The old man with the third hand sat on the beach and watched the waves wash over the sand.
I’d seen him before. Everyone had. Some people assumed he was crazy. Others thought he was just lonely, sitting out there by himself day after day, staring at where the ocean seemed to merge with the sky. Not very many people found the third hand growing out of his back terribly interesting. This was, after all, the town that had produced the infamous Inside-Out Girl.
All the same, there was something about the old man with the third hand, something about the way he sat in the same old rocking chair, rocking back and forth almost in sync with the waves that made the townspeople stay away from him. Nobody ever went down to the stretch of beach on which the old man sat and stared at the sea.
But I did.
I had to, you see. I was playing catch with Deidre, who is a terrific catcher but can’t throw a ball to save her life. The ball went sailing over the top of my head, bouncing down the rocks toward the beach, and I followed it without thinking.
The rocks were hard and slippery with lichen, and the descent was difficult. More than once I nearly went sprawling. I should have turned back, I know, but that ball was the only thing my brother gave me before he went off to fight the Frog Men from Outer Space, so I turned not back and soon found myself on the beach.
The sand here was almost unnaturally smooth. There were no human footprints like there were on every other beach I’d been to. It was easy to pretend I was in the middle of the Sahara, except for the sea.
I didn’t find my ball.
I searched and searched for what felt like minutes but was probably only…well, minutes. I saw no sign of my ball. All the while the old man with the third hand gently rocked in his chair and watched me.
I walked up to him, hands behind my back, tears gathering in my eyes.
“Um, sir?” I asked, my head hanging, my eyes fixed on the ground, on the long expanse of sand broken only by the footprints I left behind me and the deep divots the old man’s rocking chair left in it. “I…I lost my ball and can’t find it. I was wondering if you’d seen it?”
For a long time the old man did not say anything. The silence spun itself out until I lifted my head and looked him in the face. And for a long time after that I only stared.
His face was hidden in the shadow cast by the wide-brimmed hat sitting on his head, and perhaps it was that interplay of shadows on the lines of his face that made it seem that the old man had a face like weathered rock. It was full of lines and hollows, two of which held his eyes like precious secrets. His nose was flat and broad, his mouth a thin line. He looked like he hadn’t smiled in a long time. He looked like he’d forgotten how to.
But he wasn’t scary. In spite of his face and the third hand growing out the middle of his back, hanging behind him like it didn’t have anything better to do, the old man wasn’t scary.
On the contrary, he looked very lonely.
Perhaps that is why I stayed.
“No,” he said, answering my question in a voice that had once, I supposed, been young. He did not say anything else, but he did not look away either. And neither did I. I wondered how long it had been since he had had someone to talk to. I certainly couldn’t remember seeing anyone with him before.
“I was playing catch with Deidre, but she threw the ball too hard,” I found myself saying. “She’s not very good at throwing.”
The old man nodded like he understood, but he still didn’t say anything.
I said, “Deidre’s my friend. She’s…imaginary. That means I made her up.”
And I waited for the reaction. I waited for the look of pity to creep into his eyes. I waited for him to shake his head sadly. I waited for him to ask me where my parents were.
But the old man with the third hand did none of these things. And for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was in the presence of someone who did not think me odd.
So I sat down in the sand and drew my knees to my chest and just sat there, watching the sea dance and the sun dip in the sky. The old man said nothing to me. We just sat in silence, both of us no longer alone, at least for one afternoon.
I forgot all about my ball.
The next day I went back down the beach.
The old man was right where I’d left him the day before. He was not rocking today, but he was still looking out at the water. He turned to glance at me as I walked down the beach. He did not speak to me, but he stood and used his third hand to shift his rocking chair ever so slightly to the side to make room for me to sit, and that was enough.
That day I told him about the book I was trying to write, how I’d spent a year-and-a-half on it and still felt like I was getting nowhere; I told him about the despair of getting words down, looking at them and feeling like everything I’d written was stupid and boring and had probably been said before—and better—by people I probably wouldn’t like if I met them, and I told him how that was nothing compared to the despair of not getting any words down at all.
I even told him about the people I was attracted to and how I wanted to have sex with all of them (and there were a lot of them) even though I knew it wouldn’t be fulfilling for very long.
The old man with the third hand listened patiently as I opened up certain parts of me that hadn’t seen daylight in so long. He did not interrupt or ask questions. He just listened.
By the time I was done the day was nearly dead. Before I went home I thanked the old man for listening.
The next day the old man started talking to me in return.
“Why do you sit here every day?” I asked him. “Are you waiting for someone?”
He told me no, he was not waiting for anyone. Then he pointed out to the sea and said: “That is where I came from. That is my home.”
I followed the line of his hand and looked at the ocean, saw how it undulated, rocking itself gently.
“The sea?” I asked the old man.
“Yes,” he said. In his deep and rolling voice he told me the story of his birth, how he grew up among his people in the depths of the ocean, never seeing the sun till he was grown. He told me of his people; of Leviathan, whose throne is the deep, and of Cthulhu, old beyond imagining.
The old man with the third hand told me these things, and when he was done I asked him why he was here, on land, and not in the sea with his people.
He didn’t answer me for a long time. I assumed mine was a question he did not want to answer, so I turned away and looked out at the ocean, imagining, somewhere in its depths, the many claws of the Leviathan stretching from continent to continent. I imagined what it would be like to live inside the sea. I wondered if anybody I knew would ever find me there. They probably wouldn’t.
I wanted to go live in the sea.
After a while, the old man answered my question.
“I left my home,” he said, “and my people, to explore the dry lands. I did not tell anybody I was leaving, and I have since lived a long time on the land. I have seen mountains and kingdoms rise and fall and rise again. I have seen man. I have come to know the extent of his kindness and his cruelty, and I have seen how often one becomes the other overnight. I have seen this and more. I have seen all I wanted to see and much more I did not. I have seen everything there is to see under the sun.
“And now I am afraid to go back home, for I do not know if my people will forgive me for leaving.”
“And so you sit here,” I said, somewhat redundantly.
“And so I sit here,” the old man agreed.
We said nothing more that day till evening, when the setting sun drew us a portrait of light in the heavens.
“Many things have I seen many times over,” said the old man, whose third hand was already beginning to look as natural to me as the birthmark on the side of my neck, “and I do not care to see many of them again. But there are three things I never grow tired of seeing.
“One is the light in the eyes of a man or woman in love. The other is the setting of the sun.” “And the third?” I asked.
He made a sound in his throat that might have passed for a hmm?
“You said there were three things. But you’ve only mentioned two. What’s the third?”
The old man said simply: “Little children.”
I thought about what he said, and then I told the old man: “I have never been in love.”
He told me he had never been, either.
I did not go to see the old man for two days after that. My parents took me to see my grandmother, who lived many hours away. I’d been close to my grandmother when I was young, but the years and the cancer had distanced us. It’s not easy to get close to someone who might not be there tomorrow.
For the duration of the trip my parents tried to get me to spend as much time with my grandmother as possible. They told me things like how death was a natural part of life and how sooner or later we all had to go and that was how I realized my grandmother was growing tired of fighting. I locked myself in the bathroom and cried. I tried to call Deidre, but she wouldn’t come.
My parents told me they were worried about me.
I told them I wanted to go home.
“I thought you wouldn’t come again,” the old man said as I walked down the beach.
“Of course I’d come,” I said, sitting down beside him in my usual spot. There was a beach towel neatly folded and placed on the sand. I sat on it. It was very comfortable.
I told the old man about my trip, and about my grandmother, and as I talked I cried, and did not feel ashamed.
The hours went by.
I asked the old man questions. He answered. He asked me questions. I answered.
A few days later I returned home to find my parents waiting for me.
Home was a big house that looked out at other big houses along and across the street. There was nothing particularly unique or interesting about it; it was a rich house on a street where everybody was rich, and as such was unremarkable.
My parents stood side-by-side in our front room. They were holding each other as I walked in.
“We need to talk,” my father said.
No one ever says that unless something is wrong.
I noticed the other people in the room then. There was a woman in oversized glasses sitting by herself in the corner of the room, one long leg crossed over the other. She looked vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t remember where I’d seen her before. Maybe she just had one of those faces. Standing on either side of her were two men in matching jackets and boots. They stood with their hands behind their backs, avoiding my gaze. Something about them made my head hurt when I looked directly at them, so I turned back to my parents.
“Talk about what?” I asked my father. A funny thing happened when I spoke: my mother started to cry. She sounded on the verge of breaking down, like she was only just holding it together. I looked again at the strange-but-familiar woman in our house and wondered what she had done to my mother.
“Dee, look at me, please,” my father said.
Nobody had ever called me by that name before, but he was looking at me when he said it so I figured it must be me he was talking to. I looked back at him.
“Where have you been all day?” he asked me.
“I’ve been at the beach,” I answered truthfully.
“And…” my father began, then stopped, then tried again. “And what were you doing there?”
I paused for a while before answering, but I could see no way around the question without lying. I didn’t want to lie. “I was with my friend,” I said, and of course the next question that came my way was:
I had kept my friendship with the old man secret up till now. This was partly because I suspected my parents would not approve and partly because my friendship with him was something precious to me and I felt like the more people that knew about it the less it would mean.
I saw no way to keep it a secret now. Something about the woman with the huge glasses and the two men flanking her like bodyguards and my parents standing together like they would crumble and turn to dust if they let each other go made me think the best thing I could do was tell the truth.
“I was with the old man with the third hand,” I said. “The one who sits down on the beach in his rocking chair. I lost my ball on the beach and went to get it and we got to talking and…well, now we’re friends.”
I kept my head down as I talked, but now I lifted it because a deathly silence had fallen in the room. Nobody moved—including myself. My parents looked like they’d been carved from rock, they were so still. So, too, were the three strangers. Although…was it my imagination, or had the two men moved ever so slightly in my direction?
The silence became too loud. I broke it.
“What?” I asked my parents. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
My mother made another sound in the back of her throat, and it took me a second to realize that she was crying. “Oh Dee,” she sobbed. “Oh Dee…”
There it was. That name again.
“What is this?” I asked. “What’s the meaning of this?”
As expected, it was my father who spoke. All the money in our family comes from my mother’s side, you see. Because of this, my father has always tried to compensate by taking it on himself to be the proactive one, the one always taking charge. And my mother, for her part, lets him.
“We’ve lived in this town for close to twenty years,” he said, “and never in that time has there ever been an old man in a rocking chair on the beach.”
What was he talking about? “What do you mean?” I asked, incredulous. “Of course there has. He’s always there. Everyone knows about him. He has an arm growing out of his back, for Christ’s sake.”
“People don’t grow arms out of their backs, Dee,” my father said. He let go of my mother and took two steps toward me. I took two steps back.
“Is this a joke?” I said.
“We hoped it was, Dee, but we can’t keep pretending anymore. We can’t keep letting you pretend anymore.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. I noticed now that the two strange men had definitely moved closer to me. One of them kept looking beyond me, like he was trying to figure out a way…
…to flank me.
“First it was the Inside-Out Girl,” my father said. “Then it was the Frog Men from Space…”
Outer Space, I corrected.
“…and now it’s an old man with a third arm growing out of his back. None of them is real. This has got to stop, Dee.”
That fucking name. I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Why do you keep calling me that?” I yelled at him. For once, my father was shocked speechless. I felt a moment of savage pleasure, seeing him lost for words like that.
But then my mother spoke, and ruined it.
“Because that’s your name,” she said. “It’s what we’ve always called you, Deidre.”
I thought to myself: My parents have gone crazy.
How did I know this? Three reasons:
One: They claimed to have never seen the old man with the third hand before, never seen him on his rocking chair watching the waves find the land, and that could only mean one of two things: they were either both lying to me—but to what purpose?—or they had somehow blanked any memory of the old man from their minds.
Two: Ditto with the Inside-Out Girl and the Frog Men, who even as we spoke might be planning their final offensive on Planet Earth.
And three: my parent had somehow convinced themselves that Deidre, my imaginary friend, was real. And that I was her.
My head spun. I couldn’t speak.
My father said, “Deidre…”
“Don’t call me that!” I snapped. I didn’t mean to; it just came out. My parents looked stunned, like I’d slapped them when they weren’t looking. “That’s not my name.”
“Yes it is,” my mother said quietly.
No, it wasn’t. Deidre was a name I chose, a name I picked for my imaginary friend. It wasn’t my name. My name was… It was…
Okay, maybe I couldn’t remember it just then. Maybe I still don’t remember it now. It doesn’t matter. What mattered was my parents…and the strange woman in our house.
“You did this,” I said, turning to face her.
“Dee, my baby,” my mother said, “I know you’re confused, but…”
“It’s time to stop pretending,” the strange woman said, cutting in smoothly. “We can help you. If only you’ll let us.” Her voice was slow and measured and soothing and it made me think of poisoned honey.
I was suddenly afraid of her.
“Mom? Dad?” I said slowly, trying to match the woman for voice tone, “Who is this?”
My mother broke into fresh sobs. My father took a deep breath.
“Her name is Dr. Hutton,” he said to me like I was seven years old. “She can help you, Dee. Dr. Hutton is here to take you to a special place where you can be helped.”
I didn’t want to ask. But I had to. “What kind of place?”
“It’s an institute, Deidre, for people like you. People who…sometimes see things that aren’t there.”
He may have said something else, but I didn’t hear him. I didn’t have to.
The strange woman in our house, flanked by two men. Two men in matching clothes. I knew where they were from. I knew what type of institute my father was talking about.
My mother screamed when I started running, as though this was what she’d feared would happen all along. My father did not make a sound. The strange woman cried, “Grab her!”
Thick boots scuffling on the floor as the two men gave chase. It was lucky for me that I didn’t lock the front door when I came in.
Right before I slammed the door in the faces of my two pursuers—trying to buy myself a second or two—I risked one last look back. I saw my parents standing together once again, holding each other like I hadn’t seen them do in so, so long. Two islands watching in silence as the sharks chased their daughter.
That is how I remember them still.
Then the door was shut and I was off in the darkness, trying desperately not to trip and fall in the driveway. The minutes after that are a blur even now. I remember jumping over a hedge or two or three, sticking to twisting roads loaded with as many obstacles as I could find, trying to avoid a straight run down an empty street, where the men might run me down with their longer legs.
I don’t remember how I got to the beach.
Looking back, maybe that was always where I was headed. Maybe the beach pulled at me the same way the moon pulled at the waves. Maybe.
It was not a part of the beach that I was very familiar with, though, and in the darkness I missed my footing and went tumbling in the sand. I was on an incline when it happened, and so I rolled almost all the way down to the sea. The tide was in; an errant wave washed through my hair. I remember that clearly.
And then they were all over me. Rough hands grabbed me, lifted me to my feet, pinned my hands behind my back. “No!” I screamed. “Let me go!” I screamed. “I won’t go with you! Let me go!” The men ignored me.
The sea went about its business and the moon watched impassively, like they’d both seen more interesting things. One of the men took out a syringe and uncapped it; the needle glinted, a singular fang filled with poison.
I summoned a final, desperate burst of strength and broke free of my captor. I tried to run again. He stuck his foot out and tripped me. There was a rock, hidden under the wet sand. It met my head as I fell.
After that I just lay there and looked up at the stars while my vision blurred and faded. The two men stood over me. The one with the needle knelt and reached for my hand. As he did so, all their attention was on me.
So it was that I was the only one who saw the shadow rising from the sea, almost impossibly large, blotting out a third of the stars I could see, dripping water from its silvery scales. Rising silently from the water. Eyes like stars themselves. Reaching down with claws like ancient stone pillars, its tail like a mighty serpent twisting through the air.
I felt the needle in my arm and felt ice flowing inside me, coursing through my veins, making my eyelids too heavy to hold open.
The shadow’s great hand reached down toward us.
And then, right before my vision went dark, I saw that what I had taken for a tail was not a tail at all, for it was growing out of the shadow’s back.
The world went black.
Then I heard the screams.
And then I was gone.
When I woke up, it was morning and I was alone on the beach, except for the birds on the rocks and the ones swooping over the waves. I sat up slowly, looked around me. I saw no one.
But there, on the sand in front of me: an empty syringe, its needle caked with fine grains of sand. I picked it up and examined it closely. I turned and looked out at the sea. It was so calm today. So peaceful.
I got to my feet and started walking.
The old man with the third hand was sitting right where I’d left him the day before. He was rocking gently in his chair, head turned toward me, watching as I approached. My blanket, as I’d already come to think of the beach towel, was spread out on the sand beside him.
I sat down by the old man. His third arm rested casually over the back of his rocking chair. The breeze ran through his clothes, making them flutter on his frame. I leaned back and felt the sun on my face, my neck, my arms. I pushed my toes into the sand and wriggled them. A beach, I realized, is an in-between place. Neither sea nor land, it belongs to both and it belongs to neither. It belongs to no one, but it belongs to everyone.
“I can’t go back home,” I said.
The old man with the third hand looked down at me, and then he smiled, and then he said, “You can stay here with me.”
After that, we just sat on the beach and looked out toward the sea.