Author's Note: I could really use some critique on this. In particular I could use advice on 1) having a Mormon character narrate a story aimed at a non-Mormon audience (basically, does everything make sense? Or to the contrary, did I give too much extraneous explanation?) and 2) rounding out the characters without changing the story. If you have any input about those things (or in general) I would really appreciate a review! Oh, and I'd also like opinions on whether or not I should keep the title of the story as Coral or change it to Roly-poly.
"Deja vu" may not technically be the right phrase, but I'm not sure what is, exactly, the proper word to use to describe walking into the dining room and being hit with the forgotten scent of pine and gluten-free cookies. "Nostalgia" isn't the right word, either; that would imply fondness for the memory. I could technically say it made me feel like a kid again, but that's the cliche people use to say they feel free or giddy. I just feel out-of-place. Not like an adult that's been shrunk back into a kid, but like a confused kid who's suddenly been stretched into adult proportions and has no idea what the expectations are anymore.
"The kitchen is this way, girls," says Sister Hansen, the youth group leader, looking very much like she knows what she's doing with her baseball cap, capri pants, and whistle. But she's never been here before, and she doesn't have a clip board or a lanyard. We, the four youth volunteers, follow her anyway. Rachel Hansen, Sister Hansen's daughter and my friend, takes in the sights. Rachel's thirteen-year-old sister Rebekah and Rebekah's friend Audrey chat about something unrelated. I can't really blame them for being distracted. We've been here about ten minutes already and none of the organizers know what we can actually help with. They keep sending us to other people in other corners of camp.
Sister Hansen talks to the kitchen ladies, who tell us to put the cartons of milk in the coolers and the cookies on the table and then we can relax until the campers show up. The task gets done quickly and we wander off to explore the rest of the dining room. Rebekah and Audrey bounce off towards the recreation area, and I follow. It doesn't look quite how I remember it. The big red bean bag has been replaced with a smaller blue one - or maybe it only seems small because I've grown. The television has been replaced with another one, slightly less obsolete. The bookshelf is stocked with DVDs instead of VHS tapes - the absence of the tape containing my favorite episode of Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog makes me feel more dismayed than I should be, under the circumstances. There is a Frozen DVD where the Sonic one used to be. I can't think of a more inferior substitute for Sonic than Anna and Elsa. The wooden table is the same, though, with the same red embroidered tablecloth, long enough to almost hide you, if you crawled underneath.
"This is actually, like, really cool," says Rebekah, flopping onto the bean bag and reaching out to grab a picture book off the shelf in front of her. Rebekah has no qualms making herself comfortable; she's the kind of person who never has doubts about whether or not other people will find her likeable or useful.
"Yeah, I wish I could've come here as a kid," Audrey agrees. She's looking at the container with all the card games in it.
"Yeah, how come the retarded kids get all the good stuff?" Rebekah shoves the picture book back onto the shelf and stretches out on the beanbag, looking at the ceiling.
"Rebekah!" Rachel scolds, looking sharply at her younger sister. Her voice is a little less soft than usual.
Audrey looks away from the container of cards, eyes forced open and mouth forced into a frown. She might be amused or shocked.
"What?" Rebekah defends herself. "I'm just saying the kids here are lucky."
"Don't use that word! What if one of the kids' parents heard that?"
"Whatever." Rebekah sits up on the beanbag, crossing her arms.
I prepare to make sheepish eye contact with Rachel, but she doesn't look at me. It occurs to me to wonder if she actually knows I have Asperger's syndrome. I had assumed my entire church knew. My parents certainly never kept it a secret - Mormons are prone to oversharing details about their children, and my parents were always quick to use stories about me for lessons about overcoming adversity. When I was a kid it was a lot more obvious that there was something wrong with me, anyway, so even if my parents had never said anything, other people would have. But it's been a long time since I've had a meltdown in Sacrament meeting because I couldn't stand the velvet dress I was wearing or the sound of babies screaming over hymns, and Rachel and I were still in Primary when my father taught the adult class, so she wouldn't have heard all the stories he integrated into his lessons about the mistakes I made during my journey of learning to be a normal person.
Whether or not Rachel knows I'm autistic, she doesn't apologize to me on her sister's behalf. Which is just as well, I suppose – not apologizing means she doesn't consider Rebekah's comment to be an offense towards me, which means in a roundabout way that she sees me as my own individual person and not an "autistic person." I know it seems like those things aren't mutually exclusive, but they are, at least in the way people look at it. It's not something I can explain to a normal person. It's not something people realize they do.
When Sister Hansen first asked me if I wanted to volunteer with her and her daughters at Open Arms Camp for Children on the Autism Spectrum and Families, I was afraid she wanted me to be their sentient autism encyclopedia, or something. That made me worry that she was one of those people who saw me as an "autistic person." But it turned out she was only asking because I still hadn't done most of my value projects for Personal Progress. Personal Progress is this thing Mormon girls do which is supposed to be the female version of an Eagle Scout award. You do a bunch of little activities called "values" and eight ten-hour projects. You're supposed to finish it before you go to college, and since it was the summer before senior year, Sister Hansen was worried that I wouldn't finish. I had my own routine for working on Personal Progress - first I did all the required values in order in the booklet from the first one in the first category, Faith, to the last one in the last category, Virtue. Then I did all the elective values in the same order, and have just started the projects. For Faith I illustrated scenes from the Book of Mormon. After confirming that I could count going to this Open Arms Camp for Divine Nature, which came after Faith, instead of Good Works as Sister Hansen originally suggested, I agreed to volunteer.
She didn't ask if I had ever been an Open Arms Camp attendee, so I didn't tell her.
After a few minutes of us looking through the DVDs, Sister Hansen comes and finds us. "They want us to make name tags." She leads us to a wooden table outside. This is a camp tradition I remember. Wood chips on twine are piled on the table, next to a plastic container of Sharpies and several large sets of beads. Rebekah and Audrey eagerly browse through the bead kits, while Rachel draws a flowery border around her wood chip. I've never been interested in that kind of thing, so I just steadily write my nickname: Corie.
My handwriting doesn't turn out as neat as I'd hoped - the wood chip has ridges, and the Sharpie bleeds - but at least it's legible. When I was a kid my mother always made my name tags for me. She never asked what name I wanted there, just decided everyone at camp should call me Corie. The thing is when I was a kid I hated the idea of nicknames - I thought everyone just be called what they really were. I even called my mom and dad Patricia and Nicholas. But when I got in trouble at school for repeatedly calling my teacher Kimberly, my parents put an end to it.
They started calling me Corie about the time I was diagnosed. Have you ever heard a parent tell their kid "Honey, I don't have time for this" or "No, sweetie, you can't have a cookie"? I think parents use terms of endearment more often when they're annoyed or exasperated but trying not to be, and that was probably where my nickname came from, their attempts to be patient as they realized I had so many things wrong with me that they didn't know how to fix. But my overactive imagination had a different way of interpreting it. At the time there was a commercial airing; it showed a little boy bound and gagged in a dark room and a voiceover said, "My name is autism. I've stolen your son. I won't let him speak, and I won't give him back. Only you can save him." When my parents told me I had Asperger's syndrome and that was what was making me act different from other kids, it made me feel like my real self was a different person from me, unknown. I guess at some point I started thinking that "Corie" was my Asperger's, and Coral was the girl who had to be saved from it. Of course, I know better now, and almost everyone calls me Corie.
When we're all done with our name tags, the campers finally arrive. Some of them make name tags too, and some of them go to the crafts table to assemble and decorate birdhouses. A lady with a clipboard tells us to go help the campers with their crafts. The problem is, we don't know how to make birdhouses any more than the kids do. Audrey finds a little boy with an already-assembled birdhouse and asks if he needs help decorating. She ends up painting it for him, and the rest of us go back into the dining room to find that we won't be needed until lunch. In the meantime, I draw in my sketchbook while Rachel and Rebekah play Connect Four.
Lunch is pretty similar to the way it's always been; we volunteers bring the main course to the tables and campers choose their own side-dishes at the salad bar. Since we have to serve the food, we're among the last to eat, but it's not so bad, because it means we don't have to wait in long lines. They don't have the garlic bread I used to love, but they do have gluten-free cookies. Those bring back memories. The gluten-free cookies at camp were the reason I once ended up on a gluten-free diet - it was my idea, actually, all because I loved the cookies' soft, powdery texture. After overhearing some lady at camp talking about how giving up gluten worked miracles in her son, I mentioned it to my mom, taking advantage of the fact that my parents were willing to try pretty much anything to make me normal. I regretted it after about two weeks of being denied normal carb-based foods, but luckily my parents soon realized the diet didn't affect my behavior, and let me give it up.
"Are those good?" Audrey asks when she sees me eating a cookie, like she doesn't believe they possibly could be. I offer her a piece and her eyes widen like she's just seen the face of God. "It is good!" she reports to Rebekah, and the two of them scramble off to get some for themselves. They come back with a bowl for the table to share, and make the mistake of offering some to Sister Hansen when she comes to check on us.
"Girls!" Sister Hansen scolds. "Those are for the kids with special diets!"
"But Corie had some!" Rebekah argues.
I look up from my half-eaten cookie, blushing either from the shame of stealing some poor gluten-deprived child of their dessert, or the shame of having once been such a kid. Sister Hansen studies me for a moment and then crouches down next to me and not-so-quietly whispers, "Corie, you're not on your diet anymore, are you?"
I shake my head, hoping the nuance of the question will be lost on everyone else's ears. Rebekah, at the very least, doesn't seem to know I'm autistic, and at this point she's the last person I want to find out. Sister Hansen turns away from me, directing her lecture at the whole table. "I don't want you taking any more. Some of these kids can't eat dessert very often, and these are supposed to be a special treat for them! You can have the normal cookies." Sister Hansen turns back to me, placing a hand on my shoulder to get my attention. "Corie, you and Rachel are almost ready to be adults. I want you to set a good example for the younger girls, okay?"
She's right, I know - it's not like it's my fault Audrey got a whole bowl, but those cookies were for the campers, and there weren't enough for everyone. They're expensive, too. I feel bad, like I shouldn't be there, like I should be under the table with the soft red tablecloth, where no one can touch me...
"Sorry," I say. I stand up abruptly, throw away my trash and take my tray back to the kitchen. Then I plant my face against the soda fountain for just a few seconds, just long enough to cool off and put a smile back on my face before pouring myself a root beer and going back out. Everyone is smiling and happy again, like nothing happened. I guess my mistake wasn't as big of a deal as it felt like.
The campers finish eating and leave the dining hall. We volunteers clean up after them, and when we're done, Nancy tells us to go help supervise the other activities: there's a jumper, a slip n' slide, a crafts table, and some outdoor games to choose from. "Just make sure to use the buddy system," she warns us. "You may be big girls, but we don't want anyone getting lost." Rebekah and Audrey want to jump on the jumper, so Rachel and I go to the crafts table, where the kids are supposed to be making thank-you cards for soldiers but are mostly just drawing whatever they want.
"I feel like they don't really need us here," I say.
"I guess not," Rachel agrees. "But I guess we can just stay here and supervise?"
We end up just drawing what we feel like, like the kids are doing. Rachel makes simple, cute designs and I decide to practice poses. It's not very often that I get the chance to observe children, so I try to capture some of the scenes in front of me: a little boy's hand curled around a pen, which he's banging against the table. A girl's chubby arms pressed flat against the table as she stoops protectively over her art project. A blond toddler's grin distorting into a look of anguish as his brother yanks his paper from his hand and crumples it. I remember before I ever went to camp my parents thought I'd like it because there was an arts and crafts area. The scene in front of me reminds me exactly how wrong they were. The toddler starts wailing, and the mother is scolding "Brayden!", and the dad is trying to sooth the toddler by feeding him Goldfish crackers which I can smell all the way from here. When I was a kid I couldn't handle a lot of noise and sights and smells all at once, so something like this would've had me running away to go hide somewhere by myself. But I'm older now, and it would be extremely inappropriate for a volunteer to hide under a table, so I try to ignore my headache and try to pay attention to the small talk Rachel is trying to make.
"...Sorry, what?" I haven't heard a thing she said since that toddler started crying.
"Are you gonna go to an art school for college?"
I look back down at my sketchbook. "I don't think so."
"Aw, why not? You're so good at drawing."
"I think I'll just go to community college first. Save money and all that." It also saves me from living in dorms where I won't be able to prepare my own food or sleep in my own bed or listen to my own music as I'm falling asleep, but I can't say those reasons. Everyone else in the world lives in dorms and survives just fine, and I hate admitting that something everyone else can do, is just too hard for me.
"Oh, that's cool," she says. "I think I'm gonna apply to BYU. That way it'll be easier to defer when I go on my mission. Do you wanna go on a mission?"
"Probably not," I say.
I wish I can just say the truth: I wouldn't be able to handle it. I can't knock on doors all day without having a meltdown. I can't give up complete control of my life for two years without having a meltdown. I can't be metaphorically chained to another person 24/7 without having a meltdown. I know it's not my fault, that God probably doesn't hold it against me. But it still feels like a personal failure when I try to explain to Rachel, "I just don't think it's the right choice for me."
She fortunately drops the subject and goes back to talking about her own future plans. It's hard to focus on what she's saying while I'm drawing, though, so I put my sketchbook away and we just chat for a while, until Sister Hansen group texts all of us to ask us if we can teach some songs at campfire. We come up with a few songs that would be simple to teach; most of which are songs we learned from our church's Girls' Camp and are sung to the tune of "The Other Day I Met a Bear." After we form a list, Rachel and I go back to drawing until campfire starts.
Only a portion of the campers end up actually showing up at campfire - that's one good thing about this camp; no activities are mandatory, and the campers that need quiet time are free to take a break and go back to their cabins at any time. This consideration wasn't all that useful to me, since my parents didn't like it when I didn't participate in activities they paid for me to go to, but it was at least thoughtful on the part of the organizers. Rachel and I meet up with Audrey and Rebekah, who are sitting on one of the benches furthest from the fire. Sister Hansen is apparently in the kitchen helping to set up for dinner.
Campfire starts with story time; one of the organizers reads a picture book that I can't focus on well enough to summarize - the wind is blowing, the fire is crackling, and there's a fly buzzing around my head. Other people are making noise, too - the other volunteers are whispering to each other about camp songs, a boy is kicking his legs against the bench, and a girl with a Pikachu t-shirt is playing in the dirt near a tree. I recognize her as one of the kids from the craft booth, the one who was leaning over paper to hide what she was drawing. She's holding a stick up near her face, and appears to be speaking to it, though I can't hear what she's saying.
"...the heck is she doing?" Rebekah's voice drifts into my focus, and I notice the other girls are watching the kid, too.
"Are they allowed to, like, sit in the dirt like that?" asks Audrey.
"Yeah, but she's being distracting." That's Rachel.
"So are we," I whisper.
They ignore me. Rachel gets up to go talk to the girl, and Rebekah follows. I stay where I am, but turn to watch.
"Excuse me, could you be quiet please?" Rachel asks the girl.
The kid pauses for a second and looks at Rachel. "No." She turns away and goes back to talking to her stick.
Rebekah makes that offended sound that's like a cross between a gasp and a huff. Rachel puts her hands on her hips and stoops down to look the kid in the eye. "Excuse me, I asked you to stop."
The kid turns away. "I don't want to." Her voice sounds a bit strange, it's a bit hoarse, and it almost sounds like she's rehearsing lines or something.
I stand up, looking at the campfire audience to see if I can spot the girl's parents. None of the adults seem to be noticing what's happening. There's a pregnant lady with curly brown hair similar to the kid's, but she's busy trying to quiet down a fussing baby, and I don't know for sure if she's the kid's mom or not, so I don't say anything to her. Instead I wander over to keep a closer eye on the scene, though I don't know what I'm going to do about it. Audrey follows me.
"Did you guys hear what she just said?" Rebekah says to me and Audrey. "Kids these days!"
"My kids aren't gonna be like that!" says Audrey.
Rachel keeps shifting around, trying to force the kid to look her in the eye, and the kid keeps shifting down to avoid her. Still looking at her stick, though she's stopped talking to it. I notice the stick has a roly-poly crawling around on it. Finally Rachel reaches out and lifts the kid's chin with her hands to try to force her to look at her. The girl recoils, slapping the inside of Rachel's arm to try to get away. "Hey, don't!" she shouts. As she scrambles to her feet, she holds her stick out in front of her like a weapon. "I'll have my roly-poly Pokémon use Rollout on you!"
By now the other campers have noticed what's happening - one of the supervisors is coming up to watch, and the curly-haired pregnant woman comes up behind her. "What's going on?" asks the supervisor.
"I was just asking her to be quiet and let the other kids listen to the story!" Rachel says. "And she hit me!"
The mother gasps. "Emily!" she scolds. "You hit somebody with a stick!?"
Emily looks positively alarmed at the crowd that's gathering around her. "No, I - " she starts to say, but her voice trails off as her mother marches towards her. "She didn't," I say, but the mother ignores me.
"Give me that!" the mother demands. She grabs Emily's collar with one hand and the stick with the other. Emily shouts "No!", but before she can explain what's on the stick, her mother notices the rollie-pollie guts that are now smeared all over her.
"What is that?" She lets go of Emily and drops the stick, staring at her hands.
"There was a bug on the stick. A roly-poly," I explain.
No one seems to care, except Emily, whose eyes are now tearing up. "That was my Pokémon! You killed my Pokemon! You killer!" She angrily kicks the stick in her mother's direction and then starts running, faster than I've ever seen any kid run before, up towards the mountains.
"Emily! Come back!" The mother shouts. She looks around helplessly at the rest of us. "Can someone go get her please? My baby is back on the bench and I can't run right now." She gestures to her pregnant belly. Rachel and Audrey take off in Emily's direction.
I stay behind to explain what happened. "She didn't hit anyone with a stick. That other girl grabbed her chin, and she pushed her away."
The mother is covering her face with her hands. Her skin looks red; she's either embarrassed or frustrated. "That girl! I don't know what to do with her!"
I look back to the mountains in the direction where Emily ran, but she's out of sight. A few other women surround Emily's mother while she starts crying in the middle of the camp; one places a hand on her shoulder. The supervisor pulls out a walkie talkie: "Nancy? You there? We got a missing kid - a little girl - shouldn't be too far from the campfire. She got upset and hit one of the volunteers."
"She grabbed her!" I started to say - then I looked around and noticed that almost everyone had left. The parents who weren't crowding around to comfort Emily's mom were going back to attend to their own kids. Rebekah is staring at the supervisor, head slightly forward like she's waiting for a chance to say something. We're supposed to use the buddy system, and since Rachel and Audrey aren't around, that means I'm supposed to stay here with Rebekah and wait to be told what to do.
Instead, I take advantage of the fact that no one is paying attention to me and walk away. I don't want to be around people right now.
I start off towards the mountains. I can see Rachel and Audrey off in the distance, checking behind trees for Emily. I'm planning on heading in the same direction, but then I stop and notice the cafeteria a few yards to the right of here. There's no direct path leading to it, but if you're willing to step on plant life, you can get to the back entrance from here.
I walk through the shrubbery and weeds, ignoring the sticker seeds poking through my socks. The cafeteria is empty. I walk over to the table and lift up the yellow table cloth, and while part of me is not really expecting to find Emily there, part of me wishes she won't be there so I can cool off in here by myself for a while - she is there, curled up in a ball with her head tucked between her knees.
She doesn't seem to notice me until I quietly say "Hey", and then she jumps. Hoping she doesn't run away again, I crawl under the table next to her and press myself into the opposite corner. It's a lot smaller under here than I remember, but I try to give the kid some space.
"I'm sorry that you lost your... Pokémon," I say.
She looks at me with no clear expression. "My Pokémon," she repeats.
"I don't think your mom meant to kill it."
"She still did," says Emily. Her voice is hoarse.
I can't argue with that.
"I hate it here," Emily says. She's pressed her head back into her knees with her arms around her legs, squeezing herself tight.
"So do I," I confess.
I can hear footsteps from outside the cafeteria. I know I should be getting back. I know Emily's mom is probably worried about her, and the supervisors are worried about the liability. I know that if I'm the one to drag Emily out everyone will be relieved enough to forgive me wandering off without a buddy, and I also know that if they find me with her here under the table and know that I didn't tell anyone where she was, I'll be in trouble. Major trouble. Sister Hansen will tell my parents, and I probably won't get any allowance or art supplies for months.
But a couple more minutes of hiding won't hurt.
"Emily! Ems!" The voices are nearby. "Ems! Where are you!"
"Ems" is such a stupid-sounding nickname - I wonder if she got it the same way I got the nickname "Corie." I glance back at the little girl, see that she's taken off her name necklace and set it down behind her. The name on the tag is Emily, but from the adult handwriting I can tell that she wasn't the one to write it.
"What's your name?" I ask her.
"…I'm Ash Ketchum from Pallet Town," she says without looking up.
I readjust my position, curl my arms around my legs, and slowly start rocking back and forth. "Nice to meet you, Ash," I say. "I'm Coral."