Here is an old story, in two parts, that I only recently remembered I had tucked away some time ago. I borrowed bits and bobs from it for my other multi-chapter story, Coming Home, though I don't have the time or energy to figure out what. So there may be a few moments that overlap, and for that I am sorry.
I hope you enjoy it anyway.
Cooper flew awake, consciousness hurling him upward from his dreamworld with all the delicacy of a catapult. His diaphragm shuddered with the effort of the breaths it dragged weakly into his lungs, and it took a full minute for the popcorn ceiling six feet above him to come into full focus. But the moment it did, Cooper forced his eyes shut again, blocking out reality in favor of the fantasy he'd been living sixty seconds earlier.
He is back in the shell, the small form of his coxswain, Jake, cajoling from the stern, "Power 10!" They may be Cooper's favorite words in the English language. They mean, "Go; dig deeper than you think you can; you can do anything for ten strokes." And the response from Cooper, and the rest of his crew, is instantaneous. Sinew and skill meet willpower in a surge of pure energy. Pulling at the grips of their blades for all they're worth, Cooper and his teammates sail the final stretch over the imaginary regatta finish line as Jake chortles triumphantly, relaying to them that their training session has been their fastest all week.
Something catches Cooper's eye as he pants from his spot in the long, narrow boat, and he grins as he watches the small shell across the cut. It is a much-smaller boat in comparison to Cooper's: a coxed-four, ferrying a quartet of kids who look to be about eight or so, the age Cooper'd been when he'd started rowing. A "quad," they called that kind of boat...
At the memory of the term, Cooper reopened his eyes with a sigh of frustration. There was nowhere he could escape. Because, for the past three years, since the accident that had nearly cut his spinal cord in half between his C3 and C4 vertebrae and robbed him of almost all of his mobility and independence, the word "quad" had taken on a whole new meaning.
So Cooper forced himself to scan the room as he did most mornings, taking it in, ripping it off like a band-aid. In rehab, his PT had sworn to him the dreams would eventually fade, that someday he wouldn't wake up convinced everything since that night in September 2011 was just a nightmare he was rousing from. Unfortunately, Cooper was still waiting for that transition.
As it stood now, most mornings Cooper still woke like this, jettisoned violently from an alternate universe of movement and sensation. And not just an alternate universe, but a hopelessly parallel one, with a trajectory fixed to never again intersect with his own.
So he wetted his paper dry lips, gritted his teeth, and had a look around.
First, the clock, which reported a time of 5:57AM.
Second, the Hoyer lift, whose nylon sling dangled patiently beside his bed, swinging almost-imperceptibly in the soft flow of conditioned air from the vent in the ceiling above it.
Third, The Chair. The great, blackly tumorous monstrosity of it, hulking there in the center of the room. Cooper's 6'5" frame, a fine physical attribute before, worked against him now. To hold his lanky stretches of arm and leg and torso, The Chair was itself enormous. At least it seemed so in the mornings and at nights, when Cooper wasn't strapped into it, and could see it better.
Lastly, Cooper's eyes fell to his own ruined body, laid out before him lifeless as a cadaver in a morgue. Well, not quite that lifeless, as his eyes caught the shallow rise and fall of his broad chest beneath the thin cotton knit blanket that covered him.
A rustle of movement in the hallway outside his room and the plastic snick of a light switch drew his eyes once more to the clock on his bedside table: 6:00AM now. Right on time.
As he expected, a hollow tap-tap-tap sounded on the composite-core door to his bedroom. He swallowed with some difficulty, having to prepare his morning voice for speech without the benefit of a cough or throat-clearing. Those required muscles he no longer had access to. "Come in," he managed to quietly call out after a second gulp.
The baggy-eyed face of his mother peeked around the doorframe, and she smiled sleepily at him as she opened the door all the way and shuffled in in her pajamas. She paused a foot inside the door, tightened the belt of her fuzzy pink bathrobe closer around her, and poised her hand above the light switch.
She asked quietly, "Ready for lights?"
"Yeah," he replied, squinting against the sudden brightness as she flicked them on.
She made her way to his bedside, smoothing her wiry hair and wrestling it into a messy ponytail atop her head, securing it with a black elastic she retrieved from her wrist. Beside him, her manner changed, her identity molting. Dropping "mother" like a coat discarded on the floor, she became "nurse." Busy, efficient, no-nonsense. It was a trick she'd developed to help them both survive, and it was probably the only reason either had survived. The indignity for Cooper, at being handled and cared for like a baby, at the age of twenty-eight, was crushing. And the sorrow for Julia, at seeing her eldest son's pain and loss of freedom, was suffocating. But if they each pretended they were someone else for a couple hours in the morning, and a couple hours again at night, it was just manageable. Barely. So she was nurse. And Cooper was patient...in every sense of the word.
Patience. His life since his injury required giant heaping gobs of the stuff. Paralyzed permanently from the neck down, Cooper's life at times seemed to him one long hellish waiting game.
Waiting...as his mother briskly detached the night bag from his catheter tubing and replaced it with a smaller leg bag, then vanished into the ensuite bathroom.
Waiting...for her to empty and clean and leave the night bag drying for later reuse, the bleach smell wafting out to him.
Waiting...until she returned to him and instructed him to take one, then two, then a third breath. On the third, the heels of her hands pressed down abruptly into his abdomen, just below his ribcage. The resulting forceful exhalation was what passed for a cough for him these days, and was vital to his respiratory health.
And it only got worse from there. After Julia had finished coughing Cooper, she rocked his hips gently back and forth as she tugged down his flannel pajama pants and boxers. Cooper looked away. He had little desire to examine his thin legs and absolutely zero to see the thick nighttime diaper that hid his perpetually flaccid penis. Julia unfastened the diaper at the tabs and, using practiced movements, slowly rolled Cooper onto his side. This left his bare (and, he hoped, clean) ass exposed to her as she pulled up a chair to the right side of his bed. He heard the snap of her latex glove and knew that next on her agenda, though Cooper couldn't see or feel it, was the insertion of a suppository into and gentle "digital stimulation" of, his rectum.
Cooper remembered his surprise and confusion when the nurse in the hospital had used the term. She was the first to explain to him that he would no longer have control over his bladder and bowel functions, but he'd almost been distracted from that fact by the idea of being stimulated "digitally." Images of computer readouts and electrodes and robots had crowded into his imagination, until she'd held up her forefinger. "Digital," she explained, waggling it. "As in the digits of the hand." Cooper had felt sick.
For thirty minutes, Julia intermittently stimulated his bowel and quietly read, turning pages in her book with her non-gloved hand while they waited for his movement. Julia had offered many times to read aloud to him during the process, but Cooper always declined, thinking but not saying that he preferred the illusion that he could still take a crap without someone else in the room. Sometime after the half-hour mark, the familiar rustle of the chux underneath him broke his drowse and told him his bowel program for the morning was complete. He was lucky, he knew. His BP was shorter and simpler than most high quads. Of course, he was unlucky too, in that three years post-injury, he was still relegated to using a diaper, as "accidents" happened with depressing frequency.
Cooper mentally swatted down the thought, like his therapist was teaching him to do. All through the next two hours, as Julia bathed him and then dressed him, Cooper's limp body belied an active mind. He drew upon all the reserves he had from years of competitive sports to mentally wage war on the negativity that threatened to overrun his emotional battlements every morning.
Finally, the bedside clock read 8:24AM, and Cooper was "up." Julia adjusted the chest strap that held him upright, twisted the long arm of his sip and puff controls to within the limited reach of his mouth, and suddenly Cooper was able to move his body from place to place under his own volition for the first time in ten hours. He didn't go far though; he traveled the length of his room and parked at his desk. He grabbed his mouthstick from its perch in the holder, pressed the power button on his computer, and his day began.
Two and a half hours later, Cooper smiled at the new arrival in his inbox. Using his voice controls, he politely commanded his computer to open it. It did so obediently, but as he read, the smile evaporated:
No way! My cousin rowed in college, too! Do you still go out sometimes? Doug (the cuz) just moved here and would love to have a buddy to hit the water with some weekend.
Administrative Support to Omar Benford
Benford Private Investigations
A hot flush crept up the back of Cooper's neck. He closed his eyes, clenched his jaw, and breathed out through his nose. Dammit, Omar, he mentally reprimanded his boss. Here Cooper'd been working under the assumption that Meaghan knew about him. And by "knew about him," of course he meant the only thing that seemed salient to most people these days. Cooper dropped his head and rolled it slowly back and forth, stretching therapeutically against the tendons in his neck that often became taut as bowstrings after several hours at his computer.
When he reopened his eyes, his gaze settled on his left hand. It was a fine hand, long-fingered and wide-palmed. Like the rest of Cooper, it was oversized, and had at one point been exceptionally strong. Now, however, it was still, in eternal repose on the molded armrest of his chair. Its identical twin on his right was the same. Of all the losses he'd suffered in the previous three years, his hands had been the most gutting. He could handle the inability to walk, the lack of trunk stability, the compromised breathing, the incontinence--hell, even the life-threatening bouts of autonomic dysreflexia and the impotence. But his hands. His fucking hands. Without them, he was helpless.
A sharp knock at the door pricked the bubble of self-pity.
Cooper looked up and called, "Come in!"
Flushed and sweating, Callie pushed into the room with characteristic vigor. "Coop!" she cried out, rounding on him from behind and flinging her arms about him in a tight squeeze. She smelled of sunlight and salt, and radiated a palpable heat, having just come from a morning of volleyball. After a moment, she released Cooper and he heard her flounce down onto the couch behind him.
"This feels so nice," she murmured, her voice strangely muffled. As Cooper grabbed his straw and turned his chair to face her, he discovered why: She'd pressed as much of the exposed skin on her 6'1" frame into the cool brown leather as possible, including her face.
"We're gonna have to hose that couch down when you're done with it," he teased.
"No problem," she retorted, "as long as I get to stay like this for the next thirty."
But she didn't stay there for the next thirty seconds. She heaved a sigh after a maximum of five, then sat up and back, melting comfortably into the overstuffed folds. She looked at Cooper and smiled, the joy in her big blue-green eyes almost completely masking the worry that lived there like a stubborn tenant. His mother had it, too, and his younger brother, Cameron. Cooper had long since stopped trying to evict it.
"You want lunch?" Callie offered.
"Depends," Cooper waffled. "Are you cooking?" He mock-grimaced as he asked, feigning concern.
"Hilarious," Callie snorted, brushing off his playful insult. "But no, Mom said there was leftover lasagna in the fridge."
"Oh, well in that case, sure. Let's do lunch."
Callie hopped up from her spot on the couch and loped out of the room, all swinging limbs and and easy grace. Cooper reached for his mouth controls again and puffed a direction for his chair to follow her.
"You ready for spring semester?" Cooper queried around the white plastic control in his mouth, and over the shushed whir of his chair's motor in the narrow hallway.
Callie's reply was preceded by a pained groan that rendered her actual answer redundant. "Not even close."
Cooper suspected she was being dramatic. Callie was in her junior year at Cooper's alma mater, majoring in international business, and set to graduate summa cum laude in a year's time. And this while also managing to juggle, as Cooper had in his time at school, being a star varsity athlete. As Cooper watched Callie stride and spin around the small kitchen, he was reminded of other tasks she now juggled, as well. Like forgoing the normal spring break activities her peers were currently enjoying, so she could be here for an older brother who could no longer care for himself. She'd never had a proper spring break, since the holiday always fell during Julia's busiest time at the accountancy firm where she was an office manager and Cooper had been injured in fall of her freshman year.
He knew that he wasn't the only one who suffered. And sometimes that was worse than his own pain.
As he thought it, Callie looked across at him from her spot in front of the microwave, its slowly trundling glass tray bumping within. "You having a good day, Coop?" she asked quietly.
"Yeah, of course," he deflected, shooting back a smile of his own that he hoped reached his eyes.
Before she could ask a follow-up, the microwave beeped its four-note alert. Callie finished dishing up their lunch, then moved to join Cooper at the table. As she folded into the chair beside him, she caught him squinching his nose. "Itch?"
"Allergies," Cooper muttered.
Callie stretched out her long, tan arm and gently scratched Cooper's nose.
"Thanks," he said. A shrug was her nonchalant response.
A few moments of silence passed while she cut up the lasagna on one of the plates. She speared a piece with a fork and held it to her lips to ensure it wasn't too hot, then offered it to Cooper. When Julia cared for him, the modus operandi was to drop identities. With Callie, whose care for Cooper was (blessedly) less intimate, they had a tacit agreement to never, ever talk about what was actually happening. That his baby sister, six years his junior, was feeding him because he could no longer do it for himself? Off-limits, conversationally speaking.
And so they talked about other things: Callie's boyfriend, Scott, who'd be leaving for law school at Columbia in the fall; their mother, who'd been working her customary eighty-hour tax-season weeks since late January; Eddie, the Filipino home health aide who'd left the week before to finish his nursing degree.
"He was a good one, huh?"
"I liked him a lot," Cooper acknowledged. Eddie had worked for them for ten months, the longest stretch they'd ever had one worker, and Cooper had bonded with him in a way he hadn't with any other PCA. So it'd been quite painful when the diminutive, energetic thirty year-old had sorrowfully told Cooper his wife had demanded he go back to get his RN with a small inheritance she'd received from an aunt's passing.
"You gonna interview some other dudes?" Callie posed the question just as she offered Cooper another bite, and he tossed her an annoyed look as he chewed.
Finally, he swallowed. "I don't know. Mom's pretty busy. I think we'll just let the agency pick someone temporary. Just until Tax Day."
"Oh, Coop," Callie objected. "I don't want you to have to use someone you don't know. I'll stay here on weekends, and I can always drop a class and double up this summer--"
"No," Cooper rebutted forcefully. He felt the blush paint his cheeks at the idea. It wasn't just a desire for physical privacy; Cooper didn't want to see her give up any more than she already had for him. "I'll be fine. I'm a big boy."
Callie opened her mouth as if to say something more, but then exhaled instead and cleared their now-empty plates. After rinsing them and placing them in the dishwasher, she returned to Cooper and stood in front of him, hands on her hips. She pursed her lips to one side. "Bag?"
"That'd be great, yeah," Cooper answered. They moved to the restroom, and Cooper watched as Callie bent down and lifted the leg of the Nike Dri-Fit pants he wore. It was the absolute ragged edge of what he allowed her to do, emptying the urine in his leg bag. It wasn't often that she needed to, but being between carers necessitated it. Cooper allowed himself to zone out as she lifted the bag and emptied it into the toilet, trying to mentally disassociate from the moment. When the task was completed, and his bag re-strapped to his calf, he allowed himself to come back to earth.
"You gonna keep working?" Callie asked, expertly swiveling his sip and puff controls back to precisely where he needed them, within inches of his lips.
Cooper responded, "Yeah, I got a deadline."
Callie smirked, "Omar still a slave-driver, huh?"
The welcome distraction of lunch with his sister had taken his mind off the email from Meaghan for an hour. But now Cooper sat once again, staring at the blinking cursor, trying to figure out how to respond. Several options nominated themselves: 1) He could lie, which seemed dangerous; 2) he could ignore the email, which seemed mean; 3) he could spill the whole sad story, which seemed awkward; or 4) he could be vague and non-committal, which seemed like the best option.
Haven't been in a boat in years. I miss it.
Cooper felt guilty even as he sent it. Technically, it was completely truthful. But it still felt a whole lot like lying by omission. He'd been exchanging these emails with Meaghan, his boss's admin, for almost a month. They ranged from all-business to borderline flirtatious, and he was enjoying it too much to end it. Now that he realized Omar hadn't told her, he suspected that an admission from him that his body was totally paralyzed would bring it all to a screeching halt. Or, worse, turn the exchange maudlin with pity.
Unfortunately, his missive must've caught Meaghan at her computer, because he'd barely had time to open a new window before the number next to his Gmail inbox jumped up by one. He clicked over to check.
"Oh, shit," he cursed, louder than he had intended.
"You okay?" Callie asked from the doorway, jolting him with her proximity. "Something wrong with your computer?"
Before he could respond, Callie was at his shoulder. He commanded the window to close, and it did, but Callie had already seen the email. She turned to Cooper, eyes wide, "You have a date?"
Then it's a date! Where should we meet? Doug will be stoooooked! :) :) :)
Administrative Support to Omar Benford
Benford Private Investigations
That night, Julia came home on her "lunch break" at 9PM to get Cooper into bed. She had to return to the office after the hour-long process, but she knew that Cooper didn't want to be helped by Callie, who'd be staying the night, so she made the trek for his sake. He hated that she needed to do it, though he was grateful.
Julia, smelling sweetly of the same Calvin Klein perfume that she'd used since Cooper was a little kid, worked the harness under his long body and lifted him into bed with the Hoyer. Once in bed, she gently stretched the arms and legs he could no longer move himself, walking them through the range of motion that would hopefully keep them from contracting or developing stiffness in the joints. Then she changed him into pajama pants, re-diapering him before sliding the pants up to where they rested at his waistline. The diaper was humiliating and infantilizing, but it beat forcing his over-worked mother to scrub out his pants and sheets on a regular basis. It didn't make any sense to change his shirt, since Cooper wasn't able to sweat anymore and he hadn't actually done anything physical that day (or any day for the last three years), so Julia left him in it. Before she left the room, she turned on the baby monitor they kept by his bed.
"I'll make sure Callie has her end turned on," she told him, kissing him on the cheek and turning for the door. For a half-second as she stood in the doorway, before she flipped the lights off, Cooper saw the deep creases that had developed around her eyes. Not laugh-lines. No, these were marks carved by sorrow.
She just smiled at him and left.
As his eyes adjusted to the dark room, Cooper turned his thoughts to untangling the mess he'd gotten himself into with Meaghan Chin. Luckily for Cooper, he had hours and hours available for the task. Technically he had a prescription to help him sleep, but frankly the idea of medicating himself into unconsciousness, when he was already so physically impaired, scared the shit out of him. Despite his frustration and depression, he really didn't want to die.
So most nights were like this. Since he couldn't afford to be in his chair for longer than twelve hours without risking a pressure sore, despite diligent pressure relief, he had no choice but to be placed in bed earlier than his mind was ready. And sure, he could've asked Callie or his mom to turn on his TV or set up his Kindle, but then he'd have to ask them to turn it off or put it away when he was done, and he just didn't have the heart. They took care of him all day long; they'd put in their twelve hours, too, and they deserved a break at night. They already took turns shifting his paralyzed body in bed every few hours all night long.
Tonight, his thinking started with mostly just a lot of "What the hell am I going to do?" But after an hour of contemplation, he'd decided on a plan. In the morning, he'd call up Omar and make him do it. It was his fault for not telling Meaghan in the first place, he reasoned.
"Cooper! Where you at on Samuelson?" Omar Benford shouted into the phone as he answered.
Cooper laughed in response. "You know, most people answer with 'hello.'"
Omar, constantly doing three things at once, laughed back. "My bad. I shoulda said 'hello-where-you-at-on-Samuelson?' That better?"
"In your inbox."
"That's what I like to hear. I gotta go, we'll talk la--"
"Wait," Cooper objected, and something in his voice made Omar halt the search for his Lexus keys.
"What you need, brother?"
"You got a minute?"
"Never. But for you, I got thirty seconds. Shoot."
Omar sat down in his leather office chair and listened for what turned out to be the next two minutes. As Cooper's voice became more strained, Omar's smile became wider.
"Hold up," he finally interjected, when Cooper seemed to be near the end of his story. "You want me to tell Meaghan she can't like you 'cause you in a chair?"
"Ain't no way, bro," he grinned. When Cooper muttered under his breath in response, Omar softened. "Hey, I get it, man. But this is your life. You can't hide forever. You a freak; embrace it. Maybe she digs freaks."
"Stop," Cooper groaned. "I don't want a lecture on this from my boss."
"I'm not your boss, I'm family."
"The expression is like family. You're like family, Omar."
"Well, how you like this then: I'mma march my ass out to her desk right now and not tell Meaghan you a freak. Don't send me to do your dirty work, son."
"Bye-bye!" Omar crooned into the phone and tapped to end the call. He shook his head as he left his office, chuckling under his breath.
"What's so funny?" Meaghan asked, as he approached her desk. Omar looked at her, sizing her up for the first time. Of course, he'd known she was pretty--and his wife Rhonda had made sure he knew she knew, too--but he was looking for something else this time. Something beneath the glossy black hair that just brushed her shoulders. Something behind the intelligent brown eyes that slanted slightly up at the outside corners, making her look just a little bit like a Disney princess. Something deeper than the unexpected smattering of freckles across her nose and pale cheeks. Was this a girl who could handle Cooper's situation? He didn't know. But there was only one way to find out.
"You been talking to Cooper?" he asked, a wry smile twisting his lips.
"Oh," Meaghan said, her lips forming an 'O' of nervous embarrassment. "I mean, a little. Yeah." She cleared her throat. "Why?"
"Cooper's a cool cat. You two should hang out," he flipped over his shoulder as he strode out of the office and into the bright sunlight beyond.
"Motherfucker," Cooper whispered, tapping his head against his chair's headrest to end the call on his Bluetooth. What the hell was he supposed to do now? It had been eighteen hours since Meaghan's last email, which was about seventeen hours longer than he'd ever gone before replying to her. She was probably wondering what was up. And now Omar had refused to solve his problem for him.
Time to man up, he thought, and opened an email.
Love to take you guys up on that. But I can't row anymore due to an injury I had a few years back.
He exhaled as it left his outbox. It wasn't exactly manning up, but it was better than nothing. Fifteen minutes later, another email from Meaghan materialized in his inbox.
That sucks. Boo, injuries. :(
Administrative Support to Omar Benford
Benford Private Investigations
Cooper sighed in relief. There. It was over. He'd rein in his future emails to her, they'd never meet, she'd never have to know. Problem solved.
So why did the thought of not talking to Meaghan Chin anymore bum him out so bad?
Cooper knew a lot and very little about her at the same time. He knew she was very funny and close to her family and good at her job and a little lost since she'd graduated from college with a sort of useless Communication degree two years earlier. But he didn't know what she looked like or where she lived or if she was single or if she was the kind of person who would run screaming if she knew the truth.
At that thought, Cooper turned his head to glance at his reflection in the full-length mirror to the right of his bed. He sighed, then maneuvered his chair so that he was looking at himself head-on. Ripping off the band-aid, he thought, wondering if he would come to the end of band-aids needing to be ripped off before he died.
He started at his feet, clad in soft white socks and the sheep's-wool slippers that his brother Cameron had bought for him at Christmas. Expensive ones, but that was to be expected from Cameron. A narrow black strap looped over each slipper, securing his feet to the footrests that jutted from his chair at an angle.
His Under-Armour athletic pants covered legs that still looked too long for the chair he sat in, even though the chair had been custom fitted for him. At least his mom dressed him decently. He knew she stretched her paycheck to make sure he didn't have to sit around in pajamas all day.
Working his way up, his eyes rested on his crotch. Nothing to see there. His diaper wasn't noticeable, but neither was anything else. He hadn't had an erection in almost three years, and he'd been warned that he probably never would again. Not like he could orgasm. Or feel his dick. Or even take a piss out of it.
He rolled his eyes in disgust as he moved up, past the unseen spot where his supra-pubic catheter snaked out of his lower abdomen, to his still-broad chest--held in place by a wide black strap--and formerly-magnificent shoulders. The shoulders that had pulled his university team to two national championship berths now sloped like an old roof, the exquisitely-developed muscles that had held them so taut now withered to nothing.
His eyes flicked briefly to the round indentation at his throat's base, a souvenir from his eleven months on a ventilator. Then they traveled to his face.
It was still a good face. Strong-jawed, angled pleasantly. Clear, light brown eyes. A nose that was just slightly too wide to get him modeling jobs, but which made him look nice. And Cooper was nice. Had always been. Not that his nice face and personality were much of a counterweight to his useless body and constant physical needs.
Cooper's negatively-tipping thoughts were disturbed by the sound of a car pulling into his driveway. It was the new, temporary PCA, someone the agency was sending on short notice. Or so he guessed.
He took a breath to call out to Callie, who was in the laundry room working through about a month of her soiled clothes, when he heard her call out: "Cooper, your new caregiver's here!"
Cooper backed away from his desk and turned to make his way into the front room. As he came around the corner, he saw a slight man shaking hands with Callie. When he caught sight of Cooper, he turned and smiled warmly. "Hi, I'm Danny from the agency. Are you Cooper?"
"How'd you know?"
"Lucky guess," Danny shot back, mirth in his hazel eyes.
He'd gotten Cooper's joke. That was a point in his favor.
"Well, come on back and I'll orient you."
Meaghan chewed her lip as she stared at her computer screen. She was supposed to be doing a background check for a new client, but was finding it hard to concentrate. She hadn't heard from Cooper in over two weeks and she was, at this point, completely sure she'd said or done something that had turned him off. If only she could figure out what...
The office door opened suddenly, and Omar walked in. Well, "shot in" might've been more accurate, since Omar didn't do things at the pace that normal people did. He rocketed past her with a nod, heading back to his office. Meaghan recognized from his face and the blinking light on his headset that he was on the phone, so she stayed silent. A minute later, he was at her desk once more.
"Meaghan, you got them backgrounds?"
"All but the last one."
"Make it happen," Omar said curtly, though not unkindly. He wasn't mean, just busy.
Meaghan returned her attention to her screen long enough to finish the background check, then she printed it, and walked back to Omar's office.
"Here you go," she waved the papers as she entered. He took them from her hand and briefly studied them, before looking up at her with approval. "Nice work, Chin."
Meaghan smiled and turned to head back to her desk. But Omar called her back.
"Huh?" she asked, peeking her head back in.
"Rhonda's making short ribs tonight. You busy?"
"Oh, um..." Meaghan hemmed. She'd been planning a solo night of Hulu Plus and frozen pizza...and maybe a teensy bit of mooning over Cooper Quince.
"Cooper'll be there."
Meaghan snapped her eyes up to Omar's. His were twinkling. He knows, she thought, embarrassment welling up in her.
But before she could overthink it, she accepted the invitation.
"No, no, no," Cooper objected, as Danny briskly worked the shampoo into his hair. "It's not like that at all. It's mostly reverse phone number look-ups and property searches and divorce records. It's not like TV."
"What a let-down," Danny bemoaned. "I thought you were like a quad Magnum, P.I. or something."
"No," Cooper snorted. "Not nearly that cool. Though I think I could probably rock a pretty sweet mustache."
"You? With your peach fuzz?" Danny teased. "It'd take you a year."
Cooper smiled in response, enjoying the repartée. What a stroke of luck it'd been that Rodney at the agency had randomly assigned Danny to work with Cooper two weeks prior. It was looking more and more like it would be a permanent fit. Danny was punctual, competent, and funny. A rare mix.
"All right, let's dry you off," Danny decided, throwing a towel loosely over Cooper and rolling his shower chair out into the bedroom. He arranged the Hoyer harness and transferred Cooper to his bed, where he quickly wrapped Cooper's naked body in the over-sized towels he'd laid out there before he'd started the shower. They continued to chat as Danny thoroughly toweled Cooper off.
Cooper noted the time--nearly 5:30PM--and hoped Julia hadn't gotten stuck in traffic. She'd taken advantage of the post-tax-season lull at work to go and get a mani-pedi that afternoon. And with Danny now in the picture, she had the luxury of doing that without worrying about getting Cooper ready.
"You want to do jeans tonight?" Danny's question cut through Cooper's thoughts. Being dressed by someone else was not Cooper's favorite thing, but Cooper had no other option.
"Oh. Um," he waffled. Jeans were more presentable. But they were also a pain to get on and off, and it was just Omar and Rhonda and their kids. Nothing special. Still.
"What the hell. Let's go big."
Danny chuckled as he headed to Cooper's closet and grabbed Cooper's one pair of nice jeans. A dark, designer denim, they'd been a splurge. But since clothes that adorned a motionless body lasted forever, Cooper figured he'd be wearing them for the next thirty years. Plus, none of his old pants fit him anymore. Too tight at the waist, too baggy in the legs.
Danny shook out the folded jeans, exposing the blank spots on the back where Cooper had had a tailor remove the pockets. He had no use for back pockets these days, either practical or aesthetic, and superfluous seams on his ass could only cause pressure problems.
Cooper, as usual, looked away as Danny picked up one floppy leg and then the other, and slid his diaper on and up to his thighs. He did the same with his pants next, and spent the next three minutes carefully shuffling both garments up until they were in the right spot.
"Preference on shirt?" Danny asked, hovering at the closet door.
"Grey t-shirt, navy sweater."
Danny walked back to the bed and pushed the button to raise the head. The adjustable, hospital-style bed had been a gift from the Benfords when Cooper had first come home and it made life a lot easier for him and his carers. Danny lifted Cooper's right arm and worked it into the sleeve of the soft cotton tee. He did the same with Cooper's left arm, then slid the shirt up and over his head. Then he embraced Cooper, hooking under Cooper's armpits, and lifted him off the bed just far enough that he could shimmy the shirt down Cooper's back.
As he did it, Cooper heard Julia's car in the drive. He checked the clock: 6PM. A few minutes later, her tap came at the door.
"Come in," Cooper called, as Danny was lowering him into his wheelchair.
"Oh good," Julia said as she opened the door. "You're almost ready."
"How was your appointment?" Cooper asked. In response, Julia held up glistening red nails.
"Gels. They're the new thing. Supposed to be hell to take off, but gorgeous while they last."
"Pretty," Cooper affirmed, smiling as Danny unclipped the harness and tucked it around Cooper's chair.
"Need any help?" Julia asked.
"Nope, Danny's a pro," Cooper answered.
"I've only dropped him twice today," Danny said, and Cooper laughed out loud when Julia blanched.
"He's kidding, Mom," Cooper assured her.
She shook her head. "Boys," she muttered wryly. "All right, I'll meet you in the living room when you're done."
Danny finished dressing Cooper in the fitted navy sweater and zipped it up halfway at Cooper's request, just up to the navy print of his college logo. The sweater would keep Cooper warm in the early spring night, since BBQs at the Benfords often spilled onto the patio. It would also hide the pooch of a belly that Cooper had still not made peace with. He'd been in great shape most of his life, and totally ripped in college and right up till the accident. So it was upsetting to him to have to watch his abdomen distend over the course of the last three years, without his being able to do anything about it. He hadn't gained weight--in fact he'd lost fifteen pounds since the accident. All muscle mass, unfortunately. And since he sat all day, he'd developed a classic "quad gut," his internal organs pressing out against paralyzed ab muscles that could no longer provide any resistance.
"Okay, we all good?" Danny asked as he moved the sip and puff controls to within Cooper's reach. Cooper wheeled over to his mirror and took himself in. It wasn't what it used to be, but it was about as good as it got these days. Yet, as he began to turn, he changed his mind. He hated to ask for more than the basics when it was his mom. But Danny was being paid for this. So why not?
"How about a little gel in my hair? And maybe some cologne?"
Meaghan swerved to avoid running up on the median as she checked the navigation on her phone. "Shit," she murmured, stereotypes of Asian drivers mocking her from inside her own head. She pulled off to the side of the road.
The phone screen took a few seconds to reload, and then mapped out her new route. She pulled back into traffic behind a white van with handicapped plates and followed the directions through another 4 miles of twisty turns toward the Benford house, which she'd never been to.
She was mildly aware that the van in front of her seemed to be going the exact same way. But mostly, she spent those four miles chewing her lip and being incredibly nervous. She wondered if Omar had told Cooper she was coming; she wondered if Cooper would like or dislike that idea; she wondered about Cooper in general.
Of course she'd Facebook-stalked him after their very first email in her second week working for Omar. But he was one of those freaks who seemed to take Internet security seriously, and his profile was battened down like Fort Knox. All she could get ahold of was his profile picture, which was a tiny thumbnail of a sunset. Lame. She'd gone back and forth on friending him, but ultimately decided against it until after they'd met in person. Which she had assumed (wrongly) would happen soon. Omar had a couple of other independent contractors who worked remotely, and they came into the office all the time. Meaghan knew Cooper was some kind of family friend of the Benfords, so she'd been surprised that he'd never come in or even made mention of it. Maybe Meaghan had seen too many spy movies, but this made Cooper seem incredibly cool. She imagined he was deep cover, unable to risk coming to the office for fear of being made.
Meaghan shook her head at her own dumb thoughts as she checked her reflection in the rear-view mirror. She pressed her lips together, blotting the tinted gloss she'd applied at the last red light, and tugged at the hem of her sundress. It was a stupid choice in this cool weather, but it showed off her legs, her best asset. And it hid the little belly she'd developed since graduating college and entering the working world.
Returning her attention to the road, she realized her phone was rerouting her again, an indication she'd missed another turn. Dammit. She turned right, then left, confusing the hell out of her phone. She ended up having to go in a huge circle before she was back on the Benfords' street. As she noted the white van in front of a sprawling ranch-style house, to her surprise, her phone announced that she'd arrived at her destination. She looked down at the map and then peered through the deepening twilight. She saw 5409, 5411, 5415...Where the hell was 5413? Meaghan repeated another huge loop, feeling the sweat dampen her underarms. As often as it happened, she hated getting lost. On her third loop, she finally realized that the Benfords' house was the one with the white van in front. Meaghan felt like a total idiot, remembering only at that moment that Omar's mother lived with them. She probably needed the van, as she'd had a stroke the previous fall. "Some private investigator I am," Meaghan whispered as she parked behind the van.
"Hey, Rhonda," Cooper greeted Omar's wife, who was bustling around the kitchen ferrying items from the stove, oven, and refrigerator to the table. "Need a hand?"
"Ooh!" Rhonda squealed, setting down the bowl of potato salad on the counter to come over and give Cooper a kiss on the cheek. "Boy, you look fine tonight." She ran a hand down the front of Cooper's sweater, obviously appreciating the soft texture, then tugged at the collar, standing stiff against his neck. "And you smell good, too."
Cooper smiled at the compliment as Rhonda turned back to the counter and her bowl of potato salad. "And I know you were smart-mouthing about giving me a hand, but I'mma take you up on that." She nestled the bowl into Cooper's lap and walked over to throw wide the French doors to the patio. "Take that out to the table."
"Yes, ma'am," Cooper replied, grabbing his mouth controls and navigating his chair down the ramp out the door. He watched the bowl jostle slightly, and willed it not to tip. As he made it onto the smooth, purposely-accessible concrete of the patio, he heard the doorbell ring inside. That's weird, he thought. Who would be ringing the Benfords' doorbell at 7PM on a Friday night?
TO BE CONTINUED...