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A Faith Flores Science Mystery
By Janie Chodosh
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2017 Janie Chodosh
All rights reserved.
I should join the bevy of arts and academic interns bonding in clumps of polite, socially correct conversation. At least, if I'm going to be antisocial I should be harnessing the power of positive thought and thinking, Wow! Here I am — St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico! Or, wow! What an honor, out of all the science geeks around the nation, the Salazar Center for Plant Genomics chose me as their summer student scholar!
Instead, I sit alone in a window seat overlooking a confusion of mountains and arroyos, no idea what to say to any of the other interns who look so at ease and whose off-resume experiences probably don't include waiting in the backseat of some beater while their mom scored a fix. Not to mention that if I were to actually open my mouth what would come out would likely have a high lab geek element. And then there's the nagging distraction of The Jerk, also known as The Sperm Donor, sometimes known as my father, who I happen to know was born here and could still be hanging around.
"Faith, cool name," someone says.
I spin around, absolutely no idea how long I've been staring out the window, to gape at a tall guy standing in front of me who might be Hispanic, might be black, and might be in competition with Jesse, my Philly boyfriend, for the cutest boy I've ever seen. To make up for the fact that I seem to have forgotten how to speak, I jam my hands on my hips and demand an explanation for how he knew my name.
"Um. That would be your nametag?" He nods at the Hi! I'm FAITH FLORES label stuck to my chest. "Artist?"
I have no idea what he's talking about, so I don't respond, and he repeats, "You're an artist, right? You're here for the O'Keeffe internship. It's your hair. Gives you away."
I consider my hair. Long. Dark. Square-cut bangs. In no way artistic unless you consider self-styling with a pair of dull scissors, artsy. "Guess again."
He scrutinizes the rest of me — one-dollar Fleetwood Mac tee, camo-print shorts, Converse lowtops decorated in rainbow-colored Sharpie, five silver hoops in my ears. His gaze is a once-over that would feel creepy if it weren't part of this game we're apparently playing. "Film production?" he finally says.
I slash a finger across my throat like a knife. "Wrong. Science. And your internship? Let me guess."
I inventory the guy and input the following: curly dark hair, brown freckled skin, amber eyes, perfect teeth, no visible piercings or tattoos, plain blue tee, jeans, Keds. Abercrombie model? Doubtful modeling is one of the internships the ten of us teens have slogged to New Mexico for, I snoop for some other clue. And there it is, a small, gold treble clef dangling from a leather cord around his neck.
"Musician," I say.
"Lucky guess," he retorts, but I can tell he's impressed.
"Maybe." I raise my eyebrows and try not to smile. "Or maybe I have psychic powers." I close my eyes now and make a spooky Ouija-board-meets-fortune-teller kind of sound. "And you play the ... it's coming to me ... wait for it ... your instrument ... it's ... violin." I cock open an eye and look at him.
"Not bad," he says, staring at me as if I just invented Pop-Tarts. "How'd you know?"
I point at the instrument case with the name Clem (also on his nametag) written on it. "It was either a violin in there or a submachine gun and you're here for the terrorist internship." The joke falls flat, so I clear my throat and attempt embarrassment-recovery. "I knew a dog called Clem once. Man that thing farted a lot," I say, realizing too late that a farting dog sharing your name isn't exactly a winning statement. "Oo-kaay. I'll just shut up now."
But he's smiling. Not that I care what he's doing or thinking. Why should I? I'm here to learn. Not to flirt. And he's too good-looking to be smart. Or funny. Or ... are his eyes really amber or would you say honey?
"My mom's an old hippy," he says, interrupting my digressing synapses. "I guess violin was in my destiny. She named me after Vassar."
"Huh?" I say, hoping my expression isn't as stupid as my word choice.
"Vassar Clements?" he says, as if the name should mean something to me. "The Grammy-award-winning fiddler? Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys? Old and in the Way with Jerry Garcia?"
I fold my arms. "Isn't Jerry Garcia dead?"
"Don't tell my mom that." He laughs. "Dead in body, not in spirit, that's what she says." A trio of interns passes, two girls and a guy. "What about her?" he says, changing subject and pointing to a rail-thin blonde with long, straight hair and cut-off jeans. "What internship do you think she's here for?"
"Vegan activism," I say, without missing a beat. "And him?" I point to an Asian guy with dyed blond hair.
"Filmmaking," he answers, just as quick. "Him?"
"Web design. Her?"
"Really?" I say, checking out the girl's spunky red frizz and freckles. "I was thinking more like children's museum assistant director or camp counselor."
"No way. Check out the shoes. The organic farming interns always wear hiking boots."
"Always? As in you've done this before?"
He laces his long fingers and cracks his knuckles. "I'm a local, and the best violinist under eighteen in the state, so I get the Pro Musica internship every year."
"And very modest, too, I see."
"Yeah, well, big fish, small pond." He sighs and rakes those long fingers through his curls. "I'm hoping to go to Julliard in the fall. I'm accepted a year early, but I'm waiting to hear if I get a full ride. So what's your story?"
I don't want to get into it with a stranger. My story sounds like a trailer for a sappy TV drama in the telling. I can just hear the voiceover and the cheesy music: After her ex-junkie-moms murder, a young city girl's aptitude in science propels her out of obscurity and lands her in beautiful Santa Fe, which also happens to be the birthplace of her absentee father. "No story," I say, with a shrug.
"In other words, a huge story, but it's a secret and you don't want to tell me." His eyes are playful, teasing, would I say flirting? I'm about to brush him off with a "whatever dude," when a dark-haired, twenty-something woman with a pierced nose walks in and calls us to attention.
"Welcome interns!" she bellows. "My name's Guadalupe. I'm the internship and dorm supervisor. Grab a chair and let's begin orientation."
Clem snatches his violin case and plunks into the chair next to me, forcing the redhead, whose chair he's abducted, to relocate and setting off a ludicrous round of musical chairs. Much as I hate to admit it, I can't say I'm not a tiny bit pleased.
When everyone's found a seat in the circle, Guadalupe begins. "If you have any problems over the next six weeks, you can see me. You're all in for an excellent summer. This internship program is a model for community outreach, educational enrichment, and job development throughout the country. We have high school interns at magazines, in charitable foundations, in leading scientific and arts organizations. Before I go over rules and answer questions, I'd like you each to introduce yourself."
"I'm Rejina with a j," the bubbly blonde to Guadalupe's right says with a drawl. "I'm from Texas, and I'm here for the O'Keeffe internship."
"I'm Bill with a B," the next boy says. "I'm here for an internship with Challenge New Mexico, therapeutic horseback riding for people with physical and mental disabilities."
The red head is next. "Hi!" Her voice matches her hair — cute and spunky. "I'm totally excited to be here! I'm Dahlia from Minnesota, and I'm totally excited to be here!" She giggles. "Oops, I already said that. I'm here for the organic farming internship at Camino de la Paz."
I catch Clem's eye and smile.
The rest of the interns introduce themselves, and sure enough, the Asian guy is here for film production, the tall blonde for a magazine, the short, frizzy-haired Bro Boy ("Yo, Bro, I'm from Boston") for a charitable foundation, the African American girl for costume design at the opera, and the shy, pale girl for a Canyon Road art gallery. I'm the only one here for science, and Clem the only one for music. When we finish introductions, Guadalupe goes over rules — don't have sex or get pregnant or take drugs or drink alcohol or stay out past ten.
"Finally," she says, "in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the internship program, today's paper has a feature article about you all, what you'll be doing, and where you're from. I only brought one, but you can buy a copy or see it online."
The paper gets passed around the circle. When it's my turn, I skim the article, but before I hand it off another news story catches my eye: A New Drug for Northern New Mexico. With a dead junkie mom and sixteen years around the whole Philly drug scene, I can't help but pause to read.
May 1, 2014
By Julia Martinez, Santa Fe New Mexican
The sleepy town of Chimayo, fifteen miles north of Santa Fe, known for its towering cottonwoods, flowing creek, and Santuario with its holy dirt, has a darker side — a history of heroin abuse and overdose.
Now, a new drug has infiltrated this town. Liquid gold, a Schedule 1 illegal substance, is making its way into this small community as a recreational drug. However, it is not just the recreational use of liquid gold that worries the police. Santa Fe officer Virgil says liquid gold is also known as a date-rape drug, slipped easily and without detection into drinks and rendering the person who drinks it unable to perceive their surroundings.
Holly Redding, community activist and founder of the environmental group, UpsideDown!, voiced her concerns about the drug and its impact on the community. "As if we don't have enough environmental and social concerns to worry about in New Mexico with the rise of GMOs, drought, mining, the use of dirty coal in our energy economy, heroin, and poverty, now we have another new drug. The health of the land and the health of the people, it's one and the same."
Liquid gold comes from a rare Peruvian plant in the genus Brugmansia. Until recently, its high price tag has made it an elite drug without widespread use. However, the past few months have seen an influx of liquid gold in the communities of Northern New Mexico.
Bro boy to my left clears his throat, as in "you gonna spend all day with that thing or can I have a look?"
"Sorry," I say, and hand him the paper.
Rejina with a j is saying something to the group, but my mind is on the article. It's not that there's a drug around. I can handle that. Growing up with a junkie was about the best stay-off-drugs campaign imaginable. I'm so clean I squeak. The government should start an anti-drug campaign: "Want to keep your kids off drugs? Spend a day with a junkie! It's free. It's easy. Just dial 1-800-junkie." What my thoughts stick on is the name of the plant the drug comes from: Brugmansia. I've heard that name before, but I can't remember where or why.
I'm still distracted and trying to figure it out when Clem leans over and says, "Dinner?"CHAPTER 2
I load my tray with pasta, a few token pieces of lettuce, a double helping of soft-serve chocolate ice cream, and take a seat with Clem in the back of the cafeteria by the bathrooms.
"So, you've been playing violin long?" I ask, as I dig into the soft-serve — eating dessert first, a decree from when my mom was alive, and one I currently abide by whenever I'm out of the organic, gluten-free clutches of Aunt T, my legal guardian.
Clem's face lights up, a radiant, from inside smile. "Just since I was three."
"Wow, you started old. I spoke Urdu and Finnish by the time I was two," I say, keeping a straight face. "What kind of music do you play?"
"Classical." He ignores my joke and rocks onto his knees. "I plan on being a soloist in the Chicago Symphony or the New York Philharmonic. Only four percent of all orchestra members in the whole country are black or Hispanic. I'm going to up that number."
"Cool. So, which are you?" My own mixed race too-brown-to-be-white-too-white-to-be-brown ethnicity often prompts similarly rude questions, so I should know better than to ask, but given it's too late to have not asked, when he doesn't answer, I push. "You said only four percent are black or Hispanic, and you're going to up the number, so you have to be one or the other. I can't really tell."
Now he gives a sly smile and relaxes back into his seat. "Guess."
I shrug and swipe my bangs out of my eyes. "Fifty-fifty chance. I go with Hispanic."
He laughs, showing off a set of impossibly straight, white chompers. "It was a trick question. My Dad's half Venezuelan, half Chinese. My mom's half Nigerian, half white."
"Wow," I say, slurping down a spoonful of ice cream. "You're like, international man. You have what, four continents covered?"
"Local wherever I go, that's me. My mom took me to Alaska when I was twelve. They thought I was Inuit. What about you? What's your ethnic bubble?"
"Someone once asked me if I was Filipina. I didn't even know what Filipina was. I thought it was some kind of drink." We both laugh, but my strategy of avoiding the question does nothing to deter him. "So? What is it? What's your bubble?"
"White mom. No idea about my dad, but I like to think he was a cross between Che Guevara and Crazy Horse, so usually I just go with 'other,'" I say casually, as if the answer's no big deal, but the question of my parents brings up that nagging issue of The Jerk again, my father who I never met. A blast of pop-rap music spills into the cafeteria from some passing hipster. Someone shouts a joke about the person's musical taste followed by a burst of laughter and musical retaliation by an increase in volume. "So, anyway, big day tomorrow," I say, thankful for the interruption. I stand and pick up my tray. "I have to go unpack and get ready."
"Me too." Clem stands up with me.
"You're staying at the dorms?" I ask, surprised.
"Yep. I convinced my mom to let me live here, like a stay-cation, so I could get in on some dorm life. I'm an only child. My mom's kind of overly protective. It was a compromise as long as I promised to have dinner with her twice a week."
"What about your dad? What does he think?" I'm prying, but fair's fair. I told him my paternal history — or the absence thereof. His turn to spill.
"No idea what he thinks," Clem says with a shrug. "He lives in LA. Vacation parent. I see him twice a year for three days."
"Hey!" Rejina calls from across the cafeteria, beckoning us over to her table before I can reply. "Y'all ready for tomorrow?" she asks when we get there. Clem and Rejina banter a bit about first day jitters, though Clem doesn't appear to actually have any and seems to be making them up for Rejina, who talks too much and seems totally nervous. "You guys want to party tonight?" We're both standing there, but clearly she's only talking to Clem. "A few of us are meeting at Dahlia's room, then walking to town."
"Nah," Clem says, and although he's looking at Rejina, I feel his attention on me. "It's cool."
She looks disappointed as we walk away, but I notice that she doesn't ask for my answer.
Clem and I leave the cafeteria together and head to the dorm where the interns are housed. As we enter the building and walk down the hall, we pass door after door, some decorated with hand-drawn signs, announcing names of the occupants, others with cartoons or posters for bands, personal badges of introductory statements: Hello. I'm a metal head, who are you?
We reach the end of the hall and Clem stops outside a closed door with no personal deco. "This is me," he says. I'm about to say later and take off when he adds, "Would you like to come in, so I can play you a song? A good-night serenade, milady?"
"Cute, but I seem to remember a 'no opposite sex in your rooms' rule."
"Live dangerously," he says and unlocks the door.
I can't resist a challenge. I follow him in.
He opens his violin case, adjusts the pegs, and bows each string in the magical act of tuning. Then he starts to play. And there you have it, ladies and gents. Faith Flores melts. I don't even like classical music, but this is something different. This music is silk and clouds and butter and ... well, just really freaking amazing. Standing there listening to him play I think how there's who we want to be, and who we try to be, and who others think we are or should be. And then there's just the truth — who we actually are. That's the space Clem's music comes from.
Excerpted from Code Red by Janie Chodosh. Copyright © 2017 Janie Chodosh. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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