If you ever asked Ms. Alice how many kids she had, you’d get a different answer each year. Last year the answer was nineteen; this year it was only eight. Those from the lofty heights had only sent eight to her this year, to the cavernous belly of the school where the children went who could not, or would not, find their footing in the general classroom.
Ms. Alice loved seven of them ferociously. She was their protector, their advocate, a stand-in mom, a giver of hugs, a deliverer of a sliver of hope. For seven of them whom she fully felt were members of her own little family.
And then there was Marshall. Ms. Alice loved Marshall because there was no one else to love Marshall. But he would not suffer her to be all of those things the other children allowed her.
So on this day when she was meant to return to her eight after recovering from hip surgery, Ms. Alice wasn’t at all sure she wanted to go. She had been a failure at many things in her quiet life--marriage and motherhood topped the list--but she had not until this year been a failure at helping these children in her care. Not until Marshall.
Yesterday, at the cemetery, when she laid the soft pink peonies by the tiny headstone, she had even said aloud, “I’m not going back.” If she wouldn’t have made a spectacle of herself, Ms. Alice would have loved to lie down beside the grave in the velvety grass of the well-maintained cemetery and let failure cover her like a blanket. To somehow turn it into a comfort because even though he was the child and she was the adult, even though it really shouldn’t matter in the slightest, Marshall had wounded her deeply.
The last day at school before her hip surgery had been an anxious one for Ms. Alice. She had fussed at Marshall that morning, she remembered, because he continued to aggravate Constance, who had an important test to finish. But because Ms. Alice knew Marshall had a crush on Constance, she tried to discipline him lovingly and had hoped Marshall would abandon the behavior by the time they returned from lunch. Sometimes lunch did a great deal of good for Ms. Alice and for Marshall. He could be someone else’s problem for approximately thirty minutes, and Ms. Alice refortified herself for the afternoon ahead.
On that particular day, however, Ms. Alice’s stomach was upset as she thought about her upcoming surgery and she took a little longer in the bathroom than usual. She was greeted by her students upon her return to the classroom and noticed a couple of the boys snickering with Marshall near his desk.
This in itself was strange because most of the students avoided Marshall. He was like an illness they didn’t want to catch, which was another reason Ms. Alice compelled herself to love him.
When Ms. Alice had turned to the board to write the afternoon’s assignment, she saw it. Someone, and she had no doubt who as Marshall had more artistic talent than any child she had ever known, had drawn a caricature of her on the board. Her backside was the prominent feature, but one of her breasts stuck out grossly to the side. Her head was drawn much smaller than her other body parts in what she could only assume was an insult to her intelligence.
If Ms. Alice had been a different person, if her ex-husband’s harsh words didn’t still reverberate in her mind quite often about how she had “let herself go” then she might have been able to chalk the event up to another instance of childish behavior. But Ms. Alice only was who she was, and so with her hand shaking, she began to erase the drawing. And as the drawing disappeared, her hope of ever saving Marshall began to disappear as well.
This incident, along with what felt to be a thousand other little things, the sneers, the snickers, the eye rolls, the middle finger she usually tried to ignore, made Ms. Alice believe that maybe Marshall didn’t belong with her. To her credit, Ms. Alice was not delusional. She knew “saving” her children fell on many different levels, but at least she had always felt before that they left her better than how they originally arrived.
But not Marshall. So as she took one last look at herself in the mirror, assessing her plumpness, but resigning herself to it once again, she decided she would visit the head administrator today and ask for Marshall to be sent elsewhere. Where, she didn’t know, as she was usually the last stop on the academic train. But that wasn’t her concern. She’d state her feelings anyway, and since she had never asked for anything directly before, she expected to be accommodated.
On her desk that morning, Ms. Alice found that Constance had brought her flowers in a plastic vase and Shawna had made brownies that looked semi-edible. But at least she had tried. Ms. Alice smiled at the gifts and smiled at the children, fawned over the lovely card they had made her which included every name except one. Marshall folded his arms sullenly and turned to look out the window.
When it was finally time to go outside, the children resembling inmates as they separated into pairs to amble around the fenced in area, Ms. Alice found a shaded spot under a tree and leaned back, closing her eyes. With only an hour left until the end of the school day, her time to speak with the head administrator was closing in, and she felt a headache begin to press behind her right temple.
“Ms. Alice!” The shout that rang out jarred her, and she saw Constance, running, Shawna close behind her, back toward the school. They had both covered their heads and were running with their torsos as low to the ground as they could bend, creating an awkward movement that looked out of place in the spring sunshine. The other children followed closely behind, each one falling into the prone posture as they ran.
And then Ms. Alice saw why. Marshall stood stock still in the middle of the fenced area. A young man, who appeared only a bit older than her children, stood with a gun aimed at Marshall’s chest. He appeared to be saying something, but the buzz in Ms. Alice’s brain would not allow her to decipher the words.
There were many things Ms. Alice could have thought if there had been time. Of course Marshall would be the one with a gun pointed at him. Who knew what activities he engaged in at night after his court-appointed time at school came to a conclusion each day? Ms. Alice could duck her own head and run for the door with the children. Surely they deserved protection, and she had the key to open the door, to guide them to safety. There would be no shame in running. No one would blame her. This was Marshall, after all. What would he ever amount to anyway?
But Ms. Alice thought none of these things. She only saw Marshall’s face morph from that of an almost-man to a child, saw him shrink into himself, saw fear etch itself quickly across his features. So she ran.
She reached Marshall right when the gun went off, and the bulk of her body covered him. Marshall was suddenly invisible, and only Ms. Alice existed for the single bullet. The gunman ran, not even waiting for Ms. Alice to hit the ground.
Then Marshall was hovering over her and breathing into her face, “Ms. Alice! Ms. Alice! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” The tears dripping from his chin struck her heart.
She wanted to tell him it was okay--they would find some common ground to work through together, he was one of her children, and she loved him because she loved him, not just because she had to.
She tried to reach out her hand, but the command would not translate into movement. She felt herself detaching, felt herself lighten significantly (what a glorious new feeling!), and then she simply floated away, leaving all further thought behind.
The first painting Marshall sold after he graduated was of a woman surrounded by sunbeams and children. Her arms were around two of the children but carefully wielded brush strokes conveyed the sense that she was reaching out for all the others at the same time, even toward a boy on the edge of the canvas, who stood with his arms crossed and his face turned away.