Brian Sharpe stood brooding at his office window. The school busses were arriving. In a minute, they would disgorge their happy contents. The children would come streaming into the school, eager to start their day and not one of them suspecting what was about to happen. He swallowed hard, almost choking on the bitter taste of bile in the back of his throat. It was time to get on with it, no matter how much he wanted to put it off.
Adjusting his tie, he walked out of his office toward the main corridor. He stopped at the Secretary’s desk and said softly, “Jen, page George and Doris; my office, now.” She gasped out loud, tears starting in her eyes. Then she swallowed it and picked up the phone, punching in the code with shaking fingers.
With a painful sigh, he opened the front door, inviting the river of children to flow into the building. All ages, from four to thirteen, all in one homogenous jumble. Most of them greeted him, calling out or waving, hugs from the little ones. But on this day, he ignored them. He had to.
The face he was watching for appeared, all smiles and carefree youth, though not for long. Almost choking, he called out, “Tommy Eperle!” The smiling face turned to him. “My office. Now.” The boy frowned in curiosity but he didn’t argue. He made his way out of the line and went to the office. Brian watched him go, a lamb to the--.........
He stopped himself, forced himself to think of something else. George and Doris appeared, wading through the flow of children. Both looked pale and troubled. They clustered with Brian by Jen’s desk, as if afraid to proceed to his office. God knew, Brian was terrified himself. What they were about to do was not in their job descriptions when they were hired; it had only been added in the last month.
Brian waited until the children had all reached their classrooms, then turned to Jen. “Keep the halls clear. Twenty minutes minimum.” She looked up at him, imploring. “Isn’t there any way you can......?” He shook his head. “I wish there was, Jen. I wish to God there was!” He turned to Doris, the school nurse. “Do you have it?” She nodded, unable to speak. Brian sighed. “Fine. Let’s get it over with.” Jen began calling the teachers, telling them not to let any of their students out into the halls for the next half hour.
The three of them walked into his little office together, as if huddling for comfort in numbers. Then Brian walked ahead and sat at his desk. Tommy was aware of the two adults standing behind and over him; he read the somber look on the Principal’s face and squirmed uncomfortably. He had plenty of time to squirm. The Principal was squirming too, inside, wondering what he was going to say. By the time he opened his mouth, the boy was frowning.
“Tom, how many times have I had to speak to you about bullying?” The boy’s face went blank. “I don’t know.” “This is the third time. Let’s run over them, shall we? Last week, you were seen playing keep away with Jimmy Fallon’s hat.” “It was just playing.” “Jimmy didn’t see it that way. You’re twice as big as he is.” “I didn’t mean anything by it! And he got his hat back, didn’t he?” “Yes, he did. After Mrs. Wilkins spoke to you; three times.” The boy slouched in his chair, sulking.
“On Monday, you played the same game with Alex Gibb, when you snatched his grandfather’s pocket watch out of his hand.” “I wasn’t the only one!” “That’s true. There were three others involved. But whose idea was it?” The boy frowned angrily. Brian’s eyes bored into him. “It was your idea. You started it and you tried to hide the watch when Mr. Murtaugh caught you.” “We were only fooling around!” “What will it take to get it through your skull that it takes a fool to fool around! You know well and good that Alex’s grandfather died last summer and that Alex treasured that watch.”
Tommy glared at the desk. “And then there’s last night. On the bus on the way home, you took Sally Perkins’ book and tossed it out the window. And don’t you dare tell me you were playing or fooling around! I don’t know what I can say to you to make you realize how stupid and cruel your actions are. But then, it’s out of my hands now. As of two weeks ago, the School Board put this school under a strict ‘three strikes, you’re out’ policy.”
With trembling fingers, Doris drew a needle and syringe out of her pocket and uncapped the needle. Brian’s stomach roiled. “I’ve given you two warnings already. If it were up to me, I’d give you a third. But it’s not up to me.” Tommy began to sit up straight, a look of suspicion spreading over his face. Brian shook his head sadly. If only that look had made an appearance on Monday! “I’m sorry, Tommy. We’re all out of options.”
The boy looked around sharply, noticing again the School Nurse and the Vice Principal looming over him. Panic spread across his face and he tried to stand. George grasped his shoulders, pushing the boy down into the chair. “You......you can’t!” Tommy gasped, struggling to gain his feet. The Vice Principal pressed down harder. The nurse hesitated. Brian stood up and began moving forward, in case the boy tried to slip out from under George’s grasp.
“Doris!” Brian hissed. The boy’s panic was complete. He was struggling harder and starting to cry. Hearing her name snapped Doris out of her funk. She jammed the needle in Tommy’s neck and pressed the plunger. Tommy gave a low moan and slumped in the chair. “I’m sorry!” Doris gasped, shedding tears of her own. “I just....I just couldn’t move!” “It’s okay,” Brian replied softly, tears sparking in his eyes. “I understand. I’m not sure I’d have been able to......let’s just get this the hell over with!” He picked the sleeping boy up and slung him over his shoulder. They left the office together and made for the stairs.
“What the hell?!” Lillian gasped. “Did I forget to tell you?” Brian asked, laying the boy down on a steel table. “I apologize.” Doris and George began taking Tommy’s clothes off. The School Cook watched in mounting horror. “You told me, but I didn’t believe it. How do you expect me to......to......” “I don’t blame you. I couldn’t believe it either. I’m not sure I do now. But be that as it may, the School Board made its decision, leaving us to do the dirty work. And it’s time for you to do your share.” “You can’t make me do this! You can’t!!!” “You’re right, I can’t.” “I should just quit!” Brian nodded. “Yes, you should. We all should.”
Doris was folding the last of Tommy’s clothes. He lay in pristine nakedness on the table, his chest rising and falling in easy rhythm. Lillian burst into tears. “You bastard! You stupid, vicious bastard!!!” Brian sighed and took the onslaught with patient silence. “Lillian,” Doris said, her voice trembling. “Brian’s just doing his job. We all are.” “This is not my job! I’m a cook, not a.....not a.....” Lillian gulped suddenly, then wept with fresh, violent tears. She stomped across the kitchen and grabbed a large knife.
Doris looked on in resignation. George didn’t seem able to look away. Brian watched for a different reason. It wasn’t his job to watch, but it seemed cowardly of him not to. Lillian was crying hysterically as she drew the blade across the sleeping boy’s throat. Blood spurted up and out in all directions. George ran for the nearest trash barrel and leaned over it, his breakfast ripping up out of his throat and into the barrel. Even when he was empty, he stood retching for another minute. Brian sympathized, but felt bound to keep watching. He had sentenced the boy to death, it was only fair that he watch him die. Though legally, only Doris was required to watch. As School Nurse, it was her duty to make certain the death was humane. That was a joke, but one too bitter for laughter; nothing about this was humane.
Tommy’s chest was faltering. Rising and falling in a steady rhythm, it had begun jerking when the throat had been cut. Blood had flowed into the windpipe, cutting off the flow of air. Now the motion was slowing down, coming to a halt. The skin, once pink and healthy, was going chalk white. When the body was still, he put out a hand and rested it gently on the dead boy’s. It felt warm under his fingers. He looked down and saw the spatters of blood on his shirt and sighed hard. That blood would never come out, and rightfully so.
He looked at Lillian, who was leaning on a counter, sobbing bitterly. He wished there was something he could say or do to ease her mind, but there was nothing. She still had more to do and Brian knew he could not watch that. So he did the only thing he could. He filled a pail with hot water and began mopping up the blood from the floor. When the floor was clean he dumped the bucket and rinsed out the mop, taking extra time to do it right and forestall what he had to say next.
“Lillian......how long?” Lillian stared at him, aghast. “How the fuck do I know?! I’ve never had to.......to.......” Retching, she turned to the nearest trash can and threw up into it. Brian went to her and put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Lillian. I can’t tell you how sorry I am. Nobody should have to do this.” “You’re telling me!” She answered, keeping her back to him. “God damn fucking School Board!” “I hate to ask, but.......I have to call his mother......let her know when she can.......collect the offal, oh God I hate that word!” Lillian sighed hard and was silent a moment.
“I really don’t know. I’ve never done this before.” “Two hours okay?” “It shouldn’t take that long, but then.......yes. Two hours.” “Do you.....” Doris stammered. “Do you need help?” “No. Get out, all three of you. It’s going to be hard enough without people watching.” Brian gave her shoulder a final pat and herded the others out. Lillian kept her back to them until they were gone, ashamed, perhaps, to show them her face. She was not the only one.
George sighed as they walked out into the cafeteria. “We’re all going straight to hell,” he said. “In a hand basket,” Brian agreed. Doris didn’t say anything until she’d sat down at one of the tables. Brian and George sat near her.
“What is wrong with the world?” She asked, shaking her head. “I mean.......when the Selectmen gave it the okay, I never thought the School Board would adopt it!” “Who’d think anyone would?” George answered. “I know times are hard, but to enact cannibalism? And of children?” “Why not children?” Brian said, his tone wooden. “Of all the people in society, they’re the only ones without a voice. Anytime there’s some great disaster--famine, flood, depression, some yokel politician deciding to show how tough he is on education--it’s the children who suffer the most. It only makes sense to punish them for the latest one.”
“Are you saying you approve?” Doris spat the words out, her eyes drilling into him. Brian didn’t rebuke her. “No. But I do think this is something we need to get used to. It’s everywhere in the country, and now it’s here. And this is just the beginning. God help us, it’s just the beginning!” “What do you mean?” George asked. “I mean it’s not bad enough the School Board adopted this. They have a long range plan.”
The look in Doris’ eyes went from fury to horror. “A plan? A plan for what?” “For fixing the school good and proper. I don’t know where the idea came from, but once the bullies are gone--or frightened into good behavior--we have to start targeting children that are bringing down the school’s grade point average.” “What??” George and Doris said it together. “Our instructions are to go after the poor students, like a certain little girl now in the third grade.”
“That’s outrageous!” Doris screeched. “That child has Attention Deficit Disorder! She can’t help herself! And she’s one of the sweetest children in the whole school!” “I know that. But without significant improvement by next year, she’s going the way of Tommy Eperle. So will anyone getting more than two Ds.” “Sweet Jesus!” George muttered. “Then,” Brian continued grimly. “We target the ones with a C average.” Doris gasped. “But.....where does it end? When everyone’s getting straight As?”
Brian closed his eyes and swallowed painfully. “I don’t know. They’re still deciding. But that’s not the worst of it.” “How can it possibly get any worse?” George demanded. Brian sighed. “There are still the side effects of this much power being turned loose in a school. Think about it: What happens when the kids start realizing they can get rid of anyone they don’t like just by accusing him of being a bully? Or when we start targeting children because we don’t like them? Or when we think they look especially tasty?”
“That’s sick!” Doris said. Brian nodded. “I know. But it’s still a possibility, maybe even an inevitability. Our only hope is that the parents refuse to stand for it.” “Not that I don’t hope you’re right,” George said in a careful tone. “God knows, I do! But everyone on the Board of Selectmen is either a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or an uncle to a student in this school. Same with the School Board. And they all voted for it. Unanimously.”
“That’s true,” Brian agreed. “But when they voted on it, it was just an idea; something that sounded good on paper. Get rid of the bullies and other undesirables while getting free meat for the school lunch program. It didn’t become real until the School Board adopted it, though even then, they didn’t have to do the dirty work. I think that’s why there wasn’t much of a protest. Nobody thought the dirty work would actually happen.”
“So now it has,” Doris said. “So how many parents in a small town can afford to pull their children out of public school and put them in a private one? How many of them have the money, time or skill to home school?” “Not many,” George whispered. “Nowhere near enough.”
“I’d like to think,” Brian sighed. “That there’s more that they can do. Protest, and loudly. Demand that it end here. Barring that, demand that their children be exempt. Sue the school and the School Board. Vote them out of office. Demand an intervention by the Selectmen.” It sounded foolish even as he said it. As the scheme had been adopted and implemented across the nation, many such protests had been mounted. All but a handful had failed miserably. Still, one liked to believe one’s friends and neighbors would find a way to make it succeed.
Brian looked down at his shirt, tie and pants. The blood spatters had dried and faded to a dull brown. “George, go home and change your clothes. You too, Doris, unless you have a change of clothes here.” “I don’t.” “What about you?” George asked. “I’ll call my wife and have her bring something up. Let’s get a move on. I don’t want any of the children to see us like this.”