The next two hours were a blur. Usually, that expression means that everything moved fast. Not so in this instance. The timer went off at a snail’s pace. It was like watching the world go by encased in amber. Swimming through jello. This sense of “other” that made everything drag on and on and on.
It wasn’t because of boredom either. There was just too much going on for me to focus? Who was crying in the other room? What happened? Was my bladder full enough to pee?
The play area was the most normal station. Nothing but toddler and baby toys. I sat on the floor with my back against a shelf, and most of my body hidden by a dollhouse.
“Clark! Look at me! I made a pony!” The block construction looked nothing like a horse. It was however sturdy enough to hold up the ragdoll. If I hadn’t known any better, I’d have assumed the jutting in the back that propped the doll up was on purpose.
“That’s nice Ivy.” Was it just a regular kid cry? Like a routine being interrupted, or was he being scorned? A boy. I’m pretty sure it was one of the boys. Should I pee now? Would anyone notice? I felt the slight aching sensation, but that might have been a placebo effect. Having to go to the bathroom, because I was thinking about it.
Ivy poked me in the shoulder. “Why aren’t you playing?”
“Do you want me to show you how? A lotta new kids don’t know how and they gotta learn. I’m really good with pretend food and playin’ kitchen!”
So much wrong with that statement. “No thanks, Ivy.”
The reading area was full of children’s stories. Decent reading level, but still easy reads. Lots of “classic” stories that have no doubt shaped Amazonian worldviews for generations. The Three Little Pigs. Little Red Riding Hood. The Brave Little Toaster. Anything that was personified as ‘Little’, eventually accepted that they needed somebody bigger, stronger, and more grown-up to protect and take care of them.
Not everything was pure propaganda: The Cat in the Spats, The Diggengest Hog, and an old copy of The Breeze In The Trees were shelved also. A couple books that might have been in my student library were there, too. The Shape Family, The King Learns to Count. Color Me Surprised.
Nostalgia and escapism tempted me. It might be nice to spend just a while just blocking out the nursery around me and forgetting about the world. That’s what Beouf and Zoge wanted though. And put stories like Dennis the Diesel Engine and Journey Into Imagination Land right next to Are You My Mommy? and I Wish I Was a Grown-Up presented the idea that all the stories were just as valid as one another.
“Clark? Can I read to you? I’m a good reader! My Mommy says so!”
“No thanks, Ivy.” I leaned back and pulled one of the beanbags over my legs like a blanket. “I’m just going to close my eyes.”
My mind was still whirring. Was that crying kid one of the three year olds or the four year olds? I’d barely gotten to know the three year olds. Were they being yelled at? Should I pee now? Would it be better to hold it in and let it go all at once? Or just in little spurts?
What would Cassie think of all this? Secretly, that was an answer I felt I already knew. But I kept the secret to myself. I needed what hope I could get.
“Some cats stay kittens,” Ivy read. “Some doggos stay pups. Just because you’re done growing doesn’t mean you’re grown up.” My eyes shot open.
“Ivy, I thought you said you weren’t going to read to me.”
“I’m not,” Ivy said. “I’m just readin’.” She looked down to her page and kept reading. “And that’s just fine. No one is quite the same. So be Little and giggle and have fun playing games.” I rolled my eyes. Because of course she didn’t know how to read to herself.
I turned my head and looked at the cover. An illustration of what must be a Little boy in just a T-shirt and diaper sitting on the bathroom floor grinning up at the reader, a pile of toilet paper pooled by his feet. The Title was “Done Growing Up: By Dr. Jerry Wolf.
I bit my tongue and swallowed any comment I was about to make. I wondered vaguely if I could rip pages out of a book discretely enough so that no one would notice. Maybe a page a day? I’d have to hope that Ivy wouldn’t be my shadow. She’d totally tattle on me.
“Some are born to be a mother, some are born to be a dad. Some are born to be a baby and that’s not at all bad.”
I’m not going to quote from that book further. I’m not afraid of copyright infringement, but I refuse to give that awful mess of mindfuck gaslighting any more publicity. It’s practically an Amazonian cartoon put on still paper.
Suffice it to say, Ivy read it...out loud...the whole thing...
Zoge’s station was with clay. “Teamwork clay,” Zoge called it. I had to guide Ivy’s hands to help her make what she wanted. Then she had to do the same for me. Another desensitization premise. Get used to people doing hand over hand with me and violating my personal space.
Zoge showed both of us. Naturally, she didn’t offer either of us to guide her hands.
“I wanna Octopus!” Ivy said. “Clark, can you help me make an octopus?”
I grabbed the top of Ivy’s hands and began to work her fingers for her, flattening out the clay and then making it into a ball.
Definitely couldn’t pee now. Too much sensory input. Too many people looking at me. Would I even get changed before lunch? Or was this just all another trick to getting me used to sitting in wet pants? What did Tracy tell the students who remembered me? Had she cried over me? At all?
“Mrs. Zoge,” I asked. “Can you fill up my bottle again?”
“It’s almost snack time, Little one. You can wait.” It wasn’t mean. Just the patient retort of someone used to teaching delayed gratification. And as always her speech had that vaguely musical quality to it. “I’ll fill your bottle first thing at snack time.”
Ivy made her eyes into saucers. “Pleeease, Mommy. He’s been super good!”
Zoge’s mouth twisted. “Alright,” she sighed. She took my bottle and went over to the sink.
“Thanks.” I said.
“Welcome.” A beat. “Instead of an octopus you could help me make a jar.”
“One time, a long time ago, Mommy and Daddy were watching a movie on T.V. Two grown-ups did this and made a jar instead of octopus. But it was on a spinny table thing. Would that make you feel better?”
I rattled my head. “Huh?”
“Yeah, but the boy was standing behind the lady, and the lady seemed to be really really liking it, and this pretty music was playing. Mommy said it was just pretend. That’s when I learned that grown-ups play pretend too.”
The reference clicked. “Oh oh. Um...no.”
Ivy nodded. “Okay. I just thought maybe if we did this more like the grown-ups you might like it better.” I didn’t say anything. So close and yet so far away. “Clark?” she asked.
“What’s it like pretending to be a grown-up?”
I had no idea how to answer that or why it had even been asked. Ivy was more messed up than I thought. Her Mommy came back with my bottle, and Ivy took the opportunity to pop her pacifier back into her mouth. Coincidental? Or asking me to keep a secret? I didn’t know.
I stalled through the rest of that center and chugged the water bottle down. Ivy made do using just my one hand. Apparently, we were making a flower together.
“Why do you get the octopus and I get the flower?”
“Do you want the octopus?”
And on it went.
I let out a belch, but covered my mouth with the crook of my elbow
“Need help?” Zoge asked.
I pictured myself being picked up and burped. “No, thank you!”
“Okay,” Zoge said easily enough. “Just let me know. It’s okay to ask for help.”
I finally managed to pee just before snack time. Ivy and I were at the independent center working on a strange puzzle: Three dimensional. Stuck together without the usual grooves of jigsaws. But no idea of what it was supposed to be. And the puzzle moved itself everytime a new piece was put in.
“The trick is to not build it as you want it, but as it could be.” She put a piece onto a standing oval and it fell down into a prism. I added a piece and it just collapsed into a broken pile. Wrong piece I guess.
“What does that even mean?”
Ivy grinned. “I don’t know. I just think it sounds cool! I’ve never finished it but I can get it pretty high before it breaks.” If Ivy the Lifer wasn’t sure how to work this, what hope did I have? How did this puzzle even work? Magnets?
But at least she kept quiet. No reading. No. “Look at this”. No odd questions. This was genuinely challenging for her. Everyone else seemed preoccupied too. Alone...or as close to it as I was likely to get. Relatively quiet.
I let go, and hoped it’d be enough to get me back into white sailor shorts.
I jumped at Ivy’s voice. “How could you tell?” I whispered.
“Your breathing changed. Also your eyes were looking down like you were tryin’ to aim. Lotta boys do it before they get unpotty trained. Don’t worry. I don’t think the grown-ups notice as much.”
“I’m an adult.” I hissed.
Ivy managed to get the puzzle into a tower shape. She had to stand up from her seat and raise her arms to reach the top. Showed just how useless the hem of her dress was. “I know,” she said. “So am I. But done growing doesn’t mean grown-up.”
I closed my eyes and shuddered to suppress my rage.
Snack time finally happened. There was no snack table, proper. Even in Beouf’s class there was only so much real estate. Instead, the activity table and the two kidney tables were repurposed.
Beouf passed out paper towels to stand in for plates and Zoge was right behind her with a box. Me? I couldn’t find a place to sit.
“Sorry,” Shauna said. “I’m saving this seat.”
I looked around. “Who? Ivy?” She was the only besides me not seated.
“Nope.” Billy said at the other kidney table. “Just nope.”
“Don’t be a dick,” Chaz whispered. He was the only one that was buckled into a booster seat. He was still strapped into his seat. People had come to him. Chaz was the only one who needed strapping in. It was only just then that I realized I hadn’t seen the guy walk in, I don’t know how long.
“No way. I’m not a dick!” Billy whispered. “He is!”
“Clark,” Beouf called. “Snack time. Time to sit down.”
“Yeah, Clark.” Billy mocked. “Go sit down.”
Chaz threw Billy the dirtiest of looks. “Come on man…”
“What are you gonna do?” Billy asked. “Tell the teacher on me?”
I backed away. The fight wasn’t worth it. Not here. Not now. Not yet. Unless some miracle happened, I was gonna be back here tomorrow. This was a tomorrow fight.
I had to get through today.
A tiny but incredibly strong hand grabbed me the wrist and dragged me the rest of the way back to the activity table. “You can sit with me, Clark!” As if I had a choice, socially or physically.
Old instincts came to the surface in Ivy’s Iron grip. “Pull your chair out for you?” I asked.
The doll’s eyes lit up. She let me go and bounced on the balls of her feet. “Yes please!” She lightly clapped her hands.
I pulled the chair out for her. “Here ya go.”
“My my. Such a gentleman.” Ivy said, plopping down. “That’s what Mommy says to Daddy when he ‘members to pull her chair out for her.”
I rubbed my wrist. Was that a bruise? “Just being polite.”
Napkins and graham crackers followed. “Yummy.”
I picked one up and nibbled at it. If snack time was anything like breakfast, I’d be expected to finish. Might as well. Not bad. Kind of bland. Kind of sweet. In the back of my mind I remembered a little factoid that whoever invented this honey flavored cardboard did it as a way to reduce sexual urges and discourage masturbation. Yup. That tracked being served in this room.
“Ivy,” I said. “Do you normally sit by yourself at snack time?”
Ivy took a giant bite and then swallowed. “Not all the time. Lots of kids sit by me.” Bits of crumbs tumbled out of her mouth.
I frowned. “So it’s me?” I’m not sure why that made me feel bad. It wasn’t her fault that she was as far gone as she was. Even in prison, you had to have friends.
“Nuh-uh.” Ivy said. “It's just all my old bestest friends went to another daycare. We still get to play sometimes, but they don’t go here anymore.”
I took another bite. “Why’d they leave?”
“They learned how to be good babies. Mommy says Mrs. Beouf has a waiting list. I only get to stay because Mommy works here.”
That was a weird thought: Ivy was a kind of regression litmus test. The better a captured Little got on with her, the more likely they were to have gotten with the program. Only people broken down into forever toddlers and eternal infants could get along in earnest.
Another disturbing thought. Ivy was a catalyst. Exposure to a fully mind fucked Little hastened the breakdown.
“But your Mommy works here too,” she said. “So you’re not gonna have to leave, either. We can be best friends forever.”
The crackers weren’t nearly as palatable all of a sudden.
Beouf milled around and refilled bottles with water. She was also carrying around a container of flavoring. Turning plain water into punch. A treat. When she came to me she asked, “Clark, would you like some cherry added to your bottle?”
She had a clear plastic cup with her, also filled with water. Before I could reply she squirted some in and drank from the cup herself. She smiled slyly.
Damn her. Damn her for anticipating my paranoia and disproving it immediately. Damn her for attempting to de-escalate before I even had a chance to object. It was exactly the sort of thing I would have done for one of my students if they were weary about a new food.
“If you don’t like the taste, you don’t have to drink it all. Just try.”
Damn her for being a good teacher.
I sighed. “Fine.”
“Here, we say, ‘Yes please.’” she chirped.
Typical. “Yes, please.”
She squirted some in and then rescrewed the top on the bottle. I took a sip, my lips getting used to the feeling of pulling on the rubber nipple.
“It’s yummy, isn’t it?” Ivy asked. I nodded and kept drinking. Besides (hopefully) ensuring that I’d get some measure of modesty back before lunch, drinking made it so I didn’t have to talk to her too much.
I hoped that crying kid was okay. Maybe he was just sick. Maybe they called his parents and he went home for the rest of the day.
Mrs. Zoge popped up behind me. “Clark, stand up.” She said sweetly.
I obeyed. I clenched my teeth. The waistband was pulled back and she took a look down inside my diaper. I felt her hand pat my backside. This was it! This was it! Okay! Now the front...just two fingers inside the leg cuffs and... “Okay. Sit down.”
I did. My feet felt like they’d been kicked out from beneath me. I looked up at the Yamatoan. She was already doing the same to Ivy, oblivious to my look of shock and betrayal. I was wet! I’d peed myself and now needed changing! I wanted my shorts back! That was the deal! The covenant!
Zoge didn’t notice. Ivy did. “Mommy and Mrs. Beouf don’t change you at snack time unless you reeeally need it,” she said after she sat back down. “Like poopy. Or super super about to leak wet.”
“Come on Chaz,” I heard Mrs. Zoge say loud and clear. “Let’s get you changed.” A chorus of giggles went up from Chaz’s group. Noses were held. Fingers were being pointed. “Annie, you’re next. And try not to bounce in your seat too much.” Annie quieted down. I couldn’t see her face, but I saw her shoulders slump. The others just giggled more.
What was with this group?! I’d seen fifth graders, practically middle schoolers, who picked on each other less. Kids can be cruel. Littles can be crueler.
I gripped the bottle with both hands, tilted my head back and slugged back more punch. I’d have to debase myself further to merit a change. Might as well get to work on it.
“Hey Clark?” Ivy tapped me on the shoulder. “Do you wanna play on the playground later today?”
I waved her off. “Sure, Ivy. I’ll hang out with you. Keep you company.” As if that’s what I hadn’t been doing for the last two hours.
Again. I tried to stop from rolling my eyes. “Yeah?”
“Can I give you something?”
I didn’t see the devilish look on her face. I should have recognized it. I should have read her body language. Listened to her tone. I’d seen it before. I should have asked, “what?”. I didn’t though. “Yeah,” I said, not even looking at her. “Sure.”
That’s when Ivy Zoge leaned over and kissed me.