The fact that Adam Blackburn had been waving around his acceptance packet to Dartmouth when Cat hadn’t heard yet should have been motivation for her to pay better attention in class. Instead it was her undoing.
She thunked her forehead against her desk. Things in second period calculus been progressing as normal—that is, tedious and borderline unbearable—when a handful of students got stumped by problem number five. And one of them was Ashley Moore.
“Mr. Fiske, I forgot,” said Ashley. “How do we determine which is the inner function and which is the outer function?”
Turning her head to rest her cheek on the cool surface of the desk, Cat watched Ashley, who was still annoying even when you looked at her sideways.
As far back as elementary school Catherine Shephard noticed that other people’s brains didn’t operate like hers. She watched, listened, and learned and couldn’t figure out what everyone else did—but it seemed to involve a lot of unnecessary dialogue and repetition.
In second grade, when the rest of the class was working on multiple-digit subtraction long after she had mastered the art of borrowing, Cat had enough. She covered her fingertips with a thin layer of Elmer’s glue, allowed it to dry, and sprinkled the tiniest flecks on the top of her head. Then she scratched until Mrs. Bender couldn’t ignore her any longer.
Her teacher gasped at the ‘lice eggs’ nestled among Cat’s dark hair and two minutes later Cat was skipping to the office to head home for the day.
Now Ashley was wrinkling her forehead in that way that meant they’d be spending at least ten more minutes on problem number five and Cat’s knee wouldn’t stop jiggling.
She sat up to doodle Dartmouth’s brick clock tower and a shiver of anticipation ran through her. Could her acceptance be waiting in the mailbox right now? While she wasted away in calculus?
Something out the window caught her eye; a tawny flash at the edge of the trees beyond the soccer field. She narrowed her eyes to peer at the scruffy creature, whose bat ears swiveled like SETI satellite dishes searching for signs mischief. The coyote turned, and even from a distance Cat could swear that their eyes met. Then it grinned.
It grinned. She blinked and refocused, but there it stood, grinning at her wolfishly—almost expectantly, until, with a flick of its tail it loped away to disappear among the cottonwood trees. A longing stirred deep within her, a whispered hint of freedom, and Cat wanted nothing more than to follow the strange creature.
She put down her pen. It was time to stop talking about problem number five.
“Mr. Fiske?” she said sweetly.
Mr. Fiske looked up. Cat wasn’t one to speak up in class, but flattery will get you everywhere, especially with a math teacher who tucked his short-sleeved plaid button-down into brown pleated trousers without a belt. He was oddly appealing. Like a panda bear with bucked teeth, an owl with a potbelly, or a piglet in thick glasses.
“I was wondering. Do you smoke?”
“It’s just that I’ve noticed you coughing all month.”
The left side of her smile pulled a quarter of an inch wider than the right. Such a simple tweak, but Cat learned early on that her smile’s lopsided lilt managed to pack a punch.
“Um no, I don’t smoke.” He blinked back down at his thick textbook.
“That’s what I thought. That’s why I’m so worried.”
“All this coughing and you aren’t even a smoker?” She raised her eyebrows with concerned innocence, still smiling that reckless grin that would have made any nun’s ruler-wielding fingers itchy with anticipation.
“Can we talk about this later?”
“I don’t think we should! Chalk lung disease is not to be taken lightly.”
Ashley in the front row gasped, God bless her. She’d been especially fragile since that breakdown last year after the SATs.
“Chalk lung disease?”
Cat nodded with practiced solemnity. “Yes, sir. I found an old medical book at a library rummage sale and it had a chapter on chalk lung disease. I mean, you won’t find evidence of it on Google or anything.” Her eyes swept the classroom. “Because nobody uses chalk anymore. But any kind of dust can be dangerous for the lungs and clearly you’ve been overexposed.”
Mr. Fiske looked down. Today, as every other day, he was covered with a fine white powder, which might have fueled some scandalous rumors if he hadn’t been such an obvious nerd.
“Chalk lung, huh?” The corners of Mr. Fiske’s mouth twitched as if he might appreciate a break in the tedium of twenty-five years of high school calculus.
He rubbed his chin, leaving a goatee of chalk dust when he dropped his hand. “Sounds serious.”
Cat beamed while the rest of the class shifted in their seats.
“You might consider getting a whiteboard,” Matt Lacey suggested reasonably. “This is like the last classroom in the universe with chalkboards.”
“I heard dry erase markers have chemical odors that damage the brain,” Cat mentioned in an offhand way.
Maddie Gibbs gasped. “I heard that, too! On the Today Show or something! Dry erase markers are totally dangerous.”
Cat didn’t have to say another word. Fiske’s latest equation remained unsolved as the Chalk Lung Disease vs. Dry Erase Marker Insanity debate raged. Which was worse? And wasn’t it unsafe for adolescent lungs and brains to be exposed to such hazards? She counted down as her ticking time bomb exploded into opportunity. It was almost time for Phase Two of her impromptu Stop-Talking-About-Problem-Number-Five-and-Get-the-Hell-Out-of-Calculus plan.
Phase Two: Be the Hero. Cat would demand change, arguing that Mr. Fiske should have one of those fancy interactive Smartboard screens. Health problems solved! And don’t hardworking calculus teachers need, nay deserve, top of the line equipment ?
Phase Three: Escape. She would stride out the door, insisting that she speak to the administration about upgrading technology for the Douglas High School math department. Of course, everyone knows public schools have no extra money to throw around on giant touch-screen computers for math geeks, so instead Cat would run home.
Phase Four: Triumph at the Mailbox. With just enough time before morning break ended and third period began, she would rip open her giant acceptance packet from Dartmouth before heading back to school. Cat smiled dreamily as she imagined Phase Four.
She was brought back to reality at the sight of Matt Lacy packing up. “I am indignant and alarmed,” he said, looking neither indignant nor alarmed. Instead he looked pretty stoked. “I don’t think I can tolerate these dangerous conditions, my health is a priority.” He headed for the door, giving Cat a sly wink on the way out.
Had Matt somehow jumped ahead to Phase Three?
“Uh, yeah,” Brian said. “I’m totally indigent.” He started stuffing books into his backpack, darting glances back at Mr. Fiske as if expecting some kind of intervention.
But intervention never came. Maybe Fiske had skipped his morning latte and wasn’t awake enough to put up much of a fight, maybe he just didn’t care. Cat stared, open-mouthed, as Matt and Brian walked out and three students followed, muttering things like, “Hazardous to our health,” and “My mother will be pissed!” Pissed because her kid was ditching or pissed because of the health hazard, it wasn’t entirely clear. But between the shameless opportunists and those who were truly concerned about chalk lung disease, class had come to an end.
Cat grabbed her bag and leapt out of her chair, following the stream of students out the door like an August rush of salmon.
“You’ll pay for it tomorrow,” Mr. Fiske called half-heartedly, as if a teacher should at least try to look like he was making an effort. Nobody paid any attention; Mr. Fiske might resemble a teddy bear, but he was not a grizzly. The salmon continued to run.