I would like it to be known that I, Arie Morrow, did not murder Belle Montrose. However, if I had known better, I would have sawed off her arm while I had the chance.
Saint Anthony Medical University required me to complete sixty hours of residence as part of my graduate studies. Although I had no plans of working in any ward that required the slicing and dicing of human flesh, I was assigned to shadow Doctor Savanna Arquette at the center for amputee rehabilitation. She was world renowned for her skills yet secretly feared by her comrades. With a cruel French accent and probing hands, few patients refused her unorthodox treatments.
I entered the rehabilitation center at noon sharp, the combination of chemically clean air and my permanent retainer left the taste of metallic phlegm in the back of my throat. The outside smells of tail-pipe exhaust, split cedar and street fries were sucked and sealed away with the rapid closing of the door behind me. The shrill voice of a receptionist greeted me. She told me I could take a seat in the waiting room, since Dr. Arquette was currently seeing someone.
I massaged anti-bacterial gel into the crevices of the faux leather sofa before seating myself next to a man whose arm tapered to a stub at the elbow joint. I tried not to stare, but by looking away from him, my eye caught sight of a woman missing an ear and then a man with no fingers on either hand. I found myself analyzing the similarities between the smooth iridescent bulb above me, and the polished, white scar tissue of the kneecap below me. The owner of the kneecap noticed, and I diverted my attention to someone with both legs intact. A giggle from a girl behind a magazine jolted me from my stub-staring frenzy.
From my position on the leather couch, I couldn’t see her face. The magazine she held with her very present fingers blocked it out completely. She was wearing a black pencil skirt and beneath it two long legs flourished out seductively. Tantalizingly. As she lowered the magazine, I briefly feared that it may be her head she was missing as everything else seemed to be intact. But, thankfully, her lovely neck sprouted an even more beautiful face.
Her right hand released the magazine and her left hand slammed it down with the finality of a judge’s gavel. We locked eyes and she smiled through a grimace of pain. She had perfect red-brown skin, the type you might imagine a clay pot to be sculpted form. Her cheek bones crested high and her nose, lips and ears were all small, soft and delicate. Her only large feature were her orb-like eyes, but even they were shrouded gracefully by thick curtains of lash. What is she doing here? I pondered briefly. One would assume a girl of such loud beauty would ooze confidence. Not her. I waived my hand in innocent greeting and she winced as if expecting a slap.
I didn’t hear as the office door opened behind me.
“Carlson. Clyde Carlson,” Doctor Arquette called, her thick accent gyrating in my temples. The man with the missing arm, presumably Clyde, stood up and walked towards her.
“Good to see you doctor,” he said as he passed into the office. Doctor Arquette nearly slammed the door again when the phlegm in my throat shifted and I managed to speak up.
“Doctor,” I said as I rose from the couch and stumbled towards her. I briefly glanced back to see if the girl watched me. She did. “I’m here for the residency.”
“Ah yes, the Saint Anthony student,” she looked me up and down, as if I were melon whose ripeness was yet to be determined. “Very well, come on in.”
Inside the office Clyde Carlson was already seated, his half-arm wriggling in the metal stirrup like a bull in a squeeze. Where his arm ended the skin was hard and callused with yellowish scar tissue. Doctor Arquette adjusted a metal hoop; it pinched tightly around his elbow, keeping the stump in place.
“How are you feeling today?”
“Alright, I guess. Pain’s acting up again,” Clyde replied, motioning with his one good hand. Accentuating his asymmetry.
“And what kind of pain would that be?”
Clyde didn’t answer and I realized Arquette was looking at me, her glasses low on her sneering nose. “Well?” She asked, “Do you know what I do here-?”
“Arie,” I said, introducing myself awkwardly while my brain fumbled with the question. “The pain he’s talking about is phantom limb pain. Quite common after amputation. The patient feels as if their missing limb is still attached.”
“How do we treat it, Arie?” My name on her lips was like yellow snow. Tainted.
I scrutinized the metal apparatus ensnaring Clyde’s arm and decided to go with the textbook answer.
“Medication and psychotherapy are the most… common treatments.”
“You’ll never distinguish yourself as a doctor with common treatments,” Arquette informed me, reaching onto the counter and taking a small black box. “Patients prefer results.”
My heart sank into my knees. Loathsome mediocrity.
Arquette opened the case to reveal hundreds of tiny needles; sharp like a spindle. Waiting to be pricked. She snapped on blue surgical gloves and retrieved the longest and thinnest, like fine silver hair.
“Acupuncture,” she hissed as she pressed the thin cylinder into Clyde’s resistant stub. “The trick is,” she continued, “Not to hit the nerves. Get as close as you possibly can without hitting them. Yes.” She grabbed another, inserting it with startling speed and precision. Clyde released a moan of pain. Or was it pleasure?
My innards twisted as Doctor Arquette handed me a needle, “Would you like to give it a try?”
Try I did. After the first client, my stomach threatened to unveil the half-digested contents of my pancake breakfast. I wanted nothing more than to hurry away from the rehabilitation center, never to set foot in such a disturbing place again.
I had no interest in the human body on such a broad scale, instead my passion lied in the invisible. Fascinated by viruses, an enigma to science, I dedicated my studies to creature on the cusp of living and inanimate. The protomer head like a bubbling diamond. Six tail fibres like uncooked spaghetti legs. Endlessly attacking, adapting, attacking again. I would have walked out the clinic doors and back to the safety of my microscope if the next patient had not been an enigma in itself. Belle Montrose.
At this point, I was wearing a white doctors coat and blue surgical gloves. I smiled professionally at her and helped her onto the patient table, watching her long legs dangle off the side. She caught my gaze and blushed, easing her pencil skirt down over her knees.
“Have we met?” Arquette asked with skeptical harshness.
Belle frowned and I quickly cut in, “What seems to be the problem, Miss Montrose?”
She softened a little. Her darting eyes met mine.
“This arm,” she said, holding her left arm out with utter disgust. Endless, blemishless, skin. She reminded me of a sculpture yet to be baked, the clay still moist and supple. “This isn’t my arm,” she whispered to me, barely audible. She reached out; peeling away my surgical glove, she interlaced her fingers through mine.
The mind-numbing euphoria that occurred next could have taken place over seconds or years.
Each vertebra in my spine locked into place as my body paralyzed. Although my back had stiffened and my throat asphyxiated, the rest of my body morphed into a tantalizing gel that brought my eyes rolling back in ecstasy. I was no longer in my body, but that of a child, a leper, an astronaut, a mother. I was a fetus and a three-hundred-pound wrestler. I was a mathematician and a dullard. I was alive.
Doctor Arquette yanked our hands apart with bone-crunching force and my eyes fluttered open. The bright lights of the office did nothing to quell my nausea, but eventually Arquette’s bark of displeasure brought me back to my senses.
Was she talking to me?
“Please, I need help.”
“I don’t deal with cheats like you, now get out of my office before I call in security. I knew I recognized you.”
Belle jumped down from the table, but instead of turning towards the door she turned to me, “You saw it, didn’t you?” She pleaded mournfully, her beautiful black hair sticking to her wet cheeks. “The woman who left her baby in the car? The elder with dementia? The man who used the rope as a noose instead of a ladder?”
“Yes,” I told her, stepping back instinctively. I hadn’t only seen them, I’d lived them. Breathed through their dusty lungs. Forced their bodies from the womb to the coffin in an endless loop.
“There’s hundreds of them. They all live inside of me. They all had this arm!” She insisted, shaking her arm like colicky baby.
Once again, she reached out to me. At this point Arquette grabbed her by the back of the hair and dragged her to the door. She opened it, stuck the thrashing beauty out and slammed the door back shut with a bang! Then, as if nothing had happened at all, she consulted her clip board.
“Our next patient is Maurice Swinsle. Would you like to call her in?”
I was trembling, my bones jelly, my hand burning from where Belle’s fingers had caressed mine. “Who was she?” I asked.
“Oh, that goblin?” Arquette groaned, “She’s been here before, alright. She claims her left arm isn’t hers.”
“Like Alien Hand Syndrome?” I asked, my intrigue causing my palms to sweat. I lathered them with antibacterial gel, a bit sad to erase Belle’s touch, but the antiseptic fumes calmed me.
“No, that would actually make some sense, and Heaven forbid that girl ever making sense. She wants me to chop it off at the elbow and you know I would have done it. I’d chop her into little pieces if I could. But there’s nothing wrong with her arm, it’s all in her brain. She’s a hypnotist, and a good one. She’ll tell you the arm isn’t hers, and when you touch her, she’ll hypnotize you. While your standing there in a dumbfounded trance, she’ll steal your wallet, your jewelry, everything. She’s done it to me, I’ll be damned if she does it to you too.”
“But,” I stammered, gazing at my hand, “It felt so real.”
“It always does,” Arquette said before opening the door and calling out the next name.
I should have left it at that. I should have. I didn’t. Like a junkie’s initial high, the lack of her touch morphed to painful withdrawal. The obsessive urge to see her again skewed my daily routine. I wanted her. Sequestered. Mine.
Once the initial obsession started to ware, I further realized the potential she had for research, both psychological and medical. If her left hand was the wand allowing for hypnotism, then there was no way I or anyone else would be removing it. My hope was, if I could prove to her that the hand was biologically hers, then we could start working towards getting it back under her control.
Our next meeting was completely orchestrated. The fate of the cosmos is naturally much more romantic than the fact that I’d called every Belle Montrose in the tristate area before finally hearing her silk voice answer the phone. I hung up immediately and traced her number to a park a couple blocks from the rehabilitation centre. There was no time to change. I arrived in the park with aching legs and panting lungs six minutes faster than google estimated.
“Doctor,” she called upon seeing me. She was sprawled out on a Persian rug in the middle of a dog park. By the looks of it, she didn’t have a dog.
I strode up to her, accepting the title.
“Belle,” I breathed.
She patted the rug, dust rising like spores of a puffball. “Come sit.”
I did so, immediately.
“Strange seeing you here,” she noted.
“You’ve known much stranger.”
My eyes wandered from her bare toes, to her jutting collar bone, to her teeth as they chewed her puffy lower lip. She smelt like grass and sunshine and fear. Like a deer starting into the crosshairs of a scope.
Belle leaned her pretty head back onto the rug and stretched out her terracotta clay legs which were ensnared in coarse fishnet stockings. “I’m stuck.”
“I know,” I mumbled; daunted by her beauty.
It was almost painful to peel my eyes away from her body and bring it back to her face. I found myself growing flush with desire to reach out and touch her or, better yet, for her to close the space.
“I brought something,” I said, remembering the box of needles I’d nabbed from Arquette’s office. “I’m interested to see if you feel this.”
“I won’t,” she assured me, but she passed me her left arm anyway. I shifted so as not to touch it directly as I slowly sunk the acupuncture needles into her hand. Like nails into rotten wood. I made note of her facial expression, which was relaxed and unperturbed. I waited till she glanced away in order to hastily slide one of the needles beneath the nail bed of her pinky, something that would cause the average person a jarring amount of pain. She made no sign to have even noticed. The nerves within her left hand are severely damaged, I noted while removing the needles.
I cleared my throat. “Tell me about this.”
“I don’t know where to start.”
She settled deeper into the dusty rug while organizing her thoughts. At one point her left hand took on the shape of a spider, her fingers crawling up her torso like ridged legs before transforming into tentacles that slithered for her trachea. She used her right had to casually brush it away before shoving the left under her bottom to anchor it in place. She gave me a pointed look, as if that explained everything, before her gaze fell on the stethoscope still slung around my neck.
“It’s not as glamourous as it looks,” I confessed. Her eyes travelled to my lab coat, permanently stained from blood-soaked gurneys and formaldehyde embalmed cadavers.
“I can imagine.”
“I’ve seen some pretty weird things.” I ran my finger over a particularly gnarly stain, “this is from a man who thought a rat was living in his belly. He thought if he didn’t eat, then he could starve the rat too, so we had to run a feeding tube into his belly. When he managed to pull the tube out, he spat the food at me.”
“There was no rat?”
“No. But if there was, starving wouldn’t have helped. It would have chewed its way out of him.”
“You think he was crazy?”
“I think he needed my help.”
She nodded, resigned. “Okay. Fine. It will sounds ridiculous but this…” She hesitated, “This arm has a mind. From what I can tell, it inhabits people, self-destructs and starts again. From the visions, I get the feelings that I’m the first one it’s been actively trying to control. Before me it was just listening. Waiting.”
“It doesn’t want to be still anymore. It’s restless. Ready to die.” She looked at me, her eyes glazed in a simple depression. “I know this probably doesn’t make any sense to you, for the longest time it didn’t make sense to me either. But people who touch my left arm or hold my left hand get to glimpse the lives it’s destroyed. You’ve felt it too. There’s only one way to save me.”
“There’s never only one way,” I replied, hastily. She couldn’t just cut it off. She’s mine. It’s mine. Touch it, a desperate voice within me urged, revisit the theatre of lives.
“It’s trying to kill me,” Belle continued, “Some mornings I wake up to find it’s claws are wrapped around my neck. I have no control of it. It only pretends that I do. That’s why I’m out here, in public as much as I can be. I’m afraid if I’m left alone with it…”
“Would you show me again?” I asked, offering my open palm, “Maybe I could understand better if you-” Before I could say another word her left hand leapt up hungrily and coiled around mine.
While being sucked into the centrifuge of lives, I heard Belle call out, “It will kill you if it has to.”
Our hands split apart, and this time the nausea was too much. I rolled off the Persian rug and retched into the grass. Strands of foul spit beaded from my mouth to the spiky green blades beneath.
“Sir, have you been drinking?”
I rolled onto my back and looked up at the young officer, looming authoritatively above us. Shadows blanketed his features and I realized dusk had descended; we’d been laying here all day. The desolate dog park brought an eerie chill over my body.
“No, I…” I pushed myself up from the rug and Belle followed suit. Goose flesh had formed on her naked arms and legs. “We fell asleep around noon; I think I got heat exhaustion.”
“No, we live on West Campbell. Forty-two twenty.”
“May I see some ID?” He stuck out his bony hand expectantly. While I dug into my back pocket, Belle rolled up the rug and tucked it under her arm. I gave the officer my school identification and he clicked on a flashlight to study it properly.
When he handed it back, his features settled.
“Saint Anthony’s, hey? How does that song go again?”
I rolled the toe of my shoe over the grass, irritated with the question. “Dear Saint Anthony, please come around. Something is lost, and it cannot be found,” I glanced at Belle as I sang the short tune. Her hair masked her downcast face and she remained more still than the surrounding trees, which rustled and swayed in their evening dance.
The officer nodded, “That’s right, well get home safe, now. Park’s closed.”
Belle and I walked under quiet streetlights towards my house. She didn’t have shoes and her bare feet made a slapping sound against the sidewalk. Although there was no discussion, a silent agreement had formed that she would be coming home with me. I lived in a shared house with three other medical students and it was a rarity at best for a lady to be brought onto the premises. Finger to my lips, I guided her through the backdoor.
“You always sneak into your own house?” Belle asked as I led her down the hallway, careful not the jumble the garbage bag of empty beer cans.
“I just don’t want to wake my roommates,” I lied.
I was hoping to keep the lights off and spare her the eye-sore of my disheveled bed and textbook landslide, however she nervously flicked them on the moment we entered my room. Her eyes bounced across my belongings; scrutinizing, silently judging. Eventually, she spoke.
“Sometimes I almost want it to kill me, then all this would be over.”
“Nothing’s going to hurt you. Not with me here. Just make yourself at home.” And never leave. I gestured to the roomie double bed. The goose-feather duvet.
“Is that a scalpel?” She stood at my desk.
“For cadaver class.”
Belle picked it up, testing the blade with her thumb. “Can I have it?”
“You can have whatever you want.” I tossed Arquette’s box of needles onto the desk and landed my hand on the nape of Belle’s neck. I steered her towards the ensuite attached to my bedroom, gesturing to the towels.
“I don’t think so,” she murmured.
“Don’t you want to clean up? You have grass in your hair.”
She shrugged, and when I caught her gaze, I could feel the shame radiate off her.
“Would you stay?” she asked.
I understood immediately, although I didn’t believe it to be true. Her hand would not and could not kill her. Even if she choked herself, once her body went unconscious there was no way her hand could continue to move.
I sat down on the closed toilet seat and shut my eyes most of the way. Through my tangle of eyelashes, I glimpsed her long delicate spine as she pulled her dress over her head. Her ridged shoulder blades disappeared beneath her curtain of dark hair as the dress became an ink spill on the floor. With her back to me I opened my eyes further, studying her flat butt and the small constellation of acne on her back. She used her right hand to open the shower door. The frosted glass sealed her away from me. I heard the shower turn on.
“You can open your eyes now,” she said.
“Okay.” I listened to the water run over her body as the steam clouded the room. She didn’t take long and when the water stopped, I picked up her towel and held it over the shower door. She grabbed it and wrapped her body before exiting. Her soaked hair clung heavily to her forehead, cheeks and neck; her eyelashes drooped under the heavy weight. My fingers ached, sick with desire to reach out and touch. To curl my fingers around her delicate ribs, to drag my lips across and restless body, to lose my fingers in her thick hair, but most of all to hold her hand and be lost in a dark ecstasy of the others once again. Touch her, the voice goaded.
Not wanting to be left alone, she loitered in the bathroom while I showered. Afterwards she hid her body beneath my bedsheets and, laying on her side, she curled into a ball and went to sleep. Wound tight, her individual vertebrae resembled the tiny, wooden steps of a treehouse ladder. I waited till the soft noises of sleep danced through my bedroom before carefully pulling back the bedsheets and studying her. It took a long time for my eyes to adjust to the dark and understand her shape. Her complexity.
I reached for her hair, but my fingers found the blade of the dull scalpel instead. Do it quick, while she’s asleep, the voice said. I ran it gently over the palm of her right hand and placed the skin cells into a sample bag. I did the same to her left, before labeling each of the bags. During the process I felt her breathing hitch, she was awake, however she made no move to stop me.
Feeling satisfied, I finally crawled into bed next to her.
“I found someone,” she said. My heart slipped and skipped and soared with joy. Until she clarified, “To get rid of all this. The surgery’s tomorrow night.” She didn’t offer any more explanation, just a quiet plea, “Don’t leave me alone.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
However, by the time dawn broke the next morning, my waking mind had concocted a whole new agenda. I would get the results on the genetic composition of her arm. Now. I would prove the arm was hers before it was too late.
Get the results, get them, get them now. I rolled out of bed and dressed as silently as my denim jeans would allow. I searched for the box of acupuncture needles but couldn’t remember where I’d left them. I was almost out the door when her sweet voice caught me.
“You promised you’d stay.”
“I just need to run a quick errand,” I murmured, tucking the bags of her skin into my back pocket.
“Sometimes it’s not just in my hand. Sometimes it’s in my brain.”
I dug through my duffel bag till I found my sleeping pills. I tossed her the bottle. “One of these and nothing will be in your brain.”
At Saint Anthony’s medical laboratory, I ran the skin samples through the polymerase chain reaction equipment, eager to prove there was no genetic difference between her hands. I then twiddled my thumbs eagerly. Excited to be the one that helped her. The one that changed things for her. The results took longer than I’d anticipated, though they were as expected. Both hands were genetically hers. The hands are hers and she is mine, cried the voice.
There was a skip in my step on my way back home. With these results, Belle could no longer claim the hand wasn’t hers. I walked at twice my normal speed, anxious to arrive before she departed. The mere thought of someone removing her precious arm sent shivers of dread down my spine. This was science. The arm was hers. She was mine. The facts were as cold and hard as a corpse.
I opened my bedroom door, the results neatly stowed in my duffel bag, my tongued perched and ready to inform her of my most recent discovery. Belle was in the same position I’d left her, her body coiled in a tight ball of slumber. I cleared my throat, hoping to wake her, her absolute stillness portraying an uncanny resemblance to the cadavers of autopsy class.
“Belle,” I said, as I rounded the bed.
What I saw next will remain the most disturbing encounter of my life and medical career. Clutched tightly in Belle’s hand was the scalpel I’d used earlier in the night to gently scrape skin cells from her palms. Her other arm was completely missing, her humorous bone jutting manically through torn muscle tissue. The bedsheets were soaked in her blood, so much so that even her cheek which rested on the bed was caked a dusty crimson. Her eyes were open. Her soul already flying on angel wings.
At first, I was hit with the sick notion that Belle had sawed her left arm off, in order to be rid of the evil entity that lived within her. But, as I stared at her in unfathomable agony, I watched as other arm twitched, shifting the scalpel between its fingers, readying to use the blade yet again. Her left arm, had in fact been the death of her, having wielded the blade to remove the one arm she’d been hoping to keep.
I called an ambulance and was shocked when police showed up at my door with her right arm in tow. They’d just come from Doctor Savanna Arquette’s office. She’d received the arm covered in acupuncture needles in a package from my home address. I was under arrest for the Frankenstein-like murder of Belle Montrose.
The paramedics slid Belle’s body off my bed with equal work-place haste as the officers slapping cuffs on my wrists. The razor was mine; the blood was hers.
The metal zipper of the body bag sank closed like rows of silver baby teeth. As Belle’s corpse was zipped away, I swear I saw her left hand wave.
Like brick and mortar, cell membranes pressed tightly together, giving the illusion of normalcy. Beneath the faux skin were layers of muscle, fat, sinew, bone, cartilage and blood, all forming the blueprints of a hand. Everything has a core, a bowel, a belly. Deep within the core of this emancipated hand rested an entity as old as time, spluttering and coughing its last breaths. Waiting to die. Rushing, really. If any knowledgeable physician had watched carefully, they could have noticed the reflexes of the hands were slightly off. The nerves in the shoulder and upper arm had no connection with the elbow, forearm and hand. The body and the arm lived as separate units, both fighting a constant battle for control of the organism that was Belle. Like a virus, the hand lived on the cusp of the living and deceased. Belle’s body was cremated.
Dear Saint Anthony, please come around. Something is lost, and it cannot be found.
Helen Marsh hails from the village of McBride BC where her parents owned Canada’s largest yak farm. With a slaughter house in her backyard and her grandmother’s typewriter on my desk, she started writing stories at a very young age. She graduated from Vancouver film school in 2018, and currently has her first feature film, Swipe Right, Run Left, in post-production with Nasser entertainment. She’s been published in the Bangalore Review and riverSedge Literary Journal.