The dome of an umbrella bobbed along the top of the fence, beneath the dripping horse chestnut branches. Pink, blue, white stripes. It had been raining for days, maybe weeks. Lots of umbrellas bobbed along her fence, but she recognised this one.
Cynthia wheeled herself into the corner of the living room, where she could see the gate but where reflections from the bay window prevented anyone seeing in. He stood at the gate under his girlish umbrella, not entering, just staring at the house, right into the window of the room in which she sat, as if he knew that she was there, trapped behind the glass. Like an insect in a display case. His eyes were obscured by spectacles with thick lenses, which only intensified her unease. A heavy, jowly face which could have been middle-aged or much younger, collar too tight around his thick neck, disastrous hair which looked like it had been styled by a blind lunatic, a rumpled raincoat straight from the Flasher-Mac Warehouse.
She was safe, it was ridiculous to be so fearful. Leg braces fiction was the fault of the chair. Since the accident six months ago, her personality had begun to change.
She could feel the chair slowly but definitely asserting its will over her. Up through her useless legs, its metal frame melded itself to her, its leather seat becoming one with her buttocks, her waist. Eventually they would become one, part machine, part paralysed person: cyberlegic. At the start, she had raged at the chair, insisted on trying crutches, leg braces, anything that would keep her upright.
At eye level with other adults. Cynthia had been through all the textbook stages—shock, sadness, denial, anger—and got stuck on the last one. She had never moved on to the final stage for all those faced with life-changing disasters; the blissful, sunny nirvana of acceptance remained out of reach. A successful criminal prosecutor at the top of her profession, she had not risen to the level of partner by being good at acceptance.
She was good at getting people to pay for their mistakes. None of that mattered any more. That part of her life was finished. Her job was still there, but she had no interest in returning to court to be the subject of prurient curiosity, to be looked down on in her chair. She had loved it, and it was over. There was nothing to fill the void. One instant. That was all it took for her life to be ruined. You need to adjust your point of view. Her arms still worked perfectly well—better, in fact, from all the wheeling—plenty strong enough to beat Sandra to death with her leopard-print ballet shoes.
Step off the curb into the road at one moment in time, distracted by something just at the edge of your vision, and your life goes one way. Wait on the curb for one second longer, and it goes another way. All of those months, lying in the hospital bed, she had ransacked her memory for what she had seen that day. Something had made her move, just at the second she should have stayed. But the answer was lost somewhere in the folds of her cerebellum, not helped by the powerful anti-depressants which kept her away from the knife drawer but also dulled her thought processes.
The world was full of such moments, she realised. Leg braces fiction, or maybe because of, all the new modifications and gadgets in her house—the ramps, the ugly handrails everywhere, the new shower big enough for a chair, her bed in the downstairs study—she felt her formerly outgoing, adventurous nature draining out of her, a little every day. A slow leak that would ultimately leave her just a pathetic, deflated husk.
Before the accident, she would have run the old pervert off the top of her drive with her best courtroom voice. Now here she was, cowering in the corner of her own house. She felt catapulted into early geriatric-hood. It was wrong, every molecule of her being screamed that it was wrong. This was not how her life was Leg braces fiction to be. The essential Cynthia-ness was leaving, and what remained…what did remain? A carcass sat for the rest of its days in the chair, a creature that ate and drank, peed into a bag, inhaled and exhaled, kept clean by the efficient hands of Maxine, the private nurse paid for by the insurance settlement.
At least Maxine was different, not like therapist Sandra. And she seemed to like Cynthia, who did not mind if the nurse smoked in the house. Once Maxine had bathed and dressed her and dispensed her meds, checked for pressure sores and massaged her wasted muscles, they would settle down for a chat and a smoke. Lung cancer, Cynthia figured, would at least make a change.
Since the accident, she had embraced unhealthy habits with the same fervor which she had once applied to staying healthy.
The blender which had ly been used for wheatgrass and bee pollen smoothies was now pressed into service for the staggeringly strong cocktails that she shared with Maxine. Thankfully, Maxine only needed to stroll a short distance to the bus stop, once her shift was over or the cocktails finished, whichever came first. At least two bulky sweaters swathed her uniform, even in summer.
That was her own view, reinforced with every passing day. She examined her cocktail.
The stalker never appeared when Maxine was there. Nor did he appear when any of her other infrequent guests paid their visits. But there he was again, just standing outside the gate, raindrops suspended from the points of his ridiculous umbrella. It was the umbrella that did it. She refused to be intimidated by a stalker with an umbrella like that. All Leg braces fiction months of heartbreak, while her life and her legs withered, the parade of indignities lengthened, the monotonous platitudes from well-wishers threatened to bury her alive, the nights of deepest, blackest despair…all of this propelled her to the front door.
Driven by a pure white flame of anger, she smacked the button to open it, wheeled herself down the ramp and along the path where she stopped, panting. Only the wooden gate separated them, shedding flakes of brown paint like dead skin. He did not move away. Suddenly she realised that, in her haste to confront him, she did not know what to say. The only sound was the rain clattering softly on the leaves overhead. One of the upper canines was capped with gold.
Even up close it was no easier to see his eyes through the glasses. So outraged was she that no words would come, she just shifted jerkily in the chair.
It took a moment to register that he knew her name, but then she realised that any competent stalker would manage that. Sure enough, the chair began to roll backward. In an instant, he was through the gate, his hand on the chair to stop its descent, his umbrella shading her from the rain. He smiled again. But first, we have some things to talk about. Shall we go inside? She was just about to blast him right off his feet with a fire hose of invective, had opened her mouth to do just that, and then stopped, jaws akimbo.
The crowd of people on the curb, everyone impatient for the lights to change so they could return to their warm offices and houses. Elbows, shoulders jostling.
The leg braces
Easy enough for someone to lose their balance. And before she could protest or do anything to attract attention, he had spun her chair around and wheeled her into the house. To be so helpless made her even angrier, but frightened too. It was bad enough being a woman, but worse to be a woman who could not even kick him in the crotch. She was utterly in his power. He extracted a small spiral notebook and pen from his pocket. Only a few years ago, a bang like yours would have done the job, no question.
Done what job? She swallowed.
It did not help. He smelled…wrong. Not like stale sweat or another body odour. This was the smell of things shut away from the light for years, of things buried deep in the ground, forever. Her guts contracted with a desperate desire to be anywhere he was not. On another continent.