Will knew his mom worried about him. She worried about him a lot. His parents had taken his injury hard and his prognosis even harder.
There was a conversation they’d had when he’d been coming out of anesthesia after a complication had arisen from the initial fusing, a few days earlier, of the vertebrae he’d crushed. They’d thought that he was still so deeply asleep that he couldn’t hear them. He was still in the murky middle ground between sleep and waking, but he could hear them. And he’d never forget what he’d heard.
He could remember the muffled crying, so soft and timid that in his drugged haze he thought it might have been a little girl. But then, she spoke.
“My baby boy,” she had said over and over again, face pressed against his shoulder, her hand threaded with his. The IV tube slightly tangled like some grotesque snake between them.
“Ari, stop,” his father’s voice had graveled over her hiccups. “For Christ’s sake pull yourself together.” His mom had let go of his hand suddenly and turned around to face her husband. He’d just come into the room and stood, statuesque, at a little over six feet. He was handsome in a gruff aged-wine way. Ari sniffled a little then nodded, wiping at the corners of her eyes. She brushed her thick black hair behind her ears and hugged herself.
“John, it’s just so hard to see him like this,” she whispered, her voice as soft as tissue paper, as she risked a glance at Will’s shrunken pale form under the bloated blanket—lousy with hot air being pumped continuously to keep him stable.
“To see him like this?” John snapped, keeping his voice low, but poisonous. He gestured to his son, the once strong man of his memories felt like a wisp of smoke. Then he thought of Pete, who was out in the lobby, and the man returned, alive, and full, and glowing. It opened up a chasm of ache in his chest.
“He looks too fragile,” Ari said more to herself than to John. He kept his distance. Giving into his wife’s emotions felt dangerous—for both of them. She’d crumble if she was given an outlet. And him? He couldn’t risk even a crack. He’d never been good with these kinds of things and letting the situation’s painful truth wiggle inside of him would burn him from the inside out.
“You think he looks fragile now?” he asked harshly. Ari turned to look at Will before fixing her gaze on her husband. Her cheeks were salty and wet, but she didn’t move to wipe them. Her hands were shaking too badly. “You remember what the doctor said.” He wasn’t asking a question. Will’s mom nodded once and scrunched her eyes closed. She didn’t want to think about it. “Imagine how fragile he’ll look when he’s in a wheelchair for the rest of his life?” John’s voice sounded cold even to him, but he had to protect himself. Ari whimpered and shook her head.
“He’s alive,” she murmured, clinging to anything she could.
“He just got a life sentence,” he retorted, “he’s better off dead.” The words hung heavy as boulders between the couple, their crumpled crippled son between them, breathing steady.
“You get out of this room,” a strong voice came. Will remembered, in his haze, thinking a third person had entered the room. A much more imposing woman than his petite mother. But she grew feet as she stood, her strength returning to her, coming from somewhere nebulous, unknown, and powerful. “Until you fix your attitude, you get the hell out of this room. This is our son, and he is alive.”
John stood still as a statue as he watched his wife in awe. She was stronger than he was. He’d always known it, but this was the moment he’d needed it most.
His mom always called on Wednesdays when she presumed he was having lunch. Sometimes it was around 11:30. Some days it was more around 2:00. Will suspected it had everything to do with when she herself was sitting down to lunch. She didn’t call Pete as regularly.
That particular Wednesday the call came in around 1:13. Emily was leaning over him, her honey blonde hair wafting vanilla, pointing to something on the deck he’d created for a presentation the next day. Her proximity was familiar and unwelcome. Will fidgeted in his chair and reached for his phone.
“Ah,” he exhaled, “I should take this.” He leaned forward and unlocked his brakes, attempting to back up and away from her.
“We’re in the middle of this,” she replied to the screen rather to him. Her brow was furrowed. Will bit his lower lip and took a deep breath.
“It’s my mom. Promise it will be quick,” he said, then added, much to his own irritation, “she worries.” Why did he feel the need to add that he mom thought him incapable of living independently? Emily turned and studied him for a second. Will couldn’t read her expression and he didn’t like it.
“Fine,” she conceded as Will took the call and wheeled away. His chest felt tight. Emily had been hot and cold lately. Today she was leaning heavily toward cold. Will knew without a shadow of a doubt that it had to do with Scottie. Even though Emily had been the one to end it all back in June, for the sake of her conscience and her husband of seven years, she’d maintained a presumption of ownership. Now that Will had a few months of perspective, he supposed that Emily, who did have a flair for the dramatic, had needed to let off a little steam to quell her moral misgivings, and take back a little control. Will had a hunch she didn’t mean for the breakup to stick. She hadn’t banked on Will meeting someone—someone wonderful—only a few days later.
Will’s irritation was hard to hide some days, and that was probably why it was a good idea to never sleep with one’s boss. But what was done was done. Emily was married, apparently happily, and Will had Scottie. And as he thought of her—sitting cross legged on his bed this morning, doing an imitation of Chistopher Walken from Wedding Crashers in nothing but her bra and underwear—he smiled and loosened.
“Mom,” he answered, voice coming across solid and secure.
“Darling, hi,” his mom’s voice was warm and comforting, despite his macho insistence that he didn’t need anyone to take care of him.
“How are you?”
“Well, how are you?” He could hear her chewing something quietly and he pictured her in a cream sweater and jeans—her uniform—leaning against the counter in their quaint blue and white kitchen.
“I’m great. How’s Dad?”
“Stubborn!” she laughed richly, her faded accent peeking it head out slightly. “He won’t let me buy a new TV for the family room but I’m sorry, I’m just going to have to do it behind his back then.”
“I think that’s a good idea.” She started into another story—this one about the neighbor’s dog, Pepper. Will listened and commented where it made sense, but he wasn’t tracking. He was watching Emily from across the room. She seemed agitated and kept running her hands through her hair. She’d taken a phone call as well and had moved toward the kitchen. He rubbed absently at his thigh and readjusted his left foot on the footplate.
“Mom, I actually can’t chat for long today. Big deadline coming up.”
“You work too much,” she commented, clucking her tongue.
“Do you say that to Pete?” Will snapped, immediately regretting his tone.
“Of course, I do,” she replied after a few seconds, sounding wounded.
“Sorry,” Will replied bitterly, hating himself a little bit. It was his mom after all.
“Sweetie, it’s fine, I’m sorry too,” she whispered, and an understanding passed between them. She knew he sometimes felt babied, but like a knee jerk reaction, she couldn’t help herself, and he loved her for that. “Before you go though, I wanted to see what you were thinking for Thanksgiving.”
“Thanksgiving?” he asked. It was still a little more than a month away.
“Yes,” she responded, back to her all-business tone.
“Well, I talked to Pete last night and he wants to bring Lise,” she continued cautiously, as if she weren’t sure what Will’s reaction would be. Will had still refrained from telling his mom about Scottie. It wasn’t that he didn’t want her to know about the woman who’d stolen his heart so completely, but he was nervous. He didn’t want his parents to get involved and then get hurt in all of this. They were too fragile when it came to him. Too brittle when it came to his future. His ability to live a so-called “normal” life. Would he ever get married? Would he be able to father children? He’d been with Scottie only a few months. It was still so new and fragile.
“That’s so great!” Will replied earnest and enthusiastic. Wynn had been bringing her boyfriend for the past two years. Olivia didn’t have a boyfriend, but she was only 25. But Pete? Pete was Will’s able-bodied twin, and his mom navigated that particular snarl with the kind of caution you’d use on thin ice over a frozen lake. Will’s dad on the other hand handled it like a bull in a china shop, knocking over shelves, shattering flimsy confidence, and asking a smattering of humiliating questions with as much delicacy as a meat cleaver.
“It is?” she asked, genuine and empathetic.
“Yes, Lise is wonderful. It will be great to have her.” He could feel his mom exhale and smile through the phone. She was probably rubbing her temples with her left hand, trying to forget minefield she’d just successfully tap danced through. And Will was suddenly struck with an idea as he watched Emily eye him from across the room.
“Mom?” he asked, “I actually think I’m going to bring someone home too.”
He swore he heard her cellphone clatter to the counter.
Scottie was late. Very late. She’d been visiting her mom—who’d thrown her dinner tray directly at her head across the table. Scottie had spent the last half hour working sweet potatoes out of her hair in the nursing home bathroom. Will had texted her that it was no problem—and she was sure it was actually no problem. Will didn’t mince words, and it was a breath of fresh air. She’d learned quite a bit about Mr. Nash in the few months that they’d been dating since the beach, and one of those things was that he was incredibly laid back and incredibly candid. It was an inspiration to Scottie, who often found herself wound too tight to sleep and too marred in politeness to be honest. Still though, he’d been sitting at the restaurant for twenty minutes already, and she felt badly.
Pushing through the front door of, she saw him waiting by the bar, fiddling with his phone. She came up behind him and leaned down, wrapping her arms around him from behind and kissing him on the cheek.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered in his ear, smelling the sweet potatoes she’d obviously missed in her hair.
“You smell good,” he replied as he turned his chair to face her, a wide smile cracking his face in half. She laughed to herself and shook her head.
“You’re terrible,” she teased.
“You smell like Thanksgiving dinner,” he argued, “what’s wrong with that!”
“Let them know I’m here,” she pressed, purposely ignoring his jests and he nodded, smirking as he wheeled toward the hostess who grabbed two menus, gave Will an odd once-over that Scottie had grown accustomed to, and led them to a table near the back. Will had a little bit of trouble maneuvering around some of the tighter tables, but like always, he handled it with grace when he bumped a woman’s purse. Scottie followed closely, reminding herself that he always asked if he needed help. Offering help—he’d told her a few weeks into their relationship—wasn’t necessary. She’d asked him to set ground rules and explain as much as possible. She knew this relationship would be slightly different, given Will’s paralysis, and she’d wanted to be respectful. She didn’t know how much he’d appreciated that. Everyone else Will had ever dated had assumed what he needed from them—Scottie had asked, and it made all the difference.
The hostess asked Will if he needed the dining chair and he shook his head, opting instead to remain in his wheelchair. Sometimes he transferred out, if they were somewhere with a booth or if the table was the wrong height, but it was generally easier to just stay put. Plus, strangers were infamous for staring. Scottie had been stared at all her life. She was objectively beautiful and statuesque. Striking even. Ad she’d been affirmed many, many times by men and women alike, but she’d never experienced this kind of curious staring that seemed to follow them like a shadow. Will was a good sport about it, but like everyone, he had bad days, too. Scottie wasn’t above telling someone off, but Will, thus far, had prevented it. She heard him order some wine from the waitress—he knew what she liked—and felt him reach across the table and take her hand. Her chest fluttered just as it did when they first met. She turned to look at him and he smiled.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” she replied warmly, leaning forward. Will fidgeted a little, taking his hand back and shifting his weight which, Scottie had noticed, he’d done only a few seconds earlier. She was learning his cues, as they were spending almost all of their time together—both waking hours and non—and she could tell something was up.
“You okay?” she asked slowly with a smirk. The waitress came back with a beer for him and a red for her. She reached for hers and took a small sip, her green eyes never wavering from his blue ones. He leaned back and ran his hands through his hair, squeezing the back of his neck.
“I uh,” he started, then stopped. Taking a deep breath. She cocked her head. “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” Scottie exhaled a nervous breath. There was this wild irrational part of her that thought he was going to tell her he loved her. Or that he wanted to marry her. She wanted both of those things—she’d never been so sure of anything—but she didn’t feel quite ready to face what that meant. It had only been a few months. A few wonderful months with the best person she knew. Every morning she had to remind herself that he was hers. But she wasn’t stable, and she knew it. She couldn’t saddle him with that baggage until she’d worked through it herself. It wasn’t fair.
“I guess, Nora and Cory’s? Maybe my mom? I hadn’t thought about it too much,” she said the latter option sadly, depressed by the thought of having to spend the holiday in the drab dining hall with the stained curtains, then later having to wash not only sweet potatoes out of her hair, but gravy too.
“Oh,” he replied, his face falling slightly. “I was just going to say that I’d love for you to come home with me if, well you want to, or can, or whatever.” His nerves were frayed, and he felt like he couldn’t get quite enough air.
“You want me to come home with you?” she asked, slightly incredulous.
“Of course, I do,” Will replied, incredulous at her incredulity.
“And meet your family?” she asked, tone not changing. Will laughed, his eyes widening.
“Yes, of course!” Scottie’s heart sped up at the thought. Will had a family. A real, loving, living, breathing, non-drug addicted, whole family.
“I,” she started then reached for her wine, taking a healthy sip. She felt the slight wobbliness in her legs from the drink and it helped.
“Look,” Will interjected, “I understand if it’s too soon, I don’t mean to–“
“Yes,” Scottie interrupted.
“Yes, it’s too soon or?”
“No, it’s not too soon. Yes, I’ll come. I’d love to come,” her voice was light and shaky, but she was so caught up in herself. Why was it so hard for her to believe that he wanted her to meet his family?
“Look, you can say no,” Will offered earnestly, “I know it’s a lot and we’ll have to stay over a few nights, and our house isn’t much but—” His insecurity was intensifying like water boiling.
“Will,” Scottie appealed, reaching of his fidgeting hand. She took it in hers and ran her thumb across his knuckles, adoring the feel of it. “I would love to come.” Will nodded once and took a swig of his beer, laughing nervously as he put it down.
“Okay,” he said tentatively. Then, with more assurance, “okay.”
“Okay,” Scottie mimicked to his growing grin. It was rising like bread dough. She was nervous, but her heart felt full. He wanted her. His family wanted to meet her. And she wagered that no one would throw a tray of sweet potatoes at her face, but that, she supposed, remained to be seen.