Cheryl Jones confirmed the address written on the piece of paper: Burke Residence -- 115 Oak Street. This was it. She looked up and saw the pleasant white house surrounded by a well-trimmed lawn. It was the sort of house Cheryl herself had grown up in.
Cheryl walked up to the front door and rang the bell. She heard the chimes going off and waited patiently. Presently, a plump middle-aged woman answered the door in her apron. “Yes, dear? May I help you?” the woman asked.
“Are you Mrs. Burke?” Cheryl asked.
The woman nodded in confirmation.
“I’m Cheryl Jones,” Cheryl said, holding out her hand. “I’m from HBC television.”
Mrs. Burke’s eyes lit up. “Oh, are you doing one of those surveys?”
“Not exactly,” Cheryl said. “Uh, may I come in?”
Mrs. Burke was clearly a pushover. She led Cheryl inside the house and they sat down on fluffy white couches in the living room. Cheryl half expected Mrs. Burke to offer her coffee and cake.
“Now what’s this all about?” Mrs. Burke asked cheerfully.
Cheryl hesitated. “Well, the station is doing a new show this fall. It’s a reality dating show. Have you ever seen any of those shows, like ‘Average Joe’ or ‘Joe Millionaire’?”
The smile left Mrs. Burke’s face. “Yes,” she said, her voice cooled. Maybe she wasn’t such a pushover after all. “I’ve always found those shows to be in somewhat bad taste.”
“Well, it’s all in good fun,” Cheryl said defensively.
“What is this about, Miss Jones?” Mrs. Burke repeated, this time with impatience lacing her voice.
“Your son is Harrison Burke, right?” Cheryl asked. “And he lives here with you?”
“Well, we’d like Harrison to participate in our show.”
Mrs. Burke’s jaw dropped open. “You want… Harry?”
Mrs. Burke smiled somewhat sadly. “There must be some kind of mistake. You don’t want Harry.”
“No mistake, Mrs. Burke.”
Mrs. Burke lowered her voice into a confidential tone. “I guess you don’t know about this, but… my son Harry was… he was in an accident a couple of years back. He’s a quadriplegic now.”
“Oh, I know,” Cheryl said.
Cheryl almost laughed at the shocked expression on the older woman’s face. “You know? But… but how could you expect him to participate in something like that?”
“Why not?” Cheryl challenged her. “Don’t you think it’s prejudiced that only able-bodied men are allowed to participate in these shows? We want to get the full spectrum of eligible men.” Cheryl held her breath, hoping Mrs. Burke would believe her lie.
“Look here,” Mrs. Burke said. “Harry is completely dependent on myself and Mr. Burke. He can’t date.”
“Maybe I should talk to Harry myself,” Cheryl suggested.
“I… I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
“Isn’t that Harry’s decision? He’s 28 years old, after all.”
Mrs. Burke’s face was bright red. “Fine. You go ahead and meet Harry and you can decide if you still want him on your awful show.”
All the warmth was gone as Mrs. Burke led Cheryl down the hall and toward her son’s room. Mrs. Burke knocked once and opened the door to the room without waiting for a reply. Cheryl felt sorry for Harrison, having so little privacy in his own home.
When Cheryl Jones first laid eyes on Harrison Burke, her first thought was that his photo hadn’t done him justice. His rugged good looks with dark hair and penetrating dark eyes were almost classic and now he had a stubble of a beard to finish off the image. Harrison sat in a rather large wheelchair, one hand motionless in his lap, the other resting on the hand controls. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and Cheryl could see how thin his arms were, with no muscle tone whatsoever.
Harrison was in front of his computer. He was using a stick in his mouth to operate the keyboard. When Cheryl and his mother entered the room, he placed the stick in a cup attached to his chair and looked up at them expectantly.
“Harry,” Mrs. Burke said, “this is Miss Jones from HBC television.”
“Cheryl,” she said warmly. She instinctively held out her hand to Harrison, then blushed when she realized what she had just done.
Harrison looked at her with confusion. “How can I help you?” he asked.
Cheryl smiled. Harrison’s voice matched his looks. He was perfect. “Can I speak to you alone for a few minutes?”
Mrs. Burke didn’t budge. She gave Harrison a look and he said quietly, “Mom…”
“All right,” Mrs. Burke said. “I’ll come back.” She left the room in a huff and nearly slammed the door behind her.
Harrison flashed Cheryl an apologetic look. She sat down on his bed as he used one of his fingers to rotate the wheelchair to turn toward her. He seemed to be only able to move that one finger.
“You’re probably wondering why I’m here,” Cheryl said.
“You read my mind,” Harrison said quietly. She could feel his dark eyes examining her.
“Here’s the thing,” Cheryl said, “we’d like you to be on a new reality dating show on HBC.”
Harrison stared at her for a minute, then laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”
Cheryl shook her head. “No, I’m not.”
“You realize I’m a quadriplegic, right?”
“Oh, are you?” Cheryl smiled.
“Yeah, don’t feel bad… some people don’t notice.”
“Believe it or not, Harry, that’s why we want you on the show,” Cheryl explained. It was time to come clean. “The show is about a female bachelorette who has to choose between twenty suitors, all of whom are disabled.”
Harrison’s jaw dropped open. “You’re joking.”
“I’m not,” Cheryl assured him. And the more she talked to him, the more Cheryl was certain she wanted him on the show. He was so perfect. He was the most handsome man she had ever seen in a wheelchair and she had been doing this for over a month. She had to have him on the show and she was willing to promise a lot in order to get him there.
“So basically, you’re exploiting a bunch of cripples.”
“Not at all,” Cheryl protested. “We’re going to show America that disabled men are just as good at courting women as any other man. We’re going to show that a beautiful woman can fall in love with a guy in a wheelchair.”
Harrison smiled at her sadly, “Cheryl, I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”
“At the beginning of the show, the bachelorette chooses four finalists from the group and each of those men get ten thousand dollars. And the winner gets a hundred thousand dollars. When was the last time you’ve earned any money, Harry?”
Harrison looked down at his motionless hands. “That’s really low.”
“I’m sorry,” Cheryl said quietly. “But I know you could use the money. And if you come on the show, I’ll guarantee that you’re one of the finalists.”
“How can you guarantee that? Isn’t it her choice?”
“The final choice is hers,” Cheryl explained. “But we generally… lean on them to choose certain people.”
Harrison shook his head. “That’s a wonderful business you’re in. How did you get my name, anyway?”
Cheryl raised an eyebrow. “Signed up for any computer dating services lately?”
Harrison’s dark eyes widened. “How… how did you?”
“We were scouring the disabled dating websites for possible contestants,” Cheryl said. “We loved your photo and your bio. But I have to tell you, I don’t think you’re mother wants you to be dating.”
“Yeah, I know,” Harrison said quietly. “And she’s right, I guess. I mean, if I had a dinner date with a girl, I’d have to bring my nurse along to help me just to eat. It just isn’t… you know, practical.”
“I don’t think there’s anything practical about falling in love.”
Harrison made a face. “Look, I don’t know why I put that ad up. I’m really not interested in dating. That part of my life is over.”
Cheryl looked into Harrison’s dark eyes. “What a crime,” she said softly. Even with his paralyzed body, he brought out something very primal in her. For a moment, she was seized with the desire to reach over and press her lips against his. And she might have, if Mrs. Burke hadn’t burst in at that very moment.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Mrs. Burke said in a voice that made it clear that she wasn’t sorry at all. “But I have to get Harry ready for dinner.”
Cheryl cast a sympathetic glance in Harrison’s direction. She couldn’t imagine what it was like for him to be dependent on such an overbearing woman. And he probably felt that he was lucky to have her.
“I was just getting ready to leave,” Cheryl said. She reached into her pocket to pull out her card but then thought better of it. “If you want to be on the show, you can just email me about it. I’m cheryljones at HBC dot com. That’s Cheryl with a C.”
Instead of reaching out her hand for Harrison to shake, Cheryl picked his hand up off his lap and held it for a moment. His fingers curled against her hand and his skin felt soft, the calluses of his fingers having faded over the last two years. “I hope to be hearing from you,” she said.
Now for Wheelchair Joe