“I want every inch of this bowl scrubbed clean. Mr. Bubbles won’t be happy if you leave gunk behind. Will you, Mr. Bubbles?”
Mr. Bubbles said nothing. He was too busy escaping the net of fishy doom. A single bubble floated out of his mouth. Natalie imagined that if she were to pop it, she would hear a tiny voice cry “help me”.
She wondered how many colonies of bacteria were keeping Mr. Bubbles company.
“Would it be all right if I wore gloves?”
Ms. Sharpe groaned at the request. “What do I look like, a cleaning supply store? You don’t need gloves. Gloves are for pansies.”
Natalie looked down at her hands. She looked up at the slimy green bowl, then back down at her hands. What if she got some kind of weird fish disease? She was already an outcast. She didn’t need algae breeding underneath her fingernails too.
“Please, Ms. Sharpe. I’m begging you.”
“Oh all right. I’ll go ask the janitor if he can lend you a pair. While I’m gone I want you to study for next week’s exam. We’ll be dissecting worms. Isn’t that lovely?”
Natalie nodded even though she felt like puking.
“When I come back I will expect you to know the difference between a clitellum and a gizzard, so you’d better start studying.”
“No funny business, got it?”
“Let’s see…gizzard, gizzard, gizzard…what is the heck is a gizzard?”
“Hey. You’re the girl who nearly decapitated me in the hallway.”
And you’re the boy who got me into this whole mess, she wanted to say.
“Mind if I come in?” He brushed his hair behind his ear, revealing the nasty knot that had formed on his forehead.
A wave of guilt washed over Natalie. She owed the kid a decent conversation. She had nearly decapitated him, after all.
“You’ll have to make it quick. Ms. Sharpe will be back any second.”
He grinned. “That old bat? I’m surprised she’s still in the land of the living, let alone still teaching.”
He studied the specimen jars lining Ms. Sharpe’s countertop. One of the jars caught his attention. He picked it up.
“Interesting,” he muttered.
He pointed to the two-headed frog floating inside. “Do you know what formaldehyde is?” he asked, tapping his finger against the glass. It made a ‘tink tink’ sound.
“Isn’t that the chemical used to preserve dead animals?”
He nodded. “Correctamundo. My theory is that Ms. Sharpe bathes in it every night. That’s how she’s stayed alive and kicking all these years.”
Natalie giggled in spite of herself. She had to admit, the kid was pretty funny, although he did have an annoying habit of showing up at the worst possible times. Maybe this was actually a punchline on some kind of cosmic level.
He set the jar down and walked towards the terrarium at the end of the counter. He read the inscription on the plaque.
“I feel sorry for it,” Natalie confided. “It keeps trying to fly away but it can’t because it’s trapped in that awful cage.”
“You’re a free spirit,” he said. “I like that.” He walked over and held out his hand. “I’m Michael Zanderman.”
“Natalie Jones. Pleased to meet you.”
Michael’s grip was firm and somehow reassuring. Natalie wished he would never let go.
“What are you reading?” he asked, taking a seat next to her.
“What, this? Just an old biology textbook. Ms. Sharpe wants me to study for next week’s exam.”
“Something tells me you’re not actually studying. What are you really reading?” He pointed to the small paperback she’d hidden inside the textbook.
“Oh. You caught me,” she laughed. “This just so happens to be my favorite book of all time. It’s called ‘Zombies? Zombies!’. Have you heard of it?”
“Not only have I heard of it, I’ve read it. Twice. Did you know it’s being turned into a movie?”
“Yes way. I saw the trailer for it yesterday. So you’re a free spirit and a science fiction fan? I think you and I are going to be best friends.”
Natalie beamed. She had finally found a kindred spirit – and a boy, at that! Maybe she would even get to experience her first romance. She was thinking “Natalie Zanderman” had a nice ring to it when her reverie was interrupted by approaching footsteps…