By Keith LaFountaine
A ragged sweater sodden with blood was the only thing keeping Andrew Jones alive. From the end of the stump came jets of crimson. He moaned, loud and hard. Surrounding him were voices, so many voices. Jake carried him forward, with the help of a few other guys, but it was Jake who barked orders. Jake who noticed the machine’s clobbering crunch crunch. Jake who rushed over and pulled off his plastic coverings, had ripped off his sweater, wrapping it around the thing that had once been Andrew’s hand.
Christ, Andrew thought as scarlet delirium set in. How’m I gonna grab my prick now?
His Ma always told him not to take an ambulance. Take a walk, take a cab, take an Uber, just don’t take an ambulance. His throat and mouth were dry, and his tongue felt like a heap of cotton, stretched thin to be some horrible hybrid between item and flesh. He tried with valiance to call out to Jake – he’d be the one who listened to Ma’s advice. But his voice died in his throat. God, the pain was brilliant. A thousand stars could burst in the universe right then, and the heat they produced wouldn’t touch the agonizing pain in his arm.
Onto a stretcher. Straps down. Clank clap. Like some horrible rollercoaster. Some demented ride from Hell. A lady with kind blue eyes and heavily chewed lips pulled at the sweater. Another rip-roaring shot of pain lanced up his arm, and the scream next was so grating and terrible, Andrew passed out.
Andrew to my colleagues, Andy to my friends, Andrew Damion Jones to my mother when I steal a C-note from her purse.
He awoke seconds later. The woman was pretty in a severe way. But maybe he thought that because she was saving his life. She said something about his vitals, and her eyes were downcast in a way that Andrew inferred his ride in the ambulance might be a one-off. What a way to go up to the Pearly Gates – twisting around on the highway, moving around some jerk-off on I-89, rushing to the hospital out in Burlington, all just to die on the stretcher. He laughed, the sound jerking out of his throat in wet slaps.
Then he was spiraling, away, away. Into the nothingness. Into the void. Pops was there. Pops with his bright smile and his worn hands and the streak of crimson in his chest: the blood from when his heart burst. Painting a fence and his heart burst. Christ, the world was a dangerous place. But dangerous in the most innocuous way. Dangerous because it got you when you felt safe.
They put something in his other arm, something that made the back of his throat hot. He squirmed as they slid him into the ambulance, and Jake’s voice, faint but audible, called out, “I’ll meet you there, buddy!”
Pops smiling. Darkness. And then he was gone.
Beep. Beep. Beep. The sound of a droning machine.
Andrew opened his eyes, and a clot of dark panic swelled in his chest. Sitting beside his bed was not his Mom, not Jake, but Christina – his boss. She was reading a magazine that detailed the bitter dissolution of Jennifer Aniston’s marriage. With interest, he noted. Her eyes were focused, her lips pinched together.
The next swat of fear came when Andrew looked down at his arm. It was gone, now just a mess of white bandages stained with dark blood. Still, he felt like he could wriggle fingers if he wanted to. As if his hand was still there, in some way.
Christina looked up from the magazine, and a wide smile spread across her pale face. Ruby red lipstick slathered her lips, and crimson spots stained her top two teeth.
“Welcome back,” she said in a soft voice. As if reading his mind, she said, “Don’t worry – Jake was around. I told him to go home, though. It’s been a few days. You were off and on. Didn’t want him to drop dead and not be able to come by for his shift, you know?”
What happened? The drugs in this place were good. Hell, he could taste them on his tongue, which now felt fuzzy and thick. He looked around the room. The walls were plastered with different notices, some about used needles, some about hospital policy, some about patient resources.
“You had an accident at work,” Christina continued. “Jake saved your life with that sweater of his. I bought him a new one – seemed like the least I could do.”
“What a fucking saint,” Andrew mumbled. He realized his mistake as soon as the words were past his lips. Drugs, man. They fucked you up in more ways than one.
“Yes, well,” Christina said, pinching her lips together. “I’m here in a dual capacity. Personal and professional support.”
“Here to serve me my worker’s comp papers?” Andrew asked, uttering a thin laugh. His throat burned.
“Well, actually I’m here to offer you a choice,” Christina said. She leaned forward and clasped her hands together, plopping her elbows on her knees. “We can do the worker’s comp thing, but that takes forever to process. Plus, you only get two-thirds pay, you have to cover medical expenses on your own, and you can’t work while on it. Say you feel better in two months, but you’re still getting comped. That means you need to sit at home, collecting two-thirds pay, no matter how you feel about the situation.”
Andrew sucked in breath. It rattled around in his lungs like a rusty pinball. “Really laying it on thick there.”
Christina brushed by his comment. Her eyes twinkled. “There’s another option, though. I speak for the owners when I say the entirety of Mac’s Packing House feels terrible about what happened to you. That’s why we want to offer you a unique opportunity and pay for it.”
Something struck Andrew in his gut then. They were going to fight him if he applied for worker’s comp. He didn’t know how, nor did he know what his legal options were should they do so, but he knew they would.
“What’s this offer?” he asked, even as the question coated his throat with sour vomit.
“There’s a new type of prosthetic. More fluid, more dexterous, capable of providing you with the same level of mobility you enjoyed prior. With this prosthetic, you’d be back at work in no time. And…” She paused, mostly for dramatic effect, Andrew presumed. “We want to pay you double what you were making before. That’s a raise of ten dollars an hour. You can consider it our sincerest apologies for what happened.”
Staring into her eyes, Andrew realized what his real choices were. If he went on worker’s comp, they’d fire him. Quick and simple. Sure, they’d pay out his money, but, as she said, they’d only be paying out two-thirds of what he made. Even that small decrease was sure to earn him an exciting knock on the door in a matter of months – his landlord with the coiffed hair and the thousand-dollar smile informing him of the eviction notice he had to serve.
“Fine,” Andrew grumbled. “I’ll do it.”
“Wonderful,” Christina said. “Wonderful.” She stood, dropping the magazine on the chair, and gathered up her purse, swinging it over her arm. “I’ll be in touch.”
The room was empty again, save for the machine, its beep beep beep.
Jake’s face was ablaze with astonishment and excitement when Andrew walked into the break room three weeks later. Finishing off the BLT that served as his dinner, he leaped out of his chair when Andrew opened the door.
“Holy shit!” he yelled. “I thought you were a goner, buddy.” He wrapped Andrew up in a tight hug. “Christina didn’t let us see you. Said you had a long road ahead.” He lowered his voice and glanced at the break room door. “Hell, I thought they were gonna dump you onto worker’s comp and then send you to the unemployment farm upstate, you know what I mean? Yet here you are.”
“And I got this, on their dime,” Andrew said, pulling out of the hug and holding his new hand aloft. The metal glimmered under the fluorescent lights.
“Hell, look at you!” Jake exclaimed. “A regular Inspector Gadget! How does it feel?”
“Feels fine,” Andrew said, shrugging. He displayed its capabilities quickly, curling the metal fingers into a fist, then unfurling it one finger at a time until all that was left was the universal symbol used by road raging drivers.
Jake slapped him on the back playfully. “Yeah, back at ya, buddy. Thought I’d lost you. So, what. Is it battery-powered or something?”
“Nope,” Andrew said. He tapped the side of his head. “Chip in the noggin. Reacts to what I think and feel.”
The door banged open. Through it came Christina, her hands on her hips, her clothes covered in a protective layer of plastic. With her came the stink of the meatpacking room.
“Adelei,” she said, pointing to Jake, “break’s over. Get back to work.”
Jake tossed Andrew a raised eyebrow before returning to the table. He crumbled the wax paper his dinner had been in and tossed it in the trash. Then, he left, and the door banged behind him.
“How’re you feeling?” Christina asked. She was staring at the prosthetic with hungry glee.
“Good,” Andrew said, and it was the truth, much to his surprise.
“Excellent,” she said. “With your raise comes a new job, too. You’re on cutting duty now. Good luck.” She looked at the prosthetic, smiled wide, and left. The door banged again.
The hand was a dream to use. The knife fit comfortably, the sharp wooden handle no longer biting into flesh, as many other employees complained it did. The blade flew through the hunks of meat with startling ease and speed. His arm weaved as he chopped and cut, as hunks fell to the metal conveyer belt. An older man next to him grimaced through the pain, occasionally glancing over at Andrew’s shining hand, offering a scowl. Andrew did his best to ignore the man, to focus on the cutting, the slicing.
Three hours into his shift, he got his state-mandated thirty minutes. He sat in the break room, chowing down on a meatball sub, looking at the marvel of metal that reacted to his every move. His every thought.
Back at it. Cutting. Slicing. The hours flew by. For the first time in his life, work didn’t feel taxing. Not entirely, at least. His arm still burned, and after seven hours on the floor without any sunlight and only an occasional drink of water, perspiration beaded on his forehead and stung his eyes. But the hand – it was a marvel. He was surprised to admit it – he was happy not to be stuck at home in his boxer shorts, watching re-runs of Seinfeld and scratching at his junk with his non-dominant hand.
Boom. Like that, eight hours passed. A loud buzzer resounded above the machine, and the conveyer belt stopped moving. The old man next to him, Eugene his blood-stained nametag indicated, stomped away, grumbling, his lips puckered inward toward his teeth. A younger woman hobbled away. Must have been her first day, Andrew reckoned, as her legs were wobbling from fatigue, and she cried out every time she lifted her arm above her shoulder.
“Feel like grabbing a few beers?” Jake asked when Andrew approached his locker.
“Sure,” Andrew said. “Why not?” Truth was, Miranda worked over at J.P.’s, where they usually washed away their sorrows, and it wasn’t often that he found an excuse to see her. Maybe one of these days, he’d ask her out.
Christina barged into the break room as Jake closed his locker door. She nodded curtly at him and waved him away. Something about her stare, about the glow of her blue eyes, sent him packing, though he bid Andrew a wave and mouthed the words see you there behind her back.
“Andrew,” she said, smiling wide, all peaches and cream. “We need someone to help with overtime today. I was going to ask Eugene, but he seems to be in bad spirits. His granddaughter came down with a cold.”
Andrew opened his mouth to say something. Maybe, no thanks. Maybe, sorry, I’ve got plans. Or maybe, in some bolder parallel universe, fuck off, I’m off the clock. Only he wasn’t. He hadn’t officially punched out yet.
But none of those things, especially the final string of words, escaped his mouth. What he did say, to his own confusion, was, “Sure, Christina!”
“Wonderful,” she said, clapping her hands together. “Same station. How does four hours sound? And remember, you get time-and-a-half.”
The patch of skin on the side of his head, the patch where hair was growing back, burned fiercely for a moment, and he scratched at it as a dog would itch at fleas. Before he could change his answer or protest, he went marching out the line. The conveyer belt whirred up again, and the meat came rushing forth.
For four hours, the hand worked its magic, slicing, dicing, cutting. Every which way, every movement. The metal slickened with blood and viscera, but that didn’t loosen its grip on the knife nor stop it from its duty. His arm burned with an aching fire he didn’t know existed, as though an IV of acid was being pumped into his veins. In a futile attempt to take a break, he thought, Stop! But even as he screamed the word in his head, the hand continued to move, and with it went his arm, and with it came the pain and the fatigue.
By the time the four hours had passed, his legs were wobbling like the poor girl he’d seen earlier. A molten fire burned at the muscles in his arm.
He punched out and drove home. At a red light a few miles away from his apartment, he sobbed from the pain in his shoulder.
The next morning, his arm still ached something fierce. The consideration to call out sick occurred to him, but Andrew was out of bed and dressing before the thought could germinate. Out the door, into the car, driving to work. The Rolling Stones came on the radio, and he sang along to Mick Jagger’s insistence that HE CAN’T GET NO, on and on, until he was in the parking lot of Mac’s Packing House, and his arm reminded him of the mortal fatigue it still felt.
Upon entering the break room, he noticed a piece of paper pinned to the corkboard above the microwave. JACOB ADELEI AND EUGENE CONSTANCE HAVE BEEN RELIEVED OF EMPLOYMENT. ALL QUESTIONS CAN BE DIRECTED TO CHRISTINA.
Behind him, with maroon lipstick and a new blazer, came Christina. She smiled wide at him and spread her arms. “Great to see you again, Andrew! Ready for work?”
No! He wanted to ask about Jake, about Eugene – the old fart wasn’t very kind, but he didn’t deserve to be so unceremoniously dumped like some raccoon sick with rabies. But that patch of skin on his head burned like a brand, and the words that came out of his mouth were, “Yes! And I’d love more overtime tonight if it’s available.”
“Oh, it is,” she replied smoothly. “How does five hours sound tonight?”
“Sounds great!” he said.
He walked out to the floor and began cutting, harsh strokes, fierce slices. The girl was back, her lithe arms shaking as she tried to cut through the thick slabs of refrigerated meat. Now and then, her knife slipped, and a shaky cry tumbled from her lips. She didn’t cut herself, thank the Lord, but she came close. And by the time their shift was done, she looked to be nearly in tears.
It was then Andrew realized he hadn’t stopped for his break. Rivulets of sweat ran down his arms, mixing with the coagulating blood and the streaks of dark crimson on the floor, staining the plastic covers around his shoes. The air was rank, defined by a faint metallic odor, like washed-up pennies, and he wrinkled his nose as his senses kicked back into high gear, as he became hyper-aware of his surroundings.
Only, he wasn’t done. And the hand knew it.
The woman stalked away, beelining for the break room. She would punch out, go out on the town with her friends, or maybe collapse in her bed and wrap herself in her blankets. Andrew wished for such a luxury.
The heat in his head burned fiercely, and the conveyer belt picked up speed. Away the knife went, the blade never seeming to dull as it sliced through pink flesh, as it weaved around white bone. His shoulder screamed in pain, a sound that Andrew expected to hear from an unhinged mouth, perhaps from some unfortunate soul moments before a sixteen-wheeler tumbled over onto their shitty sedan. These roads could be treacherous in the winter; everyone knew so.
Working, working, working. No music, just the whirr of the conveyer belt and the sickening slaps of his knife, the wetness of the blood dribbling to the ground. The rank odor of it all. And still, the hand worked, faster and harder, until Andrew was sure his shoulder was about to snap out of place. What use would he be then?
Sweat stung his eyes, and his breathing was ragged and rough. When he stumbled away from the conveyer belt, dropping the knife in the tray marked to be cleaned, he saw Christina leaning against the break room door, a smirk slashed across her face.
“Good work,” she said. “Feeling okay?”
My arm! he thought. Christ, my arm! It’s gonna fall off!
“Just fine,” he said, a smile spreading across his lips. “Same thing tomorrow?”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Christina purred. “There’s more than enough work to go around.
The next morning, a Friday, Andrew walked into the break room to discover another white page on the corkboard.
JENNIFER MARSH HAS BEEN RELIEVED OF EMPLOYMENT. ALL QUESTIONS CAN BE DIRECTED TO CHRISTINA.
“There’s my star,” Christina said.
Andrew turned. A silver watch adorned her wrist, complementing her blue blazer magnificently. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, which wagged from side to side like a Golden Retriever’s tail.
“Hi, Christina!” he said.
“You mentioned you’d be open to some more overtime tonight, yes?” she asked.
God, no. Please, anything else. I’m so tired – I need rest. My arm needs to rest.
“Of course!” Happy as could fucking be. “How much are you thinking.”
She stuffed her hands in her pockets. “Well, you see, we’re in a difficult predicament right now. We had to let go a couple of people, as you noticed. That’s put us in a difficult crunch. We’ll pay you time-and-a-half, of course, but we’d need you to work through the weekend.”
“Like, eight-hour days?” he asked. That was, miraculously, an actual question in his head that escaped his lips.
She grimaced. “Not quite. You see, we’re caught in a bind, what with Macly’s and Terragon both sending us double their usual shipment. So, we’ll need you to work around the clock to get that done by Monday morning. Boss is riding my ass to finish it before the quarterly meeting with the board. All good?”
FUCK NO! He was screaming in his head, so hard that he almost forced tears to shoot from his eyes with the force of a Super Soaker. You can’t do this! I can’t work that long! I’ll be dead before Monday morning!
“Of course,” he said. And then he moved out to the line, his eyes searching for the wooden handle of his knife.
Closing time. The remaining people on the floor, no more with seven, sidled up the stairs toward the break room, their plastic coverings spackled with blood, their faces haggard and worn. Over in the corner, Andrew spied the machine that caused this whole mess.
CHUNK, CHUNK, CHUNK went the punch card as people left for the day, their bags strapped over their shoulders, car keys in hand, smiles ready for the weekend. And there stood Andrew, watching them go. He was allowed a few minutes of hope before he turned back to the line, and the conveyer belt whirred.
The first three hours were miserable. In his head, he sobbed. The hand moved this way and that, and he felt the impact of the blade cutting through the meat, and he felt the lancing pain in his shoulder. But he couldn’t stop it. Like a feeble man behind an out-of-control train’s levers, he could only watch as he powered forward toward his certain demise.
First came the slabs of beef, thick and raw and heavy. The knife cut easily through them, like a freshly made medieval blade through a pound of butter. Blood splashed the conveyer belt and the floor, and the air was rich with the metallic tang of it all. Still, he went, and with a smile, the knife curving, the knife rising, the knife sinking. On and on, and with each second that passed, he felt the sinew in his arm tear just a bit more. Felt the joint in his shoulder get that much closer to decoupling. His arm would be about as useful as what he was cutting if that happened. Yet, he was confident that Christina would come out from some backroom, only so she could pop the shoulder back into place and slap him on the back. Maybe leave him with a sultry great job, Andy, before returning to whatever it was that earned her fancy watches and blazers.
At the end of hour four, a new sensation filled him. A burning fire, not in his arm but his groin. But the knife was still going, his eyes now vacant windows into the screaming terror that was his trapped consciousness. If the body was in distress, the hand and the knife did not indicate it. But Andrew felt every second of pain, every horrible, gut-churning sensation as the urge to urinate grew stronger, and the ability to hold it remained inaccessible.
God, please just let me piss with dignity, he begged whatever malevolent force controlled the chip in his head. Please, for the love of God, just let me go to the bathroom. Boss made a dollar, I made a dime, that’s why I need to piss on company time.
The next hunk of beef came, held up on metal hooks that gleamed under the cold fluorescent lights. Slick slack went the knife, hungry, desiring more. The hand gripped the wooden handle hard, the metal coated in dark red.
Please, please, please, please. He was reduced to the infantile blubbering of a two-year-old, holding his crotch and dancing around in his head as the sensation grew, burned, as the idea of dribbling warmth running down his leg became inevitable. And then, as he passed the fifth hour, it was no longer a thought, no longer a fear. It ran down his leg in hot streaks, and he sobbed inside because he could not stop it. Nor did his body want to, as it continued to slash with robotic ferocity, as if it had never heard the concept of a break before.
At the seventh hour, Christina came out from somewhere and patted him on the back. “This is fine work you’ve done. I think you’ve earned yourself a break, don’t you?”
“Yes, I think I have,” he said with calm assurance.
Wait, is it…do I have control?
He wriggled the fingers of the robotic hand for the briefest moment. He did! By God, he did! But Christina was leading him away, leading him toward the break room. What if he ran? How far would he get before the thing in his head would turn him around? Would send him back to the knife?
Christina pushed him through the break room door. It slammed closed behind him. An urgent pain in his head confirmed what Andrew was thinking: this was his chance. If he had any hope of escaping his new Hell, it was now.
Andrew turned and jerked open the break room door. Out he went, out onto the floor, out toward that machine that had crunch crunched his hand only weeks before. He lumbered toward it, even as his legs wobbled. Behind him, he heard Christina yelling to someone, “Get control! Get control!”
It was too late, he realized with savage glee. For Christina, that was. For him, it was time for his release.
He flipped the button for the machine, and away it went, slamming down onto a metal plate. Slam! Slam! It was ironic, of course. That it should begin and end with this stupid machine, this stupid hunk of metal.
“Can’t work the knife if I don’t have legs,” he groaned to no one in particular. And then, tossing aside the human instinct to avoid pain, he dove into the machine legs first.
“Get control!” Christina bellowed. “Get control!”
But it was too late. The machine crunched down with wet slams, a sickening churn of bone and muscle and blood spraying every which way. Had it been any other workplace, the resulting gore would have been horrifying. But, of course, as consciousness spun away, Andrew realized his blood looked like all the rest. And that made him laugh, harder than he ever had, harder, he presumed, than he ever would.
Why am I breathing?
Beeping. So much beeping. The monotonous tone of life. It sank into his mind with poisonous barbs, pulling at the gray matter with frenzied delight, taunting him, cackling, you’re alive!
He opened his eyes and inhaled the chemically pure scent of the hospital. Of bleach and cleaners, of latex gloves, and freshly washed sheets. Andrew swallowed hard, ignoring the way his saliva stuck like wet gobs of toilet paper to the sides of his esophagus.
“Welcome back,” Christina said. Gone was her kind façade. When he looked at her, she was seated in the chair with her arms crossed. Her eyes were dark and full of fire, and her mouth curved down in a frown.
“Just kill me,” Andrew moaned. “Please, just kill me.”
She sighed heavily. “Your little stunt set us back initially. But as is often the case with exciting ventures, things have worked themselves out. You’re expected at work on Tuesday.”
With a huff, she stood from the chair and crossed the room. As her hand closed around the door’s metal knob, she turned. A slight smile creased her face. “Don’t think you can avoid your responsibilities either. We won’t be making the same mistake twice.”
She left, slamming the door behind her. And when Andrew craned his head to look down at the end of the bed, a hitching cry escaped his lips, bursting from his throat in high-pitched squeals, like a possessed fire engine. Tears spilled down his cheek, hot and acidic, and he blubbered, even as the chip in his head burned with ferocious might.
Both of his legs were gone. In their place were two shining robotic prosthetics.
About the author: Keith LaFountaine is a writer from Vermont. His short fiction has been published in various literary magazines, including Dread Stone Press, Wintermute Lit, and Bombfire. He also has short fiction forthcoming in Bewildering Stories. https://www.keithlafountaine.com
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