Chapter Description: Clark experiences a sudden lapse in his vocabulary as well as a pyrrhic victory
Despite the cry session over who Beouf and Janet thought I used to be, Janet was back to all business the next morning. First thing after the usual morning routine, I was plopped into my highchair and given some microwaved Franz toast sticks, eerily reminiscent of my first day in Beouf’s room with some syrup drizzled over it. Janet made herself a plate. The friendliest thing she said to me was “Here you go,” and it still had that quiet, walled up monotone. Both she and Beouf had gotten all of their feelings out the night before.
I didn’t bother telling Janet that I’d overheard the conversation the night before. Let her and Beouf think they still had their secrets. They didn’t have the guts to tell me to my face. Fuck them.
My only regret was that they discovered the baby monitor blunder so soon after me. There were weeks to months worth of gossip and plotting that I could have used to my advantage, or at least television programs I could have listened to before going to sleep.
Come to think of it, I didn’t fully understand why I hadn’t been hearing more from the baby monitor all this time. Had Janet been walking around the house with both the wrong end of the monitor and somehow kept it off without knowing this whole time? At least that explained why my constant deluge of whispered hate hadn’t landed.
In a sick way, I was kind of proud of myself. I’d misfired an entire silo of psychological missiles and I’d still managed to reduce the (literally) giant hypocrite to this.
Good for me.
I waited for her to sit down and take the first bite of her own microwaved faux food. “Can I have some milk, please?”
Janet puffed air out through her nose and rose wearily. Looking almost as dog tired as I felt, she went over to the cabinet and brought out an empty baby bottle and top and placed it upright on the counter. She opened the refrigerator and grabbed the carton of goat’s milk from the fridge.
Leaning over I could see that there was another bottle that had already been filled up next to it. “Why don’t you just give me the full one there?” I said.
“I’m doing it my way,” Janet answered coldly. “Not yours.” Just like with everything else in my life, it wasn’t enough to treat me like a baby; but it also had to be on her terms. Typical. Probably why she and Beouf had that cry session without me and without my knowledge. Me knowing that they used to like me as a person would have ruined it for them and me asking about it would have been shot down just because I would have been the one who’d asked about it.
More than ever I felt I understood them. More than ever, I had zero reason to trust that they’d act in anything remotely resembling rationality or good faith. All that, and I just didn’t feel up to being the ‘bigger’ person.
“Jessica drank from out of the carton yesterday,” I tattled.
Janet kept pouring. “Don’t care.” She finished and screwed on the cap with the rubber nipple.
“Yeah,” I said. “But I do. I don’t want to get second hand spit molecules or whatever.”
Janet replaced the carton in the fridge and shut the door. “Do you somehow think that the bottle in the refrigerator will be cleaner somehow?”
Janet cocked an eyebrow and put her free hand on her hip. “Why?” I had nothing. She saw that much and placed the bottle she’d poured onto my tray. It wasn’t nearly as forceful as a slam, but it had the same emotional impact as one. “Just take it and drink.”
I did. Sucking on the artificial tit, I felt myself wrinkle my nose. Something was off about this bottle compared to the last one I’d had. It was close in flavor, definitely still goat’s milk, but something tasted not quite the same as before. It was on-brand versus off-brand; or when coffee is coming from the bottom of the pot; or when a soda fountain’s syrup to seltzer ratio is off. Not inherently bad. Just different. I think I understood Jessica’s slightly pensive reaction just before putting me down for a nap. Was the milk starting to go bad? Or was being left out in a bottle for a longer period somehow affecting the taste?
I’d have thought that at thirty-two I’d know more basic facts about milk. The things you don’t know you don’t know.
When I’d downed my dairy and finished my sticky bread, Janet took a wipe to my hands and mouth and set me free.
I wasted no time in walking away back to the nursery, eager to think of new ways to cause mischief but lacking focus as to the ‘how’. I grabbed some stuffed animals and toys from the toybox and sat them in a semi-circle reminiscent of Circle Time or one of Beouf’s pre-Lunch whole group activities. It helped to visualize things.
With some digging around the layout was almost complete after only a few minutes: A Jack-in-the-box for Chaz, a stuffed pill bug that uncurled and doubled as a pillow for Annie, and an inflatable mallet for Billy, and so on. I placed a tiny plastic chair that hadn’t gotten much use for where Janet might likely sit if she were present.
The more important question was should I visualize myself in Beouf’s place and figure out what she might potentially see or hear, or should I sit in my own relative position to dream up possibilities?
“Why not both?” I mumbled to myself. It’s not like a stuffed animal or random toy couldn’t switch roles. I went back to the box and lifted the lid back up. A random thought: It might be fun to hide the toys in the closet and then shut myself up in the box. Give Janet a sca- “Lion?”
Down at the very bottom, a familiar unblinking face made of plush looked up at me, his noble mane disheveled but clean, his stitched-on smile greeting me for the first time in many days. I dug him out. “What are you doing here?” I asked as if the dumb thing could actually answer me. I genuinely thought that when I’d ruined him with finger paints that Janet had tossed him in the garbage instead of the washing machine.
Janet chose that moment to speed walk into the nursery, almost tripping over my display. She stopped and examined the layout. “Playing school?”
She didn’t so much as shrug at my lie, but instead continued on her way to the baby monitor. She unplugged it and started turning it over in her hands like it was a puzzle of some kind or the scene of a crime beyond rookie level incompetence.
“I found Lion,” I said.
Janet didn’t so much as look back. “Good for you.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you fixed him?”
“I thought you didn’t like him.” Janet replied. “So I stuffed him in the bottom of your toy chest.”
“I don’t like him,” I told her. “I just wanted to know where he is.”
“Okay,” Janet said. “Now you know. Take care of him and don’t put paint on him or he’s going away for good.”
I didn’t want to give her any kind of promise that I wouldn’t and open defiance seemed like a misplay, so I settled for a “Why?”
The question-that-wasn’t-really went unanswered. Janet gazed thoughtfully at the misplaced speaker end of the monitor and back to me. Then back to the monitor’s resting place. Then to my crib. “Did you…?” The question wasn’t fully phrased, but it didn’t need to be. I wasn’t the only one doing some tactical visualizations. She was genuinely questioning whether I’d made the switch.
“Did I what?” I asked. I was daring her to accuse me. It would have forced her hand and possibly get her to admit how she found out about her mistake. Or she could have just said she’d been taking a closer look and realized the mistake. It would have been nice to make her squirm, all the same.
“Nothing,” Janet said. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.” She quick-stepped out of the room faster than she had entered. I felt my shoulders slump watching her go, and not from relief. Admittedly, I was suddenly very melancholy. Part of me had been hoping, stupidly, that Janet might take the quiet of a Saturday morning to tell me all about her Friday Night.
In spite of my shrewd insistence on not telling her that I knew about their talk, seeing Janet there by the monitor gave me a fear tinged hope that she might stop being so damn quiet and tell me something of her own volition. Or yell at me. Or cry. Or laugh. Or annoyingly try to cuddle me. Or show some kind of genuine emotion beyond guarded stoicism. Her present emotional state was a flag of victory for me but I still hated it almost as much as the baby crazy stuff. Emotions are complicated.
Oh yeah! I’d almost forgotten!
If the two ends of the monitoring system had been switched this whole time, then the monitor couldn’t have conditioned me for anything. I hadn’t been hesitating at telling Janet I hated her straight to her face because of subliminal messaging; it was just a misplaced mental block. Kind of like how even in my head she was still mostly ‘Janet’ instead of ‘Grange’. That was all!
A terrible, mean spirited smirk came over me. Now was as good a time as any to say it. I dropped Lion on the carpet and walked out into the hallway. Then, despite myself, I felt kind of bad, doubled back, and picked him back up. Maybe me hugging a stupid stuffed animal while proclaiming my undying loathing to her would rattle her that extra satisfying step.
“Janet?” I called. “Janet? I have something I need to tell you!” My words fell into the wind with no reply. “Janet?” Where’d she go? She wasn’t in the guest bathroom, or the living room. I didn’t see her in the kitchen. That meant she must have been in her bedroom. Or the master bath. Could I get away with insulting her on the toilet?
My suspicions were quickly confirmed as I approached her closed bedroom door. I could hear her talking to someone on the phone, Beouf maybe? But I couldn’t make out the words until after I reached up and pulled down on the knob.
“Janet?” I said, crinkling into her bedroom. “Janet I-!”
“Yeah, yeah.” Janet said into her cell, ignoring me. Her upturned finger shot out, shushing me. I held my place. “Uh-huh. Should be fine. Just brush your teeth if it makes you feel better. No you won’t get sick. That’s in your head.”
She was sitting on her massive bed with her legs hanging over the edge, lightly grazing the floor. Over in an unused corner, a rectangular and narrow cardboard box leaned against the wall. The picture on the front showed a fully assembled baby cot with an open end and overlap so that it could be slid up and effectively attached to the side of an Amazon sized bed. It was still wrapped in plastic.
In Janet's lap were both parts of the baby monitor; the recording part and the listening part. The two halves of the apparatus were similar, but not identical, with the intended parental end having several more buttons to push beyond an on/off option.
Looking at them, my eyebrows started to knit together in quiet concentration. Though still on the phone and listening to whatever Jessica was rambling about, Janet seemed to be giving equal attention to the puzzle in her lap.
We were both thinking essentially the same thing: “Why didn’t I notice this sooner?”
I’d stayed up night after night after night staring at that abominable piece of technology whispering poison into deaf electronic ears. Why hadn’t I noticed and questioned the extra buttons before? Why had Janet gone so many weeks just assuming that I was fine if she heard nothing? Last night, I’d been able to tell when one of them sighed heavily enough or leaned back in a chair. Wouldn’t she have expected to at least hear me quietly snoring or rolling over in my sleep?
“Sorry, Jessica,” Janet finally said. “I should have told you about that.” A rosy blush smacked itself on each of the Amazon’s cheeks. “I just didn’t think-...” From her spot sitting on the side of the massive bed, she stopped speaking and regarded me with a mixture of worry, annoyance, and curiosity.
“Just a second Clark, I’m talking to Auntie Jessica. There’s something I need to find out.”
“Cool,” I said. “First though, I need to tell you that I-”
“Mommy’s. Talking.” Like the not-slam before it, the not-yell was quieter in volume than her regular speaking voice and still carried with it a menacing air of authority. I chose to keep my mouth closed and wait for my opportunity. Let her have her moment with Jessica. She’d be calling her back in a few minutes, anyways; most likely sobbing.
A new delicious thought: What if I worked in some of the things I’d heard into this latest string of admonishments? Something like ‘I’m a cheeky brat but I’ll never be your cheeky brat’? Extremely tempting. I’d been given so much ammo in such a short time; so many silver bullets that the real struggle was figuring out when and how to shoot them off.
Emotions are complicated.
“Anyway, Jess,” Janet went on, “I had a question about yesterday, when you were watching Clark for me. Something strange might have happened and-” she waited. “What about a diner? No. Nothing like that.” She stopped and gave me another queer, distrustful look. “My question is: At any time during the day did you leave him unsupervised? Even for a minute or two?”
This coming from the woman who’d hid in her room and showered so that I could raid the spice rack. Every accusation from an Amazon was a confession in disguise.
“No? Only his nap?” Janet eyeballed me suspiciously. “You moved what during his nap? Why?” Suspicion melted into confusion and concern. “He told you he was scared of it? Wh-?” And hardened back into suspicion. “Are you sure? Positive? Then why was it-?...” And just like that suspicion lightened into relief. “You kept them side by side and put his end back after the nap? And he was in the crib both times? Back and forth? You didn’t get him up out of the crib, put him down on the floor and then replace it?”
It took me a second to realize that I was shaking my head like Janet was asking me instead. Both times I’d been well imprisoned behind wooden bars. Regrettably for me, Jessica had already learned not to leave me alone. Her version of events lined up with my own.
Janet burst out into a full belly laugh. If I peeled my ears and grit my teeth, I could just make out Jessica saying “What?” In a confused and defensive tone. “What?”
“Jessica. Honey.” Janet took a breath. “I’m pretty sure you accidentally put the wrong end back in the nursery.”
That made sense. That made too much goddamn sense. Janet wouldn’t have made such a rookie mistake at this stage in the game. Jessica would. Which meant…
A big relieved groan rumbled up to the ceiling, and Janet sat back up. “That explains so much No. I don’t think he woke up. He’s a deep sleeper.” Her smile was all pearly whites. “No. You don’t need to apologize. It was an honest mistake and nothing bad happened.” She wouldn’t stop smiling. A weight had been lifted from her. All of that tension transferred from her giant body into mine. I was snapping Lion’s non-existent bones and crushing his non-existent airways. This time it had nothing to do with anger. “If it makes you feel any better, you can say we’re even.” She laughed again. “Okay. Okay. Have a good one. Love you, too, sis. Bye.”
She stood up, hung up and pocketed the phone and finally looked down directly at my shaking quivering form. “Okay,” she breathed. “Sorry about that.” She was much less quiet now, much less guarded and intense, bundled up in a cozy quilt of relief. “What did you wanna tell me, Clark?”
“I hhhh-....” I stuttered. Damn it! No! “I hhh….!” Say it!
My chin started to shake and my eyes threatened to water. I still couldn’t say it. It wasn’t just a mental block; something to just nut up and get over. “I lied,” I said. “I do like Lion. I’m sorry I messed him up. Can you put him in the diaper bag for trips again?” It was the best, most plausible lie I could think of given the circumstances.
The giantess was taken aback. “Yeah. Sure. Not now, though, right?”
“No. Not now.” I was already backing up and clinging to Lion like a life raft. “Only if we’re going somewhere.”
She was pressing her lips together, trying to push a smile down that her eyes were failing to hide. More than any other batshit crazy Amazon I’d ever met, Janet smiled with her eyes more than anything else. The exact inverse of a crone like Brollish.
Her particular crazy was threatening to overwhelm her. If I’d meant to do it, I’d have been patting myself on the back. “Okay. Sure,” Janet said. “I’ll remember that. If you want.”
“Okay.” I started backing up. Slowly. “I’m gonna go play now. In my room. With my toys. Not school, though.” Fuck! Why did I say that? I pivoted on the ball of my foot and started toddling out.
I froze and about faced. “Yes, ma’am?” Why were my knees locked and shaking?
Janet walked over and lowered down to her knees so that she was closer to eye level and placed her hands on my shoulder. “I thought you did something bad that you didn’t actually do and I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair.”
“Okay.” I said. Now I was getting very quiet. “Thanks.”
She didn’t release my shoulders. “Let’s go get some shorts on.”
I started sputtering. “Shorts? Why? Are we…are we going anywhere? Is it getting cold enough, finally?”
Her eyes beamed even though the corners of her mouth barely tugged upward. “No. Not yet. We’re not going anywhere today. Maybe the grocery store tomorrow. Just that.”
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch. No game.” Some of the edge returned in the back of her throat. “Just want to because I feel bad and I’m curious if it would make you feel good.” I opened up to ask a question but she cut me off. “You’re still not wearing anything over your diaper at school. We’ve got a lot to talk about, mister.” She waited. “You want them, or not?”
Shut up. Shut up and take the win. “Yeah,” I said. “I want shorts, please.”
She stood up. “Alright. Do you wanna ride or do you wanna walk back with me?”
“Walk, please.” I raised up my hand and took hers. We walked back to the nursery and she finished dressing me for the day.
The rest of the weekend was still quiet. Very quiet. But it wasn’t as quiet as it had been before. Janet let me be most of the time but occasionally I could hear her humming something to herself. She remained quiet when doing her crazy Amazon stuff with me, but she added tiny happy flourishes into the mix: A slight humming here, an approving nod there, like she was taking some pleasure in it and congratulating herself on a job well done.
I promised to make her regret that….later.
I got nothing but a softer, kinder “Good night,” at bed each time. That first night, though, I purposefully laid awake until the door slid open and those final motes of light from the hallway shined in. “Nini, Clark.” She whispered. “I love you.” So she had been telling the truth.
I rolled over in my crib and grumbled myself to sleep.
If only she had said something like that before she had thoughts of Adopting me.
Come Monday morning Janet’s quiet side had come back to nearly full strength. There wasn’t as much underlying coldness, but everything about her that morning had. She was bracing herself. Steeling herself for the future.
“Morning,” I said.
Everything that I’d gone to sleep in was taken off and replaced, and I ended up back in just a Helga Hogg T-shirt, a Monkeez, and the new light up sneakers Jessica had bought. My reprieve was officially over.
“Come on,” Janet said. “Let’s get going.” Without further preamble, she carried me through the house and out the door. The clock in the kitchen read about fifteen minutes earlier than usual.
“Are we going somewhere?”
I finally remembered what Beouf had said about seeing me on Monday and made some rough deductions in my head. Their private grieving party was probably meant to be some kind of private huddle figuring out what to do with me. We were going to school early so that they’d have time as a team to dress me down. Again. Possibly literally. What was left for them to take? My shirt?
No. Probably not. Not after that cry session. We were going to have to talk about it and I would not like what they had to say. Alright then. So be it.
For once, every assumption I had made was accurate. That was a nice change of pace. All the lights in Beouf’s room were already on when we got on campus. The door was unlocked and Janet brought me straight away to Beouf’s kidney table. Beouf was already sitting in her chair, and the Amazon sized one from Zoge’s desk had already been moved so that it was across from her. My old mentor was quietly sipping from a massive mug of black coffee with a second one put out for Janet. I was seated in a Little sized toddler chair next to Janet. No coffee for me. Just a bottle filled with tap water. Same as everyday.
It was almost like old days in the worst way. So close.
“Clark,” Beouf said by way of greeting. “Ms. Grange.”
Janet took a sip of what was supposed to be my coffee. “Mrs. B.”
“Hi,” I said.
Beouf put her mug down and said. “We need to talk.’
“About?” I figured I might as well play it coy.
“We think you know,” Janet said. She corrected herself. “You know.”
“What happened on Friday can’t happen again,” Beouf said. “Ever. Do you understand?”
I raised my eyebrows in mock incredulity. “I can’t get sick anymore?”
“Clark…” Janet warned.
Beouf pressed on. “You know what you did, Clark. We understand that you’re upset, but there’s no excuse for what happened.”
“What did happen?” I asked. I wanted them to say it. I wanted them to admit it. Admit that I’d beaten them, admit I’d outsmarted them. Admit defeat. Just this one time. I was willing to wager that that was more than Amy ever got. “Tell me. Please. Explain it to me. Like I’m a baby.”
Janet craned her head up towards the back door. Beouf looked behind me towards the front entrance. Checking for spies and eavesdroppers. Checking for Forrest or Brollish or Ambrose.
“You can’t do it again,” Beouf repeated. “You hurt people.”
I harrumphed, and folded my arms. “Did not.”
“You hurt Ivy and Jesse and Sandra Lynn.”
“So?” They were just as screwed over as me. They were classmates.
“You hurt me, and Mrs. Zoge, and your Mommy.”
I bristled in my seat. The slight plastic crinkle, normally white noise by now, felt like a static in my inner ear. “No I didn’t.” I said. “How?”
“Because we love you,” Beouf explained immediately. Now she said it. Too Typical, too late. “We all do. Me, your Mommy, Mrs. Zoge, and all your classmates. We don’t want to see you hurt yourself or others. If you keep acting this way…” she stared down into her coffee
“What? More procedures?” I scoffed.
Beouf kept staring into her coffee mug, a wise woman divining coffee grounds instead of tea leaves “No. Consequences,” she said. If you keep doing what you’re doing, we won’t be able to protect you. You’ll be expelled. If you’re really bad, Brollish can recommend that you go to New Beginnings first. Most other daycares won’t take you if you get that kind of recommendation.”
I used to hate clichéd turns of phrase like ‘So cold it burns’. I finally found a use for it. It perfectly described the mixture of dread and righteous anger surging through my bloodstream. Beouf was passively threatening me with New Beginnings? The same Beouf who had been more than willing to just drop me off in a basket and ship me to their overnight foster re-education division because she was fine with condemning me to this life but not wanting the extra responsibility of caring for me? If Janet hadn’t shown up when she had…
I stood up, red hot, and leveled my finger at her. “Fuck you!” I shouted. “I…I h-” Fuck! I couldn’t say it to Beouf either? “I h…” I was looking straight at her. Was it because Janet was in the room? Could I not even say the h-word in front of her?
The naproom had a monitor in it, too. Was that the reason? Was I double mindfucked already?
Neither one flinched. They’d been prepared for this reaction. Janet was still clearly uncomfortable. Beouf was as composed as I’d ever seen her. All that chipping away I’d done over the weeks had been purged away with a good cry that I wasn’t supposed to hear.
Beouf wasn’t seeing the real me.She was seeing the baby she wanted to see. She was seeing the bullshit diagnosis that she’d slapped onto me. “Well I h-....” I tried again. “I h-.” Beouf sent a worried look Janet’s way. I slammed my eyes closed. Maybe if I wasn’t looking directly at either of them. “I ha-”
Janet interrupted. “You hurt Elmer, hon.”
The words in my mouth disintegrated like wet paper in a rainstorm. “No…?”
“He threw up all over his shoes,” Janet said. “A lot of your kids saw you getting sick and it made them sick, too. Is that what you wanted?”
My defiant resolve started to melt with a dawning realization: My students. My kids. They’d been there too. It had registered, but it hadn’t clicked. Nearly seventy two hours had passed and I hadn’t once thought about any of them.
As early as last year, any pushback or prank I’d tried would have been specifically crafted to not involve any student. The old me would have aborted the mission the moment he realized they might be in the proverbial line of fire. In the heat of the moment, last Friday, I’d registered them as something of a cross between necessary casualties and bonus targets in my own personal crusade.
That didn’t sound like me. It totally did, though. Hearing those thoughts expressed out loud by someone else; by a fellow teacher; by Janet of all people made it harder for the layers and layers of rationalization I’d stacked up to hold any weight. Stacks just made me think of the stacks of random papers I’d misgraded that had been entered into the gradebooks.
I wasn’t supposed to be a baby; to be selfish and self involved and focus the bulk of my attention on the big people in my life. I was meant to be a teacher. I was meant to have empathy and a love of learning as well as encouraging growth. That ethos had at some point withered away in me and I hadn’t noticed.
It wouldn’t last long, but in the quiet of the early morning classroom, my sense of guilt and shame flared up. For the first time in forever, I felt unclean and it had nothing to do with toileting.
Janet repeated herself. “Is it? Is that what you wanted? For those kids to get sick?”
I kept standing but I crossed my arms again, even tighter than before. I wanted to huddle in a protective ball; a turtle going into its shell. “No.”
“I don’t want it either,” Beouf piled on. “I don’t want the Clark that plays mean games and bullies people. I want the Clark who looks out for his Little friends and tells me when he sees something wrong. Like you did with Chaz last year.”
“I want the Clark who cares about other people and worries about their feelings,” Janet said. “Not just himself. Like you used to with your students.”
Translation: They wanted the old Clark back; not this new broken thing in front of them they’d helped create. This wasn’t a lecture, it was a cleaned up manifesto from their living funeral for me.
“Doesn’t it matter what I want?” It was the first real question I’d asked that morning. I didn’t have an answer to it. They didn’t have one ready, either. That was the scary part.
Beouf just kept sipping her coffee. “We can’t help you if things are going to continue to escalate.”
I took a deep breath and my seat. “Fine.” I sulked. “I’ll stop…the kind of thing that happened on Friday.” The promise wasn’t for them. It was for my kids.
Back when I used to have the luxury of taking a shower, I used to have ‘shower thoughts’: Bits of random ideas and inspiration that would come to me right in the middle of a shower. The act of just zoning out with almost no other sensory input beyond hot water and steam gave me an uncanny focus; like closing tabs in an overworked computer.
Later that morning, just after breakfast, Zoge was changing me as she did. Beouf still wasn’t taking up diaper duty. Not for me. I ignored the wet coldness of the wipes and the dry chill of the baby powder and Zoge’s chirps and coos aimed mostly for herself while she was preparing.
The only thing on my mind was how to break Beouf. How to make her cry? I’d pushed Janet off the brink into despair, even if she was bouncing back. I’d broken Tommy. Made even Ivy’s optimistic facade drop. Sandra Lynn was next and very close; I had a good feeling about this week. The therapists were low-key terrified of me, I was certain. Especially Skinner.
But Beouf. How to really get to her? I hadn’t quite gotten there yet. The sobbing on Friday night didn’t count in my book. Provoking her into shrieking out my old last name was close, but no cigar.
Breaking Beouf was like falling in love: I’d just know when it happened. And all through the bus loop, breakfast, and Circle time up until my name was called, one particular bit of dialogue kept playing around in my brain. There was something there. I knew it.
“I loved him before,” Janet had said.
“I did too.” Beouf had answered. “He was my best friend.”
How to use that? Those same three sentences were on loop that morning. I was a walking corpse to Beouf. A diapered zombie that reminded her of her work buddy. She was used to having Littles be her enemies. Every Little started off hating Beouf until she’d numbed them enough with mind games and propaganda. How could I hurt her as a friend?
Zoge finished pulling the new Monkeez up and folded it over the front of me. I felt a slight gurgle, not even a proper cramp, and was tempted to take a dump right there to make her start over.
I decided against it. I wasn’t that unpotty trained. Barring something awful disagreeing with me, I could probably hold this in all day. It was just a couple of rabbit pellets at most. Fuck my life and the chain of events where the condition and urgency of my bowels and stool was a common consideration of mine.
“All done,” Zoge told me once she’d secured the tapes. “Nice and dry.” She helped me up. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” I said without thinking.
The exclamation was so loud that she interrupted circle time. Singing and mindless repetition stopped. Beouf was on her feet up from the carpet, looking like she was worried that I’d broken something. “What? What happened? Is everything okay?”
Zoge carried me out, grinning and proud. “He just said he loved me too.”
Snickers and giggles and even more ‘AWWWWWWWWWW’s came at me in a wave. Billy and Chaz and Tommy were giggling. Annie was sharing knowing looks with the other girls as if there was a betting pool concerning when I’d finally slip and crack.
Beouf looked bewildered. Disappointed. Kind of hurt.
I didn’t blush. Didn’t need to. It was impossible for me to feel embarrassed. I’d just had the most brilliant idea. Move over ‘shower thought’. I’d just had a ‘changing table thought’. “What?” I smiled. “I do love Mrs. Zoge. She’s really nice. I leaned in and nuzzled my head against Zoge’s neck. “I love you, Mrs. Zoge!”
Zoge giggled, but put me down. “Okay, Clark. Go sit down. Annie?” Chaz and Billy were still giggling. Annie looked confused and suspicious. I wasn’t surprised; out of all of the A.L.L. she had an especially sharp sense of emotional intelligence. She cast one more dubious look at me and went into the bathroom.
Through the next dumb nursery rhyme, I kept pricking my ears up, waiting for Annie to tell Zoge how much she loved her, but she wasn’t there yet. I’d give it some time.
“Okay,” I said. I took a deep breath. “Elephants’ tusks are made of ivory. Even though those claims have long since been refuted, ivory was once believed to have mystical medicinal properties.” Had to play this just right. “Medicine is supposed to help make you better when you’re sick. Speaking of sickness, preventative hygiene such as using soap is a good way to make such medicines largely unnecessary. Soap goes in a bathtub. So does a rubber duck. That’s how an elephant and a rubber duck go together.”
I’d long since gotten the hang of Beouf’s picture association game. Whenever she brought it out for activity centers, it was a genuine competition between me and Ivy. I’d never admit it out loud, but I genuinely looked forward to those times. It was quite stimulating.
Ivy tried to derail my loose logic train. “Soap also goes in sinks for hand washing and face washing.”
I’d already found my wits that morning. “I don’t hardly ever wash my hands anymore. A grown-up just uses wipes on my hands and face. But Mommy always uses soap for tubby time.”
The pseudo-Yamatoan huffed through nose. “Okay. You’re right.”
“Very good you two!” Beouf beamed, playing up her enthusiasm far more than could be considered genuine. “I’m so proud of you both.”
Ivy stood up out of her chair so that she could curtsy. “Thank you, Mrs. Beouf.” I said nothing and pretended to look elsewhere. No stares. No eye contact. Total feigned disinterest.
The timer went off, signaling us to go to our next center. “I love you Mrs. Beouf,” Ivy said. She waddled around the kidney table to Beouf’s chair and leaned in for a hug. Maybe she figured out what I’d started faster than anyone else. Maybe she was just copying me. Hard to say. Didn’t matter.
“I love you too, pumpkin.” Beouf cooed. “Go check your schedule.” I got up, pushed my chair in and. “I love you too, Clark.”
I stopped and looked back at her. I gave her a little shrug. “Alright, then.” I walked away to the visual schedule. Time for stupid playtime. We all knew the pattern rotations by heart, but we were required to go take the stupid tokens off the top of the stupid velcro and place them on stupid corresponding center location.
Annie walked up to me. “What are you doing?” she whispered. She wasn’t panicked; just curious. The gears hadn’t stopped turning.
I ‘accidentally’ took the symbol for Zoge’s table off the schedule despite it being nowhere near the top. “Just spreading the love.”
“Clark, you’re going the wrong way, baby.” Zoge called. “Check the top of your schedule; not the bottom.”
We ignored her and kept our voices low. “To Zoge?” Annie asked. “Why?”
“Clark,” Beouf echoed Zoge. “Wrong way. You’re at the play center.”
“Not everybody,” I said. “Just not Beouf.”
The gears stopped turning and the lights came on behind Annie’s eyes. Now she got it. “Clark,” she said. “You’re a monster.” It sounded like a compliment so I took it as one. Annie wrapped her arms around me and gave me the tightest hug she could. “I love you, Clark!”
“I love you too, Annie!”
Billy looked annoyed. I threw him a conspiratorial wink. He frowned until Annie elbowed him and whispered something in his ear. Then he winked back.
I went and corrected my scheduling ‘mistake’, and joined Ivy in the play area. As usual we didn’t talk, engaging in what could most politely be called parallel play.
When the timer went off. Zoge got a double dose of Littles saying how much they loved her. Ivy tried to double back and give Beouf a hug. I cut that off by shouting. “Ivy, you’re going the wrong way!” She gave me the dirtiest look..
“Mommy,” I said. “Help?” I pointed to the massive spire of twisted metal and magnets. “I can’t figure it out.”
“You can figure it out, Clark.” Janet told me. “I’m just watching.”
“Please,” I said. I was doing my best not to lean in too hard on anything that might trigger her crazy. She was still guarded. Leaning into what I knew she longed to hear would only have the opposite effect. “I can’t figure it out.” Sad part was that it was true. I still hadn’t figured out this activity.
“Just try it,” Janet said, gently. “You can do it.” Janet was still spending time in Beouf’s when her class was otherwise looked after and occupied.
She saw me close my eyes and rub my temples. “Ja-...Mo….” The slip up and hesitation was performative. “I’m trying to say that I’m at a frustrational point.” Basic educational theory is that a person who is at a frustrational point can’t learn. It’s like building muscle when you’re already at your weight limit.
Even though she didn’t want to, Janet copped a squat at the table. She’d trapped me by appealing to my educator’s empathy. I could do the exact same to her. “Okay. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these,” she chewed her lip. She grabbed a piece from the middle of the gravity defying heap. “This one?”
Ever the perpetual Helper, Ivy agreed. “Yes ma’am.”
She took the metal scrap and moved it to the left. “Here?”
“Nooooo,” Ivy said.
The piece went far to the right. “Here?”
Ivy giggled, like Janet had just suggested something patently ridiculous akin to lassoing a cloud.
“Then how…about…here?” As far as I could tell, the Amazon placed the piece back exactly where she’d taken it from, but whatever programming or matrix or algorithm or whatever that guided the floating metal puzzle thought otherwise. The pieces rearranged themselves into a perfect equilateral pyramid. “Hey,” Janet smiled. “I still got it!”
She rose up and looked back at the clock. It was almost time for her to go. I wasn’t done with her yet. I tugged on her skirt and beckoned her back down to me. “Can you please change me?” I asked. “I’m just wet but I don’t want to wait till lunch.”
I watched her wrestle with the idea. She turned her head right and saw Zoge. She turned left and saw Beouf. Janet wasn’t stupid. She knew I was up to something. “Never mind,” I said. “I’ll wait. I’ll wait.”
The timer rang again. That’s what I’d really needed. “Thanks for the help,” I said quietly. I hugged her leg, and dropped the bomb. “Thank you, Mommy. I love you!”
That started a chain reaction. “Bye Ms.Grange. I love you!” Annie said. She hugged Janet’s other leg and let go.
Chaz crawled up and latched on to an ankle. “Byyeeee. Love you!”
Billy threw in. “Love ya Ms. Clark’s Mommy!” He mouthed the word ‘Gibson’ to me.
And it didn’t stop there. Ivy, Mandy, Shauna, and Sandra Lynn joined in the cuddle puddle. I reckoned that Annie had somehow spread the game. Tommy and Jesse called out their love, too. We hadn’t had this kind of unity since the last ‘Why Day’. My crew might have spread the game to the rest or the others were just unwitting pawns. Didn’t know. Didn’t care.
We were hungry orca circling around and swarming a dying seal. Janet was a drunk trying to fake sobriety. I could practically see the goose pimples breaking out on her flesh and the euphoria clouding her eyes. She pulled her cardigan closed, buttoned it, and shuddered. It was too much for the poor loon.
“Okay, okay.” Zoge called over them. “You’re all going to make her late. Let her go.” She too was giggling at the combined cuteness. We stopped crowding Janet, and to my surprise, she bent over and gave me a quick peck on the top of my head. The first overt affection she’d shown in over a week.
“Love you, too,” she said, and exited the room.
The top of my head tingled, and I felt myself blushing. On my way to the schedule, I glanced backwards at the real target of my love bomb. Beouf looked disturbed. Almost like she’d been slapped in the face. There was nothing she could do, however. Telling someone you loved them wasn’t against any of the rules. Consensual platonic hugs while not explicitly allowed in the code of conduct were very much encouraged by the Maturosis and Developmental Plateau curriculum.
Spiteful impulses whispered themselves into my mind’s ear. Give Beouf a wink, or a smile, or a sneer. Let her know how much I was enjoying fucking with her. I exercised discipline instead, and checked my schedule. Snack time.
I stood in Janet’s playpen that afternoon, gripping the top railing, and bending my knees. It had been a good day for being subversively bad. Janet getting cascaded with hugging Littles and childish declarations of love had been the great crescendo, but the song hadn’t ended there.
Snack time. Whole group instruction. Lunch. Nap time. The ‘love’ didn’t stop coming. Every interaction was concluded with “I love you,” as a receipt. Always for Zoge. Always for one another. Almost never for Beouf.
Ivy and Sandra Lynn tried to spread it to Beouf but it didn’t really catch on. The more mindfucked among us responded naturally to Zoge’s maternal enthralment of delight. Melony’s pensive weariness and building desperation.
Brollish did a very quick cut through less than a minute total, and the class became very very shy, myself included. She was the only other one who didn’t get an “I love you” from me. There was no need to coordinate that, and I wouldn’t have entertained the thought of showing Brollish any kind of love- dupe or not. I still had my principles.
Having that quiet scorn in common with Brollish was an extra knife twist into Beouf’s heart, no doubt. Good. The unprompted declarations of infantile love to the bus driver and aide, the cafeteria cooks, the custodians, and other random passerby all hit home. If Skinner, Sosa, and Winters had been on campus to work with anyone they would have been dry humped at the way things were going.
I want to say that it was just before lunch when people were getting checked and changed as needed when Beouf realized without a shadow of a doubt that I’d overheard what she and Janet had discussed early last weekend. That’s when she’d given up on trying to tell us how she felt.
It was well too late for that.
She didn’t want to talk to Janet after school, citing paperwork and lesson prep. Report cards were coming soon. I knew better. She didn’t want to be around me. I wasn’t giving her the choice.
Swallowing my pride, I filled my pants, pushing out the mass that had been in the chamber all day. I’d seriously miscalculated the size and mess of it and was lightly panting in relief by the time I was done. I went so far as to sit down in it and suck my pacifier loudly to get Janet’s attention.
She sniffed and turned up her nose. I breathed through my mouth and thought of roses. “Whoah,” she said. “Clark. What did you eat?”
“Do you need to be changed?”
Again, I shrugged, and did my damndest to avoid eye contact. Had to hit that sweet spot where my plan didn’t look like a plan. A wet diaper could be put off. A messy one was harder for her to ignore. If I asked to be changed, like this morning and before with Mark, she’d conclude an ulterior motive. So I played a prideful Little who’d just had an accident and was too smart to outright lie, and too embarrassed to confirm. It wasn’t a hard sell.
Janet picked me up and gave me a full check up, surveying the damage I had caused. “Crud.” I went back out on her hip. “Forgot the diaper bag. Again.” I’d already noticed and remembered that. It’s why I’d done what I’d done.
The cherry on top to this magnificent day would be simple: Janet would barge into Beouf’s room and ask to use the changing table. When she was done, I’d get one last swing at Beouf by thanking Janet and telling her I loved her. If I could accidentally slip and say it to Zoge, I could continue to lie to Janet. Bonus points if Janet pulled a Zoge and initiated the exchange. There was a solid chance she might today. At least a coin flip.
A week or two of this would drive Melony Beouf to total and utter despair.
Sadly, my final strike that day never landed. It didn’t need to.
Janet carried me across campus and circled round to Beouf’s room and opened the door. “Hey Mel, sorry to bother you, I forgot Clark’s diaper bag and-...”
Beouf’s head was resting on her desk, her folded arms acting as a pillow. Her glasses were placed aside and her shoulders were heaving. The top of her curly dyed brown hair mixed with gray seemed more frazzled than usual, and mingled in with Janet’s hurried introduction I heard muffled sobs.
Melony’s head shot up and looked at us; looked right at me. I’d forgotten to spit the pacifier out. Haphazardly, she wiped the tears from her face, and put her glasses back on. Her face was bright red and blotchy. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying. The glasses did nothing to hide that. The buses had pulled out at least half an hour ago.
Had she been crying all that time? I definitely thought so..
“Huh?” she said. She was wiping her nose with the back of her hand and trying to keep her voice clear. She was failing. She stood up from her desk and started side stepping over to the nap room. What Janet had started to say sunk in. “Yeah. Sure. I um. I need to take care of some things. In there.”
The door to the nap room slammed shut. The lights did not flick on. Mel’s crying could be heard from the other end of the nap room’s baby monitor. She’d forgotten to turn it off.
Janet hustled into the bathroom and snagged a diaper and wipes from the changing table. “Let’s go change in my room.” I didn’t argue or play dumb.
I sunk back into my own head, flabbergasted at what I’d seen. It didn’t even take more than one day to finish cracking her. All the sneering and twisting things on their head and subverting her authority were completely unnecessary. All I had to do to get my best friend to collapse into a puddle was to show affection to everyone around me and treat her with indifference.
I’d broken her. I’d broken Melony Beouf: Queen of mindfucking Littles. Monarch of Maturosis. A name in the Little Voices circles that was synonymous with titles like ‘expert’ and ‘guru’. And it had been painfully easy. No rule breaking needed. No declarations of eternal loathing or betrayal required.
It was a victory I’d been wanting since my Adoption. The banner I’d rallied the Adult Little League beneath.
I’d made Beouf cry!
I just didn’t understand why I’d started crying too.
End of Part 7