The following Friday I stopped by Mrs. Holmes’s classroom, just to say hello–and to express my appreciation to Rebecca for sticking up for me. I even felt like saying something nice to my former tormentors: Harlynn, Jolie, and Ava. That’s right–my former tormentors. Ever since my conversation with Mrs. Casazza the previous week, they never once showed me anything cute: not a Beanie Boo, not a Hello Kitty, and not even a piece of pink clothing. Or magenta for that matter.
One thing bothered me, though. Every time I remarked that I appreciated how nice they were being to me, they would smile sweetly but then start giggling as I walked away. If I turned suddenly to see what they were laughing about, they would revert to those innocent little expressions on their faces. It made me worry they were up to something.
But the fateful day had arrived, and I received every assurance from Mrs. Casazza that the girls would follow the plan she and I had discussed. So when I entered the classroom, I had no reason to believe that anything was amiss. Isabella, of course, immediately put a protective hand on her water bottle, but as I approached the back work table, Ava, Jolie, and Harlynn looked up sweetly and waved. Mrs. Holmes was perhaps a little tentative.
“Are you going to wind the kids up again? Because if you are–”
“No, Mrs. Holmes,” I assured her.. “I’m merely here to say hello. And how are these three students now that they have seen the evil in their former ways?” I turned and winked to Rebecca, who was at her desk. She smiled back.
“Mr. Fornale,” Ava spoke up, “you’re so right. We should never have pushed our teasing game so far.”
“I’m glad you understand that now,” I crowed.
“Absolutely right!” Jolie joined in. “So what if you always tried to scare us with stories of monsters in the custodians’ closet.”
“They’re in there, I tell you. They eat fourth-graders, you know.”
“Sure,” put in Harlynn. “And so what if you said you wanted to play four-square at recess then held the ball up so we couldn’t reach it.”
“Gives you motivation to grow, doesn’t it?”
Then Rebecca rose from her desk and walked over to me. Then she added, “And so what if you make horrible jokes about cooking animals that are supposed to be pets!”
It actually sounded like she yelled it. There was a biting edge to what she said, and she wasn’t smiling.
“Yes,” I answered, puzzled. “But you understand that was merely a joke I made to Harlynn. You know…teasing.”
Rebecca looked at me sternly for a moment. I looked to the other three and was relieved to see them smiling. I looked back to Rebecca’s scowl for a moment; then, suddenly, she put on the same pleasant face as the others had.
I couldn’t figure it out. Something just didn’t seem right. In my musing to figure it all out, I found myself staring out the windows on the opposite side of the room.
That was Mrs. Holmes, arms folded, with a reproving look on her face. “Was there anything else, or may the girls and I get back to work?”
“Sorry,” I said. “I was lost in my thoughts for a moment. Uh–by all means, carry on. I’ll be on my way,” I muttered as I started toward the door. Then I heard the girls giggling. By the time I turned around, they were all smiling–and Mrs. Holmes was, too. This had me nervous. I looked over to Andy, who was about to pull the launcher on a Beyblade.
“Andy,” I started.
“I know, I know,” he replied. “Get to work.”
He did, and I departed.
About a half and hour before dismissal, I walked over to Mrs. Casazza’s office. I wanted to know when I would see all of the cute toys and garments loaded up and carted away.
As I entered, she looked up and smiled. “Well, she said, the moment has come!”
“Great!” I said. “So we’re still on.”
“Yes,” she began tentatively, “but I hope you’re sure about this.”
“Of course, I am. I want to see this. Where is it happening”
“Well, if you’ll meet me by the main school entrance in five minutes, I’ll get the girls, and you can watch it all happen.”
Five minutes later, I was standing in the vestibule, and Mrs. Casazza arrived with Harlynn, Ava, Jolie, and Rebecca–all smiling. “So, are you ready?” she asked.
“Of course!” I returned, “but shouldn’t you have a big wheelbarrow or something full of those dreadful things?”
“Oh, no,” Ava broke in. “We collected so many items, we needed something bigger than a wheelbarrow.”
Then Jolie added, “And who wants to recycle a wheelbarrow, anyway?”
“Recycle?” I asked.
Harlynn then said, “Well, you told Mrs. Casazza you would agree to recycling all of the items–along with the container they were in.”
“That’s right,” I remembered out loud, “I did say that.”
Then Rebecca put in, “Right! So, let’s go out to the parking lot.”
“Wow!” I said. “The parking lot! You must’ve collected a carload of stuffed animals!”
“Funny you should say that,” Mrs. Casazza said in a mysterious tone.
In a few seconds we were in the parking lot, and Harlynn pointed to my car.
It looked…strange. As if it were filled with something. I squinted, then walked closer to it. It was completely filled…with pink stuffed animals!
“What on Earth?” I asked out loud to no one in particular. I opened the driver’s side door. Dozens of fluffy toy animals spilled out.
“Mr. Fornale!” Ava scolded as the girls all scrambled over to put the items back in and squeeze the door shut.
“What is the meaning of this?” I asked sternly, my voice rising. Just then, a police cruiser entered the parking lot, followed by a white tow truck. Once the cruiser was parked, Officer Chris emerged from it, beaming and walking over to greet me.
“You know?” he started, “I figured you were joking a couple of weeks ago, bringing me in to talk to those kids, but now I see what you were up to.”
I was thoroughly bewildered. I had no idea what he was talking about. Then I felt a pat on my back. As I turned around and recognized that it was Mr. Paltjon, he took my hand in both of his and gave several vigorous shakes, then said to Officer Chris, “See, Chris, this guy had us fooled the whole time.”
Officer Chris put his arm around me as the three of us stood there, watching the tow truck position itself in front of my car and back slowly to approach it.
“Hey–” I started to protest.
“Amazing, isn’t it? Officer Chris said to Mr. Paltjon, “all that ranting about how your granddaughter and her friends have it in for him–”
“And my niece, Krista!” Mr. Paltjon added.
“And your niece! Right–a ‘family vendetta’ against him! And here he is pulling everybody’s leg the whole time!”
“But what is that tow truck going to do?” I asked urgently.
“Ha-ha!” Mr. Paljon chuckled, “Now he plays clueless! What a kidder!”
I broke away from the two men and walked over to where Mrs. Casazza was standing with Rebecca, Harlynn, Jolie, and Ava. “Will one of you,” I asked breathlessly, “please tell me what is going on here?”
Rebecca began, “I stuck up for you, and I convinced my friends to stop teasing you. Wasn’t that nice?”
Then Harlynn added, “So we came up with an idea that would make your life at school less…stressful. Wasn’t that nice?”
“So,” Jolie continued, “We took up a collection of lots of cute, fluffy, pink, things–all of the things you don’t like–so you could enjoy a cute-free school. Wasn’t that nice?”
“And the-en,” Ava said in her singsong manner, “you told Mrs. Casazza we could choose what to put everything in–whatever container we wanted! Wasn’t that nice?”
I looked at all of them and was unable to speak. My jaw hung open, my eyebrows raised, tears in my eyes, I looked to Mrs. Casazza to help make sense of all of this.
She looked back with a mix of sympathy for me and pride in the girls. “Well, Mr. Fornale, you remember the rest, don’t you? You said that everything should be recycled–including whatever container the cute things were in. So…I arranged to have your car donated to ASPCCT, who will put it to good use. And they will find new homes for all of the items inside. One-stop shopping. It couldn’t work out better.”
“The ASPCCT?” I asked.
“The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Cute Things. It’s a real organization. Harlynn found it online.”
“Isn’t that nice?” I grumbled.
I put my hand to my head. Then I heard the rigging of the tow truck lock to the front of my car and a small motor begin to lift it. I looked to Mr. Paltjon and Officer Chris who were smiling, each of them showing a thumbs-up.
Then I hung my head and began to trudge toward the entrance to the school.
“Where are you going, Mr. Fornale?” Rebecca called to me.
I slowly turned around, looked for a moment at each one of them: the patriarch of a family who will destroy my sanity, a police officer who was completely blind to the cruel injustice just done to me, a guidance counselor who had just counseled me out of a car, and four fourth-grade students who thought they had just beaten me.
“This isn’t over,” I whispered softly to myself.
“What was that you said?” Mrs. Casazza called over to me.
“Nothing,” I called back as I turned around and continued my slow, ignominious march to my office. “I have a migraine. And I have a meeting in Millburn in an hour. I have to call an Uber.”