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An Excerpt: Master Class by Christina Dalcher
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
April 2020
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
April 2020

This excerpt was taken from Master Class by Christina Dalcher, this month's guest editor, available April 21, 2020.

TWO

There are nine alarms in my house now. One next to my bed set for five o’clock, one that chirps an hour before Anne’s school bus arrives, three more to mark the final thirty minutes, fifteen minutes, and seven minutes. Same for Freddie’s bus, which shows up slightly later. Nine pings and pops and chimes, five days a week. I feel like I’m on a goddamned game show.

All so my daughters don’t miss their ride to school.

When I was a girl, my mother would call up the stairs. Her voice walked the fine line between gentle and firm as she spoke my name, spurring me on to get up, get dressed, get ready. I still failed to reach the bus stop on some days, only arriving just in time to watch it turn the corner, see the red taillights disappear in the morning fog. Every‑ one missed a bus now and then. No big deal.

There weren’t incentives to make sure you got on the bus—the right bus. Not back then.

Malcolm’s already out the door, ensconced in a bright office with some junior aide bringing him coffee and whole‑grain bagels glazed with nonfat cream cheese. He never sees his daughters, two contestants in the daily Who Won’t Make It to School on Time? show, on weekday mornings. It’s too bad, really. The prizes aren’t anything to get worked up about, but the penalties bestowed on the losers make for solid motivation.

“Freddie!” I call from the kitchen, sounding less like my mother and more like a desperate lioness with a pack of hyenas circling my cubs. “Anne!”

Her thirty‑minute warning pings while I’m spooning yogurt from a quart‑sized tub and teetering on one leg to hitch the ankle strap on my left heel. Anne pokes her head around the corner and gives it a quick, silent shake.

Freddie’s not ready, not even close. Shit.

On the second testing day of the school year, I’m running late, my daughter hasn’t shown up for breakfast, and all I can think about is the yellow bus idling up the street with the Child Catcher sitting behind the wheel.

When I was young, I had dreams of the Child Catcher from that old musical, the one with the flying car and Dick Van Dyke stumbling through a bad British accent. He lurked outside my house in predawn shadows, grease‑slicked black hair and Pinocchio nose. Waiting.

The Child Catcher wasn’t immediately scary, not when his wagon tinkled with bells and lights, or when he danced around in a Technicolor coat, or when he promised all good things and sweets to children. After all, what child shies away from bells and colors and sweet things? And you didn’t know the first time around that the wagon was really a cell with iron bars, or that the Child Catcher wore black underneath his robes, or that he would take his prey to a dark cave.

But you knew the second time you watched the movie. And the third. And all the times after that.

You knew exactly what he was waiting for.

In my early forties, I learned there’s still such a thing as the Child Catcher.

He’s old, and his hair is a blurred froth of white through the windshield of his bus, the one with Federal Schools printed in black along the sides. Instead of colored robes, he wears a plain gray uniform with the Department of Education logo embroidered on twin shoulder patches, a peace‑symbol design in three colors—silver, green, and yellow. Around it are the words Intelligentia, Perfectum, Sapientiae. Intelligence, Perfection, Wisdom. I’d know two out of three even if I didn’t speak Latin. The yellow paint on the bus—Chrome Yellow, they used to call it when it still contained lead, but it’s been National School Bus Glossy Yellow for a while now—is chipped and peeling around the fenders and the accordion door. I guess no one gives much of a shit about what the yellow buses look like. It’s not essential, given where they’re headed, or what their cargo is.

The green ones and the silver ones are always in good condition, polished to a high sheen, not a dent or scratch or mark on them. When the doors open, they slide silently and smoothly, unlike the creaking doors on the yellow bus that rumbles along our street this morning. Drivers of the green and silver buses smile as children climb aboard, dressed in uniforms advertised as Harvard Crimson and Yale Blue, even for the five‑year‑olds.

There’s something else about the yellow buses. You don’t see them every day, picking up their cargo in the early fog of morning, dropping off in that time that could only be called the after‑school show‑and‑ snack hour, that limbo when the kids are no longer temporary wards of the state but once again home and settled with their families.

The yellow buses come only once every month, always the Monday after testing day. And they don’t return in the afternoons.

They never return. Not with passengers, anyway. Also, they don’t roll into neighborhoods like ours.

If I’d kept newspaper headlines from the past ten years, they would tell the story better than I could.

Immigration Rates Climb—Projections for 2050 Dire

School Overcrowding, Teacher Shortages: Lawmakers in Standstill over Solution

Genics Institute Partners with Department of Education, Offers Expanded Q Software

Fitter Family Campaign Releases Guidelines No Child Left Behind Means All Children Suffer!

Initial Directives to Be Rolled Out in Coming Months

It started with fear, and it ended with laws.

I pour a third cup of coffee and check the clock. “Freddie! Please.” I’m careful to keep my voice low and steady, mom‑like. Anything I can do to keep her calm.

The yellow bus is idling across the street, two houses up, at the end of the Campbells’ driveway, which is strange, since Moira Campbell doesn’t have children anymore, not at home anyway, and since today is testing day. Still, across and up the street is better than in front of my own house, whether or not the bus is on schedule. The thought makes me shiver, despite the heat wave from a late Indian summer. When did something as banal as a yellow school bus become such a threat? It’s like taking a smiley face and giving it fangs. That’s so fuck‑ ing wrong.

“Freddie!” I call again. “For chrissake!”

Here’s the thing about nine‑year‑olds: As bad as the pain in the delivery room was, as hair‑raisingly chaotic as night feedings and croup and terrible twos were, as much as you now dread that first I’ve got a boyfriend, Mom! from a kid who seemed to be waddling around in diapers just yesterday, there is nothing worse than the pretween girl. Mainly where morning bathroom routines are concerned. I know I shouldn’t get my temper up, not with Freddie and the way she is.

Note to self: Change tone. Take it down two octaves and a million decibels.

“Hurry up, hon! Test today!” I say, this time with more sugar in my voice, wondering if I’m going to make it to my own job on time. I try leveraging the big sister, making her the bad cop. “Anne! Get your sister out here in two minutes. Matching barrettes or not.”

This seems to work. Anne, when she isn’t nose‑to‑screen on her iPad, scouring the Q rankings of every boy in town for a homecoming dance date, is the responsible one. Always ready, always on time, always coming home after testing day with that insouciant little smile on her face and beaming when the app on her phone or tablet pings its pass alert later that night. It’s Freddie who stays in the bathroom, worrying over her bangs, washing her hands five more times than necessary. Once, I found her slouched over on the toilet, head between her knees, shaking, refusing to leave.

“You have to, honey,” I said. “Everyone has to take the tests.” “Why?”

Why? I tried to think of an answer that would calm her. “So they know where to put people.” And then, “You’ve always done fine.”

What I never said was, “You’ve squeaked by each time. You’ll squeak by again.” That wouldn’t do a bit of good.

Anne emerges from the hall, still glued to her iPad, swiping and pinching and expanding, reciting numbers. “Nine‑point‑one. Quel dud,” she says. “Oof. Eight‑point‑eight. Major dud.” And “Oh, Mom, you should see this one from that school in Arlington. He’s down to eight‑point‑two‑six and doesn’t look like he could pass a blood test. Gag.”

“Eight‑point‑three used to count as a B,” I remind her. “Not anymore, Mom.”

She’s just like her father, I think, but I don’t say it out loud. As far as Anne is concerned, the sun rises and sets on—and probably revolves around—Malcolm. There is that, at least.

“Where’s your sister?” I ask, buttoning my raincoat. Anne tells me she’s on her way.

Anne’s silver bus, the one that goes to the top‑tier school with the rest of the nine‑point‑somethings, has turned the corner and starts to slow, its stop‑sign wings unfolding as it approaches the pickup point. There’s a trail of cars behind it, students clutching shiny identification cards in the backseats, waiting to be let out. A steel gray Lexus SUV, the first in line, pulls to the curb, and the rear door swings open. I’ve seen the girl before, at one of those parent‑teacher days they hold at Anne’s school every fall. Today her hair hangs in thick, uncombed ringlets around her face, but enough of her eyes show that I can see the whites of them, the look of a frightened dog, when she catches sight of the yellow bus up the street.

Anne joins me at the front window, backpack slung over one shoulder, silver passcard clutched in one hand, stretching the lanyard tight around the back of her neck. It looks something like a noose.

“That girl,” I say, “she looks nervous.”

“She shouldn’t be,” Anne says. “Sabrina’s Q is fine. Then, in a confidential whisper: “Not like Jules Winston. Jules barely passed last week’s advanced calculus test.” She takes a bite of apple, swipes again at her iPad.

I turn away from the rain‑sheeted window. “I thought results were supposed to be confidential.” But, of course, I know how kids are. I was in high school once.

Anne shrugs. “They are. But the rankings aren’t. You know that.” Yeah. I know.

“Anyway, Jules now has the lowest Q in the whole junior class, thanks to the calc test,” Anne says. “And she’s had three sick days this term. And she didn’t make the bus last Wednesday. And her mom got laid off, so the family income’s down. It all adds up.” Another bite of apple. Another swipe of her tablet. “If she doesn’t score some serious points, she’ll be on the green bus next week. Maybe that one by December.” Anne knocks her chin toward the yellow bus waiting in the rain. “A couple years in a yellow school and then it’ll be burger-flipping time for Jules.”

“Anne. Honestly.”

Another shrug. My older daughter is the queen of all things shrug these days. “Someone has to do it. At least until they finish automating all that shit. Looks like they’re picking up this morning. On our street. Weird.”

Her tone is bland, journalistic. So much like Malcolm’s when he delivers his daily report on how many new state schools will be opening next month, or on the average Qs by state and city and school district. It’s something he does every night at dinner, as if we’re all interested. Anne usually sits next to him, never taking her eyes off her father, rapt by the numbers.

Freddie’s a completely different story.

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