Thump, step. Thump, step. Thump, step.
The sound slowly invaded Mike’s consciousness. He struggled awake to see a boy about his age standing in the door, leaning on crutches. Mike rubbed his eyes, looked around. Same bedroom, different furniture, different-looking furniture. Before, it had been dark and mismatched. This furniture was all the same style and a light, almost white colour. He looked back at the boy, who raised his eyebrows, but before he could speak, Mike blurted out, “I’m Mike, and I don’t know how I got here, but I’m here. Okay?”
Thump-Step raised his eyebrows, shrugged and said, “Okay,” and thump-stepped his way across the room. He leaned his crutches against a desk, then fiddled with something at his knee. Mike heard a click, and the boy plopped down, rather awkwardly, on the chair. “I’m Matt.”
“What happened to your leg? Did you break it or something?”
“I had polio.”
“Oh.” Mike vaguely recalled something about polio. His father occasionally talked about a great-uncle who was crippled somehow or other.
“So, what’s wrong with your leg?”
“It’s paralyzed, so I have to wear this brace. See?” and he pulled up his pant leg. A shiny metal bar on each side of his leg fastened into the heel of his shoe. A leather strap wrapped around his calf.
“I heard something click. What was that?”
“It’s a little catch at the knee so the brace will bend. Mom’s always mending my pants where it wears a hole.”
“Wow. How long do you have to wear that? Will your leg ever get better?”
“No, never. I have to wear this for the rest of my life.”
“That’s awful. You mean you can’t play baseball or ride a bike or anything?”
“At least I can walk. Bill is in a wheelchair – both his legs are paralyzed. Carol had polio, too, but it affected her arm. It’s not exactly paralyzed but it’s really weak and she can’t move it very well. She had to learn to write all over again with her left hand. I’ve heard of some who were so paralyzed they’re in an iron lung.”
“It’s this big metal tube that they put you in and it breathes for you. There’s just your head sticking out.”
“You’re kidding! And they stay in that tube for the rest of their lives?”
Mike grimaced. He hated being stuck in things. His mom said he had closetphobia.
“You know the worst part of it? Two years after I had polio, Dr. Salk came out with his vaccine.” He signed. “My baby sister was born that same year so at least she will never get polio.”
A long pause.
“What are you reading?” Mike had noticed that Matt’s desk was strewn with books and papers.
“I’m studying math.”
“D’you have a test coming up?”
“No, I study it because I love it, it’s fun.” Matt smiled and picked up one of the text books. “I’m working my way through differential calculus.”
How could anyone like math, Mike thought. He hated math, especially fractions. He was sure Mrs. Johnson had invented fractions just to make him fail tests. And he’d never heard of differ… differ-whatever it was.
“Math’s stupid,” Mike declared.
“No, it isn’t. It’s wonderful. You use it to solve puzzles. And we’re facing the biggest puzzle now – going into space. The Soviets are way ahead of the Americans. The Soviets sent up Sputnik and then Laika the dog while the American couldn’t even get their rockets off the ground. Sure, the Americans finally put their own satellite in space but now there are rumours the Soviets are sending a man into space in the next year or two. I want to be part of that. I want to be an engineer. I want to design the rocket that sends men to the moon.” Matt was bouncing with anticipation at the thought.
Mike knew about engineers. He had watched the Apollo 13 movie and how engineers had to use a bunch of weird things to keep the astronauts alive. And one of his aunts was an engineer, although she just built bridges and stuff, nothing exciting like rockets. He was about to tell Matt that people had gone to the moon several times over and were living on the International Space Station and were even talking about going to Mars, but stopped.
“You need math to do that?”
“Oh, yes, math and more. One good thing about being an engineer – you don’t need two good legs, just a good brain.” Matt chuckled.
Mike had thought that being a crip would be the end of life but it wasn’t stopping Matt.
A woman stopped at the door. “Matt, have you washed up for supper? You know we’re celebrating Linda’s birthday today.” She paused. “I thought I heard you talking with someone. Were you on the phone to Bill?”
“No, Mom, I was talking with Mike here.”
She looked straight through Mike, then laughed. “I think you’re spending too much time with those books,” and went downstairs.
“Gotta go. Linda’s five today. There’s cake and tutti-fruiti ice cream for dessert.” He stood up with a click, retrieved his crutches and thump-stepped his way to the door.
“Good luck with the rockets,” Mike called after him.
Matt turned around and grinned. “Thanks. I’ll name my first one after you,” and he thump-stepped his way down the stairs.
Mike lay back on the bed and yawned. All this talk of math and rockets had tired him right out.
Has Mike been seeing ghosts? Or merely dreaming? Find out next week in the conclusion of “The Sleepover.”
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