Chapter 52: Anything but Child's Play
Chapter Description: Clark gets a tour of his new prison yard, or as everybody else calls it "the Little's playground".
Chapter 52: Anything but Child’s Play
Right after nap time I was taken out of the crib, checked, and lined up. All said, it was pretty fast. Only Jesse and Mandy ‘needed’ changing. Everyone else was either dry or ‘not that wet’’. A shame, the mean survivalist part of my brain decided. If I had been the only one clean and dry I might have warranted the boldness to ask for the toilet a second time that day; being making a case for my “developmental plateau” to be closer to three or four instead of one or two.
Nothing is ever that simple. Or Fair.
We didn’t have to hold hands on the way to the playground. The trip was that short. Enough so that all it took to corral us and discourage runners was to have Zoge to the left and Beouf to the right. The playground was just across the walkway; a diagonal straight line.
Correction. The Little’s playground was just a diagonal straight line across the walkway.
Kindergarteners got a small but notable jungle gym play place, not unlike the kind at any fast food restaurant minus the dressed ball pit: Monkey bars, a straight slide and a corkscrew one, along with a fireman’s pole, plus it was elevated so there was space beneath the steps to crouch and crawl. It was still compact for a class of eighteen to twenty kids- two classes at one time would have been far too much- but throw in some sidewalk chalk and some bubble wands for the space immediately surrounding it and it was a good spot for recess.
To accommodate the upper grades, the P.E. field had a swingset, a basketball court with four square on the side and a kickball diamond, as well as tetherball poles and a jogging track. The coaches were decent about keeping the first through fifth grade teachers appraised of where they would be and what equipment they’d be using, plus were amenable to teachers checking out various play equipment as long as the items were returned promptly and one teacher’s recess didn’t interfere with the coaches’ lesson plans.
The Littles of Mrs. Beouf Class? They got a tree and a fence. A steel ramp led from the walkway led up to a fenced in plot of land that had been elevated off above the ground. From the walkway, the playground was high enough off the ground that an Amazon would have to boost themselves up to sit on the brick wall surrounding it. The chainlink fence jutting up from the wall kept any Littles from falling off (or escaping) while playing.
The giant oak near the center of the playground was so tremendous that not even an Amazon could wrap their arms around it and climb it; a true mammoth that kept the surrounding area in constant shade, starving the light out of all but the heartiest blades of grass. It was also likely the reason for the Little playground’s existence. During construction it had been easier to wall off and fence in the oak and surrounding patch of land than it would have been to cut the monster down, up root it and grind the stump.
I suspect it wasn’t intended to be a playground at all, but Beouf managed to repurpose it. Other than the tree, the fenced in flat top had mulch and a metal bench for teachers to sit on, but that was about it. Beouf would bring out balls and had found a second hand push car more suited to carpet than mulch, but without proper funding, the space offered room for tiny legs to be stretched and not much else.
Technically, my students had been welcome to play there, too. I’d passed and improvised where I could, preferring indoor recess where I could more easily control the environment. That and the shortest way to that spot would have been cutting through Beouf’s room…
That was the old Littles playground. True to her word, Brollish had seen a new one take its place.
“Whooooah,” several voices echoed and chorused. The chainlink did nothing to conceal the surprise that awaited: A blue concrete tunnel had been wedged into the ground, easy for someone our size to hunch and walk through; easier to crawl through. A yellow balance beam, not even a foot off the ground; more than enough challenge for someone with soggy swollen padding throwing off their balance. A stout red slide that only came up to our heads. A blue teeter totter; more like a seesaw rocking horse hybrid, making it impossible to slam an end or for one rider to completely drop the bottom out from under the other. A trio of spring ponies, or more accurately a spring ducky, a spring piggy, and a spring froggy stood spaced out and ready to race.
Colorful. No sharp edges. Everything low to the ground. Nothing that could be twisted or tangled up in. Fresh mulch if somebody stumbled and fell. To top it all off the tree was still very much intact and things were spaced out enough so that a body could stroll around for a few laps if they had the need.
A good playground for small children. Shame it was for us.
“IT’S A MIRACLE!” Ivy screamed the moment her Mommy opened the gate to herd us in. She hobble ran as fast as she could. She wasn’t the only one. Several of the others pushed their way past me to check out the latest contraptions for their amusement and conditioning.
A hand gently placed itself on my shoulder. “Go ahead, Clark. Go play. Let yourself have fun.” Chaz, who was still riding on her hip, urged me forward. Reluctantly, I walked in.
“This is so neat,” Mandy’s voice echoed out of the tube. I bent sideways to get a better view. She and Sandra Lynn had already made themselves comfortable in the cool concrete cylinder. “Great for like, hide and seek or just getting away from-”
“ECHO ECHOOOO ECHOOOO ECHOOO!” Tommy screamed as loud as he could on the other end. He popped his head up and made eye contact with me. “Hey! It works.”
“Ugh...boys,” Mandy finished her thought.
“So immature,” I heard Sandra Lynn agree.
I walked away, feeling a weird buzzing in my brain, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the why of it. Ivy had positioned herself at the new slide which was right in front of the teacher’s bench and waited for Beouf and Zoge and sit down. “Go on, Chaz.” She gave him a light pat on the back of his onesie. “Go be with your friends.”
The two women’s shoulders slumped and they exhaled in unison. The wear and tear of keeping ten Little people in line and playing their assigned parts was finally starting to show.
“Mommy! Mommy!” Ivy goaded. “Watch me! Watch!
“I’m watching, baby girl.”
In clunky measured steps, Ivy climbed to the top of the ladder, then swung her feet out and slid down the ramp. Total elapsed time: Five seconds, four of which was her climbing. For her part, Ivy looked like she’d just climbed a mountain or something. “Yaaaaay! I did it!”
“Very good, Ivy!” Zoge said, tired but condescendingly.
“Watch me do it again! I can do it all by myself, see?!”
I pursed my lips and walked on by. Again, I felt like there was something wrong here beyond grown Littles behaving like children. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.
“Come on, Shauna,” Jesse pleaded. “I want a turn on the pig!”
Shauna rocked on the thing like it was a bucking bronco instead of a thoroughbred racer. Honestly, probably the more realistic scenario. “Why?” I heard her ask. “Try the frog or the duck.”
“But pigs are the fastest!” Jesse insisted. His voice was inching up to a wine and his thumb was inching up to his bottom lip.
“You just wanna ride the pig because of your stuffie.”
Jesse’s face turned pink “No!”
Shauna hopped off the Spring Piggy. “Why don’t we try the teeter totter? Then you can race me back to the pig.” There was almost a grace to the way she dismounted the playground rocking horse, like she’d been built for it; or it built for her.
More brain buzzing, this time behind my ears and at my temples. It felt a little like guilt. Why would I feel guilty? Because my capture ensured Brollish’s bribe of getting this stuff? No. Fuck that. Hypocrisy implies a choice and I had no hand or knowledge in that.
Something else was bothering me.
“Hey Clark!” Tommy called from the balance beam. “I managed five whole steps before stepping off!” Bet I can stay on longer than you!”
Oh thank goodness! Another halfway friendly voice! For an instant I felt some emotional relief. It took two whole steps for me to stop from breaking out into a jog. “No thanks,” I called back. “I’m gonna...chill.” There was nothing terribly infantile about sitting in the shade of a tree.
I wasn’t here to play and never would be. I had better ways to use my time. Bigger nuts to crack: How to best get over Cassie’s anger and discreetly tell her to look out for a certain Tweener for instance. Cassie had an admirable paranoid streak, but she knew I knew how to work with the medium-sized folk to our advantage.
“Get your own tree,” Billy barked at me. “This one’s ours.” I’d circled around to the side of the big oak where Beouf and Zoge couldn’t directly see. The coaches and kids out at P.E. could make us out if they chose to pay attention and turn their heads to us, though.
Speaking of making out, Billy wasn’t alone. He’d draped his arm over Annie and was busy nibbling on her ear, sending her into quiet naughty giggles.
“Do you mind?” I said, feeling a twinge of jealousy that I couldn’t even do that with my own wife right now.
“I don’t,” Annie giggled. “I like to make people watch.”
“Go play with one of the other babies,” Billy waved me off. “You know you want to.’
“What I wanted was some peace and quiet,” I quipped. “Not softcore porn in the park.”
The bald headed asshole glared at me. “What are you gonna do about it? Tell your favorite teacher on me?”
My nostrils flared. This guy had been an asshole to me all day and enough was just about enough. I wouldn’t get to see Cassie today, but that wouldn’t stop Tracy from dropping messages by anyway. “Maybe I will tell her. Maybe you’ll get timeout in the preschool room. Get changed on the floor where everyone can see.”
He was up on me in an instant. Eye to eye. “Say that again, Helper. Say it again and find out what happens next.”
I didn’t blink. “I don’t know what I did to hurt you, but I know what I’m-”
A tug on my ankle. “Guys! Guys! Cut it out.” Chaz hissed.
Annie pulled her boyfriend a few steps back. Enough to look like we were talking instead of bristling for a slugfest. “You two fight, you’ll get sent to New Beginnings. You don’t want to go there, do you?”
The lady was right. “No,” Billy said.
My own “No” overlapped with his. Two crinkly sets of steps backpedaled to a safer distance. Billy leaned against the tree.
“How the hell do you know about that, anyways?” he asked, eyes suspicious.
I was about to tell him about my ex-assistant, but that was knowledge that neither Billy nor Annie nor Chaz needed to know. “Don’t you remember what Mrs. Springfield said? I’m Ms.Grange’s baby. Teachers talk. Littles listen.”
Billy rubbed his chin. In another life he might have had a beard just like mine. “Teachers talk and Littles listen. Okay.” he nodded. “Okay.” His gait was becoming more relaxed. It should have worried me, but it didn’t.
“Sorry about…” I pointed my fingers between the prison couple. “You know...interrupting. It’s been a rough day.”
“Everybody’s first day is rough,” Annie offered. “You shoulda seen Chaz on his.” Chaz suddenly found.the mulch beneath him very interesting. “No wonder he got mistaken for a baby. He’s such a crier! Between how soggy he was and all those tears, I thought they were gonna have to hook him up to an I.V. to prevent hydration.”
Chaz’s lip pouted. “Don’t you mean dehydration?” He asked curiously.
There was some uncomfortable laughter; mostly from her. “I...used to be a nurse.” The last word was just barely audible. The sad sigh was very noticeable
I drooped my head. “I’m not trying to start a fight, but why are you guys such assholes?”
“Better an asshole than a brat.” Billy said. He said with the conviction of a man willing to get the mantra tattooed across his chest.
I looked at the others playing on the fresh equipment. So happy. Slipping away and losing themselves. More of that weird cognitive dissonance where I just couldn’t place the source. “Granted.”
“I’ll lay off tomorrow,” Billy promised. “Just don’t go spreading that story around.”
Annie piped in, “And don’t be pulling that rookie stunt like asking to go potty like they’ll really let you do it. You’re in the Little Leagues now.”
“Yeah, quit acting like you’re better than us,” Billy said. “You’re not. You think you’re gonna be the next escapee? Cuz you’re not.” His words were unkind, but his tone wasn’t for once. A pleasant reversal from this morning.
“That wasn’t my intent,” I half-admitted. I was going to escape eventually just not… “How do you guys know about that? None of you were enrolled when that happened.”
Chaz chuckled grimly. “Something passed down to all the newbies. We don’t even know the kid’s name anymore, teach.”
“Dang,” Billy griped. “I forgot, you were here too. Why didn’t I think of that?” He cocked an eyebrow. “Why didn’t you take the fall for it?”
I shuddered. “Mrs. B. vouched for my innocence.” Oh for those halcyon days of old. “I’ll talk to you later. I’ll let you get back to your...whatever this is.” It sucks making yourself sad by accident.
Walking away, I started muttering to myself. Had to distract myself. Had to figure out something to do with the time I had left. It wouldn’t do to blow my shot at seeing Cassie in the final inning.
I saw Tommy still playing on the balance beam. Almost automatically, my gaze wandered over to the blue concrete hidey hole. Gears were starting to turn. At the time, I couldn’t say why. Maybe I needed another victory. Another monster to conquer. An obstacle to overcome. A Raine Forrest to outwit. Just...something bothered me about this playground and I didn’t have the personal insight yet to find the words as to why.
Casually strolling back along in short pants I waved over to Tommy. “Hey Tommy!” I called. “Wanna give me a boost?” An impulse was tickling its way up my spine. Time to see if Chaz’s intel was right. Competitiveness could be harnessed into helpfulness.
The guy pivoted so fast that one of the snaps on his inseam popped open. “On what?”
I pointed to the concrete tube. Tall-ish. Smooth. Not meant to be climbed on per se; just climbed in. “There!” He met me at the sight of the tube. “Help me climb it.”
Tommy’s look of inspiration mirrored my own. Without further prompting, he rushed over and got on all fours. I used his back as a stepping stool and squirmed up belly first to the top of the tube. The girl’s voices were still echoing with quiet whispers and giggles but I didn’t care. Still on my belly, I shuffled around and offered my hand. “Just don’t yank me down.”
Using my arm, Tommy pulled himself up to join me. “Neat idea, dude.” I’d done it. The most minor of victories. There was a small rush of endorphins just from sitting on top of the darn thing. Suddenly a little bit of that strange guilty buzzing was out of my skull. It was still there, but the act of climbing up; nay, the act of doing it with help from another Little reduced the pressure.
“So how’d they really get you?” Tommy asked. “Because none of us really have accidents at first.”
Zoge was on us before I could reply. “Tommy! Clark! No, no, no! That’s not for climbing on! Get down from there!”
Tommy’s shit eating grin didn’t fade all the way as the teacher’s aid scooped us up and set us down a good ten feet from the equipment. “I love you both, but don’t scare me like that. Next time I see you on top of that thing, you’ll be in timeout with me and Mrs. B! Got it?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” we said in unison as if we’d rehearsed.
Beouf threw a wink at me behind Zoge’s back. That’s when I realized I was having a tiny bit of fun. Goddamn it...
Patiently, I spent the rest of the time sulking by the gate for the rest of the play time. Next would be getting ready and loading the kids back on the bus before Janet picked me up.
“I’m very proud of how you’ve been today,” Beouf told me, opening the gate so we could return. “Your Mommy will hear good things from me and you’ll get that special treat she was promising.” I fake smiled to hide my real one and went back inside the air conditioning.
Funny side thought: Just because I was given kudos for expressing my bodily autonomy with Ivy, didn’t prevent any of them from checking my pants again and again and again. “Always give them back clean and dry if you can,” Beouf said.
“Yes Ma’am,” Zoge said. She inserted two fingers past Billy’s leg gathers. “Billy my love, it’s diaper time.”