The next morning was once again cold and drizzling. From mom and I’s bedroom, I judged that today would be a cold walk to school. And I was right. It was chilly, the mist soaking through me much like it had a few days ago. But this day, the sun broke through. It warmed me and brushed away the mist like dust bunnies before an invisible broom.
So I was in a good mood when I met with Aaliyah. We didn’t talk any more about the strange principal. Instead I was a goof, telling jokes, walking backwards, and doing everything to make my princess laugh. She did easily, and it was lovely to see. Then, after I imitated a kung-fu movie on a tree, she held me pluck some twigs out of my hair.
I was so happy when we reached school. Sure, there was disaster tape everywhere. Were classes even happening? We hadn’t received any calls to cancel but I was hoping to be turned around. Another day at Aaliyah’s would be great. We could sprawl on her bed. She would braid her hair. I would watch, mesmerized, and –
“Yo!” Aaliyah waved a hand before my face. “Earth to Kyrie! Come on!”
I startled. We were just walking across the grounds, picking our way through the path – but there was a security guard walking towards us. My heart jumped for joy. I grinned. School must be canceled. “Race you to him!” I cheered.
“Wait!” Aaliyah said, but it was too late. I was bolting towards the security guard. Who, as I rushed closer, I realized was not a security guard but a police officer. Who was in a terrible mood.
I slowed to a walk and bounced to a stop before him. “Is,” one look at that face and yeah, Aaliyah had been right. What a dumb idea. “School canceled?”
The police officer gave me a long, hard, look. I shriveled down into myself and looked to the side. For once, I thought, I haven’t done anything wrong.
But then again… I looked at the school’s tower. I gulped.
The cop looked us over condescendingly, then proclaimed our last names.
Aaliyah, now beside me, nodded in time with me. The cop nodded. “The principal has asked for you to meet him in his office.”
“Her,” Aaliyah said, not able to let a mistake slide by. “Her office.”
The police officer frowned. “It said Mister Mackmaney’s office on the door.”
I flinched. “He just got replaced,” I mumbled.
The officer scowled. Holding out an arm, he gestured for us to lead the way. We did.
And whoa, the school was such a mess. Debris was everywhere, but also paper cups and straws and what I guess you could call ‘journalist debris’. Or maybe ‘onlooker debris’. Or… I wasn’t sure but people had been loitering.
We walked around the side of the building and went into the entry closest to the principal’s office. Once inside, it was shocking how untouched everything was. Here, the floors were still pristine. The lights even seemed stronger than before, shining with strength and vigor that stung the eyes.
The secretary rushed over. In a gush she thanked the police officer. With a grunt that clearly said he had better things to do than herd teenagers, he marched back out the building.
Blinking and wincing at the lights (they really were strong!) the secretary looked at us. She was sympathetic – but not quite enough as I felt she ought to be. “They’re waiting for you. The both of you. Your parents should be here soon.”
“Parents?” Aaliyah said.
“We just got here!” I said. By which I meant we hadn’t had the chance to cause trouble yet. But I didn’t say all that so I sounded like an idiot.
“Just,” the secretary shook her head and gestured to the door. “Come on, dears.”
Uh-oh. You know it’s bad when they call you ‘dear’.
Shuffling and hesitant, we walked into the secretary’s office. Beyond the door and the frosted glass walls that separated their offices, I could clearly hear a loud woman’s voice. She was very angry. Then, conciliatory, I heard the principal humming.
Even her humming was weird.
We sat in the chairs by the door. We put our backpacks on our laps. We waited. The infernal humming continued. The woman, now sobbing, exclaimed loudly about something or other. More humming.
The door burst open. Aaliyah’s mother marched in, breezy skirts swirling and curly hair poking out in all directions. “Aa-li-yah!” she intoned angrily. “What is this about?”
We both cowered. Me more than her, I’ll admit. “I don’t know! Mom, I swear!” Aaliyah protested, rising to her feet. Her mother pointed back to the chair. Aaliyah sat. Her mother turned to the secretary. “I had to close my shop,” she began to explain. “This had better be important!”
The secretary nodded empathetically. “It is.” Aaliyah’s mother swelled. The secretary gestured to a chair. “Please have a seat ma’am. She’ll get to you as soon as possible.”
Which, apparently, wasn’t soon at all. An hour passed. Time trickled by. But to my horror, things got a bit clearer. Because after about fifteen minutes Gertrude arrived, mother and father in tow. Then, after half an hour, my mom rushed in, hair askew and out of breath. She, unlike the other parents, didn’t have a car so she’d done the walk - apparently in quite the hurry.
Sweaty, clammy, she looked at me quizzically then turned to the secretary. She was told the same thing, which was that the principal would meet with us soon.
The dreadful humming continued from beyond the door. Now the woman who’d just been complaining was sobbing. I started to have a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“Here mom,” I rose and gave her my seat. Gratefully, she accepted it. I stood next to her, leaning against the principal’s doorway. Doing my very best to appear nonchalant, I tried to eavesdrop. But the walling had been made so that sneaky people like me wouldn’t overhear.
And then Sammy and his mom walked in. My gut vanished. My eyes met with Aaliyah’s. Oh crap.
“What is this about?” Aaliyah’s mother asked, recognizing what I easily did. Looking around the room, she ogled each of us ‘kids’. “Did you all do something?”
“No,” we all fibbed.
“Shit!” declared Gertrude, fiddling with her bracelets. She was nervous.
Just then the door opened. The principal appeared, sparkling in a new blue-ish green suit that had, you guessed it, sequins on it. But oh, there was rhinestones too!
“Oh great!” she said, tapping her fingers together as if this was a nice party. “You’re all here. Come in, come in.”
“Uh,” the secretary said, but no one paid attention. I poked my head quickly into the principal’s office and saw Lucas and his mother sitting there. Before I could curse in horror, I was nearly trampled by Aaliyah’s mother rushing by.
Within a matter of minutes, we’d all crammed into the office. Hint: we did not really fit.
“Uh,” the principal said, obviously not having thought this through. In the middle of it all, Lucas rocked himself and started to cry some more. I tried to shush him but his mother gave me the nastiest look. I slunk back – and bumped straight into the secretary.
“Keys!” she yelped, holding a set aloft. “For the meeting room!”
“Oh!” the principal said happily. “What a good idea! Thank you, secretary.”
Beet-red in the face said secretary turned around and walked back to her desk. I felt bad for her.
“Alright! Shoo shoo! We’re going to,” the principal held up the key and read the number taped onto it. “Room 1B! Alright!” and she clapped her hands.
Disbelief marked the adults’ face. They turned round, jostled each other, squeezed us children, and popped out of the tiny office. Like a bunch of chickens searching for a lost egg we walked down the hall to room 1A, then 1B.
“Ah!” the principal happily marched over. “Here we go!” and she cheerfully unlocked the door. Then, in perhaps the first shred of decent behavior I’d seen from her, she held the door open for everyone.
We all filed in. The room was occupied by a long rectangular table. We all began taking seats on one side, close to the door. I made a point of sitting next to Aaliyah, and mom sat on the other side of me. The principal shut the door, locked it, then went around the table to sit opposite us all.
Then she sat down. Her sequins and rhinestones sparkled. The light felt stronger than before. My eyes hurt. But somehow, the principal appeared less plastic. Her eyes seemed brown instead of orange. “So,” she said gently “You must all be very worried.”
“What is this about?” Aaliyah’s mom demanded.
“Ah, madame Lacshmire came to see me early this morning,” the principal began in a surprisingly soothing voice. “She was here, very early, and when I arrived she told me about- well- what all of your children did yesterday. Her son, Lucas, had told her about it last night, and so she came to see me this morning.”
Oh, crap. A dull buzzing filled my brain. No, Lucas, no!
The principal tapped her black nails on the desk’s hardwood surface. “Your children caused the fire in the tower yesterday. Which, was what caused it to explode.”
There was a shocked silence. Then, Gertrude’s father erupted. “My daughter, she may be special needs, but she is not a trouble maker! How dare you? Gertrude- did you set the fire yesterday?”
Gertrude began to sob. Instantly.
The principal rapped her nails on the table some more. “As I was saying to Madame Lacshmire, this school has a long-standing tradition of being accepting and understanding of its, ah, special needs students if you will. However, I think,”
“My daughter is not like that!” Aaliyah’s mother barked. “These are good children! They do not cause trouble!”
The principal smiled suddenly. It actually took me by surprise. She looked so amused – and then that smile vanished. “Sometimes children engage in risky behavior after they bloom,” she said sweetly. “It’s very normal, but altogether unacceptable.”
All heads at the table looked at me. My mom, pointedly, did not start shouting that her kid was a good kid and would do no such thing. Instead, she whispered softly. “You set the fire?”
“N-no!” I protested.
“They did not set the fire,” the principal interrupted silkily. “But they did trespass onto forbidden grounds and knock over an old lamp filled with unstable aether. It caught fire, and they ran out. Unfortunately, due to old spellwork in the room, it exploded.”
Gertrude’s parents were covering their mouth and swearing all the words their daughter loved to shout. Sammy was now rocking himself. His parents had a hand on each of his shoulders as if to protect him from the horrors of the situation. “But our child can’t have done that!” they cried out.
Here the principal’s smirk returned. “Of course not. It is my understanding from what,” she gestured to Lucas’ mom “madame said, that your children were herded and bribed along by one student in particular.” And she laid eyes on me.