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Chapter 1: The Marathon

Early morning, southern California in early autumn, a lovely crisp Saturday, perfect running temperature.

Her first marathon, now just ten minutes to the starting gun. Carrie had wheeled up and down the sidelines to warm up, felt reasonably composed mentally, and ready physically. She glanced down at her registration number: she’d registered at 00:01 hours on day one, hoping to get a single-digit bib. Almost. Thirteen wasn’t bad, she had always as a kid felt it to be lucky. Irrational. There were 211 wheels registered, plus nearly ten thousand runners. She’d been working towards this for three years. No, more — she’d been a runner before The Accident — in her mind it was always capitalized.

“Hey, Stumps! Hola! You look ready!” — only two people called her that, nobody else had either the balls or permission.

She spun about, waved and grinned at the pair of handsome early-thirties men. Identical twins, her “running” buddies even though she was now a wheel. She’d met them over two years ago in the first race she’d done in a chair. Since then they had routinely encountered one another at races, but never elsewhere — they didn’t actually train together — more ‘racing acquaintances’ than running buddies.

Abe and Bob — Abe being (of course) forty minutes the elder. Nicknamed (also of course) Alpha and Beta. Tall blonds, very Scandinavian, she could tell them apart only because Alpha had a moustache and Beta a significant motorcycling scar on one forearm. After that very first race as a wheel, the twins had declared themselves her official fan club (“Nobody else need apply, membership is closed!”) — embarrassing but nice. Even after many races over many, many months, she knew little about them beyond names — knew that they were both highly-placed technical people in surviving dot-coms: they lived in the two halves of a duplex in a very good part of town; they were intensely hetero bachelors, but gentlemanly about indulging their appreciation of the swarms of sexy near-naked female bodies at races. Gentlemanly, but insistent, too. She rather liked that.

They trotted up, leaned down team-wise to hug her. They were good-looking men – tall, lean, heavier-muscled than most good runners, and still considerably faster than she, although she planned to fix THAT eventually.

The Twins’ goal for today was to do way, WAY under three hours — possibly to break two thirty if it stayed cool. Her goal for today was reasoned, carefully rational, the specific goal of her training regime — to do the 26.2 miles without stopping, and hold an 8 minute pace, thereby finishing in just under three hours thirty minutes. A whole two seconds under, but UNDER.

Carrie’s long-term goal was more extreme. Wheels in top shape could beat almost any runner — in fact, good wheels both male and female routinely beat the men’s world record for the marathon. She wasn’t that good — “Not YET!”

As always the wheels would get a five minute head start — five minutes being an easy mile for a wheel, that much lead-time would spread the chairs out enough so they wouldn’t interfere with the professional speed-demon runners at the head of the foot-pack, the folks who would run the entire distance at a sub-five-minute pace. But undoubtedly several wheels would beat the foot-winner’s time by many minutes. There was some sort of cosmic justice in that, wasn’t there?

Most wheels in this raced were male, but there were a dozen or more women, almost all acquaintances from previous races – but none had risen to the level of ‘friend’ — in fact, none approached A & B in that regard. Carrie wheeled into place at the back of the 211:– no point in being in anyone’s way, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to repeat the dumb-dumb performance of her first wheel race.

It was just a 10k loop, 6.2 miles, a purely local thing, maybe a thousand entrants. But she’d been in a chair less than four months, and done all her training up to then on a glass-smooth highschool track. On the real course, beat-up public roads, she’d found herself in an unexpected, exhausting fight with the potholed, universally uneven, unpredictable, high-crowned road surface. Not to mention the goddamned hills, sneaky sons-of-bitches, imperceptible in a powered vehicle! Plus, as a racing-rookie, she’d started out way too fast.

Far, far worse than the race itself had been the ten minutes just before the start. Beset by an excess of nerves and unpreparedness and over-hydration, she found herself desperate to pee. Genuinely desperate. Amongst the two dozen or so porta-potties there was ONE handicapped edifice, and its line was ten deep.

Alpha and Beta had arrived to do their own bladder thing, noticed her obvious — to them — distress. Alpha had been totally blunt, walked up to her, introduced himself and Beta, then said “You look like a five-year-old boy with his legs crossed. Which means we’ve been there, done that, and understand completely. You’ll never get through that handicap line before the bostancı escort bayan gun. If you don’t mind some help from two strangers, me and my bro here can pick you up and carry you into one of the regular potties. Bang on the door when you’re done, we’ll bring you back out. Instant relief, plus you get to the starting line on time. AND, as an extra added side-benefit, you get to meet US. And we you.”

Then Beta said with a silly, boyish grin “We assume that you can handle all the clothing and such while you’re in there — but of course if you need help with that, we might be available!”

She nodded, said “Thanks a million — you’re on!”

No nonsense: she undid the harness, they picked her up between them by both arms as if she were a feather, hurried her into the nearest empty.

She made it to the starting line with a minute to spare.

Most of a mile out, fifteen percent of the race, she was already getting tired when the twins passed her, shouting encouragement, and disappeared. She was almost done-in by mile four, could hardly move her arms, was way, way back amidst the slow runners. All the other wheels were long-ago out of sight ahead of her. Discouraged, she was seriously contemplating simply giving up.

Then, running upstream right towards her came The Twins, returning from the finish line, carrying two peeled oranges, a bottle of reconstituted sweat (aka Gatorade), a thumb-sized chunk of fudge, and a cup of ice. They had blown through the finish line, discussed her likely situation, and decided an emergency aid mission was in order. As she wheeled, they fed her: on the next long downhill, she coasted briefly whilst demolishing the oranges and fudge — and with one Twin on each side she’d made it to the finish entirely under her own steam and by no means dead last.

It was the start of a subtle, and much appreciated, ongoing relationship, entirely centered around races.

Chapter 2: The Accident

In an alternate universe, long, long ago and far away, she had come awake abruptly, knowing she’d not actually been asleep but in some other state. She swam upwards through a fog of genuinely unpleasant but not defined sensations. Her whole body and being seemed one huge, throbbing ache. She tried opening her eyes — slammed them shut instantly, it was unearthly bright out there.

Carrie was a rare breed, mentally — superb at math and logic, one of a very small group of computer programmers who actually could think in binary, program in binary — ones and zeros, the ultimate foundation of all modern digital computing. “Web designers and physicists,” she thought — “…are idiots, with no idea how their machinery actually did its thing at their commands.”

She had an ability to turn on the purely rational side of her brain rather like flipping a light switch, overriding the emotional half completely until further notice. It was an ability for the use of which her employer paid her well beyond handsomely — and which confused and irritated her friends when she occasionally used it in social situations. She flipped that switch now — it seemed likely to be the best idea. Then she waited for the mental fog to clear.

She listened attentively while waiting — generally quiet, but some background noises. Air conditioner humming? Clicks, like wheeled carts on tile, soft, then louder, then fading. Funny smells. She squinted tightly, allowing in a tiny bit of light, letting her eyes adjust. Where was she? Last thing she could remember was finishing the half-marathon, getting into her car with her new boyfriend George. Nothing beyond that, nothing more recent.

This place FELT and SMELT and SOUNDED like a hospital. Lack of most-recent memory plus her new surroundings — to her, those observations combined to suggest a car accident. Interesting, but just a theory. She got one eye slightly open, then the other. She was on her back, looking straight up at a white ceiling with one recessed four-tube fluorescent squarely in her field of view. No wonder it hurt to use her eyes! “Dumbshit design, or dumber-shit bed placement!” she thought.

She got the eyes open fully, looked left — that direction, her visual field was dominated by an IV rack holding a single plastic bag, labeled “Normal Saline”. A good sign. At least it wasn’t blood or plasma or something even more exotic.

Time to study the situation. Her brain seemed to be functioning okay. Good omens first — she could see and hear and smell and read and think. She assumed she could probably taste — all major senses accounted for. Good. She looked right: ten feet away a nurse sat in a comfortable chair, engrossed in a book. Intensive care of some sort — obviously she, Carrie, the patient, was not to be left alone. Of course, with the nurse’s nose in her book, Carrie might as well have been alone. Didn’t anyone train these people?

The arrangements suggested serious injury — probably life-threatening, and not yet fully under control, perhaps? Carrie contemplated ümraniye escort attracting Nurse’s attention, decided against it. Not yet. She needed more data. She closed her eyes, let them dark-acclimate for a few seconds, then opened them one at a time, watching the light field and imagery change as each adapted — things seemed symmetrical, so probably no concussion.

Now that she was functioning mentally, her whole-body ache was dichotomized, very different above and below the waist. Was she paralyzed? Had she broken her back, cut her spinal cord? Coldly, rationally she suppressed emotion and incipient panic. NO, not so, no such disaster… she wiggled her head — no head or neck restraint, hence no neck damage. No respirator, so she wasn’t a quad.

Besides, she could feel the mattress and sheet against her body. All the way down to where the sensation, the aching, changed nature. Not at her waist: lower, the change was lower, near the bottom of her pelvis, maybe lower still. She tried to wiggle, beginning at the shoulders, working down: all seemed in order, except that there were two wide, soft cloth straps holding her in the bed, not completely immobilizing her, but very nearly so. One covered her chest and biceps, the other went across her pelvis just at the top of her hips.

The straps, she thought, mean I’m capable of doing myself some damage, I can move, say, roll out of bed, and they don’t want that. Movement capability meant no paralysis — double check on that horror, spinal cord intact.

She re-studied the sensation-miasma, the huge two-phased aching, and couldn’t get a handle on it, neither a good description nor an explanation. And Oh-by-the-way, where the hell was George? If they’d had a car accident, it should be HIM, not nursey-poo, keeping vigil in her room. Perhaps he was injured, too? She took a long, slow breath — that didn’t hurt, said part of her brain, hence no chest injuries severe enough to break ribs.

Puzzlement! Time had come to let Nurse Cratchitt know that the actual owner of the patient in her care had now returned and was more or less in command.

She ahemed.

Nurse jumped up gratifyingly, dropping her book on the floor. “Carrie! My goodness, we didn’t expect you to come out so quickly! It’s only been fifteen minutes…”

Carrie eyed her, then said, slowly and carefully, “‘Come out’ means general anesthesia, which means surgery. But what the hell for? I’ve been lying here studying myself and can’t figure out what happened. I suspect a car accident, but I didn’t break my neck or back, and I don’t even have a concussion. You’re not feeding me blood, so neither the injury nor the surgery was all that radical. I’m strapped down, so you don’t want me moving, which means I CAN move and could hurt myself. I would like to know, and right NOW please, what happened, what my injuries are, and all that sort of interesting stuff — including prognosis. I’m tired — your turn to talk now! And turn out that goddamned ceiling light!”

Nurse was completely nonplussed — patients were not supposed to snap out of general having done a thorough self-analysis, then instantly launch into a diatribe and demand details of their problems.

“Um… I’m not supposed to discuss things with you until you’ve seen the doctor. I think I can catch your surgeon, he can’t possibly have cleaned up yet.” Carrie looked sourly at Nurse, who picked up the phone, said “Go find Dr Jameson! Carrie, today’s patient, is awake, coherent and demanding information. He needs to come to her room at once and talk to her. STAT, please!”

Two minute later Dr Jameson, still in scrubs, leaned into Carrie’s room, motioned the nurse to join him in the hall. Seconds later, he re-entered, stared at Carrie for a second: she stared back. Not quite believing what Nurse had told him, he silently stepped up to her bed, took out the required little flashlight, then paused and said “Excuse me… do you know your name?”

She glared at him, snapped “Yes, I certainly do! Do you know YOURS? And don’t shine that thing in my eyes, I already checked and don’t have a concussion!”

He was taken aback, but recovered quickly, something Carrie appreciated. She knew full well how disconcerting her own behavior could be — knew it and used it.

“Well…” he said, “…you do seem to be wide awake and functioning mentally. What’s twelve times twelve?”

“In base what?” she replied, then said “Base two it’s one zero zero one zero zero zero zero.” He grinned broadly, and the fact that he understood improved things greatly — not a total dodo. She let herself mellow a bit. “What the hell happened to me, and what did you operate on me for?”

He pondered, then shrugged. “Nurse told me about your internal analysis — you’re quite the logician, aren’t you?”

She nodded: “Yes… It’s how I think, it’s how I try to live, and it’s my occupation too. So quit shilly-shallying and doing the mulberry bush thing and tell me what’s going on here. After all, it’s MY BODY, not yours.”

“This escort kartal is quite anomalous… you’re twenty minutes out of surgery, and we’re having a philosophical discussion about free-will and self-ownership? That’s mighty odd. Are you sure you’re up to knowing everything? Even if it’s bad?”

She nodded: “Look here, Doctor… I already KNOW it’s BAD – else you would have simply told me by now, and then I could say something profound like “Oh SHIT! — but I suppose I’ll live…” and then we’d get on with it. If I were going to go all hysterical on you I’d have done it immediately. Now if you want to keep THIS particular patient calm, prevent her agitation, and hew to the Hippocratic tradition, you damn well better start talking. No bullshit, please. Words of one syllable would be good, my head does ache but it’s from that damned ceiling light, not whatever happened to me. Something is seriously wrong with me — WHAT!?”

“Car accident” he said, arms folded, studying her non-reaction. “Four hours ago. You’re alive because there was an ambulance about four cars behind you, with a good EMT. He stabilized you, got you out, called for a chopper, which brought you here — we have an awfully good trauma unit. A very odd accident, yours was. Fluke. You were headed into an underpass beneath the interstate, the right rear double wheel of a semi doing about seventy up on the highway came off, bounced over the guard rail and landed on your car. A lot of mass, traveling pretty fast.”

He was still studying her closely.

She nodded, said “Jeez! — and?”

He took a deep breath. “It landed pretty much in your lap. The pictures are spectacular. About a thousand pounds or so. Lots of energy — you were doing maybe fifty, it was moving even faster and at right angles to your path. Squashed things pretty badly. Not so much a guillotine as a rock-crusher. Did a huge amount of damage to both your legs. You got a face-full of glass shards, too, but that’s all trivia — your glasses protected your eyes quite nicely.”

He shrugged again. “You were actually lucky — once you get past the bad luck of the whole damned thing… it could have gotten your pelvis, in which case you’d be dead most likely, or dying very slowly but inevitably — crushed pelvis equals dead soon, even today. But you’re not dying, not at all. No spinal or brain damage. Missed your pelvis, abdomen, chest, head, hands. Just got the legs.”

“Just legs” was ominous. She kept a firm mental thumb on her “Logical-Self-ON” switch, stared at him, chills and goosebumps running over her chest and arms. It took a few seconds, during which she once again inventoried her sensations. Then she consciously tried to move her legs.

Something was VERY wrong — and she was suddenly quite sure what.

She watched his face — he had noticed the movement, stayed impassive, stared back at her. Her next question came out of the wild blue, caught both him and her off guard. “Were you a military surgeon? You’re about the right age.”

He raised one eyebrow in surprise: “Yes, I was.”

She nodded: “Combat?”

He nodded back at her.

She took a deep breath, let it out: it felt as if she were staring into an unlit, bottomless abyss as she asked softly “How many times have you had to tell a soldier that he — or maybe SHE? — had lost a leg? Or even two of them?”

Jameson studied her yet again. “Far more times than I liked or wanted.” He stopped: ball in her court.

“Doctor Jameson, are we having fun yet?”

He shook his head emphatically — most definitely not! “I was afraid of that. Both legs?”

He nodded. She stared back at him, took another long breath, nodded grimly. “How much do I have left? And what about George, my boyfriend who was in the car with me?”

“That’s two different topics…” said Jameson. He mulled things over, decided that there was no doubt Carrie could handle it, and that there was no other way, or time, to deliver the news. Besides, it was clear that she already intuited the answer: she was visibly steeling herself. How many times had he been through exactly this scenario, modified to “roadside bomb plus soldiers”?

“George wasn’t as lucky as you. He’s dead. At the scene. Head injuries. As to your legs, you’ve still got about two inches on the left, four or slightly more on the right. Things were so badly smashed that there never was any hope of repair. Basically, to be blunt, the tire made hamburger of both thighs. We can’t yet heal hamburger. Sorry. But for what it’s worth you have no other injuries, which is flatly miraculous, and you’re in such good shape that the surgery went far, far better than anyone could have predicted. One pint of blood, mostly precautionary — amazing, a trivial amount.”

He smiled lopsidedly: “I did save your racing bib. It’s a bit messy, though.”

“Shit! Damn!” she said, and finally took her thumb off the switch briefly, let the tears roll.

Jameson reached out and took her hand, held it firmly, silently, waited for her to finish. When she was down to sniffles, he said “Glad to see you can cry- you’ve got to let the emotions IN and then OUT, or else they’ll destroy you. Believe me, I know. The ones who can’t cry for themselves usually don’t ever get back to living a decent life, never accept and move on.”

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