Content Note: traumatic injury
When I met Alex, he was short, stocky, and a little gray at the temples. He was left-handed, too. I'd never really noticed someone's hands before, not in the same way. They were huge, callused from years of work on all the things he had built, scarred from the chips always flying everywhere, and all his little mistakes. He gestured with them when he talked: short little motions that added to the tone of what he was saying more than the meaning.
We met at a bar in Kearney; he was up on vacation from the factory and I was between jobs. We hit it off, got together, all that, and pretty soon we were living together at what had been his place just south of the state line. About when we moved in together, I found the job I've got now. The firm's not that big, but it pays well enough. Patents always do.
Alex was a shopman in a factory nearby—the shop's tame engineer. They loved him there. Whenever something broke, he dragged it off to his little corner and set to work. About half the time, the shop picked up more scrap for small parts. The other half, Alex got the whatever it was back in working order. He'd even redesigned a couple of the smaller robots for the factory had and made the whole line go faster; they gave him a raise after that. He didn't let them give him a title, though.
About two months ago, on his way home from work, Alex was in an accident. A car crash. The other driver wasn't paying attention; he ran a light. Alex and the other driver both tried to swerve away, but Alex's car was clipped sideways. The other car scraped in and forward from the driver's side door almost to the engine block. Alex was damn lucky; the other car just missed crushing him. Instead, he just had a few scratches on his left leg. And a three inch spike of metal through the palm of his left hand.
By the time I got to the hospital, Alex was unconscious, in surgery. They brought him back out an hour after I got there. His left arm was swaddled in gauze, a big ball twice the size of his fist tapered down from where his hand had been to the middle of his forearm. Six weeks for the wound to heal enough, then a fitting, and the prosthetic would be done a week after that. Alex was now right-handed.
Three weeks in, he was healing well, at least according to the doctors. Everything was on schedule. He was anxious, though. He could hardly write with his right hand, and typing one-handed was slow. We had gotten a one-handed keyboard for him, but he was still pretty clumsy with it.
I came in one day after work and saw him trying to sketch something out on some giant piece of paper. It looked like the guts of one of the robots he had rebuilt for the factory. His lines were shaky, though. He kept redrawing them, over and over. He looked angry, almost; he kept glaring at his right hand, like it was some little kid or maybe a dog he could frown into obedience. His left arm hung at his side, unused. He'd been having that problem all week. Nowhere to put it, nothing to do with it.
"Hey there," I said as I walked up to him, "What are you working on?" I wrapped one arm around his shoulders and reached down with the other to hold the hand he wasn't working with. Too late, I caught myself.
"Gah! Don't touch me there!" I jumped back, and he spun around. "Sorry, sorry, love. It's still sensitive, that's all. You wanted to know what I'm doing?"
"Yeah, sorry. I—"
"It's fine, it's fine. Here, take a look."
He showed me the sketches. They were hard to make out in some places, but I could see components like the ones he had worked on for the factory robots. Up at the top, there was a really rough outline of what the whole thing would look like.
"You're going to try to build yourself a new hand?"
"Yeah, I've been doing some research. Stuff like this has been done before, kind of. If it's anchored to the muscles in my forearm, I can gesture in ways that the hand will be able to detect. I'd have to code it myself, of course, since I'm the only one who would know exactly how to calibrate it for the signals I'd send, but I think it's doable. Just need someone to hook it up."
Alex was smart, and he was good with tools. If it was someone else who had lost their hand, I didn't doubt he could come up with something pretty amazing. But I think he wouldn't have tried for a whole hand. He couldn't take anything less for himself, though. He needed that hand. At least, that's what he said. And it was urgent; the new hand had to be attached before the stump finished healing, or the muscles in his wrist wouldn't be able to make the gestures. He could already feel them weakening, he said. Somewhere, somehow, he found a surgeon. It couldn't have been one of the doctors from the hospital, they all knew about his case, and none of them would have been willing. But he found a man, and convinced him to help.
Parts started coming in two days after he showed me the plans, and the whole thing was built by the end of the week. Alex showed it to me before his surgeon friend came over. The hand was big, kind of clunky, but when he put it in his test rig, it moved. The test rig was a mount he had built, which his friend would attach to Alex's arm. The mount was strange; it looked like some science fiction director's idea of a destroyed space ship. Little hinged bits of metal hung off the back, with small, cruel looking anchors on them. That would be tied directly to the muscles in his arm. The thing scared me.
They spent two hours sanitizing the back of Alex's workshop. The whole house smelled of antiseptic. I had to leave. Three hours later, the surgeon called me on Alex's phone. Alex was resting, he said, and the job was done. I went back. By the time I got there, the surgeon was gone, as was all the equipment he had brought. I haven't seen or spoken to him since. Alex was on the couch, half asleep from the drugs. He had gauze up to his elbow, now.
"Look," he said, holding up his arm, "It still needs to be calibrated, but it's on, and it's getting my movements. Still have to get used to it, maybe fix a few things." His new hand poked out of the gauze, twitching a little as he looked at it.
"Can I?" I started, as I reached for his arm.
"No! No," he said, holding out his right arm to stop me. "It's freshly attached and besides, like I said, I'm not quite done with it yet. Just wait. I'll be back to normal soon."
Alex spent the next day and a half recovering, then finished the programming for the hand in another two days. He couldn't move his elbow from all the gauze, but once he got it propped up properly the hand was amazingly deft. As soon as he got the hang of writing and typing the way he had before, he sent himself back to work. The factory was glad to have him back. They needed him, and a lot of the workers, his friends from the shop and a whole lot of guys from the floor, wanted to see his new hand.
Things were good for a little while. Alex was back at work, and he had a project: he spent most evenings tinkering with the hand, making it quicker and more precise, more than his old hand had ever been. Ironically, he got pretty good with his right hand while he was doing that, since he needed it to replace parts in his left. He still wouldn't let me touch his arm though.
"It's still too sensitive," he'd say, and I'd back off, and wait a few days to try again.
He started creating different modules for it, little screwdrivers and things he could attach to the fingers and run with a controller he held in his right hand. It was an amazing tool, that hand of his, and when he was testing it out it was a thing of beauty.
A week ago, I thought the gauze seemed higher on Alex's arm than it had been. I asked him about it, but he brushed me off. "I tied it a little higher, that's all. It's me doing the changes now, and I'm not so consistent as the doctors at the hospital."
He started getting sluggish, though. He came home on Thursday with a huge cut on his right middle finger; he had gotten too close to an end mill. It was the kind of mistake he hadn't made in years. He took Friday off from work. On Sunday, when he finished changing the gauze, it went up to his shoulder. "It's better support," he said. "The muscles in my arm are starting to get weak, and this way they don't ache so much."
"Can I touch it?"
"It's still really sensitive. Just wait. I'll get better."
He didn't go to work Monday or Tuesday. I was worried, but he wouldn't see a doctor. "They won't let me keep the hand. They'll say it's the problem."
"What if it is?"
"It's not the hand."
Yesterday, as he was pouring some tea for himself, he collapsed. The ambulance was there inside ten minutes; half an hour after he fell, he was in intensive care at the hospital. At 5:00 this morning, a doctor came out to see me. I didn't need him to tell me anything; I just asked to see.
So now I sit here in the hospital, and Alex lies there in that bed. His right arm is unchanged, except for that one cut: the same callused knuckles on a big, heavy, hand, with tiny scars up to the elbow. His stubbly, craggy face, now that they took the respirator off, actually looks peaceful. He's not struggling with some engineering problem or trying to find a way to fix something broken beyond repair. His left hand, too, is clean and perfect. It shines, not a speck of rust or tarnish on the casing. I can see the parts he replaced two days ago. But his wrist, finally out of its gauze, is ugly, black and red with oxidization. He couldn't replace these parts, not without doing even more damage to himself. Where it joins his flesh, his forearm swells, black and brown from infection. They cleaned it as best they could, but there wasn't much more to be done. His upper arm is swollen too, though not as badly; it's still an angry red color, an hour since his heart stopped beating. The scars that survived the original operation are pale and pink, the only flesh unchanged from his shoulder to his wrist.