I overslept this morning.
I used to be the kind of person who didn’t even bother with an alarm because I woke up automatically at the same time every day. I never needed much sleep—six hours was usually more than enough for me.
These days, my eyes are drifting shut at ten o’clock at night, and then I end up oversleeping the next morning because I forgot to set an alarm. I couldn’t imagine sleeping past seven when I went to bed that early.
Peter gave me a dirty look when he saw me stroll in at well past nine. I’m sure he’d be more understanding if I ‘fessed up about my MS, but that’s not going to happen. He’s not going to know about it until he has to. And hopefully, that’s never.
I made up some story about an appointment, and I think he bought it. I promised to stay late, so that’s why it’s now nearly six as I make my way out to the parking garage. My main concern about staying late is that I usually support myself by placing my hands on the hoods of cars, but I can’t do that if most of the cars are gone. And I was late enough that my car isn’t parked anywhere near the elevators.
When I get out of the elevators, I see that there are a lot of empty spaces in the parking garage. And that’s just fucking great. I can almost hear my physical therapist Kelly’s voice in my ear:
You should really think about using a cane, Matt.
I’m carefully making my way through the parking garage, and that’s when I see her. Anna Flint. Standing in the middle of the rows of cars. Sobbing.
Okay, this is Anna we’re talking about. Crazy Anna. Who has more cans than a 7-11 stacked in her cubicle. So this is a person who’s always doing something weird or unexpected. But now she’s crying. I’ve never seen her cry before. I’ve seen her upset or freaking out, but never crying.
Part of me thinks maybe I should get the hell away from her and not get involved in this drama. But most of me knows that I’m going to do whatever I can to help her.
I make my way over to her, doing my best not to fall. She doesn’t seem to notice me at first, but then when she does, her blue eyes light up. “Matt!” she cries. “Oh, Matt! Thank God. You’ve got to help me.”
“Uh, sure,” I say. I almost smile. I want to be Anna’s hero. I just hope this doesn’t involve a lot of walking. “What do you need help with?”
“I…” Anna squeezes her eyes shut. “I think I hit someone with my car.”
My heart pounding, I stare at Anna. “Are you serious?”
She nods. “Yes, but I… I can’t find the… the body.”
“Okay,” I say, trying to sort through my racing thoughts. If Anna hit someone, we need to call 911. But what’s this crap she’s saying about not being able to find the body? What is she talking about? How could you hit someone and not be able to find the body?
That’s when Kenny, the security guard for the parking garage, ambles over. He’s walking much too slow, considering there was just a car accident. As he approaches us, he gives me a look. And that’s when I get it. Anna didn’t hit anyone. This is just Anna being Crazy Anna.
“We have to check under the cars, Matt,” Anna tells me through her tears. “That’s the only way we can find the body and get help.”
“Oh,” I say. Because what the hell else am I supposed to say?
“You keep on lookin’ under the cars, Miss Flint,” Kenny says to Anna. “Let me talk to Mr. Harper ‘bout something. Okay?”
Anna nods somewhat reluctantly, but then goes back to the job of tearfully searching under the cars. Kenny steps closer to me and I can smell the cigarette smoke on his clothes. “She does this ‘bout once a week,” he says in a low voice. “Thinks she hit somebody and then wants to search for them. Gets really upset over it.”
“Christ,” I mutter.
“That girl’s got problems,” Kenny says. “She needs to get herself a shrink.”
Kenny wanders away and I watch Anna making her way down the row of cars. I know I’m not in any shape to help her, but the thing is, I really want to. More than I’ve wanted to do anything in a while. And I’m cursing my legs for keeping me from being able to help her.
Eh, fuck it.
“Anna!” I call out.
Anna looks up and self-consciously wipes her tear-stained face. “Yes?”
“I’ll help you look.”
It’s not that bad. I hang onto the trunks of the cars and stoop down to look underneath. And I don’t have to look that carefully, considering I know I’m not actually going to find an injured pedestrian under there. I think Anna appreciates just the gesture.
Except less than ten minutes into looking, I lose my balance. I stumble a bit, and land ungracefully about five feet away from the nearest car.
So here’s the problem: I can’t get up from the floor anymore. Well, I probably could if I could grab onto the car, but I’m not close enough for that. I get on my hands and knees and rock back and forth, but I know it’s not going to happen. All I can do at this point is crawl over to the nearest car.
And that’s when I notice Anna is watching me.
I freeze. Christ, this is so freaking embarrassing. I fell in front of her, and now I can’t get up. Again. And now she’s coming over to me. She’s probably going to watch me as I crawl over to the car and struggle to get back on my feet.
“Here,” she says, holding out her hand to me.
I can’t believe my eyes. Anna, who will not touch anyone, is holding her hand out to me.
I take it. Even with her hand offering support, it’s not easy to get up, but Anna has surprising strength so I make it happen. It’s a relief to be back on my feet again, but I still don’t feel very steady. I hate this. I fucking hate my legs right now. Walking used to be so easy. I used to not even think about it.
“Thank you,” I say.
We look at each other for a minute. Considering what happened just now, it’s surprisingly not awkward. I feel like I get her. She’s crazy and she knows it. She knows that there isn’t really an injured pedestrian under one of the cars. But she needs to check anyway.
“I have multiple sclerosis,” I blurt out.
Anna stares at me in surprise. I’m surprised too. Why did I tell her that? I haven’t even told my parents, for Christ’s sake. But also surprisingly, I’m not sorry I told her. It’s a relief to have finally said those words to another person who wasn’t a medical professional.
“You would probably walk better if you had a cane,” Anna says.
I nod, although her words make me feel insecure. Are other people noticing how badly I’ve been walking? Are they talking about me? Then again, if they were, they wouldn’t tell Anna. “It’s just…” I mumble. “I don’t want to have…”
Anna points at her car. “There’s a drug store I know that sells medical supplies. Let’s get you one now.”
“Um,” I say. But Anna is already striding toward her car. “Okay. I guess.”
I carefully follow her to her car, and get inside. I notice that she’s just sitting there, gripping the steering wheel, her little hands turning white.
“What?” I say.
She’s quiet for a minute and I get worried something is really wrong. Finally, she says, “You’re the first person besides me who’s ever been in this car.”
“Oh,” I say.
She taps on the steering wheel in a rhythmic way, and takes a deep breath. Then she gives me this nervous smile that makes my heart flutter. “I guess it’s okay,” she says.
Then she starts the car, and off we go.
I won’t lie. I’m freaked out that Matt Harper is in my car.
Nobody goes in my car. Ever. Except me, of course, and I know exactly where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I can’t say the same for Matt. In fact, I know for a fact that only five minutes earlier, he was sprawled over the dirty floor of the parking garage. The floor that car tires have run over multiple times without being cleaned.
And now I feel a panic attack coming on.
I take deep breaths, trying to calm myself down. I’m gripping the steering wheel so tightly that my fingers tingle. I glance over at Matt, who looks worried, but despite that, gives me a smile. Matt’s smile calms me down even better than the deep breaths.
I can’t believe that Matt has multiple sclerosis.
He’s so normal. He’s so strong and healthy and happy and attractive. But more than all those things, he’s normal. Normal people don’t have terrible, degenerative diseases. I can’t wrap my head around it.
At the next light, I notice he’s staring down at his lap, and I wonder if he’s sorry he told me. People don’t tell me secrets. I’ve never been the sort of person that others feel compelled to confide in. Yet Matt told me when he clearly has not told many people. I wonder if Calvin even knows. Calvin also does not seem to be the sort of person that others feel compelled to confide in.
Five minutes later, I pull up in front of the drug store. Matt gets out of my car, and I notice for the first time the way he holds onto things as he walks. He holds onto the hood of my car. He holds onto the shelves in the drug store. He needs support when he walks. But at the same time, I understand why he doesn’t want to walk around with a cane. As I said, Matt is normal. If he’s a twenty-something-year-old guy who walks with a cane, he won’t be normal anymore.
We find the canes all the way at the back of the store, tucked away in a corner, which seems to be a ridiculous place to put a device to help people who can’t walk very well. There is a veritable potpourri of canes hung up on hooks jutting out of the wall—all shapes and colors and sizes. They look more like golf clubs than canes.
“So what do you think?” I ask him. “Any of the canes catch your fancy?”
“My fancy?” Matt raises his eyebrows at me.
“I mean…” My cheeks feel hot. “Do you like any of these canes?”
Matt is quiet for a minute. “No,” he says finally. “I hate them all.”
I can feel the despair radiating off him. I pluck a pink cane with flowers printed on it and shove it in his direction. “What about this one?”
He stares at me. “It has flowers.”
I shrug. “Flowers are pretty.”
“I’m a guy, Anna,” he says, although a smile touches his lips.
Encouraged, I pull a second cane from the wall. “This one is leopard-printed. You should get this one. It suits you.”
The smile grows slightly wider. “You think I’m a leopard-print kind of guy?”
I nod solemnly. “Or,” I add, fingering another cane, “a graffiti spray kind of guy.”
Matt snorts. “Who do they think is buying these canes anyway? Tween girls?”
My eyes fall on a simple black cane that has a tag that says it folds up. I pluck it off the hook and hold it out to him. “How about this one? It folds up and it’s black. Is black acceptable to guys?”
Matt looks at the cane long enough that I nearly give up and put it back. After an eternity, he reaches out and takes it from me.
“Yeah, fine,” he says.
“And then you won’t have to worry about falling ever again,” I say in my best cheerful voice.
“For now…” he mutters.
I frown. “Why? Do they think you’ll get much worse?”
“Yeah, sort of.” He looks away so I can’t see his brown eyes. “My doctor told me that in another four years, I probably won’t be able to walk anymore.”
I gasp. Matt looks up sharply, but I can’t help myself. How could that be? How could he have such a terrible prognosis? I know multiple sclerosis isn’t all gumdrops and lollipops, but I had no idea there was such a rapid decline. How could it be possible that in only a few years, he’ll lose the ability to walk?
Out of the corner of my eye, I see two wheelchairs pushed up against the wall, next to the display of crutches. It seems impossible that in a few years, healthy, normal Matt might be confined to one of those chairs. All the time.
No. It can’t be true.
“It won’t happen,” I say confidently. I lift my chin. “I’ll make sure of that.”
“Yeah, okay,” Matt mutters.
He doesn’t believe me. But I know that I can help him.
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