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SLEIGHT OF HAND
(2009) - short story by A.R.Yngve

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Ever had the feeling that you were out of sync with reality? Happens to me every day. And one day it happened to the protagonist of this story...

I

Take this person named Thorvald Mingus. He never liked his name.

Would you want a name like that? Why do parents give their offspring, their hopes for the future, their bloodline, names like "Melvin Zmudzinski" or "Dick Long"? Ask any parent! She won't be able to give you a coherent explanation. But that's just part of the bigger issue.

Have patience.

So here is Thorvald Mingus, lying in his bed on the morning after his 37th birthday... still brooding over how the other kids used to call him "Mingus Dingus" in first grade... just waking up.

His wife of five years, Wanda Montanaro, is in the bathroom doing her business. Thorvald's consciousness awakes to the familiar noises: gurgling pipes in the walls, the coffee machine in the kitchen.

It is January 5. The date isn't important. What matters to Thorvald is that he's got low blood pressure, cold feet, and hates going to work on a winter morning.

He lingers away precious seconds. He reaches for his face, scratches the stubble on his chin with the six fingers of his right hand, thinking: What good is a beard, anyway? It won't keep you warm, it grows too long, food gets into it...

His six fingers. He blinks, holds up both hands to his face, and counts the fingers. Six on the right, five on the left. He has five fingers on his left hand... and no sign of ever having had a sixth one there.

Thorvald bolts upright, sits by the edge of the bed and counts his toes.

Ten.

He scrutinizes his right hand. The new finger lies between the long finger and the pinky, and the right-hand palm is now slightly wider than the left-hand palm.

The finger itself has normal joints and the exact same color as the other ones. He clenches and unclenches his fists. All fingers work perfectly. There are no scars.

"What a dream," he tells himself and starts to smile. He's too worked up over that extra finger to sleep anyway, so he gets out of bed and heads for the bathroom.

Wanda, pregnant but not visibly so, kisses him on the cheek as she steps out of the bathroom. As Thorvald shaves, it dawns on him that he is not dreaming.

Wanda hears him shout and curse as he cuts himself with the disposable razor. He rushes into the kitchen with blood and shaving foam on his chin.

"Honey! Tell me I'm not going crazy." He shows her his right hand. "See?"

"Okay," she yawns. "You cut yourself shaving."

"Look at my right hand!" He shakes it; she frowns.

"What's wrong?"

"How many fingers am I holding up?"

"Six fingers. So?"

"This is crazy! I can't remember I had six fingers yesterday!"

She pours him a cup from the machine. "Drink your coffee, sleepyhead. Are we awake?"

He opens his mouth to speak, but realizes that she really doesn't get it. It's as if she never noticed before. Stunned, Thorvald slumps down on his favorite chair and waits for his coffee to cool off.

Two cups later, his blood pressure is rising and there is no doubt that he is fully awake. He counts his fingers. Five on the left, six on the right. The last thing he remembers before he fell asleep last night was making love to Wanda. And then he had exactly five fingers...or at least he thinks so.

But the more he tries to recall, the harder it gets to form a solid memory of how many fingers he had yesterday.

Now his head starts to ache. He's not very good at arguing, and he will be late for work if he lingers any longer. Thorvald says goodbye to his wife, puts on his coat and cap, and goes out. In his confused state, he slips on a slick of ice on the driveway and falls on his rump.

Being slightly overweight and wide-assed, he suffers no injury. Swearing and cursing, he starts the car and drives to work. He thinks: Am I going insane? Is this how madness begins?

***

II

When you fear that you are losing your mind, you do not want others to find out. You want to be certain, before you decide to let go. You fear how other people might react.

So Thorvald Mingus does not mention his amazing discovery to his colleagues at work. But he watches them and waits for a reaction, a sign, a glance... some proof that they have noticed.

No one says anything about the finger. No one gives his hand a second look. He watches the hands of the other men and women, in the office, in the warehouse, in the men's room, in the lunchroom, in the mailroom.

Everybody else has normal hands except Thorvald - and Nick Mamastos, who lost two fingers in a chainsaw accident at the age of five.

Around 16:40, Thorvald corners Nick by the watercooler. He holds up his six fingers and says: "Hey, watch this."

Nick purses his lips and goes livid. "Are you making fun of me? It was an accident, okay?"

Thorvald is not the obnoxious type. Some might call him a herd follower. He listens to whatever music is popular at the moment. He reads the bestsellers. He is neither proud nor ashamed of being an average person.

So he starts telling himself: Maybe you've been fooling yourself. Let's say you had this small defect all your life, and you simply got used to it. This is your mid-life crisis moment. So what if you've got an extra finger? Nobody treats you like a freak because of that! Relax.

And he feels somewhat better. The doubts in his mind settle enough that he can focus on daily duties and chores. After an uneventful workday, Thorvald shops for groceries and some hardware supplies.

He thinks of the renovation he has been planning to do on the house, and to fix up a nursery room for the baby. Wanda is two months pregnant.

Thorvald starts to worry again. A mentally unstable man is not fit to become a father.

When he stops on the driveway outside his garage, he remains inside the car and feels the fingers of his right hand. Suddenly he bits into the extra finger, releases it, and tears come streaming from his eyes.

"What's going on?" he sobs. "Something must be going on. I know this wasn't here before. Is this God playing with me? Is it a test?"

He looks about, fearful that someone might have spotted him, and quickly wipes the tears from his face. Then he carries the shopping bags into the house.

In the hallway, he drops the bags and rushes to the bookshelf. How stupid of him! He should have checked the photo album in the morning.

The album has plenty of photos from the wedding, and from their trip to Australia. He is waving to the camera on many photos.

With six fingers.

Thorvald goes to his home computer and opens the company website. There is a group photo on the site, taken at a seminar he attended. It takes the photo forever to download. After twenty seconds, it materializes on the screen: Thorvald is squatting in the margin of the group, holding his hands on his knees.

With six fingers.

Later that evening, Wanda wants to make love. Thorvald is distracted when she kisses his right hand.

"I can't stop thinking of it," he confesses. An expression of despair forms in his face. "Why doesn't anyone think it's odd? Haven't you ever thought it was funny, that extra finger? Have we talked about it? You know, that it might be inherited by the baby?"

Finally he has managed to struck a nerve. Wanda pulls away from him. "That is weird. We never talked about it. I never thought about your finger." She frowns. "Almost like I never noticed."

"How is that possible?" Thorvald says and grasps the extra finger. "I was teased for my name in school. But never for this. Nobody in school ever talked about this. Not my classmates, my family, not my own parents. How can that be?"

Wanda is frightened now. He wants to hold her, but she pulls away. It terrifies him. He begs her not to withdraw, but this only makes her more afraid. They lie in bed in tense silence until they fall asleep.

During the night, Thorvald wakes up and goes to the bathroom. The sixth finger is still on his right hand. And yet he tells himself: I'll wake up in the morning and it'll be gone...

In the morning, the finger is still there. Wanda won't talk to him or kiss him goodbye.

***

III

Thorvald Mingus calls his supervisor and says he is home sick, and promises to visit a doctor.

He drives to the local medical center, and gets a few minutes with a psychiatrist. The doctor examines his hand, takes notes and a photo of the hand, and asks the standard questions.

Then he says, "Thorvald, you're a late bloomer. You're anxious about having your first child, and you just became 37. Under the circumstances, it's perfectly understandable that you project these worries on a harmless defect that you've pretty much ignored until now."

"But that's just it," Thorvald says. "I haven't ignored it. I'm sure. It didn't exist before yesterday morning!"

The psychiatrist writes on his notepad. "Are you sure?"

"Yes!"

"Just for the sake of argument, let's assume this is true. The extra finger suddenly appeared. Could you explain to me why or how such an impossible thing could happen?"

"I can't. It makes no sense at all."

"Is it very important to you that other people believe you?"

"I don't know..." Thorvald buries his face in his hands. "But it doesn't make sense that nobody else noticed an extra finger. My parents must have known..."

"I suggest you talk to them. If you can't work it out between each other, then please come back to me and I'll do everything I can to help."

Thorvald thanks the doctor and drives to his parents' house. They live in another part of the city.

Is it important that you know the name of the city? Would it satisfy you to know the city is named "Tittusburg?" Who comes up with these stupid names?

Thorvald's parents are semi-retired; his father still works part-time as a carpenter. They are glad but surprised to see him; he has not visited them in months.

After he has hugged them, he immediately holds up his right hand and asks: "How many fingers am I holding up?"

"Why, six fingers."

"How many fingers did I have on the day I was born?"

Then his parents start to debate with each other. Neither of them is certain or can recall a specific occasion when his sixth finger was brought up. And they agree, reluctantly, that this is odd.

His mother suggests: "Dear, don't beat yourself up over it. I'm sure the baby will turn out fine. You're a healthy young man."

"I'm 37," Thorvald says, with some bitterness in his voice. "37 and coming apart..."

And he leaves his parents without any sense of closure, thinking that something is wrong not only with himself, but with the world. He considers talking to a priest, but decides that it would not help; he does not feel like Job being tested.

Then it strikes him: If it was only me, just this one detail, then I'm alone about it. But what if other details around me have changed?

He drives around until late in the evening and observes the city, the people in it. It is an ordinary, dark January evening. Wanda calls him on the cell phone, and is worried. She wants to talk. He promises to come home soon. Thorvald loves his wife very much.

On his way home, he stops by a traffic light. A car stops in front of him. And he notices how the contour of the driver in that other car looks... off. When the light turns green, Thorvald drives after the other car and edges alongside it.

What he glimpses next is so shocking, he nearly loses control of his vehicle.

The driver in the other car has a third eye - not in her forehead, but right next to her left ear. Thorvald has to park his car and get out. His legs can barely support him. He wants to pursue the other driver but has already lost sight of it.

Calm down, he tells himself. A three-eyed woman is not physically impossible, just very rare. A six-fingered man is not a miracle, just unusual. Those defects don't mean anything in themselves. Almost everyone has some small physical glitch. That's not the problem...

Thorvald Mingus gets the feeling that he is being manipulated... distracted. The sixth finger, the three-eyed woman... they're just distractions... too obvious, too sudden to be coincidences. Someone is trying to divert his attention. But from what?

He returns to his car and drives all the way home, haunted by forebodings of disaster. For the life of him he can't figure out what he's being distracted from.

***

IV

"Wanda? I'm sorry. Let's talk this over. I don't know what's happening, but -"

He stops there, in the hallway when he sees her come, and he wants to scream.

Gaping, he sees his wife of five years stand in the kitchen doorway. Attached to her forehead, between her eyebrows, is a second nose with living, moving nostrils.

Alarmed, she asks: "What's wrong? Honey, why are you staring at me like that? Talk to me!"

Thorvald turns, flees to the car and drives away, out of the city.

As he speeds onto the freeway, he thinks: It's not a dream. A simulation, perhaps? Like in that movie. Am I just a brain in a jar somewhere, with wires sticking into my gray matter, being fed a crappy electronic hallucination?

On a whim he cries out: "Technical support!" There is no reaction. "I wish to complain about a bug in this computer program!" Nothing happens.

Briefly, he considers crashing his car against a tree... just to see what happens. But he can't work up the nerve. Besides, he feels alive: his heart is beating fast and he can sense the blood pumping through his ears.

He slows down by a truck stop, parks the car and walks into a diner. Resting by the counter, he tries to collect his thoughts. So far I have seen only three changes: my sixth finger, the woman with the third eye, and that extra nose on Wanda's forehead. None of those changes could have suddenly popped out of nowhere.

Wait a minute... I can't explain how they appeared, but they're not totally impossible as such.

Look around you. Can you see any change in the world that breaks the laws of physics? A flying pig, a tear in the sky, a fire-breathing dragon? If you do, then you'll know for sure that you're crazy, and you can have yourself committed.

Don't freak out. You're going to see this through. The worst that can happen is that you die.

Thorvald slowly, carefully scans the view through the diner windows. The sky is normal, dark and partly illuminated by city lights. The few trees he spots are not unusually shaped or sized. The streets are flat, the buildings square.

Relieved, he turns to the waiter behind the counter and says: "Hi. Can I please have a..."

He stops. The waiter, a brown-skinned man who might be from India, says with a notable accent: "Yes? I will take your order, sir."

"Uh... uh... coffee and today's special, please." He hands over his credit card, and the waiter runs it through the checkout scanner. He get his card back.

"Thank you, sir. The special will be ready in five minutes."

Thorvald can only nod; he must struggle not to ogle the man's left arm, which has an extra joint between the elbow and shoulder.

Instead of one biceps the waiter has two short bicepses next to each other; his left arm bends both at the elbow and the middle of the upper arm. He gives Thorvald a cup of coffee and walks into the kitchen.

Thorvald sniffs the coffee in his cup, thinking maniacally that it might be poisoned.

Then he slaps himself. Don't freak out. There's a pattern here. How did it begin? That morning, when I scratched my chin. I scratched my stubble and I thought about beards being impractical...

And it hits him: he was distracted by the sudden appearance of a sixth finger... at the moment when he was thinking about how beards don't make any practical sense.

In a flash, he remembers an old painted comic-book cover from his childhood: A cowboy, with exaggerated muscles and impossibly broad shoulders, is standing in a doorway. In the foreground, a naked curvy blonde sits up in bed at an awkward stiff angle, and fires a pistol straight at the cowboy.

And the cowboy has six fingers on his right hand.

The artist can't have drawn that by mistake - he did it on purpose, so the editor would spot it and tell him to change it, instead of having to rework the whole painting. But for some reason the editor missed the obvious error, or didn't have time to get it fixed.

The distraction - never mind who or what created it - was intended to divert his attention from the rest of the body - from what he realized was wrong about the basic design of the body.

Again he considers the possibility that he is living a simulation, a computer program, some fantastically complex game. Can he break out of it? And does he really want to?

But now that he cannot trust reality, it does not comfort him any longer.

***

Thorvald Mingus has always wondered why his parents gave him that name. He never bothered to change it, and now this also strikes him as odd.

The waiter arrives with the daily special on a plate. Thorvald leans over the counter, grabs the man's left arm and squeezes the extra joint. Shouting in Hindi, the astonished waiter drops the plate on the floor and struggles to get free.

Thorvald releases the waiter and shuts his eyes. "You think you can fool me?" he says to the unknown entity he can only think of as The Lazy Artist.

"The whole design is wrong from the bottom up! The appendix, the male nipples, that ridiculous beard growth, the bladder that can't hold water... it's all wrong! The trick with the finger won't distract me from the problems you don't want to fix.

"I don't care about your deadlines or that you're tired or don't know how to fix it, YOU START OVER AND THIS TIME YOU GET IT RIGHT!"

The Editor has spoken. And The Lazy Artist, surly and reluctant, finally admits error.

Muttering about "perfectionists who are impossible to please," The Lazy Artist tears up the fabric of space and time, and starts over.


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Also check out: A.R.Yngve's short-story collection THE FLATTERED PLANET

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"Sleight of Hand" (c)A.R.Yngve 2009. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission. "Fair Use" applies.





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