by Kiya Krier

“No home toys at school, Rylan,” I said, folding myself into the preschool-sized chair.

He pulled the orange figurine from his pocket. His pants were on backward. Again.

“She’s not a toy,” he said. “She’s a real, live dragon.” The model stood, head held high, front foot cocked off Rylan’s scabbed palm, little wings unfurled slightly.

“Beautiful. Put the toy in your cubby.”

His dark brows drew together. “Ms. Kathy, she doesn’t like when people call her that.”

I glanced at my watch. Three minutes late. “Of course, just put it away.”

I followed Rylan with my eyes as I sang the circle-welcoming song to the rest of the class. His ankles showed between his shoes and pant hems. The scabs were back. If only he would stop picking them.

I skimmed through the calendar, letter of the week, and weather watcher. We moved to the table to glue paper strips in an alternating pattern of yellow and blue. I walked between the two tables crowded with little chairs and swinging shoes. On the table beside Rylan’s tray stood his dragon toy.

I stopped. “Rylan, why did you get your toy out?”

“She’s not a toy.” He smeared a glue stick across a blue strip of paper.

My eyebrow shot up. “How did she get next to your tray?”

He looked at me with those pale eyes. “She got bored in my cubby.”

“Nice try. Put her back.”

Rylan shrugged. “She won’t stay there.”

“I suggest she does, or we’ll have a problem.”

Rylan scooped up the toy and carried her to the cubbies. He placed her carefully on top of his shelf and stood muttering, the hand on his hip seeming too adult for his little frame. Only Rylan would act out an imaginary game so thoroughly.

He walked back to the table, shaking his head. “I told her, but her listening ears are not on today.”

“Reminds me of someone I know.” I turned to the rest of the class. “If you finished gluing your pattern, put your tray on the drying rack and sit down on the carpet.” Chairs screeched out from the tables and children swarmed around the room. Interesting how they always chose the longest possible route to the drying rack.

“Hands to yourself, Liam. Wait your turn, Hayden.” From the corner of my eye, I saw something shoot through the air. “Lizzy! We don’t throw toys inside.” Lizzy’s lower lip trembled. Here we go.

“I didn’t,” she protested. To avoid a meltdown, I turned my attention back to the flock of children around the drying rack. My eyes landed on the dragon toy poking out of Rylan’s back pocket. You’ve got to be kidding.

“Rylan.” His head whipped around, all innocent, big eyes. “The toy,” I sighed.

“In my cubby.”

“Put her away.” He stared at me. “Stop acting like you don’t know what I mean. In your pocket.” Reaching behind him, he patted at his pocket, fishing out the dragon.

“I told you to stay put.” He held the dragon up to his face, eyes crossed. I didn’t understand how he found time to get to his cubby. I held out my hand, putting on a stern look. Rylan handed her over, shoulders drooping. “How do you make someone listen when they don’t want to?”

“Figure that out and you can bring a home toy to school every day.”

He nodded and bolted to the carpet to join the rest of the class. I placed the toy on the cubby shelves higher than my shoulder. It now crouched low, head almost brushing the shelf, teeth bared. Toys got fancier every year.

“Out of the blocks center,” I said to a stray child.

I ducked into the closet, grabbing Green Eggs and Ham. When I came out, Rylan’s fingers had crept under the hem of his pants.

“Rylan, stop picking.” His hand whipped out again, eyes glued to the shelf. “Tyler, we do not lay on our friends. Fingers out of your nose, Beth.” The joys of teaching three-year-olds.

I read through the story, skimming over the words, my eyes on the clock more than the book. Somehow we had fallen another four minutes behind schedule. Hopefully it didn’t make us late for recess.

Around the time Sam’s friend refused to try green eggs and ham in a car, I sent Lizzy to use the bathroom. When she came out, I called Rylan. I worked my way through the circle of squirming kids, then called each of them to grab their jackets. When Rylan left to grab his coat, the dragon toy was crouching on the carpet where he had been sitting.

I dropped Green Eggs and Ham to my knees.

“How did you even reach it?” My voice came out higher than I intended. Half the class paused in their scramble for coats. Still oblivious, Rylan continued bobbing away. “Rylan,” I snapped. He turned, palms up. I pointed to the offending toy. Infuriatingly, he laughed.

“I don’t see what’s so funny. You completely ignored my directions.” A child had not disrespected me like this in years.

“Ms. Kathy, it wasn’t—”

“Stop.” I stood up. “I can’t stand lying in my class.” I swiped the toy off the floor and stalked to the closet. “It stays here for the rest of the day.” The lock snapped shut with finality. I exhaled deeply, smoothing my cardigan against my stomach. I walked toward the swarm of kids who had resumed grabbing jackets, swatting at each other and cutting in line.

As I zipped Kelly’s coat, a muffled thud sounded from the closet. I shouldn’t have balanced those books on the cleaning bucket this morning. Then another. And another. Then a loud snap as something large struck the door.

“What’s in there?” Liam asked, putting me between himself and the closet. Most of the kids had turned toward the locked door, various stages of terror and excitement on their faces. Someone said something about monsters. Great, how would I explain that to parents? No, Mr. Scott, I don’t know why Liam suddenly fears monsters in the school closet.

I strode to the door and flung it open.

“What in the world?”

Rainbow-colored feathers and scraps of paper floated to the ground. Plastic bins of supplies which moments before had been stacked on shelves, were dumped across the floor of the closet. Red sand poured from the top shelf in a soft whisper. Shredded books toppled off another shelf at waist level.

There at eye level, the orange dragon stood rampant, claws reaching, mouth open to the sky, wings extended. Maybe—no. I shook my head, eyes closed. A dry little hand brushed my fingers.

Odd batches of hair jutted out around Rylan’s ears.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“I told you.”

“Not possible.”

He shrugged, gazing at her. I peeked at the clock. So late. We’d missed half of recess already. I put my free hand over my eyes. I could hear the noise of the class increasing behind me. I needed to do something to end this. I snatched the figurine off the shelf, holding tight. I turned and paused, unsure of what to do with the toy. A shift inside my hand made me jump. The dragon clattered to the ground, the click of plastic on tile bringing me back to reality.

“Careful, Ms. Kathy.” Rylan scooped the dragon up and cuddled it to his chest.

“Just,” I looked at the class, which had erupted, “don’t let me see her again.” Not wanting to know what he did with it, I strode away from Rylan and his dragon. I pried four boys out of a dogpile on the floor, separated the girls who took turns pinching each other, and corralled the runners back into the corner by the door. The class formed a jagged, zigzagging line.

When the door to the playground opened, the class charged out, screaming. I didn’t feel the usual urge to call them back, file them in a proper line, and make them try again. For the first time, I allowed them to scatter, unchecked. The sun blazed, searing my eyes. I had left my sunglasses inside. A child hurtled into my knees, knocking them together in a little embrace. Rylan pressed his face into the side of my thigh.

“Ms. Kathy?”

I grunted, counting kids on the playground, eyes scrunched against the sun.

“I like you. A lot.”

“Sweetie, I—” He shot off, legs churning, toward the swings. “I like you, too.”

Copyright © 2015 Kiya Krier