When I first saw my own living blood cells through a microscope, I suddenly had the idea that science could tunnel into the truth of me. I saw a vast population of pillowy discs drifting as if blown by a tide, some clumping together in long rolls, some bumping into strange spongy objects. And tiny bright dots, like stars, shooting this way and that through the traffic.
And it was me, all of it. No more doubt, no more worry about what was real and what was imagined. Here was an invisible realm that I could see with my own eyes.
“Pretty cool, huh?” said Mr. Howard, “The discs are red blood cells, well not cells really, because they don’t have a nucleus. The larger, grainy ones are white blood cells.”
“What about the littlest ones, the wiggly ones?”
“Bacteria, most likely,” he said.
“So the white blood cells attack the bacteria?”
“Sometimes you can see it, a white blood cell chasing down an invader.”
There were so many of the little ones, these wily specks, more than the spongy cells could handle, apparently.
“Is it bad, so much bacteria in my blood,” I wondered.
“Not necessarily,” he said, “There are so many red blood cells, so many that they can usually do their job pretty well no matter what. Bacteria are everywhere; so you always see some in your blood. And some bacteria are actually good. They say it boosts the immune system, having them around. Some are quite helpful, especially in your gut.”
I considered this, watching the drama acted out before me on the slide: the workers doing their work, the invaders looking for trouble, the police fighting for order in the chaos. The red blood cells were the virtuous ones, of course, the ones who ferried oxygen dutifully throughout the body, but they were boring, shifting mindlessly like cattle over a flat plain. The bacteria were the ones that caught your eye, made you wonder just what they were, what they might do next. Would this one find some cozy nook within me and divide itself into a full-blown infection? Or would it be discovered by a white blood cell and devoured whole?
I kept watching, couldn’t stop watching, as Mr. Howard went back to his desk to grade papers. After a while, I looked up at the clock and realized that I had totally forgotten that I had to be home to babysit my brother and sister so my mom could go to a church meeting.
Weaving through cars as I rushed home on my bike, I felt like one of those tiny bright spots maneuvering through the large, heavy globules rolling slowly through town. And I thought about my body, the inside of my body, where this kind of secret journey was endlessly unfolding—but with no destination, no resolution, just moving and dodging and surviving, on and on until the end.
I rounded the corner to my street as the late afternoon sun leaned down into the broad windows of our new A-frame church, reflecting an annoying light into my eyes as I slowed into the driveway.
I stopped for a moment to catch my breath, the little disks and spongy specs and pricks of light passing through my blinded field of vision, as if I were still looking through the microscope.
I was brought up to believe that we are, every one of us, part of the body of God. My father often said this in his Sunday sermons.
If that is really the case, I thought, then what I saw under the microscope is what God sees, looking into each of us: a struggle, not good or evil, but a struggle, thrilling, beautiful, and strange.
Something went wrong with me when we moved from Hollow Knob to Centerville. Or maybe something was wrong to begin with and I just began to realize it then. Hollow Knob had been a slow place, a quiet place, hardly a town, really, more like a scattering of farmers and small businessmen with shops in the few strip malls along the state road. Centerville was the big city to me, the third largest town in our state. We moved into a new housing development in the southern part of town where a lot of well-to-do people lived. Ours was the house built for the pastor’s family, right next to the church, smaller than the other houses in the neighborhood but built in the same mottled brick with a mailbox that looked like a birdhouse planted next to the curb.
It was the beginning of my sophomore year, just starting high school, really the best time for me to change schools, my mother said, sympathetic to my fear of the unknown. And everyone will be making new friends, she said. But in the first few weeks of school, I came to realize that this was not the case. The other kids all knew one another from their various middle schools. They congregated in their cliques in the halls and at the lunch tables. Inconspicuously, I examined each group, looking for kids like me, or better yet, kids like who I wanted to be.
Most of the girls had a sort of look about them that I found mysterious. They wore very simple clothes, with very few ruffles or pleats, but even their plain polo tops were cut in such a way that their bodies seemed athletic and powerful. While the girls at my old school wore obvious perfume and make-up, these girls had a completely natural look, their smooth skin glowing, fresh and healthy. Their lips looked stained with cherry juice but glassy, dew-kissed. They smelled like fruity soap. They wore little jewelry, just small stud earrings, gemstone or pearl, sometimes small golden hoops, never anything large or dangly. Their hair was either long and loose or cut straight in a simple bob that fell across the cheek on one side. They did not wear braids or buns.
I had never known any girls like these and I could not imagine what their lives were really like outside of school or what I might say to one of them if I wanted to make friends. When I came near any one of them, in line at lunch or brushing past in the hallway, I felt a strange surge inside that left me breathless and confused.
There were a few other girls like me, with our braided hair and ruffled tops from Walmart. We often wound up sitting together at lunch, sometimes sharing notes or helping each other out with hard homework problems. But in general, we were not that interested in each other, so we were an oddly quiet group, awed into silence by the power of those magical beings surrounding us, chattering away in their parallel world.
My parents were so involved in starting up the new church that they forgot to check the courses I was signing up for at my new school. I picked biology class. I knew that we had particular ideas about nature but I guess I thought I was old enough now to sift out the truth from the lies. My father told me that scientists don’t lie on purpose, at least not usually. So they weren’t evil, really, just misled, and therefore not terribly dangerous to believers like us. Or so I thought.
In the first few days of biology, we had an overview about the scientific method and the various things that biologists study. I found this a bit boring so I skipped ahead in the textbook as Mr. Howard gave us his first lecture on “The Scope of Biology.” I found a part about the origins of life, how lightening may have struck lifeless chemicals to make a “soup” of living molecules when the earth was young, about three and a half billion years ago. Some people think the energy from volcanoes or deep sea vents started life instead. And some scientists even think that life may have begun on Mars or on a comet and some collision brought little pieces of it to earth.
Somehow I felt relieved that there were different possibilities, that you could choose one to think about but you didn’t have to really commit to it because it could turn out to be wrong when some new evidence came along. You were free to change your mind. You didn’t have to be wrong forever.
My father found me leafing through the textbook one evening in the first week of school. I had found another interesting chapter in the middle of the book. There was a diagram of a tree with different categories of living things.
“Whatcha readin’?” he said lightly.
“It’s biology, Dad,” I said, closing the book and folding my hands on top of it. “Did you know that there are more species of beetles than any other animal? And that they benefit from global warming? Someday beetles may become the dominant species on earth!”
“No,” he said quietly, seriously, “I didn’t know that.” He sat down on the edge of the bed and took the book from under my folded hands. He flipped to the table of contents, then began shaking his head.
“Let me take a look at this,” he said. “I’ll give it back to you tomorrow.”
And I knew that I would never hold that textbook again. There was a long chapter on evolution, Chapter Fourteen. As I lay in bed, I cursed my own stupidity. Why did I have to go and tell him about the beetles?
The next day, when I came home from school, he called me into his office where he was going over church accounts. The big green textbook sat on the front corner of his desk, with a number of yellow post-it notes like a parade of militant little flags marching down the top.
“I’ve read some of your biology textbook,” he said gently. “And I think it would be best for you to take a different class.”
I heard myself heave a sigh. “I know you don’t believe in some of the ideas in that book….”
“We don’t believe, Nevaeh, not just me,” he said, his hand on his heart. “As a church, we believe in the truth of God’s creation. That’s what it means to be a Christian. This book is wrong. I don’t want you to study things that are wrong.”
“But to study them doesn’t mean I have to believe them,” I exclaimed, louder than I had intended. “I’m old enough to know about it without losing my faith.”
He took a long sip of coffee, then put the cup down in front of him and gazed into the cup for a moment. “Let me put this in a way I think you’ll understand,” he said, looking back up to me. “You know that I love your mother dearly, right? he asked.
I nodded, because of course I could not disagree.
“Well, what if a beautiful woman came into my office one day and told me she loved me and begged me to kiss her? What would you want me to do? What should I say to that woman?”
Although I wanted to turn the conversation a different direction to avoid the trap that was coming, the very idea of his infidelity deeply offended me so I took the bait, resigned to the lesson. “That you love Mom, that you would never let anything come between you and Mom.” I said, reciting my lines.
“That’s right, and it’s true, I never would let anything damage my relationship to your mother. My marriage is sacred to me. My family is sacred, given to me by God.”
I stood quietly, knowing that my attention was all that was required to get through the rest of this conversation.
“Your relationship with God is special and sacred, Nevaeh. This book has come into your life to tempt you, to test your faith. Its ideas are very seductive,” he said, flipping through the glossy, colorful pages, full of diagrams and nature photographs. “Will you let this book come between you and God’s word? Will you let its ideas damage your relationship to God?”
I closed my eyes for a moment, and for some reason, I saw behind my eyes the tree-like diagram of Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order and the other descending levels of biological categorization. When I opened my eyes again, my father was studying my expression, kindly, patiently.
“I see that you understand me,” he said. “I know that this is difficult for a girl your age to deal with, especially a quiet, thoughtful girl like you. You don’t need to say anything, Nevaeh. I’ll write a letter to the principal and you can take a different class, one that won’t harm you.”
I closed my eyes again, savoring the image of the diagram that was still there. But as I held it in my mind, the words blurred together and faded away, leaving only the faint outline of a tree.
And so I transferred into the only remaining elective class that wasn’t already full, Home Economics. On the day I joined the class, they were learning how to make scrambled eggs. We broke into small groups and set to work in the several mini-kitchens along one side of the classroom. I was surprised to discover that many of those magical girls, the ones that looked so fresh and powerful, did not even know how to turn on the burner. But I knew a technique for making really fluffy eggs, so I suggested we try it. First you separate the eggs, then you whip up the whites into a foam, and then you recombine them along with some whole milk and immediately pour into a very hot, well-buttered pan. One girl in my group asked me how I knew so much about cooking eggs.
“Did you look it up on your phone?” she whispered, looking at each of my hands. I held a whisk in one hand and a potholder in the other.
I told her that eggs were my father’s favorite breakfast so my mother and I took turns seeing who could make the fluffiest ones. “I learned a few tricks watching my mom,” I said.
“Ohhhh,” she said, nodding slowly. Her eyes then flickered over my hair, my clothes. “I guess my mom doesn’t spend too much time in the kitchen.”
She picked up a stainless steel spatula and I moved away from the stove so she could stir the eggs. But she remained where she stood, studying the reflection of her glossed lips in the spatula. After a moment, she continued.
“And she says she doesn’t want me to get trapped there.”
“Trapped in your kitchen?”
“But this class is supposed to be an easy A, good for my GPA.”
As the teacher sampled our eggs, nodding her approval, an image came into my mind of the oven door snapping on my thigh like the jaws of a mouse trap as my classmates watched in horror. In the fantasy, I just stood there, one hand in an oven mitt, the other holding a spatula. I knew better than to struggle while everyone was watching.
I had a study hall in fifth period. Walking to the bathroom, I discovered that Mr. Howard taught Biology II during that period. So I started taking long bathroom breaks, standing just outside the biology classroom to hear ten or fifteen minutes of his lectures on symbiosis, bioluminescence, immunity, all sorts of fascinating things. As I stood listening to him talk about mass extinctions, he meandered over to the doorway. Pausing for a moment between sentences, he leaned his head out the door.
“Come talk to me after school,” he whispered, with a fatherly smile.
I was forbidden from taking biology class, but nobody said anything about chatting with Mr. Howard after school. I came by that afternoon. And the next. And the next. He even let me try some of the experiments his students were doing. Most of the time, he set me up with some equipment then just went back to grading his piles of homework.
Even though he was there, it felt like I was alone, like no one was watching.
As she always used to tell me, my mother was raised to believe that girls should be seen and not heard. And then after saying it she’d laugh, as if to tease me with the prospect of enforcing this ridiculous idea.
In social studies class, we were studying the persecution of witches in Salem, Massachussetts in the 18th century. Mrs. Painter posed a question to the class about what factors led to the witch hunt. My own answer sat in my mind like in some kind of promising yet potentially disruptive event, like an unpopped kernal of corn. But as usual, I just sat there, scrutinizing the font in our textbook. I remember expecting the usual hush over the classroom after which I was often called upon.
And then I heard another voice, not my own, but with a similar oscillation between loud and soft, high and low, and going on much longer than other students ever did and saying something like, “some people would probably say that they were hysterical or full of teenage angst, you know, the psychology, or even that they were really possessed, which would be the religious angle. But I was thinking, their world was really changing, part of the town getting wealthier and the other part left behind. I think the girls maybe felt torn between different ways of understanding what was happening.”
The voice was coming from the back of the classroom but I was too shy and too stunned to turn my head to look. What I saw, instead, was Mrs. Painter’s expression, how her eyes warmed, her mouth pursed, her chin nodding slowly.
I don’t even remember when I actually laid eyes on her, probably after class when I could turn naturally, gathering up my books and backpack, stealing a glance across the room in the direction of the voice. But I knew before then, before I even saw her, that she was one of them, one of those girls with their fresh clothes and their radiant bodies, the girls whose movements constituted a sort of system in which the rest of us, both boys and girls, found ourselves oriented in one way or another.
Somehow I heard that in her voice, a determined pitch that turned my ear like a compass. What made me think about her so much—that day, and the next, and the day after that—was the other thing I heard in her voice. It was something uncertain, roving, searching, something as familiar to me as the cadence of thought in my own head.
Her name was Audrey Cooper and it turned out, she was in three of my classes, not only social studies but also English and Algebra II.
I found myself listening for her, in those classes, and even in the hall as I navigated the current of bodies streaming in both directions; I listened for that tone of shrewd conviction that seemed to rise up and around all the other voices, quieting the rest of us with the assuring constancy of her insight.
And then, after a couple of weeks, I found myself raising my hand in response to her comments. I never looked at her, kept my gaze fixed on the teacher, but Audrey was the one I was talking to. I found myself saying the most surprising things. In English, when Audrey said that free-form poetry allowed for more emotional expression, I argued that forms like the sonnet and the haiku imposed a kind of discipline on pure feeling, forcing it to become more subtle and more powerful at the same time. In algebra, Audrey argued that we shouldn’t have to do word problems because numbers are inherently more pure than words. But words and numbers are both impure, I said. Only pure thought is pure. Only God is pure.
I could not turn my head to see how she reacted to my constant objections. But I could see how the teachers in those classes started turning to me after Audrey spoke, expecting my rebuttal. And the pleasure I saw in the eyes of those teachers was a pleasure held in tension between Audrey and me.
I went to Mr. Howard’s room nearly every day after school. Whenever I came in, he’d smile and nod, turning back to his piles of grading. Since I came in so often now, he just left the day’s lesson plan out for me on the black-topped lab table. I checked to see that the lesson was there and then turned away, keeping it in my peripheral vision like a piece of pie at the edge of my placemat. I’d started doing a few things around the lab to help out, feeding the tadpoles, misting the moss collection, making sure the sponge was moist in the domed habitat where ladybug larvae hung upside down in their cocoons, metamorphosizing. After my chores, I read the lesson and then found the equipment to reconstruct his demonstration—Mr. Howard always had some kind of specimen or experiment to illustrate the lesson.
One afternoon, in late January, I dropped in to find him leaning over a wire cage.
“Hey Neva,” he said, his voice wavering with enthusiasm. “Come and see our latest subjects.”
He leaned away from the cage and I peered over his shoulder. Two white rats were snuffling around in a carpet of fresh yellow wood shavings. One of them paused to acknowledge our gaze, its pink eyes rolling up in its skull like small beads of glass.
“We’re starting the unit on animals next week,” Mr. Howard explained. “Our specimens arrived this afternoon.” He turned back to them, his face fascinated and bemused.
On the table next to the cage, I saw a packing slip. For some reason, I picked it up. It was a regular receipt, the kind you might find in any package arriving in the mail. “Outbred Rats,” it read, “Quantity: 2.” The total price was $52.17.
It struck me as odd somehow to purchase living beings the same way you bought any other piece of lab equipment, like a petri dish or a microscope slide. But then, people bought cats and dogs and birds for pets, even mice, why was it weird to buy a rat for a lab specimen? Because it was an instrument like any other in the lab?
“What do you do with them?” I asked, wondering if I didn’t really want to know.
“Well, first I use them to illustrate the distinctive features of mammals, the fur, the mammary glands, the beat of the four-chambered heart, the differentiated teeth.”
“Only mammals have those things?”
“Yes,” he said. “Then we talk about animal behavior, aggression, cooperation, learning, sexuality.”
“You can see all of those things in rats? They cooperate?”
“Oh yes, rats are very social” he said. “If you put up a partition between them and set up a system where one rat has to pull a lever to give food to the other rat, they start cooperating so they both get enough to eat.”
“Did you see them do that? In this class?”
“Yeah,” he said, looking up from the cage. “It was a student project, modeled on some recent research.”
I felt my eyes widening.
“After the lesson on animal behavior, we have a class competition. Each student writes a research proposal to carry out a study on these two little guys. As a class, we vote on the top three proposals and the students who designed those studies become our principle investigators.”
“And you do the experiments?” I said, astonished. “Right here? In this class?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “And then we write up the results. It’s their final paper for this class.”
“So what other kinds of experiments have you done in the past?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, looking out the window, “one year we did a nutrition study where we had one rat eat raw vegetables and the other one eat only hamburgers and french fries from McDonald’s.”
“And what happened?”
“We had to cut the experiment short,” he said, “for humanitarian reasons. The fast food rat became obese and immobile. We were afraid it was going to die of dehydration because it couldn’t even get over to its water dispenser. It was sitting in its own waste most of the day.”
I must’ve made a face. He held up his hand as if to reassure me.
“We stopped the experiment in time,” he said. “After a few weeks on the veggie diet, that rat was back to its normal weight. We wrote up the results and they were published in a youth science journal.”
“Wow,” I said. “You can really discover something, right here, something that nobody ever knew before.”
“Another year we altered their day-night cycles by putting them in different cages, putting blankets over the tops, and setting lights on differently programmed timers. Then we tested the effects on their cognitive abilities by timing how long it took each one to get through a maze.”
“What kind of maze?”
“Oh, let me show you,” he said and he went off to a corner of the room, searched through a stack of boxes and pulled a smaller one out from under several large ones. The front of the box depicted an astroturf grid with plastic panels that could be fitted on the base to construct a maze. At the top right-hand corner was a small cell with a bait tray. With my finger, I traced the path of the maze in the picture, thinking of the series of decisions the rat would have to make to get to the prize. Realizing what I was doing, I pulled my hand away.
But Mr. Howard was looking out the window again. Then he looked back at me.
“Nevaeh,” he said slowly, as if pronouncing a quiz question, “what do you think you would do if you could conduct your own experiment with our rats?”
I thought for a moment. What would I want to know?
“I would put them together for a while, let them get to know each other.” I was thinking as I spoke, my words fueled by rising curiosity. “Then I would separate them and put them on opposite ends of the room, where they couldn’t see or hear each other. For at least a week. And then, I’d take them out and put one in the bait area and the other one at the starting gate. To see if one would go through the maze just to be with the other one.”
He considered this, nodding. “And what would you be testing, specifically?”
“I guess,” I hesitated, “Love, I guess, or desire. To see what a male would do to be with a female—or the other way around.” My project was refining itself in my mind. “And I would time them to compare the male’s desire with the female’s.”
Mr. Howard raised his eyebrows. “There’s just one problem with this scenario,” he said.
“Oh,” I said, disappointed.
“These rats are both females.”
“Oh,” I said, again.
“We always get two of the same sex,” he added, “to avoid procreation. We don’t want an unexpected pregnancy mucking up our research.”
“No, you wouldn’t want that,” I said.
“But you know,” he said, “I don’t see why you couldn’t do the same experiment with two females. In fact, that might be a lot more interesting.”
“Really?” I said. “Do you really think it would work though? Would a female go through the maze to be with another female?”
“Well, I don’t know,” he said, “but that’s what you want, a question worth asking because you don’t know the answer.”
We gazed into the cage. Mr. Howard cocked his head as if considering his next comment.
“I got an email a couple of weeks ago. There’s a group of women professors at the university doing a science contest just for high school girls. You write up a proposal for an original research project, you carry it out, and then you write up the results. There are ten first prizes and each winner gets to choose between a telescope or a microscope.”
“I wish I was in your class,” I said, “so I could do it.”
“You don’t have to be in my class,” he said, “or at least the email didn’t say that you do. So just write up your proposal. We’ll be finished with our class experiment in April. The students will be writing up their results in the month of May. The rats will just be sitting there, idle, all that month. You can use them to do your own study.”
“So if I write it up, you’ll turn it in for me?”
“Sure,” he said. “You should do it, Neva, you really should.”
I was suddenly frightened at how much I wanted to. I looked deliberately at the rats. They snuffled about in their wood shavings, nudging up a pile in the corner. One of them climbed on top of the pile and turned, as if to encourage the other one to join her.
“What happens to them after school’s out?”
“I take them out to the country,” he said. “And I set them loose. They’re not very self-sufficient so they probably don’t last long out there but at least they get a taste of freedom before they get eaten by snakes or owls.”
I imagined them, two females, set free in a vast field of tall grass and wildflowers. Would they head off in different directions? Would they want to be together or each go in search of a male to mate with?
“I want to know,” I said, “I want to know the answer.”
“Do the experiment,” he said. “And then you’ll find out.”
Although early March was still dreary and cold, some of the girls began wearing short-sleeved polos to school, draping their pastel cardigans over their shoulders as they sat at their desks, crossing their shivering arms in refusal of the lingering chill. This was how I came to realize that spring was coming, a shift in the physical world that included us, embraced us as shifting bodies longing to, destined to return the embrace.
But for us, for me, early March meant Lent, turning away from the flesh, as my father said, turning inward to the contemplations of duty and fated sacrifice. I gave up lunch and saved up my lunch money, intending to donate it to a fund to help a woman at our church get an eye surgery she needed. Without lunch, my own vision was blurry by the end of the school day. I felt ghostly, floating through the hall into my last class of the day, Algebra II. I gripped the edges of my desk as I descended slowly into my seat next to the long row of louvred windows. I was uncertain that my desk would really hold me in my place the entire class period.
We’d just started a unit on imaginary numbers.
Audrey was unconvinced. “If the square root of negative one isn’t possible, then it doesn’t exist and it can’t be a number at all,” she said. “It’s not a thing, it’s not out there in the world.”
But to me, buoyed by the faintest scent of new grass drifting in through a tiny crack in the glass louvres, anything seemed possible. I raised my hand.
“But a number, any number, isn’t a thing, it’s an idea,” I said, my words dancing off ahead of me. “It can seem to have a physical existence, when you place any quantity of things together, but even if those things are destroyed, the number still exists.”
“No,” Audrey interjected. “Then that number is gone and you have zero, a different number.”
“It’s like a person,” I continued. “If a person dies, the physical presence is destroyed but that person is not gone, not entirely. It’s not like they never existed. The person continues to exist as an idea.”
“As a memory,” Audrey responded. Then she stopped herself and checked the teacher’s expression, to make sure we hadn’t gone to far. But he was leaning against the chalkboard, happy to relinquish the class to our debate. So Audrey continued. “A memory of a thing that was once real, that once had a physical existence. But the square root of negative one never did have a physical form, never can be real in any way.”
“But maybe it will,” I said. “Maybe imaginary numbers will take form someday. Maybe we just haven’t found out how, not yet.”
At the end of class, I was zipping up my backpack as Audrey sauntered up to my desk.
“That really blew my mind,” she said, her eyes widening as she laughed.
I thought: this is really happening. Audrey had never spoken to me outside of class discussion. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“So you’re the smart girl,” Audrey said, still smiling, her eyes probing curiously into mine. I held her gaze for an instant, then my eyes slipped down the placket of her shirt, wandering over to the pale wedge of shadow beneath her small bosom. I caught my breath.
“No,” I said, with certainty. “You’re the smart girl.”
“Well,” she said, flipping her head so that the hard edge of her bobbed hair lifted from her cheek and fanned out backward over her ear like the pages of a open book. “Smart girls rule.”
“At least in the realm of the imaginary,” I said.
She looked at me quizzically, as if she hadn’t quite heard me, then nodded as if she’d suddenly gotten it. “But it’s real,” she said, beaming again. “It may be just an idea, but it’s real, right?”
“That’s right,” I said and she turned to go.
And I thought, yes, this really happened.
Audrey and me, it’s real.
I wrote a proposal for an experiment with Mr. Howard’s mice. I was babysitting the neighbor’s kids and I put them to bed at their regular bed time, as instructed by their mother. They complained, begged to watch another episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, but I was thinking about my project and so I stood firm, tucking them in precisely at nine pm. Then I turned off the TV and sat on the couch with my notebook on my thighs, savoring the expansive quiet, the time to consider what I most wanted to think about. Mr. Howard had given me a brief lesson about how to write a research proposal but he hadn’t given me the handout he gave his students. We both knew that I wasn’t allowed to have that. So I’d listened carefully to what he said and now I recalled the lesson, point by point. I stayed up until midnight, refining my research question, designing the experiment, thinking how I would analyze the data.
“Fantastic,” Mr. Howard muttered, as if commenting to himself. “You can get started at the beginning of May.”
I kept coming by after school, doing my lab chores and reading the lessons. But now everything I did was freighted with anticipation, taking on meaning as preparation for what was to come.
I started my experiment in the first week of May by putting the two rats together in one cage and enriching their environment with a few toys they could play with together.
I kept them together for two weeks, letting them grow accustomed to playing together, eating together, sleeping together. Then I took them out and put them in separate cages, stashed in corners on opposite sides of the room.
In home ec, we started doing final projects in May. Each group had to prepare a nutritional four-course meal for a family of four in thirty-five minutes.
“In the real world,” the teacher told us, “you’ll often have less.”
Each group had a day to prepare and present their meal while the rest of the class worked on a mending assignment. As a class, we all sampled the meal and shared our comments in group discussion.
My group was doing cashew chicken casserole. I came to class one Monday, our assigned day, to find the whole kitchen area marked off in yellow tape that read “Hazard: Do Not Cross.”
I went over to a girl in my group, the one with the glossy lips. Her name was Sophie and I’d gotten to know that she was a friend of Audrey.
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
“Haven’t you heard about the rats?” she giggled.
“In here?” I said. “Rats, in this classroom?”
“Mr. Howard’s rats,” she said. She leaned close to me as if sharing a juicy tidbit of gossip. “His lab rats escaped over the weekend. When Mrs. Mulvey came in here this morning, she found them running all over the counters and stovetops. We’re all in trouble ’cause she says it means we haven’t been scrubbing the kitchens properly after we cook.”
“My rats,” I whispered. “My project.”
“I mean,” I stammered. “Not my rats, they weren’t my rats. It’s just that I used to have a pet rat. He used to escape all the time.”
“Oh,” she giggled again. “Then you’re not going to want to hear what happened next.”
I met her laughing eyes. Despite her warning, she continued.
“The custodian thought they were just ordinary rats so he set out snap traps and caught them both. He’d thrown their bodies in the garbage out back by the time Mr. Howard found out about it.”
After school, I went to see Mr. Howard. He was sitting on the lab table, holding one of the cages. The other one was on the table next to him.
“It’s really a mystery,” he said.
“It’s ruined,” I said. “All that research and now I’ll never know the answer.”
“Look here,” he said, pointing to the severed latch on the door of the cage. “It looks like one of them chewed through the wire holding the door shut. “See how it’s chewed through, on the inside of the door?”
“But both of them got loose,” I said.
“Well then, look at the other cage,” he said, putting down the first cage and taking up the second one to show me. “The same wire is chewed through on this one, see? But it’s the part of the wire on the outside of the door.”
“But how could she have chewed open a wire on the outside of the door?”
“It didn’t, Nevaeh,” he said. “The first rat must’ve chewed itself free….”
“Then found the other one in her cage across the room and set her free.”
“I’m sorry your study was ruined,” he said. “But I think those rats gave you an answer after all. Maybe not what you were looking for. Maybe what they were looking for.”
A feeling set in, life surging around me, under me, but I held on motionless as a leaf caught against a rock in a swollen creek. It was better that way, stillness. I thought of my rats, caught motionless in their snap traps, life continuing on after them, without them.
On Friday afternoon, I sat on the bench in my gym clothes as the other girls dressed. I didn’t feel like opening my locker, changing clothes, going on to another class. I just wanted to sit there, letting normal life carry on around me as I became still and quiet, removed and undisturbed. I sat there inert with one gym shoe still on and the other one in my lap unlaced. One girl asked me if I was ok and I said, yeah, just tired.
“See you later,” she said, turning to leave and I realized that she was the last one to leave from that class and girls from the next class were already coming in, getting their gym clothes from the locked baskets at the back of the room, then stripping down in front of their lockers, some of them chatting with friends as they hurried their shorts up their legs and shimmied them up over their hips. I pretended to relace the shoe in my lap, though this made little sense; I was just waiting for this crowd to pass into the gym.
And then Audrey was there, beside me, pulling her yellow polo shirt up over her head, unzipping her short white skort. I continued lacing, noticing in the corner of my eye how she folded her clothes so carefully as she stood in her white socks, pink cotton panties, and pink stretchy bra. Another girl said something to her and she laughed. The girl reached over to Audrey’s back and snapped her bra strap. Shrieking, Audrey lunged at the girl, her fingers shaped into hooks. At that moment, Coach Loomis, the girls’ gym teacher, came barreling through the locker room, telling everyone to hurry up and get to the gym. “You two,” she said, pointing to Audrey and the other girl, “quit horsing around and get going.”
And in a few more moments, they were gone. I’d never skipped class before and I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I laid myself down longways on the bench, staring at the industrial florescents for a while. And then, with sudden curiosity, I sat up and looked over at her locker. The locker door was closed and latched but the padlock hung open. Distracted by the playfight, Audrey had left it unlocked.
I listened for a moment. I could hear occasional shouts and thumps from the volleyball game in the gym but the locker room was quiet. And then I was at her locker, slowly pulling away the lock, lifting the latch, opening the door. Her clothes were stacked neatly on top of her loafers, her backpack hanging from the hook above them. My hand went to her shirt, tracing the edge of the collar down the front placket, under the seam to feel the buttons, then reaching below into the folds of her white skort. There was the beady edge of the zipper, the waistband, and deeper, the seam between her legs, still warm and slightly wrinkled from sitting in the previous class. My thumb crossed over and over the seam where the front piece met the back.
And then I heard a sound, a kind of urgent hum that grew into a soft moan. My eyes flew open as I realized that it was my own voice and not Audrey’s, as I had somehow imagined. And I stepped back, holding that hand out in front of me as the other hand went up to my throat. I felt the hardness of the gold cross under my fingers and my hand closed over it. Before I could formulate the prayer I meant to say to myself, I yanked the cross away from me and thrust it into the pile of clothes, holding it there for a moment, then releasing it into the warm folds of cotton. I took my hand away, closed her locker and locked it.
And then I got dressed and went to my next class. I slipped in, fifteen minutes late and the teacher didn’t even seem to notice.
Ashamed and horrified, I sat in class after class for the rest of the school day, replaying the incident over and over in my mind, inspecting every movement, every sensation, every thought that occurred to me as I did whatever I had done alone in the locker room. But I hadn’t been alone; God had been watching, this I knew. But what had God seen me do? Audrey’s clothes were so pretty; I was admiring them, that’s all. And I hadn’t stolen anything, after all, actually the opposite. And you could say (couldn’t you?) that I had left something sacred and beautiful for Audrey, that I was reaching out to her as a sister in Christ.
But I could not shake the feeling that I put that cross there to nullify something sinful, something from my own hand. Then I found myself thinking about how she might have found the cross there in her clothes, how she might draw the chain up around her neck, the cross swaying gently against her chest, how it might settle against her skin, now a part of her as it had been a part of me.
But she wasn’t wearing it in social studies and not in algebra.
After school, I went to Mr. Howard’s room but for some reason, he wasn’t there.
Walking home, I tried to force myself to pray but I just couldn’t. I tried singing softly to myself, the lyrics to my favorite song at the time, “Lifted Away”:
I fell into the shadow of dark desire
on the path from sin to infinite fire.
Then Your light touched my face
with Your power and grace
And you lifted my soul away, so high.
Your hands lifted my soul away.
That’s what I wanted more than anything, to be lifted away from this life, enveloped in a kind of selfless peace, free from doubt and struggle. When I got home, my mother was babysitting several church kids whose mother was in the hospital and the house was swarming with chaos as they played hide-and-seek with my sisters and brother. I knew that I would soon be put in charge of this mayhem so that my mother could cook dinner. I went to the bathroom just to have a few more moments to myself.
My period had started, ruining a nice new white pair of panties.
It must be punishment, I thought, for what I did today.
And I knew that I would never be lifted away, not by God and not by Audrey.
Even though my experiment had been ruined, Mr Howard wanted me to write up the results anyway. In the last week of school, I found out that I’d won one of the first prizes. There was an awards ceremony but I couldn’t go because it was Wednesday afternoon when I had to go to prayer warriors. So Mr. Howard went for me, to pick up the microscope I’d chosen.
On Thursday, after school, Mr. Howard opened the box and pulled out the microscope, a huge and gleaming apparatus with dials and buttons and little red indicator lights. This was obviously not a toy. I knew I could never take it home with me.
Mr. Howard said he’d keep it for me in the science supply closet. He handed me a black magic marker and I wrote my name on the side of the large box. He hoisted it up to the top shelf.
“It’s right here for you,” he said, encouragingly. “You can use it when you come to the lab after school. Just go right in here and take it down when you want it.”
“Thanks,” I said but it came out like a whispery gasp. I couldn’t catch my breath. I was remembering the feel of the cool metal arm in my hands, the teeth of the dial against my fingertips.
“And you can take it with you when you go away to college,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said again, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the box above my head.
“College,” he repeated. “Don’t forget.”
That night, when I turned out the light and lay down in my bed, I stared into the darkness above my face, prolonging the interval before my eyes adjusted and I could again discern the shapes around me: the dresser, the rocking chair, stuffed animals on a shelf, my younger sister’s body in the twin bed next to my own.
You see these things in the daylight, I thought, that’s what your eyes are designed to do. But when the lights are off, your eyes reach out, touching the darkness, opening up like fingertips seizing on a prize. If you’re awake, if you’re alive, you cannot stop yourself from touching darkness. You cannot stop your eyes from seeing what they grasp. Unless you close them, give in to sleep and close them forever.
My father tells us that we should think very carefully about what God sees when He looks deep inside each one of us. But now that I have my microscope, the question I keep wondering is, What does God mean for me to see?
by Jennifer Hasty
Runner Up, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize