“No, it’s not candy.” Ms. Shoestack giggled as my eyes grew big. Four rubber moulds, all a pastel shade. I thought of the bubblegum on sale at the Sanrio store, Hello Kitty and friends dancing across boxes of blinding tin.
“She’s always holding her crayons in a fist. I know it’s not part of the curriculum, but the other kids are writing, well, the ‘right’ way. She needs to know the grip.”
My mother didn’t quite understand that list of all I was supposed to know by age six. But she knew I wasn’t doing what they wanted me to do. “Listen to your teacher.” She pointed her chin to the grips on the table.
“Slide the pencil through the holes. It’s kind of like that horseshoe game you play at recess. Also, like beads you slip on a string. Keep going.”
I only spoke in class to tattle on Matthew, who insisted on cleaning his ears just to smear earwax on perfectly good construction paper when yellow Crayolas ran out. Otherwise, I nodded. Blankly stared. But I almost always took away something to apply in the hours after, whether for good or naught.
Ms. Shoestack placed the aged, grip-hugged pencil in my soft hand. She smiled as my fingertips fumbled around the rubber, finding their proper place. I drilled the lead onto a lavender Post-It note.
I wrote my name, my favourite colours, favourite food, and pet of my dreams. Ginnee pig.
Come to think of it, I did speak in class, as a friend of Matthew’s. His hair the texture of Raggedy Ann’s, his cheeks like peach fuzz I’d pinch in curiosity. Megan, Matthew, and I often sat on the bus together. Hematite stones aligned, our gravitations in persistent feud.
“Are you my friend? Are you sure?” I would amble about the playground, kneel with a classmate, give away marbles my mother told me I was only to share. The more I’d ask, the quicker they’d flee. But Matthew would sweetly reply that yes, I was his friend.
“And you’re a girl. So you’re my girlfriend.”
So I asked, everyday, if I was Matthew’s girlfriend. He granted validation as freely as I did with my trivial orange catseye. Of course, Mother didn’t find it so trivial, and Megan wasn’t pleased that Matthew no longer shared his Reese’s cups half-melted in his lunch sack.
And boy, was she angry when Matthew professed he would get me a guinea pig for my birthday.
Ms. Shoestack deliberated deeply over morning lessons. Aside from holding crayons, pencils, and markers properly, life’s milestones were worthy to teach. For a week, we sat cross-legged before a blinding easel. Eduardo said his mother was having a baby. Ms. Shoestack was always one for overextension, so when the last kid who got to bring the class hamster home reported he had left it in the van to sizzle, she improvised the memoriam.
“Some people like to be buried in the earth. Others would rather be cremated, or burned to ashes. We’ve decided to cremate Rusty.”
So we stood outside, by the American flag the fourth graders were tasked to prop up every morning. We opened our palms, receiving a handful of lima beans we were told were bits of Rusty’s body. And we spread them. Because Rusty’s favourite place was the pasture in front of the school. Dandelions wild and flowers named like a mouse in a book we listened to many times over.
“Don’t worry. You’re gonna get a pet.” Matthew squeezed my hand, as Megan stood on the other side of our modest mourning circle. “Porky,” she mouthed. My nose, too small for my face, was dripping with the tickle of mountain cedar. Nostrils flared. Piglet was sad.
In the neighbouring class, Oreo was a common subject for oohs and ahs. A splendid ivory splashed with ink, he grunted when brushed and quivered as little hands blessed his sensitive ears. We all got to visit him once, though the cage where Rusty frolicked and slept remained a vacant prism.
As far as anyone knew, no one took Oreo home. But the day the door that joined our rooms creaked and stood ajar, a search party convened.
Ricardo sang the Ghostbusters theme, while Claudia asked Ms. Shoestack who Sherlock Holmes was. She said it was a story they covered on Wishbone, but it seemed too grownup.
Several hours later, on the bus that day, my backpack wriggled. The jacket stuffed inside must have provided a comfort that stifled any protest for air. I pulled the zipper, and there glowed the eyes. Glazed, red, and blinking.
Matthew grinned, patted our friend. Megan’s face, a plastic bag. Crinkled and indented with disappointment. Two months ago, Matthew would have done the same, for her.
I thought of Rusty squealing in the oven that was a locked family van. I cringed, ripped out a piece of paper from my notebook, and grabbed an orange crayon.
“I’m sorry.” Too haunted to embrace proper form. I handed the note to Matthew’s mother upon finding her at the bus stop. Oreo kicked, scratched, let out a squeal, but she perplexedly took him. Matthew tried to explain, but her mouth remained set in a firm line. She didn’t really know what to say, how to say it, but knew this wasn’t the time. Not in front of the other wives she’d see at the next PTA meeting.
Several weeks after, Megan was his girlfriend. I practised my grip on worn pencils, and shot marbles alone. Fastidiously contented.
Kristine Brown is a freelance writer and editor who makes drink coasters in her spare time. In January of 2017, her first collection of poems and short stories, Scraped Knees, was released by Ugly Sapling. She can be found blogging at https://crumpledpapercranes.com, and her writing has appeared in Thought Catalog, Forage Poetry, Rambutan Literary, Burningword Literary Journal, among other publications.