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 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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
I shrugged. “What are friends for?”
TO BE CONTINUED…