When she looked at Mrs. Keeley, Cassandra thought of soft feathers and sunshine. She liked the way the light coming through the windows in the afternoon made Mrs. Keeley’s high, smooth forehead shimmer, and she liked to study the tiny round dent just above Mrs. Keeley’s left eyebrow, a scar from the chicken pox at age ten, she had once told the class. The delicate mark reminded Cassandra of the interesting, perfect circles she made on her own arm sometimes with her crazy straw at home, pressing the tube hard into her flesh and sucking in and delighting in the little bubbles of skin left behind. Charles, the large, squat, freckled boy who sat beside her in the third row, always said that Mrs. Keeley looked as if she had been hit by a B.B. gun—pow! pow!—and in addition to his shaggy hair and musty-smelling checkered shirts, his teasing of Mrs. Keeley was plenty reason for Cassandra not to like him.
Mrs. Keeley did not walk, but glided around the classroom, long calves ending in thick-soled sandals with ribbons that wound around her ankles. Her blond hair was straight at the crown but curly and fluffy at the ends, and the way it parted in the middle then curved away from her face made Cassandra think of the wave symbol from the Ocean Spray commercials. Mrs. Keeley’s voice was like the ocean, too, Cassandra decided, because it was very hushed and soothing.
“I got new crayons.”
Charles was grinning at her, the space between his two remaining front baby teeth black and looming.
Cassandra shrugged away from a cloud of hot breath. “That’s nice,” she said.
Mrs. Keeley stopped in front of Cassandra’s row and a scent of baby powder and lemon drifted into the space. “I want you to draw love,” she said to the class, and smiled the sweetest smile that Cassandra had ever seen. “What is love to you? Is it many colors? Is it big or small, an animal or a person?” Mrs. Keeley placed one hand on her heart and then clasped the other one over it. “I want you to draw love,” she said.
Charles leaned over and poked Cassandra in the elbow. She jumped. “What?” she said.
“I got new crayons,” he insisted. “Look.”
Cassandra didn’t feel like looking. But she sighed and twisted in her seat, thinking that Charles might leave her alone if she did. And then she was glad. Her eyes widened and her heart knocked rapidly inside her ribs as she stared at the sight on Charles’s desk. There it sat, with its crisp cardboard edges and snapping tilt-back cover. The king of all Crayola collections. This enormous green and yellow box had often winked down at her from the tallest shelf in the pen-and-paper aisle at Toys-R-Us, well beyond her reach. Cassandra wet her lips as she drank in the vision of one of the most admirable possessions a child could flaunt, so expensive that her mother probably couldn’t even afford it. The numbers boomed: 64.
“Oh,” Cassandra said. Saliva seeped into the corners of her mouth as she watched Charles tip back the top to reveal row after row of fresh, gleaming, unused color. The thought of his plump, awkward fingers grabbing at these exquisite tools was unbearable to Cassandra. It wasn’t fair. He wasn’t nearly as good an artist as she was. She had surpassed stick figures with oversized heads and legs that dropped straight out of their chins, smiling dogs and stars! The thought of his fortune was heating up her whole body and she clamped her hands into fists until she felt her nails cutting into her palms. She glanced back at her own collection of thirty-measly-two.
“Remember to share your crayons and markers, class,” Mrs. Keeley said. She looked as though she should be tossing out white flowers instead of passing out white paper.
“I just wanted you to see,” Charles said, and he shifted back and forth in his creaking chair. “You must be pretty jealous, huh?”
“No,” Cassandra quipped. She looked in dismay at her favorite crayon, the tip worked down to an ugly, bumpy knob from pressing down too hard, because it was the only way to get that wonderfully pasty, solid silver color. Otherwise the color just came out a glinty gray. This dilemma Cassandra shared with many of her friends. Everybody went through the silver crayon the fastest and then had to beg his or her parents for a brand new box.
Cassandra watched Charles closely. “May please borrow your silver crayon?” she asked in a very nice voice.
His eyes peered at her. “No,” he said. “You’ll smush it.”
Cassandra shook her head and let her eyes grow large. “No, I won’t.”
“Yes, you will,” Charles said, fastening a hand over his box. “You’ll wreck it. You’ll push too hard, I know it.”
“I will not,” Cassandra said. “I want to draw a silver cape. I won’t wreck it.” She imagined drawing Mrs. Keeley with a silver cape swishing across the page as her version of love. Oh, how Mrs. Keeley would be pleased! The rest of her class would scribble silly pictures of red hearts and rainbows and puppies. Excitement pinched her belly. “Please! We’re supposed to share, you know,” she added.
Charles fingered the untouched silver and Cassandra hungered after the way it glittered. Slowly, he slid the crayon out from between its white and gray neighbors and handed it to her. She snatched it from his hand. “Thanks,” she said.
“Don’t smush it!” he ordered her.
Cassandra did not respond. Fortifying herself in serious study against the chirping and humming of her classmates, she bent her head over her flawless white easel and shook her brown hair from her shoulders so it would drape past her cheeks and conceal her project. Inching her fingertips eagerly down the crayon so she could have the best grip she could, she lowered the point to paper. First, she drew a gentle outline of the cape, which rippled and had a high, stiff collar like the Wicked Stepmother’s in Snow White. Then, she bore down harder for the color in the middle. She smushed the crayon! She did it with glee!
“Oh!” Cassandra said, and raised her head. “Oh no!” She held up the injured crayon for Charles to see. “I didn’t mean to do it! I didn’t!” She dropped the crayon on his desk. “I’m really, really, sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
The skin around Charles’s eyes wrinkled and whitened while a shade of crimson brown seeped into the rest of his puffy face. The corners of his loose mouth curled downward and wavered. Cassandra thought he looked like a hot dog. She squeezed her lips together in gratification and reached for her own damaged silver crayon, which she felt better about using, now. But something was wrong. She sensed a moistness in her left shoe and looked down.
“Mrs. Keeley!” Stephanie, the blond girl sitting behind Charles, leaped from her seat and began waving her arms. “Mrs. Keeley,” she said, cupping her hands on her hips and crinkling her nose, “Charles peed his pants again!”
Cassandra shook her left leg in horror. She had never seen a mouth so wide open in wailing. He was sure to get into trouble! Cassandra folded her arms over her paper, protecting her cape, and stared quietly at her hands while she waited for Mrs. Keeley to get mad.
“Oh, dear.” Mrs. Keeley approached Charles’s desk and touched his arm. “Oh, it’s okay, darling,” she said to him, and Cassandra scowled behind her sheath of hair. “Let me take you down to the nurse’s office.” She patted his shoulder. “Sweetheart, really. I’ll take you.”
Mrs. Keeley glided to the back of the classroom and opened the door that led to the kindergarten. She poked her head in to ask Mrs. Mullen to watch the first grade for a few minutes. The rest of the students had begun to talk and laugh. Cassandra turned her head to examine Charles’s bloated, teary face. She pushed out her lower lip at him. He didn’t even love Mrs. Keeley as much as she did, and now he would feel Mrs. Keeley’s arms around him, and hear words from her mouth that were meant solely for him! She swallowed thickly against a burning sorrow in her throat.
“Be good, class,” Mrs. Keeley said, and coaxed Charles to the door. He appeared lumpy and dark next to the teacher, who was bright and tall. Cassandra flashed Mrs. Keeley her loveliest, most agreeable smile, but Mrs. Keeley did not see her. So she took her own deformed silver crayon and mashed it into the paper, ruining the cape. Then she watched Mrs. Keeley, flowery skirt billowing and swishing with her stroll like a fresh bedsheet pinned to a clothesline in the afternoon breeze, urging a fat, shuffling Charles down the hall.
“Mrs. Mullen?” She stretched her hand toward the ceiling. “Mrs. Mullen, I don’t feel so good.” She assumed her well-practiced expression of malady. “I think I’d better go to the nurse,” she said.
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