Nicholas leans in close to the two photos he grips: himself at graduation from eighth grade and, four years later, high school. In both, his blue eyes are set between a pale forehead and high cheekbones. Something is different about his look. Something more than the length of his straw-colored hair. What he really wants to know is how Marie sees him. He needs to know. She’s the first girl he’s hung out with outside of classroom walls.
Nicholas didn’t wonder about what others saw in his face until last year. But during his last year at Redwood High School, his brother, Benjamin, started going there too, in his special ed classes. Nicholas sometimes glimpsed him with the Special Needs kids all together. Chins sticking out and eyes set deep.
Nicholas glances at Benjamin slouched next to him on the couch, absorbed in kids’ cartoons. His brother makes a throaty noise, perhaps a chuckle. They used to routinely watch the Saturday morning shows together, but with starting community college a month back, Nicholas feels beyond that. He’s only here because Benjamin took him by the hand and brought him.
Marie is coming. He’d better warn Benjamin.
“I’m going out soon.”
Benjamin moans and folds over.
“What’s wrong?” Nicholas doesn’t expect an answer. His brother can say: Hurt. Tired. Hello. Bye-bye. Yummy. Yucky. Hungry. Bunny. Need potty. And not much more. “Mom and Dad will stay. You can keep watching.”
His grunt is a happy glide and Benjamin sits up.
For years they didn’t know if he’d ever talk. Every July they’d leave the traffic of the Bay Area and drive through fields or empty land to the Downs Syndrome conference. Mother would return smiling and hopeful and try new ways to get Benjamin to talk or move, but things would eventually go back to the usual.
Nicholas lifts the photo higher, so the light cast by their floor lamp brightens his face. He’s gotten special accommodations since testing in third grade (an IEP), but he’s always looked like most other guys. Since his voice changed, he wonders if his face has been changing too. In the photo his brows seem more forward, or maybe his eyes have moved backwards.
“Are you ready?” Mother booms from her bedroom.
Nicholas jumps up, steers past Benjamin’s knees and the rabbit cage near them. At the window he spreads the drapes and looks past their porch and yard of brown stalks to check for Marie. A huge black pickup has parked across the street, but no faded Chevy, no Marie.
Suddenly he wants to touch his rabbit. Wheeling around, he jostles the spout of a watering can and the large metal thing quivers. Lucky—it stays put! The watering can tops a two-foot-tall stack of magazines and what a mess if it all came crashing down. This pile, standing there between window and door, particularly bugs him. In the past he’s toppled the National Geographics. Now he steers clear, but he wishes that Mother would take it all away. Dad complained last night, they’ve been there a year. Made Mother mad. A school could use them.
He takes Skyler out and sits her on his lap. His fingers travel down her tawny rabbit fur. His own soft thing. Her fur is softer than their cat’s and Skyler never claws, not like Calico. He wishes she could stay out and hop around, but their cat could claw her and, if his house wasn’t so embarrassing, he’d show Marie his sweet thing. Years back, when Auntie came to care for them while his parents were gone, he heard how others view their home. She said, “How can you live in this?” and hauled away magazines and papers. It was nice, for a while. Piles are back and stacks of big plastic bins make it even worse.
A car backfires. Benjamin jerks, then leans back. Nicholas slowly stands while pressing Skyler tight to his chest.
“Bunny?” Benjamin holds his hands up to plead.
“I have to put her away.”
“I can’t help it. I’m leaving.” Nicholas presses his teeth into his lip as he focuses on not falling onto the cage. There, Skyler is safe again within her wire walls.
Going to the kitchen, Nicholas passes a brown grocery bag. Cat food and cereal boxes fill it. Mother always says, it was a bargain! And so their cupboards are jammed. When younger, Nicholas would push apart the piles, sometimes by mistake, sometimes not. Most days he manages to not see them, while still avoiding them, but today is different. Marie comes! So the breakfast plates with pancake bits on the table leap to his notice, as does Mother’s pile of catalogs and school notices all askew on the china hutch shelf. He notes the stack of church bulletins topped by God’s Book, as his old teachers called it, and the rolled-up poster he made last year, atop the china hutch. He’d tossed it, but it came back from the trash.
His sweatshirt covers a chair’s back. He grabs it.
Dad scrubs Friday night’s skillet. He’s tackling the build up from the week. “About time for your friend to arrive?”
“Have a good time!”
Dad does physics research in the radiology lab at UCSF. During the week his chores pile up, but it’s Saturday. After breakfast today, instead of rushing out, Dad read the Bible—Nicholas likes it when Dad reads God’s words out loud. It still makes him feel shivery good, as good as he feels stroking Skyler, though he doesn’t like the church program for those his age. Before, the leaders were real adults, and nice, even if kids weren’t. But from middle school on the leaders were young themselves and made jokes and liked rock. Nicholas didn’t laugh, hated loud music and no one noticed him. He started attending only the early services because that’s when the choir sang. Dad has a Ph.D. and believes what the Bible and the sermons say, so Nicholas thinks it’s true, but he wishes God would talk to him more. It only happened once, when he was sad and mad and alone.
Through the window Nicholas sees Marie’s car pull up. A bike hangs off a rear rack. He cracks the front door just wide enough to launch himself through and down the cement walking path splitting their small yard.
“Hi!” He makes a point of smiling wide. At his counselor visits when he complains about having only online friends, Lisa reminds him to grin big and explains others social skills. Watch his face and imagine his feelings, she said last time. He couldn’t tell her that his new in-person friend was a she. Of course he didn’t admit the throb he feels when he sees her two breast peaks.
Marie grins back and her face, the color of coffee after Dad adds cream, heats him up inside. Her purple-pink plaid shirt looks like the flannel kind Dad wears on cold mornings, its fuzzy feel so soft and warm when Dad puts an arm around him.
“Where’s your bike?” Marie asks.
His Schwinn stands in their backyard. If she went with him there, the weeds, the rusty bathtub and a preschooler’s climbing thing would all be on display. His face burns.
“Uh, I’ll get it. You wait. In your car.”
“You can’t see our backyard.” As soon as he says can’t, he wonders if Dad would call that a lie. Because, really, he was able to show Marie. The truth: I don’t want you to see our yard.
Marie’s face pinches up, a bit like Mother’s face does. Has he annoyed her? She goes back to her car without a word. He walks past their van, parked in the driveway since it stopped working years ago, creaks open the gate, and wheels the bike out. He hears the groan of the front door and clenches the handlebars. It’s probably Mother with her tummy sticking out, what caused Grandmother to tell her once, You swallowed a ball!
He pushes his bike past Mother on the porch. “How about an introduction?”
“She’s in the car.”
“I’m in my housedress. Ask her to come on up.”
“I don’t want to,” he whispers. Saying No to Mother feels strange. He’s trying it because Lisa told him, It’s better than ignoring or yelling.
Mother’s brows come together into one solid line. “What? When will you be back?”
“Don’t know.” He has almost reached Marie.
“Find out!” It’s her troll voice, what comes out when he’s played too many games on his computer. “Call and tell me.”
Something fuzzy and urgent rises from his belly to his throat, wanting to get out. He looks back at her with a nod, so she won’t repeat herself. The front door bangs shut. Relief rings.
As he draws near Marie’s boxy-looking car, she steps out. Her eyes are bright as the North Star Dad showed him through a telescope. “Didn’t want me to meet your mom, did you?”
Nicholas nods and inspects the sidewalk cracks.
“Here, let’s hoist it on.” She grabs hold of the bicycle’s front stem. She points to the rack. “Ever used one of these before?”
Marie heaves the Schwinn on and wraps bungee cords through its wheels and around the frame. Finished, Marie and Nicholas climb inside. This feels different from school. They first talked when they met at a bike rack minutes before a class they shared. She suggested walking to CompSci together. By the time they got there, he knew its homework was hard for her. From then on he helped her with it almost daily.
Once Marie is driving on the highway, they discuss their return time and he reports home.
He stores his phone and Marie volunteers how her dad, a contractor, brought them to Redwood City a few months back since construction is booming there. Since her work at Burger King was no longer needed, she restarted school.
“I’m older than you.” She stares in his eyes as she says this, as if those four years were important. “I’m studying Special Ed, remember?” Actually he’s not sure he’d known. “Most students take off for jobs or stick to their old friends after classes.”
He makes agreeing sounds.
“So I’ve got time to do stuff together occasionally. Besides, it helps me understand my field better.”
Bees whiz around within Nicholas’s stomach. He wonders, as Lisa puts it, what the words beneath her words are. It’s hard to figure out. Does she like him or not?
“Good.” Maybe she does need friends like him.
Marie asks why there are so many dead plants in pots on their porch. “Well, Mother likes flowers and their colors a lot. So she bought them, but there’s a drought.” Her look at him is long and he thinks it means his words don’t make sense. “I think it’s because her back hurts, so she doesn’t get around to doing anything with them.”
The sticky silence stretches thin, like the taffy he once watched being pulled in a candy shop. He hasn’t traveled down this way for months, hasn’t seen the fields, empty except for a few wide-armed oaks and the hills rising up behind. They wear September in brown, but remain round and peaceful. Behind him lie Mother’s piles and advice. Out here everything feels okay. Within this space stretching, it feels almost like when he escaped into their backyard, through a back door seldom opened. With his home’s walls, it was hard to breathe—he was furious with Mother. Outside, he examined the wild grass—some upright and green like raw asparagus. Some arched over, faded and heavy with seeds like open mouths.
Then something happened. The street’s noises paused and a voice came, a tender tone. Almost a whisper, You are my son.
The words somehow gave new meaning to himself. A feeling like he could stretch and expand floated over him. A kind of rising up.
Marie fingers the radio knob and rock music booms. Nicholas yelps. “Oh, sorry.” She turns it off.
Marie exits at Black Mountain Lake and the road slopes down, curves, and ends in a parking lot. A sign reads, Recreational trail. “It circles the reservoir,” she explains.
Nicholas watches her unhitch their bikes. The sun glares off the many cars and makes him blink. Women walk by wearing swimsuit bras and a cluster of bikers in skin-tight shorts whiz by. Can he do this ride? He’s so slow.
Marie hands him his bike, then stares at his jiggling arm. “All kinds bike here. Don’t worry.”
At the trail’s start he can see across the blue water stretching far. Dark trees border it on the other side. By their trail stand wild grasses in summer’s gold and curvy oaks. Marie swings a leg over her bike. He manages to follow her by replaying Lisa’s words. “Good. You’re venturing out!”
After some easy going, a hill rises before them. Breathing feels hard. His legs and chest ache and Marie cycles ahead. More and more walkers and bikers crowd the trail, making it hard. He has to weave around people walking. Then the path slopes downhill and he coasts. Marie passes a woman pushing a stroller and speeds almost out of sight. He tries to pass too, but his front tire veers off the asphalt and onto dirt. It slips, turning sideways. He jerks the handlebars and feels the bike turning, slanting more, and then the slow topple, his elbow crashing into the ground and his hip next. He yelps.
“Are you okay?” The stroller lady comes near him.
“I guess so.” He sees gravel clinging to his arm and red. Blood oozes. A troll voice inside speaks, You’re too clumsy—what he used to hear when he lingered near recess games and hoped to be asked in. His standing up is unsure and wobbly.
“Oh, Nicholas, I’m sorry.” It’s Marie, returned. “That sucks!” She takes wipes from the stroller lady and cleans his arm. Her touch sets off shivers.
It’s a few weeks after the bike trip when Nicholas sits next to Marie at a movie and munches buttery popcorn from a red carton. He wants to cover his ears from the awful ad noise, but she’d think him silly.
“Can I have a handful?”
“Sure.” He pulls some out and extends his cupped hand, white puffs poking up.
Marie stares at the kernels. “Hand me the carton, please. I’d like to take it out myself.”
So hands her the carton and he feeds his handful to himself. Hearing what’s behind the words is so tricky.
“You’re like my cousin—the way you take things.” Marie leans close. “Do you have…” He takes another long swig of his Coke. The start of the movie saves him.
It’s the story of flying dragons and people who ride them. He loves it, but after a while the press of his bladder grow strong, then stronger. Despite the darkness, Nicholas has to go. He squeezes by Marie and another person, but next someone’s knees stick out. He wobbles and there’s nothing to grasp. His teeter turns into a fall—on a woman’s lap. She cries out.
“Sorry, sorry,” He feels eyes on him. At least no one sees his face.
The return goes better. The movie ends and they go next door for cream puffs. “Can I call you Nick? It’s not so—” Marie pauses. “It’s more natural.”
He’d say yes to anything she asks.
Summer term ends, a few weeks of vacation pass quickly and then the new semester starts. Marie takes a CompSci class with him again and he can still help her in the cafeteria afterwards. The golden leaves of the tree shading the bike rack brown and crunch underfoot. Marie says she’s looking for a job so she can travel and she looks worried after a CompSci test. She doesn’t return to class. Three weeks pass. It can’t be sickness. He texts her.
“Sorry. I took a job,” she replies—nothing more. When he tells Lisa, his cheeks grow wet.
One Friday afternoon, after finals, he swivels his bike’s padlock, trying to turn the tiny numbers into the right position. A familiar greeting brings his eyes up to take in Marie’s gap-toothed grin and lovely walnut eyes. His arm shakes.
“I’m sorry I disappeared. I was so stressed.” Marie holds her bike.
That’s all it takes for Nick to forgive her. The bees within happily flit.
“The CompSci class was too difficult—I dropped it but kept my other two. Then with the job I got and the nasty weather, I started driving. I lost my cell and didn’t know your number.”
Nick nods acceptance. Her orange tee fits more snugly than usual. The round mounds of her top seem higher than usual. He wonders if they’d feel soft.
There’s a question floating in the air, waiting for him to answer. He manages to capture the words waiting for his attention, Want to come to my house?
“Uh, yes!” Mother might say no, but Lisa’s words rescue him. Trying new things is good. That’s how you make friends.
So he sets out, coasting down the long hill after Marie, she leaning forward and he with his eyes on the bit of mocha flesh bared between her pants and top. Her hips are not too wide, but just right. They pass the turn he normally takes to his home, then turn left, and after a few more blocks, Marie stops in front of a small store. She tells him to pick his favorite from the freezer. At the register she pulls out cash for the peanut butter fudge ice cream. The grocery bag with its heavenly contents swings from her handlebar as they continue on.
“Here’s home!” Green grass grows and flower shrubs front the porch. Her door opens to living room with a couch, TV, armchair and coffee table, but not large like at the church parties they’ve gone to. Yet, with no piles or stacked boxes, it feels big enough. She pulls back drapes and sunlight floods in.
“I like your house.” He follows Marie into a tidy kitchen with no dirty dishes in sight and he tingles with the pleasure of wandering far from walls crammed with stuff.
“That’s enough.” He stares at the four scoops Marie’s dished him. He’ll eat more than even on his birthday. While sitting on the couch eating, they’re silent, at first.
“Do you like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? I got the DVD.”
“I haven’t seen it.” He hates saying so, but lying would bother him.
“Have you seen any of the Indiana Jones movies?”
“No.” What does the drop of her chin mean? Is that tightening in his chest from all that freezing cream that slipped down his throat? Or maybe it’s her eyes focused on him? Her long look means something. “It’s because my brother can’t take much stimulation.”
“Oh, yeah. My cousin doesn’t watch action movies. Do you know how to dance?”
Nick shakes his head.
“I’ll teach you!” She springs up. She slips a CD into a player and music throbs, but he tolerates it because Marie moves her hips and gestures to him. He stands. Her flowery fragrance draws him closer. Her head is thrown back and her brown waves toss. Her skin is paler, under her chin. Her breasts quiver too, but she seems oblivious to him, lost to the aching melody.
A vibration comes from the phone in his pocket and the bees start up. He goes to the kitchen.
“Where are you?” Mother demands that he return. In the silence, Mother’s short, quick breaths unnerve him. He see-saws between attraction to Marie and fear.
“Her house, on Hudson.”
“Come back, immediately.”
He pockets his phone and goes back to watch the swirl of Marie’s hips slowing with the song, while the newness in himself also ebbs away.
Her eyes flick around as if uneasy as she grows aware of him again. “Oh, sorry. I got taken with the music. Who was that?”
“Mother. I got to go.” He hates surrendering, but slings his backpack over one shoulder.
She shrugs. “I’ll ride you part way.”
She leads as far as the intersection where she took him down a different road than normal. Nearing home, he sees the trees have become flat and the air thin.
Mother stands on the porch, elbows jutting out and hands on her hips. “It’s near dark! And you alone with a girl in a home—I’ll have your dad talk to you.”
Nicholas rescues his rabbit from her cage.
On Saturday Dad warns him about girls and drives of the body overcoming good intentions. On Monday Nicholas returns to college and looking for Marie in the school cafeteria—sometimes before, sometimes after class. On the rare day that he finds her, they don’t chat much before she leaves for work, or says she has to study.
Tests, winter holidays and school’s restart brings more classes and little of Marie, more rainy days and rides from Mother to and from school. Then on a Friday of all sun, a day of warmth that feels like April instead of February, as he bends to free his bike from its chain, his name is called. His look up reveals only a group of students talking and laughing. No one looks his way. Loneliness bears down on him.
“Nick! Here!” She’s in the opposite direction from where he gazed, near the restrooms. She stands alone, holding her bike.
He goes to her. He knows what he must reply to her suggestion. “I can’t go home with you for ice cream.”
Marie sighs. “Let’s go to the fro-yo shop.”
She leads the way and he follows her hips, not the turns, as they wind their way. Sweat wets his back and neck. He hates frozen yogurt, but within the shop he finds ice cream too. Marie leads him out and off to the side of the shop, where he sets down his bowl on a table draped by a willow. Sweat dries in the shady cool. He sees something painted in red on the shop’s wall of white concrete—huge lips flare out. He compares them to Marie’s.
“So what do you think?” Marie asks.
He shrugs and feels his face heat.
Marie’s mouth twitches. “I meant your ice cream. Good?” He nods. “How were things at home after our last adventure?”
“Dad told me I have to be careful with girls.”
“No one yelled or hit you?”
Nick shakes a no. His chest feels tighter than ever. The breeze has gained strength and pushes a willow strand close. Nick looks through its leaves, tiny, having just come out. “I punched my pillow.” He doesn’t tell Marie that he prayed or how he eventually went out back and hoped to hear again that whisper of comfort, calling him, “Son.” Only the whisper of the wind.
A holler sounds. Marie’s focus changes.
Nick follows her gaze across the street to where guys in baggy jeans wait at the light. Is one of them pointing at him? “Oh, no.”
“Those guys were in my high school. They’re mean.” Nick’s spoon trembles.
“Don’t worry. I’m here. I’m for you.”
What does she mean? He liked that for you. Lisa would ask him, what does Marie’s face say? Her lashes are long, like the willow. Her freckles like stars. He’d like to touch her. If not now, when?
Marie clicks her nails on the table and he rests his hand near hers. Don’t assume Marie shares your feelings, said Lisa. Move slowly. He inches his fingers forward. Then, he does it. He brings his hand down on top of hers.
Her shoulders jerk, but she doesn’t pull away. “What are you doing?”
A branch, pushed by the breeze, prickles his face but he ignores it. “I’m holding your hand.”
Loud laughter sounds and Nicholas turns to see that three of the bullies now lean against the shop door. “Look! The weirdo scored.”
A volcano fires up Nicks’ legs, all the way through his chest, making his face so hot. He turns back to Marie. Her lips are pressed inward and her eyes narrow—like Mother’s when something’s wrong. He loosens his grasp, but her hand stays in his.
“Forget them—they’ve gone inside.”
“But why did they say that?” he whispers.
“’Cause they’re stupid. Not nice like you. Just ignore them.” Her smile is thin.
He can’t figure out what her eyebrows—so squiggly with wrinkles between them—are saying. And he still wants to know why they picked on him. Can everyone see he has Asperger’s?
“I mean, is it my face? Can they tell I’m different?”
She looks at him and then away. “I don’t think so. You’re average-looking, pretty much, but they went to your school. People talk.” She pulls her hand back.
He tries to bat off the swarm buzzing up from his gut, but her words sting. He wishes he could hold Skyler.
“You’re like a brother to me. Hanging out with you is fun, but that’s all.” She leans over the table, bringing near her lips red and full as on the wall. “I thought you understood. You know I’m four years older and studying Special Ed, but I see it wasn’t clear.” Her lower lip puffs out. “I can’t be your girlfriend.”
Nick jerks his chair back. He has to get away.
“I’ll find you at the bike rack sometimes.”
“Yeah, sure.” The willow strands scratch his face as he stands and he whips them back.
“Know your way home?”
“Don’t bother with me. We’re done.”
“No, no, I don’t mean that.”
He stalks to the cement wall and hurls his fist at the lips. His knuckles scream and the ache blisters down his arm, shutting down the ache inside.
“Nick! Don’t do that!” She’s come near him and speaks softly, but intensely.
He wants to yell, but in facing her he sees her eyes stretched wide. That means fright. She gestures to the shop where the bullies remain. He presses his lips shut.
Nick stamps to his bike, spins the padlock, but can’t see anything, can’t unlock it. So he drags his Schwinn around the corner and further from Marie. His breaths come out fast and shallow. What now? He doesn’t know the way home and Mother would be there. He’d shout at her. Not good. Though the time—4 PM—accuses, he can’t call her. He can’t stand to hear her troll voice.
A breeze puffs, a coolness that feels like a gift. He wipes his eyes with his sweatshirt so he can spin the right numbers. He prays a one-liner and Lisa’s advice comes back to mind. Slow your breathing when you’re upset. Bring air up from your stomach. All the way up and all the way back down, slow and steady.
The idea comes. Dad once gave his number is for emergencies. This is, kind of.
With Dad’s directions, he only has to backtrack once. Mother comes out while he’s walking his bike through weeds to the backyard gate. “Why are you so late?”
“Didn’t Dad call?”
“Yes, but he didn’t explain.”
She stands near, blocking his way and he wants to push her aside, anything to get away from her wanting to know more. His heart rattles in his chest and the bees swarm.
Stand up inside, Lisa’s words.
Head down, he keeps on and squeezes past the heat of her breath and her wanting gaze.
“I can’t tell you.” His voice is not a yell, but it’s not timid and soft. She leaves.
Once his bike leans on the backyard fence, he pushes open the front door, greets his brother and pulls Skyler out. Mother calls from the kitchen, “What are you doing?”
He walks down the hall to a rarely used exit out back. “Taking Skyler out!”
He doesn’t understand her reply, but figures she’d say, Be careful or That’s not safe. The back door is difficult to budge. His right hand secures bunny and his left tries to force it open. The door finally gives way. As it swings towards him it pushes him backwards. He almost falls and Skyler twists from his grasp, springs to the floor, and jumps out onto the landing. Her white poof of a tail quivers on her behind. He crouches and puts two hands around her soft body. He wonders how she’ll like this new place.
Together they step down and out. In summer Dad mowed and raked away the weeds. Dirt and flattened brown stalks remained and winter rain has started more growing. A yard with lawn and chairs is what he wants. What he gets is a lean back on the huge faded plastic orange and green thing he used to climb as a toddler. He relaxes his squeeze on Skyler. The sun warms him and a breeze mellows his sulking anger. No voice whispers, but he recalls it.
Skyler’s feet push into his thighs and belly, enabling her to leap down. He slowly steps down and in front of his darling. Her pink nose twitches. He gazes at her eyes. The clear curve of each lens arches over the pink rims with hazelnuts in their centers. Long white strands of her whiskers tremble—alert for danger. Nick watches with her for crows or cats, his hands ready. Learning new things, Lisa would say. He likes being out together.
About the Author: Exploring various geographies occupies and delights Carol. To celebrate a recent milestone birthday, she journeyed to an off-the-grid chalet and enjoyed long hikes at Sequoia National Park. The many cultures of the SF Bay Area bring Carol more venues to explore: tasty cuisines, fascinating friends and tutoring fun with non-native speakers. Her graduate studies in Creative Writing were through Seattle Pacific University. Her work has appeared on a Hollywood stage where actors performed dramatic readings. The upcoming anthology Irrational Fears includes her flash fiction.
Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.