I'd seen them before. Or more correctly, I'd seen their hands before. Slim, pale hands. Delicate. Dexterous. So fine that the skin almost looked like a surgeon's glove. I stared at the hands on the homeless woman slumped in the alley. I stared and stared.
She wasn't anything special. I'd barely given her a second glance at first: tweed coat, far too big, a baggy hat that had seen better days, old yellow rainboots, scraggly hair... The alley across from the bus stop I took to school usually housed at least one down-on-their luck individual. They could only barely be made out because the alley was always in shadow. It was barely wider than the side of the large trash bin it housed. The alley opened off a main thoroughfare right between the Pepe's Pizza and the flourists. It was a five block walk from my house to the bus stop.
There'd been homeless people in the alley for a while. Normally I just ignored them. It was easier that way, to just pretend like the society you were part of wasn't screwing over some people's lives. Pretend to be ignorant so that you wouldn't have to take responsibility. The first guy I'd seen had been a kid, like me. He'd had on the same red trainers. That's why I'd noticed him. It had been a warm summer day, one of the last days of school for the term. I was wearing shorts and had a yellow rain slicker under my arm. And I was wearing new red trainers. In the dark of the alley the boy's trainer's were dark red, almost mahogany or iron. The white laces were frayed and dirty, but they were unmistakably the same as the pair I had on. His mangy hair hid his face, and his torso was obscured by a preppy jock sweater: the type with striped cuffs and a letter on the breast that football players always wear in movies. The sun was hiding behind a cloud. The cloud passed. Light shone down and reflected glaringly off the only part of the boy not hidden behind the tall buildings: his hand. It was a small, surprisingly childlike hand. Hairless and shiny. Pale. I squinted at his hand. It was resting on the concrete facing upwards with the fingers curled in like the legs on a dead spider. With that revelation I was suddenly struck by the chill fear that this boy was dead. Then the bus arrived to take me to school. When I was dropped off at the bus stop to head home the boy was gone.
By the time the last day of school had rolled around I'd forgotten about the boy. I didn't remember him again until the first day of school in September, when I was facing the alley again. There hadn't been anyone in it at the time. The week after there was. A dirty man with a grimy paunch who, if I'd met in the city, I'd have steered far away from. The shadows hid his face from view. His hands rested delicately in his lap. I remember thinking that it was odd that such a grungy old man could have such fine hands.
The next few weeks after that had seen no alley inhabitants.
Then, ten weeks ago, there had been a new one every week.
First it was a thin woman, probably no older than twenty five, with long hair and a skinny frame that suggested a bad lifestyle. Her shirt had been a tank top, her pants filthy brown, her hair long. She had been lying with her head towards the bus stop with her hands splayed before her, all ten fingers stretched out.
The next had been a man in a faded business suit. He'd been slumped against the trash bin with his knees pulled to his chest. His hands were wrapped around his shoes, one pinky curled inward as a result of the way he'd been holding himself.
Then it had been a young girl. Too young. I'd called the authorities for that one. She'd had a mass of curly hair and was asleep with two fingers in her mouth; the rest rested gently against her face. Her hands were almost too big for her. They were thin and bony, but it had almost seemed to me that her body had used up too much time growing her hands instead of her height.
A real gangster had been next. Or, to me he looked like a gangster. He was covered in tatoos and had three fingers missing.
The next person had been naked and had caused quite a scandal. They'd been caked in mud; it had rained previously. They had slept with their arms curled around them, the fingers of one hand in their armpit with only the thumb poking out. The other hand clasped their elbow. It could have been how the rain hit them, but for someone covered in mud I couldn't help marvelling at how clean their hand was.
It was raining even harder the week after that, and yet the alley had still been occupied. Through the rain I'd just been able to make out a figure huddled in a sleeping bag. One hand clutched the bag closed, all five fingers clenched ferociously.
After that, a teenager. She'd had dyed hair, and what even in the shadows her earrings flashed. She was sitting with her back to the wall, knees drawn up. One arm was thrown out haphazardly over her ripped jean clad legs. She wore rings on all of her fingers. I couldn't see her thumb because of the angle but I assumed she wore one their as well.
The next person was in a jacket, because it was getting colder. They wore gloves with holes. One hand was curled protectively around a knife. The three fingers that protruded from the glove were white with cold.
Then had been the person in the hoody. They'd pulled their knees up under it. Their thumbs were the only piece of bare skin I could see. Their thumbs were hooked over the hoody pocket in that 'I'm too cool for this' pose. The hoody was a nasty mauve colour.
And then, finally, their was this woman. Lying in a pile of the first snow with her arm outstretched towards the bus stop with one pale finger extending outwards towards me. It was the same hands; they'd always had the same hands. Dangerous, deadly hands. Swift, sure hands. Hands that had always caught my eye. I stared at her finger. Why wasn't it frostbitten? Why did I seem to be the only one that was creeped out by the hands of strangers? And why, why, did all these unrelated people have the same hands?
Her hands dominated my thoughts on the bus ride to school. His hands. The kid's hands. The hands that had shone so unnaturally, had looked so dead. Why were they following me? Some people say that you can tell a lot about people from their hands. Palmists suppose that they can determine your whole future. So what did these hands have to do with me? I could still see all of them: the dead spider, the ten fingers splayed out, nine fingers clutching shoes, eight fingers curling against a girl's cheeks, seven fingers where three were missing, six fingers trying to keep a man warm, five fingers pulling closed a sleeping bag, four fingers hanging lazily, three fingers clutching a knife, two fingers curled around the pocket of a sweater, one finger pointing at me.
The next day there was no woman. To me, this was normal. There was always a homeless person, but they never stayed for more than a day. The rest of the week there was just enough emptiness for me to forget about them. The sun was shiny wanly through clouds, but a chinook wind was coming through and the snow was melting. In the alley snow still clung to the edges and two piles of snow, not yet melted, sat in the shadow of the trash bin. They were small piles, couldn't have been bigger than my fist.
Because they weren't snow.
They were hands.
I stared at the hands. Pale, delicate hands. I looked both ways. There were some people hanging around at the end of the block, but other than that the street was empty. There was a warm fog clouding the window's of the pizzeria and the flourist's windows were hidden behind flowers and glass vases. I waited for a break in the cars, then ran across the road.
It was the first time I'd ever really been in the alley. It smelled like pepperoni and decomposing food. The walls of the pizzeria were red brick, the walls of the flourist's were that strange textured cream coating usually reserved for ceilings. Stipple. The ground was a mix of ice-hard dirt and potholes. The trash bin was green metal. The hands lay in front of it, unassuming, small, the hands of a young teenage boy. They weren't cold when I picked them up. They weren't anything. They felt soft, surprisingly soft. I weighed them in my hands, lightly hefted them up and down to test their weight. They weren't that heavy, less heavy than the hearts I'd dissected in school. They smelled like lavender. I turned them over in my hands. I put my gloves in my pockets and examined them more closely. They seemed pretty normal, if disembodied hands could be called normal. The fingers had unfurled from the palms and lay stretched out, waiting. I could feel the fine bones. The wrists were not gory or anything. If anything, they resembled doll's hands; they even had a socket where the joint would go. Curiously, I explored the socket with my fingers. It stretched with a little pressure. I pressed harder, holding the hand still, and found that I could stretch deeper into the strange plastic-y flesh. There was no trace of the bones I'd felt earlier. My mind was quite calm, almost like I'd been expecting this. I flexed my fingers and then pulled the hands on like gloves, first one and then the other. The wrist blended seamlessly with my own. When I wiggled my fingers the long pale fingers moved. I tried touching the rough brick wall of Pepe's Pizza. I could feel every bump and crevice, if anything it almost felt like a could feel the colour. Excitedly, I touched the stipple wall too. I closed my eyes. Yes. It felt distinctly cream. I stared at my new hands, flexed my fingers. Laughed. Everything since I'd first seen that dead boy in the alley finally felt right. I felt sure, confident. I felt whole.
I hadn't even known I'd been waiting.