Ashley Alert

E. G. Fabricant

 

From Matters Familiar. A small girl, suffocating in the growing culture of fear around her, struggles to take the high ground.

 

She pushed her ginger curls away from her ear and laid it carefully against the door and listened. All right!She clapped her hands and squealed, and almost as quickly shushed herself.

She sailed into the room and onto her trundle bed, one knee aboard and a straight leg trailing. She glimpsed the lacy blouse, pinafore, and Mary Janes on her image in the mirror and frowned. I hate me! Why do I have to be so girly all the time? Out came the tongue. Oh, well… Pushing her round, black eyeglass frames up her nose brought a hint of a smile. Very Harry Potter. Daddy’d won that one, liking them over those wiry things Mommy picked out.

She reached behind all the “educational” stuff on her bookshelf and brought out her latest guilty pleasure. She gladdened as she traced the image of the wild-haired girl on the cover, airborne in vapors and gaily pinching her nostrils. Betty has red pants with green polka dots—and yellow socks! I could be her, ‘cause our hair’s almost the same color. Looking up again, she frowned at the pastel clasps holding her locks. No barettes for Betty! She tore at them, flung them aside, and shook her head fiercely. Freedom was pleasing.

Settling in cross-legged, she cracked the book and laid it reverently across her thighs. Page One—again; there he was, in all his blue-eyed, dirty-sheep splendor. She turned the page and read softly to herself, savoring every word:

“Mother walked in and said, ‘He still smells awful.’
And that’s when they got the first clue. The tell-tale bubbles in the water.
‘He’s probably just a little nervous,’ said Mother, hopefully. ‘His stomach must be upset.’
But Walter’s stomach wasn’t upset. Walter’s stomach was fine. He felt perfectly normal. He just far—“*

The door cracked. A laundry basket. Her Mother.

“Come on, Ashley! It’s the second Wednesday—you know that. We’re late for your play date at Ryan’s and there’s tap class, after that.” Rosemary Butterworth looked up and saw her panicky, slack-jawed daughter hugging a book to her bosom. She shoved the basket onto the toy chest and put her hands on her hips. “What’re you reading?”

Ashley’s eyes fell, as did the book. “Nothing…”

Rosemary took it. “’Walter the Farting Dog?!’ Where did you get this?”

Ashley pushed her lower lip out and her dark eyes blazed. “Found it.”

Rosemary scowled and tucked the book under her arm. “We’ll talk about this later. Get your sweater and your shoes.”

Alex Butterworth nudged the front door open with his briefcase, juggling his keys and the daily mail in his other hand. He slid inside, shoved the door closed with his heel, and pitched the keys onto the hall table. Dropping the case by the banister, he stretched, sighed, and scratched his scalp. Another day in the particular paradise that is the San Bernardino Unified School District. He’d barely begun shuffling paper when the door burst open behind him. Ashley grazed him behind the knees and hit the stairs hard.

“Hey, half-pint! How ‘bout some love?”

Alex’s voice trailed off as she ascended; she turned, briefly, her face wreathed in anger. The thump-thump-thump of her footfalls receded until replaced by the echo of her door slamming. He turned back to see Rosemary standing in the doorway, clutching Ashley’s wrap, book bag, and dance regalia. She wasn’t a lot happier. “We need to talk,” she said as she climbed the stairs.

Oh, boy. Alex calculated he could weather the gathering storm a little better with some nourishment, so he made for the kitchen and stuck his head in the refrigerator. As he searched he tried to guess the basis for this complication du jour. He shrugged and settled on string cheese and a low-carb beer. Leaning against the counter, he took a couple swallows and paused when he detected his wife’s low, insistent monotone leaching through the ceiling. At that, he drained the bottle and went after another. He chose the back route to the family room and planted himself in his recliner. He had the TV remote on target and the second beer under control when Rosemary steamed in from the dining room. She marched up and pushed the book in his face.

“What is the meaning of this?”

Alex’s suspended arms fell. “It’s a book.”

“It’s inappropriate, is what it is!”

“What ‘inappropriate?’ It’s a prize-winning kid’s book about overlooking imperfection and finding value.”

“It’s about farting!”

“That’s just a bonus. Farting is funny, especially to kids. What’s the big deal? Everybody farts; that’s the point!”

“I’m sorry. I don’t get it.”

Alex spoke toward his shirt. “Maybe if you’d had a brother—or a full-time father…”

Rosemary worked her jaw muscles and turned away. “I’ll ignore that—and I’m not going to belabor this, either. Except to say that this is the kind of thing that’ll take away every advantage she gained by going to that expensive pre-school I got her into.”

“Which she hated.”

“Alex, she’s barely six years old. She doesn’t have a clue what’s good for her.”

“And neither do I, apparently,” he snapped.

“Oh, honey; let’s not argue.” She reached for his arm. “All I want is what’s best for Ashley.”

Alex jerked away. “Whether she or I likes it or not; is that it?”

Rosemary grew chilly. “And I suppose you’d be happy if she fell behind and had to be home-schooled?”

“Look—I’m a tenured middle-school teacher in a public school district. That’s not gonna happen—any more than she’s going to a private school. We can’t afford it anyway, not since you decided to stop working to ride herd on her full-time.”

That wounded Rosemary. “At least one of us wants to make sure she gets everything she needs.”

“Oh, bullshit!” Alex wasn’t going to relent; not this time. “And, besides, what is it she’s going to ‘fall behind’ in? Dance? Music lessons? Karate? Or ‘structured play’ with those other little robots?”

“That’s not fair!” She crossed her arms and turned up the volume. “Every activity I have her in has demonstrable pre-collegiate value—unlike ‘soc-cer.’”

“Oh, yeah. Pointless for a little kid to run around, kicking and screaming, with a bunch of scruffy little renegades, especially after a full work week of ‘structure.’ Don’t you see, honey? All this false urgency and fear of underachievement does is rob a lot of these kids of the best parts of their childhoods—playing, imagining, discovering…thinking. For themselves. By the time I get them in Science classes, they’re defeated. They wouldn’t dream of touching anything that isn’t preprogrammed and pre-approved by adults.”

“So, I guess what you’re saying,” she sniffed, “is, all the time I spend with Ashley doesn’t count for anything?”

Alex rolled his eyes. “Melodrama aside, what I am saying is that you’re not spending her time with her, you’re spending it for her. She’s a human being. She has more than needs; she has feelings. All you’re doing, I fear, is making her resentful and rebellious. Is that what you want, for Ashley to grow to hate you?”

Before Rosemary could respond, Ashley appeared in the doorway, making fists of her tiny hands, her alabaster face in knots. “Mommy! Gimme my book back. Now!”

“Ashley!” Alex came halfway out of his chair. Rosemary set her jaw and bound the book tighter to herself. Ashley burst into sobs and fled. Rosemary wasn’t far behind.

“I can’t talk to either of you any more!” she said in the direction of the chandelier.

Alex fell back into the cushions. “I’ll talk to her, later,” he said weakly.

Rosemary sat, watching Ashley and Ryan test each other with flashcards. After dunking and draining her teabag, she sipped carefully and reached for a cookie. “They do seem to get along, don’t they?”

“Looks like it. Better, since we got rid of that little monster, Tyler!” Across the table, Ryan’s mother, Jennifer, laughed. Rosemary didn’t. Jennifer squinted at her. “You okay? You look distracted.”

“Oh, Alex and I are hammer-and-tong about Ashley, as usual.” Rosemary searched her neighbor’s face. “Do you think we push these kids too hard?”

“Who knows? Sometimes it feels like it, but things are so much different from how they used to be. Everybody has to work; everything’s so expensive. There’s so much to do; there’s no time. There’s more to learn and less time to learn it. I dunno. My father said in the Sixties the hippies on campus would laugh at ‘straights’ like him and say, ‘Work, study, get ahead, KILL!’ Makes you wonder; how on Earth do you suppose our grandparents dealt with a Depression and World War?”

“Well, thanks for answering my question!” They giggled.

Rosemary dropped her chin into her hands. “I mean, I suppose I can see Alex’s point. My Dad was away a lot, so it was Mom and me most of the time. She saw to me, but wasn’t really available emotionally—“

“Whose parents were?”

“—But, yeah, did it matter all that much, really? I’m okay; I want for Ashley and me to be close and all that, but everything I read and see on TV frightens me. I want her to be prepared. Like, did you see that thing last night about the registered sex offender? Living right on a street full of kids!”

“Oh, honey; come on — that was 20 miles and two freeways away!”

“I know, but they said there were more calls on the Megan’s Law hotline and more hits on the web site from this county than anywhere else in the state. Doesn’t that bother you?”

Jennifer munched and gulped. “I don’t even want to think about things like that. Let’s just get these kids through school and into a good college, okay?” The silence made them both restless, so Jennifer changed subjects. “So—where are you and Alex on the subject, again?”

“We’ve agreed I can go back to work in a couple months, when Ashley starts first grade. He’s determined to put her in public school and, as long as there’s only one income, he can say we can’t afford anything else. If I work, he loses that edge and we can keep our options open. Anyway, I’ll have more flexibility than he does, so I can make sure Ashley keeps up. You’ll still be available for exercises after school, right?”

In the academy, silliness broke out. Ryan and Ashley had taken an impromptu palm-slapping game to the next level, laughing and rolling around on the floor.

“Ashley!” Rosemary stood, pointing two fingers at her eyeballs. “Focus.”

 

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