On a night that should be one of the happiest and most memorable of his life, Ben Bright, a senior at New York's Eastport High School, is a bundle of nerves. Seemingly, Ben has everything going for him—he is smart and talented, and will be playing the lead role of Tony in the drama department's production of West Side Story, which is opening momentarily. He also has a solid relationship with classmate Ariela Cruz, who, in a convenient reflection of reality, is cast as Maria, his love interest in the musical. Ben recognizes his good fortune, and wishes that he could just savor the moment. He has a secret though, which he has resolved to keep until tomorrow. He is determined not to ruin the experience of this very special night for his loved ones, which is exactly what will happen if they find out that instead of going off to college and an exceptionally bright future as expected, Ben Bright has enlisted in the United States Army.
Junior Niko Petropoulos, Ben's best friend, is at first mystified by his fellow thespian's edginess, then correctly guesses its cause. When he demands to know the truth—that Ben has received his notification papers—his friend does not deny it. Niko angrily accuses Ben of wasting his talents, by giving up everything "to fight a war [the country] never should have gotten into."
Despite the distractions, the production that night is magnificent, with Ben in particular executing his part flawlessly. The cast gathers at a local Chinese restaurant afterwards to celebrate, and Ms. Moglia, the drama teacher, tells Ben that he has caught the eye of a friend of hers who is a Hollywood director, and who is casting "a new teen TV show." Surprised by Ben's muted reaction to this news, the woman asks him if something is wrong. Ben tells her the truth, but she does not believe him.
The evening ends inauspiciously when Niko, unable to restrain himself, tells Ariela what Ben has done. The girl is furious, and argues vehemently with Ben that what he is doing is wasteful and masochistic. She tells him that he is devaluing himself by allowing the United States to put him in a...
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September 15 begins inauspiciously, when at 7:13 a.m., just ten minutes after Charlie Company comes out of the wire, the sound of an explosion rends the sky. Ben Bright, nicknamed "Broadway" because of his singing abilities, is walking beside the Humvee when the noise erupts, and he drops to the ground, taking in a mouthful of sand. In the silence that follows, Ben takes a quick, instinctive inventory of his condition as he has been trained, then heaves a sigh of relief as he hears his friend Private "Hayseed" Bolcomb berating the driver of the Humvee, "Da Bronx" Mendez. Bronx, who ironically is the only one in the group who never learned how to drive in civilian life, has caused the vehicle to backfire: the blast is a false alarm.
Charlie Company, led by Lieutenant Leonard "Nails" Nelson, includes Broadway Ben, Hayseed, Bronx, Governator (who looks like a young Schwarzenegger), Johnson, Hideki, and the gunner, Katrina Westhof, who is affectionately called "Catwoman." The group has only recently finished basic training, and has been deployed to Iraq on a mission to win the "hearts and minds" of the locals. As Ben continues on, simultaneously scanning the road ahead while participating in lighthearted banter with Hayseed, he reflects on the impossible dreadfulness of their commission. They are supposed to be here to help scared, angry people who have no way of envisioning the better world the soldiers have been sent to bring to fruition, one that includes "schools for girls, power plants, crops, construction, new markets, real freedom." Instead, the locals' perception is limited by the reality in which they live, one which is characterized by "no electricity or running water, practically no medical care, and the Sunnis breathing down their backs." The foreign troops are most often seen as interlopers, and if even one Al Qaeda insurgent is in the vicinity, then "everybody suffer[s]."
As the Humvee rolls into a village and the soldiers try to be friendly, nodding amiably to the suspicious denizens, Catwoman's voice...
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The Brights are celebrating Chris's fifteenth birthday with Niko when they receive a call informing them that Ben has been injured. The officer on the line says that Ben's condition is stable; he has "some shrapnel in both legs, but no loss of limbs, no severe internal tissue wounds." The "size and proximity" of the blast, however, has put him into a "temporary coma," with signs of TBI, or "Traumatic Brain Injury." According to the officer, it will take some time to determine the extent of the damage to Ben's brain, which may manifest itself in memory loss, mood swings, loss of muscle control, and issues with sensory perception. Ben is being flown to Walter Reed Hospital, and the family is asked to meet him there.
Ariela is rushing to a cram session at the Midwest's Chase College library when she receives the call from Niko. She has been at Chase for a month, and though it has been difficult for her to adjust, with her fiance fighting a war, she is just beginning to feel comfortable at the small, nurturing educational institution. When Ariela hears her friend's "distant and bloodless" voice, she knows something terrible has happened. Niko tells her that Ben has been hurt, and that the family is going to see him in Washington; he has already booked a flight for her to join them.
On September 17, two days after the explosion, Ben's loved ones gather around his inert body, anxiously searching for signs that he is all right. Though he cannot respond, Ben is dimly aware of the activity around him, which he perceives in bits and pieces: "Noises and voices. Hear. Yes. Voices loud." After visiting with him briefly, the stunned group confers with a physician, Doctor Parini, who explains that Ben will likely have "thoughts, memories, but they will be like a code that he can't crack for a while." Ben will see "hints of things [he] once recognized instantly," but his perceptions will be clouded; he will have lost "control of what [he] know[s]." Niko is chilled by the incongruity between the doctor's friendly, informational attitude and the devastating news she is delivering. Mr. and Mrs. Bright look haggard, and Chris, as he is wont to do when...
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By November 11, almost two months after the explosion that upended his life, Ben Bright is at a facility in Palo Alto, California, for rehabilitation. The manifestations of his traumatic brain injury are severe; his memory and perceptions are significantly impacted. Although he thinks that he is communicating, he is unable to express himself in a manner which can be understood by others. His doctors and therapists praise his efforts, but progress is painstakingly slow. As part of his rehabilitation, Ben is working on a memory book, but he can manage to produce only an illegible scribble in response to his caregivers' prompts.
At Chase College, Ariela has a difficult time as Christmas draws near in December. She has been receiving regular reports about Ben's progress from his parents, and their upbeat tone has filled her with hope, but everything changes as the holiday season, which in the past had stood for "everything good" about life, now reminds her of how different and uncertain things are. While walking alone to sort out her feelings one chilly afternoon in the wooded area surrounding the campus, she meets Jared, a young man from a neighboring college who shares her interest in singing and musical theater. The two spend time talking over coffee and some snacks, and when Jared leaves, Ariela is troubled. During the entire time she had spent with her new friend, she had not once mentioned Ben.
During his therapy session with Dr. Larsen on December 30, Ben manages to scribble something resembling his name, but the process is laborious and painful. The doctor asks a series of simple questions, and instructs his patient to respond with a verbal "yes" or "no," but although the young soldier feels as if he is complying, his vocalizations are not what he intends. The same thing happens when Dr. Larsen tells Ben to show his response with a nod or a shake of his head; although Ben thinks he is doing what is asked, he cannot make himself...
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It is now March, six months after the blast that injured Ben. The progress he has made in his rehabilitation is evident in his memory book; although his writing and spelling abilities are like those of a young child in the early stages of literacy development, he is able to provide legible, meaningful answers to simple questions. He is also learning to navigate with a walker, but still needs help with rudimentary tasks like going to the bathroom. Ben is frequently frustrated with the slow pace of his recovery, especially in the area of verbal communication. He can speak using intelligible words in short sentences, but while he usually knows exactly what he wants to express and believes that he is doing so clearly, in reality, the...
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By the beginning of August, Ben is able to write short entries in his memory book. He is also finding that if he follows Dr. Larsen's recommendations to plan out the exact words he is going to say, and then to listen for each word as it comes out of his mouth, people are more likely to understand what he wants to express. Mr. Bright comes to visit, and though Ben gives him a card he has prepared, and hugs him as directed, he does not remember the man as his father.
Dr. Larsen has talked a lot with Ben about family relationships, and concepts such as love and trust. The young soldier trusts Dr. Larsen, and wishes that he was his father. Ben is frightened and bewildered because, in a few days, he will be going "home" to...
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In November, Hayseed, Ben's friend and fellow soldier from his deployment in Iraq, comes for a visit. Hayseed lost a leg in the same blast in which Ben sustained his brain injury, but the trauma has done nothing to dampen his blithe spirit. Hayseed tells funny jokes and is always willing to help, a trait which endears him to Mrs. Bright. He often says that his old friend has "not changed a bit," which in an ironic way is comforting to Ben.
Hayseed and Ben go to Waldbaum's supermarket together. Mr. Bright, who has driven them, waits in the minivan because Hayseed insisted that he and Ben do the shopping alone. As a therapeutic exercise, Ben has memorized their shopping list, and Hayseed hops over to get the first...
(The entire section is 684 words.)