Monday, December 27, 2010

Chapter 29

To Find Strength Outside One's Self

The slipping of September into October brought with it not only a drop in temperatures, but a drastic drop in Edward's spirits as well. The last week of the previous month had been one of the hardest ever for him. In just one week he'd sold his beloved truck and had faced the most difficult financial decision of his life.

Just a few years short of paying his house off—after spending the last five years of nearly killing himself to make double payments as often as possible on his fifteen year mortgage—Edward came to the conclusion that the only way he'd survive his impending financial ruin, was to refinance his home. He felt as though all his hard work over the past decade was being flushed down the drain right before his very eyes, and to make matters worse, that very same week marked Bella's return to work.

Gone were the days of having her near constant support and comforting companionship. Left in her wake was what seemed to be a revolving door of family members and friends—and most damagingly, with them accompanied the persistent reminder of everything he'd lost and was fighting daily to regain.

One would think that Bella's presence in Edward's life would have served as the painful reminder of what he'd sacrificed so she could live. But, on the contrary, it wasn't her presence that served as that glaring reminder. It was the seemingly constant squawks and tones over the two-way radios carried by his brother, father, and friends; the lingering, pungent odor of smoke and soot that clung to their skin and clothes after a long shift; the excitement and adrenaline that brimmed and spilled over in his presence while they enthusiastically recounted ferocious battles with the fiery beasts they'd emerged from victoriously—while he sat stagnant and useless on the sidelines.

Until Bella had returned to work, he hadn't realized just how effective she was at buoying the effects of those constant reminders that surrounded him. She reminded him not of what he'd lost, but of what his sacrifice had been worth, and that alone spared him from drowning in the bitterness of his desperate longing to return to his life's calling. But now, as her presence dwindled to an inkling of its previous near constancy, he was finding himself sinking rather than treading in the deep, murky, and turbulent waters of his unfulfilled desires.

At the sound of yet another series of tones squealing through a handheld EMS/Fire scanner, Edward's gaze broke away from the churning storm clouds outside the car window. His head snapped to the side, a fierce scowl on his face as he looked at Emmett beside him in the driver's seat.

"Will you shut that damn thing off already?"

His angry bark only earned a disheartened sigh from Emmett as he reached up to the visor to silence the device. Never in their lives had his brother ever been bothered by the noise that filtered through the radios. Edward owned multiple scanners that he had rarely, if ever, turned off—at least, he never had before the night of the N. Orchard Street fire that had nearly taken his life.

Emmett understood how difficult it had to be for his brother to be sidelined from the career that had encompassed nearly every aspect of his life. Edward loved the job; lived for it. It was because of his passion for their line of work that Emmett was saddened by Edward's recent distancing of himself to anything fire department related. It worried him endlessly the further his brother pulled himself away from what had been his greatest love—what had defined and sculpted who he was down to the very core.

Edward was a firefighter. There was no question about it; there had never been a moment of indecision in his life regarding it. Where some wander through life in search of their calling, Edward had been born with the knowledge of his. It was in his very blood, and Emmett worried that without it, his brother would lose any sense of self-identity he'd ever known. And as he thought about that, he finally understood why his brother had said he'd never regret saving Bella, but he might regret surviving. From what Emmett was beginning to see, it was entirely possible that he was already beginning to.

"Are you ready?" Emmett asked quietly, realizing his brother seemed oblivious to their arrival at the physical rehabilitation center. His gaze had been locked out of the passenger side window for the last ten minutes, but it took little for Emmett to understand Edward wasn't seeing anything beyond the rain droplet flecked glass.

At the sound of his brother's voice, Edward sighed to himself and nodded as he unbuckled his seatbelt. Within just a few short minutes, he was wheeling himself into the building where, undoubtedly, nothing would differ from the day before. He'd spend the next few hours doing the same exercises, being physically manipulated in the same ways as every other day, and at the end of it, he'd wheel himself back out feeling a few shades more hopeless than he had the previous day. As expected, October's days stretched on into weeks of monotonous activity, where one day was impossible to distinguish from the next, and Edward slipped further and further back into the dagger-like clutches of depression.

A loud clap of thunder, strong enough to shake the entire building, startled Bella out of the trance-like state she'd been in for the last forty-five minutes while watching the hellacious storm wreak havoc outside her office window. She shared the spacious room with seven other people; all of which were currently out of the building either running errands for one of the city prosecutors, digging through case files in the courthouse file room, or were down at the library researching information for a newly acquired case. She, herself, at that moment, should have been tending to at least one of the dozens of tasks she needed to complete before heading home for the weekend, but her focus that day had exited the building long before she'd even stepped foot into it.

Her thoughts were circling nowhere in the vicinity of which dockets she needed to gather from the courthouse, or which court rulings from a similar case from decades before would assist Jay in achieving the conviction and sentence he was seeking for some nameless, faceless defendant. Instead, Bella's mind was swirling around the one name and face that had taken up permanent residence in her thoughts.


She was worried about him. Ever since she'd returned to work— returned to the career she'd once buried herself in to keep from lamenting over the areas of her life which were glaringly empty and unfulfilled—she hadn't been able to take her mind off of his rapidly deteriorating mental state. Her worries over him plagued her mind constantly from the time she woke up in the morning, until the time she finally succumbed to her exhaustion and fell into a fitful sleep.

She couldn't keep going the way she was. Her ability to focus at work was becoming increasingly difficult as the days wore on, and the little to no sleep she was getting each night wasn't helping matters any. The surreptitious glances of concern that had been tossed in her direction when she'd first returned had begun to turn into full on judgmental gazes. If her lack of focus continued, she had no doubt her ability to perform her job would soon come into question, and that was something she truly couldn't afford to have happen.

Like her, Edward couldn't keep going the way he was either. Progress in his physical therapy had been slight and slow-coming, and often left him suffering for hours afterwards from uncontrollable spasms in his legs. It was heart wrenching to see him in such discomfort, but even worse than the physical pain was being able to see the mental anguish he was suffering. With each day that passed where his tremendous efforts brought forth no distinguishable change in his condition, she witnessed him lose another ounce of hope that he'd one day walk again. She worried that if he didn't show any signs of improvement, and soon, he'd give up entirely.

Something needed to change or they were both going to go down like sinking ships in the middle of a desolate ocean.

Bella sighed to herself as she glanced at the stacks of files on her desk that she needed to bring back to the courthouse, and quickly looked at her watch. She should have had them returned over an hour ago. If she had any luck at all, she'd be able to complete her tasks and make it to Edward's just in time to tidy up a bit before the guys from the station arrived for their once traditional weekly poker night. Why they'd chosen last minute to move their game night venue from Felix's place, to Edward's, Bella didn't have the slightest clue. She just hoped that a night with the guys would be just the distraction from the constant stress and mental battles that he desperately needed.

After two trips back and forth from her office to load the two stacks of case files into her trunk, Bella sat in the driver's seat and eyed the highlighted name in her cell phone's contact list with wary contemplation. Knowing she'd be short on time, even if she managed to finish all of her tasks without further distraction, she released her lip from the vice of her teeth and pressed the button her finger had been hovering over.

Two rings later, a voice answered over the high pitched wail of a baby's cry.

"Rosalie? It's Bella..." she replied, a slight case of nerves making her voice tremble. It didn't sound as though Ian was having a good day, and she hoped her call wouldn't be the proverbial pebble disturbing the calm waters between them over the past few weeks. She and Rosalie hadn't made mile-long strides in forming a friendship, but there'd been a tremendous relief of tension in the air between them. "I might need to ask a favor of you."

"I might, or might not, be able to grant you one," Rose replied, and Bella breathed a sigh of relief at her teasing tone. She'd take teasing over cold and abrasive any day of the week. "What do you need?"

"I was going to make some nachos and buffalo wings for the guys tonight, but I was too tired to go to the store last night on my way home, and I won't have enough time to swing by the store, tidy up, and have the food made before they get there. Is there any chance you could do a small grocery run for me? I'll give Emmett the money to cover the bill tonight."

"Yeah, I can do that," Rose answered as Ian wailed even louder. "It's coming cranky pants. Mommy doesn't have ten hands, you know."

"Lunch time?" Bella chuckled.

"Every three hours on the dot. He's nothing if not punctual when it comes to his bottle. Crap," Rosalie huffed suddenly. "Let me get off of here. I just dumped the damn container of formula all over the floor. Just text me the list."

Bella was about to thank her when she heard a clatter and the call disconnected.

"Well that could have gone worse," she mumbled to herself as she started her car. After a quick text to Rose, composed of the shopping list and a thank you, Bella headed off toward the courthouse.

Across town, lying flat on his back on a padded mat, Edward tried to drown out both Seth and Emmett's voices. He didn't have it in him in that moment to push himself the way he did during every previous session. He was tired—physically and mentally drained, his back throbbed with a relentless ache that wouldn't ease no matter what Seth did to attempt to relieve it, and his left shoulder was sore from having slept on it wrong the previous night.

"C'mon, man. You can do this," Seth encouraged, sitting to Edward's right with one hand curled beneath his ankle, and the other pressed against the back of his knee.

An angry tear of hopelessness slipped out of the corner of Edward's eye and quickly disappeared into his hair as he shook his head.

"I can't. Every day I try, and every goddamn day I can't do it. I's been two fucking months of this shit. I give."

"The hell you do," Emmett growled, pissed at the defeat he was hearing in his brother's voice. "You've never giving up on a damn thing in your life and you're not starting with this. Now try."

"Not today...please, just not today," Edward shook his head again while gritting his teeth to fight back the tears he didn't want to shed. "I can't fail again today...I just fucking can't."

"Alright, c'mon...let's sit you up," Seth sighed, removing his hands from Edward's leg and moving to help him up.

"That's it? You're just gonna let him give up?" Emmett barked, incredulous and angry.

"No, that's not it," Seth answered, shaking his head as he braced Edward's back with one arm as he pushed himself up. "Rehabilitation doesn't just focus on the physical aspects of an injury or illness. The mental aspect of it is just as important, and today, we're going to focus on that part."

"C'mon. Let's get you back in your chair. I want you to meet someone," Seth said after taking a quick glance around the room.

After Seth excused himself, saying he'd be right back, Emmett crouched down in front of his brother. "You really want to throw in the towel this early in the game?"

"No, Em...I just can't do it today." His head tilted back and his eyes focused on one of the fluorescent lights in the ceiling as a million thoughts passed through his mind.

"I don't understand, bro. Talk to me. What makes today different than yesterday or tomorrow?"

Edward was silent for moments on end as he thought about how to answer that question. In truth, there wasn't anything distinguishably different between the days other than his current lack of ability to just push himself through it. That was the only difference, and it wasn't one that Emmett could really understand. Or maybe he could...

"Have you ever just needed a day away from everything?" he asked, lifting his head and looking at his brother. "I mean like everything, Em. Responsibilities, your surroundings,"

"Kind of," Emmett responded with a slight nod and half shrug. "So what do you want to do? I can't afford to take any time off, but..."

"That's not it, Emmett," Edward groaned. "I don't want to do anything. That was just the only way I could explain why today is different. It's just too much today...everything is too much to deal with today."

"I've heard that before...actually, I've said it before."

Emmett turned and Edward's eyes darted up at the unfamiliar voice intruding upon their conversation to see a young man hobbling toward them with the assistance of a walker.

"Edward, Emmett...this is Aaron," Seth introduced, walking slowly beside the young man.

"Give me a minute, or ten," he joked as he made slow progress toward them. Once he was within reach, he extended his right hand in greeting while bracing himself with his left still upon the handle of the walker.

Seth walked off and returned only a minute later with a chair for Aaron and then, once Aaron was settled, assumed the same squatting position that Emmett remained in.

"So I hear you're having a bit of a crap day," Aaron commented. At Edward's reluctant nod, he continued. "I've been there before...still have them from time to time."

"Aaron has been with us here for quite some time, haven't ya, buddy?" Seth chuckled.

"How long? What happened?" Emmett asked curiously.

"Just under three and a half years," he answered with a bob of his head. "Got into a car wreck in January of oh-five."

Edward's brow furrowed as his mind automatically caught the discrepancy in time between when he'd been in his accident and when he'd started physical therapy at the center. "Were you in rehab somewhere else before here?"

Aaron shook his head, a half grin crossing his lips. "No, when I woke up they told me I'd never walk again. Said there'd been too much damage."

"But you're walking..."

Aaron and Seth shared a glance as they laughed. When Aaron looked back at Edward, he nodded. "That I am, and with one leg, too."

He pulled up the leg of his track pants to show off his titanium prosthetic leg, and shrugged after lowering it back down. "I was eighteen, and stupid. A bunch of friends and I went to a party on a New Year's Eve and got wasted. My buddy swore he was sober enough to drive when we we got in the car with him.

"I don't remember really anything of what happened; one minute we were cruisin' along, and the next, we were rolling down the road. When I came to, my parents told me I'd been ejected halfway out of the car during one of the rolls, and my leg had been severed clear off when it flipped again."

"Holy..." Emmett gaped, stunned and unable to believe he'd even survived.

Edward, however, had to look away. As soon as the kid had described what had happened to him, vivid flashes of that late night call began assaulting his mind. His crew and Medic five had been the first on scene. he could remember every single detail of that horrific scene.

There'd been at least two inches of snow on the ground from a storm that had blown through just after Christmas, and it was sleeting that night. The roads had been a disaster just waiting to happen, and it did at precisely three-nineteen am. When they'd arrived on scene, the mangled late model Ford Taurus had been resting upside down on the opposite side of the highway and two bodies had been sprawled across the pavement.

Edward could vividly remember every thought that had passed through his head when he'd had to drape a tarp over Aaron's friend's lifeless body, while Aaron lay just twenty feet away, screaming and crying as medics tended to him. He could remember looking at the deceased boy's face and seeing Emmett's face instead, lifeless with wide open eyes. The boy wasn't much younger than his little brother, and he, too, was somewhere in the city, ringing in the new year with his friends.

Aaron had been the only survivor; his friends, Matthew and Daniel, were deceased on arrival. His other friend, the second passenger in the backseat, Marissa, died on scene after they'd extricated her from the twisted remains of the car. He'd never forget their names or their faces; not as long as he lived.

When Edward's gaze drifted back toward the face of the only victim of that crash he hadn't seen that night, Aaron was turned in his chair and pulling up the back of his shirt. Hidden beneath it was an almost foot and a half long scar; a straight line that went straight down the center of his back—right over his spine.

"They had to put in two rods and something like sixteen screws, to fix my spine. I couldn't feel anything from mid-chest down when I woke up. I didn't even realize my leg was missing," Aaron said after lowering his shirt and turning back in his chair.

"So how'd you go from being completely paralyzed to...not? Did doctors just diagnose you wrong or something?" Emmett asked.

"No...not exactly, anyway," Aaron answered, and paused to think of how to explain it to them. My spinal cord wasn't severed, but the damage was severe enough that the doctors didn't believe there was hope in recovery, but I didn't want to believe that. My parents and I spent more than six months bouncing around from specialist to specialist getting pretty much the same opinion over and over again. Then, in September of that year, my mother had heard that a new Neuro-surgeon had signed on at the hospital, and he was supposed to be one of the best in the country, so we went to see him."

Aaron smiled to himself as he thought of the man that had given him hope when everyone else had told him there was none to be had. "Dr. Ashford told us that there's no such thing as hopeless—that people all around the world who have been given that opinion in the past, experience degrees of recovery every day. He told us that with vigorous rehabilitation therapy, anything was possible. The only problem was we couldn't afford it because I'd been dropped from my parents' insurance when I turned nineteen. My parents sold their house and we moved in with my grandparents to be able to pay for it."

Aaron knew that what he was about to say was the reason behind why Seth asked him to meet Edward. When you reach the low points of recovery, sometimes the best way to keep hope alive is to be able to hear someone else's story of hardships and obstacles while being able to see their miracle with your own two eyes. Revitalization of his own hope had come by way of a woman named Carol—who he still talked to on a regular basis to that day.

"At the end of the first year, it felt like the sacrifices they'd made had been for nothing. I'd barely recovered any kind of sensation, and I still couldn't move anything. But my family, friends, and the people here kept pushing and encouraging me to keep fighting. So I did," Aaron grinned. "And slowly over the course of the next year I started making progress. Sometimes it was so minimal that I couldn't even tell, but one day it was like I woke up and realized that I could feel everything from head to toe, when just a year before, I couldn't feel anything."

Seth laughed as he clapped Aaron on the back. He'd just been an aide back then, during Aaron's first year, but he could remember it like it was yesterday. "We started making leaps and bounds after that, didn't we?"

"Yeah, something like that, anyway," Aaron chuckled before looking back and forth between Edward and Emmett. He was still smiling as he focused on Edward, and spoke solely to him. "There's no such thing as hopeless, Edward. They told me that and you watched me walk toward you. Keep fighting, man. It's hard, I know—but it's worth it in the end."

"So whattaya say, Edward? Ready to start again?" Seth asked as Emmett reached over to grip the back of Edward's neck in a show of support.

"Yeah...I think I am."

If that kid could do it when his injury had been far worse than his own, Edward believed he could do it, too. For the remaining hour and a half of his session, Edward gave everything he had, and more. And even when nothing miraculous happened, and he could feel no physical difference, Aaron's words kept him from feeling entirely defeated. Tomorrow was another day, and he'd try again.

"Hey," Seth called, jogging up to Edward and Emmett as they made their way toward the exit. "Aaron wanted me to give this to you."

He handed a slip of paper to him and smiled. "Ya did good today, man. I'll see you Monday, same time, same place. I'll bring my A-game if you bring yours."

"You got it," Edward chuckled, nodding. When Seth turned away, he turned the paper over and was met with Aaron's number and a note.

When the going gets tough, someone who gets it is just a phone call away - Aaron

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