“I’ll bet by now you’ve all noticed our new bench,” said Ms. Dot.
Alister thought that was a safe bet since they were all standing in a circle around the bench and facing it and everyone had their eyes open.
“You’re probably wondering what the new bench is for. I’ll bet some of you are probably thinking, ‘Don’t we already have benches and other places to sit down? Why do we need a new bench even if it is the just the prettiest shade of purple we ever have seen?’”
Alister thought that this was a significantly less safe bet than the one about the kids merely noticing the bench.
“But this is a special bench,” said Ms. Dot, widening her eyes to heighten the mystery of the bench’s specialness. “This bench is a New-Friends Bench.” Ms. Dot paused as if she expected gasps, applause, shouted demands for further explanation. After none of those proved to be forthcoming, she continued. “Here’s how the New-Friends Bench works. If you’re ever feeling lonely, if you ever feel like you don’t have anyone to play with during Morning Playtime or Afternoon Playtime, then all you have to do is just come over to the New-Friends Bench and sit down. Then other kids will see you sitting there and they’ll know you’re looking for new friends to play with and they’ll come over to the bench and invite you to play with them.”
“Why will they do that?” asked Alister. He wasn’t being a sass, he genuinely wanted to know how this transaction was supposed to work.
“Alister, I’ve asked you many times not to be a sass,” said Ms. Dot. “Kids will invite the kids sitting on the New-Friends Bench to play with them because they’re nice and they’re kind and they don’t want anyone to feel sad and left out. And you know what, Alister? Maybe they wanted to make a new friend too and they just hadn’t realized it until they saw the kid sitting on the New-Friends Bench.”
“Sounds more like the No-Friends Bench,” said Alister, and this time he was definitely and unashamedly being a sass.
Most of the kids laughed, but Ms. Dot got furious. She made Alister sit in time-out on the plain brown wooden bench for the remainder of Morning Playtime. But even on the wooden bench by himself, Alister was still one more kid than sat on the New-Friends Bench. Maybe the kids were still getting used to the idea. Maybe it was just that no one wanted to be first. Or Maybe Alister had killed the New-Friends Bench minutes after its birth with his withering put-down.
And while Alister was in time-out on the wooden bench, his friends, of which there were many, kept coming up to Ms. Dot and asking her if Alister was allowed to play yet, if he could leave time-out and join them, if he could, in effect, rescue Morning Playtime. Because Morning Playtime at the Childsmile Daycare in Multioak was nothing without Alister.
“Alister, son,” said Alister’s mother. “Ms. Dot told me about something you said today.”
Alister and his mom were out for an evening walk down their quarter-mile driveway to the mailbox. The night was humid and in the distance, petulant thunder grumbled. Alister wore his dad’s sneakers with no socks. The shoes flopped around on Alister’s feet and he had to curl his toes to keep from stepping out of them, but that was better than walking on gravel with his bare feet. It was a toss-up as to whether or not it was better than taking the time to go up to his room to put on his own shoes as opposed to slipping into his dad’s shoes since they were already sitting by the door.
“I already know what it’s going to be,” said Alister. “Ms. Dot probably told you that I called the New-Friends Bench the ‘No-Friends Bench.’”
“So you know it wasn’t a nice thing to say,” said his mom.
“I guess,” said Alister. “I know she was mad about it. She kept me in time-out for the whole Morning Playtime.”
“Look, Alister,” said his mom. “I know making friends is easy for you. You have lots of friends. And I’m happy about that. But that isn’t true for every kid. Some kids have a tough time making friends. And Ms. Dot knows that. So she tried to do something to help them. And I don’t know, maybe it’s a stupid idea, but even if it is a stupid idea, she’s trying. And she doesn’t need you undermining her with your smart-aleck remarks. She doesn’t need you being a ‘sass,’ as she calls it.”
“All right, whatever,” said Alister. “I won’t say it anymore.” He and his mom arrived at the mailbox. A truck went past and the driver waved. Alister’s mom opened the mailbox and there wasn’t any mail inside of it.
“But here’s the thing,” said Alister’s mom as she and Alister turned and headed back up the driveway toward the house. “Ms. Dot thinks that what you said about the bench may have completely ruined its chance to work. She says the other kids look to you, even the few you aren’t close friends with. So she thinks that because you made fun of the bench, now no one will ever want to use it.”
“Sorry?” said Alister. He said it as a question because he felt like his mom was heading toward a specific point but he couldn’t figure out what it could be.
“I’m not asking you to apologize to me,” said Alister’s mom. “I want you to fix it.”
“How could I fix it?” asked Alister. “Say ‘sorry’ to Ms. Dot?”
“You could go to daycare tomorrow,” said Alister’s mom. “And as soon as Morning Playtime starts, you could go sit on the New-Friends Bench until a kid you aren’t already friends with comes over and asks you to play with him. Or her!”
“What if no one comes over and asks me to play?” asked Alister.
“Someone will ask you,” said his mom. “If not, then that’s fine. But you can try.”
“I don’t want to,” said Alister. “It’ll be embarrassing.” A drop of rain grazed his earlobe.
“I’ll pay you,” said his mom.
Once everyone ran outside for Morning Playtime, it took the other kids a few minutes to notice Alister sitting on the New-Friends Bench. The New-Friends Bench was not more physically comfortable than the bench to which Alister had been confined while he was in time-out. In fact, in terms of its effect on his emotional state, the New-Friends Bench was far less comfortable than the time-out bench. Alister felt vulnerable on the New-Friends Bench in a way that he had not while sitting on the time-out bench nor at any other time in his life.
At first, the other kids kept their distance, pointing Alister out to each other. Alister could hear them and the kinds of things they were saying, such as, “Why is Alister on the No-Friends Bench?” He was simultaneously pleased and dismayed that his nomenclature for the bench had already achieved widespread acceptance.
“Hey!” Jenny finally shouted from the top of the slide. “Alister! Why are you on the No-Friends Bench?”
“Because,” Alister called back. “I’m feeling lonely and I want to make a new friend.” The money his mother had offered him was conditional on him not telling anyone he was being bribed.
“But you already have friends!” called Danny from the tire-swing. “Lots of them!”
Alister glanced at Ms. Dot, who was standing a ways off but closely monitoring this exchange. Did she know Alister’s mom had paid him? Or did she think he was doing this because he felt guilty? Or maybe she thought he’d come around on the idea of the New-Friends Bench and now sincerely believed in it? The mere thought that Ms. Dot could be thinking he now approved of the New-Friends Bench made Alister feel even more embarrassed.
“I want new friends,” called Alister. “Anyone can feel lonely, even someone with lots of friends. Anyone can want to meet new friends.”
Jared approached Alister. “Hey,” he said. “I’ll be your new friend.” He had new shoes on his feet and he was standing directly in some mud.
Alister glanced at Ms. Dot again. She didn’t look pleased. She and everyone else knew that Alister and Jared were already friends. Alister worried about what Ms. Dot would tell his mom if his demonstrative use of the New-Friends Bench resulted in him playing with one of the people he definitely would have played with anyway if the New-Friends Bench had never even existed. And it would look even worse because he’d only been sitting there for a couple of minutes. He wasn’t sure if sitting on the bench for a long time and feeling more and more vulnerable was supposed to be part of the experience or not.
“We’re already friends,” Alister said to Jared. “This bench is supposed to help me find new friends.”
“But you’re already friends with almost everybody,” said Jared. “I just thought maybe you and me could become even better friends.”
“I’m not saying we can’t,” said Alister. “I’m just saying that’s not what me being on this bench is about right now. And I’m not friends with everyone, there are still a few options left.” In his head, he silently pleaded, But not Kimber, please, please, please, not Kimber.
“All right,” said Jared. “But the other kids aren’t going to understand.” Jared stepped out of the mud and returned to a group of Alister’s friends who had gathered by the monkey bars to watch Jared’s interaction with Alister from a respectful distance.
Alister couldn’t hear most of what they were saying, but he did hear Jared emphasize “new friends.” But Jared turned out to be right, the other kids did not understand. Three more kids who Alister was already friends with came over to him and asked him if he wanted to play with them. He turned each of them down with mounting exasperation. The fact that they were acting so thick made him actually kind of not want to be friends with them at all anymore.
After these three further failures to lure Alister off of the New-Friends Bench, his friends clustered near the large, green plastic turtle affixed to the ground and appeared to be discussing and planning. Alister watched from his bench. No, not his bench! The bench, it had no connection to him, he just happened to be sitting on it today because his mom was paying him to so that Ms. Dot wouldn’t keep bothering her about it when she came to pick Alister up every evening after work.
As Alister watched, a pair of his friends, Frankie and Stanley, broke off from the main group and headed for the other side of the playground where the few kids who were not friends with Alister were playing in sad pairs or, sadder yet, by themselves. Of course, considering how Alister’s day was going, Frankie and Stanley walked right up to Kimber where she sat with her back against the fence doing nothing, as usual. Alister couldn’t hear the conversation, but he could tell Kimber was being resistant. As much as he disliked Kimber, Alister found himself rooting for her against his friends. “Come on, Kimber,” he muttered. “Don’t listen to them. Don’t let them pressure you.” And then, to Alister’s disgust, he watched as Kimber visibly gave in to his friends’ pressure, stood up, and walked toward him without actually making any eye contact. So now he was going to be stuck “playing” with someone he couldn’t stand. How had this all spiraled so far out of control? He now regretted ever saying “Sounds more like the No-Friends Bench,” which was sad because that was the kind of comment he should have been able to take pride in for many years to come.
“Hey, Alister,” said Kimber. She’d stopped just short of the mud in which Jared’s shoe prints were still visible. “Do you want to play with me?”
Alister thought about it. And then he realized that actually, there was nothing in what Ms. Dot had said about the New-Friends Bench that said the person sitting on the bench had to accept an invitation to play from anyone. And his mom hadn’t said he’d only get paid if he said “yes” to the first invitation to play from someone he wasn’t already friends with either. And one glance over at Ms. Dot proved to Alister that she was too excited for this pairing to happen, too excited for her stupid bench idea to bring two people who had no use for each other together, too excited to hurry home tonight and tell her husband about the great bridge-builder, the great wall-smasher, the great peacemaker: the New-Friends Bench. Lots of kids liked Alister and he was happy to be friends with them, but he did have standards.
“No,” said Alister. “I don’t want to play with you.”
Kimber looked surprised, but only briefly. Then her eyes narrowed and she looked with suspicion from Alister to his group of friends, who were all watching in suspense. “Good,” she said. “I don’t want to play with you either. If you ever get off that bench, tell your friends to leave me alone.”
Alister’s friends didn’t give up. They tried again. They sent Terry over next, but even though Alister didn’t exactly dislike Terry, he also didn’t feel like playing with Terry either. There was a reason he’d never been friends with Terry. And if he had to make a new friend, he was sure he could do better than Terry. And he was sure he could do better than Miriam too. And he was sure he could do better than Tom. And he was sure he could do better than Grant and Jaclyn and Candi. Ms. Dot watched all of Alister’s refusals with increasing anger.
After Morning Playtime ended, Alister’s friends asked him which new friend he would want to play with, which new friend he would say “yes” to. Alister told them he didn’t know. Partially because he didn’t feel as if he owed them an answer and partially because he didn’t know.
At Afternoon Playtime, Alister went directly to the New-Friends Bench and sat down. His friends rounded up the few remaining kids who weren’t already Alister’s friends and whom he hadn’t already rejected earlier. It was a short line and Alister made short work of it, rejecting all of the kids who comprised it in rapid succession.
And then there was a break in the action. No one knew quite what to do next, including Alister. Then every kid on the playground watched as Ms. Dot, finished merely observing, strode across the playground toward Alister while exuding indignation.
“Is this your new plan?” asked Ms. Dot in a low voice, leaning close to Alister. “The comment wasn’t enough? You weren’t content to just kill my nice idea, you had to desecrate the corpse too?”
Alister didn’t exactly follow the metaphor, but he knew why Ms. Dot was upset.
“It’s not a plan,” said Alister. “I just don’t want to play with any of the kids who asked me to play with them.”
“Why not?” asked Ms. Dot. “None of them are good enough for you?”
“It’s not that,” said Alister. “I said ‘no’ to Jared too, remember?”
“Then what is it?” asked Ms. Dot. “Why can’t you just say ‘yes’ to one person, play with them for one playtime, and then go back to your usual friends? Why is that so hard for you to do? Now you’ve spent two whole playtimes sitting on this bench while most of the other kids try to figure out how to get you off of it? Do you just like the attention? Is that it?”
Alister knew Ms. Dot was making some good points. She was asking the right questions. He wished he had some answers for her.
That evening when Alister’s mom picked him up from daycare, he ran out to the car and sat in the front passenger’s seat to wait for her while she talked to Ms. Dot. After several minutes passed, he knew that he was in for an unpleasant evening. The only thing Alister’s mom said to him when she got into the car was, “No money. Zero.” She said nothing more on the drive home, but the mood persisted into the house, through the preparation and eating of dinner, and on until bedtime.
But the next day, as soon as Morning Playtime began at Childsmile Daycare in Multioak, Alister, with no promise of bribe money to motivate him, walked over to the New-Friends Bench and sat down. A strange silence hung over the playground. Ms. Dot would not look at Alister; the other kids, even Kimber, could look nowhere else. Then all of Alister’s friends who he had not yet directly rejected approached him one after the other. None of them looked as if they expected to be the one whose invitation to play Alister would accept, they were only doing this to exhaust Alister’s options so that no one would wonder if maybe she should have tried or maybe he should have tried. It was a perfunctory display and Alister treated it as such, rejecting the invitations with even less consideration than they were offered.
And then that was that. The kids who were not Alister went back to playing just like they had before the arrival of the New-Friends Bench, albeit without Alister. Days passed and the playground separation between Alister and the rest of the kids bled into all the other daycare activities too. For example, during Movie Time, Alister sat alone, although he was surrounded by the other kids on all sides. The gulf was apparent to everyone in the room. During Art Time, no one ever asked Alister what his drawing was supposed to be anymore, even when it was objectively very difficult to tell what his drawing was supposed to be. And the more isolated Alister became, the stronger his attachment became to the New-Friends Bench. And since Alister was the only one who ever sat on the New-Friends Bench, and the only one who had ever sat on the New-Friends Bench, and since there was no reasonable standard by which the kids who had been his friends at the daycare could still be considered his friends, the New-Friends Bench really had become the No-Friends Bench. And Alister had been the first one to call it that! As a joke! When he was being a sass! The irony was not lost on him. But he kept sitting on the New/No-Friends Bench every day at every playtime, waiting for something or, possibly, or possibly probably, nothing.
It felt to Alister like months since the New-Friends Bench had appeared on the Childsmile Daycare’s playground and utterly disrupted his life, but it hadn’t even been a full week yet. He had first seen the New-Friends Bench on Monday morning and now it was the following Friday evening and he was riding home in the car with his mom for the weekend.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Alister’s mom, the concern she’d been showing on her face for the last few days finally finding its voice. “I’ll pay you to stop sitting on that bench. You were right, it is a stupid idea and I shouldn’t have let Ms. Dot’s pride in her own stupid idea convince me to pressure you into trying to validate it.”
“I don’t want your money,” said Alister, fiddling around with a tire pressure gauge he’d found in the glove compartment.
“Well, what will it take to get you to stop sitting on that bench then?” asked his mom. “When are you going to go back to playing and having fun with your friends?”
“When I make some new friends,” said Alister.
“But how is that going to happen?” asked his mom.
“When they see that I’m on the bench and I’m lonely and invite me to play with them,” said Alister.
“But Ms. Dot said that every other kid in the whole daycare has invited you to play with them,” said Alister’s mom.
“I don’t want to play with any of them,” said Alister. “I want better options. I don’t just want new friends, I want better friends.”
“Better than who?” asked his mom.
“Better than the other kids,” said Alister. “Better than everyone. Better than me.”
“Well, that’s not realistic,” said Alister’s mom. “There’s no such thing as a perfect friend, Alister. You’ll be sitting on that bench forever if your standard is that high. Besides, even if these better friends existed, how would they find you on that bench? They don’t go to your daycare, apparently.”
Alister didn’t answer. Instead, he pouted. His mom didn’t understand, a fact that she confirmed beyond a doubt when she sighed and, apparently speaking to herself, said, “I don’t know why she doesn’t just have that stupid bench removed.”
On Monday morning, Ms. Dot introduced a new kid to the rest of the kids at the Childsmile Daycare in Multioak. “Kids,” she said. “This is Alexi.”
“Hello,” said Alexi with a small, confident wave. His voice was rich and subtly accented. He wore snazzy clothes that nevertheless looked as if they had cost the same amount as everyone else’s clothes. His hair was thick, short, and dark. He had penetrating, soulful eyes, a sympathetic mouth, and an authoritative chin. He was one inch shorter than Alister.
Alexi did nothing to distinguish himself during the regular morning activities, making pleasant small talk and answering questions about himself when asked. Alister, isolated as he was, did not interact with Alexi at all, but he watched him from within his bubble. Could this be the new friend he had hoped for? He seemed like a strong candidate. But what if he didn’t ask Alister if he wanted to play with him? What if no one explained the New-Friends Bench to him? That seemed like a distinct possibility considering how all the other kids ignored it now.
Morning Playtime arrived and the kids ran outside. The day was already hot and several of the kids yelped when they touched the metal and hard-plastic playground equipment that had been baking in the sun. Alister walked to the New-Friends Bench and sat down. He could feel the heat through the seat of his shorts as he scanned the playground for Alexi, wondering who he’d connect with first, who would be the first to latch onto him. As the exciting new kid, he would certainly have plenty of options, even the kids who usually played in sad pairs or by themselves would see him as an opportunity to change their status, to-
Alister’s thoughts came to a jarring halt. Alexi was walking toward him, a warm smile on his face, the sun blazing down on his gleaming hair.
“Hello,” said Alexi. “I don’t think we’ve met. You probably know that my name is Alexi, but what is yours?”
Alister again felt all of the eyes on the playground trained on him, felt his power in some measure restored. “I’m Alister.”
“It’s good to meet you, Alister,” said Alexi. “Would you like to play with me today?”
Alister considered the offer. It was true that Alexi was new, exciting, interesting. He seemed like a high-quality kid without being intimidating. And who knew when Alister would get another invitation like this? Maybe never. In fact, this seemed like the exact kind of invitation he had been waiting for without even realizing it.
“Why did you come talk to me?” asked Alister.
“Is this not the New-Friends Bench?” asked Alexi. “Does not the fact that you are sitting here mean that you are lonely and would like to play with a new friend?”
“Yes,” said Alister.
“So would you like to play with me today?” asked Alexi.
“No,” said Alister. “Sorry.”
Alexi’s face changed in small ways: at the corners of his eyes, the corners of his mouth, his brow, the forwardness of his chin. “You are absolutely certain, Alister?”
“Yes,” said Alister. “I don’t want to play with you.”
Alexi turned and walked over to Ms. Dot as the other kids went back to playing. Alexi had briefly renewed their interest in Alister and his vigil on the New-Friends Bench, but once Alexi was rejected, he became just the most recent among many. Alister couldn’t hear what Ms. Dot and Alexi were talking about, but when they’d finished, Alexi sat down on the time-out bench next to Ms. Dot and stared into space with his arms folded while Ms. Dot shot him mystified glances. And then, less than five minutes later, a man and a woman came out onto the playground from within the daycare. They were in good shape and they wore trend-conscious, if not trendy, active wear. The man’s hair was thinning but the woman’s was not.
“We’re here for our son,” said the woman. “We don’t want to put him in daycare after all.”
“Yes, how true,” said the man. “Come on, Alexi.” Neither of them had their son’s accent.
Alexi stood and joined his parents.
“Wait, hold on,” said Ms. Dot, flustered. “What’s going on? You’re pulling him out?”
“Yes,” said the woman.
“OK, that’s fine, but wait,” said Ms. Dot.
But Alexi and his family did not wait. They went back inside the daycare. Ms. Dot stayed frozen for a few moments, then hurried after them. A minute later, she came back outside to the playground to find all the kids looking at her with expectation. “They’re gone,” said Ms. Dot.
Alister sat alone on the New-Friends Bench for the remainder of Morning Playtime and for all of Afternoon Playtime and no one else spoke to him.
The next morning, Ms. Dot introduced a new kid to the rest of the kids at the Childsmile Daycare in Multioak. “Kids,” she said. “This is Aaron.” Her voice, facial expression, and posture all radiated unease.
“Hello,” said Aaron. His accent was not quite as strong as Alexi’s had been. His wave was slightly bigger than Alexi’s had been but also slightly less confident. He had authoritative eyes, a soulful mouth, and a sympathetic chin. Aaron looked to be around one inch taller than Alister. His interactions with the other students were not as smooth as Alexi’s had been, but Alister suspected that was mostly because the other kids were weirded out by him. And Alister did not wonder if Aaron would approach him on the New-Friends Bench at Morning Playtime. He knew that he would and, indeed, as soon as Alister took his place on the New-Friends Bench, Aaron headed directly for him.
“Your name is Alister?” asked Aaron.
“Good guess,” said Alister.
“One of the other kids told me,” said Aaron. “Would you like to play with me?”
“Why do you ask?” asked Alister. “How do you know I’m not just sitting on this bench because I’m tired?”
“No,” said Aaron. “You are sitting on the bench because you are lonely and you want to make a new friend.”
“What makes you so sure?” asked Alister.
“That is what the New-Friends Bench is for,” said Aaron. “Correct?”
Alister considered Aaron. Was he better than Alexi? Or just moderately different? Alister supposed that Aaron was perhaps superior to Alexi on paper, but his calculated nature made him less appealing over all.
“No,” said Alister. “I don’t want to play with you.”
Something flashed behind Aaron’s eyes, but he said nothing, just turned and walked toward Ms. Dot, who started to say something to him, but Aaron walked right past her and headed for the door leading into the daycare.
“Aaron, stop!” called Ms. Dot. “It isn’t time to go in yet!”
The door swung open and a man and a woman stepped out. Their clothing was complementary and casual, the tint on the woman’s sunglasses was not as dark as the tint on the man’s sunglasses.
“We’re here for our son, Aaron,” said the man. “Daycare isn’t for him, as it turns out.” Then he, his wife, and Aaron, his son, disappeared inside the daycare. Ms. Dot didn’t follow them. Instead, she turned to the kids, who were looking at her with expectation, and said, “There’s nothing to be worried about!” She didn’t look worried. She looked terrified.
The next morning, there were no new kids at the Childsmile Daycare in Multioak. Ms. Dot seemed like she was making a strong effort to be normal without crossing the line into “too cheerful.” The sense of relief in the room was palpable. Alister was relieved too, but also disappointed. Was this the end? Had Alexi and Aaron actually been the best there was to offer? There wasn’t even going to be an attempt to do better than Alexi and Aaron?
Ten minutes before Morning Playtime, Ms. Dot called Alister away from Morning Snack Time to talk to her in her office. Ms. Dot closed the door behind Alister, but she didn’t sit down or take her hand off of the door knob. “Alister,” she said. “I wanted to tell you that the New-Friends Bench is gone. I had some men come and take it away last night. You were right, it was a bad idea. And I’m sorry I ever brought it into our daycare. I let it go on too long because I thought you were just being a sass and I didn’t want to let a sass ruin my idea, but even if you were just being a sass, well, for once the sass was in the right and I was in the wrong and I wish I had seen that sooner, but the bench is gone now, so you can go back to playing with your friends. Or, if you still just want to sit, you can do that too. Or whatever you want to do, I don’t really care. OK?”
Alister said, “OK,” but he felt numb as he followed Ms. Dot out of the office. What would happen at Morning Playtime now? It was only minutes away and he had no one to play with, no New-Friends Bench to sit on, nothing. He looked at Kimber as she made tooth marks all over her carrot sticks without actually eating them. Even she was better off than Alister was now. She had her spot against the fence and she had whatever was going on inside of her head that she found so fascinating. Alister felt a longing for a spot to sit and fascinating thoughts well up inside of him. But a longing alone could never make anything so.
“Finish your snacks and clean up around your seat,” called Ms. Dot.
The kids did as they were told. Alister felt dazed as he threw his napkin and his paper cup into the garbage can, he felt disconnected from his own body.
“All right,” said Ms. Dot. “Everyone line up at the door. And when everyone is quiet, we’ll go outside for Morning Playtime.”
The kids lined up at the door. Alister was at the back of the line. There was some whispering, some giggling, and some shushing. Then there was quiet. Ms. Dot opened the door and the kids ran outside except for Alister, who was not in a hurry to discover what mundane horrors Morning Playtime now held for him.
“Hurry up, Alister,” said Ms. Dot, standing at the open door. “I have to get out there so I can keep an eye on everyone.”
“I want to stay inside,” said Alister.
“You can’t,” said Ms. Dot. “I have to keep everyone together.”
Alister walked toward the open door. He felt like he was walking in swamp sludge like the swamp sludge he’d heard that some people died in. He stepped outside. The first thing he noticed was that the other kids were not running and laughing and shouting. They were not playing. They were standing in a group by the slide and they were looking at the purple New-Friends Bench, there in its usual spot, and the kid who was waiting beside it.
Alister heard Ms. Dot make a noise behind him, a gasping sob. “Get away!” she shouted. “You don’t belong here! Get away!”
“Hello!” the kid by the New-Friends Bench called back. “My name is Alphonse!” His accent was more pronounced than Aaron’s but less pronounced than Alexi’s. As Alister approached Alphonse, he noticed that Alphonse had sympathetic eyes, an authoritative mouth, and a soulful chin, and that he was exactly Alister’s height, details which turned Alister’s stomach.
“Alister!” shouted Ms. Dot from behind him. “Don’t speak to him! Kids, get away from him! Get away from that bench!”
Alister ignored her. He walked up to Alphonse but he did not sit down on the New-Friends Bench. “Are you really the best there is?” asked Alister.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the best,” said Alphonse. “No one likes a bragger.” He smiled.
“But the changes are so little,” said Alister. “It’s just…splitting the difference. Little tweaks. Maybe that should tell me something. Maybe I should take the hint.”
“You do want new friends,” said Alphonse. “Don’t you?”
“I don’t know,” said Alister.
“Or do you just want to reject kids for never living up to a standard that not even you understand for the rest of your life?”
“No,” said Alister. “I don’t know.”
“I think you do know,” said Alphonse. “But you’ll never admit it.”
Ms. Dot was still shouting but she wouldn’t come any closer.
“Go ahead,” said Alphonse. “Sit down.”
Alister sat down on the New-Friends Bench.
“Do you want to play with me today?” asked Alphonse.
“No,” said Alister.
“How is that my fault?” shouted Alister. “Just because I don’t want to be friends with you, that’s my fault? It’s my fault that you’re all basically the same? I’m here! I’m trying to find a new friend! I’m sitting on the New-Friends Bench!”
“More like the No-Friends Bench,” said Alphonse, and he turned and walked toward the fence at the edge of the playground as two adults, a man and a woman in coordinated, comfortable clothes, clambered over it.
“We’ve decided against daycare for our son!” called the man with his hands cupped around his mouth.
“It just isn’t working out for our family!” called the woman.
Then all three of them – the man, the woman, and Alphonse – climbed back over the fence and out of sight.
As Alister sat back on the bench, he felt it accept him again, and he felt the stares of the other kids, the stares of his former friends, the shouts of Ms. Dot all bouncing off of him, ricocheting in all directions, falling spent and limp in the dirt.