I’m not going to like this. I just know it. It’s too early in the morning and I’m too tired and I don’t like what she made me wear and I don’t know where we’re going and if I did, I doubt that I’d like it. I just know it.
I knew something was going on last week. That’s how smart I am. I’ll bet Kenny knew it too. They probably told him what they were up to. They probably told him, thinking that he would tell them what I thought about what it was they were up to after they told me.
That’s how parents think. They are always planning and plotting about different things, what you’re going to do or where you’re going to go and what they want you to say once you’re there.
I know that’s true because I hear the same kind of stuff from my friends. Ricky Roberts tells me all the time about how his parents are thinking up new ways to get him to eat vegetables. I’ve seen his parents. They look nice enough.
But if he’s telling me the truth, and I have to believe him because he once let me play with his lasso, then I feel sorry for him. He must have a very difficult time at home if his parents are really making him eat all his vegetables, especially broccoli.
I have to eat them too, but my mom doesn’t make such a fuss about it and I know how to get away with not eating vegetables even when she puts them on my plate. I know tricks. You might think I don’t, but I do. See, I’m nearly five and I know a lot of things.
Where is she taking me? She and my dad—he doesn’t talk a lot—told me that I was going to make a lot of new friends soon. You have to watch out when they start talking to you like that. They’re usually—really always—up to something and it takes all my cleverness to find out what it is before they want me to know.
Boy, this is a long walk. Usually we take busses. Sometimes trains that go underground. I don’t know what they’re called. I know my mom once told me. They always want me to know things, but I must have had more important things on my mind when she mentioned it, so I don’t remember.
You know, I have a lot of things on my mind. I am supposed to meet a friend of mine this afternoon and play stickball in the playground. I don’t usually get to play because the older kids think I’m small, but today will be different. Larry Grant’s kid brother, Kevin, is my age and Larry’s going to help him with his swing. Kevin told me to come along and his brother will help me too. Boy is Kenny, my older brother, going to be surprised when he finds out that Larry was coaching me. I was also thinking about cleaning up my room, but I don’t think there will be enough time for that too.
There’s a lot going on around me too and everyone—I mean everyone from my parents to my cousins and grandparents to our neighbors—tells me what to think and what to do and what to say and worst of all, when to go to bed.
I don’t mean that my neighbors tell me when to go to bed. That’s silly. But you would think my parents would figure out that there are some things I already know. You would think they would see how grown-up I was about getting up in the morning and brushing my teeth and being respectful to their friends.
My dad keeps telling me that someday I’m going to be a grownup. I don’t think I want to be one. They’re always going to work, whatever that is, and worrying about things and having very serious conversations and making you eat your vegetables.
“We’re almost there,” my mom says.
My mom is very pretty. Even my friends think she is pretty. And she is a good sport too. When I have friends over and we make a mess—and we usually do—she never scolds us or raises her voice like Carol’s mom does. Carol’s mom is always sour and acts like she isn’t very happy. Carol tries not to notice, but all her friends know her mom is a very sad person. But my mom is pretty and usually happy.
Sometimes I have so much on I my mind I get sad too. But when you get to be my age, you have to accept that.
There goes Steve Lynch with Pete Mitchell into Bigilow’s Sports Store. They’re always palling around. Steve is a friend of my brother. I don’t much like him. When he’s over at our house, he gets real bossy and thinks he can tell me where to go or what to play. My brother thinks Steve is very smart. I think he’s a jerk.
I don’t recognize where we are. My mom’s grip on my hand has tightened in these last two blocks. She looks worried. Maybe where she is taking me is bad.
“There. It’s right over there,” she says. “See, the small brown house. There are children playing in the backyard.”
Yeah, I see it. So what? I know what kids look like when they play. “I see.”
As we get closer, I think one of the kids playing is Carol. I like her. She’s fun to be around and always stays close by me when are in the playground that separates our apartment houses. She has dark hair. I like girls with dark hair. I know gold hair is like the sun and bright and all, but dark hair is my favorite. Carol has dark brown eyes that I think are very pretty. Her mom has the same kind of eyes, but they’re always sad.
“Oh, look there, swings and a sliding pond, and oh, they’re playing ball like you do.”
Do I care what they’re doing? I guess my mom wants me to be interested. You can always tell when parents want you to notice or be interested in something. They change their voice a little. It gets higher and the words come quicker and the more they want you to like something, the more they usually don’t understand what you like in the first place, like the trucks and cranes and work going on across the street from the home with the kids playing in the tiny backyard.
And they’re not playing ball like me. I can throw farther and catch better and I don’t like them already, especially the kid holding the baseball bat as if he really knows what to do with it.
“There she is,” my mom says, pointing to a tall, thin woman holding a bunch of papers in her hand. “That’s Ms. Hendrickson. She runs the nursery school. Brian Eldridge’s sister, you know, Pamela, went there last year. It’s a great place.”
I don’t remember Brian’s sister. She probably doesn’t have dark hair. “What kind of place is it?”
Bending down in front of me, Mom says, “It’s a place for you to play for a few hours a day. We talked about it last night. It’s called a nursery school. Remember? Lots of children go there.” Mom tries to straighten out my shirt and pants.
I don’t like what she made me wear anyway, and now she expects me to keep it straight. That’s too much to ask of me. “A school?”
“Not like the one Kenny goes to.”
But it is a school. I knew it was going to be bad. “I don’t want to go.” You always want to say that. It gets parents crazy. It makes them explain everything over and over, trying to make you agree to what they want, and that what they want is something you should want. Just for once why can’t what I want be something they want? Wouldn’t that make more sense? After all, it’s my life.
“It’ll be fun.”
“I don’t like the way it looks,” I say but don’t resist when she pulls me down the street. We wait for the light at the corner to change (you always want to do that so it’s safe) and then cross the street. The closer we get, the less I like what I see. It wasn’t even the kid with the bat who I was already convinced was a jerk. I don’t like the woman my mom says runs the school. She’s too tall for a woman and she has a tight, pinched face with little slits for lips and her hair is bright yellow and pulled back over her head as if it were painted on and not real.
My mom waves to Ms. Hendrickson as though they’re old friends. “Hi there,” she says in that voice that means she wants to make a good impression. “This is Andrew,” she says, giving me a little shove in my back so I am closer to this hideous creature in the black dress.
I know if I don’t offer her my hand it will get back to my dad. He is very big on the handshaking thing and since he asks so little of me, I think, why not? Well believe me, that impresses the black beast to no end.
She bends down, shakes my hand and introduces herself, then turns to the other children and announces that I am joining their school. They stop playing only as long as she is talking, then go back to what they were doing. I know I would have been hard-pressed to give up so much playtime to a complete stranger.
“What time should I pick him up?” my mom asks.
“Why don’t you come by after lunch? How about two o’clock?” The black beast answers, but I have no idea what she is talking about, only that my mom won’t return for a long time. I have never been left alone for what I think would be a long time. I think my mom is worried that I’ll be scared to be left alone.
“You’re going to have so much fun.”
I shrug my shoulders, and then notice a huge blue truck filled to the top with dirt coming up out of the pit that fills the entire block across the street. Its whistle shrieks out a warning to other trucks and cars that it’s coming. How great! Everyone has to watch out for the truck. The guy who drives it must be a pretty special person to be allowed to drive a big blue truck like that and blow a whistle that stops everybody in their tracks.
I don’t really know what a nursery school is, but I know it is important to my mom that I spend some time here. “I’ll be okay, Mom.” From her expression, I guess she didn’t think I would be so willing to even try it.
“You’ll have a nice time. There are plenty of other children here your age to play with.”
A couple of other kids are staring at me. I know what they’re thinking: “Who’s the new kid? Why is his mom sticking around for so long?” My mom gives me a big hug and kisses me, then stands up and speaks to the black beast for a while, then gives me another kiss and waves at me as she walks back up the street toward our apartment building, which I can no longer see in the distance.
“There is a box of toys over there,” the woman in black says, pointing to a wooden box. “It’s for the children. You cannot play in the front of the house. You cannot fight with the other children. You cannot take a toy away from another child, and if you have to go to the bathroom, you must come to me and I will take you there. Your mother told me you can go to the potty by yourself, so I don’t expect we will have any trouble there.”
Only if you’re in it when I get there, I think. I didn’t say anything to her, so she walks over to a couple of noisy kids playing ball. She probably would have walked away even if I’d had something to say. I’m right about her. She isn’t a nice person, and I bet there are terrible things going on around here that no one knows about.
Suddenly I feel really alone. I turn around to where I last saw my mom, but she is no longer there. I am here and everybody else I know is far away. I look down at what I am wearing. This is definitely not my favorite pair of pants and the shirt, a present from my grandmother, doesn’t even fit. I am too big for it. My mom should have seen that. I know she wants me to look my best, but sometimes she doesn’t understand me at all.
If I had listened last night, maybe I could have saved myself from all this. But it’s too late now. I am alone in this horrible place with the black beast, surrounded by these nasty, sniveling kids.
I saw a movie on television with Kenny last week where a group of kids my age were attacked by a large, hideous, green space monster while they were playing in a deserted yard. It looked just like this.
Maybe the black beast was going to turn into the same killer monster and take the kids back to her planet where they would be fed to even more hideous creatures. I’m never going to see my mom again. I’m sure I am going to die alone on a strange planet.
The beast comes rushing up behind me. “Why don’t you go over there and play with Roger and Evan?” the beast suggests, but you can tell that she really doesn’t care what I do. You can always tell if a grownup really cares, and this one doesn’t. I would have staked my all-too-small allowance on that. And anyway, Roger is the one with the bat, and he is still a jerk. I’ll bet Brian Eldridge doesn’t even have a sister.
“I’ll go find a toy for myself.”
She gives me a quick, questioning look and disappears into her house and I am left on my own. I don’t mind this at all. Ever since I’ve been little, I’ve felt a sense of relief when left alone to wander and explore and find out what interests me.
I don’t try to make trouble, but many grownups, mostly my grandparents, feel that I shouldn’t be let out of sight of an adult. I don’t know why they don’t trust me. Lenny Klingman, who lives two blocks from my apartment, got into trouble lighting matches in his bathroom. Jessica Browning, who is only eight months older than I am, was caught throwing her parents’ bath towels out of their eighth-floor bathroom window. Now those kids need a serious talking-to!
I take a tour around the outside of the beast’s home. It is nothing special. There is an old car in her driveway. Her lawn looks like it hasn’t been mowed in weeks. There are a few cans of paint in front of her garage. I bet she has no children.
People like her never get to have children. God sees to that. He doesn’t let people he doesn’t like have children. I know my dad would not like her.
I know I should call her by her real name, but I just can’t bring myself to be that friendly. She isn’t friendly enough to my mom. And her home is nothing great, though it is one of the few remaining in our neighborhood. Most of the private homes have been torn down and six-story apartments, like where I live, have been put up in their place. There are four homes like this one still on the block facing the construction site across the street.
Another truck pulls out from the pit that looks like it could swallow the building where I live in one gulp.
“Okay, children, it’s time to go inside. Come on. All together now. Dana, put down that ball. Carmen, it’s too late for that now. You two, get over here. Where’s Andrew?” I hear her scream on the other side of the house. Where’s Andrew? How often have I heard that?
I march myself around to the back of the house and am horrified at what I see. All the kids are lined up two-by-two in front of the beast. They’re standing so straight and are so quiet they look like those Egyptian people my mom took me and Kenny to see at the museum last summer. They didn’t move either and were covered in strips of paper.
Maybe the kids are dead? Then the spaceship can land and take them back to the evil red planet where they will be gobbled up by the parents of the black beast.
“Andrew, there you are.”
Of course, I’m here, and I don’t even know where here is.
“Go to the end of the line.”
“Now we’re going inside to play with blocks and our coloring sets just like we did yesterday,” the beast went on.
In front of me are the backs of eight little heads. I can count to a lot more than eight and even spell some pretty big words. These kids seem so quiet. I don’t know how they can be so quiet and stand so still. Maybe something is wrong with them. Maybe their bodies have been taken over by some evil force also bent on taking over the earth. Kids would be the best place to start. Most don’t know any better.
They don’t know what I know. How clever. But I’ve dealt with evil forces before. You have to be very quiet and watch carefully or you will miss all their evildoings. I’m not good at being very quiet, but someone has to save the whole world.
We march two-by-two into the belly of the beast. The inside of her house is small and smells like it has been painted with soap. The nine of us are told to keep to the porch. I quickly learn that a porch is the back of a house with a screen on one side facing the backyard. See, I told you I’m smart. Probably smarter than even Kenny, who is a whiz at most everything.
Once inside, they all come to life, opening drawers and pulling out little cartons on which their names are scrawled in yellow paint. Everyone is talking at once. Some of the kids are painting, others play board games they must have started before I got here. There is such activity I don’t know what to do first.
A little girl comes up to me and asks me if I want to play with her. I notice the black beast standing in the hallway with her arms crossed over her chest, watching us as if she has sent the child over to me on purpose. How smart. The poor child’s soul has been taken over by the beast. The kid isn’t even in control of what she says or thinks or does. Wait until Kenny hears about this.
The little girl leads me over to a pile of wooden blocks. How childish. I catch on to her plan fast. Her name is Allison. There is an Allison in my building. An older girl. She has to be seven or eight. Kenny knows her. I wonder if that Allison is the original Allison from which this one was created. I play along with her until I’m bored.
She’s nice, even for a kid with no heart or soul. A few minutes pass before I get up and walk away. She looks unhappy that I’m leaving. It must be terrible to have your heart and soul controlled by monsters from another planet.
I find a book and sit in the corner so I can keep an eye on everyone. I have a book just like it at home. It isn’t anything special. I hear a phone rang inside the house a few times. The beast comes back to the porch every few minutes to make sure that the children are behaving. Behaving is a big thing with adults. If the adults I’ve seen are any example of behaving—they’re the ones who never seem to have any fun—I’m going to have a big problem in a few years.
Roger gets into a stupid fight with the kid named Evan. It isn’t much as fights go. I’ve seen a lot worse in my time. The beast and another woman I had not noticed before comes out to the porch with food. Everybody starts to scream and make for the two small tables. One-by-one each kid gets a paper plate filled with food.
The beast’s plan is now completely clear. She takes control of the children through the food she feeds to them. It is so obvious and yet I had missed it. I had to be smarter or I wasn’t going to live out the afternoon.
“You can have my mashed potatoes,” I say to Evan who’s sat down next to me.
“I don’t want them.”
“They’re good for you,” I say scooping up a handful of the icky white mush and dropping it in the center of his plate. “Eating more mashed potatoes will help you beat up Roger.” He looks down at his food. I’m not sure he believes me. “And you can have that,” I say to the puzzled little girl to my right. I think it’s chicken. It might be turkey. I don’t know.
I only know that if I eat it, I will turn out just like these kids. The food here will eat away at my brain. It will make me stupid, and before I know it, I’ll be playing with blocks like a child and standing quietly in line.
Lunch ends in a strange way. The woman who put out the food with the beast comes back and tells all of us to finish up quickly. Everybody takes a few rushed bites, jumps out of their chairs, and runs to a large closet and begins pulling out large rolls that fly open when the string is removed from around them. They’re laid out on the porch floor. In seconds, all eight of them are laying down on these mats with a blanket wrapped up to their necks.
The evil one looks at me. What was I to do? They’re taking a nap. Everyone is taking a nap. This is the worst possible thing. My mom likes naps. Almost everybody I know takes naps except my dad. Are they all taken over by space creatures like these poor children?
My grandmother—my mom’s mother—hates naps. She’s great. Though for years, when I was younger, she would greet me with a big hug and a kiss and a smack on my bottom when we visited her. It took me a long time to realize that Kenny got the hug and kiss and no smacked behind. Last month I asked my grandmother why I got a smack and Kenny didn’t.
She said that, unlike Kenny, I was going to misbehave and get into trouble and she might not be there to see it, and that was what the smack was for. Boy, I really love her.
The woman comes over to the table, takes my arm and leads me to the one remaining mat. I sit down, then, under her glare, fall over onto my side. I can’t bring myself to pull up the blanket. She gives me a terrible look, pulls down the curtains over the porch windows and turns out the light. By now, half the children are fast asleep.
I can see the afternoon light outside the house. Everything is happening out there while nothing is going on in here. The house is terribly quiet. What are those two space women up to in the front of the house? I’ll bet they’re sitting in front of a big screen talking to the leader of their planet. They’re telling him that they have a new boy, a terrific, sharp-as-a-tack, and cute little kid wearing a shirt that was too small for him.
They’re promising him that the boy will be sent along with the others to the planet right after their nap is over. I have to find Kenny. He is out playing ball somewhere in the neighborhood while his baby brother is about to be shipped to another planet as a meal for a large green monster. That means he’ll get all my toys. My toys! And what about my allowance?
I kick the dirty old blanket away from my feet and get up and look around. Evan watches me walk to the back door and open it as quietly as I can. I know he won’t tell anybody because I showed him what he needed to do in order to beat up Roger. That counted for a lot between boys.
I make it to the street without anyone coming after me. The noise from across the street quickly catches my attention. Big trucks are moving up and down the drive. Big men are everywhere, carrying shovels and other tools in their hands. I turn around. Nobody comes running out of the back door of the house. They aren’t as smart as I am. The spaceship will come and find only eight of them and the black beast will have to go back instead of me and hopefully be eaten in my place.
I walk up to the street corner as far away from the truck noise as possible. My mom has walked down this street with me. By now, she is home doing home stuff. She will be cleaning or cooking or talking to her friends. My mom has a lot of friends. Everybody likes her. I guess that’s why they put up with me.
From here, I can’t be seen from the beast’s house. I look up and down the street a lot of times before I rush to the other side. Still no one notices me. This is great. I am out on my own. No parents. No grownups. I can spend the whole day like this and never be told what to do or where to go. I walk over to the side of the open pit without being noticed. I never thought it would be this easy. The closer I get, the more there is to see below. I can’t believe my eyes.
The whole block is a big hole. In the center, roaring monster shovels are digging away at the dirt and scooping it up into the back of trucks that move back and forth from the street. I sit down next to a pile of wood so no one notices me. I am so happy to be here. I tuck my legs under my bottom and lean against the pile of wood. What luck! What great luck! I pick up a handful of dirt and toss it against the side of a large yellow drum nearby. It makes a heavy sound as it hits the side.
I pick up a rock and throw it and this time the drum comes to life and starts to turn! I back myself up next to the pile of wood. What have I done now? But the drum quickly stops turning. My dad told me all about drums and digging from when he was living in another big city. I wished he had told me more, but he is always so busy doing his work.
A big black glob of something falls out of the front of the yellow drum. I get up and go over and kneel down next to it. It smells funny. I touch it with my finger. It is warm and soft and sticky in my hands. I pick up a big handful of it and run back to the woodpile. It is easy to make different shapes from.
The more I play with it, the more fun it is! I make a house and a space ship. I try to make a truck from the black goop, but I don’t think it turns out so good. I guess I’ve been here for a long time because before I know it, I am covered with the stuff. My hands and legs and I think my face are covered with dirt and the gooey warm, black stuff. Now I am sure my mom is going to make me take a bath tonight.
“Hey, kid, what are you doing here?” a man comes over to me and asks.
I look up. He is so big I can hardly believe my eyes. He is even bigger than my dad. He is wearing a strange green hat on his head. He’s wearing gloves and big pants. I shrug, hoping he thinks I am too stupid to understand, goes away, and leaves me alone.
“Where did you come from?”
“Over there,” I say, pointing in the opposite direction of the beast’s house. He is going to have to be smarter than that to get anything out of me.
He looks up toward the street. So do I. We both hear police noises. Kenny once told me police cars made that noise. Whenever you hear that noise, it means that the police have caught another criminal. Maybe they got Steve Lynch.
“I think you’d better come with me,” he says, and lifts me up on his shoulder as if I am a kid. Now I know I’m not going to get to play stickball with Kevin and his big brother.
The man takes me to where a lot of other men like him are standing around. They all stop talking when they see me. But you know, I’m not afraid at all, even though my parents told me many times not to talk to strangers. All the men are really big and look at me as though I’m supposed to be here. They ask me a lot of questions about where I live, how I got here, and about my parents. One gives me a chocolate covered donut so I am sure they mean me no harm.
I finally tell them I live around here, but I really don’t know where. One says he has a boy like me and would get upset if his boy were lost. Except, I don’t feel lost.
I ask them about the trucks and what they’re doing here. I think they’re forgetting about me being lost.
Then I hear the police cars again. Soon one comes riding down the block. It drives up to where all the men are standing. My mom and dad get out and run towards me. Then things really get worse.
My mom grabs me and hugs me so hard it hurts. She is crying and happy and angry and keeps touching me to see if I am okay even though I keep telling her I am. My dad talks to the man who found me. I don’t know what Dad says, but there are tears in his eyes when he says it.
The only thing that prevents my dad from killing me tonight is that it takes my mom all evening to clean off what I now know is tar from my filthy, dirt-covered body.
When Kenny sees me, he bursts out laughing. He thinks I am the funniest thing he has ever seen. Even my mom has to laugh after she takes off my shirt and pants and drops me into the hot, soapy tub.
My grandmother comes over “sick with fright.” I know my bottom is in for it when she marches into our apartment demanding to know, “Where is that child?”
Later, I find out that the black beast called the police when she discovered I had escaped. I guess she wasn’t from another planet, though after that day most of the grownups in the neighborhood thought I was.
My mom takes me to my brother’s school the next day and puts me into a kindergarten class. But that doesn’t work well because no sooner does my mom drop me off in my classroom and my teacher turns her back, then I get up from my desk and walk out of school.
They test me and the next week put me in first grade. I stay here, but only because my mom sits outside guarding the door to my classroom.
She did that for nearly a full month to make sure I didn’t escape!
I am telling you this story because it’s all true and, more importantly, because my dad started talking to me a lot more after that.
Arthur Davis is a management consultant who has been quoted in The New York Times, Crain’s New York Business and interviewed on New York TV News Channel 1. He has advised The New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission, the Department of Homeland Security, Senator John McCain’s investigating committee on boxing reform, and testified as an expert witness before the New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing. Since 2012, over eighty original tales of horror, dark fantasy, magical realism, science fiction, speculative fiction, mystery/crime, epic adventure as well as literary fiction have been published, with another two dozen as reprints. He was featured in a quarterly, single author anthology, nominated for a Pushcart Prize and, twice nominated, received Honorable Mention in The Best American Mystery Stories 2017. More at www.talesofourtime.com.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Nursery School Exposé”:
How could we resist publishing this absolutely wonderful, smile-laden tale of a precocious four-year-old? Author Arthur Davis thought well outside the box on this one, and it paid off. We can only imagine what trouble Andrew get into and cause in the future. Watch out world!