She remembers it as clear as a scar in her skin. It was late in the afternoon and dinner was already on the stove. Her Barbie dolls are sitting in the corner of the room—an interrupted tea party. One of them has hair matted down like a bird’s nest. She tried to blow dry it once but melted it instead. She’d had no idea Barbie’s hair was plastic.
She remembers the Barbies because not only had she been playing with them when Mom came in, but she spent the rest of the lecture wishing nothing more than to still be playing with them. So preoccupied she was that the gravity of what Mom was saying to her did not sink in until years later.
“They call it plausible deniability,” said Mom. “Do you understand me?”
Mom tutted. “I don’t think you do. If you understand, explain it to me. Now, what did I just tell you?”
The palm reader thinks of this memory often, whenever she looks down at a pair of hands and sees that a soft, barely defined mount of Jupiter. A parent who cares little, she reads. Her own hands—if palmistry did, in fact, work this way—would surely show such a feature.
Perhaps that’s not fair, she thinks, as she stares intently at the palm of a paying customer. Perhaps Mom tried. She looks back up. The woman is older than she is, with kind, desperate eyes and dark roots in her hair.
Her eyes flit back to the palm and she sees it all there, much more than the mount of Jupiter—a thin, white scar across the base of the thumb from when this customer once tried to peel carrots with a paring knife. She moves her thumb over the customer’s hand, brushing briefly the scar. As she does, she can feel it, just as the customer did all those years ago.
The moment of shock, of pain, of guilt. The smell of blood. The rush to the sink. The way the red swirled down the drain. The endless thoughts. Why, oh, why did I not just take the time to find the peeler? The trip to the hospital. The pain and tugging of the sutures. The feeling of guilt for a wasted dinner. Dad will be upset with me. The stray, idle thoughts that come at times like this. Did I get blood on the carpet? Will it stain?
She pulls her hands away and lets her eyes meet the woman’s. “You have a complicated relationship with a parent. Don’t you?”
Tears well in the women’s eyes and she sighs. It’s the one thing she can say to virtually anyone and have it be true.
The aisles of the supermarket are clean and empty, like starched linen. Her handbasket fills up with alarming routine. Coffee, bread, cigarettes. The high school kids who all but run the place share the same judgmental look. Funny, she thinks, how people and places—like time—march on, but few ever actually move.
Every few months, for instance, the grocery store boasts a new round of young faces, but she cannot help but think it’s simply an exchange of masks. The same hearts beat beneath—some calloused, some soft—as when she herself was that age. Teenagers never really change.
It calls to mind the most difficult years. Thirteen, fourteen years old. How strange everything felt to the touch. She narrowed the cause down to one of two things. Grief or puberty. Grandma, and the open-ended questions she left behind or the byzantine looks on the faces of other kids her age. No one really knows what to make of anything at that age.
Once, at this same store, her hand brushed against the kid bagging her groceries. It couldn’t have been any more than half a heartbeat that the grooves of her index finger ran along the inside of the girl’s wrist, but it was long enough.
It doesn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. It pinches more than anything. Something clatters against the tiled floor. Did I go deep enough? Everything is so clean. Where is the blood? Time moves like oil paint drying on a canvas. There’s the blood. There’s a lot of it. It’s a mess now. Hands gripping against porcelain. Mom can’t find me like this.
Her eyes lost focus for a moment and she had no idea if this was happening now or if it is some faint echo of the kid’s memory. They focused again slowly and she blinked furiously to help it along. Everything clicked into place. She was staring up at rafters of cast iron painted red. The paint was old and chipping.
The lone adult, a man in a white, short-sleeved button-up and red tie, hovered over her. His moustache needed a trim. He looked quite worried. “Are you okay, Ma’am?”
She decided that afternoon to start wearing gloves.
The heat bakes the concrete on days like this and rises again in a milky fog. She hurries across the road, through a gap in traffic, and continues through a parking lot. If one were to cast their eyes to the horizon on a day like this, she thinks, Fata Morganas are bound to appear. Grey roads are little more than tepid seas.
At the edge of the parking lot, she cuts down a narrow alley, holding her breath like always. Outdated produce from the grocery store rots inside the dumpsters. The alley opens up to the backlot of a low-rise strip mall. On the end is the legion, where tired men in wrinkled golf shirts smoke on the curb at all hours of the day.
There are three of them out there now and she recognizes them as regulars. They hardly take notice of her on most days, yet today they do. Her brow furrows at this and she wonders why the interest.
A moment later, she has an answer. Someone has put a rock through the neon sign that hung off her balcony. It struck the space between the M in Palm and the R in Reader and shattered both. The entire neon tube was destroyed.
“A bunch of kids,” says one of the men. His nose is red with alcohol.
Her eyes don’t leave the sign. How many times did they throw that rock, she wondered, before they hit it? How long did the men stand there and watch?
The gloves she wears are black spandex, a touch shinier than she would have liked, but they fit snugly. By now, they feel like a second skin. Sometimes small children on the street give strange looks, especially in the summer.
Grandma owned many pairs of gloves. When she was very young, she once slipped into Grandma’s closet, wading through the dresses that hung like trunkless willow trees until she reached the back. Slim boxes from defunct department stores were stacked neatly across a wire shelf. No single box was more than two inches high and they were arranged in a prim manner and efficiently labelled with the wisps of a fountain pen. Black satin, formal, elbow. Autumn-toned houndstooth, wool, three-quarter. Brown sheepskin, button clasp, wrist.
Grandma never minded that she pulled the boxes from the closet and sat cross-legged in the middle of them all, gloves layered up over her hands, satin mixing with wool mixing with cashmere. But Mom did. It prompted the lecture.
“Grandma had it too,” Mom said, that day of the interrupted tea party. “And Auntie Josie.”
“And Uncle Darrell?” she asked.
“Nope,” Mom curtly shook her head, “Not Uncle Darrell.”
She ordered a new sign from someone on Etsy. An artist somewhere in New Mexico is all she remembers. The rest of their store had been full of high-grade Halloween decorations, but they—like the sign—were hand-painted on solid pine. Difficult to put a rock through.
It arrives on a Sunday morning. That night, a knock comes at the door.
Despite the unseasonal rain and the lateness of the hour, someone made their way here, seeking her and her alone. Warily, she approaches the door and peers into the peephole, unsure what exactly to expect. What she sees is a young man, perhaps thirty. Her skin pricks. His hair lies slick to his forehead, wet with the rain. He wears no jacket, carries no umbrella.
She ensures the chain is in place and cracks open the door. “Can I help you?”
“I sure think you can, Ma’am, er, Miss,” the man replies with a crooked smile. “But will you?”
“My name is Virgil Greer,” he says, but she doubts this at first, odd enough name that it is. He sits awkwardly, dripping on her armchair, with his hands on his knees.
Standing, she surveys him. His fingers wind and unwind across his kneecaps like a cat kneading and he looks to the tablecloth between them. It is a thin stretch of purple velvet she found at the fabric store. She never bothered to hem it and it just drapes right down to the floor.
“Well,” she says with a sigh as she settles into the armchair across from him. “A standard reading is fifty dollars.”
“Okay.” Virgil Greer shifts in the chair. His eyes dart like a hummingbird across the various paraphernalia she has scattered across the room. Too small to technically be called a bedroom, the landlord once called it. “But perfect for when you finally decide to have a baby.”
After carefully removing her gloves, she sets her hands atop the velvet and reaches out as she always does. But Virgil Greer stares at her hands as if he’s never held one before. “I don’t bite,” she says to encourage him, although she’s pressing her teeth into her lip.
He inhales sharply, wiping the palms of his hands on his trousers before lifting them up onto the table. The way his fingers curl, tensed, as he lowers his hands tentatively into hers reminds her of a marionette she saw once in a toy chest, its strings all tangled, limbs pulled taut. Just before his hands reach hers, he turns them over in submission, palms upwards.
There is nothing too unusual about the palms of his hands. His palmar crease is deep and defined, a bit more so than most. The same is true of almost all the lines on his hand. She closes her fingers slightly and his hand curls inside hers, skin wrinkling.
Her eyes flit up to his. He has been watching her intently, brow furrowed. She makes the easy assertion. “You feel things deeply, don’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
“The events of your life, they affect you more than they would most people.” She shrugs. It’s a safe reading. “You’re more sensitive to subtle changes. You tend to worry and fret.” Everyone worries; everyone frets.
Virgil Greer nods almost imperceptibly. Her index finger reaches out towards his right hand and she lets her skin brush against his, so gently it sends a shiver through him. As he writhes she waits, her finger trailing.
She smells the searing of flesh against a hot pan. She sees a cat cornered and swiping. She feels a pin left in a dress shirt. She feels the pinch of a knife blade and hears the promise of a blood brother. Nothing is out of the ordinary—just the minute details that make up a life.
“You never said why you’re here,” she murmurs. His hair has still not quite dried from the rain. “Most people have something they want knowing.”
He shrugs. Her eyes remain on his hand and his eyes remain on her. “I saw your sign and thought why not?”
“Were you at the legion?”
She presses her lips together at the lie. Her finger keeps gently trailing. The sharp ceramic of a chipped plate. The scalding heat of a steaming kettle. The nagging splinter from a log of firewood.
After another minute or two, she has what she would normally need. But instead, she carefully extricates her hands from his and leaves them on the velvet. His palms curl feebly towards the ceiling like overturned pillbugs.
“Is that it?”
“Well.” She leans back in her armchair. “The night’s too dark to see my sign unless the light from the open door of the legion catches it. But you have no smell of alcohol on you.”
“Oh.” His hands slither from the velvet and drop back to his knees. “A friend told me about you.”
She stands. The armchair skids back, bumping against the wall of the small room. “Fifty dollars, please.”
Mrs. Lee’s cat has taken to mewling in the corridors late at night. From time to time, the noise is like a finger nudging her awake. She hears it in the hall, interspersed with scratching at the baseboards. The building has mice again.
If she cannot fall easily back asleep she kicks away the covers and slides from the bed. Her feet find their slippers—the floor is thin linoleum and too cold without them—and trudges into the kitchen.
She then sits with a cup of peppermint tea and waits for the day to arrive. Sparsely furnished though the living room is, it’s hardly spartan. Trinkets have collected over the years, some from Grandma, some from Mom, some from thrift stores and garage sales. Twenty-five cents for a glass dolphin. Ten cents for a painted pig, cast in resin. It has a chip on one ear. Only a dollar for a basket, woven from banana leaves. It sits now full of balls of leftover wool. These things are significant details to her, no less than a pale strip of scar tissue across a thumb. She uses them to a build a story. These are my things; this is who I am.
Her thoughts turn again to Virgil Greer. Whenever this happens, she reaches for a cigarette and lights it methodically. Intently, she watches as the flame sparks up and the tobacco begins to blacken.
As the embers smoulder, she remembers what such heat feels like against the skin. Once—years ago—she wanted to know—she was compelled to know. And so she did it. She pressed it into her skin, the pain sharp and winsome—shocking, even though she’d been expecting it. Ten minutes later, the wound began to throb. Uncared for, it ran wet for days. It became a scab she would not stop picking. Eventually, despite her best efforts, the wound healed but the scar remained.
One night, not long before senior prom, she’d argued with her mother over something inconsequential and insurmountable. “Hold out your hands,” Mom had demanded, after a familiar, certain point. All their fights ended on this way.
With pride, she presented her hands to her mother and waited.
“The worst thing about this?” Mom said at the end, “You felt that pain knowing I would too. That was why you did it.”
It is on her way out one afternoon, empty shopping bags slung over her arm, when she sees Virgil Greer again. At first she is startled to find that her memory had glossed over the cracks. He is less handsome than she recalled. Perhaps she’d unfairly forgiven him the slick of rain.
He appears just as forlorn dry as he had wet, and he stands on the far side of the parking lot, some ways from the legion. He is waiting for her and he does little to hide it. His eyes latch onto hers. His head lifts with eagerness. When she stops and stands still he steps towards her.
As he nears, she says, “It’s you,” and he can hear the accusation in her voice. Both of them wonder if she will demand from him the fifty dollars he owes her, but, in the end, she never brings it up.
“I need your help.” He is not pleading; he is polite. “Perhaps we can go inside?”
She shakes her head. Inside, her floors are unswept, the dim light beckons, and neither of them are to be trusted.
“I need another reading.”
“I doubt the reading will be any different the second time.” She hitches the empty bags up over her shoulder. “I saw what I saw.”
“I know that. But maybe you can try. Please?”
“Not in my apartment.”
He tilts his head towards the back door of the legion. “In there?”
Her mind had conjured the inside of the legion so many times—an exercise in curiosity—but it is not as she expected. Duller, perhaps. Neither slovenly enough nor glamorous enough to match her imagination.
Virgil slips into the booth across from her and stares expectantly. She’s not quite ready to look at him again. Instead, she looks around at a place that makes her uneasy. The ceiling is a touch too high for her to feel comfortable. Everything is wood. Maybe it reminds her too much of a tinderbox.
The other patrons survey them with a workmanlike gaze before deciding, through some unknown calculation, that they are not worth the worry. After a waitress with a sallow expression visits twice, leaving two lukewarm Budweisers, Virgil places his hands on the table.
After removing her gloves, she takes his hands in hers and yanks up his sleeves. It’s almost the impatience that drives her. Just as before, his creases are deep. She remembers well what she said then. He worries too much.
As her fingertips slide with precision over his skin, he twitches. The same ghosts are evoked as before—a cornered cat, a hot pan, a forgotten pin, a blood brother. She revisits his ghosts again and again. Cat, pan, pin, brother. Her finger traces slowly. Plate, kettle, splinter.
When confident she has felt every ridge, line, and scar in his hands, she pulls back her own. “It’s the same as before.” She shrugs. “I don’t know why you thought I’d feel anything different.”
Virgil Greer won’t believe her. She can read that in his face easy enough. Now that she’s felt his hands, his face is an easy thing to look at. It’s just the varnish on the vase. He leaves his hands on the table and looks up at her with an unhinged jaw. “But, I thought that you could tell… the truth.”
“The truth?” She picks up her beer. “What sort of truth do you expect to hear from a fortune teller? We’re all scam artists, you know.”
“No. You’re not.” He hasn’t touched his drink. “You’re the real deal. That’s what I heard.”
“Then you’re real gullible, aren’t you?”
It feels impossible to keep looking at him, but he looks like his heart might break if she stops. He has no response for her, just a silent, pleading look. How does he know? Who told him? She sets down her glass. Who even is there to tell?
“Look,” she murmurs at last. “It’s not hands. It’s scars.”
Two strides past the threshold of her apartment, Virgil Greer moves in the direction of the reading room but she stops him with a sigh. “Don’t bother.”
So he begins to unbutton his shirt and she can tell he is nervous. He swallows with the anxiety of a man who doubts the grip he has on the cliff he’s dangling from. What would it be to let go? When he reaches the bottom, he peels back the lapels. Running lengthwise down his chest is the glossy, red scar of a thick, horrific suture.
His eyes peer up at her with his head still bowed, like a restless child in church. “Heart transplant.”
She stares at it and wonders with dread what it will feel like beneath her fingertips.
“They found a defect when I was a kid. Been on the list for years, and then finally…. I shouldn’t have been so happy, ‘cause someone died. But…. You know. I just… I don’t know.”
His shoulders stiffen as she lifts a hand towards him. As her fingers stretch into the air they tremble like bulrushes in a breeze. Maybe it’s not even him that I’ll feel. Her fingertips begin on the soft, unbroken skin above the suture. Maybe that’s what he’s hoping for.
She slides her fingers down slowly. His skin is warm although he’s shivering. His heart beats quickly and his pulse so far is the only thing she can feel. But she’s holding her breath. They both are. Another inch down and the puckered flesh begins.
So many hands, but she has never felt a heart.
She stops to catch her breath. It worries her now what she might feel. A rush of fear? A shot of adrenalin? A bolt of inconceivable pain? What does it feel like to die?
“Stop.” Virgil puts his hand on top of hers. “You don’t have to. I shouldn’t have asked—”
“No.” She looks up at him. She knows why now. She knows. “I want to.”
But his hand does not lift off of hers as she slides her fingertips down over the sutures. His touch like this, it helps.
As she inhales slowly, along with the rush of air, a swell of light pours in. She feels no pain, no fear, no worries. She feels neither the slice of a scalpel nor the pinch of a suture. No thoughts fill her mind—not idle thoughts, not concrete thoughts. No panic, no regret.
What she feels is a heart beating as if for the first time. A heart beating once more when it never expected to never beat again.
Ashleigh Rajala is an award-winning writer whose work has been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including Room, Redwing, Quarter Castle, and Crab Fat. She lives and works in the Vancouver area with her husband and an extraordinarily fluffy cat.