The boy had heard about phantom limb pain long before he had the majority of both of his arms and legs amputated.

    The way he understood it, a guy with, say, a missing arm would imagine that his arm was right there attached to his shoulder the way it always had been, only the imaginary arm would be shorter than his real arm. And the guy would feel real pain in that arm sometimes, too. He would think his arm had been contorted, or was trapped in a block of ice, or had been set on fire.

    Thankfully, the boy hadn’t experienced this, though somewhere between fifty and eighty percent of people who are missing a limb do. Even those people who are born without a limb in the first place, who have never known while they are living and breathing what that arm or leg is supposed to feel like.

    But the boy did experience—his second month in the hospital and during the first few months he was at home—something he hadn’t ever heard of: Phantom limb pleasure. He would just be sitting there, doing nothing, and suddenly it would feel as if his arms were fully at his sides. He would think he was doing a tombstone rubbing at the old Civil War cemetery, holding a sheet of rice paper in one hand and a thick piece of drawing charcoal in the other. In his head, he would be transferring what was etched into the tombstone onto the paper, and he would imagine the battles that the former soldier had fought in. He would imagine the smell of gunpowder, the sound of a boy beating a single drum.

    Or he would think that his legs were carrying him out into the Snake’s Head River. The water would be low, and Wildflower Island would be right there in front of him, just a few steps away. He would imagine getting to the island and lying down on his back, putting his feet up on the low-hanging branch of a shrub.

    Sometimes, the pleasure the boy would feel during these moments would be like its own kind of pain. There would be such joy running through his imaginary arms and legs that they would ache, throb with it.

    Sometimes, too, he would feel in his imaginary arms what he felt right before he was electrocuted.

    He knew better than to grab that power line, but when he got close to it, when it was lying there in the rain and grass right in front of him, just a few inches from his feet, he could feel this energy coming off it.

    It was like the field you can sense when you try to bring two similarly charged magnets toward one another—invisible but forceful—except the energy the boy felt coming off the power line was warm. And instead of repelling him the way those similarly charged magnets push one another away, it was drawing him toward it.

    Right before he was knocked unconscious, right before all those volts of electricity surged through his body, the boy felt in his arms a kind of heat he had never known.

    And sometimes, that heat would be out in front of him again, asking him to take hold of it, and his imaginary arms, even though they knew the damage that awaited them, couldn’t help themselves. They reached out for the warmth without hesitating, wanting to feel, if only for the fraction of a second, the wire’s magnificent and terrible heat, wanting it again to enter them.





Chad Simpson lives in Monmouth, Illinois, and teaches fiction writing at Knox College. His stories have appeared in several magazines, including McSweeney's Quarterly, Barrelhouse, Esquire, and The Sun. "Phantoms" is excerpted and adapted from his young adult novel-in-progress, Twilight, Indiana.









Back to Freight Stories No. 6

 


Chad Simpson

Phantoms