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Fists white-knuckled on the crutches, sweat running into her eyes, Heath grunted like a sumo wrestler. She was walking to the window of her front room. Walking, as in proceeding forward in an upright bipedal manner by putting one foot in front of the other. For some people, toddling around a fifteen-by-twenty-foot room would be as nothing. For Heath it was a miracle, and she was sweating buckets for it.
Eight years before, she had fallen while climbing rotten ice in Rocky Mountain National Park and broken her back: no movement, no sensation below the waist. For an eternity of hopelessness she’d wallowed in self-pity. Finding in Elizabeth a daughter, and in Anna Pigeon a friend, had convinced her to abandon her plan to drink herself to death. It was then she had begun to embrace every nerve’s worth of life she could win, earn, fight for, or steal.
During all those years, eye level had been precisely forty-four inches above the floor. One of the first things she noticed when she stood up—stood up out of her wheelchair on her own two feet—was that nobody had dusted any surface more than forty-five inches above the floor in at least five years. Who knew?
She smiled and looked at her reflection standing—standing—in the plate-glass window. Dem Bones, Elizabeth called it. Iron Woman in Dem Bones, Heath thought.
Anchored to the outside of each thigh was a long silver-colored piece of contoured metal that linked to a round hinge at knee and hip. Below, another metal lozenge ran down the side of her calf to attach to a horizontal brace that went beneath her shoe. A wide strap, reminiscent of a weight-lifter’s belt, circled her waist. A battery pack the size of a hardcover book rode on the belt at the small of her back. On the right hip of her harness was a small control panel with buttons that allowed her to use the electronic exoskeleton to sit down and stand up. The rest was done with body movement. If she leaned slightly forward, wonder of wonders, she walked forward. If she leaned back, the walking stopped. The entire assemblage weighed twenty-one pounds three ounces and could be folded into a case slightly smaller than a golf bag.
This was her second day with the skeleton. The first time she had stood up on her own—sort of on her own—she had suffered an attack of acrophobia so sudden and severe she’d nearly fallen. She, who had led precipitous climbs up sheer cliffs for fifteen years, looked down the five feet three inches from her eyeballs to her feet and felt as if she stood on the edge of a chasm a thousand feet deep, a vacuum sucking her into oblivion. She’d managed six steps before she hummed back into her wheelchair, exhausted from movement and terror.
Terror had quickly mellowed into excitement. Still, she felt fifty feet tall, a giantess looking down on a world of dwarves. A rush of power and awe fueled her every time she stood up.
Unfortunately, the machine wasn’t hers. There was no way Heath could afford it. She was testing it for her friend Leah Hendricks, the research and development brain of Hendricks & Hendricks. Leah’s device had three times the electronics of other models, was smaller and lighter, executed more minute movements, and was able to “learn.” Heath had yet to tap into a fraction of what it could do. One of the drawbacks was that Leah had yet to figure out how to get the thing’s battery to hold a charge for more than twenty minutes.
In a couple of months Leah would take it back to the lab to tinker with its finer points.
Heath chose not to think about how she would feel, who she would be, when this miracle was taken from her.
For now, she would only think of now, walking now, standing now. Now was good.
Twice she had walked the length of the room. Forty feet. Hooray for the para brigade, she thought. Give us forty feet and we’ll take a million miles.
Harsh, repetitive racket shattered her moment of triumph. Rap music, an oxymoron to Heath’s way of thinking, rudely pounded down the long hallway from the direction of Elizabeth’s room.
Until recently, Heath’s adopted daughter had been an aficionado of the lightweight modern version of what Aunt Gwen called bubblegum rock. That and, because children never cease to amaze their elders, anything by James Taylor. Heath had been unaware Elizabeth ever listened to rap. Boulder, Colorado, wasn’t much of a Mecca for rappers; too white, too rich, too much spandex. The stuff playing now was ugly and dark, “bitch” and “whore” making up a good percentage of the lyrics.
Why Elizabeth would want to listen to this brand of aural poison was beyond Heath. Why Elizabeth would think Heath would allow it to be broadcast throughout her house, smashing all good karma in its path, was an even greater domestic mystery.
Heath waited a couple of minutes, catching her breath and hoping Elizabeth would come to her senses. The first goal was met with satisfying rapidity. The second was not.
“Wily,” she said to the dog laying on the hardwood, watching her workout with narrow, sleepy eyes, “go to Elizabeth’s room, boy. Unplug her whatever. Good dog!”
Wily yawned hugely, his mouth wide and crooked like his spiritual guide Wile E. Coyote.
“You’re a big help,” Heath said.
Pivoting with painstaking slowness, she got herself turned around and centered facing the hallway, the crutch braces biting into her forearms. There was a gizmo built in that gave Dem Bones balance, but she’d not yet come to trust her mechanized lower body, hence the crutches. Leah had tried to explain the engineering to her, but Heath’s brain had stalled at the gyroscope analogy.
Fear of falling was an acquired—and necessary—paranoia for paraplegics. Given her fatigue level, it would have made more sense to use her wheelchair for the journey to the back of the house. Still and all, wheeling up, no taller than a hobbit, to lay down the law to a teenager didn’t appeal to her.
From behind the crutches, extended like forelegs in front of her, the view down the carpeted hallway—to be replaced with hardwood the moment her bank account caught up with her special needs—looked impossibly long, the doors at the end appearing as distant as the pins in a bowling alley.
Heath sighed and began to hum “Who Were You Thinking Of” as she clasped her crutches through the sweat on her palms and began her robotic version of the Texas two-step. When it came to the two-step, nobody could beat the Texas Tornados.
By the time she’d made it across the living/workout/rehab room to the hall, Wily padding arthritically along behind, she was regretting her impulse to stand high and mighty over her daughter and wishing she’d dropped her rear end, exoskeleton and all, into Robo-butt—Elizabeth’s name for the wheelchair.
Having reached the point of no return, equidistant from the rude noise in Elizabeth’s room and the security of her wheels, Heath rested a moment before pushing on. Elizabeth had more reasons than an overcrowded psych ward to be moody and rebellious. It was the miracle of the child that she was blessed with a naturally sunny disposition. One of those enviable souls whose brain seems to effortlessly create sufficient serotonin to power a lifetime of optimism in the grimmest of circumstances.
Until a week ago, when sullenness and darkness had replaced the sun.
Or was it two weeks? As much as a month? No. Even a Johnny-come-lately mom like Heath wouldn’t fail to notice over that length of time.
Heath told herself what she always told herself when she worried that an unmarried, crippled, ex-rock-climber was not the mother a girl as fine as Elizabeth deserved; what she lacked in experience she made up for with love. Also, they had E’s godmother—Anna—and Dr. Gwendolyn Littleton. With Anna and Aunt Gwen for backup, Heath figured she could pull off the mother thing.
Leaning against the wall for support, Heath reviewed the past couple of weeks with her daughter. There had been red flags: Elizabeth found in tears and insisting it was “nothing.” That was eight or ten days ago. Elizabeth switching screens on her computer, and snapping at Heath for sneaking up on her—as if Heath-cum-apparatus could sneak up on any hearing individual. Had that been a week back? Less. Five days.
The dark, hard rap music started day before yesterday. Elizabeth was listening to it on her iPod so loud Heath could hear the beat. She’d had no idea what the lyrics were, but Elizabeth had looked as if they were driving spikes into her brain.
Then today. The rancid, hate-filled, misogynist rant out in the air, poisoning the hearth fairies that protected the house. Aunt Gwen had made up the fairies when Heath was a little girl and afraid of the dark. This new dark was scarier.
Lots of red flags.
Heath had noticed. She’d mentioned Elizabeth’s uncharacteristic behavior to Gwen. As they did with every step in the girl’s development, the two of them hashed over Elizabeth’s every move.
She was in the midst of the hormonal storms of puberty.
She had a fight with a girlfriend.
She had a secret boy-crush.
She had an embarrassing disappointment.
Heath and Gwen agreed not to interfere.
That was before the rap, Heath thought. This crap was not a red flag, it was a cry for help.
With an effort, Heath pushed away from the wall. White-knuckled, muttering, “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,” she began the final, interminable few yards of hallway, cursing the carpeting with every laborious shuffle of her feet.
Sweat dripping from her nose, breath coming in puffs and gasps, she bumped open her daughter’s bedroom door without knocking. Elizabeth was not there.
The bathroom door was ajar, rap blasting out, steam augmenting its hellishness. Forgetting the pain in her shoulders, Heath muscled her way across the room. Using a crutch as a battering ram, she bashed the bathroom door open with so much force it struck the commode.
Tail down, Wily growled.
Steam obscured the mirror and made a wraith of the girl in the tub. Momentarily disoriented, Heath would have fallen if she hadn’t been wedged between crutches and doorframe. Vision cleared. What remained was a child—a young woman really, sixteen—in a bath so hot her skin had reddened below the waterline. She was holding a razor blade to her wrist. Tears and sweat poured down her face to fall like rain into the bath. A girl and a razor and an angry voice shouting “fuck that bitch” to the beat of a machine gun in the hands of a madman.
Heath reached over and pulled the iPod out of the speaker. Silence bloomed like a blessing, broken only by the drip, drip, drip of slow tears. Pressing a button on her wrist, she activated the metal bones. With a hum like that of an electric window in an older-model Cadillac, they eased her down onto the seat of the commode. She moved her crutches so they wouldn’t be between her and her daughter.
“Honey…,” she said gently, and held out her hand. Elizabeth laid the razor carefully in her palm. Heath set it on the sink counter.
Elizabeth had been contemplating suicide with the layered blades of a Lady Schick. At best, she could have given herself what amounted to nasty paper cuts. Though she was in a hot bath, as the media always portrayed suicides for some reason, Elizabeth, being a modest girl by nature and upbringing, was wearing the iridescent blue one-piece bathing suit she wore for swim races.
Much to laugh at.
For a minute neither spoke. Elizabeth, flushed with heat, eyes and mouth swollen from crying, long dark hair sleek as a seal’s pelt on her shoulders, looked so small and young.
A lump hard and hot as a burning coal formed in Heath’s throat. “What can I do?” she managed, her voice burned and choking. “What can I say? Who can I kill? For you, Elizabeth, I will do it. Whatever you need, I will do it.”
Copyright © 2016 by Nevada Barr