William Thompson

My country cousins were coming, and I was finally going to meet the cousin without hands. They lived on a farm and didn’t come into town often, only once that I knew of. But that was a long time ago, before the cousin had lost both hands in some sort of farm accident. I was too young to remember that earlier visit, and I only knew about it because of my mother’s photo albums.

I was morbidly curious about my cousin, but no one would tell me much. Like an idiot I made a joke about her within hearing of my mother a few days before the cousins were to arrive. My mother came down on me like the wrath of God.
“If I hear you saying anything stupid…or making fun of your cousin in any way…I swear you’ll be spending the next year in your room. Do you understand?”

She didn’t yell, which made it a little scarier. She just stood over me, staring down those white spots to either side of her nose that told me just how mad she was.

“I won’t say anything…geez.” My heart gave a double beat as I looked up at my mother.

She came even closer. “You are to be respectful,” she said. “You are not to ask a bunch of questions. Your cousin Bethany is a young woman…she’s not a child. And she has…a disability. So mind your damn manners.”


That word haunted me. It conjured pictures of people in wheelchairs or people with faces that weren’t quite right—people whose bodies or minds were different from mine.

“Do you understand?”

I snapped back to attention. I knew I was on thin ice if my mother swore. My father swore all the time—at me, at the television, at things he had to fix around the house, at anything that came within the range of his bad temper. But my mother never swore—ever. Hearing her swear meant she was not only mad, but mad in a way that could have her becoming tearful any second. A crying, fuming mother was something I did not want.

“I’ll be good,” I said again, squirming and hardly able to look her in the eye.

Cynthia was in the room, and I saw her smirking at me over my mom’s shoulder. “Maybe you should send him away for the weekend,” she said. “That way he won’t embarrass anyone.”

I didn’t respond. My mother was still looming over me like a thundercloud.

“I’ll be watching you,” she said, pointing her finger at me.

“All right, all right!” I threw up my hands.

“Twerp,” muttered Cynthia in my direction as she passed me on her way to the bathroom.

I thought about giving her waist-length hair a good yank, but my mother was still standing there, glowering.

That was the Wednesday before the cousins were to arrive. Two more days of school and they would be here. We didn’t have the room to put them up, so the whole crowd of them were to stay at my Auntie Anne’s. They would get into town on Thursday, and they were coming to our place for dinner on Friday.

I avoided my mother for the next two days, but I decided to do some investigating of my own. When my mother was busy in the basement with laundry, I hunted up the family photo albums. There had to be a picture somewhere. I thought about asking my younger sister, Melany, for help—she was the unofficial family historian. But, for better or worse, I wanted to find this on my own.

My mother’s photo albums weren’t as organized as my Auntie Anne’s, but everything was dated and some of the albums were organized by holiday. My Saskatchewan cousins were somewhat removed along the family tree. Maybe we were third cousins; I could never figure it out. They were the grandchildren of one of the Macintyre sisters—six in total, who grew up in southern Alberta more than a hundred years ago. My Grandma Louise was a Macintyre sister; she died when my mother was pregnant with me—I knew that much. These were all relations on my mom’s side of the family. We didn’t often see relatives on my dad’s side.

It took a while but I finally found a picture of Bethany. She stood just right of center in the photo, next to her mother—a tall woman with long, dark hair coiled around the top of her head. The photo held twin boys, around eleven or twelve, and the father, a big man, looking uneasy in the stiff suit he wore. Bethany stood there beside her mother. She looked about Cynthia’s age now—maybe fourteen or fifteen. She looked normal enough—pretty, for a girl. I couldn’t see her arms because she wore a coat draped around her shoulders like a cloak. She was staring back at the camera with a kind of level defiance, offset by a small, knowing smile.

In school the next two days, I did what I was supposed to, but I didn’t pay attention much. I was good at looking busy, which kept my teachers at bay.

I loved those days of spring; I still do. The weather was glorious—the newly greening grass, trees leafing out, and flowers poking up their heads from newly turned beds in yards all up and down the street. The robins sang their throaty songs in the lengthening evenings, and I counted the seconds between the liquid measures, trying to catch a glimpse of the red breasts of the birds.

But that spring, with my cousins coming to visit, I had other things on my mind. In the nights leading up to their visit, just before sleep, I had a hard time keeping my imagination under control. I wondered how Bethany had lost her hands—what sort of accident could do that to a person. I didn’t know much about life on a farm, but I imagined sharp implements of every variety cutting off Bethany’s hands—again, and again, and again. Cynthia had hinted that the accident was her dad’s fault, which only made me imagine worse things—Bethany’s dad chasing her with an axe and cutting off her hands. That one made me hide beneath the blankets, and I had to count names of insects until I fell asleep.

It was unusual for the family to leave the farm this time of year—that’s what I was told. But they had decided to visit relatives as part of the trip. I didn’t find out the reason for the trip until later.

On Friday evening I was put to work. I hauled out garbage, put the old lawn chairs out on the patio, swept the sidewalk, and watered my mother’s flowers. I knew things were serious if my mother was getting me to water her flowers. I heard a car just as I finished up, and I ran for the back steps, coming into the house just in time to see the cousins piling through the front door.

They were all such big people—Tom, the father, was tall and broad, with a lined, weathered face; the twin boys nearly as tall as their father, both looking uncomfortable in button-up shirts and dress pants. Even Marge, the mother, was tall and broad. Only Bethany was slim, although she was tall as well. I tried to get a look at her hands, but she wore a light jacket over her shoulders, just like in the photo.

I looked over to see Cynthia glaring at me. “Don’t gawk,” she hissed. “And go change. You look like you peed yourself.”

I looked down and I saw my shirt and jeans soaked from watering the flowers. I stuck my tongue out at her for good measure, then headed for the stairs. In my room I changed, then brushed my hair, mostly so my mother wouldn’t cuff me for not doing it, and headed back downstairs.

In the living room everyone was sitting around, looking stiff and not terribly comfortable. My father was standing there listening to Tom talking about crops or something, and the twins sat on the couch, looking as though they would rather be anywhere else.

Then I saw Bethany. She was sitting in the armchair facing the TV, Cynthia perched on a stool beside her. Bethany looked relaxed and a little amused, and in her lap were two gloved hands. I swear to God I stared harder at those hands than I would have if she hadn’t got any at all. I looked at my mother for help, but she and Marge were heading for the kitchen with Melany in tow.

I looked at Cynthia but she only smirked in response.

“Hi, Triss.”

That was my cousin Bethany, who was looking at me in a slightly amused way.
I mumbled a hello and stuck my hands into my pockets. I could feel my face getting red. I hadn’t expected her to be so pretty—or so old. She must have been eighteen or nineteen. And those hands. They lay there in her lap, looking perfectly normal, save for the gloves.

“Tristan!” The lash of my name came from the kitchen. My mother was glaring from around the doorjamb. “Get a bag of buns from the freezer.”

Relieved to have something to do, I stumped out to the garage to fetch a bag of buns. I didn’t know what to think. My mom had told me—and Cynthia had confirmed—that Bethany had lost both hands in the accident. Maybe they were lying—or maybe Bethany had got herself some new hands. I knew about the Six-Million-Dollar Man from TV. Maybe it was like that—she had bionic hands now. But even I knew that was far-fetched.

When I came out of the garage swinging a bag of buns, the twins were coming out of the house. One of them was carrying a basketball.

“We’re going out back to play,” said one. (I didn’t know which was which.) “Want to come?”

There was something of a challenge in the look he gave me. The last thing I needed was to get bashed around by two giant farm kids. “Sure,” I said. “Just got to take these inside.”

I managed to avoid getting pummeled by the cousins because my mother kept me busy right up until dinner. My mother had me put two extra leaves in the dining-room table, then I had to  help Melany set it. By this time I was beginning to feel persecuted—but I never complained. Soon ten of us were crowded round the old table. All through the meal I kept sneaking glances at Bethany. I could see now that her hands were fake. They looked like real hands; the fingers could even grip a fork. But her mother had to help, clenching the fingers around the handle. Somehow it made me feel a little better—knowing she had fake hands and I hadn’t been lied to. I mostly watched Bethany but every now and then I sneaked a look at her father, wondering again what he had done to cause the loss of Bethany’s hands. And I wasn’t the only one looking at Bethany. Her father kept looking at her too. I wasn’t sure what was in that look but I could guess. A kick under the table told me I was staring. I glared at Cynthia, who smiled primly back.

Dinner over, my mother and Marge cleared the table, returning to the kitchen to prepare coffee and dessert. My dad reached over and placed a bottle of sherry in the exact center of the table. I eyed the bottle suspiciously. My dad drank a beer after work or on the weekends, but rarely did he spend money on anything else. Then I noticed the tablecloth—as though for the first time. I had been so focused on Bethany and her hands that the importance of my mother’s good tablecloth and china hadn’t registered. But I forgot all this at once because I was suddenly talking to Bethany—chattering away like Melany did with our grandparents.

“You have some interesting hobbies,” said Bethany, looking down at me seriously.

I stared up at her. Her eyebrows formed sweeping arches over hazel eyes framed with long, dark lashes. She had long hair, like Cynthia’s, but Bethany was no gawky fifteen-year-old. Just looking at her was making my chest hurt. “I can show you my microscope…it’s just downstairs,” I  said, all in a rush. “But…” I couldn’t help but look at her hands.

“I think I can handle some stairs,” said Bethany a little coolly.

Practically knocking over my chair, I got up. “This way,” I said, not waiting as I went into the kitchen. My mother threw me a look from the sink as I headed for the basement stairs, followed by Bethany.

“Just showing Bethany my microscope,” I called, glancing around.

Cynthia was drying dishes next to Marge. Dork, she mouthed disdainfully.

I tromped down the stairs, looking back anxiously at Bethany. She glided down and I waited awkwardly until she joined me at the foot of the stairs.

On one side of the basement was the TV room, such as it was—a battered couch and coffee table facing the old TV. The TV room was divided from the other side of the basement by a wooden wall my dad built. To the right was the furnace and general storage room. Behind the stairs was my dad’s workshop on one side and the laundry room on the other. The whole basement was encircled by a four-foot cement shelf that held all the innumerable things my family had collected over the years. A six-foot section of that shelf was my mother’s pantry—three wooden shelves that held enough canned and dried food to get us through a winter, if necessary. It was my mother’s farming background that drove her to manically can fruits and vegetables in the fall and store them away.

“Over here,” I said, feeling suddenly nervous. I led Bethany to a small section of shelf I had claimed in the furnace room. In a cleared space stood my microscope and assorted boxes of specimens. “I had to save my money for a year,” I said.

I turned on the microscope light, checking the slide before standing back to let Bethany look.

She dutifully stepped forward and peered into the lens. “That’s disgusting,” she said, looking up at me.

I grinned. “It’s a fruit fly,” I said. “They collect if you leave fruit on the counter. My mom left some bananas out for too long so I caught one.”

“Well,” said Bethany, straightening. “It’s interesting. You like biology.” It was a statement, not a question, and she looked at me seriously.

As a middle/boy child, sandwiched between two sisters, and not yet twelve years old, I wasn’t used to being looked at in that way.

“What I really want to find is a tardigrade,” I said, starting to babble again.

“They’re cool. They’re called water bears. They’re these tiny creatures with eight legs and little claw hands…”

I stopped, staring up at Bethany. “I’m sorry…I’m sorry,” I stammered.
She gave me a searching look. “You don’t have to be so careful, you know,” she said. “I’m not going to be offended if you talk about my hands.” She held them up as though to prove her point.

I didn’t know what to say, so I just stared at her. And it struck me then how her eyes seemed to see right through me—seemed to see more than me.

Bethany grinned. “Maybe I’m like your tardigrades,” she said. “I have the claw hands. Now I just need six extra arms.”

I tried to laugh but it came out more as a bray.

“Here,” she said. And taking the edge of a glove between her teeth, she peeled it off. The hand beneath was plastic in appearance, like the hand on a doll, but it looked for all the world like a second glove attached to her wrist.

She observed it critically. “But this is it for these hands,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked. My brain was seething with a horrified fascination.

“Well, I’m getting new hands—electronic hands that will actually work like proper hands do.”

“Like bionic hands?” I asked a little breathlessly.

She laughed. “No, not bionic hands. But they will be able to move. I’ll just have to learn how to use them.”

If I had been speechless before, I was now completely in awe. Here was this girl, so pretty and smart, and she was going to have robot hands. And she was my cousin.

The creak of the stairs alerted me to someone coming down, but I could hardly take my eyes from Bethany’s hand. I glanced up to see her eyes harden ever so slightly, and I turned to find her dad standing behind me. I hadn’t appreciated just how large this man was—his broad, sloping shoulders filled the doorway leading back to the TV room, and he had to duck his head to avoid the beams in the ceiling.

“You all right, Bethany?” he asked. He was looking at her in that way he had at the table.

“I’m fine,” said Bethany now. Her voice had gone from rich and warm to something thin and brittle.

“I told your mother we should be on our way in the next hour. Tomorrow is going to be a full day.”

The new hands, I thought. Maybe she had to be fitted out or something.

“Did Mom call Aubrey?”

Bethany was looking at her dad, and he was looking back, a strange expression making his face taut. They seemed to have forgotten I was standing there. It was like watching my dad and Cynthia squaring off.

“I think so,” he said, glancing pointedly down at Bethany’s hand without the glove.

“I want him there,” said Bethany, her voice even but her eyes flashing defiance.
“He drove all the way up from Calgary. He’s a good friend.”

“More than a friend…” he began, then suddenly seemed to recall me standing there.

He took a breath. “I think it’s time to come upstairs,” he said. “Our host is about to serve dessert.”

Host, I thought stupidly. Who was he talking about? But I didn’t have the chance to blurt anything out because Tom turned and walked heavily back upstairs, Bethany watching him go.

My head was spinning. I was smart enough to know something was going on between Bethany and her dad. Was it something to do with the loss of her hands? Did she blame him for whatever happened to her? And who was Aubrey? I had too many unanswered questions crowding my brain, but I also knew enough not to ask. My mother had done her work well.

“Here, help me out.”

I looked at Bethany. She had her glove draped over the other hand.

“Help me get this thing back on, would you? We can’t have people seeing my mannequin hand.”

Maybe it was the tension I had been feeling all evening—I don’t know. But I started laughing as I took the glove, and I kept giggling like an idiot as I clumsily fitted the glove over Bethany’s hand, fitting in one finger at a time as she held her wrist steady, pushing back. She watched me, smiling, but as I looked up, her eyes met mine and glistened with an emotion I didn’t understand.

Back upstairs Bethany sat beside her mom while trifle was dished into bowls. My dad leaned over the table and poured tiny glasses of sherry, even giving a tiny dribble to Cynthia and the twins. Bethany ate carefully, her face back under its former control. But I noticed two spots of color in her cheeks that made her look even prettier than she had before.

And that was it. The evening broke up not long after. Goodbyes were said and my country cousins trooped out the front door into the long evening of May, where they piled into their car. We had followed them out, and I could feel the cool of the evening prickling my skin. I noticed that Cynthia had slung a coat over her shoulders, wearing it just like Bethany. A chorus of goodbyes was cut off by the slamming of car doors. The sky was darkening overhead, pale stars beginning to fleck the advancing night while the remains of sunset stained the western sky. And as the car drove away, I caught a glimpse of a gloved hand waving a stiff farewell out the window until the car turned the corner and disappeared from view.

William’s short fiction and essays have appeared in Firewords Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, The Penmen Review, COG Magazine, The Danforth Review, Literary Orphans, and other online publications. His two collections of stories—The Paper Man and Other Stories and Fractured and Other Fairy Tales— are both available on Amazon. He maintains a blog on storytelling and children’s books at, and he teaches children’s literature for MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, and for Athabasca University, Canada’s largest distance-learning institution. William is totally blind and he gets his books in a digital format so he can read while walking, riding the bus or train, or cleaning around the house. He has spent time as a storyteller, a journalist, and a stay-at-home dad.