Creature from the Carpool Lane
Children are beasts. Preschool is hell. Recess rules.
My daughter and I walk up to the front doors of her preschool hand-in-hand. It's a little past 8:30 in the morning. The sun is shining, not glaring, today, and I think to myself that today will be a good day, a playground day. My daughter loves the playground. It's everything else about school she doesn't like.
"Look," she remarks, pointing up at the top of the building. We stop for a moment and I follow the trajectory of her arm to the turrets on the school's second story. "It looks like a castle," she says, giggling nervously.
"It does," I agree. "Maybe there's a princess inside. Or a dragon."
My daughter frowns humorlessly at this. "No, there isn't," she says, sounding disappointed. She turns her gaze towards the front doors again. I can feel fear beginning to build in her, traveling like a bolt from the top of her head, down her tensed shoulder, and into the little hand that grips mine.
I peer down into her face. Her brown eyes are unfocused in their worry, her mouth trembling.
"Remember what we said?" I prompt her, and she looks up at me like she's just remembered I'm there.
"Yeah," she says, with the smallest of nods.
"What are we going to do when the teacher walks up?" I ask.
She stares at the door. "Go inside," she recites. "And say goodbye."
"Very good," I say. This is the plan. This is always the plan.
Another three paces, and we're within range of Miss Naomi's territory. She pops out from the double doors like she's been motion-activated, thermometer in hand, a rehearsed smile on her face.
My daughter recoils. She looks up at me like I've tricked her somehow, even though this happens every morning.
I grip her hand and pull her forward two more halting steps. Already I can feel it happening. Her hand crumples in mine. It's not even a hand anymore. A tentacle, red as rust and as long and thick as a python, wraps around my wrist until it's circled my arm four times around. The little suction cups latch on to my skin audibly -- pop! pop! pop! -- and my daughter's whimpering turns into a growl. I don't dare turn around to see what she's turned into this time.
"Having a rough morning, are we?" Miss Naomi asks with what I know is supposed to be sympathy. She looks down at my daughter, whose voice continues to snarl and burble behind me. A leathery wing as large as a parasol flaps open behind me and whacks my head.
"Ow," I complain.
Naomi looks impressed. Still, she holds out the thermometer. She can't let my daughter in without checking her temperature.
I stagger forward another few steps. I'm just another two steps away from the vestibule now. Miss Campbell and Miss Misha are already beginning to close in, appearing one by one in the vestibule separating the school from the outside world. The paper masks over their mouths and noses draw all the more attention to the horror in their eyes as they take in my daughter's latest monstrous form.
"One second," I hear Miss Misha say. She disappears back inside and returns an instant later with something tucked under her arm. When she steps out into the sunlight next to Miss Naomi, I can see that it's a red ball.
My daughter's snarl catches in her throat. I hear her start to sniff the air. Her tentacle's grip relaxes on my arm, then slithers away. When she steps out from behind me, she is her normal, five-year-old self, her hands outstretched to the receive the ball Miss Misha has produced. It's a dodge ball. My daughter brings it up to her nose and inhales pleasurably. I imagine it smells of the playground.
We part ways, my daughter barely noticing as Miss Naomi blips the thermometer across her forehead. She's too absorbed in the ball to wave goodbye and I'm too exhausted from bedtime stories the night before to insist. I look at the clock as I climb back into my car. Only 8:40. I still have time to get coffee before work.
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