Call It Chemistry
Twelve Years Ago
Golden Grove High
The day of the Nitrovex Scholarship Fair was clear, bright, and perfect. An omen if there ever was one.
Katie was doing a few last-minute checks on her project to make sure it sparkled. She didn’t want to take any chances on something being out of balance. The judging was starting in only thirty minutes, and everything needed to be perfect if she was going to win.
She stepped back, put her hands on her hips and smiled.
Perfect and unavoidably grand. Her entry was a large mobile made of intricate glass pieces, each turning on its own gleaming silver wire. The slightest breeze moved the pieces like multicolored snowflakes in slow motion. It was brave, it was bold, it was her masterpiece. If she said so herself.
She stole a glance at Peter, one table over, bent over and fiddling with some tube on his project. His wavy black hair flopped over his blue eyes, and her heart did a flip, sticking the landing. She sighed. Steady.
She scanned the room, eying the other entries. It was the usual. Kenny Terpstra and his Tesla coil, which she was pretty sure his dad had built for him for their sixth-grade science fair. Looked like Ronny Sharp had taken some tadpoles from the creek, stuck them in his sister’s blue wading pool and called it “The Miracle of Life.” Down the row, Lisa Banks was trying to coerce some white mice through a maze, but they seemed more interested in crawling up her arm.
Katie grinned internally. The competition was thin this year. So much the better for her.
She had given up trying to convince her parents that art was her passion. But today was her best chance to show them she could make more than something they would stick on the refrigerator door or display on the back of a dusty bookshelf.
The annual Nitrovex Scholarship Fair was the brightest hope for many of Golden Grove’s seniors who wanted to go to college. Funded by John Wells, the always upbeat founder of the local chemical plant where Katie’s parents were chemical engineers, first prize was such a big gift that for some students it determined where you could afford to go to college.
That wasn’t as true for Katie. Her parents were happy to send her to pretty much any decent school. As long as it wasn’t the Mason School of Art in Chicago that she’d had her eye on since eighth grade. No, that wouldn’t be “practical” and she needed to think about a “career.”
She had begged them to the point where they had finally given her one hope. If she won the Nitrovex scholarship for her art project, they’d pay the difference.
She could already see herself in Chicago next fall, immersed in a world of endless creativity along with hundreds of other students just like her, laughing, sharing ideas. No more condescending comments like, “That’s nice, but what do you really want to do with your life?” They would understand there.
She already knew she was going to start calling herself “Kate.” She might even cut her hair short, like Audrey Tautou in Amélie.
But first, she had to win.
She went back to her work, admiring the glint of the fragile glass as it slowly rotated. Even under the stark, buzzing fluorescent lights of the noisy gym, her mobile was beautiful. Just think what it would look like in a real art gallery.
The local yokels might not get it, but Mr. Wells’s wife, Mary, who she knew was an art connoisseur, would be sure to recognize her talent. And she was a judge this year.
And it was high time a project of culture and refinement got noticed. Who cared about the sex lives of tadpoles or a catapult made from Popsicle sticks that could chuck an orange across a room?
The only downside was that Peter had a project in the running, too. And if she won, that meant he would lose. But it wasn’t like he was going to have a hard time getting into any college he wanted. He got straight As in everything.
She chanced another glance at his project, and she had to admit, it looked impressive. She wasn’t exactly sure what it was supposed to be, but it had the requisite metal tubes, wires, and hoses sticking out of it. A little wisp of steam or something floated up from one of the connections. The corners of her mouth drooped. It looked like he was her competition.
She’d begun working on her project in early summer, right after school had ended. But, she’d told Peter, she had a problem. A problem she had to admit she’d created only to get his help. How to balance the glass in her intricate mobile. It was just science-y enough to get his attention and get him into her basement where she was working on it.
It had all been going so well. They were starting to connect again, sharing thoughts, dreams about the future after high school, occasionally “accidentally” touching hands. And then…
A hard frown creased Katie’s face.
She moved in.
July 5, when she and Peter had been picking up bottle-rocket sticks from their yards after the neighborhood fireworks the night before, an orange and white U-Haul had pulled in front of the Proctor’s old house across the street. Not the usual pull-behind trailer U-Haul but the big job, the semi. They watched all afternoon as it poured out furniture—nice-looking furniture, too, and a pool table and a ping pong table and a big-screen TV.
And then a light blue minivan pulled up. Illinois license plates. Cook County. She knew from her parents that meant Chicago and big-city sophistication and culture. The side door rolled open automatically and out stepped Miss Hair Toss, Miss Perfect Teeth, slow-motion, like she was auditioning for a movie.
Penny Fitch. Short shorts and a Tiffany watch. Katie could almost see Peter’s blue eyes widen behind his glasses, lopsided smile on his face.
And that was it. It was clear. She needed to save him. Save him from this usurper, this new (obviously rich) girl from the city who had flounced in like she owned the place.
All summer long, Kate gagged when she heard, “Hi, Peter! Hey, Peter! What’s up, Peter?” And then when senior year started, it got worse. Peter and Penny’s lockers were only three feet apart. Katie’s was on a different floor. Then at lunch, Penny would sit on the opposite side of Peter, battling her eyelashes and asking him for help with her chemistry homework.
Penny was ruining everything.
Peter couldn’t see her like Katie could. He was too nice. That was always his weakness, too nice, to a fault. But Katie could see what was going on. Penny thought she knew him, that just because she was cute and liked science and was in cross country with him, she could pick him right up, like some sort of adorable puppy.
And how cute and giggly she acted around him. “Penny and Peter, two peas in a pod. It almost rhymes!” Kate heard her say at lunch once.
Barf. No, it doesn’t, you moron.
All her cooing and tittering and hair tosses. Penny Fitch, the wispy witch. And when Katie was really mad, she used another word besides witch. Not out loud, of course, because she was still a nice girl.
But the thought that unnerved her most, the one she never dared entertain for more than a few seconds, was what if Peter was only being nice to Katie, too? What if all the time they’d spent together, growing up, sharing pecan pie shakes at Ray’s Diner, was all just him being nice? What if she wasn’t special?
No, that was negative thinking, and she squelched it.
It was her mission to protect Peter from this new girl.
Phase One: Keep him busy through the summer. That meant ramping up the need for advice on her Scholarship Fair project, pool parties with Peter at her friend’s house (without Penny, of course), and anything she could think of to keep the witch at bay.
Phase Two, which commenced after school started, was harder: Katie made sure, whenever she could, that Penny never got a private word in with Peter, inserting herself into their conversations or making sure that one of her friends (none of who liked the new girl, either) did likewise. But there was still the proximity issue at home. Penny didn’t live right next door (Katie still had that advantage), but she was close enough. Too close, judging by the smiles and waves she saw them exchanging and the runs they took together every so often.
That gave rise to Phase Three, the final and trickiest phase of all: the upcoming Homecoming Dance.
She had been dropping hints like lead feathers since late in the summer: Is homecoming early again this year, Peter?... What’s the theme for homecoming again, Peter?... What do you think of this homecoming dress I found online, Peter?
Even for a boy, he seemed to be dense about getting the hint.
She hadn’t gone to a Homecoming Dance until last year when Brian McDermott had asked her. Nice enough guy, but he wore too much aftershave and sweated when they slow danced. It had taken three days for the Brut to wash off her hands. Peter always smelled clean, like Ivory soap. At least that’s what the Clarks used for soap in their guest bathroom the last time she’d been over there.
It was the final phase, her way of getting Peter off the starting line. If they could just go to homecoming together, then they could see what it was like to be a couple. Take the photo together under the flowered arch, smiling, she in the pink chiffon dress she’d already picked out online, him in his tux rented from Maxwell’s downtown, complete with a pink tie to match her dress. He’d see the photo every day on his refrigerator where she knew his mom would stick it under a magnet.
Confidence flowed through her. She knew him. He was a science geek—he just needed to see something in action, see the quantifiable results, and then he would know they should be together.
It would be as factual as a chemical reaction, undeniable. Look at the charts and numbers, Peter! See the graph?
It wasn’t a perfect plan, but it was a good one, and it was going to work. She had a feeling, some inner voice telling her, This is it. He’ll see it, he’ll see me, and he’ll know. We should be together.
College? They could figure that out later. Long-distance relationships worked all the time, right? Once the Scholarship Fair was over, plan “Get Peter to Homecoming” would be launched fully into action.
As someone walked by behind her table in the gym, she caught a whiff of something sickly sweet and overpowering. Her jaw clenched as she turned her head and wrinkled her nose. The perfect teeth, perfect long black hair, and perfect clothes. The Wispy Witch was here.
She watched Penny sidle over to Peter, start talking to him, laugh, and then—yup, there it was, the perfect hair toss. She had a bet with her friends that Penny perfected her hair toss and simultaneous tittery laugh by practicing in the mirror.
Katie’s eyes narrowed. Penny had her own project two tables over from Peter’s, and there she was, hovering around Peter like a lovesick butterfly. She had a dozen other boys she could have glommed on to. Why didn’t she pour her poison on them?
Oh, that’s right. He’s too nice to her. Peter was always too nice.
Katie watched as he followed Penny to her table, where he twisted some insignificant knob on her insignificant pile of whatever her project was. Some box with a hat and a…Who cares? She probably had her dad buy it online, anyway.
Well, she could shoot a life-sized Saturn rocket with bells on it through the roof for all the good it would do her today.
Katie went back to her adjusting a few pieces of her sculpture. The multicolored glass of the elaborate mobile twirled slowly, each piece reflecting shards of light. She’d already been getting admiring glances from students and even some of the teachers. She had a feeling.
This was her year.
A burst of fire puffed out of a test tube bubbling over a Bunsen burner. It roiled towards the ceiling in a mini-mushroom cloud before it evaporated. The stunned class let out a combined “Whoa…”
Peter Clark stepped back and turned off his torch. “And that’s why we wear our goggles. So, can anyone tell me what the three products of combustion are?”
His classroom of high school students shifted in their seats, some looking at their phones, all avoiding eye contact with him. He picked up the heavy organic chemistry book from his desk, held it between his fingers, and dropped it.
The thud echoed like a cannon, and all heads shot up.
“The correct answer is fuel, oxygen, and heat.” He moved to the whiteboard at the front of the room and began drawing with a red marker. “Oxygen is already in the air, and the heat is from the burner, which leaves the fuel. So, add anhydrous sodium acetate and sodium hydroxide and you get a combustible substance called methane. Otherwise known as cow farts.”
A few titters rippled through the room.
He put down the marker, wiped his hands on his jeans, and glanced at the clock. “Okay, we still have a few more minutes, so I wanted to remind you about the test coming up next Thursday.”
A chorus of groans rolled over the class.
“Yeah, yeah, I know, another test. I’m cruel and inhuman. But we wouldn’t have to do the test early if some nameless bunch of knuckleheads hadn’t nominated me for this teacher award thing.”
The groans turned back to titters and smiles. Someone shouted out, “Go, Mr. C!” punctuated by a whistle. The class laughed.
“Yes, thanks so much. So, that being the case, I’ll be in Des Moines next week on Friday. But don’t worry, Mr. Potter has agreed to teach the class while I’m wasting my time at some awards banquet.”