After the grenade went off under him, they had no choice but to cut off Jon’s arm. When Jon woke, he still felt the arm’s weight, but it wasn’t there. He fell back into the cot, eyes closed, and he saw it, his arm, his left arm, dancing in a field of purple pansies. How could an arm dance? he wondered. But there his was, its fingers moving like music, carrying the stump along, parting the flowers as it went. Pollen flew up and settled in the arm hair, which he knew would not stop growing, for hair grew on the dead and what was the arm but dead now?
Jon fell asleep, and the arm disappeared. There were no dreams of fingernails, of holding his Karen around the waist, no dreams at all, as his brain was overfogged with morphine. When he woke, he found it again, behind closed lids: his arm.
This time it was at a table in a smoky room. On the table’s green felt surface, an array of playing cards was spread like a lady’s fan. Across from his arm sat two legs and a hand, the hand using a stool to reach its own deck of cards, which it then held between fingers. The legs used their toes and kept dropping cards onto the ground, and each had a fat cigar hanging between the big and little toe, unlit. Smoke oozed from a machine in the far corner, which he could also see. The label read Sleaze’s Smoke, for that real cigar smell.
“Call,” said Jon’s arm. “You bastards better not have anything good.”
“I have double Aces,” said the foot. The hand slapped him across his arch. “Oops,” the foot mumbled.
Jon could still feel the arm, warm and scheming, could feel the slick of cards in its fingers. He opened his eyes to see if it had in fact returned, and the image of the card table vanished.
The nurse came in and changed the bandage, sniffed the air. “Has someone been smoking in here?” she asked.
He tried to describe what he had seen, his arm, playing poker, playing well, in fact, pretending to smoke a cigar. The nurse checked the morphine dispenser by the bed, asked him if he’d been pressing his button correctly. He nodded as best as he could and pressed it again.
Sleep came without dreams, again the fever sweats, the warm sensation of urine trickling down a tube between his legs, and the hairs on his arm standing attention at the sound of a medical cart squeaking down the hall. Again when he woke he kept his eyes closed, and the arm was in another room, at a table, across from an arm gloved in white lace. The hands closed their fingers over little sandwiches, Jon watched as white cream cheese oozed from the crust, and the sandwiches turned to mush in his hand’s tight squeeze. He opened his eyes to a white room. Closed them to a blue one, two hands intertwined in a bed with black silk sheets. My Karen, he thought. My Karen with two arms, and I have only one.
The sight of the coupled arms wrenched his gut. He tried to sit up, tried to call out, but found that he couldn’t – perhaps he was dreaming after all. The place where his arm once was throbbed, and the rest of him felt cold, as if all the blood in his body was pumping into a limb that wasn’t really there. Eyes closed, he saw an ocean of water, steam rising from its surface, a beach of the exfoliating salt scrub Karen used to keep in her bathroom. He could smell the perfumed flower scent of it, see the oil collected on its surface, disturbed only when a hand or foot waded through, pushing the oil to the side. A little arm dove into the oil and buried itself in the scrub.
“Come wash yourself off in the ocean,” Jon’s hand called out to the little one, and they dove together into water, one rinsing the other, the other moving its fingers in circles, like a dog wagging ten tails.
His eyes opened to a room which smelled of salt. Closed to a spider web with the hand caught in the middle, writhing and screaming. Jon felt the muscles tense, felt the sticky webbing caught to the arm hair, felt the fear, felt the spider legs creepy crawling over the skin, felt another’s fingers grab hold, pull until the web disappeared, help pick the bits of white away.
The hands and the hands and the hands together, all together, holding each other like lovers, like family in the dark behind his eyes. He concentrated with all his strength, reached his right arm over and let it lie against the bandaged stump at his shoulder. He felt from the other side the warmth of sun, the cold of rain, the soft of cushion, the rough of a book’s pages, the caress of fingernails so sharp they almost cut him.
He pressed his morphine button, not because he was in pain, but because he wasn’t.
My Karen, he thought, my Karen, they’ve got my arm, they’ve got my arm. I can feel everything, they’ve got my arm.
From the other land he felt a warmth press his fingers. He felt a hand with a ring on its pinkie where Karen’s used to be. It squeezed his arm, he felt lips against it, felt the hot mint breath of her, his Karen. She had found him at last, there in the hospital with a name he couldn’t pronounce even if he could talk through the morphine haze. She held tight to his remaining arm.
“You only need one,” she said.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam lives in Texas with her husband and their literarily-named cats: Gimli and Don Quixote. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in magazines such as Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit, and Daily Science Fiction. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and reviews short fiction at her blog, Short Story Review. You can visit her on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle or through her website: www.bonniejostufflebeam.com.