Melanie S. Hatter

All the Pain We Endure
an excerpt

          A dull throb pulsed on the soles of each foot, and she scolded herself for letting her sneakers wear out before buying new ones. Rae decided to pick up some insoles from the pharmacy on her way home to make the shoes last a bit longer. She was glad to be finishing with her last client. She’d worked a full day at the spa and was ready to go home. As she waited for the customer to come out of the room, Allison came up the hall from the front desk to say she’d added one more client to Rae’s schedule for a ninety-minute massage.
           “He’ll be here in about fifteen minutes.”
           Rae cut her eyes at Allison. “Why me?”
           “Keisha’s already gone and Daniela’s got to get her kid from daycare. I’m sorry, but he’s military. It’s a last-minute anniversary gift from his wife. I couldn’t say no.”
           Rae huffed. She’d already put in five hours of massage and the thought of adding another ninety minutes exhausted her. Still, she cleaned up the room and got it ready for one more. When she entered the waiting area, a broad-shouldered man with a dirty blond crew cut stood with his back to her, looking out the glass door at the slow-moving traffic on U Street. He’s probably hard as a rock, she thought. She took his intake form from Allison and read the scribbled words he’d written: his name was Scott, aged 24, Army Sergeant First Class, and she stopped at “double amputee.” Shame filled her at having been annoyed by this unexpected addition. She called his name and he turned. Dark shadows circled his eyes and he offered her a weary smile.
           “I’ve never had a massage before,” he said.
           “Well, all you have to do is relax,” she said, leading him to the room. “I’ll do the rest.”
           She explained the protocol—undress to his comfort level and lay face down on the table under the sheet—and left him to get ready. As she washed her hands at the sink, she took a few deep breaths and promised to give him the best massage she could. It was the least she could do. In the room, seeing the two prosthetic legs leaning against the chair took her breath away, as did the outline of his shortened body under the cover.
           He was a brawny man with broad shoulders and thick muscles in his back and likely had been over six feet tall. His right leg was cut at the knee and his left at mid-thigh. She stared at the stumps, afraid to touch them, afraid of what she didn’t know, of what she would feel. She asked if he was comfortable having his shortened limbs massaged. “Sure,” he said, giving in to the experience.
           She braced herself, as if touching his amputated legs would infect her with a debilitating plague. Her job was to bring comfort and relief, she reminded herself. She slid her hand across the stump expecting him to react—a groan or a shift in position—but he remained still. The skin was cool, and lumpy in places where the scar tissue had thickened. Her baseless fear subsided as she worked, gently circling her thumbs over his limbs.
           Rae didn’t ask what happened but could feel the trauma within him, roiling like shards of glass slicing at his psyche, drawing blood against memories of war and the terror it wrought. Agitated emotions unwilling to settle beneath her palms. She felt the agony of loss, made heavier with the guilt of surviving. She forced herself to breathe and encouraged him to take long deep breaths, too, until his heart and the chaos inside him calmed. His body relaxed enough that he dozed, and she took her time massaging his arms, shoulders, and neck, ending with gentle pressure on his forehead and temple. She advised him to take his time getting up. “I’ll have some water for you when you come out.”
           Rae washed up and waited in the hallway. When he finally appeared, Scott gave her a wide smile and said, “That was pretty awesome.”
           “Come back any time,” she said, relieved and watched him walk down the hall, his prosthetic legs hidden beneath khaki pants.
           As she cleaned up the room, Allison came and leaned in the doorway. “He was really happy,” she said.
           “I’m sorry I was so shitty earlier,” Rae said, feeling the shame turn in her stomach. “My feet were killing me, and then … Really puts things in perspective.”
           Allison nodded. “It does, but no worries. Appreciate you staying late.”
           Rae took her time cleaning the room. When she stepped out onto the street, the traffic was minimal, and she walked to the bus stop almost appreciating the pain radiating through her feet. A tangible sensation she could ease with a warm soak, some rest, and new shoes.
           She wished she could have done more for Scott, wished she could have erased the horrors haunting his mind. He held a different kind of ache from the hurt she carried. But Rae knew her hands had barely touched the surface of his pain.

Melanie S. Hatter is an award-winning author of two novels and one short story collection. Her most recent novel, Malawi’s Sisters, was selected by Edwidge Danticat as the winner of the inaugural Kimbilio National Fiction Prize and was published by Four Way Books in 2019. Her debut novel, The Color of My Soul, won the 2011 Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Prize, and Let No One Weep for Me, Stories of Love and Loss was released in 2015. She is a participating author with the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools program and serves on the board of the Washington Writers’ Publishing House.