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Authors: Robin Brande

Fat Cat

BOOK: Fat Cat
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For the real Matthew and Amanda,
For John, source of all my favorite boyfriend lines,
And for Carolyn, a better best friend than any I could invent
in a novel.


ou're all good little machines,"
Mr. Fizer told us. He sat there this afternoon in his tweed jacket and his white shirt and plaid bow tie and glared at us over the top of his half-glasses. Which was a seriously scary sight.

"You know how to take tests," he said. "You know how to memorize facts and mimic everything your teachers have taught you--but do any of you really know how to
We're about to find out."

I know I should have been concentrating. I should have kept my eyes locked on Mr. Fizer, practically reading his lips to make sure I caught every word. His class is going to be the hardest thing I've ever taken in my life.

But sometimes my body parts have a mind of their own. And there my eyes were, straying off to the right, seeking out that one particular face in the crowd the way they always do, no matter how many times I've told them to stop. And since this was a crowd of only nine, he was way too easy to find.

Unfortunately, right at that moment Matt McKinney was looking back at me, and our eyes met for just that one split second, and even though I instantly looked away, it was too late. I had to see that subtle little smirk of his, and it made me wish more than anything I had something sharp and heavy to throw at his head.

"Here are the rules," Mr. Fizer said.

As if he needed to tell us. Every one of us understood the deal long before today--Fizer's Special Topics in Research Science class is legendary, not the least because every few years someone has to run out of there on the first day and vomit because of the stress.

I had a light lunch.

"When I call your name," Mr. Fizer said, "you will come up, close your eyes, and choose a picture. You will then have one hour in which to devise your topic. You may not use the Internet or any other resources. You may not discuss it with your classmates. You will have only your own creativity to rely upon.

"We do it this way," he continued, "because true scientific progress comes through innovative thinking, not merely reciting what other scientists have taught us. Albert Einstein believed that imagination is more important than knowledge, and I agree. We must always push ourselves to discover more. Understood?"

No one bothered answering. We were all too busy staring at the folder he'd just opened on his desk, revealing this year's Stack.

The Stack. It's your whole future resting on a pick of the cards. Only in Mr. Fizer's case, the deck of cards is actually a stack of pictures he's gathered throughout the year--pages torn out of magazines like
National Geographic

If you luck out, you can end up with a picture that applies to a field you're already interested in--like for me, insects and their co-evolution with plants. It's what I spent the whole summer helping
research in one of the biology labs at the university. I figured if I ended up with a picture even remotely dealing with either plants or bugs, I'd be able to use everything I just learned about fig wasps.

On the other hand, you can also end up with something completely outside your subject field, which is why people like George Garmine had to flee the room last year to puke.

Because if you bomb, you might as well plan a career as a drone in some laboratory at some obscure college in a town nobody's heard of, because you're never going to get the premium offers. But if you do well--I mean really well--you can not only get Mr. Fizer's recommendation for college applications, but you might also win your category at the science fair and then go on to internationals. Some of Mr. Fizer's students have done just that. And then you have a great shot at winning scholarships and impressing college recruiters, so that even people like me can end up at places like MIT or Duke or Harvard or wherever. So yeah, it's a big deal.

We all just wanted to get on with it already, but Mr. Fizer still had one more rule to tell us about.

"This is not a time for teamwork," he said. "This is a competition. This is your chance to show bold thinking and a true commitment to your science. For the next seven months you will work independently and in secret. I am the only person you will share any details with until it is time to reveal your project at the science fair in March. Is that clear? Good. Miss Chang, we will begin with you."

Lindsay wiped her palms against her pants and walked so slowly to the front of the room it was like she'd just been told to come up there and drink poison. She stood in front of Mr. Fizer's desk, did the palm swipe one more time, then reached into the Stack.

You could tell Mr. Fizer was watching to make sure she kept her eyes closed. Lindsay pulled out a picture, pressed it against her chest,
and went back to her seat without even looking at what she'd chosen. That seemed like a good strategy--no point in freaking out in front of everyone if it turned out to be really bad.

Next he called up Farah, Alexandra, Margo, and Nick. Then me.

I eased between the lab tables and walked to the front, and that's when I started to think about my butt. And about how Matt McKinney was no doubt looking at it right at that moment and noticing how much larger it was than the last time he saw it. Seven more pounds over the summer, thank you very much. When you're working in a lab as intense as the one where I was, all you really have time for every day is the vending machines and the Dairy Queen on the corner. Everyone at that lab was a pudgeball.

So I stood in front of Mr. Fizer's desk, my hand shaking, thinking about my future and how it was about to change, but really thinking more about my thighs and gigabutt and trying to pull my shirt down a little lower to cover them, and finally I closed my eyes and reached into the Stack. That's when I heard Matt clear his throat, which sounded like he was suppressing a laugh, and my hand jerked from where it was, and I suppose that makes it fate that I chose the picture I did.

I couldn't look. I clutched the paper against my chest and went back to my seat and did my best to control my breathing.

Matt was next. Mr. Cocky. Mr. Casual. Mr. I've-Won-More-Science-Fairs-Than-Any-of-You. He pulled out his picture, looked at it, and actually smiled.
. Not a good sign.

Which caused me to peek at my own picture, and OH HOLY CRIPE. No way. I slapped it facedown on the table and heard my pulse pounding in my ears.

Because Matt McKinney
beat me this year. Please--there has to be a law. I've only beaten him once, and that was probably the
worst night of my life. It would be nice to win for once and actually get to enjoy it for more than five minutes.

Kiona and Alyssa went last, and they both looked about as sick as I felt. Then it was time.

"Go find a corner," Mr. Fizer told us. "Your hour begins"--he checked his watch--"now."

Everyone scattered to find some private space to work. I chose a little nook between the wall and a file cabinet and scrunched myself down onto the floor. Then I turned the paper over and faced the reality of my situation.

The picture was worse than I thought.

Naked Neanderthals.

No, I take it back. Not Neanderthals, but something even more ancient
--Homo erectus
, to be exact. Early hominins from 1.8 million years ago, the caption said. Great. Highly relevant to my own life, not to mention my fig wasps.

Whereas Matt, I'm guessing from the smug little smile I saw on his face, must have chosen something that plays directly into his field--astronomy. Probably a picture taken by the Hubble telescope, or something from the Mars expedition, or maybe a computer simulation of a black hole. Something easy and perfect and effortless, because that's how it always is for Matt.

But I couldn't worry about him--I had to worry about me. I went back to staring at my picture.

It was an artist's rendering of how these early humans might have lived. There were three men and a woman out in a meadow of some sort. They were all lean and muscular and tan--and did I mention naked?

They were gathered around a dead deer, guarding it from a pack of saber-toothed hyenas who were trying to move in and snatch it.
One of the men was shouting. The woman had the only weapon--a rock--and she stood there poised to pitch it at the hyenas. It was a great action scene if you're into that sort of thing--the whole anthro-paleo field of studies where you care more about the dead than the living. But it's not going to be my thing now or ever.

Naked hominins and hyenas. Great. This was going to be my life for the next seven months, I thought. Chalk up another win for Matt and another failure for me.

But that was before I understood just how perfect this whole thing is going to be.


manda was waiting for me after class
. "How'd it go?"

"Great. I need a Snickers."

"Oh, yeah?" she said, perking up. "Does that mean the diet is over?"

"Um, pretty much." Although I knew the real answer was going to shock her.

"Thank goodness," Amanda said. "No offense, Kit Cat, but you have been seriously cranky these past few days. I think some people just need their sugar and carbs."

Matt came out of class just then and gave us both a nod. "Hey, Amanda. See ya, Cat."

Neither of us answered, of course. Usually Matt's only that friendly when Amanda's boyfriend, Jordan, is around. They're on the swim team together, and Jordan is always telling us how "solid" and "quality" Matt is, whatever that's supposed to mean. What it really means is Matt continues to fool most people into thinking he's this
sweet, charming guy who happens to be a brilliant scientist on top of it.

But Amanda and I know the truth. And unfortunately, it's not something we can share with Jordan or anyone else. So people go right on believing what they want to about Matt.

"He is looking slightly better than normal," Amanda said, watching him disappear down the hall. "I think he's discovered the comb."

"Can we talk about something else, please?"

"Sure," she said. "I wrote a new poem last period. Want to hear it?"

She recited it for me as we headed toward the vending machines. It was another in her series of poems exploring the secret thoughts of inanimate objects. This one was about a blender.

Don't laugh. Or do. The poems are supposed to be funny, but they're also sweet and sometimes a little sad in their own way. The blender, so the poem goes, can touch food but never actually taste it. By the time it swirls everything around into a liquid form it can ingest, someone pours it out and takes it away.

"Ever chewing," Amanda concluded, "never satisfied."

We both nodded in silent appreciation.

"I really love it," I told her. "It's almost as good as the one about the La-Z-Boy."

"Yeah," Amanda agreed, "that was a classic."

We hit the vending machines, and I bought not only a Snickers, but also a Butterfinger and some peanut M&M's.

"Wow," Amanda said. "You weren't kidding."

I bit off about half of the Snickers and said with my mouth full, "You'll understand in a minute."

I made her wait until we were safely in her car, since I couldn't let Mr. Fizer or anyone else see me showing her the picture. His secrecy rule is fine--in fact, I'm grateful for it, since it means no one
will know what I'm doing until I unveil the whole thing next March--but there was no way I was going to keep it secret from Amanda.

As soon as we were settled, I pulled the picture out of my backpack.

"Oh," Amanda said.

"Right," I said.

Amanda pointed to the guy closest to the dead deer. "He's sort of hot."

"Are you kidding me?"

"What?" she said. "Nice butt, nice legs--I'd go for it."

"Good to know."

"Don't tell Jordan."

I finished my Snickers, started in on the Butterfinger, and explained to Amanda how the whole thing came about--how with time running out, my brain finally came to understand exactly what I should do.

People always want to know how scientific discoveries are made.

They like the stories about the apple falling on Newton's head (myth) or Archimedes leaping out of the bathtub and running naked through the streets shouting "Eureka!" ("I found it!") (True.) (Unfortunately for the neighbors.)

For me, it was the hominin's killer butt.

Not the guy's, like Amanda noticed, but the woman's.

"Ten minutes," Mr. Fizer had called out. I was in full-on, meltdown panic. I didn't have a single idea in my head.

Meanwhile everyone else was furiously scribbling away in their notebooks. Everyone except for Matt, of course, who was already done and just sat there reading what he'd written.

I squeezed my eyes shut. This was horrible. Silently I pleaded
with my new naked friends to give me inspiration--any sort of inspiration at all.

BOOK: Fat Cat
2.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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