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She knew who Connor Huell was. Connor was the boy who, ten years ago, sat down next to her at the table in second grade, after she got in trouble for pulling on a blonde girl’s ponytail. The girl had made fun of her backpack, saying it was what kindergartener’s wore. Nobody wanted to be around Hailey, because she was the “bad girl,” but Connor came next to her. It was craft time, and they were coloring a diagram of a butterfly. All Hailey had was the measly 10-pack of crayons. He had the big kind, with the pencil sharpener on the back.
“Can I sit here?” little Connor had asked. Hailey had looked up, and seen the big crayon box. She nodded, but at the same time heard the little blonde girl whisper, “He better watch out. That girl might steal all of his crayons!”
Furious, she began to stand up, but Connor, who had been watching the whole thing, opened his box of crayons.
“Sit back down,” he said, looking up at her, and pointing to her chair. “You can share with me if you want.”
Hailey looked down at him, a bit confused, but slowly took a seat. Looking away from him, she took out her small box of crayons and began to color. He wouldn’t give up.
“Do you want to share?” he asked, holding out a light purple crayon. She hesitated, tempted by the offer of the pretty color she didn’t have in her little box. Shyly, she reached out and gave a tender smile. He became her best friend. That was who Connor was, not the patient she had seen lying in room 312 two months ago.
“Hailey, Connor’s here,” she heard her mother’s voice from the living room, and felt her legs carry her to the front door. When she walked into the foyer, she saw him. He was in his normal t-shirt, and normal jeans, but he wasn’t Connor. He seemed nervous and jerky. They walked into the car together. Connor’s parents would be driving them to school today.
As they sat in the back seat together, Hailey watched him. There was the same sandy hair that fell comfortably on his forehead, right above the same gentle brown eyes and the same bold jaw. But it wasn’t Connor that fumbled with his seat belt and twisted his hands in his lap.
At the hospital a few months back, when Hailey had first seen him, she heard the doctors talking to her parents behind her. She caught phrases like “post-traumatic amnesia” and “dysarthria” and slight “loss of motor skills,” but that didn’t matter. All she knew was there was a boy, sitting there, who couldn’t speak right, who couldn’t button his own shirt…who didn’t know who she was.
They said most of it would be permanent except for the memory loss. They said it might be temporary, and so she waited. She visited him three times a week, mostly because her parents forced her to. She didn’t want to see him and get hurt again, but that didn’t stop her heart from thumping each time she opened the room door, hoping see that same smile—Connor’s same smile—greeting her, calling her name, remembering her. After a while, he did start to recognize her, but only as the girl who visited him, not as his best friend…not as Hailey.
“Ready?” Connor’s mom had already parked the car in the school parking lot.
When the three of them walked out of the car and into the school building, a couple people pointed to him, knowing he’d been in a car accident, but nobody noticed them, really. Connor looked normal. They stepped into the office and the principal was already waiting for them. He told her Connor would be able to stay with Hailey today throughout her classes. Connor’s mom thanked him, and then turned to Hailey. Mrs. Huell, Hailey was slightly embarrassed to see, had tears starting to blossom in her eyes.
“Thank you so much for this, Hailey. I wouldn’t feel comfortable sending him like this alone, but he’s been talking about school for ages…” she stopped, choking up. Hailey didn’t know what to do, so she awkwardly patted Mrs. Huell’s arm.
“I know it’s hard, seeing him like this…and you’ll have to help him a bit,” she continued, regaining composure, “but the hospital says seeing his old school might…help him,” she paused again, “You know they say the memory loss might be temporary, and I can’t help thinking…” This time she couldn’t stop it, a tear rolled down her cheek. Letting out a strangled and hasty laugh, she hugged Hailey, then Connor, and was off. Hailey said goodbye to the principal, and motioned for Connor to follow her. He jumped nervously after her, just like a child.
Hailey walked down the hallway to her locker, not facing him. She didn’t know what to do.
“This is my locker, Connor,” she said. She hated the sound of her voice, like she was addressing a toddler. He, however, didn’t really seem to care, and just nodded. Hailey opened her locker and got what she needed.
“Do you remember where your locker is?” Hailey asked.
“M-m…my l-locker?” He stuttered out. He pronounced his words weird, which was one of the first things Hailey had noticed about him. He said her name differently, too.
When he spoke, some passing kids glanced at him, surprised. Hailey tried to ignore it.
“Nevermind,” she said, trying to smile, and grabbed him by the arm. “Follow me.” She led him to her first class, English. He would normally have been going to History, but thanks to the principal, his whole schedule had been changed.
In class, he listened attentively. Hailey watched him, and he almost looked like the Connor she knew again, paying attention, understanding. Connor had always been smart, and the accident hadn’t affected his learning much. He still knew how to do some math, and how to read. Watching him in class, Hailey almost felt normal, until she watched him pick up a pencil and try to write. His fingers had a hard time gripping it, and after struggling to place his hand awkwardly around the pencil he placed it on the paper. When he applied pressure, the pencil tumbled out of his hands and off his desk.
He looked scared, and immediately looked at Hailey. Hailey automatically leaned over to pick the pencil up for him.
“I’ll take notes,” she whispered, and he smiled again.
The whole day seemed like that. She helped him open his backpack, tie his shoe, take out paper... He followed her down the hallway, holding on to her arm or her bag, glancing nervously in all directions. She couldn’t talk to any of her other friends, and at lunch they found the corner of a table to themselves. He put a sack lunch on the table and then put his hands in his lap, looking expectedly at Hailey. Hailey was starting to feel the stares on her back. The news had spread that Connor Huell was back, and he wasn’t the same. She hated it. She hated that she had to feel annoyed, she hated that Connor was different. She was upset—she’d lost her best friend, and everything about this new…boy, who wasn’t Connor, bothered her. She hated that she had to help him with everything because he couldn’t do it himself. Every time she helped him with something, she felt a part of her break, reminding her again and again that Connor was gone. She hated knowing nothing was ever going to be the same.
A group of kids from Connor’s old hockey team were sitting in the table behind them, including Ian. Hailey had always had a soft spot for him and his electric blue eyes, but Connor had never liked him. She could hear their whispers loud and clear.
“Did you see Connor Huell? He’s totally messed up now! What happened? It was a car accident, right?” one of them said. Hailey didn’t recognize the voice.
Connor gently tapped Hailey’s arm, gesturing to his Ziploc bag. She twitched her arm lightly, trying to listen.
“I heard he was drunk,” another guy from the table continued. Hailey’s blood started to boil. Connor had never even touched alcohol in his life. Connor pushed the bag toward her again, and began to slightly tug at her sleeve. She threw an irritated glance at him and brushed him off, concentrating again on what the boys were saying. She was waiting for Ian to say something. Hailey didn’t notice the confused and hurt look on Connor’s face.
“Have you heard him talk?” a third voice piped in.
“Yeah.” Hailey’s heart skipped a beat—this was Ian’s voice. “H-h-hai-ley,” he started to say.
Hailey couldn’t believe it. She went numb, and didn’t even hear the rest of the imitation, although she was sure it was something crude. She suddenly stood up, hitting the table hard. Connor jumped as she whipped around. The people around her looked around at her in surprise, and stopped talking to watch.
“Shut up,” she snarled, quiet but deadly. They looked surprised and almost embarrassed at first, but Hailey was positive she saw a couple of the boys hold in smirks. Connor’s eyes, wide, flickered between her and the boys.
“Just… shut up,” she said again, and this time felt her voice tail away dangerously. Before any of them could respond, she ran out the cafeteria doors. Behind her, Connor hurriedly grabbed his stuff and stumbled out of his chair. He threw what was left of Hailey’s lunch into her bag and carried it, too, as he awkwardly jogged after her, away from all the stares.
Hailey was walking fiercely. Everything—the phone call after the accident, seeing Connor’s head wrapped up and bloody—rushed through her mind. The tears she’d been wrestling with all day escaped her eyes and ran down her face. She saw Connor trying to button his patient shirt at the hospital, and trying to hold the pencil in class, fumbling over his books and looking frantically at her… and she hated the sight of him having to deal with it.
She was out of the school now, walking away from the building on a sidewalk. The wind stroked her hair, and she started to choke out sobs. Furiously, she wiped away her burning tears. She remembered his careless writing, how he was always getting her out of trouble, telling her to calm down. She remembered building a fort with him, and she remembered them sitting in her yard for hours, talking about the sky and Hugh Jackson’s latest movie and life. She remembered teasing him about his new haircut and him telling her that the guy she liked was a jerk.
She noticed she was at a park now, and sat down at a bench. Exhausted, and far away from everybody else, she buried her face in her hands and did something she hadn’t done since the accident—cried. She bawled, and let the tears flow freely. What she would give to have him look at her again, and know who she was. A few moments ago, she thought had hated Connor, and now she hated herself for even thinking that. How could she ever hate Connor?
She heard a faint rustling at her side, and looked up. Connor had just caught up with her and cautiously took a seat on the bench, on the opposite side of her. He sat with his backpack in his lap and gently set her bag next to her feet. He squeezed himself nervously as far to the right of the bench as he could. Seeing him like that—scared of her—made her feel angry and ashamed all at the same time, and she started to cry again.
A few moments later, maybe it was a couple minutes, maybe an hour, Connor’s stomach gave a little mumble. He reached into the pocket of his backpack, trying to make as little noise as possible, and pulled out a pack of fruit snacks. His hands shook as he tried to open it.
Hailey, watching him, couldn’t resist. She grabbed the package from him, opened it, and thrust it back into his hands. One of the fruit snacks dropped to the ground. Connor hastily bent over to pick it up and blew on it twice.
“Connor!” she grabbed his arm as he was about to toss it into his mouth. “Don’t eat that! That’s gross!” He looked confused, and Hailey held out her hand.
“Give it to me, Connor,” she said. He hesitated, and then placed the dirty gummy apple on her hand, resigned. Hailey gave a small smile.
“It’s dirty. You don’t want to eat that,” she continued. He seemed more relaxed now that she was talking.
When she spoke again, her feigned politeness was gone. The voice she’d used all day with him—the kind that sounded like she was talking to a kid or misbehaving puppy—was gone.
“I’m sad, Connor,” she said, looking into his eyes. Connor looked back at her.
“I-I’m s-sorry, Hailey,” he finally said.
Hailey stared at him, as if seeing him all over again. He seemed to want to say more, but each word he spoke seemed like a struggle. Hailey watched frustration flit over his face, and then saw him decide to say only what he needed to.
“I kn-know I’m n-nervous and j-jupmy, but i-it’s n-not like I’m a t-two y-year old ag-g-ain. S-sometimes I r-remember l-little th-things ab-bout y-you,” he finally managed to stutter out. Hailey felt fresh tears push their way out. Hearing him talk to her was too much. She felt them spill onto her face again. He had done so much for her, and she’d acted so terribly. He’d been selfless, and she, today, so selfish. Connor lifted his hand up to her face. He had rough, shaky hands, but his touch was gentle as he wiped a soft tear from her cheek. He turned back to his fruit snacks. After a pause, he carefully reached in and pulled out a purple one.
“Want to sh-share?” he asked, holding it out. Quietly, Hailey accepted it. She studied his face again, the face she’d known for so many years. Their memories may be murky, and muddled by the accident, but Connor was still…Connor, kind and protective, as willing to share a fruit snack as he was willing to share a small purple crayon ten years ago.
Unexpectedly, he stood up.
“C-can w-we go b-back n-now?” he asked, looking toward the school. “Y-you’re p-probably in h-huge t-trouble,” he said sternly, but smiling—Connor’s smile, getting her out of trouble again.
Hailey returned his smile and picked up her bag. She followed him onto the sidewalk. Chewing on her fruit snack, Hailey walked back to the school under the glowing orange leaves, right next to her best friend, Connor.