Flagging by Lydia Ship


That year, meth addicts broke into the school, snatching the new computers and hurrying bow-legged to the getaway pickup before screeching away without any detection, and without any computers, having forgotten to latch the tailgate. Earlier that morning, the first of spring break, the youngest principal in the school’s history woke at pre-dawn from a dream in which his mother had died suddenly, and her grave had been placed sideways, to squeeze into what was probably a discount plot, no mound, only flat earth, all of which he and his father contemplated through the windshield of his father’s car, as his father was in a hurry to go somewhere else. In another house, Cait, a senior, was sleeping and would sleep until noon while her computer ate itself from a virus she’d gotten visiting art blogs late into the night, and in another house, Jennifer, also a senior, was dreaming about trying to write something into her day planner she couldn’t remember. The high school teachers were sleeping too deeply for dreams, and some of the other students were tossing and turning from too much pizza the night before while some of them were waking up to pee from too much beer, and no one had touched the flag.
     Administrators at Jerry High School were able to replace the computers easily, having won the state lotto several times, but students were wary, paranoid of all the break-ins, suspicious of their classmates, and school spirit flagged. And so the administrators announced a contest to determine who would be allowed to ask the flag a question.
     The school’s mascot flag, on which a cartoon wildcat undulated, had begun the school year by answering thousands of questions correctly, raising itself for yes, and lowering for no. Upon discovery of the flag’s powers during a noisy post-football-game brawl, townspeople had lined up every day to have a consultation with the flag. Security was hired within the week, not only to oversee the line but also to enforce a three-minute time limit per person. Increasingly fearful for the flag’s safety and preservation, the town’s police led by the PTA encased the flag and entire flagpole in a rectangle housing of white insulated material accompanied by a security camera and alarm, topped off by an electric shock system courtesy of the gym teacher, and it was decided that the flag should be left alone except for special occasions, such as essay contests. The column stood like the Washington monument in front of the school, and the FBI had been notified. Unfortunately, the FBI thought the town’s letter was a prank because the mayor’s secretary, who wrote the notification letter, forgot to use spell-check.
     In support of Healthy Youth Culture, the town’s campaign to thwart meth labs (which had swallowed nearly all the lottery money the town’s young people won), Jerry High students were allowed to write an essay about the kind of questions they’d ask the flag and why. The student who’d written the best essay would be allowed into the structure for three minutes to ask the flag his or her essay’s questions and receive answers. The contest was promoted as excellent scholarship fodder, with almost no thought to the ironic presupposition that any University admissions committee would accept with perfect credulity a rhetorical situation based on magic. Nevertheless, as the guidance counselor mused to her dog, stranger things have happened in small rural towns, and admissions committees were notoriously intrigued by the fishbowl effect inherent in bits of tall-tale oral history.
     Over the course of the next month, many students spent many concentrated bursts of their free time writing their essays. In them, students posed such questions as, “Will the United States have another terrorist attack within the next five years?” and, “Can we find a cure for cancer sooner by contributing more research money to the government, or could private companies be trusted to handle the money more effectively?” and so on. The students’ written questions were high-minded and socially responsible, and none of the students planned on asking them. Almost without exception, all of the students were using the essay as an “in” and instead planned on asking the flag maybe one worldly question followed by as many personal questions as they possibly could before their three minutes were up: “Should I go to college to study music?” “Will I make it in the music industry?” “Will I be happily married in fifteen years?” “Will I get cancer like my mom?” “Will my birthday win the lottery?” “Does Eric Ward have an STD?”
Only one student had any intention of asking the officially submitted questions, but in the past, that particular student had been selfish and grade-grubbing, and therefore, was not trusted. And so, though one student alone had noble and pure purposes, no one ever knew. It was impossible to know, just as it is impossible to answer whether the student was a boy or a girl.
     The administrators knew quite well that the students cared only for their own tiny soap operas, but after all, the flag wouldn’t answer questions in a group or while being monitored by more than one person. The flag could also detect recording devices. The flag would only answer one person when no one else was around. And so the teachers and administrators decided to pick the most worthy student—that is, the student they liked the most.
     The students knew quite well that the administrators were cynical about the essays, and the students also knew that the winner of the chosen essay would probably come down to a popularity contest, but nothing much could be done, except that many of the essays turned into apologies to teachers and administrators, a string of excuses, brown-nosing and kissing-ass the likes of which had never before been seen at Jerry High. Even the most jaded high school teachers were flabbergasted at the lack of sincerity, but all teachers and administrators pretty much ignored the essays and had narrowed the winner pool down to two opposite but equally likeable and therefore worthy students. The general belief was that these two students would be liked enough into being good people and asking the flag socially rewarding questions.
     Worthy student number one: straight-A student Jennifer, a smart, industrious cheerleader, often envied and negatively stereotyped for caring only about appealing to males, but large-hearted and liked by many. Worthy student number two: straight-A student Cait, a smart, tattooed visual artist, often envied and negatively stereotyped for being different out of stupidity and lack of social skills, but creative and liked by many.
     Both girls were polite and regarded highly by the administration, and both thought little of the other. Jennifer secretly looked down on Cait for thinking she was different and special, or at least, appearing to; Cait secretly looked down on Jennifer for not thinking she was different and special, or at least, appearing to. Later when they went off to college, their roles would reverse, but that doesn’t matter now. In truth, many of the normal-looking students were the ones neurotically particular about their looks; they cultivated eating and personality disorders based on distorted self and body images and hid behind technology; and, like their parents, they created dramas with each other that held them back from successes. All of this was complex and very interesting, but the teens were treated as if they didn’t know anything and were forced instead to learn inappropriate lessons from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s guilt or suicidal teens in the sixteenth century, or so said the websites built to house anonymous and peevish complaints against teachers, websites winning the student vote as bastions of fairness, thoughtful criterion, and integrity.
     One question ignited the teachers’ lounge: who between Cait and Jennifer should win? All votes ended in a tie, and all tie-breaker votes ended in exasperated pleas to the weary principal to serve as tie-breaker. The principal, too busy untangling his way out of red tape, barely knew any of the good students as he was only ever in touch directly with the troubled ones, who made him increasingly cynical, and he certainly didn’t know the two girls. There was only one solution, the principal decided, and that a secret one: ask the flag.
He had to break the law to do it. The town’s new law stated that for the flag’s preservation, only one visitor a year was allowed, at least until the FBI responded to the letter. Yet the principal, who always tried to do the right and correct and administrative thing, couldn’t see a way around it. He had to choose a student or the parents would rise up in anarchy, and he had no way of choosing between the two girls.
     So he stayed up late planning every angle. He looped the security tape Wednesday afternoon, and at four in the morning Thursday, walked to the front of the school building in his stealth-dark jogging clothes purchased for the occasion, which his wife had grumbled about though it seemed to him she was always grumbling. He disarmed the electric shock system with a wad of gum, reached under the canvas, unlocked the door, and wedged himself through to the dark chamber inside.
     He’d forgotten the casing would be dark. Light had to come from the doorway, and even if he cracked the door, the sun hadn’t risen. In the stifling obelisk, the smell of new athletic clothes and stale glue surrounded him. His time and his oxygen supply felt limited. Now for the real dilemma: which girl?
     “Oh, Great Mascot Flag,” he began. “Which—” he stopped himself. Should he really ask this question? He’d read all of the essays, knew all of the questions, why not simply ask one of them?
     Because in order to share the answer, he’d have to tell everyone he asked the flag a question, wouldn’t he?
     “Oh, Great Flag,” he continued, “which girl should ask you questions? Should Jennifer?” Since everyone was afraid of oiling or otherwise doing anything to the flagpole, the flag’s ascent had always been somewhat labored, and so in the dark the principal listened for the flag’s creaking rise, but nothing happened.
     “Should Cait be the one to ask you questions?”
     Again, the flag was still.
     The principal was troubled. Was he supposed to name every student in the school? Exasperated, he asked, “Oh Flag, is there a God?”
     Silence.
     Perhaps the flag could sense pretension. “Flag, can you still answer me?”
     Silence, then a rustle, then squeaks and shuffles as the flag rose.
He put his hands at the base of the flagpole as if to draw inspiration that way. “Can’t you give me anything?”
     Of course, the flag did not answer.
     And yet, this non-answer seemed to the principal to create a kind of intimacy between him and the flag, because, it seemed, his life was full of non-answers. “Flag, when I was in college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, only that I wanted to do something important, and one thing led to another and here I am, doing the same job thousands of people do, many better than me, only I seem to have gone to a college that impressed the board. The only students I ever talk with are blatantly disrespectful. I can tell they look down on me, thinking they’re going to be so much better than anyone who works in a small-town high school, and some of the teachers are idiots, and some of them are alcoholics… and I guess some of them are pretty great,” he said, feeling guilty. What, he wondered, would be his legacy?
     His watch beeped. Three minutes were up. The tennis team was coming.
     Later that morning, the principal called Cait into his office and excused her for the day from her classes. Hoping to inspire her to ask a noble question, he made her watch Invictus, The Blind Side, and Hoosiers. Sensitive Cait’s susceptibilities swayed in celluloid, and the principal’s plan worked; Cait dreamily recalled Avatar and became inspired to ask the flag an environmental question. The next morning, before everyone arrived, the principal let Cait into the white obelisk. He placed the hung-over vice principal outside with a stopwatch, telling her he was leaving early, and on the way home, he bought a shed big enough to house a woodcutting studio, after which he stopped to pick up cheap Thai takeout and imported beer, and then he surprised his wife when she arrived home by making love to her before dinner, as Thai takeout warmed in the oven and the smell of peanut sauce filled the house, and “Hotel California” looped over and over in the stereo. Later, they both got food poisoning and agreed to her cooking next time around.
     Inside the obelisk and alone, Cait realized she didn’t know enough about the environment to ask a question she couldn’t look up on the internet, so she asked, “Is there life in another universe?”
     The flag rose slowly.
     Cait didn’t know much about space, either. She still had most of her three minutes remaining. So she decided to use them for personal questions. The vice principal had fallen asleep when Cait slunk sideways into the light again, but jolted awake, the VP put out her cigarette butt, rolled up her sleeve over the burn hole, stepped into a wad of gum, and led Cait to the microphone for the school’s intercom in the principal’s office.
     The moment had come, the vice-principal grumbled, when Cait would reveal the flag’s message.
     The entire school waited silently, staring at classroom intercoms.
     Cait thought about her future two children, her divorce, her job of under fifty-thousand dollars a year, her lack of world travel, her fifty-eight years ahead. She closed her eyes. “There is life beyond our high school,” she said. “I mean, country.”
     
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Lydia Ship‘s stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Barrow Street, Pleiades, American Short Fiction, Denver Quarterly, New Delta Review (2012 Matt Clark Prize Winner), Sonora Review, The Portland Review, Hobart, and others. She is managing editor of The Chattahoochee Review and can be found at www.lydiaship.com.