Mrs. Dolores was the preschool teacher in a very prestigious Montessori school. She had some of the best and brightest students, children of the moderately wealthy. She helped them grow like roses, pruned the weak ones from the rest. They simply would not thrive in prekindergarten. She knew this not because she had taken a class on it (because, truly, certification courses were for less experienced teachers), but because she herself was a very successful mother of three. She had taken this job originally because her children were grown, and she hadn’t enjoyed volunteering at the Red Cross where the other housewives went. But she was empty nesting, as the other parents called it. Her sons were all in college now, in the sciences, not the arts, and she had a daughter that was married already. She needed a hobby and hadn’t the talent for painting, though she liked visiting the art museum once in a while. So she began teaching preschool and had been at it for the last seven years.
Each term was more of the same. The students were so similar, little blonde girls in pigtails and boys with grubby faces. She would teach them their colors and letters, their numbers through the teens. She would scold them for their bathroom accidents and tell them to use their words rather than their fists. She would weather their tantrums, and when it was all over, and they graduated in front of cooing parents, she would hand them over to the prekindergarten teacher and begin all over again.
She was in the middle of the cycle now, almost. It was November, and the sky was dreary. The beginning of the year odor of bleach and fresh construction paper had vaporized and had been replaced with the stench of urine and the overwhelming scent of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She had ten children with interchangeable names and faces, each with their own set of problems. By November, they had all fallen into a pattern that allowed Mrs. Dolores to properly diagnose their difficulties. She had set goals for each student and saw how they progressed or regressed during their time of play.
There was Alden, precocious but whiny, Marie who was pretty as could be but had the brains of a butterfly, Martin with his toy trucks and loud noises, Lucy who danced and ran and couldn’t sit still, Thomas who never used his words, Khaleesi who was bossy, but fierce. Then there was Archie, always telling tales, Janie who played with dolls and had the makings for a proper housewife, Sarah who painted the way Mrs. Dolores always wanted to, and lastly Brian, Brian the Bully, Brian the Brute. Mrs. Dolores thought that this class reminded her, in its composition, of a particular class she taught three years ago, maybe four.
As the matriarch of a tiny little kingdom, Mrs. Dolores sat on her stiff, high-backed throne of a chair and observed. The room was loud, much louder than the prekindergarten classroom next door where Mrs. Stein disciplined her students with a ruler. She had been a nun in a convent two husbands ago.
Mrs. Dolores listened to the room, which was often more telling than watching. She heard the left side of the room engulfed in a standard game of house, and the back side echoed with the telltale sound of clicking Legos.
As a mother of three, she could watch free-play like a hawk while reading her latest romance novel and give each her full attention. This one was particularly nasty. Mrs. Dolores was contemplating returning it and writing the bookstore manager. False advertisement, that was it. The characters were aboard a pirate ship, which was ravaging the rich coastline of some far away European country. They had taken a local nobleman’s home and abducted his beautiful, robust son purely out of spite, so it seemed. She had no problem with this, but what she did take issue with was the captive’s increasingly sexual relationship with the strapping, moody young captain. In her opinion, degenerates were not meant to be openly discussed or written about. Perhaps that sort of thing was acceptable behind closed doors, but certainly not in a published work of literature!
Brian was at it again, taking toys from other children and distracting her from a particularly sordid chapter in which the two men were bathing in a steamy cove. Brian stole a pair of red glittery plastic slippers from Khaleesi who snatched them back roughly after a brief bout of tugging. The momentary distraction caused Mrs. Dolores to lose the scene in her mind. The captain’s hand was where again? Alden and Archie were building snowmen out of playdough on the table in anticipation of the snowstorm expected that weekend. Brian saw his opportunity as Mrs. Dolores watched him from her peripheral vision. He smashed the sickly green mush with his fist and roared. Mrs. Dolores marked her place with her tasseled “Children are the future” bookmark.
Before she could rise from her chair though, she heard Alden wailing already while Archie retaliated. “Someday, the masher monster will come from your closet, and he will take his big arm and he will hit you, and you will cry and pop like a bug, splat!”
Brian was not one to mince words or take insults lightly. He punched Archie right in the face.
“Goodness,” cried Mrs. Dolores, rushing over, long burgundy skirt rustling over the toes of her brown clogs. “Brian, you are in a time-out. Go to the corner! You know you do not hit.” She would speak to him about this later after she had calmed Archie. Alden had already wandered off, eager to shuffle his way out of the conflict.
“Archie,” Mrs. Dolores said. “You know that Brian loses his temper. You know what I’ve said about saying things like that. They hurt people’s feelings.”
Archie cried louder. Somehow, he was always getting hit by the other students. Last week, he had brought poor Lucy to tears because he told her that someday all her hair would fall out just like his grandma. He told Martin that cars had been made illegal and that playing with them could get him arrested. He told Khaleesi that her name meant “adopted” in Spanish. Even sweet little Janie had hit him once or twice.
“Stop it. Now, what would your daddy say if he saw his big strong boy crying like this?”
Archie’s eyes got big as dinner plates. Mrs. Dolores knew she had said the wrong thing.
“Daddy can’t talk.”
“What do you mean, he can’t talk?” Mrs. Dolores had met the man a time or two, and he had always seemed rather pompous, loquacious, like the professor she had for her psychology class the year she attended university. He was tall, thin, like a skeleton with a sharp voice and quick tongue. He made Mrs. Dolores feel silly and stupid every time he came to the school to pick Archie up.
“Momma says that I can’t say. I promised. There is a secret, her and me. I pinky promised.”
Now Mrs. Dolores was curious. “What? What did your mother tell you?” She had never liked Archie’s mother either. She was missing a few teeth, gaping holes in an otherwise pretty face. She wore grey all the time it seemed, big sweaters and saggy pants. Mrs. Dolores thought she looked like she had done a lot of drugs when she was younger. Though of course, never experimenting herself, she couldn’t say which ones. It wouldn’t surprise her if they were having marital problems. They seemed like the sort.
“She says I can’t ever say.”
“But you can tell me. In fact, you must. Pinky promises don’t count for teachers. We’re special. And it is my duty to know about my students.” She grasped Archie’s arm, putting a little pressure on him. Children, when physically restrained, understood the balance of power a little better. Though spanking children nowadays was inappropriate (as she and her husband often lamented whenever she brought the topic up), she would often grasp the children hard and close, just so they knew to respect their authority figures.
Archie looked at her dubiously before taking a shuddering breath, limply shrugging out of her grasp. “Daddy can’t talk because Momma keeps him in the garden shed and I’m not allowed to go see.”
Mrs. Dolores was confused by this. Archie liked to tell stories, but this seemed out of his repertoire. Could he have mixed up his words? He usually had a very complete and articulate vocabulary. “What do you mean by that?”
“Daddy is in the shed. Momma keeps him there now.”
“Because when Momma loses teeth, the tooth fairy doesn’t come. He says it’s all her fault, but she told him no. Now he stays outside next to the dog house. But Momma says his teeth won’t go to the tooth fairy either. We have to sell those on our own. We went to the big guitar store after school one day, and the lady bought Daddy’s gold tooth. It’s worth more than the nickel. I’ll get a nickel when I start losing teeth.”
Nonsense, Mrs. Dolores thought. “Oh, and what is Daddy doing out there?”
“Sleeping, but Momma says that I can’t see him. He’s sick. But he’s been sick for a while, and he’s been making Momma sick too.”
She pursed her lips.
Archie understood this as a dismissal and went to resume his free play. Mrs. Dolores let them continue for half an hour more before realizing that she had left poor Brian sitting in time out.
They had their math lesson after. They were sorting shapes, counting sides, and filling them out in a booklet that Mrs. Dolores had made her first year there. While the children did not look thrilled exactly, they at least seemed to be learning. Only Brian was still confusing a square and a rectangle. Mrs. Dolores was beginning to think he might need to spend another year in preschool. She had never held a student back twice though, and his father really would not approve. But the rest of the children seemed to have it down pat.
“Ovals look like thumbs,” Archie said. He pressed his thumb to Alden’s arm.
Recess came next, and Mrs. Dolores lined the children up and spent five minutes wrestling limp arms into jacket holes and buttoning them all up. Only three could manage this task alone, but Mrs. Dolores always set a goal for them to be able to properly dress themselves by the end of the year. Mrs. Stein always told her how grateful she was for that. Then came the long trek down the hall across the linoleum floors, through the wide entry hall, down the staircase, out the back door, and into the fenced-in playground. As soon as they reached the gate, the line of children broke fast, and they scattered in all directions. Mrs. Dolores settled on the nearest bench and took out her book.
“Mommy says Daddy won’t get better. He was too sick.” Archie stood near her bench holding a bouncy plastic ball with a sky blue swirling pattern. He was looking right at her. Mrs. Dolores was not sure how to respond.
“Like a cold?” Mrs. Dolores asked. Perhaps she was wrong, and Archie’s father was sick in the hospital. Come to think of it, she didn’t think he had picked Archie up in a few weeks.
Archie shook his head and sighed like he was disappointed in her and walked off. She tried to read her book again but was too distracted. Should she mention this to his mother at pick up today? She was sure that if her husband was infirm, she would not want her son to tell anyone. But then again, her husband was a strong, healthy, solid man and her sons would have known better.
She took the children inside after exactly half an hour and had them take a bathroom break and wash their hands. It was too late for Martin, who had forgotten to tell her that he had to go. Mrs. Dolores grumbled irritably as she took out his extra bag of clothes. She cleaned him up quickly, efficiently, and pulled on a pair of green elastic banded shorts and an orange dinosaur top. Martin cried the whole time and Brian was put in another time out for chanting “pee pee pants” over and over again. She was required to check in all the stalls before heading back to the classroom, and when she peeked into the last one, Archie was taking a long number two. She noted that on his thighs, he had large green bruises. When Archie was done, Mrs. Dolores asked him about his bruises.
“I’m not allowed to say.”
Mrs. Dolores took two aspirin from the plastic sandwich baggie in her purse. She thought about putting in a report to the principal, but she never did so without proof. When Alden hadn’t bathed in a few days and stank, she put that in because she had easy evidence. When Janie was wearing makeup at an inappropriately young age, she took pictures and filed those too. She didn’t really have proof. And Archie was a compulsive liar. How could she even know for sure?
But at lunch, Archie was saying things again. “Daddy doesn’t eat anymore because he can’t chew, but he always did like cheese sticks.” He was flicking around a string of peeled mozzarella, looking wistful.
“Why doesn’t he eat?” Alden asked.
“Mommy pulled out his teeth so he can’t chew.”
Mrs. Dolores almost choked on her own breath. Whether or not she was able to determine what was happening at Archie’s home, she was able to put in a report about what Archie was saying. His words were violent and inappropriate. Perhaps he was watching television that was too mature for his age. Usually, she would speak to the parents about an intervention before making an official report, but she was becoming slightly worried. What sort of environment was Archie living in if he was being introduced to this sort of stimuli?
Arts and Crafts time was the last planned lesson for the day. Mrs. Dolores gave them watercolors. They’d used them last week too, but it had been a hard day, and she couldn’t muster the energy to start macaroni collages. Archie painted his father with a red face. “He’s angry,” was his comment when she asked him about it. Should she have him referred to a child therapist? Three seemed a little young, and they were only stories after all. But in all her seven years of teaching, she had never had a child like this, she thought as she prepared to read a story to them for book time. She was so distracted that she didn’t realize she had been reading her romance novel to them until she was four pages in! How embarrassing. But they seemed to like it. They played pirates in their next block of free time. Mrs. Dolores put her book up in her bag and watched Archie carefully. She also began filling out the report.
“Mommy says her booboos will go away now,” she heard Archie reassuring Janie, who was looking clearly terrified. She clutched her baby doll to her chest. Mrs. Dolores noticed that Archie’s face was flushed bright red.
And Archie seemed to notice that the students were becoming wary of him as free time drew to an end. He wound up playing puppets on the fake stage in the corner. He had a dragon in one hand, a prince in the other, and a princess cowering in the corner. A quick battle ensued between the dragon and the prince, and the rest of the play was dominated by increasingly inappropriate fights between the prince and princess.
“Archie, would you like me to tell you a story?” Mrs. Dolores asked, taking the puppets from him. She had come up with a plan.
“Once upon a time, there was a little boy whose mommy and daddy were very poor. They lived in a tiny shoe, and the daddy had a hard time paying for the little boy’s toys. The mommy and daddy fought a lot.”
“Like my mommy and daddy?”
“Do they fight?”
“Well, this mommy and daddy were having a very hard day, and the daddy got mad. He ran into his son’s room to try to talk to him about it, but his son was too busy playing and was afraid to listen to his daddy. He didn’t like knowing about his mommy and daddy fighting. So the daddy got very mad and hit his son.”
“Did his son cry? Did the daddy make him cookies?”
“Yes, both of those things. After the cookies though, the boy still did not feel okay, and neither did the mommy or daddy. Something needed to be done to save the family. So the boy went to his school and told his teacher all about it. He told her about the mommy and daddy, how tough life in the shoe is. Mommy and daddy told him not to tell, but he knew that this was the only way to save his family. When he did tell, the teacher helped him make his home safe again. And everyone lived happily ever after.”
“So he told?”
“Yes, and he saved his whole family.”
“My daddy, he-”
“Archie!” Janie yelled. “Come look at this bug in the window!”
Archie ran off without looking back at Mrs. Dolores. Her mouth felt dry, and she thought she might get sick.
By the time school let out, Mrs. Dolores was near her wits’ end. Archie’s mother arrived five minutes into pick up which was the zenith of frenzy. Mrs. Dolores worked her way through the crowd towards her, still not sure what she was going to say. Her hair was pinned up with a barrette in the shape of a butterfly, and even that small change made her barely recognizable.
“Don’t you look nice!”
“Thank you. I had some errands to run.” She tugged Archie’s arms through his coat’s puffy sleeves and forced mittens onto his hands. “How was school today?”
“Good except for Brian hit me.”
“Oh, did he?” his mother asked, raising her eyes to Mrs. Dolores, who found herself irrationally irritated by this.
“He was put into time out, but Archie should not have said such mean things to him. His stories, you know,” she said. Archie’s mother seemed dissatisfied but said nothing. She just pursed her lips and took her son’s hand, leading him out the door. Mrs. Dolores wanted to say something.
“How’s your husband? I haven’t seen him for a while.”
The woman did not narrow her eyes; she did not flinch. “Oh, he’s fine. He’s just been busy.”
Mrs. Dolores was feeling silly now. She just shrugged. “Just something Archie said…”
“More of his lies, I suppose,” she said. Mrs. Dolores backed down while Archie bopped out the door.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean -”
“What’s for dinner?” Archie asked.
“Mashed potatoes,” his mother replied. “And carrot sticks.”
“Daddy doesn’t like carrot sticks.”
“Daddy isn’t hungry.”
“Is he still in the garden shed?” Archie asked.
His mother’s response was lost in the babble of passing students, and Mrs. Dolores never heard her answer.
Hannah Kludy is an MFA candidate at Creighton University. She earned her BA in Creative Writing and Publishing at Northwest Missouri State University. Her work has been published in the Northwest Missourian and Medium Weight Forks, Surcarnochee Review, Red Mud Review, Broad Magazine, Unlikely Stories, The Progenitor, Drunken Monkeys, Five on the Fifth, Adanna Literary Journal, Windmill, and The Bitchin’ Kitsch. She has also been published, and won the fiction prize in, Cardinal Sins Journal.