Stacey was practically bouncing on her feet as she came up to Wynter’s display, trying to sound like she’d only just seen Jesse but clearly she came prepared—in her hand was a transparent plastic cup filled with water and topped with shaving foam.
“You have to see my display, mine and Keira’s. It’s all about the weather. Can I show you my experiment?” She held up the cup.
“Uh, sure. This looks fascinating. What’s your null hypothesis?”
“My… what? Uh, watch carefully.” Stacey produced a tiny bottle from which she dribbled blue food coloring onto the top of the foam. “This demonstrates how it rains. See?”
She watched his face closely as he watched the cup closely. The blue coloring leaked through the foam and bled into the water.
Jesse squinted at the blue water for a long time. Then he said, “Stacey, this is definitive proof. Clouds are made of shaving foam.”
“You’re so funny! You’re hysterical. You have to come see our display.” She dragged him away.
Wynter straightened her crystals and invited a passing teacher to do her experiment. A minute later, Hunter came over.
“Crystal Healing: Is It Scientific?” he read off the main banner. “Cool! Do you have something for my wrist?”
“What’s wrong with your wrist?”
Hunter flexed his right hand. “Dunno. I have wrist-ache.”
“Our graduation gig’s in seven days. You should rest it between rehearsals.”
“Rest my wrist? My right wrist? Not gonna happen.” He smirked and waited for her to get the joke. She did get it, because Hunter told a masturbation joke at almost every rehearsal, but she kept her expression neutral, not willing to give him the satisfaction of looking embarrassed. He cleared his throat. “Sooo… I was thinking, a crystal might help. Looks like you’re the expert.”
Wynter picked a crystal at random and gave it to him. “Leave this under the light of a full moon for four hours, to activate it, and then strap it to your wrist during the day.”
“Really?” He held up the yellow rock to the light. “I’ll give it a shot. We should hang out.”
Wynter blinked at the non sequitur. “We should what?”
“This weekend. We’ll go to the movies or whatever.”
“I don’t have any money.” She’d have about two dollars to her name after paying for that guitar.
“I’ll pay. I mean, my mom will pay. Same thing.”
“I have to write a civics paper this week, to make up for the test I failed.”
“Who cares about that? It’s not like you’re gonna fail junior high. The sixth Fast and the Furious is out. You’ll love it.”
“I haven’t seen the first five.”
“Iron Man 3? I’ve already seen it but I’ll sit through it again.”
“Haven’t seen the first or second.”
Hunter groaned. “We’ll watch a Blu-Ray at my place, then. I got The Avengers for Easter. It’s pretty cool. It’s got Iron Man in it. Also Thor, the Hulk, Captain America—”
“What is the Hulk?”
“The big green guy. Everyone’s knows the Hulk.” Hunter clenched his fists, stuck out his chest, and roared. Jesse was walking up behind him, bemused at the sight.
“Why is he green?” Wynter hoped the questions would divert Hunter from his earlier request.
“He fell into a pit of radioactive waste.”
“Green radioactive waste?”
“It was gamma radiation,” Jesse put in. “He’s a meek and mild scientist who turns into a green muscle-bound monster when he loses his temper.”
“Yeah. Yeah!” Hunter gave Jesse an approving look. “This guy knows his stuff. Iron Man’s my favorite,” he told Wynter. “Ask me anything about Iron Man.”
“That’s okay. I don’t need to know anything about Iron Man right now.”
“Dude, ask her about crystals,” he told Jesse. “They get activated in moonlight. It’s scientific.”
“You’re kidding,” Jesse said dryly.
“So, Wynter, this weekend?”
“No, thank you.”
“C’mon. You haven’t even given me a reason.”
“I gave you several.” Wynter was nervous now, and unsure of herself. Was she supposed to agree to it? She had no idea what the social rules were—neither when to say yes or how to say no. And she didn’t want to put Hunter in one of his snits just days before their gig. She glanced at Jesse, who raised an eyebrow that said he wasn’t going to intervene.
Hunter said, “I’ll introduce you to Gigantor, my gecko. Bet you’ve never seen a gecko before.”
“I grew up in Arizona.”
“Hmm.” Hunter rocked on his heels, searching for another way. “We’ll go to Beans after. You love tacos, right?”
“I’ve never had a taco.”
“Uh, okay, I’ll introduce you to tacos.” He screwed up his face. “How come you’ve never eaten tacos?”
“I guess they didn’t have them in the bunker.”
“Do you know what a taco is?”
“I think so. I mean, I don’t know. But I don’t want to go… I can’t. I don’t want to.”
“Sure you do.” Hunter was getting aggravated. He got this way when Wynter was too forthcoming with her musical advice, too. “We’ll hang out. We’ll have a great time.”
“Dude, she said no,” Jesse said at last.
“Dude, we’re having a private conversation.”
Jesse sat on the edge of the table to bring his eyes level with Hunter’s, folded his arms, and just looked at him, like Hunter was expected to leave.
Hunter chuckled uneasily at the macho display. “Seriously? Who are you, anyway? Are you allowed to be here? You have to be on the list. I even had to put my great-grandma on the list. If you’re not on the list, that’s gonna be a problem—”
“Guys.” Wynter came around the table to mediate. “Hunter, this is my brother and he’s on the list. Jesse, this is my guitarist so please don’t antagonize him right before the Clockwork Toys’ all-important stage debut.”
“Hunter, of course,” Jesse said pleasantly, sticking out his hand. Hunter shook it warily. “Saw your audition video a couple weeks ago. Didn’t recognize you without your guitar. You guys are gonna be famous.”
Hunter puffed up slightly. “We already are, actually. We’re the only full-on rock band in the school that lasted out the semester. Everyone’s saying we’re cool.”
“What’s your science project?” Jesse asked, like they were best of friends all of a sudden.
“I did an experiment to see which fertilizer works best on watermelon seeds. I had six fertilizers—three from the store, plus bananas, coffee grounds, and cat poop. I’ve brought in the pots and all my samples. I’ve got an interactive PowerPoint presentation. It’s pretty great. Mr Barry made me flush the cat poop.”
“Which seeds did best?”
“They didn’t germinate.”
“None of them?”
“No. They might still come up. I gotta get back to my table. May as well eat that banana before it turns completely black.”
He left as Jesse sucked his cheek to stop from laughing.
“Poor Hunter,” he said when he got control of himself. “I almost told him about my famous science project when I was fifteen, but it would’ve destroyed what’s left of his spirit.”
“What was it?” Wynter asked.
“I built a programmable robot named Frankenstump, on account of his short legs. First prize. Nobody thought I was cool for playing in a band cuz drummers have a rep for being a little crazy, but that robot made me cool.”
“Where is Frankenstump now?”
“I donated him to the science department. When you move home and go to my old high school in September, you’ll see him on display.”
“Can you take me on a tour of the school?”
“Sure, soon as we’ve enrolled you. Walk me to the car? I have a study session tonight so I have to go.”
Wynter still had something important to tell him. She tucked her laptop under her arm and went out with him.
“Why didn’t you help me out earlier when Hunter went on and on like that?” she said.
“Indio thinks you should be left to figure some things out yourself.” Jesse shook his head, like he disagreed, but then he said, “He’s right. You have to learn that stuff. Hunter acted like he had the right to a date with you. It’s hard for any guy to be rejected and I felt sorry for him. But he should’ve let it drop. And you should’ve…” He stopped himself.
“Should’ve what, Jesse? Is there a right and a wrong way to do this? I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. What are the rules?”
“It’s not quite that simple.”
“What should I have done? I need step-by-step instructions for next time,” she said in frustration.
“I was gonna say, you should’ve stopped at No thanks. You don’t have to give reasons or make excuses. That gives him something to latch on to, something to get around. I was just like him until a couple years ago. Most girls said yes, so when a girl said no I thought there was something wrong with her. I thought I could wear her down with my awesomeness.”
“Saying no without an excuse seems rude.”
“You don’t have to be rude unless they persist. You gotta sound like a stuck record.”
“That’s when the needle jumps and… never mind. Be like a gif on a loop, like those memes I send you all the time. No, thank you. No, thank you, No, thank you. It’s not only for guys being dicks. I don’t want anyone taking advantage of you. We’ll practice another time. I’ll write a script.”
She smiled her thanks. “I learned so much at school, but I think I’ve learned all the most important stuff from you.”
“Goes without saying,” he said with a shrug. “And I’m glad you said that. I was having my doubts after all the stuff I’ve thrown at you lately.”
“Please put my geology song on your YouTube channel.”
Jesse pursed his lips. “For a limited time only.”
“Thank you. Don’t tell Indio about the guitar. I won’t see him until I get back from Greece, so I’ll give it to him then. And I know I seriously misused that rhyming dictionary. I will die if you show him those lyrics.”
“I won’t tell. But he’s gonna see the video anyway.”
“We’ll put it up for a very limited time.” At the car, she set her laptop on the hood. “I did a PowerPoint presentation, just for you.”
She tapped the screen. The first slide read, in large letters, Tech: D.
“My final grades.”
“No one who can make a functioning PowerPoint presentation should get a D in Tech.”
The slides moved past three more D’s, which had Jesse looking worried.
“What’s this—C for Health? After I gave you that website about sex? C for English? I’m gonna write emails to your teachers.”
“Jesse, you’re supposed to be proud of me. I’ll end the suspense right now—I passed junior high.”
“Okay, okay,” he said. “I’ve just never seen grades this bad before. How are you gonna test out of ninth grade in the summer with grades like this?”
His reaction left her deflated. What on earth did he expect from someone who’d never been to school before?
“I guess I won’t tell you why there are eight results here, instead of eleven,” she huffed.
“Go ahead and tell me.”
“I didn’t make slides for the three NGs. That’s No Grade, what you get when you didn’t even finish the assigned work. I think you’d call it an F.”
“No, no, no. No way you got F’s for anything. You’re kidding me right now…” He was horrified.
“I had no credits to carry over from the first semester, so I didn’t complete those subjects. Some of my other teachers are letting me do make-up tests the first week of summer school, to try and improve on the D’s.”
“Wait, you’re not kidding?” He was stunned. He rallied himself. “Okay, okay, it doesn’t matter. You get a fresh start in high school. You’ll have to start in ninth grade after all, but next summer we’ll work extra hard and you can test out of tenth grade.”
“If it doesn’t matter, stop being grumpy about it. Rosa says I still have to do the make-up tests.” Wynter moved quickly through the last two slides. “B-plus for Math, A for Music. Done.”
“Yes!” He gave a fist pump.
“You’re not gonna tell me you’ve never seen a math grade that bad before?”
“I got a B once. Didn’t realize there were questions on the other side of the paper. I appealed the grade, cuz it didn’t say Please turn over, and won a re-test.”
Wynter slapped shut the laptop. “Did anything ever go wrong for you, your entire school career?”
“Yes. There are no living witnesses. Indio and me were never once in the same school at the same time, other than third grade when he was in sixth and skipping school half the time. So I’ve managed to keep most of it under wraps. With luck you’ll never find out. You did great, Wyn. I did great, didn’t I? As your teacher?”
She gave him a long hug. “You were my favorite teacher.”
He got in the car and wound down the window. “We’ll spend the summer on the ninth-grade syllabus so you’ll start ahead in September. Have a fun graduation. Are your Clockwork Toys ready?”
“Yes. I love them. Even Hunter. Ms Driscoll won’t let us play I Love Rock n’ Roll. She says it’s too sexual.”
“Screw that. It’s your best song.”
“Yeah, we’re all pissed about it.”
“Play it. She’s not gonna throw you off the stage.”
“Rosa’s right, you are a bad influence.”