This story is by A. Polzella and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Darryl Jackson woke before dawn on a Monday morning, his fuzzy thoughts registering the insistent chimes of his alarm clock. He opened his heavy eyelids and smiled when his sleepy gaze moved over the large red numbers on the clock. His parents had just bought it for him at the thrift store as a reward for acing his clock test at school. In the spirit shared by all children who receive a new something and learn a new skill, he felt excited. His mother said he should feel proud, and he did.
The clock still chimed. He reached out and picked up the little device, pushing buttons in the dark. His dad had set it for him. Darryl hit the correct button. Victory. The alarm halted, and Darryl set the clock down. He flung off his threadbare blanket and swung his feet down to the floor. He had laid his school clothes out the night before, and now grabbed the patched jeans and brown collared shirt from the rickety stool in the corner. Darryl carried his clothes down the short hall to the bathroom, did his private business and dressed. He left the bathroom and flipped the light switch off on his way out.
He smelled coffee. A smile lit his face again, and he ran down the abbreviated hall towards the kitchen and living room.
“Dad!” he yelled as he burst into the kitchen.
His dad wasn’t in the kitchen, though.
His mom was there, and she looked up from the newspaper. She smiled at him. She wore her pajamas and old reading glasses.
“Aw, sweetie, you just missed him. He walked out not ten minutes past.”
Darryl had been sure he’d catch his dad this time. He would have to set the alarm even earlier tomorrow. A determined look came over his face. His mom noticed.
“Almost had him this time, baby. Tomorrow you’ll get him. I know it.”
“Yeah,” Darryl said into a heavy sigh. “I’ll get him tomorrow.”
“How ‘bout some cereal, baby?” his mom asked, trying to cheer him up with the proper currency for children: sugar. Darryl smiled again.
He sat down in the chair opposite his mom at the tiny, round table. She poured him a bowl of generic chocolate cereal, then grabbed the milk from the fridge. She smelled it once, then again, shrugged, and poured a small measure into his bowl. His mother put the items away, then returned to her chair. She watched him eat for a moment, smiling, then picked up the newspaper again and began to read. Darryl glanced up from the cereal bowl and watched his mom. She reached for a red marker on the table and with it made a little circle around a block of tiny print on a page dense with them. Darryl saw other red circles on the page. The milk was little sour today, but he didn’t say anything.
That night Darryl’s dad didn’t come home until after dark and as the sound of crickets came through the open kitchen window, the small family sat together under a dim ceiling lamp while they ate. They shared smiles as they chatted together between bites. Darryl spoke about his alarm clock and about Mrs. Stevens, his teacher. His dad smiled at him and asked questions about his stories. Darryl thought they were good questions, and told him so. His mom smiled at his dad. Darryl smiled at his mom. Darryl felt this was probably his favorite part of the day. After dinner, he put on fresh pajamas, brushed his teeth and climbed into bed. His dad came to tuck him in and kiss him goodnight. His dad’s whiskers scratched Darryl’s cheek and neck. It tickled, and Darryl laughed, squirming violently while his dad continued to nuzzle him, keeping him in his strong arms to prevent escape. Darryl was out of breath from laughter. Smiling and panting, the young boy asked his dad to set his alarm to an even earlier time. Every night Darryl’s father quietly said he was proud of Darryl. He did again that night, resetting his son’s alarm clock while he spoke. Darryl fell asleep moments later, his father’s rough hand stroking his head.
Darryl woke very early the next day, dressed quickly and marched victoriously into the kitchen as he heard his parents talking.
“Dad!” Darryl said and ran to give him a hug.
“Hey, buddy!” his dad said. He squeezed Darryl tightly. He put his big hand on Darryl’s back and leaned down to kiss his head. He then disentangled himself and leaned back to look in Darryl’s eyes. “You ready for school already? It’s great to see you before work, Bud. You should be really proud of yourself.”
Darryl beamed. He made himself some toast as his dad said goodbye, certain that this would be a great day. His small victory had him puffing out his chest. He kissed his mom goodbye just like his dad would, feeling grown up, and headed off to school.
“Darryl, could you please come here for a moment?” Mrs. Stevens asked as Darryl’s classmates began working on simple multiplication exercises.
Concerned, Darryl rose from his little plastic chair, pushed it in and walked uncertainly to Mrs. Stevens’ desk. Other students watched him, fascinated that he’d been singled out. He grew more uncertain. His steps slowed involuntarily until he reached the big wooden desk.
“Darryl, we need to talk about your essay,” Mrs. Stevens said very quietly.
For a moment, Darryl hoped maybe he’d done such a fine job on last week’s Pride essay that Mrs. Stevens wanted to tell him privately. Why wasn’t she smiling, then? She was talking so quietly. Her eyes were serious. Darryl suddenly felt frightened, and didn’t know what he’d done wrong.
“Mr. Palmer would also like to talk to you about it. Would that be alright?” Mr. Palmer was the school principal.
“Uh…well…yeah, Mrs. Stevens.” Darryl didn’t think he could say no. “Yeah.”
“Good. Let’s go now.” She stood up from her desk and walked out of the room.
Darryl followed her out of the classroom in a daze, hearing whispers from his classmates. The teacher’s aide hushed them quickly. He followed Mrs. Stevens down the hallway, passing the drinking fountain. Darryl felt very thirsty. When he and Mrs. Stevens arrived at the front office, Darryl spotted a few other kids and their parents milling about. He also saw Barry Lewis sitting in a chair by the receptionist’s desk. Barry Lewis was a troublemaker. Darryl grew very concerned and scared now. His steps slowed further as he followed Mrs. Stevens through the office suite.
“C’mon, Darryl,” urged Mrs. Stevens from the principal’s doorway at the back of the suite. She wasn’t smiling. Barry Lewis was smiling. Darryl only vaguely registered his smirk as he walked past and followed her in.
“Darryl. Good morning.” Mr. Palmer said when they entered. He was seated at a large, neat desk. Mr. Palmer seemed like a nice man. He greeted the students every morning at the school’s front door and knew everybody’s name. Mr. Palmer motioned to one of two over-sized chairs in front of his desk. Darryl sat in the one he indicated. The chair’s leather squeaked as Darryl shifted nervously.
Mr. Palmer began to talk then and as he spoke, Darryl became upset. The principal continued relentlessly.
After several long minutes filled with Mr. Palmer’s droning voice, Darryl’s sniffles, and the squeaking of the over-sized chair in which he sat, the boy was dismissed. Mrs. Stevens remained silent as she led him back to the classroom. His classmates looked at his red eyes and running nose when he re-entered. Darryl felt shame. His bright morning was gone. He had gotten in trouble because of his Pride essay, and he still didn’t understand why. The day was ruined.
The school day passed. His father came home. He ate dinner listlessly, and answered his dad and mom with short answers. Darryl did not smile this night. He cleaned up his dishes and readied himself for bed mechanically. He put on his pajamas, brushed his teeth and laid out his clothes for the next day. He laid down in bed.
His father entered the room to tuck Darryl in, still wearing his dirty work clothes. He kissed Darryl and tried tickling him. Darryl didn’t squirm or laugh.
“You okay, buddy? You seemed a little out of it at dinner.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Darryl didn’t want his parents to know he’d gotten into trouble.
“Well, okay… Me and your mom are awfully proud of you, son.”
“Why?” Darryl had never asked that before and was surprised when his father answered easily.
“Because you’re a good person, son. Period. Be proud of who you are and be proud for others, too. That’s what being good is all about: everybody’s worth a little pride, hmm?”
“But that’s how I am, Dad. I am proud of who I am, and I do feel pride for others.”
“I know you do, son. I know.” There was a long pause. “Mrs. Stevens called your mom today.”
Darryl’s heart beat faster. He didn’t say anything.
“Son?” his dad finally whispered, and then he paused.
“Yeah?” Darryl asked after a moment, waiting.
His dad took a deep breath, started to say something, and then again he stopped. Finally, he spoke, and Darryl thought his voice sounded like he had something in his throat.
“We’re none of us the same, Darryl, but it’s okay to feel proud of yourself, son, because we all actually are the same for being so damned different from each other. Don’t ever forget that.” He nodded once to himself, satisfied, and then stood up.
Darryl’s dad leaned over, kissed his forehead and left the room. It grew suddenly quiet. Darryl stared at the glowing numbers on his clock for a while, watching them change. Darryl had no idea what his dad meant. He’d had no idea what Mr. Palmer had meant, or why he’d gotten in trouble.
In those brief moments before he fell asleep that night, Darryl supposed he’d leave grown-up things to grownups. He’d felt better off without them trying to confuse him anyway, and the world seemed a lot smaller and grayer when they started messing things up. Darryl liked his world in color.
He slept well that night, and woke up early the next day to catch his dad before work. He had a good day at school, too, and Mrs. Stevens was nice to him again. Later that night, at dinner, the little family shared smiles while they chatted between bites. Darryl had virtually forgotten about his bad day and the trouble he’d been in and—like all children free of the oppressive thoughts of adults—felt happy again.