I felt fingers seize my forearm, and I knew that sleep wouldn’t take me that night. I shook the grip loose, it was never hard for me to do so, and curled into the fetal position. They always started gentle. They would caress my cheek, stroke my hair; they would read my mind, push my buttons. I clenched my eyes shut until flashing lights appeared inside my eyelids. I wanted to imagine, to pretend, to delude myself so desperately that nothing was there, but I knew it wasn’t true. I knew it wasn’t true when I found my curtains torn off their rings; I knew it wasn’t true when I found myself locked out of my bathroom; I knew it wasn’t true when I came home from work and found myself overpowered by natural gas fumes. And I knew it wasn’t true because I was going to find myself the next morning with rips in my clothing and have to throw away another t-shirt.
The hands decided against the forearm and instead began with my hair, brushing it over and over as I counted six seven eight nine ten fingers running through it. Had I a pair of scissors then, I could have taken care of the problem no sweat (I was due for a haircut anyways), but instead I had to resist the compelling urge to tear my scalp out. Not like it wouldn’t have mattered; I’d be left with a bloody pillow and they’d move on to the next toy in the playground that I’d become. I held my breath and counted sheep. One two three. Fourteen fifteen. Sixty-eight. Three-hundred and ninety-two. When they first appeared, I would get to the thousands before I’d give up and succumb to uncontrollable weeping; all the while the hands played piano on top of me. Sleep become a luxury resource.
Several weeks after the hands first appeared, Miranda from work had offered me a pouch of dried herbs. “I can tell you haven’t been getting sleep; zombie isn’t a great look on you,” she chuckled in the breakroom. Over her shoulder, fingers pushed down the lever for the water cooler, leading liquid to spill onto the carpet. We both heard it; she didn’t care.
“How’s this supposed to help?”
“Brew yourself a mug of it before bed. It always did the trick for my mom.”
I took her offering with the vague hope that this would allow me some willful ignorance at night. It certainly was a better option than NyQuil. The tea took on a dark color and stained the inside of my mug orange. It tasted both bitter and sour, like someone had the bright idea of mixing grass with orange juice. The aftertaste lingered, and I pictured the orange stain spreading its way to the back of my throat. In spite of its oddities, it had worked beautifully. I was able to stuff myself into a box, lock the door, and swallow the key. I was concerned though; the box had been getting smaller and smaller and I knew that soon enough it would be too small to fit into. Starting last month, I had been brewing two mugs every night to keep the same effect that only one mug used to have.
As the hands layered the three strands of my hair one over the other, left over middle, right over left, middle over right, I tried to ignore the increasingly harder-to-ignore thought that I was taking too long to fall asleep it shouldn’t be that long and what am I going to do when the tea is never enough and why do I always feel dizzy during the day and why did I wake up on my couch last night and—
I woke up still on the same train of thought, unaware that I had already reached the next station. At the same time, I became aware that I didn’t feel anything. Nothing. Nothing rubbing on my legs; nothing tugging at my clothes; nothing pinching at my skin; no nails skipping off the back of my neck; those fucking nails that I knew the exact shade of, a shade that I had personally bought and applied to the nails’ owner. Former owner. Whatever the fuck that thing was surely wasn’t her. I kept my eyes shut and held my breath again, terrified that any slight movement would draw their attention back to me. What time was it? There wasn’t any sunlight peeking through my eyelids, but did I leave the curtains open or closed last night? Was it still ‘last night’? Did something just—
I stumbled across the cracked and stained sidewalk, failing to find any of my bearings, which had long since spilled onto the ground and rolled away from me. I was alone, but the night hadn’t begun that way. No, the night had begun with anticipation, begun in excitement for what was to come that evening, but also for what was to come for the greater future. As we prepared for a night out, we talked about a great number of things. We mentioned the anxieties in our lives, which we then promptly discarded, because on that night, they didn’t matter. We talked about work and about how within the year we would ditch the transitory jobs we both loathed and finally do what we wanted. Maybe it wouldn’t have been true the day after, but on that night, it sure as hell was. Best of all? No. Fucking. Floating. Hands. As I braided her hair, I mentioned how I had always envied it. It was just that perfect shade of auburn that would ignite and blaze under illumination. In response, she pointed out my hands. They have perfect proportions, she said, both in relation to each other and the rest of my body. Her fingers grazed over the backsides of my hands as she held them, and she mentioned how my perfect my skin was. I chuckled, because who really cared about someone’s hands?
While the comment didn’t mean much to me at the time, it did remind of what I had prepared for her. I completed the braid and took the moment while she inspected it in the mirror, which she did to her satisfaction and gratefulness, to present to her my gift. In my palm I held a bottle of nail polish, that year’s annual offering to her health and her love. We had chanced upon it while passing through shops on a previous outing, to which she had declared a wistful longing for it. We had left it alone, finding the price tag to be overreaching at the time. Now, seeing it in my hands, she brightened with delight, and I responded in kind as I applied it onto her nails. Once it was done, she brought them under the light, and the deep emerald gleamed as it sat on her fingertips. That night, everything was right, and she was everything. It was the easy conclusion to come to, and the only one that seemed natural.
It was approaching the end of the excursion, but certainly not the end of the night. Empty glasses that numbered more than I was able to count on my fingers sat on our table. Alone, I stared at the brick wall of the trendy bistro, content to wait until she returned from the bathroom. I fidgeted with the box in my hands, smaller than my palm, and ran through the script in my head. It wasn’t very long, only five words:
‘Jess, will you be mine?’
I repeated in my mind it as I pictured myself getting down on one knee in front of her. I repeated it as I pictured myself opening the box and slipping the ring that we had picked out together onto her finger. I repeated it as I pictured her flashing that smile of hers and pulling me into a kiss. A buzz, which caused the table and the glasses to vibrate, removed me from my reverie. Glancing down, her phone, which she had left resting face-up on the table, had received a text message. Funny. I didn’t remember allowing anyone else except me to call Jess ‘babe,’ or to ask the questions that the whore who texted her did, or to send those kinds of photos that the slut who texted her did. Jess, what the fuck did you—
I woke up to sunlight bleeding through my eyes, confirming that I had, in fact, left the curtains open the previous night. The heavy comforter, whose warmth and weight I usually found reassuring, stifled me, and I threw it off the bed as I sat up. The winter air, which had permeated inside of the apartment, nipped at my legs and caused goosebumps to form. I turned toward my window so that all of my body was caught under the sunshine that came through it and sat there, baking in its radiance. I would have been content to sit there all day, had I not been compelled by parchness and the taste of death inside my mouth to drink some water.
Gingerly stepping out of my bed, I rubbed my eyes and let loose a series of yawns as I moved toward the kitchen. I plucked one of the glasses out of the sink, ignoring the rest of the cutlery and plates that sat in it, and rinsed out the glass once before letting the tap fill it. I idled around the sink, enjoying the rejuvenating quality of the water.
I wasn’t in any hurry to go or be anywhere. But then I was, because I saw the hands. Saw them picking at scraps of cloth that sat in a pile next to the couch. They were unblemished, perfectly smooth and clean. Under the frosty winter morning, they adopted a rosy hue, and as they moved about, their slender fingers would curl and unfold in a wave in the same exact she would when her hands were cold and she wanted me to hold them. They ended a couple of inches below the wrist, in a clean slice. The inside of the slice reminded me of a slice of bologna, not gruesome at all. She would have laughed at that, but I found it especially unsettling, as if someone popped the hands off of her like a magnet. However, what truly made me want to claw my own eyes out were, lying on the tip of the hands, pristinely painted emerald fingernails. The nails taunted me; they beamed under light and seemed to glow in the dark, ensuring that I would never forget about the hands for too long. That shade of green would go on to become a permanent stain in my mind; I couldn’t seem to avoid it. My shampoo bottle was emerald. Miranda’s new favorite top was emerald. My thoughts were emerald. Even when my eyes were shut, it would fade in and out like a photo slideshow.
The hands worked methodically, rearranging the scraps of cloth like a jigsaw puzzle. Before long, the hands were able to lay them out into a vestige of the dress that it once was; the dress that I had had worn on that night and hadn’t worn since.
‘Traitorous bitch’ became the phrase of the night after she returned. Questions turned to accusations, and accusations turned to grievances. Grievances turned into shouting, and shouting turned into thrown objects and broken glasses. She handed out sad excuses like candy from a white van; one after another, they came: “She didn’t mean it that way, you know how she is,” and “Did you even look at the photo?” It didn’t matter. The veil had already been lifted, and I knew her for the snake she was. Forced out of the restaurant and into the street, we continued, where, underneath a blinding lamppost in an alley, I laid hands on her.
It had only been a slight shove, a release of the anguish and betrayal that stirred inside of me, but slight was more than enough to accomplish what had happened. She stumbled and fell back, her head colliding with lamppost. I didn’t need to check on her after she slid to the ground; the wet sound made by her head meeting the steel beam told enough. In her unmoving state, skin glowing under the beam of light and her emerald nails shining, I noted her resemblance to a porcelain doll: delicate, beautiful, and devoid of any life. I knelt down to stare at her face, brushing away with my hand loose strands of hair that had fallen over it. Only cold, unseeing eyes stared back. I planted my lips on her forehead and kept them there as I held her, letting a moment of eternity pass before I stood up and stumbled back into the street.
I wandered my way home sometime before morning arrived and threw off my dress and shoes. Bracing myself against the wall, I shuffled my way to the bedroom and collapsed into bed, where I didn’t leave for the next twenty-four hours. When I emerged from my room afterward, I found a cold mug of hot cocoa that I didn’t make and a pair of hands that weren’t mine sitting on my coffee table.
Watching the hands reassemble my mangled dress, whose current state I couldn’t even remember was caused by my doing or theirs, made my water taste of despair and I emptied the glass into the sink. I realized something felt off about the previous night; they only either left me alone or tormented me the entire night. Why go half & half? I tugged at the braid that I didn’t do. It was definitely there. Beyond that, however, nothing else seemed to have been done to me. The thought didn’t inspire reassurance. I looked over my body, searching for any scratches or marks, but there were none to be found. My clothes came next, and I examined them for any holes or tears. Nothing either.
Having laid out the dress in the shape that it once was, the hands reached into one of the pockets on its frontside where a conspicuous lump was still present and pulled out a palm-sized, velvet box. I didn’t even realize I had kept it with me. They raised the box into the air, ensuring that I knew they held it, and promptly released it into the TV. The box struck its stand and bounced off it onto the carpet. Its impact didn’t do any immediate damage, but it was enough to knock the TV off balance and send it colliding with the coffee table. It shattered as it fell, and fragments of glass combined with splinters as it cleaved a corner off of the coffee table.
The hands were getting impatient. For a year they made their desire clear and for a year I neglected them. For a year I had left alone what I meant to say to her, left it buried and forgotten within the scraps of my dress. I stepped around the counter into the living room and lifted a piece of the coffee table to grab at the box beneath. Keeping it in one palm, my fingertips ran over the velvet surface, picking up the dust it had accumulated sitting unattended. As I undid the clasp for the lid, the words came more easily now than I ever thought they would, slipping between my lips almost casually.
“Will you be mine?”
The hands—her hands—slipped out from the corners of my vision where they had darted after the spectacle and approached, palms up and outstretched. I slipped the ring, an elegant silver band, onto her finger and placed my own hands into hers. I ran my own fingertips over the glossy viridian nails, wondering how she possibly thought that mine could ever compare to hers. Her hands gently tugged, and I followed her to the center of the living room. There, stepping around, over, and into the pile of wreckage on the floor that no longer mattered between us, splinters of wood and fragments of glass that I couldn’t care less about digging into my feet, under the resplendence of the sun that ignited our intertwined hands, just as we should have on that night, we danced.