One day I'll finish this. One day.
September 4th, 2001
I hope I got this email thing down. My dial-up is real bad, but I think I finally got it working. Anyway, how's it been? How's the new dorm? Is Chicago a lot like New York? Did you make any new friends? Don't leave out nothing! Write back soon buddy!
September 15th, 2001
My first game was today. We won, obviously, but it wasn't as exciting without you in the stands. It was a crazy game. I got sacked by like, the biggest guy on their whole dang team, and I got out without a scratch. Coach said he was sure I was gonna snap my spine. That's a hero for ya! Wish you could have been there to see it. I get you must be real busy though. Get back to me soon!
October 11th, 2001
Do you think I can come up to visit soon? Since my grades are decent so far, my old man is giving me use his old car to use. It's a beater for sure, but it does its job. I can drive on down any weekend you're free. You still haven't written me back, but if you bring me along to a real college party, I just might forgive you. I hope your classes are okay. I know you said something about reapplying to education, or something. Hope that's working out for you. You deserve it.
November 20th, 2001
I know college is busy and everything but this is starting to get ridiculous. I'm having a real hard time believing you don't have one spare moment to email me back. Are these even going though? If I got the address wrong and some old man in Antarctica or something is getting these, let me know, random dude. But if you are getting these, Arthur… I miss you. Please write back.
December 25th, 2001
Merry Christmas, Arthur. If you even care anymore.
January 3rd, 2001
Did I do something wrong?
Arthur stared at the words until they blurred. The computer monitor turned into a mush of grey and white, blending in with the snow rapidly accumulating on his windowsill. He wondered if Alfred was looking at the same blizzard. It would only make sense, seeing as though he was only a few miles down the road.
Arthur slowly lowered his head to the desk, surveying the myriad of unpacked boxes that had lay untouched for six months. Though he had dropped all but one of his classes and had only been able to find part-time work, he never seemed to have time to sort out his things. Or perhaps that would simply make everything too permanent.
It didn't help that whenever Arthur opened one of the boxes, they spoke to him. They whispered cruel accusations and threats that seeped out of the cardboard like insects and crawled up his arms and into his ears. He usually backed off after that.
If nothing else, Arthur had at least established a routine. Every morning he woke up at eight on the dot and took the Red Line bus to his community college, where he went to his one class, minded his own business, went to work, minded his own business, came back home, or at least to this apartment… and checked his email. He read every single one of Alfred's messages every single day. Sometimes, he even began typing out a reply. Maybe with the luxury of distance he could finally explain himself. But then something deep inside of him would crackle, would pop, would scream and hiss and burn and claw until Arthur could not think and everything was engulfed in static. The static spoke his name. And he usually backed off after that.
After that first six months, the emails stopped coming. And soon after Arthur did not have a routine anymore.
After that, Arthur could barely feel the time passing. Years slipped by without him noticing. He deleted the emails. Things only felt more unreal, further away; when he withdrew from college entirely, when he lost his job, when he swallowed what was left of his pride and applied for public assistance. Arthur found less and less reasons to leave the apartment. The hooves grew louder and everything around him developed voices. Something was coming for him. Now, all Arthur could do was hide.
Most days, Arthur did not think of Alfred. There was no point. But what remained of his memory followed like a shadow. He thought of him when he saw children tossing around a football outside his window, or a new superhero movie was advertised on the telly. Arthur could never hear about Coney Island without feeling ill. But these thoughts usually passed quickly, once everything got loud again and Arthur had to focus on protecting himself. After a year, Arthur could barely remember what Alfred had sounded like. Two years, and he could not recall the color of his eyes. The loud, bright, explosive American was eventually drowned out by the sheer volume of everything else.
It was a shame, that things had to turn out this way. But in a way Arthur had always known it would.
"I'm not sure I understand," said Alfred, his head pounding with every word. "Could you… do you think you can explain all of that again?"
"Of course," said Carlos. He was sitting across from Alfred's bed, his large, hairy hands treaded together. "When you had your accident, your body was compressed by the other vehicle. This severely injured your spinal cord. While it wasn't severed, the damage is quite… significant."
Alfred tried to hear the words, tried to understand. They had taken the pain killers away recently, and now his entire body ached with what he assumed was withdrawal. His head was swimming and nothing made sense. Why did nothing ever make sense anymore? "Wait, but, you said there was a surgery?" he asked, recalling a far-off, fragmented conversation from a few days ago when the medicine was still strong.
Carlos nodded. "Yes, shortly after the accident we operated to stabilize the spine."
Alfred listened as if he was talking about someone else, someone far, far away. He did not remember any of this. Surely, there had to be mistake… "Wouldn't that mean you fixed it? If you stabilized it, I mean?"
Carlos regarded Alfred with narrowed, sympathetic eyes. Alfred hated it. No one had ever looked at him like that. "We were able to reduce the pressure on the spine, but we weren't able to repair the fractured vertebrae. With injuries like this, it's nearly impossible."
Bile rose in Alfred's throat, and he quickly blamed the withdrawals. Impossible… what a stupid word. Everyone had told him making the NFL was impossible, and he had done that. Finding Arthur should have been impossible, but he had done that, too. Nothing was impossible. Every time someone tried to tell him that, Alfred had proven them wrong. But now the walls, these words, everything… it all felt so big, so overwhelming. Alfred felt a swift strike of nausea as he forced himself to speak. His voice was so small. "What does that mean?"
Carlos reached over and laid a hand on Alfred's arm. His touch was warm, almost burning. "Your injury is incomplete, meaning you may recover some sensation with time. However…" Carlos took a breath. His brown eyes pierced into Alfred's. "With how things are looking, you will never regain motor function in your legs. I'm so sorry, Alfred. I'm so sorry."
The room turned still. Alfred dragged his hands down his thighs, staring at his fingers raking his skin. It felt like touching a cloud. His lips parted and he expected a scream, but nothing came out. He could only find one thing to say. "I'm the quarterback."
The room went heavy and silent. Carlos breathed out audibly, unraveling his hands and tapping his fingers together. "I understand this must be extremely hard to hear," he said. Carlos leant forward, but he still seemed miles away. "Do you have any questions? I'm here to answer any you may have."
"I…" Alfred shook his head, not a single thought coming to him. There were no questions he wanted the answer to. "Where's Matthew?"
"I advised your brother to take some time for himself before he came to see you again," said Carlos, his voice too calm. "He'll be back as soon as he can."
Last Christmas, Matthew had been too busy working to celebrate. This had been to case the previous Christmas, as well as both of their birthdays, and every wedding, funeral, or reunion their extended family had hosted for the last three years before that. It was heroic, Alfred had always thought. How wonderful that Matthew was so devoted to his patients. In this moment, though, Alfred wanted that whole damn hospital to burn.
But what would that fix? According to Carlos, nothing could be fixed, nothing could be done. An intrusive ray of sunlight warmed Alfred's face from the window. Damn this Florida heat, why were there never any clouds?
"You'll be meeting with a physical therapist in a bit to discuss next steps."
"Alright," said Alfred quickly, nearly cutting him off. He squinted against the light. An airplane flew across the sky, which he watched until it disappeared. He wondered where it was going.
Carlos stood, the chair squeaking against the linoleum floor. He turned to leave, but then turned back and asked, "How are you feeling, Alfred?"
At that, Alfred smiled. It reminded him of Matthew. Matthew, who had a habit of giving bad news, and Alfred was sure he was wrong sometimes. "Feeling fine, doc," he said, snapping back to attention. He could feel the plane in his fingertips.
Carlos looked at him with something akin to disbelief, which Alfred smiled back at. "Alright. Please, do not hesitate to page me if you need anything. Anything at all."
Alfred agreed, and Carlos walked out. Alfred listened to his footsteps until they disappeared. Then all that was left was the ringing in his ears, which had gotten louder since the accident, the hot, hot sun, and the white walls. Hospitals sucked, Alfred decided. This must have been how Arthur felt. But Alfred didn't want to think about that too much.
After a quiet minute ticked by, Alfred switched on the tiny television and found a station playing cartoons. He leaned back into the pillow, too many thoughts in his head, and tried his best to ignore them all. There was no point to dwelling on it right now. Alfred laid perfectly still, letting the white noise from the television fill his head. The roadrunner escaped the coyote for the millionth time, speeding into the sunset, leaving nothing but a cloud of dust. Alfred smiled at first. But the more he watched the roadrunner run around, the tighter his chest felt. So Alfred turned it off and sat in silence.
And then, Alfred was completely alone for the first time in years.
The ringing was so loud.
The grass squished under his feet as Arthur tore though the hospital yard, fading to hard slaps as he reached the sidewalk. Rain pelted against the concrete and it sounded like footsteps. Arthur swung his body around, glancing around frantically, positive someone would come tearing after him at any moment. The night was empty, nothing but occasional strikes of thunder and lightning breaking the stillness. But Arthur heard so much more, the voices that existed on another plane of existence that only he was aware of.
Stupid. Stupid. Go back, run in front of that car, go on! Go! No, go back, stupid. Idiot. Idiot. Idiot. It's coming. Not safe. Turn around. Run. It's coming, it's coming, for you, for you, stupid…
Arthur shook his head as he ran, droplets of rain flying in every direction. It was right beside him. "Shut up," he said as the stream of conflicting demands continued, louder than it had been in months or maybe years. "Shut the hell up for once, will you? Good God!"
The rain was burning static against Arthur's skin; it was poisonous, dangerous, hurting him. He kept turning in his stride like a twisted ballerina, searching endlessly for what he heard following him. By some miracle Arthur reached the 24/7 supermarket a few blocks away, the only building in sight that still had its lights on. He remembered it from his previous life. It never followed him here, he assured himself as he sprinted through the automatic doors. Not with this many people.
Arthur blinked against the harsh florescent light, shielding his eyes and muttering an expletive. Water dripped from his clothes and pooled at his feet as he looked around, taking in the vast rows of merchandise, the impossibly high ceilings. He whipped around at the sound of a far-off voice before realizing it was only the radio. He then locked eyes with a bewildered looking checker, who had stopped mid-scan to gape at him.
"Evening," said Arthur, straightening his posture. The checker quickly returned to his business, and Arthur blinked away his disorientation, turned, and strode towards the ATM in the back of the store.
Arthur's hands shook as he withdrew his wallet from his pocket, and he glanced once more over his shoulder before he took out his bank card. If there was one thing he was sure about in all of this, it was that he needed money to get anywhere. He hadn't a clue how much was left in his account. And, perhaps much more worryingly, he had long forgotten the PIN number. Arthur closed his eyes briefly and tried not to scream. He could not have gone into this more unprepared. He had not been prepared for anything since he was eighteen, but at this point, prepared was entirely too much to ask for. Maybe it would always be. Now, Arthur had no choice but to simply do.
The first thing he tried was his birthday, 0423. The machine flashed red, angry electronic eyes glaring at him. Well, at least he had known not to be so obvious. Arthur stared blankly at the blinking light, his thoughts turning into a jumble of random, deafening numbers.
5 52 8032 65 0903 283 234 82 123 4 28 104 8 429 4379 1038 432 7 65 937 92111 1 1111 111…
In the corner of the store, a busted light sputtered between on and off. He tried to ignore it, but it conquered his peripheral vision and then suddenly it was all he could think about or see. Another minute passed, and he became aware of two women chatting a few feet away, laughing and talking over each other. The beep of items being scanned was an assault on his ears. Arthur's chest tightened painfully, his breathing coming faster. This world was far too loud for him.
Barely thinking, Arthur punched in Alistair's birthday, or at least what he thought it was: 1130
The machine flashed again, somehow more furiously than before. Another stream of numbers coursed through his head, this time mixing with letters, colors, sounds, until it was a muck of nothing and could someone fix that bloody light, could everyone just shut up? Arthur had one more chance before this machine locked his card. Then he might as well walk back to the hospital, lay down, and die.
"Sir? Do you need any help?"
Arthur turned to see the same checker from before, a wide-eyed, lanky teenager. Chances are he had kept an eye on Arthur since he walked in the door. Maybe he was from the hospital, plotting to return him. "Oh," said Arthur, careful to hold his gaze. He took a steadying breath and smiled as if his life was not imploding. "No, no. Everything is quite alright."
The checker stared blankly at Arthur for a moment, and then nodded. "Let me know if I can be of any assistance," he said, and then walked away. Arthur watched unblinkingly until the checker returned to his post, and then breathed a sigh of relief. It was as if his body was deflating.
The storm having cleared, if only a little bit, Arthur closed his eyes and willed himself to think. Of every number, every date that could have possibly been of importance to him. He could not remember the address of his childhood home. Nor could he remember his mother's birthday, beyond that it was sometime in the spring. He supposed it could be the year of his high school graduation, 2001, but something told him it wasn't. Even back then, he rarely wanted to think about 2001.
But then Arthur remembered the history class he had taken that year. Right before his memory had spiraled into nothingness and his grades collapsed, they had studied the revolutionary war. It had been one of his favorites. As silly as it was, when Arthur had studied those brash, stupid, brave American rebels, he thought only of Alfred. And then it came to him. Arthur punched in the numbers instinctively.
Then the machine flashed green, a congratulations, and Arthur fought the strong urge to hug the blasted thing. Fingers shaking with adrenaline, he pressed the button labeled check balance. A number just below a thousand dollars flashed on the screen. Okay, thought Arthur, it could very well have been worse. He quickly withdrew the maximum amount for the day, four hundred dollars, and placed it all in his wallet. Then Arthur tore back out into the rain, ignoring the strange look he knew the checker was giving him.
For what felt like a year, Alfred stared at the thing. At the black polyester seat, at the shiny footrests, at the too-large wheels and the metal frame glinting in the sun. It wasn't as if he had never seen one before. But never this close, never this real, and certainly never with someone demanding that he use it.
"So, Alfred," said the young woman standing beside the chair. Her thick, dark curls were gathered into pigtails and secured with red bows. "Today, I think we should focus on getting you comfortable with the different aspects of wheelchair use. Does that sound alright to you?"
"I mean, like…" Alfred finally looked away, back towards the endless blue sky. "Is that really necessary? The doctor said it might improve, so like, we might not need to…" He swallowed, tapped at his thigh. It was still numb. "Do that," finished Alfred quietly.
The physical therapist smiled a little too sympathetically. Alfred thought her name was Michelle, but he wasn't sure. He hadn't really been paying attention. "Even so, this is going to be a vital skill for you to have."
"I guess that's fine," said Alfred, a little poutier than he intended. Michelle wheeled the chair forward, and Alfred winced at the way it squeaked against the linoleum. "Uh, how are we going about this, exactly?"
"We should start with positioning," she said. "Here, let me help you get seated."
"No," said Alfred quickly, immediately. "No, I've got it."
Michelle began a weak protest, which Alfred chuckled and waved dismissively at, through his pulse was quickening in his head and in his lungs. He sat upwards, and instinctively tried to swing his legs over the side of the bed. They didn't respond, like a switch that was no longer plugged into anything. Alfred felt a sting of panic but ignored it. He used his upper body to hoist himself from the bed, and then slowly lowered himself into the chair. His heart was hammering, his face burning a flustered red. He wished Michelle would stop looking at him. Or maybe just leave.
"It's important you position your bottom towards the back of the seat." Michelle placed a hand on Alfred's torso and gently guided him backwards. Alfred's stomach turned, not in disgust but something closer to embarrassment, and he fought the urge not to swat her away. He just nodded. "You should also make sure to shift your weight regularly to prevent pressure sores. I see you have significant upper body strength, so I don't think that'll be a problem."
"Sure," muttered Alfred. Already growing uncomfortable, he lifted himself and shifted in his seat. He stared at his biceps as he did so, at the way his muscles flexed, and then looked down at the wideness of his thighs. He suddenly imagined them scrawny. Another wave of nausea pounded into him, and Alfred focused on the floor.
"You're doing excellent so far." Michelle smiled, and Alfred tried to smile back, but he didn't want to. He wasn't a child; he didn't need to be praised for this. This whole thing was stupid anyway. "I think we're already ready to move on to maneuvering."
Michelle gave Alfred a quick rundown of all the different parts of the chair, which Alfred promptly zoned out on. He barely paid attention when she showed him where to put his hands, refused to think as she showed him how to propel himself forward. After several minutes of mindless gliding around the room and short set of instructions on turning, Michelle suggested that Alfred maneuver out of the room and down the hall, to the larger physical therapy room.
"Um, okay," said Alfred, eyeing the door and then looking away. He shifted again in his seat, unfamiliar nervousness like sparks beneath his skin. Slowly, he propelled himself towards the door and attempted to turn the corner. The wheel hit the edge of the doorframe. "Shit," he muttered under his breath, his fingers tensing. He backed up shakily and tried again, and the same thing happened. Alfred slammed his hands against the rims. "Shit!"
And then it hit him – he really had to live like this. Possibly forever.
Michelle sighed in a way that was almost a laugh, and Alfred knew logistically she was not laughing at him, but it made him want to slam his head into the wall, to scream until his lungs exploded, or, most powerfully, get up and run, run, run, far away. But now Alfred felt like he was floating, and all he could do was take a series of quivering, furious breaths as his face burned even hotter.
"Don't worry, you'll get the hang of corners in no time," said Michelle after a long, awful moment. "We'll be practicing with plenty of different terrains and situations. One tip I would give you –"
"Actually, you know what, let's do this later," said Alfred, summoning a tone he had used exclusively with the worst kind of paparazzi. "This isn't productive right now."
"I understand this is frustrating."
"No, it's just stupid," said Alfred. Michelle's eyes widened, looking hurt, but Alfred pressed on anyway. "This is a waste of time. I'm done."
"I… suppose we can continue this later," said Michelle, taking a cautious step back as if Alfred was rabid. She helped Alfred to his bed, which made him went to claw the skin off his face and pry his eyes out of his head like old, leaking batteries. Though the ringing was too loud to hear, said a quick goodbye and exited the room.
Alfred felt guilty, but it was not nearly enough to overpower the fiery rage engulfing him. He wanted to kick holes in the wall, wanted to tear away from this hospital and back to his old life, but now he couldn't do that, couldn't do anything. All he had ever worked for and built and dreamed of and it was ripped away by something as stupid as falling asleep. Alfred ripped the pillow from the bed, covered his face, and screamed until his throat went raw. This wasn't supposed to happen, not to him. He hated the world for daring to do this to him. Hated himself for letting it happen. Everything had imploded, collapsed, fallen in on itself and burned down to ashes.
Alfred curled his arms against his face, his heart pounding and this breath coming too fast. He was trapped. His body was not responding. It was as if it was not his own. And he was completely alone. Worst of all, he had no way to get to Arthur, and he couldn't tell him. Not now, not like this. Not when he was so uselessly far away, so broken and helpless and hysterical. The sheets shook with his shoulders, a strangled growl in his throat. Alfred had promised to be strong for Arthur. And now this was his forever.
To be continued...