Theory of the Worm - Chapter One
Mark was a regular kid. There was nothing special about him.
Friday at school was, as every kid knows and as most grown-ups remember, the best day of the week. If you have to ask why, there’s no point in reminding you. Along with every other kid in his math class, Mark was just staring at the clock, waiting for the second hand to tick off the last sixty seconds.
A week later, fifty-eight.
And finally, all the way down to six seconds to go. That was when Mark became aware that the teacher was watching him.
Turning slowly, hoping he would literally be saved by the bell, Mark replied, “Yes, Mr. Turner?”
“What’s the homework assignment for this weekend?”
Mark’s heart froze for a second. Then the bell rang. Jumping out of his seat he said, “I’ll ask one of the other kids!” Then he was out the door.
“He’s just messing with you,” Tommy Aldrich said, his blond hair held in place as they ran down the stairs to their lockers. “There’s no homework this weekend.”
“Good,” Mark replied, reaching the bottom step. Doing the mental checklist and figuring out that, for once, there was absolutely no homework in any class this weekend, he hit the door. The walk home was bright and sunny, so Mark didn’t wear the jacket his mother had made him bring with him to school. His backpack was heavy on his back, since he hadn’t stopped by his locker to drop off his books, and by the time he was halfway he wished he’d left them at school.
They had just moved to this city a few months ago. They lived in a gated community near the junior high, which was new and shiny and upper middle class. It was a nice little subdivision of mostly two-story houses, a few ranch-style houses sprinkled here and there. His own house was two stories with a finished basement where they had the big flat-screen, all the game systems and Dad’s stereo, as well as the couch.
Already yelling out, “Hey Mom! I’m home!” as he unlocked the door, Mark was surprised to find that no one was home. Normally Mom would be making him a snack while his little brother Ben was downstairs playing a game or checking out some video on YouTube. They both liked to watch some of the YouTube channels where guys were ragging on different cartoons or systems or whatever. The two of them would sit and laugh at them for hours. Dad would sometimes come down and ask what they were watching, but then he would look at it for a few minutes then just shake his head and go back upstairs.
The phone rang. Picking it up, Mark heard the voice of his friend Vinnie. “Hey, what’s going on?” Vinnie asked.
“Nothing much. Mom’s not home yet.”
“Seriously?” Vinnie asked, genuinely surprised. Everyone knew that Mark’s mother was always home after school. “Do you think anything’s wrong?”
“Nah, I don’t. She probably either needed to get something at the store or she had an appointment that she forgot to tell me about. Ben’s not here either so that’s probably where they are.”
“Okay. Don’t forget that we’re supposed to go see the movie tomorrow.” Vinny meant he and Mark and their friends Jim and Tommy.
“Yeah, no problem. Already cleared everything with Mom and Dad, so no problem.”
“All right, see you then!”
Saying, “See you tomorrow,” Mark hung up the phone and looked around. He was hungry. This was nothing new, he was a teenaged boy and when he got home from school he always had a snack. Mom always had a few cookies and some applesauce or peaches or something out for him, but he usually snuck a few extra cookies. Looking around, he didn’t see any notes, so since he didn’t know when Mom and Ben would be back he decided to help himself to a few cookies. As he shoved the chocolate chip cookies in his mouth, he started feeling guilty and got the jar of apple sauce out of the refrigerator. As he was spooning some out into a bowl, he heard the garage door go up and Mom drive the SUV in. Involuntarily, he looked over to where the laundry room connected the kitchen and the garage.
The car door slammed. Hard. This was not good, it meant that something bad had happened and someone was upset. He heard the door to the garage fly open and Ben come running through, crying like a baby. His mother followed, carrying a bag of groceries and a bag of fast food.
Hesitantly, Mark asked, “What happened?”
“I’m not sure, honey,” Mom replied. She was standing by the counter where she had set the bags down. Her head drooped a little, her long brown hair falling into the brown bag. He wasn’t sure but he thought she had been crying a little. She looked older to him now than she had this morning.
Turning from the bags, she got a k-cup out and started brewing herself some coffee. “Had an appointment with his doctor this afternoon,” when she said it that way Mark knew it was Ben’s psychiatrist, not their family doctor. “You know your brother, he takes things so personally. He doesn’t want to believe he has autism.”
Mark had gone once or twice with them and had seen Ben’s psychiatrist. The man had no facial expressions and had once said point blank to the family that he considered autism and mental retardation the same thing. After they had left that appointment, Mark had said that in his opinion the doctor needed a doctor. Dad had started to say that Mark shouldn’t say stuff like that but Mom had agreed.
“I bet that doctor didn’t help anything at all,” he said, trying to be helpful. Mom snorted but didn’t say anything. “Is there anything I can do?” he asked.
Shaking her head, Mom replied, “No, not for me. Thank you, honey. But you might want to go talk to Benny, because he’s pretty upset.”
Heading up the stairs, Mark could hear Ben crying. He cracked open the door to Ben’s room and saw his little brother, or rather the blanket he had crawled completely under.
“Hey, dude,” Mark said.
“Go away!” came the pitiful wail from under the fabric.
Walking over to the bed, Mark sat on the edge of it. “I’m sorry.”
Pushing the cover off his reddened face, Ben yelled, “I am NOT autistic!”
“I know, Bud. It’s okay.”
“No it’s not!” Ben screamed. “I’m not different from everybody else! Why do I have to go see that guy? Why?”
As Ben pulled the blanket back over him, Mark had to admit he had no answer for that one. In the past he had tried to tell Ben that everyone is different, but Ben had always been aware that he didn’t look at things the way most boys do. He hadn’t wanted to, and their dad had tried to tell him that it was okay. A lot of successful people didn’t look at things the way “everyone else” did, but Ben was too aware of it. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like feeling different and not understanding why. When he had been diagnosed at the age of three with mild autism, the rest of the family had been relieved but Benny had just gotten more upset. It was a losing battle, and that stupid psychiatrist they took him to didn’t ever help things. They had tried to get Ben in with someone else, only to discover that this guy was the most respected child psychiatrist in three states and no one wanted to deal with taking one of his patients away. It had been a nightmare from beginning to end. And they couldn’t simply stop taking him to a psychiatrist because his school required it for him to get some of the services he received, like speech therapy and occupational therapy.
Ben was now eight, and everyone in the family had cried at one time or another thinking about what was ahead for him.
Later, after Ben had calmed down, the two boys were in the basement playing Borderlands when Dad came home. They could hear Mom and Dad talking upstairs, and they could hear Mom getting upset and Dad trying to calm her down. Not daring to say anything for fear of upsetting his brother, Mark kept checking Ben’s face. The younger boy’s face at first looked like he was fine, but it kept looking more and more tense, like he was fighting not to cry. After a bit, Dad came down and, without saying a word, picked up a controller. They restarted the game, and Dad sucked at it, but a lot of times his trouble working the controller made Ben laugh and that’s what happened this time. After a while the three of them were all talking about how terrible Dad was video games. Then the family had dinner, spaghetti and meatballs with bread, and things got back to ‘okay.’
Ben asked if he could go see the new movie with Mark and his friends. Looking at Mom and Dad for help, Mark wanted to say yes but this was his time with his friends and no one really wanted a little brother tagging along.
“Hey, how about if I go take you to see it?” Dad asked.
“But I want to go see it with my friends!” Ben replied. Ben thought of Vinny and Jim and Tommy as his friends as well as Mark’s, even though he didn’t do anything with them.
“Tell you what, how about I take you to a late showing tonight?” Dad replied.
“Sure! That way you get to see it before any of them do!”
Mom interjected, “I don’t know, dear. It’ll mean he stays up past his bedtime.”
“Please Mom!” Ben practically yelled.
“It will be okay, sweetheart,” Dad answered. “He doesn’t have school tomorrow, he can sleep in.”
Mom thought it over for a moment and looked like she was agreeing against her better judgment, but she agreed. Benny yelled, “Hooray!” and after dinner Dad looked up show times on the computer. The two went out to a midnight show. Ben was so happy he practically danced. Mark knew his friends would be jealous tomorrow but also glad to not have Ben tagging along.
Mark was asleep when they came home. But at 6:45 am he woke up to the house rumbling and a strange man he’d never seen before shaking him and saying, “Get up dude! It’s almost time to go!”
copyright (c) 2014 christopher w neal