Her name was Starlet Cooper. I kid you not. Starlet? How corny is that? Anyway, I’m not really sure how the animosity started. I’d spotted her entering the lecture hall to join the rest of us in the twenty-three-year-old’s class, and, I have to admit, found her attractive. Tawny skin, dark brown eyes, and those curves, those amazing curves. And she wasn’t just another pretty face. The girl had brains. The combination put her squarely out of my league. Not surprising. Most girls were out of my league. My dislike for her became entrenched after our first project together. She was a showoff.
By chance, we ended up “partnering” on student teacher lab week. That’s what our supervising instructor called it, partnering. In reality, it was a competition. Never before in my academic career had I felt threatened until saddled with this assignment, a glorified babysitting job corralling first year high schoolers in the zero gravity hydroponics lab. Starlet Cooper had been on my heels at every turn, getting in the way. Even worse, she periodically mocked me, asking personal questions as if she were actually interested. Her feminine wiles might work on most men, but I wasn’t fooled.
On Thursday morning, Starlet had a meeting with the department head, the standard check in. For two hours, I would supervise the three young students, free from Starlet looking over my shoulder.
The trio of teens arrived, and I gestured towards the class materials compartment.
By now, they knew the routine. Each of them retrieved color-coded files from the wall, seeming to take pleasure in the ripping of Velcro. The boy let his folder float before he jumped for it, showing off for the girls.
Lila swooned as if he had completed an Olympic feat, while Bonnie rolled her eyes.
I was grateful there were only three of them.
Maybe I could’ve paid more attention. I had a paper due and pecked away at my tablet, making use of the hours before Starlet showed up.
I caught the sideways glance Lila cast my way as she passed a food container to Tanner. Eating in the lab broke the rules. I should have come down on her, but the thought of the teacher evaluations the teens would fill out at the conclusion of the semester activities haunted me. I wasn’t a popular instructor. The kids had dubbed me Jerome the Gnome, not exactly a nickname of endearment. Besides, pity welled up in my heart for the girl. She’d been mooning over Tanner since day one, and while he hadn’t brushed her off, neither had he encouraged her. He was too busy making eyes at Bonnie, the third character in this pubescent love triangle. Predictably, Bonnie had zero interest in Tanner.
Lila gave the boy a plastic food envelope, so no crumbs. Surreptitiously, he stuck a small item into his mouth and smiled, close-lipped. The smug expression on his face provoked an urge in me to bust him, but the blush in Lila’s cheek and the pitiful hope shining in her eyes stayed my hand. Love only smiled on the beautiful people, but I wasn’t quite so jaded as to crush a young girl’s dream. Life would teach her soon enough it took more than a piece of candy to win a heart. A lot more.
A moment later, a squeal pierced the air, and I fumbled with my tablet. A flurry of blonde hair splayed out from Bonnie’s ponytail as Lila pushed her. When the girl didn’t react other than to right herself, Lila frowned and gave her another shove.
“Spit it out!”
Bonnie displayed a blob of solid amber clenched between her teeth before closing her lips around the candy. Lila scowled and pulled at Bonnie’s shirt, but Bonnie twisted out of reach, wearing a cat-who-got-the-cream smile.
I closed my program and slapped my tablet into its holding compartment.
“Hey, you two. Cut it out.”
Lila’s nose flared in her pinched face and she twitched her head at Bonnie, whispering, sotto voce, “Don’t.”
Bonnie ducked away.
Both girls ignored me. Every ounce of sympathy I’d had toward Lila evaporated. I crossed the tiny lab room in two seconds flat. Lila jerked back, but Bonnie stared at me, frozen, her big blue eyes sparkling with secrets. My presence didn’t intimidate her a speck. That made me madder.
“What’s going on?”
Lila batted her eyelashes, all innocence. “Nothing.”
Lila spoke, but I couldn’t tear my gaze from Bonnie’s eyes. They appeared larger than normal, even though her lids drooped. She blinked slowly at me, like an inebriated person. Heat prickled up my neck. Her lips parted slightly and her face flushed. My guts squirmed. The peculiar way Bonnie stared at me creeped me out.
I kept focused on her and talked out of the side of my mouth. “Lila, what’s wrong with Bonnie?”
Before she had time to answer, a choking sound came from Tanner.
This may have been my first stint as a student teacher, but I have a sixth sense about certain things, and when Tanner hunched over, I knew he was going to blow.
I unhooked my leg from the grab bar securing me at the students’ table, pushed off towards the first aid box, snatched a puke bag, and returned to Tanner before you could say light speed.
He had both hands clapped over his lips, fingers digging into acne-laden cheeks.
“Hang on there, buddy.” I peeled one of Tanner’s hands away and stuck the bag into his paw, patting him on the back. “You know what to do.” A gob of tears coated his eyeballs. I patted the liquid with my hankie and reminded him to keep a tight seal around the bag. Bright red pimples stood out in stark contrast to his ghost white face. Not good.
Lila fanned her cheeks with her hands and gulped air, on the verge of hyperventilating. She let go of the handrail, not even hooking a foot, and scrabbled for a hold before she floated away.
I tried to stay calm. “What did you give him?” Accusation laced my voice.
Lila licked her lips, her gaze darting around.
“It’s supposed to be safe. I researched.”
I’d been trying to check Tanner’s pupils, but he’d squeezed his eyes shut. I twisted around.
The girl flinched, but kept her mouth zipped.
I fought the desire to grab her by the shoulders and shake her, not that such an act would accomplish much in zero gravity. I gave her a stern look.
“You passed him something to eat. Tell me what it was.”
She turned to the side, and I repositioned myself to remain in her line of vision. “Come on Lila. You don’t want anything bad to happen to Tanner.” My gaze flicked to the boy and the puke bag plastered to his face.
Her mouth pulled down in an exaggerated frown. Her eyes glistened and her chin trembled. Panic seized my guts at the sight of a girl tearing up and I looked away. I noticed Bonnie goggling me, a crescent of a smile on her face. She edged closer.
I reestablished eye contact with Lila and attempted an authoritative, teacherly tone.
Lila sniffled. “It was the plant. Plant nine.”
She meant Dilecto rubrumo, common name Heart’s Desire and, for our lab purposes, also labeled Nine. The reference confused me and I couldn’t fathom the connection. The plants were all in their compartments, merrily feeding on nutrient solution. I could see them, lined along the lab walls.
Pulling a bit of hair loose from her ponytail, Lila stuck the piece in her mouth and began to chew. She stopped masticating her hair follicles long enough to say, “I thought it was safe.” She frowned at me as if I were responsible for Tanner’s illness. “You said none of the plants were dangerous.”
“What did you …” My thoughts scrambled around in my brain like a rat in a maze. With a jolt, the answer came. Nine had lost a few leaves, I’d assumed the result of over enthusiastic trimming. “You did not. Tell me you didn’t feed Tanner leaves from a lab plant.” Nothing in the lab was poisonous, but neither were the plants meant to be eaten.
On the second day of the semester, the girl had asked me if the stories about Heart’s Desire, plant number nine, were true. According to myth, a poor unsuspecting slob who ingested the leaves would fall in love with the first maiden he clapped eyes on. At the time, I had explained in excruciating detail to Lila that while the plant may contain properties known to increase pheromones and reduce inhibitions, the “love potion” was more fairy story than science. In fact, even in the tall tales, the effects of the herb lasted a mere twenty-four hours.
Pockets of sweat gathered on my skin. I jerked myself over to one of the monitors, hurrying to search the database for the properties of the plant. I’d had the standard first aid training, but Tanner’s reaction spurred me to seek additional, specific information. The data confirmed Dilecto rubrumo wasn’t dangerous. Sensitive people might experience mild gastric upset, but rarely required medical intervention. I would treat symptoms and watch for dehydration. I hazarded a glance Tanner’s way. His red, swollen eyes peered out of a face the color of mashed potatoes mixed with a dash of pureed peas. The barf bag bulged, and the heaving hadn’t stopped.
I groaned. I gazed about the room, not sure what I hoped to find. Bonnie inched ever closer to me. Suddenly, she slapped both hands over her mouth and I thought I’d have two down, but then she giggled. Her face turned beet red, and she stared at me in a way making it difficult to focus on the crisis at hand.
I squirmed away from her.
“Bonnie, can you get a couple more motion sickness bags?”
Her head bobbled in a vigorous nod. Her eyes sparkled. Her skin glowed. And she immediately launched herself towards the first aid kit.
A blob of floating vomit entered my field of vision.
I’d given my handkerchief to Tanner. Luckily, wipe dispensers were within easy reach and I retrieved one. I chased the gently undulating vomit, wishing I’d put on gloves upon entering the lab, as per protocol.
Bonnie appeared at my elbow. “Here.” She thrust the puke bags at me, her loopy smile showing rows of gleaming white teeth.
I took one and shoved the nasty wipe into it.
“I think Tanner could use another.”
I gestured for her to take him the empty bag she held. It waved slightly in the air currents kicked up by the ventilation fans. Bonnie tipped her head to the side as if I were speaking a foreign language while she mooned at me.
Another blob of vomit floated by, rolling over itself in slow motion. I yelled at Lila to catch it, as I unsuccessfully tugged the bag in Bonnie’s clutches. Gently, I pried her fingers loose, darted as quickly as I could to Tanner, and traded the full bag for a fresh one.
“Are you OK, buddy?” I did a quick check of his pupils. They were dilated, but much less than Bonnie’s. His respiration was good. I’d seen worse in the mirror after a hard weekend.
The two girls crowded in beside me. Lila chewed her hair again. “Is he going to be all right?”
I wanted to torture her for putting me in this predicament, say he was dying, that there would be permanent injuries, but her shaking hands and mournful expression brought me up short.
I muttered, “As long as he doesn’t get dehydrated.”
Lila deflated, her shoulders sagging as she sighed. She stopped chewing her hair.
I grabbed dry wipes from the lab dispensers and handed them to her. “Why don’t you go wet these?”
She brightened up at the suggestion and hurried back to press the damp cloth against Tanner’s cheeks while he blinked at her. She brushed his hair from his pimply forehead, and he lurched forward, retching into the bag again.
Starlet was due to arrive within the hour. I needed to come up with a cover story, but first had to deal with the current crisis. Once I got things in reasonable order, I could escort the trio out and think.
I confiscated the rest of the homemade candy from Lila and left her to take care of Tanner. Globules of stomach contents floated around in the lab and had to be contained before they hit the ventilation fans. Bonnie agreed to help me play ‘catch the vomit’, which would’ve been helpful if she’d stopped giggling and grinning at me.
The girl was useless, and I kept bumping into her. Exasperated, I asked her to strap herself into the desk compartment, which she did, leaving me to do the final mop up in between checking on Tanner. At least he seemed to be doing better under Lila’s ministrations.
As a precaution, I had secured the lab door and, just as I disposed of the last bit of evidence, I heard the buzzer. I froze.
I hadn’t worked out what to tell Starlet. I had a drunk looking Bonnie strapped to the wall, Tanner puking in a bag periodically, and Lila nervously plucking new strands of hair out of her ponytail and chewing them until she had a medusa hairstyle going on.
The buzzer sounded again. I moved to the panel by the front door and pressed the intercom button, but couldn’t think of what to say. I released the button, took a deep breath, and pressed it down again, going for nonchalance.
Starlet’s voice came through, devoid of emotion—as always. “Would you mind letting me in?”
At a loss for words, I patted my pockets as if the answer were hidden there, and would somehow magically appear. My fingers brushed the candy containing Lila’s misconstrued love potion. An idea struck. The last person I wanted mooning over me, besides the young Bonnie, was Starlet, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
I squared my shoulders and opened the door. Starlet wore a disinterested expression, her face bland, but definitely emanating coolness.
“I can’t let you in until you take this.” I held out a piece of the amber candy Lila had infused with the leaves from plant number nine. “It’s for a horrible strain of flu. The inoculation just came in.” I indicated our three students, who were in obvious distress.
Starlet eyed me suspiciously.
I quickly popped a candy into my mouth.
“See? It’s fine.”
I didn’t move to let her pass.
Her long, delicate fingers brushed my palm as she slowly took the proffered nugget. I expected questions, but she didn’t say a word. She kept her gaze fixed on mine as she brought the candy to her lips. Her eyes were luminous, or was it the herb altering my thoughts? I shook off the intruding surge of emotion and watched her closely, waiting for her reaction. Bonnie had been affected almost instantaneously. Once Starlet fell under my spell, I could wriggle my way out of trouble.
She didn’t look any different than she usually did, slightly breathless and with eyes as dark as a moonless night. Her skin glowed, but then it always did. The thought that she was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen slid across my consciousness. I squashed it. I couldn’t allow the potion get to me.
Mesmerized, I stared at Starlet as her rose-red lips parted.
“Are you going to let me in?”
“What?” I shook my head to clear a sudden fuzziness from my brain. “Yeah. Sure.” I moved aside. It took tremendous restraint not to reach out and touch her.
With determination, I forced myself into utter scientific detachment. I observed Starlet closely, but she didn’t deviate from her usual behavior in any measurable way. From my ascertainment, the love potion had no effect on her whatever.
I found myself telling her the truth, trusting her. To my surprise, she reacted with calm, and got down to business, helping set the lab in order with her typical efficiency.
Memories of Starlet’s past behavior flooded my mind, but now I perceived our interaction from a different angle. If it hadn’t been for Lila’s unexpected experiment, I would have never realized what I had interpreted as Starlet’s showing off and mocking me wasn’t at all what I’d thought. She’d been flirting, unaware of the fact that she was way out of my league. Or maybe she did know, and for some reason I couldn’t comprehend, it didn’t matter to her.
They say the potion wears off in twenty-four hours. Bonnie got over her crush and descended into a state of mortification, which amused me. Tanner gave Lila a chance, probably because a girl who holds your vomit deserves a second glance. As for me and Starlet? It turned out Starlet hadn’t needed the love potion, and the dose I took is still going strong.