Fiction – “Combat Stress Reaction” by Don Pizarro
I’d fought my way past the cattle-call only to be told, “Yes, thank you very much – Next!” after mistiming one lousy pirouette. The producer didn’t waste my time or his breath with Don’t call us, we’ll call you. I didn’t know whether to thank him or shoot him.
The pianist noodled to keep his fingers warm as the next dancer made her way on stage. It made me think of the music that plays whenever some poor fool gets booed off the Apollo stage during Amateur Night.
My hip ached as I hobbled down the stage steps. Amateur, that’s how I felt. Again. The pain’s phantom, I’m told. Psychological. Probably from having to start over from less than scratch.
My mechanic says my left leg moves as well as the real thing ever did. Its parts and material moved Mars Rovers, so apparently I’m the problem. Maybe if I was younger. Maybe if I had better pills. Maybe if I’d lost all four limbs and swapped them out like the wispy little miss cyberella going up after me, who’ll probably beat me out. Not because her ass is smaller than mine or because she might be doing the choreographer, but because her prosthetics make her look like a snow-globe ballerina.
You know, she probably is doing the choreographer.
The surgeons had told me there was no reason I couldn’t dance the way I used to. I replay that crap in my mind after every audition, and tonight, all through the monorail ride to my mechanic’s.
Danny offered me a bottle of water as I perched myself on the exam table. While he prepped his equipment, I fiddled with my smartphone, keying in the sleep commands for my leg.
“Don’t worry, Georgia,” he said. “You’ll be back on Broadway in no time.”
“Never got there,” I reminded him. “Got sidetracked.”
“You will.” Danny plugged one of his diagnostic gizmos into one of my thigh ports. “You say the stabilizer’s wonky?” He hit a few buttons. “Yeah, by a whole two-point-three micrometers. Still shouldn’t be throwing you off much. Real leg muscles shift more than that.”
I sighed in frustration, like I always do. “You’re useless,” I said. It rolled off Danny’s back, bless his long-suffering heart.
“I keep telling you, give yourself the time to get used to it,” he said. “It’ll be a bit before your body forgets the difference.”
“I’m not getting any younger, Danny,” I said.
“How’s the pain?”
“Pain?” I said. “What pain? No nerves. Everything’s so regulated down there, right? I shouldn’t be feeling any pain.”
“Hey, save it for Doc, will you?” Danny said. “Don’t talk to me about, ‘What pain.'” He smiled as he wriggled the fingers of his right hand. They whirred and clicked, since he’d removed the soundproofing for that schlock-movie cyborg effect. “You’ll have to give that some time, too.”
“Thank you, O Wise Cyber Guru,” I said. Danny unplugged his gizmo and I powered my leg back up, giving me a few more minutes to kill. “Feels a little better now,” I said.
“Check in with Doc, okay?”
“I will,” I said. “Even though he’s more useless than you are.” We chuckled. “Then again, it’s been awhile since he suggested sawing my other leg off to even myself out.”
“Not worth it at your age,” Danny said.
“Call me old-fashioned,” I said, “but I think three-fourths of me is better than half.”
I’d left the missing one-fourth of me in the middle of some rainforest. Sniper fire. Lasers took it clean off. The two guys in my unit who managed to drag their ol’ Sarge back to the extraction point kept their limbs. Their minds, not so much. After the realization that you’re fighting for no real good reason and that everything’s turned to shit, the only two choices you saw were to let your anger keep you going or let it shut you down.
Having given a limb for king and country, and gotten a medal and a half-assed replacement for my trouble, my anger gave me focus to pick up my life where I left off, two tours wiser (damn stop-loss) and more jaded. If I didn’t have that, I’d probably be with my guys right now, permanent residents of a VA psych ward, instead of a weekly recipient of one-on-one and group therapy.
Knowing Danny would nag, I’d already set up a one-on-one with Doctor Gladsen. Thankfully, Doc and I were past the point of rehashing how my leg got shot off. Though I still had to answer the same set of questions every week to convince him I wasn’t planning to eat the barrel of one of the weapons I’d brought home. At least we’ve reached the place where I could trust him enough to tell him that I wanted to feed that barrel to Miss Cyberella, instead (not that I ever would).
“She probably got her gear in a boutique clinic from her rich parents to make up for not doing pre-natal gene adjustment,” I said.
Doc scratched the side of his bald head and adjusted his glasses, like he always did when he was trying to hide his dislike for something I’d just said. “I suppose that’s a possibility,” he said. “But, um…that’s not really the point, is it?”
I had to hand it to him. He’d be hamburger on the field, but he was never afraid to call me on my BS. I think I’ve made it too easy for him. For the next forty minutes, I railed against the unfairness, about how folks like me had to abandon their dreams while rich brats like Cyberella didn’t even have enough interest to protest the war, let alone fight in it.
Meanwhile, Doc nodded and made his usual honest effort to make it look like he hasn’t heard the same speech a hundred times from a hundred other vets. His response, though – well, what else could he say? “The war’s over now. At least for you.”
The damn it is. “Different fight. Different field, maybe. But the enemy’s packing better gear than Uncle Sam’s willing to shell out to give me. Déjà vu.”
After assuring him that I wasn’t going to really do a search-and-destroy on Cyberella, and taking his prescription for low-dose benzos instead of the painkillers I’d asked for, who should I see sitting in the waiting room with a tear-stained face, rubbing her skinny bionic arms for comfort?
I was speechless. She was too upset to recognize me as she brushed past me into Doc’s office. He smiled as he nodded goodbye while I stood slack-jawed. He shut the door as Cyberella thanked him for seeing her on short notice.
I bet she was probably doing him, too.
Of course, I would see her again a week later at another audition. We both made it past the cattle-call. And of course, I watched her audition – I guaranteed I would the second I’d ordered myself not to. She actually wasn’t too bad. A few obvious flubs here and there. I didn’t care how good her gear was. The first lesson is that it’s never the weapons. And from the look on her face, she knew it, too. She got a “Why don’t you hang out for a bit?” which was fair enough. She’d probably get booted after the next round.
Two dancers later, I was on. And I was going to nail it because I knew she was watching as she finished warming down.
Who said spite wasn’t a good motivator? (Doc does, but that’s beside the point.) I screwed up a couple of times, but I nailed the rest of it! My hip was on fire and my leg felt like it was getting sliced off all over again, but I fucking nailed it!
I got a “We’ll be in touch.” So much for fair.
Cyberella had the misfortune of being between me and my stuff backstage. She made such a tempting target. I stormed toward her and got right in her deer-in-headlights face, waiting for an excuse to tear her a new one.
The only words out of my mouth were, “Excuse me.”
“So let me get this straight,” Danny said, as he examined the bionic phalanges of my left foot. “You’re upset because you didn’t dress her down in public? What were you gonna do, make her drop and give you twenty?”
“Just adjust the foot,” I barked. Before I could apologize, Danny scoffed. “Sorry, skipper,” I said.
He waved his hand and resealed my foot casing. “Gunny, there’s only one skill-set worth bringing from the service into civilian life: Staying focused on your objectives. I thought you had that figured out.”
I told him what he wanted to hear, and he knew it. Not that I didn’t really want to get myself pointed back in the direction I was going in before my reserve unit was called. But something about Cyberella just bugged me. Still, I know what Danny’s point was. Stay focused. And I could, as long as I could keep that chick off my mind. Stay focused. That was my new mantra.
I chanted my mantra hard when I saw that Cyberella was the first to plant herself in the chair circle of Doc’s group that night. She was the last thing I wanted, or expected, to see after limping my way down the uneven stairs of the basement of the Unitarian church.
I stood outside the meeting room and waited for Doc to come down. “You know who that is in the room, right?” I said, cornering him.
He peeked inside. “I wondered. I guess you just confirmed it,” he said.
“I can’t be in there with her!” I said. “Not unless you want me and her going round-and-round.”
“I’ll understand if you don’t want to stay, but I can’t let you in there if you’re going to be disruptive.” I was impressed. Doc drew a line, even if he did sound like a puss.
I turned to leave. “I was going to skip tonight anyway. Leg’s killing me.”
“She’s here because of you,” Doc said. “She wanted to meet you. I told her she should check out the group–”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to tell anyone who’s in group?”
“I didn’t,” he said. “Not exactly. She figured it out. Look, it might end up good for the both of you.”
“Doubtful,” I said, pulling myself up the stairs. “I can do this on my own, so can she.”
This, of course, left me on my own. So I pretty much simmered for the three days until the next audition. When it came, I prayed I’d see Cyberella and have the slightest excuse to tell her about herself. Maybe even rip off one of her arms and beat her with it.
She was backstage, stretching out, or trying to. She sat in an almost full split, avoiding my stare as I started my own warm-up right next to her.
She cursed to herself as she tore into her gym bag for her smartphone and stabbed at it with her fingers as her right leg ticked and spasmed. I laughed at the idea that she might be thinking of putting it into sleep mode, which wasn’t a bad move usually, but a bonehead one if you’re one dancer away from being on deck.
Cyberella threw her smartphone back into her bag, grunting with frustration, and started clawing at the access port on her calf.
I would’ve laughed out loud, except for the look on her face. The same look I’d seen on folks shipped from boot camp directly to the front, so dumb with fear when their weapons jammed, they actually looked down the barrel to figure out how to fix it.
Some old instincts took over. “What do you think you’re doing?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I don’t know!” she said, panicked.
The artificial musculature in her upper right thigh was rippling a little faster. “What were you about to do?” I asked with disgust. “Do you even know?”
“I was gonna do a reset–”
“Yeah. A factory reset, you idiot. Didn’t your mechanic teach you anything?” I gave her credit. She wanted to cry, but didn’t.
I squatted down next to her, not really wanting to yell. But I got in her face. “Get that smartphone back out and do a Fast Realign.”
“I don’t know how,” she said, “I couldn’t find–”
“It’s probably in a submenu that you didn’t bother checking, you dimwit! You better hurry up. It looks like you’re on deck.”
With both hands, she frantically searched for the right menu. “I can’t find it!” she said, panicked.
“Well, I guess you’re screwed then, aren’t you? C’mon, look harder.” If I had that command set for my subcontracted junkyard hardware, then I was sure she had it.
“Here it is!” Cyberella sighed as her phone beeped. The rippling in her thigh stopped.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Now get on your feet,” I said. “They’re about to call you.”
“Thank you so much,” she repeated. She did a quick set of stretches to make sure everything was in place. “Hey, maybe I’ll see you at group next time?”
“Just get up there,” I said.
She actually had the nerve to smile at me before taking the stage, like we were best friends forever or something. Wonderful.
I pretended not to watch as I stretched, though I did manage to look up a few times. I almost missed her being told, “Yes, thank you very much – Next!” That made me smile. What I couldn’t figure out was what Cyberella was smiling about as she bounced off stage toward me.
“You saved my life,” she said. “That actually could’ve gone a lot worse.”
“Wasn’t so bad,” I said, my head down to my left knee. It was actually a little further than I’ve managed to stretch in awhile.
“Well, now I know what to do next time.” She gave me this girly salute with two fingers. “See you ’round.”
“Maybe,” I said to myself. I watched her saunter away, warmed up some more, and then painlessly made my way to the stage when my name was called.
About the Author
Don Pizarro has subsisted on red-eyes and gallows humor since 1973. His work has appeared at Fantasy Magazine, Reflection’s Edge, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other places. He lives and writes in upstate New York and can be found on www.warmfuzzyfreudianslippers.com. Come say hi.