Always and Forever
Neal is super excited to go to school today. It's book day. It's his day to have his very own favorite book read by Mrs. Garner. Mrs. Garner is the school librarian and on book day one child gets to pick out their favorite book; then she reads it to the entire class. Neal has lots and lots of books. Books he and Lizabeth picked out together, books he picked out all by himself, books from Peter, uncle Moz and nana June.
Last book day Mrs. Garner read his friend Seth's book, Dragons Love Tacos. Neal picked Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. What else would he pick? Pidjun is his favorite and Peter's favorite too. Lizabeth washed him last night so he wouldn't be sticky when Mrs. Garner got to hold him, cause Pidjun was coming too. Pidjun was Neal's stuffed blue pigeon and his first friend when he came to live with Peter and Lizabeth, besides Satchmo.
He can hardly wait. He really really likes Mrs. Garner. Lizabeth said she was the librarian when she was a little girl. Mrs. Garner was very old, the oldest person he knew. Older than nana June. She was short and round with long brown fingers and her smile covered all of her face, and best of all she always smelled like pie. She let him sit in her lap, when he was new, so new nobody knew him and he was scared. Her lap was bigger than Lizabeth's. He loved laps.
"Neal, hold still. I have to brush your hair," Elizabeth said with a look of determination.
"Mm-kay, but not too hard," he squirmed as she tried to tame that one big curl right on the top of his head. No matter how much she brushed, it wouldn't lay flat. Peter said it was a lost cause. Lizabeth wanted him to look nice.
"There, I think I got it. You look beautiful," she said admiring her handiwork.
"Boys aren't beautiful, Lizabeth," he scrunched up his face.
She thought just you wait, there would be lots of girls who shared her opinion. They would have to wait because today he was hers and he was perfect; no crayon stains, no sticky fingers or muddy sneakers, no runny nose and no runaway hair. Pigeon looked pretty cute too. He cleaned up well.
"Let's go, Lizabeth. We don't wanna be late." He put his book in his blue knapsack and took pigeon in his arms and pressed him to his chest.
When they got to his classroom, Mrs. Matthews the principal was there with some of the other teachers and parents too. Seth's mother was holding his hand really tight and her eyes were puffy.
"Where is everybody?" Neal asked Elizabeth.
"I don't know sweetie. Why don't you wait right here and I'll go find out," she nodded to the small bench outside Neal's classroom. She could tell from the looks on the faces of the teachers and other parents something had happened, and whatever it was it couldn't be good.
Elizabeth nodded solemnly as the circle of parents and teachers took her in. Mrs. Garner passed away the principal told her. Mrs. Turner found her at her desk earlier this morning, surrounded by all her books. It was an awful shock. Her daughter had been called and an ambulance was coming for the body. They all felt school should be cancelled.
Mrs. Garner was a fixture at the school. Elizabeth couldn't remember a time when she wasn't there. She was incredibly kind and made every child feel special. Her warm smile and generous hugs always made everything seem right. She fell in love with books in Mrs. Garner's library. It was Mrs. Garner who introduced her to completely new worlds entirely made of nothing but words. She was so happy Neal had the opportunity to know her and now she was gone. Mrs. Garner's daughter would have been her age, a tear slipped down her cheek.
She looked over at the little boy on the bench so filled with excitement and joy.
"How do I do this?" she struggled to compose herself. She crouched down in front of the little boy, took his hand and held it.
"Neal honey, I have some sad news. Mrs. Garner died."
"She's not gonna read to us today?" he said searching her eyes.
"No, you're not going to have book day today."
"Will she read to us tomorrow?" he squeezed her hand.
The drive home seemed to take forever. Neal was unnaturally quiet. Elizabeth called Peter soon as he was settled upstairs.
"Hi, hon. How was Neal's book day?" Peter was brimming with curiosity.
"Oh honey, we got the worst news," she began to choke up.
"What's wrong? Is Neal all right?"
"Yes, it was Mrs. Garner. She died at the school today, one of the teachers found her right before Neal's class started. They cancelled school for the rest of the day."
"God. How's Neal taking it?"
"I don't know. He asked me if she was going to read to him tomorrow. He doesn't understand, honey. He knows something bad happened, you know how perceptive he is. I'm sure he could sense how I was feeling."
"Do you want me to come home?"
"The school counselor said we should try to keep things as routine as possible. She said at times like this structure and routine are important, especially for the little ones. Thanks for offering, but I think if you came home in the middle of the day it might worry him more."
"Yeah, you're probably right. I just wish there was something I could do."
"The school counselor said they are planning some form of activity for the children to help them cope. She said she'd let us know."
"Elizabeth, I'm so sorry. I know how much Mrs. Garner meant to you too. Call me if you need me. I love you."
"I love you too, hon."
Neal remained fairly quiet; he spent most of the day in his room drawing. He went out with Elizabeth to walk Satchmo but his heart didn't seem in it. He brightened up a bit when Peter came home. He didn't eat much and Peter knew he was struggling when he didn't take even a bite of the Rocky Road ice cream he brought him. After Elizabeth had given him his bath and he was dressed in his pajamas, Peter came in to check on him.
"Hey buddy, ready for bed?"
"Um hmm," he nodded.
"Penny for your thoughts?" Peter ruffled the little boy's hair.
"Mrs. Garner didn't get to read my book."
"I know," Peter said softly.
"Do you think Mrs. Garner is mad with me? Is that why she went away?"
"No buddy, not at all. Mrs. Garner liked you very much."
"Then why did she leave, she didn't even get to meet pidjun?"
Totally unprepared to answer Neal's question, Peter deflected. "How about I read it to you?
"No! I want Mrs. Garner to read it." And then he began to cry so pitifully it made Peter's chest hurt. That night they moved the little boy into their bed when his soft crying filled the quiet house.
When the children returned to school, they made a memory book. Everyone wrote down their favorite memory of Mrs. Garner and then it went into this big red book that would go into the library. Whenever they missed Mrs. Garner they could go visit and read the memory book in the library. Lizabeth helped him write down his memory. It was his first day at school when he was new. Mrs. Garner gave him a green peppermint for the butterflies in his stomach and let him sit in her lap while she read to him, but it wasn't the same. Having a memory wasn't the same as having Mrs. Garner. He didn't understand why everyone thought it was. Didn't they miss Mrs. Garner too? Why was no one looking for her?
The next week he didn't want to go to school. His head hurt his stomach hurt, everything hurt. He didn't want a bedtime story or any of his favorite foods or toys. He followed Lizabeth and Peter around all the time, and watched them closely when he thought they didn't notice. If they were out of his sight for just one minute he would cry or pitch terrible fits. One day he stamped his feet and yelled so loud Satchmo ran under the bed.
Elizabeth was running out of things to say and do. Her sweet tempered, kind and loving child had turned into a sad and miserable little boy. This weekend was his time to visit June. Once a month he would spend the day and they would bake and sing and go to the park. He loved June and it was one of his favorite things to do. When Elizabeth told him he was going to visit, he said, "Nana June's house is too big and too scary. I don't want to go there anymore. She's mean."
"Neal, that's not a nice thing to say. You love nana June."
"I don't. I don't like old people. You can't make me go."
He stayed in his room the rest of the day, to make sure he didn't have to go to nana June's.
By the time Peter got home, Elizabeth was already in tears. He felt so useless and helpless to make the two people he loved most in the world whole again.
"Peter he's not getting better. Do you think maybe we should take him to the school counselor?"
"Let's give him some more time. They said he needed routine and structure. Well things have been anything but routine around here lately. We have to find a way to support him, but set limits honey. Maybe it's time we put him back into his room, for starters."
Neal woke up screaming. Peter heard it first, jolting him into consciousness. It was a high pitched horrific sound that cut through him like a knife. He ran stumbling into his bedroom to find Neal sitting up in bed his eyes wide with panic. Elizabeth was right behind him.
"Neal!" she shouted. Peter already had the little boy in his arms, assured there was nothing wrong physically.
"Honey?" she patted the little boy who was pressed against Peter's chest. "Honey, did you have a bad dream?"
"I couldn't find you," Neal was sobbing.
"It's okay, baby. We're right here." But Neal's wailing only got louder. "I didn't know where you were," he said through broken breaths. He turned and reached for her, "I looked for you and I couldn't find you." He continued to cry and cry, his thick black lashes matted with tears made his blue eyes shimmer. He cried until he couldn't.
"We're right here. We're right here." They said over and over until the little boy limp with exhaustion finally fell asleep in their arms.
"Hon, come to bed," Peter said to her as she stood and looked out the window of their bedroom. She couldn't sleep. Neal's screams kept playing through her mind, it was the worst sound she had ever heard.
The school counselor said each child would react differently to the loss of Mrs. Garner and they just had to let them find their way through it. She shook her head. He's just a little boy; he shouldn't have to go through this she thought. Peter came over and gently wrapped his arms around her. She let the tears fall.
"He's going to be okay," he whispered to her but his own heart was beating faster than it should.
"Do you think some parts of big Neal's experiences are still with him? He was just about this age when James left and his mother said he had been killed." Tonight, when she looked into his eyes they were a shade lighter, the exact color of big Neal's. It was as if the spell had been suspended for a moment.
"I don't know. It's possible. We are completely in unknown territory here. Whatever it is, I promise, we will make it right for him."
Peter's breathing steadied, he had finally fallen asleep. She carefully got out of bed and walked down the hall into Neal's room. He was so innocent, so pure and beautiful lying there surrounded by all his stuffed animals: Pigeon and Leonardo. OZ was spinning in his wheel and Satchmo was snoring at the foot of the bed. It had been so simple to love him, love had to be enough now.
"June, I'm so sorry. Neal doesn't want to come today."
"Why he loves to come. I made his favorite cookies," but she already knew. "Peter told me about Mrs. Garner." Elizabeth started to cry.
"It's alright dear."
"I don't know how to help him. He hardly eats, he doesn't even want a bedtime story, and he's having terrible nightmares."
"You just bring him child," June said with a calm assurance. She knew something about grief.
Thanks to all of you for your lovely comments and reviews of the two previous Bedtime Stories. I'm not sure if I have enough to continue as a series, but I thought I'd give it another try. I wanted this one to read more like a children's story. I'm interested to see what you all think. The next chapter is almost done and should be up shortly.