My Autistic Brother Reluctantly Finds a Job
“Overtime again?” I took a deep breath. “Are you coming home for lunch?” The hair stood up on my arms, and I rubbed it hard. “Buying stuff for the crib? Still? Nathan, it’s been two months! That should’ve been done when the parts first came in the mail.” I blew the air from my lungs and waved a hand. “Fine, fine. Just remember to lock the door when you come back. I’ll probably be asleep.” I ended the call and threw myself onto the couch with a loud groan.
Elizabet popped into the room. Her hair was tied in a messy ponytail, and her soapy hands held a towel and mixing bowl. “Was that Nathan?” I nodded. “I guess he’s working late again?” Another nod. She left and reappeared without the bowl and towel. “Are you okay?”
I squeezed my cheeks together with both hands. It made my face look ridiculous, but it was a better habit than pulling my hair. Right then, I wanted to do both and more. “Not really.” I sat up, and she joined me on the cushions. “I’m not going to work regularly or even doing any housework.” I made a face and swept my arm toward her. “I shouldn’t be this tired, but I am. I’m emotionally exhausted.” My fingers pinched my cheeks, and she laid a hand on my knee. “I only have one more month until this little person comes popping out of my body. (My voice caught, and I coughed to keep from crying.) And I don’t even know if my husband will be there.”
Elizabet rubbed my back and guided my head to her shoulder. “I’m sure he’s just trying to get some extra money for baby expenses while he can,” she said, “After all, you’ll need him even more after the little one arrives.” She put her free hand on my stomach and smiled when the baby tapped it.
Only immediate family members were allowed to touch my belly in such an intimate manner. A stranger at the mall once tried to see how far along I was by feeling my bump. When I flinched, Nathan pushed her away and lectured her for a good ten minutes. After that, we had shirts made that said “No Touchy” with llamas emblazoned on them. I couldn’t wear that everywhere, of course. However, I made sure to exude an aura of “touch me and die” whenever I traveled without the boys or my nanny.
The fact that Elizabet so casually rubbed my stomach was a testament to how close we had grown in the last couple months. When I first asked her to be our nanny, I only wanted Cale to get to know her better. I had no idea how much help she would turn out to be, especially with Nathan missing in action the past couple weeks.
I shook my head, still pressed to her shoulder. “We’ve been fighting more than usual, but so much happened last month, we didn’t have time to argue about anything. Goodness, between those awful birthing classes and trying to Cale into that teaching assistant job, I’m surprised we had a chance to breathe.” I grinned a little and peered up at her. “You know, Nathan insisted on coming with me to pick you both up from that school. He wanted to know how everything went. I guess it was a nice distraction from the heavy workload and –” I groaned. “That. Stupid. Crib.”
Elizabet nodded. “I was wondering why he came with you that day, but I thought it might be rude to ask.” I hoisted myself back into a sitting position, and she patted my head before standing. “About the crib, though. I’m going with Nathan to the hardware store at lunch to pick up the last parts he needs. He said they’ve been sold out every time he calls.”
“The hardware store over by the mall?”
“That’s the one!” She pivoted and strolled toward the kitchen, taking large steps.
I narrowed my eyes. “Didn’t I just drop Cale there a couple hours ago?”
She turned the corner into the kitchen, but I heard a disembodied “Maybe” before the sink turned on. Over the water, her alto voice belted out lyrics to a song popular a few years ago. A grin twitched at my mouth, “At least someone is lucky in love right now.” It was nice to see her and Cale so happy, even if Nathan and I were struggling.
“I need something to get my mind off things. Ah!” The idea whacked me like a baseball bat at the Major Leagues. I marched to the storage closet and grabbed a hammer. My feet halted at the door to the nursery. The crib inside had collapsed. Pieces lay scattered on the floor, sitting on shelves, and discarded anywhere there was room to put them. Paint chipped from places the wood had been dropped. “Someone’s gotta finish this thing. I guess it’s going to be me.” Holding the hammer up like Riveter Rebecca, I got to work.
Cale studied the open area full of boxed ceiling fans and tugged at the collar of his neon t-shirt. Too bad none of those fans were running. The store was stuffier than a swamp mid-summer. He coughed into his sleeves. Everything smelled like sawdust, despite the lack of saws. “How do people fit these things into their car?” He gestured to a fan nearly as big as him.
Lesley chuckled. Her oversized boot pushed a cumbersome box out of the walkway and under a shelf. “Most of them don’t. They bring a truck and put it in the bed.” She tapped her toes against the concrete floor, scuffing the front of the shoe. “I’ve shown you around and let you trail me for the past couple days. Are you ready to work?”
He hesitated. Lesley’s intense gaze bored through his head and made him blush. His eyes stared at her feet as he nodded. “Yes.”
“Good, then off we go.”
Her legs were longer than his, and even after days of practice, he struggled to keep pace. Instead of staring at the ground, Cale was forced to watch the back of Lesley’s overalls. Losing sight of her in such a large store could spell his termination. Much as he might enjoy being jobless again, he promised Christa to try a little harder this time.
Because of that promise, he had to keep up with Lesley. Cale exhaled and sucked in his lips, concentrating on breathing through his nose. Then, he took giant steps and swung his arms in time to their rhythm. Onlookers thought he gave the impression of a robot or an overly enthusiastic marching band player. Regardless, he managed to catch up with the burly woman and march beside her.
She zigged and zagged through the store. Her bangs rustled as she pivoted into a different aisle without warning. Momentum had carried Cale to the next one, and he hurried to backtrack. The newbie saw no pattern to her movements; thus, no way to find her if he got lost.
Finally, Lesley stopped at the door to the employee lounge. She crossed her thick arms over her chest, and Cale blinked. Her loose, green checkered shirt and dirty overalls transformed into a suit. The faded camouflage baseball cap stuck over short platinum hair became a plain black hat with a wire extending down to her ear. In place of the sweatbands on her wrists, she wore a single gold watch. Cale gulped, only able to perceive her bouncer form. “I know I said we were going to start working now, but I wanna introduce you to somebody. She started working here a few weeks ago.” Her muscled arm opened the door, and she motioned for him to step inside.
Cale obliged and froze before his feet left the threshold. “What are you doing here?”
Logan’s eyebrows lowered. “Get ready to feel pain,” she exclaimed. Instead of her MC cap, a sweatband with a silver emblem circled her forehead. She steepled and dipped her fingers in strange motions and thrust out a hand. Cale flinched, but nothing hit him. He stared at her, and her cheeks flushed. After rummaging in her pockets, she resumed her battle stance and yelled, “I said for you to get ready for pain!” This time, a smattering of sawdust scattered in the air between them. “Aha!” She stood tall and swiped a finger across the headband. “Smoke bomb.”
Lesley guffawed. “Good to see you already know one another. Logan, I want you and Cale to work in the same section. Cale, if you’ve got questions, ask Logan. You can come to me if you need to, I’ll be around. But my employee philosophy is to teach you to lean on one another. It’s empowering and stuff.” She laughed again. “At least, that’s what my boss told me back in my lumber-working days. It’s probably different in the woods than it is in a store, but still.”
“I don’t –” Logan’s words shriveled in her mouth as Lesley turned the bouncer gaze to her. Cale swallowed and edged himself to the wall. Logan was a loudmouth, but she was average size for a young woman her age. By contrast, Lesley was a powerhouse. She stood a foot above the top of her employee’s head, and her rippling arms and ample chest showcased her previous occupation. “I don’t know where you want us to work today,” Logan continued in a small voice, “There are so many sections in this store.” Her lips turned upwards, but the thing she created was no smile. Cale shivered.
“No problemo, my friend.” Lesley slapped her on the back, and Logan winced. “You two can be floaters for the day. Patrol the store, see who needs help. Make sure to loiter in sections with a big crowd.” They both nodded, and she turned to Cale. “This’ll give you the best experience because you’ll do small things in each department, instead of being stuck in one.” She snapped her overalls and smiled. “I wish they had done that back when I was a lumberjack. I never quite knew how to use that big saw machine.” A frown darkened her face, and she made the motion of a cross on her chest. “Poor Chaser.” We stood in silence for a moment.
“Well, that’s enough reminiscing. I’d better head back to my office. Lots to do.”
With that, she left. Cale and Logan peeked their heads out the door, but she was gone. “Dang, she’s fast,” Logan muttered. Cale nodded, rubbing his eyes with his palms. “Anywaaaay,” the girl continued, “we’d better get to patrolling or whatever.” She held a finger in his face. “But don’t think I’m going to help you with anything. I’m just going because I don’t want to lose my job.”
As they walked, Cale glanced at her. “What happened to the movie theater?”
Logan turned and zipped into another aisle. He grunted and followed her, but not without having to backtrack again. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she growled.
Cale watched her, making sure to keep their feet in sync. The next to last thing he wanted today was to shadow his old rival, but the very last thing he wanted was to tell Christa he was fired again. His breaths puffed, and he clenched his fists. This store was way too big.
“Fine, fine!” The young lady threw up her hands. “Your skills are powerful. I can see I won’t be able to beat your talking jutsu.” Her fingers created small signs to the tapping of her feet on the concrete.
“My sister is learning sign language.” Cale pointed to her fingers.
“This isn’t sign language! It’s like –” She tucked some loose hair into her headband. “It’s like a superpower technique.” Waving a hand, she ignored his possible response. “Anyway, I had to leave the theater industry. They didn’t appreciate my brand of marketing.” Cale nodded, though he had no idea what she meant.
(Christa here. Nathan’s roommate works in the movie industry, and I have the story of Logan’s expulsion. When Cale left the movie job, Logan wanted to make up the points she lost to him. She tried to bully movie-goers into seeing “literary” films by spoiling plot points before they could get into the theater. I heard she even started a fight by dissing last year’s award winners and making a petition for recounts. Mr. Brevard said she could have her job when she learned to “love all movies equally.” She hasn’t been back since.)
“Their loss. I mean, the two of us boosted their sales for a month,” Logan continued, “We probably saved that theater single-handedly, and that’s the thanks we got. Nah! We’re better off without them.” She made another complicated sign and yelled, “Bam! That’s what they get.”
“Excuse me, do you work here?” A man ran up behind them, and they turned. He caught sight of their badges and sagged with relief. “Can I get some help over here?”
Logan nodded. “Sure thing, buddy. Come on, Cale, let’s help this guy out.”
The man pointed to a large box. “I just need some help getting this bad boy out to my truck.” A flat cart with wheels sat beside him. Unfortunately, the box was too long to fit on the cart without someone holding one end and another person pushing the cart. “If one of you could hold the end while I push, that would be a huge help.”
Cale stepped toward the cart, but Logan shoved him behind her. “You don’t need a cart, sir.” She tapped her chest with a fist. “I can take this monstrosity out to your truck for you!”
His eyes took in Logan’s skinny frame and small arms. “Are you sure? It’s no trouble to just wheel it out there.”
“Nah!” Logan bent her back and heaved the long box onto her shoulder. With a gasp, she started toward the door. “People think these types of stores are for men, but I make this look easy.”
“Excuse me, miss.” Logan turned around, nearly whacking Cale in the face with her package. “I haven’t paid for that yet.”
She smiled and muttered under her breath, “Of course you haven’t.”
The cashier asked her to hold the box still so she could scan it. “There isn’t enough space on the counter for those types of items.” Her curious gaze scanned Logan. “Usually customers just leave them on rolling carts.” The man laughed with a shrug as he paid in cash.
Logan continued to the parking lot. Her arms were trembling, and Cale put a hand on her back when she tripped on the curb. “Where is your truck, my man?” She huffed, words coming in a gasp of air.
“At the end of the lot. Under those trees.” He pointed across a desert of pavement to a single oasis of trucks. The walk was only yards, but Logan thought it seemed a mile.
Cale held out his hands, but she swung the box in his direction. He ducked, avoiding a brain injury, and shook his head. Logan stuck her chin out and stumbled the rest of the way. “Anything a guy can do, I can do better. You should head back inside, see if anyone needs help while I’m out here.” She paused, wheezing, and Cale cocked his head at her. “I’m fine. Go on!” He nodded and speed-walked back into the air conditioning.
Everyone turned to a woman pointing upward. The shelf before her was tipping in her direction. Customers panicked as containers hit the ground and burst open. Power tools spilled out; some of them buzzed and wriggled in circles. The customer had slipped on an extension cord and was sprawled on the floor. Tangled as she was, there was no escape from the large metal container falling straight toward her.
As she screamed, the container swept to her side. She could feel the wind against her arm as it rushed past her body. A man clad in a spandex jumpsuit stood in front of her, adjusting a cape. The other raining tools were simple debris, and he brushed them away like insects. The metal shelf buckled, and she squeezed her eyes shut.
The man adjusted his booted feet and grabbed the shelf. A single drop of sweat slid down his neck as he pushed the shelf back into place. Only a slight wobble reminded bystanders the near-disaster was not a dream.
“It’s top-heavy,” Cale mumbled. He tossed the tools back onto the shelf, rearranging lighter and heavier items to avoid another topple. “Heavy on the bottom and lighter on the top.”
“Here, Cale, let me help you with that.” Lesley drove up to the non-super young man on a lift. Cale held a tool box in his hand and stared at her. With some coaxing, he handed it over, and she used the lift to put it back in its place without hassle.
“I almost had it.” He squinted and twirled a wrist, but no one heard him over the beeping of Lesley’s moving lift.
The supervisor left, and the customer chewed her lip. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to make you reach too high for that box. I know I was the one who made you knock down all those other tools.”
He growled, but a voice piped up behind him, “It’s no problem, ma’am. We’re happy to help.” Logan threw an arm around him. When the lady was gone, she jerked away and rubbed her arms on her clothes. “Gross.” Cale glared at her and walked away.
Elizabet ducked behind shelves of wood. Nathan nudged her shoulder and said, “Come on. It’s just Cale.” Red crept up her neck, and she did not move. This seemed like a good idea that morning. Now that she was here, though, she realized it may be considered stalking.
Her companion rolled his head to the back of his neck and groaned. “Okay, but I only have half an hour here. I need the other half hour to drop everything at the house and drive back to the office.” He strolled into the open area without her. “Yo, bro! Can you help me find something? Your sister wants me to finish that crib, and I heard you guys have this specific kind of screw I need.”
She heard his voice echoing through the open space and envisioned him opening a picture on his phone to show Cale. With a deep breath, Elizabet recited some lines from a recent motivational speech. She had been listening to a variety of them for the past few months. “You can do this. You are good enough.” After all, she had just encouraged a high school girl to be herself. What kind of motivator was she if she could not do the same? Her hands flattened her khaki capris and pulled cat hair from the shoulders of her tie-dye shirt.
Stepping into the aisle, the young lady twirled her ponytail and waved. “Hi, Cale.” Cale turned a blank stare in her direction. “Your sister is finishing up that crib, and I said I would clean the house. Everyone seems so busy today; it’s only fair I help out, too.” She flicked at the oversized t-shirt hanging from her body. “That’s why I’m dressed like this. It’s cleaning day. You’re probably lucky you’re missing it, though, because we are all tired.”
Cale’s head swiveled back to the phone picture, and he wandered off, muttering, “That should be around here somewhere.”
Nathan strode beside him, and Elizabet hurried to catch them both. Aisle space was limited, so she tapped along behind them. “How’s work, Cale?” No answer. “You’ve been at this job for a few days now. Do you like it?” Still nothing. She pointed at his hair, unkempt and sweaty. “Your hair looks nice today.”
He stopped at a shelf of mirrors to check his reflection. “No, it doesn’t.” He continued walking while Nathan grinned.
The older brother started to laugh and coughed into his hand when Elizabet stepped on his shoe. It popped off, and he was forced to wait until he could wiggle his heel back inside the leather. Elizabet smirked and stole his spot beside Cale. “Are there any movies coming out that you’re interested in seeing?” Cale held up his hands and started mumbling at a rapid pace. When he stopped, she blinked and replied, “Could you repeat those?”
He growled a little and repeated the list, keeping the same volume and tone. Elizabet still had no idea what he was saying, but she responded, “Wow. Me too. I’ve always wanted to see–” Pause. “That last one?”
“Yeah, it comes out next month.”
Here was her chance! “Maybe we could go see it together?”
Cale stopped, and Nathan slammed into Elizabet’s fist. “Here’s what you needed.” He gestured to a selection of various screws, pivoted, and thumped toward the back of the shop.
Elizabet ran toward his retreating back. “Hey, wait! What about our movie?”
He paused and without turning around, replied, “I’d rather watch it on a streaming service.” While Elizabet stared at him, incredulous, he tromped to his next job.
Nathan chuckled beside her. He held a bag of screws and a screwdriver. “He has no idea you’re trying to ask him on a date. Otherwise, he would’ve just said no.”
She nodded. “A very Cale problem.” Her fingers tightened around the bottom of her shirt, and she swayed her hips back and forth. “It’s so cute!”
“That your brother-in-law here with your girlfriend? Better watch out; he may steal her away.” Logan waggled her eyebrows at Cale. “She’s a cutie. Although kind of plain for ordinary taste.” She waved a hand at him and continued walking. “You’re not ordinary, though, that’s for sure.”
Cale growled low in his throat and cracked his knuckles. “She’s not my girlfriend.” This was the fourth time they had this conversation since Nathan and Elizabet left. “I just don’t want a girlfriend.” He tilted the new sign until it was perfectly straight.
Nathan had needed help finding the screws because there were no signs. Lesley expected the workers to show people where items were located, but he was tired of talking to people. Cale decided if customers could find things themselves, he would be able to avoid them and focus on easier tasks, like inventory or shelving.
Logan guffawed. “Of course you don’t want a girlfriend. You – Holy moly.” A flock of vans arrived in the parking lot. “Wonder how many dads and do-it-yourself-ers are in those things.”
Cale sighed and picked up a Wet Floor sign. The words had a paper reading “Do Not Disturb” over them. “I’m just going to take my break.”
“Hold on, you’ve already taken three breaks today!” Logan grabbed his sleeve, and he jerked away. “Sorry, sorry. But I’ve got a great idea.” He looked over his shoulder to see her mischievous grin. “We can make this day more interesting. What do you say to a little wager?” She rubbed her hands together and created more signs with her fingers.
The two powerhouses stood across from each other, poised to attack. Most people around them fled to the parking lot, although a few stayed to watch the epic battle. The air crackled with tension; sparks flew between tools and cash registers. Lesley crossed her arms and leaned against the nearest soda cooler. “This I’ve gotta see.”
Logan wiggled her fingers and zipped to another part of the store. When she stopped, Cale was already there. “Dang.” She tried again, testing his speed, and he met her at every stop. They heard Lesley mutter, “Kid is good.” Her rival beat her to the parking lot, the roof, and even the garden section. They skidded between plants, careful not to trample anything. Nothing slowed him. In fact, he was getting faster.
The girl hefted a large piece of lumber, and Cale mimicked her movements. They both wielded the heavy wood like swords and bashed them together. The noise of their battle forced customers to cover their ears. Dust scratched at their eyes. Lesley followed them to the garden section and whipped out her bouncer sunglasses. When the lumber cracked in two, the duelists grabbed another piece. Their fighting grew to be so fast, no one could even see it. They watched splinters fly like fireworks, and the smoke coated everything.
No lumber remained. They dashed inside to find more suitable weapons. The shelves were emptied of chains, drills, carpets, paint, lawnmowers, nails, and windows. Eventually, even the plants they fought so hard to protect succumbed to the mindless violence.
Cale called out for someone to bring him a ceiling fan, but no one answered. He pictured his little sister in a tight spandex leotard, tripping over her own cape. She would wave to him and toss some magical objects only she could access. If she got in his way too much, he could always send her to Logan’s side as a distraction. That would ensure his victory for sure.
Try as he might, her image always faded into magical Ruby Ray. Her body lying in his arms. He can feel her stop breathing. The dimming lights of her staff blur his vision. Her last words echo in his ear. “I wasn’t enough.”
He shook the image from his head and slapped his face, which dripped with blood. His rival clutched a shelf to keep herself standing. Their limbs trembled, and their breathing was ragged. If their clothes had not been super resilient, they would have been torn to shreds hours ago. Neither seemed capable of overcoming the other.
Cale growled. His fantasies were betraying him again.
Over the intercom, Lesley called both of them into her office. Logan was smirking, and Cale shuffled his feet and stared at the floor. “Good work, you two!” She slapped them both on the shoulders. Cale tried not to wince, even as Logan muttered an “ow.” “I heard about your competition, and I think it was a fine idea. You both helped a lot of customers, and I’m sure the DIY club was very excited to get all the materials they needed.” She turned to Cale. “I do have a question, though. What is this?” She held up a Caution sign.
His face burned. “I was putting up signs,” he mumbled. That one, specifically, was so people would know not to bother him while he was taking inventory. The others were more innocuous, like labels.
“Brilliant!” He gave a start at Lesley’s exclamation. “I’m going to bring this up to the HR department. Our store will be the first to put up signs for everything. Customers are going to be so self-empowered, they won’t even need employees here.” She laughed and slung her arms around their shoulders. “We’re all going to be out of a job soon because of you.”
Cale wriggled, but her grip was too strong. Was joblessness a good thing now? He glanced at Logan. She struggled to breathe through Lesley’s headlock. “I don’t want anyone to be homeless.”
Their boss continued to laugh. “No one will be homeless. This is a wonderful idea. In fact, I’ll have you draw up the proposal, starting tomorrow. Since it was your brainchild, I’ll let you present it to the board. How about that?”
He slipped from her grip. “No.”
In his room, Cale flipped through a new car magazine I bought him at the hardware store. We had not talked on the drive home, and I’m sure he appreciated the silence. I twisted the new screws into place. Nathan would not be home while I was awake, which meant he would have no time to use the new pieces he sent home with Elizabet.
My hands toiled, yet my mind whirled. Was he really working so late? I had no evidence he would lie to me, but the atmosphere in the house had been suffocating. Between Cale’s infrequent fits of rage and my hormones, Nathan’s everlasting optimism had tapped out. His smile was forced; his sleep fitful. When I asked how he was doing, he responded with “Fine” or dodged the question by asking how I was feeling.
I flipped my phone over to look at the screen. Still no messages. I must have sent him twenty texts today – random things like “How’s work?”, “I love you”, and dog memes. There was no response since “Have a good day”, which I received when I woke up this morning. My finger pressed the volume button until the beep hurt my ears. I was not going to miss any text he sent.
If he ever texted me back.
“Ouch!” My thumb caught a nail sticking out the back of a piece of wood. I stumbled into the bathroom searching for a bandage. On the way, I checked on my brother. His noise-cancelling headphones were snug on his head, and his eyes stayed glued to the laptop screen. He hummed to himself as he watched a movie. I pulled the door closed with a click. There was no need to invade his privacy for the sake of my own crazy thoughts.
The pulse pounded in my thumb, and I remembered I was looking for bandages. As I rummaged in the back of the towel closet, my hands grabbed something silky. I frowned. “What is –” My eyes filled with tears as a pair of underwear slipped out of my hand. “These aren’t mine.” On instinct, I ran back to the nursery and checked my phone. Still nothing.
I started to send a picture of the undergarments to Nathan but decided against it. If he was cheating on me, the last thing I wanted was to confront him over a medium other people might see. Like it or not, Nathan was my husband, and we had sworn ourselves to each other. That means exposing him under our own roof, not in front of everyone.
As I sank onto the floor, Cale’s door creaked open. I tucked my face inside my shirt and wiped my eyes. “What’s up, bud?” His face was blank. I clicked the lock button on my phone and searched for the time. “It’s not dinnertime or bathtime, and the wifi still works. What’s up?”
He shoved his phone into my face without a reply. I held up a hand to keep my nose from being flattened. My eyes widened as I took in the article he had pulled up. I gazed from him to the screen, back and forth for several silent seconds. “What?”
“What is the meaning of this?” His voice was more gravelly than usual. “Is this a joke?”
I rubbed a hand across my forehead, struggling to make sense of the words.
“Warlington Mayoral Election Over. Write-In Candidate Cale Wins by a Landslide.”
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