Phila Bristow’s hands had a mind of their own. Every time she broke a rule, they would jump straight off her body to tell her mother. And that was on a good day. Much like humans, hands are susceptible to making poor choices, such as attempting to light a liar’s pants on fire just to be ironic. Which meant that Phila had been to five different schools in the last five years. One time, Phila let a classmate glance at her paper for a fraction of a second, and her hands detached from her body and ripped the paper off her desk. Then, they hopped from desk to desk chanting, “Cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater,” before jumping out the window to run home and tell her mother. The other students, including the ones she’d thought were her friends, screamed and backed away from her. Mrs. Tweedle, Phila’s English teacher, started shrieking and throwing pencils at her. On her less charitable days, Phila liked to imagine Mrs. Tweedle ending up in a small village in Guatemala, teaching the ancient art of throat singing to underprivileged parrots. And then there were times her hands said things Phila didn’t even believe. When Phila was ten her hands started a nasty rumor about her best friend, even though it was Phila’s hands who did the dirty deed. But did anybody believe her? Absolutely not. After that she started concealing her hands with mittens every time she left the house.
Now, Phila and her mother were living in Abbot, Maine–a town with more caribou than people.
On this particular Tuesday evening in January, Phila was at the public library hoping to keep her hands out of trouble. Phila hated books and she hated libraries. But her mom said that she just had to meet new people, educate herself, be more social, and blah, blah, blah. Sometimes Phila wished that she could live by herself in a cozy little mountain cabin–that way she could make her own decisions, and she would never have to talk to other people. Maybe then she wouldn’t get hurt all of the time.. She wouldn’t have to hide her hands from the world.
The bookshelves were dust-covered and the room smelled of old parchment. Phila felt like she was inside Hogwarts–she looked over Taylor’s shoulder just to see if Hedwig would glide through the revolving doors. The Harry Potter movies were her favorite–but she had never read the books.
Phila pulled off her mittens and glowered at her hands, “You better behave,” she threatened. “I don’t want another incident like last time.”
“Which one?” her right hand giggled. There was a mouth on the palm of each hand. The mouths looked like abyssal, gaping holes with sharp, pointy teeth. The inside was black and her hands did not have tongues. Sometimes when Phila was bored she’d draw eyes right above her palms. She thought it looked creepy for her hands to not have eyes.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” Phila said. “ I don’t want people to think I’m weird.”
“You could start by not talking to yourself,” someone said.
“Who is that?” Phila jumped in surprise.
“Hi, I’m Taylor,”said a boy about thirteen years old, like Phila.
“I’m Phila.” She dug her nails into her palm. “I just moved here.” Taylor held out his hand, but Phila put her hands in her pockets.
“Do they not shake hands where you’re from?”
“I don’t like hands,” Phila said. They stood in the short story section of the library. She sat criss-cross apple-sauced on the floor and looked up at him.
“You don’t like hands? That’s a new one,” Taylor smiled.
“Can’t you find some other girl to annoy?” Phila snapped.
“What kinds of books do you read?” Taylor asked.
“Did I not make myself clear?” Phila raised her voice.
“Fine!” Taylor tossed a book onto the table and walked off.
Phila’s left hand spoke up. “Rude, much?”
“Shut up,” Phila hissed. “I wouldn’t have to do things like that if it weren’t for you.”
“Oh, sure. You set someone’s pants on fire one time, and suddenly you’re ‘untrustworthy.’ ” Phila’s right hand said.
“Would you both shut up?! You know it’s more than that,” Phila said. She examined the book Taylor had given her. The front cover showed a boy and a girl standing next to a painting. Both of them appeared to be in mid-scream. Phila opened the book and started reading.
On Planet Levagor, the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. Levagor has five moons, and magic is available for a select few individuals. The patriarchy has been demolished by an army of beluga whales. People exercise intelligence and common sense. Things are not how they seem; things are never the way they seem. At the edge of this world is a line between nothing and everything, and if you’re not careful, you might just fall in.
Phila tore through the book as if she were unwrapping a present. She continued reading.
“Help me!” my little brother cried.
I extended my arm, but it was too late. My brother was nowhere to be seen. Then all of a sudden, he appeared in the painting. The painting was of a golden desert, each rolling hill of sand like a wave pummelling the ocean. The only thing awry was the long, black, snake-like monster with no eyes. Sharp fangs filled its giant, oval-shaped mouth. I saw my brother frozen on the canvas, trying to escape the monster’s clutches.
“Alex, I’m coming!” I shrieked. I leaped into the painting and felt the warm, stale breath of the monster on the back of my neck.
“The library is about to close,” a voice said. Phila looked up from her book. It was Taylor.
“ I’ve only been reading a few minutes,” Phila protested.
Taylor laughed. “A good book can play tricks on your mind.”
“Why are you being so nice to me?” Phila asked. She was sure this was some sort of cruel joke.
“Why wouldn’t I be nice?” Taylor asked.
“I have to go,” Phila said. She rushed over to the librarian, checked out her book, and didn’t look back.
It was snowing much harder than earlier. Phila ran home at full speed; she wanted to finish the book she’d been reading. When Phila reached her house, she checked how fast she’d run. Five minutes. A personal best. She puffed up her chest–until she saw that she had four missed calls from her mother.
“Hah, you’re so dead,” Phila’s left hand snorted.
“I think you’re better off diving into a lake full of piranhas than going in there,” Phila’s right hand snickered.
“Philomena Alexandria Bristow!” Phila’s mother shrieked as she opened the door. Phila’s mother was unfathomably tall; she stood as if she were queen of the world. Her stony expression said that if anyone thought otherwise, she better keep her mouth shut. Her mom got the height, she got the hands; they were a family of freaks.
Phila felt goosebumps creeping up her arms and legs. “Yes, Mom?”
“You’re an hour and a half late!” She threw her hands in the air. “I’ve called you multiple times, and you never answered me.”
“I’m sorry. I lost track of time. I was reading this great book about a painting and a monster and an alternate universe…” Phila rambled.
“I don’t care if you were juggling knives while riding on a unicycle! Actually, I would care. Don’t juggle knives. It’s dangerous!” Her voice grew quieter. “I was worried sick about you. I thought you were dead in a ditch somewhere! Don’t you ever scare me like that again.”
Phila put her book bag on the dining room table, “Oh, Mom. I’m sure if I were dead in a ditch, my hands would let you know. They do tell you everything.”
“Speaking of which,” Phila’s mom said. “Hands, why didn’t you tell Phila that she was running late?”
“I was taking a nap,” Phila’s left hand spoke up.
“I was brushing my pet wombat’s fur!” Phila’s right hand exclaimed.
Her mom raised an eyebrow, “And since when do you like to read?”
Phila rolled her eyes, “I don’t, mom. Leave me alone!” And with that, Phila set her backpack down by the stairs and went to her room.
Phila wondered why her hands were lying to her mom. Why hadn’t they warned her about being late?
The next day at school, her hands were calmer than usual. They twitched once when she doodled giant fangs onto a circle in her geometry worksheet, but surprisingly, they didn’t cause a scene.
Phila went back to the library after school. She was looking for something by the same author as the book Taylor had given her, when she heard a familiar voice.
“You’re absolutely esoteric.” Taylor leaned against the bookshelf.
“Why are you always here anyway? Don’t you have a life?” Phila asked.
“Do you even know the meaning of the word esoteric?” Taylor asked
Phila wrinkled her nose in frustration, “No,” she said, as she crossed her arms. She couldn’t stand not knowing something.
“It means to be understood by few, to be mysterious and unique,” Taylor said. “Maybe you just need to find the people who get you. Here, try this one.” He handed her another book and walked away before Phila could respond.
Phila opened the book, and once again, her hands were quiet the whole time.
Phila became a regular at the library. Taylor kept suggesting books, and sometimes she gave him books. Her hands kept quiet. They seemed to be as enthralled with the adventures in the books as she was; they had lost interest in running off to light her classmates’ pants on fire. For the first time, Phila felt free and whole, not tied to her hands like a marionette on a string. Her hands became a part of her, and she was no longer ashamed of them.