THE HOUSE of SEVERED HANDS
Craig Whitt had lived just up the street—a cul-de-sac named Holly Circle, to be precise—from the house of severed hands since as far back as he could remember.
The sinister house where it was rumored disembodied hands resided was not much different from his own. Both were modest ranch-styles. One was painted beige, the other white. In one, this boy by the name of Craig slept by Bullwinkle moose nightlight; in the other…things stayed awake. Three lots over and down from the Whitt residence, that other house nestled at the round-about dead end of the street between two vacant overgrown lots.
Lime green shutters of peeling paint. Lawn brown. Two front windows badly cracked, yet still intact. Craig suspected smashed-in panes or even a knocked-in door could be found someplace in the rear, but, other than in his imagination, he’d never strayed onto the property to confirm that suspicion.
Spider hands. Arachnid-things made of splotchy pink flesh. ‘Little monstrosities of articulating hominid metatarsals,’ he’d overheard a neighbor once say. Disembodied scramblers. Nails tamping and thumping. These were the things that crept and crawled and hunkered within those walls of the house at the end of the circle—the house of severed hands. They waited there for him. Craig was sure of it. They knew he would be foolish enough to investigate, to one day face his fear. And so they waited…spider patient.
The history of the house was not rich in details. Being passed along by children, it was little more than an urban legend told and re-told, albeit rather matter-of-factly. A mother had killed her family. The woman had murdered them all—hammer-bludgeoning her husband, two young sons, and a daughter all as they slept, one by one—and when she had finished taking their lives, she took their hands. But that was not the end of that night’s gruesome deeds. Before the dawn, the severed hands, they would have their revenge. Neighbors had heard her screams. The authorities arrived in short order and discovered everything. Everything, that is, save for the hands. The hands of the family, to include the mother’s, they were missing. Bloody stumps. Not so much as a fingernail was ever found.
Craig had heard the story “a gazillion times.” He would say as much whenever it was brought up. And it was brought up often due to his home’s proximity to that horrible house. Nonetheless, the story never failed to make him shiver. After all, he’d only been eight years old on the humid August night when ambulances and police cruisers and fire trucks had filled the street while confused and concerned neighbors collected in pajamas and night clothes out on their lawns.
The boy convinced himself that, after that night, he’d never once ever truly fallen asleep again.
It was a slow death, but eventually, in several months’ time, the drama died. It was replaced by another.
The summer of his ninth year, Craig’s parents sat him down to announce their divorce. It was a relief. He would go with his mother. She would take him and they would leave the house at the end of the street far behind. Far from the father he loved, true, but also far from the house of severed hands that tormented him.
It would be a respite of two decades. Twenty years passed and so finally did Craig’s mother and father as well.
That was how Craig Whitt, twenty-nine, unemployed, and divorced now himself, ended up standing once more on the front lawn of his once upon a time and now recently-inherited childhood home. It was a Tuesday as he found himself staring off down Holly Circle to consider a sight that had never really left his mind’s eye—the house that waited for him between two still vacant lots at the end of the cul-de-sac.
It was far worse for the wear of time—the house of his many nightmares—but otherwise just as he’d always known it.
“The house of severed hands,” he whispered to invoke both a chill and nervous chuckle. Stupid boy.
That first day coupled with a second, and those with another and another until the count of days was lost to him.
But he had not been well. Time had failed to heal wounds as the proverb had promised. In fact, quite to the contrary, the wounds had festered. He’d thought of the house not often…but always. Housebound and housebound.
Upon the wall of his old bedroom he used crayons and markers—and finally a nail after the crayons and markers were lost or run out—to diagram the house’s floor plan. He’d never been inside that residence down the street, the house of severed hands, but he was certain it mirrored his own. Everything about its exterior and the cookie-cutter neighborhood supported that assumption.
It was through his diagram that he uncovered the secreted space in his own home—a place in the center of the Whitt domicile that must have been a full ten square feet—inaccessible and unaccounted for.
“Their lair,” he surmised. “The lair here and there,” he added. He began to wonder if the hands could traverse from one house to the other via this “dead space.” He’d collected a hammer and catspaw to break into the space in his own home, but it was that last thought that brought a pause to his plan.
“You’d like a little door, wouldn’t you?” he whispered to the wall just where he’d meant to break through.
He tapped his finger on the drywall as though to send a bit of Morse code. ‘Anyone home?’ Nothing. Clever bastards.
“Almost got me, you little fuckers. Almost.” He took the tools back to the garage.
More days collected. He kept an ear to the dead space several times a day, but nothing ever came of that surveillance.
Unemployed, and with a very small inheritance to tide him over for the next several months, he fell to spending much of his time rummaging about beneath the roof over his head. He was surprised to discover so many things he never knew: his father’s ‘ship in a bottle’ hobby, his mother’s hidden stash of letters from an adult sister she had claimed died in their childhood. Equally, he was intrigued to rediscover so much that had been forgotten. Apparently—he learned from an old uniform’s sash found in one of the hall closets—he had been a much better Scout than he’d ever recollected. Some of the badges: painting, fishing, and chess, were familiar. But many others: signaling, leatherwork, and pathfinding, to name a few, came as a complete surprise. He sat cross-legged in the hall with a sweating bottle of beer in one hand and the sash in the other and wondered if he weren’t the one to have lost a sibling in childhood. Maybe this foreign collection of merits earned were his long dead brother’s accomplishments. Maybe his brother had died early and at sea, and so in the years to follow their father had lamented that loss by huddling over little bottled ships while his mother hid away in the kitchen, regretting her life and stewing in bitterness and disdain for the sister who had ruined everything by stealing her first and only love.
It was enough to make Craig Whitt decide his parents were far more interesting in death than they had ever been in life. And so he rummaged all the more. Drank and dug into the past.
It was on the forty-second night since his return that he let his distraction run wild while he chopped carrots with a meat cleaver. H added the better end of his left index finger to the mix. It was not a slight injury. Why he had taken up a meat cleaver for the job was certainly a regrettable afterthought, after the digit had become truncated at the first knuckle, that is.
He bled. Spewed, would be a more accurate appraisal. Craig’s kitchen was soon so blood-splattered as to be comical. Like Dan Aykroyd’s classic Saturday Night Live skit where Danny, dressed in drag as Julia Child, deboned a hand more than the chicken. Or so Craig Whitt thought as he laughed at his excruciating turn of bad fortune. He considered going to the hospital, but that consideration was brief. Not an option. He’d been too vigilant to give them an opportunity to creep in now, he told himself. Be a man, dammit. After several minutes of blood loss, and as many failed attempts to staunch a wound that clearly needed surgical attention to achieve closure, Craig had an epiphany.
The coil of the stove burner blazed red hot beneath a pot of water that was just then coming to boil.
With a painful bit of sloshing, he managed the pot off to the side. Three seconds of hesitation passed before he firmly pressed the stump of his finger down on the orange coil. With a sickening hiss and sizzle, the digit rebuked him for its torture. He would have screamed in reply, but the pain proved too great.
Mouth twisted agape to loose a gurgling moan. Eyes rolled back white. The room seemed washed in dazzling hot light as he felt removed from his body. Craig looked down upon himself. His racked body was rigid, stock-still as a photo. Like a photo save for the smoke rising from the flesh searing on the burner.
“Smells like chicken,” he muttered as he stumbled from the kitchen cradling his freshly cauterized digit like a newborn. Dinner was forgotten. As forgotten as the half inch of finger abandoned among the bloody carrot chunks on the cutting board. The stove burner would remain on until the next morning.
Days passed. He’d lived once more under the roof of his childhood home for seventy-seven days. Seventy-seven days of Chinese and pizza deliveries. So many days of watching for hours on end to be certain the woman in the US postal truck came and did nothing more than deposit junk mail and unwanted flyers. He would steal out in the dark of night to snatch them up, lest, he told himself, the busy bee alert the authorities with her tales of ‘something amiss.’ Other than those fleeting nineteen second forays out-of-doors, he stayed ensconced. Safe. Days and nights of ears pressed to the walls of the dead space to listen for any sign of infiltration. Seventy-seven days of garbage piled in heaps in the garage; a land of plenty where a host of flies and their maggot brood were soon enough well colonized. Seventy-seven days of beer, rum, and rummage. The latter providing more discoveries he’d rather have not made: a grandfather convicted of fraud and subsequent suicide, his father’s collection of dirty magazines not filled with naked women. The bundle of those tucked behind a workbench along with the cheap Scotch the old man liked to boast he’d not tasted since 1979.
A home is nothing more than a place to hide your secrets, your shame, your filthy lies and crimes.
Seventy-seven days marked in scratches upon the hall wall ‘calendar.’ A seventy-eighth that would not be realized before Craig Whitt finally rose from his couch at 3:16am—rose with no real reason in particular compelling him to do so—rose to change things up, to unbolt the door and wander down the street. In a long-sleeve black t-shirt and ratty plaid pajama bottoms, barefoot beneath a sliver of crescent moon that appeared like a small rift in the fabric of night’s cloudless shroud, Craig Whitt shuffled down Holly Circle. True, he shuffled, ambling with a sleepwalker’s gait, but he did so with purpose. His eyes were fixed. He was going to meet with something.
He was going to put something to rest.
Finish it. Finish them. Or…me.
No one witnessed his passage. Besides Craig Whitt, the only other resident of Holly Circle these days was a retired high school science teacher who was long lost to dementia.
When he came to it, Craig Whitt cut across the house’s front yard without pause. He made his way through the hanging, broken hinged gate, passing around the side and into the backyard not even taking a moment to glance into the windows that he’d never been so close to but that had troubled him for so many long years.
He was sure the things within were aware of his presence. He was also certain he would glean nothing by peering in vain through those filthy panes. His focus was on the means to enter.
Just as he had always suspected, the backdoor, which granted access to the kitchen, was revealed to be in the same place as it was in his own home. So too, then, not much beyond that, he found the sliding glass doors that would lead from the patio to the living room. The glass doors were intact, much to Craig’s surprise, although one was clearly ajar.
An open invitation.
He did his best to slip in while opening the door as little as possible. He stood for a few long minutes, once inside, listening to his hyperventilating lungs and pounding heart. Straining, he did his best to discern the same tell-tale signs of another. No other sound broached the quiet, however.
Hands don’t breathe, silly boy. Hands don’t have a pulse. Even in the near absence of light, his teeth were revealed. Maybe, maybe not, he answered himself with a grin. But dismembered hands also aren’t supposed to live like spiders in old houses, either.
He might have stood there longer and quibbled with himself more had he not spied it. No sound or disturbance announced its arrival. It merely appeared, made clear when the shroud parted slightly as Craig’s eyes adjusted to the dark.
It was on the far end of the countertop that divided the living space from the kitchen no more than seven or eight feet away. It was motionless, but not at rest. A hand. It balanced on its digits, hunkering just a bit, poised. And, as much as a hand could, it faced him.
Craig stifled a cry and braced himself for an assault that thankfully did not come. The hand remained. A man’s broad, thick hand. A workman’s hand.
Not real. A prank. A fake, rubber prop from a Halloween store, left here by—
It shifted ever so slightly. A gold wedding band glimmered on its ring finger.
Oh God…. Maybe it hasn’t seen me? Oh what the fuck…of course it has.
He had a sudden recollection of how predators work in concert to bring down their prey; one attracting and keeping the victim’s focus while the other hunters close in from their places of concealment. Close in for the kill.
The second hand dropped from the ceiling but missed its mark as Craig leapt back just in time to evade the ambush.
It hit the floor at his feet and his bare foot came down hard on the back of the scrambling hand. Despite his revulsion at the feel of the thing—like a bony jelly fish—before he knew what he was doing, Craig snatched it up like one might safely take up an angry crab.
In those same few seconds, the male raced to close on him and the sound of others scurrying in the dark came from all four corners and the ceiling of the room as well.
Craig backpedaled into the door. The big male hand from the counter hurled itself with a leap that belied physics and its anatomy. The wide-eyed man ducked and the hand flew into the sliding glass door with a resounding thwack and fell to the floor onto its back. It was stunned for only a moment before quickly righting itself. Too late. Craig had managed to slip out and close the door behind him.
The man crouched then to gather his wits and better consider the male hand as it ineffectually threw itself into the glass several times. Its ferocious tenacity fascinated Craig and he even edged closer until his nose all but touched the glass between them. Defeated, the male hand rested and seemed as though it might be taking its turn to re-evaluate the situation. As it did, it was joined by three others. Children’s hands. They were not mummified things. They were rotted but intact. Dead but shining moist as though newly birthed from some festering womb. Craig could not contain himself and loosed first a gasp and then a series of dry heaves.
As if sensing these new arrivals, the hand Craig had caught—and in his panic had all but forgotten he still held—came to life then; in a sudden flailing it squirmed wildly to be free of his grip.
Craig was nearly startled into dropping the thing. He fell back and collected himself, holding it at arm’s length. a
Mother’s right hand.
Two more hands—mother’s left and the fourth and last of the children’s—joined those gathered at the glass door. Craig wiped his lips with his shirt sleeve and rose. He’d seen enough. In something of a mad, stumbling dash, he rushed home with the prize he’d not meant to collect.
Back safely behind bolted doors and twice, and in some cases triple-checked windows, he’d nervously darted about from room to room with the mother’s hand still safely kept at arm’s length.
After an hour and still no sign of the others, he fetched a six-pack from the refrigerator and retired with it and the hand to the den.
He held it under a lamp to better scrutinize it, something the thing clearly did not enjoy. This was not the neat and well-manicured family helper from the Golden Age of black and white television. There was nothing cute or comical about this ‘Thing.’ This was an aberration. Abomination. This was mottled grey and black festering flesh that reeked foul and unholy with rot. Nine jagged and broken nails. One index finger ended in a raw wound where the nail had been torn free and the tip of the phalange lay exposed. Its stump was not neatly made; this had been no surgical amputation. It was ragged and ravaged, as though the work of tooth and claw. Uneven clumps and strips of fetid flesh culminated in unravelling straggles of stringy tendons and dangling veins that oozed with putrid fluids.
And it was evil. And angry. Attributes that could be sensed as readily as its stench.
How do you remain? How can you be?
Three beers passed.
Fetching his meat cleaver from the kitchen where it still resided beside a blood-caked cutting board, he carried the woman’s hand into the bathroom, whereupon it began to twist and protest once more. Craig took some comfort in seeing the thing could suffer distress, if not perhaps even fear. It wasn’t that he derived pleasure in tormenting it. At least, he told himself, not so much that.
No…but these fits simply make the thing more pitiful. Less intimidating. More…human.
Knowing what he now knew, having narrowly evaded the male’s astonishing leap for his throat, Craig wasn’t going to simply drop the thing into the tub. He did intend to keep it there, having yet to come up with a better alternative, but first, he’d decided, he was going to fill the tub with several inches of water.
Once the stopper was in place and the tub was filled a quarter way—enough he judged to keep it from touching bottom all while still being far too deep in to reach the edge—he unceremoniously dropped the hand in and readied his cleaver. The thing struggled and thrashed about, clearly out of its element and so much so that Craig wondered if it were possible for it to drown. After a moment, however, it settled, literally, sinking to the bottom where it rested motionless like some gruesome rubber bath toy. He watched for signs of life, wondering if he hadn’t killed it, and just as he began to consider fishing it out, the thing twitched and crawled along the bottom until it reached one of the shallow corners. There it sat, only occasionally reaching forward with a fore and index finger to tap or stroke the tub side as if to confirm its confinement.
“Let’s see ya hop now,” Craig taunted.
He would have preferred to keep his eye on it for a while, but he was more compelled to recheck the doors and windows and hold watch over the dead space. Even as he moved back up the hall, he thought he might discover a host of dismembered hands were already assembled out upon his front lawn, laying siege to his home.
He checked in on the hand in the tub twice more during the course of his rounds. It had made no move either.
Dawn was threatening and exhaustion was settling in along with it. As he maintained the last long half hour of his vigil, finishing off his beer and praying for the sun to hurry its pace, Craig suddenly remembered a small dog carrier he’d come across in the garage. He found it once more within minutes, buried behind and beneath several dusty and collapsing cardboard boxes of Christmas ornaments and lights. The poodle, Priscilla, that years before been conveyed by it, had belonged to his mother. Priscilla had been a needlessly nervous dog, given to pissing on the carpet when the doorbell rang or some other equally non-threatening and inconsequential event occurred.
Craig hated Priscilla. Looking on the carrier now…well, now….
It needed cleaning. He took it to the kitchen sink to rid it of grime and spider webs. As the water ran, Craig was pleased to discover it was intact and in perfect working order. He even had a padlock that would fit its latch, he realized.
The frazzled man had to admit to himself that he was at a loss in regards to his next steps. After all, he’d not gone down the street with the intention of catching one of the damned things. He couldn’t even say for certain why he’d gone at all. The last several hours still proved to be a bit of a blur. Life in the haze. But, now that he had captured one, he began to entertain the idea of capturing another. Hell, wrangle in the whole lot of those little fuckers.
Yes, he quickly settled on it, that was just what he’d do. And if he couldn’t find cages or means to keep the others, he’d nail them to a two-by-four.
I only need to keep one alive to prove I ain’t crazy.
His sense of satisfaction for invading the lair, capturing one of his nemesis, surviving the night, finding the perfect cage for his prisoner, and his confidence in the freshly hatched plan to bring down the nest, all of that was immediately swept away. Dumbstruck and terror-filled, he dropped the dog carrier and padlock at the bathroom door. Before him was a drained tub, empty save for the pulled stopper.
The bathroom was small enough to search in seconds. It wasn’t behind the tub. It hadn’t crept its way into the single cupboard under the sink.
He needed to get his cleaver.
He faced the hall. Two rooms—his father’s study and a spare bedroom—stood between him and the kitchen, both doors propped open. He’d done that intentionally so that he could hear if the windows were assaulted. Now he cursed that decision. His father’s study was a cluttered mess, a playground of nooks and crannies and hiding spaces galore. The spare bedroom wasn’t much better. The latter being all the worse since, for about two weeks gone by now, Craig had started to move the items of interest there that he found during his rummaging. No more was it a simply kept room with a bed, nightstand and dresser.
You gave the enemy boxes and bric-a-brac to conceal themselves in and under. A foothold for the hands. Smart move, silly boy, he chastised himself. What next, you gonna arm them?
His moment of self-chastising was short-lived. From further off within the house, in the living room perhaps, came the sound of breaking glass.
He dashed down the hall making a break for the kitchen…for the cleaver. He didn’t make it. Whatever had just caused the commotion in the living room proved not to be the hand escaped from the bathtub. It attacked him as he passed the first doorway. Just as the male hand had leapt at him, the mother’s hand flew from the shadows of the spare bedroom. Unlike the father’s failed attack, however, the mother landed on his shoulder and latched onto his neck.
It bore down on him with such force that he was sent stumbling to his knees. Several audible and most disturbing pops were made as the thumb anchored into the muscles surrounding his carotid artery and fingers dug along his trachea with the bone of the exposed digit breaking into his flesh and quickly worming its way deeper.
Pain shot through his skull and he couldn’t breathe. He grazed his head along the wall and hit it squarely on the floor.
Like the bitch was still there to put all her weight behind it, he couldn’t help but think as he fell hard.
He was on the floor now, dizzy from a heady mix of beer, exhaustion, shock, and pain. That was when he saw the male at the end of the hall. It strolled into view, Craig’s face pressed into the carpet to see it on its level.
Like a gunslinger at high noon.
More pain and the sudden realization that he hadn’t breathed for the last several seconds. Behind the thick hand of the father came another. His right hand.
Craig’s vision blurred and doubled. He felt as though he were slipping away—like sand in the hourglass—water circling the drain.
Behind the two hands of the father, several smaller shadows arrived, bringing up the rear. Craig, having followed the story so well for so many years, knew them well. Jody and Jess. Mother clamped down harder. From no place in particular, her left hand landed with a thump at the tip of Craig’s nose.
He tried to tell them all to ‘Go to hell.’ All he could produce, however, was an infant’s gurgling nonsense filled with flecks of sandpaper spittle.
All my life, Craig realized then, every fucking moment in fear.
The mother’s one hand was still firm on his throat as the other inched forward to use his nose as a step. It crawled upon his face.
The large hands at the end of the hall seemed satisfied it was safe. They rushed forward. Trailing them at first, the children bounded ahead, literally bouncing off the walls as they dashed in to join the kill.
He closed his eyes tight, and then tighter still as he felt the first sickening probe of the mother’s index finger at one lid—teasing the lashes.
There comes a point when caught in the throes of drowning that, despite the awareness of being submersed, and knowing full well that to do so is to satisfy the inevitable, still the doomed will attempt a last breath. As if, somehow, miraculously, there is the chance that it’s all a bad dream, or that the rules of physiology have morphed. They are special. The rules never applied.
Drowning in fear.
Craig surged up. He broke for the surface. As he did, he bobbed just enough to throw the thing on his face—the thing at his eyes—off balance. Two fingers in search of purchase clawed at his mouth. They reached deep. He bit down hard and knew their bones splintered between his molars and incisors. The remaining fingers tore at his face. Like a mad dog, he held firm.
Finding his feet and stomping at a blurry thing darting about them all while tearing away first the creature at his throat and then the one still fighting to reach his eyes from his clenched teeth, Craig found his second wind. Rage and adrenaline took over. He badly raked his own face as he fought them.
Free at last, and hurling the last away back down the hallway behind him, he took a long gasp of air. Sweet with life it was also filled with putrid death from the thing that had fouled his mouth. He swallowed one chunk and spat out another.
It was of no consequence. Charging then, blindly almost, bellowing, finding his voice and damning them as he went, he careened twice off the wall, nearly losing himself once more and was sure he’d stepped on one and kicked another as he left them churned and tossed aside in his wake.
He made the kitchen.
He turned—back at the sink having made it as far into his little suburban box canyon as he could go—braced and ready, cleaver in hand. And they were not subtle now. They were not troubled with stealth. They came. First the little ones, spilling into the kitchen but quickly peeling off to conceal themselves beneath the lip of the floor cupboards, one behind the refrigerator. And then mother. The one known so well; his previous captive. She leapt in and held her ground three feet from him.
Slowly then, her counterpart, gravely wounded, pulled itself up and over the countertop from the living room side. Two fingers, the pinky and ring finger were crushed where the now useless digits met the hand. A swath of pulp was all that held them.
Why did I come back here?
Craig Whitt wished he could take so much back. He wished he had thrown the letter away that informed him of his inheritance. He wished he’d never known the address again. He would have never returned. Never moved back into his childhood home. Never gone to the house down the street. Never captured that monstrosity. Never explored and embraced his nightmares….
But I did. I did and I damned myself. I made myself part of the nightmare. Their nightmare. My nightmare. Our nightmare.
The children came for him then. They grappled his feet. Theirs would have been a fairly ineffectual assault. Would have been had Craig not panicked. He brought the cleaver down. The target dodged and Craig struck his own foot by accident. He buckled in pain and doubled over on the linoleum.
They came then as one. Mother, Father, Jody and Jess. The little ones sought his eyes. The mother clawed at his genitals. The hands of the father clamped about his throat.
Craig thrashed about. There was no release from them this time, however. Soon the pain dissolved into blackness.
Two nights later, deep in the dark of another night, the old man across the way—the retired school teacher, the last of Holly Circle’s living residents—stood at his living room window and served as witness as the things made their way home to the house at the end of the street. They were not much more than shadows at first before one of the smaller ones darted under the street light and paused there before being corralled by its mother. Those two were followed by a few more scrambling things and then at last came a lumbering one, badly injured and dragging two useless fingers behind it.
If the old man was disturbed by their passing, he made no sign. Then, just as he started to close the curtains, there came two more. The hands of a man. They paused under the light as well and it seemed to the old man that they seemed lost at a crossroads of sorts, caught up in indecision as to whether they would follow the others or not. The old man took note that one hand was missing a finger. A swollen red stump waved as if sniffing the night air.
Then at last the pair moved on, following to join the others at the house at the end of the street. And all was still and strange no more.