Before (May-July) Summary
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 position where "some faceless jackass with a black market AK-47" can do him in. Naively, Ben counters that he will not be going to war; he is only volunteering for the reserve. It is something he has thought about all his life—he believes that "kids with privilege and skills and talent" like...
(The entire section is 874 words.)
During (September 15) Summary
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 calls out urgently, "Eleven o'clock! Eleven o'clock!" Ben spots the reason for the alarm, a canvas sack by the side of the road—a seemingly innocuous piece of trash which could be hiding an IED. He raises his rifle, searching the area for untoward movement, usually a man with a cell phone in his hand which could activate an IED and send the deadly metal it contains hurtling through the air to wreak destruction on...
(The entire section is 834 words.)
After (September 16-19) Summary
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 agitated, chatters incessantly, then just rocks, banging his chair rhythmically against the wall.
Everyone's nerves are on edge on the ride back to New York. A jumble of thoughts careen through Ariela's mind; she had felt relief at seeing Ben's face, which was "blessedly...
(The entire section is 885 words.)
After (November-December) Summary
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 understood. The doctor remains positive, praising his patient profusely at any sign of progress, and near the end of the session, shows him pictures of his family, who will be visiting the next day. Ben does not recognize the people in the photographs, and he grows increasingly frustrated. His mind is full of questions that he cannot express:
Why am I here...Are those people really my family...Why don't I know them...Tell me what happened to me...Somebody,...
(The entire section is 745 words.)
After (March-May) Summary
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 words he utters are most often not what he intends.
As Ben continues his grueling journey back to health, Ariela's first year at Chase College draws to a close. One evening in May, during finals week, she has dinner with her friend Jared. The past semesters have been brutal for Ariela; on top of her worry about Ben and bewilderment at her own mixed feelings about a future which is frightening and uncertain at best, she has had to adjust to college life, and her grades have plummeted. Through it all, "wonderful, sweet Jared Combs" has been there to offer companionship and support. In a few days, Ariela will be leaving to spend the summer back in New York—back to waiting and wondering, anxiety and guilt. She will not see Jared again until the fall.
A song comes on which is new and exciting, and the two students spontaneously get up to dance. Jared acts as he has all year, "not pushy, not too sexual, seemingly okay with things the way they [are]." When the number ends, the boy, having paid for the beers which they are leaving untouched. guides Ariela away from the bar, knowing she has had a little too much to drink. He walks her back to her dorm, and as he turns to go, she invites him to stay. Jared maintains his polite decorum, gently rebuffing her advances. He leaves her alone in the darkness, assuring her softly that he will call in the morning to make sure she wakes up in time for her next exam.
In New York two days later, Mrs. Bright receives a report from Doctor Larsen about Ben. The doctor lauds her son for his "remarkable resilience," and categorizes his achievements in the areas of large and small motor skills, short-term concentration, temper control, and verbal communication...
(The entire section is 785 words.)
After (August) Summary
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 people he has been told are his family, but whom he does not really know.
Two days before Ben's scheduled return, Ariela tells Niko that she misses Ben, "the way he used to be." When Niko comments that Ben is "still him," she is overcome by guilt again for the way she feels. Niko asks about Jared, and Ariela says that she has told him about Ben, and that "he [is] totally cool," having had a sense that something like that had been the case all along.
On August 10, when Ben is wheeled through the door of the house where he grew up, he feels nothing. He recognizes "the man and the woman who [are] his mother and father," as well as Niko, who is supposed to be his friend, and Ariela, the girl he has been told he is going to marry. There are a lot of other people there too, and everyone is talking at once. Someone puts a plate of cake in his lap, and when the girl named Ariela attempts to feed him a piece, he takes the fork from her and feeds himself. He asks the woman who is his mother, "Is this? My. House?" She assures him that it is, adding that his friends and loved ones are all there to celebrate his homecoming. Ben looks around at the sea of unfamiliar faces and says that he is tired.
Mrs. Bright wheels Ben into the kitchen, where he gets into a special chair which gives him a motorized ride downstairs. There, a room has been prepared, and Ben sits on the large bed, observing that it is "Soft...Nice." He lies back and looks up at the ceiling, where stars have been painted. A voice describes the scene up above as "the early autumn sky, western hemisphere," and Ben looks over to see a young teenager standing beside him. The boy is not smiling; he never smiles in pictures either. Ben takes...
(The entire section is 876 words.)
After (November) Summary
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 item—milk—which is located against the back wall. A mother pushing a fidgety little boy in a grocery cart wheels by Ben, and as she passes, the child drops a red doll. The woman does not notice that her son has dropped his toy and keeps on going, but Ben stares at the doll lying on the floor, mesmerized. Suddenly, he is back on the sands of a foreign land; he is hot, and his equipment is heavy upon his shoulder. Ben feels his breath quickening as he spots a figure with a rifle running from window to window in the building before him. He hollers out, "Moving below!" as he pulls a shopping cart in front of him and drops to the ground.
Someone approaches with a cell phone in his hand, and Ben turns and runs, shouting a warning, "The toy...the toy!" He trips, and hard metal objects—tuna cans—fall all around him. People are coming toward him, surrounding him. Ben looks back at the red doll on the floor, and the last thing he remembers is Tickle Me Elmo, sitting up and laughing at him.
When Ben awakens, he is in his room again, with Hayseed, his parents, Chris, and Ariela hovering anxiously over him. When he recalls having had a very bad dream, Ariela tells him that he had a flashback, but that he is all right now. Mr. and Mrs. Bright go upstairs with Hayseed to talk about what has transpired, leaving Ariela and Chris with Ben.
In the sudden silence of the room, Ben asks Ariela what happened, and says, "I saw things." He then adds, with uncommon clarity, "Hayseed is missing a leg...he's my friend. I knew him." Ariela, in a low voice, asks Ben if he is remembering things, and Ben talks a little about Elmo, then says nothing more. Ariela asks if Ben recalls "anything good...from before," and...
(The entire section is 684 words.)