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Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

(Warning: Some profanity )

   The ability to function in day-to-day life as a neurotypical human is an admirable quality, but it comes at an often overlooked expense; for it is in the anomalies, unique and rare, that exists the extraordinary. 

   “Autism. She will never speak or function normally.” The doctor delivered the diagnosis like the Unabomber, quickly tossing it at the intended target and fleeing the area. Tally’s parents, consumed by shock, denial, and grief, carried the diagnosis within their hearts; wrecked continuously as it exploded repeatedly over the years. 

   “‘Function normally’. What does that mean?”

   “She’s only two years old, for God’s sake.”

   “How dare they label her!” 

   Anger took over at first, because it was easier to feel than the hopeless, helpless, despair that lurked under the surface. Tally’s parents learned that the, “stages of grief”, 

was not a checklist to conquer. Instead, they faced a viscous cycle of unpleasant emotion, and they had to learn to live with it. 

   “Her issues are so severe that she will probably never be able to dress herself.” 

   Tally’s parents had to face the fact that their child was never going to get better. Tally would grow bigger, but she would never speak. She would mature physically, but she would never engage with the world around her. There would be no participation trophies to celebrate, no school plays or noisy play dates. Her parents stood by helplessly as their hopes and dreams for their child’s future crumbled. 

   Unexpected triggers caught them off guard and sent them spiraling back through the pain of what was happening to their daughter. More often than not, it was nonchalant comments from parents of “normal” children that twisted the daggers in their hearts.

   “Little Jimmy talked all the way home from preschool this morning. That kid hardly ever shuts up. Sometimes my ears need a break, you know?” Little Jimmy’s mother commented over coffee one morning.

   “No. I don’t know. I’d give anything just to hear Tally say, ‘Mama’.” Met with dead silence and mortified stares, Tally’s parents learned it was best to suffer in silence.

   Late at night when sleep alluded them, their minds drifted to disturbing, unanswered questions about their beloved child. 

   Will she ever be able to take care of herself?

   What if something happens to us? Who will take care of Tally when we die?

   Will she ever know love or intimacy with another person?

   A beautiful child, Tally resembled a porcelain doll, with wavy, strawberry-blonde hair and innocent, sky-blue eyes. Her demeanor was gentle with a softness that made her undeniably lovable, but Autism erected a seemingly insurmountable wall around her. 

   When people encountered Tally, they wanted to interact with her, but she retreated inside herself —to what her parents called, “her own little world”. If someone spoke to her or touched her, she seemed to ignore them and acted as if no one was there. She made no eye contact, spoke no words, and reflected no facial expression. Curling into a ball, she retreated to a dark corner where no one could reach her.

   “I hate the idea of her being so alone. If only there was a way for her to connect to others, or even just one person, then she wouldn’t be lonely.” Tally’s parents worked with her every day, took her to therapy, enrolled her in school; but still, she remained locked inside herself.

   When she turned ten, Tally’s parents hired a live-in therapist to help with their daughter’s needs as she grew. Brenda, the therapist, loved to listen to Classical music. When she played Beethoven or Haydn, Tally withdrew, as usual, into her favorite dark corner. 

   On a whim, Brenda changed the music to Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11, and witnessed a miraculous transformation. Goosebumps tickled her neck as she watched the child emerge from the darkness, giggling. 

   Tally danced and jumped; reaching her arms up as if to catch invisible butterflies. Spinning and laughing, she twirled on the tips of her toes like a ballerina. 

   Brenda summoned Tally’s parents who had never seen their child smile or heard her laugh. Tears wet their cheeks as they watched her express sheer joy for the first time.   

   Brenda and her parents danced next to her, but there was still a disconnect—as if an invisible wall kept them worlds apart. Tally experienced the music in an extraordinary way. It was as if she soaked the sounds into herself and carried them with her to her own little world. 

   “It seems like she sees something that we cannot see.”

   “And feels something that we can’t feel.”

   “If only we could join her inside herself, or wherever she is.”

   “Yes. I’d gladly leave this world behind for just a moment of connection with her in her world.”

   After experimenting with various tunes, the family came to realize that Mozart was the only music that elicited such a lively response from the child. Everything else sent her sulking to the dark corner. Unable to make sense of the world around her, Tally spent most of her time in a state of miserable confusion. Mozart provided a reprieve; a niche of joy for her.

   “Finally, we’ve found something she enjoys.” 

   Of course, Tally’s specific taste meant that the family spent endless hours listening to the same music.

   “I swear I’ve heard Mozart’s Sonata No. 16, so many times I could conduct my own orchestra.”

   “It plays in my dreams.”

   “Aaahhhhhyaaaaaahhhhaaaa.” Tally voiced her delight, singing her own way and dancing without a care in the world. 

   Over the years, Brenda continued to live and work with the family while assisting Tally throughout her daily life. The therapist relentlessly exposed her to new experiences in the hopes of discovering other things that would draw Tally out the way Mozart did, but nothing else worked. Even as an adult, her interest remained steadfast. 

   Then, something unexpected happened at the dance.

   The local community center held a dance for young adults with special needs. Volunteers from all over town worked tirelessly to create a spectacular occasion that would have rivaled any Hollywood gala. The best caterers provided food and a DJ played all the top hits. There was a backdrop for pictures and a limo service escorted guests to and from the event.

   Brenda and Tally arrived in style, but Tally was restless and uncomfortable from the start. Although the DJ played popular dance music, it was not her preferred choice. She entered the ballroom and made a beeline for the darkest corner she could find. 

   For most of the evening, Brenda sweated off her makeup rushing around coaxing people to ask Tally to dance. Time after time, the person walked away when they gained no response from the pretty girl in the dark corner. Finally, Brenda gave up and got herself a drink.

   Her heart sank when she looked at Tally, gazing out of the darkness with her big, blue eyes; vacant, alone and miserable. She thought, maybe the dance was too overwhelming for her. Brenda finished her drink and ventured into the dark corner to retrieve Tally and take her home. 

   Just as she took her by the elbow to lead her out of the event, Mozart’s Concerto No. 21, resounded throughout the ballroom. Tally came to life with the music as her entire demeanor erupted with contagious joy. She shrugged away from her therapist and twirled onto the dance floor. 

   Now why didn’t I think of that? The therapist scolded herself for not asking someone to play Mozart sooner. As she walked toward the DJ to thank him, she glanced at the dance floor and smiled at two people dancing with their arms around each other. She did a double-take and sprayed an innocent bystander with a mouthful of sweet tea: Tally was one-half of the interlocked couple swaying giddily on the dance floor.

   “This is his favorite music.” Tea dripped down the bystander’s arm, but he didn’t notice. His eyes glistened with starry adoration as he gestured toward the young man dancing with Tally. “I’ve never seen him connect with another person like that before.”

   “Hi, I’m Brenda— Tally’s aid.” She nodded towards the couple whose foreheads were touching like they were engaged in a Vulcan mind meld. “She has never even acknowledged that other people exist. Her parents and I…none of us thought something like that would or could happen, considering her deficits.” Brenda explained wide-eyed with disbelief.

   “Maybe, it’s her abundance you should consider and not her deficits.”

   They watched speechless for a while and enjoyed the moment. 

   “Mozart is her favorite, too. She seems to experience the music on a different level than everyone else. It’s almost like she can see and taste the music, but that’s impossible, right?”

   “What do you mean? Of course it’s possible. Hasn’t she told you that’s how she experiences it? Oh, I’m David, by the way. Blake is my son.”

   “Tally has aphasia. She doesn’t speak.”

   “Looks to me like she’s speaking in her own way, now. She’s telling us she’s happy.” David gestured toward the couple on the dance floor. Tally radiated happiness as she moved in synch with Blake.

   When the music ended, Brenda exchanged information with David and they went their separate ways.

   The next day, Brenda shared videos of the couple with Tally’s parents. Thrilled that their long-lonely daughter had found a true connection with another person, they contacted David immediately. Eager to get the couple together as soon as possible, they made plans for Blake to visit. However, getting them back together was not as easy as they thought it would be.

   “Come on, Blake. We’re going to see Tally. Don’t you want to see Tally again?” David struggled to get his son’s attention. 

   “They have to be reclassified. The carnivores can’t be near the herbivores, everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows that.” Blake paced in front of his massive dinosaur display, moving velociraptors and T-Rex’s to more appropriate locations. Vocalizing his signature verbal stim, he quoted scenes from SpongeBob SquarePants as he worked.

   “If you believe in yourself, with a tiny pinch of magic, all your dreams can come true.”

   In the past, David tried to break his son’s hyper-focus on the dinosaurs, but he quickly learned that was a bad idea. It caused Blake great distress when his dad interrupted him. Blake was never aggressive, nor did he have tantrums. Instead, he withdrew further inside himself.

   When Blake was younger, many people advised David on how to deal with his Autistic son, who didn’t speak until he was six years old.

   “Don’t let him fixate. Get rid of the dinosaurs.” A therapist, who didn’t take the time to truly know Blake, made a rushed observation without considering the consequences of his advice. David followed the therapist’s instructions and removed the dinosaurs from the house. Blake didn’t cry or whine. He didn’t throw things or hurt anyone. 

He stopped talking.

   “Thanks to you, my son has regressed back into his shell. He finally started talking at age six and then we take away the only thing he loved in this world. What were we thinking? What if I can never reach him again?” David confronted the therapist. That was the last time he listened to the advice of others. He brought back the dinosaurs and after a while, Blake re-engaged with his dad and started speaking again. 

   Later, David ranted about the situation to a friend on the phone.

   “Who cares if it’s not socially acceptable to spend hours a day playing with toy dinosaurs. Fuck socially acceptable!” 

   “Fuck socially acceptable fuck socially acceptable fuck socially acceptable.” Blake echoed as he moved a brontosaurus.

—xxx—

   David called Brenda to let her know they wouldn’t be able to visit Tally until Blake finished his dinosaur project. Then he sat back and enjoyed listening to his son’s vast knowledge of Paleontology intermingled with SpongeBob SquarePants quotes.

   Brenda had been waiting until Blake arrived to play Tally’s favorite music. Without Mozart, Tally sat in the corner, withdrawn and alone.

   “I can’t stand to see her like that, Brenda. Turn on the music.” Tally’s parents understood the delay in Blake’s visit, but their hearts broke when they saw those lost, vacant blue eyes staring out of the dark corner. 

   Brenda turned the music on, playing it loud and clear through speakers positioned all over the house. A wide grin blossomed on Tally’s sweet face as she sprang to her feet , giggling and twirling. 

   On the other side of town at David and Blake’s house, a strange and miraculous thing happened. Exactly at the very moment Tally began to dance, Blake dropped the stegosaurus he was holding. He turned his head at a funny angle as if to listen. Suddenly worried, David rushed toward his son because he’d never seen Blake drop one of his beloved dinos.

   “Son? Are you ok? You have goosebumps and your eyes are dilated. Do you have a fever? Are you having a seizure? What’s wrong?” David put a hand to his son’s forehead and looked him up and down.

   “Tally’s dancing. She is extraordinary extraordinary extraordinary.” Blake smiled, then turned abruptly and marched out the door, down the stairs, and stood by his father’s truck. 

   “Well, then. I guess it’s time to go see Tally.” David chuckled and grabbed his keys.

   Like an amplifier, Tally’s extraordinary synesthesia called to Blake and created a connection between them that no ordinary human could. 

   “I see bright colors when Mozart plays. Tally makes the colors sparkle and dance.

Tally makes them beautiful. Tally is extraordinary extraordinary extraordinary.” Blake explained on the way to Tally’s house.

   When he arrived, Blake waltzed over to Tally and joined in her celebration of Mozart; bonding them together without the need of words or socially acceptable constraints. Brenda, David, and Tally’s parents relaxed into a strange sense of peace that none of them had felt before as they watched the couple cuddle and dance in the rainbows that only they could see.

June 10, 2022 23:24

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16 comments

Mike Panasitti
01:58 Jun 13, 2022

This is the first story of yours I've read that didn't have a gory twist and it was just as likeable. Congratulations for deepening your narrative capabilities!

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Sharon Hancock
16:15 Jun 13, 2022

Thank you, my fellow writing friend😻.

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Cindy Strube
16:33 Jun 17, 2022

Sharon. This is extraordinary! ☺️ We all love your “Gore and more” humor, but you write equally well about this delicate subject. We’ve known, for years, a man who is most likely autistic. He’s in his mid 70s now. He’s verbal, but doesn’t make eye contact and can’t connect emotionally. He is a self-trained machinist (an excellent one, according to my dad, who went through machinist school at Naval shipyard) and gunsmith whose main obsessions are guns and knives!

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Sharon Hancock
18:17 Jun 17, 2022

Thank you so much for your comment! I needed to hear that today😻 My neice, nephew, and daughter are on the autism spectrum. They are such remarkable individuals. My husband and I are watching Love on the Spectrum right now. So heartwarming. 😻

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Cindy Strube
18:48 Jun 17, 2022

Oh, and I forgot to mention (nothing to do with autism, but connecting synesthesia to shipbuilding/machining): When he was working at the shipyard (Vietnam era) my dad experienced synesthesia when some workers dropped a massive metal pipe. The sound was so loud that he could see nothing but brilliant, psychedelic colors for several seconds. 😖

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Sharon Hancock
02:50 Jun 18, 2022

Wow, really? That was probably very uncomfortable but also very cool to experience. It sounds so supernatural but then you find out it’s a real thing!😻

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T D Crasier
10:42 Jun 16, 2022

Ahw, what a lovely story. So many bonding-through-music stories now but yours is the most profound I’ve read.

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Sharon Hancock
01:59 Jun 17, 2022

Thank you so much for reading and commenting😻

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Zack Powell
20:46 Jun 12, 2022

Now I see what you were talking about last week, Sharon - this is very different from your usual stories. Good on you for stretching those writerly muscles! It's how we grow. Really enjoyed this piece and its subject matter. Great interpretation of the prompt, and you gave some much-needed representation for the neurodivergent folks. I respect it a lot. Would be interested in hearing how you came up with this story. I enjoy the characterization the most in this piece. Good to see supportive parents and aides. I feel like a lot of the media...

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Sharon Hancock
01:11 Jun 13, 2022

Thank you for your kind comments and for reading. This was inspired by my niece and nephew and their parents. Also, I taught preschool and had several kids on the autism spectrum in my classes. They are very near and dear to my heart. Good luck to you, too! 😻

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J.C. Lovero
03:03 Jun 12, 2022

Hell Sharon! I so much appreciate that you featured neurodivergent characters in a story. They don't get nearly enough air time, and I'm so glad to see them represented in this piece. Loved how much the parents cared. Was so wholesome to read. Minor line edit: I think the line where you say sleep "alluded" them - I believe you wanted "eluded" Fave lines: The doctor delivered the diagnosis like the Unabomber, quickly tossing it at the intended target and fleeing the area. (too true) A beautiful child, Tally resembled a porcelain doll, w...

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Sharon Hancock
03:43 Jun 12, 2022

Eluded…is alluded even a word? 🤭Thanks for that! This is a story I’ve wanted to write in honor of my sweet niece and nephew and their fabulous parents. I hope I did them justice. Thank you for reading and commenting and congratulations on the shortlist!!! Wooohoooo! 😻

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Ace Quinnton
01:20 Jun 12, 2022

As someone who has a very close friend with diagnosed autism, this just makes me want to show this story to him. Thank you for writing this. There are stories with people who have disorders, whether it's mental or physical, but there aren't many with Autism. So, kudos to you for thinking outside of the box. Heck, was the box even there to begin with? The next time when I see my friend, I am going to show him this story. Thank you for writing it.

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Sharon Hancock
03:45 Jun 12, 2022

Thank you for seeing that the world needs stories to support this remarkable group of individuals! And thanks for reading and commenting.😻

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Michał Przywara
23:16 Jun 11, 2022

A great take on the prompt. It features protagonists that don't often get featured, and I like the explorations of what "normal" means. It's not a great concept, since what's normal for one person isn't necessarily so for another, as Tally's parents must learn. They seem to do a good job in caring for their daughter, and their pain of never being able to connect with her satisfactorily is evident. But, I find it ironic that despite all they know, all they've experienced, they want Tally to "find someone", which is maybe a concept that hold...

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Sharon Hancock
03:57 Jun 12, 2022

Fair point about Tally finding someone. I think that’s something all parents want for their children. But you’re right…a lot of that is probably due to projection. There’s something so profoundly heartbreaking in the idea that your very own child could feel lonely when you have so much love for them. Perhaps in a different story that doesn’t require adherence to the prompt, I could explore other ways parents might resolve their own heartbreak….like with realizing their kid is fine being alone with Mozart. Thanks for reading and for the thou...

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