Variable Chapter 3

 

Jay-Jay wailed and seized Tara’s legs in a death grip.

“Hey,” Tara said, kneeling down. “It’s okay. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Jay-Jay’s eyes spoke for him. He was unconvinced. Tara placed her hand on his shoulder.

“Jay-Jay. I’ll see you again.”

*                      *                     *

A tear slid down Tara’s face. The screen was merciless, showing her everything. She hated watching this. But she couldn’t stop. The screen had to play it all. And if Tara wanted another re-do, she’d have to watch it all.

*                      *                      *

“And we’ll do so many amazing things. We’ll go sailing in the pirate ship. We’ll color your dragons. We’ll fly to the moon in your wagon. Don’t worry, bud. We’re not done. You have lots of time and lots of adventures to go on.”

Little by little Jay-Jay relinquished his death-grip on Tara’s legs. Finally, he held nothing but a little fistful of skirt. Tara bent down and looked him in the eyes.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, bud. Really.”

The fist released the wadded-up skirt. He let his mom take him away. And Tara felt a tear tickling her face.

“Love you, bud.”

She stood up and caught Miss Conelly’s approving eye. She smiled.

*                      *                      *

The lump in Tara’s throat felt like it would force itself out of her mouth. Tara realized she was hugging herself, rocking back and forth as she watched the screen. She felt empty like hunger, but too sad to move. She clicked a button, and the screen skipped backwards.

*                      *                      *

Now she saw herself sitting in a car. Miss Conelly was driving.

“So you’ve been a teacher for how long?” Miss Conelly asked.

“For . . . actually this is my first time,” Tara admitted. Miss Conelly glanced over at her.

“But you’ve done student teaching and all that,” she said.

“Uh . . . yes. Oh, yeah,” Tara said. How to explain to someone that you had never actually gotten your degree in special ed. She had always wanted to.

“. . . Don’t need to tell you how important they are,” Miss Conelly was saying. “I mean so many people just don’t realize their value. They know not to say anything against them, but as a country we don’t really value special needs students. And it’s our loss.” She spoke with passion, occasionally pounding the steering wheel for emphasis.

Tara nodded. “I agree,” she said. “It’s why I wouldn’t do . . . anything else . . . Quantum science, for example.” Maybe if she had never met Hector.

“Quantum science?” Miss Conelly asked.

“Something I used to be into,” Tara said quickly. “I’d never go into it now.” After all, if you got a chance to re-do life, why make the same choices? Miss Conelly was already rattling on again. If speed talking was an Olympic sport, Miss Conelly would win gold.

“There’s one boy at the school,” Miss Conelly said. “Cutest little kid. Impossible to work with. No one seems to understand him. Used to love drawing, only way he’d communicate . . . not a picture since his Dad died. You said you used to work with kids like that. I think you might be able to get through to him . . . you know?” She looked over at Tara.

And then she saw him. Across the intersection in a white truck. A man with a day’s worth of growth on his chin. Strong grey eyes, white shirt, blue tie. And for a moment their eyes met. He smiled and she looked away. And then . . .

“Look out!” A red sedan came hurtling through the red light. Miss Conelly swerved over a bit too hard, nearly swiping the cars in the next lane off the road. The sedan sped past. The light turned green, the cars moved on, and the man was gone. The car was uncharacteristically quiet for several minutes.

“Are you okay?” Tara finally asked.

“Yes, dear,” Miss Conelly said. “I think my hands are just a little shaky.”

“That moron,” Tara said.

“We’re all morons, sweetie. We’ll do anything to get on with our lives.”

Tara felt like a loose rope had been jerked rigid inside. She looked up, surprised. Sometimes she got the idea this woman could see into her. But Miss Conelly was talking about the driver.

“. . . arrive on time for work. Wasn’t thinking. I’m fairly certain I’ve run lights for that reason.” She chuckled. “And if I didn’t, but brother Clark certainly did.” They were pulling into the school now. A large, brick, Victorian-looking building. Less like a school and more like a lawyer’s office.

The woman at the entrance desk was very polite. Lots of lipstick. Miss Conelly was signing a few papers when . . .

“Adrian, come back!” A little blur of energy slammed into Tara’s leg, then bounced off, headed for the door. But Tara was quick. She knelt down in front of the door, arms out. Adrian was small and brown.  His hair stuck up like a mini afro. And his eyes—big, curious, brown eyes. The minute Tara saw them, she knew—she and Adrian would be friends.

“Hey, bud,” she said. “What’s wrong?” Adrian stopped for a moment, considering. Tara wiped a frustrated tear off his cheek.

“Hey, Jay-Jay!” Miss Conelly knelt down next to them. Jay-Jay frowned and hugged Miss Conelly’s legs, staring intently at Tara.

“Tara, this is Jay-Jay,” Miss Conelly said. “His real name is Adrian, but he doesn’t like that, do you?” Still frowning, Adrian shook his head.

“There you are.” A young, twenty-something girl with a blond ponytail walked over. “Why did you run away, Adrian?”

“I think he’s okay now,” Miss Conelly said. “You okay, Jay-Jay?” Jay-Jay did not respond, but allowed himself to be led away. Right before he rounded the corner, he turned around one last time, looking at Tara. She smiled, and for the fleetingest bit of a second, Jay-Jay did too. And the minute she saw it, Tara knew—they were friends.

*                                  *                      *

Tara was watching, but she wasn’t. Not really. She heard the voices, but she was looking at the round port holes and the bright red lights. Occasionally she would hear Jay-Jay squeal and look up. Then quickly down again. She knew what was happening by now. She’d seen it—how many times now? Twenty? She also knew there was nothing she could do about it. But one scene she had to watch . . . every time.

*                                  *                      *

“Right here,” Tara said. Jay-Jay was not listening. That or he couldn’t. He was fixated on the window curtain.

“Jay-Jay,” Tara sighed. “I’m trying to help!” Jay-Jay said nothing. Right. Tara put the book down and pulled out the notebook. Jay-Jay loved the notebook. A large sketchpad with nothing but Tara’s pictures.

But Jay-Jay ignored the book. He didn’t care. Neither did Tara. She lay down on the floor and began sketching silently, ignoring Jay-Jay. And gradually as ever Jay-Jay began to watch. You can’t talk to the kid; draw for him.

Jay-Jay lay down next to Tara, elbows on the floor, fists on cheeks. Tara continued to sketch, ignoring him—which was hard. And then, as always, he leaned over, uncomfortably close, and began pointing at the picture. Tara smiled. She tore a separate sheet from the book and handed it to Jay-Jay.

Jay-Jay began scratching away and Tara knew better than to look. It might put her on the naughty list for days. Tara drew her normal. A dragon. Jay-Jay was obsessed with dragons. And pirates. It was a universal boy thing, Tara figured. Some things run deeper than learning disabilities.

It doesn’t take long to perfect one’s dragon-drawing skills. Unless you take your craft very seriously, you only have one pose in your repertoire. Tara had two. Jay-Jay appreciated it. He colored them obsessively and gave them back to Tara as gifts.

But today was different. Jay-Jay was focused on his picture. He didn’t even notice Tara’s dragon when it was finished. He stayed on the floor for an hour, ignoring everything Tara said. And when it was time to go and Mom came to pick him up, Jay-Jay threw a worse-than-normal fit.

Jay-Jay wailed and seized Tara’s legs with a death grip.

“Hey,” Tara said, kneeling down. “It’s okay. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Jay-Jay’s eyes spoke for him. He was unconvinced.

“Jay-Jay, I’ll see you again,” Tara said. “And we’ll do so many amazing things. We’ll go sailing in the pirate ship. We’ll color your dragons. We’ll fly to the moon in your wagon. Don’t worry, bud. We’re not done. You have lots of time and lots of adventures to go on.”

Little by little Jay-Jay relinquished the fistful of wadded-up-Tara skirt. Tara felt a tear tickling her face.

“Love you, bud.” She stood up and caught Miss Conelly’s approving eye. She smiled. And then she noticed it, Jay-Jay’s picture, wadded up when he grabbed Tara’s skirt. She opened it up, smoothing out the wrinkles.

At first it looked like nothing. She had been expecting a dragon. But then . . .

“Where did Jay-Jay get that?” Miss Conelly asked. Tara shook her head.

It was a sketch of Tara. Shading, eyes, even the little cleft in her chin.

Tara turned the picture over where Jay-Jay had furiously scribbled the smiley face–his trademark.

“I think,” she said. “I think Jay-Jay drew it.”

 

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