Donald traveled by wheelchair. Not because he was infirm or arthritic or legless, but because he was very fat.
He didn’t like to run. He didn’t like to walk. It made him wheeze, and wheezing was uncomfortable. He didn’t like to stand, because it made his hips hurt. He didn’t like the way his puffy feet felt when pressed to the ground, or the way his calves throbbed when asked to hold his body upright. And so Donald wheeled down the streets of his city, powered not by muscular arms but by a push of the little toggle switch on the right arm of his chair.
Donald loved the electric sound.
It sounded like what a big old grin would sound like – content, carefree, effortless. He liked passing the walkers and the joggers. How these people moved about made no sense to him, panting, blowing, their faces red and their hair plastered down with sweat. Donald didn’t feel haughty towards them, although he knew he could if he wanted to. Instead, he felt an odd little pity like one of those mild mannered Greek gods must have felt when looking down from Mt. Olympus, or was it Mt. Fuji? Whatever. It was kind of sad, all those people who believed the old “no pain no gain” lie. Life should be easy, but not everyone could understand that.
Down the sidewalk from his apartment to the grocery store, pausing to push the button to stop the traffic and let him cross at the intersection.
Sliding across the street, glancing briefly at the bug-eyed faces pressed to windshields and the fingers death-gripping steering wheels. Silly people, they’re just going to park somewhere then huff and puff the rest of the way to wherever, Donald thought, and then he was back up on the sidewalk again.
He reached the grocery store, and slowed down in front of the large plate glass window so he could admire himself. A smart young man of twenty-four, crown of golden curls and brows of dark red. A tentative beard sprouting from his ample jowls and chins, something he wasn’t sure he’d keep but damn, didn’t he look like a cocky pirate or dashing cowboy with it? A green ball cap, worn backward like all young men did these days. A large and manly body that weighed – he wasn’t sure at this point – but somewhere around 550. Give or take a few pounds. Probably give. But handsome pounds they were, encased in a jaunty red t-shirt and blue, paisley print elastic-waist shorts. On the back of the chair was Donald’s backpack. It carried his important things – wallet, state identification card, bags of snacks, a six-pack cooler filled with a freezy pack and four Cokes. His slippered feet were propped on the steel footrests. Sneakers and hard soled shoes hurt his feet, and besides, he wasn’t walking so slippers worked just dandy.
“Hmmm,” said Donald, mimicking the sound of the chair. He grinned broadly and his eyes closed to slits. “Hmmmmm!”
Inside the store, people moved out of the way, let him get in front of them, let him have the last box of Frosted Flakes. He dropped a couple coins while paying the cashier and a mother directed her young daughter to chase after them because “the poor man, I mean this gentleman, would have a hard time, honey. He needs our help.” The little girl dutifully scraped the coins from beneath the candy display and handed them back to Donald with an expression of fear and awe. He thanked her, and thought, I hope she learns something from this. People will take care of you if you will only let them.
Another man in a wheelchair came through the store’s front door as Donald, grocery bag in lap, came out. The man was missing both legs. He studied Donald for the briefest second, then glared at Donald and moved on. Donald said, “Have a nice day!”
Back home, Donald put the groceries away and turned on the television. It was an old set, inherited from his father when the man had died two Junes ago. Donald had lived with his father his entire life, had cared for him as best he could after the old man’s stroke – feeding him, shaving him, trying to wash him though that job was especially unsavory. It wasn’t such a bad thing when the man died. Both of them were happier now as things stood. Dad had a nice spot in Riverview Cemetery and no more pain. Donald got the first floor apartment, his dad’s wheelchair, the television and other appliances, and $35,000 from his dad’s life insurance. Donald, who had already been heavy, had gained an additional two hundred pounds the first year after his dad’s death. He tried to apply for disability so when the money ran out he wouldn’t have to find some stupid job doing some stupid thing, but the people at the office didn’t find him disabled. No matter. He didn’t cuss at them or scream. He just said, “Thank you,” and left. He’d try again later, next year, when he was bigger and when the policies changed. Policies were always changing; you just had to keep your eye on the prize.
Dr. Phil was on, talking to a bunch of people who needed to lose weight. Donald changed the channel. Oprah was surprising some old woman with a home visit and makeover. He changed it again. Maury had teenaged girls in the faces of teenaged boys, demanding they pay child support. Donald left the channel there. These episodes always made him laugh. He jabbed the remote, bringing up the volume, and wheeled back into the kitchen.
Mmmmm. A box of oven fried chicken fingers for starters. Rice-a-Roni, three cans of pork and beans, and for dessert a Mrs. Smith’s deep-dish cherry pie, baked in the oven.
“You best be givin’ me child support, you beep beep beep!” squealed some girl with a voice shrill enough to peel a potato. The boy shouted something unintelligible, and then Maury said, “Now, Ricky, now Ricky, sit back down and let’s talk about this as reasonable…” The girl screamed and the audience roared. Donald, searching in the fridge for a snack to tide him over until the chicken tenders, rice, and pie were done, snickered. “I bet they hire those people to act like that. I bet I could do that, yellin’ and throwin’ chairs at other people. Maybe if I can’t get disability next year, I’ll hire myself out to the talk shows.”
When he was at last settled in his wheelchair in front of the set, two t.v. trays set with his steaming dinner and a half dozen cans of ice cold Coke, the phone rang.
“Man oh man,” he muttered around a bite of beans. He had forgotten to bring the cordless over from its cradle on the wall. Not that it mattered. Who was calling him? Telemarketers maybe, since he’d not signed up for “do not call.” His mom maybe, who’d divorced his father when Donald was eleven and now lived in Baltimore with her policeman husband and seven-year-old prissy-boy twins. Mom would call once a month whether she wanted to or not. Maybe it was the landlord to fuss because his rent was a couple days late. There was nobody else he could think of who might want to talk to him.
The phone rang twenty-seven times. Donald counted them. Twenty-seven times, twenty-three more times than it was supposed to before Donald’s voice mail should pick up. And then, suddenly, it then issued a long, excruciatingly shrill whistle that rattled the t.v. trays and the fillings in Donald’s teeth. He howled and clamped his hands over his ears. The sound bore into his body, running a particularly strong current down his right leg then up again.
The muscles in his leg twisted and coiled, as if trying to split the skin and escape. “OOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWW!”
The phone went silent.
The currents in his leg faded, evaporated. Donald lowered his hands. He could see the hairs on his rounded knuckles, still upright like tiny spider legs pawing the air.
“What the hell was that?” he asked himself through chattering teeth. “I better get that phone checked.” He frowned at the phone as if daring it to whine again, slapped the hairs on his fingers back down, then jabbed the remote control. “Cops” was on one of the upper channels.
Bad boys bad boys, whatcha gonna do?
Donald guzzled one can of Coke without coming up for air, and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He’d forgotten a paper towel and he wasn’t going into the kitchen for one. It was strange, the phone ringing like that and the feeling that had run up and down his arms. Was a thunderstorm coming? Had that messed up the phone so it rang so long and so loudly? Had a charge passed through the room and into him, warning him of a big-ass storm on the way? If so, he’d have to unplug everything. If his Dad had taught him anything, it was that you had to unplug stuff before a thunderstorm.
He muted the t.v. and cocked his head toward the small living room window with its grime-stiffened sheers. He didn’t hear thunder, and he didn’t see any flashes of lightning.
He unmuted the television. A naked man with a mullet was leaping a chain link fence ahead of a cop and the man carrying the jostling camera. “Stop right there!” called the cop. The naked guy shouted something and then his toes caught in the top of the fence. He went down on his face in a tangle of weeds. Wham! Donald coughed laughter around a mouthful of chicken and beans.
The television sputtered, clicked off, then on, then off. Donald frowned and pulled the fork out of his mouth. “Now what…?”
And then Donald’s whole body lit up with electricity, humming, burring, chewing his nerves with metal teeth. The t.v. emitted an abrupt, bone-jarring whine. “Owwweeee owwwweeee!” he cried. He bounced on his padded seat, trying to shake off the pain. “OWWWWWEEEEE!!”
A small tendril of smoke curled up from the television’s cable box like a curl of steam from a coffee cup. Tendrils of smoke rose from the rolls of flesh on his knees. The heat was intense, like cigarettes pressed to skin, and the sight of the smoke made it all the more terrifying.
“Whoooo!” Donald screamed. “Whoooooooo!” He spanked his knees, trying to extinguish the smoke. A dog in the apartment upstairs picked up a harmony with its own raspy whooooing. Donald pounded his knees harder, his mind reeling that this must be how those spontaneous human combustion victims on TNT started out. A few leakages of smoke and then poof…nothing but charcoal, some legs, and a pair of shoes. Make that slippers.
The t.v. popped back on. The cops had the naked mullet-man in custody and he was sitting, bare butt and fuzzed-out crotch, on the back seat of the cruiser. The smoke from the cable box disappeared. The smoke from Donald’s knees dissipated and was gone. Donald panted and wiped his sweaty face. He looked closer at his knees…as close as he could get over the mound of belly. There were no holes, no blackened spots. Just touches of red, which were already fading. The pain was gone.
“Whooooo!” called the dog upstairs. “Whoooo-whooooo!”
“Shut up!” shouted Donald.
The dog whoooed once more then went quiet.
Of course there was something wrong in the apartment, some kind of ungrounded wires gone crazy. Maybe mice had chewed through cable insulation. He’d give the super a call first thing in the morning and demand he get it fixed.
But…but in truth, it had felt as if the currents had actually started within him, not from outside. It had felt like some kind of freaky generator inside his very own body had lit up and then jumped around the room, messing up the television. Making the phone squeal.
“That’s crazy,” Donald told himself. “Insane. You sound like an mental case.”
He watched t.v. with a sense of trepidation the rest of the evening, wondering at any moment if he was going to be shocked or burned. The last piece of pie was ruined because of the coppery taste of fear that lingered on his tongue. Yet, he swallowed it down and flipped through the channels again, looking for something entertaining. Most shows that came on at midnight were worthless – “Paid Programming” – men with shiny, taut facelifts selling cookery and young women telling other young women that their moisturizer would keep them ageless. Flip, flip, flip went the channels. Up and down between 2 and 71, which was as high as Donald’s cable package would allow. Every once in a while, the muscles in his right knee would twitch, and something would wriggle vaguely beneath the skin, but he told himself it was just reflexes. He was a sensitive person. Of course he would react to things like surging currents from ungrounded floor wires and distant thunderstorms.
He stopped on a reality hospital show. Some guy with a compound fracture of his leg lay moaning on a gurney as a young, pretty, yet dreadfully serious ER nurse held his hand and a Chinese doctor poked at the bloody bone.
“Am I going to lose my leg?” the victim asked through clamped teeth.
The nurse said something that sounded like, “Cells have their own intelligence. They’ll fight to stay alive if at all possible.”
“Oh, yeah, sure, cells have brains, where’d you go to nurse school?” muttered Donald. He dabbed at the crumbs left on his plate and stuck them into his mouth. Then he licked the last bit of stray cherry pie jelly from the t.v. tray by tipping it over his lap.
“You’re in good shape,” continued the nurse. “Hopefully the tissues of your leg will be able to survive long enough for Doctor Houng to make necessary surgical repairs.”
The doctor poked the wound again and the man screamed.
“Nasty!” Donald poked the remote control with the same fervor the doctor had poked the man’s leg. The television screen went black.
Donald’s bedtime ritual was simple. Brushing teeth over the tub. Sliding out of his clothes with a bit of huffing and puffing, then dumping them into the hamper. Easing himself onto and off of the toilet, though the wooden rim of the pot was cracked and pinched his buttocks every time, and the whole base rocked like a bridge in Los Angeles during a 6.9 on the Richter. He wasn’t sure how long the thing would hold up. It was too late in the evening to complain to the super about that. Tomorrow he’d phone Mr. Cooper, and also mention the damaged, ungrounded wires. Oh yeah, and pay his late rent. Lastly, Donald washed what he could reach with a wet cloth on a stick and wheeled himself to his bedroom. With grit teeth, he scooted his bulk onto the sagging mattress.
He lay, staring at the shifting patterns on the ceiling as passing cars tossed headlights through the partially drawn sheers on the window. Life was good, except for the cracked pot and the bad wiring. The moving patterns overhead became a t-bone steak, then a bushel of sweet potatoes, a slice of German chocolate cake, a bacon pizza.
The nurse from the television emergency room stood on the sidewalk outside his apartment building, watching as he returned from somewhere in his whirring, humming chair. She was incredibly tall, perhaps nine or ten feet, and quite beautiful in her bright, white uniform. Donald cradled a quart of ice cream to his chest and already the ice cream was starting to leak onto his legs in thick, sticky puddles. He had to get it inside his apartment to the freezer before it was nothing but mush. The nurse smiled at him, and held out her hand as if she was going to open the door to the foyer for him. He said, “Thank you…” but then he saw that her hand held an enormous syringe. He gasped and let go of the toggle switch on his chair.
But the chair kept rolling, straight for the nurse and her syringe.
NOOOO! he tried to scream but his mouth would not open. The nurse’s mouth did open, though, and it was filled with glittery, gold shark’s teeth. The syringe dripped a dark, red fluid. “The doctor will see you now,” she hissed. The hand holding the syringe reached out for him as he rolled toward her. The syringe grew, doubling in size, tripling, its tip facing him like the tip of a lance in a jousting tournament. The red fluid oozed and spattered on the sidewalk.
The ice cream carton in Donald’s lap blew apart. The melted cream drained down between his legs in chilling rivulets.
“Ha!” cried the nurse as he reached her and she grabbed hold of the wheelchair’s arm. “It looks like you’ve wet your pants, you big baby!”
She snatched Donald up by the hair, lifting him free of the chair, and poised the red-tipped syringe at his right thigh. Donald’s legs churned at the air. His arms waved uselessly. “Now, this will hurt,” the nurse said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
She plunged the giant needle into Donald’s right thigh. White-hot pain surged through the leg down to the foot. The leg sizzled, smoked, and turned black like a barbecued ham hock.
Donald screamed, then, and the scream was audible.
It woke him up.
“Nooo, nooo!” he continued to squeal as the shadowed patterns on the ceiling revealed themselves to him, and the ticking of the clock on his nightstand registered in his brain. “Noooo…..?”
His mouth snapped shut and he dug at the corners with his thumb. His heart, deep within his chest, hammered wildly. His leg ached and he figured he’d twisted it during the nightmare. What a dream! It was more real than any he could remember having. In fact, it really felt like…
He reached beneath the sheets, panting and gasping. Damn damn damn!
He had indeed wet himself.
Just like the big baby the nurse had accused him of being. And this meant rolling out of bed, putting his pillow on the chair seat so as not to mess it up, steering into the bathroom, washing, changing the freakin’ sheets. At least an hour of sleep time, wasted! His fingers traced the width and breadth of the wet spot on the bed, as best he could reach. Then his fingers touched an odd mass where his right leg should be. A shriveled, wasted bit of flesh, cold as melted ice cream.
Donald jerked his hand back. Surely he was just feeling things like some people just see things. He was still groggy from the dream. That terrible dream…
“Just look at that,” came a voice from the darkness near the closet.
“Arg!” grunted Donald, and he lurched his massive body several inches across the mattress away from the sound. “What’s that? Who’s that? Don’t kill me, I don’t have any money!”
“Money, ha, did you hear that?” said the voice, as if addressing yet another person in the room. Oh, God! Thought Donald. How many were in his room? Who were they? Donald’s mind scrambled, trying to fill in the blanks. There were gangs in his city, sure, but they lived blocks away and never seemed to mess with people in wheelchairs. What about the other people in his apartment complex? Were they mad at him for some reason? No, certainly not! What about the man he’d smiled at in the grocery store, the man with no legs? Did he think Donald had slighted him somehow, and had come back with a buddy to put things right?
Donald licked his dried lips and surprised himself by saying, “You aren’t supposed to be in here! Go away!”
There was movement in the darkness, something that seemed quite small, the size of a dog, perhaps. But dogs didn’t talk. Maybe it was a dwarf. Did dwarfs rob and murder like everyone else? He thought they probably did.
“Wet yourself, did you?” came the voice. Then with an air of disgust, “Why should we be surprised?”
“Wha…?” That mysterious intruder knowing he’d had an accident in his own bed was almost as bad as the intruder having intruded in the first place. “I did not!”
“You can’t lie to us, we know you better than you think.”
Donald slid his hand slowly toward the nightstand and the little lamp sitting there. He wasn’t sure he wanted to see but his hand was determined to make that possible. “Who…are you?”
“My name…our name…is…oh, let’s just say Arnold.” The voice chuckled. “Arnold. Close enough, don’t you think? We just can’t bear the idea of retaining the name ‘Donald.’ Too many bad associations.”
Donald’s fingers touched the little flick-switch. He grit his teeth. He pressed the switch and with a soft click light flooded the lower half of the room.
That was all he needed to see what he’d been talking to. He grunted in fear and put his hands over his face. Go away, go away, go away! He listened, hoping it would go away, hoping he’d only been imagining and that wishing would help this beggar to ride.
One two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve thirteen! he counted. His lips drew in between his teeth and his jaws clamped down around them, flinging bright sparks of pain behind his eyelids like little fireworks.
He opened his eyes again. He had not been imagining. He had not been dreaming. It had climbed onto the seat of his wheelchair and was staring at him from just three feet away with its bulging, pulpy eyes.
Donald could not breathe. He gulped at the air but nothing came into his lungs. Then the thing said, “Breathe already,” and Donald began to pump oxygen once more, deep gulps that almost made him choke.
The monster was about two and a half feet tall, a lumpy mass with two popped eyes near its bony crown, a slit that served as a mouth, two sets of scrabbly, spider-like fingers at the end of stubby arms, and two barely developed, flat feet. The flesh itself seemed not quite complete, an embryonic mixture of raw, pink tissue and thick, hairy skin.
“Go away!” squealed Donald.
“You sound like a girl.”
“I’ll kill you!” said Donald. He raised a knotted fist and shook it, though it shook more from fear than anger. “I’ll knock you to Kingdom Come!”
“Yeah, yeah,” said the monster. “Let’s have at it.” It hopped off the chair, striking the floor with a rather nasty, squishing sound, then stared up at the bed, its bugged eyes unblinking. “Come on, big boy, kill me.”
Donald threw back the covers, ready to clamber from the bed, grab the hammer off the top of the dresser, and smash the creature back to hell. Then he saw what had been beneath the covers, and he screamed again.
“See?” said the monster.
Most of Donald’s right leg was missing below the thigh. The odd mass he’d felt when reaching under the covers had been frayed remnants of muscle, ligaments, and tendons with patches of skin and a bit of ragged, protruding bone. There was no pain at the moment, as if his body had decided the loss of limb was enough to deal with at the moment without adding agony. Had someone drugged him and torn his leg off as he slept?
Donald pressed his fist nearly into his mouth to keep from throwing up. His whine whistled through the gaps in his teeth. Furious, impotent tears filled his eyes.
And at that moment, he knew what had happened. He stared, horrified, at the monster on the floor as it calmly explained what he’d just figured out.
“Cells have intelligence all their own,” it said, the kneecap forehead furrowing in emphasis. “We’ll try our best to survive, and damn, but you make it nearly impossible. Look at you.”
Donald blustered, shook his fist. The tears flowed.
“Do you think,” continued the monster, “that if we had a choice we’d stay stuck to that worthless body of yours? Give us a break!” The fleshy, hairy fingers spread open in a gesture of so-be-it. “We’ve been plotting this for months. Some of us had hoped you’d come around, decide not to eat yourself to death, but no, not our Donald. So answer me, what was our choice?”
“To leave me,” Donald whimpered around his fist.
“Mmm,” said the monster. “Or rather, hmmmmmmmm, yes? Your favorite sound. Ah, but that sound made us sick!” The monster spit toward the bed, though no spit came out through the mouth-gash. “Some of us were anxious and didn’t want to wait until you went to sleep. Some fought to get away while you were gorging yourself in front of the television. You felt that, the firing synapses, the straining muscle, all that heat of passion and rage, right there inside you? A bit disorganized , but we got our act together once you climbed into bed. And look at us now! We’ve differentiated enough to survive on our own. We’re so much brighter than you, Donald.”
“How…how am I supposed to walk?”
“Walk?” The slit mouth opened in a ghastly, toothless grin. “Since when did you want to walk?”
“I might need to walk, somewhere, sometime…”
“Yeah, well, tell it to the judge,” said the monster. It stretched its head high, looking as confident as a monster who’d once been a leg could look, then turned on its tiny heels and shambled to the bedroom door.
“Where are you going?”
“Not your problem.”
“You can’t leave me like this!”
”Not our problem.” The monster vanished into the black of the hallway. Donald
heard the front door open, then close.
He stared at the ragged remnants below his hip. He had a feeling the pain would come soon. And it would be worse than he thought he could imagine.
“Oh man oh man oh man oh man…” he hissed as he grasped for the wheelchair, pulled it close, and wrangled his mangled body onto the seat. It felt obscene, the empty space where his leg had been. He wheeled into the bathroom…hmmmmmmm. And covered his lap with a towel.
Donald looked up emergency medical clinics in the phone book. There had to be one that could send an ambulance for him, take him in, and give him something to stem the inevitable pain. He went for the first one on the list, Emergi-Meds, and jabbed the numbers in, messing up the first three times he tried because his hands were shaking.
Yes, said the operator at the clinic, they had buses they could send out for emergency cases. And just what was his emergency? He told her that his right leg had left his body, had just up and taken off. There was an unnaturally long silence, then the woman hung up on him. He called another clinic, this time mentioning only that he’d lost his leg a few hours ago and needed help. They agreed to send for him right away.
“Good,” said Donald. He wheeled to the front door, then back to the kitchen, up to the door, back to the kitchen. “Good, good, good, they’re coming. I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.”
He clicked on the t.v. then clicked it off again. He went to the fridge and opened the door. The cool air on his face was encouraging, hopeful. There was a half Boston crème pie on the top shelf, left over from yesterday. That would taste so good right now, so comforting. Mmmmmmm….
He picked up the pie. A searing pain shot through his hand, causing it to flex and cramp up violently. The pie flew into the air and crashed onto the dinette table, face down.
“Ahhh!” wailed Donald, staring at his hand.
And then the index finger popped free, dropped to the floor, and squirmed under the stove with a high-pitched, chittering sound.
Copyright © 2013, Elizabeth Massie
Used with permission.