“Phantom Limb” by Chris Page, is the First Place winning story in the horror category for the Eleventh Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Twelfth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Page’s winning entry.
By Chris Page
I don't remember much about the night I lost my arm. Most of it's still a blur up until the accident. There were five of us in the car that night. We were drunk and going faster than we probably should have been. It was either Jermaine or Bobby behind the wheel, I can never remember which.
One second, we're coming around the turn on Highway 18. The next, there's this girl standing in the road. Then, I'm waking up in the hospital with an empty space on my left side.
My psychiatrist tells me that the girl is my brain's way of making sense of the crash. I don't buy it, but I don't want her to think I'm crazy, so I don't say anything.
My friends and I don't talk about the accident. We don't talk about much at all, really. The few times we've gotten together, we've mostly just sat around in awkward silence. Marie would just sit and stare at where my arm used to be. She had the prettiest blue eyes.
She killed herself a month after the accident. They found her not far from where the crash happened, with an empty bottle of pills in her hand. Left a note saying she was sorry about everything, and that was it. I lost an arm, she took her life. Sometimes, I think she was the lucky one.
Most of the time, I stay in my room. It's easier than going out in the world and dealing with the stares. People are too polite to ask about the arm, but damn if they won't stare at it. My parents pretend not to notice, and whisper about how I used to be so social. A girl my age should be out doing things, they say. I point out that the last time I went out and did something, my arm disappeared.
Lately, I've been looking up Highway 18 on the internet. My psychiatrist says it's good for providing closure. Mostly, I'm just looking for the girl in the road. The police say there was never any evidence of a girl there. The crash site was too far out from civilization for anyone to have been out there.
The first thing I found was that there have been dozens of accidents along that same stretch of road. Usually blamed on that blind turn or the idiocy of drunk kids. All involving girls. The types of injuries that might be expected:one girl lost a leg, another one had her hips crushed. Some other girl was thrown through a windshield and decapitated. Nothing that stands out as odd on first glance. The type of stuff you only notice when you start looking for the pattern.
I tried to explain this theory to my psychiatrist. She smiled and nodded and did all the sympathetic gestures before pointing out that you can find patterns in most things if you look hard enough. She recommended some pills that would help and suggested that I maybe find some other things to focus my attention on.
Just because you can find the pattern, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
I try to follow her advice, but I can't stop thinking about the accident. Some days, I feel my hand flex, the fingers stretch out. Little things pop into my head: the sparkly nail polish I'd been so proud of that Jermaine never noticed; the look on Marie's face in the hospital when she came to visit; the way that nobody has mentioned the doctors actually having to amputate my arm.
It's not long before I'm back on the computer, scribbling down notes on the people who were injured in the accidents. Initially, I just wanted to find them and talk to them, see if they can help me understand. But now I'm seeing a new pattern. They're all dead.
Suicide, every one. It makes me wonder about Marie. She didn't lose anything in the accident, not like I did. Maybe she saw something. Maybe she remembered something. Whatever it was, she's gone now.
The other girls, most of them still have spaces up on the internet. Web pages or blogs with condolences left on the anniversaries of their deaths. Bright, smiling futures reduced to a single moment of time. Embarrassing haircuts or fashion choices left up for the world to see some fifteen or twenty years later. This is how long it's been going on.
It's been hard to sleep since the accident. I feel the hand flexing, then pain coming in long scratches down my wrist. I think about what the doctor told me, that sometimes you feel pain long after the limb has been lost. I try to reassure myself this is normal.
Nobody wants to say anything about how little I've been sleeping lately. My parents are hoping it's just a phase I'll grow out of. My psychiatrist thinks a support group would be helpful. I don't tell her that the only support group I need is getting smaller all the time.
More and more, I'm finding myself borrowing my mom's car and driving aimlessly. I try to tell myself that it's not anywhere in particular, but that would be a lie. Each street I drive down takes me close to Highway 18 and that turn in the road. Most of the time, I'm not even thinking about it. I'm singing along with the radio, minding my own business, and then suddenly I'm on the highway headed east.
I park my car on the shoulder and put on the emergency blinkers. The last thing I want is someone to plow into the car and leave me stranded here. Walking along the side of the highway in the cool air, I feel my heart racing with every step. The turn is just ahead, waiting for me. There's a sign that helpfully says, “Rocks” set up thirty feet back. I try not to roll my eyes when I pass it.
I can just barely make out the memorials from here: flowers laid by the roadside, a couple of crosses. I stop in the shadows, just past the reach of my car's headlights. I can't remember why I wanted to come out here. It's cold and there's nothing here that's going to give me the answers that I need. I realize that all I want is to figure out where the hell that girl came from.
And then I see her, as if summoned by the thought. Standing in the middle of the left lane, staring at me like I'm nothing but a pile of meat. And maybe to her, I am. I swallow nervously and try to think of something to say to her.
“Are you real?” I ask, and immediately realize that's one of the dumbest things I could say.
She apparently agrees with me. A look of disappointment slides across her face and she turns away, shambling back towards the security rail on the other side of the road.
I take a step forward and shout, “Wait!”
She turns, slowly, and stares at me again. I clear my throat and open my mouth to speak and that's when I see the headlights coming from behind me. There's a squeal of brakes and then suddenly my body is flying through the air before hitting the ground with a loud crunch.
The first thing I feel is pain.
It's all around me. Every inch of my body hurts, except my left arm. That feels fine. I try to call out, but the only thing that comes out is a quiet moan. I can't move and I'm scared. More scared than I was when the first accident happened.
Then, there's something leaning over me. Marie's gorgeous blue eyes stare down at me from a face that's pulled together from dozens of other girls. Right before a hand clamps down on my mouth, I see the sparkly nail polish.
“You're my last one,” she whispers. A smile jerks across her face, like she's still trying to figure out how to do it. “I can be whole now, thanks to you. Real.”
Even with my body broken, I'm struggling against her grip. Her fingers are clamped down so hard on my face that it's starting to hurt. I'm trying not to think about my shattered bones, the pain that's threatening to knock me out. I do my best to make sympathetic eyes up at her and nod.
“The others didn't understand,” she said, giggling to herself. “It's been so long since I've been whole. You're helping me do that.”
The pain is leaving my body now, fading. Looking down, I see my feet have already disappeared into the darkness. She clucks her tongue, the seams between the stolen body parts are flowing together like candle wax, leaving no marks of where she came from.
“Twenty years isn't so long,” she whispers, stepping away from me. “I'll bet you can make a new body in half that time.”