Leylines

Emma wished that her little brother was normal for many reasons.

Some of them were selfish, for example,  if he talked like other six-year-olds and didn’t wear diapers then maybe Lyanne and Meredith at school wouldn’t snicker behind her back and throw her underwear in the toilet when they had gym class. 

But most of them were, of course, because she desperately wanted him to get up every morning without crying his eyes out, easily walk all by himself along the drowsy suburban street, and have some actual friends meet him at the bus stop near the dusty interstate, and then go have a schoolday which would be the same as it was for thousands of kids all over her state. 

And Michael might never do that.

There was no cure for autism.

Some said there shouldn’t be. That it was just a different way your brain was wired, not something that should be changed.

She hadn’t understood that last part, but Mom had become furious at Jenna’s birthday party last week when Jenna’s eldest daughter (who had been home from college) had argued about it, and Mom had shouted at everyone and Dad had to take them all home before the cake had been served. Jenna baked the best chocolate cakes, and Emma had badly wanted a slice.

Afterward, Mom had retreated to the attic and listened to her old CDs on her laptop that still had a drive, Emma knew she was crying alone up there as she often did, but Dad told her not to go up.

She did, eventually, with some tea, and asked Mom why she was listening to old pop songs. And then Mom had hugged her and said, “To remember the feelings I had when I danced to Eighth Wonder and A-ha when I was almost ten, like you.”

“Why?” she had asked.

“Because,” her mother said, teary-eyed, “they were the truest feelings I ever had. If you remember those feelings for the rest of your life, you will never feel sad.”

Even so, she could see Mom was sad.

And there had been no chocolate cake for her and only soup from the freezer for dinner. They had split from Jenna’s party in the middle of that, but Emma wasn’t hungry. She was only sorry about the cake.

Today Dad had bought ice cream for them, and it wasn’t so hot in Yuma now so she could actually eat it before it melted.

She eyed Michael’s Peppa Pig plate next to the old laptop, where he was happily typing away, unaware of his sister sitting next to him at the desk, or just unconcerned about it. 

Emma had already cleaned her plate of Turkey Hill and wondered if she should go into the kitchen and take some more and if Dad would mind. Probably he wouldn’t. She could hear the TV in the living room.

“Cave!” Michael chirped.

Emma got up from her chair and went over to pull up the comforter again, so it covered both Michael and the laptop. She had fastened it behind his back so it was like a small tent right there at his desk. “There, is it good now?”

“Chocolate biscuit!” Michael said from inside the ‘cave’.

“Don’t you want some of that good chocolate ice cream?” Emma tried carefully pushing the Peppa plate inside the comforter-tent. “You like vanilla ice cream and you like chocolate biscuits. This is the best of both.”

“Chocolate biscuit!” Michael repeated.

Emma went to the kitchen to fetch Petit Ecolier chocolate biscuits, the only brand that Michael ate. Mom had bought another, cheaper brand which was the same, as far as they could make out, but the figure on the chocolate part of the biscuit was different. Michael didn’t want it. Nor any of the 17 other brands they had tried.

As Emma fumbled with the biscuits—she had to avoid even a little part of the chocolate breaking off—she heard Michael cry out from his room. Even though his voice was muffled from under the comforter there was clearly a problem.

“About!”

Emma hurried back, took away the comforter for a moment, and moved the mouse pointer to “About” on one of the plethora of Google websites Michael had fallen in love with. It was an odd ritual, one of many.

This one was about stocks and there were a lot of numbers which Michael loved. He could click on other things but not that tab. Someone else had to do it.

Emma sat beside Michael, for a moment, then she went up again, out into the hallway, and peeked into the living room. Her Dad looked like he was far away, even if he was just there, slumped on the couch.

“Dad, when can I go to my room? I’ve got homework.”

“Just help him a little longer. They are interviewing Cruz now. After that, you can go.”

“Is he going to win?”

“Ernesto thinks he is.”

“Okay.”

Emma bowed her head and went back to her brother’s room.

I shouldn’t bother Dad. He is so worried about Uncle Dave. I should try again with the ice cream … 

If only she tried enough times, Michael would eventually eat something else. And both her Mom and Dad would be very happy. 

It also meant they had more different things to put vitamin drops in, and Mom worried a lot if Michael got enough vitamins. Or stopped eating altogether.

Emma felt that if she added her own will to that project, then she had to succeed. Her brother would eat something else. And not be undernourished. 

Also, it would be something she could do. Unlike fighting Lyanne and Meredith. They had made up their minds, it seemed, that they were going to dump on Emma forever. 

Michael was autistic. He couldn’t help it. But her class-‘mates’— they were just mean. They could choose not to be mean, but they didn’t.

Back in the room, the comforter tent was rocking back and forth and Michael sounded distressed. “Train! Train!” he called out from under it.

That usually meant that they had to zoom in on train tracks on Google Maps, although he was perfectly capable of doing so himself.

But some impulse drove him to pick certain things, repeating them over and over, and, at some random points, wanting people closest to him to be part of that.

Emma wondered if it was like a game Michael was playing with others, but it didn’t feel like that. And so sometimes she got annoyed with him. For now, she just lifted the comforter for the nth time and helped him with this ritual.

On the laptop, Michael had Google Maps open, with a full satellite view of central Africa. 

“Trains!” Michael sounded more and more upset.

“What trains?” Emma leaned over. “I don’t think there are trains in the desert.”

“Trains!” Michael sounded increasingly desperate now. He moved the cursor back and forth over the part of Africa where the great Sahara desert gave way to slightly less dry land—the Sahel.

“Are you trying to find out where Uncle Dave is?” Emma narrowed her eyes and stared at the big triangular ‘head’ of Mali.

This was where she knew her uncle had been kidnapped by someone named JNIM (or was it GIMN? It was so hard to understand all those names…)

Uncle Dave’s employer, World Life Health (that was easier to remember) helped at the poor hospitals in the desert towns, where he had been taken but they had no idea where he was. 

Mom was over at Michelle’s but before dinner, she had been all out of it again, not because someone had called Michael’s autism “just neurodivergence”, but because she was afraid Dave was already dead.

Like Emma, Mom and Uncle Dave usually got along very well. Sometimes Emma thought Mom should have married Uncle Dave instead of Dad, but, of course, Dave wasn’t interested in that, and he had almost been married to Kevin before they had this big fight and Uncle Dave had to go to the hospital himself— 

“Trains! Trains! Trains!” Michael was slamming the mouse down on the pad now.

He circled the cursor back and forth over the vast emptiness that was northern Mali. 

“Do you know where Uncle Dave is?” Emma asked breathlessly. 

He can’t possibly know that. He doesn’t even understand what happened to Uncle Dave… 

Emma tried finding a train track she could zoom on, to calm Michael. It calmed him to follow tracks…

But she could only find a single track, running through the southwestern part of the country, completely opposite to the great expanse of the north that met with the Sahara. 

Is this okay, Michael? Here are some train tracks.”

Michael angrily moved the mouse back to the north. “Trains! Trains!”

Emma felt like crying. She didn’t want this. She wanted her brother to understand. She wanted to be with Marie—or any of her few friends who had not moved away. She wanted …

“Trains-trains-TRAINS!”

Emma felt the tears press harder. She had failed again. “Michael, I d-don’t know what to do. I’m going to call Dad.”

“No.” Michael didn’t look at her, but he had stopped tamping the mouse up and down.

“You don’t want Dad to help?”

“No!” came the resolute answer. Michael was staring intently at the screen. 

Emma still didn’t know what to do. She could imagine a lot of things, hope for a lot. That Michael somehow had special abilities. Mom sure did. But this seemed completely meaningless to her.

“All right, I will stay, but you—” she squeezed his free hand “—you must go to ‘silence zone’ now, okay?” It was their code for being quiet. Michael didn’t respond at all to lots of things he did understand unless they said it in a special way.

“Is it because you heard what Dad and Mom talked with that director from World Life Health about on Skype? Did you understand Uncle Dave was missing? Do you want to go get him on a train?”

Michael didn’t answer, but he had calmed down. He was just staring at the screen and the desert. For a moment, Emma had the weird thought that maybe Uncle Dave would know Michael was looking for him—if that was what he was doing. 

Uncle Dave had never had children himself but he always seemed to know what Michael wanted whenever he visited. Michael could cry and drive Mom and Dad crazy but Uncle Dave always kept his calm. It was like he knew something about Michael that they did not.

Or maybe, as Mom had said, the last time he had been there, just before he flew to Africa, “—your uncle is just better able to deal with Michael because he can go on an autism-free vacation in between coming here.”

There had been that sting in Mom’s voice, which Emma hated. She knew Mom and Dad and Uncle Dave had argued the night before but not what it was about.

And then Mom looked like she was about to cry and told Emma to forget what she had said about Michael. And about Uncle Dave. She said he was a brave man, like Dad, who always tried to do what was right—for others.

Which is what Emma liked most of all, but it was also something that made her confused and afraid. Why would anyone want to hurt her uncle when he just had gone to Mali to help other people?

“Turn on,” Michael said.

That meant she had to place the cursor in the browser’s address bar. Only when it was on Google Maps, though. Emma shook her head and did what her brother wanted.

At least he had calmed down. If only she knew why …

“Let’s write something to Uncle Dave,” Emma suggested. She knew Michael preferred writing in the address bar, not punching in URLs. “Let’s pretend he can read it, okay? What would you tell him if you could?”

Then Dad knocked on the open door (Michael always had to have the doors open, night and day). “Everything all right, kids?”

“Yes, Dad,” Emma said. “We were just looking at … Mali.”

“I can see that. Was it your idea or Michael’s?”

“Michael’s. Honest.”

Dad nodded slowly. He had a haggard look on his face. He pulled his phone from his pocket and quickly checked it, then he put it back and looked at Emma. “No more TV. I can be with him now.”

“It’s okay, Dad. I want to see what he writes.”

“Those are just numbers.”

Emma looked and to her dismay, Michael had written a lot of random numbers in the address bar. Nothing she could reasonably infer anything meaningful from.

“Maybe they are coordinates!” she chirped. “We learned about it at school. Or code.”

“It’s probably code,” Dad said, but he was smiling. “You go to your room now and—”

“No.” Now Michael actually looked at both of them. “No,” he repeated firmly.

“He understood that!” Emma looked up at her dad.

Dad nodded wearily. “Of course. He is learning to talk.”

Emma didn’t move. “I’ll stay with him. I want to see what he writes.”

She did for another hour, but Michael wrote nothing in the URL bar that made any sense. Numbers. Words. But nothing she could squeeze any meaning out of. 

However, each time he pressed return and Google Maps went bonkers with errors, he quickly guided Emma’s hand to the mouse, so she could move it for him. 

And he always wanted the map to go back to Mali. Then he started writing again.

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EMMA & MICHAEL, 24 NOV 2015

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Cover by Alex Radelich on Unsplash

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