Chapter Description: Clark goes to lunch for the first time as a student and decides to get the low down on his fellow inmates
Chapter 50: Lay of the Lunchroom
I was last in line on the way to lunch. It might have been a form of mercy, considering my earlier freakout. It might have been seen as a childish penalty due to perceived ‘fussiness’ earlier that morning. Heck, it might have just been because I was the last to get changed before lunch.
With the clean diaper and my pants back on, being last in line was the least of all evils. As promised, Zoge changed me and shimmied the sailor shorts back up my waist when she was done. Even said ‘I love you’, too.. This torturous day was over half complete and I had a reasonable facsimile of modesty back. All told, I was fairly confident that I could hold anything in until after my visit with Cassie that afternoon.
I held onto Sandra Lynn’s hand with my right, my left remaining free. Sandra Lynn was nowhere near as strong as Ivy. Not that I was going to risk it on the first day, but if I’d had a mind to I could have wriggled out of her grasp and made a run for it. ‘Wriggle’ would have been too strong a word; she wasn’t pulling me along. She was barely touching me.
Combine all that with the talk with Tracy and the vague beginning of some kind of plan, and the emotional vise my mind was in was loosening just a tad. It didn’t stop my head from being on a swivel, however.
“Lookin’ for somebody, dude?” Chaz asked from his stroller. “Or were you a sprinkler in your past life?” Thank whatever capricious gods there are that Annie and Billy were further up the line and couldn’t hear the sprinkler comment. Chaz had a point, though. Me being constantly and visibly on the lookout drew more attention to me.
“Just get through the day,” I whispered to myself so low that it was more lip syncing to the track in my head than anything else. “Just get through today. Only a few more hours to go. Everybody at school already knows. Breakfast took care of that. Band-aid officially ripped-”
“OH MY FRIGGIN GAWD! GIBSON REALLY IS A BABY!”
Knees locked back up. Grip went limp and the Little line went on without me. Beouf stopped Chaz’s stroller to not collide with me. I turned my head and looked up; a deer in the headlights of an oncoming subway train.
As we were nearing the corner of the walkway to go into the cafeteria, another class was passing by in the opposite direction. Mrs. Springfield’s Fourth Grade class was on their way to the P.E. field. Third from the front of the line, pointing, and with his short blonde hair gelled up into spikes, was Jeremy Merriwether.
“Mrs. Zoge,” Beouf called out. Zoge turned around and stopped the line.
I didn’t move; a mouse caught in the gaze of a tiger Jeremy had slowed his walk to take the full view in; rubbernecking the car wreck that my life had become.
He reached over and poked another kid in the shoulder. “Look! Do you see this! Mr. Gibson really IS a baby! He’s dressed up like a sailor!” It all came out in one unsteady wave of uncontained laughter. “He looks so goofy without the beard!”
“He’s prolly just helping or something.”
“No way,” I heard a third kid say. “He’s wearing a diaper! You can tell!”
“Awww,” Jeremy renewed the attack, “did widdle baby Gibson make a poo-poo or pee-pee in his pants and now he has to go to the baby cwass!”
More cruel laughter from the assembled children. Encouraged by Jeremy, a few started edging their thumbs to their lips in mockery of me. More giggles and laughter and whispers hidden behind hands. More kids who I’d seen every day for years were seeing me in the same light they’d seen every other Little. Worse, perhaps, because they’d thought I’d been an exception to the rule. This was everything that I was fearing would happen.
Then a small miracle happened. Mrs. Springfield stopped and looked back, realizing her class was no longer following her. “Jeremy!” Mrs. Springfield called back, “I know you’re not making us late for P.E. just so you and your friends can point fingers and delay Mrs. Beouf’s students.”
“Sorry,” Jeremy giggled, and picked up his pace.
Mrs. Beouf made a signal to Mrs. Springfield. Springfield stopped and nodded back to Beouf.
“JEREMY MERRIWETHER!” she boomed. Now Jeremy froze. On a dime, the normally calm and pseudo-nurturing Melony Beouf transformed herself into a drill sergeant. “What do you think you’re doing picking on a Little kid?”
Jeremy started to stutter. “I wasn’t doin’ anything, I was just-”
“I saw what you did young, man. You were pointing and laughing at one of my students. Several of you were.” Jeremy’s friends went quiet and looked away, some scooted backwards a bit trying to distance themselves from him. “Why is a big fourth grader laughing at a baby?”
“Cuz he used to be a teacher and now he’s-”
Beouf didn’t let him finish. “So you think it’s funny because he’s older than you? Because he’s a grown baby? You think he’s here as a punishment? ”
“If you’re right, then you’re kicking someone when they’re down. That’s not very mature, is it?”
Jeremy’s face twisted up in knots “Ummmm…” He looked to others for help. None came. No one was bailing him out of the ditch he’d dug for himself.
“Maybe you need to come to my room next. Would you like that?”
“Are you sure?” Beouf goaded. She’d locked Chaz’s stroller and was now staring down at Jeremy with her hands on her hips. “Are you sure? I’m sure I’ve got some diapers and baby clothes that you’d fit into. I’m sure your parents would be thrilled to learn how immature their son is. They’d probably have your crib back up by tonight. You and Clark can be playmates.”
“NOOOOO!” The brat’s fists were clenched and his voice was cracking.
“No?” Beouf tilted her ear forward.
Mrs. Springfield chuckled. In the decade that I’d worked there previously, I’d never seen an Amazon enrolled in Beouf’s class, yet alone one young enough to actually be a child. The most Jeremy might get was diapered detention, and even that was unlikely. Not for making fun of a Little.
Jeremy didn’t know that...
Jeremy’s teacher cut in. “You know whose Little Boy that is, right Jeremy?” Mrs. Springfield asked. “That’s Ms. Grange’s baby. Do you really want him going to his Mommy later today and telling her you were picking on him?”
I’d never seen someone go so pale so quickly before that day. Janet Grange: Teacher-turned-friend-turned-Mommy; and the terror of Third Grade. “Please don’t,” Jeremy’s voice turned into almost a squeak. He looked at me. His hands folded up in front of him “Please don’t Mr. Gi-”
“His name is Clark,” Mrs. Springfield interrupted.
“Please don’t tell your Mommy on me, Clark. I’ll be good. I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. I won’t do it again. I promise.” The words were almost a waterfall out of his mouth.
Now everyone’s eyes were on the verge of bursting out of their heads with surprise. Mine included. “Fine,” I mumbled and looked the other way. “Just...go…” In my favor or not, I didn’t want this much attention placed on me.
Springfield waved on and her class picked up the pace towards the P.E. field. Beouf waited till they were out of earshot and then looked down the line.
“I’m sorry you all had to see that,” Beouf told us. “But sometimes there’s no use arguing sense with the senseless, so you have to fight crazy with crazy.” The irony of that statement coming from Beouf’s mouth seemed completely lost on her. “Does anyone need a hug?”
To my surprise, a few hands went up. l stared down the line. Several of the other Littles looked just as shaken as I felt. Maybe it was Jeremy’s mocking. Perhaps it was Beouf’s sudden turn, or using their treatment as a way to threaten that. Maybe they weren’t as numb to all this crazy as I gave them credit for. Perhaps they were more mind fucked than they showed and ‘grown-ups yelling’ triggered something in them.
Beouf gave everyone who wanted one a quick hug, and an ‘I love you.’ Including Annie. “Let’s go. We’re missing Lunch.”
As stated earlier, the cafeteria at noon was infinitely better than it was in the morning. Several classes had already been in and out, and though the lively roar was still there, it resembled an assembly line moreso than a kicked anthill. I managed to see the tail end of Tracy’s kids (Not Ambrose’s...never Ambrose’s) wind into the serving line as the heavy cafeteria door and the blower fan closed behind Chazz’s stroller.
None of the other students looked at us beyond the errant fifth grader trying not to trip over our hand hold line while throwing away her garbage. These kids had seen Littles toddle to their highchair feeding area countless times. With us being the last group to eat, everyone had already seen and taken note of the new communal setup.
Officially old news. The Tweener lunch lady from this morning was already wheeling out a tray of food, bibs, and bottles for us. “Sorry for running late,” I heard Beouf say over the throng.
“It’s okay,” the lunch lady said. “Food’s still warm.” I thought she looked at me again, possibly even shaking her head a bit as she turned around and retreated back to the kitchen. A sullen shrug that seemed to broadcast “Oh well’ pretty much summed it up.
We were threaded into the seats again. Mercifully, Ivy was at the other table. Based on the back of Sandra Lynn’s head, she wasn’t interested in speaking to me. Just as well.
Once the bibs were draped and fastened, disposable black plastic bowls of macaroni and cheese were placed in front of us. My hand’s tingled in anticipation, and not the good time. Breakfast had been finger foods. They didn’t expect us to eat with our hands, did they?
A spoon stuck straight up in each batch of the cheesy goop put an end to that notion. None of my cohorts leaned forward to take the spoon. “Don’t touch,” Beouf warned, “or I’ll have to get out the mittens.”
My lips flapped with what must have been the millionth frustrated sigh of the day. They were going to spoon feed us.
“Look on the bright side,” Chaz called from the seat next to mine. “Five to one ratio: They don’t have time to do any dips and dives and games.” A spoonful of yellow pasta coming straight for his mouth, proved his point.
Next came mine. “Good boy!” Beouf chirped when I didn’t put up a fight and accepted my own mouthful of macaroni. “Sandra Lynn, open uuuup!” she sang.
“Sorry you ended up here,” Chaz said. “I really thought you had stuff figured out when you gave me that talk last year.”
I bowed my head. “Me too…”
“You okay?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No.”
“Good.” I must have looked hurt. Chaz added, “The only person in our class who feels okay is Ivy.” We stopped long enough for another serving of macaroni and cheese. “If something’s not wrong, then it’s too late for you.”
“That what happened to you?” I asked. “Something went too right for you and now you crawl?” I wasn’t trying to be unkind, but when I’d first met Chaz, he’d been able to walk. Part of me wondered if his regression was in part because of his youth. He’d barely lived an adult life before the Amazons took it away from him.
A flash of discomfort on Chaz’s face. “Happened over the summer,” he said. I had the decency not to press further.
Through gaps to get spoon fed, and swallow, our conversation continued. “What happens after this?” I asked.
“Nap time,” Chaz said. “Then playground time. Then we go home.”
And then the next day it would start all over again. We’d do the same things over and over again, week in and week out until we finally cracked completely, and thought of ourselves as the forever children we’d been treated like. Devious in its simplicity.
I looked around our area. So many Littles. I’d seen them so many times, but committed almost none of their names and faces to memory before. It made them easier to ignore. “Who’s been here the longest?”
“Ivy.” The smirk told me that Chaz was ribbing me. I managed to roll my eyes good naturedly enough to get a laugh and then a real reply. “Her.” He pointed to Sandra Lynn.
“Look at me, Mrs. Beouf!” Sandra Lynn reached under her bib and dipped the tip of her clipped on pacifier in the outreached spoon. She popped the bulb into her mouth. “Fayfored Pafi!”
Beouf seemed absolutely tickled. “Clever girl! But that still won’t get you nourishment. Open up!”
“Three years next month, I think,” he said while Beouf continued round the semi-circle feeding grown men and women like they were one year olds. “Sandra Lynn isn’t even her birth name. Mommy and Daddy changed it when they adopted.”
That wasn’t surprising. We couldn’t keep our ages, so why would we be entitled to our names? Dolls didn’t get to pick their names.
“What was it before?”
“I dunno. We don’t talk about who we used to be too much. Not much point.” Another round of cheese flavored noodles, and a new thought dawned on Chaz when we had swallowed. “Maybe that’s why everybody is being so extra with you? They still see the adu-...the gro-...”
I waved him off. “I know what you’re saying.” None of them had been overly familiar with each other before being enrolled at Oakshire Elementary. They only knew each other in one context. I was now not only a reminder of what they used to be,but also a reminder of what they’d become.
No one likes to have their failure rubbed in their faces. It’s why I closed my eyes the second time Zoge changed me.
A belch loud enough to catch my attention rang out and made me look to the other LIttle table. Annie was giggling up a fit and Billy was applauding like she’d performed an operetta.
“What’s with those two?” I asked my seatmate
Chaz looked over and saw. The blech hadn’ even registered to him. “Who? Annie and Billy? What about them?”
“Are they…?” I struggled to find the words. Beouf was too close for me to say the right words or make the right gestures.
“Yeah,” Chaz said. “They’re boyfriend and girlfriend.”
“How-?” But I cut myself off. Small children knew about romantic relationships and play acted it out often enough. I’d seen actual preschoolers claim to be boyfriend and girlfriend (or boyfriends or girlfriends) even if they didn’t really know all that entailed and weren’t anywhere near ready to go on a date. It was either that or ‘cooties’.
Annie and Billy were more than old enough to understand, despite never being allowed to go on anything more intimate than a playdate. Beouf and Zoge would let it happen within reason, too. It solidified the illusion that they were kids playing roles over prisoners scraping something together.
“Why are they so...so…such...”
“Say aaah, Clark.” Macaroni stopped me from outright saying they were being total dicks.
“They’re like that with everybody,” Chaz assured me. “They’re pretty cool once you get to know them. Either they learn to respect you, or you learn to ignore them.”
“It’s kind of like what you told me,” Chaz said. “Gotta get your kicks where you can. Little acts of rebellion and all that.” He held out a finger. “That reminds me. Mrs. B!” Chaz’s voice shot up. “Can I pweeease have some ketchup on my macky cheese?”
“You mad man!”
Chaz waited till Beouf started digging for ketchup packets from the tray. “Yeah, but it gives her more work to do. It’s what I tell myself when I get the runs.” His grin was nothing short of deliciously evil.
I kind of liked this kid. “If Annie and Billy are boyfriend and girlfriend, why’d she kiss you.”
“‘Cause Annie’s a freak,” Chaz beamed. “An’ I’m freakin’’ cute and I know it!”
“Yes, ma’am.” The glint in his eyes told me he didn’t mean it.
A few spoonfuls passed in silence as hunger temporarily eclipsed curiosity. “What about everybody else?”
Chaz broke it down for me. “Mandy is a girly girl. Shauna’s kind of a tomboy. Tommy’s all bark but he’s suuuuper competitive. Jesse? He’s kind of a doormat and I don’t think it has anything to do with this place. Me? You know. Ivy you really know!” He cackled while bowls were taken away and replaced with bottles. “I didn’t see the kiss in time, but I heard it. I thought she’d punched you or something!”
I grabbed onto the offered bottle and started to suckle. “Shuddup,” I mumbled under my breath. Chaz snickered hard enough so that air bubbles went into his milk.
“Good job, Clark. Drink it all up and then it will be time for a nap!” Beouf apparently hadn’t heard me…
“Anything else you wanna know?” Chaz asked between sips.
“Do we ever get chocolate milk?”
Beouf answered for him. “Fridays. If you’re good.”