Turtle Shell

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My Friend -SonReal


I was awake for a long time before I could finally peel my eyes open. The light in the room was soft and golden and as my head slowly stopped spinning, I could hear a soft, steady beeping and the hum of a TV on low volume. I raised a hand to my face and a length of IV tubing came with it. Trying to turn to see where it led, I quickly realized that my neck was locked in place by a stiff, plastic brace. Panic began to bubble up my throat as wave after wave of confusion washed over me. I couldn't figure out where I was. I couldn't even turn my head to look and see what was around me. I felt a tear roll down my temple and into my ear as I stared at the ceiling and choked down a sob.

Then, a soft voice floated into the room. "Ben?" It was my mom. She tapped over to the side of my bed in her high heels and looked down at me. Her red-lipsticked mouth broke into a smile filled with relief and tenderness. "Oh Benji, you're awake!" she cried, setting everything in her arms down somewhere out of my peripheral vision. "Do you want to sit up, babe?" she asked. My tongue felt like it was glued to the roof of my mouth but I managed the tiniest nod. I felt myself begin to rise up and a blade of pain ran down my back. A small cry slipped out of my mouth before I could stop it. My mom gasped a little and dropped the bed control remote back into the mattress.

My mouth had come unstuck. "What happened?" I asked, my voice coming out rocky and quiet. Looking sadder than before, she reached out and took one of my hands in hers. "Do you remember anything at all, Benji?" I racked my brain, trying to grasp onto flashes of memory. "Um, there was a party," it came out as a question when I hadn't really meant it to, "Hannah and I fought and then I left. With, uh, the new kid and his cool girl." She nodded sadly.
"You were hit by another car. You were in the backseat and your seatbelt wasn't on quite right. They said your neck must've probably moved too quickly and it messed up your spine somehow. Your thoracic vertebrae. Anyway, they did surgery and put some pins in there to keep everything where it should be. You've been in and out of consciousness for a couple days now."

All this information hit me like I was I that car all over again. More and more pieces of a memory we're starting to come together. It was like figuring out the world's most infuriating jigsaw puzzle, but bit by bit it was coming back to me. I could see Jey's face bathed in the yellow wash of streetlights just before everything went black again. I felt like I had mostly fit the pieces of that night back together when a team of nurses and doctors came into my room. I was officially filled in on my medical situation and my neck brace was removed ceremoniously.

They kept me in the hospital for another week, bringing my time to a total of 11 days according to my mom. During that time, they fitted me with a hard plastic brace that Thomas took to calling my turtle shell. He and Zoe brought me a stuffed turtle the next day and we all giggled over it. I had a few other visitors in and out, too. The guys came, awkwardly standing around my bed and taking turns making hurried eye contact. Simon had brought my mom a bouquet of crumpled carnations which he gave her with a charming smile. I rolled my eyes at this. Simon Fleet was the kind of kid parents loved. Between his participation in several sports, nearly flawless GPA, and acceptance two Ivy League schools, I used to joke that my mom would swap us if us Mrs. Fleet would only agree to it.

Every time I heard a knock on the door, i found myself hoping, just a little bit, that Jorge would come in. I hadn't seen him at all since the accident but TJ had told me that he and Aspen had been much better off than I had and neither of them had stayed in the hospital very long. Still, I was surprised to find myself thinking about Jorge a lot. I remembered vividly the way his face looked when he and Aspen had come to sit with me in that dimly lit bedroom at Trevor's. He had smiled so softly at me and his face seems to radiate peace. It had calmed the ringing in my ears for a few moments.

On my second to last day in the hospital, Aspen showed up late in the afternoon. I was propped up in bed, my brace forcing me to sit so straight my neck aches. My mom and I were watching Dr. Phil on the tiny TV mounted on the wall. She shoved open the door with a heavy black boot and stood at the end of my bed. Her lip was crusted with a scab and both her arms bruised deeply. A bandage covered nearly her whole nose but the same fire was in her eyes as always. "Hey, dum dum," she said, glancing over at my mom, "wear a seatbelt much?" I tried to hold back a laugh, but it slipped out anyway. "At least I still look good," I countered, tapping my own nose with one finger.
"Small price to pay for the cool crooked nose I'll get to keep forever." She sat down near my feet and picked at a loose thread on the blanket. "I'm glad you're okay, Benji," she said very softly, "I don't think I could've lived with myself if you weren't."
"Aspen, it wasn't your fault. The other guy hit you!"
"I know but...I was driving. I dunno I just feel real guilty is all."
We were both quiet for a long time. "Where's Jey?" I finally asked.  Her shoulders slumped a little and she sucked her lip in thoughtfully. "His mom's not really, uh, letting him out of the house," she sighed, "I haven't seen him, really. Except at school. I guess this whole thing really rattled her."
"I get that," I nodded, "but...do you think you could give me his phone number? I kinda want to talk to him." Aspen cracked a mischievous smile, "oh yeah?" I felt my cheeks heat up. "Um, yeah," I stuttered, "you know, just see how he's doing. Maybe catch up on some school work. That kind of stuff."

Aspen was still smiling as she scribbled the phone number down on a gum wrapper she pulled from her pocket. She handed it to me, then stood up, waving goodbye, and excused herself from the room. Looking down, I noticed Aspen had written not only Jey's phone number, but tiny little hearts floating up from his name. Rolling my eyes, I put his number in my phone. Then, staring at the screen for a long second, I added a little yellow heart emoji after his name.

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