The Phantom Limb Monster

in Make a Monster 6 comments

Monster Parent: Karl Thornton (@ThorntonText)

Missy and Tom made an odd pair of roommates. In another life, one where they both had all their parts, they never would have shared a house, let alone been friends.

They’d met in physical therapy, where they were both being treated for the phantom limb symptoms driving them utterly batshit. Somehow, despite their differences, they clicked.

Missy was sunny. Shallower than a raindrop splash on hot concrete — if you didn’t know her well. She could gabble endlessly about celebrity gossip: which famous people were doing each other, which famous people she wished were doing each other, what stupid things the spoiled children of famous people were saying on Twitter. A bottomless wellspring of belly laughs and bad puns. She could spend an hour choosing a color of polish for Tom to paint her toenails.

Missy’s arms (and breasts, left ear, nose, and part of her jaw) had been gobbled up a few years ago by flesh-eating bacteria, after she swam in a sewer masquerading as a local lake.

Tom was full of shadows. He brooded. He read big, boring books on economics and Russian history, partly because he found them boring, and that was good, like feeling the burn of physical exercise. He couldn’t stand the drivel on TV or the narcissism and flightiness of social media. He played piano for hours at a time, sometimes classical pieces, but usually his own music — black, jagged, pounding melodies that roared out of his fingers and practically melted the keys.

Sometimes, Missy would force him to play pop songs. She’d do goofy dances for him that he’d pretend he wasn’t amused by as long as possible. But he always cracked and ended up laughing.

His legs had been smashed to useless flesh-jelly and bone bits in a car accident when he was seventeen.

“Will you turn the heat up?” Missy asked

Tom put his book down, scowling at her. “It’s set to 65 like always. Put your slippers on if you’re cold.”

Missy bounced up and down on her toes. “My niiiiiiiiiipples.” She drew the word out, part whine, part groan, and Tom immediately understood the significance.

Her nipples — long ago ravaged by bacteria and then surgically removed with her breasts and arms by the doctors trying to save her remaining flesh, and her life — were haunting her. When she was cold, they tightened into phantom pebbles of burning pain.

He wheeled over to the thermostat and twisted the dial up to 75. Phantom pain fucking sucked. At the moment, he was feeling a relentless prickling and stabbing along the bottoms of his long gone feet himself, but warm air wouldn’t fix it. If turning the living room into an oven would make Missy feel better, so be it. To hell with the heating bill.

Tom had been in the amputee game a lot longer than Missy. Her bright personality formed a shield against some of the demons of disability, but when that shield cracked or was inadequate, oh, how broken she was. Tom hated when Missy broke. She made these keening sounds: unsettling, inhuman wails of desolate misery that went on for so long he worried she’d pass out from lack of oxygen.

Tom fucking loathed painting her toenails, but when Missy broke, he’d give anything in the world to have her dry-eyed, with her feet in his lap and candy colored paint stinking up the room with carcinogenic fumes.

God, his ghost-feet were being weird today. They’d telescoped a long time ago, coming to feel as if they were attached right to the base of his stumps, which ended a few inches above where his knees used to be. Now, not only did they sizzle and sting, they felt like they were located where his feet ought to be, down near the floor.

On top of that, he was feeling phantom calves and knees, too. He hadn’t experienced the sensation of full phantom limbs since the days right after his surgery. And these ghosts of legs past weren’t made of bedsheets or important lessons about treating people better. They were made of agony. Tom’s incorporeal lower body felt like raw nerve endings dipped in piss and battery acid.

He wasn’t one for crying out in pain, even during his worst moments, but a cry escaped him, guttural and harsh.

“Tom?” Missy said, big blue eyes wide and solicitous and then squinched shut as she shouted, “Fuck!” and doubled over.

Her pink t-shirt darkened as blood spread across its upper half.

She twisted and turned, instinctively reaching with arms that weren’t there to peel her shirt over her head. After a beat, habit and practice took over, and she plunked down on the ground, using her flexible legs and nimble toes to pull it off.

“Missy! Missy! Jesus fucking Christ! What is happening?” Tom wheeled backwards, his normally low voice high with terror, no particular destination in mind, his chair colliding with the couch. Deep gashes were appearing in the air where his amputated limbs would have been. Blood ran down legs that weren’t there.

Missy answered with a scream. She screamed not just because she was in pain, but because what she saw made her mind reel.

Red slashes tore into existence a few inches in front of the scar-ravaged, flat skin of her chest — but they hurt as if they were being made deep in her own meat.

Motion in the dining room caught her attention, and her mouth sagged open. Tom saw it too: a tall black figure, with stick thin arms and legs, like something a child might draw. Its eyes were glowing red coals above a mouth full of crooked gray tombstone teeth that jutted in all directions. One of its hands was a ball of flames that burned a bitter pus yellow, the exact color Tom always envisioned the nasty prickling-buzz of nerve pain. The other hand was made of knives.

But none of that was what held Tom and Missy’s attention.

The figure was surrounded by a billowing silver cloud of ectoplasm. The cloud was made of body parts. Hands, arms, legs, feet, breasts, fingers, toes. The body parts swirled and shifted so fast they were hard to track. There were thousands of them, maybe more, all of them solid enough to make out, but still insubstantial enough to see through to the horror standing at their center.

One leg became almost solid, almost flesh-colored, as the creature plucked it from the cloud and gouged it with the blades of its left hand.

Tom howled and blood spurted in the air below his right stump. The monster grabbed breasts from the ectoplasm cloud, and as they solidified a little, Missy recognized them — she’d had a great rack, god damn it. The knives flicked over them too fast to follow, like Edward Scissorhands whipping up fancy topiary to impress the neighbors, and she doubled over, squealing like a tortured animal.

The remnants of her breasts floated away in little ribbons of silver mist. Blood sheeted down her stomach.

Then the monster plucked one of her arms out of the cloud. For a moment, before the creature began running yellow flames up and down her lost limb and the torture made Missy’s eyes involuntarily squeeze shut, she could actually make out the bracelet she’d been wearing the day she went for the swim in Lake Bacteria.

It hurt so bad, she wanted to die. Just switch me off, God, just switch me off, she prayed as she writhed on the ground. How was it possible to feel stabbing, prickling, crushing, pounding, aching, and burning all at once? In a body part that wasn’t even attached to her anymore?

Now, it was Tom’s turn to suffer again, except Tom was done suffering. Though he felt faint from blood loss — and how was it possible to feel faint from blood lost from lost limbs? — he’d paid close attention to the creature while it tortured Missy. Her arm had looked almost completely solid as it roasted in the flames of the creature’s right hand. Not even almost. Solid solid.

The monster stroked the yellow fire over Tom’s left leg, and the symphony of screeching nerves made Tom want to curl into a ball and stop existing.

Except

fuck

that.

Life had been full of relentless pain of one kind or another for years. If it wasn’t physical, it was mental. He’d been legless for over a decade, and there his legs were. Right there for the taking. Missy’s arms and hands floated above the horrid being’s head, seeming to wave at him.

He gritted his teeth, and leaned over, slipping his arm around Missy’s waist and heaving her to her feet. Her eyes, red from tears, met his. Understanding hummed between them.

By god, they would get their parts back, or die trying.

“When this is over, I’m going to paint your fingernails,” Tom said.

“And you’re gonna dance with me.”

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6 Responses to “The Phantom Limb Monster”

  1. Karl

    I had a touch of apprehension opening this, it’s always easier to suggest something than face the result. But the amount of work put into this not only fleshing out exactly how a monster like this would work but also the characterization behind the leads really comes through. A great surprise, like opening a secret Santa present that goes above and beyond what you expected and put in yourself. Thanks for a great story. Only complaint is that it ended too soon.

    Reply
    • Sara Amundson

      Thank you so much, Karl. Reactions like yours are what keep the Make a Monster fires in my belly stoked. It makes me so happy to take an idea and turn it into something that surprises and amazes the concept’s originator. And this idea resonated with me on many levels. I felt like this story and these characters had been living inside of me for a long time, in some hidden alcove tucked away beyond the reach of my conscious awareness.

      Moments like these are exactly what I was talking about in my response to people’s criticisms on io9’s article about me. Writing is so incredibly solitary, but now you’ve helped expand the universe of my novels in a fascinating new way, while making me explore subjects that hold great power over me. It’s kind of like Bastian and Atreyu in The Neverending Story. You’ve walked a little distance with me on my journey now.

      Reply
  2. Eric Amundson

    I would give my right arm to be able to write like you.

    This is one of the most touching Make a Monsters since Suede’s happy hairpocalypse.

    I can see this monster vividly, and love that Missy and Tom fight back and survived you . . . er, I mean, the Phantom Limb Monster.

    Or, did they?

    Thanks for the beautiful story either way!

    Reply
  3. Mr. Jonnie Wright

    I loved this. I wish I could write such fleshed out, motivational yet broken characters. In such a short amount of words, you were able to give a complete story that moved me. You’re an inspiration.

    Reply
    • Sara Amundson

      Oh, thank you! To be honest, while some of these stories feel like hard, frustrating work to assemble, some of them rush out of me like they’ve always been living in me. My own disabilities have been an all-consuming constant challenge the past couple months, and this concept struck a chord that was apparently aching to be struck.

      It’s wonderful to hear from people that this story made them feel inspired. It gives me much-needed energy to keep marching on. 🙂

      Reply

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