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Something Unexpected Found in a Playground Trashcan: A Group Writing Project

DNGroupWriting

About the Authors

1 Dylan Louis, Ohio – November 8, 2017
2 Evan James Sheldon, Colorado – November 15, 2017
3 Lily Davenport, Alabama – November 22, 2017
4 Christopher Pearson, Colorado – November 29, 2017
5 Gabriella Sayger, West Virginia – December 6, 2017
6 Taylor Shaw, Connecticut – December 13, 2017
7 Rebecca Hannigan, Colorado – December 20, 2017

About Dually Noted

Dually Noted is TBL’s exciting group-writing project. New and established writers from around the world come together to create one ongoing story through weekly installments. If you would like to add the next section, shoot us your 500-word addition by Friday night. Our editor will publish the best submission at the beginning of each week.

Something Unexpected Found in a Playground Trashcan

by the TBL Writing Community

Exodus

The email from the superintendent didn’t come as much of a surprise, not after the test results funneled in.

Dear Staff,

Due to the recent drop in standardized test scores in required courses, all non-tested subjects are to be terminated indefinitely. Teachers: Please discard any non-essential classroom materials upon exiting the building. Have a wonderful summer!           

“Non-essential,” Heather said to herself. “I’ll tell you what’s non-essential: email.”

She heard ripping and tearing—the sound of teachers peeling students’ paintings and photographs from the walls—followed by the stuffing of it all into garbage bags.

Heather looked down at the sight of her own students’ artwork at the bottom of a black bag. The image filled her with so much anger; she wanted to scream. Every year, she used paintings to teach Kafka and acting to demonstrate Poe. Every year, she watched as her students’ eyes lit up with the beauty of language.

Wind whistled past her window. From her desk, she could see out onto the playground, where the Board had arranged for a monstrous dumpster to be delivered. She watched the band director wheel out a cart of woodwinds and brass, his student teacher following behind, pushing a marimba that rang sad, heavy notes with each crack it passed over on the blacktop.

The art teachers filed out next, two bags in each hand, dropping and hurling them into the dumpster’s mouth before heading to the parking lot. The drama teacher scrambled around a wardrobe rack to keep years’ worth of costumes from taking flight into the wind, and the foreign language teachers discarded flags, maps, and class sets of The Little Prince.

Heather looked down at the bag of artwork at her feet and thought of what to do. She didn’t want to contribute to the upheaval, but she was lucky to have a job. She needed it; money was tight.

The hallway lights snapped off. She grabbed her things and headed for the door.

The slow, sad song of wind passing through flutes drifted across the playground. Hundreds of black bags stood before her, flailing as though their contents were pushing, fighting, screaming to get out. Heather paused before the bloated green dumpster and felt her throat close.

Okay, she thought, and swung the bag as high into the air as possible.

It rolled off the heap and snagged on a rusty corner, releasing its insides to the wind. Heather watched as paintings and poetry and comics swirled around her, filling her eyes with flashes of color that reminded her of what it felt like to see the love of language reflected in a student’s eyes.

Without thinking, she stepped closer to the bags and began ripping into them, slowly at first, then ravenously and smiling with sureness, their contents exploding as though spring-loaded. Bag after bag, she shredded, tore, liberated until the wind was made of color and music and the entire playground breathed creation, life, and hope.1

 

 

The Owl Lady’s Gift

My face rushed past the pea-gravel, and my feet hurtled up into the night sky. I’d flipped upside down on the playground swing while struggling with a water bottle. It was filled with my dad’s scotch. The scotch tasted like a campfire made out of band-aids, but it was the only alcohol I could find, and I couldn’t show up to meet Claire without anything to drink. As a sophomore, and a year older than me, she already had a driver’s license and a reputation. She smiled as I flipped right-side up and passed her the water bottle.

She took a swig, grimaced, and left the swing for the metal merry-go-round. She sat in the middle, Indian-style.

“Push me,” she said.

As Claire spun, I heard a noise behind me: a squeak of metal on metal in the darkness, just outside the ring of light provided by the playground’s lampposts.

Then the Owl Lady emerged. She was pushing a dolly loaded with a suitcase, black trash bags, and other odd bits. Everything bulged beneath straining yellow bungee cords. She wore a long, feathery coat and had a twitch in her neck that caused her to jerk around unnaturally.

She roamed this part of town, and she had for a while. Those of us from the neighborhood would make a hoot-hoot-hoot call when she arrived. We’d joke about how she must smell like mice bones. If she minded, she never showed it. As she pushed her belongings along the sidewalk rimming the playground, I silently cursed her for ruining my plans, however nebulous and lustful they might have been. The Owl Lady didn’t seem to notice us though.

She twitched and strutted, pulled a perfectly wrapped package out of the folds of her coat. She placed it in the trash can, continued as if nothing had happened, and disappeared beyond the lights of the playground.

Claire chose that moment to pay attention.

“Get me that package,” she said.

It was heavier than I expected, and wrapped with shiny, rainbow wrapping paper. Claire got off the merry-go-round, passed me the scotch, and took the present from me.

Disappointed in the turn the evening had taken, I gently spun the merry-go-round and jumped on. Claire tore the package open, and I gagged down some more scotch. Inside the package, there was a remote-control airplane, complete with batteries, and a handwritten note. Claire passed me the airplane. I had seen this kind before, and within moments, I had the little guy flying.

Claire joined me on merry-go-round. Our shoulders finally touched.

“How high can it fly?” she asked. Her eyes were watery, and she held out the note.

Alexander, you would’ve been eight today. You always loved this park. . .

Spinning slowly, Claire and I flew the plane as high as we could, higher than it was meant to fly, until it was just a sound, filling the sky above us.2

 

 

Hide and Seek

The woman in the trashcan holds a finger to her lips. Don’t speak, says the string of red bumps preparing to weep pus at her lash lines. Don’t nod. Don’t acknowledge. There is yogurt congealing in her hair. One of her earrings is missing. I don’t say anything, just drop my gum wrapper on her nose and close the lid. I would like to look at her longer, to parse what she’s doing folded up inside this mesh prison (or maybe it’s a sanctuary), but lingering would give her position away to anyone observing my hover at the repository of empty fruit-snack packets and smeared plastic wrap.

I know this woman. She lives a subdivision away from me, where the houses are faux-Tudor instead of split-level, and some of the lots come with pools. Her husband is in the midst of a long and complicated sequence of surgeries to counteract the deleterious effects of a job in which he tests the motor coordination of robots. His task of matching human body movement to the terrible consistency of robot motion, I have read, is strenuous and harmful. The entering of intricate commands on the vast keyboards at the robotics laboratory is comparable to playing the piano in its thorniest classical mode. It has similar consequences on the joints and connective tissue.

When I reach the bench from which I had been observing the hubbub—my own girl buried there somewhere, but presumably all right because I have not yet heard her distinctive keening—I see the trashcan woman’s two sons industriously scraping through the playground’s cushy layer of mulch. They are blonde and sleek and silent as lizards.  At first, I think they are digging a hole, as I once did and as my daughter does sometimes, to exhale a secret or to unearth a dinosaur egg in the guise of a walnut hull. But then I realize they are pushing, not carving, clearing an arena of bare dirt. They make a circle two feet across, and the other children flow around them. (There is my girl’s shock of wispy red hair, her jacket flaunting twin rows of stegosaurus plates.)

After it is finished, they do not walk away. The younger stands, facing out, his lower lip quivering slightly, on the very edge.  The older boy, moving with slow pomp, places both hands against his brother’s chest. With an abruptness that makes my breath catch, he pushes the smaller one back. He falls with practiced stiffness, his small back striking the hardened ground and his head thudding into the hummock of mulch.

I do not disturb their mother, nor do I intervene.  As the smaller boy gets to his feet, and the brother takes his place, I think only of how I might conceal from myself this practiced and methodical damage.3

 

 

Other Stars and Starships

I expected hysteria when they first came. I expected rioting or nuclear war. But when I flipped on the boob tube, the news anchor was convulsing in her lavender pantsuit. She was doubled over in laughter, totally cracking up. Her face flushed and her eyes misted as she struggled to compose herself for the live broadcast.

The alien she was talking to was average looking—like the ones on Star Trek, but slightly smaller. His forehead was covered in rows of blue eyebrows and his nose upturned violently. What surprised me was his thick hillbilly accent: “Mmm mmm, let me tell you, miss,” he said, spitting a dart of chewing tobacco at the ground. “Got us some hills back home‘d make yer mountains look like prair’a dog mounds.”

I couldn’t help it. I burst out laughing, causing my dog to thump her tail sympathetically on the hardwood floor. The incongruity was too much. I thought they’d be sinister and incomprehensible, but here was a slack-jawed yokel from somewhere deep in the galaxy’s backwoods. I couldn’t wait to see one in real life after that. I kept an eye out.

*

Our alien arrived on a windy day in September, alone. She bought the vacant house at the end of our street and my husband said she paid too much. Her blue skin and see-through spacesuit were shocking, and we tried not to gawk. She must have been embarrassed, though, because she draped a tarp over her starship and started buying clothes from a big-box store. She even adopted a little yapping dog to fit in better. It made us feel good to see her embrace mediocrity like we had, to wear pajamas all day sometimes.

Instead of getting a job like the rest of us, the alien spent her time teaching our children games on the playground. Old folksy games, she said. We gathered each night to watch. The games were actually complex riddles she learned growing up. As peculiar play scenarios unwound from each riddle, our kids would laugh so hard they’d leak pee and collapse onto the sand. Our hearts broke open as we listened to the holy chorus of their laughter. I’d puzzle over her riddles for hours, but could never solve them.

Winter approached and the days grew short, but we grew happier, more at home in our neighborhood. One night, I stayed at the park late to pick up trash the wind had blown in. When I went to dump the aluminum cans and bits of plastic I’d collected, the trash can was brim full. It was heaped with what looked like asphalt shingles. Curious, I took one out and held it up to the streetlight. It was still warm. Immediately I realized what I was holding: it was someone’s xenophobia. I gagged and tossed it back, but smiled to think what the alien had taught us. In the morning I left a plate of cookies on her doorstep, to thank her.4

 

 

Finger Food

“He’s sucking on a finger!” Lilly shouted, her high-pitched voice traveling across the playground. The teachers stirred, eyes following her pudgy pointer finger to a boy who did indeed have a finger in his mouth, although not his own. He wore a navy-blue t-shirt and jeans, sucking on the appendage like a baby on a pacifier. White bone contrasted with light brown skin, the severed end sticking out from the boy’s pale pink lips. He stared with wide blue eyes at the teachers who drew nearer, some skeptical and some horrified.

Ms. Jackson, his first-grade teacher, edged closer, wind whipping her dark brown curls. Clouds darkened the sky.

“Billy,” she said calmly to the boy. “Can I have that please?” She put her hand out, only feet away. He looked at her, shaking his head. She reached forward, the pale object moving rapidly between his lips.

Billy ran.

“Get him!” she shouted.

The little boy started like lightning. He zoomed around the playground with teachers on his tail. Other children screamed and ran away from Billy as he made his rounds. Mr. Brink escaped from the mess and into the school to retrieve the principal. Some teachers guided the students away while others were in pursuit, weaving between the monkey bars and jungle gyms.

They maneuvered after Billy, urging him to be reasonable. Mrs. James slipped on gravel, two others tripping over her; Mr. LeHue, disoriented by Billy’s unusual quickness, stumbled into a tree. Billy slowed, breath heavy and mouth loose around the finger. Mrs. Davis pounced forward, and Billy feinted to her right. Ms. Jackson slipped her hand around his wrist, another teacher pulling at the finger. Billy chomped down, remaining baby teeth seizing the dead flesh.

“Let go, Billy! Please let go! Billy!” They wrestled with his strong jaw. Mr. Brink sprinted to their group, Principal Fillmore and a line of teachers following, and gripped Billy’s nose. The boy’s breathing hitched, and he opened his mouth for air. Mr. Brink quickly snatched the finger away, but gasped and dropped the appendage onto the gravel. It was cold, attached to a smooth pearl colored nail with cracked skin and new teeth indentations.

Billy started to cry. Ms. Jackson kneeled in front of him, too many questions swimming through her head. Principal Fillmore spoke into his phone, a frantic voice on the other end.

“Billy, where did you find that finger?” Ms. Jackson asked calmly, her heart ready to leave her chest in chunks, tuning out the principal. Billy sniffled, tears still streaming down his cheeks.

After a long silence, he spoke, “I found it here. In a trash can.”

“Why did you put it in your mouth?” she asked, gulping.

“Mommy and daddy wouldn’t let me have finger foods. People at our house got some, but I didn’t,” he pouted.

Ms. Jackson stared, jaw gaping. The idea of Billy with the finger in his mouth and thinking it was “finger food” was terribly funny. Hysterical laughter bubbled from her lips as the rain started pouring.5

 

 

The Journal

Kai hunched over his bike handlebars, watching a boy doubled over the trash bin at the park. It wasn’t every day he saw a kid digging through the garbage for more than thirty minutes. This kid, named Gale, was scooping out torn and crumpled notebook pages with frantic concentration, letting pages pile at his feet.

Gale was strange.

He froze and hastily shoved the paper into a trash bag as Kai slowly wheeled across the blacktop. As he drew closer, Kai choked on the tang of days-old garbage hanging in the air: a distinct mixture of moldy sandwiches, melted half-eaten ice cream, and the occasional diaper stewing in rays of the summer sun.

He wanted to vomit.

“They’re mine,” Gale admitted, as if that explained everything. He reached his arm back into the depths of the barrel and churned through the trash. He eyed the other boy warily.

Kai raised his hands in surrender.

With a sigh of relief, Gale unearthed the disemboweled carcass of a Moleskin journal worn with use and dirtied further by its resting place. It was a journal Kai recognized immediately. Gale was always scribbling in it in study halls, art classes, and the backs of buses. People rarely saw him without it. Though he barely spoke to the guy, Kai couldn’t help but feel the pang of loss for him. To have something so essential be carelessly dismembered and discarded by someone was savage and cruel.

“Let me help,” Kai said.

A cascade of multi-colored notebook pages scattered across a worn work table amongst wood scraps and metal shavings in Kai’s basement. They spent the afternoon smoothing out pages and gingerly taking damp paper towels to smudge stains on drawings and poetry, post-it notes, and stickers pressed like flowers in sandwiched pages. With Gale’s direction, similar-looking pages were formed from disorganized shreds, and layers of mementos reattached with glue and tape.

Kai admired sketches of abandoned rooms and the halls of the high school smeared with sticky, colored stains of Popsicle sticks. They picked wads of bubblegum from starbursts of quote-pages on chevron watercolor backgrounds whose backsides displayed drawings of monsters and shadows. Gale quickly flipped these over.

When they could do no more, Kai took thread from his mother’s sewing kit and surgically fastened the tattered pages to their shell. Not his preferred medium for repairs, but the craftsmanship wasn’t horrible.

Gale, on the other hand, didn’t seem so impressed. He examined his resurrected Moleskin and flipped through the pages with grave displeasure. Kai assumed it was the trash fumes.

“What’s wrong?”

The other boy mulled the question over as he slowly thumbed through the pages. He stopped on a drawing rendered unintelligible by layers of smudged and faded black ink. Gale traced lines only he seemed able to see, then slammed the book shut.

“I thought I was better,” Gale said. Tears welled in his eyes. “I just ran out of room.”6

 

 

Ordinary

It looks like an ear, but only vaguely, in the way that an ear-shaped object suggests the shape of an ear but cannot be clearly identified as such when stripped from context (i.e. cheek, chin), which more decisively confirms that such suggestive shape is actually, as assumed, an ear.

The way that little Verity Grimes came across the ostensible ear was, overall, an ordinary way, on, similarly, an ordinary day. She was at the park, playing, as one at the park is apt, if not expected, to do. The ordinariness of this playing-at-the-park was not lost on Verity. Rather, it was a spot of soreness, becoming sharp pain, from the fact that she, and every child attending West Elementary, was inordinately insignificant.

This realization overwhelmed Verity after a few minutes of hanging bat-style on the monkey bars, her inversion bringing clarity of thought, unimpeded, by gravity’s typical pull. Watching ankles and knees flex and bend around her, she saw how every large thing was actually incredibly small: the highest slide, the heaping mountain of mulch, the collective pile of shoes she and her classmates could make if they were to make such a pile. It all amounted to nothing, really, in the grand scheme of all shoes and monstrous piles, of all playground slides and parks on sunny, mild-mannered afternoons spent swinging and clinging to bars and ropes, around hunks of plastic fashioned in the form of happy, smiling animals. She sighed. She attached her arms and unswung her legs, lowering to the ground.

“Verity!” Sara yelled. “Come on, we’re playing tag!”

She glanced at Sara’s waving stick-arms, then stared at the wood chips, not ready to move.

Verity! Come on!”

She felt nothing at her name, she realized: a new feeling, this not-feeling. Before, “Verity” filled her with comfort, something she noticed when her mother told her she was given a unique name because she was a unique girl.

Now, her name filled her with a swirling sense of dread and discomfort that seemed capable of, if not intent upon, sticking around.

Verity’s head lifted as she was narrowly dodged by a boy, running, playing the tag-game, mulch kicking with movement. Verity felt the need to be alone.

She noticed a swarm of gnats hovering over the trashcan beside the purple dinosaur climb, an infamously off-limits area in the tag game due to a concussive head injury sustained by Trina Thompson last summer when Adam Macallan chased her, causing her to trip over the purple dinosaur tail and plow, back-of-head-first, into the trashcan. Now, Verity approached it, wondering why and how random events made certain spots in personal geographic maps stand out, wondering why trashcans seemed so mundane, everyday so mundane, and why she couldn’t see something new, something she simply and wholly did not understand.

She arrived at the trashcan. Curious, she looked inside. And she was surprised.7

Playground trashcans are so inconspicuous—what would happen if you found something completely unexpected in one of them? This collection explores all the weird and wacky scenarios that could ensue. So, tell us your 500-word stories in this setting! Feel free to borrow characters and locations from other installments. Your section can stand alone or build on what came before. Send us your submissions by Friday for consideration!