SLCC's Premiere Art & Literary Magazine

The Steamboat Went

Ben Wallman

It started on the third day of school, with a plane crash under the monkey bars. Twelve children lay prone, eyes shut, tongues hanging out, while on their lunch break. The teachers who asked what was going on were given blank stares and the explanation that two planes had hit each other and one plane's wing broke off and then the plane crashed and everybody's dead. The deceased, all between six and ten years old, stayed that way until the end of their break. When the bell rang they calmly go up and, chattering happily with each other, went inside.

It happened again the next day with more children participating. It kept up for the rest of the week, each day with more players. Teachers expected it to run its course and end, replaced by some fresher game. Instead, the game spread across the playground a little farther each day. An epidemic of tragic death had taken over Hawthorne Elementary School.

They died of old age and sickness. They were the victims of horrible circumstance. Some were murdered. As the weeks wore on the rules of the game grew more elaborate. Some children played but didn't die. Instead they were the guilt ridden driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel, sitting a few feet from the innocent life they had taken, wracked with sobs until the game ended. Different parts of the playground were reserved for different styles. The baseball diamond was strictly for accidental death. Murders happened near the drinking fountain. Children eaten away by incurable diseases kept to the basketball courts. The dead never spoke to each other, didn't respond to anything that happened around them until the bell brought an end to their game. The only constants was the swift finality the bell brought and the immediate cheer that the kids showed when the game was over.

It had gone on for almost a month before some of the parents started to notice, and complain. They voiced their concerns in e-mailed manifestos to teachers. They whispered to each other, heads leaned in until their foreheads almost touched, as they waited to pick up their kids at the end of the day. Rumors started to spread about it: that it had been started by a boy whose father had just died, that it was a reaction to the burden that the children felt attending such a highly-rated elementary school, that it was caused by too much TV, not enough sunlight, fluoride, gay marriage.

Anxiety rolled in like a fog, blanketing the school. Lessons slowed to a crawl. Homework was returned ungraded. The more neurotic staff began to suffer from mysterious ailments, taking sick day after sick day. They tried volunteer supervisors at recess. They sent home pamphlets designed to help initiate a dialogue with children about death and tragedy. They banned recess in favor of a series of in-class activities designed to build self-confidence and improve teamwork, which the children steadfastly played dead through. Despite all efforts, children played dead in droves. Each day that passed the causes grew more sophisticated, the anguish more nuanced.

Principal Kathleen Freck was certain that she was going to be fired any day. She no longer answered her office phone and she counted herself lucky when none of the messages waiting in her email inbox called her a bitch in the subject line. She spent most of her time shut in her office in a state of constant dread, almost wishing something horrible would happen to spare her the anticipation.

Work had slowed to a crawl, school staff spent most of their time trying to avoid the belligerent parents that had almost taken over the school. By the time the afternoon bell rang, worried mothers and fathers were lined around the block, the sidewalk so crowded with people it almost looked festive, until you noticed the pacing, the nail biting, the forced smiles.

Emergency PTA meetings were held twice a week. The meetings were mostly a venue for parents to yell at staff members with an audience. Principal Freck was always there, along with one or two staff members who had been bullied into attending. At a Thursday meeting in early November Principal Freck watched with mounting fear as the crowd squirmed with impatience, waiting to begin. She watched the second hand of the clock tick towards their seven o'clock start time like a prisoner on death row.

Immediately when the face showed seven the crowd fell into a hostile silence. Principal Freck stood and approached the podium. Her face couldn't decide if grim seriousness or levity was more appropriate, and spasmed back and forth between the two.

"Hello. I'm glad so many of you care so deeply about your children's education and well-being that you make time to attend these meetings." She tried to seem approachable but stern, the crowd regarded her with 300 pairs of dolls eyes.

"I understand many of you are upset, I assure you we at the school are treating this issue with every bit as much care as any of you."

A man scoffed from the first row. His outburst set the rest of the crowd to fidgets and murmurs, like he had broken the dam that held them to the conventions of politeness. The principal, used to small interruptions, continued.

"While we haven't found the right solution yet," rumbles of ascent from the crowd, "we are confident that we are confident that we will find an answer. And now if you'll give a hand to Mrs. Hopper, the P.E. teacher, she has some exciting things to tell you about implementing yoga and meditation into our Physical Education Curriculum."

Mrs. Hooper took the stage in stony silence. Principal Freck watched her address the parents. Mrs. Hooper attempted to illustrate the proper method for Ujjayi Breathing, which she assured them was proven to lower stress levels and promoted calming energy. She said she had been teaching the technique to the children with great success. The crowd did not look impressed.

Principal Freck was, for once, glad to feel her phone buzz. It gave her an excuse to leave in the middle of Mrs. Hooper's demonstration. The P.E. teacher had begun to move through a series of yoga poses she said had been specially designed for children. Principal Freck thought she looked like a fish lost on the deck of a boat.

Principal Freck returned to the auditorium to find Mrs. Hooper executing a spirited gymnastics routine and talking about the dopamine release caused by physical activity. It looked like a scene from a vaudeville routine. She walked to the podium.

"Thank you, Mrs. Hooper, I'm sure that will all be very beneficial for the children. I think that shows just how comprehensive our strategy is for dealing with this. We are focused on creative solutions and outside the box thinking. To that effect, I have just received a phone call from someone who has agreed to come in and help. Dr. Andrew James has agreed to spend a few weeks at our school offer his considerable insight into how we should move forward." For the first time in weeks of PTA meetings, her smile was real.

The crowd broke into whispers, those who recognized the name enthusiastically informed their neighbors of the Doctor's reputation. Some of the parents even smiled. After a brief question and answer session, people began to leave the auditorium in pairs or little groups. A few stopped to shake Principal Freck's hand. Everyone present seemed confident that the problem was all but solved.

Dr. Andrew James, renowned child psychiatrist, daytime TV fixture, New York Times bestseller and local celebrity had agreed to come to the school. His first email to school staff highlighted, "How much he looked forward to observing such a strange phenomenon occurring in his own backyard." He would start by observing the normal recess periods each day until he felt he understood enough to make a recommendation. They found a small unused room in the basement for him to use as a temporary office.

Dr. James arrived at promptly nine o'clock the next Monday. Dressed in a sharp navy suit, his yellow visitor pass pinned to his lapel, all the charm and confidence that made him a fixture on morning talk-shows on display. Parents and staff loitered by the front of the building, hoping to catch a glimpse of the doctor.

He deposited his small briefcase and laptop in his new office in preparation for his first observation of recess. With ten minutes to prepare, Dr. James wandered the halls. He stopped to look at art projects pinned above lockers, waiting for the bell to ring. When it did, the flow of children pouring towards the back doors parted around him like he was at the broad hull of a ship, parting a sea of vibrant waves.

He followed the last of the children outside and found the game already well underway. Most of those still standing were in the midst of their death throes. One little girl near him fell to the ground, holding her head, with the deliberate grace of a dancer. A boy lurched, gut shot by invisible murderers, along the sidewalk towards a strip of lawn. He fell to the ground with the grass just beyond the reach of his outstretched hand.

Dr. James' eyes swept over the playground. The children mostly laid on the ground, a few knelt or paced near their reposed friends. The doctor walked over to a boy curled into a ball under the monkey bars, clutching his chest, his face frozen in a pained gasp. A little girl with downcast eyes sat nearby. She turned to the doctor.

"He smoked too many cigarettes, he smoked ten in a row and they burned up his lungs and he died."

The doctor nodded. He pulled out a small pad of paper and began to take notes, raising his head every few seconds to look at the boy. He noted the posture, he guessed the age and ethnicity, he didn't ask any questions.

At the base of the slide three kindergartners laid in the bark chips with their limbs splayed around them, a fourth knelt holding his head in his hands. The little boy raised his head, eyes glistening with tears. Explaining to him between gasps.

"I couldn't stop. I forgot to get my car fixed. It broke and I couldn't stop and I hit the mommy and daddy while they were walking with their baby."

He began to sob, deep in his chest, tearing up handfuls of bark that slipped through his fingers and fell to the ground. Dr. James approached him.

"Why didn't you get the car fixed?"

There was no response. The boy didn't even turn his head or acknowledge he had heard anything. Dr. James pressed a bit further.

"Well, could someone have done something to change it? Is it anyone's fault?"

He didn't expect a response and he didn't get one.

Dr. James wandered the playground for the rest of recess. He was able to get stories from the bystanders or grievers in three more scenes. He heard the stories of the victims of a zoo accident, an accidental poisoning, and what sounded like an eight-year-old's description of cancer. Dr. James took notes and asked a few more questions that went unanswered.

When the bell rang all the children immediately stood up and began talking to each other. They laughed at the new inventions of their classmates as they marched inside to line up single file, waiting to be led back to their classrooms.

After attending all three recess periods at the school every day for a week, Dr. James was able to make some early observations. He noticed patterns that fell in line with general opinions he held about children. A tendency towards fairness emerged in their acting. Each child seemed to have their moment to shine in each of the roles they had devised. A child that spent two days as the hapless victim of circumstance was likely to be the perpetrator of a grisly murder the next. The death tableau's held to the social hierarchy of the school, popular and unpopular children kept to their own class when playing. The stakes of the game were as high as they could go. No one ever survived, every accident was lethal.

Apart from generalizations about children's play in general, Dr. James had few insights. The children did not seem depressed, consumed violent media at a below average rate, had a lower rate of parental divorce than the national average, consumed less refined sugar, slept more, cried less, ate better.

For a time he explored the hypothesis that it was the kid's advantaged upbringing that had created this obsession with death. But he could find no reports of anything like this occurring in any group of children, either those more or less closely parented than the ones at Hawthorne Elementary. He had the water tested, the paint tested, the food tested. He interviewed faculty and staff individually. He sat in on PTA meetings and took notes on the questions the parents asked. The weeks rolled by.

Without any promising leads, Dr. James hoped the game would subside as fall gave way to winter. Instead, when snow fell, the children simply bundled themselves tightly and laid in the drifts. He sat and watched them one recess, looking like brightly colored islands in a sea of white, and realized he had no idea what he was doing.

The tone of the questions asked by school staff had become more frantic. Polite email exchanges had given way to all caps demands for some piece of information to give to parents who had lost much of their initial awe of the doctor. He stopped checking his email. Letters started coming to his office in bundles, held together by rubber bands stretched to bursting, little of it was civil.

Long, solitary, after-dinner walks had become part of the doctor's routine. His wife was used to his need for reflection when it came to difficult cases, but began to worry as the walks took her husband farther afield from their spacious mid-century home. A few times she could smell liquor on his breath when he finally came to bed, often well past midnight.

Christmas came and went. All it brought to the playground was a house fire caused by a dry Christmas tree, an electrocution caused by a faulty strand of lights, three car crashes on icy roads on the way home from grandmother's house, a handful of Holiday dinner chokings and one boy who was gored by a reindeer. Principal Freck was thoughtful enough to send Dr. James a German copy of the DSM-3 with all instances of the word "kinder" highlighted in red. Neither the doctor nor the principal spoke German.

Recess had grown to become a refuge for Dr. James. He liked the quiet stillness that hung over the playground like a blanket, the unbroken peace that reigned from bell to bell. The children had become so disciplined that few even made eye contact with him unless he asked them a direct question. He had begun to look forward to the time he spent wandering there, alone in a crowd of two hundred.

Dr. James had begun to see that the game had a logic to it that dwelt just beyond the edges of adult's vision. A rightness just beneath its surface that defied explication, a hermetic perfection that made the children, in the eyes of Dr. James, into something like tiny monks whose delicate frames were the only instruments finely tuned enough to render a fundamental truth into a form normal eyes could see. Andrew would stand unmoving sometimes, in the center of a calamity frozen in amber, and spin in place, soaking in a feeling of peaceful repose. He felt a necessary part of the game, a player whose purpose was to observe, whose presence elevated the game past frivolity and towards some higher purpose that only another more distant witness could perceive. Until the toll of the bell made the playground rise as one. And the children spoke to each other in a language that Andrew could barely understand.

Sandra James had begun to seriously worry about her husband. His home office looked like it belonged to a detective on the trail of a serial killer. Pictures were pasted on the walls with excerpts from psychiatric journals pinned underneath them. A whiteboard was covered in theories, some written on top of half-erased earlier ideas. Underneath the desk, she found three empty bottles of vodka. Her husband had drank nothing but scotch or wine since before they were married.

In mid-January Dr. James received permission from the PTA to photograph students for his research. In truth, his pictures had nothing to do with his attempt to offer a diagnosis. Instead, he took photographs merely for the frozen moments of beauty they showed. He flipped through them in his office, admiring the student's dedication and craft. He especially liked the photos he had taken of students in transition, changing in an instant from life to death or death to life.

He was looking at a picture of a Fifth Grade boy, pushing himself up onto his elbow, his face melting into a smile from the blank slackness of death as recess ended. Principal Freck peeked her head around the edge of his doorway, clutching the frame for support. She smiled nervously. He placed the photo back in the red folder where he kept the photos he had taken during recess.

"Hello Dr. James."

"Hello Kathleen, and again, please call me Andrew." He smiled back at her.

She nodded politely at him."Right. Andrew. It's funny, I forget because they always call you Dr. James. On TV. When you're on TV I mean."

They sat there, nodding happily and smiling at each other for a few more seconds. Principal Freck's fingers drummed a manic beat on the door-frame.

"Say...I have been hearing a lot about you lately. A lot of questions, from parents. They, they're just so anxious to hear about any progress you might have made. You might even say they're pushy, or angry maybe." She laughed, a short staccato burst exactly in time with her drumming fingers. "I was wondering myself if you had anything. Insights or, you know, theories."

"Oh, I see. Well, not just yet. It's important not to jump to conclusions on these sorts of things."

Principal Freck wilted against the door.

"I'm sure. Medicine is such a delicate field, I understand. I was just hoping...Some of the parents have been contacting people with the district, they're trying to get me, moved. I thought maybe if you had something..."

She walked into his office and fell into the chair facing his desk. She brought her hands to her forehead and attempted to smooth away the wrinkles. Dr. James could almost see the weight she carried, a thousand little potential disasters that she shouldered every day. A mounting burden that she would carry as long as her life was still the one she wanted.

"Well Kathleen, if that's the case I suppose I could have something, preliminary findings of course, fairly soon. I have enough material", he patted the red folder on his desk, "to put something together in, I'd say a week."

"Oh really? Well, that's just terrific! We'll have a staff meeting and invite a few of the more active PTA members. How about next Thursday?"

"Thursday? Yes, I think Thursday will be fine."

"This is great, I knew you'd have something. To be honest, if you didn't I'd probably be out of a job by the end of the month. Well, I'll let you get to it."

She stood up and left, giving the desk a friendly slap on her way out. Dr. James listened to the click of her heels recede down the hallway. He opened the red folder and took out a few of the pictures, placing them in a three by three square in front of him. He stared at them for a while, then slowly lowered his head to rest on the desktop.

A few of the Sandra and Andrew's close friends came over for dinner Sunday night. Andrew was as happy as Sandra had seen him for months. He was gregarious, loud at times. Telling jokes and slapping backs and cajoling everyone to stay for just one more drink. She barely recognized him. It was like someone else was wearing the skin of her quietly confident husband.

She tried to talk to him about it the next morning, but he was gone before she woke up. The week before the presentation he was an almost permanent fixture at the University Library, deep into studies of abnormal child behavior. For the first time in weeks Sandra felt like everything would soon be back to normal.

Dr. James barely left the library that week. He would arrive when they opened at seven and stay til close at one A.M. The only time he left was to buy styrofoam containers of noodles from the 7-11 across the street. He hadn't done research this intense since he was a graduate student.

Wednesday evening found him still in the university library, surrounded by stacks of medical journals and textbooks, quietly having a panic attack, no closer to figuring out what was going on. He was on the verge of scattering the entire stack across the floor. When he felt a tap on his shoulder.

"Excuse me, you're, you are him, right? Dr. James?" A short girl with a stack of books in her arm asked him.

"I uhhh. Yes, yes I am. Very nice to meet you, who might you be?" His feelings of panic were hidden by the force of his charm, which flicked on after a shudder, like a fluorescent light.

"Elizabeth, Liz. I'm an undergrad in the Psych program here. This is a bit strange, I remember seeing you on TV when I was in high school, talking about the pathology of psychopathy. I was fascinated." Her smile was bright and eager. She was the first person Andrew had talked to for two weeks who wasn't mad at him.

"That's very flattering. Please sit, you'll spare me from this dull research for a moment."

The sun shined through the window in a way that finally woke Dr. James at 12:30. He opened his eyes to stare at a strange ceiling. He had slept on the floor, still in his suit and loosened tie, surrounded by empty beer cans. Leaning up with great effort, he tried to rub the sleep from his eyes and the memories into place. He remembered the greasy pizza place with the dollar beers Liz had taken him to as a break from research. He remembered the dive bar where she called her friends, all psychology undergraduates in awe of his credentials, to meet them. One of them, Derrick, kept buying him boilermakers. He dimly remembered the beers they had picked up after last call to take back to Liz's apartment, where he had asked if he could kiss her, then a black curtain that rolled down heavy in his mind, then nothing.

He made his thick limbs carry him to the bathroom and came out fairly sure he hadn't cheated on his wife. The couch creaked as he flopped into it. He looked at his watch and tried to remember what he had to do today. The thought crawled up from stomach: the meeting with Principal Freck and the PTA in an hour.

The taxi pulled into the school parking lot ten minutes after the meeting was supposed to begin. Dr. James ran to his office to gather some papers and notes that he hoped would let him talk long enough to get through. As he turned the corner towards his office he nearly collided with Principal Freck.

"Andrew where have you, what are you..." She trailed off as she took in his appearance. "Are you, is that smell, are you drunk?" She looked at him like she had found an injured penguin roaming the halls of her school.

"No. Well, maybe a little. And before you ask, I have no idea. I don't know how this happened. I don't know why I did this. We'll get through, buy me ten minutes to clean up and I'll get through. Kathleen."

"Ok. Alright. I'll tell them you have the flu, give me five minutes and we'll reschedule for next week. Just make an appearance and give me five minutes and be ready for next week. Andrew, why did you? Are you alright?"

"Yes. No. I might be later. I don't know."

Principal Freck grabbed his hand and squeezed once, "Be there in ten minutes." She walked briskly back to her office to the six angry parents she knew were waiting for her. She peeled her face into a smile for them "He's here! Unfortunately, Dr. James is tangling with a rather nasty flu. He's ready to present today but it might be a bit quick. He's promised to have a full presentation next week, though." She smiled brighter under their glares.

They waited in silence for fifteen minutes. When the two o'clock recess bell rang, Kathleen began to get worried. She pretended to excuse herself for a bathroom break and went looking for Dr. James. His office was empty, scattered across the floor were the pictures he had taken. His suit jacket and tie lay balled in the corner. She picked up one of his notebooks and found it filled with children's rhyme games and the possible things one might die from. She took the notebook and slammed the office door shut.

She ran to the front doors of the school, hoping to catch him in the parking lot as he tried to leave. Scanning the lot, she couldn't find his car or a taxi that might have picked him up. She was ready to go back inside and face the parents when she saw him in the distance, across the playground.

Dr. James lay in a puddle of gray snow-melt, his silk shirt completely soaked through. One arm was pinned beneath him, the other stretched towards the parking lot, his legs were tangled in water two inches deep. As Principal Freck approached one of the students pacing near the doctor's feet turned to her, "A building fell on him. It was old and they didn't take care of it so it fell over and squashed him" The little girl affectionately grabbed the doctor's hand, tears running softly down her chin.

Principal Freck stared at the man before her. She thought about his expensive home, his fame, his impressive intellect. She thought about how the cold slush must feel as it seeped into his Italian leather shoes. She turned to take in the scene around her, that was so incomprehensible to everyone except those that were part of it.

From the schoolhouse, the sound of the bell rolled softly across the blacktop, as it did every day. She watched the children rise and walk towards the building. She turned to see Dr. James brushing gravel from the back of his shirt. He smiled gently at her as he walked past. As he left the playground she wondered what epiphany had struck him.

Kathleen heard later that Dr. James had abandoned psychology and bought a small artisanal cheese farm upstate. He and his wife had three children together and managed their business well enough that they employed four people year round. One morning a cow kicked him in the head while he was milking, knocking him unconscious for fifteen minutes. They treated him at the hospital for a severe concussion, he was lucky there was no fracture in his skull. He made a full recovery.

The children at Hawthorne eventually gave up the game. For their birthday one of the students was given a pack of cards for a collectible trading card game. Over the course of the next few weeks, most of the students were able to beg their parents to buy them their own cards to participate. After months of helpless despair, most parents gave in on the spot. The cards were five dollars for a pack of ten, most kids had at least a few hundred. The company that made them was later fined for the unsafe levels of chromium present in the ink the cards were printed with. Kathleen Freck worked at Hawthorne for six more years, until a car carrying four high schools seniors ran a red light and t-boned her on her way home from work. Everybody died.