7956 words - rated PG
“I've had this trip on the schedule for over a week now. I didn't make it lightly.”
The woman on the other end of the phone moans her answers, stretching the ends of each word to their limits, stretching them until I feel my composure begin to tear at the edges.
“I knooowwww, I'm sooo sorryyyyy.” The sorry trails on for a few seconds before she takes a breath and starts again. “One of our drivers was involved in an accident, one is out sick, and the other two are on their way to Corvallis.”
I sigh. I sigh long and loud so she can hear it.
I think her name is Emma. She is new to the driving service. Emma, if you're going to stretch out your apologies, I'm going to stretch out my disgruntled sighs.
“It's not like I can just pop down to my doctor's office anytime I want. One point two miles is a long way to travel alone for some people. I wish I could but I can't, and I can't just reschedule for tomorrow. I set this appointment up two weeks ago.”
“I'm sooooo sorryyy, I can give you the number for another drive...”
Wait, did she say...
“Did you say a driver was involved in an accident?”
“Yes, that's right.”
“It wasn't David, was it?” Her voice catches. I didn't realize how strange the question was until I heard the silence it caused. I can hear Emma furrow her eyebrows and try to form what she really wants to say into something a little more... sensitive, a little more professional. The question sounded callous, like it would be okay with me if any of the other drivers had been in an accident.
But not David.
It is callous. And no, I wouldn't care if anyone else had been in the accident.
“I can't share that kind of information, Mrs. Palmer.”
Yes you can, idiot.
“Miss Palmer,” I say. I say it without the long, stretched endings Emma uses in her apologies. I say it in the opposite way, short, clipped, loud. I say it again. I say it for what is probably the five-hundredth time.
“I'm sorry, miss Palmer, but it is my understanding that David is on his way to Corvallis.”
That makes me feel better. David is the best driver. He understands my routes. He understands how to park so I have the best access to the parking lot ramps. Most people wouldn't realize the difference between getting out on the right side of the car and having the ramp immediately at your feet versus getting out and having to maneuver your way around the car, past curbs, past sign poles, garbage cans, shopping carts, and past the rumble and roar of other cars looking for parking spots.
“Let me get you the number for one of the other drive...”
David also knows how to talk. He talks to me like he's a human being and I'm a human being. He doesn't treat me like a patient, or like I'm feeble. He's not afraid to make fun of me. The first time I tripped and fell in front of him, he swooped in and his hands were on me and I was back on my feet before I even felt the sting of the road rash on my palms. He'd grasped the bicep of my left arm with his left hand and slid his right hand under the armpit of my right arm. I remember pushing the ground away from me to help him lift, but I didn't need to. He pulled me up like I was a child. I could feel the imprint of his fingers even when he got me upright and let go, four hot ripples on one arm and on my rib cage. Once he let go, I could feel where his fingers brushed the side of my breast.
I can still feel it, three months later. I can feel where his hands brushed the grit from the palms of my hands. I can feel where he brushed dirt from the front of my blouse without realizing he probably shouldn't run his hands across my chest. When he pulled his hand back and mumbled an apology, I just smiled.
“Miss Palmer, are you still there?”
I should fall in front of David more often.
Corvallis is 45 minutes away. Even if that is his only trip, there is no way he will be back in time to take me to the appointment. And it's probably not his only pick-up.
I hang up. Emma is in the middle of asking of which alternate driving service I'd like the number, and when she starts another long, useless apology, I hang up. I hold the phone under my chin. I like the warmth of it, and the feel of the hard, plastic edge bumping into the underside of my chin. I usually tap it slowly at first, then faster, and faster until I've finalized my thoughts about what to do next.
I could call Sherry again. I know she will probably be available, or she will make herself available. I know she will probably say yes no matter what, no judgment, no hard feelings, no problem. But I always call Sherry. I pay the driving service for their time and attention, but Sherry won't take my money. The two times I've slipped money into her hand and demanded she take it, I found the money in my purse later that day. Then I tried leaving it in her car without telling her. It didn't appear back in my purse for three days. Still, a pretty good turnaround, she's good.
I don't want her to return my money again. I don't want to owe her any more.
Emma was trying to give me the number to one of the other driving services in the area and I already have them. They are programmed into my phone, and all I have to say is “Call dial-a-ride,” or “call Gold Star Taxi.” I could call them and they'd be here in twenty minutes and I would make it to my appointment on time, probably.
Why do I have to change my plans? I don't do well with changing my plans.
My phone vibrates, then rings. Thank you for letting me know I have a call coming in, Lady Gaga.
“Call from doctor Schelling office,” the phone tells me. The British man robot voice was my favorite a year ago when I got the phone, and I haven't found anything better since. I could ignore the call. I could answer and tell them my ride fell through and I need to reschedule. Then I wouldn't have to do anything today. I could go back to my book on tape. I could make an early dinner and go to bed early. I could run a bath, I haven't taken a bath in weeks.
“Hello, this is Caitlyn.”
“Hi, Caitlyn, it's Carla from doctor Schelling's office.”
So bright, so cheery, ugh. I can hear her lips pulling away from her teeth as she smiles. Breaking the suction between her teeth and her cheeks and lips makes a wet click, like the first drops of rain.
“Hi Carla,” I say, trying to smile big enough to mirror her fake emoting enough to make her comfortable enough to maybe bring her jubilation down a notch or two.
“How are you?” she asks. Well, other than the sudden glaucoma-induced blindness I experienced a year ago, I'm super great.
“I'm fine,” I say.
“That's great, that's great. Well, I'm calling to confirm your two o'clock appointment today and make sure you have everything you need. Have you secured transportation?”
I haven't. They failed me and I don't have the strength to call another company and meet another driver who won't even be close to David. I don't want to pretend to be grateful, I don't want to retell my story again. I don't want to deal with any of it. So no, I haven't secured transportation.
“Yep, I sure have,” I hear someone say. The someone sounds very cheery, and totally in control of the situation. Also, the someone sounds a lot like me.
“That's great! Well we will see you at two o'clock.”
The voice thanks Carla and says a cheery goodbye.
I hate when I want to be snarky and mean and depressed and angry and my social skills won't let me. Please let me be rude, brain. I feel like I deserve to be a little rude, or even moderately grumpy. I feel like I've earned the right to devolve into a sarcastic prick, or a cold-hearted hag.
I'd really like to work my way all the way down to “straight up bitch.”
For now, I've told my doctor's office that I have transportation and will be on time to my appointment. Why? Why would I do this to myself? I had a perfect excuse to push this useless, depressing appointment back a week or two, and I very much don't have a ride and very much can't promise that I will be there on time.
I could call a taxi like an adult.
I could call Sherry.
I bring the phone up to my mouth. I touch it to my lips. Sometimes, since I can't see what's in front of me, I like to bring items all the way in, to feel them against my lips or my chin or my cheek before I use them. I can feel them with my hand, but sometimes I need something more.
Only sometimes. It's not that I don't trust my hands to tell me everything I need to know, but sometimes I need a second opinion. I need a second source to remind me of the feel of things, of the reality of things. Once in a while I will bring an item up to my eyes and hold it there, hovering. I open my eyes aggressively, making sure that they are open. Since I am drenched in darkness whether my eyes are open or not, it's hard to tell if they are open or closed, so I have to strain and feel the air on my corneas and I wait. Even now, over a year later, I wait for my sight to return.
When it inevitably doesn't, I close my eyes and push the thing I'm holding against my eyelids. I press the phone, or the spoon, or the TV remote, or whatever it is, into the firm spheres, letting the eyelids slide around under the pressure. I can't see the colors anymore. I can't see the ridges, the rough edge of a cracked dinner plate, or the smooth glass finish on my crock pot. I can't see the picture of Jason and me, playing volleyball at Newport beach beside a golden sunset. Somehow, for some reason, pressing these things against my face helps me keep them clear in my mind. I can still remember what it was like to see these things.
For the things I don't touch anymore, it's different. The things I don't touch anymore are gone.
“Call Sherry,” I tell Mr. Darcy. That's what I call him, my dashing double-o seven phone bot. Mr. Darcy.
“Calling Sherry,” he tells me. I appreciate his simple, polite obedience.
Sherry likes to answer all phone calls within two rings. She once told me she didn't like letting people wait and wonder, so if people call her and it rings three times, chances are she is unavailable. She likes giving people that certainty and consistency.
When the third ring finishes, I pretend she might pick up on the fourth ring. I hold out hope even on the fifth and sixth rings. Even after the eighth ring, when the ringing stops and the phone clicks and prepares for the voicemail message, I still think Sherry might come on, live, and welcome my offer for help without whispering even an ounce of resistance.
“You've reached Sherry Nolan. Sorry I missed your call, but if you...”
Even as I listen to the message, I hope for a moment that she saw that it was me calling and decided to prank me. I hope that she decided to try and sound like her voicemail message, and that at any second, she will yell “Gotcha!” and talk to me and help me deal with the day's problems.
She doesn't. When the woman tells me I can leave a message at the tone, I end the call (Oh yeah, can I hang up now or press one for more options?) The phone goes back to my chin. Maybe she'll call right back. Maybe she was in the shower. Maybe she was going to the bathroom. Maybe she saw my call and tried to answer but dropped the phone into the frothy yellow bowl of piss beneath her.
Maybe she doesn't want to talk to me.
It's fine, I don't need her to want to talk to me. I don't need her help. I'll get to the office myself. It's just over a mile away, only three road changes, and I can tell that it has stopped raining for the moment.
I could blow it off. I could spend the rest of the day in bed listening to my Bob Marley Pandora station. I could continue listening to “The Davinici Code” on CD. I could take that long, amazing bath I've been daydreaming about. I could ride to the office and back in a taxi, being bombarded by the whirlwind of horrible smells that are always included.
Or I could walk to the front door.
My shoes are where I took them off. They are where I always take them off, sitting side by side on a rubber mat next to the door, next to the jacket rack where my three coats hang (green, brown, black), next to the fake tree Sherry brought me the day I moved into the apartment, which sits next to the wall between me and my neighbors. I think my shoes will look fine with this outfit. I've arranged my closet and my drawers by color, and any texture differences, like denim versus corduroy, are up to me in the moment. I took a white undershirt (I think) and a cream-colored sweater (I think) with black slacks (I think), so my black flats should be perfect. Without a spotter, my closet may be off. Sherry hasn't been here to check my sorting system in probably three weeks now.
I have separate dirty clothes bags for white, cream and beige, green, red, blue, and black, and I have to be careful about putting the right clothing items in the right bag when I take them off. If I tear off my shirt and throw it on the floor, I might not find it again for a few days and by then I will have no idea what color it is. Then Sherry has to sort it out and pitch me, again, on the importance of a tactile labeling system.
I'm bored just thinking about it.
Sherry told me I should mark each item somehow. She suggested punching holes in the tags, or attaching different threads to the inside of the collar, or the cuff of a sleeve. They were good ideas, and maybe someday I'll do it. Someday I might get more bags for yellow or purple, or tie-die, or sparkling rainbow glitter items. Then again, someday maybe I will have a full time man servant who will sort it all out for me. He will lay out my clothes each day, then give me my full body massage, which will lead nicely into a gourmet breakfast. Then he will read to me from Pride and Prejudice, then entertain me with passionate love-making.
What am I doing?
Right, black flats, black slacks, a cream-colored sweater, my purse and umbrella. I'm ready.
I can do this.
Everyone says Portland is brutal. You'll need to go tanning for vitamin D, they say. You'll want to cut yourself to see color, they say. I love Portland, and not just because I can't physically see color. I love it for the rain. There is no other smell like the cool, early morning rain. Also, being tied to sounds has made me notice them more, and notice which ones I hate and which ones I love. I love the sound of rain. I hate the sound of cars accelerating. The faster the acceleration the more I hate it. I love the sound of Anderson Cooper's voice.
I hate the sound of the neighbor's dog, Slinky, whining at the door.
I love the sound of my refrigerator. Whatever frequency the hum is hitting is my frequency. I'm afraid my fridge will break down someday and I will never get that frequency again. I'll try a new one and hate it and send it back, and the workers from Home Depot will bring another one and install it and I will hate that one, too. I'll become a thing at Home Depot, that crazy blind lady who hates all refrigerators.
I hate the thought of losing my refrigerator.
I love the sound of the rain on the walls of my apartment, on the roof of a car, on the puddles in the street, in movies, everywhere.
I love this feeling, of walking out into the cold, damp air right after the rain has stopped. I have to be careful though about taking it all in with a deep breath. I stepped out onto my front walk and took a deep breath after Slinky had recently finished decorating the sidewalk with one of his greasy dumps. The smell hit me in the psyche. My stomach clenched so hard and so suddenly that I pulled a muscle. I threw up in my mouth. It punched a deep hole in my hard drive, and now I'll never be able to take a full, unguarded breath again.
Did I mention I hate the sound of Slinky whining at the door? Why are you whining, Slinky? Do you need to go outside and poop on my life?
Maybe I should get a dog. Maybe my seeing eye dog could eat Slinky.
Like I'm going to get a highly trained, working, obedient, soft and squeezable love of my life just to have him or her die in my arms in eight to fifteen years. I've had enough recent tragedies. No, no dog for me, not right now. Maybe some day. Right now, the reassuring hard plastic of what I've been told is my white and red cane will have to do.
Oregon Eye Specialists.
One point two miles.
I can do this.
Out my front door there are two steps down to the sidewalk. They are two shuffle steps long, each. Once on the sidewalk I can turn right and begin my journey. The seams in the cement give me some sense of straight ahead. If I veer to the right or left for the first two blocks of my walk, I will feel the well-edged grass on either side. This section of the sidewalk is even, straight, and easy. It leads to the gas station I occasionally venture to when I need a Baby Ruth or a case of holy water.
It's the greatest drink in the history of mankind.
It's probably stolen alien technology. Or maybe aliens dropped it here for mind control.
I can tell the distance to the gas station by the smell of the gas and by the sound of the jingling door bell. There is also a slight downward slope about thirty steps from the curb break where cars can pull into the gas station's fueling lanes or parking spaces. The station sounds busy today, five jingles in less than thirty seconds. If I make it back later this afternoon, I'll have earned twenty-two ounces of magical universe juice.
Maybe even a six pack. We'll see.
Past the station things change. This part of the sidewalk has more old trees and their roots roll and twist under the pavement and writhe upward and outward like a dog trying to get comfortable in its bed. The sidewalk accommodates them, tilting up at the joints and forming a jigsaw of toe snagging, blind-woman-tripping booby traps. The uneven sidewalk is a big part of why I don't usually walk farther than the gas station. The sad thing is I would probably get used to it if I wasn't afraid to walk on it. Catch twenty two.
I make it about one hundred yards before my first stumble. While trying to gauge the height changes of the tree-ravaged sidewalk slabs, I've forgotten to check my side to side clearance. I can feel that the sidewalk is slanting down again when my foot slips off the cement and down the two or so inches to the dirt of a flower bed. The altitude change throws me off, and the slippery dirt doubles the instability factor. The dirt crunches under my foot as I grind it down in a sudden six-inch slide. My foot is stopped by something solid, a rock or a root, and I haven't split my feet far enough apart to lose my center of balance and actually fall. But nearly falling rattles me. It doesn't matter how minor the slip, it rattles me. When you can't see what tripped you, or what you might be falling into, slipping is a lot more terrifying. I wish it didn't scare me so much but it does.
My arms shoot out and grab nothing. My right foot is still on the sidewalk and my left is in dirt wedged against a rock or a root and I stand there, arms out, wavering like a surfer being taking by that perfect wave.
My balance holds. I push against the rock or root and bring my foot back underneath me. My cane finds the ground again and I realize how hard I was tensing for the fall.
I've made it this far, about half a mile, and I didn't fall. I almost fell, but I didn't fall, and yet I still want to go back. I still have time to call a taxi. I still have time to call and cancel the appointment, tell them my driver was in an accident. Carla from Dr. Schelling's office would understand. She would tell me not to worry about it. She would tell me it's no trouble to reschedule, and she would thank me for the call. It would be easy, letting other people do everything for me yet again.
Jason would tell me to go back. He would tell me to relax, that I don't have to do everything on my own. It's okay to ask for help, Caitlyn. I want to help you.
I continue down the sidewalk. I'm not done yet. I imagine there are people watching me from cars or from windows. They probably saw me almost eat it back there. I imagine them watching me and cycling through the different reasons a woman might be shuffling so slowly and awkwardly down a sidewalk alone. At a distance, I probably look like an old woman, slowly sliding my feet one at a time, carefully ticking my cane back and forth before me. I'd like to think their first thought is, Oh, look at that, an attractive young blind woman walking on her own. She's so brave. Look how brave she is. She's so independent. Look how strong and brave and independent she is.
That's not what I would have thought a year ago when I could see. I would have thought, Oh wow, that is so sad. Look at that poor blind woman who is all alone. Does she not have any friends or family that could help her? Why would her family let her walk the streets of Portland by herself?
Jason left me. I knew he would, things were rough when I could see so having to help me with everything, having to listen to me cry and moan and bitch, having to deal with my anger and depression was, of course, too much. Being a professional, actually successful painter didn't help. It's no fun when you are a regionally famous painter who creates beautiful oil and digital works of art your wife will never see. It's hard when you're a couple and you're not sharing one of the biggest parts of your life together. There aren't a lot of Braille paintings out there. And it wouldn't matter because I still can't read Braille.
I don't care. Jason is gone, dad is dead and mom lives in California. She tries to help, as much as you can help from a thousand miles away. I think she feels that calling me and telling me what to do is helping. When she asks what I've been eating and wants every detail, she feels she is helping. When she tells me she's been doing research on corneal transplants and gene therapies and retinal repair using stem cells, she thinks she is helping. Until they find a way to repair the optic nerve, I'm screwed.
I want to think she means well. I think she is trying to help... she is trying to help herself feel better. She is convincing herself she is doing all she can, considering how busy her life is and how many people depend on her and how unreasonable it would be to move to Portland, Oregon to help her blind daughter. I don't have any kids, but my brother, who lives thirty minutes from her, does. He has three kids, and she probably loves them more than she ever loved us.
She is the kind of woman who would say, “Well, glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in the US,” as if that should make me feel better. “Hey, honey, at least you got the blindness lots of other people got and you're not some freak. I would hate to have to explain to my bridge club friends how my daughter got one of those 'weird' causes of blindness you never hear about. Can you imagine explaining that, again and again, to every person you met?”
Imagine my mom's embarrassment at explaining a genetically caused blindness, something that could be traced back to her.
I'm glad she isn't here. The thought of hearing her awkward condolences after a fall would be too much. I don't need that, I'm doing fine by myself.
The sidewalk is starting to level out. I can hear the dogs barking at Wallace Park. At a time like this when it's still pretty warm and there's been a break in the rain, people are going to be out with their dogs. I can always hear the higher pitched yapping of the smaller dogs first, the farthest out. Maybe because they tend to bark more at dog parks, in general, or maybe because their higher pitched barks travel farther or something, I don't know.
I was right, I'm here and there must be thirty different dogs running around. I can hear at least fifteen different barks, and lots of dogs don't bark at all out here so there are probably at least thirty.
I just did my favorite thing as a blind person, other than falling down in public. My cane caught on something and I stepped forward at the exact wrong moment and jammed the thick end of the cane into my pelvis. It got me right in the bladder, in my, I now realize, very full bladder. I think I'd rather have fallen down.
I stop, righting myself, and take note of the emergency level of this pee. I'm less than a mile from the office. Can I make it there or do I need to use one of the public bathrooms here?
I really, really don't want to use a public bathroom.
I'm already smelling the distant aroma of half a dozen dog piles, I don't need to add the direct onslaught of the feces of dozens of humans in a small, enclosed, rarely cleaned cell.
There is a dog growling, low and angry. He is near, and I can tell he is growling at me. I can feel his focus, and I can feel that he is a big boy.
Please be with your master. Please be on a leash.
“Mommy, is she blind?”
A little girl's voice, similar distance as the dog. The mom shushes her.
“I don't know, Lucy, but it's not polite to say that.”
Not polite to ask if someone stumbling around a park with a long white cane is blind? I imagine little Lucy, furrowed brow, wondering, in a pretty yellow sundress, why the world is so confusing. I want to tell her no one knows why the world is so confusing. I want to tell her all about my blindness, and ask her what color my outfit is, and ask her what color her outfit is. I want to shake her hand so she knows it's okay to touch blind people.
“Come on, sweetie, let's go. Come on, Brutus!”
And I want to slap mommy in the face.
I hear the clink of chain against chain and Brutus lets out one last growl. The mom has him on a chain choker leash. Brutus is probably very protective of little Lucy. I don't usually enjoy getting growled at, but I have to give it to him.
Good boy, Brutus.
“Mommy, I think she's blind. Should we help her?”
Lucy is intrigued by what could be the first blind person she's ever seen. Or maybe the first one she's seen up close. I hear Brutus jump into the back of their mini van or SUV and mommy continues to silence Lucy's questions as she closes them all in and starts the engine.
Your mother could help me, Lucy, but she won't.
And neither would I.
And neither will you, someday.
I don't want to hear their car rev and pull away. I cover my ears and count to ten. When I can hear again, the van or SUV or monster truck, whatever moms drive these days, is just a part of the greater constant traffic rumble of 25th avenue.
I was right about the break in the rain bringing people out from the shadows. Another quarter mile down the road and I'm surrounded by one of my other least favorite sounds: footsteps. The footfalls of boots on wood floors, sneakers on a basketball court, high heels clicking on cement or marble or tile, ugh, the worst. I don't like how repetitive our steps are. I don't like tracking the click clack click clack across a parking lot or a lobby. It's not the sound itself, at least that's not the problem entirely. It's the wondering. When I hear footsteps, I can tell very little about the person making them. If there are big, thunderous boot landings I can assume the steps are of an adult man. If I hear high heels, I can assume it's a woman. But what kind of man? What kind of woman? I'm not Daredevil, I can't hear their heart defects and know their age. I can't hear the gun tucked into their belt, rubbing against the leather. Footsteps mean questions. Footsteps means sighted people who may need me to do something for them.
Or it could mean I'm going to be abducted, tortured, and murdered.
Ted Bundy could be walking next to me and I wouldn't know it.
Freddy Krueger could be sitting next to me at a coffee shop and I wouldn't know it until he jammed his finger knives into my chest.
One of the worst places is my apartment. When I hear footsteps heading up the path to my front door, I freeze. I always, every single time, hope they don't ring the door bell, hope they don't knock, and hope they just go away. I don't want to talk through the door to another delivery man about where he can leave the package, or about sliding his signature device through my extra large mail slot so I can sign for my packages without having to open the door. Again, hearing footsteps and hearing a voice say I have a package doesn't tell me much. I can't look through the window to see who it really is. I can't look through that little peep hole some doors have for proof of UPS or FedEx employ. I don't want anyone, anywhere, to know where I live and to know that I am blind. I don't want the man who delivers my food from the local market each week to know that I'm blind. There are sick people out there who would try to take advantage of my weakness. They can assume I'm sick, or that I'm agoraphobic, or that I'm really shy. I hope they think I'm an eccentric, wealthy genius who is way too smart to interact with commoners. But even if I know who it is, generally, and even if I know why they're coming to my apartment, I still hate it when I hear their footsteps approach my door.
Now, in the last few blocks before Dr. Schelling's office, the rush of footsteps fades. Around Wallace park there were tennis shoes, work boots, kid sneakers, high heels, the normal mix of large groups of people. Now, I hear my own footsteps on the still-wet pavement. I hear my flats crunch over loose sand and light gravel, hear them splash into the occasional shallow puddle.
Every gravel patch I hit, another set of feet hits a few seconds later.
Every puddle my feet splash in and out of gets splashed by someone else a few seconds later.
People tend to give space to the blind. They tend to make their own way around blind people so as not to make us feel rushed, or crowded, or like we are in the way. Most people are considerate.
Whoever is behind me is walking at my pace, very slow for a sighted person. They are keeping the same distance they've kept for two blocks now. I haven't heard anything from them besides the mirroring sounds of their feet to mine. I can tell they are bigger than I am. I sense it's a man but I'm not sure. They really shouldn't still be walking at my pace, they should've passed me or made there way off of the sidewalk toward their destination.
I'm going to slow down even more. I'm going to slow down and give them the chance to pass me. A normal person would pass me. If someone is following me this closely for this long, I feel like they are probably studying me.
And waiting for an opportunity.
I'm nearly to 22nd street and the ophthalmology office. I can hear the light rail cars as they swing onto Northrup street from 23rd. I'm almost there.
He's still behind me. As I've slowed, he has slowed, and now that I'm walking a little faster, so is he. As the light rail cars pass by us, their noise takes over. The footsteps are gone. Is he running up to me? Is he going to throw me in a van and drive me away?
The cars pass and the noise fades and he is still there. I think he is closer than he was, maybe ten feet back. A car passes us, 80's metal screaming from the probably just barely open windows.
He sounds closer again, eight feet.
Three more cars drive by. I can feel the water spray from their tires. It mists my pant legs and shoes. The wind is picking up again, bringing the next series of showers. They'll be here within the hour. Another car passes, then two people on bikes yelling at each other, then a truck. I jump when the truck honks its horn. The cyclists yell at the truck driver. He yells back.
Six, maybe five feet. He is gaining.
“This is a bike lane, idiot!”
I want to cry out for help. Two random cyclists seem safer than the quiet man who has been following me for almost five, ten minutes? I've lost track, it feels like forever.
“Then go, morons, some people have work to do!”
The last intersection I have to cross is close. I'm almost there and I tell myself I'm safe. There are people everywhere and I'm almost there and I'm safe. You're safe, Caitlyn, you're freaking out for no reason. I hear my mom's voice in my head. It's my voice, then her voice, saying the same things.
“No one is going to kidnap you. You're over-reacting.”
He's right behind me, a few feet.
“It happens all the time, mom.”
“Portland is a safe city.”
He's reaching for me, I can feel it. Something touches my shoulder. He's going to grab me and there's no way for me to protect myself.
“Stop being so dramatic, Caitlyn, you're always so dramatic.”
“I'm not being dramatic! Will you think I'm being dramatic when you find out I've been killed?”
I can hear him, hear his breath. His mouth is open in a snarl and he is going to grab me. He is going to grab me and smother me and take me somewhere and kill me. I won't be able to fight him off. I won't be able to see his face. I'll be a news story. People will shake their heads and sigh. “So sad,” they'll say. “Who would do such a thing? And to a blind girl?”
Not this blind girl.
I won't be a helpless victim.
“Get away from me!” I scream. I want to hit him with my cane but as I turn and start to swing it up somewhere near where I think his head will be, it catches on something. I twist and slam it into a utility pole, which knocks the cane out of my hand. I wasn't ready for the sudden shift in my momentum and I catch the side of my foot on a crease in the pavement. It stops me from putting my foot out to stop my sideways spinning trajectory and I can't avoid the fall.
I fall sideways onto my elbow and shoulder, but the ground isn't where I think it will be. It is lower, and my natural instinct to reach out and catch myself has me flailing at empty air. I land on hard asphalt. It is the street, I've fallen off the sidewalk and into the street. There were cars coming only seconds ago, I heard them. They're going to be right here any moment.
My hip hits first, then my elbow and shoulder. My hand didn't help me at all, and the force of the fall sling shots my face onto the wet asphalt with a short crack. Just before I hit, I can hear the skidding of tires. I'm going to be run over.
My head hits the ground as the screeching tires crescendo. Then ringing, a high-pitched ringing is all that is left. Darkness, pain, and a harsh high hum in the middle of my head. I wait for the impact.
Local blind girl falls into traffic.
The ringing sharpens and spikes, along with the pain.
I wait for the impact.
Tragic local story tonight.
Lying at this height, the car will hit me directly in the head and face.
At least it will be a quick death.
I wait for the impact.
The ringing fades ever so slightly. Other senses emerge.
I feel the grit on my hands as I push up from the ground. I feel the asphalt under my palms, feel it grinding against my hip and knee. I smell and taste blood. The road was wet but the wetness I feel on my head feels like more than that. It is running down the side of my face. I think it's blood. When a woman's voice grows louder as she runs up to me saying, “Oh my God, are you alright?” I know it's blood running down my face.
“Oh God, she's bleeding.”
“Someone call an ambulance.”
No, please, don't call an ambulance. I want to say this out loud but I can't yet. I try to make my mouth work but it won't.
“Call 911, somebody!”
I shake my head and wave at them, wave at all of them.
“No,” I say. At least I think it's me. “No, no.”
Someone's hand is on my arm.
“Whoa, easy there, just stay where you are, miss.”
It's an old man's voice, rough and faded like his hands. I can feel the years on him, feel the wrinkles of his life's work.
“No, please, don't call 911, please,” I stammer. At least I think I say that, I try to say it. I'm not really sure if it came out right. The ringing is loud and the voice I hear sounds kind of like me, like when you hear your voice on an answering machine. It sounds like someone doing a decent impression of me, but maybe under water?
“Well you're bleeding pretty good here, sweetheart,” the old man says.
It's him. He's the one whose been following me. I can smell it. I wasn't sure what I was smelling before but now it makes sense. It was a particular brand of old man smells. There is old cologne, some kind of vapor rub, and pipe smoke.
He lives in Portland, of course he smokes a pipe.
“We really should call you an ambulance, dear,” he says.
“Please,” is all I can say as I shake my head.
“Is she blind?” someone asks.
“I think so,” comes an answer.
The old man pulls my cane to my hand and closes my fingers around it. “There's a medical center right across the street,” he says, helping me to my feet, “maybe we can get you some help there?”
I try to say thank you but I can't. I'm spinning in the darkness and I'm not sure where his voice is coming from and I can't tell if I'm standing straight or if I'm about to fall again. I can't make my mouth tell him that the medical center is where I was headed, but his hand stays on my arm and I feel his other hand on my back and he must have received some kind of message because he walks me the rest of the way across the street. He talks to me most of the way. I don't understand much of what he says until I hear him ask my name.
“Caitlyn. My name is Caitlyn.”
I'm not sure my ophthalmologist can stitch up head wounds, but having to only go to one doctor's office instead of two would be nice.
“There is an urgent care office...”
“Dr. Schelling,” I say. The ringing is dying down, I can hear myself more clearly now.
“Sorry?” he says.
I stop walking and so he stops.
“Dr. Schelling... I have an appointment...”
“Oh, okay. Do you know what office he is in, or the address?”
I do know. I've been there dozens of times in the last six months. I've heard Carla say it to me in person and over the phone. I've heard it when calling in, when I'd get the answering service after normal business hours. It's right there but I can't... remember it.
“I'm sorry, the Eye... something. Something about eyes.”
I shake my head. How stupid must I look to this poor nice old man. A minute ago I screamed at him and tried to kill him with my cane. What does he do for revenge? He picks me up, walks me to safety, and tries to get me where I need to go.
Truly brutal form of revenge. I'll never be out of his debt.
“Oregon Eye Specialists?” he asks.
Of course it is that. Of course he looked around and found it immediately, despite my terrible directives.
“Yep, says Dr. Alan Schelling right there on the door. So that's the place?”
I nod. He guides me toward it. The blood feels like it has stopped running so profusely from my wound, but as the old man opens the door and Carla sees me, my perspective shifts a bit.
“Oh sweet Jesus, Caitlyn, what happened?”
I assure her it's fine, that I don't need an ambulance or a trip to urgent care. But I could use a doctor, and I'm pretty sure Alan Schelling is a doctor.
He is. He is an eye doctor, but he is still a doctor, and apparently he has sewn up a lot of eyebrows over the years. He is mildly concerned when he first sees me. I imagine my face is many colors it shouldn't be and many different shapes it shouldn't be, but he cleans it up and tells me it's just a scratch and that he can fix it up in no time. It's not a scratch, but I appreciate him trying to calm me down and make me feel better. He does fix me up in no time, though. I thank him, then and later and again and again until I'm out of the office. I thank him again when Carla drops me off at my apartment. I thank her at the door and I ask her to thank him again when she goes back. He couldn't give me any good news about my eyes and their health. He's never going to be able to provide that, not without nerve transplants. But he did sew my eyebrow up and he did tell me he'd like to see me again in a few days and that Carla would be picking me up and he did show me that there are nice, helpful people out there.
The bathtub is filling up and the beautiful steam is rising to meet me. The Davinci Code is saying something about an albino priest, but I'm not really listening. I'm thinking about David and his return trip from Corvallis. I'm thinking about the next time he takes me somewhere, and how I'm going to have to tell him I met another man. He's older... like, a lot older... but he's kind and smart and traveled all over the world as an emergency doctor during large natural disasters and wars. His name is Oscar and he loves coffee and he smokes his tobacco out of a pipe. He says he uses a pipe because he's a friggin gentleman. I believe him. I hope Jason is jealous. I hope it encourages him to finally ask me out. I know he checks me out in his rear view mirror.
I can hear it.
I can smell it.
I run my finger over my forehead and smooth out both eyebrows. I can feel the tiny stitches. It's barely even sore, and I imagine I'll be left with barely a hint of a scar. I'll never see it, and most other people won't see it, but I will feel it and it will make me smile to know it's there. It will remind me of the dangers of the world, and of the people out there dedicated to making avoidance of those dangers just a little bit easier. The Alan Schellings, the Carlas, the Oscars of the world. The happy, helpful, interesting people just waiting out there.
Out in the darkness.
I hate mom's yelling voice. Not because I hate the sound so much, although it is a horrible sound, but because of how much I like her talking voice. Her singing voice. Her whispers. Those three work well together. They seem connected, complimentary, like members of the same species. Then there is that other thing, that higher, off-key, nasal, hallowed out yowl, that extended bark that happens when she yells. It doesn't happen when she says something loudly. It doesn't happen when she has to shout information across the house. It happens with emotional charge. The sound changes under the pressure of stress and anger, like someone blowing way too hard into a trumpet.
In her singing voice, there is still “mom.”
In her whispers, “mom” in purest form.
Her yell? “Mom” is gone. The voice isn't even female.
“Okay!” I yell back. When I yell, I don't want to hear anything resembling that asexual, atonal, inhuman voice. I work to avoid it, I listen for it and keep an ear out for signs of it creeping in. Mom's yell might be like that because of me, because of all three of us. When kids fight and moms have to yell over and over again, against their wishes, for years on end, something inevitable and irreversible happens.
I don't know why she's yelling, though. Maybe dad said something mean to her as she was ascending the stairs. Maybe he said something about her butt. He likes to say things about her butt, and he really likes to hear her response. The meaner her response, the better. It's harmless, it's obvious he is just joking, I don't know why she gets so upset. Maybe because he's been doing it for so long. I think he's been doing it at least since I was born so that's fourteen years. His constant, smiling harassment almost definitely goes back further than that, probably back to when they first met. High school?
Maybe she wants fresh, new jokes.
She shouldn't be stressed by me, ten minutes is plenty of time for me. I took my bath thirty minutes ago (that's right, I take baths), my dress is laid out (that I bought with my own money, thank you very much), and my shoes, stockings, and legs are all laid out on the bed, ready.
Yes, my legs are on the bed, ready to be put on.
It's a big day. I've never worn a dress that I bought myself. I've never worn stockings before. I've never worn high heels outside of mom's closet. I've never been to a family reunion.
You're still hung up on the legs thing, aren't you?
I've told this story a hundred times to a hundred different people, one more won't kill me. There is a cancer called Osteosarcoma. It's bone cancer, and it tried to kill me, but it only got my legs. It got my left leg above the knee, which sucks, but I got to keep a little bit of the lower part of my right leg. That helps with mobility and my independence. I guess I'm grateful for that, for a little bit of good news among the many horrors. Having a little of my lower right leg allows me to wear a prosthetic with a hinge I can work. It makes walking without crutches or a cane a lot easier. It's a little something good. Someone ate most of my birthday cake and left me a tiny, mushed sliver.
I'll eat that sliver and smile.
Obviously, catastrophic bone cancer came as quite a shock to my parents, my brother, my sister, and the Horner family, in general. The doctors and therapists talked about this. They told us all about the different emotions we might experience while going through these trials. They told us all about the Kubler-Ross cycle of grief. It's a hypothesis from Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross, this cool doctor lady who studied grief, especially as it relates to dying. She found five major stops along the grieving path: denial, then anger, then bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. Dr. Elisabeth's cycle was focused more on the grief surrounding death or impending death. My doctors told me I could have died, but the cycle isn't just for that. It can explain how people deal with any kind of loss... like the loss of both legs to a 10-year-old girl.
I think I skipped denial because I could feel the cancer in my legs. I could feel it eating away at me, and my legs ached more and more all the time. They hurt for awhile before I told anybody. I didn't tell mom or dad that part. They were too busy moving through their own cycles of grief. For the most part, they moved through in lock-step, going quickly through denial to anger, and then staying angry while moving through bargaining, depression, and even acceptance.
Anger never left them. There is a bitterness at the loss. I think deciding to have my legs amputated felt like defeat to them, like they'd let me down in some way. I feel the anger still. I see it when they look at my legs. I see it whenever they watch me crawl across the floor or hoist myself up onto the couch or into my bed. I feel it when I get into my wheelchair, and when I put on my other legs. I don't think that will ever disappear.
Maybe they haven't reached acceptance.
My brother, David, went out of his way to ignore me and not talk to me or look at me on the family hospital visits. He got stuck in the denial stage.
Near the end of my hospital stay after the final surgery, I told him it was okay, I wasn't offended.
“Don't be scared, you can't catch cancer.”
He left the room.
“Ashley!” my mother said, scolding me. She told me David was my brother and that all of these changes were hard on everybody, not just me.
So sorry to make things hard on everybody with my cancer, mom.
My sister, Sarah, took a different path. She wouldn't leave me alone, still won't. I think she is trying to keep me busy thinking about things and looking at things and talking about things so I can't ever have a moment to myself to get sad. She's ten. Maybe she's on to something. Maybe supreme distracted happiness is a good default.
Smiles do get old, though. Too many people smile at me when they notice my legs. The smiles are too big, and they go on for too long. A good smile is two or three seconds. You're supposed to smile, then you say hi or you shake hands, and then you stop smiling. But the smile cycle is different for me now.
First, people smile. Then their smile cracks when they notice I'm not just sitting down but that I am, in fact, a girl in a wheelchair. I think they then realize they've stopped smiling normally so they double down. They smile harder, bigger, and usually drop some loud, awkward greeting.
“Oh wow, hi... look at you! Such a... pretty girl.”
Ugh, stop it. I can see you flipping through your mental folders for human interactions to use on me. I can see you actively trying to avoid saying words like “special” and “interesting.”
And “brave.” Am I so brave? Am I so so so brave for existing in this wheelchair?
I can usually let them and myself off the hook by saying something about looking for my parents. I'm not even sure what I want them to say. I am different. Seeing me is different, it's not something people see every day. I get it. I guess I'd love for people to smile at me and say hello and then smile and say hello to the next person in their field of vision. I am still, I think, just a person.
After I recovered from the surgeries, they walked me through the different prosthetics.
It's okay, you can laugh at that, they did literally walk me through the prosthetics, and that joke makes me smile every single time. Even four years later. Tadaaa, humor.
Mom and dad hate that joke.
The legs I will be wearing today are made mostly of advanced plastics that I still don't understand. What I do understand is that they have a fixed, raised heel. They are meant for wearing shoes with a heel. I have another set of legs with flexible, jointed feet, and I have a set of blades. The blades creeped me out the most at first. They made me feel more machine, more cyborg than I wanted. But I found very quickly that they were by far the best for bounding around so the creepiness faded. Weirdly enough, the legs with the best resemblance to actual legs and feet are often the creepiest. It's like seeing a really good mannequin. The cheesy mannequins don't bother me. The mannequins without eyes, with vague features, don't make me feel like I'm being watched by something. But the more realistic ones follow me with their eyes. They look like they could come alive and murder me.
Is that a movie? There should be a horror movie about that.
The legs with raised heels were crafted by an artist, working together with an engineer to get as close to perfect skin tone and angles and shape as possible. They did get close, the legs are beautiful... until you put them on and look at them. Like, really look at them. Somehow, seeing them at the bottom of my body, seeing how real they look and knowing they aren't is more unsettling. On closer inspection you would notice some important giveaways. The toes aren't separated. I went from having no toes to having a webbed mass of toe-like structures. Also, there are no joints. The ankle doesn't move, the toes don't move, and the knee doesn't move.
But, when I cover them with my black, nylon stockings, I will have the most normal, beautiful, high-heel-wearing legs you've ever seen.
They also make me about three inches taller than my other legs. Which is pretty much the best thing ever.
“Five minutes, Ashley!”
Ah, that voice again.
My first new legs were made of wood. Wood, and a rubber foot that was bolted in place. Classy, very stylish for a ten-year-old, and yet I couldn't wait to get back to school and show my friends. I'd missed so many classes due to surgery and recovery I missed my friends, I missed schoolwork, I even missed my teacher, Mrs. Braddock. When I was in my wheelchair recovering from the last surgery, I found out Mrs. Braddock didn't miss me.
“A distraction?” I cried to my mom. Mrs. Braddock wanted to extend my leave of absence for the sake of class stability. She thought I would, in my new state, be a distraction to the class. She thought my reappearance in a wheelchair with scars and fake legs would be inappropriate, and potentially unsettling to some of the other children.
“Well, honey, she thinks the other kids might ask you a lot of questions and that they might make you feel uncomfortable.”
“I'm uncomfortable being out of school. I'm uncomfortable being away from my friends,” I yelled through my tears. “I don't care about answering questions!”
“Well, we understand how you feel,” my dad said, “but we're going to listen to your teacher and keep working with your tutor, just for a few more weeks.”
“Weeks? I've already missed weeks and weeks of school! They're going to hold me back a year.”
“They're not going to hold you back.”
“Yes they are!”
“Chloe!” dad yelled.
My dad yelled. Before the cancer, dad never yelled. After the cancer, he yelled a lot. Not just at me, but at anyone who did the wrong thing at the wrong time. He yelled at a man at the bank. He yelled at a policeman who gave him a ticket. Well, he didn't yell at the policeman, he yelled about him in the car as we drove away from where we got pulled over.
On a few nights, he yelled at mom. She yelled, too.
Dad's yell settled it, I didn't go back to school for another three weeks. By then I didn't need my wheelchair anymore so I guess they thought I would be less of a distraction. I didn't like that they thought that. I wanted to make a point. If they thought now, out of my wheelchair, that I wouldn't be as much of a distraction, then I would try my best to be more of one. I tried to talk to everyone, all the time, about any and every part of my story. I talked about cancer, about amputation, about the doctors and nurses I worked with, about the materials that went into my fake legs and how they felt and what it was like having half legs. I told Chris Hefter that it was hard to sit on the toilet with my fake legs. I told Gabe Whitfield I needed to be careful because I could develop sores on my nubs that might get infected if I wasn't careful about prosthetic placement and fit.
I told Jack and John, the Everett twins, that I could sometimes still feel my old legs. I told them I could feel my toes wiggling, that I got itchy calves and shins sometimes, even though I didn't have calves or shins.
Mrs. Braddock said that was inappropriate.
My dad agreed with her.
I gave up. I let them win. I didn't want to get held back or kicked out of school, so I stopped talking about my legs. I made it that thing that no one talks about, that inappropriate thing. I stopped pushing back so openly.
But I didn't stop pushing back altogether.
A wooden leg is not meant to be taken swimming. Wooden legs with metal bolts don't enjoy the simple pleasures of chlorine swimming pools or frog-filled creeks. But I liked both of those things, so I swam and I kicked and splashed and caught a healthy assortment of frogs. I did all the things, I just did them quietly. I asked my friends not to tell. They agreed, with the sharpened smiles that only shared secrets can bring.
I didn't tell my parents. I didn't have to, my right leg told them. It outed me loud and clear in gym class when, during a volleyball game, boys versus girls, I twisted and lunged for the ball to save our team a point. I twisted too quickly on my rusting, rotting leg and the entire gym was silenced by the deep crunch of wood splintering and the booms of me, and my various wooden appendages, hitting the floor. The broken leg detached from my half leg and clattered in two pieces on the hardwood. Jessie Taylor screamed. Then all of her friends screamed. A third grade teacher, Mr. Wells, rushed to help me but stopped when he knelt down and surveyed the damage. He didn't know whether to pick me up, or pick up my legs, or try to do both. When he picked up the broken right leg and the last fibers of wood gave way, the metal bolt and rubber foot fell to the floor. Another series of booms and clangs. Another series of screams.
“I'm... I'm so sorry, Ashley,” Mr. Wells said.
“It's okay,” I said, picking up my foot. “Can you get me my backpack?”
He brought me my backpack and asked if he could help.
“Do you need me to... carry you?”
He regretted the question immediately. I saw his face twinge just before I secured the leg and foot in my pack and threw it over my shoulders.
I splayed out on my belly. I'd done it at home thousands of times. There were times when I just didn't feel like balancing on the prosthetics and I needed a simpler way, my way, a way that didn't require any hardware. I crawled like a seal slipping along a snowy glacier. I'd reach my arms out, splay my fingers and slap my hands down on the floor, and then drag myself along my belly. I knew I could drag myself all the way back to my classroom and hoist myself up into my chair and continue with the rest of my day.
Mr. Wells followed me for a few slides, trying to offer, as quietly as he could, to pick me up and carry me to the office. He asked me if I wanted him to call mom or dad.
I did drag myself back to my class. About ten minutes later, mom showed up. She brought my wheelchair. I didn't want to fight anymore so I let her slide me into it and I let her push me out into the parking lot. I was fully capable of putting myself in the car but I didn't, I made her do that, too. For the rest of the evening I did what I felt they wanted. I let them do everything for me. Mom talked and talked on the way home. She asked me questions I didn't answer, and wouldn't stop saying how worried she was when she got the call. She mentioned the leg and the state of the bolt and wood, briefly. When I didn't answer that question, either, she stopped talking.
Three weeks later I got my first new pair of legs. I'd been awarded a scholarship, of sorts. Someone gave the hospital a lot of money and one of the areas they wanted the money spent was prosthetics, especially prosthetics for kids and teens. They told me these new legs were different, that they were more stable and they were made from materials that were, at the time, state of the art. And they were, they definitely were. They were some of the best legs I've ever worn.
And they were white.
Like, really white. Like bright, bright, copy paper white. White like piano keys. White like bone. Considering my parents didn't want to ever draw attention to my fake legs, I thought white was an interesting choice. Those legs could have been seen from space.
But they were waterproof.
They were even buoyant. When they'd inevitably pop off during an especially excited race in the pool, they would float right to the surface and bob there, to the delight of everyone watching.
And by delight I mean screamy terror.
But the legs I'm strapping on right now are not white. They are not wooden, or rubber, or bolted in any way. They are sleek. They are flesh-colored. They even have changes in skin tone, tiny painted on blood vessels, and painted toenails. Red toenails, red to match the high-heeled open-toe sandals I will wear with them. Red to match the red splashes in the mostly white sun dress I bought myself.
Now, looking at my ensemble, I don't want to wear stockings. I want to wear these. I want to show off my legs. I want people to see them and see me and ask me questions and be awkward and smile too long and laugh nervously. I want people to feel uncomfortable and then get over it. I want to stop hiding this, hiding me, just so other people can feel more comfortable.
I don't want to be appropriate.
My toenails are red and they look fabulous. My sandals are red and they look fabulous. My white dress with red swirls looks fabulous. My fingernails are red, and my lips are red, and the bow in my hair is red, and I look fabulous.
“You're not wearing that,” dad says.
I felt so good for a few moments. Looking into the mirror in my room, I felt good. Walking down the hallway to the top of the stairs, I felt good. I held the edge of my skirt with one hand and the stair railing with the other and for a second, for one second, I felt like a princess, or a supermodel, or royalty, or something. I felt like the queen, descending the stairs from her throne. I felt beautiful, and for a second, I was excited about how I looked, and excited about showing people.
“What?” I asked.
“Your skirt, it's cute, but, no, you can't wear that.”
Mom turned from her position by the front door. She'd been applying makeup at the mirror there but stopped and looked at us.
“You can't wear that, Ashley,” dad said, again.
“Why not?” I was starting to cry. I hadn't prepared myself for this, even after all these years. I'd stupidly forgotten my dad's quiet disgust for my legs, for me. I'd forgotten how embarrassed he was to be with me when people stared. I'd forgotten for five seconds how hard it must be to have a daughter like me, a daughter who offends people with her legs, with her body. With her life. I'd let myself think that these legs were a part of me, that they were my normal. I'd forgotten to think of the poor poor world and how hard it must be to see someone like me in their very normal, very whole, very perfect worlds.
“I am wearing this,” I said.
“You're not, please go find something else to wear.”
“I am wearing this!”
“Ashley, it's not...”
“It's not, what, exactly? It's not what, dad?”
Please don't say it, dad, please don't say it. Please, after all these years and all of those other people saying it again and again, please don't. Please.
Today is the day. There are days that pass with little shifting from the days before. I think most days are like that, somewhat indistinguishable from each other. But then there are those other days, the days where things don't go as planned and where things don't follow the normal trails.
“It's... inappropriate? What is inappropriate about it? Is it inappropriate because I'm in it?”
“Ashley,” mom says, trying to douse what she sees burning.
“Is it too short? Too white? Is the dress to pretty for someone like me, dad?”
“No, of course not. It's just...”
He knew. He knew right in that moment he was wrong. He stopped himself from saying whatever stupid, insensitive thing he was going to say and instead he said nothing. He let my words crash over him and wash him out to sea. He let the waves of my voice toss him and churn him and grind him against the reef below. All those years of pushing me down, of shutting me up, of telling me I was hard for people to look at and unsettling for people to have to deal with, all those sharp, prickly years appeared in a single moment and he let me thrash his helpless body on their jagged edges.
“It's just... inappropriate. Yeah, I know, you've told me. Showing my legs is so inappropriate. I'm so sorry to bother you with them... with me. See these legs, dad? Do you see them? They're me, they're a part of me. I'm sorry if you hate them. I'm sorry if seeing them makes you feel bad. But they're me. They're made of plastic and someone painted the toenails on and they don't have any joints but they're me. I'm the one walking around on them. I'm the one people stare at, the one people whisper about. I'm the one who will never be normal again. But I don't care anymore. I bought this dress and I love this dress and I'm wearing this dress. I'm wearing it with these legs, my legs. If you don't want people to see me in this dress... if you don't want people to see my legs, then you don't want them to see me at all because I haven't felt this good about myself in a long time.”
Mom was crying. Dad wouldn't look at me and wouldn't speak. David and Sarah were standing in the doorway. They'd been waiting in the car.
They were smiling.
I wiped my face, knowing I probably cried my make-up all over the place, but I didn't care. I let my hand take the railing again and I made my way down the stairs and out the door. Sarah and David followed me and when they started laughing and congratulating me way too loudly, I didn't stop them.
We drove to the reunion in silence. Once there, we each found our own people, the kids going with cousins and mom and dad finding their separate ways to their favorite uncles and aunts. I spent most of the day sharing all of the details about my awesome new legs. When I wasn't doing that I was dancing. The only thing I didn't do was hide myself. I promised myself I would never do that again. Hiding myself wasn't right. It was a lie. Pretending I hadn't lost both my legs was stupid. Assuming people wouldn't be able to cope with seeing me with prosthetic legs was stupid. I wouldn't do that anymore. I wouldn't let people tell me what was okay or not okay.
That would be inappropriate.
PG-13 - mild language and mature themes
“You can't be serious.”
Officer Lentz is sitting in the darkness of his patrol car. Even now, well after the late summer sunset, he keeps the AC at full blast to keep the central California heat at bay. In full uniform, the AC usually keeps up, barely. He tries to limit his summer shifts to a single shirt change per day, mid shift. But ten minutes with the heat from his cell phone, and the heat from the conversation, has tipped the scales. He can feel the sweat on his ear and his cheek, and as he tries to formulate an answer to the woman's questions, he feels the first droplets roll from his armpits down the moguls of his rib cage.
“Hot, naked sluts, Jason? That's what you want? Hot, naked sluts?”
He'd been watching porn for years at home, since before they were married. In all of those years, he'd never left a session without clearing his search history.
In twelve years.
“I don't know what to tell you, Amy.”
“Tell me it isn't true. Tell me this is a bug, some computer virus, or that you got hacked. Tell me one of your friends is pranking you... one of your middle-school-minded, jobless, video-game-playing moron friends. Tell me...”
He switches ears. When the air hits the hot, sweaty place where the phone had been pressing, and Amy's voice trails off into a distant, indecipherable murmur as the phone switches ears, he enjoys two seconds of peace.
A car races by heading north. When it sees the patrol car, it slams on its brakes. The radar says 76 mph. 76 in a 55 zone is something officer Lentz would normally hit the lights for.
He looks down at the phone, then back to the car. The lights slowly disappear into the night.
“You get a pass, jackass,” he mumbles, placing the phone over his other ear.
“... without thinking my husband watches porn and jerks off one room away from his two-year-old daughter!”
Another car, more red hot brake lights. 75.
A drop of sweat licks its way down his spine.
“Amy, I'm working, we can talk about this tomorrow.”
The droplet glides across his lower back and soaks into the elastic band of his briefs.
“Oh Jesus, Jason, Jesus. Horny teen's ass slammed again and again. Jesus Christ, what...”
“Are you looking at my laptop right now? He asks.
Another car, no brake lights.
“Yes I'm on your laptop right now. It's our laptop, now. I'm going to keep looking through what you've been doing. You're going to show me everything you do on it from now on. This is terrifying, Jason. These girls are so young. There is no way they are all over 18.”
Another car, southbound. 72.
His free hand grips the steering wheel.
“I have to go,” he says.
“How long has this been going on?” Amy asks. She's starting to cry now.
“We'll talk about it later. Right now, I have to go.”
“How could you, Jason? I just... how could you do this?”
The road is dark in both directions. It is rare to see long stretches with no traffic, especially before midnight. There are no cars to chase, and for a brief moment Jason considers waiting for an actual speeding stop so he can hang up without lying to his wife.
He shakes his head and looks at himself in the rear view mirror. He has to laugh.
“Ok, hon, on a stop. I'm hanging up.”
She yells and tries to get him to stay on the phone but he finally commits. He puts the phone down and turns the now hot and sweaty cheek and ear toward the AC vents.
Yes, I watch porn on my computer, yes. Wow, well done, you caught me, one of the billions of men who watch porn.
If you only knew.
The radio chatter catches his ear. Code ten? He double checks his memory. It seems unlikely.
Is it possible that there has been an actual bomb threat?
He is paying attention now. His memory served him well, code ten means a bomb threat, and there has been a bomb threat at Buchanan High School. It's a strange threat to make at 10:30 on a Saturday night, but would still be more fun than traffic on the rural stretch of highway 41 north of Fresno. Almost anything would be better than this. Any officer who gets this duty knows why. Jason knows why he's here.
While concentrating on the communications about the bomb threat, Jason doesn't notice the headlights in his rear view mirror. It isn't until the roar of the car's engine gets within fifty feet and the building wave of chaotic noise washes over the patrol car that he notices the headlights at all. The wind force shakes the cruiser as the car speeds on. The radar gives its reading, a hot red 94 mph.
Jason hits the lights and calls it in.
Nearly all of the other speeding cars lit up their brake lights upon seeing the parked, idling cruiser ready to catch them. Most of the speeders had been going between 70 and 80 mph. By the time Jason got his lights on and his cruiser up over 60, the red BMW already had a quarter-mile lead. The brake lights never shined.
Jason pushes the pedal down and calls for assistance. Someone going almost 100 miles per hour might not want to stop and talk to a police officer. He gets an answer, affirmative, but being this far out of town means an ETA of up to fifteen minutes. He stays on the pedal.
He can tell he is gaining. The BMW's brake lights still haven't glowed their red warning, but the driver has obviously let off the accelerator and is trying to slow down.
“You messed up now,” Jason says. The roar of his own engine fills the cabin of the cruiser. All the frustration over being assigned to this nothing street slip away. The annoyance of knowing he was going to have to talk to his simple, nagging wife about internet porn gets lost in this new storm. He is on a chase, an actual high-speed chase. He might be about to pull over drug runners, or kidnappers with someone tied up in the trunk. They might be armed. They might stop their car and immediately open fire with machine guns. He quickly imagines a gun fight. He imagines taking the two men out while sustaining minor, yet heroic injuries. He imagines the commendation, the news stories, and the paid time off. He imagines using the heroism to his advantage.
What could Amy say after her hero husband saves a kidnapped girl from sex traffickers?
“Do you have any idea what I do out on these streets?” he yells at the windshield. “No, of course you don't, you're here living in the safety I provide you, in the air-conditioned comfort I provide you. I'm out here in high speed chases, being shot at by murderers and drug dealers, just so I can come home to your nagging and yapping. I'm making moves out here, I'm risking my life, and yeah, Amy, I build up a little stress catching bad guys and getting shot at and nearly dying out here, so when my wife doesn't want to have sex with me for two weeks, I watch porn and jerk off. I wouldn't have to do it if you would do what wives are supposed to do.”
Brake lights. The red glow rips Jason from his tirade and he hits his brakes hard. The car is slowing now, and it looks like they are pulling over carefully and safely.
And legally. Turn signal and all.
Jason relaxes his grip on the steering wheel. They've pulled over but no one is getting out of the car, no one is firing at him with an assault rifle or a twelve-gauge. He shines the spotlight in through the BMW's back window. There appear to be two passengers, a male driver and a female passenger. He waits, holding his breath. He doesn't hold his breath long. The rush of the chase jacked his heart rate up and he is suddenly panting, sucking in air to feed the muscles his brain thinks he might need for a fight or for flight. He catches himself, remembers his training. He notes the license plate on the BMW and takes three long control breaths.
Amy, I'd love to see you out here on these roads, chasing people down and upholding the law.
The MDT tells Jason the car is registered to a Miguel Duran. No warrants, no other moving violations.
This guy drives a red BMW M6 Coupe over 90 miles per hour and has a clean driving record?
Jason slides out of the car. He had been sweating in the car with the air conditioning turned up, now out in the heat he knows he will be soaking his undershirt. He's going to have to change shirts in half an hour or so, which means he'll have four shirts to wash when he gets home in the morning and he's pretty sure Amy isn't going to do it for him. More heat, more sweat, more work on these lonely back roads. And he's going to have to do this all for a couple of joy-riding, moron yuppies. It is obvious there won't be any shooting or rescuing from these two. They're just another set of rich entitled assholes that think they can drive their BMW as fast as they want because they're rich entitled assholes.
People like me are out here protecting the community from morons like this, and worse, and they're going to endanger lives on a joy ride because they're so very very important? Not today, not on this stretch of road.
I hope they try to bribe me.
I hope they mouth off and I get to arrest them.
I hope they resist arrest.
The BMW's taillights are still lit. The man in the driver's seat still has his foot on the brake and the car is still on. Aided by the cruiser's spotlight, Jason can see that the man is smiling at the woman in the passenger seat. As Jason gets to the rear bumper of the car, he can see that the woman is trying to keep from laughing. She is sputtering out of her mouth, her eyes shut in an attempt to shield her brain from something entirely too funny to handle right now. She is probably drunk, Jason thinks, or high.
“Please let them be high,” he mutters.
His flashlight is out. His shines it over the side view mirror, then to the steering wheel. Miguel Duran, if this is him, has his hands on the wheel. As Jason approaches he can hear music playing inside the car.
“Roll the window down and turn the car off, please,” Jason says.
A Latino man, maybe late twenties or early thirties, smiles back. Jason rolls the flashlight clockwise, telling the man to roll the window down. As it rolls down, the music escapes and blasts out into the hot California night. The driver is still gripping the steering wheel when Jason's flashlight shines across the dashboard and into the man's face. The driver is biting his lip and shaking his head in short, violent twitches. He is trying to get the woman beside him to stop laughing, but it isn't working.
“Cut the car off, sir!” Jason yells. “Now!”
“What?” the man yells, squinting into the glare of the flashlight.
Jason's hand goes to his gun. He would feel the sweat from his palms on the hardened plastic of his Glock 17, is he wasn't numb with adrenaline and rage. He wants a reason to pull it.
“Cut the car off, now!”
“Sorry officer,” the man says, pulling his hand away from his mouth just long enough to get the words out. After he says it, he turns the car off and slams his hand back over his lips, shushing whatever words are trying to blurt their way out.
The woman sputters again.
“Just so you both are aware, when a law-enforcement officer pulls you over, you should turn the car off immediately. When the officer walks up to your window, you should probably turn your music off, don't you think?”
The man nods, short rapid nods, eyes closed. His mouth is still covered but he nods and nods and nods.
“License and registration, sir,” Jason says, “and keep your hands where I can see them. Both of you.”
The woman doesn't look up. Her eyes are shut tight as she raises her hands over her head. They go up straight, like she is under arrest, but when her hands ram into the ceiling, she lets out a woop and then giggles again. Her hands stick to her hair and the driver tries to shush her, but joins her in giggling uncontrollably instead.
Jason isn't giggling. These two are obviously drunk or high or both, and he knows he won't have to ask too many questions before deeming them intoxicated enough for a sobriety check and a trip to the station. He thinks about making the cuffs a little too tight. He imagines forcing the man into his cruiser with maybe a little more force than is necessary. He thinks about escorting the woman by the waist, or maybe just below the waist. He can already imagine the feel of her ass as he pushes her along, the feel of her breasts as he turns her to sit in the cruiser beside the driver.
Maybe he will search her for drugs and weapons.
Maybe he will have to be extra thorough.
She could be hiding God knows what under that tight dress.
“I'm sorry, I am sorry, your honor. Oh yes, of course of course. I'm sorry.”
The car's engine goes quiet. All that is left is the clicking of the now cooling metal in the over-worked engine.
“I'm sorry, officer, I couldn't hear...”
“Keep your hands where I can see them unless I ask you to move them, understand?”
“Yes, yes, my friend, I understand.”
“Keep your hands on the wheel,” Jason says.
“Yes, yes sir, yes officer, I will keep them right here for you.”
With the man's accent it is hard to tell if his phrasing is strange because English is not his first language, or because he is drunk or high.
Or if he is mocking the whole exchange.
Jason doesn't like any of the options.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?” Jason asks. It is a stupid thing to ask, but Jason likes it, just likes the sound of it coming out of his mouth. He also enjoys the look on people's faces when they think about their answers. There is power in asking a question when the answer couldn't possibly be good enough.
The man hands Jason a driver's license: Miguel Duran, thirty-two years old, address in Fresno, California.
“I am sorry, officer, was I speeding?” he asks.
“Were you speeding? Unless the speed limit on this stretch of highway is ninety-four miles per hour then yes, I'd say you were speeding.”
Miguel's head droops. He lets out a low moan and shakes his head. The woman giggles again.
“I'm going to need your registration and proof of insurance, Mr. Duran.”
“Yes, of course, of course,” Miguel says, nodding. Even when he stops talking he is still nodding. “Lisa, can you...” Miguel points toward the glove compartment, “the registration, and...”
His voice stops, cut off suddenly by a burst of air from his nose that he tries to stop. But he can't stop it and a short giggle bursts from the back of his throat. The woman, Lisa, fails to fight back her giggles and she laughs toward the glove compartment.
“Is there something funny about this that I'm missing?” Jason asks, now shining the flashlight on Lisa's face.
“No, your honor,” Miguel says, biting down on his smile.
“You seem to think this is a game. Do I look like I'm playing games?”
“No, sir,” Lisa echoes. She has managed to find the registration and proof of insurance cards. As she hands them to Miguel, she puts her head down and folds her hands over her mouth.
“I don't think it's funny that you two are out here driving almost a hundred miles an hour while drunk or high or whatever you are. People die on this road every week. I get to help pull dead men, women, and children out of mangled steel cages every single week. Is that you? Is that who you are, Miguel?”
“Isn't it hot in that uniform out here?” Lisa asks. Miguel's hand goes to her thigh but she brushes it off. “It's probably all sweaty under there, huh?”
Jason steps back. His hand moves back to his pistol. His normal means for taking psychological control of a situation aren't working. He considers warning them again. He considers getting out the taser on the other side of his belt. He considers executing an arrest right now.
You want to play games with me?
“What, what? I was just thinking about how sweaty he must be.” Lisa ducks down so she can look up into Jason's eyes. “I like sweaty men,” she says, grinning.
“Stay here, don't leave the vehicle and don't start the vehicle. Do you understand?”
They both nod.
As Jason walks back to his cruiser, he can hear them let go of their stifled giggles. They both sputter their laughter out of tightly closed lips before sucking in enough air to let loose with full force laughter. Jason sighs relief as he closes his door into air-conditioned cool and quiet. He lets the air blow directly into his face, feels the sweatier areas cool more quickly.
Miguel Duran and Lisa whoever are driving the vehicle they own. Miguel has no warrants and no criminal history. Jason decides what he will do: he will write Miguel a ticket with the maximum fine. He will offer this news and if Miguel shows any kind of resistance, even the slightest sass or disregard for Jason's authority, Miguel will be arrested and will spend the night in lock-up.
Please give me a reason.
He writes the ticket. When he opens the cruiser door he can hear music. Miguel turned the car back on and they are listening to music. As Jason gets to the car, Miguel is rolling up the window.
Looks like you just gave me a reason.
Miguel and Lisa are both sitting up straight and staring out of the front windshield. They are both trying hard not to laugh. When Jason hits the driver-side window with his flashlight, they both look over at him. They look back and forth from him to each other, feigning their surprise that someone, especially a police officer, is standing at their car window.
Miguel rolls down the window.
“Good evening, officer, what seems to be the problem?”
Lisa loses it. She slumps against the passenger door and is laughing hard enough to be bouncing her head off of the window. Tears are streaming down her cheeks and she slaps blindly at Miguel's leg, punishing him for making her laugh so hard.
“You know,” Jason says, “I was going to simply write you a ticket – a big, expensive ticket – and then let you be on your way. I was trying to be nice. But you two don't seem to respond to nice. So maybe you'll respond to this.”
Jason removes the handcuffs from their holster on the back of his belt.
“Mr. Duran, keep your hands where I can see them and please step out of the car.”
Lisa's laughing continues.
“Oh, Miguel, uh oh, I think you're in trouble now,” she says.
“You think so?” Miguel asks.
“You're cruisin' for a bruisin'.”
This sets them both off again. Miguel's head goes forward and he laughs into the steering wheel and Lisa slumps back against her window.
“Step out of the car now or I'm going to taze you,” Jason says.
Miguel continues laughing. “Oh no, oh no, please... please, don't taze me bro!”
More laughter from Lisa.
Jason draws his sidearm and points it, two-handed, through the window at Miguel's face.
“Get out of the car!” he yells.
Lisa is still laughing. Miguel is smiling up at the pistol.
“Get out of the car, now!”
“Oh Jason. Oh sweet, sweet Jason,” Miguel says, wiping the tears from his eyes. “Mi pequeno.”
How does he know my name?
“I can't get out of the car just now.”
I didn't tell him my name.
In fact, I think you would prefer it if I stayed here.”
“My name to you is officer and you have three seconds to get out of the car and put your face on the ground!”
Miguel and Lisa stop laughing. They look at each other, lips tight, eyelids low, almost bored. Lisa slowly shakes her head and sighs.
Miguel turns: “Jason, you aren't going to arrest us tonight. I know that probably sounds strange as you are used to telling the people what they are doing and not the people telling you what are you doing? Yes, is this right? You are used to telling the people in cars to stop and to slow down. You are used to telling the people to put their hands up?”
“I said three seconds! Three...”
“You are used to being the boss, yes?”
“Used to your power?”
“Like with those little girls you visit?”
Jason's grip on the Glock loosens. The barrel dips. He hears a thunder rising from behind him, from beside him, booming in closer and closer. It's the storm in his chest. It is the thundering of his heart. He can feel every pump, each valve and chamber in his heart, the rush of blood in and the pressing of blood out. He can feel it pulsing up through his neck, thumping into the collar of his uniform. The collar is suddenly tight, tightening, and the vest is crushing him and his gear belt is squeezing the life from his legs and his is suddenly a hollow shell of the powerful policeman he was seconds ago. Over the ringing in his ears he is barely able to hear Miguel's next sentence:
“You are a man who enjoys saying things that people have to do.”
Who are you?
He steadies the gun.
“We know this. We understand this. This is a very common thing, we have found. I think it is very natural for you, a man, to feel this way. I think it is very natural for you to want to be the boss, to want to be a big boy. Jason Lentz wants to be a big boy, mi gran muchacho, yes? Right now, even though you have your uniform and your fancy belts and your car and your gun, you still don't feel like a big boy?”
The little girls. How could he know about the girls?
“You like to roar, yes? Roar, like eh, um... it is the, it is how you say leon? Leon?”
“Lion,” Lisa offers.
“Oh yes, the lion. Jason, you are like a lion. You have your big mane and your big teeth and your big roar, RAWR!” Miguel raises his hands and hooks his fingers into claws. “You are a big, scary lion, yes? Doesn't he look like a big, scary lion?”
“He does,” Lisa says, nodding, “very scary.”
“Very scary. We like you, Jason Lentz. We like scary men in their police uniforms. This is why you are not dead. This is why I don't cut off your legs and send them to your mother, Kathy. This is why I have not visited your wife Amy, or tu nina. What is your little girl's name, again?”
He knows me, he knows Amy, he knows Bethany.
“Bethany,” Lisa says, pulling a small picture from her bag.
“Oh yes, yes of course. Bethany,” Miguel says, smiling at the cute little girl in the picture. “She is very pretty, una hermosa nina.”
Jason grips the pistol tighter and steps forward. The barrel is in the car now, inches from Miguel's face. Miguel turns toward it and smiles.
“Do you know anything about lions, officer Jason Lentz?” Miguel asks, looking back at Bethany's picture. “Male lions, when they defeat the main lion of a pack, of a... pride, they do something very interesting with the little cubs. Do you know what they do with the little cubs?”
Miguel holds up the picture and tilts it back and forth, dancing Bethany around in front of the gun.
“I heard that the male lion will kill all of the little baby lions, the little cubs, in the whole pride. He will kill the babies so he can make all the babies. He wants the babies to be only his babies. Isn't that mean? Nature is very mean, sometimes.”
Miguel hands the picture back to Lisa.
“You are a strong young lion, officer Jason Lentz. You are strong but you are young and you don't understand the ways of this world. I must tell you that there are other lions out here, in the dark wild. There are other lions out here bigger then you, stronger than you. You know, with much sharper teeth and bigger claws. They are hungry, and I would guess that you don't want them to kill you and eat your pequeno cachorro de leon... your little lion cub.”
Jason steps back. He keeps his grip but points the pistol down at the ground.
“You are a man who likes little girls. You have found someone who can give you little girls, and yet here you are stopping people from driving too fast. You are young and silly, which is fine. But now you know. Now that I have told you how silly you are, you will listen to me. Are you listening, huh? Are you listening to me, officer Jason Lentz?”
I'll kill you. I'll kill you all!
“Jason!” Lisa yells, “Jason, Bethany would very much like you to listen, okay?”
“Thank you, Lisa, now I think he is listening. Jason... there will be times when I must tell you to do something. You will be told when it is necessary. You may be asked to act, and you may be asked to not act. You may be asked to stop others from acting. If you look at me now, you need to look into my eyes and tell me you will do all of the things I ask you. I know it will be hard to accept this new position. I know it will be hard to know you are not in control, but don't let it bother you. Accept this. Accept that we are in control. If you accept this and do as we ask, you can continue to do many of the things you like to do.”
Lisa holds out another picture. There is a young girl on a bed. The man in the picture has a very similar silhouette to Jason. She flips out another one. Jason's face is much clearer in this one.
“Not all of the things you like, however.”
“If you touch another little girl,” Lisa adds, “I will cut your throat. If you don't do what you are told, I will cut your wife's throat. I will watch her bleed out, gasping for air, whispering your name. Do you want your little girl to end up an orphan, to end up on the street? Do you want her to end up like these girls, sold from man to man? She would fetch a high price.”
Lisa is giggling again when she asks Jason if he understands.
Miguel continues: “It is a lot, yes? It is a lot to think about. Your whole life has changed in a few moments. This must be hard to deal with it. We understand. But you must deal with it. You have learned how life is. You are not a little boy anymore.”
Lisa puts Bethany's picture back in her bag.
“I'm bored,” she says.
Miguel shrugs. “Women, yes? Very hard to please, but even harder if you don't please them. You should do your job and then go home to your wife, officer Jason Lentz. You should go home and try to please her. You know what I think would please her? If she never knows any of the things we've talked about tonight. If you don't want to tell her about our conversation, then we won't have to tell her about your conversations with those little girls. Yes, what do you say, officer Jason Lentz?”
Jason is still holding the Glock. He can see his arms rise, he can see shots tearing through Miguel and Lisa. He can see the car burning on the side of the road. He can see himself driving home to Amy and Bethany and driving away, to another town, another state, another country.
He can also see Amy lying face down on their kitchen floor, face down in a pool of her own blood. He can see himself running to Bethany's room, running through the house screaming her name, unable to find her. He can see police lights and sirens coming for him, can see his courtroom, his prison cell, and the violent death that would come to him there.
Miguel turns the BMW on and the engine revs twice. He rolls the window up until there are only two or three inches left and stops.
“Have a good evening, officer Jason Lentz. Be good, little lion. Be good.”
The BMW drives away. Jason watches it go, watches the lights get closer together and smaller and smaller until finally, there is only dark highway before him. He could still go after them, but he doesn't. He could report this to detectives, or take it to the Chief of Police. As quickly as the thoughts come, they go. They don't merit a second thought. He knows they didn't merit a first thought.
He doesn't know how long he stands there watching. Other cars pass by occasionally, many of them speeding. That doesn't matter. Not anymore.
When he returns to his cruiser, he sits in the cool winds of the air-conditioning. He doesn't feel the air on his skin. He doesn't hear the calls from the station. He doesn't notice the flashlight tapping on his window. It's the back-up he called for, but it doesn't matter. He will not write any more speeding tickets tonight. He will not engage in a high speed chase or place anyone under arrest. He will return home to his wife, to his little girl, and never feel in control of his life again.
PG-13 - mild language and zombie violence
When the bar dropped on the barn door's lock cradle, the force of the mass of leaning bodies behind it heaved and made the doors creak, made the hinges and bolts scream. For a moment, Douglas Payne felt the bolts would shoot from their holes in the old wood like champagne corks and release the flood of clawing and chewing zombies. He saw them filling the small barn, shuffling their ravenous way around him, over him. Through him. They would wash over him and bring him into their flood. They would change him, destroy him, and make him one of their own.
The bolts screamed in protest but they did not break. The red-brown, crackled wood popped and moaned under the mass of bodies – was it forty zombies? Fifty? – but it held. The doors bowed inward and the four by four he used as a lock bent toward him. He squinted into the tension, expecting it to snap like a rubber band and thrash him in the face. Like a limb pushed too far, the bone could break at any second. He waited. He waited for the break.
Doug scrambled to his feet. He hadn't even noticed going to the ground, but he'd been watching and waiting for his end from a loose pile of hay, scooting backward on his side. As he rose and backed away from the barn's front door, the sounds of the barn finally registered in his ears. A cow mooed and shifted back and forth in its pen. A horse reared up and neighed wildly. When it came down, the crash of its hoofs on the wood planks sent a deep, hollow crash throughout the barn. The bowing of the door slowly ebbed. The mass of black-eyed death walkers heard the crash and were adjusting their path. They would walk around the side of the barn and press their hands and chests and faces and lips and teeth and tongues and eyeballs against the red wood, looking for another way in toward the smell of fresh, sweaty meat.
Doug watched them circle slowly around the edges of the barn. Having failed at the main door on the north side, they circled slowly around to the east. The viewing windows for the horses had been closed and locked by whomever owned this farm. The horse's passage out into the south field was also closed, hopefully locked tight. Doug ran to it, crouching low for no good reason, just an automatic response. Instinct.
When being pursued, get small.
At the south end of the barn, the horse run was closed and locked, and the window in the cow's pen had also been secured. Doug sat on a small platform made for setting down tools, or the milk bucket, next to the cow's stall. He breathed in slowly and deeply and held it. He had not taken a slow, deep breath in many days. Whoever owned this barn were good people in his eyes. Whoever they were, they saved his life without knowing it. He said a prayer for them, thanked them for their barn and its sturdiness, and wished them well wherever they might be. He imagined his words traveling up and out of the barn, over the moaning, limping horde of death and out into clean air. He knew there had to be clean air up there somewhere, the air above the smell of pained screams and rotting death that now spread like a low mist across the Central Oregon valley.
As he breathed out, wet flesh hit his neck. He ducked his head and jumped away, screaming, swinging with his uninjured left arm. He turned and fell back against the wooded horse pen, panting and wild-eyed, only to stutter a few obscenities and sigh relief as he realized it was the wet tongue of the Jersey cow that had touched his neck. The cow was looking at him now with a blank stare, rhythmically gnawing on its cud.
Doug righted himself and checked the horse pen for damage. It had held fine. Well done, farmer. His right arm talked to him, though. He clutched at his right elbow over a wide stain in his plaid button-up. Yesterday morning when he put the shirt on in his craftsman-style 3-bedroom vacation rental, it was fresh and clean. There were no blood stains, no mud or dirt, no rips or tears from branches and rocks and crazed, grabbing hands. The elbow was clean, and he buttoned it up with no intentions of sprinting toward a kitchen window before lowering his head and crashing through the glass elbow-first into the bushes below. Given the choice of choosing his clothing for the zombie apocalypse, he didn't really own anything better. The shirt had done well to protect him, but some of the glass got through, tearing into his flesh in multiple places. He hadn't had time to look at the extent of the damage. He'd been busy since then.
Much of the blood was dry now, but as he withdrew his hand, his fingers and palm glistened wet and red. He would have to take care of that soon. This barn, its security, might give him the time he would need to take stock and regroup. He knew he would need to clean his wounds for himself, for his health, if he hoped to survive this. He hadn't thought that the smell of fresh blood might be what was keeping the horde on his trail.
The horse whinnied and blew hot air from its lips. Doug felt the wind of it and turned. The snort was definitely directed at him. The horse's eyes, unlike the cow's, were alive and alert. They had questions. Who are you? Are you safe? Doug felt as though the horse wanted a conversation to establish some ground rules, maybe a plan for escape, or at least an explanation of what the hell those smelly human-type things scratching around outside were doing.
Also, something else, something simple and urgent.
“Are you hungry?” Doug asked. The horse's ears went up and it sputtered again. Doug turned back to the hay pile he'd been thrown into from the door. As he scooped up two handfuls, the horse walked to the edge of the pen so he could crane his neck over the fence. He did want food, and now.
Doug held out the hay and the horse snatched it with greedy lips, pulling it quickly into his crushing jaws. The handful was gone in seconds, as was the second, third, and fourth. After the fifth, Doug saw a shovel leaning against the western side of the barn, and he made things simpler by shoveling over a great pile of hay directly into the horse's stall. He sent two shovel-fulls into the cow's pen, as well. The horse's eyes livened, but the cow kept her glassy-eyed look as she began to eat.
Doug looked around the barn for other animals. He hadn't heard a dog bark in awhile. On the first day, every dog in every neighborhood was barking wildly at the changed state of the humans around them. They were not pleased about the people who were attacking other people. No barking here on the farm. Doug hoped the farmer took the dog when he escaped to wherever he escaped to, and unless there were sneaky cats or hidden rats, the cow and horse were it.
A loud crack from one of the side boards on the eastern side of the barn brought Doug back to reality. The horde seemed to have noticed the horse and were eager to test the strength on the annoying obstacle blocking their way.
Do zombies eat horses? Doug wondered.
Live flesh, I guess they would if they could.
Other than the shovel, the barn seemed pretty bare. It seemed secure, which was most important. He'd discovered its living inhabitants, which was also important. Now his scanning intended weapon acquisition. A shovel would be a decent weapon. What he really wanted was a good-sized hammer or a small ax. Maybe something long and thin he could jam between the boards, kill a few zombies without even going outside.
Would he be able to get to the roof? Could he drop something heavy down on top of the black-mouthed bastards?
Horse gear, a saddle and reins, a half a dozen horse shoes and some shoeing nails. The sight of the nails made him hopeful for a hammer. Please, Mr. Farmer... please tell me you kept your shoeing hammer with your shoeing nails and horse shoes.
No luck, not yet, anyway. Horse brushes, fly mask, blinders. A milking bucket for the cow. Some spare pieces of wood, two-by-fours.
Something told him to look up.
Above him, mounted on nails on the central support beam, was an old hay scythe. The curved handle, nearly ten feet long, ran like a snake across the wood and attached to a rusty hook blade about three feet long. It was obviously a decoration, a throwback to older times.
Doug was happy for the first time in three days.
A small ladder climbed up to a landing above the animal pens. He could access the scythe from there, and there might be other weapons, as well. As he climbed, the first slat popped under his foot, clattering in two pieces to the ground. The horse looked up from his meal. Sorry, Doug thought, slowly, carefully... right.
The second step held, the third step held but cracked and creaked. He would need to do this very carefully. It would be no good to honor the beauty of this secure place by breaking his legs because of clumsy stupidity. Doug made the last four rungs slowly and carefully, pressing himself over the threshold with his arms more than his feet.
Once up, the landing felt very secure, very sturdy. There were a few hay bales stacked neatly at the end, in a position where they could easily be dropped off of either side of the platform and directly into the cow or the horse's pen. Smart, Doug thought, that will make feeding time easier.
If I choose to stay, he reminded himself.
A narrow plank, two ten-foot-long two-by-sixes, made a sort of sky bridge from the first landing to a second platform at the back of the barn. A door on rails could be slid open, probably for hay to be thrown out to the field below. Doug stepped on the small box that served as a step up to the platform. This was no sturdy staircase, no solid catwalk. The farmer had laid a box on the landing and laid two boards as a bridge, two nails securing the end of each board.
As he stepped up the boards creaked. He stayed there at the end, a child clinging to his mother's leg. If he fell, there would be no one to help him. He looked down over his right shoulder. The cow was chewing, chewing, chewing, his brown eyes hypnotized by the hay-covered floor. Doug looked to his left. The horse had stopped eating and was looking up at him. The horse liked his new human friend. He liked this stranger who could throw food into his pen. He was worried now that his new friend might fall and break on the hard boards or cement below. Then who would serve up the hay?
Doug slid one foot a few inches out onto the board. He shifted his weight out to it, slowly, waiting for any sign the boards were weak or might give out. The boards creaked at their nail joints, but they felt firm beneath his feet. He slid the foot farther. Still seemed stable. He slid his other foot out to join the first and the boards barely bowed at all. Doug stood upright, breathed deeply. He realized he'd been holding his breath and he laughed at himself.
The next few steps went a little faster, then a slow walk, and at last he lunged for the wooden window overlook and caught himself, breathing out his fear and breathing in relief. He was shaking and he could now feel the sweat from his palms soaking up the dirt from the wood he grasped.
“Ha! You see that, horse, did you see that?” he yelled. The horse's ears perked and he stiffened, but upon hearing the maniacal laughter that followed, his ears relaxed and he returned to his hay.
Still unsure of the security of his high lookout, Doug kept a hand on the window frame while the other hand pulled at the sliding door. It jangled, the runners having gathered some rust and grit over the years, but in a few seconds it was open and swinging quietly in the dusty air. A few torn strands of spiderweb hung from it's edges, defeated, the spinners cursing Doug from their dark corners.
He looked out.
Fifteen feet below him, five of the death walkers had made their way around the barn to the back, most likely drawn by the clamoring of the sliding door. They pressed their faces into the wood and pawed at it, their voices a low grumble. They scratched at the walls and blew hot, rotten breath through the cracks.
Cow and horse didn't seem to mind.
Doug looked around him. He was standing on a narrow platform, maybe five feet wide and three feet deep. To his right the boards dropped off into the emptiness of the barn's belly all the way to the floor. To his left, the same, except...
Except for a stack of small red bricks.
The farmer probably had a use for them, maybe counter-weights for a pulley system, maybe weights to hold down boards for solo nailing. Maybe he liked throwing bricks down at things. Doug thanked him, again, for whatever the reasons were and picked up one of the bricks. He bounced it up and down in his hand, feeling the rough edges, liking the weight of it. They were heavier than they looked. Or maybe Doug was hungrier and weaker than he thought.
When had he eaten last?
Doug stopped and turned. Was that a voice? It sounded like someone said something, and it sounded like the voice came from inside the barn.
“Hello?” Doug called. He held is breath to listen for a reply.
He blocked out the scraping and moaning of the zombies. He blocked out the shuffling of the horse and cow, the pounding of his own heart.
Doug looked down. The cow was looking up at him. He wasn't chewing his cud, but his mouth did move to speak.
“Be careful up there,” the cow said.
Doug shook his head and laughed.
“Okay, Douglas, okay. Pull it together, man. The cow isn't talking to you, just take a deep breath and focus. Focus, Douglas, focus!”
“Careful, don't hurt yourself again.”
“Shut up!” Doug yelled. When he looked back to the cow, its back was turned and it was scraping hay off the ground and chewing it. The horse was watching him with its ears up, confused.
“Okay, so it's been awhile since you had something to eat, yeah. Yeah, you're tired and stressed and hungry, just relax, Dougie. Just relax.”
He took a deep breath. He took another. The brick was shaking less now. His hands slowed their trembling. He took one more breath and blew it out the barn window and into the evening air. Then he gripped the brick, looked down, and made his first choice.
The first target was easy. One of the zombies had been, in his previous state, a classic American stereotype: large and in charge. The man had been in his late forties or early fifties, balding, and at least three hundred pounds. As the hulking beast pressed his swollen, pale arms against the side of the barn, Doug could see the bite marks. Both forearms had teeth marks and chunks where flesh had been bitten and torn clean. His right hand was missing a finger, the ring finger. The left was missing the ring finger and the pinky.
He'd had little chance of outrunning the flesh-eating bastards, but he'd put up a fight in the end, it seemed.
Something about the wide body – that big round bald head, like a bulls eye – was too good to pass up. Doug had his first target. The brick felt good in his hand and he leaned out over the ledge. He wondered about the proper technique of trying to crush a skull from above with a brick. Should he drop it? Should he throw it down hard, or toss it gently for better aim? Would it crush a skull if he didn't throw it down hard?
He decided it might and it might not, and with only about two dozen bricks he wanted to be sure.
He would huck it downward with maximum force. The aim, he decided, would get better with each brick. Plus, with the other zombies gathering around, missing one might mean hitting another.
Doug held tightly to the ledge and raised his hand high out over the expanse. He heaved the brick down. But his feet weren't set, and under the torque of his throw, his left foot slipped on the dusty boards of the narrow platform. His body heaved forward and down, his chest and chin slamming into the side of the barn. With the brick away, his right hand came back to the barn and scrambled madly for something to hold. His head hung out over the death walkers and he screamed. He didn't mean to, but his brain registered falling and his eyes saw the fifteen-foot drop into a zombie party below him and he yelped without thinking.
His right leg saved him. That foot stayed put, and when he went chest first over the ledge, his right hip and thigh stayed tight against the inside of the barn while his upper body banged into the outside. It created a little pinch, and had both feet slipped, even a little, he'd have missed his chance to grab anything to hold himself up and he would have fallen to a certain and toothy death.
He continued grunting wildly while fighting to get his feet back down on the planks and hoist his torso and head back into the safety of the barn. He got his left foot back down and pushed with both arms. The wound in his elbow sent electricity up through his shoulder and into his neck. He could feel fresh blood running down his forearm when he finally righted himself and stood up. He gasped for breath and his hands grabbed for solid ground, solid wood. They would grab a spot, then grab another spot not believing the first spot was safe enough. After clawing across the different boards and picking up half a dozen splinters, he stopped. He was safe. He was secure, on his feet, alive.
“Be careful,” came the voice again.
“Shut up, you're not real,” Doug hissed through a clenched jaw.
In his panic and mad scramble to not fall to his death, he'd completely missed the path of the brick. While leaning out over the window ledge and crying out, he'd missed the sickening hollow crunch of a skull caving in under the accelerating force of hurled stone. Now, having recovered physically, on his way to recovering mentally, he slowly pushed his chin out over the ledge and peered down.
Four zombies clawed on the barn's wall. Doug let out a sudden rasp. Then a short chuckle. Then a full on laugh that grew into a mad, wailing cackle. He gripped the window ledge and laughed downward, laughed at them, threw his laughter down on them like so many more bricks, “You like that?” He screamed and laughed. “You like that?”
The four remaining zombies were looking up at him, their mouths opening into snarls and biting mindlessly at the air. One arm up the wall, then down, then the other arm up the wall, then down. They looked like they were gulping in air. They looked like they were swimming.
“Swim, you bastards, swim up here and get me!”
Their chewed, bloody, rotting arms were swimming toward him, a labored, jerky freestyle stroke. They were now looking upward at what made that delicious noise above and what caused the carnage below.
Only four now.
The fifth, Mr. Fatman, lay splayed out on his back. From Doug's angle, he looked to be standing in between all of the swimmers, his black eyes open, his mouth dark and hollow as a hole in an oak tree. The coach, Doug thought, tell em to swim, Mr. coach. Tell your stupid swimmers to swim now!
The brick had hit its mark. Above the laid out fatman, a pool of blood was forming, black on the dirt in the low light of sunset. Coach wouldn't be getting up again. He'd lie there and rot forever.
Doug went back to his pile. He counted them out now, to be sure. Twenty-one more bricks. There were a lot more than twenty-one death walkers out there. He knew that, and he was okay with that. This would be a good start. And it would be fun. He could use some fun.
Doug placed his feet in what felt like a more stable position. This time he'd be careful. This time he wouldn't throw quite so hard. This time, he'd watch the brick whistle toward its mark and watch as it crushed the gnawing face below it.
One of the swimmers was taller than the others and could reach higher. He'd probably been in his twenties before turning. He was the next biggest, so he was the next best target. Doug raised the brick and settled his feet and his free hand. Even as he loosed the brick, the zombie below didn't change its clawing freestyle, didn't change its biting face. It kept its face upward, hungry. The only change in its face came when the brick slammed into it. It slammed into the right eye, creating a crater and twisting the zombie's head violently sideways. The brick strike made the noise a watermelon might make if dropped from the same height, and the twisting of the neck let out a deep snap. The zombie fell backward, next to the fatman, and his gnawing and clawing ended.
Doug laughed again. A memory of the fair shined into his mind.
Do I get a prize?
One more brick to the head and I'll get the large Tweetie Bird.
Maybe the huge Spongebob.
His next brick found its mark, as well, picking off an older woman on the far right. He got her while she was looking through the boards into the barn, distracted by something she saw or heard or smelled there. The brick caught her in the top of the head, more near the back, and she crashed forward face-first into the side of the barn before her legs gave out and she slumped straight down. She knelt there, relaxed and hanging in near perfect balance. Slowly, though, inch by inch, she tilted to her left. Once the head tilted far enough to the side, the neck gave out and the head swung sideways and dragged the rest of the body to the dirt.
Three for three... damn, I'm good.
“Hah! I'll take the Spongebob, thank you very much!”
His laughing continued as he picked up and heaved each new brick. The other zombies were drawn to the commotion and were slowly making their way around the east side of the barn. After seven bricks were gone, five zombies were down, leaking their vile black poisons into the dust and straw.
The swim team was down, resting next to their fat, stupid coach.
Doug took out two more using three bricks. One brick struck a female zombie in the shoulder, jarring her off balance but not damaging the skull, not taking her out. You had to destroy the brain to take them out, Doug knew that much. As she caught her balance and recovered, a second brick found its target. The top of her forehead caved in with a deep, wet crunch and she fell face first into the small, exposed shelf of the barn's cement foundation.
Doug snickered and reached for another brick. His hand felt the dusty old boards. Two piles were gone, two more to go. Twelve more bricks.
On the dirt below, four more zombies continued to grab at the delicious, living, impossibly out of reach man standing and laughing above them. Twenty or thirty more were making their way around the barn. Doug briefly considered the thought of throwing one brick that magically ricocheted from skull to skull, taking every zombie out in one go, a wild pinball game of zombie death. It would have been great, especially with the jingle of a pinball machine as accompaniment. The scores would light up above the zombie heads as they were killed – 100 points, 200 points, 400 points, doubling with every new smashed skull. What would his top score be if that happened? He wondered. Two to the fortieth power? Fiftieth?
No, he would wait on these bricks, he would save them. As he placed the one in his hand back down where it had been, the weight of it brought the boards back down against their baseboard. Apparently, the bricks had been a bit of a stabilizing factor for the small platform. The boards still felt secure, so Doug put it out of his mind. Instead, he went back to thinking about weapons, and his mind flashed back to his view from the barn floor.
He shuffled his way back across the plank bridge, a little faster than before, and it still held. The scythe was hanging at the edge of the raised platform and he knelt down to haul it up with both hands. It was lighter than he thought it would be. Being decades old, the wood was probably dry and brittle. He wondered about its strength. Would it hold up being swung into the skulls and throats of a few dozen zombies?
He went back to the bridge. He lined himself up and held the scythe out to the sides, like a tight-rope walker. This time, he kept his right foot on the right plank, his left foot on the left. In the middle, for a split second, he thought he felt the right plank bow a little deeper than before, thought he may have heard a pop. He froze, then scolded himself for getting cocky.
“Pay attention, Doug,” he told himself. No excuse for being careless, a simple mistake out here could get him killed.
He made it across. The boards popped one more time, but they held, and Doug grabbed the edge of the window and took in a few deep breaths of relief. He wondered how many more trips across that bridge until he was comfortable?
Outside, the horde was growing. A few dozen zombies were now staring up at him, moaning and hissing into the air, reaching their bloody fingers up to him like the fallen to their messiah. They wanted him, needed him. His flesh would be the answer. His flesh would set them free.
Near the back of the pack, Doug caught the sudden flash of sunlight on metal. The glare shined for a second and then was gone. He looked again, squinting, but could see only the twisted limbs of three zombies pressing into each other while trying to force their way closer to the sounds and smells of fresh meat. Two were women and one was a man. All three had long hair, but Doug couldn't see anything shiny in their hair, around their necks, no bracelets or watches, nothing that should catch a glint from the late afternoon sun.
There, again, a glint. This time, farther to the right, four or so zombies down. Again, Doug squinted and searched but could see nothing metallic on the wide-eyed zombies there. Until...
There, another sparkle in the sun. And another. Shimmering hot yellow bolts into the cooling evening air was a jeweled tiara. A fancy hair clip with gems and shining gold. It drifted in the back of the group, going dim behind a head or body, then shining brightly again, then disappearing, then sparkling. The tiara sat on shining brown hair pulled tight into a high ponytail. Doug laid the scythe against the barn window's sill and squinted again, tracking the shining tiara as it bobbed and weaved around the back of the zombie mass. The sparkle, the way it moved, the way it shined on that brown hair. It couldn't be.
It couldn't be.
Doug saw her face, imagined it in his mind. He imagined her smiling in the park, smiling with her mom, Claire, three days ago. Claire had decided to take Sylvia to the little park across the street from their vacation rental. There were a few other kids around Sylvia's age already playing, and the thought of making some friends on the first morning of a two week vacation sounded really good to both Doug and Claire.
Claire had decided to wait with Sylvia and watch her play. They knew Bend was a safe town, a friendly town, but she wasn't ready to trust the people there on the first day. Sylvia was ready to trust immediately. She found a group of girls playing tag on the play structure and she jumped right in. Claire had smiled at this. It put her at ease, and she was soon talking to other kids and parents, too.
Doug had been watching. He stood at the kitchen sink of their rental looking out a wide window while he finished the dishes from breakfast. He couldn't hear what was being said, but he could tell the ladies were starting to enjoy themselves. He watched Sylvia get instructions from a few other girls and then cover her eyes as they ran to hide. She seemed to be counting out loud. He watched Claire laugh with another mother as they watched the girls play. His eyes dropped to the dishes he was working on for a few seconds. He rang out the sponge, turned off the faucet, and dried his hands on a towel.
When he looked up again, the mothers' attention had shifted. They weren't looking toward the playground anymore. They had turned to look at something happening behind them.
And they weren't laughing anymore.
Up the road, just barely in view of Doug's window, an older woman was stumbling down the sidewalk toward the park. She walked with a heavy limp, one of her legs not seeming to want to work. Her head hung and her arms writhed and twitched at odd angles, out of sync with each other, and seemed to be moving for no apparent reason. There was blood in her hair and on her face, and she seemed to be leaving a trail of something dark behind her dragging leg.
Doug had watched from his front window as the adults at the park reacted to the bloody, obviously insane and dangerous woman. Some got between her and their children. Some stepped away, taking out their phones, either to call 911, or for many, to record her. Something like this could get a lot of views on YouTube. But Claire decided to leave Sylvia with the other kids and their guardians and approach the woman, speaking to her, offering help. She didn't touch the woman immediately. Doug had watched her trying to decide. She could see how messed up the woman was, bleeding and gurgling, hissing and moaning the way they do when they've turned. She got close and talked, then flinched as the old woman swiped wildly at the air between them. Doug could see that Claire was yelling something. He couldn't hear her from the kitchen, but she probably asked if the woman needed help, or if she was okay.
Claire turned back to the crowd to ask someone to call for help. As she turned, the woman leaned forward and fell, arms out, as if she were collapsing into an embrace. Claire caught her. She caught her and immediately started pushing her away. She was screaming. That is the one thing in it all that Doug could hear. That screaming. The woman had leaned in to bite Claire, and sank her teeth into the exposed flesh of the connection between neck and shoulder. Claire screamed and then the children screamed. One of the other adults ran in to help pry the woman off of Claire, but he was immediately bitten, as well.
At that point Doug was running, out the front door and across the sprinkler-soaked yard toward his wife. He was yelling something, thinking of it now he doesn't know what. Just yelling, yelling and running, the only other sound being the sound of terrified screams crashing together in the morning air. When he got to his Claire, she was lying on her back. She was staring up into the blue air, the early screams and terrified panic running quickly out of her. She was calmly saying his name.
“Doug,” she said, “Doug, where is she?”
As he slid in beside her and cradled her head he could see the wound. The woman had taken multiple bites out of Claire's neck and upper back. The blood had run immediately out and over her white t-shirt, soaking down both front and back. But now, as he looked at it, the wound wasn't really bleeding. It still looked fresh, moist and bloody, but it had already stopped actively spurting blood. Instead, the edges of the wound began to harden and turn a dark brown, an instant scab. The blood vessels that had been surging white blood cells and platelets to the injured site now turned dark brown beneath the skin. The darkness spread through the vessels, creating crawling tendrils of brown and black as if the wound were a lake sending out a delta of twisting waterways down to the valleys below.
“I'm here, Claire, I'm here,” he said.
“Did you... see that?” she asked, smiling.
Claire stared up past Doug, smiling into some unknown beauty thousands of miles beyond him. He screamed for help, screamed for someone to call 911. But there were two other people now on the ground nursing their own bite wounds, and soon they too were lying down and staring into a place from which no one could bring them back.
The crazed woman began targeting the children in the park, but they were too quick. A few ran back to their houses, screaming all the way to their front lawns. They were scooped up by frightened parents and rushed inside for explanations.
“Where is she, Doug?” Claire said.
“She's gone, don't worry, Claire, she's gone. You're safe now.”
Two of the children scrambled up to the highest point of the park's pirate ship-themed play area, hoping the woman wouldn't climb up after them. She ambled to the base of the structure and reached for them, hissing and clawing and pounding on the industrial plastic. She left blood-splattered hand prints, and she would have kept scratching at the screaming children had a local man not slammed a lawn ornament into her head. It was a rod-iron rooster, a decoration in one of the house's front gardens. The impact made the children scream louder for a few seconds before becoming very quiet.
As the man struck the woman, the black metal sang like a tuning fork. It went silent when the old woman fell face-first into the bark chips.
The children clung to the high bars of the play pirate ship. The man called to them and they slowly slid down and jumped into his arms. He carried them both under his arms and ran to a house across the street where they disappeared inside.
“No, no, where is she?” Claire asked again. “Where is... Sylvia?”
Doug looked over his shoulder. He didn't see Sylvia immediately, but his attention went back to Claire. He scooped her up and ran her back across the street to their rental house. When he'd sprinted out at first he'd left the door open. He quick stepped up the front steps and twisted sideways at the last second to scoot Claire sideways through the doorway into the living room.
He laid her on the larger of the two couches and ran to the kitchen. He grabbed a towel and brought it back, pressing it into the darkening wound.
“I need you to hold this here,” he said. “Sylvia?” he yelled. “Sylvia!!”
He placed Claire's hand over the towel to hold it in place and ran back to the door. He didn't see Claire's hand slide limply off the towel and down off the edge of the couch. The black threads of the sickness were already twisting their way down her knuckles and under her nails. He wasn't there to see the lifeless hand suddenly surge and spasm, or hear the gurgle in her throat as she jolted upright on the couch.
“Sylvia!” Doug called into the streets. He was going to yell again but his attention shifted. More screams like Claire's were rising into the early morning air. The man who tried to help Claire was no longer lying in the street. He was up, running toward a couple who were pushing a baby stroller. Another man was scratching at the windows of an SUV, smearing blood streaks in red-brown arcs. The woman inside was fumbling with her keys and screaming. A female zombie was suddenly at the passenger side door, also scratching and biting at the glass. The keys found their home and the engine roared to life. The woman shifted into reverse and stomped the gas, knocking both crazed zombies to the ground. They rose and gave chase. They didn't have to chase far.
The woman, in her panic, backed into the main street where a truck was speeding away from zombies of its own. The truck hit the SUV square over the rear wheel, shattering the windows on that side and spinning the smaller SUV into the curb where its wheels caught and it tipped onto its side. The truck was knocked left and continued over the curb, across a lawn, into the garage of the house next to Doug's. The impact sprayed splintered wood and glass across Doug's lawn and onto the porch. His hands went up instinctively to protect his face. As he brought them down and looked into the cab of the truck, he could see the driver being bitten and clawed at – no, torn apart – by two zombies inside.
“What the hell?”
Too much, it was all too much too quickly. Doug couldn't manage it all, couldn't sort out what was happening. What street am I on? he thought. Where is my house, this isn't my house?
Another crash, across the street, a car hit two zombies before hitting a light pole.
Strange street, strange town, why am I out here?
Crash. A woman screaming.
Why am I...
He saw her. Her beautiful brown hair emerging slowly from a tube slide on the playground. Her jewel-studded hair clip, a recent Christmas present, shined in the sunlight.
“Sylvia!” Doug screamed, running into the street.
“Daddy?” she mumbled, looking around. When she saw him running for her, her mumble became a scream.
“I'm coming, honey, I'm coming!” Doug yelled, bounding over the small fence surrounding the playground. He ran to the slide as Sylvia slid down, and caught her up into his arms as she began to wail.
“Ssshhh, sshhhh, you're okay, honey, you're okay. Here we go.”
With Sylvia in his arms he was slower, but only slightly. He wouldn't be able to hop the fence so he angled toward the small gap for entry. From the bushes to his right, a pair of growling women stumbled after him. He didn't slow down.
“Here we go, honey, close your eyes, sweetheart!”
The two zombies from the crashed truck were done and looking for their next victim. They scrambled out of the truck's shattered back windows and zeroed in on Doug and Sylvia. They were on one side of Doug's house, and from the house on the other side and man, woman, and a child limped out onto the sidewalk and made their way toward the new commotion.
Doug didn't look at them. He didn't look side to side to check for cars as he sprinted across the street. He ran straight through the reaching hand of one of the truck zombies and bounded up the wooden steps and through his front door. In one movement, he placed Sylvia's feet on the floor, closed the door, and locked it.
The zombies slammed into the door, their heads sending a sickening boom through the house. They hit it again, more with their hands this time, and began scratching at the door and its frame.
Doug backed away slowly, watching to be sure the door could hold them.
Doug turned. He'd forgotten about Claire. Sylvia would see her mother bleeding, possibly dying on the couch.
“No no, sweetie, don't look, mommy needs to rest.”
He stopped. His eyes had been prepared to see Sylvia standing before the couch, Claire's body stretched out, unconscious, with a bloody towel on her neck. A figure was standing behind the couch. As soon as he saw the figure and began registering the shape as Claire's body, he heard the raspy gurgles rise in her throat. He heard the hiss he'd heard out in the street. Claire was gone, her eyes black and primal, scanning, searching, like a lizard watching flies. The bite was hollowing her out, making room for something else. Her mouth opened wide, her lips curled back into a snarl, and those black eyes twisted toward Sylvia.
Claire lunged at Sylvia, grabbing for her hair and face. The couch caught her high on the thighs and she sprawled forward, still reaching and clawing and biting at the air. She was back on her feet and had Sylvia nearly in her grasp when Doug brought one of the dining room chairs down on her head. Claire fell hard most of the way to the floor, but before her body could fully sprawl out, her head caught the bottom of the low wall separating the living room from the kitchen. The impact silenced her hisses, replaced by low moans as she writhed and tried to regain her balance.
Doug took Sylvia's hand and took three steps toward the back sliding door when the image out through the glass changed. The sunshine and green grass and hedges were eclipsed by tall shadows. Doug stopped and Sylvia stopped with him. He pulled her in and covered her mouth.
“Don't move,” he whispered.
The two zombies in the back yard hadn't seen them yet. They were headed toward the sliding door and rammed their heads into it. Their hands went out to investigate the barrier. Their jaws opened into long yawns before chattering shut again.
Behind Doug, the growing group of zombies out front were still banging on the door.
Doug's heart caught. The zombies were pressing their faces against the glass of the sliding door, but at the closed side. The door was open, and only a screen was there blocking access to the house. Claire must have opened it earlier for the cool morning breeze.
The banging continued, louder. The impact seemed to be making progress on the front door. A crunching sound was now growing with each thump of a zombie's head or fist, and by the sound of the growls and hisses, there were more and more gathering.
Doug hadn't even been into most of the house. They'd arrived last night and he didn't know the layout, didn't know any of the rooms down the hallway to his right other than the master bedroom. He couldn't know what would be waiting for them out that way. The backyard had at least two zombies. The front yard had... a dozen? More?
One of the zombies at the sliding door stopped suddenly. His head twitched to the left toward the screen door. He caught their scent. He and his friend would be in the house in seconds.
The front door crunched again, this time changing the volume of the groans from the zombies outside. They'd broken through.
Doug knew he couldn't trust the front or back yards, and he didn't know what lay down the back hallway. The side of the house seemed clear. Two six foot windows allowed for a view of the neighbor's side fence, and there weren't any zombies over there.
The screen door began to rip.
“Daddy?” Sylvia cried.
The front door was being ripped apart by a dozen bloody hands.
“We're going through the window, honey, okay?” He cupped her face in his hands. “Daddy is going to go first and then you need to run as fast as you can right after me, okay?”
“Me too, honey. Me too.”
One leg was through the screen door. They had seconds.
“What about mommy?” Sylvia asked, her chest wracked by sobs.
Five seconds, Doug, move it.
He kissed her forehead.
“It's just you and me now.”
He ran to the window and leaped. His hands came up to shield his face and his right knee and elbow were the first things to hit the glass. His 190-pound frame at that speed were enough, and the glass shattered , tearing into his elbow. He stayed airborne and brought much of the glass with him as he slammed into the neighbor's fence.
He'd closed his eyes and was stunned by the fence impact. When his legs met the ground he wasn't prepared, and he crumbled under his momentum and slumped forward into a bush. It took a few seconds to remember where he was and what was happening, but he came back. As he stood and glass shards started to fall from his hair and back, he looked back in to Sylvia.
“Come on, Sylvia!”
Both zombies from the back yard were in the living room. They were fighting the furniture to get to Sylvia. From the entryway, two more zombies appeared, reaching and clawing and crazed.
Sylvia put her head down and took a step. Then she stopped.
“Sylvia, run!” Doug screamed.
Then he saw it. She was trying to run, but she was caught. Down at the ankle, a bloody and pale hand locked its blackening fingers around her pure white socks. It was Claire.
What was left of Claire.
Sylvia looked down at the hand holding her and to the twisted face of her mother. She glanced at the two zombies lunging over the couch, then back to Doug. In her eyes, he saw her hope vanish. He saw it swallowed up in a firestorm of fear, and with her realization she pushed her tongue to the roof of her mouth to say it one more time.
The front door was in pieces and the swarm hit her from the right side at the same time the two zombies hit her from the left. She disappeared into the flood, a single hand the last thing to slip beneath the churning waves.
“No!!” Doug screamed out onto the gathering horde, out into the fields and trees beyond. Long, loud, as loud and long as he could hold it until his breath gave out.
“You should've saved her.”
Doug looked down into the cow's pen. The glassy eyes were clearer again, sharper, and looking up at him.
“You let her die,” the cow said.
The horse walked to where he could look up at Doug, too.
“You let them take her.”
“Shut up, both of you shut up!”
“What kind of man leaves his wife and daughter like that?” the animals asked together.
“Shut up, you're not real.”
“You're here and they're out there...”
“You're not real, you're not REAL!!”
Doug grabbed another brick and hurled it down at the cow. In his rage, he misjudged the angle and missed, and the cow and horse both spooked and began to crash side to side against their pens.
“You're not real!” he screamed again, “you weren't there! You don't know!”
He grabbed the scythe and braced himself against the edge of the barn window. He leaned down and began to swing. At full arm's reach, the blade slashed at head and neck level, depending on the zombie's height. His first swing missed everything. On the second swing, the old metal sunk into a male zombie's neck, jarring the spine and sending him permanently to the ground. Another swing caught a female zombie in the side if the head, and her head slammed into the head of the zombie next to her and they both went down.
“I tried!” Doug screamed. “I tried, I tried!”
Slashing left, then right, back and forth. Each slash harder and more crazed than the last.
The blade was starting to bend. When it collided with a neck there was little resistance. But every skull contact weakened the thin crescent hook a little more.
“I'm sorry!!” Doug screamed, slashing the head clean off of a tall male zombie, “I'm sorry!”
The muscles in Doug's back seized. No food and little water were taking their toll, but he couldn't stop. Hacking and chopping, he screamed into the setting sun and ripped through zombie flesh until a small foxhole started to form. Each body fell onto the bodies of the others. They were stacking up, to the left of the scythe, in front of it, and to the right, a horseshoe-shaped stack of bodies. His shoulders were failing, his lungs wheezed and burned, pleading with him to stop.
He didn't stop.
The scythe stopped.
During the frenzied melee, the scythe handle popped under the stress of one of the strikes. Doug could feel the change but kept swinging. Another crack, deeper and more severe, loosened the blade from the wooden base. The next swing met a male zombie's face, and the blade slipped through his open lips and sank into the skull through the roof of his mouth. The force separated the blade from the handle. The loss of the blade changed the weight of the weapon, and the next swing was easier than Doug expected. He nearly lost his footing and fell from the platform again, but he righted himself. His rage righted him.
It demanded that he keep going.
Once the blade was gone, he swung even harder, enraged that the instrument of his vengeance had been taken. He brought the scythe handle down on zombie's heads, slamming skull after skull into the side of the barn, until that, too failed. The wood broke and shortened the handle to the point that it was useless. He flung it down on the horde with a scream.
“I don't need it, I don't NEED IT!!”
The bricks, the dark clouds of his unquenchable rage parted just long enough for him to remember... the bricks.
“Come on, I'm right up here,” he hissed, throwing the first brick. It hit the back of one zombie's head and ricocheted into the face of the zombie behind it.
“Yeah, you like that? Come on, I'm right here, I'm right up here!”
“I'm right here, right here...”
“I'm right here!”
Brick after brick whirled down. Doug, in his frenzy, grabbed and threw, grabbed and threw, without keeping track of the bricks. With four left, the boards which had been weighed down by the bricks were now free to rise and pull against their nails. Doug would have heard the creaking and popping, would have felt the boards rising and loosening, if he hadn't been so manic.
Three bricks left.
“Come get me!”
Two bricks left.
“I'm right here!”
One brick left.
A board shifted and popped under Doug's weight. It might have held, but the final brick was thrown so hard that Doug's planted feet shifted the board sideways and tore it free from the barn wall. The platform shuddered and spilled dust down onto the barn floor. By the time Doug realized what was happening, he was already falling.
It was ten feet to the horse's stall door. Doug's flailing body crashed through it, snapping the three main two-by-fours in half, and it was another five feet, and one more broken two-by-four, to the cement, dirt, and hay beneath.
The horse reared up when Doug's body crushed his pen gate and hit the floor. The cow shifted nervously in her pen, and Doug lay still, every muscle rigid, his breath gone. Hot pain zapped him in the side. His ribs were broken, and maybe his back. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe, and he wondered if this is what it felt like to die.
The horse jumped to the far corner of the pen when Doug landed. He wanted to stay as far away as he could, but now, with each wild rear and buck, his hooves crashed down closer and closer to Doug.
“Whoa,” Doug sputtered. He started to move again and his breath slowly came back. “Whoa now.”
He raised a hand but the horse didn't settle.
“Whoa, boy. Easy.”
Doug put his hand back to clutch his ribs. His body was coming back, and the pain was coming with it. Now he could feel multiple broken ribs, he could feel their splintered edges. At least one was trying to stab into his lung. The wound on his elbow was wide open now, longer and deeper than before. As he looked to see what could possibly be causing that level of pain, he got his answer: broken, exposed bone.
The horse's frantic neighing filled the barn, bouncing off the walls and ceiling.
“Now just, wait... just, wait a minute...”
The horse wasn't going to wait anymore. He reared up and slashed his hooves out into the dust above Doug's head before bringing them down with a crash.
Doug jumped back, wincing.
“Just wait, wait!”
The hooves rose and fell again, closer now.
The hooves charged forward, on top of Doug, over him. The horse ran through the broken pen gate and into the open barn. He'd had enough of barns and pens. And zombies.
The platform collapse brought hundreds of pounds of wood down. Some of the wood hit the top of the sliding barn door leading to the horse's run. The impact jarred the door loose from the slide rail. Now all it would need to open is a little kick.
The horse reared up again and slammed his hooves into the sliding door. Again, and again. When it shifted and nearly fell, he pushed forward and rammed his head into it. His hooves gripped, his legs tensed, and his neck extended like a battering ram. The last connection popped. Metal fell to the cement and chimed.
Light rushed into the barn. The sun shined through the dust and lit up the whole room. Doug squinted his eyes against the sudden shine, keeping them open just long enough to see the black silhouette of a horse charging out through the zombie horde.
Out to open fields.
Out to freedom.
“I'm sorry,” Doug said, quietly. The light pouring in broke for a moment. Something was blocking it.
“It's fine,” he said, crawling out from the pen. He wasn't wincing anymore. He wasn't holding his ribs as he crawled. He simply let his one good arm pull him toward the cow's pen. Viewing it from the floor, he realized the gate to the cow's pen was high enough at the ground that he could climb under it and be safe for a little longer. But he didn't crawl under it. He crawled to its support post and pulled himself up. He reached for the latch.
“I know, I know,” he said.
The latch clicked and the door creaked open. The sunlight hadn't been completely blocked out by the approaching zombies, and the cow followed her horse friend out into the open air. The zombies grabbed lazily at her sides as she trotted by, but any that got too close were knocked to the ground. A few got trampled.
“There,” he said.
His pain was gone. His arms were weightless, his chest was light. The broken ribs did puncture his lung, he could feel it. They also severed an artery, and the loss of blood was causing his blood pressure to fall. He waited, floating, for the flood to rush in.
“It's okay,” he whispered.
He waited for the deep, thrashing waves to take him.
The dust rose and darkness filled the barn.