Chapter Description: Clark has to sit at the Littles' table for breakfast.
Chapter 44: The Most Traumatic Meal of the Day
There’s a big difference between breakfast service and lunch time in an elementary school cafeteria. Lunch time is organized. Every class has its own scheduled time and it’s own scheduled table with teacher assistants and cafeteria monitors keeping a close eye on the students. Students want nothing more than to sit, eat, destress and chat with each other about anything other than what they’re learning.
There’s only a measly half hour, if that, per class from the time they leave their classroom door till the time their equally bedraggled teachers shamble out from the teacher’s lounge to collect them. But things are always moving at a steady clip.
Mrs. Katzenburg’s second grade class is throwing away their garbage and leftovers and leaving one end of the building, all while Miss Jeffries’s fourth graders are getting in line to get their lunches. At the same time, there will be an aide wiping down Mrs. Katzenburg’s table, because as soon as they leave, it becomes Miss Jeffries’s table.
It’s chaos, (because kids), but it’s organized chaos.
Breakfast is worse.
There’s a little over half an hour from the time the first bus unloads until morning announcements and lessons start in earnest. And well over half of the students in the school don’t or didn’t or forgot to eat breakfast at home or want a second breakfast.
There is no leisure. There is no orderly filing in and out to the ticking of a clock. It’s all rush in, get your single serving cereal or your pre-packaged donut or grilled cheese sandwich (yes, grilled cheese is a breakfast item according to the Oakshire school board and public school nutritional guidelines), find the nearest empty seat, shovel it in, and then get to your classroom.
Kids talk to each other, (because kids), but anything that could be construed as leisurely or conversational is frowned upon if not outright quashed. Too many kids. Not enough time. Asinine rules about kids being allowed to take the food into the classroom.
The only exception to these circumstances were my preschool class and Mrs. Beouf’s “Maturosis and Developmental Plateau'' class. Mr. Mann, Brollish’s predecessor, allowed me to make other arrangements and a cart was delivered for my students to eat in the classroom. Brollish grandfathered it in.
Way back when, Beouf made the argument that since my children required so much supervision and were so young, they should get some special accommodations. Mann and Brollish agreed to it on the condition that there’d be “serious repercussions” if my room ever developed a bug problem.
In hindsight, it’s a wonder some crazed giant in the know didn’t go to a pet store or bait shop and release a bunch of creepy crawlers in my room overnight. I’ve got to think it’s only because they were sure I’d mess it up on my own or didn’t want the hassle of cleaning up the infestation they’d unleashed.
Beouf was the other exception. It wasn’t ‘fair’ to expect someone with the needs of a less than two-year-old to keep to such a tight schedule. That, and it’s not like they had graduation requirements. ‘Babies’ didn’t take any big multiple choice exam, and the only data needed was whether or not they were happy about filling their pants and chewing on plastic blocks. Beouf’s charges came to breakfast and stayed until Beouf and Zoge were good and certain that they’d had enough to eat.
I kept my head down, looking at the back of Ivy’s feet and biting my tongue to the point that I was sincerely wondering whether or not drawing blood might be desirable. The highchairs, the “Little Lunch Area” as it were, were positioned at the far end of the cafeteria. Every student exiting the building could get a good look at the Littles eating in their highchairs, reinforcing stereotypes and bullshit beliefs that this is where we belonged.
When we entered, the line to get breakfast was still backed up. The first round of students were only just now starting to leave for class. It wasn’t even eight o’clock and close to half the school population would see me being babied in broad daylight..
“Whoah!” a voice said. “Look at that.” I cringed and squinted my eyes, too afraid to close them. I was already being noticed. Except the voice came from directly behind me; from Billy...my classmate. Just thinking that felt weird.
The highchairs were gone. For a decade, longer actually, the Littles in Mrs. Beouf’s charge had been forced to eat meals in a combination of barebones highchairs that were manufactured by the lowest bidder and garage sale hand me downs. I always pretended those were from Amazons who’d decided to never adopt and just let their kids grow up, even if it was just as likely that they got a fancier highchair for their captive Little.
Denial is a powerful thing.
Those chairs had been an eyesore, and in more ways than just their purpose offending any decent person’s sensibilities, however. I often heard custodians and cafeteria workers complaining about them. They weren’t sturdy enough to be mopped around, and had to be moved and stacked against the wall time and time again and reshuffled for every meal. ‘Musical highchairs’ the joke was.
I’d caught peeks of any number of until then nameless Littles letting Zoge or Beouf know what they thought of the cuisine by dumping it straight on the floor. Oops. Baby didn’t like the spaghetti that day. Now someone had to come with a mop...again.
They also had to be spaced a certain way, too. With ten Littles, and two Amazons pretending to care for them, Zoge and Beouf were constantly shifting and shuffling, monitoring the behavior of adults who hated being treated like children. They couldn’t be placed too far from each other or Beouf and Zoge would run themselves ragged trying to force feed everyone.
As for too close: The ones bought specifically for the school were sturdy and weighted enough that they couldn’t be tipped over from inside. The hand-me-downs, with a little help, such as another Little pulling while the first rocked, stood a chance of tipping themselves over. When you’re prized for being cute and cuddly, self-harm is a form of rebellion.
I’d caught glimpses of such chaos. It was impossible not to. Shrieks, and almost crashes. Screams and cussing. I’d taken mental notes.
To be clear, I never thought I’d end up in the situation I was in. I also don’t think I’ll ever be chased through the woods by a machete wielding maniac with a hockey mask. It doesn’t mean I haven’t given thought on how I’d survive a horror movie.
I heard Billy mumble something, but between the noise of the cafeteria and the fact that Billy was likely talking over his shoulder down the handhold chain, I couldn’t make it out. It sounded like hope, though. Hope never lasts long, however. Not for Littles.
The highchairs had been removed. That much was true. Even from my height, it would have been easy enough to see the backs of them poking out above the heads of students and Amazon standard tables.
In their place were something new. Something much more diabolical. The script to my own personal horror movie had been flipped. “Mommy!” Ivy yelled. “We got new seats!”
Zoge nodded. “That’s right. Mrs. Beouf’s grant finally got approved.”
Two large Amazon sized kidney tables took up the space. The curved out middle section, the empty hole in the “C”, had an Amazon sized chair parked there. The other chairs were built into the table itself. Bright yellow bucket seats were installed into the table. Five to table..
Communal highchairs. Impossible to tip over from the inside. It’d take an Amazon really trying to flip it. Save for the edges to the left and right of the teacher seat it would be harder to throw food on the floor, too. Effectively five highchairs per table, and a spot for the guard to sit comfortably while still being within easy reach of the prisoners.
My heart sank. I had intended to be ‘good’ on my first day. But knowing defiance would be that much more difficult in the long term put a damper on any fantasies that I’d been carrying. Not even I was feeling crazy enough to risk throwing food right in Beouf or Zoge’s face.
“Clark!” Ivy shouted back to me. “We’ve got new seats!”
“Yeah,” I grimaced. “I know.”
One by one we were lifted and threaded into the bucket seats in the order we’d been led, leaving me sandwiched between Ivy and Billy in this giant communal highchair. We were quiet. Obedient.
Even Chaz didn’t resist or scream. He might have been loud and obnoxious being wheeled around in his stroller, but something had broken in him since we’d had that talk all the same.
We might have been lower to the ground than we would’ve been in the highchairs but the seats lacked footrests and our legs dangled. I instantly knew I hated the sensation. Not only was I trapped, but my legs were useless. I felt more than just captured. I felt weak. Helpless. Small.
The other Littles had reactions that ranged from blase, to thrilled. Ivy, in particular, squealed like she was being put on a rollercoaster ride. I heard a few gasps and comments of “cool”.
Me? My head was already on a swivel.
My ex-coworkers were seating themselves in chairs facing us and away from the rest of the cafeteria. That also meant that my seat was still facing over half the school. And the new furniture equipment might not have been as gaudy or tall as the highchairs, but I was still facing the sea of faces.
Furthermore, the equipment was new. People naturally take notice and give second glances at new things. Had I been captured a week earlier, there’d have been a slim chance that students would develop a case of tunnel vision and pass by the same group of Littles that they did everyday, not taking note of the new one amongst them.
I would be noticed. I would be recognized.
A cart similar to the one that was delivered to my old classroom was wheeled out by a Tweener cook in her fifties. I’d seen her in the lunchroom plenty of times, but I couldn’t quite grasp her name. Save for the bibs neatly stacked on the corner, and a pack of baby wipes the contents were virtually identical to what my kids would eat every morning.
“Good morning, Mrs. Beouf, Mrs. Zoge.” she chirped. “Good morning, Little Ones!”
“Good morning Agnes,” Beouf said. She riffled through a few of the bibs, apparently having memorized whose was whose. Zoge did the same and they went about tying them around the necks of their class..
“Clark...Grange?” the Tweener asked. She was holding up my bib and squinting at the initials sharpied on the back. “Who’s Clark Grange?”
Meekly, I raised my hand. I didn’t want to hear my own name, legal or otherwise, just then. Didn’t want tiny ears to prick up at hearing my voice. The lunch lady shuffled around and started to unfurl the bib. Being a Tweener, she didn’t tower over the seat, but she could easily reach from behind and fasten the bib on.
“Hi there!” she said. I said nothing. “I didn’t know Miss B. had a new student. You’ll like her. She’s a really nice lady.” I still said nothing. I looked at her, but only out of the corner of my eye. “Can you talk, cutie?” Nothing from me. Her hand reached out and gave me a pinch on the cheek. “Oh, you must be new to be so fussy. Maybe some breakfast in your tum-tum will cheer you up.” An image of me biting her fingers flashed across my brain.
Then a realization: She didn’t recognize me. She really didn’t recognize me. With my lack of facial hair and my new status I was as much a stranger to her as she was to me. When I was growing up, it blew my mind seeing a teacher or a doctor or any other professional out and about in public. My parents always had to point them out to me, too. People just don’t expect to see other people outside of certain contexts.
The same was true for Agnes. Word of my adoption hadn’t spread to the lowly lunch ladies yet, and for the time being I was just another Little baby on the first day of being broken down.
Good. Good. Well, not good….but delayed pain is still delayed. Point being, if word hadn’t spread to the entire faculty and staff, then the students had next to zero chance of knowing. I’d made my career and life by being memorable and influential to Amazon children and banking on their parents looking right through me. If I was going to last in this new life long enough to escape it, maybe I could pull off the inverse.
“Mr. G’s just feeling shy.” I sucked in my breath and looked to my right. Billy was leaning forward in the bucket seat. A mop smug smile had blossomed right beneath his mop of messy brown hair. A cruel glint in his gray eyes. Seven days ago, I wouldn’t have been able to pick the guy out of a lineup; I did my best not to think of Beouf’s charges. Billy’s grin made it look like I’d kicked sand in his face every day.
A look of recognition was just starting to dawn on the Tweener. “Mister...G...?” She looked at me with fresh eyes.
“Hi…” I mumbled.
A gasp. Then a confused shriek of “MR. GIBSON?!” Heads started turning. Not just the Littles seated around me, but students sitting at the closest tables. Mutters of my name from prepubescent voices. I froze, as if they were prehistoric lizards who were attracted to movement.
A few kids looked down on the ground, as if I might be just underfoot. Others scanned the breakfast line and looked towards the entrances and exit. The older ones; the taller ones just starting to hit puberty and could see over their peers' heads; the ones who had had the longest time away from my example and influence; they were the ones that spotted me first.
There was no chorus of shrieks or laughter. No ocean of mockery. No ripping the band-aid off. It was a smattering of eye contact and pointed fingers. An elbow to a friend. A giggle hidden behind the palm of the hand. Like a thousand mosquito bites it kept happening and would continue to happen. The schoolyard gossip chain had started. By the end of the day, every student on campus would know that the one Little teacher was no longer an adult.
Ivy ripped me out of the frustrating future and back into the painful present. “He’s not Mr. Gibson anymore,” she said to the cook. “Miss Grange is his Mommy!”
“Oh...yes…” the Tweener said. “You’re very...lucky...Clark.” The sound of my name looked like it left a bad taste in her mouth. “Mrs. B. is very good at her job and I know you’ll be...happy...with your Mommy.” She swallowed. Now she was the one avoiding eye contact. It was easier to baby someone when you didn’t know the adult they were once allowed to be.
“Agnes?” Beouf interrupted. “A little help?”
“Oh! Of course.” Breakfast trays were passed out, but the Tweener kept looking at me. It reminded me of the way people have a tendency to stare at the corpse in an open casket funeral. There was something both fascinating and repulsive about it. I was the corpse. “Frantz Toast bites,” she said, cheerfully. “Finger foods.” With all the grub passed out, she took that as her cue to leave.
Cafeteria food will never be gourmet, but calling fried bread bits drenched in imitation maple syrup “Frantz Toast” is an insult to all that is culinary. Ivy, of course, dug right in, getting gobs of syrup and crumbs all over her mouth. Others also ate quickly, if less messily. Some even thought to daintily use their bib as a napkin. In my mind, I started sizing the rest of the class up, guessing how broken they were based on how they ate.
Ivy was at the bottom of course. Billy and Annie next to me seemed to have most of their dignity intact. A guy in overalls at the other table was either halfway to toddler town or he hadn’t eaten in days from the way he refused to chew his food or wipe his mouth. Chaz was actually nibbling his portion, going so far as to stick his pinky up in mock daintiness. Zoge sat down at his table and said something that made him pick up his pace.
Beouf finally sat down at the table and took stock. “Don’t eat too fast, kids” she said. “I don’t want anybody getting a tummy ache.” Then she saw my plate, untouched. “Go ahead, Clark,” she told me sweetly. “You don’t have to be shy. Eat up before it gets cold.”
“We’ve got new seats!’
“Yes, Ivy, that’s right.” Then back to me. “Go ahead Clark. Eat up.” I hesitated. Whether out of needing to processes, indecision, or a shred of defiance, I couldn’t say. “Unless you want me to cut them up for you…”
I crammed the first dough ball in my mouth, chewed and swallowed. Beouf cackled the way she had when we’d gotten one over on Brollish. Now she’d gotten one over on me. Real funny. Real cute.
The second bite was easier. So was the third. My new teacher stopped eyeballing me, satisfied that I was being good. The adrenaline and panic of being noticed had suppressed much of my hunger, but adrenaline and panic could only go so far before basic needs had to be met.
On the fourth bite, my guts gurgled and I felt another cramp. Oh yeah. I hadn’t pooped last night and it was catching up to me, now. I had nearly forgotten about it, but just as with hunger, adrenaline and panic could only go so far before basic needs had to be met.
I sat up as best I could and clenched my cheeks together. That didn’t alleviate any of the pain as the next cramp wracked me. I let out a low groan and stuffed my mouth with more sub-par food. I’d imagined myself making it to at least naptime after lunch before I’d need changing. On average, I was able to make it till lunch without a bathroom break so it stood to reason the same would apply. I’d fantasized about somehow managing to get to use a toilet. But making it till Lunch wasn’t going to be in the cards.
I pictured myself hiding in the corner like my nephew did. Maybe I could vomit and relieve some of the pressure that way. Wasn’t vomiting an automatic ticket home sick? Given the choice between Janet’s house and Oakshire Elementary, I had my preferences just then. But then, I might not get to see Cassie…
Teeth gritted, I started to lean forward. I might not be able to make it that long.
“Hi Mrs. Beouf,” an Amazon girl said. She had glasses and strawberry blonde hair and an almost birdlike boniness. Girls tended to hit their growth spurts earlier than boys. “Is that Mr. Gibson?” Hyacinth. One of my former students. One of Janet’s too.
Beouf turned in her seat and regarded the girl. “Miss Grange adopted him, so his last name isn’t Gibson anymore.” She spoke with a matter of fact tone about it, neither good nor bad.
“Is he a baby?” Leave it to a kid to cut right to the chase. I felt my face turn hot. I bowed my head and crossed my arms, retreating into myself. It helped the cramps a bit...not much...but a bit.
Beouf grabbed a baby wipe and ran it over the mouth of a woman in her late twenties wearing a Nora the Discoverer toddler shirt. “He is now.”
The girl shuffled a bit, seeming uncomfortable. “Was he always a baby?”
Beouf shook her head. “No. Not always. He grew up. But Clark is a Little, and sometimes Littles will grow back down.” I said nothing, knowing it wouldn’t help my case. “So I get to be his teacher, now.”
The fourth-grader wiped her brow cartoonishly. “That’s a relief,” she said. Her nose wrinkled a bit. “I was afraid that I’d been taught to read by a baby.” The word was almost a swear coming out of the girl’s mouth. “But if he just turned into a baby, that’s okay I guess.”
The giant woman nodded approvingly. “Exactly. Now quit stallin’ and get to class. If you wanna play with the babies, you gotta graduate, first.”
“Yes ma’am,” Hyacinth giggled and started off. Before she left, she caught herself and looked right at me. “Bye, Clark. Have a good day at school! Thanks for being my teacher when you were an adult. I hope you have fun being a baby!”
I stopped eating. I clenched my cheeks even harder. I didn’t care how hungry I was. I wouldn’t debase myself in such a way. I wouldn’t prove them right anymore than I had to.
“Clark?” Beouf said. “You stopped eating, hun.” My plate was still about half full while the rest of the prisoners had cleaned theirs. The two giants were grabbing fistfuls of wipes and getting at everyone else’s mouths and fingers “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I pouted. Another cramp made me wince. Damnit.
There was another key difference to Beouf’s breakfast cart. The bottom rung of what used to be “my cart” was stocked with milk cartons. No cartons for us. Just bottles of milk. “Here ya go,” they said to each Little. All of them took the milk and started chugging away. “Both hands, Shauna. Both hands, Billy. Good girl, Ivy.” There’s very little one can do to look dignified or ‘grown-up’ when drinking a baby bottle full of milk.
And that was assuming that there was only milk in those bottles...my mouth went dry thinking about that.
“Pinkies in, Chaz.” I heard Zoge say.
“Clark, if you want some milk you’re going to have to finish your toast.”
“I don’t want to finish my toast,” I said simply. “I don’t want milk, either.”
It must have come off as more whiny than I had intended; must’ve been the cramps. That or just as likely Beouf was looking for something that wasn’t there. “Clark,” her tone took on an edge of warning. “I know your Mommy would be awfully sad to hear about you being a fussy eater.”
There were no more cramps by this point. My entire abdomen was just one sharp ache punctuated occasionally by sharper aches. Despite that, I tried to think through the pain and reason with Beouf, try to rebuttal in some way that wouldn’t activate her crazy. Amazons, even typical ones, could be fairly reasonable as long as you didn’t poke at the center of their unreasoning.
But when I opened my mouth, I accidentally looked over her shoulder. My blood ran cold at what I saw next. Toddling out of the breakfast line, last out of all the students and being escorted by Tracy, were the preschoolers.
My kids. My students. The four-year-olds that I’d already had a year with. The three-year- olds I’d just started to teach.
My successor had chosen to do away with eating breakfast in her classroom, and she brought up the back of the line, snarling and shooing the children to the nearest table. “I know this is new,” I heard Tracy say. “But new can be fun!” I imagine that her eyes gave away the lie in that statement, but I could only see the back of my aide’s head. I only heard her because the majority of kids had already been pushed ahead to their class.
The roar was gone, being replaced by the quiet echoes of garbage being tossed, opened mouthed smacking, and a kitchen staff starting to clean.
“Finish your breakfast, Clark,” Beouf said to my gobsmacked silence. “Be a good boy and eat it all up.” Then she tacked on, “If you don’t, me and you will just sit here until you do. Mrs. Zoge will take everyone else to class without us.” A quick glance to her aide and a nod confirmed it.
I did my own scan of the table. My new classmates had a look that told me she was serious. Ivy looked as though I’d been threatened with the death penalty, (as opposed to just cruel and unusual punishment).
I felt something inside me push. My dangling feet flailed in panic. It wouldn’t be long now. “Okay, okay,” I said, terror tinging my voice. “I’ll eat. I’ll eat. But please…” I crooked my finger and beckoned her. “Can I please...please…” I whispered when she leaned in, ”just this once...go to the bathroom?”
I hadn’t whispered quietly enough.
“YEAH!” Billy yelled. “I GOTTA GO POTTY TOO!”
“ME TOO!” Annie yelled. “I’M A BIG GIRL WHO USES THE POTTY ALL DAY LONG!”
A few more cries of “BIG BOY” “BIG GIRL” and “POTTY” rang out at the other table, making us seem like clucking hens...or small children who just wanted to hear themselves babble.
The preschoolers turned around, completely engrossed in the unfolding calamity. Tracy had to yank one down from the chair he was standing in.
I saw a pair of wicked smiles to my right. I didn’t know if Annie and Billy were purposefully using such childish vocabulary or whether it had just been coded into them, but I guessed at their intent. They were trying to hurt my credibility by association.
“I know that’s a big old fib,” Beouf said to the pair. “Billy, you pooped a few minutes ago, or did you think I didn’t notice you leaning forward and smiling like you do?” The Little man in the gray onesie turned beet red at being called out. “And Annie you were wet when I picked you up and put you in there.” Annie turned pale and slinked down. “Mrs. B. checks. Mrs. B. knows. Everybody here at the table needs changing except for maybe Shauna.”
“And me…” I said, trying to keep my composure. This was a losing battle. The only thing keeping the back of my diaper clean was gravity and the hard plastic of the bucket seat. Toilet or no, something was going to come out...and soon. I’d still rather soil myself in private.
I saw my “teacher” work her jaw and mull it over for a moment. I grit my teeth. I didn’t have many moments left. She looked to Zoge. “What do you think? Is he stalling?”
Zoge nodded, and in her oddly musical cadence said, “Most definitely. He thought he was wet before the buses. Dry as a bone. I don’t think he knows the difference.”
“Thought so.” Beouf grabbed a piece of toast and held it out to me. “Come on baby. Eat up.”
Out of time.
Too much pain. Too many muscles involuntary spasming. My palms slapped the table. My body leaned forward. “Ah.” Beouf read that as an invitation to push the piece into my mouth.
My body pushed.
The mess poured out of me into the back of my pants. I kept my mouth open, panting as the hot mess spread, pressing up against the diaper before being smeared across my backside. I didn’t will it. I didn’t push it. My body had just betrayed me. I felt the lump grow and grow and the cramps lessen and lessen. In the back of my ear, like chewing a potato chip, I heard a nearly inaudible hiss as my bladder got in on the act and the soft crinkle as my Monkeez ballooned and expanded. Finally, my strength gave out and I leaned back, squishing the lump in my shorts.
The whole act took less than thirty seconds. Not quite ten, I imagine. But for those ten seconds of agony, all eyes were on me. Beouf. Zoge. The other Littles. My replacement. My students. Only Tracy pretended to look away.
“It’s okay, baby,” Beouf cooed at me, not a trace of guilt or embarrassment in her voice. “Finish your breakfast and we’ll change you when we get back to our classroom.”
The preschoolers turned around and started eating their breakfast. The few straggling older kids threw their garbage away and ran to class. Nothing to see here. A Little made poopy in his pants; it’s what Littles did as far as everyone was concerned.
So I ate.
I finished my Frantz Toast bites.
I got my mouth and hands wiped.
I drank my bottle of milk as fast as I could.
I got my bib taken off and then lifted out of the bucket seat.
I held hands with Ivy and Billy and reformed the line.
I walked out of the cafeteria and back to Beouf’s classroom.
All for the lie that it was okay and the promise of a clean diaper.