My grandfather survived his stroke better than anyone expected. By the end of our visit, he was still pretty weak on his right side, but the doctors were optimistic he’d do well in rehab. When we said goodbye, both Grandpa and I were in wheelchairs. I felt kind of a kinship to him.
It was Dad’s idea that I start volunteering at the church when we got back. I knew he felt like we were turning over a new leaf in our relationship, so I tried to make nice and not just tell him to fuck off. But I really wasn’t enthusiastic about it. Especially when Mom tried to make it more exciting to me.
“Just imagine how much you could do to help, Ryan,” she said. “You could make phone calls to get donations, you could arrange the picnics and events, or maybe you could even talk to kids about why drug use is bad.”
Apparently, my cousin Josh had changed his tune after our little encounter, so now my parents thought I had a career as a motivational speaker. I disagreed. I was glad Josh was doing better, but I didn’t really want to go around telling kids, “You better shape up or you’ll end up like me.”
After services the next Sunday, there was another picnic, but before we went, my mother made it her mission to get me to talk to Reverend Shale. We located him in the back of the church, talking to a few other members of the congregation. We patiently waited our turn to talk.
“Hello, Patrick,” Mom said. “Do you remember my son, Ryan?”
“Of course,” Reverend Shale said. Rev Shale was around even when I was a kid, so his narrow, sharp features were very familiar to me, even though he had way more wrinkles than I remembered. “Hello, Ryan. I heard that you came back to the congregation.”
“Ryan is interested in volunteering,” Mom chirped.
“Is he?” Rev Shale smiled in my direction. I couldn’t hide the misery on my face. “Would you mind if I had a moment alone with Ryan?”
My mother agreed and went off to the picnic. After she left, Rev Shale stared at me for a long time. Long enough that I started to feel kind of uncomfortable and wonder if maybe he was planning on violating me or something. Don’t priests do stuff like that? Of course, Rev Shale wasn’t a priest and he was married and pretty old, but it’s not like I could fight him off.
Finally, Rev Shale spoke: “I’ve known you since you were a baby, haven’t I?”
I shrugged. “I guess. Not like I’d remember.”
He didn’t laugh at my little joke. “I have to say, this isn’t how I thought you’d end up at your age.”
That was a weird thing to say. “How did you think I’d end up?”
I was shocked. What the fuck?
Rev Shale saw the look on my face and he crossed his arms. “Seemed to me that’s the path you were headed on, wasn’t it? Came pretty close too, I’d say. But the Lord saved you, for some reason. It wasn’t your time.”
“He decided it would be more fun to cripple me,” I added. Sorry, I just don’t believe in any of this religion crap.
“Maybe He did it so you’d finally grow up and stop trying to kill yourself,” he said. He looked me in the eyes. “It’s working, I think. You were a tough case.”
I knew he was going to say something stupid like that. Like that I was crippled because it was God’s will. I mean, how fucking irritating is it for someone to say that to me? Lots of people do great things with their lives and get reformed without having to be paralyzed and in a wheelchair. “There are a lot of people who acted worse than me,” I said.
Rev Shale smiled. “You don’t have to believe me, Ryan. I don’t expect you to, not yet. But I’d like to help you anyway.”
“You volunteer for the church and stay out of trouble,” he said. “And in exchange, I want to help you get your life on track. Do you have a high school diploma?”
I hung my head. “No.” I was close, but I failed pretty much my entire senior year of high school due to being drunk or high or whatever.
“So that’s where we’ll start,” Rev Shale said.
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. Did I want my GED? Fuck yeah. Getting an education and a job was probably my only ticket out of my parents’ house. I didn’t want to do nothing with my life. I wanted to accomplish something, to somehow be a productive member of society. I wasn’t sure how, but somehow I knew that Rev Shale was going to help me. I had never trusted my own father, but somehow I felt a fatherly closeness to the reverend.
“Thank you,” I said.
And that’s when I noticed, to my surprise, that my eyes were filling up with tears. I felt kind of silly crying in front of Rev Shale, but he seemed to almost expect it. He put his arm around my shoulders and just let me cry. “I’m going to help you, Ryan,” he kept saying.
I don’t know how long I cried, but when I was done, he got a tissue and wiped up my face for me. We talked a little bit about this and that, mostly he was waiting for me to calm down so we could go outside. After all, if he left, I was going to be trapped in the church, since I didn’t have the dexterity to open the door on my own. I felt a little guilty, but Rev Shale didn’t act like he minded.
“Do I look like I’ve been crying?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “You look fine. Do you want to go outside?”
I nodded and we left the church to go to the picnic. Rev Shale went off to talk to some people, and I hung back, just watching. Since my accident, I’ve become more of an observer, which I guess makes sense. Maybe someday I’ll become a writer. Or... I don’t know, something else. I want to become something, that’s all I know.
There was a skinny girl about my age sitting at a picnic table off to the side, also just observing. She had this really vivid red hair and freckles all over her face that made her look really young and innocent looking. Except as I got closer, I noticed she had a nose ring, which I thought was incredibly cool. I always found nose rings really fucking sexy, more than any other piercing.
The girl was talking on her cell phone and I heard her laugh as I got closer. It reminded me that I needed to get a cell phone. Having a phone where I could make calls just using my voice would really add to my independence. From now on, I was determined to do as much as possible to be independent. Obviously, there were a bunch of things that I’d never be able to do by myself, like transfer into my wheelchair, but anything that was possible, I was going to do it myself.
“Yeah, my folks dragged me to a church picnic, can you believe that?” the girl was saying. I could relate. “Oh god, it’s just horrible. I swear, they’re going to start having three-legged races any minute now.”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed at that. The girl turned sharply and looked at me. I felt self-conscious right away, but made an effort not to look away. I actually appreciated the fact that she didn’t immediately get embarrassed and try not to stare at me.
“Becky, I’ve got to go,” the girl said, then she shoved her phone into her pocket so she could give me her full attention. I have to say, I was really into that nose ring and the way it contrasted with her otherwise wholesome appearance. “Why are you listening in to my conversation?”
“It was funny,” I said, feeling suddenly shy and not sure what to say. “Um, were you in church today?”
“Yes,” the girl said. She was looking at me with these really intense blue eyes.
“I was too,” I said lamely.
She laughed. “Yeah, I noticed. It’s hard not to see a giant wheelchair in the back. I’m Leah, by the way.”
“Ryan,” I said.
To my surprise, Leah reached out and touched my left arm just below where my short-sleeved shirt ended. The shirt was just barely long enough to cover the tattoo on my arm, but Leah lifted the sleeve up to reveal the hawk tattoo in all its glory on my withered deltoid. Why a hawk? I have no fucking clue. I was wasted and I pointed to something on the wall, which I guess turned out to be a hawk. And now I’ve got a hawk on my arm for the rest of my life.
“Nice tat, Ryan,” she said. “You got more?”
I nodded. I have a few tattoos but I hardly ever think about them anymore and most of them I can’t even see. They’re kind of a relic of my old life. “I’ve got three,” I said. “I guess I could get more now, since I wouldn’t be able to feel it.”
Leah laughed at that. “Maybe we just met, but you don’t strike me as a pain wuss.”
“No, you’re right,” I said. “I like a little pain.”
“I thought so,” Leah said, with a bit of a mischievous glint in her eyes. “You want to see mine?” she asked.
I nodded again, trying not to seem too eager. Leah winked at me and stood up, doing a half-turn. I watched with a dry mouth as she pulled down her jeans slightly to reveal a rose tattoo on her lower back. If the nose ring was sexy, that tattoo was about a thousand times sexier.
We spent the next twenty minutes or so talking about tattoos. Leah was considering getting another one and she was asking my advice on designs and where the best location would be to get inked. I didn’t know a lot about it, but I liked talking to Leah. She was clever and funny, and incredibly sexy.
While deep in the middle of our conversation, someone at the picnic started calling out Leah’s name. She sighed and pulled her jeans back up. “Sorry, Ryan, I’ve got to go,” she said. “But I’m in town every couple of months. Maybe I’ll see you again?”
I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see Leah again, but as I watched her wiggle her sexy little ass off in the direction of her parents, I really hoped I would.
That night, I had another dream about the future.
This one was a little different. I was the same age, maybe around fifty, and still a quadriplegic. I was still completely dependent on my power wheelchair, and couldn’t move much other than my right biceps. Except this time I was dressed in a business suit, like I had done somewhere important. Like I had a job or some meeting that day.
As I wheeled into the dining room of a house, my house, I saw plates arranged around a table. A woman came into the room and she was attractive. She was maybe in her late forties like me, but she still looked good. She had a sweet, kind smile, and a really great rack. I knew she was someone important to me, like my girlfriend or maybe even my wife. She leaned in and kissed me on the lips and said, “How was work today, honey?”
And even though it was just a dream, I could smell something incredible cooking in the kitchen, and there were noises coming from upstairs like maybe there were kids up there who were on their way down for supper.
That’s when I woke up, except this time I wasn’t shaking or upset. I saw my wheelchair by my bed, like always, but it didn’t seem like a prison as much anymore. It was an obstacle maybe. But maybe it was also what saved my life.