A/N: This was an entry into the r/Zootopia Anthology Vol. II: The Children of Zootopia, which I highly recommend you go and read. Great stories included in that batch! Thanks to EEsDoNotItNow and winerp for proofing this short story.
"Don't forget to smile for the camera, sweetie!"
"Yes, Mom." Dawn stared at the floor as Mom picked at a few stray strands of her daughter's wool. The Bellwether apartment was big enough for the two of them — barely so, and Dawn would lock herself away in her tiny room for the occasional weekend to escape — but it worked. Every day, though, Mom made sure to see her daughter off.
Today, however, was a special day. The annual ritual of Picture Day would grace the halls of Dawn's elementary school. Mom had selected a prim and proper outfit, the best she could find. And Mom did have an eye for good clothing, though Dawn felt a little weird in the extra-starched blouse.
Mom beamed as she finished picking at Dawn's wool. "Wouldn't you just make the cutest politician!"
"Mom, stop," Dawn begged with a complimentary eye-roll. She wasn't necessarily shy around cameras, but she preferred her own imagination's rendering of herself. The kitchen counter was already replete with pictures of Dawn from every year of her life. Her kindergarten photo — last year's bout of fun — was the largest by far, set in a gilded frame that had been in the Bellwether clan for generations, or so Mom said.
While Dawn stared at old memories, Mom's hoof hopped back into her wool. Dawn felt a slight pinch, one that Mom soothed using her cooing soprano. "Hold on a moment, sweetie…and, there we go. Oh, this bow is perfect! You look like a precious little flower!"
Dawn scooted over toward a new and empty picture frame, and reflected in the glass was a cute little bow set right atop her head. Mom loved the deepest shades of purple, though Dawn believed it didn't quite match her cloudy wool. She fussed with the edges of the bow, loosening and retightening it to no real effect, before Mom pulled her away from the kitchen and shooed her out the door. Like most days, Dawn's feet resisted, straining to stay put despite Mom's insistence.
Mom's shoving hoof won the day. "Don't want you to be late — have fun at school today!"
The apartment door's hinges squeaked as she shut it. The hallway with carpet whose threads clung to Dawn's wool was quiet this morning. Not the comfortable and soothing quiet she admired, but the stuffy and anxious kind that made her nerves itch. She moved rapidly through the apartment complex and nearly burst out the front door into the city to begin her day.
The four blocks Dawn walked to school was never the tough part. In fact, she used this time to let her mind wander. The city in the morning had a special feel to it. The air tasted a bit cleaner, and her feet shuffled across concrete that felt a bit smoother. The sun would peek between blocky buildings, and Dawn would smile brightly as each beam warmed her face and soothed her frayed nerves.
She clung to the curb, keeping a quarter-block between her and the gaggle of students ahead. A couple otters and wolves were chatting away about something — maybe it was about her, maybe not. The topic of Dawn could arise now and again, usually accompanied by the discomforting glances of peers nervous about getting caught gossiping. For these four blocks, though, none of that mattered to Dawn. Out here, she could breathe.
But the air itself changed once she climbed up the slightly-too-tall steps and walked into the school. Immediately, her chest tightened. High-pitched squeals of young mammals rang out in the one long and straight hallway, and she disappeared into the linoleum-lined tunnel, always keeping an eye on the scary janitor's closet at the end of it.
Nervous hooves clutched her favorite notebook as she wandered in between the cliques that naturally formed at the beginning of the day. They were almost predictable: the fourth-graders would take the spot by the water fountain, the second-graders had the area by the shiny new lockers, while the lowly first-graders were relegated to the cold recesses of the study lounge. As a first-grader, Dawn did have the august privilege of entering the study lounge, but she much preferred holing up in a cubby by the staircase and entertaining herself with her notebook.
With her pen in hoof, she would dive into worlds of her own imagining. The tip of her tongue would jut out from between her lips as she scribbled detailed plans of stories with knights and maidens of yesteryear, or of astronauts and planets a galaxy away. She wouldn't show them to anyone — that would be ridiculous — but she let herself fall into the pages, the other kids silently passing her by as she wrote away the fear that clutched her heart.
It never lasted long enough to be wholly satisfying, but her time in the cubby would relax her sufficiently to take on the biggest challenge of the day. Few things frustrated her like the retightening of her chest as she closed up her notebook and made the walk to Miss Melanie's classroom, a drab and unimaginative room devoid of the fun posters and building blocks that had filled her kindergarten teacher's space. Her notebook was not a welcome addition to this environment, a lesson she had learned the hard way.
After losing three notebooks to the grubby paws of her classmates and one to her teacher, Dawn now stowed her adventures in her knapsack, burying the scribbled scenes underneath the dull history textbook she had already memorized. Her hooves now free, she absent-mindedly played with the bow. The silk slid smoothly in her grip. When Mom had been fussing with it earlier, it felt more of a burden for Dawn, an unnecessary adornment to her already voluminous wool. But, as Dawn played with the expertly-sewn edges and clicked the clasp that held it all in place, she let her imagination run with the image of her skipping down the hallway, the beautiful bow set out against her cloudy wool, and the other kids all gawking in envy at this special present.
Rather than every kid noticing her bow, however, her favorite lion caught her toying with Mom's gift the moment Dawn entered the classroom. He could barely contain his enthusiasm as his paw flew up. "Check it out, guys! Smellwether's got a fancy new bow."
Terry had these tiny paws that every day would sneak their way through Dawn's wool and yank on the exact wrong piece, usually in the midst of the daily spelling test. Her short yelp usually got him...and the teacher...to stop. But now that the bow had caught his attention, Dawn had no idea what he wanted. Her hoof started trembling.
Terry slinked around her, pacing with the cruel precision of a thoughtful and practiced bully. "Purple, eww! What a gross color. Just like a gross sheep."
Typically, Terry wouldn't talk too much, as wool-yanking rarely needed an announcement. But every once in awhile, he would poke her with a mean comment, an insult meant to send her flying into a rage. And the first dozen or so times, it had worked. Over time, though, Dawn had learned how to avoid egging him on: a smile, small and meek, would disarm him enough to let her escape mostly unscathed.
But her smile didn't work on Terry today. Instead, he continued circling her, his green eyes darting between the classroom door and Dawn's bow. "That bow should go somewhere gross. Like the trash can!"
A couples shouts of Yeah! and Do it! arose from a gathering crowd, broken away from their conversations long enough to witness Dawn's daily affirmation from her good pal Terry. She tried clenching her hooves, but the trembling worsened, which had Terry and a few other students chuckling.
"Aww, look, you're gonna try to fight me? C'mon Smellwether, go ahead and do it."
Terry was not a bright lion…nor was he bright by any mammal's standards. But even he knew that Dawn would not fight back. She would stand there, as she always did, trying to maintain a wavering smile as Terry did whatever he needed to do. And in three fast steps, he was upon her.
With surprising delicateness, Terry plucked the bow from Dawn's wool, the clasp giving way without complaint. He twisted it in his paw for a few moments, and Dawn watched the deep purple devour the light from the fluorescent lamps overhead. The bow exceeded her imagination — it was a lovely shade, just like Mom had said. And it looked beautiful as Terry flicked out one claw, sliced a massive gash through the bow, and tossed it over his shoulder. An expert throw, really, as it clanged against the inner lining of the trash can by the door.
Dawn had heard a lion roar before: her neighbors halfway down the apartment block, when they had been evicted for "forgetting" to pay rent for four months straight. It had been scary, and Dawn had hidden under the covers of her bed for nearly an hour as her neighbors were removed. But Terry's laugh, with a subtle snarl sitting below the guffaws that sounded almost like hiccups, made Dawn shake much more than any roar could ever do.
Like normal, Terry grew bored of laughing — a shiny thing on the wall must have distracted him, though she couldn't be sure as she was squeezing her eyes shut. The silence without his laugh persisted for a few seconds, enough time to coax Dawn's eyes back open, wetter than when they had started. His task for the day complete, he backed off, leaving Dawn clutching her hooves and now staring listlessly toward the trash can. He snickered a few more times and pointed his paw in her general direction once he joined the small conclave of morons he called his friends.
And as per usual, the rest of the class broke away from the show and mingled in their own tight circles, casting the occasional glance toward a heartbroken Dawn. The teacher wouldn't enter the classroom for another sixty seconds — Miss Melanie was dependably punctual — and every student had her schedule down to the second.
As they chattered quietly and ignored her, Dawn stepped quietly toward the door and fished through the trash can. She tossed aside crumpled-up tests with D and C grades, a few rotten apple cores from Jimmy's lunch yesterday (his parents had him on a strictly-fruit diet), and wadded-up tissues and other refuse. Eventually, after she craned down a little deeper, her hoof nabbed the edge of her bow. She readied her shout of joy, but it caught in her throat as she heard her.
"Miss Bellwether, what are you doing in the garbage pail?" Miss Melanie, a badger who sported an especially thin stripe of white along her snout, glared down at Dawn through her wire-rimmed glasses. She was Dawn's least favorite teacher — not that she had many to choose from so far, but still, she believed her feelings were valid. Miss Melanie was not a knowledgeable speaker...in fact, Dawn had corrected a few of Miss Melanie's lesson plans that had glaring holes in the fields of history and science. Those decisions had earned Dawn a few trips to the principal's office. Really, though, she didn't mind, as it gave her a reason to be away from the teacher and everyone else who inhabited this drab classroom, to write in her notebook before the principal sighed and berated her again.
Every day, though, Miss Melanie would find some reason to click her tongue and deliver to Dawn a disdainful remark. The sheep did try to answer Miss Melanie's question, but the tongue click arrived earlier than expected. "You're distracting the other students," she chided with a wave of her paw.
And, like always, the rest of the class had sneaked into their seats, feigning attentiveness while Dawn had her hoof trapped between Jimmy's lunch and Terry's failing grade. The lion hid his smirk behind his history textbook, its spine still unbroken even after half the semester had passed. Dawn began her usual refutation: "But…."
Miss Melanie clicked her tongue again. At this point, Dawn was usually sent to the hallway to do her special math — another great reason to leave this classroom. In her bag and between the multiplication tables rested a worn-out algebra handbook. Dawn had long ago learned her multiplication tables and other assorted elements of first-grade math. In fact, she excelled so much that no one in the school could adequately teach her math. It had been Miss Melanie's idea to recommend the algebra guide and Dawn's special time in the hallway to complete it. Part of Dawn knew that Miss Melanie simply wanted to get rid of a pesky, teacher-correcting sheep for an hour or so.
Today, however, Dawn's teacher had other plans for her favorite pupil. "Perhaps you should be the first to experience Picture Day, Miss Bellwether."
The class ooo'd and ahh'd while Dawn fought back the tears that threatened to pour from her eyes. Rivulets had formed after the first few dozen humiliating instances but, over time, she had learned to hold them back with a soft smile that showed the tiniest sliver of her gritted teeth. "Yes, Miss Melanie."
Dawn heard her teacher begin the fifth day of multiplication tables as she shuffled down the hallway. Her feet clopped on the linoleum, and the sound echoed through the ghostly quiet tunnel. She didn't mind having the hallway all to herself, as it allowed her to sob and sniffle without the awkward glances and cruel whispers of her schoolmates.
The remnants of her bow sat in her pocket, and her hoof played with what was left. Terry's claw had cut open the knot, and frayed threads slipped out of her grip. When it hit the trash can, the clasp had bent, and even if Dawn could hide the gash across the front of the bow, it wouldn't stay put in her cloudy wool. Mom must have saved up to get this special bow for Dawn, and now its sheared corpse rested in her pocket.
Her eyes were stained red by the time she reached the photography station. The school had converted the scary janitor's closet into a makeshift booth. The staff had shoved aside buckets, mops, and cleaning solutions, leaving barely enough floor space for the camera, barebones lighting, a rickety-looking stool, and a changeable canvas background. Locked in place was a beige background, likely for testing purposes — Dawn was the first one to experience Picture Day, after all.
Somehow, a giraffe had squeezed himself into the booth. Dawn spotted the "photographer" title on the visitor badge that twirled in front of his chest. He grumbled and extended a hoof. From within her knapsack, Dawn flipped through a few pages and extracted the photo order form. Mom's handwriting, with her special flourishes and the way she added a curlicue to the "D" in Dawn, looked pretty in this ugly space as she handed the page to the photographer's waiting hoof.
"And who do we have here? Let's see…." Dawn stood silently, wiping at her burning eyes, as the giraffe scanned over her picture form. Mom had selected a purple background — how surprising — and the giraffe rolled out the canvas and snapped it into place. "Purple it is, Dawn! Go ahead and sit, please."
The seat for the rickety-looking stool was set far above her head. It would need to be adjustable to fit the many sizes of students at school, but she thought that maybe the giraffe would have started from the lowest setting. She walked once around it, studying the stool for a way to bring it down. She discovered nothing, and so she waited, bouncing anticipatively as the photographer dallied with a loose string hanging from the canvas background.
Without turning from the canvas, the giraffe waved a hoof at her. "Just push the lever, Dawn. Below the seat."
She huffed, then got down on her knees and examined the bottom of the seat. The silvery lever glinted at her. It didn't give after the first three pulls, but with the fourth, she earned an audible click. And the seat came down…on her nose.
She yelped and flew backward. Her hooves grabbed at her nose, pawing at it as the sharp jab quickly transformed into a dull but spreading ache. She rubbed and rubbed, trying to hold back more of her tears…though she had nearly exhausted her supply already.
The giraffe was adjusting his camera and didn't look away as Dawn clutched her nose. "You okay? Hmm, yeah, you're probably okay…so best to get you up on that stool! Gonna have a line of your buddies joining you soon!"
Beneath the hooves that held her nose, she offered a wan smile, one that held back the invectives boiling in her gut. The stool creaked as she hopped on, and she shifted and moved as the photographer instructed. She had to squint to look past the glaring white light of a lamp that had clearly come from the bargain bin. No expense spared for Picture Day, it seemed.
Once he had her set, the giraffe offered a final piece of commentary before activating the camera. "Hmm, y'know, dear, with your wool and this background…a purple bow would look great on you! You should ask your mom to get you one."
The bow's broken clasp pressed into her thigh as she came to rest in her seat. Her reddened eyes burned as she strained to keep them open in the bright light of the cheap lamp. She could already feel her nose warming as the bruise formed. She thought of how this particular picture would look in the new and empty frame in the kitchen.
Everything — all of it — threatened to explode. Her stomach roiled and her head swam in red anger. She wanted to tear out her wool, kick over the camera, shatter the lamps, break down the door, and run. Run, run all the way home, away from Mom, slam the door and hide under her covers, let the shaking pass and the tears flow. It all screamed at her as she sat still in the bright light.
Don't forget to smile for the camera, sweetie!
She had never smiled so brightly in her life.