Carrie Maldonado – Author

I write books and blogs to inspire, encourage, and entertain!

Justin’s Gift

 

“Daddy, Cassie is gone!” Alison’s shriek jolted Justin from his workbench and he ran out into the living room, to see his daughter staring at the open kitchen door. “I’m so sorry, Daddy, I went to the bathroom and when I came out she was gone!” Tears streamed down Alison’s face, and her shoulders shook as she threw herself into his arms. Even though she was only older by three minutes, she’d always been the more mature one, and took it upon herself to manage her more unruly twin.

“It’s okay, sweetheart, it’s not your fault. She knows the rules.”

“But what if she went down to the tracks?” After his wife died, Justin had moved his small family to a ten-acre paradise, where he’d ensured the twins and their friends would have ample room to play and explore. There was a treehouse, a play cabin, a stream to catch tadpoles and fish, and all sorts of paths to play pioneer on. The only rule he’d placed on them was to stay away from the east border, where a train rolled by once a week. Alison, true to her nature, never gave him cause for concern, but Cassie was relentless in her desire to see the train close up. She’d been warned repeatedly to stay away, and Justin had thought he’d finally gotten through to his daughter.

Justin and Alison both stiffened at the sound of the pending train. Then, to his horror, he heard a blast of the horn and a prolonged, hideous squeal.

***

“I’m sorry, Dr. Mercer, we couldn’t save her leg.” The pain in the doctor’s eyes was real. Justin knew the medical team had tried everything they could, just as he’d known when he’d arrived at the scene of the accident that Cassie would lose the mangled leg. Even though he was a biophysicist and not a medical doctor, he’d been able to administer what aid he could and the ambulance had arrived quickly enough that Cassie’s life was spared, if not her limb. “She’ll be awake soon,” the nurse murmured, squeezing Justin’s hand.

“Daddy, I’m so sorry,” Alison repeated. She’d said little else since seeing her pale, bleeding sister lying beside the track. Justin had done his best to reassure his daughter, but he wasn’t sure he was getting through.

“You can’t blame yourself, Alison. There’s nothing you could have done to stop her.”

“This is going to ruin her life,” Alison continued. “She can’t do swim team, and she won’t be able to be a marine biologist anymore. She’s going to give up.”

“You can’t know that. Besides, I’m one of the leading scientists in my field. I can design a bionic leg for her that’s better than anything out there. There will be nothing limiting her. If anything, her leg will be even better. I’ve already got a prototype. I can start work on it right away. As soon as her body stops growing, she can have her new leg, and in the meantime, we’ll get her the best prosthetic out there.”

“I hope she can wait,” Alison said, doubt lacing her voice.

“She will,” Justin said, although he shared his daughter’s concern. “She will.”

***

“I’m not wearing this stupid leg anymore!” Cassie shouted, throwing the prosthetic across the room. Fourteen now, his daughter was still growing, so Justin hadn’t yet been able to fit her with the bionic leg that he knew would give Cassie a new lease on life. He was excited about what would be possible for Cassie once she could wear the new leg, but because it would graft onto the old one, they needed to wait until her bones were finished growing. In the meantime, Cassie had resisted the prosthetic Justin had provided from day one.

“It feels funny. Awkward,” Cassie complained. The older his daughter got, the more bitter she seemed to grow towards her father. Eventually, she began to blame Justin for the accident in the first place, and frequently accused him of providing prosthetics intentionally designed to cause her discomfort. Justin repeatedly explained that if Cassie would just wear them regularly, she’d get used to them, but his daughter used every excuse to lose, damage, or simply not wear the prosthetic leg. Justin tried to explain to Cassie that she was only hurting herself with her rebellion. Cassie was continually falling and injuring herself when she tried to move without the prosthetic, or else she’d end up isolated and miserable, refusing to leave her bed. Nothing Justin or Alison said got through to her.

***

“Face it, Dad. You and Alison are just mad that you can’t control me anymore.” Cassie sneered at her father as she held up the new prosthetic leg she’d come home with that day.

“Cassie, you’re being an idiot,” Alison exclaimed. “Why are you willing to wear that stupid leg if you won’t wear the one Dad made you? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“You can stay out of this,” she snapped. “When are you going to stop being such a goody goody, and realize that Dad doesn’t know everything? Luke’s one of the best engineers in the state, and he says this is the cutting edge of technology.”

“No,” Alison argued. “Dad’s already built you the best there is, you just have to wait a bit longer to use it.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that my whole life. You know what, Dad? I don’t believe it. I think you made a promise you couldn’t keep and you’re too embarrassed to say anything.”

Justin’s heart broke at the anger and defiance on Cassie’s face, as well as the hurt on Alison’s. “That’s not true, sweetheart. I wish you’d trust me. This leg your friend gave you is going to end up hurting you.”

“Well, I’ll take my chances,” Cassie snapped. “At least Luke tried, which is more than I can say for you. Now that I have some freedom, I’m out of here. I’m moving in with Luke and some other friends. So now you two can enjoy your perfect little life, because I’m finally getting a life of my own.”

“Cassie,” Alison pleaded, but it was too late. Cassie had stormed out.

***

“I heard from Cassie,” Alison said, standing at the door of Justin’s study. “She’s out of the hospital.”

“Thank goodness,” Justin said. “She’s lucky that infection didn’t kill her. I take it she still doesn’t want to see me?”

“I’m sorry, Dad. It’s crazy, but she still blames you, even though that idiot Luke is the one who gave her that stupid leg. I can’t believe Luke didn’t tell her it was just a prototype. The worst part is, Cassie’s not even mad at Luke.”

“She’s always been stubborn,” Justin said. “But she’s an adult now. She can finally have the leg I made her. It’s waiting for her.”

“I told her that,” Alison said. “She won’t even consider it.”

***

About six months after Cassie got out of the hospital, Justin happened to turn on the evening news. The feature story was about a new form of group therapy for amputees. Intrigued, Justin sat down and was astonished to see his daughter in a room with several other people, discussing the new program.  The program leader was none other than Cassie’s old flame/college buddy Luke. The same one who’d convinced her to try the prototype bionic limb that had nearly ended Cassie’s life.

“What I realized,” Luke was saying, “Was that we’ve all been trying to solve the wrong problem. There’s nothing wrong with these people at all! Who are we to say that missing limbs are something to be ashamed of? These are wonderful, whole people and we need to celebrate them, not condemn them.”

“He’s right,” Cassie answered. “My whole life, my father and sister have tried to shame me about my missing leg, instead of realizing how special it made me. My father just wants to fit me into some preconceived notion so I can be like him. I’m grateful to Luke, and to this group, for helping me realize that I don’t need to change.”

Justin shook his head sadly as the rest of the group nodded enthusiastically. “Wouldn’t you rather be whole?” he asked the image of his daugther on the screen. “I’m offering you complete restoration, what you’ve always wanted. Is worshipping your brokenness so much more appealing?”

He heard other participants echo Cassie’s sentiments for a while, before turning off the television. He looked over at the leg he’d built for Cassie. Not only would it restore perfect movement and mobility, it would give Cassie even more strength, and he’d been able to build in receptors, using nanotechnology, that would even restore sensation. But Cassie had to choose it, and she wouldn’t.

***

“Dad, she’s gotten worse. Are you sure there’s nothing you can do?”

“Worse, how could she be any worse?” Justin asked.

“She’s drinking a lot, and I’ve heard rumors she’s using drugs, too.”

“I wondered when that would happen,” was all Justin said.

“She’s such a moron,” Alison said. Justin looked up at something unpleasant he heard in her voice. “I don’t know why you still hang on to that thing,” she continued, gesturing at the leg that was still on his desk, waiting. “Why don’t you give it to someone more deserving? Cassie’s not worth it.”

“She’s family,” Justin said simply. “She deserves our love.”

“Why? She’s done nothing to earn it. All she’s ever done is disrespect you. At least I’ve been there for you. All she does is…”

“Alison, that’s enough.” Justin said sharply. “I love you both because you’re my kids. I admire everything you’re doing with your life, and I love how close we are, but I wouldn’t love you less even if you were like Cassie. Love doesn’t work that way.”

“I know, but…”

“But what?”

“Nothing, I guess.”

***

“Hi, Dad. Can I come in for a minute?”

Justin stood at the door, unable for a moment to reconcile the disheveled, filthy woman standing in front of him with his daughter. He stared down at the empty space where a leg should be to confirm that it was, in fact, Cassie.

“Dad?”

“Of course, come in, come in. It’s been so long. I’ve missed you.”

“Thanks, Dad. I’m sorry to just barge in, but I’ve got nowhere else to go and…” Cassie looked down at the ground and swallowed, then looked back up at Justin. “I need help, Dad. I’ve been an idiot. I’m so embarrassed.” Tears welled up in Cassie’s eyes, and she wiped them away with the back of a dirty hand.

“I’m so glad to see you,” Justin reached out and hugged Cassie, not even minding the stench of body odor and stale alcohol. “You look tired. Why don’t you go up and take a shower? There are some of Alison’s clothes in your old room. Take your time, refresh, and I’ll make us a couple of my famous sandwiches.”

“Really? You don’t want to lecture me? I don’t mean that sarcastically. I know I deserve it.”

“Just go get cleaned up.” Justin felt his heart and spirits soar as he watched Cassie limp up the stairs. Maybe now she’d finally accept the leg that had been waiting for her for so many years.

After about half an hour, Cassie came back downstairs. With the dirt scrubbed from her face and hair, and clean clothes, she was finally recognizable again. She sat down at the table, where Justin had laid out a triple decker sandwich, a plate of cookies, and a large glass of milk. She took a big bite of the sandwich. “Wow, Dad. I forgot about these sandwiches. They’re still the best.”

Justin didn’t say anything, just watched his girl eat, waiting for her to speak.

“Dad, I’m in bad shape. I…I started drinking pretty bad and did some stupid stuff. I haven’t had a job in months and got kicked out of my place.”

“What about your friends? The ones in that wholeness group?”

Cassie snorted. “Yeah, they turned out not to be such great friends after all.”

“What happened?”

“Well, at first it was fine, but after a while it was like the whole thing wore off. Everyone was sitting around talking about how great it was not having their leg, or arm, or whatever, but I still couldn’t walk around. I kept thinking of that leg you built for me, and what it would be like to be able to run, or swim, or climb a tree. Climb a mountain, for that matter. It just seemed kind of stupid to be celebrating something that was holding me back, when I didn’t have to be limited at all.”

Justin couldn’t stop the grin as he slapped his hands on his lap. “I’ve been waiting most of your life to hear that,” he shouted. “I can’t wait for you to get your new leg grafted on! It’s so amazing, Cassie!”

Cassie’s eyes clouded. “I can’t believe you’re just going to give it to me,” he said. “Dad, I’ve been terrible. There’s things I’ve done, and said about you. If you knew, Dad, you’d throw that leg in the fire. I don’t deserve it.”

Justin sat back down. “I don’t care if you deserve it. It’s not about deserving it, Cassie. I love you. This is something I’ve always wanted for you – my gift to you. Just accept it. Come on.”

“I just don’t feel right. Can I think about it?”

“I don’t know what there is to think about, but okay. Do you have a place to stay? Do you want to stay here?”

“Is that okay?  What about Alison?”

“She’s got her own place a few miles away. She’ll be as thrilled as I am though.”

***

“You did what? Dad, are you crazy? Why would you even let her through the door?”

“I’ve told you, Alison. She’s my daughter, your sister. Aren’t you happy she’s come to her senses?”

“I guess, but what, are you just going to let her stay here and mooch off you forever? Don’t you think she should go get a job and be responsible for once in her life? You don’t see me asking for a free ride.”

“No, but you don’t need one.”

“Well it would be nice not to have to pay rent, or go to work. How come she gets all this special treatment?”

“Would you really be happy that way, Alison? Do you think Cassie has an ounce of the self-respect you have? Or the freedom? My welcoming her back doesn’t take away from our relationship. I wish you could share in this with me. We can be a family again.”

“I don’t know Dad. I have to think about this. It just doesn’t seem fair.”

“Of course, but don’t stay away. Bitterness is no way to live.”

“I do love you, Dad.”

“I know. I love you, too.”

***

“Ahhhh!” The scream came from Cassie’s room. She’d been back for two weeks, but had yet to breach the subject of the leg that Justin had waiting for her.

Justin ran up the stairs, to find his son lying on the floor. “What happened?”

“I slipped. I can’t keep going like this Dad.”

“Just take the leg, Cassie. It’s yours.”

“Okay. Okay. You’re right. I’ll take it. Thank you.”

Justin carried the leg to Cassie’s room. The moment he’d been waiting for. Finally! He presented it to Cassie. “Here’s where it attaches. You have to sequence it like this,” he demonstrated, “and make sure to read the instructions. It’s simple, but you need to know what you’re doing.  At first you won’t feel anything, but keep it on. The nanobots need a few weeks to integrate with your nervous system, and once it does you’ll be a whole new person.”

“Great. I’m excited. Thanks so much, Dad.”

***

“Ahhhh!” Once again the scream echoed through the house. Just like it had every morning for the past three weeks.

Justin sighed heavily, and trudged back upstairs, although he already knew the conversation that he’d have with his daughter. As he did every day, he found Cassie lying on the floor, the leg sitting untouched on the desk where it had been ever since he’d given it to her. The instructions moved from time to time, so she was reading them, but she’d yet to attached the leg.

“Dad, please help me!” Cassie begged from the floor. “I can’t get up!”

“You have the best I could give you. Why would you just accept it?” He asked this every day, and every day his daughter answered the same way. “I know, I know. I will.” But she never did.

Their unproductive ritual was interrupted this time by a tap on the bedroom door. It was Alison. Justin’s heart skipped a beat in his chest. Alison had refused to come by even once since her twin returned home. She just couldn’t get past the unfairness of it all, she’d told her father. Every time they spoke, it ended the same way. She kept promising to try to forgive her sister, but she hadn’t been able to yet. But here she was.

“Cassie.”

“Go away, Alison. I don’t want you to see me like this,” Cassie moaned from the floor.

“What are you doing on the floor? Why aren’t you wearing the leg? Dad said he gave it to you weeks ago.” The years slipped away as she once again became her sister’s caretaker.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Cassie muttered sullenly.

“You’re right, I wouldn’t. You’ve had everything handed to you and you still throw it all away. Dad’s been nothing but generous to you, and you just lie here on the floor instead of accepting his help. Why won’t you just put on the leg?”

“BECAUSE I DON’T DESERVE IT” Cassie screamed, startling all of them. For the first time since she’d returned, she broke down into raw, wracking sobs. “I don’t deserve this. I’ve screwed up so bad, I shouldn’t even be here.”

Justin had suspected this was the problem, and had tried in every way he knew to convince Cassie otherwise, but hadn’t been able to get through. He looked over at Alison.

She met his gaze and bit her lip, then looked at the ground. Justin wondered what was going through her head, hearing Cassie say the very words Alison herself had said about her. He watched her watch her sister lying on the ground, sobbing. Then he saw the tears on her own face.

“No, you don’t,” she said softly. She walked over to Cassie and knelt on the floor beside her. “We can all agree that you’ve been the biggest jerk possible. I probably wouldn’t have let you have the leg, to be honest.” Her words were harsh, but her tone soft as she hovered over her sister holding him protectively. “But Cassie? It’s not about deserving it, you know? You’re not going to make up for everything you did by continuing to suffer. All you’re doing is dragging on the hurt. I want my sister back. I thought I wanted you to pay for what you did. I wanted you to have to work as hard as I have, but Dad told me something that I had to let sink in. It doesn’t take anything away from me for you to get your leg back, or room and board, or anything else. And I’ve screwed up too. Not nearly as bad as you, but I did crash the car when I was sixteen, so there’s that. Anyway, I’ve missed you. I love you. And I want us to be a family again. So no, you don’t deserve it. But take the darn leg anyway, already!” With that she punched her, not softly, in the arm.

Cassie had stopped his sobs as he listened to his sister. He turned up to look at her. “You should hate me.”

“Tried that. Sucked. Just take the leg.”

“Dad?”

“You know where I stand.”

Cassie bowed his head for a minute then looked up. Hope and fear warred for a place on his face. “Can I really?”

“Take the leg!” Alison and Justin shouted together, laughing.

Cassie took the leg.

***

“And that’s my story. You don’t have to live like this. My dad’s technology can make you whole. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, whether you deserve it or not, just accept it and you can enjoy a life and freedom you never thought possible!”

Cassie ended her testimony with a smile. She searched the crowd, seeing some people nodding, but more shaking their heads. It was like this every time. Ever since she’d been restored, she wanted to share Justin’s gift with every amputee. The problem was that Luke’s movement had taken root, and Cassie found that many people were offended by her story. They accused her of judging them, of intolerance, bigotry or worse. She’d even been arrested once. But that hadn’t stopped her. She, Alison and their father were committed to sharing Justin’s gift with the world. And one by one, they were making a difference. One by one, people were healed and restored, once they accepted an unmerited gift.

 

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