“The wheels on the bus go round and round!”
This is what happens, Armand reflects, when one engages in games of chance. Why had he agreed to draw straws to see which of the fifth-grade teachers had to chaperone this field trip? What on earth had possessed him to even entertain the possibility that he might prefer to chaperone this trip? Wistfully Armand thinks of Jean, safe and secure at home, grading papers. That could be Armand right now, if he’d just agreed to do it. Jean had offered him the choice, after all. Jean would rather have chaperoned the camping trip than grade papers. All Armand would have had to do was say in all honesty I’d rather grade four weeks of papers than chaperone two fifth-grade classes for four days at sleep away camp learning about plants and trees and hiking and camping. Jean would have packed his bags. And Armand would be at home right now. A glass of red wine to his left, one of their six cats draped over his legs, his preferred Gregorian chants playing from the sound system…
“Round and round, round and round! The wheels on the bus go round and round…”
True, Armand’s husband and fellow fifth-grade teacher is grading a lot of papers. End of quarter grades are due at the end of this field trip, and the two of them are… behind.
Let’s go with behind, Armand agrees with himself, steadfastly refusing to revisit any of the delightful memories that explain exactly why the two fifth-grade teachers at King Louis XIII Memorial Elementary have four weeks’ worth of grading to accomplish in four days. Not that Armand usually has anything against a little therapeutic daydreaming, but trapped on a school bus with two classes worth of fifth graders – not just his own well-behaved class but Jean’s little hellions too – somehow doesn’t seem exactly the time for erotic memories.
“The babies on the bus go poop, poop, poop!” little d’Artagnan shrieks.
Immediately the song grinds to a halt. “That’s not how it goes!” Constance protests.
“Is too!” d’Artagnan defends.
“Nuh-uh,” Aramis says. “Next we sing about the wipers.”
“My mom always sings about the poop next,” d’Artagnan says, crossing his arms defiantly.
“I’ve never heard any verses about poop,” Jussac murmurs. Armand appreciates the voice of reason – naturally, coming from one of the well-behaved children in his fifth-grade class – but it’s not loud enough for anyone but Armand to hear.
“MY MOM sings this song EVERY DAY while she’s changing my little brother and SHE SINGS ABOUT POOP!” d’Artagnan shouts, as if sheer volume will win the day.
“Well she’s making it up!” Constance screeches back. “Mr. Richelieu, tell him!”
Armand slouches down a little in his seat, ignoring the scathing look the bus driver is shooting him, and pulls his book up to block his face.
“Everyone makes it up!” Athos says back, jumping to his best friend’s defense. “There aren’t real words!”
“There are too!” Boisrenard pipes in. Armand lowers his book slightly to improve his sightlines. If the kids from his class are getting involved, there’s a nontrivial chance this is going to descend into hitting.
“How would you know?” d’Artagnan demands.
“Because my moms have the CD and they play it in the car and it’s the same words every time!”
“And the next verse is about wipers!” Constance agrees. “The wipers on the bus go swish swish swish!”
“Yeah!” several other kids agree.
“Mr. Richelieu!” The shriek is ear-splitting and far too close for comfort. Armand lowers his book the rest of the way with a sense of trepidation and finds himself face-to-face with young Charles d’Artagnan, only nine years old, but smart as a whip and up a grade level because of it.
“Didn’t I tell you to stay in your seat?” Armand demands. “With your seatbelt on?”
“No one wears seatbelts on a school bus,” Adele says airily.
“Mr. Richelieu, can’t we sing any verses we like?” d’Artagnan implores.
Armand’s ears ring. After a moment he realizes it’s caused by the sudden silence. Except for the squeak of springs, the jounce of potholes, and the undampened road noise, both classes of fifth graders have fallen silent to listen to their teacher’s ruling. Armand’s ruling. About the lyrics to the song the wheels on the bus.
Dear Lord, why hadn’t he agreed to stay home and grade the papers?
Think, Armand commands himself. What would Jean do? This is definitely a Jean question. Armand has full confidence in his own ability to teach anything in the academic curriculum. But both his university education and first career in the military had been shockingly deficient in the matters of lyrics to children’s songs.
“When you’re by yourself,” Armand says carefully, “of course, you can sing any lyrics you like – provided you don’t use any bad words or make fun of anyone,” he adds quickly, that particular codicil coming in the wake of Jean’s class singing a very nasty song about kickball prowess in the wake of the last inter-grade competition.
“What about when we’re in a group, like now?” Anne wants to know.
“When we’re in a group we all have to agree,” Armand says. “That doesn’t mean anyone’s lyrics are right or wrong, just that we all sing a particular set.”
There’s a few moments when everyone looks at each other. “How do we know which set we’re going to sing?” Aramis wonders out loud, putting everyone’s feeling into words.
Bernajoux bounces up next to Boisrenard. “Mr. Richelieu will tell us which!”
Armand’s eyes widen.
“Oh great,” Athos mutters.
“You start singing,” Bernajoux says to Armand, “and we’ll follow along!”
“Uh,” Armand flounders.
“I bet he doesn’t even know the poop lyrics,” d’Artagnan says rebelliously.
“I, uh,” Armand says. Frantically he racks his brain for a solution. His eyes fall on a passing billboard. It’s advertising beer.
“What if we sing a different song entirely?” he says brightly.
On the downside, Armand spends the next two hours listening to increasingly off-key renditions of 99 bottles of beer. On the upside, he gets them to count down by various different numbers – by twos, by threes, by halves, and by quarters – so at least they’re learning something.
Thank God, Camp Indewendewin has cabins enough to house the entire school, K through 6, so there’s no need to struggle through the multi-hour travesty that would be the fifth grade attempting to pitch tents. There’s a brief scare when one of the cabins is discovered to have been invaded by a family of badgers, and it looks like someone might have to rough it after all, but the camp rangers gently relocate them to a nearby sett, and sixth grade is persuaded to think the whole thing is an adventure. Crisis averted.
Even still, just getting the sleeping bags and duffel bags lugged into the fifth grade’s cabin is an adventure. As usual, Boisrenard’s forgotten where his meds are (safely in Armand’s backpack), Adele doesn’t know where her epi pen is (ditto), Aramis is missing his toothbrush (no help for that; Armand just hopes Mme d’Herblay isn’t too furious over her son’s plaque buildup) and d’Artagnan distracts the whole group into searching for his spare socks before sheepishly discovering they’d been underneath his pajamas the whole time. By the time everything is at least vaguely in a useable place Armand is exhausted and the dinner gong is ringing. He marshals his group to double-time it to the food hall by getting them to pretend they’re bumblebees. It means the entire fifth grade is running along the path with their arms held straight out from their sides making buzzing noises, but that’s worth it to get them all moving in the same direction simultaneously.
“Everything squared away?” Milady asks quietly, stopping by the fifth grade table. As Assistant Principal, she’s responsible for making sure no one dies on this trip, including harried fifth-grade teachers who had been tricked by their husbands into thinking chaperoning nature trips is the lesser of two evils.
Armand looks out over the table. Porthos has a french fry stuck up each nostril. Constance is throwing pieces of hamburger bun at Ninon, who is catching them and eating them, to everyone’s amusement. Bernajoux and Boisrenard have their heads together and whispering, which means they’re up to no good. D’Artagnan looks bored. That’s equally worrisome.
“We’re all in one piece,” Armand says, resigning himself to keeping a close eye on everyone tonight. Attempting to sneak out of the cabins at night is a time-honored challenge, passed down from grade to grade, ever since the first outdoor education trip ever taken by King Louis XIII Memorial Elementary. What the children do once out of the cabin at night is something of a mystery. One that Armand is determined the fifth grade will not solve on his watch.
Milady gets a glint in her eye like she knows what Armand’s thinking, and she raises her voice. “Fifth grade! Having fun?”
“Yes, Mlle de Winter,” the table choruses, suddenly angelic models of good behavior and academic excellence. Aramis hastily yanks the french fries out of Porthos’ nose and, to Armand’s horror, eats them.
“Tomorrow you have botany in the morning and freshwater conservation in the afternoon,” she says. “Make sure you leave time after lunch to put on your swimsuits; you’ll be wading in the lake!”
“Yay!” the table cheers.
“Good luck,” Milady adds to Armand in an undertone, handing him their grade’s program book and patting him on the shoulder before she walks off to check in with the fourth grade.
“Do you think there are fish in the lake?” d’Artagnan asks excitedly.
“Don’t be a dummy, they’d all be taken out for the camp,” Cahusac says authoritatively.
“Not necessarily!” d’Artagnan cries. “And don’t call me a dummy!”
“It was a dumb question!”
Armand reaches out without looking and catches the first roll. “No throwing food.”
“But Mr. Richelieu – ”
Technically, as chaperone, Armand is entitled to make use of the little semi-private room to one side of the cabin’s small bathroom. Armand stows his gear in there, where it might be a smidge safer from inquisitive fifth graders, but rolls out his sleeping bag directly in front of the door. The wisdom of this is proven almost immediately when two small bodies trip over him in the dark.
“Going somewhere?” Armand asks in amusement, turning his lantern up just enough to recognize Anne and Constance looking guilty.
“To the bathroom,” Constance tries.
“There’s a bathroom in here,” Armand says. He points. “There you go.”
“Oh – well – ”
“This one’s yucky,” Anne jumps in. “The one at the mess hall was much nicer.”
“After dark you have to use this one,” Armand says. “Just put some extra toilet paper down or something first.”
“Ew!” the two girls chorus in unison.
Anne turns wide blue eyes on Armand. “It’s really gross,” she tries. “Please. You don’t have to get up! We’ll be right back – ”
“No,” Armand says firmly. “No trips out of the cabin at night, period.”
Anne and Constance exchange looks.
“Okay,” Constance chirps. “We’ll just go back to bed then.”
“I don’t have to go that bad,” Anne agrees.
“Glad to hear it,” Armand says dryly. He makes sure they’re actually back in their sleeping bags before he turns the lantern back down.
The next attempted escape comes barely an hour later. Bernajoux and Boisrenard try to leap over Armand entirely, having probably been forewarned by Constance and Anne’s attempt. They’re no doubt counting on the fact that the door is a simple swing door that opens both ways. Unfortunately for them, Armand had seen this coming and wedged a rolled-up shirt under the door, foiling them from simply knocking it open. Bernajoux slides down the door and lands directly on Armand’s stomach.
“And where – oof! – do you two think you’re going?”
The two miscreants exchange slightly panicked looks. This clearly hadn’t been part of the plan.
“Bathroom?” Boisrenard tries.
Armand gets them back to bed. This time he gets three hours of sleep before Athos and Jussac launch their combined attempt. Armand might have known the extra sleep had been a bad sign, and he’s disappointed in Jussac, who is the unofficial head of Armand’s class and therefore really ought to know better. The two ringleaders don’t bother with the door; they go straight for the windows. Armand had locked them earlier but he’d failed to account for Porthos’ lockpicking skills, which have half the fifth grade outside on the grass before Bernajoux gets stuck and starts screeching for help.
Getting Bernajoux out of the window takes half an hour and about half of Armand’s shampoo. Thank goodness he’d just thrown the full bottle in his bag instead of digging out his 3-oz travel size or else he’d be going the rest of the week with dirty hair. It takes another half hour of hugs and bedtime stories before the fifth grade settles back down to sleep. Armand turns a blind eye to the fact that Boisrenard has crawled into Bernajoux’s sleeping bag and is still applying all-better-now kisses to the wounded areas with a serious face when Armand finally turns the lantern out. Fifth grade is a little on the early side for kisses, but Armand still remembers how scared he’d been to kiss his first boy, and he’s not going to say or do anything that might jostle those two of their innocent cocoon.
Miraculously, this time, the fifth grade actually goes to sleep.
Armand sleepwalks through the next day, grateful beyond words that he’s not required to actually teach any of the outdoor education courses. His role is limited to making sure that all thirty-five fifth graders actually show up at each course, that they’ve got their notebooks for botany and their swimsuits for freshwater conservation, and that they carry out everything they carry in – including all of their limbs.
Milady comes by his table at breakfast to congratulate him on a successful night. Armand gives her the gimlet eye over his coffee and she just laughs, unrepentant. “Three of the fourth-grade girls escaped successfully, and half the sixth grade, too,” she murmurs, lowering her voice so the fifth graders won’t hear. “You kept all of yours indoors – that’s success.”
Armand sips his coffee again and glances across the room, meeting the eye of the sixth grade chaperone de Foix somewhat smugly. After all, no one has to know about the Bernajoux window incident.
Of course, word of the sixth grade’s success leaks out over lunch, and the three fourth-grade girls who’d made it out (Fleur, Flea and Samara, a trinity Armand is praying end up in Jean’s class next year) brag loudly and unmercifully. Armand makes sure to offer his sympathies to Tariq Alaman, the fourth grade teacher, without gloating too obviously. Armand feels less bad for the sixth grade chaperone. De Foix had known what he’d been getting into.
That night, Armand is fully expecting a redoubled effort on the part of his charges to escape the cabin, emboldened by the knowledge of their comrades’ achievements. The fourth graders’ success is particularly irksome, given that Fleur, Flea and Samara are a whole year younger than any of us, Mr. Richelieu!
“Except little d’Artagnan,” Cahusac adds, not entirely without malice. Armand sends him to the corner for sixty seconds.
After dinner there’s a free hour before lights out. Armand produces one of his secret weapons – a kickball – and takes his charges out to a wide grassy clearing he’d scouted earlier. The fifth grade spend the full sixty minutes and then three rounds of five more minutes please please pleeeeeease running around the field. Armand finally herds them all back to the cabin, exhausted, and sees them all fall asleep almost instantly.
This ought to buy me five hours of sleep at least, Armand thinks triumphantly.
This moment of self-congratulation, naturally, must be punished.
It wants at least an hour to midnight when Armand is woken up – again – by screaming – again. The windows are open (again?) and Armand has to rub his eyes, because that can’t really be Bernajoux and Porthos stark naked and covered with shampoo, can it?
A quick glance at the floor confirms it. Discarded, empty, Armand’s shampoo bottle sits forlornly next to Porthos’ sleeping bag.
But if Bernajoux and Porthos are still inside the cabin – and if the fifth grade has gotten smart enough to strip and grease up the two biggest boys in the class so they’ll fit through the window – then what’s the screaming about?
“It was huge!” Aramis cries, teeth chattering.
“It had horns!” Athos shouts.
“Fur!” d’Artagnan agrees.
“Six eyes!” Cahusac says.
“It was awful,” Ninon summarizes.
Armand sits down again. He doesn’t really have a choice; half of the fifth grade is clinging to him, and he can’t support them all. As soon as he’s on the ground d’Artagnan and Adele climb into his lap.
“What was so awful?” Armand asks, not sure he wants the answer.
The entire fifth grade turns haunted stares on him. “The Lake Monster.”
“The Lake Monster?” Armand repeats blankly.
“The sixth grade told us!” Bernajoux says, earnestly, still naked and covered in shampoo.
“It lives in the lake,” Boisrenard says.
“It comes out at night, though!” Anne says.
“It gets hungry,” Constance explains.
“And what does it like to eat?” Armand asks with a sinking feeling.
“Little kids!” d’Artagnan shrieks.
Armand pinches the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “The sixth grade – ”
“We saw it!” Porthos says. “With our own eyes!”
“It was huge!” Aramis repeats.
“It had horns – ” Athos begins.
Armand raises a hand. “Yes, you told me.” He pauses, considering. “Shall I go make sure it’s gone?”
“You have to let go first,” Armand says, gentle in spite of himself. They’re all so very frightened of this figment.
Eventually his human covering shifts apart enough to let Armand stand. He walks over to the window and sticks his head out, making a show of looking around. Then he goes over to the door, opens it, and does the same.
“No Lake Monster,” he announces.
“It’s gone,” Porthos says happily.
“Thank you, Mr. Richelieu,” Jussac says seriously.
“My pleasure,” Armand says. “Now, why don’t we all go back to bed?”
The fifth grade starts moving back to their sleeping bags. Then d’Artagnan stops dead in his tracks and turns back to Armand, fear back in his face.
“What if it comes back?” he cries.
Everyone else freezes.
“I’ll – uh – I’ll scare it off, if it does,” Armand tries.
“What if you’re asleep?” Cahusac whispers.
“Well – I’ll stay up.”
“All night?” Adele demands.
Armand opens his mouth to promise that yes, he’ll stay up all night. Then he stops himself.
What is he doing? There is no such thing as the Lake Monster. And he’s not going to stay up all night. Armand seriously doubts he could, even if he’d wanted to. But if he promises them that he will, and then they find him asleep, they’ll lose all faith in him.
But they’re terrified. It’s plain on all of their faces. Armand has to do something.
Armand’s eyes slide over to the semi-private room that he’s not using. Maybe he could fit them all in there? Tell them it’s better protection against the Lake Monster?
He eyeballs the space. No; there’s no way they all fit.
Then Armand’s eyes catch on his duffel. His old army duffel.
“Of course not all night,” Armand says firmly. “That would be silly. No one can stay up all night. That’s why we’re going to take turns.”
The fifth grade exchange looks.
“Take turns?” Jussac asks tentatively. “Doing what?”
“Standing guard!” Armand says.
“Like soldiers?” Porthos asks eagerly.
“Exactly like soldiers.”
“But we’re not soldiers,” Constance says wisely.
“Well – you’re about to be. Stand up straight everyone, and hold up your right hands.”
Bemused, the fifth grade does so. Under Armand’s guidance, thirty-five tousle-headed preteens in pajamas – or, in Bernajoux and Porthos’ cases, shampoo – hold up their right hands and solemnly swear to defend their cabin and their classmates against monsters, big, small, and ugly.
“I hereby admit you all into the Anti-Monster Brigade,” Armand says, solemn as only eleven o’clock at night can be.
“We need ranks!” Bernajoux declares.
“I’m your captain,” Armand says. He runs his gaze over the group. “Athos and Jussac are commanders – ”
“Why aren’t any women officers?” Ninon interrupts.
“You’re a lieutenant,” Armand says promptly. “You, Constance, Adele, and Cahusac.”
“Oh,” Ninon says, mollified.
“Let’s break up into four-person squads – ”
“But Mr. Richelieu, thirty-five doesn’t divide into four!” Constance pipes up.
“I’m number thirty-six,” Armand says.
“You’re in my squad,” Jussac says immediately.
“Hey!” Athos protests.
“Anne, you’re with me, right?” Constance says.
“All the officers go stand around the edge of the room,” Armand takes charge. “Jussac, you claimed me, so I’ll stand with you. Athos, who do you want?”
“D’Artagnan,” Athos says promptly.
They distribute quickly and with a minimum of fuss. “What now?” Porthos asks once it’s done.
“Now we assign a duty roster,” Armand says. “Two hours per squad – ”
“And we get to stay up in the middle of the night?” Adele jumps in, excited.
Armand fixes her with a serious look. “Yes, but not for fun,” he says impressively. “You, while awake, will be our primary line of defense against the monsters. Not just the Lake Monster. Any monster. You’ll be guarding the windows and the doors and keeping a sharp lookout. If you stop to play a game or talk or sleep, we’re all in danger.”
There’s a sharp intake of breath from many of the fifth graders. Several of them begin to look more serious.
“My group goes first,” Jussac says, breaking the silence.
“Then mine,” Athos says.
“We should write this down,” Constance says.
Anne runs over to her duffel and pulls out her sketchbook and colored pencils. “My squad’s color is green!” she says. “Jussac, what’s your squad’s color?”
“Red,” he says promptly.
Anne writes down Jussac – first in red pencil. “Athos?”
“Blue,” Athos decides.
They go around the room again and Anne writes it all down. Richelieu takes it from her and adds two-hour time intervals next to each name in black pencil. Then he tapes the finished rota up on the bathroom door where everyone can see it.
“For tonight, stay inside and guard from here,” Armand says. “Tomorrow we’ll work on patrol routes.”
“How do we know what time it is?” Athos asks.
Armand takes off his wristwatch and hands it to Jussac. “The leader of the squad has the watch,” he says. “When your turn is over, you hand the watch over to the leader of the next squad.” He pauses. “And tomorrow I’ll teach you all to tell time by the moon and stars,” he adds.
There’s a brief cheer.
“But for now, you should all go back to bed,” Armand adds. “After all, you’re all on duty later tonight. And we’ll be counting on you to protect us from the monsters, so you’d better be rested.”
“Right!” Athos says. “To bed, men!”
“And women,” Ninon says.
“To bed, everyone,” Constance says.
“To bed, Anti-Monster Brigade!” Porthos cheers.
Armand sits down by the door, ‘guarding’ it. Bernajoux and Boisrenard run over to stand on either side of the window. Jussac guards the bathroom self-importantly.
“Mr. Richelieu?” d’Artagnan says, pausing on his way to bed.
“Thank you,” the little boy says. He darts in and hugs a surprised Armand, quickly.
“You’re welcome,” Armand says, smiling in spite of himself.
Armand would have thought, honestly, that a night of being woken up in two-hour shifts would have dampened the fifth grade’s enthusiasm for soldiering. Surely the fear of the Lake Monster will fade with daylight and the kids will decide sleep is preferable to standing guard.
He discovers how wrong he is the next morning.
“You’ll teach us how to tell time tonight, right Mr. Richelieu?” Athos demands as they walk to breakfast.
“Of course,” Armand promises.
“We should have an alarm system,” Constance is saying to Ninon. “Like, if we put bells around the cabin, then the monsters will knock into them and let us know they’re coming – ”
“But where do we get bells?” Ninon says back.
“Something else that makes noise?” Porthos suggests. “Like – ”
“Balloons!” Cahusac says. “And then the monsters will pop them!”
“There are balloons in the art tent,” Jussac says. “Maybe after lunch we can get some.”
“Why wait?” Boisrenard says. “Let’s go now!”
“Yeah!” several other kids agree, starting to peel off.
“Stop!” Armand cries. This has little effect. He swears silently and tries again, this time in command voice: “Halt!”
The fifth grade freezes.
“No one is breaking formation,” he says firmly. “We have to stick together.”
“Or else what?” d’Artagnan wants to know.
“Or else the monsters will get us!” Ninon says impressively.
“Ooooh,” the rest of the fifth grade says, impressed.
Armand grabs on to this lifeline. “Yes! We have to stick together. And we also have to eat breakfast. We have to eat a full breakfast, with lots of fruit and healthy cereals, so that we’re in fighting shape.”
“And then the art tent?” Constance asks.
Armand makes a mental note to apologize to the art teacher today. “And then the art tent.”
“Yay!” the fifth grade cheers.
Armand resists the urge to rub at his headache. “All right,” he says. “Forward march.”
“SIR YES SIR!” Porthos shouts. He’s a military brat, and it shows when he spins on one heel and starts marching away.
In fact, now that Armand notices… the fifth grade is actually marching. Not particularly well, but they’re clearly trying. And they’re marching by squad. They’re attempting formation.
It begins to dawn on Armand, just then, that he may have gotten more than he’d bargained for.
The rest of the day confirms Armand in his realization that the Anti-Monster Brigade is going to outlive its first night. The fifth grade’s first class that day is hiking, during which they continue to practice their marching order. Several times they’re called upon to split up into groups. Armand can’t help but notice that they always, every time, split up by squad. Sticking together, just as he’d told them to do.
True, the squads are mostly friend groups anyway. But there’s no other reason for them to consistently split up into groups of four. Nor is there any reason Armand can see for why the same people keep taking charge, and why the other three people in each squad keep deferring, when usually some of them would insist on their turn to lead.
Lunch is full of eager discussion of the possible anti-monster use of cups, plates and, most interestingly, knives. Milady wanders by, listens to the chatter for a few minutes, and gives Armand a look.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“Not even a little bit,” Armand says honestly.
For some reason, that makes Milady smile.
It turns out there’s no need to swing by the art tent after lunch; they’re scheduled for art anyway. The focus is theoretically on reuse and recycling, natural dyes and paints, and sculptures made with found items. Armand can’t help but notice that the sculptures look… weapon-like.
“What an interesting creation, Jussac!” Mr. Bonacieux praises, stopping in front of Jussac’s effort. “What were you thinking of when you made it?”
“A sword,” Jussac says proudly. “Look!” He picks it up and starts swinging it around.
“Careful!” Bonacieux cries.
“Oh, don’t worry!” Jussac says. “I’m taking fencing lessons. My instructor says I’m very enthusiastic!”
“That’s very, uh, interesting,” Bonacieux says after a moment. “How did you make it?”
“I put these two sticks together, see, the long one and the short one. The short one is called a crossbar! But they wouldn’t stay put and you said glue was bad for the environment so I couldn’t glue them together. But then Ninon taught me how to chain dandelions and use it as a string to make a god’s eye and now it stays together, see?” Jussac swishes the makeshift sword around again and smiles proudly.
“That’s… very creative,” Bonacieux says carefully.
“Thanks!” Jussac says proudly. “Ninon and Constance and Adele are making more.”
Bonacieux turns rapidly. Sure enough, the fifth grade has set up a literal sword making assembly line. Athos’ squad are picking all the dandelions they can find. Ninon’s is making chains out of then. Constance’s squad appear to be on stick-finding duty, and Adele’s are winding the dandelion chains around the sticks to bind them together.
Reflexively, Armand checks for the other two squads. Cahusac’s group are digging up stones and piling them near the art tables. Bernajoux and Boisrenard are testing the finished products by mock-fighting with each other.
“Wonderful,” Bonacieux says weakly. “I’ll just have a word with your teacher.”
Armand raises an eyebrow and allows Bonacieux to pull him aside.
“They’re making swords,” Bonacieux hisses.
Armand nods. “Indeed they are.”
“Why are they making swords?”
“They are to fight monsters with.”
“Yes,” Armand agrees. “Monsters.”
Bonacieux closes his eyes. “Talk to them,” he orders. “Explain it to them.”
“Explain what?” Armand asks curiously.
“Why they shouldn’t be making swords.”
Armand considers this for a moment. Then he nods and turns towards his class.
Bonacieux hadn’t been keeping his voice as low as he’d fondly believed. The entire fifth grade are staring back at Armand, dismayed.
“What’s wrong with us making swords?” Athos demands, stepping forward.
“We need the swords to fight the monsters,” Ninon says.
“You said it was okay to fight the monsters!” Boisrenard cries.
“Do we have to stop making swords?” Anne whispers.
Armand shakes his head. “Of course not!” he says. “What M Bonacieux means is, you haven’t properly considered balance of force.”
“Balance of force?” Adele repeats slowly.
“If all you have are swords, the monsters will simply learn to deal with swords,” Armand explains. “You need a variety of weapon types to mount an effective defense.”
“Oh,” Bernajoux says in a tone of understanding. “You mean we should make spears, too.”
“And slings!” d’Artagnan suggests.
“What about defensive items?” Constance says. “In Puzzle Quest you get shields.”
“How can we make shields?” Anne’s question brings everyone to a halt, and they look around them, considering.
Then Ninon’s eyes light up. “Bark!” she announces, running to where a rather large piece of it is lying on the ground. She picks it up and holds it in front of her. Considering her diminutive size, it actually makes a rather effective covering.
“Good idea,” Armand praises. “But you can’t hold it by its sides like that. It needs a handle. What can you use to make a handle?”
Several people burst out talking at once. The swords are set aside, temporarily forgotten, as the fifth grade converges on the problem of how to mount a handle on tree bark to use as a shield.
“Armand!” Bonacieux hisses. “I meant – ”
Armand grabs Bonacieux and drags him farther away, actually out of earshot this time. “Look at them.”
“Armand – ”
“They’re engaged,” Armand says. “They’re interested. They’re problem-solving. They’re being resourceful. They’re practicing art and engineering simultaneously. They’re working as a group. How many squares on your rubric are they hitting with this one single activity?”
Bonacieux blinks. Then he blinks again.
“That’s what I thought,” Armand says.
Bonacieux frowns. Then he turns back to the kids. Watches them go.
“I think… I think I’m not going to mention this to Principal de Winter,” he says.
“Good man,” Armand smiles. “Shall you and I go have a seat on that bench over there? It looks nice and shady, and I think we’re not needed at the moment.”
“Yes, well.” Bonacieux shakes his head. “I do have some end-of-quarter grading to do.”
The kids rush their way through dinner and drag Armand out to the meadow for the promised lesson in time-telling as soon as possible. Armand lets them. Their enthusiasm is more than a little flattering, truth be told; teaching is usually not this easy. But they’re really engaged in this Anti Monster Brigade, and it’s making everything smooth.
Telling time by the sun is the easy part, and Armand runs them through it as they watch it slowly set.
“What about the moon?” Anne asks. “How will you teach us that?”
“We’ll come back out tonight for that part,” Armand promises.
Constance gasps. “You’re not supposed to let us out at night!”
“Tonight’s an exception,” Armand says. “Training exercises.”
“Does it count as escaping if Mr. Richelieu lets us?” Bernajoux wonders to his friends.
“I don’t think so,” Jussac says after a moment of thinking about it. “I think we have to sneak past him for it to count.”
“I don’t want to sneak past him,” Boisrenard says. “This is much cooler.”
There’s a wave of agreement from around the fifth grade. Armand smiles. At least he’s doing something right.
As promised, they sneak back out at midnight, making exaggerated gestures at each other for silence and more noise than they would have if they’d just acted normally. Fortunately the cabins are well distributed around the campground. The rest of the school is unlikely to hear unless someone starts screaming.
They go back to the clearing where they’d played kickball the first night. Everyone sprawls on their backs in the grass and listens intently as Armand explains the phases of the moon, how to use the terminator to read the moon, and how to evaluate the moon’s position.
“Tonight you’ll still have the wristwatch,” Armand says as they troop back to the cabin. “I want you all to practice telling the time yourselves, though, and only then checking the watch. See if you can get it right. Tomorrow, we may try it without the wristwatch.”
“So soon?” Aramis asks, sounding dismayed.
“I know you can do it,” Armand says.
That must be the right thing to say. Aramis’ expression goes from dismayed to determined in a heartbeat, and everyone around him nods with similar steely looks in their eyes.
Armand opens the door and shepherds everyone in. “Who’s got first watch?”
“Isn’t it the same as yesterday?” Constance asks.
“We have to change it every night!” Porthos says, looking excited to share his knowledge. “So that we don’t fall into a habit and stop being alert!”
“That’s right,” Armand praises. “Anne, why don’t you get another sheet of paper? I’ll show you how to do a proper rotation.”
“Just like my dads do it in the army?” Porthos asks, eyes shining.
“Exactly like,” Armand promises. And you won’t even realize it’s math.
The screaming starts at about four am.
Armand jerks awake, along with the rest of the fifth grade. Automatically he counts heads. Thirty-one. It’s four am, which means… Ninon’s squad are the ones outside. Armand jumps to his feet, convinced that something terrible has happened, when Ninon and three others burst into the cabin. Unharmed. Armand sags in relief.
“What’s going on?” Athos demands.
“Screams coming from the second graders’ cabin!” Ninon reports. “Anti-Monster Brigade, Assemble!”
Several of the others make a sound that Armand vaguely recognizes as being from some comic book movie. Everyone snatches up their weaponry – stick swords, spears with tips made from shattered glass left by less considerate campers, bark shields, and several slings.
“Flashlights!” Armand shouts over the noise. “And everyone put your jacket on!”
“We don’t have time for that! The Lake Monster is attacking the second grade!” Jussac cries.
“No one goes out without armor!” Armand says firmly. “And you need flashlights because Lake Monsters are terrified of light!”
“Ohh,” several voices chorus simultaneously, and there’s a general grab for backpacks.
Dressed, the fifth grade tumbles out of their cabin. Armand is pretty sure that the jacket bursting across Porthos’ broad shoulders is actually Aramis’, and he knows for a fact that Constance had left her jacket on the bus, so the true owner of the dark blue windbreaker is a mystery – one resolved a moment later when d’Artagnan runs by barefoot and in his pajamas.
Shoes, Armand realizes with dismay. I told them to put on jackets but not shoes. Thank God there aren’t any parents on this trip –
He doesn’t have much time for self-recrimination, though, needing to run nearly flat out to keep up with his charges. Who would have thought fifth graders could run so fast? They’re shouting as they go, making enough noise to raise the dead, and Armand makes a mental note to coach them through stealth missions tomorrow night. Assuming that any of them are here tomorrow night and not on a bus straight back home, two days early, under threat of detention.
The second-graders’ cabin is lit up brightly. Two of the windows are open, and screaming can be heard. Armand screeches to a halt and stares. Underneath the window is the Lake Monster.
Or, rather, a felt-and-stick monstrosity that is clearly meant to be the Lake Monster. Armand can see the glue – and what had happened to bad for the environment? – the fake googly eyes, and, most importantly, the three sixth graders who are operating the whole thing. Rochefort, Vargas and Perales are nearly doubled over with laughter at the success of their prank, enjoying the frightened screams and the strident yelling of poor Emilie, the second-grade chaperone.
Armand folds his arms. He had been thinking about calling off his troops, but after seeing this, he’s changed his mind. Those three deserve everything they may get.
And they get it but good. Armand’s fifth-graders had spent the afternoon after art class practicing squad formations, to the amusement of the conservation teacher, who had said that as long as they were walking back and forth and picking litter up it didn’t matter to her if they did it in groups of four and occasionally reversed direction when Jussac or Athos yelled.
Now those few hours of training pay off. “Flying V!” Jussac yells. The fifth grade splits up into a v-shaped pattern – something to do with ducks, it had been explained to Armand – and swoop down on the Lake Monster like the pointy end of a spear. Jussac’s squad engages the Lake Monster first, and with his first swipe, his sword pokes a hole through the felt. Jussac yells in triumph and follows it up with a backstroke that would do his fencing instructor proud. Perales gets a stick to the thigh and shrieks, dropping his third of the Lake Monster.
“You little twit!” Perales shouts, lunging for Jussac. Jussac jumps back. Bernajoux and Boisrenard plow into Perales from each side, taking him down. Ninon’s squad, who had been on Jussacs’ left, dogpile on.
“Hey!” Vargas cries, dropping his third in a bid to help his friend.
Constance, to Jussac’s right, takes a page from Ninon’s book and leads her squad into close-quarters combat. “Octopus protocol!” she shouts, lunging for one of Vargas’ arms. Each of the others grabs a different limb. Vargas has gotten his growth spurt, but even he can’t move with eighty pounds of fifth-grader on each limb.
“Target neutralized, Captain!” Constance reports breathlessly.
“Ours too!” Jussac cries from where he’s sitting on top of Perales’ chest, seven others helping to hold him down. Ninon, pinning Perales’ ankles, snaps off a salute that wouldn’t be out of place on parade.
“Excellent!” Armand calls back. “Athos – ”
“On it!” Athos snarls, charging the last member of the Lake Monster Trio.
Rochefort isn’t going to go down so easily. He drops the remains of his prop and takes off into the woods.
“Oh no you don’t,” d’Artagnan says, grabbing a stone out of his pocket and fitting it to his sling. D’Artagnan had been a hopeless fencer, from what little Armand had seen, but he’s champion at skipping stones across the lake. His stone gets Rochefort right in the knee. Rochefort goes down with a howl.
Cahusac’s squad, who have been giving chase meanwhile, dive on Rochefort to keep him pinned. Athos’ squad comes up behind and start dragging Rochefort back to the cabin. They ignore the way Rochefort scratches at them with a detachment that makes Armand proud.
“What is going on here?”
Milady de Winter’s bellow freezes all activity. She comes stomping into the clearing, wearing a jacket thrown over her pajamas, hair in disarray, and carrying a flashlight that looks like the love child of a nightstick and a pair of brass knuckles. Behind her comes de Foix, looking like he’s going to his execution.
Rochefort breaks the silence first. “They attacked me!” he cries. “I’m injured! I’m limping!”
Emilie comes running out of the cabin. “You!” she screams at him. “Did you think this was funny? I have thirty traumatized nine-year-olds who think they’re going to be eaten because you thought it would be funny to scare them! Scare them out of their wits, more like! You little – ”
“Emilie!” Milady says sharply, saving Emilie from saying something that would get the superintendent involved.
Athos’ squad run over to the ruins of the Lake Monster prop. They drag it over to Milady.
Milady gazes down at it, then lifts her gaze to encompass the three sixth-graders. “Is this true?”
All three of them start talking over each other at once.
“We were just – ”
“A harmless – ”
“They misinterpreted – ”
Milady raises her hand. “Did you make this… puppet?”
“Yes,” Vargas mutters.
“Did you bring it here?”
“Yes,” Perales admits.
“To scare the second grade?”
“They overreacted,” Rochefort sneers. “We had no idea they would be such babies about it, did we?”
Milady’s eyes flare. “You three, back to your cabin,” she orders. To de Foix: “We will discuss this later.”
De Foix nods tightly. “Come on, you three,” he grinds out. If he maybe seizes them each by various articles of clothing and drags them out of the clearing, which would be a violation of the rules of conduct laid out in the student/teacher handbook, no one happens to notice.
“Now,” Milady says, turning her attention to Armand. “Maybe you can explain to me how the fifth grade came to be involved in this.”
“They saved us!” a second-grader pipes in.
“From the monster!” another agrees.
Milady looks over to the second-grade cabin. Three heads are poking out of each window, and in the second window a fourth head periodically appears and disappears, as if its owner is jumping up and down to see and be seen.
“The monster came and we were scared,” the first speaker says. “But then the fifth graders killed it!”
“With their swords!” the second speaker agrees.
“Their swords,” Milady says blankly. “How did they get swords?”
“We made them in art class!” Jussac cries. He grabs his sword and brings it over to Milady. “See, I couldn’t get the sticks to stay together, but then Ninon taught me how to make dandelion chains – ”
“Yes, I see,” Milady murmurs. “Excellent construction.”
“And we made shields of bark – ” Ninon adds.
“Slings!” d’Artagnan says, swinging his proudly.
Armand discreetly nudges the two intact spears out of sight, where Milady won’t notice the sharp glass on their ends. No need to explain that little burst of creativity.
“Why?” Milady asks.
“To defeat monsters!” Jussac says proudly.
“We’re the Anti-Monster Brigade!” Cahusac proclaims.
“We fight the monsters so we don’t have to be scared of them!” Constance says, explaining it all in a few words.
“And so we don’t have to wait for grown-ups to protect us all the time,” Ninon adds.
“This way we can protect ourselves,” Anne agrees.
“’Cause we’re strong!” Aramis pipes up.
“And we stick together!” Porthos says. “Hooah!”
“Hooah!” the fifth grade choruses.
Milady cuts her eyes to Armand. “Tell me you didn’t teach them that.”
Armand raises his hands. “Porthos taught them that.”
“And the rest of it?”
Armand coughs. “I may have suggested the Anti-Monster Brigade to them,” he admits. “They wanted me to stay up all night to guard them from the Lake Monster, Milady. I thought this was better.”
Milady looks out over the fifth grade, who have devolved into excited chattering and mock recreations of the heroic battle they’d just won. The second graders are oohing and aahing from the windows and the door.
“This is better,” Milady agrees.
“Hey!” one of the second graders shouts, the first one who’d spoken up to defend the fifth grade. "What about us?”
“What about us?” Emilie asks, confused.
“We don’t want to wait around for rescue either,” the second grader says. “Why can’t we form our own brigade?”
“Well…” Emilie says uncertainly. She’s almost drowned out by a roar of approval from the other second graders.
“I think you’re a bit too young for swords,” Milady says.
The second grade boos. So does the fifth.
“What about an auxiliary?” Armand proposes. “The Second Grade Auxiliary.”
“The swordless Second Grade Auxiliary,” Milady stipulates.
“Shields only,” Armand promises.
The second grade boos again.
“Shields can be cool!” Ninon says. “I was reading about the Romans, they had whole shield legions! When they were in trouble they’d just make a wall and their enemies would just bounce off of them until they gave up.”
There’s a more thoughtful noise from the second grade now.
“We’re going to learn about the Romans next month in history class,” Emilie says tentatively. “We could always start early?”
“Yay!” Constance cheers. “More fun!”
Constance’s enthusiasm seems to sway the second grade. “Okay!” the head second grader says. “We’ll do it!”
“You’ll do it tomorrow,” Milady says. “I want everyone back to bed, and no more soldiering tonight.”
“We still have to stand watch,” Athos protests.
Milady cuts her eyes to Armand again. “You had them standing watch?”
“I figured if someone was going to stay up all night it might as well be they,” Armand says back.
Milady considers this. Then she shrugs. “As long as they’re standing watch inside the cabin, I suppose it’s all right.”
“Then let’s get back to base,” Armand says, clapping his hands for attention. “Formation, please!”
The fifth grade forms up. Milady just shakes her head. The second graders are visibly getting ideas, to Emilie’s dismay.
“Face front,” Armand calls. “Forward march!”
The Lake Monster and its ignominious defeat at the hands of the fifth grade is the only thing anyone wants to talk about the next day. Every other grade is determined to form their own auxiliary, even the sixth grade, though from what Armand can gather, Rochefort, Vargas and Perales are destined for courts-martial just as soon as their grade gets back to school and can stage the proceedings. The other sixth graders are already lobbying hard for the coveted positions of lawyers, especially prosecutors, and judges. Armand foresees an entire unit on the criminal and military justice systems. De Foix looks thrilled. Everyone wins, it seems.
Except for the defendants, of course. But even by the light of day Armand can’t find much in the way of sympathy for them.
On the last day, when many silly speeches are usually made and fake awards given out, for things like Most Litter Collected and Most Plants Identified, Milady pulls out an extra stack of paper and decorates every member of the Anti-Monster Brigade for gallantry. Someone (probably the second grade) has made fake medals from construction paper, which they tape to everyone’s shirt with great ceremony. Half of them promptly go fluttering to the floor again, causing dismay until Bonacieux saves the day with a box of safety pins.
“Thank you,” the head second grader says seriously. “You saved us all.”
The fifth graders smile all the way home. None of them unpin their medals; all of them are eager to start studying ancient history in order to learn more about pre-gunpowder warfare. The conversation is eager. Engaged. Civil.
Best of all, from Armand’s point of view, no one even suggests singing the wheels on the bus.
Later that evening – much later – Armand is on his couch at last. To his left is the promised glass of red wine. Across his feet, Soumise purrs her approval of his return. The reality is considerably better than the vision, though: the grading is all done, stacked neatly in piles against the far wall. And Jean is curled up next to Armand, feet tucked under him, head resting comfortably on Armand’s shoulder. A second glass of wine, empty, sits at his feet. Jean’s tipsy and warm and affectionate, just starting to get drowsy; altogether one of Armand’s favorite Jeans.
“So Milady called,” Jean says sleepily.
Armand tenses. “When?”
“Yesterday.” Jean lifts his head up, smirking. “Armand, I left you alone for four days. Did you really militarize the entire school?”
“Technically only the fifth grade?” Armand tries. “The other grades are auxiliaries?”
Jean starts laughing.
“Come on,” Armand says. He sits up straighter, disgruntled now. “What was I supposed to do? Teach the kids that they should call an adult to solve all their problems? That they lack agency or the capability for self-actualization? Teach them passivity and unthinking dependence on others?”
Jean shakes his head, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. “Of course not,” he says, still laughing. “It was a brilliant solution, love. I’m just surprised you came up with it.”
“I can come up with things too,” Armand says, still put out. “You’re not the only creative one in this relationship.”
“Of course not.” Jean blinks. “I just – you went for a military solution, Armand. Most of the time you prefer to act like you were born a teacher.”
“Oh.” Armand slides back down the couch. Jean has a point. But he can’t help reply, “Not all the time.”
After all, he’d met Jean in the army. Two hotheaded youths who’d thought they’d known everything there’d been to know about life and love and the relative importance of one to the other, only to discover exactly how wrong they’d been. Two youths who’d chosen love over the lives they’d both thought they’d been destined for, and reinvented themselves as elementary school teachers – of all things – because the schools would have them even back then, and the army wouldn’t, not together.
Jean kisses him for that. Then he says, “I’m glad you’re making peace with it.”
“Jean,” Armand protests, shocked. “You can’t think I’ve ever regretted you.”
“Me? No. The army? Of course. You know I’ve regretted it, too. Not my choice – not you – but – oh, what’s that Latin phrase? ‘A little regret is not unsuitable in an offering to the Lord’.”
“Non inutile est desiderium in oblatione,” Armand murmurs.
“That’s the one. Of course it meant something to us, or it wouldn’t have been hard to give up. And it was.”
“It was,” Armand agrees softly. “But worth it.”
“Doubly so, if it’s helping the kids.” Jean yawns. “You know, I think I’ve had too much wine.”
“I think so too.” Armand hears the amusement in his own tone, soft and heavy and fond. Jean’s not usually contemplative like this; that’s more Armand. But enough wine and even Jean can turn wistful or reminiscent.
“I’d better go up to bed then.” Jean uncurls from the couch and stands, stretching. “Coming, love?”
There’s no mistaking that for anything other than the invitation it is. Armand is off the couch in a heartbeat. “Right here.”
“Of course you are.” Jean smiles at him and starts for the stairs. “And tonight we won’t have to worry about monsters.”
“No.” Armand pauses, a smile of his own curling his lips. “No, I suppose we won’t.”