Authors: Brynn Stein
Dottie mock glared at him. “He never called anybody anything.”
I nodded, a sad smile on my face, thinking of poor Stevie fighting so hard in the real world that he couldn’t spare the energy to talk, but I continued to answer Hank’s question. “I also had even longer hair then.” I ruffled my curly brown hair that now hung just below my ears. “It was almost shoulder length at the time, and I’d been attempting to grow a beard. Not very successfully, I might add. It was a patchy thing that friends had said just made me look unkempt. And I wore my favorite suede jacket in the dream. It gave me a sort of Grizzly Adams appearance.”
“Well,” Dottie said, “in any case, it seemed to earn you a lifelong nickname.”
I chuckled. “I guess so.”
Stacy spoke up. “Will you stop distracting him? I want to hear the story.”
Dottie smiled and Hank tried to look contrite but couldn’t keep from smirking. The doctor just waited quietly, so I continued.
“Once I convinced him I wasn’t a bear, I scooted a little nearer to him and asked his name. We talked for a long time. He kept scooching a little closer, and then a little more, until finally he leaned against me and I enfolded him in a hug. Then instantly I seemed to know his history, as if I had an adult awareness of all his memories.”
“That’s… incredible.” Hank responded, and I knew he meant in all senses of the word.
“How much of it? We can fill you in on gaps,” Stacey said, and I wasn’t sure if she was just curious or wanted me to prove what I was saying. I knew if it were me, I’d have had a hard time taking a stranger at face value with all of this.
“He’d always been a fussy child. Had trouble tracking events in the outside world. He responded to things no one else was aware of and overreacted to things they were. He’d grab his ears or bang his head in crowds, and eventually even with just his family.”
Dottie interjected, “He still does that.”
I nodded and went on. “Stevie’s mother structured his environment so he wouldn’t be overwhelmed, but when a new baby came along, she became overwrought herself and left the house. As far as Stevie knew, she never came back—”
Hank interrupted. “No, she never did. She was killed in an accident a couple days later. Soon after that his father brought him here.”
Stacy added. “I can’t imagine his mom knew that his dad would abandon him too.”
“I would hope not.” Dottie gave her opinion in a compassionate voice. “Stevie was so lost at the beginning. Poor little thing. The more people were around, the more he seemed to crawl into his own world. He’d sit and stare into space for various lengths of time. Sometimes for as much as an hour.”
I thought I could shed some light on that. “I think that was when he went to the forest.”
“Forest?” Stacey asked, confused. “I thought that was just your dream.”
“No. It was more than that. Somehow Stevie was able to call to me when I was in a dream state, and I’d meet him in his…. I’m not even sure what to call it. Dreamscape? Mental plane? Mind forest?”
“Oh, come on.” Hank had been okay with my description of talking to Stevie in a dream, but he was having problems with this.
“I don’t think Stevie is really autistic.” I tried to explain but I was quickly losing some of my audience. Two staff members who had stopped by between chores left at that.
“He has all the traits,” Hank stated.
autistic then.” I hedged my bets. “I think he’s an empath too.”
“Getting a little hard to believe there, bud,” Hank answered, but at least he didn’t leave.
Dottie put in her two cents. “How else do you explain the pictures, though, Hank? And that Jesse and Stevie obviously knew each other? Jesse just having a dream about Stevie wouldn’t result in Stevie waking up to his voice or calling him Bear.”
Hank crossed his arms but seemed willing to hear me out.
I acknowledged his silent “go ahead” and continued. “Anyway, when he arrived at the center, the emotion was just too much for him. That’s what he’s reacting to, by the way. Not actual noise. When people around him have strong emotions, he ‘hears’ them—”
“That would be telepathy, not empathy,” Hank said, and Dottie shot him a look.
“I don’t think he can hear actual thoughts, but he describes ‘hearing’ the emotions, and feeling them, and he can’t control them. They manifest in physical symptoms.”
“Is that why he bangs his head or scratches himself?” the doctor asked.
“He describes feeling tingles or fire on his skin or in his head, and he’s trying to get it off.” When no one interrupted me, I continued. “Somehow, in the midst of all that, he found a way to go into his own mind and call out for help. I don’t know if he was calling on purpose or if that just happened, but somehow I heard him.”
We were temporarily interrupted when the administrator of the center, Sara Marshall, came up to the hall to meet me.
“So this is the young man we’ve seen so many pictures of.”
I chuckled, “Yes, ma’am.”
“You know, it’s because of Stevie’s pictures that you were hired.”
“And ultimately saved Stevie,” Dottie added.
Sara nodded and continued. “Patsy in the office has one of Stevie’s pictures above her desk. When you came in asking for a job, she couldn’t help but notice the resemblance. She knew we were having a crisis with our young Steven, so she ‘hired’ you.” Sara handed me a visitor’s badge. “You can’t really officially be hired until we do a background check and everything, so technically, this evening you’re just a visitor. I signed you in as my guest, so don’t make me regret it.” She smiled, but I could tell she was serious too. “You can’t interact with the kids completely alone until we finish all the paperwork, but staff are always coming and going on any part of the hall, so that should be fine.”
I nodded, and we worked out an agreement that I could stay that night to be available for Stevie, and I would meet with her the next day to hammer out an official schedule. The center had rules about how long I could work in one week and for how many days straight, but I already knew I’d have to work as much as Stevie needed me, whether paid or not.
She visited for a while, and the other adults filled her in on my story so far. “Sounds interesting.” She smiled. “I’ll have to catch up with you when I have more time, and you can tell me the whole thing.”
I laughed. “I have six years’ worth of story to tell.”
“Well, then,” she chuckled. “Maybe not all in one sitting.”
During Sara’s visit, the doctor had gone in to check on Stevie. He even went so far as to wake him up, just to be sure he could be awakened. I didn’t blame him. The time right before I arrived had been hard for Stevie.
Stevie asked for me when the doctor had awakened him, and I went to sit with him for a while.
“You’re really here?” He repeated his question from earlier.
“Yep, big guy. I really am.”
He grabbed me and held on to me for a long time. Finally, sleep took over again and I laid him back in his bed and covered him up with the soft blanket one of the staff had bought him.
With Stevie finally asleep again, I went back out to the living room. Hank and Stacey had gone home. The staff here worked staggered shifts so that there was never a whole new crew at any given time. It seemed to provide the kids some stability.
Instead, Molly, whom I had met earlier but who had been flitting hither and yon, and Karen and Paul, whose shifts were just starting, were in the living room, along with Dottie and Dr. Brown, waiting for more of the story.
Karen told me in an excited voice, “We’ve been caught up on the saga of Stevie and the Bear. We’re ready for chapter two.”
I chuckled, settled on the sofa, and started back in on it.
“Months went by before I heard from him again. I almost forgot all about it, thinking I had just had a really strange dream, but then one night I was in the forest again, and Stevie was alone and crying. So I held him again, told him everything was going to be okay. In the dream I believed that, but as soon as I woke up, I realized it might not be okay if I didn’t find him soon in the real world.
“So I spent the next six years looking in residential schools for boys about his age who looked like him, named Stevie.”
“Why couldn’t you just come straight here?” Molly asked. “Why did it take so long?”
“He didn’t know where he was except that he lived in a place with lots of kids, and a bunch of grown-ups taking care of them.” I smiled. “And he only knew his first name. He wasn’t even sure how old he was or when his birthday was. I couldn’t know anything he didn’t know.”
“So”—Paul motioned me to go on—“six years.”
“Yeah. I was a grad student when he first called, and still took classes here and there for a while, but eventually I just worked long enough to earn money to go to the next facility.”
“You worked in the residential schools?” Karen asked.
“Mostly, if they were hiring. If not, wherever I could find a job when I ran out of money.”
Dottie nodded. “Kind of brings up another subject. Do you have any place to stay now that you’re here for good? Assuming that you are, indeed, staying here, now.”
I smiled. “My search is finally over. Yeah, I’m here to stay. But no, I don’t have a place to live yet. I came straight here. I didn’t even check into a hotel first. I had a horrible sense of urgency. I had to find Stevie immediately.”
“We’re glad you did. The boy had been withdrawing more than usual over the last three months,” the doctor added.
Dottie agreed. “He never liked being close to people, but he went to ridiculous lengths to avoid it the last several months. He didn’t even use the rudimentary ways to communicate that he had attempted before. Even his pictures of you changed. His absent periods were lasting longer and longer, until he was finally out for over five hours today. None of us could explain the change, but—”
The doctor put in his theory. “He is ten, and his body shows some signs of the early stages of puberty. The hormones during that period of life can do funny things to kids. I have no idea if it might play a role here.”
“It could,” I agreed, “but then again it might not. Stevie is kind of in a category by himself here.” I had researched Stevie’s symptoms and could only find three other accounts that sounded anything like it.
The doctor nodded. “That does seem to be true.”
While the doctor and I had been talking, Dottie had gone to retrieve the pictures that Stevie had drawn of me in the last three months, which the staff had kept in a file. They were disturbing. Some had black backgrounds; some had lightning bolts through my face. Some showed distorted features. Poor Stevie. Something had seriously been going on with him. The hormone theory was the best I’d heard yet.
Eventually Dottie readdressed the question. “If you don’t have plans for a place to stay, I have an apartment in the back of my house that you could rent if you want. It’s not much, just a living room, a bedroom, and an efficiency kitchen. But it’s furnished, and I never charge much. And it’s close to work.”
“Sounds perfect.” I snapped it up. That was a godsend and I told her so. Moving around so much over the last six years, I had accumulated very few things so a furnished apartment would be excellent for me.
still in the living room, talking about this and that, when I heard Stevie scream. I was off like a shot, Dottie right on my heels.
“What’s wrong, big guy?” I rushed to his bed.
“You weren’t there.”
“In the forest.”
“I don’t have to be, Stevie. I’m right here. Whenever you need me, you can just call me.” He must have woken up and gone into a trance. I was pretty sure from what he’d told me over the years that he couldn’t reach the forest while asleep. “You need some rest now, bud.”
“You’re gonna stay here?” His face showed such worry it almost made me want to cry.
“Yep. Right here. You don’t have to go to the forest to find me. I’m right here.”
“Good. I don’t like it when you don’t come to me in the forest.”
“I have to be asleep, I think, Steve. So if you called to me just now, I couldn’t get there, or even hear you call. You come to me in my dreams. Remember I told you that before?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I remember, but I forgot.”
I love it how kids can say things that seemingly make no sense, that has a lot of meaning to them.
“Good.” I tousled his hair. “Sleep. I’m right out in the living room.”
Dottie had been in the doorway the whole time, so she spoke to me on the way out. “I guess it’s natural that everything’s not going to be fixed just like that, simply by you showing up.”
“I kind of thought it would be, yes.”
“Maybe a little much to hope for. You’ve already changed so much, though. Look at that, not at what’s left to change.”
I nodded. We went back out to the living room, and Dottie told me “Stevie stories,” the closest thing to “Mama telling embarrassing childhood stories” as Stevie was going to get.
“So then the little imp comes over to me and grabs my hand and pulls me to the TV. It was time for one of the crime shows he liked to watch, but the TV was on the Discovery Channel. I’m not sure why, but he’s always loved cop shows, especially mystery ones where the audience can figure out ‘whodunit.’ It’s really the only type of show he’ll sit still for at all, let alone actually seem to watch. We’re careful about which ones we let him watch so he doesn’t see gore or anything. And he actually seems to have the schedule memorized. So, anyway, he tapped the TV until I changed the channel. Another student was already there, but—”
“He was allowed to change the channel even though another student was watching something? Why was he allowed to get away with that?” I had to ask. It sounded kind of bratty to me.
“You have to understand. I’ve known Stevie from the day they brought him in, and in all that time, he hadn’t uttered one word. He usually didn’t look a speaker in the eye. He wouldn’t hold a hand. If someone sat beside him, he’d move. He tended to put himself as far from the crowd as possible.”