“Can anybody tell me what six times five is?”
Several hands shot up. Austin Chandler smiled, pleased to see that his third-graders had been studying their multiplication tables. He had been teaching the third grade for four years now and it seemed like the kids got smarter every year. “Okay, Jenny, what’s the answer?”
Little Jenny Brooks lowered her hand, “Thirty?”
“That’s absolutely correct,” Austin said as Jenny beamed. He was proud of Jenny—her parents had told Austin at the last parent-teacher conference that Jenny had a mild learning disability, but she had been doing a great job keeping up with the rest of the kids so far. All she needed was a little encouragement.
Austin glanced at the clock on the wall and saw that it was nearly three. “All right, that’s a rap,” Austin said. “Go get your coats and pack up to go home.”
Austin sat down at his desk while the kids scrambled to get their coats from the closet. As much as he loved teaching, it was tiring to spend the whole day on his feet, dealing with a room full of eight-year-olds. Now he was only 28 years old and he intended to do this for the rest of his life—imagine how exhausted he’d be after a day of this when he was in his fifties. The older teachers seemed unfazed by their young charges, but maybe they were just jaded. Austin closed his eyes and wondered what time Heather would get home that night. He’d probably have to cook again. Or maybe they’d just order in.
After the bell rang and Austin dismissed the class, three of his girls remained behind: Maria, Laura, and Trish. Austin smiled at them, “What’s up, girls?”
“Mr. Chandler,” Laura began, smiling rather slyly (or as slyly as an eight-year-old could). “We were just wondering, do you have a girlfriend?”
Austin nearly burst out laughing. He recently discovered some of the girls in his class had a little crush on him after Mrs. Granger, one of the older second grade teachers, pointed it out to him. Don’t you notice the way they look at you? Mrs. Granger had said to him. You’re probably their first crush. It was cute, but Austin didn’t want it to go too far. He held up his left hand with his wedding band on the fourth finger. “I’m married, actually,” he told them.
The three girls looked devastated. “But you’re too young to be married!” Maria protested.
Austin thought it was very amusing that an eight year old girl was calling him “too young.” When he got married immediately after college, a lot of his friends and family told him he was too young, but he did it anyway. And he never had any regrets, even when Heather stayed at work till after midnight, an event that was happening more and more frequently. “My wife’s name is Heather,” Austin told the girls. “She’s a lawyer. Maybe someday she could visit the class and talk to you about what it’s like to be a lawyer.”
“Is she pretty?” Laura piped up.
“Yeah, she’s really pretty,” Austin said, imagining Heather’s heart-shaped face. Then he reconsidered the values he was instilling in his kids. “She’s also really smart.”
“Smarter than you?”
“Yes,” Austin replied. It was the truth. Heather had graduated at the top of her law school class, while Austin didn’t think he could have gotten through even one of the rigorous courses she had taken. That part didn’t bother him though. Austin loved being a teacher—it was what he had always wanted to do.
As the girls hurried outside to meet the bus that would take them home, Austin went to get his own coat. As he passed the door, he saw Lindy Chen, the cute young fifth grade teacher, dismissing her own class. Austin had met few Asian women in his life and he found Lindy’s looks to be beautiful and exotic. Lately, he had found himself fantasizing about Lindy, a dangerous practice considering her proximity and how much he had been missing his wife lately. Not that he thought Lindy was at all interested in him or ever would be. Either way, it didn’t matter. He swore six years ago to remain forever faithful to Heather and there was nothing that could make him break his promise.
Austin turned away from the open door as he pulled on his coat. He contemplated buttoning up. It was fall now and the weather was more than a little nippy. The weatherman promised rain.
Lindy Chen dismissed her fifth grade class and collapsed into her seat. She felt completely exhausted from her day. Fifth graders were always tough, but today they seemed to be especially unruly. Lindy sometimes longed for the days when teachers were allowed to inflict corporal punishment.
Lindy glanced over at the classroom across from hers and noticed with interest that the third grade teacher, Austin Chandler, was getting ready to go home. This was the second year that Austin had been teaching in the classroom across from hers and she had to admit he was very cute. Very very cute. Very very married too, unfortunately. One of those losers who got married right out of college.
Still, Genny Granger, another fifth grade teacher, had mentioned that Austin was having trouble in his marriage. His wife was some sort of lawyer and working very long hours. And Lindy thought she had read somewhere that early marriages have a tendency to fail.
Not that Lindy was definitely interested in Austin in the first place. Sure he was nice to look at, but she didn’t know him very well at all. They made small talk fairly often, but nothing too personal. The only thing she knew for sure was how much his students adored him, which spoke well for him. She always considered asking him if he wanted to get some coffee after work, just for the sake of getting to know him better, but she always chickened out. He might say yes, but then what? Was adultery really something she wanted to get started with?
Lindy tugged at the bobby pins holding back her thick black hair so that it came loose and cascaded down upon her shoulders. She stood up resolutely and walked toward Austin’s empty classroom.
She leaned casually against the doorframe. “Hey, Austin,” she said. “Going home?”
Austin looked up at her and grinned. His smile melted her. “Oh, hi Lindy. Yeah, I figured I’d head out before the rain gets bad.”
Lindy glanced down at his left hand and saw the ring on his fourth finger. What a damn shame. “Is it supposed to rain?”
“That’s the rumor,” Austin said. He raised his eyebrows at her. “Need a ride?”
Oh, don’t tempt me, Lindy thought. She would have loved to accept a ride from Austin, her and him all alone in his car, his wife still out at the office. But Lindy was no homewrecker. “Nah, I’ll be okay,” she said.
“You sure?” Austin stared at her for a moment with his nice green eyes. He liked her, she was sure of it now. After all, it was the third time this week he had offered her a ride. She wasn’t even sure if he realized he liked her—he was probably still deluding himself that it would work out with his wife. But while he still had that ring on, she decided she was definitely going to keep her distance.
“No, but thank you,” Lindy said. She smiled at him. “I’ll walk you to your car though.”
It was no surprise that Heather wasn’t there by the time Austin got home. Heather had joined a large law firm and was working long hours to get ahead. She claimed that she was working hard now so that she wouldn’t have to work hard later. Austin understood her logic, but he missed his wife. Heather’s ambition was to become a partner in the firm, but Austin’s main ambition was to teach his students script and the multiplication tables. His other ambition was to start a family of his own, but Heather had convinced him to wait. Sometimes he felt like he was putting his life on hold for her.
The phone rang as Austin was pulling his coat off. He shook rainwater out of his short dark hair before running over to the phone. He grabbed it off the hook on the fourth ring. “Heather?”
He heard her laugh. “How did you know it was me?”
“Didn’t I tell you? I’m psychic.” Austin brought the phone over to the refrigerator to look for a snack. He had gained close to ten pounds in the last year snacking on foods while waiting for Heather to get home for dinner. He was still far from being overweight, but he didn’t want to get into bad habits. Last week, he had started looking into gym memberships and he tried to make a habit of jogging around the neighborhood after school. “What’s up?”
“If you’re psychic, you should already know.”
“Yeah, I do,” Austin said. “You’re leaving me. Because I’m a workaholic. Am I right?”
“Hmm, don’t quit your day job,” Heather said with a giggle. He smiled into the phone. He always loved the sound of Heather’s laughter. It was the thing he loved second best about her. “Anyway, Mrs. Lane called me. She said the cat’s on the roof again.”
“The cat’s on the roof again?”
“Isn’t that what I just said?”
“Goddamn it,” Austin muttered. “How does she keep getting up there?”
“I told you, she jumps from the tree.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll go get her.”
“Austin, honey...” Heather’s voice filled with worry. “Be careful. You know I hate it when you use that ladder... it’s so unstable.”
Austin shook his head irritably. “I’ve used that ladder a hundred times. Don’t worry.”
“Okay,” Heather said reluctantly. “One more thing, I may be a little late getting home tonight...”
“Aw, Heather,” Austin moaned. He shouldn’t have been surprised, but she still managed to catch him off guard. “You didn’t get home last night until after I was asleep. And you were already in the shower when I woke up this morning! Can’t you take a rest?”
“Just one more bad night for the rest of this week,” Heather promised.
“But it’s already Thursday!” Austin sighed. “I just... I miss you and I want to see you.”
“I’ll be home all weekend,” Heather said. “I swear.”
Austin didn’t know if he could believe her anymore, but he didn’t have much of a choice. He cradled the phone in his hand, wishing it was his wife he was holding rather than a plastic receiver. Maybe they didn’t have the same “fucking in the ATM cuz you can’t wait to get home” kind of passion anymore now that they were together for eight years, but that didn’t mean he didn’t care that she was gone all the time. He really missed her. “Okay,” he said resignedly.
“Do you forgive me, Austin?”
“I forgive you,” he said. “I love you, Heather.”
“I love you too, sweetie.”
Austin hung up the phone and took a deep breath, trying to push away his frustration. It was always “just a little bit longer” till her hours got better, and he was getting frustrated. But what choice did he have?
Austin ventured outside of the house to search for the cat, Patches. Lately, Patches seemed to love climbing the tree by their house and jumping to the roof from there, although she seemed to have no idea how to do this in reverse. Austin was crazy about Patches, but he had to admit that she was pretty dumb. He spotted her on the side of the roof, looking scared and wet.
Wiping rainwater from his eyes, Austin found the ladder still leaning against the house from the last time he had rescued Patches. This was, in fact, the third time in as many weeks that he had to go up on the roof and get that damn cat. He took a step onto the ladder, testing its integrity. Heather was terrified of Austin climbing on the ladder, but he had climbed so many trees as a kid that he felt perfectly comfortable with ladders. Ladders were easy compared to trees.
Austin climbed up to the top of the ladder and squinted through the falling rain to find the cat. He didn’t see Patches anymore, so he climbed off the ladder onto the roof. It was dark now and he knew he’d have trouble seeing her unless she moved. But she wasn’t moving right now.
The roof was wet and slick with rain and the thought flashed through Austin’s head, “This seems kinda dangerous.” About five seconds after he had this thought, his feet slipped and he came crashing down from the roof.
Austin was unconscious for several minutes after his fall from the roof. When he finally came to, he was lying on the grass of his front lawn. There were EMT’s surrounding him and one of them was placing a thick collar around his neck. He heard orders being barked in hurried voices.
His eyes focused for a second and he saw a dark puddle forming on the ground beneath him. Oh my god, is that my blood? he thought. He expected to feel panic, but instead all he felt was dizziness.
“Don’t move, Mr. Chandler,” a deep male voice instructed him.
Austin didn’t think he could have moved if he wanted to. He felt somehow disconnected from his body. He wasn’t quite sure what had happened, but he recognized that he was badly hurt. He had the sensation of rising up in the air, and he realized he was being lifted into a stretcher. Am I going to die? he wondered.
“Call my wife,” he murmured before slipping back into unconsciousness.
Heather Chandler often thought about the first time she had met her husband. It had been back during her sophomore year of college, when she was only nineteen years old. She had been at a bus stop, waiting for the downtown bus to take her to a women’s rights rally. It had been raining quite heavily and Heather had neglected to bring an umbrella, so the water soaked her jacket and jeans. Heather was almost tempted to turn around and go home when she saw a dark shadow come over her and the rain suddenly stopped.
Heather had looked up and saw a good looking boy about her age holding an umbrella over her head. She blinked water out of her eyes and tried her best to look angry, despite the cute, disarming smile on his face. After all, the rally she was going to was a protest to the very fact that women needed to be rescued. “Who are you?” she demanded.
“I’m keeping you dry,” he replied simply.
He hadn’t even been planning on taking the bus, but he wound up accompanying her to the rally, which was poorly attended due to the rain. He held the umbrella over her head the entire time and kept her dry. Later that night, they kissed for the first time underneath the umbrella.
Austin loved her and he had an easygoing personality, which was why he usually gave in to everything she wanted. He wanted to settle down and have kids, but he didn’t put up a fight when Heather wanted to focus on her career. Sometimes Heather felt that by marrying him, she had cheated him out of having a wife who he could dote on and take care of, which was what she suspected he really wanted. But he was the one who had fallen desperately in love with her and given her the ring on one knee. When she accepted, she only knew she loved him back.
Heather was thinking about her husband and how he was waiting for her back at home as she sat in her office, writing her notes for a case she had coming up. She knew she wasn’t going to feel comfortable quitting for at least another two or three hours. She felt guilty, but there wasn’t much she could do about it.
The phone rang on Heather’s desk and she grabbed it on the second ring. “Heather Chandler’s office,” she answered.
“Mrs. Chandler?” It was a gentle male voice. “This is Dr. Conti from Mercy Hospital. Your husband Austin was in an accident and was brought here an hour ago with fairly serious injuries.”
Heather froze. She saw the pen slip out of her fingers. “What?”
“He’s in critical condition, Mrs. Chandler,” the doctor went on. “I think you should come down here as soon as you can. Do you know how to get to Mercy?”
Oh god... oh god, Austin... no no no...
“Yes...” Heather whispered. She cleared her throat. “Yes. Yes, I do.”
The doctor gave her instructions to come to the emergency room, but Heather could barely listen. She let the phone fall from her hand and clatter to the floor.
Heather got drenched during her short trip from the hospital visitor’s parking lot to the emergency room. Where was Austin with an umbrella when she needed him? Her wet blouse clung to her skin and her dark hair was plastered against her scalp. Her mascara was dripping down her cheeks, but that was from the tears rather than the rain. Heather found the receptionist and got her attention, “Hi, I’m Heather Chandler. I got a call about my husband, Austin Chandler. He was in an accident...”
The receptionist looked at her blankly and Heather nearly burst into hysterical tears. Finally, the receptionist looked in the computer and found Austin’s name. She directed Heather down a hallway and said to speak to a Dr. McGill in the trauma room.
Heather ran down the hallway, leaving a trail of wet footprints behind her. She had never been so frightened in her entire life, even when she was speaking in front of a large courtroom filled with people. She could feel her heart slamming against her chest as she asked the staff of the trauma room where she could find Dr. McGill.
Dr. McGill was a tall man with a foreboding presence. Heather was used to dealing with a lot of intimidating characters, but Dr. McGill made her want to run in the opposite direction. But she knew she had to speak with him—he had her husband’s life in his hands. She introduced herself to him and spit out a bunch of words that were likely incoherent.
“He’s stable,” Dr. McGill told her in answer to her question if he was all right. “He’s getting a head CT right now. That will tell us a lot.”
“Is he conscious?” Heather asked.
“No,” Dr. McGill said. “He had a rather nasty bump on his head. I sewed a laceration on his scalp, but this scan will tell us if there’s intracranial bleeding.”
Heather nodded dumbly. What if there is intracranial bleeding? she wanted to ask. But one thing she had learned in court was never to ask questions you didn’t want to hear the answer to.
“Also, the plain films we took indicate that he suffered a fracture of the eleventh thoracic vertebrae,” Dr. McGill went on. “Of course, we’ll need a CT to confirm this, but it’s very likely he suffered spinal cord damage.”
“Oh,” Heather said. “What... what does that mean?”
Before Dr. McGill could answer Heather’s question, a young doctor in green scrubs pulled him away to exchange some sort of information. Heather did her best to hear what was being said, but it sounded like complete jargon to her.
“Well, Mrs. Chandler, I have good news and bad news,” Dr. McGill said. He didn’t ask which one she wanted to hear first. “Your husband’s head CT was negative, which means that as of now, he is not bleeding in his head. Unfortunately, the CT of his spinal cord showed massive canal compromise and injury to the cord itself.”
“What does that mean?” Heather asked again.
“We can’t know for sure yet,” Dr. McGill said, “but when he regains consciousness, he’ll almost definitely suffer from sensory and motor deficits in his lower body. Considering the level of the injury, his arms will most likely be unaffected. This is very good news, all else considered, because it means he’ll be able to push his own wheelchair and take care of himself.”
“Wheelchair? Wait a minute...” Heather took a deep breath. “How... how long do you think he’s going to take to recover?”
“It’s impossible to say at this point,” Dr. McGill said. “It depends on the extent of his injury. There’s a good chance he may never recover, but I can’t say.”
Heather thought she was going to faint. She reached out and put her hand against the wall to steady herself. “Can... can I see him, please?”
Dr. McGill consented and led her down the hall to a small room with glass walls. The doctor stepped aside and Heather ventured toward the lone bed in the room. Her husband of six years lay on the bed, an oxygen mask covering his mouth and nose, his dark hair caked with blood. There was an IV running into one of his arms and the other arm was bruised. He looked like someone who had nearly died.
Heather pulled up a chair and sat by Austin’s bedside. She laced her fingers into his and pressed his warm hand against her own. “You’re going to be okay,” she whispered, even though she knew nothing was further from the truth. She couldn’t imagine Austin being confined to a wheelchair, but it seemed like that was a possibility now. She gently touched his legs, which were covered by a light blanket. His legs seemed okay to her... maybe the doctor was mistaken.
Heather pressed Austin’s limp hand against her cheek. As she watched his face, his eyes fluttered open. She looked into his green eyes that she had been terrified she’d never see again and she started crying. She felt his fingers weakly squeeze her own.
From behind the oxygen mask, Heather could see Austin’s lips move: “Fucking cat.”
Austin had several surgeries over the next several days. They reduced the vertebral fracture in his back, stealing bone from his hip for the repair, and fused five of the vertebrae in his back. Austin didn’t really understand what the surgeries were for, but he knew he came out of them with bandages all over his back.
Heather was by his side through the entire ordeal. She used her vacation time from work so that she could stay with him. Before each surgery, the last thing he remembered before getting knocked out was Heather’s hand holding his own. He wondered if this accident wasn’t a good thing because it was bringing them closer together again.
His parents were there too. They lived an hour’s drive away and they were almost as important a presence as his wife. His mother fussed and fretted over him until he nearly had to throw her out. Austin was still too sick for her to mother him this much.
Before the first surgery, the doctor told him he was paralyzed. Austin recognized that he couldn’t feel or move his legs, and he assumed this was why he was having surgery in the first place. But after the surgery, he still had no feeling or strength in his legs. He wasn’t sure how long the healing process took, but it was getting him anxious. He didn’t know why he still couldn’t feel his legs and he was scared something had gone wrong. They kept a catheter running through his penis into his bladder, which he assumed was because his physical condition was too weak to get to the bathroom on his own, but he came to realize he couldn’t feel the catheter or his penis.
He was also mildly distressed when the nurse cleaned up the plastic undergarments he was wearing, which he hadn’t even noticed he had soiled. “Sorry about that,” he said to the nurse in an embarrassed voice. “I’ll... help clean up...”
“Please, Mr. Chandler,” the nurse said as she went about her job. As if she had expected him to shit himself.
Four days after he took his spill off the roof, Heather smuggled in some real food for him to eat. She got him a cheeseburger and french fries, which he wolfed down in about three bites. “I really needed that,” he told her as he gave her hand a squeeze. She smiled at him, but her face looked sad. He knew she was running out of vacation days.
That evening, Dr. McGill came in to speak with Austin and Heather. Austin had been waiting for some time to talk with the doctor, because he wanted to learn more about what his recovery process would be like. He hated the fact that he was abandoning his class and he wanted to go back to work as soon as possible.
“How long before my legs get better?” Austin asked Dr. McGill. “They still seem pretty much the same since the surgery.”
Heather took Austin’s hand and he looked over at her, suddenly worried by the look on her face.
“Mr. Chandler,” Dr. McGill began, “I’m sorry to tell you this, I don’t think your legs are going to get much better. You might get a little bit more sensation back in your abdomen, but you probably won’t get any return in your legs or regain the ability to walk.”
Austin raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean by ‘probably’? What are my chances of walking again?”
Dr. McGill looked him straight in the eye. “There’s no chance.”
Austin stared at the doctor, momentarily unable to speak.
Heather held his hand tighter. “Honey,” she said, “it’ll be okay.”
Austin shook his head. “Are you... are you saying I’m... that this is permanent?”
The lines on the doctor’s face deepened. “I’m saying you will probably not be able to walk again. You’ll need to use a wheelchair full time.”
“And by ‘probably’, you mean ‘definitely’?”
Austin shook his head. “I don’t understand. Don’t bones heal?”
“The problem isn’t your bones, Austin,” Dr. McGill explained. “The problem is that your spinal cord was damaged and no, that doesn’t heal. What you’re experiencing is complete paralysis below the approximate level of the waist. This includes your bladder and bowel as well, which is why you haven’t been able to control when you urinate and defecate.”
Austin suddenly felt sick. The room spun around him and he thought he was going to throw up. This wasn’t fair. He was only 28 years old and now he was stuck in a wheelchair the rest of his life. He wouldn’t even be able to get out of fucking bed without help from now on. And who was going to help him? Heather was too busy to even be home, much less be a nursemaid to him. Fuck.
“Austin?” Heather’s voice sounded very far away. “Austin, are you all right?”
“Mr. Chandler?” It was Dr. McGill’s voice this time.
“Just a second,” Austin whispered. He gripped his covers with his fists and closed his eyes. He took a few deep breaths before opening his eyes again. He saw that Heather and Dr. McGill were staring at him.
“Okay,” Austin said. He wasn’t sure why he said that, except they looked as if they expected him to say something.
“It won’t be so bad, Austin,” Heather said, picking up his hand. She didn’t look like she believed what she was saying. “The physical therapist was telling me you’ll still be able to do everything by yourself. It’s really not as bad as you think.”
Austin looked at his wife and was struck by the realization that there was no way Heather could be married to a man in a wheelchair. Heather was, in many ways, all about appearances. How would it look to the partners in her law firm if her husband couldn’t walk?
“What is it, Austin?” Heather asked him, staring into his eyes.
“I love you,” he said to her. And he started crying.
To be continued...