Empty Sleeve

Reading Time: 4 minutes
(Image created by Anais Aguilera using Firefly.)

I was lying on the couch, half asleep, when I heard my cat meow. I reached down to scratch a pair of black and white ears, but my fingers just met emptiness.

Then I remembered.

I’d euthanized the animal a couple of weeks ago.

I licked my lips and considered the situation. It was unlikely that a ghost-cat was haunting my apartment: the plaintive noise was just an auditory hallucination, a spasm of guilt for killing something I loved. The animal was terminally ill, but that just made things worse because he clearly didn’t understand what was happening, and his wet eyes reflected betrayal as I zipped him into a cat carrier for his final ride.

I could have nursed him along for a few more days, letting him lick water droplets from my fingertips and smoothing the fur over his cat-skeleton as he slept with me at night.

But I wasn’t strong enough.

The vet was sympathetic and understood that killing a pet was often harder than pressing a pillow over the face of an ailing human relative. The vet said that my grief would modulate over time and eventually become a part of who I was, something I would cease to question, like the existence of my own arms.

That was an odd way to put it, but I understood what she meant. At least I was able to drive home with that empty cat carrier on the passenger seat beside me without deliberately steering into oncoming traffic.


I heard the sound again but this time when I reached toward it, my left arm fell out of the shirt sleeve and thumped onto the floor.

In a panic, I swung my feet around and sat up. The arm, pale and waxy underneath a network of veins and dark hairs, lay quietly on the laminate, hand toward me. My (ex)fingers were slightly curled, metacarpals taut underneath skin that looked like congealed liquid, tiny wrinkles set in mid-swirl around the knuckles.

The absence of pain was strangely terrifying.

I could only assume that I was insulated by shock, and when that survival mechanism faded, I would be writhing. I didn’t dare touch my newly exposed armpit; I was even scared to examine the ragged point of disarticulation on the alien arm laying on the floor. I wanted to delay the pain as long as possible.

I waited and waited, but the wave of agony didn’t come.

So, I risked a glance at the glenohumeral end of the dead-wood simulacrum.

The ball end of the humerus was visible within a puckered mass of tissue, but there were no leaky arterial scraps, no messy pink muscle fibers, no slimy viscera, no pool of blood.

I gently poked the arm with my toe, half-expecting the limb to scurry away like a giant insect, but it just wobbled, then settled back into its resting position on fingertips and elbow. I stood up, feeling only slightly unbalanced. I wasn’t faint or weak like you’d expect from such a catastrophic injury.

Part of my brain wanted to pack the limb in ice, drive to the hospital, and beg for reattachment surgery. But another part of my brain realized that I was still asleep and experiencing a vivid dream or, perhaps, experiencing a psychotic delusion while wide awake. Regardless, I hadn’t suffered a conventional injury so I couldn’t depend on a conventional remedy. I needed to work this out myself.

I decided to take a walk. Perhaps, I reasoned, playing along with the illusion would rob it of its power, the dissimulation might get bored with me, and retreat back into reality.

I went to the kitchenette intending to fill a stainless-steel dish with water, like I always did prior to leaving the apartment, but caught myself in time. There was no thirsty cat, alive or dead, staring up at me, sphinxlike, from the faux-slate tiles.

I was alone.

Shoes were a challenge. It was impossible to tie them with only one set of fingers, even without a black and white tabby batting the aglets. Luckily, the leather uppers fit so snugly that laces weren’t really necessary; I could let them trail on the floor. Through force of habit, I twisted my body sideways and squeezed out the apartment door, making the opening as small as possible, so cat-sized phantoms and severed arms couldn’t escape behind me.

My left sleeve swung wildly as I walked to the elevator. The movement was much more violent than it had ever been when the material was full of arm. I pushed the “down” button and stared at my reflection in the stainless-steel doors. My face was haggard. I reached out with my remaining hand to touch that metallic sadness, but the doors suddenly opened and I almost touched my upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Braid, on the cheek instead.

She smiled just a little, and stepped back from the doors to make room.

Mrs. Braid was usually a very happy, outgoing person, but today she seemed distracted. I turned toward her and watched as she smoothed a tendril of silver hair behind her ear. Then she scratched at the ear lobe.

Her ear fell onto the elevator floor.

There was no sound. After all, an ear is a pretty small appendage. It plopped onto the steel like a baby bird falling out of its nest. Mrs. Braid didn’t seem to notice the missing ear any more than she noticed my missing arm. Her fingers continued to massage the whorled opening in her skull.

The elevator doors pulled apart at the lobby and we got out. Mrs. Braid turned left toward the rental office, and I walked straight ahead through the revolving front doors.

Outside, Mr. Mesmer was mechanically cranking down his barbershop awning like he did every morning. He was almost dancing with the effort, twirling the long, old-fashioned rod with its off-set handle. The awning was just about in place when Mr. Mesmer’s lower left leg dropped from his trousers.

A well-polished shoe lay on its instep, and an unnatural expanse of sock was visible below the pant cuff; the calf had fallen from its knee but was hung up in a twist of trouser material.

Mr. Mesmer lurched into his barbershop, using the awning crank as a cane, dragging the useless limb behind him.

Carlyle Street was full of people, and the morning sidewalk was littered with fingers, noses and teeth; clumps of hair and shallow discs of bone. Crowds of people shuffled through the rifts of human detritus, occasionally smiling at each other with shiny gums.

All that sadness. All that unabsorbed loss.

And I still couldn’t cry.


Edited by a Fallon Clark and Sophie Gorjance.

Mark Thomas is an artist and writer living in St. Catharines, Canada. Checkout his website at https://flamingdogshit.com.