Monday 11 March 2024

Scientific Attraction. Lutium By Jim Bates, mocha

 The story so far:

In Chapter One, Gadolinium, we were introduced to Sherry a sixteen-year-old girl who has withdrawn due to the loss of her father in a tragic car accident. Chapter Two, Terbium, we were introduced to Zeke who has been in the child welfare system for six years and is having mental health issues. They both like science a lot. In Chapter Three, Dysprosium, we are introduced to Mary who is one of the mental health professionals caring for Zeke. We are also introduced to her boyfriend Len. In Chapter Four, Holmium, Len, and Mary meet Leroy a homeless person, and befriend him. In Chapter Five, Erbium, Leroy, and his pal Riley attempt to rob a store, and the result is better than they could have ever expected. In Chapter Six, Thulium, they end up going home to Leroy’s parent's farm and are welcomed with open arms. In Chapter Seven, Ytterbium, Riley has returned to Minneapolis and is working at Café Enya where he has an interesting encounter with one of the regular patrons.


Summer, 2021

In Minneapolis, there is an area east of Lake Harriet known for its quiet, tree-lined streets. It’s called Lynnhurst, an old neighborhood with most homes built between 1870 and 1940. To the west, the area closest to the lake, the homes are bigger and statelier. To the east, they are more modest, usually one or one and a half stories. But no matter the size, the homes are well cared for, and, because sidewalks line the streets, it’s a nice place to go for a walk.

            There are many restaurants there, with Café Enya being one of the most popular. There are also local coffee shops with names like Patisserie, and Second Shift, and the one that Sherry and Zeke liked to go to, Mud Bound, named for the thick black coffee both of them loved.

            They were students at Monroe High School and their favorite class was chemistry, taught by Mr. Jordan, a second-year chemistry teacher. It was the weekend, a pleasant Saturday afternoon, and they had met to work on a summer school chemistry project together.

            Sherry opened her notebook. “Okay. Lutetium. What do have so far?” She had turned seventeen a month earlier and had a round, friendly face, a hefty build, and stringy brown hair that frustrated her because she washed it every night and it still looked like she didn’t. She wore colorful dresses she bought online or at thrift shops. Sometimes they had a print pattern or sometimes a solid color, like today. Her peach dress set off her green eyes, at least that’s what Zeke thought anyway, gazing at her.

            He was a tall wiry kid, with runaway dark, curly hair that he kept in place with a green and gold baseball hat that had a star on it. It was actually a hat for a professional hockey team named The Stars, but Zeke didn’t care. He liked the color and he liked the star because he enjoyed going outside late at night and looking at the night sky. The stars up there gave him a sense of peace and serenity, something that had been missing most of his life. Until recently.

He also recently turned seventeen and today he wore black jeans, a black tee-shirt, and a black jeans jacket. On his feet were work boots. Hanging out with Sherry was the first girl he’d ever spent time with in his entire life, and he was head over heels in love with her.

            “Sorry. What?” he asked in response to her question. He was easily distracted around her.

            Sherry grinned and pointed to his head. “Head in the game, Zekey Boy. Head in the game.”
            He grinned. God, he loved it when she talked to him like that.

            But, time to focus. Time to get that report going. “Yeah, lutetium,” he said opening his own notebook. “I don’t have much.”

            Sherry took a sip of her coffee. “It’s a strange element.” She took off her wire-rimmed granny glasses, cleaned them on a napkin, and then put them on, a move Zeke noticed she did often, especially if she was deep in thought.

            Zeke drank from his mug. “Yeah. It’s not found naturally in nature, but only shows up when it’s synthesized.”

            Sherry signed. “I know. It’s weird that it gets to be an element.” 

            “Agreed.” Zeke read from his notes. “What I’ve got is that lutetium was discovered independently in 1907 by three different guys: one, French scientist Georges Urbain, two, Austrian mineralogist Baron Carl Auer von Welsbach, and, three, American chemist Charles James. All of them found lutetium as an impurity in the mineral ytterbia, which was previously thought to consist entirely of ytterbium. I guess in 1909 the Academy of Science awarded the discovery to Urbain.” He looked at her. “Remember, we talked about ytterbium in class.”

            “Right.” She held up her hand and began ticking off the main points. “Rare earth metal. Found in Sweden northeast of Stockholm on the island archipelago of Resaro. Named after the town of Ytterby where the mine is located.” She smiled at him, displaying straight teeth with a tiny gap between the front two that Zeke found very sexy. God, he had it bad for her.

            “Yeah,” he responded, drinking some more coffee. He loved science and found it to be a savior of sorts after the life he’d led. “Does it bother you that these lanthanides are so…Um. So boring?”

            Sherry, who’d just taken her own sip burst out laughing, spraying coffee all over the table. “Oops,” she said, still laughing. “Sorry about that.”

            Zeke grabbed some paper napkins and started dabbing up the spillage. “No problem,” he grinned at her.

            She took her own handful of napkins and helped. The few other customers in the café glanced at the two of them and went back to whatever they were doing. Zeke looked over at the counter and the two waitpersons Ben and Sylvia were chuckling. They’d been employed at Mud Bound long before Zeke and Sherry had started hanging out there and had been enjoying the budding relationship forming between the two teenagers over the past month or two. Ben waved and Zeke waved back.

            With the coffee cleaned up, Zeke said. “Want to take a break?”

            “Sure.” Sherry looked out the window. “It’s beautiful outside. How about let’s go for a walk?” She looked at her phone. “My mom’s picking us up here at 4 pm. We’ve got an hour.”

            “She can still drop me off at my place, right?” Zeke lived with his foster parents Don and Phyliss in south Minneapolis a few miles from the coffee shop.

            “Yep. No problem.” She smiled and waved at Ben and Sylvia. “See you guys later.”

            They waved back. “See ya.”

            Zeke picked up the empty mugs and set them in the used tableware container. Sherry tossed out the wet napkins. Then they each shouldered their backpacks and walked outside into the warm July sunshine.

            “Let’s head for the lake,” Sherry suggested.

            “Sounds good to me.”

            Mr. Jordan had designed the summer class, especially for them. He was working with Doctor Sylvester Gannon the psychologist Sherry and Zeke were both seeing. Since the two young people had an aptitude for and an interest in science, chemistry especially, it seemed like a good idea. So far it was working wonderfully. Mr. Jordan monitored their work, which was to write reports on certain elements of the periodic table. When they were done with each one, he’d join Sherry and Zeke in Doctor Gannon’s office when they gave their report. Sometimes others on the staff of the psychiatric unit of Hennepin County Medical would attend. Others, like Mary Swanson, who’d been part of Zeke’s treatment ever since she’d met him during his first stay at the hospital for evaluation six years earlier after his mother had run off with her boyfriend, never to be seen again. He’d been ten at the time.

            Since then, Zeke had been in the foster care system. Zeke’s two younger sisters were readily adopted, but not Zeke. He was shuffled from one home to the next as he began acting out and getting into trouble. Eventually, he turned to drugs. He wasn’t a full-time addict, but he’d be the first one to admit he used them more than he should. Then, this past school year, he’d stumbled into Mr. Jordan’s classroom and his life had changed.

“Almost like in a movie,” he’d told Sherry once. “It was awesome.”

What happened was that after a week or two of trying to understand what the teacher was talking about, it was like a light bulb had gone off in his brain. He realized that Mr. Jordan was not only talking about chemistry but also about atoms and molecules and how things in the world were put together. In short, he was talking about life. Zeke’s mind was blown, but in a good way, and he was hooked. That fall he cleaned up his act, stayed away from drugs, and applied himself to studying.

            All was going well until this past spring when Mr. Jordan gave the class a final assignment for the year,

            “I want you to write a report,” he’d told them. “It has to do with the periodic table.” He smiled at the good-natured moans and groans coming from the class. Mr. Jordan was a well-liked and popular teacher. “And…I want you to read them out loud in front of the class.”

            Zeke had been so excited that not only had he written his report, but he’d also got carried away and written kind a story of his life, a subject he hadn’t talked much about, even in all of his years of therapy with doctor Gannon.

            The day before he was to give the report, he’d scored some heroin to try and calm his wired nerves. He smoked it and, unfortunately, overdosed. He’d ended up back at the psych ward and it was there where he’d told doctor Gannon about the report. With Zeke’s approval, doctor Gannon had told Zeke’s foster parents who had brought the report in for the doctor to read. He’d shared it with Mary and two other men on the staff and they’d all agreed that Zeke was a young man with a lot of potential. Doctor Gannon then told Mr. Jordan and Zeke had eventually read his report to him during a special meeting in Doctor Gannon’s office. Mr. Jordan, Mary, and a few other staff members were there as well. Oh, and Sherry had also attended. Zeke had asked Mr. Jordan if he thought Sherry would like to come along with him to hear it. He’d asked and she’d accepted. The two of them had been friends ever since.

            Sherry was dealing with her own recovery. Six years earlier on the way home from hockey practice, the car Sherry’s father was driving spun out on a patch of ice killing both her father and her best friend Leslie. Sherry survived only by the fast thinking of a nearby dog-walker who had been able to slow the bleeding from her neck wound until the paramedic arrived. In the weeks following the accident, Sherry’s mother had gone into therapy while Sherry applied herself to her studies, especially science. She became more withdrawn than she had ever been, applying herself even more to her studies and schoolwork. She also spent a lot of time with Leslie who lived on in her memory so strongly that it was like she was a real person, her imaginary friend. Now, with Zeke in her life, Leslie didn’t appear all that often. And when she did, it was all right. She liked Zeke.

            Yeah, he’s okay, she’d told Sherry just the other day. You could do a lot worse.

            “Considering he’s my first-ever boyfriend, thanks for that,” Sherry had told her, smiling.

            Leslie had just grinned and given her a high five in return.

            Now, Sherry and Zeke tried to spend as much time together as they could. Both of them had never been so happy.

Sherry’s thoughts were interrupted by Zeke. “Shit.”


They were waiting for the light to change on the corner of Lyndale and 40th Street. It was a busy intersection. There was a thrift store on one corner. An Indian restaurant called Eastern Star took up another corner. Right behind them was a small grocery store. Directly across from them was a Quik-Stop gas station.

“There.” Zeke pointed.

Sherry looked. Across the street were three scruffy-looking guys who were hanging out next to a bus shelter. They were in their late teens. White guys in oversized baseball trunks, tee-shirts, and flat-brim baseball hats, smoking cigarettes and pushing each other around, sort of playfully. Sort of not.

“What?” she asked.

“I know those dudes.”

She looked again. One of them gave the finger to a car driven by an old lady who was a little slow pulling away from the stop light.

“They look kind of rough. How do you know them?”

Zeke’s ears turned red. “Um. I used to buy drugs from them.” He pointed again. “That guy. The tall one with the red hat and the scraggly beard. He’s bad news. Name’s Spike.”

“Spike?” Sherry coughed out a laugh. “Seriously?”

Zeke took her by the arm. “Seriously. Don’t laugh,” he whispered. “Keep it down. The guy’s a jerk. He’s mean.”

A worried look crossed her face, and she frowned. “If that’s the case, maybe we should turn around and get out of here.”

Zeke was about ready to agree with her when Spike saw him. He pointed and gave him the thumbs-up sign, their former signal for if Zeke was interested in scoring anything from him. Zeke shook his head in the negative. “No,” he yelled across the street. Then he watched in horror as Spike said something to his two friends. In the next moment, all three sauntered across the street heading right to them.

“Damn,” Zeke said to Sherry. “This is not what I need.” Ever since the episode the day before his speech in science class, Zeke had been clean. He’d been living with his foster parents, seeing Doctor Gannon, and going to meetings at a group home near the hospital just to make sure he was doing all right. And he was. He was getting on with his life. He was thinking about even getting a job, like at Mud Bound. And he was taking the summer class of course. And seeing Sherry. For sure. Sherry.

He glanced at her and she glanced back. Don’t worry, she mouthed silently. Then she straightened her shoulders and said, “Hi, gentleman,” as Spike and his buddies walked up. “What’s going on?”

Spike grinned a smirky grin and said, “Hey, little lady.” His eyes brushed up and down her front, mentally undressing her. She made herself not shudder, even though he gave her a bad vibe.

“I’m doing good.” She stepped aside. “Now, if you don’t mind, we’ve got someplace we need to be.”

Spike didn’t like being told what to do. Especially not by a female. “Hold it, little lady,” he said, putting his hand inches from her chest. “You aren’t going anyway.” He turned to Zeke. “You’re awfully quiet, my man.” He pointed to Sherry. “Lady got you pussy whipped?”

Zeke was normally a quiet, live-and-let-live kind of guy, but he didn’t like the way Spike was acting toward Sherry. “Not at all, Spike,” he said, trying to keep the quiver out of his voice. Spike had him by three inches and at least fifty pounds. Plus, his two buddies were with him. “We’re just out enjoying the day.” He pointed down the street. “Going for a walk.” He took Sherry’s hand and stepped to the side. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’ll be on our way.”

Later, Zeke would swear that that’s all he said, but apparently Spike hadn’t liked what he’d heard. He held up his hand. “No. I’ll not be excused,” he said, sneering. He turned and spat on the ground. “It’s fine if you don’t want to buy from me, but, I’m a little short of cash. So, before you go…” he grinned his ugly grin again, “I need you to give me all of your money.” He glanced at Sherry, his eyes coasting down to her handbag, then moving up to her breasts. “You, too, sweetheart.” He smiled. “If you’re nice, my boys and I will take you with us.” He grinned and licked his lips. “Show you a real good time.” He turned back to Zeke. “First you, pal.” He took out a knife and flicked it open. It had a four-inch blade. Zeke had seen it before.

“Damn, Spike, you don’t have to act this way,” Zeke said, reaching for his wallet.

“Sure, I do,” he said. Then he pointed his knife toward Sherry. “In fact, I’ve decided I’m going to take the little lady with us. Time to show her what it’s like to be with a real man.”

He leaned toward Zeke and held the point of his knife right below his right eye. His buddies watched with stupid grins on their faces. None of the three noticed as Sherry, in one quick movement, reached into her shoulder bag, grabbed her bottle of pepper spray, flipped off the cap, and sprayed Spike right in the face. Then she sprayed his two buddies. In ten seconds, they were all on the sidewalk, hands clasped to their eyes, writhing in pain.

“Take that, you creeps,” Sherry said, holding the can ready to spray again if she needed to. She didn’t.

“And stay away from me,” Zeke added, standing over Spike after he’d kicked the knife away. Then he pointed to Sherry. “And her, too.”

Spike couldn’t speak, but Zeke knew that the jerk would be pissed. Was he worried about possible repercussions from the would-be gangsta? Maybe. But, then again, not much. One thing he knew about the drug-dealing bully. Spike was a coward. A big one that needed his two henchmen to back him up. Zeke looked at the three of them rolling back and forth on the sidewalk, crying as tears streamed down their faces while a crowd gathered around. The dealers got what they deserved. He’d take his chances.

A minute later a police car showed up and hauled them away. The confrontation had not gone unnoticed. At least three people had called it in.

After the scene cleared, Sherry took out her phone. “It’s nearly time for Mom to pick us up at Mudd Bound. We should head back.”

They started walking. Zeke said, “You were pretty incredible back there.”

“You were, too. I liked how you just tried to get past that jerk and not make a big deal.”

Zeke laughed. “I’m not a macho man, I’ll tell you that.”

“I know,” Sherry grinned. “I don’t mind at all.” They walked along for half a block quietly thinking their own private thoughts. Then she stopped and took his arm. “Say, I have a question. You weren’t thinking of buying anything from him, were you?”

It was a question out of the blue, but it was a question he was glad she asked. He didn’t want any secrets between them.

After thinking about it for a few moments he said, “No.”

“Good,” she said, relieved.

They walked a little further and then Zeke said, “Look, can I tell you something?”

“Sure,” Sherry said, stopping to look at him. She could tell he had something important to say and she was all ears.

 “But I have to admit, I think about it all the time.” His father had sold drugs and been an addict. His mother used meth while she was pregnant with him. Dealing with addiction was something Zeke was going to have to deal with his whole life. He knew that. To be honest, he kind of liked the feeling drugs gave him sometimes. At least in the past, he did. But that was then, and this was now. Now was different. Now he had some things in his life worth living for. He took her hand. “In the past, I did it for all kinds of reasons.”

“Like what?”

“Oh, I was lonely, I guess. That was a big part of it. I missed my mom. And my sisters. I have no idea where they ended up.”

“We can find them, you know. Ancestry and stuff like that.”

All he heard was that she’d used the word ‘we’. “That’d be cool.”

“Look, I know things were tough for you, but the one thing I’ve learned dealing with my dad’s death is that life is hard sometimes. We’ve just got to muddle through somehow.” She grinned. “If not, we could end up like Spike back there.”

Zeke nodded, “No kidding. I hear you. I couldn’t agree more.”

By now they’d arrived at the coffee shop. It was just about 4 pm, almost time for Sherry’s mom to pick them up. There were a couple of empty tables for outside seating and the two of them sat down. Sherry took out her phone.

“I’ve got a text from mom. She’s on her way.”

Zeke wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet. He loved talking to her. “You know that report isn’t due until next week. We’re making good progress on it. Do you think we could get together and work on it again? Soon?”

Sherry set her phone down. In the back of her mind, she could hear Leslie saying, go for it, go for it. But did she really want ‘go for it?’ To hang out with Zeke? A guy with a boatload of troubles? God only knew she had enough of her own.

She looked over at him. He was a nice guy. She enjoyed being with him. Plus, he liked science. That counted for a lot.

“Sure,” she said, standing up as her mom pulled up to the curb and beeped the horn. “How about tomorrow?”

He stood up to join her. “I’d love to.”

The two of them walked to the car, but before they got in, Sherry leaned into him and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Me, too. Tomorrow it is.”

Zeke’s smile had never been so wide.

About the author 

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