Nezumi opened his lips, and his line came out as an exhale of cool breath.
His left hand, outstretched in front of him, had two words written on it in hasty, slanted handwriting.
Nezumi stared at the words, half expecting them to disappear the moment after he read them, but they remained on his hand, dark black ink standing out on pale skin and only more illuminated by the spotlight shining over him.
“My dearest love!”
The shout called Nezumi’s attention from the scribbled words on the back of his hand to his castmate, who stared at him meaningfully.
“My dearest love,” the castmate repeated, slowly and deliberately in a way that was mildly annoying, though Nezumi didn’t feel as annoyed as he’d expected.
He was confused, more than anything.
Of all things, knitting needles?
“Duncan comes here tonight,” the castmate was continuing, just as slowly, and Nezumi took a breath, looked out into the empty chairs where his audience would fill that night.
At least, Nezumi thought, the first time he ever missed a line was during a dress rehearsal rather than a performance that mattered.
He took a breath, straightened up. “And when goes hence?” he asked, in just the right pentameter, just the right cadence.
He’d been thrown off, admittedly, but only for a moment, hardly even that.
The rest of rehearsal went perfectly, and Nezumi did not look at the words on his hand again until he almost forgot they were there in the first place.
Shion exited the arts and crafts store satisfied and eager to get home.
He strung the handles of the shopping bag over his right wrist, then lifted the sleeve of his left to check his watch.
He had enough time to get home and help his mother with the last batch of customers at the bakery before helping her close for the night.
A pull of his jacket sleeve covered his watch again, but not the words he’d written on the back of his hand during his last meeting at the lab, and he stared at them now, stopping so abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk that he almost tripped over his own jarred momentum.
It had not even occurred to him, scribbling the sudden idea for Safu’s Christmas present on the back of his hand when he was meant to be measuring ten milligrams of hydrogen peroxide, that this was the first time he had ever written on his skin.
That these were the first words that his soulmate would receive from him.
Shion cupped his right hand over his lips, the newly bought needles in his shopping bag jostling merrily, his exhales hot into his palm as he stared at his handwriting.
He almost wanted to laugh.
What a ridiculous set of first words.
Coworkers at his lab had been conversing with their soulmates through their skin for years. Shion knew of one coworker who drafted letters on notebook paper before transcribing them on her right thigh for her soulmate to read nightly, receiving letters on her left thigh in return.
The idea of a soulmate intrigued Shion, but he was too busy to deal with the stress of communicating with his just yet. He certainly hadn’t meant to, with his knitting needles. He’d completely forgotten about SSTC – Soulmate Skin-Transmission Communication – when he’d written on himself, and the thought of his obliviousness had him actually laughing into his palm.
Too focused on work, his coworkers loved to accuse him of being, and now, he had to agree. No one else he knew could just forget about SSTC. It wasn’t something a person forgot.
Shion shook his head, took his hand away from his lips, and continued the twenty-minute walk to his mother’s bakery. Wind pulled at his hair and slipped up his jacket sleeves. Shion curled his shoulders beneath his coat, shoved his hands into his pockets, his bag of knitting needles for Safu flicking against his thigh with each step.
Shion had never been concerned with SSTC. He was young, in the heat of his career as a biomedical researcher. Time for soulmates could come later.
His soulmate, after all, had never written to Shion either. SSTC was a two-way street, but it had never occurred to Shion that he would be the one to write the first word – or words, as was the case.
He tilted his face up, felt as the season’s first flakes of snow slipped over his skin. People thought about their first SSTC words for days, weeks, months, sometimes even years. Shion had considered what his might be before, but never very seriously, never with much thought.
Even so, knitting needles were not what he had in mind.
Shion licked his lips, feeling as they chapped in the wintry wind, and figured it was too late to change his first words now anyway.
No use to dwell on them.
Nezumi’s mug of tea was cooling in his palms. He wanted to heat it up, but knew to leave the sanctuary of blankets on his mattress would risk the chill of his apartment.
He stayed where he was, sipping the lukewarm liquid between pages of the novel propped against his bent knees.
On the third chapter of Sense and Sensibility, Nezumi turned a page of his worn paperback to again notice the words on the back of his hand, now because they seemed to be shifting.
He watched with some degree of fascination before realizing they were not shifting – the words were fading, in quick sweeps of erasure.
Nezumi stared for a moment, then set down his mug, sat up, and touched the skin of his hand as though he might feel the words before they left completely.
His skin felt the same. Cold. Unremarkable.
On lifting his fingers, Nezumi saw that he could hardly read the hasty script. Knitting needles could barely be made out, and then it was gone completely, though Nezumi squinted still, as though he might uncover it once more if only his eyes could readjust.
Pale skin remained pale, empty. Nezumi glanced away, at the small alarm clock on the wooden chair he left next to his bed to use as a nightstand.
Ten past midnight.
So his soulmate was a late sleeper too.
Nezumi narrowed his eyes. Felt strange to be thinking of his soulmate like this, as if Nezumi might know anything about this person who bothered writing knitting needles as their first SSTC.
It’s not like Nezumi thought about first SSTC’s like a lot of people wasted their time doing – seemed to find enjoyable, even – but even he had expected something better than knitting needles.
Nezumi took Sense and Sensibility from his lap and placed it on the floor beside his empty mug. He turned off the lamp on his makeshift nightstand, then laid on his back in the darkness.
A moment passed, and Nezumi outstretched his left arm straight up from his body, in front of his face. His eyes adjusted to the dark of the room to see the emptiness of the back of his palm, which had never seemed empty before those two ridiculous words blemished it for just a few hours.
Shion rubbed his sudsy loufa over the back of his empty palm once more, just in case.
The steam of the shower had him sweating, but he didn’t lower the heat of the spray.
The heat slipped into his skin, loosened his muscles, and Shion knew it would tire him, make it easier to fall asleep.
It was late, but Shion was used to racing thoughts, ideas he had that could not wait until morning. For the first time, Shion considered that his thoughts before sleep might center around something other than work.
Might center around knitting needles. Or, not quite those words, but the eyes that might have read them today, noticed them scrawled in Shion’s rushed handwriting.
There had been no reply to Shion’s knitting needles, but that wasn’t altogether surprising.
They weren’t really an easy sort of SSTC to reply to. Even Shion wasn’t sure how he’d react if he’d seen such a thing written over the back of his hand in a handwriting that wasn’t his own.
He would probably think his soulmate was insane.
Shion smiled in the shower spray. He didn’t mind if his soulmate thought he was insane. He realized that just the thought of his soulmate thinking of him at all had a certain heat thrilling through his body that had nothing to do with the hot water of his shower.
He tried to peg down the twinge of his body, the odd contentment spreading over his skin as he finally turned to shut off the water.
In the steam of his shower that lingered in a thick fog until Shion opened the shower curtain to disperse it, Shion thought he figured out what his strange feeling might be.
Anticipation. Or something better, even – Hope.
He hadn’t planned on communicating with his soulmate, but now that he had, Shion knew his life would not – could not – be the same.
His SSTC had begun. Even for Shion – a vehement workaholic, as his coworkers teased him of being – there was excitement in the prospect of finally meeting the person he was destined to spend the rest of his life in love with.
After knitting needles, Nezumi’s life remained the same.
This was not surprising. Nezumi was not concerned with his soulmate. Just another person in the world. No real connection but for SSTC, and what did skin transmission ability have to do with love anyway?
It was a genetic mutation. Some fault in the human genome that happened to be replicated exactly in one other person in the world. Nezumi still was unsure how people had tricked themselves into thinking gene sequence could have anything at all to do with some sort of happily ever after.
Nezumi did not write back to knitting needles. He had nothing to say to knitting needles. Nothing to say to his soulmate.
Two weeks passed, and Nezumi forgot about the words completely, even stopped checking his palm as if they might reappear.
“If you did not care, you would not bring it up at least once per conversation. Simply write something else, Shion, and let me get back to work,” Safu complained.
The public library was louder than usual. Shion couldn’t concentrate on the dissertation he was studying, hopeful for insights on the cure for systemic lupus erythematosus he and his team at the lab had been working on for five years.
Shion rested his cheek on his hand, peered at his friend who was typing on her laptop with a speed that suggested that by the end of the night she’d be done the academic textbook on the psychoanalysis of the ideological and indoctrinated mind that she was drafting.
“I don’t care! I just think it’s weird nothing has happened. It’s been two weeks since knitting needles, Safu. Usually, within two weeks of starting SSTC you’ve already met your soulmate!”
Safu glared up from the top of her laptop screen, then sighed and closed it.
“Usually, SSTC doesn’t start on accident when writing down Christmas present ideas for a friend on your hand. Usually, SSTC continues past first communication rather than the silence you two are harboring. Usually, the soulmates are eager to see each other since birth, unlike you, Shion, who I’ve never known to even have given your soulmate half a thought,” Safu laid out.
Shion picked at his sleeve. “I have given my soulmate half a thought. It’s just not a good time, really, we’re swamped at the lab, and I think we’re finally getting somewhere with the – ”
“If it’s such a bad time for a soulmate, stop the needless obsessing with yours,” Safu interrupted shortly, opening her laptop again to indicate the end to the conversation.
Shion stared at the text of the dissertation in front of him, watched it blur.
Safu was right – as usual. Shion hadn’t even meant to write to his soulmate. He’d had no intention of starting regular communication. Even less intention of meeting his soulmate, of falling in love.
It wasn’t a good time in his career to fall in love. It was lucky, really, that nothing had come out of his knitting needles.
Shion reminded himself of this as he bent down, rummaged through his messenger bag, pulled out a black pen.
The same black pen that had produced knitting needles.
The click of the pen was jarring, reminded Shion that he didn’t know what to write, that he didn’t want to write anything anyway.
“What will you say?”
Shion looked up from his empty hand to see Safu peering over her open laptop screen.
“I don’t know,” Shion admitted.
“Let’s see. Standard first SSTC’s are, ‘Hello,’ or a similar simple greeting, your phone number so that communication can be taken off the skin, an address if you would like to be forward, your name, an ice breaker question such as to inquire what your soulmate’s favorite movie might be, a request for a date – ”
“I know what the standard first SSTC’s are, Safu,” Shion interrupted. “I already wrote my first SSTC anyway.”
“I assumed you were going to pretend the knitting needle incident didn’t happen and start over fresh,” Safu replied.
Shion looked down again at the back of his left hand, his skin empty, clear.
A click of the pen closed, a click open again, and then the tip of it pressed to his bare skin.
The number one rule when communicating with one’s soulmate, the SSTC informational committee always said, was not to worry.
Soulmates were soulmates. Every word, picture, mark, or symbol offered through SSTC only solidified that bond.
The second rule, if still nervous despite the first, was to imagine oneself speaking face-to-face with one’s soulmate – what would naturally be said?
Shion pressed the tip of his pen into his skin, watched the shallow dip of his flesh, saw the mark of ink left behind as he moved the pen.
“What are you writing?” Safu asked, closing her laptop once more to allow herself space to lean further over the table.
“What I’ve been telling my soulmate in my head since I wrote knitting needles,” Shion admitted.
He’d written the first words he could think of, when imagining himself face-to-face with his soulmate, and realized only then that these were the same words he’d been thinking daily.
He lifted his hand to show Safu when he finished, and she smiled faintly.
“That is not a standard first SSTC, Shion,” she replied, and Shion glanced at his hand.
No, it was not, but it wasn’t his first SSTC anyway.
It’s your turn to write to me.
The handwriting was less hasty, but just as slanted.
Same black ink, same placement on the back of Nezumi’s left hand.
The moment he sat down at his dressing room table and the make-up girl came over talking about trying winged eyeliner for that night’s show, Nezumi cut her off by holding his hand out.
“You need to cover this,” he replied.
Visible SSTC’s were against theater policy.
Nezumi was not particularly concerned with theater policy, but he’d enraged his manager enough by skipping practice the previous two nights, and wasn’t in the mood to be shouted at twice in one day.
“What is – ? Oh! I didn’t know you started your Soulmate Skin-Transmission Communication! Since when? Who wrote first? What did you say? Who is it?” the make-up girl chattered, and Nezumi blinked at her, amazed for a moment by her enthusiasm.
But of course, how could he forget? Everyone was smitten with the idea of soulmates. It was almost fascinating, how gullible society could be, believing in such a hoax.
“I’d love to tell you everything, but I’m running late,” Nezumi replied, adding a flash of a smile, and the make-up girl flushed and apologized quickly, removing her wide-eyed look from Nezumi’s hand to rummage through her make-up bag.
She produced a tube of SSTC cover-up, appropriate for the palest skin-shade, Nezumi noted on his glance at the label.
“You’re right, you’re right, I’m sorry. Was it the manager?” she asked, while Nezumi took the make-up bag from the table and pulled from it his eyeliner.
He leaned closer to the mirror to apply it, used to doing half his make-up thanks to his manager’s lengthy pre-show reprimands cutting his make-up time down to five minutes on most nights.
“He should be fine now, I think I managed to pull the entire stick out of his ass,” Nezumi murmured, focusing on his eyeliner as he felt the girl rubbing SSTC concealer over the back of his palm.
“The blend isn’t quite right, I’ll have to look for a lighter shade, I think they’ve got one in a different brand,” she said, dropping Nezumi’s hand, and he looked away from the mirror to glance at it.
The concealer covered the words, but the girl was right. Nezumi could clearly see the patch of make-up over his skin, a half shade too dark.
“It’s not noticeable,” he replied.
“Eve! Get your ass out there, you’ve got lines in less than a minute!” came the hiss of his manager.
Nezumi didn’t bother looking to the door of the dressing room where he knew his manager’s face would be sticking through.
“No time for wings today,” Nezumi told the make-up girl, who took the eyeliner from his fingers.
“Next time,” she promised with a smile, and Nezumi stood up, glancing back in the mirror once to make sure he hadn’t smudged his eyeliner before heading out of the dressing room towards the stage.
It was the last week of Macbeth. Afterward was the usual Christmas show his manager forced them to put on, and Nezumi wondered vaguely which would be chosen.
If it was Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer again, he was going to quit.
On stage, Nezumi delivered his lines perfectly. He glanced at his hand from time to time, noticing the slight discoloration for hardly a second before putting it out of his mind again.
Shion bent to stretch under a table, sending crumbs whisking to the corner with a sweep of his broom.
“Jetstar Japan still offers those discounted ticket prices for soulmates that save their first-meet for the holiday season. You should find out where your soulmate lives and meet a week within Christmas to save money,” Safu suggested.
Shion swept the crumbs from the corner into the pile he’d already collected by the door. “Isn’t that promotion only for flights within Japan? My soulmate might live farther away.”
“You could ask to find out.”
“I can’t ask now, I’ve already told my soulmate it’s their turn to reply. I’d look like an idiot, sending a double SSTC,” Shion sighed, straightening up and finding Safu in front of him, holding out the dust pan.
Shion took it, bent back down to brush his crumb pile into the pan.
“Hm. That is true,” Safu conceded, smiling when Shion stood up again and glanced at her. “What if your soulmate doesn’t reply?”
Shion ran a hand through his hair. He needed a haircut.
“I’m not going to dwell on this person forever. I can’t afford the distraction,” Shion replied, and Safu tilted her head.
“It’s not just a person, Shion, it’s your soulmate,” she teased, stressing the word and waggling her eyebrows, and Shion laughed.
“Soulmates are supposed to be the other half of your soul. It’s a concept based on an ancient Greek myth, where people were created with two faces, four arms, and four legs. Zeus feared they had too much power, and the people were split in half, left to roam around searching for the other who would complete them.” Shion shrugged. “I don’t feel incomplete. So really, I have no great desperation to meet this person.”
Safu smiled, stepped past Shion and elbowed him as she did so. “I always did like how you refused to give in to society’s brainwashing and the obsession of soulmates. You almost had me worried for a second,” she said, heading to the door, and Shion turned to watch her, holding the dustpan steady so no crumbs could escape.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?” he asked, and Safu waved, halfway out the door, the bell rattling above it cheerily when she opened it.
“Coffee on me! Don’t be late, I’ve got a meeting afterward,” Safu called, and then she was gone.
Through the glass window, Shion caught the huddle of Safu’s shoulders beneath her coat, the toss of her hair by the wind.
He watched her until she was out of sight, then looked again at his hand, as if a reply might have found itself onto his skin, but still, there was only his unanswered statement.
It’s your turn to write to me.
Safu had never had any interest in meeting her soulmate, or even communicating through SSTC. Her soulmate, apparently, had no interest either, seeing as they never began SSTC with her, and Shion always liked this symmetry, found that it was some proof of soulmates – two soulmates would both have the same opinions on the frivolity of SSTC, wouldn’t they?
It was the same with Shion and his soulmate, he’d always thought. Most people began SSTC at young ages, met up around their teens, at the very least by the time they reached twenty.
Shion was twenty-four. Soulmates were usually the same age, or around it, though there were of course news articles on the rare soulmate pairing that was ten years apart, or twenty, even thirty.
Another look at his hand, and Shion shook his head, walked to the trash can with his dustpan to empty it, then finished cleaning and locking up the bakery before heading out.
The night outside was a sharp sort of cold with raking wind. Shion curled himself away from it, walking with quick steps, eager to be inside again.
In the morning, It’s your turn to write to me was gone.
There was nothing in its place on the back of Nezumi’s hand; Nezumi noticed the new message in the shower.
It was scrawled in cramped writing higher up this time, on his arm below his left shoulder, just high enough that a t-shirt sleeve might have hidden it.
Nezumi blinked at the large mass of it after attempting to scrub it out, then realized that it was not some strange dirt but an SSTC – and a long one, at that, practically a novel. He washed the conditioner out of his hair, turned off the shower spray, and stepped out of the shower, drying off his skin and dressing in sweats and an undershirt before attempting to read it, having to twist his neck in an annoying way to do so.
I don’t care to speak to someone who does not wish to speak with me. My first SSTC to you was an accident, as I had no intention of speaking to you as yet. But now that I have, I can’t seem to stop thinking about you, which is distracting me from my work, and I’m at an important development period. It’s inconvenient. If you could give me one word to indicate whether you would like to communicate at this time or not, that would be appreciated. Otherwise, I’ll assume not, but I rather dislike making assumptions. Decisions based on fact are much more prudent.
Nezumi had to read the passage twice, and even then, could hardly wrap his head around it.
Was this person insane?
What kind of person complained about their soulmate distracting them from work?
I can’t seem to stop thinking about you, seemed a normal thing for a soulmate to say, but the rest was complete nonsense. The person was a lunatic who clearly had no idea how to speak to other people, not to mention his alleged soulmate.
Nezumi shook his head, looked away from his arm, and stalked into the kitchen to make himself tea, feeling somewhat disconcerted without knowing why.
The message was annoying, that was why, he figured, downing his tea when it was too hot, and he felt the skin of the roof of his mouth burn, knew it would peel.
He ground his teeth as he washed the mug, headed to his bookshelf to distract himself with reading, but two pages into Don Quixote, Nezumi was contorting his arm to read the SSTC again.
“Inconvenient?” Nezumi asked, the word ringing in his empty room. “Inconvenient is leaving marks all over my body, don’t call me inconvenient, idiot,” he muttered, not noticing that he was talking to himself aloud.
He tossed Don Quixote aside, replaced it with The Princess Bride, which got tossed as well to be replaced with Frankenstein.
Frankenstein didn’t last more than ten pages, when Nezumi was up again, stalking to the kitchen to glare into his fridge and find it just as empty as he knew it’d be.
He slammed it shut, grabbed his coat, shoved his feet in his boots, and was out the door of his apartment on the way to the market, even though he’d planned on going there on the way back from his show at noon.
If you could give me one word…
“One word? What kind of idiotic request,” Nezumi muttered, shoving his hands deep into his jacket pockets.
The cold was biting and fresh, and Nezumi regretted leaving his apartment. He got to the market quickly, picking up necessities and intending to pass by the usual SSTC shop, though after taking a step past it, he backtracked, let himself in.
The concealers were lined up on a wall by the front, and Nezumi scanned them quickly, locating the brand and shade his make-up girl had used on him, then finding beneath it a lighter shade that looked more accurate to his skin color in a different brand that was significantly pricier.
Nezumi grimaced. He wasn’t about to shell out this kind of cash for something like this.
He turned and left the shop, ignoring the salesgirl asking him if he needed assistance.
Back home, Nezumi unpacked his groceries and shed his jacket, glancing at the spiel on his arm before going into the kitchen to make eggs.
An idiot, he’d gotten stuck with an idiot.
The idea came hours later, as Nezumi was watching his make-up girl give him winged eyeliner for the midday show.
“Can I borrow that?” Nezumi asked, holding out his hand when the girl finished, and she peered at him, placing the eyeliner pencil between his fingers.
“Are they uneven? I guess the left one is a little less – What are you doing?” the girl shouted, a hand over her mouth.
“You got the new concealer that matches my skin tone, right? Should be no problem to cover up,” Nezumi replied, finishing his first SSTC, placing the eyeliner down, and glancing at his reflection in the mirror.
The word read backwards across his face due to the mirror, but was still clear.
Nezumi would show his soulmate inconvenient.
“Um,” the make-up girl hesitated, then rummaged through her bag, pulling out the new tube she’d showed Nezumi earlier that day. “Are you – Mad at your soulmate?” she asked tentatively, as she applied the concealer to Nezumi’s face, his cheeks and the bridge of his nose.
“Mad?” Nezumi asked when she finished, looking in the mirror to see that the word he’d written had disappeared completely. “At my soulmate? Of course not, unless you mean madly in love.”
“Oh. Right, ah, okay.”
Nezumi flashed a smile at the make-up girl, stood up, and left to go on stage.
It was one of the last showings of Macbeth, and he gave it his all, having to repress the smirk he felt pulling at his lips when he thought about the one word he’d offered to his soulmate.
Everyone was staring at him.
“What?” Shion asked, looking around the conference room and rubbing his nose self-consciously. He expected to be looked at while giving presentations and heading their weekly update meetings, but not in such a concentrated, wide-eyed way that had him nervous.
“Ah, your soulmate…um…”
Shion blinked at his coworker. “My soulmate? Oh – Did they write something?”
“On – On your face…”
“What does it say?” Shion asked, bewildered at both the location of his first received SSTC, as well as the sudden creep of heat from the pit of his stomach, spreading.
His soulmate had written back!
His lab team stared back at him, then quickly looked away at their notes.
“What?” Shion asked again, staring at them all in turn, but no one would look at him, so Shion shook his head, gave up on a chance of a response. “All right, I’ll be back, excuse me. I apologize for the unprofessional nature of this interruption, I was not expecting an SSTC right now.”
He left the room quickly, headed to the bathroom and saw feet away from the mirror that his SSTC was just one word, written in huge block letters over his face.
Shion blinked at his reflection. The word was reflected backwards in the mirror, but Shion could tell without a doubt what it said. He walked closer to it in slow steps, stared at his face, reached up to touch the letters gently but of course could not feel them, of course they did not budge as he rubbed his fingertips over them.
The letters were black, but Shion was unsure what sort of ink was used. It didn’t look quite like pen. Sort of chalky and liquid at the same time. Smooth and smudged.
Though he knew he could not rub it off, Shion touched each line anyway, each stroke of whatever this utensil was.
The same word had to be written over his soulmate’s face as well. Shion considered this. Perhaps his soulmate had SSTC concealer on hand.
Shion did not have SSTC concealer. It had never been necessary.
He rubbed the mark of the word once more, his fingers freezing when he caught his reflection smiling.
His soulmate had written Idiot in large, clear letters across his face. Shion wouldn’t be able to get it off, or cover it until he could buy SSTC concealer, and that would have to wait until after work.
There was no reason to be amused by such a childish prank, really, but Shion couldn’t help it.
His soulmate had written back to him.
It was irrational to feel as warm as Shion did, but there was the feeling at the core of his chest, all the same.
Thank you for responding! I hope we can continue our SSTC at a time that’s better for both of us.
It read like an automated message. This time, the slanted and increasingly familiar scrawl had found itself on the inside of Nezumi’s left forearm.
Nezumi read it in bed, the morning not fully settled as yet. He pushed his bangs from his eyes, rubbed the back of his hand over his lips. Read it again.
His soulmate was thanking him for writing Idiot across his face.
There was something incredibly wrong with this person.
Nezumi turned his head, pressed his face into his pillow for a second, then unraveled himself from his bed in a fluid motion, heading to the bathroom.
In the mirror, his face was empty. He’d washed his concealer and eyeliner Idiot off a little past midnight the night before, just before bed.
He assumed the SSTC on his forearm would be gone soon, and that his SSTC’s would cease for a while.
This was fine with Nezumi. He didn’t much care for the notion of an idiot getting to write anything on his body whenever they pleased.
How the hell was that considered romance?
Brushing his teeth, Nezumi glanced at his forearm only four times. He wondered, vaguely, and without much real curiosity, how long the words would linger there before they were washed clean, his arm left empty again.