A Free Lunch
by Lauren Freeman
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
She had heard rumors about the Principal’s ability to produce whatever food product the recipient desired. But she had dismissed this as rumor. She wouldn’t be played for a fool. She had a strict diet regimen to stick to. And now that she saw the gray goo, she was thankful that she never gave in to the Principal’s persuasion.
There were only two people at Madison Elementary who did not participate in the lunches, Principal Washington himself and Bunny. When Principal Washington brought his magical silver lunch tray into Bunny’s office one day, she was chewing satisfactorily on a small bite of apricot airbrushed with cottage cheese.
“Don’t even try it.” She hardly looked up at the tray before her. Principal Washington smiled and pulled off the lid revealing... nothing.
“That’s perfect, because I am not hungry in the least. It must be the diet pills I’ve been taking to curb my hunger.”
Strangely enough that same day all of the drugstores within one-hundred miles of Madison were simultaneously depleted of diet pills. Such a practical joke was surely the doing of a fat person and hence all of the children at Madison Elementary were immediately suspect.
Likewise, no one had ever seen Principal Washington indulge his own cravings. Soon the children started to play a guessing game. What would Principal Washington want to eat the most? Brian Verile guessed venison. He did not know what it was but it sounded expensive and for those with educated tastes. Mary Chalmers guessed egg salad. She loved egg salad. But it didn’t matter; their silly guessing game was in vain because it appeared that Principal Washington simply did not eat. In fact, he seemed to be growing rather thin.
Bunny smiled as Principal Washington crossed the room toward her. “You have visitors.” She rolled her eyes and accompanied the Principal to his office.
Bunny never found out what happened behind the door to Principal Washington’s personal office that day, but in an instant the Twos stepped from his office arms linked together, faces pale and eyes teary. When Harry Two came home later that afternoon, the post-partum agreement was torn to shreds, and the Twos replaced this with a crisp, new life-insurance policy for Harry.
So, the free lunches went on and on and the children and faculty got increasingly fat. A certain kind of sleepy content had befallen the school. Everyone seemed kind of tired and would drag their feet down the hallways without looking up to greet friends. And this sort of disinterested quiet lasted for some time... until one day, several students suddenly went missing.
Mona Fraschino wasn’t reported missing until 8:30pm. The young girl simply didn’t show up for her bedtime. Mrs. Fraschino checked to see if Mona was in bed and was shocked to find the bed empty.
The following is what Mrs. Fraschino said in the police report when asked why it took her so long to notice her daughter was missing:
I thought I saw her come in. I mean, maybe it’s one of those false memories? Because sometimes we just get so used to things being one way, you know? Like maybe I just thought I saw her come in because that’s what she usually did.
Mona was an orally fixated child with a veracious sweet tooth. Like Jimmy Abramson, whom also went missing that day, Mona was one of the rare children at Madison who had some skin on their bones. Before the new Principal’s arrival, she would often beg for money from anyone she could get to sympathize with her. Once she collected $3.50, she would quickly find herself in a sugar daze at the local ice-cream parlor.
But when Principal W. arrived, all that had changed. Mona would arrive home promptly after school and fall into bed with a bellyache. Nevertheless, the first place Mrs. Fraschino checked upon noticing her child was missing was the ice-cream parlor. Mona wasn’t there. In fact, there was a For Sale sign on the ice-cream parlor door. It seemed the kids in town didn’t care for ice-cream anymore.
Seven children went missing that day. The town was rife with nasty rumors. They were eaten by wild dogs! They were victims of a deranged child killer! They were abducted by aliens!
This last postulation was made by Mona’s best friend Shelby, who told the police that herself, Mona, Jimmy Abramson and five of their friends were hanging around at the abandoned mills down by the river, when a white van came peeling down the closed dirt road. The van pulled up alongside them and then... hideously long, slimy arms came out of the van and pulled the children inside.
According to Shelby, one of the disgusting arms had wrapped itself around her face but she was a biter, and she bit down on the arm so hard that it let her go. She ran from the van and hid in the mill until she felt very sure that the wicked aliens were gone. Shelby, whose hair turned bleach white that day, was tossed in a mental facility hundreds of miles away, before the story got out to too many people.
But the story did leak out. Among the people to hear was Secretary Bunny.
“That’s it!” Bunny stormed into Principal Washington’s office. “I’m putting in my two weeks’ notice,” she declared to the Principal who was dabbing alcohol on a nasty open wound on his arm. “I thought I would enjoy the commonplace lifestyle of a small town, but I can’t stand it anymore! There are strange things happening in Madison and I want out!”
Bunny could barely look at Principal W. Not because she was quitting, but because he had passed gas and the smell that overtook the room was so horrible that Bunny was speechless.
“Sorry,” the Principal burped. “Indigestion.”
“What have you been eating? You’ve gained so much weight just within this last week. What could you possibly be eating that would have that drastic an impact?” Bunny looked horrified. “Please tell me so I can stay away from it!”
“Weight gainer,” Principal W. belched again. “You could use some meat on you. Anyway, feel free to leave when you wish. You’re really no use to me.”
Bunny’s eyes widened in fury. She was a diligent worker and this man before her was horrible for saying otherwise.
“How dare you?! Do you have any idea how many of your mistakes I cover on a daily basis?” she shouted. “Aside from your free lunch you have no idea how to run this school. Do you? Everyday I sweet-talk the creditors, bribe the public works, hide numbers from the school board. If it wasn’t for me, this school would go under!”
It was true. Madison School was in big trouble. But Bunny was an inner-city girl and was used to budget problems in the school system. She knew how to please those who needed to be pleased and avoid those who couldn’t be swayed.
Principal W. smiled, a rare occasion, as his sense of humor seemed very eccentric. “Well the school won’t be here much longer. That’s for sure.” And with that, Principal W. left Bunny in the office, mouth gaping in disbelief.
Bunny was pissed. Principal W’s comment was enough to release all of her pent up anger. You see, as the townspeople had suspected, Bunny was running from her past. She had left the big city and found the small town of Madison as a means to escape from her ex-husband who was a mean, abusive drunk. After a particularly bad fight, frightened for her life, Bunny packed up her baggage, emotional and all, and moved as far as three tanks of gas and $2000 dollars to spare would get her.
When Principal Washington expressed such lack of concern for her welfare, she went ballistic. The anger she had pent up inside was released for the first time in years. She tipped her desk over (an arduous task for such a petite woman) and set fire to the file cabinets. She grabbed her belongings, slammed the door to the office and pulled the fire alarm on the way out of the building.
It was recess time and the overstuffed, lethargic children stared at Bunny, whose heavy mascara had long abandoned its promise of being waterproof. Black streaks streamed down her face, ran into the corners of her mouth and down her chin, giving her the appearance of some sort of possessed marionette.
“Bunny! Is the school going to burn down? Does that mean we’ll have vacation days?”
Little Pammy Rose, who now had a big gut for such a small kid, chased after Bunny who walked swiftly to her car without turning back.
“Pammy, go line up with the other children. The firemen will be here soon.” Bunny spun around on her heels to face Little Pammy. But what Bunny saw upon turning around shocked her so badly that she reached out and leaned on Pammy’s shoulder for support.
The firemen were already entering the blazing school with the water hose roaring. This was no surprise to Bunny, as she had heard the trucks pull up. Principal Washington was nowhere to be found, which was slightly surprising. But what shocked Bunny most was the white van that pulled up behind the fire truck. It was, without question, the very same van that was used to abduct Principal Stockton. Principal Washington opened the van door and stepped inside. Bunny squinted to see who was in the driver’s seat, but could only make out the vaguest, tall, lanky shape through the tinted windows.
The firemen put out the blaze and exited the building.
“Where’s the Principal?” The chief fireman scanned the faculty who formed a barrier between the children and the school.
“I’m right here,” a voice called from within the white van and Principal Washington stepped out from the van. Bunny’s eyes narrowed. Due to a woman’s intuition, she was beginning to suspect foul play, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
The chief fireman stepped toward the Principal, “I’m sorry Principal Washington. The damage to the school is too great. We’re going to have to close down for a week or so. You will need to call the students’ parents. They cannot enter the building.”
Principal Washington grinned a sickly grin and grabbed the fireman by the back of the neck. Bunny thought that she saw him squeeze his neck, very firmly.
“What did you say?” Principal Washington released the Chief.
“I don’t know?” the Chief replied in a daze. “But, I suddenly feel like I need to lie down.” The Chief stumbled toward the fire truck. “Let’s go, men.” And so the bewildered firemen pulled away from the scene.
Principal Washington turned toward the group of faculty and students. “Due to the circumstances, class will not resume today. Instead, I would like to treat you all to dessert, on me! I’ll meet you in the cafeteria in five minutes.”
The children and the faculty swarmed the entrance to the building, jostling and elbowing each other to get inside.
“No! Don’t go in there!” Bunny wailed. “It’s not safe! It’s simply not safe!”
But the children didn’t listen to her. Despite their bellyaches from lunch, the students and faculty were suddenly overcome with the urge for something sweet. Bunny watched with disapproval as the last child, Little Pammy, waddled into the building.
Bunny decided she would drive to the police station to inform them that Principal Washington appeared to be the owner of the van used to abduct Principal Stockton and more recently, the seven girls.
She resumed her course toward her car, turning her back to the school. So, she didn’t witness the drastic change that suddenly overcame the school or the strange occupants that emptied out of the white van and slithered into the building behind Principal Washington, who was looking mighty slithery at that moment himself.
First it was the doors and windows. Every door and window of the school gave off a sudden whirring, clicking noise. Vera Kennedy, the science teacher, stopped on her way to the cafeteria to investigate one of the windows. She was surprised and filled with sudden dread when she realized the window was sealed off by what appeared to be a steel shutter of sorts.
She grabbed the sleeve of John Burns, the math teacher, as he ran past in an attempt to be first in line in the cafeteria.
“Hey John!” She pointed at the window. “Look there! Isn’t that odd?”
John shrugged. ”Strange I admit. But who cares? I want a piece of my mother’s chocolate cake. The kind with chocolate morsels baked inside. With caramel frosting...”
”What was I thinking?” Vera laughed. “I want carrot cake! The kind Gramma used to make.” She snorted with laughter.
And with that, the two teachers who might’ve made a difference in the fate of Madison School that day gave in to the temptation of their favorite sweet dish.
Suddenly, a strong shaking sensation overtook the building. It seemed to derive from the very bowels of the building.
“Earthquake!” Vera and John dropped to their round stomachs on the floor (not without first making every effort to advance closer to the cafeteria).
The building shook and shook as if it were jarring itself lose from its foundations. Suddenly the temperature in the building skyrocketed. The teachers and children were sweating and screaming... and through the entire ordeal Principal Washington and his ugly slimy friends stood in his office, a fork in one tentacle and knife in the other... waiting... and laughing.
In the parking lot, Secretary Bunny had reached her car and was fixing her smeared mascara when, to her amazement, the entire school building lifted right off of the ground, propelled by what appeared to be gigantic rocket launchers.
In a confusing moment of smoke, flame and an accidental mascara wand in her eye... Madison School launched into the atmosphere.
Bunny rolled her window down and stuck her head out, as if peering through her windshield was perhaps giving her a distorted view of reality. But, the school was undeniably gone. Blasted from its foundations. All that was left of it was a small speck in the sky, getting ever smaller...
Bunny sat back in her car seat and took a deep contemplative breath. She had avoided the terrible fate of the schoolchildren and the teachers of Madison School. Despite the feelings of sadness she felt for losing some of the kids that she had grown to care for, a relieved smile spread across Bunny’s make-up streaked face. She had her whole life ahead of her.
She felt incredibly lucky.
Until she had arrived in Madison, she never really thought of herself as someone who went against the grain. The whole point of her moving to Madison was to be just another small town girl who didn’t amount to much. If she was surrounded by people with no goals or aspirations, she figured she could simply fall into line and live in complacency along with them. She needed this lack of ambition for a while, to forget about her horrible husband and the life she had wanted and had strayed so far from.
But it hadn’t turned out the way she expected. The people of Madison didn’t want to accept her. So, she had stood on the outside looking in, as the kids and teachers of Madison had the wool pulled over their eyes. Her personality was undoubtedly too strong for a town like this.
She felt a sudden burst of pride. She had avoided the dreadful fate of the others by demonstrating self-imposed will power. She hadn’t eaten the strange alien food that the others had been brainwashed with because she wasn’t a small town girl. She had aspirations to be beautiful, healthy, intelligent, clever... and because of this, she didn’t buy into the “Free Lunch” that ultimately killed the entire school.
She decided she would pack up her bags that night and move to a larger town, somewhere with Internet and soccer moms. Somewhere with a great drug store with a large selection of beauty products. Somewhere with a shopping mall. The oppression from her past was lifted. She felt liberated by the present and ready to face her future. She didn’t need to hide in this dim-witted town anymore.
Bunny was so caught up in the daydreams of a brighter future that she didn’t notice the slimy creature slither from the white van and stare dumbfounded at the gaping hole in the ground where the school used to be. Nor did she hear the horrible creature let out a whining cry as he craned his neck to follow the course of the school’s launch into space.
She did however feel the slimy tentacle that had reached through her window grip her heavily perfumed throat moments later...
As Secretary Bunny fell down the food chain and was reduced to a low-calorie, mid-day snack for a disgruntled and hungry creature, she couldn’t help but bitterly think, “After all that, I’m going to die on an empty stomach.”
Copyright © 2008 by Lauren Freeman