Penance

Penance – by Rosa Meronek

Swirls. Loops. Like a topographical map. I run my fingertip over the canyons of my left palm, tracing the creases. I watch the slow curl of my fingers as I make a fist, turning my hand over. My fingers open, spreading wide as they uncurl. I trace over the slight ridges of teal veins on the back of my left hand. My breathing slows as my gaze drops to the scar along the wrist. My fingertip follows the puckered skin.

“What do you think?” Dr. Angela asks.

“It’s incredible.” My voice is an awed whisper. With deliberate care, I remove the gold band off my right ring finger and slide it onto my left. The feeling is foreign to me.

“How does it feel?”

I blink back the tears that threaten to spill. “You have no idea. The past few years, I’ve managed. I’ve dealt with it. But, this.” My voice cracks, and I have to pause. “This is amazing. It feels…mine.”

She smiles at me. “Good. Let me just take another look.” She takes my hand in hers, running her fingers over it, squeezing, pinching, curling and uncurling, flipping it over, and inspecting it closely from all angles. “How’s that? Can you feel this?” I nod, and she smiles. “So, you’ll have a small scar, but I’m sure that’s a small price to pay, right?”

I laugh. “Definitely. Besides, now you see it,” I remove the watch from my right wrist and slip it onto my left. “Now you don’t.”

She nods with a big smile. “Good. Well, make sure you take your medications and do the exercises I showed you. Make a follow-up appointment on your way out.”

I thank her and get up to leave, still staring down at my hand, still opening and closing my fist, turning it over and over. I have a hand. Five years I’ve spent without a left hand. My third deployment in Iraq took it from me. But, how can I complain? I lived. The others in the vehicle weren’t so lucky. The IED shredded the other Soldiers, shrapnel tearing through their gear, slicing through their flesh. My friends. My battle buddies.

After leaving the doctor’s office, I drive home. My right hand unlocks the car, turns the key in the ignition, adjusts the rearview mirror, and shifts into gear. My right hand steers, resting on the wheel. My left rests on my knee. I reach to flip up the turn signal with my wrist, but I stop and stare when my fingers bump the stick. Slowly, I extend my fingers, gripping the signal with my thumb, index, and middle finger. Slowly, I push the little lever up with my fingers. I breathe deep as my eyes absorb every movement, my fingers sliding onto the side of the steering wheel then gliding to the top. My fingers curling, tightening around the black leather. My grip whitens my knuckles. A loud horn blasts from behind me, snapping me out of my fixation. I make my turn and finish my drive home.

At home, I start cleaning, but out of habit, I use only my right hand. I have to keep reminding myself to use both. I wash dishes. A plate clatters to the floor and breaks. The weight new and unusual in my unfamiliar, trembling hand. I sweep the shards off the floor, my fingers curling around the broom handle where I used to rest my wrist, the pull-back still uncertain.

I vacuum and do laundry. I cook. As I do more with my hand, it becomes more natural. It’s weird how after years of adjusting my lifestyle to one hand and a stump, I can go back to the days before the attack. The sensations are new, and the hand is unfamiliar. But the movements are ingrained. Muscle memory, I guess.

Later, I sit on the couch watching tv, a ball of play-doh in my left hand. Idly, it rolls in my hand, squished and squeezed. Who would’ve thought that playing with my son’s toy would constitute physical therapy?

I hear the key slide into the lock on the front door. Quickly, I toss the blue dough onto the coffee table and jump up, running to the foyer. As the door pushes open, I throw my left arm behind my back and stand there with a smile. Michael walks in, head down as he sifts through mail. He tosses it onto the entryway table and sets down a small brown leather bag.

When he glances up, his blue eyes light up as he takes me in, standing there.  “Hey Love. What are you doing home?” He takes a step towards me, but I hold out my right hand to stop him. His eyes furrow in question.

I smile. “I have a surprise.”

He smiles back at me, his voice full of humor. “Great. What is it?”

“Close your eyes.” I wait a moment, but he closes them quickly. I smile. This man. So wonderful. Trusts me implicitly. Doesn’t even question me. “So, remember I told you about the call I received a week ago before you left?”

He nods. “Yeah, about the test group for the new prosthetic?”

“Yeah, well, they approved me.”

His eyes open as his smile widens. “That’s great, Babe!”

“No, keep them closed.” He does as I say. “Well, the thing is,” I lick my lips and swallow as my throat goes dry. I take a steadying breath. “It was a very fast turnaround. They called me in this morning.” I step to him, looking up at his towering height as I do. I place my right hand on his left cheek. His hand moves to cover it. I take a slow deep breath and raise my new hand and rest it on his right cheek.

Immediately, his brows crease. His hand comes up to mine. His eyes spring open as he takes my hands down from his face and stares at them. His face looks surprised and confused. “What? How?”

I grin. “Some new scientific thing. The surgery was computerized. It only took about two hours.” I hold up my hand and laugh, smiling. “It was a donor hand, but they did something to the pigment, so it matches my skin tone. Look.” He takes my hand again, looking it over, running his fingers over it. “It’s not just for show.” I curl and open my hand, wiggling my fingers. “I can move it. I can feel it.” Tears start to pool in my eyes. I blink, and as they spill down my cheeks, Michael’s thumbs brush them away. I glance up at him. His eyes also have a glossy sheen.

He shakes his head. “This is incredible.”

I grin up at him. “I’m supposed to exercise it. Come on, let’s put this thing to good use.” He laughs, blinking away his tears, as I take his hand in my new one and lead him toward the bedroom.

**********

Five days later, I sit in Dr. Angela’s office. “Yes, Doctor. It’s amazing. I have no complaints.”

She smiles at me. “That’s great. Let’s have a look. Can you take off your jacket, so I can get a good look?” I start to do as she asks, and she focuses on my face. “You look kind of clammy. Are you okay?”

I nod, my head throbbing. “Yeah. My husband just got back from a business trip. He said the flu was going around. I think he brought it back with him.” I laugh. “His celebratory gift to me, I guess.”

Her brows draw together in concern. “Hm.” Taking her pen light, she flashes it in my eyes. “Follow my finger.” She moves her finger back and forth in front of me. She reaches her hands up to feel my face. They feel cool against my burning skin. “What other symptoms do you have?”

“Um, fever, headache, muscle soreness, chills.” I lick my lips and swallow. “Dehydrated.”

She nods, placing a pulse meter on my finger. 137. From my training in the service, I know normal heart rate is 60-100 beats per minute. “Try to breathe normal.” She watches my chest as I try to do what she asks. I mentally track my breaths as I watch the clock on the wall. My breathing is fast. At least double the normal rate. “Finish taking off your jacket, please.”

I remove the garment, instantly missing its warmth. I close my eyes at the burn behind them.

“Oh my god,” she gasps.

My eyes shoot open, looking to the doctor. Her eyes are fixed on my left hand. I look in the same direction. The air is sucked from my lungs as I see long tracks of black veins running from my hand up my arm. My breaths come quickly as my eyes burn. Her fingers are flipping my hand over, inspecting it. I don’t feel them.

The room starts to spin.

Everything goes black.

**********

“Babe, can you hear me?” Michael’s voice calls to me. I hear it in the darkness. It takes all my strength, but I finally manage to slowly open my eyes. White light blinds me. My eyes slam closed again. “Doc, she’s waking up.”

I open my eyes again, this time more slowly, squinting against the light. “What happened?” My voice is raspy. My throat feels like I was chewing glass.

I feel Michael’s hand squeeze my right hand as Dr. Angela’s voice comes from my left side. “You collapsed.” Her pause is the loudest silence I’ve ever heard. “You’ve been unconscious for over a week.” I shake my head slightly. It feels like someone is trying to hammer out of my head from the inside. “We had to intubate you. The hand…was infected.”

My eyes still half-closed, open fully to look at her. “So…what? I needed antibiotics.”

She swallows and glances across me to Michael then back down at me. “You went into septic shock.” I’m usually quick on the uptake, but her words aren’t making sense to me. Why is she stalling? What isn’t she saying?

I shake my head. “Doc. What? Tell me.”

She sighs. “There was…some necrosis.”

My head rolls to the side, away from her. My eyes close. My chest feels heavy. “You had to amputate it, again.” It’s not a question. The tears form in my eyes. Five days. For five days, I was normal. I was me again. And just like that, it was ripped away. “So, can we try again?”

Her silence fills the room, and I turn back to her. “There’s an antigen in your blood. We didn’t test for it before. But, it makes your body reject the donor tissue. More so than others.”

I release a deep breath. Of course. “Well, I mean, I haven’t had a left hand for several years now. I’ve been fine. I’ll be fine again. Right, love?” I look up at Michael. The look on his face stops my heart. “What?” My voice is barely a whisper. And then I notice it. I don’t just not feel my left hand. I don’t feel my left arm at all. My head swings around to look down at my shoulder. My bandaged shoulder. A small cry escapes my lips. I can’t breathe. In the back of my mind, I hear the doctor’s words, “necrosis spread,” but I can’t focus. I can’t breathe. My eyes close, and only one thought runs through my mind.

This is my punishment. My penance. For living when the others died.

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