The Wishing Game
The school bell rang at two-thirty, and the usual stampede of little feet followed. Lucy took backpack duty and lunch box duty while Ms. Theresa, the class’s teacher, called out her usual warnings.
“Backpacks and lunch boxes and papers! If you forget anything, I’m not bringing it home to you and neither is Miss Lucy!” Some of the children listened. Some ignored her. Thankfully, this was kindergarten, so the stakes were pretty low.
Several of the kids hugged her on their way out the door. Lucy always relished these quick squishes, as they called them. They made the long draining days of being a teacher’s aide—refereeing playground fights, cleaning up after potty accidents, tying and retying a thousand shoelaces, and drying a thousand tears—worth the endless work.
When the classroom finally emptied, Lucy slumped in her chair. Luckily, she was off bus duty today, so she had a few minutes to recover.
Theresa surveyed the damage with a garbage bag in hand. All the round tables were covered in bits of construction paper, glue bottles left open and leaking. Fat pencils and fuzzy pipe cleaners were littered all over the floor.
“It’s like the Rapture,” Theresa said with a wave of her hands. “Poof. They’re gone.”
“And we’re left behind again,” Lucy said. “What did we do wrong?”
Something, obviously, because she was, at that very moment, prying a wad of gum off the bottom of the table for the second time that week. “Here, give me the garbage bag. That’s my job.” Lucy took the bag and dropped the gum into it.
“You sure you don’t mind cleaning up alone?” Theresa asked.
Lucy waved her hand to shoo her away. Theresa looked as exhausted as Lucy felt, and the poor woman still had a school committee meeting today. Anyone who thought teaching was easy had obviously never tried it.
“Don’t worry about it,” Lucy said. “Christopher likes to help.”
“I love when the kids are still young enough that you can trick them into doing chores because they think they’re playing.” Theresa dug her purse out of the bottom desk drawer. “I told Rosa she couldn’t mop the kitchen because that was for grown-ups, and she literally pouted until I let her do it.”
“Is that what being a mother is?” Lucy asked. “Pulling a long con on your kids?”
“Pretty much,” Theresa said. “I’ll see you in the morning. Tell Christopher hello.”
Theresa left, and Lucy glanced around at the classroom. It looked as if it had been hit by a rainbow-colored tornado. Lucy walked around every table with the trash bag in hand, scooping up sticky paper apples and sticky paper oranges, sticky paper grapes, and sticky paper lemons.
When she finished the cleanup, she had glue all over her hands, a paper strawberry stuck to her khaki slacks, and a crick in her neck from bending over the short tables for half an hour. She needed a long ten-thousand-degree shower and a glass of white wine.
“Lucy, why do you have a banana in your hair?”
She turned around and saw a slight wide-eyed black-haired boy standing in the doorway staring at her. She reached up and felt paper. Good thing she’d been practicing self-control for a couple of years as a teacher’s aide, or she would have let loose a string of creative expletives.
Instead, and with as much dignity as she had remaining, she peeled the paper banana out of her hair.
“The question is, Christopher, why don’t you have a banana in your hair?” She tried not to think about how long the banana had been stuck there. “All the cool kids are doing it.”
“Oh,” he said, rolling his hazel eyes. “I guess I’m not cool.”
She stuck the banana gently onto the top of his head. His dark hair had just enough of a wave that it always looked as if he’d been hanging upside down for a few hours. “Voilà, now you’re cool.”
He shook off the banana and slapped it onto his worn blue backpack. He ran his hands through his hair, not to settle it down but to refluff it. She loved this weird kid of hers. Sort of hers. Someday hers.
“See? I’m not cool,” he said.
Lucy pulled out one of the tiny chairs and sat down, then pulled out a second one for Christopher. He sat with a tired groan.
“Are too. I think you’re cool. Sock hunt.” She grabbed his ankles and put his feet on her knees for her daily archaeological excavation into his shoes to dig out his socks. Did he have weirdly skinny ankles or unusually slippery socks?
“You don’t count,” Christopher said. “Teachers have to think all kids are cool.”
“Yes, but I’m the coolest teacher’s aide, so I know these things.” She gave each sock one final tug up his leg.
“You aren’t.” Christopher dropped his feet onto the floor and clutched his blue backpack to his stomach like a pillow.
“I’m not? Who beat me? I’ll fight her in the parking lot.”
“Mrs. McKeen. She throws pizza parties every month. But they say you’re the prettiest.”
“That’s exciting,” she said, though she didn’t flatter herself. She was the youngest teacher’s aide, and that’s about all she had going for her. She was, at best, average in every other way—shoulder-length brown hair, wide brown eyes that always got her carded, and a wardrobe that hadn’t been updated in years. New clothes required money. “I’d better get a certificate that says that on Award Day. You have any homework?”
Lucy stood up and started cleaning again, wiping down the tables and chairs with Lysol. She hoped the answer was no. He didn’t get much attention from his busy foster parents, and she tried to make up for what he didn’t get at home.
“Not a lot.” He threw his backpack onto the table. Poor thing, he looked so tired. He had dark circles under his eyes, and his shoulders drooped with exhaustion. A seven-year-old child shouldn’t have eyes like a world-weary detective working a particularly grisly murder case.
She stood in front of him, cleaning bottle dangling from a finger, arms crossed. “You okay, kiddo? You sleep any last night?”
He shrugged. “Bad dreams.”
Lucy sat back down next to him. He laid his head on the table.
She laid her head on the table and met his eyes. They were pink around the edges like he’d been trying not to cry all day.
“You want to tell me what you dreamed about?” she asked. She kept her voice soft and low and gentle. Kids with hard lives deserved gentle words.
Some people like to talk about how resilient kids are, but these were people who’d forgotten how hard everything hit you when you were a kid. Lucy still had bruises on her own heart from the knocks she’d gotten in childhood.
Christopher rested his chin on his chest. “Same thing.”
Same thing meant the ringing phone, the hallway, the door open, his parents on the bed seemingly sound asleep but with their eyes wide open. If Lucy could have taken his bad dreams into her own brain, she would have done it to give him a good night’s sleep.
She put her hand on his small back and patted it. His shoulders were thin and delicate as moth wings.
“I still have bad dreams, too, sometimes,” she said. “I know how you feel. Did you tell Mrs. Bailey?”
“She told me not to wake her up unless it’s an emergency,” he said. “You know, with the babies.”
“I see,” Lucy said. She didn’t like that. She appreciated that Christopher’s foster mother was taking care of two sick babies. Still, somebody had to take care of him too. “You know I meant it when I said you can call me if you can’t sleep. I’ll read to you over the phone.”
“I wanted to call you,” he said. “But you know . . .”
“I know,” she said. Christopher was terrified of phones, and she didn’t really blame him. “That’s okay. Maybe I can find an old tape recorder and record myself reading you a story, and you can play it next time you have trouble sleeping.”
He smiled. It was a small smile, but the best things came in the smallest packages.
“You want to take a nap?” she asked. “I’ll put down a mat for you.”
“You want to read?”
He shrugged again.
“You want to . . .” She paused, tried to think of anything that would distract him from his dreams. “. . . help me wrap a present?”
That got his attention. He sat straight up and grinned. “Did you sell a scarf?”