Susan Robison's short fiction has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, New Letters, Confrontation, Cream City Review, Saranac Review, Night Train and many others. Her personal essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine. She studied Creative Writing in the MFA program at Emerson College and is currently completing a novel, of which After Crash is the opening chapter.

After Crash

posted Mar 31, 2015

Part 1 | Part 2

Sam slept all afternoon in his wheelchair beside Webster's cage and was wakened by his father ringing the bell and letting himself in. Webster stood, holding onto his cage bars, waiting for Sam to spring him. All he needed was a little orange jumpsuit. When Sam opened the cage, Webster shot onto his lap. Sam batted around the tuft of fur atop Webster's head. Webster smiled with those rubber band lips of his he could stretch from ear to ear.

"You two are quite the team already!" his father said in the gratingly upbeat voice he'd cultivated since Sam's accident. But as he heated mashed potatoes and cut roast chicken into bite-size pieces, he took off his glasses and wiped his eyes with his knuckles. Talk of the team again. Who knows, maybe he and Webster would become one, strange as that still seemed.

"Hey, pop a beer for me?" His father poured beer into a plastic bottle and was about to put a straw in it when Sam said that was Webster's job. "Straw," Sam said. Webster sprung onto the counter and inserted the straw into the bottle in several tries with serious splashing. Sam gave him a dab of peanut butter from a pushdown dispenser Sharon had brought over.

Sam appreciated what his father did for him, and now he'd have more to do, bathing Webster in the sink and cleaning out his cage, but it freaked him that he'd slid back into being a little kid waiting for daddy. And how eagerly his father took to this role, never urging him to leave the house to pick up subs for the two of them, or to see his former friends. He'd never encouraged him to transport himself to Capuchin Companions. He'd turned into Mr. Safety Man, probably figuring that as long as Sam stayed in, there was a better chance danger would stay out. Much as Sam hated to admit it, that made two of them. But screw that, he could court an edge of danger right here. With Webster watching him, he said quietly, "I promise, just an edge."

He rolled into the living room and leaned backwards in his chair. After much slipping and sliding, he managed to get a decent pivot point balanced on his rear wheels with his front ones a few inches in the air.

"What the hell are you doing?" his father said, carrying their plates in. Sam landed on his front wheels with a thud. "What is it about this family? You're gonna keep going till you're dead too?" He banged the plates down and went into the bathroom.

Weeks after his mother died, Sam was clearing the kitchen table while his father was washing dishes, and his father started talking. Conditions on the mountain had been icy that day. Trails were roped off. The ski lifts were silenced. When she grabbed her skis, he tried to stop her from going. But she wouldn't listen.

Now, after several minutes, his father came back into the living room. "I can't stand watching you do this reckless crap. You have someone who depends on you now. Don't forget that."

"I made sure I didn't go too far back." When his arms had been in casts, his father said he was the embodiment of 'Ready, shoot, aim.' Sam wondered whether his father thought about his mother that way as well. "You're right, that was stupid." They ate their dinners in silence in front of the TV.

Webster, at their feet, occupied himself with a maze toy Sam's father found in the attic, brightly colored wooden beads on twisted and looped wires secured on a wooden base. It had been Sam's favorite toy as a kid. Webster jumped onto Sam's lap, and fell asleep, snoring softly. Sam reached for Webster's blue flannel blanket and tucked it around him.

Webster knew a lot of words but none that involved the past. Or the future. Maybe that meant he didn't miss the chance to hump a monkey chick. Or miss his mother licking his head.


Sam was woken by clanking and clashing as the earliest morning light was barely straining in. Shit. His roommate was a rooster. Sam pulled a pillow over his head, which did little to mute the noise. Leading with his chest and shoulders muscles, he rolled back and forth until he built up enough momentum to heave himself from his bed into his locked wheelchair.

"You keep this up; it might be the highway for you." If he sprung him, he knew enough child psychology to know Webster would do this every morning. Webster, pulled up to his full eight inches, looked so damn happy to see him, grinning widely, holding on to the bars of his cage that it almost softened his rude awakening. Almost. Sam's first question for Sharon would be how to turn off his monkey alarm clock.


Sharon finished the initial training then came weekly to monitor Sam and Webster until she could give the all-clear. She told him she might finish in a month or two if everything continued this well. She shifted the appointments with them to the end of her day, which gave Sam hope. More and more, she'd been entering his dreams. Last night, they slapped water at each other, bobbed in the ocean swells. They kissed, water streaming off their hair. He woke feeling…buoyant. Which dissipated almost immediately. How was he going to jump waves if he couldn't leave his house without his father driving him? Fill his living room with a hose?

When Sharon came in that afternoon, Webster bounded off his lap, climbed the length of her body and perched on her shoulder. She nuzzled him as he made excited chattering noises. Suddenly, more than anything Sam could remember wanting, he longed to be inside their little pack. Licking her cheeks and lips, having Webster lick his.

Sharon showed Webster how to pour milk from a small plastic bottle into a cup. Webster, sitting on the counter, licked his lips in concentration as he poured; nevertheless, he spilled some on his stomach, feet and tail. Sharon waved Sam over. "How about you wash him up." She pointed for Webster to turn on the single-lever faucet and Sam adjusted the temperature. As warm water splashed on Sam's wrist he said, "I dreamt about you last night. We were at the beach, jumping waves."

"I've had that one, too." She blushed, throat to forehead.

"When you're not checking on me and Webby anymore, think we could go somewhere together? If it's snowing you could drive my dad's van."

"I really don't know. I'll have to ask my supervisor if it'd be okay. Let's wait and talk about it then." She glanced at him and looked away. The charge between them could have fried an egg.


The following week, Webster tried to master a new hanging food forager Sam's father had bought for his cage. It had multiple doors that slid, so Webster had to work to get his food as a monkey would in the wild. He fell asleep sprawled on a towel on the upper level of his cage. Sam loved watching Webster sleep, his golden-furred belly heaving rapidly up and down. He knew Sharon would feel the same, and she was due in a few minutes.

When she pulled up, he motioned for her to come in quietly. She followed him to the cage. "What a love," she whispered. She stood --and stayed-- so close to him that he could see downy hairs on her arm, could feel her breath. He longed to kiss her, maybe the crook of her elbow.

Do it. He grazed his lips down her arm, and looking up, he saw that she'd closed her eyes. She was trembling and her breath caught in little eddies. "No," she said. "This is my job."

"Webby and me are doing great. You won't be monitoring us much longer. Who'll ever know?" He wanted to lunge out of his chair and sweep her up. He rooted his face into her stomach. She bent over and held him; her breasts brushed the top of his head. "Not yet. " She let him go and took a step back. She opened the cage, shook Webster awake.


It became increasingly important to show Sharon that he was turning himself into someone who could stand on his own two feet. Though he was getting monthly disability, he wanted to earn money to pay his father for some of his enormous outlays. He put in long hours mastering voice dictation for text, new web design programs, and manipulating the mouse. His last job, at Ace Web Design, was the best he'd ever had, and though he wasn't there long, he'd done well. Now his lines looked like Etch a Sketch squiggles; he'd pound the counter, sending Webster cowering in the corner. He worked on controlling himself, and slowly, his work improved. He'd get in touch with his former boss, see if he'd send him freelance work.

But even more than the money and impressing Sharon, he needed to occupy his mind. December in Cambridge meant dark by 4:30, and the distractions of what he'd rallied himself to do by day would collapse. Late afternoons, those long lengths of black time until his father showed up, or when Sharon came by, were a definite setback. He couldn't stop checking out sites about solitary confinement, about guys seeing and hearing things.

Determined to force himself out of the house as darkness was descending, he opened his door, telling himself that the people in surrounding houses, mainly older folks who kept to themselves, have obviously seen him get into his father's van. He made it to the base of the ramp, turned sharply to head down the street, but he became dizzy: trees, houses, telephone poles, his own feet on the chair rest, swayed and spun.

In the house, he backed up, hard, into the door to close it. He wanted to slam against the wall again, inflict that pain he couldn't feel. But he wouldn't risk with Sharon or his father the tell-tale bruise.

That night he lay in bed staring at his ceiling, angry at how cowardly he still was. Angry at Sharon for not closing out monitoring him so they could be together more. There was no way he could let her see how unmoored he was. He tried to hold onto the hope he'd felt when she wrapped her arms around him, when she said, "Not yet."

Absorbed in animating his graphics the next day, he didn't notice deep shadows streaking the room. Webster, playing next to the computer with a pop-up clown toy, banged on the desk. It was beyond time for his afternoon snack. But Sam's good mood was fragile, fleeting. "Gimme a friggin' minute. Don't blow my streak." Webster banged again. Stopped. Banged harder. Something in Sam's head became white hot. He swiped Webster off the counter.

He landed on his back on the floor and frantically groomed himself all over, making a high-pitched sound Sam never heard before. "Sorry man." Webster curled into a ball and yanked out a plug of fur from his rump. "Stop. Come up here." But as he approached, Webster flinched. And fled from him, without limping. Thank God for that. Across the room, he yanked out more fur. Sharon wouldn't miss this sign of an overly agitated monkey. She'd showed him one who pulled out so much fur she had to be removed from her partner. If he lost Webster, he'd lose Sharon and have nothing. Be nothing.

Sam pushed a can of live grasshoppers from the counter into his lap, worked the screened lid off and dumped a bunch of them in the cage. Webster wrung his hands but finally dashed in, and Sam locked the door. He and his monkey were two of a kind. He'd watch Webster to make sure he didn't hurt himself more.

He flipped on the hot pot that dripped water into an insulated cup when it boiled, and put a tea bag next to it. He rolled back to the cage. Webster was now crashing around on his swing. "Easy dude. Take it easy." If he could quiet his own mind, maybe he could help Webster quiet his. Sam closed his eyes, breathed deeply, but his thoughts careened into every dark crevice they could find.

He'd never had to hang with his own head B.C. He made sure his life had been a blur, but it was clear now that for all his risky stunts he'd been a guy the air just whistled through.

Webster was screeching, his head pressed through the bars, turned toward the kitchen. A scalded, acrid smell; the cup had burned dry and was smoking. Sam must have fallen asleep for a few minutes. The alarm on the ceiling started clamoring and there was no way he could silence it. He turned off the pot, opened the front door to clear the smoke, and unlatched the cage. Webster jumped onto Sam's lap and hid his face in his chest, his furry legs actually knocking. The alarm finally stopped.

With Webster in his lap, Sam rolled out of the house, slid down the ramp, his wheels crunching on the thin coat of snow. Shame surged through him at how totally he lost it and that he made Webster recoil from him. Icy flakes stuck to Webster's head and whiskers; he looked like an ancient Japanese mountain monkey. He gave Sam a big smile, either forgetting that he'd hurt him, or forgiving him. "Don't," he said. "Word to the wise. Don't let me off so easily." He kissed the tuft of fur on top of Webster's head. A surge of something fierce—love? swamped him.

Beyond the halo of his door light, it was black and bitterly cold. But because Webster was swiveling his head in excitement taking in the snow, because it was under cover of night, because he needed to show Sharon that he was the man she believed he could be, he kept going. He remembered Webster's leash, but now that he propelled himself this far, he could not turn back.

"Hang on tight." He motioned for Webster to grip his wrist and wrap his tail around it. At the top of a gentle hill, he wasn't sure how well the brakes would work on the slushy sidewalk, but he could bank into the grass of a front yard if he had to. It would be great to feel the rush of wind again and see how much Webster would love it, too.