Prairie Fire Excerpt
This excerpt begins at Chapter Seven where Prairie and Em first meet. We also meet Prairie’s extended family of roommates who prove integral to the story.
It had been over an hour since the driver dropped her off, and her now short temper was about to explode right along with her bladder. Surprisingly, Em found herself wishing she still had that disgusting catheter. Where was everyone? Anyone? She shifted her body once again, trying to find a comfortable position in a chair seat that was designed for function, not comfort.
The rehab room was deserted but for what were obviously resident torture devices of every size and description. Something wasn’t right about it. The silence was almost beyond silent to the point that it was suffocating. As she sat waiting, her impatience growing by leaps and bounds, she began to suspect the room had more than just the appearance of being abandoned. She fidgeted some more until, completely out of patience and in desperate need of a bathroom and assistance, she tried to wheel herself toward the exit in search of another human being.
Despite having been wheelchair bound for several months, Em’s movement was labored and far from smooth. Her lips pressed tightly together and normally subtle lines in her face creased into deep furrows, the result of months of unending pain of some degree or another. She labored toward the exit against the weight of her disability and opiates that kept her in a perpetual fog. Halfway there, Em’s travel was halted by the sudden presence of a woman who appeared at the doorway, pausing only for a moment before she sauntered into the room.
Em eyed the woman with an unsettling mixture of hostility and curiosity, and proceeded to take an immediate mental inventory. Em guessed she was in her early twenties and about five-foot-five or six—easily a good four or five inches shorter than Em. Her hair was flaming red, short-cropped and unruly. A spray of freckles lay across the bridge of her nose and cheekbones. Her eyes were big, and piercing blue, with a sparkle. The way her seemingly strong, athletic build filled out her hospital scrubs was extremely flattering—definitely not flat-chested. In another place and time, Em thought she might be a little sexy, and speculated about how she might look in street clothes.
The stranger sported navy blue scrubs that looked as if they had just been starched and ironed, and perfectly white tennis shoes that appeared to be right out of the box. It was unusual to see scrubs with every crease sharp and unwrinkled. They were impeccable. In all her time in the hospital in Texas, Em had never seen scrubs so neatly pressed. A Veterans Administration patch on the tunic confirmed their location. Right near the VA patch were two cloisonné lapel pins, one of which was an American flag, the other appeared to be an Air Force sergeant’s chevron similar to what would normally be worn on the collar of an Air Force uniform. A lanyard with hospital ID in a plastic sleeve hung around the woman’s neck, but the photo and name were not visible from where Em sat. Em was riveted, lost in the mental exercise of trying to process every last detail of the stranger standing before her, when the woman’s voice startled her. Em directed her focus to the woman’s face.
“There you are,” the woman said, her voice, tinged with a slightly masculine timbre and filled with relief. Her eyes glistened with her discovery. “I’ve been waiting for you since nine.” She motioned to the round clock on the wall. “You must be Mary-Mackenna. I’m Prairie.” She reached her hand out to Em, and added at the questioning look on Em’s face, “Yup, Prairie—just like it sounds,” and flashed a big, bright smile.
Em did not move or respond, but continued to stare without an iota of acknowledgement. Prairie continued smiling, and casually withdrew her hand, though inwardly she was startled and slightly thrown off balance by Em’s rebuff. For several moments the awkward silence between them practically devoured the room. Both parties sized each other up and calculated how to handle the situation to their own best advantage. Prairie would give her patient as much time as she needed to acknowledge Prairie’s presence, using the time to evaluate her new assignment.
Based on all immediate indications, Prairie quickly concluded that the person sitting before her wasn’t what she was expecting at all. After speaking to the patient’s doctors and therapist in Texas, Prairie knew her new patient was going to be a challenge, but she just wasn’t prepared for the stark reality in front of her. It was a struggle not to shake her head with pity, because the creature sitting in front of her was a pitiful sight, indeed.
Her new patient was painfully thin and pale, and with her injured leg propped up on the raised leg rest of her wheelchair, there was a heightened sense of frailty. Em was much more timid than Prairie was led to believe. The notes Prairie dutifully read in Em’s medical file had left her with the impression she would be dealing with a malcontent, not this withdrawn, drugged and unkempt waif sitting before her. She was a mess, to be sure. At the least, Prairie thought, her matted and tangled hair could use a good washing, or a thorough brushing to improve her initial appearance. A shower wouldn’t be out of the question, either.
As Prairie contemplated the situation, she could see Em’s dramatic facial scar accentuated even more by the gaze of someone heavily medicated and filled with anger. Angry at what, Prairie didn’t know exactly, but could just imagine by the sight of Em and her obvious injuries—not to mention the ones that weren’t obvious. Prairie waited for a response until she couldn’t bear Em’s empty stare for another second.
“Please tell me you have not been sitting here the whole time,” Prairie pleaded apologetically.
“I have,” Em answered, her voice flat and lifeless.
“Gah! I’m so sorry. When you didn’t show up I was afraid they dumped you off here. This is our old rehab center. We just moved to the other side of the hospital two weeks ago, but obviously your driver didn’t get the memo. I can’t believe the dufus didn’t notice there isn’t anyone here. Idiot,” she said under her breath. “Gosh, I’m sure sorry about that. Anyway, like I said, my name’s Prairie—I’ll be your physical therapist while you’re here at the hospital. Since you didn’t indicate otherwise, I’m going to assume you’re the Mary-Mackenna Martin I’m looking for?” Prairie flashed her a bright white, toothy smile. “Welcome to town.”
“It’s just Em. Em Marteen, not Martin, and I have to go to the bathroom,” Em replied without emotion, ignoring Prairie’s affable overture and dazzling smile.
“Oh, okay. Sure thing, Em.”
“I need help,” Em added softly and vaguely pointed to her raised right leg, encircled ankle to hip with metal stabilizers that bore through the skin to the bone. “It’s hard to move it by myself.”
“Then let’s get you the hell out of here. I’m at your service until you can walk to the head by yourself. Wait a sec. Where’s all your stuff?”
“The driver said he’d drop it off.”
“Good, then let’s go.” Prairie silently hoped the driver wasn’t as inept with Em’s bags as he had been with her.
Prairie took control of the wheelchair and briskly guided Em out of the abandoned room and down a short corridor to the women’s restroom.
“We’ll get you checked into your room when we’re done here. You’ll be the only female on the ward, so for the time being, you’ll have a private room. You’re gonna be the envy of the ward, I tell you.” She pushed the door open, swiveled Em’s chair, then pulled her backwards through the opening and into a large room that housed a single commode with a single sink. “A private bathroom. Great, huh?”
Em was non-responsive.
Prairie shook her head with disappointment and inquired. “So what’s your routine? I’m sure you have one by now, right?”
Em bowed her head, humiliated by the situation. She would never get used to being so dependent upon other people—especially the lack of privacy she had been forced to endure since the accident.
Prairie placed her hand on Em’s shoulder, touched immediately by her patient’s embarrassment and spoke to her in a reassuring tone. “Hey, I know this is really uncomfortable for you—I mean, you just met me not two minutes ago. Just try to remember that I’m here to help you. It’s not just my job, okay? It’s what I do and I enjoy it—and I don’t pass judgment. But you gotta help me, too, all right? I imagine you’ve already figured out the best way to get from your chair to the commode, so you just tell me what to do. I’ll get you there, and then I’ll leave ‘til you call me back in, okay? No big deal.”
Em considered Prairie’s appeal and then hesitantly replied, “I need help standing up and then… when I’m ready I just need help… sitting down.”
“You need me to hold you while you get yourself ready?”
Em’s affirmative nod was barely perceptible.
“Okay. Let’s get your chair lined up… this good? Yeah?” Prairie was no-nonsense, but gentle, and went about the process with confident ease. “I’ll just lock the wheels, fold up your little foot rests, legs down, good one first. Now this one. That hurt?”
Em shook her head.
“No? Good.” Prairie stood in front of Em. “Ready? Great. All right then… now give me your hands.”
Em hesitantly reached up to Prairie, startled by the gentle strength in Prairie’s hands.
“Ready?” Prairie looked straight into Em’s eyes. Em’s face betrayed her fear and distrust. Her nod was guarded. “You sure? Don’t worry—I won’t let you fall.” Prairie waited momentarily until she sensed Em’s grip change. “Okay, alley oop! There. Easy as pie.”
Em liked the firm hold of Prairie’s hands and the strength of her solid body as Prairie pulled Em up into her, steadying her as she gained her balance on her good leg and then situated the damaged limb. They stood awkwardly for a moment, until Prairie broke the silence.
“Shall we dance?” Prairie snickered playfully at Em’s subtle double-take at the jest. “Ah, maybe later,” Prairie grinned as she replied more to herself. Then to Em, “I’ll just hold you steady while you undo your sweats. You can grab onto me if you feel unsteady at any time—I promise, I don’t bite. It’s still a little while ’til lunchtime.” She flashed another big smile.
Em blushed slightly, but immediately felt safe and protected. It was more than physical strength that was instantly reassuring to her about this woman. She almost felt as if Prairie was flirting with her. A small, subtle smile flicked across Em’s lips for just an instant—slightly longer than she’d smiled in a long time. Was it possible she was actually liking this Prairie person? That, too, was something she hadn’t done in a long time. She’d been hating everyone except Dot for so long she almost didn’t recognize this new and unusual sentiment. Perhaps coming home wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Sitting awkwardly on the commode to accommodate the bulky metal cage on her leg, Em watched Prairie leave the bathroom. Her stature was self-assured and perhaps even a little cocky. Could this stranger really could work miracles? Em was assured by her doctor in Texas she could. That’s what Em needed—a miracle worker. At least it was what she hoped for since leaving Texas. What she feared, but really needed was a tough, “get it done” physical therapist.
Though she already felt an affinity to Prairie, Em had been through so much pain and suffering since the accident and so many subsequent surgeries, that Prairie was, by virtue of her occupation, one of the enemy.
Why me? Em asked herself—the Universe—for perhaps the thousandth time, and then immediately remembered that it wasn’t her. She was the lucky one. A sudden, deep, sadness washed over her and penetrated the core of her being—the same sadness that visited her often throughout her days and nights. She began to cry softly.
“Fucked up, man. Forty-five… forty-six… forty-seven…” Prairie did three more sit-ups, the last set of three, then rolled over onto her stomach, her breath coming in short huffs. Tiny beads of perspiration dotted the hairline of her spiked, flaming red hair before forming into droplets that slowly rolled down her beet-red face. She propped herself up on her elbows and continued her conversation with her three roommates; Macie, Barbie and Gwen.
“I think she’s the saddest case I’ve ever had. I mean, I have every intention of getting her ass up and walking, but there’s a lot of shit going on there I just don’t understand yet, y’know? It’s been a long time since I’ve had a patient that wasn’t some old geezer with a hip or knee replacement. She’s definitely a big time challenge.”
“What happened to her?” Barbie asked. She was the practical member of the group and requested the information with an almost passing curiosity.
“Yeah,” Gwen chimed in more eagerly. “Tell us about her. How old is she?”
“Hey, I wanna know what happened to her first,” Barbie demanded good-naturedly. She leaned in and cuddled up to her lover as she pulled her stockinged feet up onto the sofa and tucked them under her. “First things first, Lovey. So what happened, Prair? What’s the dirt?”
“Oh, for chrissake, you’d think you guys were asking me about a chick I just laid or something.” Prairie laughingly complained.
“What the hell did you expect, Prair?” Macie interjected. “We are curious creatures, we three. And we’re really quite bored.” She was stretched leisurely on the floor, leaning her back against the sofa, arms folded, with her bare legs stretched out before her and crossed at the ankles. “We live vicariously through you and your many adventures.”
“Shit, I wouldn’t call my new case an adventure—”
“Goddammit, Prairie! Stop pussy footin’ around. What’s the deal already?” Barbie insisted, grinning her famous, ‘I’m laughing, but only on the inside’ grin. Her gray-blue eyes flashed mischievously.
“Beer, anyone?” Prairie looked at the three blank faces staring at her from the sofa. She waited a beat before pleading her case. “You know I can’t converse with my throat so dry…”
“Lovey, would you get Prairie a beer before Mace and I give her a concussion?” Barbie pecked Gwen on the cheek and made a small noise of encouragement.
“Oh, all right.” Gwen hefted her plump, five foot eight frame off the sofa, shaking her long index finger at Prairie and warned, “But if I don’t a hear all the details shortly thereafter, I’m gonna pop you right on your snout myself.” She playfully tugged Prairie’s ear as she hurried into the kitchen.
“Ooh, I’m so afraid.” Prairie exclaimed with mock fear.
“Yeah, girl, you should be,” Barbie said, grinning her grin. “Don’t wanna mess with my baby when she’s all riled up.”
“Here.” Gwen briskly returned from the kitchen, presented Prairie with a cold beer and distributed cans to Barbie and Macie, keeping one for herself. “Now dish, babe.”
Prairie pulled the ring top off the aluminum can, dropped it into the can and took a long, gulping drink. “Ahhh, now that’s what I call a thirst quencher.” She immediately belched. “Well, what can I tell you? She’s twenty-one, and was stationed at um, Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas. About four months ago she got in a terrible car wreck. I think, but I’m not sure, I think two people died.”
“Oh my god.”
“Yeah. The car she was in was hit head on by a drunk driver and her car flipped several times, end over end. Um, she’s got a nasty scar that zigs right down her face—it starts up above her eyebrow and then gashes down her cheek—kinda like this.” Prairie traced a zig-zag down her cheek.
“It’s pretty bad right now, but I think in time it’ll kinda disappear. They did a fantastic job closing it up. Anyway, from what I was able to gather from her accident report, at the first impact, her knee jammed her femur up into her hip and shattered it and the femur. It’s a pretty typical injury when, you know, say, when a passenger’s knee smashes into the glove compartment.”
Gwen grimaced at the visual Prairie painted for them.
“But then,” Prairie continued, “somehow, when the car was flipping around? They think her leg got caught between the backseat and the front seat or something, and while she was going ‘round and ‘round with the flipping car, her leg wasn’t—not exactly. However it happened—it’s always difficult to tell exactly afterwards—it practically ripped the holy shit out of every muscle and tendon in her tibia, and in the process, caused all kinds of lovely little spiral fractures. I mean, it left a mess and a half. Normally an injury of that magnitude might possibly require amputation of the leg, but not in her case.”
“Why, Prairie?” Macie asked, somewhat horrified by the story. “What happened?”
“Well,” Prairie continued, “somehow, this chick was in the right place at the right time, ‘cause there was some hot shot surgeon in town giving a lecture on how to fix that kinda shit that weekend. How crazy is that? He used to be a trauma doc in ‘Nam—maybe you know of him, Barb. He’s kinda famous. Um, what was his name? Ummm… Dr. Somebody…” Prairie snapped her fingers. “Oh right, Dr. Edward Melton!” Prairie looked at Barbie and paused for a reply.
Barbie squinted briefly as she quickly scoured her memory banks, but came up empty. “No, not that I remember, but it was kinda insane most of the time, so he could have been there without me knowing it.”
“Well, anyway,” Prairie continued, “somewhere along the way he developed some fancy-assed techniques for fixing that type of injury, so he performed her first trauma surgery. Jackpot! I mean, it was a pretty big deal for him to do that. Whatever, she’s had five major-assed surgeries and she’ll have maybe one or two, possibly even more, before she’s finished. I mean, in a way, she probably would’ve been better off just to lop that baby off, ‘cause even the best case scenario she’ll have pain and stiffness for the rest of her life. And right now, there’s no guarantee she’ll be able to walk at all. Even so, it won’t be without a crutch or a cane—probably forever.”
Gwen’s face was stricken with grief when she commented softly, “Oh my goodness. That poor girl. That’s so tragic.”
“Absolutely,” Prairie agreed. “It’s pretty obvious, at least in my opinion, she’s really one fucked-up chick. Who wouldn’t be, right? And sad? Goddamn…” Prairie shook her head at the memory.
“When I took her to the head the first time, I waited and waited for her to call me, and when she didn’t, I went in to see what was up, y’know? Well, shit, she was balling her eyes out in there. ‘Bout broke my heart, man. She won’t hardly talk to me, but it’s not hard to see she’s really hurting, and not just physically, y’know?”
“Awww. That’s so sad.” Gwen dabbed the corners of her eyes with the sleeve of her t-shirt.
“Yeah, real sad,” Macie added, her own eyes welling up at Gwen’s emotion.
Barbie didn’t comment, though she knew all too well about traumatic physical and emotional pain—she had been a nurse in Viet Nam, surviving a bombing raid of her unit that left her deaf in one ear and legally blind in one eye. Gwen lightly touched Barb’s knee. Her silence was understood.
“But why did she come out here from Texas,” Macie prodded. “Don’t they have a hospital out there?”
“Well, you know, I thought that was a bit odd. I was wondering that myself, especially since her file has some special orders from her base commander out there.” Prairie took a long pull from her beer then nonchalantly burped. “I’ll just have to wait until she tells me, I guess.”
“So,” Gwen asked, trying to lighten up the conversation. “What’s she look like?”
“Potentially?” Prairie winked. “Real good.”
A collective, “Oh my god!” rose from her roommates.
“Okay, okay… I’m just teasing. She’s pretty, but real thin, pale, rough around the edges. You know, kinda sick looking, but who wouldn’t under those circumstances, y’know? But she’s got these eyes that are, well, they’re real sad, but so fucking pretty. Big, and I think they’re, um, the color of the ocean, you know like pictures you see of the water in Hawaii or Tahiti? They’re this really cool, greenish blue, but mostly green.” Prairie shook her head to get the image of them out of her mind. “Her hair’s real dark and probably curly—not kinky, but I bet it’s real soft when it’s clean. And she’s tall. Probably got about three, maybe four inches on me.”
“Prairie,” Gwen asked, “Was anyone else in the car with her?”
“Yeah,” Macie chimed in, “That’s what I was wondering.”
“Heck, I don’t know. All I have to go on is her medical file and a couple brief conversations I had with her PT in Texas. I know she was in the backseat of the car from the description of her injury, so obviously, there must have been at least one other person. I just wish I could ask her, but like I said, she’s not too communicative. Almost hostile in a quiet kind of way. Actually, I really shouldn’t be telling you guys all this because it’s confidential information, but I just feel so sorry for her, y’know? And I know you’ll keep it to yourselves, right?”
“Of course, Prairie,” Gwen said with seriousness.
Gwen couldn’t get over the overwhelming sense of grief she was having for a stranger, and found herself wanting more and more information. “How many operations did you say she’s had? she asked. “Five?”
“Yeah—well, actually six including the first trauma surgery.” Prairie drained the last of her beer and crushed the aluminum can with both hands, making a metallic crumpling sound as she did.
“Jesus,” Macie exclaimed, “Isn’t that a lot?”
“In general, yes. In barely four months? For sures.”
“Wow,” Barbie said more to herself, flashing back momentarily on Viet Nam.
“Goddamn.” Gwen said quietly, and then with more exuberance asked, “What did they do to her. Can I ask that?”
“Yeah,” Prairie replied. “I mean I can give you an idea in general terms, I guess. Um, let’s see, I know one of the things they did was they had to take a vein from her groin to repair the ruptured artery in her leg; and of course, there are so many screws and pins and metal plates it’s crazy. Right now they have a stabilizer on her leg—it’s a newfangled contraption that looks almost like a cage with metal rods that actually bore right into the bone to keep the spiral fractures in place. It’s kinda cool, and… totally gross.” She giggled. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to… I shouldn’t. She hates it, and honestly, I don’t blame her. She’s scheduled to have that removed this week, I think. Sucks. Anyway, most of her surgeries involved stuff like that—putting in, taking out, movin’ around.”
“Oh my god, Prair,” Gwen gasped. “How could you go through that and not be crazy? Wouldn’t that make you crazy, Barbie?”
Barbie nodded solemnly .
“I’ve seen it, myself in ’Nam,” Barbie said. “People have gone crazy after a while of all that.”
“Well, from what I understood, she is kind of nuts. Who knows. So far, I’ve only seen a glimpse of it.”
Macie and Gwen’s queries overlapped, “Does she have any family out here? Is she married?”
“Don’t know, don’t know,” Prairie replied to each question. “I didn’t see a wedding band and certainly didn’t see any husband—or anybody else for that matter.”
“I don’t understand why she’s out here, Prair,” Barbie commented. “Really strange.”
“Yep. Well, kids, as much as I’d love to spend the evening moshing about my new case, it is Friday night and I’ve gotta go get ready.” Prairie stood up and stretched. “Don’t wanna miss anything, you know.”
“You?” Macie laughed. “Miss anything? That’ll be the day.”
“Where’re you going?” Gwen, The Mother, inquired. “Will we see you at all this weekend?”
“Heading for West Hollywood and of course, Peanuts, and… I’ll probably be gone all weekend. I got a date with a gorgeous brunette who has a lovely apartment in Westwood.” Prairie stretched and fake yawned. “She doesn’t know it yet, but I’ll be spending the weekend.”
“Oh, Prair,” Macie laughed. “You’ve got balls, I’ve gotta say that about you. You’ve really got some balls.”
“I got eggs, Mace, but they’re big shiny brass ones and know what they want, and how to get it.”
“Well, whatever you’ve got, you amaze me,” Macie replied, shaking her head with wonder. “I can barely get a gorgeous brunette to say hello, or go on a lunch date for chrissakes, and you, you just decide you’re gonna spend a weekend with one. Do you even know this chick?”
“Nope. And, come on, is that reeeeally necessary?” Prairie’s face was a mixture of mischief and sincerity. “I mean, I slept with a friend of hers—that’s usually enough.”
“Oh my god.” Gwen feigned fainting. “Someone needs to check this girl’s testosterone levels.”
“Shaddup… you guys’re just jealous.”
“Damn right!” Macie proclaimed. “I want whatever you’ve got, Prair. Even if I have to take shots to get it.”
“Oh, for sures, me too.” Gwen giggled, nudging Barbie.
“Not me… I’d stick with abject loneliness if I had to. I love you, Prair, but I’d rather wait for somebody special. I’d be afraid that by the time Mrs. Right came along,” Barbie winked at Gwen, “I’d be too jaded to recognize her.”
“Well, I’m willing to take that chance,” Prairie said with confidence. “What I’m not willing to do is pass up a gorgeous brunette and a whole weekend of unbridle sexual pleasure hoping that someday Mrs. Right shows up on my doorstep. It just doesn’t work that way. Hasn’t for me, anyway. I don’t even know if there’s such a person as a Mrs. Right. Anyway, that said, I gotta get ready. The night is aging fast!”
As Prairie exited the room, she was followed by a chorus of commentary.
“You’re such a cad.”
“Thank god I’m your roommate and not one of those unsuspecting chicks at the bar.”
“Yeah, well, I’d trade just one of her weekends with all of mine any day of the week.”
“Yep. No doubt.”
The room was suddenly silent as each of Prairie’s roommates contemplated Prairie’s life compared to theirs.