Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
For as long as I could remember, my Uncle Chet was always a strange fellow. I can still imagine him clearly, even after all these years. He was a gaunt, chestnut-haired saturnine man with features that spoke of late nights and childhood malnourishment. He was spacey, spoke very little unless spoken to, and gave off the impression he was always half-listening during conversations. He wasn’t homeless, though he looked it, and we never visited him, rather, he visited us.
He was never seen without gloves on, always the same ratty, moth-eaten mechanic’s gloves that he had worn for years. My parents loved him and all but didn’t seem to really want him around whenever he came to visit. I, of course, was brought up to “love” him at arm’s length as well, albeit with healthy skepticism. I couldn’t think of a single time my parents showed him any physical sign of affection other than beleaguered smiles and pats on the shoulder from as far back as they could reach. I was told to keep my distance. I thought at the time, maybe he had some mental illness or had a drug problem, I don’t know.
As far as I could tell at the time, there was no discernible reason for him to be held at arms length. He never did anything to hurt the family that I know of but we were the only ones who would have anything to do with him. I knew so little about him. I didn’t know if he was related to me paternally or maternally or just a surrogate, he was just referred to as Uncle Chet by everyone. Our other family members spoke of him briefly. Any questions related to him I asked were always put down.
As I mentioned before, I found his gloves to be the most striking thing about him apart from his skeletal countenance. I thought they had something to do with his occupation or maybe they were simply to hide whatever scars or burns he had on his hands. I couldn’t imagine tattoos to be under there, he looked too meek to have any sort of gang affiliation. The outlines of his hands had no gross deformity to them but the way he’d move them was a bit disconcerting. They moved not in the cross-fingered, close-knuckling indicative of arthritis but in an almost serpentine manner. The closest comparison I can think of is a double-jointed pianist. His movements were graceful yet somehow grotesque. It was other-worldly how, in absent-mindedness, his hands would skitter across the surface of an armrest or tabletop as if they had minds of their own, like spiders attached at the wrist, articulating and weaving webs invisible to all but themselves.
He would visit us every two months and had been doing so for years. His visits were…uncomfortable at times but the atmosphere was never terse or overtly negative. Uneasy, sure but more awkward than anything, as if everyone were walking on eggshells. My uncle, looking chronically haggard, would say nothing about it, either out of obliviousness or indifference and though it was more at our expense than his, a small warmth was visible against his pallid complexion as it donned a look of feeble contentedness.
The air hung low as if it were going to rain on that cold November day but it never did. It would be the last I would see of him.
My mother waited expectantly on the porch like so many visits before except she had a peculiar look on her face instead of the general air of forced pleasantries she usually had when Chet came about. These were the first of many signs that something was wrong, more so than usual.
As his silhouette stained the sunset on the horizon as he walked from the bus stop, I could barely make out the details save that of the military-green duffel bag that he always carried, slung over his shoulder that swung parallel to his long, spindly figure. Mother told me to go to my room and wordlessly, I went inside and up the stairs before creeping low under the banister, and waited with bated breath.
I jumped at the crack of the screen door as my mom wordlessly ushered my uncle towards the kitchen. I assumed my dad sat waiting there as it slammed shut behind them. They began to discuss something in a hushed tone but very clearly do I hear my uncle say cryptically about something “getting worse” and wanting to keep things brief. I suddenly became aware of a persistent coughing sound that had been lingering in the background since they first began to speak. It took me a moment to realize the sound I was hearing was my mother’s choked sobs. In whispers, they said they’ll do everything they can to help and asked if he wanted to stay in the guest room for the night since he lived two towns away.
At the first sound of footfall, I darted into my room and quickly hopped onto my bed and grabbed a nearby book in a display of innocence before they made their way up the stairs towards the “guest room,” which, in actuality, was the second half of my bedroom separated by a thin curtain that served as a partition in a manner similar to an old hospital room.
As their funeral-like procession passed my threshold, Uncle Chet gave a weak smile and a curt wave, as they came in. As they drew the partition, a misshapen lump jutted against the bag fabric for a second, as the bag itself alongside my parents and uncle, disappeared behind the curtain.
The next few hours were spent in uncomfortable silence, Uncle Chet seemed to be in his own world behind the wall of dropcloth, saying nothing to me. Dinner wasn’t much different. Everyone ate quietly. Uncle Chet was wearing his gloves at the table like usual, pecking at his food.
As I laid in bed that night, sleep eluded me as it always did whenever Chet was around. I rolled over and stared at the sheet separating the “rooms.” I was dreadfully aware of how suffocating the silence was. The air was still, it didn’t seem to move whatsoever. I thought to myself that there was another living being in the room with me, hidden away behind a thin sheet. I couldn’t even hear him breathe. I imagined him just laying there, somehow knowing I was awake, and returning my stare unseen. Just watching and waiting for something. My jaw went rigid as I heard a soft coo followed by fabric ruffling from his side of the room. Chet’s feet hit the floor as my eyelids slammed shut immediately. I waited to hear the curtain be drawn back sharply before feeling well-worn leather against my mouth and neck. Minutes passed, nothing happened.
I don’t remember falling asleep but I remember being half-awake and terrified as I fought the urge to open my eyes early in the morning as I heard the floorboards creak and the soft kck-kck of the curtain being slowly pulled back. I didn’t get out of bed until I heard the screen door shut downstairs.
I looked out my window and saw Uncle Chet in the backyard with his bag at his feet. My eyes naturally gravitated towards his hands. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. He wasn’t wearing gloves.
I couldn’t believe it, all these years he spent in the same pair of gloves and this was the first time I was seeing him without them. I watched in awestruck as he bent down, unaware of me, and reached into his bag. He pulled out some small grey object that seemed to jerk in his grip several times. I realized it was a pigeon.
He gripped it tightly, as if to strangle it. I sped downstairs and ran outside to ask what the hell he was doing.
I could hear the sound of meat tearing as feathers fell to the ground, however his arms weren’t moving. When I was about to fearfully ask what he was doing, the words hitched in my throat he quickly turned to meet me.
I ask him what he’s doing and though he was about two feet away from me, his voice came out distant, barely above a whisper, in a very slow and deliberate manner as he asked
“Hey, wanna see something cool?”
He gripped the bird even tighter and it squawked louder than before, thrashing wildly as it clung desperately to life before shriveling in his hand. His normally gaunt face seemed to flush and the prominence of his cheekbones seemed to lessen, his figure somehow filling out in a barely perceptible way.
The expression he had was haunting. It was the marble-eyed look of someone who wasn’t altogether there and I, for once, understood what my parents felt towards this man. The smile he had on his face was jarring as he had no grin-lines or wrinkles around his mouth to speak of. He seemed to stare right through me, as if I wasn’t there. The bird, now resembling little more than a deflated bag of flesh, fell to the ground with a squish made with what little blood it had left. Its wings were bent at odd angles, its body perforated and pitted in circular patches no bigger than nickels, exposed bone clearly visible in some of the craters. My mind seemed to be caught in a loop, trying to process what he just did to his bird with his bare hands, and how.
I continued to stare at the avian corpse as my uncle’s hands then fell in front of him, turning them palm up. Still mentally numb, it took me a minute to rationalize what I was looking at. I realized what laid before my eyes were not hideous injuries or normal deformity. Where his fingerprints would have been were instead cavernous, gaping holes in his flesh that were ringed with spiny, milk-white growths.
I was looking at mouths.
Miniature maws that quite literally tore flesh from bone and sucked the life out of a living creature just minutes ago. His smile widened. Without hesitating, I spoke without thinking the first words that entered my mind.
“Are you a fucking circus freak?”
He laughed. A long, hoarse laugh that rang hollow with exhaustion.
“If I was, people would actually want to be around me.”
He then slowly stretched out a hand towards me as if to offer a better look.
“I never sucked my thumbs as a kid.”
My mother came out the back door that moment and charged at him, his spacey smile dropping as she began yelling, asking if he wanted to be carted off by the government or made to be a museum exhibit. His eyes seemed to shift in a peculiar manner, saying nothing as he looked at the ground. My dad came and grabbed me by the back of my neck from behind and led me back inside the house. Try as I might, I couldn’t wrench my head around to see what was happening.
For the first and last time, they drove him to his bus stop, the car engine a dull buzz in the distance. My parents didn’t return until two nights later and they wouldn’t divulge where they had been or what they did. They merely said they “finally got him help.”
I haven’t seen him in years.
My parents never said anything more about him, nor did the rest of my family after that day. Uncle Chet became a non-entity.
Decades later, following the passing of my parents. I finally came back to my childhood home to take stock of their possessions and arrange the estate sale.
Inside the shed, I found a familiar pair of gloves hidden amongst the tools and garden supplies. Compelled, I picked them up to examine them further, something gouging my finger as I did. I dropped them before turning them over with my shoe. Embedded in the cowhide were several small, lamprey-like teeth.
Credit : Joseph Limerick
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