The Pre-Graduation ceremony is this weekend, and classes are getting out early for rehearsal. Mr. Sanders hands out our robes. They’re sponsored, so mine is a black sack with Amazon.com stamped on the back. I glance over at Jake, who shows me the red and yellow Red Robin on his and waggles his eyebrows. His dad made him get a summer job there “for the experience” and his proudest accomplishment so far is hooking up with the cashier in the Red Robin bathroom on his last day. Jake doesn’t need the job. His dad might have kicked him out, but he also funded the apartment and the gap year before college.
Last day of junior year we gave each other senior year bucket lists. Jake told me to “live a little and go to the bar with me.” I told him we’d go on a joyride in my dad’s old pickup truck I took to work. Then we lost the car insurance and I told him to cross that out.
Mr. Sanders is still talking. I think he might be drunk again. His forehead is sweaty and he keeps giggling.
“You know this already but I’m legally obligated to tell you. Fascism or something hehe. That’s a good word. You should look that up.” He clears his throat and glances back down at the notecards. “Alrighty-o. SATs are next Saturday at 10 am. Show up, bring pencils. Don’t show up, don’t bring pencils hehe. I’ll say goodbye to most of you this weekend.”
Last year I peeked in the auditorium doors to see what Pre-Grad was like. The principal before Mr. Sanders was running late and he peeked in with me. “Christ. Look at those Executives.”
At least that’s what he called them. I think it’s way more likely they’re just some random workers dressed up in company suits they’ll have to pay for. Clearwater Preparatory has lead in the water and last year three kids died because they stuck forks in the cafeteria outlets. There’s no way a real Company Representative would set foot here.
“Y’all know how important this is.” Mr. Sanders flips to the next notecard. “You want money, I want money, the school wants money. What’s the solution? Providing a good example for the company people. They’re paying for your sponsored jobs, after all. No diddling around on company time hehe. No un-cow-th behavior hehe.” I know he’s thinking about the senior prank at the ceremony last year. There was this cow that ate a patch of grass freshly doused in WeedBGone. It wandered out into the middle of the highway and died, and the seniors chopped it up with a machete to dump boxes of cow parts on the Executives. None of those seniors got the jobs, and few if any got to college. I dated one of them, Sarah Hawkins, for two weeks in my freshman and her sophomore year. She told me she was only dating to have a boyfriend who could drive her around in a baby blue BMW. I told her that I was fourteen and she was fifteen and neither of us was legally allowed to drive. She told me she knew, but she didn’t believe it was a likely prospect later on and stopped answering my calls.
Mr. Sanders announces a PowerPoint and knocks over the projector. Jake elbows me, hard. This is our cue to sneak out. All we need from the rehearsal is the gowns: everyone already knows how to file on stage, accept the fake diploma, and thank the Executives.
Before we leave we hear Mr. Sanders going over the stock phrases. “Remember now. Thank you for jump-starting my future. I am honored to be offered a position at Walmart. Thank you for looking past my grades.”
We back out of the gym and sprawl in the grass by the bus lane. Our friend Ava’s out there, and her legs dangle over the side of the picnic table.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“Life.” She scrunches up her nose. “How we’re all specks shriveling up like rotten fruit. Sad little hunks of beef falling from the ceiling like asteroids or some shit.” “They’re gonna kick you out for being stoned all the time,” I say. “And everyone’s talking about the cow today.”
“They wouldn’t dare, not with my grades,” Ava says.
“Fair. You’re single-handedly carrying Clearwater’s ranking.” Jake wipes his nose with his sleeve and rolls over to face me. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
“I guess I know when I’m not wanted,” I say, but he’s right. My shift at WareWars starts in half an hour, and without the car, it’s about that long of a walk.
I get home at nine to Minute Rice and a pile of scholarship applications my dad printed out at his lunch break. He hands me a plate.
"This kid in the newspaper took a gap year in Venezuela to build affordable housing,” he says. “He went swimming in the Orinoco River and got his right leg bitten off by piranhas. Clean chomp, just like that. A year later he wrote about it in his Common App and got into Columbia..” “And on the bus today there was this cute old lady who said her granddaughter got a full-ride early decision. I asked her what she wrote about and she said she spent her summer planting trees in Indonesia. By the end, she could pick up a eucalyptus tree in each hand and just slam it into the ground. She also got a 1600 on her SAT.”
“That’s great, Dad. Good for them.”
He takes a puff on his cigarette, for emphasis I guess, and leans over the table to smack me on the back.
“I’m just tryin’ to help you out, kid. Now you know what you need to do.”
“Get my leg bitten off?”
“Well, you know what I always say. Keep your options open. Don’t you have a test coming up?”
“The SATs are on Saturday, yeah.”
“Well then you best be getting to work.” Dad glances down at his watch, grabbing his CHICKen2Go baseball visor. “I guess I best be too. Clean the kitchen up, will you? You could write about the time you faced down an army of crumbs, defending the kitchen floor! Will you win? You better!”
I love him, but he thinks telling me about other people’s crazy experiences might make up for the fact that I have nearly none of my own. The only exception is the one time Jake stole a case of beer and we sat out on the curb and talked, and Jake got drunk and tried to climb a telephone pole, and I had to half carry him the five miles to the nearest ER. Then, I had to steal a shopping cart from the next door Walmart to use as a wheelchair because Jake couldn’t walk but if I got caught in the waiting room the fee was $150. I can’t write about that and still get into college. BudStrong Beer would love me, though. I could do commercials.
At school Friday morning I steal Ava’s coffee. This last week I’ve been getting an average of three hours of sleep a night. Between WareWars, homework, and college apps, I still need to study. I tried signing up for an early-morning SAT prep course over the summer. Every morning when we walked into the classroom, Ms. Marrissa made us log our study hours on the board. We needed to have what she called a “proper work-life-career-future balance.” She tried to draw a sample schedule a couple of times, to show us “how to manage our time.” Both times she gave up halfway through drawing columns to Google how many hours are in a day. I told Jake about it later and he asked me if it seemed like she had the normal amount of teeth. He read that having too many teeth was a sure sign of an alien.
Ava glares at me, then pulls out a second cup.
“I want to marry you,” I tell her.
“Yeah yeah yeah. When pigs fly. When cows fly, actually. When one particular—”
“Stop it with the cow. I swear to God.”
The bell will ring in a few minutes, but for now Jake, Ava, and I are sitting in the hallway with our backs against where the lockers used to be before they were deemed too much of a safety hazard. Now we have open cubbies in the wall, held shut with Company Posters that match our Pre-Grad gowns. Usually, lots of people are milling around the hallways, chatting or playing beer pong or trying to create a network of secret underground tunnels stretching to Taco Bell. Today though, Jake, Ava, and I are the only ones in this hallway. I know most of the school doesn’t take the SATs and leaves every year after Pre-Grad. I've watched it happen each year for the three years I’ve been here, but it still gets me. I hear a fight break out somewhere but the sound is muffled, all the way on the other side of the school. There aren’t enough watching crowds for the shouts to travel further.
“I always hate this time of year,” I say. “It creeps me out.”
“What, you hate seeing Mr. Sander’s stupid face that much?” Jake asks.
“You know what I mean.”
He gives a slight nod. “Yeah.”
I wiggle my toes through a hole in my shoe and watch how the plastic flaps up and down. “I don’t know if I should’ve stayed. There’s no way I’ll, I don’t know. Get in? Get a job after?
Like I’m giving up the guaranteed job. Since when has anything been stable enough for risk-taking?”
“It’s worth a try,” Ava says. “That’s all I’m doing.”
Jake grunts thoughtfully. I think of my Dad printing out all the scholarship applications. “Will you win? You better!” he says.
The next morning is the SATs. I take the night off work and hope I don’t regret it. My Dad tries to make hotdogs for dinner, but he has to leave for work before they’re done, so when I get home I see them burned and shriveled up in the pan.
He wakes me up at six in the morning when he gets back. He looks exhausted, but there’s a sparkle in his eyes.
“So they had these self-help magazines by the cash register,” he starts. “Slow night, and as I was flipping through it I saw that activated charcoal is good for you.”
“Huh?” I’m still half asleep.
“I don’t know what you have to do to activate it, but maybe try some things with those hotdogs? You can use all the help you can get today!”
He claps me on the shoulder, then stumbles off to bed. I eat two bread and ketchup sandwiches and watch the sunrise through the small kitchen window.
Mr. Sanders proctors the SAT in the school gym. There are only about a hundred of us that show up so we drag in desks from neighboring classrooms. The Career Stairstep Anthem plays, a good luck song that Company Representatives wrote for all graduating seniors a few years back. I fiddle with my pencils.
We wish you all the best of luck in your future endeavors, the speakers croon out, interrupted every minute or so by a crackle of static.
Mr. Sanders crosses to the front of the gym. He adjusts his necktie and wipes beads of sweat off his brow.
“Alrighty kids. Here it is, here’s the big day. I want all of y’all on your best behavior. Remember this is your one paid-for shot. The Executives don’t sponsor retakes.” We hope that you will try your best,
“Honestly I’m surprised so many of you showed up. Kinda was hoping this was the year I could cancel.” He does this high-pitched giggle.
But if you fail it’s fine.
“Anyway, good luck. Hope you make it to the real diplomas and get into college and everything. Remember that you’re giving up your sponsored job for this. Is it worth it? I don’t know.”
You shouldn’t care much about anything,
“I don’t remember if I’m supposed to read you instructions? I’m too tired for this. Alrighty. Ready set go hehe.”
when you’re on company time.
Someone bangs on the door. I spin around and see Jake through the glass. He pounds on the door again.
“Hey!” he shouts. His voice is muffled.
I get up and let him in. He sags against the doorframe and runs his fingers through his already disheveled hair.
“What the fuck,” he whispers, then louder. “It’s the fucking cow.”
“You’re a fucking cow!” someone shouts back, then laughs.
“No,” he says. “I mean that.” He grabs my arm and drags me into the hallway.
“Look! What the hell?”
I look where he’s pointing. It’s a cow, all right, snuffling around the water fountain and lapping up some of the spills. Its tongue is surprisingly long and a slimy greenish color. A maggot falls off and wriggles on the floor. The cow’s flesh looks like a jigsaw puzzle, individual oozing sections held together by some invisible force, separate from the usual sinew and tendons. Its fur is dirty and buzzing with flies, its eyes are a filmy grayish blue. As I watch, a panel of skin on its side unpeels, falling to the ground with a wet smack. The cow takes a step, and its left front hoof twists backward. The cow stumbles, moos mournfully.
“Huh,” I say. “What the fuck.” I think my knees are shaking.
Someone presses up behind me as people spill out of the gym. There aren’t any gunshots so nobody’s screaming or dead silent.
“Should we run?” Jake asks.
“I mean it’s just a cow, right?” I answer.
Ava appears suddenly by my shoulder. “Not just a cow, dumbass. It’s the cow! It’s actually the cow. The senior prank weed killer cow. This is so cool.”
The cow is still advancing. Its left front hoof twists completely off and rolls next to a cubby covered with a poster for Purina Animal Feed and Supplements. The hoof leaks a clear, thick fluid streaked with brownish red and clumps of dirt. Somehow, the cow keeps walking. It snorts and swishes its tail.
“I think that’s a sign of aggression,” I say.
“Holy fucking shit, Ava,” says Jake. “‘This is so cool?’ Thanks a lot. You jinxed it.”
I back toward the gym doors, dragging Jake with me. I try to glance back, but I can’t see anything beyond the swarms of people.
“If we barricade in the gym, the cow can’t reach us!” Ava shouts.
We get everyone inside and try to slam the doors. The cow reaches us, and for something that’s barely keeping together, it's surprisingly strong. It backs up, then runs forward. One eyeball falls out. A piece of skin slides down into the empty socket. The doors fly open. I step back and let the cow past me. I think I might be in shock.
Ava grabs my hand and snaps me out of it. We press up against the edge of the gym, keeping a distance from the cow. I look over to see Jake next to her. Somehow above all else, I’m relieved. It’s a strange feeling in my chest, foreign and like something bubbling.
“I guess we have good topics for the Common App essay,” I whisper to Ava. This is funny, I think, and suddenly I’m giggling.
“I already wrote mine,” Ava says. “But maybe I can put this under ‘explain any extenuating circumstances.’”
The cow reaches the first of the desks. It sniffs a test booklet delicately. I’m close enough to make out the name on the front: Ava. It snaps it up and takes a large bite. A tooth pops out and rolls under the bleachers.
“Shit,” Ava whispers.
“I’m sure Mr. Sanders has extras,” I say, but I’m not sure. I look at him now, red in the face and swaying slightly.
The cow steps forward again, surprisingly graceful. Its tail bangs against a desk and slips down, hanging on only by sinew. It eats another SAT. Then another. My stomach sinks. I see Ava deflate. Jake is mumbling something under his breath. The cow reaches my desk, takes a bite. It slurps up my answer sheet like a paper-thin lasagna.
“How is it eating all that?” Jake asks. “Like, does it still have a stomach?”
“So,” I say. “I guess we’re not taking the SAT after all. There’s not gonna be any other copies.”
“Everything we did…” says Ava. She trails off. “Everything we fucking did.” I think of where I would be now if I’d left after Pre-Grad. A horrible job, sure, but certainty. Knowing. I can’t help but think that this all isn’t fair. It’s childish, I know. Nothing has been fair for a really long time.
“So. This is unexpected.” Mr. Sanders’ tongue darts out, licks up a bead of sweat, and returns. He’s trembling slightly.
“I would say just to keep calm. We don’t want to provoke the cow. Hehe. Are there any Executives hiding here? Anyone looking to cut funding?” His voice breaks on “funding,” but he continues.
“The good news is that there are no SATs today! The Executives gave us a grant for the exact number of booklets needed. When I get home I’m going to submerge myself in a bathtub of vodka and pour shots down the snorkel. Hehe.”
A murmur rises up. I think Mr. Sanders is about to start crying. Then he does, large, wet sobs that leave him teetering, rocking back and forth on his ankles.
“Yikes,” says Jake.
Mr. Sanders drops the microphone to cover his face. I watch as it falls, hitting the gym floor with a terrible high-pitched squeal.
“Do you think,” Ava says, “loud sounds might provoke the cow?”
She’s right. The cow charges. It kicks someone in the shin and there are screams. It’s missing all four hooves now, galloping only on grayish-brown joints.
“Are you okay?!” I shout into the crowd. I think Jake got swept away, and I hope the cow didn’t get him.
The cow hears the sound, swivels its head, and starts stampeding toward us. I think we should probably run, but my legs aren’t working. I glance down to make sure that I still have feet. I do, but it is little comfort.
The loudspeakers switch on again with a nasal crackle. Now would be the break after the reading section, I realize.
The future is a vast and scary place, the recording says. Dead ends, dead dreams, destitution. Only if you’ve been pushing yourself hard enough do you have a chance. You have ten minutes of break. Step it up.
The cow is closer now. I can smell the rot. I can still see the flies buzzing when I squeeze my eyes shut.
Elizabeth Keller is a writer from Vancouver, Washington. She is a YoungArts Finalist in novel writing and she won a Gold Medal for Writing Portfolio from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Her work has been published in Crashtest, The Interlochen Review, and Movable Type. Find her on Instagram at @eli_knots.