Nucleation

A work of fiction where the quiet one, an unassuming and unwittingly gifted observer, comes to realize he has much to offer the world…

by: Culley Holderfield

Nucleation: The first step in the formation of either a new thermodynamic phase or a new structure via self-assembly or self-organization.

“What was Arthur Miller thinking about when he wrote The Crucible?” Ms. Braxton asked, offering a sly look to the vacant stares of her junior AP English students.

August, not known as one of the better students in his class, knew the answer. It was actually the ideal question for him, one he could answer well. But, because he knew the answer, he also knew that the truth wasn’t what Ms. Braxton was looking for. She was baiting the class, and wanted someone to say, “McCarthyism.” Though August didn’t really know much about history, especially American history, an inner voice just kept repeating to him, “McCarthyism, McCarthyism, McCarthyism.” When he thought of Arthur Miller, he kept hearing, “Turncoat Bastard, Turncoat Bastard, Turncoat Bastard.” So, as usual, August kept his mouth shut and let Andrea, the most ambitious student in the class raise her hand and say, “He was thinking about how McCarthyism was nothing more than a modern witch hunt.”

“Yes, indeed. Very good Andrea,” Ms. Braxton said, beaming. 

Since Ms. Braxton was looking at Andrea, August thought it safe for him, too, to stare. Andrea was the top student at Prexler High School, but she was no standard nerd. August couldn’t gawk at her enough. She had a friendly face with thick lips and a cute little Elizabeth Montgomery nose. Though she was only sixteen, she was already well-developed, and the parts of her he couldn’t keep his eyes off were the parts he knew he shouldn’t stare at.

Andrea knew August had a thing for her, even though they had never shared so much as a three sentence exchange. She loved attention, whether it be from Ms. Braxton or the eyes of her many male admirers. That this didn’t dull August’s interest perplexed him a bit, because he had never been one to compete for attention.

“August Dale!” The sound of his name snapped him out of his trance. 

He turned absently to Ms. Braxton and said, “Yes?”

“Thank you for returning to our plane of existence here on planet Earth. I’m not going to ask where your mind’s been, because I think I know.”

The class erupted into laughter and someone threw a wad of paper at August that bounced off his arm. He ignored it. He was sure it was Josh who threw it, and Josh didn’t deserve the pleasure of a response.

“Now, Mr. Dale, what did you think about this play?”

August shrugged. He had read it and found it to be a tad contrived. He really didn’t think the Salem Witch Trials were so impressive and organized. “It was interesting,” he offered.

“The word interesting doesn’t cut it in my class. You know that. Give me one complete sentence about your impression of this play.”

August squirmed. “I thought it was really more about sex and jealousy than witchcraft or Joseph McCarthy.”

“Okay,” Ms. Braxton said, “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

With that, Ms. Braxton launched into a twenty-minute description of the various relationships within Miller’s work, and August’s attention again lapsed to Andrea, seated across from him. He daydreamed until the bell rang.

At the bell, the hallway between classes exploded into chaos, with students and teachers bouncing off one another like electrons within an atom. August fell into a stream of bodies heading toward his chemistry class. Someone smacked him on the back of his head. It was Josh.

“Dude, you need to stop staring at Andrea.”

Josh was a football player and wrestler who had never wrestled with feelings of insecurity. He lived down the road from August, and they had known each other since elementary school. Josh had given August his first bloody nose, had once pushed him out of his tree house causing his first broken bone, had stolen his skateboard and his favorite video game, and harassed his sister constantly now that she was filling out at fourteen. Despite all this, Josh’s father was August’s father’s boss, so nothing had ever been done about it.

“Why?” August asked. “I’m just looking.”

“Because it weirds people out when you stare at her,” Josh said.

“You stare at her, too,” August said.

“Yeah, but I don’t weird her out. You’re like a psycho stalker or something.”

August shook his head. Josh popped him hard again on the back of his head. 

“Stop it,” August said, rubbing the back of his skull.

“Don’t be a weirdo, all right?”

Josh veered away down the hall toward his shop class. August knew that Josh would skip shop class to go meet a guy behind the vocational wing. The guy was a former student who now made his living selling his mother’s HGH pills to the school’s athletes. 

In chemistry class, it could be dangerous to let your mind wander. August let his lab partner, Brian, do most of the work. Brian was the resident genius who didn’t bathe often enough. Andrea was also in his chemistry class. In fact, August and Andrea shared 5 classes: AP English, Chemistry, AP American History, band, and pre-calculus. He didn’t really belong in the advanced studies track — he was often totally lost in chemistry and pre-calculus no matter how hard he tried — but August always tested well, and had been placed in the track due to his extremely high test scores. 

“Hey Brian,” he said, launching his backpack into his chair.

Brian looked up from a comic book, squinting because he had removed his thick glasses. “Oh, hey,” he said.

“Watcha reading?” August asked.

Brian shrugged, too engrossed to articulate. August had never been much into comics. Brian knew that and didn’t feel like explaining the reason why this particular issue of Star Wars: Dark Times was so compelling.   

Soon, the bell rang. Brain stashed his Dark Times away and Mr. Tisdale waddled in. Mr. Tisdale was wearing the same shirt today that he wore yesterday, but his tie was a new one, new simply meaning not worn yesterday, for it appeared stained and outdated. One glance and August knew that Mr. Tisdale’s wife had not come home again last night. 

“All right, class,” he said. “Today we’re going to become intimate with the process of nucleation.”

Across the lab table, Brian broke into a grin and nodded knowingly at August. August shrugged, having no idea what nucleation meant. He had read the assigned chapter, but nothing had stuck. Behind Brian, he caught someone looking at him. It was Andrea. He tried to catch her sparkling eyes with his own, but she immediately looked away. His heart sank when he realized she had been looking at the twirling model of a molecule hanging behind him.

Mr. Tisdale was droning on and on in a language that August didn’t understand — something about ion exchanges, acidity, and thermodynamics. He might as well have been speaking Latin.

Brian, eagerly rubbing his hands together, alerted August to the fact they were now going to experiment. Checking in on Andrea, August watched as she and her partner Danielle were blending together a beaker of a clear liquid with a blue material. Brian had identical ingredients laid out on their table. 

“Dude,” Brian said. “Glasses?”

“Oh, yeah.” August pulled on his safety glasses. Mr. Tisdale ambled by, leering his nose down at the progress not being made. There was a sharp odor in the air. Students clamored, reading aloud instructions to one another. Andrea had her beaker now tipped over the blue solution.

“No!” a shout rang out. “Stop now!” 

Brian scowled at him. “Why are you yelling, dude?”

August realized it was he who had shouted. He snapped out of a fugue state and rapidly strode over to Andrea. “Don’t,” he said, boldly taking hold of her wrist and leading the beaker back to the table. She stared at him, confused, distressed.

“Why on earth?” Mr. Tisdale stuttered. “Mr. Dale! Why are you interfering with Ms. Stanton’s class work?”

“I…” he looked around the room. The other students stared at him now. Some were snickering. Andy Bennett held up his fingers in a L for Loser. “I…”

Mr. Tisdale was now inspecting Andrea’s beaker. “Oh dear…,” he said. “Oh my…” Mr. Tisdale looked up from the beaker and gave August a hard appraising look. “Young man,” he asked, “how did you know from all the way over there what the contents of this beaker were?”

“I…” August couldn’t speak. He didn’t know how. He didn’t even know what was in the beaker.

“Why, if Ms. Stanton had combined these two, there would have been an explosion that likely would have sent this entire table to the hospital.”

Mr. Tisdale was both astounded and relieved. He was trying to figure out how he had managed to confuse hydrochloric acid and distilled water and how August had somehow known that from across the room and prevented a tragedy that would surely have ended his career. He was thinking about how no matter how poorly August Dale performed on his exams, he would make sure he got an A in this class and any other class he could influence.

After class, Brian zealously approached August. “Dude,” he said, trailing along behind August as he made his way to band class. “How did you know that was hydrochloric acid?”

August shrugged and kept on walking, head down, the gazes of other students driving him further into an imaginary shell. 

“That was epic, man!” Brian continued. “I mean do you realize what would have happened if you hadn’t done that?”

August shrugged again and quickened his pace. Brian, asthmatic and unconditioned, struggled to keep up. “It would have been like a pipe bomb. Acid and glass everywhere, man. Somebody could have died or been maimed for life. Dude, you’re like a hero now.”

August just shook his head and started to run to get away from Brian. Hero…that was the last thing he wanted.

In band class, August played third chair alto saxophone. Third out of three. As usual, he vexed the teacher. He actually could play the sax better than any band member could play their instrument. But, he couldn’t read music to save his life. If he heard a piece played correctly, he could immediately recreate it and remember it. Alas, the chair competitions always included a sight-reading portion, which he failed consistently. Not that he really cared. Being first chair would mean he’d have to play solos. He couldn’t imagine anything worse than having an entire auditorium focused on him alone. After band class, while taking apart his horn, he felt someone standing quietly beside him. It was Andrea.

“Hey,” she said. “I just wanted to thank you for what happened in chemistry. That was amazing.”

Andrea was nervous and confused. August could tell she was seeing him for the very first time, and maybe she liked what she was seeing he hoped, but she wasn’t yet sure. He searched for the right words. He knew there was nothing he could say that would sound right. “It’s okay,” he answered. “It wasn’t really anything.”

“You’re kidding, right?” she said, incredulity straining her voice. “Do you know what would have happened if you hadn’t said anything?”

Because she was accomplished in many other ways, it was easy to forget that Andrea was also one of the top students in chemistry. 

“I’ve been told,” he said. He looked at her. She had intense blue eyes and dark hair that fell to her shoulders in ringlets. A revolting image flashed through his mind: half of Andrea’s perfect face scarred, her right eye replaced with a glass prosthetic, her long hair shaved off having burned to a crisp. He quickly looked away.

“Imagine,” Andrea said, smiling, “The quiet one saving the day with his voice.”

He nodded. “I have to go,” he said.

“I know. We have U.S. History together, doofus. I’ll walk with you.”

August put his sax away, shouldered his backpack, and nodded. He swallowed hard, not knowing what to say, but it turned out he didn’t have to know. Andrea did the talking for the both of them. By the time they arrived at Mr. Williams’ class, August had forgotten to be nervous around her.

For the first time, August couldn’t spend history class gazing at Andrea, because she sat down right beside him. Mr. Williams droned on about something agrarian, monetary, and gilded. He mentioned the name Cornelius Vanderbilt, and a chill shot through August. The Commodore had not been a very nice person, but Mr. Williams didn’t mention that.

Just as Mr. Williams got to President McKinley, the classroom door opened and in walked the vice principal. Her eyes scanned the room, caught his petrified look, then bored into him. “August Dale,” she said. “Come with me.”

The vice principal turned and walked out, and August, his face as red as a squashed tomato, stood and followed. In the office, she sat him down across from the principal and found her own seat on a couch in the corner. The three of them sat in silence while the principal gathered his thoughts. He had heard about the near explosion in the chemistry class and how August had improbably averted it. He knew about August’s obsession with Andrea. The entire school knew about that. Those two facts alone had convinced him that August had contrived the event to win Andrea’s favor. He felt August would benefit from a stint in alternative school. 

The vice principal didn’t think that August had authored the event. She thought Mr. Tisdale was increasingly distracted by his disintegrating home life, and it was only a matter of time before something tragic happened in the chemistry classroom. She didn’t know how August knew to intervene when he did, and she honestly didn’t care. His quick-thinking had saved the school from tragedy and certain long-term legal ramifications. She thought the chemistry professor needed to be put on administrative leave until he sorted his life out. August knew all of this before the principal opened his mouth.

“Son,” the principal began, “what you did this morning is remarkable.”

August sat in silence. 

“I bet Ms. Stanton was grateful for your heroics.”

August shrugged.

“Can you tell me how you got the acid in the beaker?”

Mr. Tisdale’s wife was having an affair. His life was disintegrating before his eyes. Teaching was the only thing that kept him going. If he were put on administrative leave, he wouldn’t last three weeks. August could visualize two bottles in Mr. Tisdale’s medicine cabinet. Just like with the beakers, he didn’t know the contents, but he did know that the chemistry professor would combine them and down them with a special bottle of Scotch he had acquired for the occasion. It would be an easy death. August looked over at the vice principal for help. She fiddled with her cuticles. 

“Well?” the principal asked. 

“I…” August glanced at the vice principal then at the faux grain on the heavy desk in front of him. He was never good at lying. “I arrived here early this morning. I switched the contents then.” The vice principal gasped. August looked up at the principal. This part wouldn’t be a lie. “I just wanted Andrea to notice me. I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”

The principal’s eyes grew dark. “You realize you could have killed her.”

He nodded. 

“You’re suspended for two weeks. Then, you’ll be re-assigned to an alternative school. You will be the first honors level student sent to A-school. At least you’ll have that. Now, get out of my office and sit in the lobby. Your mother will be here soon to pick you up.”

August complied. As he took his seat, Mr. Tisdale waddled past him into the principal’s office. He was on his way to tender his resignation. A slipstream of foreboding trailed behind him. The door clicked shut with a cold finality.

It would take a while for his mother to arrive. She was a social worker assigned to the next county over. They couldn’t call his father. He was on a project in South Carolina, doing Josh’s father’s job as usual.

After a while, the principal’s door opened. The vice principal poked her head out.  “August,” she said. “Come here.”

Inside the office confusion reigned. A terrible thing had happened, and three competing versions of the event clashed like miniature armies in the ethers. The principal lifted his glasses to rub his eyes. “August,” he said. “You weren’t honest with us, were you?”

He shook his head.

“Just tell us the truth. The whole truth this time.”

August looked around the room at the three adults, settling on Mr. Tisdale. He had been crying. August felt nothing but pity for the man, but the vice principal was right. He was a danger to his students, as evidenced this morning. 

August spoke. “I don’t know how the acid got in the beaker.”

The principal opened a file on his desk. Without looking up, he said, “Mr. Tisdale here seems to think that you aren’t even a good enough chemist to know the effects of this combination. He thinks it’s beyond your capacity to have concocted this scenario. Besides, apparently the prior class’s experiments went without a hitch, which means your story about an early morning switch doesn’t jive. What do you have to say about that?”

August shrugged.

“Son,” the principal commanded, “Why did you lie to me?”

“You can’t fire Mr. Tisdale,” August said.

“That’s not a concern of yours. Can you tell me how you knew about the contents of the beakers, son?”

“No,” August said, honestly.

“All right,” the principal said, sighing. He was frustrated. More than anything, he just wanted to fire Mr. Tisdale and be done with it, but he was thinking about the attorneys and the documentation they would require him to compile, and here August sat, unwilling for some unknown reason to spill the beans.

“I don’t know how I knew,” August elaborated. “I just did. Just like I know that you want to put together documentation for the attorney and that you don’t believe me but Ms. Lackey does and that Mr. Tisdale’s wife is cheating on him with Josh’s father and that Andrea finally noticed me today and likes me but is scared of me.”

The room fell silent, and August immediately knew he had gone too far. The adults stewed in a soup of perplexity and their own nascent fear. It would not have taken his intuition to notice the confused tension in the office.

The principal clung to his skepticism despite the evidence before him. “Okay,” he said, nervously tapping his pencil on his desk. “Okay,” he repeated as he pondered whether he really wanted an answer to the question he was about to pose. “What else do you know, August? Tell us something we can verify.”

August shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way. Things just pop into my head randomly.”

“Conveniently, you mean,” the principal corrected. He was feeling relieved, like he had sussed the truth out.

August shrugged. It was, in fact, convenient.

“How did you know about my wife?” Mr. Tisdale asked timidly. “Who else knows?”

“I just knew,” August said. “I look at you and whatever you know, I know.”

“Except chemistry,” Mr. Tisdale said, annoyed. “Who else knows?”

August shrugged. “I don’t know.” 

“Elliott,” the principal said, his words soaked with disdain, “everybody knows about your wife and Clyde Myers. It’s the worst kept secret in town, and it’s not particularly remarkable that August knows about it.”

Mr. Tisdale’s outlook was changing. The awareness that others knew about his wife’s affair was replacing his melancholy with anger. That anger chased down his self-pity. A desire to end it all was being replaced with a desire for revenge.

It had been a long time since the principal had been this annoyed. His morning had started with a personal best in his weekly 2000-yard swim, and he had entered the building with the outlook that anything good was possible on such a day. How had it so quickly become so disastrous?, he thought? He didn’t have time for all of this. He would deal with it promptly and get back to the having of a good day.

“Elliott,” he said, turning to Mr. Tisdale. “You need to resign right now. Don’t make me have to fire you. If you resign, we can arrange a package for you that will give a year’s pay and six months of insurance. Otherwise, this whole thing will go public and get ugly.”

The chemistry professor nodded. “You’re right.” His sadness had lessened a bit. He was thinking of the money and the time and how a change of geography would help him get past this tortuous time in his life. “I’m resigning.”

“Good.” The principal turned to August. “We’re going to get you counseling, because you’re a disturbed little asshole.”

“Tim!” The vice principal gasped.

“My apologies. It’s clear, August, that you have issues that can’t be addressed in a typical classroom setting, and I think it would help you to have a professional evaluate you.”

August sat very still, unsure what to say. Given everything that had happened, counseling didn’t seem all that bad.

“Now go,” the principal said. “Back to class. We’ll let you know when your mother gets here.”

August stood and looked at the vice principal. She smiled nervously. There were things about herself she didn’t want him to know. August tried to close himself to the knowing. It wasn’t like he sought out the stuff he knew.

“Ms. Lackey,” the principal instructed. “You’ll talk to his mother?” What he really meant was “you’ll handle this completely now, won’t you?”

“Yes,” she said.  “August, when your mother gets here, I’ll have someone get you.”

He nodded and turned to go, but before leaving he paused. “I’m sorry,” he said to the principal, “to have ruined a day that started with such a fast swim.”

The principal’s jaw slackened and his eyes widened as August slipped from the room.

Lunch had come and gone during the time he was with the principal. It was fifth period and he was supposed to be in Latin class. Class was half over, though, so instead August climbed the stairs to the tower. The high school had been constructed during the twenties and its most prominent architectural feature was a massive granite tower topped with a spire around which the school spread in three directions. The uppermost room in the tower was a wide open studio where classes like dance and theater were held. Despite his failings as a student, August always followed the rules. This was the first time he had ever skipped even a portion of a class. He figured since he was already in trouble, he couldn’t possibly make it worse, and he wanted to catch Andrea as she left her theater class.

The bell rang. Students started to emerge in clumps. As always, Andrea lingered chatting with her friends. He could hear her melodic voice, but could not see her. She was talking about some guy, and the way she was talking about him made August want to high-tail it. She had already forgotten him, was clearly infatuated with this new person she wouldn’t shut up about. But, for some reason he held his ground. He knew he would hate himself for life if he didn’t do this. These moments didn’t come around often. 

Andrea appeared in the doorway surrounded by a group of girls who upon seeing him dissipated into the scrum descending the stairs. She smiled, and he was fortified.

“Andrea,” he said, his voice strong. He knew to wait a second.

She cocked her head. “Yes?”

“Would you like to go out with me sometime?”

He held his breath, expectant, knowing that sometimes life makes you ask questions, even when you already know the answers. 

 

Culley Holderfield writes fiction and poetry. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Dime Show Review, Amarillo Bay, Yellow Mama, Scarlet Leaf, andFloyd County Moonshine. He is currently shopping two completed novels, The Forsaken & the Found, about an orphan in search of family and a family in search of him, and Hemlock Hollow, an Appalachian family mystery set in the 1890s. 

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