[In 2019, this short story won an honorable mention in the Indianhead Writers’ Contest in Northern Wisconsin. In June 2020, it was published in Spring Thaw, a yearly journal published by Itasca Community College.]
Mesmerized, Corrine stared at the tiny moccasins made of white, orange, brown, black, and turquoise beads. If they hadn’t been attached to a small beaded disk, Corrine supposed she could’ve slipped them on the feet of her secondhand Barbie doll. Desire skulked in her brain. The tiny moccasins were displayed on the back counter in the classroom with other objects representing Native American culture, but Corrine only wanted the moccasins. She bent over the bubbler for a drink of water, her right hand pushing the button and her left hand resting on the counter dangerously close to the moccasins.
Mrs. Teasdale’s staccato voice interrupted her thoughts. Corrine returned to her desk, took out some unfinished work, and pretended to listen to her third-grade teacher. Her heart beat wildly and her lungs stuttered as she tried to breathe. Her right hand held a pencil poised above a worksheet. Her left hand rested on the pocket of her dingy hand-me-down dress where she could feel the tiny moccasins cocooned in its cotton folds.
Corrine shifted her head and looked at Nancy, the former owner of the tiny moccasins. Nancy worked diligently. As she moved her head from book to worksheet, her strawberry blond hair, cut in a sleek page boy and adorned with a small red bow, swayed. Shamed by Nancy’s swaying hair, Corrine pushed back her pale red mop, trying to hide its uneven ends. I might just keep those tiny moccasins, Corrine thought.
Scotty walked up to Nancy, rested his hand on her back, and whispered in her ear. Nancy rose from her seat and strode to the back counter. Corrine bent over her worksheet and fought the urge to watch Nancy discover her tiny moccasins were missing.
Corrine felt a draft as Nancy bolted by her on the way to Mrs. Teasdale’s desk. Corrine looked up and envied Nancy’s clean, stylish dress accessorized with patent leather shoes, pink anklets with lacy trim, and a sweater that didn’t look like an afterthought. Corrine tucked her feet as far under her chair as she could, hiding her baggy, white anklet socks and her soiled tennies. She certainly doesn’t need those damn moccasins.
Mrs. Teasdale moved to the front of the classroom and cleared her throat. Nancy stood next to her. A queen and her lady-in-waiting, Corrine thought.
“Children,” Mrs. Teasdale began, “Nancy’s small beaded moccasins seem to be missing.”
No seeming about it.
“Let’s all help Nancy look for her trinket,” Mrs. Teasdale continued.
Yes indeed, let’s. I’m going to be such a good looker. Corrine stood and joined the hunt.
Eighteen third graders scurried about the room, looking under, over, around, behind, underneath, and between. Minutes passed.
“Children,” Mrs. Teasdale said, “please return to your seats.”
Eighteen third graders moseyed back to their seats, their eyes darting this way and that, each one still hoping to find Nancy’s tiny moccasins. Corrine looked straight ahead on the way back to her seat.
“It appears Nancy’s trinket has gone missing,” Mrs. Teasdale said. “I don’t like to think one of you would take something that wasn’t yours. Nancy’s grandmother gave her that trinket.”
A sob escaped from Nancy. Corrine looked at her. Tears trickled down Nancy’s daintily-freckled face. Maybe she does need those moccasins. She hadn’t anticipated Nancy would care about something so small when she had so much.
“I’m going to wait until 2:30,” Mrs. Teasdale said, “and if Nancy’s trinket isn’t back, I’m going to search desks and pockets.”
Corrine looked at the teacher who scanned the room meeting each student’s eye. The teacher stared at her longer than anyone else. Corrine looked down. Her cheeks burned red, highlighting the large clumsy freckles splattered across her face. I want those moccasins, she thought.
“Get back to work, class,” Mrs. Teasdale said. Nancy picked up her pencil; it quivered in her hand. Corrine picked up her book and pretended to read. She worked on an exit plan.
At lunchtime Mrs. Teasdale lined the students up in the hall. She marched them to the lunchroom, watching them with a keen eye. Corrine saw Mrs. Teasdale whisper furtively with the playground monitor, who turned her bird-like face and gawked at Corrine.
Sitting alone, Corrine ate her peanut butter sandwich and apple. No sense going hungry just because she was holding stolen goods. She didn’t know what kind of supper would be waiting that night. She watched Nancy open her Barbie lunch box. Nancy nibbled on her sandwich and put it back. She ate a section of her peeled orange and put it back. She picked up a package of Twinkies but put it back. She’s really upset about those tiny moccasins, Corrine thought. She put her empty baggie and apple core inside her brown paper bag and considered asking Nancy for her Twinkies. Well, maybe the moccasins are enough.
At recess Nancy didn’t play. She sat on the edge of a large concrete planter. Girls from their class sat next to her or stood in front of her. Corrine stood behind some of the girls. It was important to appear sympathetic, but she kept turning to watch the boys play kickball. When the bell rang, Nancy rose and, flanked by girls on each side, she walked back into the school. Corrine tagged along.
When she entered the classroom, Nancy started to cry again. Girls rushed to her side, but Mrs. Teasdale cut them short, “Children, take your seats.”
Such drama, Corrine thought.
“I’d really hoped when we returned from lunch, Nancy’s trinket would be on the back counter,” Mrs. Teasdale said.
Hope in one hand and spit in the other and see which one fills up first, Corrine thought, modifying and censoring one of her father’s favorite sayings.
“How would one of you feel if someone took a present your grandmother gave you?” Mrs. Teasdale said. Her eyes bore down on Corrine.
Just when did you think someone was supposed to put it back? Looking at me isn’t going to make it reappear. She gave Mrs. Teasdale her best I’m-listening-to-everything-you-say-because-you’re-such-a-wonderful-teacher look.
“Remember, if Nancy’s trinket isn’t back by 2:30, I’m going to search pockets and desks,” Mrs. Teasdale said. “Get your reading books out.”
Nancy read Charlotte’s Web. Her eyes were red from crying, but Corrine knew she wasn’t crying because the farmer wanted to butcher Wilbur. Those moccasins must mean a lot to Nancy. I love my grandmother too.
Corrine read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Mike Teavee, the last of the spoiled, greedy children, was expelled from the factory. Only Charlie, kind and honest, was left. Mr. Wonka pronounced Charlie his new heir. How nice, Corrine thought, a whole candy factory! Her fingers traced the tiny moccasins in her pocket.
At two o’clock, Mrs. Teasdale announced it was time for afternoon recess. Desktops clattered as books were put away. The children, waiting to be dismissed, simmered in their seats. Corrine had decided. She walked up to the teacher and spoke quietly.
“Mrs. Teasdale, instead of going out for recess, I’d like to stay in and look for Nancy’s trinket.” Corrine’s hands, interlaced, rested on her dress. She could feel the tiny moccasins against the inside of her wrist.
“Why, Corrine, that’s very nice of you,” Mrs. Teasdale said, arching an eyebrow.
And why is that so surprising? Corrine thought.
“Okay, children, we are going out for recess. But Corrine has offered to stay inside and look for Nancy’s trinket.”
All of the children looked at Corrine. Scotty elbowed the boy next to him. They looked at one another and smirked.
Corrine glared at Mrs. Teasdale and then looked at Nancy.
Lined up side by side, all of the children followed Mrs. Teasdale out of the room. Nancy was the last one in the girls’ line. She turned back, and her hair swirled like a square dancer’s skirt. She glanced at Corrine who stood in the center of the room. Scotty, who’d lined up next to Nancy, took hold of her hand as they left the classroom.
Corrine was alone. She turned around, slowly taking in the room. On her second turn, she spotted the cabinet doors under the counter that once held the tiny moccasins. The plumbing for the sink was inside those doors. She opened the cabinet and looked at the pipe running from the sink into the back wall. The scant half-inch gap between the pipe and the wall cinched it. She slid her hand into her pocket and pulled out Nancy’s trinket. Corrine had enjoyed owning the tiny moccasins. She looked at them one last time. Her Barbie would have to go barefoot.
She slipped Nancy’s trinket into the slender gap next to the pipe and closed the cabinet door.
After recess, when Mrs. Teasdale led her students back into the classroom, Corrine was standing in the center of the room.
“Did you find them?” Mrs. Teasdale asked.
“No,” Corrine answered. She crossed her arms across her chest. Her dress pockets were turned inside out, waving like two white flags.