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A Perfect Wreck Mila Crawford, Aria Cole 2022/8/3 13:46:50

“You are an angel, Callie. Just look at how professional and what a bona fide expert you are!” I beamed under Diana’s praise. Not only because she was like a second mother to me, but because no matter how hard I worked, I never really heard it at home.

“Your parents must be so proud. It’s incredible how far you’ve come.”

We spent our time exchanging info about updates from Crosby. We never discussed Asa; the subject was too close for comfort. They knew Dean had passed, and there was no reason to make them stress any more than they already were. Asa and I’d had no contact since the night we’d said goodbye. But he came to me so realistically in dreams, it was as if he’d never left my side.

“Seems like yesterday, you and BeBe were out splashing in puddles with those red rain boots.” Jim Dashen was the last person in the world who deserved to be sick. Most of my example for being an altruistic and genuinely good human being came from him. “We miss you, Callie. Stop by anytime. Please, we mean it. Don’t be a stranger. Come see us.”

Sometimes, Weston was there helping them out. We’d pass each other loaded looks, sad that Jim was sick, awkward in the absence of our best friends. And when Crosby returned, even more awkward in the secrets that were as clear as day on their faces. I knew Crosby was in love with Weston. I wondered if I wore my feelings so plainly on my face like they did.

Asa and I did not exchange letters or phone calls. I knew he was alive, and that was all I needed to know. His mission secret, Asa worked exclusively covert operations for the marines. Whatever exchanges he had with his parents were brief and unspecific. They knew he was alive, but they had no idea where he was in the world.

I graduated early and with top honors in my courses, one of the youngest graduates ever to complete the program. Interning since high school had counted toward my degree, and I became a certified RN before my twenty-first birthday. My parents might no longer have had the perfect son, their golden child, Dean. But they had one hell of a young and determined nurse, who was dead set on helping to make things easier for the soldiers who did make it home from war.

I’d always imagined that homecoming would be the easiest part—reuniting with loved ones, getting back into the swing of my old life. But what no one ever tells you about becoming a soldier is that the old you disappears forever and is replaced with someone colored by violence, tougher, scrupulous, and ever vigilant to danger. Carefree Asa was laid to rest, and what returned in his place was, instead, a perfect wreck. A man attuned to order, precision, and timing, with a lagging brain and delayed fine motor skills.

I’m not sure how I’d describe what a traumatic brain injury feels like, but if I had to try to compare it to something, I’d say it’s like reciting the alphabet backward. You can do it, but the level of awareness and calculation behind it is excruciatingly taxing and difficult. Possibly more importantly, the injury isn’t visible on the outside, so nobody immediately realizes what you’re dealing with.

I woke up in Landstuhl, Germany like Rip Van Winkle, with my mother holding my hand. To go from combat to that reality was perhaps the most surreal moment of my life. I kept asking for a mirror, not because I was concerned I’d hurt my face, but because I wanted to check and make sure I was really who they thought I was. Then I spent two months in Virginia in the most grueling rehabilitation of my life. If I’d thought football training or boot camp was hard, it was only because I had no idea what was waiting for me in physical therapy with a rewired brain and uncooperative limbs. The therapists weren’t just tough; they were relentless in their demands on my broken body.

My view from the VA hospital was of a parking lot, and every day I longed for the trunk of the tree outside my basement bedroom window in Hartford, for the smell of my mother’s cooking instead of the cafeteria, and even the whine of Crosby’s indie rock blasting from her upstairs window. I was lucky to be alive—of that much, I was sure. To return to normal was asking too much. Instead, I gave thanks for being allowed to survive.