Jackson woke to clattering coming from the kitchen. His bedroom was the former dining room, so it was adjacent to the kitchen and he could hear everything through the wall. He could still feel Molly’s body beside his, so she wasn’t the source of the noise. His heart beat so loudly in his ears he could hardly listen to anything else. The burglar was back.
Jackson threw the covers off. His legs were stiff, but he definitely didn’t have time to stretch. Or put his braces on, for that matter. Besides, his shoes and orthotics made noise, and even if he was more unsteady without them, he’d be more stealthy bare-footed. He’d sneak a little closer, but not so near the burglar would be able to see him, and once he was certain it wasn’t the heat kicking in and activating his imagination, he’d call 911.
He commanded Molly to stay and used the wall to aid in pulling himself to his feet. This was totally insane. What was he doing? He should just call for help now. But the idea that his home had been violated twice pissed him off, and if he just hid in his room it felt like he was admitting his sister was right, and he was incapable of living on his own. He kept a couple solid white canes in his closet. If he wasn’t with Molly, he preferred them over the folding kind because they resonated sounds better. He slowly made his way to the opposite end of his room. Without his braces, and especially without stretching, his muscles were tight, particularly in his thighs and around his knees and ankles. It meant he walked mostly straight-legged, rocking from side to side since he had to lift his hip to move each leg forward. Walking like this was exhausting, and he couldn’t manage it for too long. He also had to hold his arms out to help him keep his balance as he swayed from side to side with each step. He could practically hear his doctors and physical therapists yelling at him to bend his knees and not to walk on his toes.
He opened his closet, holding onto the door frame while he used his free hand to feel around for the canes that should be leaned against the wall. He found one and grabbed it. He didn’t need one to get around his own house of course, but it would make a handy weapon in a snap. He’d watched Daredevil. It could work.
The main living area was next to Jackson’s room and also behind the kitchen, with a door sealing off the space between them. It was an old, swinging door like many restaurants still had, and Jackson knew his house well enough that if he stood in just the right spot, three steps in front of the door and two to the side, the person coming through would be blinded by the door just long enough for him to surprise them. (Crappy sight or not, he’d played a few tricks on his sister growing up.) He adjusted his stance so he was as stable as he could be, raised the cane and held his breath, listening. The thief was moving around the kitchen, opening the fridge and cabinets and . . . that clicking was definitely the stove. Was he cooking? Jackson had read newspaper articles about homeless people breaking into houses and raiding the pantry, but there weren’t any homeless around this part of the city, and why bother to stop and cook? Did he think no one was home? The scent of bacon leaked out and started to make Jackson hungry. He prayed his stomach wouldn’t gurgle and give himself away prematurely.
Fortunately, only a few minutes later, he heard footsteps approaching the door on the other side. Then the creak as the door started to open. Jackson counted in his head to make sure he timed it right since he knew the light from the kitchen would probably overwhelm his limited sight as soon as the person pushed the door open enough. One. Two. Three. WHACK!
“Ow! What the--what the hell, Jacky?”
“Lyn?” Jackson’s adrenaline started to fade and embarrassment flooded into its wake.
“Ow.” He could hear his sister rubbing something. Her head?
“Did I hurt you?” He reached for her but didn’t find her.
“Just my hand. Thank goodness I learned from all your pranks growing up to open it with my arm extended. Why did you hit me?”
“I thought you were a burglar,” Jackson said, leaning on the cane a little. He realized now how ridiculous the whole situation must look. “What the hell are you doing here instead of Hawaii on your honeymoon?” Maybe distracting her by changing the subject would help.
“Helping you,” Lyn said. “I texted you to tell you I was coming. I thought I’d surprise you with pancakes.” Pancakes were Jackson’s favorite, and something he’d never been able to properly master himself. He could never get the timing right of when to flip them and usually made a huge mess. Waffles were easier. Especially if they were frozen and all he had to do was slide them into the toaster.
“I’m sorry if I thought someone had broken in again that I didn’t stop to check my messages,” Jackson said sarcastically.
Lyn let out a weary sigh. “You’re obsessive about checking your phone first thing when you wake up.” Then her voice shifted. It was softer, more concerned. “I’m glad you’re safe. Let me see your hands.” Lyn took the cane from him and he heard her set it against the wall. Then she guided his hands toward her, turning them over a few times.
“I’m fine,” Jackson insisted, pulling away from her. “It’s like a papercut. I told you we were all fine. I don’t understand why you felt the need to fly home.”
Lyn didn’t reply right away. “Come into the kitchen and have some coffee.”
Coffee sounded wonderful, but he shook his head. “I haven’t even put my eye drops in or taken my meds.” But Jackson’s stomach gurgled loud enough that his sister heard it.
“Pancakes. From scratch. Not a mix,” she coaxed. “It’s not like you’ve never slept in before. Eat and have some coffee and then you can go about your beauty routine.”
Jackson flashed her his uninjured middle finger. “What about Molly?”
“I’ll let her out. Go have some coffee and I’ll be right back.”
Lyn was being suspiciously nice to him. The last time she’d made him pancakes from scratch like this she’d told him she was getting married and moving out a whole semester sooner than originally planned. She was just so excited about finally tying the knot, and to do it on Christmas, her absolute favorite of all holidays, was even better. She was buttering him up, and even if he knew it, he wasn’t going to pass up free pancakes.
Jackson collapsed on his bed with a sigh. So far his time off was not going as planned. Molly whined; he’d forgotten he’d told her to stay, and she’d probably sensed his tension and nervousness. “Come here, girl.”
He heard the click of her nails on the hardwood and her soft panting, and a moment later, she sat beside him. He reached out to touch her head, and when he found it, he rubbed her ears. “It’s OK. I’m OK,” he said, even though he didn’t feel it.
Molly sensed the truth and rubbed her head against his leg affectionately, then licked his hand.
Jackson couldn’t help smiling. He loved her, loved the freedom she’d given him, and he was terrified that she’d need to retire soon and he wouldn’t be able to convince the agency to give him another dog. It had taken years for Jackson and Lyn to persuade any seeing eye dog training company to give him Molly, after all. As soon as they found out Jackson had CP they automatically rejected him; having a physical disability that affected walking meant automatic exclusion. But Lyn was never good at taking no for an answer, and more than seven years ago had convinced Jackson to travel with her to each dog training facility so they could see, in person, that Jackson walked well enough to work with a dog. They were rejected outright anyway by a couple programs until they finally were given a trial. Jackson proved himself, and he was ultimately paired with Molly, who from day-one was able to adjust her stride and pace to fit his. Jackson would never forget that first day together. Sure, it took a few extra weeks of training side by side and a lot of hard work before the program officially released Molly to him, but walking with her had always been a kind of magic.
A knock on his bedroom door drew Jackson out of his reverie.
“Hey. I’m here for Molly,” Lyn said.
Jackson gave her neck a good scruff. “Go ahead, Mol. Go with Lyn. She’ll let you out.”
Molly barked in happiness, licked his hand, and then he heard her run off, and his sister let out an “oof.” “Jeez. I think she’s excited. I’m leaving now. Go make yourself pretty so we can have breakfast.”
Jackson sighed and felt for his phone on the nightstand, yanking it from the charger. Lyn was right; he did normally check his messages and emails first thing. He made sure his headphone was attached, and slipped it on. Jackson had a special, single earbud that clipped to his ear. It meant he could privately listen to the voice guidance on his phone, listen to emails or text messages, etc., but he still left one ear open for any environmental noises or sounds he might need to stay aware of his surroundings. Covering both ears made Jackson uncomfortable and vulnerable; he imagined it would be like a sighted person covering both their eyes.
He activated the robotic personal assistant. “Do I have any unread text messages?”
His phone beeped, and after a moment, the computerized voice replied, “You have three messages from Lyn Santoro.” Then she proceeded to read them. Just as his sister had said, she had indeed texted him several times. He went to his text messages to check the times of each message. Based on these, and the fact that his sister was here to wake him up, it meant she must have hopped on a plane not long after they talked last night.
He sighed, shook his head. This was just another excuse for her husband to hate him. Sure, Kevin acted like he liked Jackson when Lyn was around, but the truth was he thought Jackson was a parasite, incapable of being independent from his sister.
Jackson pushed those thoughts away and clicked on the bottom of the screen, tapping until the voice over told him he’d found the mail app. It notified him he had twelve new emails. He double tapped to open it, and the voice over read the sender and subject of the first email automatically. He quickly listened to his emails. Since it was break, the normal deluge was a trickle, and most were junk or not pertinent, so he listened to the first line and then moved on. He had a couple from the history department. Nothing important.
He was almost through the short list when he reached an email from the head of the department with a subject referring to the spring semester. He didn’t think too much of it because most of the emails from the department were addressed from him even if his secretary was the one who actually sent them out. Jackson double clicked to hear the whole thing. He’d only gotten about halfway through when he stopped listening and his stomach fell. Due to low enrollment, the two non-common curriculum classes he was scheduled to teach for the spring had been canceled.
“Shit,” Jackson said out loud. “Happy New Year to me.” It was bad enough that the canceled classes were the ones he was most looking forward to. A chance to teach in his area of expertise and with students who actually cared about history instead of merely taking it as a graduation requirement. But losing these classes meant a dramatic cut in his income, and worse, he dropped below the required number of teaching hours to qualify for benefits. The house was paid off, but post-Katrina insurance rates were sky-high, and with Lyn moving out, it meant Jackson had to cover it all himself, plus needing to pay out of pocket for his healthcare. He was healthy, all things considered, but his retinas could detach at any time, and he might be faced with going bankrupt to pay for the surgery to reattach them or going totally blind. The thought made Jackson nauseous. Losing the limited sight he had was one of his biggest fears, especially if he lost Molly, too, and couldn’t get another dog?
Jackson made himself take a deep breath. Tried to focus on the positive. He’d had classes canceled on him before, some the morning before he was supposed to teach. At least now he had a few weeks to send his resume out, contact all the colleges and schools in the area. Maybe he could pick up a class or two somewhere else, and if he bought something through Obamacare he might be able to get at least catastrophic coverage, if nothing else. And he might have more free time to work on his book and a few papers he’d been meaning to send out to some journals. More publications would mean he could fight his way higher up on the academic totem pole.
Of course, he could pull the blind cripple card, try to persuade the department head, or even the dean to find him something else so he’d meet the benefit requirements, but Jackson had never liked getting special favors because of his blindness or disability. He didn’t want to think that he’d achieved all he had--even if it was a starving adjunct--because people felt sorry for him, or guilty, or just wanted to look like they were inclusive and understanding.
Jackson closed his phone and pulled off his earbud, setting them on the bedside table. It was New Year’s Eve and no one would be answering emails right now anyway, so he could send them later. He’d go through his morning routine, then fill up on pancakes and bacon and coffee, and enjoy his day off the way he’d intended before burglars and hovering sisters and real life interfered.
“I’m at the stove,” Lyn announced as soon as Jackson entered the kitchen.
Jackson always appreciated it when someone warned him of their presence. If the contrast of colors between what the person was wearing and the background was right, and it wasn’t too bright or too dark, he could make out the shapes he knew from experience were people. But his vision was imprecise, and without hearing their voice he couldn’t tell who it was or even if they were a man or a woman, and he certainly couldn’t discern how far away they were. “Is the coffee ready?”
“Yep. And the bacon’s done. Just finishing the pancakes now, if you want to sit.”
It was silly, but Jackson hesitated before going further into the kitchen. He turned his head toward where the outside door was, listening as if he expected the burglar to break in again any minute. He heard the sizzle of the pan and his sister moving at the stove off to his right, the hum of the fridge, and if he listened hard enough, the sound of the duct system as it blew heat through the vents. All perfectly normal.
“You OK?” Lyn asked, and he could hear the frown in her voice.
“Yeah, fine,” Jackson said, forcing a smile. He couldn’t admit how unsettled the break-in had made him, because that would basically give Lyn fuel for her case against his independence.
Lyn let out a sound that Jackson knew meant she didn’t believe him, but thankfully, she didn’t press him. Yet.
Jackson crossed the room to the other row of cabinets, keeping one hand out a little to check himself in case he misjudged. It was habit, even in familiar spaces, especially since his balance could waver or his muscles spasm and catch him off guard, although that didn’t happen as much now that he was older and took his meds and stretched regularly. When his fingers found the counter, he reached up for the cabinet. If he hadn’t deviated from the door, he should have placed himself right in front of the coffeemaker, and above it, the mugs. He’d removed the bandage, because as far as he could feel the cuts in his fingers had scabbed over, but he wasn’t sure how it would affect his ability to read with them. Now would be the test. He slid his fingers down the door until he found the Braille label. Reading with injured fingers was definitely awkward, but not impossible, and he was able to double check that he’d found the right cabinet.
When Jackson was a child, learning to read, Lyn had labeled everything to give him more opportunities to practice and to help him find his way around the house. Even once Jackson was older and had mastered reading and the layout of the house, the labels stayed, and now he found having things labeled made his life easier and faster. He immediately would know whether he would open the door and find mugs, or if he needed to take a few steps to his left because he’d gotten the cabinet where they stored the plates instead.
He took out a mug, set it on the counter, and slid his fingers toward the coffeemaker until he found it, then along the side of it until he knew from experience (and a little sticky bump dot he’d placed in just the right spot) that he could find the handle of the carafe without burning himself or making a mess.
Pouring the coffee was a matter of making sure the spout of the carafe was touching the inside of the mug, then listening carefully. Jackson had been drinking his coffee out of the same mugs every morning for years, and he knew exactly how it sounded as it filled so he could stop without it overflowing or burning his fingers to check the level. He liked it black, so once he’d finished pouring he immediately clutched it in both hands and brought it to his mouth, blowing on it before taking a sip. He let out a relieved, “Aahh,” and his shoulders relaxed. He always felt better once he’d had his first morning coffee. “You make it so much better than I do. I think that’s what I missed the most while you were gone.” Then it hit Jackson that this was probably the last morning his sister would ever make the coffee, and despite all his desires for independence, he felt a pang of loneliness.
“That’s the thing you missed most? My coffee?” But Lyn’s voice was light, like she was smiling, or perhaps just teasing. “Sit down, coffee boy, and I’ll bring you pancakes fresh off the griddle.”
Jackson took a few more sips of his coffee to make sure he wouldn’t spill. “I don’t remember you being so bossy.” He walked in the direction of the table, using his left hand to help him find a chair.
“You act like I was gone years instead of a week.”
Jackson pulled the chair out, then found the table with his left hand, checking that he had a good sense of where the surface was before he tried to set his mug down. Once it was secure and he was sure it wasn’t near the edge, he sat down, one hand on the back of the chair and another on the table, an old habit from when he was younger, and he was far less stable and his muscles were tighter. He was still settling himself in his seat when he could hear Lyn shut off the stove, grab what had to be a couple plates, and approach.
“Coming from behind you. One plate of scratch-made pancakes and bacon,” she said. He heard her set it in front of him. “I already got out the butter and syrup. Syrup is at one and butter is at twelve, she said, orienting him with a clock face to give him a better sense of where everything was in space. I also set out a napkin and silverware, too. Beside your plate on the right side. Do you need anything else?”
Jackson was pretty sure that whatever his sister was going to talk about wasn’t something he was going to like, because she was pampering him. She obviously wasn’t going to “allow” him to live alone, but it had to be worse than that if she was going all out with breakfast like this, even to the point of serving him and setting everything up in advance. Was she going to make him move in with her and her husband? The very idea made him uncomfortable. And sad, if it also meant she was going to sell the house he’d grown up in.
“I’m not pouting.” Jackson slowly lowered his right hand toward the table where he expected to find his knife and fork. He searched for the plate, and when he got a good feeling for where that was, he reached over it for the tub of butter. At least Lyn hadn’t totally infantilized him by dressing his pancakes for him and cutting them up into little pieces. Butter was easy, especially with the tub, since he could hold onto it without risking getting his fingers all in it while he used his knife to gather some up. Then he moved the hand that he’d held the container of butter with to find his plate, which gave him a sense of where the pancakes were. He aimed for the center of it, and when he felt the sponginess of pancake, he knew he’d hit home. Pouring the syrup was trickier. Jackson’s secret was keeping one hand on the edge of the plate as a reference, first pouring toward the center while he rotated the plate without moving the syrup, then pouring away from the center toward his reference hand again. It wasn’t elegant, but it ensured the syrup ended up mostly where he wanted it and not on the table or his lap.
“Jacky,” Lyn pleaded.
“The pancakes came out really good,” Jackson said, avoiding the elephant in the room.
Lyn sighed heavily. “You’re really going to be like this.”
Jackson set his fork down. “Fine. Break-in or not, I’m not moving in with you and your husband.”
Lyn was silent. Totally silent. She didn’t even breathe for a moment. Finally, she said, “I wasn’t going to make you move in with me and Kevin. Why would you think that?”
“Then why are you here, bribing me with pancakes and bacon?”
“Who said I’m bribing you?”
“You left your honeymoon a week early,” Jackson said with emphasis, “to check on me. Even though I told you I was OK. Tell me the truth: even if the break-in hadn’t happened, were you really going to let me live on my own once you got back?”
Lyn scratched her fingernail on the table repeatedly; it was a nervous habit of hers he didn’t think she was aware of, but it always betrayed her mood even if she insisted she was fine. “I think you should have a roommate.”
Jackson laughed, because he couldn’t believe this. “You’re so worried a stranger will follow me home, but you’re happy to let one live with me.”
“Not a stranger.”
“You already have someone in mind, don’t you?” Jackson said with realization.
Jackson considered the weight of his sister’s single word response. “Break-in or not, you always planned to have someone move in here, didn’t you?” It had taken Jackson a lot of convincing--and Ms. Susan’s help--to persuade Lyn to let Jackson live alone. Lyn had wanted to hire an assistant to come check on him regularly, as if he were ninety years old or newly blind. It was insulting, and a betrayal, too. Lyn had always been the one pushing him to achieve what no one thought he could because of his blindness and disability, and the fact that she’d never really believed he could be totally independent felt like a slap in the face.
More scratching. “Bethany and I talked about it before the wedding.” Bethany was Lyn’s best friend and her maid of honor. “Her friend Dan has been looking for a place for a while, and she thought you two would get along.”
Jackson hadn’t felt like the poor, helpless, blind crippled brother who needed his older sister’s protection in a long, long time. The few bites of pancake he’d eaten sat uneasily in his stomach. He wanted to argue against the roommate, to tell his sister how hurt he was, but the fact was a roommate would bring in the extra money he needed now that he’d lost those classes. ADA or not, most schools didn’t want a blind man teaching their students, especially when they could hire a sighted person who didn’t need any accommodations. And, if Jackson was really honest with himself, while he cherished his independence, the house had been very lonely with just him and Molly in it.
“He’s a teacher at St. Ignatius.” A private school only a few blocks away, where Jackson’s father had sent him after a few years at the school for the blind, and where Lyn had also gone. It was a Santoro family tradition. “He was Bethany's 'plus-one.' You met him at the wedding.”
Jackson struggled to recall this Dan. He’d met a lot of people at the wedding, most of them just a vague handshake and a voice, occasionally a whiff of cigarette smoke or perfume or body odor.
“He’s a photographer?”
A sudden scent memory hit Jackson: deep and masculine, like sandalwood and spice that went straight to his dick. Suddenly, he wasn’t so angry anymore. “Oh. The one who smelled so good he made me want to rip his clothes off and do very naughty things to him in the middle of your reception.” Jackson hadn’t admitted to Lyn how he’d fantasized ever since about a man that he knew only as a rumbling deep voice, that erotic smell, and a hand that was rougher and stronger than he’d expected for a high school teacher.
Lyn laughed. “I can’t say I remember what he smelled like.”
“So did you and your co-conspirator talk to this Dan? Or are you and Bethany roommate matchmakers setting us up for the craziest reality show ever? Because he may not be OK living with a blind man, especially a gay blind man.”
“Yes, I spoke to him last night, and said if you were open to it he could swing by tomorrow to meet you and see the house.”
Jackson was torn between being pissed off that Lyn was essentially micromanaging his life, and the erection that reminded him how incredibly sexy Dan had sounded and smelled. “Fine. But you can’t do this, Lyn. I’m an adult. I’ve been blind my entire life. You can’t interfere and fill me in last. I should have been the first one you talked to about this.”
Lyn touched his hand, and turned it around, so he accepted the hold. She squeezed gently. “I’m sorry. Last time. OK? And you’ll like Dan. I know it.”
Jackson sighed. He didn’t expect Dan would like him, because no one did.
“Look on the bright side: the house will smell amazing.”