Most people you forget, but some you choose to no longer recognize. If chance had brought Em and me face-to-face on Worth Avenue, I would have looked past her and kept going.
But that day I was showing Mrs. Bevan the house on Brazilian. I’d staged the walk-through perfectly and she’d made encouraging noises. Now I would close the deal by taking her around the backyard with its new pool and hedges taller than the house. In Palm Beach, depriving yourself of light in this way was proof that you’d made it.
“Total privacy,” I said. “You could skinny dip out here and no one would see.” Taking a chance with that; despite platinum hair and big fake boobs (like mine) Mrs. Bevan seemed a bit stiff. Or maybe that was a Botox effect. Anyway, she tittered, enough to signal that while she would never make such a remark, she could still be amused by it.
Then came a crunching noise from the hedges to our right. A hand parted the green, and Em, whom I hadn’t seen in sixteen years, stepped into the open.
She looked old, more fifty than thirty-four, her face caved in and hair chopped short. But she still had the eyes of a wolf and Amazon dimensions. She wore faded jeans and a T-shirt with the logo PBC on it.
I tried not to recognize her. Or at least not to show I did, squinting as if the sun was in my eyes.
“Lux, it’s Em,” she said without hesitation, and she put out her hand—the right hand, not the left.
I shook it but also twitched my head sideways, giving her the hint to leave before fucking up my deal. Too late. I heard from behind me: “I’m Alexia Bevan. And you are?”
“Oh. Emmeline Hexter.” Again using her right hand to shake with Mrs. Bevan. Her left hand was buried in a huge canvas bag, hanging against her left side from a strap looped over her right shoulder. “Don’t live here. Doing my cat rounds.”
“Cats?” said Mrs. Bevan pleasantly.
“Palm Beach Cats,” I said quickly, “PBC, all the top people in the island community support it, getting rid of all the stray cats—”
“Feral cats,” Em corrected. Mrs. Bevan said, “Feral? Really. Tell me about it.”
“Well, not getting rid of them. Trap, neuter, vaccinate, and return. And feed them. There’s a feeding station across the street—”
“But this house isn’t a feeding station,” I assured Mrs. Bevan.
“No,” Em said, “Paula ran into your hedges. Side’s all gashed and probably infected. So just set out a trap there.” She pointed over Mrs. Bevan’s shoulder, and the stretching motion should’ve brought her left hand out of the bag.
Except there was no hand. Her wrist ended in a stump. Neat and smooth, like she’d been born with it.
From my throat came a sound but no words. Mrs. Bevan’s forehead cracked, opening a vertical crease between her eyebrows. “These aren’t my hedges,” she said to Em. Then to me: “Thank you, this gives me a good idea. I’m going to take a walk and think about it.”
She was gone before I could say anything.
Turning on Em, I said, “Well, thanks”—and stopped, suddenly feeling the shock of seeing her. Shock, yet also relief: like that of a criminal finally caught after a long time on the run. Em and I were inseparable for eight months. Then in one stroke we were severed. But our last time together, we killed someone.
“Sorry, Lux,” she said. We stood there on the lawn for a while, and then she added, “Long time.” Em never had said much. Words were my thing.
“OK, Em. You may as well tell me what happened.”
“Don’t worry”—shrugging at her stump—“it’s nothing. Manage fine without it.”
“I don’t mean that.”
“Oh.” Her wolf eyes regarded me, my shining hair, happy makeup, tits, tight dress (still too tight over my belly), no trace of black or purple anywhere. “Got more cats to feed. Ride with me?”
"How long…OK." I had nothing else today. I'd hoped to close the deal, do the paperwork with Mrs. Bevan, and then, before heading home to celebrate with Kelvin and Ava, sneak a drink at the Leopard Lounge. Plain vodka. Almost odorless and easy to mask with a cigarette.
Her car was parked across the street. A shabby SUV, white but thinning to a previous green in spots. There was a placard in the rear window, PBC Volunteer, I guess to keep Em from being challenged when she invaded the hedges of wealthy people.
My dress strangled me as I climbed up into the car. Still too fat, three months after Ava. It felt like my hips had permanently widened and my belly would never go down.
Em pulled out and did a U-turn toward Cocoanut, managing the wheel just fine with her only hand. I slid the Bevan folder into my briefcase and then tucked the case behind my legs.
She said: “Use your right hand still.”
“Well, so do you.” Did that sound defensive? “I guess you don’t have a choice now.” That sounded nasty. “Sorry.”
But Em didn’t look hurt. She nodded, twice. I’d never seen her lips curve upward, but when she nodded, it was like a smile from the inside. “True.”
“Do you still hold the paper sideways when you write?”
That was my first image of Em—Lancaster High School, Senior English class, pen jammed stiffly between her middle and ring fingers, paper turned so that her ungainly script seemed vertical. Instantly I knew she was left-handed like me, forced to use her right. She glared into space, not looking at what she wrote.
“Still a dopey fiend?”
I was dumbstruck. I knew what she meant—I first got her to meet me between classes in the Janitor’s closet by promising her a real opium stick. (Of course it was just pot, which she knew after a sniff, handing it back to me with an ominous, devouring stare.) It was her choice of words. “Dopey fiend” was something Pete used to call me.
“Fuck you,” I finally said. We both laughed. Em’s laugh still sounded like she was heaving up an undigested small animal. “How long you been in Florida?”
“Years.” Staring ahead as she turned onto Cocoanut, then stopped at the light on Royal Palm Way. “Wasn’t looking for you, Lux. Didn’t know you lived in Palm Beach.”
“I don’t. I work at Corcoran, at the bottom of Worth.” I wasn’t about to tell her where I do live.
“Oh. Live in West Palm. Right over the bridge at the St. Andrews.”
“But that’s for old people, isn’t it?” I really didn’t want to hear more about Em’s depressing life; from the look of her I knew she was a loser.
“True. Let me live there because the tenants like my massages. Real massage,” she added, “trained and certified. All volunteer but get my apartment at half the rent.”
“Are you married?” Even as I said this I couldn’t picture it. In high school we both hated men. I mean we hated everybody, but savored our tastiest hate for anybody with a penis. Em hated men because of her father; I guess I did too, even though I’d never met mine—I just knew my mother hated him.
Men were the reason we were forced to be right-handed. In Em’s case it had something to do with her father’s religion—originally Mennonite but he’d become a one-man splinter group—a left-hander was inherently evil, proof that its mother whored for the devil. His accusations drove Em’s mother to an early grave and he wouldn’t let Em out of his sight, dressing and treating her like a boy (she was strong enough to chop meat in his butcher shop), yet sometimes invading her bed at night. He homeschooled her until she got legally emancipated at seventeen, and enrolled in Lancaster High.
With me, it was because my father was left-handed. My mother called him “The Poet,” always spitting the word. She told me he claimed to be an artist but produced nothing, not even money, and abandoned her, young and pregnant, without a look back. On the other hand, my mother married two more times and those men left too. Before I turned eighteen I abandoned her myself.
Anyway, between feeding cats and massaging geriatrics it didn’t sound like Em had a paying job. Maybe her money came from an ex-husband, or a rich old lesbian.
“Never,” Em answered as she went through the Royal Palm intersection, and slowed down going past the elementary school. “Get by on Jacob’s—my father’s money. Monster tracked me down after a few years. Left me everything to say sorry. Not huge, but enough for me.”
So I guess it was my turn to tell her about my life now—Kelvin who I met in rehab (and made me pray with him every day for our continued sobriety), my transformation from pseudo-Goth to bleached Floridian, not rich enough to live in PB but blond enough to work there, finally at thirty-four getting pregnant and watching my body bloat to hell, now experiencing the joys of that tiny fist, Ava, screaming us awake all night yet both of us still limping to work in the morning because we had a mortgage in Lake Worth and a renovated baby’s room to pay off.
I said: “This car smells like cat piss.”
“Accidents. Cats are wild. Just did a major cleanup though.” Bracing the wheel with her stump (me swallowing a gasp), Em turned her face toward the back of the car and sniffed. “Huh Stripey,” she said, and “Sorry” to me. “Clean her crate next stop.”
“Can’t wait.” I opened my window all the way.
Em turned right on Pendleton and pulled to the curb about midpoint in the street. She opened all the windows, jumped out, and raised the hatchback. At first I stayed in my seat, not wanting anyone to see me with her, but then the smell got to me and I climbed out. I watched Em peel back a blanket from a long cage in the back. The cat, dark fur with darker stripes, lucent eyes, huddled at the opposite end. Em drew out soaked layers of newspaper, slid them into a black plastic bag, and tied it up. She sprayed Lysol and wiped the cage floor, the cat hissing when her hand got close. “OK Stripey. All fixed now. Home sweet home.” The cat crept forward, stopped, eyes taking me in warily, like Ava’s eyes when I brought her mouth to my nipple.
Em clapped her hands—the cat shot past us as if from a cannon, hit the grass and vanished into the hedges that hid this house from the street.
“OK, feed the others. Grab that?” She pointed in the general direction of a giant bag of kibble and four white bowls. We reached at the same time and she bumped into me, chin to the crown of my head, boobs to shoulders, crotch to butt. “Sorry.” But she remained still a moment. We used to lie in bed like that, like spoons, little spoon (me) facing the wall and big one (Em) molded to it from behind.
Then she handed me the kibble bag, clamped two bowls under her powerful armpits, and balanced the other two in her free hand. I followed her into the backyard, which had no pool and was landscaped like a garden. Em tramped right through it, somehow not stepping on any flowers. Suddenly four cats appeared, various sizes and colors, all mewing. Em put down the bowls, filled one with water from a jug in her sidebag, dumped soft food into another from a massive can, and said: “Put yours in the other two. Heap it high.” Then we stepped back, and the cats attacked.
Em watched them. “Don’t worry about Stripey—ate already.”
“I wasn’t worried,” I said. “I can’t believe the owners let you do this.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Salamanca are on the PBC board. Reminds me.” She returned to the car, got the black bag, and put it outside the closed garage. Then collected the bowls, now empty and shining like stripped bones.
I went back to the car. At least it didn’t smell now. Other than a staleness that I realized, when she climbed back in, was Em. “So, you married?” she said.
“What’s his name?”
“Kelvin. He works for ComCast—Operations Manager,” I added, so she wouldn’t think he was blue collar. Even though he was. I felt Em’s silence like a judgment. “Look, he’s a good man, better than I deserve. He works hard and he loves me. Would do anything for me.”
I didn’t say that he wanted me to stop working, be a stay-at-home mom, in keeping with his traditional views of family, although he was better suited to that role than me. I don’t love my job but I was relieved to go back.
“Still writing scenes?”
Scenes. That was my word. I never called them plays or stories. I liked to imagine scenes for us: in which we weren’t outcasts but outlaws—the Babes of the Bad Hand—our bad left hands being the source of our power. I would script these scenes and we’d perform them together. I dressed Em, made her up, fed her words, but she didn’t need any. Unlike me, she never seemed to be acting: she really thought her left hand was evil.
“Do I look like I write scenes anymore? OK, I guess I’m still acting. Every day in fact. That was my big scene you interrupted.”
“I’m not Lux anymore. Or Louise, thank God. I’m Lucy now. And yeah I’m right-handed.” I leaned into her face and jerked my chin at the stump resting patiently on her lap. “And I don't care if you're Em or Emmeline or Emerald, or how you lost your hand. I’m only in this car because I want to know what happened.”
Em held my eyes. “Pete,” she said, and started the car. “Next feed is Garden.”
Pete was a senior like us, but a year older, having been left back. He was also asthmatic and, at almost 300 pounds, morbidly obese. So naturally he was a target, called Jabba the Fuck or Hoggot (hog + faggot) or worse, and you’d often see him surrounded by jocks who enjoyed gut-punching him or shoving him to his fat knees. Once we came upon some girl jocks doing this, and the biggest of them, a six-footer on the volleyball team, asked if we wanted to be next. Before I could improvise a scene, Em grabbed the six-footer with one hand and flipped her away like a giant tossing a dwarf. That scattered the others.
And then we were reminded that Pete did have two things going for him: a smile that could almost make him handsome (as long as you didn’t look below his chin) and a sense of humor. “Wow. Clash of the dykes. Lucky me.” Wheezing it out the corner of his mouth drew a laugh-grunt from Em.
“We aren’t dykes,” I said. “We’re babes of the bad hand. Post-modern empowered embittered sluts.”
“Ho, what a word whore you are. For that you get free cancer.” He always had cigarettes and was quick to share them. “Nice makeup, Luigi.”
“Lux. Fuck you!” I hated my real name (Louise) and hearing any twist on it sent me into a rage. I stepped closer as if to shove him myself, and he said: “Anytime anywhere.” And gave me his smile.
I wasn’t just thin-skinned in those days. I didn’t have any skin. I considered myself a superior being and yet the lamest put-down made me wish I was dead. I craved attention yet being labeled felt like a fate worse than death. Didn’t matter if the label was sweet, mean, cool, geek, slut, gay—or, in my case, Goth, because of the colors I wore, my dead-white makeup. But I wasn’t Goth! I would howl (silently). Nobody had the slightest clue to the real me. Me neither.
That’s why Em secretly awed me. She was supposed to be my creature. She couldn’t write, could barely talk, had no grasp of clothes or makeup, wasn’t really a girl or a boy, actually not even human, yet always totally herself. And this made her invincible somehow, superior to me. Yet she never realized it. She would listen to my talk or read the scenes I wrote and nod twice, her ultimate expression of approval.
Our need was mutual, not sexual. We’d sleep in the same bed but never even kiss. And for all our manimosity, when a male classmate mocked us, we would drag the fool to the janitor’s closet for a double handjob—a hatejob I called it, given with a contempt that degraded him, not us. That was one of the tenets I created for us: Babes of the Bad Hand could never be degraded. And anyway we made them pay.
Our small earnings gave me an idea. My mother was determined to send me to college, and despite their separation, Em’s father kept nagging her to become his partner in the butcher shop after she graduated; both prospects felt like doom. Maybe the hatejobs pointed a way out. We could make big money being scary prostitutes, and we wouldn’t have to pay taxes. We just had to get out of Lancaster, assume new identities, and set up business in another town, maybe Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.
Em would be a natural, with her wolf-Amazon look and mild silences that could at any moment be torn by her jagged voice, like a razor slitting her own throat along with yours. Once when we watched The Exorcist on YouTube, and the demon started speaking through Linda Blair, I said in Em’s ear: “That's you, bitch.” And Em seemed genuinely puzzled.
My job would be to dress this up, brand and market it. So I created leather costumes and shot a photo of us wearing them with our tits showing and the headline, Babes of the Bad Hand—Threesome Adventures for Men. I proudly showed it to Em and all she said was: “Looks like we’re going to kill somebody.”
“Exactly,” I said.
“But how’s it work?” she said. “What do we do with these guys?”
“Relax, I’ve got the whole scene mapped out.” I didn’t have a clue. I had to study some purloined S&M magazines. These gave me enough ideas to flesh out our dominatrix act. But where to perform it? Who on? Em rented rooms from a nosy family, so we couldn’t use her place. And we didn’t dare practice on the same jerks we gave hatejobs—they would talk, and the school and then our parents would find out.
So on this particular day, Pete’s smile was enough to defuse me. He said, “Hey, dopey fiend, I mean it. Anytime anywhere. Both a you.” Smiling at Em to include her. On impulse I said, “Take a look at this,” and showed him our ad. He laughed and said, “Pretty hot.”
“How’d you like to be our first customer?” I said.
He would very much like, it turned out. And because his parents were going away for a long weekend, we could do it at his house.
We went over on Sunday morning, and locked Pete out of his bedroom while we turned it into our Dungeon. Windows and walls covered in black sheets, bed stripped to the box spring, ropes at each bed post, smoky candles, Metallica music, and our “instruments” arranged on Pete’s desk—riding crop, nipple clamps, a couple of dildos, and the full set of butcher knives and saws that Emerald lifted from her father’s shop the night before. Then we changed, transformed ourselves into scary Bad Hand Babes.
When Pete knocked on the door at noon, I flung it open, yanked him in by his shirt, and snarled, “You piece of shit.” Em gave him a shove that put him on his knees. “I am Lux and this is Emerald and we’re your worst nightmare, you fat fuck. We’re going to stomp you like the load of whale shit that you are. Got it?”
Pete started to laugh, so Em smacked the back of his head and shoved the riding crop between his shoulder blades. He hit the bare floor, which made him wheeze but didn’t wipe the smile off him. With her stiletto heel Em pressed his face into the floor. “Got it?” I screamed. He managed “OK” out of the side of his mouth.
Emerald pulled him up by the hair, I waved my knife in his face and told him what we were going to do to him, and Emerald ripped his clothes off, popping shirt buttons to show we meant business. Then we tied him to the four corners of the bed. We played out the scene as I’d planned it, me the voice of abuse, Emerald the muscle. But Pete’s incredible layers of fat made everything awkward, and seemed to insulate him from feeling much pain. Or much of anything—his cock remained tiny between his giant belly and thighs.
Every time I spoke, the scarier I tried to be, the more Pete would look like he was trying to keep from laughing. It started to piss me off. Worse, Emerald kept pursing her lips like she was ready to laugh too.
“You’re nothing but a cunt,” I said. “Your dick’s like a clit and your asshole’s big as a well. You disgust me.” Right on script, but spoken it sounded stupid, and laughter burst from both Pete and Emerald; hers so loud it was like a frog had leaped out of her mouth and landed with a splat on Pete’s belly.
I almost stabbed him with my knife, dropped it at the last second; and was so furious with myself that my left hand grabbed him by the throat. “Ooh yeah,” Pete gurgled. I looked at his prick and saw signs of life. Emerald saw too and her left hand joined mine around his throat, pressing even harder, while our right hands helped him down below. He came fast, wheezed “ooh yeah” again, closed his eyes with a sigh.
A few minutes later, after we’d washed up and untied him, we realized that Pete wasn’t moving. He didn’t seem to be breathing either. Shouts in his ear, water in his face, pulling his eyelids back, smacks and jabs—nothing roused him. He lay there with a peaceful smile. Emerald put her ear against his chest. “Think he’s dead.”
I started to scream—Em wheeled around and punched my solar plexus. That knocked the breath out of me. Then she hugged me almost tenderly. She said in her low voice: “Listen. Can’t panic. Have to get rid of him.”
“Can’t we just leave him?”
“No. Too much DNA.” That got me sobbing. Emerald raised her hand as if to strike me again, but didn’t. “So. You leave. Let me take care of it.” I didn’t argue; I just couldn’t move. “Go. Change your clothes and get out of town.”
She helped me get dressed, had to walk me to the back door. Her parting words: “Get out today. Don’t go to Philly. Leave the state and never come back.”
The same day, I took a train to Tallahassee, Florida. Changed my name and hair. Got a cheap boob job and made money working in massage parlors. Worked my way down to Lake City, Gainesville, Ocala, and after a couple of years could almost believe no one was chasing me. I started working my way up, so to speak, to towns like Tampa, Vero Beach, Jupiter, West Palm, to a GED and a community college degree and jobs in real estate, with a side trip into drinking and drugging, then getting clean and finding Kelvin, God, a better job in Palm Beach, a house in Lake Worth, and Ava. I played the role of bleached Floridian and the role became my life.
Em said nothing all the way to Garden. She parked at a rundown, light blue brick house with a For Sale sign—not one of ours—and in silence we prepared and set out the bowls in the weedy backyard. Four filthy kittens, all grey, darted into the open and attacked the food like it was their first meal ever, followed by an adult cat, white but even more filthy, probably their mother by the way they let her push them aside to take her turn at the kibble. “Pete’s not dead.”
“Don’t move,” she said and took the kibble bag from me. Meanwhile mom and kittens had scattered, at the approach of a huge grey cat, big enough to pass for a dog in the dark, easily 25 pounds even with his ribs showing. His tail bent at an odd angle and one of his ears was missing. You’d find his picture next to “feral cat” in the dictionary. But when Em took a step forward, he didn’t run. He watched the bag in her hand.
Em turned the bag upside down over the bowl and let it empty out, even as the kibble overflowed all over the grass. With her stump she drew something out of her side bag and managed to toss it over the cat as he bent his head to eat—some kind of net. Instantly the cat turned to run but the act of turning only put him deeper into the net and he stumbled; with one sweep of her right hand Em ditched the bag and gathered edges of the mesh and swung upward; and I was amazed to see the net over her shoulder like a sack with the hissing, biting, clawing cat in it.
“Get the back open!” she shouted at me. Once I had the hatchback open—“Open the crate!” I did and though the cat must have been inflicting scratches on her back Em slowly brought it off her shoulder and stuffed it, net and all, into the cage. As she withdrew her hand his claws raked three red lines across it, but Em managed to shut and latch the door. I gasped; Em nodded her nod and said softly, “There you go, old man. Take care of you now.”
“You’re bleeding,” I said. “Alcohol and bandages in my bag,” she said, still calm. As I poured and wiped and wound a bandage around her hand, she explained, “Tom-Tom the Stud. Producing litters all over the island and nobody’s been able to trap him.”
“Already looks like he’s been through a war,” I said. “So now you’re going to cut his balls off, too?”
“Necessary. For your own good,” she added directly to Tom-Tom, who blinked at her words. “We should go,” she said, “I don’t want him choking himself in that net.”
Then, once we were back on County Road:
“First thing was to get rid of every trace of us except the knives. Put him in the tub—that took a while, he was so heavy—and got the knives and plenty of garbage bags. Figured to scatter Pete all over Pennsylvania. Start with the head and bag it so his eyes wouldn't be on me the whole time. But pressing the knife on his throat, could swear it pushed back, swallowed. Slapped his face again, blew air into his mouth. Made that asthma attack noise of his. He woke up.”
She stopped talking. I turned and she was facing ahead, driving. I had never seen Em cry and there were no tears now. Not even a glint where the sun hit her eye.
“So he was alive?”
My voice didn’t shake. I mean, I already knew my life was a lie. Only now it was clear that the whole thing was an unnecessary lie. I could shout my real name from any rooftop, dye my hair black and be a Bad Hand Babe again. But then, that had been a lie too. Nothing but lies, behind me, ahead of me, and I stared through the windshield like it was a mirror that reflected nothing.
“Yeah,” she said, “groggy at first, but in ten minutes he was fine. Laughing. Asked why was he in the tub—was that part of the session. Let him think that, got him washed and dressed…and then said he needed to do me a favor.”
I immediately knew what she meant.
“You have to understand, Lux. When he wasn't dead—knew we hadn't killed him—it was like a second chance. Wanted to get rid of the part of me that choked him. Cut out what was bad, forever.”
“He did the cutting?”
“No. But he wrapped the arm up in towels and threw the hand off the bridge on the way to the hospital. Kept saying why. Dropped me at the emergency room. Never saw him again. But he was alive.”
“And you’re crazy,” I said. “I guess I always knew that.” We stopped at the light by Green’s Pharmacy, I almost got out of the car, then turned on her. “And it never occurred to you to tell me that he was alive?”
“Tried your phone, but you must have tossed it. And you were gone. No idea where you were. Left town but always kept this phone. You never called.”
“You’re right, I didn’t. I was smart not to. Maybe you would’ve cut the bad out of me, too, you crazy bitch.”
“Fuck Lux! Look. I’m exactly what you and I despised and swore we would never be. Married with a baby, safe and stupid. And I don’t care.”
“Are you happy?”
“Oh please. Are you happy?”
“Actually, in a way…yeah.”
“What a success story. Chopped Off My Hand and Changed My Life. You should write a book.”
Em didn’t wince, or laugh, or snarl back, just drove; and only when we’d parked on Brazilian, where I guess she was going to check her other cage, did she nod, twice, and turn to me.
“It was a mistake. Know that now. Thought the bad was in the hand, but it was me. Would always be. But knowing that, and still trying to live better—to be useful—”
“You may be useful, but you’re not living. You’re dead.” I grabbed her remaining hand, pushed it against my belly. “I gave life. I’m making a family.”
“You think that gets rid of it? No, it’s always there. I accept that.”
“So long, Em.” I opened the door and got out, started walking. The sun blinded me; I realized I’d left my sunglasses in her car. But I kept going, past my own car, straight toward Cocoanut and Leopard Lounge and the drinks that I needed.
Tim Millas lives with Susan and Clare off the coasts of New York, Florida, and Maine. His stories have appeared in many publications, including Amarillo Bay, Confrontation, Eclectica, Exquisite Corpse, Gargoyle, Literary Orphans, Unlikely 2.0, Unlikely Stories of the Third Kind, and Unlikely Stories: Episode IV.