Giving fresh meaning to the term “people-powered”, Paul inched his way down the sidewalk. He focused about ninety percent of his concentration on the arduous task of wheeling his chair. The rest was devoted to the small, black beetle scurrying to the left and slightly ahead of the chair. He had been racing the bug for three “bitty-blocks” (Paul’s term for the individual blocks of cement in the sidewalk). So far, the beetle was winning.
A single drop of sweat trickled down Paul’s forehead and into his left eye, stinging. However, Paul could not spare the precious time required to wipe that eye. He was just beginning to gain on the beetle.
“You should have paid more attention to your cousins, the roaches,” he mumbled down at the insect. “This would have been no contest.”
The beetle stopped suddenly for a split-second, altered its course slightly to the right and continued scurrying down the walkway.
“Aha! The Japanese contestant makes a crucial error and the American takes the advantage, closing the gap. We have a new race, fans!” The insect was now no more than two inches ahead, directly in front of Paul’s left front wheel. “The runner from Japan can feel the American breathing down his neck,” Paul muttered, trying his best to sound like Howard Cosell. He and the beetle shared the same velocity, but Paul had a distinct advantage: the beetle didn’t know it was involved in a race.
The lilting, feminine voice shattered Paul’s concentration and his hands fumbled at the wheels. In slow, tremulous jerks, he craned his neck up and to the right so he could give Julie his twisted yet charming smile. “Morning, Jules. How’s it shakin’? Don’t answer; I can see it’s shakin’ just fine.”
Julie ruffled Paul’s hair (rather than messing it, her playful gesture actually left his disheveled hair a bit more normal looking than its usual maniacally meandering mess). “You crack me up, Paul. I gotta run. See you at Ramone’s.”
Paul twisted around in his chair to watch her walk on, his heart sinking as the distance between them stretched. “See you at four-thirty,” he called after her with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.
Julie waved, then rounded the corner and was gone.
Well, he thought, I could sit here and wallow in self-pity for a while . . . or—Where’s that bug? With a moderate effort, he pushed the image of Julie back in his mind and resumed inching his way down the sidewalk.
The fracture to his C-2 vertebra and the resulting partial laceration of his spinal cord qualified Paul as a quadriplegic, although he did retain some use of his arms. A three-year-old could beat him in an arm-wrestle, but he still had barely enough strength to push his back-up wheelchair down the sidewalk. Paul’s electric wheelchair was capable of achieving ten miles-per-hour, but was currently in the shop under repair. For one so limited, Paul was extraordinarily hard on machines. However, as laborious as the manual chair was, Paul actually preferred it to his electric chair; it slowed him down enough to appreciate the small wonders of life—like beetles. After all, he had nowhere to go . . . besides after that bug.
Before long, he had a fresh bead on his competitor and was slowly regaining the ground he had lost. The beetle helped considerably by periodically stopping, then resuming with a slightly altered course. By the time Paul caught up with it, the bug had migrated over to the right side of the walk. Now it was only three inches ahead of Paul’s right front wheel.
“We have a new race, fans!” Paul resumed in his Howard Cosell voice. “Apparently, the Japanese contestant got his steroid pills mixed up with some hallucinogens. He seems terribly confused out there, and the American is quickly gaining on him.”
Paul was just about to shift his trajectory a degree or two to the left so that he could pass when the beetle suddenly froze.
He pulled up on the wheels, but it was too late. “Once again sports fans, the competition has been crushed by the American team,” he said with a trace of sorrow.
So, is it time to wallow now?
Why not? He often thought about Julie . . . and Angela and Toni and Susan. Sex was a thing of the past, like so many things for Paul—but that never stopped him from thinking about it. Although he had been paralyzed for three years, it had been an additional four years since his last sexual encounter. However, the memories were fresh, clear. At least he had been able to masturbate and enjoy it three years before; now masturbation was merely a form of self-physical therapy, a repetitive act that held no pleasure for him. But the glands continued to pump out hormones that were of no use to him. Paul often wished that those glands had gone the way of his useless legs.
It seemed that, since the accident, everyone wanted to be nice to Paul. He had dozens of friends; more than he had ever had before he broke his neck. What bothered him was that no one wanted to simply hang out with him. Visitors came frequently, but none stayed for more than an hour.
I make them nervous, Paul thought with a frown. They look at me and realize that this could be them next year, or tomorrow. No one wants to look death or disability in the face—and who could blame them?
The odd thing was, Paul shared this feeling. He had never felt comfortable around the disabled before his accident, and becoming a quadriplegic had not changed that sentiment. The only thing that put Paul on edge was when people felt sorry for him—and that happened less than one might think.
The seemingly perpetual morning fog that hung over Humboldt County was beginning to thin and some sunlight pushed through. It was going to be another beautiful day. “Love that global warming,” Paul said as he dug a Dodgers baseball cap out of his Velcro saddlebag. Scientists had said that global warming would reek havoc with the environment, but to Paul it meant less fog. He had lived in Eureka, California for eight years and never thought he minded the fog—not, at least, until he experienced a warm, sunny summer, which was a rarity on the North Coast. That had been the previous summer, and the summer of 2008 was shaping up to be even nicer.
Julie in a summer dress—the ultra-thin, knee-length ones she wears so often . . . Julie in her sexy one-piece swimsuit, lying in her patio chair, soaking up the rays . . .
STOP IT! With all of his concentration, he pictured Julie wearing a spinster’s drab, full-length dress, reading from a bible to a room filled with rapt, wide-eyed children. After a minute, he decided that was not working and instead imagined her dressed as a drill-sergeant, screaming at boot camp grunts and kicking them in their asses. He shuddered, then giggled. Yup, that image usually did the trick. One of the benefits of having a vivid imagination was that it was not too difficult to shut those glands down.
Focusing his attention again, Paul grasped the wheels of his chair and continued down the sidewalk. He made a painfully slow turn at Buhne Street, then (a mere hour later) waited to cross H Street. He hated crossing intersections under his own power. Back in the days when he could drive, his patience had always worn thin when he had to sit at a green light and wait for some feeb to inch his way across the street. He hated holding up traffic, but what option did he have?
When he was halfway across the intersection, a carload of teenagers waiting for him started yelling and chiding him. Rather than respond either verbally or by slowing down even more to further aggravate them, Paul started chanting his traffic-mantra: “I used to be them . . . I used to be them . . .” Once he was clear of their lane, the car peeled-out, leaving Paul in a cloud of tire smoke. He hardly noticed, though. Rather, he was contemplating the approaching curb-ramp with dread. Most of those confined to manual wheelchairs had little trouble negotiating these ramps. But to Paul, each was a major obstacle. He could not use both hands simultaneously while ascending the ramp; his arms simply lacked the strength. Instead, he had to meander his way up the ramp, pushing with one arm and holding on for dear life, then pushing with the other. He looked a bit like one of those wind-up toys in slow motion. Once up the ramp, the effort always left him exhausted, having to sit there for a time until he regained the strength to proceed.
Paul was preparing to start up the ramp when the sounds of sirens and squealing tires made him look to his right.
An immaculate black BMW swerved onto H Street at an insane speed several blocks to the north. About three seconds later, no fewer than five Eureka Police Department cruisers screeched around the same corner in pursuit. Two blocks nearer, two more EPD cars tore onto H Street, nearly hitting the Beemer, and joined the chase. All eight cars accelerated to break-neck speeds.
And each of them was headed straight for Paul.
Rather than fear, Paul felt a thrill of excitement. Things like this happened in Eureka from time to time, but Paul always missed out on the action. This was live entertainment! The thought that he could be run over never even crossed his mind.
In fact, Paul never felt any sense of danger at all, until the passenger in the front seat of the BMW leaned out his window with an Uzi and sprayed the pursuing police cars with bullets. Even then, Paul was too enthralled by witnessing these events to realize his own mortality. Besides, moving a few inches would do little to protect him.
The BMW was only two blocks away now, swerving around the sparse traffic. Paul could clearly see the man with the Uzi. He was dressed in an expensive-looking three-piece business suit. The rising sun flashed brilliantly off the ring the man wore on his gun-hand. This was obviously much more than Eureka’s usual DUI or grand-theft-auto. These guys looked like professionals.
The two EPD cars in the lead swerved sharply to avoid the hail of bullets, running into each other. One slowly tilted up onto two wheels . . . then flipped over, trailing showers of sparks. The other careened off the now-flipped car and smashed full speed into a parked car. Two more police cars were taken out of the chase when they ran into their fellow officer’s inverted cruiser. Paul fully expected to see one—if not all—of the wrecked cars explode in great balls of flame, but none did. In a detached way, it all seemed very anticlimactic.
The remaining police cars swerved around their fallen friends and continued chasing the BMW down H Street.
When the Beemer was less than a block away, Paul felt certain that none of the speeding vehicles would hit him. However, he was not as sure about the bullets. The gunman ejected his spent clip onto the street and quickly reloaded the Uzi, then swung the gun back and forth wildly as he riddled the pursuing cars with bullets.
The BMW was nearly upon Paul when another EPD cruiser came racing down Buhne Street from the west, right in front of the black car, cutting it off.
Paul saw this new car only peripherally. His attention was on the man with the gun. Just before the police car on Buhne cut off the BMW, the man in the suit turned and seemed to look right at Paul—although it was impossible to see the man’s eyes through the reflectorized Ray Ban sunglasses he wore. A look of shock swept across the man’s face, then he was nearly thrown out of the window when the driver swerved the car sharply to the left to avoid hitting the squad car ahead of them. The man almost lost his hold of the Uzi, and as it slipped within his grasp Paul saw the barrel turn directly toward him. Fortunately, the man’s finger was nowhere near the trigger. Paul distinctly heard the man say, “Umph!” as he was thrown against the door. Something small and black flew out of the breast pocket of the man’s suit. The man made a feeble grab at the item as it sailed away from him while his face became a mask of panic, but he did nothing more than brush it with his knuckles, altering its trajectory slightly. The thing hit the pavement and tumbled to a halt near Paul’s chair. As the Beemer sped away down H Street, the man in the suit stared at Paul until he was out of sight.
Zoom, zoom . . . zoom, zoom, zoom . . . zoom, zoom . . .
Several California Highway Patrol cars joined the chase down H Street, following the BMW and pursuing EPD cars toward Harris Street. They paid no heed to Paul, other than not running him down. In a matter of seconds, the sirens faded and were gone. The entire ordeal lasted no more than fifteen seconds, but it seemed like an eternity to Paul.
“Wow!” was all he could say. “Wow!”
He looked down at the thing the man in the suit had lost. It was black, rectangular, no more than two inches long and wholly unimpressive. It was, however, well out of reach. So Paul opened his saddlebag and withdrew a rod with a pistol grip at one end and a three-finger claw at the other. Paul’s brother, Phil, had made the device as a project for his engineering class and gave it to Paul after receiving his A. It was an extendible claw made specifically for Paul so he could pick up the many things that he dropped, and it worked beautifully. Paul put the black rectangular thing in his pocket and continued down Buhne Street, not bothering with the ramp. He glanced to his right at the many wrecked EPD cars cast about the street like so many discarded Hot Wheels toys. From his vantage point, he could not tell if any of the cops were seriously hurt. But if they were, what could he do for them? He knew that if he stuck around he would wind up in the police station for hours, answering the myriad questions posed by the investigators. He would rather miss that encounter, so he disregarded the sidewalk ramp with a smirk and proceeded down the street at his best cruising speed, which was just under one mile-per-hour. He made the remaining two blocks to his house in record time: forty-two minutes.