Charlie watched the rain fall in diagonal sheets and flap like grey linen. She was dry thanks to a corrugated roof, which amplified the patter of raindrops into gunfire. The awning covered a paved walkway that connected a parking lot to a roadside shopping mall.
The rain caught Charlie's left leg. The cold felt urgent, so she shuffled into the dry shadow cast by the aluminium awning. She shivered and tucked her right hand into her armpit, then pressed the forearm down so its warmth could soak into her bones.
Clutching herself with one arm, Charlie watched the reign of the rain.
Her other arm hung down dead and tilted the justice of her shoulders. Unlike the real arm, it didn’t get goosebumps, it was not a team player, frankly, the arm was like a wooden cock; it felt nothing at all. The right arm, by contrast, was so real that it wasn't "there". Charlie noticed what the arm did, but not its existence. That's what good things do. They only exist when you need them to. The bionic thing was always there, like an unwanted child and that is exactly what bad things do. They nag you forever about the way things were.
She hated that arm.
The static station was on the other side of the parking lot. Next to it was a loading hangar and a drop-off lot with cargo bays. A peculiar hum came off the pylons that fed the porcelain-ribbed electrodes on the roof. This was heavy electricity, she thought, closer to the likes of lightning than the stagnant stuff generated by a dynamo in a dam. Her rig would charge in no time.
The courtyard to the static station had three lanes. Dead-head tractors queued outside while their trailers waited in the cargo bay decapitated. Charlie loved seeing the two divorced like this, horses without wagons. Hers was in the closest lane and second inline to recharge.
The trucks automatically crawled forward as the queue shortened. Her rig was the one with a sleeper berth; the others were autonomous company cars. Charlie bought her freight liner second hand from an old-timer. He had spent his life over the road. Back in the day, that rig was quite something. But now, it was obsolete.
Charlie liked it. It paid the bills.
She told anyone who asked, and they believed it. But like all lies, the beauty begot the beholder. She was petrified of being trapped, tethered to some miserable apartment, in some rotten city, festering with millions of septic opinions, all yelling how to conduct yourself. Who would not run from that? Who? The mad. They'd stay only because they're equipped for insanity.
Like the old-timer, Charlie's soul was itchy. She needed the white noise of perpetual movement, the vibration of the chassis in her spine, and yearned to see the world recede in her rear-view mirror. Evil things lurk in stagnant pockets, like the evil thing that cut her up and then sold the pieces for fun.
So even though the truck would never grind air or sail unobstructed above the world like her petite Cessna did, it kept her going and it wasn't that kind of drug anyway; it was more like a mild sedative.
The octopus of depression that resided in Charlie's stomach reached up an unmedicated tentacle to strangle her and pull her down into the infinite well of sadness. But then the sky turned white. Bright white. It was only for a moment, but brilliant enough to unbuckle her.
The sky strobed again.
A few seconds later, thunder cracked and rolled. The horizon had smudged into a dark column of cloud. Nimbostratus. The storm bringer. The cloud throbbed again.
"Every day is a sunny day ... on top of the clouds", her grandmother once said.
There was a time when Charlie played in the clouds. This one kept the electricity inside it. The spindles of static never leaked out. It was a lampshade made of mist.
Once, on a charter back from Atlanta, she flew her Cessna into a storm cell. Air traffic control told her not to, but an impulse grabbed her, and she just did it. The passenger was delivered, she was headed home, alone and she just dropped into it. That cloud was just like this one.
She went in, and upon entering, the monolith shattered into arcs of electric white, she was flash blind from the strike, and the crack burst her eardrums. Not really. Headphones protected her, but it felt like they had. Her hearing was blunted by a dull, monotonous buzz for hours afterwards. She cranked her jaw, but the ears wouldn't unblock. Her mouth was rusty, and her tongue tingled deep into her throat as if she had sucked a battery.
Powerful turbulence bullied the tiny plane. Her attacker was invisible, made of air and mist. Without warning, the craft would plummet as if gravity had been cancelled and then be punched when the gravity came back on.
The plane would stabilise, then keel forward violently, and immediately bank left and chuck her into the seat belt. She was petrified that a support strut might snap in two and rip the wing off. The forces were insidious.
She was flying blind, her eyes were useless, all she had was the instrumentation. There was no way to gauge the girth of the column. Panic set in and she decided to dive, gain momentum and bank away from the storm. Lightning struck again, but it was a terrestrial strike. The earth was overcharged, and the arc leapt up into the cloud as a forest of electric saplings.
Charlie truly believed that she would die. There were barbed spears of electricity stabbing up at her from everywhere, boiling the mist and scorching the rain. Down was certain death.
Fear and courage feel identical, except one will paralyse you, where the other will have you scream blasphemies and yank the yoke. The wings struggled to find air to grab onto, but they did, and the nose lifted. The sassy little plane pitched according to the steering column, which was all the way back. With roll and yawl, the plane corkscrewed up so acutely that the stall light blinked and beeped, but she did not care. When faced with death, what's left to care about? Nothing. Charlie clamped her eyes shut, bit her teeth and ignored the vomit warning in her stomach.
The plane strained and rattled against the harsh rain and swirling hail. The engine laboured against gravity, and Charlie screamed insults at providence. Then, finally, the aircraft broke through the canopy and flicked up into the sunshine above the rain, beyond the capital of the storm.
Charlie was enraged with adrenaline and bipolar joy. She was utterly oblivious of her liberty until thunder cracked in the cloud below, and she opened her eyes to look. The claustrophobic grey was gone. She was free. The plane coughed, the engine choked, and the blur of propeller blades stopped still on white-tipped teeth. The craft was still ascending with momentum but in complete silence. The world below was voluptuous with white cotton blossom from edge to edge, sublimely quiet, and it stole her breath away. The peace that follows rage is divine.
The nose of the Cessna reached the apex of its trajectory, tipped forward, levelled, and sadness overwhelmed her. A sadness for the immense beauty of it all and for her tiny role in the totality of existence, the more she felt, the smaller she got. The deep blue infinity of the sky occupied her eyes, no matter where she pointed them. The horizon was gone, and the monotone hum of ohm was everywhere else.
The windscreen was stripped with rain, condensation misted the viewport except for an area in the middle, and the smaller side windows were completely iced over. Charlie was frozen and hadn't noticed; the air was thin and dizzy. She exhaled candyfloss and watched it vanish.
She pressed her hand against the opaque side window, held it there until the cold began to burn, then tucked it into her armpit. The open hand left a transparent palm to look through. The ice around the etched print glowed orange. The sun was blinding.
She loitered at that moment, time freeze-framed, each detail preserved in high resolution, suspended just before the inevitable descent into the maelstrom. She savoured the sad beauty of it all; again. Here she was whole and complete and in love with herself. She was a skyscraper to the world. This was before the amputation.
Back in the parking lot, in the rain, under the awning, the memory made her draw a breath so deep that it made her cry uncontrollably.
Behind Charlie, a chain of three people approached the exit to the shopping mall. Charlie was under the awning out front. They were down the throat of the mall walking up. The chain had two adults and a little girl. The child was in the middle. Her mother carried a handbag on her shoulder, a plastic doll under her arm and a phone. The woman extended her arm, smiled and tapped her thumb on the phone. The father carried only himself and walked with a shortened gait. He looked down at his daughter and smiled.
"Ready?" he asked.
The girl gave him a single confident nod.
"One. Twoooo ... Three!" both adults said and swung the girl up into the air.
Her skirt billowed open, her little pump legs protruded like the ripe stamen surrounded by petals. She swung up high, real high, almost horizontal to the floor, paused and plummeted in an arc trailed by a high pitched squeal.
"Again, again", shouted the child before she landed.
"Okay then, are you ready?!" asked the mother.
The girl's head almost bounced off her body, and she smiled at her mother.
"Holly? Holly look at mummy," said the mother.
The girl looked up with less smile. Her mouth was dirty with stickiness, a broad brown smudge of glue and stuck to the filth were bits of white napkin. Tiny shreds of tissue on her cheek and under her chin, the paper dangled obscenely.
"What? Dave. Did you wipe her like I asked?" she said to the man attached to the girl.
The man nodded.
"Oh really?" she said, "Baby come to mummy".
The mother looked at the girl and glared at the father.
"What?" said the father, "I'm telling you I did. Ask Holly, hey Holly, did daddy wipe your face? Tell mummy, did daddy wipe your face?"
The little girl immediately started nodding and took her fathers hand again. To protect him. She wrapped him in an invisible shield of love.
"Yes mummy, yes but and then I sowed daddy to do it." said the girl.
The mother looked at the father and smiled her not-a-smile smile.
"Oh. What a big little girl!" said the mother
The girl grinned.
The woman handed the doll to the child to hold, opened her handbag, swapped her phone for hand-wipes then turned the girl to wipe her chin. Then, with a new cloth, she wiped the girl's lips and mouth thoroughly. The girl squirmed, and her mother paused.
"You missed a bit honey, c'mon we're almost done. There we go." the mother said.
She finished and gave the little face a final general wipe, bunched the dirty wipes in her palm, stood up and offered the litter to the father.
"Off you go," she said to him.
The man glared at her but nevertheless came forward, took the litter, and wandered back down into the shopping mall toward a free-standing island of recycling bins.
"Oh and Dave, since you're down there, why not grab some water," she added.
"I'm not your fucking mule," the man muttered.
The woman put her hands on her hips, looked at the tips of her shoes, nodded to herself, then brought the head up fast and flicked narrow eyes upon him.
"What's that, Dave?" she asked.
"No, no, go on darling, say your say." she insisted.
The man stopped and addressed the wall calmly.
"I said; I. Am. Not. Your. Fucking. Mule!" he said, then he continued walking to the bins, bouncing the ball of dirty tissues in his hand.
"Okay. Okay. Right. Well, I'll just do that myself too, then." the mother said.
"What's a fucking mule?" asked the child
"Holly! That's ... a bad word. Okay, a very very very very bad word. You must never say that word. Promise me you will never say that word?"
The child blinked her blue eyes.
"Hollllly? Only very ugly people say that. Are you ugly? No, you are not. You are beautiful. Beautiful little girls do not talk like that. Okay?"
The child nodded.
"Daddy is fucking mule," she said and giggled.
"No! I. Said. No!" the mother shouted.
The woman slapped her own leg, looked away, then back, then reached up and rapidly tapped her temples with her carefully manicured fingers. Her eyes twitched. She pinched her brow and turned her head away from the child, her head dropped, and she began sniffing.
The father returned to find her snivelling. He frowned and maintained a cautious distance for a moment, then exhaled, broadened his chest and stepped forward with his arms extended. The woman shook her head, he came closer, she hit him on the shoulder and buried her face in her hands, he stepped even closer and then wrapped her in his arm. The mother disappeared into his chest. Then she came out, briefly, to get tissues from her handbag, then was engulfed again.
Her upper body bobbed up and down, and he rested his chin on her head.
"We'll be fine. We'll figure it out. We will, you'll see, babe. This is a good thing, right?" he said quietly.
Her head nodded, then an arm came out and opened the handbag and grabbed more tissues, a whole chapter’s worth, which she lay on his chest two or three pages deep, and settled her leaky nose on the quilt and cried some more. The loose arm curled out again and pulled him closer.
The man pecked her forehead with little kisses.
Holly looked at all this, then turned around with her doll and looked outside.
With her mother's back turned, she waddled off to visit the exit with the doll dangling by the hand. There they swung on the large frame loops of the theft alarm, climbed through the poles, and jumped back and forth until something distracted Holly. It was a woman clutching herself with one arm.
Instinctively Holly turned back to talk to her mother
"Mummy? Why is that lady crying?" she said.
But mother was down the corridor.
"Where is her mummy mummy?" Holly asked the corridor.
Dave saw Holly looking, so he pointed at her and waved. The mother looked too, blew her nose, manufactured a smile and also waved. Then the interlocked couple started toward the exit.
Holly looked at the woman outside, then looked down the corridor at the united couple, then back at the lonely woman and walked out to stand beside the stranger.
Holly looked at the hand peeping out the coat sleeve. The hand looked like a huge doll hand, except it had wiggly fingers. Holly touched the hand; it did nothing, so Holly held it. Once again, the little girl was the middle link in a chain; Holly kept very quiet because the woman was super sad. Holly used the opportunity to wrap the stranger in her impenetrable shield of love.
To Holly, the prosthetic arm was an elaborate stethoscope that revealed the sadness of Charlie's truncation. Holly frowned with concern and looked up, but the woman was still sobbing, so Holly tugged the hand twice. And suddenly, Charlie was back.
Charlie jumped, the arm yanked forward and whipped back, with the fist clenched into a knot of metal, aimed to crack Holly in the face.
When Charlie realised what the arm was doing, the chain of events was already in motion. She knew the reaction was out of order and also knew that an intervention was impossible. The bandwidth between her mind and the machine was too slow to stop what had started. The future had already begun.
Charlie lifted the other hand to her mouth in shock like a pedestrian would do moments before the impact of a crash, a bystander witnessing events of two strangers. The metal fist struck, and the force launched Holly. The follow-through curled Charlie around to watch. Down the passage, the mother lurched forward screaming.
Holly was paralysed by shock for a moment. Her forehead ploughed, her chin quivered, blood poured out of her, and she suffocated herself screaming.
Unaware of the running mother, Charlie stepped forward and bent down to plead forgiveness and help the little girl. Instead, the girl shielded her face and screamed higher-pitched syllables of distress, her trills propelling her mother.
"Get away from her, you fucking psycho cunt!" mother yelled.
"Oh my god. I'm so sorry. So sorry; are you okay?" Charlie stuttered.
"Get away from her!" the mother shouted.
The mother arrived and kicked Charlie away. Then she snatched Holly off the floor, flicked the child around to straddle her hip and punched her arm forward, like a lance, at the villain on the floor.
The impact of the kick jarred Charlie's right side; she tried to buffer the fall by extending the prosthetic arm, but it reacted too slowly. As a result, her entire body weight landed on the bent elbow. The joint compressed the force and sent it up the graphite bone into the stump of the amputated arm like a hammer hitting the tip of a toe.
The collision injected a massive amount of pain in her marrow via the unnatural cavity left behind from a surgeon's saw. Every muscle clenched to stop it, but the pain won and penetrated. The shock made Charlie go limp.
The wave of pain surged through her and turned everything on; every nerve, every strand of hair, every violent thought she had ever had. It even visited the parts where consciousness is crocheted. Everything was alive and very eager. The pain extended past the cut nerves on the amputated arm, through the wire extensions onto the electrodes and bridged into the bionics. It entered the prosthetic and woke up the electronics on the other side of her. The pain mapped the mechanics onto her phantom fingers welding her into one entity, with a single common denominator; pain. And then the pain peaked, fried the whole lot and vanished in the way lightning does.
Charlie caught herself in the recoil of fainting and managed to brace the floor for her second collision, and then her stomach twisted, and she heaved to vomit.
The father arrived a second later and pushed between the girls and the attacker. The mother kept backstepping until a safe distance stood between her and him, then she sculled back, went down quick and unsaddled the girl to do a status check. Blood trickled out of Holly's nose, over her lips and into her mouth, smudged her teeth pink, and pooled under her chin.
"Cunt!" she said to her handbag and reached for wet wipes.
Charlie stopped gagging and got up with her amygdala primed and eyes sharp with adrenaline. The stump throbbed hot in the prosthetic boot that joined the limbs. Indifferent to the pain, the bionic arm was fully operational, which made Charlie a cyborg with a baton arm attached to an articulated vice. She knew the amount of damage at her disposal, which made her feel calm, very calm, in a sadistic way.
The father broadened into a military stance, legs apart, arm raised with non-threatening palms facing Charlie, a peaceful bulldozer. He took a step forward, hoping Charlie would retreat a step or two.
Charlie did not surrender a millimetre. Instead, she raised her bionic arm and lowered the sleeve for Dave to see her machine.
"Lay a finger on me, and I will hurt you so bad," she said.
Dave stopped his advance. It wasn't the words that halted him; rather, it was the calmness.
"Stay calm, lady, just let's all stay calm."
"You need to train your fucking child not to attack strangers."
"Who lets their child do that? I am sorry, okay, but it's actually your fault. This wouldn't've happened if you didn't let your child sneak around like that."
"She's six years old, lady! Look at her!"
"She could've been a fucking rapist, okay?"
"Are you for real right now? She's a fucking kid! Jesus man, you need some serious help,"
"How was I supposed to know? Me? I need help? Look in the mirror!"
"Ffffffuck you. Okay, okay, no. No. We are done here, and FUCK YOU!"
The interlocutors hedged then stood down, eyes locked.
He shook his head, reversed three steps and left.
Charlie watched him go with a sigh of relief.
"Hey! Hey you," said Charlie.
Her venom had gone.
The man looked back. His venom had gone too.
The man tipped his chin.
"Umm ... it was a mistake," said Charlie
The man wiped his face with his palm and shrugged.
From behind, the mother saw them interacting.
"Dave! Whaddya doing? Don't talk to her. She's fucking crazy." she said.
The father gave Charlie a nod.
Charlie swallowed and relaxed her eyes.
The father turned and jogged to the girls. Charlie watched them unite and watched how the girl effortlessly chained the family together with her tiny hands and her impenetrable shield of love.
Charlie watched them walk away.
"Mummy?" asked the girl.
"Hmmm?" replied the mother
"So why, no. If you can, no, wait. Can I have ice cream?"
"You can have whatever you want, okay," said mother
"How much blood is left in my nose?"
"In your nose?"
"I dunno, baby."
"What's a cunt?"
The awkward silence faded into the corridor.
Charlie smiled at the beautiful child. As she did, the father looked back briefly and made eye contact. Charlie flinched and turned away, afraid that a much deeper confession had slipped into existence and that the father had seen her yearning.
With the adrenaline gone, Charlie felt the cold return and pulled her cardigan over her chest, the arm was still hot, but the throbbing had calmed down. She zipped the front of her anorak and pushed the shopping cart along the path. At the end, still under the awning, she stopped and frowned up at the rain, then flicked her hood over her head, and entered the weather, aiming for the hangar where her truck was waiting.
The moulded cart had one dull wheel that would shudder and spin unexpectedly. This meant Charlie had to grip the handle with both hands to keep it true, guiding and compensating for the impetuous wheel. That's when it happened. The twitch.
The pinky finger on the sinister hand flexed all by itself. A very subtle flick. A nervous tick, a millisecond of rebellion. After which, it returned to its file.
Charlie stopped abruptly. And stared at the foster hand at the end of the left arm, which held the steering bar and assisted its sibling to steady the cart.
Drops of water pattered on the hood of the raincoat and splashed on her face. Water drops hung on her eyelashes, while others gathered together and trickled down her face. The saltiness tasted nice. But what that hand allowed to happen ... was wrong.
Charlie stared at it. She was waiting as the jury to witness and deliver a verdict. Her breath was quick and shallow. She stood very still and alert like a rapist in the shadows watching and waiting, full of murder and sex and anticipation of the crime to come.
But the little finger did not twitch again.
She raised the arm to her face and looked at it. Where creases should've been, hinges were. Where knuckles should've been, armatures were. Where creased skin belonged, cold alloy panels were.
Charlie smacked the hand on the edge of the cart and raised it again.
She felt nothing. Nothing from it or for it. Nada. After turning the hand from side to side, and flipping it over, and studying every detail, every scuff and scratch, after noticing each embossed crucifix of each exposed screw head, she did it again. She smacked the cart twice as hard.
This time she did feel something.
Charlie grabbed the false forearm with her right hand. She held tight so that the grip would not slip and smacked the sharp edge of the cart edge repeatedly as if punishing an animal for shitting on the pillow. She beat it for doing that and continued to beat it for all sorts of other things too, and after that, she punished it for the foreseeable future.
But still, the twitch refused to repeat. It had happened, Charlie knew it, but now it was hiding, lying, pretending that it had not. Despite the punishment, there was no confession.
She stopped the beating and yanked the zip to her raincoat down. It jammed, so she bit the one side and tore it apart with forceful yanks. Then she pulled her cardigan open and slid her hand inside her t-shirt and out of sight.
She arched forward as the hand-worked undercover.
The hand was operating on her. It had strict orders, and it was very loyal. The hand finished, came out into the open, lifted to the collar and went in again, but this time it was betrayed by a shift in geography. The shoulder of the raincoat bulged. A lump darted around just below the shoulder line, at the peninsula of her left flank. It foraged for something, caught what it was hunting, did what it did and came away.
Next, the hand strangled the foreign arm at the wrist and pulled it long, as long as it would go. The elongation was insufficient. So the strangler waited for help. The knee bent.
Charlie pushed her knee into the elbow hinge and paused to balance, a crane engaged with itself. A breath was drawn, followed by a scream, and she pulled with the length of her spine. On the lever of the knee, the convicted arm was fighting a stretched throat and bare teeth. Slowly the arm got longer and longer, and longer still until it was ridiculously long. The laborious stretch was followed by a sudden jerk that upset her balance, and she fell down with an arm in one hand and an obscenely hollow sleeve.
The empty sleeve flattened into a broad ribbon, flapped promiscuously in the wind for a moment, then collapsed in zigs and zags. Charlie relaxed her grip, and the arm rolled out of her hand on its bent elbow and fell flat.
Charlie lay on her back, and let it rain on her face, and concentrated on her breathing; which went in and out, and out, and out, and out, and out, and then in.
Next, she sat up, with her back turned to the arm. None of the insane passion was left from the carnal event, just remorse and shame.
Charlie got up and walked to her cart and closed her cardigan, and tried to zip the broken raincoat. The clasp managed to get halfway up the broken rails before it jammed. She wiped damp hair from her eyes and pruned her soggy ponytail; she looked like a stray. Charlie nodded to herself like drunkards do, then took the cart handle and pressed on toward her home, toward the rig that was waiting in the hangar. The cart travelled for almost a meter before the wheel shuddered and bit and veered off track.
Charlie jammed her foot against one rear wheel and corrected the cart by pulling backwards. The tip came around. Five steps later, it all happened again, so she kicked the cart and went around to the front corner on the good side and pulled it forward. The cart had a lower rail that suspended the basket and held the wheel stems. That rail bit her ankle. She refused to acknowledge the pain. She just breathed through it and modified her gait. The walk was awkward, but it worked, and so they moved off in decrepit steps.
As she hauled forward, Charlie thought of her grandmother.
"It's a royal pinky," the old woman said to a little Charlie.
"Well, I don't think it is. It's a nuisance. That's what that is."
The old woman smiled at her granddaughter and balanced the symmetry of her crooked ponytails by tugging at select tufts on one side and then the other.
"Maybe it's that too? A thing can be more than one thing at a time, you know. So maybe to have a royal pinky, you need to have a nuisance too. But, let me tell you a secret, did you know you and me are very special because only we have it?"
The girl frowned suspiciously.
The old woman nodded sincerely.
"It's true. I got it from my grandmother, and she got it from hers, and now you got it. Our boys will never have it. It's just for girls. And you and me are extra special, you see I gave it to you, through mummy, but mummy doesn't have it! Only I do, and now you do too. Look."
She held up her left palm and curled the fingers into a fist.
The girl waited, and when the old woman's little finger flicked out and back, she grinned broadly and stroked the rebel finger and giggled.
"But what if I don't want it?"
The grandmother smiled, finished pruning, pinched the girl's nose, and vanished like ghosts do when they're done haunting you.
But decades later, the grown girl was more convinced than ever that she was right. The finger was definitely a nuisance. Sometimes Charlie would have to bind her fingers to stop the pinky from jumping. It was a royal pain in the ass pinky; that is precisely what it was, and then it was gone.
Charlie had not noticed the heirloom was missing. The random tick ended when the arm was amputated. How could she forget herself like that? Something so intrinsic to her constitution was forgotten. Until now, that is. Until that mechanical abomination mimicked it.
How dare it do that? That's why it had to go. Electronic evils were at play. Bad bionics. What else could it do? What would it do next? God knows! Could it possess her? Or somehow interfere with her DNA. How could it? That was crazy. Idiots ask questions like that. And idiots answer them too. But that arm, well, that arm was up to something. Definitely. It was learning her. Prying. It found a way into a place where it had no business being. Her genetic code was her private property. It was a spy. A voyeur. But how? What if it hijacked her? How was it deciphering her? It was gone now. Thank god. That was all that really mattered. Banish the heathen from the kingdom of heaven!
She hated that arm.
After all the thinking was done, Charlie found herself standing in front of the thing. Her cart was five meters behind her, abandoned, and she was back here, where it lay. Charlie stared down for a moment, then picked it up. She didn't know why she did that. She didn't understand why she flew into the storm cell either; she just did. Something called, and she answered. That's all there was to it. The poor arm, she thought, lying in the rain. It was only a machine, after all. How would she tie shoelaces without it? So she tucked it under her arm and pinched it against her ribs with the stump while she walked and wiped it dry with the empty sleeve.
The arm grinned inside.