"... and so it is the ruling of this committee that Ralph Bettancourt has fulfilled the terms of his sentence, and is therefore entitled to rejoin society as a productive member, effective immediately. This hearing is adjourned."
The fist of nausea in my stomach threatens to rise as the head of the parole committee calmly closes the file folder lying open in front of him and slides it into his briefcase. It's not fair, I want to scream at him and anyone else who will listen. It's not fair that that son-of-a-bitch got to live while my family died by his hand. It's not fair that you're letting him go after just eight years when he murdered two people, murdered my wife and little girl, took away my life... But I don't say anything at all, just turn and shuffle out the door with the rest of the people in the small room. A bailiff holds the door for me with an almost-hidden look of sympathy, as if he knows what that man had taken from me, and I nod back to him.
Outside the door Jenny is waiting for me, her brown eyes ringed with dark patches from too many nights without sleep when she took care of me. "How did it go?" she asks, draping a coat over my shoulders.
"They let him go, Jen. The bastards let him go." I don't look at her as I start walking toward the front doors of the courthouse. "Eight years for two lives. My God, they give drug dealers and burglars more time than that."
"I'm sorry, Joey, but you knew this would happen someday. The courts always let the drunk drivers out sooner than other criminals -"
I turn to her, my face growing crimson with anger. "That man is not a criminal, Jenny. He's a murderer and a liar and now he's free to kill again. He's not a criminal... he's a demon." I walk away, slamming against the door with all my strength but just barely managing to get it open. If I had arms instead of the stumps that I have thanks to Bettancourt, it would be easy for me... but nothing has been easy since that day.
The accident happened on July 4th, 1986. My wife Katherine, daughter Rachel and I were coming home from my parents' house in Michigan when a man driving a Chevy Suburban broadsided our station wagon, slamming it into a concrete divider. When I woke up, I could not move; my arms were pinned behind the wreckage of the dashboard and steering column. I looked beside me to my wife and immediately knew that she was dead; the neck is not meant to bend at that angle. I couldn't turn around to look in the backseat to see my daughter, but the ragged breathing told me she was still alive. "Hold on, Rachel. Daddy's here. Are you okay?" There was no answer but breathing. I tried craning my neck around to see how badly she was hurt, but my pinned arms prevented me from glimpsing more than part of her pantleg.
There was movement from the other vehicle and a man stumbled onto the pavement. "Hey! Call an ambulance!" I shouted.
The figure moved closer to me and leaned in the shattered rear window, as if he wasn't sure that he was being spoken to. "You talkin' to me?" he asked groggily.
"Get to a phone and call an ambulance. I'm pinned in here, I can't move."
The man nodded once... then slid out the back window and onto the asphalt with a flat thud. "Hey! Hey! Wake up, dammit! We need help in here!" But my shouts had no effect, not even when my daughter's breathing became thick and labored as her lungs filled with blood. I tried pulling my arms out of the tangled wreckage, pulled until the pain became unbearable, but it was no use. By the time the ambulances got there, it was too late; my family was dead, killed by a drunk driver named Ralph Bettancourt.
I woke up in a hospital six days later without my arms. Because of the damage during the crash the bones had shattered, making them impossible to repair; amputation had been the only option. I was in the hospital for six weeks as the rest of the damage to my body was repaired, but nothing could repair the damage to my life. I was a draftsman, I had helped design the Mall of America up in Minnesota... and now I couldn't even comb my hair by myself. It was like Hell had paid a visit.
The day after I got out of the hospital was when his trial started. I don't remember specifics anymore, just phrases like vehicular manslaughter, diminished capacity and prior offenses. He got up on the stand and pleaded to the jury that he did not know what he was doing, that he did not mean to hurt anybody... and they gave him six to fifteen years. I was given a generous severance by my drafting firm and the life insurance was enough to live off of comfortably, but as I have come to realize, just living is not enough.
Sitting in the car I turn to Jenny. "I'm sorry for yelling at you like that. It wasn't fair for me to do that to you, not after all you've done for me." Jenny just reaches over and puts her hand on my shoulder; she knows my moods like nobody else, especially after taking care of me this last eight years. "It's just so frustrating."
"I know, Joey," is all she says, concentrating on the ice-covered roads. I look out my window at the gently falling snow and think of my small apartment, of the few pictures I have of Katherine and Rachel... and of the wooden footlocker buried in my closet and the item within. When we pull into the parking garage I turn to her and ask if she'll stay for a while. Of course she says yes and smiles, her grin as dazzling as ever.
My apartment is a small, three-room walkup on the third floor of a converted row house. It's not much, but it's all I can afford right now on what little is left of the insurance money and worker's compensation; a tiny living room with a beat-up recliner and television set in opposite corners, along with an ancient Murphy bed folded up against the wall for those nights that Jenny decides to stay; an even tinier kitchen with appliances that must be forty years old; and a bedroom in back with the only window in the place, offering a view of the greater Chicago area, a bathroom and closet sandwiched in between the bed and kitchen. Jenny throws our coats onto the chair and heads for the kitchen, saying something about dinner (even though we both know I'm not hungry) and rattling a few pots and pans around.
Before she takes three steps my mind is made up. "Jenny, can it wait for a few minutes? I need your help with something."
"Sure, Joey." I lead her into the bedroom and tell her to open up the footlocker in my closet. As she pulls off the large Master padlock and swings the lid open, that feeling I had the first time I saw the item within comes back to me in a flood and I know - I know - that the time has come. Jenny pulls out an object wrapped in cloth and uncovers it, her eyes widening in surprise when she sees what it is. "Are you going to actually use this?"
My eyes wander the length of the object she holds in her hands, its polished wood surface gleaming in the pale incandescent light, and a small grin comes to my face. It is an antique prosthetic arm, a very old one made of hardwood and carefully shaped to look like a real one. An intricate series of springs and gears connect to the elbow and fingers, allowing its user to pick up other items, much like modern prosthetics allow. "Of course I am. Why wouldn't I?"
"You've been dead set against using one for so many years, that's why. I mean, it's a great choice, a lot better than all those plastic ones we looked at... but why now? I didn't even know you went back for it. Besides, that story was so creepy..."
She pulls up my sleeve and begins fastening the straps to what's left of my right arm. As soon as my flesh touches the wood I can feel the power that drew me to it in the first place that day so long ago, and my smile grows wider. "Let's just say that I have something I've left unfinished for far too long." I say nothing else, but the worried look on her face tells me that she won't let this go easily. She knows me too well. Soon, though, it won't matter... one way or another.
It was a few weeks after Bettancourt was sentenced that I found the arm. I'll never forget the place, not for as long as I live; a tiny antique shop on the South Side, crumbling bricks accented with flaking green paint. Jenny and I were out for another walk, as we always were when one of us was trying to lighten the other's spirits, and we just stumbled across the place on our way back to the car. She coaxed me inside with her smile and charm (she always got her way with me)... but once the door closed behind us her smile faded. The shop was filled with all manner of antiques, from dolls to statues to tiny trinkets that filled ancient glass display cases, but dust seemed to follow us everywhere, along with the musty scent of ancient books and forests. We had been looking for just a few moments when the sound of footsteps echoed from the staircase and a man's voice said, "Can I help you with something?"
Jenny and I both turned to face the old man standing on the upper landing, a large ledger held in his arms. He was dressed like he belonged in New Orleans at the turn of the century, not Chicago in the modern day; navy blue jacket, white shirt, red silk cravat knotted around his neck. Behind wire-rimmed glasses, his eyes shifted from Jenny to me, and I felt a chill pass through my body. "Oh, we're just looking right now," Jenny said.
"Feel free. If you find something which... interests... you, perhaps we can make a deal." He began walking down the steps toward us, his eyes boring into my own. "I have many unique items in stock right now."
"Uh... sure." Jenny picked up a doll with a hinged mouth, much like a puppet's, and held it for just a moment before putting it down again. I wandered around the store without much enthusiasm, stopping here and there to look at a particular trinket, but what I saw on a shelf tucked into a back corner made me face the man. "Excuse me, sir... could I look at that one?" I gestured with my head at the antique, and the old man smiled knowingly.
"Certainly, sir." He pulled the wooden prosthetic arm from the shelf and held it before me, slowly turning it over so I could see it from all angles; the tiny brass gears glinted in the light. "It's beautiful," I said.
"Indeed. This arm was made in the 1920s by Dr. Simon Killian, an English doctor who had served in the First World War. He was trying to make life easier for the thousands of men who had lost limbs in that conflict by creating the first modern prosthetic devices." He pointed to the gears at the elbow and in the hand. "This was the first truly functional artificial arm ever made. It duplicates the actions of muscles and tendons and is surprisingly sensitive, even compared to modern prosthetics. In the 1920s it was something of a miracle."
"If it's so good," Jenny said as she came up behind me, "why haven't I heard of it before?" Since the accident both Jenny and myself had become experts on artificial limbs, and I had never heard of such a device being made sixty years before.
"It's a sad story, really. One night, Doctor Killian was walking home when he was assaulted and beaten, left for dead on a railroad track with a train less than half a mile away. He managed to crawl partly off the tracks before the train came... but his right arm was severed. It effectively ended his career in medicine, being unable to draw or write or work on his creations. But then, the men who had assaulted him began turning up dead - one by one, strangled. It turns out that the good doctor was pushed over the edge by the incident and murdered the ones who had taken away his life, using his own creation to accomplish it. By the time he was caught, Killian was a raving madman; he lived the rest of his days in a sanitarium. As for his creation... well, nobody wanted anything to do with it, even though it was brilliant." The old man flexed the arm in his hands. "The Killian Arm was lost to history, all except for this prototype. It's truly one-of-a-kind."
I wanted the arm as soon as I saw it. I wasn't sure why at the time; there was some sort of power that emanated from it, some force that drew me to it. I licked my lips. "How much?"
The old man quoted a price and Jenny burst out laughing, dragging me toward the door. "You must be joking; for that price, we could buy him two new prosthetic arms."
"Perhaps, young lady. But don't you think that your friend should decide for himself?" He smiled and slid a business card into my pocket, and I felt the chill pass through me again. It took all the restraint I had not to leap for the door right then, but in a few moments we were outside in the sunlight, away from that dark place... but I could not get it out of my mind.
That night I awoke, pain shooting through my stumps and down into my arms even though they were no longer there. It had happened many times before; the doctors call it 'phantom pain', and it is when the body sometimes forgets that parts of it are missing. I waited until it faded before rolling over and looking at the old man's card that Jenny had left on the bedside table:
I had the arm the next day. Vendredi brought it to my apartment himself and explained exactly why it was so special, and how it could help me; all I had to do was kill the people who had taken away my arms. I could not get my family back, but at least I could have a life again.
So I waited. I waited for eight years while Bettancourt rotted in prison. I was hoping that he would rot for even longer, but the bastards let him go... so now it's time for my revenge. I flex the arm when Jenny tightens the last strap and it responds surprisingly well, almost like it was real... and I swear there's feeling in my new wooden fingers. My God, it's been so long... I think, wiggling the digits carefully. "Wow," Jenny says, impressed by its performance. "Sure seems to work better than those hooks we tried out."
"Yeah." We go to the kitchen and when dinner is ready, I pick up a fork for the first time in eight years and start eating. It's a great feeling, just incredible, like I'm not some sort of cripple anymore. I want that feeling - no, I need it. I look across the table at one of my oldest friends; I've known Jenny since I was a sophomore in college and she was a junior. Jennifer Cale was on the fast track as a journalist when I lost my arms, but she gave up her whole career to take care of me. She's the last friend I have left now; she didn't put up with any of my bullshit after the accident, not my mood swings or my suicide attempts. She kept me alive.
But all I can think about is the curve of her neck, the delicate skin of her throat succumbing to the crushing grip of my new arm. I can see myself holding her against the far wall, squeezing the very breath from her -
No. I force the thoughts from my mind, amazed by the power of the limb strapped to my stump, the desire to kill. Vendredi had neglected to tell me the arm would react this way, but I can handle it for a little while. At least until Jenny leaves. We eat and talk about inconsequential things like the weather and the Cubs making the World Series (yeah, right...), and soon dinner is over and she's running the dishwater. She brushes her brown hair away from her neck and plunges her hands into the soapy water, and a very strange sensation passes over me; I begin walking toward her without thinking about it, the hand extended outward, brushing against the back of her neck.
It takes all my will to keep from snapping her neck. I pull back, horrified by what I was about to do, a muffled cry escaping my throat. Jenny turns and looks at me, backed against the far counter. "Joey, are you okay?"
Yeah, I'm fine. I was just about to kill you, that's all... "Uh... yeah. No. Shit, Jenny, I don't know anymore," is what I manage to choke out, and she takes me into her arms and whispers to me, trying to comfort me. After a few minutes I say, "Jenny, I think you should leave. I just... I just need to be alone right now."
She looks in my eyes and touches my cheek gently. "No crazy stuff?" she asks, referring to my first suicide attempt (she had caught me trying to jump from the bedroom window).
The corners of my mouth turn up a little. "No, no crazy stuff. I'll be fine, Jenny."
"All right, then." A few minutes later the door closes and I lock it behind her. In seconds I am dialing the telephone, calling for a taxi to take me to the halfway house that Bettancourt was released to earlier today. I can feel the hard plastic of the dial, the smooth texture under my wooden fingers, and I know what I'm doing is right. It has to be. The taxi comes in a few minutes and after a short trip that I hardly remember, I'm standing in front of the two-story halfway house. My hand flexes involuntarily, and I realize that I hunger for the death of the man who took everything from me so long ago.
I crawl up to a window and look inside; Bettancourt is there, walking up a flight of stairs away from me. There is a fire escape on the side of the building and I carefully walk up, looking inside the glass pane on the door to the hallway inside. He is now walking toward me, toward the fire door with its No Smoking label, pulling a cigarette out of a battered pack of Camels. I shrink back into the shadows, knowing that he'll be coming outside in a few moments, knowing that he'll soon pay for what he did to me -
The door swings open and he walks out. His hair has thinned and gone gray in eight years of prison life, and he's put on some weight. As he raises the cigarette to his mouth the fury rises in me and I stride forward, hand rising to his throat, the scream unintelligble in my own. I push him up against the bricks and squeeze, tears streaming from my eyes as his face turns red and his hands try and break my grip. "You know me," I growl, squeezing even harder. "You took everything from me."
His face darkens to purple and I can feel bones creaking under the pressure of my arm. His grip loosens as consciousness slips from him -
I see the faces of my wife and daughter floating in front of me. And I know that I can't kill the man, even though he destroyed me. I force my grip to loosen and pull away, hearing Bettancourt draw in a huge breath, and I stumble down the metal stairs. My right arm is on fire now, the pain is unbearable as I run into the night. I don't know how far I get but soon I'm lying on the snow-covered ground as blood seeps from my coat, staining the whiteness a deep crimson. The last thing I feel before I pass out is a pulling sensation as the arm rips itself away from me, tearing open flesh and blood vessels as it crawls away from me...
I awake in a hospital bed, my right stump bandaged and an IV drip going into my left. Jenny is there, sitting in a chair beside my bed, looking down at me with tears in her eyes. "No crazy stuff, huh?" she whispers, stroking my stubble-covered cheek, and it is that moment that I realize just how much I've given up in my quest for revenge. I try to smile but only tears come out; after a while I manage to tell Jenny what happened with the arm, what I almost did to her in the apartment. She tells me that Bettancourt is the one who came after me in the dark, the one who called the ambulance as I lay there bleeding to death, and I cringe at the mention of his name.
I see a figure in the doorway and the cringe is replaced with anger... but as Bettancourt steps inside the doorway, my anger fades and all I feel is nothing for this man. His face is lined deeply; he looks fifteen years older than I know him to be, and in the fluorescent light I can see the bags under his eyes. This is not the face of the man I wanted to die... it's the face of a man who's already dead. I realize that killing him would be nothing compared to the anguish he has already endured in his own mind. He stands at the foot of my bed and says only these words:
I can only nod as the tears return in a flood, along with the faces of Katherine and Rachel. They are smiling now, not the way I last saw them in the station wagon but the way they should be in heaven - at peace. Bettancourt walks out of the room, leaving me to be alone with Jenny, and I realize that I've been alone for far too long.
Two weeks later I am out of the hospital and on another walk with Jenny, a new prosthetic arm fitted to each of my stumps. In my pocket is the card that Vendredi gave me eight years ago; tucked under my left arm is a cloth-wrapped bundle (and, unknown to Jenny, a gold ring is tucked into my shirt pocket). I don't know if I can return what I bought, I don't even know if the old man is still there... but I'm not sure what else to do. As we round a corner the peeling paint and crumbling bricks come into sight, but things have changed in eight years - the paint might have been touched up, and the sign over the door reads 'Curious Goods' now. Standing in front of the door, Jenny squeezes my shoulder and urges me to open it.
The store is much the same as I remember it; dusty, and filled with odd items. It strikes me that the name the place has now is far more appropriate than it was the last time I set foot inside. Jenny and I see three people clustered around a desk a several feet away - a young, dark-haired man, a stunning redhead and an older man were flipping through a large, yellowing ledger... the same one the old man had been clutching that long-ago day, only now it is criss-crossed with red lines that strike out many of the entries.
The older man looks up at us. "Good afternoon. Can I help you?"
I offer the bundle under my arm to him. "I bought this here some time ago and I... I don't really need it anymore. Maybe you can hold onto it, put it somewhere... safe."
The three people look at me and then the older man unwraps the cloth, exposing the polished wood and brass gears of the arm. The woman flips through the book and points to a particular entry, and the man nods, saying, "Yes, I think we can help you with that. It's a rather special item."
"I know. Believe me, I know." I pull the card from my pocket and lay it on the desk. "I don't think I'll be needing this anymore, either."
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This page was created on January 30, 2000.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.