Rust: Chapter Twenty-One

“Hey! What’s this?”

“Oh, hi!” May smiled, looking up from the row of samples on the table. “You’re up late.”

Mariah shrugged. “Too hot to sleep. I don’t know how everyone else can do it. So what’s this stuff? It looks different.”

“It is. Something new. I think it’s for Paul, but Annie won’t say.”

May resumed carefully dispensing quarter-teaspoons from the different jars, onto small pieces of paper on the concrete floor. She spaced the samples wide apart, and kept them well away from everything else in the basement.

“Okay,” she said, leading Mariah by the hand to the far side of the room. “You stand here while I light the first one. We need to decide which one works best.”

“But what does it do?”

“You’ll see,” May called back over her shoulder. With a match, she carefully lit the corner of the piece of paper under the first sample, then scampered back to join Mariah.

They waited.

“Well?” Mariah said.

“Just wait.”

There came a seeping of smoke and a soft hiss. May looked annoyed, but continued to stay back. Eventually, both paper and sample were consumed, no more than a spot of ash on the flooring.

“I don’t get it.”

“Each one’s a little bit different,” May said. “We need to see how they all act.”

She returned, stomped a few times on the remains of the first sample, lit the second, and hurried back. “Okay, so remember that first one and compare it to this.”

As the paper smoldered under the second sample, it ignited with a whoof!

“Whoa,” said Mariah, wide-eyed.

“Eh,” May said, looking disappointed. “It was better than the first, though.” She lit the third, and after what seemed like an eternity it appeared that only the paper itself had burned.

“That was nothing,” they said almost in unison, and laughed.

“So you think it’s for Paul?” Mariah asked. “Do you think he’ll be back soon?”

“I hope so. I wanna talk to him. If I can get him alone.”

“Yeah?”

May nodded. “I like him.”

“Everyone likes Paul.”

“No…”

Mariah gaped. “Like, that way?”

May was defensive. “So?”

“I thought he liked Annie,” Mariah said.

“Annie gets crazy if any boy gets too close. Not much of a girlfriend if he can’t touch her,” the older girl said, looking a little smug.

“Oh, so he can ‘touch’ you?” Mariah smirked.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” May shot back.

“You brought it up.”

May went to light the fourth sample, and came back without making eye contact with Mariah. Before she’d fully returned, it went off with a POW!! behind her back, and a nearby windowpane cracked for the shock. May shrieked, and fell to her knees gasping for air. Mariah ran to her, but wasn’t strong enough to help the older girl up. They sat on the floor together while May caught her breath.

“Was it supposed to do that?” Mariah asked in bewilderment, and May nodded, regaining her composure. That was like a gun going off, which she’d heard before if not that close.

Soon, May sat up straight. “I got stupid. Thinking about… other stuff.”

“Ugh,” Mariah said. “I don’t want to think about that.”

May shrugged her shoulders, and the smug look came back. “Wait til you get older.”

“You’re not that much older.”

“Old enough,” said May.

“So what if he doesn’t want to… with you?”

May chuckled. “He will. I know all the right things to do.”

“Ew!” Mariah said, recoiling.

“Don’t you dare tell Annie!” May glared. “Besides, it’s different with someone you like.”

Mariah shook her head. “Let’s just light the last one. I wanna forget I ever heard this.”

May stuck her tongue out, and stood. Mariah returned the face to May’s back as May went to the final sample and lit. She scurried back quickly this time, lesson learned, and they waited with fingers in their ears this time. Eventually there was an ineffectual chuff, and the girls rolled their eyes for the anticlimax.

“So the fourth one, then,” May said in satisfaction. “I’ll let Annie know. You should get to bed.”

“Don’t get Paul in trouble, okay?” Mariah asked with puppy eyes, and headed off.

May watched her leave as she cleaned up. After the door fully latched behind her, she put down her work and went to a locker in the deep corner. Unlocking and opening it, May took out a hanger on which hung a short dress, cut to her size but styled as if for someone much older. She held the hanger up to her body and admired it for a minute, then carefully locked it away once again. It was the fourth time today she had done so. Or possibly the fifth, she hadn’t really counted.

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