Julia Arrow: "Kindergarten"
From Our 'Verse
Andrea paused at the first row of desks as the other woman rose hurriedly to her feet. She smiled wryly as the teacher smoothed down her skirt and swiftly adjusted her glasses. "I take it my husband didn’t contact you?"
"No, ma'am." The young lady – Ketcher, Andrea finally recalled – didn't seem to know what to do with her hands. They twisted in front of her in an unconscious, nervous gesture, almost found their way into her sand-colored hair, then vanished behind her as if caught trying to do so.
Andrea mentally repressed a sigh. The school's proximity to Dragon's Gate had this effect on some of the younger faculty. Mrs. Ketcher (was she really a missus, at her age?) looked to be barely out of the university system herself. "I am the one available this evening, but if you wish to speak with Frank instead, I believe tomorrow would be convenient."
"Oh, no, no. That won't be necessary." Mrs. Ketcher was finally starting to regain her composure. "Please, sit down."
Thankfully, the chair she gestured toward was sized for an adult. Andrea settled in with an inaudible groan, the result of being in her dress blues – and, more pointedly, her dress SHOES – all day. The younger woman rolled the chair from behind her desk and sat, wincing at the squeal.
"So, miss. Which of my troublemaking children have I been called about?" Andrea returned the startled look with a razor-sharp smile. "I know my children well, Mrs. Ketcher. If there have been problems here, I almost guarantee one of them started it."
"Please, Colonel, call me Emily."
"I shall, if you call me Andrea."
Mrs. Ketcher gave the Colonel a long look before slightly nodding. "Actually, I sent a wave home about two things." Emily reached across her desk and pulled a tablet into her lap. A young boy, about six or eight years old, stared out of the frame. "Do you know this boy?"
Andrea studied the curly black locks, the mischievous blue eyes, the slightly tanned face and felt The Rock of Foreboding sink in the pond of her belly. "I do not."
The teacher shrugged, except it was anything but a dismissive gesture. "Neither do I. Neither does anyone. But Julia does."
"Does Richard?" Her son was almost as difficult to get information out of as her daughter. She was a Colonel in the Alliance military, well-versed in interrogation tactics, and was regularly outmaneuvered by five-and-six-year-olds. Thank god the youngest hadn't started talking yet.
Emily shook her head. "Not to my knowledge. But Julia spent most the day yesterday away with this… young man." Andrea's eyes flashed. Before her anger could take root, Emily flicked through the pictures to one of another girl with flaming red hair and freckles. "Julia paid this girl, in cookies, to pretend to be her for a day. She brought a change of clothes with her, and during a fire drill – which I am not entirely convinced that she didn't start herself – traded places with Sharon."
Andrea looked closer at the picture before her. Sharon was perhaps a year younger than Julia – just old enough to start school – and while she could see the difference, a teacher who had only had her students two weeks wouldn't at a glance. The Colonel groaned, and the sound was full of fizzled rage that no longer had a target. At least, not an adult target.
"And was Richard complicit in this?"
Emily shrugged helplessly. "He claimed not to know anything. I thought that was better left asked about at home."
If either of them can sit down afterward, Andrea mentally growled. At six, Julia should have been in the next grade, but this school followed a ridiculous custom from Earth-That-Was, and her birthday fell too late in the summer to be permitted into that class. Instead, she shared a grade with her brother (also a summer child, but only a few days into July). The two started so much anarchy at home, and the Colonel feared it would be ten times worse in school. In under two weeks, they were proving her right.
Andrea realized she was glaring down the other woman’s shirt and forced her eyes to meet that blue, concerned, gaze. "How long has this been going on?"
"Not long. A day or two, perhaps. I think, before, Julia met him during recess, where it would be less noticeable if she disappeared for any length of time."
A chill went down the Colonel’s spine. A day, two, more?, where her eldest child was missing. This close to Dragon's Gate, the streets of Boros were well-patrolled, but it wasn’t a far drive to the slums. If you were in a tall enough building, you could see them, growing off of the city. And Julia didn’t have the proper fear of strangers; she threw herself at the world, certain that it would catch her. Richard was calmer, more methodical, a master of semantics. They were a frighteningly efficient team, especially at so young an age.
Andrea nodded. "I will speak to them both tonight." The steel in her voice could make grown men shudder; it had the same effect on Mrs. Ketcher. "If that is all, ma'am…"
Emily caught her about to rise. "Oh! There was that other thing."
Andrea sat, befuddled, as the teacher excused herself behind her desk and pulled forth a handful of paper clips. No, more than paper clips. When Emily laid the contraption in her cupped palms, she could see that the clips made a propeller, cardboard folded in on itself and then jutted out the sides as wings. With one finger, she silently spun the propeller, brow furrowed in thought. Mrs. Ketcher pulled out a ratty rubber band and wrapped it delicately around the toy plane. When she was finished, she stood back a step. Andrea looked up at her, uncomprehending.
"Pull that little tab." Something in the teacher’s eyes shone.
After a moment, she found it, near her thumb. She yanked the bit of metal out as the pin to a grenade, and jumped when the little plane leapt from her hands. It puttered about the room in a wide, lazy circle, making it back almost to the pile of toys before it fell from the sky. Stunned, Andrea glanced again at a smiling Mrs. Ketcher, still frozen in the act of pulling the pin. When she finally regained her voice, all she could say was, "How?"
"Apparently, while off on one of her... adventures, Julia made this from some things she found." Emily retrieved the toy, set it back on the desk. The rubber band, nearly snapped, sat next to it in a tangle. Andrea gently set the last piece beside the rest. "She had heard of these sorts of toys, but had never seen one, so she decided to make her own." One finger tapped the wood beside the rubber band. "I don’t even know where to find these anymore, but I promised to give her some if I did. Apparently this is what powers the engine."
"The ENGINE? That thing has an ENGINE?"
Emily’s eyes were alight with excitement. "Oh, yes. As intelligent as Julia is, her real genius lies in moving things. Over the past two weeks, I've noticed that she’s been the one to make the most complicated structures out of the building toys. She fixed one of the talking dolls. Even at this age, it’s apparent that her passion is going to be machines."
Andrea studied the plane again. "Where did she even learn such a design? I thought such things had been passed out of the textbooks."
"Perhaps she learned it from her new friend."
The worry had returned to Emily’s eyes. Andrea sighed and carefully arranged her cover over the strawberry-blonde bun at the nape of her neck, an obvious sign this conversation was over. "It looks like my daughter and I have plenty to discuss this evening."