Friday, March 21
Squeezing through a thicket of ninth graders outside of Ms. Casey’s classroom, all Zera could hear was complaining about the Biology test. Mike “Biggie” Lane, at his locker, was blocking the door, and as Zera drew closer she got a whiff of his cologne. Musk . . . and sweet jasmine. Not bad, but too strong — as usual! “Nice cologne, Biggie.”
Biggie looked pleased. He moved to let Zera into the classroom as girls behind her chattered.
“Did you study?” a girl named Melody asked her friend.
“That sucks. I can’t believe this. Right before break.”
If they knew I wasn’t nervous about this test, they’d think I was nuts. No one spoke to her in Biology, no one except Abby, her only friend at Manning High School.
The first one in the room, Zera sat down and flipped open her iPad. She touched the leaf-shaped BIO icon on the screen and her thoughts turned to something that should be happy, but wasn’t, her fifteenth birthday the next day. Musk and jasmine still clung to her nostrils. I wish I had a boyfriend. Not like Biggie, but someone . . . someone who’d give me flowers for my birthday.
Wrapped in her thoughts, she didn’t notice the movement on the window sill. Some kids have parties, I can’t even hang out with Abby. All because of a freaking fast-food franchise opening. Zera frowned, thinking about how her uncle’s work, and his control-freak girlfriend, always came first.
The one-minute bell rang and a few seconds later Biggie’s voice boomed, “Holy crap! You didn’t see that when you came in?”
He’s talking to me? Zera looked up to see Biggie thundering across the room.
What? Zera unconsciously ran her fingers through her bangs. She started to say something but was stopped by the sight of Biggie at the windows, a smile plastered on his face. He was staring up, bug-eyed at . . . giant, six foot tall flowers?
“Look at them! Just look at them!”
Students, coming in, making their way to their seats, froze.
A clamor erupted. “Hey!” “Are those for real?” “No way. Gotta be a joke.” “I’ve never seen flowers that big.”“What the h . . . ?”
Her classmates’ attention focused on one big plastic pot, at the end of a row of nineteen others on the sill. From it sprang a half-dozen zinnias that touched the classroom ceiling. The round, multi-petaled blooms, wider than basketballs, were in electric shades of hot pink, red, yellow, orange, purple, and a blue brighter than the Colorado sky. Green leaves spread out like umbrellas from stems three inches thick.
Zera got up. The flowers’ beauty pulled her toward them like a magnet. They were so big that their white roots had burst the container, and in a dozen places they spilled out like spaghetti. The label that marked the pot with the student’s name who planted it clung to a plastic shred, printed with black marker in capital letters: ZERA GREEN.
The room got quiet.
Zera shifted, folded her arms. Her mind groped for an explanation. Abby was now standing beside her. Abby’s large brown eyes, accented with way too much black eyeliner, stared transfixed at the blooms. “So pretty,” she whispered.
Someone said what everyone had noticed, “It’s Zera’s.” All eyes went to her. Abby looked at her questioningly.
It can’t be, Zera thought. It’s impossible. Our class planted those seeds yesterday. And we planted spinach . . . and lettuce. A sense of disconnect came over her, like a thick wall of glass separating her from the others. She moved closer, slowly, to the pot with her name on it. She touched a leaf, but knew without touching. They’re real. Everything in the room suddenly seemed brighter, more in focus. A chill rippled down her spine.
Behind her, Becky McGowan said, “Wow. Oh, wow!” Chatter and giggles followed.
“I don’t get it,” Zera said aloud, and a few muffled laughs responded. I planted spinach. These flowers are full grown, and most seeds don’t even sprout this soon. Not for days. How could they sprout, grow, bud and blossom, two or three month’s growth, in one night? The row of pots held the other kids’ seeds for their plant projects, watering tubes running to each pot for automatic watering during spring break. Grow-lights hung suspended from the ceiling. Ms. Casey had told them yesterday, “When you get back from break, we should see some seedlings to put in the greenhouse.” Seedlings. Nothing in the other pots but brown soil. That’s what should be in my pot. Is this some kind of a joke? Who’d do that? And HOW? Zinnias, Zera knew, even the big ones, didn’t get that big, ever.
The flowers were emitting delicious odors of raspberries, vanilla, something bright and citrus-y, mingled with a note of green, a scent like a summer meadow. But there was something else too — something masculine, and something floral. A hint of musk — and jasmine? Zera, despite her anxiety, found her eyes closing. Wonderful . . . but, wait. Mom and Nonny grew zinnias. They didn’t smell like this. They didn’t have much of a smell at all.
“Mmmm, smells pretty in here,” Biggie said in a girlie voice. He snorted a laugh.
Zera gave him a look and thought, It must be strong if he can smell it over his cologne.
Abby moved closer. “What’s going on?”
Before she could answer, a familiar high-pitched voice came from behind them. “Oh my!” The class turned to see Ms. Casey. Their teacher’s hands had flown up to her mouth, her eyes were wide.
The second bell rang. No one budged.
Ms. Casey walked over to the sill. A slim finger touched Zera’s label. “They’re gorgeous. A blue one? I didn’t know zinnias came in blue. In fact, I’m certain they do not. Blue flowers are quite rare.” She emphasized quite rare as her half-smile turned into a smirk. “Zera, what do you know about this?”
Zera swallowed, and as she spoke the words caught in her throat, “I don’t
. . . know anything.”
“Your uncle, he’s a biotech scientist, isn’t he?”
Ms. Casey narrowed her eyes. She breathed in deeply and the half-smile reappeared. Zera noticed that the blue color of the zinnia matched Ms. Casey’s blazer. It occurred to her, she’s smiling because of the perfume.
The smile disappeared abruptly. “Students,” she commanded, “take your seats. When I return, we’ll start the test. Zera, come with me.”
* * *
After Ms. Casey explained the situation to Mrs. Tinsel, the high school’s pretty-yet- tough-as-nails principal, Mrs. Tinsel summoned Security on the wall-sized media and communications monitor. “Richard, I need you to review the surveillance video for last night and this morning before school,” she said to a nearly life-sized, mustachioed Mr. Brockheimer. Mr. “B,” as the kids called him, was the head of Security, and he stared, dead serious, as Mrs. Tinsel continued. “Check the camera that shows the entrance to Ms. Casey’s classroom. See if anyone entered the room with a . . . an enormous pot of flowers.”
Confusion clouded Mr. B’s expression, but he nodded obediently. “Sure. I’ll get right back with you.” The screen went blank.
Zera, in the chair across from the principal’s desk, squirmed while they waited. Why my planter? she wondered. And why would anyone do something this weird anyway? She recalled how, the day before, when she’d planted the seeds, she’d been thinking about Nonny’s garden. She’d been thinking about zinnias. Nonny always joked how zinnias should be Zera’s favorite flower. After all, Nonny said, they shared the letter “Z.” When Zera planted those seeds she was thinking about her fifteenth birthday, about how she missed her parents, about how she wished she could live with Nonny. She was also thinking about the event of two days ago and her horrible embarrassment about that. Her hands moved from the chair arms to clasp tightly in her lap. Those were spinach seeds. I know what zinnia seeds look like. They’re thinner, longer, flatter . . . spinach seeds are round and lumpy.
Mr. B appeared on the wall to report he’d found nothing upon reviewing the tape.
“Thank you.” Mrs. Tinsel pressed the screen for her secretary and asked her to get Zera’s uncle, Theodore Green, on the video-phone.
Zera shifted her position on the chair, unclasped her hands and clutched the chair’s arms again. Great, they’re bringing him into this. She avoided the adults’ gazes. The Toad was her pudgy, thick-lipped, glasses-wearing, warty-handed uncle, whom she’d been living with since her parents’ deaths. He was all that was left of her family, besides herself and Nonny. He worked as a scientist at Biotech Multinational. While they waited, the air in the room seemed to be getting stuffier by the second.
She caught her breath when her uncle appeared on the video screen. The Toad looked even more awkward than usual, sitting at his desk in his cubicle, one hand fidgeting with his black-rimmed glasses. Zera could make out the warts on his hands (although Ms. Casey and Mrs. Tinsel probably wouldn’t notice). Seeing him uncomfortable brought a different disquiet. It’s the first time he’s ever had a call about me from school.
Apologizing for the interruption, Mrs. Tinsel explained the situation and began quizzing The Toad about his biotechnology work — had he given his niece some “strange seeds?” Was it possible that she had brought something to school yesterday that she shouldn’t have?
As Zera watched her uncle squirm, she thought about how in the city of Piker, Colorado, anything weird or different (meaning her and her family) was unacceptable. How can he stand it here, growing up where he did? Again she longed for Ute Springs, where she had the freedom to be herself.
The Toad straightened in his chair. Peering up into his much smaller work monitor, his squinted eyes darted at the images of Zera, Mrs. Tinsel, and Ms. Casey. “Strange seeds?” he said. “Certainly not. And removing anything from the corporation’s premises would be a serious violation of policy.” He cleared his throat. “Mrs. Tinsel . . .” He fidgeted with his glasses again. “I seriously doubt Zera would ever do such a thing, even if she had the opportunity. Do I need to come down to your office and help clear this up?”
“Thank you, Mr. Green, but no. We just wanted to talk to you. This is a mystery, but we’ll get to the bottom of it.”
They ended the call, and Zera, pleased that her uncle had stuck up for her, was also a little surprised. The Toad rarely showed such firmness around authority figures.
Ms. Casey shook her head. “I can’t figure it out,” she said. “Not only the flowers, but a zinnia in blue. They don’t exist. I know my floriculture.”
Mrs. Tinsel smiled at Zera from behind her desk. “It was your plastic pot, Zera. No one else had these giant flowers. You can tell us, let us in on the joke.” The principal sighed, as if it were suddenly no big deal. “I can understand, students wanting to do something entertaining, a little prank before break, to have a little fun.” She leaned forward, her voice lowering to almost a whisper, “How did you pull it off?”
Zera leaned back in her chair. “I don’t know how it happened,” she said for the second time. For a moment she thought of playing Tinsel’s game, saying she did it. She would have loved to tell them something, to be done with this, the misery of sitting there with them, the wall-sized monitor, and the closed room that felt like a prison. Anger overtook that emotion. To heck with them. She leaned forward, smiled defiantly at Mrs. Tinsel.
The adults exchanged looks. Ms. Casey excused herself to go back to her classroom, asking Mrs. Tinsel’s permission to leave Zera in the administration office for the rest of the hour, so as to “not cause any further disruption.”
Guilty before proven innocent. Nice. “What about the test?” she asked Ms. Casey.
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to take it after school.”
She left and Mrs. Tinsel locked eyes with Zera. “There’s no proof you did anything, but I will find out what happened. Giant flowers do not just grow overnight. Not in my school.”
* * *
“Hey, Plant Chick!”
Zera, in line in the cafeteria, looked around and couldn’t tell where the female voice came from, but she saw two girls from her Biology class ahead of her — giggling.
“Zera Green’s got a green thumb all right,” a boy said behind her. She ignored the comment. A few kids from Biology giving her a hard time was to be expected; six foot tall zinnias were growing in a pot labeled with her name.
She turned around to see it was a junior named Jake, rumored to have been expelled from another school for marijuana use. He slid closer to her and asked, “Ever grow any weed?”
The boy tossed his long blond bangs, smiled sideways. Is he flirting with me? The thought was not a good one. He thinks I’m bad. I’ve never had a boyfriend, finally a guy notices me, and it’s Jake. She looked back at him. He’s cute . . . but no. Heck no.
A slight panic set in as he held eye contact. Before he could say anything more she blurted out, “I don’t do drugs.”
Jake broke the eye contact, whispered something under his breath, and put distance between the two of them.
Oh god, why don’t I just wear a sign, “I’m a weirdo AND a jerk?” Zera blushed. She wished the day were over, especially the after-school exam. She’d be in a room with Ms. Casey, alone. Please, let this all be forgotten before I come back from break.
Paying for her food, Zera saw Abby wave at her from a table by the windows.
“Well, that’s one way to get attention,” said Abby as Zera got to the table.
“Put a giant bouquet in the classroom and be sure it has your name on it.”
Zera sat down her tray. “Yeah, that’s me, criminal mastermind. Only I didn’t do it.”
“You didn’t? How, then . . . ?”
The girls from Biology stared at them from a table close by. Zera heard “Plant Chick” again. “I don’t know.” She climbed over the bench. “Now my new name’s ‘Plant Chick’ and Tinsel’s out to get me. This has been the crappiest week ever.”
“Sorry,” Abby said. “I shouldn’t have teased you.”
“It’s not only what happened today,” Zera hesitated, opened her milk carton and took a sip. “It’s been the whole week.” She glanced around, checked to make sure no one was listening. “I started my period, day before yesterday.”
“Your first time? And you didn’t tell me?” Abby put down her sandwich. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. But I had to go to Tiffany. I thought I was going to die of embarrassment.”
Abby’s black-rimmed eyes narrowed. “She didn’t think of talking to you earlier? What an idiot.” She looked down at her plate. “It must have been terrible, not having a mom to go to.”
“Yeah. I miss her so much.”
“I know.” Abby gave her an understanding smile.
Zera shifted on the bench, not wanting to think about her mom, but it was impossible. It was painful enough she was gone, but sometimes Zera really needed her. What would her mom say about Jake, if she told her about the rumors, or how would she help her deal with what happened in Biology? Mom always had the right answers. “Tiffany asked me all these weird questions, ran out and bought me a bunch of stuff, and then, that night at dinner, she told my uncle, right there in front of me.”
Abby’s jaw dropped.
“‘Zera’s a young woman now.’” Zera imitated Tiffany’s high-pitched voice. “She had this stupid smile on her face. The Toad didn’t even know what she was talking about, he was staring at her, like ‘Huh?’” Zera looked around again, lowered her voice more. “Then she said, ‘Zera got her period!’ I wanted to die.”
Her friend’s dark eyes flashed. She bent over, started digging through her backpack, and pulled out a small wrapped package. “It’s not much, but maybe this will cheer you up. Since we can’t hang out tomorrow.”
Zera clapped her hands together as she saw her friend had brought her a birthday gift, to school. Abby’s the best. Maybe this birthday won’t completely suck. She unwrapped the package, opened the small box. It held flower-shaped earrings made of powder-blue glass. “They’re so pretty, Abby!”
“You don’t mind they’re flowers? And blue? I bought them last week, before . . .”
Zera laughed. She imitated Ms. Casey. “‘Blue flowers are quite rare!’ Of course not. I love them.”
Zera got up, walked around the table, and gave Abby a hug. “Don’t worry. I’ll get over the trauma, of everything. If I live through tomorrow.”
“You will,” said Abby, “and we’ll celebrate your birthday next week, when we get the whole week off.”
* * *
Outside of the cafeteria, a group of budding aspen trees congregated near the courtyard. As Ms. Casey walked out of the east exit, one of the trees began to sway slightly, all on its own, then gradually faster, its movements suggesting urgency. It bent and swayed, its branches reaching toward the auburn-haired girl holding a pair of blue earrings in the cafeteria window. Then its branches swayed toward Ms. Casey. The other trees followed suit. No one noticed the movements, not the students lunching in the courtyard, not Ms. Casey or the other teachers on the sidewalk, not the janitor emptying trashcans into a dumpster. No humans noticed, but the pigeons did. They were a rowdy crowd, a dirty dozen who flew in for lunchtime every day, striding around jerkily in the newly-greening grass, making coo-cooing pigeon-comments about humans and food. They waited for the inevitable French fry, piece of bread, salad scrap, or pizza crust to fall on the ground.
Spooked by the trees’ excited emotions and movement, the pigeons made ape-like warning grunts to each other, shook themselves, and took flight. One of them flew right over Ms. Casey and relieved himself, splattering the teacher’s blue blazer.
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