Tuesday 9 April 2024

Scientific Attraction: Chapter Ten, Refractory Metals by Jim Bates, black coffee

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In Chapter One, Gadolinium, we were introduced to Sherry a sixteen-year-old girl who has withdrawn due to the loss of her father in a tragic car accident.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, Leroy and Riley 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. In Chapter Eight, Lutetium, after leaving the coffee show, Sherry and Zeke are hassled by Zeke’s former drug dealer and later on open up with each other about their past lives. In Chapter Nine, Hafnium, Len is in an accident and while recovering in the hospital, Mary asks him to attend a meeting where Sherry and Zeke are going to present a science report. He agrees to attend.

Note: There are two more chapters after this one.

 

Fall 2021

Kari Jefferson waved goodbye to daughter Sherry and her friend Zeke. She smiled when both of them waved back. They were good kids. She watched for a minute as the two of them stepped through the snow and into Mud Bound coffee shop to work on their science report. More like Snowbound today, she thought. The freak late October snowstorm overnight had dumped nearly a foot of the white stuff on the city. Minneapolis was ready for it, though, and the plows were already out lumbering up and down the streets, pushing the snow to the side. With the sun shining, the snow was already melting and the streets that had been plowed were pretty passable.

            She could see through the window that the two of them had gone up to the counter and placed their orders, talking animatedly with one of the two servers. What were their names again? Ben and someone. Sylvia, maybe? She couldn’t remember. Sherry and Zeke had been frequenting Mud Bound since early that summer, and it had become almost a home away from home for the two of them. Kari drove, picking Zeke up and dropping him off at his foster home where he lived.

The arrangement worked well. Zeke was staying clean, and Sherry seemed to be coping better than ever with the loss of her father. It was nice to see them both doing so well. She wished she could say the same for herself.

            Kari put the tired Ford in gear and drove home slowly. The funky but comfortable coffee shop was in southwest Minneapolis less than one-mile from Lake Harriet. The neighborhood streets were quiet, tree-lined and populated with cottage style homes built in the 1920s and 1930s. Given all the crime in the city the past few years, it was a relatively safe area. Kari and Sherry lived a mile to the east on the other side of Interstate 35W. It was a good neighborhood, not as safe, perhaps, as where Mud Bound was, but at least it was home.

            She pulled up to the front of their single-story white stucco house and got out, trudging up the sidewalk through the snow to the front door. I’ll get out later and shovel, she thought to herself. Right now, she just wanted to get inside, have some coffee and get warm. The sun had disappeared behind thick clouds. She’d heard on the morning news that more snow was forecast. She shook her head, surprised at her glum mood. Normally, the first snow of the season was cause for excitement.

Sherry certainly had been excited about it that morning.

            “Look at it, Mom,” she’d said around 5:30 am when they’d gotten up. She was looking through the front window at the six inches that had fallen overnight. “It’s like a fairyland.” Though still dark out, the street lights illuminated the newly fallen snow and the crystals sparkled magically. “Isn’t it cool?”

            Kari was in the kitchen making coffee. She looked out the window toward the back alley and flipped the switch for the big flood light that illuminated their tiny back yard. The heavy snow had left the world covered in white and frosted like a beautiful cake. “It’s lovely,” she said, turning to her daughter who had joined her. She gave Sherry a one-shoulder hug. “Welcome to winter.” But her heart just wasn’t in it.

            Picking up on her mother’s somber mood, Sherry said, “What’s wrong, Mom? I thought you liked snow? And winter. Especially early like this.”

            “Oh, I don’t know,” Kari replied, beginning to turn inward. Then she admonished herself. It wasn’t like her to let her daughter see her dark moods. After all, she needed to be the strong one. Right? Quickly she made herself shift emotional gears. “Oh, it’s nothing,” she smiled, shaking her head, causing her light brown, shoulder-length hair to swing back and forth. “The snow just took me by surprise, that’s all.”

            Sherry was sixteen years old, not five, and she was astute. “Mom. It’s been forecast for a week.”

            Kari laughed. “I know, dear. Don’t mind me. It’s probably just old age.” Which wasn’t necessarily true. She was thirty-eight and not that old. At least not by Kari’s reckoning, anyway, nor even Sherry’s. But as far as Kari was concerned, it was time to change the subject. “Here, let me get some breakfast going.” She popped some bread into the toaster and filled a pan with water to boil for oatmeal. Something warm. “We’re picking up Zeke, right?”

            Sherry looked at her mother, thinking, should I push it with her, or not? Her mood? Find out what’s really going on? Then an image of Zeke popped into her mind and unconsciously she smiled. She was looking forward to seeing him later. All thoughts of her mother’s dark mood vanished in an instant.

            “Yeah, we are, Mom. Later this morning, then on to Mud Bound. We’ve got that report to work on.”

            Kari watched as her daughter busied herself setting the table before plopping down and scrolling through her phone. She smiled, happy that Sherry seemed to be willing to let any discussion of her mother’s mood pass. Good.

Now, back at home, Kari remembered the morning very well as she warmed up her coffee mug in the microwave and lightly cleaned the countertop with a sponge. When the coffee was done, she sat down at the kitchen table and sipped it. What was going on with the somber mood she was in? She looked again at the snow and then it dawned on her. The snow. Winter. Her husband Jerry. That must be it. Jerry had been killed over six years ago when the car he was driving hit a patch of ice as he sped through an intersection. Spinning out of control, he’d been broadsided by a three-quarter ton pickup truck and died instantly. So had one of the passengers, Sherry’s friend Leslie. Sherry had been badly injured. Both girls had been coming home from hockey practice and had been ten years old at the time.

That had to be it. It made perfect sense. The same thing had happened last winter during the first snow, and the winter before that; this notion of angst, the dreaded feeling of never having someone to love again like she’d loved Jerry.

Kari took a sip of coffee, trying to cheer herself up. Of course, she had Sherry, the light in her life. She smiled. A good kid. A wonderful kid. Sherry had her interests, like her science. And, now, her friend Zeke. She had something to live for and Kari was happy for her for that.

But for herself? For Kari? What about her? What’d she have?

She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and looked out the window. The wind had picked up and snow was swirling off the roof making it hard to see. She shivered, warmed her hands around her mug and went back to her thoughts. Well, she had Sherry, for sure. No question about that. And her job at the Safeway. That was good. She was senior manager there, in charge of all forty-five employees. She’s worked her way up the ladder, starting as a cashier, then floor manager, then senior manager. It was a good job. Plus, it paid the bills and left them a little something extra in case of emergencies. So, no complaints there.

            But sometimes she was just so lonely; so soul-crushingly alone. Like now.

            Feeling the need for action, she stood up, walked through the kitchen into the small living room, then down a short hallway and into her bedroom, the room she’d shared for thirteen years with Jerry. So many good times they’d spent there, now gone forever.

She sat on the bed and opened her nightstand drawer. There, in the back, were her pills. The stash of sleeping pills she’d been hiding for the last few years. She took them out and counted. But she really didn’t need to. She knew the number already. There were five bottles with thirty pills in each bottle. One-hundred and fifty pills total. She’d looked it up on line once. She had more than enough to do the job. Especially if she lubricated the process with a bottle or two of wine. She thought about the six bottles of Sparkling Rose` she had in the basement. A couple of them would be perfect.

It’d be so easy.

            Kari closed her eyes, thinking…imagining… Just to end it all.

Damn! What was she thinking?

She stood up suddenly to break the mood. She threw the pills into the drawer and slammed it shut. I should flush these down the toilet, she thought to herself. Get rid of them once and forever. The idea floated through her brain like it had the other dozen or so times she’d contemplated ending it all. And the result was always the same. No. She’d not kill herself today. She had too much to live for. Starting with Sherry. She couldn’t leave here daughter alone, not like Jerry had left her. No. Not by a long shot.

            Not yet, anyway.

            She hurried out of the room and back to the kitchen. She sat down at the table and cradled her comforting cup of coffee, now gone cold. That was okay. She sipped, not minding at all, as she stared out the window into the backyard with its beautiful white winter landscape, her thoughts turned inward, not really seeing a thing.

***

Sherry and Zeke sat by the window of Mud Bound. They were glad it was Saturday. As much as they liked their classes this year, their senior year, it was nice to have a break in the week and not have to worry about school. Their only comment on the six inches of snow dumped on the city overnight was Sherry saying, ‘nice snow,’ and Zeke responding, ‘yeah, it is.’ Then they got to their assignment. They were working on an extra credit report for their chemistry teacher Mr. Jordan, and they’d be presenting it in doctor Gannon’s office that coming Thursday.

            “What have you got so far?” Zeke asked. Like Sherry, he was seventeen years old. He was tall and thin, with unruly dark hair he kept in place by wearing a green and gold baseball cap with a star on it, mainly because he liked stargazing even though the hat was for a professional hockey team. He had recently gotten a tattoo of a bluebird on the top of his left wrist because he liked birdwatching. He was dressed in black jeans, a black long-sleeve pullover shirt that said Born to be Wild on it and a black hoodie. On his feet he wore black work boots and hanging on the chair next to him was his black leather jacket.

He told Sherry last spring when she’d first asked about his outfit, one he wore all the time, “I like not having to decide what to wear.”

“Or picking a color?” Sherry had asked, joking with him.

He’d laughed at the time (still does when he thinks about it) and said, “Yeah, something like that.” Right away he knew he’d like hanging out with her. And he still did.

Back then he was also trying to shake an addiction to heron and, so far, he was doing good. He’d been clean now for nearly five months.

            In answer to Zeke’s question, Sherry opened her spiral-bound notebook. “Okay, here’s what I’ve got.” She paused and looked at him. “It’s pretty interesting.”

He grinned. “I know. I’ve found some stuff, too, but…” he motioned with his hand, “you go first.”

She smiled. She really did like studying with him. “Okay.” She read from her notes. “Tantalum, Tungsten and Rhenium are all considered refractory elements.” She unconsciously tucked a nonexistent loose strand of hair behind her ear, something she used to do quite often. Not so much anymore. A couple of months ago, three thugs had started hassling them on a nearby street corner. Eventually, they’d tried to rob them. Sherry quickly incapacitated all three with her can of pepper spray.

At the time, she’d felt a surge of adrenaline, something she’d never felt before.

            “I felt I was in control of a bad situation,” she’d told Zeke afterward. “It was a great feeling.” She looked at him. “Made me feel like I didn’t always have to be a victim.”

Both of them knew she was talking about the car accident six years earlier where she’d lost her father and her best friend.

            “So, you cut off your hair?” he’d asked. Thinking, man, she looks great.

            “Yeah. I never did like it long.” Which may or may not have been true. But what had been true was that her long hair was prone to being oily and greasy looking. No matter how much she shampooed it, her hair never got any better. It was always disgusting looking, at least in Sherry’s eyes. She knew Zeke didn’t care (and he didn’t) but that was too bad. He was a guy who’s nod to color was black and a green and gold baseball hat of all things.

            So, a few days after she’d thwarted the robbery, she’d grabbed a pair of her mother’s sewing shears and cut off her hair, not even bothering to give it away to a natural wig place. Who’d want this piece of crap anyway? she’d thought to herself at the time, tossing the oily wad in the trash. No one. She was positive. Now, her hair was, as she put it to Zeke, “As short as the day I was born. And I love it.”

Zeke did, too.

            Sherry had big bones and a solid physique. She was six inches shorter than Zeke’s six feet and favored colorful dresses she bought online. Today's was a cheerful cranberry red she wore over yellow tights. She liked to make beaded jewelry and today she wore a string of green malachite stones that matched the color of her eyes. And, because of the snow, she was wearing pull-on, red, knee-high rubber boots along with a rainbow scarf and a turquoise ankle length wool coat she’d bought at the thrift store.

Like Zeke, she was her own person. A person she liked. Or as Leslie her imaginary friend often said, you be the best, boss lady. To which Sherry always remarked. “I’m happy just being myself.” To which Leslie just smiled and said, that you are, my friend. That you are.

            “Yeah, I saw that, too.” Zeke said, peering at Sherry’s notebook before taking a bite from a pumpkin muffin. Halloween was coming up and the coffee shop was celebrating with all things pumpkin: lattes, smoothies, pumpkin bread and, of course, muffins. This one had a creamy sugar frosting that was to die for. It was also the size of a small softball. Zeke swallowed before taking another small bite. He held up one finger. “Just a second.”

            Sherry glanced at him while he chewed before returning went to her notes. She grinned to herself, thinking how much she enjoyed his company. He was a good guy. Plus, he liked science. That counted for a lot.

            She took a sip of coffee and read out loud, “Okay, while you're masticating, I’ll review.” She cleared her throat dramatically and lowered her voice. “Fourscore and seven years ago…” and then stifled a giggle. Geez…

            Next to her, Leslie coughed out a laugh. Geez is right girlfriend. I know you like him, and I can tell he likes you, but you’ve got to get your head in the game. Quit goofing around pretending you're Abe Lincoln. You’ve got this report to work on.

            She’s right, Sherry thought to herself. Turning to Zeke, she furrowed her brow in concentration. “But, seriously, folks…” She cast a quick glance at Leslie who had moved over and was now sitting next to Zeke. Leslie rolled her eyes, got up and went to stand by the window with her back to the table, ignoring Sherry while pretending to look outside.

Sherry grinned. She liked giving her friend a hard time, but Leslie was right, she needed to stay focused. Sherry consulted her notebook. “Okay, to continue…Tantalum is part of the refractory group of elements, along with tungsten and rhenium. Also included are niobium and molybdenum. The refractory elements have exceedingly high melting points, about 4000 degrees F.” She looked at Zeke. “We’re going to report on just the first three, right?”

            Zeke gave her the thumbs up sign, took a sip of coffee and said, “Right. Sorry, but, man, these muffins are good.”

            Sherry gave him a look, and, mimicking Leslie said, “Head in the game, Zekey Boy. Head in the game.”

            Zeke blushed red. “Oh, yeah. Sorry.” He consulted his notes. “We already covered niobium and molybdenum last spring, so now we can concentrate on tantalum, tungsten and rhenium.”

            “Like I said,” Sherry joked with him.

            Zeke got even redder. “Yeah. Right. Sorry about that.” Then he grinned his self-effacing grin and Sherry had to laugh. He really was one of a kind. That’s part of what she liked about him. That and the fact that he was a science geek like her. Especially chemistry.

            “What did you find out about tantalum?” she asked.

            Zeke checked his notes. “What I’ve got is that it’s named after a villain called Tantalus. Some guy from Greek mythology.”

            Sherry checked her notes. “Yeah, I’ve got that, too.” She looked at him. “It’s also inert, which makes it very stable. So, it’s good for electronics that get a lot of hard use, like cell phones, DVD players, video games and computers.”

            Leslie had moved away from the window and was now sitting next to Sherry. She pointed to the notebook. Don’t forget to mention it’s a TCE.

            Oh, that’s right. Thanks. Sherry continued. “It’s also considered a TCE, a technology critical element because it’s used so much in the electronics industry.”

            “Yeah, I read that. It’s like a lot of these rarer elements.” He sat back and grinned. “Where would we be without them.”

            “Where indeed?”

            Sherry glanced at Leslie who was shaking her head.

            What? Sherry mouthed silently while Zeke was busy looking over his notes.

            I think you’re in love with your Zekey Boy. Leslie grinned.

            Now it was Sherry’s turn to turn red.

            Zeke looked up at just that moment and noticed her blush. “What’s up?”

            Sherry took a quick sip of coffee and changed the subject. “Nothing. Just a little warm.” She coughed. “Okay, that’s it for tantalum, I think.”

Zeke nodded. “Yeah, I think we’ve got our bases covered.

“Okay.” Sherry continued, “What have you got for tungsten?”

            Zeke smiled at her. He was so happy. Ever since the two of them had begun hanging out, his life had gotten better. It was now the end of October. Two years ago, he was living with his foster family and sneaking out and smoking weed whenever he could. Then over the holidays, his dealer, Spike, had turned him onto smack and that had been that. The rest of the year and throughout the next he’d been sliding downhill on a slippery slope. Then last fall he’d walked into Mr. Jordan’s class and things had begun to turn around. There was something about chemistry that just talked to him. Mr. Jordan was a good guy, too, and helped him if he needed. Sherry was there, too, but the two of them really didn’t get together as friends until the end of the school year last May. They’d been working together on their extra credit assignments for Mr. Jordan and doctor Gannon ever since. Except for that one little slip last spring he’d been clean. And the longer he stayed clean, the better he felt.

            Being around Sherry didn’t hurt either.

            “I found out something interesting about tungsten,” he said.

            “What’s that?”

            “It’s got the highest melting point of any element except carbon.”

            “Awesome. How high?”

He read from his notes. “6,192 degrees Fahrenheit. Highest boiling point, too at 10,710 degrees F.”

            “Wow! That’s amazing.”

            Zeke grinned. “I know. It was identified in 1781 and isolated in 1783.”

            “That’s so cool.”

            Sherry was having the time of her life. She never thought she’d ever meet anyone like Zeke. She glanced at Leslie, who yawned and said, Sorry. It’s just that science is so BORING!

            Well, too, bad, Sherry mouthed back at her.  I like it. I like it a lot. Then she smiled and pointed her thumb in Zeke’s direction. He had just taken another bite of his muffin and was reviewing his notes chewing away without a care in the world. So does he and that’s all that counts.

            Leslie rolled her eyes. I’m happy for you, I really am. Just don’t let those raging hormones of yours interfere with your studies. Then stood up, winked at Sherry and sauntered over to the counter where she bent down to get a closer look at the baked goods. She was a sucker for strawberry scones.

            I won’t, Sherry said to Leslie’s back. Geez!  

            Then she consulted her notes and said to Zeke, “I’ve got a little more to add. It’s about the name.”

“Fire away,” Zeke said. “I’ll just have some more of this muffin.” He grinned and bit into it.

“Here goes.” Sherry began to read. “The name tungsten means "heavy stone" in Swedish. Its name is used in English, French, and many other languages as the name of the element, but not in the Nordic countries. Tungsten was the old Swedish name for the mineral scheelite.”

“Hold on.” Zeke checked his table. ”Carl Wilhelm Scheele was the guy who discovered it in 1781.” He looked at Sherry and smiled. “Interesting, isn’t it?”

“Very,” she said. “What I found out is that instead of tungsten, the name wolfram was used early on in most European languages, especially Germanic, Spanish and Slavic. It’s derived from the mineral wolframite, which is the origin of the chemical symbol W. The name wolframite is derived from German. It was first coined by Johan Gottschalk Wallerius in 1747.”

“So, tungsten is called tungsten in English speaking countries and it’s called wolfram in other European countries like Germany?”

Sherry looked over her notes. Then she looked at him and smiled. “Yep. Weird, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he said, shaking his head. “Same element. Same symbol W.”

“Same atomic weight,” Sherry added, grinning.

“Same everything,” Zeke said.

“Except for the name.”

They both laughed.

Sherry was having so much fun going back and for with him. “It’s what I love about chemistry. Just when you think everything makes sense…”

“Something odd comes along,” Zeke added.

“Yeah.”

“Like tungsten and wolfram.”

“Who’d have thought it?”

Zeke grinned. “Not me.”

Sherry suddenly took Zeke’s hand. The left one. The one with the bluebird tattoo. “I’m having a great time. Thank you,” she said. “For being here. For being my friend.”

The unexpected touch of Sherry’s hand sent an electric shock up Zeke’s arm. He looked at her and she smiled. He grinned in return. “No problem,” he said. “In fact, thank you.”

“For what?” she said, removing her hand and taking a sip of coffee.

He shrugged his thin shoulders. “I don’t know. For being you, I guess.” He blushed. He’d never had a girlfriend before.

Sherry grinned, happy he felt that way, but she had no idea how to respond. So, she said simply, “Anyway. Thank you.”

Next to her Leslie suddenly appeared. She smirked. Lovey, dovey, she said.

Sherry ignored her. But, nevertheless, it was time to change the subject. “So…What have you got for rhenium?” Yeah, it was time to refocus on their studies, but the fact remained, she’d never been happier.

For Zeke, of all the times he’d imagined having a girlfriend, he’d never imagined having someone like Sherry. She was bright, and she was fun to be around. She also seemed to not mind hanging around with him, which in and of itself was extraordinary. No doubt about it, life was good.

He stood up. “Before we get back to work, how about some more coffee?”

“Sure!”

“And a muffin?”

“Are you going to have one?”

Zeke laughed. “Of course.”

“In that case, sure. I’d love one. That’d be great.”

“Be right back.”

“Sounds good.”

Sherry set her notes aside and looked out the window. The sky had clouded up and it looked like more snow might be on the way. She checked her weather app. Yep. Later this afternoon. Next to her Leslie said, so what’s up with you and lover-boy? Going to start dating him?

Sherry blushed. Hush. She turned around. Zeke was still at the counter chatting with the barista Ben. No. Yeah. Maybe. Flustered, she said. Oh, I don’t know. He hasn’t even asked me out.

Hard to do, Leslie said. Since he doesn’t drive.

Right.

“Hey, what’s up?” Zeke asked, after he’d re-joined her. “Watching the world go by?”

“Sort of. Just wondering if it’s going to snow again.”

Zeke pointed behind him. “Ben said it might.”

“Hmm.” Sherry took out her phone. “Let me text my mom and let her know. She should be home. She’s got the day off.” She taped out a quick message. Snow possible. Call me. She waited a minute or two, sipping her coffee while Zeke reviewed his notes. Finally, she set the phone down. “No answer from my mom.”

Zeke looked up from his notebook. “Everything okay?”

“Should be.” Sherry picked up her notes in an attempt to put her concern aside. “Let’s get to work.”

“You sure?” Zeke knew Sherry’s mom sometimes dealt with severe depression.

“Yeah. She was a little low this morning, but she was fine when she dropped us off.”

“Okay.” Zeke opened his notebook. “On to rhenium.”

“I’m all ears. Fire away.” But she couldn’t help casting a quick glance at her phone. What was up with her mom?

Zeke interrupted her thoughts. “Okay, here’s what I’ve got,” he said, reading from his notebook. “Rhenium was discovered in 1925 and named after the Rhine River. It’s one of the rarest elements.”

Sherry looked from her notebook to her tablet. “Which is pretty cool. I guess because of its rarity it’s pretty expensive.”

“I read that nickel-based super alloys of rhenium are used in combustion chambers, turbine blades and exhaust nozzles for jet engines.”

“Yeah, it’s so rare that it’s expensive. I read that a few years ago is sold for like almost five-thousand dollars a pound.”

“Amazing. But I guess now they’ve figured out how to re-cycle it and reuse it, so the costs have some down a little.”

Sherry smiled at Zeke. “You sound like you learned a lot about this one.”

“Hey, partner,” Zeke joke. “Just doing my…” His voice faded as he glanced at a customer who had come through the front door. He leaned across the table and whispered, pointing with his thumb. “Hey. Look who just walked in.”

Sherry looked. “What?” Now she was whispering.

“That’s Riley,” he said. “I don’t know his last name. He’s the lead singer and songwriter for that band I like.”

“The Class of Never?”

“Yeah, that’s it.” He watched as Riley ordered at the counter. He was a tall thin man in around thirty years old. He was dressed in black like Zeke except for his red and black checked winter hat with ear flaps. “Wow. This is amazing.”

Sherry smiled. It was nice to see Zeke so excited. So happy. “Why don’t you go over and say…”

Just then Riley turned around and surveyed the room. When he saw Zeke, he smiled and waved. “Hi Zeke.”

            “How’s it going?” Zeke greeted him.

            “Can’t complain. No one would care if I did anyway.” He laughed.

            Sherry smiled. He seemed like a nice guy. She said to Zeke. “Ask him to sit down with us.”

            Zeke waved him over. “Want to join us? We’ve got room.”

            Sherry grinned when she happened to glance at Leslie who was nodding enthusiastically in the affirmative. Yes!

            Riley shook his head. “Thanks, mate, but no.” He pointed to a car waiting by the curb. “My wife Sally and our little girl are waiting for me. I just stopped in for some pumpkin muffins for later.”

Zeke smiled and held up his plate. “They’re the best, aren’t they?”

Riley worked a mile or so away a Café Enya, a popular local restaurant. He grinned. “They sure are.” He tipped his hat at the two of them. “But thanks for the offer. Maybe some other time.”

            After he had left, Zeke said, “When I’m at meetings at the group home he’ll occasionally stop.”

            “How come?”

            “Interesting story. He used to live on the streets. Like maybe ten or fifteen years ago. I know he was only sixteen or seventeen at the time.”

            Sherry touched his hand. “Your age.”

            Zeke’s face turned red. Was it due to her touch? Or the correlation with Riley? Or both? It was hard to say.

He cleared his throat and took a sip of coffee. “Anyway, he’ll stop by just to chat. Kind of an ad-hoc counselor.”

            “That’s awfully nice of him.”

            “It is,” Zeke said, watching Riley get into a car parked in front. A woman was driving and Zeke could see a young child in the seat carrier in the back seat. Riley’s family. He smiled and pointed. “He’s doing okay, now, isn’t he?”

            Sherry looked and grinned back at him. “Yeah, he is.”

            They both sipped their coffee and watched the young family drive off, skidding a little on the slippery street.

            Then Zeke said, “Okay. Time to get back to Rhenium.” He looked over his notes. “I think that’s it for me, except that jet engine thing. I guess that’s it’s most common use. Probably because of its strength and high melting temperature.”

            “I agree,” Sherry said, slightly distracted. Seeing Riley and his young family made her think about her mother. She just hadn’t been herself that morning. She looked at Zeke. “I’ve got a feeling about my mom. I think I’d better call her.”

Zeke’s concern was immediate. “For sure. Go ahead.”

“Hold on.” Sherry quickly scanned her notes. “We should mention that rhenium is generally considered to have been discovered by Walter Noddack, Ida Noddack, and Otto Berg in Germany.”

Zeke put his hand on hers. “Stop.” When Sherry looked at him, he said, “This can wait. Call your mom. That’s more important.”

So, she did. There was no answer. She looked at Zeke. “Now I’m worried.”

“Call her again,” he said. He hated to see Sherry upset.

She punched in the number and waited while it rang. Still no answer.

“This is not good. She always answers when I call. Now I’m really worried.” She looked at Zeke and made a snap decision. “I need to get home. Let’s go.” She immediately started stuffing her notebook and tablet in her backpack, her forehead lined in concentration, her face flushed. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Zeke could see how upset she was. “I’m calling an Uber.”

In five minutes, their ride was there.

Twenty minutes later they were pulling around the corner onto Sherry’s Street. The midafternoon sky had turned dark and it was easy to see that snow was eminent. Sherry didn’t notice any of that because she was breathing a sigh of relief.

“Thank, goodness.” She turned to Zeke.

“She’s okay.” Zeke said, taking her hand. “She’s all right.”

Sherry quickly kissed his cheek. “She is.” She paid the driver, jumped out, ran to her mother and hugged her. She’d been shoveling the sidewalk and hadn’t heard her phone ring.

Zeke let them have their moment before getting out and walking up to them. “Hi Mrs. Kingman,” he said, reaching for the shovel. “I’ll finish up out here.” He pointed to the house. “You guys go on inside and warm up. I’ll be in in a few minutes.”

“Gladly.” Kari smiled at him, handing him the shovel. “Thank you.”

Zeke smiled back at her. “No problem.”

Sherry squeezed his hand and gave him a quick hug. “Thanks.” Then mother and daughter walked up to the front door arm and arm. Leslie, too, walking next to Sherry, looking over at her and whispering, looks like you’ve got yourself a serious boyfriend.

To which Sherry just smiled.

They went inside. “I’ll put on some water,” Kari said. “How’s some hot cocoa sound?”

“Sounds great,” Sherry said.

Yeah, things were good right now, she thought to herself. Great, even. But she knew things could change in an instant. Look what had happened to her father. And her mother. Sherry knew her mom was hanging on by a thread, and she’d need to be strong to help her out if she needed it.

Leslie tapped on her shoulder and smiled. You’ve always got me, girlfriend. Sherry smiled back. Then Leslie pointed out to the sideway where Zeke was hard at work. And him, she added. I have to say, he’s all right.

Sherry turned to look just as Zeke lifted and tossed a heavy shovelful of snow. He happened to glance up and saw her watching. He grinned and waved. Sherry waved in return and then he went back to work.

Sherry smiled. “Yeah, he is all right,” she said to Leslie. “And I have to say. Right now, I’m pretty happy.”

            Good, said Leslie. And she started walking toward the kitchen. Then let’s go give your mom a hand.

            Sherry grinned. “Sounds like a good idea.”

            She glanced once more out the window. Zeke looked up again, saw her and waved. She waved back. Strike that last comment. She wasn’t just pretty happy. She was very happy.

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: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com

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