Chapter Description: Clark finds the Occupational Therapist a tougher nut to crack.
I stood in the OT/PT room with my gang of Little rabble rousers. As stated previously, school therapists, all school therapists, have hectic schedules on multiple campuses and are stretched thin for resources and time. That was good for me. That was why my first session with both Skinner in the Speech Language Therapy room and now Sosa in the Occupational Therapy/Physical Therapy room was specifically with the three other inmates that I had won over to my way of thinking; my disciples. That was also good.
Maxine Winters wasn’t there, either. There was enough overlap in their schedules and caseloads that they’d often work with the same students in their shared room. There was also just enough bureaucratic chaos from I.E.P. meetings and the like that they were just as likely to alternate using the space any given week rather than cohabitating it.
Four Littles. One Amazon. Not the best ratio, but better than having two Amazons to keep my eyes and ears open for. I needed to teach my new friends all at once without having to manage the interference of other ‘Grown-Ups’ or broken Littles.
Like any good educator, I’d planned my first set of lessons with the second and third sets already in mind. Know your curriculum. Know your schedule. Know your students. Know your calendar. Anticipate common hurdles along the way.
For example, the erratic nature of the therapies and a good working relationship with Beouf had made it so that Skinner, Sosa, and Winters could cherry pick who they wanted to work with Ala Carte.
“Sorry to interrupt, but can I borrow Annie, Chaz, Billy, aaaaand...Clark?”
Nothing in our I.E.P’s said a particular group of students had to be together for therapy. Technically a Kindergartener and a Fifth Grader could be put in the same session. Legally, there was nothing stopping me from having to sit next to Jeremy Merriwether if he suddenly developed a lisp that Skinner had wanted to rid him of and pass on to me. (Yikes, I hoped that was only hypothetical and not possible).
Point being, as long as the minutes and boxes were ticked for the services promised, the ‘How’, ‘When’, and ‘With Whom’ were all extremely flexible. This week me and the other members of the A.L.L. had been grouped together. Next week we might not be so lucky.
Probably wouldn’t be.
That meant I had to coach my crew so that they wouldn’t break without me. I was the ‘new kid’. I was becoming the ‘trouble maker’. Amazons were crazy, not stupid. I had to work quickly. They were inadvertently giving me the opportunity to practice and pass on my craft. That was good.
That’s where the good news ended.
The OT/PT room, while still having the bare, undecorated walls of the Speech Room, was filled to the gills with equipment: Trampolines, platform swings, a closet full of Amazon gadgets and gizmos on the level of that fold out obstacle course I’d been ‘gifted’ with. It even had a ball pit. That’s right, there’s something supposedly therapeutic about ball pits; not even from a ‘how do we mind fuck Littles?’ standpoint.
This place was like a tiny indoor playground. It set me on edge, but to my three comrades it was low hanging and tempting fruit. ‘Be good and you can bounce on the trampoline or swim in the ball pit’ would be a lot more tempting than ‘if you get done playing this board game I’ll let you play with the old dollhouse’.
It was Sosa, too. Sosa was good at classroom management. Very good at classroom management. From the way she’d interacted with my preschoolers over the years, I’d long held the opinion that she would have made a good teacher had she chosen a different degree. Through transitive deduction, that put her much closer to Beouf on the difficulty scale.
Why couldn’t it have been Winters? I just knew I could totally crack Winters.
Finally, the OT/PT room was directly next to my old classroom. It was a small mercy that we walked all the way around instead of cutting through the building. The question was was it a deliberate mercy or one built of habit? From what tiny bits of information I’d gathered of Ambrose I couldn’t imagine her objecting to a waddling parade of Littles cutting through my room.
Yes, my room. Never hers.
It was the kind of thing that would remind the actual children what they weren’t and the shortest adults what they were beneath.
If pushed too far, would Sosa snap and send me to time out in the closest classroom?
All of that was racing through my brain as Sosa unloaded the big colorful pastel boxes sculpted out of thick plastic and the edges frayed and jigsawed together at the seams. They were big, clumsy and cumbersome; but not terribly heavy looking. Each side was longer than my arm. I could likely lift one,I thought, but if I tried for two, the second box would completely block my line of sight and risk tumbling off. I wouldn’t have been able to get my arms all the way around it if I tried to hug it.
So typical: Light enough that even a Little could hoist them; bulky enough to make it so they shouldn’t; and cutesy enough to make it so they wouldn’t want to if they had any kind of ego left. Somehow this was intended to make people like me feel childish while ‘playing’ with it.
That was the only explanation I could fathom for the color scheme. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple; all pastel hues. It was the kind of tripe that Pediatric and Adopted Little-centric companies tended to love. There was a black leather cuffed hole with a rubbery black covering on the red side and opposite purple side of each device.. Part mystery sensory box, part pharmacy blood pressure machine, and part jigsaw box? It’s function, if any, completely eluded me.
I bit my lip and dug my fingers into my thighs to hide the anxiety welling up inside of me. I wrinkled my nose and shot a warning look at Annie. She dropped her pacifier and left it dangling from her collar.
Going into this experience, I was at a complete loss. No information that any of my students brought back or that Sosa had reported to me when I was a teacher rang any bells for these tacky things. I’d seen ‘the birdy says tweet’ coming from miles away. Oversized pastel colored cubes was an unanticipated fork in the road.
Occupational therapy was supposed to help with fine motor skills like handwriting, typing, tracing, using scissors, and fastening buttons on clothes. My preschoolers would come back with tracing pages and bits of construction paper they’d cut out and glued together or beads they’d strung along on some yarn.
OT was supposed to help with the basic life skills that were so prevalent and frequent in early academics. Those exact skills were what Amazon snaps, tapes, and seat buckles sought to stymie. Amazons didn’t want us taking off our diapers; there was no way they wanted us to be able to fasten non-snap buttons or hold a pencil.
A chilling thought: What if I’d never heard of or seen these devices because they were exclusively for Littles? What if inside the rainbow gadget boxes was some sort of finger mangling device, or some chemical that soaked through the skin to cause unnaturally severe arthritis or numbed the digits into uselessness? I might stick my hands inside the hole and get jabbed enough to make them swell up into uselessness or something.
The other members of the A.L.L. were kind enough to dispel my fear. “This one?” Chaz groaned, “I hate this one!”
“Me too!” Annie whined.
“Same.” Billy said.
I could have slapped all three of them just there. Why give Sosa the ammo to use against them in case she hadn’t picked up on their distaste? Nevertheless, their reaction was one of annoyance, not fear. That made sense, I assured myself. The “Maturosis and Developmental Plateau” method favored gaslighting, conditioning, and circular logic over the more brazen approaches.
Loudly, I cleared my throat. The others shuffled, became a tad more alert and came to a kind of loose attention. They remembered themselves and our gameplan. We’d frustrate the Amazons by playing by our rules, not theirs.
Speaking of which: Time to probe for weaknesses. “How does this work?” Just like with Skinner, I made a point to turn and look at Billy. I caught Billy’s eyes looking up and over my shoulder.
“Go ahead, Mr. Billy,” Sosa chirped. “Show what you know.” Directly behind me, Sosa’s eyes were placid pools of brown in a sea of dark tan skin beneath a crop of hair darker than even Janet’s. Sosa’s almost pleasantly plump face showed no signs of either aggravation or anticipation; merely quiet patience.
Damn. Damn, damn, damn!
At her heart, Skinner had been a ‘Sage on the Stage’. All eyes had to be on her and the lesson had to be about her. Sosa was going for a ‘Guide on the Side’ method and didn’t mind if we ‘taught’ each other.
The victory with Skinner and those last fifteen minutes of celebration had made Billy cocky and confused. Skinner wasn’t Sosa. I could almost see the gears turning in the poor boy’s head. Should he remain silent or address me? Which would least play into the crazy? “Um...I don’t know…?”
“That’s okay,” Sosa said. “You’ll get it.” She was gentle, yet clinical. Practiced to the point where it was hard to tell if it was second nature. Skinner still saw me as an old colleague. Sosa was talking like I was just a new baby. Like I said; just this side of Beouf. “Miss Annie, would you like to try?”
Annie looked like she was on the verge of panicking and clammed up. Silence had been our go to.
“That’s okay. Mr. Chaz?” Chaz stared straight ahead. This wasn’t their first time with Sosa. They knew she was tougher. “Mr. Clark? Would you like to guess?”
Sosa’s job wasn’t modifying language and vocabulary. It really didn’t matter if we talked or not. I exhaled and played it cool. “Why don’t you explain it to me, Miss Sosa?” It was important to not show fear.
Sosa took a spot on the floor, and crossed her legs and positioned one of the strange puzzle boxes in her lap.. “I call this a game, but it’s really more of a diagnostic. We do them every month or so, just to see where you kids are.” I didn’t need to look behind me to sense the rest of my friends tense up at being called ‘kids’.
“All you have to do is put your hands in the holes. One in the red side and one in the purple side.”” She did so, sticking her hands through the two holes and past the black curtain coverings, making it a kind of unruly, blocky muff. A high pitched beep of an electric sensor followed by a slight whirring and wheezing noise was heard. “Then the cuff closes. Don’t worry it doesn’t hurt.” As if to demonstrate she tugged at the cuff. Her arms and elbows moved and tugged back out. It turned out that the cuff had more qualities of rubber and elastic than leather.
She moved and tugged, and the seal around her wrists stayed with her. The black rubbery stuff turned inside out and resisted movement when she pulled at it. She gave three exaggerated tugs, showing that even with her giant strength she wouldn’t be able to remove her hands completely from the box. By the same measure, she pulled the box closer to her and plunged up to past forearms.
“Then..” she paused. Theatrically, she cocked her head to one side then the other. “Inside each box, there’s a release mechanism. You just got to fiddle with the mechanism aaaaaand….!”
The box vibrated mechanically. From hidden speakers somewhere in the puzzle’s confines, a “TA-DA!” sound played. Miss Sosa grinned and removed her arms.from the cuffs and gave her wrists and fingers a quick shake.
A second after her hands were free, the box started rolling forward by itself in measured amounts. It rotated, stopped, and twisted, the seams of each box coming apart and unfolding; new compartments coming to life, growing, expanding, and building on each other while somewhere in the mass of plastic and lightweight steel, electronic dance music played. Within twenty seconds where there had been a box large enough for a Little to curl up and hide in now there was a Little sized robot doing stiffly choreographed dance moves.
“Okay,” I heard Billy mumble. “That part is kinda cool.” Admittedly, it was impressive. Amazon engineering was second to none. I felt a strange rush from the music, too. I felt my resting, calculating scowl relax a bit. I chomped down on my own tongue to toughen up. Something in the speakers operated on a similar wavelength to those damn pleasure rattles like the one Renner had tried to pawn off on me or that Beouf sometimes passed out before naps.
The Maturosis cult preferred gaslighting over chemical and physical alteration. It didn’t necessarily abandon it altogether. A certain giggling savant missing her front teeth confirmed that part. Thinking about Amy steadied me enough to not be further lulled.
Half a minute later, the impossible folding of parts resumed again and where an ornate toy had been dancing now sat a bulky but colorful puzzle box.
Passive disrespect hadn’t worked. Maybe some logical disassembling might do the trick and pull at Sosa’s threads. First, the setup. I snorted. “I can appreciate the isolation of skills by using a box so we supposedly have to use our fine motor skills and just our fine motor skills.” I pretended to look thoughtful, even though I already knew what I was going to say. Time to take the shot. “But it’s a trick. It’s like those seatbelts or child locks. Little hands won’t budge it.”
Grimly, Billy shook his head. “Naw, Gibson. It ain’t like that.”
“Would you like to see?” Sosa asked. I was being challenged. An Amazon challenge meant the game was rigged somehow. It was still unwise to outright refuse the invitation.
Cautiously, I inched forward, keeping my eyes on Sosa as if she might just reach out and snatch me up. She didn’t. Gently, she took my hand and guided it through the first cuff. I heard the beep and the whirring and hissing as a cuff quickly and snuggly closed in along my forearm.
I had thought it would be less snug since it had just accommodated Sosa up to her elbows. I also thought it would be tighter; cut off circulation. Both assumptions were false. It wasn’t unlike the feeling of a new diaper in that it was stiff but flexible. Noticeable upon application and removal, but increasingly easy to acclimate to and tune out if you allowed it. “Reach in deeper.”
I did, with the barrier letting me and folding with me like a glove. “Feel the lever?”
My hand clasped around a kind of rod. I felt ridges and gaps in it like buttons or piano keys. “Yeah? Are there supposed to be buttons?”
Sosa brightened. “That’s right! If you get really good at it you can program the dance the robot does by pressing the keys in a special order!” A quick glance back to my classmates and I saw the wrinkling of noses and curling of lips. Something Sosa had just said had left a bad taste in their collective mouths.
I wiggled my fingers on the rod inside the box and felt the buttons clack beneath my fingers. There was one on the back for my thumb, too. “So, why isn’t dancing?”
“You gotta do both levers at the same time,” Chaz said.
“Both?” Without prompting I reached in deeper, nearly up to my shoulder. Past the first rod was a second one. With the back of my fingertips I guessed that it was practically a mirror to the one I had just grasped. The only problem was I couldn't reach it. If I stretched my hand, if I strained I could graze one massive joystick with my thumb and the other just barely with my pinky. “Oh. Both.”
“Yup.” Chaz already looked defeated. What had Sosa done to this poor guy?
It wasn’t long before she did it to me. “Let’s use both hands.” Sosa pivoted the box around and slipped my left arm into the complimentary hole. A beep, a whir and hiss later, I was effectively hugging the box and handcuffed to it.
Sosa left me to struggle and experiment while she slid the wrists of my companions into equally torturous contraptions. The limitations were immediate and obvious.
I could push and pull the box. I could lift the box. It was deceptively light. I could stand up or get down to my knees on the carpet. It would be uncomfortable, but I could hypothetically muscle the box up enough so that I could sit down and put it in my lap. Were I more flexible, I might have been able to nestle in between my legs.
What I couldn’t do was lift the box over my head; less a matter of weight and more the size and fixed points on my wrists at either side. Obviously, I couldn’t fully remove either of my hands. Try as I might, it didn’t take a minute to realize that I wouldn’t be able to touch both levers at the same time.
I had to pivot and stretch to reach the left side, and in doing so I had to pivot and twist my right arm away. Were I an Amazon or even a Tweener my arm span would have been long enough to do something about it. As a Little, though? Asking me to grip both levers firmly enough to press some keys was like asking a fish to climb a tree.
“How’s the game work?” I asked, loudly. “What happens if I make the box turn into a robot again?”
Sosa walked back around to address me. “You’ll be ready for the next stage of O.T.” Just like before, just like Beouf, Sosa was professional; inscrutable. I couldn’t tell if she genuinely believed I could do this stupid task or not and I hated it. None of Raine’s predatory glint or Brollish’s coldness or Zoge’s doting condescension. It almost gave me a deadly kind of false hope.
An impossible task. An offered reward. What was I missing? A punishment? “What if I don’t?”
“We’ll keep working on it,” Sosa said simply. “And if you need help, just ask. We’ll stop,I’ll get you out and you can spend the rest of our session playing in the ballpit or the swing or the trampoline. Whatever you want.” Her voice went up a tick. Was she lying about something or just condescending to me?
“I quit,” Billy said. I started to rotate my prison around and shoot him a dirty look. I didn’t get a chance. “Sorry, Gibson. This sucks.”
Sosa took her phone out of her pocket. “Not yet, Billy. The diagnostic criteria says you have to try first.”
Billy clonked his head down on the bulky hollow seeming plastic. “Fine,” she sighed. “Set a timer?”
“Already on it Mr. Billy.” Sosa showed a countdown app she’d pulled up. “Let’s try... seven minutes. Then you can go play.” I witnessed an equally desponded Annie and Chaz gaze at the phone timer as if it were a light in the darkness..
This treatment had already broken them, somehow. Solving the puzzle wasn’t the point for me, I reminded myself. Getting under Sosa’s skin was. “Hey Billy,” I called over. “Wanna play bumper cars?”
Billy perked up immediately. “Heck yeah!”
Like two charging bucks we hunched over, and pushed our boxes into a run. Colliding with a loud ‘KA-THUNK!’ Billy and I bumped back a step from each other and did it again.
I’d thought that Sosa would say something, anything, before the first ram. Or that she’d wince or look concerned at me and Billy acting like a couple of frat boy jackasses ramming shopping carts together.
No such luck. She wasn’t worried about the equipment. Amazon technology really was peerless. I wouldn’t be surprised if the thing encasing my forearms could handle an elephant standing on it.
I was already panting by the fifth KA-THUNK. Billy was pushing me back, getting more into the competition than the actual objective of annoying Sosa. “Careful, Billy,” Sosa said. “You don’t want to hurt Clark.”
Billy pulled back. “Oh. Sorry, dude. Got a little too into it.”
Sosa answered for me. “That’s okay. We just gotta be careful with our friends.” Damn! This wasn’t working. How did we rob the narrative from someone who didn’t seem to care?
A quick ping from her pocket and Sosa started texting on her phone. Maybe there was some chink in her armor that I could exploit.
I started breathing harder. I must have been getting out of shape. The boxes were relatively light, but light and weightless weren’t the same thing. Still awkward as all get out to move in them. I certainly wasn’t getting any younger.
“Who’re you texting, Miss Sosa?” I asked, panting a little.
Sosa barely looked up. “Just Miss Winters.”
That tracked, co-workers swapping notes and what not. It wasn’t much to go on, but, “Isn’t that not allowed? Texting on your phone during student contact time, I mean?”
“Probably not. But you’re all engaged with the diagnostic and this’ll only take a minute.” She finished, pocketed her phone and looked down. “Oh, you’re breaking into a sweat, Mr. Clark.” She grabbed a massive handful of tissues from a box nearby and started dabbing my forehead. “Here, let me help.”
“Thanks,” I said out of habit.
I immediately regretted my thanks. Sosa didn’t notice. Something wasn’t right. I was still missing something.
“Miss Annie,” Sosa walked over. “Do you want your pacifier?”
“No, thank you.” Annie said. She looked guilty, embarrassed, and more than a tiny bit uncomfortable. I did my best to give her a look of solidarity, like I thought she was making the right choice. Littles sucking on pacifiers wasn’t a good look if we were going to frustrate and refute our status. Instead of returning the look, she puffed out her cheeks and frowned.
“Mr. Chaz, do you want a treat?” On his knees, Chaz nodded, stuck out his tongue and accepted the chalky candy. “Mr. Billy?”
Something wasn’t clicking and it had nothing to do with the levers. Those were a lost cause, a dash of common sense would immediately prove that. Despite common sense I wriggled and shifted a little more. Tried to feel around the insides of the box. Perhaps the levers were a kind of red herring and there was another closer release.
They were a red herring alright, but it had nothing to do with an alternate means of escape. There was no escape. What was I missing, I wondered. Amazon mind fuckery and Amazon crazy was a bit like a magic trick; anything that the magician drew your attention to was with purpose. Everything that they wanted you to see was to make it so you’d accidentally or implicitly discount, ignore, or miss something they didn’t want you to see.
What wasn’t I supposed to see with this?
There was no point to the levers. Correction: There was a point to the levers but the point wasn’t to pull them. What, though? Why would an OT with the mission to make Little’s less likely to use fine motor movements just trap our hands in a box? How was this any different or more practical than just stuffing our hands in thick fingerless mittens?
What? Was? I? Missing?
The timer on Sosa’s phone went off. “Okay, Billy. Do you want to keep trying?”
“No, Ma’am. Let me out.” Billy didn’t even seem embarrassed by it.
“Okie dokie.” Sosa placed the flat of her hand on the top side of the box. “Let. Me. Help.” She groaned slightly, pressing down on the top of the box. A panel clicked, and Billy’s hands were released from the cuffs inside the box. The release on the outside of the box was definitely something that only a giant could hope to move.
The box started vibrating and rolling forward. The same “TA-DA’ sound effect played, and just like before, the box warped and clicked and folded and changed into a thing of wonder. The music coming from the dancing automaton’s hidden speakers seemed louder, felt happier.
I was breathing through my mouth before I knew it. Annie, Billy, and Chaz were frozen, too. The music stopped, and the droid folded back up into a simple looking box. Billy wasted no more time and climbed into the ballpit, having to throw one leg over the side like he was mounting a pony. “I guess I know what Billy wants,” Sosa, chuckled. “How about you? Are you guys good?”
“Wait a second!” I interrupted. “Why did Billy’s box do the dance and the song? He didn’t reach the levers!” I could feel my own face twisting into a petulant scowl. I felt confused and bitter; angry because there were more rules to this game than I was understanding. Despite myself, I knew I sounded jealous.
Sosa was so nonchalant as to be infuriating. “That’s okay. He tried.” She walked over to a mini-fridge that could have held a couple days worth of Little sized meals.
“No he didn’t!” I yelled. “He specifically said he didn’t!” Billy was too busy burying himself in rainbow colored globules to care much about me. Worst. Accomplice. Ever.
Sosa shrugged and took out a gelatin cup. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “The box gets opened and the song gets played. Does anyone else want out?”
I summoned all of the charisma I could and tried to psychically persuade Chaz and Annie to stay strong. We couldn’t let Sosa win. “No thanks,” Chaz said. “I’m good.”
Annie huffed and stared invisible daggers towards Billy in the ballpit. “I’m fine.” She cringed and I thought I heard her mumble something like, “Doesn’t matter anyway.”
Green gelatin wobbled past full tan lips. “That’s fine,” Sosa said. “Just let me know and I’ll help you out.”
More than just the mechanism in Billy’s puzzle box clicked right then. “Guys,” I said. “We gotta tough it out. We’re being tricked!” I didn’t have time or a subtle way of conveying this message.
“Just because you’re having trouble with the diagnostic doesn’t make it a trick,’ Sosa said, stirring the green goop with a fresh plastic spoon. “You want some, Billy?”
“No!” I shouted over her. “She just said it. She’s trying to train you to accept help and not take care of yourself! We get the reward if she unlocks the boxes, too. The test isn’t really unlock the box to get the reward, it’s the sooner we give up the sooner we get rewarded!”
Chaz and Annie exchanged looks, almost dubious.
“There’s nothing wrong with getting some help if you need it,” Sosa replied calmly.
“Yeah, Clark,” Billy wiped his mouth with the back of his newly freed hand. “If it’s the sooner you give up the sooner you get rewarded, why’d I have to wait?” This is why Sosa let us talk. We could be used against each other.
I slammed my forehead dramatically into the plastic box. It was the closest I could come to dragging the palm of my hand over my face.. “Because it lets her set the rules, doofus. She’s literally just spoon fed you! You didn’t even reach out or ask to take the spoon and feed yourself. Chaz just got hand fed candy! She’s literally babying us and covering it up with words like diagnostic or adding Mr. and Miss to our names!”
A blob of green juice that used to be refrigerated dessert shot out of Annie’s mouth and onto the carpet. Sosa had been so confident that she hadn’t even stopped during my accusation.
There it was, though! That guilty glint of recognition from Sosa..The magician caught in her reflection. The addict caught getting her fix, the cosseting fiend! “I also helped wipe your sweaty forehead too, after you and Billy were done playing childish games. Was I babying you, then or did you just need help?”
“I didn’t ask for you to touch me! You just got up in my space!” Inside the box my hands were white knuckled fists.
“So you boys trying to break my things by playing bumper cars: Not childish?”
Mentally, I stepped back. Had to tip her more off balance “Not the point.”
“What was the point, Mr. Clark?” She put her hands on her hips.
“The point is you shouldn’t be touching people without their consent.” It was a weak offense, considering that they were legally empowered to touch my genitals as long as there was a wipe or gloves between their skin and mine, but it was all I had.
“Pretty sure Billy asked for help, and Chaz opened his mouth.” Sosa was regaining her composure.
“I didn’t ask for you to drag tissues across my face or forehead.”
The OT opened her mouth to reply and then stopped herself. I saw all the haughty Amazon indignation flow out of her with a single exhalation. “Fair enough.” she said. “I’m sorry, Clark. I won’t touch you again without your consent unless it’s an emergency.”
“I”m not going to ask for help.”
“Me neither.” Chaz said. “Your candy sucks, too.” Annie didn’t say anything, instead sucking on her lips and grimacing.
Sosa became unflappable. “That’s your choice.” Sitting down in a chair she said. “Keep trying to solve the puzzle. Our sessions are thirty minutes. If you can’t figure it out by then, I’ll let you out and take you back to class. Billy, you can keep playing. Mr. Clark, Miss Annie, Mr. Chazz, if you change your mind, just let me know.” She took out her phone and started texting again.
Billy didn’t play, though. He stayed in the ballpit, sure enough, but now he looked particularly ashamed. We all just stood there in the OT room; quietly looking at each other; unsure of what to talk about; silenced and flustered and frustrated.
Sosa kept looking at her phone. At least she’d stopped trying to spoon feed us. She didn’t look mad, but she didn’t look terribly happy, either. Neither did we. Was this a draw? It didn’t feel like it was a draw.
Stupidly, I spent the next several minutes subtly trying to reach the catches. Evidently, I wasn’t subtle enough. “What are you doing, man?” Chaz questioned me. “You just said that we couldn’t win. Why are you still trying?”
“Story of my life.”
“Sorry guys…” It was Annie.
Plastic balls rattled in the pit as Billy leaned over and out. “For what, babe?” Then he twitched and pinched his nose. “Aw, oh man! Agh!”
I’d been subtly squirming and wincing and quietly twisting for several minutes. So had Annie. I’d been trying to do the impossible. Annie had been dealing with something more inevitable. So that’s why her breathing had slowed and her face had stopped scrunching up.
Her hands still encased, she bobbed her shoulders. “My bad.” She seemed embarrassed, but not nearly as self-conscious as she should be. By the look of things, it was like she’d just let out a particularly large belch in a crowded elevator. By the smell of things she wouldn’t want to sit down any time soon.
“Aren’t you going to get changed?” She seemed relatively comfortable standing in her own filth. We’d torn Tommy apart for the same thing.
Her top lip upturned a bit. “Can’t. Stuck. Also, O.T.”
My eyebrow arched. “Can’t Sosa change you?” Beouf and Zoge could sometimes be stingy on the wet changes,but they at least had the decency to not purposefully let us stew in our own feces.
Sosa stood back up and lightly slipped her phone back in her pocket. It wouldn’t be there long. “Do you see any diapers or wipes here, Mr. Clark? This isn’t the Little’s room or Pre-K. And it’s Miss Sosa, thank you very much.” So much to unpack in those few short sentences.
What hit me more deeply was a pattern I hadn’t recognized. Places like the cafeteria, therapy rooms and other ‘all-ages’ locations made it so that we’d have less choice to even beg for changing. We’d just have to get used to it. Annie looked plenty used to it, as it stood.
“Do you want her to get a rash?” I asked the Amazon.
“We’ve got about ten minutes to go. She’s not going to get a rash in that time.” She was right, and I wished I didn’t know that she was right. “She can handle some poopy pants.”
“I don’t know if I can.” Chaz whispered a touch too loud. He was the least mobile, but it was obvious he was trying to put distance between himself and Annie’s backside. I didn’t budge. Chaz saw me not moving and stopped himself. “Nevermind.”
“Dang,” Billy said, still pinching his nose. “What did you eat?” Idiot.
Calling Annie annoyed at her boyfriend was like calling Janet a bit too friendly with me. “You poop right next to me at least three times a week,” she snapped. “I don’t want to hear it.” Billy let go of his nose and leaned back sinking deeper into the pit. He was up to his neck in more than just plastic, now.
“Sorry, Miss Annie,” Sosa said, sounding so reasonable as to be exhausting. “I don’t have anyone here to watch the boys while I change you. I could take you all through Mrs. Ambrose’s room, get you changed, and then we could finish the last five minutes or so back in your classroom, but we can’t take the diagnostic cubes with us.”
I set my jaw. “Nope.” There was no chance I was going to let myself be dragged through the corpse of my old classroom. I wasn’t about to watch Tracy school marmed up and it’d be a hot day on the mountaintop before I willingly let any of my students see me in a wet diaper.
Sosa seemed passive, but I could tell she was enjoying this, trying to play us off each other. “Billy’s already done for the day. You three just need to let me know when you’re done.”
“Clark,” Chaz said. He didn’t say anything else. I could tell he was torn between comfort and opportunity and facing off against a sense of peer pressure and solidarity.
“No,” Annie spoke up. “I’m not done.” A slight tensing in her face and a muffled pop from behind her signalled that she wasn’t just talking about running out the clock. “It’s fine. I’ll wait.” She craned her neck towards Sosa. “I don’t need help.” I gained a new level of respect for the woman right there.
Sosa took her seat and her phone. “Suit yourself, Annie.”
“I will, Sosa.”
“It’s Miss Sosa.”
Annie stood up a little straighter. Chaz hugged the puzzle box and heaved himself to a standing position. Rising from the dead, Billy sat up in the ball pit and crawled back over the side. Me? I got the biggest, dumbest, craziest smile on my mug as collectively we all realized the same thing.
I turned my big dumb pastel paperweight around so that I could look directly at my ex-colleague. “What is...Jasmine?”
“Holy crap!” Chaz lit up.. “Her first name’s Jasmine?”
“Jasmine Sosa,” Annie tried the name out. “I like it. It’s a good name. Jasmine. Jasmine Sosa. Jasmine.”
Sosa stiffened to our muffled snickering. “I would appreciate it if you would call me by my proper name.” Sosa was still seated, but now seemed infinitely more tense. This? This was her weakness? This was the chink in her emotional armor? I’d gotten so used to calling co-workers by their last name out of courtesy and caution that I hadn’t considered it. Some people just got a bug up their shorts when ‘babies’ or ‘children’ or Littles, basically anyone they considered socially inferior got too familiar.
And thank the Adult Little League’s lucky stars, Jasmine Sosa- Jazzie, the Jazzmeister, All-That-Jazz, The Sosanator, Sosarino, Big Mama S - was one of them.
Finally out of the ball pit, Billy leaned on Annie’s cube. “Right. Sorry. Our bad. Miss Jasmine. Better?”
Chaz lowered his head and tone, mockingly. “Jazzie…”
Wanna know how I know Amazons can’t fire mind bullets? Stuff like this.
I let out half a cackle and was looking at the ceiling before I realized. I laughed so hard my throat started tickling me and my laughter turned into coughs. “Sorry. Sorry!” I panted. “Sorry!” I’d have covered my mouth but somebody put a big clonky cage on my hands!”
And just like that the tension was leaving, (us anyways). We didn’t need strange music or dancing robots to laugh and smile. “Miss Annie, Mr. Billy, Mr. Chaz. You’re being very disrespectful!” Some adults try to use titles like Mr. and Miss to invoke a sense of responsibility or respect in children. It can work...on actual children.
“How are we being disrespectful?” Annie feigned like a pro. “You’re calling us by our first names, why can’t we call you by yours?”
“It’s not appropriate.”
Four voices rose up in unison. “Whyyyyy?” Oh, what the hell! Sometimes you’ve got to go with the classics.
“Children aren’t supposed to call adults by their first names. It’s how I was raised.” She was close to popping. One of us just had to squeeze.
Annie went for a kill shot. “Well, Jasmine, ma’am, we were raised to grow up, get jobs, and do everything you take for granted, but that didn’t work out, did it?”
I leaned back in surprise and admiration. The sass! Balancing the act by adding in ‘ma’am’! If ‘Big Baiting’ had been a sport she could make it to the pros with a performance like this! I shouldn’t have been surprised considering how she and Billy had double teamed me at that first breakfast.
Speaking of which, Sosa was so ruffled up that she’d forgotten that one of us was completely unhindered. Billy was slowly going in for a coup de grace. Chaz hopped up for the assist.
“I think I’m about ready to quit. Do you mind helping me out, Miss Jasmine?”
Sosa stayed seated in her chair. “I’m not helping you with anything until you give me the respect I deserve as your Occupational Therapist.” Her eyes were unblinking, and her facial features controlled, but her attention was squarely on Chaz.
“We’re just respecting you like you respect us, ma’am. You call us by our first names, we call you by yours.”
The giantess puffed air out of her nostrils. “Alright,” she said haughtily. “That’s fair. Miss Ellis-Vermont. Mr. Dunnet. Mr. Grange.” I held my breath lest I scream. It hurt- it physically hurt- hearing Janet’s last name as my own. It didn’t take a genius to know those weren’t the others’ actual last names either.
From the smug look on Sosa’s face, she could tell she’d hit a nerve. “Mr. Ogden.” Billy’s disappearance was finally noticed. Amazing that he could be that stealthy while crinkling. “Where’s Bill-?”
“YOU MISSED A SPOT MISS SOSA!” A Little fist with far too much tissue paper shot up and got in Miss Sosa’s personal space. ‘HERE LET ME GET THAT FOR YOU! I’M HELPING! I’M HELPING! HELPING IS GOOD! RIGHT?!”
Even sitting, the height difference between Sosa and Billy was enough that she was in no real danger of being struck. Billy was far enough away and reaching out so that there was no momentum or force. The fistfull paper hankies dangled tauntingly close past Sosa’s lips “HELPING IS GOOOOOOD!” At some point in his life, Billy had definitely had a sibling that he’d played ‘I’m not touching you!’ with.
Not touching only goes so far. “Let me help you with your phone!” It was just sitting on her lap, in far easier reach than her lips. What happened next wasn’t anything, more bad than bad luck really. Billy had meant to grab the phone, not knock it out of her lap. Not send it skidding and spinning on the floor.
It was an accident.
What I did next wasn’t.
The puzzle box was more bulky than heavy. The kind of clumsy that was easily lifted but slowly weighed on you as the minutes passed by. I didn’t need to pick it up for very long; just long enough for momentum to send the phone underneath.
I threw as much of my body weight into the swing as I could. Every Little bit helps.
Everyone but Sosa froze. Her arm jetted out and grabbed Billy by the wrist. “Put. The tissues. Down.”
“OW! YOU’RE HURTING ME! YOU’RE HURTING ME!”
Calmy. Slowly. Deliberately. Sosa let him go. “You and I both know that’s a lie.”
“OW! OW! OW!” Billy’s performance wasn’t working nearly as good as mine with Skinner.
Sosa wasn’t Skinner. “Lift. The Box. Up.” Heat was radiating off her, but her countenance was completely, precisely controlled
I did. I lifted the box and pivoted with my hips so that I could see the damage I’d done. I’d gone too far, but I wasn’t sure how far that was. It was an Amazon grade cell phone that had been half-assed stomped on by a Little with a box.
I could still read the text Sosa had been working on just fine..
- Waffle Mix
- Toilet Paper
- Dog food
- Bird seed
- Bloody Mary Mix
She’d been gaslighting us while working on a shopping list. All my force had only managed to put the tiniest crack in the screen. An easy fix, if annoying inconvenience.
We were silent while Sosa picked the phone up and examined the damage we’d done. She didn’t look upset. I’d wished she did.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t write you all up.” She waited just long enough for her words to sink in. Billy forgot to feign a hurt wrist. “Do you know what happens to Littles who get too many referrals?” The temperature in the classroom dropped to freezing.
It was a bluff. Had to be. Except it probably wasn’t. .
I pretended that the ridiculous monstrosity I was trapped in was a kind of podium in a courtroom serial drama, even if I couldn’t stand up straight and keep it on the floor at the same time. “On what grounds?”
“Disrespect. Defiance. Thievery. Destruction of Property” The lack of anger in Sosa was actually frightening. I’d rather talk down a hothead than an ice queen.
“Miss Sosa, I’d like to level with you.” I didn’t wait for permission but it was a good sign that I wasn’t being cut off. “That’s not the best idea. You know as well as I do that Littles aren’t held to the same standard as even Kindergarteners. We could all show up topless next week and still wouldn’t be in violation of the dress code.”
“You just purposefully broke my phone. The rules still apply, Clark. You were a teacher.”
There! I had my in! My credibility! I kept my voice level. Reasonable. Responsible. Adult. I pretended that I was still, legally, Mr. Gibson. I pretended that my pants weren’t peed in or that within twenty minutes give or take I’d be eating corn dog nuggets out of a highchair for lunch followed by an afternoon nap.
“Yeah,” I said. “And you and I both know that you shouldn’t have had your phone out. And I didn’t really break it. You’d do more damage if you stepped on it. Not even Brollish would take you seriously. Billy could have walked up, climbed on your lap, and slapped you in the face, and chances are he’d get off with a warning, and you’d get sent to some kind of de-escalation training refresher about not putting your face in slapping range.” I couldn’t tell if Billy was excited or afraid of what I’d just said. “Not that Billy would do that, mind you. But you’re the adult here.”
Deep breath. Time to bring it home. “Unless we’re a danger or major regular disruption to other students, this is time out and a stern note home at best. Unless you really really exaggerate what we just did and leave out the parts where you were letting us roughhouse and getting the wrong idea...” I swallowed.
I had her. I knew I had her before she opened her mouth back up. “If it helps I’ll go to time out. Just leave out the other guys. I’m sorry.”
“Clark, that’s very…”
“Mature?” Annie piped up.
“Insightful,” Sosa said. She stood up, rubbed her temples. “Alright. I’m sorry for losing my temper. You’ve got about five minutes left to try and figure the puzzle out. Then we’ll go back to class. Just...don’t push it. Deal?”
“Deal.” We all said. It was kind of a draw, decidedly less successful than our recent session working Skinner over, but it felt like a win all the same.
When Annie, Chaz, and I were taken out of our puzzle boxes, they didn’t dance or play music that sent our endorphins racing. More things were going on that Sosa wasn’t telling us. At least we took the long way around the building instead of cutting through my old room.
Sosa carried Chaz and he was making the most of it for both himself and us.
“You know how to say Miss Sosa. You’re not that Little.”
“Hey, Clark,” Annie whispered to me in the walkway back to class. “How much of what you said at the end was true? About us slapping teachers and stuff?”
My heart was still thundering from the performance. “I honestly have no idea,” I confessed. “I just spat out everything about discipline that I knew from teaching three year olds, stuff I think I remembered Beouf complaining about, and stuff that sounded good in my head.”
“You were just bullshitting?” Billy behind me said.
I blushed. “I mean...kinda.”
“You had me going so hard,” Billy gushed.
“It’s a good thing for Beouf that Clark isn’t taller,” Annie said back to us.
“He could probably do her job better than her.”
I’m still not sure how I feel about that particular compliment.