Every Christmas Eve, my wife Tiffany, our kids, and I go to my parents’ house. They still live in my childhood home in Mechant Lake, Il. We live in Bloomington now, so it’s a good two hour drive in the best weather.
A couple of hours after we arrived, and just before dinner, the doorbell rang. My mother stood up and said, “Oh, that must be Joe!”
I went to the door with her and sure enough, it was my childhood best friend, Joe Garralluno. He held a wooden box about the size of a shoebox with a red ribbon cross-tied around it, and a bow on the lid.
He looked exactly the same, but much older. Even when we were young, he seemed to always be losing his hair. Now, he was bald. Always a little pudgy too, but he looked good. Happy. We grew up together and went to school together in Mechant Lake, IL (a south suburb of Chicago) in the 80s and 90s.
He grabbed me and wrapped his arms around me.
“Oh my God, Joe! What are you doing here?”
“I ran into your mom a few weeks ago. She said you come every year for Christmas Eve. And I just had to see you, bud! How have you been?”
“Oh man, Joe, it’s great to see you. My God, it’s been at least ten years. You still live around here?”
“I do. My wife and our three sons live in the Gerardi house, over on Baker.”
“Wow, that’s like the biggest house in the subdivision.”
Joe grinned and said, “The plumbing business has been good to me.”
Mom ushered him in and took his coat. He handed me the box and said, “This is for you, buddy.”
I looked down at the box and ran my fingers over the lid. “Oh Joe, you shouldn’t have. If I had known you were coming, I would have—”
He waved the notion away and said, “Forget it. This is a one-of-a-kind type of gift. Just for you. Didn’t spend a dime to get it, either.”
After a moment of admiring the box, I slid my finger under the ribbon, but Joe stopped me and said, “Not here. Save it for Christmas morning. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.”
“Ok, thank you, Joe.”
After an hour or so, I saw him to the door so he could back to his own family.
The next morning, back in Bloomington, Illinois, which is a two hour drive from Mechant Lake in the best weather, we sat around our own tree opening our gifts.
I ripped the ribbon off the box from Joe and slid open the lid. Panic seized me, and I clenched my eyes shut.
“What is it, hon?”
I barely heard her.
With growing alarm, my wife said, “Tom! What is it? What’s in the box?”
I just showed her. A puzzled look dawned on her face.
“Well, what is it?”
I whispered, “A hand.”
Laughing, she said, “Is it a gag?”
But it wasn’t. Not this hand. It was a prosthetic hand. It was old and beat up, but the fingers were in a configuration that could only belong to one person, Ms. Emelie Gruber. The index finger and ringer were extended, while the middle finger and pinky finger were curled, with the thumb holding down the index finger. Like the devil’s horns, but with the ring finger instead of the pinky.
I stood up and dropped the box onto the chair. Dropping to my knees, I fumbled for the lid and tried to slide it back on to cover the damn thing.
My wife came over and put her hands on my shoulders.
“Jeez, Tom, you’re trembling. What is it?”
I beckoned my wife to the kitchen.
“This is Ms. Gruber’s hand. Well, her prosthetic hand. She lived a couple of blocks away from me when I was a kid. Joe and I used to cut through her yard on the way to the White Hen convenient store in the summer.”
Folding her hands, Tiffany looked at me and said, “Ok. So, what did this lady do? Did she yell at you guys or something?”
“Oh, she yelled at us, yeah. But she did a whole lot worse. She was evil. Pure evil.”
Chuckling, Tiffany smiled and said, “Come on, you can’t let this silly gift—”
“No. You don’t understand. This is her hand. Her actual hand. It’s not like a gag gift. It’s the real thing, I can feel it. It’s brought evil into our house.”
Offering a skeptical look, she said, “Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?”
“When Joe and I were ten, her backyard was a shortcut, and there was no other way to go. She had three Dobermans. We’d kick the fence to see if they were out.”
Tiffany said, “Ok, I’m with you so far. So what happened?”
“This one day, I notice my shoe is untied. Joe keeps going because the yard gives him the creeps. I kneel down to tie my shoe, when we hear her. She’s sitting in her screened in porch. It’s hard to see her, the sun is out and it’s kind of dark under there. She’s cackling like an old witch.”
Tilting her head slightly, Tiffany said, “An old witch?”
“Yeah. And then I stand up and see Joe is just going through the gate, to safety. And she points at me with this hand, with her fingers just like this, and says, ‘Angriff, Angriff, meine kostbaren Hunde’.”
“And what does that mean?”
I shuddered and took another deep breath before I said, “It’s German. It means, ‘attack, attack, my precious dogs!’. And they did. I was stuck right in the middle of her yard. If I had run toward the gate where Joe was, they would have cut me off. If I tried to make it back to the fence by White Hen, they would have easily tracked me down. So, I jumped up into the willow tree. While I pulled myself up the first branch, one of those demon dogs snapped and got the shoelace. They tore my shoe to bits, then jumped up, snapping and growling at me. I was paralyzed.”
“Oh my God, that’s terrible! What did she do?”
“Nothing. She just sat there and let it happen. She made it happen. And she laughed. She let me stay up there for hours. Hours! If I had tried to jump down and make a run for it, they would have been on me in a second. Three huge Dobermans. Angry Dobermans. And the worst part was when it started to rain..”
Leaning toward me now, Tiffany finally understood the seriousness of my terror. “How did you get down from there?”
“Joe went home, but our parents were all at work. He waited until my mom got home that night and brought her over to Ms. Gruber’s house. My mom and Joe stood in the rain and saw how completely terrified I was. So, she rang Ms. Gruber’s doorbell. And do you know the worst part of it?”
“Ms. Gruber acted like it was all news to her. She called her dogs in. But when she did, she glanced at me and grinned. Still, though, even though I saw the dogs go inside and the door shut, I couldn’t get down. My mother and Joe had to come into the backyard and beg me to come down. I bawled my eyes out, and my mother held me like I was an infant. I was ten! I’ve been absolutely terrified of dogs ever since. And that woman, Ms. Gruber.”
I noticed I was trembling again.
Tiffany just stared at me for a minute, then said, “I’m sorry. That’s awful.”
While I had been telling this horror story, clouds rolled in, and it began to snow outside. Wind kicked up, and the beginnings of a blizzard had arrived.
I stood up, grabbed the box, and said, “I’ve got to get this out of our house, now. I’m going to give it back to him.”
“To who? Joe?”
“Yep. I can’t be in the same house with this thing.”
Before she could protest, I went to the mudroom and grabbed my coat and keys.
From behind me, she said, “But what about Christmas at my parents house? You’re going to drive two hours to Mechant Lake on Christmas? What about your us?”
I finally looked up at her and said, “I’m sorry, but I have to do this. You don’t understand, this—thing—cannot be in this house. I can’t just throw it in the garbage.”
As I walked out the door, she said, “Tom! You can’t do this! This is crazy!”
Pulling the door shut, I said, “I know, but I have to. I’m sorry.”
She didn’t answer, but I left anyway. By the time I got onto I-55 North, the snow was coming down in huge wet snowflakes in a driving wind. Tall drifts blew across the highway, slowing my speed to 40mph, which was probably too fast in such conditions.
Visibility was nil, and there were very few cars on the road. In all, it took me four hours to get from my home back to Mechant Lake.
I drove down Tullamoor Road, but Elm Avenue was completely blocked with a huge snow drift. Any attempt to drive my little Nissan Altima through a six foot drift would have been futile. Amazingly, every single street was blocked by huge drifts. I saw plows on the road, but the snow seemed to pile up almost immediately after they cleared an area.
It was growing dark now, and the wind rocked my car. I parked it right on the street.
Grateful I remembered my gloves and hat, I zipped up my coat and bundled up as much as I could. I grabbed the box and headed out into the blizzard. The sidewalk was completely covered in at least three feet of snow by now, so I walked along the perilous shoulder of Tullamoor Road.
When I got to Elm, I trudged through a six foot high drift. Snow pelted my face and filled my boots, freezing my feet.
Over an hour later, I made it to Baker Avenue. I was numb from my knees down, but I marched on.
Just past 8pm, I knocked on Joe’s front door. It took a long time for him to answer. I held out the box, saying nothing. He glanced down, then back up at me with a confused look.
“What’s going on, Tom?”
I didn’t answer, but walked into his house, stomping my feet on the rug by the front door.
“So, you didn’t like the gift?”
There were voices from the dining and family room, just beyond the kitchen. I had interrupted a Christmas gathering, but didn’t care at this point.
“No, Joe. I didn’t!”
Shoving the box into his hands, I shook my head and slapped the snow from my hair and shoulders.
“Jeez, buddy. I’m sorry. I thought you would have loved it. What’s the problem?”
“What’s the problem? Are you kidding me? Why would you give me Ms. Gruber’s prosthetic hand?”
Joe’s smile evaporated. He glanced back at the kitchen and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about this for years. I would expect a little gratitude.”
My ears burned red, either from what was surely frostbite or just anger. I hissed, “Gratitude? You gave me a woman’s hand! A woman who terrorized us as kids! Why? And how the heck did you even get it?”
Joe grinned again. “Don’t worry. She’s dead.”
“And how is that supposed to make me feel better?”
Before he could answer, I turned to head back out into the blizzard. He grabbed my shoulder and said, “Hold on.”
I turned back to him and said, “What?”
“All right. I’m sorry. I guess I caught you off guard. I’ll tell you how I got it. And maybe then you’ll want to keep it.”
I folded my arms across my chest. The warmth of his house persuaded me to stay and listen.
“Ok, you’ve got five minutes.”
“Ok, but let’s go inside and sit down.”
He led me to a little office away from the party, and we sat down at a desk.
As he put the box down next to a computer screen, I watched it with weary terror.
“Ok, Tom. So, A few months ago, I come in to work and I find a new work order for this house over on Evergreen, with the name ‘Gruber’. I think about it for a second, and I’m sure it’s her. Like it’s fate or something. I didn’t even know she was still alive! But it had to be her.”
“This was a few months ago?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yep. So, I get there and she’s got some pretty simple problems with her pipes under kitchen sink. I take about an hour or so to fix everything up, replace some old fittings, do a little soldering, fix her up real nice. As I’m finishing up, I finally get up the nerve to ask her. I’ve been practicing this speech for years. You know? What I’d say as an adult who isn’t afraid of her anymore.”
I sighed and said, “Yeah, I used to do that too. Then I just put her out of my mind. So, what did you say to her?”
“So, I’m writing up the bill and I say to her, ‘You know I used to live just a couple blocks down from here when I was a kid. Do you remember me?’ And she’s still got that ugly hand, with the two fingers all curled and the other two sticking up. I never knew why she had it like that. Anyway, she shakes her and says she doesn’t recognize me. So, I hand her the bill and tell her my name. Still nothing. Then I tell her about that day with her Dobermans. And I see a little twinkle in her eye. She remembers. But still, she says she doesn’t. So then, I tell her, ‘Yeah? Well, I remember. You scared the crap out of me and my friend. You let him stay in your tree for hours in a thunderstorm, scared out of his mind.’ And then she looks at me with this little grin and she says it.”
I was shivering again, even though I wasn’t cold. I was back in that backyard all over again, hearing those dogs snapping and growling at me. And I asked Joe, “What? What did she say?”
Joe sat back and said, “You know. That German thing she said. It sounded like she was growling or something. But you remember.”
Nodding as if in a daze, I said, “I do.”
Joe continued, “So, I got louder with her, because I’m pissed off, right? I’m not going to do anything, but she doesn’t know that. So, I’m getting louder and she’s shaking, begging me to just leave. And then she just crumples to the floor. So, she points with that awful gnarled paw of hers at the cabinet just above the sink I just fixed. And she says, ‘my pills. Get me my pills, please.’ So, I open the cabinet and sure enough, there’s a bottle of pills. I grab them and hold them up and say, ‘these pills? Are you sure you want these?’ And she’s clutching her chest. And then, she just passes out. Well, actually she died.”
My mouth was hanging open at this point. I said, “She died? Right in front of you?”
“I don’t understand. When did you get her hand? Oh no, you didn’t—”
Joe nodded and grinned. “Yep. I snatched it right off her nub. I stuffed it in my toolbox and then called 911.”
“Oh my God! What did the cops say when they got there? Did they think you killed her? Did they wonder where her hand was?”
Joe smirked and said, “Nah, she’s an old lady. I just told them I was there to fix her sink and she dropped dead in front of me. But, she was on her way out anyway. Don’t worry about it. It’s all good. This was months ago. But I got the hand for you, bud. It’s yours. So please, take it home. Think of it as a trophy. The wicked witch is dead.”
I shook my head and said, “No way. I don’t want it. I drove all this way in a blizzard because I absolutely don’t want it. And how you got it—this is some sick crap, man.”
Joe was quiet for a minute, then asked, “You still afraid of dogs?”
“Terrified. But that doesn’t—”
In a serious tone I’ve never seen from Joe, he said, “That woman stole our childhood, terrorizing us every chance she got. She lied to your mom’s face and would have let her dogs tear you to pieces. To hell with her, man. If you don’t want the hand, that’s fine. But she deserves this. She doesn’t deserve dignity. And don’t you forget that.”
We sat quietly for a long time, then I got up to leave. As I trudged through huge snow drifts on my way back to my car, I thought about what Joe said. And the farther away I got from his house, from that hand, the better I felt. By the time I got home, four hours later, I was exhausted.
I apologized profusely to my wife and told her the whole story. I had to make her understand, which she finally did. Never in my life have I wanted to get rid of a gift more than this one. Ms. Gruber’s hand. It was haunted, and I knew it. But that part of my life is dead and buried. Just like Ms. Gruber.