Chapter Description: Clark befriends a group of Little malcontents and mischief makers in his class.
The afternoon was just cooling off after our naps. It had rained that morning but it was nothing more than a sun shower. More than enough time had passed for the following sunshine to evaporate the remaining water droplets. It was an ideal time to be outdoors. Warm enough so that people in loose fitting airy clothes could be outdoors, but not so hot that anything more would result in people drowning in their own sweat. It was a last gasp of summer proper before full fall set in; the weather got colder and the leaves changed color.
Yet being on the playground; Beouf’s playground; any playground; put me on guard. It was hard to enjoy the afternoon air with Littles playing on teeter totters and crawling through a cement tunnel while actual children ran around laughing in the P.E. field in the background.
“Is everyone here?” I asked. I was trying to keep my tone businesslike. Professional, even though the gray and white striped romper Janet had dressed me in made it difficult.
Stuck in a onesie, Chaz poked his buzz-cut shaved head out around the base of the tree. “I think so. The teachers are busy playing with the other kids.”
Annie fluffed out her sundress and brushed a patch of near white ringlets out of her eyes. “Can’t we invite more girls to this game?” She asked.
I thought about it. “Maybe Shauna,” I said. “Not Mandy. Definitely not Sandra Lynn.” Sandra Lynn was too far gone. Damn near Ivy levels. Damn near Amy levels. “It’s not a game.”
Billy looked at me from underneath his mop of dark brown hair. He was once again in nothing but a T-shirt and diaper. His captors evidently didn’t think much of pants or leg coverings based on how they liked to dress him. “Okay,” he said. “So what is it?”
“I’ve been thinking,” I said. “I used to think this was a prison. It’s not. It’s more like a factory. Adult thinking Littles go in. Baby Littles like Ivy come out.”
No one said anything, but if facial expressions and body language could be translated into dialogue, all three would have been telling me, “Yes? And?”
“Yeah,” Chaz agreed. “But like you said. This is like the first circle of Hell, right? We don’t want to get kicked out and have to go elsewhere? Just keep up the act and keep a part of-”
“Do you know who Amy Madra is?” I interrupted. No replies from the peanut gallery. “Amy Madra is-”
“Hey guys!” Ivy came trotting up to us. It was one of the few times I’d seen her not wear a dress. Not that the bright pink t-shirt and leggings did anything to make her look more mature. “Whatcha doin’ on this side of the tree? Playing hide and seek?”
“Ivy,” I huffed. “Not now. We’re having a serious conversation here. Go play somewhere else.”
“Oh, are you guys playing Grown-Ups again?” She giggled. “I’ll wait.” Like a ‘good girl’ she popped her pacifier in her mouth and started to suck.
“Huh?” Chaz spoke up. “Playing? Grown-Ups? What’s she talking about?”
I smirked. “It’s how I tricked her into doing Why Day with us.”
The pacifier Ivy had just popped in plummeted from her mouth. “You...you tricked me?” She seemed shocked. Betrayed even. Strange how some people just couldn’t connect the dots. “I thought you were my friend! Friends don’t trick friends!” The simple idea that she’d been conned was a real Eureka moment for her.
I steeled myself. This was a real puppy kicker. “Hmmm…” I said theatrically. “Yeah. That part might have been me ‘pretending’. I’m not your friend, Ivy.”
Her lip started to tremble. “I’m telling!”
“Go ahead,” I said. “Tell on me. That happened last week. Do you know what the statute of limitations is for breaking stupid classroom rules?”
“Statue?” The full native echoed. “What does…?”
“It means that that happened last week, Ivy.” I said, harshly. “Beouf and Zoge don’t care about it anymore. And that doesn’t change that you broke the rules, too.”
“I...I...I...I…” She had nothing and she knew it. She glared at me, and I saw that glint of competitiveness, that teensy bit of outrage that I saw on Monday at Zoge’s table. I bet that before Zoge got her hooks into her, Ivy had a hot streak and something of a temper not unlike my own. That only made it worse in my eyes.
I considered provoking her more. Considering how strong her grip was and how loose her emotions were, I chose not to press the attack. A slap or a punch from Ivy could very well leave me spitting teeth.
“Ivy.” I said with a note of finality. “Go. Play. Somewhere. Else. You’re not wanted here right now. Adults are talking. It’s boring to you. Go.”
“Fine!” She shouted. She ran off in a huff, and I felt my shoulders unscrunch. I hadn’t even realized that I’d tensed them.
Annie watched the girl run away and then turned back around. “That was kind of harsh.”
“How was it harsh?” I asked. “She wants to be a baby, that’s her business. Why should I have to humor her delusions because she was too weak to resist what her captors are doing to her?”
“Damn dude.” Billy said. “Gibson’s spitting truth all of a sudden.” Billy had no idea how much hearing my own last name, my real last name, meant to me. If I wasn’t already on a roll, I would have stopped and hugged him right there.
I jerked my head towards Chaz. “Help me help him up.” Billy and I scooped Chaz up, one of us under each armpit. Chaz got his legs underneath him and stood up the rest of the way. Honestly, Billy was no Herbert Braun, but he still had some muscle and an inch or two of height on me. Plus he was five to ten years my junior. He probably could have deadlifted Chaz. “It’s a matter of balance, right?” I asked Chaz.
Chaz leaned on me. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
“How’s it feel to have dirt under your feet?” I asked.
“Heh. Pretty good. No walker either.” Chaz didn’t have sneakers on like the rest of us. His captors rarely deigned to put even baby shoes on his feet.
Chaz was heavier than Amy, but not by much. “Do you want to lean on me?” I asked. “Or lean on the tree?”
Chaz was technically the youngest in the class. He wasn’t even twenty yet. Guy had gotten snatched up and lost his adulthood before he really even had it. Didn’t mean he didn’t have pride. “Tree sounds good.”
We helped him hobble over to the tree, swaying this way and that, struggling to maintain his equilibrium. He was breathing kind of hard, not quite panting, when he leaned up against the rough old bark of the oak. “Billy,” I said. “Stay close. Just in case.”
“Yeah. No problem.”
Billy was listening. Already taking orders. Good. If I could convince him, I could convince the rest.
“I’ve given you guys some bad advice and some good advice sitting in that time-out corner.” I said. “The worst advice was to accept your fate and try to play along as best you could.”
“Yeah it was.” Annie said. “Good thing we suck at listening.”
I allowed myself a quiet laugh, and nodded. Fair point. “Best advice I gave was to find ways to mess with the system. Ways to release pressure and put it back on them. Small ways. Subtle ways. That’s what I want to do now.”
“Yeah,” Billy said, still keeping one eye on Chaz. “But you see how it goes. We step out of line too bad, we get punished.”
I folded my arms. “Yeah, and if we get with the program, we turn into Ivy or Amy. Do you want that?” I asked. “Do you want the literal highlight of your day to be being allowed on a playground?” I shot something reminiscent of my old ‘teacher look’, the one where I’d caught a three year old trying to sneak away from nap time and was quietly giving them a choice to go back. “Or did you think I didn’t notice who was first in line?”
Annie and Billy had the decency to look ashamed.
Chaz caught enough of his balance and breath to say something. “Yeah. But if we mess with them too much, they’ll just punish us worse. Or send us somewhere else.”
“Yeah,” Annie said. “Plus every time Billy and I act up they just use it as proof that we’re not Grown-Ups anymore.”
“Adults,” I said. “We’re adults. Not babies. Not children. Not kids. Not students” I twisted my expression into a mocking sneer of Annie’s face. “Not ‘Grown-Ups’. We’re adults. And no amount of baby treatment is going to change that fact. Understand?”
The pale haired lady broke off eye contact. “Yeah…”
“But you’re right,” I said. “No matter what we do, whether good or bad, the Beouf and Zoge and our captors aren’t going to admit to us or themselves that we’re adults. If we’re good, they’ll just say we’re being ‘good babies’.” I put the same nasally mocking inflection in my voice. “If we openly fight back, they’ll just think we’re ‘bad babies’. Amazons are crazy.” There was a collective slumping of everyone’s shoulders. The weight of the defeat we’d all gone through felt heavier saying the situation out loud.
I wasn’t going to end this on a bad note. Time for some outrage. I dug around in my brain. “That girl who got into Pull-Ups…?”
“Taylor?” Bill said. “What about her?”
“She only got that far because she was a major suck up to Beouf. She got a shot at potty training because she’s the one that told Beouf about Why Day.”
“Yeah,” I said. “How do you think Beouf knew about Why Day so fast? Somebody told her before this year. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t Ivy. So….?” Fun fact: I was completely talking out of my ass. I had no idea whether or not that’s how Beouf knew about Why Day right down to its name. It could be as simple as Why Day had an obvious pattern and the other Littles sucked at whispering to each other. But I needed a scapegoat and to make a point.
Billy’s lips puckered a bit in thought. “Beouf did like her,” he admitted. “Never got any kind of punishment. She wasn’t nearly as annoying as Ivy.”
“So you’d trust her.” I interrupted.
He was starting to buckle, physically. Atrophy or not, and there may have been some atrophy, keeping his balance was taking its toll. I didn’t say anything when he slowly slid down to have a seat. Billy tried to catch him, but I quietly waved him back. “But she still got shipped off to New Beginnings.”
Chaz had made my point. “Exactly.” I said. “Taylor got shipped off to New Directions. She did everything right, even sold us out, and still lost. I did everything right, and still lost.”
“”So did I,” Billy said.
“Me too,” Annie echoed.
“Yeah…” Chaz whispered.
“We’re losers,” I said. “By the strictest definition, we’re all losers. We played a game, did everything right, and still lost.”
“Then why’d we lose?” Chaz asked. In another lifetime, in another, bigger, taller, body, even a Tweener one, Chaz would have been the perfect Infomercial Hype Man.
I sat down on the ground across from him. “Because,” I lowered my voice. “This isn’t a game. This isn’t a town. This isn’t a school. This isn’t a classroom. It’s a factory. It’s a farm.” I’d been close to shouting before. Now my voice was a stage whisper. Annie and Billy completed the circle and sat down across from each other. Emotionally, the feeling was like an electric circuit being completed.
“They let us roam wild like cattle, and then when they see us and think ‘Oh, I’d like some steak,’ they round us up, put us in places like here, and tenderize us until they think we’re ready.” Nothing but sympathetic, knowing nods all around. “Some are harsher like New Beginnings, some are softer like here, but the end goal is the same. We’re all in a big oven. The four of us just aren’t as cooked as the others.”
Rapid footsteps approached. Someone was jogging up behind me. “Hi guys!”
“Hi Tommy,” I said, relieved. I was preparing myself to have to shoo Ivy away, assuming her attention span had already lapsed and she’d forgotten she wasn’t welcome. Tommy had also been on my short list of people to confide in. Today, he looked the most adult out of all of us, not that loose fitting shorts and a red shirt with “Daddy’s Little Man” on it was particularly adult.
“Do any of you want to race the animals?” He said, referring to the spring ponies on the other side of the oak.
A simple ‘No thanks’ was about to come out of my mouth, when Billy beat me to the chase. “Huh? Those things don’t move. How would that be a race?”
“I thought we could have fun pretending.” Tommy said. I still wasn’t facing him. He sounded embarrassed.
Not embarrassed enough for Annie. “Ew…” she said. “Real quick, did one of you guys poop?”
“Oh. Sorry.” Tommy admitted. “Running around does that sometimes. Gets the guts going right after nap.”
“So let me get this straight,” Billy tagged in. “You shit yourself. And now you want to go straddle a big metal animal and rock back and forth in your own shit?”
A few more shuffling steps back. “There’s plenty of fresh air.” He sounded very defensive. Who wouldn’t be? Too bad he doubled down. “The Mrs. B and Mrs. Zoge always check and change us all right before we go to the busses.”
“This,” Chaz said. “This is why they think we’re babies.”
“You guys do it too!” Tommy said.
For the first time, I turned around and glared at him. “We’re not enjoying it, though, Tommy. They’re forcing us. Are they forcing you?”
I stared at Tommy and didn’t blink. I saw his Adam’s apple bob up and down as he nervously swallowed. Chaz was right. Tommy was competitive, and stubborn. He was all bark, and no bite, however. “I’m...gonna go.”
“Yeah. You probably should,” I said. I spat out, “Baby,” as if it were a vile curse.
Facing my new inner circle I gestured to Tommy’s retreating form. “This is what I’m talking about. Tommy’s got this year, maybe next, and then he’ll be happily munching on his toes and get a clown for his birthday every year with only one candle on the cake and love it. Sandra Lynn, too. And then someone else will come and take his place and they’ll break and so on and so on.”
“Us too,” Billy said. “Us too.” We’d all been given the same fatal diagnosis, even if the cancer was progressing at different rates. Or to make a better metaphor: The same deadly venom was being dripped into our veins, even if some of us were more resistant than others.
‘Yeah,” I said. “You’re probably right. But we’re farther up on the conveyor belt than Tommy, or Jesse, or Shauna, or Sandra Lynn or Mandy. That’s good enough for me.” I’d broken down the situation. Time to build my new crew up. “Chaz, you’ve got a mouth on you and you call it as you see it.”
Chaz sat up a little bit taller. “Damn right.”
“Billy you’ve got a super punchable face and you know how to piss most people off and cut them down to size with just a couple words.”
Billy cracked his neck. “I’m going to choose to take that as a compliment.”
“It is one,” I said. “Annie, frankly, you’re a freak and kind of an exhibitionist but you own your body and your sexuality more than anyone I’ve known. I respect that.” The day before, Annie had earned herself a pair of mittens, but it had more to do with what she was trying on the changing table than anything I would have done.
The walking kewpie doll gave a thin smile. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to kiss you, Clark.”
I pointed to my naked ring finger. “I’m a married man.” It was there, even if I couldn’t feel it or see it anymore. “I’m also an expert on Beouf and Zoge in ways you guys aren’t. I’ve known them better and longer. The therapists, too. I even got Zoge to bow down to me last year.”
“Get outta here!” Chaz laughed. “No way!”
I puffed myself up a little. “Way.”
“He’s still stuck here with us now,” Billy answered.
I pointed to Billy like I was a gameshow host. “Correct. Like I said, no way to win in the long term. But we can still make it a pyrrhic victory.” For a brief instant, I felt like a teacher again, staring at a sea of dead uncomprehending eyes. Being the oldest and most educated in a group had its communication disadvantages. “We can still take them down a couple notches with us along the way. Make it hurt. Make it not worth it. Make them tired. Make them sloppy. Make them dread coming to school the same way we do.”
“Will it help us get out? Help us escape?” Annie asked. “Help us be Gro-...adults?”
I gave a noncommittal shrug. “Maybe. Probably not. But it’s better than playing here.” Then I thought to add. “We’re already adults. Never forget that.”
“What’s the point?” Billy asked. “Why bother doing this if we’re not gonna get away and it’s not gonna make anything better for us?”
I stood up, proud and tall in my romper and dry Monkeez. “Why not make it difficult for them, Billy? Why not use their own rules against them? Why not ‘yes and’ them into knots?”
They shrugged. I was losing them. They were still basically kids and their abuse at the hands of their captors had already chipped away at their spirit if not their sense of self.
I spoke next from the bottom of my cold black heart. “I did a lot of crying last week. Why not make Beouf cry? Don’t you want to make Melony Beouf cry?”
There was no response at first. A stiff breeze picked up and I was afraid it would whip the power of my words away from me even as I’d spoken them. The sound of the others playing on the other side of the tree and crawling through the tunnels and acting like fucking children made the seconds
“Yeah,” Chaz spoke up. He started nodding his head.. Then bobbing. Then shaking, his whole body vibrating with pent up frustration. “I do. I really do.”
“Me too.” Annie agreed.
“Yeah.” Chaz snorted. “Alright, Gibson. Could be fun. Let’s make the giants cry. We need a name, though.”
“What?” I blinked. Was Billy missing the point? “What do you mean we need a name?”
“I”m just saying,” Billy stood up. “If we’re doing this, if we’re making our own club, we gotta have a catchy name.”
Annie joined him. “Oh, I get it. We can recruit people. Like if somebody snaps or gets sent to another daycare, we recruit the new guy! Like passing the torch. Starting a new tradition to keep going after we’re gone!”
Her prison beau shook his head. “Nah. If I’m gonna do something stupid, I’m gonna commit to it is all.”
“Yeah,” Annie piped up. “That’s cool too. But nothing with ‘Brotherhood’ in it. That’s sexist.”
I rolled my eyes but couldn’t stop smiling. If this was the price for my mission, so be it. Better than being the next Amy Madra. “Okay. Fine. We’ve still got about two minutes before Beouf calls us back in. Let’s think of a name.”
And that, friends, is how the Adult Little’s League was founded and forged. There under the big oak tree of the Maturosis and Developmental Plateau Playground. Bound by disgust for what we’d become while paying tribute to what we still were inside, and given a name because if you’re going to do something suicidally stupid, you might as well do it right.