Write On!

A Chemical Wedding

In Responses on March 9, 2012 at 4:13 pm

by Tara Wiley


A wedding guest: Penelope

Joshua and Penelope. Penelope and Joshua. J+P. P+J. The student’s notes were, technically, about chemistry. Her fingers traced her doodles, and closing her eyes, she could almost feel the contours of his face under her touch: strong jaw lined with stubble, leading up to softer temples, across the smooth expanse of his forever sunburned forehead, down the long, aristocratic nose he so despised and she so admired, landing finally on those lips, those impossibly irresistible lips. An audible gasp escaped Penelope, and she covered it with a cough, followed by a barely suppressed giggle.

Only a couple of students even paused to glance her way, and the professor continued without interruption. Pen was thankful for the anonymity of this monstrous lecture hall, and she drew her feet up to the edge of her hard wooden seat, wrapping herself up into her dreams, away from the starkness of this cold place where an obnoxious professor droned annoyingly in front of her, distracting her from the more important things, like love. She propped her notebook up against her knees and continued to doodle.

“…spontaneous combustion!” Dr. Petrick accentuated the words with a sharp clap. It had the desired effect: students all around the hall snapped to attention, pens and notebooks dropping here and there, a few actually rubbing their eyes. Penelope’s legs dropped to the floor, and she penciled in the words, spontaneous combustion, followed by a few squiggled underlines and hearts.

A wedding guest: Ryan

Ryan chewed the end of his already gnarled pencil, cocked his head ever so slightly, gave an affirmative nod now and then. His hair, the color of dying embers, shifted silkily across his forehead with each nod. He had perfected the art of looking interested. It also came in handy during boring dates. Unfortunately, he had endured a whole string of these lately. He was itching for a challenge.

Bored. That’s what he was, and he was loathe to admit it. Everything came so easily for him, and what he couldn’t procure himself, Daddy’s slush fund handed to him on a silver platter. For a while, he was content to feed off of others’ envy. He held their longing looks in a mental trophy case, next to his female conquests. Even the girls, with their perfectly coifed hair and impeccable pedigree, no longer satisfied the ache within.

Petrick was getting worked up into a real lather today. He heard the droning voice raise in pitch, and he responded by drawing his eyebrows together studiously. The odd prof seemed especially content today. Ryan tried to place himself in the professor’s position, looking out across a sea of 100 or so faces, knowing maybe only five were actually interested in what he had to say. Somehow it didn’t seem to bother Petrick. He really loved what he was doing. What did Ryan love to do?

The memory returned in a flash, skidding towards him so violently he felt compelled to turn and be sure no one else had seen it in his gaze. His secret.

The summer started out innocently enough. Out at his grandparents’ ranch in the rolling hills of west Texas, kids had to make trouble, because it couldn’t just be found. Ryan’s cousin Shawn taught him how to do just that. Thing was, Shawn was a bit of a pyromaniac. Add Ryan’s rebel streak and brains, and the two learned a lot about fire that summer.

“Fire: all you need is fuel and an oxydizing agent. It’s CHEMISTRY, people!” Professor Petrick’s passionate lecture mirrored his own thoughts.

Fuel: linseed oil. Oxydizing agent: heat. Ryan and Shawn met their match when they left the oil in the loft of the barn. They thought the small can would be safe there. They didn’t take into account the intensity of a Texas summer sun beating on the roof, heating the compressed air in the corner of the loft.

“When an item is so volatile that it can burst into flame in air at room temperature, we say it is capable of spontaneous combustion!” Petrick continued, his voice rising in pitch where it should have fallen. He was reaching under the lab table he lectured from, bringing up a couple of metal boxes.

After the fire, Ryan was serious about safety. It was his personal penance for his secret crime: he would ensure others respected the flame. When Petrick began his demonstration without the usual precautions, he almost stood in his seat. He managed a meager “Sir?” from his tightened throat. A student next to him glanced his way. No one else even heard.

Shouts. Sirens. An orange glow against a twilight sky. All these years, he had closed out this memory. Here it was, pressing behind his eyes in the middle of chemistry class. There was Dr. Petrick, fool, without his goggles, his safety gloves, and he was about to play with fire. Ryan had to get out. Now. He hastily tossed his notes into his backpack and scrambled past the students in his row as quietly as he could manage.

“Young man! Where do you think you are going?” What? Was Dr. Petrick addressing him? Ryan had never heard him acknowledge the students’ presence, let alone speak to them during a lecture. He looked over his shoulder; Petrick was pointing at him. “Sit down. You don’t get to – you don’t want to miss this.” The professor’s voice quaked. Ryan grabbed the closest empty seat, if only to get attention away from him.

The Groom: George Petrick

George Petrick lowered his shaking arm, the pointing finger curled back against his palm until his anger was concealed in a fist under the lab table. When would these students learn respect?

George’s office was directly above the lecture hall, at the end of a dull gray corridor lit by buzzing fluorescent lights. Fluorescence: excited electrons falling from glory, like little falling stars to light our way.

Falling stars. Fallen professor. The crisp white letter on his desk invited him to early retirement. He knew what that meant. And just what did they think he would do, were he to leave this establishment where he had spent his entire adult life? There was no other life.

In the third drawer, right hand side, of his desk was a small leather bag. It held his toothbrush, deodorant, razor, shaving cream. He estimated he had spent sixty percent of his adult life in this building, on this campus. He had an apartment; it just took effort to go there. So much more efficient to just work his way through the four full sets of clothing he kept in the small closet in his office, taking each set to the launderers’ across from campus after its rotation. An occasional shower at the campus gym as needed.

George’s life followed a perfect pattern, rarely interrupted or altered. His own chemical equation, balanced, simplified, logical. Just the way he liked it. And now the Office of Administration dared to throw an ugly red slash mark across the equal sign. Only one reaction would work.

The thought made him giddy. He spent hours over the next week writing his lesson plan, collecting the necessary materials for the demonstration.

A chemical wedding day.

Each morning that week, the shadowed, etched mirror in the second floor restroom captured the reflection of a desperate, determined old man. George saw a groom. He dipped his fingers into the little jar of linseed oil. Carefully, thoroughly, he ran it through his hair. He wiped the excess off on the sleeves of his threadbare sport jacket, his favorite one. He dipped his toothbrush into the same jar, brushed his teeth, didn’t rinse.

Friday, a beautiful sunrise greeted George through the long, narrow window in his office. He enjoyed the view while sipping his way through half a bottle of scotch, the best he had ever tasted. The birds outside were his groomsmen attending this private bachelor party. He lifted his coffee cup of scotch to them, a silent toast. He giggled. After his special morning ablutions, he was ready.

On his desk, by the letter, sat two small metal boxes. Wedding gifts. His hands shook with anticipation as he gathered one under each arm. It took 2 minutes, 30 seconds to walk the corridor, descend the stairs, and enter the lecture hall.

8:57. He began the walk. The falling electrons flickered and buzzed a processional march as he purposefully slowed his pace.

8:59:30. He entered the lecture hall, carefully placed the two metal boxes under the lab table. The guests were gathered as usual. Too bad they didn’t dress for the occasion, he thought, suppressing a giggle. No matter.

9:00 sharp, he began his lecture. He spent fifteen minutes droning about chemical reactions, lulling the stupid students into thinking this was just another day of Chem 101.

9:16, he sang the words spontaneous combustion. Right on cue. The smile teased the corners of his mouth. His heart raced within him. In moments, he would become one with his passion, his bride.

Then an idiot kid broke his concentration. No one would walk out of here before the final kiss. He barked. The boy sat. Deep breath, George, the ceremony must continue.

He lifted the first box. He heard his voice, someone else’s voice, telling the students about its contents: a vial of clear liquid, necessary for life. Pure. Harmless. Water.

He lifted the second box. Another small vial. As he heard a voice, his voice, describing the contents, sodium, he thought of the part of a wedding ceremony where the bride and groom light a candle, what was it called? Ah, yes, a unity candle. Symbolizing their union, two into one. Another giggle erupted. And the two shall become –


Flame. Heat. Pain. Raised arms in victory. One with his love. And the guests erupted in screams, guests cheering on the newlyweds as they ran from the church to begin their new life together.


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