In what might seem like another world from the one in which this scene was playing out, but was in fact only a handful of miles distant, Prue was staring out of a second-floor window, watching the snow fall and disintegrate against the lawn of George Middle School. Typical Portland winter, she thought, falling slush. With every dropping clump, she felt her chin bore farther into the palm of her hand. A couple walking along the sidewalk gingerly avoided the gathering puddles along their way, their coat lapels folded up to cover their exposed necks. Cars, dusted with a layer of brackish gray snow, splashed rooster tails of icy water from potholes as they swished along the wet streets. It looked positively miserable out.
The voice sounded in Prue’s mind like someone calling to her over a vast distance; like a lighthouse keeper hailing a ship in a gale. She chose to ignore it. It came again:
It was sounding closer. More present. A master of ceremonies beckoning the star performer to the stage. She b
egan to lift her chin from her palm.
“Earth to Prue McKeel!” This time, an explosion of laughter followed the voice. The noise abruptly brought Prue back to her present circumstances. She swiveled upright in her chair and scanned the room. Life Science, third period. The entire class was staring at her, pointing and laughing. Prue felt her face go deep red.
“Sorry,” she managed. “I was … distracted.”
Ms. Darla Thennis, olive skin, floral dashiki, stared on from behind a lectern at the front of the room. She adjusted her wire-rim glasses and smoothed her crow-black hair. She then silenced the class with a wave of her hand. “Your project, Prue?”
The following images flashed in quick succession through her mind: her mother digging a canning jar from the top cupboard; Prue shoving a leftover piece of baguette into the jar and setting it on the windowsill; her father mentioning, that morning, that he’d gone ahead and thrown away a jar full of disgusting mold-covered bread, and why on earth would there be a jar full of mold just lying around?
“My dad,” began Prue. “My dad threw it away.”
More snickers erupted from the class.
Ms. Thennis peered at Prue from above her glasses. “Uncool, Prue,” she said. “Deeply uncool.”
“I’ll let him know that,” replied Prue.
Her teacher studied Prue for a moment, clearly trying to gauge whether the response was meant as a kind of slight. Ms. Thennis was new this quarter—Mrs. Estevez, the class’s normal teacher, had unexpectedly resigned, citing health issues. Darla Thennis was from Eugene and clearly prided herself on being cool, being at the kids’ level. She never failed to remind the students that she loved pop music. She made strange growling sounds every time the principal, Mr. Bream, left the room, and walked the halls engulfed in a dense cloud of patchouli. She pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose and scanned the classroom.
“Bethany?” Ms. Thennis asked. “I don’t suppose you’d be ready to exhibit your project, considering that Miss McKeel’s father has made it impossible for her to exhibit her own?”
Bethany Bruxton, relishing the moment, shot a condescending glance at Prue before standing to attention. “Yes, Ms. Thennis,” she replied.
“Please,” corrected the teacher, “it’s Darla.”
Bethany smiled shyly and said, “Darla.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, then …” Darla Thennis waved the student to the front of the room.
Tugging at the hem of her black turtleneck, Bethany walked to the far side of the classroom, where a long table held a variety of students’ projects. Opening the door of a lamp-lit greenhouse, Bethany removed a tall, flourishing tomato plant and walked it to the front of the class.
“This semester, I’m working on grafting,” she said, cradling the plant in her arms. “The idea is to create a more disease-resistant plant, and one that will produce totally delicious tomatoes.”
Ugh, thought Prue. What a showoff. They’d been class partners the fall semester, and Bethany had gone out of her way to sideline Prue in all their experiments. She’d taken full credit for the leaf collage they’d made, even though Prue had collected all the ochre-colored oak leaves herself.
Ms. Thennis nodded along with Bethany’s speech. “Rad,” said Darla Thennis. Prue glared.
“Thanks, Darla. I’m happy to report that it’s doing really well,” Bethany continued. “And the graft seems to be taking. And while there’s no fruit to report as yet, I expect in a couple of weeks we’ll start to see a few nice blooms.”
“Very cool,” prompted Darla, inviting the class to join in. The seventh graders in third-period Life Science murmured a collective, but decidedly unenthusiastic, ooh at the teacher’s behest. Prue stayed silent.
She was listening.
The tomato plant was issuing a low, angry hum.
Prue scanned the room to see if anyone else heard this. Everyone was staring listlessly at Bethany.
The hum was getting louder; it quavered as it hitched upward in volume. As it grew, it became clear that it was a hum of discomfort and frustration.