by J. Thayne
A soldier dealing with a life-altering disability is offered a second chance.
|((Author's Note: This is a proofread first draft only. Your critique will go towards aiding the final rewrite.))
Jump to Content
My eyes don't want to open. They feel glued shut, like I've been sleeping a long time. When they do, I'm blinded. I'm laying in bed, trying to blink the blurriness away and get acclimated to the bright light right above me. As my vision clears, so to does the world seem to condense around me into something solid, but it's as if it stops halfway. I can hear...noises, but can't place them. I'm vaguely aware of being uncomfortable, and try to shift my position. Something doesn't feel right. I try to raise my head to get a better look. The first thing I notice is that there's another bed across from mine. Am I back in the barracks? I look at my own, and the bed-sheet looks funny, for some reason that I can't place. Too tired to figure it out right now, my neck gives up. I'm out again as soon as my head hits the pillow.
The next time I wake up, it's a little easier. There's someone next to me. After a moment, he notices that I'm staring, and sits down, facing me. In one of the softest voices I've ever heard come from a man, he addresses me, "Morning, Miss," he looks down at a clipboard in his hands for a second, "Fiera. Did I pronounce that right?" I nod weakly, and he continues, "I'm Doctor Sarras. Do you know where you are?" I shake my head slightly. A black, malignant pinpoint appears somewhere deep in my gut, and starts to creep up my spine as he clears his throat to speak again. " You're in the hospital," Hospital? Why? What's wrong with me? "Don't worry, you're...okay." Why did he hesitate? I try to speak, but all that comes out is a thick croak. My tongue feels swollen and refuses to cooperate. He pre-empts me, "You...were wounded. Badly, I'm afraid, but you're stable enough now to move. I've already received the transfer papers. You'll be heading back to the States in a couple days, to an American hospital." He says the last with a smile, as if it's supposed to make me feel better, but I'm not even listening anymore. Wounded. How bad? I want to ask, but I still can't work up any saliva. I start to feel dizzy and tired again. He seems to notice, "Just take it easy for now. You're still under anesthetic. Try to rest. We'll talk again when you're feeling a little better, alright?" As he stands up to leave, the effort of staying awake becomes too much, and I pass out again.
The next two days are spent in and out of consciousness. Mostly out. Whenever I wake, it's like standing in the surf on a stormy day, trying to stay upright through crashing waves of numbness, confusion, and disassociation. Despite his assurances, I don't see Dr. Sarras again before I'm loaded aboard a plane, going State-side. I'm kept drugged and, I think, restrained, the entire flight. The next time I wake up, I'm in the hospital again, this time accompanied by the steady bleeping of a heart monitor. I can feel tubes everywhere. Up my nose, in my arm, up my...well. For the first time I'm wishing I could go back to sleep, to escape the discomfort, but my mind won't let me, this time. A nurse knocks quietly before stepping in. She smiles briefly when she sees me looking at her. Young, with sandy blonde hair. She would be prettier if she wasn't trying so obviously to avoid looking at me. Which reminds me. I grit my teeth as I try to muster the strength to lift my head up. I need to see..."Oh, oh, please don't try to move, Miss," the nurse says quickly, hurrying to place a hand on my shoulder. I sigh in resignation. My neck is too stiff and sore to cooperate at any rate. I try to speak, "Whoth wrong...," I stop, moisten my tongue and lips, and try again, "What's...wrong...with me?" I manage to eke it out, every word a struggle in concentration. When no response is forthcoming, I look at her. She seems frozen, her face a mixture of fear and uncertainty. "Tell...me," I say, trying to be forceful, but barely managing a cracking whisper. She snatches her hand from my shoulder as if I'd suddenly caught fire, glancing over her shoulder at the door. "I'll...um...I'mgoingtogettheDoctor," she blurts, before hurrying out the door.
I close my eyes, torn between crying and screaming. All I manage is a couple wretched sobs. Taking a few breaths to try and compose myself, I try to lever myself into a sitting position, despite the nurse's warning. I can't seem to though. Everything feels so numb. One of my feet start to itch maddeningly, but no matter how much I stretch, I can't seem to find the bed's foot-board. I collapse in surrender and do my best to ignore it. There's a small television bolted to the wall in the corner of my room. For lack of anything better to do, I let my eyes wander to it. It's set to a news channel, the pretty blonde anchor standing before a backdrop of bombed out mud-brick buildings while she vomits out the latest statistics on the South African civil war. Pompous bitch,I think, you're not impressing anyone standing in front of that green-screen. I've actually been there. I wonder how you'd fare dodging bullets while hauling forty kilos of ruck. I notice myself smirking, and chide myself for it. That thought came out of nowhere. I'm just frustrated. I wish that damn Doctor would get here already. Somebody needs to tell me what the hell is going on.
I wait for what seems like hours, but repeated glances at the clock tell me it's only been about twenty minutes, before a white-coated man enters my room, closing the door softly behind him. He gives me a minimal nod as greeting. I follow him with my eyes as he takes the clipboard from the foot of my bed and drags a stool, squealing gratingly on the faux-marble floor, to sit down on. I wait patiently, maddeningly, while he peruses the two sheets with the speed of a sloth on valium. Finally, he takes a deep breath, exhaling in a long, slow sigh, and sets the clipboard aside on the night-table.
"Well, Miss Fiera. Let me start by asking you...what do you remember from before your stay at the African hospital?"
The question catches me slightly off-guard. I stare at the ceiling, squinting unconsciously as I cast my mind back. What was I doing? I was...we were... A grunt escapes my lips as I try to focus. We were...trying to take prisoners? No, just one. An arms supplier...were going to press him for information. Once again, I try to work up enough saliva to speak, now that I had a train of thought to follow. "We were...in the market streets. Trying to..." What were we doing? "...trying to set up a perimeter. I was...on the south-east corner, I think."
The Doctor nods, waiting for me to go on. What next? What happened? "I...remember...they came out of the crowd. Men with guns, laying down suppression. We...we couldn't return fire right away...they were surrounded by civilians. I...I took cover behind...behind a car, I think." I can feel a drop of sweat rolling down my temple as I try to remember more, but nothing comes. "That's...that's it, I think. That's all I can get." I look at him, almost apologetically.
He nods again, one hand rubbing idly at his chin. "Well," he begins, then trails off. It takes him a moment to steel himself. I don't know why, but my throat is starting to burn as he says, "The car was, apparently, hit by a rocket while you were next to it." Oh...Jesus. No. He continues, not making eye contact, "It seems that the vehicle took the brunt of the explosion, which is, coincidentally, why you're here to have this conversation. However, " Oh God, here it comes. "The debris from the car...What I mean to say is, the shrapnel, hit you." His eyes raise from the floor to meet mine. "In order to save your life, they had to amputate." Oh...no...no...noNoNO. I can't see through the tears that overwhelm my eyes. My guts are wrenched into knots. It's all I can do to suck in a few ragged, gasping breaths before I can find my voice again. "How...bad?" That's all I can say before my voice catches in my throat as my lungs spasm.
He stands up, and slowly pulls the sheet away from my neck, folding it down. He cups a hand behind my head and gently lifts so that I can see for myself. Furiously blinking my eyes free of tears, I take in the view of my body for the first time. Oh...God...my legs. My LEGS! Below my pelvis, my left leg ends in a stump halfway down my thigh. My right ends just below the knee. I try to reach down to feel them, and a bolt of terror shoots down my spine as I see a puffy, red, fleshy knob waggling from my right shoulder. My...arm...too? No....Noooooo nooooo. I can't hold it back any longer. As he lays my head back down on the pillow, I'm sobbing, loudly, uncontrollably, half-shrieking, half-gasping for air as my mind stutters, flashing back and forth between two thoughts. My legs are...my arm...legs...gone...gone... I think the Doctor speaks then, but I can't focus on him. I'm only fractionally aware of him doing something to my I.V. before leaving the room. In a few minutes, I can feel myself calming down, but not willfully. I'm quickly dragged into a mind-numbing exhaustion, from which I could only dream of clawing my way out. Despite my brief and futile struggle, consciousness slips away from me once again.
The next few days passed as though I were in a dream. The time of day was irrelevant, and I began marking the passage of the days through the visits of the hospital staff. Twice a day a nurse or orderly would come in to sponge-wash and massage my stumps. Those useless lumps of flesh where my legs and arm used to be. I discovered that, while still connected and whole, I couldn't use my left arm for the time-being. Apparently the tendons had been severed, and while the surgeons saved the arm, my hand and elbow were immobilized so that I wouldn't tear the sutures. Aside from the cleaning and massage, another nurse, different each time, would bring a tray of bland food and spoon-feed me, whether I was hungry or not. I soon stopped arguing with them and just forced myself to choke down whatever they gave me. At night, they would make me swallow the contents of a little paper cup. Muscle-relaxants, anti-convulsants, painkillers...who knew what else. I couldn't bring myself to care about any of it. A couple times, the Doctor, named Nelson, tried to engage me in conversation. I didn't want to hear his platitudes about being able to live a productive life, despite missing three-quarters of my limbs, and I told him so, perhaps more harshly than I should have, but in the end, kinder than I wanted to.
I had no visitors. My Dad had died in a drunk-driving accident two years earlier, coming home at 3 a.m. from the bar he had installed himself in as a daily regular. Mom had passed a year earlier from breast cancer, despite having had a double-mastectomy several months earlier. The few friends I had in the States didn't even know I was back, and were on the other side of the country, in any case, probably enjoying the Californian summer, hiking and taking day-trips to the beach. I'd had no contact from the Army since I arrived, other than a duffel-bag full of my meager belongings and a short, prepared form expressing their so-called sympathies, with a scribbled signature from an officer I'd never met at the bottom. To say I was depressed or lonely is an understatement of the highest order. The hospital staff, while courteous and civil, as they were expected to be, obviously didn't care to strike up conversation, other than banal small-talk to fill the awkward silences while my bandages or waste-bags were changed. I was miserable, and couldn't for the life of me see the light at the end of the tunnel. I started to imagine what the rest of my life would be like, my limbless future...and every time I would be reduced to a quivering, trembling, sobbing heap of pulped, scarred flesh, wrapped in linen and plastic.
A week passed in this fashion. Lunch had just been served, and I had resigned myself to staring blankly at the television for a few hours until the next scheduled event, when a nurse stuck her head just far enough inside the door to inform me that I had a visitor. I already figured it wasn't going to be anyone I actually knew, so I wasn't particularly looking forward to it. It must have shown, because the greeting smile on the man's face disappeared after meeting my eyes. The door hissed closed behind him on its hydraulic piston. The click as the plunger fell home was as loud as a gunshot. He stood. I laid there. Neither of us moved or said anything for several seconds before he cleared his throat to speak.
"Do you mind if I have a seat Ma'am?" He said. I stared at him a moment longer before turning my gaze back to the tv and said, with just a hint of venom, "If you want." Instead of pulling up the stool like I expected, he walked around my bed, momentarily obscuring my view and pulling my gaze towards him. I took stock of him subconsciously. Average height, maybe a little taller, though it was hard to tell from my supine position. His face was smooth-skinned and dark olive in color. I was a little surprised to see that what I had thought was a slicked-back, short haircut actually terminated in a tightly-drawn ponytail. It's black length swaying at his lower back. His clothes were dress-casual. Slim, grey and black pinstripe slacks, pastel blue long-sleeve dress shirt with it's collar-button open, and a dark-grey satin vest. He carried a brown leather messenger bag over his shoulder, which he deposited in one of the two armchairs by the window, before taking a seat in the other.
I quickly shifted my gaze away, hoping he wouldn't notice that I was staring, and forced a neutral expression onto my face as I pretended to watch the tv. In my peripheral vision, I saw his head turn up slightly to look at me, and I caught myself wondering what I must look like. For once, I was thankful for my chopped hair, which, had it been the long red mane I wore before joining the forces, would have been a matted, greasy mess after a week without a proper shower. I hadn't seen a mirror at all since the accident, and wondered just how many, and how bad, the scars were that must have been on my face and neck. The rest were covered, thankfully, by the gown and bed-sheet. But...this was nothing compared to...well, the obvious. I found myself growing embarrassed, subjected to his unflinching stare. For the first time since finding out I was a triple-amputee, I was actually ashamed at my condition, rather than simply hating or resenting it. I felt my cheeks grow warm as shame and self-loathing warred in my mind.
I decided I had to say something, if he wasn't going to. I needed to distract myself. Turning my head to make eye-contact, I said, "Well? Are you going to say something, or do you just like staring at cripples?" I said the last, not because I meant it, but to try and shock him. I think I was just feeling spiteful. To my surprise, he quietly snorted and smiled. I watched as his head tracked down the length of the bed, no doubt noticing the point where the sheets collapsed to the mattress, a little below my waist.
"May I see?" It was a simple question, asked softly but directly. That small smile still on his face.
I think I may have blushed again. "Why?"
He apparently had no problems meeting my eyes again. "So I can see what we're working with." Again...so calm, and perfectly at ease asking my permission to lay bare my new deformities. It pissed me off a little, but after a moment, I consented. "I guess."
I watched him warily as he slowly stood and approached the bed. This wasn't like the daily ministrations of the Doctors and their staff. While they were strangers to me, it was, after all, their job. I wasn't entirely comfortable with a complete stranger like this messing with me while I was helpless to do so much as move. My breath hitched as his hands brushed my shoulders, taking the edge of the sheet and slowly uncovering me.
His eyes darted to the stump of my arm, first, but lingered there for only a moment before he moved to the foot of the bed to inspect my legs. I thought he was only going to look, and gasped when I felt him slide his hands underneath my right remnant, supporting the knee and lifting up ever so slightly. I suddenly remembered that I was wearing nothing underneath the hospital gown, and I stared a hole in the ceiling trying to put that thought out of my mind. I felt him deftly remove the cloth bandage, and my next breath trembled out of me as he ran a finger carefully along the surgical lines, rubbing over the still-fresh stitches and scabs. Biting my lower lip, I squeezed my eyes shut against the unfamiliar and wholly disconcerting sensation.
He must have noticed my discomfort, and as he moved to repeat the process on the other leg, addressed me, "So tell me, have you had any discourse with your insurance yet about the likelihood of being fitted for prosthetics?" Even though the question sounded professional, the tone it was asked with sounded more like it was meant as filler, to give me something to think about. He's trying to make me more comfortable, I guess. This is...weird.
"No...it hasn't, ah!" A sharp inhalation from me as he again traced the surgical cuts, "...come up yet."
"Is your insurance solely from the military, or do you have private insurance as well?" He asked, stepping back to my side to inspect my arm now.
"No. I mean, I don't have anything else." I said, as he repeated the same, careful inspection of my arm. "Is that...Will it make a difference?"
He seemed to think about it for a moment, then nodded. "More often than not, your insurance will only approve you for a wheelchair, unfortunately."
I have to admit my spirits fell a little at that. "How...much will they cost if I, you know, get them on my own?"
"Depends. If both legs had been below the knee, you could potentially get away with a few thousand each."
Shit! That much? "But since they're not?" I asked, almost regretfully.
"If you want to actually walk on them, instead of just having them for show, I'd estimate between eight and fifteen thousand for the left leg, since you'll need a mechanical knee."
I groaned as I pressed my head further into the pillow. No mention of the arm, either...so that'll be even more. I could buy a car for that or, or put a goddamn down-payment on a house. This isn't fair...it's...not...fair!
"Is it alright if I ask you a few more questions, then I can get out of your hair?" He asked calmly as he, surprisingly, fished a new roll of cloth from a cabinet and began replacing the bandages with the same care he had taken, never squeezing or brushing roughly along the cuts.
In a small voice that likely showed the hopelessness I was feeling at the moment, I acquiesced.
"What were your feelings when you were asked to engage in combat?"
My eyes shot open. The hell? What does that have to do with anything? Right on the tail of that thought, That's kind of personal, isn't it? My mouth worked silently for a second as I tried to decide whether to give an answer or tell him to fuck off and mind his own business. "I guess," so I'm telling the truth to this weirdo, huh? "I didn't 'enjoy' it, per se...but, I didn't..." I struggled to find the words, "'mind it', I guess you could say. I mean, it was part of my job...I knew that...and we didn't do it frivolously. It was always for a good reason, in my opinion." Starting to ramble, shut it.
"So, you were willing to kill, so long as it was for a good reason?" He asked, still not taking his eyes from my bandages as he finished up.
This was starting to bother me. "You know," I started, letting some anger seep into my voice, "I don't think this is any of your business. What are you getting at, anyway?" Some fucking liberal pansy-ass. I can't believe he's taking pot-shots at me while I'm like this. Who the hell does he think he is?
As soon as I thought that, his eyes locked onto mine. I expected haughtiness, or even anger, but there was neither. Just cool calculation, like he knew what I was thinking. Get out...get out of my room. I don't want you anywhere near me, you freak. Was what I wanted to say...but I couldn't say anything while he looked at me like that.
Finally he sighed, almost disappointedly, and drew the sheet back up to my neck, for which I was grateful. "Sorry," he said, "You're absolutely right. It's none of my business. Just for the record though...I wasn't judging you. I'm just genuinely curious." He opened his bag and withdrew a manila folder, stuffed thick with papers, and laid it on my night-stand.
"What's this?" I asked warily.
"Some information for you to look at, once you're able, of course." He looked pointedly at my still-immobile left arm. "That's assuming that you would rather be on your own two legs, rather than in a wheelchair for the rest of your life." He shrugged, "It's up to you, of course."
He had already opened the door and was on his way out when I stopped him, despite my earlier unease, "But...if they're as expensive as you said, I just..." my voice cracked, betraying my sadness, "I can't afford that."
At first I thought he was just going to keep going without responding, but he turned around, and, with that same kind smile he had shown at the beginning of his visit, said, "I know. Don't worry about that for the time-being. Just...look through it, and give me a call. I left a card in there, okay?"
Dumbfounded, not knowing what else to say, I managed a weak, "Okay."
His smile grew momentarily wider, then he turned and left, leaving me laying there, with combined feelings of unease and, surprisingly...hope? Hope, that I might not be confined to a wheelchair. Not wanting to lose that feeling, I took his advice and tried my best not to think about the money aspect, which, between the hospital bills, the surgery, and everything else, was going to be overwhelming. Later. I'll deal with that later. There's nothing I can do right now.
The rest of the night I laid there, unable to focus on the always-on television, but every so often glancing at the folder laying tantalizingly close, wishing I could just reach over and see what was inside, hoping desperately that something in there might give me some respite from the utter despair I had so far found myself in. For once, I was looking forward to the nightly sleeping pills. I knew my mind would otherwise be too busy to allow me to rest. As I waited for darkness to fall outside my window, an unexpected thought struck me, Odd...he never told me his name.
Three days later they removed the hard-plastic frame from my left arm, allowing me the first freedom of movement I'd had since the accident. I waited impatiently for the nurses to finish fussing about, checking my vitals and, yes, cleaning my stumps. A necessary evil I had begun to grow accustomed to. Apparently infection was a very serious concern with amputees.
The second the door closed behind them, I fairly snatched the folder up from it's place on my night-stand, instantly regretting it as my forearm howled with pain. I barely managed to get it into my lap without spilling the contents all over the floor, from which there would be no recovery unless I called for a nurse to pick them up for me.
I don't know what I had been expecting. The papers didn't seem to be in any particular order, though the first few were indeed informational articles on prosthetic devices in general. I skipped the parts about their history and use, and started coming across articles and papers describing multitudes of different kinds. Passive, active, myo-electrical, harness, toggle-switch. Soon my mind was spinning with possibilities, but I knew it was just an information rush, due to my being kept from it for so long. I took some deep breaths to calm myself, and started over at the beginning, trying to actually absorb the information, rather than glossing over it in my haste to fantasize about what a certain model would look or feel like on me.
If I'm to be perfectly honest, I wasn't too impressed. Yes, they could allow me a modicum of my previous mobility, but the more useful the limb, the uglier, bulkier, and more obvious it was aesthetically, while the pleasing, humaniform limbs were all but useless in most cases. Still, it was something, and it didn't take long to convince myself that, given the choice, I'd rather be hideous and mobile, than pretty-ish in a wheelchair.
At the very bottom of the stack, I found a sheaf which had been stapled together. Unlike the others, it didn't seem to be a printout of an article or medical paper, but rather photocopied engineering sketches and hand-written notations, none of which I understood, other than the occasional anatomical references. The rest seemed to be, though I couldn't be sure, electrical and wiring diagrams. What was interesting was that whoever drew up these designs claimed they combined both form and function. From the pictures, it looked like they were right. Wistfully I set that one aside. It didn't even look available, to be honest. More like a proof of concept, and I was sure that even if it did exist, it was going to be prohibitively expensive. Something only the tiniest fraction of amputees could afford...certainly not something to be bought with a military pension.
Sighing, I pulled out the small business card tucked into the bottom of one of the pockets. I flipped it over at least twice to make sure I wasn't missing something, but no...just a phone number. No name, not even of a company. No e-mail or fax, either. An unusual business card, if that's what it actually was, despite it's professional typeface and glossy texture. I started wondering what to do. So, I call that guy, assuming this is his number...and then what? Is he going to start offering me loan options to pay for these? Work out a payment plan of some kind? An involuntary shiver took hold of me as I remembered that look he gave me after my outburst at his questioning.
"Maybe." I muttered to myself, and decided to sit on it for a day or two. Maybe I should ask the Doctor for an opinion instead, and save this guy as a last resort. I mean, surely a hospital will have resources for this stuff. What kind of resources, exactly, I couldn't begin to imagine. All I knew was that I was going to begin some kind of physical therapy soon, but I didn't even know what that would entail. I'll ask the Doctor first, I decided, re-packing the folder and, gently this time, to spare my arm, set it back on the table. Once again, my mind was racing with possibilities for the rest of the day. By the end, I was so mentally exhausted that I fell asleep on my own before the nurse came in with my nightly pill regimen.
The next day, I asked the lunchtime nurse if I could speak with Doctor Nelson, and after making sure it wasn't anything urgent, she agreed to let him know I wanted to see him. Two hours later, he made his appearance.
"Miss Fiera. How are you doing today?" He asked, while automatically reaching for my charts. A force of habit, I'm sure.
"I'm alright, I guess. I had some questions, though, if you have a minute."
"Of course," he said, his brow creasing as he sat down on the ever-present stool, "whatever you need to know."
I took a moment to organize my thoughts, then asked him, rather clumsily, about the possibility of prosthetics.
"Well," he began, "it's certainly possible, yes. It's largely between you and your insurance though, to be honest. Unfortunately we don't have a prosthetist on staff for you to talk to, but I'm sure one of our trauma counselors would be better suited than I to make recommendations about this topic specifically."
In other words, you can't help, and I should talk to a therapist. Lovely. "I'll keep it in mind, thank you Doctor." Was all I said. As he smiled, with rather more relief than I thought was appropriate, I asked, "If it's not too much trouble, could you ask someone to bring me a phone?"
"Of course. Someone will be in shortly." He said, then disappeared into the hallway.
'Shortly' turned out to be nearly an hour, just before I was considering jamming the call-button. After plugging the phone in and setting it within reach of my good...well, my only arm, the nurse left, apparently in some kind of hurry. I took out the card and picked up the receiver, but it was still a couple minutes before I made up my mind to actually call.
The phone rang twice before it was picked up on the other end with a terse, "Yes?"
Rattled by the tone, I spoke tentatively, "Um, hello. My name is...Ellison Fiera? I was given this..."
"Oh! Yes, how are you Miss Fiera?" His voice cut me off mid-sentence. "I've been hoping you would call. I take it you've had a chance to peruse the material I left for you?"
Half-smiling in bemusement at his sudden change of tone, I said, "Yes, actually...but, I had some questions. I'm not exactly sure what I was supposed to get out of all of it. Was it just..."
"Oh, no worries there. It was just to give you some ideas about what's available, should you choose to pursue it. If you'd like, I can stop by your room this evening to answer any questions you may have. I'm afraid that I'm a little busy at the moment, so I can't stay on the phone too long, I hope you understand."
No...no I really don't, and are you always this rude? "Ah, well...that would be fine, I suppose. Really, it...it isn't that urgent." I said, trying to take the conversation down a notch.
"No problem at all. The hospital is on my way, after all. I'll come by around, say...six-thirty?"
"Sure, I guess that'll be fine."
"Very good. Until this evening then, Miss Fiera."
"Good-," the phone clicked, denoting he had hung up, "-bye."
Well, that was interesting. Is this guy bi-polar or what? Putting the receiver back on it's base, I tried to shake off the doubt that was niggling it's way into my brain. Nevertheless, as the time for his arrival got closer and closer, I couldn't help but await it with no little amount of trepidation.
It was nearly seven before there was a knock on the door. "Come in." I said, with as confident a tone as I could manage. Sure enough, it was him, looking much the same as he did the first time we had met. Only the color of his undershirt had changed, and two buttons this time, instead of one, were open. He must have just gotten off from work...whatever that is.
"I was starting to think you had forgotten, Mister...um?" I said, hoping he would bite and finally introduce himself.
He smiled apologetically as he sat down in the armchair, "Yes, sorry about that...and for earlier, actually. I didn't realize how I must have sounded until I got off the phone. You caught me right in the middle of something, is all. I didn't mean to be rude."
No luck. At least he apologized. That's something, I guess. Is he going to make me just come out and ask him what the heck his name is?
Cracking his knuckles as if he were about to dive into a mountain of paperwork, he nodded at the folder on my table and said, "So, you said you had some questions. Feel free to ask away."
I carefully picked up the folder and opened it on my lap, more to buy a moment to think than anything. I laughed nervously, "Well, to be honest...I don't even know what the right questions are. I've looked through these several times, and I mean, it's very interesting, and there are certainly more options than I thought...but how exactly does it all apply, here? Are you expecting me to choose one, or something? And, for that matter...I'm curious as to your role here. Do you work for a company that produces these, or what?" I finished in a nervous, winded chuckle.
His expression had grown more serious as I was talking. He steepled his fingers, elbows on knees, while he considered his reply. When it came, it was not what I had expected.
"Let me answer your last question first. The short answer is, no. I don't represent any prosthetic company, as such." Expecting him to go on, I said nothing. Shortly he nodded at the stapled papers that I had set aside. "What did you think of that one there?"
I glanced at it briefly before answering, "Well, it...I suppose it looked pretty impressive, but...well..." I trailed off, not knowing exactly how to put my thoughts into words.
He nodded, "Let me guess...you dismissed it as being too far out of your range?"
"Well...yes, I suppose I did," I admitted, a little embarrassed.
"If there is anything in that stack of papers that I represent, it would be that one." He smiled again, "After all, it's my design."
Shocked, and a little disbelieving, I asked, "Then what were the others for?"
He shrugged and pursed his lips a little. "I suppose I was hoping that, after looking through them, you would consider it as the best option. I probably could have presented it a little more professionally, now that I think about it."
A little nervous, I couldn't help but ask, "So...are you saying that it is an option for me?"
I cocked an eyebrow, suspicious, "What's the 'maybe' for?"
Another one of those disturbing stares. Completely cool and emotionless. "I need to ask you some more questions. Questions that may be uncomfortable to answer."
Brows furrowed, remembering how that went the last time, I asked, "Why, exactly, and what if I don't want to answer?"
No change in his expression as he says, "The why is unimportant. Nevertheless, if you decide they're not worth answering, I'll leave you the name and number of a good prosthetist, and you can discuss with him any of the other options you've seen thus far."
"But not yours, right?"
At least now I know his angle, even if I don't pretend to understand it. I...guess...it wouldn't hurt to hear him out. I give a small, tentative nod. "Alright, I guess. If you feel like you need to know, go ahead and ask."
He nods and smiles slightly. "Good, thank you. There aren't many, but please bear with me, and answer honestly. That's important." He cocks one eyebrow up questioningly, and I nod in assent.
He sits back, looking more relaxed. "Well, let's start with the last question I asked. Are you willing to kill someone, if you believe it to be for a good reason? Remember, answer honestly please."
I sigh, loudly, but take the question into consideration. It's a rather uncomfortable question, but the truth...the truth...is, "Yes." I run my hand down my face. Somehow I feel ashamed and dirty for saying it.
Apparently unfazed, he continues, "If you still had the full use of your limbs, would you re-join the military in a combat capacity?"
That's an easy one, "Yes, I would."
"Alright. Lastly, and please don't hesitate to be loquacious in your response...How would you describe your moral values?" With that, he sat back and crossed his legs, hands folded over his stomach, apparently expecting a lengthy response.
It took me a second to realize my mouth was hanging open. "I...uh...well..."
He chuckled and made a dismissive gesture with his hand. "It's alright, take your time."
Feeling the need to fidget, and wanting his gaze off of me for a second, I asked, "Could you, um...would you mind getting me some water, while I take a second to think?" I pointed to the empty glass on the cabinet across the room. To his credit, he got up immediately with a quick affirmation.
While he was in the process of filling the glass from the private washroom, I tried to calm myself enough to think. My moral values, huh? Does he mean, like, my stance on abortion and slavery and women's rights and all that? I shook my head, dispelling the notion. No, I'm sure he means something else. How to put it into words, though? I mean, I can usually tell when I see or hear something, whether it's right or wrong. I wouldn't think that's a subjective feeling, but I'm...probably wrong, considering what goes on in the world.
I jumped a little when I felt the brush of his hand against mine. "Sorry, here you are," he said softly, as he placed the glass in my hand, making sure I had a good grip before letting go. I responded with an automatic, "Thank you," even before realizing I meant it. I drank down half of the lukewarm water before setting the glass carefully on the night-stand. Steeling myself to possibly look foolish, I looked at him and began delivering possibly the most convoluted speech I've ever had to give.
"So," I began hesitantly, " without knowing exactly what your definition of 'moral values' is, I guess, I would say that, put simply, I believe in...justice." I shook my head a little, "And by that, I don't necessarily mean what the courts call it. I mean, honestly...a lot of the people that they put in prison with life-sentences...the people that do horrible, horrible things like premeditated murder, rape, things like that...I would just as soon see most of those people get the chair, you know." Now I felt stupid. These were definitely not views shared by a lot of my peers.
Needing to elaborate, partly for my own sake, I continued, "But, I also don't think you can just draw a line in the sand and say, if you do this, you die, no matter what. I think...that the circumstances...and the intentions matter. Someone could've been trying to do something good, or something needful. Not murder, usually, but like cutting off people's hands for stealing. I mean, yeah it's kind of a fitting punishment if the theft is just because the person's an asshole and doesn't care about anyone but himself, but if it's like, a kid stealing a loaf of bread so he won't starve to death, I wouldn't pass the same sentence on him."
I sucked in a breath, nervous now, but feeling the need to keep going. I wasn't even looking at him, just staring at my lap as I pushed forward, "I know that sounds like a double-standard, but it's what I believe. I also...and this probably sounds weird coming from a military chick, but I don't think that, you know, corrupt officials and despots and stuff should be left in power just because they have political pull. I mean, I saw...or heard, at least, about some of that shit going on in Ess Ay. You know, like we'd leave some gang-lord alone because he was, I dunno...leasing land or selling arms to one of our allies, or controlled something important that we needed, and would've been too hard to take by force. You know, I always thought that was bullshit...and-"
Just then, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. He had his hand upraised in a 'stop' gesture. He leaned back and seemed to think for a minute. "That's plenty...thank you, Miss Fiera."
I was a little out of breath, and my heart was rattling like I'd just been to confession, or was under interrogation by the police for some horrible crime. I felt ridiculous. I don't even know why I went through with it like that. At some point, it stopped being about the promise of new limbs, and became an issue of, This is an important question, that deals with me and what I believe...and I need to answer it, for myself as much as for anyone else.
I was still shaking a little when he walked around the bed and took my hand. Not roughly, or like a handshake...just, held it, like you might do for a friend who was upset. It was strange, but oddly comforting.
I looked up at him and managed a wry smile, "Well?"
He just smiled. "You've certainly given me something to think about." He let go of my hand and picked up the papers and his card, and put them inside of his bag. Disappointment came crashing down on me. So...that's it then. Whatever his little test was...I failed.
Like before, he seemed to know what I was thinking. He nodded to his bag as he slid it over his shoulder. "Just a formality, don't worry. Proprietary technology, you understand. I'll be in touch with you Elly."
And like that, he was leaving. Just before he walked out of the door, he turned his head just far enough to look at me sideways. "In the meantime...it wouldn't hurt to wonder why I asked those questions. You're a bright girl, I think. I have a feeling you'll know the answer to the next question I ask before you ever hear it." On which cryptic note he slid out of the room, the door clicking shut with a startling finality.
I collapsed backwards, sliding into the bed, and simply lay there, staring at the ceiling, and thinking...until the nurse came in with my pills, soon sending me into an artificially restful sleep. My last thought before they did was, He called me Elly. I still don't know his name.
A handful of days passed without event. The only thing that really changed was that my left arm was getting a little stronger. They gave me a little contraption that looked like a nut-cracker with a spring at the top, that I was to use twice a day. If you pressed me, I might also say that I was in less pain. Whether I was, or whether I was just getting used to it, I couldn't say for sure.
They gave me a taste of part of my upcoming therapy, as well. Trans-dermal electro-muscle stimulation, I think they called it. In the end, all it amounted to was shocking the hell out of my missing legs and arm, forcing the muscles to contract repeatedly to keep them from atrophying too fast. I think I took it well, though. One of the nurses even complimented me on how 'cooperative' I was being. I wondered if she'd ever tried it.
The first few days, all I could think about, lying in my bed, was what had happened the other night with that strange man. What should I call him...an inventor, maybe? I had a sinking feeling it was a little more sinister than that. Or maybe 'sinister' was the wrong word. Thinking back to what he had asked me, it almost seemed obvious, didn't it? That didn't make me feel any less uncomfortable about the prospect, and of course, I wasn't sure if I had it right, after all.
It seemed to me that while the offer was pretty straightforward, it came with a hell of a lot of strings attached. So, say I get those nice prosthetics. In return...I have to, what? Join a barely legal, or maybe downright illegal, quasi-military group, doing pretty much what I did for the Army? I doubted it was that simple. Para-military is not a word one associates with simple displays of force or deterrence through intimidation. That's the kind of group governments call on to do things the public wouldn't allow them to do. Assassinations, violent coups, kidnappings...all kinds of nasty stuff. At least I think. It's not like I've ever had the chance to ask anyone. For all I know it could end up being like a security firm, hiring out bodyguards and convoy escorts. At any rate, I wasn't sure what I wanted from him, or what he wanted from me. If he's just recruiting...why the hell wouldn't he pick some healthy bodies that don't need 'fixing'. Or am I just supposed to be a guinea pig. I shivered, getting a mental image resembling Frankenstein's laboratory, full of tesla coils and bus-bars full of crackling electricity.
I couldn't help but laugh at myself, but was cut short by a knock on the door. A nurse came in and handed me a slip of paper. I gave her a questioning look, to which she replied, "Someone called and asked us to pass along this message. The clerk offered to forward it to your room, but..." With that, she shrugged helplessly and left the room.
Unfolding the piece of paper, I read the short message. 'Have you decided in which direction you're heading? -8 p.m.-'
Why does he have to be so creepy? Regardless, it was time to make up my mind, even if I still had questions. Even if he seemed a tad unhinged, so far he'd been nothing if not polite. A few questions before I decide shouldn't be an issue. He'll want to know if I actually figured out his offer though. Another test? Probably. I hope I'm right. The truth was, I did want to go back to the military, despite what happened. Enlisting was probably the best thing that had ever happened to me. The feeling of camaraderie and belonging was something I had been missing in my life, and the Army filled that gap quite nicely. On top of that, I got to travel. In the eight years since I'd enlisted, I'd been stationed in France, Germany, Japan, Brazil, and finally, where it all ended, Africa. Sure, there was some fighting, and yeah, it was shit-your-pants scary sometimes. But I always came out of it okay, and for every squaddie that fell, there were ten more to slap you on the back, buy you a drink, and share some of the grief. I'd always imagined that was what it was like for people that had brothers and sisters. You always had someone there to lean on when things got scary.
But now...the awful truth was that...it simply wasn't something I could go back to. Even if I hadn't gotten an honorable discharge, all I might possibly have to look forward to is a secretarial job, and I wouldn't even be very good at that, being a one-handed typist, now. My chances of making a difference for people would be over.
The options left to me as a civvie weren't much rosier, I forced myself to admit. I could go back and finish college, but to what end. Manual labor? Yeah, sure. It'd be all I could manage to run a cash register at Starbucks for the rest of my days, and I'm sure I'm precisely what people want to have to look at right before they enjoy their little slice of banana-bread and vanilla soy latte. A scornful laugh slipped past my lips. Without meaning to, I'd slipped right back into that pit of disgusting self-loathing that I'd been trapped in that first week. I hated feeling like a useless lump of flesh.
And just like that...I knew which direction I was heading. I wanted...I needed this. Even if it turns out only to be a mockery of the life I had, it'll be something. Anything would be preferable to the way I'm feeling now, thrown away by the Army, looked down on by society as a pitiful remnant of a human-being, barely able to wipe her own ass.
Before I knew it, tears of frustration were welling from my eyes. As far as I was concerned, all doubt had been swept away, and 8 o'clock just couldn't get here fast enough.
After wrangling myself into a sitting position, I watched as twilight fell across the little square of horizon as seen from my hospital bed. Hearing a knock at the door, I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and called, "Enter." As soon as he stepped inside, I squared my shoulder as best I could, and, without meaning to, fairly shouted, "Yes!" Even though I could feel my lower lip trembling with nervousness, I know my face said, I DARE you to deny me!
He recoiled as if slapped. It was the first real human reaction I'd seen from him. He regained his composure quickly though. For a brief second, I thought he was angry from the expression on his face. Then I realized that he was trying, and failing, to stop himself from laughing. He looked up from the floor and must have caught the smile that was tweaking at the corners of my mouth. The floodgates burst, and the room exploded with laughter.
It took us both a minute to calm down, and he came over to sit in the armchair. As he looked at me with the remainder of a smile on his face, I felt like a thousand tons had been lifted from my chest.
"So...you have a theory, and you're sure?" he asked. I said nothing, but he kept studying my face, and after a moment nodded. "So you are." It was a statement. He looked at the floor briefly, and spoke seriously. As serious as when he was questioning me. "You know then, that this is a turning point in your life." He met my eyes again. "I warn you, there isn't any turning back after this. Do you have any questions? Any doubts? This is...your...last...chance."
Before I could change my mind, I shook my head violently. It didn't matter. What mattered was getting out of this bed, out of this hospital, and doing something with my life again.
"Alright then." he said, while retrieving a clipboard with a sheaf of papers attached from his satchel. Laying it on my lap, he handed me a pen.
I sighed, "Time to sign my life away, huh?"
He shrugged, "If that's how you want to look at it."
I looked at the papers closer. All but the very bottom one were forms related to discharging me from the hospital early. Seeing as how I was still in a very sensitive condition, there was understandably a lot of red-tape. I signed them all, until I was left with only the last, which I pulled free to inspect.
To my surprise, he grinned, "Good girl. Always read the fine print. Always."
It was surprisingly short. Essentially a non-disclosure agreement, stating that anything I saw, heard, or did after leaving the hospital was not to be discussed with anyone without express permission, citing 'disciplinary action' and the 'recovery of sensitive data and technology', if breached. I nodded to myself and signed, finally handing the whole stack back to him.
He put the single sheet into his bag, and left with the rest in his hands, "I'll be right back."
Half an hour later, he stepped back into the room, followed by two nurses, one of whom pushed a wheelchair. He had the good graces to look away as they removed my catheter and colostomy tube, cleaned me up a little, and dressed me in clothes taken from my duffel. One of the nurses stayed behind to clean up the room, while he picked up both of our bags and followed the other, pushing me along, to the front entrance.
A black car was parked running at the curb, not looking out of place at all. I didn't know what I had been expecting, but it wasn't such...normalcy. He put our bags into the trunk and opened the passenger door. I was preparing to heave myself in, if need be, but he plucked me from the wheelchair without so much as a grunt and deposited me easily into the seat. I buckled myself in as he closed the door and waved goodnight to the nurse.
I sank into the seat and put my head back, closing my eyes as we pulled out of the parking lot and into the descending night. Trying not to worry, trying not to think at all, I savored the sensation of moving, and tried to hold on to that hope of a new life, no matter what it might bring. I still don't know his name. I turned my head very slightly to bring his face into view. He either didn't notice or pretended not to. I closed my eyes again and thought, It can wait.
He woke me up a short time later. I looked outside the window and saw a sea of cars. Momentarily confused, the ear-deafening sound of a jet taking off directly over our heads saved me from asking the obvious. The airport. We're...going further than I thought, I guess.
I noticed we were parked quite a way from the entrance. I asked, half-jokingly, "You didn't happen to pack a wheelchair in the trunk, did you?"
He had already popped the trunk and was getting out, "No." He gave me a wink and shut the door. A moment later he had the passenger door open. With both of us working, we got my body maneuvered so that my back was facing the open door. He put his head underneath my left shoulder so I could hold on to his neck with my arm, while his right arm slid around me and under my right knee. He hefted me out, bounced me once to settle my weight and get a better grip, then took our bags with his left hand and pushed the door shut with his foot. Is he really planning on carrying me the whole way?
As I swayed with his gait, I was uncomfortably aware of how close our faces were. I watched it intently for signs of strain, but his breathing was even and measured, and his eyes were calm, suggesting that he wasn't trying to hide the effort. Someone his size shouldn't be this strong. I know some guys in my unit that could've hauled me this distance in a fireman's carry, but not like this.
I realized I was staring and, feeling the heat rise in my cheeks, turned my gaze to look ahead of us. We didn't stop until we'd reached the waiting area. He already had two tickets. How far ahead did he plan this? How sure was he of my answer? He deposited me gently into one of the plastic bucket-seats lined up in rows. Even for the late hour, the airport was fairly crowded.
"It's going to be a little while," he said, as he set our bags down next to my seat. "Do you want anything? Drink, magazine, something?"
"Something to drink would...be nice."
He nodded and headed off for the main concourse, I assume to find either a restaurant or a vending machine. Suddenly alone, I let my gaze wander among the people milling around. Suddenly I realized that a good many of them were looking back. It still took me a second to realize why, and I felt myself blushing in embarrassment. I wrapped my arm around my stomach and stared at the floor.
A child's voice, "Hey lady, where are your legs?"
A woman's voice, hushed but stern, "Jeremy! That's not polite."
I looked up. A little boy, maybe six years old, was standing there, glancing between me and his mother, who was hurrying over to corral him. I smiled, maybe a little sadly, and said loud enough for them both to hear, "It's alright." The mother paused, and looked at me with a worried face, probably wondering whether to apologize or not. I addressed the boy, "You're just curious, right?" He nodded his head vigorously. The mother crossed her arms over her stomach and stood a small distance away, obviously uncomfortable.
Still looking at the boy, "Well, I lost them in an accident."
The boy looked puzzled, "Then you couldn't find them again?"
I laughed, some of my embarrassment melting away, "It doesn't work that way, I'm afraid. I was hurt. Hurt so bad that I couldn't keep them."
He seemed sad when I said I'd been hurt, but he pointed to my empty sleeve and said a little quieter, "Did your arm hurt too?"
I nodded, still smiling, "Yes," I sighed, "It hurt too. A lot of me hurt."
He pondered what I said for a second, then, "What hurt you?" He seemed a little apprehensive.
I thought about how to put it for a second. Then I had an idea. No point being melancholy about it, might as well make it interesting. He's just a kid, after all. "Well," I started, warming up to my line, "You know how G.I. Joe fights the bad guys?" His eyes got wide and he nodded. I continued, "I was like G.I. Joe. Except this time the bad guys surprised us."
Now he looked worried, "They didn't win, did they? Bad guys aren't supposed to win!"
I smiled and shook my head, "Nah, they didn't win. G.I. Joe has his buddies with him right?" He nodded. Good, because I don't know any of their names. "Well, I had a bunch of buddies too, and those buddies got the bad guys for me." Probably.
Even as I thought that, I had a fair amount of confidence that it was true. The trust I had in my squad-mates was unshakable, and the fighting must have been over quickly for them to have evac'd me quickly enough to save my life.
The kid smiled, glad that the good guys won after all. The mother looked a little more relaxed too. As she came over to send her kid back to his seat, she looked at me and said in a quiet, somber voice that her boy wouldn't catch, "Thank you...for your service. Sorry things worked out like they did."
I nodded my thanks at her words and they returned to their luggage several seats away. As they did, I felt my own seat vibrate with a thud and looked around. My rescuer cum abductor was back, smiling. "That was cute," he said quietly, and handed me a plastic glass of amber liquid.
He nodded, still smiling, letting me know he enjoyed it. I couldn't help but smile back.
"I didn't mind that he was curious. I just," I nodded my head in the general direction of the moving crowd, "can't stand the pity."
He nodded but didn't say anything, so I took a sip of my drink, and immediately started choking and spluttering. After I caught my breath I looked in shock at the glass, then looked at him. He was grinning.
"What is this, scotch?" I blurted.
He put a finger to his lips and made a mock-angry face, "Shh...we're not supposed to have alcohol in the waiting area. I just thought...you might appreciate it."
"Heh," I snorted and grinned back, "I do...thank you." Now knowing what to expect, I sipped at it with relish, savoring the sweet burn on my tongue, and the blooms of heat in my chest as I swallowed each trickle of the golden spirits.
While not enough to get me drunk, the alcohol lifted my mood considerably. Before I knew it, I was being hoisted up and carried through the terminal and onto the plane. Coach, too. This guy sure doesn't act like I would expect someone working for an...organization like that, to.
He ended up giving me the window seat. Another small unexpected kindness, but the type with which I was starting to associate with him. We had all three seats to ourselves, and he took the aisle, leaving a space between us. I decided to prod him a little while we waited to take off.
"You know, for some reason I was half-expecting a private plane or something," I said with a grin.
He gave a knowing half-smile, then, "I prefer subtlety."
Still smiling, I narrowed my eyes at him, "Carrying around a legless woman isn't very subtle, if you ask me."
He laughed. "No, I guess it's not, at that. It's convenient, though."
"Hey, what do you mean by that?"
"Nothing. It just is."
I decided to change tack, "Don't you think it's about time you told me your name?"
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye, "Why? Has it been bothering you?"
No more beating around the bush, "Of course. Not to mention it's rude." I stuck my tongue out to let him know I wasn't being serious about the last. Geez, I'm making a fool out of myself...acting like a teenager. That scotch must have hit me harder than I thought.
He just kept smiling though, unbothered, "Well, I would hate to seem rude, especially to a lady such as yourself." He turned sideways in his seat to extend his left hand to me, "Gilgesh Josen, at your service."
Even as I shook his hand, awkwardly due to our positions, I cocked an eyebrow, "Gilgesh? What...I mean, no offense, but what nationality is that?"
"An old one," he answered simply, retrieving his hand and facing forward again.
Guess that's all I'm getting. At least now I have something to call him other than 'that guy'. Soon after, the plane began it's taxi to the runway and took off. I'd always enjoyed flying, but passenger planes were infinitely more pleasurable than crammed into a helicopter or strapped in the back of a cargo plane. The view from the window was spectacular. Sparkling lights dotted the midnight landscape, denoting small towns and communities in more rural areas.
The flight was a little over eight hours long, but we didn't talk much throughout. I kept wanting to ask questions about my immediate future, but thought better of it in the cramped confines of the plane, with people all around. Surprisingly, he was the first to break the silence, just after they took our meal orders.
"Mind if I ask you something, out of curiosity?"
I shook my head slightly, "No, go ahead."
"What were your plans, before?"
I had to think for a second, "You mean, before...this?" I motioned with my hand at my body, "Well, to be honest, I hadn't thought about it much. I was, pretty content, I guess. I probably would have gone for a commission at some point, try to get a permanent station somewhere."
I smiled wistfully, "I don't know. I really loved the year I spent in France, as well as Japan, even though I struggled with the language barrier. They were both beautiful places." I smirked deprecatingly, "Guess that's out of the question now."
He furrowed his brows a little, "Not really. I believe you're over-thinking this. There's still plenty of traveling in your future."
I looked at him hopefully, "Really? I was thinking..."
"Hm...I have an idea of what you were thinking. I have a feeling you're going to be pleasantly surprised." He met my eyes with a reassuring look, "I did make it sound rather dour, didn't I?" He laughed. "You'll have plenty of time to adjust, don't worry."
"Oh, why's that?" I asked, genuinely puzzled.
He gave me a look that said, seriously? "Well, for starters, you're still going to have to go through months of recovery and rehab. You didn't think that would magically go away, did you?"
I felt stupid, suddenly. "I guess...I wasn't thinking about it. You're right, obviously. How stupid of me."
His face fell, and he quickly reached to squeeze my hand. "Hey, it's alright. I would be surprised if you weren't a little disoriented. That's normal. It's a lot to take in, I know...but you don't have to do it all at once. These kinds of things can't be rushed, alright?"
I nodded, still unsure and moody. "Why then...did it feel so urgent? I mean, I hadn't even been in the hospital for two weeks."
He grinned, maybe with some small amount of pride, "I know it seems strange, but you're going to be receiving some of the best medical care in the country, not to mention advanced prosthetics." He paused, and thought about his next words, "I know you don't know the difference, but I do. The way you'll be using them is completely at odds with ordinary prosthetic limbs. I didn't want to have to break any bad habits." He smiled reassuringly.
"So, are we going to a different hospital, or...?"
This question made him look a little nervous, and he let go of my hand. "Not...exactly." He tried to flash another reassuring smile, but it faltered just a little. "You'll see."
"A-alright." I didn't know what else to say. Looking at his face, suddenly he seemed to be the worried one. This is an odd reversal. Should I...say something? I nudged his arm to get his attention, and leaned closer over the empty seat, lowering my voice so our neighboring passengers wouldn't hear, "Hey. I'm in it for the long haul. It was my choice." I smiled, chuckling to myself, "I don't think you've got it out for me, or anything. I..." the next words caught in my throat. Do I mean that? Is that the truth?
He was looking at me expectantly. I nodded once, to myself, before I mustered up the resolve to say, "I trust you."
Relief flooded his face as I said it. He laid a hand on my shoulder. "Thank you, Elly, for saying that. I promise I won't abuse it."
I nodded, glad that both of our spirits were back up, "I believe you...'Gilgesh'." I tried out his name for the first real time. It felt strange on my tongue. An old word, indeed. It seemed an anachronism in itself. I wondered what his parents must have been like, to decide on a name like that for their kid.
He chuckled as I said it and shook his head slightly. "It sounds strange coming from you. Just...hm...just call me 'Gil', if you want."
I deadpanned an unimpressed facial expression. "Still sounds weird."
This time he was the one that stuck the tip of his tongue out at me for a split second, then sat back in his seat and managed to look slightly embarrassed as the stewardess brought us our food trays.
The drive from the airport was uneventful and long. For a while I simply stared at the scenery. I'd never been to Colorado, and I couldn't get over how gorgeous it was. I could see the Rockies in the distance, with rolling hills, forests and fields in the foreground. At one point we passed by a lake in the distance, placid and serene in it's secluded valley, and surrounded by hundreds of buffalo. I know I must have been staring at them like some awestruck child. It made me wish I could take a weekend to go hiking here.
That thought slammed the reality of my situation back down on me. All the awe and pleasure I had been feeling drained out of me in moments. I turned away from the window and stared at the road ahead of us, winding it's way through the fields, heading for what looked like a break in an outcropping of distant cliff faces, with a clump of forest at their base. My heart wanted so badly to appreciate it, but I couldn't shake the thought that something as simple as going outside for a walk was now impossible for me.
I groaned and pressed my head back hard into the headrest, as if I could physically squeeze those depressing thoughts out of my head. I saw Gil glance at me out of the corner of my eyes.
"Everything alright?" he asked quietly.
"Yeah," I answered, delivered in a monotone and, probably not convincing, voice. Still, he didn't question it, hopefully sensing my unwillingness to be pressed about it. I couldn't help it. It was difficult to stay cheerful for long, when my 'condition', When did I start thinking of it like that? was a constant reminder of just how helpless I was, and how dependent I was on this person who, despite still being a stranger to me, had asked me to essentially put my life in his hands. And I accepted, I reminded myself. I had a choice, and I made it. Whatever happens now is on me, for better or worse.
I think I was lost in my own thoughts for some time, because before long, we were pulling off onto a well-hidden dirt road between the trees, virtually invisible if you didn't already know it was there, and barely wide enough for the car we were in. As we wound further into the forest, the trail got steeper and steeper, a cliff appeared on the left, at the same time the ground dropped away into a deepening gorge on the right.
After a couple minutes, we broke through the canopy. The trail, I saw, wound around the side of the cliff, finally leveling out. As we turned a final corner, my breath caught in my chest as I laid eyes on perhaps the most beautiful house I've ever seen. It wasn't that it was overly large or opulent...quite the opposite. It was more like a sprawling single-story ranch house, built into a natural depression in the cliff. Surrounded on three sides by a horseshoe-shaped outcropping of solid stone, while the fourth side was open to the sky and scenic vista.
There was a circular driveway, large enough to park several cars, with a well manicured flower garden and pond in the center, with traceries of stepping stones within. Trees, birch maybe, dotted the periphery of the circular drive at measured intervals. The house itself was built of grey and tan irregular stones, mortared together, with a bark-like shingle roof. There were covered walkways that led behind the house, but I couldn't see enough to make out anything in the back, nearer the stone barrier. It reminded me, more than anything, of a villa you might see on the cover of a resort brochure.
I was so caught up in looking at it, I didn't even notice we were getting out until Gil had opened my door and started to undo my buckle for me. As he lifted me up, I couldn't help but ask, "Is this...you live here?"
"Mm," he murmured in reply.
"Wow." I said breathlessly, looking at the rough-hewn wooden rafters that supported the covered walkway that led to the front door. To my surprise, the door opened before we reached it, allowing us entry without need for a key. As we passed the threshold, I craned my neck to see who had opened it, but there was nobody there. A moment later, it gently swung closed by itself.
Not to be outdone by the exterior, the inside of the house was just as beautiful. The foyer, kitchen, and living room were connected with only a few decorative columns marking out invisible divisions. The living area itself was further demarcated by being sunken the height of two steps, and was well furnished with two sofas, a large glass coffee table sporting odds and ends, and massive wooden bookshelves cradling the obligatory entertainment center on the opposite side. To either side of the living room were hallways, disappearing into the depths of the house. Straight ahead, the back wall was almost entirely glass, looking out over a covered patio, and beyond, a pool, surrounded by a retaining wall filled with ferns and pampas grass that blocked the sight of the stone cliff a few dozen meters beyond. It was early afternoon by now, and a multitude of generously-sized skylights made the inside of the house seem bright and alive.
Despite the gorgeous surroundings, something niggled at the back of my mind. I suddenly found it hard to enjoy the atmosphere. As Gil deposited me on the plush leather couch to deal with our bags, I noticed he was avoiding my eyes.
With an increasing amount of nervousness, I addressed him, "Hey..."
He stopped mid-stride, our bags in hand, eyes angled somewhat to the floor. Slowly his head turned in my direction. I saw resignation in his expression. "Yes?"
"This...is...it?" I had meant to say more, or say it differently, but the sudden unease had made it hard to concentrate.
He seemed to grasp my intent though, and sighed, "Yeah. I...neglected to mention it."
Worry, and perhaps a little anger, crept into my voice and face as I said, "You refused to mention it, actually. So...I'm...living with you? In your house...for the foreseeable future?" The more I spoke, the more forceful my tone became.
His voice, when he responded, was instead quiet and reserved, "That...was..." he sighed, "Yeah." He looked away, a little hurt it seemed.
I didn't care, "You..." I clenched my fist, "You assumed it would be perfectly fine to just...bring me home? To live with you?" My jaw clenched. "There's nobody else here, is there. No group...no 'organization'. You just...what? What?" Despite my anger, my throat was starting to burn, and the beginnings of tears were starting to sting my eyes and blur my vision.
It's just us. I'm alone with this man...in his own home. This isn't right. I shouldn't be here alone like this. Everything he said...everything...just to get me here. Oh God.
When I spoke again, it was in a croak, my throat refusing to cooperate. "So...it was all a lie? Why? Why would you do this? What...are you going...to do...to me?" The last few words came out in sobs, as panic and fear mixed with despair, forming a hard knot in my chest. "I'm...so...stu..huu..." I couldn't even form words now. Any composure I had kept was long gone. Collapsing backwards and covering my eyes with my hand as I convulsed and gasped for air, crying at my own gullibility and stupidity for letting myself get into this situation.
This is it. You stupid idiot. You believed his bullshit, and now here you are, in the middle of fucking NOWHERE! Nobody will find you...nobody will even think to LOOK for you! You stupid, fucking, bitch! I curled up on my side, clenching my eyes shut, cursing myself, wanting to die.
I don't know how long I laid there, as my body slowly grew tired of crying. My throat and chest hurt, my back and stomach were tightened into sore knots of muscle. A sharp pain lanced my side every time I inhaled too deeply, and I was fighting to keep my breathing from coming in ragged gasps.
Finally...I was done. I lay there trembling with fatigue, eyes half-open, mouth parted slightly, breathing shallow and noiselessly. A numbing headache in my temples kept me from thinking, but it didn't matter. There was nothing to think about. I felt dead inside. Lost. With no hope of finding my way back. It was like that first day, when I found out I was a triple-amputee. Nothing mattered. I didn't care. I couldn't bring myself to. Why should I care, when it's already too late.
It started to grow dark outside. That suited me fine. The light was inconvenient, showing me the world...a world that had nothing for me. The dark was nice, private. Walling me off in my own little bubble of consciousness, making it easier to ignore everything else. My last conscious thought, before sleep overtook me, I trusted him.
I woke sometime the next morning. I wished I hadn't. I didn't want to be awake. Just let me sleep forever. I heard sounds coming from the far side of the room. They made me angry, because I knew it was him. My arm trembled with barely restrained violence. I didn't want him to see me, I didn't want his presence invading my awareness. Like a child, I shut my eyes, while a small, terrified part of my mind kept telling me I was invisible. He couldn't see me if I couldn't see him. He couldn't know I was here if I didn't think too loudly.
Noise...footsteps, coming towards me, closer. Heavy, like the pounding of a gavel. Each footfall made my heart race faster and faster, until they were right on top of me. I kept my eyes squeezed shut, not daring to open them, imagining him leering over me, smug in his successful deception. A touch, soft as a breeze, on my shoulder. I flinched, a soft mewl of fear escaping my throat, thoughts of violence eclipsed by this, the tiniest of sensations.
Softly, softer than his touch, his voice found my ears, "Elly?"
I didn't respond. Eyes shut, jaw clenched, trying not to move, but trembling violently.
It sounded sad. So what! I don't care! Fuck him!
Another touch, this time his whole hand on my shoulder. I recoiled as if burned, my eyes shot open. His face was right there! Inches away. My head shot back, but hit the back of the couch. I was trapped. Nowhere to go. I tried to look defiant, but it segued quickly into terrified.
He jerked his hand away as he saw my face. His eyes searched mine desperately, his face a mask of concern and worry. After a second, his face fell further, if that were possible, and he seemed to give up. He stood slowly and took a couple steps back. He cleared his throat, his voice coming out hoarse, "There's...food. Please...try to...at least eat." With that, he walked away, disappearing down the hallway.
I waited until I couldn't hear his footsteps any more. I let out an explosive sigh that ended with sobbing coughs. I just lay there for several minutes, catching my breath, letting my heartbeat slow. When I finally found the strength to focus, I saw a plate of food on the edge of the glass table. I just stared at it, watching the steam from the scrambled eggs rise and curl, dancing with itself in the air inches above the plate, before disappearing. Watching the strips of bacon glaze over as the shiny grease cooled. Watching the toast...do nothing. A glass of juice...grapefruit? I watched a bead of condensation roll languidly down the glass, merging with it's fallen brethren in the ring building up at the bottom. I felt like a tiny child. Mesmerized by the tiniest things. Fixating the entirety of my consciousness onto that one drop of perspiration, then the next, and the next.
Coherent thoughts finally began to form again. Why? Why should I eat? I could let myself starve to death and escape. As gratifying as the thought was, it was born of defiance. I was grasping at straws. The cold truth, I had to admit, was that I was hungry. My body overruled my rebellious thoughts and forced me to push myself up, onto the edge of the couch.
I ate with mechanical determination. Not really tasting the food, but accepting it as something edible. Even the tartness of the juice didn't break through my fugue. When the plate was empty, I abandoned it on the table, laid back down on the couch, facing the back, and curled up again, trying to make myself as small as possible. I spent the entire morning and afternoon that way.
Sometime in the evening, I heard footsteps again. Again, they came towards me. I heard the plate and glass clank softly as they were lifted and taken to the kitchen. I heard running water. When that stopped, the footsteps resumed. My body shifted as the couch cushions moved. Through them, I felt every movement, even though I couldn't see him. I knew he was reaching for me.
A hand on my thigh, rolling me over onto my back. I didn't fight, I couldn't. My body wasn't under my control anymore. All I could do was stare at the ceiling. I heard him sigh. He said something, but I barely registered it. It might have been 'don't worry'. I felt him undoing the button on my pants...unzipping the fly. A hand slipped under me to the small of my back, lifting me up so he could slide them off. He's going to rape me now. He's stripping me naked so he can rape me. I thought idly that I should fight. Flail at him with my arm. Scream and snarl...but I couldn't. Silently, without so much as a gasp, I just cried. I felt twin trails of moist warmth slide down the sides of my face, catching and diverting on the mostly healed cuts there.
He was doing something to me. I could feel him touching my legs. Warmth blossomed from the sensitive stump of my left leg. A gentle pressure, rubbing. It disappeared, then came back. Disappeared, then came back. Somehow, I managed to summon enough strength to force my neck to obey me. Raising my head, I brought my gaze down from the ceiling to look.
He's...washing me? Realization came sluggishly. My pants...jeans. He couldn't...get to my legs. My head flopped backwards, hitting the leather with a thud. My stomach started spasming, making my breath come out in tiny pants, which turned into chortles, and finally...I got the giggles. Even as I laughed, I wondered why. Was it that funny...or was I just that desperate to feel something besides despair.
I angled my head so I could see his face. He'd paused when I had started laughing, and was looking at me with such a puzzled expression that, for some reason, I found uproariously funny. I laughed so hard I got splits in my sides. I managed to catch my breath, gasping and hooting. In those moments, my mind had found a handhold and dragged itself out of the dark pit it had been in. I threw my arm across my forehead, breathing deep and...smiling.
I stayed that way until he finished with the second leg, and I felt him lift me up again. I took my arm off my face long enough to look down. He was dressing me again...in shorts this time. When he was done at that, I watched as he made eye contact, looking away after only a split second, and looking, almost longingly, at my right arm-stump. The indecision about what to do showed on his face, and almost sent me into another fit, but I managed to control myself. Instead, I levered myself up and into a sitting position, giving him unfettered access to my arm. I could tell he was relieved.
Neither of us spoke as he tended to me. When he was done, he dropped the sponge into a bucket at his feet and picked up a towel to dry his hands. He sat there for a second, looking like he wanted to say something. Instead, he shook his head, picked up his things, and left me alone on the couch. As soon as he turned away, I watched his back as he walked to the kitchen, cleaning up. He never looked over at me, so I sat watching him like that for a while. When he was done, he just stood there with his back to me, looking around. Looking, in fact, a little lost. He turned towards me, and I didn't look away.
I saw his mouth open and close soundlessly a couple times, his hands kneading themselves over and over. Finally, timidly, he said, "Are you...hungry? I could...make..."
I shook my head slightly, cutting him off. He looked distraught, at a loss as to what to do.
"I could use..." I said, my voice a little hoarse from earlier, "...a drink." After a second, I clarified, "A strong one."
He nodded, pulled a couple glasses from the cabinet, and filled with a dark brown liquid. At first he filled them halfway, then thought better of it and filled them almost to the top. Bringing them over, he sat one down in front of me, avoiding eye contact, and sat down on the second sofa, across and to my right. Keeping his distance. Good.
I picked up my glass and fairly gulped at it, knocking down a third of it in a few seconds. More reserved, he took only moderate sips of his, but kept it in his hands, at the ready. I shivered and exhaled a plume of likely flammable alcohol fumes. I set the glass down on the table before slumping over, elbow on my thigh, and trying to sort myself out.
"I'm not lying."
I didn't look up.
"I'm sorry, though. I truly am. This is...just how I do things." He groaned then, apparently not happy with his choice of words.
I kept my gaze on the floor, seeing if he would continue.
"I'm not...running any sort of group, like...well."
"But...that is my line of work. I've just been...going at it alone." At this point I looked up. It was he who had his head down. He continued, "There are still things that...I can't...that I'm not comfortable telling you yet. But, I do want help...I am interested in your abilities...and I'm going to deliver on my promises thus far."
He looked up at me, a pleading look in his eyes. "You're not here as a...a...prisoner or...whatever else you were thinking." He actually blushed, "My equipment is here, my tools...all the things I need to make good with you. This is the only place that I can work from. There are...reasons that I can't get into...but...You're the..." he broke off, seemingly unwilling to continue.
"I'm what?" I grumbled, picking my glass back up to take another drink.
He was silent for a long moment, then, in little more than a whisper, "You're the only person I've been willing to share this with."
He shrugged, "Everything. My knowledge, my technology, my..." again, a whisper, "myself."
I thought about what he said for a moment, then decided to be blunt, "Am I here...just to keep you company?"
He fidgeted with his glass. "I...didn't think of it that way. I didn't mean for that to..." he gave up, a trembling hand setting his glass down before he spilled it. He bent over, face buried in his hands. "God...I am some kind of monster aren't I? I can't believe how selfish I've been."
Neither of us said anything for several minutes. He looked up, a dead look in his eyes. "I'll...take you back. You don't need to be here. I was...I was wrong. So, so wrong." He stood up, walked over and knelt beside me, taking my hand. "I'm...please...please forgive me."
Thank god! I can get out of here! "I...forgive you." I do? Whatever, we're going back tomorrow. "But, you're not taking me back." WHAT ARE YOU DOING! No, take it back, take it back! "You promised me something." So what! Forget about it!
He looked up, confusion and regret plainly showing on his face, then it cleared, "Right...you're right. But...the prosthetics, I...guess I can..."
"That's not what I mean." You idiot. Idiot. Idiot.
The look of confusion was back. "I don't...understand."
"You might not have realized it. Seems like you didn't realize a lot, but..." I gently disentangled my hand from his, "you promised me a life. You offered me a chance to...to do something worth doing. Something to make a difference." I saw a tear glide down his cheek as he stared at me. I brushed it away with my thumb. "I still want that. More than anything. That's...all I've wanted from the beginning. Do you understand?" He nodded dumbly. "Good," I said, "Then we understand each other."
He made as if to stand up, but fell back into a sitting position instead, like his knees had given out. He stared at the floor, and in a wooden voice, said, "So that means..."
I nodded, even though he wasn't looking. "I'll stay."
He just nodded again, some of the tension leaving him.
"But!" I pointed a finger at him, and saw him flinch. "I expect you not to try anything with me. You got that?"
To my surprise, he actually smiled and shook his head, "That...had never crossed my mind. You may not believe me, and I can understand that...but I would..." He looked me in the eyes, completely serious now, "I would never force myself on you...or anyone." He shook his head again, more forceful this time, "That's not...that isn't me."
After a second, I nodded. Then picked up my glass. Before I raised it to my lips, I glanced at him and smirked, "C'mon...let's get drunk. Then you can cook me supper."
The rest of the evening passed in civility, if not comfort. Neither of us said much until after dinner, when a certain need of mine was growing quite insistent. I tried to put it off, but quickly realized how futile and childish that was.
"I need the bathroom." I said, without preamble. We both knew how it had to work. That didn't mean I was particularly happy about it.
Hesitantly, he lifted me and carried me down the hallway, easing the door open with his foot. He stopped about halfway in. We exchanged glances.
"I know," I grumbled, "don't be weird about it. Just help me."
As we tried to figure out the best way to make it work, he ended up basically hugging me to his chest with one arm, while he hooked a finger into the side of my shorts and slipped them down, while he kept his gaze firmly fixed on a point about a hundred yards past the wall. He waited outside until I was finished, at which point I considered trying to get my shorts back on by myself. It wasn't going to work while I was still on the toilet, unfortunately, unless I wanted to topple off the side. My limbs still weren't healed enough to be dragging them around on the floor, and I doubted my left arm was strong enough to do that anyway.
I sighed, working myself up to call him back in, but by that time the bathtub had caught my eye. I realized with some chagrin that I hadn't had a proper shower since ending up in the hospital in Africa. After making a big deal like that, you're going to go ahead and let him see you naked? I groaned inwardly. Though, how much did it really matter? It would've eventually been the same in the hospital. Yeah, a hospital this place is not, and that's not part of his job description.
Regardless, "I want to take a bath," I called, only slightly slurring. I waited a minute. There was a shuffling outside the door, but no response. "Hey," I tried again, "seriously! I want a bath."
"Alright, alright," he said as he opened the door. He kept his eyes on the floor until he reached the tub. He knelt and started the water, then braced himself on the side with his forearms while he waited for the water to heat up.
Even after the tub was full, he still didn't turn around. Helped along a little by the alcohol, I steeled myself and managed to get my shirt off. For once I was glad I wasn't wearing a bra. I crossed my arm over my breasts and said, "Alright. Move me please." Dutifully he stood and picked me up, keeping his eyes above my neck.
I gasped as the hot water hit several sensitive places all once. Wincing a little at the unexpected pain it caused in my leg stumps, especially on the surgical cuts. He started walking out. "Hey!" I called, stopping him. "I...uh. At least my back and hair, please. I can get everything else."
What followed was a clumsy and awkward attempt to clean my hair and back without him looking past the top of my head, or me removing my arm from my breasts. It did feel rather silly, but neither of us said anything. Why is this so awkward? It's not like plenty of men haven't seen me naked in my life. I'm sure he's not hurting for experience either. Where did that thought come from? I pushed it aside. With those two areas done, he could leave me in peace, at which point I finished scrubbing myself. After that, I just laid back and soaked in the still hot water. For the first time since coming to this place, I felt relaxed.
I guess the water's warmth intensified the effects of the considerable amount of alcohol I'd had that evening, and my imagination started wandering to places that, only a few hours prior, had sent me into a nearly comatose state. It's different, isn't it? He offered to take me back, and I refused. I'm here by choice now...and it's not like he's...entirely unpleasant to be around. He's actually a nice guy...when he's not, you know, manipulating me into being his...what? Roomie? I chuckled a little. I guess things could have easily been worse. He really could have been a psycho that abducts women out of hospitals. I can't help but think he's just...lonely? Maybe a tad anti-social. I don't know. I need to know more about him before I can say that.
It can't just be loneliness though. He's handsome enough, and it's obvious he has money. I would...A knock at the door interrupted that thought. Good timing. I thought sourly. I also realized that the water was turning tepid. I sighed in disappointment. "It's okay, I'm finished. You can come in." I closed my eyes to enjoy the water a moment more before I was plucked from it.
I heard him come in and clear his throat. I wondered what he was waiting for, and belatedly realized I hadn't bothered to cover myself. Nice, Elly. Real classy. I realized I was too tipsy, relaxed, and sleepy to bother being embarrassed. "Oh...just do it already." I said, with a hint of exasperation. He laid a towel out on the floor, hesitated just a moment, then complied. He set me on the floor and handed me another one to dry myself with. He was holding clothes in his arms.
Mostly dry, he helped me dress. We both discovered that our prior attempts at maintaining modesty were made pointless by the act of dressing. Positioning is somewhat important, after all. He apologized, I waved it off, finally accepting that it was probably something I would have to get used to, being as I was. Nothing more was said about it, and I think we both felt a little relieved that the hurdle had been jumped. After telling him I was ready for bed, he carried me a couple more doors down the hall and laid me in the bed. I half-expected him to tuck me in, but he just told me to call out when I was ready to get up in the morning, then turned the light off and shut the door. Good night to you, too.
As I lay there, skin tingling from the bath, head tingling from the drinks, I let my mind wander. I thought about what it would be like to be up on my own feet again...even if they were made of plastic and metal instead of skin and bone. The thought didn't disturb me nearly as much as I thought it would. Of course, I'd met amputees before, being in the service. None of them had been quite as bad off as me though. A leg, or an arm. One extreme case was missing both legs, and had been in a wheelchair. I reminded myself that that could have been me. Through some weird twist of fate, I'd ended up here instead. Not ideal circumstances, no...but it was a step on the path to regain part of my life I thought I had lost forever when I was in the hospital. If nothing else...at least it will be interesting. Of that I'm sure.
I woke the next morning feeling refreshed. I stretched sleepily, which still felt amazing to do, even if I couldn't flex my toes anymore. I lay there for a few minutes, waking up and trying to remember the dream I'd just had. A pointless exercise, just like it usually was. Every moment I spent awake I lost more and more of it. I gave one last yawn that threatened to put a knot in the side of my throat before calling out, "I'm up!"
It was only a minute before the door cracked open. "Morning," I said, smiling.
"Afternoon, more like," he said, but smiled back. It seemed that, at least for the moment, the discomfort and ordeals of yesterday were...maybe not forgotten, but at least pushed to the side. Trying to maintain that atmosphere, I pointed a finger at him and, with an expression of mock-seriousness, said, "You think you can dress me and..."
"...and not be weird about it?" he cut me off, with a half-smile, "I think I can manage that."
I nodded, "Good."
"You want something of yours, or...?" He left the question open.
"Whatever," I said, shrugging, "shorts and t-shirt?"
"Erm..." He picked a pair of undies out of my bag between two fingers like it was radio-active. It was a question, I saw.
I sighed, "Duh." My enthusiasm had slipped just a tad. I tried to get it back. "Look...just...Okay, here's how it is. Things need to be done, and I can't do them all. You know that, and I'm...realizing it. Let's just be adults about it, please, and not make a big deal out of it, okay?"
He hesitated. "Sorry, you just...normally I wouldn't even give it a second thought. I've been in your..." he stopped suddenly, looking like he'd just been about to confess to murder. He quickly tried to cover it up, "...you're not the first patient I've worked with. Yesterday just threw me off, you know. I didn't want you to think I was being disrespectful," he paused again, "...or lewd."
I had definitely caught that little hitch, but decided to let it go for now. Actually I was glad he said what he did. So he is a Doctor...of sorts...I think. Well, that didn't help much. I still felt a little more relaxed, regardless. "I understand. You're a perfect gentleman." He smiled at that, so I said, "Who steals women from hospitals." The smile disappeared, and I laughed to show him I was messing with him.
"Now come on," I said, holding my arm straight up like a kid. "I'm hungry, too."
I'm proud to say that neither of us blushed as he dressed me this time, even though he definitely got glimpses of everything, and I knew it. Perfectly clinical. Then why is my heart beating so fast? That done, he carried me into the kitchen and set me in a bar-stool. From that counter I could see the entire kitchen and, if I turned to the right, the living room.
"What do you feel like?" he asked.
I thought about it for a second. "French toast?"
He cocked an eyebrow at me, then started getting the ingredients together. I propped myself up on my elbow and watched him. "For a guy, you're pretty confident in the kitchen, you know." I told him, meaning it.
He glanced at me briefly and shrugged, "It's not like it's rocket science."
"Hey...there are some complicated dishes out there. Some people can even make snails look edible." That got a laugh out of us both.
With the mood sufficiently heightened, I ventured a question that had been on my mind before I had gone to bed. "So, I don't know if it's still too soon, but...when can we get started on...you know?" I looked down at my stumps for emphasis.
He caught my meaning easily enough, "I was hoping to take measurements today, actually. In a few days, we can probably start you on something temporary while I begin working on the final ones."
I was confused. "How long will that take? I was under the impression you had already built them."
"I've made some...oh, I see what you mean. You have to realize that all prosthetics have to be built specifically for each person. There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all, unfortunately."
"Oh," I said, a little disappointed. I hadn't known, though in hindsight, I should have. I mentally chided myself for once again missing the obvious.
"As for how long it will take..." he drew his brows together in thought, "a couple weeks, at least, maybe three." He gave me a stern look that caught me off guard. "Even so...I'm pushing it. You really shouldn't be carrying weight on your legs until you're completely healed. Understand that I won't hesitate to take you off them if there's a problem. Your health is the priority, not your mobility, understand?"
I nodded, a little intimidated. His expression softened, and he said, in a milder tone, "Still, I know you're anxious. I'll accommodate you as much as possible, I promise. We should be able to move at a quicker pace than you would otherwise be able to."
"Because," he hesitated, and looked a little unsure, "you're here, instead of in a hospital. I can be more...attentive to your progress and condition." He seemed to be concentrating very hard on the frying pan as he said that.
I snorted and smiled, finding myself enjoying his being flustered. He wants to be encouraging, and justify why I'm here, without upsetting me. I appreciated that, despite myself. Maybe...just maybe, I overreacted a little. Yes, it was really arrogant and presumptuous of him, but...I did practically accuse him of kidnapping, which was maybe a little unfair.
I actually started feeling a little bad, and decided to say something. "Hey, for what it's worth...I'm...sorry about the way I acted yesterday, and the day before. I shouldn't have been so quick to..."
"Stop...just..." he was shaking his head. "You had...you have every right to be angry with me. What I did was inexcusable. If I could go back and do things differently, I would. In fact...I don't think I ever would have visited you in the first place. I had no right to barge into your life like that."
My feelings were mixed, hearing that. On one hand, it was nice to hear the admission of guilt. It meant I was right in feeling manipulated, but...on the other hand...He looks so angry with himself. It's sad...it's making me sad to see him like that. Why?
"You're right...you had no right," I said, and he nodded automatically, eyes still fixated firmly on what he was doing, avoiding looking at me. "But," I continued, which made him pause, "I'm not angry with you anymore...and I did overreact...and for that, I'm sorry. Now that I've had a chance to calm down and think about it...I'm okay with being here. I'm...kind of glad you 'barged in'."
He looked up at me warily, distrust written across his face. "Really?"
I smiled, "Really. I don't think you should make it a habit or anything," I laughed, and got a hesitant smile out of him, "but I'm glad you found me."
He nodded, "Thank you. I...needed to hear that."
Further conversation was cut short as breakfast was served. To his credit, I found it delicious, and asked for seconds. My excuse was that I hadn't eaten much in the last couple days. He didn't complain. If every morning can be like this...I don't think I'll mind at all. I caught myself smiling at his back and stopped myself before he could see. Alright now...don't get carried away with yourself, Elly.
After giving me a short bathroom break and leaving me on the couch to contemplate my happy stomach, he disappeared for a while. When he came back, he asked if I was ready to be measured. I nodded my assent and once again, he picked me up, something I was starting to get used to, and took me to heretofore unopened door in the hallway. He looked at me briefly, our faces only inches apart, and said, "Ready to see the dungeon?" He should have deadpanned it, since his smirk gave it away. I gave him a light smack to the side of the head.
Turned out he wasn't far wrong. As soon as the door opened, we were greeted by a dizzying flight of stairs, at least twenty feet deep before it hit a landing and, presumably, continued. I admit I was a little nervous about him losing his footing and dropping me, but he descended them with confidence and sure footing. By the time we got to the bottom, I was sure that we were nearly three stories below the ground floor of the house, and barely restrained myself from asking why.
The level we found ourselves on seemed to be compartmentalized into rooms, with the natural stone of the mountain running around the outside, but with interior walls that wouldn't be out of place in an office building. He carried me swiftly through the first room, but not so fast that my eyes couldn't take in the massive computer console set against the wall. A single chair sat empty before a desk-sized bank of keyboards, microphones, toggle-switches, and other peripherals I couldn't place. Above was a bracketed array of screens, with a single, massive screen in the center, surrounded by smaller ones, all angled inwards like a fractured shell. It was off, at the moment, so it was left to my imagination what he might do with something like that.
He relaxed in the next room. It appeared to be our destination. This was, I think, all the proof I needed to decide then and there that he wasn't bullshitting me. It certainly looked like a cross between a medical lab and a machine-shop. I wasn't sure, but one of the machines looked suspiciously like an MRI. The one he headed for however, was simply a flat table. Connected to the sides via a sliding track were two thin metal arms on either side, connected by a similar bar at the top, about two feet above the table-top.
"What is it?" I asked, as he sat me down on the edge.
"Laser scanner," he said distractedly as he brought the thing to life, messing with a small panel at the foot of the table and simultaneously booting up a laptop which sat on a nearby rolling cart. Suddenly the table beneath me lit up like a photocopier, while the moving bars slid on their electric track to the very head of the bed.
He looked up at me. "I'll...need to remove your clothes to be...accurate."
I nodded, and again, we went through the undressing procedure. At least my panties got to stay on, a small blessing. He helped position me in the center of the bed, and I sucked in a sharp breath as my back pressed against the cool glass. I took a few deep breaths while I adjusted, painfully aware of the way my bared breasts rose and fell with each breath. I glanced over at him, but he wasn't paying attention, instead doing something with the laptop. He looked briefly over his shoulder, "Can you move your limbs apart just a little?" I did as he asked and he went back to studying the computer. After a second he came back to the table's control panel and pressed something that caused the thing to hum to greater life.
"Fair warning," he said, as the bar started moving towards my head, "it'll get a little warm. Try not to flinch."
I closed my eyes as the mechanism passed over me. It did indeed get warm. Hot, in fact. It felt like laying on the beach, naked to the July sun. It wasn't too bad except on the ends of my remnants, where it transformed into a fiery burn. I gritted my teeth and held on, wishing it would go faster. As it passed the last few inches of my right stump, I sighed, but got a stern warning not to move yet. "One more pass, hold on," he said.
I clenched my eyes shut and suffered through a second round. When it was finally finished, I felt like I had a mild sunburn all over my body. He moved hastily to re-dress me, probably for my sake, before sitting back down in front of his computer. I peered over his shoulder from my position on the table, and saw that he had in front of him a remarkably accurate model of my body. Lovely...now he can ogle me in the privacy of his basement. I shooed that thought away before it could find a foothold, and waited.
I couldn't see everything he was doing, but I did see the edges of multiple windows popping up and shrinking in rapid succession, making me wonder whether it was part of a program or whether he was actually that proficient at using it. A sound from the other side of the room startled me. I looked over at the machine that had suddenly come to life...two of them, in fact. I watched with some fascination as some kind of metal tool was lowered down until it rested just above a pool of opaque liquid. A moment later it started moving across the surface of the liquid, seemingly at random, and so fast it became a blur. Once they had started, Gil closed the lid of his computer and swiveled around in his chair to face me, sighing contentedly.
I nodded my head towards the two machines that were now zipping about in their housings. "What's going on over there."
He smiled and gazed over at them, almost affectionately, I thought. "Those," he said, "Are soon going to be your new legs." He turned back to me and chuckled at the puzzled face I was wearing. "The temporary ones, obviously. They're 3D printers. I'll just have to clean them up and add the hardware once they're finished."
I looked back over at them, watching them go about their business. "You can't do that with the other ones?" I asked, still transfixed by the sight. I thought I could just barely see the tip of something emerging from the surface of the liquid.
"No. The ones I'm building for you are going to be mostly metal, with some other bits. Those will need to be hand-crafted."
I just shook my head at him in disbelief. This was...not what I was expecting, at all. I think I've been severely underestimating him. This is all so incredible...He's...I looked at him, watching his machines with something like pride. I couldn't help but smile at his expression. He caught me looking.
"What?" he asked.
I grinned, "Nothing. Just thinking you have the same look I've seen on some of the Army engineers after they bring a busted up tank or TC back from the dead. Like it's their kid or something."
He laughed, and cast a pleased eye around the entirety of the room. "Sometimes it feels like that. More often than not, I prefer to be around machines rather than people. They're...easier to figure out."
I thought I detected a hint of sadness in his voice during that last part. I wondered if he actually felt that way. If he did, I wonder if he wished he didn't.
He slapped his palms on his knees dramatically, heaving a sigh of disappointment. "Well, that's as much playing as I get to do today, I think. I need to draw up a therapy regimen for you as well. Want to head back up?"
I nodded, and we started our trek back up the stairs. As we reached the top, once again I was amazed that he didn't show even the least sign of exertion. I almost wanted to mention it, but wasn't sure how to bring something like that up...or if I even should. I decided it was yet another thing to save for a later time.
We spent the afternoon and evening in the living room. He sat engrossed in scheduling my physical therapy and a dietary plan, once again showing his proficiency in these matters. I spent most of my time pretending to be interested in the tv, while I watched him out of the edge of my vision, sneaking glances when I was sure he was too busy to notice. I wasn't really sure why I was doing it, but for some reason he fascinated me far more than the talking heads.
I was starting to doze off when I heard him exhale loudly. He flipped his clipboard and pen onto the table and flopped backwards with a groan. With an effort, he raised his head and looked over at me. Seeing that I was looking back, he flashed a tired half-smile.
"Done?" I asked.
He nodded, then shrugged, as if he couldn't decide. "I guess. I started rushing towards the end. I'll have to double-check. Just not now." He glanced at the clock sitting atop the bookshelves, and stood up. He disappeared into the hallway for a minute, before returning with the small bucket he used to wash my remnants. After filling it with steaming water, he came over and sat down near me.
"That time again, huh?" I said, trying to keep a smile from my face.
"A necessity, I'm afraid."
I laid back on the couch and made my legs available. As he began, he said offhandedly, "You could probably start doing this yourself, you know."
I frowned, but quickly erased it. A tiny moment of panic had caused a hitch in my breath when he said that. When I was in the hospital, I would have been relieved to do it myself, rather than the orderlies, but once again since meeting this man, I found this was one of those small things that I enjoyed. His gentle movements, the feel of his hands. The feel of him touching me. My eyes widened and my heart beat faster as that particular thought formed. It scared me...because it was true. When did I start thinking of him like that?
"I...I can, if you want."
As he looked up, I averted my gaze. Knowing I must be blushing, but desperately not wanting him to see it in my eyes, I said out loud the thought that I'd only realized a moment ago, "But...I like the way you do it." I could feel my cheeks burning, as if I were back in the scanning machine. "It's...like a massage, almost." Good save, Elly. He'll never suspect now. I mentally rolled my eyes.
"I don't mind." he said gently.
Now that I had said it, I found it hard to relax and enjoy it. I could feel my muscles tensing up as I began to imagine it from his point of view. Having to handle a lumpy, bruised, scarred knob of flesh. To run his hands over it, over the cuts that were only now losing their scabs and turning to tougher, pink scars. Having to not only handle one, but three, every day. Unknowingly, I slowly started to pull away from him, to hide. Aside from that very first day in the hospital, he had never made me feel self-conscious, at least not about my lack of limbs. All of a sudden, I felt positively hideous. Because all of a sudden, I care what he thinks. All of a sudden I realize what a wreck I must be in his eyes.
Before I know it, I'm half-curled and trembling, paralyzed with shame. He startles me when he lays a concerned hand on my hip. I turn my gaze to him slowly, afraid of what I'll see, knowing in my gut it will be thinly veiled disgust, just underneath a facade of nonchalance. Instead I see genuine concern.
"Everything okay?" he asked, "You're not getting shy on me now, are you?"
I shake my head minimally. His eyes narrow as I do. He leans forward, putting out his hand, hesitating briefly before touching my cheek. His finger comes away wet.
"Oh...Elly." he whispers. "Come on, now."
I can feel my lip start to tremble, and press my mouth shut to try and control it. Don't do it...don't you dare start bawling like a little girl. You're a goddamn soldier, what the hell's wrong with you! Right on the tail of that thought, I lose the little self control I had left. I cover my eyes with my hand so I don't have to risk seeing his face, while he sits there and watches as I make a fool of myself.
I feel his hands slide underneath my back as he lifts me upright and pulls me against him. My tears stop almost immediately, the unexpectedness of the action temporarily overwhelming me. This isn't like when he moves me, or helps me dress. It isn't an action born of necessity, but of kindness. My arm moves to wrap around his neck. The next thing...What do I want to do? Just do it. Stop second-guessing yourself. I bury my face into his neck, hard enough to flatten my nose. The sobs return, but this time, half of them are born of relief. Relieved of forced inhibition. Relieved, temporarily, of the wall I've put between us because I was too scared to admit to the attraction that was growing inside me.
He doesn't shy away. He just keeps holding me, rocking gently, letting me literally cry on his shoulder. Saying nothing, not even shushing me like some people would. Just letting me get it out of my system. It takes a few minutes, and even then I don't want to let go immediately. When I feel his arms start to loosen, I tighten my own. His hands move back tighter than before, one hand on my shoulder, one cupping the side of my stomach. His head dips forward and to the side to press his cheek against my temple.
We stay like that for a long time before I'm willing to let it end. As we separate, I can't bring myself to look him in the eyes. I'm the one that's been trying to keep him at arm's length, and he's been more than obliging. The only things I could fault him for, I've already forgiven. There's no more reason for me to deny anything, but still...I can't bring myself to even look at him, much less admit to the seemingly idle thoughts that plague me when I look at him in moments of calm. Now...the thought that pushes it's way to the forefront of my mind is, Does he think the same thoughts about me?
His hands cup my cheeks as he wipes the remainder of my tears away with his thumbs. Leaving one hand cradling my face, the other reaches up to stroke the top of my head. I can see him trying to catch my eyes, and I finally meet his gaze. He's smiling softly, but there's still worry evident in his brows.
"We good?" he asks quietly.
I just nod, trying to smile. "Yeah," I manage, shakily. I briefly consider apologizing, but I don't. It would be pointless...because I'm not sorry. At all.
The water's gone cold. He doesn't bother refilling it. We just sit there, both of us trying to think of something, anything, to say to break the silence.
"I hope," he says finally, "that doesn't count as 'trying something'."
I can't help but laugh. I shake my head, "If it does, I'll take the blame for that one," I say, while rubbing my eyes with the heel of my palm.
I can't help it, "So...what do we do now?"
He takes a deep breath, as unsure as I am, apparently. He looks out of the window, and his face lights up briefly. "Why don't...we step outside and enjoy the sunset?"
I laugh again. Simple question, simple answer, even if it's not quite what I meant. I'm sure he knows that, but it's better than sitting here with nothing but our thoughts.
He picks me up. This time it seems...gentler. Closer, somehow. I don't hesitate to lean my head against his shoulder as he takes us out of the front door, and into the little garden in front of the house. A small wooden bench sits on the edge of the pond, facing the endless vista. He sets me down, and my arm leaves his neck reluctantly. I expect him to sit down next to me, but he walks back towards the house. I have some idea why, so I take a moment to try and settle my nerves. The sky is just beginning to turn, and the koi in the pond are growing active, their tails breaking the surface and sending rippling patterns to the edges and back again.
Shortly he returns, my suspicions confirmed when he hands me a small glass of scotch, his drink of choice, and as of today, mine as well. We sit and sip at our drinks all through the sunset, and then, well into twilight. By this time, we're pressed against each other. His arm around my shoulder, my hand holding his. I try not to think about the why, and tell myself to just appreciate it. Nevermind how it happened, just be glad it did. For the first time since the accident, walking on my own two legs is the furthest thought from my mind. As I turn my head up to his, lips slightly parted, feeling his soft breath against my face, I think, I'd rather be carried.