NYCM 2016 Short Story Challenge.
Round 2, Group 7.
Last Will and Testament.
A man with one eye.
Synopsis: A young woman’s accident cements her cynicism with the world, but provides her a way to become a successful lawyer, and break the cycle of abuse.
The chirping of the awakening birds and the sweet smell of late-spring azaleas accompanied Maria Ruttle as she raced her BMX bike through the neighborhood. She had hoped to deliver the morning’s newspapers before the mere act of breathing caused her to break out in sweat.
Fiery streaks of sunlight cut across the pre-dawn sky, intent upon beating the sun’s crest of the horizon, she sped through an intersection without checking for cross traffic. If she had, Maria might have noticed the taxicab about to run through the stop sign because the driver had been staring at a map.
The impact threw both girl and bike over the car, off the roof and into the street. The collision had spun her handlebars and driven the front-brake lever into her stomach. The damage to her still-maturing uterus was so severe that the emergency room doctors told her she would never bear children.
To Maria, her BMX was more than just a bicycle. Wherever she rode: hot and dry, cold and wet, and every-weather in between, it became her happy place. As long as she had those two wheels and the steady vibration of pedal to chain beneath her, she felt content in the wind away from her home. Already aware, by the age of twelve, that the people who were supposed to care for her could also be the cause of great pain, Maria sought mobile refuge from her abusive family. On that early summer morning she learned a hard lesson: every refuge had a price.
Maria’s parents sued the taxi company. The lawyers handling the case stipulated that Maria’s parents write a Last Will and Testament providing for a trust fund to pay for Maria’s college tuition when she graduated high school. Her parents settled for enough money to pay for a year-long bender, which—to the surprise of no one who knew them—led to their deaths facilitated by driving while blotto. The orphaned Maria was transferred into the state’s foster-care system.
She threw herself into her studies, graduating at the top of her class in both high school and college.
After her accident, she believed that she’d never trust anyone again without fear of betrayal or pain.
For the next twenty years, she was right.
Zackary Klein entered the law offices of Dewey, Smith, and Ruttle and approached the reception desk.
Jen Meyers greeted him, “Good morning, how may I help you?” Maria had hired Jen after becoming the youngest woman in state history to be made a full partner in an established firm.
Jen buzzed the intercom into Maria’s office. “Ms. Ruttle, I have a Mr. Klein here for you. He says it’s about the Henderson settlement.”
“He’s expected, send him in.”
Standing when the inner office door opened, Maria said, “Hello, Mr. Klein.”
“Please, call me Zack. No reason to be formal.”
Although they’d never met, Maria had heard of him. She recognized him by the leather eyepatch he wore. Around the local legal circuit, he had the nickname Pirata Per Curiam because he took no prisoners and always returned with the gold. Beyond his reputation as the ‘Pirate of the court,’ she had been warned of his ability to make women swoon. She hadn’t believed the gossip until that moment.
The thought occurred to her, that Zack losing an eye seemed like God’s cruel trick to even the playing field for other men.
“Yes, that’s acceptable. I’m Maria.”
He reached out his hand, “I hadn’t expected you to be so bea—” Zack coughed, “uh young, Maria.”
She shook his hand, a tingle of goosebumps ran up her forearm. A warm rush of blood washed through her. She released his hand and motioned for him to sit.
For the first hour of their meeting—which had been scheduled to take twenty minutes—they spoke about the case between their firms. Since both parties had already agreed upon the terms, there should have only been a few final details in the legalese to hammer out. But as the items on the list dwindled, Maria noticed Zack trying to learn more about her. In the past, she would have ignored the questions, or given misleading answers. She had to be in charge. She couldn’t trust anyone’s intentions, but something about this man seemed different. From the moment he touched her hand, she trusted him. Maybe it was their mutual respect for the law. She didn’t question it, she just accepted it.
They spent the second hour talking about their pasts. Maria talked about the taxi accident and the Will that had provided for her education; leaving out any mention of her family history. Zack told her about his love of riding his off-road motorcycle when he was younger. How the wind and speed helped him escape ‘a difficult family situation.’ And why the loss of his eye cost him more than just half of his sight. Without depth perception, he could no longer ride to escape.
When she asked him about what had happened to his eye, he changed the subject and shuffled the papers around the desk as though he’d remembered some obscure legal point they had missed. They both knew they hadn’t. They were too good for that.
Maria had been stealing glances at Zack across the desk throughout the afternoon. The eyepatch allowed her to look almost to the point of staring without fear of being caught. And a couple of times when she looked up, she saw his head snap back to the desk as though he’d been discovered peeping into a window. She hadn’t looked directly into his remaining eye until Jen asked if they’d be working late and would be needing dinner. When Maria looked at his face for his opinion, the sight of the deep blue of his remaining eye made her sad that the world had been deprived of its twin.
Zack noticed her holding his gaze and said, “How about this? If I make you laugh, we go out to dinner. People eat, and despite what my colleagues say, I refuse to believe that you’re simply a beautiful robot sent from the future to win all the cases you’re given. Deal?”
Maria smirked, outwardly unamused, even though she found the idea charming.
Zack smiled. “I’m not hearing a no.” He cocked his head and pointed to his eyepatch, “I’m winking. You just can’t tell because of the patch.”
Maria rolled her eyes.
“I only have eye for you. Boom-crash.” He mimicked a drummer doing a rim-shot on a snare-drum and hitting a cymbal.
She shook her head, smiled, and laughed.
“Ha!” He raised his arms in a touchdown signal. “Victory is mine. I’ll pick you up at seven; text me your address.” He stood and began gathering his things.
“Wait, I never agreed to your stupid bet.”
“Ah, but you didn’t not agree to it, either.”
“I’ll go under one condition.”
“You want to work out a plea deal for a date? Sure, bring it on, counselor.” He smiled.
Letting her guard down, she studied his face. Looking at his lips, she wondered how they’d feel against hers.
“You tell me how you lost your eye.” She pointed at his chest. “The real story, not the one you tell woman to get them go out with you.”
His smile fell. “Would you believe me if I said that I was running with scissors?”
“No.” Maria crossed her arms. “And may I remind you that you’re still under oath.”
Zack looked around the room. “I’m not sure I was ever actually under oath, but I’ll allow it.”
“Proceed.” Maria expected another cute reply.
Zack settled back into his chair. “Maria, this isn’t an easy tale for me to tell, and even though I don’t really know you, I feel a connection that, frankly, surprises me.”
He took a deep breath, exhaled and began. “I had been riding my dirt-bike in the woods behind my house. The longer I stayed out, the less time I’d have to spend at home.”
His words echoed Maria’s memory of her childhood. She knew how painful that life could be.
“About a mile out, there was a shack where an old homeless guy lived with his dog. A big old mutt of a black lab. He was smart and friendly—the dog, not the guy.”
Zack laughed, but didn’t smile. “I’d bring him food and he’d follow me around when I rode the trails. I made sure to never go too fast for him and always brought him home. He was my bud.”
Zack stared off in the distance, his mind drifting back in time. “I bought him a bright-blue collar, and I’d rub his big, bowling-ball sized head and he’d wag his fat tail. It was heaven being out there without worrying about—” He trailed off.
Although Maria knew it had to be the lighting, the tear that ran down Zack’s cheek appeared to be the same shade of perfect blue as his eye.
Zack coughed and wiped his cheek. “Well, my pop found out about me hanging around the shack and that old ‘flea-bitten mongrel,’ and he said that I brought parasites back to our house. The next day I rode out to the shack and it had been burned to the ground. The old man and his dog were gone. I didn’t know what happened to them, but when I found the blue collar in the rubble of the fire—”
Zack fidgeted in the seat and clenched his fists. “I flew home, smashing through branches and over rocks, didn’t care if I wrecked. Found Pop outside on the porch smoking God-knows-what. When he saw me, he just started laughing. I’m not proud to say it, but I was just a kid. I lost it. I grabbed a monkey wrench and ran at him. He knocked me down, took it away, and yelled that he’d teach me ‘if I was gonna pull a weapon, I damn better well use it.’ He swung for my head and I tried to dodge it, but he caught me in the face and ruptured my eyeball. He raised the wrench again, but as he swung, that old lab came out of nowhere and latched onto Pop’s arm and pulled him off me.”
Zack’s breath caught in his throat. “Pop was a strong, mean drunk and he threw the dog off. I was screaming and half blind, I couldn’t stop him from using the wrench on my friend, the only real friend I ever had who never asked me for anything. I was only twelve. What was I supposed to do?”
Zack inhaled twice in short choppy breaths. “Social Services finally took me away for what he did to me, but I’d trade my other eye if I could have saved that old dog. Hell, I never even gave him a name and he saved my life.”
Her vision blurred by tears of her own, Maria stood, walked around the desk and embraced him. “I’m sorry, Zack. I didn’t mean to make you upset.”
Maria sent Jen home, and then told Zack the rest of her story, details she’d never shared. They stayed in her office for another hour before finally going to eat the most satisfying meal either’d had in a long time.
After that first dinner together, they shared dessert, and a kiss.
Less than a week later, after their third date, they shared his bed.
For her wedding gift to him, she arranged to have a custom prosthetic eye made that matched his unique blue so that their family pictures didn’t need a patch of any kind. And they had many family photographs that included more than just the two of them, because the universe provided a wedding gift to them both. She became pregnant.
In the decades that followed, Maria and Zack lived, loved, and trusted each other in ways neither had thought would ever be possible.