Phantom Limb

Chapter 1

Story by Ray




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Sometimes, the best one can hope for is escape. I’m standing outside a church, holding hands with another man, and we’ve both come here to escape in our own way. He says he’s running from the law. I say there are deeper things he’s trying to get away from, but cliches aside, I get why he’d want a fresh start.

My name is Regis Maxwell, and I’ve been escaping all my life—though when I was a kid, it was just called pretending. Let me paint the picture.

We were out in the woods, playing a game: escaping. By we, I mean myself and the three real friends I had back in those days. Mason was one of them. He was pretending to be a monster. He’d chased the other two up a tree, and it was my sworn duty to rescue them. Their names were Drake and Iris: a brave knight and a kindhearted princess.

Mason stomped around the base of the tree, using the deepest voice a ten year old could muster to challenge me to a fight. He held a gnarled stick, and he swung his club in such a way that would strike fear into the heart of any child. Still, I stood and faced him, wielding a stick of my own and building up the courage to test it.

“Monster!” I proclaimed, shifting my feet in the brush as I prepared to do battle. “Let my friends go, or else!”

Mason released a wicked laugh. “I’d like to see you try, stupid!”

And with that blow to my ego, we fought. He swung first, heaving the club over his head and bringing it down in a vertical chop. Acting on the impulses I’d spent years escaping to perfect, I moved my hands to either end of my staff and raised it up, causing a sharp thwack! as our weapons collided.

The monster’s blow proved mighty, and my staff was cracked in two. Tightening the grip on my new dual weapons, I unleashed everything. He tried to block my attacks, but his club was cumbersome, and he faltered more often than I struck. He tried to swing back, but I was too agile, and he couldn’t land a hit. In the end though, it wasn’t me who killed the monster. Leaping from the tree, the brave knight Drake pushed the mean monster Mason to the ground, where the beast closed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. He had been vanquished.

Drake and I high fived, and Iris climbed down from the tree. She thanked her heroic saviors, and we told her that it was no problem, that it’s what the good guys are supposed to do. Still, the princess persisted.

“Regis,” she smiled, brushing the hair out of her face. “For your bravery, you may kiss the one you rescued from the monster.”

I stared at the kindhearted princess Iris. She was leaning ever so slightly forwards, with a certain gleam in her eye. I doubt my face was ever redder. I glanced down at the mean monster Mason, whose eyes were still closed tight: a natural actor. I looked to the brave knight Drake, who was exerting an incredible effort not to laugh. My young mind racing, I faced Iris once again.

“No thanks,” I declared. “I don’t want to.”

Her smile vanished. “But you have to! Regis, it’s part of the game; when you rescue someone, you have to kiss them on the cheek!”

Well, fine then. I stepped forward. I closed my eyes, I held my breath, and I kissed the one I’d come to rescue, right on the cheek.

“Not him!” Iris shouted, and I locked up. I didn’t know if we were pretending anymore, so I just didn’t do anything at all; I could only stand there and take it as she asked, “How does that even work? Regis, you’re supposed to kiss the girl!”

I didn’t know where to look. I tried staring at the kindhearted princess Iris, but I couldn’t stand seeing her tears, because they made me shed tears of my own. I glanced down at the mean monster Mason, but he’d opened his eyes, and I could tell he was using them to judge me. I looked to the brave knight Drake, but his gaze was the worst of them all, because his deadpan stare didn’t tell me anything. It didn’t tell me he understood, or even that he was surprised.

I couldn’t escape with any of them anymore, so I had to escape from them. I tore through the woods, barely noticing the scratches that crossed my legs as I cut through the bushes. I heard somebody following me, but I didn’t care who, because I wouldn’t be able to look at any of them anyways. I only wanted to escape. When my lungs were too overworked to run anymore, I dove into a shrub. I hid. The footsteps behind me slowed down as they grew closer, and then they stopped all together.

“Regis?”

Drake’s voice.

“Regis, come back. I know you’re hiding. Just come back.”

He couldn’t see me. There was no way. I stayed tucked away, and I tried not to breathe too hard, even if my lungs stung as much as the thorny bush. I bit my lip. I kept my eyes closed tight.

“Regis, I know it was a mistake. I’m not mad at you, I promise. Stop hiding.”

I held back my breath, and my voice, and everything else that wanted to explode out of me. There was another shuffle as Drake sat down.

“I’m not leaving without you. My mom said we can have a sleepover, and we always have sleepovers when our moms let us. Please, stop hiding.”

We sat in the woods, neither of us quite sure where the other was. I don’t know how long we were there for. Sometimes when I think back, I only remember hiding for a few brief moments. Other times, it feels like a million years passed before I stood up and we saw each other.

“It wasn’t an accident. I meant to choose you.”

“Okay.”

No escape, no pretend, and no game. That moment was real. It must have been a little too real, because for years, we acted like it never happened.

Drake understood that I liked boys, even if we didn’t know the word for that yet. By the time we got to middle school and learned what being gay meant, Iris began to understand as well. But Mason was different. Even past middle school and throughout high school, he treated me like I was diseased. According to him, I was a plague on society: one he could cure with a strong enough dose of ridicule. It’s because of him that I continued escaping, even throughout high school. I pretended to be normal, and the act wasn’t just around him.

Of course, today I’m standing in the street among a crowd of thousands; a mob of religious extremists, any of whom would crucify me in a heartbeat. And I’m holding hands with a man, and truth be told, their judgements are the least of my worries right now. So something happened.

It was four years ago, roughly. We were camping that night. I sat between Drake and Iris on a fallen tree, while Mason paced along the same patch of grass for the umpteenth time, trying to avoid the smoke billowing up from the fire. We were all seniors in high school, and close to graduating in the class of 2012.

Squinting through the smoke, Mason asked, “Why the hell are we camping? It’s still too cold out.”

“Yeah,” Iris said, “that’s what the fire is for. Besides, if we waited until it was warmer, the mosquitoes would be back.”

“Well I’m going back in the tent. This smoke literally hates me right now,” Mason grumbled. I began to speak, but he interrupted: “Yes, literally. I know what I said.”

“Good night to you too, Mason,” Iris sighed.

“Mm, isn’t he just charming?” I asked.

“I heard that, faggot.”

“You were supposed to, and it’s not gay if it’s sarcasm.”

“Well it’s gay if you’re a faggot,” Mason countered before zipping the tent flap behind himself.

Iris told me to ignore him, and I nodded. “Trust me, I’ve been doing that for years. I’m just worried.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well forget about me; what’s he making other people think? There are no gays in our school. Doesn’t that seem strange? In fact it’s more than strange, it’s statistically impossible. I’m not saying it’s entirely his fault that everyone has to hide, but still, he can’t be helping.”

Iris reached for a stick. Poking at the fire, she said, “Just try not to think about it too much. Don’t do anything you can’t take back.”

I shrugged.

Iris flipped a log over, and I could hear the fire. Really hear it. It crackled as Iris prodded the burning wood, and there was something mesmerizing about it. I could get lost in the light, the warmth, the sounds, and I could forget that there was anything else in the world. The sound of waves on the nearby lake disappeared. The tent—harboring my only enemy in life—disappeared. My two best friends, sitting right beside me; even they disappeared, until Iris tossed her stick into the fire, snapping reality back into place.

“I’m going to bed too,” she said, standing up. “Wish me luck.”

“Night,” I said. “I might join you soon.”

Iris disappeared into the tent, and I leaned back, glancing at Drake. He hadn’t looked away from the fire since it had been lit. I wasn’t even sure if he’d blinked. When he got so absorbed like that… I wouldn’t admit it out loud that night, but I worried for him. And I had to break him away from it.

“You’ve been quiet today,” I mentioned. “Something wrong?”

Drake inched closer to the fire. “Nothing. Just thinking.”

“About?”

“Nothing.”

“It can’t be nothing if you’re thinking about it.”

“Why not? I’ve been thinking about nothing for weeks,” Drake said. A log snapped, sending embers airborne. A few settled on the tight curls of his hair, but he didn’t seem to mind, or even notice. “We live on an immeasurably thin line between nothingness and somethingness. It’s unbelievable.”

“Somethingness?” I questioned. He might have been staring at that fire for longer than I realized.

“Like, here on the ground, we get to experience somethingness. Then, not even a hundred miles off the ground is nothingness,” he explained, leaning even closer to the flames. “It’s a nothing so profoundly empty that it kills you. And Los Angeles is farther away than that.”

I nodded, and he continued. “You’re walking on the sidewalk, and you experience somethingness. You’re an individual with ideas and opinions and potential. A car swerves a few feet off the road and you turn into nothingness. It’s over, you’re done, and it amazes me that more people aren’t terrified by that. Even the few who realize it treat it like it’s unimportant. Like what they’re doing with their limited somethingness matters. I know I do. I could be doing anything. Instead I’m sitting here in the woods just outside Foxboro Nowhere, not doing a goddamn thing but existing.”

I reached out and pulled Drake away from the fire. After getting a look, I took back my hand. “Sorry, you were getting a little close. How does that not burn?”

Drake leaned back. Looking into the sky, he shrugged. “Bigger things on my mind I guess.”

“Yeah, that was… interesting. Somethingness you called it?”

He nodded.

I continued, “You’re right about it—how fragile things can be. But most of it is out of our control anyways.”

“It is out of control, and that’s exactly what worries me. But I’ll shut up before I bore you with some rant about free will or whatever. And Regis?”

“Hm?”

“One more thing.”

Drake turned his head and gave me a kiss on the cheek, and then he looked back into the fire. And that was it. The second he kissed me is the second things started happening to put me in San Samarra years later, holding hands with the love of my life. But I was so surprised—so stupidly happy—that I didn’t realize it. How could I? I could barely even talk.

“Was that…”

“Yeah man, you mean a lot to me; you’re my somethingness in the world. You’re why I hold onto hope that free will is real. If such a good person can exist, I’d hate to know it was all just a coincidence.”

I turned Drake’s head towards me and kissed his lips, with my eyes closed, holding my breath. Apparently some things didn’t change.

“Jesus, your face is hot,” I mentioned as we parted.

“Thanks, I like yours too.”

“You know what I meant,” I said. “You were way too close to the fire.”

“But you’re alright with this?”

“With us? Trust me, I’m more than alright with it. I just had no idea you felt the same way.”

“I didn’t, for a while,” he admitted. “I was never into guys. When you kissed me back in fifth grade, it was just another thing. But we got a little older, and I realized that in general, I was never into girls either. I’m more about individual people, and as soon as I knew that, it hit me; you and I were always more than friends.”

“Good.” I put an arm around Drake’s shoulders. “I’m not saying I wasn’t happy being just friends, but this is even better.”

We sat there, arm in arm, looking at the fire. I’d never felt so close to someone, and honestly, at first it was fucking terrifying. I wasn’t used to being so genuine. I was always hiding behind a wall of sarcasm, or a facade of apathy, or a few clever lies—just something to protect myself if things got too real. That moment with Drake was the realest thing I’d ever felt, and as my heart raced and I thought about what I could do to get out of it, it dawned on me. I didn’t want to get out of it. For the first time I could remember, maybe the first time ever, I had both feet in reality and no intentions of leaving.

So I settled in. I let myself lean against him, and my heartbeat mellowed out, and I took a couple of deep breaths. Reality wasn’t all that bad. I stared into the fire, and just like before, the world slipped away, piece by piece. Except for Drake. He stayed with me, as my somethingness in an abstract world of warmth.

I sat up. “As awesome as this moment is, it’s getting late. Are you coming to the tent?”

As I stood, Drake stayed in place. “I think I’m gonna sleep by the lake tonight, once the fire goes out.”

I nodded and said goodnight. With a bigot only a dozen feet away, it was probably best that Drake and I weren’t near each other anyways.

Before zipping the tent behind me, I cast one last glance back at him. He was staring at the fire again. He sat closer to the edge of the fallen tree. Wrapped up in the allure of the flames, Drake stumbled and fell forward into the burning logs. The night weighed heavier as I ran to him.

He released his breath in a string of curses and recoiled from the blaze. Lying on the ground and taking massive breaths, he tapped at his face. I knelt beside him, asking if he was alright. Still out of breath, he held up a trembling thumb and began laughing.

I joined in, and punched him on the shoulder before offering him a hand. As I helped him up, I asked, “My god, are you ever in pain?”

Drake leaned against me, using me for balance as he caught his breath. “Apparently not, now let’s get this fire out.”

“Still sleeping on the beach?”

“Yeah, that’s the plan.”

“Good, I’m coming with. I know you’re friends with him, but I swear, Mason even manages to annoy me in his sleep.”

We used Mason’s water bottle to extinguish the fire, and I got our sleeping bags from the tent while Drake kept an eye on the remaining embers. When they died out we made the short walk to the lake, and laid our sleeping bags down side by side. We talked for a while, kissed more than once, and fell asleep closer to one another than we ever had before. For once, my actions weren’t about escaping. I just wish I could say the same about his.


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