”Well done, Ket,” Ms. Hupp set her pen down definitively. She spoke to him with a calm, quiet kind of praise. “If this one was for real, you would have passed with commended status. I'm impressed, since social studies is your kryptonite.”
Ket leaned against the back of his chair. “I guess the proof will be in the pudding, next week.”
”I'm really proud of you,” his teacher praised, straightening out the mock exam. “I know it's been a lot of work, but I think you're more than ready to blow these tests out of the water.”
”I just want to pass,” he admitted, swiveling to stand up, stretching.
She smiled. “You look really tired. Do a lot of relaxing this weekend: play videogames, eat ice cream, hang out with Emmy.” Ms. Hupp handed him the mock exam, and went to the door of her classroom. “Then, get to bed early on Sunday. And eat a full, hearty breakfast.”
She pushed the door open. 'Oh...” Ms. Hupp poked her head out. “Where is Emmy?”
”She had to go with her mom today.”
”Ah, okay. She's been so nice to wait for you these days. She's a good friend.”
”Yep,” he agreed.
”Plus, I noticed she's gotten a lot of work done. I'd better not see her slacking, now.” Their teacher teased.
”I'll make sure she doesn't.” Ket promised with a smile. “Bye.”
The tiger adjusted the single strap that held his backpack in place. It was beginning to wear and he worried it wouldn't last to the end of the year. His footfalls echoed in the quiet hallway. He stopped to get a drink at the water fountains, the water cold and fresh against his muzzle and tongue.
He pulled on the closed door to the cafeteria, but found it was locked. That was a little unusual, but it wasn't the first time it had happened. He continued on toward the main lobby, to head out the way one was normally supposed to go.
The lobby was big enough to fit about three classrooms-worth of kids, but they wouldn't have much personal space. It was meant to be more of an area of passing than gathering; the faculty stressed that so in the morning. But now, it looked very large, empty as it was.
The walls were decorated with display cases and school paraphernalia. Much of it was pictures. There were staff pictures of Mr. Pretty and Mrs. Gauss, and a few others. There were pictures of events, activities, and even some shots of Oakers as adults, stating their accomplishments.
In its own designated area, on the wall that Ket was closest to as he was heading out the main entryway, was a very well-organized display of photos. They were all very similar. In each picture was a student, along with the current principal of that year, and the student's teacher. However, in all twenty-nine photos, two things were consistent: an ornate-looking gold trophy that the student gleefully held up near their smiles, and Mrs. Oulryk.
As Ket's eyes wandered from the top-left corner to the lower-right, the years ticked up. In each one, Mrs. Oulryk aged, but her smile and charm were ever-lasting. The final picture to date, labeled with the prior year, was of a girl sun-bear with sand-colored hair that went down nearly to her legs.
He vaguely recognized her. In fact, as he stared at the picture, he could recall the day that it was taken. The Golden Leaf Award. That was what this was called. One for every year, since the school's establishment.
As he stared at the picture, he started to feel something. It was like that feeling he got when he was reading a good story, one he really enjoyed, but he was getting near the end of. The pages on the right were thinning, and far too quickly. It made his stomach a bit uneasy, and his spine tingled with anxiety. He averted his eyes from the photos.
It was getting late, and he wanted to get home.
He pushed against the door, and thankfully it opened. The sky was partly-cloudy, the sun hidden behind a very puffy, white fluff of cotton-candy. The cloud itself was dark, but its edge was brightly lit, like it had been outlined with glitter.
He was glad for it. If the cloud hadn't been there, his eyes would have been very unhappy.
He turned right and began his trek home. As he passed the old cafeteria door, contemplating the talk he had had with Mrs. Oulryk, and the daunting week to come, he passed someone sitting on the bicycle parking rack. At first, he didn't think anything of it; just someone waiting for their parents. But then, he remembered, that it was over half an hour after everyone left. Usually kids that stayed longer went to the gym or library.
He turned, and, just like the girl in the picture, he recognized who it was. But this was not a vague recognition, and it made him smile when he saw her.
“Lyza?” He asked rhetorically, approaching her.
He appeared to have startled her. How funny; they were both thinking and didn't even notice each other.
”What'cha doing here?” The tiger asked, setting his backpack down at the base of the parking rack.
”Waiting for fart-head.” She replied, distantly.
”He's usually here sooner, isn't he?”
”Yeah,” the rabbit nodded, almost with a bit of agitation. “He's stuck in traffic. He called the office.”
”Oh. Well... why don't you walk home with me?” Ket suggested. “He can pick you up form my house, that way you don't have to wait here.”
”No... that's okay.” The rabbit declined. “He'll probably get here any second. I don't wanna make things confusing.”
Ket gave an uneasy smile. It didn't seem that confusing, did it? “Okay then.”
Lyza expected him to leave and be on his way. Instead, she felt the parking rack she was sitting on quiver beneath her. Ket sat upon it, on the opposite end to her right. “You don't...” She started to say, but the words faltered at his friendly smile.
”I don't mind waitin' with ya.” He folded his hands at his hunched knees, trying to find a comfortable spot to sit on, given he was trying to balance on nothing but a metal bar. His heel idly tapped the sectional bars that ran perpendicular to the ground. “Hmm,” he kept his gaze forward, as if looking for Kval's car as he spoke; “Did I ever thank you for getting my carving back last week?”
Lyza knew what he was talking about, but for some reason she replied: “Carving?”
”Last Friday, during recess.”
”Oh... It's no big deal.”
”It is to me,” he said. “I guess I should have been more careful with it. I worked on it for a while, as a gift. I pretty much counted it as a loss when I couldn't get it back from Goren. I was really surprised when you handed it to me.”
”Why?” She asked, a little defensively. “You were expecting someone else to get it back or something?”
”Huh?” The tiger lifted a brow. “No... I wasn't expecting anyone to.” He smiled. “But I'm glad it was you. I bet that'll make them think twice about teasing you.”
Lyza gritted her teeth, and her hand clenched into a fist. She hid it from his view on the other side of her legs.
”Feeling okay?” He asked.
”Yeah. Why?” She asked, regretting opening the offer for response.
”Nuthin' just...” Ket blinked.
Lyza stared ahead, waiting for the car. For some reason, she really wanted her brother to show up. Her foot began to wiggle rapidly, and her heart's tempo went to eighths.
The parking rack shuddered again, and she glanced to see the tiger leaning against the bar instead of sitting; he scraped his foot on the sidewalk. His shoe caught a dead leaf scuttling across the concrete in the gentle breeze.
”Just seems like you're really stressed out lately.”
The comment made her spine tighten. She nervously glanced over; he was paying more attention to the leaf.
”Every time I look over at your desk, your eyebrows are down. You've got a book open, or you're writing really fast.” He matched her gaze. “I don't really mean anything by it, it's just something different I noticed; you haven't been smiling like you usually do, or day-dreaming.”
She tried to come up with a response, but all that came out was awkward silence.
”You don't have to worry.” He muttered, looking back at the leaf as he let it go. “I know it sounds like a really big deal, but trust me. The tests aren't that bad. Ms. Hupp over-prepares us in-class as it is, plus the homework. Unless you totally ignore her and blow off your homework, you'll do just fine.”
Ket glanced over, his eyes friendly and relaxed. He hooked his thumbs around the bar.
”It's...” There was no use; “It's not just the tests.” She admitted.
She looked forward, but focused on Ket in her periphery.
He looked forward after a moment, and then nodded.
She took in a breath. She felt nervous, like she had just confessed to stealing the cookie from the cookie jar.
It was strange. She had just told Ket more than she felt willing to tell her own brother.
”It freakin' sucks.” He stated.
Her ears twitched at the vulgar words.
”The older I'm getting... the more I'm realizing I'm still just a kid. And I hate it.” The bar hummed as his knuckle rapped it. “I don't feel like a kid anymore, so stop talking to me and treating me like I am one. I mean... I guess, my parents' divorce really got to me. Ever since then, and maybe even a bit before, I've sort of... been looking at things differently.
”Take the tests, for example.” He chuckled, almost with frustration, given his next statement. “They're almost completely pointless. I mean, you spend more than a month studying for them, and then a week afterward you completely forget about it.”
Lyza glanced over, her lips barely parted as she listened to him. As he continued to speak, facing forward as if not really talking to her, his gestures and actions were very expressive.
”What's the damn point, ya know?” He flicked his hand. “But... really what I noticed is that... during that time, when I was trying to figure things out,” he tapped his head, “I was really frustrated. And everyone could tell—it was kind of embarrassing.” He folded his arms, and looked over. “Don't tell anyone this, but... I didn't repeat fifth grade because of my grades.”
Lyza looked down at her hands folded in her lap. She wasn't sure where this conversation came from, but she found herself paying attention to every word.
”I was really... angry. I didn't yell or scream or anything; I just... hated where I was. It was like... it was like being lost in the woods, right?”
Suddenly, Lyza began to imagine what he was saying—and yet, in some way, it gave her the most intense feeling of déjà vu she had ever felt.
”You have no idea where you are. Everything looks the same. It's dark. There's no solid ground. There's all kinds of noise; or it's eerily quiet. You just get the feeling that there's something stalking you, something big with evil red eyes.”
She shivered, the fantasy disappearing from her mind in the moment of silence that came.
”At the time, I didn't really know why I chose to repeat. But now, after over a year since all the trouble and frustration, I think... I needed time... to sit down and get my bearings. To keep from panicking. To calm down so I could find my way out.” He pushed off the parking racks, and started pacing just a little. “This year has been the best year I've had here. I have great friends, like you and Emmy, and my mom has a better job and more time and... all kinds of things.”
Beads of water began to form in the corners of Lyza's eyes.
”I mean... wow, where did this come from?” He laughed, nervously.
She laughed with him.
“I guess... What I mean is, you're not the only one that feels the way you do. I was just as stressed when all of that was happening. I just wish that... when I was lost in those woods, I had someone to help, y'know? Someone to give me exactly what I needed, just when I felt like it couldn't get worse.”
She imagined, just then, Ket was holding something. He was extending it to her.
No... it wasn't her imagination; it was more like a memory.
”But, c'est la vie.” He shrugged, and looked out to the street. “There he is,” he pointed.
She followed his finger, and saw her brother's car stopped at the red light just before the school.
”Sorry, I didn't mean to rant like that,” he said, rubbing the back of his head. “Thanks for listening, though.”
”No problem,” she said softly, pretending to squeeze her sinuses as she wiped the water from her eyelids.
”I guess... if you ever feel lost like I did, don't be afraid to talk to me. If I can help, I will.”
”Sure,” she said, smiling.
”We should hang out again, soon. I feel bad not inviting you but Emmy says you do a lot with your brother.”
”It's okay,” she responded. “Maybe after the tests are over... I kinda wanna get some last-minute studying in.”
”You'll do fine,” he reassured. “Don't study. Just relax. That's what Ms. Hupp told me to do.”
The car pulled up, and she hopped off the parking rack. She opened the door.
”Sorry I'm late,” her brother said, and then shouted past her; “Hey, Ket! Need a ride?”
The tiger smiled and held up his hand.
”Hang on!” Kval stated, and reached into the back seat. He grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and wrote on it. “Give this to him,” he handed it to his sister.
Ket took the paper from Lyza, who had a bit of an embarrassed-annoyed expression on her face.
”Call me when you get home!” The older brother said, giving the phone-gesture.
”Will do,” Ket replied, hoisting his backpack and starting his walk.
”You look happy,” Kval said, as his sister buckled up. “Have a good day?”
”Uh... Yeah,” she replied, her voice a bit less expressive than her face. “...I learned a lot today.”
”Good,” he said, stepping on the pedal, slowly passing Ket as he turned to leave the lot. “Glad to see you ain't goin' to school for nuffin'.”
”Yeah.” She idly agreed, watching the tiger in the side mirror before her brother turned. And just like that, he disappeared.
But, he had given her exactly what she needed.
And, somehow, it wasn't the first time.