CHILDREN AT PLAY
by Dana Hart
Every second Tuesday of the month is Career Day for Mrs. Ainsley’s Saving Grace Kiddos sixth graders, an amusing change of pace from singing psalms to an accompaniment CD made in the ’90s and playing Bible trivia card games. The parents fight to win each month’s slot, staying late after meetings to talk with Mrs. Ainsley (bribe her with gift certificates to various local restaurants). If they’re passed over, they call Mrs. Ainsley at her home phone number to leave angry messages:
“We ordered two boxes of gospel CDs to pass out. Two! And they weren’t cheap, Carolyn. Can’t the Peterson dairy farm wait until the spring?”
“Sales have gone down, Carolyn, since they built that damn grocery conglomerate over on Fourth Street. It would be nice for the kids to see how clean our butcher shop is and taste the cows we just slaughtered, so they can go home and tell their families.”
“Push the Walkers back to next month, Carolyn. Really, what can the kids learn from a couple of customer service reps, anyway? The weather is nice and cool and it’s just gorgeous out on our shooting range, all these leaves changing colors…”
For the kids, Career Day is the only time they can get out of their freezing–cold classroom—located in the basement of the local community center, because none of the parents wants to host a group of thirty horny pre–teens—and away from the desks they long ago defaced with chewed–up gum and absurd, pencil–scratched obscenities like “someOne give jeSus a BJ” and “Judas Just Needs a FRIEND!!” But more than anything they just want Mrs. Ainsley to stop talking, because her voice is raspy and scarred from decades of chain–smoking and gives them nightmares.
For the month of September, the Career Day honor goes to Ted Garfield, chief of the local fire station. When Mrs. Ainsley makes the announcement the Monday before, the kids talk about how the trip sounds much better than last month’s pitiful trek through Freddy Hermann’s dad’s accounting firm. Perhaps, they say while waiting for their parents to pick them up, the station will get a call about a burning building and they’ll get to ride with the firemen in their truck. The possibility of finding dead bodies burnt like charcoal in a grill sounds far better than another trip to an office complex.
But one girl isn’t excited, not at all. In fact she wishes she could be anywhere but on that bus on Tuesday afternoon, because no matter where she sits, she can’t hide from the fat jokes the boys in her class share at her expense.
None other than Ben Garfield sits behind her on the ride to the fire station. He reaches an arm over Lucy’s seat and yanks her long ponytail hard. “Got your tail, Piggy! Oink oink!” he shouts, and everyone laughs. “Hey, how are things down on the farm, Piggy? Do you have your own shit pile to sleep in, or do you share one with your parents?”
“Have you seen them?” another boy asks, reaching across the aisle and poking Lucy in the gut. “There’s no room in their shit pile! They’re three times as big as her!”
“Stifle yourselves.” Mrs. Ainsley makes her way to the back of the bus, stopping next to Lucy’s seat and lazily planting one hand on her hip. A lit cigarette sticks menacingly out one side of her mouth.
“Anything for you, Carolyn!” Ben says, snickering. “Shouldn’t be smoking around us, though, should you? Might kill us all.”
“Little bastard,” she mumbles, scowling and stumbling back to her seat behind the driver.
Lucy turns to the window and begins to cry. Her mother always tells her not to listen to bullies, but when there are so many laughing it’s hard not to. From her pocket she produces a razor blade slightly larger than her big toe, which she stole from her parents’ bathroom cabinet that morning. Gently she slides it along her arm, just barely breaking the surface of her skin because she’s afraid she’ll scream if she presses down harder. And she isn’t brave enough to simply close her eyes and start slicing; she doesn’t want to make a mess and draw attention to herself.
Tiny red droplets stain her too–small jeans and she notices they’re almost the same color as all the fake blood in the horror movies she and her brother Connor watch together. Only the screams of victims turned up to top volume are loud enough to drown out Mom and Dad yelling every night, usually about his affair with his secretary. The one that always smiles at Lucy when she goes to visit Dad at work, saying she looks pretty. Liar.
I wonder, Lucy thinks, do my insides look the same as the monsters’ victims? If I keep cutting—not here, later at home in the bathroom, I’ll find out. Then I’ll show Dad and he’ll be happy I did something useful. What did he say last night? A waste of space.‘You’re a waste of space, Lucy.’
Mrs. Ainsley’s voice comes on over the bus’s loudspeaker system. “We’re almost there. Behave yourselves today—I’m not in the mood for games.”
Lucy panics and, not knowing where to hide her razor blade, quickly shuts it in her fist. Both ends of the blade slice through her flesh, releasing a gush of blood that spills right onto her lap. “Motherfucker,” she says—one of Connor’s favorite words when he’s upset—and hides her fist behind her bright pink backpack. Now the fabric will have a huge stain by the time she has to get off the bus. She needs a distraction…there’s always sticking her finger down her throat and making herself sick, which she’s done a few times before. But Mrs. Ainsley will only end up calling her parents to come pick her up.
As the bus pulls to a stop, the other kids jump out of their seats and run to the front.
Lucy stays behind; now the blood is spilling onto her shirt and a circular stain forms around her gut. Mrs. Ainsley is outside taking attendance, reading names off a clipboard list. Lucy realizes how much she hates her teacher—hates them all—whether they’ve made fun of her or not. No one stands up for her when the boys tease her, not one of the girls in her class or even the quiet boys that seem too nice to say such awful things. Connor’s voice is in her ear from last night as he rummaged through a stack of DVDs: “Fuck them, Lucy. Fuck the whole world. Everyone is out to get you and you can’t trust anyone.”
The class starts to walk toward the fire station entrance but Mrs. Ainsley holds up a hand to stop them. “Hang on, there’s only thirteen here.” She walks down the line counting them off. “Ben, Simon, Amanda, John…where’s Lucy?”
None of the kids say anything, only look back at the bus. Lucy shrinks down so no one can see her and maneuvers her way under the seat. A few drops of blood drip onto the filthy floor and she imagines them snaking down the aisle of the bus like slick, red track marks. Slowly she begins to crawl to the back, listening for Mrs. Ainsley’s heels click–clacking toward her. It’s difficult to move with her backpack on, as it keeps getting caught on screws, so she leaves it under the second–to–last seat. She hopes no one will take it because all of her favorite comics are inside, the only things that keep her company when Connor isn’t around.
“You heard me, Lucy, I’m not in the mood for games!”
Lucy crawls faster, nearly getting stuck under a particularly narrow opening under the last seat. All she has to do is reach out and push the emergency exit lever down. Once the alarm goes off it’ll distract Mrs. Ainsley, then it’s a clean jump out the back door.
Now Mrs. Ainsley is stomping down the aisle. Although it takes a considerable amount of strength, Lucy is able to lift the red lever and push the door open. A bell sounds and Mrs. Ainsley starts screaming, unintelligible above the shrill ringing, but Lucy doesn’t listen; landing on the asphalt parking lot hurts too much. Luckily she doesn’t break any bones. As quickly as she can Lucy takes off in the direction the bus came from, rounding the corner of the parking lot only to be surprised by a pothole. Landing face–first she feels the asphalt rip open one of her cheeks, and hot tears pour out of her eyes. But she keeps going, staggering against traffic instead of with it and ignoring cars that honk at her. It’s approximately ten minutes by car to the high school so she’ll need to move fast on foot, especially because Mrs. Ainsley is certainly on the phone with her parents already.
A car swerves around a truck as it switches lanes and almost hits her. Lucy jumps out of the way, narrowly avoiding the hood. In the driver’s seat a woman yells and shakes her hand, the universal get–out–of–my–way gesture; two children press against the backseat window, mouths hanging open like they’re watching a caged animal in a zoo.
As it begins to rain she ducks into an alleyway to catch her breath. Two homeless men stop rummaging through a shopping cart of belongings and watch her double over wheezing. One offers her a drink from a bottle in a crumpled brown paper bag, which she blindly accepts, too thirsty to bother asking what’s inside. The amber liquid tastes like the last time she had the stomach flu and she immediately spits it out. Now the man lectures her, too, this time about wasting money someone gave him earlier that afternoon. He reveals several missing teeth and black gums, like how (when he was alive) her grandfather’s mouth looked from years of chewing tobacco. Lucy thinks back to the repulsive grin of her grandfather at every Christmas and Easter dinner and screams.
Rain pours out of the dark sky, as if God himself is angry at her for being such a fuckup: for not measuring up to her father, for disobeying Mrs. Ainsley because she hates being in the Kiddos, for being fat no matter how little food Mom puts on her dinner plate. Maybe she should keep running, past the school and out of town and on to a different life. Not even Connor cares about her all the time, like when he plays video games or brings his girlfriend over and locks his bedroom door. One day he’ll undoubtedly grow to detest her, just like everyone else.
Lucy doesn’t look both ways when she runs back across the street, and a delivery truck speeds forward and hits her from the side. Initially she feels nothing, even though all the air is shoved out of her lungs. As she rolls off the hood and spins in the air, she thinks how wonderful it is not to feel; no more pain, sadness and anger. But in the seconds between hitting the asphalt, hearing the sickening crunch of bones in her spinal column, and dying, the pain is so great that she’s sure that’s what kills her. Not the actual breaking of her neck, but the hellish agony her body endures after meeting the street at 75 miles an hour. And, her last thought: Now everyone will love me.
About the Author:
Dana Hart is a recent college graduate living in Indiana – you know, one of those Midwestern states where nothing particularly exciting ever happens. She’d like to say that getting a tattoo after graduation is what started this descent into darkness. It could also be listening to so much punk rock and heavy metal. Or maybe reading Harry Potter so many times she lost count, or Stephen King, Lev Grossman and Neil Gaiman. Better yet: having studied opera in college, an entire world of drama in itself. However and whenever it all began, she writes about the darkest parts of reality and, in her current project, what goes wrong when reality and fantasy meet. What would you call that genre?