The wailing of police sirens spilled through an open, tinted window of the fourth floor apartment, waking the man who lived there. He groaned, turned over in his nest of messy sheets and blankets, and reached for a pillow to block out the noise, kicking over a lamp in the process. The light bulb shattered on impact against the wooden floor. The man groaned again and shoved his face further into the pillow.
He pulled a blanket over his head; the light coming through the window irritated his bloodshot eyes. He had had a long night. He drank until he was kicked out of the bar and then wandered the streets looking for his way back. Luckily, one of his neighbors had found him and brought him up to his apartment. By the time he got home, it was close to three in the morning.
No sooner had he drifted back into sleep did his alarm go off across the room. He had to be at work in less than an hour. There was no time left to lie around in bed. They would be expecting him at any moment and he couldn’t be late. Again.
The parking lot was empty. He pulled in just as the last car was pulling out. The first half of the day was done. In an hour another bus would bring the afternoon storm of children to take care of. He needed another drink. Something stronger than the night before. But, if he were to drink, the other adults would take notice. He’d lose his job. What was left of it.
The walls of the hallway were littered with the crafts of school children. Glitter, stickers, and scribbles with crayons were considered “art.” The man rolled his eyes. What was the point? He was lucky he landed the job he to begin with. He was lucky he had kept it. He came in to work late, sometimes not at all. He didn’t know how to handle the children, then again how could he take care of someone else when he couldn’t take care of himself?
The classroom wasn’t anything special. There was a table, a few chairs, a rug in the center, and a chalkboard on the front wall. He had two groups of children, the morning class and the afternoon class. Some kids stayed all day, but most parents brought their kids home after twelve. He never made it on time to meet the morning children.
The other people he worked with had given up trying. They let him keep his job, but only because they didn’t think the school would be around much longer. Some tried to help him see that working could help improve his outlook on life. He didn’t listen. Life was just an annoyance he had to deal with. It wasn’t that he wanted to end it, but that he didn’t see the point. Everything ends anyway. Why try?
The children in the afternoon class were always the most energetic. They wouldn’t pay attention to the lesson, or the book being read, or when a project was explained. They were too loud, fighting with each other or wandering around the room or asking questions that had nothing to do with what was going on. He didn’t mind the questions. But the chaos bothered him. And the noise. It was overwhelming to try to calm down a class of five-year-olds.
He used to love children. Now their innocent smiles and simple questions left him with an empty feeling. They were too young yet to make the mistakes he had made. Too young to realize what the world was like. Too young to understand a life more than macaroni crafts.
He pitied them. But he pitied himself more. He longed for the innocence of markers and crayons and simple math. He wished he could spend the days in a candy-induced coma instead of heavily intoxicated. He wanted to be taken care of by someone. He didn’t trust himself with his own wellbeing and neither did his friends. But they didn’t care enough to help anymore.
He went about the day in a daze. The children danced around the room as if mocking his very existence. As if they knew exactly what he was thinking. One girl came up to him and spoke so softly, he almost couldn’t hear her.
“Why are you always so sad?”
He paused and turned away from the chalkboard. Crouching down, he spoke.
“What do you mean, child?”
The little girl pulled at her dress and studied her shoes.
“Um,” she looked up at him with baby blue eyes. “You always sigh and sometimes when you teach, your eyes look all droopy. Like my mommy when my daddy left. Then she fell asleep and I had to go live with my grandma.”
He blinked. This girl . . . she was around five years old. But she seemed as though she knew more than a five-year-old.
“Grandma said it was the sighing that made her leave,” she continued. “She said Mommy couldn’t get happy and that’s why she had to go.” The little girl reached for one of the man’s hands. “I like you, and I don’t want you to go like Mommy did.”
He patted the girl’s head before he stood up, “I’m not going to leave.” The girl grinned and ran away, ponytails bouncing as she went.
He watched her the rest of the day. She giggled with her friends and engaged in the activities he had planned. Occasionally she would look over at him, as if checking to make sure he was still there. He waved the third time she looked over. She waved back.
Back at his apartment he relived the day’s events. His mind wandered back to the girl. What was her name? He couldn’t recall it. He never bothered to learn any of the children’s names. Now he wished he had. Something inside him had changed. He wanted to talk more with the girl whose young eyes showed the scars of events in a past she shouldn’t have lived. He wanted to call home. To make sure she was properly taken care of. He wanted to bring back her mother and call out her father.
But he could do nothing. He couldn’t bring the child’s mother back and he couldn’t make her father go back in time and stay. He could only teach her and check in with her grandmother. If he still cared after today.
He didn’t care much about people lately.
And people didn’t care much about him. Not that it mattered. People had given up on him his whole his life. His parents. His teachers. His siblings. His friends. Past lovers. The world shut him out. And after years of constant abandonment, he shut the world out.
Pushing the thought away, he began to plan for tomorrow’s class. He would read them a picture book, let them do crafts, teach simple math, and give them an extended playtime to fill up the rest of the day. Feed them when necessary. He would be doing only the minimum of what his job required. What he always did. So why did he suddenly feel guilty about it? The children were still learning what they had to; it wasn’t as if he wasn’t teaching them at all. And no one expected him to excel at his job.
But what would happen to these kids once they left his care?
Would they move on? Fail the next grade? Drop out of high school? Did it really matter if he only did the minimum of what was required? He had no control over what happened in the future. Teaching shapes and letters and how to color inside the lines didn’t determine whether or not a child would go to college at eighteen. Why did he feel guilty?
“Look at you,” he whispered. “Pretending to care. You’re only going to make things more difficult for yourself.”
But he couldn’t get the questions out of mind. This girl had made him question every choice he had made in his lifetime. Every letter sent, every drink consumed, every lover coaxed into bed. Every dream he once had, every hope that had shattered, every promise he had never kept. And every person he had ever wronged, every conversation, fight, argument he had. What consequences did these actions have? Not on his own life, but on the lives of others? Was he no better than the child’s father?
He needed a drink. Drown out his thoughts with alcohol. But he wouldn’t. Not tonight. A soft voice was telling him not to. And as much as he’d like to ignore the voice, he couldn’t.
Sarah Moore is a sixteen-year-old sophomore at the Harley School. She was first introduced to Writers and Books and Canvas over the summer of 2014. While she mainly enjoys writing short stories and occasionally poetry, she would like to experiment with writing plays. Most of her time is spent writing, reading, or wasting time on Tumblr while her favorite music plays loud enough to wake the dead.