There were generally two reactions to her four-year-old daughter’s amputated leg. People either stared, seeing the missing part before they saw her and all her perfection, which hurt, or they pretended not to see her at all. That hurt too.
Paige tightened the hair band around her thin ponytail while her cousin fought with her long, wavy mass. Jenny with her thick, dark hair, olive skin, and voluptuous breasts. A direct contrast to her own small breasts and hair as pale as her skin. She was like the anti-California girl. Plain. Unnoticeable. Overall unexceptional.
Her second cousin, twice, maybe three times removed, was a flirt, a bottle of sunshine and great with Casey, if a little flighty. She was the fun girl. The kind of girl a man would ask out without hesitation.
Had she ever been that girl? Even before Casey?
“Can you still watch Case tonight?”
“Sure, Miss College Girl.”
“Thank you. I couldn’t do this without you.” She gave Jenny a quick side hug as she passed.
“Yeah, yeah. Just be careful you don’t burn out.”
“I won’t.” If anything, she needed to work harder. “As soon as Casey starts kindergarten, things will slow down. I’ll be able to take a couple of classes during the day. You know, you could go too,” Paige said, watching Jenny continue with her hair. “Just take a few classes. See what happens.”
Jenny smiled. “No thanks. That’s your dream.”
True, it had always been her dream. And now they were here. Operation New Life was taking off.
“I’m done,” Casey called.
“Okay, baby.” When she lifted Casey to the sink, she smiled at her daughter’s sweet face in the mirror. She wouldn’t have those tiny baby teeth much longer. Paige gave her a tight squeeze, holding on an extra second until she wiggled free.
“I put your leg beside the blue beanbag, okay?”
Casey could put her prosthesis on by herself. She could also take it off, which is what she preferred lately. She’d never pushed the issue of wearing it. Now she wondered if maybe that had been a mistake.
She got Casey settled in her hangout and put in a children’s DVD. Big Mac had converted the large storage closet for his granddaughter years ago. Complete with beanbags, a small table, paper, crayons, and puzzles, Casey loved it. It was just for a few hours while she and Jenny’s shifts crossed paths. It wasn’t a perfect situation, by any means, but it was the best one she had. Soon Casey would be in kindergarten and knowing her daughter was having fun at school while she worked would relieve a load of guilt.
“Okay, I have to go back to work now. It’s just for another hour, then Jenny will take you home. All set?”
Paige paused at the doorway. “What, baby?”
“I’ve been thinking and I decided something.”
This ought to be good, she thought, smiling down at her angelic face. “What have you decided?”
“I’ve decided not to go to kindergarten.”
JT lay flat on his back on the weight bench and stared at the gym ceiling. He wasn’t bothered by the rusted beams or exposed pipes, but the clumps of dusty shit that hung like Spanish moss made him finish counting reps with his eyes closed. And the fact that Simon was standing over him. He’d been quizzing him relentlessly for the past five minutes.
His mind waffled between thoughts of Paige and her daughter like it had done for the past forty-eight hours. The fact that she had one, and also that the blue-eyed, fry-eating ball of sunshine had an amputated leg.
JT grabbed the bar again, no idea what set he was on, but knowing he wasn’t done. Up. Down. Up. Down. Until his arms shook and his muscles burned. When he opened his eyes, Simon was staring down at him. “What are you looking at?”
“You. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this pissed off. I’m having this weird Seventh Sign moment. Waiting for your head to spin or Demi Moore to pop up.”
JT continued his workout.
“What happened? You crash and burn with Diner Girl?”
“No.” He’d barely taken off.
“Did you ask her out?”
He slammed the bar down in the rack over his head. “No.” He sat up and wiped his damp hands on a towel. He stood for Simon to start his set and stared at his friend’s legs, knees bent, feet on the floor.
Did Paige’s daughter use a prosthesis? Did she need one? Maybe hers didn’t fit right. Her stump had been uncovered and he hadn’t noticed any signs of irritation, but he’d barely gotten a glance.
Maybe it was broken, or maybe she just wasn’t wearing it at the moment. He could understand that. He didn’t lie around the house in his. The point was he didn’t know, wasn’t even sure it was his business to know.