Simple Delights & Simple Ends
The first day was hectic and an almost-disaster. By the first hour Nurse Angelica and Pastor Lawrence had to do damage control, frantically shifting from attending to the barrage of calls from fettered parents to the children's cries and attention. Two out of their five assistant-nurses had called in sick or were otherwise indisposed, leaving the five of them to handle the thirty-something load themselves. Every fifteen minutes there was a late parent dropping their kids off, and the trial and pain that followed persuading the little one to let go of their mother and say goodbye. Naturally, there was a lot of crying and fussing, which in normal circumstances neither Lawrence nor Angelica would have minded if they weren't so harangued to begin with. Children were overall joys; their sorrows, though deeply felt, were light and transient. Even so, there was no denying the relief on the parents' faces as they left for their plush jobs.
Despite the hassle, the children were as adorable as always, save for one or two not as cute or as well-behaved. When the day was over, and they oversaw the parents picking up their children, they could finally relax and talk about their first impressions on their newest batch.
It was too soon to say for Lawrence, but one child did catch his attention (and would actually become a future favorite of his despite himself). An elegant, beautifully-dressed woman in a dark navy suit, recently widowed, arrived hand-in-hand with her four-year-old son. Eagle-eyed and no-nonsense, she asked Lawrence over breakfast and lunch items and pick-up times and, Lawrence, who wasn't at all fooled, reassured her of her son's safety. When the little one refused to let go of his mother's shapely leg, her deep alto grew soft and motherly. ''Mama has to leave to go to work now...you be good, you hear?''
He began to cry, and his mother scolded him gently that big boys did not cry (Lawrence inwardly winced at this) and that he was a big boy, wasn't he? Uh-huh, he said, wide eyes still watery, and after a kiss goodbye his mother disentangled herself from her son and left. That was when the shrieking started.
Managing a daycare or even working in one builds an admirably thick skin to kids' caterwauling, but seeing the psychological sense of betrayal in young eyes as they watch their mother leave them to complete strangers for what they probably perceive as forever was always...difficult. He calmed down after a full half-hour almost, drained, tired, and cranky. His mother had called him 'Meo, but the paperwork file listed his name as Romeo Montague.
Even so, Lawrence would not have paid any particular mind to this boy had it not been for the hysteria during recess time, in which one of the young assistants had rushed to him, red-faced and panicked – the boy Romeo had begun to climb up the fence around the daycare grounds, and was very nearly over it when he was promptly whisked away. The incident was shocking to all, and the mother was called. She wanted to come immediately, but Lawrence persuaded her not to – experience told him that Romeo needed to grow accustomed to not having his mother around. He saw that Ms. Montague had a high-end job a considerable distance away from the daycare, and it would be more trouble than what was worth going back and forth over the upstarts of her fidgety son (not to mention a waste of gas and the possibility of incurring her boss' ire). In the end she agreed on the condition that they inform her of her son's future escape attempts, or any other problems as they came up.
Later, when Romeo was grounded inside while the rest of the children played, Lawrence researched a bit on Eleanora Montague on the Internet and discovered, feeling a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach, that his hunch had not only had been right, but downright inadequate: Her husband Vittorino (anglicized to Victor) had been the CEO of Montague Armamentarium Inc., a high-end weapons company which sold state-of-the-art equipment to the U.S. government and mercenary organizations. The weapons used in the ''shock and awe'' battle strategy in the Iraq war and the high-precision drones used in Afghanistan war zones later on were manufactured by the MA. Under attack by liberal critics for the high rate of civilian casualties in correlation with excessive drone use, there were several statements made by Montague in several prestigious newspapers defending the legitimacy and usefulness of these weapons in the battlefield and in the air. Other articles pointed to evidence linking Montague to gang and mafia activity, as well as lawsuits filed by corporate rivals accusing MA of insider trading and other corporate malpractices.
His tragic and sudden death at Cape Verona via boat accident – when it was proven in court by reliable witnesses that he was an expert sailor – was as messy and scandalous as his life. Suspicions of foul play floated about in gossip bits, Internet comments and forums, pointing the finger both to his lifelong rival and corporate competitor, Sebastian Capulet, and even Montague's living wife, Eleanora. For scarcely at the eve of his death Eleanora Montague, six months pregnant at the time, took over as head of the corporation in the interim. To make her takeover secure, a will surfaced leaving Eleanora the ownership of the company to do with as she will. According to anonymous commentators on the Internet, that made the circumstances of his death even more suspicious.
More recent articles detailed the successful birth of her son, Romeo, followed by both congratulatory, skeptical, and horrified comments on how she could juggle both duties and businesswoman and new mother without slacking in either in some way. The only statement Eleanora gave (and repeated in every article he frequented) was to ask – with cold courtesy – to respect her and her son's privacy.
At this point Lawrence stopped reading and turned off the computer with a heavy sigh. No wonder the name had rung a bell from reading it in newspapers, even if he had initially dismissed it as coincidence. True, St. Escalus was the repository for the children of rich patrons, predominantly of Catholic heritage, but none had been as...newsworthy as this, apart from the occasional charity. He decided to keep this information to himself, and when he talked with the rest of the nurses, he left out the details of his parents' troubles. Thankfully his fellow nurses were more interested in the boy's adorable mien than in the details of his parentage.
In the days that followed, Romeo predictably acted out, hiding under tables and in nooks, especially at story time, and hiding toys in different places in the playroom. It became a habit keeping an eye at the door in case he attempted to go out – not so much to escape this time, but to explore; it became more than evident that Romeo could not stand still to save himself.
''He's a pícaro,'' Angelica had said fondly. ''A mischievous spirit.''
But after the first difficult week, the boy grew accustomed to this new schedule and his mood much improved, and his little picardies were carried out with much mischief and play. Soon time-out became almost a game with him, and when Lawrence sternly reprimanded him, he would cover his mouth, giggling. Unlike the other boys, he never seemed to mind being in the company of other girls and playing with them, even if now and then he would pull on their pigtails and run off before they came, squealing, tattling to the nurses.
One day at recess, however, Romeo was seen sitting alone on the bench, crying in the silent way of kids when they didn't want adults to notice them crying. Lawrence came over asked him what was the matter, and after a few tries, he got an answer.
''Rosaline doesn't want to be my friend,'' he sniffed.
For he had quickly developed a crush on a dark-haired girl named Rosaline, who wore her hair in a braid, and didn't seem to like him as much. When he scooted over to her side as they watched a movie, she scooted away. He had offered her his gummy bears at lunch - a prized commodity in the strictly fruit-and-vegetable diet of St. Escalus - and she refused him, and seemed to take great satisfaction in the refusal. Failing that, he asked his friend Benvolio, a light-haired kid and much better behaved, to ask him to ask Rosaline if she would like to be his friend, without result. He even dared pull on her braid to get her attention, even though it meant an hour's time-out if he were caught. He would chase her all around the playground at recess, yelling at her to be his friend, Rosaline shrieking ''No!'' over her shoulder.
Lawrence and Angelica felt great amusement in the drama, which finally came to a denouement when Rosaline's parents decided to move and switched her to another daycare closer to their new home. Romeo fell into a 'fit of sulks,' as Angelica called it, and barely interacted with the rest of his compeers (except Benvolio, whom he still played with). It wasn't until Mercutio, the nephew of the sponsor who gave the daycare its name, came that Romeo effectively snapped out of his melancholia, and the three became thick as thieves from then on, to the nurses' chagrin. Mercutio turned out an even bigger troublemaker than Romeo, and his example led the latter and even mild-mannered Benvolio into acting out. It became a full-time job all on its own to stop Mercutio from flinging bits of porridge at the other kids with a spoon, Romeo from pulling girls' pigtails, and Benvolio from passively following his friends' lead.
Time passed, leaving March and segueing into a weepy April. Most of days the kids were fettered inside, watching kid-friendly movies and in the playroom with the toy box. That was when the new arrival came, and quickly became Angelica's favorite.
Her name was Juliette and she was a tiny speck of a thing with long curly blonde hair arranged into two pigtails tied with matching pink ribbons. Her father was the one who dropped her off, first thing in the morning, and kiss her goodbye. She cried and fussed, but by the second week she had more or less adjusted. In that time she became the new baby of the nurses, most especially Angelica and Lawrence, who coddled her and told her she looked very pretty in her pink sundress, like a princess. Sure enough, the girl always perked up at these easy compliments, beaming. When her pigtails fell into disarray from all the running at recess, Angelica would fix them up for her.
So they let her play with as many toys as she wanted from the toy box, which happened to include the most coveted piece of them all: a Woody doll from Toy Story, complete with pull-able string, cowboy hat and boots, and voice-box, by far the most detailed and faithful rendering of the toy from the movie available. The toy was so popular that the nurses had to reserve the toy for especially good behavior, which meant eating all of lunch and not talking at nap-time. It was also used to placate weepy newly-arrives, which was more or less successful. To make the transition easier, they gave the doll to Juliette who, delighted, began playing with it right away.
That predictably caused contention straightaway. By that time Romeo had built a warm confidence to Lawrence and he was the one he went immediately to for his confidence. It was during recess when Lawrence felt a tug at his shift, and heard a scandalized tone.
''There's a girl playing with the Woody doll in the playroom and she doesn't want to share.''
He led him to the playroom, where Juliette sat, clutching the Woody doll to her chest.
''Mr. Lawrence says you have to share the doll,'' said Romeo, his hands trying to grab the leg. ''Give it over.''
''No, no, no,'' squealed Juliette, scooting away.
''Juliette is new here, so she gets to play the doll for the time being,'' said Lawrence. ''But maybe if you ask very nicely, she could share the doll with you.''
Romeo perked up at this. ''Really?''
''Yes, but you have to ask nicely.'' He turned to the little girl. ''What do you say, Juliette? Do you want to play with Romeo?''
The girl seemed to hesitate, as if shy; but then she shook her head vigorously, her pigtails flying to and fro. ''No.''
''Hmm, that's too bad,'' said Lawrence. ''He'll be all alone with no cute girl to play with and, even worse, no toy.''
Big brown eyes gazed at Romeo, wide-eyed.
''Can I play with the Woody doll too?'' asked Romeo after a pause, for once almost shy, after a prompting from Lawrence.
Blinking, eyelashes fluttering. '''Kay.''
Lawrence sighed as the two of them settled down to an uneasy peace, and after a moment of continued harmony, left the playroom. They played with the Woody doll; then, without any warning whatever, Romeo reached over quickly and tugged at one of her pigtails.
After that – and after Romeo agreed to stop pulling her pigtails, or the pigtails of any other girl for that matter – they were inseparable, and shared much more than just the Woody doll. They exchanged bonbons at lunch and played together both at recess and in the playroom. At nap time they dragged their blankets close to each other. Finding it curious and odd, Lawrence and Angelica decided to ask the little ones in question.
''You seem to be playing a lot with Romeo lately, my dear,'' said the Nurse one day to Juliette, playing with a toy train. ''Have you become friends with him?''
''Uh-huh,'' she chirped.
''Do you like him?''
''Do you think he's cute?''
A pause. ''Uh-huh!''
''What do you do together?''
''We play,'' said Juliette simply.
''Paris is looking lonely over there. Why don't you play with him instead?''
Juliette looked a little confused at this apparent non sequitur, giving a dubious hum before vigorously shaking her head.
''I don't want to,'' she mumbled.
Meanwhile Romeo was coloring at a table, and Lawrence ventured over.
''That's a pretty drawing you're doing there. What is it about?''
''That one's Juliette,'' said Romeo, pointing to a round pink blob. ''And that one's me.'' Pointing to a squarish brown blob. Two thin lines – one pink and one brown – connected them. ''We're holding hands.''
''Ah. So you like Juliette after all?''
''Uh-huh'' was the response. ''She's pretty.''
''She is. Do you like her...as a girlfriend?''
His skin darkened as in a blush; he shook his head vigorously, unsuccessfully suppressing a grin.
That afternoon it had begun to rain, so they put on an animated movie for the kids in the playroom. At the end, the two protagonists married and lived happily ever after, the female amphibian in a white dress and the male in a tuxedo. They were holding hands and gazing lovingly into each other's eyes; the score swelled as they kissed, reaching a crescendo before blackout and the credits rolled.
The next day at lunch, the dessert of the day were Ring Pops. The nurses watched as they exchanged Ring Pops, Romeo slipping his onto Juliette's ring finger and Juliette's Ring Pop onto Romeo's, as in the movie. By recess they were husband and wife, and news of their marriage spread throughout the daycare. Soon the adults received a wave of innocent inquiries, from the most innocuous (''can I marry so-and-so too?'') to the most revealing (''but I don't like girls, I like boys, can I still marry?''). They were charmed, if disconcerted by this wave of romantic vigor – but then again, with so many examples of it littered in TV and in movies, it wasn't so surprising.
Some of the kids, however, did not take to this new coupling. A young, troubled boy named Tybalt, who had exhibited behavioral problems in the past, also had a well-known crush on Juliette. He confronted Romeo behind the slides.
''You can't play with Juliette,'' he said. ''Only I can play with her.''
Then he pushed the youngest to the ground. Mercutio, seeing his friend in trouble, pushed Tybalt back and they wrestled on the ground. Romeo, in trying to separate them, was pulled into the fray instead. They punched and scratched and kicked each other. By the time the nurses and Lawrence came, they were all crying, dirtied, and bruised. Their parents were informed and, duly reprimanded, the youngsters were put on separate time-outs for the whole week.
After the time-outs were done, things calmed down a bit. Romeo immediately scurried to Juliette's side, the nurses making sure that he and Tybalt were as far from each other as possible. They enjoyed four days together before fate – or simply cruel coincidence – finally stroke.
Lawrence had been successfully able to keep this information about Romeo's parents under wraps, and luckily there was little to no danger in the families coming into contact with each other. Luck was on their side; Mrs. Montague always arrived before Mr. Capulet to pick up Romeo and it was the same in the mornings. One late afternoon, however, Capulet's wife, Isabelle, arrived to pick up Juliette in his stead. It also happened that morning that Romeo and Juliette dawdled in the playroom, doodling on manila paper. Isabelle Capulet, sooty-eyed and ruby-lipped, entered the room to see Eleanora Montague bent over her son, who flourished a drawing.
''Oh, what a wonderful picture. Did you draw that?''
''Uh-huh,'' said Romeo, his cheeks puffing proudly. ''Juliette helped me. She's my best friend.''
At that moment Juliette's fair head looked up, caught sight of her mother and burst out: ''Mama!''
Eleanora followed Juliette's gaze; she froze, then slowly straightened up. Isabelle had turned pale beneath layers of foundation. Twin ruby lips thinned into a hard, surprised line. Isabelle's manicured hand automatically rested on top of her daughter's blonde head. Though the playroom was full of children and their children, in that moment nothing existed except the cold tension between the two.
''Can Romeo come to our house to play, Mama?'' asked Juliette, looking up at her suddenly stony mother.
''Let's talk it over with your father first.'' Her lips scarcely moved.
Eleanora watched mother and daughter leave shortly afterwards. At the last moment Juliette turned, waving goodbye at Romeo. They never saw each other again after that.
It was inevitable that Lawrence and Angelica deal with both parents and apart from trying to convincing them to let their child stay at the daycare, there was little else they could do. In the end the Capulets decided to withdraw their daughter from St. Escalus and put her elsewhere. Most everyone at St. Escalus, who had grown fond of the little couple, lamented. Angelica was the most devastated that her favorite was leaving and even got herself a little tipsy over some beer with Lawrence at the local bar.
''She was such a darling,'' she hiccupped as Lawrence took her home. ''A darling.''
Lawrence, too, felt very heavy-hearted at the thought of informing Romeo of Juliette's leaving. Seeing the look on his face when he understood that Juliette wouldn't be around the daycare anymore would be wince-inducing. It had been hard enough on the little one when Rosaline left. How long would it take him to forget Juliette? He didn't like to think of it.
So when Juliette finally disappeared and Romeo ran up to him to ask him where she went, he was very much tempted to say she is sick and would be back in a few days. But experience, sad teacher as it was, told him otherwise and in the end he broke the news as gently as he could.
''Why?'' he cried.
Might as well, if he was being honest...''Because her parents don't like each other. They don't want Juliette associating with you.''
Romeo didn't say another word, but ran away, and strangely enough out of all the reactions Lawrence had pictured, this one was the most saddening.
For three days Romeo did not utter a single word to anyone, and kept largely to himself. When his friends arrived he ran away from them; to adults he either nodded, shook his head, or just didn't bother responding. They left him have his space. By the fourth day, he was gone.
How on earth he managed to sneak past detection when Lawrence had still kept a close eye on him was a bit of a mystery, but it was not impossible, especially for a boy who reportedly liked to wander off on his own and who had attempted to escape once before. Either way, St. Escalus went into full-scale emergency mode and called in both parents and civil authorities alike to search for the boy. It didn't take long to find him in the end; he didn't get very far from the daycare.
The parents were assured by police and coroners – however poor consolation in the grand scheme of things – that the rate of impact of the vehicle allowed their son a quick and painless end. The driver of the vehicle, going the speed limit and taken completely by surprise, could not brake in time. There was astonishingly very little blood, but the brain had cracked and leaked fluids on the hot pavement. After that, he was very quickly lost.
It was eventually discovered, after an interview with Romeo's friend Benvolio, that the boy had told his friends of his plans to visit Juliette at her parents' house, which Juliette had described to him once, and convince her parents to let her be his friend. Benvolio had felt uneasy about this and told him he thought they weren't supposed to leave the daycare. Otherwise, however, he didn't take Romeo's musings seriously. Or at least, he hoped they hadn't been serious.
The death of the son of a prominent family made news enough, but some spectators commented that it was the coincidental death of the daughter of another prominent family, and the unmistakable link to it, that made it media gold. The daughter Juliette had been taken with the same idea three days ago, only she enlisted the aid of the family dog, which she thought could track down Romeo's scent, like the dog she saw in a cartoon once. She still had Romeo's Ring Pop in her possession when she was found in the street, another victim of afternoon rush hour.
Whatever life the parents had lived or wanted to live was forever marred by the twin tragedies. Divorce quickly followed for Isabelle and Sebastian Capulet, heartache for Eleanora Montague. Where their lives would take them, no one knew; only the stain of loss was certain and would doubtless follow them to the end of their days.
There was little mercy for St. Escalus either. Questions of negligence and doubt over management and security made quite a few parents skittish enough to withdraw their child from the daycare. Their numbers dwindled so fast Lawrence and Angelica worried that they would never be able to recover and would be force to sell off what they had. It never came to that, though the media certainly enjoyed casting doubt wherever doubt could be casted; but after the senselessness of the tragedy lost its luster, business very slowly recovered. But it was never the same, either for Lawrence, Angelica, or St. Escalus itself.