“The easiest way for me to wheel out to the garden room is through my bedroom, so don’t get the wrong idea and think I’m trying to get you into a compromising position.” Alex spun in his wheelchair so that he could back over the little ramp that had been installed over the door jam.
He’d found backing over things to be surprisingly easier than pushing himself forward. Something in his arm muscles offered more leverage that way. Plus, this gave him easier view of Ellen’s face as he teased her.
“I would never think that Alex.” Ellen flirted right back. She had loosened up her cynical haughtiness since when they’d first met. Not that he didn’t deserve her snubs. All she’d ever known of him since he’d entered high school was the womanizer he used to be. “I’m quite aware how much you have changed.”
Was she ever? Ellen knew more about his near-death experience than anyone in the world, if that’s what he could call his three-day coma. He never felt dead during the event; rather very much alive. Perhaps more alive than any other time he’d lived on this earth.
But having no other words or phrases to accurately describe that period of awareness, and because the phrase seemed to comfort everyone else, he’d resigned to referring to his coma as a near-death experience. His physical body may not have been responding, but his mind and spirit and being were in tune with a higher plane of existence.
Ellen was also one of the few people who embraced the way Alex referred to his experience as paradise rather than heaven or an afterlife or something lame like that.
Alex had heard every cliché question from his friends and family. Did you go to heaven? Was there a bright light? Did you see angels? Did you meet God? That question always gave him pause.
Did you meet God?
He wanted to turn the answer on its head, but he wasn’t sure anyone would truly understand. If he could rephrase the question, he’d be able to give an accurate answer. Were you with God? Wholeheartedly, without a doubt, he had been in the presence of God. A concept he previously hadn’t known to exist.
And yet, the moment he was back within God’s presence, Alex had realized he’d known the truth all along. He’d just forgotten. Like a veil had been removed from his eyes and he could see again.
So, when his physical therapist, Malik Alaunus, had suggested he write the story of his experience, Alex had agreed wholeheartedly. He just didn’t realize Malik would send his daughter, Ellen, to be his ghost writer.
Ellen knew Alex from school, but Alex didn’t remember Ellen. She was the geeky girl in the back of the classroom, leaning over a notebook with a pen in hand, writing. Alex was the handsome class president, honorary prince to his best friends, the Sayid princes. He was Mr. Popular, most-likely-to-succeed, guy who could get any girl he wanted, and frequently did. He would never notice Ellen, and if he had, he would have wanted her too.
Alex was glad he had never met Ellen.
He was glad that he had never done anything or said anything or wanted anything from her that would make their experience any more awkward than this already was.
Because in telling his story, Alex had to allow Ellen to see the inner workings of his heart and mind. He had to be more vulnerable with her than if he’d stood on that stage to give his graduation speech in his underwear. She knew things about him that he didn’t want anyone to know.
And yet, he wanted her to know.
Alex wanted Ellen to know everything.
Today he wanted to tell her something that he wasn’t sure he could say out loud, and so he planned to avoid the subject as long as possible until the sentence popped out of his mouth of its own volition.
But first they had to put the finishing touches on their book. They’d been working on it since last December while he was still in the hospital. Now, eight weeks after graduation, they were almost done.
“This used to be my parents’ bedroom until my accident left me with a noticeable inability to walk up the stairs.” Alex glanced around at the sports memorabilia and video game consoles and souvenirs from rock concerts he’d attended. They all seemed so juvenile now. “My parents moved everything down here and traded rooms with me. And I do mean everything.”
Alex opened the drawer beside his bed to show her the large box of unmentionables that he’d been morbidly embarrassed his mother had discovered.
“Why, Alex, I do believe you promised you weren’t bringing me into your bedroom to seduce me,” Ellen drawled in fake Southern accent. “Whatever would you need those for?”
“I won’t need them.” Alex shoved the dresser drawer closed a little harder than he’d meant to. “Because that part of my body doesn’t work anymore, remember?”
He wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know. Between her father and Alex speaking candidly and openly about pretty much everything involving his paralysis, and him sharing the intimate secrets from the darkest reaches of his mind in the writing of their book, he couldn’t hide anything from her if he wanted to. Which he didn’t.
“This is my walk-in closet filled with clothes I can’t reach so I don’t wear, and this is my extra-large bathroom, complete with handicap bars, a state-of-the-art alarm system to warn my team of medical professionals if my temperature is one degree two high, or my pee is the wrong color. There’s also a shower large enough for two if you’d like to join me. Although once you fit my wheelchair in there, the shower is a lot less roomy.”
“Wait—” Ellen stopped him. “Why doesn’t someone move your clothes to a lower rack so you can wear them?”
Alex glanced down at his workout pants, T-shirt, and hoody. “These are more comfortable, and I can get them on and off by myself. I hate asking for any more help than I already need. Plus, when my physical therapist shows up to torture me, he doesn’t have to wait for me to change my clothes.”
“Good point.” Ellen walked all the way into his closet and started thumbing through his dress shirts.
“Whatcha doin’, babe?”
“I’m gonna borrow one of your shirts,” she explained. “If you’re not gonna wear them, I want to.” She chose a dark pink Hugo Boss dress shirt that Alex used to wear with a black silk tie and custom-tailored slacks. Paired with his $700 Cordovan shoes, he’d been one of the best-dressed guys at the party wherever he went.
Ellen slipped the shirt off the hanger and handed it to Alex. Then, just to test his theory about his body’s inability to react to external stimuli, she slipped her casual jersey shirt over her head, revealing a black bra and nothing else. Alex’s jaw dropped.
“Trade ya.” She tossed him her discarded shirt, which smelled like her perfume and body lotion got together to create their own unique fragrance. She took his button-up and never released his gaze as she made a show of selecting exactly which buttons to fasten, purposely leaving the top two open, and the bottom three. With the remaining fabric, Ellen tied the shirt like a schoolgirl right out of a Britney Spears music video. She held out her arms in a runaway model pose. “Do I look okay?”
The sound that emerged from somewhere inside Alex’s throat was more of a whimper than a word of affirmation.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Ellen leaned down and kissed Alex lightly on his lips, before whispering close to his ear. “You can keep mine.”
“I’m going to sleep with it tonight,” he said in a husky voice. “And every night. From now until eternity.”
“You do that.” She patted him on the shoulder as she left his closet and called back to him. “Come on. We’re supposed to be writing a book in the garden room. We’re running out of time before my father gets here to torture you, I mean do your physical therapy.”
“If he knew the inappropriate thoughts I was having about his daughter, that physical therapy session would be more torture and less therapy.”
Alex turned his wheelchair around and made a beeline for his bedside table, stopping long enough to fold the shirt and place it inside the drawer right on top of that half-full box of latex heaven. Maybe he would need them someday. He mumbled under his breath, “A guy could always hope.”