There’s a look Dallas gets on his face when he’s about to lose his shit. His lip curls, his eyeballs shake inside their sockets, and it makes you wonder: is this really a four-year-old boy and not some Antichrist birthed from a jackal and hidden amongst human children with the aim of mankind’s eventual destruction?
I used to feel guilty for thinking things like that. I’ve been working at the daycare long enough now.
As I sweep up after snack time, making piles of muffin crumbs and Nutri-Grain wrappers, I watch him squat in the corner and crash a toy car along a plastic racetrack. He’s a pudgy kid with a buzz cut and a stud sparkling in each earlobe. Cute, when seen from a safe distance.
A freckly, pigtailed child named Lola takes another car, T-bones it into Dallas’s, and unleashes a throaty cackle. Fucking Lola.
I call out to a co-worker on the other side of the room: “Ms. Maria? Ms. Maria.”
But she is busy overseeing the doorless bathroom, where three boys are peeing into the low toilet at once.
I abandon my broom. Dallas is about to go medieval on Lola’s ass—I can tell by the way his nostrils are fluttering—and he’s only got one strike left before they kick him out for good.
I try to run, but something weighs me down.
Another child has curled her limbs around my right leg, chewing at the hem of my jean shorts with her nubby wet teeth.
I trudge on, taking the chimp with me, swinging my legs over green play tunnels and tiny plastic chairs. Almost there, almost there, almost th—
Lola has snatched the toy car out of Dallas’s hand, and oh Jesus, there it is: The Look.
Without a word, Dallas rises, winding his leg back, and kicks Lola square in the gut. She crumples. Cars fly. Dallas clamps his jaws around the forearm of another child, an innocent bystander. He releases this kid and smacks another across the face. Screams coil up into the air.
The extra weight drops from my leg. Ms. Maria’s voice bustles at my back as she starts the evacuation procedure: “Into the hall, into the hall, everyone into the hall.”
Dallas lunges at another child, a girl in a Paw Patrol dress.
I dive between them. “You’re not safe, Dallas.”
He growls—actually growls. Pain splits me open before his foot even meets my shin. Gritting my teeth, I crush him against me and guide him down to the floor. He thrashes, knocking his head into my chest.
“I’m going to hold you.” I sit behind him and hold his wrists with his arms pinned across his body, just as I’ve been taught.
I’m quitting soon. I’m quitting because they’re too much: the whiny kids, the weepy kids, the kids who wail when their crayons break, the kids who whip their juice boxes at my head, the kids who puke all over the floor, the kids who can’t get their own shoes on. There’s no peace until I grab my little man, Sweet B, from the toddler room and walk out at the end of my shift with ninety dollars in my pocket, a measly ninety dollars I’ll put toward Pull-Ups and packets of applesauce and, if there’s anything left over, my uni fund, because I’m not doing this forever, no way, and I won’t live with Mama forever, neither. I’m going to work in an office one day, a nice, quiet office where no one is screaming or shitting themselves.
I wouldn’t be working here at all if it hadn’t been for grad night in the back of Nolan’s Corolla.
His voice in my ear: “I forgot to bring it.”
“It’s just one time,” I said. “What are the odds?”
The only thing worse than the fact that it happened is how cliché it all was.
I don’t use words with Dallas. Words are like tinder. They smolder at the edges and catch fire, burning him twice as hot.
“Let me go,” he says, but I can’t, of course. He’s still kicking, writhing, and if I let him free, he’ll clock me and run for the door. I’m supposed to hold him like this until he de-escalates, to borrow the phrase from his IEP.
“I want to be alone,” he says.
I believe him. I also want to be alone.
“Daddy says I’m crazy, but I’m not.”
That one catches me off-guard. “Daddy says what?”
“I’m.” He wriggles. “Not.” Frees one arm. “Crazy.” Aims his elbow at my nose.
A bomb detonates in my sinuses. I scramble to pin his loose arm again, clawing my fingers around his wrist.
“I don’t think you’re crazy.”
“I w-want M-Mommy.”
“I know, pal.”
Dallas shakes and drips. “ ‘Step on a crack, break Mommy’s back. Step on a crack, break Mommy’s back.’ ”
He always mutters this to himself when he’s upset. Usually, I give my head a shake and try not to think about it too hard. Kids are just weird sometimes.
“ ‘Step on a crack—”
“—break Mommy’s back.’ I know, buddy. I know.”
He starts to scream.
“You’re not giving me space.”
I do feel like a bad person when he says things like that.
I could be a waitress like my friend Amber. Sure, she has to wear high-heels and deal with pervs, but it doesn’t sound too bad, all-in-all. Childcare might pose a problem, though. If I left the daycare, I would lose my employee discount. Maybe I could bring Sweet B to work with me? You know, keep him in a playpen in the kitchen? I don’t know.
Amber spends her waitressing money on White Claws from Liquor Depot and crop-tops from Aritzia and vacations in the Dominican. Amber gets to do all kinds of things because Amber isn’t a fucking idiot.
The screaming has broken my brain. Neurons stutter and misfire. Synapses sputter and fizz. “You’ll see Mommy in”—I crane my neck for a glimpse of the wall clock—“three and a half more hours.” Just three and a half more hours, and this kid will be out of my sight. That is, until the biting, blistering, Sisyphean punishment that is tomorrow.
“No, I won’t.” Dallas kicks his heels into the ground.
A white blade of sunlight falls through the window and across my eyes. I scrunch them closed, but the light slices through. “Why not?”
“Where did she go?” I ask, really, really hoping she isn’t dead. Now that I think about it, it’s been a hot minute since I’ve seen Dallas’s mom. His dad has been doing drop-off and pick-up lately, which is too bad because his mom sometimes brings us cupcakes.
“She moved away,” Dallas says.
“That’s…” I don’t know what to say. Dallas’s mom never struck me as the cut-and-run type. Something about the feathered bangs.
Occasionally—occasionally—I think about leaving. I imagine what it would be like, where I would go. A hotel, probably. Not an expensive one, just somewhere clean, with white sheets and a little coffee maker all to myself. No one to feed, no one to soothe, no one to wake me up in the middle of the night.
I try again. “You seem sad.”
He makes a pouty noise.
“It’s sad when people leave us.”
He makes the noise again, but he’s stopped crying, so that’s something.
“I would be sad, too.”
His hair smells like green apples, which is encouraging. It means someone still takes the time to give him baths.
I never imagined myself having an important career. I wasn’t one of those kids who wanted to become Prime Minister, but I did think I would grow up to do something marginally interesting. I knew I didn’t want to be a hairdresser like Mama, stooping over people day and night, my fingers soaking in dyes and soaps until my skin bleeds and my nails begin to crack.
I think about that sometimes when I’m washing Sweet B.
“Lucky thing you’re so cute,” I said to him the other night as I lathered shampoo in his scruff of black hair.
He splashed the water and smiled.
The clock insists we’ve been hunched here for only twenty minutes. The pain in my back disagrees. I start to sing “When You Wish Upon a Star”—more for me than him.
“Stop,” he shouts. “Stop singing. That’s Mommy’s song.” I stop, and his body softens into mine. His muscles must be tired.
“Do you know what my mom used to sing to me when I was little?” I’ve come a bit unhinged by this point, the past and the present sloshing around inside my head.
I croon a few bars of Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again.” It brings up memories of sidewalk chalk and wearing my hair in Dutch braids and getting double scoops at that ice cream parlor with the big piano inside and the sculpture of the cow out front. That’s what a childhood should be, what it could be, right there.
“Do you know that song?” I’m not sure why I ask. Of course he doesn’t know it. He’s four.
“Sing it some more.”
We sway together as I sing. He is quiet until my voice cracks on a high note. Then he laughs—right from the belly, just like Sweet B.
I try the high note again, and my voice cracks a second time. We both laugh. As swiftly as it began, it’s over.
I loosen my hold on him. “Do you want to play with the cars some more?”
He rises and totters over there without giving me an answer. He picks one of the cars off the floor with his pudgy little fingers and holds it out. To me.
The door scuffs open. It’s the director, Ms. Leah, the only one around these parts who actually owns a blazer. She has eyelash extensions and the wispy figure of someone who doesn’t eat Mr. Noodles for dinner every night. I might hate her.
“Your dad is here, Dallas.”
That’s not good. I scrabble to my feet and join her at the door. “He’s out?” I ask her.
“Third strike,” she says. “Dad wasn’t happy when I told him just now, but…” She shrugs and makes an oh well face, the same one I’m always making.
Dallas hasn’t moved. He places a car on the track and flicks it forward with one finger. “Vroom, vroom.”
“He… he’s not all bad,” I say.
Ms. Leah’s fake eyelashes twitch. “No kid is bad.”
“You say that, but you’re kicking him out.”
“We have to consider the safety of the other children.”
“His mom left. You know that?”
“Uh-huh,” is all she says.
Uh-huh. It’s not even a real word.
“Well? Doesn’t that make a difference?”
“Dallas,” Ms. Leah calls out. “Time to go.”
I definitely hate her.
Dallas sighs and puts down his cars. “Okay.”
He gathers his hat and backpack from his cubby and follows Ms. Leah into the hall, head bowed.
I take a long look around the room, with all its scattered storybooks and half-broken action figures. Its silence singes my eardrums.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, I did work in a restaurant. No one would hug me. No one would draw me cute art with fluffy trees and stick people. No one would run up to me at the start of the day and blurt, “Hi, Miss Sabrina, you’re the best, I missed you!”
So there’s that to think about, too.
Dallas’s dad is backing his minivan out of the drop-off zone when I run into the parking lot, the summer heat a slap across my face. I’ve just missed them. I won’t get to say goodbye.
I glimpse Dallas buckled into a car seat in the back, his seat facing backwards, facing me. He meets my gaze. He might smile, but I’m not sure.
I wave. He waves back.
The van lurches away in a huff of exhaust, and I am alone.
Or maybe not. Voices hop the tall vinyl fence that adjoins the daycare—children’s voices. I can hear the creak of a swingset, the whisking of tiny feet across gravel, someone whining about a scraped knee and how they need a Band-Aid. Who will get it for them if not me?
I turn to head back inside, back to my job and my kid and all the rest of it. I step over cracks in the sidewalk, over mounds of pavement where weeds have burst through, their little green fingers reaching for the sun.
Morgan Dick (she/her) is a neurodiverse writer from Calgary, Canada. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Grain, Geist, CAROUSEL, The Prairie Journal, CBC News, and The Globe and Mail. She is currently revising a novel. You can find her at morgandick.com or on Twitter @jmdwrites.