Flash Fiction — 28 Days of Stories #5 — from an NYC Flash Fiction contest prompt for comedy (my worst nightmare), a classroom, and a kite.
How I came to be sitting with my knees to my nose in a chair designed for kindergartners is a trip. I never thought I’d walk into a school again, let alone a classroom, least of all as a stepfather. I’m papa to Zoe, because I’m married to her dad and Zoe decided on my nickname. I’m ten years out of the Army, eight years a private detective, six years into PTSD counseling, and a year into the marriage I never thought I’d be whole enough to have. My lack of anything to do today made me the Art Day volunteer.
Art Day is a big deal for six year olds. They spend a whole two hours working on an art project, and it’s always a secret until the day. It’s a big deal to bring treats on Art day, and it’s Zoe’s turn. She picked cupcakes. Not just ANY cupcakes, but personalized ones in their own boxes, from her favorite bakery, Buns and Roses.
“We have to get there early, papa,” Zoe said last night as we left the bakery. “I want to put everyone’s cupcake at their chair.”
“Zo, can’t they just grab their cupcake off a table?”
“Not everyone can read their name, papa” Zoe said, staring at me with wide eyes and a tilted head, expressing but not saying the “duh!” that followed.
So we got there early, Zoe took charge, and I became her cupcake delivery assistant while she placed cards. From the front of the room, her teacher Mr. Cage, in between bites of his sandwich, said, “Zoe, you’re always so organized.”
I picked up an envelope. It said, You are amazing, Geoff! A smiley face sticker sealed it closed. “Zo, did you make these cards?”
“Papa, you really need to learn Canva,” Zoe said, her eyes rolling and head shaking again. She sighed and followed behind me, arranging cupcakes and cards.
“Canva?” I asked, looking at Mr. Cage. He just smiled and shrugged.
“When Zoe runs for president, I’m voting for her,” he said.
Zoe for President wasn’t anything I’d ever thought before.
“Zo, are you going to run for president someday?”
“If I’m not still being an astronaut, maybe,” she said. I felt all the possibilities of it right then. This little girl knew life without limitations to her dreams.
Bells rang. Zoe directed me to my seat. She had one last clamshell in her hands with a card that had “Papa” written in blue. “Blue’s your favorite color, right?” she asked.
I swallowed hard, the way I swallowed when I was watching Bambi in the fire as a kid and didn’t want dad to see me cry. “Yes, Zo,” I said, lowering myself into my chair, ignoring the pops in my knees.
Mr. Cage went to the door. “Zoe, help me welcome everyone?”
Zoe skipped toward him, her honey-colored ponytail flowing behind her. This little girl, she had been playing in a sandbox at the park almost three years ago while I was watching a dirtbag mom skip out on visitation day with her kids by dumping them with a sitter here for the third week running. A single dude hanging around kids at a park gets the attention of responsible dads like Zoe’s.
When the bell rang, she and Mr. Cage gave every kid a high five as they streamed in.
“Zoe brought one of her dads and cupcakes for Art Day!” Mr. Cage announced. “Say hi to Mr. Hernandez.”
Kids made a beeline for me, and they weren’t shy. Some held up their hands for more high fives, others yelled, “Hi, Mr. Hernandez!” as they buzzed by, announcing names I’d never remember.
But one kid, this kid named Devin, stopped. He wore a gray t-shirt that had “you look funny with your head turned that way” printed on it, sideways, which I didn’t figure out until my head was fully sideways. Devin smirked.
“Mr. Hernandez?” he asked. He put his hand out. I nodded, returning the handshake.
“I’m Devin. Thanks for coming to my show.” He shook my hand with more confidence than most adults.
“Nice to meet you, Devin.”
He smiled and walked toward the front of the room. I turned to Zoe. “What does he mean by ‘his show’?”
Zoe smiled. “Devin starts all of our Art Days with his kind of art.”
Mr. Cage clapped his hands once, and the kids clapped and sat down. He clapped twice, and they clapped twice. It ramped up from there. Soon, the room filled with applause. Mr. Cage, grinning, said, “You all know what’s next! In honor of Art Day, give it up for Devin!” .
Mr. Cage handed Devin a mic attached to a karaoke machine.
“Thank you, Mr. Cage! I’m so glad to be here today. It was such a hot walk to school today….” Devin stopped, smiled, and shifted his eyes back and forth.
“How hot was it?” The kids yelled back, giggling.
“It’s so hot the cows by my house put up a Starbucks sign. I made forty bucks!” he quipped, grinning from ear to ear. “Off Zoe’s dad!” The kids roared along with Devin.
“It’s so hot I dug up a baked potato for lunch.” Devin kept delivering kid-safe one-liners for at least five minutes, making me wish I had known at five what I wanted to be good at.
“Before I show you our Art Day project, give it up for Princess Zoe and her dad, Mr. Hernandez!”
All the kids around us applauded. Devin turned and announced, “Mr. Cage, fan me!”
Mr. Cage flipped on a box fan that was on a shelf behind the stage. Devin exchanged his mic for something he grabbed off the table and positioned himself in the air current.
“Our Art Day Project!” He let go of the paper, which popped and flew. “The kite!” The room filled with applause again. I swallowed hard.
These kids, they were connected. They knew what it meant to support each other, to belong. Devin reminded me to tell other people about my dreams so they can help me achieve them. And Zoe, how lucky am I to be papa to an astronaut? Or maybe a president. We’ll see.