Desiree discovered the pristine limbs after a blast at the Circle Towne Mall. She turned to Lamont, pointed at a hand resting palm up on the cloudy white tile in front of Victoria’s Secret, and said, “Look.”
That night she and Lamont gathered the hand (pink fingernail polish), and also a foot (still in Lacoste sandal), five arms (two in sleeves, brown and striped, three blown out of clothing entirely), and a man’s well-muscled, hairy thigh, severed just below the hip joint and half covered by jean shorts that had been crisply cuffed.
All were miraculously and impossibly untouched. They showed no signs of having been ripped, scraped, embedded with fragments. There were no abrasions or bruises. They had not been coated by blood or the dirt that blew in the evening’s gentle breeze while crews responded to the scene, while officers told the crowds (who wailed, bent, sat on the ground, covered their mouths, held each other and swayed) to leave.
Desiree said, “Be careful,” and they sealed them in foil bags and labeled them with marker and loaded them into the cooled storage units inside the van.
“So weird,” Lamont said.
At the lab, he used microscopes, tweezed, plunged, injected, sliced, collected samples, swabbed for DNA, plucked hairs and viewed each under ultraviolet light. He paid more attention to these limbs than the others. Later that week, they learned the identities of the people to whom the limbs had belonged.
The leg had been attached to the right side of Greg Nelson, thirty-three, a nurse who, records showed, had not married, had no children, and did not have close relatives in the city.
The hand was Charlene Granger’s left. This was the hand Desiree first noticed, outstretched in front of Victoria’s Secret as if modeling, gesturing toward the storefront with its diamond engagement ring intact and perfectly positioned on the ring finger (perfectly!). The neon pink nail polish matched some of the bras inside the store and had not been chipped. Charlene had a three-year-old girl, Tawny (who had survived the blast), and a husband (who had not been at the Circle Towne Mall that day). They had been married on a beach in Virginia on the previous Saturday. Excepting the strip of finger which had been covered by the ring, the hand was tan.
Two of the arms were La’Nice Rice’s. The delicate wrist-watch (on the left) with a white leather strap still told the correct time. Desiree put her ear to it, listened to the gentle ticks of the second hand in disbelief. She marked one minute that way, in the sterile, metallic silence of the lab, expecting, any second, that the arm might move.
While Desiree slept, she saw how the limbs lived their days.
La’Nice’s arms, at the intersection of Minnow and Bigger, where a red light was flashing, directed traffic—sternly, clearly, and with the elegance of unthinking, of muscle memory. The people watched from inside the cars, followed instructions, drove safely through.
Charlene’s hand designed hand-drawn greeting cards (Thank You! / Get Well Soon / #1 Dad) and skittered on its middle three fingers (like an octopus, Desiree thought, upon waking), delivering them, in bundles of twenty-five, to local novelty shops. Most of the cards featured sea birds.
Greg’s leg, in its cuffed jean shorts, danced under throbbing lights, then tempered its dancing so that it could lean close, whisper into the hairy knee of another, severed leg, also dancing (this one in blue and white seersucker shorts, uncuffed). The music was too loud for Desiree to hear what the legs were saying to each other.
In the lab the next day, Desiree arranged the arms (now partially stiffened) under lights on the steel examining table for photographing. She captured every angle, bent her head, her knees, but the photographs, which she viewed on the monitor that evening (zoomed, color-matched, enhanced), revealed nothing unexpected.
So, too, with Lamont’s samples.
“It’s impossible,” Desiree said to Max, her boyfriend. “It’s like they were lowered from heaven.” She cracked into a celery stalk and chewed and said, “I’m telling you.”
She could not stop thinking about the limbs. In her dreams, their lives became more complex (there were children, financial troubles, she saw how the limbs intertwined, held each other for hours). She thought about them while she was running, showering, while she and Max held each other. She came to view her own limbs as separate, unified beings, distinct from the rest of her. She named her left leg Trish, her right Gary. She was reconsidering what was possible. The hand, Charlene’s hand, was her favorite.
“Look at this,” Desiree said. She was holding Max’s hand, palm up, with both of hers, like a fragile gift, like a clairvoyant. She rubbed the meat of his thumb, examined his knuckles, the small blonde hairs, the soft, grey veins. She pretended the hand was severed, that it had a life and a will of its own, that it might speak. She felt its warmth and heft. They were having breakfast. “Let’s give this guy a name.” Desiree did not take her eyes off the hand. “What would you name it?”
“This is weird,” Max said. “I think you need a break. You need, like, a getaway.”
“The beach. Something.”
Desiree let go of Max’s hand.
They held each other and watched the news, and when Desiree fell asleep, Max pulled his body, carefully, out from under her and covered her with a yellow blanket.
The next week, Desiree’s hummus went missing from the break room fridge. She asked Lamont about it.
“Nope,” he said. “Don’t even like hummus.” He paused. A questioning look came onto his face, and he said, “You should know that about me.”
Desiree thought, then, of the limbs (that sandaled foot, the arms that had not yet been matched to the rest of their bodies, who were alone, missing) opening the door, dipping themselves in her spicy hummus.
At the lab, Desiree and Lamont were nearly finished. Desiree had grown desperate. She was hoping that her theory (about the limbs being otherworldly, being deposited at the blast sites by strange beings for reasons she had yet to understand) would be borne out. She was hoping, secretly, that they would be unable to match the remaining limbs, that they would live in the lab.
All but two limbs had been identified; they were packed and shipped, re-united with the rest of their bodies, with their families (as Desiree thought of it). Soon, they’d all be gone, and the only reminder of the truth of it, of how perfect and beautiful those limbs had been, would be the photos.
Desiree shut the apartment’s door behind her and smirked.
“You’re peppy,” Max said.
“Look at this,” she said.
She walked to the kitchen sink and unfolded a brown paper bag that had lost its crispness. It swished as she reached inside. From it, carefully, she extracted a hand by its fingers.
“Charlene’s,” she said. “It’s perfect.”
The hand did not look perfect. It had begun to darken and to swell. A purple bruise clouded the skin that covered the tender area above the knuckles. The diamond ring, because of the swelling, looked painfully small. The pink nail polish had begun to flake.
“I want it here, with us,” she said.
Max looked at her. He kept his breathing shallow because the chemical smell burned his nostrils. “Desiree,” he said. “You’re losing it.”
Now it was Sunday, and Max was not there. He had been avoiding her calls. She ate brunch alone. She ordered a Bloody Mary, and then she lingered in the comfortable, large chair and watched the other people at the restaurant. She watched them chew.
That evening there was another blast, on the pier. Somehow, the Ferris wheel’s lights remained on, and their slight reflection (the purples and blues and whites) rippled and swayed, set into soft motion by the water. Desiree found it beautiful.
The blast pulped dozens of limbs (the count, when Desiree, Lamont, and the others finished, came to twenty-six), and the pulp dried and hardened in the sun, which was beginning to set. Blood traveled the contours where the boardwalk split, mixed with the weeds and bristly grass underneath and pocked the sand. It had risen, then dropped on the red, pink, orange, and blue shade sails that protected the vendors of DVDs, cucumbers, and cotton tank tops. The blood became sticky and still against the slick paint of the cars—purple, beige, green, black—parked in orderly rows at the meters, all underneath the young honey locusts that lined the wide boardwalk.
When the sun set, the streetlights bubbled to life and added a new dimension of color. There were ambulances, fire trucks, patrol cars, armored vehicles, tanks, elongated RVs with red letters spelling MASS CASUALTY RESPONSE UNIT. Their siren squeals pressed against each other and tightened the air, merged with the calls of the gulls and the thick hiss of the ocean. A woman in a military helicopter aimed a spotlight at the scene.
There was more light: beacons churned reds and blues that spiraled across the sand, over the water, and ran against the worn wood and the cars and the vendor’s tables (wood lined with cloth) and the bodies of the living and the dead and the limbs.
The responders, in white hooded suits (which both absorbed and reflected the light and color) wore miner’s lights on their heads and walked clumsily along the uneven boardwalk and the flayed sand. Some carried LED flashlights that emitted expansive, clean rays, and the illumination seemed as if it could make the shredded bodies, the rendered limbs (which they bent to inspect) begin to grow.
Some limbs, surely, had been cast into the water, would wash up in the coming days. On Monday and again on Tuesday, Desiree would comb the beach.
Eric Van Hoose
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