I. “In the stillness his face was inclined towards me, while the moon’s clear beams shone, And his arm lay lightly over my breast—and that night I was happy.”
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock; he stared straight, unblinking, at the obnoxiously white wall. Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock, as he stared, he began to notice figures forming from the tiny ridges and divots that made up the texture of the wall. He saw a boy with no face and a girl with hair that flowed behind her.
What if there are actually people trapped in the walls, screaming, clawing, trying to get you to notice them?
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock; he looked up at the fluorescent lights blaring down onto him. He could feel the buzz of the room—the air—and sometimes he would sit there and taste the fluorescence and exist inside of the fluorescence.
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock; he thought about how he was broken, and how the city was broken, and how at certain moments this fact was so beautiful that he felt himself being crushed, paralyzed under its weight.
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock; sitting at his desk, he carried the gray building where he worked. He carried the dullness of the rooms. He carried the white halls, white walls, and white ceilings. He carried the atmosphere, the languor, the tenderness that hung thick in the air. He carried all of it. And yet, if he were only able to carry the weight of his own body, he imagined that he would run out into the streets and let the monstrous immensity of life melt him down into nothing. But the fluorescence was endless.
* * *
At the end of the day, he and fifteen other people crowded into an elevator. Sometimes he liked to imagine that all the people would freeze, and he alone would look up and see a crack forming in the ceiling of the elevator. He would stand there and quietly watch it grow and multiply, spreading its legs down the sides of the elevator. He would imagine the lights flickering and the elevator dropping. He would imagine himself becoming unstuck from time.
* * *
When they reached the lobby of the grey building, he pushed his way out of the elevator and through the glass doors. Outside, the cold felt wonderful on his skin and his breath made little puffs of smoke in the air in front of him. The sidewalk was littered with people and he had to fight to make it down into the subway station.
Standing in the subway tunnel, waiting for the car to come, he took a step back inside of himself and watched the people around him. He watched beautiful, quiet desperation linger unspoken on their lips, and he watched their numbness leak out and surround each other. The doors of the subway car opened invitingly, and he shuffled on. As he scanned the faces surrounding him, his eyes remained stuck onto the old man sitting across from him. The man had a long white beard, dirty clothes, and a knapsack resting at his feet, but the blue eyes that peeked out beneath the overgrown hair seemed intelligent and perceptive. He stared numbly into those eyes that were sunken into the weathered and defeated face of a life already lived. They were screaming at him— worlds were cracking at their intensity. The wrinkles around the man’s eyes moved up and the man’s white mustache shifted, but he was trapped in those eyes, trying to hear them, trying to become the movement of the subway.
Then the words, “What are you looking at, boy?” came flying through the air toward him and hit him in the chest, shattering the illusion. He quickly lowered his gaze and stared at the dirty floor.
When he reached his apartment complex, he trudged up the flights of stairs to the grey door of his one-room apartment. He turned the handle, shoved open the door, and immediately collapsed on his bed.
* * *
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock; he couldn’t think of exactly how long he had been awake or what had woken him up. He was only aware of the incessant ticking. The world had narrowed to the red, slow march of the second hand on the clock. Laying in his bed, looking up at the darkness of his ceiling, he felt something inside of him rupture and leak out onto the frozen world. He lunged out of his bed, grabbed the little old-fashioned alarm clock that had stood faithfully by his bedside, and punched it. He saw his knuckles make contact with the glass and he watched a small crack form. He punched it again, and again, and again until the glass lay shattered at his feet and he started to notice a thin trail of blood slithering down his hand and lovingly curling around his wrist. Sometimes he wanted to bleed out and make the world crimson.
* * *
From outside his window, he could feel the night’s long skinny fingers curl and beckon to him. It must have been past one in the morning and he had begun to feel that familiar itch that started in his bones—that had started when he was born. Throughout a life made up of empty hours, he clung to the moment of ecstasy when—at the end of the day—he would be able to pull open the door, walk out, and become a part of the night’s circus.
He quickly walked over to his bathroom and washed his arm in the sink. Then, he opened his grey apartment door and bolted down the stairs into the night.
Outside, the air greeted him with the familiar cool darkness of a world not yet trodden. The air was better. It was richer and he could feel it stinging as it entered his lungs creeping downward, seizing his heart. He stood on the sidewalk amongst the lights and the electricity and tried to revel in the feeling of living inside the bleeding organism that was the city.
He called a cab, and, in a few minutes, he was sitting inside, looking out through the window at the spot where he had been standing.
* * *
When the cab dropped him off outside of the club, he could already hear the music filling up all of the empty spaces in the world. He stepped into the building and couldn’t even see the floor, only person after sweaty person trying to pulsate along with the music. The name of the game was to get as wrecked as he possibly could: shots, powders, little pills handed off from palm to palm, whatever it would take to make himself stop thinking. He pushed himself to the center of the room and, standing there in the midst of all the colorful people, and the flashing lights, and the deafening music, reality slowly slipped between his fingers, and everyone became one big mass of swirling colors.
In the center of the room, head tilted back, eyes closed, she was just spinning, arms outstretched as if she was trying to absorb the whole world. The neon green lights flitted over her face, slowly lingering on her features where she had an agonizing little smile playing on her lips. She drank in the people around her, trying to suck enough of the room into her lungs to be able to breathe gold for all eternity. Her hair was big and long and dark, and her eyes were a mess of black eyeliner. She looked crazy and wild and beautiful, and bigger than life itself. Here she was frozen. Here she was powerful.
The clock slowed; she tilted her head back, closed her eyes, made her heart stop and for just a second she could feel the night lovingly wrapping its hand around her neck—and everyone stood around her trying to drink in her vivacity, but it was clear she stood absolutely alone.
He liked her. She was the most tragic, pathetic creature he had ever seen. He wanted to consume her. Live inside her. Break her and be crushed under the weight of gravity with her.
The lights soared and the music played. She stopped spinning. She came back to earth. She slowly opened her green eyes, looked directly at him and smiled, a sort of mischievous half smile, and then she began to move toward him.
The people around her weren’t moving. She was holding everyone in the room in her gaze, feeding off of them—off of their red, beating hearts. As she got closer, he looked straight into her green eyes and they stared back, each daring the other to look away. He wanted to. Staring into those eyes, he could feel her everywhere—for just a second, he was raw and formless, and all of the whispers of magic were seeping out of the world around him, out of its pores.
When she reached him, she put her hand on his shoulder, leaned in and whispered slowly pronouncing each word.
“They make you believe that it is going to be beautiful, but the world is not beautiful, the world is not beautiful from your eyes. Look at all of us,” she said motioning around. “A mangled heap of humanity, so desperate to feel something, anything, that we keep groping around in the darkness, bumping into each other and calling it love. Pretending, convincing ourselves that they were what we were really looking for in the darkness.”
She paused for a few seconds and then continued almost grimacing at each vowel, “It’s because we’re all so bored.” Then she stepped back from him and a slow grin spread across her face. “But you can hear it: the violins have started up; the curtain is rising.”
* * *
That night, they climbed to the top of the skyscraper and, on the roof, blended in with the night. The glorious world of breathless delusion that she had created was beginning to thaw around them, making everything seem sparkly and blurry. They sat down on the ledge, their feet touching. When he looked down, he saw all the tiny bright people moving in rhythm, but when he looked up, there was only the endless black sky staring back. She turned toward him and placed her thighs around his body, so he was holding her in the air. Then she kissed him, but it was only out of a desperation to find something in the secrets that are supposed to be held between lips. After a few blinking moments, she turned toward the night and screamed. She screamed and screamed and screamed and somewhere in the middle, he joined her until they were completely hollow inside.
* * *
In the following months by her side, he saw a world where people only talk in riddles and set fire to relics. There were so many different parties in warehouses, under bridges, in tunnels, so many different little pills, that when he closed his eyes, he would see her laughing under the haze of red smoke. Her and the city. Her and the night. Her breath on his neck and the lights whirling past them. Her mouth hovering just above his, coming closer and closer. Her bitter, beautiful, piercing laugh as she looked up at the dark. Her hands clasping his face. Spinning around and around in a whirlpool of her, lust, love and ecstasy. They would get kicked out of clubs and kiss on the muddy ground. They would get into fights and dance on tables. They would allow themselves to be at the mercy of the next wave of sweet, sweet poison—though at times the dizzying world would collapse around them and they would exist in some perfect, still place outside of consciousness.
Then she was gone.
* * *
So he went on living. Days passed at the office that he could never remember making the conscious decision to go to, and nights passed in a grey jumble of lights. The clubs got louder, the drinks stronger, and the drugs more intense, but it didn’t work the way it used to—all it did was make his frustration greater. Conniving little bitch, he thought to himself over and over. He hated her. He hated himself. He hated the sun that continued to shine cheerily in his face as summer came. He hated how transparent people laughed at transparent things. He hated how he did nothing but complain about this to himself as he became more and more transparent at each passing moment.
* * *
He met a girl whose name was Kathryn and something about her was therapeutic. She would laugh a lot and twist her hair with her fingers. And he would press his cold lips onto hers and feel her skin. Whenever he was with her, he found himself craving shadowy solitude where the walls always agreed with him. Though, whenever she was gone, he needed her flesh, her body, her warmth.
* * *
Tick tock, tick tock; sometimes when he was sitting on the subway during his commute after work, he liked to make up stories for the faces that he saw pass him. One day, he noticed a girl sitting at the end of the car. She was resting her head on her elbow and was tapping out the music playing from her earbuds onto the railing with her index finger.
Existence, existence, existence; he found that he could slow down time. Her finger tapped the railing once. He heard her heartbeat. He felt a breeze. He saw everyone in the car, heard their voices, and felt them aching for one another. He smiled to himself at the irony of this and laughed, hitting the back of his head against the window.
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock; the girl’s finger tapped the railing again and everything became slanted. The colors started to bleed and run together. His vision slid in and out of focus. He glanced up at the top of the car and noticed a crack forming. He felt a low rumbling move through the earth and saw the crack grow and multiply spreading out across the circular ceiling. He looked around and noticed water flowing underneath the doors and slowly trickling in through the windows.
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock; he sat there on the hard seat of the subway and laughed to himself in his own rosy hollowness. The water was increasing now. It was flowing in through every crevice in the insignificant subway car, threatening to drown them all. Suddenly, there was a bright light and a jolt in his reality and the ceiling split open. The car flooded with gushing water and the people became suspended in a sickly, sweet world of shadows. The girl’s finger continued to tap the story of it onto the railing.
* * *
He had murdered time, slit its throat, and taken its place.
* * *
As he walked out into the splendid city, he was a god. He existed, mangled, in the walls of the city. And he loved—as he had always loved—the glorious feeling of living inside of the bleeding, breathing masterpiece of human depravity. He could finally hear the violin notes crying out in the air—and he was ready to burn. He looked around him: the world was getting faster, his heartbeat was getting louder, everyone’s heartbeat was getting louder. He felt a swelling in his veins threatening to explode. One heartbeat, two heartbeats, three heartbeats. He grabbed the guy walking next to him on the sidewalk and punched him. The man’s head whipped back and his body hit the ground with a thud. He got on top of the man and punched him again—this was the resurrection. He punched the man again. The mist had cleared, and he was all alone: an angel rising from the ashes. He punched him again and again and again, and underneath the weight of his own body, he could feel the man’s jaw break.
The people around him were colors and he saw hungry eyes scanning him. C’mon, he thought. “C’mon,” he dared the onlookers forward. Eventually, someone pulled him off of the man and the next thing he could see were shoes surrounding him as he laid on the pavement looking up into the dark sky. The first foot that hit his gut morphed his body into fire. Looking at the faces of the people around him, he could see that the curtains in their eyes had come down and now they only felt hunger and saw through red.
He noticed that he could see his own blood on the street. How strange it is, he thought, to see what was once inside of you, now running down the landscape, turning the world crimson.
* * *
They met on the roof of the club where they had first seen each other and the silence that laid there had been waiting for him since the beginning of time. Together, they walked over to the edge of the roof and looked down.
“When I first met you, you were so filled with rage.” She savored rage on her tongue. “I could feel it.” She turned and a slow smile crept across her face. “I mean, I could really feel it. I saw you warm from across the room. Your own heart pumping red through your body. Heat dripping down from your fingertips, aching for everything you have ever loved. I wanted you to make me angry.”
She stopped and took a breath. “I know you. I see the strange madness growing in your mind. I see how you drown yourself in the flaws of the deranged just so you can breathe. She paused.”
He could see her in such painful clarity as he watched a breeze hit her face and lift her hair up. The dark eyelashes covering her green eyes shifted upwards and her lips pursed. She looked crazy and wild and beautiful.
Then she continued. “The new year comes and I feel restless. I feel myself yearning for a reality larger than life. I need the immensity of it to wash over me, strike me to the ground, melt me into nothing, make me supine, saturated to my last edges. I need to break out of this illusion.
Standing there, on the edge of the world—where they had always known they would end up—they were gods far separated from everything else, destined to reside in the clouds forever, replaying this moment until the sun consumed itself. The hand on the clock slowed, her chest rose, and the wind made her hair fly around her face. She was a silhouette at the top of a building.
The sky was purple, she was magic, and this world was going to end.
* * *
In her mind, one hundred fires. The last inhuman dance between her and time staring each other down preparing for battle. So she confronted existence; the grey world had always sensed her breathing. Her hand went up, and they circled each other, their fingers so close to touching, colliding, shattering universes—and she didn’t flinch when she fell—in her mind, she had done it a thousand times. The man followed.
Their shadows live on, playing out on the walls.
Emily Matuska is a seventeen-year-old living in Carson City, NV. She is an extremely academically-oriented person and is currently third in her senior year class. She has always loved English and literature, and her favorite writing explores the darker and more unnerving sides of the human psyche. Emily hopes to pursue English and creative writing in college. The reason Emily loves to read and write is that she craves the ethereal beauty of language and, through her own writing, she strives to capture this lyrical quality in words to create a world that is raw and painful and alive.
There is a stranger at my door. He won’t stop knocking, won’t stop peering through the windows. He swears that he once knew me. I could remember, he says, if I’d just look at him. I shut the blinds.
* * *
There are no longer any mirrors in my house. Those reflections tell a story in my handwriting, one that I don’t remember making. There is a tension in my veins. I think my sense of self is losing circulation. Pinpricks tingle in my head, itching to crawl out.
Maybe my memory fell asleep.
* * *
I catch a glimpse of the person at the door. He is still waiting for an answer, sleeping under my welcome mat each night. He’s tall, slender, and deliberate, just like a boy I used to know. For a moment, there is something familiar in his silhouette. But as the nighttime swallows his shadow, my train of thought leaves without me. I can’t help but feel as if I’ve forgotten something. Maybe I’ve just misplaced my keys.
* * *
I hear that knocking in my dreams. Even in sleep, I don’t open the door. My memory of him is a pill burrowed in my throat. It’s always present, never moving—something I know I must have taken but just can’t seem to swallow.
* * *
On this day, I am able to forget. I’m too busy digging tunnels in my backyard, ripping bones and teeth from the ground. When the letters start arriving, people asking where I’ve gone, I tell them I am building dinosaurs.
* * *
Through the peephole, the stranger lurks. The glass melts his face into a fishbowl, distorted to fit my point of view. He tells me to stop digging up the past, that everyone knows erosion can’t be reversed. He says that time is sandpaper on old wounds, and scar tissue is what we’re made of. This is healing, and I need to learn to let dead things rot. I laugh and laugh, but he doesn’t get the joke.
* * *
I can’t remember what day it is.
The boy has gotten into my house. Did I let him in? Has he been here before?
I don’t remember when he stopped being a stranger.
“Why are you here?” I finally ask. “Why do you keep coming back?”
Now, it is his turn to laugh. He says to let him go, then. Fossils can’t move, this isn’t Jurassic Park. You can’t resurrect joy or crucify pain. He tells me I don’t deserve to play god.
I tell him he is knocking at a graveyard.
Ephie Hauck lives in Nashville, TN. She won second place in the 2018 Belmont University Poetry Contest and was a semifinalist in the Nashville Youth Poet Laureate competition twice. She loves writing poetry and fiction, and has not been previously published.
My childhood ended when the dog arrived.
* * *
It was late August. The stream of freedom inspired by the beginning of summer had mellowed to a trickle, and we stuck our tongues out in hopes to catch a drop. My younger sisters and I would wallow in the shallow end of our pool, and when we were sure that the grown ups were busy inside and couldn’t use our proceeding actions as a story to entertain guests at the dinner table, we took off our camp tie-dyed tank tops, wound them tightly around our legs, and floundered around pretending to be mermaids. When our parents used to barbecue, we sat at a different table from them. It was two feet shorter and came with red, rounded plastic chairs that had no sharp edges. The three of us used to argue who got to sit at the head of the table. My mother laughed every time.
“It’s square,” she said.
But when it was humid and the days overstayed their welcome into night, you could argue about anything. And then we got the dog.
* * *
The first thing it attacked was my dolls. I came up to my room and found that Veterinarian Barbie was missing her hair, Pilot Barbie was missing her legs, Fashion Model Barbie was missing her head, and babysitter Barbie was just missing. I stood examining the vet’s bald scalp, muddy crocs seeping stains onto the pink carpet, when I glanced up to see the culprit lurking in the corner. It had a German Shepherd snout, with teeth so long they didn’t all fit in its mouth, and a Newfoundland body, big and buff with curled fur matted down by the darkness in its eyes. It breathed like my mother’s yoga teacher told her to, like it was trying to fill the room with its presence. It raised a claw towards me. I dropped my collection of decapitated dolls and raced screaming down the hallway.
Later, when I had a new lock installed on my door, I sat and packaged all the Barbies into a cardboard box that I put onto the second-highest shelf on my closet. I had to stand on my blue chair to do it. My mother said not to stand on chairs, but I’d stopped listening to her all the time. I told myself that I could play with them if I wanted to. It was just that they were slobbery and gross now, and no longer as fun.
Sometimes, in the following days, I’d feel the urge to play again, but then I remembered the chewing marks on plastic limbs and I wondered if kids would laugh if they knew I entertained myself with broken toys.
I never touched that box again.
* * *
I was the only one the dog hated. It ignored my sisters and was at peace with my parents. But yesterday, it ate my shoes, the ones that had fairies on the sides. When my mom took me to the shoe store, I picked out sandals, tiny gold ones with rhinestones decorating the part of the shoe that goes between your big toe and pointer toe. It hurt a little to have something wedged in there, but I liked the way it made my foot look like it was a flower with petals of jewels. My mother didn’t want to buy them. She said they looked too old, what about the flip-flops instead? I said I wanted these.
* * *
I couldn’t go into the backyard anymore because that is where the dog is. I couldn’t go to our pool anymore because the pool is in the backyard. Instead, I went to the park. There were a bunch of kids my age there. The girls wore their hair in high ponytails, and when they talked to me, they look at their painted nails instead off into my eyes. They said I could hang out with them, if I wanted. There were boys there, too. Generally, girls and boys were like salt and pepper, kept in different containers. Now, we were sprinkled together. The boys didn’t talk much, just sat with their hats put on backwards. My mother didn’t like that. I wondered if my new friends liked me.
* * *
We had the Johnsons over for dinner. When Mom set up the kids table, I saw that the dog had plopped itself right at the head, great big tongue sticking out like the horror it is. I told mother I’d sit at the grownup table, if I had to. Except, I didn’t call it the grownup table, because that word wasn’t very sophisticated. I called it, “the other table,” as if it were perfectly accessible to me, as if its chairs with sharp right edges with no round to be found were meant for me to sit in. My younger sisters looked up at me, their eyes dipping at the edges.
My mother said, in a voice soft enough to lure the mermaids that we used to be, “Why?” But couldn’t she see that the dog was right there? I was too big to squeeze into the little table, and too small for my mother to understand. Even though it was almost fall, the days cooler and cooler, I felt like I was wearing six overcoats on the beach, sweaty and bulky, out of place. I stood in between the two tables, suspended, staring the dog straight in the eye, until my mother sighed and made room for me at the adult’s table.
* * *
There was never any dog.
Vivian Parkin DeRosa is a writer from the Jersey Shore. Her work has been recognized by the YoungArts Foundation and the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards, and it has appeared in Poets Reading the News, The Huffington Post, and the Louisville Review. She blogs at vivianparkinderosa.com and is currently writing a novel. In her free time, she enjoys knitting and watching competitive reality shows.
When you first open your eyes, all you can see is the brightness. You don’t know what it is, but you feel your stubby fingers reach for that light. Pale clouds of cream dot your vision as you squirm, your back brushing against a fur blanket. You feel tender hands wrap delicately around your torso, its sensitive warmth spreading across your skin, and pull your small form away from that security. The pale clouds stitch together into a quilt of color, and you blink frantically to focus.
Later, you recognize the splash of pure white as your mother’s dazzling smile and the black spots as your father’s stubble, scratching you whenever he kissed you on the cheek. From your mother’s playful peek-a-boos, you realize the swinging blues as your mother’s sapphire earrings, and from your father’s fluttering hand butterflies, you make out the shimmering silver band as your father’s platinum wedding band.
When your vision finally allows you to observe your mother’s face, you admire how her dark eyelashes shiver in delight when she laughs, how the edges of her eyes crinkle when you try to talk, bubbles of spit blooming around your mouth that you think is gross, but your mother coos and calls it adorable. It takes you longer to recognize your father. Maybe it was the way his dark beard climbs up half his face or how his mess of brown hair curls to hide his otherwise striking green eyes. You like to tangle your hands in those curls, swishing them and watching its chaotic dance. The boisterous laugh you emit makes your father undeniably happy, and you wonder how a grown man could make such a high-pitched sound.
You dream of the colors you were finally able to explore, darting through lush forests, chattering with toucans and waltzing with peacocks. You race through meadows of wheat and watch as their beige arms extend endlessly towards the sky. You lie on the damp grass of your backyard, gazing towards the magenta sunset. You watch as the sky becomes a canvas and the sun its artist, painting a transitory masterpiece. You scrawl across untouched papers with your tools of creation, the colors you mix brilliantly dashing in a curved formation, a fragile butterfly, mid-flap, struggling to escape the paper’s incessant restraint.
One night you startle awake, grabbing for anything that will sustain your presence in reality. You breathe, telling yourself it was just a dream. But even with the lights on, you can no longer see the paper cranes you hung off your ceiling, only fuzzy dots of pink, blue, and purple, splashes of color that had once been your stunning creations. When your mother comes to check on you, you feel hot tears run down your face. No matter how hard you squint, you can no longer make out the deep dimples you used to poke affectionately at, nor the light brown freckles you used to count one by one.
You’re a kaleidoscopic butterfly, made to admire Mother Earth yet forced to endure a life surrounded by blurred faces, ones whose features you used to know so well, now only a thin mist—an illusion—drifting in and out of your sight.
Christine Zang lives in Palo Alto, California and is a junior at Henry M. Gunn High School. She has been writing casually since sixth grade. “Blurred Faces” was inspired by a conversation she had with a friend. They were talking about what it would be like to suddenly lose the ability to see and how the perception of the world would change.
Given my personal perspective as an autistic person, nowhere in my personal vernacular does the word “normal” appear. It’s something I’ve never experienced. Neither is it something I have aspired to become. Perfectly “normal” is so far from my life goals that you might not believe me when I say that I would change nothing about me except one thing: I would be able to speak like you, giving me the independence that you all take for granted.
Sometimes when I dream at night, I can talk with no problem, and I feel so free. Perhaps you can imagine what that feels like for a minute! But imagine what it’s like for a lifetime. When I think about it too long, I know this is my fate in life.
All things considered, I would forgo the gift of speech if that meant I had to give up all the other ways autism affects me. For example, music is such an experiential event for me. I see what I hear in colors that represent which emotions are triggered for me. Unfortunately for a majority of people, they only hear the sounds coming through their headphones. For me, they appear as a swirling cloud of color, a hypnotizing form that is reminiscent of swallows in flight. I find these colorful expressions also radiate from people’s strong emotions. Using this insight as a way of reading someone’s mood gives me a deeper impression of the people around me. Really, the power to empathize so strongly is a gift.
Also, I have so many strong associations with memories that I can remember what it was like to be a baby in my mother’s arms. She would sleep alongside me, and I would lay in her scent, completely safe. I remember being in Kindergarten, learning my letters and numbers alongside other little kids. They didn’t know how to regard me, and I remember my teacher not even bothering to try to help. How strongly her dislike for me flared! This, I remember as if it were yesterday.
Having a different choice in my experience has made my life so rich and beautiful that now I have made it my life’s goals to raise awareness to the ways autistics can be included and contribute to society. Perhaps the most painful reactions are from people who fear me or think I am retarded. Not only does this insult me, but it is a form of oppression that other marginalized groups experience. What it results in is discrimination and using my disability against me.
Now that I can communicate, I have learned that this discrimination is born out of misinformation and a lack of exposure to people who are autistic. Really, not ever having contact with people who are different only reinforces stereotypes and ingrains them further. Using my voice for autism acceptance is the goal I wake up with every morning. It’s the one thing that continues to motivate me and keep me up when the world gets too mean. What I would like to help bring about now is a new understanding of autistics, and how we are able to have a positive impact on society.
I am standing on the shoulders of all those who came before me: the ones who were put into institutions and orphanages; the ones who have been segregated into special ed classrooms; the ones who are working in sweatshops for a quarter of what the minimum wage is; for all those who will lose their Medicaid benefits if the ruling party has its way… They are my inspiration, aiding my energy and giving me reason to fight the good fight. What I want is equal rights for people with disabilities and the understanding that we are a gift, not a burden.
Using my voice to bring awareness feels natural to me. Only when people really listen to those who live with autism will we see how our society can improve for everyone, numbering in the millions of people affected. Then we will continue this movement worldwide, changing the world. As we would want equality, so would people in the far reaches of the planet. Imagine what a wonderful world this could be.
Niko Boskovic is a 17-year-old high school senior from Portland, Oregon, who has written extensively about life as a self-described “low-verbal autistic.” Starting at age four, he received forty hours of behavioral therapy each week. At age twelve, the only offered option in the public school system was a self-contained classroom. A last-minute decision to participate in training on the Rapid Prompting Method changed his life forever. Within one year, Niko started high school fully included, using a letter board to communicate. He is expected to graduate second in his class in June 2019 and will be pursuing a degree in writing.
Well, this is gonna hurt like a female dog (unfortunately I have to watch my profanity, so just use your imagination). The autobiography of seventeen-year-old me, that is. I feel like I have some insight, enough insight on being a black young woman in America. Being born so, I’m automatically important and destined to make history. Although the government may disagree. Try to keep up. Leave your sense of humor at home and adopt mine. Enjoy or whatever.
I guess we could start at the beginning. I was born with Tetralogy of Fallot aka “Blue Baby Syndrome.” I’d love to explain it but I don’t want to confuse anyone. Basically, it’s a rare condition caused by a combination of four heart defects that are present at birth, according to Google. I had open heart surgery at five days old so I’m good now. I think. The surgery left a big scar that starts at my neck and ends above my belly button. I’ve never really been insecure about it, even with all the questions and stares. No real problems come along with this disease. I’m just not supposed to partake in anything strenuous or anything that could cause stress on my heart. I wish someone would tell my anxiety that. Haha. So funny.
Growing up I had fun. I’d like to think I loved life. I mean I was the youngest of three, what could possibly go wrong in my life? I grew up in the South Bronx with my mother, my siblings, my grandmother, my uncle, and my in-and-out father. My father was not as consistent as any human would want. He was not the best influence or the best parent. Better yet, he was not the best man. But I wanted it to work so I gave more of myself than he did; I forgave him. I mean I forgive him.
As I said before, not very eventful. I guess I liked it. It was the last time I could remember being joyful and naive. I was the last to exit my mother for a full nine years. It went by too quickly. But she married and let three other children exit her even quicker. My innocence in school and at home was mistakenly equated with happiness. So because of that, I and affection weren’t really familiar. The lack of affection I received encouraged my struggle with trust. Encouraged my cynical ways. Encouraged me to bloom late. No, not puberty. Puberty hit me in the 8th grade and left me busty and curvy. Yet, I remained inexperienced. Which is quite ironic because playing “house” was a lifestyle in my childhood. Being a wife, having kids. It was all fantasized by ten-year-old me. Looking back with the hate of union and responsibilities in my heart, I can’t believe how naive I was back then. But many things brought me to this conclusion.
It was eighth grade. Now before this happened, I’ve never really been fond of boys, and boys have never really been fond of me. However this one day I decided to give this one boy attention. Lunch was over and so was my strategically planned middle school career. Nick threw a paper ball at my face and so I did what I knew all the other girls would do; chased him. I chased him out the lunchroom, up the stairs, down the hall, and almost around the corner. I was running on air I was so fast. I was basically Usain Bolt. But in a matter of seconds, I was eating the floor. It wasn’t how I fell but how long the fall took to end. I slid across the hallway floor on my goddamn stomach. Feet sprung in the air followed by my arms. The crowd grew big but silence grew even bigger. I glided across the hallway floor like a hockey puck and once I came to a stop, laughter erupted. I got up, back turned to the crowd to drown their noise and limped over to Nick. He stood in front of me as I punched his head in with the fear and frustration I felt. How could he do this to me? Why did God hate me? Why didn’t the universe work in my favor? After that day, I learned to NEVER CHASE BOYS!
Church was important. The relationship you held with God was important. Your fear of God was important. For you should believe your happiness, your trust, your heart should lie within him, root from him. From singing in the Baptist House of Prayer choir to watching people falling out from the Holy Ghost, I could never grab this “concept.” Sister Trish tumbled to the ground one time as her wig followed. But she didn’t leave that moment, that mistake, that embarrassment with God. She paused her praise to pick up her wig and put it back where it belonged. Then she allowed the Holy Ghost to possess her once more. Due to kids being so naive, when things like this would happen it was overlooked. There were no questions asked, which is scary. I already know what you’re thinking. Well if your wig were to fall off, wouldn’t you get up to put it back on? See the thing is that they teach you if you have no family, the church is your family. But since the Christians are oh so very judgmental, you’re forced to walk in fear. Not only did I struggle (and fail) to find myself within the “family,” I struggled (and continue to) find myself in the world.
I came to this realization pretty young, I guess. (But the sooner the better, right?) It was the first time I’ve ever felt alone in a room full of people. Middle school. Again. My mother dropped me off across the street from the school. Wishing she could walk me in like the other kids and their parents but I knew she couldn’t because I wasn’t the only child. Once I get inside, I was directed to the lunchroom where we receive our schedules. I instantly feel my mouth get dry; cotton mouth like a smoker. My sight got really blurry as a tear grew bigger and bigger and if I blinked it would fall. I felt a strong pain in my throat kind of like when you’re crying in silence… but you really want to scream. My heart started to pound in my chest, increasing rapidly by the second. My name was called to go grab my schedule. So stuck in place, my face began to burn as if I was staring at the sun for too long. I mean my body starts to drip in sweat, sweating bullets if you must. My feet started moving and fear washed over me as the lunchroom watched. I was so embarrassed. Trying not to break eye contact with the teacher because I didn’t want to face the faces staring at me. In that moment I felt guilty, scared of being me. Scared of the world seeing me. It’s funny actually. I take pride in my race and culture (I mean because there are too many of us that are culture-shocked and I won’t be another), but I won’t take pride in me as a person.
The birth years of my older siblings and I are 1999, 2000, and 2001. To think we’d be close but it never felt so. I was always deemed too emotional; I mean I am a writer. But in the morning before school, my mother tucked pride in my pants along with my collared shirt for the charter school we all attended. She sprinkled prudence onto the pan of soon to be baked mac and cheese before she put it into the oven. She kissed neglect on my forehead before heading out to the club on the weekends. My siblings followed in her footsteps for they learned to adapt and readapt. Completely unconcerned with everyone else but themselves and sometimes unconcerned with themselves. But because I feel everything and feel for everyone, I didn’t fit. I didn’t respect the tough love shown to me. I didn’t respect the shun that was placed on me due to my interests in girls. I didn’t respect the forcing of religion upon me and the fear I felt for not respecting it. I didn’t respect the exclusion I felt because my mother made a new family. Or how lies were told to protect the wrongdoer. Or how my modern beliefs were shot down and declared wrong. Or how they tell you that blood is thicker than water even when it doesn’t feel that way. Even when it isn’t that way. Actions always justified since its “normal.” I didn’t like a lot, as you can see. I didn’t like my childhood.
I do have three younger siblings. I miss them and wish I could be there to step in when all has gone wrong. Praying that the man above doesn’t hold a grudge against me for questioning him because I have to believe someone can stop the madness bound to happen in their life.
See, I’m not your average teenager. I can’t include a teen love quarrel in my memoir or a life-changing, eye-opening heartbreak. I’ve never committed to anything, to anyone. As I said before, people aren’t really fond of me and I’m not really fond of people either. You see, I can’t seem to look in the mirror and like what I see. I’m “disagreeably looking.” I love to be alone but hate being lonely. I tend to expect the worse of all situations. I guess it’s better to expect nothing. I don’t want your pity or your story of how you can too relate. It doesn’t matter, it’s not about you. I’ve become a hermit, I don’t have any friends and it’s been like that for some time now. Doctors call it depression and anxiety. Seeing how socializing and articulating anything isn’t really my thing, I get it. I used to think death was the only option to end all the confusion. Simply hurting and not understanding how and why. Soaking pillows and sheets because there’s nothing I could possibly do. I mean sometimes I just deal with it. I just let it be; I just let me be sad. Waiting for the universe to award me with good energy I don’t put out. I think if things were meant to be or meant to change, then it would be so.
Over the years I’ve adopted new coping mechanisms. Middle school was my lacerate stage. (I hope I don’t have to edit this word later because I can’t describe this in any other way.) Which was hard and not because I was addicted because if I wanted to stop I could. I had control, or at least that’s what I tell my therapist. And it wasn’t that it was concerning due to it being unhealthy or life-threatening. It wasn’t okay because black girls from the Bronx don’t hurt themselves because they hurt. Black girls from the Bronx demand respect and if it’s not given they wild out. Automatically becoming the stereotypical angry black woman. It was always a “white thing” to be hurt, diagnosed, and treated from mental illnesses. In tenth grade, I took a different approach. A cloud nine type of approach. It was a distraction; merely a stimulation. I enjoyed it so I guess that’s what really matters. I guess that brings us to now and I don’t really have much to say. As said previously, I just deal with it. It’s a part of life, right?
Now I think that’s about it. I know it was short; again not very eventful. At the age of seventeen, I have yet to meet and take pride in “happiness.” But I’d love to share it with you when I do. Thanks for coming to my TED talk.
Kayla Barton is a young, aspiring writer from the Bronx. At age seventeen, she moved across the country to Arizona in hopes to come across new and better opportunities. She writes in her free time and in school. Amongst writing, she shares an interest in things like drawing, astrology, and psychology. She hopes to entwine all of her interests into her career one day.
Welcome to our new occasional series, School Lunch. A youth spotlight, School Lunch is a curated bi-weekly feature offering fiction, poetry, flash prose, personal essay, YA, and CNF, from writers ranging in ages 13 through 17. Please enjoy. ~The Editors
On the last day of summer, Brynn sits in the blackberry thickets with her bare feet dangling into the shallow green water and writes a love letter.
She’s listening to The Talking Heads with earbuds and her fingers are stained purple from picking blackberries. She has too many love letters. Her backpack is full of them. It’s frayed and forest green and covered in Black Lives Matter and feminist and rainbow flag pins and she stashes the letters in the secret pocket of her backpack: six of them from ninth grade alone. One for the boy in art class she was partnered with to paint portraits of each other, one for the girl in her English class who recited her poem to everyone, one for the boy she talked to at the school dance. She doesn’t even remember the other ones. She’s bi or pan or something but it doesn’t really matter. She’s only fifteen.
This one’s for the girl who works at the Stow Lake concessions stand. Her name is Stella and she has wavy, washed-out silver hair down to her shoulders that’s been dyed three different colors this summer alone. She’s almost six foot and has blue eyes and a face full of freckles. She wears bright red lipstick and brings her film camera and walks around the lake taking black-and-white photos.
Yesterday, Brynn bought bright red lipstick. She always wears her hair braided and she’s only worn makeup once. She stares at her reflection in the water, wondering if she should.
Somewhere across the mirrorlike surface of the lake, Stella sits on the dock with her phone, gazing at her face in the black screen. She started wearing the red lipstick on the first day of ninth grade because she didn’t want to be the same perfect, straight-As kid in high school. She dyed her hair too. She can’t quite decide who she wants to be, but for now, it’s fine. She watches an old man on a park bench across from her, tossing breadcrumbs into the water and geese and ducks and seagulls float eagerly towards the shore, flapping their wings. Turtles poke up from the glossy green water.
She brings her film camera and its floral strap to the lake every day and her denim messenger bag with a set of charcoal pencils, a sketchbook, and her printed photos. She takes them out and starts to sketch a photo of Brynn, the girl with the braids and the notebook she’s always writing poetry in. Stella blurs the shading with her blackened index finger, drawing the lines of her profile. She watches her silhouette across the lake, writing. Probably another poem.
At the end of the letter, Brynn signs her name and puts it in the pocket of her backpack. She takes another look at Stella and the heavy afternoon sun, suspended in the blue sky, as clouds clear. Then she catches a bus on 21st and watches Strawberry Hill vanish out the fogged window.
Somewhere in this cracked concrete maze of rooms, he sits and stares at himself in a mirror. He’s in a band. Almost. Kind of. He’s in a week-long music camp where he was paired with other teenagers to perform a song they wrote together, and today’s the showcase at a little local theater. He’s wearing ripped jeans and fishnet tights and the band t-shirt they made just yesterday, spray-painted with navy and indigo and fuchsia to look like a galaxy. He’s too feminine. His singing voice goes too high and the vocal instructor at this music camp was the only one in his two years of vocal lessons since coming out not to complain about it. Ever since he came out as trans and put the lilac “he/him” pin on his backpack, everyone treats him differently. “If you’re going to act like that, why didn’t you just stay a girl?” He’s not a girl.
* * *
Somewhere in this cracked concrete maze of rooms, she puts lip gloss on for the first time in years. She’s fifteen and she wore it to her school dance in seventh grade and that’s the only time. She’s rejected every single stereotype. She skips school. She sneaks out of the house at night to meet her friends. A week and a half ago, she sat on the brick rooftop of a five-story building downtown at midnight after climbing up the fire escape with two other girls her age and watched the stars.
* * *
Their band is on first. He’s the lead singer and he’s upstairs for sound check, humming into the microphone and tapping his finger on the crisscrossed metal surface because he’s so nervous his voice cracks when he tries to sing. She’s behind him, strumming guitar chords and changing pickups and shifting the volume up and down.
And they’re backstage. She runs up and down the stairs getting a bottle of water and then looking over the notebook where she wrote the picking patterns. He waits for their introduction. He thinks he hears their band name twice. The bass player bites their lip. The drummer knots her band t-shirt for the third time.
A sliver of golden spotlight lands behind the velvety black curtain. He hears the opening drumbeats and chords of the song over and over and he stands in the spotlight and takes a deep breath. He stares into this glow until his eyes hurt and he’s really confident they’ll be good. Just for a moment.
For a moment, she looks at herself in a lighted mirror behind the folds of the curtain, the only thing separating her from three hundred sets of eyes. This is crazy. She can’t believe she’s here. She looks at the holographic lip gloss, glimmering when the ray of light from the stage hits it and she looks different and she actually likes it this way, with her uncontrollable hair combed out and lip gloss and mascara. She’s kind of beautiful.
And they step out into the spotlight.
This revolution is because of Disney princesses.
This revolution is because of Sleeping Beauty, the thin blonde princess rescued by her courageous prince.
This revolution is because Disney princesses can fend for themselves.
It’s not because they wear dresses.
It’s because we want to watch a movie where the Disney princess dons her fuchsia ballgown and battles a dragon.
This revolution is because we want princesses with every single shade of skin because we are different and there is no shade that isn’t beautiful.
Every single gender because there are countless and you cannot shield our eyes from people who aren’t just the stereotypes.
We are people. We are all people, boys or girls or in between and you can’t pray we don’t tell secrets because those secrets don’t belong to you.
We are everything, every variety.
Love is love is love is love is love rises above you and your stereotypes, trying to keep us all caged in because you don’t want us to bloom.
We refuse to let you suffocate us in your checkmarked boxes because take up space and we are more than these thin blonde princesses who just sit still and look pretty.
We want princesses that fit the stereotypes and princesses that don’t.
We want every variety.
We want princesses that reflect us.
We’re sick of being love interests in these stereotypical happily-ever-after scenes.
This revolution is because we want to be heroes.
This revolution is because we come in every size, shape, and color.
This revolution is because we are much more than what you think underneath the surface.
This revolution is because we’re all beautiful but we’re all more than that.
Edie Patterson is an 8th grader living in a blue dot town in Kansas. She is a photographer and plays guitar in addition to being a writer. She has been writing fiction and poetry since she was very young. She’s published poetry in Stone Soup. This is her first published fiction.
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