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Stuck in Neutral
 

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Stuck in Neutral


  STUCK IN NEUTRAL

  A NOVEL

  Terry Trueman

  Dedication

  For my parents and my sons

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Author’s Note

  Bonus Content

  FAQs about Terry Trueman

  Cool Trivia Shawn Bets You Don’t Know!

  Shawn’s iPod Playlist and Movie Queue

  Q&A with Terry Trueman

  Excerpt from Life Happens Next

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  1

  My name is Shawn McDaniel. My life is like one of those “good news–bad news” jokes. Like, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news—which do you wanna hear first?”

  In the jokes, it’s always the good news first, so here goes: I’ve spent my entire time on planet Earth, all fourteen (almost fifteen!) years I’ve been alive, in Seattle. Seattle is actually a hundred times cooler than you could believe unless you lived here too. Some people gripe and moan about the rain and the weather, but I love Seattle. I even like the rain.

  Our house is about a mile from the Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle, Key Arena where the Sonics play, and the Pacific Science Center. And we’re only about a mile and a half from Bell Town, the unofficial former Grunge Capital of the universe. I’m the youngest kid in our family, three years younger than my sister, Cindy, and two years younger than my brother, Paul, who, although I’d hate for them to know I admitted it, are pretty cool for a brother and sister.

  Okay, that’s good news, huh? Here’s some more: I have this weird—I don’t know what you’d call it—ability? Gift? Power? Whatever name you want to give it, the thing is that I can remember everything I ever hear, perfectly, with total recall. I mean Everything! Perfectly! Totally! I don’t know of anybody else, anywhere, who can do this. Most people remember bits and pieces of things they’ve heard in life, but I’ve got it all, every sound, ever.

  This started when I was three or four years old. At first I could only remember most of what I heard. But by the time I was five years old, everything I heard just stayed in my head. I can remember people talking, TV commercials, every melody I’ve ever listened to from boring, brain-dead country Muzak to nasty rap lyrics, to the theme music from Jeopardy!, to—well—everything: lines from movies, overheard conversations that strangers were having in the street, like—“Well, do you still love him or not?” I heard one lady say this to another lady while they were waiting for the bus in front of our house, and swoosh came the sound of the bus along the wet road, and its brakes went squeal … eeeekkk and the other lady answered, “I don’t know. I haven’t eaten turkey since he left on Thanksgiving.”

  For all you know, I might remember, perfectly, what you said to your girlfriend two years ago when I overheard you two fighting outside the Orange Julius at Northgate, or what your dad said to you in Champs when you were ten, and you and he were shopping for a baseball mitt. Remember, you wanted that Ken Griffey Jr. autographed model but your dad said it cost too much. He wanted you to buy a cheaper one made in Taiwan. Your dad said, “Come on, I can write Ken Griffey Jr. right in here,” and he pointed at a spot in the pocket of the glove, and you said, “Can you really do that?” And your dad said, “Has the pope got a bullet in him?” And you both laughed. I’m not making it up. It happened. And if I heard you again, even once, after all these years, I’d recognize you, I’d remember your voice, the sound of it, perfectly.

  I hope I’m not coming off as conceited here. I’m sure I am. I mean, I do think that my hearing memory is kind of amazing, but it’s not like it’s made me rich or famous. I just happen to have this one talent that I know makes me gifted and special—yuck! I hate that word “special” when it’s applied to people. As in “he’s a very special person.” Geez! Who isn’t! But the other side of people is true too. Everybody has negatives about themselves, stuff they wish wasn’t a part of them. The bad news about us.

  I could go on about my good news for hours, but you probably want to hear the punch line, my bad news, right? Well, there isn’t that much, really, but what’s here is pretty wild. First off, my parents got divorced ten years ago because of me. My being born changed everything for all of us, in every way. My dad didn’t divorce my mom, or my sister, Cindy, or my brother, Paul—he divorced me. He couldn’t handle my condition, so he had to leave. My condition? Well, that brings us to the guts of my bad news.

  One bad news deal is that in the eyes of the world, I’m a total retardate. A “retard.” Not “retard” like you might use the word to tease a friend who just said or did something stupid. I mean a real retard. Real in the same way that total means total. As in total retard: Everybody who knows me, everybody who sees me, everybody, anybody who even gets near me would tell you I’m dumb as a rock. Let me illustrate through the wonders of science.

  Every year the school district sends out a school psychologist (scientist) to test me for IEPs (Individual Educational Plans). And every year since I was six, the psychologist gives me a bunch of tests (“scientifically normed and standardized”), which are mainly intelligence tests filled with shapes and colors, square pegs and round holes, and “Who was George Washington?” and “What’s two plus one?” And every year I sit there and miss every question, fling the blocks into the air or drop them all over or smack myself in the eye with one. Then the shrink goes in and gives my mom a number: I.Q. = 1.2, or mental age 3 to 4 (that’s months, not years). Then the psychologist packs up his scientific garbage and moves on to the next dummy.

  This has gone on for eight years now. Every year, year in and year out. Yep, according to the world I’m dumb as a fence post. I’ve heard the docs explain why they think I’m so stupid to my parents and my parents explain it to their friends about a trillion times. They think it’s because my brain doesn’t work. They don’t know that is only partially true.

  2

  The deal is, I have cerebral palsy (C.P.). C.P. is not a disease; it’s a condition. When I was born I got brain damaged. A tiny blood vessel burst inside my head and, as luck would have it, this blood vessel was in exactly the 100 percent perfectly wrong spot. I don’t know enough about the brain to be able to say where in my brain this injury happened (frontal lobe? cerebral cortex?), but wherever it was, it wiped out my muscle control. I can’t control any of my muscles: not my fingers, my hands, my left foot, my stomach, my tongue, my dick, my throat, my butt, my eyelids, none of them. Not a one. So when the psychologist says, “Who was George Washington?” I can’t tell him what I know, from the dollar bill to the cherry tree, from the revolution of the colonists against the British to the father of our country, from his wooden teeth to him knowing Thomas Jefferson to—anything. When I’m asked about the old, dead first prez, all I can do is sit there and drool if my drool function is running, or whiz in my pants if the pants-whizzing gear is engaged, or go “ahhhhhh” if my vocalizing program has clicked in.

  Nobody has ever said to me, “Blink your eyes twice if you understand me,” or tried to teach me Morse-code so that if I could control my neck muscles I might bang out something like “Howdy, I remember everything I hear so would you mind playing a little
rock and roll?” Nobody has ever held my hand over a Ouija board or drawn letters with their fingers on my chest. Nobody’s ever tried any of these Hollywood-movie techniques of making contact. They think I’m too far gone for that. But the fact is none of these things would work anyhow. They wouldn’t work for me because I can’t control any of my muscles; I’ve never been able to and I know that I never will. My brain just can’t do it. Period. “Blink your eyes if you understand.” Well, if I could, I would. I’m trying, like I’ve tried ten million times before, and it doesn’t work; I can’t control my blinks. “Bounce your head if you want some chocolate cake.” I’d love some chocolate cake, but not only can I not bounce my head, I can’t even chew the cake if you shove some into my mouth. I have to just let it sit there and kind of melt into chocolate mush and wait for my swallow reflex to kick in. Swallowing, breathing, flinching, and getting hard-ons, all brain-stem functions, happen to me, but I can’t make them happen.

  I am in a wheelchair. I can’t talk. I can’t control my eyes in any way that does me any good, like to read a book or something. First off, I can’t hold the book or turn the pages, but even if I could use my hands, my eyes go where they want to go; I can’t control them. A lot of the time, luckily, my eyes do focus on stuff and manage to soak up what they’re looking at. But it’s like my eyes have little minds of their own—I can’t will them to pay attention. One second I’ll be looking at something and the next moment my eye muscles will decide that the smudge on the wall is where I should be looking, and that’ll be that.

  I do know how to read; my sister, Cindy, taught me when I was seven years old. I’d sit there, looking retarded and Cindy would play Special Education Teacher of the Year. She’d point to letters and sound them out, show me simple sentences, reading the words slowly, like her teacher must have once read them to her. When I’d flip around and vocalize and do my retard number, she’d scold me and then repeat her lessons. Cindy was playing. I was learning. I picked up reading from Cindy playing school with me, and through remembering sounds, and listening to words spoken as I saw them written down, like on TV screens, video credits, and in real life, from signs of every type, like MOTEL, which taught me m-o-t-e-l, to STOP, which taught me s-t-o-p. Reading is easy once you catch on that every letter just stands for a sound. Once you get that, then the letters on magazine covers and billboards and those just floating across the sky pulled by an airplane or flashing from the Goodyear blimp all turn into sounds. Sounds to letters, letters to words, words to sentences—reading. Of course, nobody knows I can read. Like the captain says in Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” In my case that’s kind of like calling the Grand Canyon a pothole.

  You’d be surprised how much stuff you can learn and remember when you haven’t got anything else to do with your time. My main teachers in life are the TV; the car radio; listening to Paul and his friends and Cindy and her friends; eavesdropping on one side of every phone conversation anybody in my family ever has; reading bits and pieces of newspapers, magazines, and books left open on nearby tables, chairs, or couches; catching glimpses of readerboards, billboards, and a thousand other pieces of written, spoken, seen, heard info from the world. Maybe for somebody who doesn’t remember every sound they ever hear, all these things wouldn’t mean that much. But I do remember everything; nothing that ever comes into my head ever gets out again. I’m pretty smart. But this sounds like good news again, doesn’t it? Okay, let’s get back to reality.

  Experiencing life the way I have—that is, only through what I see and hear—has made it hard for me to really understand some things. I’ve seen people run, but I have no idea what your legs feel like when you do that. What does your arm feel like throwing a baseball? Your fingers holding a pencil? What do your lips feel when you kiss somebody?

  Also, sometimes just hearing things can create confusion and misunderstanding: When I first heard my mom talk about “turkey dressing,” I wondered why the hell she would dress a turkey. When I first saw a billboard picturing the Marlboro Man, I thought that cowboy up there smoking must be Mr. Marlboro, so for the next six months I thought of my dad as the McDaniel Man, our next-door neighbor, Bob Mayer, as the Mayer Man, the guy who brings our mail as the Postal Man, etc. A lot of these things I eventually figured out, but I’m still confused about some stuff. For instance, how does a car wash work? Do they actually have a bathtub big enough to fit a whole car in there? What about a truck? And doesn’t putting the car under the water mess up its engine? And here’s one it took me a long time to figure out: Until I actually saw the word written out, I always wondered why nobody realized that calling the killing of sick people “youth-in-Asia” might not be just a little bit offensive to young people in places like Japan and China. Maybe it’s a good thing that I can’t communicate; otherwise I’d probably act like a fool.

  I don’t like to feel sorry for myself, but I’m aware of the trouble my condition has put on my family, and I can’t help but feel sorry for them. They’ve all handled it in different ways. My mom is very loving and patient, my sister a lot like my mom. My brother gets impatient and angry sometimes. I wish I could communicate with them to tell them what my life is really all about, but I can’t. My condition changed all their lives. It’s hurt everyone. Thinking about that is one of the few things that can really bum me out, so I try not to think about it much. I do sometimes wonder what life would be like if people, even one person, knew that I was smart and that there’s an actual person hidden inside my useless body; I am in here, I’m just sort of stuck in neutral. If I think about it too much, I can get real nutso!

  My mom, Lindy, still talks to me as if I were a newborn baby or an idiot. She can’t know that I understand everything she says to her friends when they drop by to visit her or when she’s chatting with them on the phone, everything she says to Cindy and Paul, everything she says period. So my contact with her is limited to “Goo-goo-baby boy-go … you a big baby boy … boogie woogie googie snoogie.” You know, sweet baby talk. I wish just once I could say to her, “Geez, Mom, I’m fourteen friggin’ years old.” But I can’t. That’s just how it is.

  I try not to spend too much time worrying about how “hard” my life is. Of course, it’s kind of difficult not to think about it at least part of the time. What else is there for me to do? For the most part, though, I just live and try not to bitch to myself too much about the bad-news stuff of my life. Bitching doesn’t change anything.

  Is it frustrating, being trapped inside a useless body? Of course it’s frustrating! Have I ever felt frustrated? Hell, yes! But what am I supposed to do? Getting crazy doesn’t help. In fact, I figured out a long time ago that the crazier I get, the worse it feels.

  There is one final bad-news punch line to my life. This bad news is complicated, difficult to explain. In a nutshell, it’s that I am pretty sure that my dad is planning to kill me. The good news is that he’d be doing this out of his love for me. The bad news is that whatever the wonderfulness of his motives, I’ll be dead.

  3

  Dead. I’m only fourteen years old. What do I think about death? I’m not sure what I think, but I sure know what I feel, because I have looked into death’s eyes one time, and it was horrible.

  Last winter—in early January, just after Christmas—Mom drove us to school one morning. My brother, Paul, a three-letter jock in football, hoops, and baseball, had gone in early for his usual weight training, so it was just Mom, Cindy, and me in the van. We have a wheelchair-loader Dodge Caravan, burgundy. I sat strapped in my wheelchair, which in turn gets locked into these big bolts that hold the chair in place. Cindy sat up front, riding shotgun.

  The road shone wet; Seattle drizzle made the windows on the sides of the van all steamy and beaded with raindrops. I happened to be focusing out the front, through the clip-clap slapping of the windshield wipers. In front of us was an older car, an ugly junker, beat-up, dirty, a brownish color.

  Suddenly, streaking in from the right sid
e of the road, a dog flew into the path of the brown car. I watched as the dog, twisting and turning under the car, seemed to bend up, flip over, and turn inside out.

  In another horrible moment, the back left tire of the car seemed to spit out the broken body. The dog rolled and tumbled along the road several times, tried to right himself, running a couple of awkward, horrible steps to the side of the road, but then collapsed.

  Cindy screamed and burst into tears as Mom slammed on the brakes and whipped over to the roadside, sliding in the loose gravel and almost running over the dog too.

  Before the van even stopped, Cindy was out of her door and running toward the dog.

  “Cindy,” Mom screamed. “Cindy!”

  But before Mom could even open her car door, Cindy already sat at the dog’s side, lifting his head gently onto her lap.

  Mom got out of the van. My eyes were only partially focused through the steamy side window. I watched Cindy sit there on the wet, muddy side of the road. As she stroked the dog’s face, I could see Cindy’s lips moving, speaking into the dog’s ear. It looked to me like tears streamed down Cindy’s cheeks.

  After only a few seconds the dog began to jerk. Blood gushed out of his nostrils and mouth. Cindy held him still and steady, stroking the side of the animal’s face through all the blood.

  Suddenly, directly in front of my view, a thick stream of rainwater let loose from the top of the van window, and for a second the glass cleared where I happened to be looking out. In that second I saw, perfectly, the brown eyes of the dog. They were streaked with blood. And in that instant the dog stopped squirming. His body caved in, changing from something terrified and hurt and suffering into—nothing. The dog died. His eyes seemed locked onto mine at that moment when life left him; I wasn’t watching a dog then, I was looking at death looking back at me.

 
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