Fiction Happy Friendship

Through the bustling of young savages hyped up on bowls full of sugar, I greet Ashton and his mom outside the elementary school where the kids are dropped off. After a holiday weekend, I had missed Ashton, and he must have missed me because he leaned forward with his golden blonde head for some affection. I playfully kiss it and help him out of his booster seat. As his little feet hit the ground, he took my hand, and we crossed the parking lot together. The other kids were in a sense maniacal, with the inability to hold still and the tendency to talk at the racing pace of auctioneers. Thanksgiving was over and friends were now reunited, meaning chaos ensued. Ashton paid them no mind. He was focused on something beyond our ability to see; perhaps seeing what we see only differently, but he was definitely lost in thought as he is most of the time. He moved along slowly due to short legs and an odd gate. He was currently calm, humming “Yellow Submarine” at a moderate volume. From what I could tell, he was happy being back at school.

We get inside the classroom and Ashton puts his lunch and backpack in his cubby and motions for me to help with his coat.

“Use your words, Ashton,” I remind him.

His eyes are locked on the colorful tub of Legos across the room. He wants to get to them before anyone else does so he can get a few moments to decompress before the learning starts. I get down on his level and direct his gaze to meet mine with my finger. “Use your words, Ashton,” I gently remind him.

“Coat,” he says in a monotone voice, breaking eye-contact and redirecting his gaze towards the ceiling.

I help him with his coat and he’s off, just like any other kid his age.

To think that the first time I met Ashton was on my way to an interview with a construction company seems surreal. Straight out of high school, I got a job with a local manufacturing company where I inserted filters into copper tubing for ten hours a day, six days a week. After two years of mindless unrewarding work, I was ready to look for something more fulfilling. My uncle is a carpenter. He always said there was no better feeling than the feeling of a job well done. For him, to take a step back after a long hard day, when he was hot, dirty, and tired, and actually see what he had accomplished made the job worth doing. I wanted that. I never experienced it working in the factory. Nor did I experience it when I worked with him on his side projects. I thought maybe that was because I never did big enough projects. So, I applied online with Johnson and Reangle Contracting in the city and got called in for an interview.

On the day of the interview, I was concerned about what to wear. My parents always told me to look my best for an interview, but I remembered reading somewhere that you should dress for the job you want. I met them halfway, wearing a white dress shirt (tucked in with the sleeves rolled up) with a pair of blue jeans and work boots. If I knew where the day was going to take me, I would have worn gym clothes.

I got the address for Johnson & Reangle from their website and typed it into google. Where google took me was to a dead-end street with an abandoned office building on one side of the street and a park on the other side. Over at the park there was some sort of event going on. There was a woman with a clipboard standing by the sidewalk overseeing things. I rolled up next to her and asked her if she knew where Johnson and Reangle was located. According to her it was on the other side of town where the street continued.

“That figures,” I told her. “I’ll never make my interview now,” frustration and disappointment dripping from my words.

“If you’re looking for work, and if fifteen dollars an hour will suit you, I really could use some help today,” the woman said with a sigh that had the same effect as a desperate please.

“Doing what?”

“Come find out. I’m Kate.”

“Caleb,” I say as I pull over to park.

Kate took me around and introduced me to everyone she works with. They were letting kids play, not letting certain ones out of site. It was like each adult had their own one or two kids they were responsible for. The kids looked normal enough, and really, they seemed kind of quiet based on my exposure to kids. There was one kid who just sat in the middle of the playground and rocked, not really doing anything. He was a cute little blonde boy wearing khaki cargo pants and a navy-blue wind breaker to keep off the nip of the cool spring air. He seemed content just to sit there and take in the day. There was also one boy who was having a complete meltdown. When his adult tried to do anything to help him, he would throw himself on the ground and slap and kick. It took a while for him to get a hold of himself, but once he did, he was one of the sweetest kids there. The other kids were busy doing random things, but not necessarily with each other, which I thought was a little odd.

“What is this,” I asked.

“This is our field trip for our special needs class. For a half day, children with special needs from different schools come together and kind of hang out together. Most of them have autism, so it looks more like they are hanging around each other rather than playing with each other. It is their way of socializing, just being in the vicinity of others; but the action can get overwhelming so that’s why we keep it to a few hours in the morning,” Kate explained.

Kate introduced me to the lonely rocking boy – Ashton. She said to just hang out with him and talk to him, he knows you’re there, and left. At first, I almost panicked. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time around children, and I could tell these weren’t your typical children. However, I did have a niece and a nephew and decided to wing it the best I could. Fifteen dollars an hour to hang out with some kid at the park seemed doable and I needed the cash. I tried to strike up a conversation with Ashton, who didn't respond, so I just kept the conversation to myself and let him listen.

“It's dance time,” Kate shouted.

“I hope singing and dancing doesn’t embarrass you. We do a lot of it. Just coax Ashton towards the group. He knows what’s going on. Just encourage him to sing and dance,” Dianne, one of Kate's co-workers, said.

I held out my hand for Ashton to take and he pushed right past it and joined the other kids. When they started the music, it was a song I had never heard before, so singing along didn’t happen, but I did encourage Ashton to dance. He started spinning in circles. His head remained in the same spot while he ran in circles like there was an invisible baseball bat holding his head up. I shrugged my shoulders and raised my palms at Dianne who just said I was doing great.

“Is he going to make himself sick,” I asked over the lively, upbeat music.

“He always does that. He’ll be fine. Just keep dancing with him. He knows your there,” Dianne answered.

We went through several songs, nothing I remembered from my childhood. I was bouncing up and down, looking the fool, hoping no one I knew saw me, when a little hand tugs on my shirt. “Bafoom,” a little voice said plainly, without emotion or urgency.

“He’s got to use the bathroom,” I told Dianne.

“They’re over there,” she said, pointing over my shoulder. “Do you want to watch Leslie while I take him, or do you think you can manage?”

“I think I can manage,” I told her. “Come on buddy, let's go use the bathroom,” I say to Ashton as I extend my hand. Once again, he walks right past it, but stays by my side all the way to the restroom.

Inside the restroom he ran to the farthest stall, leaving the door open. He was in there several minutes and it wasn’t until I heard that little voice say “wipe” that I realized I hadn’t thought this through. I walked into the stall and this little boy had his head between his ankles and a full moon shining high in the sky. Reluctantly, I began to wad up some toilet paper. That first wipe and its accompanying smell triggered my gag reflex. Ashton just hung out with his butt in the air and a blank look on his face as I dry heaved over the toilet. It was a sensation I had never experienced in my twenty years. I didn’t like it, yet there I was, wading up more toilet paper for round two. After that I think I emptied the soap container cleaning my hands. I was digging at my fingernails and washing up to my elbows as Ashton hummed the ABC song. Come to find out later, Ashton is more advanced than some of the other kids who have to wear diapers and I had it easy that day.

When we were finished, Kate was handing out lunches, something that inspired Ashton to run. He had an odd little run, like a hop and a skip and a jump, but it made him laugh gleefully to feel the wind in his hair. His laughter was something between Woody Woodpecker and the excited squeals of a baby. It made me laugh as I chased after him.

“What can I do to help, Kate,” I asked, winded from our zigzagging across the field to the pavilion.

“Just sit with Ashton and talk with him. Encourage him to eat as much as he can. He knows you are there.”

I sat with Ashton at lunch, wishing I had one of my own. He ate really well. He didn’t require any prompting at all, and he was the first kid done eating, so he got to go play on the playground. There was a young lady sitting next to us at the picnic table that told me to just keep an eye on him, let him do his thing. Join in or make suggestions, but she made sure to remind me not to be too forceful or overbearing with him.

I noticed that when we got to the playground that he was checking through the corners of his eyes to see where I was at. Since I was with him, he wanted to do more than just sit and rock this time. He went directly to the swings and sat on one. I swung him slowly and kept him low. Slow and low enough that it was easy for him to stop when he was done. The merry-go-round was next. Once again, I didn’t dare go too fast, but he must have had fun anyways because he stayed there until playtime was over.

Kate approached me as we loaded kids back into the vans. “If you don’t mind following us back to Sunnydale Elementary, I’ll get you your money.”

So, I took a little drive across town. There at the school they had a special education classroom where the kids worked at their own pace in an environment that was void of all the stimuli they would encounter in the general population. It was bright and colorful with lots of toys, books, and music and four separate tables they use for learning centers. After the kids had sat still on the bus ride back to the school, they were given some inside play time to expel some energy. During that time, Kate and I had a chance to talk.

It was awkward sitting in those little elementary school chairs after so many years, but Kate got right to it. “Thanks for your help, Caleb. That really made Ashton's day,” Kate tells me.

“He’s a cool little guy. I had fun with him. I noticed by the end of the day he was checking to see if I was there. He seemed more inclined to do stuff with me just being there.”

“Just because they don’t socialize the way you and I do doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy having company. But what we consider normal is overstimulating to them. They just want someone to quietly be there with them, maybe acknowledge them from time to time. So, what do you think? Do you want a job? It pays fifteen an hour. You’ll have to go through the hiring process, but we can have you working in a week.”

Before I could answer, Ashton took my hand. In his other hand was a book. My heart melted. She was right. He knew I was there. I reached a child that most people write off as unreachable that day. In that I finally understood what it meant that there is no greater feeling than the feeling of a job well done.

July 29, 2023 01:02

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Carolyn O'B
22:27 Aug 09, 2023

Hi, Reedsy sent me your story to critique this week, so here goes... Just keep dancing with him. He knows your there,” Should be you’re, I've got nothing negative. I love the story’s relation to the theme, I love the title, I love the first sentence, I love how you described the bathroom scene.


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Rabab Zaidi
13:32 Aug 05, 2023

Beautiful ! Very well written !


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Nicki Nance
03:47 Aug 05, 2023

This story is a perfect balance of Ashton jand Caleb's journeys. I teach at a college that serves LD, ASS, and ADHD students. I will now see them as little Ashtonvs in grown up bodies.


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Emilie Bufford
01:35 Aug 05, 2023

What a sweet story! Your depiction of a little boy was spot-on. Your writing style has great flow and ease. I look forward to reading more of your work!


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20:30 Aug 02, 2023

that was lovely. It's nice to read stories that don't contain guillotines! lol. Nicely done. One typo: In his other hand was book. Thank you for writing such a sweet story and thank you for taking time to read mine!


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Michelle Oliver
14:18 Aug 02, 2023

Sweet. Special needs children are some of the most challenging and most rewarding children to work with. Reaching them and working with their unique personalities is just as you described, the satisfaction and reward of a job well done. I noticed a few typos… I hope you have time to go back and fix them. “and we crossed the parking lot towards together” “rather than laying with each other” Thanks for sharing


Ty Warmbrodt
14:24 Aug 02, 2023

Thanks Michelle. I'll get those fixed. I have a son who has autism and have had the joy of working with them as well. They truly bring a joy to your life as you watch them overcome obstacles and grow into adults.


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Kevin Logue
15:33 Jul 31, 2023

This was super sweet and wholesome Ty. A good friend of mine has an autistic child that is not independently verbal, only repeats back what is said to him and I seen a lot of him in little Ashton. Great submission. 👍


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