The day Flo turned eleven years old, she woke up to a very strange sight: a duck held a letter for her in its bill. After she screamed, and feathers flew everywhere around her bedroom, the duck dropped the red envelope on her bed and waddled off muttering obscenities. Flo read her name in black ink. Curious, she opened the envelope to discover a letter written in a neat, tiny handwriting that was almost a perfect mimicry of typed 12 point Courier.
"Welcome! You have been selected to attend Aflac School of Insurance Sales, the premiere school for teaching young minds about the high art of selling insurance." The letter went on for a while with a half dozen legal provisos and subclauses, which, it must be said, Flo read very carefully.
"Mother! Father!" she shouted, running out of her bedroom still in her nightie and clutching the letter up high in the air. "I've been accepted to Insurance School!"
"My daughter isn't attending any insurance school," said Father over his bacon and eggs. "I was an aglet salesperson my whole life, as was my father before me. You are going to sell aglets and you are going to like it."
"But Father! I want to save the world by giving people discounts on their insurance policies!"
Two months and a short yet furious shoelace war later, Flo dragged her wheeled suitcase alone to the Greyhound station, ticket to Aflac clutched in one determined hand. She strode up to the ticket counter. "When is the bus to Aflac?"
The ticket seller stared at her blankly. "Next bus goes to St. Louis."
"I'm going to Aflac. I need to know when the bus arrives."
"St. Louis," he repeated, and walked away.
Behind her, she heard a family come in: two dads and a little boy. "Did you say Aflac, dear?" asked the taller dad, who smiled kindly at her. Flo nodded. "Our son here is going to the school for the first time, too."
"We're both alums," said the shorter dad. "We're so proud of him!"
"I'm Flo," she said, sticking out her hand.
The boy stared at her hand, and then he said, "I'm a nail. I've been hanging out on this road for like a week, maybe two, getting nice and rusty and just waiting for your car to drive right over me."
"Mayhem's a natural Allstate," said the first dad. "Do you know where you're hoping to be Sorted?"
Before they could explain, a bus puffed up to the bus station, unlike any bus Flo had ever seen before. Where every square inch wasn't covered in bumper stickers, she could see psychedelic paint in bright orange flowers and peace signs. Other children lined up, all holding the same weird ticket Flo had found with her letter.
Beside her, Mayhem's dads kissed him on the cheeks and ruffled his hair. "You do us proud," said the second dad.
"I'm a lollipop, dropped onto the carpet last night by your toddler. Ants love me."
Flo handed the driver her suitcase and was handed a receipt. She got onto the bus and found a seat by the window. She was joined a few minutes later. She looked down at her seat mate. He waved up at her. "'Lo, miss. Ready for Aflac?"
"I'm excited. It's always been a dream of mine to help people save money."
"Same." He whistled to himself.
Flo couldn't help herself. "Have you been a lizard long?"
"All my life. Bit of a tip: I prefer 'gecko,' myself."
"Sorry. I'm Flo."
"Leslie." The gecko hiccuped. "I mean, Steve. Yeah. Call me Steve."
"Leslie is a nice name, Steve."
"You try growing up named Leslie and only four inches tall and see how much you like it." The gecko eased back into the bus seat. "I'm hoping to be Sorted into Geico. What about you?"
"Nothing major. Just when you arrive the school decides where you're gonna work the rest of your bleeding life. Just don't put me into Farmers is all I ask."
The gecko pointed to the front of the bus where a small chorus of children kept humming: "We are Farmers: bum bu-bum bum-bum bum-bum!"
"They're in the chorus?"
In the seat in front of them, an older blonde girl chatted amiably with her seatmate, then vanished.
Flo would have stood up sharply if it wasn't for her fastened safety belt. "What happened to her?" she asked the other girl anxiously.
The second girl shrugged. "Someone said the jingle and summoned her. She'll be back."
The bus trip took several hours, during which time the little blonde girl appeared and disappeared, apparently being summoned home by her parents to collect her forgotten school items. Flo read her favorite book, Price Wars of the 1960s, to pass the time while Steve snored in the next seat. Behind her, she heard Mayhem introduce himself to the other children on the bus as, variously, a squirrel, a loose shingle, and a shard of glass.
At dusk, the bus pulled up in front of a huge castle. Flo stared at the carefully-blunted tips of the iron fence, the bright spotlights flooding the grounds, and the obviously up to date windows. Helpful signs were posted, including "Watch your step!" "Beware of dog!" and "Path freezes before grounds, use caution."
"Go on. Your belongings will be delivered to your rooms. Keep your receipts."
The children shuffled off the bus. The older children waved to the bus driver, who had his identification and insurance information displayed for easy viewing. "See you in December!" they said. Flo followed behind, with Steve and Mayhem close behind.
They filed into the front hall. A pink-haired girl met them. "I'm Erin!" she said. "Head of House Esurance. All first years follow me this way. The rest of you may go into the Great Hall." She led Flo and the rest off to a small room.
"Hi! How many of you are super nervous right now!" Several small hands went up.
"I'm your bladder. You drank a lot of soda today, and I'm feeling full," said Mayhem.
"Oh, another Allstate. Fab!"
The Farmers kids in their little business suits began humming again. Erin quieted them down with a smile. "Soon enough. Now, does everyone know about the Sorting?"
Flo shook her head. Erin said, "Okay, it's super easy." Just then, a booming voice was heard from the door at the opposite end. "Great! It's time to start! This way!"
They were led into a huge room, with plenty of visible fire extinguishers and smoke detectors with their lights glowing with fresh batteries. Flo read the sign at the door: "Maximum Occupancy 325." Excitement fluttered through her. Long tables with the corners carefully covered with bumpers lined the room. Students sat at the tables, eager faces turned towards the new kids coming into the room. Flo noticed individual refillable bottles of hand sanitizer at every spot.
At the front of the room, a handsome man stood in the center and smiled kindly. In the deepest voice Flo had ever heard, he said, "Welcome to Aflac School of Insurance Sales. I am Professor Haysbert, head of House Allstate and headmaster of this school. A few start of term announcements before the Sorting. The General," he said, indicating a squat man in green at the front table, "has graciously accepted a teaching position in Online Sales. Professor Burke, head of House Farmers," he paused to let the students from the Farmers table hum their theme, "cannot join us tonight but will be giving tours to new students when he returns tomorrow."
He placed his hands together. "Now to the Sorting! First years, please attend." He picked up a price code scanner from its place on a purple pillow. "The Sorting Scanner will decide where each of you will live over the next several years."
He held out a list. "Jenny?"
A nervous girl stepped out from the gaggle of first years. From another table, someone shouted, "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there!" Jenny disappeared and reappeared beside the table to a burst of giggles from the rest of the students.
Professor Haysbert laughed. "Sorted." He called up the other students one by one. He scanned their arms and sent them to various tables around the room. "Flo?"
Flo gulped. She walked up to him, scared. "It's all right," he said quietly, just for her. "It doesn't hurt."
"I just want to save people money," said Flo.
"Can I tell you a secret?" said Professor Haysbert. Flo nodded. "We all do."
The scanner felt warm on her arm, and it beeped. "Progressive!"
Flo heard a cheer from a table, and turned her head to see happy children and a unicorn in a sombrero waiting for her. As she scampered towards them, she felt as though she was finally coming home.