(Content note: Rated R. Teachers, students, and parents beware.)
“Let’s quiet down, everyone,” Deborah told her class. “It’s Lou Ann’s turn to show and tell about what she’s brought in today. I want everyone to save all questions until the end.”
Secretly, Deborah hated Presentation Days. The school kept them as a mandatory part of the second grade curriculum despite the number of teachers who’d told the administration about kids who brought in things which were dangerous, inappropriate or just plain weird. Deborah tried to screen the students’ items, making sure to check with parents in advance, but it wasn’t always possible. This part of the district wasn’t really blessed with the best neighborhoods. You couldn’t count on parental involvement or availability.
Lou Ann’s mother had been in touch, though. The previous week, she had assured Deborah that her daughter’s “favorite teacher ever” would be listening to a presentation about the Wondercube, a foam-and-fabric version of the old Rubix cube, which was totally harmless, and which Lou Ann and her brother, Edward, played with after school every day. Even if Lou Ann threw the Wondercube at a fellow student, Deborah knew it would be far less stressful than that time Cady Pelgrin brought in a live snake, or that day Kobe Johnson shocked everybody by presenting his brother’s Sports Illustrated collection—specifically the swimsuit issues.
Standing confidently at the front of the room, Lou Ann held up a square box, almost large enough to be a moving box, or the kind of thing you stored winter clothes in. Is the Wondercube in there? thought Deborah. It sounded smaller than that.
“This is our new pet, Centy,” said Lou Ann. “We call him that because he looks a lot like a centipede. But we don’t really know what he is. My brother thinks he’s a space alien.”
Great. Deborah was instantly on edge. Lou Ann’s mom seemed to have helped her daughter prepare a safe and normal presentation. Evidently, Lou Ann had deviated from the plan.
Lou Ann started to open the box.
“Uh, Lou, why don’t you keep that closed for now,” Deborah suggested. “Some of your classmates might be afraid of centipedes.”
“Okay,” said Lou Ann, obviously annoyed but willing to comply. Then she went quiet.
“Where did you find Centy?” asked Deborah, hoping for a polite story about turning over rocks in the family backyard.
“Out by the shed,” the girl answered cheerfully. “He was trying to open the door. And there were a couple of dead cats right there, so he was probably trying to find more of them.”
“Excuse me?” Deborah was aghast. Presentation Day had never turned quite this creepy before.
“He eats cats,” Lou Ann said matter of factly. “Roscoe, our old Tom, went down the first night. After that he got Maynard, the Siamese.”
“Lou Ann,” Deborah said carefully, “why don’t you put that box on my desk and sit down.”
Lou Ann did as she was told, depositing her box with a noticeable thud. Whatever was in there was clearly heavier than a centipede.
Deborah hastily put the heaviest textbook she could find, their gigantic one with all the world maps, on top of the box’s lid. It was a well made gift box, she saw now, looking as if it had come from the local Paper Source store, but she doubted it would stay closed forever against a wild animal.
“Now,” said Deborah, trying to remain calm, “you said it…eats cats?” She might as well have a better idea what she was dealing with before buzzing the principal.
“Yeah, that’s why my mom couldn’t take us to school today,” said Lou Ann. “My brother said he couldn’t wake her up. He thinks it was because of Maynard. I don’t know if she was that upset about him, though. We found Centy in her room this morning. She must have let him sleep in there, so she can’t hate him that much.”
Deborah closed her eyes. She turned toward the call button on the wall. Before she could tell the office, We have a problem here, the box began to bounce back and forth on her desk. Deborah could heart the scuffing of thick fur or rough spines against its cardboard interior. The disturbance thumped the book of maps off the lid.
“Everyone stay calm,” said Deborah, her voice suddenly high and nasal, “I’m going to—” and it was then it burst forth, a conical mass of grey skin and the thick spines of a sea urchin, red with the blood of its recent feeding. Deborah had thought only children could scream as loud as she began to, drowning out all other noise in the room, the hallway and the school for a long time.