The classroom smells like a funeral home.
Hushed voices pulse over the pairs of students hunching over trays spaced across the counters. The odor of bodies fresh out of gym class mingles with the scent of formaldehyde.
Hair dampens at my temples. A crematory would be cooler.
Mrs. Cryer shuffles around the tables watching over us—a reaper waiting for lost souls, her bony finger pointing out errors. She shuffles around with purpose. She shuffles around without direction. Then she stops at our table, her eyes peering over reading glasses.
She continues shuffling around.
Biology is my least favorite class. Mrs. Cryer’s assignments are outdated. It’s her last year teaching, her retirement long overdue. Stern and direct, she’s not the sort of teacher I usually like, but I do. There’s an underlying kindness to Mrs. Cryer. A kindness hiding in her eyes, evident in her actions.
One of the things I like about my school: my brother, Dalton, is in the same grade. We’re not twins or anything. Actually, we’re cousins. His parents adopted me when mine were killed in a boating accident on Lake Como in Italy. I don’t remember them. I was two when that all went down.
The thing I hate about school: Dalton’s in my biology class.
“Come on, Ana.” Dalton slides the dissection tray closer to me. “I did all the setup. Just make the first cut.”
The little green body looks rubbery—almost fake—crucified to the tray with pins as it is. I push strands of dark hair from my face with a latex-gloved hand. I could’ve opted out of this barbaric ritual of separating body parts from an innocent frog.
Why did I even agree to this?
It’s because Dalton coaxed me. He knows how to get me to do stuff. All he has to do is throw down a dare. Been doing that ever since forever.
I glare at him through the plastic goggles. “Just give me a sec.”
He flashes me a smug look. One that says he knows I won’t do it and he’s about to get out of doing the dinner dishes for a month. His eyes are almost the color of the frog’s body—sort of yellowy green, but alive. That movement he always does to get the sand-colored bangs out of his eyes annoys me.
A smirk twitching the corner of his lips, he drums his fingers against the table. A move to make me nervous. Make me give up. I contemplate tugging off one of my latex gloves and slapping his face with it. Challenge him to a duel. Like pistols at dawn.
Behind me, Rod’s goofing off again. Teasing Sofia and Maggie. He’s okay, just has it bad for Sofia. Everyone in school is just okay. Your typical cliques, as in all the schools across America. Dalton and I are like chameleons, morphing into whichever group we feel like hanging out with at the time.
The tiny scalpel shakes as I ready to make the cut. My stomach lurches as if it wants to leave my body and walk out the door. I don’t want to do this. It’s not right. The instrument slips from my hand and clatters onto the table.
“I can’t.” I pull off the gloves, drop them beside the tray, and push the goggles up to my forehead. “This is just too inhumane. Poor frog never hurt anyone. I don’t get why we can’t do virtual dissections like they do at Grant.”
“Ha!” That smug look is back on his face. “Do you concede, then?”
My eyes go back to the frog. Sadness deflates my soul the way a balloon loses air. Had it been hopping in a pond somewhere green and lush, minding its own business, searching for bugs to eat before the net caught it? Had it been scared, struggling against the cords to get out? Had it been docile once it realized there was no hope? No escape.
A girl’s squeal sounds behind me just before Rod stumbles and hits my back, pushing me forward. My bare palm lands on the frog, its body cold, firm, and lifeless. A shudder runs down my spine, and I pull back my hand as if I’ll catch a disease.
“Eww.” I push Rod away. “Be careful.”
“Oh sorry,” he says, a laugh hanging in his voice.
Mrs. Cryer’s eyes shift in our direction. “Mr. Stone, settle down, or you’ll spend lunch in the office.”
Rod returns to his table, Maggie and Sofia’s stifled laughs greeting him.
I snap back around. The frog is as still as a statue in the tray. “It did not. Stop doing that.”
“Doing what? I swear it—”
The frog’s eyes pop open, and it struggles against the pins holding its limbs down. A gasp punches from my chest, and I scoot back. This time it’s me bumping into Rod.
“What is going on over there?” Mrs. Cryer’s commanding voice stills the class.
This can’t be real.
Dalton hurries beside me. “What the hell? This frog is alive!”
The frog tugs a limb from one of the pins. Its head bangs against the tray as it frees itself from the others. It struggles onto its stomach and pushes off, landing on the table with a thump.
“Oh, hell no,” Maggie yells, scrambling behind Rod.
Everyone moves away from the frog, but I step closer as if there’s an invisible tether between us, drawing me in. Those round eyes stare at me, the slits opening and closing, just watching. My heart gallops in my chest, the thrumming in my ears drowning out all the excited voices around me.
A croak belches out of its mouth. It heaves and heaves and heaves until slimy, clear fluid is expelled from its mouth and splashes onto the table, rushing across the top, spilling over the edge, and dripping to the floor.
It stinks worse than Dalton’s trainers do after a long run—a mixture of formaldehyde and sour meat.
Gasps sound. Bodies bump into tables and chairs.
The frog lands on the next table, then takes off for the next and the next and thuds like a rolled-up, wet sock against the window. Slime runs down the glass.
The little thing sits there on the top of a short bookcase pushed up against the windows, just staring outside as if he’s longing to be free. I get the little guy. There’re times when I feel trapped, which makes no sense because it’s not as though I have restrictions. Jane’s too busy to keep tabs on us.
Then the frog lunges again.
And it hits the glass pane, again, again, again. Thud. Thud. Thud.
On the last hit, the frog drops onto the bookcase.
“Where did all those butterflies come from?” a girl asks, her voice shaky.
“Those aren’t butterflies.” I don’t have to turn around to know it’s Miles talking. He knows stuff. Random stuff like what he says next: “They’re death’s-head hawkmoths. Like the ones in The Silence of the Lambs. That’s strange. This isn’t their environment.”
Everyone inches closer to view the frog. Mrs. Cryer parts the sea of students on her way over. She leans over the frog, studying it for several seconds before straightening and turning to face us.
“Very clever prank.” Her voice is sharp, cutting through the excited voices around her, causing the classroom to suddenly fall silent. “Who’s the mastermind?”
Twenty-two pairs of eyes glance from Dalton to Rod, but no one answers her.
“All right.” Her sigh says she’ll be a bloodhound tracking the culprits until they’re found. “Everyone, back to your tables and put them in order. Mr. Taylor and Mr. Bove, go to the janitor’s room and grab some cleaner and a box to get rid of this mess.” Her eyes point to the bludgeoned frog.
She takes off her glasses, which is a sure sign her patience is wearing thinner than a sheet of paper.
Dalton rests a hand on my forearm. “I didn’t do this. I swear.”
I yank away from his grasp. “Yeah, right. Then why were you so determined for me to dissect it? You were setting me up.”
“Moths,” I say to his back.
“Whatever,” he says again, giving me a quick glance over his shoulder.
It’s nothing. Just a prank.
I study Rod’s face. He wears a mask of indifference. Maybe he did do it.
Just outside the window, one of the moths clings to a low-hanging branch. Its yellow-and-brown wings twitch. I move closer to the window. The skull marking on its back should creep me out, but it doesn’t. I’ve seen one at my dad’s funeral. It was lying flat against his casket the entire service. Stayed there like one of those butterflies pinned to a collector’s board until the best man I’d ever known was lowered into the cold, dark ground. At the rattling of the crane, the moth took off for the trees surrounding the cemetery.
“You okay?” Maggie asks.
I nod, my eyes burning as I stare out the window. “I’m good.”
The moth launches off the branch and flutters away, its body diminishing to a black dot in the distance.