Ben grabbed for Kyle’s hand as they approached the front of the school. As usual, Kyle cringed and pulled away.
“All right, all right, just come on already. We’re late. You have to get to school.” I hate being late, Ben muttered to himself. He pulled on the door handle. Nothing. He heaved. “Shit!” Nothing. Kyle, who had remained silent for the last half hour, repeated, “Shit! Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.”
“No. You can’t say that.” Ben so badly wanted his son to talk to him, but did the kid have to repeat the one taboo word Ben had uttered so far today? He searched for another door, spotted one farther down the building and again reached for Kyle’s hand. The sound Kyle let out made him drop it. “Kyle, come on,” Ben told his son, “we have to get in there.” Kyle came, but, “Shit, shit, shit” came faintly from his mouth. Ben sighed.
It took three doors and more expletives before Ben found one that would allow them to enter the building. He had no idea what was wrong with this place. A school was a public building, wasn’t it?
Once in the school, Ben stopped. He had not thought this far. Did he have to find the room for five year olds on his own? He spotted a sign telling visitors to report to the office and an arrow pointing down the beige hall. Without thinking, Ben put his hand on Kyle’s shoulder to steer him in the right direction. Predictably, Kyle pulled away, rubbing the shoulder that Ben had touched. Ben winced. “Well, just come then, if you don’t want me touching you.” Whatever Kyle might be thinking didn’t register on his face, but he followed Ben anyway.
In the distance, screaming started up. Ben instinctively stepped in front of his son. He stopped. Where was that coming from? Was a child in danger? What kind of a school was this anyway?
They continued cautiously, Ben ready to grab Kyle and run. The screams became louder as they came to an open door. Inside Ben glimpsed some kids sitting around tables, one in a rocking chair, others standing in front of easels and one little boy writhing on the floor as a woman knelt beside him, about to lay a blanket over him. What the hell were they doing to that child to cause him to scream like that?
Ben glanced at Kyle to make sure he was safe, then stepped into the doorway, ready to intervene. As he watched, the woman spoke softly to the screaming child and laid the blanket over him. She pressed it down firmly around him but the blanket didn’t mold to the child’s body the way a blanket should. As she continued to press down with the blanket, the screams lessened to whimpers. The woman then reached for a large plastic ball and started running it up and down the little boy’s body, pressing harder than Ben would have thought advisable. This was a small child, after all.
“Hey,” Ben called. “What are you doing to that kid? Is he all right?” All eyes turned to him. The wailing momentarily eased then started up again. With a nod to a younger woman, the teacher or whoever she was rose to her feet, keeping pressure on the ball until the other woman came to take her place. Then her calm expression changed as she came toward Ben with purpose.
“Please leave my room. You’re disturbing my students,” she said when she got to the doorway where Ben stood.
Ben looked at her. “I’m disturbing your students?” he asked incredulously. “It looks like you’re torturing that poor kid.” The kid in question, calm now, looked out at him with big eyes.
“Does he look disturbed?” the teacher asked. “Don’t answer that,” she added. “This is my classroom and these are my students. Kindly carry on with your own business. If you’re new here, the office is that way.” She pointed in the direction Ben and Kyle had been going.
“I don’t know what your problem is, lady, but I heard a kid screaming and thought he might need help.” Ben backed out the door, shaking his head. His heart settled back into its normal pattern after the fright of hearing the child’s screams. He’d never let anyone like that near his son.
The office resembled a jungle with green plants everywhere. They were greeted by a welcoming, grey-haired woman, half-hidden by the counter. She stuck out her hand. “Good morning, you two. I’m Mrs. Billings.”
Ben shook her hand. “Ben Wickens and this is my son, Kyle”. Kyle neither looked at them, nor showed any sign he noticed the smile and hand extended his way. “Ah, Kyle’s a little stand-offish at first,” he explained.
“Well, I’m sure we’ll become firm friends in no time. How may I help you?”
“Kyle is new to the area and needs to be in school.”
“Let me introduce you to Dr. Hitkin, our principal. She’ll get you registered and in the right classroom.”
Ben sank into the chair, fidgeting and expecting a long wait. Bureaucrats did that sort of thing, of course. They’d show him how important they were by keeping him waiting. He hated it, but he’d suffer through it for the sake of his son.
Pulling back his sleeve cuff to check his watch, Ben then glanced at Kyle. Shirt was clean; pants looked all right. He’d remembered to rub the milk off Kyle’s mouth. Yep, he looked pretty typical.
The realization hit him once again that yes, he indeed did have a son. The kid was actually quite cute, even if he was biased. Kyle stood at the side of the room, his little body swaying in rhythm to the asparagus fern blowing in the breeze coming through the open window. Ironic. Of all the houseplants in the world, this was one of the very few Ben could actually name. And, this was one his son obviously was attracted to. As he watched, he noticed his son’s lips moving, keeping time to the swaying. What was he saying? Ben got up and moved closer.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit,” Kyle said. Quietly, at least, thank god.
“Kyle. Shhhh. Don’t say that. It’s not a nice word.” Kyle turned to look at his dad. His eyes actually met Ben’s momentarily, before sliding away. Whoa. When was the last time Kyle had looked at him, even briefly?
“Kyle, that’s a bad word. Daddy should not have said that. I was frustrated, is all. No, that’s not an excuse. I’m sorry you heard that, but please don’t say that word.”
“Shit, shit, shit, shit,” Kyle intoned.
Ben was about to try again when the inner door opened and a middle-aged woman came out smiling, with her hand ready to take Ben’s.
“Hi. I’m Dr. Delora Hitkin, principal of Madson Elementary School. What can I do for you?”
Ben introduced himself as he shook her hand. He then pointed to Kyle. “This is my son, Kyle. He needs to start school, but at the moment he seems fascinated by your plants.”
“He’s not the only one. I love them as well.” She turned to Kyle. “Hi, Kyle. Welcome to our school.”
Ben started to apologize for his son’s behavior. Kyle was so intent on the swaying plant that he did not seem to even notice the principal’s presence. Dr. Hitkin waved her hand at Ben’s consternation. “Don’t worry. We’re used to kids here and all are welcome.”
She went to the plant and ducked underneath it. She swayed her head in time with the plant, smiling at Kyle. Ben held his breath, waiting for Kyle to explode.
Kyle froze. Ben stepped forward to interfere but Marie, the secretary gave him a warning look.
Kyle’s gaze shifted from the plant to the person who dared interfere with his pleasure. Eventually, he met Dr. Hitkin’s eyes. She grinned and said, “Boo!”
Ben was amazed and relieved to hear Kyle’s giggle. Phew! A crisis averted. He so didn’t want Kyle to create a scene even before he’d been accepted into the school.
This brought Ben back to the dilemma that kept him up all night. Should he pass Kyle off as just a typical five year old? Or did he let the cat out of the bag and admit that Kyle had autism? If he told them, what if they would not let Kyle enter the school? What if there was a special school just for morons or kids who had things like autism? What if they didn’t want Kyle?
“Mr. Wickens, would you like to come into my office with me?” Ben hesitated. Dr. Hitkin continued, “Kyle will be just fine here with Ms. Billings. She’s a great fan of all kids and they adore her.” What could Ben say? Should he tell her that Kyle’s not like other kids? Before he could decide, Dr. Hitkin ushered him into her office. His last glimpse of Kyle was of Ms. Billings dragging out a tub of chunky, wooden building blocks and getting onto the floor beside Kyle.
“Don’t worry, they’ll be fine,” Dr. Hitkin assured him. “We’ll leave the door open so he can see you.”
“Now, we have some paperwork to fill out. Will your wife be joining us?”
Ben thought he’d stepped into it already. How to explain the situation without making either he or Deanna sound like a horse’s ass?
“No. I’m a single parent. “The words sounded strange to his ears. “Kyle lives with me.”
“School started two weeks ago. Why didn’t you register him earlier?”
There was no easy way to get around this. He didn’t want this new school to be prejudiced against Kyle because of his wacky parents.
“Kyle has only been living with me since yesterday. Prior to that he was with his mother and her husband in California. I now have custody.”
“I see. I’ll need to retain a copy of the legal custody agreement for the school records.”
Ben stared at her. He had no such thing. Damn Deanna. Why had she not mentioned these details? Kyle had been in school before, so surely she must have known.
“Ah, that is still in the works. His mother just sent him to me yesterday and in the rush of exchanging information and Kyle’s things, we didn’t get to the legal parts. I’ll contact her today and get this straightened out. I’m sure there will be no problem.”
“Are there any other problems you want to tell me about?”
Ben tried not to squirm. “What do you mean?”
“Let me get one thing straight.” Ben’s heart filled with dread. Dr. Hitkin had sensed something different about Kyle and was going to say he didn’t belong in this school. She continued, “Madson Elementary is a public school. Here we welcome all students. We respect the different learning styles of all children. Do you have any questions or concerns?”
This was obviously the opening for Ben to talk about Kyle’s autism. But, he didn’t know how to do that, hardly had any idea what autism was all about, other than the quick website search he’d done after Kyle went to bed yesterday. What he read left his mind boggling. The stories! Surely, they did not fit Kyle. Ben didn’t know if he could cope, but he sure could not function if Kyle was not in school all day. He had a business to run.
A good defense is a good offence in the business world, Ben believed, so he launched in. “I have certain requirements for my son. I want him in a safe environment. I want him to learn. I want him to have good role models.”
Dr. Hitkin nodded.
“I do have some concerns,” Ben launched in. “First, you said that this is a public school. As such, I would think that it’s a public building. I’ll have you know that I had to try three doors before I could find one that let us in. What if there was a fire? How would all these children get out?”
Again, Dr. Hitkin nodded. “And did you notice which one opened for you?” She didn’t wait for his reply. “The main door, the one that leads directly to the office. We keep all other doors locked during the day. The one you used is monitored by camera at all times. When the door opens, we’re alerted in the office and Marie or I watch the monitor. This is for the safety of our students. We need to know at all times who is in our building and if anyone leaves. And, for your information, in case of a fire alarm, all the other doors are automatically unlocked. Does that answer your question?”
Ben was a little ashamed, but had more. “As we walked along the hall, we came across this one room, not the kind of place I would like any child of mine.”
“What exactly do you mean?”
“This little boy was screaming. He was just a small child. A woman, I presume his teacher, threw this big blanket over him and held it down. Then she took this huge ball and put in on top of him. I could see the muscles in her arms working as she pressed down on it!”
“And, what did the child do?” Dr. Hitkin inquired.
“Ah, well, he got quieter, or at least he seemed to.”
“And what about the rest of the children in the room?”
“What do you mean?” Ben asked.
Dr. Hitkin clarified. “What were they doing while this was taking place?”
“I didn’t pay a lot of attention to them; my concern was all for that one boy,” said Ben.
“Think back. Did they look sad? Distressed? Unhappy? Shocked?”
“I don’t know them well enough to say, but no, come to think about it, they seemed to be carrying on their business.”
“Could you describe the teacher to me?” Dr. Hitkin asked.
Ben gave a brief description of the teacher and the room’s location.
“That is Ms. Nicols room. Melanie Nicols is a stellar kindergarten teacher, one of the best you will ever come across.”
“I’d have to object to her methods or at least those I witnessed.” Ben thought a minute. “Kindergarten? Isn’t that for five year olds? Kyle’s five. Is that where you think you’re going to place him? Oh, no. That’s not the place for my son. He’s delicate and impressionable. I don’t want him exposed to kids who scream or get thrown to the floor.”
“Did you see Ms. Nicols or anyone else throw that boy to the floor?” the principal asked.
“Well, no, but....”
“I can assure you that his teacher did not throw him or any other student to the floor.” She watched Kyle and Marie through the open door for a minute. “Mr. Wickens, can you honestly tell me that Kyle has never screamed?”
Ben told her, “Come on. He’s a child. No child is perfect.”
“Exactly. But there is a range that we normally think of as typical for children of a certain age. Then, there are other children of the same age who may do some of the things just like others their age, but may have some, shall we say, quirks. Do you ever see that in Kyle?”
“He’s my son. He’s the only five year old I know. I don’t really have anything to compare him to.”
“Mr. Wickens, I presume that you were once a five year old boy yourself. And surely you’ve seen children in parks and malls and on television. Can you honestly say that Kyle is just like the everyday, typical little boy?”
Ben bristled. “Are you saying there’s something wrong with my son?”
“Not at all. I would never suggest that there is anything wrong about any child. Different, yes. Wrong, no. There’s a difference.”
Ben sighed. He was new at this parenting thing. This crafty old lady was not going to let things slide by. As Ben hesitated, he heard a giggle in the outer office. His head whipped around. Yes, it was Kyle! It was his son. He was actually giggling. Ben watched in amazement. He had not known Kyle had it in him. He was pleased at the sound of the childish delight but saddened that it took a stranger to bring out that glee. Kyle would barely even look at his own father, let alone play with him.
His gaze came back to Dr. Hitkin who was watching him intently. “You’re new to this, aren’t you Mr. Wickens?” she asked.
Ben wanted to squirm like a little boy sent to the principal’s office. “Yes, ma’am,” he said reflexively. “Kyle just came to live with me yesterday.”
She smiled at him. “I don’t mean just new to parenting. I meant that you’re new to autism, aren’t you?”
Ben stared at her. How the hell did she know? Did Kyle have a big “A” stenciled on his forehead? Or did he himself? Could she tell already that he was the kind of father who would create a kid with autism? Would they turn them away if they thought Kyle had autism?
Ben’s back was up again. He needed to defend his son. “Kyle’s a good kid, really he is. He’s just new to me and to Madson. It’s normal to have a period of adjustment. He’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. I’ll support the school and help out and join the PTA or whatever it is you have these days.”
Dr. Hitkin grinned. “Good to know. We’ll hold you to that.”
He blanched; she smiled as if she was enjoying this.
“You’re in luck. Kyle has autism and we just happen to have an autism specialist in the building - Ms. Nicols.”
“Not that teacher, that woman who held the kid down and pounded on him with a ball? That lady is not getting anywhere near my son. I will not have him treated that way.”
“That woman is a highly trained teacher with a Master’s degree in autism. She was not, nor would she ever “pound” on a child. What she was doing was calming him down. You heard his screaming as you came in. You witnessed him calm down under the gentle pressure of the weighted blanked and the ball. Many kids with autism react positively to weight and pressure. You ought to try it with Kyle.”
“Let’s get one thing straight. There is nothing wrong with Kyle. He’s just a little boy. He does not talk much but it’s coming. Yeah, Deanna said that when he was younger some doctors said he had autism. But we spent thousands of dollars on treatment over the last three years; pretty much a normal person’s salary in a year went to just Kyle’s ABA treatment. They said it would cure him and that if we did this intensely, he’d be typical by the time he went to school. Well, he’s school age now and I want him in school.”
“Certainly he should be in school and he is welcome here. In fact, he can either start tomorrow or spend the rest of today with us. He will be in Ms. Nicols room. It’s the ideal spot for him. I guarantee you’ll be pleased at his progress. Both he and you will learn a lot.”
“Me? I finished school a long time ago.”
“True, but now that autism has come into your life, there is suddenly a lot more to learn, isn’t there? Don’t worry. We’ll help.”
The principal excused herself to get the paperwork started and left Ben alone with his thoughts. Unfortunately. That damn principal had said the word “autism”. How did she know? He hadn’t mentioned it.
Usually he was pretty good at paperwork. He was, after all an accountant and dealt in papers much of his waking life. But he’d never before registered a little boy in school. What sort of questions might he be asked? He already failed the test about custody papers. What else didn’t he know about his son?
Actually, a lot. He thought back to last night, his first night alone with Kyle. His son; he actually had a son.
He remembered the shock when he first learned that he had a child. But back then, it had still been an abstract concept. Sure, he’d stepped up and supported him financially as soon as he learned of his existence, but that was about it. Deanna would not allow him to meet their son, saying it would be too confusing for Kyle. And, to be honest, Ben had not protested too hard. He had his own life, far, far away from where Kyle and Deanna lived in California His conscience told him it was enough to send money. Lots of money, considering the size of the child.
He had not given much thought to what it would have been like to live with Kyle day by day. Sure, Deanna had said that Kyle had autism and therefore needed all this expensive treatment in order to be cured. But what must life have been like for Deanna before treatment if this was the way Kyle was AFTER treatment?
Last night had been hell, just hell and Ben finally fell into bed exhausted. Then, he thought about it from Kyle’s point of view. Maybe it had not been so nice for him either.
Kyle was just a small boy. The kid didn’t know him from any stranger on the street. He’d never had such a long car ride before.
There’d been the hysterical call from Deanna saying that she couldn’t take it anymore. She and her new husband, Neil, were expecting their first baby together. She had morning sickness, was exhausted and just could not cope with Kyle any longer. She had to concentrate on this new life she was creating and on her marriage. Kyle was just too much for her - for them. It was now Ben’s turn.
Before Ben could marshal his arguments and tell her how ridiculous this was, Deanna had hung up, sobbing. Ben assumed he’d hear from her next with apologies, saying she hadn’t meant it and all their lives would return to normal.
Instead, just after supper last night there was a knock at the door. A car idled at the curb. In front of him stood a woman and a small boy. If Ben hadn’t just talked to her on the phone, he would not have recognized Deanna. Her face was drawn and haggard. She’d aged considerably in the short six years since he’d last seen her when she moved to California, after amiably breaking it off with him.
That had been no big shock or heartbreak. While they’d had a good run briefly, their ardor had paled quickly and they remained buddies with separate lives. He’d wished her well and not thought about her again until the phone call three years ago. Again, Deanna had called him sobbing. She’d told him they shared a son. Kyle had been born eight months after she left for California. Ben didn’t question if Kyle was his; Deanna had sobbed on.
Kyle was not a normal child, she said. What? He had autism. He spent his days screaming. He’d been just diagnosed and the treatment - THE treatment was ABA, Applied Behavior Analysis, the only proven treatment for autism, or so they told her. He needed this treatment if he even had a hope of being normal. Whatever normal was, Ben thought.
So, get it for him, Ben said. What’s the problem? Well, it seemed the problem was money. The treatment did not come cheap. It required forty hours a week of one on one treatment with a trained therapist. The cost was exorbitant.
Ben had paled when he heard the cost. But, this was his son, even if this was the first he had heard of him. An errant thought entered his mind. Was this really his son? How did he know? He pushed that notion away. His son, his responsibility.
For some time now, Ben had been squirreling away money for a down payment for a house. Sure, this condo was handy, right in the same building as his office, but it was more a place to crash than a home. While he didn’t imagine picket fences, he still had an image of a house in his future one day.
The money in his house fund would cover about a year and a half of Kyle’s fifty thousand a year therapy. He’d worry about the rest later. Then another thought hit him. How had Deanna managed when she was pregnant? Who had looked after her? How had she handled money when she was unable to work?
Deanna admitted to dipping into her savings. She insisted she had been all right. Since it had been her choice to have a child alone, she had not wanted to ask anything of him.
How had this happened, Ben wanted to know. Well, it wasn’t quite the accident he’d assumed. The idea of being a mom had blossomed in Deanna’s mind. She knew that her relationship with Ben was more friendship than marriage material. She decided to have a child on her own. Ben was a nice guy, good looking and intelligent; he seemed an acceptable sperm donor, a father she could look back on fondly. She’d stopped taking her birth control pills and assured Ben that his condoms were not necessary.
And you didn’t think about letting me in on these plans, Ben had asked, his anger rising. He tamped it down. What’s done was done and now Kyle was his responsibility. Deanna should have been as well, if only he’d known about the pregnancy. He quickly calculated what it might have cost to feed and clothe a baby. Maybe five hundred dollars a month? Hell, he didn’t know. That worked out to six thousand dollars a year and Kyle was now two and a half years old. That meant he owed Deanna fifteen thousand dollars in back child support. She must have had to take time off work as well. He had sent her a check for twenty-five thousand dollars the next morning and began the monthly installments of two thousand for the part of the treatment costs insurance didn’t cover, plus another five hundred for Kyle’s keep.
His thoughts were interrupted by the return of Dr. Hitkin with her papers.
“Most of this is just basic information like your address and contact numbers in case we need to reach you during the day. Then we need his medical information.”
“Medical?” Ben asked. “He’s a pretty healthy kid.” His voice broke on the word healthy. Was Kyle actually healthy? Is autism a disease? Was he sick? And, apart from the autism, how was his health? Had he had those things kids get like measles and mumps? Ben had no idea about his own son.
“By medical, for now I just mean his doctor’s name and contact information.”
Well, he wouldn’t get parent of the year award yet again. Ben had no clue who Kyle’s doctor was or if he’d ever seen a physician. Ben didn’t even have the name of a doctor or one of his own he could use to fake it.
There was so much he didn’t know about this little man who was his son. Best ’fess up and try to maintain as much dignity as possible. “Kyle has only just moved to town and I have not yet had time to set him up with a local doctor.” Nor had he even thought about it, Ben admitted to himself. “I’ll get you this information as soon as possible, but Kyle’s healthy and I’m sure calling his doctor won’t be necessary.”
“I see you left the section on custodial care blank. That is required information. In this era of non-traditional families, we need to know who has legal access to the child, who to send reports to and that sort of thing,” Dr. Hitkin explained.
“I have full custody, “Ben replied.
“I don’t dispute that but I’m sure you’ll understand that for our records we require a copy of the legal custodial order.”
Damn Deanna for not mentioning this. “I’ll get that to you as soon as possible as well. Can Kyle start school without it?”
“Is there any way you can prove that you have custody and the right to enroll this child in school?”
Ben thought a minute. “What if you phoned his mother? Could she confirm consent over the phone?”
“It’s not the usual process but for now it could do,” Dr. Hitkin said as Ben pulled out his phone to find Deanna’s number.
The ensuing conversation between the principal and Deanna was brief. It sounded like Deanna was trying to get off the phone, while Dr. Hitkin attempted to probe for more information and asked for copies of previous reports.
“Well,” she said, “his mother certainly does not dispute that she wants you to have full say and responsibility for your son.” She looked at Ben compassionately. “I think she will be sending you copies of medical reports and treatment notes. It would be helpful if you’d be willing to share them with us.”
“Those are from when Kyle was much younger. He’s better now and ready for school.” Again, he received that look but this time it almost showed pity.
“Shall we collect Kyle now and proceed to the classroom? I’m sure you’ll want to meet the teacher.”