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Phantom Limbs
Author: Paula Garner


 

 

WHEN I FINALLY HEARD FROM MEG, IT WAS May, historically her month of choice for upending my universe. It was the ungodly hour of swim o’clock — I was checking my messages in the dark with one eye half open, synapses barely firing, when the sight of Meg’s name in my inbox jolted me awake. But with Dara due at any moment to lasso me for another morning of abuse in the pool, there was no time to process Meg’s brief message, let alone respond. I grabbed a pack of blueberry Pop-Tarts from the kitchen cabinet and headed out.

The morning was a hazy purple, chilly enough to make my breath mist. I guided the screen door closed so it wouldn’t bang and wake my parents — a pointless gesture, since Dara’s style of arrival in her ancient, souped-up Corolla could jar the fillings right out of your teeth. I tossed my backpack and my swim bag under the magnolia and sat down to wait for her. I reread Meg’s message, then turned my eyes to the house next door that I still thought of as hers.

It was the first time I’d heard from her since we said goodbye in her bedroom, just us and the dust bunnies that had been hiding under the furniture, her parents waiting outside with the moving truck. I clung to her in that empty, echoing room as if the last thing that mattered to me in all the world was being taken away. Which, after the clusterfuck of the preceding year, it basically was. And there wasn’t enough thirteen-year-old swagger in the known universe to keep me from bawling.

Minutes later they pulled away, Meg gazing out the window at me through teary eyes. She might as well have driven right off the face of the earth, because I never heard from her again. Until now, that is. A mere three years and four months later, not that I was keeping track.

Moving on was never my strong suit.

I opened my Pop-Tarts and gazed at the horizon’s pink glow, breathing in the smell of rain and earth. On the branches above me, I could just make out the fat magnolia buds. Any day now they would explode into a fucking carnival of white and pink flowers — a spectacle that had kicked me in the nuts for the last three years. But now? Now I didn’t know how to feel about it.

Four springs before, the most amazing thing happened under this tree. My best friend and I were moving out of childhood and into uncharted territory. Our bodies were catching up with us — Meg’s more overtly than mine, but what I lacked in physical maturity I made up for with a Herculean imagination. I was thinking less and less about whatever used to occupy my preadolescent mind and more and more about stuff that would have made Meg blush if she knew. Like how she’d look in a bikini that coming summer. And the way she smelled, all warm sun and green apples and something heady, like a secret I wanted in on. And — mostly — what it would feel like to kiss her. I could not tame this preoccupation no matter how hard I tried. It was like shoveling smoke.

On a warm night in May, right under this magnolia, it happened. The memory of that kiss still made my stomach flip over. What would it be like to see her now? What was she like? It figured that just when I started to face the fact that maybe I’d never see her again, she was coming back to town.

The squeal of tires in the distance signaled Dara’s imminent arrival. I got up, tossing the remains of my Pop-Tarts into the bushes and brushing the crumbs off my jacket. She screeched around the street corner, then barreled into my driveway with an eleventh-hour turn, nearly running me over. I leaped out of the way as she skidded to a stop.

“Jesus!” I yelled. “You almost killed me.” I glanced up at the house. If my mom had seen that, my days of riding with Dara would be over.

Dara poked her head out the window. “You shouldn’t stand in the driveway,” she said.

“I was on the grass.” I pointed to the tire tracks in the yard, just visible in the first light of day.

She gestured me toward the car with the stump that remained of her left arm. “Come on, get in. I need doughnuts.”

I tugged on the rusted door and climbed in, buckling my seat belt as tight as it would go — the wisdom of experience. “How come you get to have doughnuts?” She never let me eat crap before practice. Knowingly, anyway. I considered my Pop-Tart indiscretions to be my own personal business.

I reached over and turned down the stereo, which was blasting the Rolling Stones. In Dara’s car, I was never in the right decade. Jagger was crooning “Miss You,” which wasn’t going to help me stop thinking about Meg. Haunted? Dreaming? Waiting? I could have written the lyrics myself.

“I get to have doughnuts,” Dara explained in a prickly tone, “because it doesn’t matter what I eat.”

Arguing was as pointless as it was tempting. In Dara’s view, I was a career swimmer whereas she was a has-been — an aspiring Olympic hopeful whose career was tragically cut short. So while my body was to be regarded as a temple, hers was more like a motel for transients.

She jammed the gearshift into reverse and glanced at me as she turned to back out of the driveway. “Dude. You look like shit,” she said. “Did you just get up?”

Did I just get up? What the hell time did she get up? I’d stumbled out of bed about four minutes before she showed up. Oh, for just one freaking morning off . . . But Dara would have dragged me to the pool by the nipple if she had to. Like an Olympic swimmer, Otis Mueller didn’t take days off. Unlike an Olympic swimmer, Otis Mueller would never make it to the Olympics. But try telling Dara Svetcova that.

She blinked at me, all round blue eyes and milky-pale skin, as she backed into the street.

“It’s barely morning, Dara. Of course I just got up.”

She peered over at my lap, an impish smile on her face. “Do you still have morning log?”

I cringed. “God, Dara, it’s morning wood. And no,” I said, shoving her head back to her side of the car. “Eyes on the road, pervert.”

She shifted into first and set us in motion with a burnout loud enough to wake the dead — as if I didn’t have a hard enough time convincing my parents that, contrary to appearances, Dara was a safe driver. She enjoyed few things more than making noise with her car. She navigated our little town like it was the Indy 500, revving the engine and tearing around corners and dumping the clutch. There was no mistaking the one-armed tyrant and her unlikely choice of transmission: the stick shift.

“So how long does it last?” she asked, blowing through the stop sign at the corner. “Do you have to jack off every morning to get it to go back down?”

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