Death by Association Excerpt

            Naya released the leg press with a grunt, cringing at the loud clank that echoed through the gym. A quick check around her and she saw that everyone had politely ignored her. Using both legs, she barely managed to press eighty pounds. She was frustrated and angry at her stagnated progress and the fact that her weaker left leg could barely press twenty pounds on its own. She stopped trying and took a couple of slow, deep breaths to relax.

            She’d been coming to this gym for years because unlike those mega-size ones with dozens of machines lined up in military style rows, this one was small and comfortable. There were only a dozen machines grouped by type, with leg equipment in one area and arm and back equipment in another. There also was no blaring music, so you could listen to your own choice through ear buds. She always preferred working out with only her breathing or heartbeat to listen to. It helped her focus and relax. Unfortunately, today was full of listening to herself grunt with frustration.

            After her multiple sclerosis attack during a marathon race this past spring that had paralyzed her, she had improved quickly. She’d graduated from wheelchair to walker within weeks. But she still couldn’t jog, never mind run marathons. She also still needed a cane more often than she liked and occasionally needed a walker when she over-exerted herself. The doctors had been impressed with her progress over the last four months. But recently it had stagnated, giving her an endless source of frustration. She made one more attempt at the leg press. The weights dropped as her groan harmonized with the clank.   

            Plus an extra groan when Larson rolled his wheelchair into the gym. She couldn’t help the irrational annoyance when she saw him. He was an okay guy, but somehow he just rubbed her the wrong way. Maybe it was because he seemed to be more interested in chatting than exercising. Though to be fair, many people here chatted together in between reps. She preferred to concentrate on her workout and chat at the end. Everyone respected that. Except for Larson.

            He’d shown up in the gym two weeks ago, invading her concentration and annoying her last thread of patience. Everyone in the gym, even Mrs. Fieldkirk who was pushing 90, was charmed by him. But Naya refused to be impressed.

            Watching him out of the corner of her eye, she hoped that if she didn’t look at him then he’d go about his usual routine of visiting with everyone, then starting his own workout. With luck he’d leave her alone. Something was different today. He politely acknowledged people that he passed with a quick nod and smile, but aimed his wheelchair directly at her. Damn! Did he see her give him a side glance and interpret it as an invitation? She wanted to pretend that she was concentrating on her workout. But who was she kidding? Her leg muscles had abandoned her and she couldn’t even lift the weights a centimeter. Only one thing left to do. She smiled as politely as she could at Larson.

            “Good morning,” he said cheerfully, stopping close to the leg press.

            “Hi,” she responded, keeping her voice as neutral as possible.

            “I see you’ve increased the weight from last week,” he said, his voice pleasant, his smile friendly.

            “No.” She paused. She really hated people giving her false encouragement. “It’s the same. To be honest, I haven’t been able to increase the weight in weeks.” She put her feet down, struggling with her weaker left leg. She leaned back on the seat and just stared at him.

            “In the time I’ve been here, it just looks like you’re improving each day,” he said.

            “I guess,” she answered, keeping her tone aloof. Maybe from his perspective she had improved. Maybe the doctors were right and she was just impatient. All of that also made being patient with Larson a great challenge.

            “I suppose that’s the trick,” he suggested. “To come everyday. That helps you keep focussed.”

            “Sure, it helps to have a routine.”

            “I don’t mean to pry, but,” he paused.

            Ah ha, the inevitable ‘but’, signalling that he was going to pry.

            “You used to run marathons, right?”

            “It’s not a secret.” This was not something she really wanted to discuss with a stranger. She’d fallen in love with running as a child, and after her first marathon she’d felt a sense of accomplishment. More than that, she’d felt complete. But after the multiple sclerosis attack, after she’d first realized that marathons were now a thing of the past, she no longer felt whole. As though a part of her soul had fractured. The first day she’d walked into this gym and someone had recognized her from the news, it had taken every ounce of strength and determination not to turn and bolt out the door.

            “Can I ask you,” Larson began. Taking a deep breath, as though even he had finally realized how intrusive he was being. “How did you manage to adjust from being so active to living with limited mobility? People say it happened so fast during the race. You were very close to the finish line.”

            “Five kilometers.” Despite herself, her voice trembled. She clamped her lips tight, fighting off the bitter feeling. That had been the first time that she hadn’t finished a race. She turned in her seat to fully face him and tell him to get lost. To leave her alone. Stop peeling back band-aids from barely healed emotions. When she looked him straight in the face, her planned response faded even before it had fully formed in her mind. He wasn’t being nosey. Or gossipy. He sincerely needed to know. For the first time, she actually saw him.

            He was maybe in his mid to late thirties. In excellent physical shape. His dark blond hair was cut short and neat, his skin naturally bronzed, but not the even tan of some recent sun-filled holiday. He wore a t-shirt and she could see various tan lines on his arms, as though he frequently wore t-shirts or long sleeves mostly rolled up. This was a man who spent a lot of time outdoors – working.

            He looked like an athlete. Broad, muscular shoulders weren’t uncommon in someone who used a manual wheelchair. But Larson’s legs were still muscular, very obvious even though he wore track pants. Since the leg muscles hadn’t had time to atrophy yet, whatever had put him in that chair had happened recently. The guy was probably just trying to figure out how to cope and adjust to his new life.

            She retrieved her fold up cane, snapped it open, then held onto the leg press to help pull herself up and stepped closer to him. She lowered her voice to try to keep their conversation private – as private as it could ever be in a gym.

            “I’m sorry if I’ve been a bit short with you. Sometimes it’s hard…” She stopped and asked instead, “What happened to put you in that chair?”

            “Oh, umm. Uh,” Larson stammered, as though he hadn’t expected the question. “I, uh, it’s kind of complicated.”

            “That’s okay. When you’re –” She broke off when she saw a man in a bulky windbreaker enter the gym. He was talking on a cell phone. Without putting it down he went to the reception desk and spoke to the young woman, Carly. Considering the gym was in the middle of a shopping mall, she thought that he could have at least unzipped the jacket. Shaking her head at the rudeness of not putting down the cell to talk to the receptionist, Naya returned her attention to Larson.

            “I was saying you can talk about it when you feel ready.” She gave him a sincere smile of encouragement. “Look, it took me a while before I accepted things and would actually leave my house.”

            “That’s understandable if you had trouble moving around.”

            “No,” she laughed, realizing how silly it sounded now. “I was too embarrassed to let people see me using a walker.”

            Over Larson’s right shoulder, in the far corner, she noticed a small commotion by the free weights where 90-something year old Mrs. Fieldkirk was working out. The receptionist was involved in an animated discussion, with a lot of arm waving and gesturing from the older lady. The argument was ended by a very dramatic and audible “Shoo!” from Mrs. Fieldkirk, who then picked up an impressive twenty pound weight and continued her bicep curls.

            The receptionist looked back at the man in the windbreaker – still on his phone. He nodded. Carly gave Naya a strange, indecipherable look, then returned quickly to the front.

            That’s when Naya noticed that all the other clients were huddled behind the desk. Puzzled for a split second, she soon felt an overwhelming sense of dread. She could hear Larson’s voice as though coming through a long tunnel and tuned back in.

            “…I know that it’s harder than you let on. To cope, I mean. And also –” He stopped. “Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?”

            She was about to say that something strange was going on when she caught sudden movement out of the corner of her eye. Several things happened at once. All taking barely a few seconds, but she caught everything as though watching a movie on slow frame advance.

            The bulky jacket man put the cell in his pocket. He reached inside his jacket as he glanced at the door. He pulled out a gun. The door burst open. Six policemen wearing bullet proof vests stormed in. Shouting orders simultaneously.

            “Hands in the air!”

            “Don’t move!”

            “Hands up!”

            Heart pounding, Naya frantically scanned the room for the threat they were responding to.

            Within seconds they’d swarmed Larson, guns levelled at him. One cop accidentally bumped her. Off balance, she started to fall in horrific slow motion. The same cop steadied her with one hand. Somehow kept his gun aimed on Larson.

            Two cops yanked Larson out of his wheelchair. Threw him to the floor. Shocked cries from everyone behind the desk masked Naya’s own yell. They charged out from behind the desk but stopped short of advancing on the armed cops. One cop knelt on Larson’s back while the other frisked and handcuffed his hands behind him. If only she had her cell phone handy to record this blatant display of police brutality against a disabled man. The gym clients, as a group, took a couple of hesitant steps – then stopped.

            She wanted to somehow stop this horrible scene. She tried to take a step forward, but her legs trembled so much she couldn’t move. A deep breath and she pushed the weakness away and restarted her journey. No amount of determination could keep her steady at the sight of what happened next. She noticed that the other would-be rescuers had also stopped their creeping advance. A harsh silence overtook the room.

            The police pulled Larson to his feet. He stood. Looked at Naya with an odd mix of emotions she couldn’t understand. Pleading? Regret? Her heart skipped a beat when his armed escort marched him out the exit on two very sturdy, very healthy legs.            

Naya was sure her heart stopped altogether when one of the officers announced, “Larson Rask, you’re under arrest for three counts of murder.”