Heart in Hand

Colleen Kearney Rich

When the clerk at the hardware store asks about her fingerless gloves, the fancy red leather ones she treated herself to, there is a moment when she forgets. The clerk is asking if she rides. Rides what, she thinks and then remembers — the gloves. No, she tells the clerk and quickly takes her purchases.

The gloves are a part of her now. At work, people no longer ask. Others, she’s sure, imagine a germ phobia, especially when she wears the full-fingered ones, or a horrific scar. It is a scar of sorts, but nothing they could imagine.

Sometimes she blames Stephen King for planting the kernel, the idea that it could be something other, with the cover of the ratty old paperback of stories she found in her grandparents’ basement so long ago, the eyes peering out from a hand half covered in gauze. An image that haunted her for years. In the story, those eyes belonged to aliens, but hers…who knows?

Most often she blames herself, her carelessness in that dark foreign cave when she really should’ve been wearing gloves, her inattention to the scrape on her hand that seemed so minor she didn’t give it a second thought until it wouldn’t heal. In just a few weeks, it went from scrape to rash to callus to the supernatural thinning of the skin like a window in her hand. At first the gloves were protection to keep salves in place, to keep the wound clean. Now they represent a different kind of protection.

She never liked spelunking anyway, she tells herself. The crawling in mud, the bat guano, she shudders when she thinks of the dark spaces she willingly crawled into to please the cave man, to keep his attention. The cave man (her fiancé, she thinks nostalgically) couldn’t deal with her new situation. At least, that what she tells herself, late at night in her small efficiency apartment, alone but never really alone, not anymore. He said she had changed, she was “closed off,” that he needed to work on himself, focus on his own goals, but the truth was she felt the presence even then, something ancient and knowing, even in their most intimate moments. She was protecting him, couldn’t he see that?

This is, of course, after. After the months of appointments with doctors, after the prescriptions for different salves and creams, even steroids, and attempts to get her left palm to calm down and be normal. After the one dermatologist, the pretty petite one who would probably cut off her own hand before she would allow something so ugly to reside on her body, decided to do a “shaving” and get “that” to the lab. After the shave excision that hurt worse than anything she had ever known and propelled her into darkness. A vasovagal syncope, they had called her fainting, and she knew the beautiful doctor was moments from calling an ambulance when they couldn’t revive her quickly with their smelling salts and ice pack. She also knew “it” was protecting itself, starting to fight back. She never returned to the doctor’s office.

There are times when she has to take the glove off, times she peers into that scrim of skin through which she can clearly see veins and tendons of her hand and something else. A glow? She knows it is not an eye in the traditional sense, but she feels seen in a way she isn’t comfortable with and judged, as though there is an audience watching her through this portal of skin. Not alien, she thinks, but something primordial, something left behind on purpose, which was never meant to leave that dark underground space.

She has had to be vigilant. She can sense the hand’s reluctance to do what she expects of it, just milliseconds of reaction time but still there. When she wakes one morning to the hand stroking her hair, she pretends not to notice and begins to plan.

She chooses a busy campground, the kind she would normally shy away from, but she will need help from strangers. She places her purchases—a small hatchet and a bundle of wood—in the trunk of her RAV4 with the other camping supplies. There will be an accident, a life-changing one, but one she can survive, and it will never suspect a thing.

Colleen Kearney Rich is the author of the chapbooks Things You Won’t Tell Your Therapist (Finishing Line Press, 2019) and Bunnyman Bridge (A3 Press). Her writing has been published in the literary journals SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Matchbook, and Pithead Chapel, among others. One of the founding editors of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, she has an MFA from George Mason University in Virginia, where she also works.