Content warnings: emotional abuse, severed hand
Everything changed the day she found the hand.
She was on her hands and knees in the loose dirt under the porch, the afternoon sunlight shooting through the lattice boards in waffle-cut patterns. She was looking for a rat. Or a mouse. Possibly a raccoon. In any case, something was dead under here, and she liked to sit on the porch with Bethany after Bethany’s nap, and it was becoming increasingly unpleasant because of the smell of something dead.
She’d asked Alex to investigate. “Babe, this is the country. There are animals around. Sometimes they die,” he’d said
“But they don’t usually die under our porch! And it stinks! Bethany and I can’t sit on the porch, and now the front hall is starting to stink.”
Alex rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry we’re not living up to Candace’s standards,” Alex had spat out, slamming the door behind him and driving off to work. Candace was Emma’s mother, and while it was true that they weren’t living up to her standards and that her standards were impossibly high, this really had nothing to do with the rotting animal smell.
So Emma decided she had two choices: wait until Alex got home and have another fight about it, or find and dispose of the dead thing herself. She had some latex gloves she used on those rare occasions when she had time and energy to do a deep clean. And of course a bunch of N95 masks she’d stocked up on during the worst of the pandemic. So she donned her gloves and mask and grabbed a dustpan and a garbage bag and prepared to scoop a dead animal into the garbage bag and solve her own problem. Descending into the basement, she opened the window that led to the space under the porch and crawled through.
And then she saw the hand. It was a left hand, skin grey from decay, maggots eating patches of the flesh away. And it was large. Palm a basketball large. That was all her memory could reconstruct because she screamed in surprise and horror, and her scream woke Bethany up from her nap, so she had to scoot back into the basement, close the window, remove the gloves and mask so as not to alarm Bethany, go and wash her hands thoroughly because she did not want to touch her beautiful child with hands that hand been contaminated by proximity to their severed cousin. Finally she made it to Bethany’s crib, picked her up, held her, and cried.
She’d found a hand. This was not the life she had imagined for herself. Then again, she thought, very few people probably imagine they will one day find a severed hand. Soldiers, maybe. But not Emma.
When Alex had said, “let’s buy a farm and move to the country,” she’d pictured a charming old house amid rolling hills, a sumptuous garden, some chickens and maybe goats, maybe alpacas, friendly, low-maintenance animals, and she and Alex tired at the end of the day, not tired like they’d been after a day on Wall Street—an honest, clean fatigue brought on by the hard work of bringing life from the soil.
The reality, though, was that the house was old, and would perhaps have been charming if Alex had done all the repairs and improvements he’d pitched when they looked at the house. But it was more dingy than charming. And Emma was alone with Bethany here in upstate New York, carless all day and a mile from her nearest neighbors and hundreds of miles from her mother’s support.
“You two are codependent,” Alex had said. “You need to cut the apron strings and start living like an adult.” Which apparently meant alone with a baby in the middle of nowhere.
Once she’d collected herself, Emma realized she should call 911. But first Alex. She needed to hear the sound of his voice, to be reminded that she was not completely untethered from reality just because something bizarre had happened.
“Babe, I can’t talk” Alex said.
“It’s an emergency,” Emma said.
“Is Bethany hurt?”
“Are you hurt?”
“Is the house on fire?”
“Then it’s not an emergency, honey. I’ve gotta go. We’ll talk when I get home,” he said.
Well, that phone call was certainly a reminder of her reality, though maybe not exactly the kind of reminder she’d wanted. She used to dash off a Slack message and get five people to do things. People had listened to her, taken her seriously, even if she was only pretending to be competent.
Maybe Alex was right. Nobody was in immediate danger. Of course it was concerning to find a human hand under your porch, but an emergency? Was the hand going to come to life and kill her and Bethany? Extremely unlikely. So not an emergency then. Alex was right. She would not call 911 because it was stupid to tie up an emergency line for something that was not an emergency, and anyway, Alex would probably be upset if she took a step like that without consulting him. And then what would she do if they asked to search the house? Alex would definitely be angry at that. Best not to call. Best to wait until Alex got home.
Still, there was the smell. The pungent, sweet smell of decay had been gross when she thought it was a raccoon. Now that she knew that a hand that had once called the end of a real person’s arm home was rotting under her porch, it was intolerable. It would nauseate her just to smell it.
She knew she was irrational, as Alex often reminded her, but she felt that Bethany’s purity and innocence would somehow be tainted by inhaling the foul stench of the rotting hand. That Bethany’s entire future would turn dark when she inhaled the hand’s corruption. (of course Bethany had already inhaled the corruption, but that was when Emma hadn’t known. Everything was different now).
She went out the back porch. The grass was high, of course, but there was no need to nag Alex about it, he could see high grass as well as she could. She would just have to be vigilant about ticks. So, though the temperature was in the 80’s, she dressed Bethany in a onesie, pajamas, and socks, and herself in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt she’d gotten at her old firm’s offsite meeting at Mohonk Mountain House three years ago, when she’d sat in a rocking chair on the wraparound porch and fantasized about escaping Manhattan for the beauty of upstate New York.
She had no wraparound porch here, nor a rocking chair, but there was an old wooden bench left by the previous owners under an elm tree about fifty feet from the back door. It was in the shade now, so it would be cooler, but not exactly cool. She and Bethany sat, and she sang songs and read board books and nursed and it was actually quite a pleasant afternoon. Mostly. Because every now and again, Emma would remember why they were out here, would see the hand again in her mind, and would begin to worry.
How had the hand gotten under the porch in the first place? Was it placed there by an animal? Some sort of animal that would snatch Bethany from the yard the second Emma turned her back? How would she ever be able to let Bethany enjoy the country if she had to fear that something out there saw her as prey?
She scanned the yard, looked at the tree line, mentally preparing to fight…Wolf? Mountain lion? Bear?—to save Bethany. She didn’t see anything and realized that jumping at every movement on a day when the wind was causing tree branches to sway and shadows to jump was a quick way to lose her mind.
She realized there was a darker possibility. That The Hand was put here as a warning. That some In Cold Blood killers were trying to terrorize her before they came back in the night to kill them. As Bethany settled into a post-nursing snooze, Emma took out her phone, just barely within the reach of the house’s wifi signal, and searched for murders in the area, for news of people with their hands cut off, for examples of entire families found murdered in their beds.
The fact that she found nothing was not reassuring. Maybe the killers had dismembered someone who hadn’t been missed yet. Maybe Emma and Alex and Bethany would be their first victims.
There was a third, even darker possibility, but Emma would not let her mind go down that path. If she did, she’d be sure to say something to Alex, and he’d be sure to get angry.
Finally, Emma heard the crunch of the BMW’s tires on the driveway. Scooping up Bethany, she went running around the house to the front, meeting Alex before he got to the front door. At the sight of him, all of Emma’s pent up fear and worry and trauma came spilling out her eyes. She wanted to say things, to tell him about The Hand, to seek reassurance, but all she could do was sob.
Alex enfolded her and Bethany in his arms. “Whoa, whoa whoa,” he said. “Babe. What is it? What’s wrong?”
Emma tried again to get words out, and again she failed.
Alex pulled away from her. “I can’t deal with you when you’re hysterical,” he said, walking toward the house.
This threw the switch in Emma’s mind to “anger,” and the anger made her feel strong, strong enough to yell at Alex without thinking of the consequences. “It was a hand, Alex!” she yelled. “The smell. Under the porch. It’s a human hand! A rotting hand! Do you understand? Do you understand why I’m upset? Why I felt like being trapped in the house with the stench of rotting human flesh was an emergency even though the fucking house wasn’t on fire?”
Alex whipped around. “Don’t you swear at me. Don’t you ever swear at me,” he said.
The switch went back to “afraid,” and in a quiet, meek voice, Emma said, “I’m sorry. I just got so frightened, and so disgusted. I wanted to call the police, but—”
“Whoa,” Alex said. “But you didn’t, though, right?”
“No, I wanted to wait for you!” Emma said.
“Good girl,” Alex said, smiling. “We don’t want cops around here.”
“You mean you’re not going to call them?” Emma said.
Alex walked back to her and patted her on the head. “Hon. How’s that gonna look? If we tell them we found a body part. You know who the prime suspect is going to be? Me, that’s who. Because it’s at my house. They’ll start hounding me day and night, trying to prove that I cut off somebody’s hand and hid it under my own porch, and the fact that that would be an incredibly stupid move doesn’t mean they’ll stop. And you know how gossip spreads around here.”
She didn’t. She never left the house.
“Once word gets out that I’m being investigated for something like that, watch my business dry up. Watch Bethany’s life be a living hell when she starts school. You think people here will ever forget that? You think they’ll care that there’s not enough evidence to charge me? We’ll be pariahs, Emma. Think.”
She did. And she saw the wisdom of what he was saying. But still. Somewhere a body was missing a hand. Surely the hand was an important clue to bring someone to justice. Emma had seen cop shows. There might be DNA under the fingernails. Maybe that’s why the hand was cut off in the first place!
“But why? Why do you think it’s here?” Emma said. Put my fears to rest.
“How the hell do I know?” Alex said. “Maybe a vulture or a crow picked it up. Or a cat or something. I don’t know. Some kind of animal was going to eat it, probably got scared off by the sound of us walking on the porch.”
That was a good explanation. It was as nonthreatening an explanation as there could possibly be for having a severed hand under your porch. “Can you…can you please get rid of it?” Emma said. “I can’t stand the smell. And the…just the way it looked. It’s so gross, Alex,” she said, crying again.
He patted her on the head. “Of course, Babe. You and Bethany go out back and I’ll grab it and take it down to the lake and throw it in. And then we never have to think about it again.”
Except they did have to think about it again. Because Alex wouldn’t stop making jokes about it. First, on his way to remove the hand, he’d come out of the basement with a garbage bag singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” And then, after dinner, he asked if she wanted to play a HAND of Uno.
And he kept this up all night. Singing songs about hands. Asking her after dinner if she wanted to watch a movie. “Here’s one—Michael Caine in The Hand,” he said, laughing.
“Alex, this isn’t funny to me. Please,” she said. “It was really upsetting to me, and I know it’s a joke to you, but it’s not to me. Will you please stop making jokes about it?
He rolled his eyes. “Lighten up, babe. You’ve got no sense of humor, that’s your problem. How are you gonna get through life if you take everything so damn seriously?”
She wanted to yell at him, scream at him, make him understand how much this hurt her, but she knew he wouldn’t understand. He’d just get angry with her for ruining a perfectly good joke.
She put Bethany down for the night and did the dishes, and then had a seat on the couch next to Alex. She hoped he’d had his fun, but she decided to try and steer the conversation in a serious direction just in case. “Thank you for getting rid of it,” she said.
“Well, I am pretty handy around the house,” Alex said, grinning.
“Honey,” she said. “Please. It’s upsetting to me. I mean, it’s gross and horrible to find a human hand, but also it just makes me worry. What did this?”
“I told you,” Alex said. “An animal. Did you see the gap under the lattice? Solid six inches. A lot of things could make their way in under that.”
“Do you think they could...do we need to worry about something grabbing Bethany?”
He laughed. “See, this is why I was making jokes. You worry way too much! Bethany’s bigger than a hand, okay?”
“It was a pretty big hand,” Emma said.
Alex sighed, exasperated. “It was a big hand, but it did not weigh as much as Bethany. And it’s not...things that scavenge are not predators. You don’t have to worry about an animal.”
“What if it’s not an animal? What if it’s like...a threat or something?”
“What kind of threat? Like, it’s a pretty obscure message, if you ask me. It’s not like there was a note. Just a hand. Look. Honey. I know it was gross and I know it upset you, but you have to grow up a little bit and just get past it.”
Emma used to make six figures on Wall Street. She’d had her own apartment, a rigorous exercise schedule, bills that she paid on time. She was not a child. She stood from the couch. “I’m going to sleep in the guest room,” she said.
Alex sighed theatrically. “Great. I’ll expect an apology when you wake up in the morning.”
Emma lay in the guest bed, not sleeping. Was she overreacting? Was it childish to get upset over finding a severed body part? According to Alex, it was childish to get upset about anything, ever, unless you were him. And how was he so sure it was an animal?
What if it had something to do with the attic?
She didn’t know what was in the attic because Alex had told her in no uncertain terms that she was never to go up there. He’d also padlocked the door just to reinforce the idea. When she’d asked why, Alex had gotten very angry, but it had just seemed like a weird thing for a husband to do to his wife. “I paid the down payment,” she said. “It’s not fair that there’s a whole part of the house you don’t want me to go in.”
“God, I knew you were gonna throw that in my face,” Alex had said. His mouth moved like he was about to say something else, but then he’d taken a deep breath and calmed himself. “It’s just...not for you. Okay? It’s my attic. It’s private. Just because we’re married doesn’t mean you get to snoop around in my entire life.”
And that had been that. She’d pushed thoughts of the attic aside because who really wants to go in the attic anyway? But now, in the darkness, with the wind blowing outside and the old house creaking, scaring her each time till she reminded herself that the house always did this, that it wasn’t a serial killer, she couldn’t stop thinking of the attic.
What kind of warning was it, Alex had asked. But maybe he was running a drug business out of the attic. Maybe he was into things, sexually, that he didn’t want Emma to know about. Maybe that’s what the warning was about. Keep your hands off. Watch where you put your hands. That kind of thing.
It really was the only explanation that made any sense at all. Why would an animal drag a hand under the porch and not eat it? Why would someone want to terrorize them? People didn’t really do that for no reason except in the movies. In real life, there was a reason. And Alex knew what the reason was. Emma was sure of it. And, tomorrow, so would she.
Bethany got her up at 5 AM, and Alex yelled groggily from the bedroom that she needed to keep the baby quiet. The baby. That’s what he always called Bethany. Like she wasn’t a small person carrying half his DNA. Just a thing. Just like me, she realized, suddenly sure that he always referred to her as “the wife” when he was out of the house.
When he came down at 7, he said, “Are you ready to apologize yet?”
Emma just stared at him.
“I said, are you ready to apologize?” Emma didn’t dare refuse to answer a second time.
“I’m still upset,” she said. “And I didn’t sleep well. I kept closing my eyes and seeing—”
“Yeah, you need some medication, babe. Get the baby onto a bottle and start taking something. Because I gotta tell you, the sleep deprivation is making you a real bitch.”
She couldn’t storm off. She didn’t want to upset Bethany, and she certainly couldn’t leave her with Alex. So she just sat there. “I’ll see you at dinner,” she said.
“See? That’s what I’m talking about. I have to go out and work hard all day to support this family, and you send me out the door with that. You will start getting the baby weaned and onto a bottle today because I can’t live with you when you’re like this.”
Maybe you won’t have to, Emma thought but dared not say.
Alex left that house, and shortly after that, it was time for Bethany’s morning nap.
And Emma stood there, watching Bethany sleeping, and wondered if she was ready. She had looked at the lock many times. The screws on the hasp were superglued. The only way in to the attic was to break the hasp off the door frame, probably with a crowbar. And once she did that...well, she was confident that she and Alex couldn’t live in the same house anymore.
She played out the scene in her mind and found that, once she imagined Alex telling her he had just one simple rule for her to follow, just one thing he asked of her in return for all he did for her (but this wasn’t true. There were so many rules. So many things he asked of her), he would, at last, step over the line into violence. Emma didn’t know where this would stop, or even if it would stop. So breaking the hasp wasn’t just about finding out why the hand was in their house. It was a decision to leave. To escape.
Of course she could leave without breaking the hasp (and what if he had a surveillance camera up there that would ping his phone and bring him speeding home?), but she had to know what the hell was up there and why it had brought a severed hand into her life. Into Bethany’s life.
She ordered a grocery delivery. Alex would get the notification from the credit card app, but he wouldn’t think anything of it. She ordered groceries all the time. And then she just had to pray that a bedraggled young mother in tears could manipulate the delivery driver into giving her a ride somewhere where she could wait for mom to pick her up.
She packed a bag for Bethany. For herself, nothing. She didn’t want anything from this house.
“Your delivery driver is five minutes away!” the phone told her.
“This is it,” she said aloud. She went to the basement and grabbed a crowbar off the pegboard. She walked upstairs. Her phone beeped, the notification for a text from Alex. What the hell do you think you’re doing with a crowbar, it said. So he did have cameras here, watching her. If she’d ever voiced the suspicion, he would certainly have called her crazy.
She stomped up the steps. In her crib, Bethany began to cry. “Just a minute, sweetie, Mommy will be right there,” she called out. She walked to the attic door and looked around for cameras. She didn’t see any, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any there. “Watch this, you son of a bitch,” She said. She pried the hasp out of the door frame with a loud crack, splinters of the door frame flying. One of them got stuck in her cheek.
Opening the door, she marched up the attic stairs. She looked around. Her phone beeped twice. WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING???? YOU ARE A CRAZY PERSON and YOUR DELIVERY DRIVER HAS ARRIVED.
Emma descended the stairs, grabbed Bethany from her crib, grabbed Bethany’s bag, and went outside to throw herself on the mercy of the delivery driver.
Seven hours later, she put Bethany down in the portacrib next to her childhood bed and went to the living room to join her mother. Her mother had tall glasses of lemonade for them both, and Emma took a sip.
“Are you ready to talk about it now?” Candace asked.
“I guess so,” Emma answered.
“So what was it? After all this time,” Candace said, “What the hell was in the attic?”
Emma took a sip of her lemonade and looked out the window, seeing only the moths swarming in the beam of the outdoor floodlight.
“Dust, mostly” Emma said at last. “It was empty. It always had been.”