“Your uncle Tanner will be popping in,” Philip said to his sixteen-year-old daughter, Marlene, as he wheeled her to the front room. “His layover was longer than he thought; flights canceled to Europe and all.”
Her big brown eyes lit up, “Uncle Tanner? Oh!” She said as she sat in her wheelchair. He smiled in response; a smile that turned down on the ends. He looked down at the blanket stretched tightly over her legs, unwrinkled as if ironed to the chair.
“Daddy, tell me about his trip to Mongolia,” she said with excitement as her arms pushed to lift her body higher.
Philip combed his fingers through his hair, “it’s not so great, he designs dams, that’s all,” then rolled his eyes. “Some of those places are dreadful. You’re safe and comfortable here.”
“Comfortable?” she snapped sarcastically. “You think not being able to walk for two years is comfortable?” She put her hands to her face, “I just want to get out… I… I want to travel the world like uncle Tanner.”
“No!” Philip shouted, then caught himself. “I’m sorry… I meant—”
“Since Mom died?” Marlene interrupted.
Philip winced, Emily, he thought, “the accident, I meant,” his words drifted off as he looked around.
A familiar silence grew that amplified the squeaking wheels. He rolled her through the hall toward the front room, but paused to straighten a picture of his brother standing on the bank of a river. He stared for a moment, then moved forward again, now slower.
“We’ll wait in the living room,” Philip said, “he’ll be here soon.”
He scanned the floor for dust as they exited the hall. Outside, the air sang with children’s laughter and Marlene sighed while her father looked around. The shelves were adorned with exotic trinkets from around the world.
It’s just how mom liked it, Philip thought.
A taxi stopped in front of the house. Philip and Marlene waited as the lumbering steps of Tanner crossed the porch. There was a knock as Philip pulled open the door.
In stepped Tanner, a wrinkle-suited unshaven man filled the entryway. He put out his hand to shake. Philip swallowed and reached out reluctantly, like a chameleon inching its body along a branch.
“Tanner… How’s it going?” He asked dry-throated.
“Hello, Phil,” his eyes shifted to Marlene.
A smile grew upon her face. She strained to sit tall, then reached into the air wide as if wanting to wrap her arms around the sun, “Uncle Tanner!”
“There’s my darling, Marli!” He bellowed, then pushed past Philip, who stepped back.
“Ooh, tell me about Mongolia,” she begged.
Philip interrupted, “He’s had a long trip, dear, let him relax.”
“No, no, Phil,” Tanner dropped his suitcase and knelt next to her, “Mongolia, oh, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Marlene smiled. Her mouth fell half-open with anticipation as she scanned her uncle’s face for every nuance.
Tanner held Marlene’s hand next to her side, “for sport, those Mongolians ride a small horse whilst shooting arrows.”
“Really?” she questioned with a gaze somewhere beyond.
“Yes, yes, they’re expert riders, the best in the world,” he nodded with confidence then patted her on the hand, “and the children play a game called ‘breaking the chain’. Two lines of children stand apart, facing each other with their arms linked. A child’s name is called. Then, that child has to run at the other group and break through their arms. If she’s caught, she has to join that group.”
Marlene giggled, “Oh, wow.”
“Is this all we’re going to talk about?” Philip interrupted.
Tanner stood, “This isn’t about you, Phil, Marli’s who matters. She needs to feel alive to get better.”
“She can’t walk!” Philip answered sternly. His eyes widened as he quickly cupped his mouth. Marlene’s shoulders’ sunk.
Tanner looked at Marlene, “that’s not true!” He turned to Phil, “she needs to live. You’re holding her back. Don’t you see?”
Philip sneered, “just stop! You always come in here and be the one everyone loves most.”
“Loves?” Tanner questioned, “If it makes you feel better, Mother always loved you more.”
“More?” Philip answered. “It was you they sent to college while I stayed home.”
Tanner shook his head, “That’s not how it was. You were younger and I had to be responsible.”
“Ha! Responsible? You were never around when things got tough. I had to pick up the pieces after Dad died.”
“I’m sorry, Phil, but I was starting my own life and she was suffocating me… I just had to get out.”
“You’re all Mom ever talked about. When will Tanner show up? What has Tanner sent? I hated hearing your name.”
“Listen, Phil, Mother was afraid of the outside. Remember how Dad did everything?”
Philip gazed to the side, “no, it’s… He was the father. It was his job.”
“She was agoraphobic! After Dad and I were gone, she needed you out of fear.”
Philip cupped his palms as if holding something of value, “After you left, mom begged me never to leave her, and I kept that promise.”
Marlene sunk deeper into the chair.
Tanner ran his fingers through his scalp, “we just don’t remember it the same. I had to get out and yes, my entire relationship with my family has been one big regret, but I can’t change that.”
Philip looked around at the trinkets, “that picture of you standing by the Yangtze River, I hate it.”
“The Volga,” Tanner corrected.
“Whatever, look at this house, the shelves, the walls all adorned with the greatness of Tanner. You’re a show-off.”
“You don’t understand!” Tanner curled his hands like claws near his gut. “I sent those things to remind you all that I was still alive. Do you know how many times I sat alone in hotel rooms and airports hoping to make it back for a holiday? Do you know how it felt not being here when mother died?… And, I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you when Emily passed… A life unchained is not without its pain.”
“I’d throw it all out, but mother liked it this way.”
“She liked it because it was her link to the outside. Why do you think she never left the house?”
Philip closed his eyes, shaking his head, “She didn’t need to… I was here and…” Philip held the sides of his head as if stopping the noise of a freight train, “why don’t you leave us alone? Just go to Tanzania or Siberia or wherever.”
Tanner picked up his case, preparing to march from the house.
“No! Uncle, no,” Marlene shouted, “I want to go with you.”
Philip stared wide-eyed at Marlene and then his brother. His lips quivered with unspoken words.
Tanner kneeled next to her and held her hand, “yes, oh yes, my dear, one day I’ll take you to see the pyramids and the Great Wall of China. It will be magnificent!”
Tears rolled down Marlene’s cheeks as she stared through her glassy eyes and out into the wild blue yonder of her imagination. A seemingly endless imagination of dreams poured from her crippled body and into a world of pure possibility.
“Get out!” Philip shouted as he pointed to the door, “She can’t walk! Don’t you get it?”
Tanner stood while still holding her hand, “It’s you who can’t, Phil. Don’t you get it? You’re the one who couldn’t walk out of here, the same house we grew up in, and now you want her to be trapped.”
Tanner turned to Marlene, “I’m sorry my dear, but I can’t stay if your father doesn’t want me. Don’t worry, you’ll walk again, I know you will!”
He turned toward the front door. Their hands broke apart as he leaned away. His shoulders drooped under the weight of Marlene’s pleas for him to stay as he walked out.
Philip burst out of the door behind him, red-faced, “See what you’ve done! She has to accept the reality of her circumstances.”
“No, what have YOU done, Phil?”
As they stood on the porch facing-off the door creaked open. In amazement, the men turned to see Marlene standing in the doorway; her atrophied legs straining with quivers. Tanner smiled and dropped his case.
Philip put out his hands as if to stop a collision, “No! You can’t!”
“Yes, you can,” Tanner ordered with a raised fist.
Marlene stepped from the doorway with an expression of pain and astonishment, gasping with each step. Philip’s arms outstretched, motioning to halt as Tanner’s arms reached out to catch her. Marlene took stiff-legged steps like a baby walking for the first time and fell into the arms of her uncle.
Philip dropped to his knees weeping, “No, no, you can’t leave me.”
“Yes, my dear, I’ve got you,” Tanner whispered with tears, “now, there is nothing you can’t do.”