“Love of two is one. Here but now they’re gone. Came the last night of sadness. And it was clear she couldn’t go on. Then the door was open and the wind appeared. The candles blew then disappeared. The curtains flew then he appeared… saying don’t be afraid. Come on baby… and she had no fear. And she ran to him… then they started to fly. They looked backward and said goodbye… she had become like they are. She had taken his hand… she had become like they are. Come on baby… don’t fear the reaper…”

As his song ended, Matthew pulled out his iPod and unlocked it to stop the music. He had felt a bump a few moments back and he wanted to check it out. He was a big man, six foot three and two hundred and thirty pounds—a construction worker who owned the business and still worked it—and the bump barely registered to him. Still, it seemed odd that there should be one at all given that his yard was very flat, so he thought he must have hit one of Sarah’s toys. He hit the pause button and pulled off his noise-cancelling headphones.

Instantly, he froze. As soon as his headphones came off, a scream made his heart freeze and his stomach drop. He turned off the riding lawn mower and jumped off, spinning around to look for the noise. It had come from the bump he had hit in the lawn.

“Sarah!” He screamed so loud that it tore at his vocal cords and cut off his voice.

Matthew sprinted back ten yards to where his five year old daughter lay on the path he had just been mowing. There was blood everywhere. It was on her body, pouring and pooling into the grass and spraying onto the surrounding area along with chunks of some white substance.

When Matthew reached her side, he dropped to the ground and reached to cradle her head and grab her side. That’s when he began to notice things that were off. Her arm… It wasn’t all there. It went just about to her elbow then stopped. A jagged piece of bone jutted out from the end where her forearm and hand should have been.

He looked frantically over the rest of her body and saw that her arm wasn’t all that was missing. Her leg stopped about eight inches below her hip and all that was left was a shred of flesh dangling from the bleeding stump.

A scream tore from his throat, further damaging his vocal cords and rendering speech nearly impossible. He tore off the gray NFL sweatshirt he always wore when he was mowing to make it feel like he was burning some calories and stuffed it up against the stump of her leg. He wrapped it around as quickly as he could, then tore his shirt off and wrapped it around her arm. Then he grabbed her frail body—far too light—and ran toward the house with her. On the way, he kicked something hard, and looked down to see that it was a wet piece of bone. He kept running.

“Natalie! NATALIE!” He charged through the screen door, breaking the lock at he went, and ran towards the phone.

His wife was stepping out of the bathroom by the phone when he reached it. Her red plaid shirt hung open and she was running her fingers through her hair when he burst through the door. She looked confused at first, but she lost control as soon as she saw Sarah. She screamed and cried, but she could not manage to ask what happened.

Matthew, still holding his daughter, could not dial the phone. “Natalie, call 911!”

She continued to scream.

“Natalie, I can’t dial. CALL!”

She fumbled for a second, then jerked the phone off of its mount and dialed as quickly as she could. It took her three tries to dial the correct numbers and by the end she was crying even harder out of sheer frustration. Matthew heard only what she said.

“We need an ambulance, she’s dying!” Pause. “I don’t know… I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know… It’s my daughter. She’s just bleeding everywhere and her leg is gone and her arm is gone. She’s not talking! She’s not even awake!” Another pause. “Okay. Okay.” Natalie dropped the phone.

Matthew had set her down and was trying to stop the bleeding with more shirts that he had tied around the wounds. Natalie went over to her and knelt down next to her face. It was only then that she noticed the patch of skin missing from the side of Sarah’s neck. She gasped.

“Honey, wake up. I need you to wake up, sweetheart.” She cupped her hand to her daughter’s face and lifted her head onto her mother’s leg. “Wake up, Sarah.” She said it like she was just waking her up for another day of kindergarten. When she took her hand away, Sarah’s head lolled to the side.

“Sarah! Wake up!”

She still didn’t respond, and her breathing was getting shallower by the minute.

***

Matthew walked into the living room and sat beside Sarah. She was watching a crime drama on the television and was curled up inside a lurid pink polyester blanket. She was laying her head on the arm on the couch, but when he sat beside her, she leaned over and put her head on his lap.

He reached up and stroked her beautiful, straight blonde hair with his hand. It smelled like mint leaves and rosemary and he thought to himself that she would be quite a catch someday and imagined that he would have to fend off all of the guys who came to their place looking for her. He imagined her standing in front of the school as prom queen in her beautiful dress, waving her hands in the air at the crowd. And then, with a jolt of reality, he remembered that she did not have hands. Just hand, and stump. She did not have feet either. Just a foot. A foot and a prosthetic blob attached to a prosthetic limb attached to her body by human means. People like her didn’t get that sort of popularity or recognition, just funny looks. He shook his head and focused on the show.

A middle-aged man who looked just a little too attractive to be a detective opened the door to an office and stepped in. A weathered old man sat at a dark-lacquered wooden desk holding a whiskey glass, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select sitting open and half empty on his desk.

The detective pushed his slick black bangs out of his face and gave the man a quizzical look. “Well now, Chief, I may not be an expert, but that seems like a pretty expensive bottle of whiskey, especially for someone on a policeman’s salary to be draining in the middle of the day.

“It’s not that much. And what do you know about my salary?

“That you openly complain about in six days out of the week,” said the detective, grabbing a thick-bottomed tumbler off of the shelf behind the chief and pouring himself a glass. “Don’t you think you’ve drank a bit too much?”

“Mmgh,” grunted the old man. He leaned over the desk and the fabric of his stiff, brown shirt stretched tight over his wide shoulders. He poured another glass and stared at it.

“What’s going on?” The detective sat in the chair across from his chief and leaned back. He pulled out a golden lighter with Celtic designs etched into in and started flicking it open and on, and then shut.

The chief gave him an irritated glance and said, “Why do you carry that thing around, you don’t even smoke.”

The man flicked the lighter shut and replaced it in his pocket, the sinews rippling where his rolled up sleeves exposed his forearm.  “Chief, why are you drinking?”

The captain sat in silence for a while, then took a sip of his whiskey and said, “I’m tired of the mess, Detective.”

The detective, who had been watching the perspiration form on the outside of his glass, set the whiskey on the desk and looked at the chief with concern.

“Captain?”

The old man sighed. “I don’t know how to raise a family in this world. I hardly even know how to live in it.”

“What’s bringing this on, Chief?” The man was now interested, but even more concerned than before.

“Laurie’s pregnant.”

“Well, isn’t that something to celebrate? At the very least, if you’re gonna get drunk, it should be with friends.”

“I’m too old to be a father again. I paid my dues and I am not ready to do it again. I don’t even know how to do it anymore. Teenagers are growing up too quick, getting hooked on drugs and alcohol and porn, sleeping with anyone just to feel like they are loved. Everything is more extreme now. Kids getting high faster and on worse drugs, violence is out of control and almost casual, people are getting mowed down in the streets…”

Matthew’s face went pale and he stiffened. It was such a stupid, cliché line, “getting mowed down in the streets.” It is one of those societal-level writing clichés, and it doesn’t matter how good a writer is, it can show up in anyone’s writing. And it did. All the time it popped up and leveled him. Worse than that, it plowed him over like an 18-wheeler on a freeway and would send him spiraling back down a path of self-hate and alcohol dependency. Why had he reached for his coke? Why hadn’t he put the dog in the house so she wouldn’t have chased it?

Matthew stood quickly and rushed to the bathroom.

But he couldn’t. He couldn’t allow himself to go that way again. He couldn’t mess with the lives of his wife and daughter again.

He bent over and heaved into the toilet. A chain reaction of successive convulsions set off by the first took over and it was another minute before he was able to stand upright.

He stumbled over to the sink, wiping vomit from his mouth with the back of his big hand.  He rinsed his mouth out with water and grabbed the container of mouth wash off of the counter.

He dumped some of it straight into his mouth and swished it around. It was alcohol free. It had been ever since his wife had realized how excessive his drinking had become.

“Matthew,” she had said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what happened to our daughter and I am sorry that you had to be the one to do it. And I know you feel bad and I know you wish it hadn’t had to be the way it was, but you have to stop this! You can’t keep doing this… moping and drinking and hating yourself. You didn’t ruin her, she just got hurt. You did not ruin her childhood, but this could. You can’t let what happened allow you to ruin your relationship with her and you can’t let it ruin you. She forgot long ago that you were the one riding that mower, but she will never forgive you if you keep going like this and let it ruin you.”

Matthew had stood in silence for a minute, then muttered under his breath.

His wife had heard. “What was that?” She was mad.

“I said she didn’t forget.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means she didn’t forget. She never forgot. How could she? Every day she has to live with that. Every day she has to put on that fake leg. Every day she has to put on makeup to hide the scars on her neck. Every damn day she struggles just to put on a shirt! And she can’t hide the stump. It takes her five minutes to tie her shoes!”

By the end, he had been screaming. He stood facing her, red faced and shoulders heaving.

“Matthew… I know. Don’t you think I know? But you can’t help her if you disappear on her. Matt…?” She spoke softly. She didn’t want to fight. She loved him and wanted him to be okay.

He had stood silently for a moment staring at the carpet in their bedroom, then let out a deep, heavy sigh, taken a shallow breath and said quietly to his wife, “Okay.”

Now, standing in the same bathroom, he heard he daughter call out, “Dad? Are you coming back? It’s getting good!” Her voice was insistent.

He swished around the pale purple liquid, spit it out, wiped his mouth with a still shaking hand, steadied it, and whispered to himself, “Okay.” Then he went back to sit with his daughter.

***

Out of place is not an adequate description of how a forty-three year old construction worker feels at a teenage dance party. Sweaty teens dressed fancier than they knew how to be and committed acts that made them feel far more adult than they were. Bumping and grinding and redefining what it means to be close to someone. Bodies so tangled it was hard to tell where one person ended and the next began. Boys trying to be men, trying to play it cool when they realize the girl they had both been rubbing against has moved on and that they had just rubbed against each other.

Matthew would have been more worried if he hadn’t known that his daughter was not the kind of girl to dance like that. She was a dorky dancer. Moves just like her dad. No class, just dork. But that in itself was class, he thought. Better certainly than these pretentious boys and girls writhing and convulsing like the victims of a group seizure.

It was Sarah’s senior prom and he had volunteered to be one of the adult chaperones. Matthew was nervous. He was waiting for the break in the dancing when they would finally announce who would be the prom queen. Assumedly, they would also announce the king, but his daughter was not nominated to be king. He couldn’t believe it. He was so excited and hopeful. Wouldn’t it just be great if she followed in the footsteps of her mother and father?

Natalie had volunteered to chaperone as well but had come down sick at the last minute, so now Matthew was left standing there awkwardly waiting for the announcement so that it would be done with and they could dance to the content of their teenage hearts out and go home. At least this way he wouldn’t have to face her.

He was nervous that Sarah might not win. Of course she wouldn’t. What kind of royalty was ever so deformed? He hated himself for thinking it, but he hated the kids more for being the ones who would choose it. They were so cruel. How could they not see the beauty in that gorgeous, stunning girl, almost a woman now? He just wanted to get it over with. And it came.

“And the crown for the 2011 prom queen goes to…”

John’s heart stopped…

“Sarah Pendleton.”

…And it restarted.

He was shocked and amazed and proud and excited all at the same time and he could barely believe it. Tears formed at the corners of his eyes and filled until they overflowed and cascaded down his face. He could feel all the tension and pain and remorse and love and adoration and everything that had consumed his mind for the past thirteen years concerning his daughter brimming in his tears and tumbling down his whole body and he knew that for once, for just once, everything was right.

Sarah smiled as she bent her head down to accept the crown, turning so the stump of her missing arm faced the crowd. Only then did Matthew realize how loud the room had become. Everyone in the room was screaming and cheering and whistling and yelling with fierce passion. Their screams had become so loud it might have been deafening were it not for the damage his ears had already sustained on the job.

He stood with his mouth open in awe of what was taking place. Did they love her? He was wondering this when his daughter leaned over to the man presenting the awards and whispered in his ear. He handed her the microphone and everyone fell dead silent.

“I love every single one of you,” she began. “I love everyone who ever helped me carry my books to class. I love each one of you that stopped me during my day to encourage me, to tell me you love me, or to tell me that I look beautiful even if I struggle to believe it myself.”

Someone wolf whistled and everyone laughed. Sarah waited and when her admirers hushed, she continued to speak, a tear forming at the corner of her eye now.

“I love you all for never making me feel like I was a freak or anything less than human. I especially love the four people in this room who threw Bill Stevens into the dumpster on spaghetti day when he called me a cripple.”

The crowd roared with laughter and it took a whole minute to die down. Then she continued. “I especially love my dad, who is standing over by the punch bowl leaking like the water fountain at the Southside Mall.”

The crowd laughed, but Matthew stood frozen. Suddenly, he was realizing that the only person who thought of his daughter as a freak was him.

Sarah kept talking. She spoke of the weight of the guilt and the judgment from others that he carried every day. She praised him, but he didn’t hear a word of it.

The crowd applauded Sarah as she handed the microphone back to the man who was announcing the winners and came down off the stage. She walked over to her dad whose hands were shaking for want of a drink.

Sarah reached out with her hand to touch his face, but he pulled away.

“Dad,” she said, “It’s okay.”

“No. No, it will never be okay.”

“Dad, I’m not mad. It wasn’t your fault. It was hard for all of us, but I am happy.”

“But I made it that way. I hurt you. And then I continued to hurt you and your mother until she left. That was me. I am guilty.”

Sarah took a deep breath. “Dad, I never held what you did against you, and I forgave you for the divorce a long time ago. Mom is happy again, and I know she doesn’t hate you either.”

“Great, she doesn’t hate me. Small comfort. But it doesn’t matter. It’s still there. The weight of what I did to you. What am I supposed to do, just forget it?”

“Just let go of it.” She choked back a sob as she said it.

The desperation in her voice tore at his heart. But then he thought back to the cheering crowd and his own misperceptions. The fact that he alone limited his daughter’s potential, and it was too much. He lifted his head and sniffed. He took a deep breath and sighed.

Then he looked her straight in the face and said, “I’m not ready to.”

With that, Matt shed his last tear, shouldered the weight, and walked away.
Photo: Smokin’ by Sabrina Kaufman

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