My short story, “Debrief,” cleared the first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. The first round required the story to be written in a week. I was assigned these random elements for the story.
The story had to feature “a playgroup.”
It had to contain a character who was “a naysayer.”
And it had to be a “comedy.”
Here’s my submission.
by Chris Cyr
0600 Hours – Monday
This time of day crushes my soul. I’m lying peacefully in bed. The world is dark around me. It’s cold. It’s harsh. But here, under this blanket, it’s warm. I’d never leave this place if the choice was mine.
Then it happens, a flash and a bang. The room explodes into light and chaos. The blanket is pulled from me, and I’m shaken awake with a force that seems entirely unnecessary. I’m awake. The torture has to be solely for their enjoyment. I’d get out of the bed no matter what at this point.
Nevertheless, one of them picks me up and stands me on my feet. I try to take a moment to rub my eyes, but she’s already pulling my clothes off. I stand naked before the both of them, and they usher me to the bathroom and plunge me into the tub full of water.
At least the water is warmer today than it was yesterday. The scrubbing is harsh, but I’ve come to not mind it. To even find it comforting. Then I’m dunked back into the water and lifted out, where I’m quickly toweled and dressed and dragged from the room.
I’m certain I would walk under my own power, but that’s not quick enough for mother.
0800 Hours – Monday
My waffle was cold. I told mother, but she said, “I don’t have time to make you another one, Nicole. We’ll make sure it’s warmer tomorrow.” Then she left me with the cold waffle and warm orange juice, as she went to get dressed.
Somehow we still ended up in the car, made the drive here, and now I’m abandoned at Michael’s house.
I hate Mondays. I also hate Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Every one of those days, life is chaos as mother and father take turns preparing me for the various playgroups they’ve signed me up for.
“It’s important to socialize,” I’ve heard father say to mother, when they think the presence of dinner food has rendered me deaf.
I don’t mind socializing. The other children at these groups are, for the most part, inoffensive. It’s the constant rush to get to their houses that I detest. Thursdays are the one saving grace. Thursdays, the playgroup meets at our house. Thursdays mean warm pancakes, not toaster waffles, as much juice as I want, and an extra hour of sleep. I wish every day was Thursday.
But today’s Monday, and Michael’s mother is leading me into the house as my own mother drives off listening to something that is definitely not the Kidz Bob playlist that I requested for the drive over. Mrs. Lewchowsky takes my coat from me and leads me into a room where the other six children are. She lifts me into the air without asking first, and sets me on the business side of a four-foot gate, that for all intents and purposes may as well be a thirty ton stone.
I’m trapped. I’m trapped with this lot of friends, who were chosen for me by the two adults who didn’t even have the common sense to time a toaster waffle’s preparation in such a way that it’d still be warm enough to melt the butter into the syrup. I’m only six, but how I’ve survived this long is a fucking question that’ll haunt me to my grave.
The Six, as I call them, stare at me. As if waiting for someone to tell them it’s okay to continue playing. Not an independent thought in any of their heads. But like I said, most of them are inoffensive.
Then I see him. Michael. Mother tells me all parents love their children. I’m sure she believes it. But I wonder if Michael’s parents ever consider letting him play with the small Legos unattended. You know, the ones that a kid can swallow and choke on. Michael would be pretty if his face were blue.
I go to the corner opposite where Michael sits. I pull the coloring book and crayons out of my backpack, and get to work. I’m only a third of the way through this book and I want to be done by the end of this week. That’s a lot of coloring and I don’t have time to waste thinking about Michael, who’d rather eat the crayons than make sure every elephant in this book is the right shade of pink.
0900 Hours – Monday
I’ve been coloring for what seems like hours. My years of training guides my hand. Pick a crayon. Place it in the shape I want to color. Stay within the lines. Repeat. I’m a machine. I’m one with the crayon.
Then the crayon is taken from my hand, and Michael is standing there with that half dumb look that he can never seem to shake from his ruddy little face.
I should be less mean to him. It’s not his fault his parents didn’t teach him sign language as a baby. He had no choice but to drink the red colored “fruit drink” his mother served him. Not everyone’s parents loved them as much as mine loved me.
Regardless, it’s my crayon he’s putting in his nose. And I can’t have that.
I strike hard and I strike fast. Open palm to his sternum. When he thinks I’m asleep, my father watches MMA matches, and if I leave my bedroom door open just a crack, I can see the television from my bed. I’ve seen this performed a million times. The effect on Michael is instant. My crayon drops from his hand and he drops to his knees, gasping for air. The other five are shocked into silence.
Except for Skylar. Poor stupid Skylar. Skylar’s mom ate sushi when she was pregnant with her, says my mother. I don’t know what sushi is, but I think it’s like cigarettes. Which means Skylar’s brain doesn’t work right. Spend five minutes playing tic tac toe with her, and you’ll know what I mean.
Skylar sees Michael on his knees, trying to get the wind back, and she starts screaming for Mrs. Lewchowski.
“Michael’s dying!” she yells. She’s so fucking stupid.
‘Fucking’ is my new favorite word. I heard mom say it last Tuesday when she was telling dad about the UPS man “leaving her fucking package right in the open where anyone could see the fucking thing.” I don’t know what it means, but it sounds great. The “f” sound with the “k” sound. It makes me happy.
I’m great at phonics.
I’ve been practicing using the word since I heard it. So, yeah, Skylar’s fucking stupid. And she’s fucking screaming as loud as she can.
Michael’s mom comes into the room and sees Michael on the floor next to me. She picks him up and hugs him close.
Whatever, lady. Pretend to care all you want, but we’ve seen you let him use your iPad. Who lets a six-year-old near a video screen?
“What did you do to him?” she yells at me.
“He took my fucking crayon,” I say. “It’s mine. Not his.”
Still hugging Michael’s blubbering form to her chest, she grabs my arm and pulls me to the time out chair. She’s as stupid as her son if she thinks this is punishment. I’ll sit here reading without being disturbed by the others for as long as she wants.
0930 Hours – Monday
Babar cracks me up. I wish I could be in his kingdom instead of with these hyenas.
1030 Hours – Monday
It’s snack time. Mrs. Lewchowsky asked everyone to vote for what they wanted. These idiots voted for graham crackers. Graham crackers! They’re mostly sugar. Of course that’s what they want. I asked for hummus and pita, but the old lady said we all had to have the same snack. So while they dunk their graham crackers in milk (not even raw milk), and gobble down the mushy by product, I’m back to coloring.
Michael and Skylar are dipping their crackers in each other’s milks. That explains a lot.
Michael’s mom comes back in a little later to collect the cups (plastic) and napkins. She frowns at me when she see’s mine are untouched. But she doesn’t argue. She’s learning.
1100 Hours – Monday
This is stupid.
Ian is walking around our circle of chairs tapping us on our heads and saying “Duck. Duck. Duck.” As if we don’t know he’s going to choose Tommy as his “Goose.” Ian always gooses Tommy. This time is no different.
The two of them chase each other around the circle while the rest of the kids yell and cheer. They sound like chimpanzees. Or orangutans. Mom taught me about apes last month. We came from apes. I believe it on days like this.
Now they all want to freeze tag. Why am I the only smart one?
1200 Hours – Monday
Lunch. I wanted peanut butter, but Michael is allergic to peanuts, so we can’t have them in the house. One day, I’m going to sneak some in a book and rub it all over his face when no one’s looking. Then he won’t bother me any more.
We eat, and the others begin singing The Wheels on the Bus. I want them to sing the Ramones song dad taught me, but they won’t do it. No ever wants to do what I want to do what I want. The day is only half through.
1300 Hours – Monday
We’re doing math. Not hard math either.
1 + 1 = Tommy will never be a doctor.
My mom has been teaching me multiplication. None of these kids would understand that. So our daily lessons are simple math, made for kids who think Sesame Street is riveting television. I honestly don’t understand why mom and dad think this is better than public school.
Dad says there are guns in public school. From the movies he and mom watch, guns look like fun. I wish I had one here. It’d be fun to play with.
2 + 7 = Skylar has ADHD.
I don’t know what that is, but mom says it’s why she can’t even finish a Paddington book. It’s probably because of the sushi.
1400 Hours – Monday
We’re supposed to be taking naps, but Michael keeps making fart sounds, and the others keep laughing. There’s nothing funny about fart sounds.
I could use a nap. I’ve made a lot of progress on the coloring. Most of the elephants are filled in, but I still need to go back and do the backgrounds for each page. I need to rest up for that, but every time I’m about to drift away, “brrrrmp” comes from behind me, followed by giggles.
1430 Hours – Monday
So much for my fucking nap.
1500 Hours – Monday
Everyone’s playing hide and go seek in the back yard. There are seven of us. The backyard has three trees, a dog house, and a canoe. Somehow, when Michael’s “it,” the game takes forever. So, I choose the canoe and lie in it reading Matilda. I can hear the others squealing and running. I’m going to stay here as long as I can.
After several games, where no one found me at all, Michael’s mom yells for us to come in. When the playgroup is at my house, we’re allowed to stay outside as long as we want. My mom says it’s important to be independent.
I’m not surprised Michael’s mom doesn’t feel this way. My mom calls her a helicopter.
1530 Hours – Monday
Everyone else is tired and is finally sitting around coloring. It’s nice and quiet. Mom will be here soon, but this is the only time of day no one bothers me. It’s the only time when I feel like they might be as smart as me.
1600 Hours – Monday
Mom and Mrs. Lewchowsky talk forever. Mom is mad when she buckles me into my seat. She asks why I hit Michael and I tell her. She tells me that I should never hit someone for something like that, but she is smiling when she says it. That’s confusing. I assume she means that I should be more careful not to get caught.
Tomorrow is Tuesday, and our playgroup meets at Skylar’s house. Skylar’s mom lives alone and sleeps most of the day. So we get to do what we want. I’ll get to color and read all day without being bothered.
“Mom,” I ask from the back seat.
“Yes, Nicole?” she answers.
“Can we have peanut butter toast for breakfast?”