This is Part 15; click here to read Breaking the Ice from the beginning.
A large brown suitcase stood next to the open door of the dormitory room, bulging with things that hadn’t been on the original list. When he’d started packing, Mark had expected to go home as usual for Christmas vacation, just as he’d done in past years. But then Dr. Ghorbanifar—the principal herself!—had come to his room and told him to pack everything; he wouldn’t be returning to the school.
“Why?” The unexplained announcement left him in such fear that he could speak only that one word. Where would he go? And what could he have done that was so wrong the school would put him out? He always got high marks in his classwork, and months had gone by since the last time he had lost behavior points for looking weird. He had even been allowed to grow his hair again because he’d stopped fidgeting with it.
Dr. Ghorbanifar kept her gaze fixed on him, a piercing dark-eyed stare that left him feeling like a bug in a researcher’s collection. Her reedy, accented voice filled the room. “Your parents will tell you more when they arrive. They are on the way. Pack now.” And off she’d gone again, her ankle-length black dress swishing in counterpoint to the thumping of her orthopedic shoes on the hard floor.
After he’d finished packing, Mark stood in the middle of the room, unsure of what he should do next. Would his parents come up to the room as they’d done before? Or should he wait in the lobby, now that it wasn’t his room anymore? He realized that he had started pacing from one side of the room to the other, and he quickly made himself stop before anyone could walk by and see him. Especially his parents. If they saw him doing something weird, they might send him to another school that was much worse. Someplace where he wouldn’t have any real classes or any chance to become a scientist.
Maybe that was going to happen anyway. Mark had heard plenty from his teachers about the horrible fate that awaited anyone who didn’t learn how to behave in society, how lucky the students were because the school was teaching them what they needed to know, and why they shouldn’t take their good fortune for granted—there was such a long waiting list for new students. Maybe he hadn’t learned enough about how to behave, and now he was being put out to make room for someone else. Maybe his parents had decided he wasn’t worth the cost of keeping him at the school. But what had he done that was so awful?
His toes twitched inside his shoes, now that he had stopped pacing. That was okay because nobody could see his toes in there. Even if one of his toenails dug into the next toe and made it bleed, which happened sometimes, he didn’t worry about that because it couldn’t be seen and the dark uniform socks hid the blood. Doing something weird wasn’t so bad if there was a way to hide it.
More footsteps echoed along the hallway, coming toward his room. Two people—had his parents arrived? He took a step toward the door, but then stopped to think about it. Would he look too anxious if he hurried out of the room? Maybe his parents would see that as abnormal. Better not to risk it. And he should rehearse a few greeting phrases in his mind, quickly, or else he might end up being able to say only one word again…
“Mark, it’s so wonderful to see you!” His mother breezed into the room, her steps lighter and quicker than he ever remembered them being. She carried a red coat over her arm and wore a tailored gray suit, which matched the dark gray of her eyes. Today her eyes crinkled with cheerful lines at the corners, and she didn’t have her usual deep furrows between the brows. She certainly didn’t look like she was angry with him about anything, so why had he been told he wasn’t coming back to the school?
Seeking more clues, Mark glanced toward his father, just now entering the room a few steps behind his mother. Under his father’s balding scalp, the brows also looked smoother than usual; and his father spoke gruffly, as though he couldn’t quite keep his voice under control. “Son, we’re both so very proud of you. So glad.”
“It’s such amazing, wonderful news,” his mother burbled. “Dr. Ghorbanifar is a brilliant woman, a true miracle worker. She says you have completely recovered from autism because of your behavioral therapy, and now you can go to a regular high school like everyone else. And after that, college.”
She went on talking, but Mark couldn’t understand any more of it because his thoughts had turned into such a jumble. College, to learn how to be a scientist? Could he really? Although his mother’s lips were still moving, his brain couldn’t make sense of the input. The next thing he heard was his own voice saying, “Wonderful—so glad!”
Although this didn’t happen as often as when he’d been younger, sometimes Mark still found himself repeating words when there was a glitch in his speech processing. The way to hide it was to smile, make eye contact, look as normal as possible, and say something else that made sense.
He decided he’d better hug his mother too, although her strong floral perfume always made him feel nauseous when he got that close. It was worth it today; he couldn’t risk her seeing anything that might make her change her mind.
“Mom, I love you!” Putting as much enthusiasm into his voice as he could manage, Mark gave his mother a big smile and looked into her eyes before hugging her—he had to reach down for the hug, now that he’d grown so much taller. He spoke quickly, before the perfume had time to affect him much. “I’m so glad to be going home!”