The explosion rocked the foundations of the world. Flames rose up, leaping to devour whatever it could close its jaws over. The fire alarm shrieked in terror over the intercom, amplified throughout the school. Some of Timothy’s classmates ducked behind the lab benches, some just stood screaming and clutching their friends. The acrid smell of a burning lab coat scraped the insides of their noses.
The teacher scrambled around the desks and benches wielding her mighty fire extinguisher. “Timothy Jared Kearne!” she shrieked, unleashing the foaming fury on the Bunsen fire. Shards of glass and crisped shreds of his lab report swirled like snow. The foam covered the blackened section of his lab coat. “How many times have I told you, read the labels!”
Timothy peeked from behind the work bench. “But I did. Copper starts with a K, doesn’t it?”
The class groaned and Timothy reddened. Beside him, his sometimes-girlfriend Isabella Colbert tried to keep a straight face. Mrs. West called the office to say that everything was under control. Exasperated, she plucked Timothy up by the wrist. “Okay everyone. Put everything away, carefully. It’s time for a pop quiz on naming elements.”
“But that’s seventh grader stuff!” complained Noah.
“Pack it up, people!” snapped Mrs. West.
“Great going, Timmy,” muttered Jasmine as she brushed past.
“And lab safety!” Mrs. West continued, her voice picking up where the shrieking alarm left off. “Never throw clothing onto chemical fires! Ilithios! That’s kindergarten stuff!”
It was a typical day for the senior chemistry class at Morning Valley Academy. Everyone knew Mrs. West should stop trusting Timothy Kearne in the lab, but Isabella figured the teacher had been born an optimist. Faith was hard to shake. All the tutoring in the world didn’t seem to stop Timothy from mixing up a deadly medley of chemicals or starting a fire or an explosion at least once per week. Miraculously, no one had yet been hurt but it was only a matter of time.
Nobody wanted to work with him anymore, so Mrs. West had taken to drawing names randomly. It was Isabella’s unlucky chance to be his partner today.
Back in the classroom, Timothy tried to laugh off what had happened, but the joke had grown old weeks ago. Eventually, he fell silent as Mrs. West handed out the tests, which were actually from grade eight. Isabella mindlessly answered the simple, multiple choice questions with one hand, directing her attention to her cellphone. Her friend Violet was supposed to meet her and Timothy during lunch to go to the mall, but apparently she and her boyfriend Flavius were having issues again. Isabella looked over her shoulder, and sure enough, Flavius hadn’t even touched his test, and was furiously jabbing his phone screen, occasionally glancing at Violet, who studiously ignored him. She sighed, realizing that she was going to have to go alone with Timothy, again. She was not looking forward to an hour of his complaining and his unhelpful, whiny comments as she sampled dresses and shoes.
Beside her at the table, Timothy poked her arm with the pencil he had borrowed from her. She tried to motion to him to be quiet, since Mrs. West was looking in their direction. He didn’t seem to care. “I’m really looking forward to the weekend,” he told her. She smiled in spite of herself. If there was one good thing to say about Timothy, it was his expertise at organizing dates. “I hear Modern Musical has got a new piano player. Shimmer, or something.”
“Immer,” she corrected automatically, and cringed when Mrs. West’s magnet eyes snapped onto her. She quickly went back to her test, letting her hair fall between her and Timothy. She was done a full ten minutes before everyone else, but pretended to look it over while they finished.
Only three days until the concert. She had never seen Italy before. This would be a good opportunity to find some shoes. It was the first time her mother was letting her take the aerotram with her friends.
She was also looking forward to scrutinizing the new guitarist. Modern Musical had bought Immer Chapalu’s contract from Mars Lumograph, an alternative band that had dropped him in the heat of some scandal or another. Isabella had never been a Lumograph fan, that was more of an Ethiopian thing, but as an extension of keeping herself updated on all things Modern Musical she had done some research on Immer’s old band. They were so prestigious that only people who had been personally invited to their concerts could go. Isabella knew that if he played his chords right – only getting involved in the right kinds of scandals, that kind of thing – Immer would take Modern Musical to the next level.
“Are you kidding me?” Timothy exclaimed when the lunch bell rang, and everyone filed out of the room. “Potassium starts with a K? There’s not a K anywhere in that word!”
“It’s Latin,” Jasmine explained, adjusting her bag on her shoulder.
“For what? Stupid?”
“Stupid doesn’t start with a K,” she pointed out.
“Why not? It’s vocabulary anarchy! Obviously, Latin people can’t spell.”
Isabella couldn’t help from laughing. “God, Timothy, you really need to go back to elementary school. Come on, Einstein. Shopping time!” she grabbed his hand and kissed him when he made a face. She loved moments when he wasn’t trying to be a braggadocio show-off.
His moment of humanity made her more patient with him than usual as she tried on her third dress. It was a beautiful, floor length strapless styled from the twenty-first century. The skirt was like a pallet, with every imaginable colour swirling and embracing on the tulle. The bodice was midnight blue, secured at the waist with an opalescent brooch.
“What do you think?” she asked Timothy as she stepped out of the changing room. His attention jerked from his portable gaming system. His eyes widened, and she smiled in pleasure. This was the first reaction she had gotten out of him.
She twirled for him. “What do you think of the colour?”
His eyebrows formed two bridges over his round eyes. “Which one?”
He sighed and stood, reaching for her hand. He twisted and turned her and took in every ruffle. Finally, he delivered his verdict: “It’s nice.”
She wished Timothy’s friend William was there. The one time they had all gone shopping together, William had offered stylistic insights that Isabella had never even thought to consider. And he had stared in amazement at her in all her dresses, so much so that Isabella had wanted to get out of them as soon as possible. Timothy hadn’t noticed of course, even though William had tried a few times to get him to look at her.
“Three more days, three more days,” she mumbled to herself as she put the dress down the chute and changed back into her school dress. And only three hundred more days until graduation – and no more Timothy.
For a moment she was almost glad about her horrible air sickness. It would be a blissful hour of good reasons for Timothy not to talk to her or touch her. The aerotrams were half as expensive as the air shuttles, but to Isabella’s chagrin, travelled twice as fast. They used the fuel up so quickly that they could only travel a quarter of the distance of the air shuttles. The fuel they used was so dense that no one could take anything onboard besides a purse or a small backpack, to keep the weight down. So Isabella couldn’t bring nearly enough nausea medication to keep her food in her stomach.
After school, Isabella tried to tell Timothy that she couldn’t stay at his house because of all the homework she had, but they both knew she was lying. He insisted he needed her opinion on what he would wear to the concert, and she half-heartedly conceded to staying for one hour only.
His aunt Carmella greeted them with homemade cookies when they walked through the door. “Isabella, it’s good to see you,” she said, but they both knew she was lying. Carmella was not, to say the least, Isabella’s number one fan. Timothy had told her once that Carmella felt that Isabella was the reason he refused to show any responsibility. “Jokes on her!” he had said with a laugh. “I really am responsible, I just don’t like to take credit for it.”
Isabella was determined to show the woman that she was a good influence. Even if Timothy refused to be influenced. While he put their schoolbags in the sitting room, she grinned brightly and took a cookie. “These look delicious! What kind are they?”
This earned her a small, cold smile. “They are actually for Olivia’s friends. They’re having a book club meeting. The one you’ve got there is cinnamon chocolate chip.”
She was too embarrassed to eat it, but obviously couldn’t put it back. She stared helplessly at Carmella.
“Come on, Isabella!” Timothy said as he came back into the foyer. “I’ve got to look as pretty as you for the concert!”
“Wait, Timothy, I need to talk to you.” They followed Carmella into the kitchen, where she put the cookies in the warmer, out of sight. Isabella hid hers under a napkin. “I got a call from the airport this morning.”
“Great! I suppose mom’s going to walk in any second?”
She rubbed her forehead and leaned against the counter. “No, Tim. She’s been held up.”
“Oh, well did she say when she’s coming back?” He opened the lid of the warmer and took out a red velvet cookie, laughing and holding it out of reach when Carmella tried to snatch it back. She crossed her arms.
“That’s the thing. I didn’t talk to her. Things are getting bad in North America. Canadian airports have been quarantined until further notice.”
The gaiety in his smile was frozen by a flash of fear in his eyes. Carmella nervously tapped a spatula against the sink. After a moment, he popped the entire cookie into his mouth. “Well, nothing we can do I guess. Let’s go, Isabella. You’ve got a fashion miracle to perform.”
“Hold on a minute. About that concert. You’re not going.”
Her curt tone made him took pause. “Excuse me?”
“Sit down.” Incredulous, he stayed frozen in place. “The Reformists have threatened the communication satellites that run the aerotrams. The public is restricted from using them, for safety purposes.”
“That’s not fair!” he spluttered. “We’ve been looking forward to this concert for months! I can’t believe this.”
“Timothy, it’s not the end of the world.”
“Do you know how much those concert tickets cost? And how much it cost to reserve those tram seats so early in advance?” He swore, and suddenly Carmella lost her temper.
“You sit down right now, young man!” she shouted. Stunned, he dropped into the nearest chair. “I can’t believe you. Your mother is – well, we don’t know. We don’t know if she’s safe, or hungry, or scared. There’s a war going on, your mother is trapped on the other side of the world, and a concert is what you get upset over?”
He looked injured. “Well! The concert actually affects me. I’m sure mom is fine. We would have heard otherwise.”
“You selfish brat!” Carmella shrieked, and Isabella feared she would stab Timothy with the spatula. “Your mother does everything for you! Everything! And me! There’s not a single thing that you’ve asked me for that I haven’t given to you. I have been late for work. I have lost hours of sleep. I have been patient with you, I have been lenient, I have tried to be your friend. But you don’t show any respect for anyone.” Timothy tried to roll his eyes at Isabella, but she was suddenly preoccupied with eating that cookie. “Look at me!” Reluctantly he met her eye. “Things are going to change around here.”
Isabella wanted to leave, but at that moment, the front door opened, and Olivia let herself into the kitchen. “Hey, theitsa. My friends couldn’t come to the book club meeting. They’ve all come down with the flu or something. Oh, yum! Cookies!” She popped open the warmer and took three.
Carmella would not be distracted. “And you! It’s time to get your life together, girl, before you end up like your brother!”
Olivia, frightened and baffled by the outburst, looked from Timothy to Isabella and back to her aunt. “Auntie!” she exclaimed. “What did I do?”
Carmella’s eyes cooled from fiery fury to cold distaste. “You’re mother isn’t coming home, sweetheart. Your vacation is over. It’s time you kids learned to grow up. First order of business: I’m taking you for your driver’s test on Wednesday, Olivia. I’m done driving you around when you are perfectly capable of doing it yourself.”
“But that’s only five days away!”
Carmella slammed her hand on the counter. “Guess what! You’ve had a year to get ready. And I am done listening to you two whine and complain and argue with me. Timothy, I want the dishes done in one hour.” She pointed to the sink piled high with plates and silverware from yesterday, together with the pans and bowls from her hour of baking.
He crossed his arms and stood. “You’re not my mother. You can’t make me.”
“Timothy,” Olivia whispered in horror.
Aunt Carmella didn’t say a word. She disappeared into the living room, and returned a few moments later holding Timothy’s bag in one hand. In the other, she had his cell phone and his portable gaming device. After a level glance in Timothy’s direction, she dropped them into the disposal in the half of the sink that wasn’t overflowing.
The grinding and screeching were deafening when she pushed the button. Yet Timothy’s shouting drowned it out.
“You’ll get new ones when you learn to defer to those who bend over backwards to keep you spoiled and ignorant,” she said quietly. She manoeuvred around the stalk-still teenagers as she retrieved her coat and purse from the dining room. “I’m going out to get some vegetables for supper. Don’t look so shocked, kids, there was a time when people actually ate carrots and Brussel sprouts. Olivia, you can take one of the cars and start practicing in the parking lot. Timothy, this kitchen had better be spotless when I get back.” She grabbed her keys, and pushed Isabella’s bag into her arms. “Come on, Isabella, it’s time for you to go.”