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Phantom Limb

by Seth Bleuer

It all happens so fast. Somebody yells. My body reacts. There is a loud deafening roar. The smell of gunpowder and copper fills my nose. Then the world goes black.

I wake up in a cold sweat, the echoes of a yell and an explosion rattle through my mind in the pitch black. That one moment plays over and over in my head. This time the memory is tainted with other images from over there. Faces of friends, long since dead. Body parts strewn about some dusty road filled with trash and smoke in the middle of Baghdad. A memory that I can only half remember, yet never quite forget. Phantom limbs that don’t seem to belong to anyone anymore. But at the core of it all is that one moment in time, like an anchor, constantly tugging at my very soul. Pulling me back. Dragging me downward as my life spirals out of control.

I want to look to the future, but the future is no longer there. I am trapped in a past that won’t let me go. There is nowhere to go. I grab a bottle of pills, I don’t bother trying to figure out what they are, it doesn’t really matter. I take a handful and swallow them. I grab another bottle, another handful of pills down the hatch. The room begins to spin. I feel like I am in a giant drain spiraling downward. The dark chasm below beckons me. I welcome it.

I paint the room again, this time a soothing light blue. I’ve heard that blue is supposed to convey trust. I don’t know how long I’ve been in this hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Long enough that I’ve painted the walls a sterile hospital white, a cold uninviting grey, and pastel yellow that reminds me of Easter eggs. Again and again I paint and repaint the walls. Today it’s blue. The couch I’m on changes at my whim too. Sometimes it’s a dark brown, sometimes it’s blue, never the same blue as the walls, that would be ridiculous. Other times it is patterned and multicolored. What never changes is that the fabric is cheap and scratchy against my skin. The truth is it’s black. Everything is black. It will always be black.

When my in-home care nurse found me that morning, I was near death. Closer even, than when I was blown up in Iraq, and that was about as close as it gets. I had taken a handful of Xanax and methadone. The latter I had acquired on my own, which apparently is frowned upon. Those two handfuls of pills, mixed with the fact that I was abusing my sleep medication, created a lethal combination. Unfortunately, I threw most of it back up while I was unconscious, and my nurse found me shortly after I had taken them. They say I should thank her for saving me from the brink. Snatched up from deaths door itself by this angel of mercy. Instead, I curse her for dooming me to this continued existence.

I should curse my mother too. The bitch drops me off in this hospital in Columbus while she sits comfortably in Cleveland, just so she won’t have to deal with me anymore. Like the short distance is an excuse to never have to come here. Of all the lousy luck, I get stuck back in Ohio. If I am such a fucking burden, why won’t they just let me go?

I swore when I was in high school that as soon as I escaped this lousy state I would never come back. The army was my ticket out. Three deployments to Iraq later and it was my ticket back home. Permanently. Someone has to take care of my sorry ass. Now I am trapped here. I mean I am literally trapped in this state. I’ve tried to get them to let me go, but they won’t release me. They tell me that I am a danger to myself. It’s not like I can escape, so I am officially trapped in fucking Ohio. Fuck.

My dad was a Vietnam vet. Never really talked much about it. Not to me anyways. When I was younger, I would sneak out and listen to him and some of his old army buddies talking in the garage while they drank beer. I don’t remember what the exact conversations were now, but I remember the tone, the feeling. It wasn’t what I expected. It was dark, sad, not at all like what you see in the movies. No glory, no bravado, no ego. Just a couple of middle-aged men reminiscing about the horror of it all. After three tours in Iraq I finally understand it. I wish to God that I didn’t.

My dad drank himself stupid one night at the bar and never made it home. Now my mother, who more often than not pretends I don’t even exist, is married to some asshole named Richard Burns. Seriously, what kind of name is Dick Burns? I can’t even think that name without laughing. But I seriously fucking hate that guy.

I’ve been trapped in this hell for so long. Not just this hell that is Ohio. No, my hell is much worse, which is saying a lot. Days turn into weeks. Weeks change to seasons. The autumn leaves change in a display of brilliant color, but I am denied their beauty. The winter comes and goes but my heart doesn’t thaw with the coming warmth. Spring promises new life, but the serenade of song birds announcing the new season falls on deaf ears. I pray for death.

My mind jolts from my daydream of light blue walls and a checkered patterned yellow and grey couch. Blackness surrounds me. Shadows move in the peripheral of my vision. The darkness brings the demons with it. They haunt me. Awake or asleep, it doesn’t matter.

The jolt back to reality sends my mind spinning. I try to push myself up but I can’t. I choke back a cry as fear threatens to send me into panic. I take a deep breath to try and calm myself, the sterile stench of hospital invades my nostrils as I breathe in deeply. I hear the squeak of dress shoes on linoleum tile. A door opens and those same feet pad across the carpeted room. The creak of a leather chair, announcing that it is no longer vacant, and soft breathing a few feet away from me tell me that a new doctor has arrived. I am fully prepared to ignore him, just like I do to the rest of the doctors, until he goes away.

“Kyle?” A voice asks from the dark. “My name is Doctor-“

“I don’t care what your name is, doc.”

A silence fills the room. So thick I can almost feel it like a blanket, warm and familiar, yet suffocating. I sigh loudly, just to be sure he knows how much his presence agitates me.

Maybe it’s the light blue walls that make me want to talk today. Maybe I have grown weary of this game. The doctors come, I ignore them and they go away. Day in and day out, it is the same monotonous routine. The truth. The truth is, I am afraid of the dark and the demons it brings. I look around at the different shades of black surrounding me before I speak, as if the sound of my gravelly voice might keep them at bay. But it doesn’t change the fact that I can’t escape. I live in the darkness now.

“My mom used to turn tricks in the backseat of our beat up old Ford. She would put me up front with ear muffs on. Like the kind you would use to keep your ears warm in the winter, you know? She thought I wouldn’t be able to hear what was going on that way. I was probably only five or six at the time, but I remember the sounds and the smells mostly. What a dumb bitch! Ear muffs! You believe that doc?” I reach with my right hand to rub the stubble on my chin while I talk. It’s strange, I can almost feel my chin hair on my hand. But I have no phantom sensation of my hand on my chin. “Anyways, that’s how she would pay for her smack.”

“Sorry, smack? What is smack?” He asks. The tone of his voice irritates me. I imagine some stupid smug look on his face.

I hate that he interrupted me. A rage boils up inside of me, and then simmers off into an impotent nothingness. What could I do now? Nothing. “Smack is heroin, doc,” I say in a matter-of-fact tone, like he should know that already.

“Is that what you want to talk about today Kyle? Your mother? Or your own struggle with addiction?” He asks in a soothing, gentle tone that further irritates me.

I’m still not used to only hearing things in my left ear. My right ear is so completely deaf that there isn’t even a hint of sound on that side. It’s disorientating, so I move my head towards his voice. I imagine what he looks like. I can only make out faint images of light and dark. A world of shadows. I think he sounds like he is about forty years old, balding on top, and carries an extra thirty pounds around, making him slightly pear shaped. But I don’t actually know. I will probably never know, unless I ask. I’m not going to ask. I might ask.

“Actually, doc, let’s talk about your mom,” I say with a raspy laugh. “Ask her why she never calls me anymore.”

“Well Kyle, my mother died two years ago from cancer. So, that is probably why she doesn’t call,” he says. His voice is even and calm, but I can sense the slightest bit of concealed anger and pain in his carefully chosen words. Now I feel like an asshole.

“Shit, doc, I’m sorry man.”

“It’s okay, Kyle. You couldn’t have known. It isn’t the first ‘your mom’ joke I have ever heard, you know,” he says with a small laugh. I can’t tell if it’s a real laugh or a fake one though. I was never one for reading tones. I could always pick up on the smallest facial expressions though. Now I am blind as hell. Damn.

I start to reach up with my right hand again and remember it isn’t there anymore. I reach up with my left instead and rub my eyes. I have a constant sensation like there is sand in my eyes, even though I know there is nothing there. “I tried to get help after I came home,” I say. I wait for him to talk but he doesn’t, so I continue.

“I took the pain meds but they weren’t enough. Sure I was in physical pain every single day, but we are kind of toughened to that kind of pain, you know? But the emotional stuff, man, that was a rollercoaster ride from hell. We aren’t trained for this fight after the fight. I went from running and hitting the weights every day to this,” I say with disgust, gesturing at my now broken body with my one remaining arm.

“I started using whatever drugs I could get my hands on. No, scratch that. Whatever drugs I could get my hand on. I left the other one in Iraq.” I can hear my own teeth grind when I talk. I take a deep breath and force myself to relax a little. “I was popping zannies like they were going out of style, and then I found fizzes man, and the rest, well I guess the rest is history. And here we are.”

“Sorry Kyle, but zannies and fizzies? I don’t know what that means.”

“Seriously doc? Damn, man. You should know this stuff, it’s the shit you prescribe to your patients. Zannies are Xanax and fizzes are methadone.”

“I see, sorry to interrupt,” he says, I can hear him writing something on his notepad with my one good ear. The scratching sound of the pen on paper irritates me and I start to tense up again.

I sigh and continue, mostly just to try and talk over the sound of him writing. “I guess it just seemed natural that I would end up an addict. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree you know? I mean methadone is an opiate, just like smack. Sorry, heroin in case you don’t remember what smack is. Anyways, at least I didn’t have to turn tricks for my smack. Government disability checks pay for everything I need. I would be terrible at handjobs, don’t you think, doc?” I pause and chuckle, waiting for a response. All I can hear is him breathing quietly. No sense of humor I guess.

“Say doc, are you right handed?” I ask. I don’t even wait for a reply. “I bet you are. You ever try and wipe your ass with your left hand? It took me years to figure that out.” This time I don’t have to wait long before he breaks the silence.

I hear the rustling of papers and then he clears his throat. “Your records show that you were an exemplary soldier Kyle. In fact, it says here you earned the Bronze Star for valor on the battlefield. You saved the lives of three of your comrades that day – “

“Oh yeah?” I interrupt. “And where are they now? Where the hell are they?” I make a show of turning my head and looking around the room, looking for my friends, even though we both know I can’t see a damn thing. “You’ll have to help me out here doc, I don’t see as well as I used to,” I snarl. “Let me tell you where they are. They are off living their lives, that’s where!” He starts to speak but I cut him off before he can utter a word. My emotions threaten to overwhelm me as my hoarse voice cracks. “And fuck your Bronze Star. My platoon leader got the same damn medal just for showing up and the prick never left the damn wire. I jump on a grenade and…” I realize I am choking on tears.

“I just want to be me again,” I whisper. “Why won’t anyone help me? The VA is useless. The crisis hotlines don’t answer half the damn time and when they do I just get put on hold or talk to some stupid, clueless, prick who has never served a day in his life, but wants to tell me everything is going to be alright and they understand. They don’t.”

“Kyle, I’m helping you now. I’m here.” His soothing voice infuriates me even more.

“Only because I overdosed and almost died!”

“I won’t deny that there are some… problems with the system, Kyle.”

“I didn’t even think about what I was doing. I heard someone yell grenade and I guess I just jumped on it. I didn’t even have time to think about what I was doing. I just did it. I know that Steve and Nate and James care. I know they do. But they moved on man, and I am still trapped in hell. Even when I try and end this nightmare I just wake up in another hospital. Do you know what it is like to wake up to darkness every single day? They come for you in the darkness doc, and I have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. This nightmare never ends. It just plays on a loop over and over again.”

“Who comes for you in the darkness Kyle?”

“Doc you need to understand this. No one fucking cares about these wars. Get that through your head. At home, no one cares. There is no draft, and so there is no chance of the rich or the privileged having to go, like in World War II or Vietnam. Americans aren’t invested in this war. No one cares!” I realize I am yelling at the end and take a few deep breaths. I can hear him breathing softly from his chair but he doesn’t speak. He just sits silently. By now he has probably figured out that I will just ignore his questions anyways.

“My mom lives in Cleveland,” I say. I hear him shift in his seat, the leather creaking slightly from the movement.

“She never touched drugs in her life. She lives happily in Cleveland with her new husband Richard. Who the hell names their kid Dick? Stupid name. Anyways, I haven’t heard from her in almost a year.”

“I know Kyle, I met your mom when you were admitted. She visits every week.”

“No she doesn’t!” I shout, irritated at him again. “I haven’t seen her in a damn year,” I can feel myself spit as I yell.

“Oh no, she doesn’t visit you, Kyle. She visits me every week.” There is a moment of silence between us. “Well, I guess we both suck at ‘your mom’ jokes,” he says with a laugh.

My own raspy laugh joins his, and in a moment, we are both laughing hysterically. “You are alright, you know that, doc?” I wipe away the tears from laughing so hard from my ruined eyes.

I pause and sigh. “Hell, I like you, doc. I’m going to be real with you. You want to know how I feel?” Again I don’t wait for a reply. “We are the forgotten ones doc. I am just like my arm here.” I can feel my right arm wave, but I know it isn’t there. A phantom limb that thinks it is still real. The raw nerves telling it that it still feels, but the only thing left is pain and darkness. “I am a ghost living in a shadow world,” I say with a sad smile. “In a way all of us are. We all left something over there.”