On a cold, snowy day in January, as an old song played on the radio, Joe, whose birthday was in September, had more trouble than usual getting ready for school.
“Eat your breakfast, son,” his father said. “Today is, what, French day?”
“In the afternoon,” Joe muttered. “Morning is Chemistry.” His blush began at his acne and spread to his ears in seconds. “The August group is teaching,” he added and hid his face in his toast.
“Joe’s got a girlfriend,” his brother sang, flashing a gap-toothed smile.
“Harrumph,” said Joe’s father. “Nothing wrong with that, only one month age difference, though of course girls are much more — mature… at your age…”
“I’ve had that talk, dad,” said Joe. “Three years ago. When I was twelve.”
“Oh yeah?” said Joe’s father, taking a thoughtful sip of his coffee. “I don’t recall talking to you about that.”
“You didn’t,” said Joe. “The March group did.”
“I envy our kids sometimes,” Joe’s mom said.
“Me too,” said Joe’s dad. “Nothing is ever new, you know. Academia was originally an olive garden; Plato would lead students through it—”
“I wish we had cascaded education when we were younger,” said Joe’s mom.
“The blind leading the blind,” Joe’s father muttered.
“The young teaching the young, Bob,” said Joe’s mother. “It works. They learn better, they remember better, with the emotional—”
“Oh, I understand all that,” said Joe’s father. “What about… What about respect? For elders? For authority?”
“I don’t think,” said Joe’s mother, “that it’s any harder to earn than it used to be. Or easier.”
“Look, it’s really simple,” said Melissa, born on the 13th of August. “Sodium chloride. Sodium has one electron in the outer shell, chlorine seven. Eight is ideal, so sodium gives one up and gets a perfect next-to-last shell, chloride takes it and gets eight, and opposite ions attract.” She looked straight into his eyes, her gaze level and unblinking. Her eyes were so dark they seemed all pupil. Joe drew a breath, with only a small shudder in the middle. Melissa didn’t seem to notice.
“A perfect match, right?” he said, trying for that tone he heard a January boy use once, that set a September girl a-simper.
“Exactly!” said Melissa and smiled. “Or take iodine with seven and lithium with one. Same thing, right?”
“Right!” he said. “Like this?” He drew a heart on his pad, then another touching it, with sparks flying every which way.
“Well, no,” said Melissa slowly.
Even sitting, Joe could feel his knees turn to jelly. “No?” he said, his voice hoarse.
“Think, Joe,” she said.
“Right,” Joe said. “What about?”
She sighed. “Think back to what we did last week. With eight electrons, chloride would have a filled p-orbital. And lithium with two, that’s an s-orbital which is a sphere.” She paused. “You see?”
“Right,” said Joe. He sketched a shape like two bowling pins stuck together, and a circle next to it.
“Close enough,” said Melissa. “Now label the diagram, Joe.”
He bent to his tablet again, shielding it from Melissa’s view, scribbled furtively, then sat up straight. “Here,” he said.
On the tablet, Joe’s name was written beneath the bowling pins, MELITHIUM across the circle, and like a rainbow above it all stretched flower-strewn, calligraphed FOREVER.
Melissa looked up from the tablet. Joe met her gaze, fighting the urge to look away when he saw her expression. The narrowing of her eyes was just like Mom’s, last time he didn’t sweep his room.
He bit his lip and drew a breath to speak.
Melissa beat him to it. “Joe, there is something I want to tell you,” she said.
Joe blinked. “You don’t like me?” he said.
“I like you just fine,” Melissa said. “But… How do I explain this?”
“You don’t need to explain anything,” Joe said. “It’s OK.”
“I’m supposed to be teaching you, aren’t I?” she said.
“Yeah,” Joe said. “You’re supposed to teach me chemistry.”
She laughed. “Believe you me, it’s all about chemistry.” She leaned forward. “It’s really next week’s material, but… now’s as good a time as any.” She took the stylus from his hand and drew two diagrams near each other. “This is nitrogen,” she said. “Atomic number seven. Two electrons in the s-orbital, five in p-orbital, hybridized.” She sketched the waveform quickly. “You see?”
“Yeah, I…” Joe said, and added: “actually, no, I don’t.”
“It’s a different kind of a bond,” Melissa said. “Nonpolar covalent. When the two atoms are, mmm, similar. The electrons are shared, not redistributed.”
“Yeah?” said Joe.
Melissa nodded. “Yeah,” she said.
Joe looked at the diagram again. “N-two,” he said. “This is a… covalent bond? Is it as strong as… the other one? Ionic?”
“Actually, it is,” Melissa said. “Damn near unbreakable.” She smiled and turned to look across the classroom.
Another girl smiled back.
Leah from the June group opened his French textbook. “Bonjour,” she said. “Comment ça va?”
Joe sighed. “Comme si, comme ça,” he said.
Leah looked up and raised her eyebrows. “That’s going around. Just this morning — never mind, we have some Français to parler,” she said. “Aujourd’hui, vous allez revoir les verbes irreguliers. Maintenant, repetez avec moi…”
And in Joe’s mind, a fragment of the morning’s song rose from its slumber.
“Voulez-vous coucher,” he said slowly, “avec moi?”
Leah’s smile grew larger. “Ce soir?” she said.
He opened his mouth to speak; for once, he had the perfect reply just in time, and not much later. “Why wait so long?” he tried to say, but no sound came out as he’d forgotten to breathe. He nodded instead.
“L’audace, toujours l’audace,” Leah said and blushed.
“How was your day, dear?” said Joe’s mom.
“Great,” said Joe.
“Learn much chemistry, son?” Joe’s father said, winking.
“Sure did,” said Joe. “Learned about the two kinds of chemical bonds.”
“Oh?” said Joe’s mom. “What are the two kinds of bonds?”
“Covalent,” said Joe, “and ironic.”
Anatoly Belilovsky was born in a city that went through six or seven owners in the last century, all of whom used it to do a lot more than drive to church on Sundays; he is old enough to remember tanks rolling through it on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968. After being traded to the US for a shipload of grain and a defector to be named later, he learned English from Star Trek reruns and went on to become a pediatrician in an area of New York where English is the fourth most commonly used language. He has neither cats nor dogs, but was admitted into SFWA in spite of this deficiency, having published original and translated stories in NATURE, F&SF, Daily SF, Kasma, UFO, Stupefying Stories, Cast of Wonders, and other markets.