For a summer in college I worked at a home for developmentally disabled adults. They had four residents and only one of them was capable of speech. It was difficult to work with them, knowing this was the limit of their abilities and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it. I would occasionally run into a person that would resemble one of my boys and I would think, this is what Roger would look like and be doing if his brain hadn't been damaged
It could happen to any of us. Our brains are amazing but delicate things. I wanted to explore the concept of losing someone close to brain damage and poking at the idea of what people would be willing to risk and lose to gain something of the person back.
That's the spark that led me to write this short story titled Maddie, which I will put out here in three parts. I put some bits of the four residents into Maddie. In a very small way, it's my tribute to them and their struggles. As a warning, it's a rough draft that hasn't seen the care of an editor and I typically don't write in this length or genre. It's certainly not my best writing, but I like the premise. I hope you enjoy.
Roger arrived at his eighth floor loft. He took a moment to gather himself before unlocking the door. The resounding click started a chain reaction as he walked inside the entryway.
“Maddie, go see who’s at the door. Do you think it's Roger?” Carla asked.
Roger removed his black wool coat and sat on the bench to take off his shoes. Maddie slowly rolled around the corner. She wore her favorite pink tracksuit and matching princess bib that sparkled in the dull light of the entryway. She moved herself in the wheelchair by pulling slowly with her feet. She refused to use her hands to propel herself and was confined to the chair due to severe balancing issues.
As soon as she saw Roger, a crooked smile lit her face and she shrieked.
“I hear shrieking. That must be your husband,” Carla said from around the corner.
Roger leaned down and gave Maddie a kiss on her cheek. She tilted her head to the side and pawed with an awkward hand gesture, but her smile stayed.
“Did you and Carla have a good day?” Roger asked.
He moved out of the narrow hallway and into wide-open space of their loft. The fifteen-foot ceilings made the 800 square feet seem larger than it was. Three oversized windows provided a foggy view of the city. The gray day mirrored his mood.
Carla was their day nurse who watched Maddie when Roger worked at the office. She kept her gray streaked hair pulled back in an old-fashioned bun. It remained a glaring contrast to her otherwise open and liberal persona.
“We sure did. We took a walk in the park and Maddie even colored you a picture. Maddie, did you want to show Roger the picture?”
Maddie’s gaze locked on something outside.
Roger walked across the concrete floors to the black laminated counter tops. The kitchen light captured every scratch and ding in the surface. Carla stepped aside to unveil a page carefully cut out of a coloring book. It was a picture of a dolphin leaping out of the water. It had a euphoric look on its face. Roger wondered what the fuck it was so happy about. The picture had heavy uneven purple crayon lines scribbled all over it.
“That’s very good, Maddie. So good,” Roger hung it on black fridge with a dolphin magnet, “that I think it deserves some candy.”
Maddie stopped looking at the ceiling, let out a small shriek, and began to pull herself over to the cabinet. Roger opened up the door and retrieved a jar containing a hundred identical orange suckers. Maddie shrieked again as he placed one in her sticky hand.
“I got you a little something, you know, for your anniversary,” Carla whispered to him. She handed him a sealed card.
“Thank you, Carla. You didn’t need to do that.”
“Nonsense. A five-year anniversary is something special. Enjoy your weekend.” She gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze and said goodbye to Maddie.
When Carla left, the only sound in the studio remained Maddie’s slurping and the radio quietly playing in the background. The pretentious DJ droned on in a monotonous tone about a little known classical piece. Roger looked around the spotless studio and sighed. Another weekend.
“What day is it today, Maddie?”
“Fwydah,” she answered in a cheerful voice.
Suckers were the only hard substance that Maddie could handle. The rest of her food had to be pureed. Roger retrieved the container labeled meatloaf. He threw the colored speckled mush in the microwave and poured himself a hefty glass of red wine.
Maddie finished her sucker and dropped the stick on the floor.
“Hey,” Roger said.
She wheeled herself back over to the window.
Roger got a new bib out of the cabinet and stirred the concoction that would serve as her dinner. He called her to no avail. He shuffled over and pulled her wheel chair to the flimsy kitchen table and locked the wheels in place. Her blue eyes rolled around the room.
He got a spoonful ready for her. She dutifully ate each bite he wordlessly presented her. She let him know she had reached her limit by spitting the food out onto the table.
“OK, we will wash you up and then we will watch the news.”
Maddie had religiously watched the news after work. Though she seemed to have little interest anymore in the current events, Roger parked her in front of the TV every evening on the beige colored rug that dutifully defined the boundaries of their living room.
Roger drained his second glass of wine and watched the news with her. Maddie began nodding off toward the end of the broadcast.
“Hey, you can’t be tired already, Maddie. What day is it?”
“Fwydah,” she mumbled.
“Indeed, little lady.”
He fished around the closet to get her pink dolphin PJs. He undid her seat belt and laid her on the bed. Drool dripped down her open mouth. He changed her out of her clothes, put her in a fresh diaper, and changed her into the PJ’s. The process took him fifteen minutes. She had her own single bed with rails that laid next to his tiny bed.
The third glass of wine floated him into a fitful sleep. He awoke to her sobbing. He scrambled for the lamp and knocked it over with a clumsy hand.
He picked up the lamp and flipped it on at the same time.
Maddie immediately stopped crying.
“Aw, sorry, Maddie, I forgot your nightlight.” His head bobbed on his shoulders. The sour taste of wine settled in his mouth. He bent over and switched on her dolphin nightlight.
It took him another hour to fall back asleep.
The next morning sunlight blanketed the room through the thin drapery. Roger moaned and threw his arm over his head. He looked over to Maddie. Her blue eyes locked onto his when she caught him looking.
“What day is it today, Maddie?”
“Close, it’s Saturday morning and you know what Saturday morning is right?” He didn’t wait for her to answer knowing none was going to arrive. “It’s park day.”
He rolled over to a sitting position and scratched at the neck stubble that attacked his tender skin. “First we will get you changed, feed you some breakfast, and then head on out.”
The cell phone rang. He shuffled across the unforgivingly cold concrete floor and saw it was Artemis.
“I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“Nah. What’s up?”
“I figured I would invite myself over and chill out for a while. Oh, wait. It’s a park day right?”
Roger smiled and dumped a packet of oatmeal in a white ceramic bowl. “Yup, wanna meet us there?”
“Yeah, that would be cool. See you there in half an hour?”
“Whoa, dude, what’s the rush? How about an even hour?”
“Alright, Roger, sounds good. I won't be able to stay super long, but it would be nice to see you two.”
“Oh boy, Maddie, I think we're going to see someone special at the park today.” Roger stirred the oatmeal and glanced up. Maddie had one of her blank stares on. “Aw shit, not today.”
Her non-responsive state melted away after he got her in a fresh diaper and dressed. He did her hair up in two pigtails. “We gotta get your hair cut soon, darling, starting to look like a hippie. Me too I suppose.”
After breakfast, he snapped out the footrests on the chair and rolled her down to the elevator. An older couple arrived in the lobby at the same time. They smiled uneasily and didn't get onto the elevator with them. They pretended to await the next one with a special purpose. As soon as the morning air reached her, Maddie wore a crooked smile.
“Kind of chilly today.” Roger pulled a hand off the chair and blew on it. He rolled her the three blocks to the park and positioned her next to the bench and locked her wheels. A bird flew by and Maddie starting screeching.
“Hey Maddie,” Roger pointed to the slender man with an olive complexion and dark hair walking toward them, “Who is that? Is that. . .could it be? Is that Arty?”
“How’s my favorite girl?” Arty kissed her on top of her shiny hair and plopped down on the bench.
“Sup, dude?” Roger asked.
“Where is everyone today?”
Roger scanned the empty playground. “Inside playing video games.”
“Probably. Awww shit. I totally forgot. It was your five-year anniversary!”
Roger nodded. “Yeah. It was.”
Maddie moved a claw like hand out in front of her.
“What are you pointing at?” Arty asked.
Roger scanned the horizon in the direction but couldn’t see anything.
“Are you pulling our leg, Maddie?”
She offered a crooked smile.
They sat in silence and watched as a family of four claimed the playground for themselves. The two younger kids looked at Maddie a few times.
“You know, Arty, that kind of stuff used to bother me. People looking, or staring at Maddie. It’s like, they’re aiming a giant spotlight at her.” Roger glanced at Arty. He nodded. “Then I realized Maddie, doesn’t care, so why should I?”
“Exactly!” Arty shoved his hands in his skinny jeans and smiled at Maddie. “Too bad everyone else can’t get over themselves, like her damn parents.”
Roger grunted. “Not just her parents. Shit, you’re the only friend we got left. I got a lot of emails and calls the first few weeks and then people, I don’t know, didn’t want to think that sort of stuff can happen. I guess they didn’t want that kind of burden around their unblemished lives. Whatever the reason, they left.”
“Hey man, that’s their loss. Right, Maddie?”
She pointed again.
Roger squinted. It looked like she was pointing at a building behind the park, but he couldn’t tell.
“How’s life at the cube farm?” Arty asked.
Roger shifted on the bench and cleared his throat. “Ah, fine.”
Arty scrunched up his face. “What’s the deal?”
“Well, there’s this new girl and . . .”
“Ah, hell no man,” Arty cut him off. “Dude, you’re married. Keep your shit together.”
“I know. I know.” Roger threw his arms up. “Sometimes . . . it’s hard Arty. It’s like sometimes I get a glimpse of Maddie, like she’s still in there. But other times, I get nothing. Is this what I get the rest of my life?”
Arty looked around. “Just because your relationship has been simplified doesn’t mean it’s bad. What you and Maddie had and still have is good. Besides, you never know what can happen.”
“It’s been two years, Arty, and not a damn thing has changed,” A chill ripped through Roger.
“Stranger things have happened, bro.” Arty wiggled his eyebrows. “Hey, I gotta bolt. See you two later.”
Roger watched him go. Arty turned around once to blow a kiss at Maddie and waved. A few more kids invaded the playground. Maddie pointed again in the same direction, but this time he could see a woman walking toward them.
She looked to be in her middle years. A handsome woman. That phrase popped in his head. He couldn’t exactly explain what that meant, nor would he ever offer that as a compliment, but he meant it as one. The woman walked with a refined grace and confidence. Her dark skin radiated beautifully in the morning sun. She wore a simple dress and no jacket like the morning cold demanded.
Roger laughed. “I think she likes you.”
“Hello, Maddie,” the woman said.
“Oh, I’m sorry, have we met?”
The woman kneeled down in front of Maddie and flashed a wide smile full of perfect white teeth.
“Roger, you don’t remember me?”
He scratched his head. “I’m not that good with names but I never forget a face. Sorry, I’m drawing a blank.”
“Mind if I join you?”
Roger indicated the bench and the woman sat down, her back straight.
“They’re fun to watch aren’t they?” She said, facing the playground.
“That’s one of the reasons why we come here.”
“That, and it’s where you proposed.”
Roger blinked a few times and cocked his head. Now that he thought about it, there was something very familiar and even comforting about this woman. “I’m at a disadvantage, you know our names, and interesting details about us and I got nothing.”
The woman glanced down at her watch then looked to Roger. He could not look away from those intense, warm eyes. “I have to leave soon, Roger.”
“Just listen. He’s coming.”
“I said, just listen. He’s coming and we all know he can work his magic and be charming. But he doesn’t work for free.” the woman said.
For the second time, a chill came over Roger. He couldn’t look away.
“But no matter what he promises you, don’t do it. You hear me? Don’t do it.”
Roger tore his gaze away. He could not handle the intensity of her eyes. She stood up and knelt in front of Maddie. She bent over and whispered something in her ear.
“EEEEEEEEEE!” Maddie said.
The woman walked off at a brisk pace without looking back.
Roger paced the kitchen and laid the story out for Arty. Several moments of silence filled the air. He could picture the incredulous look on Arty’s face.
“That’s really weird, dude,” Arty finally said.
“She didn’t seem crazy though, that was the odd thing. I would expect someone that talked like that be to be crazy,” Roger said. He glanced over to Maddie, who happily slurped on an orange sucker.
“Don’t actions define crazy? Hey, I won’t fault you if you want to believe in any hoodoo voodoo stuff, but I think she was just plain old-fashioned bat-shit crazy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m just saying.”
Roger finished the conversation and streamed a movie for Maddie. She loved anything with a lot of movement and color. She pulled herself around the studio and looked back at the TV often. She dropped her spent sucker stick on the floor. Roger rolled his eyes but didn’t say anything.
He brought up his on-line calendar and groaned. They had an 8:00 appointment with Maddie’s doctor on Monday. “Maddie, you get to see Dr. Klinth on Monday.”
She stopped rolling, glanced at Roger, and continued her track around their small place. He sent an email to Carla to remind her that she could come over later on Monday. Gods knows she should just come with, based on the number of questions she would likely bombard him with about the appointment.
Roger poured himself the dregs of the wine bottle from last night and plopped down on the couch. A fresh bottle filled glasses two, three, and four. He passed the rest of day in a wine induced haze with visions of the woman from the park. The more he thought about her, the more she transformed from mystical to just plain odd. He had to agree with Arty. She had just been a harmless but crazy lady. He almost believed that.
Monday morning came too early and Roger rushed out of the door munching on a breakfast bar. He rolled Maddie down to their sedan, locked her wheel chair in place, and lifted her from the chair into the car. She latched onto his watch, fixated by it.
Roger peeled her hand away and belted her in place. He collapsed the wheel chair and put it into the spotless trunk. It had room for little else. He put the radio on for Maddie and turned the heat on. The fall morning condensed their breath on the windshield.
“Shit, Maddie, I think we’re going to be late.”
He pulled into the half-full parking lot at ten minutes past eight. The receptionist stared blankly at him as he apologized for being late. A nurse walked by. She saw Maddie and came over.
“Well, good morning, Maddie!”
The nurse grabbed Roger’s elbow, “Isn’t she a ray of sunshine?”
Another nurse took them back to the examining room where they waited for Dr. Klinth. The information always seemed the same. Maddie’s condition had not changed in the two years since the accident and coma. Despite her unchanging state, Roger dutifully maintained her monthly appointments.
A younger doctor entered the room. His blond hair had been slicked back like a movie star from the 40’s. He had to be around 6’ 4”. His stethoscope rested against a piano key tie. Roger had not seen one of those since the 1980’s.
“Oh, um, where is Dr. Klinth?”
His cool blue eyes looked up from the chart. “I’m Dr. Malum, I’m taking on Dr. Klinth’s patients. I’m afraid he had an accident on Friday, and passed away.”
“Oh my god. What happened?”
“God, that’s terrible, didn’t he have three kids, too?”
Malum frowned, “Four actually.”
“That’s horrible,” Roger shook his head. “I’m Roger, by the way and this is Maddie.”
Dr. Malum’s cool and strong grip made Roger feel a little uneasy.
“Nice to meet you and Maddie. Here’s my card.”
He handed Roger a plain looking business card. Malum sat on the stool, and logged into the computer. “I can never get used to these things. Paper is much more honest than these little ones and zeros.”
Roger cocked his head. The doctor appeared to be about his age. Malum scratched at his neck and Roger got a whiff of a vaguely familiar aftershave. It took him a moment to place it, but images of his grandfather bubbled up from the deep recesses of his memory. Pipe smoke and that particular aftershave always reminded him of his grandfather.
“I read Maddie’s file and I found her lack of progress disturbing,” Malum said.
Roger opened his mouth. The warmness of the blood flow registered in his neck and face.
Malum held up a hand, “No. It’s not because of a lack of effort on anyone’s part. It’s not anyone’s fault.” He leaned in closer and glanced over at Maddie. “What we need here, is a change of perspective. Instead of managing her little symptoms and trying to keep her as comfortable as possible, we need to aim for recovery. We need to have her back.”
“Well,” Roger crossed his arms over his chest, “Dr. Malum, we have already tried that. Her brain is beyond repair. If anything, two years have proven that.”
Maddie fixated on Roger’s watch and tried to grab it. He let her have a hold on it.
Malum looked him straight in the eyes, “I can fix her.”
“The top neuro surgeon at the Mayo, couldn’t fix her,” Roger said with a sigh. “This is the way it’s going to be. It’s not, uh, fair to suggest otherwise.”
“I understand your skepticism. Hope can be a dangerous thing. But, what do you have to lose? You don’t even have to believe this is going to work, just let me try.”
“I’m listening. What’s the plan? Trust me though, we have tried everything already.”
Malum wheeled over on his short stool directly in front of Maddie. She glanced up at him and then back to Roger’s watch. Malum cupped her free hand in his. Maddie stopped playing with the watch and slowly turned her gaze directly on him.
Roger shifted in his seat.
Maddie’s other hand stopped grasping his watch and went limp. Something bright and blue flickered around Malum’s hands.
“What?” Roger stood up.
Malum ignored him and stared at Maddie.
She began to shake.
“Let go!” Roger tore Malum’s hands away and wheeled Maddie out of range. “What kind of . . . is this some kind of joke?”
Malum’s blue eyes narrowed. “Wait and see. I bet she surprises you soon and then you’re going to call me, Roger.”
“Don’t fucking count on it, Dr.” Roger wheeled Maddie out of the room and offered Malum a final dirty look.