This is the second chapter. If you're just starting out, you might prefer Chapter 1.
I taste blood.
I’ve never fallen before, at least not on my own. My parents occasionally dropped me growing up, but I think those were accidents, the inevitable result of me getting heavier and their backs getting weaker. But it’s hard to fall when you’re strapped into a chair, and chairs don’t tip over easily.
I take a deep breath and try to figure out what happened. The PokerLive alarm went off. I can still hear it, but it’s far enough away that it’s not overwhelming me anymore. The way my brain’s wired, my senses can overload my brain. I get confused and either thrash around or just go limp.
So I’m not exactly sure what happened, but my chair seems to have picked that exact moment to lose its mind. And it hasn’t recovered yet; I hear the motors whirring, so my wheels are still going round and round like the legs of an overturned turtle.
I can’t smell the asphalt that’s up against my face, but the blood tastes dark and alien in my mouth. They say smell and taste are linked; somehow my brain’s the exception. At least I’m conscious. The padding on my chair and the panel on my lap absorbed most of the impact. I'm pitched forward, supported by my panel and foot plates I pull my head backwards and manage to move it away from the asphalt.
One woman’s voice pierces through the scream of the alarm and the general murmuring of the crowd.
“Oh my God! Is he dead?”
I hope she’s talking about me. Then the answer is no.
Tony's in my face. “Chuck! Are you OK?”
“Get me … up!”
“What do I do? Your wheels are still turning.”
“Unhook … battery. Connector ... under the...seat. Left...side.”
Maybe Tony didn’t hear me, or maybe he didn’t want to sort through the cables. The chair shifts around as he yanks at every cable he can reach. “Got it,” he reports. “And the fire department’s here.”
A red truck rumbles to a stop a few feet from me, and an EMT appears in my face. He’s wearing a dark blue cap and a take-charge expression. “What happened?” he asks Tony.
“I … fell.”
“We don't want to move him if his neck's hurt. Is he mentally competent?”
“Are ... you?” That question always pisses me off.
Tony is more constructive. “He’s a friend of mine,” he says, “and he just took eight hundred bucks--”
“Nine … hundred and ... twenty.”
“--at Hold ‘Em off that guy over there in the Hawaiian shirt. He’s a hell of a lot smarter than me, so if I’m mentally competent, I guess he is too. Nothing wrong with his ears, either.”
The EMT’s face appears again, this time with a tinge of red and a less commanding expression. “Can you move your toes?”
“A little. They... are under... the chair... Neck fine ... Get me ... up!”
“OK.” He stands up again and calls the firemen over.
“Roll chair … onto its side ... easier.”
The black and yellow uniforms swarm around me, ignoring my suggestion, heaving me in the chair, grunting, cursing, and plopping me back on the pavement. I get my first look at the crowd that’s gathered. From their expressions, I must look even worse than I feel.
“Thanks,” I tell the firemen.
An ambulance and police cruiser pull up. The fire department’s EMT talks with two paramedics from the ambulance. I catch a bit of the conversation, including the part about me appearing to be mentally competent.
How long until Donna gets here? I’m guessing half an hour. Shit. A little while ago I was the man who was going to take her out for steak and home to bed. Now I’m sitting here with my busted-ass face in my busted-ass chair hoping not to be taken to the hospital.
Fucking cerebral palsy.
I’m lucky that my pride's hurt more than my body, but now I'm at the mercy of the two paramedics, and they’re at the mercy of their checklist. Do I have chest pains? Shortness of breath? Diabetes? One asks me the questions, while the other types my answers into a laptop. Both wear a menacing ensemble of blue gloves and mirror shades. No, no, no, I tell them.
He reaches the end of his checklist before asking the obvious question. “What is your disability?”
He nods when I tell him, frowning with sympathy while his partner duly notes my response. Not that cerebral palsy is much use medically; it just means something happened in my brain before I was born that messes with my motor control. It ranges from a mild hand tremor to a deadly inability to breathe. I'm in between, able to breathe and swallow but not to crawl or use a spoon.
“You seem OK,” the paramedic tells me. “Just some scrapes and bruises. I'll clean those up for you. It will sting like hell, but you don’t want them to get infected and you’ll look a lot better.”
The swab on my face is the first real pain I've felt since going over the curb. It must be alcohol or iodine or peroxide. Somehow the controlled pain of medical attention hurts worse than my face plant. At least he was honest enough to tell me it will hurt. Most medical professionals just apologize after.
The clanging from the building stops, and a collective sigh issues from the crowd. “About time,” the paramedic says. “What happened with your chair?”
“That’s what I … want to … know.” Marco and I designed the controls, and the damn thing just tried to kill me.
I ask them to call my dad. Maybe he can help me get cleaned up before Donna gets here. Maybe I can somehow rescue the evening if she doesn’t see me like this.
Too late. Donna’s van enters the parking lot. She takes the permit spot next to the police car. The door slides open to reveal an aluminum ramp that unfolds out onto the pavement. Gonzo holds his leash in his mouth and surveys the crowd like he’s going to make a speech. He’s Donna’s advance team. As she rolls out from the driver position, he trots down the ramp, sits down again on the pavement, and watches Donna emerge into the sunlight.
Donna tends to get noticed, for her long black hair and big brown eyes as much as for her wheelchair and service dog. Some women with her uber-liberal politics eschew makeup, but Donna’s personal crusade to prove wheelchairs can be sexy trumps any concern over society judging women by their looks. She also spends some of her substantial earnings on custom-fit clothes and a personal trainer. The effect is dramatic, on-par with those women heading to the VIP level. I catch myself holding my breath, still amazed, even after three years together, that she's here for me.
“You’re ... early.”
“My computer crashed,” she says. “Then you didn’t answer your phone. And you’re hurt. What happened?”
One of the paramedics steps between us. “Bob Campbell,” he says, extending his hand.
“...fell... The... chair... wouldn't... stop.”
“Donna Gordon.” Donna shakes Bob’s hand once I’m done talking.
“I take it you know Mr. Able.” He’s keeping the handshake going a bit too long.
“He’s my boyfriend. And I’m a lawyer”
Bob drops her hand like it just burned him. I catch the firemen exchanging a grin. “A few minor abrasions,” Bob Campbell sputters. “We’ve cleaned him up, but there's nothing serious. You should get that chair looked at. He could have been killed.”
Donna nods and maneuvers her chair next to mine so she can lean in and kiss my forehead. The crowd coos, and Gonzo positions himself to keep Bob at bay.
“I'm glad it's not worse,” she tells me. “You're lucky.”
I’m lucky she’s here. She makes up for all of the Hawaiian shirts, callous EMTs, and rubbernecking crowds I’ll ever encounter. It’s not like her to leave work early, though.
“Your computer ... is completely ... dead?”
“You almost die and you’re worried about my computer?” She rolls her eyes. “The screen just went black. Agnes isn’t working either.”
Agnes is the name Donna gives to the navi that came with the car. It speaks like a prim seventy year-old woman from England's southern coast. If it crashed at the same time as Donna’s computer, my chair’s control circuit, my panel, and Pokerlive’s alarm, that sounds like something’s going on besides bad engineering from me and Marco.
A police officer walks in from the parking lot. He points back to Hawaiian shirt. “Real piece of work, that one. Did you really insult his wife?”
“It was classic!” Tony tells him.
Donna looks from the parking lot to the cop to Tony. She takes it all in before turning back to me with a smile. “You've had a busy morning,” she says.
“Let's go... home. Call ... my dad and ... Marco... we'll fix the... chair.”
Donna’s lip twitches whenever I mention Marco. He’s been trying to flirt with her for years, under the twin delusions that she might be interested and I might not notice. I don’t know what bothers her more: the flirting or the fact that I laugh it off. Even so, she agrees to text him, along with my dad. Her phone, at least, is still working.
Tony helps push me into the van. Gonzo takes up his usual position in the passenger’s seat, and Donna locks her chair into the driver's position. Tony follows her example to get me situated. “She’s gorgeous,” he whispers in my ear before bumping my knuckles and stepping out of the van. I breathe a sigh of relief when the door closes and the spectacle is over.
The light that lets us out of the parking lot is blinking red. So is the one to head south on Lawrence. And the next one after that.
“When did … the lights … stop working?”
“A bunch of lights were blinking when I went to pick you up,” Donna tells me. “I don’t remember any this morning.”
Yet more crashed systems. I list them all out for her and tell her it can’t just be a coincidence.
“You sound like Marco,” she says. “How could that even happen?”
“No ... idea.”
It’s exactly the kind of thing they’d drop on me at work, though. I start trying to think of what all the broken systems might have in common: network connections, power supplies, chip suppliers. The supply chains of modern electronics are so long and convoluted that everything’s related if you look at it long enough. Kind of like Alabama.
Donna hits the brakes.
“WHAT THE FUCK?”
Our street is awash in police cars. Blue and red lights are flashing, cops are milling around, and all the neighbors are watching. And there, in the middle of it all, stands my best friend, Marco.