As the doctor prods away, I stare up at the ceiling, the red light of the smoke detector slowly blinking.
“Already a year,” I mutter under my breath.
“Hm?” Dr. Sharma looks up at me, wrapping what remains of my arm in a tight cloth. “Oh! A year since… yes, and in this year, you’ve healed great. The skin has formed over the cut well, and you’ve regained mobility in the elbow too.”
“And what good is that when It’s not attached to anything?” I ask as he pushes away from the floor on his office chair, the wheels squeaking as he returns back to his desk.
“What good it is, is that once you get yourself a prosthetic, you’ll have more mobility than most in your position,” he answers, a smile that tries desperately to cover the pity he feels for me. “Listen, I know it was your dominant arm, but once you save up, you’ll be able to get yourself a bionic arm. Hm? Sounds kinda cool, doesn’t it?” The smile even more forced now.
“Save up, and what job will hire me now, I can’t even write my fucking… I can’t even write my name without it looking like child scribble. Don’t have the strength to work labour, the patience to work a desk.”
“Maybe retail, it’s an easy enough-“
“I’d rather take my luck with an upturned hat on the street than retail. I don’t like people,” I interrupt, my patience running more and more thin.
“I can tell. Maybe a fundraiser, we’re a small enough town people will know you, know what you did, who you saved,” his voice stern, his patience running just as thin.
“Yeah, maybe I’ll go door to door and ask nicely. If that girl’s family can’t even spare me a look around town, then who’s going to throw me, what… twenty, thirty grand?”
Dr. Sharma sighs, shaking his head. “We have people for this, I’m good with the wounds I can see, the one’s I can’t, not so much.”
“I’m not getting a therapist.”
“Fine, fine. Let’s just finish up for today. Speaking of wounds you can’t see. How’s the phantom pain? Last month you said it felt like an itch you couldn’t reach.”
“Pain, It’s agony. My hand still feels like it’s in that fire. It’s worse at night, meds only help knock me out, then it wakes me right up again after a couple hours.” I stare at the stump, losing focus I can almost daydream the arm back in place, but it still holds the flames.
“I’m sorry about that, let me prescribe you something else, it’s a little stronger but takes longer to kick in, hopefully should last through the nights,” he says, writing a prescription and handing it to me, my right instinctively moving forward before I correct myself to take it in my left hand, scrunching it up into my pocket.
“See you next month,” I stand and head for the door.
“There won’t be a next month I’m afraid, Bray. It’s been a year, you’re all healed. Anything to be done now is out of my hands, and in yours… sorry,” A simper of a smile. “Basically, it’s all up to you now. There’s nothing more I can do for you.”
“I see, well. Thanks… thanks for cutting my arm off when it needed cutting off,” I joke.
“Oh,” he laughs. “It’s been a long time since you told a joke, Bray. Keep your head high, okay?”
“I’ll try, later.”
* * *
“Hensley!” The pharmacist calls out , holding the little white bag of painkillers in her hand.
Taking it, I turn to leave and almost bump into a woman on my way out. Under matted hair I recognise her as the mother of the girl I rescued, avoiding my eyes now as she always does, but for that brief moment our eyes locked I sensed a fierce anger. Beside her the small girl, though taller now my head still had to tilt down to see her, though on a hot day she wore a pullover purple hoodie, the hood pulled all the way up and her hands in thick black gloves. Looking up at me the burnt face smiles sweetly, like she remembered who I was. A fierce tug at the arm and her expression sours and falls sad again, the hood hiding her face in shadow as she’s led away to the front of the pharmacy. After the fire I never did get a thank you from the parents, perhaps guilt because of what happened to me, what I lost... but maybe something more.
* * *
Back home I watch as the sun creeps down and the day comes to an end, I feel the small irritation that’s itched away at my stump flare up again, just like every night. I feel the fire spread from my elbow to the tips of my fingers, my palm blistering in the heat, the muscles in my arm cooking, my fingers burning until the nerves die, and it all turns numb. The weight of the wooden beam crushing the bone while the little girl cries out as she runs away engulfed in flames, her words caught in her throat as she struggles to tell the firefighters I’m still trapped, sitting there struggling as the heat grows closer and closer, everything fading to a dizzy black. As the pain reaches that unbearable point, I throw the meds away from myself, living with this pain is something I’ll endure, I have to. I won’t become addicted again, every night spent in a daze of numb nothing, at least the pain is real. All too real, as for a moment I can feel more than just the fire, but the splitting of air as I wave my hand free from the flames. The pain must be too much, as I’m seeing, no… feeling things. The texture of the wall, the cool of the air con. Collapsing to the ground I roll around in the fire, after all this time It finally reached me, reaching for help I feel my phantom limb grip something, cold and refreshing for a moment the burning is soothed. Bringing my hand to a fist the soda can across the room is crushed and bursts, staring in dazed horror as the soda runs down my hand, I see its shape, the palm, the fingers, trickles of liquid running down the wrist and forearm. As the final drips of soda fall to the ground, the image of my hand fades with it, now invisible again.
Startled back to reality I shake my head clear, did I take the meds and forget, to hallucinate so vividly, so clearly.
The door goes again, this time louder. “Coming!” I shout out, rising to my feet and heading to the front door.
Opening it I’m greeted with a man, slumped over with fresh vomit over his shoes, a stench of liquor that stung the nostrils so bad I could taste it. “Ah, number eight, knew it was one of these,” The man mumbles, a string of drool slowly falling from his open mouth.
“Can I help you?” I ask, ready to close the door on him.
“Why’d you save her? You were too late. You… you ruined her face. My little girl,” the man sobs, now recognising him as the father of the girl I’d saved. “Stupid woman wouldn’t shut up about you when she came home, on and… on. Wishing you’d just left her under that beam.”
“I can’t even look at it, not my girl, not anymore.” Pushing his way inside, not slumped over anymore he’s taller than me, probably stronger too as I stumble back inside the apartment. “Why… why didn’t you let it burn!” he shouts, pushing me against the wall.
“What the fuck are you saying, I saved her, get the fuck out of my home!” I shout back, my heart fast and restless, my stomach twisting in anxiety.
“It would have been kind… a fucking mercy!” Pushing me again, this time harder, returning with a push of my own but weaker, he catches his footing easily and hits me hard. Falling to the floor I feel a strong kick to my stomach, winding me. “You’re cruel, to leave my girl a monster,” he sobs.
“She’s not a monster, she’s your daughter,” I mewl, another kick, this one surely cracking a rib as everything falls dark for a moment.
That same phantom pain again as my hand begins to burn up, the heat so painful it distracts me from the attacks of the man, until I feel a different warmth, the pulse of the man’s neck strong against the inside of my palm I squeeze hard. The attack over, the man scratching desperately at his own neck as his face turns red then purple, the pulse turning weaker. His legs flail in the air as I lift him from the ground, floating in panic his eyes begin to glaze over as I let go in horror.
“I’m... I’m sorry. I just wanted you to stop,” I apologise as the man splutters and coughs, his neck red raw and bruising. Stumbling and falling over himself, he turns to flee, running out of my apartment and sprinting the best he can towards the stairs. “Wait!” I shout out after him, running behind him I reach out with my right arm to stop him, the imprint of my hand pressing into the fabric of his shirt as his neck jolts back and he falls. A loud snap as his head hits the final step, staring up at me from the bottom of the stairs, his head twisted and frozen in shock, dead.
* * *
Still the dead of night I stand at the door to the doctors, the only place I could think to flee to, where else would I go, who else could I talk to. My heart still a rush and my stomach a tight knot. I can’t wait outside till morning, I have to get inside. I contemplate breaking the window of the door, a petty crime compared to the murder I just committed. Then I feel my hand, I feel it drift through the chill of the glass, pass by, and rattle the blinds, and grip onto the cold metal of the handle, then turn, and the door opens. In shock of the surreal I walk inside and take a seat in his office chair. The drowsiness now hitting me, I fight as my eyelids turn heavy, maybe I’ll close them for just a second.
“Bray?” I hear from the corner of my mind, my nightmare interrupted. My eyes slowly open, the blinding light of morning bleeding into the room as he stands there staring down at me. For a moment I thought to ask what he was doing in my bedroom, in my house, and then it all came back to me.
“Morning,” I utter back, my mouth dry and still full of blood.
“What happened to you? I’m no mob doctor, if you’re getting into fights I want no part,” he says, opening the door again to leave, but I grab onto his arm to stop him. “Let go, come on let’s get you to the hospital.”
“I killed him,” I gasp, now turning back around he sees me still seated, but the warm grasp of my phantom hand around his arm, holding him in place. In stunned shock he stares at me, then at his arm, the imprint of my fingers pressed into his jacket.
* * *
“Part of me thinks I should admit you; I always knew you needed someone to talk to, but maybe I should admit myself too, surely I’m seeing things,” Dr. Sharma says, his words feeble as he stares at the objects floating in front of him.
“You’re seeing things, but so am I. Feeling them too, I can’t explain it, it’s detached from me, but still a part of me. And now I’ve used it to kill someone.”
“It’s not your fault, Bray. He was killing you, in your home, drunk. They’ll see that, and they’ll see there’s no fingerprints either. Just a fall, an accident.” A hopeful glimmer in his eyes.
“No, there was bruising already forming around his neck, it’ll be a clear handprint, and… fuck.” My head falls in dread.
“After he fell, I checked his pulse… with my left hand.”
“Ah… fuck indeed. You’re lucky I wanted an early start today, I doubt anyone’s found the body, yet… so gather yourself, and get out of town,” Dr. Sharma says, that glimmer of hope now shadowed by his furrowed brow.
“I guess I’ve wanted out for a while now, good enough reason.” I stand and head towards the door. “A confession, if you’ll let me?”
“I’m no priest, but of course.”
“When I held that man up and felt his life slip away, the pain went with it… I don’t feel the burn anymore.”
“Troubling,” Dr. Sharma replies, an unease in his voice. “And what do you feel now?”
“Something much worse than fire.”
“May I... share something too? That little girl, I think she was being mistreated by her parents even before that fire, in here for mystery bruises, falling down the stairs, bullied at school,” he says, fiddling with his fingers like he was nervous. “Her mother was in here just after you, another doctor but here asking for sleeping pills. Saying her daughter could barely catch an hour each night. After what you’ve shared, I don’t think that was true at all.”
“I see… thank you for sharing, Doctor. Later.” I open the door as he holds his hand out, taking it with my right he’s startled for a moment, a blush of embarrassment across his face as he holds it tight and shakes my hand.
“Good luck out there, friend.”
* * *
Walking around this early was new for me, lucky to wake up after noon, I found comfort in the empty town. The shops all still closed, everyone’s curtains pulled shut and houses dark, I felt safe. Safe to reach inside this strangers car and unlock it from the inside, but how to start it. Walking towards the front door I peer inside and see the keys on a countertop, I see them as they carefully rise, slowly so as to not jingle them and wake anyone. Luckily, they have a letter plate as the keys are now safely in my real grasp. Another crime to add to what I’m sure will grow into a very long list.
Starting it up and both hands on the wheel the engine roars and I feel painfully aware of the noise as I slowly pull out of the driveway and speed off down the road. A couple miles and I pass the exit sign to this dreary town, as the town shrinks further and further behind me I see the smile of that little girl looking up at me and I brake hard. That fire starting up again, the burn in my hand so painful and real I worry it’ll melt the steering wheel. Turning the car around I head back into the town I was so close to finally being free from. To calm the phantom burn again, I know what must be done.