To say I'm having a little fun with this one is an understatement! Curious about the AFTER TALES SERIES? Check out this unedited excerpt from #ShrinkingTink!
‘Atypical.’ Bullshit. They were the ones who didn’t get it. So what if I didn’t know when to smile or understand why it wasn’t perfectly logical to take things at face value? I was sick of being analyzed. Tink was too.
I slammed the door shut behind me, knowing full-well narky Leena would tell Mom that that kind of behavior ‘wasn’t appropriate’ for Neverland Heights High and how I needed more practice with my social skills. I’d get another year of Wendy Darhling’s one-on-one time for retards with another aide who didn’t get it. Whatever. Nothing had really changed since the first grade in my Sharks reading group for kids who were ‘slow.’ I was used to being followed around by aides and bouncing from one counselor to the next. Hell, my last ‘Wendy’s dreaming again’ situation was what landed us here. It wasn’t gonna change no matter what I did.
My new school was no different than the rest. And if the social worker, Leena Johnson was so stupid that she’d think I’d be mildly impressed by some peer support group for atypical kids, she had another thing coming. I’d known long before my diagnosis just what atypical meant. It stood for weirdos. I was one of them. I was proud of it. Why the adults in my life felt there was something I should do different? I didn’t get it.
I’d done my reading on Generation Z the exact same way I researched everything. I knew we were entitled, addicted to the internet, and even how we were the most tolerant generation yet. I also knew we were perpetually anxious and chronically depressed. Everyone knew that shit. Hell, we lived it.
Glancing at my iWatch, complete with a Tinkerbell band, it wasn’t lost on me that my next class in Neverland Heights was life skills. Rolling my eyes, I walked past the senior class hallway with the endless murals of some girl who’d died too soon but would at least be forever young. If I remembered right, it was two more lefts and three classrooms down where I’d find the group of weirdos other people’s parents and the shrinks had deemed ‘atypical.’
Sighing, I tried to remember if today was the day we cooked for the rest of the school. Yesterday, they’d dragged us out in groups to do the grocery shopping. We’d stood exactly six feet apart wearing droopy masks and listened to Mrs. Nelson’s lecture on counting change and saving receipts for later. Praying today was the day we put the minestrone soup together and not the one for a grocery list budgeting lecture, I made my way down an empty corridor.
Knowing I should have asked Leena for a hall pass, I hoped I wouldn’t run into a hall monitor. The last time that had happened, I’d been so late Mrs. Nelson had marked me absent and called home to Mom. Like I needed a lecture from her either.
I was the one who always got lectured since John left for Hook University. With Micheal the eternal ‘baby,’ or maybe because I was the only girl and the rules were just different for me, my parents were more fixated on me then usual. In a way, I wished we were still in Bloomsbury, Michigan, where Mom had been so glued to her phone that she didn’t bother to micromanage my IEP. Since moving to Neverland Heights, Vermont, she’d had more time to worry about the stupid things like how I was dressing or whether or not I was following Leena’s treatment plan.
We hated it here – me and Tink. I had a few friends, but nothing important. It didn’t help that the kids in the special ed classes weren’t much like me. I found myself mostly protecting them. Two of them couldn’t even speak, a few had such outrageous stemming habits that it was, well, embarrassing to be seen with them in the halls. It wasn’t like everyone didn’t already stare at the new girl. For as much as I wanted to hang out with Tina, a girl with pink hair and a boyfriend from the bowling ally who everyone in Special Olympics crushed on because he could shoot a three-pointer from mid court, her incessant counting and twirling was just too much. I hated myself for feeling that way but, unlike any of my shrinks would say, I refused to lie to myself.
I entered the classroom to the rank scent of onions. They sizzled from the bottom of the pan Tina was hanging onto. Over her shoulder were Tom and Hayden; arguing over who’d get to stir next. Relieved, I plopped my Lost Boys backpack on a large desk in the back of the room usually reserved for kids working with paras on senior projects.
“Nice of you to join us, Wendy,” Mrs. Nelson said. “Fashionably late again?”
Everything in me wanted to tell her that there was nothing fashionable abut her. Her face was covered in the usual pink blotchy spots and the skin on her neck waved as she pointed her finger in my direction.
“Got a hall pass?”
“No. I forgot. I was with Leena.”
“Mmmm hmmm. You need a pass.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“Bring one back before the late bus today or I’ll have to mark you as absent.”
Right. I was going to somehow track Leena Johnson down through her clients. Hell if I knew what school, court, or family therapy session she’d be at by 2:35 p.m. It wasn’t like I was in the habit of asking Leena questions. But Mrs. Nelson wasn’t worth arguing with. “Okay,” I said, shrugging.
“You can help Dan cut the carrots,” she said.
It might have been the best thing she’d said all week. Dan was a quiet kid whose diagnosis evaded me. If I had to guess, I’d put him on the spectrum or maybe it was just some mild developmental delays. He was what the shrinks would call ‘high-functioning’ like me. And of all the kids in the class, he was the one I probably connected to best. Problem was, he was gay. And he made no attempt to hid it. While we could be friends, it was hard to look at him and not wish things could get romantic. Either way, it was better than listening to Tom flip his shit over salt and pepper.
Moving to the far back corner of the room by a long set of windows, I grabbed a knife from the drawer by the second row of sinks. “Hey, Mrs. Nelson said I should help,” I told Dan, who was washing carrots in the sink closest to me.
“K,” he said, smiling and waving three fat, wet carrots in my direction. “Gotta peel um first.”
Grabbing the carrots with one hand, I reached for the peeler in another drawer before putting everything on a cutting board and moving back to the sink to wash my hands.
We worked in silence as Tom flipped his shit about the spices and Mrs. Nelson finally snapped and made him sit in the quiet room. In other schools, it’d be surreal but not in Neverland. Here, as they told themselves they were teaching us to live independently as adults, they treated us like infants. How a closet turned into a quiet room where a kid was literally locked in with an aide was beyond me. I didn’t know who to feel more sorry for, the aide, whose arms were often marked with bruises from the bigger kids, or Tom.
I wondered what it was like for Tom at home. He was one of the kids who showered at school in the massive bathroom attached to our skills room. Dan had told me that it was because Tom’s mother couldn’t handle him. It wasn’t a surprise, really. I’d seen him bite Jennifer Cruiz more than once as she’d walked the halls with him collecting the recycling bins. The kid was fucked up. Twenty-one and about to age out of the system, I figured his next stop would be some kind of long-term placement.
Telling myself he’d probably be happier there, I dumped the carrots into boiling water as Tina asked me if I liked her hair. Ignoring the massive line of pink hair dye that crowned not only her forehead but the side of her face, I told her I did. Wondering if I should suggest Vaseline, I decided against it. I knew Gina Vincent, my social skills therapist from Michigan would advise against it though I wasn’t quite sure why.
It was like that a lot. I knew what I was supposed to do but neither Tink or I could ever figure out why and asking adults to explain it was an exercise in straight up wasting time. If it was me, I’d want to know. A tip like that could save me from looking like an idiot, but, whatever. I mean, it wasn’t like it looked terrible. If you didn’t get too close, all you could really see was the neon hue and it did suit her. It reminded me of the flamingos we saw last year at Disney.
“I did it myself,” she said, snapping her watermelon gum.
Wincing and telling myself to breath through my mouth, I smiled. “Cool.”
“I could do yours too. We could do a sleepover if you want.”
The last time I’d slept over Tina’s house, we’d spent the night making crank calls to half the freshman on Tina’s brother’s phone. If I was honest, I’d have to admit it was kind of fun. And maybe I could dye her hair.
“I’m not allowed to dye mine.”
“But we could still sleepover.”
I shrugged. “I’ve got to ask my mom.” I knew that without that pass, I’d be grounded again. It wouldn’t be worth it to explain why I’d forgotten a pass from Leena and how I wasn’t a miracle worker who could chase a social worker down.
“K,” Tina said, wrinkling her nose. “Stupid Tom. Too much pepper.”
I could see Tina growing up to be a chef. Even though her plan was to work at the General Dollar for the discounts, I could see more for her. The girl could cook.
“Well, it’s just for the teachers, really,” I said, trying to make her feel better. For all the shit I took about empathy, the adults were wrong about me.
“Yeah,” she said, giggling and grabbing the pepper.
I watched her as she spun the wheel and little flakes of pepper fell into the pot. Over and over she turned that grinder. Laughing, I looked over my shoulder praying Mrs. Nelson wasn’t watching. And to our luck, she was gone – off by the quiet room to check on Tom.
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Erin Lee, who also writes as EL George, is a USA Today Bestselling multi genre author unafraid to chase the madness. Author of more than 100 titles and creator of Crazy Ink Publishing, LLC, she'll try anything once and never turns down a dare.