By Bobby Mathews
McKinney tamped the last bit of fertilizer down inside the blue, plastic drum and sealed the top. He had to be careful with the barrel. One wrong move with that much concentrated ammonium nitrate could blow everything all to Hell and gone before he was ready.
Instead of tipping the container over and rolling it, McKinney used a hand truck to move the barrel next to the others. Even though he must have looked like a madman, he couldn’t wipe the smile from his face.
The barrels were identical to the ones used to store ink for the press. The luminous watch dial on his right wrist displayed the time—almost 3 a.m. Everyone else had already gone. The web press hulked beside him in the darkness.
“Here we are.” McKinney’s words echoed in the cavernous space that had once been the heartbeat of The Herald’s print operation.
The press didn’t answer him. It never had. Even when the goddamned thing devoured his left hand, yanking it between the rollers with a wet and sickening crunch. As the bones snapped and gave way, the press had made nothing more than the hum of a child happily slurping up the remains of a milkshake.
That had been a terrible time for McKinney, but he had fought through the pain and learned to do everything one-handed. After months of rehab, he returned to the printing room with the empty left sleeve of his shirt pinned up. The bulk of the press in the middle of the floor, black and solid, had seemed to smile.
Hello, meat, he imagined it saying. Soon, I’ll be ready for another snack.
He avoided the press for a long time after that, contenting himself with driving the forklift, and moving two-ton rolls of newsprint into position for the other printers to attach. Every night, McKinney watched for a break in the long, wet streams of pulpy paper. He’d been a good pressman, and even now when his fear wouldn’t let him approach the beastly thing, he could see when the web was too heavy with ink, where a bad fold was about to gum up the works and cause a shutdown.
He knew the machine in a way that no one else on the floor did. And it knows me. It’s tasted my flesh, and it wants more. No matter how hard he tried, McKinney couldn’t shake the idea that since the accident, the machine always looked hungry.
He assumed he’d hidden his discomfort until one night in the bar when Higgins was drunk enough to be honest.
“You’re goddamn lucky,” the Australian expat said. He was always loud, but on this night he had to be. The jukebox was pounding “Never Gonna Change” by the Drive-By Truckers, and the place was rocking.
Reminding himself to relax, McKinney released his tight grip on his bottle of beer. A one-armed man didn’t need cuts on his one remaining hand.
“Coulda been your jack-off hand, couldn’t it?” Higgins laughed so hard his face went red.
McKinney stared at him until the man stopped.
“Look, I don’t mean no harm. We all understand, you know.”
The bartender took one look at McKinney and turned on his heel.
McKinney leaned into Higgins’s face and growled. “What do you think you understand?”
“Why you’re scared of the old girl. If it happened to one of us, we’d never go near her again.”
There was nothing left to say, so McKinney dropped some money on the bar and left. He stopped going out drinking with the crew. In the weeks that followed, he made a point to lay his remaining hand on the press.
Was it his imagination, or did the damned thing tremble when he touched its flank, like a racehorse ready to run?
It didn’t matter. The word came down from Corporate that they were moving the printing operation to a larger facility. Consolidating. They planned to decommission the press that had demolished McKinney’s arm. Within six months, the beast was to be sold and McKinney’s job eliminated.
A dim idea had been forming in his mind, but when he discovered the press would be dismantled and sold for parts, a fuse lit inside his brain.
You can find out anything online. Even how to make a homemade bomb.
McKinney didn’t cover his tracks. He didn’t care if everyone knew what he did. All he wanted was revenge. It had taken him weeks of careful preparation, of putting all the pieces of his plan together just so. And now almost everything was in place.
McKinney eyed the blue, plastic barrels. He had used his good—his only—hand to hoist himself on top of them, sliding his hip over the top and lying down on his back so that he could look up through the blank spaces where the newsprint had once trundled. He could barely make out the steel girders on the printing room ceiling.
I’ll never see the stars again. Once, that knowledge would have depressed him. Now, it steeled his resolve. The black-painted iron of the press loomed above him like a starving spider. He dug carefully in his pocket for what he wanted. Then, he rested for a little while, his hand on his belly, cupping the hard rectangle as though it were a fragile thing.
Six minutes after 4 a.m., McKinney touched the detonator, and then there was nothing but heat and light and a final thought.
He could see the stars again. He could. He could—