by Ryan Napier

march 2015 story of the month

David was eight years old, and he was, by every measure, perfect. He learned the states perfectly, and he learned the capitals perfectly.

He did not even sing the little songs that Mrs. K had taught the class to help them to remember the states and the capitals. When the class sang, David mouthed the words, to avoid trouble. He knew the little songs, but he also knew that he did not really need the little songs.

His scores were perfect. But when Mrs. K returned his tests and David saw his hundreds, the thing he felt was not joy. It was not even relief.

He had expected a hundred, and he had gotten a hundred. Ninety-nine would have been a trauma. A hundred was the lowest score he needed, but a hundred was also the highest score he could achieve. He hoped for something more than perfect. He wanted to be surprised by his own greatness.

They learned from pull-down maps. Mrs. K's room had four. She pulled them out of a long green tube that hung above the green chalkboard. The maps gave him hope. There was always another map to learn, there was always another map test to beat.

The first and biggest map was the world—the big blue spaces, multicolored America, the big yellow spread of the Soviet Union (which, said Mrs. K, was no longer there). They did not use this map, but they saw it daily: the maps were nested together, and because the world map was in the very back, Mrs. K had to pull it down before she used the other, smaller maps. The world sat waiting behind the map of America.

That was the second map—fifty states in five different colors. Their state—the state that David had never in his life left—was green, just like Maryland and Massachusetts and Arizona and Iowa and Tennessee and Wyoming and Hawaii. But why were these states green, while others were brown or yellow or orange or red? He had counted the letters in their names, he had tried to learn when they had entered the Union, but he could not understand the relationship.

The third map was their big green state itself. Their town—the town that David had only three times in his life left—was not large enough to have been noted by the mapmakers, so Mrs. K had marked it with one of her gold stars.

They had never seen the fourth map. It was, like the color of the states, another mystery. The world, America, their state—what else could there be? Finally, in late March, Mrs. K showed them. She pulled down the fourth map, and the big mystery was revealed.

"This," she said, "is Canada."

David knew of Canada: it was a little strip of beige that ran across the top of the map of America. But now Canada had its own existence. Now it was big and multicolored, and America was a little beige strip at the bottom.

Mrs. K told the class that they were going to learn the provinces. David's stomach rose. Canada was his chance to do better, to get beyond perfect. But his stomach fell when she said that there were only thirteen provinces.

The other boys would not even need a song to learn just thirteen provinces. Instead of a song, Mrs. K had a sentence. She wrote the sentence on the board and asked them to read aloud. David mouthed along: "Billy and Sally made our Queen nervous playing near needles." She underlined the first letter of each word. The B stood for British Columbia, the A for Alberta, and so on, with those final Ns for all the choppy islands in the east.

As she underlined, she told them a little about the provinces. Manitoba was the breadbasket. Ontario had the capital. Quebec was different from the others. People spoke French there. Mrs. K and her husband had gone to Montreal last year for their honeymoon, and it was perfect. Everything was French, everything was old and stone. It was like being in Europe.

She asked them to repeat the sentence again, but David no longer even mouthed it. He was suspicious.

* * *

After his recent humiliation, he had decided to become suspicious.

In October, when the class was first memorizing the states, David lost two teeth in one weekend. The first was a thin crooked canine. It hung by a single root for three days. On Friday night David claimed that the root was sensitive and that he could eat only ice cream. His mother removed the tooth. Two days later, he was bent over a sheet of lined paper in his room, writing cursive uppercase Ds for homework. One of his front teeth dropped bloodlessly onto the page. He had not known it was loose.

For this weekend, the Tooth Fairy gave him a dollar. David bought ice cream.

One corner of the lunchroom at Christ the King Lutheran School was occupied by a boy-sized freezer. It was white and very cold. Each time he passed the freezer, David pressed his palm against it. Four seconds was his record: after that, the cold began to burn. The freezer only opened once a week, and that was why it was so cold, he thought. The cold had nowhere else to go, so it just got colder.

On Wednesdays, a parent-volunteer removed the padlock from the boy-sized freezer and sold ice cream to a long line of boys. This was Ice Cream Day.

Many times David had asked his mother for ice cream money. His argument was sound: the other boys got money every week, and his grades were better than theirs. But, said his mother, the other boys were not on scholarship. So David did not join the long line.

He was, he decided, better off waiting at the table while the other boys bought their ice cream. He watched them stand in the long line, and he could tell the waiting made them miserable. He looked closely as they ate, and he was sure the ice cream was freezer-burnt.

But then he had his Tooth Fairy Dollar—four quarters in an empty plastic film canister.

That Wednesday, he joined the long line. He showed the other boys his four quarters and his half-empty grin. He told them how, on Sunday night, he had tried to stay up and catch the Fairy at work. One of the boys laughed.

It was the parents, the boy said.

David had known that, of course. He told the other boy that he already knew that. He closed his half-empty mouth very tight, turned, waited for several minutes, and bought a Bomb Pop from the boy-sized freezer. He ate it, and the cold burned the raw spaces where his teeth had been. Later, he could not remember whether the Bomb-Pop had been freezer-burnt.

That night his mother confirmed it. It was the parents.

He was credulous, but he was not stupid. Once he had the logic, he could follow it. The Easter Bunny, Santa, the leprechauns that left chocolate on the desks after recess on St. Patrick's day—it was all the parents.

* * *

In his room, he studied the provinces of Canada. He did not need Mrs. K's sentence, but he remembered it anyway. Billy and Sally. British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan.

He got stuck on "Queen"—Quebec. He was suspicious.

He was ready to believe in the existence of Canada. He saw Canadian license plates in the winter, when the old people came from the north to the beaches. He had heard jokes about Canadians on television. He was ready to accept that there was another country a thousand miles above him, and that the people of that country were like him except in flannel and hats with flaps.

But he doubted Quebec. He doubted Montreal. A bunch of French people living in an old stone European city in America—it was as strange as the elves at the North Pole.

He had never met anyone from Quebec. He had never seen a license plate in French. When he watched the news with his mother, he heard about Russia and Iraq and Bosnia and even sometimes Canada—but never Montreal.

He tried to convince himself that Quebec was real. It would be on the test, after all.

He did know one person who had experienced Quebec. Mrs. K said she had been to Montreal. But the parents lied with ease and in detail. Mrs. K had told them that department-store Santas worked for the real Santa. And when David had complained that the Tooth Fairy paid him less than she paid his classmates, his mother told him that she had personally met with the Fairy and negotiated the price.

But Mrs. K wouldn't lie to him in the classroom. She was his teacher. She was supposed to teach him. The school wouldn't allow her to lie.

Of course, the teachers always read stories about the Easter Bunny. A spelling test had asked him, "Who brings chocolate on St. Patrick's Day?" One of Santa's "representatives" had visited their class and given each student a little pencil and an eraser sent directly from the Big Man in the North Pole. Before Thanksgiving the class had made paper hats with paper buckles and pretended to be ridiculous creatures called Pilgrims. Not even Christ the King Lutheran School was safe from the parents.

If he couldn't trust Mrs. K, if he couldn't trust the school, could he trust the pull-down maps? He loved the maps, and they said Quebec was there, big and blue above beige America.

But the maps also said that there was a North Pole, and David knew that Santa did not exist. The map said that there was a big yellow thing called the Soviet Union, but it was gone—if it had ever been there at all.

* * *

On Wednesday, Mrs. K asked the class to take out a sheet of notebook paper and list the provinces. David wrote "British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario" and then paused. As he thought, he tongue flicked at the holes in his mouth. The new teeth were growing in. He started writing again: "New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland."

* * *

Mrs. K had graded the test. She placed them facedown on their desks. David slid his test into his lap, folded it three times, and pushed it to the bottom of his pocket.

Christ the King Lutheran School had two fields. The first—"The Field"—was flat and very green, and there the boys placed football at recess. Behind The Field, divided from the field by logs, was a second field—the Cactus Field. The Cactus Field was covered in small cactuses and therefore unsuitable for games.

At recess, David walked by himself to the logs and sat facing The Field. The other boys played football in front of him. He watched the game for a long time. The bell rang, and they ran inside, toward the long line and the boy-sized freezer. David stood but did not walk or run.

He unfolded the little wedge. Twelve out of thirteen, it said. Ninety-two percent. In red pen, Mrs. K had written "Quebec."

There was a part of him that had not expected this. He had thought that once you found the truth, the parents no longer pretended. He had thought he would no longer have to sing the song. Mrs. K might have given him credit for figuring out the truth about Quebec. She might have realized his greatness.

That part of him was quickly overwhelmed by a new and better part. He was sure that none of the other boys—and perhaps no one in any of the countries on the big world map—had ever felt anything as strong or pure as the thing that he was feeling at that moment. He was happier than any hundred had ever made him. He was not perfect, but he was right.

BIO: Ryan Napier was born in Plant City, Florida. He has degrees from Stetson University and Yale Divinity School. His work has appeared most recently in Queen Mob's Tea House, the Carbon Culture Review, and the Yalobusha Review, and is forthcoming in The Flexible Persona and Per Contra. He lives in Massachusetts. You can follow him on the internet at ryannapier.tumblr.com.