E. A. Mallory
Author's note: This story is a sequel to "Life's Not Fair", which is also found on this website. Please read that story first, if you haven't already, so that this story will make sense.
Her husband, Jim, handed the map to her with an irritated roll of his eyes. "Yes, I'm sure! It's right there!" His finger jabbed at some lines on the map for emphasis.
Jean studied the map for a few seconds, her forehead furrowed with concentration.
Jim spoke up, his tone gentler. "Honey, no offense, but you know that your sense of direction isn't as good as mine, and map reading isn't your greatest strength."
Jean nodded, but didn't take her eyes off the map. "I know, but I still think this line represents the road we passed a mile back."
"Sweetheart," Jim used his most persuasive tone, "That wasn't even a road. That was a…a cow path!"
"This thing we're driving on isn't exactly a road either, Jim." Jean's eyes never left the map.
Jim sat back, leaned his head against the headrest, and blew his cheeks out noisily. "Okay, so what do you want to do? Do you want to go back to that cow path and try to fit this car onto it, and drive who-knows-how far and end up lost, or do you want to trust your husband on this one?" Jean finally looked up at him, so Jim put on his most charming expression.
Jean was not impressed. After seven years of marriage, she could be immune to his charms, when she wanted to be. "Neither," she replied.
"There's a third choice?" Jim's face was a study in exasperation.
"Yes." Jean put the sedan back in gear, checked her mirrors, and began turning around to head back the way they had come. "It's a choice that would never occur to you, of course."
"Just what would that be?" Jim sounded like he was nearing the end of his patience.
What is it with men and driving? "I'm going back to that little tiny grocery store near your so-called cow path, and I'm going to ask."
Jim groaned and leaned back in his seat.
"What is the problem with you guys? Why can't you stand to ask directions?"
"Just do me a favor."
"Tell the guy that your husband was asleep, and you didn't want to bother him, so that's why you're asking someone else." Jim closed his eyes.
Jean turned incredulous eyes toward her husband. "Do you know something, Jim?" When he didn't reply, she went on, "The male ego is a really pitiful thing."
Jim responded with a loud, clearly faked snore.
"Oh, sorry, I forgot. You're asleep, and I didn't want to bother you. . . ."
"You're getting the idea," Jim replied.
Jean snorted at him, and then glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. Caught you! Jim had also been glancing sideways at her, but when he saw her looking, he quickly closed his eyes again.
"Too late! I caught you!" Jean waited until her husband opened his eyes again, and then stuck her tongue out at him. He returned the gesture, trying very hard to hide the amusement on his face. After a few moments she started chuckling, and he joined in.
"You're impossible, Jim Reed!"
"Hey, I'm not the one who's about to go ask a store clerk about a cow path."
Jean shook her head at him. "Men!" She steered into the little grocery's parking lot, gravel crunching under her tires. Jim laid his head back and closed his eyes. Jean started to razz him, but then noticed that his face suddenly looked pale.
"Honey, are you all right?" She reached out to touch his arm, anxiety in her voice.
"Yeah," he replied wearily. When she didn't move away, he opened his eyes. "I'm okay, really. I'm just really tired all of a sudden. You know how it hits me all at once like that."
Jean nodded her head, and reached up to run her fingers through his hair. "I love you, honey."
"I love you, too." Jim closed his eyes again. After a long, lingering look at him, Jean softly let herself out of the car.
Thank God I've still got you.
Jim awoke with a start. Jean had just opened the car door. I can't believe I fell asleep so fast. He waited until she seated herself before asking, "Well?"
"Well, you were right. That 'cow path' is really someone's private driveway. You'd think they'd have it marked." Jean looked thoughtful.
Uh, oh. She's got something up her sleeve. Normally she would have to do something to save face after a mistake like that, but Jim could see no sign of mischief on her face. He decided to bait her.
"Now I just wish you'd explain to me why you believe a store clerk and not your own husband."
"Oh, I didn't get any information from the store clerk. It was her first day on the job." Jim detected a hint of mischief now, and he felt wary.
"Then who did you find it out from?"
Jean's face became a study in wicked delight. "Pete." As she pulled out onto the road, she watched Jim out of the corner of her eye, as if anticipating his reaction.
Jim's face suddenly felt hot. "Pete? You called Pete?"
Jean nodded, barely able to contain her pleasure. This was a real coup.
"Oh, no!" Jim groaned. "Jean, do you have any idea what you've done to me? I'll never live this down." He didn't have to fake irritation this time. Sometimes she takes one-upsmanship too far.
"Don't worry, honey, I told him you were asleep, and I didn't want to bother you. Besides, he's the one who drew the map, so he was the logical choice."
"What did he say when you told him I was asleep?"
Jean barely stifled a laugh.
"Well, what did he say?" Jim had completely forgotten his weariness in the face of certain disaster.
"He said, 'Yeah, sure he is'," Jean managed a pretty good imitation of Pete's droll voice, followed by a laugh that was all Jean.
Jim groaned again.
"So, of course, I had to tell him that you were the one who thought we should take the cow path. . . ." Jean could barely control her mirth.
She wouldn't. She wouldn't!
"You didn't, did you?" Jim's voice betrayed his horror. You didn't, right?" Jean just laughed and gave no response.
They approached a turnoff with a sign that said, "Private Drive, Reserved for Registered Guests of Mountain Vista Lodge."
"Oh, look, that must be our road." Jean happily ignored her husband's distress. "See, I told you all along."
"Ugh," Jim sighed and threw himself back in his seat. I'll never get a straight answer from her on that one. I'll just have to wait and see how much ribbing I get back at the station.
I can't believe she did this to me.
Jim closed his eyes and indulged in a sulk for a few minutes. He could feel the car rounding a few curves, but he really didn't care right now.
"Oh my!" Jean's voice was hushed, and she stopped the sedan. Jim's eyes flew open, wondering what she'd seen. The vista that greeted him surprised him as well.
"It's beautiful!" Jean still sounded awestruck. Jim had to agree, even if it did mean abandoning his sulk.
"I hadn't pictured anything quite this big." Jim squinted as he took in the impressive view. "I don't know why, but I always pictured Pete fishing from some little pond somewhere." He shook his head at the postcard perfection of the mountains mirrored in the smooth surface of the lake. "No wonder he comes out here so much!"
After a few more moments of silent admiration, Jim turned to Jean. "Why don't we find our cabin?"
She nodded her assent, and they referred back to the map. This time they had no disagreements, and soon their sedan pulled up to a lovely little cabin surrounded by trees. "Oooh, very private!" Jean remarked.
Jim felt a nervous twinge in his gut, but kept it off his face.
"And look," she continued, "the trip didn't take much longer than Pete said it would. At least, not according to my pretty new watch that someone gave me for my birthday." She admired the watch as if looking at it for the first time, and then bent over to kiss her husband's cheek.
"You're welcome." Jim smiled at his wife's pleasure.
"Oh, look at that cute little box by the door," Jean went on. "That must be for the eggs." Pete had told them that the owner of the lodge kept chickens, and every morning he distributed fresh eggs to his patrons.
"Yeah, I guess so. I'm looking forward to trying them. Pete swears they taste better than store-bought ones."
"Well, I hope they don't forget about us tomorrow morning, or the muffin mix I brought won't be any good."
"I wouldn't worry about it."
Jim stepped out of the car and automatically headed back to the trunk. Jean headed him off.
"No sweetie, you know what the doctor said. No heavy lifting. I'll get it."
Jim wanted to protest, but he knew his body wasn't equal to his noble intentions. His heart sank like lead as he watched his wife struggle with their suitcases. "At least let me help you!" Jim's legs felt rubbery, but he didn't want Jean to know it. He tried to take some of the weight of the heaviest case, but Jean shouldered him aside. "No, honey, I've got it. You just relax."
Jim felt his spirits sag. He dragged his tired body up the steps and went in though the door without looking back. The interior of the cabin made no impression on him. He couldn't have described it later if his life depended on it. He found his way to the bedroom, and crawled onto the king-sized bed. How can I be so exhausted, when I haven't even done anything?
Jean's words resonated in his head. "You just relax."
You just be useless.
A pang of guilt hit him when he heard the cabin door slam. Jean was huffing as she hauled a suitcase in.
Why didn't I stay there and help her open the door? I could have at least done that!
Depression settled in on him like a heavy blanket. I'm no good any more.
Jim slept until dinnertime. Jean had brought cold cuts and onion rolls in a cooler, and now she presented them on a tray. "Here you go, hon. I fixed them just the way you like them."
"I'm not in the hospital any more, Jean," Jim snapped. "I'll eat at the table." He instantly felt guilty, but his emotions were too raw for him to deal with. Jean picked up the tray without a word, and took it to the kitchen table. Jim followed after her, struggling to come to terms with himself. What's wrong with me?
They sat down, and Jim slipped a nervous glance at his wife. She was looking at him, and she didn't seem angry. Instead, she had that expression of concern that promised to start delving into his heart. She's going to try to drag it out of me.
I wish she were angry.
Jim took a bite out of his sandwich and tried to enjoy it, but the awkwardness and tension sapped the food of flavor.
Jim pushed his plate away. "I'm sorry, hon. The food is good. I just don't feel like eating right now." He could only halfway look at her. The concern and love on her face threatened to push down walls that he felt he still needed. Not yet, honey.
For a moment he looked into her eyes. She understands. We both do. We've been down this road before. She'll give me the space I need.
Jim felt gratitude wash over him. He reached for Jean's hand and took it in his own. "Honey, I don't know what's eating at me right now. Thanks for being patient with me."
Jean's eyes softened even more, and she stood up. After a quick kiss on his forehead, she took his sandwich to the refrigerator. When she returned to the table, she motioned with her head toward the picture window that faced the lake. "It's a beautiful evening out there. Maybe a walk would be nice."
Jim noticed the sunset for the first time. It really is beautiful. He looked back at Jean, and could almost read her thoughts. She wants to know if she should come with me.
Jim stood and reached for her hand. She smiled her most beautiful smile at him, and he drew her to her feet and into his arms.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Jean said suddenly.
Jim looked at her in confusion. "For what?"
"I stepped on your foot."
"Oh." Jim realized he had been slightly aware of something on his foot, but he wouldn't have guessed what it was. I hope I get more feeling back than this. Pain would be encouraging right about now.
His worry must have shown on his face, because her eyes reflected it.
"Jean, I. . .I need to tell you something." He saw the concern deepen a little on her face. "I still can only feel about one-third as much as I used to." It was a difficult admission to make.
Jean spent a moment absorbing that information. Then, in typical Jean fashion, she probed for more. "Do you mean that you don't feel some parts of your body, or that you feel your whole body but not as strongly?"
"Everything, but not as strongly."
Jean nodded with understanding. She took that better than I thought she would. Maybe I should have told her that before.
"Did the doctor know that when he agreed to discharge you?" Jean's face was open, making it easy for him to answer.
"Yes, he knew. He still says I should recover fully, as long as I don't do anything foolish. I just didn't tell you, because I didn't want to worry you."
"Jim," Jean shook her head at him gently, "when are you going to learn that I'm not made of glass?" She touched his cheek lightly, reassuring him that she still wasn't angry.
"I don't know." Jim looked chagrined. "Pete keeps telling me to stop babying you."
"He does?" Jean seemed amazed by that revelation. "What other advice does he give you about me?"
Jim chuckled. "I think we'd better go for that walk now."
The couple walked hand-in-hand out the door and down the steps. Jim was gratified to find that his nap had strengthened him considerably. He rubbed his thumb across the back of Jean's hand, and she leaned briefly against his shoulder.
"Mmmm, what a gorgeous sky!" Jean's voice sounded dreamy. She was right, of course. Reds and oranges blazed across the sky, transforming the mountains into majestic silhouettes. The entire panorama repeated itself on the surface of the lake, as if it knew it was too beautiful to confine itself to the heavens. Jean slipped an arm around Jim's waist. "I wish I'd brought the camera out with us. By the time I could go back and get it from the cabin, I'm afraid this would be gone."
"It's worth a try," Jim suggested. "Go on, I'll be fine."
Jean turned. "I guess I'll try it. That way I can get my sweater, too." The night was turning a little chilly.
Jim started walking toward the lake as Jean left. The beauty of it seemed to draw him. God, give a special blessing to Pete and Judy for this.
The thought instantly turned his mind to his little son. I wonder how he's doing. Jim felt a pang of guilt at having left him behind, but Pete had been right. He and Jean needed this time right now.
He stepped onto the private dock that served their cabin, and his attention was immediately drawn to a dock a few hundred yards away. Some diehard's still out there fishing. At that moment, the lone fisherman began packing his gear. Jim watched, only half paying attention, until the man began to leave. Jim felt his breath catch, and a feeling of horror filled him.
He's in a wheelchair.
Jim heard the snap of a camera shutter behind him, and turned to see his wife grinning at him.
"I think I got a gorgeous picture!" Jean ran up beside him, her eyes twinkling. "And now I'll try to get a shot of the scenery. . . ." Jim blushed a little as he realized that the first picture she'd taken was of him. He only half-listened as Jean chattered about the view. His eyes turned apprehensively toward the man on the dock. The wheelchair moved fairly easily on the wooden planks, but when it reached the grass, things became much more difficult. Jim was torn between his desire to go to the rescue, and his fear of hurting the man's pride. Would he want me to help?
Jim felt himself breathing much more easily when the wheelchair glided smoothly again. He must have gotten to a hard surface. Only then did he notice that his wife had fallen silent, and was standing next to him, watching the same saga.
"Maybe tomorrow you could go meet him," Jean suggested softly. Jim bristled.
"What do you want me to say to him?" Jim snapped. "'Hi, I almost ended up like you, but I got lucky?'" He turned away from his wife and headed angrily back to the cabin.
How could she be so insensitive? What makes her think that my accident could create a friendship with that guy? I've got nothing in common with him, nothing!
Jim stormed up the stairs and sought refuge in the bedroom. His chest heaved with emotion, and his heart pounded.
If I didn't know better, I'd say I was terrified.
Jim struggled to bring his breathing under control.
Jean stayed out of the bedroom until almost 11:00. By that time Jim's soft snoring had continued for about an hour, and she felt pretty certain she wouldn't accidentally wake him.
She climbed between the sheets and tried to look at him in the dark. As her eyes adjusted, she could make out his outline. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully. Jean laid back and stared at the ceiling.
He really should go talk to that fellow. She sat up, punched her pillow into a more comfortable shape, and settled down again. I wonder if he'll get up the courage to do it?
Jean sighed. Jim will come around. He always does. He just needs to get past his fears.
She rolled onto her side and laid an arm gently across his chest. He stirred a little, but did not awaken.
I'm glad I've learned not to take his anger personally when he's dealing with things like this. She could remember a time when she would have been terribly hurt. But he's so much like me. Being afraid makes him angrier than anything.
She snuggled up more closely, breathing in the familiar smell of him. I missed having you beside me. After his long hospital stay, she was certain she would never take his warm presence for granted again.
We'll get through this, you and I.
Jean drifted off to sleep.
Jean awoke with a start. Jimmy? She sat up, wondering why her energetic three year old hadn't awakened her earlier. She blinked and rubbed her bleary eyes.
Oh yeah. The cabin.
She opened the bedroom door and immediately breathed in the warm aroma of blueberry muffins. A smile spread across her face, and she walked up behind her husband in the kitchen. "The Master Chef, I presume?" She wrapped her arms around him and nuzzled into his back.
"Oh, yeah," he chuckled. "I'm a real gourmet." He picked up the empty package of muffin mix off the counter. "'Mix in one egg and beat well.' Galloping Gourmet, beware!" He turned and gathered her into his arms. "Just consider it a peace offering. I'm sorry I was a jerk last night. I don't know what got into me."
Jean smiled up into his eyes. "You've been through a lot, and you're still going through some of it. It only makes sense that you'd have some hard times." She reached up and ran her fingers through his hair. He took hold of her hand and brought it to his lips, kissing it softly. Jean closed her eyes. It's been so long. . . .
She felt him bending to kiss her, and she met him halfway. The world faded away. All that remained was their kiss, and the pounding of their hearts, and the hunger. . . .
. . .and a strange smell. . . .
Jean pulled herself away. "Jim, the muffins are burning!"
Jim stared blankly at her, clearly trying to pull his mind back into focus. "What?"
She pulled him hurriedly away from the oven and opened the door. Smoke poured out.
"Oh, no, honey, I'm so sorry!" Jim grabbed a pot holder and pulled the blackened muffins out of the oven. "Ow! Ow! Get me another pot holder, quick!"
Jean grabbed another and dropped it on the stove top. Jim dropped the hot muffin tin onto it, then shook his hand and blew on it. "Oh, honey, I ruined breakfast. I'm sorry."
Jean started to giggle.
"What's so funny?" After a moment Jim couldn't help grinning along with her.
"That was some kiss! It even set the muffins on fire!" Jean's eyes sparkled at him.
Jim laughed and shook his head, then reached out to softly touch her face. "Yes, it was some kiss." His eyes took on that heart-melting expression that always stole her breath away.
The world disappeared again.
A long time passed before Jim broke off the kiss. His eyes looked regretful. "My legs are tired. I need to sit down."
They walked together to the living room couch, and Jean could feel the effort in his stride. They sat down together, and she snuggled into his side. He rested one arm across her shoulders, leaned his head back against the wall, and closed his eyes. A deep sigh escaped him.
Yeah, he's tired, but he's worried, too.
Do I dare say anything?
Jim nuzzled her hair, kissing the top of her head. She looked up into his eyes, and saw extraordinary vulnerability there.
Thanks for not hiding.
"It's okay, Jim. Give it time. You'll be yourself again, and it will be like old times. You'll see." She poured every ounce of love she had into her eyes.
He acknowledged her words with a grateful expression. "Thanks for understanding." His voice was soft and low.
"Love understands, Jim."
He gathered her gently into his arms, cradling her head against his chest. His hands stroked her hair, and occasionally he planted tender kisses there.
Sometimes, this is all I need, anyway.
Jim picked up a Twinkie and looked it over. Looks like it's been here a while. He tossed it back down with the others on the shelf. Jean stood nearby, inspecting the produce. I hope she's having better luck finding something worth buying. The little tiny grocery near the cow path turned out to be the only store within nine miles. Maybe we should take the long drive.
Jim set out to approach his wife, stepping carefully as he went. It was hard to navigate with semi-numb legs, harder than he cared to admit.
OW! Despite his caution, his right pinky toe caught on the corner of a shelf. His flip-flops provided no protection.
He paused, irritated with himself. Good going, Jim. That hurt!
A moment later the implication hit him. It hurt! That's great! He smiled as he walked the rest of the way to Jean.
"Let's go," she said softly, as she heard him approach.
"Yeah, I'm not too impressed with this place either."
They settled back into their sedan, and Jean looked at her husband with concern. "Why don't you let me take you back to the cabin? I know that riding in the car is hard on you. I'm sure I can find the other grocery store. It's right on the main road. I remember passing it on our way here."
"Well, okay." Jim had to admit a nine-mile car ride sounded like torture. Anything is better than sitting in this car, any day.
"But I have some good news," he continued. She turned to face him, eyebrows raised.
"I may not be fully back in action yet, but I can feel more today than I could yesterday."
"That's great!" Her eyes shone happily at him. "Maybe we should try some more of that kissing, and see where we can go with it." She leaned toward him.
"Well, I didn't say I could feel more than I could a few hours ago. . . ."
"It doesn't matter. Kissing is fun enough all by itself." They indulged themselves for a few moments, and then Jim sat back with a sigh.
"Don't tell Pete, but I'll never be able to repay him for this. It's been wonderful, and it's only just begun!"
Jean smiled. "I know. We needed a get-away for a long time, even before the accident." She put the car into gear and headed back toward the cabin.
As they pulled around to their secluded cabin site, Jim spoke up again. "You can just drop me off if you want to. Or did you need to come in first?"
"I think I'll just drop you off, if that's okay. The sooner I leave, the sooner I'll get back."
"Okay." He leaned over for a quick goodbye kiss, and then let himself out of the car. He waited until she drove out of sight, and then turned for the cabin. But then another thought struck him. It's such a beautiful day. He looked back towards the dock, and saw a comfortable-looking chaise beckoning him. Perfect.
He stretched out on the lounge chair with a contented sigh. After a few moments he pulled off his shirt, to better enjoy the sun. He was torn between closing his eyes and resting, or enjoying the view. The vista was breathtaking, as much so in broad daylight as it had been at sunset. Just a different kind of beauty. We'll have to come up here often.
He took a leisurely survey of the lake. Pines, oaks, maples, and firs graced the shores. Dragonflies flitted over the surface. An occasional splish would mark the jumping of a small fish, or the landing of a fishing line. Children laughed in the distance. Ducks dabbled comically. Jim chuckled at them. Glad I don't have to stick my head under water and my bottom in the air to eat.
Jim let his eyes close.
It's so quiet here. So peaceful.
Splish! The sound was closer than before. Jim automatically turned toward it.
Oh, it's him. The man in the wheelchair was at it again, aiming his line toward some promising spot in the water. Jim stared despite himself. That could have been me. That could so easily have been me. He stared with the same morbid curiosity that he saw from motorists driving by car accidents. I wonder how it happened to him. How long it's been. How he's coped.
Is he married?
Jim shook himself and looked away. Why should I care? I didn't turn out like him.
A few moments later his eyes found their way back to the fisherman. Once he felt the same feelings I felt. He wrestled with the same fears.
Only his came true.
Jim turned away, disturbed by the idea that Jean may have been right. Maybe I ought to go talk to him. But how? What could I say? His stomach fluttered at the thought.
I'd rather face a gunman. . . .
He shoved the idea roughly out of his mind, and refused to look at that particular dock again. Eventually he dozed off, seduced by the warmth of the sun.
He dreamed of gunmen pursuing him in wheelchairs.
The sun dipped low again, rimming the mountains with a halo of gold. Jean had joined Jim on the dock, savoring the coolness of the evening with him. Jim thought there was only one thing that could make this time more perfect.
I wish that guy would go back into his cabin!
Jim was almost getting a neck ache from avoiding looking left.
Jean had no such inhibitions.
"It looks like our neighbor made a pretty good haul today."
"Uh huh." Jim let his voice drip with apathy. I'm not gonna let her talk me into it. . . .
After a few more minutes Jean took up the subject again.
"It's amazing how well he manages, hauling all of the gear and those fish."
Jim turned and nailed her eyes with his. "You can stop hinting now."
Jean looked down, then back at him. Her eyes reproached him gently. He turned away.
Why did this have to happen to a perfect evening?
They fell silent for a while, but time and nature's magic soon eased the tension.
Jim heard an engine roar to life, and then the unmistakable crunch of gravel under tires. Someone was driving along the path that connected the cabins to the entry road. The sound came from the left.
Jim had the uneasy feeling that he knew who it was.
The vehicle appeared to slow near their dock. "Hey there!" the driver called out.
Jim felt his heart leap into his throat. Take it easy, Jim. It probably isn't him. It probably isn't him. . . .
Jean had already returned the greeting in her own comfortable way. Jim could hear the engine idling. Whoever it was, they were planning to visit.
He steeled himself and turned to face their guest, falling back on police procedures just so he'd know what to do. His eyes took in a late model pickup truck. '72 Ford, white over blue, he catalogued it automatically. Next he made note of the driver. Male, Caucasian, brown and brown. Approximately 35 years old. Wearing a yellow T-shirt.
The guy in the wheelchair was wearing a yellow T-shirt.
Jim realized he was wearing a smile that he'd pulled out of a hat or something. He approached the truck a few steps behind his wife, suddenly feeling protective of her. For all I know, he's some kind of pervert or something. . . .
Not that there's much he could do.
Jim felt shocked by his own thoughts.
Jim nodded a return greeting to the driver. He stood close enough now to see that the truck's passenger's seat had been removed, and the wheelchair lay folded in its place. I wonder how he managed that?
"Hey," the driver repeated with a friendly smile. "Have you guys had dinner yet?"
"Why, no, we haven't," Jean replied, just as Jim was about to say "Yes." Jean continued, "I was just about to suggest we head in for a cup of soup and some sandwiches."
"Well, it wouldn't be right to come to Mountain View Lodge without having a proper fish dinner. I caught a bunch of them today, and there's no way I'm going to eat them all myself. I'm pretty quick at cleaning them, so we could start frying them in, oh, a half-hour or so. What do you say?"
"We'd love to! That sounds wonderful." Jean responded without a backward glance at her husband. She knows she's in big trouble. Jim tried to keep his face neutral for the sake of their soon-to-be host.
"Terrific. I'll just head back and start cleaning 'em. You two come on over any time. It's the cabin right next door." He jerked his head back toward the way he'd come. "By the way, my name's Russ. Russ Tyler. And you are. . .?"
"I'm Jean Reed, and this is my husband, Jim."
"Hi, Jim, nice to meet you." Russ stuck out his hand. Jim shook it automatically, hoping his face didn't show how mad he was at his wife.
"All right. See you then." Tyler pulled into their driveway, turned around, and drove back to his cabin.
Jean turned to look at Jim. I can't believe she has the nerve to look me in the eye. . . .
He shot her an angry glare as he brushed past her. "I guess I'd better get ready to go." He made no attempt to hide his bitterness at having been forced into her plans. I wonder if she met him somewhere and they cooked this up together.
Jim refused to look at his wife, or speak to her, until politeness forced him to do so at Russ Tyler's cabin.
Jim hated to admit it, but he enjoyed the fish fry. Russ was definitely a good cook. And, despite himself, Jim began to feel comfortable with his host. Russ seemed easy-going, friendly, and perfectly at home in his own skin. And in his own wheelchair.
Russ broke into his thoughts. "I noticed you didn't do any fishing today. Do you like to fish?"
Jim shrugged. "Sometimes, when the mood strikes. I'm not as crazy about it as some."
"Well, tonight would be a good night to let the mood strike. Looks like conditions are going to be perfect. I plan to reel in a bunch."
He gets the same fanatical glint in his eye that Pete gets. Jim smiled despite himself. "What are you going to do with more fish? I thought you had more than enough already."
"Oh, I'll figure out something. I can eat fish three times a day, plus snacks. Something about the mountain air makes me crazy, I guess."
Jim chuckled. "You'd get along well with a friend of mine. He's crazy about fishing, too. He's the one who introduced us to this place."
"Oh? What's his name? I spend a lot of time here. Maybe I know him."
"Pete. Pete Malloy."
"Pete Malloy? Sure, I know him. He's a great guy. Comes up here to unwind from all that police work he does. He almost always gets that same cabin that you're in."
Jim glanced at Jean. I smell a skunk. Is he the reason Pete wanted us to come up here?
For once, Jean didn't seem to read his thoughts. "Oh, I'm glad you know Pete. He really is a super guy. He's Jim's best friend. They're partners, you know."
"Oh, so you're a cop, too?"
"Yep." Jim wasn't sure whether to feel annoyed at being manipulated, or grateful for Pete's thoughtfulness.
"Well, any friend of Pete's is a friend of mine. Why don't you come out fishing with me tonight?
Jim sighed and looked back at Jean. Her eyes smiled at him. "It's okay with me, honey."
Jim surrendered. When Pete and Jean both ganged up on him, he was a goner.
"Okay, sure." He shrugged, trying to make it seem like the decision had been easy.
The three chatted for a while, until the moon shone full over the lake. Russ rolled himself over to the window, looking over the conditions with an expert eye. "Perfect!" he exclaimed. "Time to go fishing!"
Jean rose to her feet. "I'm not much for fishing. I think I'll head back to the cabin. Jim, stay out as late as you like. Enjoy yourself."
Jean gave him a swift kiss on the cheek. Jim wanted to be irritated with her, but he couldn't quite. Her face radiated good intentions.
Jim watched out the window until his wife was safely in the cabin. Lock the door, honey. Even in this peaceful haven, he worried about her.
The two men headed out to the dock, one on unsteady feet, and the other on wheels. They went in silence. Jim needed all his concentration to navigate his half-recovered body in the dark.
They set down their gear at the end of the dock. Jim pulled up a deck chair and made himself as comfortable as he could. All this sitting is getting to me already. He steeled himself for an uncomfortable night. He started to reach for some bait, but then stopped. He could contain his question no longer.
"So, did Pete put you up to this?"
Russ looked at him with what appeared to be sincere confusion. "Pete never has to put me up to fishing, or to making friends. Why do you ask?" He, too, seemed to forget about baiting his hook.
Jim felt suddenly embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I just thought maybe he, you know, wanted me to meet you."
Russ settled back in his wheelchair with the air of a patient counselor. "Now, why would that be?"
Jim studied his companion's face, considering his options. He seems to be leveling with me. I still think Pete wanted me to meet him, but he must have known this guy would reach out to us on his own.
Jim took a deep breath. Since I'm here, I might as well plunge in.
"Well, Pete rented this cabin for Jean and me, so I could. . . recuperate."
Russ remained silent, his face expectant.
Jim cleared his throat and continued. "I got injured on the job a while back." He looked away from Russ's eyes. "I got hit by a falling tree, and I was. . ." Jim almost choked on the word.
"You were what?" Russ prompted.
"I was. . .paralyzed. They didn't know if it would be permanent or not. It was a long time before I could feel anything, or move my toes. I was afraid to hope, so for a long time I thought. . ." Jim eyed his new friend's wheelchair, ". . .I thought I'd end up in a wheelchair." Jim felt amazed at the emotions that welled up in him. I had no idea this would be so hard to talk about.
"Wow," Russ replied with genuine sympathy. "You must have been scared to death."
"Yeah, I was." Jim swallowed a lump in his throat and inwardly cursed his highly emotional nature. "I'm still not. . .all here yet."
"Yeah. But it's getting better."
"Puts a real damper on a romantic getaway, doesn't it?"
Jim blushed and nodded.
"So is that why you seemed so uncomfortable with me at first?" Russ showed no anger in his face or voice.
"Yeah. I'm sorry. It's just that every time I looked at you, I saw what. . .what almost happened to me. And it brought up a lot of. . . feelings I didn't want to deal with."
"You felt like you'd rather be dead than in a wheelchair, didn't you?"
Jim turned away, horrified to have to admit it. But he nodded. This was not a time for playing games.
Russ remained silent until Jim was forced to look back at him.
"That's how I felt, too."
"How did it happen?" Jim's voice sounded quiet and shaky.
"I was an 18-year-old fool, that's how it happened." Russ seemed to have no difficulty talking about his situation. "I was showing off for my friends. My girlfriend and I had just gotten engaged, and I felt like I was on top of the world. Life was my oyster, you know?"
Jim nodded, his eyes now riveted to Russ's face.
"I wasn't a bad kid. Not at all. I normally obeyed the law and everything, but on this day I just felt, I don't know, feisty or something. So I got driving a little too fast with my buddies. Just celebrating my engagement, having a good time. Until I wrapped myself around a tree."
Jim dropped his eyes. He had seen too many of those types of accidents. Many of the drivers went to the morgue instead of the hospital.
Russ cleared his throat and went on. "With me, there was never any doubt. We knew it was permanent. I wished I had died. I planned different ways that I would kill myself when I got out of the hospital. Especially after my fiancé came into my hospital room, all choked up, and gave me my ring back. Said she couldn't handle it."
A heavy silence settled, while Jim came to grips with Russ's tragedy.
"I can't blame her, I guess. But at the time, I was devastated."
Russ fell silent again, and Jim got the impression that he was expected to say something.
"I…worried about my marriage when I was in the hospital. Jean and I are really in love, you know. Always have been, since high school. We've got something really great together. But this. . .this was devastating. I wasn't sure it was fair to even hope she would stay. She deserved better." All of the emotions flooded back to Jim as he talked. He knew that his face and his voice showed them plainly.
"Better than someone like me?"
Jim heard no accusation in Russ's question, but its intent was clear. Jim almost reeled from it, but finally came up with an answer. "Better than what I thought I would be."
Jim looked back at him, letting all of his walls come down. "How do you live with it? How do you rebuild your life? I don't know why I need to hear about it, since it didn't work out that way for me. But for some reason, I need to know."
Russ seemed to study him for a few moments while he thought about his answer. Finally he spoke.
"I think I know why you need to know."
"Because the questions that were raised in that hospital bed never got answered."
"They didn't have to be. I'm recovering."
"Didn't they?" Russ seemed to look straight into Jim's soul. "The questions you asked yourself went far deeper than any circumstance you might encounter. Questions like, 'Who am I as a person?' 'Who am I as a man?' 'How strong is my marriage?' 'How strong am I?' Once you really ask yourself those kinds of questions, you can never be satisfied until you find the answer." Russ paused, as if to let Jim absorb it all. After a moment, he continued. "Who did you think you would be?"
Jim sighed deeply, feeling like he was trying to grope his way through a very thick fog. Painful memories bore down on him from every direction. "I thought I would be useless. No longer a bread winner, no longer a real husband, or a real father. . .or a lover." Jim felt a panicky desire to run from the very words he spoke.
After several long moments, Russ replied, leaning forward for emphasis. "When you face paralysis, you have to find a whole new definition of those roles, and a whole new definition of yourself." Tyler shifted his weight in his wheelchair, and Jim became aware of his own discomfort. He repositioned himself as well.
"I'm going to tell you some things that you might expect to be comforting. But they won't be."
Jim just raised his eyebrows in surprise.
"I am a bread winner. I work as a school counselor. That's why I have summers off."
That's also why you can talk this way with me. Now things made more sense.
"And I'm not married, or a father," Russ continued, "but I am a lover."
The shock must have shown on Jim's face. Russ chuckled.
"Love can be shown in many ways, my friend."
Jim pondered all of that for a few moments.
Russ's next question surprised him. "Now, was that really comforting?"
"Well. . ." Jim paused to assess his own emotions. "A little. But you're right. It still isn't really getting to the heart of things. I don't understand why not, though."
"Because it still doesn't answer your questions. I've told you that there are things I can do, and by implication I'm telling you that you could do them too if you were paralyzed. But your questions aren't about doing, they're about being."
Jim knew he was way beyond his depth. "Help me out, here."
"What you really need to know, deep in your soul, is that you would still be you, you would still be a man, you would still have value and worth even if you spent the rest of your life completely helpless in a hospital bed. You need to know that who you are transcends, by far, anything you can or can't do."
Jim felt almost overwhelmed as he tried to take it all in. But he's right. He's absolutely right. I don't know that about myself. Jim remembered how worthless he had felt when he couldn't help Jean carry the luggage.
Russ's voice became quieter, more contemplative. "In a way, you and I have had a rare privilege. Lots of men ask themselves those kinds of questions, but not so many are actually thrown into circumstances that allow them to learn the answers. I don't think I ever would have known who I really was, in the deepest part of me, if I hadn't been forced to deal with those issues in the most profound way." Russ shook his head, then looked back at Jim with piercing sincerity. "This is only a temporary opportunity for you. Make the most of it. Take this as a chance to learn the answers to those questions. Get to know who you are, not by watching yourself regain your physical strength, but by watching yourself coping with your weakness. You are more than the sum of the things you can do, Jim Reed." With that Russ settled back in his chair, with the air of someone who has said his piece.
Jim sat back as well, totally stunned by what had transpired. He watched as Russ baited his hook and threw it into the water, but felt no desire to do the same. He had deeper matters on his mind right now.
A half-hour went by before anyone spoke again. Jim broke the silence.
" There's one question I still don't know how to answer."
"Oh? Which one is that?"
"How strong is my marriage?"
Russ regarded him unflinchingly.
"Has Jean found the answer to your questions? Does she know who you are, or only what you can do? Who is she in love with?"
Jim head spun at the question. How should I know? But he thought about Jean, and the more he thought, the clearer the picture became.
"I think she knows some of who I am."
"Is she in love with you?"
Jim nodded, once again feeling a wave of gratitude toward his wife.
"Do you think that her love is the kind that could keep exploring those questions, keep looking for you, if things had worked out differently?"
Jim had no doubts. She would keep looking. Even if I fought her, and I probably would, she would keep looking. I would want her to go away and leave me in my misery, and find another man for herself. But she wouldn't go. I know it. And now I know why.
Jim realized that he hadn't answered, but one look at Russ's face told him that he understood. "How can I ever thank you?" Jim felt overwhelmingly indebted.
Russ just smiled. "Go back to your cabin and wrap your arms around that woman of yours. You're a lucky man to have found someone like her. I've known people who were still strangers on their so-called 'golden' anniversary. I can tell you, there was nothing golden about that."
Jim chuckled, then stood to leave. "I'm sorry I haven't been much of a fishing buddy."
"On the contrary," Russ replied. "You made my day."
Jim felt awkward, just walking away from someone who had given him a gift greater than a king's fortune. But he could think of nothing adequate to say, so he left in silence. When he got to the grass, Russ called back to him.
Jim turned around. "Yeah?"
The bright full moon revealed Russ's heartfelt grin, even from that distance.
"Remember, love can be shown in many ways."
Jim returned the smile, awkwardly at first, but then broadly as the words hit home.
I think I've got some good ideas already. . . .
Jean woke up to dappled sunlight and a gentle breeze. She smiled lazily at the lace curtains which fluttered so prettily and played such games with the sunlight. I ought to get some of those for our house. She rolled to her side and looked at Jim. He still slept peacefully, and she couldn't resist cuddling closer to him.
I wonder what he and Russ talked about. Something's sure different about him.
I'm so glad we came here.
She briefly stroked his chest, and placed a soft kiss on his shoulder. He made a quiet mumbling sound, but didn't awaken.
I wonder what time it is.
No I don't. Why should time matter here?
She smiled and drifted back to sleep.
Jim stood out on the dock, once again soaking in the view.
I wonder how one conversation can make everything seem so different. It sounded corny, and he never would have admitted it, but the colors looked brighter, and the air smelled sweeter.
I'm going to be okay. He glanced back at the cabin to look for Jean. No sign of her yet. Jim returned to his thoughts. And somehow, if I had ended up in a wheelchair, I still would have been okay. Different, but okay. And after a while, I even would have understood that I was okay. He couldn't quite grasp that concept, but it was appealing to think about.
Jim's thoughts turned to his new friend. I wonder how many fish he caught last night. Jim had to smile at the thought of the cabin's little freezer overstuffed with fish. He turned to look at the nearby dock, and felt a sudden stab of concern.
The wheelchair was near the edge of the water.
There was no sign of Russ.
Jim felt his breath come short. The policeman in him came to the forefront, and his eyes searched the water, his body taut for action.
There! He saw Russ's head in the water, and his arms moving in easy, coordinated strokes. Slowly Jim's alarm receded. He's swimming. Imagine that.
He watched, fascinated, and Russ swam several more laps between his dock and some point of reference Jim couldn't determine. How is he going to get out when he's done?
Russ's strong strokes led him toward the bank this time. There was a slight incline leading up to his wheelchair. Jim stayed still. He must know how to handle this.
Russ swam until the water was too shallow, then dragged himself up and out of the water. With a deft twist he flipped himself over so that he was sitting, and then used a backward motion to propel himself toward his wheelchair. His arms must be really strong. I've got to see how he gets himself into the chair.
Jim was startled to realize that Jean had joined him, looking stunning in her bathing suit. He ran an arm around her waist, and she snuggled into his side. "How long have you been here?" he asked.
"A few minutes," she replied.
They continued to watch, wordlessly, as Russ pulled a towel off of his wheelchair seat, dried himself, and then hoisted himself up and into the chair with apparent ease.
"Amazing, isn't it?" Jean commented softly.
Jean squeezed him around his waist. "I've seen something else amazing today."
"What's that?" He looked down into her face.
"You. You've been standing here for a long time, and you don't look completely exhausted."
"Yeah, you're right!" Jim hadn't even noticed his own achievement. "I don't feel bad at all." Jim stretched out on the chaise anyway, and continued to reflect. Jean spread out a towel on the deck beside him and pulled out a bottle of tanning oil. Jim took it from her and began to smooth it onto her back.
"You know something?" he asked as he rubbed the lotion in.
"When I first saw his chair standing empty by the water, I thought he must have drowned or something. And I felt my whole body go into emergency mode. I didn't think about it at the time, but I was poised and ready to run and help. I haven't felt like that since…since the accident." He finished with her back and returned the bottle to her.
"I wonder what I could have actually done, if I needed to."
"Well, I'm glad you didn't try. Just because your body thinks it can, doesn't mean it should. You could put yourself back in the hospital, or even end up in a wheelchair after all, if you push yourself too hard too soon." Jean eyed him with a worried expression as she applied her oil.
"I know, baby. Don't worry. I plan to take it easy." Jim settled back in the chaise and closed his eyes, as if to prove his point.
"Good." Jean finished oiling herself and laid down on her towel.
"Are you sure you don't want the chaise, hon?" Jim sat up and started to stand.
"No, no. Lie back down. I'm used to tanning on a towel." She closed her eyes.
Jim feasted his eyes on her for a few moments, and then sighed and stretched out again. His thoughts returned to his earlier musings. He wiggled his toes, just to see how they felt today. He stretched and flexed his legs, then glanced quickly at Jean to make sure she wasn't watching him. She seemed oblivious to the world.
He sat up and bent low to touch his toes. I swear, I can feel them more than yesterday. He grabbed the tops of his feet and tried to make them resist his pull. For the first time, he could really feel his calf muscles kicking in, offering resistance. Yes, this is good.
Russ's words came back to him. "This is a temporary opportunity." Suddenly Jim wished he weren't recovering quite so fast. I've learned so much from this hardship. But isn't that what Dad always said? "If you suffer well, you become a better person."
He sat back and contemplated the last month of his life. I'm glad I'm going to recover, but I'm also glad I had this experience.
Who would have ever believed I'd feel this way?
Jim and Jean walked hand-in-hand along the path that circled the lake. Of course they had no thought of going the whole way around. That would have been miles. But they savored every inch of the distance they traveled, knowing that they were lucky to be able to do so. They also knew that soon, too soon, they would have to return to the hustle and bustle of L.A.
"You know, I almost feel like I'm recovering faster because of being here. The peace and quiet sure haven't hurt. I can hardly believe how much easier it is to walk."
"Mmmm," she agreed. "Are you getting tired yet?"
"A little, but not bad."
"Well, then we should turn around, because we still have to get all the way back."
"Yeah, I guess so. It would be a shame to be too tired for this afternoon." Russ had invited them to join him in watching a mountain bike race passing through a local town.
"Well, I've got the lawn chairs and snacks and drinks packed. I don't think there's anything else to do to get ready, so if you want to nap a bit, go right ahead."
They walked along in comfortable silence for a while. "I'll almost hate to leave," Jean finally said.
Jim gave her a squeeze. "Me too. But it's not like we're leaving tomorrow. I sure miss Jimmy, though."
"Oh, me too! When I think about him, three days hardly seems soon enough." They had both spoken to their son every day on the phone, but that was nothing like actually being with him.
Jim soaked in every scene as they walked back to their cabin, committing its beauty to memory. I don't ever want to forget this time or this place.
They lounged on the dock until the time came to leave. Russ drove up next to the Reeds' sedan and tooted his horn. The couple climbed into their own car to follow him. The town of Hopewell was about five miles away, and Russ knew it well.
"Hey, honey, how about letting me drive?" Jim felt strange asking his wife that question, instead of asking Pete.
"Are you feeling up to it?"
"Yeah, I think so. I've been practicing flexing my foot, and I think I could control the pedals just fine."
"Well, sure. Frankly, I'd rather not be the one driving on these mountain roads. But Jim…" her voice and expression became very serious, "…the moment you feel weak or tired, or if you feel like you don't have enough control of the pedals, please let me know. Promise me."
Jim reveled in the sensation of climbing behind the wheel. You'd almost think this big boat was an Indy car, the way I'm looking forward to driving it. He waved his readiness to Russ.
Okay, I can do this. Jim concentrated intensely on pedals he couldn't feel. Slow, steady pressure on the accelerator…. The car jolted forward. "Wait a minute." He braked the sedan with a lurch, threw it into park, and pulled his shoes off his feet. "I have to feel the pedals," he explained to Jean, who was looking at him like he was crazy. Russ, too, looked back with concern from his truck.
Jim waved to Russ, and gave Jean a smile that he hoped was reassuring. Her eyes spoke volumes. Jim swallowed. I'm not going to get many chances at this. . . .
Sweat broke out on his forehead, but he depressed the accelerator smoothly. The car moved forward without jolting them, and Jim smiled triumphantly at his wife. Her expression made it clear he wasn't off the hook yet.
I had no idea how many muscles it took to control a gas pedal! His calf muscles and the muscles along his shin felt exhausted before the first mile was past. His foot threatened to cramp. Pain is good, pain is good. He faked another smile to Jean, but she seemed no closer to relaxing.
Relaxing - maybe that's the key. Jim hadn't realized how tense he was. He consciously unclenched his teeth, loosened his shoulders, and lessened his death grip on the steering wheel. Now the legs. Relax, relax. Slowly, he felt his tension easing, and the pain in his legs decreased as well. Good. He glanced at Jean out of the corner of his eye, and felt pleased to see that his relaxation had been contagious. This might work out after all.
They continued, slowly, around curving, winding mountain roads. Jim rehearsed everything he'd ever learned at the Academy Driving School. Decelerate into the curve, accelerate slightly out of it, starting just before the halfway point. You can do this Jim. You know this stuff cold.
To his amazement, he began to feel his legs and feet responding more automatically, less consciously. Okay, maybe I should drive this the way I used to. Focus on what I'm seeing, not on my feet. Let them do their thing. They know what to do.
Jim smiled broadly as his feet proved him right. This is easy! He felt Jean's eyes watching him intently. He spared a quick sideways glance, and saw wonder in her eyes. She can tell. She can feel the miracle.
Jim began to feel more alive than he had since the accident. His spirits soared. Scenery glided by. For so long, movement had been an effort. Traveling so easily felt like being released from a long prison term.
Then Russ turned on his turn signal and braked to approach a 90 degree turn. Jim felt a sudden surge of panic. I didn't brake so well back at the Lodge. . . .
Which should I do? His breath came short. Should I concentrate on my feet, or try to do it automatically, like I did with the gas?
The brake pedal is so different from the gas. . . .
He had only seconds to make up his mind.
Okay, just do it. Just do it. He tried to relax and drive unconsciously. He could feel Jean's tension beside him. How does she always know what I'm feeling?
What a nice drive in the country. . . . He willed himself to look at the countryside as he braked into the turn. How do you concentrate on not concentrating on something?
The car slowed smoothly, rounded the corner, and accelerated normally on its new course. Jim felt such a surge of relief that he began to feel weak, as if he just faced down an insane gunman. He braked again, maneuvering the car off to the side of the road. When he could bring his breathing back under control, he turned to Jean.
"Would you like to drive now?"
"Sure, if you want me to. But you did fine."
Jim stared at her. No wonder I love you so much. You believe in me.
Russ hollered back from his truck. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," Jim called back, after only a moment's thought. "Let's go."
He drove the rest of the way into Hopewell, feeling more proud than he had when he got his first driver's license.
"Okay," said Russ, "we have a decision to make." Jim stood next to Russ's truck, listening through the window. Jean listened from the opposite side.
"As you can see," Russ continued, "this is where everyone likes to line up to watch the race. You can get a pretty good view here, but it's crowded and noisy." Jim appraised the scene, and then looked back at Russ for his alternative.
"I come here every year, and I know a really great spot. We could drive pretty close to it. Then you'd have to hike about ¼ of a mile, that's all. It's off the beaten path, but it overlooks a really great part of the course. I've never had the crowds bother me there. It's great."
Jim and Jean looked at each other over the roof. Ever the practical one, Jean leaned back to the window and asked, "Do you think we can get the folding chairs up there? Jim shouldn't stand that long, and I'm not sure he's too keen on sitting on the ground just yet." Jim nodded his agreement.
"Yeah, it's not like real mountain climbing. I'm sure we could get the chairs up, and find places between some trees to set them up. I think it would be worth it. But it's up to you guys. You know your limits better than I do, Jim."
"Wait a minute, Russ. How in the world do you get up there?"
"You'd be surprised," Russ replied with a big grin.
"Well, if you are up to it, so am I." Jim looked to his wife, and saw some concern in her face. But she looked willing.
"Okay, if you really think it's a good idea." Her voice was doubtful, but not upset.
Jim flashed her a grateful smile.
"Oh, yeah, this is perfect!" Jim looked their perch over enthusiastically. The hike up the outcropping had been gradual and only slightly taxing. But the opposite side of their ledge dropped off sharply. The winding bike trail ran about 30 feet below and a little ahead of it. The angle was perfect for watching the racers navigating a challenging curve with a small drop. "The view should be perfect!"
"I told you!" Russ huffed his way up behind them. Jim turned to watch his friend, still amazed by his agility. Russ had left his wheelchair in his truck, and had maneuvered his body in every imaginable way to get it up that trail. "I love it here," he continued, as he dragged himself backward up the last few yards. "If the trail were any more steep, though, I'm not sure I could make it."
Jean already had the chairs set up. She looked as enthusiastic as the others. "I'm not sure we would have seen much if we'd stayed with the crowds." She glanced at her watch. "The action should be starting soon. But there's no chair for you, Russ!" Jean looked worried.
"Don't worry. I never haul a chair up here!" Russ chuckled.
"No, I suppose you don't," Jean laughed in reply.
They waited a half an hour, and Jean began to get getting antsy. "The race was supposed to start at 1:00, and it's 1:30 now. Are you sure the racers pass by here?"
The men exchanged chuckles. "Jean, the race doesn't start here. Give them time, they'll get here." Jim shook his head at his wife. "Hey, Russ, did I ever tell you I race dirt bikes?" The two men chatted like men do when sports are the subject. Jean left them to their conversation.
A few minutes later they heard the first racer. All three moved quickly to the best vantage points they could find, cheering as the biker handled the turns with ease, and then went slightly airborne over the drop. Soon more racers appeared, and the small band of friends became caught up in the excitement of it all. Jim cheered with the enthusiasm of a kindred spirit, memories of dirt biking flooding his mind. Boy, I wish I could be out there with them.
A surprising number of bikers flowed by, so the fun lasted a while. But finally, the flood of racers slowed to a trickle as the stragglers brought up the rear. Jim turned to Russ. "Where can we go to see them further along?"
"Well, I don't have any secret spots, but sitting with the crowd is better than nothing. C'mon, let's go back down." Russ turned from his perch near the edge of the outcropping. "The course winds a lot, so if we travel as the bird flies, we can. . . .AAAAAH!" Russ's words became a scream of terror. The soil at the edge crumbled under him, and Russ disappeared.
"RUSS!" Jim and Jean screamed together. They rushed toward the precarious edge, afraid to get too close. But they heard a sound of hope: Russ's voice calling out for help.
Jim held out an arm, preventing Jean from moving closer. He looked her in the eye, his voice assuming the commanding tone of an officer.
"Get back down the trail as fast as you can. Find anyone, anyone who can help us. Send that person back, and you keep going 'til you get to a phone. Call for the police and an ambulance. Do you understand?" Jean nodded mutely, her eyes wide with terror. "Go!" Jim commanded, and watched for a few seconds to make sure she complied. Then he turned to help his friend.
Jim dropped himself flat onto his belly and inched forward toward the unstable precipice. Russ plead with him from somewhere below.
"My arm is injured! I don't know how long I can hold on!"
"I'm coming!" Jim reached the edge, praying that it wouldn't give way. He grabbed onto a small tree, knowing that it would provide scant protection if its foundation gave way. He inched forward, his left hand gripping the tree with white-knuckled resolve. Small chunks of soil dropped away as his weight rested on them. Jim fought back a rising sense of panic. Keep calm! He drew in a deep breath, pushed himself to the very brink, and peered over.
Russ's terrified eyes looked up at him. His fingers clung to a network of roots, all that stood between him and a terrifying drop. His lower body is dead weight, Jim realized. The strain on his arms must be awful. And his legs can't help him at all.
"Which arm is injured?"
"My right. Please hurry." Russ gasped.
Jim reached down with his free arm and grabbed Russ's left wrist. "Hang on!"
Jim set his teeth and began to pull, but in his weakened state he could not move his friend's weight.
"Russ," he yelled, "try to hang on. I've sent Jean for help. I can't pull you up, but if you start to fall, I'll do my best to stop you."
Russ nodded his agreement. "Hurry!"
Jim looked frantically around him, searching for something solid to anchor his and Russ's combined weight. He squirmed to one side and wrapped both legs around a promising-looking tree, crossing his ankles to lock them together.
If he falls, I'll have to try, but. . . . His imagination teemed with images and sensations: an awful twisting and snapping of his spine, a dreadful return to paralysis, life in a wheelchair. He looked at Russ, aching for the dread and physical pain he saw in his face.
I'll do my best for you.
No matter what.
A low cry escaped Russ's throat. "My shoulder, oh, please help me, my shoulder can't hold out much longer!" Jim tightened his grip and prayed for help.
"What happened to your shoulder?" he asked. Maybe if I can keep him talking, it will help him not to be afraid.
"I wrenched it when I grabbed to keep from falling. All of my weight on that one shoulder. . . . I almost couldn't get my other arm up to help support myself. . . .oh, please hurry!"
Russ's right arm gave way. He cried out in terror, and Jim grunted in anticipation of his weight. But Russ's arms had grown powerful after years of compensating for his legs. Somehow, he held on with just that one arm, but Jim knew Russ wouldn't be able to last much longer.
God, where is that help?
Another desperate cry from Russ tore at Jim. He had dealt with many emergencies, and many desperate people. He knew the sound of a man on his last shred of strength and hope.
"I'm going to try again," Jim grunted through clenched teeth. He released his handhold on the tree, and clamped that hand around Russ's upper arm. Steeling himself, he pulled as hard as he could, muscles straining and spasming from his hands down to his feet. Terrifying twinges sent shock waves through his spine. He pulled until he felt his body would break in two. Nothing happened. He surrendered at last with a groan.
"I'm sorry, Russ. I'm just not strong enough. Hold on, please hold on!"
Jim's head pounded and his ears rang from the unaccustomed exertion. A month ago, he might have been able to do it. Now, he only prayed he wouldn't pass out.
That's the only way I'm letting go of you.
Footsteps. Could those be footsteps? Pounding toward them, yes! Two strapping men in racing uniform appeared, plunging to the rescue. One of them gently pried Jim's fingers off of Russ's wrist, causing his locked muscles to protest. The two men hauled Russ up with obvious effort and laid him down on the grass. Russ and Jim both gasped their thanks, too exhausted to move. The racers offered them both water from their supplies, which they accepted gratefully. After several long minutes, their breathing began to slow toward normal.
One of the bikers leaned down over Russ, his expression worried. "How are you? Do you think you can stand?"
Russ started to laugh. It was a little chuckle at first, but it grew as he saw the confusion on his rescuers' faces. Jim started laughing too, as the irony of the question dawned on his frazzled nerves.
The biker looked at his companion. "What did I say? Did I say something funny?"
The other racer just shrugged as fresh peals of laughter erupted from the two strange men on the ground.
"You did what?" Jim stared at his wife, aghast.
"Hey, if you can take chances, so can I."
"But jumping out on the track in front of racing bicyclists. . . ." Jim had the feeling his jaw was hanging open as he regarded his diminutive wife.
"Well, they were the stragglers. I figured they had to be going slowly enough to stop in time. No offense. . ." Jean added, in deference to the rescuers as they listened. "And I jumped out of the way after I got their attention."
"Yeah, and she was screaming, 'Help us, please,'" one racer added. "I thought she was just some jerk. . .no offense, ma'am. . . trying to mess up our chances in the race. But then I said to myself, 'Tom, you've got no chances in the race.' So I turned around."
The sound of the door interrupted their laughter. A nurse bustled in and quickly sized up the crowd. "It's sounds like there's altogether too much fun going on in here. That's not allowed!" She wagged her finger at them, but the mischievous expression on her face simply added to their smiles.
"Yeah, well if you didn't pass out such good pain drugs, we wouldn't be laughing right now. So you see, it's all your fault." Russ winked at the nurse, and Jim offered a hearty, "Hear, hear!"
"Oh hush, and let me tell you what I need to tell you!" The nurse waited for her audience to quiet down. "Now, then, let's see. Mr. Tyler is going to be seen by Doctor Metzger. He's going to check those shoulder tendons of yours. And you," she continued, turning to Jim, "will be seen by Doctor Kelly. He's going to see how that spine of yours survived your antics."
Jim just grinned. I can move everything. I can feel everything. I'm not too worried.
The nurse continued. "Now, I want everybody out of here, except for the patients, of course."
Jean gave her husband a quick kiss before departing with the others. "I'll be right outside in the waiting room. I'm used to waiting for you in places like that." Her eyes scolded him, but ever so gently.
The nurse left last of all, assuring the men that the doctors would see them in just a moment. The door clicked shut behind her.
Russ turned to Jim. "You risked it all for me."
Jim just looked down, embarrassed. I hate it when people act like I'm some kind of hero.
"I know what that could have cost you," Russ continued. "You knew how terrifying it is to lie in a hospital bed, unable to move. You were just getting your body back to normal, knowing you had dodged a terrible bullet. Yet you still were willing to lay it all on the line for me, even if it meant being paralyzed for good."
Jim desperately wanted to divert this unwanted praise. "I didn't do you much good, as I recall."
"That's not the point." Russ sat up and looked at Jim with piercing sincerity. "The point is, you were willing to make that sacrifice, that incredible sacrifice, for someone you barely know. I bet you take risks like that all the time on the job for total strangers, don't you?"
The ensuing pause required some sort of answer. Jim nodded, wishing he could run instead.
"That should be all the proof that you need," Russ responded.
Jim looked up at him with some confusion. "Proof of what?"
"Proof, my friend, that you are more than the sum of what you can do. If I had fallen to my death today, it would not diminish the priceless gift you gave me. You gave me the best of what you are." Russ leaned back in his hospital bed once more. "Now, you know the answers to your questions." He closed his eyes, effectively ending the conversation and giving Jim space to think.
Who am I as a person? Who am I as a man? How strong am I? Did I really answer those questions merely by trying, even though I didn't succeed? Jim closed his eyes, knowing he had a lot of deep thinking to do.
I can't believe it's Saturday morning already. Jim sighed as he stood on the cabin's porch. The new morning sun brought a faint blush to the sky, and an enchanting mist rose off of the lake. Geese floated gracefully through the haze. The air felt crisp, cool, and perfect. I'm going to miss this place. But I'm ready to go home.
Jim stepped back into the cabin, easing the door closed so as not to wake his sleeping wife. He stretched luxuriantly, noticing with pleasure that the stiffness in his muscles had faded to the occasional twinge. He felt something else, too, that added to his contentment; something he couldn't quite put his finger on. He didn't try too hard to figure it out. Why question happiness?
I think I'll put the coffee on. Jim headed into the kitchen, smiling as he remembered some burnt muffins from a few days ago. I'd better leave the cooking to Jean.
He grabbed the can of coffee out of a cabinet, and reached for the coffee filters. Uh oh. Are there more under the sink? Jim had seen Jean pulling extra supplies from there before. It's worth a look. He squatted down and rummaged among various cleaners and supplies, before finding the filters way in the back. Gotcha!
He stood and continued his preparations, humming softly to himself, when he heard a familiar bang on the front porch. The eggs are here. The Lodge owner was very kind to have them delivered, but Jim thought he should have told the boys not to bang the lid on the egg box. He walked lightly back to the porch, beginning to wonder, despite himself, why he felt so good.
Not until he returned to the kitchen with two warm eggs did the realization dawn. He froze in his tracks, replaying his morning in his memory. Am I imagining this? He placed the eggs on the counter, moving slowly as if he were afraid of breaking a magic spell.
He slowly flexed his legs, then stomped his foot on the floor. The strange feeling of numbness still did not appear. I knew it was going away, but can it really be gone? He put himself through every test he could imagine, feeling his heart soar as his body consistently felt. . . familiar. I feel like me!
"Jean!" He rushed to the bedroom. "Jean, wake up!"
"Hmmm?" Jean sat up and rubbed at her eyes. "What's wrong?"
Jean stared at him, blinking drowsy eyes that now filled with confusion. "Then why in the world did you wake me up?"
"Because," he replied. "Nothing is wrong. Absolutely nothing." He waited for her to catch on, his face jubilant.
She did, slowly, in a toned-down replay of the first time she saw him standing. "You mean. . . you mean. . .?"
"Yes!" he fairly shouted. "I feel terrific! I feel normal. I feel like I can do anything. I know I'm weak and all, after having so little exercise for so long, but my body feels like my body again!" He looked disbelievingly at his wife. "I had actually forgotten what normal feels like."
He stretched out on the bed, resting weakened but obedient muscles. "Just think how Pete and Judy will react when they see this."
"What about Jimmy?"
"Well, I'm not sure he ever understood what had happened. But I know he'll be happy just to see us. I sure can't wait to see him."
Jean checked her watch. "We won't have long to wait now. They should be here in just about three hours."
"Today's gonna be so great. Man, I feel like celebrating!"
"Me too. This feels like a late birthday present to me."
Late birthday present? That reminds me. . . .
Jim rolled over in the bed and opened a bedside drawer. He pulled out a wrapped package, festive with ribbon, and presented it to his wife.
"It's your late birthday present. I bought it before the accident, but then, with everything that happened, I just didn't think I could give it to you." He looked searchingly into her eyes. "I'm not sure, but I think this might be the right time."
After a last curious look at her husband, Jean tore the package open. Jim grinned in anticipation as she unfolded the contents. Her jaw dropped open, and her eyes sought his, first questioning, and then hopeful.
Jim lounged on the dock, reveling in the company of his closest friends and family. Jimmy played and splashed contentedly in the water, under the watchful eye of his mother. Judy and Pete sat near Jim, probing him eagerly with questions. Neither of them seemed quite able to believe the events of Jim's last week.
"So, Pete," Jim said in conclusion, "I have one question to ask you."
"Did you send me out here just to meet Russ?"
Pete smiled softly. "I didn't know if he'd be here or not. Let's just say I hoped."
Jim nodded warmly at his friend.
"Don't mention it."
Jim laid back on the chaise, folded his arms behind his head and closed his eyes. "Okay, I won't."
Jim smiled at the familiar bantering, then turned his attention to his wife and son. Everything's so right now. Jean seemed to feel his gaze, and turned to dazzle him with a smile.
Yep, he thought with a smile.