Marcus held tight to the car door as they shifted lanes, weaving through two cars. He hated it when his mother drove so wild.
He tried to distract himself by looking out the window, to see the houses, but he couldn’t make any of them out, everything was a blur. The manicured lawns and perfect shrubs were unrecognizable.
His mother checked the mirrors and cut over again. She glanced back and saw Marcus pressed against the seat, hands wrapped around the door handle.
“You okay?” she asked.
Marcus nodded, yes. Another swerve.
“Sorry,” she said.
Helen flipped the visor down and checked her dark, curly hair in the mirror. She checked her eyes, blood-shot, tired looking.
The clock glared the time: 8:15. Marcus heard her muttering something about being late.
“Get out of the way!” she yelled as a red SUV pulled out in front of her and slowed down.
She braked and swerved over. She passed the SUV and swerved back into her previous lane. She braked hard to turn right. Marcus poked his head up over the back seat and could see the man in the SUV motioning with his hand and yelling something.
“One more block to the school,” she said.
Marcus peered around the passenger seat and saw that the time was now 8:18. He sighed and sat back.
“Don’t worry, Marcus, we’re almost there,” she reassured him.
The kindergarten drop-off spot, at the end of the cul-de-sac, was empty. She pulled up and parked, grabbed Marcus from the back seat and rushed to the gate. The Kindergarten duty aide saw her coming and held the gate for her.
“Thanks, Max,” Helen said.
“No problem. Hi Marcus!” Max beamed.
Max was an elderly man, retired. His bald head gleamed in the sunlight; his white shirt was dirty from wrestling with some of the boys before school.
Marcus looked at the tops of his shoes and pinched his lip.
“It’s not you, Max,” Helen said, brushing her hair back.
The vast play yard, covered by huge cloth canopies to protect the children from the Arizona heat, was empty and lifeless. Balls sat idle. Swings were slowly coming to a stop, recently emptied of their occupants. Up ahead, Helen could see Marcus’s classroom door closing.
“Miss Jones, please wait!” Helen called.
She scooped Marcus up and ran as fast as her business skirt would let her legs move. Miss Jones, Marcus’ young plain dressed, no make-up, hair in a chronic ponytail teacher held the door. Though she was just out of college, didn’t have children, and wasn’t married, she gave Helen a motherly “you’re-late-again” look.
Helen ignored the patronizing stare.
“Thank you,” Helen said.
She set Marcus down as they entered the classroom and put his backpack in his cubby, one of many cubbies in the wall of storage that took up one side of the room. The opposite side held the whiteboard and other various displays Miss Jones used to teach “her” kindergarteners.
Marcus was motionless at Helen’s feet. The class was alive with activity. Two boys played with cars on a mat in the center of the room. A group of girls baked in a toy kitchen near the back of the room. Two other boys built a tower and knocked it down in the story center.
Miss Jones squatted in front of Marcus, holding her skirt closed and adjusting her glasses.
“You ready for today?” she asked.
Marcus looked at her and pinched his bottom lip. His other hand rested under his chin. Helen bent over and brushed Marcus’ bangs from her forehead.
“Answer her, please, Marcus,” his mother said.
He shook his head, “No”.
Helen squatted in front of Marcus and straightened his Izod shirt. She frowned at him.
“It’ll be okay,” Miss Jones said.
Miss Jones took him by the hand and led him away from the door.
Helen watched him for a moment, then left the room.
From behind her desk, Miss Jones could view the classroom. The kids were seated, four to a table, writing their names over and over. Marcus sat at a table with one other boy and two girls. He leaned low over his paper, pencil in hand, working hard on his letter “h” worksheet.
Miss Jones looked at the clock and said, “Okay. Put your pencils and papers away. It’s choosing time.”
The kids joyously responded, and the class went into a state of mild chaos as the kids scattered around the room to different “choosing” areas. All around the room, Miss Jones had set up various activities for the kids to do: two bins full of sand and shells sat on a table, three computers with math and spelling games, a blocks area big enough for three kids, and a reading area with books and stuffed animals.
The kids dispersed two to each area, except for Marcus. Marcus stayed at his table, looking at his hands.
Miss Jones gave him a moment to get up and choose a spot. But it became apparent he wasn’t going to move.
“Marcus? Come here,” she said.
Marcus rose slowly and made his way to her desk.
“Now listen. You have to choose a station,” she said firmly. “You’ve played with the computers before, why don’t you go over to that station?”
Marcus turned three shades of red and tears welled up in his eyes.
Miss Jones snapped. “You need to choose something, Marcus. You can cry, but you have to choose something.”
Marcus cried and returned to his table.
Matt opened the door to the kitchen just as Marcus began to yell at the top of his lungs. Tim, his older brother, having punched Marcus in the gut, ran past Matt for his room. Helen stooped over Marcus.
“You okay?” she asked.
Marcus was mad, crying and not answering questions.
“I’m home,” Matt said.
Helen looked at Matt over her shoulder, “I need you to take care of Tim.”
“Right,” Matt said. “Tim! My room! Now!” he yelled down the hall as he went to their master bedroom.
A few minutes later, Tim ran from the room crying. Matt reappeared in a T-shirt and shorts. Marcus had stopped crying and was back in his room. Helen scrubbed needlessly at a dish already clean.
“Hun, it’s clean,” Matt said.
Matt attempted to kiss her on the cheek on his way to the fridge. She pulled away.
“Ah, had a good day?” he said.
He grabbed a soda from the fridge, cracked it open, took a long swallow, and went to the small circular table that filled up most of their tiny kitchen.
He scooted it away from the wall, the legs of the table squeaking on the tile, and sat down.
“Meeting went good,” he said.
“Good,” she replied.
Marcus stood in the hallway, looking on. Matt saw him and smiled, prompting Marcus to bolt for his room. Matt twirled the soda can on the table.
“So, you thought about getting Marcus a dog?”
“Not ready for that,” she said.
She huffed as she pulled the plug to drain the sink of the dishwater.
“He had a dream last night,” Matt said. “He dreamt we got him a puppy – a surprise.”
“I know, I saw the drawing,” she said. “You going to pick up the c-r-a-p if we get one? The boys certainly won’t. I just think they’re still too young.”
He finished the soda.
“Hey, open the cabinet,” he said.
She pushed the door open with her foot. He tossed the can in the trash.
“It’s been a crappy day,” she said. “Marcus refused to speak to Miss Jones again.”
“For the whole day?” Matt asked.
“There’s nothing wrong with him,” she said.
“I didn’t say there was.”
“But your tone –“
“Come on, it’s weird.” He ran his hands through his hair.
She sat down across from him.
“Anyway, Miss Jones was upset and said we need to meet again. Then Tim picked on Marcus the whole ride home. When we got home, he punched Marcus for no good reason,” she leaned her head forward, her face in her palms. The paint was chipping off her nails, white cuticle showing through.
“What do we do?”
“About what?” she asked.
“The dog,” he said.
“He can bathe it.”
“They need shots.”
“He can be BFF’s with it.”
“They pee everywhere.”
Matt sighed. “They do.”
She frowned at him. “They die.”
A big sigh came from Matt this time. “They die.”
“Imagine telling him that his BFF —“
Matt waved her off. “I get it.”
Marcus straddled the miniature backhoe. He scooped out a large pile of sand, pivoted the bucket to the right and dumped the sand on a pile he was amassing. Two boys ran past him, in pursuit of a red ball. He ignored them and pivoted for another scoop.
Miss Jones observed him. Shy is not the word, she thought. Something else…
The red ball bounced toward Marcus and landed on his sand pile. Kevin, a boy from Mrs. Carlson’s class, walked over and waited for Marcus to bounce it to him. Marcus didn’t budge. Kevin had to get the ball himself.
“Do you want to play?” Kevin asked.
Marcus’ attention remained fix on his sand pile. Kevin looked at Marcus then the pile and then Marcus. He shrugged and left.
Marcus resumed scooping and dumping.
Miss Jones made a mental note to add that to his file. She checked her watch. 11:15. She blew her whistle and yelled, “Line-up.”
Her class assembled, except Marcus: he stayed on the backhoe until the line formed. When he did join them, he stood at the back, pinching his lip, eyes down. The line inched forward past Miss Jones at the door.
When Marcus reached her, she asked, “How was the digging today?”
It was as if she had never spoken to him. He held his chin and shuffled his feet.
“Join the class,” she said, gently coaxing him into the room.
Miss Jones sat in a little kid chair on one side of a table. She closed the folder in front of her.
Matt and Helen sat in two other little kid chairs on the other side of the table. Helen was upset but quiet, for the moment.
“So…he’s not stupid…” Matt said with an edge in his voice.
“No. His spelling and math and other skills are up to speed.” Miss Jones replied.
“Then the problem is…” he asked.
“He is verbally challenged – to put it in lay man’s terms. He won’t talk to anyone, which makes it hard to deal with h-”
Helen had had enough. “What are you saying?”
“I don’t believe this is the place for him. He needs…special attention.”
Matt grew defensive. “He’s shy.”
“He’s a distraction,” Miss Jones said.
“He’s a little quieter than others,” Helen retorted.
“A little? He goes whole weeks without speaking to me! He won’t talk with the other children at all.” Miss Jones fired back.
“And you are recommending pulling him from here and placing him in special ed?” Matt said, and he found himself rising from the chair, face flush with anger.
Miss Jones sat stone-faced, quiet.
Marcus knelt next to a bin of kids’ books in his doctor’s waiting room. The medium sized room had walls covered in murals depicting pirates and their treasure, animals, and forests, a scuba diver and dolphins. It was a quiet room, the only sound coming from the secretary typing at the front desk.
He couldn’t find a book that he liked so he sat back in one of the chairs, alone in the empty room. He’d been sent out so Helen could talk openly with Dr. Pollard.
They were in the exam room, Dr. Pollard on his stool while Helen leaned against the exam table.
“There isn’t much more I can do. It isn’t a physical disorder…not something I can prescribe for,” the old doctor said closing up his white lab coat.
His bushy eyebrows raised and he adjusted his stethoscope.
“His teacher wants to put him in special ed,” Helen said.
“For this?” Dr. Pollard said, surprised at the recommendation. “Hmmm. Well, what I can do — what I will do — is recommend you to a pediatric psychologist. They are trained to work with selective silence.”
Dr. Pollard stood and closed Marcus’ file.
“When I was his age…I hid behind the couch when anyone — family, friends, strangers — came over to the house. I talked when I had to.”
He turned to his little medicine counter; his orthopedic shoes squeaked on the floor. He wrote on a little sheet of paper.
“Give Dr. Willis a call. She’s good with kids. Really.”
Helen took the paper. “Thanks.”
“Don’t worry. He’ll grow out this. Helen, is there anything he wants? A toy? A football? Something you can use to draw him out – something that can connect him to other kids?”
She thought long about it.
“A girl in his class has a rabbit. It had babies, and they are giving them away. They’re easy to keep. It’s not a dog.”
“Does he want a rabbit?”
She sighed. “He seemed to like the idea when I mentioned it on the way home from school…”
“That could be it.” Dr. Pollard rose and patted her leg. “That might be the best thing for him.”
“What’s the house number?” Matt asked.
He turned their SUV into an unfamiliar neighborhood. He bent forward, over the steering wheel, straining to make out the numbers. Helen rummaged through her purse. Tim and Marcus sat in the back seat: Tim read a spy book; Marcus held a shoebox in his lap. Marcus watched out his window as they passed by houses 10001, 10005, and 10009.
“10012,” Helen said. She held up a little piece of paper in her hand, the number written on it.
“10012,” Matt said. “I think that is the house.”
He pointed at a large lady standing in the front yard of a house halfway down the block. Her large rainbow colored moo-moo swung side to side as she waved to them.
They parked, and Matt got out and walked around to greet her.
“Howdy,” she said, a large grin spread from ear to ear.
“Hi,” Matt said.
He reached out and took her hand. Her hand swallowed his, and the fat on her arm jiggled when they shook.
“Well, this must be the rest of the family,” she said.
Helen got out and opened Marcus’ door. Marcus slowly slid down, and Helen took the shoebox from him. Tim followed and jumped down from the seat.
The lady led them to her backyard through the side gate; Marcus walked closely behind his father. It wasn’t a large yard; what was there was mostly full of weeds and tall grass. A pool, half-full, the water green from neglect, sat dead center in the yard.
The lady pointed to the patio, which was hanging onto the house for dear life.
“The parents live on the patio. The mother is black, and the father is cream-colored. The young ones, yep, they are all different mixes. They’re in the side yard.”
Marcus couldn’t see the parents but believed they were there. The family followed the moo-moo lady to the other side of the yard where a little pen had been set up. It was a dirt run, fenced in with chicken wire and rotten two-by-fours. Three one month-old rabbits hopped around inside and ducked in and out of the holes they had dug.
From behind his father’s leg, Marcus could hear the lady point out, “That black and white one, well, he’s the only one left that hasn’t been spoken for.”
Marcus peeked between his dad’s legs. He was happy: it was the one he would’ve picked out anyway.
“We’ll take him,” Matt said.
The lady bent and snatched it by the back of the neck. Helen held the box out with one hand and the lid in the other. The moo-moo lady put the rabbit in, and Helen closed the lid, with tiny air holes poked in it.
“So, who’s it for?” the lady asked.
“Marcus,” Matt said.
The lady bent and pinched Marcus’ cheek.
“He’s your bunny? Huh?”
Marcus shuffled his feet, focused on his dad’s shoe.
“Marcus!” Matt said and patted him on the shoulder.
“What’s wrong, rabbit got your tongue?” The moo-moo lady laughed hard at her joke.
Marcus stepped further away.
Helen leaned down, “Say thank you.”
Matt cleared his throat. “Sorry. He’s shy. Thank you.”
“Oh, that’s all right. ‘Sides, rabbits don’t like loud noises.”
The four of them walked to the front yard. The moo-moo lady stayed near the house and watched them get into the car.
As they settled into the car, his mother handed Marcus the box. He lifted the lid enough so he could see the little bunny balled up in the corner. It shivered a little. Marcus petted him to calm him down.
Later that night, Matt called Helen to the living room where the had set-up the cage. Marcus lay next to it, asleep, and next to him was a piece of paper. Helen bent over and picked it up; it was a drawing of the rabbit with words scrawled under it. She read it and hugged Matt.
“He named it Chocolate,” she said.
Helen and Marcus visited Dr. Wallis, and after a thorough interview, she deemed that he needed to stay put. Her written note to Miss Jones stated that the best thing for Marcus was a safe, stable environment, and active communication between teacher and parents.
Miss Jones ended her push to have Marcus moved out, due to the note, and Helen made an attempt to communicate with her on an ongoing basis.
All the discussions led to Miss Jones reading the class Peter the Rabbit. Helen had told her about Chocolate, and Miss Jones thought maybe this would get his attention.
At the mention of the word rabbit, Marcus momentarily looked up. A spark of interest was there.
Miss Jones read the story with great enthusiasm and kept an eye on him to see what kind of reaction she would get.
As she wound up the story, she found Marcus fully engaged, and she took the opportunity to ask him some questions.
“Marcus? Do you know anything about bunnies?” she asked. “Your mom said you have one. Do you have a rabbit?”
The class waited for his response. Miss Jones could see him retreat inward.
“Marcus, do you have a rabbit?” she asked.
“What’s he look like?” a little girl in the front asked.
“What’s his name?” a boy next to Marcus asked.
Unexpectedly, his eyes welled up, and his lip quivered, he buried his head and started to cry quietly.
“What’s wrong with him?” one girl asked.
A boy sitting near Miss Jones asked her, “Why doesn’t he talk?”
Miss Jones, filled with a brand new compassion for Marcus, diverted their attention away from him.
“Class, who wants to hear another story?” she said.
The class turned back to her and left Marcus to himself.
Helen stopped outside the playroom, where they had moved Chocolate’s cage. Matt was in front of the cage with Marcus on his lap, telling him a story about Chocolate on an adventure in space. Chocolate chomped on his food and seemed to listen to the story as well. Helen didn’t want to interrupt, so she stayed in the hallway. She could see Marcus smiling and giggling. She left them to themselves.
When the story ended, father and son sat in silence and looked on as Chocolate drank water from his water bottle.
Matt put Marcus to bed shortly after and joined his wife in the living room. Helen was folding towels on the couch, and Matt lay down next to her.
“Did Chocolate get home safely? From space?” she asked.
“Did he say anything?” she asked.
“Yeah, he wants more carrots.”
“You are sooo funny.”
Her eyes pleaded with him for good news.
“Not yet,” Matt closed his eyes.
Marcus sat crossed legged in front of the cage, drawing on his pad of paper with his lucky, special yellow bird pencil. Tim walked into the room.
“What you doing?” Tim asked him.
Marcus ignored him and kept drawing. Tim sat down next to him. He watched Marcus draw, and Marcus let him.
“That’s real good, Marcus.”
Marcus kept drawing as Tim looked back and forth from Chocolate to the drawing pad.
Tim soon grew bored and got up to leave. As Tim left the room, he said, “He’s a good rabbit.”
Marcus stopped drawing and watched Chocolate eat.
“Marcus, did you feed Chocolate?” his mother called. “We’ve got to go. Don’t want to be late to school.”
Marcus jumped off the top of his bunk bed and hurried to scoop out pellets from the bag under the sink in his bathroom. He unlocked the cage gate and dumped them in Chocolate’s bowl.
“There you go, Chocolate,” he whispered.
They were his first words in a month. Chocolate was the only audience.
“Keep the gate locked,” his mother said. “He can come out when we get home. Are your shoes and socks on?”
He bounced into the kitchen, a big grin on his face. It caught Helen off guard. When he met her at the garage door, she asked, “How’s fuzzy face doing?”
“Good,” he said. “But he wants carrots next time.”
Helen froze. She didn’t want to make it a big deal. She smiled, pretended nothing special had happened.
“We’ll get him some tonight.” She took his hand and squeezed it.
Marcus was on the toy backhoe again. Miss Jones had watched him shuffle to it every day and dig the same hole. Boys and girls ran around him.
She watched the red ball bounce his way again. It landed in his hole, and Kevin from Mrs. Carlson’s class went over and waited for the ball. Marcus pinched his lip and blankly stared at the ground.
“I have a rabbit,” Kevin said to Marcus. “His name is Penny. I call him that cause he’s brown. Some kids said you have a bunny, too.”
Miss Jones observed Marcus slide off the backhoe, pick up the ball and bounce it to Kevin.
Kevin bounced it back to his friends and went back to Marcus.
Marcus paused and then said, “Yes.”
Together, they worked the backhoe and dug the trench.