The growing cacophony of hoots, hollers and laughter of children at play contain this magical ability to render the thickest concrete walls invisible. A phenomenon not lost on Emily as she blindly navigates the familiar hallways of Saint Anthony’s with Sister Mary striding along beside her. Without looking up from her folders, she could tell by the various shrieks where she was and where she was heading…
Screams. Laughter. Red Rover colliding with Red Light/Green Light. The sound of sneakers and basketballs hitting pavement: The play area. If we keep going this route, next should come…
A chorus of “Our Fathers”: Sister Agnes’ class. That means we’re heading towards the dorms.
The dorms always made her cringe. The area where the older children, mostly boys, were left to their own devices, and the pack mentality that drives their primal urges that haven’t been fully purged from them. Entering this area was to subject anyone to taunts, bullying, unwanted and unwelcomed advances, the language of the streets. This is The Jungle. This is the landing area where the good is carved out of the evil; The first level of The Divine Comedy. Although age and wisdom has prepared her, although her eyes and ears have bore witness to some of the worst that mankind has to offer, even these many years later, she would still steel her soul, take a deep breath, and prepare herself to cross the threshold into The Jungle. “Courage, dear.” said Sister Mary as she consoled Emily with a boney touch. She could feel her fear. She always could. She would always remind her. Any minute now, the calls of horny, prepubescent boys would start staining the atmosphere. Any second now, the walking, talking, drooling by-products of Lust and Rage would come with their dirty hands and dirty mouths. Any moment now…
Silence. Not a breath. Not even the whoosh of a door opening or the creak of its hinges as it finds its resting position. Only the echoing sound of their feet marching down polished tile. It’s one thing when The Jungle was alive with noise, at least you could tell where the danger was. The hallway was lit, but it seemed like the air was sucked out of it. There was a stillness, even the years of obscene graffiti carved for posterity in indelible marker was pale. This wasn’t The Jungle that Emily remembered.
This was much worse.
“Well,” blurted Emily desperately trying to add some life to this ghost town of a hallway. “This isn’t the place I remember; it’s a lot less…lively. Where are the boys? Where is anybody, for that matter?”
For a brief, very brief moment, Sister Mary’s smile withered but was miraculously revived as she told of the bitter reality of running a day to day business. “Oh. Well dear, the funding from the Church wasn’t as much as it has been. It was around the time where…you know what…happened.” To this day, the shock that some in the Dioceses let their secret, carnal inhibitions loose on innocent children is just as fresh as the day she heard it screaming from random televisions and splattered across tabloid headlines. It is the Event That Shall Not Be Named. “Soon after the lawsuits, there just wasn’t enough to pay for the settlements and keep every orphanage operational at the same time.”
“Oh no,” said Emily stricken with genuine concern. “Are you closing your doors? Is the church liquidating Saint Anthony’s?”
“No, not yet, thank God,” said Sister Mary as she cast her eyes briefly skyward. “The budget constraints were just enough to cripple us, not kill us. We had to relocate a few of the Sisters a couple of months ago, and I suppose a few more of us might be heading the same way soon. But the real tragedy, dear?” She paused, took a breath, leaned in and lowered her voice to a confidential, confessional whisper, “The real tragedy is that the state has taken possession of the at-risk children. Don’t get me started on that. Some Godless bureaucrat thought it would be more cost effective if the children were “processed” rather than “cared for”. They had a better chance here than in some jail for toddlers…”
“I guess that would explain the lack of all the children,” said Emily, attempting to stop the freight train of a Nun’s rant from speeding out of control.
“Yes, it would appear at the moment we have more room than we need. Still though…” she flicked a switch at the other end of the hall which illuminated the rest of the way. “I suppose it might be to our favor in regards to the children you have there,” she said as she motioned to the folders in Emily’s hand.
“What do you mean?” asked Emily half expecting the children to be the spawn of Hannibal Lecter or something.
“Normally, we would separate the special needs children from the rest. But, since we brought these children in…this case was something that had us all… a bit puzzled.” Sister Mary paused before opening the door. “You mentioned something before about finding the children’s birth parents?”
“They have no parents. None that we could find. That’s the first thing. The second thing is their condition. I hesitate to call it autism, because I’m not entirely sure that’s what they have.”
“Yes,” said Emily leafing through her paperwork. “Their medical records are spotless, their cat scans show high brain activity, and yet…”
“And yet,” Sister Mary continued, “They don’t respond to stimulation. It’s almost as if they’re lost in their own world. Usually, there would be curiosity among the rest of the children, but not so much this time. They don’t venture out of this room, save to go to the bathroom or eat. Which isn’t unusual, but they seem to prefer each other’s company over other people.”
“Which isn’t too unusual either,” said Emily. “So what you’re saying is that they are autistic, but…not?”
“Like I said dear…puzzled,” and with that, Sister Mary opened the door to the children’s room.
Whether she has planned on it or not, Emily’s life has always revolved around children. From her time here in these halls, to her training in her occupation as a social worker, to her continued interaction with children that still need help, to the brief moment in time where she was a mother herself, she is always about the children, and keeping them safe. She was born with an intuition and empathy, it was psychology that she had to learn. With autistic children, nothing can be forced. You cannot yell, scold or become impatient. With autistic children, you must observe. Silently. Any disruption to their routine could literally destroy their whole week. Be silent. Be patient. Observe. This is what Emily has learned. None of that seemed to matter as she walked through the door.
A young boy sits at the edge of his bed opposite the door having a serious, one-sided conversation with no one in particular. At the window on the far side of the room, a young girl transfixes on a finch perched on a tree branch. Completing the triangle in the opposite corner, a girl, noticeably older than the other two, sits among pages and pages of notebook paper with a variation of a circular design on each one. “We have done all we could to reach these beautiful children,” whispered Sister Mary. “I called upon you to see if you knew what we’re dealing with. We need your expert advice.”
“I’ll see what I can do, Sister,” whispered Emily. Somewhere along the line, “First, do no harm” crept into her daily life and applied itself into everything she does. When it comes to sensitive situations such as this, she has no choice but to do so. Don’t speak, just observe. Just observe their expressions, their attention spent on on object, how they handle a change in environment.
It is said that the greatest journey begins with one step. In the case of Emily, it was to ascertain first: what the children looked like, and second: what they do. One step. One foot hitting the ground, and all at once, the phantom conversation was put on abrupt hold, the finch flittered away, and concentric circles obsessively ground into notebook paper in crayon stop in its tracks. Not one word was spoken. Barely a move was made, and yet the fragile atmosphere was gently shattered by one footstep, as if she stepped on a frozen pond. Having made herself known in no uncertain terms, three sets of young, beautiful and haunted eyes lock on the stranger in the room, and study her.
©2014 The Writers Bloc/Anthony Payson