This story was commissioned by Fossil
t’s not right. Charlie shields his eyes with his hands from the late afternoon sun. “Can’t see.”
“It’s okay.” Miss Anderson lowers the boy to the ground. “Go say hello.”
When Charlie hangs back, tugging instinctively on Miss Anderson’s skirt, she laughs and pats his padded rear. “Go on, silly. She came out specially to play with you.”
But isn’t that the problem? A ‘she’, wearing a white dress. Girls don’t work, isn’t that what Ruth proved? Charlie had expected another boy, someone to run around with, to get messy with, even to wrestle. So he could shake off his tingles, so he could forget all the trauma that had brought him to Parkdale.
Wasn’t that the reason for coming here? Wasn’t that why he walked all that way to the school in the first place? Charlie blinks into the sunshine, getting used to the light. It had rained all day, and he remembers his wet clothes, his waterlogged shoes.
Shoes? He looks down in surprise at his bare feet, and then he tugs anew at the teacher’s skirt. “Where are my shoes?” Weh mah shoo?”
The woman shakes her head. “You don’t need shoes, Charlie. The playground is outside, but it’s rubber mats, not prickly ground. You’re quite safe. Besides…” She points over at the girl who is standing by the merry-go round with her back to them. a silhouette against the sun. “She’s not wearing shoes either. You don’t want her to feel silly, do you?”
Charlie shrugs. He doesn’t care how the girl feels.
“Go on,” says Miss Anderson. “Unless you want me to carry you? Unless you’re just a little baby?”
Charlie huffs. “Big boy.” And he walks towards the girl.
He across the playground surface. Just as Miss Anderson stated, the ground is a rubber matting and the rainwater has drained through it. It’s only when Charlie looks to his left, at the bottom of a grassy verge, that he sees a collection of puddles.
The girl doesn’t turn around when he reaches her. Just a couple of feet away, Charlie looks at her dress; ivory-coloured, not white as he’d first thought, with a large bow on the back, making her appear like a tidily wrapped gift. Sunlight plays on the long hair flowing down her back, and Charlie looks down to confirm that yes, just like him, she is not wearing any shoes.
Charlie looks back to the school entrance, to the reassurance of Miss Anderson, and he is suddenly sure that she will be gone, because doesn’t everyone leave?
No. She’s standing in the doorway, arms folded. A sentinel.
Charlie turns back to the girl. “Hi,” he says. Softly. Too softly.
And yet the girl turns around. She grins. “What kept you?”
Charlie frowns. “Was…had to help…”
“I’m just teasing,” says the girl. She’s definitely older than him, but she’s still a child.
“I’m Nicole,” she says, sticking out her hand in a fashion that seems both absurdly formal and reassuring at the same time.
Charlie shakes her hand and says his name. Her skin is soft, and he wonders if he’ll get the chance to touch it again.
She smiles sweetly. “I like your dinosaur.”
Charlie pokes the decoration on his overalls self-consciously. “You’re a girl,” he says.
Nicole giggles. “Girls can like dinosaurs too, silly!” She twists her hips, swishing the skirt of her knee-length dress.
In Charlie’s opinion, the girl is very pretty. But he won’t tell her so. Where has making comments like that gotten him in the past? His nose wrinkles as he remembers what Ruth would always ask before they went out – How do I look? – and when Charlie told her – Beautiful, Amazing, Perfect – she would dismiss his compliments. Oh, you would say that.
This girl doesn’t solicit a compliment. She looks critically at herself and says, “I shouldn’t really be wearing this in the playground, I better not get it messy.” She purses her lips and then says, “At least it stopped raining, finally. I wasn’t meant to be here today.”
So she wasn’t looking for someone to play with. Why is she even here? Charlie looks up at her. She’s taller and he is, she’s definitely older. She belongs here at school, and Charlie is too small. He will end up in nursery school, or worse.
“Not a baby,” Charlie blurts. He blushes. “Helped the teacher.” He points over at Miss Anderson, as if this will prove his case.
“I know,” replies Nicole. “Miss Anderson said you were such a good helper, and she asked me to come and play with you.” She beams. “Like a reward.”
But Charlie can’t be friends with a girl. They break his heart, they leave him in pieces. He looks over at Miss Anderson. Doesn’t she know him at all? Betrayed!
Miss Anderson sees the look and she smiles. She flaps her hands at him, as if to say, Go on and play.
“Come on,” Nicole says, “get on. I’ll give you a spin.”
The platform is divided into six primary-coloured triangles, equipped with matching bars for holding onto.
Charlie climbs onto a red triangle, because it will match his school sweatshirt. As soon as he’s standing on the platform, he remembers that he’s wearing blue now. But at least he can feel bigger now – when he stands on the platform, he’s equal height to the girl.
“Ready?” asks Nicole.
Charlie nods. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t.
The girl grins. “Better hold on.”
Charlie reaches for the holding bar, and perhaps he’s too small for this, perhaps this is dangerous. The idea makes his bladder ache, and he definitely should have gone to the toilet when he had the chance. He throws a look in Miss Anderson’s direction, but the teacher doesn’t look worried. In fact, she’s barely paying attention, busy on her phone.
Nicole starts pushing the outer bar, walking alongside and keeping her eyes on Charlie. “Let me know if it’s too fast,” she says.”
Charlie hangs on as the platform picks up speed. It can’t be that fast, can it? Being pushed by a little girl? And yet it feels fast enough, it feels super-sonic, and Charlie cries out in delight, watching the world spin around, watching the girl in the ivory dress run around, her hair streaming behind her.
“I’m…getting…out of…breath!” Nicole pants, laughing. She shouts, “This fast enough?”
Charlie nods, shrieking, hanging on with both hands, closing his eyes and focusing on the motion, and then he hears a clang of metal as Nicole jumps onto the merry-go-round.
“Hi,” she says breathlessly, face flushed, and she sits down on the red triangle and Charlie falls down to face her, and they sit opposite each other, bare feet touching, hands holding, and grinning at each other as the rest of the world spins around them, forgotten.
“I’m puffed,” says Nicole.
“You’re a good pusher,” Charlie says, as the platform continues to turn with a metallic grind, but it’s slowing down, and soon it will stop, they will get off, and…and then what?
“Good question,” Ruth says, from nowhere, from everywhere.
Charlie squeezes his eyes shut, plugs fingers into his ears.
But he can’t drown his fiancée out.
“This your new girlfriend? Looks about right. More your speed, God knows, you can’t handle a full-sized one.”
“No,” Charlie whines.
Nicole reaches over and pats his legs. “Back, is she?”
Charlie opens his eyes and gives the girl a questioning look.
“Oh, I know all about her, Miss Anderson told me.” The merry-go-round has slowed, it is ready to stop, and Nicole lifts her hands and gestures around them. “She’s not here, and yet you hear her.” She taps her temple. “It’s all in here, which is bad enough. It’s like she’s still alive but she’s haunting you, which isn’t very nice.”
Nicole spreads her legs apart and pats the space between them. “Come and have a cuddle.”
“Yeah,” comes Ruth’s voice. “Go on. Best friends forever, the pair of you.” And her tone manages to be sweet and vicious at the same time. “So…cute.”
Charlie shakes his head. “Don’t want to.”
Nicole doesn’t seem offended. She raises an eyebrow. “Because you don’t like cuddles? Because you think I’ll be like the bad girl?”
Charlie nods, miserable. He’s dug himself into a hole and now he’ll never get out. Not even with a magical town like Parkdale to help him. Miss Anderson can’t fix him, and neither can Nicole.
She holds up a finger. “I’m not like the bad girl. I’m nothing like her, I won’t take from you. I’m kind of like the opposite.” She giggles, reaching behind her. “Because I’ve got a bow. I’m like a gift.”
And Charlie almost understands. Because he’s shaken the girl’s hand. He’s touched her feet with his own.
“I have a special power,” she says. She looks back towards the school and says, “I’m not sure how I got it. It’s a bit confusing. But I have a special job. Like each of the pups on Paw Patrol, you know?”
Charlie shakes his head. No, he doesn’t know.
Nicole puts a hand to her mouth and laughs. “Oh, you’re going to love that show.”
A special power. A special job. The merry-go-round is still, and Charlie gets to his feet, trying to make sense of his new friend. There is something about her, something extraordinary. But a special power? Can she fly? Can she leap tall buildings?
No, it’s nothing like that. Charlie knows this already. Because he shook her hand, because he’s touched her skin.
“Do you want to forget about the bad girl?” Nicole asks softly, and her arms open wide. “Do you want her to stop?”
Charlie’s eyes fill with tears. “Uh-huh!”
“Then come here, silly.”
Charlie hesitates. What’s the deal? What is he giving up?
But then he hears Ruth take a deep breath, ready to tell him the very worst things, ready to give him hell.
Charlie stumbles forward, falls into Nicole’s lap.
Her arms hold him tight.
“There. Enough. Just breathe.”
Charlie does as he’s told, slumped against her, and he can smell the sweetest, the most delicious apples.
There is no blanket, no soft cloth. The scent is on Nicole’s skin, it is in her hair, and Charlie inhales deeply, as if he hasn’t taken a breath for the longest time.
“Feeling better now?”
Nicole holds him tight, she kisses the top of his head. “Miss Anderson will take you to the nursery school in a little while. And then Mummy will come and take you home. It’s all been arranged. And you might get a bit smaller, but not too much. Besides, you don’t have to worry about any of that.” She strokes his back. “You don’t have to worry about grown-up stuff, because you’re just a sweet little boy, aren’t you.”
Charlie’s response is to burrow and nuzzle more deeply against the girl’s apple-scented body. Is he a little smaller already? Perhaps. He lets go of such questions at the same time as letting go of his bladder and bowels, a rushing warmth in between his legs, soaking his training pants and darkening the crotch of his overalls.
“Yes,” Nicole says, getting to her feet and carrying Charlie off the merry-go-round before putting him gently back down. “You’re not worried at all.” She giggles. “I was going to play in the puddles with you,” she says, “but I think you’re messy enough.”
“Meh…meff,” Charlie agrees, and he points enthusiastically towards the muddy puddle at the bottom of the grassy slope.
“Really?” asks Nicole, straight-faced? “And with me in my pretty dress?”
Charlie pulls on the girl’s hand. He wants to investigate, he’s not ready for nursery school, not quite yet.
“You’re going the wrong way,” calls a voice.
Charlie looks around him and finds the source. It’s not in his head, it’s Miss Anderson. She taps her wrist pointedly. “Children, it’s time to go.” She looks directly at Nicole. “Does he need changing?”
Nicole grins. “Little bit.” She keeps heading toward the grass. “Back in a second,” she calls out.
Just a few more steps, Charlie’s mess squelching between his legs, his the rear of his overalls with a telltale droop. The children walk hand-in-hand, the older girl telling the younger boy about nursery school, and about Paw Patrol, and about how the bad girl has gone away, he’ll never hear her again, not even in the darkest of dreams.
Two pairs of feet on the grass. Charlie smiles faintly at the green, damp blades between his toes.
“Make a splash?” Nicole suggests, her eyes wide and innocent.
Charlie giggles around the thumb that has somehow made its way into his mouth. The water will be wet, it will be cold. He can guess that much. He can guess that he will love it.
Nicole lifts him with a grunt – “Such a big boy!” and then lowers him into the puddle.
“Splish-splash,” says the girl brightly. “Splish-splash.”
“Spi-spah!” agrees Charlie, and he gazes down, momentarily mesmerized by the rainwater that has left his feet submerged.
“Watch this,” says Nicole. And she jumps – because she can, she’s a big girl, not a toddler – and lands with both her feet in the puddle, making Charlie shriek with delight, and splashing muddy water on both their legs.
“Ooops,” Nicole says. “I suppose we’ll both need baths tonight, hmm?”
Charlie attempts to copy Nicole, but his lazy, clumsy legs aren’t up to the job, and it’s only Nicole’s quick grab that stops Charlie falling completely into the water. She keeps hold of his arm as he splashes – Spi-spah! Spi-spah! – making both of them even wetter and dirtier, until he stops, tired out, his face glowing.
He is incapable of pondering how muddy water can feel so cleansing, but he can appreciate the speckled stains on Nicole’s pretty dress, the grit between his wriggling toes, and the jiggling load in his underwear.
There are no echoes in his mind, no troubling whispers. There’s only Nicole’s voice, and Charlie’s babbling response. Finally, he is free. No more ghosts, no more taunting echoes, as he allows Nicole to lead him back to Miss Anderson. Only the future, simple and brightly-coloured, with the promise of Battenberg cake, orange squash, and a lovely, clean nappy.
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Ouroboros · Nov 9, 2021Such a sweet ending. I wonder how small some of us would have to get to forget all of our adult world worries. Probably very small indeed.