It was on the thirty fourth day that Penelope’s left arm, from the elbow down, disappeared. It didn’t physically vanish, it was still hanging from her shoulder, but if she wasn’t looking at it the thing might as well be gone, replaced with a stump.
The weird part was that when she touched it she could feel it and feel her own right fingers against the skin. Even weirder, if she watched her left hand she could move it, she could pick up a glass and feel it in her left hand, but if she looked away sensation ceased. Looking back, the glass was still in her hand and sensation returned.
“Maybe you’ve had a stroke,” said Ben, her boyfriend. He had been a roommate. He was as agoraphobic as she was and one fateful night, months before anybody ate a bat in Wuhan, they had become a couple by shunning all other human contact and sticking to the couch until dawn, dozing, slumping tentatively against one another while Netflix advanced from episode to episode of The Office. Four episodes into season six, when the morning grew too bright, they shifted into Ben’s room because it was closest. And he had a waterbed.
“Or maybe it’s the corona.”
“It’s not corona and you can’t have a stroke in your elbow,” said Penelope.
“Who’s the president,” said Ben. “What day of the week is it?”
“I don’t want to say and who knows. Do you know what day it is?”
“Lord no. I haven’t been sure what day it is since YouTube and Netflix liberated us from scheduled programming. Microwave some popcorn and some of the fajita hot pockets, would you.”
By the end of day thirty-six her entire left arm had checked out of whatever reporting system limbs use. She had tried hot showers, cold showers, ice packs, heat packs, and massage. There was no change. Googling didn’t help, except to declare that what she had was insidious, fatal, and to see a neurologist if she wanted any other diagnosis. Like either of them had health insurance.
That night, during the eighth leg of their “Marathon of The Office Marathon”, Ben’s attempt to watch the entire run from beginning to end 26 times in a row, Ben started making a low, contented humming noise she hadn’t heard before. She caught her left hand in the hair at the back of his head, the fingers scratching gently. They froze as the silk of his hair coalesced around her fingertips.
“Keep going,” said Ben, eyes on the tv, throwing popcorn into his mouth.
“Ow, you’re hurting me.”
She steered her arm down to her lap and went back to watching.
Ben started humming again. Her hand was back in his hair. She sighed. He seemed to like it. She focused on the screen and wished they could watch something else.
It got weirder. Penelope was affectionate, but her left arm wouldn’t leave Ben alone. If she wasn’t paying attention, keeping it in view, she’d find herself holding his hand, or his arm, or her left hand would be tucked between his legs. While making dinner she found it squeezing his butt. At night it would grope him freely while she slept. Ben didn’t complain. He didn’t even tell her until she noticed all the blossoms of crumpled toilet paper on the floor over on his side of the bed.
“I don’t see the problem,” said Ben. “It’s your hand. It’s not like I’m cheating on you.”
“Well, have you thought about how hard it is to get toilet paper right now?”
“Got it. Stop wasting toilet paper. Can you cut your fingernails after you make breakfast? Bacon and egg hot pockets and coffee. Instant is fine, just use lots of milk.”
On the morning of day forty she woke up to find her right foot vanished, but tucked between Ben’s calves. By midday half her right ankle was gone and she could only walk by looking at her feet.
Sitting on the edge of the bathtub, eyes closed with the hot air of the hair dryer blowing across her leg, she could feel the loss of sensation creeping towards her knee. It felt like she was dissolving. Then she would open her eyes and feel whole again.
Looking for solutions, she logged onto Amazon and ordered boxes of mirrored tiles while her left hand snuck between her and the desk to jiggle her elbow and make the mouse jump around.
Ben was just as worried as she was, but his googling turned up no better answers than hers. His posts on forums resulted in suggestions to consult a neurologist. That still wasn’t going to happen. So they watched The Office and waited for the tiles to arrive, hoping Amazon would deliver before the accelerating loss of control enveloped her entire body.
In the early morning of day forty-three she snapped awake straddling Ben, who had his hands on her bare hips and seemed quite happy with the situation. Looking down at him, instantly in possession of her arms and legs, she wanted to slap him. Instead, she rolled off him. Lying on her back, inadvertently paralysed, staring upwards, she desperately wanted a mirror on the ceiling. She craned her neck to catch a glimpse of her left arm reaching again for Ben. She used it to roll over onto her side, away from him, and curl up so she could see all her limbs. She didn’t want to, but she returned to sleep.
What woke her the second time was daylight and the sound of her own voice. Her mouth and face had been lost to her as she dozed. All she felt now was the movement of her eyelids, her eyes under them, and the sleep in their corners. It was remarkable how calm she felt. Listening to her own voice was soothing, and what it was saying was sensible.
“…something other than The Office. There are so many other shows.”
“But that would mean quitting the marathon,” Ben whined.
“You can keep watching it. It’s not like you don’t stop to sleep. And you’re always on your phone when you’re watching it,” she heard herself say. She’d thought the same thing.
“Just not all the time. And we’re running low on toilet paper. You need to go to the store. I need some fresh vegetables. If I eat another hot pocket I will lose the urge to ever touch you again.”
It was like she had been possessed by herself. A more assertive version of herself.
Out of the corner of her eye she watched Ben climb out of bed and stomp out of the bedroom. There was the sound of tearing cardboard and he came back in with a handful of mirrored tiles.
“What are those?” her voice said.
“They arrived yesterday,” he said, peeling the backing off of a tile. “No, I didn’t tell you.” He slammed the tile against the wall in front of the bed. It wasn’t quite straight. “Sorry about that.” He peeled another tile and stuck it near the first.
“Can you not stick those up,” her voice said.
From flat on her back all she could see in them was the ceiling. Ben walked over to her side of the bed, holding a tile between the palms of his hands.
“I thought these would help,” he said.
The angle he was holding the tile allowed Penelope to see her face. She bit her lip. It was back. And she was able to sit up, and there she was, a glimpse of leg in one tile, arms and chest in the others.
“Keep putting them up,” she said. “Put them up everywhere.”
With glimpses of herself throughout the house she would be okay. They would get through this.
“And when you’re done go to the store.”
Ben groaned. “Outside? For vegetables? Really?”