, backed across the room, away from the hook. The bones in his legs were broken coat hangers, his knees fused straight by the cold torch of horrified wonder.
“You were over there,” he said, shaky index finger pointed at the dresser. “I know I left you over there. I’m not that fucking tired.”
He swallowed his pulse back down. Perhaps, he thought, it was time to retire. Maybe, just maybe, this job with its long hours on even longer roads, was starting to get to him. What the hell, he had enough savings, right? He’d seen too many fellas keep reaching for luxury when they could have settled for comfort, only to be forced into retirement by a bad heart, leaking ulcer and a dead marriage.
Lyman sank onto the edge of the bed, grabbed a glass of water and raised it high in a salute to his travel cases…may they rest in peace.
The ‘ARMS’ case sat open at the end of the bed. Just a crack. Just enough for a long index finger to poke out from between its metal lips.
The glass fell from Lyman’s hand. He sprung into the air and stamped down on the case with both feet. The finger snipped off and fell to the floor. It constricted on the carpet like a salted slug.
Lyman sneered at it. “HA! FUCK YOU!”
He stood up straight and hopped back to the bed.
Shaking his head.
Snatching the TV remote from the night stand.
Pointing it at the idiot box to clear his—
The eyes watched him from atop the television. Lined up in a row. Arranged according to size and color.
Logic did not come to Lyman then. The part of his brain that gave the prosthetics names, voices -- even whole personalities, took over without permission or objection, and all at once Lyman couldn’t give a flying fuck what arcane will had drawn the half dozen false eyes to that precarious perch to stare blankly back at him.
“Stop staring at me!”
Lyman leapt at the eyes, batted them from the TV to the carpet. His bare right foot stamped down on the nearest one. There was a pop like a broken light bulb, chased by a bolt of pain. Lyman’s foot came up bloody. He lost his balance and hit the floor with a grunt of pain. Snatching up the five remaining eyes, he hobbled to the bathroom and dropped them, one by one, into the toilet. Flush.
The wound in Lyman’s foot began to scream the moment the eyes disappeared down the drain. A begrudging, plaintiff groan escaped gritted teeth as the salesman deposited himself on the rim of the tub to run water over the shard of thick, laser cut glass embedded in his heel. He reached for his bag of toiletries and found his instrument of choice. Very carefully, he tweezed out the offending shard in agony. In its bloody center, the black pupil regarded with the dull gloss of a squid’s eye. He threw it in the trash.
The bathtub’s faucet had been running over his foot, cleansing the wound and the surrounding puffy flesh for a full minute when he heard the first bubbles brewing. He turned to face the tub’s drain. The eyes bobbed to the surface one by one. They formed a circle in the center of the tub before turning their curious, unblinking gaze upon him.
Terror swelled in him like a well-fed parasite. Anger followed.
“Fuck you,” he grunted. Standing now. Fuck this shit. Lyman was going to take these goddamn eyes and get in his goddamn car and drive the car off a goddamn bridge and blow the bridge into the goddamn river and launch the river into outer fucking space. And he was going to do it now.
He got as far as the bathroom door, stopping at the threshold. The five remaining eyes watched Lyman from his quivering palm, perhaps to gauge his reaction to the dozen arms that lay scattered across the floor of his hotel room. At the far end of the room, Caitlyn’s hand stood propped against the locked outer door, her slender silicon fingers bent down into her palm, save the middle one. She was flipping Lyman the bird.
Lyman took a step back into the bathroom. He used the wrong foot, the wounded one. As he fell, the twang of loosed metal shot up at him. The ‘LEGS’ case had been opened.
The TMR’s case broke his fall. He smacked the side of his head with a high-pitched smack! Lyman’s head buzzed. His pulse drummed between his ears.
He heard Caitlyn coming before he saw her. Craning his neck, Lyman focused blurred vision on the petite appendage flopping toward him across the floor like a landed bass. Clutched in its grip was Junior’s hook, aimed squarely at Lyman’s balls. She leapt at him. Lyman grunted and swatted her out of the air. Hand and hook flew in opposite directions. Couldn’t see where. His pulse hammered.
No, not his pulse.
It was coming from the TMR’s case. Bracing himself against the bathroom’s doorjamb, Lyman worked his way back to his feet.
THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!
A series the convex dents jutted up from the steel surface of the TMR case. Tamara was awake. And she wanted out.
One by one, the remaining cases opened before him. A broad steel foot kicked open a heavy black lid from the inside. Beside it, twenty silicon fingers crawled out from their dark prison, wriggling over each other like maggots from a burst plum. A dozen or so hands followed suite like a gang of hairless, freshly hatched spiders. A frenzy of arms and legs scurried about the floor to welcome their captive comrades.
He expected them to come for him all at once and attack him where he stood. He was stunned and barely able to focus. But they ignored him, choosing instead to congregate around the final unopened case, the only one with a lock on it: the TMR.
Still unable to move, Lyman watched the hinges of Tamara’s case strain, the screws of her attaché coffin squealing under the pressure as she demanded her freedom.
He couldn’t let get Tamara out. Tamara was strong. She’d tear Lyman to pieces.
Arms, hands, legs and fingers beat at Tamara’s case, toyed with its lock, kicked at its warped, stubborn hinges.
“Get away from that! That’s mine!”
Lyman snatched up a rubber hand and a metal foot. “You’re mine!” He opened the closet and threw them inside.
He grabbed a handful of loose fingers off the floor and bashed them against the closet door. When they tried to scramble back out, he stomped them into the rug.
“You’re mine!” Heaved a leg into a row of coat hangers.
“Mine!” Two more arms.
“Mine!” Three hands and a foot.
“Mine!” Caitlyn’s arm tried to scurry under the bed. Lyman caught her, pried Junior’s hook from her fingers, and used it to nail her palm into the closet’s rear wall, slamming the door shut. “MINE!”
Tipping the nightstand over to barricade the closet door, Lyman fell back onto the edge of the bed, panting, his head swimming. His foot was oozing blood again, torn open by all his scrambling around. He had to stop the blood flow.
Get to the bathroom.
One of the hinges on Tamara’s case popped free. It whistled past his ear, striking the wall behind him. The steel lid was horribly warped, cartoonish in dimensions, as if some deranged imbecile had squeezed the thing shut over a rabid Doberman.
“You want out?” Lyman snarled. “You got it, honey.”
The fingers in the closet tapped against the door as he snatched up Tamara’s case. Silicon fingers curled themselves under the jamb. Lyman stomped on them, snorted at their retreat.
Storming into the bathroom, the salesman lobbed it into the swirling water.
As an afterthought he emptied the complimentary microscopic bottle of bubble bath into the tub.
Lyman’s smile faded as the airtight case floated to the surface. Tamara writhed inside. He pushed it down, watched it rise once more. One of the dials from the case’s combination lock spun into the air. Lyman shoved the case down a third time and held it there.
Behind him, in the living room, something hit the closet door.
Lyman half-turned to face the new noise. The fuck was that? It sounded…big.
The case was docile beneath the surface; its lock completely busted. If Lyman let go, it would bob to the surface and Tamara would be free. If he could just weigh it d—
The closet door burst open.
It shambled out of the darkness on five uneven legs, each one competing for dominance. A sixth leg made up the creature’s spine. Half a dozen mismatched arms hugged themselves to create a rib cage. There was no head.
The self-made man staggered forth, veering right then left as it learned to walk, flailing for balance. Five eyes dotted the ragtag assemblage wherever they could find purchase, the largest one wrapped in Caitlyn’s hand, which dangled brazenly between the front two legs.
His only thought was to scream. To scream the thing away.
The door! CLOSE THE DOOR!
Lyman threw himself at the door. He didn’t realize his mistake until he was halfway across the room. Didn’t comprehend what he’d done until all his weight had been thrust against the closing door and he felt the spatter of water hit the back of his neck.
By the time Lyman saw her, she was already in the air. Halfway across the room. Fingers splayed. Wires writhing like the locks of Medusa.
Tamara landed just short of her target, clattering to the floor between Lyman’s feet. With fingers of lightning, the robotic appendage scrambled up Lyman’s clothes as his bladder let go. She clamored over his dampened crotch, over his belt and up his stomach. Lyman’s colon voided itself. The stink of the salesman’s own shit reached his nose a moment before Tamara did. She wrapped herself around him, covering his face, his eyes, nose and mouth. Cold wires slipped themselves around Lyman’s neck. Hard, wet fingers closed on his temples and squeezed.
Didn’t think about the tub. Just threw himself at it. Did not expect to live. Only begged the pain to end.
The world became fireworks.
He awoke on the cold floor. Wet. Thick and numb. A vague sense that things were wrong inside of him. A house full of busted pipes and faulty wiring. His pulse was far away, like a neighbor yelling at his wife across the street. Smoke filled his nostrils. It was coming from his lips -- or whatever remained of them. The smell of scorched meat filled the room, along with something else. A smell he knew but could not place.
It came to Lyman that he was only seeing out of one eye. He told his left hand to rise up and touch his face. His right arm responded instead, daubed at the air with its stump. Lyman gave his right leg an order while his left leg intercepted the command and shoved him into the toilet.
Still out there. The self-made man. Trying to teach itself how to use the knob.
Bubbles surfaced in the tub. Lyman turned to see a black lump rise from the flooding water. Five scorched fingers stretched themselves into the air. Rivulets of dark water ran from their tips like polluted amniotic fluid as they curled themselves over the lip of the bath. Tamara pulled her smoking hulk from the water.
She lay limp where she fell at Lyman’s feet. Did not appear to know he was there.
That smell again. He knew that smell, coming at him from under the door jamb. The hard tang of casting materials. Jesus. It went to the goddamn van. It had taken Lyman’s keys, walked out to Lyman’s van, and brought back Lyman’s molding kit.
But why? What could—
Lyman flung himself at the door’s lock, or tried. Pain had finally remembered its appointment with him. Road flares lit up in his skull, spine, pelvis and legs.
The door opened slowly.
The self-made man was wearing Lyman’s clothes. It wore his pants. His coat and hat. Cloth bulged where unnatural joints had formed in the body’s crude construction, a thing riddled with strange muscles and tumors.
Lyman’s molding kit waited behind the creature’s many legs as the self-made man stepped forward, took Lyman Peel by his still-outstretched hand, and dragged him back into the room.
Lyman Peel was never seen again.
When the maid came the following day to clean Lyman’s room, she found it had already been cleaned. She could bounce a quarter off the bed. Saw her reflection in the spotless bathroom floor. The only evidence that anyone had occupied the room came in the form of four large steamer trunks which had been left behind, marked ‘HANDS’, ‘ARMS’, ‘FEET’, and ‘LEGS’.
Opening the trunk labeled ‘ARMS’, the cleaning woman found a matching pair of human arms cast in gray rubber. She found similar pairs in each corresponding case.
A fifth case stood at the end of the row of trunks — a smashed up metal briefcase with the word ‘HEAD’ scrawled across its lid, hand-written in permanent marker in the half-formed letters of a child just learning to write. The cleaning woman didn’t open that one. Instead, she took everything to the front desk and stowed them in Lost and Found, until Mr. Peel thought to claim them.
He never did.
Apart At the Seams
Fork to mouth, fork to mouth, fork to mouth. The gentle clink of silver touching china. Dinner had been quiet so far that night, aside from the crickets chirping and big, ugly June bugs thwapping against the screen door behind us.
"Mother," my father's latest mistress said. His new wife - some dark skinned, red-lipped Spanish woman I didn't know - was the first to speak at dinner.
"Would you like more wine?” Her voice sounded like sandpaper on pantyhose as she poured it for my grandmother without waiting for an answer.
I wondered how long it would take her to realize that no one here wanted what she was offering and, more importantly, who had given her permission to use the term mother.
I didn't know where she came from. My father, a long-haul truck driver, had a bad habit of picking up bits of trash on the roadside. Some made it home. Others did not.
I did like her dress, though. It was Spanish-like and off the shoulder with a big red flower on the front that matched her lipstick. Her skin was dark, which could have meant that she'd worked in the fields before he'd claimed her. Overall, she was pretty, even if she was a whore.
Between bites I stared at the woman in the corner. She was kind of a doll that I wasn’t supposed to touch. But sometimes, during the day when my grandparents weren’t around, I took her hat off.
Sometimes I took her wig off.
Sometimes I took her head off.
It's not weird. She can come apart like that, and besides, I had no toys of my own.
They had taken all of my toys away shortly after I'd arrived. Barbie and Ken doll were the first ones to go. According to my grandmother, there were certain things they weren’t supposed to do.
The only doll they let me keep, at first, was my ugly Ken. I called him Toby. He wasn’t tan and blond and hairless like original Ken. Instead, he had a head of brown corn silk that never seemed to lie right, no matter how I brushed it.
Toby was supposed to have hair in other places, too. I knew this because he came with a shaving kit. Not a really, real one -- just a brown marker and a fake razor. I liked to draw a beard with the marker and shave it away with the razor dipped in water, just like I watched my father do when he came home for a weekend once in awhile.
Sometimes I drew on myself with my own red marker and let Toby use the razor on me. Eventually they took him away, too.
I would have been able to keep my markers after that, except…
My grandparent’s hall was covered in black and white wallpaper with pretty ladies holding parasols, wearing dresses lined with white, fluffy underthings; and men in gentlemen suits, riding horses. I found it boring. I gave the men guns and put ‘X’s over the eyes of those who'd lost the great Wallpaper War. That was the end of my markers. And that's when I began to talk to the woman in the corner.
The woman in the corner once stood in the front window of my grandfather’s department store where bargains were his natural forte. But now she just stood in the corner of the dining room with dusty eyes and her skirt on a bit crooked.
Sometimes I imagined her sitting at the table with us. Only she can't really do this because she's like the Barbies they took away from me; her arms and legs don't bend at the elbows or knees.
After dinner, later on that night, my grandparents disappeared into their bedrooms and my father said he had something exciting to show me:
A wedding video.
The sound was really bad; the music garbled. The words were slurred, intermixed with giggles as the two bumped shoulders and stumbled down the aisle in their everyday clothes.
I think my father was proud because he smiled every time as we watched and chuckled when things were said that I didn't quite understand. He elbowed me, as if I should know what they meant and think them funny.
Meanwhile, his Spanish bride cackled to a friend on the phone in the kitchen. I could see her from around the corner, perched on the countertop, cradling the phone between her ear and shoulder, painting her nails that same shade of red as her lipstick and the flower on her dress.
When the video was over, my father stood and ejected it, still grinning stupidly.
“Rainy,” he announced loudly in her direction, “I’m going to give her a gift now.”
It was the first time I'd heard her name.
She muttered an abrupt goodbye and slammed the receiver down, annoyed. She pounded the floor with angry feet as she followed us into the living room.
"Whatever," she said, plopping down on the old faded velor couch, while simultaneously lighting a cigarette. She held it gingerly between her finger and thumb, so as not mar her nail polish, even though there were red smears below each cuticle. I was only seven and I could have done a better job than that.
“Here you go.” My father handed me a very shiny package. Not shiny because it was fancy. Shiny because it was wrapped in tin foil.
I brought it to my face and sniffed.
Used tin foil, at that. Not even smooth and fresh off the roll. Crinkled. It fractured my reflection in the most awful way.
“Your grandparents mentioned that… uh… you like things like these." He awkwardly patted the top of my head.
I peeled back the corners of the foil. Barrettes. But not the ones I had wanted. No one had paid attention at all to what I had asked for. They didn’t have bows on them. I’d wanted bows.
I would never wear them. Still, I said thank you. That's what you're supposed to do.
Miss red-flower-on-her-dress grunted, slamming her cigarette in the candy dish, taking some money from my grandmother’s purse on the sofa beside her.
Ten minutes later, my father's truck roared to life outside and they were gone.
Beside the incessant chirping of the crickets and the stink of manure that drifted through the window in the summertime, it was hard to sleep at night because that's when the woman in the corner usually spoke to me.
She would whisper and hiss things I couldn’t quite understand, insist that I come closer to her so she could better explain.
Sssweat. And dirt. And dussst. And age. And rotting and…
Ssstains on the carpet, ssstains on the walls, sssstains on the sheetsss…
Out of that bed, girl. To me.
She wouldn't stop with her verbal prodding unless I went to her, so I swung my pajama feet out of bed. I padded to the door, opened it and peeked down the hallway. The sound of throaty snores at the end of the hall told me that my grandfather was sound asleep and the lights were off in my grandmother’s room.
It was safe.
To get to the woman in the corner I had to pass the Chinamen. They were two other kind-of-sort-of dolls I was not allowed to touch. They stood with arms folded across their chests, hands clasped together, Chinamen style, with tiny slits for eyes and devilish, and toothy grins. They were shut away in a glass case in the checkerboard floor room, just before the kitchen and dining room. Nighttime gatekeepers of the rooms beyond.
I stood at the edge of the carpeted hall and the checkerboard floor, toes curled over the gold divider, waiting. The Chinamen did not allow me to step on both the red and black squares. I had to stop, listen and wait for instructions.
Red. Teeny, tiny voices squeaked, so quiet I had to turn my ear to hear.
No black. Teeny, tiny, tinkling giggles. More like fairies than men.
No Red. They loved to tease me that way.
Red! They were firm.
Only in the red squares, not in the black. And never on the cracks.
Luckily my feet were just the right size to fit inside the red squares, but only when I set them diagonally, corner to corner, which was getting harder and harder to do. One day I would probably have to go tippy-toe.
The cracks, they warned, you’ll break your mother’s back.
I told them that my mother was dead, and I didn’t care if her back was broken.
Then you will break your grandmother’s back. They giggled and shook their heads in a circular nod – slowly at first, then progressively faster – a tummy-turning blur of painted faces dissolving into mere smears on round wooden heads.
That’s when I ran.
Red square. Red square. Red square. Straight into the kitchen, around the corner and over the threshold to the other side. This put me smack dab in front of the woman in the corner.
I breathed a small sigh of relief, though I was pretty sure I stepped on a crack in my hasty dash.
Sssweet girl, she said, as I took her hands in mine.
Lisssten to me.
I looked up at her and nodded while twisting her wrists at the seams where they met her arms. They easily came apart with only a few turns. Then I had control of her hands.
Sssilly girl, she said to me as I combed my hair with her stiff fingers.
The chinamen's tinkling voices sang out from behind us. But behave yourself. Then giggles. Lots of giggles.
Don't be ssstupid, girl! The woman's words turned sour. You can ssstop it.
She leaned down and poised her chipped plaster lips at my ear then whispered and whispered until I couldn't bear to listen anymore.
I took her head off and set it on the table before I went back to bed. It was the only way I was going to get any sleep.
Every morning it was my job to make a hot breakfast for my grandparents. But not before I bathed grandmother.
She was in a wheelchair and had a hard time doing most things. I had to help her with her clothes, help her hold the rail in the bathtub and to lower herself into the water.
When I asked her once why grandfather did not do these things for her, she told me to hush.
The scent of coconut filled the room when I unscrewed the cap to the bubble bath. Or at least what I remembered coconut-smelling-like. I’d only ever had it once. Once before I came there. Once before…well, just before.
My father had put holes in it with an electric drill and knocked it against the concrete drive until it cracked and a thick, white stream oozed all over its fuzzy shell. Beautiful and messy at the same time.
When I was done pouring the bubble bath, I ran a fingertip along the bottom of the porcelain tub. So slick.
Just as I was drying my hand, grandmother wheeled in; face straight. She was silent as I knelt before her, removing slippers from her knotty feet. She remained still as I rolled her knee- high stockings to her ankles and slid them off. I cringed as they snagged on her calloused skin.
Expressionless eyes followed my fingers as I unbuttoned her blouse, brought it down over liver-spotted arms and set it on the closed toilet seat next to me.
Then I pulled down her skirt and ignored the familiar bruises.
Naked with one feeble hand on the tub rail and one holding mine, she slipped a foot into the water. As it sunk in inch by inch, she moaned and relaxed her grip on me, letting go of the bar at the same time.
Too soon, I thought. Surly she hadn’t gotten her footing yet. But instead of tightening my grasp, as I knew I should have, I simply let go.
Something like a gasp escaped her pencil-thin lips and her eyes grew wide with panic as she grappled for the bar and missed. She reached for me, but I backed away. That’s when she knew.
A rusty old screw on the towel rack caught her head when she fell. Water sloshed over the bathtub’s edge, drops arcing in slow motion to my feet. I looked down and wiggled my toes on the old chenille rug that was matted as badly as my hair was. It was cold, the water, even though I knew I ran it hot.
That sound. Brittle bones breaking stirred something inside me. A body bent in a wrong kind of way made me smile. And the blood leaking from the split skin on her forehead, weaving through her thin white hair was as messy and beautiful as the coconut that would been pounded on pavement.
The teeny tinkling started. Good girl, good girl, the Chinamen cheered from the other room.
Excccellent work, hissed the woman in the corner as I reached over grandmother to unplug the drain.
Suds billowed on the water’s surface bumped against her — snapping and popping like the sound of a little girl’s sundress being ripped apart at the seams.
Bath time was over and grandfather was surely waiting for breakfast. Cereal, as usual. With sugar, which I had been sure we were out of.
Thankfully, though, the night before, it was politely pointed out to me that more could be found under the sink.
In a little black box.
Steve Brightwell replaced his empty china cup on its gilded saucer and gave his host a winning smile, laying on the oily charm that always worked in these situations. An antiques dealer who always paid cash, he had been only too happy to make this particular house call.
The place was a veritable gold mine and the old woman who had lived there always had something worth selling. She still had all her marbles despite being in her mid-eighties; she walked with a stick but her mind was as keen as ever. She spoke with the barest trace of a European accent, her voice melodic and well educated.
The old clock on the mantle piece kept time as a fire crackled in the hearth, the entire room crammed with memories of foreign travel. And not a speck of dust marred the well-kept wooden furniture as the surfaces glistened from decades of beeswax polish and personal attention.
She was house proud and fiercely independent, a self appointed custodian of her family museum.
“What can I do for you, Mrs. De Vries? You know I’m always happy to help out one of my favorite clients.”
“I need the money to pay an overdue gas bill.” She admitted that as if it was something shameful, a dirty little secret shared with him in the strictest confidence. People of her generation and class never took bank loans or asked friends or family, they just sold off another heirloom and settled their debts. She opened the wooden box and unwrapped layers of colored silk, still vibrant, despite their age. Lifting the contents for a better look, he saw large, fully articulated puppets that were made from neither wood nor paper with ornately painted animal skin instead of fabric.
“They belonged to my late husband who had inherited them from his grandfather; a military family with strong links to the Far East and a dislike of ever throwing anything away. Fine examples of Wayang kulit, Balinese shadow puppets. My younger sister has the rest but these are two of the five warrior Pandava brothers.”
She raised an eyebrow at his obvious lack of knowledge.
“Central characters drawn from the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic that makes War and Peace seem like a second rate short story. This is Bhima and the smaller one is Arjuna. They’re both in full working order.”
She ran a hand across the chiseled leather and used control sticks and buffalo horn handles to move the puppet behind a white sheet. Expertly, it danced across the stage. The shape was stylized, angular, casting weird shadows in the lamplight as it pulled one arm back in an archer’s pose and fired an arrow. There should have been tribal music to accompany the performance. It featured an enthusiastic gamelan ensemble of xylophones, drums, gongs and bamboo flutes, but her CD player was broken and she refused to hum.
“Very nice,” he said, trying not to sound interested despite sensing a profit.
“They were made by a team of skilled craftsmen nearly two hundred years ago, weeks of painstaking work. And they are more than nice.”
She tried her best to shock him and succeeded.
The leather was made from human skin, taken off the most gifted dalang of his age. The master puppeteer reputedly made a deal with a powerful higher grade demon. And he would always be the best, giving his first royal performance at age twelve. Thirty years later, a premonition of impending doom made his family promise to honor his final request.
When a rival stabbed him through the heart with a sharpened rod from one of his own puppets, craftsmen made the five Pandavas from his freshly tanned hide, his soul bound into the structure for all eternity. The demon was swift to collect on its investment; his payment made in blood a hundred times over.
“Four hundred and fifty,” he said giving a magnanimous smile, knowing they were worth at least seven times that. “That’s a very fair price.”
“I should tell you now, the brothers are cursed.”
“Cash,” Steve said, filing the story away to push up the price. Some collectors liked an element of the weird and wonderful and a good curse only served to increase profits. The things would sell quickly, half a dozen potential buyers were already lined up and were sure to fight over them. Mental calculations arrived at a very favorable outcome and he had to stop himself from punching the air. He laid down a pile of notes, smaller denominations so the pile looked larger, he wondered the woman seemed so reluctant to complete the sale.
“Is there a problem?”
The old lady spoke quietly, her well-bred, gentle voice at odds with her tales of bloody slaughter, starting with the puppet’s first performance. The party of western diplomats and their families watched. They were found dead an hour after it ended with blood everywhere and yet no trace of the killers.
Nobody was ever caught, although two native servants went to the gallows because of it. Innocent scapegoats were easy to find in those days, especially those of a different culture or religion. She spat off stories of other murders that followed the puppets to colder climates when Bali had no further need for colonial meddling.
When the last Dutch family packed their bags and returned to the mother country, events conspired to make the long sea voyage a bloody one. A series of brutal slayings amongst the first class passengers made all the newspaper front pages. Here Mrs. De Vries pointed out that the only clue had been a tiny scrap of torn leather found clutched tightly in a dead socialite’s hand.
“Nobody bothered to check but when they opened the shipping carton months later, one of the puppets had been damaged. The family arranged for it to be professionally restored but dried-in bloodstains cost a lot extra in those days.”
Every decade henceforth, there had been brutal murders on the anniversary of the puppet master’s death. She told him that the next due date was almost here within twenty-four hours; her soft voice growing steadily more accented as stress-fractured lines began to show.
The old woman reached out to touch the pile of notes, badly needing money but still extremely hesitant to sell something she considered to be so dangerous. Something altered in her eyes, sliding away until he was sure he had lost too much ground to ever recover the advantage.
“I’ve changed my mind,” she said, “I don’t really think I should sell.”
“We made a deal,” he said, refusing to let her reconsider. “I have already paid for them.”
He put on a pair of soft Italian leather gloves, the transaction already completed in his own mind. “The money is there on the table and there is nothing more to say on the subject.”
“I am sorry to have wasted your time but I can’t go through with it.” She looked at the wad of notes and hesitated, torn between the need to pay her outstanding debts and doing what she considered the right thing.
Steve closed the box firmly, taking control while Mrs. De Vries watched him with crystal drop welling in her eyes. She cleared her throat, emotion already making her voice barely audible.
“Please, don’t do this. I am asking you to think about what you will unleash on the world. They are very dangerous. Have you not heard a single word I have just said?”
He never intended to hurt her. It just happened that way.
At the last moment, she had reached out and gripped his arm. as if trying one last time to appeal to a better nature deep down many years ago. It was an instinctive action. But when she touched him, he lashed back at her. She took a few faltering steps before crumpling to the floor like a burst balloon; the fierce energy had animated her departing in an instant.
He did not need to check for a pulse to know that he was now a murderer.
He wiped a bright smear of blood and long gray hairs off the polished wood, then opened the box to check on its contents. The precious puppets were unharmed, still wrapped in their layers of bright silk shroud.
Mrs. De Vries had told him that each piece took a team of craftsmen weeks to produce from the first time patterns were traced on leather to its final layer of lacquer.
Steve took a long moment to study the ornate decoration and appreciated how much work had gone into them; stylized warriors with their elongated arms clutching weapons, mouths open in a warlike snarl. He touched one of the carved buffalo horn handles, the painted leather strangely warm as if it was a living thing. For a brief moment, he could not shake the impression that the puppet squirmed under his hand.
He closed the box and looked around, checking he hadn’t left too much of himself behind. The china teacup was wiped clean of fingerprints and DNA evidence; all surfaces he touched were given the same treatment. He had not made an appointment, calling at her house on a speculative visit; nothing to link him with the death. Not that it mattered for he had no plans to stay in the area and would be two hundred miles away before anyone raised the alarm.
He tucked the box under his arm and paused, reaching down to close the old lady’s staring eyes. The wad of notes went straight into his pocket, one hundred percent profit going a long way to ease his conscience.
Moving quickly, he took one last look around the room before letting himself out into the night. The door locked behind him with a soft oiled whisper: Nobody would ever know that the householder was no longer in the land of the living.
He felt a rare twinge of guilt as he put the puppets in the trunk of his car and drove away, already calculating exactly how much money he would make from the sale.
He drove without stopping, blaring heavy metal music full blast to remove the need to think about what he'd just done.
A glass or two of Jack Daniels in a bar raised to the old girl’s memory helped the process of creative amnesia. By the time he went to bed that night, he felt a lot better about himself. The general sense of euphoria and well-being would not last long.
It had quickly worn off to leave a new warped reality, destined to be short-lived.
When he screamed himself awake in the middle of a recurring nightmare, he was no longer alone in the darkness.
A voice whispered, soft and cajoling, but it was not English, Spanish or any language he could understand. Frenetic brass cymbals clashed as an invisible gamelan ensemble struck up a tune and the Bhima puppet danced along the edge of his bed.
Intrusive moonlight streamed in from the undraped windows casting its ornate shadow on the far wall. The puppet grew larger with every step closer and the long butcher knife it held was all too clearly not made from lacquered leather.
For the performance Prince Bhima made it up as he went along, carving an elegant calligraphy on his victim’s exposed chest. Blood spattered the beautifully carved features, lips parting in a snarl as the knife descended again.
Steve screamed as the pain knocked him out of the shock of seeing a valuable antique turn homicidal. He struck a wild blow and knocked the thing to the floor, the central stick snapping in two as it bounced off the wall. As he watched, the structure knitted itself together to become whole in seconds, the stylized lines lengthening until the puppet became life-sized. It glided forward again, the classical dance steps of a traditional Balinese shadow theater twisted to an entirely different purpose.
“Damn it, where is the other one? This is not happening to me; all a very bad dream.”
A familiar sight lurched into his field of view, Mrs. De Vries with her newly flayed skin stretched over a bent wire frame was now impossibly animated and ready for vengeance. No craftsman had made the marionette that now bore her face; eyes burning embers in a bloody covering of flesh.
A low moan dispersed from a throat that no longer had any vocal cords -- or anything else -- as the thing lurched forward, supported by a central stick made from a twisted coat hanger. The lived-in wrinkles of a long, eventful life had been smoothed into a taut mask but she/it was only a temporary distraction.
He turned a fraction too late to see Prince Arjuna bending over him then saw nothing else. A swift knife slash robbed him of sight but he still did a lot of screaming before the end.
And in accordance with the typical length of shadow theater performances, it took the puppets hours to get to the point.
R.S. Pyne is a freelance writer, researcher and science journalist from West Wales. He marks four in a row for new SNM debut authors. Publication credits include: Albedo One, Apollo's Lyre, Aurora Wolf, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Christmas is Dead – Again, Crimson Highway, Fifth Di, Hungur, Macabre Cadaver, Midnight Horror, Neo-opsis, Orphan Leaf Review, Spook City, Pen Cambria, Silver Blade,, Star Stepping Anthology, Tainted - Anthology of Terror and the Supernatural and others. He has no website but readers are free to leave guestbook comments.