The chime of the cash register bell rang behind him. Turning around, Joe saw a slim hand waving a small brown paper bag high in the air, floating towards the door of the dusty antique shop. Casting a glance at the man behind the register, who stared with a mirthless grin, Joe headed towards the shop door wondering what oddity Rachel had decided to collect this time.
“So are you going to tell me what you got?”
The canopy of trees flickered light over Rachel’s smiling face like a zoetrope.
“Well?” Joe insisted as he steered the car through the wooded lane, casting a sideways glance at the passenger as she clutched at a small brown bag.
“Promise not to be mad?”
With a squall of tires the car fishtailed slightly and slid too a stop, its tires crunching on the gravel in the shoulder of the road.
“Oh, calm down!” Rachel said, giving Joe a hard stare. “Your superstitious hysteria is out of hand!”
“The paw? You bought the paw?” His face having gone pale, Joe’s voice cracked a little as he spoke.
“Paw? I think it looks more like a cartoon hand, really. I mean, it only has three fingers. I wonder if this thing actually works,” Rachel mused, a wry smile glinting in the mottled sunlight. Rolling open the paper bag, she reached in and pulled out a withered grey object that held a slight resemblance to a hand in so far that it had a flattened roundish base, and three prongs that looked vaguely like finders.
“Ooga booga!” she said with a laugh as she poked the hand in Joe’s direction.
His head hurt as he opened his eyes. The sunlight struck him as a dull but sharp pain directly behind his cheekbones. As consciousness returned Joe also noticed that the rest of his body felt beat up and ached in all kinds of unpleasant ways.
“Oh thank god!”
It was Rachel’s voice. Joe blinked and struggled to get himself into a sitting position, Rachel’s hands on his back helping to support him. Beside him was the rear quarter panel of the car, and directly in front of him the driver’s side door hung open. Glancing at Rachel’s face, awash in a combination of anguish and relief, his eyes tracked to the scattered gravel on the road’s shoulder. There on the ground, beside Rachel, was the grey hand, two fingers pointing towards the edge of the road that sloped off sharply into a deep ravine.
Reaching around to the back of his head, Joe felt a sticky mess. Bringing his hand back around, he saw it was covered in blood.
“Wha … what happened?”
“It looks worse than it is, I think,” Rachel said. “What do you remember?”, her voice cracking slightly on the last word.
With a tightened brow, Joe looked down, the bright sunlight still paining his eyes.
“You were poking that damn paw at me, and I think maybe I overacted a little …”
Rachel coughed slightly and said, “Yeah … a little.”
“What happened?” Joe asked, squinting his eyes and looking up to Rachel’s face, which still held a strained mixture of confusion, concern, and relief.
“You opened the car door, and started walking backwards. I tried to …” Rachel’s voice cut off in a choke as she cast her view to the ground. Joe followed her gaze, directly to the withered hand laying on the gravel.
Fear pushing aside his pain, Joe lurched to his feet, made his way to the edge of the shoulder, and peered gingerly over the side. It was a steep drop, but only looked to be ten feet or so before it started to slope down into the wooded ravine. The sound of splashing water could be faintly heard from a small creek far below. There was a faint line of disturbed dirt from the edge of the road, down to the slope, stopping at a number of small trees. Joe winced, the aches in his body suddenly lining up in his mind with the fresh trail before him. His hand on his head, Joe turned back to Rachel.
“So, how did I get back up here?”
Rachel’s expression became pained, and together their eyes tracked down to the withered grey hand lying on the ground between them, its two fingers seeming to say “peace, man”. Simultaneously they felt cold shivers run down their spines.
His vision cleared, and his aches having become more pronounced, Joe stretched a little and said, “Hey, lets get out of here. I probably look a mess, and will want a nap here before too long.”
“Want me to drive?” Rachel asked as she stood up.
“Nah, my head’s clear now. If I start to feel fuzzy, we can swap, but I think having something to focus on will do me some good.”
Dusting off his clothes, and rubbing his hands on the front of his jeans to wipe off what he could of his dried blood, Joe climbed into the car. Rachel followed, and with a spin of gravel, they launched back onto the road. They hadn’t gone too far when Rachel asked, “still feeling okay?”.
“Yeah, I’m good. Just a bit sore.” Joe turned to smile at Rachel. She smiled back, and turned to look at the road. Joe saw her face explode into a scream as her arms shot out in front her, palms up and out. Whipping his head back to the road, he saw too late the fallen tree, his foot pressing down into the brake moments after the front of the car connected into the massive trunk.
The tilted plate slid slowly across the table, stopping a foot or in front of him, and then dropped with a thud. Joe opened his eyes. The table was a mess of what might have been food, but mostly just random ingredients mashed up and scattered around. Some of it was even on the plate this time. Running his hand over the sharp stubble coving his face he muttered “thanks honey”. Closing his eyes, he held his hands over his ears trying to block out the sound of scraping and dragging. Through his hands he heard the faint muffle of a door closing. With a sigh, he stood up, and started his now daily routine of cleaning up after the morning disaster that was breakfast.
As he finished wiping up the floor, he glanced at the closed bathroom door. Even from the kitchen he could see the brownish smear all down the side. There was just no point in trying to keep that off. With a heavy sigh, he walked to the door, and with only the slightest hesitation, threw the deadbolt. From the other side he could hear a kind of mewling sound mixed with with a soft scratching at the bottom of the door. The door knob turned slowly, bumped forward against the bolt, and then there was silence. Moving a towel that had once been white to the bottom of the door, Joe returned to the kitchen.
Staring out the window above the sink, he relished the distraction of the waving trees. Their green leaves seemed to dance for him, encouraging him to ignore the hell he had created for himself and … he couldn’t even think her name. Watching two squirrels scamper across the top of the fence at the end of the yard, Joe noticed that now all too familiar feeling of unease. He was never sure if the thing was actually beckoning him, or if it was just some kind of mild psychotic break. Turning around, he looked into the dim living room. The window above the kitchen sink was the only source of light. All other windows had been covered up so no one might accidentally catch a glimpse of … it. The bathroom door knob squeaked and the door thumped once.
The paw, hand, whatever it was, sat on the coffee table in the living room. It’s solitary finger pointing directly at him. He couldn’t clearly remember if it always pointed at him. He stepped to the side, but like the Mona Lisa’s eyes, the single finger still seemed to be pointed right at him, judging, demanding. It had been all he could do to pick it up from where they had left it so many days before. “Peace, man”, he remembered thinking as he stared down at it as it sat baking in the sun. Yeah, peace is what he had wanted. He had known better, but desperate hope had overcome him. A soft mewling sound came from the bathroom.
In one fluid motion Joe picked up the withered hand. With a cracked voice he muttered, “What I wish I said was …”
“Oh come on! You know how much I love those old antique shops!”
“I know, but I’m super hungry. Maybe we can catch it on the way back.”
“Uh huh. That’s just your way of saying no.”
Joe smiled, and glanced over at Rachel. She was pouting a little, but also smiling.
“There’s a great burger place up ahead. I even think they have milkshakes.”
“Oh, alright. But next time we’re going to that shop!”
Joe laughed, and winced as a cold shiver ran down his spine and goosebumps flowed over his skin.