Ten months ago.
* * *
"Is the chair okay?"
Harper ran her finger along the little nub that comprised the chair's control. Her skin slid over the plastic, almost without any friction. She made a mental note that she would have to be careful with that. "It's like an old computer joystick" she said.
Doctor Ralph Frankfort (who insisted on being called by his first name, explaining that Doctor Ralph put the patients at much greater ease) nodded to her. "It should work roughly the same as well. Except for turning, that is. You use the other control for turning - that one, right there."
Nodding, Harper nudged the plastic with her thumb. "It's a bit slippery" she said.
Glancing at the stick, Doctor Ralph said "You'll have to be careful with it. I'm afraid the more luxury models are more expensive."
Giving a short little snort of laughter, Harper said "Wheelchairs count as luxury items?"
The doctor nodded, "Electric ones, yes. You're sure you don't want for a manual one?"
Shaking her head, Harper replied "If I'm going to be stuck in it for most of the day, I want one that is as easy to use as possible." She glanced around, looking downward at the sides of the chair. "Where's the charge point?"
The doctor leaned down over her, looking down between her back and the chair's rest. "It doesn't have one" he answered.
"I assumed that it did" she said. "Is it batteries, then?"
Running his hand along the chair's interior, Doctor Ralph fussed gently as he checked that Harper had enough space. "No, no no" he said lightly. "Didn't the man explain it?"
"Not really" said Harper. She wasn't being entirely honest; the man who had come visiting her had explained it fully. But she had barely paid attention. He had left her leaflets, an entire thick booklet to read over, but she had left it sitting on her living room table, unable to bring herself to even glance over it. She had tried to pay attention to him, tried to focus, but the situation had seemed just too unreal to her. It still felt like a bizarre, improbable dream which Harper was sure that she would one day wake up from.
"This one" said Doctor Ralph "is not a mobility scooter, it's a wheelchair. You don't need to charge it. I'm going to move your hip to the left, okay?"
She nodded and the doctor did so, bringing her spine flat against the back of the chair. Harper had not even noticed that she had been sitting askance like that. For a moment she felt a sense of nervousness. "Am I sitting in this right?" she asked, worried.
The doctor looked at her, a little confused. "Yes, you're fine" he said. Then he added "how are you finding the new house?"
Harper flushed. "Odd" she answered, "I have to go through the kitchen to get to the bedroom."
"Not used to that?"
She shook her head. "I like my old house."
The doctor nodded. "It can't accommodate a stair lift, then?"
Harper didn't reply. She wondered if he had realised how difficult that subject was for her to talk about. She had not wanted to move. The subject had been the cause of several arguments between herself and her son. He had insisted on it, though. Damn near paid the deposit from it out of his own pocket, she thought. She had not wanted to leave her house, leave all of the memories of it behind. And especially not to move into a squat, single-floor bungalow, with all of the rooms arrayed across one flat level. She looked at the doctor. "It has an upstairs, you know?"
"It does?" asked the doctor, only half listening, his attention focused on his work.
She nodded, "Just a small one. More of an attic, really. I'm using it for storage." She looked at him, hoping to elicit some form of emotional response. Not even a hint of surprise, she thought.
Doctor Ralph nodded, almost oblivious to her statement. "Can you move the chair forward okay?"
Harper obliged, flicking the control nub. The wheels rolled and she jolted forward.
"Careful" said the doctor. "You have to go smooth on it."
She sighed, angrily. The contraption was a dammed inconvenience, she thought. But it was also a necessity. "Isn't there a way to make the controls smoother?"
He shook his head. "No, sorry. You'll need to learn to adjust to them."
"I've been hearing that for months" she replied.
The doctor looked at her, plaintively.
* * *
"You need to get out more, mum" said Nigel.
Harper slid her chair forward, two cups of tea precariously balanced on a tray that sat on the armrest.
Nigel was on his feet in a moment, hurrying closer. "Let me help" he muttered.
"No" said Harper, "sit. I've been bringing you a cup tea since you were a boy; nothing's going to change that."
He sat down, sheepishly. Harper moved on into the sitting room, the cups shaking precariously as she did. For a moment, she was sure that they would spill, but they mercifully stayed upright until she plucked one from the tray and handed it to the young man who sat on the sofa opposite.
He took the cup, holding it in both hands and set it down on a coaster. He reached out to do the same for her cup, but Harper shooed his bustling hands away. "Stop that" she said.
"Fussing" she said.
"I'm just helping" said Nigel.
"The car broke my spine, not my arms" she said, her voice more than a little annoyed.
Nigel looked down, focusing his eyes on the cup of tea, watching the wavering liquid settle. "Sorry" he said.
Harper couldn't help but feel a little guilty. She hasn't meant to snap. It had slipped out, without her even thinking, and it had not been the first time that she had done so. She swallowed; trying not to think about how much the accident had changed her. "Have a cake" she said, pushing a small box of cherry bakewells up the table towards her son.
He shook his head, "No, thanks."
"Go on" she said.
He took one, and chewed on it.
She smiled. It was a little thing, but it made her feel more... Harper tried to think of the word. Normal? No, that wasn't it. More like how things had used to be.
He finished chewing. As he did so, a small white -furred cat sprang unannounced onto the arm of the chair. Nigel reached up and rubbed behind his ears. "I think he wants food" he said.
Harper chuckled. "They've been fed. He just sees that you're eating and wants what you're having."
Nigel forced a smile. It made Harper feel a little guilty. She knew that he never cared for cats, and each time he visited he was leapt upon by one or more of them, usually Tobias or Rusty, the smaller of the cats, who were always hungry for more affection. He pampered them, lavished upon them, but she could tell that he was always a little reserved. Harper wondered if he did it more for her benefit than for anything else.
"Are you alright, though?' he asked.
"Don't you worry about me" she said. He looked at her, his eyes betraying him. He does worry, she thought. She smiled to him, and motioned to her cat. "I have plenty company."
Nigel left the cat alone, and picked up his cup of tea. He sipped it. "Are you keeping busy?" he asked.
She nodded. "Me and the girls at the library still have our board game evenings every Friday" she said.
"Good" he said, "good."
When Harper had said it, it had all felt so small. For a moment, she found herself thinking about her life only a few short years ago. How busy she had been, struggling to balance the constant growing demands on herself, to play the roles of mother and wife, the demands of her job, it had all left her with a life that had meant that she was unable to slow down for a moment to appreciate anything. Now, she thought, she had no choice in the matter. She closed her eyes for a moment. "Don't worry about me" she said.
"I do" he said. "Ever since dad left..."
"Your father died" she said, her voice sharp, "he didn't leave us. He didn't have a choice."
Nigel fell silent.
Harper felt that lump in her throat rise again. She hasn't meant to snap. Again, she thought. The second time she had snapped at her son. She had been so much more patient before. That had all changed a few months ago, after the accident. Harper wasn't even sure why that was, but now she felt a surge of guilt rise through her. She looked at him. "It's nobody's fault" she said, trying her best to sound reassuring.
He set his cup down. "Has Susan seen the new place yet?" he asked.
Harper shook her head. "I don't like Susan. She's always asking me personal questions."
"She's your occupational therapist" he said, "that's her job."
"It doesn't mean that I have to like it" she answered. "Prying woman, always asking about my bathroom habits."
He sighed. "She's just trying to find out what adjustments the house might need." he said, diplomatically.
"It's not a house" said Harper, "it's a bungalow. That's not a real house."
Nigel exhaled. "Have you met the neighbours?"
Harper didn't answer.
He looked at her. "Are they okay?" he asked.
"They're fine" she said, reaching over to scratch under the cat's chin. It flexed at her, as if trying to roll as much of his head ahead her fingers as possible.
"I hear they're Satanists" he said.
Harper nodded, "That's nice" she said, fussing at the cat. She paused for a moment, and looked at him. "What?"
"You weren't listening" he said. "The neighbours, what are their names?"
"You haven't met them, have you?"
She looked at him. "I'm too busy to be meeting new people."
Nigel looked at her, almost incredulously. "You have to get out" he said. "You're just sitting here all day, spending all your time watching the telly."
Harper looked at him. "What is there to do out there?"
He shrugged, "I don't know. Meet new people. Maybe get a new job?"
She looked at him. "There's nobody going to hire me in this condition" she replied.
Nigel snorted, "That's not true and you know it."
Harper threw up her hands. "Fine, fine, I just don't feel like being around people."
"Not since the accident" he added.
She lowered her hands. Gradually, uncertainly, she looked down. Her eyes slid downwards until she was looking at her legs. She blinked, and for just a moment she could see it all again. The rushing car, hurling down the road. It was blue, she remembered. Funny how those little things stayed with her. How that memory lingered on the colour of the car as it careened towards her, the soft shade of blue. Everything in her life had been normal until then, and in only a flash of a second and a blur of the colour blue, it had all changed. "No" she said, "not since that."
She looked over at the window. It was a nice view, at least. Built on a hill, the road sloped away slightly, tilting downward to allow a strong view of the coastline in the distance. On clear days, Harper could sometimes see the fishing ships coming in to dock. In the mornings, she could often watch the fog roll gently in from the sea, painting the bottom of the hill in a wash of grey.
Nigel stood up. "The x-ray results came in?"
She nodded. "They want another series. For the lower thigh this time."
Nigel nodded, "How many is that now?"
"Twelve" she said. "I've been in for twelve x-rays."
He sighed. "Look, I don't know if this will interest you, but I've got a laptop."
Harper blinked, and looked at him.
"From uni, I mean. They gave me one" he said, reaching over beside the sofa. "You know, because of my dyslexia."
"They gave you a laptop?"
"Disability thing, isn't it?" he said. Nigel tugged his backpack into his lap, unzipping it and extracting his thin laptop computer. "To give me a bit of an advantage or whatever." He leaned closer, "They basically give them to any student who asks for them."
Harper couldn't help but grin. "That'll be your nine grand a year at work, then" she said.
He smiled. "Well look, I don't need this one, I've still got my desktop. Really only been using this one for games, but you can have it."
Harper shook her head. "Thanks" she said, "but I'd never use it."
"Give it a try" he said, holding it out to her. "If you don't like it, I'll just pick it up next time I'm over."
Harper took it. "What would I use it for?" she asked.
"Streaming films?" he suggested. "You love your films, you can watch as many as you want on it. Here, I'll show you how."
He switched on the laptop. Harper watched as a small logo appeared on the screen, hung there for several moments, and then faded into the computers desktop layout with a light bristling of chimes. "So you can watch films on this without pirating them?" she asked.
Nigel smiled. "It's fairly new" he said, "but I think you'll like it. You just click on that icon - yes, that one there - and you can select anything you want to watch."
She glanced at him. He was smiling. For a moment, she felt glad. Harper didn't want to push him away, especially not when he was so eager to help her. "I'm not a shut-in, you know" she said, in what she hoped was a playful tone.
He smirked to her, "I know."
"And I'm not lonely" she added.
"Of course not."
She looked at the screen. "What's that icon there?" she asked, pointing.
Nigel leaned closer. "Oh, that? It's just a game. I can take it off, if you want."
Harper shrugged. "What kind of game? You know I like my board games. Did I tell you that I finally beat Judith at Trivial Pursuit?"
"Isn't she a history professor?" asked Nigel.
Nodding, Harper added "But she knows bugger all about arts and entertainment."
Nigel grinned. "Well, that one's not really a board game. It's not technically even released yet, it's just a beta. It's an MMORPG."
Harper canted her head slightly. She leaned closer to the screen. "What's that, love?"
She could swear that Nigel looked a little embarrassed. "It's just a video game" he said, "but you play it with people all around the world."
"What?" said Harper, "real people?"
Nigel nodded. "They go around doing quests, killing monsters and stuff."
She nodded, "Oh. Like your model war game?"
He nodded, "Yeah, something like that" he said, in the same tone that usually meant that it was nothing at all like that.
She looked at the laptop. "Show me?" she said.
Nigel looked at her. "Are you sure?"
Nodding, Harper insisted, "Show me."
A little unsurely, Nigel clicked on the icon and the game powered up. A loading screen crept into being, brushing smoothly past as the game generated, and the open digital landscapes flared into being.
Harper felt her eyes widen. "So, who are you in this game?"
Her son shrugged, "I have a pretty standard soldier character, but he's a bit weak. I've not been playing it much, with studies and all. You can be pretty much anyone you want on it."
Harper pointed, "That one!" she said, keenly. "Can I be that one, with the rabbit ears?"
Nigel looked at her. "I don't think that they're a serious race. I think they just put them into the game as a joke."
Harper shook her head, "No, I like that one. Can I be one of them?"
Nigel shrugged, and clicked a few times. "Alright, if you're sure. How about a name for your character?"
Harper thought. She thought about the character on the screen. The strange rabbit creature, so short and nimble. She could imagine it running through vast green fields, and suddenly she felt very, very confined. A lump rose in her throat as her fingers ran against the arm rests of her wheelchair. She looked at the screen. "You can play with other people on this game?" she asked. "Real ones?"
Nigel answered, but Harper wasn't really listening. She was thinking about all the people that she had met since the accident. Her friends who offered condolences, looming over her. Strangers on the bus, quickly stepping aside to make way as she rolled along the aisle. Her chair, she thought, was the first thing that people noticed about her. Nobody thought about her as a mother, not even as a woman, not until they had first seen her as someone in a wheelchair.
She looked at the screen, and wondered how people would think of her inside a game like that. I can be anyone, she thought. I don't have to be someone whose entire identity is determined the moment someone sees my wheelchair. I can be anyone.
She looked down at the table. Her cup of tea sat by her doctors letter, advising her of her next x-ray appointment. Harper smiled. I can be anyone, she thought, but I'll be dammed if I'm going to hide from who I am.
Harper smiled to her son. "A name? How about..."
She looked down at the appointment note again.
"How about Exra?"