The itching bothered Flynn the most.
He dug his fingernails under the edge of the plaster cast on his leg to scrape at the pale, wrinkled skin underneath.
Once the oppressive heat and humidity of an Ohio summer had finally faded, Flynn had hoped the itching would subside and make the cast slightly more bearable. But Old Man Winter hit the city like a ton of bricks. He was always indoors, and people always had the heat cranked up high, so his leg itched even worse – it was driving him bananas.
“Stop scratching, dear. Your leg will get infected,” chided Mrs. Easterbrook.
She faced him in his wheelchair, pulling hard on the armrests, trying to drag him across the driveway covered in icy snow. That put her far too close to his face, as far as Flynn was concerned. Mrs. Easterbrook was awfully old to foster a kid, wasn’t she? She was battling the onslaught of old age with a rabid determination. The old lady had pancaked her makeup into every crevice and corner of her crinkly face. Her hair was so deeply dyed and heavily hair-sprayed it reminded him of a plastic helmet. She was as round as a balloon, with thick wrists and thick ankles. To Flynn, she smelled like roses mixed with the water that was left over after his mom had boiled him hot dogs for lunch.
Mrs. Easterbrook bared her teeth as she strained to pull the wheelchair, while this ungrateful boy just sat there staring at her. Physical exertion was not part of her plan, but she would overcome this obstacle as… she had no choice.
When they crossed over the driveway onto the small sidewalk, she stood upright and twirled around to face her house.
“It’s not much but I’m sure you’ll be happy here.” Her hand slowly swept along the length of the house like she was a presenter showing off a new-and-improved bar of soap during a TV commercial. The small ranch home was covered by red bricks, with white shutters and empty flowerboxes at each window.
“Although, I must say, when I signed up to be a foster parent, I hadn’t counted on hosting a boy… in a wheelchair,” said Mrs. Easterbrook.
He kept digging his finger under the leg cast, a plaster disaster that ran from his ankle to halfway up his thigh. His surgically repaired leg was propped up, straight out from the chair, on a metal support. The pesky itch was always just out of reach. At ten years old, Flynn was rail-thin with royal blue eyes, that everyone raved about, and fiery red hair, that everyone teased him about, parted down the middle. His hair had grown out over the last few months and now swooped out over his ears, like wings.
Mrs. Easterbrook turned her attention back to tugging hard on his wheelchair.
“You know… it’s easier to push these things than pull,” Flynn stated.
She stopped dead in her tracks on the sidewalk, leaned in close to his ear. He winced slightly. That rose bush-hot dog smell again. Roses reminded him of funeral homes.
“And it would be even easier if you would actually help,” she fumed. “Dear.”
Flynn rolled his eyes, placed his hands on the rubber wheels, and began rolling himself along. They trundled along the walk and stopped at a set of steep concrete stairs.
“Here’s where it gets hard,” she sighed. Mrs. Easterbrook moved behind the chair, gripped the handles, and leaned him way back. “Now, one… two… three… push!”
His hands tight on the narrow rubber wheels, Flynn pushed down with all his might. Up the first concrete step they jumped.
“Again!” She leaned him farther back, put all her weight against the back of his wheelchair. Flynn gripped as far back on the wheels as he could, grunted, and shoved himself upward and onward. The chair hopped onto the small concrete pad. His exposed toes at the end of his cast jammed hard into the front door.
She ignored his cries of pain, shuffled past him to unlock her front door. Flynn’s wheelchair started to move backwards off the small porch, towards the stairs. He frantically caught hold of the rolling rubber wheels. He stopped the chair before the wheel slipped off the edge and sent him tumbling into the snow.
They both struggled to get him over the threshold and through the door. Flynn was relieved. Mrs. Easterbrook was sweating.
She quickly removed her overcoat, adjusted her pink dress, and began to fan herself with her hand. After several deep breaths to recover, she delicately corrected her hair that she had expertly dyed a dark brunette shade. Her nearly perfect work on the perm ensured those curls would remain tight. A little bit of manual labor was not going to ruin her day. No siree!
Flynn watched her as he rubbed his sore hands. He thought her hair made her look like a dog.
She noticed him admiring her absolutely gorgeous hairstyle and preened for her audience of one.
“It’s called the Poodle Cut. Always a favorite look for ladies with my facial structure,” she said.
Poodle sounds about right. He smirked, but let it fade quickly so she would not notice. Flynn looked around his new home.
The year was 1978. But Mrs. Easterbrook’s house was mired in the 1950s. He immediately spotted the plastic floor runner old people always had, that ran from the front door to the kitchen, designed to protect the precious carpet underneath from filthy kids like him. He noted the black and white striped mid-century sofa in her living room was also covered in plastic. White knitted doilies covered every surface in the room – the arms of the sofa, the chairs, end tables, and the wooden kidney-shaped coffee table. Old people loved putting crocheted doilies on everything.
“Could you take me to my room? I’m kind of tired,” he said.
“Oh, well, um, about that,” said Mrs. Easterbrook timidly as her voice trailed off to a whisper.
Flynn eyed her with suspicion. She searched the room for something, anything, to rescue her from this conversation.
A wave of loneliness flooded over him. He missed his parents, his home. It had been several months since the accident and the boy had endured surgeries and rehab exercises. That this house was to be his new normal scared him. He gripped the canvas backpack resting on his lap tightly to his chest.
“You see, dear, I… well, being a widow – Mister Easterbrook passed a few years ago, may he rest in peace – I wasn’t quite sure about our living arrangement, so…” she rambled.
A lump in one of the front pockets of the backpack shifted. Flynn noticed the movement and looked quickly back up to Mrs. Easterbrook. The backpack lump squirmed again, sliding up closer to the zipper. His eyes darted back and forth; he was as uncomfortable as his host.
“We… I-I mean I thought it would be best to set up your bedroom downstairs. In the basement.”
The zipper slid to the side, creating an opening of just an a few inches. A whiskered snout pushed out. Flynn’s eyes grew wide; he fumbled for the zipper. The head of a small, gray mouse appeared. Flynn shook his head at the small creature.
She leapt behind Flynn’s wheelchair, quickly pushed him into the kitchen.
Flynn zipped the pocket shut again.
“Wait? What did you say? Basement?” Flynn looked around in a panic. Her kitchen was also lost in the 1950s. There were yellow vinyl chairs surrounding a small green table. Mint green cabinets matched the refrigerator that sat next to an open door to the basement.
She wheeled him to the doorway. Flynn tried to lift himself in the chair to see down into the abyss, but it was too dark to see. He held his backpack tighter.
“Yes, since we’re just getting to know each other, I wanted you to have your own private space. My handyman set up a bed for you down there. There’s a small bathroom. So, you don’t have to come up, and…”
“Don’t you have a spare room? On this floor?”
“Oh, dear, you see, I work out of my house. My second bedroom is where I style hair. All the ladies of the neighborhood come to me for their cosmetology needs,” she said.
Flynn looked at her in disbelief, then back down the stairs, finally down at his wheelchair.
“But—but how am I going to get down there?!”
“Oh, my handyman made a special ramp for you!”
“A ramp?!” Flynn was incredulous. His face boiled to a dark beet-red color. Anger built up and he began to hyperventilate.
She rolled his chair closer to the edge. Flynn gasped, his hands reaching out to hold onto the sides of the doorway.
“And he installed a pulley and rope on this cupboard behind us,” she said, turning to pull the thick twine away from the metal pulley that had been screwed into the side of a mint green cabinet.
“A rope?! You can’t use a rope, Missus Easterbrook! Please!”
“You’re only ten years old, dear. You can’t weigh that much.” She tied the twine to the front of his chair, knotting it twice. Then a third time. Just to be safe.
She swung the chair around, wanting to get this over with as soon as possible. Flynn frantically searched everywhere for anything to rescue him from the upcoming catastrophe.
“Lady, this is crazy! What if there’s a fire?!”
“Oh, relax, dear. You’ll be out of that chair in a few weeks or so. This is temporary,” she assured. She wrapped the twine around her hands. With her thick feet spread far apart, she pushed him backward down the basement steps, then pulled in the slack on the rope.
Wood panels had been nailed down on the staircase to create a makeshift ramp. Flynn gripped hard on the rubber wheels to stop them from rolling. He looked back but could only see darkness waiting for him below.
“Please! No! Did the foster home people approve this? This can’t be legal!”
She put a foot on the seat of the chair and shoved him until he was on the ramp.
“Help! Somebody! Help me!”
“Oh, don’t be such a sissy, dear! This. Is. Fun.”
Grunting hard, she used her foot to launch him down the ramp. She turned to the pulley, with both hands gripping the twine. The wheelchair lurched, inch by inch, into the dark.
“I’m going to report you, lady!”
“Don’t flip your wig, dear! You’re lucky… I took… you on.” Perspiration poured down her face as she strained to work the rope.
“Pull me back up!”
The small gray mouse popped its head out of the backpack again, nervously looking around to see what the fuss was about. They were halfway down. The wood panel floor creaked as the wheels pressed down.
Mrs. Easterbrook let more and more line through the metal pulley wheel. The twine shook up and down, vibrating from the tension. Flynn had his hands on the wall, trying to keep his broken leg from touching the sides.
“Um…” Mrs. Easterbrook was worried. Her pink high heels weren’t helping the situation. She began to slide on the linoleum floor toward the pulley.
Flynn’s wheelchair jerked farther down the ramp.
“Oh, dear,” she added. She bit her lip hard trying to hold on.
The pulsating twine jumped out of the pulley wheel, caught on the sharp edge of the bracket – slicing the twine into two sections.
Her beady eyes flared to the size of teacup saucers.
The broken twine flew up into the air and the wheelchair was set free.
The gray mouse squeaked and buried himself deep in the backpack.
“Noooo!” bellowed Flynn. The ten-year-old boy instantly saw his short life flash before his eyes. For the second time.
His hand could only catch one wheel as he slid backwards. This caused the wheelchair to turn and slam into the wall. But he could not hold on.
He screamed as they picked up speed. Downward. Fast. Faster.
The gray mouse peeked out again, squeaked, and scrambled down into the backpack.
Mrs. Easterbrook gasped; her fingers held on to her bright red cheeks.
“Oh, I’ve killed him,” she whispered.
Flynn cruised off the ramp, onto the gray concrete floor, and into the darkness. His hands covered his eyes. The wheelchair raced the length of the basement.
He left wheel caught on a metal support pole. The chair spun out of control on the slick, bare floor.
Flynn couldn’t see much, except for light from upstairs flashing by again and again and again as he spun round and round. His hands grabbed the chair armrests.
The back of the wheelchair finally hit… something. Hard. Flynn came to a sudden halt.
A loud crashing sound roared up at Mrs. Easterbrook. She grimaced. Her hand darted out, flipped the light switch to the basement.
More loud sounds emerged as indecipherable objects continued falling to the floor.
“Flynn?! Flynn? Are you okay?”
Flynn sat back in his chair, which was lodged against a long metal shelf. Boxes of all sizes were strewn about. He was covered in artificial Christmas tree branches, a plastic pumpkin from Halloween, and several cardboard boxes. His face was pale. He was breathing quickly from the fear, adrenaline, and anger. Another box, teetering above, finally fell onto his head to complete his humiliation.
“Flynn?!” She leaned forward, struggling to see, or hear, a sign of life.
He tossed aside the decorations and boxes, pulled open the backpack pocket – the mouse was huddled in the bottom, alive but scared.
Mrs. Easterbrook tried to step onto the ramp but knew she would only slip-slide down and injure herself. She felt helpless. She put both hands on the single railing and leaned as far as she could to see down into the room below, but it was no use. Only a small amount of the concrete floor was visible.
“Flynn, dear? I’m so deeply sorry! Please tell me you’re all right!” she pleaded.
The first sign of life to roll into view were his blueish-white toes sticking out from the open end of the cast. He wheeled up to the bottom of the ramp. His eyes burned holes into, and then shot daggers at, the old lady at the top of the stairs.
Hand on her chest, she breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank God!”
With raging fire burning inside him, Flynn backed the chair away from her view.
“I’ll, um… I’m going to make us some dinner. Let me know if you need… I-I have bandages. I can make you an ice pack! Flynn? I’m so sorry, dear!”
No response. Guilt spread across her face and she closed the door. After a deep exhale, she composed herself with a quick straightening of her pink dress, an adjustment to her Poodle Cut hair, and confidence-boosting march back through her mint green kitchen.