The unraveling began with dreams about hands. Crushed hands, missing hands, hands paralyzed and misshapen. Bloody stumps, crushed bones, tendons snapped in half. I would wake up with my hands in fists, face pressed into the pillow, wheezing, still feeling the mist of pain before it dissolved each morning. After the third dream, I had the strange, nagging feeling that these were not nightmares, but something more.
“Are you going to be late?” Liam asked. He was lying in bed, facing the wall. Our backs curved away each other, lightly touching at the base of our spines. My alarm had gone off twenty minutes before, a soothing harp song that often sent me right back to sleep. I had begun to rely on Liam to wake me up, which was dangerous on the days we slept apart.
“I’ll be all right,” I said. I lifted one arm, raising it to the ceiling. I felt like a corpse in a grave shoving her hand through the dirt to the surface. Gazing upward, I saw there, at the end of my arm, a hand. Perfectly formed. Fingers trim and long, piano-player muscles, a pleasing slope from knuckle to wrist. Whole. With a blink my dream-hand superimposed itself, the skin peeled back and fixed with long-pins, the glossy meat and matte white bones revealed. I had been sitting center stage in an antique operating theater, alone under a single spotlight. My left hand was limp and bandaged in my lap while my right hand was fixed, by those long-pins, to a small table. A voice that belonged to another hand—a hand in pale yellow latex holding a scalpel—attached to an arm that disappeared into darkness. The voice droned on.
“And you’ll see how the Palmar metacarpal ligaments . . .”
I blinked again and was back in bed. I had never heard the term Palmar metacarpal ligaments once in my waking life. However, my subconscious seemed to have a very firm grasp on anatomy. Maybe we had watched a documentary about human physiology while I napped in the back row of biology.
“You’re really going to be late,” Liam said, his concern showing in the fact he sat all the way up in bed to look at me. “You’ve been late, like, ten times already.”
“It’s only been once or twice,” I mumbled to him. It’d been eleven times, a feat in itself as it was only the fourth week of the semester. Punctuality used to be my watchword, but waking up and fending off the aftermath of my nightmares had caused my life to fall behind, as if my dreams had shifted me over to a parallel reality where time ran ten minutes slower.
“Are you coming over tonight?” Liam asked as he rolled back over to the wall. I thought for a minute.
“Yeah, we can sleep at your place,” I said, remembering. On Thursdays I didn’t have class until noon, so I would sleep over at his apartment across campus on Wednesday evenings. I skipped last Wednesday to get some sleep.
“You were making weird noises in your sleep again—was it a hand dream?” Liam asked, muffled by the comforter.
“It feels like all my dreams are hand dreams,” I said as I shoved my legs into my jeans and jerked a brush through my hair. I could feel strands giving way, snapping. So far, my hands had been crushed by rocks, paralyzed by spider bites, hacked off with an axe, and had all the fingers surgically removed. The dissection one was new, and I tried to rank it in preference to the other options. The gory images and remembrance of the pain made my stomach lurch sideways.
“I’ll text you later,” I said and slipped out the door to go to class. I checked my watch and considered. I could cut class and do the homework for my other class. The buildings were far apart on the sprawling campus and if I just went to my second class I would be in the right area for my barista shift. Alternatively, I could call sick into work, go to my first class late, then walk to Liam’s apartment early and see if he would make me dinner, and use the time on the walk over to call my mom, which she had been bugging me to do. However . . . I shook my head. I would go to both classes, call my mom, go to my work shift, and bring Liam dinner from somewhere.
Seven hours later I had managed to go to both classes but had called in sick to work and was sitting in on the front porch of the house Liam rented with five of his friends. March sunlight, weak yet somehow still blinding, stabbed between the buildings. I held up a hand to block the light. Blood dripped down cracks in my skin and my nails had split. In another breath, they were fine. I felt uneasy that my dreams had begun to leak out into the real world, like an oil spill that left a greasy coating over all it touched.
Then Liam was walking towards me looking pleasantly surprised.
“No work?” he said.
“Nope. I got the day off just to spend with you,” I said, standing up to greet him.
“You’re playing hooky,” he said, returning my hug with in the placid way he always does.
“Believe my lie, I told it just for you,” I teased, reaching for his hands which did not dissolve into mist or break off when I grabbed them.
“Are you and Tara still fighting?” he asked. I marveled at his ability to pinpoint exactly what I didn’t want to talk about, and then bring it up right away.
“We’re besties, we’ll figure it out. Let’s talk about something else, like the fact I’m going crazy,” I said as I sat down in the breakfast nook. Tara and I weren’t fighting necessarily—we were just at the point in our friendship where you start to notice the other person’s character faults and haven’t figured out how to deal with them yet.
“You’re not going crazy, you’re just stressed.” Liam put a pot on the stove and turned on the burner. “What kind of pasta?”
“Done. Did you go to class today?”
“Of course I went to class, but I couldn’t focus.” Liam threw a chunk of parmesan at me with a grater. Obligingly, I began to grate it, watching the soft yellow squiggles gather in a bowl. For a second I imagined grating the skin of my knuckles, but the thought faded.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked, tearing fresh basil into the pasta sauce.
“I had another one,” I said. Liam slowly stirred, not needing clarify what I meant.
“Thought about seeing a person? Then you could talk about the dreams, and Tara, dealing with your classes and work and—”
“I don’t need to talk to anyone. I’m talking to you and that’s all that’s gonna happen.” I crunched down on a piece of dry pasta and looked pointedly out the window. “People have nightmares all the time.”
“Other people don’t cut class, skip work, and avoid their friends and family. But,” he said, seeing my pointed window—staring, “Other people aren’t you.”
“Damn straight,” I said. Liam looked at me strangely, then drained the pasta.
The girl to my left passed me the exam and my eyes wandered over the page. Nothing looked familiar. My pencil rested heavy in my hand; the line for writing my name blurred and waved. Turning to the window the sky appeared washed out, overlaid by a bright yellow tinge. The branches of the pine tree were vibrating. I looked back. My hand holding the pencil was stiff, the fingers at odd angles. Was this how normal hands looked?
Focus on the essay questions, breathe, relax. I put the tip of my pencil to the page and it broke, the grey lead splintering off into tiny, microscopic shards. I imagined those shards slowly burrowing their way into my palms. Imagined everything I touched marked with the dark grey smudges. Trailing a finger across a piece of paper and writing my name. The lead overtook my hand though, spreading until my hands were no longer made of flesh and blood but graphite, brittle. Too much pressure and they shattered, becoming nothing more than dust and gritty fragments scattered across the desk.
I turned back to the test. I sharpened my pencil. Then the professor announced that it was time and everyone around me rose and shuffled out the door. The professor looked at me over his glasses.
“You need to turn in your exam now.”
The empty sheet stared at me from the narrow desk.
“I–I didn’t start it yet,” I said, stumbling over the words.
“You haven’t started it?”
“Yes, I–I, couldn’t focus, I was feeling dizzy and—”
“Turn in what you have and if you have a problem take it up with the dean or come see me—I have to go to a meeting.” He left. Holding the test like it was toxic, I dropped it onto the pile and left the room.
The dean did not understand me.
“I’m trying to make sure I’m understanding you. You hallucinated during your test?”
“Well, kind of, but not really, I’ve been having dreams, these dreams . . .”
She pushed her glasses up the bridge or her nose with an authoritative finger. She rearranged papers on her desk.
“You failed your test because of a nightmare?” When I didn’t respond, she sighed. “I’m trying to understand why you need to retake the test. Are you trying to apply for extra-time on tests? It can’t be applied retroactively.”
Words were like tar in my mouth as I tried to explain. I watched the concern morph into confusion, disbelief, then a resolute statue.
“I don’t believe there’s anything I can do. If you’re worried you should go to the Student Health Center or try and get some sleep. Talk to your professor as well.”
I left without saying goodbye. Late-dropping the class wouldn’t look good, but it was better than sabotaging my GPA. In my pocket my phone was vibrating. I didn’t answer and let the vibrations continue indefinitely. Wandering back across campus I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what going crazy was like. For a moment, you’re walking in the sunlight and you have your mind and the next moment the trees look like decaying fingers and there’s a sick green tinge at the corners of your vision and you imagine the wind as razors sliding across your skin instead of just gently blowing.
My apartment was still three blocks away. I could walk. That’s a simple thing to do, the one foot then the next. Under my breath I repeated to myself, “Forget about hands, forget about it, forget about it . . .”
At my apartment, Liam was waiting.
“You’re not answering your phone,” he said, brows furrowed. I sensed he wasn’t so much concerned as perplexed.
“It’s off,” I replied, fishing my keychain out of my bag.
“For the last two days?”
“I had a meeting with the dean.” Liam looked at me.
“What for? Are you in trouble?” He said it slowly, as if the idea of his girlfriend and trouble were incompatible ideas. I was with him. They were still incompatible ideas to myself as well.
“I’m not in trouble, I just had some issues with a midterm and was seeing what my options were.” I reached for his hand and tried not to look, tried not to feel the clasping of fingers and meeting of palms. I wondered what it felt like, to hold my hand. Could he feel the tendons and the bones?
“Your hands are so cold,” he said. “Are you okay?” With his other hand, he reached out and felt my forehead. “You’re so clammy.”
“I’ve had a week,” I said, leaning against his shoulder and swallowing the sour bile coating the back of my throat.
“I’ve had a seven days,” I said.
“Alright,” he said and led me to my room. He set me down on my bed and sat next to me. We were still holding hands and I wanted to tear mine away, but if I focused all my energy I could stand it.
“Talk.” I looked over at him. His familiar face was in an unfamiliar frown.
“I don’t want to talk,” I said.
“You never want to talk, you cut class, you pick fights with my friends, with your friends, and then you say, ‘I’m fine, it’s under control’ and we both know it’s bullshit.” He looked at the ground. “I don’t want to hear it anymore.”
“That’s my line,” I said quietly. Liam squeezed my hand and let it go.
“I think you need to take some time.”
“I don’t need any time, I just need some sleep and a couple extensions, that’s really it,” I argued, but more as an afterthought. When Liam let go of my hand it felt like it detached, like the ligaments and bones and cartilage were all ripping and tearing apart. I rubbed my wrist and avoided eye contact.
“I talked to Tara and—” He looked over, expecting me to interrupt, and maybe I would’ve, but right then I had to concentrate on not going and running my hands under hot water to make sure they were still part of my body. “We thought maybe you need a weekend away? To think about things and get some sleep away from everything?” He held up some keys. “Remember my family’s cabin up north? Here are the keys. We could drive down there for the weekend. I bought groceries.”
“Well, if you bought groceries, I guess we have to go,” I said, gingerly holding out my hand to receive the keys. When they hit my palm, I flinched. Apologies, explanations, telling him how the fights were just distractions, that the flakiness was because crowded rooms hurt my eyes, giving him the answers he craved seemed like too many words for one mouth to say.
“I can’t leave right away, but if you wanted to drive down first, I could come up on Sunday?”
“That sounds great, it all sounds . . . great. Thank you.” With the last of my endurance I looked him in eyes. “I’m sure this is just what I need.”
And so, I drive north. Hills covered in forests unspool before me. The highway is a dark graphite color and the dead trees fade into a light gray sky and if it weren’t for the vivid colors that haunt the corners of my eyes I would think the world had gone black and white. Two hands on the steering wheel, ten o’clock, three o’clock. One hundred miles, five hundred miles. My hands don’t shake.
I pull up the driveway into the cabin the lake quietly glimmering in the background. The door slams, shoes crunch the gravel. Someone, maybe it’s me, stumbles to the door and puts the key into the lock. The hands in front of me are steady and do not fumble. The lock clicks and the door opens and I step inside. Backpack goes on the couch, dust flies up in the air, and I spin around once, looking at the windows, the generic watercolors, the knickknacks that have been banished to reside in cabin where no one stays long. Where’s the shed? Liam’s stories about a wood-working uncle and summers spent with hands carving and shaping drift through my memory.
It’s down by the water, but there’s no hurry, I’ve made it, I can breathe, I was supposed to come here to breathe, yes? I’m supposed to have come here looking for something, something the friend, the professor, the boyfriend have all asked me to locate. Here’s as good a place to search as anywhere else. Here, where the gray is spread across the landscape with a palette knife, thick and heavy, and I can settle down the colors. But the search can wait, I’ll pour a glass of water first and stand here at the window, letting the dull ripples settle.
Across the lake to the other shore I can see how it will play out. I’ll sleep here, no dreams will come in the night, I’ll spend the weekend doing my work. I’ll call home and chat with my parents, Tara will stop looking at me with tolerant disgust and dismissive pity, and I’ll start to want Liam again. I just need to find myself, my way, my sanity, my purpose, my center. Find all those things and bring them back with me. Load them up in the car. Somehow pry open my ribcage and shove them safe behind my lungs, curled up against my spine like a sleeping kitten.
For now, I put some water to boil on the stove. I unpack the groceries. The mundane governs my movements as I shovel forkful after forkful of pasta between my lips. At precisely 8:00pm I send three texts, to roommate, boyfriend, and mother saying “Made it to the cabin! Feeling better already :)”
At 8:03pm I take my book out onto the small screened in porch to read for class. After the mid-term incident, I only use pens; I have one ready now, poised to mark the margins with thoughts and observations.
I haven’t read a word and now it’s 10:00pm and tiredness overwhelms. The sounds of isolation are creeping up the stairs and slinking through the cracks, the animals and the wind and that strange hum that permeates it all. I close the book and go inside and try not to choke on dread as I take off my clothes and wrap myself in blankets, lying there alone in this cabin in the northern woods. If I tell myself I can do this, will I be able to?
The answer comes when I wake up, consciousness rushing back like a hurricane at three in the morning and my breath has become solid in my throat and I can’t breathe, but my lungs continue to heave. I claw out of bed as if out of a grave and my knees hit the floor but I think I’ve moved beyond pain. I slam my hands repeatedly against the floor, trying to make them feel, trying to reclaim ownership. If they’re my hands I can hurt them. Seconds ago, I was in a cave, dark and so far beneath the earth that it was warm instead of cold. There were pits of inky water with narrow paths between them. Running from something unknown, I had scrabbled over the jagged stalagmites, stalactites, who knows which one, stumbling and trying not to look over my shoulder into the darkness. My feet finally failed and I sprawled against the hot stone floor and my hands reached out to catch my fall, splashing into one of the pools. The water wasn’t water, it was acid and slowly the skin on my hand started to dissolve and I could see the inner workings, the ligaments fluttering as they spasmed . . .
The minutes pass and I focus on breathing. In pursuit of milk—I can’t trust water now—I gently tread to the kitchen. If I can infuse all my movements with a calmness maybe it will sink through my skin and uncoil through my veins. But it won’t, the nightmares keep coming back, and I believe that if it were a reoccurring nightmare, if I could somehow predict what would happen it wouldn’t affect me like this. But the most beautiful dreams turn vicious and leave me clutching my hands to my chest, sobbing.
I’ve ended up outside, somehow. The moon awkwardly hovers between a half moon and a crescent. Even removed from the city lights the stars are murky and smears of smoky clouds obscure patches of the sky. My feet lead me to the wood-working shed. I can imagine Liam here with his uncle, watching from the doorway. Maybe he wasn’t allowed to go inside when he was small because of all the sharp knives and whirring saws.
I open the door and set the glass of milk by the door. There are huge windows that look out onto the water, or maybe it’s acid, and I step through the shadows in the dark, looking for a light switch. I can’t find one, but the adjustment of my eyes reveals everything one could want to shape wood, mallets and hammers and chisels. Tools that create by taking away. I hold a mallet between my hands. It’s firm, and I love the weight.
Something catches the flimsy moonlight and pulls me towards it. In the center of the room is a table saw, the blade a silver half-moon pressed into the table. I reach towards it and unlock the guard that covers the blade and yank it free. Underneath the table there’s a mess of cables and I find the right one and plug it into the wall. Then I flip a switch and the blade begins to hum.
It doesn’t take much, just a moment of determination and bodyweight. As the hum grows louder the acid lake turns back to water. The delirium lifts and colors are the color they are supposed to be, the corners and periphery are safe. What is pain if just a warning that something is wrong, and now I know what was wrong was the presence which now, removed, is good. The moment I have been warned against has come and I have chosen right. There is a dull thud on the floor that is echoed in the beat of my heart.
It’s harder a second time but I need to be balanced. I have to count down under my breath three, two, one. I can’t grip my wrist like I did before, but that’s all right. It’s messier, jagged, but it’s done. I use my foot to unplug the saw, kicking the cord out of the wall and then turn to the door, reaching for my glass of milk. There are a few dark drops in it, but I capture it between my forearms and manage to bring it to my lips and drink. When I taste iron and cream I know that tonight my mind will be clear and that I will not dream. I will wake up to the sound of loons, crooning, and I will smile.
Jane is currently an English major at Carleton College where she just finished writing her senior thesis on comics books. When not at college, she can be found in her hometown of Madison, WI reading comic books and (when she stops procrastinating) writing fiction.