SNACKS • by Aaron Polson

Mrs. Jane Kotwitz eyed the lesson plan with curious disapproval. Typed neatly with plenty of white margin for notes, the plan for third hour simply read, “Paxton — reading. He takes the lone seat by the windows.” Mrs. Kotwitz’s eyes rose from the page to the small, red-haired boy sitting alone by the windows. It was her first time subbing in Room 125 and first experience with Paxton.

His hair was a deep red, a dried-blood red with lighter orange highlights dancing on the edges of its unkempt mass. Under the hair, the boy’s brown eyes studied pages of a worn paperback. It was one of those books with cartoony illustrations — not quite a comic book but close enough for Mrs. Kotwitz to crinkle her nose. She had watched him lope into the room, pull the book from the battered blue shelf, and place himself in the designated seat without a word from her.

Surely a boy of eleven years needed more than a comic book to stimulate his brain, but Mrs. Kotwitz looked back at the plan and scribbled, “quiet,” next to Paxton’s name. She settled her hips into the teacher’s chair, wiggling slightly to squeeze between the arm rests, and let out a long breath. It was only third hour, but her morning fiber bar had not traveled far. She closed her eyes and thought of the apple, slice of gouda, and small square of dark chocolate in her bag for lunch. Or maybe she should have it as a snack before lunch. She could always go to the cafeteria and—

The squeak of a desk leg against the painted concrete floor snatched her from her thoughts. Her eyes opened, and Paxton stood next to her. Freckles dotted his face, forming a splatter pattern across his nose which folded into his deep, brown eyes.

His little mouth curled. “I can smell your thoughts,” he said, almost a whisper.

Mrs. Kotwitz’s hand moved to the small golden cross resting on her sweater.

“Excuse me, Paxton. Please take your seat,” she said.

The boy turned without another word and moved across the room. He slid into his chair and opened the book.

Mrs. Kotwitz shivered.

It wasn’t cold in the room at all — in fact, she felt overly warm, but she wasn’t used to only one student in a classroom either, even in a school this size. First and second hour had at least twelve students each. Fifteen or twenty or even thirty would fill a room with voices and movement and plenty of young minds to build and educate and, of course, instill a solid sense of discipline and order.

This was one child with a sparse lesson plan for forty-five minutes.

Paxton. Reading.

She straightened the papers on the desk as her stomach growled. Why was she so hungry? Just the cheese, maybe. She could have the apple after the red-headed boy left the room and she could relax and make sure the next group had their assignment. She would have eleven students during fourth hour, not a crowded room by any means, but not so… lonely. Yes, the cheese and then the apple when Paxton was gone. That would do. It would keep her going for a while and then soon the singular boy near the window would be gone and she could relax. 

She turned to her soft-sided lunch bag for the cheese as an unwelcome thought skittered into her brain.

Why did Ms. Harper need a sub today?

Her eyes scanned the room. The boy wasn’t at his desk.

“I can smell your thoughts.”

Mrs. Jane Kotwitz inhaled sharply. He was right behind her as she thought about cheese, creeping silently. She looked at the paper on the desk and the plans for third hour: Paxton. Reading. Her thick finger jabbed the page.

“You should be reading,” she said. Her voice shifted a few notes higher as she continued, “By the window.”

Paxton smiled. The freckle-stain morphed.

“I can smell your thoughts. They smell delicious.” He drew out the word delicious, long and monotone, and needles prickled her neck, just under her occipital bone.

Her tongue thickened in her mouth. Words came with effort. “Paxton, sit down and read,” she said. “Sit down and read like it says on this paper.”

The boy didn’t move.

“Now,” she said, wanting the voice to land firmly. It should have been a command, not a plea.

The boy turned and muttered, “I’m going to eat them.”

Mrs. Kotwitz’s face flushed pale.

“I will call the office for any more disruption,” she said. That was a failure, though. Weakness. She drew in a breath and counted five, and let it escape between parted lips. She should be done with all this substituting. Children just were different now, that’s all. No discipline and order. No hands raised to get out of one’s seat, even in a room with only two people.  

Why was it so warm?

“Hungry,” the boy said.

Mrs. Kotwitz’s stomach gurgled.

“Hungry, hungry, hungry.”

“Stop that at once,” she said as she wrenched herself from the chair, heading toward the black intercom call button near the door.

Paxton was faster.


After the bell sounded, a new group of students entered the room. Giggles and gossip dropped as they found Mrs. Jane Kotwicz in a lump on the floor halfway between the teacher’s desk and the intercom button. A puddle had formed under her head. Her eyes were wide and blank; her mouth hung open.

Across the room, Paxton pushed his book back onto the battered blue shelf. He then moved toward the door. The other students parted, letting him pass. A burp crossed his lips as he brushed the edge of his mouth with his thumb.

Aaron Polson lives in Lawrence, KS with his wife, children, and two canine companions. A school counselor by day, he occasionally bangs out a story or two when he finds a spare moment. His work has been honorably mentioned in the Year’s Best Horror and other publications. This is his first publication after a nearly ten year hiatus.

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