TYLER BARTON

Mother May I Stand Stock Still

 

Ben’s the smallest and naturally not the Mother. Angie is. She’s pretty big.

“May I take two giant steps?” Ben asks.

Angie either feels a little pity or else knows what her unfairness does to us, me especially. She lets him slide.

“Yes my little freakin’ prince.”

He forgot to say “Mother”, breaking a major rule, but he’s granted permission anyway? It’s unjust. You have to address the Mother as “Mother” or else you don’t get to move. That’s the rule and we all know it. Angie just does whatever she wants.

Luckily his two “giant steps” only bring him in line with me, not ahead. Thank God for those coffee-stirrer legs. Ben’s legs. He’s a practically a toy, the doll-version of a ten year old.

Angie turns around and smiles at him, breaking another rule. She’s supposed to stay faced away. But if I call out to correct Angie on the rules, I’m breaking a major rule: speaking out of turn.

My mom calls Angie a sociopath. She calls my dad the same thing. Dad says kids are just ginger-prejudiced. My hair isn’t red as his, but my freckles are everywhere. Like God spilled dry dirt all over me. It doesn’t seem fair, but I don’t always get what that word means.

I know this: fair in games is following rules.

While the rules are: you win by being the first one to reach the Mother. The kids all start together on one side, and on the other, Mother faces away so she can’t see who’s ahead. You each take turns asking Mother for permission to move a number of steps forward. If you ask right, she’s supposed to let you, but she can choose to make you go back steps if you ask for too much. It’s up to Mother what’s too much.

For Angie, everything is too much. Including her make up. A red oval of lipstick misses her mouth all over. Her eyeliner makes her look like a football player. But everyone loves her hair. All waves of yellow. It goes up in the wind every time she turns toward us, ignoring the rules.

Last turn, I got “one modest step forward” because I totally begged for it. Angie never gives me the time of day. In fact, she steals from me most times. Friends, hair ties, skittles. Little things.

There are only three of us children and one Mother. Everyone else is inside probably watching the same VeggieTales movie from last week. They’re all afraid of Angie. I’m so nervous about what to ask her for. But it isn’t my turn yet. I observe the others and take notes.

Following all the proper rules, Evaline asks if she can take “an eentsy step”. She even adds a polite “please”. Angie gives her the go-ahead, which is strange because Evaline is my Special Buddy. Automatically, Angie should hate her guts. We’re each allowed to invite a friend once a week. I’ve never had the same Special Buddy twice. Angie demanded that Marla admit to all the campers she was hideous. Marla was in fact really pretty, but she still followed Angie’s order. Angie slapped Claire and then started crying herself, blaming Claire, lying to the Counselors, and getting Claire forever banned.

In fact, I’m no longer friends with anyone I’ve ever brought here, and I can already feel this one slipping. Evaline wanted her mom to drive her separate. Easy escape plan. I’d asked her after youth group. She kind of smiled and didn’t say anything. Chewed her fingernail. It wasn’t a no, but it wasn’t really a yes. Luckily her mom heard me ask. Evaline doesn’t have any friends either.

Angie never brings a special buddy, so she ruins everyone else’s. Something Angie forgets is: Week One, she was my Special Buddy. I invited her to Principlz. I met her at church. “Are you going to any day-camps this summer?” I stupidly asked.

That day seems like forever ago.

Evaline takes a step and Angie flips.

“That wasn’t EENSTY!”

A breeze blows or else the grass bends to Angie’s voice. It gets raspy in yells. The five of us shiver a little. It’s summer, but not that warm. The sky: blue and white. Principlz Pre-teen Day-Camp is in the distance, two whole minutes running. Counselors are years away. I wonder, What if we were dead out here? What if Angie had a gun? Where would they be?

“Take a dang crabwalk backwards, idiot,” Angie answers.

Evaline can’t crabwalk so instead just cries. A little quiet cry. She gives it her best and kind of slides on her back, pushing with her feet. You can smell the dirt she’s bringing up. You can see a part of her disappear. It feels hotter all of a sudden. I want to know if the sun found its way around a cloud, but I can’t look up. I stare straight ahead. Ignoring the rules yet again, Angie stares back. It’s my turn. I don’t have a plan. I just talk.

“Mother, may I stand still?”

Angie tilts her head, unsure of her next move.

***

Principlz was the passion project of William Scotts, a minister-turned-businessman from Philadelphia. It was originally planned to be a day-care. If you looked at the sign, you could spot the after-thought of “pre-teen” in the way the letters were vertically stacked in the small space between “Principlz” and “Day”. The market research wasn’t done in advance. Landisville had three day-cares already. At a board’s meeting near the end of the construction project, William pointed out that none of the local day-cares took children in the double digits. But the committee didn’t want kids sneaking off and getting each other pregnant, so Principlz decided to admit only the pre-teenaged. The result: “-care” was changed to “-camp”.

The vast yard and massive establishment that made up the Principlz property often dwarfed the ten to fifteen students that attended on an average day. Principlz couldn’t afford to buy new equipment, toys, or entertainment, so William—who invited people to call him “Head Honcho”—sold naïve parents on the claim that it was healthy to encourage children to be childlike for as long as possible. There were koosh dodgeballs, stuffed animals, and a costume chest. Outside: a swingset the tweens could easily tip over. The environment would inspire and sustain youthful innocence, imagination, and wholesomeness, the Head Honcho promised. So few parents bought this line that he only ended up needing three counselors on most days, which was truly all he could afford.

 

While the secret round of Mother May I unfolded in the back yard, the Head Honcho was seated as his desk, reviewing the results of June’s Rap-Sesh. These were one-on-one meetings between he and his new counselors, used to gauge morale as well as moral alignment. He’d ask them each about their joys here at the job, their shortcomings, their future plans, and then, their free time. To Callie, whose Rap Sheet he was reviewing with a red pen, William always seemed to be hitting on her. Yes, she was often late. Yes, she sometimes let words slip around the campers. No, she couldn’t see herself in five years. But why the third degree about boyfriends?

But her boss simply believed in sustaining purity. He suspected Callie and Jacqueline—Callie’s best friend, the other female employee—had a relationship that would expose the kids to something poisonous. He had questioned her maybe a little too hard.

“What is Jacqueline to you?”
She had kindly declined to answer.

When she left she’d turned and gave his door the finger. This he learned from a parent who was waiting outside to sign her son up.

***

I’m patient, standing still.

No one has ever asked to stand still, but Angie must like my respect. When she invites me to move closer two steps, I’m on top of the world. I giggle and almost bite my tongue over it. Angie hates laughter during the game, and mostly anytime. I wait before taking a step, expecting to be punished, but Angie looks past it.

This is incredible. I imagine pushing her on the swing. Braiding her beautiful hair. Weekend sleepovers. Best woman at her wedding.

I know I should start moving. Unless this is a trick. Because if this is a trick…

I force myself to look directly in Angie’s eyes. She keeps moving them away. It’s a trick. I can’t let her win.

“I asked to stand still,” I declare.

“Two steps! Move it!”

I cross my arms, stay where I am. I see her face change and I’ve figured out how to make her push me on the swings. She can be the best woman at my wedding. I’ll take her hair ties when I need one. And maybe even when I don’t.

“Holly, you have to listen to me. Duh!”

“Grant me the permission to stand still, Mother. That’s what I want. I don’t want to come any closer to you. You—you’re…” Evaline and Ben are both staring at me. I feel them asking, What have you done?

Angie yells, “Spit it out sherlock!”

“You’re fat!” I find myself screaming, “I’m not coming near you! It might be contagious.”

The game ends with that. I win.

Seconds ago, I didn’t even know winning was possible, or that it’s what I wanted, or how different it feels. There’s laughter. Ben is losing it. But I glance back and Evaline looks like I stabbed someone. Like she wants to vanish. I hoped maybe she’d be proud of me.

“Everyone, we’re going back inside. Let’s go!” I say, pointing confidently at Principlz.

Besides kind of having to pee, I don’t know why I choose to lead us back to the building. I could just as well lead my new followers traipsing into the woods, or in circles around the yard until sunset. To a new country where I’m the ruler. I just want this to lead somewhere, at least.

I start for the building. My ears are hot, burning. I can hear that no one is following me. Stick with it, I think. Take two-hundred steps, full-stride. Don’t look back. People in the Bible turned to salt. Stay you, I say to myself.

Suddenly, I can hear them coming. First the little-boy shorts swishing quickly beside me. Then Angie’s on the other. I’ve never felt more beautiful. The heat is serious. I look up and the sun is beaming.

“Now!” Angie roars, and they’re on me.

***

Callie and Jacqueline applied to be counselors in the same tongue-in-cheek way they ran for class office freshman year: to prove a point. Kaitlyn and Ashley, having ruled the Intermediate School, were the incumbents. During the freshman assembly, Callie overheard their shit-talking about there being no need for a vote. They’d be president and VP again, and probably for all four years.

“Fuck that,” Callie had told Jacqueline. They were best friends. They would run, and win, and if they felt like it, just run the school into the ground. Actually, neither Callie nor Jacqueline had a clue about class officer responsibilities. It didn’t matter. They ran a dirty race. They sold it to everyone like: Wouldn’t it be funny to see Kaitlyn Leathery cry? Wouldn’t you love for Ashley to just not have one single thing for once? You know she vacations in Italy right?

They hung ironic posters, their faces photoshopped onto Uncle Sam kissing Rosie the Riveter. They won. They hated it, and it didn’t even last a full year, but Kaitlyn and Ashley never won again, because they stopped running. It worked.

Jacqueline sort of liked making a difference, even if her peers only looked to her to sell candy for the class trip, but Callie balked at the responsibility. She was asked by the principal to step down after a semester; Jacqueline faithfully quit with her. Their term was short-lived. Yet, they savored the victory, the feeling of subversion.

So when a representative of the new, local, pre-teen day-camp came to the senior Drama class to explain that Principlz was in need of “wholesome, dependable, and kind” young men and women to be his “Counserlz” for seven dollars an hour, and had spoken patiently, looking at each student—except for Callie, who’d decided to challenge the school’s one-inch cleavage rule that day—in the eyes, she felt that burn once again. She texted Jacqueline: Yo lets get jobs at this god school.

They did, and here they were. It was the Monday shift, eight to four, the least busy time of the week. They had ten kids. Jacqueline sat them in front of VeggieTales when they came in. These were ten, eleven, and twelve year olds. They disliked Principlz as much as the employees did.

Jacqueline met Callie and Martin at their usual post in the kitchen. This was their fifth week as Counselrz. They were seventeen and it showed. Martin was sitting on the counter complaining. The girls were on their cell phones.

Martin said, “This is just sick. I mean, they’re old enough to be getting boners and shit. Why do we have to treat them like babies? Plop them down to watch a tomato and a dildo tell stories.”

“At least we’re not fucking them up. All these kids will turn out to be perfect little angels,” said Jacqueline, almost believing it.

“Yeah right! More like school shooters,” added Martin.

“Regardless, they’ll be crushed in High School,” said Callie.

Martin pulled a pack of American Spirits from his back pocket, “Who isn’t?”

“Are those yours?” Jacqueline asked, turning to Callie, “Don’t you smoke the same brand?”

“Yeah, they’re hers. I was returning them.” Martin threw Callie the pack.

“People borrow packs of cigarettes?”

“Jac, you don’t get it because you don’t smoke. It’s ‘so gross’,” Callie said, rolling her eyes. “Mar, Let’s have one quick.”

The pair walked out of the kitchen. Outside, they would hide around the corner of the building and speed-smoke. Jacqueline hated her habit, but figured one of them would grow out of it. Either Callie would stop smoking, or she’d give up caring. Their history was long, and the future was longer. They’d applied to all the same colleges. There was time.

***

Principlz is the size of a cellphone in the distance. We’re still too far away for any of the counselors to see anything. I wish I had my cellphone. I’d use it to call Mom and tell her what’s happened, that I’m being held down against my will, that my own Special Buddy has turned on me. But they take your phone when you get here. You get one Call Pass a day, and you have to ask the Head Honcho for permission. He dials the digits for you. I’ve only had my phone for six months—Dad got me one for my twelfth birthday even though Mom swore I’d have to wait until fifteen—but I’m pretty sure I can handle the three clicks it takes for Contacts, Mom, Call. We can’t have technology at all here. There’s this wide open yard. And all these other kids. They want us to “connect with each other and imagine.” It’s painted on the wall in the lobby.

But I’m not connecting with anything, except maybe bugs, as I snort an ant out of my nose. I’m trapped. Flat on my stomach with two of them sitting on me. Alone. Evaline sits in the grass facing away toward the tree line. Angie’s calling shots and of course Ben is obedient. The grass makes my face itchy. It tastes grosser than spinach. The worst part is how badly I have to pee now.

“Let me go!”

Angie asks her children, “Well, family, what do you think we should do with our naughty daughter?”

“Seriously! Evaline, help me! Ben. Ben, listen.”

“Any ideas?” Angie asks, looking around.

Evaline is silent. I could slap her. I might, if I ever get them off me. I try to shake them off but Angie’s like bricks, and Ben is holding down my legs while sitting flat on my butt, which is not helping my bladder.

“We could ask her to stop playing Mother May I wrong,” Ben offers.

“What in heck would that teach her, Benjamin?” Angie says.

“That we don’t like it.”

“She obviously don’t care about our feelings, so?”

With that, Ben gives up. Pitiful.

My face is getting hotter, probably turning red as the letters in Mom’s King James bible. It’s like they’re squeezing all my blood up to my head. How guilty would they feel if my face exploded? To make it worse, Angie leans in so close that her lips touch my ear as she whispers, “It’s clear she only cares about her feelings.”

I start screaming. Maybe someone will hear me. I just want rescued.

Angie says, “Yep. Daughter doesn’t care about us. She ruined our game, so we need to teach her how it feels to have something ruined.”

I scream again, as loud as I can. Angie responds by bouncing her butt up and down on my back. My screams come out in different volumes.

“Quiet little daughter. Please behave now.”

“Yeah, just listen to Mommy!” Ben sounds like he’s going to cry. He’s never been one for confrontation. During movie time, he always hides his face when the villain comes on screen. Scooby Doo, Shrek, VeggieTales: even the cutest monsters scare him to death. I wish he could see himself. He’d be bawling his eyes out.

 

I give up on reaching any counselors, so I try to reason, to make sense of it to Evaline who can hear me even though she’s still just sitting in the grass, facing the building, pretending like this isn’t even happening.

“This is so unfair! She changes rules. Why can’t I change a rule? Why is that not fair?”

It’s not even the pain of them on me, or the fear of what she’ll do. I’m desperate for them to get this: that I won and it’s as fair as anything.

“What’s fair, baby,” Angie is saying, “is you make it up to Mommy and your siblings. Tell us, how are you gonna make up with us?”

The only thing I can think of is the Skittles I’d brought to share with Evaline today. But Angie already stole them, and she probably ate them all. I have nothing to give them. I have to pee I have to pee I have to pee, is all I can think now.

“Get off!”

“Not until you make up.”

“What do you want?”

“You need give Mommy a kiss and tell her you’re sorry.” She’s smiling so ugly with her messed up red lips. “Then you need to kiss brother and sister and tell them too.”

***

The door to the kitchen swept open.

“Aaaand I just did a head count. Six? We’re low today. Aaaand the film is almost finished! What do we have next?”

The Honcho was always mid-sentence. He was unsettling, unpredictable. Constantly smiling, but with a lit fuse hiding behind it. Callie and Jacqueline had at times privately discussed deserting him. Just walking off the job. They knew Callie’s performance report for June was miserable anyway.

When he surveyed the kitchen his eyes bugged out. Only one counselor. A cell phone out. With his hands he emoted, turning them over slowly in a cartoonish shrug.

“Aaaand where is everyone?”

Jacqueline tried to explain, “They’re around. They just—”

“Aaaand looks like we’re, what, Candy Crushing? Twittering? Give me.”

“No, no. I was only checking to see—”

“What? The weather? That’s your buddy-girl’s excuse. Get creative. Plus, Jac? Look outside? The weather is up there. You just have to look.”

She imagined him scrolling through her pictures. Her and Callie skinny dipping in the hot tub. Her and Callie, in a sense, dancing naked on the bible. His jaw dropping. Or worse.

“Fools forget rules, Jac,” he sung. “Phooone.”

Jacqueline hated when anyone but Callie called her Jac. She handed her iPhone over and clenched her teeth. The Honcho put it in his shirt pocket. She considered reaching for it and dashing, grabbing Callie’s hand on the way out the door, that grimy cigarette falling out her mouth and burning Martin’s shoe.

She moved her arm to reach for the phone. He gave her an awkward high-five.

She couldn’t. In a mere month at Principlz she’d learned something about herself: the kids meant more to her than the little paychecks. She couldn’t abandon them with Honcho and Martin, Veggie Tales, all the empty space. Something caught her mind.

“Wait. Six? You said six?” she asked, suddenly concerned.

“Six beautiful little youngins, all crowded around the TV. Aaand now that I think of it? Jac? Haven’t they seen that Veggie Tale a number of times now? I recall—”

“Well, wait. We signed in nine. I think. Or ten.”

The Honcho put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Jac? How many?”

“Nine plus a guest,” she said, hurrying past him and through the door.

***

I bet we all wish we were in different places right now.

With Angie sitting heavy on my stomach, pinning my arms to my side, Ben’s head hovers over mine. His spiky hair blots out the sun. It’s one of those natural spikes, not gelled, but a buzz-cut a month grown out. His face looks sour, but then he relaxes it. He’s actually angelic. A simple face. Skin bright white. Plus there’s this halo of sunshine around him. I close my eyes and push out my lips. I’ve never been kissed. I have my legs crossed, a little worried I might pee.

Ben kisses my cheek, lightly, and I actually kind of like it. Angie yells about how he did it wrong. Evaline lets out a sad sigh. She hasn’t spoken since her eentsy step.

“Well, since Evaline is too much a puss, and Ben doesn’t know where your dumb mouth is, I guess you’ll have to kiss Mommy three times!”

 

Even though none of them are here to help me, some of the counselors at Principlz are actually pretty okay. You can tell they aren’t in love with the job, but they probably get paid better than at Food Lion. Jacqueline is my favorite because she really talks to me and even laughs at things I say. The others can be nice, but she actually cares. Maybe Jacqueline is sick today and that’s why I’m trapped out here. Regardless if they’re nice or not, none of the counselors ever get too touchy-feely about the religious stuff the Head Honcho is always flaunting, which is a relief. In fact, I’m pretty sure Jacqueline likes girls. I saw her holding the hand of the other girl counselor at the movies when my Mom and I were there to see Frozen. I pointed it out to Mom, and she just said, “Some people are that way. It’s okay.”

And it is okay. I believe that. But it’s not for me.

So when Angie moves her pink face up to mine and purses her lips, I can think of nothing to stop her but to spit. It’s a weak one, and stringy. Most of it lands back on my mouth.

Luckily, it’s enough to freak her out. She rolls off of me and wipes her face into the grass. Her lips make a pfft noise that never ends. What else did she think she was going to find inside my mouth?

I know this is my chance. I wrench myself off the grass and pounce on our wounded mother. I grab her hair from behind and pull her back on to the grass. How did we get here? I think. Where is Jacqueline? I want to ask. Instead I start screaming at her face.

“I don’t like you like that!”

She keeps pffting, scrunching up her face.

“In fact, no one likes you. You make everyone hate you!” I push her down and sit on her chest. I’m not sure what to do exactly, but I feel like Angie deserves payback.

Ben and Evaline start walking back. Traitors. How comes when I’m the Mother all the kids abandon me? What is it about Angie? Her age? Because she has some boobs now? Because she’s thirteen and legally shouldn’t even be at Principlz anymore? The truth is, she’s actually just fat, and she can’t cover up her ugliness.

On top of her, I feel my butt sinking into her soft stomach. Breathing heavily, with her arms up over her head, she smells like a sub. I wish they would turn around and come see this. See how awful she is? I wish Evaline had never agreed to come here. I wish Ben or anyone cared that I was standing up for myself.

“Get the freak off me! What are you doing?” she says.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you said Jesus. I’ve got to hold up my end of it.

She refuses to straighten her lips, makes her red mouth an oval in motion. It’s tricky. I kiss her top teeth, basically, and a little of her tongue. I hold it there for a few moments, and everything feels warmer. I don’t know why she isn’t screaming, but her eyes look freaky, like she’s watching a scary movie. She’s staring through me.

And then I realize two things. The Head Honcho plucks me up and holds me under his big left arm. That’s the first thing: we’re in trouble.

On Angie’s stomach is a wide wet spot. It looks like something is seeping out of her. Her white shirt is sticking to her belly, and she starts up with the pfft noise again.

I peed, is the second thing.

***

The credits had rolled already. VeggieTales was back at the home menu screen, replaying the same two quotes. The soon-to-be teenagers were growing restless. Jacqueline came through the door and told them they were going to hang tight here, maybe play Duck Duck Goose. “I’ll be right back,” she assured them, even though no one looked worried. Then she walked quickly back out of the door.

 

It’s not that they didn’t look into the back yard. They did, but in the panic of it, they failed to notice the little blips that were children out near the tree line. Instead, the Honcho and Jacqueline split up, checking every empty room, peeking their heads in, calling, “Kids, kids!” because they couldn’t determine exactly which were missing. They checked the kitchen again, in case the escaped were playing tricks. Here, William told Jacqueline to go watch the others. He would handle this. He went out and through the lobby to the front windows.

Jacqueline ran back into the playroom with the six. Two boys were taking turns slapping each other, each time increasingly harder. A group of four girls were playing school. One was standing at a collapsible chalk board, explaining a math problem. They didn’t even notice Jacqueline when she walked in. It was times like these she thought critically about what her role was here. Make sure they don’t die, she decided. Everything else was extra. Don’t lose them.

She was ready to go back out, continue the search, when a faint knocking came on the sliding glass door. She pulled back the curtain and there were two of the missing children.

They looked frightened. Jacqueline slid open the door and knelt down to look them over.

“Thank God,” she said, “Where are the other two?”

Evaline wouldn’t answer, but wanted to know if she could make a phone call. It wasn’t too late for her mom to save her from this place.

Ben stood close-lipped with worried eyes.

“Benny. Are they out in the backyard?”

“Yes. Fighting. And kissing.”

“What? Ben, What?”

“Did I snitch?” Ben tucked his chin against his chest, like he was trying to look inside his t-shirt.

“Everybody wait here. Keep being good. I’ll be right back again.”

Ben looked at Evaline, waiting for an answer.

***

I must be dangerous now.

We’re on the way back to Principlz and Jacqueline’s holding Angie’s hand, listening to her sniffing and pffting like some machine. I watch them while being carried longways, like lumber, under the Honcho’s arm. They get smaller because the Honcho’s hurrying. I don’t know why he’s walking so fast, as if I need to be disposed of before I poison anything else. Like I’m a germ.

Angie is crying, probably faking. Shouldn’t I be crying? Someone should be holding my hand.

His hand is hurting my side. I could walk just as fast if he put me down. Let me go.

If this is what its like to win, why do people try?

***

When Jacqueline walked into the lobby to tell the Honcho about the girls in the backyard, she found he was not alone. Martin and Callie were being lectured. The Honcho was on a roll. She considered running out into the yard to check on the girls herself, but what she heard stopped her.

“…its exactly that type of behavior we’re protecting against. We’re sentinels against debauchery.”

“It wasn’t all what you think,” Martin was explaining. Callie’s head was lowered, her eyes tucked beneath her brows, staring at the Honcho’s chest. Her mouth was almost pouting. This was how she looked when she was mad at someone for being mad. Eye contact was out of the question. She’d given that look to Jacqueline plenty of times. It’d burned holes into her torso.

“It’s exactly what I saw. Touching. Sucking face. And cigarettes? This is, you know full-well, a smoke-free workplace.”

Jacqueline’s gut tensed. She wanted to be saved details. She was never sure what her and Callie were, but it was clear to her it wasn’t something that included other people. It was just them, whatever it was. Her thoughts went to the future, to loneliness, an empty dorm. She had to stop it. She focused on the children. It was her job. She was at work here.

“I found two.” Her voice cracked when she spoke. “The others are in the backyard. I’m going to go check on them. I don’t know how they got out there.” The three of them looked her way as she turned towards the back door.

“I’ll come with you,” said the Honcho, “You two go in with the children. Just try not to pervert them on your last day.”

Callie’s gaze snapped from the floor up to the Honcho, but she caught Jacqueline’s eyes instead. It was like looking truth in the eyes, that truth being: something had just ended.

***

The Honcho has Angie in his office. She gets to go first, naturally. Although, I don’t know what’s better, first or second. They gave her a new shirt. I’m still in my wet shorts. Jacqueline is on the same bench as me, but she’s like three spaces away. I guess all the other counselors are with the kids, probably playing soft dodgeball. Jacqueline is either the only one who cares, or she’s in trouble and punishment around here is sitting with the delinquents.

I’ve been sitting stock still on this bench long enough to decide on the best way of explaining myself, but I’m still not sure. The truth? It sounds like a lie when I tell it in my head. Where do I even start? The kiss? The game and the rules? My Skittles?

Neither of us are speaking. I guess maybe she’s mad at me? Does she think I’m like her? Is that not allowed? I want so bad to say, “That Angie is such a sociopath, right?” but that somehow feels wrong to say. But then Jacqueline breaks the silence.

“You two need to ignore each other,” she says under her breath.

“She ignores me because she wants me to know she hates me.”

“It could be she’s just bored here. Or maybe she actually likes you.”

“We aren’t in love,” I say.

“What?” Jacqueline turns her head sideways.

“We aren’t like that. At least I’m not.”

“Like what?”

“Like, like I don’t like her.”

“That’s pretty obvious—you peed on her,” Jacqueline laughs. Is this whole thing funny to everyone? If so, I think the joke is on me. I certainly didn’t try to pee on her.

“But she says you kissed her too,” Jacqueline adds.

“That was just payback!”

“Hmm.” Jacqueline stands up. “I’m going down to check on the other kids,” she says.

I don’t want her to go.

“Can you tell Evaline I’m sorry? I think she’s mad at me.”

“Her mom just picked her up,” she says, walking away. “Holly, listen. Just do yourself a favor and tell the truth in there.”

The truth: I don’t want to like Angie, I just want to make up. I want this to be over and I don’t think either of us should go to the other’s wedding. One part of me, the wet, embarrassed part thinks I should probably just stop coming here. The other side of me, the unbruised part, the part containing my head says, no, she should stop coming here. She shouldn’t be allowed back.

***

“Did you really apply?” Jacqueline asked Callie in the kitchen of Principlz. Callie was looking somewhere near her waist, and Jacqueline wanted eye contact so bad she was leaning down.

“To?”

“Fucking school.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t believe anything you say.”

“Listen, you aren’t the fucking boss. You aren’t my mother, or my boyfriend.”

“Or your best friend? Or someone you kiss when you’re drunk?”

“Exactly. You’re those things. You’re that. That doesn’t give you this power to judge me.”

Jacqueline could hear the sound of sobbing from the floor above them. The playroom next door was loud with running and screaming.

“I never forced you to apply to school,” Jacqueline said.

“Yeah well I didn’t get in.”

“You were waitlisted.”

“No. I was rejected.”

Callie brought her eyes up to Jacqueline’s face. The tension Jacqueline had saved for this moment nearly left her. She felt sorry, but still more offended. She bit down hard on her teeth.

“Do you love Martin?”

“Love? Jac, he’s a good kisser. He gives me cigarettes. I like his company.”

“I like your company. You like mine. I’m good—”

“Please don’t do this.”

Jacqueline walked over to the window. She looked out at where someone she was trusted to care for had just fought, kissed and, pissed on someone else she was trusted to care for. The room was quiet. The sun was still out and a wind blew against the window. Callie started tapping her foot, which meant she was bored, which meant she was about to leave.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if I was gay now? Because of you.” Jacqueline spoke to the window.

“Shut up, please. Let’s go. Let’s leave. I’m serious.”

Jacqueline turned, “I’m not quitting.”

“What?”

Martin walked in holding his coat, smiling. “We out?”

“You’re leaving now?” Jacqueline asked.

“Yeah, fuck this. You should hear all he said to us.”

“You can’t wait till pick-up?”

“No. Let’s go. All of us.”

“I’m staying. I’m not following you.”

“Jac, the guy’s a psycho. He probably wants me gone so he can get with you.”

“I can handle myself,” said Jacqueline. Her eyes were watery and focused on Callie’s. She kept blinking and trying hard to stand still, to focus and think.

“Seriously?” Callie returned to looking at the floor.

“I need the job. I like the kids. I need the money. For school.”

“Jac, we can get other jobs. Grow the fuck up.”

“I like the kids,” Jacqueline said.

Martin opened the door and Callie walked backward, away from her. Jacqueline kept her head up and glared at them. Callie rolled her eyes one last time before leaving.

When they were gone she allowed herself thirty seconds to settle. She drew breaths and counted. Then she went in to the playroom and composed a game of charades. The kids looked relieved to see an adult.

***

With Jacqueline gone, I get up and move closer to the door. I want to know what Angie’s telling him. With my ear to the door, I can only make out mumbles and footsteps. The Honcho is probably pacing. He is always pacing. With my ear on the ground, right next to the space where the door doesn’t quite touch the carpet, some sounds come through. It sounds like sobbing.

What are our rules, Angela?

When someone’s mean you gotta be nice back.

Exactly. Were you nice when she was mean?

There’s a silence. There’s a word for this thing they’re talking about. It sounds like something I remember from my bible, or from one of the Honcho’s talks. I can’t place it. I try to focus because I want to hear how she answers the question. I wish I could hear if her head was slowly nodding or slowly shaking.

Next there’s a noise like when dodgeball flies past your head. Like air sucking away from you, and this is Angie, doing something like crying as she repeats, Mean back. Always I’m mean back. Mean back.

I hear her standing up; the chair creaks a bit. I run back to my place at the bench.

A minute later the door opens and Angie comes out alone. Her face is all crinkled and horrified. The door behind her closes. The Honcho stays in his office.

I whisper, “Should I go in?”

“No,” she mouths.

She’s walking towards me to take a seat on the bench. She has a small piece of paper in her hand. Things are written on it in blue marker. She sits beside me without making eye contact. I’m tense and ready to fight if that’s what she wants to do, if that’s what we’re supposed to do. Maybe the list in her hand is a set of rules for a fight that will somehow solve all the problems of having to know other people. The Honcho wrote them down for her so she wouldn’t forget. This whole thing was planned. Jacqueline is behind the hallway door, waiting to hear a bone crack or for some other foul play. Is biting allowed? Hair pulling? The Honcho is guarding the other door. We’re trapped to battle it out here. When she speaks I almost hop up and hold my fists in front of my face.

“He wants to know if you love me.”

“What?”

“That’s the first thing I’m supposed to ask.” She looks down at her paper.

“Do I love you how?”

“At all.”

“No,” I say. I think I sound pretty confident. I look at the wall in front of me. There’s a picture of hole nineteen at a golf course. In the glass I see a bit of my reflection. A redness at the corner of my mouth, her lipstick.

“Me either,” Angie says.

She pauses before the next question. I’m a lot less tense, but still scared of what the Honcho wants her to ask me next, and whatever’s after that.

The silence is hard to deal with, so I blurt out, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know. Not loving you? I felt like I should say it. Does it say that on there? To say that?” I want to know what is on that paper, what the instructions are, the rules.

“I don’t like girls,” Angie says. There’s something majorly different about her and I can’t figure it out. It’s making me nervous.

“Me either,” I say.

“Okay so don’t be sorry.”

“I don’t even like you. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Angie says, looking down at here paper. “Do you want to continue coming here?”

“I don’t know. Is that what it says?” I want to rip the paper from her hands so bad, answer the questions right, and just shove it under his door. Maybe if I don’t know the answers I can use my Call Pass and dial Mom. She’d know. She’s rid herself of sociopaths before. Angie is just staring at the golf picture.

“I guess this place is kind of for babies,” I say.

Angie doesn’t say anything.

“Is that what it says to ask?” I want to be sure that she’s not messing anything up. I feel like this is a second chance for us.

She nods. More silence. I get curious: “Do you want to keep coming here?”

“I do.”

“Why?”

“I don’t have friends anywhere else.” I wonder which of us she considers her friends.

“Me too. I want to keep coming here,” I say. When I hear my words I know they’re true.

“Then William says you have to learn to love me.” Angie inches away a little, so I can’t see her face at all.

“Like how?”

“I don’t know he told me the same thing.”

We both sit still. I kind of want to kiss her again, but on the forehead or the cheek like grownups do in public. I almost lean over when the door to the hallway opens. Jacqueline walks in, passes by with a sad smile, and knocks on the Honcho’s door.

“Their mothers are here,” I hear her say.

I’m worried we’ve been banned from Principlz for good. I have to stop this.

“I think we made up!”

“Lovely, lovely, but you two are heading home, regardless,” the Honcho says, exiting his office, pointing toward the door to the stairwell.

Angie and I stand up together.

***

Angie’s mother took up a lot of space in the lobby. She wore a jean-jacket and a ballcap; she was breathing heavily from the walk through the parking lot. Holly’s mother did her best not to look, but she couldn’t help notice this woman was smiling. Maybe it wasn’t a smile, but the way a dog pants with the corners of its mouth pulled back. Holly’s mother watched the door instead. They were both silent. Muffled sounds of childish yelling came from somewhere in the huge building.

When their daughters entered the lobby, the mothers spoke simultaneously.

“Let’s go.”

Angie’s face looked bruised, tight and red. Holly stared directly at her mother.

“We’re not leaving for good are we?” Holly asked.

“I don’t know. We’ll discuss it.”

Angie’s mother turned towards the door, holding her daughter’s hand, “Well, if it’s any help, she’s thirteen next week. We sure ain’t coming back.”

Through a window in the lobby, a small shape appeared. Ben’s face, blurry, ghostly. Holly and her mother noticed him watching. Ben was clearly fixed on Holly, and Holly’s mother considered his fledgling face as if it belonged to an alien. No one waved. Holly wanted to wave, but was worried that might make everything final.

“I don’t think we will either, honey,” Holly’s mother replied, as if amending her answer to her daughter, “We’re a little too old for this place anymore.”

Holly was near panic, squeezing back tears from her eyes. Would crying make her seem like she belonged here? She didn’t know what to do. Run? Yell something? Hug someone? She didn’t even know what to do with her hands. Her shorts were starting to dry. She put them in her pockets where they tightened into fists. Angie’s eyes were hidden in her arm, her hair a ratty mess of tangles. They followed in a line out the front door. A wind blew into the lobby where Jacqueline stood, watching them go, waving to their backs.

 

The two women and their two girls walked to the cars. It seemed to Holly like her mother was running to the car. Even taking twice as many steps didn’t catch her up. She wondered where Evaline was, how far away she’d already gotten. Probably home, gone, forever. She glanced back over her shoulder for Ben. His head was in the front window, like he’d been following her. For some reason he terrified her, and she turned back in the direction of her mother, the parking lot, the world.

“Holly. What are you waiting for?” her mother asked.

In the backseat, Holly watched Angie climb into shotgun of her mother’s Ford Suburban. The girls saw one another for a moment and both opened their eyes a little wider, as if to say goodbye for good. Or to ask, What happened?

“I want to stay here,” Holly asserted.

“It’s time for us to leave.” Her mother looked at her through the rearview mirror.

“I want to still come here. I want to stay right here.”

“Holly, baby, no you don’t.” She put the car in reverse and pointed them towards the exit. Holly twisted beneath her seat belt, sat up on her knees, and looked out the window. The building, the yard, something watching the mothers leave: these things grew smaller. She could not make out her reflection. Her mother pressed a button and the window slid down halfway, as far as it would go. Holly held out her hand to wave, but an unruly wind blew it back inside.

 

 

BIO: Tyler Barton recently moved to Mankato, Minnesota from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and is an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University at Mankato and the fiction editor of Third Point Press. Follow him @goftyler.

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