“Lakeside Elementary is always willing to take on transfer students, Mr. Universe. We have about half a dozen new families move into town every year, so our faculty are both experienced and well-trained in making sure new students adjust to the Lakeside expectations.”
Leslie Martinez folded her hands and leaned over her desk. Her smile was warmer even than her bubblegum lipstick. The color clashed loudly with her sunflower-patterned dress, yet somehow suited her. Her hair was thick, and ran in loose curls down her shoulders and back. It was midnight black, and just a shade darker than her large bright eyes. She watched the man across from her ease back into his plush seat, less tense than a moment before.
“Thank you so much Ms. Martinez—“
“You can call me Leslie.”
“Sure, Leslie.” He ran his hands in self-conscious streaks down his sweater. “This is gonna be a big adjustment for Steven. He’s a bright kid! And very friendly. But this is very different from anything he’s done before. I just wanna make sure he adapts is all.” Greg’s eyes wandered over the walls: yellow a shade paler than Leslie’s dress. There were windows on three sides, each lending itself to a sun-bleached patch in the teddy-bear carpeting below. The wall behind her was covered in students’ arts and crafts, her desk littered with colorful gifts.
“Where did Steven go to school before?” Leslie asked. She tucked a stray curl behind her ear, glancing down at the paperwork Greg Universe had filled out. It was upside-down from her vantage point, and too small to read.
“Oh, uh, nowhere actually. We kinda—I mean he’s mostly been homeschooled. He can read and write and all that! But he was never uh….enrolled, anywhere.”
Leslie nodded at this. “We’ve had parents before who’ve switched to and from homeschooling. We’ll make sure his teachers are aware so his transition goes as smoothly as possible.”
Greg Universe slouched back a little further. Leslie felt a surge of pride run down her spine; she wasn’t much for bragging out loud, but she did know she had a certain talent for putting people (especially children) at ease. She kept the principal’s office decked in warm colors, bright paintings, and curious nicknacks for that exact reason.
“Thanks. He’s really excited for this. I’m mostly just worried about him not...getting how things work in a public school.”
“Do you have some kind of curriculum you used for homeschooling that we can look at?” Leslie folded her hands together. “If he’s used to a certain schedule and format, we can try to work out a system that merges his usual learning style with ours.”
A fierce blush crawled over Greg’s plump cheeks. He stiffened, and hunched himself back over Steven’s paperwork. “Yeah, you know…we never really had a curriculum for him. Things have kinda been a little crazy ever since he was born. I was job-hunting, and uh…keeping him close by kinda made the most sense to me. I’m not much of a teacher though.”
Leslie nodded again. She leaned closer and set a hand to the stack of forms. Greg eased back from them so Leslie could see what he’d written. “Okay. And his mother…Rose? Did she help teach him too?”
Leslie felt the instantaneous shift in the room.
“O-oh she—no…” Greg twisted his hands in his sweater, then brushed back his hair self-consciously, eyes to the floor. “Not to…bring down the mood in the room. But Steven’s mother—she…she died giving birth to him.”
“I’m so sorry,” Leslie answered with a whisper. She looked the man over in a new light: unkempt hair and pilly sweater, anxious eyes averted. Pity set itself like a rock in her stomach. “Have you raised Steven by yourself?”
Greg gave a small nod. “Well, until he was six. His mother had three very close friends—they’d known each other for…ages—and now they help raise him too. He’s moved in with them. You may uh…you may see them around.”
Leslie just nodded. Her mind strayed, perhaps self-indulgently, to her Saturday evening bookclub. She pictured her three friends: stout and plump Rachel, tall stony Anne, fair-haired worrier Carol—women she’d known forever. She imagined them moving in together for the sake of a six year old boy. Coordinating their lives around a child who needed them. She hadn’t a clue who Rose Universe’s friends were, but the placeholder visual she had touched her.
“That’s wonderful of them,” Leslie answered. “I’m glad that Steven’s had so many role models in his life. It sounds like you four have set aside a lot to raise him.”
Greg blushed and rubbed his neck. “Well uh…’s part of being a parent I guess. Steven comes first. He comes first to all of us.”
“I’d love to meet them sometime,” Leslie said wistfully. Greg gave a short nod, let the silence simmer, as if waiting for the topic to burn out.
BANG. The heavy oaken door crashed open. (Hadn’t they locked that?) A shower of tiny wooden splinters rained to the floor. The door itself seemed to explode against the far wall, and warbled as it bounced back. There, at the entrance to the office, stood a seven-foot-tall woman. She had her arms crossed, feet spread wide, enormous hair encompassing her shade-hidden eyes. “I do not trust this establishment,” she declared.
A second woman danced in. Shorter, but still with several inches on Leslie (and Leslie considered herself tall.) “I agree with Garnet. How can humans incubate their children in such a vulnerable facility? The doors are penetrable and the teachers are clearly not trained in combat (they asked me to put my spear away!)” She crossed her arms, eyes darting over the soft yellow walls. “Even the least valuable kindergartens had at least fifteen trained Gem warriors keeping watch!”
“This is an elementary school not a kindergarten Pearl,” Greg Universe whispered in a hurry. His words ran together, and his wide, panicking eyes shot between her and Leslie. “Please don’t—“
“That’s right, humans have tiers for where their young mature.” Pearl set a hand to her mouth, looking about. “Regardless! You cannot allow children to sit for endless hours in such an easily-targeted location! Garnet and I counted 37 exploitable security breaches. You’re asking for an attack.”
Another BANG as the air vent cover above shot to the ground. Its corners warped aggressively around the screws, which had moments ago secured it to the rest of the duct. A shorter woman (maybe a teenager) stuck her head down. Her long mane of wavy white hair hung down from her head. “38 breaches, dudes.”
“No one’s attacking the elementary school!” Greg insisted with a squeaky huff.
“What about all those countries you are at war with?!” The slender woman (Pearl?) asked, arms crossed. “The Russians?!”
“Pearl please that was like fifty years ago.” Greg Universe looked dangerously close to hyperventilating.
“Exactly! It may as well have been this morning.” She tapped her foot, head swiveling around impatiently.
“Pearl, Amethyst, Garnet,” Greg started. He stood slowly from his seat, hands up and palms out. He flinched when the smallest purple (purple?!) woman dropped from the air duct. “I….appreciate that you’re concerned, but I thought we’d agreed that I’m in charge of handling the human stuff.”
“Yeah, uh, but that was before we knew you were sending Steven to like…a wooden playpen.” The purple woman sidled in with the other two. Three women, concerned for Steven’s safety…
“The nearest warp pad is the one back at the Temple!” Pearl added with a huff. “There is another ‘elementary school’ in your California located right next to the 58th Infantry warp pad. I think we should send Steven there.”
“How’m I supposed to get to California?!” Greg threw both his hands out. What was visible of his neck was slick with sweat. “Connie goes to school here! Steven wants to go to school with Connie.”
Leslie swallowed. She shook herself to her senses and stood. Her arms wobbled, and she could feel the blooming sweatstains under her arms, blending in with the sunflowers. “By any chance are you three…Steven’s guardians? The uh, the friends of his late mother?”
“We fought alongside Rose Quartz for thousands of years,” the tallest one declared. “We are the Crystal Gems.”
“Garnet. Garnet please, no. Please let me do the talking,” Greg’s voice was hardly audible. He seemed to sink steadily in on himself.
“Well I didn’t, but I’ve known her for like…5,000 years now.” The purple one (who, by elimination, must have been Amethyst) jabbed an index finger out. “But don’t think that means I can’t kick ass. I’ll punch as many Russians as I need to to keep Steven safe.”
“None of you—please don’t—stop talking please. Please,” Greg placed a hand on Amethyst’s shoulder, head angled around to look at Leslie. “They’re…foreign. Very foreign. English isn’t—I mean they don’t—T-these are expressions from their native language. They haven’t adjusted to American culture.”
“Pah! We’ve been around since before American culture was founded. The grandeur of your ‘George Washington’ is highly exaggerated.” Pearl leaned inward. “Are you humans still at war with the British?”
“Ah, good then.” Pearl clapped her hands together. “I always liked their teas.”
Greg spun back to Leslie. His head worked in methodical shakes. “Very….foreign. They talk—it’s only first person in their language—they don’t mean they were around back then. It’s an expression.” His head swiveled again. “Very war-torn nation. They’re a bit overprotective you can see. Thank goodness Steven lives here in America, where it’s safe.”
Amethyst shrugged. “Eh. Debatable.”
“Please just leave.”
Leslie watched the silence unfold. She breathed in deep, refound her smile, and moved her body around the thick desk. Her heels clacked in muted thuds on the carpet, decorated with teddy bears. She stood before the three woman, and presented a hand to them.
“Hello. I am Leslie Martinez. I’m the principal of Lakeside Elementary. Our students’ safety is of course our biggest concern. I’d be happy to talk to your three about any issues you may have. O-or else if you’d like a say in the council decisions, you could always join our PTA.”
“Please no,” Greg whispered.
The tallest, Garnet, shot a hand out. It was thin, but crushed around Leslie’s hand with a force she wouldn’t have thought possible. Leslie bit back a yelp. Something rigid, harder than stone, was imbedded in Garnet’s palm.
“I will join your PTA,” she declared.
“Garnetpleaseno…” Greg Universe’s protests were falling silent.
Leslie only steeled herself. Lakeside Elementary had enrolled students from all over the globe, some who spoke only a fraction of English. Her ESL program was nationally ranked; her staff was well-trained to acknowledge, learn, and integrate different cultures into the classroom. She could do it for these women too. She could learn to understand them by accepting and listening. She clamped her own hand around Garnet’s, and gave it a few rigid shakes.
“Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl,” Leslie looked among the three, each of whom nodded at the address, “where are you three from exactly?”
“Space,” Garnet answered.
“Which is a tiny little village in South…North Eastern Eurasiafrica…” Greg cut in. He coughed and cleared his throat. “Totally remote. You’ve probably never heard of it.”
Leslie only nodded. “Well, if there are any traditions or practices that Steven would like to bring to the classroom, please just let us know. We know how important it is for children to retain their culture.”
“Oh that’s wonderful. We’ll need to pull Steven out of school for missions on occasion,” Pearl answered. “If you must know, it is for the protection of humanity, so I imagine it would be excused. We’d also like to install some added safety features to your school.”
Leslie turned to Pearl, brushing her hair out of her face. “Ah, yes, well these ‘missions’ should be fine… But uh, I don’t think I can allow you to…install anything in our school.”
“Could we propose these modifications to your ‘PTA’?” Pearl asked.
“I…Well yes, I suppose. That certainly would be the place to ask…” Leslie stuttered.
“In that case I will join the ‘PTA’ with Garnet!” Pearl said definitively.
Leslie looked now to Greg, who’d gone ashen. His lips were moving, but no sound came out. Leslie had very little time to react before the door pushed open again, this time much more gently. On instinct, Leslie looked up, expecting another 6+ foot intruder. The air above was empty, instead a bushy-haired four-foot-tall boy stood at the entrance, his sandled toes bunching up excitedly.
“Oh man, Connie introduced me to her teacher, and he’s way cool! He knows every single state. And he does math in his head!” The boy leaned in, voice dropping to a whisper. “He met the president one time.”
“I….assume this is Steven,” Leslie said. She looked the boy over, eyes scanning for any purple skin or rocks pressed into his forehead. He looked, for the most part, normal.
“Yeah, that’s me!” The boy stuck his hand out—no rock in his palm either. “I’m Steven! I’m super excited to go to school and make a bunch of new friends!”
Leslie moved past the three women and Greg. She crouched on her haunches, and took Steven’s offered hand. She only noticed then just how sweaty her palms had become. “We’re…looking forward to it too.”
Leslie didn’t turn, but she heard Greg Universe collapse back into his seat.