Chapter Description: Clark finds an inspired way to lash out at his demotion back to childhood.
Chapter 55: Technically...
“Okie dokie, Clark,” Mrs. Beouf said to me. “For today, I want you to paint a frog, okie dokie?” I didn’t react. I just stood there at the easel, lightly nodding. “You can paint the frog any color you want, too. Okie dokie?” My eyes were wide open constantly scanning the periphery like a meerkat searching for predators. My tongue kept licking the inside of my teeth. “Clark?”
I nodded, still saying nothing. In my mind I looked like some kind of ghost standing there with the paintbrush clutched in my fist, staring directly ahead. An old and worn button up shirt was draped backwards over my chest so that I was fastened up in the back. The makeshift smock was already splattered from years and years of continual use, and the bunched up sleeves dwarfed my arms. Along the easel’s ledge were several cups of tempera paint.
I was the ghost of adulthood past, with all my life crumbled around me and nothing left to look forward to but to...paint a fucking frog.
I bobbed my head lightly.
“Clark? Honey? Do you wanna go lay down in the nap room?”
My head didn’t shake as much as oscillated like a fan. “No ma’am.” My voice came out quiet but clear; not a hint of sleepiness in it. Sleep wouldn’t come for me. I’d refused its advances.
“Are you sure?”
More bobbing. “Yes, ma’am. Paint the frog. I’ll paint the frog.”
“If you want, you can curl up in a beanbag over by the reading center. Nobody’s using it right now.” I’d already used the reading center. Not for reading of course. Nooks and crannies to not be seen were becoming a premium. That semi-closed off feeling was the closest I got to a bathroom stall.
Oscillating head. “No thank you. I want to paint.” That was a lie, of course. I didn’t dare put in words what I wanted to do. Were I large enough to be taken seriously, those words might have put me in jail.
“Okay, honey.” Beouf didn’t quite believe me but didn’t feel like pressing the point . “Call me if you need me. I’ll leave you be.” Music to my fucking ears.
Beouf went to direct my other classmates doing their cutesy late morning activities. Painting. Coloring worksheets. Sand tables. Dancing and movement games projected onto the whiteboard. This was the part I had missed on my first day thanks to my breakdown.
After the group centers, there were whole group activities- reading of Amazon propaganda and the like- followed more independent activities. Skinner, Winters, and Sosa came in for ‘speech’, ‘PT’, and ‘OT’ respectively and snatched Littles up in ones and twos for half-hour segments. There they would practice dulling skills and shaping behaviors to be worse than they started. Those not picked for extreme gaslighting that day were given these inane preschool activities to do. It was the kind of stuff that I didn’t put as much time into back in my own classroom because I was still responsible for academics.
For actual children, playing in a sand table might be a treat at the end of a week if not a longer period of time for a job well done. For us Littles it was much more frequent; a normalization in infantilization.
I was at the painting station. Apparently, I was supposed to “paint a frog”. Clipped to the side of the easel was a photograph of a frog for reference. Most days before this, I might have come up with some pithy observation, but I was too tired; emotionally blown up.
Not sleepy. Just bone, dead ass tired. There’s a difference, I’d found. After staying up all night cursing at Janet through the baby monitor, I was woken up, changed, dressed in toddler clothes and then carted off to school. It was like my previous breakdown had never happened. Not so much as an extra day off to grieve. I wasn’t even asked.
Janet made no comment about the contents of my diaper, but she’d gone heavy on the rash cream. The training chocolate had done its work and then some. She seemed wary of me from our last interaction, but far from exhausted. Someone had gotten a good night’s sleep. I made no reply when she’d asked if I’d slept well.
“Must’ve slept well for all this poopy to come out and you not cry out. What did you eat to have all this go through you?”
“When did you…?” She stopped and left it at that. I didn’t want to have that conversation anyways. The only thing worse than Mommy crazy Janet was sympathetic and regretful Janet. I just kept quiet. Not resisting anything, but not contributing unless asked and only the bare minimum at that.
No schemes went through my head that morning. No tears came out of my eyes. An advantage of being bone tired is that it’s harder for you to feel feelings. Your body goes on autopilot survival mode and your brain becomes a crocodile.
What is food? What isn’t? Where’s the danger? Where’s safety? No good or bad. No love or regret or sorrow. Just numbness. Your body becomes so tired that you’re not really you; but an avatar of yourself. I was playing the world’s most boring MMO and the mission objective was “Paint a Frog”. Zero experience points or gold awarded, but the game wouldn’t progress until I did. No cut scenes either.
Running on adrenaline and spite...mostly spite, I had shambled through the day, feeling nothing. Breakfast. Circle Time. Centers. I was basically a cross between a zombie and a turtle; uttering few words beyond proving I was alive. Just doing what was asked of me but no more. Feeling numb. I needed the numbness after yesterday.
There had been only one time when I hadn’t felt numb and that was when the bus unloaded that morning. No Cassie; adopted or otherwise. How messed up was it that I was looking for her? It was stupid to even get my hopes up by that much. Beouf’s class had a waiting list. If Cassie got adopted by someone in Oakshire there were any number of run of the mill Little-centric daycares that would take her, (and one particularly awful one).
I was never going to see…
No...no...don’t think about it. Just stay numb. Paint the frog. Paint the frog, shamble through the rest of the day. Go to sleep. Rinse and repeat forever.
I winced as a cramp went through me. At least I was starting to feel the cramps again. I’d needed changing after snack time and the load in the back of me had practically teleported in there. I liked to imagine that cramps meant the training chocolate was almost out of my system. More likely, it just meant I’d get a warning before I uncontrollably soiled myself.
Don’t think about it. Just stay numb. Paint the frog.
I dipped the paint brush into the non-toxic paint. Blue. Why not a blue frog? “Paint the frog,” I sighed. “Paint the frog.” I leaned in and started to drag the brush across the art paper. Paint the frog.
This was just busy work. The whole thing was busy work. We weren’t learning. Not what they were explicitly teaching us. They’d convinced themselves that I was just a dumb baby anyways. I could literally paint anything, call it a frog, and they’d be happy about it. Possibly happier if it was particularly inaccurate.
I wasn’t even angry. Not even annoyed at this point. Too drained of everything to be annoyed. I’d lost it all. My wife was adopted. My house burned down. My career over. My personhood legally rebooted and kept in a holding pattern. To top it all off, the inevitable next few days of near helplessly filling my pants would cement everything the giants already thought of me.
I wasn’t even mad at Raine, to be honest. It was hard to get mad at the scorpion for stinging. It’s what it did. The most painful thing, the thing that threatened even numbness born out of trauma, grief, and spite was the looming and ever-present fact that people like Beouf, Janet, and even Zoge were just as bad as Raine.
I had fooled myself into thinking they were my friends and protectors, but they were no better than her. That’s why I was stuck in Beouf’s classroom having to paint the frog.
Beouf was no better than Raine.
Paint the frog.
All Amazons were crazy.
Paint the frog.
They’d convinced themselves…
…that I was a baby…
No matter what…
Clark; the reasonable, professional adult with complex thoughts and feelings that were considered by his peers and coworkers? He was gone as far as the Amazons were concerned; assuming he’d existed at all to them. I couldn’t rely on that perception or that approach. My captors were immune to it.
But Clark the trickster; Clark the manipulator; dare I say it, Clark the daredevil? Clark of the infinite poker face, master of playing dumb, architect of the Silly Sock Day Fiasco. I looked and felt like a ghost. If Mr. Gibson, pre-k teacher of Oakshire Elementary was well and truly gone, what did I have left of me?
Let’s show them.
With bold, precise strokes, I dipped my paint brush into the tempera again and made my mark upon the paper. One coat. Two coats. I had to use the entirety of the medium made available to me, and make it clear in no uncertain terms who and what I was.
Beouf wanted art? Then she’d get it.
Like a tiny mischievous god I stepped back and looked at what I had wrought. I waited quietly until Zoge went on a bathroom break. “All done!” I announced, gesturing to the finished masterpiece. My demeanor had changed entirely. The zombie man-child dragging his everything replaced with an all too cheery, all too sinister smile. The same weary eyes in my head were still there, animalistic, only now they had gone from prey to predator.
Beouf turned around from the sand table where she was playing with Ivy. “Hmmm?” Then she saw it. Her eyes lit up in surprise. Her lip pouted out and her eyebrows lowered immediately in question. “Clark? What did you-?” She wasn’t even sure if she should be mad or not. Just confused.
The easel lay virtually untouched. Just a few random paint splatters from where I hadn’t bothered to take care so that I more fully completed the effect. The unlaminated photo of the tree frog, however… “You said I should paint the frog, Mrs. B! So I did!” From corner to corner, the entire surface was caked in blue paint. If someone had told you that there was a picture of a frog underneath, you’d have to either call them a liar or take their word for it.
My former coworkers wanted a baby? Someone who was thirty-two years and just over twelve months at the same time? Then they’d get it. This. This was my art.
As expected, Beouf’s lips retreated from her face. “Ha….haha…hahahahahahahaha!” She doubled over laughing. “Oh my goodness! Clark!” A few giant strides and she was back over me, her neck spasming and her trying to look away, yet unable to make herself. A cross between a cavalcade of whimsy and a car wreck.
Ivy looked up from her sand. Chaz stopped trying to pop bubbles being spit out by a machine. Billy and Annie stopped trying to subtly grope each other and call it the Hokey Pokey. All eyes were on us. No. All eyes were on me.
Beouf dug into her pocket and took out her phone. “I’ve gotta take a picture of this and show your Mommy!”
Gladly I stood by my masterpiece and grinned like I’d just won a prize. If only Beouf had known. This really wasn’t my masterpiece. I hadn’t won anything yet. This was merely phase one.
“That is just too stinkin’ cute,” Beouf gushed. Her phone clicked, immortalizing what was yet to come. “So clever!” She started chuckling to herself again. “I did say ‘paint the frog’.”
“Yup yup!” I chirped like a good Little boy. “I’m real good at this!’
“You always have been, sweetie.” Beouf replied. “It’s just coming to the surface more often. That’s a good thing.”
I threw my hands up into the air. “YAAAAAAY! I DID IT!”
“YOU DID IT!”
Chaz, Annie, and Billy stared at me like a second head had shot out of my mouth. Ivy just copied me. “YAAAAAAAY! CLARK DID IT!”
Tittering to herself, Beouf went back to her desk and picked up her classroom phone. She was still standing up and at the wrong end of her desk, so her back was to me. Yes!
“Hello. Ms. Grange? This is Mrs. Beouf. Sorry to interrupt. I just wanted to tell you what Clark did just now. No, no, no. Nothing like that! He’s fine! He’s good! Little out of it, little grumpy this morning, but he just did the cutest thing and I had to tell you about it.” She punctuated her sentence with another laugh.
Time for phase two.
I looked to Chaz sitting on a laminated floor mat dotted by sudsy speckles from popped bubbles. “Chaz…” I mouthed. I jerked my head towards the easel. “C’mere…”
The teenager crawled up to me. “What?” he whispered.
“Say ribbit.” I told him quietly. “Say it loud.”
He followed my gaze over to Beouf. “I know! Right? I did say ‘paint the frog’. He got me there.” She was shaking her head. Laughing at herself as much as me. Let’s really give her something to laugh about.
“You heard her,” I hissed. “I’m allowed to paint the frog.”
A dopey, adrenaline fueled smile that a plane could fly through appeared on Chaz’s mug. “RIBBIT! RIBBIT!”
My brush struck out. It wasn’t as neat as my original creation; I missed a spot here and there; but within seconds Chaz was smeared with non-toxic blue tempera paint from ear to ear.
Forehead, nose, chin, cheeks. The whole shebang. It almost looked like a race track or a fancy treasure hunt path like in those painfully unfunny comic strips.
Beouf was still on the phone talking with her co-conspirator. Zoge was still out to the faculty bathroom. “Hey, have you been noticing some loose stool from him? Tummy problems maybe? No, no. It’s not too too bad but I saw the rash cream when I changed him this morning and he needed more. Yeah. Two in one day seems odd unless something is upsetting his…-”
Chaz waved over Annie and Billy. “Guys. Beouf said Clark could paint frogs!”
The same look of understanding dawned on the couple’s faces. “I want Green,” Billy said. “RIBBIT!” he got green. I opted for a zig zag method. I was an artist after all. “Do my hands, too!”
BRILLIANT! COLLABORATION! I coated Billy’s palms and he dragged them over the back of his forearms and neck. Very kind of him to not mar my original work.
“Paint the frog!”
Annie was next. “I want yellow. Ribbit.” She pulled her bangs back and closed her eyes. “Careful. Don’t mess up my hair.”
I shrugged “Why? It’s not like you’re going to have to wash it yourself.”
Annie opened her eyes and let her hair down. “Good point.” I started with the hair. Water soluble or not, it’d be a pain to get out. Not my pain, though.
“Here,” a very green and gloppy Billy offered. “Let me help.” He reached for another paintbrush. I slapped his hand away with mine. For a split second he looked like he wanted to deck me.
“Mrs. Beouf said that it’s MY job to paint frogs.” I said. “We wouldn’t want to be breaking any rules, would we?”
Billy nodded appreciatively. “Ribbit. Ribbit. No we wouldn’t, would we?”
“What do you mean chocolate? Did he specifically say chocolate?”
Ivy went so far as to get down on all fours and leap over to the easel. “Rrrriiiiiibit.” She wanted in on the fun too.
I started scanning for the best color that would clash with her dress. Bright red, perhaps. Turning around revealed strange, uncomfortable looks. My three newest cohorts were giving Ivy a quiet but distinct case of stink eye and that gaze was starting to drift towards me.
“Ribbit! Rrribbit!” Ivy hopped some more. “Paint the frog!”
I put the paint back. “Sorry Ivy…
“You what?!” Beouf practically shrieked. Her tone was no longer so casual.
Meanwhile… “Your Mommy will be back from her potty break any second. I don’t want you to get in trouble.” I gambled on technically following rules and expectations in one breath and claimed Ivy might get in trouble with the next.
I’m going to be honest. Looking back on that, it was not my proudest moment. In that moment though, I needed allies and friends, not playmates.
“Oh, honey,” Beouf started to turn around. “You and I have got to talk on the phone later tonight. I think that…” She saw our gaggle of painted Littles gathered around my easel. “Gotta-go-I’ll-call-you-back!”
She hung up the phone. Her body posture was somewhere between panicked and storming.
Chaz spoke first. “Ribbit!”
Billy and Annie followed suit. “Ribbit! Ribbit!”
“Paint the frog! Paaaaaint the frog!” Ivy whined.
The door opened. Perfect timing. Zoge, and the therapists came back with the other half of the class. “Good job today Tommy,” Sosa said. “Now can I please see Aaaaaa-?”
They froze, taking in the situation. Chaz started crawling and hopping as best as he could on four feet. Annie and Billy puffed their cheeks out so that their faces had maximum surface area. Ivy, bless her heart, started hopping around too, trying to be part of it all.
“What’s going on here?” Zoge asked, genuinely startled. My classmates were much less worried and much more vocal.
A cacophony of discordant giggles bubbled into eruption. In less than five minutes I’d managed to subvert and disrupt an entire organized play routine and add clean up to the mix.
“Oh no!” Shauna howled with delight. “And I just got changed half an hour ago!”
Jesse was collapsed on the ground, clutching his sides. “Me too! Don’t care! Ribbit ribbit!”
“I wanna be a frog!”
Zoge stepped in front of the newly arrived ones. She didn’t yell and I could barely hear her. I couldn’t see her face, either. She only said one word. “Children…” The therapists formed a perimeter. Mass Teacher Glare. Realizing they were cut off from us and surrounded, the ones who had missed the opening act clammed up.
Seeing Mrs. Beouf adopt a similar pose, Chaz, Billy, and Annie took similarly submissive postures. Ivy toddled over and clung to her Mommy’s skirt.
No matter. It was time for the finale.
I gazed up at the god of this classroom. “I was trying to be good, Mrs. B.” I lied. “You told me to paint the frog!” I gestured around to my croaking comrades. “What else was I supposed to do?”
Beouf puffed air out. “I…I…” She shook her head, torn somewhere between anger and exasperation. “You. I… Hm.”
I put on my best confused Little face. “Did I do something wrong, ma’am? Do I hafta go to time out in Miss Tracy’s room?” I’d concede that space as Tracy’s. Never my replacement’s.
“Clark, you kn-“
“You just looked so happy that you called my Mommy when I painted one frog and…I just…I mean…I wanted you to…” I looked at the classroom, feigning confusion and being overwhelmed as if finding out for the first time that I had done bad.
I had gone from beyond exhausted straight to the top of my game. I could have gotten an award for this performance.
“Yeah Mrs. B.?” I looked away, pretending to be fearful and repentant.
She blustered. Grunted. “Mrs. Zoge?”
“Take Clark and the others. Let’s do Circle Time again and maybe another story before lunch.”
Beouf grabbed one of the ever-present packets of wipes from around her room. “I’ll clean the others up.”
“I’ll help!” I offered.
The teacher’s chin jutted out. “No thank you, Clark. I think you’ve helped enough for now..”
On the way to the sitting circle, the therapists passed me coolly and took some wipes to help speed things up. It must be nice to have coworkers to pitch in. I had new kinds of coworkers, I supposed. They’d definitely pitched in.
“That was very…creative, Clark,” Zoge said. “Don’t do it again, though.”
“Yes ma’am,” I promised. That wasn’t a lie, either. I wouldn’t mess with the paint ever again.
Why be terrible the same way when I could find new and creative ways every day to push their buttons?