Author's Note: I have written Little Miss Sunshine fanfiction. I never thought I would, really, but I had this idea and I couldn't help myself. Set quite awhile before the film—Grandpa is still at Sunset Manor, Frank is probably still chasing Josh, etc. This came about due to a discussion on the Little Miss Sunshine boards at IMDB about one of Dwayne's shirts, and how he probably made it himself.
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Sheryl Hoover did not pretend to understand her son.
She could somewhat understand his anger, of course—divorce is always painful for a child caught in the middle, even if that child happens to be a toddler, and Sheryl supposed her marriage to Richard, even though it came years after the separation, had just made everything more final. Added insult to injury, as it were.
If Dwayne were simply angry, Sheryl believed she could have dealt with the situation. She could have talked to him, had his father talk to him, had Richard talk to him, even sent him to therapy so someone else could talk to him, if it came to that. Sheryl had grown up between a younger brother and an older sister; the three of them had gone through their teens more or less together, and Sheryl knew from experience that those were always angry years—nothing a little talking couldn't fix.
But Dwayne was strange. Even she, his mother, had to admit that. He had a strange single-mindedness, a strange determination, a strange anger that was as much anger as sadness and disappointment and betrayal and resignation. Even before he stopped talking, Sheryl had the feeling that Dwayne's teenage rebellion couldn't easily be talked away.
Then he read Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and worse yet understood it, and worst of all appreciated it. Then came the weightlifting, the vow of silence, the notepad, the godawful painting of Friedrich Nietzche on his closet doors. At that point, Sheryl gave up. Her son was strange; she supposed she might as well admit it and let Dwayne's strangeness run its course.
Having made this decision, she found it shamefully easy to allow "leaving Dwayne alone" to turn into "not paying any attention to Dwayne". It might be bad parenting, but Sheryl was confronted on one hand with a relatively self-sufficient fifteen-year-old who hated everyone and didn't even talk anymore, and on the other with a precocious seven-year-old who was still absurdly fascinated with the world. Sheryl allowed her attention to drift to Olive without even meaning to. She didn't forget about her son, of course, but he simply lingered in the back of her mind—silent, staring, strange.
So it was that on one sunny Saturday afternoon, when Richard was taking Olive to visit her grandpa in the retirement community and Sheryl was taking the opportunity to relax on the couch with a new book that one of the women in the office had promised her was a terrific read, she was surprised by Dwayne's sudden appearance before her and a thrusting of his notepad into her face.
How do I make a shirt?
Sheryl read the note and looked up at her son, not understanding. "You want to make a shirt, honey?"
Dwayne pulled his notepad back and considered it for a moment before flipping to a new page and scribbling: I have a shirt. I want to draw a picture on it. He lifted his other hand to reveal a white T-shirt clasped in his hand.
Sheryl thought for a moment. She had never been an arts-and-crafts person, really—helping Olive cut heart-shaped Valentines out of red construction paper for her kindergarten class was about as crafty as she got. "Why don't you just draw it on with Sharpie?"
Dwayne wrote, Won't it wash off?
Sheryl considered the words, refusing to think about how odd it was that she was having this perfectly ordinary conversation with her son via notepad. Instead she tried to think back on every T-shirt project she'd ever had to do, which was not many. "I don't know, sweetie. I think they make fabric-paint-pens or something—maybe you should try those just to be on the safe side. You could probably find them at Target or Wal-mart, somewhere like that."
Dwayne retracted his notepad, slid the pen through the spiral, and put the pad in his pocket. Sheryl expected him to disappear again, but instead he remained standing patiently in front of her.
"Do you want to go now?"
He nodded. Sheryl was tempted to refuse, to say something like "Richard will take you when he gets home", to return to her book and once again shut him out, but something pulled guiltily inside her and she realized she really hadn't bothered much about her son lately. Setting her book on the coffee table, Sheryl smiled at him (he did not return it) and picked up the keys to the Miata.
"Well, let's go."
The drive to the store was unnervingly silent until Sheryl resorted to the radio (some lite-rock station playing "No Woman No Cry"). Dwayne leaned his head back against the headrest and stared out the window, and Sheryl remembered involuntarily the time, after she divorced her first husband and before she married her second, when it was just the two of them. They used to go out to dinner often, mostly because Sheryl rarely felt like cooking, and if Dwayne was good at dinner they might go out for ice cream afterwards, and then drive around Albuquerque in the little car, eating out of dripping cones and listening to Sheryl's old CDs.
Sheryl pulled into the parking lot.
The store was clean and bright and air-conditioned. Though she might not be an arts-and-crafts person, Sheryl had gone school shopping with both children enough times to know where the crafts things were. The two of them approached the aisle and stood surveying the items before them with almost critical eyes.
"There," Sheryl said suddenly, pointing. "Paint pens for use on fabrics. That should work."
Dwayne nodded and lifted the box of fabric pens carefully. It looked like something that belonged in a classroom—a box of bright, friendly pens in red, green, blue, purple, orange, and yellow, with black and brown thrown in as well for good measure. Dwayne pulled the notepad from his pocket and wrote quickly—I only want the black.
"Well, I don't see one with only black." Sheryl eyed the shelf again. "Let's just get that one, honey. Olive'll probably use the colors for something if you don't."
The drive home was a lot like the drive there, only the radio was playing "Macarthur Park" and Dwayne was scanning the instructions on the back of the box of pens. Sheryl idly watched the desert passing them by as she drove—it really was a beautiful day.
Richard and Olive were still not home when they pulled into the driveway. Dwayne disappeared into the house as soon as Sheryl turned the engine off. She sighed and climbed out of the car, not quite ready to return to the couch and the book.
Dwayne emerged from his room as Sheryl opened the door, holding a piece of white paper with a sketch on it. He had spread the shirt on the table and set the box of pens beside it, and now put the drawing down carefully. Sheryl watched him, oddly fascinated. Dwayne opened the box, pulled out the black and brown pens, uncapped the black one and lifted it over the shirt, and paused. He seemed uncertain how to proceed.
Sheryl moved closer. She couldn't see what the drawing was, exactly, but it seemed to involve quite a few sketchy lines and little shapes.
"That's kind of complicated for a T-shirt, don't you think?"
Dwayne glanced at her, but of course did not respond. Sheryl watched him for a moment longer before she was struck by a sudden flash of genius.
"It might be easier to copy," she began, "if you draw a grid on the paper and then draw one on the shirt. That way you can copy only little parts at a time."
Dwayne looked at her again. Sheryl rifled through her purse and pulled out a pencil with no eraser. "Like this," she said, and drew a line down the middle of the drawing, then across. She felt, for a moment, like the perfect creative, innovative mother, helping her child with a school project. Now she saw what the drawing was—a staring man with a star on his forehead. Sheryl knew she should not be surprised. Dwayne took the pencil from her hands with a surprising lack of brusqueness and began drawing lines down the shirt.
"The pencil will wash off, don't worry," Sheryl said, though of course Dwayne knew that. She stood back, watching him work for a moment. There was a strange care to his actions, a strange patience as he drew his lines, and suddenly Sheryl leaned forward and hugged him tightly.
"I love you," she said quietly, and it was true. She wanted him to respond, even if just to say "Get off", but instead he merely tolerated the embrace for a half a second before shrugging her lightly away. Sheryl pulled back and turned away. She was stopped by a tap on her arm and turned back to face the notepad again.
"You're welcome, sweetie," Sheryl said, and wanted to kiss him on the forehead like she would Olive, but of course that would not be tolerated. Instead, she gave him a tight smile, blinked back tears, and returned to her book.
That evening at dinner, Dwayne was wearing Big Brother on his shirt, which made Richard roll his eyes and shake his head as if he couldn't quite understand where his strange stepson had come from.
"I like your shirt, Dwayne," Olive said, adjusting her glasses, and she probably meant it, too. Sheryl smiled at her. Dwayne nodded his head in acknowledgement. A silence fell over the table, until Sheryl asked "What did you do with Grandpa, Olive?" and the little girl was off, describing Sunset Manor and Grandpa's friends there and all the fun they had had.
Sheryl wouldn't notice the shirt again until they were somewhere in the deserts of Arizona and there was a dead body in the trunk and Frank was there with his slashed wrists and there was a sign in the background that read "United We Stand" and Dwayne had tears streaming down his face as he faced her and begged, desperately, painfully, to be left alone. It was then, as Dwayne screamed "I hate you fucking people" (the first sound he had made in months), that all Sheryl could look at was the shirt, and all she could think of was that afternoon when the house was empty and it was just the two of them again and Dwayne had seemed, perhaps, a little less like a stranger and a little more like her son.