Ziva

I awake to the sound of persistent mechanical beeping. I shift to the side. The bed is uncomfortable. It feels as though I’m lying on a pile of plastic bags covered with scratchy motel sheets. It smells like bleach and sickness.

I open my eyes. There aren’t any windows, but it’s surprisingly bright — fluorescents upon fluorescents blinding me from above.

The clock to my left says it’s five thirty, but it could be morning or evening. I’m staring at a plain custard-colored wall, but I have heavy plastic bed rails to my right and to my left.

It’s a hospital bed. I can hear the sound of heavy breathing and the slow puff of a machine. Wires and tubes are spilling out everywhere, and I am in a fog.

Suddenly, a big hairy hand creeps into view. It reaches for the call button on top of the covers, and I follow the hand up to a face. It’s Mordecai.

Judging from the dark pouches under his eyes, he hasn’t slept in days. His too-big shirt is wrinkled and untucked. His dark hair is matted with grease, and his glasses are dirty.

My brother has always looked like the undertaker in a children’s cartoon — even when we were kids. It’s something to do with his hooked nose and the way he moves — slow and creepy like a spider.

He meets my gaze. His eyes are red. He stares at me as though he’s angry, but I don’t think he is.

“Where . . . What happened?” My throat is dry. My voice is hoarse. “Why aren’t you at school?”

Mordecai is doing his graduate work at Stanford. He’s always at school — even during the summer.

That heavy breathing grows louder. It sounds as though he’s congested, but that’s just how he breathes. He glances over his right shoulder, as though he needs help answering the question.

Spit it out, Mordecai. Grow a pair already.

He opens his mouth but doesn’t speak. It must be bad if he can’t find the words. Mordecai was always terrible at delivering bad news.

I clear my throat and look around. The sides of my bed are like blinders. Why am I in the bed? I always knew I’d end up in a hospital, but I always thought it would be for my father — or maybe even Mordecai.

Slowly, slowly, I emerge from the fog.

Something isn’t right. My lower half looks strangely distorted under the pile of blankets. My head feels extremely heavy. I’ve been drugged. For whatever reason, they don’t want me lucid.

“There’s been an accident,” says Mordecai finally.

“What?”

He looks away and swallows again. “You were . . . in an accident.”

“What kind of accident?” I say the words, but they don’t sound right.

I don’t remember any accident.

I strain to try to dredge up my last memory, but my mind feels stuck in the far away. Drinks and queso. Margaritas. Kali’s asshole boyfriend. We were at her sorority house, and then it was dark.

The last thing I remember, I was headed back to Scotts Valley. Finals were over. We had celebrated. My roommates were staying at Berkeley for another two days, but I was headed home.

“A truck crossed the center line and hit your car,” he says. “You’ve been out for a while . . .”

“How long?”

But at this moment, I’m distracted by the sight of my father standing in the hallway. He’s talking to a doctor, which puts me at ease.

If my father is here, it means that everything is in order. He’s probably talking to the doctor about my release — or grilling him on the efficacy of the hospital’s treatment plan.

My father doesn’t do anything without a focus on efficiency and scientific research. If he’s here now, they can’t have fucked anything up.

But then he glances into my room, and his eyes squint in an expression I’m unfamiliar with. The color seems to drain from his face. It’s as though I’ve taken him by surprise.

I try to move my legs to push myself higher in the bed, but the blankets barely stir. I try to push myself up with my hands, but I feel a surge of pain.

I meet my father’s gaze imploringly, looking at him as a child would. I need him right now. I need him in here. I need him to tell me what’s going on.

“Dad?”

There’s that weird expression again. Maybe he’s sick. Maybe he has the flu.

No. My father is never sick. Up at dawn, to bed by ten. Half a grapefruit and an egg. He’s had the same routine since I was small, only he recently gave up coffee.

People like my father don’t get sick. Sickness is for lesser mortals.

My father shuffles in ahead of the doctor, and Mordecai jumps to his feet. There’s only one chair beside my bed, and he’s giving it to my father. He doesn’t sit.

He’s still looking at me with that peculiar expression, and I want to scream bloody murder. I want someone to tell me what the hell is going on, and everyone is acting so weird.

My father looks tired, but nothing is obviously amiss. His khaki pants are freshly pressed, and he’s wearing one of his funny tattersall shirts.

“What’s going on?” I ask, trying to appear alert. “When can I get out of here?”

My father’s eyes crinkle at the corners. That’s his version of a smile.

He sits down but doesn’t reach for my hand. That isn’t the sort of thing we do.

“Ziva . . .” He says my name with a tone of frustration, as though he wishes I hadn’t asked.

“What’s wrong? Why is everyone acting so weird?”

Suddenly, the doctor speaks. I’d almost forgotten he was here.

“Ziva, you’ve been in an accident,” he says.

Why does everyone keep saying that?

“You have a few broken ribs . . . There was some internal bleeding.”

I glance at my father. He isn’t looking at me anymore.

“We managed to stop the bleeding, and all your other tests came back fine.”

“So that’s good, right?” I say, anxious to get out of here.

“Yes,” says the doctor. He’s speaking in a slow and measured tone, as though the worst is yet to come. “When the truck struck your car, it smashed in the front of the vehicle.”

I glance up at Mordecai, who is standing in the corner. Why won’t anyone look at me?

The doctor takes a deep breath and glances at my blankets. “We had to amputate both of your legs. There was nothing we could do.”

***

Seven Years Later

I wake up — five a.m. The shades draw back automatically. The rest of the street is still asleep. For all I know, it’s night.

I sit up and stretch my arms, trying to see down to the road. The red glow from the Italian restaurant reaches my window, as does the blue sign outside the pharmacy. The neon light is strange to wake up to. It makes me feel like a time traveler.

Looking out onto my street, I could be back in the old glamour of Vegas or visiting some red-light district abroad. There is a timelessness to the neon signs that says you’re not alone.

During the day, that all disappears. Mountain View goes back to being a modern utopia. It has drip coffee and ATMs, tapas bars and bike shares. It’s young and hip and overpriced. It’s perfect for a tech company.

I push myself to the edge of my bed and pull on my legs. They’re always next to my bed like slippers, but I don’t go anywhere without them. I slip into my robe and go to the kitchen, where my espresso is already brewing.

I stand at the counter and watch it pour, watching my reflection in the white quartz counter. The entire loft was already gutted before I ever moved in. They tore out the oak floors, covered the brick, and sprung for the most luxurious finishes.

The charcoal tile is always cold, but — lucky me — I can’t feel it. Every surface of this loft is cold, from the crystal countertops to the stainless-steel fridge to the efficient double-paned windows.

By five fifteen I’m dressed for my workout — pink sports bra, black leggings, and silver-and-gray jogging shoes. When I’m standing still, you almost don’t notice my legs. They’re my fifth iteration — flexible and waterproof but lacking in stability.

Above-the-knee prosthetics offer a unique set of challenges, and in the five years I’ve been working on them, I still haven’t perfected a set. To say it’s an obsession would be an understatement. These legs are my life.

I grab a bottle of water and go out onto the deck. It’s cool — a perfect sixty-two degrees. I bought this loft because it had roof access, and when the co-op board closed it off, I bought the whole damn building.

Now the roof is mine.

It’s the only place in my loft that honestly feels like home. I built the planter boxes and filled them with xeriscape shrubs. I covered the rough tar patches with turf and hauled up all my workout gear.

On a clear, cloudless morning I can see the glimmer of the bay. Nobody bothers me up here. Nobody ever comes up except my trainer, Branch. It’s my oasis from the world — my little slice of heaven.

I start every morning with three sun salutations. The buildings down the street reflect the orange glare of the street lamps, but the steadily increasing light is bleeding them out to a dimmer pinkish glow.

Branch arrives at five thirty on the dot. He’s tall and tan, with that sun-bleached California look. He surfs. He drives a Jeep. He’s the all-American boy.

He smiles at me, and we move right into the warmup. Branch trains Olympic gymnasts, and in the four years we’ve been working together, he’s helped me more than any physical therapist.

Three years ago, I hit a wall with my work and started using a wheelchair again. Branch didn’t go easy on me. If anything, he worked me harder. He knew I needed it. He knew it would help me recover.

That summer, I had a defined six-pack and arms that made me look like The Hulk. A few months later, I was back on my legs.

I’ve come to look forward to five thirty. Branch and I work out Monday through Saturday, unless it’s a holiday. Before the accident, I dreaded the mornings. I never would have gotten up so early. But now it feels as natural as breathing. Now I feel lost on Sundays.

By the time we finish, the city is just waking up. Cars are meandering through the streets, and a line is forming at the coffee shop across the way. Branch stretches me out, and I focus on my heart rate.

My heart always pounds when Branch is touching me, and sometimes I worry he can hear it.

In four years, Branch has never been anything but the perfect professional. It’s amazing, really.

I don’t want to be the one who crosses a line. It wouldn’t be right. No romance can ever live up to the expectation, and I don’t think I could live if I ruined what we have.

I avoid his gaze until we’re done stretching. Branch never bats an eye when I readjust my legs. He’s never cast me a pitying look or treated me any differently.

We go downstairs, and he asks me about all the usual things: what I’m working on, how my father is, and when I’m going to get a dog. I’ve been talking about it for the better part of two years, and yet I still haven’t done it.

I finish my bottle of water and pour myself another espresso. I offer Branch a drink for the road, but he politely declines, as usual.

“What’s new with you?” I ask, smiling over my cup. We always have a few minutes afterward. This is when we talk.

Branch’s eyebrows go up, and something flashes behind his eyes. It’s excitement. I can tell. Something big is coming.

“I finally took the plunge,” he says. “I asked Karen to marry me.”

It takes a beat for me to answer. I know it takes too long. But as those words leave his mouth, I feel the world crashing down.

“What?”

“I asked her to marry me, and she said yes.” He’s too over-the-moon to notice my reaction. He’s consumed with his own happiness.

“Congratulations,” I choke, pulling on my most gracious smile.

I should be happy. I know I should. Branch is my friend, but inside I’m screaming.

I knew this day would come. I just didn’t think it would come so soon. It’s not that I care that he’s getting married. That I can live with. It’s that he’s leaving me to have a better life. It might not be today or tomorrow, but eventually he’ll be gone.

Mountain View isn’t where you start a family. Mountain View is where you get rich in your twenties and thirties. Then you leave like everyone else.

When I close the door behind him, the emptiness folds in around me. Suddenly my loft seems too big and clean.

I should fire Branch before he leaves. It’d be better than being left. I should have seen this day coming, but it feels shitty nonetheless.

I look around my loft and have the sudden urge to put my foot through the coffee table. It’s sharp and delicate and made of glass. It was picked out by a stranger.

I didn’t trust myself to decorate. And I didn’t have the time. I hired a decorator to do it for me, and now I’m living in someone else’s loft.

I wouldn’t have chosen that stiff white couch. I wouldn’t have brought home that rug. The lamps and mirrors belong to a stranger — some woman who isn’t me.

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