“I can do it, goddamnit! Back away!”
The recovery practitioner and I lock eyes across the aisle. Carmen huffs and sweats in the middle of us, held aloft by her own gymnastic power. Her palms clasp the silver guide rails with fierce, deathly stubbornness. It’s only the three of us in the ward.
I step backward towards exercise balls and coiled foam mats. The specialist advances, positively charged to my sister’s crass magnetics. She endures the verbal distillation of Carmen’s losing wrath, years of hospital rounds having inoculated her, but really it’s not the insults I’m worried about.
“You can’t do it safely today, Carmen,” the nurse, Fern I think, assesses. I feel awful that her name doesn’t bubble up reflexively — since Carmen’s first stretch session, she’s remembered that I’m Oliver. It’s been two months. Two months of sluggish progress, tripping feet, spiteful relapses, repeat.
“Fuck you, Fern,” Carmen spits. She is slim and scathing, immobile and obscene. Her tongue has sustained no injuries.
I flash my palms in exasperation — it’s painful watching her abandon human etiquette—but replant myself by the runway, as PT patients call it.
Fern’s reaction is reserved — a tiny spasm of the cheek. It’s impressive. Reminds me that accidents are meant to change people for the better, how Carmen’s a greater ogre now than she was at Beijing. Her qualifying event is both bog and mountain pool in my mind. I can recreate the stadium glare, but not the fall. The balance beam solidifies, but the replays streak and blur. It’s a coat of armor, I guess, these selective gaps.
It’s too early for all this. I just know I’m the brother. I’m foolhardy. And I’m here.
Carmen bares her teeth on staggered inhales. She pants slavishly now, ignited by some compulsory Olympic flame. “Gotta get… to the end… of the runway…”
Her words lengthen, speak distance. I follow the dead-set beams of her eyes down the padded landing strip: six feet left.
I try my luck to ingratiate her from the front, squatting out of range of any head-butts, her favorite. “You made it halfway, Carmen,” I say, censoring the congratulation from my voice. “That’s a new record.”
“It’s only… been half… an hour…” Carmen’s elbows rattle. “I have… to make… forty-five…”
I droop my head lightly. I’ve seen this Grendelian pedigree at the training centers. It’s the Take No Prisoners mentality writ bodily, a penitent propulsion for all her physical weaknesses. Carmen’d rather refuse to surrender in agony than relax tendon one in her compromised legs. She knows it. I know it. And our mutual knowledge eases nothing. Comparing our roles in her recovery is pointless, obviously, but most days I feel my stick is shortest.
“Maybe you should try harder,” I suggest again.
My words ring hollow. Carmen titters bitterly — or maybe it’s a curse puffed beyond the brink of all exhaustion. Either way, I’m the last of her coaches and family not to be disbarred from the ward. In theory this means I’m needed. Indispensable. That I’m not another pitying automaton here to numb her progress, provoke motivation.
Like Fern. She’s still behind my sister, who hackles at the woman’s touch. “All right, Carmen,” Fern coaxes, “you’ve done enough for today.” She attempts to forklift Carmen into the air to settle her into her wheelchair. Feeling her elevation rise, Carmen throttles the railings, like some stuntman spiritually glued to the Apache’s whipping ladder.
Fern yanks — there is nothing wrong with my sister’s upper body — and signals me to my dragon-downing task. I accost my sister’s fingers, splay them apart. I undo the throbbing pinky, shuck the middle digit. It is a laborious, violent liberation. Our faces are inches apart. Her eyes and lips bite shut in resistance. She mimics eggplant hues as air jets through her salty nose.
When her hand unhooks, Carmen dangles lopsided, buoyed against gravity by burly Fern. Her arm shoots out again but I cincture a plastic restraining ring, concealed in my pocket, about her wrists. If her hands weren’t quaking death threats, she could almost be praying.
Attuned, Fern feels the inhale of free space and slings my sister into her mandatory ride. I make busy belting harness around her hips, her shoulders.
Carmen’s eyes, an indomitable blue, spring open. I know she’s willing every damaged cell in her legs to kick me in the face.
She leans forward from the breast. “I hate you, Oliver.” Fern pretends not to hear. So do I until Carmen grits it out louder: “I hate you.”
I risk many things kissing her cheek — a wolfish wound, a pro-wrestling headslam — but I let it linger and don’t pull away. “You’re getting better, Carmen.” My heart twists. “Another year till preliminary tryouts.”
Her face is Paleolithic in its rancor. The world knows her golden mammoths are lost to future hunts.
Fern dimes the wheelchair around and cups my hot shoulder. “Thank you, Oliver.” She sighs. “She’s a spitfire.”
“She needs a lion tamer,” I utter, and hear Carmen curse my manhood.
“Take a break tomorrow, Oliver.” Fern squeezes me. “Please. There are orderlies who’d love this experience. You really shouldn’t be here every single — ”
“I’ll be here.” I cross my bruised arms. Stand my ground. “I’ll be here.”
Fern protests, then must see something flare in me that reminds her of the damaged athlete, austere and incapacitated, before us. If anyone here merits medals, it’s her.
She submits. Alloys herself with my steel. “Nine o’clock, then,” she says. “As usual.”
My sister exits into the hallway. For once Carmen doesn’t crash onto the hospital tile, doesn’t scrape and worm for release. I wait until her chair trickles from earshot, then collapse back-first onto a ribbed blue exercise ball.
Here in late morning brightness, I bounce without mirth.
Progress, I think weakly. That spells progress.
Garrett Ray Harriman schools and lives in Colorado. Currently he’s working toward double-majors in English and Psychology and — when he makes the time — practices tenor sax. His stories have appeared on 365 Tomorrows, Farther Stars Than These, and Smashed Cat. Visit him online at anomalousskies.tumblr.com.