Chapter Description: Clark's bullying continues unabated.
Tommy had a very difficult next couple of days in Mrs. Beouf’s Maturosis and Developmental Plateau Class. As near as I could tell, Tommy spent the next couple of days completely red faced, trembling, growling under his breath, and fighting back tears.
“Awwww, look at the baby! Did the baby go pee-pee in his widdle pants? I bet he did! I bet he did!”
‘How adorable! He’s sucking his thumb!”
“I could just pinch those cheeks!’
“Is he gonna cwyy? Does the baby need an extra nap?”
All of these damn near Amazonian remarks were coming out of much smaller mouths and said with a subtle underlying venom born not out of ignorance or societal brainwashing but with frustration and hate. It hurt me almost as much as it did him.
On top of that came the pinches, the flicks, the pokes, and the back claps that were more than a little too hard. For some unfathomable reason, Tommy was attracting an inordinate amount of mosquitos, gnats, flies, and the like that just needed to be swatted and picked and slapped. Maybe it was because his breath smelled like sour breast milk, or because he kept spilling sweet sugary mush on himself at breakfast and lunch, or because he couldn’t keep his diaper clean for even an hour. It was for his own good, really.
“Just missed it.”
“You should have seen it!”
Pile on how much help Tommy ‘needed’ and he had even more cause to be miserable.
“Here, Tommy, let me help you color!”
“Tommy! Pick this one! This is the matching picture!”
“Let me break your cracker up for you so that you don’t choke. Just in case!”
“Hey Tommy! Do you know what color this is? I can help you with the answer!”
He was getting so much wonderful help that he barely got a chance to talk or do anything by himself without some kind of comment or intervention.
The best part? I wasn’t even doing most of it. My treatment of Tommy had spread like a cancer. Rebelling and twisting Amazon rules so that they were exposed to their own pathetic hypocrisy was asking a lot of my so-called peers. Only Chaz, Billy and Annie had been trustworthy and foolhardy enough to make the attempt with me. Picking on someone as friendly and genuine and well meaning and weak as Tommy? Too easy. He must’ve been the runt of this particular litter before I got tossed in, or something.
Beouf and Zoge hadn’t quite noticed yet; Tommy still hadn’t tried to tattle. But unlike with therapy sessions and centers, isolating me or putting me by my lonesome wouldn’t solve this for Beouf. Chaz and Billy were friends with Jesse and Annie still had a form of solidarity with the other girls. Little see. Little do. Razzing, teasing, tormenting, and otherwise reminding Tommy what a baby he was compared to everyone else was just another game.
Was he objectively any more infantile, regressed, or generally mindfucked than the rest of us? Absolutely not. It was just part of the game.
Speaking of games:
“Alright guys!” I announced to the playground that afternoon. “Let’s play circus!” I used my best teacher voice with the same kind of cheery confidence that Zoge and Beouf used when they were presenting some asinine activity. No one opted out or ignored or objected. They’d been conditioned too well.
The entire class waddled and toddled up around me. “Yay!” Ivy clapped her hands like an idiot. “I love the circus!”
I bit my tongue. I had other people to lash out at. “Everybody gets a role to play,” I proclaimed. “I’ll be the ringmaster, and announce the acts. Our stuffies can be most of the audience so we don’t have to carry them.” I took a second and set Lion down leaning against the low balance beam. “Mandy and Shauna can be acrobats.”
They high fived each other and copied me, plopping their cotton homunculi down next to Lion. Little see, Little do. I did a quick double take watching Mandy walk. ‘Walk’ was using the term generously. Her Mommy had switched her to a thicker brand of diaper and Winters had mentioned that Mandy was doing ‘very well’ in Physical Therapy. “Um…no offense, Mandy, but are you sure you can do cartwheels…as is…?”
Mandy’s cheeks turned a shade rosier and she looked down at the padded bulge beneath her leggings. Annie salvaged the moment. “Let them be trained elephants,” she suggested. “It’s impressive when Elephants stand on their hind legs or piggy pack on each other.”
“That’ll do.” The relief I saw on Mandy was a symphony. I took note of that in case I got bored with Tommy. “Billy’s the strongman.”
“What’ll I lift?” Billy asked. “Everything that's cool to lift is bolted down.
I jerked my head over to the seesaw. “See how many people you can boost up.”
I kept passing out roles as if someone had died and left me in charge. “Jesse? Lion tamer, yeah? Annie? Clown. Slapstick or stand up. Billy can double as your volunteer.”
“Maybe some of the dirt is still wet from when it rained late this morning,” Sandra Lynn piped up. “Maybe she could make a mud pie to throw in somebody’s face.”
“Never mind,” I said. “Billy, focus on being strong. Annie and Sandra Lynn, clowns. Plural. I think you’ve got a routine in the works.”
“That would ruin my pretty new dress,” Annie whispered. “Do it.”
I spun around in a quick circle, pretending to be whimsical. Beouf and Zoge were still on their perch, looking at us tentatively. Clumped up like we were, their attention wasn’t split. They were tired however, and still naively wanting to give us a chance at something resembling free play. By my estimation we were at the very limit of their hearing so that they couldn’t quite make out what was being said as long as no one screamed or yelled.
“You two are on last,” I told them. “Go pretend to play while you gather the ingredients. We’re only gonna get one chance at this.”
“What about Mommy and Mrs. B.?” Ivy asked, innocently enough.
I stepped in front of her. “They’re on the board of circus oversight. Have to make sure that everything is ethical. Ensure that we’re staying within guidelines for the boundaries and staying complicit and not breaking any cruelty laws or ADA regulations and that safety regulations are observed and certification is up to date to prevent any risk of disease. And that’s just Mrs. Zoge. Beouf is with the Circus Performer’s Union. Don’t get me started on Beouf and Union stop. They’re busy, guys.”
“I know he’s bullshitting,” Chaz snickered underfoot, “but I’m loving it.”
Tommy finally reached the point of curiosity and wanting to belong enough to speak up. “What about me?”
“You’re a stooge”
There was a collective inhalation as if I’d just cursed at him. “What?”
“A stooge,” I said. “A shill. A plant. Your job is to sit among the audience and cheer for us. That way all the people in the audience know when to clap and cheer, too. But you can’t tell the audience members that you work for us.”
Tommy’s face fell. “That just sounds like I have to watch and be part of the audience while you guys get to make jokes and do tricks.”
“What?” I gasped. “Noooooo. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-noooo!” Yes. “Being a stooge is a super important job. Keeps the rubes entertained. Get it? You’re like a secret agent or…or…or…”
“A Helper?” Ivy offered. Several pairs of lips sucked in in an attempt to stifle raucous laughter.
“Yeah! That!” Tommy’s eyes were starting to water. Ivy might not have known what she’d said, but just about everyone else did. “Oh, I know, Ivy. How about you show Tommy how it’s done? You can be the audience plant, and to make your part more convincing, Tommy can be your baby!”
Tommy’s disbelieving “What?!” came out as a hoarse whisper instead of a shout. Lucky me. “Why do I have to be the baby?”
“It makes sense if you think about it.” Everyone nodded in agreement.
“Chaz is the crawler. Why can’t he be the baby?”
“Okay, first off, that’s pretty ableist. Not very mature of you. Second of all, I need Chaz to be the lion for the tamer. Duh.”
Tommy started looking around nervously, clawing for a way out. “Why not have your lion be the lion?”
“Are you asking because you think Lion is real and can actually roar, or are you just dead set on breaking the pre-agreed rules.” I got nothing but a stammering, stuttering, confused response. It’s all I’d wanted. “Stuffies are audience members. Ivy’s the circus secret agent, and you’re the baby providing her cover.”
Tommy took a step out to walk around me. I closed my eyes and massaged my temples. “Ivy, take your baby to his seat.” Ivy’s hand struck out like a snake. Tommy froze and whimpered, but didn’t bother to struggle. Resignedly, he went with her and sat on the balance beam amongst all the other toys.
With years of practice watching her Mommy, Ivy reached down and helped pop Tommy’s pacifier in for him. “There there, baby. You’ll love the circus along with all these other people.”
My smile was grim that Tuesday afternoon. Playgrounds were a peculiar sort of torture chamber to me, though I couldn’t phrase why. But at least this playground was becoming my torture chamber.
I inhaled and held my breath for moment. “Laaaaaaaaadies and gentlemen! Welcome to the Greatest Show in the World!”
The Amazons had started to wise up by late morning Wednesday. That explained why Circle Time had an extra song about Friendship. Whole group after centers was a book about how we should be nice to our friends.
Neat. Cool story. Good thing Tommy wasn’t my friend.
“I’m sorry, Tommy,” I said. “I didn’t realize how sensitive you were.” I stood up and cut across the sitting circle over to him. “I’ll be more careful from now on.” I wrapped my arms around him and whispered, “Poor baby is getting picked on by all the grown-up Littles.” His arms went rigid.
The rest of the class followed suit with equally backhanded apologies and hugs. Zoge looked half-way convinced. Beouf eyed me. It was a familiar look; the same I’d gotten from Brollish on multiple occasions.
On the way to lunch, I spotted Jeremy Merriwether. He was full and tired and talking with his classmates. I’d blended back into the environment for him and most of the actual students. “Hey!” I shouted out. “Hey Jeremy!” His head snapped down and he looked me in the eye. I held up my plushie and proudly declared. “Lion says you can go fuck yourself!”
“Clark!” Beouf barked at me. “We don’t use that kind of language.”
“It’s not me,” I said, pointing to Lion. “Lion told me to say it.”
“And if Lion told you to jump off a bridge, would you?”
“Then maybe Lion shouldn’t be allowed in our classroom much longer if he’s going to give you bad ideas.”
“So I can’t cuss anymore?” The threat meant nothing to me, but I wanted the others to hear it.
Beouf didn’t answer right away. Maybe it was the overhead blast fan in the cafeteria, instead, but I could have sworn I heard her teeth grinding against each other.
While we waited to be unclipped and seated at the communal highchairs, I turned around to my favorite bully boy, Billy. “Keep an eye on Tommy. Let him know if he does anything particularly babyish.”
Billy nodded without thinking. “Deal.” A beat. “Wait. Why?”
“Why not?” That was more than enough for Billy.
Predictably I ended up at the exact opposite table as far away from Tommy as I could. Beouf and Zoge weren’t complete fools. Fortunately I didn’t need to be by him. I had the others. The friendship lesson before Lunch had only succeeded in adding a few new words to the rounds of passive aggressive teasing.
For example, “Mrs. Zoge! Can you cut up my friend Tommy’s vegetables more? I'm worried that he’ll choke! Maybe he needs formula instead?”
Or “Ew, Tommy! That’s so immature!” with just enough of a pause so that the follow up “Sorry! I didn’t mean to!” sounded sincere instead of pre-loaded.
Our lunch period was halfway done and the bottles of milk were being passed out. Being last to lunch meant that the room was at a fever pitch when we entered and slowly got more quiet as classes of fourth and fifth graders shuffled out with no one coming to take their place.
So it was perfect, just crowded enough, when Billy whispered something to Jesse and he shouted “Ew! Tommy pooped his pants again! Change him! Change him now! Hurry!” Billy pooped his pants sitting down enough times to where he knew exactly what to look for. I was so mesmerized by the ensuing fallout that Beouf had to swerve the plastic spork around so that the mashed potatoes would make it into my mouth.
A wave of giggles rippled through the cafeteria. Very rarely did such outbursts happen. Littles in Beouf’s were usually too embarrassed to tell on themselves and the quiet camaraderie of being trapped together kept us from ratting each other out. That and until a short while ago, no one was getting changed until we got back to the classroom. It was more practical to suffer in silence.
“There,” Billy ‘helped’ pointing to the bottom of the cafeteria cart. “There’s a fresh diaper there! Change him before I throw up!”
Older kids giggled behind their hands. Tracy told the preschoolers at her table to hush and eat their food and to stop parroting us. Oddly enough she looked at me quizzically, even though I only opened my mouth for gobs of shepherd's pie. Did she really know me that well?
“I got him,” Zoge said. Tommy was redder than a firetruck and was close to blubbering. His shoulders started heaving and he let out a low mournful groan when Zoge picked him up, pulled back his jeans and gave his lumpy bottom a pat. “Oh yeah,” she said. “Definitely.”
The laughter from my old class redoubled and Tracy walked around and blocked their view of us. She was crossing her arms and widening her stance. She was just a Tweener but was more than big enough to sneer them into submission. I couldn’t hear whatever ultimatum she’d whispered to them, but it did the job.
A few of my students reached behind them and adjusted their pants uncomfortably; kind of like how some people unconsciously scratch their heads the moment someone mentions lice. I couldn’t help but wonder…
Zoge bent over and picked up the fresh diaper from the bottom of the cart. She started cooing at Tommy in Yamatoan. Tommy started huffing and puffing like he was fighting back tears, poor guy.
We were almost done eating by the time Zoge came back with Tommy. Most of the other classes had shuffled out and Beouf was pulling double duty. He was almost in a ball like a cat that was scared to go to the vet, digging his finger into Zoge’s collarbone, and shivering like a hairless rat.
Playfully, mockingly, I waved. “Hi Tommy! How was it breaking in the bathroom changing table?” Zoge stopped long enough to look right at me. Something lingered behind her eyes. It wasn’t anger. Zoge didn’t really do overt anger. Just disappointment.
It took me just a second to realize that the change had gone longer than usual and it wasn’t because it had been particularly messy or that the strap on the changing station got stuck or something. Tommy had had a good long talk with Zoge in the privacy of the girl’s room.
I had to sit between Beouf and Zoge instead of playing. Fine by me.
Tommy got ignored on the playground.
“What am I gonna do with you, Clark?” Janet asked after Beouf shared what she’d pieced together.
“Leave me alone, Clark.” Tommy begged me Thursday. “Please.”
“Okay.” I said. I kept following him around the playground. “I am.” He led me around the slide. Over the balance beam. Weaving in and out of the spring ponies. Through the tunnel. All at the leisurely pace of a horse that was made to sprint across the desert. “I just happen to be going to the exact same place you’re going to at the exact same time. What a coincidence, huh?”
The others had given him a hell of a silent treatment all day. He didn’t want to be treated the way that Amazons treated Littles? Fine. He’d get treated the way I treated the giants. No talking unless absolutely necessary. Cold stares. The absolute scorn reserved for the enemy. Who would want to talk to a snitch?
All it took was “Don’t talk to snitches” whispered in the bus loop that morning.
By naptime, he was begging for someone, anyone to talk to him. I started humming Hush Little Baby and the others joined in. We clammed up when Beouf poked her head through the door, but the message had been well sent.
He wasn’t ready to break, but not for me. “Hi Tommy, I heard you want to talk. Do you want to talk buddy? Come on! It’s me! It’s your pal! You wanted someone to talk to, well let’s talk.” Four days of gaslighting and social shunning is a lot longer off of paper. Memories are short when you’re happy. Even shorter when you’re miserable.
“Clark…do you need to have a seat?” Beouf warned me. Tommy wasn’t complaining, but his body language said enough.
“It’s fine,” Tommy yelled. “I’m fine!” He was a poor liar.
“Come and keep me company, Clark.”
I shrugged. “Fine by m-”
“No! Wait!” Tommy called out. “I want to talk to Clark. Alone! Please!”
Beouf looked dubious. There wasn’t much to be done if my plaything didn’t advocate for himself. “Alright…but you can come and keep me and Mrs. Zoge company too if you want, Tommy. We’re safe.”
I slung my arm over Tommy’s shoulders and flashed my biggest toothiest goofiest grin Beouf’s way. She knew what I was doing. I knew what I was doing. But what was she gonna do about it? That’s the problem with having beliefs and rules to follow, I guessed. You had to follow them. “Step into my office,” I told Tommy.
The A.L.L. gave us the back of the tree. Annie, Billie, and Chaz coincidentally spit onto the ground right by Tommy’s feet on their way back into view.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Why?” Tommy begged me. “Why are you doing this? Why me? Why now? Why are you hurting me?”
A smirk played at the corner of my mouth. “Why not? What did you do to deserve this. Must’ve been something.”
“Please stop. I just want to mind my own business and go to school and try and figure out a way to live my life and-”
“Be a baby?” I offered.
I was a tiger playing with his mouse. “You sure? Seems like it.”
Tommy buried his hands in his face. I stood taller. “I just…I…I’m sorry, okay. I don’t know what I did to deserve it, but please stop picking on me.” He was close to tears. ‘I’m not like Ivy or…or…or even Sandra Lynn. I know I’m an adult.”
“But you want to be like them?”
He was doing everything he could not to explode. “No!” My pose was almost identical to Tracy’s in the cafeteria the day before. “Yes? I don’t know! I just want you sto..” He choked on his words lest he start weeping uncontrollably.
I sat down and leaned against the tree. I was in control here. “Okay. So who should I pick on instead?” He could barely talk, but his expression showed the disbelief. “Who? Should I? Pick on? Instead? Who deserves it more?”
He was prey looking for predators lurking in the tall grass. Unable to see anything, yet fearing a trap. “Sandra Lynn?”
“Say it like you mean it.”
“She’s been here the longest besides Ivy. She acts the most like a baby. Giggles when Beouf makes her voice go high and cutesy. Likes to show off.” If not for the Monkeez his knees would have been knocking. “This is definitely gonna be her last year at this rate.”
I mimed thoughtfulness. “Hmmm…maybe. Maybe.” I looked him in the eyes and waited for him to look away. He did. I stood up and smiled. “Okay. Sure.”
“Thank you!” He wrapped his arms around my waist. “Thank you!”
“Thank you, sir! Thank you!”
I called my crew back and told them the news. Tommy was okay. Maybe more adult than he seemed. Even said that Tommy might have potential, never mind that I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t tell them about Sandra Lynn. That could wait till next week.
I finished that Thursday walking over to Beouf and Zoge on the playground’s bench and nestled myself confidently between them. Melony spared me a glance, wondering what I was up to. I smiled back, folded my hands behind my head and rested my eyes.