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"The Child" by Tyler Vaughn Hayes

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

We were paired by default, Hannah and me. That’s what happens when you’re in kindergarten and too shy to pick your own partner. Our assignment: life itself. Here, said the teacher in a paint-stained apron, take one of these pumpkins, fresh from the orchard. Give it gender, give it face, sway with it. Treat it as you would your child. Practice parenting at five years old, and, oh—don’t forget to be true to your new partner. Knowing nothing of the world but this rural, redbrick school, the whole thing seemed both normal and necessary.

Hannah and I had this innocent, kissy tension, the kind only the most diffident kids share. Up to that point, I had only ever known girls as a distant abstraction; my three savage brothers and their Lord of the Flies hivemind were all I had at home. Now here I was, more or less married with a baby boy/pumpkin on the way. Grades probably didn’t matter back then, but I wanted to do well anyway. This strange project started to sweeten things for me—a sort of tender responsibility. As children, we receive so few moments of true autonomy.

Together we painted our new son, gave him face and personhood. Big rabbit eyes, a sly but eager smile, all circumscribed by an azure bow. Once born, we swaddled him in a fuzzy blanket. We sat the one-day-old down on our little table for two. She smiled at me, I smiled back, and we both smiled at our baby. Though Hannah was more attentive—little girls always are—I was tasked with taking the pumpkin-child home that first night. I kept asking questions, talking my teacher’s ears off. Tonight, my parents and brothers would be meeting their new kin—a little pumpkin-person I helped make. I couldn’t contain my anticipation.

But at some point that afternoon, my bladder rang its bell. I raised my hand in request, and Ms. Sherrill handed me the lavatory pass. We were still young enough to have a toilet right there in the classroom, separated by a heavy door and a latch.

Too heavy, perhaps, because as I made entry I didn’t quite close it all the way. I had already dropped trou when it snicked back open. Looking out, I could see all those little heads turned towards me. There was a silence immediately punctuated by uproar, like giant gourds rolling off of ledges. I tried to shut the door in time, all while hoisting my little denim and attempting to cover my privates. Naturally, I crashed hard onto the sticky tiles—in sight of everyone.

The belly laughs, the knee slaps. Future adults in full guffaw. Look at him! He pulls his pants all the way down to pee! said some dumb someone. I didn’t know there was any other way. Only two people were not laughing: our teacher and dear Hannah. When the former rushed to my aid, though, I rebuffed her in a defiant, teary-eyed humiliation.

My new partner, in her infinite kindness, gave me a weak smile as I trudged back to our desk. I’m sure I reeked of piss. Yet our pumpkin-child looked as happy as ever, and his oily grin felt like mockery to me. Maybe Hannah too was hiding a smirk somewhere I couldn’t see.

When the merciful bell rang at end of day, Hannah gingerly placed our baby in my hands. Be careful with her, okay? she whispered, not unkindly. Everything fell onto my tiny shoulders when she said that. I turned without a word.

The whole bus ride home, I tried to allay my fury with reckless indifference. I even let my son-pumpkin roll between my backpack and me on the sweaty, pleather seat. Stepping out onto the road in front of my childhood home, I found our driveway desolate. I was so little, but I knew this meant mom and dad weren’t around. I had my thin, toffee arms stretched around the pumpkin.

But it was then, as I approached our paved porch—then, then, then—that I lifted him high above my head. The fuzzy blanket dangled in the periwinkle breeze, tickling my forehead. I discharged all thought and dashed the damned thing against the concrete. The child was all gone. He was a he no more—just a pulpy, orange gourd. I cast one last grimace at it, walked inside, and grew up.

Tyler Vaughn Hayes is a poet and essayist in the midst of his MFA at Western Kentucky University and an internship with Amherst's The Common. His words have been published in The Ponder Review, Thimble Magazine, and many others.

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