Meet Joey, a boy with Autism who has a secret
One Most Important Thing Book Cover

Book status: Querying agents
Length: 72,000 words

The Fire—Day 0

That night, I’m sleeping over at Winkle’s trailer because Mom is puke-sick from chemo. We’re talking about Betsy Arnold’s training bra. A dust devil had lifted her blouse and there was nothing to train. Then an explosion tosses us from our bunks. We jump into gym shorts and sandals. Mobile homes burn fast, and Rural Fire Department takes forever. RFD drives a small firetruck that’s yellow instead of a long, red truck. I like yellow vehicles. They’re good omens.

“Charly, call RFD,” Winkle yells to his mother. We call her Charly even though it’s a guy’s name, but she isn’t. Once, I read a book called Flowers for Algernon where a boy, Charly, wasn’t very smart. Winkle’s mom is plenty smart and works at the missile plant with Mom and Uncle Timmy.

When I open the door, a blood orange glow silhouettes the Watkins’s mobile home. The fire is at the next trailer beyond. “It’s Bud’s!”

Winkle tightens a garden hose to the spigot and orders, “Joey, screw two hoses together.”

Nozzle on and water flowing, we run through the Watkins’s yard. Bud’s Airstream blazes from the back, but I spray the propane tank on the trailer’s tongue. If it explodes, the block blows to smithereens.

Winkle dives through my water. He closes the valve, crescent-wrenches the hose, and drags away the tank. Back at my side, he shakes off water like a wet puppy. “Bet Bud’s inside. Let’s go!”

I run to the trailer’s door and spray the knob. “Locked.”

Winkle bashes the window with the wrench. Yellow-orange flames flick out like snake tongues. A plume of black pours like a chimney. I spray through it. Winkle reaches in and opens the door.

I rush toward Bud’s bedroom. Heat pounds like a pizza oven, and my sweat pours. The fire hisses and cackles like a wicked witch, teasing me closer. Then it cheats. Pop! Pop! Pop! Popcorn popping. Something stings my leg. I falter, stagger, and drop the hose. I tumble toward the fire, watching the hose slither like an escaping snake.

Someone catches me. I hate being touched, but I hurt too much to fight. It’s Stud, a buddy from my Desert Rat platoon. He wrestles and plays football, so catching me isn’t a problem. He carries me to Mr. and Mrs. Watkins’s trailer.

She says, “On the table.” My shorts are bloody and turning a deep purple. In seconds, blood stains the tablecloth. I groat — that’s a sound I make when I’m losing control. It’s like a train horn and buzz saw. I made up the word groat to describe it, so don’t look it up in a dictionary. Won’t help and I do a lot of groating.

Mrs. Watkins slides my shorts up my thigh. Winkle and Stud gawk. I catch a glimpse. My thigh has a ragged hole. Blood streams out like from a super soaker. It throbs like hell. I imagine I’m a turtle and hide in my shell. I call it turtling. I have this super power—what I imagine comes true. So, I’m a turtle and I imagine it whenever I’m overstressed.

“Couple of inches higher and you’d be a girl,” Winkle says. Scary thought. Winkle knows how to handle my turtling. He sings—it’s not the first time. “Slow down, Joey. Slow down, Joey. Slow down, Joey. You’ll be just fine.”

Mrs. Watkins presses a towel over the hole. Is it a clean towel? I imagine towel germs diving into my wound like Olympic champions. And my super power makes it real. “Staphylococcus goes for a reverse three-and-a-half with a half twist,” the announcer calls.

A siren pulls my gaze to a window. Bud runs from the Airstream. He’s a rolling ball of flame, waving his blazing arms like a TV stunt guy. Death embraces him in an orange-gold blanket with fringe trailing behind. The first fireman off the truck sprays Bud, extinguishing the flames and leaving him smoldering in a heap. Paramedics surround him.

One comes for me with a syringe. I hate needles, but I can’t fight or protest, so it jabs my arm. I imagine it’s full of stiff tequila shots. It mellows me and keeps me from going completely turtle. Booms shake me. “What’s that?”

“Paint cans explodin’ in the sky from Bud’s shed,” Scotty, our Desert Rat leader, says. The fire reflects from his red hair and paints between his freckles as he stands in the Watkins’s door. “Cool fireworks show.”

Medics bandage my leg and slide me onto a gurney. “You took a bullet. It’s still in there. Ammunition must have gone off.”

“Didn’t know Bud had a gun,” I say.

“Me, neither,” Scotty says.

“Never seen him with one,” Winkle concurs.

Outside, firetruck lights paint an eerie glow. Bud’s trailer looks like an oil derrick after the big blowout. An island in a lake of wet rubble. An acrid smell burns my nostrils, so I hold my breath.

I roll past Bud’s gurney. His body has melted and splotched — deep black, like coal, and gray-white, like ashes. I remember Emily Dickinson’s poem #113: ‘Respect the grayest pile for the departed creature’s sake.’

Rufus, the Pima Indian in the Desert Rats, stares at Bud. “That bastard got his just bezerts.”

Winkle laughs. “Joey, check out his wiener. Bet it was a hot dog.”

I can’t laugh because Bud and his charred dick are a ghastly sight. Beaucoup disturbing. Horror movie nightmare things. Winkle’s douchebag joke is troubling. Shouldn’t we be sad? We saw Bud die. He was a friend, wasn’t he? When they toss a sheet over Bud, I’m relieved.

My platoon lines up beside the ambulance as the medics slide me inside. The Desert Rats are all there, except Bobby. Their lips press tight. I take it as a look of concern, but I’m not good at reading faces. I learned to read faces when I was small using flash cards like these:

Bud’s gurney slides in beside me. The thought of a dead body beside me scares me out of turtling. I curl into a ball and face away, but my imagination conjures a maggot marching band putting on a half-time show on my thigh, countermarching to Queen’s We Are the Champions. Scotty’s red head nods in time to the band. The skin on my face and torso burns. My wound hurts like a motherfucker.

I need to go to my comfort place. I image my hermit cave where nobody and nothing can touch me. I can roll a stone over the entrance, just like Jesus’s tomb. It’s like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude only mine is inside me not far away at the North Pole.

A medic says, “Hang O-neg. It’s near the femoral artery.”

What’s near my fucking artery?

Dirty-towel germs swim the back stroke in my veins. Maggot buglers blow Charge! as they invade my fresh meat.

I can’t make it to my hermit cave. Dead bodies and flames fade to black, like the end of a movie. And I’m gone.

The Desert Rats—67 Days before the fire

I first spot the pack of six boys when Mom and I drive the God-awful Arizona desert in her yellow Toyota Camry. They toss a football beside the highway on the corner of Uncle Timmy’s trailer park. It’s the day after Memorial Day. Everything looks brown and gray and the sun is twice as big and three-times as blazing as it was back home.

Home is a farm in one of those fly-over states. Money ran out. Mom couldn’t take care of me and her store. So, we sell everything except the precious stuff we put in the Camry’s trunk and move deep into Hell, otherwise known as the desert east of Mesa, to live with Uncle Timmy in his trailer. Uncle Timmy is Mom’s baby brother, but he isn’t a baby anymore. He’s twenty-seven and works at the missile plant. He got Mom a job there.

“Joey, why don’t you go meet the boys?” Mom says. She doesn’t frame it as a question.

I’ve never had a Real friend. I have a fairy godmother named Pee, but she doesn’t count as Real. “Always ends the same.”

In math, some equations have several solutions. A solution set is every solution, put together, within curly braces. The equation of Joey and a pack of boys looks like this:

Joey+Pack of boys={merciless teasing,abject humiliation,horrible beating}

For fourteen years, the equation has proven true.

“You’ll never make friends if you don’t put yourself out there,” Mom says. “I’ve got the unpacking. You do the friend making.”

I ask Pee, my fairy godmother, to make me invisible. Protected by her cloak of invisibility, I sneak to the corner and hide behind a trellis of green leaves and pink flowers to peer at those boys. They huddle in the scraggly shade of a stunted tree with thorns instead of leaves. I hear every word. Spying on them is beaucoup dangerous.

A tall, skinny boy in Converse shoes uses a huge switchblade to whittle points on sticks. He has a ruddy, Indian complexion, raven-colored Mohawk, and crooked teeth between the triangle of high cheekbones and a pointed chin.

A red-headed boy with freckles thicker than a bag of Red Hots cocks the football. “Kipper, go long!”

The boy who takes off running has hair the color of coal, a Mexican-brown face with a mustache, and rattlesnake cowboy boots. He runs twenty yards down the highway, curls in front of a blue Hyundai, and catches the pass as the car horn honks.

“Touchdown!” Red Hots calls, raising his arms like a referee. The sole on one of his Keds is flapping.

“Kipper, I wish I had your mustache,” the whittling boy says as he starts a new stick.

“Rufus, you’re old enough to grow one usted mismo,” Kipper says.

“Us Indians can’t grow hair,” Rufus answers.

Red Hots drops the football in the lap of a crewcut boy with muscles like tree trunks and steel-toed Army brogans.

“Damn, Scotty!” Crewcut complains. “You just wracked my balls.”

Scotty laughs. “Hey, Stud, did you see Misty Brewer’s bikini?”

Kipper, the Mexican, shrugs off his shirt. His chest has the pelt of a black bear. “Rufus, with the mustache you get legs like a cabrío and a front like an oso negro.”

Stud tosses the football toward a short boy with light brown hair, blue eyes, and socks with sandals. “Sure did, Scotty. It was like three napkins tied at the corners.”

“You can’t say Negro,” a black boy complains. “It’s not politically correct.” He wears brown Sperry Top Siders, Khaki Dockers shorts, and a button-down blue pinstripe shirt. Dumbo ears blossom from his afro. He’s the first Real black person I’ve seen, not counting TV.

The football plasters the blue-eyed boy in the face. “Damn it, Stud, I wasn’t ready.”

“At least you didn’t get plowed in the balls, Winkle,” Stud says.

“Rufus,” the black boy says, “What are the sticks for?”

“I tried an underwater swim-by to see if I could untie Misty’s napkins.” Winkle, the blue-eyed boy, plucks at the air to show his untying technique.

Freckle-faced Scotty laughs. “Winkle, if you’d untied it, you wouldn’t understand what you saw.”

“I’ve got urges, too.” Winkle says.

“Javelina hunting,” Rufus says, “like the boys in Lord of the Flies.”

The black boy shakes his head. “No Javelinas near here.”

“We can pretend,” Stud, the muscle boy, says.

“Or we could hunt you, Bobby,” Rufus says. “You’d make a good wild pig.”

“Rufus, you should use your switchblade to shave Kipper,” Bobby suggests. “His hairy chest is disgusting.”

“Algún día, you’ll have hair, too, Bobby,” Kipper says.

“I’m in puberty now.” Bobby holds up two fingers. “New pubes popped up this morning.”

“Drawing on yourself with a Sharpie again?” Winkle laughs and the others join, except Bobby.

Stud jeers. “You’re still soprano.”

“These are pubes,” Scotty says, lowering the front of his shorts.

“Mine aren’t red,” Bobby says. “Looks like you spilled Big Red on yourself.”

“Let’s get back to talking about Misty Brewer,” Scotty proposes.

“Bobby, we’ve seen you naked,” Winkle says. “You’re just like me. Hairless with an inch-long frank and two beans.”

The boys laugh. I do, too, from my hiding place.

“I’m lots longer than an inch,” Bobby insists.

Scotty chuckles. “Misty Brewer would need a magnifyin’ glass to see it.”

“A microscope,” Stud says.

Winkle points. “See the waistband of Bobby’s underwear? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Underoos!”

“Bobby, boys with big cocks don’t wear cartoon underwear,” Stud teases.

“Eew!” Bobby shrieks. “Cock is a nasty word.”

“Remember el año pasado when he called it a pee-pee?” Kipper asks.

“Will your mother ever let you grow up?” Scotty asks.

“So, what? Winkle wears lavender briefs.” Bobby accuses.

“They’re my signature.” Lowering his basketball shorts, Winkle reveals lavender briefs. “Alright, Bobby, if you’ve got more than an inch, it’s time to prove it. I dare you!”

“Well, I double dare you!” Bobby spits.

“Shit, Bobby,” Kipper says, “Why are you such a bebé?”

“It’s a dare. You know the rules. Can’t welch now.” Scotty says.

“Cars are coming,” Bobby complains. “People looking from windows.”

“I’m not chicken,” Winkle says. “Where?”

“Over by the bougainvillea,” Bobby says, “so my mom won’t catch me.”

The boys come my way. In a few seconds, I’ll be nose to nether regions. “Pee, keep me invisible,” I whisper. Spying is bad enough, but being a Peeping Tom is likely to be beaucoup fatal.

“Wait.” Scotty says. “Someone’s watchin’ from the bougainvillea.”

Busted. Invisibility cloak malfunction. “Pee, you let me down!”

She giggles. “Time to elope.”

I calculate escape routes while my heart beats faster than a snare drum. The gang runs toward one end of the trellis. I choose the other, which leads to an alley. A right turn will take me across the highway to the open desert where I’ll find somewhere to hide in its vastness.

I’m fast because I like to run. When they corner the bougainvillea, I’m close to the turn. My escape makes me giddy. I’ll be in the desert in a flash. They’ll never find me. I smell freedom… until my breath leaves my body. Something tackles me to the ground. I’m in a schoolboy pin, knees holding down my arms, a body crushing the wind out of me. It’s Stud, the muscle-bound boy, who got me. Sticks with sharpened points surround me.

“Looks like we got a javelina,” Scotty calls.

“What should we do with it?” Stud asks.

The switchblade passes before my eyes. “I can gut him like a catfish,” Rufus suggests.

My eyes bug out. I imagine my guts sliming the desert sands. Then, I reach to hold them in if my super power made it real. A groat spews from my mouth.

“Too scrawny for good eating,” Winkle says.

“Cut off his wiener,” Bobby suggests.

My groat blossoms into a scream. I contemplate all the things I could lose: guts, dick, life.

Scotty hovers over me. “You must be Joey. Your uncle told my dad you’d be movin’ in.”

“I-I’m J-J-Joey,” I stammer.

“Come on, Scotty,” Bobby says. “At least, tell Stud to pants him.”

“No, Stud,” Scotts says. “Let him up.”

Stud releases his pressure and stands. He offers me his hand.

Handshakes are part of the Guy Code. I shake it. It lifts me to my feet.

“I’m Stud. Going into 9th grade.”

“Me, too,” I say.

Scotty offers his hand. I notice dirt beneath his fingernails. He hasn’t washed in a month. Touching that revolting hand re-launches my groat.

He grabs my hand and shakes it. An electric shock shoots up my arm, choking the groat. “Don’t be a pussy. It’s just a capacitor.” He reveals the electric gizmo in his palm. “I’m a sophomore and good at electronics.”

Stud laughs. “We only keep Scotty around because he fixes our walkie-talkies.”

“Eat shit,” Scotty says. “I’m Lieutenant of the Desert Rats. This is Rufus. He’s also a sophomore and a Pima Indian. He escaped the reservation and lives with Mormon missionaries.”

“Save the switchblade for catfish,” I say. “I’d like to keep my guts and nuts.”

“I’m Winkle and going into 8th grade. That’s Bobby, the juvenile with cartoon underwear.”

I nod. “I saw.”

“Rufus’s fosters smoke and drink,” Bobby says to deflect attention. “Ever heard of a Mormon who does?”

“I’ve never heard of a Mormon,” I admit.

“They’re called Jack Mormons,” Scotty says.

Bobby scoffs.

Note to self: Research Blacks, Mormons, and Jack ones. I research things to learn about them. Google will be busy.

“Joey, you get a free punch on Stud for Evens,” Scotty says.

I’m clueless.

“I pounded you hard,” Stud admits. “Didn’t have to. Punch my arm and make it Evens.”

“That’s OK,” I say. I don’t want to rile him.

“Punch me.”

Since he insists, I slug his bicep.

“Do it harder. Don’t worry, I can take it. I play football and wrestle.”

I punch his shoulder with all my might.

“Dude, that’s good Evens.” Stud smiles, and Scotty seems satisfied.

I look at Winkle. “Lavender underwear?”

Winkle shrugs. “My mother tie-dyed my brother’s play costume and washed my underwear in the next load. They turned periwinkle. It’s how I got my nickname.”

“All of us got nicknames,” Rufus explains.

Bobby says, “Rufus rhymes with doofus.”

“I’m not good in school.” Rufus shrugs.

“But he’s smart in other ways,” Winkle says. “He’s trick with cars and motorcycles. He keeps our wheels going.”

“Hola, I’m Kipper, 9th grade. I’m from Guadalajara in Jalisco, Mexico.”

I shake Kipper’s hand. “You speak Spanish, right?”

He nods. “I put a few Spanish words in sentences. When Spanish becomes Arizona’s official language, I’ll have the Gringos prepared.”

“I’ll take Spanish in the fall. Might need help.” I hint.

“I’m your hombre,” Kipper says.

“How did you get that nickname?” I ask.

“Yo como sardines.”

“Sardines aren’t kippers. Kippers are herrings.”

“Tell these chicos. They gave me the nombre.”

“Scotty’s a nickname, too?” I ask.

The red mop of hair bobs. “I wore my sister’s plaid skirt for Halloween. It was a kilt. I went commando like a real Scot.”

“Isn’t Bobby short for Robert?” I ask.

“If you knew my real name,” Bobby says, “I’d have Rufus kill you!”

“Whoa,” Rufus says. “I don’t kill. I scalp.”

Stud winks. “Bobby’s momma is one of those holier-than-thou teetotalers. That’s why he’s fascinated with wieners and Jack Mormons. She thinks we’re all going to hell.”

“She’s totally right,” Winkle says.

Kipper laughs. “Bobby’s mama has muy grande tits.”

“Like 52 triple D.” Stud illustrates with fists beneath his t-shirt. “Bobby is a take-off on Booby.”

“Call me Booby and I’ll kill you.” Bobby brandishes his afro pick.

Stud peels off his shirt. He’s built — muscles on muscles.

“Stud’s nickname is obvious,” Winkle says. “Like a model from Men’s Fitness.”

Scotty says, “If you’re livin’ in the ’hood, might as well join our gang, the Desert Rats.”

Astonished, I say. “You won’t beat me up or cut off my dick?” I realize I don’t need a groat. Not being invisible is cool.

“Where did you get the name Desert Rats?” I ask.

Winkle answers. “Old TV show called Rat Patrol about an American jeep crew in the North Africa desert during World War II. Scotty’s dad has a box set of the series on DVD. You must watch it. We’ve seen it a gazillion times. We keep our desert free from pesky Germans.

“So, I’m part of the Desert Rats?” I ask in disbelief.

“Well,” Scotty says, “you have to pass initiation and get a nickname.”

“I’m Joey, like a baby kangaroo,” I say.

“Is that why you’re bouncing?” Rufus asks.

“I’d nickname you Tigger,” Winkle says. “Squeak, my little bro, likes Winnie the Pooh.”

I stare at Winkle. “Joey, like a baby kangaroo.”

“Fair enough,” Rufus says.

“Es Joey,” Kipper says, finishing the discussion.

“Joey, got wheels?” Scotty asks.

“What?”

“A motorcycle or dirt bike?” Stud asks. “Every Desert Rat has wheels except Bobby. I have a VW Beetle and Rufus torched the top off it.”

“Rufus rides a minibike,” Scotty says. “Looks like a scarecrow flying on a banana seat.”

“Old tote gote for me,” Winkle says. “Scotty has a smoking Yamaha, and Kipper rides his dad’s Harley chopper.”

“I… I… I’m too young to drive.” I stutter.

“We’re too young, except Rufus,” Scotty says. “In the desert, you don’t need a license.”

“Want a ride?” Stud offers.

When I nod, the boys disappear to their trailers. Kipper beckons me toward his carport. I climb on the Harley chopper behind him, and he clasps my hands around his waist like buckling a seat belt.

The Harley is loud, but a cacophony of other engines over power it. The chopped-off Beetle, tote gote, minibike, and Yamaha roll across the highway. We follow into the desert. It is full of trails. The Desert Rats have been all over it.

Our speed brings exhilaration. The wind is hot, but it dries my sweat. Cactus fly past me while I consider the equation is wrong. No merciless teasing, abject humiliation, or horrible beating. This time, the outcome is unbeatable fun, more than a carnival. When Kipper jumps the cycle, it’s heaven.

We pause in a wide sandy area. I point to a tall cactus with arms reaching to the sky. “What’s that?”

“Saguaro,” Rufus says. “Climb on my minibike and I’ll give you the tour.”

We ride, and he points out plants and animals, gives me their names, and tells me Indian legends about them. After half an hour, the Desert Rats deliver me to Uncle Timmy’s trailer. Mom and Uncle Timmy are still unloading the Camry’s trunk.

“Thanks for the ride, guys,” I yell over motor noise.

“Looks like your making friends,” Mom says.

Uncle Timmy carries a box into the house.

Rufus points to an old Willy’s Jeep sitting on the carport. “Ask him to let you run it.”

“No harm in askin’,” Stud says.

The thought of even asking is daunting, but I nod.

As they drive away, Scotty announces, “We still have that dare to get done.”

I remember the initiation. It makes me worry. What will I have to do? To have friends, I’ll do anything. It’s my One Most Important Thing. And, I want to drive beaucoup bad. I’d do anything to drive Uncle Timmy’s Jeep.

Lies and Stars—9 Days after the fire

I survive the bullet wound in time for a new school year at Dos Padres Junior High in Mesa, Arizona. That’s irony. High school freshmen in junior high. Most students show outrage at having a sucky year, but overcrowding and construction delays at a new school keep my class with the babies. Uncle Timmy says being the Big Man On Campus can’t be bad. A second irony — Dos Padres means two fathers. And, I don’t even have one. It’s just me, Mom, and Uncle Timmy.

On the school bus, the Desert Rats share news of the fire investigation. In the hallways, kids who saw my name in the newspaper ask me about the fire. Becca, my girlfriend, catches me in a congratulatory hug. And then, other kids ask and, soon, it’s posted on social media and it goes viral like some online African monkey flu. When I get to Ms. Lebeau’s first period freshman English class, I see the writing prompt on the board: What did you do in the summer? I groan because I don’t want to write about It. But the stars conspire to force me — beginning with Ms. Lebeau’s lie.

I hate lies because I always believe. Lies are practical jokes, like April Fools’ Day, and I’m the fool every time. They were a One Most Important Thing last week — when I learned to tell them.

Some lies are fictions, totally untrue. In metaphors, the lie has a kernel of truth. I learned metaphors early with Emily Dickinson’s poetry. My favorite of her metaphors is in #314:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops - at all —

I like poetry. Also, I read — a lot, according to Mom. It’s my escape. Being me sucks. Three-hundred pages of being someone else is glorious. I also like old movies because Uncle Timmy has satellite TV. They’re better than the comic book rip off movies in theaters now.

Back to Ms. Lebeau lie. She says, “This year, we’ll do journaling. You can write about anything.” There’s the lie. “If you can’t think of something, use the writing prompt.”

I put words rhyming with journaling down the right side of my paper — a fill-in-the-blank poem.

Ms. Lebeau prowls the classroom in black sandals with a plastic orchid where the straps cross behind her toes. I always notice shoes. I can tell a lot about a person from shoes.

“Joseph, eye contact,” she says.

It takes a minute because no one calls me Joseph. I’m Joey, like a baby kangaroo. I got my nickname because I bounce like a kangaroo. It’s my stim. That’s short for self-stimulation (no, not that kind of self-stimulation).

She taps my spiral notebook and tut-tuts disapproval. Here’s what she sees:

furnishing
gurgling
journeying
labeling
no such thing
marbling
marshalling
marveling
parceling
worshiping
have a fling

“Joseph, you can’t write only words.”

I want to expose the lie—you said we could write anything. But, I don’t. Fate chooses that instant to give me a random boner. My jeans give it an awkward bend. I need to adjust it — a full-on hands-in-the-pants adjustment. I already wonder if she’s noticed. If I adjust, I’ll call attention to it. I hang my head and pray she goes away.

She crosses out my work in red. “Start over. Use the writing prompt.”

I’m mad because she lied. I stare at the writing prompt. Fate traps me into writing about It — the Thing I Don’t Want to Remember. My stars and a random boner have boxed me in. I have to write about the reason my name was in the paper. The cause of the congratulatory hug. The investigation my buddies discussed on the bus. What I did this summer. I have to write about the fire at Bud’s trailer. My stars compel it.

The first chapter is what I wrote.