Louisa parked her wheelchair in a corner. It seemed to be the nicest thing she could do for her wife’s birthday, to stay out of the way.A stampede of kids ran through the kitchen, and Louisa’s voice joined a chorus of other adults shouting “Slow Down!” It was a common scene whenever any combination of the extended family got together. Since it was Amanda’s birthday, it was mostly her side of the family that was there. Four generations running around; cousins ducking in and out of their parents’ attention doing who knows what.The stampede did slow down a bit at the top of the basement stairs. The younger kids sent furtive glances back towards the adults as they followed the older kids down to the wreck room. Louisa knew that look. She smiled at her nieces and nephews and they waved back as, one by one, they disappeared down the stairs.Eric, one of her and Amanda’s husbands, had picked up a book for her on the way home. She preferred reading on paper, and loved to doodle in the margins as she read. At least, when her hands cooperated. They frequently didn’t. More relatives and quasi-relatives ran in and out. She chatted with Amanda’s fathers when they came in for more ice, asking if she needed anything. She had learned how to tell when people really meant those four little words; Amanda’s fathers were really asking “Please reassure us that you’re fine just parked in the corner there so we don’t have to do anything.” “Is that the one you wanted?” Eric asked, swooping in with an affectionate smooch to the top of her head. “Did hubby do good?” He sat down on a kitchen stool, grinning down at her. She held the book, still warm from the printer. One side of her mouth began to curl upwards. “Yes. Hubby did good. Thank you.”“You know, I could get a tattoo…” he teased, referring to the shirtless, overly decorated hunk on the cover of her romance novel.“Really? So what’s stopping you?” she teased right back, knowing he’d do no such thing.“Why mess with perfection?” he answered, attempting to pop his pecs.Louisa laughed out loud, then immediately shushed herself. She glanced towards the patio door to make sure she hadn’t drawn attention. “So, are you hiding in here because you’re tired and don’t feel up to dealing with company? Or are you playing mouse again?”Coming from Eric, that was a derogatory remark. When they’d met, timid was not a part of her repertoire.She glanced up at the chore list on the wall. Her own name always had the same few chores next to it, the kind of chores she could perform from the wheelchair, as long as the peanut gallery cooperated. But her name was also on the other side. She was a chore. Eric’s name was chalked in for the day.“Just finding a nice spot where I can see all the action.” She dissembled, not willing to admit to playing mouse.“They’re going to bring out the cake in a minute. I’m gonna round up the kids. How’s everything in the peanut gallery? Do you want me to wheel you out?”Louisa did a silent assessment of her muscles and reflexes. Everything seemed to be responding. She wheeled herself out to the patio and sang along with the other guests.Niccola nursed Rudy over in the shade of the huge old lilac bush. That had been the main feature that attracted the young married group to buy the house in the first place; flowering trees and bushes were in abundance. It was also all on one level.Louisa watched her wife and daughter, consciously willing the image to imprint on her brain. She had almost missed out on this. She had almost lost her chance to be a wife and mother.She was grateful.Louisa’s bladder was giving her warning signs. Drinking three cups of punch hadn’t helped much. She scanned the crowd for Eric, and found him making his way towards Niccola and the baby. He gave their wife the same affectionate smooch on the top of the head he’d given Louisa earlier, then took the baby. Louisa smiled at the disgusted face Eric made; apparently Rudy needed a new diaper.She wasn’t about to interrupt the daddy-daughter diaper dance, but her bladder protested. She scanned the crowd again. Amanda was surrounded by guests. Louisa was not about to enter that crowd and say “Can you please leave your own party to help me pee?” Niccola was similarly occupied. The only other spouse was Sebastian, who was nowhere in sight.As unobtrusively as possible, Louisa wheeled herself into the house and back towards the master suite. That bathroom was better equipped to handle her special needs than any of the closer facilities.She made it in time, and the peanut gallery cooperated until she was finished and needed to return to her chair. Her thigh muscles would allow her to swing her legs back and forth, but they refused to let her move them up and down. She sat there, feeling her legs go numb, staring at the emergency call button. All it would take was one simple push, or a loud shout, and the system would set off the alarm saying that something was wrong. All her spouses, and possibly several party guests would come running.She stared at the button, and it stared back.Twenty minutes later, she managed to whip her uncooperative body back into the chair, making herself presentable and resuming her place in the corner of the kitchen. She didn’t know whether she wanted someone to notice how long she’d been gone, or whether she was grateful that it seemed no one had.Sebastian showed up just as the guests were starting to straggle out to their own homes. “Where’s everybody going? I thought we desperately needed more ice cream?”“Who told you we needed more ice cream?” asked Louisa, watching him put several varieties into the freezer.“Leo.”“You trusted our three year old nephew to tell you we needed ice cream? Really?”“Well, it made sense at the time,” he said, chagrinned.“Did you get chocolate covered strawberry?”Sebastian displayed the carton as if it was a game show prize. Louisa applauded. #Later that night, Eric helped strap her into the physical therapy machine for her nightly exercise. Niccola and Amanda spent the time doing some gentle yoga, the kind they could do while passing a giggling Rudy back and forth between them.Eric made no pretense about watching his wives exercise.“My eyes are up here, sweetness,” Louisa chided.“I know. But I like your breasts.”“When did you give up actually looking into my eyes when speaking to me?”“When we got married. It’s a privilege I was greatly anticipating. All those times we were dating and I was gazing into your eyes? I was thinking about your breasts.”Louisa just shook her head and kept bobbing along to her exercise routine. She didn’t usually feel sexy while she was doing her physical therapy, but something about the way Eric sighed happily while watching her swaying chest made her feel…desirable.Hot and sweaty an hour later, Eric helped her out of the machine and into the shower. Once, she had considered having a swing in the shower erotic; however the medical device that helped her stand while she bathed was anything but sexy. The only fun part was having Eric towel her off over the warmer vent when they were finished.Their husband and wives were already in the larger bed, half asleep. The room smelled like sex.With Eric’s help, she stretched out on the smaller bed, the one with all the accoutrements she needed. Although she felt tired, a quick assessment told her that she could move just about anything, just not as quickly as she’d like. She repositioned herself into what she hoped was a sexy pose.Eric paused in between taking his clothes off and putting his pajamas on. His gaze raked her body before abruptly turning away.“Do you want the blanket, or just the sheet?” he asked. His burgeoning erection betrayed his real thoughts.“I don’t need either yet.” She hoped she sounded sultry. Eric lay down beside her, one hand moving to her breast. Louisa sighed happily and pushed herself upwards, encouraging his touch. He kissed her carefully.Frustration and desire warred within her. She didn’t want him to be careful, she wanted him to ravish her. She tried making encouraging sounds. She didn’t want to ask him to make love to her; that seemed too much like begging, and not in a good way. She wanted them to come together like they used to, as two people in love who wanted to express that love in the most beautiful, physical way.But physicality was no longer her strong point. “Louisa…” Eric gasped, pulling himself away from their embrace. Her eyes pled with him, not wanting him to stop. “I don’t want to hurt you.”“You won’t hurt me. It’s all right.” It was an effort to moderate her voice to a calm, sexy tone. She felt like yelling “We’ve been through this a thousand times! Just DO me, damn it!” but she bit her lip instead.She had to ask for everything she needed in life. For someone to fix her food. For someone to help her with every little grooming task. She did not want to have to ask for sex too.Eric cuddled her close, caressing her softly. It was obvious from his erection that he was just as interested in sex as she was, yet he was holding back.“I don’t like the idea of you being so…helpless.”“You used to handcuff me to the bed. We still have the ropes somewhere…”Eric smiled, but shook his head. “It’s not the same, Twirly Girly. It’s one thing for you to choose to be tied up. But…”“But I don’t choose to be helpless now. I know. But I’m not fragile. I just can’t… move as well as I used to.”His caresses had switched from sensual to caring. Like he didn’t want to encourage her, even though one insistent part of his anatomy was still poking her in the leg.“Please, Eric, make love to me…” It had come to that. If she couldn’t seduce her own aroused husband with either her body or her words, she would beg.He was not enthusiastic. He moved his hands to the places he knew would arouse her, and nibbled her neck. “You know your safe word…”“Yes, it’s a number I do not plan to use.”He paused, and she quickly reassured him. “Yes, ninety-nine is my safe word, and I will use it if need to. Now please…”Two years ago he would have shoved her roughly beneath him, holding both her wrists captive in his own huge hands while he claimed her body. But since the rebellion, anything other than gentle, sweet lovemaking was banned from their repertoire.Who banned it, she had no idea. It certainly wasn’t her. She had a small scar on her right thigh from where the buckles had been too tight once, and rubbed her the wrong way. She loved that scar. She would never have it removed.The peanut gallery was good to her, and so was Eric. Sex was satisfying, even though not as passionate as it once was. She fell asleep snuggled in his arms, and woke in the morning with Niccola instead.Niccola’s name was on the chore chart for “Louisa” that day.“Let’s get you dressed!” Niccola said brightly. Louisa wasn’t sure if Niccola was talking to her or to Rudy, but soon they were all clothed and enjoying the sunshine in the back yard.It seemed indulgent to have two spouses home with one small, relatively undemanding baby. Then again, it seemed indulgent that she had one of her spouses always on hand to care for her, as if she was even needier than the infant. She had once brought home the biggest paycheck. It hadn’t seemed like a big deal at the time; others in the relationship were at different points in their education and careers. She loved spending late nights at the clubs, getting up on stage whenever she had the chance, telling jokes and embarrassing stories. With the right audience on a good weekend night, she could bring home almost as much as Eric made in a week as a cop.A stand-up comic who couldn’t stand up was a joke. Or, not a joke, because a joke would be funny. It was a contradiction. “Hey Twirly Girly, where did you drift off to?” Niccola asked.“Just feeling indulgent. I worked extra hard last night to make sure that ice cream doesn’t go straight to my hips.” Louisa was not about to admit where her mind had actually been.Niccola bit her bottom lip as she smiled, and pumped her eyebrows once. That expression had got them both into trouble more times than she could count, including one arrest for public indecency. But the arresting officer ended up proposing marriage just a year later.“I know what you’re thinking, and yes.”“Ice cream before lunch!” Niccola danced off towards the kitchen. Rudy watched Niccola disappear into the house, and her little lip began to quiver.Louisa slid off her chair and onto the grass to sit next to the baby’s blanket. Rudy wasn’t fussy yet, but in less than a minute she would want to be picked up. Louisa glanced towards the door to the kitchen, which was wide open in the beautiful summer weather. She loved her daughter to pieces, but it scared her to death to pick her up.Rudy’s little chin quivered, then her tiny cheeks flushed and the soft warbling noises she’d been making started building into a crescendo of petulance.That was the moment Louisa’s muscles gave out.It began as a slouch as her back and stomach muscles spontaneously decided to take a break. But her arms lacked the strength to right herself, and although she tried to guide her fall towards the grass and chair legs, she found herself slumping towards the baby. “Niccola!” she screamed as loudly as she could, frightened that her vocal chords might give way as well.She could not convince her neck to bend in the right way to let her see their daughter, but the loud cries were suddenly silent.Smothered.The sound of breaking glass from the direction of the patio told her that Niccola saw what was happening. Louisa continued to scream anyway, distraught at the idea that she was hurting little Rudy. Then rough hands were on her, rolling her crudely out of the way and dumping her against the chair, her cheek in the muddy grass. Lousia could feel the drool dripping down her lip, but she almost laughed with joy when she heard Rudy’s robust cry announcing just how angry…but safe she was.“Oh, Rudy, Nicco-ma is here… it’s all right baby… it’s all right…”Instead of wishing her wife would turn her attention to her own awkwardly sprawled form, Louisa said a prayer of thanks that Niccola had focused her full attention on the baby. Louisa was mortified. She wanted to stay there, twitching like a zombie. It was what she deserved. She should never have tried to get that close to the baby, not without one of her spouses on hand to…well, save her. Save them.Louisa felt strong, lithe arms around her and she was turned onto her back. Niccola cradled Rudy safely against her chest in the carrier, and she carefully moved Louisa’s limbs into natural, comfortable positions. “Tell me what your body is doing, Twirly. Give me a report.”Louisa took a few breaths to try and calm the uncooperative peanut gallery. Her eyes locked on Rudy, who was making angry little noises that were reassuring to both mothers. “Id’s a full melldown.” She hated the slurring of her words almost as much as the rebellion of her body. If she had control of her words, at least she could sound like a reasonable, intelligent human being instead of a babbling, drooling idiot.“We’ll keep you right where you are, if you’re comfortable, and then in ten minutes or so we’ll see about getting you back into your chair. Does that sound all right?”Louisa turned her head to one side and blinked away tears. Niccola wiped them away with her thumbs, leaning over to kiss the corners of Louisa’s mouth while Rudy giggled at being squeezed between two mommies. That night, Louisa declined to hold the baby at all. No one pushed the issue. Their quiet acceptance told Louisa how well they understood her fear, but also how much they wanted her to get over it. No one blamed her for almost smothering their firstborn child, although they should.She was a menace. #Sebastian days were bath days, and something about floating in the warm water while her strong and slippery husband helped her bathe tended to loosen her troubled thoughts.“When we got married, we knew there were four of you to take care of me. But what if it had been just the two of us?”“Louisa, I could never handle you alone, even when you were fully functional. If anything, your being sick actually makes it easier. At least I know what to do.” Louisa squeezed his arm, grateful for the confession. When Eric first introduced them, years ago, Sebastian had seemed almost afraid of her. She used to enjoy teasing the big man, and it was strange now to feel so helpless, so dependent. The peanut gallery woke her up in the middle of the night, all twitchy and needing to move. She made her way to the sling set by the desk, which supported her body while letting her limbs swing and move. She keyed up the monthly bills, seeing that the taxes were due on the house.Their sweet, perfect little house had been a stretch for their finances, but when Louisa was still working, they could afford it. There wasn’t much left in savings. Moving to a smaller house might be possible, but just the costs of buying and selling and moving were prohibitive. Most of her special needs were covered, but there were dozens of small things they bought to make life easier that weren’t strictly necessary, and weren’t covered.She checked their other resources, such as life insurance. I’m worth more to them dead than alive.Just then, the baby started fussing loudly.I’m awake anyway, I should be the one to go take care of her.But she knew that wasn’t possible. Someone else stirred out of bed, and soon the baby was making happy sounds.A loud bang startled her, and Rudy started crying again. It took her a minute to reconcile the sound with the intense pain in her ankle. She twisted in the sling, and watched helplessly as her left leg kicked out wildly, possessed by some demon.Eric was there in a flash, followed by the others.“Should I get her to the bed?” Eric asked.“No. The sling is the safest place she can be…”Louisa watched helplessly as Eric’s strong hands coaxed her mouth open and inserted a bite guard. She started to cry as she saw her foot lash out and cold cock Sebastian right in the jaw. She had no idea whether he was just hurt, or down for the count, because everything after that went swirly.And then it was black.#Louisa did not want everyone to take time off of work while she settled into the respite home, but both husbands, both wives, two of her mothers and two of her mothers-in-law came along for the ride. The grandmothers spent most of the time arguing over who got to hold the baby, and regarding the medical staff with gimlet eyes.Eric flipped her chair so she was leaning on her stomach, riding it like a motorcycle. He kept a running monologue the whole time, making sure the attendants paid attention so they could do it for her later. Whereas Sebastian was tight-lipped and resigned, Eric seemed ready to pounce on anyone who seemed like they might give anything less than complete professional care to his wife. He wasn’t happy.Louisa was silent. She let those who fussed fuss. She let those who wanted to ramble, ramble. She made eye contact and pretended to pay attention when a nurse explained and administered her new medication.“It’ll only be a couple of weeks. Then we can bring you home…” Amanda was explaining as she checked everything in the small room for the hundredth time. Her smile was strained. Louisa knew her wife was struggling not to cry.So was Louisa.Whatever the new drugs were, they seemed to have a calming effect. It was easier not to cry. Feeling numb wasn’t much better, but she’d take what she could get. She had to get herself together before going home.Unless…“I think I’m going to explore the grounds a little more,” she said, and steered herself outside.The garden was fully equipped with auto-paths, so all she had to do was aim her chair in the general direction, and the system would take it from there. She circled the garden once, then followed the path that wound into a wooded area. All the paths were relatively short, bringing strollers back to the central area after only a few minutes. There was a lake, and although it was in plain view of the facility, the path down to it was longer.Louisa headed for the water.She wasn’t sure if it was the medication or the sunlight, but the water sparkled particularly brightly. She glanced around, realizing she was alone except for a gnarled tree that clung disapprovingly to a short cliff. Further up the grassy area, Sebastian and Niccola waved down at her.“It’s really quite beautiful here.” She told the disapproving tree.The tree grunted noncommittally, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.“And it looks like they’ve made it quite safe for us…” her gaze examined the lovely little beach. “…very safe.” Her “humph” was silent.The tree raised an eyebrow, also humphing silently.“Of course, people from above can see the pier. And I don’t think they’d let me get close to the water alone, anyways. But if I made a habit of coming here, if I said I really just needed a little time alone each day…they’d come to trust me. I know how this works. The physical therapy, the drugs, and without a cure I still get worse and worse until my condition is so bad I have to come back here permanently. Meanwhile, my family goes broke and insane trying to take care of me.”The tree grew even more gnarly and disapproving.“But over there…” she gestured to a place where the water came fairly close to the bluff “…no one from the house or garden could see. That’s a place where an accident might happen…” although her fingers were not coordinated enough to make air quotes, she put the same kind of emphasis on the word “accident.”“Of course, no one would be to blame. Accidents do happen. And my family would be devastated, of course, but…” Louisa screamed as the tree lunged for her, lifting her out of her wheelchair, slinging her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry and roughly running up the path with her.“She can’t stay here.” Eric called to the others as he carried her up the path. He dumped her in the car, lunged into the driver’s seat and started the motor.“Eric? What are you doing?” the family came running.“What happened?” they all asked, a cacophony of voices.He was only able to creep forward a few meters before his own mother stood directly in front of the vehicle, holding up one hand and ordering “You stop right there young man!”Amanda reached in for her. Louisa laughed out loud, so loud that her wife flinched. But the laugh became a sob, and one sob turned into a series of uncontrollable sounds that frightened her, even though they came from her own throat. Amanda sank to the ground, pulling Louisa with her and shedding sympathetic tears. Then Sebastian was there too, and Louisa realized that her leg had been at an odd angle, but he adjusted it for her even before she realized what she needed. Louisa tried to focus on Amanda’s face, but the colors were so streaked, it was like looking at an Impressionist painting. “You wear too much makeup,” she chided. “You are so beautiful, but you always wear too much.” She tried looking up at Sebastian, but he seemed somehow upside down. Then he was far away.And it was dark again.#Louisa woke up in the little room where she had resigned herself to spending her final days. She began to tighten and relax every muscle in her body, starting at the top and working her way through the entire peanut gallery. Finding that everything seemed to respond, albeit weakly, she tried shifting herself in the bed. Something was blocking her, and she tried to reach back to find out what it was.Her arm moved just a few centimeters, then was held firmly in place. She twisted her head and shoulders so she could look down and see what they’d done to her and recognized a familiar pair of handcuffs.Eric’s handcuffs. And attached to the other half was Eric, his left arm draped over her, handcuffed to her left wrist.She let her head fall back against the pillow. “It’s all right, Twirly Girly, I’m here. I’ve got you.” He was only half awake, but that made the reassurances all that more dear to her. Even unconscious, he looked after her. She shifted again, and he pulled her against him until they were spooning comfortably. She didn’t even mind the snores over her eyebrow, so long as she knew he wanted to hold her. He wasn’t doing it because she’d asked, or because she needed it. He was doing it because he needed to know that she was all right.In the dim light, she made out two figures on the couch, also asleep. Sebastian and Amanda.So, Niccola’s home with the baby. She’s the Mom with the working spigots. But all the other spouses…all of them are here with me.Louisa didn’t know what to make of that. She knew she was loved, but this all seemed just too much. It was too much to ask. It was too much to expect. She didn’t know how to be grateful when it seemed like that was all she was ever doing. Being grateful for someone helping her out of bed. Being grateful for someone else fixing her meals.Being grateful they didn’t leave her.#The handcuffs chaffed, but Louisa loved it. The only concession Eric made was to switch from the police-issue cuffs to the fuzzy pink ones, even though the medical staff frowned. The conversations with her family chaffed even worse, especially when she brought up the word “chore.”“A chore? What makes you think you’re a chore?” Sebastian asked. But Amanda and Niccola exchanged a glance.Amanda took the lead, speaking softly, almost apologetically. “You’re right. We put your name on the list right between sorting laundry and mowing the lawn. It shouldn’t be, because you are not a chore.”“You’re our wife.” Niccola finished. Tears ran freely down her cheeks, although she’d stopped sniffling. “And although it’s true that we need someone to look after you every day…”“We can have the visiting nurse come. Now that I’m at the next stage, it’s a necessity, and therefore covered—”“I said we need. Not you need.” Amanda said sharply. “We need to know that one of us is looking out for you.”Louisa thought about those words. The meaning of “we” versus “you.” She thought back to all the conversations they’d had about what kind of adjustments they had to make to accommodate her illness. Sure, they said “She needs a blanket” or “Louisa needs a glass of water” but whenever it was something to be bought, or some adjustment that affected all of them, the phrase was always “We need.”“We need more small towels,” was said when she went through a stage where she couldn’t keep food down. “We need a signal button or something in the bathroom,” was said before the need ever presented itself. “We need more of that pomegranate candy,” was said frequently, even though Louisa was the only one who liked it.It was like “we” was some supernatural entity that superseded all individuals. “I just… since this happened to me—”“Louisa! This didn’t happen just to you.” Amanda spoke softly, shaking her head. “This happened to us.”“Did you think that we married you out of some sense of responsibility?” Niccola added. “Marriage meant it would be easier to take care of each other. Not just you, but each other.” “And there was no question that all of us were already committed,” said Sebastian.Only Eric was silent. His firm grasp on her said everything she needed to know. He’d never let her go, never let her fall. If she was going anywhere, he was going with her.#Her name was removed from the chore chart, except for showing the things she was responsible for. There was a calendar page next to the chart instead, with Eric, Amanda, Sebastian and Niccola rotating through the month.The calendar page was labeled simply…Home.
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