INCOMPLETE • by Robert Swartwood


The men without faces came for his father just after dinnertime. There were two of them. They broke down the apartment door and stormed inside. His mother screamed, dropped her glass. It shattered on the floor. His father tried to fight the men but the men were very strong. They grabbed his father’s arms and legs and carried him away. His father kept shouting that he didn’t have their money. Then his father was gone, the door was slammed shut, and his mother was collapsed on the kitchen floor. She stared up at him, tears in her eyes, the shards of broken glass surrounding her, sparkling like diamonds.


That night he couldn’t sleep. He lay in bed and kept thinking about his father. His mother said she didn’t know where the men had taken him. She refused to call the police. She said that they would wait it out; his father would return, she was sure of it. And so he lay in bed and stared at the ceiling and eventually he got up for a glass of water. On the way to the kitchen he noticed the light was on in the bathroom. He crept up close to it and placed his ear against the wood. He could hear his mother’s sobbing. He started to back away but the floorboard creaked and the sobbing inside the bathroom stopped. His mother said his name. He wanted to turn, run away, pack his things and never come back. Instead he put his hand on the knob and pushed opened the door. His mother was on the tiled floor. She was leaning against the toilet. Tears were in her eyes again and there were traces of vomit around her mouth. Come here, she said, holding out her hand, but he just stood there and stared back at her. He didn’t move an inch.


The next day his father still hadn’t returned. His mother sat at the kitchen table and stirred her coffee. She wouldn’t look at him as he packed his lunch, as he made himself breakfast. Finally, when he was on his way out the door, she called his name. Have a good day, she said.


The envelope was leaning against the door when he came home from school. It was apparent there was something significant inside it. He slipped it in his backpack and went inside. The TV was on in the living room. His mother lay on the couch, sleeping. She had a damp washcloth pressed against her forehead. He thought about waking her but instead took his things to his bedroom. He closed the door. He pulled out the envelope and stared at it for a long time. Written on the side in blue ink was a simple note: TO KEEP YOU COMPANY UNTIL HE RETURNS. What he found inside when he opened it were two human thumbs. They were his father’s thumbs, cut cleanly off, bound together with a red rubber band.


He didn’t tell his mother. He didn’t throw the thumbs away. What he did was wrapped them in a paper towel, placed them in a plastic bag, and kept them in his bottom dresser drawer. In the mornings he would pull the bag out and put it in his pants pocket. He knew that to anyone else it would seem morbid. But no one else understood his father like he did. And so he kept his father’s thumbs in his pocket and during the day, when he felt lonely and incomplete, he would reach into his pocket and feel the thumbs and have a sense of fulfillment.


His father returned two days later. One night there was a knock at the door. When they opened it his father lay on the ground. His face was swollen and bloody, his hands wrapped in dirty gauze. They had to drag him into the living room, position him against the couch. His mother placed a pillow beneath his head. He opened his mouth to speak but his mother placed her finger against his lips. Shh, she said. Shh.


Nothing was the same after that. His father had become a different person. He hardly ever spoke. He never smiled. For meals his mother would have to help feed him, because he could no longer use his utensils. More than once he caught his father crying for no good reason. His father would sense him and look up and shake his head. They just didn’t listen to me, he would sob. They just didn’t listen.


His father began to drink more and more. He would sit in front of the television and raise the beer bottles to his lips using both hands. By doing this his father looked like a seal. He would drink and drink and eventually would pass out with the TV still on. And every time this happened and his mother put on her shoes and did her hair and left the apartment, he would stand there in the living room and watch over his father. He had been forced to throw away the thumbs; they had grown much too dry and had begun to peel, and as he flushed them he had cried and cried. But standing there, the TV bouncing light behind him, he would remember that first night his father fell asleep and his mother left, how he had taken the thumbs and a roll of tape and slowly approached his snoring father. His father had been sleeping with his hands on his chest, his hands that no longer looked like hands. He attached first one thumb to its proper place, then the other. Then he had stood back and looked at his father and felt content that at least for that moment his father was complete again.

Robert Swartwood‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Postscripts, Chizine, Space and Time, elimae, Hobart, and The Best of Boston Literary Magazine. His story “Between the Keys” was a finalist for the 2nd Annual Micro Award. He currently has a thriller novella available for free at

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