Maria stretched her little fingers to the top of my desk, pawing over papers and picture frames until she caught hold of the leather strap and tugged my purse to the floor. I watched her dig into the unzipped pocket like a puppy as I crossed the room, straddling building blocks and five-year-olds.
“Maria, what are you doing?”
She looked up at me, big eyes bulging from her brown skin. She dropped the purse’s handle and darted to the reading corner where she plucked The Rainbow Fish from the shelf and dropped cross-legged onto the rug.
I sighed and zipped my purse—after checking that all my credit cards were present. This was happening too often. Her mother had assured me she would see to it. “It’s only a phase,” she’d said. “Maria thinks it’s a game.”
The game was becoming less fun for me.
While the kids were having naptime I called her mom—no answer. I tried the father. Between his thick, Mexican accent and the loud clanging in the background, I could barely understand him.
“I know Maria usually rides the bus, but do you think you could pick her up from school today?”
“I’ll come,” he said.
After naptime and alphabet and snack and drawing, the parents began to arrive. Maria didn’t seem to notice when she was the only one left. She sat in the corner with her book, running her fingers over the fish’s colorful scales. She couldn’t read yet, but she loved the pictures. I spoke to her several times, but she acted as though she couldn’t hear me until I gave up and started paperwork at my desk.
Her father came in smelling like fast food and burnt grease. Maria ran to him shouting, “Papá!,” and clung to his leg.
“Hello, señorita. Have a good day?”
I brought over her Dora the Explorer backpack. “Hi, I’m Mrs. Sally.”
“Rico,” he said, extending a hand. Maria leapt at his forearm like a grasshopper. “I’m sorry I’m so late. I had to leave work early.”
“That’s all right, I appreciate you doing that. I just wanted to talk about a little habit of Maria’s.” When the little girl heard her name and the tone in my voice, she sank behind her father’s leg. “She’s taken to stealing. I’ve caught her with other students’ lunch money, Game Boys, house keys. A few days ago my purse was turned over on the floor, and when I checked her pockets I found one of my credit cards. She grabbed my purse off my desk again today.”
The man’s thick brows furrowed. He knelt down to his daughter. “Maria, do you steal things?”
She shook her head.
“Mamá told me to.”
The girl raised her thumb to her lower lip. She didn’t suck it, but she wanted to. Her father put a hand on her little shoulder. “Qué Mamá te dijo?”
“She said I couldn’t come home.”
“You couldn’t come home? Por qué?”
“Without a prize.”
She wrapped her arms around her daddy’s neck. He flinched like it hurt.
“Your mamá told you to steal?”
She didn’t answer, but she had already been clear enough. Rico rose with his daughter still wrapped around his neck and the pink backpack slung over his arm. He shook his head. “I am so sorry. I will be talking about this with my wife.”
“I don’t mean to pry,” I said, “but do you know why your wife would have said such a thing?”
I didn’t need to ask. The answer was in the smell of cheap burgers clinging to his skin. It was in the exhaustion weighing down his eyes. It was in the small hole near the hem of his shirt. But I asked anyway. I needed him to say what I knew he would.
“I don’t know. She must have misunderstood something. Gracias, for calling.”
I nodded and watched him carry his daughter out the door. I stayed in the classroom an extra thirty minutes because I had plenty of work to finish—not because I wanted to pretend he got in a car and drove away, instead of walking to the trailer park across the street.
When my work was done, I walked to my Honda, purse tucked under my arm, keys jangling. I drove home and thought no more about Maria, did not wonder what she had to eat tonight. I had made the phone call. I had done my part. If they had truly needed help, her father could have told me, standing in the classroom between walls painted with giraffes and sunsets. I asked. I did all I could.
I will put my purse on a high shelf tomorrow.
VICTORIA GRIFFIN is an East Tennessee native, currently studying English and playing softball at Campbell University. She writes between study sessions, practices, and mouthfuls of peanut butter. Her short fiction has appeared recently in Synaesthesia Magazine and FLARE: The Flagler Review, among others. Find her here.