Four little boys jump up and down on a twin bed. The first boy has hair the color of junkyard rust. His eyelids droop in a way that will become sexy after puberty. A threadbare teddy flaps from his fist. He wears red pajamas with sewn-in feet. The second boy is too thin, his shoulders sharp and bony. He hoots with delight at the lightness of his body. He wears blue pajamas with sewn-in feet. The third boy reaches his arms overhead as he jumps, fingertips stretched toward the ceiling. At the apex of each bounce, he gapes with excitement. That much closer to touching, just one more try. He wears yellow pajamas with sewn-in feet. The fourth boy holds a long, slender Lincoln Log in each of his hands, like drumsticks. As he vaults up and down atop the mattress, he beats the brown sticks together in no recognizable tune. He wears green pajamas with sewn-in feet.
The bed is in a room with no windows and no other furniture, only a door. The walls are dull cinderblock. Banks of fluorescent lights dangle by creaking chains from the ceiling. The floor is concrete, gray and smeared with oil and grime. Over an unseen intercom, a woman trills nursery rhymes in high, breathy notes. The music percolates like a melody from a jack-in-the-box. They are happy. They shriek, they jump, they wag their fingers. One boy shouts, “I love you!” But there is no one else in the room.
The boys, of course, do not stay in one place as they leap. Sometimes one lands perilously close to another. At each near-collision, they gasp in surprise and those gasps become wails of relief and delight.
As he drops back toward the bed, the boy in blue stumbles. His frail, slender body topples to the floor. The sudden crack of his skull against the concrete stills the other three boys. The dead boy’s eyes fall wide in shock. The others watch in dumb silence as a pool of thick blood widens underneath his head. Over the intercom, the woman sings about all the animals on the farm. Duck-duck here. Goose-goose there.
“Higher!” the boy in red shouts and leaps into the air. Instantly, the boy in yellow and the boy in green jump too. The boy in green bangs his Lincoln Logs together harder, his lips thin and flat with concentration. The boy in yellow wiggles his fingers, still reaching for the ceiling as he hops. There is more room on the bed now so the three boys bound after one another in a circle, their bodies jostling like locomotive cars. One boy shouts, “I love you!”
As the vocalist begins a song about the spider that went up the waterspout, the boy in red shoves the boy in yellow. His arms that once reached for the ceiling flail as he falls from the bed. The boy in red and the boy in green listen as to the fallen boy’s nose smacks against the concrete. They stand on the bed, waiting for the boy in yellow to move, but he does not. The boy in green taps his two Lincoln Logs against his legs. The fluorescent lights sway just enough to stir the shadows about the room.
“Higher!” the boy in red shouts and leaps into the air. The boy in green jumps right after him and the two boys alternate going up and down as if on a seesaw. The woman sings of the spider crawling up the waterspout again. The boy in red laughs and beats his tender palms together. The boy in green bangs his Lincoln Logs. One boy shouts, “I love you!”
Without warning, the boy in red snatches one of the Lincoln Logs from the boy in green. The boy in green stares dumbly at the other boy as if not sure what just happened. He waves his remaining Lincoln Log like a desperate hitchhiker. The boy in red swings back the toy and smacks the boy in green on the forehead. The stricken boy cries out in pain, holding his head. The boy in red pushes him backward. He sails over the foot of the bed and strikes the floor. He does not move as the boy in red watches him, bobbing in place.
The room is silent now. There is no one left to play.
The door opens. Mrs. Nan rushes inside. She has thin wrists and tired eyes but her smile is quick when she says, Baby! and steps over the narrow body of the boy in green. She lifts the boy in red from the bed and takes him into her arms. She strokes his hair.
Baby, baby, baby, baby.
She twists her body back and forth as she cradles him. Her baby is all right. The threadbare teddy dangles from his hand. She takes him from the room and shuts the door. The fluorescent lights swing over the three tiny boys, the dead boys, a moment longer. Then, darkness.
Mrs. Nan carries the boy in red through a hallway of doors. The hallway stretches further than she can see. All the doors have numbers. She is running now as if chased. The boy in red begins to clap, softly at first, then louder, more insistent. Mrs. Nan dabs at the tears in her eyes.
Baby, baby, baby, baby.
The boy squirms in her arms like a puppy. Finally, he becomes too much for her and she stops at one of the doors. She opens it and the boy in red squeals with delight at what he sees.
Three boys jump on a bed. The first boy wears orange pajamas with sewn-in feet. The second boy wears purple pajamas with sewn-in feet. The third boy wears white pajamas with sewn-in feet. There are no windows in the room, only a bed. The walls are dull cinderblock. Fluorescent lights dangle from the ceiling. The floor is concrete, gray and smeared with oil and grime. A woman sings over an unseen intercom.
Mrs. Nan sets down the boy in red. He dashes to the bed and climbs up to join the other boys. All four jump and shout and wave. Mrs. Nan watches them a moment from the doorway. It is time for her to go.
She closes the door behind her and falls back against it. The hallway yawns out on each side of her, endless. Door after door after door. Boys and more boys. She places her ear against the door and listens to them play. She hears one boy shout, “I love you!”
Thomas Kearnes is a 34-year-old author from East Texas. He is an atheist and an Eagle Scout. His fiction has appeared in Night Train, Eclectica, 3 AM Magazine, Pindeldyboz, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Pedestal, wigleaf, JMWW Journal and other publications. He is a 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee.