When I reach my workstation, a new stack waits for me. A stack consists of sixteen metal blocks, each with a single button on the front. These metal cubes are magnetized and can be arranged in many different ways.
I already have two stacks, which I’ve organized in a standard four-by-four pattern. Though traditional, I find this makes it easier to press the buttons quickly. The more button presses, the more money I take home at the end of each month—efficient pressing feeds my family and dictates my quality of life.
Several of my colleagues have tried with more complex patterns that look like pyramids or bar charts, but none of these other techniques work as well as a traditional arrangement. Now, with a third hand and a third stack, my numbers will rise. The more limbs I can amass, the more stacks management will grant me.
I assemble a new tower of buttons in the same manner and begin my day, pressing buttons furiously with all fifteen of my fully functioning digits.
Several years later, I am up to a total of five hands. One takes root on my chest, just below my chin. The other grows from the side of my left knee. The muscles on the front of the knee are already pulled tight over the bone, so when the skin of my new hand begins to take shape, I can feel the swelling inside my knee as well. The taut cartilage is stretched until it feels like it’s beginning to tear.
There’s a nurse at work, and I hobble to her office seeking a solution—pain management, muscle relaxants, I am open to anything that might curb the discomfort in my knee. She refuses to provide any help though, citing my lack of a “medical plan” under my current work agreement. The muscles in my left knee remain inflamed, even months after the hand is fully formed and functioning.
With a total of five hands—which somehow amounts to twenty-six digits—I have amassed five stacks that are precariously constructed. For one, not all of them are in the four-by-four pattern I have come to rely on. My original three stacks retain their traditional configuration but have been spread farther apart to make room for the stack used by my chest hand.
I initially thought a chest hand would allow more versatility in button presses, but it did not grow as far out as I would have liked. It is more of a stump and is therefore unable to move very far from side to side. Its stack of buttons is by necessity tall, and every time it needs to push buttons on the top of the tower, I must rise a few inches from my chair. I learned this painful lesson the day after it finished growing. Every long reach of my chest hand feels like my lungs are being pulled through my rib cage.
Under my desk, I have a small table containing my fifth stack. Finding the right arrangement was particularly frustrating due to the pain in my knee. It ended up in a wide, short pattern to allow for minimal movement of the knee digits. Each time the fingers move to push their buttons, the muscles in my knee shift. I fear they won’t remain intact for much longer.
My ninth hand—from the right shoulder—finishes growing on the same day I turned thirty-nine. My bosses are elated by the prospect of more productivity from me—the rate at which my additional limbs have grown is much higher than that of my coworkers.
“I’d like to have a quick chat about future possibilities. Things are getting complex, and we want to make sure you’re being as efficient as possible,” one manager told me.
I am grateful for the chance to speak directly with him, as I am beginning to feel that the number of stacks I’ve taken on is getting too high. Limb burnout is common in this industry, with many older workers being forced to retire after they have grown eight limbs. Because I am so young, it seems my bosses are invested in utilizing me as carefully as possible.
Regardless, I start my day as usual, pushing buttons on all nine stacks, muscles nearly rupturing all over my body. I’ve grown used to these explosions inside my skin, as it is necessary to remain operative.
Later that afternoon, a separate manager stops by my cubicle and smiles at me, his happiness merely a veil for his greed. “Gonna sit in on that chat you’re having later today. Figured I could add some insight.”
I barely acknowledge this new development, despite my disappointment. I have to focus, have to stay productive.
My original manager stops by again, shortly before our scheduled correspondence. The interruptions are endless. The clacking of buttons nearly drowns out his words, so he shouts into my ear.
“I’ve added a few folks from Finance to our chat,” he says. “I figure they might be able to shed some light on the numbers.”
A Finance manager happens to overhear my boss’s bellows. “Oh, are you going to be discussing the nine-stack config later? Mind if I add the guys from Operations? Been chatting with them lately. They really know their stuff.”
When the time comes for this meeting with management, I am relieved for a break from button pressing. All my digits tingle as I stumble through the drab maze, circling through the same hallways until I find the right conference room. I am right on time, but discussions have begun without me. I stand in the corner, trying to stay silent, hidden, while thirteen people discuss my limbs.
Eventually I am called on, and I step from the corner.
“Ah, there’s nine-stacks. Good work. The C-suite is very pleased.”
“Why the limp? You should be riding high today!”
“You gotta keep those digits clean. I know a guy that can help with that…”
Their platitudes and criticisms roll off me. I thought I wanted a break from button pushing, but the solitude of my workstation beckons me. Their droning voices continue unhindered.
“We’ve never had someone last very long with nine stacks, so we think you should make some adjustments to increase our chances of success.”
Images move across the monitor on the wall. They show new configurations of the blocks—combined stacks, scattered stacks, towering stacks—and none look like arrangements I’d ever choose. I nod even though I disagree, even though I hate what they are proposing.
Back at my desk, I begin the delicate job of rearranging one hundred and forty-four blocks to conform to the new design set forth by management. All forty-seven of my digits sting as I work, as if little red fire ants consume my flesh from the inside.
The new order of my stacks is troubling. Several of my limbs are unwillingly anesthetized, while others feel as if they are being cooked—liquid fire boiling my muscles. My skin is wearing thin in spots where my appendages rub against each other, several large blisters having already formed. Before, numb digits and stretching muscles were the worst of my problems. But now? Now I am beginning to witness the physical deterioration of my body.
To worsen my already uncertain situation, I fear a new hand is growing from the back of my neck. Another so soon is uncommon. I know that I should be thankful—another stack is more chance for success—but the skin around the front of my throat has become taut, causing every swallow to hurt. I keep the collar of my shirt raised to hide the expanding bulge. Management will no doubt become ravenous at my increased limb production if they see what’s coming.
I press my buttons laboriously, but my productive state continues to dwindle. I can no longer press as frequently or efficiently, so while I have more digits and therefore more buttons to press, I have not managed to earn more money.
Hours drag by as my muscles continue to weaken and numbness spreads through my body. Shuffling feet from behind cause me to jump and mistakenly press the wrong button. A slither of dread works its way up my chest and distends in my throat—each mis-press deducts ten-fold from all the profits I had gained so far that day.
The person behind me clears their throat and says, “Hey there, do you have time for a quick question?”
I stop pressing and turn. One of the bosses. I wasn’t sure which department—those sorts of things are becoming increasingly fuzzy.
The boss smiles. I bare my teeth in return. “Sure thing. What can I do for you?”
“Hold on just a sec!” The person backs away, laughing and chatting in response to a comment from my desk neighbor. I am losing precious time that could be spent pressing buttons, that could be spent making up for my earlier mistake. After several minutes of waiting, just as I am about to continue my job, the boss returns.
“Sorry ’bout that. Phil was on this wild fishing trip last weekend.” He laughs.
After an awkward pause, he continues. “One of the guys over in Operations had a few more suggestions about the setup you’ve got here.” He gestures towards my sprawling towers of cubes, the stacks I had arranged so meticulously according to the agreed design.
I nod. He steps into my work area and asks, “Do you mind?” as he reaches towards my stacks. His hot breath invades my small cubicle and I shy away from his presence. This infringement on my personal space is unnatural, but then again, so are nine stacks. I should be grateful for the time spent by management in helping me succeed.
He points at the sturdy foundation of button cubes while he talks.
“You don’t need this many here. If you remove them, you can create a more sparse structure which will allow your fingers to better adjust to the proper order of button presses.”
I have no idea what he is talking about, but I nod again anyway.
He grins. “Great, that’s great. We’ll just move these then.”
He begins pulling cubes from the bottom of my combined stacks. One by one, the structure begins to tilt, the magnets working overtime to keep the cubes from falling.
“Really just great work you’ve been doing here,” he says, as he continues to undo all the work I’ve done. I despise him. I despise this company. I despise these cubes, these stacks, these limbs I’ve grown. But my smile never wavers as I remind myself why I am here, why I subject myself to this.
When he finishes—a simper still plastered across his smug face—he finds a non-limbed area of my back to pat and walks away.
I stare at the new stacks, rearranged oh-so-perilously, and I am unsure how I’ll be able to actually press the buttons. I try once and, lo and behold, the cubes tumble around me, bouncing off of one limb here and one limb there, until they lay scattered on the ground.
My eleventh hand sprouts when I am forty-one. I imagine a little person working overtime inside me, someone reporting to management, who carves a spot for each new limb with a chef’s knife… or maybe it’s a drill? I no longer think that these penetrating stabs from inside my own skin are normal. Working with ten stacks has been nearly impossible, but management continues to push me. I don’t think I’ll be able to do eleven.
During my single allotted fifteen-minute break, instead of purchasing something from the overpriced vending machine, I stare at myself in the bathroom mirror. I gaze down at the scissors in my shaking hand, one of my original two. I long for the days when I only had two. I can’t continue with more than ten.
The hand on the back of my neck is the worst. Swallowing is still painful, and because it grew from the top of my spine, my posture has curled to make room for the new addition. If I attempt to straighten my back, the vertebrae begin to pulverize one another, bone fragments crumbling inside me. I fear if I try to remove that hand, I may accidentally puncture an artery, or some other important thing that keeps me alive.
No, I decide to go with the one on my arm. My third hand. I remember how excited I was the day it started sprouting. I had no idea what the future would hold.
The pair of office scissors are too narrow to fit around my additional hand, so I use one of the blades like a knife.
I start by puncturing the skin—the blood is instant, crimson. It doesn’t hurt too bad, not after the pain of each new growth. I saw with the dulled edge of the scissor blade, and my skin screams, tearing unevenly, creating fringes of dead flesh. I figure that the hand must be attached by some sort of cartilage that I could sever, I just need to keep cutting.
The glistening white sink of the corporate bathroom is drenched with blood. This excites me. It signifies progress, a future with less pressure.
As I continue to dig deeper into myself and the muscle of my third appendage, pieces of sinew begin to snap. Curiosity gets the best of me, and I stop to inspect the strings of red holding my hand to my arm. I tug on one of them, and the corresponding digit twitches. I giggle and yank at the muscles again.
I imagine the managers doing this, reaching under my skin, forcing my fingers to press more buttons. To them, I am simply a puppet. I sink my fingers further inside me and wrench at whatever I can find, which forces my fingers to curl. Blood drips from my chin, and I can’t recall how it got there.
I pick up the scissors again, this time holding them correctly, and start cutting what remains. My fifteen-minute break is surely over, but I am fascinated by the slow destruction of my very first growth. No one can control it anymore. No one can control me.
When there is nothing left to sever, I grab the dangling hand and uproot it from my arm. The thick cartilage snaps, and more blood splatters around me. In my hand, I hold my hand. It is attached to nothing.
Copyright © 2023 Ryan Marie Ketterer