I hate the first day at a new school.
The law-and-order vice-principal stands guard as students file in bleating warnings at those already in jeopardy. High-water plaid pants, bow tie and a head so bald, he gleams under the fluorescent light. His eyebrows climb north and I swear his paunch quivers when he spots me. His nose twists as though sniffing road-kill. He stares at my outfit: the long paisley print skirt borrowed from Granny’s closet, her sleeveless, tie-dyed shirt and long strings of clattery beads.
Mr. My-Way-Or-The-Highway growls, “What are you supposed to be? It’s not Halloween.” I felt Gran’s big red shoulder bag nestle itself closer to me. Aww, he’s scaring the walkers. They live in her tote bag.
“You look like a hippie throwback, missy.”
A wide-shouldered, bowlegged jock laughs, pulls my long, bushy hair and rasps, “You got something living in there?” I jerk away.
“What’s your name?” says Mr. L&O.
“Hollyhock Laferty,” I say, keeping my voice quiet but staring directly at him. Granny says my orangey-brown eyes are my secret weapon. The walkers hold secrets, too, but she hasn’t told me what they are.
Mr. L&O gives a gravel-throated, “Uh-huh,” as though my name proves him right somehow. “I’m Mr. Badger and I’ll be watching you. Get to your homeroom but, first, that bag’s as big as a backpack and no one’s allowed to carry a backpack. Put it in your locker.”
The jock pushes me but I dodge his hand reaching for the bag and hurry on. I’m not putting them in a locker; I’ll just have to steer clear of Badger.
Gran and I live in her rec-vee, short for recreational vehicle. When we stop at a crafters’ market longer than a month, Gran makes me go to Real School as well as Cyber School. Real School’s not a good fit. Gran’s the best teacher; she knows about planets and history and books and art. And walkers.
I discovered the bright red tote bag in the rec-vee’s storage hatch, fascinated that its sides bulged and seem to breathe. Inside were pale pink, yellow, orange, green and blue creatures about half the size of my hand snuggled on top of each other breathing as one with a rhythm slow and easy like the quietest summer sea. I took the bag to Granny who said, “I’ve been saving them for you.”
“What are they? Did you make them?”
Her soft, tinkling laugh sounds like a gentle breeze through wind chimes. “No, my darling, these are yours, a souvenir from your parents’ last, long, strange trip.”
“Before they disappeared?” I asked.
“I prefer to think they found a better place, the home of these lovely, gentle creatures.”
“But why didn’t they take me?”
“They will… when they return.” That’s all she’d say except, “These creatures hold a secret. Watch.” She reached inside the bag and chose two of the creatures whose eyes opened as soon as she touched them. She held them carefully then raised her arm and flung them towards the wall. They untangled themselves and began a slow crawl down the wall, across the floor and into her hand.
“Take the bag to your next school and, if there’s trouble, throw a few at the wall and watch what happens.” She winked but said no more about their secret.
Everything goes well that morning, but, after lunch, I walk into English class and trouble is on the white board. Someone made a freaky likeness of the teacher, a woman with Brillo curly red hair, and a bald man with a sizeable paunch kissing. I notice the jock slouching in his seat, smirking.
The teacher screams nonstop and Badger barrels into the classroom and eyes everyone until the jock nods at me.
“Stand up.” Badger’s voice cracks. “None of these students has the talent for art I saw in your portfolio.” He steps closer. “I’ll have you suspended for this disrespect, this… this character assassination.”
A boy in the back of the room grabs his chest, groans as if shot and falls on the floor. The jock chortles, high and loud. Badger swings around to scold then spies my red bag. At his grab, the bag falls open. I breathe a sob of frustration, reach down for a fistful and lob them at the wall.
The wriggling creatures hit the white board with a wet sound, like a hungry creature smacking its lips. After several seconds, the students erupt in shouts and hoots as long transparent legs, like bean sprouts, grab onto the white board and slowly creep downward.
Badger gawps as the creatures march across the floor to where I now sit holding the bag open for them. The walkers near the end of the line crawl over Badger’s shoes to disappear under his pant legs. He smacks his legs then jerks up his pants to peel them off. They jump onto his hands and continue up his arms to his neck, into his ears, his mouth. His neck bulges, nostrils flare, eyelids flicker and his eyes roll back in his head. He freezes then his face begins to change.
The walkers’ secret makes us gasp. The wrinkles around Mr. Badger’s eyes, his frown lines and two deep grooves from nose to chin relax and slowly disappear as a look of serenity and youth transform his features. His hair grows in. He’s… almost handsome… almost.
The creatures stretch in delight as they clamber back into the bag. Badger awakes with a start like someone on a bus who jerks awake after he’s passed his stop. He looks around then down at me. His face beams a smile so new it crackles. “Gentle Hollyhock,” he croons. “What a joy you are to have in our school.” The bell rings.
The walkers settle themselves for a nap and I close the bag except for a few I tuck into my hair. I hurry to my next class behind the jock.
MaryAlice Meli: teacher, reporter, writer, dreamer.