The sheets wadded around her, leaving her feeling as trapped in the bed as her mind was in the dream that haunted her. Again and again, the same dream, the same dream, the same dream—the nightmare she’d lived once and relived far too many nights. Mel prayed for an ending, for the memory she could not recall. Would the dreams end? Would they truly end if she could unlock the door to that piece of her mind where something mysterious lay buried?
Her left foot itched, and Mel groaned in frustration. There was no foot to scratch, making the itch a tormenting hint of what purgatory must be. She used a technique she’d learned while in recovery at Bethesda, one taught not by a physical therapist or doctor, but by a fellow vet, an old man, his own leg lost decades before in Southeast Asia. They’d both been outside, wheelchair bound, breathing fresh air and feeling sunshine, which Mel gobbled at like a starving woman handed a loaf of bread. Too long she’d been trapped in a field tent, then hospital ship, then the hospital itself. The spring morning felt wonderful, but her foot itched, the one she no longer had. From a few feet away, the old man looked up and watched as she lifted her leg, the one that ended like an incomplete sentence. She scratched tenderly, desperate to end the itch but mindful of the still healing flesh.
“Find the line,” he said with a shaky voice.
She looked at him for the first time, seeing a yellowish face, one that spoke of the alcohol that had helped him survive the years.
“What line?” she asked.
“Nerves go in a line. Find the one that led to your foot. Scratch up it ‘til you find the right spot.”
Feeling a tad foolish but ready to try anything, Mel did as he instructed. She started near the stump, surprised that she instinctively knew she’d found the right “line.” Up she went, scratching along the way—up the calf, then thigh, along the hip and to her stomach until she found a spot that, like magic, felt exactly like she was scratching the phantom foot. She sighed in relief.
“Thanks,” she said. She grasped the metal hand rim attached to the chair’s wheels and deftly maneu-vered closer, facing the man. “That’s a good trick. I appreciate you sharing.”
“We’re all in this together,” the man answered. He pointed to her left leg. “That will get better.” His eyes were an intensely faded gold as he looked her full in the face. “Have the dreams?”
Mel’s breath caught in her throat. “Yes,” she answered, ashamed of the break in her voice.
“Those may not,” he added.
He’d been right.
Mel found the spot on her stomach, one she could now find without searching and scratched the phantom foot, eliciting a sigh of relief. Using her good leg, she kicked at the covers, breaking free of their bondage. She swung around to sit on the side of the bed. Ignoring the prosthesis hanging from a bedpost, she hopped the few feet from the bed to the door of the master bathroom. She paused, leaning on the doorframe for a moment before hopping again to the toilet to pee then to the sink where she gripped the sides of the porcelain, taking unexpected comfort in the cold, smooth surface. She looked in the mirror at the dark circles under her eyes, a fresh streak of gray beside her right temple, adding a new dimension to the auburn of her hair. Her face still reflected the beauty that had been a blessing and a curse all her life, but there was a gauntness. A haunting, oddly beautiful in its own way, replaced the passion in the blue of her eyes, but her reflection held a strangeness for her. She wondered who this woman was. Gone was Navy Captain Melinda Morris. She saw a shadow of that confident, courageous woman, one whom she’d been proud to know, proud to be.
“Broken,” she whispered. “You’re broken,” she said to that stranger in the mirror. Then she saw a flash of anger in the reflected blue of the eyes. She grasped a glass on the shelf below the mirror and launched it toward the linen closet door, smiling viciously at the rewarding sound of breaking glass.
“I’ll whip this, you hear me!” she yelled into the mirror, jabbing at the image with a forefinger. Then her voice took on a softer note as she looked sympa-thetically at the reflected face. “We’ll whip this.”
Mel shook her head then turned the cold water on full blast, leaning toward the sink to splash her face, hands, and arms. She brushed her teeth, using her cupped hand for water to rinse the froth away, improvising with the absence of the now broken glass. She swiveled on her only foot toward the door, pausing as she looked at the broken glass scattered between her and her only egress.
“Shit,” she mumbled. “That was stupid.”
She grasped the edge of the sink for support and lowered herself to the floor, pulling a trash container toward her with one hand and a small towel from the rack beside the sink with the other. She carefully picked up the large shards of glass, placing them in the container, systematically following behind with the damp towel to retrieve the smaller pieces from the floor. By the time she’d ooched all the way across to the door, the glass was retrieved, and she felt it was safe to stand. She threw the towel on top of the glass in the container and set it to the side, knowing she could now add it to the large trash can on the service porch that she would later take to the rural dump station ten miles away, one that served farms and ranches within a twenty-mile radius. Mel used the doorknob to pull herself to a standing position, once again ignoring the prosthesis hanging from the bed post. She hopped to the closet and, from a shelf, pulled another prosthesis from where it rested beside a well-worn running shoe. The left shoe rested beside it, not as worn. She threw the shoe and spring-like pseudo-foot onto the bed then pivoted to the dresser where she pulled fresh, clean running shorts, t-shirt, sports bra, underwear, and a single sock from a drawer.
Shorty pajamas were abandoned, and Mel dressed quickly, craving the run that she knew would clear her mind and ease the pain of her heart. For much of her life, running had been her go-to when life was too much, whether it be pain or joy. Only time spent on the back of a horse had ever surpassed the simple comfort and ecstasy she found in running. Well, not the only thing. Mel shook her head, pushing that thought aside. She wasn’t ready to think of a woman, any woman. Even as fantasy, the possibility of the level of pleasure of soft flesh, smooth skin, and the intensity of simple arousal seemed too far away, too unattainable—too vulnerable. Some days, most days actually, she still managed to function by keeping the flood of emotions behind a dam of self-control. To lower the floodgates, even for the prospect of love, risked a deluge of emotional pain that could drown her, and she knew it.
“Whatever happens, sweet Melinda, the ranch is here. Come home if you need us.” Mel heard her father’s voice through the echoes of memory. It had been at the airport as he’d seen her off, a frightened young woman, her college sheepskin still fresh, leaving for a twenty-five-year adventure as she entered Officer Candidate School for the US Navy.
He was dead now; a heart attack abruptly ended his presence as the cornerstone of the family. Her mother lived in a nursing home; the Alzheimer’s had finally become more than her brother and sister-in-law could manage on their own. Her parents were gone, but her father had been right. The ranch was still there, and she’d come home. She had come home broken. The house and the room that had been her parents’ was now hers. The New Mexico prairie had been her first love, but the sea had been her life. No longer. She must fan the coals of her love of the land. It had sustained her once. She prayed it would again.
Mel stood abruptly, unable to overcome decades of Navy habit as she fought to control the chaos of covers caused by her restless night. Finally, the bed was made, ship-shape. She bounced a time or two as she finished the task. She smiled, pleased at the surprising exhilaration she felt at the motion made possible by the prosthesis specifically designed for her as a runner. She bounced out of the bedroom and past the kitchen, pausing only for a quick glass of orange juice. Breakfast would come later. She knew she needed to eat or face the nagging of a well-intended sister-in-law, troubled at the weight Mel lost during her long recovery. She had always been fit and lean, a fact that had been somewhat detrimental during her recovery. A few extra pounds would have been a nice reserve.
The screen door slammed behind her as she stepped outside. The horses were out to pasture and the chicken house was empty, so there were no chores to delay her sprint into the cool of the morning. Mel headed out of the driveway and down the county road, knowing there would be no traffic to slow her. Only three ranches had headquarters along this road, and the nearest was five miles away. As she felt the rush of air around her and the motion of her own body, for a time, all the pain, the nightmares, the grief were forgotten. She was lost in the animalistic joy of motion, of the thump of her heart and the rhythm of her running steps, actually enhanced by the artificial foot that gave her extra power.
But prostheses are made for city sidewalks or cinder tracks, not rutted caliche roads. The tip of the spring foot caught a clod in the road, and Mel’s joyous run turned into a tumultuous fall. As she lay in the dirt, she realized more than her body had crashed. Perhaps it was having achieved a momentary high that made the unexpected fall so tragic. Despite a life-habit of determination and courage, despair covered Mel like a suffocating blanket. Not for the first time, she remembered the 9mm in her nightstand drawer. How easy it would be to end the pain.
“You’re a Morris.” Mel heard her father’s stern voice through the ears of memory. “And we don’t give up.”
She remembered the first time she heard that litany. Her father had dried her childish tears, checked her for broken bones, then set her on her feet and simply pointed at the paint pony that had so recently dumped her. Five-year-old Mel had sniffled, but she got back on the horse.
Mel stood, looked at the blood on her arm from a long scrap from elbow to wrist.
“I hear you, Daddy,” she mumbled.
The run home was slower, hampered by a limp, but she ran. After all, she was a Morris, and they don’t give up.
A love of words and an appreciation for the power of language has been a life-long passion for Kayt Peck. Her career as a writer has included journalist, public affairs officer in the Naval Reserve, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and a long-time career as a grant expert/writer having raised over $30 million for public and nonprofit organizations both domestic and international. Peck’s goal to lead a full life has given her diverse fodder for her work. In addition to growing up on Texas farm and ranch, she is a longtime volunteer firefighter, currently serving as assistant chief for her department, and was a long-time New Mexico Search and Rescue volunteer. She currently has seven novels in print with Sapphire Books, and she is a two-time winner in the Rocky Mountain Voices playwriting competition. Three of her novels were finalist in the New Mexico/Arizona Book Competition.