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There’s something daunting about having a child, the realization of knowing that an entire life is in your hands. Ted had known from the second he laid eyes on Quentin, he wouldn’t hesitate to do anything for him, to keep him safe. He had held that seven-pound, eight-ounce, little baby and promised himself he’d do anything to keep him from hurting. Unfortunately, despite Ted’s efforts, he couldn’t protect his son from everything.

 

He couldn’t even protect him from the birthday song at his birthday party.

 

He should have seen it coming, Quentin had done the same exact thing the year before, and the year before that. But he was four now, Ted always met each year expecting Quentin to grow out of things and change. If there was one thing Quentin didn’t do much, it was change, but by God could the kid scream.

 

Ted didn’t quite understand what was so distressing about the birthday song, about family gatherings in general, but Quentin always ended up throwing a fit by the end of an event. He couldn’t help but feel embarrassed as Quentin went from covering his ears to throwing himself off his seat and onto the floor to wail his absolute heart out.

 

His wife was standing at the table, holding the cake with the candles burning still, and the rest of the family all seemed to collectively sigh. Maybe that’s what made him the angriest in moments like this, he knew Quentin best but they all knew him too, and they all should have expected this. He can hear murmurs, some of the younger kids are snickering, Ted catches Carolyn’s father rolling his eyes.

 

“Quentin, honey, don’t you want to blow out your candles?” Carolyn prods weakly, but they both knew by now that when the boy kicked off, the last thing you could do was talk to him. He was beyond rationality, beyond comprehension, and he could be loud. The woman tries to touch him, and Quentin immediately goes into defensive mode, kicking and hitting out angrily.

 

“You’d think he’d have grown out of this,” Carolyn’s sister says with disapproval.

 

“Carrie, you have to beat the boy, or he won’t learn.” Carolyn’s father says, almost lightheartedly, Ted scowls and steps closer.

 

“Carolyn, take everyone outside.” He snaps, the woman glares at him and he returns it. She urges everyone into the back yard, where they had been up until this point. Ted listens to the noise fade and finally, the door shuts and all is quiet, other than Quentin’s crying.

 

It makes his chest hurt to watch the boy in such distress and not be able to scoop him up into his arms and cuddle him, it would just send him further into hysterics. So he crouches down, one arm balanced on the table and the other on his knee, while his son sprawls on the floor, red in the face with tears on his face. Ted waits, and it takes a while, it always does.

 

A lot of thoughts come to him during these times, and he hates himself for silently asking himself if there might be something wrong with Quentin. The thoughts gave him severe guilt, and any attempts at talking about it to Carolyn only ended with them yelling at each other. He was a child, they always agreed, he’d grow out of it. What two-year-old, three-year-old, four-year-old wasn’t a handful? It repeated every year, never seemed to end, Ted hoped that he wouldn’t be saying the same thing in five years.

 

Quentin starts to quiet after a good couple of minutes, tiring out after having reached his peak, leaving only hoarse moans and hiccups as he tugs gently at his long locks. But if there’s one thing Ted can be, it’s patient, he sits down on the floor with a quiet sigh as his son calms himself.

 

“You okay, Curly Q?” He eventually says when the boy blinks open puffy eyes, keeping his voice quiet. He doesn’t get an answer, Quentin sniffs against congested sinuses and lets out another moan, rolling onto his back.

 

It takes another minute or so for him to come back to himself, sitting up tiredly and messily rubbing at his face. Ted has the urge to hug him, to wipe the snot from under his nose, but he couldn’t touch and that killed him in a way he never expected. Quentin was affectionate and cuddly, hung off his father whenever he could, except in moments like this. He could be loud, and he liked to stomp and bang his hands on things just for the hell of it, he was a normal four-year-old in most aspects…

 

Ted frowns when Quentin mumbles something at him, leaning in a little closer. Quentin’s volume was either barely audible or enough to give you a headache, and Ted could feel one coming on for himself, so he knew his son must be feeling absolutely awful.

 

“Juice,” He finally catches it, amidst Quentin’s other incoherent noises, and smiles gently.

 

“I’ll get you some juice, be right back.” He gets up and heads into the kitchen, finding a sippy cup and pouring some apple juice into it. He twists the lid closed as he heads back into the dining room, where Quentin is still laying tiredly. “Here you go, kiddo.” He sets the sippy down in front of it, Quentin stares at it a moment.

 

Ted watches the boy look at the cup, wondering what might be going on in his head. Quentin finally reaches out, taking the cup and sitting up, sniffling and then pressing the nozzle to his lips. The boy drains the cup easily, wiping at his eyes until they’re even pinker than before. Eventually, he sets the cup down and pulls his knees up to his chest, tapping his sneaker covered feet gently against the floor.

 

“Better?” He asks, Quentin’s eyes are focused on the wood floor over his knees, in a daze, but he manages to clumsily nod. “Okay, good.” He takes the sippy cup, setting it up on the table.

 

They sit like that for a long time, until Quentin eventually pulls in a deep breath and sighs, then turns to crawl into Ted’s lap. The man is careful in his movements as he reaches to wrap his arms around the boy, but he knows his son won’t hesitate to squirm away from him if he’s not happy.  He holds his son to his chest, smiling to himself as Quentin makes himself comfortable. He’d be asleep in a little bit, probably sleep through the rest of the party, but it didn’t matter. They could eat cake and open presents later, they had all the time in the world.

 

-

 

Ted carries Quentin over to the window to look out at the backyard, where the adults were sitting in the chairs at the large table underneath the oak tree and the kids were rushing around in small groups and playing excitedly. A few of the boys were running in circles with one of the girls, occasionally pushing and shoving until an adult called out for them to be nice. The older kids were grouped near the back fence, talking and chatting over cake and punch.

 

Quentin didn’t get along with most of the younger kids, at least, not the boys. A lot of them were rough and tumble, into sports and athletics, wanting to wrestle or play ball. Quentin would much rather curl up and read a book with someone or sit in the sun and discuss whatever came to his mind. Not to mention he was a little delayed in speech, so any actual talking between the younger kids and Quentin never went well.

 

His older cousins didn’t want him around though, many thought he was strange and annoying, and said so frequently. Of course, except Ella, who was rather sweet on the boy. She was always the one Quentin gravitated to, the one who listened to him and read to him when he asked. For a ten year old, she was very patient, and Ted appreciated it.

 

Quentin shifts his head against Ted’s shoulder, peeking out to look at everything. Ted readjusts his grip, the boy was starting to get heavy, and not for the first time he wished he could have all the time in the world with each version of his son throughout the years. But he knew that eventually, time would pass, faster and faster, and Quentin would be all grown up. He could only hope that Quentin would be a good man and that he would be successful, happy, and healthy.

 

Ella is sitting across the yard with the older kids, sipping at some punch, but she spots them in the window and waves. Ted raises his hand in return, smiling back, but he knows she’s mostly waving at Quentin.

 

“Ellie,” Quentin mumbles, the first word he’s really said since his fit, lifting a hand to wave back.

 

“You wanna go outside and see her?” He asks, earning an expected shake of the head.

 

“In, come in.” He waves his hand at the girl again, who isn’t looking anymore.

 

“She’s busy, sweetheart.” He rubs Quentin’s back; the boy makes a displeased whining noise.

 

“In!” He reaches out his hand and flexes his fingers in a grabbing motion.

 

“Okay, okay…” He steps over to the back door, opening the knob and stepping up to the doorway. Quentin hides his face, smothering himself against his father’s neck. “Ella!” He calls out, the girl looks up at him, smiling. “Someone wants to see you!” He grins, the girl quickly gets up and hurries to the door, following them inside.

 

“Happy birthday, Quentin!” She says, not for the first time today.

 

“Happy birthday,” Quentin mumbles in reply, squirming to get down and pushing himself into the girl to hug her.

 

“It’s not my birthday, silly, it’s yours.” She snorts, petting his hair. “You feeling better?” She asks, taking the boy’s hand and leading him into the living room. Ted stands in the threshold between the rooms, watching Ella sit with Quentin and talk with him.

 

The boy is obviously tired, curled up against the arm of the couch and holding the girl’s hand to his chest in between his own. Ella talks and jokes until he’s smiling, giggling even, and Ted watches fondly. He wasn’t too worried, not when things like this existed in Quentin’s life.

 

-

 

Later in the afternoon, once everyone has left, Ted finds himself sitting in the kitchen reading the newspaper while Carolyn finishes up the dishes. He had already cleaned up the back yard, the boys had torn up Styrofoam cups and scattered them just about everywhere and it had taken far too long to find all the pieces.

 

“I don’t think he’s ready.” Carolyn says suddenly, breaking the comfortable silence between them.

 

“Who?” He asks idly, eyes scrolling an article on an upcoming parade downtown.

 

“Quentin.” She says, agitated, sighing as she sets down another plate in the dishwasher rack. “We should keep him home this year, we’ll send him to kindergarten next fall.” She tells him, apparently already having made up her mind.

 

“What?” He drops the paper onto the table, eyebrows furrowing. “He needs friends, Carolyn.” He insists, the woman quickly shakes her head.

 

“You saw the way he was today, he can’t act like that around other kids. We both know he’s…” She glances to the archway leading into the living room, but Quentin is nowhere in sight, napping upstairs in his room still last Ted had checked. “Different.” She murmurs.

 

“So what?” Ted shrugs his shoulders, resting his arms on the table. “I’m sure there’ll be a lot of four-year-olds that are just as strange as he is, kids are weird.” He snorts, the woman wipes her hands on a dish towel, looking almost haunted.

 

“You saw the way everyone looked at us today, and they’re family…” She keeps her eyes on the counter, frowning intensely.

 

“Carolyn,” Ted says quietly, she shakes her head again. “Do not try to tell me you’re embarrassed of our son.” He lowers his voice, wary of any possibility of Quentin overhearing.

 

“I’m not!” She insists, wringing her hands together. “Maybe my father is right, maybe we’re too lenient.” She turns to him finally, eyes desperately pleading. “He’s not ready, Ted.”

 

“He’ll be fine,” Ted says dismissively, the woman scoffs, and Ted looks down at his paper, attempting to end the conversation.

 

“I just don’t want him to get hurt, is all.” Carolyn says quietly, Ted ignores her, she goes back to washing dishes.

 

“He’ll be fine,” He repeats after a moment, mostly to himself.

 

-

 

Quentin complains about his itchy shirt in the car, squirming in his car seat and getting that whine to his voice that promises future tears if they don’t do something. Carolyn tries to distract him, talking about all the fun he’s going to have and all the friends he’s going to make. Quentin’s bashing his dinosaur covered sneakers into the back of Ted’s seat in growing frustration by the time they reach the parking lot.

 

When they get out of the car, the parking lot is a bustle of commotion. There’s kids racing around, some crying, some being dragged forcibly from their cars. When Ted unbuckles Quentin from his car seat, the boy immediately sets to stripping off his shirt. He holds up a hand to stop him, but then decides against it, leaning against the frame and watching him rip off the fabric and throw it across the seat.

 

“Quentin,” Carolyn sighs, leaning in the car from the other side and picking up the shirt. “You have to wear your shirt.” She tells him, Quentin responds by kicking his legs into the seat again, breathlessly huffing in agitation.

 

“Here,” Ted grabs the jacket on the back of Quentin’s seat, the boy squirms at first but then seems to realize it’s his favorite jacket. Ted zips up the jacket and Quentin’s irritation lessens slightly, calming ever so slightly.

 

It doesn’t last.

 

-

The amount of kids, the crying echoing through the parking lot, the air is filled with anxiety that Quentin can practically feel. It doesn’t take long for his legs to drag, the toes of his sneakers scraping against the pavement as his mommy and daddy hold him by the hand and the wrist. He can feel panic welling up inside him, his head getting louder with every child’s scream and laugh.

 

It’s like the static of a TV, annoying and slowly growing louder in his own ears, as if someone were turning the volume up on everything. Quentin’s in tears by the time they reach the door, actively trying to pull away from the brightly colored and noisy room. He wants to go home, to cuddle on the couch with his stuffed animals and watch TV.

 

His daddy is talking, trying to assure him, but Quentin can’t focus on anything in the slightest. He’s spiraling, the noise seems deafening and it smells like cleaning products, the walls are the color of mustard, and it hurts his eyes. He lets out a wail when his mommy tries to give him a goodbye hug and tries to dart out of the door, but his daddy catches him by his jacket sleeve and pulls him over to the side of the room.

 

As soon as he can squirm from the man’s grip, he drops to the ground, weak from distress. He curls up tight, pressing his nose to the wall and his hands to his ears, wanting nothing more than to be anywhere else. Sobs wrench themselves from his throat, his body tremoring with the amount of intense feelings that have built up inside him.

 

He stays like that for a little bit, until his head stops feeling angry and scared and his body starts to loosen up from his stiff position. When he sits up, his daddy is standing nearby talking to a lady. There are a few other kids causing their own scenes, mostly clinging to their parents.

 

The room feels slightly less hectic, there’s fewer people, some of the parents having left. A few kids are sitting at small round tables, looking around or talking. Quentin wipes at his face, shrinking back against the wall when the lady approaches with his daddy.

 

“Hi, Quentin, my name is Ms. Mary.” She crouches down in front of him, Quentin likes the sound of her voice, quiet. She has red hair, but not too red, like a fox.

 

“Quentin, daddy has to go now.” His daddy tells him, Quentin can feel more tears welling up, his throat clogging with distress. He didn’t want to stay here, it was scary and strange and it would be worse without his mommy or daddy nearby.

 

“Quentin, do you like to color?” Ms. Mary asks, Quentin paws at his father’s pants leg with a pleading whine.

 

“He loves to color, right buddy?” Quentin sprawls sideways and latches his arms onto his daddy’s ankle.

 

“That’s great, that’s what we’re gonna do after I talk to the class. We’re going to have a lot of fun today, and I’d hate for you to miss out on it sitting here on the floor.” Ms. Mary tilts her head at him, Quentin notes that she has sparkly lip gloss on. “But first we have to say goodbye, your daddy will be back in just a few hours.” She promises, Quentin squeezes his fingers in the denim of his daddy’s jeans.

 

“I’ll be back, kiddo. You have lots of fun, all right?” His dad pries Quentin’s hand from his pants.

 

“You want a hug from your daddy?” Ms. Mary asks, the man chuckles.

 

“Trust me, that’s the last thing he wants.” He straightens out and walks over to the door, Quentin sits up as the man waves his hand before disappearing out the door. Quentin curls into a ball again, Ms. Mary sighs quietly.

 

“You can sit wherever you like, Quentin, wherever there’s an empty seat.” She offers, Quentin tucks his face into his knees. When she tries to touch him, he immediately hits out at her and throws himself against the rug, which is rough and scratchy. “Okay, okay…” She says, slowly standing up. “Join us when you’re ready.” She tells him, and then moves to the front of the classroom.

 

-

 

Quentin sits by himself for a while, until Ms. Mary finishes her introduction (which included discussing what they were going to learn and how the day would go) and explains that they’re going to color. For the first time all morning, Quentin feels almost excited, standing up and slowly moving along the wall. He spies two girls sitting together, one reminding him of his cousin Ella, and decides to sit with them.

 

He makes his way over, cautious of the way Ms. Mary was watching him from her desk. He slowly sits down in a blue chair, takes a piece of paper from the middle of the table, and carefully reaches for a crayon. One girl, with blonde hair, watches him carefully but says nothing. The other, a brunette, is too occupied with her own drawing to even notice him.

 

The boy decides that it would be a good idea to draw a picture of some dinosaurs, because he really loves dinosaurs. He technically loved all kinds of animals, and probably wouldn’t say that dinosaurs were his favorite, but they were the closest thing. He draws a bunch of them, pterodactyls, stegosauruses, triceratops, he fills the page.

 

“Hi, Quentin, are you feeling better?” Ms. Mary approaches, Quentin continues to mark up his paper, he wants it to look pretty so he can show his mommy and daddy. “I like your picture.” She says, pointing to the paper.

 

“I’m drawing a kitty cat,” The blonde girl informs Ms. Mary, who nods her head and leans over to look at the picture.

 

“I like the stripes!” She says, Quentin glances over to look at the picture. It was a big fat cat, that filled the whole page, it reminded him of his neighbor’s cat that often came into his yard when he was on the porch swing.

 

“Muffin,” He points at the paper, the girl frowns.

 

“No, her name is Princess.” She insists, Quentin looks down at his paper and repeats himself quietly. How could his neighbor’s cat be named Princess when his name was Muffin, it was ridiculous.

 

“What did you draw, Julia?” Ms. Mary asks the girl with brown hair, Quentin likes her sparkly pink bracelet.

 

“A bunch of fishies!” She holds up her paper, revealing lots of blue with tiny purple, pink, and red blobs. Quentin can’t help but smile, he loves fish, he loves all animals.

 

“Pretty,” Quentin points, the girl grins at him.

 

“Thank you very much!” She replies formally, Quentin goes back to his paper. “What are you drawing?” She leans forward against the table, he sits back to avoid her getting too close. He pushes the paper out for her to see, she turns it slightly and stares at it for a second. “What is it?” She murmurs, curious, Quentin pats his hands against the table lightly, nervous.

 

“Dino… Dinosaur.” He points, the girl hums and pushes the paper back.

 

“I like fishies better, you should make a purple dinosaur.” She says with a firm nod, Quentin debates this a moment. He had never seen a purple dinosaur before in his picture books, they were usually brown and gray, sometimes greenish.

 

“Purple,” He echoes, looking at the little basket of crayons, wiggling his fingers in the air as he looks for the purple crayon.

 

“Here you go,” Julia hands him a purple crayon, which he takes and starts to make a purple dinosaur near the bottom. He decides that if any dinosaur could be purple, it’d be a triceratops, so he makes one. “Yeah, like that!” Julia says after Quentin drops his crayon, he taps his heels against the carpet delightedly at the finished product of his picture.

 

-

 

Quentin definitely does not want to go outside, and there’s an immediate repeat of the morning. He lays his stomach against the seat of his chair and throws one of his legs on the table, before squirming over and tumbling onto the floor and under the table.

 

The other kids are dismissed, and Quentin huddles up in a ball and covers his ears as they leave. He wants to color, he doesn’t want to go outside. Ms. Mary tries to get him to come along, but he screams when she reaches for him, so she gives up and sits across the room while he calms down.

 

He’s already tired, he’s reminded of the fact that he wants to go home. But his daddy promised to come back, he just hopes it’ll be soon.

 

Eventually, he decides that maybe he does want to go outside. He climbs out and Ms. Mary lets him out the door onto the fenced in playground, where he spots some swings. He makes his way over, avoiding the loud children and making a beeline for his destination. He climbs up onto a swing and uses his feet to push off, like his daddy did when they used the swing on his back porch. The kids are loud, which he doesn’t like, but the sky is overcast, and the air isn’t too hot or cold so he’s happy.

 

“Hello?” He turns his head at the voice, realizing he’s being spoken to. “I said hello!” He notes that the girl is sitting down on the swing next to him, the one who had suggested he draw purple dinosaurs.

 

“Hello.” He repeats back to her, just to get her to leave him alone.

 

“What’s your name again? My name’s Julia.” She tells him, Quentin hums and continues to kick his feet. The girl’s rhythm starts to line up with his, he likes that. “What’s your name?” She asks again, Quentin looks down at the mulch and then up at the sky.

 

“Quentin,” He makes sure to pronounce it correctly, the tuh sound was hard.

 

“The swings are my favorite,” She tells him, he continues to look up at the sky, it was pretty and blue with white puffy clouds. He turns his head to look at her, their swings going back and forth in sync.

 

“We match!” He says with delight, the girl giggles.

 

“You’re silly.” She tells him, and Quentin nods again, his mommy said that a lot.

 

Eventually, Julia jumps down, sliding through the mulch and landing on her knees. When she gets up, her purple tights are dirtied slightly, but she simply smiles at him as he continues to swing.

 

“Do you want to play a game?” She asks him, Quentin debates this for a moment.

 

“What game?” He replies, she presses her finger to her lips, thinking.

 

“We could be animals,” She suggests, which definitely catches his attention. He digs his heels into the mulch on his downwards swing, then drags the tips of his sneakers through it on the next swing forward, effectively stopping it.

 

“What animals?” He asks, she approaches with a skip.

 

“Fishies?” She offers, Quentin shakes his head.

 

“There’s no water,” He insists, she frowns at him and props her hands on her hips.

 

“We could pretend there is!” She says, as if it’s an obvious conclusion.

 

“No water!” He waves his arms, the girl sighs.

 

“Then kangaroos, maybe?” She shrugs, Quentin tips his head.

 

“How?”

 

“Like this.” She starts to hop; Quentin’s lips stretch into a small smile. “You hop, hop, hop!” She giggles, Quentin slips off the swing and imitates her. “Yeah! C’mon!” She leads him away from the swings, he follows, clumsily hopping every few steps.

 

They hop their way through the playground, Quentin likes the feeling of stomping his feet more than anything else. They make it over to a dome of metal bars, where a few kids are climbing, Julia takes a step onto it and starts to climb up.

 

“Kangaroos don’t climb,” He says warily, Julia turns her head to look at him.

 

“Monkeys do!” She makes a noise that Quentin supposes is a monkey sound, but it’s not very convincing. Quentin steeples his fingers together in front of him anxiously, watching her climb towards the top. “Are you coming?” She asks, Quentin shakes his head. “Why not?” She asks.

 

“Kangaroo.” He says weakly, the girl nods.

 

“Then get in the middle, you can make a nest!” She urges, pointing down below to the center of the dome. Quentin slips through one of the holes cautiously, sitting down in the middle as Julia says hello to one of the boys up top. Quentin curls up in a ball in the middle of the dome, looking up when Julia hangs her upper half downwards.

 

“Kangaroos gots nests?” He asks, looking around at all the mulch. Quentin touches some, grabbing it in his fists and sprinkling it back down. It sticks to his palm, which he doesn’t like, so he shakes it off and tucks his hands into his lap.

 

“Where else would they lay their eggs?” She says, and he supposes she makes a point. Maybe in their pouches? But that was where the babies went, maybe there were eggs too? “You got long hair.” She reaches down through one of the gaps to touch his head, he swats her hand away.

 

“Don’t!” He insists, the girl hangs down in front of him again.

 

“Sorry,” She apologizes, he simply nods his head at her, not even thinking about it anymore. He focuses himself on finishing his nest, perfect for his kangaroo eggs. “I like your jacket,” She says, he tugs at the soft fabric of his sleeves thoughtfully.

 

“Want a secret?” Quentin asks, Julia nods, he reaches up and fumbles with his zipper. He unzips his jacket halfway to show off his pale chest, grinning brightly. The girl lets out a startled laugh, obviously amused.

 

“Why aren’t you wearing a shirt?” She inquires curiously, he rezips his jacket and hugs himself for a moment, feeling the soft fabric against his skin.

 

“Itchy,” He tells her.

 

“My mommy would just make me wear the itchy shirt.” She confesses, Quentin nods his understanding.

 

“Mommy had to pick her bottles.” He shakes his head, taking a handful of mulch and tossing it up in the air. It was something his daddy had said, he didn’t know what he meant, but it made mommy get really red and get quiet so he guessed his daddy was right.

 

“What’s that mean?” Julia mutters, Quentin shrugs his shoulders, he wasn’t quite sure. His parents said a lot of things that didn’t quite make sense to him, but he guessed they knew what they were talking about. They were grown-ups after all.

 

Quentin stands up and brushes himself off, slipping out of the dome and standing at the bottom to watch Julia climb. She urges him up a few times, but he vehemently refuses. Eventually, he grows bored, and walks back to the swings.

 

Quentin entertains himself on the swings for a few minutes, jolted when Ms. Mary blows a very loud whistle. He keeps his arms around the chains of the swing and covers his ears with his hands, watching the kids start to trickle inside. He’s glad, he likes the quiet, now he can swing in peace. He continues to swing, but soon Ms. Mary comes to get him.

 

“Quentin, it’s time to go in.” She stands nearby, he watches a bird fly overhead, it’s pretty. He’d like to be a bird sometimes, so he could fly, but he also doesn’t like being up high so maybe that was a bad idea. “Quentin.” She grabs the chain of his swing, effectively stopping him, he doesn’t like it.

 

He immediately tries to start swinging again, but she’s holding onto the chain and crouching in front of him. He squirms uncomfortably, not liking how close she is.

 

“We have to go inside now, okay buddy?” She asks politely, Quentin huffs and stomps his feet on the mulch. He doesn’t want to go inside, he wants to stay outside. “It’s time for a snack, we’re having graham crackers and juice.” She explains, Quentin shakes his head, tears welling into his eyes.

 

“No out, in, stay, go… No go…” His voice trembles, he doesn’t want to go in.

 

“What?” She tilts her head, Quentin presses his hands to his eyes and sniffles. “Sweetheart, we have to go inside now.” She touches his arm, he lets out a wail and tumbles backwards off the swing in his attempt to get away. He lands in the mulch, which is itchy and sticky and just further upsets him.

 

He curls up on the ground and cries, his head feeling icky and his body uncomfortable, he just wants to go home. It’s like his head is shouting and everything is too much and all he wants is it to be quiet, so he hugs his knees to his chest and hides his face. Ms. Mary stays quiet while he cries, and when he’s done he feels even worse than before. He slowly gets to his feet, his teacher avoids touching him, they make their way back into the room.

 

Quentin covers his ears and turns to leave when he’s exposed to the noise level, but his teacher catches him by the back of his shirt and closes the door. He stomps up and down, banging on the door a few times with his fists. Ms. Mary takes his arm and turns him to face her, crouching down to his level.

 

“Quentin, outside time is over.” She tells him sternly, Quentin pulls away from her and drops to the floor, covering his face with his arms and starting to cry again. He hated this, he hated school, he never wanted to come here again!

 

The woman sighs and leaves him be, Quentin curls up on the rug and cries until he’s far beyond tired, and then cries a little more. After a few minutes, though, he gets up on shaking legs and walks over to the table he had sat at earlier. Julia and the other girl are there, they give him wary looks when he approaches. He pulls himself into his chair and Ms. Mary brings him a juice box and two graham crackers.

 

He doesn’t like the graham crackers, they’re too crunchy and loud, so he just drinks his juice. After that, it’s time to sit on a rug at the side of the room while Ms. Mary reads a story. Quentin sits in the far back, away from the other kids, too sensitive to be up for other kids brushing up against him and touching and making noises. Julia is nearby, but he doesn’t pay her any attention, he’s too busy trying to deal with how tired he is. He pulls up the hood on his jacket, and if he pulls at it just right, it blocks out some of the light and sound.

 

After the story, Ms. Mary has them return to their seats and go through a few things. They count to ten and discuss their ABC’S, and then it’s time for them to sing the alphabet song. Quentin likes to sing, in fact, he was perhaps the loudest singer when it came down to it. He doesn’t like the birthday song, especially when it’s sung to him, he doesn’t like the attention.

 

This is a little less overwhelming with all the attention on Ms. Mary. He doesn’t know how she does it, with so many eyes on her, Quentin hated to be stared at. He doesn’t really know the alphabet song, but he covers his ears while they sing, and they get through it.

 

He knows the letters in the alphabet, because if you put them together you make words, and he knew some words. His daddy and mommy read to him a lot and he liked to try and read along even if he wasn’t very good at it. But a song for the letters sounds silly, he doesn’t understand the reason for the order of the letters. But he is more occupied with blocking out the sound than he is worrying about the song when they sing it.

 

After that, Ms. Mary declares that it’s free play time until their parents come to get them. Quentin sits at the table, some scatter to play with toys in nearby bins, but a few stay in place to color and draw. Julia stays behind, and she keeps looking at him funny. Quentin is fed up with preschool, so he puts his head down on the table, pillowed on his arms to block out the light.

 

It doesn’t take long for the parents to arrive, which only serves to further agitate Quentin. He’s a few minutes away from absolutely losing it when his father shows up, notifying Quentin of his presence with a gentle hand on his back.

 

“Hey, Curly Q.” His daddy says, Quentin sits up and pushes himself into his father’s arms. Sometimes he liked cuddles, sometimes he didn’t, but right now he just wanted to be carried back to the car because he’s tired and grumpy.

 

“Are you Quentin’s daddy?” Julia questions, the man chuckles.

 

“Yes I am, who are you?” He asks in return.

 

“I’m Julia, Quentin’s my new friend. He’s having a bad day, I think he’s sick, you should take him home and put him to bed and give him lots of juice.” She informs him with a wag of a crayon at him, the man smiles.

 

“New friend, huh?” He pats Quentin’s back, going down on one knee and pulling Quentin to sit on the other one.

 

“He draws good dinosaurs, he even made a purple one cause I said so. I like fishies but I like anything purple too.” She explains, Ted smirks.

 

“Mr. Coldwater,” Quentin clings to his father’s neck as the man gets up, burying his face in the man’s shoulder and breathing in his familiar scent, trying to block out any other smells.

 

“How’d he do?” He asks gently, one hand under the boy’s bottom and rubbing Quentin’s back soothingly with the other.

 

“The first day is always the hardest, he wasn’t the only one that acted out. He just seems a little…” She hesitates, trying to decide her words.

 

“He likes to have his way.” Ted allows, the woman hums in agreement.

 

“It’s not unusual, he’s just a little immature for his age. He drew a very nice picture and played on the swings, he was quiet during story time as well.” She promises, Ted turns his head and kisses Quentin’s shoulder.

 

“That’s great, he loves stories.” He says with a nod.

 

“He’s been wearing the hood, is that something he does a lot?” She questions, Ted glances to look at Quentin, who indeed has the hood of his jacket still pulled over his head.

 

“Yeah, kind of a security blanket.” He explains, she nods.

 

“All right, well feel free to let him wear it if that helps. I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow, Quentin.” She says, Quentin’s fingers tighten in his father’s shirt and he hides his face more firmly against the man’s neck.

 

“Thanks,” Ted says, smiling good heartedly at the woman before slipping out of the room.

 

Ted carries Quentin back to the car, the boy fussing slightly as he’s put into his car seat. He keeps reaching for his father, squirming against his seatbelt and only settling when he’s given a hug and a few kisses. Carolyn tries to talk to Quentin, but it’s plainly obvious that he’s not going to give them the response they want.

 

“Feeling sick, sweetheart? Bad day?” Carolyn touches the boy’s knee, Quentin pulls on his hoodie and kicks his legs until she stops touching him.

 

“He’s tired, just don’t touch him.” Ted says as he climbs into the driver’s seat.

 

“What’d the teacher say?” Carolyn asks, turning around in her seat to face forward. Quentin tugs his hoodie down over his face and presses down on the fabric, knocking his heels against the bottom of the car seat.

 

“She said he kicked up a fuss a few times, but it wasn’t anything she couldn’t handle.” He says with a shrug, putting the car in reverse.

 

“Quentin, honey, stop that.” Carolyn sighs when Quentin doesn’t stop the kicking of his car seat. He in turn, decides to kick the back of her seat instead. “Quentin,” She turns around, grabbing his ankle and giving him a look. “Behave.” She insists, Quentin thrashes and lets out a loud shout.

 

“Curly Q, let’s listen to some tunes and we can go get McDonald’s.” Ted slips a CD into the stereo, one of his own favorites that Quentin seemed to like as well, classic rock that they could bob their heads to.

 

“Ted,” Carolyn says with a disapproving sigh, Ted waves her off. “This is why he’s like this.” She says to him quietly, Ted glances at Quentin in the rearview mirror. The boy was calming, fidgeting with his car seat harness and gazing out the window, his head thumping back against the headrest of his seat to the rhythm of the music.

 

“Curly Q, you want an ice cream cone or a sundae?” He questions, Quentin turns his head, not stopping his careful head bobbing. It was a little more like head smacking, but the head rest behind him was cushioned so Ted wasn’t worried.

 

“Sundae!” Quentin grins, Ted can’t help but smile.

 

-

 

Quentin screams and cries as he’s carried through the threshold of the classroom, he knows what to expect and he doesn’t want to go. The place is loud, bright, and smelly, and it is definitely not home. His mommy carries him under his arms through the door, and unfortunately for him, he’s no match for her even in his state of full-blown distress.

 

When she sets him down, he tries to bolt for the door like before, but she quickly lifts him up again. He screams, which causes her to put him down again, and this time he throws himself under the nearest table. His mommy crouches down and tries to pull him out, he leans just out of her reach and huddles into a ball.

 

“Quentin, this is ridiculous!” She hisses, Quentin sniffles and hides his face. “Mommy will come pick you up in a few hours.” She tells him, Quentin tugs on his hair and curls his toes in his shoes.

 

Quentin keeps his eyes squeezed shut and his fists clenched tight in his hair, shakily breathing against his knees. He didn’t like this, usually he was sitting at home watching TV or playing with his toys. He had a big teddy bear his grandpa got him for Christmas that he liked to snuggle with on the couch, he wishes he had it now.

 

“Are you sad?” He glances up, realizing that Julia had slipped under the table next to him while he was mid-panic. He hiccups and shakes his head, then follows it up with a long nod, he wasn’t sure. “Do you want to color?” She asks, he shakes his head again. “Can I stay down here with you?” She questions, he nods, he doesn’t mind her all that much.

 

They sit under the table while the other kids and their parents get in, Quentin finds himself calming down slightly. It’s darker under the table, which he likes, and things don’t seem as loud. Julia is sitting close to him, but not too close, watching everyone’s feet pass by. Ms. Mary comes by when everyone’s starting to settle down, leaning over to look under the table.

 

“Hi kiddos, everything okay?” She asks, Quentin sees a bug on the floor and watches it move across the fibers of the carpet.

 

“Quentin doesn’t know if he’s sad or not so we’re sitting under here until he wants to color.” Julia tells her matter-of-factly, which earns a smile from the teacher.

 

“What do you say, Quentin, do you want to come up here and color?” She questions, Quentin sniffs against congested sinuses and wipes messily at the still drying tears on his face. He feels yucky, and he likes to be under the table, he shakes his head.

 

“I’m gonna color, you come up when you’re ready, okay?” Julia says, shuffling back, Quentin hums under his breath and picks at his shoelaces. The girl gets up from under the table, Quentin watches her legs kick gently and her glittery shoes sparkle in the dim light.

 

After a few minutes of staring at the pretty shoes, he decides that maybe he might like to color too. Quentin slides out from under the table and takes a seat next to Julia, looking at her paper for a minute (more fishies, no doubt) and then picks up his own paper to color on.

 

-

 

Quentin still doesn’t like preschool, in fact he kicks and screams every day being dragged in. He can’t help it, he’d much rather be home and everything in that room always seemed to go south. He has officially become a problem in the class, but he didn’t care because Ms. Mary’s rules were stupid. His mommy and daddy never told him where to go and what to do all the time except sometimes when they went out to the store and he tried to run through the parking lot or he did something else he wasn’t supposed to do.

 

However, he found that there was no reason for him to listen to her because she was definitely not his mommy or daddy. Not to mention he didn’t hear her half the time anyway, he didn’t hear a lot of people when they talked to him and it made a lot of people mad. He couldn’t listen when so much was happening, someone tapping their feet or a chair squeaking, not to mention the bright colors all over everything. He couldn’t listen when he was at home either, but it wasn’t like anyone ever said anything he was interested in anyway.

 

He didn’t want to sit still, Ms. Mary didn’t like when he stood up out of his seat and wanted to play when they were learning. He couldn’t help it, the toys were right there, how was he expected not to play with them? He also often caused the class pause when he started banging his hands on the table, which he liked to do when he was sitting down. Ms. Mary didn’t like it though, which he didn’t understand. If he couldn’t stand and move, then of course he was going to do that instead.

 

He gets sent into time out more than once, which he doesn’t like, he spends time in the corner almost daily. Ms. Mary tries to talk to him, but her explanations often drone on and he loses interests, and she sometimes held him by the hands or touched his face because he either walked away from her or was too busy looking at something else or thinking about something else to pay attention to her.

 

Sometimes he listened, but when she touched his face all bets were off because he didn’t like that. He would throw himself down on the floor and cry until his mommy and daddy came to get him, so she was starting to learn better than that. He didn’t like when anyone touched his face, and he only liked his hair touched when it was being petted when he wanted.

 

School was just filled with people who did things that he didn’t like, people who made him do things he didn’t want to. He didn’t like it, end of story. One thing he did like, was that he was always guaranteed recess and then a snack, those were his favorite parts in the day. He didn’t like the transition between them, because usually he wanted to play for longer.

 

But today is a good day, he’s happy and okay when they come inside because he’s hungry for his snack. When he steps inside the room, there’s a strange man present where he hadn’t been before. He’s sitting in a chair near Ms. Mary’s desk, a clipboard in his hands and a small smile on his face as he waves at the kids as they enter. He waves at Quentin, who quickly rushes over to his table and sits down, pulling his hood up.

 

“Ms. Mary, who’s that?” One of the children boldly asks as the last few kids come inside, Ms. Mary walks over to the desk and gestures to the man, who stands.

 

“I’m sure our mystery guest would love to tell you,” She urges, the man steeples his hands in front of him and smiles again.

 

“My name is Bradley Wilson, I am twenty-three years old, which is extremely old.” That earns a few laughs, Quentin’s mouth hangs open as he focuses in on Bradley’s bow tie, which is a pale green and definitely has dogs on it. “I am here to learn from this class and learn how to be a teacher!” He explains.

 

“That’s right, Mr. Bradley will be helping me around the classroom! Anyone have any questions for him?” She asks, a few hands raise.

 

“Your tie!” Quentin points at the man, who reaches up a hand to brush his fingers against the bowtie.

 

“Quentin, we raise our hands to speak.” Another common discussion between himself and Ms. Mary, it makes no sense to raise your hand just to talk.

 

“It has doggies!” Quentin continues without listening, Bradley smiles.

 

“Yeah it does, thank you for noticing.” He says with a small nod, Quentin looks down at the table, losing interest in the conversation. He was thinking about the dog that lived across the street, he always barked really loudly, but his cousins had a dog that was very nice named Sweetie.

 

-

 

Quentin comes in the next day as usual, slung over his daddy’s shoulder and wailing loudly as he’s carried into the classroom. He’s the only one who still does this, the other kids look at him funny a lot, Julia has tried to ask him about it, but he ignores her until she changes the subject.

 

His daddy drops him down onto the floor carefully, Quentin immediately throwing himself forward into the man’s leg. He holds as tight as he can, doesn’t want to be left here, he wants to go home. His daddy grabs him and pries him away, standing him up and holding him under the arms so he doesn’t collapse on the floor again. Quentin’s knees are bowed, his body slack in his daddy’s grip, but the man refuses to let him hit the ground.

 

“Curly Q, you know the drill.” He says, Quentin shakes his head and grabs at his daddy’s sleeves. “I’ll be back, I’m always back, aren’t I?” He questions, Quentin doesn’t quite understand the question, so he just stomps his feet and sobs.

 

“Quentin, come color!” Julia says from her seat, his daddy lets go of him and Quentin tries to follow after him.

 

“Quentin,” Ms. Mary appears, stopping him short. “Come on, buddy.” She holds her hand out for him, he smacks it away and runs to the table he always sits at with Julia. He crawls underneath the table, shuffling over near Julia’s legs and leaning against one. She reaches clumsily under the table and pets his head, it’s brief so he doesn’t mind.

 

Quentin squeezes his arms tight around his knees, digging his fingers into his biceps as hard as possible until he doesn’t feel so scared anymore. It takes him a bit to stop crying, tears damp on his face and his nose running. Julia keeps twitching so eventually he gets fed up with leaning on her, and crawls to the edge of the table to peer out from underneath it. He spots Bradley sitting next to Ms. Mary, the two of them talking quietly. Bradley spots him and waves, smiling at him, Quentin shuffles back out of sight.

 

He decides to busy himself with picking at the scratchy carpet fibers, finds a goldfish cracker from the day before and eats it. Quentin likes it under the table, it’s dark and quiet, but he also gets bored very quickly. After a while, he gets out from under the table to draw. He sits next to Julia and points out that one of her fishies needs a fin on top, which she thanks him for noticing.

 

Quentin draws for a bit, but his hands are too excited for it. He liked to move to cheer himself up, to make noise and move until he felt better. He starts to tap on the table, soft at first for fear of getting in trouble, but it’s not hard enough to calm his hands down. Julia smiles at him, giggling quietly as he starts to bang his hands on the table top louder, which makes him smile in return. The girl across the table, whose name he learned over time is Marcie, hides a smile behind her hand.

 

“Quentin,” Ms. Mary chides, Quentin bounces his legs underneath the table, banging his knees up against the underside of the table. “Quentin.”

 

“Hey buddy,” Quentin tenses up when Bradley crouches next to him, banging his hands a little more stiffly. “Hey,” He splays out his arm across the table when Quentin lifts his own, the boy scowls and shakes his hands out in frustration before pressing his palms against one another and rubbing them together.

 

“No!” He forces his legs up into the underside of the table hard, the entire thing shuddering at the impact and causing everyone to look at him. “No thank you,” He shakes his head, lets out a heavy sigh and grits his teeth as he squeezes his fingers into fists and rubs the ridge of his knuckles together. Julia had taught him to be polite, and that was what she said when she didn’t want something. He didn’t want Bradley’s hand on the table, he wanted to bang his hands.

 

“Quentin, if you’re going to do that, you’re going into time out.” Ms. Mary warns as she approaches, Quentin shakes his head and rubs his palms together again. Bradley moves his arm and Quentin’s fists immediately drive into the tabletop. “Okay, Quentin, time out.” Ms. Mary tells him easily, Quentin stomps his feet in frustration.

 

When he doesn’t move from his seat, Ms. Mary takes him by the arm and leads him over to the time out chair across the room. He pulls at her grip, stomps and whines as he’s tugged into the seat. He huffs as he sits, grabbing the seat of the chair and leaning hard into the back of the seat as he tries to push his feet down against the floor but is irritated when they don’t reach that far.

 

“Quentin, you’re sitting here because I told you not to hit the table like that. You’ll stay here for four minutes.” Ms. Mary tells him, like always, Quentin scowls at his lap and crosses his arms. He didn’t like time out, he couldn’t draw or play, just sit in a stupid chair.

 

He spends his time out rubbing his hands together, clapping (although not too much because Ms. Mary warns him to be quiet or she’ll add more time to his time out), and stretching his legs out as far as they can go to entertain himself. On the bright side, since he can’t touch the floor easy, he finds that swinging his legs is a good substitute for stomping. It doesn’t have the same feeling, but it feels okay so he decides that it’ll do.

 

Quentin sits through his time out, and when he’s allowed to rejoin the others, there isn’t a lot of time until recess. He doesn’t want to go to recess yet, though, so he stands on the other side of the room away from the door while the others head outside. Ms. Mary’s coaxing attempts fall flat, Quentin closes his eyes and covers his ears until she goes away, which she does. When he eventually opens his eyes again, Ms. Mary has gone outside with the others, leaving only himself and Bradley.

 

Bradley is sitting at one of the tables near the back, using a pencil to scribble on a paper. Quentin’s interest is piqued, so he slowly makes his way over. He skirts along the wall, watching Bradley carefully, moving until he’s at the wall behind the man. He walks over, peering over Bradley’s shoulder and finding him sketching what looks to be a puppy dog.

 

“Doggy!” He says with a gasp, Bradley turns his head and smiles.

 

“Come sit, you want to draw with me?” He asks, Quentin leans against the edge of the table and rests his head on one of his arms. He taps on Bradley’s arm until the man gets the hint and starts to draw again. Quentin watches him for a bit and finds that the sound of a pencil on paper is much nicer than a crayon.

 

“Quentin, Ms. Mary tells me you have a lot of problems at school. Do you like school?” He asks, Quentin thinks for a second, that was a complicated question. “Do you like school, Quentin?” He repeats after a moment of quiet, Quentin shakes his head.

 

“You like to make noise, though, huh?” He asks, pausing in his drawing. “I know school is really loud sometimes, so you gotta make your own noise.” He says quietly, Quentin hums and reaches out to grab the other end of the table, trying to pull himself up onto it fully. “Off the table, please.” He tells Quentin, who huffs but lets go, sliding back down so his feet touch the floor. “Thank you, good job.” He starts to draw again.

 

Quentin turns his eyes to the door, where he can hear the kids playing outside, he wondered if anyone was on the swings. He walks around the table and heads towards the door, can hear Bradley standing up to follow him.

 

“You want to go outside, bud?” He asks, Quentin reaches for the doorknob. “Okay, we’ll go outside.” He helps Quentin open the door and pushes it open for him, Quentin steps outside and heads towards the swings.

 

-

 

Quentin spends story time between Bradley and Julia, he had been a little wary of Bradley at first, but he was pretty nice. He had pushed Quentin on the swings and he didn’t ask too many questions, which was good, he made for good company.

 

After story time, Quentin’s daddy comes to pick him up. He practically leaps into the man’s arms, having had a decent day. He cuddles against his daddy’s shoulder while he talks to Ms. Mary about only having one time out that day, and then Bradley asks if he might stay behind a few minutes until everyone is gone to talk in private. Quentin isn’t too happy about being put down, but he goes and says goodbye to Julia and watches as the classroom gets quiet.

 

The classroom is almost silent after everyone has gone, which is nice, but he doesn’t like that Ms. Mary and Bradley want to talk to his daddy. He didn’t want his daddy to yell at him or not get him ice cream like he had promised that morning. He anxiously smacks his palms to the table top where he’s sitting, he’s supposed to be playing while his teachers talked to his daddy, but he was nervous.

 

“Quentin, stop please.” His father says from across the room, Quentin huffs and sticks his hands under his thighs, stomping his feet. “Quentin,” His father says, pleadingly, Quentin scowls and slams his hands on the table in retaliation.

 

“Mr. Coldwater,” Ms. Mary earns the man’s attention back, speaking softly.

 

Quentin slides out of his chair and walks over to the toy bins, shifting through some of the things while the adults talk far too quietly for him to hear. He picks out a robot, remembering the movie he and his father watched a few days before. He wanders over to the desk, holding up the toy as he approaches.

 

“Daddy, like that movie!” He says, earning his father’s attention, the man scoops him up into his lap.

 

“Yeah, honey, I remember.” He places his cheek on top of Quentin’s head, squeezing him to his chest.

 

“Ice cream now?” Quentin mutters, shifting in his father’s hold.

 

“Yeah, sure son.” He turns Quentin around as he stands up, propping the boy on his hip. “Thank you,” He shakes the hand of Ms. Mary and Bradley, both of which smile and wave at him as they leave.

 

He doesn’t say anything as they leave, and Quentin doesn’t seem to be in trouble, so he guesses it was just grown up talk. His daddy is a little quiet on the way home though, Quentin only gets to listen to music at a low volume. He hoped his daddy wasn’t sad, and he made sure to give him a nice big hug before he got out of the car, which seemed to cheer him up.

 

-

 

The words kept swimming around in his head, a constant repetitive nagging that wouldn’t leave Ted alone. He couldn’t believe it, but the second he really started to think about it, it sort of made sense. Quentin’s assistant teacher had seen it, knew about it first hand and had almost immediately spotted it. All Ted could think was why hadn’t he noticed something was really wrong sooner, why hadn’t he let the feeling in his gut take him to get some help before?

 

Autism.

 

It wasn’t a sure thing, maybe Quentin was just a little strange, but something told him that wasn’t the case. He immediately knows that he won’t be able to sleep well until he gets Quentin tested, until he knows if he is or isn’t. But on the other hand, it’s almost like a relief, and Ted feels guilty on that end.

 

The feeling of it’s not my fault, is like an exhale, one he hadn’t known he’d been holding in. Everyone knew Quentin was odd, he was picky and finicky, not to mention hard to communicate with on most occasions. He could say what he wanted sometimes, but other times he’d just cry and throw a fit and nothing he wanted at that point would make him stop crying anyway so they were stuck in an endless loop of not knowing what to do.

 

When he tells Carolyn that evening, she looks like she’s been shot. They argue about it for a while, Carolyn tries to deny it, but it’s weak and they both know they’re at their wits end when it comes to their son. They love him, but there’s only so much you can do before things are at a standstill. They needed a direction to turn in, a place to start, and an evaluation might help. It only takes a few hours to convince her, and then they’re promising to set up an appointment to have him tested.

 

The next morning, Ted sits with Quentin as the boy eats dry cereal at the coffee table and watches a documentary on tree frogs. The way the boy bangs his hands on the table makes him flinch now, in a way it hadn’t before. Not because it was anything new or bad, but because the signs were right there all along, he just couldn’t see it.

 

Quentin climbs up into his lap, his long hair messy from sleep and from touching it so much. He leans into Ted, resting his head on his father’s shoulder and mumbling something about tree frogs being very green. When Carolyn steps into the room, Quentin reaches for her until she joins them. He crawls over into her lap, Ted grimacing slightly at the shift of bony knees and elbows.

 

“I love you, bubba.” Carolyn tells him, Quentin hums, smiling softly as he stares at the screen.

 

“Love you, mama.” He pats the arm around his waist, and his face screws up in mild disgust when the woman kisses his cheek. “Ick-ick.” He wipes at his face with his sleeve, Carolyn laughs and Ted grins. Ted reaches over and takes Carolyn’s hand, squeezing it gently, they lock eyes.

 

“I love you,” She says softly, he nods his head and leans in to give her a kiss.

 

“Ick-ick.” He mumbles, she snorts and shoves at his shoulder.