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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 doesn’t even know Iris exists, to ask her to prom. With prom just two weeks away, Iris doesn’t have any time to waste, so she turns her keen empirical talents and laser-focus attention to testing her theory.

But will proving herself correct cause her friendship with Seth—and the tantalizing possibility for something more—to become the failed experiment?

Chapter One

Chapter One
Monday

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 will, 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.

BAE OR NAY

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.

“Prom!”

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?”

“Huh?”

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.
Photo by Lori Mann Strauss

Ann LaBar is a poet, writer, actor, and educator. She lives in the wilds of Pennsylvania with two dogs, a leopard gecko, a ferret, ten hens, and a ridiculously adventurous husband. When not writing, Ann desperately tries to match wits with her husband and two intellectually gifted, grown children.