Edited by Josh Langston (who deserves a dadgum medal!), the following is part of an anthology of short stories entitled “Selfies”. And, of course, it is available for purchase on Amazon! Where else? All proceeds benefit the ELM (Enrichment of Life Movement) in Marietta, Georgia.
Describing a slow, wobbly arc, the van veered sickeningly across the divided highway and hit Arizona’s car head on. She would never be able to recall any of the accident. On a bicycle trip to the grocery store for his mom, a fifteen year old witnessed the horrific collision. With his mouth gaping in disbelief, he watched as the unbelted drunk shot through the van’s windshield and whipped down the pavement, a rag doll of whirling limbs gradually coming to a lifeless stop in the median. Like a dismembered scarecrow, his shattered body lay in disarray. Although adrenalin would quickly fill, then gradually recede from the teenager’s veins, the memory would indelibly stain his emotions for decades to come.
Arriving within a few eternally long minutes, the first responders quickly realized that the van’s driver was dead and began to devote their attention to Arizona. After spending almost an hour cutting the tangled metal and plastic that surrounded her crumpled figure, she was barely alive. A Life Flight helicopter perched on the highway’s shoulder awaiting its gruesome cargo. Her face was gray from the loss of blood that now covered much of her body. She would not have been recognizable to anyone who knew her. With one leg and one arm dangling by thin strands of tissue and her pulse rate hardly discernible, she was loaded into the helicopter and gently tied into place. “I doubt she’ll make it” the ambulance driver said to the pilot. For certain, she wouldn’t be making that afternoon’s sculpture class at the Atlanta Art Institute. Despite being the primary model, her absence wouldn’t cause much consternation to students or instructor. Petulance was the unfortunate characteristic that trumped her talents.
“I want my fee two weeks in advance and in cash!” she had yelled into the phone as her session was being scheduled. “And, if you want me to keep coming back, I’ll need two complimentary dinners to Bones!” Her flawless figure and abilities had been undermined by her difficult temperament for some time. Few could penetrate the darkness that cloaked her character and see the pieces of goodness that everyone has. A former friend quipped, “She’s gonna need to pay in advance for pallbearers for her funeral!”
Although her professional demands were reluctantly met, those ultimatums were certainly no longer at the top of her concerns now. The helicopter’s rotors thumped as paramedics hovered over her broken body while conveying critical information to the waiting hospital staff. Arizona drifted in and out of consciousness, her mind a flickering light of awareness. Geoff comprised the subject of her one lucid thought, I need you!
Miles away, Geoff could feel a dissonance in his universe. A distant humming had grown into an uncomfortable disturbance, much like a whirlwind that warns of impending fury. His face wrinkled with concern as his head turned south. Something was awry.
Geoff lifted his brush from the canvas. Although the troubling sensations had receded somewhat, his mind was still distracted. Red paint dripped from the bristles and joined the other colors already splattered on the grass below. The sky overhead radiated October blue while Monarchs fluttered over the tops of trees on their southward migration. It was the kind of day that was perfect for both painting and distraction; the kind of day that was a setting for creativity and diversion; the kind of day that added to Geoff’s already unsettled feelings and allowed his mind to hop about like a troupe of monkeys. Looking down at his feet at the myriad of dripped colors he couldn’t take in the message of happiness they sent. He let out a long sigh.
Why haven’t I been able to focus? Having successfully applied over a year ago for sabbatical privileges at the Hambidge Center, Geoff was now more than halfway through that six month prerogative. Yet his efforts were nowhere near the goals he’d set for himself. He had only completed one oil and a few sketches and none of them satisfied his standards.
Relying on mail for any communication, Geoff had originally thought the mountain landscape idyllic. Providing a much needed separation for the various artists in residence, the Center adhered to its bucolic 1930’s setting and shunned both internet and mobile phone services. But Geoff couldn’t harmonize with the pastoral scenery. With a vacant gaze, he began staring again at the half-finished painting in front of him. The subject matter was of a street dance in Marietta during a Fourth of July festival. One of the figures he had painted caused his thoughts to drift to her. He recalled that night in Buckhead when he’d first seen her, watching her lithe body as she danced with the group with whom she occasionally performed. Adrift in the remembrance of her gentle grace, he recalled how she would later feel in his arms, how warm and sweet her breath was when they were close. Things felt so compelling where she was involved that he was beginning to think God had given him an Eleventh Commandment. At the same time, his other darling, painting, beckoned. These distractions made him incomplete with both of his loves.
What about Arizona? Something felt different with her. Had she gone to the Big Apple? Had she moved on without him? Having dates for almost two years, they agreed they were at a crossroads and Geoff’s break would give them both an opportunity to view their relationship from the perspective of a separation. However, confusion roiled his mind and depleted his creative energies. He simply couldn’t concentrate. Something was going on and he sensed that it involved Arizona, but further clarity would escape Geoff.
Two hundred miles away in Atlanta, Arizona wept in the rehab facility. Days of hurt, doctors, and medications had blurred into weeks. Lying on her stomach on a low platform with a five pound weight attached to her lower leg the pain grew unbearable, searing what remained of her calf and up into her thigh. The remnants of that limb hung just over the edge of the table. In an effort to return her knee to some semblance of flexibility, she was supposed to hold this position for ten minutes. As she watched the second hand on the clock, each tick described another notch of agony as the weight seemed to respond to gravity with a geometric progression. Turning her face, she pressed the pillow against her mouth with her one good hand and made an effort to stifle her sobbing. Every neuron in her brain was screaming in misery. Clenching the pillow as if it were flesh, her face contorted into concentric circles of pain. Hurting too much to be concerned, Arizona’s once lovely hair spilled about her neck and shoulders in neglected disarray. She made the effort to focus on something else.
“Don’t tell, Geoff!” she had commanded all who knew her. Her few moments of rationality were spent thinking of him. How long had he been gone? Seemed like years, but she knew it had only been a few months. She thought of the pact they had made to meet at the conclusion of his sabbatical. She remembered the secluded glade, laced with ferns at the base of Whitewater Falls in North Carolina. How would she get there now? More importantly, how would he react when he saw what had happened to her? Maybe she should break their mutual silence and write him. She couldn’t begin to fathom how to compose such a letter.
Part of their agreement included Geoff painting her in the naturally private setting at Whitewater. But now she found herself mired in self-pity, the hours of misery overwhelming the all too few bright spots. There’s no way I’ll allow myself to be seen in this condition . . .
“You’ve always been one to make plans. Try and focus on the future, sweetie.” Her mother’s hand stroked her face one evening as she lay in her room at the rehabilitation center. Arizona heard the words, but she wasn’t able to absorb her mom’s hopefulness. Her dreams of worldly fame now lay as tattered as her broken limbs. However, she actually did do some planning for a day to come should it continue to look as bleak as it did to her now. Underneath her mattress she had stockpiled enough Oxycodone to facilitate her permanent escape. Just now, that deadly inventory crooked its sinister finger towards her weeping figure.
Wordlessly, her therapist gently touched both her shoulders. His efforts were greeted with “Leave me the hell alone!” Arizona’s remaining fist pounded the table in frustration. Shaking his head, the technician retreated wordlessly in an effort to not make things any worse. Sensing its gruesome opportunity, the allure of an overdose slunk from its dark recesses. As Arizona struggled to overcome the curveball life had thrown at her, consideration of suicide as a solution was gathering momentum.
Sensing her authority might be necessary, the center’s director had come to assist Arizona in getting back to her room. “That’s enough for today, sweetie.”
Struggling to get to a sitting position, Arizona looked at herself in the mirrors along the wall. Her hair was the best thing left of her former loveliness and even it was a mess. With the lower part missing, her left leg was no more than a stump. Her right arm was eroded to an angry red nub just above the elbow. When she had regained consciousness in the hospital, her first realization was that she would never dance again. That understanding had washed over her with an unyielding black sobriety. Except where Geoff was concerned, her mood never particularly sunny, had plummeted.
The surgeons felt another few inches of amputation would be needed in order to provide a proper foundation for the promised prosthesis. Angrily she hurled a book at the doctor who suggested the operation. “I’m just an experiment station for you bastards.” Palms up in supplication, the specialist made an effort to be positive. But it was not to be as she interrupted him with a screaming “Get out of here!” before turning to face the wall. Even that simple a maneuver made her cry out in agony.
Earlier that year, Geoff was due to start his sabbatical at the Hambidge Center in a few weeks. Arizona, in keeping with her burgeoning popularity, stayed in a whirl of sittings, dances, and plays. Rumors of New York whispered in her future. Geoff finally was able to get her to agree to a Monday evening dinner to discuss their prospects as a couple.
“I don’t know, Geoff, so much is at stake right now for me. My agent says I’m right on the cusp of much bigger things than this petty stuff here in Atlanta. “
His dinner half eaten, Geoff supported his chin with one arm and looked pensively at Arizona. Folding his arms onto the table, his vaunted patience was evaporating. “Jesus, I’ll only be away for six months and then we could find a place to live that’s convenient for both of us.”
“Dammit, let’s do the numbers! You’re established as an artist. Nationally known. Soon to be international once those Paris pricks see your work. This is MY chance!” Her eyes were glaring with a familiar passion that Geoff had seen many times.
Geoff’s voice became low, pleading. Any thought of finishing his dinner had now been abandoned. He slid his plate to one side and leaned closer to Arizona. “That’s fine, honey; I want to be supportive, not an impediment. I really believe you’re destined for greatness.”
Arizona interrupted their mutual scrutiny and pressed her case. Waving her arms for emphasis, she exclaimed, “I need to be mobile, ready to fly on a moment’s notice to an assignment. I can’t be tethered like some dutiful wife!” Gripping the stem of her wine glass tightly, she shifted in her chair so that she could look out the restaurant’s windows as if the glass would allow a glimpse into her future.
Letting out an inaudible sigh, Geoff realized that further discussion was futile for now. Under the table, his foot tapped in frustration as his mind drew blanks about what to say or do next. The woman he regarded as the love of his life was fixated on her independence and that liberation didn’t seem to include him at this point.
But Arizona wasn’t finished. She made an effort to be conciliatory, atypical for her in almost any discussion or argument.
“Tell you what, honey, let’s agree to meet right after your sabbatical is completed. With your status, I’d love to have your signature on a painting of my body. You know, one of those classical reclining figures? It would be wonderful. Wouldn’t you agree that with my talents and your name, I’ll be even more famous?”
Geoff had turned away as she offered her version of an olive branch. He turned slowly to face her again. His dark eyes, always penetrating, seemed to pierce her soul. “Sure, sweetie, I’ll go along with that.” With a doubtful mind, Geoff clung to that thin strand of hope like a drowning man clings to a piece of driftwood. Leaning over the table again, he clasped her hand in his. His touch was gentle, his words painted crimson with sincerity. “I’ll always love you, Arizona. Always.” Geoff allowed a few seconds for emphasis before adding, “Regardless of whom you become or wherever you are.”
Although it was bright and sunny outside, the day had dawned miserable for Arizona. The prosthesis for her leg didn’t fit correctly and the one for her arm hurt like hell so she’d left both behind. Wallowing in self-pity, she rolled in her wheelchair to the dreaded therapy room. For the staff and patients who had come into contact with her, most turned and looked away as she approached. “Here comes the Prima Donna!” whispered one aide into the agreeing ear of another.
Arizona wheeled in wordlessly, thunderstorms dominating her thoughts. “Ready to begin another session?” her therapist asked making every effort to sound bright and happy.
“I know the routine” Arizona responded glumly. With her remaining arm and hand, she grasped the handle of the stationary bike and stood on her one leg before straddling the seat. Minus two of her limbs, she began the obligatory five minute warm-up as her torso wobbled awkwardly. Her mind reviewed her black circumstances.
My career has been destroyed by that drunk son-of-a-bitch. I’ve received maybe a couple of cards from “friends”. I got the greatest notoriety of all from YouTube which showed the mangled wreckage from that sickening collision. Worst of all, I pretty much excommunicated Geoff. Not that he’d want me now anyway . . . “Excuse me, ma’am, but do you know where the bathroom is?” Arizona’s pity party had been interrupted by a young female’s voice. Twisting on the cycle’s seat, Arizona strained to look at the source. Wavering slightly, a waif of a girl returned her gaze with a lopsided smile. Extending beneath her shorts, two pale shafts of artificial legs matched the color of her face.
“Yeah, it’s just around the corner from that water fountain. Right over there. See?” Turning her head to follow Arizona’s finger, the girl began shuffling in that direction. “Hey, how come I haven’t seen you here before?” Arizona asked. The teenager paused.
“I was injured in Seattle and my uncle, lives here in Marietta. He’s an ‘ol sweetheart and he wanted me to come here so he could keep a better eye on me.” She paused momentarily to see if her words were of interest. Arizona appeared receptive, so she continued. “He’s my closest remaining relative and it was costing him a lot of money flying back and forth. So, once I got able to travel I came here to hopefully complete my rehab.” Looking towards the bathroom door, she hesitated another moment. “But let me get myself over there before I wet my pants.” With that, the stranger wobbled off, her hand seeking reassurance against the wall, still practicing how to get about.
Something in this new girl struck a chord in Arizona and her curiosity was provoked. For the first time in a long while, her thoughts focused on someone else besides herself. Using a borrowed cane, she plodded over to the director’s desk. “What do you know about that girl who just came in?”
Not bothering to look up from her record keeping, the director said, “You know I can’t discuss another patient’s medical or personal situations, Arizona. You’ve heard of HIPPA haven’t you?” For a few seconds, Arizona glared at the director’s head as if she could discern the information she wanted. But for once, she didn’t fire back. Grabbing her cane, she walked away unsteadily.
However, a seed of transformation had been planted. Some of Arizona’s apathy was being converted into an interest in living. Her name was Kayla. Days became shorter as the two injured patients gradually developed a rapport. Their conversations, mostly superficial, slowly formed a basis for a deeper friendship. For Arizona, the physical therapy was still miserable, but she noticed the young woman without legs marked her progress with more smiles than tears.
Not long after Arizona had first noticed Kayla, an elderly patient came into the therapy room. Framed by two attendants, she shuffled in on crutches. Something happened though, and before anyone could respond, she fell backwards with a loud thump followed by groaning. Her pathetic sounds filled the whole area. Abandoning their respective work stations, all of the staff rushed to provide aid to the fallen woman. Arizona happened to be near a vacated desk which was partially hidden by an artificial plant. Taking a chance, she used the opportunity to slip behind the fake greenery and touch one of the computer’s keys. As luck would have it, information on the adolescent girl was up on the screen. Laboring nearby on the exercise bike, her recently found friend’s countenance described concern as she watched people gathering around the hurting patient. Scanning the page, Arizona’s eyes quickly picked out key bits of information.
“Female, Kayla, age 19, severely injured in car accident in Seattle on November 17th, 2013. Parents died from blunt force trauma. Patient’s legs requiring amputation mid-thigh. Interests: ballet, writing, gardening.” There was more to read, but the sounds of the staff attending to the fallen patient were getting closer now and Arizona didn’t want to risk getting caught. In the past, she wouldn’t have cared, but a spark had been kindled. She wanted to think and not devote her usual energy to a possible conflict. To avoid being seen, she quietly slipped into a nearby bathroom.
For most people, change comes as a result of trauma whether it is death, despair, or divorce. For Arizona, it came in the form of a blue-eyed, blonde haired adolescent who no longer had real legs. At first tentative, but then with a tidal wave of bonding, Kayla and Arizona became more than just two badly damaged humans who shared their recovery in a rehab center.
Struggling into Arizona’s room one day clutching flowers, Kayla presented the bundle with an innocent smile. “Here’s a bunch of zinnias I picked for you from the cutting garden.” For the first time in a long while, Arizona’s weeping was not a result of pain, but unfettered happiness. In return, Arizona began to spend almost all her spare time with Kayla listening to her story, paying attention to her interests, sharing thoughts for their respective futures.
It would take countless seconds of thought slowly accumulating into days and weeks, but Arizona would come to believe that this girl was an angel sent on wings by heaven. Arizona’s life had been so dulled by cynicism that onlyow else could she have gotten here? Anger and despair were progressively being demolished in both women as a result of their friendship and work was being done on a foundation of hope. But such transformations don’t occur with the flick of a switch. For Arizona, physical and emotional accomplishments were being made in small, excruciating steps. In symbiotic return for Kayla, Arizona began to fill in many of the voids much like the big sister she never had.
The day for the agreed upon rendezvous had started with rainy skies, but westerly winds sent the clouds east, and now the sun beamed brightly. Geoff could hardly contain himself as he stepped carefully down the approach to the swinging bridge. The glade where he and Arizona were to meet was just across the Nantahala River. Although not unknown, there was almost never anyone there. The setting beckoned with its countless shades of green dotted here and there with autumn’s fallen leaves.
Like a child bouncing on his father’s knee, Geoff crossed the bridge. His eagerness caused the suspended wood and wires to buck as the stream sped by several feet below. Gripping the hand cables to steady himself, he felt like a child at Christmas. Would she be there already or would he have to wait? He hadn’t noticed any cars at the landing.
His breathing exceeded the demands of his activity. He reached the end of the bridge and descended the steps into the glade. The rain had left droplets of water on all the leaves; the air smelled clean and full of promise.
Anticipation fueled Geoff’s pace and he went from a fast walk to a loping stride as he covered the short distance to their agreed spot. Coming into the glade, he instantly noticed the draped easel sitting in the center. Brow furrowing with curiosity, he walked up to the tripod and saw a letter attached to the cloth which covered whatever lay underneath. He recognized Arizona’s archaic, but lovely, cursive writing.
By the time you read this, I will have left and headed back to Atlanta. As we’ve had no contact for some time, you should understand that I’ve experienced a crazy period since we last saw each other. As you’ll notice by the selfie I made, I am no longer a whole person physically. As you might imagine, it would be an understatement that I’ve had to make many adjustments. Although I’m not quite at the point I could honestly say all of what I’ve experienced has been for the best, I do believe I will eventually come out of this a much improved person.
Although I know you will think my agnostic self has abdicated, I do believe I’ve had some very important assistance from an angel. If you could meet her, I know you would agree. If you could see me, I think you would witness the beginning of a person being transformed into wholeness despite an imperfect body.
As you might imagine, I have had a LOT of time to think about us. Mostly, I am struck by both your patience and kindness, attributes which I don’t think I deserved. You’re a sweetheart, Geoff, and I hope (and want) you to stay that way.
In terms of healing and growing, I don’t yet feel complete, and I may never be. Thus, I feel it best if we remain apart for now. My reasons are no longer based on my selfish professional interests. Rather I want to build a career on caring for those who have suffered life altering injuries, particularly children. I believe I am truly qualified to encourage hope in those so damaged.
With much love, (much more than it used to be)
Thoughtfully, carefully, Geoff folded the letter and put it in his shirt pocket. His eyes drifted to the draped easel. Lifting the cloth, Geoff was stunned to see a nude photograph of his love. Spilled red satin pooled about her figure. Her eyes met his and her face wore a slight, winsome smile. As he scanned her image, her broken appendages glared back for she had made the photo without wearing either of her artificial limbs.
He felt overwhelmed. This day of anticipation had been overturned by an unpleasant surprise coupled with a grievous emotional blow. Crumpling to his knees, his heart flooded with sadness; a tsunami of woe and loss flooded his whole being. Holding his bent head in his hands, he sobbed. There was so much to sort out.
It took a long time, but he gradually recovered and stood up. In shock, he picked up the photo, easel, and cloth, and began trudging back the way he had come. Now, the swinging bridge’s movement and the gurgling waters below seemed taunting, a reversal of their former welcoming. He didn’t hear the calls of the flock of Goldfinches as they flew over in their up and down flight nor the snort of a deer whom he startled. Neither did he notice the car moving slowly down the road and parking where it was hidden by a fall-brightened clump of Sassafras trees, their leaves glowing in iridescent oranges and reds.
Having stored Arizona’s belongings in his car, Geoff leaned against the roof, eyes closed, fist supporting his head against the cold metal. He stood in abject loneliness for several minutes as he listened to breezes and rustling leaves sweep the road. The nearby river murmured in the background. Choking back tears again, he sighed, struggled to regain his composure, and turned to open the car’s door.
Supported by a crutch, Arizona stood quietly in front of him, a soft smile on her face. Dropping the support, she leaned precariously and extended her good arm and hand towards him. “I’m still learning to stand on my own.”
Geoff’s ears heard her, but his unbelieving eyes were having difficulty in shifting gears.
“I’d like to change my mind, Geoff. If you’ll have me, I’d like for us to be together. I’m asking for you to help me become the whole person I’ve never been.” Tears began to spill down her reddening cheeks. Words choked out between her gasps for air. “I want you to take the image of that selfie and paint me as a complete human. Both the one I was and the one I’m working to be.” Hesitating, her voice rose in plaintive octaves. “Please, oh please, don’t give up on me, Geoff!” Describing remorse and longing, the words eroded her fragile strength. Quivering, she began a slow collapse.
He wouldn’t recall walking the few feet of gravel road that separated them. But he would remember grasping her good hand in both of his and pulling her closer. And, he would recall the completeness he felt as she fit against him, their bodies warming in their closeness. He’d never forget how that embrace would begin the melting of their recent farewell into a receding memory.
Seared into their mutual remembrance for always, was the way he took her in his arms and held her tightly, lovingly for a long while; a length of time that would prove to be forever.