IN THE LAST HOUR OF THE DAY, MR. HOGAN’S SOPHOMORE biology class gathered around to watch the small, green-dotted frilly snail slime its way up my arm. Taller than everyone, I looked down on heads as smells drifted up. To my left, someone had taco breath from lunch. And somewhere to my right was definitely the culprit who’d ripped the little sample of men’s cologne out of the school library’s latest issue of Sports Illustrated.
Hogan rolled his wheelchair closer. Fridays were T-shirt day for the teachers if they paid a buck to the party fund in the office, and his declared SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE! “So this intertidal nudibranch is not just any marine snail.”
“Looks like it has a little green wig,” said one of the girls.
Our teacher continued. “This snail can photosynthesize. Which means?”
As always, Miranda Collins blurted out the answer before anyone else could. “When a plant uses sunlight to make its own food.” Suck-up.
“But this isn’t a plant.” I couldn’t tell who said that, but I was wondering the same thing.
“Aha, we have a genius!” Hogan pointed at the snail. “That is not a plant. But it eats zooxanthellae, organisms that eat algae. And algae, of course, are plants.”
“That makes no sense.” Although my eyes were on the snail, I felt heads turn up in my direction and it got quiet. Odd for teenagers, but it probably had to do with the fact that, after the dog incident, I didn’t speak in school until fifth grade. I’m not sure if it was due to the trauma, although that’s what both the speech pathologist and school psychiatrist told my mom. I think it was more a matter of my not having much to say. But since then, when I did open my mouth in class, it was still considered a bit of a novelty, I guess, because everyone tended to get quiet and listen. “I mean, I eat plants, but I can’t photosynthesize. Humans are . . .” I searched for the word we’d just learned that describes organisms that have to get their nutrients from other organisms. “Heterotrophic. We can’t feed ourselves.”
Hogan nodded. “Exactly. The zooxanthellae evolved so they could retain the cells of the algae, which are responsible for photosynthesis. Evolution, anyone?”
“Changes that take place in a species over time.” Miranda again.
“Exactly. And so in the case of the zooxanthellae, you are what you eat. They became autotrophic. Self-feeders. And the nudibranchs have evolved to do the same thing.”
“Mr. Hogan?” Miranda Collins waved her hand. “Is this on the quiz?”
He growled at her. “Not everything is on the quiz, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth knowing.”
I moved my arm closer and stared at the snail. “So why is this worth knowing?”
“Well, technically, this proves that an organism can turn autotrophic.” He pointed at my arm. “Skin graft those snails all over your body in a sunny climate and eventually you wouldn’t have to eat or drink ever again.”
A few of the girls let out groans and prolonged ewwwws, while some of the boys laughed.
“No, thanks. I like cheeseburgers too much.” I gently picked the snail off my arm and set it in the glass tank on Hogan’s desk.
“Thanks, Mason.” Hogan rolled back behind his desk as we took our seats. “Anyone heard of Giri Bala?”
Most of us either shook our heads or didn’t respond at all.
With a remote, he turned on the projector, starting a black-and-white PowerPoint. The first grainy photo showed two old women wrapped in loose, robe-type garments. “This is India, 1936. The woman on the right is Giri Bala, born in 1868.”
Jack Meacham sat across the aisle from me. We’d been best friends since kindergarten. Kids had kind of shied away when I stopped speaking, but Jack talked so much he didn’t seem to notice I wasn’t saying anything. And when we started doing stuff at my house or his, he realized I did have things to say. But in school, he spoke for both of us until fifth grade, when I finally started talking again. I’d gradually outgrown him, and everyone else, by about eighty pounds and six inches. Two pairs of his Levi’s sewn together might just encase one of my thighs. He raised his hand. “Who was she?”
Hogan grinned. “You mean who is she?”
Jack glanced at me, and then lines appeared between his eyebrows. “If she was born in 1868, she’d be, like . . .”
I could see him doing the math in his head. Although Jack had high aspirations to become a doctor, he struggled in school. Not for lack of trying. He was really smart but just had some kind of mental block on test days. He shook his head slightly. “Well, she’d be way over one hundred. Impossible.”
“Maybe not.” Hogan clasped his hands together. “At the time this photo was taken, Giri Bala had not eaten for fifty-six years.”
The class erupted with sounds of disbelief. I even let loose with a “No way.”
Holding up his hand for silence, Hogan explained. “She supposedly used a yoga technique that allowed her to get her energy from the sun. The leader of her province actually locked her in a room for several days with no food or water, and she was perfectly fine. And some people say she’s still alive.”
The next picture came up, a view of Moscow and the Kremlin. “There’s a group of people living in Moscow who claim to be autotrophs. They started out as vegans, gradually stopped eating all food, and now claim they neither eat nor drink.”
I shook my head as someone called out, “That’s crazy.”
“Maybe so.” Hogan nodded. “But one scientist claims he can take a human, put him in a tropical climate, and turn his body into a living solar cell within two years.”
Jack raised his hand. Even in classes like Hogan’s, where we were allowed to just speak up if we had something productive to say, Jack still raised his hand every time he had something to say. “But why would you want to do that? Save your lunch money or something?”
Hogan smiled. “Think about it, Jack. Imagine having an army you don’t have to feed or water.”
The bell rang. “Don’t forget, quiz on Monday!” A few groans erupted, and before I could get up, Hogan called my name. “See me after class.”
I asked Jack if he could give me a ride home.
He nodded and said, “Meet you in the parking lot.”
Everyone filed out and I went up to the front. Hogan held up a sheet I recognized, the application form for the TroDyn summer science program. He shook it at me. “You know the deadline is coming up for this?”
TroDyn Industries was a huge scientific complex on a hundred acres looking over Melby Falls. Mainly working on environmental sustainability projects, the company supported the town. Although they didn’t employ many towns-people at their lab facilities, TroDyn owned most of the businesses, including the nursing home where my mom worked, and they paid for a lot of equipment and supplies at the school. I’d read about the summer program, and Hogan had told us about it several times. “My mom would never go for it. She’s not a TroDyn fan.” It might just be a case of not liking the company responsible for your sucky job, but she had no lack of bad things to say about them.
Hogan tapped the paper with a finger. “If you do the summer program, you’ll have a good shot at the TroDyn scholarship.” His eyes met mine, but not in a forced way. I mean, some people stare at my scar. I don’t mind, at least it’s honest, and when they’ve seen enough, they meet my eyes. But the ones who lock eyes with me, those are the dishonest ones. You can almost hear them chanting to themselves Don’t look at his scar, don’t look at his scar. Hogan’s eyes met mine the way his eyes met anyone else’s.
I shrugged. “I’m not really sure about college.”
“Mason, come on.” Hogan waved the paper. “You’re one of the smartest kids I’ve ever had in class.”
“Miranda Collins is smarter.”
Hogan rolled his eyes. “I suspect Miranda Collins gets A’s because she spends three hours a night memorizing textbooks. Probably polishes a lot of apples while she’s at it. A potato could do that and get A’s. You actually understand this stuff. You get it. You need to go to college and learn more.”
I didn’t say anything.
“They’ll cover all your college expenses through grad school. They would pay for Stanford.”
I rolled my eyes. “Like I’d get into Stanford.”
“I’ve seen your standardized test scores. On the SAT, you’ll smoke kids like Miranda Collins. You’ll get in.” He flipped the paper onto the desk, where it settled next to the stapler. “All they ask in return is that you commit to working five years in their labs.”
Other than getting my mom on board, I didn’t see the problem with that. I looked around at his biology room, my favorite place in the school. The shelves were lined with not only glossy books but pristine specimens in glass jars of whatever the liquid was that replaced formaldehyde. I’d always been drawn to the framed glass cases that housed expensive collections of bugs and butterflies and spiders. A bank of desktop computers lined one wall, and I knew them to be loaded with more biological research software than most college libraries held, courtesy of TroDyn.
I’d be lying to say I didn’t want to go to college. I’d also be lying to say I didn’t really really like biology. Going to Stanford to study biology, on a full ride no less, would be a dream come true. But it wasn’t easy for me to put my dreams out for everyone to see. I preferred to keep them to myself so only I was disappointed when they didn’t happen. That way, I didn’t have to have people telling me how sorry they were for me. I’d had enough of that to last my entire life.
Trying to shift the focus, I asked, “Do they bribe you to talk kids into this?”
He held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “You’re right. I mean, you can probably get a scholarship another way. Not to Stanford, but you’re the best offensive tackle Melby Falls has seen in a while.”
I saw his point. “Yeah, that just might pay for my books at a junior college.” I picked up the application, pretending to read as if I’d never seen it before, when actually there was one half filled out in my locker, plus three extras at home, hidden in my copy of last year’s yearbook.
He leaned back. “Think about it.”
“Okay.” I smiled.
He shrugged. “Come on, Al Gore gave them that award last year for making progress with global warming research. They do a lot of good things up there. You could save the world someday.”
“Yeah, right.” I shoved the application into my biology book.
“Due Monday!” he called after me.
Out in the hall at my locker, I hooked my backpack on my arm and hoisted it over my shoulder. My locker clicked shut just as I heard one in the junior high hallway bang a couple of times. And then I heard a muffled cry.
In two steps, I was around the corner. Two smaller boys were up against the lockers as a bigger boy stood in front of them, a hand over one boy’s mouth.
They all turned and looked at me. The bigger one dropped his hand and stepped back. I’d seen him around, was named Wendell or Walker or something like that.
The two against the lockers shook their heads while the other one crossed his arms. “Oh, hey, Mason. No, no problem.”
Taking a few steps closer, I said, “To me, it looks like there’s a problem.”
The bigger kid’s eyes darted around and he began backing away from me.
I told the smaller boys, “Go home.”
They both nodded and ran as I walked toward the other kid and backed him into the wall. There were still a few feet between us, but he was breathing harder and his eyes were wide. And why not? Most kids who didn’t know me very well kept their distance. I was big, and my scar made my face look scary. But I used it to my advantage on bullies like him.
“You need to leave those kids alone.”
“Seriously. I catch you picking on anyone else . . .” For effect, I made a fist and covered it with my other hand. “Got it?”
He didn’t say anything, just ran off down the hall.
I smiled as I dropped my hands. Off the football field, I would never think of hurting anyone, but most people probably didn’t know that. They just saw a big, Halloween-masked hulk of a guy. But what a rush, to save people. The first time was when I was in fifth grade. After school, I usually headed to the Bottoms, a forest walking trail. One day I heard someone calling for help. Going off the trail a ways, I found a couple of second-grade girls. They’d been messing around, playing by a pile of logs, and one girl had gotten her foot caught. So I managed to roll the log off and carried the girl all the way back to the school. Her grandma was one of the teachers, and I got my picture in the paper. That part was kind of weird. I don’t like my picture getting taken, and I made sure to turn my head so only my good side showed. The coolest part for me was just seeing the relief on the face of the grandma when she hugged the kids, especially when things could have turned out differently. Being responsible for the happy ending made me happy.
After that, I saved people every chance I got.
Outside, there was a light drizzle, and I jogged to where Jack waited for me in his red truck, Deep Purple turned up so high that I’d heard it the second I’d stepped outside. “Thanks for waiting.” Jack and I shared a lot of the same tastes, including the one for old rock music.
I reached over and turned the volume up even more.
Although he got the Ford for his birthday a couple of months before, the inside still smelled new. His dad owned a chain of plumbing supply stores in the Pacific Northwest; Jack was rich and could pay for any college he got into. But with his grades, the problem was getting in. So he worried about things like SAT scores while I worried about my bank account.
I asked, “What time are we leaving?”
Jack’s family owned a cabin up in Glenwood, at the foot of Mount Adams, and we planned to head up there for the weekend to go ATV’ing. Not only did they own a batch of the finest new Arctic Cats, they also had acres and acres of trails to ride around on. Plus, it was the first weekend we’d be going since Jack got his license, our first weekend out of town on our own.
But as he pulled out of the parking lot, he said, “We’ll have to wait and go tomorrow. I just got called in to work.”
“So don’t go.” I drew circles in the fog on my window. “It’s not like you need the money.”
“Turn down an extra shift at the Haven of Peace?” If he did get into college, Jack planned to go premed. Can’t say he didn’t aim high. So when he turned sixteen, he took a job as an orderly at the same nursing home where my mom worked. He turned into my driveway and let the Ford idle. “Besides, I’m saving up to take Miranda Collins to prom.” He also got a hefty allowance, so I doubt he would have to save up for long.