Thursday 2 November 2023

Scientific Attraction: 2. Terbium by Jim Bates black coffee


 The story so far

High school student Sherry is having issues over the car accident she was in that resulted in the tragic loss of her father and best friend Leslie. She has become very withdrawn but has enjoyed writing a report on Gadolinium for her science class. She shares it with her mother and they talk. Also in the room is Leslie who is magically still with Sherry.



Psychologist Sylvester Gannon cleared his throat and addressed those in attendance. They were in his office on the third floor of the Hennepin County Medical Center in the Mental Health Services wing. He’d called the meeting to inform the staff closest to Zeke Reynolds of his status.

            “I know you all know Zeke’s case,” he said, pausing to take a gulp of cold coffee from his mug. He looked around the room, acknowledging the somber nodding heads of those in attendance: Mary Swenson, RN, Adam Young, RN, and Doctor Larry Owens, primary care physician.

            Mary raised her hand. “What happened?”

            Sylvester shook his head. He was a big man with a kind face and tired eyes. He ran his fingers through his full beard and said, “Drug overdose, Mary. I wish I knew why.”

            Doctor Owens sat forward in his chair and said, “I’m really sorry to hear that.”  Owens had a shaved head and the slim build of a marathon runner. Which he was. His serious eyes were framed by wire rimmed glasses, and he looked pointedly at Sylvester. “You sure you didn’t see this coming?”

            Sylvester sucked in a deep breath and took a moment to collect himself. He was trying hard not to feel the guilt he felt, but it didn’t work. He’d done all he felt he could do for the precocious sixteen-year-old, but see this coming? This drug over dose? No, it was completely unexpected.

Finally, he said, “No. Of course not. If I had, I’d have done something.”

Zeke had been under Sylvester’s care for nine years, ever since his mother had run off with her boyfriend, leaving Zeke and his two older sisters on their own. Their mother and boyfriend had never been found. The three siblings had been placed in social services and then in foster care. Ellie and Stacy had found a home together right away and thrived. Zeke, on the other hand hadn’t done so well, being shifted from one foster home to the next, never really able to fit in.

Mary wiped a hand over her face, brushing back a tear. “He was making such good progress. Staying clean. Getting back to school.” She shook her head. “It’s just so sad.”

“The kid has had a hell of a life,” Sylvester said, picking up and setting down the papers in front of him.

            “What have you got there?” Adam Young asked. He was a short, muscular man with long hair tied back in ponytail. Like Mary, he had been involved in much of Zeke’s care in the mental health ward, a place where he had been sent for treatment off and on over the years. “Something of Zeke’s?”

            Sylvester picked them up. “Yes. He gave this to me. He’s up on the fifth-floor in urgent care. Instead of sending emails out, I thought I’d share this with you in person. I know how much you all care about Zeke.” He glanced at this wristwatch. “I’ll make this quick. I know how busy you are.”

            At that moment, Doctor Owens’s phone buzzed. He took it out of his pocket, had a look and shut it off. “That’s okay. We all liked Zeke. What do you have?”

            “It’s a journal entry. I guess he’s been keeping on for a while. In it he talks about a report he wrote for his science class. Chemistry.”

            “Really?” Mary commented. “I didn’t know he liked chemistry.”

            “Me neither,” Adam added.

            “Well, he’s a private guy,” Sylvester countered. “Kept a lot inside. I thought this might give us some more insight into him. Into his mental state.” He picked up the papers. “Want to hear it?”

            Doctor Owens and Mary nodded. Mary said, “Absolutely.”

            “Definitely,” Adam said. Then he asked, “So, Zeke gave part of his journal to you?”

            “Yeah. his foster parents brought it to him. He asked them to. I guess he wanted to review his report or something.” Sylvester paused and looked around the room making eye contact with each person. “I guess it’s some kind of homework assignment. He worked hard on it and it means a lot to him.”

            “I’m looking forward to hearing it,” Mary said. Adam and Larry both nodded in agreement.

            “Okay. Here’s what he wrote. I should warn you, it’s more than just a report, it’s sort of like his life’s history. At least as seen through his eyes.”

            “Well, that makes sense if it’s from his journal,” Mary pointed out.

            “Exactly,” Sylvester said.

            Larry commented. “Isn’t that interfering with Zeke’s right to privacy?”

            “It would be if he hadn’t agreed to let me see it.”
            “But he agreed?” Mary asked.

            “Yeah, he did. He wrote out a note and signed it.” Sylvester reached for his back pocket. “I’ve got it right here if you want to see.”
            Larry held out a hand, making the universal ‘stop’ sign. “No, no. That’s okay. Don’t worry about it. I just want to make sure everything’s on the up and up.”

            “I understand.” Sylvester assured him, looking around the room. “And I agree, completely.”

            “So, if it’s okay with Zeke,” Mary said, leaning forward in anticipation, “I’d love to hear what he had to say.”

            Sylvester looked at her. Mary was a large woman with strong arms, short blond hair and sky-blue eyes. Her Norwegian genes were very apparent. Though big and imposing, she was one of the kindest people Sylvester had ever met and was the perfect nurse for caring for the troubled Zeke. He smiled at her and she smiled back.

            “Okay. Here it is.”

            Sylvester cleared his throat, took a sip from his cold coffee and began reading:

“Journal Entry for April 13.

I have to write a science report on the element terbium, and I’m so excited, I don’t know where to begin. So I’ll begin, like in The Wizard of Oz and the yellow brick road, at the beginning. I love tenth grade chemistry. No, let me rephrase. I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT! Me and a person I’d like to get to know better named Sherry are probably the most enthusiastic science geeks in the class. It’s taught by Mr. Jordan, a second-year chemistry teacher, and it’s not only my favorite class this year, but of all time. And, I’ll tell you this, I’m positive it saved my life. Sound too good to be true? Like some wacked out fairy tale? I hear you, but you’d be wrong. It’s all true. The minute I walked in that third-floor classroom last fall prepared to hate Introduction to Chemistry like I hated ever single class I’ve ever been subjected to in school, I felt something come over me, a feeling I’ve never felt before. It was a feeling full of brightness and hope. Something almost religious.

            Okay, I feel like I’m getting carried away with myself here, so I’ll calm down. Let me talk about the periodic table. It’s really the foundation of chemistry, and it is so cool! Mr. Jordan has a big poster of it hanging on the wall in the front of the classroom and all I’ve got to do is picture the periodic table in my brain, and, man, the world just seems like a better place. Maybe it has to do with how it’s organized. Maybe it’s with how the elements are arranged according to their chemical characteristics. Maybe it’s the beautiful elegance of Dmitri Mendeleev’s vision in 1871 of coming up with the table. I don’t know, but what I do know it that makes me feel like everything is all right with world. And, honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that, is there? Especially considering how things have gone for me so far.

            I was born in northern Minnesota on a ten-acre patch of scrub pine forestland near the Chippewa Forest. Dad and Mom parked a twelve by twenty-five-foot trailer there and that’s where they raised me and my three older brothers and two older sisters. They were very independent minded people and liked their sustainable living lifestyle. They grew their own produce, had chickens for eggs, raised a pig or two for meat and got on with the process of living. Oh, they also worked for a group of people out of St. Louis, Missouri, and sold drugs for them. Methamphetamine, mainly.

When Dad decided to start making speed himself, things around our place got ugly fast. Mom was against it, so they fought a lot. Dad had my older brothers helping him and that just made Mom madder. So mad, in fact, she loaded me and my two sisters, eleven-year-old Ellie and nine-year-old Stacy, into our old pickup and we headed south to the big city. I was seven at the time.

“We’re getting out of here,” Mom told us, turning onto the gravel road leading to the nearest town ten miles away.”

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Minneapolis,” she said, taking a drag on a cigarette. “We’re heading south.”

I turned and looked out the back window. The pine forests that surrounded out trailer soon cut off the view of the place I’d called home my whole life. I waved good-bye and turned to watch the road ahead. I was crammed between my sisters but didn’t mind. I was just a kid, and life was still new to me. To me, leaving our home was an adventure, and I was up for it. Heck, at seven years old, I was up for anything.

What I wasn’t up for was living in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in a rough part of Minneapolis near Lake Street and Franklin Avenue. There were blaring car horns instead of birds singing, exhaust blowing through the windows instead of pine scented fresh air, and streets jammed with people and cars instead of wide-open spaces. But the rent was cheap, and we did the best we could. Mom got a job working at a grocery store, and my sisters and I started school on a regular basis. Up until then I’d been what Mom called ‘Home Schooled’, but I think it was just an excuse not to have to let us see the outside world. We didn’t do much learning in that trailer, that was for sure, just helped with the chores, which I guess is a kind of education in its own way. Mom did teach us how to read, though, and that helped a lot.

I was in the fifth grade and all was going well, when mom took off with a guy she’d met in a bar three months earlier, leaving me and Ellie and Stacy all alone. I was ten at the time.

With nowhere to go (Dad had been arrested along with my brothers a year after we had left and was spending time in prison in Bismarck, North Dakota,) we went into The System. The people there were pretty nice, and even though they tried to keep us together, my sisters and I ended up having to be separated. My sisters were good-natured and easy to place. In fact, they stayed together and found a home with a nice family near Lake Minnetonka twenty miles west of Minneapolis. I had a harder time of it and didn’t see much of my sisters after that.

I ended up bouncing from one family to the next because, I have to say, when the people in charge said that I had a bad attitude, they were right. The most I lasted was a year at any foster home. I was just too out of control. You probably know the story: I started hanging out with older kids who were into screwing around and making trouble. We broke into a home from time to time to steal money. The we started selling a little weed on the side (given the past with my dad and mom, what goes around comes around, I guess) to make more money, and things went downhill fast. But I’m not making any excuses. The decision to live that kind of life was mine to make and one I made willingly. I’m blaming no one but myself.

My counselor is Sylvester Gannon. I’ve been seeing him since I went into The System. He’s a big, friendly guy with a beard, who I like talking to. I think more than anything he’s helped me see the difference between right and wrong and has helped me try to live a better life. So, there’s him, and then there’s science. I truly believe my life got back on track day I walked into Mr. Jordan’s chemistry class. It was like I was coming home. To a good home. One where there was warmth and security and a sense of belonging. Considering all I’d been through, it was a good feeling.

My foster family right now is Don and Phyllis Everson. They are nice people. I’ve been with them since last spring, almost a year. I’ve tried to stay clean, and have been doing a pretty good job, especially since I started chemistry last fall. I’ve quit selling weed and hanging around with my old druggy friends. In fact, for my whole tenth grade year in school, I think I’ve done pretty good. At home, I have my own room and a computer to do my homework. That’s how I typed my report. Speaking of my report, I’d like to share that with you. My counselor, Mr. Gannon, says it’s a good thing to learn to express myself, and I’m trying to do that.

Here’s part of what I wrote:

Terbium is element number sixty-five on the periodic table. It’s a silvery-while rare earth metal that is so soft you can cut it with a knife. Rare earth metals are a set of nearly indistinguishable soft metal elements ranging from lanthanum, number 57, to ytterbium, number 70.

Terbium is never found in nature as a pure element, but is contained in many elements like cerite and gadolinite. It was discovered in 1843 by the Swedish chemist Carl Gustaf Mosander.

Terbium is used in solid state devices like for computers and fuel cells which use a fuel like hydrogen and oxygen to produce a continuous flow of electricity. They have many uses and are starting to even be used in cars, replacing the old batteries.

The primary source of Terbium is from China. It’s most common use is in green phosphorus where it is combined with other phosphors to produce highly efficient white light used in standard illumination in indoor lights.

Now, reading this over, I know it looks a little dry, but, believe me, without terbium we’d be ‘Up a creek without a paddle’ so to speak. In my report I go on to tell a lot more, especially about terbium’s use in fuel cells, mainly because they are being used now to replace car batteries. Fuel cells are more efficient and scientists are continually looking for ways to improve not only how well they work, but the cost of making them. It’s going to be a big story in the years to come.

Anyway, it’s a good report and I hope Mr. Jordan likes it. It would mean a lot to me if he did.


After Sylvester finished reading, the room went silent. He looked at Mary, Adam and Larry, each lost in their own thoughts.

Finally, Mary spoke. “I have to say, that’s an amazing story, or report, or whatever.

“I know,” Sylvester said. “I had no idea he could express himself like that.”

“What are you going to do?” Adam asked.

“That’s why I called you here. I’m out of ideas.”

Mary raised her hand and asked, “How is he? After the overdose?"

“I think he’ll be okay. He told me he smoked the heroin just to calm down. We talked about it. He doesn’t want die. He wants to live. He’s sorry he did what he did. It’s just going to take more time, I guess.”

“Did you call his teacher? Mr. Jordan?”

“I did, and he had an interesting suggestion.”

“What was it?”

“He thought that maybe he could come to the hospital, to my office, and Zeke could read the report to him. What do you all think of that idea?”

Doctor Larry spoke up. “And the reason for that would be…?”

Sylvester turned to him and said, “The reason would be so that Zeke would have a chance to complete his project and get some feedback from a teacher he admires.”

Larry nodded, and thought for a moment. Then he said, “Considering the kid seems to have some potential, I guess I would agree.”

“I’m all for it,” Mary said.

“Me, too.” Adam added.

“You know, the more I think about it, the more I think that it sounds good.” He smiled. “I’ll set it up,” Sylvester pushed back from the table and got to his feet. “Okay, that’s it. Thanks for coming. And thanks for the input. I appreciate it.”

The three of them nodded, and left the room, all of them thinking the same thing. He’s a good kid. Let’s hope things turn around from him.


A few days later, Zeke was released from the hospital and sent home with his foster parents, Don and Phyllis. Once Phyllis had fed him his favorite meal of spaghetti and meatballs, he watched a little television with her and Don and then excused himself. He went to his room, got on his computer and started typing. Here’s what he typed:

Journal Entry for April 22.

Well, I didn’t expect that! A drug overdose, of all things. I guess I was a little nervous about the report. Doctor Sylvester said that more people are afraid of speaking in front of a group of people than of anything else in the world; even snakes and spiders. Even dying! Crazy! But, I don’t know if I agree with all of that. I was kind of looking forward to giving my report.

Damn. And here I’d been doing so well. I guess that’s just the way it goes, two steps forward and one step back, I think is the way the saying goes. Anyway, Doctor Sylvester was in to see me the other day in the hospital and we talked. He had taken my journal entry about my report and the story of my life to read to Mary and Adam and doctor Larry. That was nice of him, and I’m kind of glad he did. I guess they liked what I had written.

Geez. I wish I knew what was wrong with me. Doctor Sylvester says that it’s probably the speed I took back when Dad started that meth business of his. I ate a bunch of it and had to have my stomach pumped, and, for a seven-year-old, that’s not fun at all. I guess I’ve been kind of screwed up since then, especially with Mom disappearing like she did. Then with me being in and out of foster care and getting into trouble, and fooling around with drugs, that sure didn’t help.

Thank goodness for Mr. Jordan. And for science and chemistry, too. That stuff I wrote was no joke. It’s the truth. I love chemistry. I just have some mental problems I’m trying to overcome.

Doctor Sylvester tells me I might be able to read my report to Mr. Jordan and Mary and Adam and doctor Larry. That would be fantastic. He suggests we do it in his office. I’d like that. Maybe Sherry my classmate could come, too. I’d have to ask her. Hold on. I’ll have to think about that, since I’ve never talked to her before.

Boy, I have to say, people are being so nice to me. I wish I could repay them. Maybe one day when I get better, I’ll be able to do something good with my life. Yeah, maybe then. I sure hope so. After so many people have tried to help me, maybe I can try to help someone else. Maybe even with science. Wow, if I could do that, it would be awesome. Me, becoming a scientist? I like the sound of that.

Find other episodes

 About the author

Jim lives in a small town in Minnesota. He loves to write! His stories and poems have appeared in nearly 500 online and print publications. To learn more and to see all of his work, check out his blog at:


Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)

No comments:

Post a Comment