Authors: Brynn Stein
The problem this time was that people weren’t going away. More were coming all the time to see if their help was needed. The staff were concerned and worried, and the children were getting more and more agitated. Dottie set the camera down, still taping, and attempted to clear the room. But the kids here often didn’t respond well to quick changes in activities. They needed warnings that a transition was coming up. This time they had no warning, and trying to get them to leave was actually making the situation worse, because it added even more strong emotions to the fray.
“Stevie….” I talked softly, hoping that if he concentrated on listening to me, it would take his mind off what was going on in his head. I was grasping at straws again. “Hey, man. Here’s some blocks, Steve.” I pushed a handful toward him. “Let’s build a wall together, buddy.”
Maybe if he was concentrating on building a real wall, his mental wall would go up too.
Stevie was looking at me, still just as upset. I let him watch me take several blocks and start building a wall. He was calming down just a tiny bit and was at least not screaming now, but I proceeded too quickly.
“Here, you build a wall.”
He looked at me for a moment and seemed like he was trying to concentrate, wanting to comply. Then, “
.” So much for not screaming. “No wall, Bear. Can’t build a wall.”
“I know, sport. So let’s build one together?” I scooted a little closer.
“Can’t. No more touch!”
“I know. I’ll build it for you, then. You just see it going up in your mind.”
He looked miserable. Poor little guy was really doing his best, but, judging by how much he was still digging at himself, his skin must be on fire.
“Watch me, Stevie.” I tried to get his attention. “I’m building a wall. You build one in your mind. Look. Here’s the first level. Let’s put on another level.” He watched as I built a short wall with the blocks I had, but he was still breathing heavily and scratching at himself.
He looked around. “Out of blocks, Bear. Can’t build a wall.”
Drew had approached and now pushed another stack of blocks toward me.
“Nah, we’re not out of blocks. Look. We have more. I’ll build another layer. You just build in it your mind, okay?”
“Trying.” He didn’t scream it this time, at least.
“I know, buddy. I’m right here. I’m not gonna touch you till you have your wall built. I won’t let anyone else touch you either.” I couldn’t help but shoot a glance toward Chuck, where he stood leaning up against the wall on the far side of the room. He hadn’t actually physically interfered with Stevie since the fire drill incident. But he seemed to like to
as if he was going to. He’d come close, make noise, or do just about anything he could to be annoying, and it bothered Stevie. Stevie said just being around Chuck hurt. He certainly didn’t need it today, so I was hoping my glance told Chuck “do it and die.”
“I’ll just keep putting the blocks on. Look, Steve. The wall is getting higher and higher and it’s starting to be harder to hear noise from the other side.” I scooted around just a little so I was on the same side of the wall as Stevie. “Just build your wall, big guy. Higher and higher. Until you can’t hear anything from the other side anymore.”
He was concentrating. He had at least stopped clawing himself. “Trying, Bear.”
I waited for what seemed like eternity. Drew had gone to get the first aid kit during this time. Those scratches were going to need tending to, but the last thing I wanted to do was to make those sores sting.
Finally, “Got it, Bear. I have a wall. It’s too short, though. Can still hear.”
I was so happy. This might actually work. “That’s okay, Stevie. If it’s still too short, we just have to build it higher.” I kept adding my blocks, and I could see he was desperately trying to add his.
“Got another row, Bear.”
“Good going, man. Build another one if you need it.”
He was building each row more quickly row. “Got another row.”
“Good for you, bud.” I praised him and waited for him to continue. His breathing normalized, and he had stopped scratching himself. He was still visibly upset, but he was gaining more control.
“Scratches hurt, Bear,” he said finally.
He was in control again and looking at me, but still behind the table, rubbing his sore arms and chest.
“Can you come out?” Maybe now we could treat the wounds.
I didn’t understand why, but I trusted Stevie to know what he needed.
“Can I come closer to you?”
He thought about it for a moment, then nodded. I crawled closer and sat against the wall beside him, not touching him at first. Dottie had grabbed the camera again and was in a crouch, still taping us. I hated to have a recording of Stevie in this shape, but then, if it helped show others how to handle a crisis, it would give Stevie more independence in the long run. If others could help, maybe he wouldn’t always need me so close.
Finally Stevie scooted closer and leaned against me.
“Can I hug you now, sport?”
He nodded, so I did. We sat for a long time, him clutching my shirt, and me rubbing circles on his back. Then he started to crawl under the table toward the main part of the living room. Crisis averted, I guessed, so I followed him.
Once he emerged from under the table, he noticed that Dottie was taping him. He sat down, looked right at the camera, and waved. “Hi, Dottie.”
Man, this kid was resilient.
Stevie sit and recuperate a little before I started any first aid on those scratches. Eventually I asked him if I could touch him again, and he said yes. I ran my fingers through his hair, being careful not to touch the scratches on his face.
“Hey, big guy. Some of these scratches look pretty bad.” I gestured to the scratches on his chest and arms. “We need to put some antiseptic on those so they don’t get infected.” I had his attention, but he wasn’t saying anything yet. “Drew brought the good kind, so it shouldn’t sting, but it might be a little uncomfortable. I know all those scratches are really sensitive.”
“They hurt, Bear.” His little face looked so forlorn that I almost just said, “Forget the salve,” but I knew I couldn’t.
“I know, sport. I’ll take it really slow, and you can ask for a break at any time. But we really do need to get these cleaned and dressed.”
Stevie finally just nodded his head, so I stood up and reached for his hand. “Let’s go to the bathroom to give you a little privacy.”
Stevie screwed up his face in confusion. He didn’t care about privacy. It was all I could do to convince him not to run naked from the shower to his bedroom every evening. But he ultimately gave me his hand, and we headed toward the bathroom.
I put some antiseptic on the scratches on his arms and chest and covered them with gauze. I couldn’t cover the scratches on his face, but I did put some antiseptic on them. By the time we were finished, Drew appeared with Stevie’s buttonless shirt along with as many loose buttons as he could find. I took the items and started with Stevie toward his room to retrieve another shirt. I had joked with him in the past that I was going to teach him how to sew the buttons back onto all the shirts he tore off. One of these days, I
it was bedtime, but Stevie was still too wound up to sleep. He had long since torn off the bandages, and now his scratches were stinging. He had ripped off the clean shirt, but at least he didn’t tear off the buttons this time. We usually didn’t let the kids run around shirtless, but this was kind of a special case. Now, at bedtime, he didn’t want to lie down or put his blanket on.
I helped him build his wall higher, even though it wasn’t other people’s emotions that were bothering him right then. My reasoning was that since he was battling his own emotions, as well as physical pain, even the normal level of emotion from everyone else might be too much to bear. So we built a strong, high wall, but that wouldn’t last long. He didn’t have any control of it in his sleep.
Stevie asked me to stay in his room that night. He hadn’t asked in a long time, and I could foresee him having trouble sleeping, so I told him I would.
For the first week and a half, I had lived at the center, sleeping in Stevie’s room for the first couple of nights and then on the sofa for a while after that, just to be available to help with nighttime empathy crises or nightmares.
Eventually, I was able to leave at night after he was asleep. The first several of those nights, though, I was called back in to reassure Stevie I was still available. Finally I asked him if we could meet in the forest, since most of the time when I wasn’t at the center at night, I was asleep. He thought we could, though we hadn’t needed to since I’d arrived at the center. So for several nights we did just that. We didn’t have much to say since we saw each other every day. But, just knowing we
meet if we needed to helped him.
I didn’t like to do that too often, because Stevie couldn’t get to the forest if he was asleep, and I didn’t want him missing more rest than necessary. But on the nights he needed to meet me, he wouldn’t have slept anyway, so it was worth it—more or less.
The director, Sara Marshall, had come up with a special contract for me. I worked 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., supposedly six days a week. Usually I was at the center all seven, but by law we weren’t allowed to work seven days straight, let alone seven days every week, so that seventh day was as a volunteer. With the official hours of seven to nine, I could get Stevie up in the morning and stay until he was asleep in the evening. Once he started doing well in class, I started taking Wednesdays off—well, at least part of each Wednesday—so that I could conduct any business I needed to take care of. I’d wake him up in the morning, eat breakfast with him, and take him to class by nine, then go do my laundry, shopping, banking, and other chores and be back in time for lunch. After I returned Stevie to his classroom, I often went home for a quick nap before picking him up at four.
That schedule worked so well over those next couple of months that I started doing the same thing for Friday. Stevie interacted in class a little better when I was there, but judging from his pictures and his conversations later, he was still getting a good bit out of class when I wasn’t.
Stevie understood that someone would call me back if necessary. He didn’t usually need to anymore, though. He had decided I was going to stick around, but if he wanted to reassure himself that I was still available, we met in the forest for a few minutes. So when he asked me to stay on the night of the block episode, I realized he must have come to the same conclusion as I had, that he would wake up during the night due to the noises in his head or to the scratches themselves. So I was happy to stay.
before my first day off, Drew came over to me in the living room.
“So, day off tomorrow.”
I smiled. “Yeah, finally. We’re going to try it anyway.”
“Want some company for lunch? You gotta eat, right?”
“True. Yes, I’d love company.”
At lunch, our conversation turned to Stevie, as it often did.
“You know, what you’re doing with Stevie is really spectacular.”
“Not really. I’m just trying to help him be, in the real world, the person I met in the forest.”
“That alone is fantastic.” He chuckled. “In every sense of the word. It sounds like fantasy. I believe every word of it, but it’s just so… unusual. Like the pictures he’s always drawn of you.”
“I’ve seen some. They’re gorgeous.”
“Those pictures bugged the shit out of us all these years, you know.” Drew had started working at the center the month before Stevie was brought in. When I just nodded, he went on. “We thought at first they were of someone he knew from before his dad brought him in. We even faxed a copy of one of his drawings to his dad to see if he could shed any light on the subject. The ‘venerable’ Mr. Liston just told us there was no way anyone in his social circle could
know a person who looked like that.” Drew gave me a little apologetic grin. “And he basically told us to fuck off and leave him alone. Not exactly in those words, but that was the general idea.”
“Nice.” I really didn’t like Stevie’s father, and I had never even met him.
“And wow, what talent Stevie’s always had. Does that have anything to do with the empathy stuff?”
“I don’t know. Lilly, the lady I told you about who was most similar to Stevie, was an author. Maybe the tendency to be creative comes with it? I can’t come to any conclusions based on a test sample of two.”
He chuckled. “I guess not. He really is exceptionally talented, though.”
“He remembers that his mom drew sometimes. I don’t know how good she was, but he probably got it from her.” I added. “Is that a valid hereditary trait?”
Drew smiled. “I have no idea. It’s as good a theory as any, though.”
The rest of that afternoon had been wonderful, and we fell into a standing date to spend Wednesdays together. He and I would meet at Dottie’s and go pay bills. It had the benefit of killing two birds with one stone. Our errands got done, and we got to spend time together too. Drew and I just clicked like I never had with anyone else before. We liked college basketball but rooted for different teams, so watching the games was fun and sometimes heated. We could talk about anything and nothing, and it felt good to be with him.
after the whole “block incident” was Wednesday. I had standing plans with Drew, but Stevie’d had such a rough night, I stayed with him through his morning classes. I called Drew and told him he was on his own. He understood.
After lunch, though, Stevie said his scratches felt much better and he would be fine in class by himself in the afternoon. That was the first time he voluntarily went someplace without me for any length of time. I was very proud of him.