You close your eyes and inhale deeply as the clicking tick of the clock drives another metaphorical nail into your head.
How long have you been waiting here?
Wait- no. You know how long you have been waiting here.
How much longer do you have to wait? That’s the real question.
The tick of the clock somehow seems to echo as you release a long breath and open your eyes to look at it again.
It is not the cheap thing you imagined when you pictured this place, made of cardboard with a simple plastic covering. Instead it is glass and black wood, sleek with silver roman numerals marking the edge. Somehow you didn’t expect that from the social services.
Perhaps you just had low expectations, perhaps you were fooled by the bland exterior of the building, or perhaps you watched too many TV shows as a child, with dilapidated orphanages and evil social workers.
Well, at least I guessed right on one out of the three, you muse to yourself as you think back to the phone call that had lead you here.
One day earlier...
You had just been loading up the washing machine with all your school clothes when you heard it.
*Mmm whatcha say…*
What does it say about me that a ring tone is the most exciting part of the day? You sighed.
You didn't know how soon you would be eating those words.
You threw in the last pair of paint-stained, black trousers before racing to your phone.
You paused as the soft voice on the phone asked if they had the right person.
“…Yes that’s me, who is this?"
“My name is Leanne Harper; I am the social worker assigned to the uh- child Patero Affab.”
You missed the tone in which she says ‘child’, focused entirely on the fact that a social worker was calling you about one of your old students, and that said child was Patero of all people.
What could social services want with him? His father seemed lovely, one of the nicest parents you had ever met. Oh god... you hoped this wasn’t going where you thought it was going.
“I have to inform you that Mr. Affab, Patero Affab's father, passed away the night before last in a car accident,” the woman informed you in a bland and practiced tone.
You almost dropped the phone.
“W-what? Oh my- is Patero okay? Where is he?” you asked, heart beating in your mouth like a battered war drum.
“It has been placed in an emergency foster situation. Unfortunately, we are finding it difficult to place it in a more permanent location and we cannot find any family.”
You were silent for a beat, eyes latched onto a small crack in your kitchen wall, before finally finding your voice as something occurred to you.
“Why are you calling me about this? I don't know much about, well- and I’m not his teacher any more. I only acted as a supply for his class for a month. S-shouldn’t you be-”
“The school has been informed. I am calling you concerning… a different matter.” The woman interrupted you, voice becoming more hesitant as she continued. “…the child was asked whether it knew anyone it could live with as par with our ‘connected persons’ policy. It requested you.”
…Okay. Right- huh? What?
“He wants to live with me?” you ask in a soft but incredulous voice. You knew he liked you, every time you had covered his class he had raced up to great you; his large black eyes positively sparkling as you smiled at him and returned his greeting. He always put his best effort in around you, trying to get his work done first so you could smile at him and congratulate his work ethic… But surely he had someone else that he wanted more than you- someone better and less-
The voice from the phone cut into your self-depreciating thoughts.
“If it is possible, we would like it to stay with you until a relative or a more permanent fostering position can be found. You would only be acting as a short term fosterer and you would have consistant support from the social services throughout this ordeal,”
You blinked rapidly then looked around yourself.
In the silence, the whirling, hitching hum of the old, off-white fridge seemed to scream at you; a rusted pot full of burned popcorn glared out from the kitchen sink, underneath a tower of unwashed dishes, and the smell of burned toast smoke lingered in the air along with a faint scent of mildew.
“I- I uh. Well I don’t think I would be able-”
You stopped speaking as you hear a crackle of static from the frustrated rush of breath on the other side of the phone.
“Of course… it’s fine. I’ve been hearing that a lot. Understandable really. It would be hard to place a monster. We’ll just have to place it in another emergency care until we find a better position,”
-And suddenly you heard it. You realised what you missed in your surprise at the horrific news.
She had been calling Patero ‘it’.
You felt all expression fall from your face.
“…Are you still there M-?”
You interrupted her, voice cheerful, as you expressed your deepest sympathy's for her dreadful plight and asking whether it is always so difficult with 'those monsters'.
The woman at first seemed surprised by your change of tone but soon chuckled bitterly and told you:
"Yes, but it's understandable really. Who wants a monster as a child?"
She seemed to take your silence as agreement.
“Thank you again for your time. We will attempt to place it again and will update with the sch-”
“Give me the address of your branch. I’m coming in tomorrow morning.” You tonelessly informed her.
-And so it is that you are now sitting in the appropriately named waiting room, a light frown on your face and an unopened book bent between your hands.
A voice calls your name and you eagerly stand up, tossing the bent paperback into your rucksack.
“Yes that’s me."
“Of course, please come into my office,” a woman, with a deep, unfamiliar voice and a face squashed like a bulldogs' smiles as you follow her into her cupboard of a room. On the wall there is a poster which reads ‘Hang in there’ but instead of the usual bug-eyed kitten there is a picture of a large bar of chocolate pegged onto a washing line.
You give the woman a look, eyebrows raised.
“I was told to have an inspirational poster in here. I decided to get my own,” she explains with a shrug as you both sit down. “Now what did you want to see us about?”
You nod to yourself and take a deep breath.
“I need a new social worker assigned to Patero Affab.”
You quickly decide that you were wrong on your third childhood assumption.
Not all social workers were evil, especially not Fran Loel.
She quickly became incensed as she heard what the other social worker said and how they referred to Patero.
“God, I’ve never liked that woman. It’s people like her who make this job a hundred times more difficult. I’m so sorry you had to deal with that. I’ll get on to finding a suitable replacement for her as soon as possible,”
You assess the woman’s riled up expression and sincere tone of voice.
“Can you work with Patero?” You blurt out. “I'd like to see him with someone who clearly cares for him,”
There is a moment of silence as Fran stares at you, her eyes widening faintly then narrowing as a faint blush of red crept up across her cool amber skin.
“I could say the same to you. Would you look after him? Where he is right now- well- the fosterers didn’t have much choice about taking him in and that’s hardly ideal…"
You look at your hands, teeth worrying at your already worried lips.
“That's- but I uh- I don’t know anything about raising children,” you quietly admit.
“Aren’t you a teacher?” she asks you, as par the course. You sigh loudly.
“Yeah I am, but that’s different. I can keep children in order in a classroom and I can teach them but I have no clue about living with them. My flat is a mess, I haven’t got much room, I don’t even know how to cook properly! I’d have to do a major clean up first, turn my cupboard office into a bedroom and- insurance! Do you need to insure children? I mean with doctors and everything like that. I don’t know any of it!”
Fran is staring at you with an oddly opaque expression in her eyes. You're unable to hold her gaze for long. “…I- I just don’t want to see him getting hurt any more, especially because of me.”
Fran takes a long time to respond to your word vomit, seemingly mulling over the thoughts in her head.
“It’s not ideal," she admits finally, "what with your flat not being suitable and your age but… You seem to care so much. Look at how much thought you have put into this and what is best for Patero. As for ‘insurance’ and doctors, Patero will still be classified as a ‘child in care’. He's the responsibility of the government and the social services so you won't be doing these things alone…" Fran paused, waiting until you manage to look up from your clenching hands. "... If you decide to take him in, we won’t just throw you two together straight away. First you'll attend a meeting where you’ll learn about the needs of children, then you’ll get a visit from a social worker to inspect your flat. Even when he’s- if he was living with you, we'll keep on training you…”
You bite your lip again, a strip of skin catching between your teeth and tearing. It hums with the faint sting as new skin is exposed to the stagnant air surrounding you.
“...What will happen to Patero if I don’t take him in?” You finally ask, hoping not to hear the answer you believe you'll get.
Fran starts to tell you about emergency foster care placements and you cut her off.
“What will happen to Patero?”
Fran hesitates then tells you a few possible results. You don’t like them.
She tells you to go take some time to think.
When you get home you do not think. You do not worry or ponder or consider what you have found out. At least not a first.
No, instead of all of that, you clean.
You pick up all the empty crisp packets and bottles of flat coke; you put books on shelves and sort out the bomb site that is your DVD collection; you empty your bins properly this time and finally, when you can actually see most of the floor, you crack out the hoover for the first time since you have arrived here-
Only to find it’s not working. The cord is frayed and bent at strange angles and the bottom is clogged up with thick, bristly, black hair that is most definitely not yours.
Your hands drop to your sides and you fall onto your bottom, abandoning the broken machine to the dusty carpet. You look around yourself.
Why are you cleaning? You never put this much effort into your surroundings. You know you should but you never do; it never felt worth it.
What are you trying to achieve? What is the point of this if Patero is not going to live here?
...You asked what would happen if he didn’t live with you. You didn’t like the answer…
You consider, you ponder, you worry.
And finally, you think back to the first time you met Patero.
You hadn’t met many monsters before that day. Actually, truth be told, you hadn't met any. Sometimes you saw them while out shopping or on the train and you could never decide whether it was impolite to look or to avoid looking, you felt you could never get it right but still you were so very curious about them. As was the rest of the world, especially when it came to light that they traded in pure gold coins and had magical healing abilities.
The first few months or so were very tense before those 'little facts' were discovered. You remember seeing news reports trying to paint them in a negative light as you watched the distant image of their fluffy king shuffle awkwardly in front of the cameras. You decided to turn off the TV when they started spouting off stuff about that legendary war being the monster's fault and how they may want to eat 'our children'.
Of course the news stations back-peddled on this negative approach quite quickly when some cutesy kid ambassador started telling them off for being racist and one of the monsters off in America took over Broadway- oh and because of the gold thing as well, don't forget about that.
And so it was- after a surprisingly short amount of time really- that monsters started being accepted into human society.
The key word here being 'start'.
You still saw people glaring at them on the streets, you still encountered shops and restaurants with signs reading: no dogs, no mons.
You avoided those sorts of people (as usual) and places and instead did you shopping in foreign food shops, almost smiling when you saw the people who owned them greeting the occasional monster customer with huge grins. The most regular one, a small lizard lady, seemed to be very popular in several of them you noticed.
You sometimes bumped into her when stocking up on bargain noodles. She always gave you a silent smile which was so nervous you couldn’t help but softly smile back.
Still, for all you saw these people and quietly supported them, you had never spoken a single word to one.
At least, you never did until you got called in to Harper School. Until the day you met Patero.
"I have to warn you, there's a monster in your class. Try not to yell or scream when you see them," warned the receptionist as they lead you through the brightly decorated corridors.
You quietly informed her that you wouldn't, brow furrowing at the implication but you weren't quite ready to tell off the person with a speed dial to your supply agency.
As you stepped into your class and watched the children's faces light up at the prospect of what they perceived was an easy target, you forced yourself not seek out the monster in question. There was no point though, you soon discovered, as they seemed not to be in.
Instead of focusing on this, you openly grinned at the class and told them exactly what their day was going to involve.
You made small joking comments as you read through the daily notifications and laughed with them as they obviously tried to fool you with their names on the register.
It was only when one of the boys threw a pencil at you that the smile drained off your face, leaving your usual serious expression that the child was wholly unfamiliar with. The class fell silent as you quietly explained in a hushed, carrying tone how they knew what they just did was not a good thing; stating how their behaviour was not even something a five-year-old would do, challenging them to prove their age to you so you wouldn't send them down to year one and away from their friends. They tried to smirk and laugh it off but you told them straight off the bat that they were just proving you right again and they needed to grow up.
You could have heard a pin drop in the silence after that.
What you heard though was not a pin, but the clatter of the door banging into the wall as a child all but threw himself into the classroom.
"I'm so so sorry I'm late Mr Dane! My bag was- I couldn't find my bag and I- I- you're not Mr Dane..."
The children around you sniggered and the moment of silence was ruined. Oh how tempting it would have been to yell at the boy who may have just shattered the tenuous control you had just built up with the class.
But you didn't. You're not that sort of person.
You stood up and looked at him properly, hesitating for a moment as you took in his appearance.
He was covered in silky, sandy- brown fur; a thick shock of lighter toned- almost blond- fur crowned his head with two earth-brown, floppy ears framing his face. He was very tall for his age, standing at just a foot shorter than you.
Two wide, jet black eyes were gazing at you and there was a tremor to his square jaw as he took in your expression, unfortunately frozen in 'telling off' mode. You felt the other children's eyes snap onto you, eagerly awaiting your response.
You turned back to child you were telling off before.
"Let's see how you improve as the day goes on. Remember what will happen if you do not,"
You then faced the new child who looked very much like he wanted the floor to swallow him up whole.
"You're right, I’m not Mr Dane. He’s off ill so you have the pleasure of learning with me for today. I take it you are my missing student; what's your name?" you asked with a quiet smile.
He blinked twice, his dark eyes bugging slightly before he awkwardly looks down at his paws.
"Uh- yeah. I'm Patero,"
"Cool name," you told him. "You're not too late but make sure you don't make a habit of this, go take a seat,"
Patero shuffled to one of the spare seats with a peculiar expression on his face.
It's a little hard to tell but you think he's confused... Or maybe worried.
You mentally shrugged and brought up the maths PowerPoint on the whiteboard.
"Right class, today you have the amazing pleasure of learning about fractions with me. You may be asking yourself why this is, in fact, a pleasure. I can see by your face at the front you are saying just that, yes don't think I can't see you whispering. (Eyes to the front… good). Well let's find out together exactly why I'm saying its going to be so fun!"
And so went the lesson. You got the children to count pencils, pens and rubbers around the classroom, telling you what the denominator would be and then finding the numerator of each colour, size and working or broken piece of equipment.
The children slowly started to warm up to you, eagerly calling their garbled version of your name each time you passed them so that they could show you the new fraction they found. You smiled and nodded and occasionally clapped your hands with excitement when they told you something new they had discovered.
When you got to Patero, you saw that he was working by himself, fiddling with the pencils in his hands, and watching you warily from the corner of his midnight eyes.
You sat down in the spare space next to him and looked at the pencils clenched in his paw.
He didn’t look at you so you gently took the pencils from him and asked what the denominator was.
"...Dunno," he mumbled softly, looking at his own hands instead.
You told him it was ten, then asked him why.
"...Coz there's ten pencils."
"What's the numerator then?" You asked.
"You're not making sense. The numerator for what?" He asked, fur on his brow crinkling as his dark eyes flashed briefly to yours.
You genuinely smiled at him for that and told him well done, that he spotted the trick question. The corner of his mouth twitched.
You changed your question and asked what the fraction was for the red pencils.
"It's two tenths because there are two red ones out of ten pencils," he told you, taking them from your hands and looking at you briefly, faltering when he saw your massive grin.
"Brilliant! Now I want you to find the fraction of whole rubbers on this table and the fraction of broken rulers. I'll be back in a few minutes for you to tell me what you find out,"
He smiled properly at that for the first time, sharp needle-like teeth flashing bright, as he nodded determinately to himself and started counting.
In English he was one of the first children to put up his hand every time you asked a question about similes, he tried telling you jokes about the lesson (my dad once went on a date with a simile, I don' know what he metaphor. Get it? Coz similes are like metaphors and- oh was that one?) and at lunch time he was the last to leave, quietly asking if there was anything he could help you with.
He was- and is- in a word: adorable.
You found it much harder to get on with the other teachers in the school in comparison. They all seemed pleasant enough but you were a stranger and they had a lot on their own plates.
You ate your slightly stale sandwiches alone in the corner of the over-crowded staffroom, not drinking anything because you forgot to bring a mug and this was one of those schools where riots occurred over 'stolen' crockery. You could tell by the fact that every mug had a label on it and the way that certain teachers glowered at each other while aggressively drinking their scalding tea.
*Sigh* you sometimes wonder who the real children in schools are.
There was one person you did get on okay with and, in a strange twist of events, it turned out to be the deputy head.
She came in, full of tight shiny smiles, asking how your morning was. Nonplussed, you put on your professional face and told her it was good; that the class seemed to have warmed up to you and that you've had no major behavioral problems after the first lesson.
"And how did you get on with our special little boy?" She asked in a hushed, conspiratorial voice.
Your mind drew a blank for a moment.
"Uh- who is that?"
"Was Patero not in today?" She asked with a disappointed sigh.
"Oh, him? He was fine. Actually he was really nice; he kept on trying to tell me knock knock jokes in literacy."
There was a beat of silence as the woman's lips pursed into a little 'o' of surprise, then she grinned from ear to ear.
"Yeah he's really great isn't he. That one has the cutest laugh I've ever heard."
Your lips twitched faintly upward as you whole heartedly agreed.
A week later, that same school requested for you to cover again but on a more regular period.
It turned out that Mr Dane had some sort of back troubles so he was working on a more part time basis to try to reduce stress. Which is where you came in, much to you and your bank account's delight.
Of course you now had to put much more effort into keeping the children in line over a longer period of time.
You couldn't laugh off every attempt to trick you or ignore those little attempts to get away with murder, as children are sometimes inclined to try. There were only a few children who really tried to push your boundaries in the first month.
Patero was never one of them.
You feel bad about it as a "professional" but you've always had a habit of having favourites. You're good about it though, you don't play favourites and you never let it stop you from treating everyone equally. But you did catch yourself occasionally smiling a little wider when you met his eye and sometimes you had to stop yourself from spending a little longer helping him out rather than the others.
...Maybe that's why it affected you so badly when you found out about the bullying.
You should have seen the signs earlier really (you still feel sick that you didn't). He often came in late, with untidy clothes, scrabbling around with all his things. You had just wondered why he took them out of his bag before he came into the classroom.
Some of the children would snigger and whisper things to each other each time this happened.
And each time you would tell them to knock it off while gently chiding Patero for being late.
You never had playground duty (being a supply teacher) so you never saw how Patero often sat on a bench by himself, how sometimes he would hide in the bathroom or what sometimes happened when he didn't hide.
And you never do find out everything that happened during that time.
You did know all about the bloody parents however, you took the children out to go home every day after all. They often shielded their children away when Patero or his Dad came out and you knew he noticed it. He's a smart kid.
There really wasn't much you could do about all this though, apart from reporting it to the school and they didn't really do much about it. However this didn't stop you from standing next to Patero, giving a fierce 'disapproving teacher' look to all who looked at him funny.
You remember first becoming suspicious of problems within the school just after a month in, when you saw the wad of chewing gum meshed into his fur.
You stopped him as he was rushing away and took him to your classroom, where you got a comb and a small tub of Vaseline and started to gently work it out.
You asked him how that happened.
"I- it was a game- an accident."
Alarm bells started to ring softly in your head.
"A game?" You quietly asked.
"Y-yeah. Like tag. This sort of thing's normal in that game... right?"
"...Normal is a made up word Patero, used by people who are scared of things that are different. This... isn't what most people would call 'normal' though, nor is it right,"
The boy stilled under your hands and turned to look at you with wide, frozen eyes.
You bit your lip.
"Knock knock," Patero interrupted you with a desperate smile.
"...who's there?" You asked, gently bringing your comb through his matted but beautiful fur.
"Canoe help me with my homework?"
"No, do it yourself," you chuckled
The rest of that lunch break was taken up with you listening to his knock knock jokes.
You couldn't get all the gum out.
You found it difficult to sleep that night with the growing sound of alarm bells. You stared up at the dusty artex ceiling and finally, after finding every single face and odd shape in the mass of lines and crevices above you, you made your decision to find out what was going on.
You didn't like what you found.
"Boys are always like that! They love a bit of rough and tumble,"
"Well, have you seen his teeth?"
"I've told you before: the deputy is too busy for stuff like this, get back to your class."
"Huh, who? Oh you mean the monster?"
"I'm not giving you a safeguarding form for something as small as that. He's fine, he's always smiling isn't he?"
"What did you expect? He's different, children are always gonna pick up on that."
You decided enough was enough.
You taught your class about Ruby Bridges. You taught them about the struggle to create non-segregated schools. You taught them about the tests that were purposefully made too hard for the children to be sent to these schools. You taught them about the six children who passed it and how Ruby ended up alone in her school.
Then you showed them a video about what happened next.
You couldn't teach or show them everything. They are young and your purpose wasn't to upset them.
Some of them end up getting upset anyway. There were mixed reactions from the children. Some of them became angry, asking why people would say or do things like that. Some tried to laugh it off, only to fall silent as the video progressed. Others were just contemplative. But every child was riveted and listening. Every single one of them wrote that letter to that six-year-old Ruby, offering her advice and encouragement, telling her that she was doing something good. Telling her that she wasn't alone.
At the end you asked the children to think of who they would be helping in that time, the mob or Ruby.
They told you they would be with Ruby obviously, what a stupid question.
You then asked them to silently think of something important: if the same thing was happening today, who would they help? Would they be brave enough to stand against so many?
The bell rang as they sat in silence and you sent them home.
The next day five parents would complain, dragging their flushing and confused children in their wake as they stormed into the school. Even more phoned in as you started to more obviously promote understanding and good relationships between Monsters and humans. Some angry conversations would happen, letters sent in and, in the end, the head teacher would decide you were not worth the effort.
He didn't complain about you or let anyone know the real reason he stopped employing you (he wouldn't want the hassle of you calling in support from your teacher’s union) he simply said the school had no more need of you...
It spread though, the distorted version of the real reason. Things like that do. You found it harder and harder to get jobs in good schools, sometimes having weeks without jobs and without pay. Only the desperate would now take you, the schools in which teachers would often be off ill from stress or just off with no reasons given.
But in that moment, in that classroom, you didn't know you would be loosing your job. You didn't know any of what was to come. All you knew was that the children had listened, and maybe- just maybe- you were starting to make a difference.
You turned to see Patero come up to you, an elated expression on his face and a paw scratching nervously at one of his floppy ears.
"... Can I really send my letter to her?"
You blink several times, coming back to the present.
Your eyes fall on the broken vacuum-cleaner on the floor, then the move to your own hands. They are clenched into fists.
You have made your decision.
You go out and buy a new hoover.