Golden Arms

Golden Arms
by Joshua Mannix

Matthew concentrates as he rolls his new arms in front of his eyes. They’re still skin-colored, as he had requested, but with no marks, moles, scars, or hair, smooth as a baby’s skin. The bulk that his old arms had possessed, the bulk that only earned silver, is present but streamlined.

He flexes his artificial muscles, grips his fists together, and stretches his arms wide. He expects to hear gears turning beneath the skin, like in movies, but nothing makes a sound. The eeriest aspect of seeing the arms in front of him, attached to his shoulders with thin lines indicating where they had made the cut, is that he can’t feel them at all.

“That numbness will be around for a couple of weeks as the nerves connect to the circuits.” Dr. Harrison pokes Matthew’s hands with a needle. If he hadn’t watched the point press into the synthetic skin, he wouldn’t have known it was there. “Make sure you’re keeping an eye on where they go.”

“Yeah, of course.” The doctor chuckles to himself at his joke, but Matthew stares at the foreign limbs without cracking a smile. He sees his hands form a fist in front of him the second after he wills it, but doesn’t feel the tight clench of strength. “How long till I can get these babies working?”

“A few weeks at best, for basic control, but probably a month or two for more intricate use.” Dr. Harrison grabs a computer tablet from the end of the bed and pokes at the screen. “You’ll experience some pain while that happens, a sharp tingling that feels like you slept on it wrong, or itching along your arms that won’t go away.”

“Great, a few weeks of walking around with arms I have to concentrate a hundred percent on to do anything.” Matthew’s face scrunches together as he lifts his arms up over his head.

“The pain will be good sign, but along with the pain, you’ll be feeling your phantom limbs until the connection solidifies. But hey!” The doctor slaps Matthew’s shoulder, though he can’t feel it. “In a month, you’ll be back to doing what you do best!”

The word “best” makes Matthew grit his teeth. He tightens his fists without meaning to and rolls his shoulders to get them to relax. With the new arms, he will be the best, unlike with the old ones that failed him. His father told him a long time ago, when he was still learning weightlifting in high school, that there were no excuses, no runners up, and only one winner. Words to live by. Matthew looks down at his new, more powerful arms, and thinks that today is the first step toward gold.

“Where are my old arms?” He didn’t expect to say the words, but the thought struck him and they rolled out before he could stop.

“They are—” The doctor checks the watch that Matthew is surprised he wears. “—about to be incinerated.”

“Is it possible that I can—”

“Go say a farewell?” He smiles, having heard the line hundreds of times. “Of course, let me call down to the morgue.”

“Thank you,” Matthew says without correcting the doctor. The arms had always been weak, broke when he needed them to work, and lost him a championship that he had been working toward all of his life. He never looked at them the same after that, instead growing envious of the other competitors who were going with the trend of artificial limbs. He isn’t going to be saying farewell.

Dr. Harrison comes back into the room and removes the IV line that was attached to Matthew’s thigh and the heart monitor clips from his barrel-sized chest. “All set. They are lying out there, waiting for you. Do you know where to go?”

“I’m sure I can follow a few signs.” He tosses his legs over the side of the bed and plants them on the cold tile floor. He wobbles a bit from the painkillers coursing through his body.

“Down the hall, elevator to the basement floor, fourth door on the right.” Dr. Harrison says, opening the door.

In the hallway, doctors and nurses walk by with charts in their hands. Other patients meander, rolling their IVs next to them. Matthew is wearing the stereotypical hospital gown with the back showing his ass, but he doesn’t care. It is colder in the hallway than in his room, and the odd feeling of his body being cold, but not his arms, sets in.

He rubs his neck to warm it up, trying to ignore the absence of sensation in his hand. The new hand is warm, however. He thought it would be like an ice cube on first touch, but a soothing sensation settles across the back of his neck. He looks down to get a better angle for the hand. In that instant, he sees his arms hanging slack, unmoving.

His eyes widen in frustration as the phantom limb rubs against his neck. He concentrates to get the feeling away, lifting his senseless arms, getting it into his mind that they are his limbs now. A mist of nervous sweat forms across his neckline. How often will he have to be reminded of his failed arms?

He keeps his artificial ones moving up and down, like he is lifting weights at the gym, during the entire walk toward the elevator. He clicks the basement button and a red circle appears around it, a good thing, or he wouldn’t have been able to know if he hit it hard enough.

When he steps out of the elevator, he sees his breath float in front of his face. He specifically thinks not to rub his neck like he did upstairs, double-checking his arms to make sure they’re hanging still. The floor is mostly deserted, but a few coroners are in their separate rooms, typing on computers or examining bodies that Matthew turns his head away from. On the fourth door on the right, a placard reads “Depository.”

The room is wall-to-wall medium-sized boxes, each one of them silver with a little white tag on the front describing what’s inside. On the right side of the room, a black square is set into the wall, with two buttons on the side, red and green. The smell of fire and cooked flesh emanate from it. An incinerator.

A table in the middle of the room takes up most of the walking area. Reflecting silver like the storage boxes, it sits under the single large light adorning the ceiling. At the edge of the table, his old arms stare at him through an vacuum-sealed bag, like a lost lover.

The bag makes them look out of focus, smearing any characteristics that were painted on, reminding Matthew of his new arms, smooth and featureless. He runs his hand over the bag, feeling nothing but imagining the smooth texture of the material. He grits his teeth again, annoyed at the sight of his old arms imitating his new, stronger ones. It takes him a moment of concentration to grip the plastic bag, then rip it open.

The smell of formaldehyde hits his nose as he folds the plastic back. The thick arms, littered with memories, fit like shoes in the wrapping. He spreads his artificial hand over the old one, comparing the size. They are the same; the designers did a damn fine job replicating them.

He grabs the preserved right hand in a handshake, gripping hard, hard enough to hear the bones start to crack from the force. His synthetic hands compress tighter at his will, and the snap of the bones breaking makes a smile curve along his cheek. He lifts the arm up, knowing he made the right choice. The new ones are a hurricane compared to a breeze.

But something shines out of place on his old arm. A slender scar trails from the wrist and fades at the elbow. Jack Lunster, the name comes to mind, the kid who tried to stab him back in high school. He almost got the drop on Matthew, sneaked up from behind after he left the school’s weight room. At the last second, the sound of Jack’s footsteps made Matthew whip around to see him swinging a knife at his back. Matthew blocked the quick slice through the air with his right arm and knocked the bastard out with a left counterpunch. He can’t remember why Lunster had wanted to attack him. Probably something he said. He shrugs it off.

Adjacent to the knife scar is a wide blotch of dark red skin shaped like an exploding firework. The hair never grew back after grease had splattered there from his first job as a fry cook. His father had told him to get working as a 16th birthday present. When the grease splashed on him, he yelled at the top of his lungs as the skin disintegrated down to the muscle. Customers from the front of the restaurant heard him and asked if someone was dying in the back—only after they had asked about their food, of course. Once a few minutes passed of Matthew trembling from the pain, his coworkers laughed it off with him, the first of many they said, showing him their own burn marks. They wrapped gauze around it and he finished his shift with the help of a small bottle of whiskey that the manager kept around for such incidents.

Now, remembering one of his favorites, he picks up the left arm, looking at his fingers. The ring finger is bent slightly to the right. When he first started to get serious about weightlifting, he didn’t have an instructor, just a pre-recorded online video. When he tried a snatch, lifting the barbell from the ground to above his head in one single motion, he unbalanced himself and the whole barbell rolled out of his hands, falling behind him. His ring finger, the last to hold on, stretched back, almost touching the back of his hand, and snapped like a tree branch. A gym instructor found him holding a scream in his mouth. He called an ambulance and then an old weightlifter friend of his, to help Matthew start his career.

The only tattoo on his body stuck out to him now: on his left shoulder, an emblem from the Army division he had joined, two red bayonets across a blue field. Good times in those years, post-training football games, weekend leave into the city for some fun, more than he can remember now. Bad times also, things he wanted to forget but couldn’t, like Marcus Ruben dying in combat, the nights of eyes pried open by paranoia, the heat of the summers. He shakes off the bad memories that won’t fade into the past and drops the arm onto the table.

“Weak bastards,” He says as he opens and closes his new hand. “You couldn’t win me gold, but these will.”

Blank slate, some philosopher said, that’s where he is now. No more silver, no more second place. Damn all the memories that he had with his old arms. He can easily make new ones, and the next memory will be of the sweet taste of victory, standing on the highest podium with gold draped around his neck. Matthew starts walking toward the door, glad to get those shameful arms out of his sight once and for all. Before he grabs the knob to pull the door open, a force from nowhere wraps like a noose around his neck.

The first gasp of breath is from surprise. There hadn’t been anyone in the room besides Matthew. The second gasp is from not getting air into his lungs. Panic sets in, and he tries to flail his arms at whoever is strangling him, but encounters nothing behind his back. He twists and turns his whole body, trying a jiu-jitsu move to throw the person off, but no weight falls across his back. His knees drop to the tile floor, the lack of air making his head foggier than it was already.

He turns to at least try and see the person who will kill him. Only the detached arms greet his eyes from a few feet away. They are turned to face Matthew now, somehow moving on their own, fingers outstretched like claws digging into flesh. For a moment, the tightening stranglehold around his neck is forgotten, and the only thought that beats in his head is disbelief at what is happening. Then the pain kicks back in, pain from his former arms that are somehow crushing his windpipe without touching it.

Matthew stands to one leg, lungs starving for relief, and leaps back to the metal table, knocking his head against the outstretched severed arms. His tongue is shaking hard, trying to mouth a shout or shovel air into his chest. He grabs the arms, concentrating to keep them in his grip, and stumbles over to the incinerator. Willing his numb hand to grasp the handle, he yanks open the furnace, revealing a charred black interior.

With his right arm, he tosses both of his old arms inside, their fingers still rigid, throttling with their invisible strength. Matthew slams his whole shoulder against the green button as he kicks up the door, slamming it shut. Fire roars into life on the other side of the metal container, and even through its shielding, he can feel the heat.

The vice grip on his neck disappears, leaving only a bruised ache. He coughs before taking a deep breath. His new hands are black with the soot from the incinerator. A stray thought pounds against his mind like a prisoner wanting free, though he doesn’t know why it is there, “Are we strong enough?”

Copyright © 2015 Joshua Mannix