David found the mantis. He and Grayson were the last two left in the office, again; all the other forgotten children were already picked up, hugged, and apologized to. I was more sympathetic than usual and I paid more attention: Their realities cracked wide open with the realization that their parents could disappoint them. I put my hand over my belly as I called everyone’s mothers. The app I downloaded said the baby was as big as a cashew today.

David and Grayson, however, were disturbingly comfortable being abandoned. Grayson asked a lot of questions, moreso a bid for my constant attention than real curiosity (he had a 1:1 aide during the school day; part of his IEP, I wasn’t privy to the diagnosis). His mother sounded like I woke her up with my call (“Is it time already?”). I got David’s mom’s voicemail, like always–some teenage niece or babysitter would show up eventually.

Grayson watched clips of Harry Potter on my laptop. David liked to wear the fluorescent yellow crossing-guard vest and open the door for anyone walking in the office, and say “Good Evening” in an English accent. I observed them: the perpetual red ring around David’s mouth, his big wet tongue always exploring his face (he had, in fact, just gotten clearance to return to school after spreading hand, foot, and mouth disease to the entire second grade). Grayson’s sticky hands, fingernails gray with grime and dirt. David was annoying, Grayson was prone to sudden bursts of violence. I imagined either of them, or some monstrous amalgam, living in my spare room–imagined the infection I would get if Grayson scratched me too hard.

Then David called me to show me the mantis, right on the other side of the door to the playground. Grayson tore himself away from Draco Malfoy to get a look at it. I had only seen them in photos. It was larger than I pictured, and more delicate; wings draped over a long abdomen like a little tuxedo jacket, barbed forelegs politely folded away. It turned its alien eyes all the way around to get a better look at us.

I let the boys dictate Google searches: What does a mantis eat? How does it sleep? Do they build nests? Do they live in families? What do their eggs look like? We looked at every picture,  giggling together at their funny faces. We found out they are diurnal ambush predators, carnivores, they live for about a year, they lay eggs in a clump called an “ootheca” (the boys lost their minds laughing at that). I declined to explain what sexual cannibalism is.

Finally Grayson’s grandmother arrived,  triggering a meltdown because he expected his mother. Grandma soothed him, permitting 5 minutes on the playground before they went. David begged to join them, I reminded him he couldn’t leave my sight. Grandma said she didn’t mind–what the hell. I was in a good mood – having epiphanies about joy and motherhood. They all left, the boys in a ruckus. I kept Googling praying mantises, just for fun.

Before long all three were back inside, Grandma red-faced, David quiet, Grayson laughing his ass off. Was something wrong?

“I smashed it,” he laughed. “I killed it!”

Grandma apologized and yanked Grayson out the door to the parking lot. David would not meet my eyes but I could hear him sniffle. I opened the door to the playground, saw the praying mantis splayed out on the blacktop, bent into grotesqueness, bloodless, shiny alien eyes smashed in like trampled grapes. I dried David’s tears and we buried it under the slide.

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