The Central Plains High School auditorium was packed like no previous student assembly had seen. The prize this year was a new Dodge Ram, so the stakes were high. It was rumored that some parents had given their daughters permission to dip into their college tuition funds to pay for their mums.
At the podium, Mr. Tiller adjusted the microphone. “Good morning, students. I said, good morning, students.” He waited out the decrescendo of voices. “I know you’re all excited to be here and see who the finalists are. Your teachers walked around this morning and picked some interesting candidates, who put a lot of thought and effort into their mums, both thematically and artistically. I dare say this year’s mums are our strongest ever. So. May the best mum…the best person win? Alright, let’s bring out these contenders.”
Catie Kristie walked out with some difficulty to cheers from the student body. Rather than pinning the mum to her shirt, she wore it around her neck, because the central piece of it was a large tire. Black and gold ribbons and feathers trailed down to her feet, with several matchbox trucks and black fuzzy dice attached. Catie stopped at the podium and, with a few jerky movements, pivoted to show the crowd her creation.
“Well, we all knew how much Catie loves trucks, but wow!” Mr. Tiller said. He leaned down until his face was level with the girl’s chest. “For those who can’t see, there’s some beautiful detail work to accompany her automotive theme. Is that chrome? How did you…you know what, I’m not even gonna ask how you got those hood ornaments. And look! There’s a dashboard hula girl on the bottom! I have one of those in my car! Fantastic, and very direct in relation to the prize, thank you, Catie!”
As Catie walked to the back of the stage, Lillian Vax came out to more cheers and foot-stomping from the crowd. She also walked slowly, as her centerpiece was a large nest, likely a fake one purchased at a craft store. Perched somewhat rigidly inside was a small, terrified raccoon.
“Oh my,” Mr. Tiller said as she tried her best to sashay to the podium, green and brown ribbons and bells trailing with her. He reached out to finger the details, making sure to steer clear of the animal. “We have Lillian and her nature mum! Let’s see, it looks like these are real flowers and leaves. This is impressive, you have, quite literally, a tree pinned to your shirt. Very nice!”
Lillian stepped back next to Catie, whose body was at a sharp angle from the tire’s weight. As Lillian was backing up, the raccoon nearly tumbled out of the nest, causing gasps from the crowd. She stopped so it could right itself and continued to her place.
“Now, here’s our last finalist!” Mr. Tiller said. When Taylor Dash walked out, completely bald, she met with applause and loud murmurings. Her mum had all the traditional accoutrements – blue and pink pastel ribbons with white feathers, bells and plastic whistles, her name and her date’s name in vertical holographic lettering down the ribbons. What stood out about it was the centerpiece, which had a giant gray flower in the middle, framed by a full blonde wig of limp, flat hair.
“Well, it seems there are some mixed feelings on this one, but I have to say, I am a definite fan of sacrificing for your art!” Mr. Tiller said, aware of the school board’s distaste for faculty preaching artistic freedom to the student body of a public high school. Taylor was all smiles as she did a twirl, her ribbons following her moves. She was known to frequently wear pastel shirts, and with the blue and pink colors and wig on top, her mum had a striking resemblance to its owner.
Taylor stepped back to line up with the other ladies, and discussion began in the crowd. The raccoon, seemingly in awe of Taylor’s bald head shining under the stage lights, stood up on its hind legs, and when Lillian tried to soothe it back into its craft nest, it promptly grabbed her hand and bit her finger.
Lillian screamed and staggered back into Catie, who, unable to bear both the tire’s weight and Lillian’s, toppled over with a hard thud. The raccoon fell from the nest and scampered off stage, and Lillian had no choice but to run after it, holding tightly her bloody finger. Mr. Tiller knew he should move and do something to help, but he merely stood behind the podium, watching the scene with amazement.
Catie was still on the ground, having given up her attempt to stand up. The raccoon reappeared on the stage, turning its head to study its surroundings. For a moment, it looked as though it would escape into the crowd, which would surely cause panic, but instead, it went over to Catie. Some of the feathers had detached from her mum in the fall, and the animal diligently gathered these, as though the scene were no different from its natural environment. With a small armful, it went over to Taylor Dash and held them out as an offering. A completely useless gesture, at this point, but it solicited an “Awww,” from the crowd and was sweet in its own way.
Samantha Duncan is the author of four poetry chapbooks, including Playing One on TV (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2017) and The Birth Creatures (Agape Editions, 2016), and her fiction has appeared in Meridian, The Pinch, The Conium Review, and Flapperhouse. She serves as Executive Editor for ELJ Editions, reads for Gigantic Sequins, and lives in Houston.