Phantom Pain

I stabbed at my steak, medium rare, still angry. It had been eight months, six days, since I lost my right leg in the crash. The steak reminded me of the death of pilot Captain Peter Thompson. It reminded me of the birth of an one-legged patient Peter Thompson. Before, there were pitch controllers in my hands and respect. Now, there are crutches in my hands and a disability paycheck. It wasn't exactly a life, but it was good enough to treat myself to this steak, still bloody and somewhat cooked like the stump of my leg had been after the explosion. “Where's your leg, Captain?” Stan asked. “It's Peter,” I reminded him again. Eight months, six days ago, Stan Daves had been my co-pilot. He was damn good at it. Before the crash. Before I hauled him away from our burning bird. Now he had a disability paycheck plus schizophrenia and PTSD. Anyone could tell by observing for a few minutes that Stan direly needs psychological treatment, but unfortunately, his family's efforts have failed to shift his obstinate mind. My final mission as his Captain was to convince Stan to accept help. Stan jolted up in his seat as the waiter placed down his steak. “What the heck is this meat?” “Steak. Medium rare,” “What? This isn't steak. Don't let them fool you, Captain,” Stan warned as he stared down the waiter who was evidently perplexed. “I'll take caution. How've you been recently?” “Did you check the fuel in the helicopter?” “Come on. We're back in the States!” “Check it right now before the Mujahideens lay landmines!” shouted Stan. I'm willing to bet my other leg that anyone would go crazy if they tried to keep a conversation going with Stan for more than five minutes. “Did you see that? That cook just pulled out a pistol from his pocket!” Stan bellowed as if he wanted the entire restaurant to hear. “Start the engine! Pull the lever now! A blue Hilux with a mounted machine gun aiming at us. Where are you looking? They're here!” Stan was pointing out the window with fearful eyes. Stan was probably having a painful flashback of the crash. The blue Hilux with the machine gun. The explosion that sent us flailing to the ground. The screams of our squad followed by the deafening silence. Stan and I were the only survivors. A surge of pain shot up my leg as my mind traced back to the crash. I shrugged off the pain as I tried to reassure him. “It's okay, Stan. Why don't you eat your steak before it gets cold,” Stan was looking behind his back at the other diners in the restaurant. “Wait. What the...” “What's wrong?” “Everyone is wearing a scarf, like the Mujahideens we saw in Afghan!” Stan faced back to me. He had a familiar look in his eyes. The devastated eyes of the Afghan children as they looked upon their families' deaths. “Captain, take that scarf off!” “Stan, wake up. No one here is wearing a scarf,” “Really? Is this funny?” “Please. Don't do this here,” “Stop this prank right now. I should have known something was up when the waiter didn't even set up my knife and fork!” “Stan! I'm sick of hearing your nonsense! Just shut up and eat!” I knew I had made a mistake as soon as the words came out of my mouth; Stan was ill and I, more than anyone, should be understanding of his pain. “You don't believe me, do you? You think I'm just a lunatic who says crazy things all the time, yeah?” Stan's eyes were filled with both pain and anger. “No, Stan. What I meant was…” “I thought we were friends,” “Of course I trust you, you're my best friend,” “Then, bring me the pistol from the copter,” The conversation was going in circles, and my patience was reaching its limit. “Hurry, Captain! That cook just loaded his pistol!” It was a mistake to meet Stan. He was crazy. He wasn't the Stan that I used to know. I wasn't a big enough man to tolerate his insanity. “Want to die here? Hurry!” “Enough! Enough of this!” I shouted, beating my fist down on the table. “Is everything okay, sir?” asked a nearby waiter. “Oh, I'm sorry,” I closed my eyes in a mixture of embarrassment and anger as I took a deep breath. I wasn't sure if I was angrier at myself or at Stan. However, when I opened my eyes, Stan wasn't there. Stan had probably left the restaurant, and I had to find him. A schizophrenic soldier alone in the public is a walking time bomb. “Where did my friend go?” I asked the waiter as I looked at Stan's cold, untouched steak. All of a sudden, an ear-splitting screech came from outside. It had to be Stan. I had to get to him before anything bad happened. I nervously looked out the window. A blue Hilux was aiming a machine gun at me. I stared at the waiter and flinched at what I saw: he was wearing a scarf. “You were here alone the whole time, sir,” Stan was right. The Mujahideens were here to kill us. I stabbed my steak knife into the waiter's right leg, grabbed my crutches, and hopped to the door. The door opened and in came Stan. “Where's your leg, Captain?”

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Mike Lyles

Author of “The Drive-Thru is Not Always Faste...

Staresville, United States