Chapter 10:

Fights and Bites

My Autistic Brother Reluctantly Finds a Job

Nathan took Cale to work. Joining the military was his idea. Plus, he said he needed some “quality bro time.” I guess he forgot that we had barely seen each other for the past four weeks. Cale’s job was important, but what about our marriage? I rubbed a hand against my stomach and exhaled. What about this baby? She, or he, was due in a few weeks. (We had decided to wait until the birth to see if the baby was a boy or girl.)

I shuffled into the nursery and stared at the completed crib sitting in the center of the room. Not only had I finished it myself, Nathan never even commented on it. No “Great work, honey.” No “Wow, looks good.” I would even take something like “I guess it’ll do until I can fix it later.” Nothing. I wondered if he knew it was done at all.

Shoving earbuds into my head, I scrolled through streaming services on the television. Elizabet took the day off to go shopping, and I decided to do the same. I refused to worry about whether Cale was fit enough to join the military. Or whether my baby was still healthy. Or if Elizabet was squandering her youth doing my laundry instead of chasing her dreams. Or whether my husband was cheating on me.

Water leaked from my eyes, and I grabbed a pillow, holding it close to my chest. My legs kicked at the blanket until I was snug and warm. The tears continued, and I closed my eyes. Yes, I refused to think about any of it.

“Here we are.” Nathan spread his arms wide in front of a storefront. The sign read, “Military Recruiters: Apply Here to Serve Your Country.” Dark curtains covered the windows, and an empty table blocked the door. Two large flags stood at the glass double doors.

Cale tried to peer inside but jumped back when he saw someone staring at him. Nathan laughed. The glass was mirrored. He had been spooked by his own reflection. To move past that embarrassing moment, he straightened and saluted the flag on the right of the door.

A young woman dressed in a uniform nearly toppled him when she exited the storefront. Her hair was slicked into a ponytail under a uniform cap. She stood at attention and eyed Cale, still saluting the flag. She turned to Nathan. “Here to apply?”

He pointed to his brother-in-law. “He is. I’m just here to deliver him to you all.” He checked his phone and winced. “I’ve got to go. Good luck, bud.” He jogged through the mall, stopping once for a lemonade on the way to the truck.

“I’m Narissa.” The woman stood before Cale, and he swallowed. His hand was stuck in a salute, so he turned it toward her. “You can stop saluting now. I’m going to have you fill out this paperwork before we get started with the physical.”

“Physical?” He dropped his hand.

Narissa sighed. “Yes, you have to undergo a physical examination to make sure you are fit enough to move on to boot camp.” She motioned for him to sit on the mall side of the table and plunked down a stack of paperwork.

Cale inched his bottom onto a folding chair, which screeched under his weight. He tried to scoot closer to the papers, but the object protested more when he moved it. Because of this, he ended up sitting almost a foot back from the table, trying to sign documents he could barely read.

Narissa’s eye twitched. “This is not why I joined the military.” Cale looked at her, but she did not repeat herself. He continued writing on the forms. She checked over his shoulder and exhaled. “Can you make your handwriting a bit more–” She struggled to find the right word. “Legible?” The pencil stopped moving, and his blank eyes stared into hers. “More legible?” Nothing. She groaned. “Easier to read.” He blinked and shook his head, continuing to use the same messy handwriting on every page.

Cale listened to Narissa’s continued mumbling. Something about traveling to remote places of the world, bringing hope to people. The words stirred his imagination, even though fantasies were rare in a place like this. Soon enough, he marched with a regiment of hundreds, everyone keeping the same pace. The fabric on the military jackets was impossible to see underneath the decorations, medals, and commendations. Each person had mastered their field without scratches, scars, or lost friends. Every mission was completed without a hitch. They had seen everything, done everything, and lived to brag about it.

The soldiers stood in front of a general more impressive than themselves. Decorations were pinned to his boots and cape (made and given to uphold his medals), even his pants jangled with the sound. He spoke while they marched, “We face a new threat, one for which we aren’t prepared. When you step outside that gate, you will have no idea how to deal with this.” He faced the troops, marching backward without missing a beat. “This country must be protected, and we are the ones to protect it. We are the only ones who can.” Those close to him heard a murmured “God help us all.”

“Yes sir!” The troops shouted and saluted as one. They halted in formation before the city’s giant wall. Their general spoke to someone, who argued with him. When their leader raised his voice, the soldiers winced, and the man cranked some gears attached to the stone.

Cale was near the back of the giant squad. The sun beat down on his exposed hands and neck, and sweat made his hat stick to his forehead. Waves of heat swirled above the dirt and dead grass on this side of the wall. This gate was taking forever to open, but he dared not wipe away the sweat stinging his eyes. Eyes glued to the ground, he waited for instructions.

The soldiers at the front of the group screamed and scattered. He glanced up in time to see a huge arm squeeze between the cracks in the wooden door. Everyone screamed, including Cale. He sprinted for the nearest shelter. His hat and several medals flew from his person, but he left them on the ground. After this, he doubted he would need them again. He ducked under a nearby roof and watched the carnage from around the corner. That giant arm belonged to a giant being. It held a screaming Logan up to its mouth and lowered her in jolts. “Please. Someone, help me! I’m too epic to die! I haven’t even gotten to see the award-winning movies for this year. What a wor–”

A smirk crossed Cale’s face, but his enjoyment was short-lived. More monsters appeared. They ran through the town and attacked with no pattern or sense. One of them, a larger one, breezed past Cale’s hiding spot. Its steps shook the ground, and he fell to his knees. The troops outside his shelter were squished; others, like himself, were trying to get back on their feet. “This is bad, these monsters will eat every last one of us!” No one was sure who shouted, but everyone secretly agreed.

When all the blanks were filled, Cale handed Narissa the stack of papers. “Thank you.” The soldier opened the door to the storefront and held out a hand for him to enter. “Please step over here.” She gestured to the right side of a mostly empty room. In the corner sat a scale. Near that, a poster hung on the wall, its letters growing smaller as one looked further down the page. A full length mirror was leaning against the wall near the scale. Instead of the expected sanitizer or body odor, the room smelled of nothing.

“Stand on the scale, please.” Narissa ushered him into the corner, and Cale shuffled over with his arms hugging his sides. He sucked his lips into his mouth as if they would somehow alter his weight. She moved black counterweights along the top of the scale until they were balanced, scribbling the numbers on a new form.

“Stand behind that line for me.” Cale stared at the floor and took as few steps as possible toward the poster. “Read the biggest letter for me.” He squinted but said nothing. Narissa sighed. “Can you not see the top letter?”

“No,” he growled, and she wrote on her pad.

“Alright, take a seat.” The woman fished a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff from a desk on the left side of the room. She checked the rest of his vitals and continued making notes. Cale watched with interest, but she said nothing. “Thank you, Cale. Now, just head to the waiting area, and we’ll call you when we’re ready.” She pointed him to a door on the left wall. It led into a smaller room with only a few cushioned chairs, most of which were full. Cale cracked his knuckles and did not move. “What’s wrong?”

“Can I just sit at the table outside?”

Narissa growled, but she cleared her throat when the waiting audience turned to her. “No, you may not wait outside.”

Cale also growled and found an empty chair in the corner farther from the door.

Christa told Elizabet Cale would be at the military recruiters in the mall today. She slung a printed purse over her shoulder and adjusted two bags in her hands. “Even if this was a ruse, no self-respecting girl would waste time at a mall without shopping.” Her fingers brushed the fur of a new stuffed animal, and half her mouth lifted in a lopsided grin.

The tiny tiger was wearing a bowler hat, similar to the one she had at home. Today, she had gone hatless, opting instead to braid her hair in a crown around her head. “Maybe he will notice I don’t have a hat today. Then I can show him my lovely hair.” She had spent over an hour in front of the mirror to get the style just right. A whole can of hairspray held the beauty in place until Cale could lay his eyes on it.

A sign advertising the military stood in front of a shop. Dark curtains hung in front of the windows, and Elizabet squinted to see if the lights were on. A woman with short hair in a crisp uniform approached the booth in front of the door. She stood at attention in front of Elizabet. “May I help you?”

“I was just looking for a friend. He’s supposed to be here today.” She leaned around the woman to peek into the room.

“I’m sorry. You have to be interested in recruitment to go back there.” The woman (a lieutenant maybe?) gently pushed her away from the table. “If your friend is inside, you can wait for him out here.”

“Would you see if he’s here? His name is Cale.”

“Cale,” Narissa repeated. She straightened, and her mouth lifted slightly. “Yes, he’s here. I’ll make an exception for you today.”

Elizabet followed the soldier into the waiting room. Cale sat in the corner, tapping on his phone. Apparently, he was going through the physical exam portion to see if he was fit enough to apply for duty. He noticed her, and his eyes shot back to his screen. “What are you doing here?”

The recruiter chuckled at his tone. No doubt she thought Cale was berating Elizabet. His childhood friend knew better, though. “Don’t go into the military!” She gripped the plastic bags hard. “You know you wouldn’t like it. All the wars. All the killing.”

He winced and muttered, “Don’t talk about killing.”

“See? You can’t even hear the word.” Her hands were shaking, and the bags rustled. “You wouldn’t like the military,” she repeated, “and the military only needs loyal people. People prepared to kill and die for it.”

“I’m loyal to my country.”

“Yes, you are! But you can be loyal and patriotic and whatever else you want without going into the service.”

He stared at the bags in her hand; they stopped rustling. An orange ear poked out of one of the handles. Without a word, he returned to typing SOS messages, and Elizabet slunk out of the store. She clenched her fists hard to keep the bags silent.

After fifteen minutes, Narissa called Cale and directed him to the back office. There, he found a short haired man perusing some papers. The camouflage shirt he wore looked like it would rip if he flexed, but it managed to show off his incredible array of muscles. His intense stare peered into Cale’s soul, and a smile popped onto his face. “Cale, sit down.” His voice was confident, commanding. Cale was reminded of his dad. He sat across from the man and kept his hands in his lap. While the man spoke, he picked at his fingernails.

“I’m Trent, and I want to know why you want to join the military.”

Cale shuffled his feet and said, “I just need to find a place to live.”

“Well, you came to the right place,” Trent replied, “We have plenty of bunks, and we occupy hundreds of countries. You can pick whichever soil you like to make your home.” He tipped his chair back until only two legs balanced on the floor. Cale tried to do the same, but it squeaked like the rebellious chair out front. Trent continued, “Do you like money?”

“Love of money is the root of all evil.”

“Biblical man, I respect that.” Trent clapped, and his chair fell onto the floor with a thud. This startled Cale into pulling too much fingernail. He pinched his shirt over the bleeding. “You seem to have a good head on your shoulders. If you take the ASVAB in a couple weeks, we can see where your talents take you.”

“The ASVAB is a test to see who I am.” With Nathan’s help, Cale had studied up on military branches and recruitment procedures. The ASVAB was his least favorite part.

“Yep, and it’s pretty effective too. I knew a guy who took it, and those results changed his life. Now he’s a manager of fast food chains. Got himself a pretty wife and a beautiful baby girl.” He grinned and studied Cale. “Do you wanna get married?”


“Then nothing’s holding you back, Cale. There was a friend of mine, he moved away to another state –” The recruiter continued his story, but his listener was in another world.

Rambling about old war buddies would do them no good in this situation. Cale fiddled with the dial until the radio was silent. He and some other deserters hid under a broken vehicle. One of them whispered, “Over half of our people are dead or eaten. What do we do?”

Cale reached into his pack and pulled out a flask filled with carbonated ginger drink. “Give me your canteens.” Everyone fished drinks out of their backpacks and handed them to Cale. He stuck his head over the frame and spotted a barrel a few yards from them. Though everyone told him it was too dangerous, he braved the open space and reached it without incident. The barrel was half-full of water.

One of the humanoid monsters lumbered up to him. Its hair almost covered its starving eyes, but it made no move to attack or eat him. Cale dumped his canister into the barrel and said, “You’re probably thirsty. Try this.” A giant hand picked up the barrel and dropped the whole thing down its throat, wood and all. Cale raced for cover. The monster froze, and everyone watched it. “Ahhh!” It smiled, collapsed onto the earth, and closed its eyes. Snores followed.

The troop who watched Cale’s stunt yelled for the others to bring water, barrels, and soda. Word spread slowly, but the military managed to gather multiple barrels of water mixed with soda. They staggered these barrels around town, at road crossings and areas with the largest number of people. Giants toppled onto roofs, and soldiers screamed, “It’s coming down!” Just as many bystanders screamed and fled the falling monsters as when they were awake. This time, though, they could reach safety without worry.

“Well I’ll be.” The general wiped his brow as the last of the giants fell with a crash. “The big babies were looking to survive, just like us. They needed a little nap, just like my–” The last words were garbled as the general began to cry. Droplets of salty water bounced off his medals.

Back in the office, Trent sniffled over his story. “I miss that little guy!” Cale couldn’t remember whom he meant. “So.” The older man wiped his nose with a tissue and blew. Cale covered his ears. “Shall I put you down for the ASVAB?”

“No, thank you.”

“Why not?”

“I’m a pacifist.”

“Just like Randy.” Tears threatened to overflow onto his cheeks.

“When did you last talk to Randy?”

“Oh, it’s been about a few years.”

“You should text him.”

“I- I was always afraid to. I said I’d wait until the right time, but it never came.”

“If you don’t text him now, you may never get to.” Cale’s mind flashed to the battlefield in his imaginary world. He watched again as Logan disappeared into that creature’s mouth. His gaze stuck, not on the flailing Logan, but on some hair and an arm pinned under the huge feet. His clumsy younger girl. She was not around to guide him anymore. In fact, the more he tried to bring her back, the worse her fate seemed to become.

Trent’s eyes widened. “You’re absolutely right.” He pulled the sturdiest model phone from his pocket and began texting. Cale opened and closed his fists, wondering if he could leave.

While he was doing that, Narissa entered the room. She cleared her throat and called Trent in a clear, ringing voice. He was so absorbed in talking to his friend, he did not hear her. She walked closer to the desk. “Sir?” Still nothing.

Instead, her body turned toward Cale. “Cale, I’m sorry, but you're too high on our scale to get started.” There was no reason to ask what kind of scale this was. “I’d say you could come back, but your eyesight is also problematic. Standard military regulations require you to at least–” She waved a hand in the air as if swatting a fly. “Well, see something,” she continued, “You’re bordering on being legally blind. Should you consider getting contact lenses, we would be open to reevaluation. Until then, you are free to go.”

Nathan and Cale arrived home in one piece. I met them at the door and smiled. Earlier, I had practiced getting the fake smile to reach my eyes. I had almost perfected the technique before the boys returned home. Almost. “How did it go?”

“I didn’t make it,” Cale mumbled without slowing his stride. He stalked straight to his room and closed the door with a slam. Like his heavy footsteps, the doors usually slammed on their own, but I had a feeling this one was intentional.

My husband kicked off his shoes and padded toward the shower. I grabbed his sleeve, and he stopped. “Um–” My words stuck in my throat when I saw his blank gaze. As if he were uninterested in anything I had to say. “Did you see the crib?”

He nodded. “Yeah, it looks good.”


“I already said it did. You don’t have to ask again.”

He peered down at his sleeve, and I dropped my hand with a mumbled apology. An awkward silence settled on the room. I never thought any silences between us would be weird. Our whole relationship had been full of laughter, rambling, and comfortable quiet. Now, this tense lack of speech billowed around us, making me feel like I was underwater.

“Did you hear about the new mayor?” I asked him as he strode toward the bathroom.

“No. What about him?”

“It’s Cale.” He stopped mid-stride beside my brother’s door and nodded his head at it, eyebrows lifted. “Yep.” Now a finger pointed at the door. “Uh huh. Our Cale.”

“No kidding. Wonder how that happened.” He ran a hand over his beard.

I shrugged. “I voted for him as a joke.”

A ghost of a smile phased onto his face. “You too, huh?” He gestured toward the end of the hall and said, “I’m going to take a shower. You can eat without me if you’re hungry.” With that, he disappeared into our master suite, leaving me standing in the hallway.

We both voted Cale for mayor, even knowing how horrible he would be at politics. That left one question on my mind. How many other people voted for him?