Monday, December 12, 2011

Stewart's Story

Stewart returns home to face his past and make up for his mistakes but he soon discovers that everyone wants something from him. In particular, he doesn't trust the motives of his ex-girlfriend's flirty attention.

{Note: This story takes place in between (W)hole and Breath(e), novels by the same author}



***
            “You just drove that dinky car of yours across the entire country?” Claire huffed into the phone. “Stewart, one of these days you are going to give me an ulcer.”
            “That’s why I didn’t tell you about it,” he said, rolling down his car window and closing his eyes, smelling the salt air.. He was in California again, sitting in his car in the parking lot of his best friend’s apartment building. His Aunt Claire continued to tell him how stupid he had been until Stewart finally interupted her. “Claire, listen, I’m fine. I’m here, everything is good. Can I talk to you later?”
            “Oh, we will talk later. I have more to say to you. What if you had broken down in the middle of the country? What if you couldn’t get help? Giving a little bit of latitude to your weaknesses is not a bad thing, it’s a safe thing.”
            “I’m twenty-six years old, Aunt Claire, I can make my own choices.”
            “You just think about how your choices are going to affect everyone else if you die out on the road, unable to get help.”
            “Thinking about it right now, I’ll get back to you.” From here he could see his friend, Jeff's, apartment on the second floor. The window was open; he must be home.
            “Oh Stewart,” his aunt said with a sigh. “You know I only worry because I love you.”
            “I need to get a place to stay sorted out, okay? I’ll talk to you later. I promise.” He hung up his phone and pushed it into the front pocket of his jeans maneuvering against some resistance. He opened the car door, then leaned across to his passenger seat and grabbed the frame of his wheelchair, putting it on the pavement. Upended on the ground, the little caster wheels spun. He held it steady with one hand and attached the larger wheels one at a time with the other. They clicked easily into place. Getting a grip on the seat cushion, he shifted his butt onto the chair, then lifted his legs over one at a time. The whole maneuver took about thirty seconds. He slid his hands across the rails on his wheels, closed the car door, and locked it. He rested his hand on the door of the car for a moment, smiling at its faded blue. “Good girl,” he said softly.
            No one was in sight. It was a classic Los Angeles day with a comfortable heat and hardly a cloud in the sky. He pushed inside the building, glad that there was no reception area with a person to try to open the door for him and get in the way.
            He entered the elevator and pressed the button for the second floor. During the brief ride up, he moved his cell phone from where it was threatening to burst back out of his pocket and stashed it in the pouch behind his legs. He rolled slowly down the hallway, pushing against the low carpet, and stopped at Jeff's door, giving a quick knock.
            Jeff swung open the door and the look of surprise on his face was quickly replaced with a grin. “Back already,” he remarked. “You just couldn’t stay away.”
            That was the truth. “Good to see you too,” Stewart said. Jeff moved back and Stewart rolled into the small apartment that he remembered so well.
            “Do you want a beer?” Jeff said.
            “Absolutely,” Stewart said. He parked himself beside the sofa in the living room where he could see out the window to the balcony and the street that he had once run down in complete panic. Just looking at it, his heart began to beat a little faster. Jeff walked in and handed him a glass bottle beer, then slumped onto the sofa.
            “Not that I’m complaining,” Jeff said, “But I didn’t see you for seven years and now I’m seeing you twice in six months. Didn’t you have to get back to Massachusetts for the start of the school year?”
            Stewart was in his last year of getting a teaching degree to become a high school science teacher. He looked away from the window and back to his friend. “I transferred,” he said. “I was wondering if I could stay with you until I get set up here.”
            Jeff sat up straight suddenly. “Are you saying you’re moving back?”
            “That’s what I’m saying.”
            Jeff clapped his hands and said, “This is going to be awesome.”
            Over the summer Stewart had reluctantly agreed to come back to California at Jeff's insistence. His friend had wanted him to give a speech at the annual surfing competition. There was a time when Stewart dominated that competition.
            He had been surprised how nice it was to be back in the ocean, surfing again. When it came time to travel back to Massachusetts, he found himself reluctant to go. Stewart hadn’t expected to feel torn as he left. The ocean was pulling him, drawing him to stay. California was his home. It was where he had been born. Despite all the running he had done, what he had left behind here would not stay quiet in his mind.
            “You going to see your dad now that you'll be here longer than a few days?” Jeff said.
            “Wasn't planning to,” Stewart answered.
            Jeff didn't pursue the subject. “You're totally welcome to stay here as long as you need.”
            “Great, my bag is in the car.”
            “Why don't we get it on the way back after the bar? I need to get down there. The kid I hired part time gets off in about twenty minutes.”
            “Sounds good.”
            “Cool, I'm going to call Lee and Leah and see if they want to meet up with us. It'll be just like old times.”
            Stewart chuckled to himself. Jeff's optimism was unbeatable. It was unlikely to be just like old times. The summer he was sixteen Stewart was the local surfing champion, Leah was his girlfriend, and Lee was always in his shadow.
            Outside they started down the sidewalk towards the sunset.
            “Are you okay to, you know, well...walk?” Jeff said.
            Stewart looked up at his friend's concerned face and couldn't help the edge of his mouth twitching towards a smile. “I know where the damn bar is, Jeff. How many times have I crashed at your place?”
            “Okay, yeah, but that was seven years ago. Things are different,” Jeff said.
            “Right,” Stewart said, beginning to push down the street towards the bar. “I wasn't paralyzed.”
            “Now that you mention it,” Jeff said, “I thought something was different.”
            Stewart laughed. “I'm not offended by the word 'walk,' okay? So don't worry about it.”
            Sand was brushed up over the sidewalk and it caught in Stewart's wheels, showering down over his hands. The warm air picked up salt from the ocean as it whipped down the beach. Jeff's small wooden shack rested right at the edge. People crowded around the doorway smoking, more leaned against motorcycles or strolled slowly down the boardwalk nearby. As they got closer, Stewart noticed the wooden ramp on the side of the stairs.
            “This is new,” he said, pushing himself up it.
            “Someone told me I'd get a tax break,” Jeff said, “But I think he lied.”
            "You need an incentive not to break the law?" Stewart called over his shoulder. Jeff followed him inside.
             Stewart paused in the doorway to take in the scene. He had missed this place. Not much had changed in the years he'd been gone. There were a few tables, a long wooden bar, a small dance floor, everything in dark wood. This was where all the locals came. Jeff lived for this place, building it into the perfect hang out.
            Leah was already there. She was leaning over the bar, wearing a mini skirt that didn’t quite cover her butt and a sport’s bra. Her warm honey skin glistened, still wet from swimming. The few patrons inside were all riveted to her. As Stewart’s wheels rumbled onto the wooden floor, she turned and fixed him with her well-honed siren smile. Jeff gave her a wave, then went into the kitchen to get them food. Stewart slowly wheeled forward and Leah joined him at a table. He pulled a chair out of the way and slid into its place.
            “No girlfriend this time, huh?” Leah said.
            "Nope."
            "Good. That kid was strange."
            "Be nice, Leah. I care about Elizabeth a lot."
            "Whatever." Leah leaned back and her eyes slowly looked him up and down. “Is your foot supposed to do that?”
            “Huh?” Stewart looked down to see his foot shaking. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Don't worry about that.” He grabbed his knee and pulled the leg further in. “It'll stop in a minute.”
            “That's some weird shit,” Leah said, throwing back her drink.
            “I guess. Does it bother you?”
            “Yeah, I'll be honest. It's hard to see you like this. I remember you in such a different way, you know?”
            “You've changed too,” Stewart said with a smile.
            “Have not.” Leah laughed, smacking his shoulder. “Hey, I didn't hurt you, did I?”
            “Are you kidding? These shoulders are as solid as granite,” Stewart said, lifting the sleeve of his t-shirt.
            Leah touched his neck and slid her hand down to his shoulders. “Oh my God, they are like one enormous brick wall.” Her hand slid farther down his back to the top of the wheelchair.
            “Hey, hey, “Stewart said, “Let's keep those hands where I can see them.”
            “Your foot stopped.”
            Stewart looked down. “Oh yeah.”
            “What does that mean? Like does that mean you could get better?”
            “No.”
            “Sorry, I shouldn't have said.”
            “You can ask me whatever you want, Leah, we're friends. Really, whatever you want to know, just ask.”
            Leah smiled and put her bare foot against his crotch. “Does it still work?”
            “Woah,” Stewart said, rolling back. Her foot fell to the floor in front of her, an anklet jingling. She smiled at him.
            “I really don’t want to do this with you.”
            “Do what?” She leaned forward and smiled again, twirling a piece of her ocean-soaked hair in front of her.
            Jeff came over with baskets of burgers and drinks and put them down. “So,” Jeff said, “I was thinking that tomorrow we should catch the surf together, like old times.”
            “I can’t,” Stewart said, “I’m starting student teaching in the morning.”
            “Oh right,” Jeff said.
            "Saturday, though," Stewart said. "We can go Saturday morning."
            Leah hadn’t taken her eyes off Stewart and he was purposely not looking back at her. She wasn’t really interested in him, this was all a game. A game she was good at and always had been. All she wanted to do was win, not actually follow through on any flirting. But Stewart liked to win too.
            He decided to make her as uncomfortable as he possibly could. He pushed his hands against the seat of his wheelchair, shifting his body and thought score one for me when Leah looked away and fidgeted with her hair.
            “If we get out early enough to beat the tourists,” Jeff said.
            “Yeah, maybe,” Stewart said, looking at Leah. “But you know it takes me a while to get ready in the mornings these days.”
            She met his eye and he couldn’t read her expression. She certainly didn’t look disgusted or put off.
            “What about Lee?” Stewart said. “It’s not the old gang without your brother.”
            “He probably won’t make it,” Leah said.
            “He hasn’t been able to look at me since I came back in a wheelchair,” Stewart said, slapping his lap for emphasis.
            “Oh, so he’s an ass,” Leah said, “What else is new?”
            Stewart started laughing. He couldn't keep up the pretense. “Tell him I want to talk to him.”
            “He's scared to death of you.”
            “I know. And it's ridiculous.”
            Jeff went back to the bar to serve more customers.
            “Are you staying at a hotel?” Leah asked.
            Stewart shook his head. “I’ll crash on Jeff’s couch until I find a place.”
            “Isn’t a hotel easier for you? With, you know, the wheelchair and all?”
            “No. Most hotels are not nearly as accessible as they think they are. A lot easier to get Jeff to help me out than try to deal with them.”
            While they ate, Leah's eyes wandered around the place. Stewart guessed she was looking for a new victim to charm.
            “I'm going to head back to Jeff's, I have to get up early tomorrow for teaching.”
            Leah smiled. “You're getting old. And yet, somehow I stay the same.”
            “Ha. Ha,” Stewart said flatly. He rolled over to the bar and got Jeff's keys.
***
            Stewart opened his eyes to a still dark room, but Jeff was standing over him. Stewart started back against the pillow on the couch arm. "What are you doing?" he croaked, his voice still asleep.
            "Are you okay?" Jeff said.
            Stewart rubbed his eyes with one hand. "I was making noise?"
            “Yes, a lot of noise.”
            “Sorry. Bad dreams.”
            “Dude.”
            “I know, I know.”
            Jeff stumbled back towards his room and Stewart sighed. He had been prone to nightmares for years, always happening when he was stressed. Maybe he was more nervous about the student teaching than he had thought.
            In the morning he put on the new khaki pants and button down shirt that he'd bought just for this. When he left the apartment, Jeff wasn't awake. He stopped at a drive through for a coffee, then headed for the school.
            When he entered the building, a petite woman with curly brown hair and thick-rimmed glasses came out of an office and walked towards him.
            "You must be Stewart," she said, holding out her hand.
            Stewart shook it and said, "That's me." No doubt his professor had told her to be on the look out for a man in a wheelchair. Nice and easy to identify him.
            "I'm Betsy," she said. "I'm told that you've already done some observation in the classroom." She started to walk down the hall. Stewart kept pace with her, the wheeling smooth and easy on the waxed tile floor. "Do you feel comfortable getting right into the teaching?"
            "Sure," he said.
            At the door to the classroom, Betsy held it open and waited for him to roll through. Fifteen pairs of eyes fixed on him as soon as he entered. He grinned, but kept his gaze on where he was going, the front of the classroom. There was a tall, thick slab of a desk typical of science classrooms. He pulled up in front of it and looked at the children while Betsy introduced him. "This is Mr. Masterson," she said. "He'll be doing lessons for the rest of the quarter."
            These kids were eleven and twelve. Their eyes were curious, but they were waiting to see what he was like before anyone said anything. Stewart twisted in his chair and pulled a folder out of his backpack. There was no where to put the folder down, though, since the teacher desk was higher than his head. He rested it on his lap.
            "I understand that this week you've been talking about the laws of motion. Who wants to fill me in?"
            The girl front and center was happy to show off her knowledge. There was one in every classroom. When the girl was finished, Stewart took out some transparencies with cartoons illustrating motion. He pulled around the large desk to get to the screen above the blackboard. When he reached for the cord he found that its end was several inches above his hand.
            He could feel all the eyes in the room on the back of his head. There was no way he was going to be able to reach the cord. Things like this made it look like he was less competent than an able-bodied teacher, even though it was the environment that was the problem, not him. Would the observing teacher report that he wasn’t fit for the job because of this? Could he ask her to tie an extra string to it for him? He swallowed, then turned around with a smile on his face. "Who wants to help me get the screen in place?"
            Betsy rushed forward to do it while the kids just stared. Next time Stewart would have to find a way to involve the kids in helping him. It would connect them to him and make them feel more confident. There was still some awkwardness after the slides.
            "Okay," Stewart said, "Look at me." He turned so he was sideways to the kids and lifted his hands off his wheels. "If I want to move forward, what would I do? Pull or push?"
            That got their attention. Stop trying to ignore his wheelchair and use it instead. He showed them forward, backward, turning, and wheelies. Before the bell rang, Stewart said, "You've done great, so I'll open up for some not physics related questions."
            "What's wrong with your legs?" The boy who asked got smacked in the arm by the girl sitting beside him.
            "That's all right," Stewart said, "I'm not surprised it's on your mind. Have you guys taken biology yet?"
            The kids nodded.
            “Well, I was in an accident where my spine was broken. The nerves were torn and I was paralyzed. When you break a bone in your leg or your arm, it can heal. The spine doesn't do that. So my legs are affected only because they aren't getting information from my brain anymore.”
            This opened a floodgate of questions and Stewart answered each one until the bell rang. After the kids had run out, Betsy said, “I think that went very well. I'll see you tomorrow.” Stewart breathed a sigh of relief. With the first day down, it was only going to get easier.
            Even though Stewart told Jeff he had no intention of visiting his father, after school each weekday he found himself in the neighborhood. He took to parking across the street and just looking at the house. He hadn't been inside since he was fourteen years old and his father had sent him to the east coast to live with his aunt. Considering how badly his father wanted to erase the past, Stewart was surprised he still living in the house where Stewart's mother had died.
            But he knew they were there. He saw the family coming and going. A perfect little unit without him. From afar he observed his two little step sisters who had grown so tall and beautiful that he would not have recognized them if he hadn't seen them with his father.
            Stewart didn't know why he kept watching them. He didn't know what he expected to do, but he didn't plan to ever talk to them. When he got back to Jeff's each late afternoon, his friend never asked where he had been.
            One Wednesday Stewart watched as Ellen returned to the house alone. He suspected she had dropped the girls off for some activity. She parked her car and got out.
            Ellen was utterly different from how he remembered her. She was smaller and more meek. Without his cloud of anger he could see the twitchy worry on her face, the way she never looked sure of herself. How could he have screamed at this poor woman? Regret circled his chest. The only thing he had noticed about her back then was that she was so very different from his mother.
            Then Stewart realized she was looking back at him. She frowned and began to walk towards his car. Stewart fumbled with his key, hurrying to get away before she realized who he was. She was beside the car before he could pull away, though.
            She stood just to the side of the driver's door and frowned, looking in at him. He could practically see the gears turning in her head as she tried to work out why he looked familiar. Then her hand flew in front her mouth and her eyes filled with tears. She walked closer and he rolled down the window.
            “Stewart?” she whispered.
            “Hey, Ellen,” he said.
            There was fear in the creases around her eyes. She was thinking about the same moment he was, he was sure of it. In the stairwell of the house behind her, late at night, the only light from the open door of a bathroom on the second floor, her thin body pressed against the wall, and his hands holding her there.
            “It's been so long,” she said. She seemed to be having trouble figuring out what else to say. Though Stewart had seen his father most Christmases, he hadn't seen Ellen in twelve years. After that night when Ellen had confronted him for coming home wasted and he had left marks on her skin from shoving her against the wall, his father had shipped him off to South Carolina to live with Aunt Claire. He hadn't seen his step-mother since.
            “You should come in,” she continued.
            “It’s not that simple,” Stewart said, glancing behind her to the series of steps up to the front door of the house.
            “It is. Really, Stewart. The past is the past. I’ve so wanted the chance to talk to you again.”
            “No, I mean I really can’t.”
            “What do you mean? We haven’t seen you, I mean I haven’t seen you in years, and here you are. Don’t you want to talk?”
            “I can’t come in because of the stairs on the house.”
            She tilted her head and frowned. He realized that she couldn’t see the logo on his license plate and her gaze hadn’t shifted from him long enough to take in the jumble of wheels and tubes on the seat beside him. She had no idea that he was paralyzed. “Wait a minute,” he said. “My dad never told you?”
            “Told me what?”
            “Well, isn’t that just like him?”
            “I don’t understand.”
            Ellen moved back as Stewart opened the car door and shoved his thin legs out onto the ground. The surprise movement caused one of them to start shaking. “I can’t walk,” he said.
            Ellen opened her mouth then closed it again. She looked for a long time just at his legs. He followed her gaze down his jeans that looked like they would fit a twelve year old to his feet in sneakers on their sides, not flat against the ground as they would be if he were going to stand. He just let her look, gave her time to process it.
            Slowly Ellen's eyes rose back to his face and Stewart could read every emotion behind her eyes: shock, relief, then pity. Her tense body relaxed at last. “How long?” she said.
            “Seven years,” Stewart said.
            “Richard never said.”
            She was so easy to read. He saw her trying to reconcile that her husband had never mentioned her step-son almost dying and being paralyzed. “He wishes I didn't exist,” Stewart said, “It's okay.”
            “I never wanted that, Stewart. I hope you know that. I wanted us to be a family.”
            “It's not your fault. It's something between me and Dad.”
            “Can I tell him you were here?”
            “If you must,” Stewart said. “I wouldn't recommend it, though.”
            “Are you living in the area now?”
            “Yeah, I just moved back.”
            “I'd like to be able to reach you. Maybe we could start fresh.”
            Stewart nodded. “That's fair. Let me give you my phone number.”
            Ellen took it, then reached forward and gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Good to see you,” she said. He watched as she walked to the house, then he pulled his legs back in and drove to Jeff's.
            The apartment was empty when he got back, so he did some school work and ate chips from the cabinet. When it started getting late he took off towards the bar. As he got close he saw Leah sitting on a curb outside. Her eyes were gazing in an unfocused way at the pavement in front of her. No one else was around. Stewart changed course and headed for her. He pulled up in front of her. Leah looked at his feet and slowly, unsteadily, her gaze rose up the rest of his body to his face.
            "Hey, Stewart!" She smiled.
            "How drunk are you?" he said.
            She flicked her hand dismissively. He leaned forward and gripped her elbow while holding onto his wheelchair with his other hand to keep his balance.
            "Let me get you home," he said. She stood, then leaned over him, her long dark hair brushing against the sides of his face.
            "I knew you couldn't resist me," she whispered and her breath was warm against his forehead, smelling of beer and raspberries. He closed his eyes and clutched the seat of his chair for a moment to get control over himself. It isn't real, he reminded himself.
            "Where do you live?" he said.
            "This way." She started to walk forward, but she was unstable and her long legs seemed to be everywhere at once. Stewart was afraid he was going to run over her feet.
            His phone began to ring. He frowned and grabbed it out of the pouch behind his legs. Pete's mother's name appeared on the screen. Stewart felt the guilt tightening in his chest. "Hang on," he said to Leah, "I need to take this." Leah nodded and promptly sat down on Stewart's lap. He tried to disentangle himself from her limbs as he answered, but she wrapped her lanky arms around his neck and rested her head on his shoulder.
            "Ms. Morris," he said into the phone. "How are you?"
            "I hate this time of year," she said.
            "I do too," he said. It was the gray period in between when Pete died in the summer and his birthday near Christmas. Stewart had never told Ms. Morris that Pete's death was partly his fault. All she knew was that he had tried to save her son and had sacrificed the use of his legs to do it.
            "Do you ever feel like you're in the wrong life and your real life is waiting for you to get back to it?"
            "Yes," Stewart said. He knew exactly what she meant. Each morning while he did his stretches he had a moment while touching the legs that he couldn't feel where he disbelieved that this was his body.
            Leah began to kiss his neck and he swatted at her with one hand.
            “The house is so empty,” Ms. Morris said.
            “Have you thought about moving to another place?”
            “I don't think I can.”
            “That's okay.”
            “I want to visit you.”
            “I'd like that,” Stewart said. He said goodbye and hung up the phone.
            "Who was that?" Leah said.
            "It was Pete's mother." Stewart pushed forward and Leah gripped him tighter to keep from falling off his lap. She frowned. "Why is she calling you? That was seven freakin years ago and you did what you could. I mean, look at you."
            Stewart's jaw tightened as it did every time someone told him that he had done his best to save Pete. He swallowed hard and tried to keep his voice light. "She needs someone to listen to her."
            "Whatever," Leah said and she returned to nibbling at his neck. The warmth of her breath sent shivers through his torso.
            "Are there stairs at your place?" Stewart said, both to change the topic and because he wanted to know if he'd be able to see her in.
            She grinned at him.
            "Leah, focus. Are there stairs at your place?"
            "I'm on the first floor," she said in a low voice, running her fingers through his hair and giving a mild tug.
            "Pay attention so you can direct me," he said.
            “Turn right up there.” She pointed towards several tall palm trees, outlined against an inky blue sky.
            When they got to her door, Leah tried to fit her key in the lock, but kept missing. Stewart reached around her and touched her hand. The skin was as smooth as he remembered, buffed by the sand. He closed his hand over hers and directed the key into the lock.
            The apartment was a single room, strewn with clothes. Stewart forced his wheels over the obstacles on the floor with some annoyance. He didn't care at this point if he left tire tracks on her clothes. He hoisted her off his lap and she landed on the mattress on the floor. She giggled, rolling onto her back and fixing him with her sparkling dark eyes.
            “All the men around here are such jerks,” she said.
            “Right. So you come to me.” Stewart sighed, but she was already passed out, her head back and her arms wide. If all the men are jerks, who do you turn to? The one guy you don’t see as a real man.
            Stewart left, making sure the door was locked behind him.
***
            Stewart woke to the sound of his cell phone ringing. Bleary eyed, he felt around beside the couch until he found his empty wheelchair and grabbed the phone out of the pouch.
            “Hello?” he said.
            “Stewart, this is Ellen,” his step-mother said. Her voice sounded tight.
            “What's wrong?” he asked.
            “It's your father. He's had a stroke.”
            “Oh my God.”
            “And I just don't know what to do. He's going to be okay, they say, but it'll be a long recovery. They'll send him home in a few days and I can't deal with him all by myself.”
            “I'm sorry,” Stewart said.
            “You've got to come. He doesn't listen to me, but I know you can get through to him.”
            “I can’t even get into the house, how am I going to help?”
            “I’ll have a ramp put in. Please, Stewart. He needs you.”
            “He doesn’t need me, he hates me. He’s been trying to pretend I don’t exist for the past twenty years.” Stewart pinched the bridge of his nose. “He's going to be furious when he finds out you invited me.”
            “Does that mean you'll come?”
            Stewart sighed. “Yeah, it does.”
            Stewart hung up and put the phone back, then rubbed his eyes and groaned. It was too late to go back to sleep. He had to get up for teaching.
            In the afternoon Stewart began to gather his things back into his duffel bag. He'd just gotten his toothbrush from the bathroom when Leah burst through the door.
            “Beat it, Jeff,” she said.
            “Hey!” Jeff responded from the kitchen, “This is my apartment.”
            Leah turned and fixed him with a stare, raising one eyebrow and he slunk into the hallway.
            “What happened to you last night?” Leah demanded, turning on Stewart. One hand was on her hip.
            “You passed out,” Stewart said, “I went home.”
            “I don't get you, Stewart.” She walked over to the couch where he had been spending his nights and sat down with her legs wide.
            “What's not to get?”
            “Stop packing for a minute and talk to me. You weren't even going to tell me you were moving?”
            “I'm just going to my dad's.” He put his duffel bag on the floor and stopped moving, facing her.
            “Why do you keep putting me off?”
            “Come on, Leah, I know you don't really want washed up old me.”
            “You must have a pretty low opinion of me if you think that I can’t deal with you being in a wheelchair.”
            “Be honest with me and be honest with yourself.”
            “You act like you’re totally comfortable and secure with your disability, but maybe you’re the one who needs to be honest with themselves. I swear to God, when I look at you I just see Stewart. The same Stewart I loved as a kid. The changes are just details.”
            “I wish I could believe that, but I know the kind of men you date and it’s not me.”
            “Sure,” Leah said, snorting. “You know everything. Clearly my pattern is jerks.” And she left the apartment, pulling the door shut behind her with as much force as her lean, muscular arms could manage. The entire apartment seemed to shake.
            The door opened slowly and Jeff gingerly walked back in. “What the hell did you say to her?”
            Stewart glared at him. “I don't want to talk about it.” He continued to pack his things into his duffel bag.
            “You’re about to explode,” Jeff said.
            “I’m fine.”
            “Look, I understand, it’s more than you expected. After hiding away from all us lunatics, it’s got to be difficult to come back and deal with us again.”
            “You’re cool,” Stewart said, a smile creeping onto his face, “I got no problem with you. The others I can handle. I’ve had plenty of people in South Carolina and Massachusetts wanting things from me too. I have it under control.”
            “You sure about that?”
            “Yeah,” Stewart said, not at all convinced himself.
            He threw his bag into the back of his car and pulled his body into the driver's seat. While he disassembled his chair and put it on the seat beside him, he wondered what he would find at his father's house. He had to admit he was curious to see the inside of the house again, to see how it had changed and whether it still felt the same or not. He called Ellen and let her know he was on his way.
            She had done as she said and there was an aluminum ramp over the stairs. It was steep and it creaked and shook as Stewart wheeled up, but it worked. When the door opened Stewart saw the two girls standing in front of him. They just stared at first.
            “Hey,” he said. “Remember me?”
            They were eerily similar, both tall and thin with long blonde hair, both wearing tight jeans and layers of different colored t-shirts. Both nodded at him. One was slightly taller than the other. Stewart tried addressing her. “You're Samantha, right?” he said.
            “Yes,” the shorter one said. “And I'm Sylvia.”
            “You were this tall when I left,” Stewart said, holding his hand out flat at the same level as the top of his wheel.
            “Mom said you were coming back,” Samantha said, her voice much softer than her younger sister.
            “And you didn't believe her, did you?” Stewart said.
            “I did at first,” Sylvia said. “But you didn't and you didn't and you didn't.”
            Stewart nodded. “I'm sorry about that,” he said. They were all quiet for a moment, then Stewart said, “So, has Dad been behaving himself?”
            The girls giggled.
            “I'll take that as a no. Lead the way.”
            They stepped back and Stewart pulled up on his wheels to get over the edge of the doorway. He followed the two girls down the hall. He wheeled slowly while he looked around. A lot was different: new paint color on the wall, new pictures hanging, new types of decorations. He wouldn't have known it was the same house.
            “He's in there,” Sylvia whispered, indicating the back den. The girls backed away. They didn't seem to want to go anywhere near their father. Stewart rolled to the doorway and gently nudged the door open with his knees.
            Inside, the room was dim. A single tall lamp in the corner cast an orange glow across a circle of the floor. The room was set up as a study, but there was now a twin bed with white sheets blocking the rust colored couch. It didn't look like it belonged. Beside the bed was a large, boxy wheelchair with stickers on it indicating the hospital it came from.
            His father was laying on his side on the bed. Richard's face hadn't been shaved in several days and his clothes were stained. He looked like a vagrant Ellen had found on the side of the road more than he looked like Stewart's father. The face of the man didn't move much, but his eyes were staring at Stewart with rage and hatred. To the side, Ellen was kneeling on the ground and trying to change Richard's socks.
            She stopped as Stewart came in and the look on her face was gratitude and relief.
            “What are you doing here?” Richard said and Stewart was startled by the way the words ran together even though he knew that his father's speech could easily have been affected by the stroke.
            “I'm an expert on 'can't move',” Stewart said. He rolled farther into the room.
            Richard grunted and moved his eyes down to the carpet. Ellen stood and lightly ran over to Stewart. “Thank you so much for coming,” she said. “Can I talk to you out in the hall?”
            Stewart nodded and backed up out of the room. Ellen closed the door gently behind her.
            “He needs help with everything and he yells about it,” she whispered. “I'm so frazzled.”
            “It's okay,” Stewart said. “I can handle him.” He knew that Ellen wasn't used to seeing the angry side of Richard. He reserved that for the people he didn't respect. “So what's his situation?” Stewart asked.
            “He's needing to relearn a lot of motion and he is weak on his left side. We have a physical therapist coming to the house each day, but a lot of the time it's just me and I have to go to work. Will you be able to stay with him?”
            Stewart nodded. “Student teaching ends next week and then I'll be free.”
            Ellen looked down at the floor and said even more softly, “You still have money from your mother?”
            Stewart swallowed. “Yeah,” he said, “I do.”
            “We'll pay for your food and you living here and all that, of course.”
            “Sure. It's no problem. Go on now,” Stewart said, nodding to the rest of the house. “Let me take care of it.”
            Ellen smiled and leaned down to take his hands from his lap and squeeze them. “Bless you,” she said.
            Stewart went into the room again, this time alone. Richard's eyes were closed and he didn't respond when Stewart came back in. Stewart assessed the room and decided he needed to get the rug out of the way. It was a thick, patterned rug and Stewart could tell just by looking at it that he wouldn't be able to wheel over it. While his father lay quietly, Stewart leaned over and rolled the rug, pushing it with his feet until it was against the far wall.
            “What are you doing here?” Richard groaned from the bed.
            Stewart looked at him. “Helping,” he said.
            “I don't need you.”
            “Sure,” Stewart said. “Why don't we get you up so I can change those sheets?”
            Richard snorted and didn't move. Stewart grabbed hold of the ugly, shiny wheelchair that was so different from his own. He pulled it to the side of the bed and set the brake. Then he pulled himself as close to the bed as he could get and set his own brake.
            Stewart leaned over, one hand on the edge of his chair to keep his balance, the other getting under his father's good arm. “Okay, here we go.” Thank goodness for the core muscles he still had. “Are you going to help or what?”
            “What's the point?” Richard said.
            Stewart ignored him and dragged his father into the chair without help. He gave it a solid push to get it out of the way and went to find the sheets. Richard slumped and watched as Stewart fixed up the bed.
            “Do you need to use the bathroom?” Stewart asked.
            Richard glared at him.
            “Right,” Stewart muttered. He turned his father towards the bathroom, then got behind him and nestled his knees against the canvas back of the other chair. His arms burned with the effort of pushing both of them, but it worked. In the bathroom there was a seat over the toilet and Stewart helped his father onto it. Then he backed out of the room to give him privacy.
            When Stewart came back in Richard said, “Is this what you do? With this stupid thing?” He rolled his head at the raised toilet seat with handles.
            “No,” Stewart said while getting Richard back in the other wheelchair.
            Richard made a skeptical sound. Stewart said, “You don't need to worry about how I use the bathroom, okay?”
            Before getting his father back into bed, Stewart finished changing the socks that Ellen had been trying to do. He bent down and when he was finished, he pushed his body back up by gripping his own knees and pushing up with his arms.
            He got Richard back into bed and covered him with a blanket, then left him alone.
***
            Stewart finished his student teaching and then he stayed at the house, prodding Richard and taking care of him while being treated with sullen silence or insults. He wondered how long he would keep doing this. His father was definitely making improvement and the physcial therapist frequently reassured Ellen that a full recovery was likely.
            Stewart suspected that Ellen was hoping this situation might connect him to his father again. Stewart doubted that was going to happen. Richard still hated him and it wasn't as though helping him to get dressed or use the bathroom was making them bond as father and son.
            One day while Stewart was doing some exercises on Richard that the physical therapist had shown them, his cell phone rang. Stewart put down his father's leg and said, “I'll be right back.”
            He backed to the edge of the room and looked at the phone. It was his aunt's number.
            “Claire?” he said.
            “Actually it’s John,” his uncle said.
            “Is everything okay?” Stewart glanced back at Richard, who was trying to turn over and kicking all the sheets off the bed in the process.
            “Not exactly,” John said.
            Suddenly he had all of Stewart's attention and nothing in the room registered anymore. “Oh my God. Are Claire and the kids…?”
            “They’re fine. It’s Ms. Morris.”
            Though the room returned to normal, Stewart felt his chest tightening. “What's happened?” he said.
            “I'm sorry, Stewart, but she's taken her life.”
            Stewart could think of nothing to say. He felt the world change in that instant as his mind tried to re-imagine it without Pete's mother. All the years since Pete died Stewart had kept in touch with her, tried to keep her going. It was the only way he could see to redeem himself from his role on that stormy July day.
            “Stewart?” John said. “Are you okay?”
            “Yeah,” he said. He took a deep breath. “Listen, I'm not going to be able to go to the funeral, they need me here.”
            “I don't need a babysitter,” his father piped up from the other side of the room.
            “Shut up,” Stewart called over his shoulder.
            “It's okay,” John said over the phone. “Everyone knows how much you helped her over these last few years.”
            “Thanks for telling me.” Stewart hung up and sat still for several minutes, the phone still in his hand.
            “My sister okay?” Richard said and Stewart's attention snapped back.
            “Yes.” Stewart turned and wheeled back to the bed. “It's Ms. Morris. She killed herself.”
            Richard snorted. “Is that all? That crazy bitty finally offed herself. About time she put herself out of her misery.”
            Stewart's anger coursed through him so quickly that before he realized what he was doing he had grabbed hold of his father's arm and was squeezing tight.
            Richard smiled. “You see?” he said, “I know the real you. And you're no different. You're just as violent as ever, nothing has changed.”
            Stewart let go and stared into his father's face. Was it true? Had he not changed from the angry little boy he had been? He swallowed hard. His phone, resting on his lap, beeped and Stewart looked down at a text message from Jeff. Come by the bar tonight? Stewart picked it up and texted back, Absolutely. On my way.
            “I'm going to go,” he whispered. He piveted and pushed out of the room with Richard laughing behind him. “That's right,” Richard said, “Run away.”
            Stewart found his step-mother and told her that he needed a break.
            “Of course,” Ellen said. She squeezed his shoulder. “Everything okay?”
            “Yeah. Just someone I know died.”
            “Oh, I'm so sorry, Stewart.”
            Stewart nodded. “I'm going to go out for a while.”
            “Sure,” Ellen said.
            When he got to the bar, it was busy. Jeff was running back and forth from the kitchen and barely had time to even nod. As Stewart looked around the room his gaze stopped when he saw Lee, who had not yet noticed him in the crowd. Suddenly this was looking like a set up. He knew Jeff well enough to recognize it. His friend must have seen Lee there and told Stewart to come without mentioning it to Lee. And Jeff was right. Stewart did want to talk to Lee.
            He edged his way through the people, muttering, “Excuse me” every few moments and trying not to run over toes. When Lee looked up and caught sight of Stewart, his eyes grew large and he glanced around as though looking for a door to escape through.
            Stewart rolled directly in front of him and said, "What is your problem?"
            Lee looked down, watching his shoe as it scuffed at a mark on the floor. "I don't have a problem," he said.
            "Look at me," Stewart said. He waited until Lee finally raised his eyes from the ground. "We need to talk about what happened to Pete and what happened to me, let's go outside where we can get some privacy.” The look in Lee's eyes was fear. Stewart wondered what his old friend thought he could do to him.
            Behind the bar, on a strip of boardwalk between it and the beach, next to a dumpster, they found a private space.
            “You froze,” Stewart said. “You didn't do anything.”
            Lee swallowed, then nodded. “How did you know?”
            “Jeff told me.”
            Lee looked away, crossed his arms.
            “Look,” Stewart said, “It's okay. It happens. None of us knew what to do.” He paused, then took a guess at what was bothering Lee. “I'm not upset that you have your career.”
            “Yeah, right,” Lee muttered.
            Stewart shook his head and smiled. “I hope you'll believe me. I think things happened how they happened and there's no point trying to figure out what we could have done differently. If we did that, I wouldn't have teased Pete and he wouldn't have been out in the ocean in the first place.”
            Lee nodded.
            "You're suffering too,” Stewart said, “I know you are. It's got to be hard that no one can see your wounds, while mine are obvious.”
            “I can't stop thinking about it,” Lee said. “Over and over in my mind. I mean, shit man, look at yourself.”
            “I'm fine, Lee, trust me.”
            “How did Jeff manage to get his wits together and call 911?”
            Stewart shrugged. “Luck?”
            That night, long after everyone had gone to bed, Stewart returned to his father's house. The door creaked open and he rolled into the dark hallway. He thought about packing his bag and leaving right now. Richard wasn't interested in mending anything between them and it wasn't Stewart's job to change that. Things could go back to the way they had been.
            Some part of him already knew he wasn't going to give up. He would see this project through, make sure his father was healed and then he would find his own place and see his sisters there once in a while. That would be it.
            In the morning Stewart continued his routine as though Richard had never upset him.
            “Came slinking back, did you?” Richard said when Stewart brought in his breakfast.
            “Just eat,” Stewart said. Richard was able to feed himself now, a noticeable improvement from when Stewart first arrived. When Richard had finished, Stewart moved into place to help him get into the other wheelchair and into the bathroom. With his arm over Stewart's shoulder, Richard muttered, “Life like this isn't worth it.”
            Stewart rolled his eyes. “You know what? It isn't all or nothing. I've been living for years with less than full function and it's completely doable. You don't have to give up as soon as you lose a little bit. Grow up.”
            “That's rich.”
            “Can we just get through this? Talking isn't necessary.”
            “You don't know,” Richard said, his hot breath hitting Stewart's face. “You don't know anything.”
            “Fine.”
            “I didn't deserve this,” Richard muttered. Stewart stopped in the doorway to the bathroom and looked at his father. “And I did?” he said.
            Richard didn't answer, but the look on his face said that's exactly what he thought. “You think that I deserved to get paralyzed?” Stewart continued.
            Richard looked at him, eyes burning with anger. “You were such a brat. Stubborn, difficult, diffident.”
            “I lost my mother,” Stewart said.
            “And I lost my wife. You didn’t care how I felt.”
            “I was six!”
            A voice behind them said, “Is this a bad time?”
            Stewart twisted his chair and saw Leah standing in the doorway. He frowned. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
            “You might not stand up for yourself, but I'm your friend and I will.” She walked closer to where Richard was in the bathroom and Stewart just outside it. Looking right at his father, she said, “Your son is a good man. You're lucky to have him. I hope you can see that. Don't be such an ass to him.”
            Both men were too surprised to say anything and Leah turned and strode out of the room.
            “Who was that?” Richard said.
            “We used to date,” Stewart said.
            “What a looker,” Richard said. “Not surprised you couldn't hang on to her.”
            “Yeah,” Stewart said.
            Once he got his father back into bed Stewart felt his own exhaustion. Jeff was right, he was close to bursting. Definitely time for him to visit his favorite place and get some peace. He slipped by the kitchen where Ellen and the girls were eating without them seeing him and got out the front door. While he drove towards the beach, he wondered about Leah showing up like that. Had Jeff told her to? Did she really think telling Richard off was going to help? He had to admit it felt nice that she had made the attempt.
            There was one spot that he always went to relax and reflect. No one else came to this corner, far from the tourist attractions. He sat at the edge of the boardwalk and watched small waves getting tangled in rocks. Between the rocks and him there was sand that was almost as white as snow. The air was thick with salt and all was silent except for the rushing sound of the water itself.
            Behind him he heard light footsteps against the wooden boardwalk. When he turned his head, Leah was walking towards him, barefoot with flip-flops tangling from one hand.
            “I swear to God,” Stewart said, “How do you people get by without me?”
            Leah sat down beside him, her butt on the sandy wood of the boardwalk. He could only see the top of her head. “We manage,” she said. “You don't have to take it all on by yourself, you know.”
            They sat side by side in silence for a few minutes. Then Stewart said, “Pete's mother is dead.”
            “I'm sorry,” Leah said. They both continued to look down towards the water. “Why does it bother you so much?”
            Stewart crossed his arms. “I wanted to help,” he said. “The truth is, if not for me, Pete never would have been trying to surf during that storm. I goaded him into it.”
            “Wow,” Leah said.
            “Yeah. I thought if I could help his mother, I could fix what I'd done.”
            Leah scooted closer to his chair and leaned her head against the side of his knee. “You brought her peace. I'm sure of it. And it's time for you to let it go.”
            “Do you think I've changed?” Stewart said. “Have I become a better person than the one who taunted Pete?”
            “Take it from me,” Leah said, “I've known you most of your life and you have changed. You're not that cocky boy anymore. Don't keep beating yourself up over the past. We were all dumb kids.”
            Leah stood up and walked down onto the sand, turning back with the wind blowing her hair in all directions. Stewart couldn't help thinking she looked like a sea goddess. "Come join me," she said.
            "Do you think that's a good idea?" he asked.
            "I think it's the best idea I've ever had."
            He smiled. He leaned over his legs and placed one hand flat on the sand, but it was too soft and he ended up tumbling out of his wheelchair onto the beach, laughing. His legs were twisted around each other.
            Leah giggled and grabbed his ankles, pulling him down towards her and straightening his body in the process. Though it was dark out, the air was still warm. Leah climbed up Stewart, straddling him. He looked up at her dark eyes and wondered at how strange it was that when they were teenagers, he had never taken a moment to really just look at her. Then she leaned forward and pressed her lips on his. He reached his arms around her and held her tightly against himself. He smelled deeply of her salty hair and honey skin.
            “We’re good together,” Leah said, “And you know it.”
            “Yes,” Stewart said, surrendering. “We are.”
***

10 comments:

  1. I'm really excited to read your upcoming work.

    Stewart's life seems kind of sad, or the people around him... but regardless I still want to read what happens

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  2. I do challenge the poor guy :) He'll have a lot more fun in the erotic stories, I think!

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  3. Ah, I'm glad you're not done with him. :) It was a good read, thanks!

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  4. Very enjoyable ! Thanks very much for sharing it.

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  5. This is my first time reading about Stewart and I thought this was fantastic. I'll have to check out (W)hole.

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  6. That's what I like to hear, Bethany! lol.

    He is probably my favorite character that I've ever created. I'm a little bit in love with him, so I will definitely continue to write about him.

    In fact, I just finished the first erotica piece about him and Leah: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/114406

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  7. Please say there's more coming in this story! I want to find out what happens between Stewart and his deranged dad!

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  8. I'm sure I'll be working on more stories with Stewart, not to fear :D Good to know that there's interest in how things resolve with his dad, I'll start thinking about that.

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  9. But! But! I thought this was a 30 page story, and it scrolled as 1 page, so I thought there'd be lots more to come like NOW! There isn't?!?!

    Okay. I'll be patient while you're thinking. And writing.....

    Being patient.

    Still being patient......

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    Replies
    1. I'm sorry! I should have been more clear. I meant that it is 30 pages when in a word processing document or if it were to be printed out in a standard way.

      I don't like to split my stories up into sections because I find that the sections get lost and difficult to keep track of, so I just paste the entire thing into one post.

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