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Understandable

by Meg Evans

The characters and events in this short story are entirely fictional.

Sometimes drawing a picture makes things more understandable.

When Kelsey was younger she’d carried big spiral notebooks everywhere with her, sketching obsessively. Then her therapist, Dr. Caldwell, had told her that now she was in junior high and growing up, she should instead carry a purse with a small notepad inside. That would make her look more like the other girls, and she would be more popular.

So now Kelsey used the big spiral notebooks only for studying, where her sketches helped her to remember such things as a butterfly’s life cycle and how volcanoes formed. Everything that wasn’t part of her schoolwork went into the little notepads instead. That had worked out all right. Dr. Caldwell was a nice therapist; last week she had given Kelsey a bottle of red nail polish. Two girls in the neighborhood had said how pretty it looked.

Today the small notepad sat open on the corner of Kelsey’s desk in her bedroom, next to the computer that showed her mom’s Facebook page. She had looked at the page to see if her mom had posted anything about the church picnic and the yummy chocolate-chip cookies Kelsey and her sister had baked for it. But instead, Kelsey had found a post about an awful news story, a murder-suicide where a woman had shot her daughter and then herself.

“Such a tragedy,” Kelsey’s mom had written, “but understandable how this happened, when it’s so hard to get services. That poor woman, it was too hard for her, coping every day with her daughter’s behaviors. Who’s to say what anyone would do in her situation, with a child like that.”

After reading the post three times, Kelsey still had no idea what most of it was about. The first paragraph said the murdered child was autistic, but Kelsey was too, so that couldn’t have been what her mom meant by writing “a child like that.” It had to mean something different. Kelsey’s parents had always told her that she was just as good as the other kids, even if she had to work harder to do some of the things other kids did.

Putting her pencil to the notepad, Kelsey drew a square, which was always how she began her sketches. Then she added flaps at the top and put shadows around them to make the square look like a cardboard box, filled with whatever she was trying to understand. Kelsey drew a girl’s head peeking out of the box, and then she wrote words inside the square: Like That. Too hard to cope with. Something different. Not Like Me.

But the girl in the sketch didn’t look different—she just looked like a girl. Kelsey frowned, chewing on her pencil, and then wrote another word at the bottom of the square: Behaviors. That could mean when you got angry and acted up, or when you did something that made people think you were weird. Jabbing her pencil at the paper several times, Kelsey drew a cloud of dots around the girl’s head; those were angry behaviors flying around like wasps when someone got too close to the nest. There, now she looked different.

The square didn’t have enough room for the last word Kelsey couldn’t make sense of, which was Services. Drawing another little box to the right of the square fixed that, adding more space to write and turning the square into a rectangle. She wrote Services inside the right-hand box. That word meant therapy and stuff like that, didn’t it? What was hard about it? Maybe Services meant the dead girl hadn’t had anyone like Dr. Caldwell to tell her what she was supposed to do. Maybe she wouldn’t have been murdered if she’d had a nice therapist to show her how to use nail polish and look more like the other girls.

Kelsey drew a hand reaching out of the box. Then she got her nail polish bottle and decorated the hand with it, carefully putting a little red drop on each fingertip of the sketch. No, that had been a bad idea. Now she couldn’t draw anything more while the nail polish was wet, or it would smear. And it made the sketch look creepy, like a bloody zombie hand reaching out of a coffin. Ick.

When she realized that she had started chewing on her pencil again, Kelsey put it down on the desk. Chewing pencils was a bad habit, a behavior. And if she had behaviors, then her mom might feel she was too hard to cope with. Too different. Like That.

Tearing the page out of her notepad, Kelsey wadded it up and threw it in the wastebasket, where she wouldn’t have to think about it again. But the angry dots she’d drawn still seemed like they were swarming around, like they’d gotten inside her own head. Who’s to say, they buzzed at her. Who’s to say what anyone would do?

The notepad still lay open on the desk, with jagged bits of paper in the middle where the torn page hadn’t come out evenly. Kelsey slammed the notepad shut and dropped it back into her purse, along with the pencil. Sometimes drawing a picture didn’t make things look any better.

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