The Hidden Worlds
Sandra Ingerman, Katherine Wood
Math problems finished, Isaiah dropped his forehead onto his desk. His face flushed against the cool desktop as he recalled the breakfast exchange with his mom. The instant replay ran in full Technicolor across Isaiah's closed eyelids:
"Klick. Klack." His mother's teeth snapped together — the warning sound to be on alert for something embarrassing.
"I just read an article about the concerns boys have with puberty."
Puberty? At breakfast? Missing his dad volted through him. Why wasn't he here right now? Without looking up, Isaiah poked out the center of the sunny-side-up egg with his toast. Yoke spread yellow across the plate.
"Your testicles will double in size and may be uneven meaning one may hang down farther than the other."
Isaiah noticed how powder rose, hovering just above her oatmeal as she plopped a spoonful of protein into it. He wished he could rise up and leave the kitchen. His face was hot. She stirred, apparently waiting for a response.
"Okay," he croaked, feeling certain that if one of his testicles was lower than the other, he'd never ever tell her.
"Your voice cracking is normal too," she said. "Your voice box is enlarging, and your vocal cords are stretching. It's embarrassing and annoying but will eventually go away."
Isaiah thought his voice changing was more than annoying. He was used to not being able to trust his asthmatic body, but now he couldn't rely on his voice either. He never knew when it would be high or low or both in the same word. And puberty and everything enlarging?
His mom was still speaking. " ... involuntary erections ..."
"I have to brush my teeth," he said, standing so quickly he knocked his chair over.
"Wait!" his mother said using her no-nonsense voice. "It is time for you to start wearing deodorant." She placed a container on the table. Isaiah noticed it was the same brand she used. Was that right? From commercials on TV, he didn't think men and women wore the same deodorant. "It has no animal ingredients and there's been no animal testing with this product," she added.
If he had to wear deodorant, at least it was one that hadn't harmed any animals. The container said 'Natural Fragrance' but right below that was the word 'calendula'. Didn't that have something to do with marigolds? Great.
With his head still against the desk, Isaiah fanned his shirt under his armpits and sniffed at the air. He didn't smell flowers.
The classroom door squeaked open, and Isaiah watched the boy named George enter. As George's special services teacher waved goodbye to him, Isaiah heard several boys in the back of the room laugh. George dropped his head, pushed his sliding glasses back against his nose, and returned to his seat. Isaiah felt sorry for George.
"Shut your faces!" Rose, a girl two rows over, said twisting around, her magenta and black hair flying. Isaiah admired her courage in speaking up, but she often got sent to the hall for it, or the principal's office.
"That will be enough all of you," his math teacher said.
Isaiah was glad he was invisible to his meaner classmates so he didn't have to put up with what George did. He just wished the others saw him as more than the weak kid with breathing issues.
"I'd like to correct our problems, please," Magda said to their teacher. Magda was planning on getting a soccer scholarship so she often redirected the class. Isaiah admired how easily Magda could boss people around, especially adults. She probably got to pick out her own deodorant.
The teacher smiled at her. "Okay everyone; it's time to check your work."
The next period, their science teacher explained that they were going to be learning the difference between physical and chemical reactions. With their lab partners they were going to do an experiment to make their own cold packs to demonstrate a physical reaction.
Isaiah wrote in his notebook, "A physical reaction is one where the matter stays the same, but the size, shape or appearance of the matter changes."
His lab partner said, "I'll get the ammonium nitrate, plastic storage bag, and graduated cylinder." He was already halfway across the room and called back, "You get the aprons, gloves, and goggles."
Isaiah wanted to say, "I wear deodorant now so I should get the ammonium nitrate." But he wasn't brave enough. It did help a little to notice the goggles were marked 'chemical resistant'. That made his job seem a little more daring.
"I'll measure out the 25 grams of ammonium nitrate into the bag," he heard himself saying a few minutes later.
His lab partner stared at him and then grabbed the graduated cylinder to measure out 50 milliliters of water which he quickly poured into the bag. He took the bag from Isaiah, released the excess air, pressed the bag tabs closed, and began squeezing it to mix the water with the ammonium nitrate.
Isaiah thought his lab partner was working quickly just in case Isaiah tried to do anything else. He was proud of himself for speaking up for once. And his voice hadn't cracked.
"Whoa! It's getting cold," his lab partner said. He handed the bag to Isaiah. It really did feel like an ice pack. Soon kids were parading around the room with their bags on their foreheads, backs, shoulders, and arms.
"Take your seats," the science teacher yelled. "As you can see from this experiment, everything is inter-related or connected, and by combining different types of matter, a physical reaction can occur. The ammonium nitrate stayed the same. The water stayed the same but putting them together changed the temperature. Our choices to put different matter together can create changes that impact everything around us."
Isaiah thought about how in math class George walking in the door had created a chain reaction. Just like his parents' divorce meant his dad moved to Denver which led to his mother being the one to have the talk with him this morning. A chain of events that could possibly lead to flowering armpits.
"It's very helpful for a soccer player to know how to make an ice pack in case there aren't any around," Magda was saying.
"You might have difficulty finding a good supply of ammonium nitrate," blurted George. Isaiah noticed the silence that followed George's comment. Isaiah couldn't remember ever hearing his voice before. Then Isaiah heard someone mutter something unintelligible. Probably the same kid from math.
And Rose was on her feet. Magda also stood and stepped in front of her. "Let's do the next experiment," she said, never taking her eyes off of Rose.
"This isn't over," went through Isaiah's mind as he watched Rose sit down, glaring back at Magda the whole time. "Deodorant and drama," he thought. "Glad it's Friday."
Saturday mornings were Isaiah's favorite time of the week. He would jump out of bed, grab his favorite cereal and milk, and head for the family room for hours of video games. It was the only time he was allowed to do three things: stay in his pajamas until noon, eat his favorite sugary, magically delicious cereal (a whole box if he wanted it), and play video games. The only thing that could make Saturday mornings more perfect was to share them with a dog, but because of his asthma, he wasn't allowed to have one. That didn't stop him from reading book after book about training dogs and picking out names. Currently his dog would be Lucky.
This Saturday, right before he left his bedroom, he thought again about breakfast yesterday and somehow it didn't feel right to go to the family room in his PJs. He pulled on a pair of sweatpants over his pyjama bottoms.
At noon each Saturday when she wasn't working, his mother vacuumed. Everywhere. At noon he was expected to put away his games, eat the sandwich she always had waiting for him on the kitchen counter, do his chores (put his laundry by the washer, clean his bathroom, and take out the recycling), and start on his homework. Saturday night they always ordered pizza and watched a movie, and Sundays were family time (church and playing board games) so his mother wanted all homework and chores done by the six o'clock pizza delivery on Saturday.
Isaiah opened his notebook at the counter while he ate his sandwich. He hoped this would discourage his mother from discussing puberty further. He looked really busy each time she came through the kitchen.
For science, he had to write up the lab report for the second experiment they had done on a chemical reaction — again in a plastic bag — using calcium chloride. He wanted to note that he was the one who had collected the calcium chloride. That meant his lab partner only got to pick up the sodium bicarbonate (a fancy name for baking soda) and the cabbage juice. It had been cool to watch the color turn from blue-green to purple to pink when they were all mixed and how the bag inflated with gas and got hot and then cold. A chemical reaction because the color changed, and it became a gas.
He also needed to collect a water sample from home or around town to be tested during lab time next week. He found a little jar and loaded it with tap water from his kitchen sink. Boring old tap water, he thought. He wished he knew somewhere to get water that might be exciting to test.
For math, he had to create a graph on world population growth since records had been kept. On graph paper, he put the years across the bottom and the population numbers along the sides. He was surprised how quickly the population had grown from 1900 to 7.4 billion today. He then had to explain one possible effect that the growing population has had on the world. He wrote that more laws were needed to control bigger groups of people. He guessed even with more laws it was easier to get away with crimes in cities; different from his small town. One of the reasons Isaiah's mom said she liked their small town was that crime couldn't exist because everyone knew everyone else's business.
His language arts teacher had said she would be assigning groups of four on Monday for a causeeffect project. He wondered what that might be.
As he did his chores, his dread grew about working with a group of four in language arts. He didn't have any friends. At least his teacher was assigning groups so he wouldn't have to be embarrassed when he didn't get picked. He had struggled with team work all through elementary school. It had really made him feel invisible. Maybe in middle school it would be different.CHAPTER 2
In his dream, thick yellow air surrounded Isaiah, hanging like blankets as if to block his way. Burning his eyes. Filling his mouth with a foul taste. He ran trying to escape it, his asthma causing him to suck in big gulps. His throat felt furry. His lungs were heavy, as if filled with hot cotton. He coughed trying to expel the dirty air.
In a pond beside him, dead fish floated belly up, bloated and white. Their lifeless eyes drifted on the bittersweet water. There were so many of them.
Looking down, Isaiah saw his feet picking their way around dead birds, black and swollen, covering the ground, their red wings still. Something had killed the birds too.
Scared of not being able to breathe at all in this nightmare, scared of the floating eyes of the fish, scared of the bloated bird bodies, Isaiah ran faster, trying to escape.
Sudden trembling happened in the dreamscape, almost as if he had broken through a barrier, and Isaiah found himself in a forest sitting, cross legged, in a circle around a campfire with three other kids. The putrid air had cleared. His lungs no longer hurt, and he could breathe normally again. Tall cottonwoods, aspen trees and pines encircled them. The fire was shooting sparks of light around them. And the dead fish and birds had disappeared.
The others were shimmering. It was like they were there and weren't at the same time. He looked down at his own hands. One minute he could see right through them and the next minute, he couldn't. The others seemed familiar, like kids at school, but he couldn't quite name them.
There were animals too. A grizzly standing on his hind legs. An octopus. A giraffe. A black panther circling the perimeter. They were solid. Isaiah felt protection coming from them.
And it was very quiet. He couldn't even hear the fire snapping or crackling, although it was burning brightly. Every so often a log would splinter into light and collapse into the center, but there was no familiar popping sound. He couldn't even hear his own breathing.
A loud cough interrupted his thoughts. He looked up, startled by this sudden sound. The cottonwoods had moved closer to him. They had eyes, noses, and mouths. They were staring at him. Their long branches reached around him.
"Pay attention!" one old cottonwood tree grumbled, shaking him with a branch. "Pay attention! Pay attention!" The other trees picked up the chant. "Pay attention!"CHAPTER 3
"Isaiah, pay attention!" his teacher said. Isaiah sat up at his desk. Suddenly, he remembered his dream from last night and the trees telling him to pay attention. A kind of queasy feeling hit his stomach thinking about the dead birds and fish. "Isaiah, the bell rang, and everyone has gone to lunch. I know it's Monday, but get with it!" Now how did he miss the bell for lunch? That was his favorite time of the day.
Outside, a group of boys jostled him as they passed on their way up to the football field. "Yep, I'm still invisible," he thought. "So far middle school has been no different."
Isaiah located the lunch monitor. Her back was turned, so he used the chance to slip through the cottonwood trees at the edge of the school grounds. He headed for the pond.
He found his favorite log and dropped to the ground, resting against it. He wiggled around so nothing was poking into his skinny back. He lifted his pale face to the sun and sighed, running his hands through his white-blond hair. "Pay attention!" What had happened after the trees had chanted that?
The sound of someone crying nearby made Isaiah snap open his eyes.
George was slumped on the other end of the log, his big belly heaving with sobs.
"Are you okay?" Isaiah asked softly.
George wiped under his nose, trailing snot along his hand. He nodded shyly, his glasses fogged over. "My-my-my mom says someday I'll be a swan and not to worry about my ugly duckling phase, but I don't think she knows how mean kids can be." He ended in a whisper. George dropped his head into his hands.
Isaiah felt sorry for George, but at least George wasn't invisible.
Before Isaiah could respond, an angry shout came from inside the cottonwoods. Two girls locked in a fight of hair pulling and punching fell onto the ground near them.
"Take it back right now!" Rose yelled.
Magda had her hands clenched in Rose's black and neon green streaked hair. She was trying to pull her off. "Rose, you are from China. Why does that make you so mad?"
"Shut up, Magda!" Rose had her hands wrapped around Magda's black ponytail, tugging. Her matching neon green fingernails wove in and out of Magda's curls. "You're such a butt kisser. 'Let's correct our math problems now'," Rose mimicked.
So this wasn't about China. It was payback for their confrontation on Friday.
"Get off of me!" Magda said. She lifted upward and twisted, throwing Rose. Magda played league soccer, so she was strong. Rose flew forward.
She landed on her hands and knees, screaming as she lifted her right hand into the air, shaking something black and gooey off of it. She jerked and ran toward the other kids, still screaming. "What is it? Get it off of me!"
"Here. Let me see." Isaiah took Rose's hand into his. It was covered in blood and black feathers. He pulled a tissue from his back pocket and wiped her hand clean.
Magda called from the spot where Rose had fallen, "Disgusting! It's a dead bird! You fell on a dead bird!"
Rose started screaming again, the fight with Magda already in the past.
George lumbered over to Magda, his tears drying. He squatted down and poked the bird with a stick. "Dead all right," he said. He stood and scanned the area. "Whoa! There's another dead one over there."
"And over there," Magda pointed.
The four of them spread out, searching the area, calling out as they found the birds. Isaiah felt his throat constricting with tears. All of these beautiful birds, lying lifeless on the ground. No longer riding the air currents, calling out from tree to tree, the red and yellow wings gone still in death.
When an eagle cried, they all looked up. It was swooping around a lone blackbird which was making a struggling flight. It dropped closer and closer to the ground. It tried to land, but its wings seemed suddenly too heavy to flap. It hit the ground with a quiet thunk.
They circled the blackbird as the eagle continued to call from above. Its side lifted rapidly up and down. One black eye looked up at them imploringly.
"We have to help it," Magda cried.
Rose bent down. "We'll take it to the vet."
George squatted beside her. "Hey little one, you'll be okay. We're here to help. Don't be scared." He brushed together a pile of leaves. Gently, he slid his fingers beneath the bird and lifted it onto the little bed. He ran an index finger over the top of its head and down along its back, smoothing the shiny black feathers. The bird blinked.
Rose stroked the bird next. "So sweet," she whispered.
Isaiah brushed tears from his eyes.