Chapter Description: Clark's good luck and the loyalty of old friends have unforeseen consequences. Just not for him.
It’s weird how your senses deceive you, or more accurately how your brain filters out sensory input given enough time. I’m no biologist, but I suspect it’s a survival thing balancing itself with a psychological health thing. New and uncommon sounds can be scary because they represent a potential danger. Bad smells and tastes warn of poison or disease. Extreme or foreign temperatures might be a warning from without or within. Flashes of movement in your peripheral vision warn you of upcoming dangers like predators, runaway cars, or Amazons whipping out pacifiers.
Normal things, get tuned out, however. Over time your brain stops actively registering chirping birds, and you don’t notice the hum of electricity in the lights, the fan, or the heater until the power goes out. The pizza delivery guy doesn’t smell the overpowering odor of pepperoni in his car after a long night. You don’t appreciate good food as much as you avoid spoiled food and people who live in a swamp barely notice the heat and humidity most days. My old morning routine of grabbing a breakfast shake and scootering over to work was all one big blur most days provided nobody ran a red light.
Notice however, that I’m talking about ‘normal’ and not ‘good’ or ‘safe’. Ground up canned meat isn’t half as good as a fresh steak, but stick to it long enough and your tongue acclimates. Somebody with a limp or a trick knee stops noticing the regular ache or the awkward gait. You see the dangling electric wire just above the shower and learn to ignore it because you can’t fix it. Unobservant cat owners never notice what’s wrong with the litter box until the eleventh hour.
Your brain registers the dip in quality, but it eventually accepts and filters out the data as ‘normal’ and thus stops actively alerting you to it at every opportunity. Your mind is like “Well…it’s not good…but it’s not an immediate threat and can’t be fixed so… good enough,” and it starts to filter these things out as much as possible. The battle has been lost, time to focus on things that can still be won.
That’s why after enough time, I stopped noticing the crinkle whenever I or another babied Little moved. The feeling of a wet diaper stopped being uncomfortable up until I was on the verge of leaking. The smell of stale urine was almost automatically filtered out of my nose, and unless someone went particularly heavy on the baby powder or took a particularly rank dump in their pants it could be easy enough to miss or at least second guess what you were sniffing.
I stopped noticing the waddle and toddle that we all tended to move with. Full time crawlers like Amy and Chaz still registered as different but not dangerous, so their movement ended up being disregarded. Unconsciously, I had gone from looking away from a fellow Little’s diapers, to hyper fixating on them, to barely noticing them.
There was a time when alarm bells would go off on my brain whenever I’d see someone my size padded up. I’d instantly notice the bulk between their legs, or the bits peeking out above waistbands, below skirts, or out from under onesies and my brain would scream at me, “No! Not me! Never me!” Later followed by “No! Not them, too!”
There came a point where my brain had decided that certain battles regarding clothing and aesthetics were well lost and that I needed to move on in order to function. I could neither rest nor escape nor rebel if I was constantly focusing on things that were well out of my control, and that included mine and others’ clothing. Even that final threshold of my padding on full display had eventually become less bothersome.
I had become numb to so many things that had just become ‘normal’, even if they weren’t ‘good’, so I got to a point where my Monkeez or Koddles or Hippobottomuses or whatever could be seen from space and I wouldn’t blush about it. After enough time, emotionally, a new embarrassing outfit was no more exciting or remarkable than someone getting a bad haircut. If being desensitized was Beouf’s idea of me ‘accepting’ my reduced status, then she was absolutely correct; damn her.
The weather started turning against her, however. A chill was in the air the morning after my run in with Ambrose; meaning Janet finally felt she had to dress me in something that more completely covered my legs. The weather around Oakshire being what it was, would be back up to scolding by lunch. However, in the early pre-dawn hours, it would have been a faux parenting faux pas to parade me out in the bus loop in anything more revealing than shorts and knee high socks.
I ended up getting better than that. As soon as I’d rubbed the sleep out of my eyes while up on the changing table, Janet set me on my feet wearing nothing but the new diaper she’d just put me in. A quick trip to the closet and she was kneeling in front of me with piles of denim and cotton folded in her arms.
“It’s picture retake day,” she told me. “If I give you something nice to wear, do you promise not to mess it up on purpose?”
I felt my face heat up. No such quarter should have been given or asked for. Be it real or imagined, I should have been ready to dash even the faintest hint of hope that I’d detected in Janet’s voice right onto the rocks. I held my tongue, however. Overplaying my hand had caused my close call on Tuesday. I could not afford another like it so soon. More to the point, no one had told me the exact date of picture retakes and I’d forgotten to plan anything.
Yesterday had been terrible and my close call with Ambrose still burned and sizzled between my ears. The idea that I might have been exposed on the floor in front of my students made the few remaining hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up on end. The idea that a handful of my kids were eagerly watching and ready to stare, point, and laugh at me as ‘the baby’ made those hairs prick up like tiny porcupine quills.
With nothing, not even grim pleasure to gain, I nodded my consent and stayed put as she pulled the green polo tee over my head and guided my arms through the sleeves. The head hole was particularly big with extra buttons in front to make up for the relative dearth of elastic in the collar. Any aesthetic of propriety or maturity was quickly overshadowed by the overalls she had me step into. Real adults didn’t have frogs stitched into the bib or the cuffs turned up.
“Remember,” Janet warned. “If this gets messed up there’s always the sailor top and hat. No shorts”
I remained standing while she slipped socks onto my feet that matched the polo in color and light up sneakers that decidedly didn’t. Looking down so I could keep my balance I felt a queer kind of happiness. It wasn’t quite the inverse of the terrible buzzing feeling I regularly felt on playgrounds or in the fancy store where Jessica had bought these clothes, but its frequency was on a much more positive different wavelength than I was used to feeling. A hot cheese burger is a steak compared to room temperature cat food. A three-year-old’s wardrobe feels infinitely more sophisticated when compared to an eighteen month old’s.
This was the first time since my life fell apart that I had any article of clothing come down past my knees. Not only that, but these particular overalls didn’t have any snaps along the inseam. It wasn’t much of one, but it was still a step up. Minus the pacifier clip that was added on last, this looked just below what my students’ might wear (though I’d never recommend their parents put them in something as difficult to remove and refasten while potty training) An idea immediately started brewing in my head.
Janet reached down and took my hand. “Come on,” she coaxed. “School time.” She turned out the light to the nursery and together we walked through the mostly dark house, with minute flashes of blue pulsing after every step I took.
We stopped in the kitchen and I looked at the clocks on the stove and microwave. We weren’t leaving nearly early enough for another intervention. I squinted when Janet opened the refrigerator and grabbed an Amazon sized breakfast shake. The refrigerator bulb was a lighthouse beacon by comparison.
“Can I have one?” I asked. There was no particular reason. No malice or plan beyond curiosity and simple nostalgia. Franz Toast sticks and dry cereal were more filling and tasted better, but I just had a craving. Maybe it was the new clothes.
“No,” Janet said, not unkindly. “You get breakfast at school, remember?”
I passed on the opportunity to turn this into an argument. It wasn’t worth it. The fridge door was shut and I remembered there was a carton of goat’s milk. “Can I have some milk instead?”
Janet eyed me wearily and let go of my hand. The fact that I was asking for the milk made her instantly suspicious. “Why?”
“Just thirsty,” I half told the truth. The devious thought of tanking up on liquids had sparked up inside me. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was a fun and nasty impulse and the relatively tame nature of it made escalation or retaliation less likely. After yesterday’s debacle, I just wanted a good bit of malicious compliance; just enough to let my captors know the fight hadn’t quite gone out of me.
Janet gripped the handle. “Hmmm….” She sounded more hesitant than when I’d floated the idea of the breakfast shake. Not that I blamed her, rationally speaking. It took more milk to make a body puke than cinnamon, but it could be done.
“Come on!” I whined. “It’s milk. It’s in a baby bottle. I want to drink it. I thought that’s what you wanted from me.” I rolled my eyes and shook my head. “I don’t understand you sometimes.”
The dig was probably unnecessary. Her hesitation was annoying at worst. Goat’s milk had lost its novelty. It was nothing special. I’d just have to tank up on tap water in Beouf’s room, assuming that we got to school with enough time to ask before Ivy and I were harnessed up.
A glance at the clock told me I’d have enough time if we left now. I reached up for Janet’s hand. “Okay. Sorry. Let’s go.”
Janet did not take my hand. “Why do you want it?” Damn. I’d shaken her. That gave me no small amount of pride. Even in the darkness of pre-dawn I could feel her wrestling with herself. Her baby crazy and wanting me to be her perfect Little boy was battling the rational part that just plain knew better.
I took a step back. Wow. This was certainly unexpected. So was how I replied: “If Beouf and Zoge have to change me, it’s gonna be inconvenient for them because of the extra layers of clothing and no snaps.” Sometimes the truth was the best tool.
And yes, the crux of that day’s great rebellion was to purposefully turn a thirty to ninety second process into a three to five minute process, and have it happen multiple times; and thus inconvenience the giants. It was a mean spirited and petty idea; not a silver bullet. It certainly wasn’t Monday’s ‘Love Bomb’.
“Really?” Janet sounded confused, maybe even amused or disappointed. “Seriously? That’s it? You want to pee your pants faster to annoy your teachers?”
I shrugged and felt myself blush. Not every idea was gonna be a winner. ‘Yeah.”
She put her hand to her mouth and stifled a giggle. “That’s…that’s so you, Clark.”
“So can I have some milk, or not?” I pressed. I craned my neck and looked at the clock again. This strange battle of wills was dragging out longer than I’d intended.
Janet bowed her head and allowed herself a smile. “Yeah. Sure.” Instead of opening the refrigerator, she surprised me by leaning left, opening the cabinet, and taking out an empty bottle and top. Only then did she open up the refrigerator and reach for the purple carton of goat’s milk.
“Janet!” I whined. “What are you doing?” I pointed to the pre-filled baby bottle right next to the carton. A similar one had been stocked last week. “You’ve already filled one up. Let’s just take that.” She was already forgetting the diaper bag on the regular, now pre-filled bottles were escaping her notice. I was the one being put to bed way too early, but she was the one that was decidedly not a morning person.
My supposed Mommy reached in and froze, her hand hovered between the two containers for a second longer than was comfortable. “Alright,” she said. She slipped the baby bottle full of milk into her hand awkwardly beside the overlarge shake. Then she reached down and took my hand. “Let’s go. You can drink it in the car. No spraying it everywhere.”
“Okay…” Crud, I hadn’t even thought of that.
On the way out the door, I noticed something was missing from the hook by the door. “Where’s the diaper bag?” I asked.
“I already dumped it out, repacked it and put it in the car.”
“Touche,” I told her. She’d learned a thing or two.
As promised she strapped me into the car seat and handed me the bottle. As predicted her eyes watched me hungrily while I suckled on it. Typical Amazon. I no longer tasted the rubber nipple, my tongue had just accepted that as ‘normal’ even if it wasn’t ‘good’.
I gulped the heavy cream down, not even attempting to savor it. There’d be a second course of water to add to things as long as Janet didn’t drive terribly slowly. “Do you like it?” Janet asked. In reply I kept chugging just fast enough to not accidentally induce vomiting. “Yeah,” she said. “You like it.”
Less than halfway through our morning commute I finished the bottle and laid my head back, allowing myself a belch followed by a massive yawn. I ignored Janet’s “Awwww” and allowed myself to zone out.
I felt…strangely tranquil. Not quite drowsy, not quite a food coma. I wasn’t sleepy but it would have been easy enough to allow myself to go to sleep. I’d never had a major surgery before, but I’d always heard how there are anti-anxiety drugs and light sedatives that make it so that the patient wouldn’t be overly stressed prior to being put under anesthetic. It was kind of like that.
“Tired?” Janet prodded from the driver’s seat.
I drew in a deep breath, causing me to consciously recognize how much my breathing had slowed. “No.”
“Would you like some more at bedtime?” Janet dared to ask. “Milk helps a lot of people sleep.” Cautious as she was being, she was still enjoying this too much.
The possible implications that Janet had finally figured out how to listen to my nightly hate whispers and was trying to knock me out didn’t come to me until the ride home from school that day when she offered it again. Feeling incredibly calm I decided to deflect and parry where I once might have simply butted heads. “If milk makes people sleepy, why do we serve it for breakfast…or lunch? Aren’t we supposed to be productive or something immediately after?”
“Ha!” Janet replied. “Good point. You’d think we’d push milk as a dessert food instead of part of a balanced breakfast.” A beat. “You’re still going to eat your breakfast, right?”
After downing the milk I wasn’t particularly hungry but felt like I could eat. “Sure.”
A few minutes later, I toddle walked ahead of Janet, slightly energized by the early caloric intake, and partly because I was in a rush. Beouf opened the door for me, waiting at the threshold. “Good morning, Clark.”
I bit my tongue to stop anything untoward from coming out. The smile I produced was hollow and didn’t reach my eyes. “Good morning, Mrs. Beouf. How are you?”
Beouf’s didn’t reach hers either. Wonderful. “I’m well, Clark. I like your new outfit. You look very handsome”
I gave a stiff, overly formal bow. “Thank you, ma’am. My Auntie Jessie bought it for me last Friday.” Beouf’s expression darkened slightly. I’d just told her I’d been rewarded for bad behavior.
She allowed me to slide past her and I walked into the classroom with the same relative comfort and familiarity that I’d possessed when I would saunter in from the back entrance. I closed my eyes and inhaled, savoring the smell of java that still permeated the air. My brain had yet to fully filter that nostalgic scent out. “I hope you enjoyed your morning coffee…” I needn’t have bothered adding in ‘...without me.’ She heard those last two words inside the silence.
Beouf remained genial, but curt. “I did. Thank you…”
Janet followed up behind me, diaper bag in tow. She dug into the overstuffed thing and pulled out half a dozen diapers. “I haven’t been keeping track but I gotta figure we’re almost out.”
Beouf took the Monkeez from Janet and pivoted to pass the potty pants over my head to Zoge behind me. “This should last for at least two days with what we have left. Maybe till the end of the week.”
“It might not,” Janet said. “I’ll bring you a big box from home just in case.” I saw Beouf shoot her a slightly confused look, to which Janet replied, “I’ll catch you up on the way up front.” She held the door open for Beouf and the pair slinked off together, leaving me alone with the Zoges.
Speaking of the Yamatoan and her pet, while she busied herself adding Janet’s donation to my personal stack in the bathroom, her so-called daughter kept a respectful distance. “Hello, Clark.” Ivy said. She was dressed in the exact same hoity toity princess outfit she’d worn on Friday. She gave me a curtsey, same as always. “You look very cute today.”
“Thanks,” I said. I flinched at my own slip up and kicked myself. ‘Cute’ is not something I wanted to be, but stupid small talk would get me in less trouble than telling her to shove it. “Why are you wearing that thing?” I gestured to the outfit.
“My Mommy dressed me in it.”
I kicked myself again. Should’ve seen that response coming. “Yeah,” I told her. “But why? You got your picture taken before we all…blergh!” I mimed a stream of projectile vomit shooting out of my mouth and spilling onto the floor. “You don’t need to do any retakes.”
Ivy’s eyes refused to blink, instead boring into me and challenging me. “Why do I need a reason to dress pretty?”
“You just said that you didn’t dress…” I stopped myself. Ivy had internalized so much of the giants’ circular logic traps over her years of captivity that she could utilize them almost as naturally as they could. “Nevermind,” I said. I called out, “Mrs. Zoge, I’m thirsty. Can I please get a bottle of water please?”
Zoge came out of the bathroom weilding a faded purple hairbrush. There were three people in my life that could hold an implement like that and I wouldn’t have taken it as a direct or implied threat. Zoge was one of them, so my brain filtered out the object as nothing more than a curiosity. “The opportunity for second chances is one that is plentiful to children and increasingly rare for adults,” she said.
I chewed on my tongue as the riddle sunk in. “Hmm?”
“Ivy did not enjoy Picture Day. This is a second chance for her.” She was answering for her so-called daughter. Made sense.
“Ah. So about that water…”
My question went unanswered at first. Zoge took a knee and lightly gripped my shoulder with her free hand. “Hold still.”
I was given no time to question. The classroom aide took the hairbrush and started dragging it over my scalp. “Ow. Ow. Ow.” I flinched and fidgeted as the bristles scratched at my scalp and flattened out my hair. “Why?”
“Your hair is messy and it’s picture day,” Zoge said. “You need a haircut.”
My speech came out in short stuttering bursts in time with the little nips and pinches that came with Zoge trying to untangle my overgrown curly carrot top. “Tell that. Ow. To. Ow. My Mommy.” Had I been in charge of my own hair, I’d have either cut it at home at least twice already or gelled it flat. Conversely, if I still needed to shave, I’d probably look like a wild animal by now. The difference in aesthetic between a messy toddler and a homeless person was a matter of stubble. “Ow!” I yelped. That last pass really stung!
“Sorry, baby.” Zoge looked over her shoulder. “Ivy. Can you get me a wipe, please?”
Ivy rushed to obey and got a spare pack from Zoge’s activity table. Zoge paused in scraping my head long enough for me to start patting my face and clothing. Had my morning milk dribbled onto my clothes or something?
The wipes, as it turned out, were for the top of my head. Zoge released my shoulder and started patting my head down with wipes in an attempt to wet it. “Really?” I whined.
“I’m doing my best,” Zoge said evenly. “Just a few stubborn spots left.”
“Maybe you could spit in his hair?” Ivy suggested. I couldn’t tell if she was saying that to agitate me or whether that was her lack of personal boundaries and hygiene coming into play.
Zoge ignored her and kept pawing at my hair with the brush. I paid closer attention to the brush strokes and made a mental image of how I was starting to look. “At least don’t part it in the middle,” I grunted. “Part it to the left.”
Oddly enough, she did. At least there was one thing an Amazon would listen to me about. Zoge lowered the brush to the floor and dangled the pacifier in front of my face. “Do you want to put this in your pocket or to have it out?”
My face went blank. Something wasn’t computing for me. “Away? Pocket?”
Velcro ripped open on my bib and Zoge placed the binky inside. I looked down in amazement at the strand running from my collar down to the stitched frog on my chest. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Granted it wasn’t much of an improvement, but it was an improvement nonetheless. The flap on the bib took up the stop off of the frog’s head, so opening the pocket made the amphibian open its mouth. The red pacifier ribbon running from the bib pocket up to my collar made it kind of look like the cloth frog was licking my neck. I did my best to think of it more like a pocket watch.
“There you go,” Zoge said. She gave the bib pocket a pat. “Your paci’s not gone. It’s right here if you need it.”
“Thanks,” I heard myself say.
I rattled my head and remembered that I wanted a drink. “Water?”
Zoge stood up and regarded the clock. “Regrettably, we do not have the time, my love. If you are still thirsty after breakfast I shall fill yours up just as Circle Time begins.” Though the patter of her speech remained that gently bubbling brook, the rest of her started picking up speed, snagging the walking leashes.
I ignored another impulse to argue. Zoge had come and saved me from certain humiliation. In my book, that earned her at least a day of peace. “Yes, ma’am.”
It didn’t take her very long to click the walking belts in place. Ivy was feeling bold enough to take the spot tethered next to me so that we’d be side by side. Maybe I was becoming her ‘normal-not-good’ too.
The first bell signaling student arrivals toned through the campus speakers when we were less than a dozen steps out the door and kids were getting off the bus, flooding walkways, rounding corners, going to their classrooms or the cafeteria; chatting endlessly to one another; walking and gradually picking up speed as they started an unofficial race and then slowing down as soon as the first adult came into sight. Half a year ago, I’d be on the lookout for every familiar face, saying good morning and giving gentle reminders; trying to be a good example both as a proper adult Little and as an educator. At present, everyone older than a first grader was just another pair of legs trotting on by. My brain told me to pay attention to body language and head position so that I didn’t get trampled by an Amazon or Tweener kid looking the wrong way. Otherwise, I was preoccupied with pondering what fresh hells I’d either create or endure that day.
If there were any remarks or cooing or taunting from former students and former colleagues my ears filtered them out. They were nothing more than the chirping of birds and croaking of frogs; easily disregarded over the smell of bus diesel and the loud hum of engines.
Tracy and Ambrose had beaten us out to the loop and were waiting for the pre-K bus to pull around. As usual, Tracy was standing at attention, staring off into the middle distance and looking like a half-sized clone of Ambrose. I tried to throw her a grin or make eye contact; my own subtle way of thanking her in public, but the hope was in vain. She might as well have been one of those fancy Albienese castle guards with the fuzzy hats; and even I wasn’t fool enough to reach my hand up and wave to her. That would have been like dangling chum in front of Ambrose’s dead shark eyes.
There was a brief and happy silence for the two minutes before the last buses pulled up, and Ivy and I were corralled around so that we were facing the direction we’d come from. A disadvantage to the line leash system Beouf and Zoge had adopted was that it was more difficult to maneuver us when compared to the old hand holding method. Worst case scenario with hand holding the back of the line would become the new front.
Out came my classmates carried and then hooked up two by two. I waited patiently and passively as each pair was unbuckled from their bus seats and set down on the sidewalk. Being passive was easier that particular morning. The cold air and full belly was making me chill like a well fed alligator. I passed the time puffed out air between my lips. It wasn’t nearly cold enough to see my breath; Oakshire didn’t get that kind of weather until late December or early January; but it was still mildly amusing to picture it. Maybe I’d ruffle a few feathers by pretending to smoke one of those days, assuming I hadn’t escaped by then and could afford to draw attention to myself.
“Hey, Gibson,” Billy called three rows back. “You look cute!” It was not a compliment the way Billy said it, but it wasn’t anything more serious than semi-friendly teasing.
I looked behind me and called over Tommy and Jesse’s heads “They’re redoing Picture Day, dude. Mrs. B. washed your clothes. She’ll probably be.dressing you up, too.” Billy had come off the bus wearing a sky blue long sleeved t-shirt with Albert the cartoon mole on the front and black denim jeans. Not terrible but not nearly precious enough for a typical Amazon’s baby book.
“Oh,” Billy grunted. “Yeah. Right.”
I twisted myself up doing an about face and gestured to my overalls. “Check it out! No snaps!” My fingers danced along my inner thighs with a flourish. Then, I ripped open the velcro bib and shut it closed. “And I’ve got pockets!”
“Pockets?!” Mandy, Shauna, and Annie gushed in rapid succession; their voices overlapping with one another. Their collective gazes honed in on my chest and their mouths watered with unconcealed envy.
Billy did his best to hide an approving grin and failed. “Dude. Nice.”
“Hmph,” Ivy whispered beside me. I clicked my teeth together and saw her jolt a bit. Truly, I was a preschooler among infants.
Turning back around I allowed my eyes to drift further towards Ambrose and Tracy. The last of what should have been my students were lining up in a single file. They were milling out of the bus, holding the hand railing with their backpacks slung over their shoulders, concentrating on each step as if they feared the tiny stairway might drop out from beneath them at any moment.
Ambrose, the warthog, stood there with her arms crossed, giving slight nods of approval when each student dismounted onto the pavement and got in line, no hand holding. Tracy stood stock still, not having moved an inch since I’d seen her.
My kids were getting off the bus by themselves? This early in the year? As much as I hated to admit it I was slightly impressed. It wasn’t nearly enough to make up for literally everything else; a sweet tasting poison at best, but it was something. It was like that myth about King Linkin getting shot in a booth: When the royal guards got to his grieving widow they famously said ‘Other than that, Your Majesty, how was the show?’
Like an old mother hen, I counted them with my eyes. One-short. It took me no time at all to know who was missing from the lot. “Elmer,” I mouthed. Were I that poor sensitive kid’s mother, I’d give him plenty of sick days too. Thank the school board that preschool wasn’t mandatory and thus there was nothing a pug like Ambrose could do to hold him back. Thank whatever twist of fate that put him in my class at age three last year and that he was quick to pick up toileting. And pray to whatever goddess, demon, nature spirit, fae, or eldritch horror that Ambrose wouldn’t find a way to set his progress back before Kindergarten.
“Clark,” Zoge gently snapped me back to my own body. “It’s time to go to breakfast.”
She took the front of the leash and led us back the way we came so that we could turn and go into the cafeteria. Both the preschool bus and the Littles’ bus had unloaded their precious cargo, but the preschool bus in the lead hadn’t left yet. Looking at Tracy’s growing unease and feeling Ambrose’s quiet aura of malice, I was able to deduce why.
Elmer was still on that bus. Elmer was a four year old Tweener. He was the only student on my caseload that was still shorter and weaker than me. Tracy was a full grown Tweener and she was only slightly bigger stronger than an average Amazon fifth grader. Most every Amazon would be able to manhandle and bully someone like her halfway through middle school depending on whether or not they were a late bloomer. There was no possible way that Elmer had the fine motor strength to hit the release on a standard seatbelt.
The world wasn’t made for Littles. Tweeners weren’t much better off, especially early on in life. And Ambrose was letting Elmer feel that gross physical inadequacy. I mentally took back the sliver of grudging respect I’d felt a moment prior.
As we passed the preschoolers, all standing straight and forward facing like a well trained militia, my assistant started to lean forward. If I hadn’t been hyperfocused on it, I wouldn’t have picked up on the subtle shift towards the bus or how the backs of her heels were starting to rise.
“Tracy…” I heard Ambrose growl. My assistant stopped before she’d managed to lift a foot.
I kept looking back over my shoulder, past my classmates to get a glimpse of the morose parade of preschoolers. When would they get Elmer? I took three steps and looked back again. Was Ambrose waiting for him to scream or cry? Three more steps and I took another peek. Would she force him to have a bathroom accident?
“Clark,” Ivy hissed. “Stop.”
Of course, I ignored Ivy and kept walking and looking back behind us, even as the preschoolers vanished further and further on the horizon. Three more steps and another glance. The hell was wrong Ambrose? Was she going to have the kids miss breakfast and then scapegoat Elmer?
I half expected Beouf to say something to me about facing forward, but the last time I turned around, I only saw the back of her head. She was looking back, too. I started to open my mouth. I couldn’t say anything, but Beouf could. Screw that! Beouf should.say something!
“Melony! Go see what’s going on!” That’s what I would have shouted, anyways. My toe stubbed on an uneven panel of walkway. Combined with my bulky underwear, the rigidity of my brand new shoes and overalls, my body positioning, and just bad luck, I was tripping over my own feet and had earned myself a one way trip to the pavement; pun not intended. “Meeeh!”
A hand shot out and grabbed the straps of my overalls. It yanked me with such force that I risked falling on my ass instead of my face, but it had enough control and precision so that I was able to regain my balance and footing. “Toldja,” Ivy said. She’d not so much as broken her stride.
The line slowed to a stop at the cafeteria entrance. “Mrs. Beouf,” I heard Zoge call over our heads and point. The front entrance of my old classroom was almost catty-corner to the main cafeteria entrance. Beouf and I both followed Zoge’s finger to the serving cart positioned right next to the door. “It looks like Ms. Ambrose’s class will be continuing the routine of taking breakfast in the classroom.”
It’s only in hindsight that I remember how scrunched up and tense Beouf’s shoulders were in that moment or how white her knuckles were gripping Chaz’s stroller. I didn’t consciously register it because my own body was too busy doing the exact same thing.
Our eyes scanned the horizon. Waiting.
Finally, Tracy crested the horizon, holding Elmer’s hand while every other student marched single file behind them.
I turned back around and forced myself to relax. Zoge looked down at me and nodded knowingly. My pulse was throbbing in my ears when she finally opened the door and led us in.
Drinking all the milk I could manage while barely nibbling on dry cereal so that all the liquids would run right through me wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as I’d anticipated. I was too busy imagining what quiet indignities might be befalling my kids in the torture chamber that used to be my classroom.
The morning rushed by quickly if uneventfully. I’d kept well hydrated and my pants remained soaked throughout. I was getting a pretty good idea of what it was like to be a sprinkler. Every time I felt the need to pee I released, only to have the need rise up again a minute or so later. My body was processing so many different fluids at once that holding it in was becoming distinctly uncomfortable. A slight need would balloon into total urgency before a center’s timer went off. Zoge and Beouf kept refilling my bottle, too.
“You know if you leak,” Beouf warned, “I don’t have any pants to swap out.”
“I thought I wasn’t potty trained anymore,” I said. “Is worrying about my pants my responsibility now?”
The teacher pursed her lips. “You’re right, baby. It isn’t. I’m sorry.” That was one of the nastiest things I could remember Beouf ever saying to me. I reckoned that she was finally showing her true typical colors.
I got changed once during Circle Time and again with snacks. Because of what I’d done to myself and the extra effort it took to slide the overalls up and down my ankles and untangle the straps, I was wet again within ninety seconds after crossing the threshold. It didn’t go unnoticed that Zoge patted the turned up cuffs near my ankles along with the bib pocket just in case I’d smuggled something in. A fringe benefit of all this nonsense was it gave me something to think about beyond this morning.
About forty five minutes before Lunch, Zoge started leading us in Yamatoan nursery rhymes while Beouf put those of us who’d ‘missed out’ on Picture Day back into overly clean, overly showy clothes. I kept holding my breath thinking she might put me back in the sailor top and hat out of spite, but that was the only thing I was holding. Luckily, that clapback never came.
“Okay boys and girls,” Beouf announced when everyone had been redressed as needed. “The photographer is set up in the media center today. We’re going to go there to make up our pictures, and then I want those of us who are getting retakes to be in the front of the line and I want everyone to make good choices and be on their very best behavior.”
I felt more than one set of eyes zero in on me; some in anticipation, others in quiet disapproving dread. Sitting splay legged on the floor I did an exaggerated shrug. “What?” I said. “I don’t do the same trick twice.” No one laughed. Not even Chaz or Annie. It sounded funnier in my head.
I stood up and felt my Monkeez sag down and catch on the crotch of my overwalls. During the course of the nursery rhymes, my pants had progressed from very squishy to terribly swampy. I didn’t need a mirror to notice the thick swollen bulge underneath my semi-mature outfit.
I almost asked for a change and then second guessed myself, deigning to get to the front of the line. My legs were chafing like mad by the time we got to the school library, otherwise known as the library. Positioned between the cafeteria and the front office -it was technically part of the same building as the front office despite having no direct access to it- the library was never a place I frequented too often.
In some bygone halcyon age of education, going to the school library was a separate scheduled activity on par with Art, Music, and P.E. Years of steady budget cuts (the kind that keep a death trap bug zapper in the event that a Little has a case of irritable bowels) had long since seen the decline of the library’s prestige. The position of librarian had been reduced to a glorified checkout clerk who also set up fancy book displays instead of canned goods.
Teachers were encouraged but not required to find time to take their students to the library but in an environment of high stakes testing and zero excuses, most didn’t bother to take the time and just built their own personal classroom libraries from childhood favorites and rummage sale finds. Better dozens of books to recommend to kids than hundreds of questionable quality; or so the justification went.
To me, the library was the one place big enough to house all the teachers in a single space for staff meetings, and I zoned out for most of those anyway. As a result, re-entering it as one of Beouf’s ‘students’ was less of a system shock as much as it was passingly familiar. It wasn’t even that familiar considering that the photography crew had already moved around reading tables and bookshelves in order to make room for tripod cameras, softboxes, lighting, reflectors and a few props..
What did shock me, however, was the sight of my kids. Ambrose had beaten us here and the students were in the middle of getting their pictures taken. Yet again, they stood in single file like tiny tin soldiers. On the far side of the setup, Ambrose waited with her hands folded in front of her.
Closest to her was a lightbox with a prop student desk set in profile to the camera. It was the old fashioned kind where the top was connected to the seat and the storage space for books laid tucked away beneath it. Put it on stilts and it would have resembled a highchair. Put wheels on instead and it was almost a stroller. It was a wonder on par with spontaneous combustion that the design had somehow faded into extinction in Amazon managed school districts. Go figure.
One by one, young Amazons walked up, sat in the prop desk even though their feet dangled, folded their hands neatly on top of the desk portion, and angled their upper bodies towards the camera. They’d put on a quiet, tight-lipped smile not unlike a certain witch Principal, the photographer would count to three, a flash would go off, and then the child would dismount and stand behind the big boar who had stolen them from me. Clearly, they’d been practicing for this.
I always hated photos like that. Who sat that way? It was so unnatural; so fake; so perfectly on brand for the type of childhood that Amazons loved to enforce. If more Amazons treated their children like children, I pondered, they might not feel the need to infantilize others and make up for missed opportunities.
Just a few steps closer to us was the same giant alphabet block prop that I’d done my impression of a vomit volcano from. It was in its own set up with a separate camera on a tripod pointed straight at it. The two displays were close enough that someone Beoufs size could stretch out and touch one with their toe while skimming the other with their fingertips, but the magic of photography would make them seem like completely separate venues.
The preschoolers continued filing one at a time and getting their picture taken. It had all the mechanical precision of a military operation or an assembly line. Meanwhile Beouf and Zoge quietly unhitched us while constantly whispering for us to be good and hold still. I squeezed my legs together slightly and reminded myself how soaked I’d made myself. I should have asked to be changed before we left but I was still wrestling with myself on speaking up. The presence of my kids wasn’t making it any easier.
The one exception to the flawless and impersonal parade of preschoolers was Elmer. He and Tracy were at the back of the line, with my aide holding the Tweener’s hand. When their time came up, she escorted him towards the set and veered stage right. The photographer in his stupid turtleneck and ugly goatee sidestepped to the secondary camera.
My aide lifted Elmer up by the arms and placed him on the prop alphabet block.
Everything about my personal state of dress and hygiene was put on the backburner while red tinged tunnel vision took over. Ambrose was making the one Tweener in her class get his picture taken on the baby prop. That cunt!
Tracy rubbed him gently on the back and whispered something to him. Elmer nodded, sullenly and she cleared out of the shot. “Okay,” The photographer said. “One…two…three!” The camera flashed. Elmer’s empty smile was no different than anyone else’s. Tracy swooped in and got Elmer off the prop. She didn’t get far however.
“Tracy…” Ambrose growled. Tracy released Elmer’s hand and he was allowed to walk back by himself. Tracy stayed by the baby prop.
My jaw went slack watching Tracy boost herself up onto the block. No. No way. She wasn’t.
Tracy smoothed out her white peasant top and navy blue skirt. She daintily crossed her ankles and placed the flat of her palms onto the edge of the block for balance. She was.
Tracy flashed her a marvelous yet understated smile that showed the first glimpse of teeth I’d seen since arrival and the camera bulbs flashed. Without further comment, she slid back down to her feet, adjusted the back of her skirt and took her place holding Elmer’s hand at the back of the line.
My face was numb. It made a twisted kind of sense why the kids were acting like tiny soldiers; Ambrose was on the warpath. She was doing her level best to degrade both Tracy and Elmer. I wanted to scream. I was genuinely tempted to remove my pacifier and jam it in my mouth so that I could quiet myself. I settled for gripping the front flap of my bib pocket and opening and closing it a few times. I pretended that the quiet scratching sound of velcro being ripped apart was what it would sound like when I clawed Ambrose’s face off. I thought I knew what it was to hate an Amazon before and was realizing just how wrong I was.
The preschoolers marched by us. The Amazon kids all turned their heads and regarded us, me specifically. A few kept their eyes straight ahead. Most smiled and giggled playfully like they were playing a game. Emily, the three year old whose mother had caught me pooping my pants, went so far as to wave to me. Discipline only went so far when someone’s age was measured in double digits.
If the other kids crinkled with padding, I didn’t notice it or my brain attributed it to one of the nine other Littles bunched together with me. Yet when the Tweeners passed by my ears twitched with recognition. My eyes darted immediately to the back of Elmer’s pants. His polo-shirt was riding up high on his back and I got visual confirmation of the very edge of the wide elastic waistband common with actual underwear. I exhaled and unclenched. Just my imagination and raging paranoia.
“Clark,” Beouf said. “You’re up, kiddo.”
Bowlegged, I walked up to the block. Beouf set me up and seated me on the prop. A distinct squelch caused me to tense up and I felt the tension rush back into me. The Monkeez was so saturated that any urine would have to splash all the way down my front and somehow defy gravity to travel up my back to the few remaining dry spots. Had I peed even more and forgotten about it? I was dangerously close to leaking.
“Okay my dude,” the photographer said. “Smile!” I did not. Beouf took her place behind the camera and whispered for him to take the picture. “One…two…three…” A flash of light and dancing spots later and I was done. The rest of the retakes went in similar speed and fashion; only slightly less time efficient than Ambrose had been by virtue of us being unable to climb onto a big wooden box with aid.
Beouf looked at a nearby clock and started to hustle us out. “Boys and girls,” she said, “We’re running a little behind schedule, so the kids who got their pictures taken will hold hands on the way to the cafeteria like we used to. Mrs Zoge will walk with everyone else.
No complaints came, primarily because the people most likely to whine or brat about it were the ones getting the special treatment. My hands quickly ran down the back of my legs, afraid that I’d feel the same wet half moon patches of a leak. My fingers came back dry but I was right on the edge.
We walked to the cafeteria with me sopping all the way and my pride wrestling with self-preservation as always. We made it into the noise and hustle and bustle of the cafeteria with kids shouting to talk in between mouthfuls of mass produced lasagna. “Good thing pictures were before lunch,” Beouf joked back to Zoge. Zoge nodded appreciatively.
At our quasi-highchair table, I gave in and decided to ask for a change. The white noise of a hundred students, cooks, and aides on cafeteria duty would mask the request, and their own preoccupation with themselves would hide the sight of me being carted off to the restroom with just a diaper and wipes in tow.
I tugged on Beouf’s pant leg. “Mrs. B.,” I said. “Can you take me to the bathroom? I’m um…afraid to sit down for a long time if you know what I mean.”
The faintest hint of a smug grin tugged at the corner of the Amazon’s mouth but her eyes were half closed like a contented cat. She started to throw my own words back in my face. “I thought worrying about your pa-…” she stopped herself from finishing the thought. Professionalism was winning out over cruelty. “Okay, hon. Let me take care of it.”
Discreetly, she bent over and grabbed a spare diaper and wipes from the emergency stash that had become part of the mealtime delivery package. She squatted all the way down so that she could boost me up by the back of my knees instead of my butt and allowed me to wrap my arms around the back of her neck to steady myself. She held me in her right arm, and pinned the changing supplies to her body with her left, covering them up. The bathroom doors were left wide open with stoppers this time of day so she wouldn’t need a free hand.
“I’ll be right back,” she told Zoge as she passed. “Keep setting up. They can eat with their hands if they want.” Zoge nodded and started loading Littles into bucket seats with all the speed and smoothness of a movie cowboy loading bullets into his revolver.
Positioned as I was, I was looking over Beouf’s shoulder, watching the dining area of the cafeteria get gradually farther away. If I hadn’t been, or if I’d had the luxury to be looking literally any other direction I wouldn’t have seen what I saw.
The preschool class had just made it to their lunch table. They’d gotten into the cafeteria ahead of us but still had to go through the lunch line like every other classroom. Tracy, as usual, was busy opening milk cartons and unwrapping sporks, straws, and napkins bundled up in plastic. Her lips moved in tight little bits; likely saying things like “Here you go,” and “Eat up”. None of that was out of place either before or after my fall from adulthood. It’s just what was done.
What was out of place was Ambrose. She’d remained in the cafeteria instead of stalking off to the teacher’s lounge or whatever rock lesser evolved lifeforms liked to crawl under. Something new. Something dangerous. Something out of routine. This was not ‘normal’ and I knew deep in my heart of hearts that this couldn’t be ‘good’.
When Tracy had worked her way down an entire side of the table and reached the end, Ambrose glided like a barracuda behind her. I watched in horror as Ambrose took two fingers and hooked them; inching closer and closer to the back of Tracy’s skirt.
A diaper check. In public. And Tracy was completely preoccupied and oblivious. Flashes of the first time Zoge did it to me took the place of the camera’s leftover flashing spots. She’d done it to me countless times since then, but there was no shaking that feeling of absolute violation from the first time. More importantly, I had long since accepted that the first time had been some sort of accident or misunderstanding. Not so here.
I pushed myself up on Beouf’s shoulders and filled my lungs up. This would not stand.
The booming voice rang out, but did not silence the ever present dull roar. A few heads turned and then quickly thought better of it. The giant startled and backed away from the Tweener. Ambrose’s skin became pallid and her eyes flashed with something resembling something other than predatory hunger or psychotic rage. I hadn’t been the one to yell out; someone had beaten me to it. That someone was Mrs. Brollish.
Just a few paces away from the monster, a demon of an entirely different caliber stood with her arms crossed and one fit steadily tapping the floor. The air exited my lungs. I had no idea that Brollish could yell like that. Lady Death rarely raised her voice beyond what an actor might do to project, and most of the time it was practically a stage whisper. Ambrose regained some composure and calmly stepped over to her master.
At the same time, Tracy adjusted her skirt again and scurried off to the other end of the table. Something finally clicked. There was a reason she kept adjusting her clothes. A Tweener had been crinkling, it just wasn’t Elmer.
The cafeteria spun around three hundred and sixty degrees. Beouf had heard it too and spun to see what had happened. Like every other person in sight, she knew better than to get involved. The tables vanished faster and faster while Beouf picked up her pace.
We bolted into the bathroom and Beouf called out “Hello?” When no one answered she kicked up the door stop with her foot and set me down on my feet so that she could lock the door. “Let’s get you changed, bubba.”
“Beouf,” I said, my panic rising, “I think Tracy might be wearing a diaper.”
The teacher didn’t make eye contact with me. She lowered to her knees and set the supplies down so she could focus on unbuckling the straps of my overalls. “She might be,” Beouf said. “But I don’t think she’s expressing Maturosis. Don’t worry. This is probably a misunderstanding or something.”
The heavy denim fell down on its own, ripping the clip off my shirt and puddling around my ankles. “You don’t understand,” I said. “Ambrose is trying to get back at her! For telling you! For helping me!”
Mel seemed to find my feet incredibly interesting. “You might be right,” she said. “I do not care for how Miss Ambrose talks or treats a lot of people.” One at a time she grabbed the heels of my sneaker and pulled down while I stepped out. “But it looks like Mrs. Brollish is handling it and if there’s anything wrong going on, it will be fixed given enough time.”
There was no way she believed what she was saying. If I’d still been a peer of hers, we’d both be swearing up a storm and fuming about what we’d both just witnessed. I stepped out of my clothes, not caring that my diaper was a water balloon ready to pop. “Listen-!” I pleaded.
Beouf picked me up and carried me dangling by the armpits over to the wall mounted changing table. She strapped me down at the chest and went back to pick up the fresh diaper. “This is a Grown-Up problem, hon. Grown-Ups will figure it out and handle it. You just worry about yourself.”
My eyes started to burn. I couldn’t let something happen to Tracy. I couldn’t let her get punished or harassed or suffered because she genuinely wanted to help me and genuinely went out of her way to keep a stupid promise that probably wouldn’t have mattered in the long run. People helping me and then suffering for it; I couldn’t let that be the story of my life.
I locked eyes with one of my oldest friends and forced my throat to stop closing up. “If you let Ambrose do to her what you did to me,” I threatened, “I’ll never forgive you Melony Beouf.” The words came out crystal clear and echoed around the porcelain cave, giving it a surreal kind of gravity. “If anything happens to her I’ll hate you for the rest of my life.”
Beouf looked like she wanted to break down crying all over again. It was a good thing she didn’t or I would have too. I was changed, redressed, taken back into the cafeteria and fed lasagna. If there was talking to be done, announcements to be made, or instructions to be given, Zoge did it for the rest of the day. Beouf didn’t even hand me back to Janet after the buses pulled out.
The next day we had a substitute. We were told that our teacher had to stay home and take care of her sick newborn granddaughter. I knew better.