My Autistic Brother Reluctantly Finds a Job
“Nathan, we’re going to be late!” I scooped the crawling baby into my arms and tried to wrangle a shirt onto her. Callie squirmed and exclaimed, “Ma-ma-ma!” Arms flailed, and legs kicked at me. I ducked a swinging foot and managed to pop her head through the top hole. Her lips stuck out in a pout, and I coaxed, “Baby girl, you have to wear clothes. It’s only for a little while. We’re going over to Uncle Cale’s tonight, and we all have to look nice.”
It was hard to believe Cale moved into his own apartment a year ago. Nathan and I had agreed to give him a few extra months after Callie arrived, but he took the initiative on his own. After his short stint as mayor, I guess he wanted more independence than living in a house with a screaming newborn would grant him. Now, on the anniversary of his move, we were all meeting up at his place to celebrate.
I chuckled and bounced Callie on my hip as my husband barreled through the hallway. He knocked into a picture, causing it to tilt to the left. I went to straighten it and laughed. “I can’t believe he made so much money on these things.”
“We bought one, didn’t we?” Nathan cringed. “Although I’m not sure why.”
The photograph was one Cale had taken, back when he was into freelance photography. An anime figurine dressed as a magical girl posed on a balance beam. Light filtered through the trees, making her outfit sparkle and her eyes shine. If I squinted, I could just make out the shadow of someone in the background. Bethy, believing she was the model when in reality he cut her from every shot. I shook my head. “I have no idea how he managed to get such good shots of figurines!”
“He watched YouTube tutorials for like two weeks before going out there with Bethy,” Nathan commented. He clipped a silky tie to the top of his white button-up. Seeing my incredulous expression, he shrugged. “It’s crazy, but that’s what he told me.” He ran a hand over the blown-up photo. “He made a killing selling these things. Shame he doesn’t do it anymore.”
“He has a better job now, and I don’t think he really has the time for extracurriculars.” I grinned and added, “I’m sure Elizabet enjoys spending that extra time with him.” I fluffed the tutu around Callie’s waist. She grabbed my hand to stick in her mouth. “Honey, could you grab the teethers?”
Nathan disappeared for a moment and reappeared with a flat shape the size of his hand. Our daughter squealed and burbled, chewing on the toy. He laughed. “She loves that thing. It was nice of your brother to get it for her.”
My eyes narrowed as I watched Callie suck on a large piece of plastic in the shape of a robot. Its helmeted head dripped with slobber as I grabbed my purse. “He’s so weird.”
“And he always will be,” Nathan added, “but if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be our Cale, would he?”
I laughed and strode out the door. “You’re right about that.”
Cale pushed his glasses up his nose, and they shone. A hum filled his throat as he tapped, clicked, and scrolled. The right computer monitor displayed his progress as he typed on the left. Both screens cast a dull bluish glow into the otherwise dim room. Blackout curtains covered the only window, and the overhead light was dimmed to half power.
An oil diffuser on the windowsill puffed smells of evergreen and citrus into the air every five minutes. Potato chip bags and diet soda cans spilled from his desk onto the floor. Crumpled sticky notes floated from the tiny trash can in the corner. The walls were covered in anime posters, most featuring magical girls.
Even with all those eyes on him, Cale sat hunched over his work. He could picture himself as a hacker. The cool keys pressed against his fingers as he rewrote code for the Pentagon. Someone had discovered the existence of aliens, and he had to erase all traces of evidence. Tapping sounds filled the room, and sweat glistened on his brow. Cale swigged his soda. Digital work was stressful, but he had been prepared for this. The president himself was counting on him!
The young man shook his head and grinned. “I’m not into aliens anymore,” he muttered. His eyes wandered to the computer clock, and he inhaled. “I’m late.”
He slammed his eyes shut and opened the door. Daylight spilled from the hallway, illuminating his oversized desk and cushioned rolling chair. A chip bag crunched under his feet as he stumbled into the hallway. “It’s too bright out here.” His hand skimmed the wall as he walked, allowing him to get his bearings before his eyes adjusted to the light.
When he reached the office common area, a roar floated around him. “Cale!”
“How you been, buddy?”
“Look, it’s Cale. The guy I was telling you about.”
“You’re out of your office, I see?”
Most employees worked from the common room. Light filtered from the wall of windows onto desks set cubicle style in the center of the room. Cale had been granted an office to offset the panic he felt being surrounded by such a crowd. This was one of the accommodations his employer offered when he accepted the position at this game design facility.
Another accommodation was the ability to utilize the chat box as his primary method of communication. When everyone else attended meetings in person or via video chat, Cale was allowed to stay in his office and attend without turning on his camera. His co-workers knew him by name, but they rarely saw him leave his workspace except to use the bathroom.
As one of the workers whispered, “Cale sightings are like Christmas around here. They only come once a year, and you better enjoy it while you can. Because it may never happen again.” They were all aware of his situation, though, and they respected him for creating boundaries in order to be part of the team. No one was offended by his quirks; in fact, everyone thought they were endearing. Unbeknownst to Cale, he was the most loved person at that company, despite being employed for less than a year.
The young man growled and threw his hands over his ears. Light stung his eyes, and he shaded them with hands around the sockets like binoculars. A young lady rushed from her cubicle to lower the curtains, and his hands dropped to his waist. They twirled once as he cleared his throat. “I’m looking for someone,” he told the floor.
“Logan, right?” His head shot up and nodded. A middle-aged man stood and beckoned him. “Yeah, she’s waiting for you in the break room. Let me take you to her.” Cale nodded again and followed.
Logan was indeed waiting in the break room. She perched on a tall stool under a taller table. Coffee steamed in front of her, and she sipped it like a fine wine. Upon seeing her old rival, her face twisted into a grin. “Hey, Cale. How’s it going?” He blinked. Her outfit consisted of a multi-colored blouse and a pair of dress pants. A large necklace and keychain dangling on her bag were the only indicators of her latest obsession. Logan followed his eye and chuckled. “Like my Croc Quake merch? I know I’m getting into the franchise a little late, but –” She waved. “I never let myself watch guilty pleasures. I thought they weren't worth my time. But those cheesy disaster movies. Man, they’re so horrible, they’re good!”
Cale nodded and climbed onto the stool beside her. “Did you come here to talk about movies?”
She laughed. “You know why I’m here, Cale. You agreed to meet me.” She fished in her purse, pulling out the latest phone and swiping into a recording app. “Did you forget?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“Alright, then let’s get this interview started. Mind if I record?” He tilted his chin into the air and shook his head. “Great! This is going to the local news first, but it also may end up on a media blog or two if you drop enough juicy details about your project.” Her old twisted grin returned. “Help a buddy out, would you?” He nodded, and she tapped the red recording button.
“This is Logan, here with Cale, newcomer and rising star of Fight Games Incorporated. What readers may not know is that Cale and I have an old history of working together.” He growled slightly, and she chuckled. “Back then, neither of us could seem to hold down a job, but it seems like we’re doing pretty good now, doesn’t it, man?”
He nodded, and she pointed at the phone. “I mean, yes. I –” He swallowed and flushed. “I like my job a lot.”
“You work here at FGI, right?”
“So tell me a little bit about how that happened.” She leaned on her elbows, and her eyes softened.
Cale considered the young lady. Logan had been his rival for many jobs last year. Not only were they in constant competition, but she was loud, busy, and blunt. When Callie was born, she had called him, and he forgot to block her number. After that, she texted him every few months or so. It was to “keep him in the loop,” she said. He ignored all those texts until the final one. The one asking to interview him about his new job, and his dream project.
“I just applied for a game design position.” She waved at him to continue. “And I got the job.”
“Don’t you have to go to college to be a video game designer? The way I understand it, you never went to college, did you?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“So how does someone with no expertise end up at FGI? With your own office, too!”
He cleared his throat and pushed the glasses up his nose. “I don’t know.”
“Sure you know! Because you’re amazing, that’s why!” Her outburst made him jump. “Let me rephrase. What did you say to impress them so much?”
Cale shrugged. “I just told them an idea I had for a fighting game.” Logan tilted her head at him and mouthed, “Go on.” He cleared his throat. “I want to make a fighting game with every magical girl.”
“Every magical girl?”
“As in, every magical girl in anime? Ever?”
“Yes, that’s what I said.”
“That’s amazing! The cast for that would be huge.” She leaned toward him. “Are you working on that project right now?”
“Yes, I am.”
“What can you tell me about it?”
He sighed. “It’s a secret project; I can’t tell you about it.”
She leaned back with a shrug of her own. “A girl can try. But you all heard it here first, folks. Fight Games, Inc. is in the midst of developing a game with every magical girl in existence. This game is being spearheaded by this brilliant newcomer, my old pal Cale. It’ll take a while, Cale, but I know magical girls fans everywhere are looking forward to this.”
“Me too.” He nodded.
“So I’ve heard, Mr. Prodigy, (He wriggled at the nickname.) that the company is also paying your way into school.”
“They gave me a scholarship,” he mumbled, “So I can learn more about video game design.”
“That’s really amazing. Not many people get that kind of opportunity. You’re a very lucky guy.”
He nodded without saying anything. Logan smiled and turned off the microphone, tucking the phone back into her purse. “Thanks, Cale. That’ll be a great scoop. I know you couldn’t give me any big details, but that’s more than other people know.” She smoothed her hair and picked at some lint on her clothes. “You know, I wasn’t sure you would agree to do this interview with me. I was kind of a jerk to you.” He nodded. “But when I saw you with your sister, well –” She shrugged. “It made me realize you’re a good guy.”
Cale’s face burned, and he looked away. She cackled and punched his shoulder. “I kind of miss embarrassing you.” He leaped off the chair and started for the door. “Hey, hold on a second.” Cale turned. “This is the perfect job for you. I’m really glad you found something.”
A few silent seconds passed. Cale cleared his throat and rasped, “I’m glad you found something too.” Pause. “You can text my phone. But no more calls.”
The young lady slipped from her chair and chuckled. “Deal.” Before she left, she checked her own phone. A text from her sister popped up. “You’re late! Frederick and I are waiting.” Logan sighed and wrote back, “Good! Wait for me. Mwahahahaha! (Srsly, though, I’ll be there soon, just finished work.)”
Hours later, Cale sat at the closest bus stop and checked his new PostTime! account. Both Bethy and his manager insisted he get one. Their reasoning ranged from seeing pictures of the baby to networking. He shook his head and scrolled through the friend requests. As his finger hovered over the delete button, he remembered something his girlfriend told him. “You’ve touched so many people’s lives, Cale. If you won’t let them thank you, at least give them the chance to get to know you better. Besides, don’t you want to have some friends?”
“Fine. But just on PostTime! No calling or meeting in person.” He accepted the requests, and his wall filled with familiar faces.
Photos of Antoine and his son flooded the feed. Someone had even commented, “My wall is drowning in Antoine pics!” Cale busied himself pressing the “Like” button on every image, especially the ones with cars in the background.
He saw Brandy posting selfies with empty animal cages. “Thanks to everyone who adopted a dog this month! They’ve all gone to safe and happy homes!” With her face alight, she looked happier than the dogs. Cale hit Like.
Narissa had finally accepted his friend request. She had just returned from helping a country deal with an infestation of giant frogs. Her new profile was a picture of herself carrying an unconscious Officer Trent. Like.
Cale stepped into the bus and greeted Marsha. The accountant rode the same bus he did every afternoon. She stepped into the aisle and allowed him to take the window seat beside her. Since they knew one another, this seat sharing quickly became part of their daily routine. Especially when Cale realized how crowded this particular bus could get. (His first time riding, he wound up smashed between an exhausted mother of three and a burly security guard.) Marsha smiled at him, and they exchanged some small talk.
When she pulled out the standard number puzzle book, he turned to watch a stream on his phone. ButterflySlayz237 was promoting Cale’s upcoming dream game. She spoke at length about how much magical girls had meant to her. Growing up as a young gamer when girls were supposed to be in the kitchen, she spent every morning watching magical girls fight evil and convincing herself that she could do the same. “So you can see, I’m super excited about this new project! Cale, we only knew each other for an afternoon, but you can do it, man. You’re amazing.” Comments on the stream overwhelmed him with positivity and encouragement. His face burned, and he was forced to turn off the phone.
The bus passed by the Neon Lemon Eatery. Cale could see Josef outside, handing out free samples. The food looked suspiciously like Elizabet’s creations during the interview exams. As the bus turned off the main street, he could see the theater. Brevard sat at the ticket counter. His feet balanced on the counter, a book over his lap. His eyes were closed. Still the same Brevard as ever.
Elizabet stood outside Cale’s first floor apartment, fidgeting with a key from underneath the Go Away mat. As she stared at it, the beret slipped down her head, forcing bangs into her eyes. She blew and swiped at them. The rebellious hair continued to swing in front of her face until she clipped them with a barrette from her pocket. “There,” she whispered, “Stay out of my face.”
Her attention returned to the key. “Do I go in? The key is supposed to be for emergencies.” She bent to put it back but stopped. Her weight fell back onto her heels, and she twisted the metal in her fingers. “He’s never late, though. What if this is an emergency?”
“Hey, Bethy!” Christa arrived beside her, Callie on her hip and backpack slung over her shoulder. “We can let ourselves in. Sometimes the bus runs a bit late.”
Nathan chose a key of his own from the keyring and turned the knob. He stepped back and swung an arm wide. “After you, ladies.” Callie babbled as they stepped inside.
The apartment was small compared to Christa and Nathan’s house. The door opened into a living room, complete with an entertainment center and television. Multiple game consoles sat in the center’s cabinets. A recliner was parked only a couple feet from the oversized tv screen.
Christa shook her head and pushed the single chair until it was beside the sagging sofa. “I swear he’s going to ruin his eyes.”
“I’m just glad he got glasses,” Elizabet replied. She fell into the recliner and popped the footrest. “He was squinting all the time. It drove me crazy.” Christa and Nathan sat on the sofa. Callie stood beside Elizabet; her arms wound around the chair to keep her little body from toppling.
The three chatted for a while, but they saw each other almost every day. Elizabet still worked as the family nanny, picking up more hours since Christa went back to library work full-time. She sold her own paintings and Cale’s photography online, but lately neither of them had time to create anything new.
“Oh, Bethy!” Christa rolled a ball on the floor for Callie, who crawled after it. “How are the school applications coming?”
Elizabet blushed and pulled at a string on her huge sweater. “It’s going well. I’m just nervous about both of us going to school at the same time, you know? We don’t have a lot of free time as it is, and if I pick up some classes –”
Nathan cocked his head. “Well, have you asked Cale what he thinks about it?”
She chuckled. “You know him. He just nodded. I don’t think he minds either way.”
“Then you should go for it,” Christa exclaimed, “This is the perfect time to get more classes under your belt. If you take them all online, you could do schoolwork and watch Callie at the same time.” She rose from the couch to take the ball from the girl in question, who had begun to chew on its exterior. “Honestly, she’s pretty chill now. Much more than when she was a newborn.”
While Christa rustled around in the baby backpack, Nathan nodded. “Your rent is pretty low. If you keep selling those paintings on the side and get some scholarships, money would be no problem.”
Her cheeks burned. Rent was low, but she had not saved anything for tuition. The money was something special, something precious, but it was too embarrassing to say. After all, no plans were set for that yet.
The door swung open, and Cale meandered into the room. He froze at the sight of everyone gathered on his couch. “You’re all early.”
“No,” Christa corrected, “You’re late.”
“Oh.” He kicked off his shoes and headed down the hallway to change. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
When Cale returned, he was buttoning a suit jacket over an elegant dark blue tie and matching vest. Elizabet’s face burned. She looked down at her swirl-patterened leggings and knit sweater. The beret slipped down her head again, and she muttered as she fixed it into place with pins. “I’m underdressed.”
Cale shook his head. “You look nice.” His face was also red, and he pushed his glasses onto his face. He held out his arm in a stiff gesture. “My lady.”
Christa and Nathan squealed, “Awww!” He shot them a glare and growled once. They gathered Callie and set the table, warming up food that had been catered for the occasion.
While they bustled around the dining room, Elizabet straightened Cale’s tie. “You look very nice.”
“I know it’s the anniversary of your moving in, but I didn’t know it was going to be such a big deal.” She swept her arms out. “I mean, even Nathan is wearing a suit. What?”
He nodded. “It’s like a party.”
The whole family gorged themselves on pasta, lasagna, garlic bread, and soup from a local Italian restaurant. Callie splashed sauce onto her outfit three times, even with a bib. Nathan and Christa slurped one piece of spaghetti until they kissed in the middle of it. Elizabet took a picture, and Cale stuck out his tongue with a “Yuck.” Those two sat beside one another at the four person table. Elizabet’s knee brushed Cale’s leg, and she reddened again.
Cale glanced at her, but when she met his eyes, he turned back to the meal. “Good food,” he mumbled.
Christa tapped his foot with hers and declared, “Time for dessert.”
Everyone groaned, but she continued, “Nuh uh. It’s not a celebration without some ice cream. Right, Cale?” She headed into the kitchen. Cale’s face turned pale. “Nathan!” The cry came from the kitchen. “I need some help finding the ice cream.”
Her husband frowned. “It’s in the freezer. It can’t be that hard to find.”
A hand emerged from the kitchen and grabbed his collar. “Nathan, kitchen. Come on.” He disappeared.
Elizabet’s face scrunched, and Cale stared at her. She fidgeted. “Is there something in my hair?” She brushed the strands onto her head and ran her hands down her sweater. “This food has been really good. I don’t know if I can stomach any dessert.” Cale continued to stare. “Um, Cale? What’s wrong?”
For the first time in a long time, he had entered a fantasy. Elizabet’s hair flowed in the breeze. A white hat perched on top of her head, and a similarly colored dress swathed her frame. When she smiled at him, her eyes closed, and her face seemed to glow. Every freckle was illuminated by the unearthly light, but that only made her more adorable.
They were walking down a brightly lit hall, and he could see a line of people at the end of it. One person stood in the center waiting for them to arrive. When they reached him, they took each other’s hands, and he looked into her eyes. She beamed and nodded. He nodded back, and they turned to the man. “Do you, Cale –”
“Cale?” Elizabet was waving her hand in front of his face. “Are you alright?”
He stiffened and speed walked to the bathroom. He parked his bottom on the lidded toilet seat and pulled out his phone.
Elizabet’s phone buzzed in her pocket. “Shoot, I forgot to put it on silent. Sorry, guys!” Christa and Nathan yelled that it was fine and they would be back in a minute. What was taking them so long? The ice cream was right there in the freezer.
She frowned when she saw the name on the phone. “Cale? What the heck?” She glanced around, remembering he took off to the bathroom. With a sigh, she opened the message.
Tears swam in her eyes, and some hair stuck to it. Her hands trembled as she tried to type a reply. She was positive the others could hear her rapidly beating heart and the way her breaths quickened.
The text was only one line:
“Wil u marry me?”
A single sob escaped Elzabet’s mouth as she tapped back, “Yes.”
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