Brenda was not at her best an hour after she got up the next morning. She was hurting from all the exercise yesterday – she and Carole had walked for miles, far past Hannegan's Cove, out almost to the north shore of the lake – but her body was starting to get used to the exercise, and ibuprofen took the edge off the aches. That wasn't the problem, anyway.
Mostly, it came from the fact that she'd designated this Sunday morning for pure, indolent sloth, sitting around half-awake in her pajamas, sipping at coffee, enjoying not having the ambition to do much of anything. Not that there was much to do; Sundays could be boring as hell. She figured that sometime sooner or later, she'd get some shorts and a T-shirt on, run a few miles, come back, do some of the laundry put off the day before, maybe make a few moves on Dragonslayer. But, it wasn't really much to do to kill a long day, so she figured she might as well stretch it out. It would have been nice to spend some more time with Carole, but she'd said she had family stuff to do.
The lazy day didn't really seem very appealing. She was kicking around the notion of calling Debbie Elkstalker, to see if perhaps she'd like to ride down to Camden to catch a movie, maybe eat Japanese, but hadn't gotten enough energy up to pick up the phone.
So it was that she was about as physically and mentally unprepared as she could be to hear a knocking at the upstairs inside door. Oh, shit! she thought. I can't let someone see me like this! My God, what if it's Mike? "Coming," she yelled, burst out of the recliner, and made a quick one to the bedroom for a robe before going to the door.
Much to her surprise, it was Carole – wearing jeans and a nice blouse instead of exercise clothes, but still . . . "I'm sorry," Carole said as soon as she saw the federal disaster area standing in front of her. "I guess I should have called."
"Oh, don't worry about it," Brenda said casually. "I just sorta slept in this morning, haven't gotten myself up and around yet. You want to come in and sit down? I've got some coffee hot."
"If you don't mind," Carole said apologetically.
"Oh, it's not a bother if you can stand to look at me,"
"Thanks, Brenda," the taller woman in handcuffs said as she stepped inside. "Look, I can see I caught you at a bad time. I just stopped by to say that I talked it over with Wendy and my folks last night, and if you're not doing anything, we'd like to have you come over for dinner, spend some time."
"Sure, I wasn't doing anything," Brenda said immediately. A reprieve from a really dull day! "Sounds like fun. Thanks for asking. Give me a few minutes to pull myself together and I can go with you."
"You know about Wendy, then, I take it?" Carole frowned, perhaps a little surprised.
"I've heard you mention her a few times, I know she's your sister," Brenda said, realizing something was wrong from the expression on Carole's face. "What's to know?"
"I thought you knew and were just being kind," Carole said, a bit shyly.
"Carole, one of the downsides of being in my job in a town like this is that after a couple weeks everybody assumes I know everything when I still don't know anything. Is something wrong?"
Carole took a deep breath. "You remember yesterday, when I told you about what I told Laurel about having to live in a wheelchair?"
Enlightenment struck instantly. "You were talking about Wendy, right?"
"Yes," Carole said. "Like I said, I thought you knew."
"Jetski accident," Carole said flatly, a little bitterly. "Back in '92, a couple months after I started wearing the Soliels. She was riding around with a boyfriend, playing grabass with another jetski, trying to hose each other down. She got thrown off and hit by the other one."
"And now, she's a quadriplegic, right?"
"Right," Carole said sadly, bitterness really showing, now. "My bright, intelligent, beautiful, popular sister is trapped in a useless body in a wheelchair, just exactly like I told Laurel, except that she has a colostomy now, so we don't have to wipe her ass four times a day. Brenda, that's why I changed over to handicapped rehabilitation." Brenda thought she saw a tear. "I had to do what I could."
Oh, my Goddddd . . . even after yesterday, there had still been a lot of mysteries about Carole, and a lot of stuff just snapped into place. "Well, give me a few minutes to change clothes, brush out my hair and like that, and I'll go with you," Brenda said casually.
"You'll still go?" Carole said, perhaps a little surprised.
"Whatever made you think I wouldn't?" Brenda smiled. Actually, she wasn't too sure how she would handle it, but she'd damn sure try to put a good face on it.
"She's been disappointed," Carole said sadly. "She doesn't get to see a lot of people, and frankly, it's boring for her. Then, when someone shows up and makes her uncomfortable, patronizes her . . . look, Wendy is still a sharp, bright person, despite everything, and she's a lot of fun to be around. Sometimes people don't understand that."
"They don't take her seriously, don't realize there's a real person there, right?"
"Yes," Carole said sadly. "After what we talked about the last few days, I thought you might have a little view of how she feels since you've sort of been down that road. I thought you'd understand. Look, you don't have to go if you don't want to."
"She's been hurt that way enough, too, that it seems like a risk to introduce her to someone new?" Brenda said.
Carole just nodded, sadly, tears running now.
Brenda reached out, put her hand on her new friend's shoulder, and said, "We might not hit it off, but if we don't, it won't be because I don't think she's a real person. I'll do my damndest. I'm sorry, Carole, but that's the best I can offer. Now, do you want to sit down and have a cup of coffee while I change clothes and do my hair?"
Looking back on it, Brenda was glad that Carole had given her a little heads up. While Brenda had been getting around, Carole explained that she tried to stay upbeat around Wendy, and if she felt sad or bitter to take it elsewhere; she'd dumped a little of it in the apartment that morning and apologized for it later.
But Wendy Carter was not exactly what Brenda expected. In fact, other than the fact that she was a quadriplegic, she was anything but what she expected. Brenda soon realized that Wendy was at least as interesting – and as least as complex – as her older sister. The most amazing thing was that she seemed to accept totally what had happened to her and get on with things – at least, she was pretty up front about it.
Brenda had noticed the wheelchair ramp on the house as she'd driven by in the past, but never had given it much thought. Inside though, in what had once been a front room off an entrance hall, she and Carole found Wendy sitting in her wheelchair. In one sense, that room was pretty much her world – Brenda soon found out she sometimes didn't leave it for weeks at a time, and the chair was almost a part of her body – she was in it virtually all the time, day and night.
"Wheelchair" was a little bit of a reach to describe the device she was semi-reclined on – it did have wheels, but small ones, and frankly reminded Brenda more of a dentist's chair. Behind her, on one side, stood an indescribable piece of machinery, very solid looking, from which several arms extended. Again, the dentist chair analogy worked; Brenda could think of the tray support a dentist's assistant swung out to one side. But there were several of these, and one of them, at least, had something mounted to it that Brenda could identify – a flat-screen computer monitor. There was another mechanical arm, closer to her face, and she was pecking away at it with a plastic stick held in her mouth. Seeing them come in, Wendy turned her head, deposited the stick in a holder on the side of the monitor, and said, in a cheerful voice, "Hi, sis! Just doing e-mail."
"Anything interesting?" Carole smiled.
"Not really, just gabbing with Eino," Wendy smiled, turning her head to look at them. Even with her head resting on the headrest of the chair, her blonde hair cut short, Brenda had to think that she was a rather pretty girl, with wide-set blue eyes like her older sister; there was a lot of family resemblance. She remembered the picture from the bound volume. "I'll finish it some other time."
"Sis, this is Brenda," Carole said with a smile.
"Great!" Wendy said brightly. "Pleased to meet you! Find a chair while I get some of this jazz out of the way, and we can talk."
Brenda's eyes grew wide with amazement in the next few seconds as Wendy said in a clear, flat voice, not very loud, "Jeeves! Monitor, back!" Very quietly, the arm holding the computer monitor swung to the side, taking three or four seconds.
In a moment or two, from somewhere in Wendy's direction, Brenda could hear a very quiet voice, one that reeked of a very reserved English butler, say, "Completed, ma'am."
"Jeeves! Keyboard, back!" The keyboard retracted to one side, back under the monitor.
Carole smiled. "I better warn you right now, Brenda, the J-word is one that you and I never use. The J-guy isn't very smart, and someone else saying that word could confuse him."
"That's not really true anymore," Wendy smiled. "Since the last software upgrade, he's a little better, and Mark thinks he's found a filter so he'll only answer to my voice. But, it's a habit, just like my crazy sister's damn stupid handcuffs."
"Voice recognition software, right?" Brenda asked, still amazed. It was a logical thing, but somehow she'd never thought of that application.
"Actually several pieces of software," Wendy smiled. "But, he's kind of a handy guy to have around. He's actually a terrible couch potato, sort of like a guy with a remote for the TV and you yell at him to change the channel, but he beats the hell out of having to have Mom or Dad or Carole bring something close enough so I can reach it. Anyway, Brenda, sit down, make yourself comfortable. Carole's told me a lot about you. How's the weight loss going?"
"Pretty good," Brenda smiled. "I'd dropped three more pounds on Friday."
"Good, glad to hear it," Wendy said. "You hang in there. Carole said you were doing a lot better than last week."
"I like to think so," Brenda said, finding a chair and sitting, and wondering a bit just what Carole had told Wendy about her. Maybe a lot, she thought. "It's been hard to get out and exercise this week, I've been so busy." Maybe I shouldn't have said that, she thought, but it's said. So be it.
Apparently it didn't matter. "I've heard they run the junior reporters ragged over at the Record-Herald," Wendy said. "But you did a nice thing for the Bailey kid. I'm glad you stood up to Mike about it."
Yep, Brenda thought, Carole tells her everything. She probably sort of lives vicariously through her sister. "It was hard," she smiled. "I surprised myself when I did it, but the instant I said it I knew it was the right thing to do. I mean, I knew the horseshit the kid had to be going through."
"Yeah, it can be tough in high school," Wendy smiled. "Everybody puts everybody down. I got put down for being a cheerleader. Everybody thinks all cheerleaders are blonde airheads."
"Well, you were a blonde airhead," Carole snorted. "You've grown up since."
"Yeah, at least I grew out of it," Wendy snickered. "Brenda, don't you think it's a little airheaded to wear handcuffs for five years?"
Amazing. Brenda thought. They were comfortable with each other. Very comfortable, even able to tease each other. I'd find it very hard to tease her . . . oh, of course, Wendy would feel patronized if she wasn't! Oh, tricky, I'll have to remember that. "Well, strange, at least," Brenda said. "I can't say airheaded. It gets attention, anyway. It sure got my attention!"
"How'd that happen?" Wendy asked.
"Oh, I was running down Lakeshore, and I saw this good-looking girl coming the other way wearing handcuffs, and I figured I'd been pushing this exercise bit a little too far. I mean, like, I was seeing things, you know?"
"Carole told me about your lunch, yesterday. That had to have been a scream."
"Oh, God, was it," Brenda laughed. She was already comfortable with this girl – bright, chipper, sassy, not what you expected a quadriplegic to be, whatever that was. "When she used that line about not being able to rub her ass, there was this guy I thought was going to spit his coffee all over the waitress."
"That would have been a good one to see," Wendy laughed.
"I have to say the funniest thing was the dead silence in the place," Brenda grinned. "Everybody was listening so hard, and nobody dared to even crack a smile."
"The next time we go in there, we're going to have to talk about the Packers or something," Carole laughed.
"Maybe not," Brenda laughed. "I mean, why disappoint the audience?"
"Hey," Wendy said. "Carole, your talking about Frank and Laurel got me curious last night, so I ran a little search on Alta Vista. They've got a website, now. You're right, they are a couple weird looking people."
"No kidding?" Carole grinned. "Can you bring it up? I'd like to show Brenda."
"Sure thing, I bookmarked it. Amazingly enough, it's nothing dirty, but some of the stuff linked to it is. I mean, really. Give me a minute and I'll bring it up."
"Sure, do it," Brenda said. "I've got to see what this pair looks like."
"Jeeves, Jeeves, wake up!" Wendy said.
In a moment, the English butler voice said, "You rang, ma'am?"
"Jeeves, monitor in." In a moment, the computer monitor swung in front of Wendy, and Netscape came up on the screen. The cursor swung up to "bookmarks"; a window opened and scrolled down, and slowly the cursor slid down the screen to a line marked "Black Rose".
It was all so natural and common that Brenda didn't think about it for a moment. Then, it hit her. "Hey," she said. "How do you move that cursor?"
"Trackball," Wendy grinned. "Look down at my left hand." Brenda glanced down to Wendy's side. Sure enough, there was a common, ordinary trackball, like some people used instead of a computer mouse, lying at her side. Her little finger and ring finger rested on it, and she could see the fingers move a little to adjust the cursor. "You're looking at my big physical victory of the year," Wendy grinned. "It's still just about all I can do. I don't have any wrist motion, just fingers, but it beats moving the cursor with the mouth stick."
"Let me tell you," Carole said. "That was a big deal around this place. Right after the accident we realized that she still had just a little feeling in those two fingers, and we've worked for years to get that much motion."
"It's made a huge change in things," Wendy explained. "They still aren't very strong or very controlled, but they get better slowly. Didn't I tell you those were a couple of weird people?"
Brenda had almost forgotten they'd been talking about Frank and Laurel. She glanced at the computer screen. The photo of them wasn't large, but they were much like Carole had described, except . . . "They're older than I thought," Brenda said. "From what you said, I had a mental picture of someone in their twenties, and they look like they're in their forties."
"Yeah, that'd be about right," Carole said. "Like I said, really weird people, but actually pretty nice."
"You done?" Wendy asked.
"Yeah," Brenda said. She was really a heck of a lot more interested in what Wendy was doing and how she was doing it than she was in a S&M shop. "I can see how being able to nudge a trackball with your fingers makes things easier," she said after Wendy had Jeeves swing the monitor back out of the way.
"I have to thank Carole for that," Wendy said. "She realized that it would make a huge difference in my quality of life, and she was dead right. If we can keep making improvements, we can see a lot more to come."
"Lots and lots of exercises," Carole told Brenda. "You have to understand, if God were to switch Wendy's body back on right now, she still wouldn't be able to get out of that chair. She has like no muscle tone left, except in her neck, and her mouth, of course. That gets a lot of exercise. We had to build up the muscles before we could work on controlling them, and to do that we had to pulse the nerves with electrodes."
"My exercise program," Wendy grinned. "Doesn't do a damn thing for the heart rate, though."
"Seems to me that you could control a wheelchair and be mobile with that," Brenda observed.
"You're reading our minds," Carole said. "We're not quite there yet. Her control has got to be a little bit better, and she's got to have a little more strength. But, in a year or two, if things keep going well, it's going to make a huge difference."
Brenda nodded. "Yeah, with a little computer support, I can see how that would happen."
"Things would be tough without computer support," Wendy agreed. "They've improved so much in the last two or three years it isn't funny, and the stuff keeps on coming."
"Show her Della," Carole suggested with a grin.
"Della is still a little rough," Wendy commented. "She's not quite there yet. After everything is said and done, she's just about as fast as using the mouth stick."
"Yeah, but what happens with the next generation?" Carole said.
"Then we may have something," Wendy said. "Brenda, Della is our term for a voice-actuated word processing program. Dad got cute and named the setup after Della Street."
"Dad's a big Earle Stanley Gardner fan," Carole grinned.
It took a few seconds for Wendy to set up. In a slow, clear voice, she said. "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog." The words flowed across the computer screen.
"Not bad," Brenda said.
"As far as it goes," Wendy said. When you get into multivalued words, it breaks down pretty quick. She actuated the program again, and said, "'There, there,' said Mrs. Bear."
Their their said Mrs. bare the screen wrote.
"Three multivalued words, and Della missed on all of them, only got one punctuation right and missed a capital," Wendy commented. "I can go back in and fix all of it, either with the mouth stick or by spelling the words out and ordering the punctuation, but it's rather tedious. By the time I'm done messing around, it's quicker to use the mouth stick."
"A good grammar program would clean up a lot of that," Brenda commented.
"Give it time," Carole smiled. "It'll come."