You Have to Follow the Rules

By Ada Hoffmann

Two hours into Annalee's first convention, she started to notice things Mommy did not.

Of course, Mommy's noticing powers weren't very good. She'd said and said that the convention would have Star Wars, fairies, space captains, even a room the color of deep space where projected stars whooshed past, where Annalee could lie on her tummy and pretend to zoom through hyperspace. She'd said and said that Annalee could make friends, as if that was more exciting than a space-room. But the place was full of people Mommy called friends–so thick with them that every step Annalee took, one almost hit her.

She had marched proudly into the building in her stormtrooper uniform, the Imperial March playing in her head. But after the long, long lines, the crowds, and the "TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES" sign on the space-room, all Annalee could hear was noise. She covered her ears with her hands.

"Don't do that," said Mommy, peeling them off. "If we want to have quiet time, we use our words. Besides, you wanted to see the Stormtroopers Panel, and we're almost there."

When Mommy said "you wanted" she meant she'd said it would be exciting and Annalee had nodded or said "yes." Really it was Mommy who wanted to go to every panel, like a cargo ship visiting all the planets in the galaxy. Annalee pretended every room was a spaceport bar with an alien band playing, to explain the noise. There were lots of actors that she recognized, but they didn't act like the space captains they played on TV, even though everybody in the building was here to dress up and act like space captains. That was the whole point.

So the things Mommy could not see made as much sense as anything else.

First there were the doors in places doors didn't belong, like way up above Mommy's head. There was even a lying-down door in the floor. All the doors said, "DO NOT ENTER."

"Mommy," said Annalee, "why did they put a door in the floor?"

"Don't be silly," said Mommy. "I don't see a door in the floor."

The next panel was just vampires. None of the vampires had spaceships or even fairy wings. Annalee's feet got bored and drummed on the floor.

She turned her head to try to distract her feet. The wall at the side of the room had gone all clear like a mirror. The panel room was thick with people, but its reflection was thin. Everybody in the reflection had space to swing their arms. Everyone was a fairy or a space captain, with trailing flowers and white pupilless eyes. Half of them were children. Bad children, too–rocking, scratching, staring into space, or biting their nails, things Mommy told Annalee never to do. But when the people up front made a joke, they all laughed, soundlessly, even the ones who weren't looking.

"Mommy," said Annalee, "why did they make the wall a mirror?"

"I don't see any mirrors," said Mommy, straightening Annalee's stormtrooper helmet. "Are you playing a pretending game?"

Annalee shook her head.

When she saw the girl in the Jedi cloak, with the trailing flowers in her topknotted hair and the white pupilless eyes, she didn't tell Mommy.

Annalee liked the Jedi girl. She spotted her everywhere, sometimes on the other side of the mirror wall, but more often on Annalee's side, a few rows down, laughing at the same puns Annalee liked. At a LEGO contest in the evening, the Jedi girl stood next to Annalee and worked quietly. Annalee built a TIE fighter, and so did the Jedi girl, only hers was an interceptor with pointy wings. When Annalee glanced at the interceptor, the Jedi girl glanced back. Annalee didn't often notice such things, but when the Jedi girl looked at her, she wanted to smile.

"You were so quiet and good," said Mommy after the LEGO contest. "The whole time. I'm proud of you. I know places like this can be hard."

"I liked the Jedi girl," said Annalee.

Mommy's face made a great big smile. "You talked to a girl?"

"Not exactly."

"But there was a girl? You're making friends already?"

"I guess," said Annalee. "We didn't talk, but I liked her."

"Oh, Annalee, I'm so happy you found someone you like. Why don't you go up to her and introduce yourself?"

Annalee squared her shoulders. "Don't want to."

Mommy sighed, and her voice went soft like a Wampa's pelt. "People here aren't like the people at school, Annalee. They aren't going to hit you or call you names because you talked too long about Star Wars. If she's dressed as a Jedi, she probably likes it as much as you do. Please try."

Annalee just shrugged.

She didn't feel icky or bad when she thought about talking to the Jedi girl. But the Jedi girl had been fine just making TIE fighters, not talking, and besides, she wasn't here anymore. The building was already full of too many introductions. Earlier in the day, a man in a Starfleet uniform had swooped right down and scared her.

"Aren't you just the cutest little stormtrooper!" he said, tapping her on the helmet and making her wince. "What's your name?"

Annalee flapped her arms, warding him off. "I don't like you."

"Oh, come on," said the man, tapping her on the helmet again. "That's not a name."

Annalee ran away. Mommy had to chase her down to stop her from getting lost.

"What do you think you're doing?" said Mommy, huffing and puffing.

"Don't want to," said Annalee. She hadn't liked the man coming so close. It gave her creepy feelings, like being in a trash compactor and almost-crushed. "I didn't like him."

Mommy sighed. "I know you don't like strangers, Annalee, but this is a convention. People come here to make friends. He couldn't have known you don't like being touched."

"I told him," said Annalee. "I told him I didn't like him."

"But that's not what you say when someone is trying to make friends," said Mommy. "It's not polite. When someone introduces yourself, you say, 'Hi, my name is Annalee, what's yours?' That's the rule for introductions."

"He shouldn't have touched my helmet," said Annalee.

"Maybe he didn't know that," said Mommy. "You didn't ask him politely to stop, did you? Maybe he has Asperger Syndrome, like you, and he doesn't know how to behave around people. Now, come on. We're late for Time Machine Improv."

Annalee did not like Time Machine Improv. She couldn't tell where any of the jokes were, and the audience kept laughing for no reason. There wasn't even a single pun.

Mommy laughed so much that she had to get in a big line to try it herself, leaving Annalee in her seat. On the chair to the other side of where Mommy had been sat the Jedi girl. Annalee stared at her, wondering how long she'd been there, invisible.

The Jedi girl took a paper and pencil from the folds of her robe and scribbled something. Then she folded the paper and handed it to Annalee, along with the pencil, being careful not to come too close.

The rules are different where I come from, said the paper, Where I come from, no one touches your helmet unless you tell them it's okay.

Annalee blinked, then picked up the pencil.

Where do you come from?

She handed it back.

I come from just past the wall. It's always a convention there, but a good convention, not like this one. Where I come from, you can rock or cover your ears or run away from people and no one will tell you that you're bad.

Annalee looked around. There was a door below the stage, and another one in the ceiling. They all still said "DO NOT ENTER."

Do you come from past those doors? Annalee wrote. She hoped that the Jedi girl did. That it was another world, like fairyland or Coruscant. The ones grown-ups don't see?

I do. Would you like to visit?

I can't. They all say "DO NOT ENTER."

Yes. That's to let us know who we can trust. If you go through a door when the door says you shouldn't go through, then we know you won't follow the other rules, even when we spell them all out. But there are other doors.

Annalee chewed her lip. She wasn't supposed to go places without Mommy. But going to another world was different, maybe. Lots of people in stories went to fairyland without their mommies. Even Anakin Skywalker, who was Annalee's favourite because their names were so close together.

And you have Star Wars there?

Of course.

Can Mommy come too?

If you like. It's dangerous for grown-ups. Grown-ups think their rules are right and ours are wrong. But where I come from, you HAVE to follow our rules.

Annalee took the paper and hurriedly scribbled.

Tell me your rules.

"What is this?" said Mommy, staring at the paper.

"The Jedi girl gave it to me."

"Oh! So you two are talking now? I'm so proud of you! What's her name?"

Annalee hesitated.

Mommy sighed. "Well, I guess we have to take this one step at a time. I'm glad you're starting to get along. So you and she are playing a game about rules? It must be an interesting game."

"I don't know," said Annalee.

She remembered looking through the mirror-wall and seeing everyone rocking and squirming. She did not think this was just a game.

RULES, said the paper in Mommy's hand.

Do not go through the doors that say "DO NOT ENTER." There is another door on the top floor that doesn't say it. Ask permission to that one before you touch it. You can tell who lives here by their eyes. Most of them like to speak with notes or signs. Don't speak to them out loud unless they tell you it's okay.

Ask permission for everything. Stay in your own space. If you stay in your own space, you can do whatever you like; there is no wrong way to stand, or sit, or look at someone's face. Remember that when you talk to others. Don't tell them they are wrong.

"I don't understand this game," said Mommy. "I don't see any doors around here that say 'DO NOT ENTER'."

Then she looked up from the paper and stared all around.

"Oh," she said weakly. "I see them now."

Then she took hold of Annalee's wrist and started walking very, very quickly.

Annalee had to tell Mommy twice not to go for the "DO NOT ENTER" doors. Mommy kept veering towards them.

"You can't do that one," said Annalee. "That's against the rules."

"Annalee," said Mommy, "do you remember what 'scared' means? I'm scared. These doors weren't here a minute ago and doors aren't supposed to behave this way and I just want to see if I'm hallucinating or not. Why can't I just peek through for a second? Who would it hurt?"

"The door you can use is on this floor," she reminded Mommy. Mommy's noticing powers were even worse than Annalee thought, if she didn't remember they'd already gone up all the escalators.

Mommy's voice rose very high. "Yes, but I can't find it."

When Mommy found the unmarked door, she squeezed Annalee's wrist so hard Annalee thought her hand would come off, like Luke Skywalker's, and she'd need a new one. The door was hidden behind a row of tables, and it stood tilted over in the wall. Mommy ran for it.

"No, wait," said Annalee as she was dragged along. "You have to ask it permission first."

Mommy breathed hard. "Honey, that doesn't even make sense. Doors don't talk. These rules are just pretend, don't you see?"

Annalee tried as hard as she could to remember all the polite words Mommy had taught her.

"Door," she said, "may we please go through?"

The door opened.

"Thank you," said Annalee, because Mommy had taught her that, too.

The two of them hurried through.

The other side of the door looked just like the other side of a mirror. The carpets and walls were the same color; the big schedule on the wall had the same logo at the top, even though the writing on it was different; there were tables in the same places and stacks of piled-up paintings on them. But it was quiet, like in Annalee's room when she closed the door and couldn't hear Mommy's television anymore. And there was room to move around without crashing into anyone. Bad children just like Annalee wandered around on their own. They flapped their arms like chickens and spun in circles. Their eyes were blank white, without pupils.

Annalee suddenly wanted to hide in this room all the rest of the convention and not come out.

"Oh, Annalee," said Mommy. "This isn't a nice place."

The quiet and Mommy's disapproval were like both sides of the trash compactor again. Annalee didn't know how to get safely between them, how to explain that she liked it here. That it was wonderful. She knew Mommy was just about to pull her back out, and there was nothing she could do.

But Mommy didn't do that right away. She swallowed hard and said, "Well. We're here. We may as well look around. Maybe we can find the Jedi girl you were talking to. Is she here?"

Mommy walked in very quick circles until she saw a girl in a Jedi cloak. She wasn't the right girl: her hair was wrong, short and blonde like Tinkerbell. The real Jedi girl had dark hair in a topknot with flowers coming out, but Annalee couldn't see any topknots in the room, however fast she turned her head.

"There she is," said Mommy. "Stop shaking your head like that, Annalee. We found her. Now, I promise, if you two have been playing together and making up this whole game, that means she likes you. She's not going to hit you or call you names, and she's not going to mind if you tell her who you are. And that's how you can get to be friends. Please try it. For me."

"But the rules say–"

"Stop," said Mommy. "Stop. I don't want to hear about your rules. Do you understand? There is a whole world full of rules already, like 'don't insult people and run away from them', and 'don't terrify your own mother half to death', and you aren't following those ones. Why should you get to make your own? I am trying to help you learn and make friends, and this is just a thing that you have to learn. I'll show you."


And Mommy marched right up into the pixie-girl's face.

"Hi," said Mommy. "I'm Annalee's mommy. I hear you two have been playing with LEGOs together. What's your name?"

Everything fell silent.

Jedi Tinkerbell stared up at Mommy with her blank eyes. There was a horrible flash, like a too-bright spotlight, and when the spots got out from in front of Annalee's eyes, Mommy was gone.

Jedi Tinkerbell walked away.

Annalee lay down in the floor and held her head in her hands.

She knew what Mommy would say if she saw her. You can't curl up on the floor like that. It will make everybody worry about you. Come on, honey, get up. But Mommy wasn't here.

Mommy wasn't here. Maybe the mirror people had killed her. Maybe they had frozen her in carbonite or sent her to another dimension. Mommy had broken the rules and Mommy wasn't here.

Annalee did not want to break the rules.

She closed her eyes and thought about rules. Maybe, she thought, just maybe she wasn't breaking the rules here, even though she had come in with the wrong mommy and then lain down on the floor and made everybody worry. Maybe everybody wasn't worrying. It was still quiet, and no one had touched her or yelled at her or even asked what was wrong. It was like having quiet time in her own room with her Star Wars blanket pulled up over her head. She could lie here as long as she liked, and it wouldn't hurt anybody.

So she lay there and breathed deep, until she had enough breaths in her to open her eyes and look up, and there was a slip of paper on the floor by her face.

We have a room here that's all dark, said the paper, with stars on the walls. Want to see?

For a minute Annalee wanted to scream. She wanted to say, No! Not until you tell me what happened to Mommy!

But she did want to see the room with the stars on the walls.

And maybe this was how things went in fairyland. Maybe when you went to another world to be a Jedi, you had to leave your mommy behind. Like Anakin Skywalker. He had been brave, and so would Annalee.

She took the paper and started to write.

The Jedi girl spoke only in notes, but Annalee didn't mind. They both lay on their tummies in the dark room and whooshed through hyperspace, stars flashing and streaking all around them. Annalee was sure that she was travelling millions of miles, leaving Earth and the Milky Way behind.

Finally they came out, and the Jedi girl hesitated extra long before scribbling another note.

You could stay here forever if you liked. It would be all LEGO and dark rooms and Star Wars all the time. As long as you followed the rules, nobody would bother you. Nobody would tell you that the way you do things in your own space is wrong. You could get white eyes like us and forget Mommy and be happy as long as you wanted.

Annalee chewed her lip.

This place's rules were better than Mommy's rules, and its space-room was better, too. Everything about it was better, except that Mommy couldn't live here.

And Annalee couldn't leave Mommy behind. Not forever, when Mommy might be in trouble or hurt or worried to death. Mommy had been bad, but only by-accident bad, only because she got so worried about Annalee having friends. Not bad like a Sith lord. Not hurting the mirror people on purpose.

No, she wrote, I have to go and find her. But I'd like to come back some day.

Then I'll teach you, said the Jedi girl. There are doors to places like this everywhere. You just have to learn how to see them.

Mommy was standing at the comics table leafing through a book. Annalee ran to her so fast that she crashed into her legs.

"Oof," said Mommy. "Hi, you. Watch where you're going."

"I'm here, I'm here!" Annalee shouted, wrapping her arms around Mommy. "I'm here!"

"Well, you're very excited about something," said Mommy.

She didn't yell at Annalee for going missing, or for leading her into the mirror world, or for not coming right back. It was like Annalee had just run to the bathroom for a minute.

She'd been mind-tricked, Annalee realized. She didn't remember any of it.

Annalee and Mommy went home with a bag of books so huge that Annalee had to walk funny with her arms wrapped around it. In the car, she pressed her nose to the glass and saw doors laid down in the middle of the street. At a funny angle in the outside of a building, or in the bark of trees.

Some of the doors said "DO NOT ENTER." Some of them didn't.

Every once in a while, in Annalee's reflection, she thought she saw the Jedi girl. Glancing at her. Then glancing away. Always leaving just enough space.

I have a friend, Annalee thought to herself. Then, smiling wider, I have a world.

Ada Hoffmann is an Aspie from southern Ontario who studies computer science in grad school. Her work has appeared in Goblin Fruit and in "Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing".


I love this one.

Anyone who's interested in learning about actual conventions for people on the autism spectrum may want to check out Autreat and Autscape. As far as I know, breaking the rules at either event will not get you magicked away, nor will you be forced to choose between attending the convention and having the support (however incompetent it may be) of a neurotypical companion.


I found this story gorgeous and moving and see no reason why anyone should equate a fairy-inspired alternate SF convention with actual real-life conventions organised by and for people on the spectrum. I really like the idea that fairies can also be on the spectrum and have their own on-the-spectrum conventions where breaking the rules has fairy consequences that don't map on to human morality. And I LOVED actually having a story from an Aspie child's PoV that criticizes and problematizes her neurotypical parent's best intentions. This story is valuable and important and I'm very, very glad SH decided to run it.

This is beautiful and makes me wish I had a door without "Do Not Enter" on it!

Also, I laughed bitterly at this bit: Maybe he has Asperger Syndrome, like you, and he doesn't know how to behave around people. because it is SUCH an indictment of the way Asperger's gets used by NT people to excuse inappropriate behaviour by other people where there's no reason to think they're not NT.

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