'Phantom', a story by Jennifer Mills

Illustration by Lord Mantraste.

When I come to, the lights are dim and Mr Thierney is a hump in the next bed. Even though it’s a private hospital it’s not exactly luxurious. I have to share a room. The cotton blankets look designer-rustic but are actually just old and scratchy. They’re rucked up around his bent knees and his arms are laid out by his sides. They are good at the important things here. I don’t know what he’s had replaced at first; I can’t tell just by looking.

Pedro the night nurse likes music. I like that I can hear him coming. He plays songs on his phone, which he keeps clipped to his pants where the doctors keep their pagers; he tells me he got in trouble for using headphones, but they don’t mind if he keeps the tunes playing up and down the hall. It’s usually hip hop but sometimes towards the end of the shift he switches to old blues singers. On the night I come to he’s playing Billie Holiday, and it feels like he and I and Billie are the only people awake in the world.

“Any pain?” he asks softly, checking my fluids.

“I don’t think so,” I whisper back. Everything hurts, but dimly, and I know what hurts isn’t here in the bed with me. The pain’s in my old body, and my old body’s missing.

“Let me know if you feel anything,” he says, adjusting a tube.

I close my eyes and listen to him go.

When the physio comes in to do the exercises she starts with Mr Thierney and I learn that it’s his left arm, the one on my side. He can already move his fingers and he shows her: first all at once, and then one by one, up and sideways.

Even though Mr Thierney and I had surgery at the same time, he is much better at syncing his phantom than I am. The physio does lots of positive reinforcement, saying things like “amazing progress” and “exemplary”. When she gets to me, after she has run through the instructions and I have urged my passive body to budge, she lets her head drop and pats me on the leg and says “Well, that was a good effort,” looking at one of the unresponsive knees.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“It’s okay,” she says, but when she lifts her face it’s a little bit heartbroken.

“How long will it take?” I ask.

“Well, we have a long way to go with you.”

“How long does it usually take?”

“There haven’t been enough cases like yours to really put a figure on it,” the physio says. Her name is Kate. She’s told me a couple of times but I have to check the badge.

I must look disappointed because she pats the alien ankle again. “Never mind,” she says.

At least Mr Thierney can’t move the whole arm yet, I think.

Most people develop phantoms while waiting for a transplant but plenty of people get used to their amputations, even grow to love them. It’s not really possible for someone like me who has lost her whole body to get around and have any kind of life without teaching the command centre in the brain to use the controls for the new body parts.

It’s not a very good analogy for the brain but it’s the one Kate uses and I try to get behind it. When she says “command centre” I should visualise something advanced, like a spaceship, but my mind has already fixed on a country scene, a few firefighters and a cop or two in hi-vis overalls, eating muesli bars in the rain, the emergency all but over, waiting for the command centre to tell them they can leave.

I am still groggy from surgery, but awake, when I hear Mr Thierney cry out “hey! hey!” like he is calling at a robber, and when I look over there he has lifted his whole hand at the wrist and is beginning to spread his fingers.

The body is whiter than me. Younger, cleaner. It has tidy fingernails and a scar across the back of its left hand. There is a tattoo of a bird on one ankle but I haven’t seen it – Pedro told me it was there when he was sponging my feet. Mostly I have my own face. I have my own brain and all of my memories right up until the day it happened, when I can’t remember anything.

“Workplace injury,” Mr Thierney volunteers when I’m awake again. I wish that I could slip into this body as quickly and easily as I can slip in and out of sleep. I turn my head about half as far as I want to turn it. He’s sitting up, slowly wiggling his fingers, the hand resting on his knees where he must have lifted it.

“Where do you work,” I ask, expecting something industrial.

“Florist,” he says.

“Triffid?” I ask.


He doesn’t laugh or look at me, but I can see a small smile playing hopscotch on his lips and as I roll my head back to face the ceiling, I feel his stare. I wish that I could tuck the sheet up around my neck to hide my scar.

“Wonder where they get a whole body your age from,” he says.

“I don’t know,” I say, because I can’t shrug.

I can see his wriggling fingers in the corner of my eye. “What are you, thirty?”

“Thirty-two.” I am about to add that I don’t know how old my new body is but I stop myself.

I am supposed to be doing the same exercises as him: looking at the finger, moving the phantom, making the idea of the body join up with the body itself. This is about building the neural pathway that links the two, the nerve endings in the finger and the map of the hand in my brain, so that the brain learns to recognise the body as its own. So that the brain can use the old instructions.

Mr Thierney expects me to answer him, or get upset, but I don’t feel like talking about it.

“I wonder what kind of dessert we will get today,” I say. The day nurses have to spoon feed me, so mine is always mush; I don’t really care what flavour it is.

“Are you hungry? Can you feel your stomach?” he says, leaning towards me.

“I was just making conversation,” I say. I’m hungry, but it’s the old stomach. The phantom. This one isn’t talking to me.

He flops back on his pillows. “Maybe she hung herself,” he muses.

I close my eyes. After a period of time that probably isn’t long enough to be convincing, I pretend to fall asleep.

“Keep practising, honey,” Pedro says. When he calls me honey it’s not flirting, he says it the way an old woman would say it, an old woman pruning her roses on a sunny day. He’s the only one out of all the people who work here that doesn’t seem disappointed in me.

He checks my monitors while I stare at my unresponsive thumbs.

“Pedro?” I ask.

“Yeah honey,” he says.

“What if it’s the body?”

He finishes writing something on my chart before he answers. “You know they check that shit out,” Pedro says. “They check all that out before donation.”

I look contrite and he flashes me a smile.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “You’ll get the hang of it. Everybody does.”

“I can’t get used to it,” I say.

Mr Thierney is squeezing a blue rubber ball in his new hand. He has graduated to the ball. “Keep trying,” he says, “You can do it. You’re young.”

“You’re doing okay,” I mutter.

“I’m older than you but I have a positive attitude,” he says. “Young people bounce back easy. Look at that one.”

He juts his chin at the girl with the legs, who gives us a little wave and a brave smile as she drags herself past the door to our room. A “promising jazz ballet dancer” her mother said loudly to another visitor the other day, and I guess they didn’t have the heart to tell her that jazz ballet is something only kids do. Today the girl has been walking up and down the corridor holding onto the railing that must run its length. It is just like the wooden railing in a dance studio they call the barre. She seems to just drag herself along by her skinny arms, but I heard her mother bragging that she is doing everything right and the phantom has not been a problem. I can hear her mother now, clapping enthusiastically and going “woo!” at the other end of the corridor. I manage to move my head just enough to make eye contact with my roommate and we roll our eyes at each other.

“She’s bouncing right back,” Mr Thierney says, and he pings his therapeutic ball off the wood-look laminate wardrobe. It makes a sound like a large potato and then another smaller potato when it hits the floor. He doesn’t get out of bed to fetch it; perhaps he can’t.

I look at the hands that are supposed to be my hands now, but they don’t move. If I could sit up I would look in the mirror for the scar, to see what the damage is like. The day nurses won’t bring me a hand mirror.

“Do I look that bad?” I asked one of them.

She shook her head. “The doctor said it’s a good incentive,” she said.

I guess Pedro will be under instructions too.

When the doctor comes, Mr Thierney is sitting up. He has bent his arm at the elbow and is soaking up the doctor’s praise. “Wonderful,” she says. “Keep doing what you’re doing.”

Teacher’s pet, I think.

When she gets to me she is careful to wipe the smile off her face.

“How are we doing today,” she asks.

The bedside pronoun is particularly galling, given my situation.

“I’m fine,” I say, “but this body hates me.”

“Your body can’t do anything emotional without your head,” she says.

“But isn’t it possible for the transplant to be rejected?” I ask.

“Well, it’s not just any old transplant,” the doctor says. “Sure, sometimes the body rejects a new organ. But in your case it’s all working perfectly. We have tested and retested everything, and all the automatic parts are working fine. Heart, lungs, even the fiddly little organs are chugging along. It’s really up to you now.”

“Maybe it’s the brain then,” I say. “Maybe the brain’s rejecting the body.”

“The brain is plastic,” she says. “It is perfectly capable of learning to accept the new body.”

I feel like a schoolgirl Frankenstein.

“What if it’s missing a connection somewhere? A loose wire?” I ask.

“It’s not the body,” the doctor says. She is losing patience. “All the vital signs are good.” She makes a performance of checking the heartbeat with her stethoscope, even though the monitor is right there beside me, bipping away. “Technically, you’re in excellent shape,” she says, and her voice softens.

So it’s me. I’m the loose wire.

I try harder, and when I can’t budge a finger in front of her, I change to the feet. I stare at the left foot, trying to move the big toe. I feel the phantom moving, feel the skin exposed to the air and the hairs prickle as the muscle contracts, but the real toe doesn’t budge.

“Try to forget the old body is there,” she says, but her heart isn’t in it; she looks at her pager and stands. She gives me a half-smile from the door of the room, the half-smile of a disappointed parent, and I deflate.

“Don’t forget how lucky you are,” she says.

I glare at the alien toe.

“Woah.” Mr Thierney is watching, propped on his new elbow. The new elbow does what it’s told now. It holds his weight. “You got in trouble there,” he says. The therapeutic ball is propped in the water glass on his bedside table like a trophy.

I close my eyes and try to imagine the command centre again. It’s raining harder now. The firefighters are standing under an awning, lighting cigarettes. One of them is telling a joke.

I can’t help thinking of my old body lying on a suburban verge somewhere, like a perfectly good PC with the processor removed, its old instruction manual left behind in my brain trying to work a machine that it doesn’t describe. I have to open my eyes again. They won’t tell me how my donor died; apparently her family has requested anonymity, so I won’t ever find out. She’s a little taller than I was, and a little thinner, too. They’re right, I should be grateful.

But every time I try and fail to move a single digit, I feel like there is so much ahead of me. Another nine fingers and toes, and then hands and feet, arms and legs, a whole epic logistical operation from which I will never be released. It seems impossible that I will ever learn to walk, turn, drive, to bend at the knees to lift something heavy, to operate a phone or knead bread, to hold hands with someone and squeeze gently, to have sex, to relax and put my feet up. To write a history over this body that erases its impenetrable past. All those fiddly little organs chugging along for nothing.

When I wake up it is still dark, or just getting dark, I can’t tell. There is a hump at the end of the bed, a hump in the shape of Mr Thierney. He has a hand on my leg, just under the knee, and I can tell he is facing me because his teeth are bared in the moonlight, but I can’t tell if the hand is moving. It’s just a silhouette.

“Can you feel it?” he says.

“That’s my leg,” I tell him.

His teeth disappear and reappear in the moonlight—it is definitely getting darker—and then the hall lights come on in the hospital and he stands up quickly. The hall light shines off his teeth in tiger stripes and I remember to try to move away. I am furious with myself for not flinching and also furious for not seeing which arm he’s using to lean on me – it drives me crazy that I don’t know if it’s his old arm or the new one, as if that matters. I roll the phantom, but the body doesn’t budge. There is a flicker of melody in the distance and I focus on that. But I still can’t move. I see but don’t feel the hand detaching itself in slow motion. I watch from outside; I watch myself not telling him to get off me. The music is louder and then Pedro is standing in the doorway.

“Everything okay in here,” he asks, switching on the light.

“Mr Thierney was just going back to his own bed,” I say. Both of his arms are innocently by his side. For some reason I check to see if they are the same length as each other.

“Problem?” says Pedro.

“No,” I say. “No problem.” Mr Thierney sits on his bed and gives me a chastened look. He slinks obediently back under his covers. Tinny hip hop jitters at my ear. I can’t feel the place where he touched me, the body I’m in still refuses me.

“How’s the feels?” says Pedro.

I shrug, then I remember that my shoulders don’t move, so I make a face.

He smiles and switches the music off. He doesn’t touch me, or measure me, or try to take my hand. He looks over at Mr Thierney.

“Doing so well, Mr T,” he says, and Mr Thierney’s face swells proudly. “I think we can bring your morphine right down.”

“The doctor didn’t say anything,” Mr Thierney says, with a whine in his voice.

“Right there in your chart though,” Pedro says.

He turns to me and lifts his hands at hip level, where Mr Thierney won’t be able to see them. He moves the tips of his index fingers together and apart, an odd little gesture, and I feel something, a gentle tingling in my hand. And it doesn’t matter whether I feel it in the new hand or the old hand; it doesn’t matter if my whole body stays like this, a ghost inside a ghost, because the fire’s out, and everybody’s going home.

‘Phantom’ originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #22.

Jennifer Mills is an Australian novelist and short story writer. She tweets at @millsjenjen.