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I admit now that physically I am different, as I accepted my loss quite a while ago, and yet still there was a time when I always refused to let my situation hinder my capabilities. There was no obstacle that I couldn’t conquer, no boundary that I wouldn’t cross to reach my goals. I fought like hell and no one could hold me back, not unless they wanted an earful. So you can imagine how nothing annoyed me more than when my best friend Carl constantly doubted my strength. As an individual, I wanted to do things completely on my own, without having to lean on someone else’s shoulder. More than that, I wanted to be the one that others counted on and looked up to. This dream was complicated with Carl around. There was nothing that he wouldn’t do for me. It became insulting and humiliating, him treating me as if I weren’t as capable as he, like some baby that he needed to push around in a stroller just because I’m permanently stuck in my wheelchair. Of course, I never let him treat me as a child, but he offered both ceaselessly and insistently like a parrot that wouldn’t shut up no matter how many crackers you shoved in its mouth.
Life hadn’t always been so frustrating and terribly awkward. I used to be able to walk, run, and play sports just like any other guy my age. Carl and I were competitive with one another, always battling it out on the basketball court and beating each other up for amusement every now and then. I can’t lie and say that I don’t miss the old days—God, do I ever. There was nothing like the exhilarating feel of your legs racing forward, arms pumping at your side, and heart thrumming like a trapped bird wanting to fly out through your chest. The car accident that happened just over a year ago took it all away in the blink of an eye, and after the experience nothing was ever the same again—especially between Carl and I.
When I look back now, I think Carl completely blamed himself for my paralysis. Yet here’s the thing: The accident wasn’t his fault at all. The whole situation happened so fast that some of it seems to be a blur in my memory now. The terribly ironic part was that what was supposed to have been one of the greatest days of our lives was the one that ended everything we knew. We were heading into the city to watch the big league basketball playoffs when suddenly a car came swerving down the street and whammed into the right side of our SUV. I’ll never forget the black colour of the vehicle, or the look on Carl’s face when he saw me in my wheelchair for the first time and realized that although he was fine, I wasn’t. A drunk driver had hit us, coming out of nowhere like an invisible demon, but all Carl seemed to focus on was how he was the one driving. He and I were never the same again and because of one freak situation our friendship changed immensely.
At times the tension between us seemed unbearable, which resulted in days—even weeks—where we said little or nothing to one another. I grew more impatient with him as time passed and Carl grew worse. Just when I thought I might have to actually end our friendship our lives changed once more . . .
Carl and I were heading up the drive to our high school on a cool fall night, him walking quickly beside me as I spun my wheels hard and fast, always aiming to be a step ahead of him even in my chair. We arrived a bit later than planned; I had refused a ride since it was merely a few blocks. The air was filled with excitement as we found the brief walkway to the front of the large brick building, my wheels noisily crinkling the hard, crisp autumn leaves beneath. I could tell Carl was anxious, a thick sheen of sweat glittering over his blond brow and his smile hesitant. He wasn’t speaking as much as usual, which is saying something considering he didn’t speak a lot to begin with ever since the accident. At least the thrill of the basketball game was erasing some of the regular tension between us, and for that, I was grateful.
“Nervous about the game?” I inquired with a comforting smile.
“Not really. It’s the championships though so I want to beat them and play well, that’s all,” Carl said with a shrug. I knew he was trying to brush it off, always such a poor liar. The basketball game was for the finals and I knew he’d been practicing like mad. Heck, I was over at his place nearly every day going through exercises and drills with him. It was something we both originally had planned to take on together in the stadium, but my presence would simply need to be sufficient.
“You’ll do great Carl. Besides you will have me out there in the stands cheering like a wild animal,” I exclaimed with a few amusing antics and grunts. He threw back his head and laughed like he used to, then paused while he waited for me to press the button for the front door, and once more he trailed silently behind me. He knew better than to ask to hold the door for me. I’m not a girl.
Just when I thought he would let me off easy this one night he said, “You know I really wish you’d let me do something for you . . . Derek, you don’t always have to act like you’re alone.” I gave him the standard eye roll and tossed my head of raven black hair as a sign of annoyance. How many times had we been over this? I could feel a headache coming on just pondering the numerous ways in which he had crossed the boundary line. You would think that he would just give in and let me be, but of course not. He had already offered to push my chair halfway to the school so that I “wouldn’t get tired.” Gritting my teeth, I decided to let it all go without saying a word. I had chosen how I wanted to live my life. I didn’t need anyone to follow me around. Giving in was a sign of weakness, a word that had been erased in my dictionary with a sense of finality. I was better than my impairment and deserved to be respected—like before. I decided that my own definition of myself as both confident and independent was who I truly was and that nothing and no one could change me.
There were a few minutes of awkward silence when Carl hesitantly said, “Hey, I got to go my locker first” with his thumb hooked over his shoulder. Automatically, I realized that he’d probably forgotten his uniform the night before. I swear Carl would lose his head if it weren’t bolted down tight enough. We tore down the wide hallway on the left and up to the locker room entrance with me hot on his heels, both of us knowing that the game would start soon. The halls were occupied with a few couples and stray players making haste, but many were already jam packed in the meager excuse for a gymnasium. There were a few simple lights on in the halls, but the interior was dark considering there was an event going on. A single bright illumination could be seen pouring out from the gymnasium down the hall, like a flashlight’s beam in the darkness. Excitement seemed to linger in the glow.
Just outside the locker room doorway I stopped to watch Carl leap over a few steps into the room, his long legs bounding over the dark tiled floor to his dented locker. The room is one of the oldest in the school, the lockers a faded gray color with streaks of rust like dried blood caked to the hinges. The room itself is not overly large with a few lockers and closets filled with equipment like lacrosse sticks, extra basketballs, and jerseys that have a stench so terrible even us guys are grossed out. In the summer it gets so bad that they have to leave the door open. That night there was only one bench set up against the far wall for players to sit down and the lighting definitely wasn’t the best. Getting changed in the locker room was one thing that I didn’t miss about being involved in sports.
I shifted my gaze back to Carl, watching him toss the locker door open and swapping his shirts as quickly as manageable, then pulling his long corn-colored hair out of the collar of the standard gold and silver uniform tee. I hadn’t realized just how much he’d actually been practicing until I saw how lean he was. God, he wanted to win badly. Perhaps he felt obligated to do us both proud.
“You really think we’re going to win?” Carl blurted out suddenly while pulling out his water bottle and turning to face me with his brown eyes.
“Definitely,” I replied with an air of authority. A ghost of a smile spread across his face, but it was only satisfactory for me. The guy lacked faith and I was there to give it to him. “I’ll bet my wheels on it,” I added for effect. Carl grimaced slightly at the mention of my wheelchair, and I looked away. It seemed as though there was nothing I could say to make things right again. Absently, I glanced down at my watch and said with renewed interest, “But you will lose if you don’t hurry up! You need to warm up first.”
“Crap, yeah,” he muttered, slamming his locker shut and jamming his lock closed with an audible sound. Leaping back up the stairs like a man on a mission, he let out the breath that I knew he had been desperately holding and then said with exasperation, “Here goes nothing. I better run over to the gym Derek, so I’ll see you in the stands? . . . I can wait for you.”
“No, I’ll see you there in a bit,” I said with an encouraging grin despite the annoying offer. Nothing could spoil this night—absolutely nothing. “I’m going to wait here for a few minutes until all of the folks have piled in, then I won’t have to face the last set of stampeding elephants. Don’t wait up.”
“Okay, see ya,” he replied. In a flash my friend disappeared down the hall and through the gymnasium door. I could faintly see the outlines of parents lining up, with one of our other friends collecting tickets and pointing out seats. A buzz of conversation like a quiet hum was all I could hear. Figuring I had a minute or two to myself before the game began, I decided that I would turn around and perhaps refill my water bottle since I drank most of it on the way there. Undeniably, although my house wasn’t far, it took a lot of my effort to wheel myself up the hills. Of course Carl’s parents offered to drive but I kindly declined and Carl just as helpful as ever, had decided to accompany me.
Checking my watch once more, I realized that I would actually soon be running out of time, unless I left right then. With a quick hand movement, I spun my wheel fast, and unexpectedly, I felt my chair jerk hard against a sudden impact of weight. A small cry escaped through my lips as I felt my chair spin like a twister; the walls around me were a blur of white and gray. Struggling to grab the brake, I leaned over which sent the chair whirling back, catching in the doorway with such force that I tumbled out and over the three stairs, landing hard on the floor with a loud thud that rattled my bones. I swore and clenched my teeth to keep from making a sound, but I could feel a sharp pain passing through my spine from landing on my back.
“Derek? Oh man, I’m sorry,” a familiar voice said. With great exertion, I used the strength of my arms to pull myself upwards. A small whimper sneaked out between my lips when I twisted to see who sent me to the ground. It was one of the largest guys and best players on the team. His name escaped me but I had definitely seen him around before. He must have been racing to the game and ran into my chair accidentally. Before I could say a word, he maneuvered my chair out of the doorway and began to head down the steps toward me.
“I’m fine,” I said through my teeth, my hands balled up into round fists as I fought back the tears that came with not only the brief and sharp pain but also the humiliation. I hated the pity; the silent plea cast through his eyes—wanting to help—only made me feel nauseated. I couldn’t take two Carls, especially not then. “Seriously, just go.”
“I can’t leave you here,” he insisted, making a move to lift me up. Angered, I tried to shift out of his way, glaring up at him with mounting fury. I couldn’t take this kind of treatment anymore! It didn’t even matter that it wasn’t Carl. Couldn’t I just be the guy I was before?
“My friend will help me,” I lied to get him to leave me alone, so I could work out the mess on my own. He looked unconvinced. “For God’s sake, the game’s starting and my friend just went to get a drink . . . He’s coming right back,” I continued. I let out a sigh at the guy’s frozen legs. “I swear that if you don’t leave me alone . . .” I began, my voice steadily rising when I saw him reach for my arms once more. “Get your hands off me! NOW!” I yelled, my words slicing through the air like daggers. He staggered backwards with a startled sound.
Suddenly, I heard the horn signaling the start of the game from a few walls over. I could tell that he had recognized it too, his eyes flooding with indecision. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked softly, worry creasing his forehead with wrinkles.
“I’m fine. Go!” I breathed, my voice laced with heated anger and disguised pain; eyes as cold as marbles. He knew I meant what I said and with a start he leapt out through the doorway, glanced at me briefly, and then disappeared out of my sight.
I could faintly hear the crowd shouting from the gymnasium; the game had begun. With a gasp I tried to pull myself upwards, gripping onto the tiled stairs. Thank God I hadn’t landed on my good leg, I thought to myself. It was my right that was paralyzed. I needed to hurry before Carl realized I was missing. He needed to win the game, plus I knew that he would send the militia after me—something I definitely didn’t need at the time. I was hoping that maybe he would forget about me for a few minutes, but also knew that eventually he would realize I wasn’t present. I had to get there and fast. We had been talking about this game ever since freshman year, and now as finally seniors, I wasn’t about to let him down.
I managed to stumble upwards after a few minutes of struggle, when my back was seized with a sharp, fleeting pain as my spine straightened. Caught with a mixture of surprise and a lack of balance, I felt myself stagger and without a handrail to catch hold on, I grabbed onto the handle of the closet beside the steps in an effort to break my fall. My good knee buckled and I felt my weight crash down to the left, fingers left caught in the handle, which was inevitably pulled down, jarring the door open with my body. There was only enough time to hear the explosion of sound as the piles of gear stuffed full in the closet, left precariously on a few high weak shelves, all collapsed like a mighty avalanche. Throwing my arms up, I tried to shield my face but the equipment and onslaught of shelves came too fast, landing on me like a series of punches, pitching my head back against the floor with a sound that echoed throughout the cavernous room.
A delayed scream tore out from my throat upon the impact. Feebly, I struggled to move my arms, to grip my throbbing head but I couldn’t feel anything and it was so dark. Why can’t I see anything? Could the equipment, shelves and thick jerseys cover my face completely? I wondered. Sucking in a breath of air, I tried to wiggle my arms out from under the pile but they were so weak. A harsh voice in my mind told me that I shouldn’t have used all of my energy wheeling myself to the school. I would have possibly been able to at least lighten the load. A flood of thoughts raced through my head: If only I’d let . . . No. I’m going to get myself out of this mess. I had done it for a long time now. However, my arms were pinned to the floor, my legs limp and numb.
I began to realize that the darkness was getting heavier, enveloping me like a cocoon. It was as if I was being sucked into a gaping black hole, stuck on the precipice of having been swallowed whole . . . My face had never been covered entirely. All too quickly I understood. My consciousness was fading in and out like a flashing screen, threatening to pull me under; only I couldn’t let it. Carl . . . Something about him . . . I struggled to remember, forced my eyes to stay open as I felt the distant cascade of unwanted tears pool down my face in a mess of salt water. A few moments later, I couldn’t feel anything and I didn’t know where I was anymore. I knew that my mind was screaming at me to yell, to use every ounce of what I had left to cry out before it was too late and I could no longer resurface from the nightmare.
I was drowning and I felt like everything was closing in, my heart sounding wildly in my heaving chest and also drumming in my ears. My lungs ached and I couldn’t breathe with all of the crap on me. Someone hear me, I pleaded mentally. Just come and save me. Fool, it’s too late, a voice in my head yelled back.
Amidst the agony and darkness I could suddenly see images bubbling up from the depths and taking on familiar shapes to form a distant memory . . . It was junior year and I was arguing with Carl, telling him that I wouldn’t be his friend until he gave me more space. I noticed the pain in my friend’s eyes, his outstretched hand; I pushed it away . . . The brief but haunting memory dissipated from my vision.
I never felt so weak before, completely and utterly alone. I didn’t want to feel this way but I couldn’t call out to anyone either. How could I reach out for the hands I so often ignored? Would they even bother to catch me anymore? It would mean losing everything that I worked so hard to achieve. Yet the darkness . . . was coming. That’s when it hit me: I had led myself alone in the darkness too long and I needed someone to restore the light. I was broken on both the inside and outside, and the pieces couldn’t be put together with merely my own hands. I had spent a large portion of my time trying to piece my life together so that I could be strong and normal without realizing that the largest piece was the one that was there all along. It was my last chance to fill the empty space—before it was irreparable forever. I needed to let people in so that my life could be complete. How could I continue to waste my time trying to attain what was beyond my grasp and denying what was held out to me?
Yet some part of me still disregarded the truth. Sure there were rough patches in my life, but I had made it on my own. Could I keep that up forever? It was so hard—and I was terribly weak. I could feel the darkness pulling at me, urging me into its grasp with a haunting whisper. It terrified me. All I wanted was my best friend. In that instant I made my decision. With a gasping breath, I gulped in air and let out a wild scream.
The sound rung through my ears and I didn’t quit until I heard a pounding of feet off in the distance. It would be enough for them to save me in time, and with that last hope, I slipped into the darkness.
Upon opening my eyes, I felt a wash of relief, as I found the blurry image of Carl and his parents leaning over me, the pile of equipment and broken shelves stacked off to the side. I must have only been out for a few minutes for I saw Carl’s father spewing out the school address into his cell phone. The darkness was still there though, a heavy haze across my vision. There was a stream of cool water pouring over my face and I felt that my head was propped up on Carl’s knee.
“The game—said I’d be there for you,” I mustered out in an agonizing whisper that seemed to sap all of my energy.
Carl smiled and then told me, “Don’t worry about it. It was nice to have your back for once.”