Phantom Limb

Chapter 7

Story by Ray




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When winter break came, I did end up hitching a ride back to Foxboro with Adam. Along the way he talked about plans he had with some friends back home. Most of the names were at least familiar, and even if I didn’t know any of them personally, it was oddly satisfying to be able to put a face to them.

As Foxboro grew closer, he quieted down a bit. He turned off the radio. When we entered the city limits, he asked me a question I wasn’t prepared to answer. “What do you want to do with your life? Any ideas?”

Hell if I knew. There were countless things I wouldn’t mind doing, but none of those things really stood out to me. It was like being asked to choose the best key on a piano, or explain which letter of the alphabet was better than the others; they all seemed fine to me. Every key, every career, every letter, every pass time—all of them were okay. None of them were bad, but none of them seemed all that special either. So when Adam asked what I wanted to do with my life, all I could do was shrug and ask what he wanted to do with his.

“I think I want,” he began, but stopped himself. He started over with, “I think I need to make a difference.”

That kind of vague determination sounded familiar, but it wasn’t the pleasant familiarity of putting a face to a name. I had to ask him, “What do you mean by that exactly?”

“So like, take any social issue. Homophobia would be a good example I guess, since we’ve both been there. There’s nothing wrong with being gay. Growing up I figured there must be, since hardly anyone talked about it, and when they did, they almost made it sound unhuman. But no, turns out there’s not a single reasonable argument that can explain why being gay is a bad thing.

“So why is it a problem? Well, I think it’s the same thing as racism or sexism or any of those other isms. People just allow it to happen, and for a long time, sometimes fucking centuries, nobody really questions it. It takes special people to go against—”

He was cut off by sirens, and I glanced in the rearview mirror to see a cop car behind us.

“Shit, I guess I was speeding, I didn’t even notice,” he said, almost making it sound like an apology. As he pulled over, he finished up with, “Anyways, the world needs more heroes. I just hope I can be one of them: a hero like you.”

Yeah, Regis the hero. A legal adult who wasn’t able to get through a week without some kind of nervous breakdown. A scrawny guy who spent most nights in an objectively warm bed, trying not to shiver so he wouldn’t wake up his roommate. A faggot who not only couldn’t get over something that happened months ago, but who couldn’t even say whether a murderous sociopath was a bad person.

Hell, Drake was more of a hero than me. He was the one who went out of his way to make a difference. At least he actually thought about it. Whenever I stood up for something, it was just a stupid impulse. Drake had been thinking things through for months, maybe years. He wasn’t academically gifted, but he was a genius off paper. So if he thought about it for that long, then he must have realized something, even if it was something I could never understand. I was careless. Drake was the hero of lesser circumstances.

I tried to push these ideas aside as the officer talked to Adam. Still, I knew there was some truth to the train of thought, and I hated to take away its momentum.

Adam dropped me off at home, and I couldn’t help but smile when I opened the door and heard my mom’s voice. We’d talked on the phone of course, but it just seemed so much more real in person. Even if nothing exciting happened, it was good to be home. Rycroft may not have been a terrible place, but if I had to spend the rest of my life there, I don’t think the rest of my life would be especially long. Foxboro was where I belonged. I might not have realized it before leaving, but really, it was the only place where I felt at home.

When Iris came over the next day, I didn’t think I would survive the onslaught of attention. After getting over the initial joy of seeing each other, we ended up going for a walk. The town I was in and the friend I was with could make up for the brisk wind. The familiar sights, the familiar sounds, even the familiar air; I questioned why I ever felt the urge to escape from such a perfect place. Then we happened to walk by Mason’s old house, and I remembered that there’s no such thing as paradise.

Mason held a strange place in my memory. For the longest time, I felt that he was the only person on the face of the earth who could disappear and make the world a better place. Even when he died, I wasn’t too upset over it. I was more devastated by the loss of Drake’s humanity than by the loss of another human being, and what did that say about Regis the hero?

As if reading my mind, Iris asked, “Do you think about them too?”

“Are you kidding? In class I hardly learn anything, because the whole time the professor’s talking, I’m just imagining what I would say if I saw Drake again. Half the people I see scare the shit out of me, since I’m always thinking about what those last moments must have been like for Mason, and when I look up and see the person’s face, I see Mason’s instead, for just a split second. I spend every night staring at my door, hoping Drake will knock. I miss him Iris. It probably makes me a terrible person to even say that, but I miss him.”

Iris pulled me into a hug. There, in front of Mason’s old house, she whispered to me a dangerous secret: “Me too.”

I hugged her back. Because I believed her, and goddammit was I sorry to hear that.

A few blocks later, she asked if I’d thought about seeing anyone new.

“Not really,” I told her. “I don’t think there’s anyone I could be that intimate with. Like, ever.”

“You can’t just spend the rest of your life alone.”

“Well watch me try,” I said, somewhere between a bitter joke and a bitter truth.

Iris almost looked concerned. “What about Adam? I know you’ve been talking to him.”

“I’m sure I could like him as a friend, but I doubt there could ever be much more than that. Listen, I know it sounds depressing as hell, but I don’t mind spending the rest of my life alone. It might not have taken long, but I’m sort of burned out on love.”

At that moment, the chilling winds trumped the warm familiarity, and we headed for the shelter of Iris’ house. Before we made it halfway there, a car pulled up beside us, and a voice called, “Hey, faggot!”

I could barely believe I was hearing that right. It wasn’t news to me that some people had a problem with my lifestyle, but even Mason had a filter, albeit a poorly functioning one. I had to see who this was. I turned to the car, and saw that it was nearly full of people. Leaning out of the driver’s side window, with a goofy grin on his face, was Adam.

Iris and I walked closer to the car, and I forced a laugh. “You really had me there.”

“Thought you’d appreciate it. Want a ride to someplace less blizzardy?”

I turned to Iris. She smiled, and said, “You can go have fun with your new friends, but I should probably get home soon.”

“Are you sure? It’s not even dark out.”

“Yeah, but you know how my parents are; they still think I’m twelve for some reason. Really, go ahead, I won’t mind.”

“If you don’t want me to—”

Regis,” she interrupted, grabbing my shoulders and turning me towards Adam’s car. “I want you to. It’s alright, we’ll see each other plenty during the break, and I can handle you being around other people.”

I was all but forced into the backseat on the driver’s side, right behind Adam. In the passenger seat was somebody I’d seen before, and I shared the back with an equally familiar face. Neither of them would look at me, but I recognized them either way. They were the two kids who had been in the house where Drake and Mason went drinking.

“Yeesh, she was in a hurry to get rid of you, huh?” Adam noted. Pointing to the kid in the passenger seat and then to the one in the back, he said, “This is my little brother Cody, and his best friend Jody.”

“It’s just Joe,” one insisted.

“Alright then Joe, what’s your last name?” Adam asked. I could see him grinning in the rear view mirror already.

Joe rolled his eyes, and mumbled, “Drew.”

“Well there you have it. Joe D., Jody—you can barely hear the difference. Now as long as you’re in my car, your names are gonna rhyme and you’re gonna like it,” Adam commanded. Joe kept quiet, and Adam clarified, “Come on, you know I’m joking.”

“Yet you still call me Jody.”

“And I always will,” Adam promised, stepping on the gas as we rounded a turn. The car drifted along the snow caked road, and the brothers in the front seat whooped and hollered as the car glided, freed from its typical traction. I managed a smile. It was good to feel that lurch, those bumps, and then the snap back to a smooth course.

When Adam pulled up to a certain house, that smile vanished. It was the house where I’d first run into Cody and Joe. It was the last place I really remembered seeing Mason alive.

I got out of the car and followed Adam through the front door. There were already a dozen or more people inside, some of whom looked more familiar than others. Rock was on the radio, beer was in almost every hand, and as promised, the place was plenty warm. It beat the hell out of the cold air outside, at least. Cody and Joe were quick to join a circle of younger people. I couldn’t imagine that I was a very intimidating person, but under the circumstances, I could understand why I might be discomforting. Adam set off down a creaky old set of stairs, and I followed, curious to see where Drake and Mason had spent some of their last days in Foxboro.

It was much quieter in the basement. The sound of Armageddon Radio still reverberated through the ceiling, but it was muted, and difficult to make out the specific song. They’d finally given up on Flashpoint Zero though.

There was basically nobody else downstairs—only one guy passed out in an ancient-looking rocking chair. Essentially, Adam and I were alone.

He opened a fridge, and offered, “Beer, pop, water…”

“Any soda’s fine.”

“Sounds good,” he said, tossing a can my way and taking one for himself. We each took a chair on opposite ends of a coffee table, which Adam reached under to retrieve a chess board. Holding it up, he asked, “Know how to play?”

I nodded. It had been years, but there was no doubt that I remembered how. It was a game Drake had liked and Mason had hated, so I got plenty of enjoyment out of it.

As we set up our pieces, Adam said, “Hope you don’t mind that I took you away from the party up there, but this seemed more your style.”

I nodded again. “Yeah, you’re not wrong. Thanks for recognizing that.”

“Hey, it’s what I do. So, still no idea what you’re going to do when you graduate from Rycroft?”

“Not a clue,” I said, placing my last rook on the board. “You’re up first, when you’re ready.”

He nodded, and reached for the pawn in front of his king. “Well I have an idea for you. Something to think about.”

“Alright, let’s hear it,” I said, moving a pawn forward to mirror his.

He slid his queen through the opening he’d created, bringing it within a couple spaces of my pieces. Nothing significant was at risk, but it was still a bit unnerving. “Yesterday I said I wanted to be a hero, but I never got the chance to explain what I meant by that.”

“Yeah, I was wondering what you had in mind,” I said as I moved another pawn forward, prepared to take his queen in the next turn. It looked like a solid defense. Even if he tried to take the pawn before it could take his queen, the pawn was backed up by two others, so he would still lose the queen unless he backed out. But it had been a while since I played chess.

He moved his queen over and took the first pawn I’d moved, putting his most powerful piece directly in front of my most vulnerable. “Check. Listen, I didn’t mean to worry you, but here’s what I’m thinking; I want to get into politics. I think you should too.”

I moved my bishop, blocking his attack. He could easily break through the defense, but if he did, there was no question that he would lose his queen. “I don’t know. I’m sure you’d be just fine at politics, but I didn’t even want to be part of that party upstairs. How could I ever stand in front of a crowd and deliver a speech?”

Adam moved his queen straight towards me, breaking my defense at the cost of his power piece. I wouldn’t even be able to spare it if I wanted to; he’d cornered my king so that it couldn’t escape, and according to the rules, I had to protect it by whatever means available. “Check, if you can even call it that. I figured you wouldn’t like the idea. But I’m asking you to think about it, that’s all. You have plenty of time to get over your fear of public speaking, and besides, you have everything a politician could ask for: a heroic story, a trustworthy face, and no shady past as far as I can tell. You’d be perfect. Just think about it.”

I used my queen to capture his. “Maybe you think so, but really, I just don’t see myself going that way. You said I don’t have a shady past, and that’s true enough, but in the present my mind can get shady as hell. At least if I get some job in a cubicle somewhere, nobody will be surprised when I lose it one day.”

Adam moved another pawn forward. “Just think about it.”

We continued moving pieces back and forth. At first, it was difficult to say who was winning. I held my side of the board, keeping all of my pieces near my king. Adam was persistent however, and even if he lost many of his own pieces, he was able to whittle mine down just as quickly. Eventually, as Adam advanced his rooks through what remained of my once solid defense, my king had nothing left to do but escape.

“Really though, don’t you want to make a difference? Check.”

“I thought you said I already did.”

“You did, and I’m not saying it wasn’t anything to be proud of. In one move you completely changed the atmosphere in the high school, and if that wasn’t enough, you literally saved lives afterwards. That was two days. Just imagine what you could do over two years. Check.”

“I didn’t do any of those things on purpose. Really, they just sort of happened.”

“Even better—just imagine what you could do in two years of actually trying. You could change the world. Check.”

“Who says?”

“I do. Checkmate.”

“Alright, I’ll think about it,” I said as I knocked my king over, conceding defeat. “Good game by the way. Do you play chess often?”

“It’s one of my favorites,” he said with a shrug. “Not that I can find many people to play it with.”

“You’ve got plenty of friends,” I pointed out, setting up my pieces again.

“Yeah, but to be honest with you, I’m not sure how I ended up being friends with them in the first place. They’re mostly good people, but none of them are interested in the same things as I am. Not that I can blame them; I’m into some pretty boring shit.”

“Hey, nothing wrong with that. Honestly, this is the most interesting day I’ve had in months. So if you’re boring, I wouldn’t even know what to call myself.”

We played a few more games, and talked over a few more things. It was engaging to think strategically again—to be locked in a battle of wits. Adam would push forward in each game, and I would have to find a way to stop him. Sometimes it worked, even if usually it didn’t.

As we set up our pieces for the final round, Adam asked, “So do you think you’ll ever be in love again? I’m not trying to hit on you this time, I swear, but you must have to open up at some point.”

“I really, really doubt that I’ll ever be in another relationship, let alone in love.”

As usual he advanced, and as usual I defended. Just like before, it was difficult to say who was winning. Even as we lost pieces, we lost them at the same rate. Even as he closed in on my king, I would escape to safety in a few simple moves. And even as the board looked nearly empty, there was no clear winner.

“I understand that you have a hard time trusting people, but there must be some part of you that wants to open up.”

“Then I don’t think you do understand, because I promise, there isn’t.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“I guess I’ll take your word for it, but I’m sorry, I still have a hard time believing that. Anyways, neither of us have the pieces to put each other in checkmate at this point, unless you see something.”

“No, it seems pretty impossible. Good game though.”

“You too man. I should probably get Cody and Jody out of here, and maybe you too. I didn’t mean to keep you for so long.”

 I pulled out my phone and checked the time. “Oh, yeah, I didn’t even realize. Thanks for picking me up by the way. You could’ve driven right past and I wouldn’t have even noticed.”

“Like I said, it’s what I do.”

I spent the rest of that break doing something that was long overdue, but that could only happen in Foxboro; I got myself back together. It was odd to think about how such an arbitrary place in the middle of nowhere could be so important to me, but somehow, I don’t think I could physically live without going back there every once in a while. It was home. It was the closest thing to Heaven I would ever experience, and maybe that was sad, but at least I knew that it was something real. Something I could go back to whenever I needed to. Something I could trust in to keep the uncomfortable thoughts in my head from completely surfacing.

Throughout the break, Iris kept me sane. She was a reminder of all the good things that had happened in Foxboro. There were some bad memories, and there had to be, but she did what she could to keep things more or less positive.

My mom also made a difference. She kept me warm. I don’t know how she did it, but she had these ways—just little things I could never hope to name—that made the world seem alright. She understood. She cared. Maybe that’s all there was to it.

And then there was Adam. He’s the one who gave me a direction in life, even if I wasn’t certain about it. Because of him, I declared my major as soon as I got back to campus; I went into political science. I figured I could always change it later on. In fact, I figured that I probably would. Everything about it felt off. I hated being in the spotlight, and I barely understood how politics worked. To top it off, I didn’t know the name of anyone in office except for President Valentine himself. I didn’t know if he was a good president or a bad one, or any of his policies, or anything at all really: nothing but the man’s name.

So there were only three reasons I declared a major in something I knew nothing about. The first thing was that, as Adam said, I had plenty of time to learn. Maybe it would even grow on me. The second reason, also from Adam, was that it would let me make a difference. I sure as hell wasn’t prepared to fix the entire world, if that was even a possibility. But if I could make things right for a few people, then I figured I might as well give it a shot. Clearly I had no compelling reason to live for myself, so I might as well live for the rest of humanity.

And that was honestly the last reason: political science was something. Just plain something. I could find meaning in it, and just like Foxboro, I could know it was there. It made things feel a lot less pointless, and a lot less empty. A lot less cold. I still wasn’t warm by any means, but by my second semester at Rycroft, I wasn’t on the verge of freezing anymore.


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