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Authors: Jack Kilborn

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BOOK: JACK KILBORN ~ ENDURANCE
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It’s a triathlete thing. Never know when you’ll be swimming, or have to hydrate.”

They got out of the car, walked around to the rear. Mal pulled out his suitcase, and Deb pulled hers. She was thinking the same thing he probably was; in the darkness, the only way to change clothes was next to the light from the trunk. She watched him struggle for a moment with what to do, and then she pulled her bloody tee shirt up over her head, revealing her neon sports bra.


Would you like some privacy?” he asked.

Deb loosened the drawstring on her sweatpants. “I wear a bikini when I compete. There’s nothing you’ll see here that you won’t see there.”

She rested her butt against the bumper, then tugged down her pants. Removing them from her legs was awkward, but Deb favored flared cuffs, making the process easier. When she was finished, she stood in her bra and panties, expecting Mal to be staring at her prosthetic legs.

Instead, Deb caught him staring at her breasts, which made her feel wonderfully normal. She tried not to smirk, reaching into the trunk for a water bottle and a towel as he began to unbutton his shirt. Deb cleaned herself off as best she could. When she glanced at Mal again, he was in his boxer briefs. It was obvious he worked out.


Can you toss me a water bottle?”

Deb thought, staring at his chiseled abs, about asking him if he needed help. But that was totally inappropriate, especially after what they’d just been through. Instead, she went with something banal.


Do you run?”


Yeah. Not like you, though. Never competed in anything. After five miles I feel like puking.”


Everyone feels like puking after five miles. It’s called
hitting the wall
. You have to run through it.”


That’s why you’re the athlete, and I’m the reporter. Once I hit the wall, I curl up and start crying.”


I do that too. But only after the race.”

Deb took a long pull from the water bottle, then dumped the remainder on her prosthetics. Her cosmetic legs, as opposed to her sports legs, were flesh-colored and shaped like real calves, the outer skin latex. Inside each was a titanium bar, which attached to a complicated spring/joint mechanism that functioned as ankles. Her high-top Nikes were specially made to snap onto the ends. Every so often, Deb toyed with the idea of getting a custom pair of stiletto boots. She missed high heels. But walking was enough of a challenge without an extra three inches.

Except for the flesh-colored Velcro straps just below her knees where the prosthetics began, the legs looked real, even close up. But they got dirty very easily, and were a pain to clean. The dried-on blood was proving especially tough, and Deb was worried if she rubbed too hard, she’d rip the latex.


Maybe this will help.” Mal tugged a bottle out of his suitcase and held it up.
Grey Goose
vodka.


Apparently you come equipped, too.”


I travel a lot, and hate paying twelve dollars for martinis at the hotel bar.”


I’m not sure getting drunk will help get the blood stains out.”

He shook his head and walked over, kneeling down between Deb’s legs. “Do you mind?” he asked.

Deb didn’t mind at all. She watched as he poured some alcohol onto a clean part of his towel, and then rubbed her prosthetics with it. For the briefest of moments, Deb could almost feel his touch on her missing legs, her brain linking his actions with remembered sensations. She shivered, and told herself it was because of the night breeze and not anything else.


I think I can take it from here,” she said, holding her hand out for the vodka.

He looked up like a guy ready to propose marriage, which was something Deb knew she’d never see. The tiny flirtatious spark she’d felt a moment ago became resentment. At herself. At her legs. And at Mal, for daring to treat her like a normal person.

Scott, her boyfriend once-upon-a-time, didn’t react well to the loss of her legs. It freaked him out, and he didn’t act the same after the amputations. He alternated between treating her like a fragile China doll that might break, and acting like she was deformed. The one time they tried to have sex, and the comments he made, was so upsetting she dumped him right there, and hadn’t been with a man since.

She’d dated again, eventually, after getting through rehab on her own. But in Deb’s experience, all men were in one of two groups. Those that wished she had legs, and those freakazoids who had a thing for women without legs. Deb made the mistake of joining an amputee forum on the internet, and later an online dating service. In both cases, the only men she attracted were weirdoes with a stump fetish.

Mal, treating her like she was 100% normal, was messing with her head.

Deb wasn’t normal. She never would be. And if he didn’t stop staring at her with that sly grin, she was going to smack him.


I said I got it, Mal. Back off.”

He raised his hands in supplication and quickly retreated.

Deb took a big swig from the bottle, feeling it burn down her throat, coming to rest like a hot coal in her belly.

Damn him for being cute, and damn him for being nice.

She poured more vodka on her towel and began swabbing her legs again. The alcohol worked fine at dissolving the blood. It also got rid of the blood caked under her fingernails, which was important considering she paid a hundred bucks to get them done. Still, she couldn’t wait to find this stupid inn and get into a bathtub.

Deb hoped it had bathtubs. She wasn’t good with showers.

Mal seemed to take the rejection in stride, hopping on one foot to get his fresh jeans on. Deb went with a pair of nylon snap pants, the kind basketball players used. They had snap-on buttons along the outside and inside of each leg, so they could be torn off quickly. That was a nice function, but Deb preferred them for the opposite reason; she could put them on by using the snaps rather than stepping into them.


Have you done any climbing since the accident?”

She shot him a look. “Speaking of non-sequitors. Are we starting the interview now?”

Mal was buttoning up his shirt, another light blue one. “I figured we have three things we could be talking about. The deer.”

Deb shook her head. “I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.”


Me neither. That leaves the interview, and getting personal. And I assume, by the way you told me to back off, you aren’t all that interested in getting personal.”

Deb capped the bottle and tossed it to him, perhaps a bit too hard. “No, I haven’t done any rock climbing since I lost my legs.”

She shivered again, and this time she was positive it was the night air. Deb pulled a hoodie out of her suitcase and wrestled that over her head.


Is the accident too difficult to talk about?”

His voice had a hint of challenge. Deb relaxed a notch.


Not at all.”
The only thing that scares me is flirting.

She threw the wet, bloody towel and the empty water bottle into the trunk, and watched Mal muscle his suitcase up and place it next to her sports legs.


You’ve got three pairs of prosthetics in here,” Mal said. “What are each of them for?”

An easy question. Deb got asked a lot about her various legs.


The ones that look like skis bent into question marks, those are my Cheetah Flex-Sprints. They’re made of carbon fiber, curved backward the same way the legs of a gazelle are curved, which transfers energy better than a human knee and ankle.”

He reached for one and asked, “May I?”


Sure.”

He picked up the Cheetah. “Wow, they’re light.”


Try to bend it.”

Mal placed the rubber tread attached to the curved bottom in one hand, and the stump cup in the other. It really did resemble an upside-down question mark, and when Deb wore them she thought she looked like a satyr—a woman with the legs of a goat.

Mal flexed, and the leg bent slightly.


Strong,” he said. “And springy.”


Very springy. With a running start, I can jump high enough to slam dunk a basketball.”


What about these?” he said, replacing the Cheetah with a titanium bar with a clip on the end.


I call those my Long John Silvers.”


Because they’re sliver?”


That, and they look like old pirate peg legs. The clip onto the bottom of the pylon hooks on my bike pedals. They’re shit to walk in, but function the same way as a tibia does, without any spring. Direct energy transfer from my thigh to the pedal.”


Now you said you don’t wear your prosthetics while swimming.”


I actually have a pair for swimming, with fins on the feet, but they’re for training and recreation and I left them at home.”


So what are these?”

He picked up another leg. Like the Cheetah, it was a thin band, wide as a ski. But it wasn’t as curvy. Rather than a question mark, it looked more like the letter L. And instead of a rubber tread foot, this one ended in a rubber knob with small metal spikes. Sort of like the bottom toe of the L had a sea urchin on the tip.

Mal touched a spike. “Let me guess. These are what you use when you’re fighting in gladiator tournaments?”


Rock climbing legs. Specially made.”

Mal raised an eyebrow. “I thought you don’t climb rocks anymore.”

Deb stared over his shoulder. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought she caught some kind of movement behind him, down the embankment.

Something big and dark.


Let’s get out of here,” Deb said.

Mal put the leg back, and shut the trunk. Deb climbed back into the driver’s seat and started the car, peeling out back onto the highway.


I’m a reporter, so I have to ask these questions,” Mal said. “But I don’t want to overstep my bounds.”

Deb checked her rearview mirror. Nothing there. “Go ahead. No question is off limits.”


Do you mind if I record this?”


Not at all.”

Mal flipped on the overhead light and dug a mini-recorder out of his pocket. It was about the size of a cell phone.


Okay. Why have climbing legs if you don’t climb anymore?”

Deb felt the goose bumps on her arms, but she managed to shrug convincingly. “Because I’ll climb again. Someday. I just haven’t fit it into my schedule yet.”


Are you scared?”

She glanced at him. He wasn’t mocking her, wasn’t judging her, and he had a notepad in his hand, jotting things down.


How much do you know about my accident?” Deb asked.

Mal flipped to an earlier page in his notebook. “You were solo climbing in the New River Gorge in Fayetteville, West Virginia. Not too far from here. The rock you were hanging on came loose, and you fell thirty feet, shattering both your legs. You had to crawl three miles to safety.”

Mal’s facts were actually wrong, on several points. But Deb only chose to correct him on a few, and keep the most important one to herself.


I crawled 2.7 miles, not three. I went back and measured it. And I actually fell closer to sixty feet, but the first thirty were a gradual slide down an angled rock face. That first part probably only took five or six seconds. But it felt a lot longer.”


I can imagine.”

Deb looked at him. “Can you? Can you really? I was on my belly, face pressed against the mountain, arms and legs spread out, trying to find some sort of grip, some kind of toe hold, so I wouldn’t slide over the edge. But the rock face was shear. As flat and smooth as glass. I skidded down it slowly—even slower than a child on a park slide. But I couldn’t slow down, couldn’t stop my gradual descent. You know, six seconds is usually nothing. Hell, I’ve been talking longer than six seconds. But as I was sliding, heading toward the edge, I had time to think. I had time to actually think about my own death. About what it would mean.”

Mal leaned in closer. “What would it mean?”

Deb stared ahead, into the blackness of the open road, and felt herself shiver.


It would mean nothing. I was going to die for no reason at all.” She let out a clipped, humorless laugh. “The whole point of my life was to be a cautionary tale for other rock climbers to make sure you use pinions.”


You weren’t using pinions?”


I was hammering my first pinion in when… the rock gave way.”

Mal wrote something down.


Can you talk about what happened after the fall?”

The memory was hazy, like trying to recall a dream, or a hallucination. But parts of it stuck out. Parts of it felt like they’d been burned into her head with a branding iron.


It didn’t hurt at first. I remember waking up, confused about where I was. Then I saw my legs, both of them bent backwards. It looked like I had two extra knees, and the bones were jutting out the front of my shins. You know, I actually tried to pull one out? I thought I’d landed on a stick, and it was poking out of me. Instead, it was my tibia. I tried to yank out my own tibia.”

BOOK: JACK KILBORN ~ ENDURANCE
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