The teacher with one leg always says, May I. Use the Rest. Room. Please, whenever Jamie asks if he can go to the bathroom at preschool. He does not want to rest, and in fact Jamie never takes a nap in the preschool room, although he lies on his mat with his lip zipped for the sake of his friends who arrive before six o’clock. Jamie unzips just ahead of Mass because he needs to go number-one. Always does after morning snack.
May I, Jamie echoes, Please. His eyes land on a patch of glitter from yesterday’s Art Lab. The flecks twinkle when he moves his head. He sees himself walking the long hallway to the bathroom, laughs because he does not want to take a bath there. Mrs. Dowell waits with her one leg. Once at Circle Time she took off her fake leg and showed all the kids, amazed on their carpets, how she put it back on with special goop for the stumpy end so it could move around smoothly on the fake part. She shifts her fake leg and her sandal touches the glitter and hides the light. Jamie looks at the plastic toes of her fake leg, and sees the same fake skin color of the rest of the fake leg where the fake pink polish on the fake toenails has scraped off above the strap of her sandal, which is real. Mama has the same pair of shoes just like yours, Jamie tells her, and the teacher limps with him to the door of the classroom and tells him to hurry before Mass time, Jamie, your bathrooming is clockwork, but you still need to be on time, so hurry up but walking-feet, Jamie. At the threshold of the heavy door thrown wide against the wall for the day, the carpet switches from speckled yellow to red. Mrs. Dowell guides Jamie into the hallway and points him off.
He heads down the hallway with his best walking-feet and he is all alone, not even the lunch helpers or big kids he doesn’t know around, all the classrooms on one side and the class pictures hanging on the other and the bathroom door somewhere past all of this, and he’s singing, “Where the lemonade springs and the bluebird sings, in the Big Rock Candy Mountains!” and matching his steps in time with the drumbeats in his head until the beats get really fast together until they aren’t drumbeats anymore, but the deep rumbling of the earth and a volcano is about to erupt. He could avoid the lava flow with his super-fast hops and skips, like Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick from Circle Time yesterday. He’s still walking-feet and not running, but the lava comes running up to his feet, and he’s getting hot, about to be burned up, and when he looks back he can’t see the classroom door anymore, the hallway’s so full of lava. The only way out is to open the bathroom door and drain all the lava from his school and save everyone. Well, almost everyone. Everyone except Mrs. Dowell who’s too slow to get away from the lava and it burned up her fake leg, so with nothing to prop her up, she fell in and became a mummy instantly. Now Jamie has hot stepping toes and the bathroom door is almost within reach. The door looks and feels almost wet but it is dry. He wipes his fingers on his cheek to make sure.
The biggest, oldest church building in town has devoted its entire south end to a preschool and the first couple of school grades for big kids who stay until the afternoon and eat lunch in the Fellowship Hall and they are supposed to be quiet but they can’t, because their mouths are too big. The church reminds Jamie of a castle with its stone walls and bastions and steeples and fancy lights and red carpets inside. Jamie likes to spend time in the bathroom because it is a funhouse in there. The large mirror behind the row of sinks reminds him of a part in a book that Mama reads him where some explorers find a crystal cavern and see themselves reflected in funny ways on the jagged shards and planes of the rocks in the cave. The rock-mirrors make the fat explorer look skinny and the skinny one look fat, and makes the youngest who is also the scaredest look kind of wrinkled and mean. The mirror in the bathroom wobbles the room when Jamie moves. As he pops up tip-toe in front of it, horizontal waves pass over his reflection and make his face wobble. He bobs up and down on his toes and laughs as the mirror stretches his eyes so they take up half his face, then shoves his eyes and nose together. Sometimes the mirror gives him a highly domed head that reminds him of the ceiling in the chapel down the red hallway where he goes with his class to pray. A window high up on the wall has a big red letter P with an X on the tail, exactly the same as all the sparkling tablecloths in the chapel. X marks the spot for a treasure. He knows that the teacher with one leg will come for him if he takes a long time going to the bathroom. Mrs. Dowell will balance on her real leg at the doorway of the bathroom and tell them to hurry, but she never comes in because she’s not a boy. You have to have a penis to get in. If you don’t have a penis, you can’t come in here. Sometimes she sends his friend Johnny in to tell him to quick, flush and wash.
The mirror is the best thing about school, the best thing to think about because it bends the bathroom and everything in it a little differently every day. When he says mirror, all the r’s come out “uwhuh” and Mrs. Dowell corrects him. Jamie can hear the difference but he can’t make it with his mouth. It’s like revving an engine that does not turn over, and that’s when Mama says Shit, come on, baby and then Excuse my French. Mama never corrects his mouth like Mrs. Dowell but makes sure his shirt tags are in the back and snaps his pants so fast he can’t see how it works. The bathroom with the best mirror is also the best bathroom at school, because it’s not for grown-ups or big kids, only boys in his class. The toilets are just the right size and the sinks are just the right height.
Jamie dips in front of the mirror and laughs as his baby teeth get smaller, space closer like white highway lines that merge in the rearview mirror he likes to watch on rides when he is strapped high into the middle of the back of Mama’s car. Lines wave back as he moves forward, but every line shoots across Mama’s face in the double reflection because it doesn’t know her. They shoot past like shooting stars, and the whooshoowhoosh reminds Jamie why he asked to come here in the first place. He needs to go number-one, sees a crusted faucet drip yellow onto a line of rust in the farthest sink. Those crusty little stalactites don’t come off, they’re attached just like in real cave expeditions. The letter P is crossed out on the window facing the door. The pressure down there feels kind of good to Jamie, he’s kinking the hose, and he doesn’t want to let go of it but he has to soon, otherwise he’ll pee his pants in Mass, and the big kids would laugh. They would sit on the other side of the aisle and answer all Father George’s questions, questions like why did God make you and why are Jamie’s pants all wet?
Jamie pulls down his pants and underwear all together as Daddy taught him, aims pee on a red bulb that looks like a clown’s nose. If he gets a little on the edge of the stand-up toilet, he does not wipe it off the way he wipes the sit-down toilet’s seat off at home, because there is no seat in this bathroom if it’s just number-one. The cold tooth-material that feels wet even when it isn’t goes up the wall taller than Jamie on his tip-toes. Shiny beads speckle the silvery flush-bar like sweat. It sweats pee and makes the floor a little slippery.
Today Jamie pretends his stream is a waterfall, very-very small compared to the great-big waterfall that comes closer every second. Sinbad’s ship heads toward the very-very-big waterfall. And then he’s done and he pulls the silver handle to oh no, stop the ship but oh no, too late and whooshoowhoosh he goes down the great-big-giant waterfall, the spray goes everywhere. In that story about Sinbad, Eris thought he didn’t have a heart but he did have feelings and Sinbad always, always finds the lost treasure. Eris tries to hide the light but the sun always, always rises over Sinbad’s ship. Jamie stands, wiggles his pants into place. He turns and the mirror wobbles the room like a ship setting to rights.
The biggest problem is a snap.
He bears down at the top of his pants with clenched teeth and there is only the corner of the mirror darkened with age and his strain. He straightens, pants with effort. Snap up before Mass. He doubles again, fingers white from the pressure. Jamie grinds in frustration. Breath and pulse fill his ears, so he sees the flash of hair gone white from the sun before he hears the big kid talk.
“Hey, kid, c’mere.” Jamie looks up at him, shakes his head. The mirror wobbles a head. Jamie was expecting Mrs. Dowell or Johnny, not a big boy.
“Here, help me out? C’mere.” The big kid appears deflated. One of his shirt cuffs is unbuttoned, the sleeve carelessly shoved up an arm. The stiff cuff hangs down from near his elbow, lolls like a head on a broken neck. The boy’s bowl of white-yellow hair glows and flops in time with his nods. “Here, c’mere. Help me? It really, really hurts when I pee.”
The last word opens the air around it.
The boy with glowing hair is quick, and Jamie cannot get out of the line of fire. He opens his mouth to protest, but the big kid is so strong, pins him to the wall between the urinals. Then he unzips his pants, shoves his hips toward Jamie’s face. Here, put it in your mouth. He holds Jamie’s chin open, pushes into his mouth. It is warm rubber to start, then stiff and slippery, with a bolt head the shape of a star. Jamie feels cracks run through it like veins. Morning snack comes up in his throat and burns. The corners of his lips stretch and sting. Glowing kinks brush Jamie’s nose and tickle, the smell of sick-sweet fabric softener and sweat hangs over him. His fingers splay, arms uncertain in the extra body heat. The letter of the week is X. Jamie sees an X-ray like all the alphabet posters have with his eyes squeezed shut, flashes of light that stutter each with each thrust of the big kid holding Jamie in place show two skeletons that aren’t even touching. X-ray. Xylophone. Next. Exit. Exit. Exit. The big kid pushes against him, grunts. Jamie’s eyes water, and he finds a way to breathe, cries muffled by a shudder that nearly knocks him down, even though he is pinned against the wall. Then it is over. The big-kid melts from the top down like a candle.
The bells ring chapel time and the boy with glowing hair lets go his fistful of Jamie’s hair, relaxes out of his mouth. Jamie splutters, coughs out big-kid pee from his burning, buzzing mouth. Big-kid pee sticks to the red clown nose like snot. The big kid buttons, zips, snaps. His head hides the exit sign over the dark, slick doorway.
Jamie thinks of a white cast for when you break a bone. He feels the bolt upright halt of it, even though he has never broken. Jamie thinks he would sign a white cast with a big-fat marker with a big-fat tip with a big-fat letter X, a treasure map that got lost to Sinbad when his ship broke.
Jamie knows where the chapel is from the bathroom. Light stutters under the chapel doors, and he pushes them open without meaning to. Kids from his class file up the aisle, arms crossed tight over their chests. The big kids are half-kneeling, half-sitting in the pews, their arms slack.
Under the first hanging light, Jamie makes his X and joins the processional. Mrs. Dowell bows her head at him, then limps to one side to let him follow the last kid in line. When Jamie sees the white candles tied in an X, his arms fall limp for the blessing. Murmurs and incense waft into his face, heavy and spicy. The words to protect him stay hard and cool like the candles pressed against his throat. They don’t blaze, they ask Saint Blaise. May I. Please.
Then it is over. The smoke tapers away. The sanctuary candle hangs in the air, glows red through the glass. Casts a final star onto the domed ceiling. Bends the light down out of reach. Melts from the top down, drips stuck on the sides. Flames eat up air and blacken the bolts. No one ever blows out the sanctuary candle. It has no choice, it has to burn whether it’s day or night, just like the sun. All the blessed throats in the chapel, big and small, open wide in song.
Emily Vieyra’s work has appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review and Fairy Tale Review.
Originally published in the FALL 2018 edition of the Helix.