Linda Hutsell-Manning

Novels Plays Poems Stories

Excerpt from "Heads I Win, Tails You Lose" Novella


What Anne notices first are the two little piles of dust and, an instant later, the empty wheelchair foot rests. She blinks, thinking she must be seeing things, assuming to see what should be there, Harold's wrinkled feet, yellowed toenails. Her head is under the table, bending down to pick up the teaspoon she dropped when he jerked his arm again, all the while listening to him mumble it was an accident, certain he is frowning, one black eyebrow raised, piercing blue eyes fixed on her.

          He's in one of his moods this morning, she thinks numbly. Another long weekend ahead.

          "Hurry up, will you Anne, my feet are cold."

          Anne bangs her head on the kitchen table as she stands up.

          "You almost spilled the milk."

          "Sorry. Do you want the rest of your cereal?"

          "I told you my feet are cold."

          "I'll get your socks."

          "And my slippers."

          Anne leans against the bedroom dresser, sweat running down between her shoulder blades. Morning sun pours in, zig-zagging a crazy design on the delicately patterned wallpaper. Less than an hour ago, she lifted those lifeless feet squarely onto the foot rests; noticed his toenails needed cutting. 

           You're in overload, she says to herself, pulling open the dresser drawer and yanking out a clean pair of socks. Things have been hectic all week at the Library and she hasn't had time to recover. She grabs his plaid slippers from under the bed and hurries back to the kitchen.

          The clock ticks out of sync with Harold's raspy breathing. Friday, when Anne arrived home, Mrs. Forester, the housekeeper, beckoned Anne outside saying hurriedly that Harold's breathing had been increasingly rough the last couple of days. Anne hopes they're not in for another bout of pneumonia.     

          "My Corn Pops are all mushy now," Harold snaps, "What took you so long?"

          Anne inhales sharply; thinks of slamming the slippers down on the table beside him but doesn't. She maneuvers the wheelchair back and toward her. Harold's legs, covered with a wool blanket, hang passively in front. She's sure, now, she imagined it.

          She hasn't.

          Where his feet were, less than an hour ago, nothing. She lifts one pant leg to find the bottom of his ankle curved round, the skin taut and shiny. Shaking, she tries to pull the socks over each stump until she stops, gagging involuntarily.

          "My slippers," he reminds her, "When Mrs. Forester is here, she always puts them on before breakfast."

          "I didn't notice holes in these socks," she manages to say, snatching them up. "I'll get another pair."

          "Well hurry, will you, my feet are like ice."

          Back in the bedroom, she sits on the bed and tries to stop shaking; wonders if she's becoming delusional. As if it were yesterday, she remembers a particular Psychology class, all of them keen and much too arrogant, the professor talking about after-effects of unexpected trauma, how the mind in a state of disbelief uses coping mechanisms, one of which is to simply go along with the situation as if it were perfectly normal. She stands numbly and opens the dresser drawer. Another memory follows, a first aid course she took a couple of years ago where the instructor said amputees frequently have feeling in a missing limb. Steadying herself momentarily against the dresser drawer, she stuffs each sock with three other pairs.

          Harold glowers when she returns to the kitchen. "I've changed my mind," he says, "I want toast."

          "First things first," she says brightly, reaching down to pull on the socks. "This will only take a minute." Even though scrunching the socks into the slippers is tricky,  the final result seems quite respectable. She feels like some other version of herself, tougher, unexpectedly resilient.

          While making toast at the counter, she again eyes the two little piles of dust under the table. They look harmless enough, like something accidentally spilled. Sand from down at the beach perhaps.

          "Isn't it almost time for Opra?" Harold asks. "Mrs. Forester always..."

          "It's Saturday morning, Harold, there's nothing on but cartoons."

          "Well hurry up, I'm probably missing the best ones."

          Anne watches the back of his head in front of the blaring TV. Today Harold's feet are the least of her worries. She's not going to start feeling sorry for herself, for her life and what it's come to, there simply isn't time. Laundry first, then a dinner party to plan. This month it's her turn.

          Harold's university colleagues have been more than generous since his car accident, a head-on collision coming around the curve. Three teens in a small sedan dead by the time anyone arrived at the scene, scattered like tossed luggage outside the vehicle. The Audi Sport had good air bags, resilient frame, otherwise it would have been four dead.

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