This disturbing story comes from my second collection 'The Boy in Time'. I'm a big fan of the short story, and love reading collections from various authors, from Chekov to Borges, but for some reason, these collections are hard to get published, and even harder (as my sales show!) to find readers.
Mrs Meiners’ class is all seven and eight year olds. Enrolments are down, three classes have become two, and even then, she only has fourteen students. This morning the class is even smaller. The Baker twins are off with a flute lesson, two boys (the trouble-makers ‘Smith and Wesson’) are at a sports carnival in Philadelphia, and Blake Clare has the flu. The remaining nine students are sitting at their tables, working, while Mrs Meiners pops down to the office for supplies. She knows she can trust them (apart from S&W). They’re good kids.
Max Rewald is busy with a diorama. The Battle of Waterloo is slowly taking shape on his desk. The red soldiers, the blue soldiers, and little guns he’s made from matchsticks. There are plenty of bodies sitting around in the grass, on the hillsides. He wants to make it realistic. He’s painted it. Nicely, with red and brown. He says to his friend, Tim, ‘It’s late for recess.’
Tim says, ‘No, it’s not.’
‘There was no bell.’
‘Yes, there was.’
Tim’s hungry. It seems like they’ve been alone for hours. He’s busy with his composition. He’s writing about the time they went to Walt Disney World, and he got sick on the first ride and had to spend most of the day sitting in the cafeteria clutching his guts, and chucking up. “My sister’s keeped returning, to see if I was any beter, but when I wasnt they just kept going anyway.” He’s being careful. He wants to please Mrs Meiners. She’s told him he has a very neat hand, beautiful, flowing cursive, and he should keep practising. So he continues, clutching the pencil (too hard), biting his lip. Then he looks up and says, ‘Was that the bell?’
‘No, it’s Mr Reed’s walkie-talkie.’
‘What’s he doing here?’
‘He only does the garden on Tuesdays. On Mondays he’s the super.’
One desk over, a girl named Kate is colouring an elephant. There’s paint all over it, and she smooths it, but it smudges and she shakes her head and says, ‘I’m going to start again.’ She screws it up, puts it in the bin and gets another blank from Mrs Meiners’ desk. Then she sits, selects a green pencil, and starts on the hills.
Her friend, Robin, who’s more interested in maths, works through her Speed and Accuracy booklet. Again, the same paint, but she doesn’t care, because she just wants to solve the problems. This is important to her. If a sum is left unfinished, then there’s something wrong with the balance, the feel, the geometry of the world. She says to Kate, ‘Why you doing it again?’
‘She said she’s going to mark it.’
‘Colouring in? She never marks colouring in.’
‘Anyone there?’ A voice from the hallway. Robin says, ‘Mark’s brother. He better not come in. Not during second period. He’ll get in so much shit.’
‘You can’t say that.’
Tim and Max try it out. A small chorus of shit, and then Tim tries bugger, but makes sure Mrs Meiners doesn’t suddenly come in. That would take some explaining when he got home tonight. Walked in, bag on the couch, his mum messing his hair and asking about his day, kissing him on the top of the head.
Another boy, Sidney, sits in the corner reading a book about a girl who finds a magical frog. He says, ‘This is crap,’ and searches the Level 6 reader box for another. Kate says, ‘You should try Stephen King.’
‘I saw this film about a kid and his mum and the dad goes nuts.’
Sidney doesn’t care. He just looks at his scabby arm, and the blood, and says, ‘Do you think I should see the nurse?’
Another boy, Harry, is half-asleep, his head on the desk. Kate tells him he should wake up and finish his maths because Mrs Meiners will be back soon, and if he’s wasted time, she won’t be happy.
A light flashing in the hallway. Robin says, ‘Do you think he’s coming back?’
Max says, ‘No, not now he’s done. He’ll have to find some more kids.’
‘Do you think he’ll go to Ms Thomas’s class? My sister’s there.’
‘Maybe I should go tell her.’
‘Yeah.’ As she deflates. ‘I forgot.’
‘I can’t believe how quickly it happened,’ Harry says, finding his spelling book and opening it.
‘Everyone’s gonna know about us,’ Tim says.
‘It’s not like it’s unusual,’ Max adds.
‘No. Although my mum’s going to be really pissed off.’
Then Max checks his watch and says, ‘She should be back by now, shouldn’t she?’
Tim agrees. He’s hungry, and although the clock has fallen from the wall, and lies in pieces on the floor, he guesses it’s past time for the bell. ‘It didn’t ring.’
‘Should I check?’ Morry, another quiet boy, says.
‘She’ll give you a detention if she finds out.’
He doesn’t care. He takes out his phone, and checks the time. ‘Yeah, see.’ Holding it up. ‘The bell should’ve gone twenty minutes ago.’
They all sit, thinking what to do. No one says anything. Just the nine voices, lost in their own arithmetic, unable to find the correct answer.
Max says, ‘Maybe he didn’t mean it?’
Tim asks him what, what didn’t he mean?
Max just says, ‘I was first.’
‘I was second,’ Kate adds.
‘What’s it matter who was first?’ Morry says.
They hear footsteps, and Kate says, ‘He’s coming back,’ and Morry says, ‘It doesn’t matter any more.’ And Kate starts crying.
The footsteps get louder, and they clutch the edge of their desks, stand, move into corners, but this time it’s a policeman, wearing a bulletproof jacket, carrying the same sort of rifle as him. He says, ‘Fuck.’ Takes a deep breath, then drops his head, looks away.
‘Mrs Meiners has gone to get chalk,’ Max says to him.
He doesn’t reply. He just unclicks a walkie-talkie from his belt, one like Mr Reed’s, and says, ‘There are more in here.’
A voice comes back, ‘How many?’
He counts. ‘Nine.’ Then half-collapses against the door jamb, lets his head drop, like a broken doll, and slides down, so he’s squatting.
‘What’s wrong with him?’ Max asks the others.
‘He’s upset about something,’ Kate says, standing, trying to decide what to do next.
Welcome to Datsunland! This is a second hand car yard of the speeches I've given, the columns I've written, the essays, micro-fiction and micro-thoughts that have passed through my small, shy brain. Also, stuff so strange no newspapers, websites or publishers want them.