The itch began on Caroline’s right palm as she changed her bed linens. Stuffing a pillow into its newly laundered case, she felt a tickle swirl around her wrist, then dart up her life line and back. She ran her hand across her jeans, still stiff from the dryer, thinking the taut fabric would take care of the itch, yet it persisted. By mid-morning, it had continued to the point of irritation.
“Isn’t there an old wives’ tale about an itchy palm?” Caroline said to her husband, Joe, the fingernails of her left hand gently raking the flesh of the right. The Sunday paper was just-finished folded, its shuffled-order stack ready for the recycling bin. Joe stood at the sink, still in his rumpled pajamas, and rinsed their coffee mugs. “It’s reminding me of something my mother used to say, but I’m not remembering it correctly. Something about if the left palm itched it meant you were going to come into some money. And if the right palm itched, then …”
“Maybe you’re going to owe someone else money?” Joe shrugged. He shook some kibble into the dog’s food bowl, then filled its companion with fresh water. “That sounds vaguely familiar. Or, you know, it could just mean you have an itchy palm.”
She nudged him aside at the sink and stuck her hand under the cool faucet. Caroline could feel the memory receding even as she tried to recall it, the adage’s details growing fainter as she tried to grip them in her mind’s eye. She dried her hands with a dishtowel. “No matter. Maybe I’ll remember it later.”
She whistled for Tony, then clipped on his leash and headed out toward the park. Outside, on the sunny path, she extended her palm upward to get a closer look. No mosquito bites, no poison ivy, no rash of any kind. She rested the leash’s end in her hand, letting the friction gently tease out whatever was plaguing her, just under the skin’s surface.
While Joe had speculated, the truth was that she did already owe money. And while he knew this in theory, she alone knew the total amount: Three months of student loan bills accumulated in her desk drawer, unopened, unpaid, the fourth anticipated to arrive this week. Three months had been relatively easy to ignore, and easy to justify: no job, no means to pay, she’d pay next month once she had started working. Deferment, though, was no longer an option. Time for a new story, or an actual plan of attack.
Three months of looking the other way had been reckless, in her rationale, yet not so damaging as couldn’t be fixed. But four months held her in a panic. A few calls from the loan agencies had come to her cell phone, the dreaded past-due reminders, which she sent straight to voicemail; each message more urgent in tone than the one that preceded it. She couldn’t afford to be careless much longer.
At the park, she let Tony run loose, and jogged after to him to the duck pond. The dog always gave chase, but being a kind soul, gave the ducks and geese a wide berth. Occasionally, he would misgauge their speed and get within snapping distance, but in doing so would always screech to a halt, his eyes surprised at his miscalculation. Caroline never called after him, confident that she and Joe had trained him well. His pattern would be to run after the fowl for a good five to ten minutes, then return on his own volition, spent and sated.
She sat down and dipped her hand to the pond’s edge, its coolness offering temporary relief. Across the water, she could see the birds scatter like a monochrome firework, Tony’s barks echoing back from his joyful pursuit.
Two years ago, going for a master’s degree had seemed the appropriate next step for a thirty-year-old with a liberal arts degree. After eight years in the workforce, Caroline sought change, regardless of cost. At the informational seminar for the graduate program, the director had talked up the career preparatory courses, and downplayed the price, emphasizing the grants available within the financial aid program. Caroline, however, received no grants. No matter, she had thought as she filled out her loan applications.
“I can’t guarantee you’ll get a grant,” the director had said during the introductory information session for potential students. “But I can guarantee your degree will get you a job.”
Who says that in this economy? Caroline had thought. No one says that, and sent her deposit in to secure her seat.
The mythology had continued in her classes as well. “When your prospective employers see Sturgill on your resume, you’ll immediately jump to the top of their list,” more than one professor had said.
“Companies consider it a real honor to hire our graduates.”
“This degree is a great decision toward living the life you want.”
Immersed in her coursework, she had believed every promise, because she desperately wanted to. Today, though, she felt foolish, realizing she had succumbed to what was, in reality, just marketing.
“Thirty years,” she murmured, letting the figure roll around her tongue, the roof of her mouth. It was too big to comprehend, such a disproportionate figure—thirty years of bills resulting from six years of study. Hell, it was just one year less than her age. She tried to picture her next thirty years, the windowed envelope arriving in the mail every month, or the alert sitting in her email inbox, regardless of where she would live, work, and the company she would keep.
Would she recognize herself in thirty years? Would this bill, and all its related choices required to pay it—work, family planning, mobility— take her in a direction wholly different had she somehow culled together a debt-free life?
Tony came trotting around the pond, carrying something in his mouth. He sprinted to Caroline, then dropped his cargo at her side. A duckling; its wing askew like a mast from a sailboat. Caroline shrieked and scampered to her feet. The dog looked at her quizzically, and nudged his offering closer to her sneaker.
“No!” she said, firm, trying to quell her shock and surprise. She pointed to the corpse, unsure if the dog had killed it himself or had found it already dead. She didn’t like the implications either way. “No!” she said again, and Tony backed away.
She clipped the leash back on the dog and covered the duck with a pile of leaves.
Back at the house, she could hear Joe’s stereo blaring from the basement. The bass rumbled against the ancient hardwood floors, like a train passing just underneath.
The dog went straight for his bowl, scarfing down what remained, then went to the water dish and lapped greedily. She hadn’t spoken a word on the way home, even let him tug on the leash, the friction from the cord a relief on her still-itchy palm. So what if she and Joe had been intent on reinforcing calm during the walks? She reasoned one lapse wouldn’t undo months of training.
Although she wasn’t sure what to think, after seeing the dead duckling. Pure animal instinct, her head thought, or perhaps good-natured play that had turned fatal. Her heart, though, had been shocked at the reminder that a once-wild creature shared her living space, that as sweet as the dog might be, there was always an underlying drive that could override the most diligent training. That both elements—the trained dog, the wild dog—were an inseparable part of her pet. One very much hers, the other unrecognizable, coexisting within the same body.
The dog rolled over onto his back, snuffling as he worked out an itch against the floorboards. He worked his way over to just about where the speaker would be, and rolled over a few times, using the undulating bass for assistance. He paused mid-scratch, then looked up at her, expectant.
“No way, Tony,” Caroline said. “I’m not helping you out, you wicked killer.”
The stack of mail sat on the kitchen counter, with a thick envelope on top. Caroline recognized the bank’s logo in the left corner. Her right palm blazed. What was the expression? Ducklings home to roost?
Chickens, she corrected herself.
The truth was she didn’t feel any wiser, nor had the degree conveyed more certainty or confidence. She had been well trained, and yet. She still felt some type of wild urge within her, still wanting, a drive foreign and mysterious and inexplicable. She was still ready for a change.
The otherwise-unremarkable bill rested among catalogs, solicitations, mass-mailers of coupons and food delivery services. She picked it up and headed to her office, and removed the desk drawer containing the compiled envelopes. A quick mental tally—four months out of 360—already felt substantial in her hands.
The first three went easily through her shredder, the metallic teeth transforming the paper, glue, and plastic window film into confetti. In a different setting, they too could have been celebratory, tossed from roofs and out of windows at a parade, filling the streets like pulpy snowbanks. A few months prior, she had been in the crowds for a neighborhood parade, and she returned home covered in bits of paper. They clung to her hair, dotted her coat. Weeks afterward, she’d occasionally find a single scrap lingering in the recesses of her shoes, her purse.
The gears continued to grind, even without something to chew. Caroline placed the last envelope flat on the lid, her right palm resting just atop it. Her breath caught in her throat, as the buffered vibration offered just the slightest shred of relief.
Sarah Pascarella is a Boston-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Travelers’ Tales, The Boston Globe, and USA Today, among other publications. She has a Master’s in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College. Her novel, The Virgin Mary Hotline can be found here. She is currently at work on her second novel.