“What if I stab someone in the eye with a stick?”
Seth Bailey tightened his grip on the steering wheel. He glanced into the SUV’s rearview mirror. His nine-year-old daughter, Gwen, stared back at him, patiently awaiting an answer. He paused, reminding himself to keep his tone measured and calm. The doctor had cautioned Seth and his wife, Vicki, that when Gwen got like this, any hint of impatience or stress in their responses to the little girl could further exacerbate her state.
Calm, he thought. Smile. Reassure her, but also don’t make a big deal out of it.
Taylor, one of Gwen’s best friends since preschool, sat next to her, focused on the greenery flashing by. Although he was seemingly oblivious to their conversation, Seth knew from experience that—where Taylor’s attention was concerned—looks could be deceiving. The autistic boy seldom looked people in the eye when talking to them, and often seemed to exist in his own imaginary world, as if whatever he was picturing in his head was preferable to whatever was occurring around him. But Seth had learned over time that Taylor was aware of what people said far more than others realized. Sadly, that included when they were talking unkindly about him. And he was always aware when Gwen was distressed.
Seth smiled. “You’re not going to stab someone in the eye with a stick, Gwen.”
“But what if I do? What if I’m running and I accidentally stab someone? Or what if I’m holding a stick and someone falls on it?”
“Well then, maybe the best thing to do is to not pick up any sticks while we’re here.”
“But what if we bump into one? What if there’s a broken tree branch and I push Taylor and he falls into it?”
“That still wouldn’t put his eye out.”
“It could,” Gwen insisted.
“Taylor wears glasses,” Seth reminded her. “They’ll protect his eyes.”
The skinny boy glanced furtively at Seth. It was a quick gesture, but eye contact all the same. According to Taylor’s parents, that was a sign the boy trusted him—the main reason why they’d allowed him to act as chaperone for their son on this trip.
Seth nodded at him. “Right, Taylor?”
Taylor wiped his runny nose with the back of his hand and then turned to Gwen. Seth couldn’t help but notice that the boy kept eye contact with her while he talked.
“Don’t worry,” Taylor told her. “I’ll be looking for bugs, so I’ll walk extra slow.”
“But what if . . .” Gwen trailed off, biting her lower lip. Her forehead creased with worry.
“Sweetie,” Seth said, glancing in the rearview mirror again, “you know this is just the Creeper trying to bother you. Right?”
She sighed. “Yeah, I know.”
Late last year, after noticing that their daughter was struggling with anxiety, Seth and Vicki had taken her to a doctor, who diagnosed Gwen with a form of obsessive compulsive disorder that manifested itself in “bad” or violent thoughts. When this happened, her brain would often get stuck on these repeating thoughts, which almost always involved harm coming to someone Gwen loved, be it her parents, her pets, or her friends. If she was anxious about an assignment at school, and scissors were given to the students, she’d obsess over the possibility of cutting someone with them. If her parents didn’t monitor the fireplace in winter, she’d worry that the house was going to catch on fire.
It had been harrowing at first. They’d be having a normal day and suddenly the child would confess that she was having thoughts about stabbing her mother with a kitchen knife or tripping her father and breaking his leg. As terrifying as it was for Seth and Vicki to hear these thoughts verbalized, it was doubly traumatic for Gwen, who insisted that while she didn’t want these things to happen, she couldn’t stop thinking about them. There had been many long nights when her parents, despite their best efforts and assurances, couldn’t comfort her, and Gwen had cried herself to sleep. But those nights were even longer for Seth and Vicki, who lay there together, wondering what had happened to their daughter, and where this sudden turn of events had come from. Was it something they had done? Had they neglected her in some way? Unwittingly inspired such thoughts? Was she a danger to her classmates? Herself? Her parents?
The first appointment with the therapist had been cathartic for all three of them. Gwen latched on to the explanation that the OCD was like a brain hiccup. The violent thoughts were triggered by everyday anxiety. Her therapist had encouraged Gwen to give her OCD a name, and Gwen chose the Creeper—her favorite monster from her favorite video game. This helped her visualize the disorder, and would...