October 3, 2016 by The Citron Review
by Thomas Kearnes
Jackie falls into a trance watching Dora the Explorer with the children. Most of the kids prefer television to playing at the stations elsewhere in the room. Jackie is supposed to encourage activity, outdoor fun, but she understands the narcotic allure of flashing images and perky voiceovers. Whatever keeps them quiet. When a commercial starts, her gaze drifts to the far corner of the room. There, a “house” made of colorful miniature furniture and architecture stands. Sometimes, children mimic the domestic arrangements of their own homes: a mommy, a daddy, a baby doll, plastic food items, clothing plucked from a cracked laundry basket.
Two children nestle behind the makeshift sink in the “kitchen.” Jackie’s eyebrows jump to realize both are boys, and the one named Bryan wears a floppy housedress over his T-shirt and jeans. The two boys huddle, pretend to wash a baby doll. They speak, perhaps in whispers; Jackie can’t make out the words. The intimacy between the boys, the familiarity, makes her muscles tense, her stomach lurch. She must spare these children the torment she and Dawn experience. Without a word, she marches across the room and grabs Bryan by the arm. But we’re giving our baby a bath, Bryan whines. Jackie says nothing. The boy resists, insists the ugly doll with its creepy bug eyes and missing leg needs him. Miss Jackie, it’s bathtime!
Jackie yanks the small boy by his elbow. Strangely, none of the children notice Bryan struggle, twist his arm and drag his feet. Jackie prefers keeping her post at the back of the immense room with its frayed carpet and painted cinderblock. A stern face and rigid posture often suffice to show who runs this circus. What Bryan was doing, however, warrants a more personal approach. Jackie hopes Miss Rachel doesn’t learn about this. It’s necessary but so difficult to explain. Dawn would understand when Jackie called her during her break from the kids.
Upstairs in the office, Jackie maneuvers Bryan behind Miss Rachel’s desk. Papers and thick folders litter the top, but in one corner there resides a trio of family photographs. Bryan’s lower lip quivers. Jackie prays he doesn’t start to cry. She has no tolerance for tears. Keeping her voice firm, she points at a photo of Miss Rachel and her husband. Who’s that, she asks. Bryan doesn’t answer, looks away, but Jackie repeats the question more harshly. He correctly names the woman, so Jackie asks who stands beside her. A man, Bryan mutters. That’s right, Jackie says. A man. Miss Rachel is a woman and that man is her husband. They live in a house, just like the pretend house downstairs. One man and one woman. That makes a home. Not one boy and another boy in a dress. Jackie never has to decide whether to showcase her photos with Dawn. Only administrators have offices.
Bryan gapes at Jackie, his eyes wide with confusion. Jackie kneels beside him, their gazes level. They’re a family, she says. If you want to play house, ask a girl to be the mommy. You can’t be the mommy. Do you understand? Bryan chews his finger with vigor. Jackie slaps away his hand. She orders him downstairs to take off the dress. What about Danny, the boy asks. Jackie rises from her knees and points toward the doorway. Bryan slouches, jams his finger back in his mouth and slinks away.
Jackie waits a moment before following. She wishes to spare herself whatever awkward scene might occur between Bryan and his “husband.” After a few minutes, she rejoins the children. Most are still bewitched by annoying, big-headed Dora as she clomps toward some new sanitized adventure. At the edge of the group, Bryan sits, his head tilted into one hand. Jackie can’t tell, but she suspects he’s watching Danny, now bathing the baby doll by himself. From the back of the room, Jackie claps loudly and affects a sweet, cajoling voice. Would any girls like to play house with Danny? Such a handsome young man, I wanna play! C’mon, girls! She claps harder. The children ignore her. She promised Dawn that she’d call before the last kid went home. Lately, she’s talked about wanting a baby. Jackie can’t make her excuses fast enough.
Thomas Kearnes holds an MA in Screenwriting from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. His fiction has appeared or will appear in Berkeley Fiction Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Gulf Stream Magazine, wigleaf, Per Contra, Spork, Underground Voices, PANK, Word Riot, Sundog Lit, 3 AM Magazine, Adroit Journal and elsewhere. His work has also appeared in several LGBT venues. He has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. He is studying to become a drug dependency counselor. He lives in Houston.