Dispatches from the Front: A series of sketches for parents of children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, their relatives, caregivers, and friends.
Read Chapter 3 and click through to 2 and 1 here.
By Dan Burns
Angela had a job lined up for Zero: a cell phone repair technician at a mom and pop shop. “I can do anything with a cell phone,” bragged Zero.
The night before his interview, Angela was short staffed, so I drove down from Dallas and took the night shift. Zero walked passed my work station, pajama clad, barefoot, on his way to the Hope Ranch fridge.
“Tonight’s the night,” he said.
“I’m gonna kill myself.”
I looked up from the computer. His first suicide attempt, he’d told me, was at age eleven, overdose in the psych ward. “It was the only way I could make them stop giving me dwugs.” He opened the fridge and loaded his bowl with leftovers. Barbecue chicken and french fries.
“How, Zero? Rope, knife, pills?”
“I’m gonna slow down my hawt until it stops.”
That made sense, in a Zero kind of way. He claimed he could raise and lower his body temperature by focusing his energy. Same for astral projection and remembering former lives. And time travel. He claimed them all.
But Zero was an insatiable attention seeker. And if hearts could be stopped by motor control, I wouldn’t have lasted past age twenty. Tough love needed. I called his bluff.
“Have a good trip. Get some rest. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
Zero, walking off, “I’m not comin’ back.”
I could have called the state mental hospital, Shoal Creek. Or I could have said, “Leave your feet sticking out the end of the bed. Tomorrow morning I’ll tickle your toes. If they don’t twitch, I’ll call 911 and have ‘em dump your body in the creek.”
Instead I said, “Close the fridge.”
“Nobody believes me.”
He stomped off toward the bedroom, carrying his dinner bowl. “Tell my dad I wanna kill him.”
“Don’t make a mess. We’ve got another camper waiting for your bed.”
Next morning Zero was up and dressed early, cheery as I’d ever seen him, shirt fresh, blue jeans pressed. I punched the cell phone repair shop address into my iPhone GPS and spewed gravel down the driveway toward Whitestone Boulevard, Zero navigating, my phone in his hand.
“Go left,” he said.
I’d been there, knew the route. I turned right.
“Wong way,” he said.
“You’re holding it upside down.”
“I was testing you,” said Zero, grinning.
On to our destination: a strip mall near a convenience store. Trash, water, and pop cans littered the cracked asphalt parking lot, power poles leaning this way and that, a vandalized newspaper stand with the local rag, “Green Sheets,” spilling out. Here, a broken glass window repaired with plywood. In red letters over the door: “Cell Phone Repair.”
It wasn’t a Dell Computer campus, but it was a start.
“Stay heah,” said Zero. “I don’t need help.”
“Good,” I said. I gave him the owner’s business card. “Go get it.”
Zero: “Ummm …”
Risky? Nope. I’d already met the shop owner. Zero was as good as hired. “I’ll wait next door,” I said.
I ducked inside the Stop ‘N’ Go. Hot dogs rotated on a spit. I thought about the botched convenience store robbery in Zero’s favorite show.
In Smallville, teenager Clark Kent, an orphan with superpowers and a secret identity, is marooned on a farm in Kansas, stranger in a strange land: a fantasy world of heroes and villains, girlfriends and boyfriends, love and betrayal, high school angst, family secrets, and a mysterious destiny waiting to be discovered. On the way to saving Earth from a meteor, Clark, broke and hungry, robbed a filling station, grabbed a hot dog, and then politely paid the store owner with the stolen cash.
Who writes these things? Someone like Zero.
I bought him a Sprite to celebrate. Walked back out into the parking lot with the
Sprite and my Starbucks Cold Brew coffee in hand, expecting to sit in the car until he’d finished his interview and sealed the job deal.
But Zero was waiting. Not good.
“Did you get the job?”
“There’s a two week twaining pewiod, no pay.”
“You’d be learning a trade for free.”
“I’ll be home in two weeks,” said Zero. “My dad’s comin’ to pick me up.”
Didn’t Harland tell him? Looking back, I wish I’d said, “Zero, Smallville is over. Austin is your new home. We’re your family now.”
But I didn’t. I held onto the hope that this abandoned child would find friends and set his feet on the path that I had chosen for him. He’d get a job, buy an old truck, settle down with a partner and live happily ever after.
But no one had consulted Zero. I turned right, but he turned left. What future did he see for himself?
It was time for us to have a good long talk.
Dan E. Burns, Ph.D., is the father of a 29-year-old son on the autism spectrum and the author of Saving Ben: A Father’s Story of Autism. Dr. Burns is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism and serves on the Executive Leadership Team of Health Choice, advocating for vaccine-injured children and their parents. As a writer, Dan inspires parents to organize businesses and communities where their adult children on the autism spectrum can live, work, play, and heal. As proprietor of Appleseed Ventures, he is developing and marketing the Fountain of Life, a small indoor aquaponic system for teaching ecology and growing herbs.