Chapter 8: Searching
“Mom! I’m fine! I have to go to school.”
“Your temperature is still 99.8.”
“Which is within normal range! Don’t you believe the medical book?”
Mara wasn’t sure, but Deena was dressed and ready, and seemed to show no other symptoms. Reluctantly, she started the car and drove to the high school.
Deena was out and heading into the front steps without a word. Mara idled the engine in the parking lot for fifteen minutes before getting out and heading to the principal’s office.
The school reeked. The walls had soaked up decades of teenage activity and even a fresh coat of paint couldn’t keep it all confined.
Deena had scrubbed herself thoroughly, and used the best of her limited stock of perfume, but her classmates smelled different.
It was as if people carried a large banner around the neck, proclaiming their scent. It was hard to think about anything else.
She clung to her open locker door while a group passed by her.
A guy in a leather jacket GASOLINE, ORANGE, EXHAUST FUMES was fumbling with a sheaf of papers. She could smell the streak of engine oil on the back of his hand.
Stanford (she didn’t know his last name) SWEETISH HERB grinned at the people he passed in the hall.
Shuan Simon NEW SWEAT, SPICE chatted with David Aing IVORY SOAP, ROSEWATER. She was puzzled by that last one, until Jannet Barclay ROSEWATER, MAPLE SYRUP passed by and greeted David.
Deena laughed to herself. If it didn’t drive her crazy, she could have great insight into who was kissing whom.
Don’t get hysterical. It could be great fun—the tricks you could play if you had three arms. But only if you could get past the idea of having three arms.
Why was her sense of smell hyped up? Why had she been having those unexplained fevers?
She had one theory. She didn’t like it.
A brain tumor.
Bryony JASMINE, CHERRY, MOZZARELLA CHEESE caught up with her after lunch.
“Hey, Deena! I see you’re still alive. Isn’t it a drag when your parents bust you?”
“Hi. Yes. I’m sorry you had to see that. It was a nice day otherwise.”
“It sure was. It was even nice after you left.”
“Terrian had his own wheels, but I had to beg a ride home from Luther. We stopped by Burger King and killed an hour or so there.”
Deena noticed a certain change in her smell. Like sweat, but definitely female.
Bryony asked, “You like Luther, don’t you?”
Deena felt a familiar sinking sensation. Bryony was interested in Luther.
Bryony was the kind of a girl guys went for. They didn’t go for the fat ones. Not when cute blonde things were on the scene.
Any chances she had to get closer to Luther had just flown out the window.
She composed herself. Bryony had asked if she were interested in him. That was nice of her, but Deena had no illusions that Luther might really prefer her.
“Oh,” she shrugged. “It was nice of him to take us out on Saturday. But honestly, I’m not interested in trying to catch a boyfriend right now. I couldn’t inflict my mother on any guy. You know?”
Bryony put her hand on her arm. “Sorry.” She brightened. “But you know, next year you’ll be off on some college campus somewhere, making your own life and free to find the perfect guy. For sure, that’s what I’m going to be doing.”
Deena smiled. It was hard, but she had gotten good at hiding her emotions over the years.
When Luther SANDALWOOD, BARBECUE SAUCE, LEATHER passed them in the hall on the way to Physics class, Bryony gave her arm a squeeze and broke away to talk to him on the way in.
Deena slowed her pace. If she had a choice, she wouldn’t even go in.
This was the physics class for dummies. Deena had been bored with it for the entire year. It was a hands-on lab class for most part, with a little bit of lecture to lead them to the workbench. Tests were story problems that wouldn’t tax a sixth grader.
She suspected the whole purpose of the class was to let the students, generally those not heading towards a college class in the sciences, know that there was such a thing as physics, and how to spell the word.
There was an honors class in physics, for the real science students, and she had been kicking herself all year long for not pushing harder to get into that one. Calculating work moving a mass up an inclined plane wasn’t her goal in life, but these simple problems were far too easy to keep her interest alive.
Today Mr. Fenner CIGARETTE SMOKE, LIGHT MACHINE OIL was talking about optics. He had scribbled an equation on the board. Deena had drifted off into her own darker thoughts, back in the rear of the lab.
Bryony’s voice brought her back.
“Mr. Fenner, which is closer? Venus or Sirius?”
Half of the class laughed. Deena laughed inside. She straightened up in her chair. What had she missed?
Luther showed signs of trying to hold in a giggle. Well, he would. He was another misfit. Honors Physics would suit him fine.
Mr. Fenner seemed taken aback for an instant. But he didn’t usually laugh at ignorant students, not if he could help it.
“Miss Sawyer, can you tell me the difference between a planet and a star?”
Bryony looked uncomfortable. “Um, well. You can walk on planets?”
“Ah... because Star Trek says so?”
Mr. Fenner smiled. “Well, Miss Sawyer, I hate to tell you this, but Star Trek likes to make things simple, so that they can get on with telling the important stories about people loving and hating each other, without getting the audience bogged down in a lot of little details like astronomy and physics.
“So, bear with me while I fill in a few gaps.
“Class, could anyone give me a simple rule of thumb as to what makes a planet different from a star?”
There were a number of hands. “Mr. Billings?”
Soon enough, he had the basics covered. Planets circled stars. Our sun was a star.
“So Miss Sawyer, if Sirius is a star many, many times larger than our sun, and Venus circles our sun, which do you think is closer?”
Bryony looked panicked, trying to put the pieces together. “Ah, Venus?”
“Right! Sirius and Venus can look roughly the same brightness only because Sirius the star is so very, very far away.” He tapped the chalkboard with his pointer.
“And this equation can let us calculate how big objects look, based on their real size and their distance.”
Deena nodded. Poor Bryony, for displaying her ignorance where Mr. Fenner could make a class example of it, but she began to look at ease now that it was over.
Bryony never felt bad about people laughing at her, not if she could laugh too.
I wish I could be like that. It was far too easy to sense when laughter was mean-spirited. Deena had experienced too much of that.
The actual lab work came and went in five minutes. A protractor and a couple of wooden blocks measured out on the lab table, and she was done. Deena filled out her worksheet and sat back on the stool, idly looking over the cabinets that lined the walls.
The lab room doubled for physics and chemistry. The rows of elbow-high lab tables had sinks and plumbing for gas to feed the Bunsen burners. Deena would have liked to have taken a chemistry lab too, but it was far too late for that.
On the shelves, behind glass doors, were vials of chemicals. She could smell many of them. Behind the teacher’s desk, there was a little door that led to another chemical storage area. She could tell that for certain. The vapors that drifted from under the door were sharp and unusual. Probably that’s where they stored the strong acids and stuff.
“Miss Brooke. Are you having problems with the assignment?” Mr. Fenner wandered from table to table. He had snuck up on her.
Deena shook off the cobwebs. “Uh, no. I’m done with that. I was just looking at all the chemicals.”
Several of the other students looked over at her.
Mr. Fenner nodded. “What interests you about them?”
Their smell. She couldn’t say that out loud.
“Well, I was just wondering if any of them had any thirty in them.”
“Thirty?” He looked puzzled. “Explain what you mean by thirty.”
More faces were turning her way. She felt flustered. She waved her hands.
“You know. Thirty. I was thinking I needed some thirty. Oh, I already have enough of the sixty-four kind, but I’m short of the sixty-six. Do you think you have any here?”
Mr. Fenner was at a loss for words for several painfully long seconds.
“Do you mean element thirty?”
Deena nodded. “Yes. Element thirty.”
He nodded, back on familiar ground. “And do you know what the name of element thirty is?”
Deena suddenly realized what she had been saying. No one called elements by their numbers. At least she knew what she had been saying, if not why she said it.
“Ah, no. The element with atomic number 30.” She said it hesitantly, then shook her head, embarrassed. What must the class be thinking about her?
The instructor looked over the class. “Could anyone help me with this puzzle?”
Luther raised his hand.
“Yes, Mr. Jennings?”
Luther pointed to the Periodic Table of Elements chart hanging on the wall. “If I read it right from here. Element thirty is zinc.”
Fenner nodded. “That’s correct. Zinc is indeed element thirty. And the Periodic Table is a handy way to keep from having to memorize all those pesky atomic numbers.”
He walked over to the cabinet. He pulled out a small amber jar and shook out several pieces of silvery metal, misshapen as if they had been splashed into water while molten.
He handed her a small chunk, about the size of a bottle-cap. “Here. Is this enough for you?”
Deena could feel her face flaming red, but she nodded and took it.
The faces turned back to their business as Mr. Fenner walked away. This bonus entertainment was over.
Bryony smiled in sad sympathy, before she went back to her protractor.
Deena clutched the zinc tightly in her hand. She could have torn out her tongue before making that spectacle of herself.
But she had wanted the thirty, the zinc. And there was plenty of sixty-six in this piece. It made her feel wonderful inside just to hold it.
For a moment, she stopped worrying about her classmates, or the possible brain tumor that was making her life particularly puzzling. She even stopped worrying about why she wanted the zinc.