By Rath Dalton
He was a hero but that’s all gone now. It was my sister’s fault. She returned from L.A. to meet him a week before our wedding and whispered in my ear, “He’s perfect,” her wine breath touching my face. I already knew he was wonderful but I never said it the way she did. It was that label that marked him for the bullet.
The U.S. army has Kevlar and night scopes and unmanned drones but the enemy has something better; they have a bullet that is kissed by cracked lips before it is slipped into a rifle chamber and fired. American science can’t match the way it seeks out our best. It might have something to do with hate, the way it finds the man who just married, the strong one, the handsome one, the one who was called to Afghanistan a week after he held his newborn child. It found my husband.
When his squad was pinned down in Afghanistan, it was him who held off the enemy, firing again and again until the last of his men withdrew. As he picked up to get out, a bullet struck him in the leg, shattering his femur beyond repair. The doctors cut it off above the knee. I thought losing the leg would destroy him but he was stronger than that.
The stories of PTSD and depression worried me but he appeared to rise above it. He acted excited about moving on with our lives. If only I could have seen through the veneer, I might have saved him. But I didn’t. Instead, I listened when he told me that prosthetic limbs were amazing. He told me he would earn an engineering degree and support the family. He held the baby again.
Life was everything he said it would be for a while. He might have even made it work if it hadn’t been for the itch. Sometimes missing limbs have feeling even though they are gone. They develop a phantom itch. John would remove his fake leg and scratch his stump furiously, cursing because that kind of itch can never be scratched. The doctor told him it was severed nerve endings sending false signals to the brain. There were ways to ease the irritation but instead, John removed his leg more and more often saying it aggravated the nerves. He had difficulty concentrating on his course work. The constant annoyance drove him to emotional extremes. He would groan and shout and slam around the house. During those moments I tried to stay out of his way. Eventually he quit wearing the leg altogether. It was as though I was living with a different man.
Sometimes he used his crutches but most of the time he sat in his wheel chair and watched television, claiming it took his mind off the itch. He quit going to classes. I think he became addicted to the sympathy his missing leg earned him. I know he enjoyed bragging to strangers about his medal the few times we did get out. It was a new behavior.
It wasn’t long before the drinking began – and the thumping. I walked into the kitchen one day and he was sitting in the wheelchair, razor stubble on his face, a bottle in his hand. He hadn’t bothered to button his shirt. Something was scrawled on the dishwasher and I realized John had drawn a leg there with a marker.
“John, what – ?”
He swallowed from the bottle and looked down at his artwork with glassy eyes. “Doctor says some people fix it by scratching their leg in the reflection.” He waved the bottle toward the washer. “See that?” I could see it. From his angle the drawing probably connected to his stump. “Good reflection,” he said. “Just the right height.” He leaned forward to scratch the shiny surface. His fingers scrabbled at the space inside the sketch. “But I get no god damned relief.” The last half was screamed in hysteria. “I don’t feel anything, only the fucking itch and it never leaves. I can’t even drink it away,” he shouted. “But I’ll bet – “ He backed up and rolled forward pounding the stump into the washer. The surface bowed and sprang back until he pounded it again, cursing at the top of his lungs. The bottle dropped to the floor and began to spill gin. I rushed to pick it up but he snatched it away with an evil look.
The baby awoke, crying so I hurried into the family room, glad for an excuse to get away. I held her in my arms, rocking and cooing. The crying was loud but it couldn’t drown out the sound of John’s anger. The thumping continued and the swearing as he bashed his wounded leg into the washer. There were quiet moments when I hoped he was getting a grip but I knew he was gulping from the bottle. Occasionally he rolled across the kitchen, muttering but I didn’t dare look. There were still sudden bursts of cursing when he was probably scratching uselessly. Why couldn’t the doctors help him? I was losing my husband.
I heard the latch on the door to the garage and the sound of him rolling out. I hate to admit it but I was relieved when the door slammed behind him. I wished he would be gone for good. The hope of a cure seemed like fantasy. The roots of that seed were beginning to spread when there was a loud bang from the garage and a horrible scream. An arrow of guilt shot through me. Terrified, I ran to the door. It was blocked. I could hear John moaning but I couldn’t see him. The door opened only inches before hitting his wheelchair. He was heavy and the chair must have been sideways against it. I shoved with all my strength until there was enough space to squeeze through. The first thing I saw was blood everywhere. I expected to find a gun and blood pumping from a hole in my husband’s body but it was worse. There was a severed hand on the floor, John’s of course. In his remaining hand he held a hatchet and his face had a look near ecstasy.
“I got it, hon,” he said, moaning. I watched as he scratched his missing leg with his now phantom hand. “oh, I finally got it.”No tags for this post.