Aaron had his elbow on the desk and his head casually resting against his hand so it wouldn’t be obvious he was holding his right ear. Red pain radiated from his ear throughout his head and neck, but he couldn’t let that get in the way of biology lab day. As students filed into their places and laid out their equipment, he gave his ear a final rub and dropped his hand to the desk. Ignore it!
Aaron jumped at the voice directly to his left. He turned and his eyes widened with pleasant surprise when he saw Haley.
“Hey! I didn’t know you were...”
“My dad pulled a few strings, and I managed to switch biology classes.” Haley beamed. “I didn’t know anybody in the other one.”
“Well... Wow, I am so glad you’re here. I don’t know anybody else either.”
“For real? Maybe you should check out some of the clubs or sports teams later.”
“I’m kidding! You know me, right? We can be friends and lab partners.”
“Yeah. That will be interesting.”
He actually wanted to hug her on the spot, but he restrained. Haley Brooks, you always know when I need a friend. They carried on small talk about popular music until the teacher, Mr. Arnold, strode behind his desk and cleared his throat.
“Good morning, class. This is going to be an exciting day. Those who have read the syllabus know what’s in store.”
“What’s in store?” Haley whispered.
“I didn’t read the syllabus,” whispered Aaron.
“Continuing our study of anatomy, we have a special project.” Mr. Arnold lifted the lid from a wooden crate on his desk. Then he began removing clear glass jars, each containing an inert frog.
Aaron heard Haley’s sharp intake of breath.
“My teaching assistant, Vinny, will pass out the frogs. There are enough for teams of two to share one.”
Vinny, looking as grim as ever, deposited a jar in front of each team. He paused in front of Aaron and Haley, and his scowl became several shades darker. Aaron shot back a “go away” glare.
While Mr. Arnold droned on, Aaron prepared the frog on its platter. Haley held back.
“Do you want to start?” Aaron asked her.
“That’s okay. I’ll watch you get it started.”
Carefully following the teacher’s instructions, Aaron made the Y-shaped incisions across the frog’s belly.
“Aaron,” said Haley quietly.
“There’s something you should know.”
“Now,” said Mr. Arnold, “use your scalpel to peel back the skin. I want you to observe the layers of tissue and fat as you go.”
“What do I need to know?” whispered Aaron as he gently opened the frog.
“I can’t stand guts.”
He looked up at her. Her face had gone pale.
“Do you need to sit down?” he asked.
“No, I... I think I’ll be okay. I just can’t think about it.”
“Let me know if you need to leave.”
As Aaron continued prying back layers of frog, he couldn’t help getting lost in the fascination. He marveled at the tiny lungs and the heart. It amazed him that so much design could be packed into such a small and compact body.
“Could you label these organs on the chart for me?” he asked, eyes still on the circulatory system. “Haley?”
Her pencil skittered across the tabletop. Haley seemed to have lost all her bones as she collapsed to one side. Aaron dropped his tools in time to catch her. Her eyes lolled backward and she felt limp, but surprisingly heavy, in his arms.
“Somebody! Mr. Arnold! She needs help!”
He had everybody’s attention now. Mr. Arnold rushed around the desk and helped support Haley’s dead weight. “Let’s take her out into the hallway.”
Aaron helped his teacher carry his friend into the empty corridor and laid her on a bench. Aaron found his heart racing as he felt her forehead, checked her pulse, and listened to her breathing. “Haley? Can you hear me?”
“She’ll be fine, Hotchner,” Mr. Arnold insisted. “I’m sure she just got a little lightheaded.”
She moaned, and her eyes fluttered.
“I’ll fetch the nurse just to check her out,” said Mr. Arnold. “I assure you, your girlfriend will be okay.”
“She’s not my...”
Mr. Arnold was already halfway down the hall.
Aaron focused on Haley. He held her hand and watched her eyes. I’m overreacting. I know I am. He just couldn’t help thinking about how his father died, suddenly, without warning. He simply collapsed at work, taken by a heart attack that nobody saw coming. Aaron feared that the people he loved most would be lost the quickest, the most unexpectedly.
“Don’t go,” he mumbled. “I can’t lose you.”
Her eyes blinked open slowly. She saw him staring down at her, and confusion registered in her face. “Aaron...?”
“Haley! Are you okay?”
“Were you... crying?”
“No... I...” Aaron quickly wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “No, I’m fine. How are you?”
“Where am I?”
“You passed out in class. We’re in the hallway.”
“I passed out?” Her cheeks flushed. “Oh, goodness. That is mortifying.”
“I guess it was the frog guts.”
“An amphibian autopsy. Horrible.”
“Does that make me a coroner?”
“It makes you... someone who’s not afraid of blood and guts, I guess.” She smiled.
Aaron chuckled nervously, now feeling a little embarrassed at his overreaction. “Are you able to sit up?”
She let him help her up, then sat back against the wall and sighed. “Well, I guess people will be talking about this one till graduation.”
Aaron just focused on calming himself. Come on, you knew she’d be fine!
“I’m sorry I messed you up,” Haley said. “I hope this doesn’t affect your grade.”
“That doesn’t matter. I’ll try to remember not to cut open animals around you.”
“That would be great. I don’t know why I can’t handle dead stuff. It’s just... ughh!”
Aaron couldn’t help laughing. Haley laughed too.
And the TA, Vinny, watched the pair angrily from the classroom doorway. He went back inside with a heart of malice and a headful of hateful schemes.