I had been dozing lightly when the van turned onto the hilly road leading up to Yamaku. My chair had come a little loose on the long journey, and the sudden jolt of it sliding backward a couple of centimeters woke me. I must have made some noise, because Mom turned in the passenger seat and smiled nervously at me. “Almost there, dear.”
I nodded, and tried to smile for her sake but I don’t think I was very convincing. Her lips twitched in another aborted smile, then she quickly turned around to face forward, hiding her face from me.
I looked out the side window at the passing scenery. It was only vaguely familiar; I had rarely traveled outside of Yamaku’s gates. It was bleak and gray under the overcast sky, the pale green of spring’s emerging buds muted in the watery light.
The massive gate was unmistakable, and Dad pulled the van around to the stretch of curb that was ramped for wheeled access. Perhaps ironically, there were no handicapped parking spaces. The whole parking lot, I reflected bleakly, probably qualified as that. There were a couple of other cars offloading students and luggage, but no one else was at the ramp.
Dad shut off the engine, and heaved a sigh of relief. He was always nervous driving the van, still unused to the huge vehicle. Yet another guilt added to my tally of things I inflicted upon my parents with my condition. With my continued existence.
Mom got out of the van and opened the sliding door beside me, then pressed the button that extended the ramp on her side of the van. Dad got out and opened the sliding door on his side, and all of the warm air in the van was blown out by the crosswind. I shivered, and tugged my jacket closed, clumsily pulling at the over-large zipper pull to close it up around me.
The two of them began the process of unlocking my chair from the restraints that theoretically kept me from sliding around in the back during the drive. We exchanged short, practical words—“Grab this” “Slide this over” “Can you reach that?”—as they worked to free me from my automotive bondage.
Once unlocked, I powered up my chair and pivoted away from the ramp. It was more stable for me to back down the ramp than to go face-first. Mom hovered behind me, waiting to catch me should I topple over backwards, but of course I didn’t. My center of gravity was far enough forward and low enough to make this manner of egress stable. Nonetheless, I smiled up at her as I hit the pavement, and turned to face her. “Thanks, Mom,” I said.
“Of course.” She smiled back, and looked like she wanted to say something more, but then she turned and began closing up the ramp and the van.
I nudged my controller, and turned to face the campus. Aside from the lack of leaves on the trees, it looked much as I remembered. Not much had changed during my nine months in the hospital. Irrationally, that annoyed me. So much had changed for me, it felt like there should be some reflection of that in the world around me. I could see a few students walking, limping, or rolling around the campus, but no one spared us a glance. I was nothing unusual, just another katawa, come home to roost, I reflected bitterly.
Then I shook my head and took a deep breath. No, I couldn’t go down that path again. Self-pity would do me no good. My only direction was forward, I reminded myself sternly.
As if I could talk myself out of depression.
I sighed, and turned away from the campus. Dad was heaving my luggage out of the back of the van, and Mom was pulling the bags up onto the sidewalk.
“Hello! Welcome back!” came a cheery voice behind me. I pivoted my chair, and saw an older woman with a clipboard approaching us. It took me a moment to remember her name—Mrs. Noya, one of the school’s secretaries.
“Thank you,” I said, although I wondered if I was really welcome. She gave us a short bow, which I returned with a head dip, all I could manage.
She turned to address my parents, and I tuned them out, looking at the other students arriving for the start of the new term. I knew that there wouldn’t be anyone I knew—all of my class had graduated while I was still in the hospital—but still I irrationally hoped for a familiar face. But my hopes were in vain.
Grimacing, I turned back to my parents and Mrs. Noya. Mom was just taking a set of keys from her, and Dad was signing off on something on her clipboard. Mrs. Noya took it back and smiled again.
“Well, that’s everything. Welcome back, and I hope you have a good year.”
“It could hardly be worse than last year,” I said drily, then immediately regretted it as I saw all three adults flinch. “Sorry,” I muttered, flushing.
“Er. Yes. Well…” Mrs. Noya seemed at a loss for words, so she just bowed to us again, then turned and hurried over to another vehicle that had just pulled up. “Welcome back!”
Mom sighed and gave me a disappointed look. “Dear…” she began, but I cut her off.
“I know, Mom, I know. Sorry. I’ll try to keep a positive outlook on things.”
Dad pulled the last box out of the van and grunted. “I know that that can’t be easy, son, but…try?”
I nodded. “What’s my room number?” I asked, changing the subject.
Mom looked at the keys in her hand. “Fourteen.”
Ground floor, of course. Where all the wheelchair users were, to make it easier to evacuate us in the event of an emergency. “You wanna hook a suitcase to my chair?” I asked my father.
He glanced at the pile of my luggage, then nodded. “That would be helpful.” I had what I thought were a ridiculous number of bags and boxes, but Mom had insisted I bring everything but the kitchen sink. I turned my chair around, presenting the back to Dad, and he hooked a rolling suitcase’s handle onto the back with a bungee cord.
I found my new room without problem—it wasn’t as if the dorm had changed in the past few months. One advantage to my new room was it had a bathroom, instead of having to use the communal bathrooms. Probably because other students tended to get grossed out by the bowel-care needs of paraplegic students.
My parents spent a couple of hours helping me unpack, then it was time to say our goodbyes. “You know you can come home to visit whenever you want to, right?” Mom asked.
“I know. I will,” I said, knowing that “whenever I wanted to” would be never. “I’ll see you at summer break, at the very least,” I offered in appeasement.
Mom didn’t look pleased at that, but before she could say more, the alarm on my phone beeped. I suppressed a groan. It was time to empty my bladder. “Ah. Well, that may be a sign that it’s a good time for us to leave,” Dad said awkwardly. He’d never been comfortable dealing with my toilet needs. Self-catheterization was no picnic, but at least I didn’t feel any discomfort from the process. Of course, I felt absolutely nothing at all from my dick, bad or good, which was a whole other set of problems, but dwelling on that would just lead to more depression.
“Right.” Mom bent down and gave me an awkward hug. I tried to ignore the tears standing in her eyes as she stood up. I held out my hand to Dad, and he gingerly shook it.
“Be well, son,” he said solemnly.
“Of course,” I said, with false cheer. “They’ll take good care of me here.”
They both flinched at that, and with a few more murmured words of love, they fled. Closing the door behind them, I sighed and rolled into the bathroom. I pulled a catheter out of the accessibly low medicine cabinet by the toilet. “Could be worse, I could be female,” I reminded myself, as I prepared to shove forty centimeters of slick plastic tubing up my urethra.
The next morning after breakfast I rolled out of the elevator onto the third floor, and rolled down to room 3-2. It felt odd to be back in the same room, but unfortunately I wouldn’t have the same teacher. Teachers at Yamaku stayed with their class for all three years of high school, so my old teacher was starting afresh with a first-year class this year. And everyone in my new class would have been together for two years already, unless there was another late arrival, like me.
Several people looked up at my entrance, but no one said anything to me. I vaguely recognized one guy, but I couldn’t remember why, or a name to go with his face. There was a desk with no chair in the front row, where the sleepy blue-haired girl used to sit. I cautiously maneuvered myself into place, bumping into the desk behind me as I did. Fortunately, whoever sat there wasn’t in class yet, so I didn’t disturb anyone. I smiled and nodded to the albino girl sitting to my left, but she just stared at me for a moment, then looked away.
Great. My reputation had preceded me.
I busied myself getting my books and pens out of my book bag. The last few students trickled in, and the teacher arrived just moments before the bell. She smiled when she saw me, an artificial looking smile, but at least not overtly hostile.
“So, welcome back, everyone, to the start of your third and final year. I hope you all had a pleasant spring break, and are ready to dive into preparations for the Center Tests.” That produced a collective groan from the class, which earned a smirk from the teacher. “Good, glad to hear you’re all looking forward to them.” My classmates chuckled at that; she and they seemed to have a good rapport. She paused and glanced down at something on her desk. “As I’m sure you’ve noticed, we have a new classmate this year.” She smiled at me, more warmly this time. “Would you like to introduce yourself?”
Déjà vu all over again. I nodded, and maneuvered out to the front of the class. I managed to get out without banging into any other desks along the way, which I hoped was a good omen. I spun in place, and gave my new classmates a wry smile. “Hello. Some of you may have heard of me as the idiot who got drunk and went diving off the roof of the academic building last year during the Festival...”