Photo By Andy Browne
By Lyric Spivey
Ben wakes up on hard gravel to the sound of sirens and screaming.
He groans, disoriented, and tries to lift his hands to his head in an effort to stop the ringing in his ears. Sharp stabbing pain jolts through his body in response, and he gasps for air. There is something wet sticking his shirt to his body, and he can’t feel his legs.
Brow furrowed, Ben slowly opens his eyes and sees grey. He blinks once, twice, three times, and the view doesn’t change. Panic takes hold: have I gone blind?
But then the shape of a person appears, hovering over him, a splash of too-bright reds and yellows contrasting the ashy sky, and Ben realizes that all that grey is smoke, and this person is a paramedic, and her mouth is moving, saying something, but he can’t focus through the ringing and the sirens and the screaming.
She purses her lips, straightens to wave at something, then drops again and presses something against his side. It’s scratchy and he winces, blinking harshly. The woman leans in close and now Ben can hear her a little clearer.
“You’ve been in an accident, but I’ve got you. You’re going to be okay.”
He looks at her weirdly. Of course he’s okay, he’s just tired and a little scuffed up. Probably fell off his bike showing off to Nate and his little brother. Where are they, anyway?
Someone joins his medic friend, and suddenly he’s off the gravel and on…something else. Something white. A sheet? They lift him up and the world spins for a moment, and his head lolls to the side. He sees people running and crying and watching, and more sickly reds and yellows, and flashing lights bathing everything in color, and it makes Ben think of that Picasso painting, the one about war and chaos.
And then they turn right, and he sees the building.
It’s brilliant; four stories of early 20th century wood ablaze in glowing heat and energy. Men in big bulky jumpsuits hold hoses longer than any he’s ever seen, shouting and pointing and moving. He feels like he’s in a movie.
The paramedics stop in front of an ambulance, and he tries to follow their conversations and actions, but his side is hurting again and he’s really dizzy and the world starts to spin again and the flashing is really starting to bug him and I’ll just close my eyes for a minute.
Ben wakes up on soft bedding to the sound of monitors and sobbing. His eyes drift over across the white sheets and white walls and fall on a dark-clothed form hunched in a chair too small for her body. Gale.
He tries to ask what’s wrong, why his girlfriend looks so miserable, but all that comes out is a squeak and a cough. She bolts upright out of the chair and latches onto Ben’s hand.
“It’s okay Benji, breathe, you’re safe. I’m here.”
Ben looks at her, confused, until he feels the stiff wrapping around his waist and sees the IV in his wrist. He swallows, tries to speak again. It works this time.
“You were visiting Nathaniel at his apartment. Something caught fire and the whole building went down. You got hit with debris, but it’s okay, the surgeons removed it all. They said you’re expected to be here for another week but don’t worry! It’s only to make sure you’re rehydrated, you lost a lot of blood.”
“Oh, okay.” Is he supposed to feel relieved? Right now he’s just tired. And confused. “Where’s Nate?”
“They patched him up, don’t worry. Brady too. They’ll be alright. You’re going to be alright.”
Gale sweeps Ben’s dark bangs to the side and keeps saying that. That he’s going to be alright. She’s trembling. He blinks. “What’s wrong?”
She inhales, “I was just really worried is all. You looked awful. I didn’t know if you’d make it.” Her fingers curl around his ear. “The fire’s been on the news nonstop. The firefighters stopped it but there was a lot of damage. And,” she takes a breath, “seven people died. Including Nathaniel’s parents. They couldn’t get out in time.”
Ben jerks, startled, and the monitor beeps louder. She shakes her head.
“Benji, all those people, they were on the top floor. You could have been up there too, could’ve…oh God.” Tears are threatening to fall again, and Gale looks away.
And Ben remembers. Remembers Nate having a spat with his dad in front of his best friend. Remembers them scheming for a way to get back at him. Remembers recruiting Nate’s kid brother Brady in the prank – to get access to his firecrackers – and why he and Nate and Brady weren’t on the top floor, because they didn’t want to be near the blowup his parents were sure to have.
And what a blowup it turned out to be.
Gale is crying again, laying against the hospital bed, and Ben slowly puts his arms around her.
“It’s okay,” he whispers, “it’s going to be okay.”
Ben sees Nate for the first time four days later in a patient day room, where he is sitting at a table facing the window, idly fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube. Crutches lay propped next to him, and his left leg is in bandages. Ben rolls past a large man loitering outside the door and over to the table on his wheelchair and locks the wheels so they’re side by side. Nate glances over once and goes back to his puzzle.
“How’re you doing?”
“Okay. Got hit in the side with debris, but they got it stitched up. I’ll be out in another week, they think. You?”
“Leg got burned pretty bad when I went back for Brady. Can’t walk on it yet, but I’ve only got a few days left. He’s okay, by the way.”
No more words are exchanged for a good five minutes, and they avoid each other’s eyes. Nate flicks the same rows back and forth. Ben stares at his lap, hands folded. Finally, he can’t take it anymore and grips his wheelchair.
“Don’t you feel awful?”
Ben’s voice drops, “I mean, you’ve seen the news, right? How many people got hurt? How many…died. Your parents, Nate.”
Nate’s hands still for a brief moment and then start again with even more fervor.
“God Nate, do you even realize how bad it is? People have been calling my dad non-stop asking how I’m doing, reporters are camped out on our lawn 24-7 hoping for a story on the ‘tragic survivor’, we’ve been getting tons of letters from friends and family, it’s insane!” Nate puts the Cube on the table and stares hard out the window, but Ben doesn’t notice. “And here I am, knowing the truth, guilt’s been eating me alive man. I don’t even want to think about school, that’ll be a nightmare. And I–”
“How do you know all that?” Nate finally looks his way. Ben is so startled his train of thought derails completely.
“I – what?”
“You haven’t been home yet, how do you know what’s going on?” Ben gapes at him in disbelief.
“Is that all you care about? How I know what’s going on?” He gets another shrug in response.
“Jesus, Nate….Okay, alright. Whatever. Gale tells me when she visits. Happy?”
“Oh”? Ben’s practically having a nervous breakdown, and yet his friend’s acting like he just got a bad grade on an exam. He shakes, livid, and turns so he can chew out this dense idiot out properly. And he stops short, because now he sees Nate, really notices him – how he’s completely rigid and unmoving, how his face is flushed and sweaty, how his hands grip the ends of the table so hard his knuckles are white, like it’s a lifeline. There is the slightest hint of a tremble too, like he might fall apart any second, and it makes Ben think of a tree growing against a cliff.
Nate shudders once, and his mouth parts in a whisper.
“The cops came to my room yesterday. They said they traced the source of the fire to my apartment. Then they asked if I knew anything. I–” his voice breaks, “I told them everything.”
“You did? Everything?”
“But dude, Nate, that’s–”
“They thanked me for my cooperation. Said they’d look into it. Came back about four hours ago. I, they,” he wavers, catches himself, continues, “They informed me that I’m under police custody now. When I’m out I’ll be arrested for real. Got a guard at my door, he follows me everywhere. He’s right out there now.” He jerks his head behind them, and when Ben looks he can see a large shadow in the doorway, that loiterer who remained unmoving the entire time. He swallows and Nate continues.
“I don’t know if there’s gonna be a trial, they’re still figuring it out. Brady’s been handed to the state, he’s gonna go somewhere when he gets out of here too. I don’t know where.”
“But, but Nate, nobody’s asked me anything, aren’t they going to arrest me too? You said you told them everything.”
“That’s right. Everything I did.”
“You heard me. I did it. It’s my fault. You just happened to be there.”
“I…no Nate, that’s not true, we both know–”
“It is true, Ben. And it’s gonna stay that way.” Nate’s jaw sets, and through the nervous terror in his eyes there’s a determined glint – it makes Ben think of a stubborn ship in an impossible storm.
They are silent for ten minutes more, silent and still and sorrowful, until a nurse beckons for Nate from the door. He gives Ben an unreadable look, gathers his crutches, stands, stretches, winces, and hobbles his way out. The nurse and bodyguard follow him.
Ben watches him leave through the reflection in the window. He doesn’t turn around.