Abigail complained of an unhappy tummy, so Nurse Candace pulled a Lifesaver’s mint from the pocket of her scrubs. She dusted off the plastic wrap and handed the candy to the second grader.
“Thank you,” Abigail sang.
“You’re welcome sweetie,” Nurse Candace said as she offered a quick hug, then returned her hands to their pockets, her thumbs jutting out like sentinels protecting a keep.
Christopher was next in line. The sixth grader fell on the playground after diving for an errant football. He was awarded with a band aid on his skinned knee and a high-five. Tears and Band Aids. They were as common in her school as ABC’s, back-packs, and untied shoe laces, and as common as weekly visits from Josh, the Headache Factory. Every time his teacher assigned a math quiz, Josh discovered a new pain between his ears and Nurse Candace discovered a new pain elsewhere. She handed the fourth grader some water in a flimsy paper cone and a tic-tac disguised as an aspirin. Two years right out of nursing school and so far, Candace Gentry RN handled every crisis with the precision and determination of a battlefield commander.
“Lie down and rest for ten minutes,” she said to Josh. “And no wandering around.”
“Yes ma’am.” Josh sipped his water and lay on the vinyl cot. But the boy didn’t sleep. Instead, he rolled side-to-side, playing the don’t-fall-in-the-hot-lava game. After he got bored with that, he gave himself an eye exam from the poster nearby. After giving himself an A+, he moved to the “Scary Poster Game.” He sang the series of safety posters, starting at The Dangers of Head Lice, then moving on to the Dangers of Germs from an Uncovered Sneeze, finally the Dangers of Pink Eye. He stopped at the poster that read “It Shouldn’t Hurt To Be A Kid,” because it was too scary and boring and it didn’t have any funny pictures on it, just phone numbers. When Josh got up to roam around the office in search of cotton balls, Nurse Candace fired a look that sent the boy back to his cot. Six more minutes before his “nap” was done.
The door opened and another boy entered. This child wore a dull expression and his eyes seemed unfocused, most likely from the ping pong ball-sized knot above his right eye. The newcomer sat on the edge of the cot occupied by Josh, who sat up and said, “Hello.”
“What’s your name,” Candace asked. She stood in front of the boy, but he turned his back on the nurse and Josh. Candace said, “Good thing I don’t get hurt that easy.”
“Me too,” Josh said.
“Three minutes to go before nap time is over, young man.” She turned to the latest visitor and asked, “What’s that on your face?”
The new boy answered, “A bite.”
“It looks more like a bump. Are you going to let me see it?”
The boy shook his head.
“How am I going to treat you if you keep hiding your head like a silly ostrich?”
“I’m not no ossrick.”
“I’m an ostrich,” Josh said as he stepped off the cot, knelt down, folded his arms bird-style and lay his head on the tiled floor. “Someone pull my head out.”
“Sit down, Josh.” She knelt in front of the boy, his hands now covering his face. “What’s your name honey?”
“George,” Josh answered, now on the cot. “His name is George. He’s new. He doesn’t know it yet but we’re gonna be friends.”
“I see,” Nurse Candace said as she rose to her feet and crossed to the refrigerator/freezer for an ice pack. When she returned, she gently placed the bag over the bump. “Keep this on your head. George, it certainly is nice to meet you.”
George mumbled between the fingers of his free hand, “Nice to meet you.”
“Are you boys in the same class?” Candace asked. By this time, Josh had sat next to his future best friend and wrapped his arm around George’s shoulders.
“I’m Josh. You should invite me over.”
Nurse Candace heard sniffling and George’s hands oozed with a mix of tears and snot. She said to Josh, “Time’s up. Return to your class so you can take that math quiz.”
“Aww. Can I stay and help George?”
Candace reached into her pocket and pulled out a package of Saltine crackers. She handed them to Josh and kicked him out of her office. On his way out the door, Nurse Candace stopped Josh for a private meeting.
“Did you see George get hurt this morning?”
She held a finger to her lips and whispered, “Did you see George get hurt this morning, on the playground?”
“Nope.” Josh tore into the cracker package.
“Did you even see him this morning?”
“Yup.” Crumbs tumbled from his mouth and landed on his already filthy t-shirt.
“Was he hurt then?”
“I guess so. Can I go now?”
Nurse Candace excused Josh, took a deep breath, and returned to George. By now, his tears had dried up and color had returned to his face. He stared at Candace’s stethoscope. She removed it from her neck and breast pocket and handed it to George. “You can examine it but it’s not a toy.”
“I know,” George said, one hand on the ice pack, the other fidgeting with the stethoscope.
“Let me help you with that.” Candace took control of the ice bag. “You want to hear a secret? That stethoscope can read minds, you know that?”
George curled his mouth into a smirk.
“Oh yes it can, but the foolish thing is right only about fifty percent of the time. It told me that you got bitten by a baseball. Isn’t that the silliest thing you ever heard of? A baseball?”
“Now the silly old fool tells me it was a rock. Of all things, a rock. Isn’t that the-”
“It was a dragon.” George dropped the stethoscope on her lap.
“I see.” She reached for his hand and clutched it, but her grip was too tight.
“Oww,” George said. “That hurts.”
She let go. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. You didn’t mean it.”
Nurse Candace removed the ice bag from his head. “I shouldn’t have done that,” she said, more to herself. “You need more ice.” She dumped the perfectly good ice into the sink and crossed to the refrigerator/freezer to refill the bag. She returned to George, sat in front of him, and set the ice bag on his head, only to stand up immediately and cross to her desk. She opened the desk drawer but she stopped, shook her head, and told herself to concentrate.
“Should I go back to class?” George asked, holding the freshly-filled ice bag on his lap.
“Miss Jennings needs me.”
“Right,” Candace said, focusing on the task at hand. She crossed back to George and pulled the privacy curtain around them, then sat right next to him. “Miss Jennings. Is she your princess?”
“She’s my teacher.”
“And she needs you. Is there someone at home who needs you? Do you have a princess at home?”
“I see. Do you protect her from the dragon?”
“And did the dragon bite you this morning?”
“It was last night.”
“I see. Well, you are a brave knight to-”
“What’s a dunce? Is that like a bully?”
“Who called you that? Your father? Your stepdad? You mother’s boyfriend?”
George shook his head.
“Did the dragon call you that?”
George nodded. “What’s a village retard? Isn’t that a stupid person?”
“Absolutely not. Look at me.” Candace held his cheek. “You’re not stupid.”
“She says he’s going to lock us up in the dungeon. She says we’re never going to get out.”
Nurse Candace put her hands on his shoulders to calm him down, but it didn’t help and George continued. “She says we’re going to die in there,” George tucked his legs into a ball. “She says-” He began to rock back and forth. “She says-” He began to pound his knees, then moved up to his head. “I’m a stupid. I’m a stupid. I’m a stupid.”
Candace stopped him with a hug.
“Let me go!” The ice bag fell to the floor and scattered its contents.
Candace let go and George flung open the curtain and ran out the door. Two school secretaries rushed into the nurse’s office, followed by the assistant principal, who left the nurse’s office to search for George. The secretaries returned to their posts and the nurse’s office became empty and silent.
After picking up the ice and wiping the floor, Nurse Candace returned to the desk and sat down. The desk drawer stuck out like an omen. She reached into the drawer for the hanging file tagged “Confidential,” and removed the file labeled “CPA.” She opened the file, pulled out a form, and set it on her desk. She stared at those bold black letters until they became clear and she could understand their meaning. “Child Protective Agency, Incident Report.” She scanned and rescanned the form for a hotline number until she found the red swollen numbers at the bottom of the form, the same numbers that matched the red and white sticker at the base of the work phone on her desk and the same numbers on the bottom of the poster.
She began to fill out the form, managed to complete “George” when she had to stop because her hand was trembling. She picked up the phone and punched the first number of the hotline, but her hand still shook and she hung up. She felt stupid. Stupid that she couldn’t calm the boy down, stupid that she had forgotten about the sticker on the phone, stupid that she touched the boy when all her training and workshops and district policy told her not to touch the children. Stupid.
Joseph Schwartz is a husband, parent, bulldog owner, teacher of English in the public square, and author of the supernatural thriller, The Crossover Test, which is available on Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble.