Warren was five, and people hated him for that. Not because the age of five is something that most people choose to actively hate, but more so because adults who met Warren felt he should know better. Better, but not more. He was an intelligent boy and it seemed, to him at least, that he was constantly being punished for knowing how to make adults feel small for their useless attempts to correct his bad behavior. Time-outs and threats of phone calls home meant nothing, and he acted as such when placed on the edge of the playground, sitting quietly on the scuffed plastic siding which held back the sea of fresh red mulch begging to be leapt upon and hurled at other children. Adults were always getting angry with him, so being punished actually made the day seem normal, even complete. Outdoor time-outs like this one were the most common; authoritarian glares were punctuated with verbal commands to ‘put the dirt down’ or to ‘look sorry’ while his five minutes ticked off some proverbial clock kept in some adult mind – he knew they would most likely forget anyway, until he asked ten or fifteen minutes later how much longer he should expect to wait.
Wednesdays were the worst. Warren’s father was supposed to pick him up for supervised visits on Wednesday afternoons, though it so rarely happened that Warren’s mother treated it as a scheduled appointment to drone on about being responsible, being accountable, being a good man. She usually took a few extra moments after making the last point to stare deep into his eyes, as if her desire to rid him of the blond, tousled hair and slightly upturned nose he shared with his father could actually make it so. Warren was her daily reminder of how things don’t work out, and when he walked all over her flaccid attempts to correct his problematic behavior, she took it without resistance, save for the small sigh that escaped before uttering his name.
When he had walked in to class this Wednesday morning, he had immediately pushed another child into the cubbies by the door, watching her arms let loose their contents like a rain cloud, supplies scattering like fat droplets. “Miss Kenneth!” the little girl wailed, while the skin on her knees began to color strawberry red with rug burn. Warren shrugged and walked to his seat in the corner, carefully putting away his pencil box and homework folder into the dark mouth of the desk. He figured he had enough time to hang his bag on his chair before the teacher could reach him, most likely to yank his arm, place her face next to his, and dole appropriate kindergarten justice while her eyes betrayed the ache to spank him and be done with it. He was mostly right, and the backpack hung askew with one shoulder strap bearing the weight.
That episode had forfeited his recess time and resulted in his current exile. He didn’t mind, though. Watching his classmates allowed his mind to wander and forget the inevitable talk his mother would give as they sat on the porch steps waiting for a faded Nissan Pathfinder to lurch into the driveway. Thinking of that moment, he decided he didn’t intend to leave right when his mother showed up at three o’clock. She always parked in the lot facing the school’s back play set, and he could easily break free from her hand and play for a while until she gave up negotiating for his cooperation. It would be better to play then anyway, he figured, with no other children to clog the slides or poles. So he sat, imagining the slight give of the steps leading up the mountain of smooth metal bars, twisting and tunneling every which way until spitting him out onto a hard plastic something bound for the ground below.
There had been scattered showers the night before, so the ground was moist and the air was chilled. Novembers in Tennessee were like that. Warren doubled his body over, remaining seated as instructed while pressing his torso down towards the wet dirt where his finger was currently making unflattering drawings of Miss Kenneth.
“Mean ol’ bitch,” he muttered.
He left the picture incomplete and began studying the specks of soil that had become lodged in the whorls of his fingertips. He rubbed his dirty thumb into the palm of his hand, and noticed the way the smudges he left made unintentional pictures, like puffy white clouds did in the sky on summer days. From somewhere behind him, he heard his teacher shouting at him to sit up straight and quit playing cause he’s in time-out now don’t he remember?
“Stupid mean ol’ bitch.”
By now his face was hovering just an inch above the ground, his father’s nose growing cold and damp as the ground itself. He breathed deep the rich, wet smell of the earth. It smelled like the old house. Warren’s dad smoked a pipe, and he remembered how he used to watch the pipe being packed and lit, the smooth, silky smoke billowing over the brim and from his father’s lips simultaneously all while the flame was sucked down into the bowl, and the beautiful, bittersweet acidic aroma that filled the room as the little fire drove itself deeper and deeper down through the pitch black tobacco. But that was a long time ago, when his dad still lived with him and his mother. Now that he thought about it, the dirt in front of him, so close his eyes were crossed, looked just like that tobacco.
It was enough to snap him from his daze. He sat up quickly and let his eyes fall to the road directly in front of him, wrapping around the front of the school building before intersecting with the main stretch leading towards the highway. There wasn’t much to see, until a small mangy dog wandered out from the bushes lining the pavement. Warren had wanted a puppy for his birthday, but both of his parents were opposed to pets, so he’d made do with some toys and clothes instead. He watched the animal carefully as it wandered from one spot on the ground to another, sniffing and nibbling at things Warren couldn’t see. The dog’s ruffled coat was matte black, with some grey spots on its face and legs. Its belly was dappled with muddy brown patches, though Warren could tell these were likely spots of dirty white fur. He looked at his hands for a moment before shifting his eyes upward again towards the stray.
It had continued wandering towards the main intersection, still moving left to right, following smells more than anything. Occasionally, it would perk up its head and lift one ragged ear towards some phantom sound in the distance. Warren wondered why its tail curled up towards its body the way it did, and if it took a special effort to keep it in place that way. The dog was now to the left of the dashed lines, having crossed the streets diagonally. Warren saw the truck come around the bend from the highway’s direction, glossy gray with a grill made up of a million tiny boxes. Its headlights were on; his mother left them running, too, no matter how bright or dark it was outside. There was only a moment after the truck appeared and before it struck the dog. A small noise escaped Warren’s throat, but his eyes stayed on the still form lying partially in the gravel to the side of road. He watched for a long time, thinking that he was able to see the rise and fall of its chest, but part of him knew that couldn’t be right.
He suddenly thought of a time when Grandmama, his father’s mother, had taken him to church with her one Wednesday night. It had been right after the supervised visits started, and his father couldn’t think of anything else to do that night but go over to his mother’s house. She had been on her way out of the door when they pulled into the gravel drive; there were a few hushed words between her and his father, and then it was settled. She bent down and spit-shined his cheeks with authority before ushering them into her monstrous red Oldsmobile. That night, he’d heard the balding preacher talk about how loving Jesus in your heart was the way to live forever. They had all said prayers together when the man finished yelling, praying in Jesus’ name over and over.
Warren did that now. He prayed that the dog would get up, because maybe it had loved Jesus in its heart, couldn’t nobody say for sure, and why shouldn’t it get to live forever cause why love Jesus if he ain’t gonna be fair? He prayed the thoughts that were intentional and the ones that weren’t, mumbling and keeping his gaze towards the tree line. He noticed children running past him, racing to get into a line outside the cafeteria doors. His teacher and two others were herding children back towards the building. Nobody else had seen. He knew the ringing bell meant something, but he couldn’t seem to recall what that was. Slowly, he stood up and wiped his hands on his jeans in one fluid motion, leaving two dark streaks on the faded denim. The bell was ringing, and it was time to go inside.