Paresthesia

by Ally Remy

Content warning: Limb loss.

Her right arm was gone in the morning. This was not the first time nor was it a particularly rare event. Just within the last week, the arm had been gone on Tuesday and arguably Thursday. The woman knew it when she woke up, alone and sweaty, to the chaos of static, stinging. Gone may not really be the proper word; sometimes, in the right light, it showed itself, a mostly transparent thing, limp and waving. Other times, it blinked back for half a second, a few frames left in on accident, a blip in continuity. Still, most of the time the arm was there but not really there. If you forced her to describe it (she wouldn’t), it was as if a child had traced the outline of an arm, the shaky blackness of its edges visible and not, chafing every surrounding atom in its attempt to flee to another realm.

“I wish you were dead,” she said to the arm which she knew was not particularly interested in listening. She sighed. At least it’s not both arms, she thought, recalling the “Power of Optimism” seminar that all the underperforming government employees had been ordered to attend.

She struggled into a pair of old slacks and packed her lunch, ignoring the vacuum cleaner and dirty floors and overflowing laundry basket and every other task in her small apartment rendered absurd by the simple fact that her arm was gone. Closing her eyes, she could feel it, nearly see it—[1]

🌬

“Can you come back please?” The woman was at her desk in the Department of Natural Resources, typing at painfully slow speeds. She tried to use her right hand as little as possible; every attempt to confirm its presence only made the arm fight harder to be absent—a stinging jolt from shoulder to fingertip. Why wouldn’t it just come back for an hour or two?

“Huh?” The wiry redhead Ned stopped where he was, passing the entrance to her cubicle.

“Oh, no—I was just talking to myself,” she stammered. The other employees had barely spoken to her since the incident in the meeting room last month; people do not respond well to inquiries about whether your arm is really visible, whether, upon touching it, it feels odd or clammy, swollen or maybe even permeable.

“Is your arm still bothering you?” asked Ned.

“No,” she answered but the lie was accompanied by the sound of a gunshot and a searing pain as she could suddenly see her arm—[2]

The woman returned to find Ned’s ruddy face staring down at her, eyes piercing. He’s got such bad hair, she thought, even as she felt his gaze on her and liked it. When was the last time anyone looked at her so intensely? Her fingers spread themselves wide over the keyboard, showing off her very ordinary, very normal typing skills. She didn’t even have time to comprehend a new sensation—the feeling of liquid bleeding through fabric—as she gave in to the irresistible urge to type faster and faster.

“Do you mind if I eat lunch here?” Ned didn’t wait for an answer and instead sat down in the spare desk chair, spinning it. He pulled out a thermos of tomato soup as red as his hair and a tiny spoon from which he slurped, seemingly as slow as he could.

For the next hour, the pair barely spoke as Ned watched the woman with one arm gone and the woman kept typing as if she had two, fingers a blur, rows of data forming, arranging, aggregating. With each passing minute, she felt further and further away, her arm unzipping itself at the seam, pulling the thread of her neck and head with it, plummeting towards disintegration. She didn’t dare look down, but she felt the liquid running, soaking her blouse and gathering, she was sure, in a puddle, unabsorbed by the cheap office carpet.

🌬

For the next few weeks, Ned continued to appear, visiting the woman’s cubicle unannounced and, often, hungry. They talked about a few things: action movies and inexpensive food, the state’s dwindling funds, the upcoming wildfire season, the shittiness of data entry. Other times, they would just sit, or Ned would just sit and the woman would sit and type, almost maniacally, always painfully. Lunch was her most productive hour but also the time when her pain, like the tide, crept closer and closer, flowing from arm to spine, lodging between her shoulder blades.

Exhausted by early afternoon, she rushed away to the building’s nursing room, a dim little closet complete with one rocker and two ancient gym mats. Other employees, tired women and their infants or breast-pumping machines, gathered there in shifts, smelling a little sour. The mothers never asked her why she, a woman with no baby or leaking milk, was there, sleeping; they sensed that she had something with her, something rogue and screaming and eating. Once, she woke to find a warm hand on her back, supporting her as she dreamed of—[3]

Sometimes, she imagined herself wherever the arm was, however far. Seeing the arm fly through the crisp, forest air, she’d shoot it down, cook it, and consume it gratefully. She’d wrangle it and staple it to her shoulder socket like Frankenstein’s monster. She’d saw it off again and bury it by the grave of a child. But instead of getting rid of the pain, the static, the invisibility, the feeling of liquid spilling, all her efforts, imagined or not, only accompanied the sensations’ irreversible spread.

🌬

Today, Ned was sitting closer to her than ever before, their knees nearly touching. He was doing it more and more, leaning in and whispering to her like a toddler with a secret.

“You know the biologists downstairs say there’s a new disease in the pine population this year. It makes all their limbs fall off.”

“What?” she turned towards him as, for the first time, Ned’s speech broke the spell of endless typing.

“The new disease makes their limbs fall off. They’re as naked as telephone poles. Super dangerous for wildfires, all those dead limbs littering the ground.” He leaned away. “It’s not really that confusing.”

“No,” she said, shaking her icy right foot which, following her arm, was increasingly gone, “it’s not really that confusing.”

🌬

It had been weeks since her right arm had come back at all. She never saw it anymore, not even in the right light. Faceless doctors used big words to say nothing: paresthesia, paresthesia. Ignore it—those feelings don’t correspond to reality. They kicked her out of sanitized offices, suggesting psychiatrists. Out of the corner of her eye—[4]

At some point, Ned started texting her, although she wasn’t sure where he got her number. They would spend hours after work, sending strings of emojis and dirty jokes. The woman welcomed the distraction as her left arm, her legs, her neck became shaky like newborn calves, electric currents burning down to her toes. If she stayed in bed for a whole day or two, begging, she could coax them back to finish a few chores, but never very many before the limbs all fled, dissipating with the sound of empty static.

Unable to work, she used up all her sick days, her vacation time. Her supervisor kept calling and leaving her messages, saying he knew she’d been sleeping on the job, that she’d been performing in a steady decline for months, that he had the charts to prove it. A line plunging down down down.

Ned kept trying to ask about her issues directly. What’s wrong, baby? he’d ask. I’m just sick, she would say, a bad flu. On the days she barely stood, she lay listening to audiobooks echo off her bare walls. Ned brought her some of his favorite soups, bought her groceries, lay next to her or on top of her as, though she had no energy, the woman had to find some way to repay his kindness. Still, each night in bed, at the edge of sleep, she might feel the arm—[5]

🌬

One morning the woman woke up with fog in her brain and nothing to eat in her house. She had asked Ned to take her card and buy groceries. He had not responded to her for three days. When she texted again, he answered right away:

why are you like this? pls tell me wtf is wrong with you?

A sharp intake of breath. When she began to type, she couldn’t stop:

my arm gone not really but is sometimes cant see it but feel electric liquid fire bees stinging cold its somewhere else i know it snow the forest the fire its calling I see it it sees me . .

Some sort of truth poured out of her in blocks, sounding dumber and dumber as stupid blocky text, stupid streamlined communication, fast and sleek and so empty empty empty of what it was she was trying to say. Paragraph after paragraph and she couldn’t even finish the last sentence, letting it trail. She refused to let the words think they could speak for her—or this is how she rationalized it when she realized that Ned was no longer there, across from her, caring. No, she didn’t have to wait hours to know that he had fled elsewhere. He was gone.

Laying back down, she felt everything, and that everything was nothing but what was old and painful and always there but not really.

Silence.

The crunching of twigs.

Startled, she looked up from her bed to find that her right arm, detached, was floating above her bed, smacking the ceiling. A ceiling which had transformed, suddenly, into a forest floor covered in the dead limbs of a thousand pines.

It’s back, she thought, it’s really back.

And there it was, the arm, crawling upside down and digging through the sticks, picking at each with its dirty fingernails, taking their pulses, testing for life.

Lonely, she thought, it is lonely.

With her left arm she reached towards the ceiling of pine limbs. She wanted to touch her own arm, to feel her own arm touching her, touching touch. The arm took notice, scrambling down, clutching sloppily, desperately like a nursing babe. Its hand met hers and for a moment everything was good and brighter, a circle of touch, heat and comfort joining her selves on each side.

I might not be sick anymore, she thought, foolishly.

Then, all of a sudden, her own arm, her own right arm yanked and yanked her up—[6]

half out—[7]

 


 

[1] the arm, all numb and cold, wandering in a flurry of snow, disembodied and crawling with the tips of its fingers . . .

[2] broken and bleeding on some snowy forest slope, its juices leaking from a gaping wound.

[3] finding the arm clenched tight on a live wire, static raising the hairs as they fry. The arm on a bed of dead bees, pierced through with a hundred stingers.

[4] the arm, stitched and scabby, near the heat of a blazing fire, creeping closer and closer to the flames.

[5] crawling alongside the highway, cuddling in the grass like a rabbit, racing through the brushfire. Burning.

[6] through the ceiling of dead pine, that floor of limbs, and into the raging forest fire above. Stuck, half in,

[7] Askew. Like tissue paper, she burned and crumpled into herself but did not, could not, scream. Instead, the woman fled elsewhere, into the graying chaos of static, possibly—or impossibly—gone.