Sometimes the wheels squeak, but if her dad adds a little WD-40, they stop. “Let me see if I can fix that,” he’ll say, pausing to lean down and look at the wheels, “How are the foot pedals, too? Do they still hurt?” Her dad is always making sure the various parts of the wheelchair still work, even after several years of wear and tear.
Her mom is more concerned about her newer chairs. “Katie,” she says, wrinkling her graying brows and frowning, “Why don’t you just use the new wheelchair?”
“Mom.” Katie’s voice is tight. “I told you, it doesn’t fit in my friends’ cars. It’s too big. And sometimes the battery dies.”
Katie doesn’t want to admit to her mom that the new chair actually does feel sturdier on her back. The brand new black cushion was shaped specifically to her back whereas the push chair’s dark grey cushion is a few inches too short. It’s a little broken at the seam on the top and some of the beige padding inside is visible.
Katie doesn’t want to think about how the foot pedals on the new chair don’t make her knees swell the way the ones on the other chair do, because the pedal sits in the exact right spot to keep her feet elevated so they aren’t dragging on the ground. Her dad is always fixing the older chair’s pedals so they’re in a better spot, but for some reason her knees still swell and turn red.
She doesn’t want to say that the motorized features on the electric chair help to rest her shoulder so she doesn’t stay awake an extra hour every night writhing in pain. Even with the batteries in the push chair, which help to get the wheels moving so there is less stress on Katie’s upper arms and shoulders, there’s still the weight of her entire body every time she pushes on the top of the wheels to get them going. She doesn’t want to use the electric chair even though it’s almost brand new and the batteries stay charged longer, because of the time her friend Jen Lee from the youth disabilities group said that people who choose electric chairs are boring and more handicapped.
The push chair has been with her since elementary school. It’s got sticky Duck tape adhesive stuck to the black handles from when her Personal Care Assistant, Ali, put decorative tape on it and forgot about things like weather and melting glue. It’s got a couple of black elastic bands around the handgrips so Katie can always tie her hair up when it gets hot out and it starts to curl and become frizzy. This wheelchair is the one from the photo, the one where her childhood best friend Kaitlynn stands behind Katie and makes a silly face—the one from before Kaitlynn moved away to North Carolina. The wheelchair squeaks a little, so what? It reminds Katie’s friends of the time they had to wait for the elevator in Scanlon to be fixed so that she could go upstairs and get her backpack. It reminds Katie of the time she was at the Holyoke Mall and saw a hot guy in a wheelchair—something she had rarely seen unless it was in a movie, and usually then, the actor was not an actual disabled person, but an able-bodied actor sitting in a wheelchair. Like Augustus Waters, when he became hotter toward the end of The Fault in Our Stars.
“Katie,” her mom says, her lips tight and her hands twisting around one another in her lap, “are you sure you don’t want to just stay in tonight? You know how that old wheelchair sometimes makes your back hurt. I’m sure your friends will understand if you tell them you can’t make it.”
Katie closes her eyes and feels the elastic bands on the handlebar, thinking of all the times she went to bed early because her back was hurting and she could hear the sounds of her four close friends laughing in the living room, or the time she had to be pulled out of her sophomore year of college early to get back surgery because the pain was getting too bad, of all the jokes and photos she missed.
Alaina Leary is a Boston-area native who is currently a student in the master’s program in Publishing and Writing at her dream school, Emerson College. She’s currently working as a magazine editor and a content strategist and also writes for several magazines and small businesses. Her goal is to become an editor at a book publisher or a female-positive magazine. When she’s not busy playing around with words, she spends her time surrounded by her two cats or at the beach. She can often be found re-reading her favorite books and covering everything in glitter.