The prisoner in the metal box was screaming as his cell hurtled across the ground at high speed, throwing him from side to side within.
There’s a point in life when you realise that you’re looking at something in a different way from everyone else. For Danny Brennan, 27 year old graphic designer, that moment came when he concluded that all a motor car really was, was a metal crate on wheels, shuttling people back and forth at speeds no human was ever intended to travel. Furthermore, he realised, a car is only really aerodynamic when it’s pointing in its natural, “forward” direction. If you flip it, spin it around, launch it at an entirely different rotation at those same, high speeds, it’s really just a cramped, over-furnished box with people locked inside, kind of like a jail cell, rocketing across the surface of the Earth at high velocity. If you looked at it like that, Danny thought, it was kind of strange that anyone would voluntarily travel by car.
Danny Brennan made this realisation while he was hurtling at 50 up the verge at the side of the interstate inside his modest, family saloon spinning–roughly–on its horizontal axis, flipping him over and over, slamming his head against the side window, the roof and the steering wheel. And, as the breath was knocked out of him, as blood swam across his vision, blurring his eyesight in crimson mist, he felt no relief that the airbag had finally popped out of its hatch, inflating before him. After all, it was just a cushion of air in the heavy, high speed, metal jail cell with no discernible aerodynamic advantage for this journey.
And that was the last thing that Danny Brennan thought, coherently, for three weeks.
The thing that finally woke Danny from the coma was the urge, overpowering and immediate, to scratch his legs. He wasn’t aware, then, that he had been unconscious for three weeks–that knowledge would come later. But, he made one startling realisation almost immediately as he reached down to scratch at the burning sensation in his legs: He didn’t have a right arm. His right arm was, quite simply, not there.
He turned his head, feeling the cramped muscles of his neck complain as they shifted for the first time in almost a month, and he saw that his right arm was missing. The white, hospital gown he wore was tied up, gathered around the stump at his right shoulder, an abrupt ending to his body where there hadn’t been an ending before. He looked at it, trying again to shift the arm he could feel was there, but nothing moved. He tried again, putting more effort into the shifting of his muscles, and he felt the whisper of the cotton gown as it traced across the skin of his shoulder, pins and needles sensation firing the nerve endings across the right side of his chest. But there was no arm there to move. He was certain of that.
It was too soon to panic. It all seemed strange and dream-like, to no longer have an arm he had had all his life. He just couldn’t seem to equate this knowledge with his own existence, his own body. It was like an alien thing, a story he was watching on T.V., a bad joke told over beers.
He moved his left hand, twitching the fingers, wrapping them into a tight fist as he flexed the muscles, pulling the arm towards his face to examine it. It was still there, attached to his body as it had always been. There was some scarring at the wrist, pure white lines crossing his tanned skin, and the arm felt heavy, the skin dry. He noticed that, beneath the loose hospital gown, he wore a plaster cast from wrist to elbow. He reached to pull the sleeve back for a closer look; realised again that he didn’t have a right hand to pull the sleeve back with; quit.
His legs were still burning, begging him to scratch at the itching, to relieve the sensation. Maybe, he thought, they were in plaster, too. Maybe that was why they felt so warm.
He moved his left arm, burrowing into the sheets, reaching for his left thigh where the burning felt so acute. But it wasn’t there–his thigh wasn’t there. He patted the flattened sheet that rested beneath him, covering the hard mattress of the bed. His leg wasn’t there. It was burning, it was itching, but it wasn’t there.
The panic was rising in him by now, his heart pounding in his chest, his mind racing through a dozen scenarios. Some kind of sick, sick joke. Had to be.
And he reached across to his right leg, the back of the knee signalling its itching sensation like a smoke alarm, screaming and crying, straight to his brain even over the loud pounding of his racing heart in his ears. But his right leg wasn’t there. No matter how far he reached, Danny Brennan couldn’t locate his legs.
And that is when he started to scream.
Barely older than Brennan, Doctor Harper exuded confidence and a positive outlook as he talked Danny through what had happened. He stood at the side of Brennan’s bed and told Danny that he had been in an accident. The surgeons had worked to their utmost to save his life, but, unfortunately, they had had to amputate several limbs.
Danny lay in the bed, nodding at the doctor’s words, feeling numb and empty inside.
“You lost a lot of blood,” Harper continued, “and you were in shock when the paramedics brought you in. Your body’s survival instinct kicked in, placing you in a coma while it regrouped.”
Danny nodded again, his eyes drifting around the cream painted walls of the hospital room.
“You were in the coma for twenty-three days in all,” Harper explained. “A little over three weeks.”
Danny looked the doctor up and down, forming a question in his mind. The sounds worked through his dry throat, seeming to scratch it as though he were disgorging physical things. “How long do I have to stay here?” he asked slowly, each word an effort.
Doctor Harper smiled, consulting Brennan’s chart. “You have made an astonishing recovery, Mister Brennan,” he said. “You’re young and physically strong–your body is in very good shape. Despite all that you’ve been through, you are actually in remarkably good health.”
Danny clenched his teeth, feeling the tears force their way from his eyes. “But I’ve lost so much,” he told Harper.
Harper looked up from the chart. “What happened to you was terrible. Both the accident, and the measures that were necessary to save your life. But your life was saved. Try to keep that in mind.”
Danny’s mind drifted then, back to the accident. “I remember a thump while I was driving along the interstate. I’d been listening to the radio, and suddenly there were sirens. And then the thump and I was hurtling off the road. I couldn’t stop.” Each word burned his throat, but he was past caring now.
Harper pointed to the television set in the corner of the room, currently switched off. “I can show you what happened if you feel you are ready. I don’t want to rush you into this, but, at the same time, you may find it easier to get the whole thing out of the way.”
Danny agreed, and Doctor Harper left the room for a few moments. When he returned he was carrying a video tape. He placed it in the slot at the bottom of the television set, and a news report started playing on screen.
The news report showed a live car chase, filmed from a helicopter in the middle of the day. The cameraman was struggling to keep the lead vehicle in focus–a maroon SUV, rushing at high speed along the familiar outskirts of the city. From up here, the sandy coloured roads on the screen looked like thin trails of spaghetti, looping around each other in a messy, random pattern, lacking the logic that participation loaned it.
Around a dozen police squad cars pursued the SUV, red and blue lights spinning on their roofs. All over the road, cars and trucks pulled off to the side, screeched to a halt, struggled to get out of the way of the chasing parties.
Breathless, a reporter’s voice could be heard, shouting to be made out over the drone of the helicopter’s engines. The reporter was explaining how police had raided the house of suspected serial killer, Jason Grade, earlier that morning. Somehow, Grade had escaped the trap and reached his car, the SUV seen in the footage.
Danny went cold all over as he realised what he was watching. “I was on that road,” he whispered. “That’s where I was.”
Doctor Harper looked across to him, nodding firmly. “Here it comes,” he told Danny. “It’s very sudden, I warn you now.”
At the edge of the screen, Danny spotted the blue metal chassis of his own car, trundling along the road ahead of the SUV and its pursuers. He had been going to a job interview, he remembered now, when a report had come over the radio about some kind of disturbance on the very road he was travelling on. Maybe he had looked in the rear-view mirror, he couldn’t be sure now. It seemed so long ago, a whole other lifetime.
In the space of three seconds, the hurtling SUV closed the gap between its position at the centre right of the screen and Danny’s automobile on the far left. Watching it like this, from overhead, it seemed so inevitable, like the two cars were huge magnets, pulling one another to their embrace.
The only sound to illustrate the crash came from the voice of the reporter, a curse exploding over the speaker of the television set before he could restrain himself. The SUV pulled to the left lane, trying to weave past Danny’s saloon, but the driver had left it too late. The low fender of the SUV seemed to slip beneath the smaller car on its rear, right corner, slapping it aside. Danny watched as his car–the car he had been sitting in at the time–flipped into the air as it lurched towards the edge of the road. It continued to rotate on its newly found axis as it barrelled through the crash barrier and ploughed on up the verge until, suddenly, it had reached the far right of the screen and disappeared from the camera’s eye.
Instead, the cameraman followed the SUV as it toppled over itself, seemingly top heavy after the violence of the impact with Danny’s vehicle, bouncing and rolling across the centre lane until it slammed, full force, into an eighteen wheeler speeding in the other direction.
Doctor Harper reached across, ejecting the tape and switching off the television. Slowly, he turned to Danny. “Do you feel okay?” he asked.
Danny nodded. “Thank you for showing me. I mean, wow. It was like something from The A-Team. What happened to the other guy? Grade, was it?”
Harper shook his head. “Jason Grade didn’t survive the crash. You were very lucky.”
Beneath the sheet, Danny flexed his left hand again, realising how true the doctor’s words were. “I guess I was, when you put it like that. What was it that this Grade guy had done?”
“That’s really what I wanted to show you the tape for,” Harper began. “You see, it’s now been confirmed that Jason Grade was a serial killer working all along the West Coast. Forensics place him at the deaths of fifteen individuals–young boys mostly, not even in their teens. The police estimate he may have been responsible for the disappearances of over thirty others in the past seven years, but, to date, they have not been able to find the bodies. The investigation is continuing as we speak.
“Grade would approach children he saw playing alone, at the beach or in the street, with a story about how their mother had been in an accident and needed them… that she had sent him to find her son or daughter quickly, and that they were to come with him straight away. The kids he trapped thought that they were doing the right thing, going with him like that.”
Danny understood. Stranger danger versus the love a child has for his mother. One would override the other for most children.
Harper continued. “He had been operating for almost seven years. What he did to those children goes beyond… well, I find it incomprehensible. Whatever was going through Grade’s mind one can only speculate.
“The police were alerted to Grade’s activities when one of his would-be victims turned out to be the son of an LAPD beat cop. The boy had suspected that there was something bogus in Grade’s story, and had run away when approached. This may have happened dozens of times, there’s no way of telling, but this boy decided to tell his father. Dad saw a parallel with a case he had heard about at work and the police got a description of the suspect from the child.”
“But he escaped,” Danny concluded. “And he ran me down.” Danny thought about all that he had seen for a few moments, then he looked at Doctor Harper, his brow furrowed with confusion. “Why have you told me all of this, Doctor?”
“Reconstruction,” Harper said, looking significantly at Danny’s broken body, the places where his legs and arm used to be.
After a few moments, Harper explained. “We could give you new limbs, made of plastic and metal. You could walk on heavy, uncomfortable legs, or sit in a wheelchair, working the joystick with your remaining hand, Mister Brennan. We can do whatever you wish. Or, we could give you new legs, a new arm. Real, flesh and bone, with blood running through the veins, senses attached to your brain.”
“A graft?” Danny asked.
“A graft,” Harper agreed. “To do that sort of surgery, however, we need a donor. We need to find someone of a similar build, with compatible physical traits, from whom we can take these things for you. You understand?”
“I’m 27 years old. So you’d need to find someone who died prematurely,” Danny reasoned. “What are the chances of finding someone like that?” he asked, feeling uncomfortable with the question, almost like he were willing someone to die merely by voicing it.
“We already have a donor, Mister Brennan,” Harper told him, “but you may not want to go ahead with the operation. That’s why I showed you the news report, told you about Jason Grade.”
Danny shook his head, trying to comprehend what the doctor was suggesting. “I don’t follow you. Are you trying to tell me that this Grade guy…”
“He died in the crash, the same day we saved you. Head trauma, but his body was intact. He’s an ideal physical match. We’ve kept him frozen for the last three weeks, waiting until you could make a decision,” Harper told him. “We have the ability to let you walk again, if you’re willing to accept the donations from the man who very nearly killed you. If you’d accept the limbs of a convicted child serial killer.”
Danny thought about this, trying to get his mind around the position he had been put in.
“It’s a hard decision,” Harper agreed, “and nobody is going to rush you into making it, one way or the other. But the option is there. If you could let me know sometime in the next few days, that would be good. And if you want to speak to me, or to one of the psychiatrists or counsellors here, just let me know.”
Harper watched him a few moments before leaving the room, politely closing the door behind him. Danny stared at the wall, wondering how it would feel to have legs and arm again.
Sitting in the wheelchair, gathering his strength as he prepared to exit the hospital, Danny Brennan flexed the right arm attached to his shoulder. His arm, he reminded himself.
Six months ago he had gone ahead with the operation that Harper had suggested, and his body had accepted the three donor limbs from Jason Grade’s frozen corpse with few complications. Drugs had been used to halt the natural rejection processes and, now, Brennan had two legs and two arms once again.
He had lived that whole time in the hospital, spending hours in physiotherapy, getting used to the new appendages that had been attached to his nerve endings. He still tired easily, was still shaky on his legs, but he could walk comfortably, could clutch and lift things with his right hand almost as well as his left. Writing was difficult, of course–he had been right handed before the accident. And, Danny acknowledged, he could never return to his old occupation of graphic designer. But Doctor Harper had assured him that there was something lined up for him.
Jason Grade had been an evil sadist, Danny knew, and accepting his limbs had disturbed him at first, given him nightmares, stopped him from sleeping at all. But Danny had got past his initial reservations–this was a chance for something good to come from the disaster, from Grade’s life of evil. There was no Beast with Five Fingers scenario looming in his future, Danny knew. The evil was in the mind, not in these limbs.
And he was whole once again.
Danny eased himself out of the wheelchair as Doctor Harper approached, thanking the nurse who had pushed him to the reception area of the hospital.
“Doctor Harper,” Danny said, smiling. “I’m so glad to see you. I have so much to thank you for.”
Harper shook his head, dismissing the younger man’s thanks. “It was really the surgeons who did all the hard work, Danny. I had nothing to do with it.”
“No, that’s not true. You gave me the chance, told me the options. I’m very grateful for that.” Danny extended his right hand to the doctor, and Harper took it, shaking it firmly. In his mind, it felt like Danny’s hand was clutching Harper’s, not a graft, not an attachment, not an alien addition to his body.
“Good luck, Danny,” Harper told him, before heading back into the confines of the hospital.
Tentatively, Danny walked through the automatic doors, out into the sunshine. He scanned the turning circle outside the hospital, looking for a cab to take him home. In the small car park, off to the side of the turning circle, a squad car waited, two police officers sipping from paper cups of coffee. When they saw him walking out of the hospital doors, one of the officers poked the other in the ribs, pointing to the approaching figure.
The cops stepped out of the blue-and-white, looking in Danny’s direction. One of them called to him: “Mister Brennan? Daniel Edward Brennan?”
Danny nodded, confused. “Yes, officer. I’m Danny Brennan,” he began.
“You’re under arrest, sir,” the officer continued, pulling his revolver from his holster, levelling it at Danny.
“What?” Danny asked. “There has to be some mistake. I’ve been in the hospital for the last seven months. What did I do?”
As one of the police officers slipped handcuffs over Danny’s wrists, the other officer explained. “You’re charged with the serial murder of sixteen children in the California area, sir.”
“But I didn’t,” Danny protested.
The officer looked Danny up and down with disdain. “You strangled them with that hand, kicked them with those feet, stomped on your victims until they died from internal bleeding.”
“That wasn’t me,” Danny pleaded. “That was Grade. Jason Grade. You know that…”
“Yes, sir,” the officer told him as he shunted Danny into the back of the squad car. “And you’re what’s left of him to go to trial.”
Anger surged within Danny Brennan as the squad car pulled into the downtown traffic. He hollered at the police officers, demanding a lawyer, complaining how ludicrous this was, pleading that he was an innocent man. The police officers ignored him, following their orders: The families of Jason Grade’s victims demanded justice, however they could secure it. They would look at the reconstructed man and see the evil he had perpetrated, in part or in whole.
The prisoner in the metal box was screaming as his cell hurtled across the ground at high speed, throwing him from side to side within
Rik Hoskin is a comic book writer and science fiction novelist from England. His current comic book work includes the Mercy Thompson urban horror comic from Dynamite (USA), and Star Wars and Doctor Who comics in the UK.
He currently writes novels under the pen-name James Axler, and has been the lead writer on the Outlanders series since 2008 as well as contributing five volumes to the post-apocalyptic Deathlands series, both published by Gold Eagle/Harlequin Books.
Rik’s work previously appeared in the first issue of Black Treacle. His short stories have also appeared in SQ Mag, Disturbed Digest and several anthologies, with upcoming stories in the XIII anthology from Resurrection House, and Red Squirrel Magazine in China.
His next James Axler novel is Outlanders: Judgment Plague. A full listing of his book work can be found here: