Theo at 3 [story] by Maureen O’Brien

At three in the morning, Theo longed to hear water running over rocks. He had been on Ward 57 for seven months, but today he was finally getting his legs. As he watched the second hand go around the big clock at the end of his bed, he pressed the button and rose up at an angle. He stopped the movement before it whirred all the way up, straight-backed. If he let it go too far, he toppled face-forward.

The nurses skipped taking his vitals, believing that he slept. It was the only solitude he had now and he ached for it. He needed time alone with his new body, laying his hands over the blanket on his half-thighs, feeling what remained, what was lost. Through a bendy straw in a Styrofoam cup, he sucked up every drop of melted ice but was still wild with thirst.

He tried to remember the sound of water flowing through the lower reservoir where he used to jog. Now he could barely heave himself into his wheelchair to go three feet into the bathroom, let alone get to a brook by himself. Fields of wildflowers, public parks, reservoirs and watersheds: he was cut off from all of them. He believed that someday he would toddle with blue legs toward floodwaters. But this was his body now, at 3:07. Stale air blew out vents. Nurses rolled IV poles through the tawny night.


He dozed as the sun came up and when he woke he could feel her: Franka was out there, beyond Walter Reed, running in her black pumps. He knew she was wearing her hose. That’s what she called them, “hose,” not pantyhose. She would never go into the world with her bare legs exposed without them. All American girls bitched about pantyhose but it was different when you were from Prague like Franka. Though he cannot recall the bomb detonating under his Hummer, he remembers months before the deployment how she had fallen back on his bed, feet in the air, one leg twined around the other.

She had lifted her calves into the sky with her hands behind her head, her long blonde hair spread out over the pillow. He had grabbed the high heel of one of her pumps and tugged a bit to pull it off, tossing it in the middle of the room. He did the same to the other one as she giggled like a girl. In one swift movement she pulled her hose off as if she had removed a skin she no longer needed, and without it, she lay beneath him trembling.

The morning Theo was to get his legs, he sensed the vibrations that her feet made upon the sidewalks in the city as she trotted, passing people and bumping into them, knocking them off their stride. They forgave her because she was a gorgeous sight. A tall blonde Czech in a short skirt dashing about in black heels. They assumed she was late for an appointment, a meeting, a bus; that she was breathless from trying to catch up.

But Franka had nowhere to go. She had flown to D.C. after Theo was airlifted out of Iraq but she had not stepped foot into Walter Reed. Friends told him that the morning they were going to reunite, another wounded man exited the electronic front doors of the hospital wearing mesh basketball shorts over two prosthetic legs like blue metal bones. He had new sneakers on the ends of his legs and as he walked by Franka she could not tell if the squeaking noise came from his legs or his new shoes. She stood on the sidewalk, triggering the doors so that they repeatedly slid open and shut.

“Come inside or leave,” the guards insisted.

She had run, then, straight to D.C.’s seediest dives, Theo’s girlfriend, “the hot one.” He didn’t need the reports from other soldier’s girlfriends and wives who had spied her. He felt her out there, wasted, swaying in dim bar light.


Now he waited. His physical therapist came for him. “What is your pain today,” she asked. They asked it of all the soldiers every day. It was a joke. A ten. The highest. He had pushed himself too hard that week in preparation for his legs. But he wanted the legs that day. He lied and assured her that his pain was only “a five.”

The parallel bars in the PT room awaited him. The air grew tense as his friends tried to be lighter, sillier, to counteract the edginess. It was going to be excruciating for Theo and everyone understood that. He began to weep at the thought of being able to stand. Sergeant Gloria gave him his pep talk as she lined him up, slipped the socks over his stumps, whispered to him “Alright now, alright now.” Close up the titanium legs were deep blue with a milky light swimming in their shine.

Theo heard his mother by the free weights cheering for him like she used to cheer at his soccer games, at lacrosse, when he was dashing around in the field dodging and scoring and recognizing her voice among the crowd. He heard her now, “Go Theo! C’mon Theo! You can do it!”

And his other friends, Kimball from his own wheelchair as he pumped twenty pound weights, Luke practicing with his new arm with the pincers, grabbing Nerf balls out of one bowl and placing them in another. “Go baby,” they shouted, as if he was about to score and their whole team would win.

Theo felt himself being lifted from behind as he and Gloria had practiced and then she tilted him and suddenly he was standing in his legs and his pain was so great he broke into a sweat, gritted his teeth, cried out. He could feel the whole room holding its breath, biting its lip, holding it all in, but at the same time bearing down, and he grabbed the parallel bars and he closed his eyes tight and leaned to the right and there it was a slide of the left foot he thought he would shatter but he could feel the whole room opening wider and both his arms were convulsing as he dipped to the left and his right leg moved an inch. And he was, at that moment, walking forward, walking forward to find her.



Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” ― F. Scott FitzgeraldThe Crack-Up.]  Editor’s note: this story also resonates with Rebecca McClanahan’s essay in this issue, “Gingko Song.”]

Image by John Hubbard

Maureen O’Brien teaches creative writing at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. Her novel b-mother (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) sold to the Lifetime Movie Channel and was translated into German and Italian. Her poetry chapbook, The Other Cradling (Finishing Line Press), received an Honorable Mention in the Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award from the New England Poetry Club. O’Brien was the recipient of the first Patricia Dobler Poetry Award which included a trip to Ireland to study with Irish writers, and in 2011 she received First Prize in the New Millennium Poetry Contest. Her story “Sequins and Holes” was runner-up in Many Mountains Moving flash fiction contest. She has received fiction grants from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Her work has appeared in magazines and anthologies including  Red Rock Review, The Louisville Review, The Southern Women’s Review, and most recently in About Place and The Cancer Poetry Project 2.

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