Bethany watched the floodlights from the house next door paint the grass a deep yellow, casting disproportionate shadows across the overgrown blades. Her brother, Jimmy, had been meaning to get out there and run the mower over it one of these weekends, but it had been too wet in the mornings with all the rain. With the Texas winter in full bloom, afternoons at Roland’s were long and often turned into nights. It wasn’t a bad gig during the summer, might just have an Oak to pull down somewhere or, lately, a wild Pecan and you’d have all afternoon to do it. In the spring, folks would be interested in having some landscaping done and that was where the money was. If it wasn’t a real big job, Roland would let him go ahead and make the bid himself and keep anything he could talk them into over the standard asking price. But the wintertime was a whole ‘nother story altogether. It was firewood season, which meant that anything they’d cut down over the past few months would have to be broken down into cords and packaged so that all the customers had to do was just swing by on their way home from work and toss a couple into the back of their truck.
She could sit there all night and look out the window, Papa told her, but it wouldn't make him get there any faster. Maybe he was right. Maybe she'd just go on over to the couch and lie down for a little while. With them expecting two to three inches of snow in the morning, Roland might have kept him there a little later that usual. She let the drapes fall as she turned her face to the darkness of the house. She couldn't remember if they'd been that color all along or if the years of smoke had taken its toll on them like they had everything else. Even Papa’s nice brown leather recliner that she used to steady herself had burn holes up one side and down the other from when he used to fall asleep in there in front of the TV.
These days, he just sat out on the back porch and watched the birds all day, writing down the names of each one in his little black Moleskine. She knew he cheated sometimes. There were only a few types of birds that were native to those parts so it wouldn't make sense that he'd discover a new one everyday, but he always claimed to. He'd even gotten to where, at night, he'd sit there with a flashlight and shine it into the trees suddenly, turning it off and on in hopes that he'd catch some rare species but all he was really doing was scaring the neighbors who already thought of them as some kind of circus freak show.
Because her brother always worked late on Saturdays, he'd sleep in Sunday morning and without fail, they'd be the last ones to the church house and have to settle into scattered seats before a sea of disapproving eyes, asses scurrying to fill the spaces on the bench between them and the next guy to avoid having to sit by the bird man or the cripple or worse still, the fat, bearded lady. They didn't mind her brother though, Jimmy was quite the ladies man and all of the girls would bat their eyes as he walked past, but he refused to sit anywhere there wasn't room for he and his sister both.
Yesterday was her eighteenth birthday. A few of the neighbors showed up along with several aunts and uncles, but Jimmy couldn't make it, as usual. It wasn't an easy job, but somebody had to do it, he'd always told her. How would it look if the whole town ran out of firewood?
She dipped her finger in some blue icing that was left on one of the plates and licked it off. As she watched Angela Lansbury close the deal on some wife-killer, her mind began to wander. What would Mama think if she knew? She'd always told Jimmy that your feelings could never be wrong, but did she really believe it? Would this be an exception? No one had ever cared for her like Jimmy. Her little brother wasn't always staring at her legs or trying to help her with things that she didn't need help with. Made her feel like a movie star. She didn't want to do wrong by God, but at the same time, she couldn't understand why He'd allowed her to feel that way if it was wrong.
She loved it when Jimmy would talk about his plans for the future, take her off to some podunk town in some faraway state where nobody knew their names. She'd miss Papa, but figured he'd come around eventually. She was his only daughter and Jimmy was he and Mama's only birth child. Her parents didn't love each other anymore and everybody knew it. She didn't see how her being in love with Jimmy was any worse by God than all the lies her parents were telling each other everyday.
It made her feel bad that Papa just thought she was afraid of the dark all this time and that's why she waited up for Jimmy every night, but maybe there was some truth to it. She felt safe there in his bed, his one arm pulling her tightly up against him, their faces illuminated for just a split second at a time as Papa spotted one imaginary bird after another in the backyard. That strong arm of Jimmy's never seemed to loosen, even when he'd fall asleep. She loved that when the alarm went off to tell her it was time to get into her own bed, he wouldn't let go of her without a kiss.
She’d overheard Papa telling Mama that he’d seen some wheelchairs on clearance in one of the medical supply catalogs and that he’d gone ahead and ordered one just to be on the safe side. They were in the guest bathroom with the door shut and didn’t realize that she was right next-door in the extra bedroom. The wheelchair should be there before Christmas, she heard Papa telling her and when they came out she was crying. Mama just shook her head and walked on by, but Papa stopped in there and told her, “Bethany, now don’t you get all worked up over nothing. I was gonna tell you about it right after I got Mama’s permission to order it.”
“You already did order it,” she frowned and tried to hold back a whimper, “I can walk just fine on my own. I don’t need everybody’s help with everything.”
“Well, now just ‘cause I sent for it don’t mean you have’ta use it,” he reasoned. “I just thought it’d be good to have around just in case. You know what the doctors been sayin’.”
“No, I don’t know what they been sayin’, because I ain’t been to see one in three years.”
“There’s a fella on one of my bird sites that was a general practitioner out in Memphis for forty some-odd years. Retired back in ‘01. He says them muscles ain’t gonna fix themselves. Just get worse over time. Could even effect your breathing if you’re not careful.”
“If I’m not careful,” she shouted. “It’s always been about me. It’s always been my fault, hasn’t it? That’s what you and Mama think? You blame me for it?”
“Of course not, Honey,” he turned his head and looked away. “It’s just that Mama thinks you oughtta rest a little more than you do and quit walking around town so much. It can’t be easy on your legs.”
“Of course that’s what Mama thinks, but what do you think? Have you ever stopped to consider what it is that you think?” She leaned over to the right and forced him to look her in the eye. “What do you think, Papa?”
“I think it’s gettin’ awfully late and you’d better go put on your pajamas. I’ll see you in the mornin’,” he muttered, still doing all he could not to look directly at her. “Don’t wait up for Jimmy. With the freeze coming in tomorrow, they may end up keepin’ him all night.”
It was getting tougher and tougher for her to get around it seemed like. Not that any one thing was any harder than it used to be, just that she seemed to be getting tired a lot faster. She hadn’t even needed the braces until she was around ten or eleven, but Papa just about threw a fit the first time she fell down off the back porch. It wasn’t that her legs gave out, it was just that the message she sent to her brain and the one it sent to her feet didn’t exactly match and she under-stepped the top stair by just enough to cause her to slip.
It wasn’t quite dark yet when it happened, but that moment every evening when the sun sits just below the horizon and exists more as a presence of light that an actual object. The clouds looked like someone had run them through a food processor and then blown them back out into the sky. They formed a canopy over the entire town, completely torn apart and scattered yet still somehow connected. Maybe she was just in awe of the clouds and wasn’t watching where she was going. Could have been as simple as that, but Papa had overreacted as usual and look at her now. Can’t even walk from the window to the couch without having to hold on to everything in between. That last doctor she’d seen had given her a pair of metal canes that would support her wrists and help her get used to the braces, but Mama didn’t want her using them in the house because she said they scratched up the furniture and would wear out the carpet faster than her and her brother already were.
Perhaps the wheelchair would be a bit more comfortable in certain situations, wouldn’t be so cold on her legs in the wintertime. The only way she knew how to describe it was that it was like having a stainless steel toilet seat strapped to your bare behind but with just enough space in between that your skin never could get used to the temperature. She wondered if Mama would even allow her to use the chair in the house. It didn’t matter right now, though. Jimmy was probably on his way home and she just hoped that the blue icing hadn’t stained her lips.
She was awakened suddenly by the sound of gravel in the driveway and just as Angela Lansbury presented her final piece of evidence to the jury, the undeniable truth for all to see, the lights shut off and the engine died. She licked her fingers again and rubbed them on her lips real quick to wipe off as much icing as she could and then reached into the bowl on the coffee table, digging through the empty plastic wrappers to find a peppermint. Jimmy always seemed to take forever just to get from the car to the front door, but everything seemed to take longer when you were anxious. Finally, she heard the slam followed by the sound of heavy footsteps and then the latch on the screen door.
Jimmy was careful not to be too loud. Didn’t want to wake her if she was sleeping. He’d seen that the TV was on when he pulled up and figured she might have nodded off on the couch. He hung his keys up on the brass hook with all the others and wiped his hands on his once-black jeans. Had it been earlier, he thought, she might still be awake and they could’ve stayed up and watched Letterman or some old Saturday Night Live reruns on Comedy Central. She had this little thing she did with her eyes when she laughed, it was almost like they’d disappeared, two little black lines sitting high atop the biggest pair of dimples you ever saw. Of course, the good thing about it being late like that was that he’d get to carry her back to her bed, which always made him feel good. Like he was her protector and he was taking care of her.
Making his way through entry way and down into the living room, he reached over and shut off the TV, feeling his way to the couch and waiting a few seconds for his eyes to adjust. He put one arm up under her legs for support and the other around her shoulders.
“Damn, that’s cold,” he whispered to himself as the hinge from the metal brace caught him right on the inside part of his elbow. She didn’t weigh but about one-ten soaking wet but it was dead weight and wasn’t easy on his back after loading two-hundred cord of firewood into the back ends of pick-ups all night long. Stopping at the second door on the left, he nudged it with his boot but it didn’t give so he had to lower his arms just enough to grab the knob with his left hand and turn it. He started towards his own bed and then thought better of it with as tired he was and gently lowered her onto hers. He unfastened both braces, slipped them off and let them fall to the carpet. The sheets were still in disarray from the night before, so he straightened them out and pulled them up to her neck, tossing an old quilt that their grandmother had made over the top to make sure she didn’t wake up cold in the middle of the night.
Bethany tried as hard as she could not to smile when she felt his lips on her cheek and was tickled by the stubble. She wasn’t sure how convincing it was, but figured that would’ve been a dead giveaway.