Lucy Lost: Part Two
As I followed my babies through the door to nursery school that morning and bade them all goodbye, I couldn't help but notice how Lucy didn't dash off the way she ordinarily did, but rather meandered slowly, her ears and tail drooping. I noticed too, how wide a berth she gave the little pink Uni in the corner. That must be Cassie, I decided.
Ellie must have noticed me idling in the corner looking nervous, because she approached me and rested a hand on my shoulder, making me jump. She chuckled, “I'm sorry, Adrian, I didn't mean to scare you. Can I help you with something? You seem a little preoccupied.”
Regaining my composure as best I could, I nodded and asked, “Well, I was just wondering. Have you happened to notice anything going on between Lucy and Cassie recently? Luce hasn't been herself the past couple of days, and she got very upset last night. Have you seen anything?”
Ellie furrowed her brow with concern. “No, I haven't. Now that you mention it, Lucy and Cassie have both been disappearing rather a lot lately, finding their own out-of-the-way places to play, and Lucy has been rather quiet these past few days during story and snack. I'll see if I can keep an eye on them for you, Adrian, and I'll let you know if there's anything to be worried about.”
Biting my lip, I nodded and thanked her, then slipped quietly out the door for the morning.
I returned that afternoon anxious and agitated to see whether or not there had been any improvement in Lucy's mood, and to find out if Ellie knew anything.
As soon as I stepped in the door, I scanned the room for Lucy, and, seeing neither hide nor hair of my little Kacheek, I walked swiftly up to Ellie and asked, “So did you see anything? Is Lucy alright?”
Ellie turned around quickly, surprised, and looked at me, concern flashing in her blue eyes. “Well, Adrian, Lucy disappeared for most of the day again, so I couldn't keep a terribly close eye on her, but she did seem very sad during circle time today; I couldn't get her to sing with us at all. I asked her what was wrong, but she said she was fine. Maybe you'd like to stay tomorrow and see if you can sort this out, because I'm worried about her too.”
I nodded gravely. If that's what it took, then that's what I'd do. When I rounded up my kids and started to usher them out the door, I felt a light tug on my trouser leg and looked down to find Lucy blinking at me sadly, both arms in the air as if she wanted picking up. I obliged her and she nestled into my shoulder, sighing heavily. We walked home in silence that afternoon.
That evening, I sat on the sofa pretending to read, while actually peering over the top of my book and watching as Lucy refused to join in Shasta and Danby's superhero game, beating up their “evil plushie nemeses” with their glowing toy swords, or assist Tyto in his attempt to construct a pillow fort to hold a secret meeting with his baby Grarrl plushie, Gareth. All she did was sit in the corner, sighing and whispering something inaudible to Twinkle and making me want to run up, grab her by the shoulders and shake her, demanding, “WHAT'S WRONG, LUCY, FOR GOODNESS SAKE TELL ME WHAT'S WRONG!” But I knew I couldn't; I knew she wouldn't tell me. Deep down I figured that someone was making sure she didn't tell, so it was up to me to find out what was going on for myself. I'd be watching her like a hawk the next day.
I put my kids to bed that night feeling anxious and uncertain. The last thing I wanted was a repeat of the night before. “Lucy,” I whispered as I put her down and tucked her in with Twinkle, “promise you'll tell Daddy if you have any more bad dreams, okay?”
Lucy yawned sleepily and nodded, burrowing under her blanket and nestling close to her plushie, sucking on its woollen mane as she'd done the night before.
With that I returned to my own room to begin a very long night.
At two in the morning, I was awoken to a soft, whimpering cry. Anybody else might not have heard it, but after so long training myself to stay half-awake in case of situations like these, it was a simple matter for me to catch snatches of the almost silent sobs coming from the room next door.
Rubbing my poor, tired, sleep-deprived eyes, I yawned and slipped quietly out of bed and down the hall. As I pushed my kids' bedroom door open quietly, I realised that the cries were so quiet, they hadn't woken anybody else up. I tiptoed silently into the room and found Lucy sitting much as she had the night before, her face buried in Twinkle as she sobbed silently. Gently, I lifted her out of her cot and carried her back to my room, repeating the same routine as the night before.
“What's wrong, Luce?” I asked sadly, stroking her fuzzy ears as she continued to whimper softly into my shirt. “Did you have another bad dream?”
Slowly she shook her head and looked up at me, her little oil-drop eyes, usually so bright and cheerful, now dull with pain and shining with tears that dampened her cheeks and matted her fur. “I-I dunno what's wrong with me, Papa,” she sighed quietly. “I woke up an' all of a sudden I just felt so... so lonely, like I was the only person left in the world.”
Clutching her to my chest, I murmured, “Lucy, you have to tell me what's wrong. It kills me to see you so sad, little one, please tell me what's going on.”
Lucy sniffled and looked away, “I-I can't, Papa, I promised... Cassie, she-she made me promise.”
I gritted my teeth, fuming. So I'd been right all along; this little Cassie was behind it all. Fighting to maintain my calm, I held my baby tighter and said, “It's alright, Luce, you can tell Daddy. I promise we'll work this out. Whatever Cassie threatened to do to you if you didn't keep quiet, Miss Ellie and I will beat her to it. I promise she can't hurt you anymore, little one. Now tell me, what's she doing to you?”
Lucy let out a long, heavy sigh before mopping her eyes on my nightshirt and whimpering quietly, “She-she calls me names, mean ones like slorg-brain an' dung breath an' stuff, an'-an' she always takes the toys I'm playin' with, even if she don't wanna play with 'em herself. An' she makes me give her my snack at snack time, an' my blanket at nap time, says she gets cold easy so I should share. But Papa, I-I don't like sharing with Cassie. She's mean.”
I felt a large lump forming in my throat and my eyes welling with tears as I thought of the abuse my baby girl was suffering. “How-how long has she been doing this to you, little one?” I choked, hardly daring to listen to the answer.
“Almost two weeks,” Lucy replied softly.
At that I felt the last of my resolve dissolving. It was my turn to cry now as I cradled her and sobbed, “Oh, Lucy, why didn't you tell me before? You know you can always tell me anything, sweetheart. Why didn't you tell me she was doing this to you?” I think she spoke, but I didn't hear what it was she said.
Eventually she wriggled her way free of my suffocating hug and squeezed Twinkle round the neck worriedly. “Papa,” she said anxiously. “Papa, why are you crying?”
Regaining control as best I could, I wiped my eyes on my bedsheet and sighed. “I'm sorry, Luce, I didn't mean to scare you. Daddy just doesn't like the idea of anyone hurting his babies, that's all. I'm fine now.” Beckoning her closer, I hugged her again as she crawled into my arms. “We'll get this all sorted out tomorrow okay? I promise.”
Lucy didn't respond, but she still looked frightened.
Early the next morning, I awoke to my boys' cries in much the same position as I had fallen asleep last night; duvet covering nothing above my knees, Lucy curled up on my chest, snuggling Twinkle as she slept. I shifted her gently onto the mattress beside me as I rose to start the day, and she mumbled sleepily then blinked awake and sat up slowly. I scooped her up and carried her back down the hall to the kids' room and put her on the floor as I hoisted Shasta, then Tyto, then Danby out of their cots. They glanced first at Lucy, then at me with worry and concern, but nobody said anything as I unzipped onesies one by one.
I watched my kids nervously from behind my mug of mint Borovan at breakfast that morning; they all seemed far more interested in their baby food than in talking with each other, and I was on the verge of saying something to assuage their fears when I happened to glance down at my watch and saw how late it was. Standing up quickly, I grabbed the sponge from the sink and went around the kitchen table, hurriedly mopping up spilled mush as I went. “Come on, guys,” I said as I grabbed my jacket off the back of my chair. “We're gonna be late. Let's go.”
One by one Lucy, Danby, and Tyto slid from their chairs and made their way to the front door, but Shasta remained where he was, a look of fear mingled with uncertain defiance on his face.
“Come on, Shas,” I repeated, “We don't have much time.”
But Shasta remained where he was. “I-I don't wanna go to school,” he said with as much authority as he could muster.
“Don't be silly, little one, I don't have time today.” Any other day I might have listened more closely.
“I don't wanna go to school today!” he said more firmly, but with a waver in his voice like he was going to start crying, a waver I didn't catch until it was too late.
“Shasta, you come here now or I'm going to carry you,” I stated with finality. I turned to open the door, and suddenly heard an outburst of noise behind me. Shasta had thrown himself off his chair and onto the hard linoleum tiling. He was wailing and crying as loud as he could, pounding all four paws hard against the floor. “I don'-I don'-I don' wanna-I don' wanna go!” he screamed.
I was horrified; my kids never threw tantrums, especially not ones of this magnitude! Closing the door again, I told my other three to stay put and strode quickly back to the kitchen where Shasta was losing himself to whatever inexplicable emotion had suddenly possessed him.
Sitting down on the floor, I picked him up and held his forepaws firmly against his sides as he continued to thrum his hind legs forcefully on the ground, howling like a banshee and thrusting his head back in an effort to shake me loose. Eventually the storm passed, and Shasta lay limply against my chest, crying weakly. “Shas,” I said gently, in a voice bordering on a whisper, “Shas, what happened? What's the matter? What happened at
school to make you act like this about it?”
Shasta, his throat sore from screaming, whimpered hoarsely, “Somethin' real bad's been happenin' to Lucy, only she won't say what, a-an' I'm scared. I don't want that happenin' to me.”
Guilt enveloped me almost as quickly as the anger and fear had enveloped Shasta. It was all my fault; if I'd only been open with my kids from the beginning, instead of trying to hide Lucy's troubles from them like this, we wouldn't be in this mess, and Shasta wouldn't be hating a place he previously loved.
I hugged him tightly. “Oh, Shasta,” I sighed, trying to swallow the lump the guilt had forced to my throat. “I'm so sorry, little one, I didn't realise how scared I'd been making you. I should have told you before. Lucy's been getting bullied by some other kids at school; that's why she's been acting differently lately, but I told her that today we're going to fix things, so those mean kids can't hurt her, or anyone else anymore. I promise, Shas, your school is as safe as it ever was. Nothing's going to happen to you there.”
Shasta looked up at me, tears still filming his enormous yellow eyes. “Really?” he asked uncertainly.
“Really,” I whispered, still feeling terrible.
Shasta thought long and hard for several minutes, and glanced back a few times at his siblings who stood huddled together on the welcome mat by the front door. Finally he looked at me and sighed. “Okay, I-I guess I'll go then.”
I smiled and squeezed him as I rose slowly from the floor. “That's my boy,” I murmured.
In the end we arrived half an hour late for school, and I had to wait a few minutes while Ellie wrapped up morning circle time to speak to her about Lucy, who hadn't let go of my leg since we arrived. Soon enough, though, Ellie got a free moment to ask why I was loitering, and I related to her all of last night's events, and some of this morning's. She thanked me for bringing it to her attention and assured me that together we'd keep a close eye on things.
Indeed, I spent most of the morning watching the day's activities from my corner, the same one, I noted, that I had spent my kids' first morning of school in many months before. From my spot I kept a close eye on Lucy, and the other eye on Cassie, who seemed for the most part to be keeping much to her own corner of the room with her little friends, Mojo and Kiki, the pets Lucy had mentioned from her dream two nights before. When the kids went outside for outdoor playtime, I followed them surreptitiously, keeping behind Ellie but not losing sight of Lucy.
Before I even sat down on the rock wall by the swings, I spotted Lucy getting up from the wooden sandbox in the yard and disappearing behind the other side of the school, followed closely by Cassie, Mojo, and Kiki. Before she disappeared, I caught a glimpse of her face; she looked frightened.
I moseyed along the edge of the flower garden until I stood just out of sight of the kids, and listened to their conversation.
The first voice I heard was high and a little squeaky. That must be Cassie, I surmised. She sneered, “Hey, Lucy, that's a nice Faerieland spade you got there. Wanna give it to me?”
Then I heard Lucy, her voice was soft, but I could still hear it shaking. She was scared. “B-but I'm playin' with it right now, Cassie. You can use it when I'm done.”
Then a third voice that sounded muffled. I remembered that Lucy said Kiki never went anywhere without his green dummy, and indeed, I'd seen him disappear with it in his mouth a few moments before. “But Lucy,” he said, “You don' wan' me an' Cassie to tell Missh Ellie you weren' sharin', woul' you?”
“Yeah,” Cassie threw in. “'Sides, you know the rules, if you tattle on us to the teacher, we'll jus' say you're makin' it up, then I'll have to tell her you pushed me down, an' 'cause there's three of us, an' only one of you, she's gonna believe us.”
My blood boiling, I gritted my teeth and tried to rein in my fury and decided I'd heard all I needed to before rounding the corner and stepping in. “Well, here's your problem, Cassie,” I said authoritatively and trying to hide my smile as Lucy lit up and clung to my leg, “Miss Ellie might not believe Lucy when she tells her what you three have been up to, but she will believe me. You're not going to bully the kids on this playground anymore.” With that, I turned on my heel and smiled triumphantly as I strode across the playground towards the nursery school teacher, Lucy skipping along joyfully at my heels. I relayed to Ellie all that I'd heard, and pointed in the direction that the miscreants were now hiding.
Ellie didn't speak, but patted me once on the shoulder as she passed on her way to sort them out. I knew Lucy wouldn't be getting any trouble from them for a while to come.
I smiled as I went to bed that night knowing the storm was finally over. I had my bouncy, joyful little Kacheek back, and the world was as it should be. I had to laugh out loud as I remembered what Lucy had said to me that afternoon after school was over. She'd looked at me pointedly with those heart-melting eyes of hers and said, smiling for the first time in days, “Papa, we better wake up early tomorrow. We don't wanna be late for school.”
My fourth submission, hope you enjoyed it!