by Helen M. Orr
Noella couldn’t believe she’d ended up as Communications Officer on parent-council. She hated talking to people. She got her groceries at 1 a.m. when she would only run into newborn parents, or parents of newborns which was the same thing, or shift workers who avoided being seen or spoken to. It wasn’t that she was shy, so much as small talk seemed like so much wasted air and time. She’d rather watch the birds at the feeder. Her family referred to it as her secret vice. Binoculars and three field guides were piled by the back window. “Are you listening to me?” was a frequent refrain. If she was listening to the question, the answer would most likely have been no. She was getting better at tuning out, or worse at tuning in, she wasn’t certain she wanted to know.
She went to the School Council’s inaugural meeting out of a sense of duty and to improve the family reputation. Despite biological evidence of their relationship, her compliance had not been passed along to the next generation. Her children were conscientious objectors. The osmosis and role modeling she presumed would work had not. She didn’t waste her breath on what would only cause a world of friction. So, perhaps if she became more involved, they would gain some discretion, or at least keep their heads down, knowing that she was getting direct access to school information.
Instead, because she’d raised hers by showing up at the first meeting of the new school year, her life took on new importance amongst the school mavens. Chairperson, Treasurer and Secretary were already safely elected. Noella was so relieved that official roles were filled, she uncharacteristically blurted her praise of the new high-flyers. The Secretary took fright at her enthusiasm and warbled that she did not do newsletters, public speaking or use Social Media.
“We need a Communications Officer,” announced the Chair. Her hawk eyes pinned Noella to her chair like the fake-laser pointer Noella’s son had had confiscated that day; not his first transgression. She began to heat up, rising from her chair to protest, only to be congratulated.
And that was that.
The School Board Cross-Country Running meet was next on the agenda. School Council was charmed by the inclusiveness of the event and wanted to take part in any way they could, to show their support and to bask in the glow of a success.
“If we’re hiring buses, we may as well fill them,” said the Chair, swishing her feathery hair.
Her parenting style had to do with providing pleasant surprises to her offspring, Noella suspected. Providing inconveniences and costs to others was part of her leadership style. You could tell a lot about a person by their children. The Chair’s were frighteningly successful and popular. Noella’s daughter tended to fly under the radar, sticking to plain black rather than the stinging array of queen bee colours and her son had gained a reputation as a class clown. She closed her eyes to refocus.
“There may be parents who want to drive their children to the meet,” she managed to say. “Of course,” said the Chair.
Noella didn’t like communicating rules. She didn’t make the rules. There would be a rule about driving your own children.
“We should Tweet,” said the Chair. “What should I Tweet?” asked Noella.
The Chair cocked her beady eye around the group. “And we should Re-Tweet regularly,” said the Chair.
“I think you mean Tweet again,” said Noella. “Re-Tweet is something different.”
“That’s why you’re the Communications Officer,” said the Chair. “You can work on the wording with the Secretary.
The Secretary swivelled her head and stared at Noella like she was a worm.
“We’re having our very own ‘Freida’s Frozen Freshers’ as a fundraiser,” went on the Chair, smiling across the table. Freida’s red-head pale skin lit up like she had an ‘on’ switch.
“Noella, we need to find out who can bring their coolers and let everyone know what we’ll be buying for the school with the proceeds. You have the list?”
Noella looked at the Secretary.
The Secretary’s trance broke. She handed Noella a list from the nest of papers she had in front of her. This was so much like a flock of birds. Pecking order was evident. Noella wished she had the same effect as she did at the feeder and they’d all just scatter.
“So?” the Chair said.
“Yes?” replied Noella. She looked at the agenda in her hand that said: #1 – Committee Reports.
“I’m a committee?” she thought. “I have a question,” she managed, “Before my report. Are Freida’s treats ”
“Fresher’s,” corrected the Chair.
Noella blinked for a second and redirected her question to Freida. “Are they all frozen?”
“Why?” asked Freida.
“It’s October,” said Noella.
“And the kids will all be hot from running,” said Freida.
“Yes, I’m sure they’ll need some refreshing organics to energize,” added the Chair.
“It usually rains,” Noella said. “And it’s freezing. I’ve been at it.”
There was the sound of squelching as the rest of the table gently swivelled in their plastic chairs to look at her.
“What do we charge?” she asked.
“We’ll get all that info to you,” said the Chair.
Noella bobbed her dark head looking at her list of unanswered questions and wordless Tweets, “That’s it for my report.”
“Good work,” said the Chair. “We’re so grateful for your timely communications to parents.”
There was a smattering of applause. It was Noella’s turn to settle back and listen to the rest of them chirp. The fluorescent lights were not flattering. They lit up all the reapplied make-up and the end of day wrinkles. She nestled into her seat trying to pay attention to any other lack of information she might be required to pass on.
Grey and chill, cross-country day arrived and Noella was there to support other people’s children. When she’d brought it up at the dinner table her kids had said, “Been there, done that.”
“They expect you to wear running shoes and shorts,” her daughter, Cassandra, had pointed out.
“We’re saving you a lot of laundry,” added her son, Max, as he carefully wiped a splotch of ketchup from beside his plate onto his pant leg.
She had to agree about the cold. At least she was allowed to wear pants. “You know the “treats” are frozen?” said Cassandra using finger quotes. “I brought that up,” Noella replied.
Getting out of the car, she was surprised to see that kids were flocking to Freida’s coolers. They elbowed one another to get to the front of the crowd. Those who had already purchased their “Freshers” had to fight their way out.
The chirpy Secretary shrilled, “Get in line!” But no one paid any attention.
Noella wondered if she should Tweet the stats for trampling sustained at the fundraising booth versus injuries from the actual races. Freida’s Frozen Freshers were an enormous hit and the races hadn’t even begun.
The older kids’ races didn’t start until the younger ones had churned up the first part of the circuit to an ankle-deep, muddy soup. She watched a goose-pimpled boy sticking a spinach- green pop between his blue lips. His stick-legs jiggled like he needed to pee.
“What’s it taste like?” asked Noella. “Good,” said blue lips.
“Aren’t you cold?” asked Noella. “Mm-hmm,” he acknowledged.
“But you still bought a frozen treat?” “Yeah,” he said.
“Okay,” said Noella. They must be delicious, she thought. All the older students, and some of the younger kids too, had the Freezing Freshers. They were standing in circles, as adolescents tended to do, circling the wagons against the prying eyes of the minders.
Noella’s curiosity was killing her. She could barely get to the rosy-cheeked moms taking toonies from the frozen claws of the soon-to-be cross-country runners.
“What flavours are there?” she shouted into the ear of the mom closest to her. The mom folded up the side of her toque and said, “What?”
“Flavours?” she mimed licking.
“Can I have one?” a spiky girl hopped up and down in front of the mother, distracting her from responding to Noella. When the cooler was opened she could see that the Freshers were all one colour. These ladies weren’t bird brains: keep it simple. She shot out her hand and grabbed one just before the lid came down and the mother did a double take, but Noella was gone, swallowed in the frenzy of hormonal adolescents.
She headed to the First-Aid tent, where they had a heater. She wasn’t dumb either. There was already a weeping tot, too young to be exposed to outdoor rigours or at least, unaccustomed to outdoor rigours. The tot was covered in mud, and tears and clear run-off from her nose. A mercy, it wasn’t green. This made Noella remember her Fresher and passed it to the young one. “Have this,” she said. “It’ll make you feel better.”
“No,” yelled the Chair, who was dutifully on shift and smacked it out of Noella’s hand. This provoked a startled squawk from the side-lined tot. “I wanna popcicle!”
Noella bent to retrieve the Fresher and brushed it off with her mitt. “No chance of melting at least,” she thought.
“Hey, can I have that?” asked a heavy boy being helped into the tent by two of his friends.
He was too old for the current age-group race, so his injury was unrelated to noble effort. A casualty of the Fresher lineup she supposed. Or he didn’t want to race.
“What is it with these Freshers?” Noella, looked at the one in her hand. “They should inject these with vegetables and cure the scurvy youth of scurvy.”
“How old are you?” asked the Chair.
Noella looked up in surprise, but the Chair was asking the tot on the cot with the snot. “Dr. Seuss, eat your heart out,” she thought.
“Thix,” said the girl. She was missing both front teeth. The Chair handed her a juice box and motioned Noella to the doorway, taking the Fresher out of Noella’s hand and throwing it in the garbage, to the horror of the scurvy youth.
“The Freshers are just for the adults now,” breathed the Chair. “Why?” whispered back Noella.
“There are ingredients in them that I just found out about,” replied the Chair. “Like what?” said Noella, forgetting to whisper.
“Shsh!” said the Chair.
“Hey gimme one of those Weed pops!” yelled a girl running by the tent. Noella blanched.
The Chair bit her lip and dug her talons into Noella’s down jacket.
“We can’t give these to any kids,” she said. “Not older ones or younger ones or anyone!
Thank goodness they’re not being sold until later.” “Too late,” said Noella.
She ran out of the tent towards the coolers and yelled, “Sales are over!” She grabbed the whistle off the nearest puffed out coach breast and blew. “Over, I said!” The crowd scattered with reluctance and it began to rain in earnest. The volunteers were in a hurry to pack up the coolers and into the trunk of Freida’s car. The Chair was running for the port-a-potty. Disposing of evidence? Peeing green?
The eight-year-olds race was announced through the screechy megaphone and bedraggled children were being led to the starting lanes, heads down, sheltered by teacher wing-spans of tarp.
“This is a nightmare,” thought Noella. “Why did I come? Oh yes, to restore the family reputation.”
Someone was now throwing up green by the corner of the First Aid tent. “Thank God for that,” thought Noella. When the dog ate grass, he threw up. Maybe she could entice a few of the kids to try it. “Better out than in.”
St. John Ambulance attendants were starting to pay attention in the tent as more kids began coming in with problems. Freida had flown the coop.
“As Communications Officer, you’d better get in touch with her,” the Chair was holding a tissue to her mouth.
“What about the school? Shouldn’t I call the school?” said Noella.
“Not yet,” said the Chair, “until we’ve found out exactly how bad the problem is.” “Bad — we’re all going to jail,” said Noella.
“My husband’s a lawyer,” said the Chair. “These kids are getting sick!” said Noella. “Let’s not panic,” said the Chair.
Noella’s hands shook as she looked up Freida’s number. At least the Secretary had pecked the phone tree into the minutes.
Freida’s phone rang six times and went to voice mail. She called back.
“Sorry,” she said. “I had to pull over.”
“What’s in those Freshers?” yelled Noella. The Chair whacked her on the arm and put her finger to her lips.
“They’re all natural,” said Freida. “I know that,” said Noella.
“How could you,” said Freida, “if you’re asking me what’s in them?”
“Is there weed in them?” she whispered, covering her mouth with her hand. “What?” said Freida.
“Weed,” said Noella. “We’d what?” said Freida.
“No. Weed. Cannabis,” said Noella. “You’re breaking up a bit,” said Freida.
“Marijuana,” yelled Noella, stepping into the First Aid tent to get out of the rain.
Every one of the workers and most of the kids, turned to look at her. The Chair sidled around the edge of the tent, distancing herself from Noella. A few other parents swooped in.
“Freida!” she yelled into the phone.
“Yes,” said Freida. “Hold on. I’ll call you back.” “Yes, you said?” yelled Noella. The line was dead.
Noella was surrounded. Green-lips. Were some of them looking sleepy, hungry, anxious? Definitely her last newsletter. So much for being a pillar of the community. Her kids were on their own. The races continued like nothing else was going on.
“I think they’re looking for help at the finish,” she said, pointing out the door. Hoping everyone would leave.
Her phone buzzed gently. “Maybe I should have a Fresher,” she thought. “Freida?” “Yes, it’s me. Did you ask me if there is marijuana in the Freshers?”
“Yes,” said Noella, her heart thudding like racers’ feet. “No,” said Freida. “Are you crazy?”
Outside the tent someone complained, “I told the teacher, she’s allergic to dye. This vomit is green! What’s the point in filling in those emergency forms at the beginning of the year if no one reads them?”
“I gotta go, Freida. There’s a parent mad that their kid’s sick. Is there any dye in them?”
“No weed, no dye, no arsenic or rat poison,” said Freida. “Pure fruit and vegetable juice. Okay? You shouldn’t believe everything you hear. We made a killing in sales, though.”
Her son was thrilled when she got home. “I heard you had potcicles at the race. You could have told me, mom. I would have gone!”
Perhaps she wouldn’t contradict the rumours right away.