I saw him on the first day of my summer job, it was hard not to. He was in his late forties, overweight and wore suspenders over a plaid shirt. He mopped his brow with a handkerchief frequently and didn’t talk.
I was sixteen at the time, working at the local newspaper, down in the depths of the building. I was a gofer, running miscellaneous errands for the employees. I made coffee, went on trips to get supplies, everything really.
His name was Jim. He was in charge of inspecting the printing press that would run at midnight to produce the next day’s paper. He hung out in the factory for most of the day, reading the same dogeared copy of a book every shift. I wondered if he was a slow reader or just liked it a hell of a lot.
One day, a co-worker caught me stealing glances at the man’s false hand. It was black, its gloss finish glinted in the light. It was as if whoever made it for him didn’t care that it stood out so much.
“You better stay away from him,” the co-worker said.
“I wasn’t staring,” I replied in shock.
“Stare all you want,” he continued, “he freaks me out. You know, I worked here for nigh on twenty years and he’s never said a damn word to anyone. Boss’s son though, can’t do jack shit.”
He pulled out a cigarette, as if only talking about the man made him nervous. He lit it and took a deep drag, audibly exhaling.
“He seems okay to me, sir,” I replied.
“Don’t let that hand of his fool you. He’s not all there in the head. You see that scar?” the man pointed at Jim unabashed, “He got that when his head got caught in the press.”
“Really?” I said, slightly taken aback.
The man laughed before giving way to a phlegmy cough. He composed himself and rustled my hair.
“Go get me a soda,” he demanded, giving me some small change for the vending machine.
I crossed the factory floor and headed in the direction of Jim. I was anxious. I hadn’t thought about him in a negative way until I spoke to the man. The printing press was to my left and I walked as close to it as I could, having to round it right in front of Jim.
I was a few feet away when he lost concentration in his book. His sweaty scalp glistened in the bright light, pronouncing the long, pink scar that ran down the length of his skull. He stared directly into my eyes, before smiling. I jumped in panic and heard a heavy belly laugh from behind me.
Jim’s mouth dropped, hurt I was scared of him. That’s when I realised I was being played. I felt humiliated and embarrassed.
“I’m sorry,” I said softly as I ran out of the factory floor and into the canteen.
I thought about that moment every day for the next couple of weeks, trying to get up the courage to speak to him. I watched him as he went though his checklist, inspecting the machine. He was methodical. He held the clipboard between his prosthetic hand and elbow, while pressing different buttons and glancing at different dials. It was obvious he wasn’t stupid. Though I wondered what effect the injury had.
Minutes before leaving, after he had finished and sat down with his book, I walked up to him. As soon as I did, I realised I didn’t know what to say. He put down his book and glanced up at me. That smile from before was back, it wasn’t sinister, it was warm.
I panicked and fumbled for words.
“I really like your hand,” I said, immediately feeling stupid.
His gaze slowly drifted to the hand and he lifted his arm. He turned it from side to side and I watched in awe.
“Thank you, me too,” he replied in a soft southern accent.
He picked up his book and resumed reading.
By the time I left, so had all the other employees. Leaving only Jim until the midnight shift arrived for the printing.
When I arrived at the bus stop that I realised I was late. I’d have to wait another two hours for the next one. Annoyed, I walked back to the factory to phone my parents.
The place was so quiet now everyone was gone. My shoes echoed around the building, dark except for a few sporadic side lights that illuminated the exit. In the gloom the place felt foreboding and uncanny.
I wandered alongside the back-up printing press, turning the corner to see Jim’s chair was empty. I suddenly felt all alone. The lights on the active printing press lit the way to the canteen where the payphone was.
I recoiled as the machinery came to life, seeing Jim at the far end of the contraption. He waved his false hand and I could make out a smile on his darkened face. I let out a sigh of relief. I waved back, grinning, happy to know I wasn’t alone.
His face contorted and he ran towards me. I felt adrenaline surge through my system and turned to run. My co-worker was right, he was crazy!
I pushed off and didn’t move, instead swinging to the floor, garrotted by my own shirt. I heard Jim’s shoes thump against the floor as he barrelled down on me. I choked, feeling myself lift as my shirt became more entangled with the machine. Stars fluttered in my vision as the makeshift noose tried its best to strangle.
I saw Jim’s legs stop in front of me and I passed out.
I woke in an unfamiliar bed. My head hurt. In the background I could hear what sounded like rats and dogs squabbling. I pushed myself up to see Jim stand next to a sink.
“What happened?” I asked.
The animal sounds quietened and Jim finished cleaning up. When he turned around, I noticed his prosthetic hand was missing. Embarrassed, I looked away.
“It’s okay,” he said softly.
Returning my gaze, I saw the soaked end of his shirt hang limply on his wrist.
“That was close,” he said, sitting down.
The crippled remains of his hand lay splintered and broken on a table in front of him.
“Was that my fault?” I asked.
“I can make more,” he said opening a drawer.
He picked out a unpainted hand and placed it on his arm.
I pushed myself to my feet and gingerly approached, sitting opposite him. I studied the hand that sat between the two of us.
“You make these yourself?” I asked.
“I like working with my hands,” he replied with a smirk.
I looked around the room to see a bookshelf in the corner, the sink and the mattress I had been laying on.
“Do you live here?”
“Isn’t your dad like the owner of this place? Why don’t you live with him?”
He gazed into the distance.
“I like my own space,” he said.
But I knew that wasn’t it. Just like my co-worker, I bet his parents were embarrassed by him. I felt sad.
“Thank you for helping me. I don’t know what would have happened if you weren’t there.”
He hung his head.
“My fault, I should have been paying more attention.”
“No!” I said, feeling he was genuinely disturbed by what happened, “I’m an idiot. I got too close.”
There was an awkward silence.
“So, what do you do for food? I don’t see a stove here.”
“Don’t eat much. Quite picky,” he said, not wanting to be drawn into the conversation.
I stared at his large belly and thought, to get that big, he can’t be that picky.
“Do you eat in the canteen? I’ve not seen you in there before.”
“I eat out mostly.”
I understood why his co-workers didn’t warm to him. He wasn’t one for talking.
“Shit!” I said panicked, “What time is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“I need to get the bus, my parents will be worried.”
I got up, feeling my head thump, I winced, worried I would faint at any moment.
I stumbled for the door and felt Jim’s immense strength as he caught me. His false hand coming to rest under my shoulder.
“Walk with me.”
So I did.
When we left the building, it was dark, the cold night perked me up momentarily. Arm and arm we made our way to the bus stop. In the distance we heard shouting and gradually a group of six teenagers came into view. They pushed each other as they ambled forward.
“It’s that freak!” one of them said.
“Let’s fuck him up,” another offered.
“Oi! Lenny, gonna kill some mice?”
“Don’t listen to them,” I said, seeing a tear roll down Jim’s face.
They swayed, obviously drunk, making a bee-line for us.
Jim stopped, letting go of me. Then pushing me to the side. I almost tripped, but came to rest against the side of a building.
The largest kid separated for the group and stood face to face with Jim.
“You’re that retard aren’t you,” the kid said.
He pointed his finger to the scar on Jim’s head and poked him.
“You see that?” he said, turning to face his group, “retard got his head crushed. Probably can’t even wipe his own ass anymore.”
He stared Jim up and down, then swiftly punching him in the gut. My stomach lurched as Jim fell. He then administered two swift kicks to the head and laughed. Moments later the other teenagers joined in, cackling like drones.
Blood dripped from Jim’s mouth. All I could do was glare in horror.
“Close your eyes,” Jim mouthed to me as another kick landed to his stomach.
“Close your eyes.”
And I did. I held them tightly shut, just like I had done hundreds of times before as a child with the bed sheets pulled over my head.
I heard chittering sounds, like that of rats. Growls and barks like that of dogs. Slithering sounds like that of snakes. And the horrified screams of petrified teenagers.
“No! NO! NO!!!!” was shouted into the night sky and I scrunched my eyes shut harder.
“Oh my God! What the fuck is that thing!” another screamed.
The sounds of crunching bones chilled me. The sound of sloppy wet munches made me shiver. Then a beautiful silence. I waited for what seemed like minutes to open my eyes. When I did, I saw Jim stand alone in the road. He leaned over purposefully and picked up his prothetic hand and wriggled it back into place.
A man opened the door to the building across the street and gazed in both directions before settling on us.
“Did you hear something?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
The man reentered the building.
Jim shuffled over to me and picked me up.
We walked the final fifty yards or so to the shelter as a bus arrived.
“Is this yours?” he asked.
I nodded, scared and relieved.
“See you tomorrow?”
I nodded again and boarded the bus.
Jim waved as the vehicle pulled away. I waved back. Jim smiled and so did I.
I’m not afraid of the man with one hand, but maybe you should be.