by Dana Hammer
The acoustics in the gym were fantastic, and so the ‘MEOW! MEOW” sounds echoed straight into Mr. Thomas’ ears. He scanned the kids, trying to find the source of the horrid sound.
It was a standard game of kickball, and the assorted third-graders participated with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Hyperactive boys, finally given permission to move, kicked and ran, alight with joy. A group of quiet, sober girls clustered in a group in the back, talking amongst themselves, more or less ignoring the game.
He located Stuart, the goof-off who never took anything seriously, and would probably die of alcohol poisoning by the time he was thirty. But it wasn’t him, he was quiet for a change, watching the ball.
Then he saw Ronnie, mouth pursed unnaturally, head thrown back. "MEOW! MEOW!"
"Veronica! That’s enough!" He always used the kids’ full names when he wanted to be taken seriously. Nicknames for were fun and games, that was Mr. Thomas’ motto.
Instead of quieting down, Ronnie got down on the ground, on her hands and knees, and continued meowing. He moved toward her. This wasn’t like Ronnie. She was not one to act out.
As he got closer, he could see that tears were streaming down her face. Noxious fear flooded him. Something was wrong.
Now the kids were looking worried as well, seeing Mr. Thomas’ concern. Kids were like that. If something weird was happening, they usually didn’t care, until an adult made a big deal about it. Now they crowded around Ronnie, looking at her with fear, or annoyance or suspicion.
"Ronnie, get up," said Stuart. “Mr. Thomas, you better make her get up before she coughs up a hairball."
"Thank you Stuart," he replied through a clenched jaw.
"Ronnie, what’s going on? Get up, ok?"
Ronnie stopped meowing, but she didn’t get up. Instead she started arching and flexing her spine, looking impressively like a cat stretching. She wasn’t crying anymore, which Mr. Thomas thought was probably a good sign.
"Alright, that’s enough kitty-cat," he said, trying to sound jocular and jolly, despite his misgivings. "Game on,” he announced to the assembled children.
Most of the kids went back to their spaces. Some didn’t. Ronnie didn’t seem to have heard him at all.
He sighed. In teacher training, no one ever told him what to do if a kid suddenly starts pretending to be a cat and won’t stop. Kids were weird as shit sometimes. He knelt down next to her. “Honey, if you want to play kitty-cat, that’s fine, but you need to wait for recess, ok? Now get on up and get back in the game.”
She rolled over onto her back and, alarmingly, pulled up her shirt, exposing her round, brown little belly. With her arms and feet in the air, she began pushing her feet and arms toward the ceiling, as if trying to walk on it. “MEOW! MEOW!” She looked repeatedly at her belly, as if trying to get him to pet her.
He recoiled instinctively. Male gym teachers do not pet little girl’s bellies. Not if they want to keep their jobs and their freedom. “Veronica, I need you to pull down your shirt and get up, right now. If you don’t, you’ll need to go sit in the principal’s office.”
She rolled over and got back on all fours. She crawled until she was pressing her hands onto the tops of Mr. Thomas’ shoes.
Then she reached out and scratched his leg, with surprisingly sharp fingernails.
"AH!" He moved back, looking down at his shin, which was bleeding. Ronnie looked up at him inquisitively, as if unsure what she had done.
"Alright, that’s it. Go to the principal’s office, Veronica. Get!"