Posted in Random, Writing

Me and Mags, Episode 3: Chemistry

[If you’re just joining “Me and Mags,” catch up with Episode 1 and Episode 2 first!]

Out the window of the bus, I saw Mags walking to school. She was wearing a brown dress so long it brushed the tops of her combat boots and she was carrying a beaker of liquid carefully in front of her with both hands. I pressed my face to the glass to try to figure out why she might be doing such a thing, but the bus turned at that moment, and I lost sight of her.

When I turned back around, I jumped and let out an embarrassing little squeak. I was no longer alone. The girl with the short blond hair and pink hair clip was occupying the seat next to me. She wore a gray sweatshirt with a cat face on it and jeans that were more holes than fabric. “Sorry,” she said in an accent I couldn’t place. “I didn’t mean to intrude. The guys in the back were being jerks.”

“You’re not intruding,” I said, moving my backpack to give her more space. “I’m Hadley.”

“Olivia.” She held up her hand in a brief, awkward wave. “I think we’re in English together. You’re new?”

I nodded.

“I was new too,” Olivia said. “It’s not great, being new.”

I shrugged. “It could be worse.” Before I could think of anything else to say, the bus lurched over the speed bumps in the drop-off lane and came to a stop.

“Nice to meet you,” Olivia said, then scampered off the bus.

*

“Do you know Olivia?” I asked Mags during lunch. She sat in her usual spot, and I sat in mine. The chair she’d told me was taken on my first day remained empty, as usual. A few days before, a freshman had asked if he could borrow it, and Mags looked at him like he was crazy until he apologized and slowly backed away.

“The Pisces with the shellfish allergy?” Mags asked.

“Um… the girl with short blond hair who dresses kind of retro?”

Mags stared at me. I stared back.

“Medium-length fingernails and smells a bit like cardamom?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Ok, I’m fairly sure we’re talking about the same person, although I’ve never smelled her. So you know her?”

“A little,” Mags said. “She’s in my art class. She transferred here at the start of the year from a private school. Why?”

I shrugged. “We rode the bus together today. She seems nice. I never see her in the cafeteria. I don’t know where she eats, but I thought, maybe, we could ask her to join us for lunch sometime.” I held my breath, wondering if I’d overstepped. It was only my second week, after all. Was I allowed to invite people to the table? “Unless that chair is still reserved for someone else,” I added.

Mags scratched her head vigorously, and I spotted a small round Band-Aid on her neck, just below her ear. “We could always pull up another chair,” she said, then opened her journal.

I let my breath out.

“This morning on the bus, I saw you—”

“How many gallons of water do you think it would take to fill up this school?” Mags asked.

“Um… I have no idea.”

“Hmph. Ms. Granberry was right.”

“Ms. Who?”

“My seventh grade math teacher. She always told us math would come in handy when we least expected it. I never believed her. But now it’s vital that I be able to calculate the cubic volume of a two-story 120,000-square-foot building.” She shook her head. “I should call her and apologize.”

“And why, may I ask, do you need to know how much water it would take to fill up our school?”

Mags glanced at the pocket watch hanging around her neck, closed her journal, and slipped it into her satchel. “We’ll discuss it in Chemistry,” she said.

“I’m not taking Chemistry.”

“Yes, you are. 8th period.”

“That’s Biology.”

Mags flitted her hands in the air as if shooing imaginary flies. “Oh, potatoes tomatoes. Any science class is a Chemistry class if you bring the right materials. Any class at all, come to think of it. Besides, if I’m not mistaken, you seem to have your heat sensors set on a certain male mammal in that class. Ah-ah-ah,” she said as I started to protest. “Don’t deny it. I’ve seen you staring at Vik. Don’t worry, you’ve no competition from me. He’s not my blood type. In fact, I’ll be glad to help. I’m working on a love potion.”

“I don’t need a love potion,” I said, mortified by this entire conversation.

“You don’t want Vik to fall in love with you? Would you rather fall out of love with him? Because that potion is almost ready.”

“You have a potion to make a person fall out of love with someone?”

“Sort of.” Mags scratched her head. “Actually, it makes them not like anyone very much, including themselves.”

I wrinkled my nose. “What’s in it?”

“Oh, various things. Mostly tequila. And a little licorice.”

“Okaaaay,” I said, standing up. “Well, I don’t need a love potion or an out-of-love potion or any tequila. I just think Vik is nice, that’s all.”

The bell rang.

“Suit yourself,” Mags said. “See you in Chemistry.”

“It’s not—” I sighed. “Fine. Yes, see you in Chemistry.”

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In 8th period, the room was set up for a lab. Mags waved me over to her table. “You can be my lab partner.”

“You don’t already have one?”

“Sort of. Not really. On the first day of school, Ms. Archer partnered us up, but there was an odd number, so I was left out. Naturally.” She rolled up her sleeves and pulled safety goggles out of her satchel. “I didn’t want to be part of an imp’s threesome, so I told her Ferdinand was my partner, but he was absent.”

I held up my finger. “An imp’s… you know what, never mind. So Ferdinand never came back?”

“Oh, he did.” Mags put the goggles on, tied her hair into a knot, and started pulling on rubber gloves. “He’s been here all along, actually. But he’s a terrible lab partner.”

I looked around. “Wha… where…?”

“Ok, class, let’s get started,” Ms. Archer said. “Magdalena, I’m glad to see you’re taking safety precautions. Although you might be a bit over-prepared for measuring heart rate.”

While Mags held two fingers firmly to my wrist (she’d removed the gloves but was still wearing the goggles) I scanned the room, noting all the other lab partners awkwardly taking each others’ pulse. Vik’s long, dark fingers were pressed against the skin of a short, red-haired girl. “What made you think I had a crush on Vik?” I asked Mags.

“Shh. 32… 33… 34…” She peered at her pocket watch as she counted. After a few seconds, she said, “Done!” and scribbled a number onto our worksheet. “Your resting heart rate is 74 beats per minute.”

“Your turn,” I said.

“No, I have to do it again to see if I get the same result.”

I sighed and held out my arm again. “Fine.”

Mags picked up her pocket watch. “1… 2… 3…”

“Can I borrow a pencil?”

I jumped, almost pulling my wrist out of Mags’ grasp. Vik hovered over my shoulder. “Oh, um… sure,” I said.

I tried to pull my arm away from Mags so I could reach into my purse for an extra pencil, but she held on tight. “14… 15… 16…” Her eyebrows reached to the ceiling and there was smirk in her lips as she counted.

“Here, take this one.” I handed Vik the pencil I’d been using.

“Thanks,” he said and went back to his table.

Mags released my arm. “86 beats per minute,” she said. “Hmm.”

“Hmm,” I said. We stared at each other.

Mags smiled as she erased the 86 and wrote 76.

“What are you doing?”

“With those results, Ms. Archer will think I don’t know how to take someone’s pulse. Unless…” she looked at me, “you’d like me to make a note in the margin explaining what happened during the second reading?”

“Just change it to 76.”

“I told you,” Mags said. “Chemistry.”

While we finished writing up the results of our findings, I asked Mags about the water she was carrying before school and the worrisome math she was doing at lunch, but she was less than forthcoming with her answers. “Just a little experiment,” she said about the water. And, “The less you know at this stage, the better,” was her only response when I asked if all of this was in relation to her turn-the-school-into-a-fish-tank idea.

“That was just a joke, right? The fish tank thing?” I asked.

Mags stared intently at her lab sheet and said, “A joke is just the truth wearing a fake mustache.”

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There was a chill in the air as we walked home. I’d missed the bus accidentally-on-purpose so I could walk with Mags in the brisk breeze. I stuck my hands in the pocket of my hoodie and hunched against the falling temperatures, but Mags stood upright, looking cool as a cucumber, just as her 50-beats-per-minute heart rate suggested.

“So, who is Ferdinand?” I asked.

“Oh,” Mags said, turning her large eyes to the sky, “no one you need to be concerned about.”

I stopped walking. “No.”

Mags turned around. “No, what?”

“No, I’m not doing this. You can’t be cryptic about everything I ask. If we’re going to be friends, you have to be honest with me about at least some things.” Her eyes bore into me, and I resisted the urge to look away.

“Hadley…” she said, and I steeled myself for her rebuttal, wondering what I’d say next, knowing I didn’t actually have it in me to stop being friends with her if she refused to open up. “You’re right,” Mags finished. Her gaze dropped to the sidewalk, and I felt my shoulders loosen in relief.

Mags sighed, then lifted her hair, revealing the Band-Aid beneath her ear. “This,” she said, peeling the small round bandage from her skin, “is Ferdinand.” She squeezed her eyes shut and waited.

“Mags, there’s nothing there.”

Her eyes flew open. “What?!”

“There’s nothing there.”

Mags put her hand to the smooth skin of her neck. “Sweet Jezebelle! He’s gone again!” She dropped her satchel and started patting her face and neck and arms.

“Who’s gone?” I asked, exasperated. “Is this another joke?”

Mags let out a sound between a growl and a sob. She looked at one elbow and then the other. “If it’s a joke, it’s not one I find funny.” She felt along the tips of both ears, then lifted her dress and gave a hard look at her knees. “Ferdinand,” she said at last, “is my mole.”

“Your what?”

“My MOLE.” She dropped the hem of her dress and began feeling along her scalp.

“And… you can’t find him?”

“He travels,” Mags said. She tugged at the neck of her shirt and peered inside. “He used to be right here.” She pointed to a spot on her left cheek. “Kids teased me about him and back then I cared about crap like that. So I did a little… procedure… to get rid of him. It only half worked.” She rubbed the spot on her cheek. “Less than half, really. Ferdinand left this spot and never came back, but now he’s got a mind of his own, wandering wherever the Hades he pleases. He even grows hair if he’s in a mood.” She blushed. I had a hunch that ‘cool-as-a-cucumber’ Mags would have a very different heart rate if I checked her pulse now.

Well,” I said, searching for the right words, “that sucks. No one needs a willful, traveling mole popping up wherever it wants to. Life is tough enough already.”

Mags visibly relaxed. “I know, right? Damn mole. If you ever see him, will you tell me?”

“I will indeed.”

“Thanks.”

I shrugged. “What are friends for?”

*

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

 

Posted in Random, Writing

Me and Mags, Episode 2: Your Skeleton is Showing

[If you you missed Episode 1 of Me and Mags click here to read it first!]

*

The trick that launched me into my year of popularity was the secret of the Second Day Outfit, and I learned it from my little brother of all people. Justin was in sixth grade when I was in eighth, the last time we’d been at the same school. On the second day, when we were walking home from the bus, he said, “Girls are so weird.” This was not an unusual statement from him, so I ignored it, but after a moment, he elaborated. “On the first day of school, they all wear something new and trendy or expensive looking, as if they’re a whole new person. But no one ever cares because they’re wearing something new and shiny too. Then on the second day, everybody goes back to what they’ve always worn anyway. It’s so dumb.”

I’d looked down at my Forever 21 t-shirt and black leggings—new because I’d outgrown my old clothes since last year, but, as Justin pointed out, also the same as what I’d always worn. My hair was in a messy bun instead of down and straightened with care. I hadn’t even put on earrings, whereas the day before I’d borrowed one of Mom’s Kendra Scott necklaces and ducked into the bathroom during each passing period to reapply my lip gloss.

“Also,” Justin said, “girls giggle too much.” He started imitating the high-pitched laughter of the girls in his class, and I thumped him on the back of the head.

I didn’t forget Justin’s observation, though, and began making plans for ninth grade. By the time I started high school, I had outfits picked out for the first two weeks.

It worked. People noticed. Soon I was the one deciding where we sat in the cafeteria, and I had my choice of partners for group projects. Friends asked if I was going to a party before they decided if they were. Suddenly, finally, I was popular.

Until April, when everything happened and life blew up around me. I couldn’t tell you what I wore the last two months of school or if I even went.

My second day of tenth grade at Temperance High School wasn’t the real second day. Everyone else had been in school for a few weeks already. I stared at my closet, considering. I picked up a striped romper that I knew looked great on me. It made my legs look long, and the v-neck showed just the right amount of skin. I held it up in front of me, then put it back in the closet. Being popular suddenly seemed like a lot of trouble. I pulled on black athletic shorts and a long-sleeved teal t-shirt with a trendy logo on the pocket, and put my hair in a bun. But when I turned to face the mirror, I didn’t see myself. I saw a clone. Just like my old school, this was what all the girls at Temperance wore. It was the best way to blend in and be anonymous, but was that what I really wanted?

“Hadley!” Mom yelled. “Are you ready? The bus will be here soon!”

“Just a minute!”

I took the clothes off and stood in front of the mirror in my underwear, thinking. Not every girl at school wore the shorts + trendy tee uniform. I thought of Mags and a smile pulled at my lips. She’d been dressed in a faded green t-shirt, a long gray skirt tied at the waist with a shoelace, and black combat boots. I didn’t have anything that “alternative” in my closet and wouldn’t have worn it if I did. Still…

“Hadley!”

“Coming!”

I closed my eyes and thought about what I wanted to feel on my body. Then I pulled on a faded pair of jeans with a hole in the knee. Not a fashionable hole, a real one, made from absentmindedly picking at the fibers with my fingernail while watching TV. I threw on a soft purple t-shirt that said “don’t flatter me” across the front, slipped my feet into a pair of sneakers, and grabbed a flannel for my cold classes.

Mom was about to shout my name again when I hurried past her, picking up my backpack and lunch. She looked at my clothes and her forehead creased, but then she smiled and told me to have a good day. On my way out the door, she said, “That flannel used to be your dad’s,” but I pretended I didn’t hear her.

I was sitting on the floor in the hallway by the elevator, waiting for the bell to ring. Groups of students were standing or sitting around in similarly-dressed clumps, talking or looking at their phones for a few last precious moments before putting them in their lockers for the rest of the day. (Temperance’s phone policy was no-nonsense from first bell to last.) I saw Vik, who I remembered from English and Biology. He was a head taller than anyone else in his group—mostly girls, including loud, complaining Shay. He stretched his neck left and right, nodding at whatever Shay was saying but not appearing to really listen. She swayed back and forth in front of him, trying to make eye contact, but he either didn’t notice or was very good at pretending not to. He had the air of someone devouring a delicious lunch, bite by slow bite, never once looking at the drooling dog at his feet. The image made the corner of my mouth turn up.

The elevator doors opened and a boy in a motorized wheelchair began exiting. But his chair only made it halfway out before the wheel got stuck. He motored forward, then back, then forward, then back, moving barely an inch each time.

A few students chuckled. Most paid no attention. Then the elevator doors tried to close even though the boy was still in the way. They collided with his chair, wobbling him, then retreated again. More laughs erupted, bouncing between cliques like a pinball. They came from nowhere and everywhere, from averted gazes and closed-lipped snorts, the kind of cruel amusement that disappears the moment you try to spot it. I hated them for it and hated my former self for being guilty of it and hated my current self most of all for not doing anything about it. I willed my body to move but felt rooted in place as if I too was stuck.

Then Vik appeared. He stepped gracefully into the elevator and pushed the boy’s chair over the impediment. Bump-bump. Without saying a word, he turned the boy in a quick circle before pushing him through the hall, causing groups of shocked and annoyed students to jump out of the way. A moment later Vik reappeared and joined his trendily-dressed peer group again. Shay bobbed in front of him, vying for his attention, and one guy tried to give him a high-five, but Vik ignored them both. He just put his hands in the pockets of his jeans and gazed over the heads of the crowd. When his eyes landed on me, he gave me a small smile. My heart went bump-bump.

When I arrived at Mags’ table for lunch, a teacher was interrogating my new friend. Standing, arms crossed, in heels that elevated her just above five feet, the woman fired questions at Mags, who answered succinctly. I hovered nearby, balancing my sandwich, sparkling water, and banana, and waited.

“Ms. DeVille, you know we have a no-tolerance cell phone policy.”

“I do.”

“Cell phones are not allowed in the classroom.”

“That’s true.”

“How do you explain what happened last period?”

“Shay Bentley broke the cell phone policy. This was revealed when her phone rang during class. You then confiscated Shay’s phone, which led to Shay calling you an unkind name.”

The teacher closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nose. “Could you please explain why Shay’s phone showed that the call was coming from you?”

“No.”

“Excuse me?”

“I can’t explain that.”

“Did you have a cell phone in my classroom?”

“No. You know this. You searched my belongings.”

“Why did Shay’s phone show that you were calling her?”

“I don’t know. Maybe Mercury is in retrograde. That can wreak havoc with technology.”

The woman’s eyes were open again, but she looked at the ceiling (or possibly to the heavens) rather than at Mags. Through clenched teeth, she said, “No cell phones in class, Ms. DeVille.”

Mags said, “Yes, ma’am,” and the teacher left, her heels clopping an angry rhythm across the tile.

“What was that about?” I asked as I slid into the seat I hoped was still mine.

“Just a miscalculation. Could we talk about something else?” Mags said. Despite her calm confidence in front of the teacher, she now looked peeved.

“Sure,” I said, and spent the next twenty minutes listening to the intricate details of Mags’ new beet garden.

*

During 8th period biology, we were all herded to the lecture hall for school photos. Apparently they’d been taken earlier in the year, but the computer hadn’t saved the images, so they had to be redone. On the way, I paused next to the trophy case and looked at my reflection in the glass—at my purple tee and sloppy flannel. So this was how my sophomore year would be immortalized. I took my hair out of its ponytail and combed my fingers through it. Mags was in front of me in line. One of her auburn curls was sticking out the side of her head like a horn, but she didn’t even glance at her reflection. She also had a small round Band-Aid on her cheek.

“Um,” I pointed to the Band-Aid, “do you want to take that off?”

“No,” Mags said, blushing slightly. “What’s beneath it does not deserve to be in a photo.”

“Ah,” I said, pretending that wasn’t an odd way to speak about a pimple.

I felt someone step in line behind me and turned to see Vik leaning against the display case.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” Vik said.

“Hmm,” Mags said and pulled her journal out of her pocket and made a note in it.

The line progressed slowly.

When Mags’ turn came, she sat down on the small gray stool, feet together, back straight, her gold-brown eyes staring at the camera unblinking, her lips a thin, tight line.

“Smile!” said the cheery photographer.

Mags didn’t move.

“Smile!” she repeated.

“I am smiling,” Mags said.

“Smile bigger!” the photographer chirped.

“Just take the picture,” Mags said.

“Smile with your teeth!” the photographer insisted, and she flashed her own whitened smile as an example.

Mags narrowed her eyes. “You know teeth are just your skeleton poking through your skin, right?” she asked.

The photographer’s smile disappeared. She took the picture. Her voice wavered a little when she called, “Next!”

I was chuckling when I sat in front of the blue backdrop. The photographer didn’t have to tell me to smile. I let my skeleton shine.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Posted in Reading

A Tale of Two Books

I read all the time, but I don’t always read what everyone else is reading. My book choices bounce from classic horror to edgy YA to quiet middle grade titles to random novels with a cool cover that I saw at Half-Priced Books. I rarely read the MOST POPULAR BOOKS of the moment, those titles that are on everyone’s Goodreads page and every best seller list. If I do read them, it’s often much later, after all the hubbub has died down and I think, “Ok, let’s see what all the fuss was about.” (Often the fuss was right on. Sometimes I disagree with the fuss.)

However, last month, I read two VERY POPULAR BOOKS at the same time—one in print and one on audio—and I was shocked at how similar they were.

The books were Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and Educated by Tara Westover.

On the surface, these books are quite different. Where the Crawdads Sing is a fiction novel that is part mystery, set in the 1950s and 60s. The story is about a young woman named Kya, known to locals as “the Marsh Girl,” who grows up alone after her family leaves her, creating a life for herself in an isolated hut on the North Carolina coast. Educated, on the other hand, is a memoir about the author’s life growing up in the 1980s and 90s with her radical survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho. Her parents don’t believe in modern medicine and don’t even have birth certificates for their children, who, in the eyes of the government, don’t exist. Despite their obvious differences, the connections between these books were fascinating.

The biggest similarity was that both characters (I’m going to call Tara a character here even though she is a real person) were the youngest child in a large family and neither one went to school. Kya, lured by the promise of a hot lunch, went to school for one day when she was around seven years old, but when the other kids made fun of her for misspelling “dog,” she never went back. Due to her father’s intolerance of public school, Tara never set foot in a classroom until she was seventeen. However, both women were bright, quick learners and became educated through other means, each becoming an expert in their areas.

There is so much more, though, that links these two books. The richness of the setting is one. Both the marshes of the Carolina coast and the rural Idaho mountains were described so vividly, I could see them. When Kya was motoring through the lagoon in her old boat and Tara was working in the junkyard beside her father, I felt like I was there with them. Because of the Westovers’ primitive way of living, even the time periods of the books didn’t seem so far removed. Each time I heard a year mentioned in Educated, I was jolted for a moment at the reminder of how recently these things occurred.

In addition, both characters experience abuse by family members and ostracization from society. Both live in an isolated world of their own or their family’s own making. Both use home remedies to treat injuries, and both retain strong bonds to their family and place of birth despite the negative memories associated with them.

However, each subject matter is written about so differently by the authors. Westover’s concise, pragmatic prose left me breathless with its merciless betrayal of her family’s control over her and the accidents that resulted from her father’s recklessness and mental illness, while Owens’s depiction of Kya’s hardships was softer, more beautiful, blurred at the edges in ways that let the reader understand her heartache and hurt without falling into it.

In the end, I really liked both books and would give each 4.5 stars. In Where the Crawdads Sing, the .5 reduction is due to a couple of writing nitpicks. Although the language was beautiful, I got tired of the sentence fragments. And I loved the ending, but I thought more time needed to pass before the last reveal. I listened to the audio version of Educated, so I couldn’t see the sentences, but the writing seemed flawless, both effortless and precise. In that book, the .5 star reduction was due to the content itself. Tara’s life was hard to read about, and it disturbed me on so many levels. There were horrifying descriptions of injuries and cringe-worthy scenes of manipulation and abuse. The book was excellent, but I can’t say that I “enjoyed” a lot of it.

In conclusion, I strongly recommend both Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing and Westover’s Educated. The hubbub was spot on for these two. I also recommend reading them back-to-back so you too can enjoy the connections between these oddly similar books. (There were a few more similarities not mentioned here due to spoilers.) If I were you, I’d start with Educated and allow yourself to feel all the shock and frustration and horror of Tara’s childhood (while also, of course, admiring her strength and endurance and brilliance). Then let Where the Crawdads Sing be a soothing balm for your reading soul.