People tell me I’m special. My mother and my teachers used to say I’m autistic. Now they say I’m “on the spectrum.” The kids at school use stronger language. They call me handicap, mental, stupid, retard. Screw them.
Sometimes thoughts don’t come easy. Sometimes I get agitated or annoyed at something that doesn’t upset other people, but my real friends, the ones only I can hear, tell me the truth. I’m not autistic and I’m not a retard. I’m special in a way none of them can explain. I’m special in a way none of them can understand.
I hear one of the special voices now as I get up from the TV in our living room and head to the hallway of the tiny, one bedroom apartment I share with my mother, Violet, and my twin brother, Charlie.
You know what you have to do.
I pause in the doorway to look at the two people most precious in the world to me. They’re curled up together in the double bed we all share. On the modular nightstand next to them sits a mole hill of prescription bottles. My eyes go to Charlie. Sleeping like this, he looks normal, handsome even. With his lithe build and strong, chiseled features, I can almost picture him as a football quarterback or varsity point guard.
Then my eyes shift to the hand crutches he uses get around; you know, the kind with the wrist brackets. For as long as I can remember, Charlie’s had trouble controlling his limbs. Like a… what’s the word? Like a marionette whose puppeteer forgot how to orchestrate his movements. Over a dozen specialists and countless tests and they still don’t have a clue. Makes me wanna scream!
My heart constricts and I take a step towards them. Mom rolls over in her sleep and I retreat to the door frame. I don’t want her to know I’m up. I can always blame it on the loud noises and bright lights of the TV, but I don’t want to lie. I remain motionless until she settles down again. As always, I’m amazed at how peaceful she looks. With all that’s happened, life could have defeated her long ago, but she held onto her good nature and huge heart.
I twine a strand of hair around my finger and smile. People say we look alike, with the same high cheekbones, large almond eyes, and radiant dark skin. But even in sleep, mom has a certain grace I have yet to master. She used to be stunning, back when she was young and wealthy.
The labor and expense of taking care of me and Charlie drained her vitality along with her bank account. Even then, she held up well enough. Then the cancer struck. That thought makes my hands ball into fists. Thank God, Mom’s in remission. Still, my heart won’t stop thudding at the mere thought it. My whole family’s a freakin’ mess.
I do my breathing exercises, counting slowly to ten until the wave of anxiety passes. Mom has always been strong. Whenever I ask her about that strength, she says that as long as she has me and Charlie, she has everything she needs.
That thought puts a bulge in my throat, one that I fight to swallow as I leave the doorway and head to the bathroom. I take a second to examine myself in the mirror. I am not sure what I hope to gain, but for some reason, the thought of doing what I’m about to do while looking a mess terrifies me more than the act itself.
I take a moment to pull a brush through the tangle of long raven hair I keep in a ponytail. The knots frustrate me and I take another moment to count to ten. Fine, have it your way. I ditch the brush, and adjust my purple v-neck, then tug on the heavy jacket hanging on the back of the door.
I told you, Claire. It won’t be cold where we’re going.
I still don’t get that one. It’s been snowing all day here in downtown Chicago. How is it not cold there? Of course, I get no answer, so I settle for buttoning the jacket only halfway. Next, I reach for the makeup kit my mother bought me last year for my fourteenth birthday. I open the kit and stare at the assortment of blush, eyeliner, and lipstick. Somehow, the idea of putting on makeup feels wrong, so I put the kit back and leave the bathroom.
Tiptoeing to the living room, I retrieve Polly, my stuffed green dragon, and tuck her under my arm. Sure, I’m too old for stuffed animals, but considering she’s usually the voice in my head, I’m loath to do this next bit without her. Besides, anyone who has a problem with teenagers having stuffed animals can get in line with the classmates who call me names. Screw ‘em. Screw ‘em all.
Any last words before we do this? I ask Polly. Silence. Didn’t think so.
One last glance at my mom and brother and I am out the front door, closing it softly to ensure the upper hinge doesn’t squeak like it does when it closes too fast. In seconds, I am down the hall and into the emergency stairwell. I pause one last time to glance over my shoulder. The door to our apartment remains closed. I breathe a sigh of relief. At least I won’t have to worry about being interrupted.
Two minutes spent trudging up five flights of steps and I push open the door to the roof and step onto the landing. Just as I suspected, the tarmac is covered with a dusting of snow at least half an inch thick and rising as flurries drift down in the chilly breeze.
For roughly the millionth time, I want to question Polly and the other voices, to tell them they’re wrong, but I know better. Not only won’t they answer, they’re never wrong. And so, I stomp across the rooftop in my oversized Uggs, leaving giant footprints like a teenage Sasquatch in the fresh snow.
This next part is tricky. My hands go numb as I grip the metal railing. Still, I manage to haul myself up and over the safety barrier along the edge of the roof. There’s just enough room to stand on the other side, with my heels pressed back against the plexiglass barrier and my toes dangling over the edge… out over ten stories of nothing.
Not nothing… air.
I’m not sure if this thought is mine or Polly’s. It hardly matters at this point.
I look up instead of down. The sky is a steel grey miasma of winter fury. The clouds shift and a beam of sunlight breaks through for just a moment. I imagine the street below me being illuminated like an acrobat on a tightrope.
You’d better be right about this.
We are always right.
I hug Polly tightly to my chest. Then I step out into the nothingness, into the air, and close my eyes as I plummet towards the earth.