The ink flowed smoothly from the purple gel pen onto the unlocked pages of the journal. Pent-up feelings that had no other way to escape tumbled onto today’s tirade: “Please, somebody make it stop. Make it go away. I swear I’m going to kill myself if I have to hear this one more day!!”
Well… OK. Maybe not kill myself, she thought. Maybe that is a little dramatic…
“Summer,” she heard her mother call, “did you fix your brother lunch today?”
“Seriously,” Summer wanted to respond, “I am NOT my brother’s keeper.”
But instead all she could manage was a weak, “No. I must have forgot. Again.”
“Honey,” her mother said, plopping down next to her on the bed, “I know this is hard for you. Having a little brother who is autistic with oppositional defiant disorder.”
“But Mom,” Summer interrupted, “he’s so embarrassing. And he hurts me. He always hurts me…”
Robert was only 10 years old, but his mood swings were unpredictable and often escalated into Tourette’s-like cursing tirades and things being thrown her way. Once he had hurled an ice bucket down the stairs, striking her in the face and nearly breaking her nose.
“He doesn’t mean to.”
Summer could hear the pain and defeat in her mother’s voice. She knew how hard her mother had to work since Jeffrey gave up on trying to make them a normal family. He, too, had grown tired of how they could never go anywhere or do anything without Robert causing a scene.
“I know, Mom,” Summer whispered softly, “I’ll try to do better. I know if I don’t feed him he won’t eat on his own.”
“Thank you, honey,” her mother replied, lightly kissing her forehead and giving her hand a squeeze.
Summer looked up into her mother’s eyes. They were sympathetic…loving. Summer flung her arms around her mother and gratefully laid her head on her mother’s shoulder relishing the moment, but the rare tender exchange was abruptly aborted by what sounded like a chair being hurled against a wall followed by the loud pounding of fists beating against a hollow door.
“Damn it, woman! Where’s my dinner?”
Summer’s mother rushed from the room to try to calm down the explosive rage before it could build. Summer wished she could help but she knew her presence would just make Robert more agitated. She reached for her journal and sighed. I wish he would just go away.
Jeffrey had given her the journal saying it might help her get through the bad times if she wrote her feelings down instead of having to keep them bottled up inside. Well, she thought, he should’ve taken his own advice and gotten a journal, too, because in less than a year he had given up and now he was the one who was gone.
Surprisingly, Summer’s mother reappeared in the doorway with a huge grin on her face. What should have been a prophecy of good things to come leered before Summer as a sign of impending dread.
“Summer, I’ve got a great idea!” was what her mother said. But Summer only heard, “This is going to be another terrible mess’ come on and help me make it.”
“I was thinking we’d go and get ice cream. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Surely she didn’t mean the three of them. It was Friday night. All the kids from Riverside High would be out enjoying these last few warm nights of autumn. The ones she was cool with at her new school didn’t know about Robert yet, and she wanted to keep it that way.
“Honey, you could wear that new pink jacket I got you,” her mother gushed. “I’m sure other kids would be at the mall. I’d bet you’d make some friends.”
Summer thought back to the last time they had taken her brother on an outing. It had only been to the grocery store, but Robert was so overstimulated by all the different smells he’d had a huge meltdown right in the middle of aisle four, screaming about being attacked by giant spiders. Not a scene she wanted to be a part of again. Ever.
“It’s not a good time, Mom,” Summer lied. “There’s a movie I’ve been waiting weeks to see and it’s finally coming on tonight. But you should go and take Robert. He’d have a much better time if I wasn’t there dividing your attention. You know how much he loves to be alone with you.”
“I hate to admit it, but you’re probably right,” her mother sighed. “I’ll bring you something back. Something special.”
In the end Robert wouldn’t go either, so their mother went alone, promising to bring them both back a treat. Summer dozed off as she restarted the Netflix movie she’d already seen a dozen times.
“Summer.” Her mother’s voice sounded odd. “Where’s Robert? I can’t find him. He’s gone.”
Summer sat upright on the bed. She’d never heard her mother sound so scared.
“I don’t know. I was asleep.”
“Damn.” Summer’s mother never cursed. This was going to be another night for the books. She watched helplessly as her mother dissolved into tears and ran from the house.
“Damn,” Summer whispered. “Now I have to go look, too.”
Day became dusk and night was falling fast. Her cell phone lit up again. “No, Mom,” she answered for the eleventh time, “not yet.” Where is this stupid boy? she wondered.
Summer leaned against the light post on the corner. She thought back to all the times her life had been forced to revolve around her brother. How he had ruined her birthday tea party when she was 12 years old. Her mother had gone shopping and bought long fancy dresses from all the thrift stores in town so they could look like princesses. But Robert, agitated by the noise, had cursed them all like a drunken sailor. She remembered her mother’s beautiful wedding just last year and how Robert had started yelling about the lights being too bright in the church right in the middle of the vows. Jeffrey had moved them here this past summer to try to give everybody a chance at a fresh new start. But Robert had made that poor man’s life a living hell. Even though Jeffrey had tried to be a good father, Robert refused to share their mother with anyone else.
Suddenly she knew. Robert loved to fish. It was one of the few things he had enjoyed with Jeff. Robert loved to sit at the pond a few blocks away and watch the fish nibble at his bobber.
Summer ran towards the park. It was getting colder, and the wind stung her face. A few drops of rain struck her cheek. And then she saw him. Curled up in a ball sobbing. He was scared but she was too mad to notice. Or to care.
“Dammit, Robert! I’m sick of having to take care of you! Get up this instant and come home! Mom is tired of looking for you, and I’m just sick of you, period!” The words she’d been wanting to say just poured off the pages and out of her mouth. She couldn’t stop them. They fell like the rain.
But Robert didn’t move. He just cried. And for the first time in a long time Summer’s heart was touched. She looked down at the helpless little ball, and she remembered how happy and proud she had felt to be a big sister. His big sister. She remembered how fiercely she had protected him because their mother had told her he was different and special and would always need her. And so, for the first time in…maybe ever… Summer saw Robert for the poor little tortured soul he was. She realized the private hell that he was living in each day. She remembered that she had forgotten to love him.
Robert lifted his head, and she saw the desperation in his eyes. Oh my God, Summer thought, does he want me to make him feel safe?
“The spiders were chasing me…” Robert sputtered.
Kneeling beside him she whispered, “I made the spiders go away. You’re safe now. Come on, baby. Let’s go home.”
And then he hugged her…and she hugged him back. He was her little brother again. That sweet golden-haired little boy with the crooked smile and funny laugh. And then it was over.
“Robert!” she heard her mother exclaim.
Pushing her abruptly to the ground, Robert jumped up and ran happily calling, “Mommy!”
It was as if the moment had never happened. In a single second everything had returned to normal, and Robert was oblivious to her presence. He would probably never even remember this experience. But she would. She would remember the innocence and fear intertwined in his eyes. And she vowed that next time she would try harder. Maybe just a little harder. But she would try.
Charla Booth is an autism mom and advocate. Her writing serves as therapeutic conversation starters for ASD families. These biographical fiction stories give neurotypical siblings a chance to be heard and empathized with while generating hope for developing stronger relationships and understanding within the family.
This article was featured in Issue 66 – Finding Calm and Balance