Listen by Thomas Kearnes


The children do all the work; it’s Miss Womack’s favorite game. After a noisy lunch, she herds them back into the classroom and has them sit on the floor in a circle. She places a folding metal chair at the edge, sits down and crosses her legs at the ankle like her late father taught her. Some of the teachers like to plop on the ground among their children. It earns their trust, they say. But Miss Womack is a lady. She wallows on the floor for no one.

She asks Norelle to stand beside her. The girl’s quick grin makes Miss Womack once again suspect the poor child is a bit slow. Hand cupped over her mouth, she leans toward the girl and whispers in her ear. Giggling, the girl drops back to her seat and yanks on Meghan’s bony arm. Meghan shifts, and Norelle repeats in a hushed voice exactly what the teacher told her.

At least, that’s the object of the game. Despite the class’s small size, whatever phrase Miss Womack uses to start each game never remains intact. By the time the last child announces what he heard, I bought a terrific puppy in a yellow hat became My brother eats boogers in the dump. Mother made gingerbread for Mandy’s birthday became Your bologna sandwich smells like my butt. It always amuses Miss Womack to observe the spectacular miscarriages of communication. As usual, her father was right: better to not speak and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and erase all doubt.

“Remember,” she says, “if Tanner can tell me exactly what I told Norelle, there’s a special surprise for all of you.” The frail, dark-eyed boy sits on Miss Womack’s left side. The game will end with him. She has no idea what this special surprise entails. She knows it will never come to that.

The phrase reaches the fifth student. It has traveled halfway around the circle. Ethan sits still, shoulders hunched, as Sally slides back into her spot, having just passed the message. His lower lip trembles, his eyes widen. Miss Womack’s pulse quickens. Typically, Ethan fritters away class gazing into a far corner of the room while thick white paste dries on his fingers. Agitated, she begins to swing her feet under her chair. She can’t fathom his look of frank terror. Had the students before him reacted the same way? She hadn’t been paying attention. You’re a dreamer, her father told her. Head in the clouds, don’t know shit about what’s in front of you.

There are three children left. She studies Melissa as the pig-tailed girl rises to her knees and whispers to the shaggy-haired boy beside her. When she sits back down, her face is solemn and still. The boy who heard her sits stunned. He turns to Miss Womack for help, but the desperation in his eyes only further baffles her. Tanner, the last child, sits next to him. He waits for his turn.

“Go on,” she tells the frightened boy. “Don’t you want your special surprise?”

Slowly, he leans into Tanner and whispers in his ear. Once finished, he scrambles over to Melissa and grabs her hand. Tanner’s expression empties like water draining from an aquarium. He nods, but the gesture is blank, as if he’s answering a question he doesn’t understand. Miss Womack waits for him to reveal the message. He knows the game. They all know the game.

“Tanner, what did you hear?” she finally asks.

The boy sits motionless. He does not speak.

“You won’t get your surprise if I don’t know what you heard.”

Still nothing. Miss Womack watches the other children, their faces twisted with fear. They clutch hands and wait for Tanner to end the game.

“Tanner, please —”

The boy screams. The noise is high and pure, like a siren before a cyclone hits. He beats his tiny fists against his head and rocks wildly back and forth, almost tipping over. The other children stare at him, their grim fascination unchanged. Miss Womack jumps from her chair to the floor and seizes Tanner by the shoulders.

“What did you hear?” she cries. “Tell me what I said!”

Tanner doesn’t say a word. Finally, Miss Womack releases him, rises inside the circle and instructs her class to take an early recess. As they file out, none ask why she isn’t joining them. Once they’re gone, she walks to her desk and pulls open the bottom drawer. The bottle of Xanax and pint of whiskey clink against one another, and she grabs a revolver, the one her father left her. On his deathbed, he pleaded with her to use it only if she truly believed herself to be in danger. Miss Womack believes very little, but she does believe that. She watches out the window as the children mutely climb the monkey bars, shoot down the slide, whirl like madness on the merry-go-round.


Charles Blackman


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, 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.

(Picture (C) Charles Blackman, fair use. Please click on the link and find out more about Charles Blackman – a wonderful artist)


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