- This Is How It Always Is
Poppy was pretty sure he could not see her anything. She was wearing thick tights, and her legs had been crossed. But she was not completely sure.
“Dirty perv,” said Kim. And then to Poppy, “Aren’t you eating?”
Poppy’s whole self folded in half. She held her lunch bag in her lap, over her, well, thing, but she could not bring herself to open it. She shook her head.
“Come on,” said Aggie. “Let’s go outside.”
On the playground, PANK gathered around Poppy. “You’re so pretty,” they said. And “Of course you’re a girl,” they said. And “Marnie Alison is such a stupid jerk,” they said. And “People make up the weirdest things,” they said. What they did not say was, “Who cares what’s in your pants?” And they did not say, “It wouldn’t matter if you did have a penis. We would still love you.” And they also did not say, “We know you, and we know who you really are.” Poppy knew they didn’t say these things because they didn’t know to say these things. But because they did not, she got scareder and scareder, and because she got scareder and scareder, her classmates started to believe that Marnie Alison, though a jerk, might be on to something. Otherwise, wouldn’t Poppy laugh about it, or say it was just stupid and funny, or go ahead and prove she was who they’d always thought she was?
In gym, someone said, “Poppy, shouldn’t you be on the other side with the boys?” and everyone laughed.
In health, when they broke up for sex ed, someone raised her hand and said, “Ms. Norton? I don’t feel comfortable with Poppy being here,” and everyone laughed.
In math, Josh Edison complained the homework took forever, and Mr. Mohan said, “That’s why it’s called long division—it’s long.” No one laughed. Then someone said, “That’s what Poppy said,” and everyone laughed.
That’s when Poppy packed up all her books right there in the middle of math and walked straight out of the classroom and down the fifth-grade hallway and out the front door of the school and called her mom.
Rosie expected tears and yelling and cascades of snot, but what she got on the way home was a silence she did not press. When they walked in together—when Rosie should have been at work still, when Poppy should have been in math still—Penn took one look at his wife and daughter and knew what had happened, the form anyway if not the substance. They both looked sick, ashen, but he could see that this was not the flu, for Poppy would not meet his eyes, and Rosie’s, in the blink of their crossing, confirmed everything. They let Poppy go off alone to her room and quietly, heartrendingly shut her door.
“How?” said Penn.
“Don’t know,” said Rosie.
“How is she?”
“Don’t know that either.”
“What do we do?”
It did not matter how, really, but they still wanted to know. Had someone peeped into a bathroom stall at school? Had the principal hinted to a teacher who’d figured it out and told another teacher who was overheard in the staff room? Were the ten-year-olds who populated Poppy’s world somehow more perceptive than anyone gave them credit for?
Or had someone told?
They had a family meeting. There was no use pretending to Poppy this was not a big deal. She was living in the eye of it and knew better. There was no use acting as if this outing did not change all their lives because those lives were here, already changed. There was no use spreading blame, but that did not mean it was not worth asking the question. Did anyone want to confess to confessing, disclose their disclosure, transgress their transgression? No one did. “I’ll tutor you from home,” Ben offered, “until you’re ready for college. Then you can start over again. Again.” Roo rolled his eyes. Penn made pancakes for dinner, which no one much ate, but that was okay because he knew what was called for here wasn’t food but fairy tale. There was nothing like some other hapless kid getting boiled or eaten or turned into a tree to make your own life seem less terrible. There was nothing like the promise of magic to make okay even that which seemed like it would never be okay again.
Penn had never tried to disguise the ways Grumwald’s adventures mirrored his kids’. Fairy tales aren’t about subtlety, after all, and teenagers will ignore a moral if you let them. Grumwald had been practicing a lot of safe sex lately (sex which was all the more gratifying because he’d waited until he found true love). He had gotten into his first-choice college by triple proofreading his application and not going to the movies with Cayenne the night before the SATs. If only Penn knew the moral of Poppy’s horrible day at school, he felt certain Grumwald and Stephanie could effectively impart it, but because he did not, he started at the end and worked backwards. Sometimes your secrets get out; sometimes the world seems like it’s ending; somehow it will all be okay.
“Princess Stephanie was out with Grumwald’s study partner, Lloyd,” Penn began.
“Lloyd?” Roo interrupted. “No one’s named Lloyd, Dad.”
“Lloyd you object to,” Ben didn’t even look up from his phone, “but Grumwald you’re fine with?”
Penn ignored them. The story wasn’t for them tonight; it was for Poppy. “Princess Stephanie and Lloyd were having a lovely dinner. But after the appetizers, the restaurant door slammed open, and a cold wind blew in, colder than Stephanie had ever felt, colder than real wind ever got, so she knew something was up. In walked a figure in a veil and dark cloak. All the lights went off. All the candles blew out. The air in the room turned to sludge, and Princess Stephanie found herself gasping for breath, panicked, so she didn’t even notice that no one else in the restaurant seemed to be having trouble breathing or seeing or keeping their candles lit. The cloaked figure came closer and closer, and it was the witch. The one who’d commanded Grumwald to harvest night fairy hair all those years ago. The one who’d given Steph magic beans when she needed them. The witch leaned right into her and said, ‘I know who you are,’ and Stephanie was afraid and said, ‘I’m Princess Stephanie,’ but the witch said, ‘I know your secrets, and I’ll tell everyone,’ and Princess Stephanie—”