By LYNN PANE
The motorized chair arrived, and Berger left it unwrapped in the middle of the living room. He circled it—keeping to the walls and the furniture to recover his balance—as if the chair was prey. He almost needed it, but he had the walker for the moments he grew tired. He imagined these new fixtures—the oxygen tank, the shower stall, the protein shakes—as gifts. Every day something new arrived on a delivery truck. He wanted the boxes to come wrapped in paper and ribbon, but then again, the boxes didn’t represent a future, and so he no longer turned his head at the sound of the doorbell.
His wife, Belle, walked in on him while he was eyeing the black electrical cord that connected the motorized chair to the wall. The chair was charging, building up its energy. This was not the first time Belle caught him staring at what seemed like nothing, and when she asked what he was doing, he was too embarrassed to say he was looking for his own electrical cord: a quick fix for his body. Sometimes the energy in his body was static, stuck together like a magnet, as if it could not move past certain points. If it circled around his fingertips, it stayed there; stayed in his elbows and shoulders, blocked at the bend in his right knee. Some mornings he felt like his old self—assured and confident—and these were the moments that scared him the most, because they gave him hope.
“We’re going to leave in an hour,” Belle said. “Do you want a shake?”
“No, I want something sweet and sugary.”
Belle pulled a chair from the dining table over to him.
“I’ll finish packing the truck,” she said. “Text our kid and see if she left.”
Berger reached for his phone and texted his daughter, Moss, that they were leaving soon. She replied with a selfie of her, her friend Cyd, and the dog—his body nestled uncomfortably between the two women—in the front seat of a pickup. The image made Berger laugh, and he felt it ripple through his chest in an uncontrollable way.
“They’re on the road,” he said when Belle came back in.
“We’ll take the chair,” she said. “In case we want to walk along the park road.”
Berger watched her fold the cellophane wrapper, turning it into a smaller and smaller ball as it gripped itself. Berger recalled the tightness his fist had once made, what a simple act he had overlooked, how he wanted to pinch the soft skin of Belle’s hips as she bent to remove the cardboard from the tires. She asked if he wanted to drive the chair out to the truck. When he shook his head, she turned the thing on, pretending to rev the engine, driving it around him in three tight circles, one arm raised and yee-hawing, until she sped out the front door. Laughter came again, like a cough starting deep in his lung, a bubble that burst inside of him.
The chair rocked like a ripple of water as they drove two hours south.
Berger hovered his finger over the window control and pressed down. On his better days, he still applied sunscreen. On his bad days, when the fear found the places his energy went static, he thought, No hat today, no sunglasses. He fully sunbathed his forearm now, the hot metal burning a line along his skin. He stretched his fingers and tightened his fist as best he could until a strain in his shoulder appeared.
Belle turned off the highway, passing the long two-by-fours with gold-painted letters, into the west entrance of Blessings State Park. A wildfire had ravaged the park the year before. Three separate fires—catapulted by the wind—had surrounded the park from the north, the east, and the south. All but one hundred of the six thousand acres were burned before the fires merged and headed farther south to run a course through a housing tract. The west entrance opened into a flood of the remaining loblolly pines unaffected by the fire. The forest had been described as lost, a collection of pine trees so isolated that it could only be explained through folklore: saplings uprooted and replanted for homesickness. The pines acclimated, changed the conditions of their roots, grew shorter, grew more branches in the sandy soil that was not unlike the soil in the east.
At the welcome gate, Belle exchanged the eight-dollar fee with the park ranger, who then handed over a parking pass and a map of the park. The pack-in and pack-out area, on the east side of Highway 1A, was crossed out and marked CLOSED AREA in black marker. Only a couple of the hiking trails were highlighted. The park ranger pointed to the Piney Hill camping area, where Belle and Berger had reserved a spot. The area was close enough to the pool, but tucked away from the large camping quarters where the school groups lingered.
“Such a small amount of the park is open,” Belle said.
“We’re doing another round of planting,” the ranger said. “We’d appreciate it if y’all stayed out of the closed areas.”
“We’ll stay clear,” Berger said as he watched the ranger’s head turn, following the man’s stare until he saw Moss and Cyd walk from the headquarters building. They were both grinning, shaking their heads, already coated in a layer of sweat and dirt. He wanted them here, around him, all that energy still in their bodies, all the fear of aging still another decade away. He reminded himself that he was still young; fifty was not old. “Maybe not those two,” Berger said. “They’ve got a curiosity about them.”
“Don’t forget a storm is coming,” the ranger said. “But y’all got your camper.”
“Thank you,” Belle said and drove the truck forward. She reached her hand out of her window and waved to the girls. They turned, waving their own arms and jumping in full circles. He watched them, all that strength, carrying their bodies across the pavement to his window.
“Hey, Pops,” Moss said as she leaned through the open window.
“The park ranger thinks you’re going to cause trouble,” Berger said.
“We might just,” Moss said.
He rubbed his hands together. The callouses, those small hard ovals, on his palms had disappeared the year before, when he gave up fishing and the long weekends spent on the lake. He hadn’t paid much attention to the callouses until then. They had seemed an extension of his body, like a leg or arm. How quickly they became soft.
“Cyd?” He watched a redness brush across Cyd’s cheeks as she squinted. “Can’t wait to see what we get into this weekend.”
“I’m sure it will be something,” she said.
“We’ll follow you out to the campsite,” Moss said.
Belle waited for the girls to get into their truck before pulling ahead. She reached over and tapped Berger on the back of his hand. “Don’t get those girls in any trouble,” she said.
They drove further into the park and rounded a corner. Berger knew Highway 1A was a road the fire didn’t jump. On his right side, the tall trees were bare, sharpened like spears, scorched along their trunks. They were the color of ash and smoke, and planted in between them were rebirths—green and vibrant—evenly spaced apart. On the left side, the forest breathed with age—and yet he’d read that the centenarians had been caught in the middle of the wildfire. Those healthy lost pines would now live to be over three hundred years old. The fire had eaten ninety-six percent of the park in twenty days. It had its own consciousness, jumping roads, sending its embers on the back of the wind. Moss had texted him photos of the smoke that settled on the horizon. The smoke had been a cloud, volcanic inside, a hovering shadow like a flock of starlings. A month after the fire, Berger had driven Belle down to Blessings to survey the damage. The park had smelled like a dried piece of toast. The smell was faint now, still living.
“We should gather some of those pine needles,” Berger said. “A fistful would make easy kindling.”
“Let’s just get settled first,” Belle said. “Here we are.”
The campsite they’d reserved was shaded by tall pines. There was a long, mulched driveway where Belle backed in the camper like she had been doing it her whole life. This was not the campsite they usually reserved. Their regular site had been consumed. But this site had a firepit and logs set up around it—proof other people had been here before them. As he rolled up the window, Berger wondered who they were, these other families, and what had become of them.
His daughter came over to help him climb down from the truck, but he waved her away. After he steadied his legs, he pulled her in for a hug. He knew his legs looked skinnier now and she was looking him over. He and Belle had decided to keep from her the looseness in his hands until the doctor knew what to call it. Until Berger knew how to explain it. In a quiet voice, over the phone, he’d brought up the muscle loss and how, since it controlled everything from walking to swallowing, it affected all parts of his body. He didn’t want to tell her that the brain was fine, but he knew she would look it up on the Internet. Afterwards, she had researched cures, sending him texts with different studies. At first, he read the articles, but as his movements worsened, he left the articles unopened, much like the packages that arrived on his doorstep.
“You look good,” she said.
“Let’s get this campsite put together,” he said.
Berger orchestrated by pointing to the handles and pulleys to open the canopy on the camper, to undo the truck from the camper, to unfold the lawn chairs, to move the coolers, and then waved the girls over to the back of the truck.
“Like my new toy?” he asked.
“It’s red,” Moss said. “You’ve finally got a Corvette.”
“One that goes five miles an hour,” he said. “But it has extra tough tires for off-roading.”
“Let’s get it off the truck,” Belle said.
Moss and Cyd climbed onto the truck bed and brought the ramp to the edge.
“Now just back it down slowly,” Belle said.
The chair beeped a warning as it moved backwards. The user manual for the Symphony 800 series came with guidelines on the first page and a list of symbols used throughout the pamphlet: an exclamation point inside a triangle indicating Warning!, a darkened square indicating Mandatory!, and a circle with an X indicating Prohibited!. Wanting to read the manual at the same time as his wife, Berger had typed “manual for electric chair” into the search engine. But the Internet brought up a manual for the electric chair, and Berger learned it would take a little more than two thousand volts of electricity to stop his heart. He wondered how his heart would eventually stop. Its regular beat turning over, slowing until it paused for too long. Would it make a popping noise like a fit of laughter?
“How much do you weigh?” he asked his daughter.
“130 pounds. Why?”
Less than two thousand volts would stop her heart.
They—all the women—were looking at him now. His daughter and her friend were muscular, thick thighs from cycling and strong biceps from gardening, and he had lost so much weight that any one of them could carry him. He wanted to sit down. He walked toward the firepit, where the chairs were set out. He heard the soft engine of the wheelchair. It moved without him. He sank into the woven camping chair.
“The best place for the tents is over here,” Moss said. She kicked at the dirt. “Not too rocky.”
Berger was too tired at the moment to wrestle with the tents. He left that up to the girls. He watched them slide the poles gently enough not to tear the fabric, but the rounded edges got stuck, and they reached—their laughter uncontrolled, nearly falling on top of the tents—to try to unstick them. Belle stood alongside, pointing and directing.
“Mom, is there anything we can set up in the camper?” Moss asked.
“A few things,” Belle said. “I’ll show you. Cyd, want to clean out the firepit?”
“Sure,” she said and sat down with Berger. The dog laid at his feet.
“They’re talking about me,” he said.
Cyd organized the bigger stones around the pit and pulled out the trash: a melted beer can, bones from an animal, and a marble. She handed the marble to Berger.
“It feels warm, doesn’t it?”
“I’m going to close my eyes,” Berger said.
Berger heard footsteps and firewood being dropped and his daughter say, “Here, lean them against each other and then stuff the newspaper inside.” Then she paused before saying, “Do you think he needs a blanket?”
“It doesn’t feel cold.”
“I think I’ll get one anyway.”
“They worry too much,” Berger said after he heard the camper door slam.
“Let them take care of you,” Cyd said.
“Life is full of surprises. Here,” he said and handed her a tiny plastic dinosaur. “I found it over by the truck.”
Berger then kept his eyes closed out of tiredness, but also to be out of their way. He could enjoy their company—the sounds of their voices and laughter—without taking up too much of their time. He heard the girls and the kindling, heard the flick of the lighter and the soft burn of paper, heard the cooking supplies lifted out of the cooler, and smelled the venison as it cooked. He heard his own wife’s voice as she instructed the girls. He heard them all move around him, felt the blanket fall loosely over his shins, felt the fire grow bigger at his feet and the heat warm the skin around his ankles. Later, in the evening, his wife would cut the venison into pieces for him, and he would have a beer and then another. They would sit around in a circle, the dogs stretched out in the dirt, and he would think of group therapy.
In the morning, Berger looked out the camper’s window to see Moss and Cyd picking through the ash with sticks. They would want breakfast, coffee. He watched his daughter walk around without shoes. She wrapped herself in the crocheted blanket. Her knees were coated in a layer of dirt. Cyd was covered in soot. Neither of them must’ve taken a shower the night before, even though there was a shower in the camper and one in the public restroom a hundred feet away. But the pool—he knew they would jump in and consider that their bath.
Cyd built up the fire again. She lit newspaper pieces and slid them under the logs. Moss came toward the camper, hopping on one foot when she stepped on a rock. The camper door opened, and he heard his name being called. He heard his wife’s name being called as well, but she was in the bathroom brushing her teeth.
He had managed to sit up, go to the bathroom, put on his shorts, and return to the bed. “In here,” he said.
“Coffee?” Moss asked.
“There’s filters in the cabinet.”
“We’re going to make cowboy coffee. You want some?”
“There’s a saucepan and some cups in the cabinets,” he said. “I’ll be out soon.”
He heard the door lock catch again. Any minute now, he would rise from the bed and go outside. When Belle came back from the shower, he was still edging his way off the bed. He told Belle the girls were making coffee, but if she wanted it without the grounds, she better make her own. She laughed at this: the extreme opposite of having a camper with a full kitchen. Moss had bought them a pour-over one Christmas, the filters to be thrown into the compost she also made that year. He learned early on in parenthood that kids did things for their parents that they really wanted for themselves, but the compost held Belle’s attention, and the soil she made smelled sweet and warm.
“I think I’ll make coffee,” Belle said. “Do you need help getting up?”
She didn’t walk over to him when she said this. She didn’t even look at him.
“Just talking myself into it,” he said.
“Let me know,” she said.
With that, he pushed himself up.
“I’ll go see what they want to do today,” he said.
Their options were limited—hiking was clearly out—but he had made a mental list. If they drove, they could visit some of the thrift stores, or there was the rock shop they had passed on Keller Road. He knew the girls would like these places, sorting through the button-ups, reimagining the pants as shorts, wondering how to drill a hole through a rose quartz to make a necklace. On their way back, they could drive past the lake and maybe the girls could get in. There used to be canoe rentals—old wooden boats—long before Moss was born. They were handmade and fine-crafted. He had always meant to find the studio of the man who made them.
Outside, Moss stirred the hot water into the mugs. Both girls agreed on everything he suggested. They wanted to do it all. He sat in the camping chair again. The seat was damp. The girls wouldn’t sit down. Cyd stood on one of the logs and tried to balance on one foot. The cup of coffee was raised above her head. She picked grounds out of her teeth. Moss circled around him, coffee spilling over the lip of her mug. He didn’t need them to sit down. He leaned his head back and watched them, listening to them talk about the coyote howls they heard overnight.
Belle brought out two filtered cups of coffee and handed one of them to Berger. She took a seat in another camping chair and asked them what they wanted to do.
“We could go for a walk along the road,” Moss said. “You could drive your chair. We could go down to the lake.”
Their attention turned toward him. His wife had been right: the girls wanted to be active, and the chair would allow him to join in. He looked over at it—a little more dust-covered than it was the morning before—and hated it. No, he wouldn’t ride the Symphony 800 alongside them.
“We can take the truck. In case you want to go to the shops,” he said.
“But first you two have to shower,” Belle said.
“Why?” Moss asked. “We’re just going to jump in the lake.”
“The park map said the lake is closed for swimming and boating,” Belle said. “Too much ash.”
“And Cyd,” Berger said. “She’s scratching her arms and legs.”
“I call the camper,” Cyd said.
“Where are the flip-flops?” Moss asked.
They moved fast and were gone. Berger and Belle were left with the small fire and the dog. Berger reached over and took Belle’s hand. Her nails were painted a light pink. They interlocked fingers. She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes, her mug rested on her thigh. His memories came back in flashes. They had been here before, alone. They had been here without a camper and with only a two-person tent. Then it had been a sailboat with a cabin underneath. Now the camper with all its amenities. There wasn’t one moment that was his favorite. Each was a different procession of life.
When the girls returned, he stood up and walked over to the truck.
“Let’s go look at the lake,” he called.
Out on the park road, they passed groups of college-aged kids in forest green T-shirts. They had on khakis and looked like healthy trees themselves and stood out against the charred trunks. Their yellow gloves resembled orbs. They had saplings with them in plastic containers and dug in the earth with trowels and trenching shovels. They measured between each sapling, placing orange flags next to each one. Some had clipboards and were turning over debris with their pencils. Others, who looked like park rangers, stood where the felled trees still needed to be cleared, using machines with clawlike extensions. The machines carried the trunks a few hundred feet away and laid them down on a slope. There were many felled trees.
It was another two miles of this, and Berger could see in the side mirror that the girls were very interested in what was happening. He wanted to explain the saplings to them, that even though the fire had destroyed the centenarians, it gave the earth nutrients and would allow the saplings to grow. Pine trees were sensitive to shade, and that was why the land looked so bare. The fire had not destroyed the saplings; there simply weren’t any. The volunteers would, he told the girls, have to replant the following years to ensure the forest eventually replenished itself. It would take decades in good conditions, but there was the drought to contend with and the possibility of future wildfires.
“I was trying to listen to the toads last night,” Moss said.
“I only heard coyotes,” Cyd said.
“That’s all I heard,” Berger said.
“Their mating season is in the fall,” Belle said.
“But we could always hear them,” Moss said. “Always.”
The Houston toad had been another casualty of the fire—that force so fierce and natural that containing it was beyond human ability. Berger handed Moss the park map from the console. There was additional information, answers to the questions visitors continued to ask about the state of the park. How bad was it? What would happen? Questions similar to the ones he and Belle fielded. What caused it? How long do you have?
“It says that they believe forty toads survived,” Moss said.
“So few,” Cyd said.
“There were only two hundred to begin with.”
At the lake, there was a NO SWIMMING sign. Berger used the door to help himself down from the passenger’s seat. Belle had parked the truck on the side of the road, above a slight, rocky incline. He never really considered the ground under him before he got sick. He could be surprised by his ankle turning over on a rock, but he could always catch himself.
“Do you want my help?” he heard Cyd ask.
“I just have to be careful,” he said.
But she stood a little in front of him so that he wouldn’t topple down the slope if he tripped.
“I’m going on the dam,” Moss said.
“I’m going to stay up here,” he said.
“I brought the chairs,” Belle said, and she opened the camping chairs on the flat pavement. “Come sit.”
He felt the sigh come up, a giving in.
“Just be careful,” he said and watched the girls slip as they made their way to the dam. He had wanted to see the lake again, to be reminded of the feel of the fishing rod stretched out in front of him. A taut line, its pull in his biceps, how strong he felt when he brought in that thirty-pound catfish, how proud he was seeing Belle clean and gut the thing. Moss had been thirteen then—all legs, wanting to run bare-chested with the boys—and climbed onto the picnic bench next to her mother. He watched Belle hand her the knife, direct their daughter how to use it and then slide the knife from tail to head. The pocket knife was always in his pocket, up until a year ago, when Belle thought he shouldn’t have such sharp objects in his hands anymore. He looked around now.
The lake was a grayish blue. He could tell by the side of the dam that the lake water had gone down. The water still lapped against it, carried by the wind. There was not a single boat. The path down to the dam was pebbles and slick mud. The cypress—root systems like knees along the shoreline—grew along the bank. Moss and Cyd walked to the dam, which was made of earth and clay and rooted in the land. The lake had begun as a quarry for the park’s buildings during the Roosevelt administration. The dam was left to seal in the rainwater that eventually filled the ten acres. The girls were sitting on the ledge, their feet dangling off the side. Cyd pointed something out and quickly lifted her feet.
“Snakes?” Belle asked.
“Probably,” Berger said. “The coffee they made this morning was terrible.”
Every time he laughed, it seemed to catch like the fishing line unspooling, circulating out until it snapped tight. The girls came up from the dam and asked him what was so funny. The laughter was still moving inside of him.
“The coffee you made this morning,” Belle said.
“It was really bad,” Cyd said.
Berger looked at his daughter, who wasn’t laughing. She was watching him, the creases in her forehead deepening.
“Why can’t you stop laughing?” she asked. “It’s not that funny.”
“Takes muscles to stop,” Belle said.
At night, after they had gone to the rock shop and picked out healing crystals and he had bought Moss a Tarot deck, they again cooked venison over the fire and squash and potatoes in foil. Moss read each of them their fortunes. Berger knew the questions they wanted to ask. They were about him, so he asked that all the questions be asked in their heads, until he wondered out loud if they could figure out Cyd’s love life. It was determined it would be years. Berger laughed at her sigh. He didn’t mean to, but he couldn’t help himself.
It wore him out, and he said he needed to go to bed.
“Good night,” he said.
“Good night,” they all said.
He woke sometime later thinking about the fire. He wondered if the girls had put it out. It had gotten windy as they sat around, and he was afraid they would be responsible for the rest of the park going up in flames, even though there was not a fire ban in effect. He sat up—a little hunched over with his feet dangling just above the floor.
From inside the camper, Berger saw the girls standing around the smoldering fire. He knew they were going somewhere when Cyd took the flashlight out of the trunk, testing the battery by flashing it on and off. His daughter reached over to cover the light, pointing at the camper, almost as if directed at him. Usually, when he woke up in the middle of the night, he stared motionless at the ceiling, and as the anxiety built, he turned with it, curling into a fetal position. He watched Cyd unfold the map. He mumbled to himself like an old man. Eaten by coyotes or run over by a car or get the whole group kicked out of the park. But he, too, wanted an adventure now, not the two choices he had left: a tracheostomy tube to help him breathe or simply to let his body collapse under its weight. He had to choose between a compromised life or death. He watched the girls, pulling on their shoes, hooking the leash on the dog’s collar, walking down the driveway.
He looked around for his clothes. His shorts and shirt were folded on the kitchen table—a sweet gesture from Belle—next to the ground coffee. He sat down next and began inching his shorts on. He had to look presentable. He was the father, and sure enough the park rangers would find them too. Bending forward used too many stomach muscles. He slipped his arms through his shirt, but did not button it. He managed to drop it only once.
The lock on the aluminum door was difficult. It was small in his hand. He used most of his strength to keep the door from slamming and waking Belle. Three steps down and he stood in the makeshift front yard of the camper—a place he could have called home one day, with a granite bunny at the bottom of the steps. Instead, this motorized chair. He pulled away the tarp—blue and new, and the folds crinkled in his palms. He looked down at his watch: thirty minutes had passed since the girls left. The chair was charged. He sat, situated his legs on either side and tried to sit up straight, but even that took muscle. They had sprung for the extra cost of the headlight. Belle’s idea for nights they would go out for walks. He didn’t turn it on until he reached the road. If he had any guess, the girls were headed to the lake.
At the road, he could not see the girls in either direction. He turned left in the direction of the lake. The pines rose above him, and for a minute he believed he was miniature, inside a diorama, inside a dollhouse. He could have used his pocketknife now, as the forest felt like heavy stage curtains. The dark between the trees was like a portal to another world, something distant and unforeseen, but reachable.
He found himself leaning forward, looking for the silhouettes of the girls’ bodies. He listened for their voices. He heard only the croaking of toads—they were here!—an entire string section, the brass, somewhere the conductor. The chair hummed beneath him, and he found it frustrating that he could not make it go faster. He had been athletic as a child—he’d tried out for the football team, just like any other strong Texan youth, and joined the baseball team—but despite this, despite the visits to the dentist, despite quitting smoking, despite long underwear in the winters, despite the yearly—if he was honest with himself, every-other-year—visits to the doctor, despite multivitamins, the magnesium, the zinc, the calcium, despite the morning runs, despite trying yoga because his daughter had suggested he might like it—can you imagine this Texas boy in downward dog?—despite going to bed early, despite marrying his high school sweetheart and staying married, despite the hours of sun—however damaging over the years—despite the liters of water (there were also 40s and tallboys), despite the weightlifting, and despite following the rules, the weights got heavier and heavier and harder to control. He had thought it was aging. He made the doctor’s appointment. It was the weakness in his hands, the way his pen slipped while trying to fill out a form—he watched these occurrences in the slow motion of panic, but it was the unstoppable laughter that frightened him, because it made it hard to breathe. He turned off the headlight. The trees were burnt here, and the moon gave off enough light. He had always liked the way the moon hit the water, one large splatter of yellow on an otherwise darkened space. The thunder rolled closer. He looked for movement, but no sign of the girls. The humidity—heavy, as if the sky would open at once—was so thick he thought he saw it sitting on the shore, hanging from the branches, winding its way across the dam. But the movement on the dam was real. He saw the two of them, arms spread like eagles, a pretend balancing act. It made him nervous.
The small incline again.
Berger didn’t think about letting them know he was there until he saw his daughter’s arms wave to the water. Cyd’s body language, stepping backwards across the dam and folding her arms across her chest, gave away a conflict. Moss was convincing her of something, and when they took off their shoes, he knew they were getting in the water. He flashed the chair’s headlight. The light was simple and round, and he watched their faces turn toward him. Their faces were stunned, caught in the middle of whatever plan they were attempting. The dog barked at him.
The girls must have thought he was an authority, and, at first, Berger felt a sort of pride as they took off in the other direction, tripping over their untied shoes, and his breath caught as Moss got too close to a long drop. That was a muscle working, wasn’t it? A catch of breath midway. But now Berger stared at the empty, moonlit dam. Behind him the paved road was clear of debris, and he could easily return to the campsite. But the shine of the moon on the water lured him forward, down to the shore. He wanted to know what was on the other side of the dam, where the girls had run off to, what they were seeing as they fled. He was careful to look for the root system so he did not topple the chair, and he maneuvered his way around the shoreline, crushing fish bones under the tires. He was surprised to find the top of the dam was concrete and there was a small bump to get onto it. After this, it was smooth, and he only had to concentrate on staying in the middle, keeping an equal distance from either side. Once his headlight hit the edge of the dam, he saw the edges of the burnt forest on the other side. It was lonesome and bare. Like the park existed in a shaken snow globe. Haunted in a way that caused a panic. He pivoted the chair around, careful of the dam’s edges. He stopped in the middle of the dam, faced the water, calculated the amount of energy it would take to get out of the chair. It must have been close to sunrise. The beginning light, that softness, encircled him.
A perfect moment for fishing, so he reached his arm back and pretended to cast, then sat with his knees on his elbows. It had been a long year: the first physical and the cold metal on his chest, the waiting rooms and the months-old magazines (how many people had touched those?), the x-rays and MRIs, the drawn vials of blood, ruling out syphilis and lymphoma, mercury poisoning and syringomyelia, spinal muscular atrophy and cervical spine disease, HIV and Lyme and arthritis and thyroid disease. They asked about his health history, his family history, they studied his nerves, gave him an EMG and a spinal tap and a muscular biopsy, took cup after cup of his urine. Then the second opinion: the cold metal on his chest again, the waiting rooms, the x-rays and MRIs, all those damn vials of blood. But then the diagnosis: ALS. Belle developed insomnia. They looked over their insurance and chose a neurologist. Berger asked questions, and Belle followed up with more questions. He felt he had exhausted the doctors, and so he told them jokes. They went out and bought the motorized chair and built the ramp and converted the shower, and they still had to choose a communication device for when the muscles in his vocal cords weakened. There would always be more to do, and then there would be nothing.
A lightning bolt shot through the sky—long and jagged, like a crack in ice. The temperature had been dropping all evening, a wind moving in, and he wrapped his shirt tighter around himself. It was time for him to return to the campsite. But he had used up the chair’s battery, because he had not turned it off.
“Shit,” he said.
The chair made a soft grinding sound and powered off again.
“Shit. Shit. Shit.”
When the rain hit, he knew he couldn’t stay out on the dam. A puddle formed under him on the cushion. Streams of water began to run down his legs, creating their own lakes in his shoes. Another strike of lightning across the sky. Berger tapped the metal under him and calculated the distance back to the shore: forty feet. Not far at all for someone who could hold their balance. The other shoreline, the one with the burnt masses of trees, was closer. But no one would be able to see him there, away from the road.
“Shit,” he said again.
He began to make his way out of the chair by first turning his body toward the shoreline. As he did this, he tried to remember how much the chair had cost and if they had gotten the warranty, if it covered water damage. As he stood, he shook out his legs and held on to the back of the chair. He took one step and felt steady, so he took another. He thought he felt a piece of hail, a soft thud on his backside.
The news had warned of a flash flood, and it had been dry enough for the land to be overwhelmed. With each step, Berger felt like he was getting closer and closer to the ground, wavering between the left and right sides of the dam. He focused on staying in the middle, but knew he veered dangerously close to the edges. He was almost at a crawl when he reached the shoreline, the side near the road so someone could see him and drive him back to the campsite. He wanted to be in a dry car. The lake water was rising, the wind lifting small waves over the cypresses’ knees. He rested in the mud—soft and rough at the same time—curling it through his fingers. He would have to move up toward the road, find safety on the man-made pavement as the dirt was constantly being lapped away, eaten and broken.
The honking began as a distant call—a phone ringing in another room—before he knew it was meant for him. Then the door slamming and his name. He turned to see them sliding down the slope—the three of them—mud kicked up against their shins, the pebbles dislodged by the rain. The dog was barking. He heard Belle ask him what the hell he was doing.
“Where’s the chair?” she asked.
“It ran out of battery on the dam.”
“We’ll go get it,” Moss said. “C’mon.”
“Wait,” Berger said.
A vibration came from the mud. He felt it in the rubber of his shoes, and he could tell Cyd felt it too, because she was looking at the ground.
“Help me up,” he said. “We have to get to the road.”
“But the chair,” Moss said.
Berger leaned on his wife. She had her arm around his waist. Cyd ran ahead to open the car door. Berger could see the dog inside, fogging up the windows.
It was a rock lodged in the clay of the earthen dam that finally did it in. Pushed its way out, opening a passage for the water, expanding. Just how a hole in a fossil is formed, the water continuously pushing against a piece of sand until it moves through to the other side. This is how the dam broke, broke in the middle, collapsing on itself and the motorized chair.
Lynn Pane was a 2015 Lambda Literary Fellow. Her work has appeared in Tin House and No Tokens. She holds an MFA in fiction from New York University and is a bookseller in Massachusetts.