'To hell with it, and to hell with you too, ' I yelled, hearing an edge of hysteria in my voice. 'I'll fucking decide what sort of day I need. The sort of day I need is one where I wake up and my fucking leg's where it ought to be and I don't get assholes asking me to choose the prosthesis I like best. Now fuck off and die.' I threw the phone at the wall and felt ashamed of myself almost immediately. She was only doing her job. The hell with it. It was time to fall over in the shower again.
I twisted awkwardly, fumbling for the crutches that stood by the bed, and a wave of self-loathing swept over me. I used to like myself a lot, but Iraq had changed that. The guy who went out there, proud to serve, had been shipped home as something less. One of my legs was still there, although no-one had ever found it. They were too busy stabilizing me and cutting me free from the twisted metal that had been the vehicle and getting the hell out of there before anyone else caught it.
I should count myself lucky, said the doctor at the hospital. Whoever had used the length of cable as a tourniquet had saved my life. Hadn't left much for him to do, really: just trim the ragged edges and tuck a pad of skin over the stump to make it look nice. I was a healthy young man, he'd said, and I'd make a fine life for myself.
'I tied the cable round my thigh myself, ' I'd told him, 'and assholes like you make me wish I hadn't bothered.' And then the Army had descended on me again and sent me to talk to the physiotherapists, and the psychotherapists, and all the other fucking therapists who still had two fucking legs.
I swung myself sideways out of bed, grabbed the crutches, and heaved myself upright. Staying clean was about the one habit I hadn't been able to shake. All the rest: eating right, not drinking too much, interacting with other people, you name it, had gone down the toilet along with my leg, playing ball, my career, going out without being noticed and pitied.
My mom had put a stool in the shower for me but I didn't use it. Just like every morning I leaned against the wall, shaved, washed, pulled the shorts down and washed my cock and balls, staring at the wall, and then used the sponge to wash my stump and ass. I closed my eyes for that: staring at the wall wasn't an option. I fumbled for the shorts again and pulled them up.
Every month I handed my mom the check the Army sent me and told her I'd be insulted if she didn't accept it for my keep, and every month she said she didn't need it and deposited in my account. Every month I felt a little guiltier. She works, always has, so the house was empty when I swung myself into the kitchen. I drank the juice she'd left out for me and decided to forget about the rest. Just like every morning, I told myself sardonically that there was less of me to nourish now. Just like every morning, she'd left the paper too.
I wasn't laughing at any of the funnies when the doorbell rang, then again, and after a while again. I levered myself upright. Telling someone to go away would be good therapy.
'Whaddya need?' The words died in my throat as I saw her. She was my age, mid-twenties, and about the size of a dormouse. Slender, skinny almost, with dark hair, severely cut, framing a triangular face. Wearing a skirt and blouse, a thick, official-looking folder held defensively against her small breasts. Good legs. Round, wire-rimmed glasses reflected the spring sunlight as she looked up at me.
'I need an apology, Mr. Lennox, and I'm going to stand here till I get one.' Her voice was quiet but determined, and my heart sank.
'Oh shit. You're the lady on the phone. I'm sorry. I'm having a bad day and you were who I yelled at.' She stared at me then nodded her head briefly.
'That'll do, but try to remember that "Have a nice day" is usually better than "Fuck off and die". Let's start again. My name's Lily and we need to talk. Can I come in?' She was up the porch steps and nose to chest with me before I could say no. Outclassed by a dwarf, I thought as I shuffled out of her way. She went through to the kitchen and sat at the table as if she visited regularly, and I hobbled after her.
'Lily, I'm not sure this is a good time to talk. Like I said, I'm having a bad day and... ' She tapped the folder.
'This says that every day is a bad day for you and that you're losing weight and doing nothing but drink, and bitch about your life, and feel sorry for yourself. The type that gives up easy, said the last psych report. You have a comment on that assessment?' I stared at her.
'Go lose a leg, lady, and I'll come round to talk to you about it.' She was quiet for a moment.
'Good point, but not enough. OK. When you do stop hating the world, what next?'
'One day at a time, Lily. I've got enough problems without planning a future that isn't there.' Her turn to stare.
'You've lost a leg, Mr. Lennox: one limb out of four. So you're batting seven fifty, and you're pretty mobile, and you can wipe your own ass when you take a crap. That's more than some.' She stood. 'I'll come back tomorrow. Have a nice day.' She turned and stomped out, leaving a trail of anger behind her. I went back to the paper and wondered why the funnies were even worse than before. It was mid-afternoon before I even thought about the first beer.
For some reason I'd woken up earlier the next morning, and had even had some crackers with my juice, but my stomach still felt hollow when the doorbell rang.
'Door's open, ' I called. Casual as hell. She came into the kitchen hesitantly.
'Mr. Lennox, I shouldn't have said what I said yesterday. It was unforgivable. It's my turn to ask if we can start over.' She looked embarrassed, and as cute as she had the day before.
'Stress happens. And my name is Steve.' She sat down opposite me and put the file on the table.
'Thank you ... Steve. They passed your file to me because... '
'Because you're the therapist of last resort, I guess, or else the junior who gets the no-brainers.' She flushed.
'I'm not the oldest person in the department, but I'm probably the smartest.' She reddened again. 'I didn't mean that the way it sounded. And you're not a no-brainer. The Army says you're smart, and so do your old High School teachers, but the last five months you've been sitting on your butt being dumb. What I need to know is what happened to the smart.'
'You've talked to my High School teachers?' She nodded.
'Sure. Know your enemy, my dad always told me.' To my surprise I felt an unfamiliar movement in my face. I tried to smother the smile, and she watched me and said nothing. I felt myself reddening in my turn and then let it out.
'Point taken. What else is in the file?' She looked at the folder, and closed it firmly. When she spoke her voice was different. Less Miss Efficient, more country, still brusque, but real approachable. Persuasive maybe.
'Crap, mostly. You wanna go get a coke or something?'
'No.' She looked at me carefully and a flicker of comprehension crossed her face.
'At the Drive-Thru of your choice? My treat?' I hesitated a second too long, and she smiled broadly, and stood up. 'You gonna put a T-shirt on? Or is the bare-chested look good?' I fumbled for the crutches and began the process of rising, waiting for her to try to help. She started clearing the table and stacking stuff in the sink, so I went to find the T-shirt.
'You're not like the other people they've sent round, ' I said as she pulled out onto the highway. She hadn't watched me get into the car, merely taken the crutches and put them across the back seat. She shifted up a gear and glanced at me.
'And you're not like the other guys they send me to, ' she said. 'Most of them move on from where you are, start to think a little, stuff like that. You always been stubborn?'
'You spend your whole life being told to stick to your guns, tough it out, stuff like that, you end up believing it, right? Now, you say that I've been crippled but life goes on, and I say yeah, but it's not the life I want so I'll tough it out instead, and then you try to talk me out of it. That's the way the script goes.' She didn't reply immediately, but braked way too hard and swung into a MacDonald's Drive-Thru.
'You got part of it right.' I didn't say anything while she ordered a whole bunch of stuff and paid, then took the bags from her, setting them awkwardly on my lap. She turned the car and took it back to the highway, then up a dirt road I knew well.
'Hooters Pool?' She nodded and looked at me briefly.
'They told me the kids call it that. Skinny dipping heaven, huh?' I shrugged.
'Used to be once. There won't be anyone there this time on a school day.'
'Only time I was ever here it was deserted.' She gunned the little car up the track and parked in the same spot I used to a long time ago. 'I'll take everything up and then come back.' She slung a rug over her arm and grabbed the bags. It seemed to me she went a hell of a long way before setting the stuff down. I squirmed round and managed to drag one of the crutches over the seat, then opened the door and maneuvered it out. I followed it with my leg and managed to get upright, and leaned against the car wondering what came next. I didn't hear her approach.
'You need practice. We'll do this again.' I felt churlish and incomplete and unattractive.
'Why'd you wanna do that?'
'Just trying to dig through the dumb.' She handed me the other crutch. 'C'mon. Food's getting cold.' She walked beside me as I crutched and stumbled over the turf. She didn't appear to be dragging her feet like most people did, and she didn't spend all her time checking to see if I was going to fall. She seemed to take it for granted that I wouldn't. After a thousand years we reached the rug and I lowered myself awkwardly to the ground. She plumped down next to me.
'I like to see the water.' She grabbed the bags. 'There are times when I need good old-fashioned junk food, the way God intended. Salt and fat and all that other good stuff. Here.' She handed me my share and dived into her burger like it was the only thing in the world. For a small girl she sure put food away in a hurry. I took it easier, and couldn't manage all the meal. She looked across at me.
'You through?' I nodded, and before I could move she was kneeling next to me, picking fries out of the carton and nibbling the half hamburger that I'd left. 'No appetite?' she mumbled through a mouthful.
'My mom cries if I don't leave a clean plate. Don't you start too.'
'Your mom's the reason you're still upright. I hope she doesn't cry too much.' She licked her fingers and slurped the last of my coke, then lay back and burped quietly. 'Maybe I gotta tapeworm. I see food and I eat it and I'm still one hundred three pounds soaking wet. Why have you sewn your shorts leg up? Pants I can understand, or you'd trip over them, but shorts? What's the point?' My chest felt tight and I rattled the ice in my cup.
'So it doesn't show.' She gazed at the sky for a while.
'Steve, when was the last time you looked at your leg?' The tightness exploded with a rush.
'You mean the place where my leg used to be? My stump? My disability? The reason the fucking government sends me money? The reason I'm a fucking cripple?' She was sitting up looking at me. The expression on her face was unreadable and I picked up my crutches and waved them at her. 'The reason I fucking need these to go on a fucking picnic? The only thing I hate worse than these fucking things is the idea of gimping around on a pink plastic leg from Wal-Mart. I haven't looked at my fucking stump ever. Isn't that in your fucking folder?' I realized that tears were streaming down my face and hurled the crutches as far away as I could. She knelt up and took my shoulders, then cradled my head to her slight breasts. After a while I managed to stop and she let go.
'They hurt you real bad, didn't they? You wear those shorts the whole time?' There was a world of understanding in her voice and not an ounce of the pity that that I heard from everyone else. I avoided her eyes and nodded. 'Bastards.' She said the word with quiet venom, then got up and fetched my crutches. 'I'm gonna have to help you up or we'll be here till sundown. Gimme your hand.' There was wiry strength in her small body, and she hauled me upright with no apparent effort, then handed me my crutches. She knelt and gathered up our garbage and stuffed it into one of the bags, and walked slowly ahead of me to the car. She didn't say another word till we pulled up outside my house.
'Tomorrow, OK?' I shifted uncomfortably.
'What about the rest of your caseload?' She looked at me and then smiled.
'Let me worry about my fucking caseload, buster. I'll tell you when I don't have time for you.' I managed to get out of the car and she handed me my crutches. I was still fitting them onto my forearms when she took off, the engine howling as she floored it. I looked after her and wondered what the hell was happening.
The next few weeks, as spring turned to summer, were strange. She came most days, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for half the day, and we talked about nothing much, and when she went the sun dimmed a notch. Some days she didn't come, but always called to let me know. We spent time at Hooters Pool, in my house, driving aimlessly in her car, sometimes talking, sometimes arguing, often silent. My forearms strengthened as I used the crutches more; my leg got stronger too, and I realized that my beer gut was going. In fact it was dying from lack of nourishment. When the Medical Board sent for me, they noted that I'd gained weight and sent me away. Her eyes flicked over my body regularly, but she said nothing and I felt obscurely irritated. Somewhere along the line I started thinking a little.
Early July we were lying in the spot I'd come to think of as ours, at the crest of the hill overlooking Hooters Pool. The day was hot and still, with the threat of thunder lurking in the sticky air. She was lying beside me, staring at the sky.
'How tall are you, Steve?' I wondered where her head was now.
'I used to be six foot and a hair. Maybe a little less now.'
'I'm four eleven in sports socks, and I'm a 32A, and I wish I was taller and had a bit more up there, and that my face didn't make me look like a dumb pixie, and that I didn't need glasses, and that when I grow my hair I didn't look like I had a tumbleweed on my head.' Her eyes were closed. The atmosphere between us was different somehow, and I fumbled for words.
'Lily, please stay the way you are. I'd kinda like to have met you before... ' She snorted.
'Before, huh? I bet that "before" you dated cheerleaders and didn't look even once at short skinny girls with glasses. But you said the right thing there. You ever thought you might be getting a little more sensitive than you used to be?' I chewed on that one for a while.
'Shitty trade-off, wouldn't you say?' She'd sat up and was fanning herself with a folded newspaper.
'Depends on what you value, I guess. Steve, can I borrow your T-shirt?'
'What the hell for? You planning to clean the windshield or something?' She looked at me exasperatedly.
'It's about a hundred and ten million degrees and I'm one big ball of sticky and I wanna swim, but I got nothing to swim in. With your T-shirt and my panties I can be decent in the water and decent out of it too. You mind getting a ride home from a skinny girl with no panties under her skirt?' Actually the thought appealed.
'Lily, this is Hooters Pool. T-shirts are not required.' She frowned, and looked almost embarrassed.
'If I had hooters that'd be one thing. What I got is penny whistles. Gimme your T-shirt.' I stripped it off and handed it to her, and she got up and moved a couple of paces away, turning her back to me as she began to undo her blouse. She let it fall and pulled the T-shirt hastily over her head. It came down nearly to her knees and she wriggled and pulled her arms back in through the sleeves. After a short struggle her bra dropped to the ground and her arms reappeared. She pulled the shirt up again and fumbled at her waist, and her skirt fell round her ankles. She turned and grinned at me, then took her glasses off and put them carefully on top of her clothes.
'Ready or not, here I go.' I watched her as she trotted down the slope, and tested the water. She turned and looked up at me. 'Cool but not cold!' She bent her knees and jumped high, landing with a splash that seemed far too big for one small girl to make. After a moment her head popped to the surface and she set off across the pool. I watched her, wishing I could join her.
'So why the fuck don't you?' said a voice. I realized that I'd spoken out loud. I looked at the hill, and then at Lily. 'Chicken, ' said the voice. This time it was in my head and had a sneering sound to it. 'Fuck you, Lennox, ' I said under my breath. I struggled round and humped myself down the hill on my hands and ass, trailing my crutches behind me. My stump jarred on a tuft of grass and the old, helpless anger welled up in me. I stopped for a moment and forced it back into its cage. I didn't want Lily to see it any more. I reached the water's edge, and put the crutches carefully on the bank, then looked at my shorts. Hooters Pool. Skinny dipping heaven. No way. I pushed myself forward and slithered into the water.
They'd made me do physiotherapy swim sessions in one of the hospitals and I'd hated it. I'd kept trying to kick with the leg that wasn't there. I forced that thought aside and concentrated on arms, moving cautiously parallel to the bank, trailing my leg along the soft bottom. I heard her voice behind me.
'Jeez, Steve, what happened?' I managed to turn, balancing on my leg and fanning with my arms to stay upright.
'I gotta weakness for wet T-shirts. The Army oughta add them to its official therapy list. In fact they oughta clone you so everybody could have their own Lily.' Her face cracked into a big goofy grin and she launched herself at me and twined her arms round my neck.
'Down that fucking hill and into the water, just for a coupla 32A's?' Her weight was too much and I began to topple, pulling us both under the surface. She let go and tried to support me, and I got far enough upright to breathe. She looked stricken.
'Shit, Steve, I'm sorry, I just forgot ... I mean... ' I finished choking and concentrated on balancing.
'You better teach me that trick. And not for the 32A's, for their owner. Tell the truth, hooters were never my big fixation. Legs and asses is what I check out mostly. You got a problem with that?' She shook her head.
'You OK with actually swimming if I spot you? I got lifeguard training.'
'I don't usually sink. And yeah, you better spot me. I gotta tendency to swim in circles, and if they get too tight I disappear up my own ass.' I couldn't believe it was me talking. I pushed with my leg and used my arms, and the bottom of the pond dropped away. I tried to concentrate, but my head was off in left field. Like a guy with toothache, I probed for the anger and resentment, but they seemed to have gone on vacation. I flipped onto my back and floated. Lily trod water next to me, and I turned my head and looked at her. It was the closest we'd been to each other since that first day at the pool when I threw the tantrum. Her eyes without the glasses were huge and dark, and when her body brushed my shoulder a tingle ran through me. I realized with blank shock that my cock was stirring in my shorts. First time since ... I'd thought that was dead too, that a nerve had been sliced or something. Apparently not, and a wave of pure relief flooded through me, washing away tension I hadn't known was there. My breath left my body in a rush and I started to sink. Lily's arm caught the back of my neck and supported my head gently.
'Deep breath, positive buoyancy. Wanna go back to dry land?'
'Probably should.' I stayed on my back and worked my arms, and I felt her hand hovering behind me as I headed erratically for the shore. I tried to resent her solicitude and found that I couldn't. My cock was at half-staff by now, and I closed my eyes and tried to think of turn-offs. That didn't work at all and I flipped clumsily onto my front before anything more happened. My trailing leg touched bottom and I pushed forward with it till I could grasp a tuft of grass.
'Now what?' She looked blank.
'Turn over and pull back, I guess, the same way you got in. It's not in the training manual. Hang on and I'll spot you again.' She slid past me and hauled herself out of the water. 'OK. Turn and heave.' It was harder than I'd thought. Gravity was against me and the bank was too soft to get a good purchase. As her hands slipped off my shoulders for the second time she grunted with annoyance. 'Hold it.' She got back into the water and put her hands under my ass. 'When I get to three, OK?'
She heaved and I heaved and nothing happened except her legs slipped and she disappeared with a splash.
'Well fuck this. Next time we go somewhere there's a beach. Lemme try a better angle.' Her voice was careful. 'I'm gonna have to put both hands under your butt and stand pretty close. Are you good with that?'
'Chicken?' said the voice in my head. I took a deep breath.
'I don't want to stay here all night.' Her brow creased in concentration and something else, and I realized suddenly that she was nervous too. She was waist deep in the water, my sodden T-shirt glued to her, almost transparent, and the swell of her small breasts, the peaked circle of a large, dark nipple centered on each one, gave me something to focus on.
'Do it, Lily. I ain't gonna cry today.' She nodded and stepped forward, pushing my leg and my stump apart until her waist was wedged between them. Her hands slipped under me and I felt them cupping my buttocks.
'Nice buns.' The light tone of her voice didn't quite work. 'OK, you reckon you can get your elbows up and back?'
'You'll have to lift and push. Go to three again.' I just managed to get my elbows far enough up the bank that they didn't slip forward again, and hauled my body a little higher. 'OK, one more time.' She changed her grip and sank a little lower as she flexed her knees to take the strain. Her head was over my crotch and her eyes flicked downwards for a moment. The soaked shorts did nothing to hide the outline of my cock.
'Again. One — Two — Three!' She tensed and all the strength of her slim arms lifted me. I scrabbled up and back, on my elbows at first, then there was room for my hands, and I was able to lift my ass out of the water and onto the bank. She stumbled forward as I did and her chin sank into my groin, my cock pressing against her cheek. I yelped.
'Jesus, I'm sorry, Steve, are you OK?'
'I'll live. You oughta move though. You're in kind of a compromising position.' She stayed where she was for a moment, looking at me, and then grinned and deliberately rolled her head sideways, rubbing the side of her face along my rigid shaft. It twitched reflexively and she rubbed again.
'Are you gonna fall in if I stand up?' I shook my head, and she straightened. 'Back a bit more, Big Boy. I don't wanna spend the rest of my life in cold water.' I humped myself back till I was clear of the edge and stretched out on the turf, my heart pounding. The front of my shorts was bowed like a spinnaker and I closed my eyes helplessly, thinking of puke and slugs and freezing cold baths. I heard her climb out of the water and sit down beside me, panting slightly.
'I've seen boners before, ' she said matter-of-factly, 'but that one's kinda impressive. Where the hell did it come from?' Her finger traced a line down my jaw. 'Answer me, Steve Lennox, or I'll push you back in the water till you wrinkle.' I opened my eyes and squinted up at her.
'Tell her the truth, ' whispered the voice. 'She oughta know how you feel. You were a basket case till she whipped your ass back into shape.' I took a deep breath.
'Lily, you just spent two months pushing me and goading me and cajoling me and letting me bounce my dumb off you. That's one thing. And I saw your eyes up close, and your hand was under my neck, and you helped me out of the goddam pool and you've never once felt pity for me. That's the second thing. And then you were standing against me with your tits pushing out of the T-shirt, and that was it. Shit, I didn't plant it, it just grew. And it's the first time since ... since before, so it's kind of a relief. I'm sorry ... I'll never wash that T-shirt again though.' Her chin was cupped in her palm as she listened, her eyes hooded, and I cursed myself for saying so much. Then her hand stroked my jaw again before wandering down my chest.
'Hooters Pool, ' she murmured, 'but what the hell? We can call it Penny Whistle Puddle. I better wring this out before you frame it though.' She sat up straight and whipped the T-shirt up and over her head, then tossed it aside and straddled my chest. 'Do 32A's really do that to you?' I took her hand and put it on my heart.
'Feel that: about a hundred and twenty a minute and rising. That's 32A's and big dark nipples, and big dark eyes, and the butt and the legs and the wet panties and all the rest of the package.' I reached up and tapped her forehead. 'That's the package that counts though, Lily. The rest is just the trimmings.' She gulped and lowered her eyes, then lifted her hand from my chest and took mine, guiding it to her left breast.
'Even if I'd stayed out of the water the panties would be wet.' Her rigid nipple quivered under my palm, and I felt the hard, steady beat of her heart. 'Gonna have to do something about it, Steve. We can't go on like this.' My heart sank as she stood up and I closed my eyes, feeling a sick sense of loss. Then something landed on my face.