FoundlingReview

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             You are not Mrs. Macintosh. This is the first thing they say, and it is the truth. I have never met her. But it is so true, and immediately I feel hopeless. I can see it in their faces. I am not who they thought I would be and now I am drowning in the river of their expectations. I can feel it. The current has snagged me by the foot. I’m going to trip. I know I’m going to trip and fall right on top of one of them. Kill one of them. I grab the corner of Mrs. Macintosh’s desk. My face is on fire and my eyes are watering and they are too young to feel sorry for me. Or maybe their faces are just too small. Maybe sorry looks different on faces so small, in eyes that big, so big. They are aliens.

            My boyfriend said not to worry. They’re just kindergarteners, he said. What’s the worst they could do? Eat you alive?

            My sister said my boyfriend is emotionally retarded; maybe I should try women. I did once, she said, but there was nothing there.

            My mother said to make sure I stand up straight. Make yourself tall, she said, and then don’t let them see you’re afraid. Walk up and down the rows and squint into their eyes.

            I begin to feel better, thinking about my mother. I decide I will just pretend to be her. I can’t be Mrs. Macintosh. She is ancient. They say she’s been here forever, since the fire, the one that killed five kids (none of them hers) and one librarian. You can still smell the smoke in the paint on the walls, in the wood on the desks and doors. No, I can’t be Mrs. Macintosh. But I can be my mother. I smile without showing my teeth. I keep one hand in the air and the other on my hip while I explain to them what we’re doing this morning. Today, I say, in my mother’s Christmas morning voice, you will make three wishes. Right away, a girl raises her hand. She wants to know if she can please go to the bathroom. I say, That’s not one of your wishes, is it? Everyone giggles, including the girl. She giggles and then starts bouncing up and down. She holds her hands between her legs and asks again. She says please again. I look her dead in the eye. It looks like she means it. I say, in my mother’s goodbye voice, Of course, sweetie, but hurry back to us. She jumps up, looks back at me for a second, as if she’s about to change her mind, then skips right out the door. I start again. Both hands are on my hips now. Today, I say, in my mother’s business voice, you will make three wishes. You will write them down and draw pictures of them coming true. There’s paper and markers and crayons and scissors and glue and glitter and feathers and cotton balls—everything you could ever need—right here. I bite the inside of my cheek while I listen to their questions.

Anything? We can wish for anything we want?

Yes.

A monkey?

Yes.

A baby monkey?

If you promise to take care of it.

Superpowers?

Of course.

Super strength? Talking to animals? Flying? X-ray vision?

Maybe not X-ray vision.

More wishes? Can we wish for more wishes?

Yes. But then you’d have to write down and draw the rest of your wishes. Maybe you’d be here forever.

 

Things are going well. They’re all doing exactly what they’re supposed be doing. They’re all so invested in their wishes. I start to look at them like they’re people. One girl draws herself standing in a green field beneath a sky of falling stars. Another draws a picture of herself standing at the top of a flight of stairs in a long red dress. One boy draws a picture of his father dancing with his mother around a Christmas tree. The tree is made of green felt and it’s smeared with glue and glitter. There’s an angel on top of it that’s disproportionately big, that’s bigger than the tree itself, because he wanted to give it real feathers for wings and glue-on googly eyes that move when you move the picture. His mother’s and father’s arms are long and twisted around each other’s backs. They have big red toothless smiles scratched on their faces and there’s a stream of black music notes floating above their heads. In the bottom right-hand corner it says, I wish he was Home. I reach out and squeeze his shoulder. He looks back and up at me with huge brown eyes that hurt to look into. In my mother’s honest way, I don’t say anything.

 

This is working. Everything is going so well that I decide to throw out the rest of Mrs. Macintosh’s lesson plans for the day. I don’t need them. This is working. My mother is great. My mother is tall and strong and warm and kind. She built her own business from the ground up. She climbed Mt. McKinley only two months after having my twin brothers. When she was a teenager my mother worked as a lifeguard at the Jersey shore. She sat up in her watchtower and all the men and women and children wanted her to smile at them. Every summer my mother single-handedly saved dozens of swimmers from rip tides. She raised four of us all by herself. Kids trust my mother. This is a good trick. Maybe this is the secret to survival. Maybe I should have been trying to be other people my entire life. I start to wonder who I should be next. My boyfriend? Or my sister? My mailman? My crazy neighbor with all those poor wing-clipped, talking parrots? Jane Goodall? I could be Jane Goodall. Then I could be a chimp. I could be a chimp and use sign language to tell Jane Goodall that her chimp noises sound ridiculous and she isn’t fooling anybody. I could be somebody rich and gorgeous. Brad Pitt? I could be Brad Pitt and make love to Angelina Jolie, quietly, so we wouldn’t wake up the children sleeping at the other end of our gigantic bed covered in red African silk sheets. Then I could be Angelina Jolie and fuck Brad Pitt. If I can fool children, I can fool the Pitts. If I can fool children, whose eyes are so big and bright and never miss anything, then I can fool anyone, everyone, the universe, fate, God. I won’t be God. I won’t go that far. But someday, maybe, I’ll come back here and be Mrs. Macintosh. Just to be back where it all started, at the mouth of a river that spat me into the ocean of my mother’s voice.

 

I walk around. I look at more of their wishes. One boy wishes his thirteen year-old golden retriever could see and run again. Another wants to play centerfield for the Cardinals. One girl wishes her grandfather would stop wandering away, and also that he would remember who she is. She asks me how is she supposed to draw that. I chew my lip. I put a hand on my hip. I say, in my mother’s church voice, Draw him holding your hand. At least seven of them wish they could fly. And it is while I’m counting the ones who wish they could fly that I realize the girl who went to the bathroom hasn’t come back yet. She said she had to go to the bathroom and then she didn’t come back. She skipped away before I could ask if she knew where the bathroom was or if she needed help with her buttons and then she didn’t come back. I try to count them. Maybe she’s here and I just didn’t see her come back in. This doesn’t work. I’m pretty sure I’ve counted a few of them twice. I realize I don’t know her name. I don’t know any of their names. I forgot to take attendance. The book is sitting right there on Mrs. Macintosh’s desk. But I forgot. And now it’s too late. If I ask for their names now, if I ask if the girl ever came back, they’ll know I don’t belong here. They’ll see me.

Me.

I look at the clock. We’re more than halfway through the morning. Soon they’ll be done with their wishes. Before I know it, their mothers will be outside in their minivans and SUVs and station wagons, waiting.

Hello? a voice says, somewhere behind me. I whip around and see a woman standing by the door. She wears black slacks and a red blouse. She has a short haircut and a serious face.

Yes? I say.

I’m looking for Mary, she says.

Oh, I say, throwing my shoulders back.

I’m the nurse.

Right, I say, hands sweating on my hips.

She needs to take her medicine. You were supposed to send her down earlier.

I’m sorry, I say, trying to remember the girl’s face, her eyes, her mouth, her hair, her voice. I hold my breath, close my eyes, and listen for her voice in the room. But it’s too much. Too much babbling, babbling, babbling. They all sound the same when I can’t see them. All together they sound like water slowly destroying rocks.

Mary? the nurse says.

A chair screeches behind me. Then a little blonde blur flies toward the door.

I’ll have her right back, she says.

After they leave I start to think maybe the girl wasn’t a girl at all. Maybe she was a boy. Maybe she was the boy over there drawing his soldier brother covered in feathers, flying over all the forests and mountains and deserts and bodies of water between here and Iraq. No, that’s not right. She was a girl. I remember. She was a girl and I don’t see her. All of them are bent over their wishes. All of their heads are down and if it weren’t for the glitter on their hands and the giggling coming from their mouths I’d think they were praying. I hold my breath again. I bite the inside of my cheek until my eyes water and burn. I imagine the worst things. All the disgusting and irrecoverable damage that can be done to a little girl’s little body. I see the painted face of JonBenét. I see Elizabeth Smart’s dim eyes squinting between the sheets of a white burka. I see the handless Lindbergh baby stuck in a muddy hole in the ground. I try to work out what I will tell the police. What I will tell Barbra Walters. What I will tell the girl’s mother. I will say, in my mother’s wretched voice, that I’m sorry, so sorry. I will throw myself on top of this woman and say I can’t believe what I’ve done. There are no words for what I have done. I will offer her everything I have. Everything I am. Every single person I love. I will say that I would trade places with her if I could. I’ll drown myself in the girls’ bathroom down the hall.


Mary Kate Flannery is from Plainfield, New Jersey. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University’s MFA program. Her work has recently appeared in apt literary magazine and Printers Row. She was a finalist for the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award and has received an Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Aspen Writers’ Institute.
 


This story was fun to write. Probably because it scares me. What would you do if you lost somebody's child? What would I do? I think I'd want to die. My approach was simple. I took one of my fears and made it come true for the narrator.





 


 




  


Copyright 2009