AT EXACTLY 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, Adam Stephens drove himself home from PCI, Partners in Computing Industry, where he’d worked since he graduated from college ten years before. Same route home, same pattern—the same way he drove home every weekday. His mother would be waiting for him, as usual, his dinner prepared: macaroni and cheese and a side of fresh fruit, his favorite dinner since he was five. He would then sit down and watch three episodes of his new favorite TV show, Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, then get busy on the flight simulator he’d worked on for the last five years.
Look for the school playground and drive very slowly whether there are children present or not.
His mother taught him to drive, taught him to watch for the landmarks that would tell him where he was, the landmarks he needed to pass on his way home. He only drove from home to work and then back again—a script of sorts that would at least allow him to get to work without having to depend on anyone else. It was this that inspired his obsession with the flight simulator sitting in his basement.
The flight simulator started out as a program on his computer, and as time passed, he spent the money he needed to build the cockpit, closer to the average airplane cockpit than many people would guess. PCI paid him well and he was able to financially take care of his mother, but it was his mother who really did all the work. Adam’s skill with finances was horrendous—because of his autism—but with his mother’s help, he was able to take care of her, the same way she had taken care of him when he was younger.
Now the church with the tall steeple and the cross. I turn left there.
When he was little, his mother would take him to church, but he could never sit still. The organ music, the singing, the emotions of the congregation, everything made him want to get up and run outside into the quiet of the Sunday morning, when most people in the neighborhood were either at church or in their house spending time together.
His mother recognized his autism in the beginning, but he really wasn’t sure what that meant, only that he was different from most children where he went to school, in a different classroom part of the time, but mostly with the other kids.
When the teacher spoke too loudly, it would set him off, yelling, kicking, and screaming. His aide, Ms. Hickman, would pull him out of the classroom until he calmed down. It wasn’t his fault, the sound hurt his ears and somehow, just like his mother, Ms. Hickman, and the rest of the aides understood as well.
Through his mother and countless therapists, he learned to control his “weird” behaviors. Behaviors that were only “weird” because his classmates told him so, his mother said on countless occasions.
Now into the parking lot, and I have to park in number twelve.
He and his mother had lived in number twelve in the Rockwood Townhome complex since he was ten years old. There were nineteen steps to reach his front door on the second floor. Ten steps inside to the living room where his mother would be watching Jerry Springer on television. Adam didn’t understand why she watched The Jerry Springer Show, but sometimes he’d sit down with her and watch the last few minutes. Mother would lower the volume because all the people on the screen were yelling and cursing each other, saying words that were beeped out. Mother said it was because they would say things that people shouldn’t say to each other, like fuck or shit, and would always remind him that he wasn’t to use those words either.
As he pulled into the parking spot—number twelve that was all theirs—Adam smiled, eager to tell Mother about the promotion he received that day at work. It had come as a surprise to him, and even though he didn’t like surprises, he kept himself in control and didn’t run away when the owner of PCI, Mark Davis, and his direct manager, Teresa Burns, came into his office and told him they were promoting him to Senior Software Engineer. He’d now be able to design larger and larger pieces of the program they had been working on since he’d been hired. He’d also receive a pay raise, something his mother would be excited about.
Mother will be so proud of me. In a way his mother’s pride in him didn’t matter. All he wanted to do was to code software and get paid for it. The pay didn’t matter much to him either, but it kept his mother from having to work those nine-to-five jobs she hated so much. A secretary or receptionist all her life, she had told Adam she was tired and too old to do that anymore. Ten years ago when Adam was hired, he told her he would bring in the money and she could take care of it.
This pay raise would allow her to go looking for the house she wanted to live in, even though it meant moving out of number twelve, Rockwood Townhomes. He wasn’t thrilled with the prospect, but he knew, with her patience and help, he could do it. They could even look for a house with a bigger basement, and he could move down there with his cockpit and flight simulator.
Nineteen steps to the front door, then ten steps into his living room, Adam’s life changed.
HIS MOTHER lay in the middle of the floor. The coffee table they had bought together, two years ago at a rummage sale, lay in pieces around her. Blood collected around her head, a small pool of red, redder than the lights in his flight simulator. Maybe she had fallen? Her eyes—he remembered they were a grayish blue—stared up at the ceiling, glazed over, not moving, not blinking.
“Mother? What are you doing on the floor?”
As he stood and looked at her, waiting futilely for a response, Adam’s heart raced. The sound from the television, the viewers yelling and screaming at the people on stage, began to overwhelm him. That need, that need to run away, built up inside him. His hands went instinctively to his ears, plugging them so he couldn’t hear the television.
Adam looked around for the remote control and found it on the floor near his mother’s hand. He walked over to her, picked up the remote, and turned the TV off, hoping Mother wouldn’t care that she’d missed the last part of the show. His mother’s hand was cold and stiff when he put the remote back. He recoiled from the touch. It wasn’t supposed to be cold. Well, sometimes, but not usually. It wasn’t cold in the townhome, so why would her hand be cold now? His fingers reached for her wrist and felt nothing. No pulse, no heartbeat.
That need washed over him again. The same need for him to run away and escape to somewhere safe. But wasn’t next to his mother safe? It always had been in the past; why wouldn’t it be now? She was cold. He grabbed the blanket from the back of the couch, and placed it over her. Maybe that would keep her warm. He felt her arm. Her skin felt like ice, and he rubbed it trying to get her warm.
“What’s wrong with you, Mother? Why aren’t you moving?”
Her arm stayed cold, even though the rubbing made her skin slightly warm, at least. The skin itself felt pasty and waxy. Her mouth had fallen open at an odd angle because, Adam thought, of how her head was lying on the glass of the broken coffee table, and even though Adam wanted to close it, he felt weird about doing so. A new sensation bubbled up through his stomach, making his heart ache and his head start to spin.
Spinning wasn’t new to him. In fact, the spinning rides at amusement parks were his next favorite ride, after roller coasters. But this feeling was slow, as though he’d been dropped from the top of the tallest drop tower while spinning around and around, and there was no stopping it.
What if she’s… dead? A little voice in Adam’s head piped up, not the one he normally heard, the one that showed him words and pictures in his mind. That one stayed silent. This one was new, a high-pitched panicky voice. And he knew it was right.
“Dead” was something Adam had experienced before, but never on this scale. When he was younger, about ten years old, he had a puppy that was hit by a car. It died instantly with no more than a loud thump from the impact. The man driving stopped as Adam and his mother came outside. When Adam saw the puppy, he ran to it and picked it up in his arms, even as blood and intestines seeped through his shirt.
“Mother, fix Dog, please,” his childish voice had said matter-of-factly.
“Oh, Adam,” his mother had said, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. “Dog is dead. He’s not alive anymore.”
“Not alive? Dead? What does that mean?” Adam asked in that same matter-of-fact voice. “Not alive? I want to play.”
“No, Adam, the puppy isn’t going to play anymore. He’s….” His mother paused for a moment, then shrugged as the tears came. “He’s gone. Like Daffy.” Daffy was a fish he and his mother had. He’d jumped out of his bowl one morning, and they found him mostly dried up on the counter the next day.
“Daffy, Dog. Daffy. Dog.” Adam dropped the puppy with a soft thump onto the grass in front of the townhome and lifted his fingers to his mouth to bite them.
“No, Adam, don’t do that!” Mother pushed his hands away from his mouth, and Adam raised them again. His hands were covered in blood and gore from holding the puppy. She held his hands tightly. “Look at your hands. You need to wash them before putting them into your mouth.”
As Adam stood there and looked at the dead puppy on the ground, Mother said, “We need to bury him.”
“Flush him down the toilet like Daffy?”
Mother stifled a small laugh. “No, we need to dig a hole and bury Dog in our flower bed. That was his favorite spot.”
But there’s something else you need to do first. You can’t bury Mother in the flower bed. The little voice was beginning to take over, soothing his nerves and fear. What is it?
“Call 9-1-1.” Adam rushed to the cell phone on the table. He needed to call the ambulance. Maybe they would help Mother, but he could feel that small voice get quiet and sad inside his head.
“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?” the voice in the phone said.
“Mother… I think she’s… dead.” Saying it out loud had a real feeling to it. He couldn’t pretend that she wasn’t. Like Dog, she was motionless and not breathing. The blood around her head looked sticky and dry.
“I’m sorry. Are you hurt? What’s your address, and I can get the paramedics to you right away.”
He gave her the address and hung up without another word. When he’d done what he needed to do, the tears finally spilled over his cheeks and he screamed a guttural scream, the type he had never screamed before. His hands went to his mouth before he stopped and heard his mother’s voice, just as she had said with Dog.
“You need to wash them before putting them into your mouth.”
Wash, hands, wash, hands, wash hands…. He stumbled into the kitchen off the living room and washed his hands with soap and water. He collapsed on the floor and put his fingers in his mouth, a soapy taste on his tongue, and bit down, rocking back and forth. Pain shot through his fingers, calming him down until his thoughts traveled back to his mother; then he bit again.
Ten minutes later, the paramedics found him asleep on the kitchen floor.