Author's Note: Two years ago a very good freind lost her arm in a single car accident. Even after two years, I watch her struggle with depression and a shattered self image. It's often time frustrating to watch, but more often humbling to see someone coping with a loss I don't know that I could bear. this story is for her and for all of those who daily have to face that battle.
Chris sat at her vanity, her eyes blank as sweat poured off her shaking body. She was back there again. On I-45, headed north and back to her home. It all happened in slow motion, first the oncoming car swerving erratically. She remembered breaking, moving to the slow lane, and preparing to go onto the shoulder if necessary. She never got the chance, at over one hundred miles per hour the red corvette hit the median and jumped the rail. Frozen moments in time. She could feel her heart leap into her throat, hear the sickening sound of glass shattering and metal crunching, feel again the solid thump as the airbag deployed.
And then she was staring at her face in the vanity. The waking nightmare gone as quickly as it had come. She looked down immediately, hoping against hope it was just a nightmare, but the smooth clean stump where her left leg had once been was there, telling her it was all real. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed until her whole body shuddered with each breath.
Chris walked carefully out the front of the building and hailed a cab. It had taken her two years of rehab to learn to walk on the prosthesis and even now, it hurt her with each step. The myoelectric was less painful, but more work and it was so expensive she only wore it occasionally, using the more simple one for everyday moving around the house or going without. Once she had prided herself on wearing daring, but elegant heels to work every day. Now she could barely maintain her balance in tennis shoes.
The cabbie was Indian, his English so broken she could barely understand it. He shot away from the curb and into traffic, causing the tall woman's heart to leap into her throat. She still feared cars, and supposed she always would. The memory was just to strong and stark to fight down when she was in a moving vehicle.
She was thankful when the cab pulled to the curb and tipped him handsomely, just to avoid any confrontation. She knew she would need all her resources and couldn't afford to waste them here. Not today. Her first day back at work.
The place hadn't changed at all, of course that was expected. H.P. Levin & Sons never changed. The company had become successful by a commitment to tradition. People seemed to appreciate the unchanging façade with their accounting firm. Something solid and sure that put them at ease, and the current directors keenly appreciated the competitive edge it gave them.
She was very early, hoping to avoid making a scene. The first person she met was Sam, the aged janitor. Like the company, he never changed. He had been gray and balding, with weathered black skin and wrinkles when she started here, fifteen years ago He looked exactly like he did the first morning she had arrived, fresh from school, the company's first full time female accountant.
"Miss Chris?" he said, taking his bedraggled cap off.
"Hello Sam," she managed.
"It is you!" the old man said, smiling so wide and genuine she couldn't help but smile back.
Before she could do anything he wrapped her up in his arms and hugged her tightly. Three years ago, she would have found such familiarity embarrassing. Now, she just hugged him back.
"We were all so worried about you. Welcome back, ma'am, can I get you some coffee? There's fresh in the break room, just brewed it myself."
"That would be lovely, Sam, thank you so much."
"It's purely my pleasure," he said, ambling off at the slow mosey she knew was hurrying for him.
Chris continued on to her office. It too hadn't changed. Her secretary had obviously dusted and cleaned it in her absence. A few files lay on her desk, the accounts she had done at home while rehabbing. She had been surprised and rather flattered, when none of her clients had asked for a new accountant. She knew loosing her leg didn't change her mind, but still, she always feared people would see her differently.
Sitting was a major undertaking and she had just managed to get the weight off her stump and place the prosthesis under the desk when Sam came in.
"Here ya go, black and strong. I brought some sugar and sweetener, wasn't sure what you take."
"Black is fine Sam. How've you been?"
"I been fair to middlein'. You know how it is around here. The company time forgot," he said with a big smile.
"Mean as a rattler."
She laughed then. Sam's wife Grace was perhaps the sweetest, most gentle woman she had ever met. There wasn't a mean bone in her frail body and he knew it, but he always made out like he was married to Hecate herself.
"Well, she had some trouble with her liver. Was in the hospital a while. I didn't know how I was gonna pay for it, but Miss Sarah, when she heard she took care of it all. Had Gracie transferred from the General over to Columbia Pres and got her the finest doctors. She's fine now, but she can't get around as much as she used too."
"And little Sam?"
"Ain't little no more, that boy is a big ole chunk of man. He's over there somewhere. Can't tell us where, but he's due to come home in a month or two."
"Send him my love," Chris said, meaning it.
"I'll do that ma'am and it it'll tickle him pink. He always had a thing for you."
"Well, I'm single," she replied, enjoying the banter.
She knew full well that little Sam was married to a girl from Virginia Beach, near where he was stationed.
"I gotta get going, ma'am, the bosses'll be in soon and they get plum bent outta shape if the wastepaper baskets ain't empty to start the morning. You take care of yo'self and don't over do it."
Sam turned and nearly collided with a tall, raven haired beauty in a smart black business dress.
"Mon'in, Miss Sarah," he said, doffing his cap again.
"Good Morning, Sam," she replied.
"No, thank you, I got some Starbucks this morning."
"Waste of good water, if ya ask me," he said, as he shuffled off to empty the wastepaper baskets.
"Hello, Chris," she said after Sam had departed.
"Hello, Miss Levin."
"Miss Levin? Why so formal?"
"Oh, I don't know, Sarah. I'm just so nervous," Chris admitted.
The tall girl came over and sat on the edge of her desk and smiled encouragingly. The pose was friendly, but also slightly provocative.
"Well, don't be. Everyone has missed you, especially me," she said seriously.
Chris smiled up at her. Another secret to the company's success was the way the Levin family treated every employee like family.
"How's Clint?" Sarah asked.
"I wouldn't know. He canceled the engagement," she replied, feeling again the deep sense of loss.
She didn't notice the predatory expression that passed over the tall girl's face. Her mind was already falling off into that black place where time and light had no meaning. She fought it with all her strength, knowing that if she ever gave in to it again she wouldn't be coming back.
"I know it isn't my business, but may I ask why?"
"My leg," she whispered, feeling the tears welling in her eyes.
Before they could fall, Sarah leaned over and hugged her fiercely.
"I'm so sorry, hun," she said in a soothing voice.
"I am too," she said in a nearly inaudible whisper.
Sarah's hug was warm and comforting. Chris closed her eyes and was surprised to note the heady musk of the younger woman's perfume. It was understated, but still a little surprising from the boss's daughter.
"I've got to get to my office. Daddy will be in soon and he will have a conniption fit if I don't have the third quarter figures," Sarah said after sitting back up.
"You can't lie to me, you have him wrapped around your finger."
"I know, isn't it grand?" Sarah replied while laughing.
She stood and started for the door, but paused.
"Chris, I'd really like to talk some more, would you like to have lunch with me?"
"I wasn't planning on leaving for lunch," she said hesitantly.
"Nonsense. You aren't going to hide in your office. I won't let you. I'll come get you when the eleven o'clock conference breaks."
Chris smiled and shook her head. There was no use arguing with Sarah, the girl always got her way. And not just because she was the old man's daughter. She was a forceful and vivacious girl, armed with charm, grace, beauty and confidence. She did occasionally abuse her relationship with her father, but she could do so only because she was every bit his equal.
Her brother Charles, the only son, had been killed in a motorcycle accident when Sarah was a freshman at Weslyn College. Sarah had transferred to Fordham's business college and graduated with honors. Until then, she had been expected to become a society lady, but the loss of her older brother had changed her. She developed the drive and ambition to succeed that her father valued so highly. As the heir to the family business, she had done everything to learn about it and while Deek was still officially, President and CEO, Sarah actually ran almost all the day to day affairs.
Chris could still remember the day Sarah had first joined the company. Her father had placed her in Chris's department and she had expected the worst. In some ways, she had got it. Sarah was brash and bubbly, full of fun and life. She refused to let the staid atmosphere of an accounting office hinder her desire to have fun. She showed up in wild dresses, or with pink hair, once even with a spiked Mohawk. She hit on the secretaries and brought her girlfriends in for lunch. She organized parties and luncheons, even going so far as to give her father a surprise party on his sixtieth birthday, complete with a stripper coming out of the cake.
Her father had disapproved, until he began to notice that the people who worked with her were two or three times more productive than other departments. Deek Levin was a conservative traditionalist, but he was above all else, a man of business. He realized his daughter had hit upon something and created a position for her as HR director.
The added responsibility seemed to have a calming effect on the young woman and she quietly dropped the wild hair styles and clothing. One thing she didn't drop was her commitment to having fun and taking care of the employees. In six months she had instituted more changes than had occurred in the last eighty years. Maternity leave, day care, a 401-K plan, flex time, paid vacations, personal leave and casual Fridays were all her doing. The board had balked, but when productivity soared, they realized they had a good thing and ceased complaining.
She was now executive VP, but retained her title of HR director. She took a personal interest in everyone and they responded to her, giving their all. Loyalty to the company had become so fierce that it was rare they lost someone to a better paying position elsewhere.
Julie Peterson, her secretary, pulled her from her mini-reverie.
"Good Morning Chris," the trim woman said as she entered and placed several congratulatory notes from people around the company on the desk.
"Good Morning," Chris replied, trying her best to smile and mean it.
When Bob Wilkes knocked on the door and poked his head in to say hi before Julie could respond, Chris knew she was in for a long day. By noon, almost everyone, from the maintenance staff to the guys in the lunchroom, to the big bosses had dropped in to say hello. Her self consciousness had slowly left her and she was actually feeling like her old self when Sarah stuck her head in.
"Grab your bag and let's blow this joint," she said with a smile.
Chris pushed her chair back and felt all her self consciousness return. She struggled to stand, fearing the whole time Sarah would say something or try to help, but the girl merely waited for her.
Lazuli's was an upscale restaurant that catered to the Wall Street crowd. Chris had been to some important business lunches in her time, but she had never rated Lazuli's. The interior was elegant, the wait staff wore formal attire and there were no prices on the Menu.
"Have you decided" Sarah asked.
"I haven't a clue," Chris said, trying to read the Italian.
"Allow me, then," Sarah responded.
She signaled for the waiter and fired off a rapid fire staccato of words in Italian. Chris caught the words Chateau, Piscotti, Vermichelli and Mozzarella, but the rest was indecipherable. The waiter departed and returned with a bottle of wine, which he held with a white cloth. He opened the bottle and Sarah delicately sniffed at the cork and nodded. He poured a small bit into each of their wine glasses and departed, leaving the bottle in a silver chalice full of ice.
"Hope you like a good red," Sarah said between sips.
"I'm not much of a drinker, and I know nothing about wines," Chris admitted.
"Trust me, just sip it, it's the good stuff, pays to have an expense account," she replied with a mischievous grin and wink.
The wine was good, heady beyond anything she had ever tried. Soon they were on their third glass and she felt all strange, warm, tingly, but giddy and a little more relaxed.
"So, how are you holding up on your first day back?" Sarah asked.
"It's been good. Everyone has been so sweet. I…I was really nervous…"
"Why? We're the same friends you had before."
"I'm not the same, I mean...look at me," she said despondently.
"I am. I have been for a long time, since I first met you, actually," Sarah said, lowering her voice and octave or two.
Chris blushed, despite herself. Sarah was the most openly gay woman she knew, and there had been a few times when she wondered if the young woman had been hitting on her. She had always managed to convince herself she was imagining things, that there was no way a beautiful young woman like Sarah could see anything in her. It had stopped, if it hadn't been her imagination, about the time she and Clint began seeing each other.
There might be such a thing as a match made in heaven, but she and Clint Barrows had enjoyed a match made in the accounting office. There had never been any passion, it was simply a relationship of convenience. It hadn't been the kind of fairytale love affair she had dreamed of, but working eighty hour weeks had made meeting anyone hard and her intelligence seemed to intimidate men.
She gave the up and coming young man someone to take to parties and he gave her someone to come home too. They hadn't gotten engaged until her promotion had brought their incomes to about par. Sex had been at best bland and at worst, a chore. Not only for her, but for him as well. His breaking off the engagement had come as no shock, in fact she had expected it. The loss hadn't been the kind of deeply personal one a jilted lover might feel, but more a loss of security. Still, it had left a void in her life and she had to admit, she had grown accustomed to having someone in her life and she had suffered through depression and loneliness.
"Chris? Chris? Hey you!"
"What? Oh, I'm sorry!"
"It's all right, I'm just not used to not being the center of attention," she joked.
"I was thinking of Clint, I'm sorry."
"No, not really him. I just miss having someone. It's very lonely sometimes and well, I don't expect I'll meet anyone else."
"Why do you say that?"
"That's no answer."
"All right then, if you need to hear it, because I'm maimed. Who would want me? Forty two and disfigured for life. I can't do anything, I can barely get around," she said, the pain, anger and fear all coming out in a nasty tone she instantly regretted.
If Sarah noticed or took offense, she didn't show any sign of it. She sipped her wine contemplatively before replying.
"If you think you are going to be allowed to wallow in self pity, you are gravely mistaken," she said at last, her voice conveying such deep emotion it stunned Chris.
"How many of my girlfriends have you met Chris?" she asked, apparently switching gears.
"I...I don't know, maybe five, six?"
"Have I ever brought an ugly woman anywhere with me?"
"No. Of course not, your girlfriends have always been stunning."
"Damned right. I can afford to be choosey, I'm worth it and won't ever sell myself short. Wouldn't you agree?"
The conversation was surreal. Chriswondered if perhaps she had partaken too liberally of the wine.
"Yes, you have everything in the world going for you," Chris replied.
"I only date the best and I only fuck the best of the best. So listen and listen good. If you weren't so damned straight laced, I'd have you in my bed, this very afternoon. Do you understand?"
"Sarah, I'm flattered, but…"
"No buts," she interrupted, "Unless you feel like trying me."
The waiter appeared with plates of food and Sarah's serious mood seemed to evaporate. Chris was happy to change the subject and soon they were chatting about various people in the office and the many chapters of the continuing soap opera that was their lives.
Chris hobbled into her apartment and literally collapsed on the sofa. Two weeks back at work had lifted her spirits and helped dispel the gloom that she had been living under. Everyone treated her like she was the same, no one ever mentioned the accident or her leg or offered to help her unless she obviously needed it.
She hadn't seen much of Sarah. After their lunch, the young woman had become slightly distant. Chris was sure it was because of her stated attraction and she pondered what she should say to put Sarah at ease as she removed the prosthesis and sleeve. She immediately grabbed the thick red sock she wore over it and pulled it on, not even looking down.
Her stump had some nerve damage and besides the pain she often felt, it always seemed to be cold. Her mother had crocheted the sock for her and she wore it religiously. She didn't think she would ever get comfortable without something over it.
She went to make coffee, her mind returning to her lovely boss and the problem of how to break the barrier that seemed to be forming between them. She couldn't seem to find the words to let he beautiful girl know how flattered she had been. Not without encouraging her and Chris didn't want to do that. Well, maybe she didn't. She had to admit, Sarah was stunning and a wonderful companion. She had been having some strange dreams of coming home to her and vice versa. Some of them had been sweet and romantic, but some had been downright raunchy.
She found it easier to just hop around the kitchen. She had laid out the furniture so there was always a convenient hand hold and everything was arranged for ease of access. The counters had been lowered and wherever she needed her brother, Teddy had installed hand rails. She had just settled back in on the faux leather sofa when the door buzzer rang.
"Hello?" she responded as she pressed the intercom.
Chris was used to this, although she almost never got visitors, people always rang her by mistake, or her neighbors would ring if they locked themselves out.
"Yes. I...I hope you don't mind, but I was in the neighborhood…"
"Not at all, please come on up," she replied, hitting the blue button to open the grill.
She was humming happily to herself when it suddenly dawned on her that this was very strange. She almost jumped out of her skin when she heard a knock on the door. She started to stand before she remembered she didn't have her prosthesis on. Shrugging, she hoped over to the door and opened it.