Craig’s hands had been hard and rough for years. He had grown accustomed to it, and simply accepted it as a product of his life and work. In the winter, they grew even rougher, for the cold, dry air siphoned the moisture from them. Sometimes — often, in fact — they grew so dry that they cracked and began to bleed.
His wife encouraged him to lotion them, so sometimes he did so. It helped somewhat. Most of the time, he didn’t do it. It felt like he was admitting a weakness he wasn’t supposed to have. It felt like his father might call him womanly, or like his friends would tell him he wasn’t being a man.
One night in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet, he noticed a small tag of skin standing up from the pinky finger of his left hand. He picked at it with his right hand, and it fell free easily, dropping to the floor. His entire hand was dry from the winter winds. Both of them looked like they were covered in a white dust, so dry was his skin.
After that little flake fell away, Craig realized it had left behind a small dent in his flesh. There, at the edge of his pinky, the core of the digit was surrounded by strata of dried and calloused flesh. The small piece he had just scraped away revealed more layers beneath it, as rough as the bark of a tree.
Bored, Craig scratched at the tiny imperfection. Flakes of dry skin drifted down to the floor, like a disgusting mirror of the snowfall outside. The dent in his calloused finger deepened and widened. As he picked at it, Craig’s heartbeat increased. The little dent had become something far more significant, something Craig would not hesitate to call a wound, though it did not bleed.
He wondered how deep the layers of dry skin went. He scratched at his pinky with a fury. Flakes of dried skin rained downward, dusting the floor like early winter snow. The covered his bare feet. Gross. As he scratched, he lifted his foot to shake some of it off.
When he stopped scratching, he looked down at his finger. Much of the dry crust had been cleared away. Craig had thick hands and fingers — strong ones, from time spent lifting and grasping. His pinky, though, now looked thinner. He furrowed his brow. He wondered just how much of his pinky had been made up of that dry, crusted flesh he had brushed to the floor.
It still looked rough, though. He hadn’t yet uncovered the soft living flesh that he knew must reside beneath the callouses. He had felt no pain, and there was no blood, so he had no fear of hurting himself. Besides, now his pinky looked weird, like a half-finished carving.
Craig moved the small trash can they kept next to the toilet around in front of him and began to scratch vigorously over it. The amount of flesh flakes pouring from his hand disgusted him, distantly, and he didn’t want to have to clean up more than he had to. In a way, though, it was also fascinating. He found himself as hypnotized by the falling skin as he was as a passenger in a car, watching snow pass by as though they were making the jump to lightspeed.
With a jolt, his scratching nails suddenly lost their resistance, and the fingers of his right hand found themselves scraping against his ring finger instead. Something fell into the trashcan with an audible tap upon the papers and the pile of dead skin. Craig felt the bile rise in his throat.
He covered his left hand with his right. He didn’t want to look at it. He didn’t want to know why his nails hand just passed through the place where his pinky should have been. Still, he couldn’t stop himself from feeling. He felt no pain. He felt no moisture from blood, like he expected. He felt no fourth finger, only a rough, scratchy nub next to the finger holding his wedding ring.
He took deep breath before uncovering his hand. His first three fingers, coated as they were in their dry, crusted skin, stood unharmed next to a jagged stump that bore little resemblance to the finger that had been there minutes before.
Craig jumped off the toilet, spun around, and vomited into the bowl. His limbs shook. His heart vibrated in his chest. It was the middle of the night. He’d only gotten up to use the toilet. Perhaps, he thought — perhaps, he hoped, he was dreaming.
He stood up. He flushed the toilet. He turned to the sink to wash his hands and face. He refused to look down at his left hand again, though he felt it, as he soaped it and the warm water ran over it. He felt more of it slough free, softened and pulled away by the water.
When Craig looked again, despite his refusal, the stub that had once been his finger had diminished even further, right up to the knuckle. Shaking, he turned his hand to look at it straight on, wondering if, amongst the jagged flesh, he might see bone. He didn’t. In fact, he saw nothing but rough, plated flesh, as though something had taken chips of wood and compacted them into the shape of what had once been his finger.
Craig did not cry. He was not someone who cried. He never had been, and he never wanted to be. Instead, he wrapped his hand in a towel, went back to the bedroom, and crawled into bed, with the hope that when he woke up in the morning, this would turn out to be a horrific fantasy crafted by his sleeping mind.
He did not find sleep easily, but he did find it. When he awoke, his wife had already left for work. He stretched beneath the sheets. He drew his hands out to stretch above his head, having nearly forgotten last night’s events. What he did remember, he dismissed as a dream.
Until his hands came out from beneath the sheets, and he saw the towel still wrapped around his left hand. In horror, he removed it. Three fingers, a thumb, and a rounded, jagged end where his pinky should have been. His ring finger was stiff. The damage from last night, when his pinky had fallen off and he’s scratched at his ring finger, seemed worse in the light of morning.
Morbidly, he reached up to his ring finger and used his thumbnail to dig at the trough in his flesh just above his ring. The skin there flaked away like old paint, deepening the wound. No blood poured forth. He felt no pain. He flexed his hand. That finger moved slowly. As it did, more skin fell away from it, leaving it even further diminished.
He jerked his hands apart, loath to further damage his appendage. He tore the sheets from his body and jumped out of bed. He had to go to the hospital. This was not normal or healthy. He had lost a finger, for fuck’s sake. How was he supposed to do his job with a missing finger? He had a crazed, disoriented thought that maybe they could reattach it, but no — not only had it mostly dissolved, it had been sitting in the trash can in his bathroom for hours.
He threw on a shirt. As he was pulling up his jeans, he reached in to adjust the leg of his boxers, pulling them further down his legs. The tight, rough fabric scraped against the back of his left hand. His three fingers had a hard time finding the grip to which they were accustomed. He felt something — tug? Release? Break seemed like too strong of a word — as he withdrew his hand, and something stiff remained in the leg of his jeans, caught between them and his boxers.
Craig watched his hand as he drew it from the confines of his jeans. The back of his fingers and his knuckles now displayed the rough, scraped-wood quality of the stub… the stubs… the STUBS where his last two fingers had been. Stubs, plural. Just above his wedding band, which remained there like a tourniquet, was the truncated, broken, dry end of his ring finger. He reached into his jeans with his right hand and pulled out the rest of it.
Hand trembling worse than he’d ever seen in his life, Craig stared at the finger in the palm of his right hand. No blood, just like last night. Just a dried husk, made of skin all the way through, with no bone or muscle visible. Impossible. Dreamlike. No, nightmarish.
Craig turned his right hand over so that he wouldn’t have to look at the finger, but the action revealed something new to him, something that only made things worse. He collapsed to his knees. The back of his hand and his fingers where they’d scraped against his jeans in retrieving the finger now had that same scraped, torn-up look of his left hand.
He clenched his fists. He clenched both of them, out of fear and rage and habit. He felt something pop in his right hand. The finger held there collapsed into dust, but that wasn’t what he’d felt. A crack split the back of his hand, split like mud baked in the sun on a hot day.
Craig wasn’t just afraid now, he was terrified. More than that, though, he was angry. Fear made him angry. It always had, because it felt like weakness, and Craig hated feeling weak. He wanted to punch something, to destroy something so that he could feel powerful, if just for a moment. He punched the frame of the door with his right hand.
It exploded. Not the frame, of course. It was hard, quality wood. His his hand exploded, cracking apart in big chunks and a burst of dust that scattered across the floor. His handless wrist struck the doorframe behind it, but with only a soft thump, as he reigned in his strength.
Craig screamed. There was blood, finally, on the stump of his wrist. It wasn’t what he would expect from the injury, but it was there, nonetheless, running in little rivulets across the landscape of dry, craggy flesh that now ended his right arm.
His wife found him in the bedroom doorway when she returned home for lunch, lying on the floor, crying and staring at his mangled left hand and the stump on the right which had once been his hand.