My Autistic Brother Reluctantly Finds a Job
My aging car rumbled as I pulled into the driveway. The steering wheel bumped my oversized belly, and I sucked in a breath, trying to make myself smaller. A small “I Voted” sticker started peeling off my chest. Today was the mayoral election, and I had just enough time to complete my civic duty before driving my brother to his new job.
When the car halted, I rolled down the window and honked the horn. In case that failed, I shot him a text. “Come on, bud. Time for work.”
The response was immediate. “Where?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I typed back, “Wear something nice and get in the car.” I left the window down and adjusted the seat. My stomach kept getting in the way of the wheel, but if I pushed the seat back too far, my feet would not reach the pedals.
Cale emerged from the house in a button-down shirt tucked into dress pants. After he lowered himself into the car, I nodded and backed out of the drive. “Perfect outfit for today.” He clenched and unclenched his fists as he gazed out the side window. I could tell he was trying to figure out where we were headed. Fortunately, I had anticipated this and took the most indirect route I could find. He had no clues to our destination until we pulled into the parking lot.
“No.” His seat belt stayed buckled, and he shook his head. “I’m not going in there.”
The building before us was two stories of red brick. It was laid out in a horseshoe shape with a courtyard in the center divided from the roadway by a large iron gate. This gate was set into a wall of bricks that matched the building and enclosed the entire grounds. Shadows of figures meandered through the sidewalks and open hallways with bags slung over their shoulders. A bell rang, and groups huddling together scattered like rats in the light.
Words on the iron gate read “Warlington High School.”
I got out of the car, walked around the hood, and opened the passenger door. Cale yanked the handle shut and nearly caught my finger when it closed. I leaned on the side of the door and knocked. He turned his head away. “You’re only a substitute teaching assistant, not a full teacher,” I explained to the back of his head, “Just one class and just for today, I promise. You don’t have to ever come back here again. Not after this.” I motioned for him to exit the vehicle.
“How about I never come back again, including this?’ I shook my head. In return, he practiced the pout I taught him when we were little. His lower lip stuck out until it covered most of his chin, and his eyes were thin lines in his head. Small squeaks came from his throat, and I realized he was trying to whine like a puppy.
Despite myself, I laughed. So hard and for so long, tears streamed down my face. His pout turned into a glare. “I’m sorry. I just –” I hiccuped and wiped my face with both hands. “You look ridiculous. Come on, you’re already late.”
I pulled out my phone and texted a friend of mine from college. She was the teacher Cale was supposed to be assisting. “Sorry we’re running late. He’ll be there. Not sure when, but he’ll be there.” A few weeks ago, I had mentioned the situation with Cale, and my friend insisted he could work with her. She managed to get everything cleared with the school, including a background check, and was looking forward to meeting him. “That’s what happens when you befriend Special Education teachers,” I muttered to myself.
The car doors clicked, and I realized Cale had locked himself inside. “I’m not going.” I pushed my back against the warm metal of the car’s frame. Air surged through my nostrils, and I blew out hard. We needed to move to Plan B.
Elizabet fidgeted with a fluffy hairdo on her lap. She sat cross-legged on the floor of Christa and Nathan’s living room. “Why do I need a wig?”
Nathan stood in front of her and dabbed a brush around her eyes. “Because your real hair will give you away.” He stepped back with a nod and pursed his lips. His phone lay beside him on the floor, showing QuickPic pictures of teenagers and influencers. His eyes darted to the photos, and he scrolled a bit. “You need some lipstick.”
“Can I put it on myself?” Elizabet shuffled, trying to bring circulation back into her tingling legs.
The self-proclaimed artist shook his head and pressed a tube onto her lips. “It can’t be your normal style. Since this is a disguise and all. We’re trying to make you look younger, right?”
“Yes, but –” She paused. “Do I have to do this?”
“Wasn’t it your idea?” Nathan tucked her hair into a netted cap and set the wig on top. Some wisps of blonde plastic fell and tickled her nose. She held a breath, trying not to sneeze, just as Nathan unleashed a barrage of hair spray. The fumes lingered in the air, stuck to her skin, and made her throat itch.
“I was joking,” she coughed, “I never thought Christa would actually want me to pretend to be a student. Especially not as some kind of ploy to get Cale into the classroom.”
“There we go!” Nathan ignored her and placed a small mirror in her hand. “We’re ready to take you to school.”
Elizabet gazed at her reflection and cringed. “Is this really the current style kids wear now?” When he nodded with enthusiasm, she shrugged and stood, shaking her numb legs. Her phone buzzed with a text from Christa. She read aloud, “He’s locked himself in the car. Moving to Plan B.” Nathan’s eyes lit up, and she sighed. “I suppose we’re off to school then.” They climbed into the family truck and began the short drive to the local high school.
Cale sat on a bench in the school courtyard. A girl with a pink ponytail appeared in his periphery. He turned to look at her and noticed her strange outfit. She wore a pink dress billowing into a tutu on the bottom with red and white speckled leggings. Her white boots barely covered her ankles, and flaps on the outsides sprouted into wings. One hand carried a staff with a closed flower bud on the tip. She floated over and patted his leg. “Don’t worry, big brother. You can take all the time you need.” She spun with a giggle and leaned toward him. “After all, it takes more than one magical girl to fight an enemy.” She pointed at the school doors. “There are a lot of enemies in there, and you’ll need more than just Ruby Ray (She pointed her thumbs at herself.) to beat them all.”
He nodded, jumping back when the girl transformed before his eyes. Her pink ponytail turned brown, and her outfit was plain. Also, her stomach bulged, making the clothes tighter than they should be. With a jerk, he realized this was Christa, not a magical girl, standing before him. He sighed and crossed his arms. “I’m not going in there.”
“The first period of classes is almost over by now. You won’t even have a full day.” I tried to reason with my brother when he refused to leave the courtyard, but he just shook his head. I tugged a strand of hair so hard I thought it might dislodge from my scalp. “Look.” I turned his head to face me. He stared at my shoes, but I tilted his chin until he met my eyes. “You have been to seven jobs in the past three and a half months. You quit. Every. Single. One. Most of the time without explanation.” He sucked his lips into his mouth and nodded once. I released his head, but his eyes stayed fixed on mine. “You are living at our house. Eating our food. Using our wifi, which is driving the bills up like crazy, by the way.”
He said nothing, and I continued, “I have applied for jobs for you and scheduled interviews for you. These are things you should have been doing yourself. I am not your mother. I have my own family to worry about, especially now. (I held a hand in front of my stomach.) But I put all that aside to help you. What have you done?” Shrug. “Exactly! You show up for one day and then leave. Nothing is good enough for you.” He flinched, and I backed away from him. “I know you don’t like kids, but you are going to take this job for just one day. Never again. But for today, you will. Because you refuse to do anything else.”
I stormed out the gate and into my car. After making sure no one was around, I grabbed a jacket from the backseat, wrapped it around my face, and screamed as loud as I could. Cathartic as that was, Cale still sat on the bench. Soon, students would be filling the courtyard between classes. Someone would ask why he was there, and he would be made to leave or go inside for a guest pass. Really, it was amazing they made it through the gate without one. But they wouldn’t have that luck for long. Someone would approach him. “And ten to ten odds, he’s going to leave instead of getting a pass.”
Before I could scream again, my husband’s truck pulled into the parking lot. He opened the passenger door with a flourish, and Elizabeth climbed down. My heart sank, but I forced a tiny smile and exited my own car. “Hey there, Bethy.”
“Is it that bad?” Nathan glanced between us. Elizabet checked the car mirror and fixed her fake hair. I glared at Nathan behind her back, but he insisted, “That’s what all the kids are wearing!”
“It looks –”
Words failed me. One of Elizabet’s eyelids was bright blue; the other was neon green. Her cheeks were vibrant pink, like she had stayed in the sun far too long. I suspect my husband used the whole tin of blush. Her deep red lipstick was smeared and looked more like blood than makeup. An overly large blonde wig sat on her head. It gave her straight bangs that stopped just above her eyeshadow and added an extra three inches to the top of her head. She looked like she had stepped out of a movie from the 1980s. A bad movie.
I rummaged in the glove compartment but found no napkins. “Note to self,” I muttered, “Get more napkins for emergencies.”
The bell rang. I jolted and grabbed her arm. “We have to go. You’re going to be late.” I moved to the courtyard with huge strides, Elizabet right behind me.
Cale exited his MC Anywhere game and stared at us. He blinked a few times and rubbed his eyes with his palms. My words flew at him in a rush. “Mr. Cale, this poor student is running late. If you help her make it to class on time, maybe she can get you a guest pass?”
I turned to Elizabet, who beamed and stuck out her hand. Her voice was higher than usual with a slight indistinguishable accent. “My name is Beth. Pleased to meet you.” She would be getting the Osko award for this performance, not me. “I have to head to the office, too. Getting you a guest pass while I’m there will be no problem at all.”
Cale stared at her outstretched hand without moving. “Mr. Cale I believe your name is,” she continued, “We need to get to the office. If we don’t, lots of people will congregate here and start asking if we need directions.” Her hand dropped, and she took a step toward the main doors. “If you don’t want my help, I can go ahead to class now. You can always ask other students. They’ll be out here in a second or two, anyways.” She glanced between me and Cale as students began to filter into the courtyard. Some of them eyed our group with suspicion, others with curiosity. One thing was sure, most of them were watching us by now.
My brother growled and stood. “I’ll just go with you.” His wrists spun for a moment, and he muttered something unintelligible.
“Have a great day!” I tried to bump his fist, but he growled again. Holding my hands in surrender, I made my way back to Nathan.
The pink-haired girl strolled beside Cale. “You have a new ally in your fight against evil!” She hugged herself. “Such a pretty girl, too. I’m sure she has lots of magical potential.”
“You’re not a student,” Cale muttered to Elizabet.
Ruby Ray’s jaw dropped to her stomach like a cartoon. “Of course she is! I mean, her makeup is –” She made a face and struggled to smile. “Needs a little adjusting. But she’s a girl, and she’s young. That’s all you need to be a magical girl!” She hovered an inch above the ground and spun.
Elizabet the student shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just late because I had an early morning doctor’s appointment.” She flipped her hair and batted her long eyelashes. “I have Miss Ramos’ class next.”
“I’m going to Miss Ramos’ class.”
“Perfect! We can go in together.” She hugged his arm a little, forgetting herself.
Getting a guest pass was easy, and the twosome were in their designated classroom before the next bell. Miss Ramos welcomed them both with a smile. (Christa had explained Plan B over text before Elizabet arrived. She was excited to play along.) It turns out Miss Ramos was a music teacher. Her assistant was only needed to help students get instruments and sheet music, straighten between classes, and give out hall passes.
Classes rotated throughout the day, and Cale noticed many of them had approximately even female-male ratios. He handed out sheet music to each student and retreated to the back of the room. The magical girl beside him commented on the usefulness of having a room full of magical girls, and he shook his head. “There’s no enemies.”
Miss Ramos stood at the front of class and clapped her hands together. “Alright, everybody. Today is the sheet music test.” Groans from everyone, even one exclamation of surprise. “Don’t give me that, now.” Her soft face hardened. “I’ve been reminding you about this for weeks.” A grin lit her face. “You’ll all do fine. You have the entire period. Go ahead and start.”
After pronouncing their sentences, the teacher sat behind her desk and started grading papers. Cale watched the students. Sweat broke out on many foreheads. Some girls tugged at their hair, making him think of Christa. Feet shuffled on the floor, and pencils tapped music stands. Somebody clicked a ballpoint pen until a boy in the back row yelled, “Stop that, or I’m breaking it!” A single shush from the teacher quieted both the pen and the frustrated student.
“You may not be facing a battle, but they are.” Ruby Ray swept into the middle of the students and held her arms out. “For some of them, this test separates them from passing or failing.” She nodded at a large boy. “He needs to get an A to stay on the football team.” Her hand pointed to a bespectacled girl in the back with tears in her eyes. “That girl has to show her parents she is just as good as her sister.” She placed her hands on the backs of a pair of students. “These guys want to get into medical school and music university.”
The magical girl hovered beside Elizabet. Her head was down, and she scribbled on the page. Sighs and moans dropped from her lips. Cale knew she was too old to be in high school, yet here she was, slaving over a test she did not even have to take. A pink ponytail dangled just above her paper as Ruby Ray leaned her face over the test. “What about her? Do you care about her battle?”
Cale swallowed. “But I can’t help with their test.”
“Not with the answers, but with something else.” The flower on her staff bloomed into a sparkling hibiscus. She tapped him on the head, and the room spun.
When he was no longer dizzy, Cale opened his eyes and gasped. A giant hairy beast with many arms and many eyes lingered in the back of the room. Its arms were stretched above the students, and one pressed down on each of them: on their heads, shoulders, chests, backs, arms, legs. Cale could feel the wisps on his arms rise as the monster watched them. Students shifted to remove the pressure, but the arm pushed down harder. Some of them winced; others prayed.
“This is the test?” He struggled to breathe the electrified air.
“The stress of the test has been made manifest,” she explained, “That’s why schools are so dangerous and why most magical girls are created while in school.” Her violet eyes turned to him. “Brother, shall Ruby Ray help them?”
He nodded. “Do it.”
“But Ruby Ray can’t do it alone. She needs everyone’s help!”
The magical girl floated into the air. All the female students lifted their eyes from the test and stared. Some of them screamed when they saw the hairy paws resting on their hands or felt the claws in their hair. They wriggled and cried under the intensifying pressure, begging to be set free.
“Ruby Ray has given you all the ability to see the monster your stress has created,” she yelled, “and she needs your help to fight it.” They watched her, sniffling and nodding. “Every girl in here has the potential to become a magical girl.” She spun and lifted the glowing staff. “All you have to do is believe.”
Elizabet scoffed. “This is ridiculous. It’s just a test. Right, Mr. Cale?” Cale squeezed his eyes closed and clasped his hands, as if in prayer. She stuck her tongue out at him and returned to her writing. The monster patted her head, but she seemed not to notice.
“Let’s all believe together!” The fairy sprite released the staff, and it floated higher, bumping the ceiling. Most of the girls had clasped their hands or closed their eyes. Some stared; some glanced at the monster’s body against the back wall. It watched them without moving.
A bright light filled the room, and colored rays shot from the staff, piercing each girl’s heart and disappearing. One of them cried out, but nobody paid her any attention. Their bodies hovered over the chairs where they previously sat, and one by one, they started to spin. The beast’s paws lifted until they returned to their seats, where they managed to pin the students again, though not quite as hard. One of the girls mumbled, “I think I’m going to be sick.”
When they stopped spinning, all of them were outfitted in fluffy dresses of varying pastel colors. Only Elizabet continued to look like herself, more accurately the student-self she had created. Each female student held a sparkling weapon: staves, swords, bows, and more. Glitter filled the air until they were forced to breathe it. A blonde girl in the front row squealed and turned to her friends. “I look fabulous!” They nodded. This exclamation started a string of excited cries.
“We all look like princesses.”
“Not princesses,” Ruby Ray remarked, grabbing hold of her staff, “Magical girls.” Half the former-students-now-magical-girls watched her, and the other half continued to marvel over their wardrobe change. “Listen, in order to get this right, Ruby Ray needs you all to funnel your power into her. She’ll make it more concentrated. That way, we can kill this beast, and it won’t ever bother you again.” A cheer rose from the desks. “Everyone, close your eyes.” The girls did as they were told.
The original magical girl took a deep breath, and her brows scrunched together. The smile faltered. Cale recognized that face. He edged up to her and whispered, “What’s wrong?”
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle so much power. It might, um, well–” Tears glistened in her eyes, and she squeezed his hand. “We’ll see, right? This is important to you, to all of them.” She grinned and gestured to Elizabet. “Especially her.”
Cale shook his head and tried to hold tight to her, but the magical girl floated above him. “Alright, everyone. Imagine your hearts growing together as one and floating up to me.”
As he watched, a dozen ghostly glowing hearts popped from the girls’ bodies and hovered in the air. He could hear their wishes and dreams when he leaned close to each one. The air smelled of cookies and exotic spices, and the odor grew as the hearts merged into a single giant shape in the center of the room. This huge heart engulfed the little magical girl like a bubble, and she inhaled, pulling the magic into her lungs and very essence.
With a trembling hand, she pointed her staff at the monster. “Begone.” The word was little more than a whisper, but a whisper full of power. A laser shot from the staff and hit the beast directly in the chest. It shrieked like a thousand tea kettles and loosened its grip on the students. Its paws did not release them. Instead, the beast’s eyes flashed, and it turned its hulking body toward her.
Cale’s younger sister drooped. Her breathing grew quick, and she gripped the rod with both hands. The laser stream sputtered and disappeared. Glittering tears sprinkled the ground beneath her, and she whispered, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t enough.”
The staff fell first, landing at Cale’s feet. Its flower closed into a bud, and the sparkling lights inside were extinguished. As he bent to retrieve it, Ruby Ray herself fell, rolling off his bent back and flopping to the floor. He blinked a couple times and leaned over her body. The girls were silent. Nobody screamed, nobody spoke, nobody even breathed.
Two more hairy arms shot from the monster’s form and opened the door. They crossed the threshold and dragged another girl kicking and screaming into the room. She arrived late and was too terrified to enter the room. Unfortunately, that made her an easy target. The beast held her tight against the wall; no matter how she struggled, she could not slip from its hold.
Elizabet exhaled and turned to the monster. Everyone gasped; they had assumed she was blind to its presence. No, she had known it was there all along. She was biding her time, seeing if anyone could defeat the thing on their own. Now, she had a reason to join the fray. Her eyes wandered to her shoulder where the heavy paw rested. Showing no effort, she shrugged it off her body, and the paw flew into the air. All eyes in the room watched her, breathless. The hostage squeaked as arms gripped her tighter.
“Sometimes, to do the right thing, you have to be yourself,” Elizabet began, “If you pretend to be anyone else, your fight will be over before you even start.” Her mouth twitched into a sad smile. “For a long time, I’ve been afraid of myself.” She stood and advanced toward the back wall. “I’ve been afraid people wouldn't like the real me, so I tried to change myself.” Her eyes darted toward Cale, who was watching her. “I’m done with that.” She yanked the wig off her head, tossing it high into the air. Everyone was too stunned to comment. “From now on, my power comes from myself. I’m done with pretending.”
Before the last words were out of her mouth, a bright light engulfed Elizabet. Gold bands wove themselves around her wrists. Tall boots wrapped her legs. Her hair blew as if a strong wind had invaded the room, and a silver tiara shone in her hair. Pink sleeves puffed from her shoulders; leggings appeared on her legs. A large bow popped into place on the waist of a poofy purple skirt.
The light died away, and an older magical girl stood in Elizabet’s stead. She held a gleaming sword and spoke with Elizabet’s voice. “I’m giving you one more chance to stop this.” Her sword pointed toward the monster. “Leave these girls alone and don’t come back.”
Cale’s jaw dropped open, and he used an index finger to close it. He had never heard Elizabet speak like that. She was always so quiet and timid. Winning the chef job must have boosted her self-esteem. He grinned then slapped his face. “I don’t want a girlfriend,” he mumbled, a bit half-heartedly.
When Elizabet’s speech was through, the monster disappeared in a cloud of smoke. She never had to use the weapon. “Much better.” The room returned to normal, and the students scribbled on the tests, as if nothing had happened.
In fact, none of that had happened. Cale slapped his face a few more times. He knew there was no epic battle, but Elizabet’s voice continued speaking in a soft whisper. “Now, if you need help with them again, tell Miss Ramos or give me a call. My cell number is on this paper.” She was speaking to one of the students in the corner of the class. A chubby girl with freckles and red hair.
The girl shifted on her feet. “What about the test?”
“I can’t give you the answers, but I think you know them already.” Elizabet winked at her and patted her shoulder. “Do the best you can. Remember, your power comes from you, not from those jerks.” The girl nodded and pulled Elizabet into a short hug. Then she took her seat and resumed the test. Cale stared at Elizabet, who glanced at him and mouthed, “I’ll tell you later.” He nodded.
“I’m never doing that again.”
Cale sat picking at his nails in the back of my car. Elizabet sat on the other side, but neither of them leaned against the window this time. She just giggled and shook her head. “I had a fine time, but I could tell you were miserable all day. You did a great job passing out papers and stuff, though.”
He grunted and turned to Nathan in the driver’s seat. “What are you doing here?”
My husband gestured to the car and chuckled. “Well, it is my car.” Before Cale could protest that it was my, Christa’s, car, he continued, “I wanted to see how Bethy did at school today.” He caught her eye in the rearview mirror. “Makeup work for you?”
“It was fine, I guess,” she replied, “but halfway through the day, I just took it off. There’s no sense in pretending to be something I’m not.”
“We all just need to grow into ourselves at some point,” Cale mumbled. Christa gasped and noticed Cale trying to catch her eye. He had understood her lecture, after all.
“What were you talking about with that girl?” As usual, my brother changed the subject with no transition. He did, however, uncharacteristically watch Elizabet as he waited for her to explain.
“Oh, that. She was being bullied by these other girls. Apparently, they told her if she passed her exam, they would flush her backpack and all her stuff down the toilet.” She blew out a breath. “They’ve done it before, or she would have thought it was an idle threat. Anyway, she’s been failing her classes because of them, even though she’s very smart.”
Cale squinted. “Bullying is wrong.”
“Yeah, but some people do it anyway. These girls were jealous of her good grades. They were afraid all the boys would want to date my little friend instead of them. So they attacked her.” She grinned. “But I gave them a nice talking-to. I don’t think they’ll be bothering her again.”
I exchanged a glance with Nathan. Timid Elizabet was starting to sound more confident. “Maybe next, she’ll get the courage to ask him on a date again,” my husband whispered to me.
My eyes watched the pair in the mirror. They chatted about a movie both of them recently watched. Cale tried to explain why the stoic main character should have stayed single. Elizabet argued that the character’s development had naturally progressed to the point of intimate relationships. Both of them waved their hands in the air as they spoke – Elizabet’s twirled and chopped to coincide with her points, while Cale’s opened and closed like puppets. My smile stretched wider. They were acting like real friends.
“I hate to interrupt this fascinating discussion,” I blurted, “but who wants to hit up Neon Lemon Eatery before we head home? I’ve heard their new special quiche is to die for.” I winked at Elizabet, and she glowed with pride. Four hands shot into the air. I swatted Nathan for taking his hands off the wheel and laughed. “Alright, family, let’s get some grub.”
“Family?” Two voices rang out at once. Elizabet turned to look out the side window, but I caught her grin. Cale’s face flushed, but he never disagreed. Bethy was good as a blood relative now. I smirked. All we had to do was make it official.