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Skinned Deep

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A not-so-easy rider - Editor

Skinned Deep

by Scott Lininger

I was on a bicycle excursion near the little Colorado town of Silver Plume. It had been a long summer spent in corporate hell for me, working too much and moving too little, and I was on a mission to get some kind of exercise in before the warm days of fall were done. I have always felt self-conscious in those tight bicycle shorts with the crotch padding, and those gaudy Lance Armstrong leotards were right out of the question for a guy like me. No, I'd settled on a pair of baggy shorts, plastic shades, dusty helmet, and an "I ♥ Linux" t-shirt schwagged from a recent tradeshow. As I got onto my bicycle and pedaled to the end of the parking lot, I suddenly wished I was wearing something more flattering.

There, straddling a state-of-the-art mountain bike, was a ponytailed blonde in sports bra and black spandex... and lord what spectacular terrain they covered. She was a golden goddess, the kind of girl that you were compelled to stare at, open mouthed, no matter how cro-magnon it made you feel. As I rode past, she studied me in what seemed a purely dismissive fashion, then to my surprise she spoke cheerfully.

"Morning. You Paul?"

I wasn't. I wished I was. I pedaled myself to an awkward stop. "Ah, no," I said, then thought of the most insightful question I could. "You meeting somebody?" Ugh.

"Only kinda," she said. Her jade-green eyes were full of laughter, clearly a joke I didn't get. "I met this guy, Paul, at a party last night, and we agreed to meet up here at 9:00."

#

It was almost 9:30. For having been stood up, this woman was remarkably buoyant. But I was way more incredulous that anyone would miss an opportunity to spend time with somebody who looked like that. Embarrassed for her, I said the first polite thing that came to my brain. "That sucks. I'm just starting my ride if you want somebody to go with..."

Crap. Gawky nerd shirt just asked super girl on a weird kind of semi-date. If my hands weren't tight on the handlebars I'd have covered my face in shame.

"Cool," she said, blowing me over. "Great Saturday for a ride, and I hate wastin' em. Let's do it." She leaned over her handlebars and offered her hand. "I'm Barbara."

"I'm... Ted," I said, totally amazed at my good fortune, while at the same time worried about embarrassing myself on the ride. I shook her lovely hand and offered my best "I'm not a rapist" smile.

She beamed back at me. It was hands down the most breathtaking smile I'd ever seen. "Okay, Ted. Let's ride. Don't let my fancy bike fool ya... I'm a slow climber."

"You're in good company, Barbara, believe me." She laughed. I laughed. It seemed great.

It seemed great.

Ten minutes later we'd started the first climb without exchanging a word. She led, giving me a clear view of her spectacular backside. But soon I was too winded to even worry about that. I was more out of shape than I'd thought, but Barbara was not, not by any definition of the word, so I was surprised when she stopped at the top of the hill. Sluggishly, I caught up to her and saw why she'd paused.

The vista was spectacular. Below us, Clear Creek Valley spilled away over giant granite boulders and rows of gently waving pine. On either side of us the mountains cut majestically into blue sky. The creek itself was rushing and bounding in the middle of it all, reflecting the morning sun in sparks of dazzling white.

"Wow," she said reverently. "I never get tired of that."

"Yeah. Guess Paul really missed out."

She cocked her head at me. Did she just wink? "You probably wonder how I could meet a guy at a party and not even recognize him the next day."

I frowned. That little piece of confusion hadn't worked itself out in my blonde-stunned brain. "Now that you mention it..."

"I'm not some kind of slut," she said, pointing at me.

"Wouldn't suggest it." I shook my head. Was she calling me a slut?

"Sluts drink too much and then forget the guys they sleep with."

"Or make bike riding dates with," I joked, trying to support her increasingly strange line.

"Hey," she said, narrowing her perfect eyebrows at me. "I said I'm not one."

"I know," I said, too fast. Or not fast enough. "I'm agreeing with you."

That seemed to satisfy her. I hadn't felt this muddleheaded talking to a girl since middle school, though it clearly wasn't all on my side. Before I could work out something more to say, she spoke again, or still.

"So you probably wonder."

I blinked. "Oh, about how you'd think I was Paul, back at the parking lot."

"Right!" Suddenly, she thrust her hands toward the sky like a priestess summoning thunder. Her breasts bounced in time. "It's simple as simple! I lied to you. I come here every Saturday and wait for some lone biker guy to show up at the lot. And that's how I always have someone to ride with." She looked at her watch and giggled. "I usually don't fess up, but... you seem harmless."

I squinted at her. Though this information didn't really change the fact that I was sharing a ride with a stunningly attractive woman, I felt betrayed. "So this week..."

"You're the guy I picked up! Come on. Let's ride."

Picked up?

She kicked off and switched to a lower gear, starting the long, curving downhill into the valley. I did the same, feeling titillated, puzzled, kind of insulted, and vaguely ill at ease. Were all super-hot girls totally nuts? I'd been told this before but honestly hadn't interacted with enough of them to form an opinion. Before long we were coasting ever-faster around gentle turns, and Barbara (if that was really her name) braked to fall back beside me. I swerved out a bit to give her some room by the shoulder, and she flashed her immaculate smile, playing up the innocent. That pearly manipulation made me decide that I was not having fun being toyed with.

"Paul, I hope you're not mad at me."

I clenched my teeth. "My name isn't Paul. It's Ted."

She groaned. "I was making a joke."

"You're calling me Paul as short hand for 'Lonely Guy Number 5.' Not exactly funny."

"53."

"What?"

"'Lonely Guy' 53. But that's your word, not mine."

I looked over at her as we whizzed down the smooth pavement at 40 miles per hour. Exasperation popped like a champagne cork. "You've done this 53 times?"

"52 and a quarter, really. We've got three miles to go."

"What is wrong with you?"

"Nothing. I just seek out single men bikers."

"Who says I'm single?" I said defensively, though it was painfully true.

She pursed her shapely lips at me. "Not single, like, un-womaned. I mean single men bikers. Emphasis on the bikes. Heck, lose the 'single men' if you want. I look for bikers to ride with." She absorbed the judgement coming from my gaze for a couple seconds. "Jesus, it's not like I sleep with the Pauls when I'm done with 'em."

Oh no. No chance of that here. How laughable. "Ever think of riding with friends instead of strangers?"

She was quiet for a moment, looking down at her handlebars. "I shouldn't have said anything," she muttered.

"Or maybe you could have tried the truth in the first place?"

"It's not easy meeting people when you... look like me," she said.

"Cursed by beauty?" I asked sarcastically.

"Yes, damnit. There's no such thing as a 'friendly date.' Guys always think it's something more, and they get pushy, or jealous, or... angry. So it's easier to just look for guys like you."

"Like me? What the hell is that supposed to mean?" I glared at her. "You are a slut, Barbara. You're a biking slut."

She latched eyes with mine and spoke through her teeth. "It's not that simple."

"You have friends, right?"

"Shit, Paul!"

"It's TED!"

"No! Turn! Paul! Ted! SHIT!"

There was a crunchy, screechy, shattery kind of sound. A bunch of sounds, actually. There was sudden pain, quite literally delivered by the truckload. The next thing I knew, I was lying in a ditch looking up through broken sunglasses at Barbara's perfect face. Her hair had come part way out of her ponytail and it framed her delicate cheekbones like a halo of fire. It matched the blazing agony in every one of my extremities.

She spoke, out of breath and half panicked. "I'm a nurse, Ted. The driver's called the ambulance. Just stay with me, Ted. I'll be able to keep you stable until they get here."

She didn't sound very confident.

That worried me some until I passed out.

#

When I woke up, I was in a hospital bed and unable to turn my neck. I strained my eyes to take in the limited scope of my existence: legs and right arm in plaster and traction, metal floor fan blowing air in from an open window to my right, and to my left a ceiling-mounted TV over a closed wooden door.

The TV was showing an episode of Jeopardy, but the volume was off. Alex Trebeck was shaking his sage head, and I imagined him saying, "Wrong. The correct answer is 'Who is Fantastically Messed Up?'"

My lips and throat were dry. I moaned a bit, experimentally.

"And so the roommate awakens."

The voice was a man's, accented from back east, Boston or Maine or a similar flavor. With redoubled efforts I lifted my head by a fraction of an inch and made out a fattish fellow of flat head in the bed nearer the door. His leg was in some kind of titanium iron maiden, all pinned up, nasty, and swollen. His face was equally unattractive. Either the guy'd been in a not-so-recent accident involving a million shards of glass, or he was the world's worst shaver.

"Take it slow," he said. "You're under medical care in Breckenridge. You were hit by a truck and are lucky to be alive."

Exhausted, I let my head settle back to my pillow. "How long?" I croaked. I was pleased that my words were intelligible.

"Christ, you're not in some damn coma movie," he said. "You just got here this morning. They spent a couple hours taping you up and brought you here a little bit ago."

I absorbed the data and tried to remember what I could. Blonde. Bike. Perfect breasts. Argument. Crushing pain.

"Listen," interrupted the easterner. "She's going to be here soon to check on you. When she does, I'll press my buzzer so we can get another witness in here."

"Huh?"

"They won't believe me. She's got 'em convinced that my head trauma makes me delusional."

"Wha?"

"She gets a chance, she'll finish you off, see? I've got my arms free so I can defend myself. But you? You're a sitting duck!"

The pain in my body was making my thoughts incrementally more clear, but that wasn't saying much. What was this guy talking about? Was this a hospital-slash-loony bin?

"She destroyed your wallet," he hissed. "So nobody knows your name, yet. She'll try to do it before they've IDed you."

Wallet. I'd had my wallet when the truck hit me. I was sure of it. "Whoa, man," I said. "You're obviously..."

"No time for that, 'Paul.' When she gets here, don't eat or drink anything she gives you. If you do, you'll be pushing up daisies before morning! I'm talking about Barbara, man."

"Barbara." Vaguely erotic flashes of hips astride a bicycle just in front of me. I stared helplessly at the ceiling tiles. "You know her?"

"I know more than her, I know you."

"You just said they didn't find my wallet."

"You think you're the first Paul? No way, brother. I was Paul just a few Saturdays ago. Bitch is a serial killer. She's..."

Just then, there was a noise of the door opening, and the yawning, busy sound of a hospital hallway beyond. Eastern guy clammed up, but immediately a "call nurse" buzzer began whining from his end of the room.

"Stanley," a woman said. "What do you need?" It was Barbara's voice, icy and low.

"Nothin'", he said, was it fearfully? "S'Mistake."

I craned again and saw her lean over my roommate and turn off his buzzer. She was dressed in those shapeless scrubs that medical people wear, but somehow she still looked curvy and lithesome. She turned from him and started coming over to my side of the room. He watched her closely, almost manically.

"Ted, how are you feeling?" she asked, her voice soft with concern. "I saw on the monitor that you were awake, and I came right down."

"I've been better."

"God, I'm so sorry about what happened. What's the last thing you remember?"

The last thing I remembered was calling her a slut... no, wait. I remembered being in the ditch and her saying "No, not again." I decided to rewind a bit. "We were talking about Paul," I said. "You were telling me about your curious technique for making boyfriends."

"Not boyfriends," she said, glancing self-consciously toward Stanley's side of the room. "Riding companions."

"Uh huh."

"You were hit by a trash truck coming around a blind curve," she said. "You had a lot of skeletal fractures, but so far no sign of internal injuries. You were very lucky, Ted." She reached down and took my left hand gently. She had positioned herself in such a way that Stanley couldn't see her do it. Her fingers were warm. Her jade eyes were glistening with... compassion? Guilt? Jesus, did she have to be beautiful right now?

"I know you're hurting," she whispered. "I'm sorry."

Despite being in the worst position I'd ever been, her tone stirred feelings of yearning. It was nice to have a woman holding my hand just then. I felt like shit everywhere but the spot where she was touching me. I grasped her fingers tightly, maybe a bit too desperately.

"Will the doctor be in soon? I have a lot of questions."

She pulled back from my grip and frowned. "One step at a time, Ted. Right now you need to rest."

"Huh?"

"Rest. Relax. I'm taking care of you."

"Relax?"

"That's exactly right, Ted."

"You two love birds gonna kiss and get it over with?" hollered Stanley.

Annoyed, Barbara smiled at me, but it didn't reach her eyes. Then she did this weird thing where she hovered her palm about twelve inches over my bandaged chest. "Your energy is confused," she said. "We need to get it totally cool before introducing any more stress."

I wanted to cry. What the crap? Was I suddenly in that Stephen King book where the crazy lady keeps the writer in her cabin? "Get me a doctor," I whined.

She patted my cheek, the lower part of her face still that humorless mask of a smile. "Shhhhhhhhh... I'll be back." And then she walked out of the room and shut the door.

I whimpered, confused. It had to be the pain drugs. They had to have me on something hardcore, and it was messing with my perception of reality.

"What'd I tell you?" whispered Stanley once he was sure she was gone. "Bitch is crazy."

"Are you... are you here because..."

"Yep. Bitch tail-baited me into a bike ride, named me Paul, then messed me up something harsh with a convenient curb and a plateglass window. But I wasn't so bad as I look, see? She doctored the x-rays, and signed me up for this torture." I heard him try to move in his bed and then take in a sharp breath.

I gulped back a sob. "You were what, then, 52?"

"48th, brother. 48th."

I almost cried. "What kind of hospital is this?"

"It's not. Damn 'sports medicine clinic.' Combo private practice. She's got every doc in the place believing they're a weekend away from humping her majestic backside. She practically runs the place."

"This is crazy."

"It's happening, brother. To you and me. 49 and up didn't even make it this far." He choked on something, then cleared his throat. "No, I've had time to think, and our only hope is to work together. What's your real name? 'Less you prefer Jon Doe."

"Ted. Ted Gillum."

"Ted, I'm Stanley Blumstein."

"Stanley Blumstein," I said, tasting the name as if to determine his reliability. "You been here a long time, yeah?"

"Bad as solitary. Family probably thinks I'm dead. My Samsung got stolen by you-know-who, and there's no damn wall phone in the room. We're twenty yards from the hallway where we could maybe call the cops. You're five feet from a window! If either of us could move, we'd be fine. But when Barbara's the only person who's ever in here, we might as well be on death row. I watched her. I watched her do it to the last guy."

I couldn't see a phone, but then I could only see a sixty degree swath of mostly ceiling. I contemplated Stanley's shattered and discolored leg, imagined the procedure to drill all of those horrid pins into the bone. The bed beneath my back felt suddenly cold. This couldn't be happening.

Had Barbara led me into the path of that truck? When she braked back to talk to me, she'd been at the edge of the road, so I'd swerved out closer to the middle line. Did she know the truck was coming? Don't trash trucks run on fixed schedules? Picking up from one neighborhood at 9:00 before heading up the mountain at, say, 9:45? She'd seemed eager to get going from the parking lot, but then she'd paused at the top of that hill for quite a while before taking off with purpose. Had she looked at her watch? I was sure she had.

My voice quavered a bit when I spoke again. "Stanley... what happened to the last Paul?"

"Fill in the blank," he said, his voice dripping with foreboding. "He was hit on the road by a..."

"Christ, tell me already."

"What is a trash truck, Ted." He annunciated each word like in a bad movie. He was pouring on the theatrics, obviously convinced of... something. "After they put steel pins in both of his wrists, poor Paul was given a nasty cocktail. It took several hours before he finally stopped convulsing. Wanna guess who was changing his bedpans?"

"Christ, knock it off. Who is Barbara?"

"Man hits the daily double!"

"I'm not playing Jeopardy, Stanley, I'm asking you."

His giggling subsided. He took a deep breath. "What I can tell you is that I was in love with her," he said, his tone wistful. "Even after she did this to me. But she's just plain evil, Ted. We gotta realize that."

"Bikers don't get run over every single weekend and nobody notices," I insisted. "They don't send ambulances to sports medicine clinics. That's an insane scenario."

"Ever hear of 'back woods', Teddy? And you met the bitch! That whole woman is an insane scenario."

He had a point. But how much influence could a woman like that have with an EMT? With a doctor? With a sheriff?

A lot, I decided, if they had a dick.

"Priority one is to survive," said Stanley. "In a little while she's going to come in here with a little something for you. But it won't be painkiller, Teddy. It'll be death. When she does that, that's when we move to stop her."

"I'm in traction," I said. "What the hell do you think I'm gonna be able to do?"

"I've planned that all out," he said, obviously pleased with himself. "You got one good arm. All you gotta do is keep from swallowing anything, and keep her close to you for a few seconds. She doesn't think I can move, see? "

I dry-swallowed. "What are you going to do?" I asked, almost too quietly to be heard over the fan.

"Final Jeopardy," he said, wheezing moistly. "I saved up my pain killers for a whole week hoping this would work out, hoping that a guy like you would show up."

Guy like me. It was the second time I'd heard that phrase today.

"Seven days in constant pain," he breathed. "That's seven days in hell, so what's risking a few more? When I heard you'd arrived, I swallowed 'em all, Teddy. I'm able to take some serious damage now, and I'm through being in this prison. For the first time in weeks, I can move when I have to. She gets in here, you do your part, and I'll make a dash for the parking lot and get us some help. But you gotta distract her, Ted."

Me and Stanley. Life pact after five minutes of talking? Individually we were crippled, but together we might manage some kind of escape. He needed my help to do it. Or I needed his. It sounded mad.

Was the alternative really... death?

"Here she comes!" he hissed.

The door opened, and I heard footsteps approaching my bed. My heart started beating like the devil's wings, but Barbara's angelic visage was the one that appeared. She leaned in and started to bring a glass of water toward my lips. In her other hand was a trio of white pills.

"Take these, Ted," she soothed. "You'll feel less confused."

Panic unbolted, propelled by a thunderous swell of fear. I swung my left arm upward, striking the glass painfully with my wrist. It tumbled out of her grasp and shattered onto the floor. Hearing Stanley's instructions in my brain, I clutched at her shirt and held tight.

"Go!" I yelled. "Stanley, go!"

Barbara screamed, her head twisting unnaturally as if someone was pulling on her hair. Then she slipped on the wet floor and was wrenched from my grasp.

As she disappeared, there was a crash and a meaty grunt. Something heavy struck the base of my bed and pushed it violently toward the window. The traction pulled on my broken body and the pain came, radiating upward from my toes. I immediately felt queasy, and bile heaved into my mouth. When I opened my eyes, I squinted through the tears to realize I'd been hefted onto my left side by the cables and pulleys, and I could now see over the edge of the bed and fully into the room beyond.

The first thing I saw was Stanley's ample form. He wasn't going for help but crouching on top of Barbara. She was groaning on the tile. He had the still-running floor fan in his hands and was striking her with it again and again. His bad leg was distended strangely to one side, almost as contorted as his face. "Whore! I loved you!" he screamed. With all his weight, he brought the fan down on her head, and its protective grill broke off with a loud, bony crack. Whether it was his leg giving way or her skull, I didn't know, but he grinned and started inching the whirring, naked blades toward the side of her face.

I turned my eyes away in horror, and they came to rest on a little table next to my bed. On it there was a telephone. Next to that was a plastic tray containing my wallet and cell phone. Below these hung a Breckenridge Hospital medical chart, and it had my full name on it.

God, what had I done?

Stanley needed a guy like me.

A harmless, gullible schmuck.

The whunkwhunkwhunk of steel cutting flesh sent spatters of blood against the chart and screams of guilt through my spine. I tried desperately to move but was met only with the wall of pain. Then the fan made an electrical pop and stopped. I looked back down to see Stanley's fat shape atop Barbara. He clutched at her crudely and groaned. His rebroken leg was like a strand of oozing silly putty, and his hospital gown gaped to show a backside covered in bed sores, but I was far more disturbed to see the pool of bright, red blood that spread slowly from where Barbara's lacerated face touched the tile.

"HELP!" I cried toward the hospital door. "Somebody help her! Please!"

#

Months later, I was looking out a window in a quiet workout room at Denver General Hospital. I'd made steady progress with my physical therapy and was only days from getting my final cast off. As I stared moodily into the falling snow, I caught sight of a blonde woman crossing the parking lot. My heart skipped a beat as my hindbrain recognized who it was.

When she walked through the door, I was stunned. When last I'd seen her in that courtroom, her face had still been under bandages. Somehow I'd imagined that her perfection was simply in hibernation, like a butterfly in its chrysalis. I was wrong. She was more scar than skin. Her beauty had folded in on itself like a hand turned to fist.

"Guess I'm not cursed anymore," she said, noticing the expression of shock on my face.

I smiled the best I could. Eventually, I spoke. "I imagined I'd never see you again."

"I did a lot of thinking," she said. "And I decided I had to talk to you. I'm an osteopath, Ted. I believe in healing the whole person, not just their injuries. I decided to give myself the advice I'd give a patient."

"That being?"

"This has been a life-changing event, and it needs closure. I came to apologize."

It was that last thing I expected. I felt not surprise but self-loathing. "Apologize to me? It was my fault that piece of shit hurt you. He told me a pack of inconsistent lies and I believed every one of them. I held you down while he grabbed you, Barbara. God, I still have nightmares about it. I'm surprised the police didn't arrest me as an accessory."

"During the trial I heard what he told you," she said. "Not everything Stanley said was a lie. He was one of my Pauls, and he got injured on our ride. He was in love with me, or something like it. After the ride where he got... damaged, I should have stopped my stupid Saturday outings. If I had, we wouldn't be here today."

"Damaged ourselves," I said quietly.

She nodded. Then she walked over and stood beside me. We both watched the snow fall for a long time.

"Listen," I said, "You don't need to apologize to me. I'm going to be fine."

"So am I," she insisted, her jade eyes challenging mine. I studied her. No longer blinded by her beauty, she seemed more solid to me. Was her personality changed by the scars, or was I just better able to see her for herself?

"Thanks for coming to see me," I said. "I really appreciate it." I cleared my throat and straightened my back. "Come next spring, the rehab docs want me back up on a bike. If you ever want somebody to go with, I'm game."

Her eyes lit up, and there it was, totally unmarred. "Friendly date?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said, returning her smile. "Friends."

©2010

 

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