Something peculiar caught Jennifer Honey’s attention out of the corner of her eye. She put her book down and tried to spot whatever it was that had passed by her table at the library. Jennifer almost could have sworn it was a child, but what would a child that small be doing in the adult section of the library by themselves? She watched for a moment, until she saw a small figure pass by on the other side of the bookcase. She was right! It was a child.
Jennifer craned her neck searching for an accompanying adult, until she realized how silly she was being. “They’re not your responsibility until tomorrow.” She quietly chastised herself. But still…she should probably let Mrs. Phelps, the librarian know. She closed the book she was reading and stood, before pushing her chair neatly back into place.
When she arrived at the front desk, she gently placed the book, a Charlotte Bronte novel, on the counter and waited patiently for Mrs. Phelps to return from the back room, ignoring the bell with the sign that read “please ring for assistance.” She busied herself reading the signs and posters taped to the walls even though she knew she had them memorized by now.
“Jennifer!” A stern voice called from the back. The woman stiffened on instinct and fought down the urge to flee. She relaxed when an older woman with wrinkly skin and silver hair hobbled over to the counter. “The bells there for a reason.”
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Phelps.” said Jennifer, ignoring her comment.
“Just this?” The librarian picked up the book and began writing the information out on a separate card. Their town was small and behind on the times, that or the old woman still refused to use a computer.
“Yes please. Umm, I think I saw a little girl wandering around by herself over there.” Jennifer pointed to the back corner from where she had recently emerged. “I think she might be lost or…” Jennifer stopped when Mrs. Phelps craned her neck in the opposite direction, staring at an empty table nearby.
“It was probably just Matilda, she won’t hurt anything.” The older woman shook her head. “You’ve probably seen her in here before, she’s here most afternoons.” Jennifer frowned as she tried to remember, but she couldn’t recall seeing a little girl before this afternoon.
“I don’t think I’ve seen her before.” said Jennifer.
“She’s so quiet I forget she’s here half the time. I have her sit over there, so I can keep an eye on her, but it’s like watching a statue sometimes.” Jennifer watched as Mrs. Phelps followed something with her eyes off in the distance. She turned around and spotted a small raven haired girl standing by a bookshelf facing the titles.
“Is she here by herself?” Jenny asked.
“I think one of her parents drops her off and picks her up out front on weekdays. Part of me wants to give them a piece of my mind for treating the library like a daycare, but she’s been no trouble.”
Jennifer tried to imagine any one of the kindergarten students she taught left here to their own devices’ day in and day out. She shook her head. The library would be in shambles.
“How old is she?” Jennifer asked curiously as she watched the little girl carefully pull a book from the shelf and examine the back cover.
“Five or six, I think. Normally she stays put, but she’s a bit antsy today.” Jennifer watched the girl for a moment. “She told me she starts school tomorrow.”
“If only they stayed that excited about school.” said Jennifer. “Did she say which school?”
“Mine?” Jennifer frowned. She wouldn’t wish her school on anyone. Jennifer Honey taught at the only private school in town, notorious for its strict rules and overzealous principal. The majority of the student body fell into either one of two categories: The children of the wealthy, and the children of the parents who were at their wits end. It was the school parents threatened to send their kids if they misbehaved. “So she’ll be in my class then?”
Mrs. Phelps stood there for a moment watching the girl before answering. “No, I don’t think so.
Matilda had spent the entire evening tossing and turning, before giving up on sleep entirely. She sat crouched on the floor, reading under the glow of her night light. Just four more hours until her first day of school. Three more hours. Two more hours. She could hear the ringing of her parent’s alarm clock. Matilda closed her book before jumping back in bed to feign sleep. Twenty minutes later a large fist began pounding on her door.
“Get up! Don’t make me late!” her father barked from the other side.
“I’m awake!” Matilda called back.
“You better be! Don’t make me come in there and drag your ass out!”
She hurriedly jumped out of bed, surprised she had actually fallen asleep, and changed into her school uniform. When she came out to the kitchen, she found her mother complaining as she stood in front of the stove, frying eggs.
“I still don’t understand why we have to send her to that fancy expensive school. Why can’t we just send her off to Mikey’s school? It’s free.”
“Two words, sweet cheeks, corporal punishment. That brat needs to learn some respect, and what better way than having it beat into her.” said Harry. “I met the principal the other day, a real wacko but that’s besides the point, she’s huge, intimidating, and she promised to give her a real good smack with the riding crop when she meets her.”
Matilda froze in the kitchen. Surely her father was just trying to scare her. She made eye contact with her mother, a large woman with dyed platinum blonde hair and frowned.
“Cute uniform.” Her mother said before turning back around. Matilda scowled. Was that all her mother cared about?
“They don’t really beat children there, do they, daddy?” asked Matilda. “That’s against the law.”
“You bet your ass they do. It’s a private school, they don’t have to play by the rules, so you better be on your best behavior, got that? You watch that smart mouth of yours if you know what’s good for you.”
Matilda rode in the backseat in silence next to her brother.
“I hear you’re going to the delinquent school.” Michael, her older brother, sneered. “My friend says they throw kids in a wooden box.”
“They do not!” Matilda hissed back. She stared out the car window. The slight feeling of dread began to mix with the excitement. Even if they did hit kids there, it’s not like she’d do anything to warrant such a punishment. She wasn’t as bad as her father thought she was. The only times she had ever acted out was when he had deserved it.
When they had pulled up to what looked like an old, decrepit, gothic stone building, Matilda stared out the window dumbfounded. This was her school? It looked like it could have been a graveyard once upon a time.
“Well, what are you waiting for? The red carpet? Get out!” Her father barked. “And you can find your own way home. I ain’t coming back here to pick you up.”
Matilda quickly gathered her book bag and scrambled out, ignoring her brother as he shouted about having fun in the coffin. Well, she thought as she took in the crumbling building, she was finally here. It was the moment she had been dreaming about all year, her first day of school. So why did she feel like she was about to step foot in a nightmare?
She could do this, she told herself as she walked onto the grounds, taking in the high weeds and cracked asphalt lot. Matilda stopped as she got near the entrance. She was starting to feel overwhelmed by the large amount of children huddled in groups surrounding her. She stared from group to group as they eyed her. Everyone already seemed like they had a place they belonged. But where did Matilda belong? She searched each pocket of children, trying to find kids her own age. She spotted three kids huddled together by the stairs who looked about as terrified as she felt, but when she got halfway to them, the school door burst open and out flew a tall lanky figure with blond hair.
“She’s coming!” The figure yelled. “The Trunchbull is coming!”
Matilda stood mystified. It was as if a switch had suddenly been thrown. The loud chatter had suddenly ceased as boys and girls scurried to stand side by side in two long rows facing each other, leaving a walkway in between them.
“Get in line, runt!” The tall lanky figure shouted at her from her spot. “Not in the boys line, get in with the girls!” Matilda scurried over, heart beating wildly in anticipation. What was going on? “If she addresses you, you need to answer all her questions with ‘ma’am’ if you don’t want to get smacked, got that?” The tall figure said. Matilda looked up at her, just now realizing it was a girl. “One more thing, if she tells you to stick out your hands, just do it. It’ll be worse for you if you don’t.”
Matilda swallowed and nodded her head as a very large, imposing figure slowly made its way out of the school building and began walking in between the row of children. Matilda thought she was the unhappiest looking woman she had ever seen. The corners of her lips curled as if she had just tasted something sour, her eyebrows were pointed downward, giving her a permanent look of anger, and her one piece green smock looked about two sizes too small for her. The thing that scared Matilda worst of all was what she had in her hand. It was a large leather riding crop that she periodically smacked inside the open palm of her hand.
There was a loud rhythmic thumping sound that filled Matilda’s head. She wasn’t sure if it was the sound of her pounding heart, or the Trunchbull’s massive boots crunching bits of asphalt beneath them with every step. Periodically, the massive woman would stop in front of a terrified looking kid before sizing them up like a wild, hungry predator trying to decide which child would make for a delicious treat.
Finally, when the woman got to where Matilda stood, she stopped. Matilda held her breath and chanted inside her head please keep going, please keep going. The Trunchbull turned and glared at her.
“You!” she barked. Matilda winced. The woman’s voice was loud, booming and made her ear drums ring. “You’re new here, yes?”
Matilda swallowed, her throat now dry. “Y-yes.” She stuttered out before feeling a kick to her shins from the girl standing next to her. “Ma’am,” she quickly added.
“What’s your name, you filthy little good for nothing miscreant?”
“Matilda Wormwood, ma’am.” She managed to choke out.
“Wormwood, eh?” A smile began to creep along the woman’s face revealing a set of yellowing teeth. Matilda inwardly grimaced. Her happy face was much more terrifying than her angry face. “Stick out your hands.” Matilda froze. “I said stick out your hands you incorrigible wretch!” Matilda’s hands shot forward.
Matilda let out a howl as a blinding flash of pain shot through her.
“That was for your father and this…” Matilda let out a second, louder scream. “Is for me.” Tears streamed from her eyes as angry red welts began to appear on the backs of her hands. Matilda couldn’t believe it! The woman had hit her with the riding crop! Why? She hadn’t done anything!
“I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I don’t like you, Wormwood. I could say I even hate you.” The Trunchbull said. Matilda’s eyes were as wide as saucers. The Trunchbull turned and stared at everyone else. “In fact, I hate each and every one of you brats.” She turned as she reached the end of the line and began making her way back towards the school. Every once in a while, she’d notice something out of place. She ordered a third grade boy to stick out his hands for having an untucked shirt. Matilda winced at the sound of leather striking skin. Her hands still ached and stung, but she didn’t dare look down at them. Matilda winced again as a girl got struck for the color of her hair tie, and the worst one, a large boy was struck in the stomach for, “being a fat ass.”
Matilda’s legs were shaking by the time the giant disappeared back into the school house. She had taken her sweet time going through the rules, and dear lord, there were so many! Matilda’s head spun. How was she supposed to remember all of them?
When a bell began to ring, Matilda watched as the children began to separate themselves into lines by what Matilda could only assume were grades, until all that was left was about 20 lost and terrified looking five-year-olds standing about unsure of what to do.
“You lot, form a line and your teacher will come escort you into your classroom.”
Matilda got in line with the others, each one looking just as scared and shell shocked as she felt. She sucked in a breath and watched as one by one adult’s came and led a line of students inside, each as quiet as the children now were. She was so transfixed watching the other lines of students that she hadn’t noticed her own line was moving until she felt someone poke her from behind. Matilda quickly hurried forward to fill in the gap as she tried to steal a glimpse of who they were following.
It wasn’t until they had begun filing one by one into a classroom did Matilda see who it was. There, standing post by the open door like a prison guard, stood a plain looking young woman watching them all. Matilda gulped nervously, she couldn’t get a good read from her face, but she looked just as unfriendly as everyone else here. It wasn’t until everyone had filled the room, and the door was shut, did her demeanor suddenly change. Gone was the hard stare, rigid posture, and unreadable facial features, and in their place was a sort of gentle, calming expression.
“Please take a seat, anywhere you’d like.” the woman called out. Her quiet voice was a sharp contrast to the booming and demanding shouts from Miss Trunchbull. Matilda hurriedly took a seat in the first empty desk she could find and stared ahead, a mixture of terror and wonder fighting for dominance inside her. “Hello everyone, welcome, my name is Miss Honey. I know some of you might be feeling a little scared this being your first day and all, but I just want you to know, when you’re in this classroom with me, you have nothing to be afraid of. I know Miss Trunchbull can be scary sometimes, and she most likely told you all we teachers have sticks we use to hit you with.” The woman bent down and picked up a long wooden cane and held it up, so everyone could see. Matilda instinctively flinched. “While I do have a stick, I just want to let you know, I will never hit you with it. I don’t believe in hurting children. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for all the other teachers, so do try and be on your best behavior when you’re out in the halls or in the cafeteria.”
Matilda stared wide-eyed up at her teacher as she finished up her introduction. Matilda could have sworn she had never seen the woman before today, but there was something familiar about her. She was even more sure they had crossed paths when she had each student stand up and recite their name and at least one thing they liked or were interested in.
Matilda grew more anxious the closer it got to her. Miss Honey seemed to already be familiar with a large handful of children from either knowing their parents or an older sibling. She was also quickly realizing almost everyone here were the children of well-to-do families. There was the son of a doctor, Nigel, and the daughter of a team of husband and wife attorneys she had seen advertised on a bus stop. When it was finally her turn, she quickly stood, nearly tripping over her feet in the process.
“My name is Matilda Wormwood and I like books.” She said. She was about to sit back down when she noticed a peculiar expression on Miss Honey’s face, almost like she was surprised to see her here. Matilda swallowed nervously and hid her hands behind her back on the off chance Miss Honey had also been instructed to strike. Or was it because it was so obvious she didn’t belong in a class of wealthy children?
“Matilda,” Miss Honey said softly, as if testing out the name. “Were you by chance at the library yesterday?”
“Yes,” Matilda said.“I go most days. I love it there, and Mrs. Phelps is nice.”
“Yes, she is.” said Miss Honey. Matilda was surprised to see the woman’s lips curve in a soft sort of smile. It was smaller than the ones she had given all the other girls and boys, but something about it seemed much more genuine. When the last child had introduced themselves, Miss Honey addressed the class again.
“So something I like to do on the first day of school is to read you all a story. I find it helps settle those first day jitters. Let’s see, Matilda, since you’re a fan of books, why don’t you go pick one out from the shelf?”
Matilda, eyes now alight with excitement, leapt from her seat and hurried over, but frowned when she saw her options to choose from. Clifford the Big Red Dog, Bernstein Bears, The Rainbow Fish, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, The Giving Tree? These were all…
“Are you having trouble deciding?” Miss Honey asked.
“It’s just, these are all for little kids.” Matilda said, frowning when Miss Honey began to laugh.
“Of course they’re for little kids, this is a kindergarten classroom.”
Matilda’s shoulders slumped. She thought kindergarten would be more educational. Her eyes scanned the room until she stopped on a book lying on Miss Honey’s desk. Was that what she thought it was?
“Yes, this one!” Matilda said snatching it up and bringing it to Miss Honey. “I read it last week, but it’s still good.”
Miss Honey took the copy of Wuthering Heights and frowned. “Sweetie, this is mine, why don’t you go pick out something you’ll understand.”
“I understand it.” Matilda said with a face full of hurt. “It’s about Catherine’s and Heathcliff’s relationship, but their different classes in life keep them apart. Also, Heathcliff marries his neighbors’ sister for revenge for bullying him in his childhood. Personally, I don’t think that’s a very good reason to get married, but I guess times were different back then.”
Miss Honey stared at her wide-eyed. She looked at the book in her hands, then back at Matilda’s eager face. “Y-yes, I see, well I’m sorry, but you still need to pick out something more appropriate for the rest of the class.” She watched the little girl’s shoulders slump with disappointment.
“Okay,” Matilda said glumly. She went back to the shelf and without really looking, picked a story at random, handed it over and returned to her seat. It wasn’t until Miss Honey began to read did Matilda perk up. That’s where she recognized her from! Every Wednesday during the summer, there had been a lady who had come to read books to the children. Matilda hadn’t been very interested in the stories themselves as they were a bit too juvenile, but she had enjoyed sitting around the corner and listening to her voice. She loved the emphasis she put into each of the characters voices and the way she made the stories come alive.
Once the story was done, Matilda’s hand shot up, eager to share her revelation.
“You’re Jenny from the library, aren’t you?” Matilda asked when she was called on. “You were my favorite reader to listen to.”
Miss Honey gave her another genuine looking smile. “Yes. I’m glad you enjoyed it, but,” Miss Honey stopped as if trying to remember. “I don’t ever recall seeing you.”
“Oh, well, that’s because I usually sat at a table around the corner.” Matilda admitted with a bit of a blush “I didn’t want Mrs. Phelps to see me.”
“Well, I hope you won’t feel the need to hide in class.” Miss Honey said. “Now everyone, I’m sorry to do this to you all on your first day, but I have a test for you. Now don’t worry about not knowing the answers, it won’t count against you. This is just to help me see where you all are at and know which areas you might need some extra help in. Some questions are meant to be hard, so don’t worry if you don’t know them, just do what you can. I don’t expect any of you to get perfect scores.
“Has anyone ever gotten a perfect score?” a girl asked.
Miss Honey laughed and shook her head. “If someone in here got a perfect score I’d be worried.”
“Why?” someone else asked.
“Because it would mean they shouldn’t be in my class. This test covers several grades ahead of ours as well. There are fifty questions covering math and reading. I’m only expecting to see scores in the teens.”
“What’s the highest anyone’s gotten?” the same girl from before asked.
“Well, this is only my third year teaching, but I did have a student last year score a 19.”
“I’m going to get a 20!” another student shouted.
“I’ll get a 25!”
“I’ll get them all right!”
Miss Honey beamed at them all. “That’s the kind of enthusiasm i’m looking for!”
Matilda eagerly pulled out a pencil. This was her chance to show her father she wasn’t as stupid as he thought she was. She let out a sigh. He would probably just accuse her of cheating even if she did do well. He had put all his eggs in one basket with Mikey, and there was no more hope or affection left for her. The only person who had ever showed her any kindness was Mrs. Phelps. Matilda looked up from her test and eyed the young woman standing in front of the class. Maybe, just maybe, there would be another.
Miss Honey let out a sigh as she collapsed into her desk chair. These new kids were just as rambunctious as last year! She briefly looked over the class roster. So many new names to memorize. She had already called Brian by his older brother’s name twice, and she doubted it would be the last time. Her finger paused as it got to the very end of the list. Wormwood, Matilda. Why had Mrs. Phelps been so sure she wouldn’t be in her class? Miss Honey eyed the phone sitting on her desk. No, she’d just be bothering her. She was probably busy. She bit the inside of her cheek as she debated. Finally, curiosity had won out. She dialed the number for the library.
“Mrs. Phelps, hi, this is Jennifer Honey.”
“So you finally figured out how to use a telephone.” came the curt reply. Miss Honey bit down on her cheek again. “I’m only teasing. What can I do for you?”
“You had said something peculiar yesterday, and I was hoping you would clarify. It’s about the girl from the library, Matilda. She’s in my class after all-” She stopped when Mrs. Phelps voice came over sounding disgruntled.
“Why on earth would they put that girl in your class?”
“Because she’s five?” Miss Honey said sounding unsure.
“You haven’t noticed yet?”
“Matilda is,” there was a brief pause. “Special.” Miss Honey wanted to laugh. If she had a dollar for every time a parent told her their child was special she wouldn’t be living in a shack.
“She tried to get me to read Wuthering Heights to the class this morning. How she even knows what that book was about is beyond me but-”
“Do you have it near you?”
“Yes,” Miss Honey said, picking up the book she had gotten from the library yesterday.
“Open the cover and pull out the card in the sleeve.”
“Alright,” said Miss Honey, unsure where this was going. “I’m looking at it.”
“Recognize anyone?” She skimmed the list until she got to the second to the last name right above hers. Matilda Wormwood.
“So her parents read her the classics?”
“I think you’re missing the big picture here, Jennifer.”
“Which is?” She wasn’t in the mood to play guessing games. The kids would be back from lunch soon.
“What else would someone do in the library all day?” Mrs. Phelps asked.
Miss Honey shook her head. She couldn’t be serious. “Are you saying she read this?”
“She reads anything she can get her hands on.”
“No wonder she was falling asleep while I was going over vowel sounds.” said Miss Honey. “If she can read and understand full length books…” A sudden thought came to her. The test! “They make me give the children this horrendously difficult test to the children on their first day. I haven’t graded them yet but,” she dug through her desk in search of Matilda’s. “I think I’ll grade hers now.”
“Keep me on the line, I want to hear this.”
There was a long moment’s pause while Miss Honey skimmed the answers on her test. She could feel all the tiny hairs on her arms and back of her neck begin to rise. This…This wasn’t possible. Finally, she let out her held breath as she stared down at her score dumbfounded.
“How?” was all Jennifer was able to blurt out.
“Well?” Mrs. Phelp’s asked. “How’d she do?”
“You were right.” said Miss Honey. “This girl has no business being in kindergarten.” She stared down at the near perfect score in awe. “It wasn’t just reading, it’s math too.” Something Matilda had said began to worm its way into her head. “Does she understand?” Jennifer asked. “How far ahead she is?” Matilda had asked her why all her books were for little kids. Did she think they were below kindergarten level?
“I don’t think so, but I’m not sure how much interaction she has with other kids her age.”
When Miss Honey had hung up the phone, she peeked out at her students on the black top. They were all huddled into groups, all except one. She could see Matilda, sitting alone on a picnic bench with a book. She slipped out the classroom and out the doors before making her way out to her.
“Hi, dear, what are you doing?” asked Miss Honey. No answer. “Sweetie?” Nothing. “Matilda?” The girl looked up now startled.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were talking to me.” said Matilda.
“Who else would I be talking to?” Miss Honey asked taking the seat across from her.
“Terms of endearment are a bit foreign to me, so I might assume you’re addressing someone else.” Miss Honey frowned, opened her mouth to say something, but closed it again.
“So what are you reading?”
“To Kill A Mockingbird.”
“I like that one.” said Miss Honey. “I have a bit of a silly request.” Matilda cocked her head to the side. “Would you read me a page?”
“Out loud?” Matilda asked. Miss Honey nodded. “Sorry if it’s not good, I don’t usually read out loud.”
“It’s alright, just try.” Miss Honey held her breath as Matilda read just as fluently as any adult. There wasn’t a pause, stutter or stumble. When she had finished the page, she had looked up, but Miss Honey was so enthralled she had asked her to keep reading until she had finished the chapter she was on. “That was wonderful.” Miss Honey said with a wide smile. “How long have you been able to read?”
“I can’t remember a time I haven’t been able to.” Matilda answered after a brief pause. “I really like,” she paused again to find the right way to explain. “Not being here.” Miss Honey frowned.
“Not being in school?”
“No, I mean, not being in the present. Every time I open a book, I’m there in that world, and every world is different. Why would I want to be here when I could be on a pirate ship, or in the 19th century?”
“That’s a wonderful way of looking at it. I love reading too.”
“Really?” asked Matilda, “I tried asking my classmates but…” her shoulders slumped. “What do you like to read?”
“Have you read any of Charles Dickens? I enjoy his stories quite a lot.”
“Only everything at the library. The first adult book I read last year was Great Expectations.”
“Matilda, you read Great Expectations when you were only four years old?” Matilda shrugged, as if it was a feat any toddler could do.
“I asked Mrs. Phelps to let me read a famous book, and that’s what she brought back. After I finished it, I read David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. I also read Nicholas Nickleby, but after today, I’m starting to wish I hadn’t.” She held up the backs of her hands, where Miss Honey could see the angry red welts still present.
“Oh, Matilda,” Miss Honey whispered. She had the overwhelming desire to clasp the girl’s hands in her own. She had to fight down the impulse. Affection was frowned upon here, reminding Miss Honey this school really was like the school in Nicholas Nickleby. “What happened?”
“My daddy asked her to. I thought he was just trying to scare me, but…” her voice trailed off. Miss Honey could see her eyes begin to flood with tears before she wiped them away with her arm. “Once she heard my name, she ordered me to stick my hands out.”
“I’m so sorry, dear, she likes to pick out children at random on the first day and use them as an example to scare everyone into behaving. It might not have had anything to do with your name.”
Jennifer couldn’t imagine someone telling Miss Trunchbull to hurt a girl like Matilda. She had only known her for a single afternoon, but from what she could tell, she seemed very sweet, well-behaved, and extremely intelligent. It wasn’t until you got into at least third grade that the problem students started transferring in.
Jennifer felt a pang of sadness for what she had to do, she would have loved to continue to see just how vast Matilda’s mind really was. In fact, she had a feeling she could easily spend hours talking about books. Finally, here was someone who understood how wonderful reading could be, but. Miss Honey frowned. Why couldn’t it be another adult? Why did it have to be a five-year-old? She had longed to have a real adult conversation with someone that wasn’t awkward small talk while she bagged their groceries during the summer.
Who was she kidding? Every conversation she had ever had with people her own age was awkward. It didn’t help that she couldn’t seem to look anyone over five feet in the eye without panicking. She loved children, their innocence, and their wild imaginations, but she could only take so many one-sided conversations about Paw Patrol or whatever other television shows were popular.
“What’s wrong?” asked Matilda. “You have this worried look on your face.”
Miss Honey had to mentally smooth out her features, hiding her surprise at having been caught. So she wasn’t just book smart, she was amazingly perceptive too.
“Nothing, dear.” said Miss Honey. Matilda studied her face for a moment.
“Why do adults lie so much to children?” asked Matilda rather bluntly. Her innocent features now sported a scowl. There was no hiding things from this one it seemed.
“Because sometimes it’s just easier than explaining the truth. Some things aren’t appropriate to tell children.” Like the fact she was having an existential crises at the thought of going to see the principal.
“So you are worried about something?”
“I’ll tell you a secret.” Miss Honey leaned her head in and Matilda eagerly did the same. “I’m starving.” Matilda giggled, before replying.
“That wasn’t a I’m hungry face, though.” Jeez this kid! “It was more,” Matilda thought about it. “Scared.”
“Once you see the cafeteria food, you’ll be scared too.” Matilda grinned before shaking her head. Miss Honey’s smile faltered. She let out a sigh. “I have to see the principal about something.” She leaned her head in again and whispered. “She scares me too.”
“Do you have someone to go with you? I could go with you if you want, then maybe it won’t be so scary.”
Miss Honey smiled. The offer was cute and touching, but she shook her head. “That’s very sweet of you, but it’s something I have to do alone. It’ll be like ripping a band-aid off, I’ll feel better once it’s over with.” There was no way Jennifer was bringing her anywhere near the principal’s office. If Matilda thought her riding crop was scary, Jennifer would never see her again if she saw what awaited disobedient students in Miss Trunchbull’s office. She shuddered at the thought.
She was about to tell Matilda it was time to get washed up for lunch when her stomach let out a loud growl. The girl stared at her wide-eyed before bursting into giggles. “I told you I was hungry.”
This had not gone to plan. This had not gone to plan at all.
“So?” Miss Trunchbull asked after looking at Matilda’s test score.
“Well, I figured she’d be happier in a more advanced class. For someone who can already read fluently and has a firm grasp of basic mathematics, kindergarten would be very boring for her.”
“No.” Came the curt reply. Ms. Honey frowned. “She obviously cheated anyway.”
“No, M-miss Trunchbull, I heard-”
“She’s a real wart that one. She’s a cheat and a liar. Even her father said so. Asked me to give her a good smack when I met her. I had her screaming and crying this morning, yes I did.”
Ms. Honey’s mouth nearly fell open. They certainly weren’t talking about the same girl! “No, there must be some mistake! Matilda is a very-”
“Big, and revolting problem you must deal with. Don’t let those little slime balls manipulate you! Or do I need to re-educate you on how to handle children?” Ms. Honey quickly shook her head. She could hear whimpering coming from around the corner where Ms. Trunchbull kept that. “This is a school, children aren’t supposed to be happy. So you either keep the little wart in line or I will.”
Ms. Honey’s head was pounding with anger as she rode her bike, an old rusted beach cruiser she had liberated from the dump, towards home. What was she supposed to do now? And how could Mr. Wormwood say something like that about his own daughter? The more she thought about it, the angrier she became, and the angrier she became, the more frantically she peddled. She was pedaling so hard by the time she reached the farm fields she almost rode right past the figure sitting on the sidewalk with their head tucked to their knees. If it wasn’t for Crunchem Hall uniform, she would have kept on going.
Ms. Honey hit the brakes and stared at the figure. What was a student doing all the way out here?
“Hey, are you okay?” Miss Honey asked. The child looked up, tears streaking down their face. “Matilda?” She hopped off her bike and squatted down next to her. “What in the world are you doing out here by yourself?”
“I-I-Iwastryingtowalkhomebutigotlostandnowi’mtootiredtokeepwalkingandIreallyhavetopee” Matilda blurted out before bursting into tears.
“I’m sorry, can you repeat that a bit slower? I didn’t understand any of it.” She tried to place a reassuring hand on her shoulder, but instantly felt the girl stiffen.
“I’m lost.” Matilda said before getting up and beginning to pace before stopping, crossing her legs and bending forward at the waist. Ms. Honey watched her for a moment before what she said beforehand clicked into place. Oh. She looked around, but there was nothing but fields.
“I don’t live far. Do you think you can wait a few more minutes?” Ms. Honey wasn’t so sure if she could, but Matilda sniffled and nodded. She picked up her bike got on and had Matilda climb on the back of the seat and wrap her arms around Jennifer’s waist. Within a few peddles she knew this wasn’t going to work. Matilda couldn’t sit still. She would send them both crashing to the ground.
“I’m sorry, but c’mon, let’s go over here.” She took Matilda’s hand and led her down a dirt path and away from the main road.
“Where are we going?” Matilda asked, staring at her hand in Jennifer’s as if the mere act of holding hands was something foreign to her.
“Somewhere you can go potty.” Ms. Honey watched as Matilda craned her neck this way and that.
“I don’t see a restroom.” Ms. Honey bit back a laugh, before looking behind her.
“I think we’re far enough from the road. Around here should be okay.”
“Around he-” Matilda stopped mid-sentence as her situation seemed to click. Ms. Honey watched her face go from pale white to a bright shade of scarlet.
“Have you ever been camping?” Matilda shook her head as she shifted her weight from foot to foot. “See, normally what you want to do is dig a hole, but the ground is a bit too hard here.” Ms. Honey struck it with a stick, but nothing happened. “Oh well, you won’t hurt anything.” Matilda stared at her silently for a moment. “Go on. It’s okay.”
“I-I don’t have to go that badly.” Matilda lied.
“You haven’t stopped squirming since I found you. I have a feeling your family won’t be happy if you show up with a wet uniform. They’re very expensive.” Matilda hung her head and crossed her legs. “Best to just get it over with. I won’t look if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Like a band-aid.” Matilda mumbled.
“Yes, just like that. Did you still want me to read Wuthering Heights?”
“How about this. Once you go potty, we can still go to my house. I’ve got a map and once we figure out where you live, I’ll read you a chapter.”
Matilda let out a breath. “Okay.” She mumbled. “Where?”
Miss Honey turned around. “Right where you’re standing is fine. Wait first, hand me everything you’re wearing from the waist down. This will all be pointless if you still get everything wet.” She grabbed the clothing when she felt something soft get pressed against her arm. “Now all you have to do is squat down and make sure your legs are apart.”
After a minute of silence, Miss Honey peeked behind her to make sure everything was going alright, but frowned when she saw Matilda, now half naked, still dancing from foot to foot.
“You’re not going to feel any better until you get it over with.”
“Hey! You said you wouldn’t look!”
“I’ll look away once you get down.” Matilda groaned, hands clenched into fists in front of her while pumping her legs up and down. “Fine, I’ll read two chapters.”
“I can’t. Not here.” Matilda whimpered.
“Sweetie, you won’t make it anywhere else.”
“No, I mean, I can’t get down here.” Matilda was crying again.
“What? What is it? Are you hurt?”
“N-no, there are holes” Jennifer looked down. Yes, there were quite a lot of holes, but they were in a field. She gave Matilda a quizzical look. “I d-don’t like holes I can’t see down. What if they’re full of yellow jackets?”
Jennifer took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of her nose. Children and their irrational fears. “They’re just old gopher holes. The quicker you go, the quicker you can get away from them.”
“Would you put your privates next to holes you can’t see down and start pouring liquid?”
Miss Honey blanched. When she put it like that. It didn’t sound so irrational after all.
“Do you want to look for somewhere else, or do you want to try and wait until we get to my place?”
“I think I can wait.” Matilda said, hands still covering herself. “Can I have my clothes back, please?”
“Hmm, tell you what? Let’s play a game of risk.” Jennifer said. Matilda frowned. “You have until we get to the bike to change your mind. If you can make it until we get there, I’ll read you two chapters.”
“Okay, then I’ll wait.” Matilda said.
“But if we have to stop along the way, one chapter, and if you have an accident, no chapters.”
“O-oh okay.” Matilda said. “So can I have my clothes back?”
“I’ll give them back at the bike, because once you put them on, it starts.”
“It starts at the bike?” Matilda asked.
“If you change your mind and find somewhere to go potty before we get to the bike, I’ll still read you two chapters. So keep an eye out.”
They walked in silence back towards the street, Matilda trailing a few steps behind her. Jennifer was hoping she’d hear her run off somewhere, but the girl seemed determined. When they got back to the street, Jennifer looked left and then right to make sure the coast was clear. When she saw that it was, she bent and picked up the bike and that’s when something struck her.
“Matilda,” Jennifer said with her back still turned towards her. “There’s something you should know before I give you your clothes, and we head towards my place. It’s an outhouse.”
“Huh?” Matilda said.
“The bathroom. It’s an outhouse. Do you know what that is?”
“Like a porta-potty?”
“Sort of, it’s more like a seat that sits over a big hole in the ground. I’m not sure just how uncomfortable you are with holes, but-” she peeked over her shoulder at the crestfallen expression on Matilda’s face and heard a tiny audible whimper escape. “There are no holes here sweetie.”
“Pl-pl-please don’t tell anyone. My d-daddy would- ” Matilda’s voice broke.
Jennifer got off her bike and steered it over about a foot from the curb.
“Your daddy doesn’t need to know. Come over here behind the bike so no one sees if they drive by.” She watched out the corner of her eye as Matilda scurried over behind the bike and disappeared. Ms. Honey waited for a minute, but she didn’t hear any movement. “Everything okay?”
“Yes.” Came a quiet sniffle.
“Are you going potty?”
There was a second much quieter, “Yes.” Jennifer almost wasn’t sure she heard. She peeked behind her, before turning back around, pleased to see there was now liquid streaming down the gutter.
“There’s a good girl. I’m sure you feel loads better now.”
“Pl-ple-please don’t t-t-tell a–ny-one.” Matilda cried.
“Sweetie, it’s nothing to be upset about. Even adults have to do it sometime.”
“My p-p-parents say girls can’t pee outside, only guys get to.”
“Well, it’s easier for them sure, but what do you think female hikers and campers do?”
“My daddy said they hold it until they get home.”
“That’s not very practical, is it?”
“Miss Honey, can I please have my clothes back?” Matilda asked from behind the bike.
“Oh, yes, here.” She bent down and opened up the girl’s underwear for her to step into, but Matilda quickly pulled them out of her hands and dressed herself. “All set?” Jennifer asked once Matilda had stood up and come out from behind the bike.
“Almost.” Jennifer watched her rub at her temples with her hands.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, it’s just, whenever something unpleasant happens, I like to imagine it getting locked in a box where I’ll never remember it again.”
“Matilda, it really isn’t a big deal.”
“Of course it’s a big deal! It was my first day of school, and I just peed in the street in front of my teacher! You must think I’m disgusting or uncivilized! Or some kind of infant who isn’t ready for school!” Matilda said, her voice getting louder with every word.
“No, sweetie, I don’t think any of those things. You made the right choice. You recognized your limitations and acted accordingly. I think what you did was smart, but if it bothers you this much we can both pretend it never happened. Just know, I have seen more than half the class naked and in far more compromising positions, so you have nothing to be embarrassed about.”
Matilda furrowed her eyebrows in confusion.
“I think I missed that part of class.” Jennifer laughed and shook her head.
“No, silly, I’ve babysat most of them at one time or another over the years. I’ve given them baths, cleaned up diaper blowouts, changed wet sheets and wet pajamas.”
“Oh I see, but that’s when they were babies, obviously.”
“Uhh, not quite.” Miss Honey said with a small smile. “But we will need to rinse off your legs.” She quietly chuckled to herself as Matilda’s face began to glow bright red. “So do you want to ride on the back of the bike, or shall we walk?”
“Walk. I don’t want to get your bike dirty.”
Once they started walking, Matilda seemed to snap out of the embarrassed trance she was in. Jennifer was having difficulty keeping up with her in conversation. She bounced from one topic to the next, leaving Jennifer in awe. She couldn’t believe she was having these types of conversations with a small child. They talked about feminism in the early 1800s compared to today, classism in A Tale of Two Cities, working conditions of the poor, religions of the world. Jennifer was so entranced she hardly noticed how far they had walked. It was as if Matilda had stopped being this vulnerable, lost child and had become a miniature scholar. She was quite knowledgeable on a wide variety of subjects, but as soon as Jennifer had started asking her anything about her own life, she seemed to clam up, and once again she could glimpse the vulnerable child.
“We’re here, right through these trees.” Jennifer led her through a maze of trees and shrubs until they came upon a small building no one would ever find unless they knew where to look for it. She pushed her bike up and leaned it against the small white building.
“You live here?” Matilda asked, wide eyes taking in the property. Jennifer could see her eyes light up in excitement as she spotted something across the yard. “You have a hammock! That’s so cool!” Jennifer smiled and watched the young girl take off across the yard until she came up to a group of trees she had strung up a once broken hammock she had bought at a yard sale and sewn back together. “You have a garden too! Is that corn?”
“Yes, I enjoy gardening. I grow all sorts of fruits and vegetables, like corn, squash, cucumbers, strawberries.”
“Is that a real well?” Matilda ran over and peeked inside before quickly backing off.
“Can’t see the bottom.” She mumbled.
“Yes, It’s how I get my water. There isn’t any modern plumbing inside, so I can’t just turn a faucet. If I need water for anything, I have to draw it from the well.”
“Why don’t you have running water?” Matilda asked.
“Well, back in the day, it used to be the sla- I mean servants quarters. It’s old and out of date. I’m afraid the outside is much more interesting than the inside.”
“And is that the outhouse?” she pointed to the other corner of the yard. “Why doesn’t it have a door?”
“Ah, well, I took it off since it’s just me here, it’s out of the way and secluded from the rest of the main property and anyone who might walk by. I don’t like being in small spaces.”
“But what if you have guests?”
“Well, I’ve never had to think of that before, you’re the first person I’ve ever had over.”
“Really? How long have you lived here?”
“Almost two years.”
“You’ve lived here for two years, and I’m the first guest?” Matilda asked incredulous. “Why?”
“I like living simply. This is the only place I can really be myself, it’s not much I know, but here I’m free. Now, come here, let’s get you cleaned up, and then we can lay in the hammock and read.” She led Matilda back over to the well and drew the bucket up. Next she went inside and retrieved one of the few washcloths she had and dunked it in the water. “Pull everything from the waist off, and I’ll wipe you down.” Jennifer frowned when Matilda began backing away.
“I can clean myself.”
“If you insist, but make sure to get everywhere, so you don’t go home smelling like urine. I’ll be over here when you’re done.” She handed her the damp cloth and laid down in the hammock to wait. Five minutes later, Matilda tried to pull herself up, but nearly tipped Jennifer out. “Over here, so you can see.” Matilda let out a startled yell when Jennifer picked her up and set her down in between her legs. “Why do you look so uncomfortable? Relax, I’m not going to hurt you.” She placed a hand on her shoulder and felt her body go rigid. Jennifer frowned in concern. “Does being touched bother you?”
“I’m not used to it is all. My family isn’t the affectionate type.” Miss Honey remembered what she had said during lunch about terms of endearment being foreign to her.
“Don’t they ever hug you or hold you or tuck you in at night?”
“No.” Matilda said flatly. Jennifer bit her lip.
“Matilda, are you safe?”
“Can we read, Miss Honey?”
“Not until you answer my question.” Matilda shifted uncomfortably.
“If you answer mine.” Jennifer pinched the bridge of her nose.
“What do you want to ask me?”
“Do you live here because you like it or is it just because you’re poor?” Matilda asked. Jennifer froze.
“Both.” She thought of lying, but this girl seemed to have a built-in lie detector. “Now answer mine.”
“What do you mean by, ‘safe’?”
“Are you taken care of? Fed? Loved?”
“There’s food in the house, I’m not being starved or locked in a cupboard like I’m Harry Potter. Do you not make much money from teaching?”
“But a child needs more than just their physical needs met. They need to be shown love and kindness.”
“Mrs. Phelps is kind to me.” Matilda mumbled. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“I make enough, but my aunt takes it all as back payment for raising me. I live off the money I get doing odd jobs like babysitting on the weekends, or working over the summer. It’s difficult to be an independent adult when you take home as much money as a teenager. As for Mrs. Phelps, she’s not your mother. It’s not enough, trust me, I know. I grew up in a loveless home, and the only kindness I received came from the same source.”
“Why did your aunt raise you?” Matilda asked. “Was she mean?”
“My parents died when I was very young. And yes, she is a very mean woman.”
“I’m sorry. Was she mean like Miss Trunchbull?” Jennifer stayed quiet for a moment until Matilda turned around to face her. Finally, she settled on the truth.
“My aunt is Miss Trunchbull.” Matilda gasped.
“Ms. Honey!” Jennifer smiled sadly.
“Enough about me, and you don’t have to keep calling me Ms. Honey while we’re here. When we’re not at school you can call me Jenny.” She looked down at Matilda. “And if this position makes you uncomfortable, you can move.” Matilda sat still for a moment and looked at her place in between Jennifer’s legs.
“Can I stay?” Matilda mumbled.
“Absolutely. In fact, lay back, get comfortable.” She pulled the girl down until she was leaning fully against her and picked up the book next to her. “I promised to read some chapters, didn’t I?” Matilda grinned and nodded her head.
Jennifer got halfway through the second chapter when she stopped and listened. She could hear Matilda’s deep rhythmic breathing. She looked down and found the girl turned on her side and resting her head on Jennifer’s stomach, now fast asleep. Jennifer smiled and gently ran a hand over her back. She thought of waking her and offering to take her home but decided against it. Matilda had had a rough day and maybe a nap was really what she needed, and maybe a little something else. She wrapped her arms gently around the sleeping girl and smiled when she felt tiny arms wrap around her as well. She may not be able to challenge her mind, but at the very least, she could offer Matilda something her books and family couldn’t and wouldn’t. Human Affection.