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‘I’M PETA LYRE,’ I MUMBLE.

LOOK PEOPLE IN
THE EYE IF YOU CAN, AT LEAST WHEN YOU
GREET THEM. I TRY, BUT IT’S HARD WHEN SHE
IS SMILING SO BIG, AND LEANING IN.

Peta Lyre is far from typical. The world she lives in


isn’t designed for the way her mind works, but when
she follows her therapist’s rules for ‘normal’ behaviour,
she can almost fit in without attracting attention.

When a new girl, Sam, starts at school, Peta’s


carefully structured routines start to crack. But on
the school ski trip, with romance blooming and a
newfound confidence, she starts to wonder if maybe
she can have a normal life after all.

When things fall apart, Peta must decide whether


all the old rules still matter. Does she want
a life less ordinary, or should she keep her
rating normal?

A moving and joyful


own voices debut.

‘Honest, perceptive and gutsy;


I loved tuning in to Peta’s world.’
— Emily Gale

Cover design and illustration:


Astred Hicks, Design Cherry

#LoveOzYA

18.25mm spine
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First published by Allen & Unwin in 2020

Copyright © Anna Whateley 2020

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in


any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior
permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the
Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or ten per cent of this book, whichever is
the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational
purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has
given a remuneration notice to the Copyright Agency (Australia) under the Act.

Allen & Unwin


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Crows Nest NSW 2065
Australia
Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100
Email: info@allenandunwin.com
Web: www.allenandunwin.com

A catalogue record for this


book is available from the
National Library of Australia

ISBN 978 1 76052 530 9

For teaching resources, explore www.allenandunwin.com/resources/for-teachers

Cover and text design by Astred Hicks, Design Cherry


Cover illustration by Astred Hicks
Set in 11.5/17 pt Adobe Caslon Pro by Midland Typesetters, Australia
Printed in Australia by McPherson’s Printing Group

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The paper in this book is FSC® certified.


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For all the wildthings

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ONE

‘You’re like a walking, breathing, freakin’ diagnostic manual,


seriously!’ Jeb laughs, and punches me in the arm. He’s
right. My arm hurts, and he smells of salami.
‘It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Just makes me look
cracked up.’ I have a straight face, but he knows that’s a
joke, for me, and laughs with so much air that I wonder
how I can still breathe.
‘I think it’s great. You’re not the normal kind of abnormal,
you know? You’re Peta. Peta, who has so many letters she
could start her own alphabet!’ He laughs again at his own
joke, and I think through the letters to see if they do make
the alphabet. They don’t. ASD, ADHD, SPD . . . Gifted
doesn’t have letters, unless you count the G. Maybe it’s an
anagram. I can only make ‘sagas’, or ‘pashas’. Neither uses
all the letters, how irritating. Long pauses in conversation
might make it seem you are uninterested. I chuckle and stop
making words with the letters.
Jeb starts eating his lunch again. I turn away to find

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clean air, avoiding the consuming smell of salami, then say,
‘Don’t tell everyone, especially about the IQ test, it’s not
like I get top grades.’ I fail and ace school in equal measure.
Jeb’s the one I tell about the psych stuff. I’ve learnt that
I can’t trust many people, least of all myself. I tell people
about ADHD because it makes them laugh, and because
I must feed the Autism honesty beast a morsel now and then.
‘No one would believe me anyway. We are perfectly
normal teenagers.’ He taps the concrete wall we’re sitting
on. It’s cool, but my arse is starting to go numb. Try to focus
on something other than the source of irritation. I talk.
‘Can you imagine if one of the private school girls came
home with me? They’d see my tip of a bedroom, wardrobe
plastered with scraps of paper, and wonder why our fridge
doesn’t make ice!’ I use a joking tone. My chest clenches
at the thought of being so exposed. I went to someone’s
house when I was young and saw ice fall from their fridge
door. They laughed because I kept wanting more ice, and
to know how it worked. I can’t imagine having so much
money that your fridge makes ice automatically. Having a
thought stuck in your mind is called perseverance. Per-sever-
ance. Sever the thoughts of ice.
‘Aren’t you supposed to be a clean freak, and have
your books in alphabetical order or something?’ Jeb’s voice
cuts through. If you’ve been distracted during a conversation,
try replaying the words and respond accordingly. ‘Aren’t you

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supposed to be a clean freak, and have your books in alphabetical
order or something?’
‘Probably. I’m a failure at my own alphabet,’ I say. Jeb’s
laughing again, and a wave of salami hits me full in the face
so I stand up to escape. Sudden movements without a cause
obvious to other people can make them confused. I take a bow to
hide my suffocation. This just makes him laugh even more.
Inhaling clean air, I do a twirl too, so he’ll keep laughing.
I like Jeb, even if he smells. ‘And aren’t you supposed to
be a boofy bloke who just wants a fast car?’ He doesn’t mind
me teasing him, as long as it’s only the two of us. I swagger
over like an American cowboy saying, ‘Hey, pretty lady,
need that car fixed? I’m y’r bloke.’ Jeb’s creasing over with
laughter, checking at the same time that no one else is
close enough to hear. His course has plenty of boofy bloke
types; Jeb doesn’t want them to find out he’s not really
like them.
‘Yeah, yeah. I’ll be more like, “um, excuse me . . .”’ He’s
standing next to me twiddling his fingers with his head
down, making his voice quiver and sound nervous. ‘“Um,
I’m so sorry to have to tell you this . . . and, um, I know that
you’ve been struggling with the bills lately . . . but I think
I need to clean your, um, spark plugs?”’
We laugh. When we stop, Jeb starts humming a song
I don’t know. He loves music, just like my aunt.
‘You going to the dance on Friday?’ I ask.

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‘The Blue Light? Yeah, I’ll go. Not dancing though. You
coming?’
I don’t know the answer. It’s harder going out at night,
when my meds have worn off. It’s exciting, I’m relaxed, and
I risk just being myself, talking too much, being strange.
There’s a fine line between blending in and wearing a mask. Be
yourself as much as possible. Disastrous advice.
‘Yeah, I’m in.’ Shit. I can’t believe I just said that. What
if I change my mind? What if I go and it’s a disaster?
Allocate time slots to think over worrisome events, then don’t
allow yourself to think about them until then. Tonight, from
6.30 until 7 pm.
‘We’d better get moving, time for class.’ There are no
bells at College. We’re expected to get to class on our own.
We call the teachers by their first names, and we don’t do
competitive sport. Too dangerous with kids who fight for
survival in their real lives. Plus, we can’t afford uniforms,
and don’t always show up.
‘Yep, you got English?’
‘Yep. You got Suspension Systems?’
‘Yep.’ We go our separate ways. Jeb is doing a TAFE
elective to get an apprenticeship as a car mechanic
after year twelve. The College covers trades and senior
certificates for a mix of kids who don’t fit the Queensland
state schooling system for whatever reason. I’m applying
to uni, so I’ve got more subjects. I’m only here because I

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moved to the Redlands to live with my Aunty Antonia.
I didn’t mind because I hated the uniform at my old
school. Certain fabrics may cause irritation; try cutting the
labels off or washing before wearing. No amount of washing
would’ve fixed that hessian sack. My SPD makes sensory
processing difficult at the best of times. Hessian isn’t even
close to best times.
I head up to English and put my shields into place.
I hum Jeb’s song to block out the noise of everything. I
breathe into my hands, pretending they’re cold, so I only
smell my own salty skin. I look down at the pavement so
I don’t have to meet anyone’s eye. One boot is tighter than
the other, and the waist on my jeans feels too tight. This
latest attempt at a bra strangles my ribs, and my ponytail
pulls at my scalp. Nothing escapes my alphabet powers. It’s
exhausting.

Normal rating: 8/10


Inhale. Exhale. Survive.

The classroom is empty. I’m always a bit early, just so I don’t
run late. Overcompensation. Being early means I can choose
where to sit, but it also means I can’t choose who sits next
to me. The possibilities are endless. I stand in the doorway.
As long as there’s no one watching I can keep going over

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the branching consequences of every decision. I let my
thoughts race: If I sit in the front row no one will sit with me
and everyone will see the back of my head. They’ll think things
about me, but I’ll be able to ask questions more quietly. If I sit in
the middle to the right I’ll be able to see out the window in case
I get bored. Goofy might sit with me, which is good, but then I’ll
have to be friendly the whole time and keep up with his clever
remarks without getting in trouble for talking. If I sit on the
left in the middle then I’m trapped against the wall, closer to the
door, and the same thing with Goofy. I could sit in the middle
of the middle, but then I’d be in the teacher’s main eye-line and
if the room isn’t symmetrical it will feel off. Sitting at the back
is out of the question: I’m not naughty and can’t stand people
swinging on their chairs against the wall, which they always
do . . . I hear someone coming up behind me and my heart
pounds. I wonder if I missed an earlier warning and they
saw me.
‘Oh my god, did you see that? Peta’s so goddamn weird,
standing like a statue, can’t even sit down.’ I throw my backpack
on the floor and turn around, holding my hands out as I step
closer and closer. ‘Would you like to say that again?’ I whisper
into her face. She sweats.
I sit in the middle to the right, near the window.
I always do.
Dammit. Forgot my meds. Why they get people with
organisational issues to take tablets three times a day is

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beyond me. I swallow two with no water and feel them
burn, stuck in my throat, for the rest of the afternoon.

Normal rating: 7/10


Inhale. Exhale. Survive.

Burgers for tea. My Aunty Antonia – everyone calls her
Ant – took me in because my mum quit. Most people don’t
know you can quit being a parent, but you can. Ant never
liked my mum much, I think, but she took me in anyway.
There was no one else when Mum moved out west. Ant
has a baby with my mum’s brother, John, but they aren’t
married. He’s a wanker; I’ve got no idea why she put up
with him for so long. He’s gone now.
‘Can you look after May on Saturday morning? I’ve
got a hair appointment and John was supposed to be
here . . .’ Ant asks, pretending a spoon is flying to land in
May’s mouth.
‘Sure.’ John’s not very reliable with his weekend access.
‘I’m home.’
I look at my plate and try to remember if it’s rude to ask
if the bun can be toasted. She bought the brand that’s fluffy
and sticks to the roof of my mouth. Complimenting a meal
is good manners, whether you think you’ll like to eat it or not.
‘Thanks for cooking, looks great.’ May is fussing over her

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mashed sweet potato and Ant looks like she’s had a long
day, so I don’t ask about toasting the bun.
‘Come on, eat up, Peta. You’re skin and bone,’ she says
with a weary smile. I obviously have muscles and a layer of
fat. But she’s really telling me that if I got bigger, she would
still love me, which is nice. People often say things to make
you feel loved; the words are not as important as their intent.
Before I saw the psych, I didn’t weigh enough. I know more
now; they gave me guidelines. The meds mess with my
appetite all day though, so dinner is the only big meal I eat,
when they’re wearing off.
Layering a burger is difficult. I need to make sure certain
things don’t touch. Butter, cheese, burger. The cheese needs
to melt so the flavour isn’t too sharp; a toasted bun helps and
the beef patties are still hot enough, I hope. Then pineapple,
tomato sauce, and lettuce. The pineapple stops the sauce
spilling too far, and they’re both acidic. My face sweats at
the thought. The lettuce is next to the pineapple, not ideal.
I still haven’t figured that problem out. See the difference
between actual problems with your food, and problems with
perception. I focus on the fact that the buttered bun goes
on top.
‘Nah! Nah!’ May screams, slapping a fistful of mashed
sweet potato down on the highchair tray. My ears ring with
the sound and I close my eyes and wriggle my toes. Feed
your other senses to block the one that hurts. Tapping my fingers

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and jiggling my leg annoys Ant, as does humming and
having earphones in. When you feel the irritation building,
either use one of your coping techniques, or remove yourself from
the situation.
‘Nah! Nah!’ Another slap and the orange mush splats
Ant’s shirt and my dinner. My perfect burger has sweet
potato painted down its side. I wriggle my toes harder.
‘Oh hon, I’m sorry. Here, let me get that.’ Ant leans over
to wipe my burger with the sticky bib she’s holding.
‘No, no don’t worry, it’s all good.’ I move my plate
away and chop that part of the burger off. There’s no way
smearing it further would help. My heart pounds at the
thought that I’ll still be able to taste the sweetness. Not
a flavour or texture I’m prepared for. Wriggle my toes,
distracting talk.
‘How’s work?’ I ask. Ant works at a pharmacy, on the
front counter. She always has funny or disgusting stories.
‘Good, good. This one old guy came in . . .’ I eat, listening
to the lilt of her voice to block out the sound of my own
chewing. She sang in a band before she met John. I add
the music and replay everything slightly slower, making a
song. ‘. . . it was so funny, he needed denture glue, you know,
to stick the dentures in? And when he opens his mouth to
ask me, out fall his teeth!’ I make my eyes go wide and eat
as fast as I can. This will get gross and I need to be finished
before it does.

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‘No word of a lie, his teeth fall out into his hand, he
puts them back in, and tries again! It was like some kind of
comedy sketch!’ She laughs and imitates the man catching
and replacing his false teeth. I mumble disbelieving and
encouraging sounds through a full mouth.
‘Anyway, I figured out what he was trying to say and got
him some glue. It was so funny, the poor guy.’ Yep, my mind
has gone there now, the music has stopped, and I imagine
trying to eat or speak with my teeth falling out. I feel the
sucking of the dentures and the viscosity of the saliva.
I swallow the last of my burger as a large lump, nearly choke,
and grab my water. It smells of chlorine and dishwasher
powder, and I taste salt on the rim of the glass. My meds
have definitely worn off. My mind starts to race, unable
to block or switch focus away from my body. Attention
overload.
‘Must have been hilarious.’ Not very convincing.
A question shows you are interested in what someone is
saying. ‘Did he look upset?’
‘Nah, he was half doing it on purpose, I swear. Cheeky
bugger.’ Ant wipes May’s face with the bib and moves on
to custard. I hate the smell of custard – or remove yourself
from the situation – so I clear the plates into the dishwasher.
I don’t like the sludge around the door and I try to keep
my fingers from touching any of the smeared food. If I do,
I’ll have to wash my hands. Then my skin will get dried

10

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out from the soap. I’d have to find the moisturiser without
perfume or I’d be distracted by the smell for the rest of the
night. Or remove yourself from the situation.
‘Can I go to the Blue Light on Friday?’ I ask as I’m
leaving the kitchen.
‘Of course. Do you need anything new?’ Ant loves
shopping. I do too, apart from the noise, the smell, and
the people talking to me. And the decisions. And changing
clothes a lot of times when my skin is exhausted and the
lights are so stark I can’t trust the colour anyway. I shake my
head and slip away.

Normal rating: 7/10


Inhale. Exhale. Survive.

My room is the safest place my body has. My mind doesn’t
really have a safe place.
6.30 pm. Worry time. Part of me likes this strategy,
the ASD part, but ADHD screams against such order
and forced focus. My alphabet hates itself. Like . . . imagine
someone says, ‘Think outside the box.’ My hyperactive
mind creates a sphere and laughs at the box and researches
for hours on end how much better spheres are. Then my
Autism freaks out that I broke the rules without realising
there were any, and wonders why we are supposed to think

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inside cardboard boxes in the first place. Surely being inside
cardboard boxes isn’t comfortable.
6.50 pm. I’ve wasted twenty minutes of my worry time
thinking about shapes and drawing circles and cubes on the
wall inside my wardrobe; they surround my favourite book
quotes, blue-tacked scrawlings, curled at the edges. Do I
go to the dance? Think of the best and the worst that could
happen. The worst: I go, and die of humiliation. The best:
I don’t go, and don’t suffer any humiliation. I’m pretty sure
that’s not how this exercise is supposed to play out. Try to
see your fears as things you can hold, and laugh at them. Great.
My fear of humiliation just humiliated me.
7.00 pm. I’m not allowed to worry any more. My insides
sink, knowing I will either give some unconvincing excuse
and ditch, or go and speak all my thoughts aloud while lap-
dancing on a police officer, or go and sit in the corner with
my hands over my ears, wishing I’d stayed home.
I climb onto the window ledge and take off into the night
air. The bats welcome me, and we fly to their caves. I live out the
rest of my days in the dark and the smell of rancid shit. Happy
and safe, furled in my wings.
I revise for my English exam and go to bed early.

Normal rating: 3/10


Inhale. Exhale. Survive.

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