The Record-Herald staff around the lunchroom table was in stitches as Brenda told the story, or at least some of the stories from the weekend. "It's amazing how many outrageous excuses you can think of for two women to be laying on the beach in handcuffs," she summed up.
"When Nicole came home yesterday, she said she and Randy ran into you at the beach, but I never heard any of that," Sally laughed.
"Good grief, I wouldn't even think of wearing a bikini like that on the beach here," Brenda said with a grimace. "I'd just been thinking how glad I was that nobody there knew me, and then when I heard Randy's voice, I just about crapped my pants. What pants I had on, anyway."
"It sounds like you had lots of fun," Debbie smiled. "Weird, but fun."
"Oh, yes," Brenda giggled. "I've never had so much pure, concentrated fun in my life. I don't think I gave a straight answer to anything all weekend and never laughed so hard in my life."
"That would have been worth it to see," Mike grinned. "Tell me the truth, now. You're liking this, aren't you?"
"On the whole, yes," Brenda grinned. "There are upsides and downsides, but that really was an upside."
"How much longer do they stay on?" Janine asked.
"I don't know," Brenda said. "That's up to Carole and Wendy. It was part of the deal in the first place. I can hold out. In fact, I have to admit, in spite of everything, it'll seem just a little bit dull to not have them on."
Carole and Brenda made a special point of filling in Wendy on all the details of the trip the Sunday that they returned, and the three were still laughing about it the following Sunday afternoon. Wendy had sat through the collection of audio tapes by now; the quality was poor – which they had expected – but understandable, and it had made a high point for her week, too.
"I'll bet that made a heck of a journal entry," Wendy laughed.
"It took me almost as long to write up the journal as it did to take the trip," Brenda admitted. "There's a lot of stuff there I don't ever want to forget."
"Oh, there are going to be some good memories," Carole smiled. "Look, though. We went down there to have fun, but now that you're back and have had time to think about it, did you learn anything?"
"Yeah," Brenda said. "Tons. Did you get a feeling that it was you and me with our little secret versus the rest of the world, and the rest of the world just didn't get it?"
"It was pretty strong," Carole said. "Even when Randy and Nicole and that couple were playing along with some of our gags, they were just playing straight men to us. Yes, it was you and me against the world."
"That was a pretty neat feeling," Brenda admitted. "But, you know, what really got me thinking was what Randy said that about our bodies learning to adapt to the fact that we had handcuffs on. And, you know, I think he was right. I know your original study was about adapting to stress, adapting to handicaps. But, you know, it didn't strike me till just then how well I've adapted to it. I mean, it seems almost natural, now."
"Are you going to write a story about last weekend?" Wendy asked.
"Oh, I'm tempted," Brenda said. "I sure couldn't write it for the Record-Herald, though."
"Are you going to write anything about this for the Record-Herald?" Carole asked, a little curiosity showing through.
"I don't know," Brenda said. "I was thinking about it, of course, when we started this. In fact, that was one of my prime motives. Now, I don't know that I can write a story about it, at least the story that I want to write."
Wendy frowned. "I'm not sure I follow you?"
"Oh, I could write a story about the mechanics of living in handcuffs," Brenda said. "In fact, I've got a start for that, and some notes, sitting on the computer at home. But that goes back quite a ways, now, back to right after my parents came up here. But, I think the reason I never finished it was that I knew it wasn't the whole story."
"What is the whole story?" Wendy asked.
"I don't know," Brenda frowned. "Look, it's more a gut feeling than anything. I do know that to be able to write what I'm thinking about, I'll have to have the Soliels off for a while and think about it, to put it into perspective. I don't feel like I have to have them off right now, but when the time comes, the experience afterward is going to be a part of it."
"I sort of found the same thing," Carole said. "I could write about the first two months, and a few months later I could look back and see some sense of direction coming out of it. Of course, I wasn't writing a story, but doing a thesis, so it was considerably different."
"That's true," Brenda said. "And, it'll be interesting to see how my perceptions of the experience change when I'm looking back at it. But you know, the thing that really bothers me is at best, I can only tell a part of the story. There's some big holes there, things I can't understand, or only do a little. Some of those are guesses, not facts. You know my feelings about the difference between facts and speculation. So, the best I could probably ever do is just write a part of the story, and it'll feel incomplete to me. It's really kind of frustrating."
Carole shook her head. "I'm not the writer you are, and I don't look at a story the way you do. In my business, there are always pieces missing, and you have to guess the best you can at what they are and what to do about them."
"We have to do it in our business, too, sometimes," Brenda agreed. "At least while we're figuring out what's going on. But, when it comes down to writing the story, we have to pretty much stick to known fact, or at least quotable opinion. I think that's part of the reason that news stories seem so incomplete sometimes."
"But that shouldn't keep you from writing about what life in handcuffs is like," Wendy protested.
"Like I said, I could write about it, but it would be incomplete," Brenda said. "It may always be that way. There's too much background I'd need first, stuff that wouldn't be understood unless you had a background. The problem is that everything is so incomplete by itself and it doesn't break down into parts easily. I mean, I can't tell about last weekend separately from the experience of wearing the cuffs. I can't tell about that incident without getting into Carole, and why she's wearing them, why she started, why it's been so long, and like that, and I can't tell the story without getting into you. I mean, I know what I've experienced but understanding everything is hard since I don't have all the pieces."
"Brenda, that's pretty confusing," Carole said. "I'm afraid I still don't understand what you're getting at."
"It'd help if I understood it myself," Brenda said, reaching a bit. "OK, here's a for example, but a big one. Why are you still wearing handcuffs in the first place? I mean, I've heard two dozen reasons since I've known you, not even counting the bullshit we put out last weekend, and some of them sound good, and some of them are even reasons why I'm wearing handcuffs."
"You know why," Carole said. "We've talked about it often enough. The research project, then the accident, and then I just got used to them."
"I know we've talked about it," Brenda said. "I've tried to understand it. But I'm not you, and I know you have deeper reasons, reasons you've never told me. I think I've got a pretty good idea what they are, but you've never said, so I lack that level of understanding. You see what I'm driving at now?"
Carole looked at her with a hard glance, and asked flatly, "OK, what do you think it is?"
"Do I have to tell?" Brenda said unhappily. "It's just a theory, and if I said what it was it might be a little embarrassing to all of us."
"I think you do have to, now, Brenda," Carole said flatly. "In any case, I want to hear what you think."
Brenda took a deep breath. She hadn't even committed this speculation to her new journal, but her original one, from back in the fall, when she was first getting to know Wendy and Carole, was full of it. She knew she had to forge ahead, although it might mean the end of two great friendships, the best she'd ever had. "All right," she sighed. "Again, bearing in mind that this is only speculation, I think you've got a case of survivor's guilt a yard wide. It's how you identify with what happened to Wendy, how you can feel some of her pain. Hell, I've got a touch of it, too, although I probably picked some of it up from you."
Carole was quiet for a long time. Just from the way she was considering the statement, Brenda knew she'd hit pretty close to home. Finally, she spoke. "I think that was really true at one point," she admitted finally, "But habit has taken over, let's face it, I've gotten used to it. It's who I am, now, just like Wendy is who she is, now. But, I realized that. Do you really want to know what made me make the decision to stay with it? It's simpler than that."
"Yes," Brenda said, realizing that perhaps the revelation hadn't ended the friendships after all, at least, not yet. "Now you've got me really curious."
A little to Brenda's surprise, it was Wendy who picked up the story. "Brenda, since we've known you, we've talked an awful lot about adapting to things that happen to you. You managed a pretty easy adaptation to the Soliels, even though it was a lot simpler than what happened to me, because you wanted to see what it was like."
"Well, yes," Brenda said. "I knew it was pretty artificial, but maybe I've gotten a hint of what it was like."
"Perhaps you have," Wendy said, leaning her head back against the pillow. "But at best, it can only be a tiny taste of it. Back when Carole locked those handcuffs on your wrists, we talked about seeing across the gap. Maybe you've been able to glimpse the other side, but give thanks to God that you don't have to be on that side."
"I've known that," Brenda said. "I didn't need the handcuffs to tell me. I often wonder how you've managed to adapt to it so well."
"I had to adapt to it because I was given no choice in the matter," Wendy said, surprisingly calmly. "I quite literally was given no choice, and I'm not talking about the accident. Brenda, I went through several months when the only thing I could get interested in was to figure out some way to commit suicide."
"I don't think that's surprising," Brenda said.
"No," Wendy said. "I don't mean contemplating suicide. I mean trying to figure out how to manage a decision that had already been made. God knows, I tried. Of course, nobody was willing to help me with it. You don't want to know how cruel I thought everybody was being for keeping me alive." She let out a sigh. "That passed. It passed very slowly. I adapted, like you adapted to the handcuffs. Again, you had a choice. I did not." She smiled, a big grin. "Would you like to know how I realized I had adapted to this, at least enough to want to stay alive, and enjoy what I could?"
"Like Carole said, you've got me curious," Brenda smiled.
"I've never even told Carole this," Wendy grinned. "I ought to make her cover her ears now, but it's long enough in the past that it doesn't matter, anymore."
Carole had been watching her sister intently, but saying nothing. Now, she said, very quietly, "What, Sis?"
Wendy let out another sigh. "This was back when I was on the ventilator, and we had a very early version of the J-guy. I was lying here one night when everyone else was asleep, and all of a sudden, I figured out how I could possibly use one of his functions to rip out the ventilator tube. I'm not sure it would have worked, in fact the odds weren't very good, but I'd finally figured out a way to at least attempt suicide."
"But you didn't," Brenda said, very quietly.
"Right," Wendy smiled. "Oh, I had plenty of up days and down days, and still do – but I realized that I didn't have to kill myself to free myself. I mean, I'd already reached that decision anyway, but that just sort of defined it. The only reason I ever got to that point was Carole, just being here, trying to help, trying to understand, trying to make me understand that it wasn't just totally hopeless."
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Carole said. "Please don't ever tell this to anyone, but a lot of that period that I thought Wendy was right. I couldn't say it out loud, I didn't even dare think it when I was around her. I wasn't a hell of a lot less bitter about it than she was. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could help her and not get caught." She let out a sigh. "But, I wasn't very good at that, either. Brenda, I'm in the field I'm in now because of what I learned in those days. Maybe I can help someone else learn what I had to learn the hard way. But, yeah, Brenda, you're right, at least about that period. I kept the Soliels on because they gave me some little way to connect with Wendy, to feel her pain, just like you've tried to do."
"I thought she was a damn fool the first instant I heard about it, way back before the accident," Wendy told her. "I thought she was a damn fool to actually do it, but well, she's my sister, so if she wants to try something stupid, I wasn't going to stand in her way. Again, you don't have any idea of what kind of a damn fool I thought she was when I realized after the accident that she was still wearing them. I wanted her to take the goddamn things off almost as bad as I wanted to kill myself." She sighed. "I guess I was so centered on what had happened to me that I didn't realize how hard it had hurt her, too. It took me a while to learn that."
"I understood that," Carole said, her mind obviously back on bad days.
"Like I said," Wendy continued. "I thought she was a goddamn fool to keep wearing the handcuffs, but when something like this happens to you, you need some hope. Well, she gave me a little hope to work through my anger, something to work toward. You know how I can move my two fingers a little? Well, it was barely there after the accident, just twitches, but at least there were a few nerve connections still working. Really, I thought it was pretty useless. But Carole at least had thought it through and understood how being able to use those two fingers would make life better for me. It seemed like an almost impossible chore, lots of physical therapy, lots of concentration, a couple of surgeries, and more practice than you could believe. But, like I said, I didn't think it would be worth the effort, so she set a goal for me."
"I told her that she locked the Soliels on me," Carole said. "If she wanted them off so goddamn bad she'd have to take them off herself. I don't know that she's there yet. She's got a lot more use of her fingers now than she's had for years. But they stay on till she unlocks them, and if she can't unlock them, they stay on forever. If they do, so be it, I'm resigned to it."
"Don't be so damn sure," Wendy snorted. "I almost think I could do it now. Maybe we ought to give it a try."
Carole looked at her, a little uncertainly, "I don't want you disappointed if you fail," she said in a small voice.
"Oh, bull," Wendy snorted again. "We'll never know unless we try. If I can't do it, we'll try again in a few months. Brenda, I know I could never get the dust covers off, but I didn't put them on, either. Would you do the honors?"
"But, Wendy," Carole protested. "I'm not sure . . ."
"It doesn't matter," Wendy told her, a hard note to her voice. "Go get the boxes and dig out the dust cover tool so Brenda can take them off. We're not going to know unless we try."
It was not a slow or easy project, just to get to the starting point. It would have been somewhat simpler had the keyhole dust covers been on the top of the Soliels, but they were on the bottom, with the lock cylinders perpendicular to Carole's wrists. Wendy moved much of Jeeves out of the way with voice commands, Brenda found a table that was the right height, and taped Wendy's arm to it so it wouldn't slide around. Then, Carole had to hunch over the table and twist around in such a way that Wendy could also see the key and the lock.
Consider the task that Wendy faced. It sounds easy. It was not. Most people pick up keys, put them in locks, and turn them without thinking about it. It's one of those ordinary chores everyone faces – but for Wendy, it was far and away the most difficult physical task that she'd tried to accomplish with anything but her mouth in the five and a half years since the jetski accident.
Find a table. Slide it up under the lock to your front door. Then find a board; tape it to your arm, your wrist, your hand; tape down your middle finger, forefinger and thumb. Tape them so solidly that you cannot move anything but your ring finger and little finger. If you're right handed, make it your left that you've immobilized, and you still have more feeling, much more control of those fingers, and more range of motion, than Wendy had. Tape the whole works to the table, so you can reach the key and the lock – then unlock your front door. It is much easier for you than it was for Wendy.
Even picking up the key was difficult for Wendy. By itself, it lay flat on the table, with no way for her nearly numb fingers to get a grip on it. Brenda finally wadded up a little piece of tape for the key to lean against. Once, ten times, twenty times, Wendy managed to get it between her fingers, pick it up, and get it near the lock cylinder of the right-hand cuff of the Soliels, but each time, she dropped it before she could get it started in the lock.
Several times, Carole suggested that they put it off for a while, but Wendy was grim. Once, it got close to yelling. Several times, Wendy had Carole move slightly, in order to improve the positioning. On the thirtieth, or fortieth, or fiftieth try – no one was keeping count – Wendy finally managed to get the tip of the key in the keyhole. Getting it in position to put it in proved too much; the key slipped, and it slipped from her fingers like it had so many times before.
"You want to quit?" Carole asked for the twentieth time, perhaps.
"Hell, no," Wendy said. "I'm just getting this figured out."
Once again, Brenda stood the key up against the little wad of tape. It was slow. Agonizingly slow. How much endurance could those two barely controlled fingers have, anyway, she wondered. How much strength? Brenda watched the struggle of Wendy's hand, trying to control the key, but she watched Wendy, too. It took extreme concentration for her; Brenda could see beads of sweat popping from her brow as she strained.
After several more attempts, Wendy managed to get the tip of the key in the keyhole again – and this time, she was able to keep just a little tension on it with her ring finger as she gave the key a small push with her little finger. It took a little bit of jockeying, but in a few seconds, the key had slipped into place.
Wendy took a minute to just breathe – she was very nearly out of breath from the struggle. More importantly, now she faced a new problem, and she lay back and focused mentally on how to solve it – turning the key a quarter turn.
It was not easy. Wendy had no use of her wrist at all – just those two barely working fingers that she somehow had to use to twist the key between them. It went slowly, only a few degrees at a time, until finally, she had the key nearly through that quarter turn, and had to push it against the tiny springs of the tumblers in the lock. Nearly there; here concentration was intense, and she was straining with every one of the few muscles she could use . . .
Just a tiny sound, so tiny that it could barely be heard over the soft whirring of Jeeves' power supply, but it echoed loudly through the heads of the three of them. Brenda felt tears in her eyes. Carole's back was to her, but she could hear her saying, almost moaning, over and over again, in total disbelief, "My God! My God! My God!"
Brenda turned to Wendy, who had the world's biggest grin on her face. "Told you I could do it," she said. "Let's do the other one."
Carole hadn't moved a muscle, except to stare down at the unbelievable sight. Brenda had to physically move Carole's hands and body to a position where Wendy could see – and Brenda could place her hand to reach – the other cuff. This was an even more awkward position for Carole, but she made no word of protest, except for the tears that cascaded from her face.
Brenda wondered how long Carole would be able to hold that position, how long Wendy's strength would hold out, how long her concentration would last.
But, practice makes perfect. Brenda could see Carole watching in shock and utter disbelief as Wendy picked up the second key that Brenda arranged for her. On only the fifth try, in utter silence, Wendy managed to get the key in the lock to stay. It still took extreme concentration, but after a minute, the dead silence was filled with another click.
"My God!" Carole said again, but this time, it wasn't a low moan, but almost a scream. She'd been bent over in an uncomfortable position to allow Wendy to be able to reach the locks at all, but now she stood up; as she did, the Soliels clattered to the floor. She picked up her hands and stared at her wrists, free of the handcuffs for the first time in almost six years. As skilled a writer as Brenda was, she could not have found a single word to describe Carole's face, but shock, disbelief, and perhaps even terror captured some of it. Tears were rolling down her face, and she was now in open sobs. She wasn't the only one; all of them were crying a little, now, at this unexpected scene. Finally, Carole collapsed in an armchair, put her face in her now-freed hands, and just continued to cry.
After a minute, Wendy looked at her sister, then pulled herself together a little and said, "Brenda, I think I'm on a roll. Would you like me to unlock yours, too?"
"I would be honored," Brenda replied, tears still hot in her own eyes.
Carole hadn't even come close to starting to pull herself together – she just sat in the chair and cried, with Brenda thinking she must be crying away all the tears she'd held inside her over Wendy for five and a half years. Or, perhaps, was she terrified about how she was going to cope with this unexpected change in her life?
There was no way Carole was in any condition to help with the dust covers on Brenda's Soliels, but Brenda managed to work her hands around so she could remove them herself, using Jeeves' mirror for guidance. With them off, she threw them in the box with the tools, and got out the keys, and got Carole's Soliels from the floor where she'd have to stand, and put them in their box, along with the keys, dust covers and dust cover tools. Finally, she hunched over and set her hands down on the table like Carole had done, set the key in place, and watched Wendy reach for it.
And yes, Wendy was on a roll. It took a few tries to get the key in the lock, but once it was there, it went a lot easier for Wendy – practice makes perfect, and she didn't even have to concentrate quite as hard. She rested for a moment before she started the second lock, and could hear Wendy whisper over the sound of the continuing sobs from Carole, "They were coming off today anyway. We thought you were beginning to like them a little too well."
"I understand," Brenda whispered back, then changed the position of Wendy's hand again, and her own position to allow Wendy to get to the last lock. It could not have taken her more than two minutes to unlock it; for the first time in sixty-three days, almost to the minute, Brenda could move her wrists farther than five inches apart.
And, that did it. Now, Wendy broke down in tears of her own. "My God," she sobbed, "I never thought I'd see this day come."
But, Brenda barely heard her. She knew that in Wendy's quiet words of a couple minutes before, she'd been given a mission. As unobtrusively as possible, she gathered up her Soliels, put them in the box with the keys, then picked up both boxes and headed outside.
She was only gone a minute, but when she returned, she found Carole hunched over Wendy, holding her head in her hands, with wrists still so close together that they might as well still have been wearing the Soliels. The two were still just sharing tears – tears of happiness, tears of . . . sadness, though there were no words spoken. Brenda had accomplished what she'd gone outside to do, but she could have taken her time; it was several minutes before Carole pulled away from her sister, turned to Brenda, and asked ominously, "What did you do with the Soliels?"
"They're in a safe place," Brenda said, realizing now that her fears – and Wendy's unspoken fears – had been well placed.
"Where?" Carole asked, anger rising.
"It doesn't matter where," Brenda said flatly.
"Brenda," Carole said, as angry as Brenda had ever known her. "Where did you put them?"
"You want to put them back on, don't you?"
"Yes," Carole screamed. "Goddamn it! What am I going to do? They're a big part of who I am. I could make you give them back!"
Brenda stared at her with a hard expression. "I don't think you can.," she said, in a level tone. "You don't know what I did with them, you don't have steel wrists anymore, and I'm better at martial arts without them than you are."
"But I need them!" Carole cried, breaking down into huge sobs. "Give them back."
"No way in hell," Brenda said, and went to put her arms around her friend. After nine weeks in handcuffs, it felt strange to be able to spread her arms. In a tone she hoped that would be firm and supporting, but loudly enough that she hoped she was getting through the sobs, "Think of all your sister went through to do that, not just today, but all the months of therapy, all the years of hoping and working toward this. Carole, I refuse to let you shame her."
Brenda could feel Carole's body buck with sobs as she said, "But what am I going to do without them?"
"You're just going to have to learn to adapt to this change," Brenda said softly, pulling her hug tighter, trying to support her friend in her agony. "Just like Wendy had to learn, just like all the people you work with have to learn. I'll help you get through this, Carole. Wendy will help, too, but if I have anything to say about it you're never going to wear handcuffs again."