Robert Walters wakes before dawn. He lays there, the lights out, listening to the night noises of the hospital. They come in hushed hurry. Soft footfalls, scattered chatter, the squeak of a stretcher as it rolls past on its way to the emergency ward.
By day, Robert watches the other patients. Two men kneel by their dying father, holding hands and whipping tears from their eyes. A half-gone women babbles amongst the hissing and sighing of Latin prayers. There is a child by the corner. Injured at the last bombing, she reads in the winter sunlight.
Sometimes, Robert receives visits from the Leather Man. Against the pale pallet of the hospital, the Leather Man’s hair is red like wildfire. He dances around chanting, in well-worn clothes he slinks up to the patients. He prowls around their beds and makes animal noises. Panther, cheetah, lion! He says, and then with a roar, squats in the middle of ward and shakes his fiery mane.
To this the patients clap and laugh and cry. Robert keeps silent. There was a day when the Leather Man came to him, in the quiet hours, when the others were asleep. He lent in and said, “It’s your fault ‘Old Boy’. Know that, and don’t you ever forget it.”
The Doctor tells Robert that they need to operate.
“We’ll drug you up nice and proper.” He says. “With any luck there won’t be any pain. If all goes well then you should be able to use your arms again.”
To this, Robert just nods silently. He can hear the Latin prayers once more, and when the Doctor is gone, mumbles along with the incoherent tongue.
The surgery is bright and smells of antiseptic. The anesthetist is walking around the room. He holds a syringe up to the light and checks the measurements. He then turns to Robert and says, “one prick of this and you won’t remember a thing.”
Robert feels the needle as it slips into his flesh. The room begins to sink. Water quickly fills the surgery, churning and rising around him. Surgical gloves lap against his skin. The scattered hospital talk becomes a dull thump against his ears. The nurses, far above him, move their lips, but the words? Robert can’t make out the words. The sea keeps rising. It swallows him whole. Robert soon finds that he has fallen deep below the ocean. Sea creatures swim around him. The ocean begins to compress his body until Robert once again stands on that tiny wooden platform above a seething crowd of people.
It was the last trick of the night, a layout double twist. Robert runs the sequence through his head. He would make the catch; he would be upside-down, holding at the knees. His son Walt would come from the opposite swing. At the highest point he would fly up, above Robert’s line of sight. He would preform one backwards rotation and two clockwise twists. He would then fall straight down and Robert would catch his wrists. Together they would swing back, forward, Robert would release and Walt would return to his bar.
Drum roll. A cymbal crash, and Robert jumps.
His weight pulls him down into space then up and out over the arena. He kicks; straight legs, tense thighs. Back, forward and back again. Robert meets Walt in the middle and locks eyes with his son.
They were ready.
Robert kicks up. His knees lock around the bar, hands release and the arms fall free. The heads of the crowd slide into view, then the front stage lighting, and finally Walt once more.
He calls the shot, “hup!”
Robert hears Walt let go of the bar, feels the breeze as the body flies up above him. He can’t see the trick but from the crowd come the screams of children. Walt drops in front of him. Robert grabs his wrists. The catch is true. When they hit the bottom of the swing Walt’s full weight pulls against him. Robert can feel it in his shoulders, hot along his neck. It’s fierce. Robert’s right shoulder is wrenched out of the joint. He screams and lets go of his son’s wrist. Walt dangles for a moment but manages to reach up and grab Robert’s left arm with both hands.
The pain is sharp and fast, burning in his shoulder. Robert tries to pull Walt up. They can’t make the jump back with only one good arm. He can feel his son’s hands, slick against his skin. The bastard hadn’t chalked up before the jump. Walt starts kicking, legs flailing this way and that. All of this keeps pulling, pulling against Robert’s shoulder. He feels the pop. Hears it in his skull. The bone dislocates. It drops down and out. The pain. Hot. Sharp. Wild. Nerves crying out Mercy! Mercy! You can’t do this, Mercy! Robert’s lets his hand go free, feels his son claw at his skin. He watches the body fall head over heals to earth.
After the operation Robert wakes to the sounds of the Leather Man. He lies once more in the hospital bed. The sheeting is tight against his skin. Bandages and braces hold his shoulders in place. He can move his legs, and toes. There is a tiny bit of feeling in the palm of his left hand.
The Leather Man stalks over. “Oh look, oh look, oh look.” He says. “The crippled one is finally awake! Tell us ‘Old Boy’, how do your feel? Your arms, your hands, your fingers, can you move them? Did the Doctor fix you well? Will you once again fly on that magical trapeze?”
Robert tries to clench his fists. There is a moment when he thinks he can do it, but fails. He struggles to lift his arms. Nothing. He lies there, wheezing.
“’Old Boy’, you can’t! ‘Old Boy’, you can’t! Look everyone, the ‘Old Boy’ can’t!” The Leather Man laughs and dances around the room.
That night, Robert has dreams of his son. He can see Walt as a child, playing in the garden. He runs to Robert with outstretched arms and grass-stained trousers. Robert picks him up and spins him around. He looks into Walt’s eyes, and then reels back. Reflected there, in the iris of his son, is the smiling face of the Leather Man.