Autism Speaks

Susan Berardi

The noon bell sounds like cardiac arrest. Six hundred loyalists prepare to attack. Jacob and I brace for the onslaught. We cannot retreat. Jacob is on a suicide mission.

Last chance, I say.

Trays slap on tables like minefield explosives. Chair legs screech as groups jockey for position. The crackle of shrink-wrapped cutlery shoots through our ears like radio static. The sizzle of hot dogs. The splat of ketchup from a bacteria-infested dispenser. A boy shouts, “No shit, Sherlock!”

Sherlock Holmes was a fictional—I suggest, but Jacob interrupts.

“No! They will laugh at me.”

Fair enough. Jacob’s not dressed for battle—yellow t-shirt with a caricature of Hemingway, Kelly-green Adidas pants, neon blue high-tops. No tags, no buttons. In an effort to “fit in,” he stopped wearing a hockey helmet to school; now his thick, rebellious black hair clumps in coils over his ears.

He holds out his tray for the spoon-it-up slop masquerading as mashed potatoes. Processed chicken patty, apricots browned in fruit fly syrup and we’re on our way. Into the valley of Death.

“Half a league / half a league onward.”1 Jacob recites Tennyson in echolalia. He’s obsessed with classic war literature and poetry. What teenage boy isn’t?

How about “Into the jaws of death / Into the mouth of hell.”2 That’s where we’re headed.

He frowns. “How about ‘Their’s is not to make reply / Their’s is not to reason why.’”3

But I know so much more than he does.

I have many friends. One in 42 boys, one in 68 children overall. All the directors and correctors scattered through the frontline. My peeps. There’s Tyler, stimming in the shadows. Brianne and Brendan, the twins. She doesn’t speak, and he talks incessantly about train schedules in major metropolitan areas. Malik, back from a three-day suspension. He destroyed the science lab after a kid held his face down in the guts of a dissected frog.

Jacob is one of the cool guys. He has a superpower—the power of invisibility. Walks through halls like he’s wearing the One Ring. Kids look right through him, as if through cellophane. My problem? Jacob doesn’t want to be invisible anymore.

He spies three girls sitting at a table on his left flank.

Abort! I shout. He refuses.

Girls are easier to talk to than boys. Their voices sound like a melody. They smell like lilies. When Jacob cries, they wait until a teacher comes before they talk behind his back.

A nerve-string stretches from Jacob’s heart to the girls’ smiles, an ice-encrusted electric wire ready to snap. “I can’t do this,” he whispers.

It’s true, and why would he want to? They should want to talk to him. Ask me, he’s the only one with anything interesting to say.

“Is this seat taken?” he asks. Perfect neurotypical manners.

The girls barely register his presence.

He sits across from them, lines his utensils parallel to his tray, takes a bite of his sandwich. He tries to follow the conversation, watching their words zoom past while his head moves back and forth to read the air. “Talk about their interests,” he thinks.

I’d rather not.

Jacob might not understand what people say, but he can feel their meaning in his bones. His mother says they misjudge him, that he has more potential than anyone knows.

“I like your shirt,” he says to the girl wearing a tank top with the red lips logo of the Rolling Stones. “Which song is your favorite?”

She doesn’t answer.

Jacob clears his throat. “‘Paint It Black’ is an iconic Vietnam War—”

“Whatever,” she says.

He studies the ceiling. “In the combat novel, Doom Pussy, U.S. airmen listened to—”

“What did you call me?” She leans back. The girls on each side of her yank their heads around like synchronized swimmers. She smiles, but it doesn’t trip the muscles near her eyes. Then she scoops a lump of potatoes on to her spoon and flings it at Jacob.

“Get lost, pussy freak.”

White paste oozes down his face. The girls laugh. He picks up his tray and leaves.

Storm’d at with shot and shell.4

I want to say, I told you so, but something happens I don’t understand. Thunderclouds surround me. Rain falls. The deluge pools behind Jacob’s eyes. That’s when I realize. I’m his liability. I’m the reason he’ll never have what he’s always wanted: a friend.

Now I wonder, and I long for the day when his courage wins out. When one kid, just one, calls to him, “Hey, Jacob! What’s up?”

To which he replies, “The sky.”

And the kid smiles and says, “Come sit by me.”


1Lord Tennyson, Alfred. “Charge of the Light Brigade.” 1854: 1-2.
2Ibid, 24-25.
3Ibid, 13-14.
4Ibid, 22.

Author Portrait

Susan Berardi’s writing has been featured in The New York Times, KTVI-FOX2; KSDK-NBC; Hope Saves the Day: an Autism Radio international podcast; Radio Arts Foundation; Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation; Show Me St. Louis and Jewish Light Magazine. She was twice a quarter-finalist in National Screencraft’s Short Story Competition and was shortlisted for Tulip Tree Publishing’s “Stories That Need to be Told.” Susan gave the commencement address in 2017 for the University of Illinois Department of Communication, where she received her Master of Arts. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing from Pacific University in Portland, Oregon.