Marlene sat in a wheelchair next to her bedroom window. She strained to look through its furthest edge where the laughter of children carried through the air. A sigh followed her drifting thoughts of playing outside, longing to chase and run as she once did.
Her father entered the room. “Hey kiddo, your uncle Tanner will be stopping in. His layover was longer than he thought; flights canceled to Europe and all.”
Her big brown eyes lit up. “Uncle Tanner? Oh!” she said and sat up straight.
Philip smiled, a smile that turned down on the ends. Marlene turned her chair to face him. He looked down at the blanket stretched tightly across her thin legs as if ironed overtop.
“Daddy, tell me about his trip to Mongolia,” she said with excitement. Her arms pushed to lift her body higher.
Philip combed his fingers through his hair, “It’s not so great, he builds dams, that’s all. Some of those places are dreadful. You’re safe and comfortable here.”
“Comfortable?” She asked 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 stopped himself. “I’m sorry. I meant—”
“Since Mom died?” Marlene interrupted.
Philip winced. “The accident, I meant.” His attention drifted off as he stepped behind Marlene and pushed her chair toward the door.
A familiar silence grew that amplified the sound of the wheels across the wood floor. He rolled her through the hall toward the front room, but stopped and straightened a picture of his brother standing on the bank of a river. He stared for a moment, paused, then slowly moved forward again.
“We’ll wait in the living room,” Philip said. “He’ll be here soon.”
Outside, the air sang with children’s laughter louder than before and Marlene sighed with an ache while her father looked about the room. The shelves were adorned with exotic trinkets from around the world.
It’s exactly how mother liked it, Philip thought.
A taxi stopped in front of the house. Philip and Marlene waited while Tanner’s lumbering steps crossed the porch. There was a knock in the same moment Philip pulled open the door.
In stepped Tanner. A wrinkle-suited, unshaven man filled the doorway. 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 with a dry throat.
“Hello, Phil.” Tanner’s eyes shifted to Marlene.
A smile grew upon her face. She strained to sit tall and 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. She scanned her uncle’s face for every nuance.
Tanner held Marlene’s hand next to her side. “For sport, they ride a small horse whilst shooting arrows.”
“Really?” She questioned with a gaze. Her imagination danced somewhere beyond. Her eyes looked to the side for a moment.
Tanner felt her hand squeeze his fingers. He sensed her desire to hear his story, “Yes, yes, they’re expert riders, the best in the world,” he nodded with confidence, “and the children play a game called breaking the chain.”
Marlene stared deeply into his eyes with curiosity. “How is it played?”
Her grip tightened with every word. He felt her pain but spoke gently. “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 them.”
Marlene giggled, “Oh, wow.”
“Is this all we’re going to talk about?” Philip interrupted.
Tanner stood, still holding Marlene’s hand. “This isn’t about you, Phil. Marli’s the one who matters. She needs to feel alive to get better.”
“She can’t walk!” Philip answered sternly. His eyes widened as he quickly covered his mouth. Marlene let go of her uncle’s hand. Her shoulders sunk.
Tanner watched Marlene glance away in shame. “That’s not true!” Tanner quickly whispered with a hiss. He took a step toward Phil. “She needs to live. You’re holding her back. Don’t you see?”
Philip grimaced. “Stop it!” He snapped. “You always come in here with your fantastic stories about where you’ve been. You always have to be the one everyone loves most.”
“Loves?” Tanner questioned with a louder voice. “If it makes you feel better, Mother always loved you more.”
“More?” Philip replied. “They sent you to college while I stayed here.”
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 Mother was suffocating me… I just had to get out.”
“You’re all Mom ever talked about,” Phil said as he looked around the room. “What has Tanner done? Where has Tanner been? I hated hearing your name.”
“Listen, Phil, Mother was afraid of going 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, she had a fear of the outdoors. After Dad and I were gone, she needed you out of fear.”
Philip cupped his palms as if holding something of value in front of himself. “After you left, Mom begged me never to leave her, and I kept that promise.”
Marlene sunk deeper into her wheelchair, her eyes stared forward, unmoving.
Tanner ran his fingers through his hair. He looked upward, searching his mind, then looked at his brother. “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 to not be here when Mother died?”
Marlene covered her ears, “Stop talking about it.”
Tanner spoke calmly. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you when Emily passed…” He turned to Marlene. “Your mother was a strong woman.”
Marlene wept. “I wish she was still alive.” She covered her face with her hands. “I feel like it’s my fault.” Her fragile body shook as she sobbed into her palms.
Tanner put his hand on her shoulder, “No, no, my dear girl, none of this is your fault. Your mother loved you very much, just as our mother loved me and your dad.”
Philip balled his fist. “I couldn’t save her!” he shouted. “She always wanted to drive here and there when I could have done it but I can protect Marli, she’s safe here.”
“But she’s not alive here,” Tanner answered
“You just want her to be like you.” Philip pointed around the room, “Look at all of this junk. I’d have thrown it all out, but mother liked it this way. So, I’ve kept it in her memory.”
“Mother liked it because it was her link to the outside,” Tanner answered, “Why do you think she never left the house?”
Philip closed his eyes, shaking his head. “She didn’t need to… Dad and I were 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. What do you care?”
“I care Phil, more than you know. I know you’ve been,” Tanner looked around at the walls, “chained to this house since childhood.” He looked at Phil. “But a life unchained is not without its pain.” Tanner picked up his case. His jaws clenched.
“No! Uncle, no,” Marlene cried. “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 once again. He held her hand atop of the armrest. She squeezed his hand harder than before. “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. 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! Understand?”
Tanner stood while still holding Marlene’s hand and his suitcase in the other. “It’s you who can’t, Phil. You’re the one who couldn’t walk out of here, the same house we grew up in, and now you want to trap her to be trapped because you’re afraid.”
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!”
Marlene held tightly to him. Their hands broke apart when he leaned away and walked toward the door. His shoulders drooped equally under the weight of the suitcase and from the weight of Marlene’s pleas for him to stay.
Philip burst out of the door behind him, red faced, “See what you’ve done!”
Tanner turned around defiantly. “No, what have YOU done, Phil?”
“She has to accept the reality of her circumstances. She’ll never walk. Don’t you get it?” Philip shouted.
“It’s you who doesn’t get it,” Tanner replied.
While they stood on the porch facing each other, the door creaked open. In amazement, the men turned to see Marlene standing in the doorway. Her atrophied legs strained with quivers. Tanner smiled with surprise and dropped his case.
Philip straightened his arms out toward her with his palms open 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 stretched out, motioning to a halt. 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. “Now, there is nothing you can’t do.”
Marlene looked up into her uncle’s face to see tears roll down his cheeks. She turned to her father, who knelt next to them. His shoulders slouched as he wept into his palms.
“I can’t lose you too,” Philip cried.
Marlene extended one of her arms toward her father. She placed her hand upon his shoulder. “It’s ok, Dad… We’ll go together.”
Philip stood. His eyes looked away. Tanner and Marlene embraced him. They huddled together with their arms around each other as the laughter of nearby children danced in the air.