“Couch. Jory Couch.”
The teacher’s voice grated through the high pitched laughter in the room. Twenty heads swiveled around to the stern man in the bad suit. A narrow-faced, freckled boy with ginger hair raised his hand. Marcelina, seated at a table in front of him, twisted around to identify this boy. He caught her staring and stuck out his tongue.
The teacher’s voice droned on and Marcelina snuck a peek down at the new crayons in her lap. How she wanted to draw! When would they get to the drawing part?
“Mencher! Marcelina Mencher, raise your hand now!”
Marcelina shrank down in her chair. That tone of voice was familiar. Even if the person using it was not known. Her hand rose with a trembling slowness she knew, even at five, gave her away.
“You must pay attention, Marcelina.”
She nodded her head meekly. Everyone was staring. Most importantly, her new crayons were scattered on the floor. The colors, still bright, were no longer warming. Would she be allowed to pick them up? Rather than ask, she slid down in her chair and onto the floor under her table. The teacher said something, but she ignored him. Her other brother, Siemowit, had proclaimed from the lofty heights of third grade that kindergarten was for babies. Marcelina had hit him with her small fist and proclaimed herself no baby.
Then she’d been sent to bed with no piernik.
Once the crayons were in her hands she looked at the shoes of her classmates. Everyone had new shoes. They shone with the proclamation that no one had worn them before. New feet, new laces or buckles, and no scuff marks. Marcelina slid her own secondhand shoes off.
It was not as if they’d been used much, but that was why she hated them so. The shoes had been Zuza’s. Zuza, who had died two years ago when she was Marcelina’s age. Sometimes she still heard her parents crying when they thought her asleep. Her brothers pretended they were not sad, but everyone was sad.
Marcelina was the last. The youngest. But now, sometimes, she felt like she’d be doing everything twice. Because her parents would not think to themselves, “Today is Marcelina’s first day of school.” No, they would think, “Zuza’s first day would have been two years ago. Today is for her as well as Marcelina. Because Marcelina must live for her sister as well.”
It was a disturbing thought for a girl of five. Especially since, if pressed, she could not put it into words. Only feelings. It felt as if she must live for two. Be both daughters of the Mencher family.
The shoes were a constant reminder so she kicked them away. Her legs were strong and so the shoes skidded across the thin carpet and landed under another table. Against another foot. Marcelina was caught when a ginger-haired boy ducked his head down and grinned at her.
Because she could not talk, hiding as she was, she didn’t put the grin into words. Not the way her oldest brother would talk about his girlfriend’s smile or hair. Or other things when he also thought her asleep. It made her stomach feel funny, the boy’s grin, and so she grinned back.
Her eyes grew wide when he tugged off his shoes. He slid out of his chair and landed softly on his butt. Marcelina clapped a hand over her mouth to quiet her giggle. His shoes was kicked across the carpet. Not as well. She had to stretch her arm out to reach them.
He wore tennis shoes. They were white and she stroked the new footwear in wonder. Someday, in the far future it seemed, she would get shoes of her own. Not Zuza’s. When she looked up from the shoe he mimed putting it on.
Did he want to trade? But, he had boy shoes! And her shoes, scuffed Mary Janes of brown, were girl shoes. He slid her first shoe onto his foot. She tried his on with a bounced excitement. They fit! So, she slid his other shoe on. He was wearing hers! Marcelina had to keep from laughing.
He did not.
Strong fingers closed around her arm and Marcelina squeaked. The teacher, Mr. Vilhjalmsson, pulled her up to her feet. Jory stood as well and she thought that brave.
“Miss Mencher, what were you doing?”
“I dropped my crayons.”
“Jory has girl shoes! Jory has girl shoes!” The chorus was picked up by the class before Mr. Vilhjalmsson stopped them with a clap of his hands. Marcelina rubbed her arm where he’d held her. It didn’t hurt. It was the thought of being caught.
Would her parents be called? They would be disappointed. Zuza would not have been caught. She would have been a good student. Marcelina began to sob, unable to stop the overwhelming sense of failure she’d created in her head. Zuza would be looking down from Heaven. Mad. Upset that Marcelina could go to school and fail when she could not go and thrive.
The kids fell quiet, teasing forgotten as Marcelina held their attention. Twenty heads watched as Marcelina threw up her breakfast while still sobbing. Then the shrieking began and everyone raced away from her.
Everyone except Mr. Vilhjalmsson.
And Jory, but he only stared raptly at his brand new tennis shoes. No longer white.