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"Outside the Box"
2019 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved
Orion Rembrandt was a seriously presumptuous name for a five-year-old. Actually, his full name was even grander. Orion Aloysius Rembrandt. His Mom sent a note that first day, saying that if he ever was too much to handle, we should use his middle name to let him know that we meant business. It turns out, I only had to do that once, and that was on the last day I saw him.
I teach Special Ed at the elementary school. I don't have a degree, but they asked me to fill in while the teacher had a baby. I guess it’s because I think outside the box when I'm in the classroom. Kids like that and so do principals, because I’m not tied to all those rules full-time teachers have to follow. They’d called me in for problem kids before, troubled kids who were one step away from reform school, and I guess they liked what I did because my phone rang a lot. However, I sensed that an entire semester of Special Ed was going be a tougher challenge than I'd ever had. I turned out to be right about that.
I walked into my classroom at the far end of a lonely, little-used hallway on the first day of the new semester. My five special kids were waiting for me that morning, eating their free breakfasts before they went up to their regular classrooms. I had a first grader, two third-graders, and three fourth-graders. All of them had issues of course, ADD, ADHD, NLD, APD, and probably a few more things they hadn't labeled yet. Education professionals love initials and it took me that whole first week to figure out what they all meant.
In spite of all that, I liked my job, and took to the kids right away. The mainstream teachers helped ease me into things and by the third day, I found myself down on the floor playing with the youngest ones like they were my own grandkids. They all called me ‘Mr. Leonard.’ When fourth graders are struggling valiantly to make it beyond pre-school in math and reading, they call you by your first name, just like they would in kindergarten. Once I got rolling and growing into the job, I started coming up my own strategies, basically throwing a lot of things against the wall to see what would stick. I brought in my guitar and sang for them. I told them every dumb, first-grade joke I knew. Pretty soon the other teachers started telling me what a natural I was, and how nice it was to see the kids respond. I don't care who you are, if you're the least bit human, you like to feel you’re making a difference in the world.
Then Orion Rembrandt showed up.
Lots of transients find their way up here to our little school in the mountains. They don't tell us everything about the families that come to us, but from what I gathered, Orion's family had just moved up from the flatlands and was living in the woods in a tent, with no running water and no heat. In January. Sheesh! When I heard that, I shook my head. The things kids went through these days. What else did that poor little guy have to deal with in his family life? I hated to even think about that.
The good thing was, I took to Orion right away. He was an easy kid to like. He had a head of thick, jet black hair that poked every which way and little sideburns like Eddie Munster. He had wide, intelligent brown eyes and flat feet, so when he ran, his toes pointed out to the side like a duck. I couldn't help but smile as I jogged after him down the hallway to my room.
Orion's school problems weren't academic. He loved books and was already reading at fourth grade level, even though he was in kindergarten. His problems were behavioral. In pre-screening, the school counselors had placed him somewhere on the autism spectrum, which, frankly, could mean just about anything, so they sent him to me. His main issue was his propensity to zone out in the middle of whatever he was doing. He’d go completely still, eyes boring into whatever he was looking at, usually a picture. It sounded to me like some sort of defense mechanism to maybe protect him from bad things in his family life. But what did I know? As I said, I don’t have a degree.
One morning, during the ten o’clock hour when we were alone in my classroom, Orion noticed the shelves way up high in a far corner, packed with small, thin, reading enrichment books, one shelf for each grade.
"Mr. Leonard, what are those books? Can I see one?"
We were supposed to be working on math that day but what the heck. Time to think outside the box. "Sure," I said. "Do you want a first grade book, a second grade book, or what?"
He put a finger to his lips and stood there pondering my question like Socrates posing in Eddie Munster’s body. I suppressed a chuckle. The kid was cute all right.
"First grade," he finally answered in a high, little-boy voice. As always, his words were crystal clear and easy to understand, unlike the rest of my kids. "First grade books have the coolest pictures," he continued, "even though the words are too easy for me."
"First grade it is," I said.
I wrestled a thin book from the tightly-packed shelf. It was Jack and Jill and Big Dog Bill, a primer with lots of repetition and rhyming to help kids memorize basic words. We snuggled together on the bright blue bean bag chair, his favorite place to read.
He read the title out loud. “Jack and Jill and Big Dog Bill.” He smiled up at me with his big brown eyes. “Jill and Bill! That rhymes!”
“Yes it does,” I replied, smiling myself. The kid’s enthusiasm was contagious.
He turned the page to a bright, watercolor picture of two kids dragging a sled through the snow by a big hill, followed by a large, brown, fluffy dog with his tongue sticking out and tail wagging. Orion smoothly and easily read the text below the picture. “How will we get up the hill? asked Jack.”
“That’s good, Orion. Perfect. Go to the next page.”
“Push Bill, push! said Jill to Big Dog Bill."
“Bill, Jill, and Bill," I said. "Lots and lots of rhymes! Do you think there will be more on the next page?"
He didn't answer.
I glanced down. Orion was staring at the page, mouth slack, eyes boring into the picture like laser beams.
I nodded to myself. This was clearly the behavior I’d heard so much about. Maybe I could do something about it and help this kid. "Hey, Buddy," I said gently. "Keep reading. Don’t you want to see what’s going to happen with Big Dog Bill?"
The counselors said he would come out of this on his own but I was curious. I gently touched his shoulder. "You in there, Buddy?"
A dog barked outside the classroom window. Orion snapped out of his funk, just like that. “He's here!" he exclaimed. "Big Dog Bill!"
"Sure," I said encouragingly, glad to have Orion back among the living. "Let’s go see. Maybe this dog will look just like the one in the book!"
"Of course he will. It is him!”
"Well, Kiddo," I said, “that can’t be. Bill is just a dog in a storybook."
He said it with such confidence that I suddenly felt a chill run down my back. We got to our feet and walked over to the window. Behind my classroom was an empty lot surrounded by a high fence. It was covered with untracked snow. There in the middle of it was...
Big Dog Bill.
The book version of Bill was a drawing of course, with stylized lines and vivid colors, but this dog was Big Dog Bill come to life, down to the bright red tongue sticking out of his mouth and the bushy tail wagging. Just like in the book, he was running around in circles and barking happily.
"That's impossible," I blurted.
"Silly Mr. Leonard,” replied Orion. “Nothing's ever impossible, that's what my Mom says. When really bad thoughts come into my head, all I have to do is concentrate really hard and those thoughts turn into things I like!”
"Bad thoughts?" I asked, afraid of what he might tell me.
Instead of replying, Orion waved his hand. "Bye bye, Big Dog Bill! Thanks for making me feel better!"
The dog on the lawn disappeared, not all at once, but like watercolors running. I gaped at the scene below and rubbed my eyes. I was sure I had imagined the whole thing. But Orion's apparition had left something behind, which is hard to do if you're a figment of somebody's imagination.
In the formerly pristine snow I saw multi-colored smudges where the dog had been. Clear markings in a circular pattern surrounded them. It didn't take me long to realize I was looking at paw prints.
At the end of that day, I waited around until all the students and most of the teachers had gone home. Then I went around behind the school in the gathering winter gloom. I crept down the alley to the empty lot behind my classroom. Looking through the high fence, I could still see Big Dog Bill's tracks. Looking left and right to make sure no one was around, I took a deep breath and scaled the fence, something I hadn't done since I was a kid. I climbed down the far side and hopped down, nearly wrenching my ankle when my feet hit the ground. I expected to hear sirens go off or see a black helicopter zoom in over the mountains, but nothing happened.
I crept over to the paw prints, my feet crunching in the snow. The prints were arrayed in a circular pattern, along with smudges of bright color in the center. Feeling like a detective in a B movie, I examined the prints. They didn’t go anywhere except around that one circle, leaving pristine snow everywhere else. The only prints that went out to the end of the empty lot were mine. It was as if Big Dog Bill had dropped out of the sky, ran around and around, and then simply vanished, which is exactly what I saw happen from my classroom window. But that was clearly impossible, in spite of what Orion had said.
I knelt down and ran my fingers through the colored patches of snow. There were smudges of brown, tan, bright red, and black, all colors found in the illustration of Big Dog Bill. I took a bit of red snow and squeezed it in my palm. It melted into what could have been red watercolor paint, but it didn’t smell like paint. In fact, it didn’t smell like anything at all.
I stood up and hugged myself, shivering from cold and confusion. I had always liked to think outside the box, but now I was firmly inside a box where none of the angles matched up.
During the next week, I steered Orion away from the reading enrichment books and concentrated on math. He zipped through long division, fractions, angles, and five-digit multiplication. I wondered if I was going to have to dig out some old high school math books to keep him busy. I also began wondering what he was doing in a Special Ed class. Yes, he had zoned out for me, but only once. The rest of his behavior was nothing like autism or anything else out of the ordinary.
“I’m having a bad day, Mr. Leonard,” he muttered during the ten o’clock hour when were alone again in my classroom. “I’m tired of math. I want to see pictures of happy things.” He glanced up longingly at the shelves where we had found Big Dog Bill.
I let out a deep sigh. A week ago, something impossible had happened and my brain still hadn’t recovered. I wasn’t keen to tempt fate a second time.
“Please, Mr. Leonard?” he begged, looking up at me like a little boy lost. A storm seemed to be building behind those puppy-dog eyes. If a few pictures could bring him some comfort, who was I to stand in the way? Besides, I’d select a book about made-up creatures, not dogs. Unicorns or fairies maybe. It sounds crazy as I write this now, but at the time, that somehow seemed safer.
Boy, was I ever mistaken.
“I’ll find you a book,” I said, as brightly as I could muster. “How about a second grade book this time? You’re much too good a reader for Big Dog Bill.”
“Sure, Mr. Leonard.”
I reached up and thumbed through some of the titles. My finger settled on a thin book with a neon green cover. There was a picture of a little man holding a large shamrock in his hand, wearing a dark green suit with a gold belt buckle, and sporting shiny black shoes. In bold, sunny yellow letters, the title read:
Leprechaun On the Loose!
Perfect. Leprechauns were mythical creatures. None of them were likely to show up in the empty lot like Big Dog Bill. I held up the book and flashed the cover to Orion. “Will this do?”
“Sure, Mr. Leonard. I love leprechauns!”
“You know leprechauns aren’t real, don’t you?”
“Of course, Mr. Leonard.”
“Big Dog Bill wasn’t real, but there are such things as dogs. There aren’t any real leprechauns.”
“They’re fictional! That’s what my Mom says. Like witches and goblins.”
Moments later we were back in the blue beanbag chair. Orion read out loud:
“A leprechaun came to my kitchen today - He made mischief and mischief all through the day.”
The picture showed the leprechaun from the front cover peering out from behind the door of a kitchen cupboard. He was about the same size as the red catchup bottle on the shelf behind him. He had a sly look on his face.
Orion looked up with delight. “This book rhymes too!”
“Most books for this age group do,” I said. “Go ahead and keep reading. You’re doing great.”
“He unscrewed the latches on cabinet doors - And poured maple syrup all over the floor!”
Orion laughed out loud.
Suddenly, the laughter died in his throat, like someone had forced all the air from his lungs.
“Orion?” I said.
He stared at the picture of the leprechaun, his face a granite mask, eyes boring into the page.
“Uh oh,” I muttered.
I heard a noise from the far corner of the room. Special Ed classes have rudimentary kitchens, with sinks and microwaves for art projects, along with a few cabinets. The noise was coming from inside one of the cabinets, a skittering sound like a mouse would make.
But mice don’t chuckle and titter in human voices.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” I blustered, for I had finally decided what was going on here. Somebody was playing a very intricate trick on the new Special Ed teacher. I didn’t like it one bit. I eased out of the bean bag chair and stomped over to the cabinet door. It sounded like there was a war going on inside there, with bumps and thumps and high-pitched tee-hees.
“All right, that’s enough!” I said through clenched teeth. I flung open the cabinet door just in time to see…
The leprechaun from the book.
He stared back at me with impossibly wide, bulging eyes, and baring his razor-sharp teeth that looked like something right out of a horror movie. He bent his little knees and launched himself forward, latching onto my right forearm with his mouth, biting down amidst a flurry of snarling and grinding. I felt needles poke into my arm and looked down in horror. Blood was spurting from the edges of the leprechaun’s clamping mouth. My blood.
“Get him!” hissed Orion from the bean bag chair. “Don’t let him hurt my Mommy!”
I looked over at Orion through a film of pain and shock, grabbing the leprechaun’s head with my left arm to try and pry the little bastard off of me. Orion’s eyes pinned me with raw, unbridled hate.
“Orion, no!” I shouted. “I’m not going to hurt your Mom! She’s not even here!”
He blinked and looked left and right, seeming to struggle with where he was.
“Make it go away, Orion,” I pleaded. “Please. I’m not here to hurt anybody.”
That seemed to sink in, and he finally spoke in a world-weary, resigned voice. “Bye bye, Mr. Leprechaun.”
Immediately, the pain in my forearm ceased. I looked down and saw watercolors of green, black, and gold flow down to floor like a rainbow, intermixed with my own, bright red blood. I grabbed a paper towel from the sink and pressed it against the fresh teeth marks in my arm, gritting my teeth.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Leonard." said Orion in a very small voice. "I thought you were Jimmy. He’s my Step-Papa. I didn’t mean to be naughty.”
I slumped against the counter-top feeling dizzy. Even from across the room, I could see tears run down Orion’s world-weary face. He had a haunted look in his eyes, an expression I never thought I’d see in a five-year-old's face. It nearly broke my heart.
In spite of what had just happened to me, all I thought about then was Orion. “It’s going to be okay, Buddy. Somehow, I’m gonna make this all okay.”
I should have gone to the office and told somebody then, but of course they’d never believe me. I mean, would you believe a story like this? At the least, I’d lose my job, a job I had become very fond of. At worst, they’d haul me in for psychological counseling. So I patched up the wounds on my arm and disinfected it as best I could when I got home that night. If nothing else, those teeth marks told me everything I needed to know. The things Orion conjured up were real. And potentially deadly. The kid was going to hurt himself or somebody else. I didn’t want to find out what would happen if he let the apparitions hang around a little bit longer. I ran my hand across my bandaged forearm as I thought about that.
The next day was a Friday, a day when I have a lot of paperwork to file before the weekend. Orion was in my room at the usual 10 o’clock hour. I was wrestling with a blue screen of death on my computer, grunting and cursing Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and anyone else I could think of, while Orion sat on his beanbag playing an educational game I’d set up for him on the classroom tablet. I should have noticed that his attention was drifting away from the game.
I should also have noticed that there was a stepladder against the far wall from the janitors the night before. In a few minutes, Orion would use it to get up to the book shelves...
“There’s A Dinosaur On My Deck!” read Orion, just as if I was over by the bean bag and had asked him to start a new book.
My head snapped up from my computer screen. Sure enough, Orion had gotten a book down all by himself. I could see what was on the cover.
“Orion, no!” I shouted, but he was oblivious and continued to read:
“He’s peeking in the window – He’s taller than a tree!”
“I hope he isn’t hungry ‘cause he could swallow me!”
I hopped up from my desk and lunged toward Orion, but his face had already gone slack.
I froze in my tracks. The floor beneath my feet began to rumble and shake, as if in the midst of an earthquake. But this was no earthquake, not a literal one anyway. A thunderous roar rattled the windows. The room suddenly grew dim. Turning my head slowly, I saw an enormous, gargantuan shape completely fill the window, blocking the view of the empty lot below. It extended high above the windowsill, and the part I could see was all mottled-gray and leathery and glistening. It moved rhythmically up and down and I heard a deep, wheezing sound as puffs of steam floated down from above. I saw a hint of sharp, curving claws at the ends of two tiny arms. I found myself unable to move, feeling like a fly stuck on a pin, waiting for someone to move in and finish the job.
“Stomp him!” shouted Orion, his eyes blazing the way they had yesterday for the leprechaun. “Stomp him until his guts squirt out, so can never be mean to Mommy again!”
That snapped me out of it. I may not be the most perfect guy, but I would never even think about harming this kid’s mom.
“Orion!” I shouted, feeling my voice crack. “Tell the nice dinosaur bye bye. Tell it right now!”
He looked back from the window to me, eyes darting, confused. “But dinosaurs are supposed to smash everything into dust. That's what they do! I want them to smash my Step-Papa!”
Then I remembered the note from Orion’s mother. Use his middle name whenever he gets too much to handle.
I pulled myself up to my tallest height and pinned Orion with my eyes. “Orion Aloysius Rembrandt!" I shouted in a louder voice than I would have thought I was capable of. "Stop this right now!”
For a moment I thought it wasn't going to work. The enormous creature pushed against the window and I heard glass crack. Then Orion hung his head. "Bye by Mr. Dinosaur," he mumbled.
In my peripheral vision, I saw gray, mottled paint run down the window in a torrent. Morning sunlight again appeared. My knees began to shake so badly that I thought I might collapse. Instead, I stumbled over to the beanbag chair and fell in a heap next to Orion. I put my arm around his shoulder and we both sat there for a long time. "You gotta stop doing this, Buddy," I said.
I came back to school the next day, even though it was a Saturday. I walked around to the empty lot and saw that at least half of the snow was now mottled-gray. I shook my head. Yes, there really had been a dinosaur here yesterday.
I used my key to let myself into the building. I crept down the long hallway to the Special Ed room. I let myself in and scanned the room, looking in nooks and crannies for any apparitions that might still be hanging around. I didn't find any. The room was quiet, with only the sound of the heater kicking on occasionally. I found my way over to the books that had caused so much trouble. I searched through them all, kindergarten shelf, first grade shelf, second grand shelf, and all the rest. It was what I had feared all night while trying to get some sleep.
The dinosaur book was gone.
Orion must have smuggled it out at the end of the day, secreting into his backpack before going home.
I know why he did that. He wants to conjure up the dinosaur for his Step-Papa.
The man undoubtedly has it coming. But when that massive creature is done with Jimmy, will Orion be able to send it away without me there to pull him out of his trance? I doubt it very much.
So what should I do now? I could wait until Monday to see if Orion shows up at school. Somehow I know that won't happen. Transients move around all the time. For Orion's family, I now know why.
They're supposed to be living out in the woods. I know nearly all the campgrounds around here. I bet I could find them before they move out. That means I'd better get going right away.
If anyone is reading this, it probably means I'm dead. If I am, I hope I died saving Orion.
I used to think outside the box. If our world is a box, then Orion figured out how to bring things into it from outside. But he's only five years old. He'll never be able to control this. I may be the only one that can help him seal that box off for good.
So here I come, Jimmy, you miserable excuse for a human being. By the time I get done with you, you're gonna wish you had been stomped by a dinosaur. And, just maybe, one precious little five-year-old boy will be free of you at last.
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