Fall 2020 / Issue 108

Stephen Hundley

Preston Rigalloe is going blind. I have a slip from his mother that says so. We trust you will deal with this gently.

I’m watching Preston try to write a sentence involving an adjective, his eyes an inch from the page and squinting. Someone could teach him braille, but in two months he won’t be a Butterfly anymore; he’ll be the middle school’s problem and I’ll retire to the coast. I debate ordering the books anyway, just to slide my fingertips over the bumps. Like, bump-bump. Daiquiri. Bump-bump. Please.

That’s when the Big Cat Alarm starts to peal.

I have a look through the split blinds. Nothing but gray sky and wind over the Play Yard. No twitching tails in the high grass by the cafeteria dumpsters. We figure it for a drill.

This is Jeffers’ first year as a teacher’s aide. She has Preston’s twin brother at the Designated Freak-Out Spot. It’s just a laminated red circle taped to the floor, but there’s nothing like the affirmation of protocol to get the scaries out, and boy is he: clasping his arms across his chest and bending at the knees while Jeffers talks him through some respiration cycles.

I’m right there with you, buddy, I’d like to say, but I’m directing traffic to the marker box, leading Preston by the shoulder.

The idea is: tigers attack where you’re not looking. From behind. But they don’t know the difference between Helen of Troy and a pair of plum-sized googly eyes glued under yellow yarn hair. So let’s doll up those paper plates, says the Board of Education Crises. Let’s get some color in those eyes. Really wow this beast.

I patrol the room. Pen stray freckles and moles on the mask faces. Jeffers gives a gap-toothed girl a nasty scar.

With a tiger loose, we wouldn’t normally risk an ice cream, but what ill could come with each child touching shoulders, buddy-to-buddy, as they walk to the creamery van?

“Are you sure?” Jeffers asks. She’s checking her email. Looking for the All Clear.

“Let them live,” I say.

We march to the Play Yard with thirty masks affixed.

Jeffers climbs to the roof with her rifle, and I slump against the brick face of the Learning Hall with a Disaster Whistle in my teeth. Watch the children pass.

The Butterflies are trudging arm-in-arm across the yard, and it is eerie—the way their faces change from human to facsimile. On one side, they’re grim, focused on reaching the ice cream unmauled, keeping their zig-zagging Flee Routes clear like we’ve practiced. And on the other side, they’re smiling, wide-eyed and vibrant in the open sun. Preston is in the middle of the chain, being led on his left and right, and thinking, what? What is happening to me?

And I can see why these masks were chosen as a countermeasure. How they might give a tiger pause.