I planned on writing ten stories in ten days. I couldn't even come up with ten titles. Then I thought I'd ask all of you who have been kind enough to stop by to make suggestions as to what I could write a story about...kind of a Short Fiction Deli...call an order and I'll try to fill it. But I chickened out.
But it's October, and I just had to post something.
The school was small; a dozen rooms for five grades plus the kindergarten, offices and a lunchroom. The first pair of rooms dated from the thirties, the rest from nineteen fifties suburban growth. There was one main hall, and on this warm October evening it was filled with milling knots of parents, cornered teachers and streaking children. It was Fun Night, a combination teacher’s conference, art show and carnival.
New to these surroundings were Jenna Ahern and her husband Wilson. They were new to the subdivision, fresh from the Eastern Shore of New Jersey. They stood with cups of Kool-Aid punch by a corkboard filled with thumbtacked poems and tempera paintings. They were deep in conversation with another new couple, Margaret and Clarence Tubbs.
Jenna said, “It’s so small, really. The school I remember from when I was a kid this age was ten times this size.”
“I think,” said Margaret nodding to her husband, “that this school is half the reason we moved out here. I mean, admittedly, there’s a certain loss in leaving the city, but things are changing so fast down there. Some for the better, I guess, but we were all the time worried about C. J.” Clarence Senior nodded. A small pack of eight-year-olds zipped through the hallway.
Apart from the conversations and the ring-toss game and the cookie tray stood MaryAnne McColl. She looked cold, all bunched together against a nonexistent wind, her forehead lined. Her husband, Ralph, stood by her, looking as cold as she did. He was the only man in the crowd wearing a suit. His wrists dangled. Their son, Peter, looked to them for comfort, found none and assumed a chilled stance of his own. He was in third grade and this was the first time in his life he’d ever set foot inside a school. MaryAnne needed to work, to get a job, so home school was over. All three seemed to shiver at the prospect.
A siren sounded from the parking lot. The newcomers looked confused, but throughout the crowd was a generalized cheer. The township fire truck had arrived. There would be rides through the neighborhood and kids would pretend to be firemen and parents would pretend to be kids. The population of the hallway was halved.
MaryAnne McColl and Ralph McColl and Peter began to move toward the lunchroom. They had hoped to have at least a few minutes to speak with Peter’s teacher before he started class on Monday. Other teachers sat at desks under signs that told who they were and what grade they represented. The third grade desk was unoccupied. A young mother stopped with a tray of Kool-Aid and placed a Styrofoam cup in the hand of each McColl. Peter looked at his mother and saw a sign in her eyes; a sign so subtle as to be almost nonexistent. He lowered his drink a few inches and held it in both hands. The family took small wary steps to the edge of the room and a small table on which to leave their cups. They stood with their backs to the wall
MaryAnne McColl studied the opposite wall, covered with sheets of paper clipped to look like autumn leaves. To her right the wall held twenty-eight drawings, each with a house of one shape or another drafted in crayon. Rounding the corner were a dozen papier-mache’ globes, blue and green and brown, swinging slowly on strings. An entirely different display hung on the wall behind where the family stood and MaryAnne caught a shape from the corner of her eye. She turned to look.
She staggered, lunged a few feet away from the wall and let go a shriek that displaced all conversation, the fire truck siren and all normal thought. When she lurched, Ralph first froze, then he turned, grabbed Peter and crouched hugging him beside the screaming MaryAnne. Then she was suddenly silent and the room was silent around her. She pointed to the wall and the row of modeled clay masks and whispered, “Satan.”
Among the blue and purple dinosaur masks and the yellow painted smiley faces and the brown approximations of puppies and kittens was one mask, somewhat larger than the others. The left half was black, the right was red. The small curved horns erupting from the forehead were sharp.
MaryAnne McColl, still pointing said, “Satan.” She was no longer whispering. She stood, her shoulders square to the offending image, her chin out. She no longer seemed quite so short or small.
“I knew it,” she said, her voice descending to a full-throated alto. “See?” she said, looking at Ralph, “See? They all say bring him to this school. That there’s no harm here. He’ll be safe. But look who’s waiting for him.
“You people,” she had turned to the rapidly assembling crowd, “there are those amongst you who are innocent and you bring your children here, but look at what they learn! And there are those in here who are of the Evil One.” She pointed again to the mask and whispered, “Satan.”
“Now, wait a minute.” A slim woman stepped from the crowd. “I think that’s just a mask. It don’t have to be Satan or anything. I think there was a movie with a monster in it like that. There’re just kids.”
“I don’t know,” said a young father, “the bible has lots of things to say about the devil and how he can come into the world in different ways and things.”
Within three minutes the lunchroom was divided into two factions, they had each occupied their own side of the room. There was much shouting and finger pointing. Faces were getting red. The noise level grew. At once a consensus arose. “We should find out who made this mask.”
At just the moment MaryAnne McColl reached for the icon to see whose name was printed on the back, she heard a voice from the doorway. “Mine.”
The mom was pretty in a young Martha Stewart way, with jeans and a jean jacket. The dad was short with frizzy reddish hair and a frizzy reddish beard. Their son, standing between them had the proportions of a seal. His head was big and his eyes were small and his hands flapped at his sides as he chugged across the room. He pointed to the mask, “Mine.” Then his eyes fixed on MaryAnne’s “Jesus Loves Me” brooch and they stayed there until his parents joined him.
“Satan,” said MaryAnne, a little less sure of herself.
“Down’s Syndrome,” said the mom.
MaryAnne looked to her husband. “It means he’s retarded,” he said.
“It means he was born a certain way,” said the dad. “Samuel is very high functioning. This,” he pointed to the mask, “is simply art.”
MaryAnne caught Samuel’s eye, “Why did you do this? Why did you create this image of Satan, the devil?”
Samuel looked at the mask and then back at MaryAnne, “Mine.” His parents smiled.
“Red and black…the colors of the Evil One. Why did you paint this thing red and black?”
Samuel looked around the room at the other children. He squinted his squinty eyes as he pointed to each, “Marty had the blue. Phillip had the yellow. Somebody had the green. I got two colors...all that was left.”
“The horns? Why horns?” asked one of the parents.
Samuel covered his eyes and peeked out through his fingers.
“These? Here. These things. These are horns.”
“Oh,” said Samuel. “No. Them are carrots.”
MaryAnne and Ralph and Peter left the school five minutes later. Ten minutes after that lines had reformed at the fire truck. Fun night continued.
Samuel and his mom and his dad walked the two blocks to their house. They split a bag of Doritos three ways, helped Samuel brush his teeth and put him to bed. Then they padded to their bedroom and got undressed. They turned to the wall.
As the dad pulled a wall curtain aside he said to her, “We’re really going to have to be more careful.” The curtain parted revealing in red and black the painted face of their Lord and Master. He was not pleased.