Middletown Middle / Chapter Three – The Face Painter

Here’s the second chapter of my grade school anthology book –  Middletown Middle.  The school with more mysteries than students.  Read chapter two here.

June 11, 1997

Sure, lots of schools have a ‘Principal for a Day’ program. Students get their picture taken hanging out with the principal, but of course, the student isn’t really a principal for the day. The kids chosen to be ‘Principal for the Day’ can’t actually make important decisions or spend their school’s money. But Middletown Middle is different.  

At Middletown Middle, the kid is the ‘Principal for the Day’. The actual principal goes off-campus to some conference while the kid takes over. The student attends meetings, picks paint colors for the boy’s bathroom, scolds parents not parked in the right spot at the pick-up line. The ‘Principal for a Day’ at Middletown Middle isn’t allowed to fire teachers anymore. Not since in ’75 when Joey Baggins fired the gym teacher and hired his dad. They also can’t grant snow days in June after the blizzard never came that summer’s day in ’83.

The ‘Principal for a Day’ is selected by teachers. How the ‘Principal for the Day’ is chosen is somewhat of a mystery because there are no rules. Usually, the student is the wise-beyond-their-years type and is considered good at making decisions. In other words, the student most likely to not destroy the school. 

In 1997, the ‘Principal for the Day’ lined up on the same day as the Middletown Middle School Day (MMSD). MMSD always falls on the last Wednesday of the school year, the day when teachers and students run out of patience and can let loose.

The day kicks off with a run-a-thon, where kids from kindergarten through eighth grade do as many laps around the school as they can for charity. It goes on all day, and the temperature is usually warm, so after they chase each other, they enjoy popsicles while a DJ plays the hits. A thousand water balloons sit in coolers awaiting the final bell when a melee between teaches and students breaks out, and no one goes home dry. Without exception, MMSD is the most fun day of the entire year. 

Second-grader Rose Batty was selected as ‘Principal for the Day’ for the year 1997. Her qualifications (according to her) were the ability to play two instruments; one was the piano at her home, and the other was the piano in the music room. Rose was also a self-described expert at cursive writing; in her words, she could write curse words in fancy writing better than anyone. Also, not once was she asked to go to the peace corner by her teacher for misbehaving. Did that mean she wouldn’t lead a student uprising, the teachers hoped so.

Before school, Rose met with the assistant principal, Ms. Thompson, to discuss the day’s schedule. It didn’t take long for Rose to flex her new authority.

“No face painter?” Rose asked, seeing what was lined up for MMSD. Rose had only a couple days left of being a second-grader but was often mistaken for a kindergartener. “There was a face painter last year, and the year before that.”

“The regular face painter wasn’t available this year,” Ms. Sosa explained. “But that’s okay, right? Middletown Middle School Day is all about sharing good times with friends in a loving environment.”

“That environment needs a face painter, Ms. Sosa,” Rose said. “It’s not Middletown Middle School Day without a face painter.”

“One of the art teachers can probably-” Ms. Sosa began but was immediately cut off.

“No way. We deserve a pro.” Rose interrupted. She looked at the clock. “I’m not sure how to read that clock right now, but I’ll give you three hours to find a face painter. Money is not an object.”

“Well, Rose, the budget,” Ms. Sosa began timidly.

“I’m a second-grader; I don’t do budgets, Ms. Sosa. If there is not a face painter out there by 10 am, I will send the kids back inside.”

As soon as the meeting ended, Ms. Sosa went to her computer to track down a face painter. She quickly found an article from a nearby newspaper from the previous summer – world-renowned face painter to the Stars Leah LeFace retires. In the accompanying photo, she looked to be a thin woman dressed in layers of black despite it clearly being taken on a hot day. In the picture, she is painting a zebra on a girl’s face. LeFace wears a wide-brimmed black hat covering her eyes from the photographer.

When Ms. Sosa called LeFace to coax her out of retirement for the day, LeFace quickly told her no. 

“I no longer paint faces. Furthermore, I don’t even own a car,” the woman said over the phone in a heavy French accent. “I enjoy sitting under my apple tree and reading.”

“Well, that does sound lovely, but I’m afraid I cannot accept no, Ms. LeFace,” the assistant principal said, “We will provide transportation.”

LeFace was silent for a moment. Finally, she responded,” Even a champion face painter could use money, I’ll do it under three conditions.”

Ms. Sosa responded, knowing she’d need to agree or else face Rose Batty’s wrath. “What are they, may I ask?”

“You may. Number one, you must send a limo to pick me up.”

“How ’bout a bus? You’ll like Bus J.”

“Fine. Number two. You must set out a plate of cheeses to keep my energy up,” LeFace demands.

“Of course. We most certainly will feed you.”

“But cheese. Cheese fuels me. Understand?”

“I do.”

“Good. Number three. I do not paint the same face twice on the same day. I do not want to paint multiple tigers or Wonder Women. Got it?”

“Sure thing. I will make it very clear to the students.”

“I’m an artist. I breathe life into the paint. An artist does not repeat their work.”

“Got it. No repeats,” Ms. Sosa agrees.  

An hour later, the assistant principal waited for this so-called, world-renowned face painter. The party and run-a-thon had kicked off, students who had finished their charity jog were now leaping in the bouncy house or having celebratory popsicles. Other kids were still sprinting around the school. One of the kids, the ‘Principal for the Day’, Rose Batty, called over to Ms. Sosa after every lap to ask. 

“Is the face painter here yet?”

“Not yet,” Ms. Sosa answered impatiently.

Which was true until it was not. Bus J emerged from the main road and entered the school’s parking lot. Ms. Sosa greeted LeFace. She looked younger than Ms. Sosa thought she would, but the woman wore a lot of make-up. LeFace was dressed all in black, just like in the newspaper photo. She brought with her an old-school leather satchel containing all of her paints and tools. LeFace was friendly with the children but walked by and talked briskly to adults.

She set up her table next to the pizza oven by the playground. A line formed quickly with the ‘Principal for the Day’ at the head of it.

“What would you like to be?” LeFace said warmly to Rose Batty. 

“A lion,” Rose answered.

“I do a great lion,” LeFace said. “But can you be a great lion, fierce and brave?”

Rose nodded, and after a few minutes of her transformation, she complained, “This paint tingles,” 

“It’s paint from my homeland,” LeFace said. “It’s quite strong, but don’t fear, it comes off with water.”

What does strong paint mean? Rose wondered to herself. LeFace worked quickly, but her work was exceptionally detailed, and Rose’s face soon looked lion-like. Even her eyes took on a new shape.

“It’s beautiful, dear.” LeFace announced to the kids in line, “I have drawn a lion, so no more lions.”

There was a murmur among the kids. When they realized she draws only one of everything, the lines grew long quickly.  

Rose roared and bounded off to show her friends.

The next girl, a fourth-grader, chose an owl. The work was so beautiful, even the kids who thought face painting was for toddlers joined the line. In the end, the artist painted nearly 300 faces, including forty different birds, a dozen superheroes, even ones that were entirely made up, ten breeds of dog, 29 reptiles, and over a hundred mammals. She made a child who couldn’t decide into a tennis ball, another into a pink-sprinkled donut, and one girl had painted hair covering her face.

Multiple children complained of tingling faces, most in fact. Allergies were blamed, but teachers grew increasingly concerned when many of the children lost the ability to speak. Instead, they began communicating in the language of the animal painted on their faces. When teachers sought out the ‘Principal for the Day,’ Rose Batty, the situation took a peculiar turn.

“She’s in the bounce house,” said her friend, Madds.

When Ms. Sosa and the teachers walked over to the castle-shaped bouncy house, a full-grown lion leaped out and attacked a cluster of balloons.  

The teachers shrieked in surprise.

An owl swooped down and picked up an apple from the table. Batman shot a grappling hook on the basketball net and swung away. A shark beached itself atop the sliding board. A jaguar and race car continued their charity laps. Teachers ran away, screaming when they saw all the children with painted faces turn into the object painted on their faces.

It was like opening all of the animal cages at the zoo at once, with superheroes and giant tennis balls fighting for survival. A spider spun a web and collected the DJ into its silky prison. A grizzly bear pulled down the trees planted just last week and attacked the popsicle table. Soon dozens of animals invaded the school building, including a monkey, a donkey, and a rhino. A comic book villain tossed a bus across the parking lot. Older kids watched in horror as the celebration mutated into pandemonium. 

The teachers were unable to grasp the odd reality that was happening or knew how to combat it. Although the face-painted kids didn’t seem violent toward humans or each other, seeing a 250-pound lion bounding toward you was quite frightening.

The assistant principal, Ms. Sosa, ran to LeFace’s table, but she and her paint were gone. She was startled to find a giant polar bear running in her direction, and she attempted to escape. Ms. Sosa sprinted away but quickly found herself trapped in the gazebo, which was filled with giant coolers packed with water balloons. 

The polar bear was more aggressive. Whoever this kid was, they needed to go to the peace corner right away. Out of ideas, the assistant principal threw a balloon at the attacking bear.

The balloon exploded on the polar bear’s head. It immediately stopped, and its face began to melt back into a confused fifth-grade boy.

“Grab the water balloons!” the assistant principal screamed to any adult within earshot. Teachers filled the gazebo. Some launched balloons from the protected spot, while others took a handful and ventured out. Ms. Thompson filled a plastic bag with balloons and hopped on the back of a full-sized unicorn she found nibbling on the grass nearby. With balloons in hand, she ordered the unicorn to head to the school.

“Go to the gazebo and get water balloons,” she told teachers along the route. Outside, there were more kids than creatures, but getting inside and fixing things before the school was destroyed was the new priority. The unicorn leaped over an alligator resting in the middle of the sidewalk, and Ms. Sosa dropped a balloon on it. She hit it and any other animals she saw with a balloon as she went into the building, turning them instantly back to students.

In the school gym, Captain America, Superman, and Wonder Woman were playing dodgeball with other superheroes Ms. Sosa didn’t recognize. 

“Sorry to interrupt you,” she called to them. “You need to go to the water fountain and pour water on your faces. Now.”

Superman flew to the fountain and put his head underwater, and he went back to being sixth-grader Miles Martin. Wonder Woman did the same and was Paige Hinesburg again.

“Thank you!” she called out, continuing through the school on the back of the white unicorn.

“I wonder who you are?” Ms. Sosa said while petting the head of the creature. She was startled by the state of the school. In the cafeteria, she found a girl crying; the girl’s face and body were covered in long hair. Ms. Sosa tossed a balloon at her, and the extra hair fell harmlessly to the ground.

“Grab some balloons at the gazebo and help,” she told MacKenzie Trang.

“Have you seen the lion?”

MacKenzie shook her head.

Ms. Sosa looked out of the gym window at the vast lawn. She hopped off the unicorn and headed upstairs. Before she did, Ms. Sosa thanked the unicorn and hit it in the hindquarters with a water balloon. The unicorn’s horn fell off and disappeared before hitting the ground. 

“Hey, Libby,” Ms. Sosa said to the kindergartner standing where the unicorn was. Libby wore a t-shirt with a sequined unicorn on it. “Got to live your dream today, huh?”

Libby nods. 

“Go outside and get a popsicle,” she told the young girl.

Upstairs, Ms. Sosa found a giraffe poking its head in the bathroom window, eating toilet paper. 

 “Hey. Hey. No wasting school property,” She told the giraffe before hitting it with a balloon right between the eyes. She heard a loud roar and turned around to see a lion strutting down the hallway.

“Hi, Rose,” Ms. Sosa said, throwing her last balloon at the lion. She missed. The lion continued to walk toward her with a menacing stare and sharp teeth exposed. 

Just as Ms. Sosa was set to run, the lion leaped into the air and knocked her over. The animal’s breath, hot and smelly, enveloped the assistant principal with its teeth only inches from her face. The lion quickly opened its mouth wide and attacked Ms. Sosa with its warm, sandpapered tongue.  

“Eww, gross,” Ms. Sosa said. “C’mon Rose.”

Suddenly water dripped down the lion’s face, and the lion was transformed back to Rose Batty. Behind the ‘Principal for the Day’ was the principle principal, Principal Sanders, holding an empty water bottle. 

“You can have your job back, Principal Sanders,” Rose told him, bounding down the stairs. “It’s too hard.”

Principal Sanders helped Ms. Sosa up. They both looked out the window at the bus, laying upside down where the school sign used to be.

“Did someone get Cyborg Superman?” Ms. Sosa asked.

“I believe so,” Principal Sanders answered as they headed outside. “I hear you were quite the hero.”

“Thank God for water balloons,” Ms. Sosa told him when they exited the building.

A first-grade boy walked over to them, “Can I go inside? I need to use the-“

The boy couldn’t finish his question before a giant pterodactyl swooped down and lifted him off the ground. The boy screamed.

“I forgot about the flying dinosaur,” Ms. Sosa said calmly, watching the large lizard flying away with the young boy.  

Principal Sanders watched in horror.

“It’s okay, Principal Sanders. They’re friends.” Ms. Sosa assured her boss.

“And isn’t that what Middletown Middle School Day is all about? Sharing good times with friends in a loving environment.”

Principal Sanders looked at Ms. Sosa with a bewildered look on his face and passed out. 

“Rose!” Ms. Sosa called out while attending to Principal Sanders. “You’re back in.”

 

 

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