Main Prom Theory

Prom Theory

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In this heartwarming and whip-smart YA spin on The Rosie Project, a teen girl is determined to prove that love, like all things, should be scientifically quantified...right?
Iris Oxtabee has managed to navigate the tricky world of unspoken social interactions by reading everything from neuroscience journals to Wikipedia articles. Science has helped her fit the puzzle pieces into an understandable whole, and she's sure there's nothing it can't explain. Love, for example, is just chemistry.

Her best friend Seth, however, believes love is one of life's beautiful and chaotic mysteries, without need for explanation. Iris isn't one to back down from a challenge; she's determined to prove love is really nothing more than hormones and external stimuli. After all, science has allowed humanity to understand more complex mysteries than that, and Iris excels at science.

The perfect way to test her theory? Get the popular and newly-single Theo Grant, who...
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
EPUB, 2.95 MB
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L'ami de jeunesse

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Aru Shah and the End of Time

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For Kaden for the title and the inspiration.

Emma for the enthusiastic support and funny bits.

Karl for everything.

Chapter One


The fact that my mother and I were going to be only fifteen minutes early to school rather than my preferred twenty-five minutes had me noisily chewing gum. There was a standard rule against gum in school, but my mother, tired of my nervous habit of chewing my shirt sleeve cuffs and collars, had made a brilliant argument for granting me dispensation from that hard and fast rule. I no longer needed it every day for the anxiety relief it provided, but this morning had me reaching for the Juicy Fruit. It was going to be at least a three-pack day.

“We’re going to be late,” I said. It was imperative that I had some quiet time to get my books lined up in my locker in the order of my classes. My mother sighed and shook her head. Curls pulled free from her hasty attempt at a ponytail.

“Sorry, it’s just I have an exam and—well, you know…,” I said.

Her frown quickly softened. “I forgot, I’m sorry. Trig, right? You work so hard in that class, I’m sure you’ll do fine. Do you have everything you need? Calculator and, um, what’s it called?”

“Protractor. You’re an artist, you should know what they’re called,” I said as I crossed my arms and tried to keep my toes from tapping. If we were lucky, we’d make all the lights and save a few minutes of the lost time.

“I know what they are. I just never address them by name.” She glanced at me with a grin.

“Please don’t. You talk to the Roomba as it is. That’s more than enough anthropomorphism to justify you considering the appliances family members.”

“Your father travels for work, you’re in school all day—who else am I supposed to talk to?”

I ignored that. She was trying to distract me from my worries. I would have none of it. I needed to stay on track. “Yes, I have everything.”

“Be sure to request to take the test in the library. Oh, and remember your IEP gives you time and a half to take tests. Be sure you use all of it.”

“I w; ill, but the time and a half will cut into my lit class. I’ll have to go in late… and everyone stares at me.”

Talking about this was not making things better. My heart rate was approaching tachycardiac levels. Fight-or-flight instinct? My sympathetic nervous system was clearly preparing me to run as fast and as far as I could from the threat of awkward social situations that are broadly known as high school.

“Hey, we made great time! I don’t think many of the buses are here yet,” my mother said as we pulled up to the entrance of Hillcrest High.

She leaned over and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “You’re going to have a wonderful day.” I could hear the hope in her voice. She knew better.

“Yes. Well. Love you. Bye.” I got out of the baby-blue vintage Volkswagen Beetle and closed the door before she could kiss me again. I sprinted up the steps and into school, not slowing down until my locker and Esther were in sight.

Esther Oplinger had been the resident of the locker to the right of mine since middle school. You could say she was one of my best friends. The truth of it was, I had only two friends. One lived next door to me, and the other had the locker next to mine. So as far as I was concerned, I had two best friends. That was enough for me, and some days it was too many.

Proximity and repeated meetings throughout the day, over many years, apparently made friendships not just easier, but possible. I wasn’t comfortable with people, loud noise, wool socks, or much of anything, really. I certainly failed trying to engage in hallway exchanges that offered little more than gossip about people I didn’t know or understand.

If people were talking about, for example, some new documentary series, I would enthusiastically step up and join in. The self-proclaimed cannibalistic Korowai tribe of Indonesian New Guinea? Absolutely. Sex, vaping, and decimating the football team one district over? Not so much.

Esther was frantically spinning her combination lock and then tugging on the latch. When it failed to open, she began quietly, but impressively, cursing. Not an unusual pattern of behavior for her. However, on the morning of the third-quarter cumulative trig exam, it was not conducive to my successfully preparing to conquer the Pythagorean theorem or Ptolemy’s identities. Therefore, I needed to end her struggle or my morning was shot.

I elbowed her away from her much-abused locker. After spinning the dial two times and then to 24-6-17, I lifted the latch and pulled the door open.

“Gods, Iris Oxtabee, you are my very bestest Bee. I swear I’d be late for homeroom every freaking day if it wasn’t for you.”

“Yes, you would,” I said. Moving past her, I reached for my combination dial and stopped. Sloppily taped to my locker, at eye level, was a hot-pink sheet of letter-size paper.


Only 19 days until Junior/Senior Prom!!

Tickets for sale during all lunch periods from any Student Council representative.

$75 per ticket

I’d been vandalized. But in looking down the hallway for a perpetrator, I saw this was not a crime against my locker specifically, but instead the fallout of a propaganda campaign geared to force the student body into participating in clichéd adolescent activities. The postings were everywhere—on every other locker, littering the floor, and one even sailed through the air, as someone had folded it into an airplane.

Esther nudged me. “Hey! Have you heard any updates from Squeak about where he’s going in the fall? He mentioned some little college in Oregon—do you think he’d really go that far away? I mean…”

Esther kept talking but I stopped listening. Not only was I surrounded with neon chaos, on edge and irritated from the now discernable tittering of nearly every female walking past or hovering in groups of three or four, not to mention a looming math test, Esther had to bring up the topic of my other best friend, Seth Fynne—otherwise known as Squeak—graduating and leaving. Something I was not going to address this early in the morning, or ever, if I could avoid it.

“Why is this on my locker?” I asked instead of acknowledging her question about Squeak. My stomach knotted. Squeak talking about Oregon, trig test, and now this. Before I could deal with the rest of my life, I had to deal with the flyer stuck to my locker. I couldn’t leave it there, but if I took it down, the tape might leave a mark. And then I’d have to spend homeroom cleaning it off instead of reviewing my trig study guide.

“Same reason it was on mine. Because we’re juniors, and time’s running out to get prom tickets. You know, prom? That student dance you called—let me see if I remember—that’s right, ‘a barbaric mating ritual.’ ” Esther leaned toward me. “I can’t wait!”

I looked away from the flyer. “For what?”

Esther rolled her eyes. As was often the case, I was missing what she thought was, as indicated by her eye roll, obvious.


I looked back at the sign. Taking a deep breath, I took hold of it and carefully peeled away the tape. Nothing. Not a smear of adhesive left behind. It was like it had never been there. I exhaled, and some of the tension I’d been holding in my shoulders relaxed. Why was prom such a big deal? Trapped in a restaurant’s overheated event room with loud music and forced to dance. I shuddered. “But why?”

“Well, for every reason I’ve been listing for the past month. Let’s start over. If I had known it would take a pink flyer to get you on topic, we’d both have dresses and dates by now. But since you’ve actually acknowledged there is a prom, let me repeat—it’s important because we’re juniors. We can go this year,” Esther said. Even I could hear the excitement in her voice.

“You really want to go?” I asked. Of course she did. This was Esther. She could dance in public without fearing humiliation.

“Oh, come on, even you said so, it’s a rite of passage.”

“I did?”

“Yes, but you might have been referring to something else. Anyway, what’s not to love? A ridiculously expensive dress, cramming into a rented limo, the promise of romance, and, if you can get away with it, underage drinking.”

“Oh.” No. Nothing in that list sounded the least bit entertaining. Esther went on, talking about something concerning mermaid braids and disco buns. My attention shifted back to the blindingly bright paper. Where were the recycling containers? Who was going to pick all of this up? It was an accident waiting to happen. Someone could slip on the ones quickly gathering on the floor as they fell off lockers or were tossed there by uninterested students. These must be cleaned up and recycled.

“Iris? Yoo-hoo.” Esther waved her hand in front of my face.

“Do you know where the recycling receptacles are on this floor?” I asked.

“No, why…” She looked down and saw I was still holding the flyer. She took it from me. And stuffed it into her locker.

“Don’t worry about it. The janitor will clean up as soon as everyone is in class. We have more important things to discuss, like prom and…” Esther, still talking, reached into her locker, a motion immediately followed by the sounds of sliding textbooks, crumpling paper, and what sounded like a small jackpot win spilling onto the floor.

It was an effort, but I ignored the change gathering at Esther’s feet and took the opportunity to open my own locker.

Where was Squeak? He jokingly referred to himself as my “book buddy,” but he was exactly that. Organization did not come naturally to me. After years of learning methods and “tricks” to keep my things where I needed them, when I needed them, I managed on my own fairly well. But having Squeak around helped me relax, and that made getting through the day much easier. I really needed him this morning. I took a deep breath and pulled out my trig notes to put in the front of my backpack for easy access.

Since he started a tutoring job a few weeks ago, I hadn’t seen him as much as usual. At least we’d been able to hang out yesterday, if only for a little while. His father pulled him away to mow the lawn before my mother even had the chance to feed him—one of her favorite things to do.

The rustling stopped, one last coin pinged as it hit the tiled floor, and then it was quiet. Until, that was, Esther squealed and slapped her hand to her mouth. It wasn’t out of the ordinary, so I continued emptying my backpack and putting my homework folders next to the appropriate textbooks.

Esther reached around my open locker and tugged my arm. I leaned back and peered around the long, thin metal door between us.

She appeared to be attempting to conceal herself behind said door.

“If you are trying to hide from something, don’t take this wrong, but you are not nearly thin enough to hide behind this.” I tapped the door with one finger.

She was peering intently past me and down the hallway.

I started to turn away from her to see what she was staring at.

“Don’t look.”

“Okay.” I shrugged and went back to my books.

“No, I mean—look. Just don’t be so obvious like you usually are,” Esther said.

“How am I supposed to look but not look like I’m looking?”

Esther pointed emphatically down the hall. I looked, as casually as I could manage. A group of males stood together several lockers away. I assumed she was referring to one of them I’d seen her talk to a few times. Darren something? She had mentioned him in the past, but as I didn’t know him, I hadn’t paid much attention.

“And?” I asked.

“What do you mean, ‘And?’ I mean, look at him. That sweet messy brown hair. Those cheekbones. That tan. Those rock-hard biceps. The way his Levi’s lovingly cup his…” She bit her bottom lip, cupped one hand, and lifted it like she was cupping his—well, I assumed she was referring to his buttocks.

I gave her a little push, hoping to break the hormone-induced trance triggered by seeing Darren. “I had no idea you were so interested in anatomy.”

“Oh, come on! You can’t tell me he’s not one of the hottest guys we have around here.”

“I’ll admit he has symmetrical features and a square jaw. Generally speaking, females are naturally attracted to strong, successful males. They can’t help themselves. Such males have the greatest potential for superior genetics,” I said.

“Well… no… yeah… whatever. He’s hot,” Esther said, still staring at him. “And really nice,” she added, her voice quieter now.

I followed Esther’s gaze to Darren. The small group he stood with wore Hillcrest High track sweatshirts. They were laughing, throwing mock punches and such—commonplace young male physical bonding behavior.

Watching them wasn’t very interesting. I turned back to Esther. “Why do you get so worked up about the male species? You know being attracted to the buttocks of possible mates is just chemical, right? A subconscious response to the environmental and physical signals that say, ‘Hey, over here—I’m good breeding stock, a good protector, and all that.’ ” She wasn’t paying attention. Nothing new. She was, however, still watching Darren.

“Man, he’s got the nicest ass from Cincinnati to Cleveland.”

I took another look. “Guess so. However, his physical build is a bit unusual. His legs are extraordinarily long.”

“He’s a hurdler,” Esther said.

“Oh. That must be beneficial. But as I was saying—it’s all chemical. Did you know, when they put drug users and people who are newly infatuated or in ‘love’ ”—I made the necessary air quotations—“into an fMRI scanner, the same reward centers light up like a slot machine?” I pointed to Darren’s butt. “That, right there? That’s your brain on drugs.”

Esther finally looked away from Darren. She had one hand on her hip; with the other she pointed at me. “Back up. What is an fM-whatever scanner?”

“Functional magnetic resonance imaging. It’s an essential tool in the study of brain activity and function. It actually looks at a brain in real time while a person performs cognitive tasks. It’s helping researchers discover which areas of the brain are responsible for our emotions, reasoning, and animal instincts—those that make us more than primates. Though not much more, if you ask me.” I was onto something and seriously warming to my topic. I could feel it. Literally. My feet tingled and I felt like hopping. But I didn’t. I’d learned not to do that. People tended to look at me strangely when I did.

“What’s got you in wiki mode this morning?”

“I do not have a wiki mode,” I said. That was what Esther had labeled my somewhat lengthy monologues on the various topics I was interested in. I absorbed verbal information in detail and retained it, I suspected, forever.

“Maybe I update and correct Wikipedia entries when I see a need or an error, but who doesn’t?” I was about to launch into a sound explanatory defense of my choice of topic for the morning’s conversation when I noticed Darren walking away from his group and toward us.

“Hey, Esther!” he called out as he approached. I wasn’t sure if he was going to stop or if he was just saying “hey” in place of a generic greeting. Why didn’t anyone just say “hello” or “good morning” anymore? Ambiguous language was the bane of society, not to mention politics.

Esther turned toward him as he walked by. “Hey, Darren!”

He smiled and, still continuing down the hall, spun so he walked backward to maintain eye contact with her as he passed. How did he do that without tripping? Not being able to see where I was going was a recipe for disaster. I was not, as Esther put it, on good terms with gravity.

When he turned back around and proceeded on his way, I glanced at Esther. Her face was bright red. And so was her chest.

It was then I noticed there was something different about her. She had on a low-cut, stretchy, tight-fitting top and—was she wearing a push-up bra? Before I could stop, my so-called wiki self took over.

“Did you know we evolved to hide signs of ovulation? Other apes’ and monkeys’ buttocks swell up and turn bright red, pink, or, in some cases, blue when they’re in estrus.”

Esther didn’t react, other than to look at me stone-faced.

“It’s a visible advertisement for the availability of the female. But humans don’t, or I should say, our bodies no longer exhibit those signs of fertility. So women, feeling the rush of hormones, suddenly feel ‘sexy’ and therefore enhance and expose more of their breasts. Heterosexual men can’t resist cleavage because it basically looks the same as a butt crack and swollen cheeks. Men’s primal brains respond because of the visual cues, just as their primate cousins’ do. It naturally catches their attention, and the sight of such a display”—I opened my hand, palm up, to indicate her chest—“can increase the level of testosterone, which in pubescent boys is already off the charts. It makes most of them that much more susceptible to a female in mate-seeking mode.”

Her stone-faced stare became a serious frown. “Why do you know these things? And why do you need to tell me about them?”

“Because you’re my friend and you listen to me?” I said uncertainly.

Esther rolled her eyes, shook her head, and then smiled. “I don’t care if my boobs look like a baboon’s butt to a boy’s brain. If it gets me a prom date, that’s awesome. I’ll buy Darwin a drink.”

“You’re not old enough to buy anyone a drink, much less a dead Victorian. Besides, Darwin didn’t come up with that… well, not completely, anyway. You know, there’s a good argument for our mating and mate-seeking behavior in Jared Diamond’s book The Third Chimpanzee—oh wait, I see, you are very attracted to Darren! That explains your sudden flushing,” I said, pleased with myself for so accurately reading her physical responses to the social contact with Darren.

“You think? Besides, it’s only nineteen days till prom, and I’ve dropped enough hints about asking me, I’m surprised he hasn’t tripped over them.”

I looked back down the hallway, but he was no longer in view. “He seems very coordinated.”

Esther sighed. “Never mind. Have you thought about who you might go to prom with?”


Esther turned toward me full on, with one hand resting on the side of her locker and the other on her hip. “You heard me. You should go… even if…” She smiled slightly. “Well, even if you go with a friend.”

“I thought you just indicated you wanted to go with Darren,” I said.

“I don’t mean with me. You goof…” She then glanced up and down the hallway, face scrunched in a way that made me think she was confused or suspicious. I sometimes had trouble deciphering Esther’s moods. They could change very quickly.

“Speaking of Squeak, where the hell is he? He’s going to be actually, for real, late today.”

“Squeak? We weren’t talking about Squeak, we were talking about Darren.”

“Darren? Who’s Darren?” Squeak said, suddenly appearing behind me.

Chapter Two

Who’s Darren and what about him?” Squeak repeated when I turned to find him looking peeved about something, as his squinting glare and half frown indicated.

Esther stepped up. “Darren Havercamp, and we were talking about him because of prom.”

He looked at Esther and then at me. “Prom? Are you going to prom with this guy?”

“She better not be. He’s mine, or at least I hope he will be. Oh, and you’re late, by the way,” Esther said.

Squeak relaxed, as did his expression. One corner of his lips quirked up in its more familiar friendly and slightly amused state.

He wasn’t officially late, but since fifth grade he and Esther had tried to arrive early to help me deal with the noisy and confusing school mornings. I’d gotten completely lost the first day of middle school in the building’s mazelike hallways. Ever since then, as they’d told the guidance counselor and my mom, they’d “had my back.” Although recently he had been late more frequently than ever before. Was he trying to spend less time with me so I would become accustomed to handling things on my own before he left? My chest tightened, and I realized, while I probably would do fine without him, I would miss him.

It was to be expected. Primates have shown behavior that suggests they grieve over the loss of a family member or even the death or capture by poachers of a troop mate. I wasn’t sure how that was an evolutionary tool for survival, but it was probably for an obvious reason, and the pain in my chest was just making it difficult to think logically. So I did what I always do when I feel uncomfortable in a social context. I opened my mouth.

“You must be staying up too late and your body is trying to avoid sleep deprivation by sleeping later into the morning. Most Americans get only seven hours of sleep. Research indicates we should get around nine to ten. Other primates sleep up to fifteen. That also includes monkeys—”

“Are you calling me a monkey?” Squeak raised his eyebrows and tilted his head in such a way that indicated he was joking rather than feeling insulted. Sometimes I inadvertently insulted people. It was always a relief to know Squeak knew me well enough not to take offense at anything I might blurt out.

“No, and I wouldn’t, because we’re descended from old-world apes, whereas monkeys—”

“Stop!” Esther said with a laugh.

“Ah, are we in wiki mode this morning?” Squeak grinned. He tilted his head downward to look at me. He’d had a growth spurt in the fall. Common enough among late-adolescent males. Females stop growing around the time of menses. Males, however, can keep growing until they are almost twenty. I had assumed he’d reached his adult height, but I didn’t remember having to bend my head so far back to assess his expression. Maybe I was slouching. I straightened so I stood at my true height of 5 feet 6 ¾ inches. His head was bent; his hazel eyes were fixed on me. His crooked grin was the same as it had always been, and yet—Esther smacked my arm with the back of her hand.

“Ow,” I said, and Esther laughed. She was, indeed, looking very happy and healthy this morning. Her full lips and bright complexion might be signs of the estrogen surge women have right before ovulation. The close proximity of a male, even Squeak, would probably set off her need to be the alpha female. “What’s with the dominance display?” I asked, rubbing the back of my arm.

“I’m just trying to keep you on topic. We’re supposed to be talking about prom and Darren, not eyeing up Squeak.”

Eyeing up Squeak? I wasn’t eyeing up anyone. I certainly wasn’t objectifying my oldest friend. I grabbed what I needed for the first three periods from my locker. Squeak’s expression turned odd.

I had studied microexpressions for years and what they indicated about a person’s emotions or mood, but this was new. Ever since I could remember, not understanding what people were thinking or feeling had made me anxious. I’d never seen him make that particular face. I was stumped and I didn’t like it.

Behind me, Esther coughed. I slammed my locker shut and frowned at her. She laughed again.

My hand shot out and quickly closed her locker. I gave her combination lock a quick spin.

“Hey! You suck, you know that?” Esther’s face screwed up in a way that said, This is going to take all day. She set to work on the combination wheel.

“Ouch. You’re in a mood,” Squeak said, before giving my ponytail a quick tug. I swatted his hand away. It was pretty much a twice-a-day—or more—incident between us. Had been since kindergarten. Most days I barely noticed it. This morning, however, I must have been hyperaware due to the rare cup of coffee I’d had before leaving for school. I seemed to be noticing all sorts of new things about him.

Squeak and I had lived next door to each other since preschool. His mother used to take us to school and mine picked us up after school, and snow days had mostly been spent at my house because of his parents’ work schedules. When he was twelve and his mother became ill and soon after died from breast cancer—well, we were already his second home. All that time together had likely wired our brains to recognize each other as siblings. Brothers pulled their little sisters’ hair. It was the way of our species.

Esther was making a valiant third try to open her locker when she finally succeeded.

“Aha!” she shouted, and grinned, obviously pleased with herself.

I could almost see the dopamine, the pleasure enzyme, race to her basal ganglia via her ventral striatum, directly to the reward center of the brain. Life is really about the small victories. The occasional win creates intermittent reward cycles that ensure future attempts despite successive failures. She must be wired for exaggerated pleasure rewards. It must be why she kept dating, and why I didn’t bother. Come to think of it, Squeak didn’t bother dating either. That just confirmed my opinion that he was one of the few people not as susceptible to such illogical impulses as most. He was an extraordinary person in many ways.

“Well done. It took only three tries, not your usual five. You might have this down by June,” I said.

“I don’t know, sounds like wishful thinking. It’s May,” Squeak said.

Esther stuck her tongue out and then said, “You two are lucky you’re my friends, otherwise I’d hate you both.”

Esther reached into her locker and started to pull out her Algebra II textbook, when loose paper, a couple of lipsticks, and several worn, nearly mangled novels tumbled out into the hallway.

Squeak rushed to the rescue. He was like that.

“She’ll never clean out her locker if you keep helping her stuff it all back in,” I said. “It’s a classic example of operant conditioning. You’re setting up a positive outcome for a negative behavior. You’re just going to reinforce her sloppy habits.”

“Bee, you’re going to make me regret talking you into taking a psych elective with me this year—wait, I already do.” Squeak gathered the change into a small pile and then lifted his head to hand Esther a well-worn paperback of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. He froze, book in hand. He was no doubt mesmerized, being nose to breasts with Esther as he was. So predictable, and not just because I’d known him since we were three. He was a heterosexual adolescent male, and therefore certain visual stimuli short-circuited his ability to speak.

“Words, Squeak, use your words.” I gave him a soft boot in the back with the toe of my sneaker.

Squeak coughed and stammered once or twice before he got out, “Uh, here.” He stood quickly and handed Esther the remaining books, while trying to look away from her prominent cleavage. He was failing.

“Humph.” I was beginning to get annoyed by Squeak’s uncharacteristic show of primitive behavior. And I wasn’t sure how much more I could tolerate.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, and they both looked away, blushing and obviously embarrassed. Such things were bound to happen occasionally, even among friends. If only they knew that their brains were awash in phenylethylamine, which triggers the production of norepinephrine and dopamine. Those neurotransmitters were causing them to flirt, however subtly. But for some reason Squeak and Esther being susceptible to each other annoyed me.

“Watch out. She’s trying to get a date for prom,” I warned Squeak.

“You know,” Squeak said, turning back to me, “I’m not surprised Esther is getting worked up about prom, but I didn’t expect you to be interested. You thinking about going? Think you could get a date?” He grinned and reached for my ponytail. I caught his wrist and held it. If I let go, he’d mess with my hair again. Usually it didn’t bother me. At that moment it did.

“I could get a date. If I wanted to, which I don’t. Attraction is chemical and easy to trigger in someone if you know what you’re doing.” I pushed his hand away, and he abandoned his attempt.

“It’s not chem lab. Man, you really know how to take the mystery out of everything,” Squeak said.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket to check the time. We had to break up our little morning meeting of the minds soon or we’d be late for homeroom.

“Using what I know about human behavior and neurochemistry makes inducing attraction, like I said, easy-peasy. There are some exceptions, of course, and there are several conditions that need to work in agreement. It’s not entirely clear which are fail-proof.”

“Then I guess there’s some mystery left after all. But I can say, as a representative for the straight male species, a little boobage works wonders.” This time Squeak’s eyes went straight to Daun Doyle—otherwise known as Double D—and her breasts as she walked past us. I poked him. Hard. “Wipe the drool off your chin, monkey boy.”

Squeak turned his head toward me. He caught my gaze and held it. I assumed it was because he was about to make further “boobage” comments. But he didn’t. He was just… looking at me. Why? His eyes held my gaze, and I was momentarily distracted by them. Had his eyes always been more green than brown? Interesting. Did everyone’s eye color appear to shift due to, perhaps, the color spectrum of the new, more energy-efficient LED lighting?

“Iris, don’t take this wrong or anything, but I don’t think you know more about the secrets of love than anyone else,” Esther said.

Squeak’s attention shifted away from me to Esther. I released a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. It was strange how Squeak was affecting my ability to breathe. So much so that it took me a moment to replay what Esther had said and respond. “I know more about neurology and what triggers chemical reactions in the human brain than anyone in this school. Actually, most likely much more than anyone in this and several adjoining counties.”

“You know, she’s probably right. Hillcrest isn’t exactly a hotbed of neurological research,” Squeak said.

Nice of him to back me up. I nodded in acknowledgment of his support. He bent his head toward me, a clear gesture that said, You’re welcome.

“Although, I have to agree with Esther on this. Love is one of those things you can’t explain away with science, or logic. It isn’t logical. The only thing that makes any kind of sense is that it is out of our control.” Squeak tilted his head and gave me a sidelong glance. “ ‘There are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ ”

I scrunched up my nose. “Shakespeare is not an authority who can argue for your side. A poet is not a reliable source for sound scientific hypotheses.”

“You can’t deny that people have turned to poets for thousands of years to express and explain love,” Squeak insisted, taking a step closer to me.

“Yes, people often put their faith in all sorts of pseudoscience and use faulty sources to explain the seemingly unexplainable. Take the Roman god Cupid, for example. How long have poets kept that myth alive?” I said, pointing and leaning closer to him. I tapped his chest for emphasis.

“Hey, some of my best friends are poets,” Esther said.

At her comment Squeak looked up as if startled. It was as if we both had lost track of where we were and that Esther was with us.

“Just sayin’.” Esther smirked, as if she was teasing us. And she must have been. After all, we were her best friends. Did she even know anyone who wrote poetry? Could Darren be a poet? “Jocks” weren’t seen as having an aptitude for language, but stereotypes were just broad generalizations for a group of people. They never truly reflected the individual.

She finished loading her backpack for morning classes and closed her locker. She motioned for us to follow her and then began walking toward the stairs that led to the junior-class homerooms.

Squeak turned his full focus on me once again. “Poets are, however, experts in love.”

I snorted dismissively.

“Oh, come on, Bee. Against all odds some people find themselves together.” He paused and held my gaze with his. It became awkward almost immediately. It felt as if he were trying to get me to answer a question. But he hadn’t asked me anything. I looked away.

Squeak took my arm and pulled me down the hallway, quickly catching up with Esther.

“Forget it, Iris. Even if what you’re saying about neuroscience is spot on—” Esther started.

“It is,” I said.

“There’s a bit of cosmic chance and chaos and a butterfly flapping its wings in Paducah that you can’t account for. No matter how hard we try to be in control, some things are a mystery, and I like that,” Squeak said.

But that was science’s purpose, taking the mystery out of life. There were some mysteries left, but this was only a half mystery at most. All the more reason for scientists to continue to test and confirm findings. Half mysteries had one foot in fact. The other foot would follow. It didn’t always follow quickly. That was science. You asked the same question repeatedly until you found the answer that always worked. Or you found the right question.

“We aren’t in control because we don’t know enough. Everything we do is explainable. Maybe it doesn’t seem logical, but we can track it back to a survival strategy in our evolutionary past. The world has changed so fast our brain’s wiring hasn’t had time to catch up with our modern environment. Once you have all the right information, people make sense. They have to.” After all, I’d been working on understanding people since I first realized I was surrounded.

“Bee, no they don’t.…” Squeak was now walking so close to me our shoulders touched. I needed a little space. I took a few quick steps to get slightly ahead of him.

I was starting to exhibit unusual signs of awkwardness. Because of Squeak? It didn’t make sense but something had triggered my stress response, and Squeak was right there. Therefore, he must be the source of my increasing sense of unbalance. Or maybe I was dehydrated. That could explain my odd mood. I just needed to drink more water and get more sleep. And Squeak, his pituitary had to knock it off as well. His newly matured masculine traits were unnerving. Too much change too soon always put me on edge.

As we headed up the staircase, I noticed his T-shirt, the kind colleges send you when you’ve been accepted and they’re hoping for a commitment. Lewis and Clark. A small private college—in Oregon.

“Oh.” My mouth went dry. I forced myself to focus on Esther. “Well, like I said, it’s simple chemistry. Studies prove adrenaline and oxytocin spikes in the brain create not only attraction to a person, but also a deep bond between two people, if done right. One that can be easily translated to love.” As I looked at Esther, her eagerness about prom this morning prompted an exciting, a toe-tinglingly exciting, idea. One that took my focus far away from Squeak’s shirt. “Hey, what if I helped you use my knowledge of the proven ways to enhance attraction to help you subtly persuade Darren to ask you to prom?” Inspiration didn’t come often, but when it did, it really did.

Squeak barked a laugh. I glared at him. He stopped, but the deep wrinkling around his eyes told me he was sincerely amused, which also meant he thought it was a ridiculous proposal. He thought I couldn’t do it.

Esther’s eyes widened and she grinned. As she looked back and forth between Squeak and me, her excitement was so evident that even I had no doubt she was thrilled.

“Oh, come on. You can’t possibly believe you’d be able to set up situations that could automatically release hormones, much less have him fall instantly into pop-the-prom-question mode,” he said to me, and then turned to Esther. “Besides, even if you do whatever Bee dreams up and he does ask you to prom, it wouldn’t prove anything. If I know you at all, you’ve been working on the poor guy for a while now. He’s probably going to ask you as soon as he gets up the nerve. Hell, better yet, you could ask him.”

Esther stopped a few yards from our homeroom. “I can’t,” Esther said, alarm clear in her voice.

“Why not?” Squeak asked.

“What if he says no? I mean—I can’t.”

“It would be fascinating to try some of these theories out. They are sure to increase his interest in you so much he’ll be driven to ask you,” I said. This would be awesome. Real life as a laboratory. How exciting was that? The tingling left my feet and was now making my fingers tap against my backpack strap.

“It would be a waste of time, and who knows, whatever you two pull might freak him out. Then Esther totally blows her chance,” Squeak protested.

“A majority of the research I’ve read indicates it wouldn’t take much. Induce a little adrenaline, add some extended eye contact along with proven mating readiness cues, and she can’t lose,” I insisted. Squeak enjoyed a good debate, but denying flat-out solid research was not like him at all.

“Whoa, missy, I didn’t say anything about looking to mate, at least not yet,” Esther said. She punctuated the last bit with a smirk and a waggle of her eyebrows.

Squeak took a step closer to me. He glanced at Esther, and they traded some look I didn’t get a chance to decipher before he lightly took my arm and pulled me a few steps away.

“Listen, Bee, can we please just drop this? I wanted to talk to you this morning about some stuff. I’m not around tonight, and I won’t be free again until sometime this weekend. We should focus on just hanging together, you know, before graduation stuff starts eating up even more of my time. Why bother with something that isn’t going to do anything anyway?”

Esther slid over and began to lean into the space between us. She was just about to insert herself into Squeak’s new topic of conversation when something distracted her. Her whole body turned as her eyes followed the student who was walking toward us down the hall.

I followed her gaze. As he passed, I saw that it was Theo Grant, the school’s track-and-field star and captain of the team. He was undeniably strong, tall, and blond, with noticeable ice-blue eyes. He was the quintessential popular male.

It was unusual for Squeak to be dismissing something I could easily do to help Esther in her dateless predicament. Well, if he didn’t think it would do anything…

“Fine, I’ll prove it to you. Not only will Esther get the prom date of her choice, but I’ll convince Theo Grant by scientific means to ask me to prom.” I tapped my foot. This was far more interesting than the looming threat of school ending and having to think and, much worse, talk about Squeak leaving, perhaps forever. I rocked back on my heels and then caught myself.

“Oh, come on! There’s no way in hell that would work,” Squeak said. His lowered brows and wide eyes were clear signs of exasperation.

Esther hooked a thumb in Squeak’s direction. “I hate to agree with him, but Theo is way out of our league. Not only is he a superstar around here, but he is seriously hot.”

“Prom is a little less than three weeks away. There’s no chance he doesn’t have a date. Plus, he’s got a girlfriend,” Squeak said. His disdain for this alpha male was more than obvious.

“Um, Princess Pom-Pom just dumped him, like, over-the-weekend dumped him,” Esther said as she crossed her arms under her breasts and thrust her chest out, more likely in indignation than exhibition.

“I didn’t hear about that. How do you know about it?” Squeak said.

“Well, of course you didn’t hear about it, why would you? And don’t forget, I’m Esther the Pester, I see all and know all.”

Squeak frowned thoughtfully. “She hasn’t said anything about it.”

“Why would she tell you?” Esther asked. Her disbelief was evident in her tone.

“I see her for an hour after her cheer squad practice most days. We talk every day,” he said.

Esther and I asked in unison, “Why?”

“She hired me to be her physics tutor to the sweet tune of thirty-five bucks an hour, cash. That’s why.”

“And you didn’t tell us this?” Esther asked, her voice climbing in pitch.

“Why would you care who I’m tutoring?”

“Any intel on the power brokers in high school is good to have. When it has to do with someone like the captain of the cheerleading squad, yes we care.”

Squeak looked at me. “Do you?” His tone was quiet and hesitant.

“Not really,” I said. Because it was true. I had no reason to care about the cheerleading squad or if Squeak was spending the time he normally spent with me with some athletic, and attractive, socially significant female. Why would I?

Squeak sighed. “No, of course not.”

“Well, I say you go for it. It’s a subject you haven’t really thought about—prom, I mean. So you don’t know much about it, the social customs and all. I would think you might find it fascinating, plus I can see what works best before trying it out on Darren,” Esther said. Her enthusiastic smile replaced her expression of shock at Squeak’s failure to inform her of his possible source for insider gossip.

“This is a bad idea.” Squeak seemed more resigned than upset, like he had been a few minutes ago. I really didn’t know what was prompting his change in mood and attitude.

He reached out and gently tugged my ponytail. I let him. “Nothing I say will change your mind about this, will it? You’re really excited about helping Esther and this… experiment, aren’t you?”

“I am,” I said.

“And I’ve never been able to talk you out of something you’re this excited about. But—keep me in the loop, okay? If nothing else, I can be there to help you out if and when things go wrong. Who knows, this experiment might finally convince you that science isn’t always the answer. Plus, it could help everyone get the prom date they really want,” he said.

Esther’s eyes grew wide, and Squeak gave her an intent look before his eyes came back to rest on me. Then he backed up, saluted, and slipped off into the now-thick morning crowd.

The first bell rang, signaling the three minutes we had to get to homeroom and start the school day. “You know, this is going to be very interesting,” Esther said in a thoughtful and serious tone. “Come on, let’s get to homeroom.” She headed to the door of the classroom.

I followed her. I needed to get to my desk; I had a hypothesis to formulate.

Chapter Three

Squeak’s preconceived conclusions were wrong. There wasn’t anything that couldn’t be explained in terms of science given enough time and data. No, I wouldn’t live in a world where Squeak’s thinking was in any way correct. It was crucial to show him that romantic feelings could be controlled, and that by doing so, we would be less vulnerable to our randomly evolved systems of fallibility. I seriously suspected he assumed his theories or lack thereof would be proven correct. And they wouldn’t be. He needed to understand how endocrinology and our basic wiring put us at risk for—well, at risk of someone like Pom-Pom, who might have ulterior motives for hiring him. Such as gaining his affections so he would take her to prom, thereby saving her social status. Someone of her position in the hierarchy of high school couldn’t risk being seen as not worthy of a prom date.

The importance of the experiment hit me with such clarity that I was unable to stop myself. “That’s it!” I said louder than I should have, considering I was talking to myself and sitting in homeroom. Jenna Pratt, the girl behind me, rolled her eyes and expelled a puff of air that sounded a bit like “ugh.”

“She’s so weird,” Paris, sitting next to Jenna, said.

“Weird and Aspie,” Jenna replied.

I didn’t respond. It wasn’t an unusual situation, but I had managed to keep a low enough profile for the past few years that I didn’t often evoke such reactions with my social faux pas. Especially since autism spectrum disorders had gotten so much attention in the media and education that most students knew something about them. Some people were now more understanding of neurodiversity, but in my experience, it had given some students new vocabulary to use to tease and bully. In the long scheme of life, their lack of understanding and tact didn’t matter. But Esther thought it did, and as usual, she jumped to my defense.

“She’s not on the autism spectrum. She has nonverbal learning disability. At least get it right. Oh, and by the way, ‘Aspie’ isn’t an insult. It’s an honor and a gift, as is NVLD. She can do stuff you can’t even imagine with your so-called normal brain. She’s going to change the world. But don’t worry, she’ll still tip you when you deliver her pizza.” She turned back around again, very pleased with herself.

I knew the dead silence behind us was an indication of the two either being confused by what Esther had just dumped on them or not wanting to deal with her.

Esther smiled at me. “She shoots, she scores,” she said, and pantomimed tossing a basketball. Though I didn’t like drawing that much attention to myself, her actions made me grin.

“All right, Miss Oplinger, while I don’t have a rule about talking quietly during homeroom after morning announcements, I do discourage shouting.”

“Sorry, Ms. Jensen.”

She smiled at us and winked. I moved my chair closer to Esther so we could talk softly.

“ ‘Aspie’ doesn’t fall that far off the mark. It’s actually a good shorthand for some of my social difficulties and anxiety. Thanks for trying.”

Esther was very smart about people.

She and Squeak were my best friends and the people, other than my parents, who understood me best. We have evolved to take care of our blood relatives and close friends. It pays off in a myriad of ways: better chance to be protected when the need arises, which in turn, betters your chances of continuing to be included in the gene pool.

And sometimes she and Squeak operated with less than logical thinking. Their occasional purchase of scratch-off lottery tickets was a prime example. They were certain of a win every time one of them came out of the mini-mart clutching one. The dopamine rush was short lived, immediately followed by disappointment.

My father, a man who made his living with numbers and statistics, had tried to explain how their chances were one in ten; they might never win. For example, if you had nine white marbles and one black marble and you randomly picked a marble, you might never pick a black one. Plus, if you did win once in a while—which just fed the reward system, making you want more—the lottery didn’t indicate what the real chances of the big win were. More likely one in tens of thousands. The one-dollar wins were often just enough to keep the uninformed feeling lucky. If they were so easily susceptible to such blatant scams, who knew what else they could fall for?

Which was why it was so important to show them how our brains and bodies could blind us—literally in some cases—to others’ social manipulation.

It was so clear. Why hadn’t I recognized the real reason I had to prove those theories earlier that morning? It was this: Friends don’t let friends date drunk. If I could prove this and get the outcome I expected, it would show them how easy it was for unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of them. This would be my chance to protect them.

For me, going to kindergarten and suddenly being surrounded by people who weren’t family, I had realized that one mind was forever locked away from every other mind. It had been terrifying. There was no way to know everything about a person, or predict his or her reactions to random stimuli. You can never truly know another person.

But if I could understand human behavior with science, then it was a puzzle that could be solved for everyone. If I could save them from being fooled by some chemically enhanced submissiveness brought on by spending too much time with the likes of Princess Pom-Pom, not to mention sycophantic salespeople at cosmetics counters and clothing stores, it was my duty to do so.

If I failed, Squeak would be unbearable, and worse, he’d probably be conned into going to prom with Pom-Pom, as I suspected might have been part of her plan when she hired Squeak as a tutor. Not that whom he took to prom mattered, but Pom-Pom just wasn’t a suitable date for Squeak. She just—she just wasn’t. He deserved someone who could match his intellect and hold her own in conversation or debate, much like, say, I could.

I needed to decide where to start. What exactly did I want to prove? I’d need to keep the parameters narrow. The more specific and focused my theory and hypotheses were, the greater chance I had of success. Tapping my toes, I started writing.

* * *

It was nearly the end of homeroom, and I had filled two pages with differently worded hypotheses. The bell rang, announcing the end of homeroom. It surprised me, and I stood up so fast my chair fell backward, hitting the floor with a bang. No one paid much attention, since everyone else in the room had just woken up from their morning nap and were pushing between desks to leave.

Esther bent down and quickly righted the chair. “Hey, sorry to take off like this, but I need to catch Susan Schilling before Animal Studies starts. I need to nab her notes.”

Esther was at the door before I had the chance to respond. In fact, most people were already out of the classroom. A teeming mass of adolescent humanity clogged the hallways. As I pushed the chair in under the desk, I was starting to panic at the thought of having to maneuver through the crowd. I scrambled to get my notebooks and papers gathered.

Sometimes, when I needed to stay calm, I ran through the periodic table. It’s similar to when people count to ten when they’re angry. It takes the mind’s focus off the offending stimulus long enough for the fight-or-flight response to diminish.

I glanced at the doorway. I really did not like crowds. The noise of indistinguishable loud voices, people running into me and shoving past, made it impossible to think. Sometimes I froze and couldn’t move until things quieted down. However, it had been a long time since I’d had to hide in a stall in the girls’ bathroom until it was over. Just thinking about it—hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium…

“I’ll write you a note for first period if you want to wait here until the halls clear,” Ms. Jensen said. She was a good teacher. I’d had her my freshman year for study support. I didn’t need the academic help but, the school counselor had explained to me, having a quiet place to go during the school day would benefit my studies and reduce my stress level. Ms. Jensen understood.

“Thank you.” I was still organizing my highlighters—yellow for urgent items, green for factual information, blue for theoretical speculation on the part of the textbook’s author, and orange for things to dispute in the next class. I lifted my head and managed a smile. “I have Intro to Psych with Mr. Boyer,” I said.

“He won’t have any issues with you coming in late, especially since you’ve been on time all year.” She began filling out the hall pass. I put my highlighters in their case.

Thanks to Ms. Jensen, I would have a chance to recover my focus. That was crucial, since I needed to come up with distinct test situations that could be carried out without Theo becoming suspicious. If this experiment was going to run smoothly, I needed to brainstorm ideas as soon as possible. For that, I needed to include Squeak. His input was always invaluable no matter what the situation. After all, he did say he wanted to be kept “in the loop.” I slipped my phone out of my bag and tried to unobtrusively text Squeak and Esther. Meet up in Library tomorrow 4th period.

Chapter Four


Days to Prom: 18

Possible Hypothesis: Feelings of romantic love are unconscious physical, neurochemical, and hormonal reactions to external stimuli.

I was the first one in the library. I arranged my notebook and the handout I’d prepared neatly in front of me on the table.

Squeak arrived soon after. When he saw me, he spread his arms wide, indicating the empty space, and asked, “Esther?”

“Not yet,” I said, relieved he’d come. I hadn’t been entirely certain he would after his negative response to most of what I proposed yesterday. I hadn’t heard from him last night nor seen him this morning. I had thought he was absent and perhaps ill, until I walked into psych and felt the familiar tug on my ponytail. However, I didn’t get a chance to speak to him then, either, and spent second and third periods anticipating our planned meeting and seeing him, or not.

He sat, and after a few moments he leaned forward and reached across the table to place his hand on mine, stilling my fussing with my handouts. “Hey, look at me.”

I did. Meeting his eyes was difficult today because I wasn’t sure he’d be supportive. So for some reason I was staring at his lips. I forced myself to look instead at his forehead.

He sighed. I was sure he recognized my old coping mechanism, but he didn’t say anything. “Okay, listen. It was a fun verbal volley yesterday, but I think you’re taking this idea too far.” He looked at me like he did when he was trying to explain someone’s reaction to something I’d said that was unintentionally hurtful or insulting.

It happened sometimes. Had I done so? I didn’t know how to respond, worried I’d say something wrong.

I thought of yesterday morning and the strange reactions I’d been having to Squeak. It was unusual for me to be concerned about what he thought of me or what I said. Mostly because he was always so understanding despite my bluntness and lack of social grace. But I was nervous.

Perhaps his absence was making me less accustomed to him, and therefore I needed time to “get used to” him again. I looked down at his hand, which was still on mine. At least his touch wasn’t setting me off. He was one of the few who could touch me without triggering all my sensory alarms. Again, that was because I’d become desensitized to it over the fourteen or so years I’d been in nearly daily contact with him. At least that was still comfortable for me. The idea of it no longer being pleasant gave me a sinking feeling.

“Why are you so set on doing this?” he asked as he pulled his hand away and sat back in his chair.

I stood and started pacing and kept my eyes glued to the floor rather than look at him. I needed to focus and explain so he understood I wasn’t doing this just to prove him wrong. Of course, I was, but… “I’m doing this because I need to prove that things, like attraction, can be out of our conscious control. If we understand the fact that the endocrine system can hijack the rational brain, we’re more likely to recognize when we’re vulnerable to being used or hurt. We’ll all benefit from this. You’ll be better able to make genuinely logical choices.” I paused and looked up. “You’ll be safer. You’ll be able to better understand other people and what’s driving them and you.” And so would I.

He had to remember the mixed-year phys ed classes we had in middle school and when they covered the dance section of the curriculum. How Donnie Howell had smiled at me, talked to me, gotten the whole class to make a circle around me to clap and cheer while I danced. At the time I hadn’t understood that he and the rest of the class weren’t impressed by my dancing. Instead they were making fun of me. I was the entertainment.

Squeak and Esther had listened patiently for days while I recounted the story about how popular I had been that day, how well I had danced, and how everyone had said so.

It wasn’t until a few years later, when I was better at recognizing social cues and understood what humiliation meant, that I felt the pain and the shame of my ignorance. I wasn’t mad at Esther and Squeak for not saying anything; my only friends had tried to protect me and my feelings. I had been more vulnerable than them then, but now I felt it was my chance to be the protector, as they were now clouded by the suppression of logic by romantic and physical attraction. I’d learned a lot from my less-than-positive peer interactions, but there was so much more to learn. Part of learning was putting things into practice. The best way to see things in others was to first discover how they manifested in yourself.

Squeak didn’t respond right away. We had discussed in psych that morning how people are uncomfortable with silence during a conversation and especially during an argument. Rather than launch into some additional list of physiological symptoms of, well, everything I could think of, I resisted the urge to fill the silence.

Squeak leaned close again and held his hands open and faceup. It was a posture that indicated he was about to be honest and open. That made me more uncertain about what he was going to say than if he’d stepped back and crossed his arms, effectively closing himself off.

“Bee, that’s really sweet. But love doesn’t make us vulnerable. It makes us human, and being human means we’re vulnerable. Nobody is ever safe from anything. It’s called being alive. Most people do fine relying on their instincts about this sort of stuff.” Squeak’s brows pulled together in a visible sign of concern as he sat back and clasped his hands. Signaling the end of the conversation.

Instincts? The only instincts we still had were of the fight-or-flight variety and, of course, the drive to reproduce. Any other instincts we might have had in our more primitive evolutionary past were lost when we left the cave and planted beans. That couldn’t be his real reason for telling me not to move forward on this.

“I am doing this. It’s important.”

“Then why am I here, if not to be the voice of reason?”

“Because when you said you wanted to know what I was going to do, I assumed you meant the specifics,” I said, picking up the paper with my hypothesis outlined for emphasis.

“And do you know why I want to know what’s going on? It’s not about prom. That’s not the issue. The issue is that I know you. And some of this”—he indicated the paper I still held—“will probably work in ways you can’t predict. One way or another, I don’t see how this ends well… for you or for me,” said Squeak. Not understanding what he meant by the last bit—“for me”?—I chose to ignore it.

Esther arrived at that moment, saving me from the uncomfortable and increasingly confusing conversation. Rushing up to our table, she said, “Let the games begin!” Squeak shushed her and smiled. He put his feet up, stacking them on the table while simultaneously tipping his chair back and lacing his fingers behind his head. “All present and accounted for. I move to start this meeting,” he said.

“I second that,” Esther said. I was still standing across the table from them.

“I can’t stay much longer. So to get things rolling and therefore wrapped up sooner than later, is that your plan?” he asked, looking pointedly at my papers.

“Of course. The hypothesis and the theory—”

“A prom theory?” Esther asked.

“Prom theory. That’s excellent! Good work,” I said. This meeting was off to a promising start.

“May I move to add to the meeting notes that I’m pointing out that a theory is just that—a theory? And ‘theory’ is defined as ‘an assumption, an idea formed by speculation or conjecture,’ ” said Squeak, reading the last from his phone. Sometimes I wished he’d never learned to Google.

“It’s a scientific principle to explain phenomena,” I corrected.

“It’s a guess,” Squeak insisted.

“Fine. It’s an educated guess,” I said.

Squeak crossed his arms and nodded. “That works.”

“Good. Now here’s my hypothesis. Romantic feelings of love are simply a neurochemical and hormonal response to the environment and situational stimuli. The triggers of mate-seeking behavior are increased through the senses, in particular sight, but also including smell, touch, taste, and feel.”

“Taste?” Esther asked.

“Yes.” I nodded.

Esther put her elbows on the table and leaned forward. “This is going to be fascinating.”

“As I was saying, when the senses encounter stimuli, as in this case another person, the brain interprets that individual’s traits as signs of healthy and successful mate material.” I paused, waiting for their response. They said nothing, just looked at me. “Well, what do you think? Is it specific enough?”

“I’m not the one to ask, but it sounds good to me,” Esther said.

“It’s a guess,” said Squeak.

I ignored him.

“I’ve prepared a handout.” I slid them each a copy. “On the front is a list of the experimental categories and general procedures. On the back is the list of possible materials needed.”

Squeak removed his feet from where they had been resting on the edge of the table. His chair rocked forward, the front legs hitting the carpeted floor with a soft thud. He immediately reached for and flipped the page. He scanned it and, incredulous, asked, “Fresh baked bread? Wobbly ladder? Closet with an external lock?”

“Well, they’re possibilities. There may be more easily attainable and manageable materials that will suit the purposes of the experiment.”

“Okay, I might know why you want a wobbly ladder, and, God help me, I’m pretty sure I know why the closet is on the list, but fresh baked bread? Are you going to make him a sandwich?” Squeak asked.

“Well, if she’s going to lock him in a closet, the least she can do is set him up with a good sandwich while he’s in there,” Esther said. “Hey! I love to bake—want to come over tomorrow to make bread?” She scanned the list again. “High heels? Have you ever worn high heels?”

“Well, no, but that’s not important right now. What’s important is that we consider what increases the modern sense of attractiveness.” So much for a good start.

“Hmm, healthy, well-groomed physical appearance. We can give each other mani-pedis,” Esther said. “Hey, wait. You’re going in a seriously girly direction. Are you sure you don’t just want an excuse to get a makeover? And what about Squeak?” I wasn’t sure if she was teasing or not.

“What about me?” Squeak asked.

“Are you going to be part of the makeover? Wouldn’t be such a bad idea—you getting a manicure,” Esther said as she peered down at his hands, which still held the papers I’d passed out.

Squeak ignored her and started in on the list again. “Facial feature analysis software?”

“It would be useful in determining my facial symmetry. Symmetrical faces are universally seen as beautiful and are good indicators of physical health and healthy genetics,” I said, trying to sound authoritative. Both of them were being extremely frustrating. With the software I could create a photo with minor adjustments to my features and then figure out how to use makeup to help my face appear more symmetrical.

“It’s just an idea. Remember, I have only a little over two weeks to complete these experiments in time for prom. I need all the ideas I can get so I can choose the best ones. So can we talk about the materials section later? I need your help coming up with a schedule to best carry out these experiments. Please, turn the list over so I can explain the order of experiments listed that would optimize the results,” I said.

Squeak did so with a roll of his eyes and an exasperated “Okay.”

Esther flipped it over. Her eyes grew wide. “Wait a minute, how did you get into the office to use the double-sided copier?”

“I have connections,” I said.

“I guess so! Mr. Grabner sits guard in the printing center,” she said.

“Can we not talk about this right now?”

“Okay, but this isn’t over,” she said.

“Nothing ever is,” Squeak said under his breath as he tipped his chair back onto two legs. Esther shot a foot out from under the table and kicked one of the back legs of his chair. Squeak flailed a little to keep from falling off as it lurched forward onto all four legs.

She bit her bottom lip to keep from laughing.

What did I expect? It was spring. The entire student body was excited by the warm weather and increasing daylight, which resulted in higher levels of vitamin D and serotonin. Both of which were energy and mood enhancers. I was never going to get them to focus. “Please,” I begged again.

Squeak put his hands on the table and pushed himself to standing. “Bee, you’ve obviously put a lot of work into this. But I’m sorry, I’m having real trouble supporting you. To be honest, I don’t think I want to be around when both of you are acting, well, let’s face it, a little desperate.” He picked up his backpack and pushed his chair in.

He was leaving?

“Is Pom-Pom waiting for you? I know how important your time is with her.” I was surprised by the words that had come out of my mouth. What was wrong with me? This was his job. It was important to him. He did need the money. But I was irritated and angry that he was leaving so soon. During such times my “filter” didn’t always function well. It was one thing to think something. It was another thing to actually say it.

I could tell he was taken aback by my comment. But strangely, he also looked a little… was that smug? Or pleased? He and Esther exchanged a look. They both reacted like they had passed some crucial information between them, and Esther nodded in a way that clearly affirmed whatever Squeak was “saying.” They obviously understood each other at a glance. There was so much to learn about the mind—maybe telepathic communication really was a thing.

Squeak glanced up at the industrial-style clock above the doors of the bathrooms. “Speaking of tutoring.”

“But…,” I started, but didn’t go on because I didn’t know how to convince him to stay. What I did know was that I had to get this endeavor on the fast track.

And I was about to introduce and discuss engaging the other person’s senses. The more senses I could appeal to, the more immediate and, hopefully, successful the results would be. I needed to start with sight. The only way forward was to be in Theo’s line of sight as often as possible. Nearly every time he looked up, if I could manage it. And for that I needed Squeak’s help.

Theo Grant was a senior, I was a junior, and our paths rarely, if ever, crossed. Like most of Hillcrest High, he didn’t know I existed. Only Squeak would be able to get the information I needed before I could get started. Unfortunately, it involved him talking to Pom-Pom. The time to ask him was now.

“Bee, I have to go. I’ll see you guys later.” He waved good-bye and headed to the large double doors.

“I’ll be right back. Stay here,” I said to Esther. Before she could assure me she would be there when I returned—I knew she would—I walked quickly after him, following him out into the hallway.

Chapter Five

Squeak, wait. I just need to ask a favor,” I said to his back as I exited the library and saw that he was already a few yards away.

He stopped, turned, and walked back to me. “Is this about prom theory?”

“Yes,” I said.

His shoulders slumped, and he sighed, shaking his head in a dramatic manner. “I know you are doing a lot of this to help Esther. She doesn’t need much help, but she could use a little. Most people would never guess it, but we both know she can be shy and not as confident as she acts.”

“Yes and no. This is more about Theo,” I said.

The muscles in his jaw twitched. He was not pleased with my response. “Seriously? This whole thing sounds less like science and more like testing out flirting methods. Something I obviously know so little about. So I can’t see what kind of favor you need from me.”

“You seem to be doing fine flirting with Pom-Pom,” I muttered.

Squeak laughed. “You think I’m flirting with Taylor? Wow, you need Esther’s help more than she needs yours. Hey, wait, are you jealous?” He grinned, and a lighter demeanor replaced his attitude of seconds before.

“What? No! Where did that even come from?” I frowned up at him—was he even taller than he was yesterday? He should really get his pituitary checked. Too much was changing too fast. And his teasing wasn’t making any of this easier. He raised a questioning eyebrow and smirked.

“I’m not jealous. Well, maybe I am, but only because you are wasting what little time is left of the school year with her. Instead of with me—me and Esther. I don’t trust her. I get why you are tutoring, but why her? Not that it matters whom you tutor. I just mean…” I shrugged and looked away. How had the conversation turned to this? The topic could lead to only one thing—talking about the one thing I didn’t want to talk about. His leaving for good.

He reached out and loosely took my hand. “Look, I’ve got a chance to do some easy work for some serious cash. Something I need more than getting you, or even Esther, a prom date. I hate to be a downer, but I have some real-life decisions to start thinking about.” He dropped my hand and shrugged. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and looked away from me, staring at nothing somewhere in the distance.

I couldn’t think of anything to say.

He looked back and sighed. “I kind of owe her. If her parents hadn’t paid me up front for a bunch of sessions, I would’ve never been able to get my college applications out at all. They were late enough as it was.”

As much as I disliked this whole situation with Pom-Pom, I did need his connection to her to start my experiments. And the money the job provided him would greatly aid his college plans. So we both needed her help in the short term. However, though I wasn’t sure why, every time the Pom-Pom subject came up—which since yesterday morning felt like all the time—I became more committed to proving my theory of human attraction. I needed to get this over with. “Please, I just need one favor,” I said.

“What?” he asked warily.

“Get Theo Grant’s daily routine and class schedule from Princess Pom-Pom.”

“And how am I—why would I—”

“Shush.” I put my hand on his chest as the door to the library swung open. One of the teachers stepped out and, closing the door behind him, turned left without looking our way and went down the back stairwell. His footsteps echoed as they faded.

Squeak watched him walk away before turning his attention back to me. “How am I supposed to do that? ‘Oh, by the way, my friend wants to stalk your ex. Could you tell me where he goes from the time he wakes up until he passes out after the track party?’ ”

His chest was unusually warm, hot even, and his complexion appeared reddish. Maybe he was getting ill. I dropped my hand from his chest and then placed it across his forehead.

“What the hell?” He pulled my hand away.

“I was just checking to see if you had a fever.” I was mumbling and suddenly unable to concentrate. I looked at my hand.

“Why?” He looked stupefied.

“I just—well, your chest seemed really hot.”

“I’m a mammal, Bee. Mammals have a nice toasty body temperature. See?” He took my hands, wrapping both of his around mine. “You, however, have cold hands. You always do. Maybe you need a little more time on your rock under the heat lamp.”

“Stop it.” I yanked my hands out from between his.


I turned away. I could feel my face getting hot. I never blushed. Ever. Certainly not when Squeak teased me. Something was definitely wrong with me. It felt like someone was changing the rules.

He placed his hands lightly on my shoulders and gently urged me to turn back to face him. “Bee, your face is bright red. Oh my God.” He laughed a little. “I’ve never seen you blush. It’s cute. Did I embarrass you? I didn’t know I could.” His grin was huge.

“You didn’t embarrass me. I do not get embarrassed, especially not by anything you say or do,” I said. I knew it made sense due to our upbringing, but why did he always have to act like a sibling?

He crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall. “I think she doth protest too much,” he said. My mother would say his teasing grin and mussed, dark, wavy hair were charming. It made me want to pinch him and tell him to get a haircut.

“I’m going to regret Esther getting you to take drama club with her two years ago. Lookit, are you going to ask Pom-Pom for his schedule or not?”

“Quizzing Taylor about her ex is going to seem a bit obvious and make both of us look like stalkers,” he said.

“I guess it is a bit obvious. It would really undermine the results if word got back to Theo about what we’re doing,” I said. But how else would I get the information I needed?

“What you’re doing. And yeah, it wouldn’t help much.” He unfolded his arms and pushed away from the wall. His grin was gone.

“Okay. Let me think. You said she was chatty, right?” I asked.

“Yeah. I get paid by the hour, so it’s like overtime for me. It feels like overtime.”

That was good news. If he got tired of listening to her constantly talk about herself and gossip about everyone else, he’d be more receptive to helping me. Plus, he’d realize this tutoring job was far more trouble than it was worth. And then we could get back to normal.

“So you get her talking. Say things like, ‘I heard you broke up with Theo.’ That alone should set her off. Let her gather up some momentum, and then slip in comments like, ‘I bet track really keeps him busy. He probably didn’t have time for you.’ Or, ‘That’s got to be rough—you’re probably together in a bunch of classes.’ ”

Squeak rolled his eyes. “Bee, come on—”

“Use offhand suggestions and subtly point out something that will stick in her subconscious. Then when you set her up with a question or a choice, you’ve already influenced her to do what you want! I know you can do it.”

“You really ought to go into marketing. There’s the making of a grand manipulator in you, or at least a prosecuting attorney.” He was back in teasing mode. His easy smile, the one I knew and expected from Squeak, lightened his features.

I suddenly realized I’d been holding my breath waiting for his response. Of all people, Squeak shouldn’t make me anxious. I relaxed, and the air rushed from my lungs. I smiled up at him. “It’s nice to know you’re thinking about my future. But I need you to stay focused on this right now.”

He gave an exasperated sigh. “This will make you happy?” he asked with a slight tilt to his head. “I won’t have to do anything else?”

I nodded. “Nothing else, except admit defeat when the time comes.”

“Oh, Bee, damn it. Fine. I can’t say no to you when you look at me like that.”

Like what? I wasn’t sure what I was doing to influence him, I was just glad that whatever it was had worked.

“I can do this one thing for you, since I’ll be getting paid. But I won’t be able to get the information to you until later tonight. If she does what you say she will, it’s going to take at least a couple of hours to get through the stuff I need to so she’ll be ready for tomorrow’s quiz.”

If he wasn’t able to get it to me before the end of the school day, I would lose a day when I could otherwise have been making progress. I’m sure my concern over the time lag was apparent, because he sighed before saying, “Enough, knock it off. I already said I’d do it.”

“Knock what off?” I asked.

“Looking at me like I just broke your balloon.”

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, since I had an aversion to balloons and their potential for high, squeaky sounds when rubbed. Not to mention, a balloon popping close to me was painfully loud and, I admit it, scary.

Before I could ask him to clarify, a high-pitched squeal sounded from somewhere in the hallway behind Squeak. He spun around, both of us peering down the hallway to see who or what had made the noise. Speaking of painful sounds…

Princess Pom-Pom.

Now? Maybe this interruption wasn’t so bad. The sooner he could get the information, the sooner he’d be able to get back to me. She raced up and took his arm.

“I found you! I’ve been looking everywhere,” she said. “Where were you? I’ve been waiting.” She tilted her head down, looking at him with upturned eyes. Her bottom lip puffed out in a pout. A clear indication of submissiveness mixed with disappointment. That was a posture and look that was intended to incite a protective response from the male, as well as guilt. Pom-Pom was obviously trying not only to make him care about her, but also to induce enough guilt so that he would be driven to act in ways that would please her and relieve said feelings of guilt.

Still holding his arm, she placed her other hand on his chest. I had to stop myself from asking her if he felt unusually hot. No need to call attention to Squeak’s body; it would just make her notice him more and might even increase her interest in him. I didn’t have time to deal with any additional Squeak unavailability. I certainly didn’t want to have to lose his companionship any sooner than necessary, and that would be inevitable with the addition of a girlfriend to his remaining time at school and in town. Though there was really nothing to be concerned about in that department, because honestly, if and when Squeak did get a girlfriend, it certainly wouldn’t be someone who couldn’t pass physics without a tutor.

“I got permission for us to use the first-floor conference room next to guidance. Cool?”

“Sure,” he said. He was smiling, but his hands were stuffed, once again, deeply into his front pockets. A clear sign of reluctance. I was a little shocked to realize his reaction toward her pleased me.

Her soft laughter in response to his agreement wasn’t a grating sound and shouldn’t have made me reflexively cringe—but it did.

She touched her hair, tucking it behind one ear. Squeak had to know what she was doing, even if she didn’t. I’d told him about contact readiness cues the very first time I read about them. Maybe I shouldn’t have. If he recognized she was interested in him as more than just a tutor, it might not bode well for our friendship.

Pom-Pom leaned into him, pressing her breasts against his arm. “You’re such a lifesaver.” She leaned back and jumped up and down in small, quick movements. She had Squeak’s full attention now. Everything about him suddenly seemed more masculine, more flexed. He was my oldest and best friend, but that didn’t mean I wanted to see his primal male responses kick in the minute some female started to wiggle in front of him with what appeared to be great enthusiasm.

Did she really think hanging all over him would get her what she wanted? Well, she was wasting her time, I hoped. I realized she had yet to acknowledge my presence.

“So,” I said loudly, interrupting their flirting.

She turned her head and glared at me with narrowed eyes. A clear sign of suspicion. So that’s what they meant when they said, “If looks could kill.” Thank goodness they didn’t. I’d be sprawled facedown, heart stopped, right there in the middle of the hallway.

Ignoring her, I smiled sweetly at Squeak. “See you tonight. I’ll let my mom know you’re staying for dinner.”

Squeak had been looking down Princess Pom-Pom’s V-neck sweater. I mean, he was only human. And how could he possibly avoid it? She was a good deal shorter than him, and when he looked down at her, her breasts were right there.

He looked up, met my eyes, and smiled a Duchenne smile. It’s the kind of smile you can’t fake. The orbicularis oculi, the muscles around the eyes that lift your cheeks and wrinkle the skin around the eyes, aren’t under our conscious control. We control only the muscles nearest to the eye. That I had elicited an honest smile and Pom-Pom hadn’t made me irrationally pleased. But maybe it wasn’t such a silly reaction. She hadn’t won him over entirely, and that meant he was still mine—my best friend, that is.

“Yeah, I’d like that. I missed your mom’s cooking last week.” His voice softened, and he was talking to me and only me. It was obvious she’d been left out of this conversation whether she knew it or not. Given her popularity and success as a team leader, she must be in tune with social cues and would quickly realize she’d been left out. I moved closer to Squeak.

“My dad is still on a business trip, and my mom would love the extra mouth to feed. Besides, your dad’s working tonight, right?” When Squeak’s mother died, his father began taking the late shift at the automotive plant where he worked on the assembly line. He had become and still was a depressed and distant man. Squeak tried to make dinner for his dad on the nights he was home, but it didn’t do much to bring his father closer to him, despite the connection between food and a feeling of closeness and affection.

Squeak had developed the survival strategy of showing up at my house close enough to dinnertime that my mother would ask him to stay and eat with us. He would stay late into the evening on those nights. Later when we were in middle school and Esther became our friend, she would usually join us after dinner to do homework or convince us to watch some movie with little or no educational value.

Squeak’s playful mood dampened a bit. “Yeah, he is. Thanks, Bee.”

“Come on.” The princess was unhappy with not having Squeak’s full attention. She urged him back down the hallway toward the stairwell, presumably to head to their quiet, private room.

“See you later.” I emphasized every word and raised my voice to be sure he heard me.

He gave me a little wave, then turned around and let Princess Pom-Pom drag him away. The thought of him not enjoying being with her lifted my mood.

I’d have preferred it if there were something I could begin with that didn’t involve Squeak spending even more time with Pom-Pom. But given that she would have some crucial insight into Theo’s movements and even his preferences that I could then appeal to…

Maybe Squeak tutoring Pom-Pom wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Maybe.

I headed back into the library, where Esther and our plans were waiting.

Chapter Six

The ability to understand what is going on in other people’s heads is called theory of mind. It’s important for survival and navigating society. We developed the skill as soon as our brains had evolved to be large enough to handle more than finding food, sleeping, and mating. Rather than only focusing on the wants and needs of our own minds, we began to consider what was going on in others’. As social animals, it was a necessary survival tactic.

But like in all things, some humans are better at theorizing someone else’s thoughts than others. Esther was particularly good. To be honest, sometimes it was a little creepy, considering I never knew what she was thinking.

“Okay,” I said as I moved to the other end of the table to sit next to her. More than ready to get started, I pulled out the leather-bound notebook I used as a journal. Unlike many, I had no need to call this book a diary, as if it were a pen-and-paper confessional. I entered only observations that might prove to be important for one reason or another, as well as questions that needed further exploration and research. Sometimes Squeak got hold of it, but Esther never had, which explained her persistant curiosity.

“Oh my, that’s your little black book you never let me snoop through,” she said.

“Because you’ll say it’s boring.”

“There’s nothing boring about this. Show me!”

“Not a chance. Okay, so basically, the experiments are going to fall under four main categories. We’ll begin with priming, and then elements and methods of enhancing attraction. Then the role of adrenaline in the misattribution of arousal will follow, along with methods of increasing suggestibility. The overall goal is to create an attraction and emotional attachment between Theo Grant and me, resulting in him inviting me to prom.”

Esther chewed her lip. “I mean, that’s cool if it works between Darren and me, but between you and Theo? Do you mean you’ll fall for Theo if these experiments work?”

“No.” Would I? In the course of this would I unintentionally become awash in a wave of neurochemicals? Would these situations, these experiments, cause my lizard brain to react despite my logical mind? “Of course not. I don’t have any sort of instinctual reaction of attraction to him now, do I?”

“Do you?”

Definitely not. “No.”

Esther shifted in her seat and stared at me. It made me uncomfortable, so I looked away. “Maybe we need to think this through some more, so that we can catch anything that goes wrong early,” she said.

“Now you sound like Squeak. I have thought this through. The only thing that can go wrong is that he becomes attracted to me but doesn’t ask me to prom, thus giving Squeak enough ammunition to say I failed completely and that he was right all along.”

“You’re sure?” Esther asked, obviously starting to have second thoughts.

“I am. Completely confident. The science is too solid.” Solid enough, anyway.

“Okay, in that case”—Esther held out her arms in a grand gesture—“let’s go for it.”

“Great. I’ll need you to help me set up the experiments and make observations. Maybe you can take notes if we can figure out how you can observe the experiment without being noticed. You can try it out on Darren. Then we can write up an analysis and make plans for the next step based on what we learned.”

“No prob! I’m not part of Theo’s cheerleader groupies, so he has no reason to notice me. It also means you’re going to really have to stand out to get his attention.” Esther took my outline from the table and began to study it.

I reached around and pointed to the first heading on the page. “Here. Priming. You know what priming is, right?”

“It’s when you push the little button on the lawn mower three times before you start it,” she said.

I looked from the outline to her. “Huh?”

She laughed. “I know what priming is. You talked about it nonstop when you guys covered it in psych.”

“Oh, okay,” I said.

“Although, you should probably come over soon so I can show you how to use a lawn mower.”

“Sure,” I said. Esther had many odd preoccupations. Obviously, lawn care was one of them.

“Would you feel better if you explained what you mean by priming?” Esther asked.

“Yes, please.” I was relieved to have her back on topic. “The best definition I’ve found so far is from the Wikipedia entry.”

“Of course,” Esther said. “And how much did you correct the Wikipedia definition?”

“Oh, not much. It was quite succinct as it was. Just needed a little tweaking.” I skimmed down to the bottom of the page, where I’d listed a few terms I thought might need clarification. “Strictly speaking, it’s ‘an implicit memory effect in which exposure to one stimulus influences the response to another stimulus.’ ”

“And that means?”

“Let me back up a little so you can get a better picture of the different types of priming and how we can use it to get the desired outcome. There’s a region in the midbrain that’s called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area.”

Esther coughed.

I scowled at her, and she made a rolling-wheel gesture with one hand, which meant, Get to the point.

“Fine. Okay, basically when we see things that remind us of something we are previously familiar with and, perhaps, that is important to us, we transfer that importance to the new things that remind us of the old thing.”

Esther tapped her fingers on the table before pointing at me. “So if you do something that reminds him of Pom-Pom, he’ll pay more attention to you because you remind him of her. That could really backfire, since she dumped him.”

“That’s an important point. You’re right. But that wasn’t my plan. I need to do things or take on attributes he will notice. We’re hardwired to get excited by new things. We’re drawn to novelty without even knowing that’s what’s happening. So I need to be the new thing that catches his attention. Then we can set up other things that will grab his attention by causing him to recall me and all my unique newness.”

“Makes sense, but I could have told you that. No need to be poking around in the middle of your brain,” Esther said.

“Also, novel things motivate us to find out more about that thing. Each new stimulus gives you a little rush of motivation to explore, because it makes you anticipate a reward.”

“ ’Cause chemicals and the brain.”

I nodded. “Exactly.”

“So you need to run into him a lot and catch his attention. Once he sees you a bunch of times, he’ll want to know more about you. So he starts looking for you and maybe talks to you.” Esther considered me. “I know you’ve got all kinds of crazy science to back you up on this, but you can get this kind of advice from a magazine.”

“They get it second-, third-, or fourthhand from science articles in real publications.”

“Don’t be a snob.”

“Are we working together here or not?” I asked. Esther waved a hand, and I took that as a sign of agreement. “The problem is that I don’t know what visual stimuli I can use that will be unique and make me stand out.”

Esther sat up straight and slapped her hands on the table. “You came to the right place. Oh, this could be fun! You should definitely have a signature color, something bright but not ugly, or neon. After the first few times he sees you, that color will prime him to think of you whenever he sees it. Or maybe you keep changing things up after a day or two of running into him, then that change will stand out as something new. He’d be all like, ‘Whoa, what happened to the fluorescent orange cape you always wear?’ ”

“Fluorescent orange is really bright. It would feel like wearing a loud noise. I’d be on edge all day. And a cape is kind of silly, don’t you think?” Esther had good ideas, but sometimes…

“I’m joking. Fluorescent orange doesn’t look good on anyone. The only good thing about it is it keeps you from being mistaken for a doe during hunting season. But I’m serious, let’s figure out your signature color. Can’t be white.” Esther scrunched her lips to one side and tapped her fingers on the table.

“Why not? It’s bright. A surprising percentage of the student body wears black, so it would stand out,” I said. Seemed like a perfect choice. I had lots of white shirts. I might even still have the white dress my mother made me wear to some concert in the park last summer.

“No, white would make you look like a ghost or a bride,” Esther said, shaking her head.

“Good point. Not the image I’m going for,” I said. I was glad Esther was helping me. I would have shown up to school dressed in all white.

“How about red? It brings out your rosy complexion. It looks very pretty on you.… Squeak always says so.”

“Really? Um, then I guess that would be a good choice.” Not that it made any difference what Squeak thought. I was surprised that he had any opinion at all about my appearance. I suddenly felt hot and uncomfortable. The air conditioning must not have been working properly. Air conditioning… oh!

“Wait.” I got up to get my backpack from where I had left it near the head of the table. I pulled out the red sweater I kept on hand in case the janitor turned the air conditioning all the way up. He did that when he was angry at the administration.

“This is perfect because red can carry a sexual message. It especially attracts mate-seeking males. Humans in general pay more attention to the color red when it comes to dating. It all goes back to what I was talking about yesterday morning about primates’ bright red—”

“Are we back to swollen asses?”

“Yes.” This was going swimmingly. Esther had great instincts.

“Well then, red it is. Now we need to find something else that will make Theo notice you. Maybe you could wear something with flowers on it so he can remember your name when he sees you.” Esther was moving right past any more conversations that involved swollen genitals and evolutionary biology.

“Like a headband or a hat with a flower on it?”

“Oh. God. No. He’ll look at you, but it won’t be in a good way. I was thinking about a necklace my aunt has. It’s really expensive looking, and the kicker is, wait for it, it’s an enameled iris. He sees that—it’s pretty and shiny, so he’ll notice it—and he’ll remember your name.”

That had some interesting possibilities. “I like it, but will she loan it to us?”

“Sure, that’s why I brought it up. A very ex-boyfriend gave it to her a long time ago. Doesn’t wear it much. When she does, she just complains, says it reminds her what an asshole he was.”

“Why does she still have it?”

“Sentimental reasons.”

“Oh. Can you get it tonight? The sooner, the better,” I said.

“She lives really close to us. I’ll have my mom pick it up later.” Esther started to stand and reached for her backpack.

I was so caught up in Esther’s excitement that I’d forgotten one of the reasons I hadn’t wanted to do this without Squeak. “Wait. We have a major strategic problem.”

Esther stopped, her hand resting on her backpack. “I could probably come up with a list of strategic problems if I wanted to. Which I don’t, ’cause that would just suck the fun out of this. But if you must, what is it?”

“Well, we don’t exactly travel in the same social circles as he does, we don’t have any classes with him, and we don’t even have the same lunch. So I asked Squeak to ask Pom-Pom for Theo’s schedule while he is tutoring her today.”

“Wow, that was a really good idea. You won’t have it to be able to start today, though. But we do know where his locker is,” Esther said.

“It’s a start,” I said.

“Oh hey, I almost forgot. There’s a boys’ track practice after school today.”

“How do you know?” If she was correct, I could get started right away.

“It was on morning announcements,” she said.

“Oh. I never pay attention to those.”

Esther’s mouth turned up at one corner in a half grin. “I know.” Esther grabbed her bag and stood up. We walked out of the library into a day now rich with possibilities, and ready to test the adolescent male mind and its so-called mysteries of the heart.


Iris Oxtabee’s Very Scientific Journal

* * *

Prom Theory


The expectation of this research is to prove that the emotion of romantic love can be clearly explained by the effects of the release of enzymes and chemicals in the brain such as oxytocin, adrenaline, dopamine, and norepinephrine in response to specific external stimuli.

In addition, this researcher hopes to prove that responses to specific external stimuli are predictable and consistent.


By employing previously proven research, the researcher (me) can use prearranged and accidental situations to activate the unconscious and involuntary release of neurochemicals and enzymes in the subject (Theo Grant, hereinafter known as TG). Affecting the body’s physiological response—such as rapid heartbeat, sweating or chills, and enhanced senses—will result in the misattribution of said responses to feelings of love and the excitement of new love.

Further, using psychological techniques, such as priming and increasing suggestibility, TG will be compelled to ask the researcher to prom.

Materials Needed

Subject’s class and track schedule. Tutor (Squeak) will obtain from subject’s former girlfriend (Princess Pom-Pom).

Once familiar with TG’s schedule, this researcher will be able to encounter the subject, ideally several times a day.

Note: It may take some time to learn certain specifics about his personality and taste in order to tailor stimuli to his particular preferences.

Chapter Seven

Tuesday After School

Days to Prom: 18

Step One: Repeated Exposure and Priming

Novel stimulus creates motivation to further explore the novelty in anticipation of reward.

Method one: the use of novel stimuli to trigger motivation in subject (TG).


Intermittent reward is a strong motivation for action, possibly the strongest.

It is important to keep in mind that the reward is not the exciting payoff for an action. Instead, it is the anticipation of the reward that is so compelling.

I’m glad you came with me. With you here I won’t look like I’m a stalker. Plus, I know you know some of the guys on the track team,” I said as I peered down at the field from where Esther and I sat halfway up the bleachers.

“Yeah, I know some of these guys.” Esther grinned. She paused for a moment and then put the back of her hand against her forehead. She sighed heavily. It was very forced and very dramatic. Which meant she was about to tease me. “And here I thought you just wanted to do something I enjoyed for a change. You know, like maybe you were just looking to hang out with Esther, thinking of me first. Alas, I should have known better. You’re just here for you.”

“Well, I suppose I am,” I said. I was only half-serious and fairly confident that Esther knew that I was teasing in return. But in case she didn’t, I grinned.

“Hello, ladies!” Squeak said loudly as he dropped onto the metal bench behind us. The sudden clang and rattle of the vibrating aluminum added to the element of surprise. It also made me clench my jaw, and a shudder ran through me.

Both Esther and I jumped. Esther instinctually clutched her heart and panted. With adrenaline most likely still coursing through her, she enthusiastically swatted at him with both hands. He must have tiptoed all along the top bleacher until he was close enough to pounce. He reached over and tugged my ponytail.

“Since when did you start calling us ladies? It’s sexist. And stop sneaking up like that! You know it freaks me out.” Esther dismissed him quickly after that and resumed scanning the field, holding her hand above her eyes to reduce the glare from the sun reflecting off the bleachers.

Squeak pulled his sunglasses out from where he had hung them by one temple in the neckline of his shirt. He lightly tapped Esther’s shoulder with them. With the barest hint of acknowledgment, she glanced back, took the sunglasses, and put them on. With that, she turned her gaze to the field. The three of us had been spending time together for so long that such gestures were basic habits between us. No need for thank-yous or any other social conventions. I found it comforting. No pressure on me to make sure I was saying or doing the proper niceties.

I’d previously gone to the field only during pep rallies, so it was comforting to have them both with me, especially in a place I’d been to so rarely. It made it easier to ignore the unfamiliar people and noises. Esther and Squeak created something of a buffer. Without them I would have to find something else to focus on in order to try and tune out everything around me. Such efforts for me were exhausting.

“I almost called you posers, but I didn’t think that was very nice.” Squeak’s face was flushed from running up the bleachers. The exertion highlighted his obviously strong legs and good cardiac health, as he wasn’t breathing heavily. He appeared energetic but calm.

“Posers? That isn’t something in your usual repertoire of descriptive language,” I said. He turned his smile toward me, and it proved to be contagious.

I looked away, but not before something about it—our shared look, maybe, or the unexpectedness of his being there—set my toes to tingling. Probably because my resulting smile was positive proof of mirror neurons’ effect on facial expression. Real-world proof of neurobiological theory always gave me a sense of discovery, even something as simple as I smile because he smiles, and he smiles because I smile—hence the tingling toes. I tapped them lightly on the metal footboards despite the soft ringing of the bleachers.

“I got a college admissions ad from some school in Illinois that said ‘posers need not apply,’ ” he said.

Esther snorted. “Which means posers go there. Hope you tossed it.”

“Straight into recycling.”

“Why are you here?” I turned to look at his relaxed smile and his barely noticeable crooked nose. I was pleased that he had shortened his session with Pom-Pom to spend time with us. However, that meant he likely hadn’t gotten the intel I needed. “Did you get Theo Grant’s schedule?”

“Not yet.” He leaned back, resting his elbows on the bench behind him.


“Relax. Taylor had a cheer squad emergency and had to go to a quick meeting. I’m just waiting for her. We’re headed to the library near her house.” He leaned forward and briefly waggled his fingers in my ponytail.

Esther smirked at us and shook her head. Squeak pulled his hand back. He looked down at the athletic fields, squinting against the sun.

His eyebrows raised slightly, and his eyelids slid half-closed. He looked bored, perhaps uninterested in the track practice. Esther handed his sunglasses back to him. He took them with a nod of thanks and slipped them on.

“Oh, um, okay. I mean, that’s good. You’ll still be able to quiz her for me,” I said.

He wasn’t staying. I was disappointed. His not being with Esther and me nearly every day after school these past few weeks was a significant change to our daily schedule. I didn’t like change very much. In fact, I didn’t like it at all.

We sat in silence for a moment. A whistle cut through the low murmur of voices, the occasional shouts, and loud laughing coming from the boys below. None of the action taking place in front of us inspired conversation. Suddenly Esther’s eyes widened and she quickly twisted around. “So, Squeak, you’ve known Iris for, like, ever.”

“Yeah.” Squeak narrowed his eyes. Normally, such a facial expression would suggest suspicion, but that didn’t make sense, since there wasn’t anything suspicious in Esther’s observation. It was a simple statement of fact. So much so, it didn’t make any sense that she would be bringing it up.

“What are some things that make you think of Iris? I mean in a good way, not annoying things like long explanations and useless information,” Esther said.

“No information is useless information,” I pointed out.

Esther and Squeak spoke over each other, and I wasn’t certain which one said what.

“The sun makes twenty-five percent of people sneeze.”

“An average human loses two hundred head hairs per day.”

“What’s your point?” I said. Why was Esther starting this line of inquiry? For whatever reason, I didn’t like it much.

“What do you mean?” said Squeak.

“Well, like are there things you see or run into that make you think of Iris?”

“You mean like ponytails, sharpened pencils, sticky notes, microtip pens—”

Esther laughed. “Sort of, but what are some things that might have the potential to move Iris out of the smart-girl zone to the hot-must-have zone?”

Squeak hesitated, opened his mouth, and then closed it. I thought his reddened face was due to the direct sunlight and his propensity to burn, but it started to fade as quickly as it had appeared. He was likely embarrassed by the question. Though why it was embarrassing was beyond me.

Suddenly her inquiry made sense. Of course. Highlighting and enhancing my most attractive features and personal traits would make getting Theo’s attention that much easier.

“I see where you are going with this,” I said to Esther. I turned my attention to Squeak, who was looking down at his shoes. Information of all types excited me. Information about myself was something often difficult for me to recognize. This project was becoming more and more intriguing.

“There must be something you can think of,” I said to Sque