Finally, it had arrived: the Last Day at Lonely Oak Elementary.
Kinders, firsts, seconds, thirds, and fourths, all came through the doors with anticipation of summer and fun.
Of no more school food; rubbery pizza, flimsy salads, watered-down corn-cobs, soy burgers, and forever-ever cinnamon rolls.
Of no more homework, or quizzes, or assigned readings, or sitting in hard, uncomfortable plastic blue chairs, and having their butts kicked at by the people behind them.
All day they would chant the familiar jingle: No more pencils, no more books; no more teachers' dirty looks!
But, for fifth grade, it was not quite exactly the same.
For them, this was the end of Lonely Oak Elementary.
Sure, they walked in just as happily and care-free as their younger peers; energetic, excited, ready to be unruly and not have to learn anything new just to forget it all as soon as the bell rang. But, deep down, almost mutually shared, was the dread of leaving their home-away-from-home, for the last several years, behind. No matter how begrudging the feeling, they loved the school, and sewed too many memories within its halls.
The day started just like any other.
The tardy bell rang, and all the kids rushed to their desks, including one boy whose suspension was deterred. The buzz of the previous Friday and day before had cooled down quite a bit.
They were openly together, practically the whole grade having found out about them being an item, save for the teachers which the students didn't allow to know of their culture. This came with a few narratives to explain the incident, the most agreed-upon being that Ritzer liked Emeral, and challenged Ket to a duel for her heart.
So many of the girls latched onto that spin.
The tigers' eyes got so tired of rolling.
The pledge of allegiance was chanted, and the morning announcements began, and were ignored. The students were rummaging into their mostly-empty backpacks to pull out their over-sized white shirts, empty-paged booklets, and permanent markers.
After announcements were over, the kids were given freedom to mill about the classrooms. They dashed about hither-thither, finding spots on shirts to write little messages and draw little pictures, and signing booklets.
There were free art and construction supplies for kids to make things or mess around with. Several of the games they played when they had indoor-recess were also broken-out.
Lyza, Ket, Emeral and Panda sat together, reminiscing their past and swapping old and new stories with the bear, who used his own art pencils to doodle in other kids' booklets as they asked.
The bear talked about his old school, but had few stories to tell. He found that compared to now, where he came from was just plain boring, even if at first he thought that was better.
Lyza got a chance to learn a bit about Ket, too. It was a little strange to think how the boy had shared the same school with them for so many years, just one step ahead. She even tried to recall if she had met him when she perused the booths of Market Day the year before.
Later in the morning, a sudden burst of noise came from the third-grade hallway. The third-grade marching-band began to play. Tambourines and maracas rattled, triangles and bells rang, party-rattlers clicked and clacked, drums boomed and snared; the cacophony snaked its way through all the hallways of the school, and out along all the sidewalks.
In the lead, Cheri and Ziggy-Zee waved their conducting-wands about, their top-hats bouncing and coat-tail jackets swishing behind them.
The janitors sighed as they watched the trail of the band throwing confetti behind them; it was that time of year!
Throughout th day, as throughout the day before, several classes at a time were called to the library. Upon the tables in orderly rows, the Treasure of the school was on display.
There were lots of newspaper pages of the time, laid out for most to glance at the headlines. They were yellow-tinted, old and ruddy-looking, the ink smudged and pictures blurry compared to the crisp papers of the modern day.
There were many other knick-knacks. Toys, dolls, and action figures that lacked microchips and lights; composed only of hard wood, cold metal, and raw imagination.
The librarian gave a demonstration of some of the toys, handling them carefully and gingerly with cotton gloves. If any of the kids even thought about reaching to any of the time-piece trinkets on display, teachers were quick to scold and whisk them from the privilege of enjoying them for a time.
Though all day felt like recess, they were still let out onto the playground at their usual times. Despite it being hot and muggy, they ran and clambered over everything, for the last time that year.
There was a different air about the fifth-grade recess.
It was subtle, but there was less of a shadow looming over the shoulder of every kid. With the absence of the lion and his usual troublemakers, the colors of the playground appeared more vivid.
Even the Old Grounds looked less rusted and splintered, had lost much of its usual squeaky and creaky, and saw a bit more attention than usual.
For lunch, the fifth-graders stayed in their classrooms, where they played some party-games while chowing down on pizza. Not the rubbery, greasy, thin pizza they had been eating all year, either: real, bona fide pizza, from Perry's.
Rini also brought store-bought cupcakes, the two boxes of which were quickly reduced to crumbs and cling-icing.
Kimberly was given a glance from some of the others when she walked back with two, but the daggers dulled when she handed one to William.
"Excuse me," Lyza asked, approaching Ms. Hupp's desk. "May I use the restroom?"
"Sure, dear. Take the bear and hurry up. You don't want to miss the fun!"
She thanked her teacher and quickly darted out the room.
Indeed there was much fun to be had.
Emeral jumped up and stated a game of hangman, which quickly took hold as the room was divided into two competing teams. Enthusiasm and rowdiness took over the competitive kids, and for once Ms. Hupp made no effort to quell the ruckus. In fact, she added to it, contesting when the boy at the board switched some letters in his word to ensure his team got points.
To mediate, she ended up deciding that they play Pictionary instead.
After Arthur got frustrated that no one was able to guess airplane from his picture of a balloon and burger without anything on it, Rini glanced over to the bears.
The blue bear hanging on the hook was still looking forlornly at the empty hook next to him.
She glanced up at the clock. It was almost one. She didn't know when Lyza left, but it felt like such a long time ago. She got up, and walked to Ms. Hupp's desk.
"Teach, can I use the girls' room?"
"Sure, dear. Take the—oh?" She glanced over at the bears, and noticed the red one was missing. She, too, glanced at the clock. "Has Lyza not come back, yet?"
"I'll go check and see if she's still there," Rini offered. Her teacher agreed and, amidst the kids shouting answers at Panda as he drew an elaborate rocket, slipped out into the quiet hallway.
She very quickly made for the bathroom, but not because she really needed to use it. She arrived to find the red bear upon the handle. She very quietly pulled it down, and opened the door, preparing to just peek and call Lyza's name, when she heard a muffled noise.
She opened the door and stuck her head all the way in.
There was a shadow in the stall about where the toilet was. The muffled noise sounded like Lyza was trying to breath but couldn't.
Cautiously, the rat crept in, and saw that the stall door was unlocked. She stepped up to the side of the stall and rapped her knuckle against the sleek, gray metal.
In response, there was a squeaked gasp from within the stall.
"Wh-Who's there?" Asked the rabbit's voice, although it was distorted.
"It's me, Rini; ...Are you okay?" She waited, but there was no response. Slow, labored breaths. Hesitantly, she approached the door of the stall, and pulled it open just a bit. "Are you—" She was about to repeat her question, when the sight that she beheld made her throat tighten up. She opened the stall door all the way.
Lyza sat in decency on the toilet, the lid closed. In both her hands her ears were gripped so tightly that her knuckles had gone bone-white, the tips of her ears a bit red. Her moonlit-white cheeks were as pink as a kitten's paw-pad. Her eyes were puffy. Thin snot leaked out her nose and a collection of tears dripped down to her chin and fell onto her knees. She gazed so distantly that her face had a look of morbid terror, like she had just caught a glimpse of a ghost.
"Liz!" Rini said in a hush, rushing forward, but she balked as the rabbit flinched back. Then she shushed and calmly took a step. "Liz, it's okay it's okay," she extend her hands, "Let go of your ears," she touched her curled fists with her fingers, "Grab my hands."
Lyza let out a riveting breath and reluctantly took hold of the rat's fingers.
"Squeeze; just relax..." Rini spoke calmly, feeling the pressure of the rabbit's grip squeeze her fingers together. She met the force just a little, to keep her knuckles from hurting and pressing against one another. "It's okay girl, let it all out, don't be afraid, just let it go."
Lyza closed her eyes and whimpered, a stream of tears rushing down her face. She opened her mouth and began to breathe and lurch.
Rini stood still, watching the girl try to cry her eyes out. Nothing went through her head. She muted her curiosity, her wonder, her own shock at how sudden and intense the atmosphere became within the small stall. She was just there, and not there.
She was surprised when, only after a few moments, Lyza's power-bawling began to subside, and her breathing began to slow. Rini didn't know exactly how long it would take for that to happen, but she had just mentally affirmed she would wait as long as it needed when it was over. Just to be sure, she waited another moment, and spoke when Lyza at last opened her eyes; "Is that really it? I was just getting comfy."
The rabbit stared quietly, and then sniffled while she loosed her grip.
"I guess so," Rini said, flexing her fingers. "Remind me not to play you at Mercy," she commented. Again, the rabbit sniffled, but this time she also blinked. "Well," the rat said, ripping off a generous length of tissue paper and handing it to the rabbit, "why don't you blow your nose, and let's raise your ears..." She gently lifted the rabbits long ears one at a time while Lyza dabbed at the tears and the snot. When all was done, the tissue was dropped into the wastebasket in the corner behind the toilet.
Sso as not to make Lyza feel boxed-in and cornered , Rini stepped back and turned to the side, leaning against the plastic dispenser that stored the biggest roll of toilet paper ever-ever.
"I know... I'm probably the last person you really want here, right now. But... If you wanna talk..."
Lyza continued to keep her lips closed.
"S'okay,” the rat said, waving her hand in gesture to dismiss her last statement. “Can I at least keep you company?”
The rabbit shifted on the seat, fiddling with the hem of her shorts. Very quickly she glanced up, with what appeared to be a great mount of effort, and muttered, "I don't wanna go." Through a distorted warble, the statement sounded more like a question.
Rini started at the mostly-erased messages on the opposite wall of the stall, glancing at the rabbit out of the corner of her eye. "Go where?" She asked, softly.
She swallowed. It took all the powers of Rebecca, Ingrid, and Naomi combined, to keep Rini from losing her stature. Seeing the girl next to her in such a tremendously upset state made her want to sympathetically run and cry too.
"You're always welcome to come home with me," she invited. "You can even spend the night, if you want. We're about the same size, so you don't even have to stop for pajamas, you can just wear mine. And we have extra toothbrushes and the guest bath is cleaner than any other in the house."
Lyza shook her head, causing her ears to swish back and forth atop her head. For a moment, it looked like she was going to go another round of tears, but she clarified with a much clearer warble, "No. I don't wanna go anywhere; I don't wanna leave."
Rini waited some time before she asked the next question, to be sure she absolutely wanted to. "Why don't you want to leave?"
The sobs started to bubble again. "Becaust I can't come back."
Before she even realized she had moved, Rini was hand-in-hand again. Her other hand rested on the rabbit's shoulder; she gently rubbed the spot, making no other motion or noise. But just then, a loud knock at the bathroom door made both of them jump.
"Girls? Just what is going on in—" Ms. Hupp was cut off as Rini rushed out of the stall, her right arm out in front of her with the hand waving quickly and her left finger over her lips. "What's the matter?" The teacher asked quietly, "Is something wrong?" When Rini gave no response she raised her voice; "Lyza?"
"Wh—What?" Came the rabbit's voice from behind the wall.
"Shhhh!" Rini insisted, trying to guide Ms. Hupp back out the door.
"It's okay, Liz, hang on," she told the rabbit, closing the door, and then looked up at her teacher. "Don't come in," she said.
"Why not, Rini? Just what are you two up to?"
Before, Rini did not have an answer. In the second after the question, she found one that was only the quickest answer she could think of but one that was sure to throw her teacher for a loop. "She... She uhm... Started."
At first Ms. Hupp just bent her mask in confusion, but then the realization hit her. "Ooooh-oh-o-oh. Oh dear..." She started to walk forward but Rini blocked her way.
"Ms. Hupp don't come in! She's a little too upset right now and if you start barging in there she'll freak."
The raccoon looked at the girl barring her path and then at the bear hanging on the handle. She considered it for a moment and sighed. "I'll be right back."
"Where're you going?"
"To get the nurse."
"Don't get the nurse!" She exclaimed in a whisper, "That's even worse! We hafta keep this on the down-low; imagine if you were in her shoes, would you want that kind of attention?"
Ms. Hupp sighed again. "All right, all right. I'll just grab something she'll need." With that, the teacher briskly walked down the hallway.
Rini watched her go into the nurse's office. "Jeez..." The rat muttered, stepping back into the bathroom.
"What's going on?" Lyza asked. "What did you tell her?"
Rini arrived at the door to the stall, her eyes darting back and forth. "I uh... I kinda told her... That you hit your first period."
Lyza's eyes blinked and her ears went flat so that her head looked like the top of a helicopter. "You... You tohh— What?"
The knock came again. "Hold that thought." Rini greeted Ms. Hupp at the bathroom door. "Did you get it?"
"Yes, I did," Ms. Hupp replied, showing the little package in her hand. When Rini extended her palm, the raccoon bent her mask again. "I appreciate you want to help, dear, but I don't think it's appropriate..."
"Ms. Hupp," she said, elongating the u-sound, "I just got her calmed down, and promised it wouldn't be a big deal. Besides, we're both girls, and I have four sisters, so I know all the what-to-do."
The teacher's mask wrinkled in concern.
"Please," Rini begged, "I'll get her fixed up, give her a girl pep-talk, and we'll be back in class in five minutes. Ten minutes, tops."
"...You have seven minutes," Ms. Hupp said. "If you're not through the door I'm coming in and taking over."
With that, Ms. Hupp quietly slipped away, and Rini returned back to the stall.
"What's that?" Lyza asked curiously.
The rat unfurled the tissue-paper package and held up the folded pad between her thumb and forefinger. "...I have no idea, but it's not making me want to grow up any time soon..." She crumpled up the wrapper, throwing it in the trash. She looked at the pad again and, not knowing what to do with it, moved her hands behind her, slipping it into her underwear. "I bought you some time."
"Thanks," the rabbit replied. “...I guess,” she added, resting her forehead in her hands.
Rini did not want to let the silence last too long, and she was running out of time, herself. "Liz... Can I tell you something?"
"I'm... Really sorry." Stiltedly, she returned to her spot against the wall, and slid down, sitting on the relatively clean tile.
Lyza peeled herself away from the toilet seat, and stepped over Rini's legs. She pressed her back against the same wall, and also slid down to sit on the floor. She extended her feet and stretched her legs, and glanced to her right. "About what?"
Rini's face contorted a little, like she was trying to hold back a sneeze. "You're... Being... What's the word?”
”Rhetorical,” the rabbit stated.
”That.” Rini confirmed. “I made a stupid choice at the last minute, and took advantage of you. Turns out I didn't have to go through all that trouble, anyway.”
”Not gonna lie,” the rabbit said, “that was really shitty.” She rested her head against the wall. “But, I was also kinda pissed at Emmy for not telling me.”
”Yeah, well,” the rat chuckled. “I'm a bit pissed at Goren for not telling me, cuz he's been listening to me obsess over who Ark was since Christmas. Although if I had just thought to include our class while I scoured the stupid directory, I would have figured it out way back then.”
”How's that?” The rabbit asked.
”Ket is his nickname,” the rat replied. “In the directory, he's listed as Arkethius,” she explained, mispronouncing his name. “Now, I've gotta start aaaaaaaall the way back at the beginning, again.”
”With what?” The rabbit asked.
”Being your friend,” Rini answered.
”No one said you had to start over,” Lyza remarked.
The rat shook her head. “I know you, now,” she replied. “I've seen what happens when you make even a tiny mistake. You roll everything back and start over; get it right in one shot.”
”Yeah, I know,” the rabbit admitted, almost embarrassed, resting her forehead against her knees. “It really sucks.”
”Then why do it?”
She let out a sigh. “I dunno.” She replied. “But... Just cuz I do, doesn't mean you have to start over. You said you're sorry... It's fine. As long as you don't get upset at me if I said I kinda saw something like that coming, from you.”
The rat let out a single laugh. “How does it go? The devil you know, or something.”
”Better for people to know you as being stupid, than no one knowing you at all.” The rabbit stood up.
Rini stood with her.
”That's... Kinda why... You caught me crying,” the rabbit admitted. “Talk about starting all over again,” she remarked, reaching for the latch to the stall. “Going to Redcliff... At least people know me, here. There...”
”I'll know who you are.” The rat stated. “Heck, it's not like many of us are going anywhere else. Emmy and Ket are going there, too, I'm sure.”
They left the stall, the rabbit leading.
”I know... I'm just, still scared.”
Lyza paused, her hand on the handle. “What are you scared of?” She scoffed.
”Same thing you are,” Rini replied.
”As if,” the rabbit opened the door. “Even kids from other grades know you.”
”Most people know me for being a bitch.” The rat said, candidly, as she nabbed the bear from off the handle as she passed. “Better for people knowing you as a bitch...” She said, looking into the bear's sewn-on eyes as her words trailed.
”Well, you said it before,” the rabbit reminded. “We can at least try to say hi to each other from across the hall.”
”We could at least try that,” Rini agreed, skipping ahead. “I'll tell ya what,” she said, holding up her hands, and the bear, to pause the rabbit's pace. “When we walk through the doors at Redcliff for the first time... Let's walk through together. Neither of us are alone.”
The rabbit's ears swiveled back. “Sure.” She replied.
”Cool. We can practice, right now,” the rat said, turning toward their classroom door. “We'll get looks, but we'll get looks together.”
”I don't care,” the rabbit shrugged. “I'm used to it.”
”Well... I'm not,” the rat admitted.
”Then step aside, let the pro handle it.” Lyza opened the door, and on the other side the room was dark. The class was sitting on the floor, looking up at the TV and watching an episode of The Magic School Bus.
The two were given a few looks from kids outside the clump, but otherwise they were able to meld back into the scene without much trouble.
Ms. Hupp quietly stepped up to the rabbit. “Honey?”
Lyza looked up.
”Are you all right?” She asked, with a very sincere and sentimental tone.
The rabbit nodded, and shrugged.
The teacher patted her shoulder, and went back to her desk.
Even while the episode was ending, the kids were distracted by the sounds of squeaking sneakers in the hallway. The light flicked on, and they groaned, holding a hand over their eyes.
The students were then ushered into the cafeteria where, instead of row upon row of mud-colored, plastic tables, there was row upon row of plastic chairs all facing toward the stage.
The students were seated by class, and not surprisingly Ms. Hupp's was the best behaved, a relatively quiet patch in the middle amidst rowdiness all around them.
The usual faculty was assembled at the base of the stage at a podium. Mr. Wiggin stepped up to the microphone.
”Hello, everyone; settle down, now, settle down.”
After a bit more gentle coaxing, the cafeteria quieted.
”We only have a short while left, before your officially start your summer vacation!” He raised his arms into the air and waved his hands.
Mrs. Gauss did similarly, cheering with the kids.
”But, before we let you go, it's time to reflect on and acknowledge all of your merits and accomplishments for the year.
”First, we would like to acknowledge perfect attendance: those students who have no unexcused absences."
Mr. Wiggin proceeded to call the names of dozens of students.
Emeral huffed when she was passed up; all because the doctor forgot to sign the note she took to the attendance office for one little visit. One stupid, coconut-flavored visit.
She also felt bad that Ket did not get an award either. His fever-day must have not been excused, either.
But, he did get to go up when the A Honor Roll was called.
"Next is the A-B Honor Roll."
"Heck yeah" Emeral softly smacked one fist into the other. This was one that she would get. She bumped the tiger beside her; with his help, she had managed to bring her math up to an eighty-one to end the year. When her name was called, she skipped up with glee and took her ribbon with a habited bow.
It would have been better if it was red, like Ket's. It could have been worse, if it was green like the TAG Awards were.
There were a few other awards given out, related to various fund-raisers and other miscellaneous activities to have an excuse for making a different-colored ribbon.
Emeral noticed that Lyza was still without anything in her hands.
"Next," Mr. Wiggin began, as Mrs. Gauss began readying the bands of several medals on her arm; “we would like to acknowledge those of you who participate in extra-curricular activities. Even in your own activities, you are still a representative of our school, and with that we present to you a medal of recognition.”
Lyza's ears twitched and she looked up as the teacher began calling out names. She wasn't expecting anything; her grades had slipped too low for an Honor Roll, and she had never had perfect attendance.
But, this award was new. She had at least one extra-curricular activity.
”Kimberly Brown,” the teacher said.
The mousette hopped up excitedly, rushing to the front to receive her medal.
Well, there went that.
Awards were alphabetized by surname, and they'd just passed the letter hers began with.
She came to realize that this award was just a glorified nod to the more athletic kids of the school. Evidently, the fine arts were not worthy enough to get a medal.
A few students had not come up to receive their awards when called.
”He's not here!” Someone in the crowd hollered, as they tended to do in this situation.
After the medals were handed out, Mr. Wiggin stepped away from the podium, and joined the other members of the faculty in the front of the room in a small huddle.
After a a few moments, the room began to murmur. The murmuring grew, and rather quickly crescendoed into a bubbling broth of conversation, just about as loud as during lunch.
A woman the students had never seen came out, carrying what looked to be a gigantic camera. She then spent several minutes with the faculty members, bringing more photography equipment in and setting up a small back-drop.
Lyza started to stretch her neck, taking in a deep breath and billowing an annoyed sigh.
Ket looked at her with a smile.
"...What?" She asked, though not in a rude manner.
He blinked, still smiling. "...Nothin'," he replied cryptically, and returned to looking at the front as the teacher returned to the podium.
"If you'll all quiet down, we have one more award," Mr. Wiggin said, rapping his knuckle on the podium. After several successive taps he cupped his hand around the back of the mic. "Please quie—bweeeeeeeeee"
The students all clasped their hands against their ears and cringed as feedback pierced into the air. It was silent for too long of a moment, and Mr. Wiggin cleared his throat. "Yes, thank you. As I was saying, we have one more award to give, and I think it's much more appropriate if I turn it over to someone you all know and love. Mrs. Oulryk?"
An applause was held as Mrs. Oulryk stepped up to the podium. She waited as it quickly softened, one last whistle tailing the end. "Hello again, kids," she said cheerfully. She was met with usual roar-hello back. "I seem to be doing a lot of speaking lately, don't I? Anywho, as Mr. Wiggin said, there is one more award that we have to present.
”This special award has been given to twenty-nine other children, all once-fifth-graders like yourselves, at the end of the year. I believe, however, that the thirtieth will be the one Lonely Oak most remembers, for many reasons.
"Of course, I suppose I should explain just what the award is, shouldn't I? Well, throughout the entire year, all of us—your teachers, your coaches; counselors, staff, and principal—look for an individual who stands out amongst the others. Much alike the oak tree that stood out in the grassy fields of the playground, so long ago.
”This person is not necessarily anyone with the highest grades,” the old bear clarified, holding up a staying hand as if to bar the thought from their minds. “This person is a person we feel best represents this school's philosophies and aspirations; someone who serves as a role-model for you all to keep in mind as you make your way out into the world of middle school, and beyond.
"The decision is always a difficult one, but this year we came to a unanimous conclusion." She leaned down for a moment, and when she came back up, she placed upon the podium a modest trophy, but definitely one that caught the fancy of every young eye that looked upon it.
It displayed an oak-leaf supported by a few arms from the base, tilted slightly so that its tapered end was leaning back. Its rounded lobes caught the light, but the rest of the body was a matte, gold-leaf press that gave it a darker look from the chairs the kids sat in.
Even as it was placed onto the podium and Mrs. Oulryk allowed a pragmatic pause, the students began to murmur and whisper, each one coveting the valuable-looking prize. Chairs in the back made a bit of a ruckus as those kids stood up to get a better view. Mrs. Oulryk cleared her throat once more, and the students hushed.
"This award is one that we—your staff and faculty—personally acquire with our own funds. It is a way of showing our appreciation for that individual to whom it is deserved. And yes, this is real gold; the trophy is gilded.”
Lyza leaned to the tiger sitting next to her. “Congrats,” she said.
”I have no doubt that the recipient of this award will know what the word gilded means, because of their excellent vocabulary.”
”Thanks.” Ket glanced to the rabbit next to him. “But... For what?” He asked.
”Will Lyza Alatyrtsev please come forward?"
Lyza's ears swiveled back, and she stared across the room at the podium, partly in shock from the loud sound that came from her friend nearby.
A few seconds of silence made everyone start to glance around the room
"Oh my gosh! Lyza go-go-go-go-go-go-go-go!" The tigress urged, pulling her up. "Get up there, hurry!"
"W-Wait—I don't—" Nervously and hesitantly, the rabbit was coaxed along by hands down the row; she stepped on feet, "Sorry!" And kicked a chair, "Ah!" And just when she was about out of the row, she tripped.
”Whoa,” exclaimed the rat, as she and the two felines sitting on either side of her helped to catch the rabbit's stumble. “No falling, keep going.”
As she headed down the lane, the kids behind her started to cheer, making her nervously run faster as if to try and get away from a stalking monster.
Mrs. Oulryk stepped out from behind the podium to greet her, and hand the trophy over.
When she accepted it, her hands dipped as she did not anticipate its weight. She gazed at her mottled reflection and, following previous directions given to other children upon receipt of their awards, turned to go back to her seat.
"Just a moment dear," Mrs. Oulryk said, bending over and holding the girl in place; her ears wobbled back and forth twice. "Come this way, you'll want your picture taken for the mural, won't you?"
She haphazardly walked toward the backdrop that had been rigged up, joined by Mr. Pretty and her teacher. They gathered around her, the principal kneeling on one knee, helping to support the trophy.
The woman with the camera leaned over to it, adjusting it on the tripod to point it at the girl.
"Say: Oak Trees!"
Somehow, Lyza managed a grin, and the flash blinded her. Another and another and another; and then, when she could see, the principal was speaking with the woman.
Amidst the whistles and the cheering, one voice could be heard. She stood on her chair so she was easily seen, her fist stretched high into the air, fur colored like the foam on a root-beer float, and hammered it forward with each syllable as she chanted: "L-Y-Z-A lits-ee-ya!"
The reply was deafening: L-Y-Z-A LITS-EE-YA!!!
Too frozen to think, the rabbit allowed herself to be negotiated by Ms. Hupp. The ceremony was clearly out of control. Even as it was abruptly concluded and the teachers began leading their students down the hallway, they proceeded to march and chant. Heads peered curiously from the library and the third-grade hallway, even their loud partying overwhelmed by the noise that thundered from the cafeteria.
In her classroom, Lyza bashfully held her trophy as her classmates came up to get a closer look. When Ms. Hupp finally shut her door, after having helped other teachers settle their classes down, she let out a very long-winded sigh, and gazed haggardly.
"Thanks... A lot... Rini." She muttered.
"You're welcome!" The girl said with an innocent smile.
Then, ears perked, and all of the children looked up as the bell rang.
In the other hallways, the storm of sneakers running through the halls for the school's exit thundered from beyond their closed door.
But the children in the classroom were quiet.
”What're you guys waiting for?” The teacher asked with a chuckle, and clapped her hands. “Summer's started! Go get your backpacks, and scram!” She jokingly told them.
A soft shuffle caught their ears.
The dalmatian approached the teacher slowly, his hands together and his shoulders pinched up. When he neared, the raccoon squatted to be at his height.
”What's the matter, William?” She asked, looking at the canine's sad eyes.
The shy boy leaned in, extending his arms and wrapped them around his teacher. “Goodbye, Ms. Hupp,” he mumbled; though, in the relative quiet, everyone could hear.
The teacher hugged her former student back. “Goodbye, Will,” she bid.
One by one, her former students walked to her, to say their goodbye and give her a hug. Then, they went to their backpack, slung it over their shoulder, and went to the door.
They would take one last look at the room, at their last bastion of elementary school that they thought they would never leave, before slipping out into the hall.
Each step took them further from a place they knew they could never return as they were. Even if they did come back, they would be older.
Each step felt heavier, as they tried to pick up and carry all the memories they could, even as some spilled away just as they were gathered.
They had stepped past that threshold so many times, and yet now it was a little tough. For once they did, they were no longer elementary-schoolers. They were no longer little kids.
Their minds, their bodies, their relationships; everything about their lives would grow and change in ways that none of them, not even ones more wary of the future, could ever predict.
But, in their hearts, each of them knew, if they were ever in doubt, in fear, or even just a little lonely; to find reassurance, bravery, or company, they need only seek the shade of a familiar, old oak tree.