"Can you keep a secret?"
We were walking back to the dorms from Chem. The day was bright and beautiful, with stripes cut into the lush, green grass from where it had been freshly mowed. I hated conversations like this. I didn't want to be saddled with a secret. They always seemed to be either burdensome, because the information given was grave, or, more likely, something perfectly mundane. In the case of the latter, I always had to hide how pathetic I thought that it was that the information given would be interpreted as dramatic. I didn't say any of this.
"I don't want to tell you here."
"Fine. Where should we go?"
I rolled my eyes. He shook my shoulders. "It's been six weeks since you broke up with him, you can't avoid every place in town, you know. Eventually, you'll have to just go back to doing things again."
I sighed. Buzzard's Ice Cream stand was the local college hangout. Six weeks ago, I'd gone there to get a milkshake and had received, instead, a shock to my system. My English professor, with whom I'd begun an ill-advised affair, was sharing a banana split with Carrie Morgan, the tennis coach. I tried to call him one time. He'd ghosted me. Since then, it seemed I could barely drag myself to class. I was tired and I never wanted to go to Buzzy's again. The thought of an ice cream made me physically ill.
"There are a million people at the Dining Hall, we can't go there." Colin was irritated, something that happened very rarely. "Let's go to the Beanery. They have the best double chocolate muffins."
I looked at him. His shirt was untucked. It always was, and his glasses were askew. For the life of me, I couldn't understand how a person could eat so much and be so skinny. It must have been the brainpower torching the calories. Colin was one of the smartest people I knew. He was also my first friend at school.
"How about a pistachio capuccino?" he asked.
"Americano for me," I said.
"You know, you are really boring ever since you broke up with what's-his-name."
"I told you never to mention that."
"You just did--oh, never mind! What's your burning secret, anyway?"
"I discovered a formula."
"Colin, that's great," I said in a voice that clearly indicated it was not great, but rather one of the most run-of-the-mill pieces of information that I'd heard that day.
"Don't you want to know what it does?" he asked.
"Is it like that super-cleaner formula that you later found out was caustic?" I flashed back to Colin trying to remove permanent marker from his skin, and suddenly running in wild circles trying to wash off his chemical creation. The burning chemical had only spread, requiring us to visit the Emergency Room, where he was given Silvadene cream to apply for three weeks.
"No, better," he said, without irony.
"Ok, fine. What does it do?" I took a sip of my Americano. It was watery.
"It's a fixer."
"It's a fixer serum. You drink it and it fixes you right up."
This was actually a pretty good secret. I laughed for the first time in weeks. "Colin, you are hilarious," I said. "Give me some."
"Ha. ha. It's nothing to screw around with. I gave some to Mr. Fuzziwigs and he grew, like three inches." Mr. Fuzziwigs was one of the lab mice. Colin earned a few extra dollars raising them for the Bio department. Fuzziwigs was the single mouse that he refused to give up for research. Fuzziwigs was Colin's pet.
"Let me see."
"I got rid of Fuzziwigs."
"He was getting too strong. I couldn't feed him enough, and he gnawed through the bars of the cage."
"Where is he now?"
"Hmm." I said. This little bit of information was perplexing. Colin never would have given up Fuzziwigs. He was attached, even though he had no qualms about giving up hundreds of other mice for various lab experiments.
I let out a heavy sigh. "Let's go home," I said.
"Run by the library to get a movie?"
"He could be there."
"God, you really need to let it go," he said. "You know what, you need to take the fixer. You're turning into a real drag."
For some reason, it was then that I snapped. I had held it in for so long. Professor Wilkerson and his condescending attitude. I hadn't let myself cry over it. Instead, I'd berated myself for being so easily led, so manipulated. I'd persuaded myself into deserving my punishment. I didn't even know whether he was married. But now, for my best friend to chastise me for being in a bad mood, this was the final straw.
I grabbed him by the arm. "Show me your goddamn fixer serum," I said. "I don't believe you. You're a flake, and it's probably just like that dumbass cleaner you invented, completely useless."
Now I could see Colin getting angry. "I did not make it up, and it is dangerous. There's catalyzed growth hormone in the fixer formula, and I haven't studied it fully yet."
Colin has his weaknesses, too. One of them is not being taken seriously. And that is how I came to accompany him to the lab, where he showed me a tiny vial of "Formula 444," the serum that supposedly fixed all. I grabbed it from him and swallowed the entire tube.
* * *
I'm not going to lie. He was ticked. But he got over it. I felt no different. Well, for the first day, that is.
On Tuesday, we had lab again.
"Let's go to Buzzy's," I said. "I'm starving."
"Sure," Colin said. "I've been dying to go, ever since, you-know-what."
"What?" I said.
Colin did a double-take. "Kidding, jackass, I knew you meant Wilkerson. I'm done with that."
Colin ordered a malted. I was going to order my usual, a small vanilla cone, but I suddenly felt ravenously hungry. "I'll have a medium dip," I said. "No, make that a large banana split. Extra whipped cream, please."
Colin looked at me. "I'm really hungry," I said.
We sat outside on a park bench to eat.
"This is good," I said. And it was. It didn't taste junkie. It tasted, well, nourishing. "Bite?" I asked.
"No thanks. Can't finish mine. Want it?"
"Umm. . . yes!" I said. "Sorry, I'm just super hungry. I think I forgot to eat lunch." I finished the malted and found myself sucking fruitlessly at the straw. "What do you have going on tonight?"
"Uh, we both have a lab report to finish, remember?"
"Shoot, I completely forgot. Come over at seven?"
"Yep, see you then." He smiled at me. "And by the way, being done with Wilkerson looks good on you." I smiled back. I did, actually, feel pretty good.
* * *
At seven, we started working on our report. My room seemed hot, and the shuffling of papers was not helping. "Wow, it's burning up in here," I said. "Are you hot?"
"Hunh," said Colin. He was combing through the lab manual.
"I'm putting on a sleeveless, be right back."
"Hmm-mm," said Colin, ignoring me.
"Colin, what are you so wrapped up in?"
"Trying to find the formula we need."
I paused. There was a pencil lying on a scrap of paper near my elbow. I scratched at it. "This one?"
"No, I found it." Colin scratched at the paper.
"Same as mine," I said.
"No, it's not."
"Yes, it is."
"No," Colin said. "It is not."
"Actually, it is, but just a different way of approaching it." I put numbers into Colin's formula, then into mine. "Et voila!"
"Huh?" said Colin. "Oh, yeah, I guess you're right."
I changed into a camisole and flip flops. "That feels better," I said. "I put a hand on his shoulder. "See you in class, right?"
"You are burning up," Colin said. "I mean, your hands are hot."
Now it was my turn to be surprised. But Colin was right. My hands did feel hot, and I was hungry again.
"I feel OK," I said. "Maybe a little off. I'll have a little snack and then go to bed."
"Yeah, get some rest," Colin said. "So you can do the talking part tomorrow." We both hated the talking part.
* * *
The next morning I did feel strange. I pulled on a skirt, and the hem was high. It looked almost obscene. I must have shrunk it, I thought. Long skirt day, then. I pulled it on, but had trouble with my shoes. No flip flops permitted in the lab, but I was dying to get my feet to breathe. It was only when I spied Colin outside of the Stein Center that I knew that anything was off. Colin grabbed my arm.
"You grew," he whispered to me in an accusatory tone.
"I'm growing every day," I laughed.
"No, you really grew, like an inch!"
Actually, I did feel a little taller. It felt like I was standing straighter, too. Come to think of it, I felt like my arms and shoulders were more defined.
"It's the serum," Colin seethed. "You never should have taken it, and by the way, don't think I didn't catch on last night."
"What do you mean?" I said, genuinely stunned.
"You're terrible at Chem," he hissed.
"No, I mean, that formula wasn't you, it was the fixer-serum, making you smarter."
Now this was really something. The nerve! "I do not suck at Science, Colin. You just think I do because you are a freak of nature when it comes to Science."
"Oh yeah? Then how did you know the formula?"
"Um," I thought. Hm. Interesting question. How did I know the formula? "It came to me."
"What do you mean 'it came to you?' In all the years I've known you, when the formula is at the head of the page, you can't even apply it."
This was insulting, but true.
Our exchange was broken by my turning to face the eyes that I could feel on my back.
"Jeannie? Great to see you!" It was Wilkerson. He slapped an arm around my neck. "Coming to the poetry reading tonight?" Then he whispered into my ear. I couldn't resist a smile. Colin was right. The fixer-serum was working.
And that's how it went. Well, for a while at least. I grew another inch and had to buy more clothes. I also had to eat more food, which seemed to disappear from my waist and hips and go directly to my eyelashes, hair and nails, which were growing long and lush. I also discovered that I could suddenly throw a frisbee, something I'd always been terrible at. And Wilkerson wouldn't leave me alone.
"The shoe is on the other foot," I told Colin. "I'm enjoying this."
Colin, on the other hand, seemed irritated. He was displaying little jealousies of my new-found talents, and he was less fun to hang around. Then one day, inexplicably, my frisbee throw began to wobble. I knew right away what was wrong. I called Colin.
"I need more," I said. "The fixer-serum is wearing off."
"There is no more," Colin said. "I told you, I wish you wouldn't be so damn excited about it."
"What do you mean there's no more. Invent some more!" I snapped at him. "That stuff is awesome, and I'm only getting started. Think of the good things that could come of my fixing up a little better."
"Revenge on Wilkerson," I said. "Kidding. Like becoming a better scientist and a better athlete, a better person, and a better speaker. . . and,"
But I never got to finish. Colin just said, "I miss the old you," and hung up.
It didn't matter anyway. There was no more serum, and wish and prod as I might, there was nothing I could do get Colin, or myself, for that matter, to make any more.
Another Tuesday meant another lab report, and Colin and I were working again. "I can't do it," I said. "I don't have the serum any more." It was frustrating. We'd been working for at least an hour.
"For godssake, I wish you'd stop it with that."
"You should've taken down the formula more carefully."
"We weren't given the formula," Colin snapped.
"No, the formula for the fixer-serum," I said. "If we had that, I'd be able to figure out the formula we need for the lab report tomorrow."
"Jeannie, at some point, you are just going to have to learn to do things on your own," Colin said in a voice that was too calm and thoughtful for a comeback. He stood up and left then.
* * *
He was right though. After he left that night, I had to sit down and pore over my books for two hours. Only then, and only after I had called Colin again at eleven to check my work, did I discover the proper formula.
And that's how it went. I shrank back to my normal size. My toned shoulders felt soft again, and Wilkerson soon fell to ignoring me.
But something else happened. I'd had a taste. I'd tasted what it was like to be better, and I liked it. So I just kept it up. Sure, it took me two hours to read what Colin read in fifteen minutes. I no longer look tall, like a model, and I still can't throw a frisbee for shit.
On the other hand, Colin and I still go out for ice cream at Buzzy's. We saw him there again, Wilkerson, this time with a new ingenue from his freshman class. Colin started to pull me away.
"No," I said. "I think I'll have a banana split." And I did. Somewhere, there's a fixer-serum that would have turned that banana split into pure brain and muscle, but even the banana split without the serum was pretty darned good.
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Your stories are so impressive. Maybe it was waiting so long for a new one, but to me, this feels like the best of the bunch! Your dialogue and pacing could not be better. In fact, I don't think there are any ways, big or small, to improve on what you've got here. The story itself is delightfully different. It could've become just a lab experiment gone wrong story, but you've made it an allegorical tale of growth, self-development, and accepting oneself. That's not absolutely required for a good story, but when included in the right way ...
Thanks for this, Jonathan! I just read two of yours, completely different from one another and am so jealous of your talent! I'll be looking for more from you, and I so appreciate your kind read and comments!