Chapter Description: Clark has a falling out.
I bounced in my feeder seat, waving my arms. “Tracy!” I called. “Over here! Over here!” It was easier to bounce and jiggle and all but hop on my ass that morning. Zoge had already changed me into one of Billy’s Dino-Dips. It might have been me, but they felt more than a tad thicker than other brands. There’s diaper thick, and there’s pillow-strapped-to-your-ass. Billy’s Amazons dressed him in something close to the former.
Maybe that’s why he was so unpotty trained. Maybe the thickness made it easier or more desensitized. Would having a giant load in my pants be that uncomfortable with all this extra cushioning? I hoped I didn’t have to find out.
But I digress.
“Tracy!” I flailed my arms. “Tracy!” I gulped down a spoonful of dry cereal, fed to me by Zoge. “Hey! Tracy! I need to talk to you!'' The rest of the class finger fed themselves or allowed Zoge or Beouf to spoon feed them in turns. Nibble. Nibble. Gulp. Nibble. Nibble. Gulp. I was too preoccupied to use my fingers. That and I didn’t want my honey glazed corn loops to taste like the rash cream I’d accidentally gotten on my fingers. Yeah, Zoge wiped it off immediately; the diaper was still under me when she’d done it. Didn’t mean I wasn’t paranoid.
All my classmates stared at me between bites. Some in dread, others in rapt fascination.
Tracy…ignored isn’t the right word. Ignored has too much malice in it. She kept looking over at me, just a table or so away, but then going back to patting preschoolers on the head, or opening milk cartons. I could tell that she wanted to come over and see me, but she couldn’t leave her post. That tyrant of a teacher,Ambrose, wasn’t technically required to be with my students (mine, never hers), until after breakfast, leaving Tracy with the bulk of the work. And like Littles, three and four year olds couldn’t be trusted unsupervised for more than thirty second intervals, albeit for very different reasons.
Had I Lion, I would have chucked him as close to Tracy’s table under the pretext of her needing to get it back to me. Regrettably, I didn’t have Lion anymore… All the other stuffies were out of sight and out of reach, even Jessinnia “Tracy! We need to talk!”
“Clark, my love,” Mrs. Zoge said. “You’re being too loud and Miss Tracy is busy working with the big…with the preschoolers.” As annoyed as I was, I heard the self-correction in Zoge’s word choice and was grateful. Not that I told her. She held a bottle. “Take a sip of milk. Your mouth looks very crummy.”
I did as she asked. Taking a few gulps. Since Wednesday, Zoge had become my designated handler, of sorts. Beouf didn’t outright reject me or refuse me. On the contrary, she was every bit as outwardly warm and inwardly professional to me as she’d been since my enrollment. It’s just that.in every interaction we’d had for the rest of the week, unless it was absolutely necessary for her to do, Zoge or Janet did it instead.
Objectively, it was a good call. Not every student listens to their teacher and chemistry makes interactions stressful for both. So if that interaction can be minimized, and thus the stress is minimized, learning can more easily occur. Teachers love their students. Can’t help it. Never said anything about liking them…
It was calculated, but effective. I didn’t want to talk to Beouf that much either. As a bonus, I got treated to Ivy’s quiet but resentful glares every time her Mommy so much as spoke a kind word to me.
Who I really wanted to talk to was both very close and impossible distance away. “Traceeeey!”
A preschooler tugged on Tracy’s plain ankle length skirt. “Miss Tracy, I think that baby wants to talk to you.”
I threw a preemptive sneer at Billy, Chaz, and the rest, cutting off teasing giggles and mocking repetitions in their throats. They would not weaponize the tactics I’d taught them against me. They wouldn’t dare.
Tracy leaned over and said something to the kid, Roland I think…I’d only known him for that first week…but I couldn’t hear what she said. Tracy was smart enough to whisper in the nearly empty cafeteria.
I saw Beouf press her lips together and throw Zoge a look. She was stopping herself from correcting me. “Clark,” Mrs. Zoge said. “Miss Tracy is busy right now. She has a job to do. Maybe you can talk to her after school?”
I fluttered my lips like a horse. “She leaves right after school. Just like you. Most teacher aides do.” She used to hang back and grade papers every now and then, but that felt like a long long time ago.
“I can talk to her.”
She shook her head softly. “Both she and I are working, right now. You should be working on finishing your breakfast so you can have lots of energy.”
“Why do you want to talk to her?” Tommy asked from the bucket seat beside me.
Damn it, Tommy! Butt out! I’d have flicked him in the ear right then and there if Zoge wasn’t watching. No! Wait! Opportunity! “She was my assistant, before,” I said. “My work partner. My Zoge.” I wiped away a tear just before it spilled “ I miss her.” My voice cracked. Damn, I hadn’t meant for that last part to happen. That’s the risk in running lies of omission.
I wanted to do more than give my old Tweener bud a hug.
“Yeah,” Tommy said. “I get it.” He looked far off for a moment. I wondered who from his past life he was missing just then.
A paper napkin zoomed up and wiped my nose. “Do you need to blow?” Zoge asked.
I sniffed. “No…”
She rubbed the underside of my nose with the cloth and tossed it away. I itched it with my finger, and got a faint yet disturbing whiff of rash cream. I regretted the spoon feeding less and less right then and there.
What I did regret is watching Tracy and the rest of my students walk away, single file holding hands, with Tracy quietly herding them outside in the opposite direction. Under normal circumstances, students came in one way and exited past the Littles’ Table. Tracy was taking them out through the entrance. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, since her classroom faced the cafeteria entrance. The kids would have had to walk all the way around the building to get where they were going when they could just backtrack through an uncrowded space. They were probably antsy, too. It was a smart move.
It was also a marker of how much time I’d used up.
“TRACY!” I tried again, anyway. The echo of my voice was beaten back by the overhead blast fan at the entrance.
“Mrs. Zoge,” Beouf said from her multi highchair feeding table. Her face twitched like she was wrestling to choose the right words. If I hadn’t known her for ten years I might not have seen it. “How about when you go on your break, you cut through Miss Ambrose’s classroom and let Miss Tracy know that Clark would like to speak to her?” I waited for the condition. The ‘if he’s good’, the ‘unless he..’. Nothing came. Not even another micro-twitch.
“I’d be happy to do that,” Mrs. Zoge said. She said it to Mrs. Beouf, but she was looking right at me.
“Promise?” I heard myself asking.
Zoge inched up to me and leaned in so that only I could hear. “Mr. Grange, when have I ever not kept a promise to you?”
“But no matter what, their Mommies and Daddies love them very, very much.” Beouf closed the illustrated propaganda book and smiled, softly. “So that’s something to remember: That even when you’re not acting your best, or you’re making bad choices, you’re still loved.”
Janet hugged me softly from behind; a quiet physical affirmation that yes she thought I’d been ‘naughty’ or ‘bratty’ or whatever, but she still loved me. My cheeks flushed hard and I wanted to sink back and melt, but that would have only resulted in me leaning further back into Janet’s breasts.
There were no therapists on campus today. Janet had found a few minutes to slink in, and as a result I was the only Little with a lap side seat for one of Beouf’s stories. My guard was up the entire time because the others kept looking at us. With Janet quietly giving me gentle hugs and squeezes every other page.
I tolerated it. Her navy blue cardigan was light and more a fashion choice than protection against the elements. It still wasn’t very cold yet. Hence, my pantsless condition persisted. But if I bunched my legs up in a cannonball and pulled at the flaps of the coat, I could kind of sort of almost wrap it around enough to obscure the Koddles I’d been swaddled in. The real problem was throwing annoyed or menacing looks at my classmates everytime they looked at me, quietly chuckling to themselves. This was the third day and Janet’s presence still hadn’t gotten old to them.
Except for Ivy. She was full to despair and had to be taken out of the classroom by her Mommy. Zoge never let Ivy sit in her lap during school hours. That poor idiot.
“So, what would you say is the main theme of this story?” Beouf asked.
Annie shot her hand up. “That we can do whatever we want?”
“Where in the book does it say that?” Beouf asked. “Would you like to come and show me using the pictures?”
Annie put her hand down. “No ma’am…” Was she trolling? Or had she been sincere? It was hard to tell with this lot sometimes.
Jesse blurted out. “Love! It’s about love! Last page! Said so!” He was so confident.
“On a surface level, yes. But why was love important? Can we go deeper?”
Jesse looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Uh…yes?”
I could see Beouf counting off in her head, trying to give a fair and ample time for response. “Let me ask the question in a different way without trying to give the answer away. When the babies act out, are they necessarily doing it to be mean?”
“Naw,” Mandy said. “It’s cuz they don’t know any better.”
“Sometimes they are,” Shauna argued. “Being mean, I mean. You don’t put mayonnaise in your big brother’s hair because you think it’s not gonna do anything!. It’s mayonnaise. Everybody knows that stuff is gross!”
Beouf turned back to the corresponding page. “Good point! Good point! But what happens in the end?”
An uncomfortable silence followed. I rolled my eyes and said what I hoped everyone with an ounce of sense was thinking. “The ‘moral’ of the ‘book’” I said using massive air quotes, “is that good or bad, bratty or babyish, we’re going to get the same end result.”
“That’s not exactly how I would have phrased it,” Beouf said, “I think a better way to look at it is…”
A gentle click of an opening door. Beouf stopped and looked up over the lot of us. “Sorry,” a familiar voice stage-whispered. “Miss Zoge sent me.” I rolled off of Janet’s lap and stumbled to my feet.
“Miss Tracy,” Beouf said gently, “now is not a good time.”
“Oh,” Tracy inched back towards the door she came in. She thumbed towards the nap room. “Sorry, Mrs. Beouf. Mrs. Zoge told me that uh…one of your students… needed some company. Thought they were in the…” She finished with an exaggerated and embarrassed shrug.
“I think she meant after school,” Beouf said. I looked back and forth at the two Amazons, too proud to beg, and too impatient to wait. If I’d been a “good baby” it was only because I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to check in with my aide, and I was too preoccupied with what I’d talk to her about.
Tiny Tots. Little Land. Sunshine Academy. And Enchanted Forest..? No, that didn’t sound quite right.
“Oh yeah,” Tracy scratched the back of her head. “Yeah. Sure.”
Janet twisted and leaned back. “If you want to come to my room after the buses, you can.”
Tracy brightened a little. “Sure!” She already had one foot back out the door. “I’m just…gonna go now.”
“Everyone say, ‘Bye Miss Tracy!’
“Bye Miss Tracy!” A couple of them parroted because Beouf had already broken them. Sandra Lynn and Jesse especially, I reckoned. Chaz and Billy just wanted a chance to be obnoxious and shout anything at the top of their lungs.
The Tweener, all primped up and proper looking like a schoolmarm, backed out of the room. “Bye” That got another loud smattering of bye-byes.
Janet stiffened and shot up to her feet.. “And on that note,” she laughed awkwardly, “I only have ten minutes to get any food in my gullet.” She readjusted her cardigan and hurried out without so much as giving me a kiss. “Bye, Clark! See you after school! Love you!” She slid out the door just in time for Mrs. Zoge and Ivy to slide back in. The two almost bumped into each other and gave polite squeaks of apology in passing.
The blood was rushing to Janet’s face. Why had she been blushing? I looked back towards the door Tracy had left by. Oh dear, was Janet cosseting Tracy, now?! I in no way wanted a ‘big sister’, and I wouldn’t want the past month and a half I’d gone through to befall anyone. (Maybe Brollish. Okay, Forrest too). A darkly humorous thought: Maybe it was nothing I did. Maybe there was something in the air ducts of that room that drove Amazons baby crazy.
I put the whole thing out of my mind, lest it sour my mood and I lose my focus.
Tiny Tots. Little Land. Sunshine Academy. Enchanted Forest? That still didn’t sound right. What was it?
Tiny Tots. Little Land. Sunshine Academy. Enchanted Forest Daycare? No. Enchanted Woodland Daycare. That was it! I had been saying those names to myself over and over and over. Based on what Amy had told me about the regulars at Little Voices, those were the big four independently owned and operated daycares in Oakshire and the surrounding areas.
There were smaller, religiously operated ones that I knew existed. St. Judy’s was one I think. Then there were the Daycares that practically banned clients from attending Little Voices; or more likely the Amazons that dropped their padded livestock there off were so old fashioned as to avoid Little Voices meetings on principle.
Those four daycares weren’t the only rackets in the county. I just wanted to cross off the biggest ones first…
I looked up from the collapsible playpen in Janet’s room. Her head was down, she was grading papers with one hand and entering them on her computer with the other. Hyper focused and productive like a machine.
That probably meant that I wasn’t going to be allowed to grade papers this weekend. That meant that none of her students would get a taste of the Little experience: Every single one of them would get what they earned.
Not that I could blame Janet.
Still, a pity.
Tiny Tots. Little Land. Sunshine Academy. Enchanted Woodland Daycare. That’d start. That’d be enough. I kept looking back to Janet’s classroom door. Where was Tracy? She was supposed to be here. Had she forgotten? Had she been escorted off campus again? Why? She promised.
“Gonna be a while,” Janet said. “I’m getting all the paperwork done right now so that we don’t have to do any on the weekend.”
“That’s fine.” My eyes kept drifting over to the door. Tracy? Really? Again?
“Good.” “Do you want a toy or a bottle or…?” Her eyes darted down to below my waist.
I covered myself as best as I could, folding my hands in my lap. It didn’t work, but I felt better about it. At least I’d been put back into Monkeez. “I’m fine, thank you.”
She might have checked me with more than her eyes if her hands hadn’t been so preoccupied. Thank goodness for math homework and spelling tests.
A polite, soft, timid knock at the door. Janet didn’t look up. “It’s open,” she called out.
Tracy slinked in, still dressed in those prudish constricting clothes, but at least she had her hair down. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “I had to help clean up the classroom, otherwise I would have been given heck for staying late.”
“Sad but understandable.” Janet hadn’t looked away from her papers or school desktop. If she had she’d have known that Tracy was talking to me.
“Yeah,” Tracy said. “Lots of small annoying things, and one very big one…” She threw me a conspiratorial smirk. I smirked back.
Janet laughed, only paying half attention. “I bet. Like what?”
“Oh you know,” Tracy went on. “Just making sure the room is ready for Monday morning and give the custodians less work to do. Vacuuming. Wiping counters and desks. Emptying the-” She lost a beat. “Emptying the garbage.” She looked at me uncomfortably.
Mother fucker! Was that witch in my classroom still doing the same shit she’d done to Elmer? Beouf might not allow her in her room, but she was royally fucking up mine! I grabbed the playpen railing and squeezed it, pretending that I had strength enough to crush the cage.
“Mommy,” I said. “Can Tracy take me outside to talk?” Tracy’s eyebrows almost reached her hairline.
Janet didn’t even look up. “That should be fine.. Just stay close. Tracy, feel free to bring him back if he starts trying anything naughty or gets fussy.’
“Yes ma’am.” Tracy approached the playpen and hoisted me out of it. “Ooooh boy,” she groaned. You’re getting heavy!” I was set on my feet instead of her hip. “Come on. Hold my hand.”
I took it, and we walked out into the fresh air and afternoon sun. “Thanks,” I said.
We were about twenty feet. A small benefit of an open campus is that there aren’t as many hallways or corridors where secret whispers can be heard. We were basically talking in one big concrete and grass field with the third and fourth grade building to our backs, the Cafeteria to our left, the front office to our right, and way way ahead of us were the building that contained our respective classroom. The only way we could have gotten more auditory privacy would be to mosey all the way out to the P.E. field. As long as we didn’t shout, we’d be fine.
“Mommy?” Tracy scoffed playfully. “Really?”
I blushed. “What? When I call her Mommy I’ve got a better chance of getting my way.”
“That’s how they get ya, Boss” Tracy said. It wasn’t mean. It wasn’t inaccurate either. Also, I felt buzzy hearing her call me that. Talking to Tracy was the closest I’d gotten to talking with a non-mindfucked Little. “I get it though. You’re trying to survive as best as you can. Just like you told the Littles in our corner.”
That made me grimace. “Pretty much.”
“What did you want to talk about?”
“About your promise,” I said. “The one you made me on my first day?”
She looked away and nodded, trying to seem inconspicuous. “Yeah. I remember.”
“So I’m working on something. I’m not sure of all the steps yet, but in a while, probably after the fall festival but before Winter Break…” Shit. How to phrase this without sounding suspicious? It would be difficult for someone to listen in without us knowing, but not impossible. “Before Winter Break, I was thinking of taking a vacation. A very long one.”
Tracy stopped and took a knee. She grabbed me by the shoulders. “Clark. Stop. I can’t know. Everyone at the school is a mandated reporter. If I know and anyone finds out…”
I brushed her hands off. “No no no no,” I shook my head. “Not what I was talking about. Completely misunderstood!” Not really. She was pretty spot on about this. I was getting out of here and back to freedom, eventually. It just wouldn't do to have anyone overhear that. “I meant Janet is taking me to the Littles Museum!”
“Oh. Okay.” She kept kneeling. “Had me worried for a second, boss”
“But it’s a surprise,” I added.
“Yeah, I think Janet is going to be taking me there. As a surprise. That I’m not supposed to know about.”
“So you think,” Tracy repeated, “that you’re going to go away. On a vacation with your Mommy. But it’s a surprise so you don’t know when? But you think it’ll be sometime between the Fall Festival and Winter Break.”
Lie code established. “Exactly. I’ve only figured out some of the details. I said, but I’m pretty sure there’s a really good chance that it’ll happen.”
“Okay,” Tracy said, guardedly. “So what do you want me for?”
“I was hoping that I might take a friend with me.” I said. “A Little friend. Or even if I couldn’t take her, I’d like to know where she is. Make sure she’s safe…or…or something.”
The Tweener stood up, and looked away. “Okay. Yeah. Um. I haven’t had a whole lot of success in that area.”
That hurt to hear, but it wasn’t surprising. “Okay. That’s what I figured. You’d have told me if you’d found anything.”
“I’ve been talking to people. People that know stuff.” I meant Amy. “Where have you looked so far?”
My friend was on the lookout. I joined her, nervously glancing over my shoulder. “Oh. You know. Here and there.”
“Cool. Cool. Where? Tiny Tots?”
Tracy thought for a second. “No. Not there.”
“Little Land? That’s a big one.”
“Not there either.”
“Sunshine Academy? That’s the next city over, but it’s still pretty big and not that far.”
She was looking distinctly uncomfortable. “I don’t think so…?.”
“Enchanted Woodland Daycare?”
She took a breath, and closed her eyes. “No.”
“Okay,” I said. “Where have you checked?” My arms flopped at my sides in exasperation.
“I can definitely tell you that she’s not at New Beginnings,” my assistant said proudly. “I know a guy who knows a guy, and there’s no Cassie there. Nobody that even looks like her. Nobody who was enrolled the same week as you.”
A sinking feeling was making its way in my stomach and it had nothing to do with lunch. “You haven’t checked back? She might not have been enrolled right away.”
It was then that I realized that Tracy wasn’t keeping a lookout for eavesdroppers. She was doing her best to avoid eye contact with me. “Um…I can check again if you want..”
My leg twitched with me wanting to stomp my foot in anger and frustration. “Tracy,” I almost yelled. “Where have you searched for my wife?” Fuck lying. Fuck code. I needed answers. Right now.
“Well I…uh…” she stuttered and stammered, “I…uh…I looked online for local daycares and…um… I found a few that had…um… limited capacity and zero openings.” She exhaled and offered me the weakest smile. “So I’m positive Cassie isn’t at any of those.”
I suddenly realized that my mouth was hanging open. “Tracy!”
She held up her hands defensively to her chest. “What? What am I supposed to do? Go to every daycare and ask if they’ve got a Little that looks like her?”
My fists bunched up and gnarled up to my chest. “Yes!”
“Boss, do you know how those places work? I’m a Tweener! If I’m not dropping off a Little or looking for a job, they might decide that I’d look good in diapers and a bonnet!”
“So ask for a job!”
Her response was rapid fire. “When? On the weekend? Most daycares are closed then! What happens if they offer me a job? If I don’t accept then and there, they might think that I’m being immature or have maturosis or whatever!” If I didn’t know any better, she’d been thinking about this more than actually searching for Cassie.
I exhaled and pinched the bridge of my nose. Tracy was screwing around and needed me to tell her exactly what to do. Oddly enough, it felt kind of empowering. “Okay,” I said. “Okay. Here’s what we can do. How about when we walk back, we talk to Janet about you becoming a babysitter. So far she only has one.”
“Maybe you can get some extra cash and store it away for later. It’ll give us more time to research and plan together.”
I was pacing. “And then on the next three day weekend, or maybe an early release day, you could offer to sit me and take me out on the town, and we can investigate together. You’ll pretend that you just adopted me and that you’re shopping around. That’ll get us a tour. And nobody cares what the babied Little is searching for, so I can be more brazen about it. I’ll just be looking for friends or something…” I was also avoiding eye contact, staring at my shoes so that I didn’t notice Tracy’s uncomfortable fidgeting. “Maybe you could get me some pants for me, too.”
I stopped and took a breath. Tracy’s mouth was opening and closing like a fish.
“You’re not gonna do it. Are you?”
“Boss,” Tracy tried, “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” I snapped. “You promised!”
“I know, but…”
“You promised me!”
“It’s really hard!” If anyone was out, walking to the front office or the cafeteria, or just from one unconnected classroom to another, they could hear us. “Clark, it’s been really hard without you! I’m scrambling just to keep our class together. Half are developing really nasty attitudes and the other half are this close to falling apart! I can’t risk leaving them! Every night I come home I’m completely physically and emotionally exhausted!”
I gestured to myself. “My time hasn’t been restful, either!”
She turned her head slightly and grabbed her right elbow with her left arm “Well, you at least have an earlier bedtime…and a comfy crib.”
My voice lowered back down to a whisper. “They didn’t force you to leave campus that day, did you?”
Tracy looked blindsided. “What?”
“Someone might have come into your classroom and asked you to leave, probably phrased it as telling you that you could go home for the day, but it didn’t really take that much persuasion, did it?”
“Maybe somebody followed you to your car to make sure you left, but that was it. You didn’t even try to go with the plan to adopt me. Didn’t even mention an interest.” I was building up steam. More than steam.
“Clark…” she said. “We had that plan, but it wasn’t really a plan. Just a fantasy. And you cooked it up and kind of pressured me into it.”
Something close to a growl rose up out of me. “Typical Tweener,” I hissed. “The only thing you’re good at is looking out for yourself. “You’re only sad you lost a cushy job working with me.”
“Boss, that’s not true.” She looked like she was close to crying. “It’s more complicated than all of that.”
“Come here. I need to tell you something.”
Trustingly, stupidly, Tracy leaned in to meet me eye to eye. On some level, I think she knew what was coming. That’s when I spat in her face. The glob of saliva landed right above her right eyebrow and dripped down to her cheekbones before she wiped it off and gingerly flicked the spittle to the pavement.
“Okay,” she said. “I kind of deserved that. So you get that on-” I gave her a matching glob on her left eyebrow, this one straight on.
The slap rocked my world and I stumbled over myself trying not to fall over and skin my knees on the concrete.
“I said you only get one.” Tracy told me. “I meant it.”
Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. It didn’t hurt as bad as a giant spanking but it was straight to my face. “Oh. So you… keep that promise!” That didn’t sound nearly as cool out loud as it did in my head just then.
My face wasn’t throbbing but it stung like hell. No bruising, though.
“I warned you.”
“You hit me.”
“I warned you!”
“You hit me!” The last syllables echoed off the bricks.
Tracy leaned in again. “What are you gonna do about it? Tell your Mommy on me?” I had nothing. Not even saliva. Of course I wasn’t going to do that. She stood up and smoothed out the wrinkles in her skirt. “Come on. Let’s go to the bathroom. Put some cold water on your face. Wait for the.redness to go down.”
My hand took hers. “Yeah, fine. Whatever.” If the redness hadn’t gone down enough, I’d just tell Janet that I was crying and screaming at Tracy and that I never wanted to see her again for the rest of my miserable life. That wouldn’t have been a lie.
Tracy never got caught for slapping the taste out of my mouth. Late on a Friday afternoon, even in a place like Oakshire, people want to go out and start their weekend as soon as possible. Even educators. Especially educators.
Brollish very well could have gone home. Forrest’s spot up front was too far away. Only the teachers in hardcore mode remained on campus, and they were all holed up in their classrooms, grading and filing everything all at once so that they could have a few days’ relief on Saturday and Sunday. A custodian might have seen something, but they were all Tweeners, too. They weren’t snitching.
Me? I’ve never told anyone. Not until now.
“I really am sorry,” Tracy said on our way to the girl’s bathroom.
“Yeah,” she agreed, looking straight ahead and not at me. “Sounds about right.”