MY SISTER stood at the sliding glass door making dolphin noises. At least I assumed she intended the noises to sound like a dolphin, since she held one of her zillion stuffed dolphins in her hand. This one was blue with white stars all over it. It was one of her favorites. She banged it against the window while she squeaked and whistled.
I groaned and stumbled over to the couch. The noise and thumping were so not what I needed. I’d just dragged myself out of bed five minutes earlier. I needed time to wake up. Apparently Cecelia was having one of her days. I should have been glad she hadn’t made enough noise to wake me. At least she seemed happy. The days when she had tantrums were worse.
She was nine years old and sometimes still acted like a two-year-old. I was almost positive she was smarter than that; she just didn’t show it. Cece was autistic. Sometimes she didn’t even seem to be part of our universe, and she either didn’t know or didn’t care how to act like other kids. She could talk, sort of, but didn’t unless she felt like it. Being her older brother wasn’t easy.
On the other hand, being Cece probably wasn’t all that easy either.
“Cece, stop it,” I said. “You’re giving me a headache.”
She turned toward my general direction, then squeaked and banged her dolphin against the door again. The glass rattled. Sometimes I wondered what the heck Mom and Dad had been thinking when they’d moved us into a house with two full walls made of glass, including the sliding door which no longer opened. I called them windows, but they ran floor to ceiling, and when Cece started banging on them, I was always worried she’d break them.
“Cecelia.” Mom shut off the water in the kitchen sink and walked over to take hold of Cece’s hands. “Look at me, Cecelia.”
Of course, Cece didn’t. She mumbled something that sounded like “No” and tried to pull her hands free.
“Cecelia.” Mom sounded firm but frustrated. Dad was at work, and I’d slept till noon, which meant Mom had been dealing with Cece by herself all morning. On Cece’s bad days, an hour or two could be too much. “You are not allowed to hit the door. Stop hitting the door.”
She let go, and Cece immediately tapped the dolphin against the glass again. This time, she did it gently. Mom sighed. “Cecelia, away from the window.”
“Let me try?” I stood up. Once in a while, Cece listened to me when she ignored Mom and Dad, which was a problem because sometimes Mom used that to get me to take care of my sister. I didn’t mind offering this time. Mom was obviously close to losing it.
Mom made a “go ahead” motion with her hand. “She’s having a rough morning. I think not having school today’s upsetting her.”
Anything that messed with Cece’s routine upset her. Every time our school district had a teacher’s workshop day, the kid acted like this, if not worse. She went to a special school for kids with autism, but since that school was in the same town as my high school, they followed the district’s schedule for everything except summer vacation.
I knelt beside her and touched her dolphin with a finger. “Dolphin doesn’t like hitting the window, Cece.”
“Chris, we’ve talked about this,” Mom said. “Don’t encourage her to think of those toys as real.”
I ignored her. If telling my sister her dolphin was upset made her stop beating on the window, I didn’t see any harm in it. She must have known by now her toys were just toys. Otherwise she wouldn’t have treated them as roughly as she did.
She bapped the dolphin’s nose against the glass. “Look!”
That was one of the few words Cece used on a regular basis and just about the only one she could pronounce clearly, and it caught my attention. I peered out the window and gasped.
Dolphins, stuck in the muddy, low-tide cove below the cottage. At least a dozen of them, maybe more, flopping in the mud. No wonder Cece had been so excited.
“Mom!” I shouted. “Call 911 or something!”
Mom hurried over, white-faced. I realized a little too late that I’d probably made her think Cece had hurt herself.
“What’s wrong?” She glanced around frantically, eyes wide, until she took a good look at Cece. “What happened?”
“Out there.” I pointed toward the cove.
“Doph,” Cece said. That was the closest she could manage to “dolphin,” one of her few other words.
Mom peered out the window, and her eyes widened. “How on earth did they get there?”
Cece pushed past her and ran to the door. Apparently she’d decided her dolphin wasn’t going to open the glass door, so now she wanted to get out the front door instead. “Doph!”
“No, Cecelia.” Mom went into the kitchen and picked up the phone. “Chris, make sure she stays inside, please. Those animals will be way too tempting for her.”
I stayed where I was and watched Cece fumble with the doorknob. She shouldn’t have been able to open the door. We had a deadbolt on it out of Cece’s reach, which Mom and Dad kept locked most of the time. They were always terrified that Cece would run out and drown in the cove. Yet another example of how little time they’d spent thinking about the wisdom of moving into this cottage with a kid like Cece.
Cece whipped the door open. Dad had unlocked the door to leave for work, and Mom apparently hadn’t locked it again.
I lunged, hoping to reach Cece before she went out. I missed. She ran out the door, yelling at the top of her lungs about the dolphins, and I took off after her. Barefoot. In Massachusetts. In March. Behind me, Mom shouted something I didn’t hear and didn’t try to. She would just freak out about Cece escaping, and I couldn’t deal with that right then. I had more important things to do, like catch my sister.
Cece scrambled down the logs Dad had set into the slope between the cottage and the cove as steps. I went down the slope itself, planning to head her off at the bottom. She was a fast kid, but those steps always slowed her down.
She faked me out. Don’t ever let anyone tell you kids with autism aren’t smart, because my sister had proven differently over and over. Instead of going to the bottom of the steps like I figured she would, she ran off to the side and back up the slope toward the cottage. Before I managed to adjust my direction, she ran along the edge of the patio and headed down the slope.
I ran as fast as I could, but I had no chance of catching her before she reached the cove. My only hope was the people who’d started to gather at the edge of the mud, either to gawk at the dolphins or help them. I knew some of them, kids I’d met at school and their parents. In spite of living next to Drummer Cove since August, my family and I still hadn’t met all our neighbors. Because of Cece, we never socialized much.
The people I’d met knew about Cece because I talked about her a lot. Complained about her, sometimes, though I tried not to do that too much. They knew she had autism. Hopefully they would understand why we couldn’t allow her near the mud.
“Stop her!” I shouted.
A tall blond kid I’d never seen before stood near the edge of the group, and he reached for her as she ran by. I held my breath. Cece hated having anyone touch her, especially someone she didn’t know. The guy wouldn’t have any other way to stop her except to grab her, so I braced myself for the piercing screams that would result.
To my surprise, he didn’t touch her. Instead he dropped to a crouch in front of her, arms out to his sides, blocking her path. Cece was too close to him to dodge. She skidded to a stop so abruptly that she fell on her butt.
I ran up to them and held out my hand to help Cece up. She ignored me and got to her feet on her own. Before she took off again, I grabbed hold of her upper arm. She squawked, but at least she didn’t scream.
I looked at the guy who’d stopped her, into the deepest brown eyes I’d ever seen. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” He grinned. “She wants to see the dolphins, huh?”
“Yeah, and she can see them just fine from the window.” I scooched down to Cece’s eye level. “No cove. Too dangerous.”
“Doph,” she insisted.
I turned to see Mom hurrying down from the cottage. When she reached us, she had tears in her eyes. She swooped Cece up into her arms, which Cece didn’t complain about because she never complained when Mom touched her.
“You can’t do that!” Mom said, her voice breaking. “Cecelia, you can’t run outside like that!”
“She’s okay,” I said.
Mom whirled to face me. “Why didn’t you stop her? You were supposed to be paying attention!”
Naturally she’d blame me for my sister doing something stupid. That wasn’t anything new. Mom didn’t like admitting she couldn’t always handle her own kid, so if something went wrong and I was around, she usually dumped on me about it. Sometimes I wished I was autistic too, so my parents wouldn’t always expect me to be the responsible one.
“I tried,” I said. “She opened the door too fast. Why wasn’t it locked?” If Mom wanted to play a round of the blame game, I was up for it.
She took a deep breath and glanced around at the neighbors who’d turned to see what was going on. “We’ll talk about it later. I’m taking Cecelia back inside. Are you coming?”
“I want to see what happens here.” I also wanted to talk more to Cece’s rescuer. When we’d moved from Dayfield to Wellfleet, I’d left my boyfriend behind. I hadn’t found any guys at my new school who I thought might be interested in dating another guy. In fact, I’d found a few who probably would have beat the crap out of me if I’d suggested it.
Mom just stared at me for a second, and I waited for her to order me back to the house. Instead, she stomped back up the slope, still carrying Cece. Good thing the kid was small for her age.
I knew I’d hear a whole bunch from Mom later. I could already hear the list of my crimes running through my head. Cece had run out of the house on my watch, and I hadn’t caught her quickly enough. Some stranger had caught her instead. Mom hated strangers knowing about Cece. I hadn’t immediately brought Cece back to Mom instead of standing there thanking the guy who’d caught her. Mom hadn’t been able to stay in the house where it was warm. She would find some reason to punish me for all of that.
Right then, consequences didn’t matter. Mom had taken Cece inside, which meant I was kid-sister-free for a little while.
“This is freaky, isn’t it?” the guy beside me commented.
For a second I thought he meant Cece, and I bristled. No way would I let anyone put my sister down. Then I noticed he was staring at the cove. At all those dolphins who’d somehow managed to get themselves stuck in the mud. Definitely a freaky thing.
“I don’t understand why they’re here,” I replied. “Why did they even come into the cove? It isn’t like it’s wide open from the ocean.” The dolphins would have had to swim through a narrow gap to enter the cove, and that would have been after they’d come from the ocean into Wellfleet Harbor.
“I don’t know.” He held out his hand. “I’m Noah Silver, by the way.”
“Chris Talberman. Do you live around here?” He appeared about my age, but I hadn’t seen him in school or in the neighborhood. Even if he went to a private school or something, not that many people lived at Drummer Cove after the summer season ended, so I should have seen him around somewhere.
“Sometimes.” He nodded toward the cottage at the end of the point. “That’s ours.”
The biggest place on the point. It figured. To live on Drummer Cove took money anyway. To own a house that size had to take megabucks. I just hoped Noah wouldn’t turn out to be as much of a snob as some of the rich kids I knew.
“Nice place,” I said casually.
Sirens sounded from the road that led onto the point. Within seconds, several vehicles appeared. A couple of police officers started shooing people back from the edge of the mud. A fire truck and a couple of pickup trucks parked behind the police car.
Adults started arguing about how to free the dolphins. The emergency personnel kept trying to tell everyone that a crew was on the way from the New England Aquarium in Boston, and another one was coming from some organization that specialized in rescuing animals. No one would be able to do anything to help the dolphins until the crews arrived. Most people ignored the emergency workers and kept debating.
Noah and I walked a little distance away from the commotion. “You said you live here sometimes,” I said. “What’s that mean?”
He leaned against a tree and stared at the dolphins. “I don’t really live anywhere, I guess,” he said quietly. “My dad—we just move around a lot. We own a few places here and there, and we kind of bounce around among them.”
“What about school?” A not-so-subtle way to try to find out his age. Plus I was curious about how he went to school if he didn’t stay in one place.
He tilted his head and grinned at me. A great look for him. “I don’t think you know me well enough to ask so many questions.”
“How will I get to know you if I don’t ask questions?” I countered.
“True.” He hesitated. “You know, those dolphins are going to be hard to get out of there, especially at low tide. They might be able to rescue some of them at high tide, but this could be a real mess.”
“Yeah.” Way to avoid the question. So much for sticking around to find out more about this guy. He obviously had no intention of telling me much of anything.
Except he had told me that he and his family moved a lot. He hadn’t completely shut me out.
“You’re new here, right?” he asked, keeping his gaze on some point in space. “I don’t remember seeing you before.”
“We moved here in August.”
I considered telling him why Mom and Dad had bought Dad’s cousin, Sandra’s, cottage. They had wanted a new place to live after Cece’s teacher in Dayfield had told them Cece wouldn’t progress anymore. That we shouldn’t hope for much more than her maybe learning a few more words, being able to follow a schedule, and washing and dressing herself.
Mom and Dad had done some research and found out about a private school for autistic kids not far from Wellfleet. We’d spent a week or two at the cottage during a few summers, and Mom liked the peace and quiet there. Right about that time, Sandra had announced that she wanted to sell the cottage, and everything had worked out.
I didn’t tell Noah any of that. If he wanted to know more about me, he could ask. Unless he shared a little more about himself, I probably wouldn’t answer.
“That was your sister, huh?” he asked.
“Yeah.” I kicked at a pinecone on the ground. “She wanted to see the dolphins.”
“Is she autistic?”
I stared at him, surprised. Physically, Cece didn’t appear any different from any other kid, so people who met her in passing, like Noah had, usually figured she either had some kind of mental retardation or was just a spoiled brat because of the way she acted. I didn’t remember anyone else who’d figured out she was autistic the first time they saw her.
“One of Dad’s friends has a son with autism,” Noah said. “He’s four now, and he’s learning to say a few words. Relearning, I guess. When he was, like, one, he talked a lot for a kid that age, then he just stopped.”
“That’s what happened with Cece too.” I’d been about eight, almost nine, when Cece had stopped talking altogether and started screaming whenever one of my parents touched her. I still remembered Mom crying and Dad ranting and blaming whomever he could think of to blame. I’d spent a lot of time with my grandparents and various aunts and uncles while my parents took Cece to one doctor after another. Then they’d finally realized they weren’t going to hear any easy answers.
“Must be tough having a sister like that,” Noah said.
I shrugged. “Sometimes.” I didn’t want to talk about Cece with him. Truthfully, I didn’t like talking about her to anyone. People either pitied me for having her as a sister or they pitied her for being autistic. Pity bugged me. So did the people who acted like something was wrong with me for wishing I had a normal sister.
The hubbub around the mud grew with the arrival of another van. People started wading into the muck and talking about the best way to haul the dolphins out. The animals just sat there, staring with sad eyes at the humans. Dolphins were always shown as these graceful, beautiful creatures. There was nothing graceful about them now. Some of them flopped around, trying to swim through the goop, and some of them just held still like they knew there wasn’t any hope of freeing themselves.
They were still beautiful. I kind of wished Mom had let Cece stay outside. Then again, seeing the dolphins like this probably would have upset Cece. She liked watching dolphins swimming on TV and in movies, and she wouldn’t have understood why these just lay there in the mud.
Or maybe she would have. Maybe Cece understood more than the rest of us and just wanted to hide it.
Noah and I stood there next to each other for a long time without saying anything. I’d given up on talking, since he didn’t seem to want to share any more information with me. I didn’t know if he kept quiet because I did, or if he had something to hide. The reason didn’t matter to me.
With everyone else I knew, silence always ended up feeling totally awkward. With Noah, I didn’t feel awkward at all. I’d just met the guy, and I already felt like maybe we’d become friends.
Of course, I hoped we’d end up more than that. He was cute, and I had a sense that there was more to Noah than he was showing me. Mystery appealed to me. Plus I was just plain lonely.
Like there was the slightest chance of a guy like him being gay. I decided to stop thinking along those lines and just be happy about having someone to hang out with besides my parents and Cece. At least for the time it took to free the dolphins.