First Chapter: The Year We Fell Down
Chapter One: Gargoyles and Barbecue
“This looks promising,” my mother said, eyeing the dormitory’s ivy-covered facade. I could hear the anticipation in her voice. “Try your key card, Corey.”
It was move-in day at Harkness College, and parents of the new frosh were oohing and ahhing all around campus. As the official tour guides will tell you, three of the last six presidents held at least one degree from the 300-year-old college. And twice a day, students from the Carillon Guild climb 144 steps into Beaumont Tower to serenade the campus on bells weighing upwards of a ton each.
Unfortunately, my mother’s interest in the dorm was neither historical nor architectural. It was the wheelchair ramp that captivated her.
I rolled up to wave my shiny new Harkness ID in front of the card reader. Then I pushed the blue button with the wheelchair on it. I held my breath until the pretty arched door began to swing slowly open.
After everything I’d been through in the past year, it was hard to believe that this was really happening for me. I was in.
Wheeling up the ramp and into the narrow building, I counted two dorm rooms, one on my left and one on my right. Both had wide doors — the telltale sign of a handicapped-accessible room. Straight ahead, there was a stairway with a pretty oaken banister. Like most of the old dorms at Harkness University, the building had no elevator. I wouldn’t be visiting any of the upstairs rooms in my chair.
“The floor is very level,” my mother observed, approvingly. “When they told us the building was eighty years old, I had my doubts.”
That was putting it mildly.
The fact that my parents had begged me not to come to Harkness was just the latest bitter irony in a long string of bitter ironies. While other new Harkness parents were practically throwing confetti for their offspring today, mine were having two heart attacks apiece, because their baby girl had chosen a college a thousand miles from home, where they couldn’t check up on her every half hour.
After the accident, my parents had pleaded with me to defer for a year. But who could take another year of hovering, with nothing better to fill the time than extra physical therapy sessions? When I’d put my proverbial foot down about heading off to college, my parents had changed tactics. They tried to convince me to stay in Wisconsin. I’d been subjected to a number of anxious lectures entitled “Why Connecticut?” And “You Don’t Have to Prove Anything.”
But I wanted this. I wanted the chance to attend the same elite school that my brother had. I wanted the independence, I wanted a change in scenery, and I really wanted to get the taste of last year out of my mouth.
The door on my left opened suddenly, and a pretty girl with dark curly hair stuck her head out. “Corey!” she beamed. “I’m Dana!”
When my rooming assignment had arrived in our Wisconsin mailbox, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Dana. But during the past month we’d traded several emails. She was originally from California, but went to high school in Tokyo, where her father was a businessman. I’d already filled her in on my physical quirks. I’d explained that I couldn’t feel my right foot, or any of my left leg. I’d warned her that I was in a wheelchair most of the time. Although, with a set of cumbersome leg braces and forearm crutches, I sometimes did a very poor imitation of walking.
And I’d already apologized for her odd rooming assignment — living with the cripple in a different dorm than the rest of the First Years. When Dana had quickly replied that she didn’t mind, a little specter of hope had alighted on my shoulder. And this feathered, winged thing had been buzzing around for weeks, whispering encouragements in my ear.
Now, facing her in the flesh for the first time, my little hope fairy did a cartwheel on my shoulder. I spread my arms, indicating the chair. “How ever did you recognize me?”
Her eyes sparkled, and then she said exactly the right thing. “Facebook. Duh!” She swung the door wide open, and I rolled inside.
“Our room is fabulous,” Dana said for the third time. “We have at least twice as much space as everyone else. This will be great for parties.”
It was good to know that Dana was a beer-keg-is-half-full kind of roommate.
And in truth, ours was a beautiful room. The door opened into what Harkness students called a “common room,” but the rest of the world would call a living room. Off the common room were two separate bedrooms, each one large enough to turn a wheelchair around in. For furnishings, we each had a desk and — this was surprising — a double bed.
“I brought twin sheets,” I said, puzzled.
“So did I,” Dana laughed. “Maybe accessible rooms have double beds? We’ll just have to go shopping. Oh, the hardship!” Her eyes twinkled.
My mom, huffing under the weight of one of my suitcases, came into the room. “Shopping for what?”
“Sheets,” I said. “We have double beds.”
She clapped her hands together. “We’ll drive you girls to Target before we leave.”
I would have rather gotten rid of my parents, but Dana took her up on it.
“First, let me have a look around,” my mother said. “Maybe there are other things you need.” She traipsed into our private bathroom. It was amply proportioned, with a handicapped accessible shower. “This is perfect,” she said. “Let’s put a few of your things away, and make sure you have somewhere to dry your catheters.”
“Mother,” I hissed. I really did not want to discuss my freakish rituals in front of my roommate.
“If we’re going to Target,” Dana said from the common room, “we should look at the rugs. It echoes in here.”
My mother hurried out of the bathroom to humiliate me further. “Oh, Corey can’t have an area rug while she’s still working on walking. She could trip. But where do you girls want Hank to install the television?” my mom asked, turning about.
I jumped on the change of topic. “My father is hooking us up with a flat-screen, and a cable subscription,” I said to Dana. “If that’s okay with you. Not everybody wants a TV.”
Dana put a thoughtful hand to her chin. “I’m not much of a TV watcher myself…” Her eyes flashed. “But there may be um, certain sorts of people who will want to gather in our room, say, when sporting events are on?”
My mother laughed. “What sort of people?”
“Well, have you met our neighbor yet? He’s a junior.” My new roommate’s eyes darted towards the hallway.
“Across the hall?” I asked. “In the other accessible room?” It wasn’t the first place I’d look for a hot guy.
She nodded. “You’ll see. Just wait.”
Our shopping trip took far longer than I’d hoped. My mother insisted on paying for Dana’s new bedding, with the argument that the peculiar accessible beds were all our fault. Dana chose a comforter with a giant red flower on it. I chose polka dots.
“Very cheery,” my mother said approvingly. My mom had always liked the cheery look. But after the year we’d just had, she clung to cheery like a life raft. “Let’s get the matching shams, ladies. And…” she went into the next aisle. “An extra pillow for each of you. Those beds won’t look right otherwise.”
“She doesn’t have to do this,” Dana whispered.
“Just go with it,” I said. “Wait…” I beckoned, and Dana leaned down so I could add something privately. “Take a peek at the rugs. If you see anything good, we’ll come back another time.”
She frowned at me. “But I thought…”
I gave her an eye roll. “She’s insane.”
With a wink, Dana ducked into the rug aisle.
When we got back, my father was standing in the center of our empty room, flipping channels on the TV he’d mounted on our wall. “Success!” he called out.
His smile was tired. “No problem.”
As irritating as I’d found my mother this past year, things were even trickier with my father. He and I used to talk about ice hockey all day long. It was our shared passion, as well as his livelihood. But now an uncomfortable silence hung between us. The fact that I couldn’t skate anymore just killed him. He’d aged about ten years since my accident. I hoped that with me out of the house, he would be able to get back into his groove.
It was time to ease my parents into hallway, and send them on their way. “Guys? There’s a barbecue for First Years on the lawn. And Dana and I are going to it. Soon.”
My mother wrung her hands. “Hold up. I forgot to install your night-light.” She darted into my bedroom, while I bit back an angry complaint. Seriously? I hadn’t had a night-light since I was seven. And when my brother went off to Harkness four years ago, there wasn’t any handholding for him. Damien got only a plane ticket and a clap on the shoulder.
“She can’t help herself,” my father said, reading my face. He picked his tool kit up off the floor and made his way toward the door.
“I’m going to be fine, you know,” I said, wheeling after him.
“I know you are, Corey.” He put one hand on my head, and then took it away again.
“Hey, Dad? I hope you have a great season.”
His eyes looked heavy. “Thanks, honey.” Under other circumstances, he’d be wishing the same for me. He would have inspected my safety pads, and we would have found a corner of the room to accommodate my hockey bag. He would have booked plane tickets to come out and watch one of my games.
But none of that was going to happen.
Instead, we went into the hallway together in silence. But there, my reverie was broken by the sight of a guy hanging up a white board on the wall outside of his door. My first glimpse was of a very tight backside and muscled arms. He was attempting to tap a nail into the wall without letting his crutches fall to the ground. “Damn,” he said under his breath as one of them toppled anyway.
And when he turned around, it was as if the sun had come out after a rainy day.
For starters, his face was movie-star handsome, with sparkling brown eyes and thick lashes. His wavy brown hair was a bit unkempt, as if he’d just run his fingers through it. He was tall and strong-looking, but not beefy, exactly. It wasn’t a linebacker’s body, but he was definitely an athlete.
“Hi there,” he said, revealing a dimple.
Well hello, hottie, my brain answered. Unfortunately, my mouth said nothing. And after a beat I realized I was staring at his beautiful mouth, frozen like Bambi in the forest. “Hi,” I squeaked, with great effort.
My father leaned over to fetch the crutch this handsome creature had dropped. “That’s some cast you have there, son.”
I looked, and felt my face flush. Because looking at the cast meant allowing my eyes to travel down his body. The end of my slow scan revealed one very muscular leg. The other was encased in white plaster.
“Isn’t it a beauty?” His voice had a masculine roughness which put a quiver in my chest. “I broke it in two places.” He extended a hand to my father. “I’m Adam Hartley.”
“Ouch, Mr. Hartley,” my father said, shaking his hand. “Frank Callahan.”
Adam Hartley looked down at his own leg. “Well, Mr. Callahan, you should see the other guy.” My father’s face stiffened. But then my new neighbor’s face broke into another giant grin. “Don’t worry, sir. Your daughter isn’t living next door to a brawler. Actually, I fell.”
The look of relief on my dad’s face was so priceless that it broke my drooly spell, and I laughed. My gorgeous new neighbor extended a hand to me, which I had to roll forward to shake. “Well played,” I said. “I’m Corey Callahan.”
“Nice to meet you,” he began, his large hand gripping mine. His light brown eyes loomed in front of me, and I noticed that their irises had a darker ring around each one. The way he leaned down to shake my hand made me feel self-conscious. And was it hot in here?
Then the moment was broken by a shrill female voice erupting from inside his room. “Hartleeeey! I need you to hang this photograph, so you won’t forget me while I’m in France. But I can’t decide which wall!”
Hartley rolled his eyes just a little bit. “So make three more of them, baby,” he called. “Then you’ll have it covered.”
My father grinned, handing Hartley his crutch.
“Honey?” came the voice again. “Have you seen my mascara?”
“You don’t need it, gorgeous!” he called, tucking both crutches under his arms.
“Hartley! Help me look.”
“Yeah, that never works,” he said with a wink. Then he tipped his head toward the open door to his room. “Good to meet you. I have to solve the great makeup crisis.”
He disappeared as my mother emerged from my room, her face a tight line. “Are you sure there’s nothing else we can do for you?” she asked, fear in her eyes.
Be nice, I coached myself. The baby-proofing is finally over. “Thanks for all your help,” I said. “But I think I’m all set.”
My mother’s eyes misted. “Take good care of yourself, baby,” she said, her voice scratchy. She leaned over and hugged me, crushing my head to her chest.
“I will, Mom,” I said, the words muffled.
With a deep breath, she seemed to pull herself together. “Call if you need us.” She pushed open the dormitory’s outside door.
“…But if you don’t call for a few days, we won’t panic,” my father added. Then he gave me a quick salute before the door fell closed behind him. And then they were gone.
My sigh was nothing but relief.
A half-hour later, Dana and I set off for the barbecue. She bounced across the street, and I wheeled along beside her. At Harkness College, students were split into twelve Houses. It was just like Hogwarts, only bigger, and without the sorting hat. Dana and I were assigned to Beaumont House, where we would live from sophomore year on. But all First Years lived together in the buildings ringing the enormous Freshman Court.
All the First Years except for us.
At least our dormitory was just across the street. My brother had told me that McHerrin was used for a jumble of purposes — it housed students whose houses were undergoing renovation, or foreign students visiting just for a term.
And apparently, McHerrin was where they put gimps like me.
Dana and I passed through a set of marble gates and headed toward the scent of barbecued chicken. This was Freshman Court, where each building was more elegant and antique than the last. They all sported steep stone steps stretching up to carved wooden doors. I couldn’t help but ogle their ornate facades like a tourist. This was Harkness College — the stone gargoyles, the three centuries of history. It was gorgeous, if not handicapped-accessible.
“I just wanted to tell you I’m sorry that we’re not living in Fresh Court with the rest of our class,” I said, using my brother’s slang for the first year dorms. “It’s kind of unfair that you’re stuck in McHerrin with me.”
“Corey, stop apologizing!” Dana insisted. “We’re going to meet lots of people. And we have such a great room. I’m not worried.”
Together, we approached the center of the lawn, where a tent was set up. The strains of someone’s guitar floated on the warm September air, while the smell of charcoal wafted past our noses.
I never dreamed I’d show up for college in a wheelchair. Some people say that after a life-threatening event, they learn to enjoy life more. That they stop taking everything for granted.
Sometimes I felt like punching those people.
But today I understood. The September sun was warm, and my roommate was as friendly in person as she was over email. And I was breathing. So I had better learn to appreciate it.