by Stephen Measure
One wall of the principal’s office was filled from floor to ceiling with trophies and awards. Merit scholarships, sports championships, debate victories, band accomplishments, all locked behind a pane of glass. The light dim, Winston stepped closer to get a better look, ignoring his vague reflection in the glass. It was incredible how successful Ocean High was. That’s the reason he had chosen to enroll there. That’s the reason he stood there now in their principal’s office, backpack stuffed full of books, black trumpet case in hand.
He could have signed up for an online school. His mother had almost encouraged it, feeling guilty about the move that forced Winston to change schools the middle of his junior year. The move wasn’t her fault, of course. It wasn’t his dad’s fault either. It just was. People get laid off. Kids have to change schools. It happens. You deal with it and you move on.
Yes, he could have signed up for an online school, but everyone spoke so highly of Ocean High, and seeing the wall of accomplishments, Winston was beginning to understand why. He looked at a football trophy, five years old, the faceless boy on the top holding a ball in one hand as he held out the other to ward off tackles. Ocean High had won the championship every year for the last decade. Faceless boy after faceless boy perched atop trophy after trophy.
No one ever transferred away from Ocean High; that’s what everyone said, and that must be good, right? It was the main feeder school for all the state universities. Rumor was any student from Ocean High who wanted to attend college would automatically be granted admission. That’s how good it was. The college spokesmen all said that students from Ocean High made perfect college students because they arrived already thinking exactly how a college student is expected to think.
Probably an exaggeration, Winston thought, unable to understand how everyone in a school could be expected to think and act the same way.
To the right of the trophies hung various scholarly awards. Someone had won the national spelling bee. Winston looked at the picture attached to the plaque, a smiling girl with blonde hair. She seemed pretty, but there was something odd about her, something a little bit . . . off. Winston leaned in closer. Was it just a trick of the glass?
A woman’s face appeared suddenly in the glass next to him, causing Winston to jump back. Feeling silly, he turned to face the woman, Principal Malter, gray hair and thick glasses. She smiled as she held out a paper.
“Here’s your schedule,” she said. “We were able to find a spot for you in the band. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.”
Winston took the paper eagerly. Joining the band had been the main reason he had wanted to enroll here. Like everything else, Ocean High had the best band, and now he would be a part of it. It was an exciting thought, but also an intimidating one. Would he be good enough to win any parts? Or would he always be far back in the pack of other trumpet players?
“Thank you,” he told her.
She stood and watched him, the side of her face reflected in the glass pane to her right.
“Are we in the middle of class time right now?” Winston asked, feeling nervous at her attention. He didn’t like to be stared at, especially by adults.
“For some,” Principal Malter replied. “Others have lunch right now.”
“How about me?” Winston asked. He looked down at his schedule, eager for an excuse to look away from her.
“Oh, we have a student coming to show you around,” she said, which didn’t really answer his question. She was still watching him.
“Okay, I’ll just wait out in the foyer,” Winston told her, but as he started to turn toward the door, she grabbed his shoulder and held him in place.
“Ocean High has the right sort of students, Winston.” she told him, the smile still on her face. “The right sort of students who think the right sort of things.” Her grip tightened on his shoulder as her gaze intensified.
What is she looking for? Winston worried. Is there something wrong with me? I just want to play in the band.
“Are you the right sort of student, Winston?” she asked. “Do you think the right sort of things?”
Winston didn’t know how to reply. He didn’t know what she meant. She raised one of her eyebrows and continued to stare at him, not smiling anymore.
“Umm . . .” he said. But then the door to the office opened and a boy walked in, taking the principal’s attention away from Winston.
“Ah, Gary,” she said. “I was just explaining our school to Winston here. It’s a great school, isn’t it, Gary?”
“Of course,” the boy replied, his hands in the front pockets of trendy jeans.
The principal’s grip loosened on Winston’s shoulder and she took a step back. Winston let out the breath he’d been holding.
“Please show Winston around the school,” the principal said.
“Of course,” the boy replied again. “Follow me,” he told Winston as he turned back out the door.
“Oh, one more thing, Gary,” Principal Malter said.
“Yes?” Gary said, turning his head back to look at her.
“Make sure you show him Room E.”
“Of course,” he said. Then he looked back at Winston. “Follow me,” he repeated.
Winston hurried after Gary, eager to be away from the principal and her odd statements and her odd staring. The right sort of student? What was that supposed to mean?
Gary waved his arm at the foyer.
“This is the foyer,” he said.
“Okay,” Winston replied. There were a couple of large steps in the far corner against the wall, where a group of jocks huddled to one side, a cluster of cheerleaders sitting next to them. They all wore letterman jackets.
“Does the band get letterman jackets?” Winston asked.
“Of course, but they never wear them to school, of course.”
“Oh,” Winston said, disappointed.
“The cafeteria is through those doors,” Gary said, pointing at them. “And that is the main entrance, of course,” he said, pointing the other way.
There were two hallways that opened into the foyer. Gary led Winston toward one.
“This is the way to the band room,” he said.
Winston followed after, giving a passing glance to the cool kids on the steps of the foyer. The cheerleaders were all beautiful, clearly out of his league. The jocks looked big, larger than he was used to. Do they do steroids at this school? he wondered. Is that why they always win?
A jock looked up, his dark flattop reminding Winston of a bully from junior high. Winston looked away, afraid to make eye contact. I’m sure things will be different here, he told himself. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that Flattop was watching him as he left the foyer.
The hallway they entered felt too small, the ceiling shorter than normal, the walls tighter. Thankfully it was only half full, students wandering this way and that. Winston hated to think how crowded it could get when everyone was coming and going to class. The thought made him feel claustrophobic, but he brushed it aside. I’m sure it’ll be fine, he told himself.
Gary stopped next to a closed door with a large glass window in the top.
“Here’s the band room,” he said. “The woodwinds are in class right now.”
“They have a separate class?” Winston asked.
“Of course,” Gary replied, raising an eyebrow. “Don’t they always?”
“I don’t know,” Winston said. They hadn’t at his last school. But his last school hadn’t won any awards . . .
He looked through the window, unsurprised to see mainly girls filling the room; it was a woodwinds class after all. They all had their instruments to their lips, playing a single tone that sounded through the door—a single, constant, never-ending tone.
That’s an odd way to practice, Winston thought. I wonder why they’re doing that? Then he noticed two girls looking at him through the window, a pair of pretty, black-haired twins, one with a red bow in her hair and one with a pink. They both lowered their clarinets and smiled at him. Winston smiled back. This is going to be a great school! he said to himself before hurrying after Gary, who was already walking away.
I wonder how often the brass practices with the woodwinds, Winston was asking himself when Gary suddenly stopped, causing Winston to bump into him.
“Sorry,” Winston mumbled, taking a step back.
“Hey,” Gary said as he turned around to look at Winston, “do you want to meet our mascot? It’s a unicorn!”
Winston was about to laugh. A unicorn? What kind of a silly joke is that? But then he noticed the look in Gary’s eyes, a searching look, the same look Principal Malter had used. Is this some kind of initiation? Winston wondered. Some trick they like to play on their new students?
He decided to play along. “Okay,” he told Gary. “Sounds good.”
Gary nodded. “We keep it in Room E. It’s right this way.”
Winston followed after, shaking his head. This was the part of high school he hated. Shared jokes, shared enthusiasm, shared school spirit. Like some constant pep rally. It was annoying. He just wanted to play his trumpet, do good in school, and then leave. Well, and maybe date one of those cute clarinet twins. Or both of them. Winston smiled at the thought.
“Here it is,” Gary said, stopping beside a door. This one had no window to see inside. Winston looked at the sign to the door’s left: “EQUALITY.” It was written entirely in uppercase, the text so large it seemed to be shouting. So this is Room E? Winston thought. What a strange school.
Students continued to pass back and forth. None seemed to be paying any attention to him, which was good. Having to participate in a school joke was one thing, having everyone watch him be the butt of that joke was something else.
Gary smiled at Winston. “Here we are. Ready to see our unicorn?”
Winston smiled back. Play along, he told himself. “Of course,” he said, mimicking Gary. The right sort of students, the principal said. If being the right sort of student will let me play my trumpet in the band and date the clarinet twins then I—
Gary turned the door knob and pushed. The door slowly opened, revealing a single chair in the middle of the room.
It looked like some sort of dentist’s chair—a dentist’s chair with straps on its arms. Well, that’s a little disturbing, Winston thought; but then the door opened further, revealing their “unicorn.”
Winston laughed. Okay, he thought. Stupid joke or not, I have to admit that’s pretty funny.
But Gary stared silently at Winston. “Why are you laughing?” he asked, a penetrating look in his eyes.
Winston cocked his head and looked at the other student. “Listen,” Winston said, “I might be new here, but I’m no freshman. I get the joke. It’s funny. Your mascot is a unicorn. Ha ha.”
In Room E, standing on four legs by the window and eating a potted plant, was a donkey, a real live donkey, with a cardboard tube duct-taped to its head.
Gary continued to stare at Winston. “Why are you laughing? That’s our mascot. It’s a unicorn.”
Now he’s taking it a bit too far, Winston thought. He pointed at the donkey. “No,” he said. “That’s a donkey with a cardboard tube duct-taped to its head. Like I said, funny. Ha ha ha.”
“No,” Gary said, sounding forceful. “Look again. It has four hooves. It has a horn. That makes it a unicorn.”
Winston looked from the donkey to Gary. He can’t be serious, Winston thought, can he? “Lots of things have four hooves,” he said. “And you call that a real horn? It’s a cardboard tube! I’m telling you: that’s not a unicorn.”
But Gary just increased his forcefulness. “Look again,” he repeated. “You’ll see that it’s a unicorn. The right sort of students all see that it’s a unicorn. Look again. I’m sure you don’t really mean to say such hateful things.”
Winston took another glance into Room E. All he saw was a donkey with a cardboard tube duct-taped to its head.
“Hateful?” he said to Gary. “Reality isn’t hateful. Reality is reality, and reality is that that’s not a unicorn!”
Gary stood up straight, sucking in his breath. There was a dangerous look in his eyes.
“That . . . is . . . a . . . unicorn!” he said, speaking with weird tones and pauses as if he expected Winston to catch some hidden hint, but Winston was having none of it.
“No . . . that . . . is . . . not!”
“That is a unicorn!” Gary repeated, almost shouting now. Students were beginning to stop and watch the spectacle. Winston felt embarrassed. Great way to meet everyone, he thought.
“Listen, Gary, I don’t know what your problem is, but that’s obviously not a unicorn. I’m telling you: two plus two will never be five, and a donkey with a cardboard tube duct-taped to its head will never be a unicorn!”
Gary’s eyes widened and his face turned white. What a weirdo, Winston thought. But then Gary, standing straight, leaned his head back, pointed accusingly at Winston, and shrieked in a high-pitched voice: “BIGOT!”
Every student in the narrow hallway stopped and stared. The kid’s crazy, Winston thought, feeling his face turn red at the unwanted attention from the rest of the students. Bigot? I’m just telling him what it really is. That’s not a unicorn. That’s a donkey with a cardboard tube duct-taped to its head!
Gary continued his shrieking, his finger pointed at Winston, his eyes bearing down on him.
Great, Winston thought, just great. My first day of school and I give a classmate a nervous breakdown. Great start, Winston. You’re sure going to make friends here.
There was a thud, followed by another thud and another. Surprised, Winston looked away from Gary at the students who surrounded him in the hallway, every one of them dropping their textbooks and bags to the floor.
What in the world?
There was a silent pause, and then every student straightened their backs, tilted back their heads, pointed at Winston, and shrieked in a high tone: “BIGOT!”
Winston covered his ears.
They were all around him, staring, pointing, shrieking.
What’s going on?
Their eyes looked murderous, every finger pointed at him.
Then someone grabbed his backpack and the crowd surged in. Panicking, Winston tugged his backpack free and began to run toward the foyer.
The shrieks followed after.
Passing others in the hallway, Winston saw them stand straight and begin to point.
He ran past the band room, students already coming out the doorway. The black-haired twins were there in the hall, backs straight, fingers pointed, shrieking at him, their red and pink bows quivering to the high-pitched tone: “BIGOT!”
Winston ran as fast as he could, making it to the foyer a moment before the mass of shrieking students. The jocks and cheerleaders were all standing in front of the foyer steps, and the administrators had exited the principal’s office and were standing too, blocking the front entrance. Principal Malter was there with the rest, everyone staring at Winston. The shrieks had almost reached him from the hallway.
“They’re crazy!” he panted, resting with his hands on his knees. “They showed me some donkey and claimed it was a unicorn and then—”
Everyone in the foyer—the jocks, the cheerleaders, the administrators—everyone straightened their backs, tilted back their heads, pointed, and shrieked: “BIGOT!”
“Oh, no,” Winston said as they all moved forward, shrieking students exiting the cafeteria, administrators blocking the front entrance, those in the hallway behind about to reach him. He looked around quickly. Flattop and the rest of the jocks were almost to him. Looking above the pointing cheerleaders, he saw the other hallway. It was his best chance. He sprinted forward and, feeling like a complete douchebag for doing it, he swung his trumpet case like crazy, tumbling cheerleaders in all directions as he plowed through to the hallway beyond.
The crowd stumbled over the fallen cheerleaders and Winston was able to make a quick left into another hallway, which was empty. Knowing he had only seconds, he scanned the hall, finding a janitor closet to his left. He hurried inside and closed the door.
“BIGOT!” the shrieks filled the hallway, along with the sound of rushing feet as the entire crowd hurried past.
“I hate public school. I hate public school. I hate public school,” Winston whimpered in the dark, his heart feeling ready to burst. Please don’t look in the closet. Please don’t look in the closet. Please don’t look in the closet. Please don’t look in the closet.
No one did. And a moment later, the hallway was silent.
I’ve got to get out of here, Winston told himself. He opened the door a crack and looked down the hallway. Empty. Silent. Opening it a little further, he peeked his head in the opposite direction.
No one was there.
Quickly, he left the closet and tiptoed across the hallway to an open classroom. He peeked his head into the room and then, seeing no one, hurried inside. There were two windows on the far wall. Sunlight shone through and he could see green grass beyond, the normality of the scene strange after the past few moments of insanity. Then he noticed the chalk board and he froze. The word “conform” was written over and over again, covering every inch.
“I thought this brainwashing BS wasn’t supposed to start until college,” he said. Then, mimicking Gary’s voice, he mocked, “The right sort of students all see that it’s a unicorn. The right sort of students all see that it’s a unicorn.” He grunted. “The right sort of students? Ha. More like weak-minded idiots. What a bunch of blind, bandwagon-following morons.”
Even the cute clarinet twins, he thought, feeling regret. All the cool kids? Sure. They just follow the flow, no surprise there. But the cute twins? That was disappointing.
He hurried to a window, found the latch, and tried to turn it, but it was stuck and wouldn’t move. For a moment he imagined the horde of shrieking students finding him trapped there in the room. What will they do to me? he wondered. Is that what the chair in Room E is for? He pulled harder and eventually the latch turned. Relieved, he opened the window, quietly dropped his backpack and trumpet case to the ground outside, and then scurried after.
Bushes lined the school on this side. He crouched low and picked up his things. “I hate public school. I hate public school. I hate public school,” he whispered as he looked and listened for any sign of his shrieking classmates.
There was no sound.
Ahead of him was an open grass field, large enough to be a football field but unmarked, used for some other purpose. Past the grass field was the parking lot. If I can just make it to the parking lot, then I can hide among the cars and sneak out the gate, he thought.
He took a deep breath and then started jogging across the grass, but something back at the building caught his eye. There, poking its head out an open window, was the donkey, noisily chewing on the bushes outside. It must have knocked its cardboard “horn” as it reached its head through the window, because now the tube hung to one side, the duct tape almost falling off.
“Oh, come on!” Winston said, stopping to look. “The duct tape is starting to come off! Look at it! It’s a donkey! Just look! That’s not a unicorn!”
The grass all around Winston began to ripple.
What’s going on? he asked himself. He tried to step back, but his foot got caught. Looking down, he saw a hand clutching his shoe. Winston yelped and jumped back, where another hand through the grass grabbed at him. He kicked it and spun around. Hands were becoming arms, shoulders, and then heads as students pulled themselves up out of the ground. Their skin was rotted, their backpacks tattered.
“bbbi-i-igggo-o-ottt . . .” they moaned, rising to their feet. “bbbi-i-igggo-o-ottt . . .”
“What is wrong with this school?” Winston yelled. “Pod people and zombies?”
Winston swung around in a circle, his trumpet case at the ready. The zombie students had all risen from the ground and were closing in, teeth chomping, arms outstretched.
“What?” Winston said. “Do you want me to deny reality? Is that what students are expected to do here? Well, I won’t! That’s not a unicorn, okay? Maybe you all like to pretend it is, but it’s not!”
“bbbi-i-igggo-o-ottt . . .” they moaned, coming closer. “bbbi-i-igggo-o-ottt . . .”
Winston swung his trumpet case, knocking the closest zombie student to the ground. The parking lot was a minute’s run away.
Winston winced as he heard the high shriek and saw a stream of students sprinting out one side of the school. Flattop led the way, along with the rest of the jocks.
That came from the other side, two streams of shrieking students now angling toward Winston, the zombie students shuffling closer.
“That’s it!” Winston said. “Screw marching band! I’m signing up for an online school!”
A hand grabbed his backpack, but he shrugged the bag off, throwing his trumpet case in the face of the closest student. He raced toward the parking lot, zigzagging through the students as he dodged grasping hands.
“BIGOT!” the sprinters shrieked.
“bbbi-i-igggo-o-ottt . . .” the zombies moaned.
“bbbi-i-igggo-o-ottt . . .”
Winston ran as fast as he could, his lungs straining, the parking lot getting closer. Defiant, he yelled over his shoulder. “That’s not a bleeping unicorn!”
* * *
Meanwhile, the donkey continued to enjoy its snack of green bushes outside Room E’s window. They tasted so much better than the potted plants it was normally given. Then it noticed a flower on the ground between the bushes. Straining to reach it, the donkey pushed its body further through the window, but something on its head got caught within the bushes and something sticky pulled on its hair. The donkey shook its head in irritation and was relieved to feel the stickiness come loose and whatever had been on its head fall off. Content, it bent down and bit the flower from its stem.