In one of the photographs that turns up on the internet two months after Emma’s older sister takes off in the middle of the night—no note, only occasional texts to Emma since—a bungee cord wrapped around the back of her sister’s neck pulls at both corners of her mouth, stretching it open. Varga’s lower lip is spread flat across the top of her bottom teeth—her lip a duvet stretched tight across a hotel bed. Her tongue looks like dead meat. It reflects the overhead light. There is a man, older than Varga, wearing a white lab coat and pale blue surgical mask. He’s yanking her head back by her hair and squirting something from a small white bottle into her right eye. The news articles that accompany the scattered photographs explain that Varga and the man are staging a protest against animal testing in the cosmetics industry. They performed this protest in a glass storefront window for a crowd of reporters and stunned shoppers, but the pain on Varga’s face looks authentic.
Emma learns about the photos from her friend Olivia’s older brother, Roman. Everyone at the high school knows about them, he says. From his tone, Emma understands that these photos are like pellets of fish food sprinkled onto the surface of a pond and that Roman’s peers are a frenzy of mouths on that pond’s surface.
Roman says, “I thought you should know in case word gets around the junior high, too. So you’re not taken off guard.”
Roman is a boy who bakes. Their kitchen always smells sweet and bready. On Emma’s thirteenth birthday, a few weeks back, he offered her a loaf of blueberry-lemon bread with a raspberry glaze because it was what he’d just made and he hadn’t known ahead of time it was her birthday. He said, “I owe you a proper cake, though.” And sure enough, the next day, when Emma walked home with Olivia as she always did these days because her own house was depressing, Roman was stirring chocolate into melted butter. Seeing him stir chocolate into butter made Emma think of Varga, but, really, Roman is the opposite of Varga.
In eight-grade science, Emma is required to conduct a biological experiment. Her teacher, Ms. Pashley, writes questions on the dry-erase board: What purpose does your experiment serve? What populations will benefit from the data you collect? What ethical considerations does your experiment entail?
If Emma had a pet, she might choose an inquiry question like Olivia’s: Will giving my cat coconut oil every day help it get rid of hairballs more easily, reducing vomiting? But she and Varga have never been allowed pets. The smell, the maintenance, the expense: their dad’s three reasons why not. So Emma chooses brine shrimp as her subject. According to one website, brine shrimp “present fewer ethical problems than many other laboratory animals.” The author does not say why. Do brine shrimp not experience pain?
Emma chooses environmental pollution as her inquiry topic because that’s an issue that affects all life on earth and so her data stands to benefit everyone but her sacrificial test subjects. She will add kerosene, her independent variable, to one of two containers of brine shrimp to find out how the chemical affects the shrimp, her dependent variable.
In the log where she’s supposed to record her observations and thoughts, she writes, My hypothesis is that the brine shrimp whose environment is polluted with kerosene will have shorter lifespans than those in an unpolluted environment. Then she writes, That’s a nice way of saying they will die.
The last time Emma saw Varga was the night they attended the Miss Gator Queen pageant in Anahuac, the so-called Alligator Capital of Texas. Varga’s idea. She lived for mocking other people’s earnestness. She said, “Girls in four-hundred-dollar gowns competing for a five-hundred-dollar scholarship. Did I mention talent show?”
They were in the kitchen. Otto, a boy Varga screwed from time to time, rummaged through the refrigerator as though he lived there. He said, “Will there be live alligators?”
Varga said, “There’ll be live pageant girls.”
Emma’s accompanying Varga and Otto to the pageant was their dad’s idea. He was planning to record that night with Mary Leard, who provided vocals to his weird synthesizer sounds. Sometimes all she did was repeat the same word over and over, like grow, grow, grow, grow, while he distorted her voice as if morphing her into a hundred different versions of herself.
This music thing was a newish hobby. He’d tire of it eventually, the way he’d done with furniture refinishing that past year. He’d sanded and repainted a console table, which now sat in their house’s entryway, and which they weren’t allowed to touch should they chip its paint, but he’d abandoned the second piece of furniture, a dresser, after sanding only the top two drawers. The dresser now functioned as storage for garage odds and ends—one of the sanded drawers stuffed with mousetraps and bug spray, the other with tape and glue.
Varga said, “Why do you care if Emma is in the house while you record?”
Their dad stood in the doorway to the kitchen, holding a basket of bedsheets—the yellow polka-dotted sheets her parents had had for as long as Emma could remember. The sheets were frayed at the edges, but their mom, though an artist, never threw out anything practical on account of aesthetics.
“We can’t have any distractions,” he said. Then, “I don’t think it’s fair to her to be stuck in the house while we record the same song over and over.”
“I thought it was about distractions,” Varga said.
Both girls suspected their dad was having an affair with Mary Leard. The question was did the affair begin before their mom left or after? Did he fuck Mary Leard in their mom’s studio, which all of them, even their dad, still called “Mom’s studio,” even though he had co-opted the space as soon as she’d left?
“B does not exclude A,” he said.
Before their mom left for a year-long artist-in-residence fellowship in Mexico, she said that at seventeen and twelve, the girls were old enough to handle her temporary absence. She christened it a “growth experience,” as though living without her for a year were akin to living in a foreign country.
Not all growth is beneficial, though. Emma remembers the seedlings that grew long and scrawny when their mom neglected to transplant them into the vegetable garden from the plastic tray she’d kept in her bedroom closet. They eventually turned yellow and collapsed. The tray looked like a balding head, stray tendrils hanging limp over its edges.
“Some of these are so BDSM,” Olivia says of an image of Varga alone, no man in the lab coat. Varga’s arms are bound, her mouth stretched open, her skin flushed, hair roots dampened with sweat. Emma can’t remember what all those letters stand for, but she knows they mean things like being tied up and whipped. She knows they mean pleasure derived from pain. Emma has never seen a snuff film, but she’s heard about them from Miles Bernardini, who’s an encyclopedia on anything counterculture. Films that purport to show real murders. “People get off on that shit,” Miles had said. The photos of Emma’s sister are what she imagines stills from early in such a film might look like—before something sharp bloodies everything up.
“You think this is really about animals?” Olivia says.
They’ve been searching and scrolling for nearly an hour. As Emma clicks and drags the mouse with her right hand, Olivia is painting the nails on Emma’s left hand blue. Emma is clumsy with that tiny brush.
“Nope,” Emma says.
When Olivia finishes Emma’s left hand, Emma reaches down to scratch the mosquito bite on her ankle, and Olivia smacks her hand, careful to miss the nails. “You’ll smudge my work.”
It’s true that when Varga was in eighth grade, she chose humans as the subject of her science experiment, but that was less because she didn’t want to experiment on animals than that she did want to experiment on humans. She’d conducted a psychology experiment, her postulation being that rom-coms make people stupid. She’d given her subjects a series of logic and math questions to answer. Then she had them watch clips of either My Best Friend’s Wedding or 10 Things I Hate About You. Afterwards, she gave them a second set of logic and math questions.
Emma can think of a dozen explanations for the photos far more sound than that Varga has become an advocate for animals. Like Varga wanted attention. Like she was fucking the guy in the lab coat.
Or maybe Varga is like the second-grader, Liam, whom Emma tutors in reading Wednesday mornings before school, and who stabs his own hand with a pencil when he becomes frustrated, which is all the time. She’s supposed to check his hands for pencils before they begin. She’s supposed to gently remove the pencil from his hand if he has one. It’s okay if he jabs his hand with his too-long, dirt-caked fingernails, but no pencils.
Emma remembers how once or twice a week her sister would fast. Varga sipped coffee throughout those days. To trim her appetite, she said, as though hunger were high-maintenance, like bangs. You had to snip constantly, or it would grow unruly.
Emma doesn’t know how she would properly test any of her hypotheses, even if Varga weren’t gone.
Sometimes Varga voluntarily rescued Emma from being alone in the house with their dad and Mary Leard. They went to random events Varga selected from local listings. The point as far as Emma could tell was to gawk. At a cat show in a Baytown, Varga asked a woman if they could pet her gray Scottish Fold, and the woman gestured to an economy-sized bottle of hand sanitizer. “Oils from your hands will dirty his coat,” she said. The cat’s body buzzed like an engine. Varga whispered that the woman probably used the cat as a vibrator, set it between her legs and got off while she watched The L Word.
When Emma’s tagging along wasn’t Varga’s idea, that meanness was directed at Emma. Emma was chubby. She made weird faces when she chewed. Her laugh sounded self-conscious. She tried too hard to make people like her. Varga called her Grub. As soon as they got into Otto’s car to go to the pageant, Varga said, “Nice of you to tag along, Grub.”
Otto’s eyes in the rearview mirror were apologetic.
Emma said, “What choice do I have?”
Sometimes their dad was the independent variable, sometimes their mom, sometimes Varga. Sometimes the three of them duked it out to be the independent variable. With their mom living in Mexico for the year, maybe she was the ultimate independent variable, untouchable. (Later, that would be Varga, too.)
Emma was the designated dependent variable.
But Varga countered. “You always have a choice.”
She rolled the window down and smoked in Otto’s car, though she knew he didn’t like it, and though, inevitably, the wind whipped some of the ashes toward Emma. When Emma brushed the ashes from her jeans, they left smudges of gray powder, like the dust prints moth wings leave on her fingers when she fishes their carcasses from between the sliding glass door and the screen.
Emma looked for Otto in the mirror, but he looked straight ahead.
The brine shrimp eggs remind Emma of yeast, another living thing that looks like it belongs in a spice jar. She reads that, like yeast, brine shrimp eggs can remain dormant for years, as long as they don’t come into contact with water. This is true of many of the planet’s tiniest organisms. Plant seeds, too, of course. She guesses the logic of the adaptation is that if you need water to live and you’re not especially mobile, then it’s a bad idea to spring to life in environmental conditions lacking that vital resource.
Five days after Olivia’s brother shows them the photos, Boyd Cochran, the tallest and biggest-headed boy in their year, and whom Olivia secretly refers to as Thanos, turns around in English class, leans against Emma’s desk and says, “You going to start staging protests, too, Emma? If you do, I hope you’ll let me know, so I can be sure to be there.” He winks. Boyd has never winked at her before. No boy has.
Since word of Varga’s photos has spread, other boys pay closer attention to Emma, too. She catches Elijah Mayhew, adored by the girls because of his long eyelashes and weirdly charming bowed legs, staring during band practice. When she meets his eyes, he smiles. Olivia notices, too. “He wants you,” she teases when they’re walking to Olivia’s house after school.
Of course, Emma knows that Elijah looking at her doesn’t have anything to do with her. It has everything to do with Varga. Every boy in school lusts after Varga now. Emma’s heard rumors that printouts of some of the more BDSM-looking photos are taped onto the walls of the boys’ bathroom stalls. If the boys in her school give Emma any thought at all, it’s only to wonder if maybe she’s like Varga.
This is something she wonders, too.
“What does it matter if Varga is the reason he’s paying attention to you in the first place?” Olivia says. “He wants you, and he’s hot.”
At the pool hall behind the Motel 8, Varga once let some guy buy her kamikaze shots and poke her in the ass with his cue stick, while Emma sat alone on a stool and drank a watered-down Pepsi. The guy was older than Varga, old enough to order and pay for those kamikaze shots, and he looked at Varga like she looked at those kamikaze shots, like she was something he was getting away with. But when she was in the bathroom later, he sidled up to Emma where she sat on the cold metal stool. He placed a hand on her knee, leaned in close and whispered in her ear how sweet he bet she tasted. She can still feel the vapor from his mouth making her ear warm and wet, the way his hand on her knee made her insides feel like a pinball machine. When Varga came out of the bathroom, she was furious, and Emma’s first thought was that her sister was angry at her. But then Varga told the guy that if he didn’t leave immediately, she’d call the cops on him—for child molestation.
Of course, the details of why Elijah is looking at her matter. But Emma doesn’t say this because then Olivia would say, “What do you know about it?”
The air in the auditorium lobby the evening of the pageant was foggy with perfume. The ladies and gentlemen attending the Miss Gator Queen pageant catapulted their scents the way certain plants disperse their seeds. Emma wondered aloud how human mating would be different if sperm could travel airborne like this, if all a man had to do was release his sperm into the air like pollen and, poof, he knocked up dozens of women at once.
Otto laughed. “Where you do you come up with this stuff?”
Varga said, “Gross.”
What Emma knew, she knew from observing Varga. Otto was hardly the only boy she screwed since their mom left. There’d been one-night stands and one-time-in-the-mall-family-bathroom stands. On excursions with her sister, Emma witnessed Varga wreck pool shots to prompt some guy to bend her over the pool table and rub up against her in the supposed service of teaching her how to aim her cue stick. Varga ditched her in the middle of movies, not returning until the credits. Once they were at a bookstore, and Varga told Emma she forgot her wallet in the car. When she appeared forty minutes later, scratches lined Varga’s arms from her elbows to her wrists, and she’d brought Emma an expensive chocolate bar.
While Otto knew not to refer to Varga as his girlfriend, or his anything for that matter, Emma didn’t think he knew just how many other guys there were. She didn’t think he knew about Varga freaking out every time her period was a day later than she expected it. So all she said was, “I don’t know.”
She liked Otto and hoped he’d stick around. He was good to Varga. Also, Otto didn’t scare Emma the way the other guys Varga fooled around with did. He didn’t have the shifty-eyed look of someone preparing to tuck store merchandise down his pants.
After the eggs hatch, the shrimps’ tiny bodies, like fractured ice crystals, make flurries in the water, and Emma wishes she’d chosen bacteria as her subject. Bacteria don’t have eyes. Her experiment isn’t even original. She knows from the data of others before her what will happen.
The first time Emma’s mom calls after Emma has learned of the photos, when her mom asks, “Have you heard from Varga?” Emma contemplates saying no and leaving it at that. It’s the truth, after all. Also, the idea of showing her parents those photos embarrasses Emma. But she has never been good at subterfuge. So, Emma admits that there is some bit of news, and she calls her dad to her computer and puts the phone on speaker. She emails a link to one of the photos of Varga, the least embarrassing one she knows of, to her mom before clicking the link for her dad. She doesn’t want to experience this awkwardness more than once.
Her mom says over the phone, “Dear god.” Then, “Well, it is for a good cause, I suppose.” Then, “But I can’t understand why she won’t answer when I call her.”
Her dad just stares at the photo. He says nothing.
But Mary Leard stops coming over to the house. He stops making synthesizer music. Instead, he digs in the backyard when he comes home from work. The first patch of earth to go is Emma’s mom’s neglected vegetable garden. “Maybe it’ll be a koi pond,” he tells Emma when she asks what he’s digging. “Or maybe it’ll be a swimming pool. Like you’ve always wanted.”
She stopped asking for a pool by the time she was ten.
Her mom calls every day now. She’s so scripted, it’s like talking to Siri. “You hear from your sister?” “How’s school?” “I can’t wait to come home.”
Emma thinks of Varga’s words: You always have a choice.
In the lobby before the pageant, an elderly woman with silver hair arranged high above her head like a dollop of whipped cream atop a piece of pie, called out, “We’ve got a special guest tonight! She’s your Miss Texas! Join the line if you’d like an autograph or a picture!”
Otto grinned and said he thought he would like a picture with Miss Texas. Varga groaned. Her magenta lipstick had rubbed away where her lips met, and the flash of her true lip color, beige-pink, seemed vulgar somehow, as though she’d exposed a nipple.
Otto said, “She’s my Miss Texas.”
“You think I’m jealous?” Varga said.
Miss Texas was tall and thin and had perfect teeth, just like Mary Leard. No amount of fasting could shrink and stretch Varga into that.
“That’s not what I meant,” Otto said.
“I don’t care what you do. I’ve told you that a hundred times,” Varga said.
When their mom said she was going to Mexico for a year, their dad said, “You say that like it’s a done deal.” Their mom said, “Do you realize how huge this is for me? You wouldn’t ask me to pass up such an opportunity, would you?” Their dad said, “What would be the point? You always do whatever you want, Catherine.”
Otto looked tired, but he bounced back quickly. He smiled and said, “I know you better than you think I do, Varga.”
Emma was pretty certain he was wrong.
When it was Otto’s turn with Miss Texas, the smile on his face, the goofiness in his posture, he could have had his arm wrapped around a bizarre roadside attraction—a giant model of an ear of corn, each kernel a human wisdom tooth.
Varga said, “Don’t be an idiot,” as she took Otto’s photo with her phone.
In the photo, Miss Texas’s white-teeth smile was fixed in one place, her eyes in another place entirely.
In her log, Emma sketches a brine shrimp. It looks like a miniature quill pen with a head. She gives it beady black eyes and spiky antennae. She records her research about how brine shrimp not only tolerate salt water, but they thrive in it. Thriving in salt water is their superpower. They can’t physically defend themselves against predators, so being able to survive in conditions that other animals cannot allows them to avoid predators. At a maximum of about a centimeter long, they are the largest animals that inhabit the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
What Emma can’t tell anyone ever about pool-hall guy is how she keeps in her head those sensations of his hand on her knee and his hot, sour breath in her ear like a velvety tarantula in a glass jar. The memory makes her cringe, yet she reaches her fingers in slowly sometimes, as if to touch, only to jerk her hand back again and slam the lid back on.
But sometimes the tarantula escapes its jar.
In band practice, when rehearsal is going particularly well, when the music they’re playing sounds halfway decent, like something a person would actually choose to listen to, she’ll get that pinball-game feeling in her stomach, and she’ll be transported to that cold stool, the man’s hot hand and warm breath on her goose-pimpled skin.
Or she’ll be chewing a piece of fried chicken her dad picked up for dinner, and that meat and grease between her teeth will conjure the man’s words: I bet you taste sweet.
Like pool water that contains a chemical that turns bright blue to indicate that someone has peed in it, she worries that something about her signals to the world that she’s been polluted. Maybe that’s why Elijah looks at her during band practice. He sees that blue.
Maybe he wants to pollute her, too.
This girl named Brie, who wears tiny scarves tied in a bow around her neck like she’s a fancy gift-wrapped package, says to Emma in the hallway after lunch, “Are you a cumbucket like your sister?”
Although Emma has never heard the term, its meaning isn’t difficult to ascertain. But the image is difficult to shake from her mind, and she’s struck dumb by it.
Thank goodness for Olivia, who tells Brie that she’s one to talk since everyone knows that all her stupid mouth is good for is eating other people’s bullshit.
The pageant emcee opened with a joke about being granted one wish from a genie. The punchline was that the genie could more easily bring peace in the Middle East than grant the emcee the body of Channing Tatum. About five people in the auditorium laughed. His delivery was off.
Varga slapped Otto’s knee. “See? I told you this would be fun,”
Soon the curtain opened to reveal bales of hay and a painted backdrop featuring a barn and a weathervane overseen by a rooster. Eight girls about Varga’s age stood frozen as if they were part of the backdrop. They all wore cutoff denim shorts and gingham blouses, each a different hue. One by one, the girls came to life like wind-up dolls and walked toward the microphone to introduce themselves. They adhered to a script: “Good evening. I am (state your name). I am contestant number (state your number). My sponsor is (state your sponsor). I am contestant number (state your number again). Thank you.”
Most of the girls’ voices were monotone, their smiles stretched too tight. After they said, “Thank you,” they turned stiffly and exited the stage.
Not number eight. She strutted up to the microphone at the front of the stage as though she were coming home to people who loved her.
“Good evening. I am Lollee Snyder. I am contestant number eight…”
Varga sniggered. “Lollee?! As in lollipop? Totally worth the drive.”
A woman in a zebra-printed blouse (there were a lot of animal prints in the auditorium) turned around and shushed Varga.
Varga rolled her eyes. Then she opened the program and read aloud from Lollee’s bio. “’Lollee Snyder is a member of All-State women’s choir and has won All-State honors in piano solo,’ yadda yadda. ‘Music is her passion. Her plans for the future are to bring her music to the world.’ Please.”
Emma pours the kerosene in on a Friday afternoon so she can watch the brine shrimp carefully over the weekend. The kerosene quickly permeates the water, and mixed, the water and kerosene look like a new substance, like the water is no longer water. She knows that mixtures, unlike new substances formed by chemical reaction, can be separated by physical means—filtration, boiling, magnets. She knows that substances in a mixture retain their chemical identities. But even though she accepts all that, to say a mixture is not a new substance feels intuitively wrong. She thinks of the different mixtures that have made up her home in the last year—her parents, her sister, and her versus her dad, her sister, and her versus just her and her dad. Her home feels like dry cereal turned soggier and soggier by milk, she thinks, only the shift a result of subtraction rather than addition.
Even nine months after her mom left for Mexico, Emma thinks she sees her mother sometimes, out of the corner of her eye. She walks by the kitchen window, and she could swear she sees her mother bent over in the yard, pulling weeds, but when Emma turns there’s nothing but a giant hole.
It’s the same with Varga. In bed at night, Emma thinks she hears her sister whispering on the phone. She thinks she hears Varga’s snide laugh. Emma gets up, and she opens Varga’s bedroom door. The room still reeks of cigarettes, even after two months, but the smell is stale, rotten.
The pageant program said there was an interview, too, but that it happened the day before.
When Emma said she wished they’d gotten to see the interview, Varga snorted. “What do you think this is? A presidential election?”
When the emcee returned to his podium at the far left corner of the stage, he told them about the burgers and fries provided to the contestants and judges for lunch that day, repeating the name of the donor three times. He told them about the donuts provided that morning by another donor. Then he said, “Get ready to feast your eyes. Here they are, our eight lovely contestants, in their casual wear!”
Varga’s eyes lit up.
The clothes the girls chose included tiny shorts paired with a sleeveless top, a Mexican dress embroidered with multicolored flowers, a cheerleading uniform, equestrian gear, and a yellow jumpsuit paired with black stiletto heels. The jumpsuit girl tripped and nearly fell during her exit.
The girl who stood out again was number eight, Lollee Snyder, who walked onto the stage in a slinky silver dress that draped her torso over one shoulder only, leaving the other shoulder bare. The dress was flattering, to be sure, but it wasn’t the dress ultimately that made her stand out. On the body of another girl, it would have been just a pretty dress. Lollee was charming. Emma had long recognized charm when she saw it, but before that night, she had never really felt charmed.
People in the audience whistled and hollered. On the opposite side of the auditorium, a tall, lanky boy in a cowboy hat stood and clapped. He put his fingers to his lips and whistled. Teenagers in the seats around him followed suit. There were probably fifteen or twenty of them. They chanted Lollee’s name.
If Varga could have set those teenagers on fire with her stare Carrie-style, Emma was pretty sure the entire auditorium would have gone up in flames.
She recalled how Varga had one time disappeared into the bathroom at a Starbucks as soon as a loud group of teenagers entered. She texted Emma from that bathroom: Let me know when the obnoxious boneheads are gone. Varga remained in that bathroom for nearly thirty minutes, despite other customers periodically banging on the bathroom door. Whatever the reason Varga didn’t want to be visible to those teenagers, it punctured the image Emma had of her sister as fierce and untouchable. When Emma timidly asked her sister about it after, Varga said, “Because they’re dickwads. Your curiosity satisfied?”
Lollee beamed on the auditorium stage. The entire auditorium seemed to be at that pageant to support her, everyone except Varga, that is.
She said, “Who the fuck calls that casual?”
The woman who’d shushed her earlier turned around and shushed her again.
This time Varga told the woman to fuck off.
The woman’s eyes widened. She immediately got up, pushed her way past the three people between her and the aisle. She took an empty seat four rows up.
“Varga,” Emma said.
Varga snapped her head toward Emma. “Give it a rest, Em. You really believe you’re here to watch over me? My thirteen-year-old sister? Dad bribes me, too. He’s got you conned.”
Otto tugged at Varga’s arm. “Let’s go take a smoke break.”
Varga sighed and followed him. She looked tired, maybe even a little sorry for snapping at Emma. Emma would know her sister was sorry if later she bought Emma something sweet. The night the guy at the pool hall put his hand on Emma’s knee, even though it wasn’t exactly Varga’s fault, the apology was a donut topped with chocolate ganache and toasted marshmallow.
When Varga and Otto returned from their smoke break just in time for the talent competition, Varga’s eyes looked glazed over, like their mom when she drank too much. There was flute playing, baton twirling, summersaults, a girl roping a plastic steer, but Varga didn’t laugh, didn’t roll her eyes. She stared vacantly at the stage.
Then the emcee introduced Lollee. “Just wait til you get a load of her voice.”
“A load,” Varga said, but half-heartedly.
Lollee walked onto the stage in shiny red boots and a black fringe dress. On just about anyone else, that outfit would have looked ridiculous. But again, Lollee was radiant.
When she opened her mouth, her voice gushed with the force of water through a firehose. She sang some syrupy cowgirl song at which even Emma might have laughed in any other circumstance, but there was nothing funny about Lollee’s performance.
The auditorium of restless, fragrant strangers seemed unified, their collective attention focused, as if each of them were an individual nerve cell that together formed one giant ear.
Emma thought about her vision of sperm traveling through the air like pollen. The electromagnetic waves in Lollee’s song traveled out into the air and the walls and the floor and into all their bodies. Emma’s body buzzed with Lollee’s voice and it kept right on buzzing long after Lollee stopped singing.
Of course, Lollee won the pageant. After the previous year’s Gator Queen placed the crown upon Lollee’s head, the emcee returned to the podium one last time to remind the crowd that tomorrow they could see the new queen straddle a live gator like it was a horse.
Varga didn’t laugh. She didn’t say a word.
In fact, Emma isn’t sure her sister said a single word the rest of the night. The drive home, Emma was still listening to Lollee, still feeling Lollee’s voice permeating her stomach, her bones, every cell. Emma can remember nearly every detail of that pageant except what matters most. She doesn’t remember the highway. She doesn’t remember the strange mix of sea salt and chemical plant smells in the air. She doesn’t remember Otto taking the exit to their town. She doesn’t remember driving past the thick clump of scraggly oaks that mean she’s almost home. She can’t even remember if she had to brush away ashes from Varga’s cigarettes. In her last hour with her sister, Emma wasn’t paying attention.
The brine shrimp in the polluted water are dead by Sunday morning. Emma looks around with a magnifying glass but doesn’t spot a single flurry. This is to be expected, but she’s surprised at just how guilty she feels. Of all the experiments she could have chosen, why this terrible, stupid experiment? What was she thinking?
As if this isn’t bad enough, Emma discovers that her control group isn’t doing any better. Like the kerosene tank, the control tank looks more like a dormant snow globe than a shaken one. The tank floor is piled with debris that Emma realizes is a mix of bodies and the food she sprinkled into the tank a few days earlier.
She hasn’t looked at them since she poured the kerosene into the experimental tank. All Saturday she watched the kerosene group. For all she knew, the control group could have been dead since Friday.
She’s not only guilty of cruelty but also of neglect.
After recording the results, she’s supposed to formulate a conclusion. Ms. Pashley reminded them in class that the conclusion statement should be unarguable, a statement of fact. Do your results support or contradict your hypothesis?
The experimental group’s fate doesn’t contradict Emma’s hypothesis. However, given the fate of the control group, her results don’t support her hypothesis, either. Some other variable could be responsible for the experimental groups’ deaths. The water temperature could have been too cold or too warm. Not enough salt. Not enough oxygen.
Olivia says on the phone, “But it’s not like things would have turned out differently if you’d been watching them closely. There was nothing you could do.”
Emma knows Olivia is probably right, but she doesn’t feel any better.
She writes in her log: The only conclusive fact is that the brine shrimp are dead.