The Persistent Hand
by Steven Julson
Melissa was at the sink with bubbles up to her elbows, fighting burnt smudges of cheese from a casserole dish, when the thief forced his way through the backdoor.
Melissa screamed, and the man hesitated. Then, as if by magnetic compulsion, his eyes locked onto her gold bracelet shining alluringly through the bubbles. With an excited whistle, he grabbed Melissa’s soapy wrist. The bubbles allowed her to slip free and, when he could not regain control of her thrashing arms, he raised his fist to strike her.
Rounding the corner in his police shirt and underwear came Daddy. The thief made a surprised Oh! as Daddy put an arm-bar across his throat and tore him down into the basement.
“Call the station, sweetheart!” Daddy said.
Melissa rang the police station and explained the situation to the dispatcher, who at first interrupted her to say, “Oh, Melissa, sweetie, how was the swim meet?” Hanging up, she peered down into the basement. The ceiling light swung wildly and cast their flickering forms against the concrete wall like shadow puppets. The thief appeared to be bound to a chair and had a bucket over his head. Daddy held what might be an axe.
The thief made quite a noise, even muffled.
“Sweetheart, have you seen Daddy’s tape?” Daddy called up.
She had. She had used it to patch her backpack, and it was still in her room. But she wasn’t supposed to touch Daddy’s things. Meekly, she leaned through the door’s threshold and said, “No.”
There was a pause and then Daddy said, “All right.” Using the back of the axe, Daddy’s shadow struck the bucket atop the thief’s head with a teeth-shattering blow. The man cried out and then slumped over sleepily.
Minutes later, she heard sirens on her street. Familiar faces in uniform barged through the front door, and she pointed them down into the basement. The last officer in gave a polite tip of his hat before closing the basement door.
For a moment, things got real quiet. Then they got real loud.
Melissa’s grandmother, a wild stick in a billowing dress, entered the kitchen while gumming on her dentures. She was carrying a pan of meatballs. Melissa was unclear where she might have got them outside the kitchen. Humming a nonsensical tune, Grandmother spun her dentures on the flat of her tongue in a grotesque, saliva-filled dance. With an expert lick, she slid them into her mouth and bit them into place. “You need to eat, love,” she said. “You look like a spatula with that big hair on those tiny legs. How about a meatball?”
While listening at the basement door, Melissa acquiesced and took one from the tray, hoping it would make her grandmother scoot away. It was room temperature and unusually heavy for a meatball. Disgusted, she was looking for a place to pitch it when Grandmother came within inches of her face in anticipation of the first bite. Not eating it wasn’t an option, now. Saying she wasn’t hungry wasn’t a viable choice, either; Melissa had been force-fed before. The only option was to take it in one go: skip the chewing, gulp it down, and pray the taste did not register. So, she did.
“They still good?” Grandmother asked. “I misplaced them three days ago. Just found them in my bedroom, would you believe it? Funny how meatballs hide like that.”
Footsteps came up the basement stairs, and Melissa rushed to the table while the disgusting ball of meat banged its way down to her stomach. Then the door opened.
“Put this out with the trash, sweetie, please,” Daddy said. He held out a black trash bag. His hair was sticking to his wet forehead, and his hands looked as if they had been shaping burger patties.
Melissa, feeling the meat slosh about her gut, walked the bag outside while wondering about its contents. After a quick look over her shoulder, she angled the bag’s opening under the porch light, but the object was in too deep to see. She raised it up from the bottom of the bag and screamed.
It was the thief’s hand, soaking in a pool of its own blood.
Melissa felt the meatball reverse course. She was running for the side of the house when it exited the way it had entered, accompanied by a spray of puke, which she cast out into the night air and promptly ran into, soaking herself from the chest down. While she was reorienting herself, officers came out, carrying the limp thief between them. “I need it back,” he muttered.
Melissa shambled into the house and heard Grandmother mirthfully shrieking that a rat had come inside. Grandmother whipped a wooden cooking spoon at the corner of the couch with a joyous cackle. “That’s a big one, I tell ya.” She clapped her twitching hands excitedly and recovered the spoon. “We used to eat the big ones. So long as you could catch ’em.”
Daddy came up from the basement with a mop and a roll of paper towels. Melissa turned away so he would not see the putrid accent she had added to her clothes.
“Time for bed,” he said.
Melissa went upstairs, showered, and vigorously brushed her teeth. She thought about the thief’s severed hand leaking fluids and prematurely rotting just outside her bedroom window. Unable to stop it, she bent over her sink and dry-heaved. Her throat clucked loudly but everything had already come out.
Daddy appeared in the doorway. “You all right?” he asked.
Regaining her composure, she placed her hair tidily behind her ears and said, “Yeah.”
“Okay,” he said. Then, “Is that your throw-up outside?”
After a moment, he said, “I might have gotten carried away.”
“Is it still outside?” Melissa asked, meaning the hand.
“Far as I know,” he said.
Melissa wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.
“Get some rest,” he said.
Daddy patted the doorframe and offered a smile that said, “Sorry you looked in the bag,” and he went downstairs.
When she climbed into bed, she heard Grandmother banging across the floor with a broom and yelling after the rat. Daddy continued going in and out of the basement. There was, too, an odd scratching sound somewhere below. Then, sleep.
She awoke some time later to a sound. Scratching. That scratching again. Is it on the stairs? Then, sleep.
No, she thought, and forced her eyes open. It’s the rat. Under any normal circumstances, she would have called for Daddy. Instead, she shut her door and returned to bed.
Hours later, the sun knocked on her eyelids and, with effort, she opened them. The pleasant brightness in her room delayed the memory of the previous night by a few paltry seconds. Then she saw someone had opened her door.
Something tickled her wrist underneath the blankets. She felt the sensation of tugging and then the distinct feeling of fingers shoving themselves between the bracelet and her wrist. With a horrified start, she tossed back her blankets.
The thief’s severed hand was groping at her bracelet’s lock, its blood forming clots on her white sheets. Melissa flailed her arm and sent the hand on an airborne course for the wall. With a wet smack it crashed into a corkboard full of photographs, splashing blood across her and her friends’ frozen faces.
The persistent hand righted itself on the ground and scuttled across the room towards her. In its reckless haste, it became entangled with a bra that had missed the laundry basket. It spun and tossed like a cat caught in a fight with a shoelace. Then it continued its charge, the bra trailing along behind it.
In seconds, it had scaled the mattress. Screaming in terror, Melissa scrambled frantically out of bed. The hand, as if a practiced cowboy, swung the bra and caught a strap around her ankle. Quickly it set the other strap around a bedpost, and Melissa fought to free herself. Then the hand marched forward in its covetous crusade towards Melissa and her bracelet.
Bounding up the stairs came heavy feet, and it was Daddy whose name she screamed. Yet in came her milky-eyed grandmother, her dentures askew and hair amiss. With a spryness not commonly found in the elderly, she leapt onto the thief’s hand and snatched it up in her dress.
The hand fought within the folds, but Grandmother paid it no mind. “Good thing I heard you calling, dear. I was wondering where the little plump went to.”
Melissa rubbed her wrist to remove the lasting imprint of the hand’s prodding fingers.
“Grandmother, give that to Daddy!” Melissa said.
“Oh no, love,” her grandmother said while heading for the stairs. “Daddy’s gone to the station. But this fella here’s got a meeting with the cooking pot. He’s got meat enough for a hash.”
Melissa covered her mouth in horror.
“Give me ten minutes, love, he’ll cook up quick. Then come on down for breakfast.”
Copyright © 2019 by Steven Julson