By Douglas James Troxell
The purple backpack in question lay in a heap on Principal Neil Dietrich’s desk. The graphic (the one that had caused all the trouble) faced the principal. The happy, smiling faces of the cartoon ponies seemed to be mocking him. Mrs. Plimpet and her son, Henry, were not smiling. The divorced mother of three sat in her chair, her arms crossed over her chest, her rolls of fat spilling over the armrests like a garbage bag full of mashed potatoes. Her pudgy son sat next to her, mouth agape, slouched down cradling his 3DS in his chubby hands.
Principal Dietrich leaned forward and folded his hands on the desk. “So what can I do to make you feel better about the situation?”
“You can resign,” Mrs. Plimpet said immediately.
Dietrich did not move a muscle. This came from decades of experience. He had trained himself to swallow his rage on command, to bury it beneath the skin without betraying any exterior evidence of the fury growing within.
His desk phone rang. It was the interior ring so he knew it was Miss Johnson, his secretary. He held up a finger to Mrs. Plimpet, grateful for the interruption.
“Yes?” he said into the phone.
“Your—umm—wife on line one,” Miss Johnson said.
Again Dietrich swallowed his anger. This time it took all the will power he possessed. Her timing was spectacular. His wife (soon to be ex-wife as soon as the paperwork was finalized) always seemed to know the most inconvenient time to call. She knew better than to call his office phone directly; he wouldn’t answer. The last time they had spoken they had argued about who was getting the SUV even though he hated the damn thing. Her voice was the last thing he wanted to hear at the moment.
He gave orders to hold all calls until his meeting with Mrs. Plimpet was finished. He turned his attention back to the large woman and her marshmallow son.
“Now Mrs. Plimpet, I understand you’re upset—” he said.
“Of course I’m upset! My son’s constitutional rights are being violated!”
He sighed and refolded his hands on the desk. Five years ago all it would have taken to settle the situation would have been a simple apology. Ten years ago it wouldn’t have been a problem at all. Now parents were under the impression that nothing bad should ever happen to their children—ever—and when it did they were happy with nothing less than a resignation.
“I’m not sure My Little Pony merchandise is mentioned in the Constitution,” Dietrich said in a clear, calm voice.
The office filled with high-pitched beeps that broke the tension hanging like dense fog over the room. Dietrich assumed Plimpet and her son had forgotten to silence their phones, but then he realized his cell phone was beeping in unison with the others, which was odd because he knew he’d silenced his phone before the meeting. All three checked the message.
The message was the same for all three. It read: “Emergency Alert! Dangerous creatures spotted in vicinity of Copperton High School. Police advise all citizens to stay indoors.”
The news didn’t come as a total surprise. There had been strange reports of similar creatures roaming areas all over the country, one occurring the previous week two counties over. The scientific community refused to speculate on what the creatures may be, but most witnesses claimed the creatures were feline in nature and seemed impervious to all conventional firearms. They were the size of tigers but green in color with brown stripes, making it difficult to track them in the woods. No one was sure where they had come from. All attempts to take one down or kill one had so far been unsuccessful. Bullets couldn’t penetrate their skin and explosions just pissed them off. Everyone online was calling them “bulletproof tigers,” which seemed as good a name as anything else.
The strange news slowed the conversation, but it didn’t take Mrs. Plimpet long to recover. “I plan on taking this matter to the school board,” she said.
Dietrich’s desk phone erupted. He checked the digital display, confirming the worst. It was his wife. He silenced the phone and put her on hold, anxious to see how long he could keep her waiting before she finally gave up.
“Getting the school board involved is unnecessary,” Dietrich told Mrs. Plimpet. “I’m sure we can figure this out right here, right now.”
“What’s to figure out? When a student’s being bullied, you punish the victim rather than his tormenters.”
“Now that’s not true. All three boys who were involved in the incident were punished for their actions.”
He wheeled around in his chair to retrieve the incident file. His eyes drifted over the filing cabinet to the small window in his office. He caught a glimpse of the beautiful day outside: plenty of sun with a pleasant breeze. It was golfing weather. He would have loved to be out on the greens with a cold brew in his hand instead of stuck inside trying to appease another raging parent. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been golfing.
Two more years, he told himself. Two more years of this shit and then I’m free.
Dietrich wheeled back around and flipped through the incident report. “Here we go. The two boys who participated in the event each received three days OSS and the main instigator received a week’s worth.”
“Yes, well that doesn’t change the fact that you stripped my son of his First Amendment rights! How are you being punished?”
Breathe, he told himself, breathe.
“Please, Mrs. Plimpet, I merely suggested Henry no longer wear the book bag in question since it makes him such a target for these boys. I in no way banned him from wearing it or hindered him in any way—”
“My son is a Brony, Mr. Dietrich, and I’m proud of him for standing up for what he believes in. My Little Pony teaches young people about friendship and sharing and the importance of playing a positive role in the world. Now what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, but I think it’s important Henry realizes that there are consequences for his actions. By wearing the book bag, he is more likely to draw negative attention from his peers.”
“And it’s your job to keep this school safe!”
“It certainly is, but we can’t force the children to be nice to one another. It’s just not realistically in our realm of control!”
Dietrich’s rising voice was met by the sound of shattering glass out in the hallway, followed by crunching metal and an ear-piercing shriek. The scream was answered by a deep rumbling roar that froze the principal’s blood. He rushed out of his office into the bullpen area that served as the school’s main office. Miss Johnson lay cowering under her desk. He marched to the office door and stepped into the hallway.
The creature sat crouched over its kill, slurping greedily at the puddle of blood splattered across the checkered floor. It was impossible to tell who the victim was. The only thing Dietrich could tell for certain was that it had been an adult female because of the discarded high heels, one of which still contained the stump of a foot. Other than that she was nothing more than a pile of blood and meat and hair.
The creature itself was straight out of a nightmare. The green and brown coloring was about the only thing that made sense. There was certainly something feline about the creature; it was the same size and build of a large jungle cat, but that’s where the similarities stopped. Its eyelids were inverted like a reptile and when it ate it seemed to unhinge its jaw like a snake as it sucked in huge slabs of meat much larger than its own head. In this way it was able to finish its meal in a few bites. Whatever the creature was, it was something new.
A loud click next to him returned Dietrich to reality. Henry and his mother stood hanging out the doorway, snapping pictures of the creature with their phones. The creature turned toward the noise and spotted the trio. It unhinged its jaw and unleashed a hissing sound like air leaking from a balloon and began to stalk its prey. Their terror kept them cemented to the floor.
The creature crouched, ready to pounce, but before it could move in for the kill a dozen National Guardsmen dressed in camouflage fatigues turned the corner of the hallway and drew its attention.
“There it is!” one of the soldiers shouted.
They opened fire with their M4 carbines just as Dietrich pulled Henry and his mother into the relative safety of the office. The hallway became a cacophony of noise. The bullets pinged and dinged off the creature’s skin as if it was made of steel. It unleashed a high-pitched screech like a steam whistle that shattered all the windows in the hallway and then leapt through the air in a graceful leap, barreling into the soldiers. Then the hallway was nothing but fangs and claws and screams and spraying blood.
When the creature finished off the last of the Guardsmen, it turned the corner and disappeared down the hallway. The floors were wet with a crimson river. Dietrich and Mrs. Plimpet peeked out into the hallway and surveyed the mess. The amount of meat on the floor rivaled that of any reputable butcher shop. That the mess on the floor had once been actual human beings seemed incomprehensible.
Henry was already back in Dietrich’s office Tweeting the pictures of the creatures while Mrs. Johnson remained curled in a ball under her desk. Dietrich and Mrs. Plimpet slunk back to the office, returning automatically to their seats as if they were puppets on strings. Neither spoke. A high-pitched screech broke the silence. Dietrich stood and looked out the window toward the noise. The bulletproof tiger raced through the parking lot closing in on a frightened news crew. Dietrich returned to his seat as the screams rang out and were suddenly silenced—forever.
“So,” Dietrich said.
“So,” Mrs. Plimpet echoed.
“Where were we? Oh, yes, the—uh—book bag—”
Mrs. Plimpet stood. “Yeah, I think we’re actually going to—umm—get going.”
She grabbed her son and dragged him to the door. The My Little Pony book bag still lay on the desk.
“Mom! My book bag!” Henry shouted.
But she didn’t even pause until she reached the hallway. She glanced cautiously down both hallways as if she were about to cross a busy street and then scurried down the side of the hallway that wasn’t drenched in blood.
The light on the desk phone continued to flash. Dietrich answered it. It was his soon-to-be ex-wife. She was still on the line.
“Oh thank God. Are you—ok?” she asked.
“Yes. I’m fine.”
They both listened to the other breath into the phone, no words passing between them.
“I love you,” she said finally said.
“I love you, too,” he said.
And then he hung up. He sat staring at nothing for a long time. After a few minutes he finally stood and turned to face the window. But it wasn’t the mangled corpses of the news crew that held his gaze. No, it was the clear blue sky interrupted only intermittingly with small wisps of cirrus clouds that seemed to glide on the currents of gentle breeze. He smiled and exited the office, leaving his briefcase behind his desk.
“If anyone calls, tell them I left early,” he said to Mrs. Johnson. “I’m going golfing.”