He didn’t lose his leg in the war. It was a motorcycle accident. Blindsided by a cherry red Volvo in the bluing calm of twilight, glass glittering everywhere like stardust. Blood and numbness spreading in a pool that lets one accept the coming darkness. For him, it was stalled by someone with quick wit and a leather belt. He couldn’t remember being loaded into the ambulance, that sense of leaving something behind. Everything blurred into white, a glinting starburst from cycle chrome that swelled into the sky, eclipsed by intermittent faces like angels or ghosts. He did not panic. He let the stillness take him, sinking into the cool palm of morphine dreams. The angels’ mouths kept working like fish out of water, their words coming to his ears on delay.
“What’s your name?” they said again, “Can you tell us your name?”
“Humpty Dumpty,” his speech was slurred, his tongue the size of an eel.
At the age of thirty-seven, he was learning to walk again. Limping up and down a hospital hallway, the prosthetic squeaking like a rusty hinge. There was pain where the stump’s skin was stretched over the bone, and discomfort where fluid pushed back and forth until it was drained. He knew he would never ride a motorcycle again. When they thought he might commit suicide, they sent a priest into his room.
“Are some men worth more than others?” he asked the priest.
The father said no, of course not, lines in his cheeks deepening into ravines, it is not our place to question God’s will. He threw back the blankets from the bed, and said, if this was God’s will, he can fuck off. The priest closed his book with a sigh and didn’t return. He was never much of a church goer anyway. He was never one to feel comfortable telling strangers he loved them. He preferred handshakes over hugs. A blowjob to a kiss. Love was an intimacy of which he had never seen a true version. The ring his ex-wife had returned to him still rattled around loosely in his sock drawer, but when he thought of her, her name was replaced with the word cunt. He realized his sock collection had just doubled without spending a dime, and he laughed until tears spilled down his cheeks and the nurse had to come ask if he was okay.
After the settlement, he took some time, the kind of time a quarter of a million can afford a man. He kept wanting to flex toes that were no longer there. The hours passed like hours dipped in honey, kept by the halves of hydrocodone that thinned his stomach lining to silk. There was gambling. Prostitutes that looked like porn stars. Front row tickets to the Super Bowl. Jet skis in the garage. A slow coming back down that began as a feather and ended like an anvil, getting out of bed each morning searching for the cigarette lighter before hopping over to the chair and strapping on the titanium limb. Some days the “what if” weighed heavy like the hazy fog of smoke in the house. He started back to work. Caught shoplifters. Made his racist jokes. Took girls home that wanted him to. He waited to feel whole again. He waited for the economy to bounce back as his money washed into the ditches like a clay statue in a rain storm. He waited for something, for anything other than those easy smiles, to turn his way again.
That morning there was a letter in the box with no return address. His name and residence were written in a sloppy hand. One stamp, posted the day before. He frowned, forcing the cigarette in his mouth down at an odd angle, as he tore into the envelope brusquely with his forefinger. He removed a folded white sheet of paper, and opened it to reveal a simple phrase, written in the same crude penmanship:
I have your leg, wait for my call.
The words jarred him. He nearly dropped the letter, the cigarette falling from his mouth and scattering red embers and ashes as it bounded clumsily off the page and nicked his arm with its heat. His eyes darted up and down the street, half expecting to catch someone spying on him from behind a tree or the corner of a house, hands held over their mouth to conceal a childish giggle. But there was no one. Only the inane chatter of birds hidden in the trees which almost made it seem as if the leaves of those trees were speaking. Hand trembling, be bent down and plucked the lit cigarette off the pavement, and shoved it back in his mouth, taking a deep draw of its poison. He could feel its calming effects work through him as he strode awkwardly back to the house.
This is some kind of joke, he thought. The doctors said all severed limbs were incinerated. It’s been nearly two years. Who would have kept it? How long am I supposed to wait?
He flexed his toes that were no longer there. Question answered.
He used his cell to call in to work so the land line would remain free. Cigarette butts piled up in the ash tray and spilled over onto the coffee table. He started putting them in a half empty soda can. The smell of aluminum and ash mingled. For a while he dozed, jerking awake at the slightest sound, a pinch developing in his neck. Once it was a dog barking. Another time a kid on a skateboard near his open window, practicing kick-flips. He turned the television on, but he couldn’t focus on it. His nerves were raw, like exposed electrical wires, shooting sparks with every movement.
The phone rang. He was standing at the refrigerator, pouring himself a glass of milk. The suddenness of the noise shocked him, and the jug tumbled from his hand with a hollow plunk-clunk sound, white liquid glug-glugging out of the top into an ever-widening pool across the linoleum. He set the glass down on the counter and ignored the spill, walking through it to the living room. His phone was a cordless model, the handset resting on the arm of the couch. He watched it suspiciously, as a man might watch a sleeping snake. It kept ringing. Four times, now five. He did not own an answering machine, to avoid collection agencies. Taking a breath, he steadied himself, and picked up the handset, pressing the worn CALL button with his thumb before holding it to his ear. There was that familiar analog hiss, and nothing else. He waited. Seconds passed before he heard a shuffle-scrape, perhaps a phone microphone rubbing against an unshaven face. A breath.
“Who is this?” he asked.
“The fewer questions you ask, the better.”
“Hey, another question. You don’t listen very well. I suggest you start. You stayed home today, so I assume you want what I have to give, yes?”
Did he recognize this voice? He didn’t think so. There was a smug quality to it, a youthful aloofness wrapped in an accent he could not place, maybe English. There was also an intermittent hollow clicking sound between speech, as if the man were sucking on a piece of hard candy.
“Why would I want a rotted piece of meat?”
“Oh, it’s not rotted, I assure you. Perfectly preserved. As if it just left your body. Don’t act like you’re not at least intrigued. But of course, if you don’t want it, I can just let it go to the incinerator like it was intended all along.”
His throat was suddenly dry.
“No. I- I will take it.”
“As I thought you would, but I have one condition, one you must solemnly swear to, before I will relinquish this item to your custody.”
He knew there had to be a catch. This son of a bitch was attempting to blackmail him.
“Name your conditions.”
“Not plural, sir. One condition. You have to swear you will not eat it. No matter how much you want to. You must not. If you do, there will be, um, consequences.”
“Excuse me, did you just warn me not to eat my own fucking leg?”
“You heard correctly, yes.”
“What the hell is wrong with you? Who would do that?”
“Listen to me, sir. The fact that you are on the phone at this moment having this conversation means you have already taken one leap of faith. For whatever reason, you decided to listen to your gut and waited for a phone call that may never have come. I’m asking you right now to trust me just a little more, and believe me when I tell you this isn’t the first of these transactions I have offered, and I am making you commit to this promise with good reason. I have to hear you say it.”
This person was obviously insane. No one would eat their own severed limb. That was beyond fucked up. This whole situation was fucked up. His mind felt like that of a hanged man, one who didn’t die upon the drop, and had discovered he could barely touch the ground with his toes.
“All right then. I swear it. I won’t eat my severed leg. Are you happy?”
“Very good, sir.”
There was a click and the hiss was gone, leaving a silence that filled with his anxious heartbeat. A gust of wind rattled the limbs of a nearby tree, and he could smell the tinge of metal as it came through the window screen. Somewhere, a wind chime clanged. A sudden wrapping at the door made him jump and let out a yell. He stood looking around and blinking like a man who had just been shook from a dream. The knock did not repeat. The phone started yammering its absence of dial tone alert. He jumped again and pressed the END key, tossed it onto the couch and went to the door. His door had two panes of glass set in its center, which he had covered with a blue curtain. He yanked back the curtain and peered outside. Daylight was fading fast. Amber beams of light cast through the glass and filled with dust motes that swirled. The skater kid across the street now had two friends with him, and they were taking turns on one of their bicycles, their incoherent dialogue broken by their sporadic laughter. A car drove past with a stereophonic swoosh. There was no one else to be seen.
Cautiously, he opened the door and poked his head around the frame, looking left, then right. There was no sign of the knocker. He started to step forward and almost tripped, his good foot kicking against something. He sucked in his breath, grabbing the doorframe for balance, and looked down at an oblong cardboard box with no markings. Reality’s edges felt less defined. For a moment he thought he might faint. The feeling passed and he stooped and picked up the box with hands that tingled. It was not very heavy. He could feel the weight of something shifting about inside the box, and a sound like that of crumpling plastic. It was strangely cool to the touch. He backed in through the doorframe and eased the door shut, feeling like a phantom as he limped back through the house, carrying his delivery.
He set it on the kitchen table and seated himself at the chair before it. Considering the directions from the caller, this was perhaps an odd place to do this, but the light above the table was the best light in the house. Any time he had any projects, he set them up here, where he could see and reach what he needed with relative ease. He sat and stared at it for a long time, unsure if he would be able to bring himself to open it.
Why does this suddenly seem so important to me? I’ve learned to live without it. There’s no way to know if this is even real. What is the point of having it, even if it is?
He flexed the toes that were no longer there.
In a flash, his pocket knife was in his hand, the silver blade snapped open with a flick of his thick wrist, and he was slicing carefully between the cardboard and the packing tape that held it shut. He ripped the top flaps open, tearing some residual tape with sharp popping sounds. The opened flaps exposed a layer of plastic and he pulled it aside with his hands, exposing what he could not believe. For a moment he stared down at it, his face a slackened expression of horror and shock. It was a leg, pale flesh drained of the color of life, and all it took was five seconds for him to realize it had once been a part of him. There was a crude tattoo of his ex-wife’s name on the calf, something a friend had given him on a night of too much tequila. It looked like a prison tattoo. He supposed it had been.
That could be easily faked, he thought.
Standing, he picked up the limb, his stomach lurching in response to the feel of that cold skin against his hands. Pieces of dark red muscle fiber dangled like strings from the mangled edge where the thigh had been severed bluntly by two tons of steel slamming against him and the motorcycle's frame. When he turned it over there was undeniable evidence, and he dropped it back into the box, his hands shaking. On the outer ankle, curving around to the back of the calf, was a thick white scar, a reminder of an injury that he had carried with him for as long as he could remember, from the days of first learning to ride a bicycle as a young boy. His good leg lost its strength and he thumped down hard into the wooden chair, feeling as though he might pass out for real this time, as the world seemed to go dark around the edges and everything else started to drip like a surrealist painting.
His mind flooded with a vision so clear it felt almost violent. The sky was a faded jeans perfect kind of summer sky, with the sun seeming to cast glares off of every surface like glass. Trees and grass so green they seemed luminescent. The bicycle had been too big for him, belonging to one of the neighbors, but he insisted learning on it, as he didn’t want to wait for his mother to buy him a smaller one, and he didn’t want to use the training wheels like the other kids. His grandfather had been there, helping him keep his balance at first, telling him how to get started by pushing the pedals standing up, then running behind him with his hand guiding the seat. The first few crashes were expected, and funny to everyone except him, who didn’t like being embarrassed. He was quickly frustrated and determined to prove them wrong. The next time his grandfather let go, he kept his balance, and was so excited he sped around the yard looking for the smiles on his mother and grandfather’s faces, hearing their laughter and applause, not realizing that the brakes of the bike were out, or forgetting that the neighbor had warned him of that fact, and he went over the hill, unable to stop, and crashed into the barbed wire fence at the edge of the property. He remembered the look on his grandfather’s face, the unbridled terror, his shouts seeming to come to his ears through a blanket of thick wool, as he was picked up and carried back to the house, blood running and dripping off his leg like thick red wine.
They took him to the emergency room. Twenty-seven stitches and he was good as new. As he remembered it, he wondered sickly if that had been some kind of prophetic warning to his future self. As if the leg had been marked for future taxation. As if the universe knew what it wanted all along.
That’s ridiculous, he thought.
His stomach rumbled, and bubbled with air then, reminding him that he had yet to eat anything for the day. Without warning, his mouth was slick with saliva, so much that it started to spill from his bottom lip, and he had to suck it back in and swallow. The urge to grab his severed leg by the calf muscle and rip his teeth into it manifested itself so fast his hands bunched themselves into fists on his jeans, as he imagined the taste of cold blood spilling down his throat, the coppery salt flavors of raw flesh as his teeth gnashed. He leaned forward and breathed deep over the box, his nostrils flaring with the scents of cardboard, and cold, like a freshly opened package of hamburger. It was inexplicable, this sudden ravenous desire, and it flared inside him like a blooming rose of flame. Three more seconds and he would have been lost to it, his promise broken, but he looked down and saw the scar, and remembered where he was, jerking back and shaking his head like a wet dog. He slapped himself hard enough to leave fingermarks that flared white on his cheek before they turned red. Tears rimmed his eyes, bringing clarity to the moment, and he moved with robotic specificity, shutting the flaps of the box, and standing with the intent of hiding it for the night in the back of the refrigerator, but as he moved, his prosthetic slid in the pool of forgotten milk, sending him sprawling with a cry of surprise, the box flying with a clutter of cacophonous sound, a chair sliding with a loud hollow scrape before tipping over, his arms flailing like wind-blown ropes, hitting his head on the edge of the table which produced a horrible click as his teeth were knocked together and blackness enfolded him like a closed coffin lid.
He woke to a sound of movement. The sound was there before he was fully awake, tugging at his subconscious like a fish nibbling on a hook, making the bobber bounce and send ripples out through the water of his mind. It was a small sound, like the fine ends of a tree limb blown repeatedly against the vinyl siding of a house. He blinked away the blurriness of the spackled ceiling, and turned his head toward the source of the noise. What he saw sent chilled fists clenching around his internal organs. Where the box had landed and rolled, the leg had tumbled partially out of it, amid a swath of crumpled plastic. There was a large rat with dark gray fur, pulling at the ragged end of the stump, gnawing on bites of meat as it jostled the limb trying to work it free of the plastic. It’s wrinkled pink trail quivered and thrashed with the effort, and perhaps the pleasure of its spoils. He wasn’t sure if it was the warmth of the room or the fresh damage inflicted on the flesh, but dark blood was running from it into a puddle on the floor. There were minute streaks where the rodent had tracked in it and dragged the limb some.
For a moment he was horrified, too horrified to move. He held his breath to shallow wisps of air. His body was covered in chills and sweat. He could hear the rodent’s jaws working, smacking with apparent delight. As it scurried forth and wriggled its body with the effort of another bite, he couldn’t take it any more, and burst forward from his spot on the ground, shoving a chair at the creature as he screamed, his throat raw and phlegmy. The rat bolted at the slightest indication of movement, and was gone before he even launched the missile, leaving tiny bloody footprints as the only proof it wasn’t a hallucination.
Fuck me, he thought.
Grabbing the edge of the table, he hoisted himself to his feet, having to twist his prosthetic back into its right position and readjust the Velcro straps. His head throbbed. His stomach roiled with hunger. He looked at the pale skin of his former appendage.
“Not happening,” he said out loud.
He shuffled over to where it lay and scooped it back into its box. With some slight rearrangement, he was able to fit the box onto the top shelf of his refrigerator. He pulled a bottle of Coors from the door and twisted off the cap. Tiny hiss and clink as the cap struck the floor and rolled. He took a swig of the bittersweet amber, and swiped a package of sliced ham from the deli drawer. He sat down and in minutes had devoured the remainder of the meat, not bothering to look for bread. The bottle of beer was half gone, but his stomach still clamored for more food. He found a can of generic Spaghettios in the pantry, pulled the top and upended it like a canned drink, spilling a large bite of the cheesy pasta into his mouth. He chewed sloppily and swallowed hard, barely catching his breath before dumping more of the contents onto his tongue. It tasted slightly metallic, but was still delicious. Everything he put in his mouth tasted like the best version of whatever it was. He couldn’t get enough. When the Spaghettios were gone he tossed the empty can without looking where it would land and scavenged the pantry for more. He found a pack of crackers next, and relished their salty dryness, the way each bite crumbled to bits of bread dust around his teeth. His beer was empty, and he got another, when that was gone he was on to a two liter of citrus soda. He had never been on such a food binge. It was as if he had just wandered in off the path of a fairy tale, into an enchanted castle, and an entire feast had been laid before him. He ate until most of his food stores were depleted, and the two liter had barely a glass of liquid left in its bottom. Before he even realized how heavy his eyes were, he was asleep again, head slumped over his arms on the kitchen table like a college student in mid finals study session.
This time the sound that woke him was laughter. It was only morning, but apparently the kids next door were already back at it. Sound wasn’t the only thing dragging him ruthlessly back out of dreams, which he vaguely remembered: trying to find a place to hide his amputated leg from a group of doctors, while it decomposed in his hands, with a stifling stench. In the end he was shoving it into his mouth, gagging. His stomach ached with an intense nausea. It felt like coils of razor wire were spinning out in his guts. Almost as soon as he was conscious, he wanted to retch. He jerked to his feet, sending his chair skittering backward and the table rocking unsteadily, and he clambered over to the sink just in time to heave the contents of his stomach into it. An obscene amount of vomit, chunks of what he had eaten still visibly undigested amid the piles of copious masticated mixtures and liquids. Streamers of spit hung from his gaping mouth as he dry heaved at the end. He wiped them away with his arm and ran some water into his cupped hands to rinse his mouth. Looking about, he surveyed the damage he had done to his kitchen hours before. It looked as if he had been robbed.
This is insane, man.
He took a roll of paper towels from the counter and squatted to mop up the spilled milk and blood from the floor. He unrolled a pile of towels onto the milk to let them start soaking it up, and then turned around to the other side to focus on the blood, which was a smaller spill. It had already partially congealed. He pushed the towels around in the blood, its top skim scrunching and breaking apart like old tomato soup, until they were soaked, and he picked up the sopping mass, preparing to toss it toward the trash can in the corner, when the smell hit him. It was the dank, copper-tinged odor of fresh meat, of slaughtered animal. He suddenly realized the hunger had not left him. It had intensified. His stomach churned and writhed with the most furious appetite he had ever experienced in his life. He felt as if he had swallowed a pack of double A batteries. Before he could stop himself he was holding the bloody towels up to his nose, drinking in their stench, causing the pain in his stomach to increase to the point of madness. The world was beginning to spin beneath him. Reality threatened to detach itself from his senses. Without thinking, he shoved the wet towels into his mouth and sucked, flooding his taste buds with that dark metallic flavor, that sensation of death breathing on his neck as he drank and drank, something awakening that he didn’t know was there, a voice inside his very being that was saying, “yes, yes, reclaim what is yours.” He lifted the towels over his face and squeezed them, as one might squeeze an orange, letting the blood drain into his opened mouth into the back of his throat. He swallowed it down greedily. Something was happening here and he could feel it, he could feel the damaged parts of himself mending, not the physical ones, that was impossible, but those parts that every person only feels are there, something deeper than a manifestation of cells, of structure, of body, perhaps a consciousness, perhaps a soul, but that part of ones self that once it is damaged, it never can feel whole again. The phone started ringing and he ignored it.
ring ring ring
In a delirium of joy and desperation, he crawled to the refrigerator, flung open the door so it banged and rattled the pans in the stove’s bottom drawer, and he tore the box from its shelf, spilling its contents to the linoleum. The dead flesh shuddered with the impact like a grotesque Jell-o mold. He didn’t hesitate. In moments he was tearing savagely at the skin with his teeth, ripping out hunks of the cold flesh, barely taking the time to chew before he swallowed. It was insanity. But with each bite he felt more alive, more tangible, more healed. The blood dripped down his chin and splashed onto his chest, soaking his shirt through. The phone continued to ring. He did not stop.
ring ring ring
He gorged himself on his own body. Pieces of tendon hung in spaces between his teeth like chicken gristle. He gnawed as close to the bone as the bone would allow, pulling strips of meat away and sucking them down like some wild animal. His hands and face became slick with blood and other juices. Sweat. He was sweating. It was all so glorious. He felt elated, on some new drug his body had never metabolized. He tingled all over.
ring ring ring
He had consumed most of the calf muscle, the areas where the tattoo and scar had been were destroyed, barely recognizable, and he had worked his way up to what remained of the thigh above the knee, when the phone stopped. The sudden absence of sound seemed to snap him out of his hypnosis, and he looked around the room, chewing a bloody bite of rawness, letting it slide down his throat in two swallows. He smacked his lips, licked them, getting at the salty flavor of the blood. He burped, rubbed his temple. Nothing in the world really seemed different, except for his buzzed adrenaline.
Then, a loud commotion echoed from outside, coming to him through the window. There was a thunderous collision, a scream, and tires squealing.
“Oh, my GOD! SOMEBODY HELP! SOMEBODY HELP! PLEASE!”
The panic in the voice triggered his instincts, and he scrambled to his feet, ran to the front door. When he opened it, he saw two of the neighbor’s kids standing around the third, the skater kid, who was lying in the middle of the street. The bicycle was several feet away, bent and mangled into an odd shape. Black marks on the pavement told the story of the impact, and that the car was long gone. He ran to them, crouched by the boy, who was barely conscious. He looked him over.
“They didn’t stop! Why didn’t they stop?!”
“Can you help him, mister?”
His right leg was barely hanging on by a slender bit of skin. The kid’s blood was pumping out of him through the exposed arteries in a gush of gore, splashing onto the blacktop in a stark contrast of color. There wasn’t much time. He looked around in a daze, unaware of how terrifying he also looked, but in that moment, in too much shock to care.
“Can you hear me?” he asked the kid.
“Am I going to die?”
“No,” he looked up at the two kids, who were watching intently. “Go call an ambulance. And you, give me your belt.”
The kid never even blinked. Within seconds, the belt was off and he had it cinched tightly around the injured boy’s thigh, a few inches above the shredded wound of his stump. He sat on his knees and stared at his hands, unsure of where his blood ended and the boy’s began. A siren started up in the distance, like a twisted continuation of a telephone that wouldn’t stop ringing.
The kid’s leg was lying on the pavement, still jerking frantically, its nerves dying. He looked from the boy’s strangely serene face, to the leg, to the bloody stump.
You have to swear you will not eat it. No matter how much you want to. You must not. If you do, there will be, um, consequences.
“This is my fault.”
“Sir?” His other friend had not left. He looked at him. His face was a pale moon of shock.
“I did this.”
“Why do you have blood all over you?”
...believe me when I tell you this isn’t the first of these transactions I have offered, and I am making you commit to this promise with good reason.
Suddenly, he could see a future that swam into focus like an ambulance siren growing louder in his ears. He saw a young boy growing up with the bitterness of being a cripple. He saw a boy that drowned his tears in bourbon and excuses. He saw a kid throw his life away to self-pity, spending so many nights alone in an empty house filled with broken toys. He saw himself, waiting for hours to answer a phone call. He saw an endless cycle of pain and suffering. He saw a chance to end it.
“Kid,” he said, “keep talking to your friend. Keep him awake. Tell him I’m sorry.”
“Where are you...”
With that, just as the ambulance was cresting the hill of their street, he grabbed the boy’s severed limb, which was still warm, and he ran for the house. The kid shouted something he didn’t hear. There was no noise now except the thrum of his own blood in his ears, no sensation but the quivering jerks of the fresh meat in his hands. Before he had reached his door he had already taken his first bite. When they found him, when the police were forced to gain entry, he was in the corner of the kitchen floor, using a pair of pliers to break open the bones for their marrow.