This story is by Christy DeRienzis and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The sounds crushed her. Noise compressed her insides, morphing into a physical demon. Bright fluorescent lights from the store scalding eyes and skin, that’s when she began screaming. The small, sane, part of her mind observed from afar, here we go again. She didn’t so much care that people were staring at her with horror as they made a wide berth around her now fetal form on the dusty linoleum floor, it was what her mother had to go through. Again.
The looming figure of the store manager gets too close. She can’t make out his words, but they are daggers thrown at her mother. The message is clear, and a common one, get your loud, disruptive child out of this store, you are disturbing the shopping experience of our customers. A cool hand strokes her cheek, the familiar floral scent of safety surrounds her, forming a barrier. Then the rocking, the soothing repetition of movement stops the screams in her throat. Sunlight touches her face and hair, walking now, a warm leather seat, the slam of a door, blessed silence. She’s safe.
Tori wipes the sweat from her brow and sits, warily watching Grace flap the sale brochure from the cursed store in her hands. Grace is calming herself. Her rapid back-and-forth motion slowed to a gentle sway. She is like a small row boat recovering from being caught in the wake of an ocean liner. Since Grace won’t tolerate touch, all she can do is soothe herself. A soft whimper escapes her throat and for the briefest of moments their eyes lock, “Ssssorry, ssorry, sorry….mama.” Tori feels her own heart slow its pounding. She takes a deep breath to steady herself, “It’s okay baby, it was too much today.” Starting the car, blasting the cool air, she drives home leaving behind a cart half full of groceries.
There was a time when running errands with Grace was simple, joyful even. Tori would pop her into the baby carrier and off they went. Grace was a beautiful baby. She charmed with a flash of a dimple and a deep belly laugh. Tori basked in the compliments from strangers. She was overjoyed to be a mom! Enraptured by her soft blond curls and little rose bud lips, Tori fell in love immediately. The first few years were blissful. Every morning Tori would wake with an excited feeling in her gut as she anticipated getting Grace from her crib and inhaling her cinnamon baby scent. It felt like every day was Christmas morning.
The change was gradual at first, the baby chatter and noises slowed to a stop. Grace became withdrawn, pensive, watchful with her big blue eyes. Her silence was only broken by inconsolable wailing, and when she really got going, ear-piercing screams. She didn’t sleep. She threw up everything she ate. Tori blamed herself thinking she was a terrible, non-instinctual mother. Her own child seemingly rejecting her, all of her. The only thing that worked was the night walking. Swaddled tight, and tucked in the stroller, Grace calmed as they marched off into the darkness. Tori walked, Grace slept. The stubborn baby weight that Tori had been fighting came off within weeks, then more melted away until Tori was a skeletal shell. Hollowed out eyes framed by dark circles made her look as haunted as she felt.
Then the parade of doctors began. As the months ticked by, it became apparent something wasn’t right. Grace seemed overwhelmed by the world. She wouldn’t make eye contact or turn to the sound of a voice. On the contrary, she recoiled. Only soothed by quiet, darkness, and isolation. Touch seemed painful to her. She would flinch if stroked. Now, older, she will tolerate touch, but she goes to a distant place mentally. Her mind can take flight from her body in an instant, scurrying to a safe corner.
There have been so many doctors, tests, waiting rooms, opinions. Most well-intentioned, some judgmental, others heartless and cruel. Tori doggedly tried all the therapies and concoctions. Looking back, they seem pointless. There is no cure for autism.
Tori watches Grace in the rearview mirror. Many autistic children are physically beautiful, as an eight-year-old she is a show stopper. Calmer now, she is humming softly. Her fragile form is bathed in sunshine, making her hair glow. Knowing they will always be locked in this dance, neither able to break free, Tori’s heart swells as her eyes fill with the tears that Grace is unable to shed. They share the same life path, the guardian and the angel.
Tori learned early on that a child like Grace is a mixed blessing. She is the ultimate litmus test of someone’s character. Some instantly offer compassion with a knowing look, or gentle squeeze of the arm. Others recoil, lower their eyes, avoid. Unfortunately, Grace’s father was in the later category. She never uses his name, he lost that honor. He left when she was 3-years-old. Remorseful and horrified by the person he realized he was, he packed his bags and left in the middle of the night. He took a night walk of his own and kept going. He wasn’t up to the task of the care and keeping of Grace. Mercifully, the checks are deposited like clockwork into Tori’s account. A fact that keeps her fury at bay, usually.
More than anger, Tori’s predominant state is exhaustion. There is also the guilt. It used to eat her alive. She would lay in bed at night obsessing over ways she damaged her child. She didn’t know she was pregnant when she went to the bachelorette party and downed three margaritas. Five months into the pregnancy she got the flu. Weak, sick, and dehydrated she ended up in the hospital, where they gave her Tylenol and IV fluids. None of these things mattered, Tori knew that now.
The car bumps up the curb into the driveway and stops moving. Grace, sensing the change, feels agitated. Motion has always soothed her. She focuses her mind on her sanctuary, the closet in her room she calls “Gracie-land.” Heading in that direction, words form in her mouth and stumble from her lips, “Daceysand, Daceysand, Daceysand…” Her slight form shuffles up the stairs. Finding her closet she drops to the floor and curls to a ball. Knees to chest, Grace begins to rock and hum in the dark silence.
Grace discovered the stillness of her closet when she was a toddler. Tori would find her sitting in there hypnotically rocking . When rocking turned to head banging on the walls, Tori had them padded. Now it was a padded room that worked to protect Grace from sound, light, and contact with the world.
Tori sits slumped on the bottom stair, exhausted from the day and hungry. The backdoor to the house is still swinging open. The doorknob glinting in the afternoon sun catches her eye and shoots forth a memory she thought was buried.
Tori remembered being desperate for a shower. Grace was her closet, rocking and softly humming. Grace stared at the open door, then the doorknob. The silver lock winked slyly. A notion of escape danced through her mind and tugged at a thread of her resolve. She felt a drop of her love seep away, replaced by the gleam of resentment. The shower beckoned, promising hot water to pound down on her bruised soul. Temptation crooked a wicked finger her way, come on Tori, it’s 10 minutes.
Grace noticed the stillness of her mother immediately. Her heart raced as she watched the door slowly close, followed by a metallic click. Firecrackers of alarm shot through her tiny body. Agitated and rocking, her head found the wall. Strangely, the impact grounded her. You are here, you are here…the banging affirmed. It kept her from floating away. When the door opened, after what seemed like an eternity, there stood her mom. Her gentle smile quickly contorted into a look of horror as she looked at her. Grace was covered in blood. The head banging had broken her nose, the white walls were spattered a grotesque red.
Pressing her fists to her eyes, Tori pushes away the memory. Her thoughts shift to the more mundane problem of what to cook for dinner.
Exhausted from the store episode, Grace is finally deep in sleep. Now is the only time Tori can touch her child. Breathing in the scent of her, she twirls a wayward curl, tucking it behind her ear. Gingerly entwining fingers, Tori holds Grace’s hand like it’s a baby bird. She closes her eyes and imagines the two of them walking in the park, the warmth of the day pinking their cheeks, a breeze flirting with their clothes. They walk, and walk, and walk away from the locked up world.