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Pretty, Still - Michael

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Realistic Fantasy
The children of 3D1 sat in stony silence, staring at Dunster’s guilt-ridden face, as he attempted to control his frayed emotions.

Submitted: August 29, 2019

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Submitted: August 29, 2019



Pretty, Still - Michael


The children of 3D1 sat in stony silence, staring at Dunster’s guilt-ridden face as he attempted to control his frayed emotions. His whole body shook violently, like a prefab in an earthquake. His shirt, string vest and y-fronts were soaked with sweat. Perspiration ran in rivulets down his strained face.

He strutted about the laboratory clenching and unclenching his fists, a fallen prince with a guilty secret. Dunster looked to Linda for encouragement, but she just smiled and turned away, relishing his torment after the callous way that he had dismissed her love for him.

The condemned man returned to his makeshift cell, the plinth behind the demo bench, and gazed at the sea of young, innocent yet accusatory, faces raining contempt down on his pathetic attempts to exert authority. At that precise moment, Dunster’s nervous system went into full breakdown mode, and he lost control.

‘Yesterday,’ he began, ‘two men walked on the surface of the moon. Today, I will, I will, will.’

The room fell silent. The children exchanged worried glances. Linda shut her eyes and saw the look of panic on Michael’s face when he’d reached out to her for comfort. She thought of Esme.  

‘Today, I will, I will, will…’

He was crying, falling apart in front of class. He needed help. Where was Mrs Bunsen? Linda stood up, scraping her stool with a loud squeal that shook the other children out of their stupor, and scurried to the prep room.

Bunsen wasn’t there.

Dr Goodman, she had to find Dr Goodman, felt a steely grip, pulling at her elbow, dragging her up to the plinth for all the class to laugh at.

‘Linda has some important news for you all, don’t you Newman?’ Dunster trilled, ‘About us?’

‘Stop it! Stop it!’ the girl cried, her face all flustered, bloodied with embarrassment, teary-eyed.

‘Leave her alone, you bully!’ a small voice, Angela Smith, 13, squeaked from the back benches.

‘Silence!’ roared Dunster, ‘Newman, you will return to your stool immediately!’

Fearing for their safety, everyone shut their mouths and watched their shaken classmate slump down on her stool. The pervading atmosphere of resignation amongst his pupils galvanized Mr Dunster into action. He took a stick of white chalk, and started scribbling across the blackboard, talking as he chalked.

‘Today, I will prepare hydrogen chloride,’ he glanced over his shoulder, ‘What is hydrogen chloride… Gary?’

‘A gas, Sir!’ came the reply.

‘Ha! Yes, it is a gas. But what happens when it dissolves in water… Helen?’

‘It forms a solution, Sir!’

‘What kind of solution, Helen?’

‘An acid, Sir!’

‘Which acid?’

‘Hydrochloric acid, Sir!’

‘Very good, well done!’

The children relaxed, a little. Mr Dunster was back on top form, or seemed to be. He looked at Linda, regretting his crazy outburst. She knew the truth, about Esme, was only trying to help…

‘Yesterday,’ he said, most proudly, ‘two men walked on the surface of the moon. Today, I am delighted to announce that Linda will receive the Academic Award for Third Year Pupils at Byfield in recognition of her excellent work this year. If you would like to come up and receive your award. There’ll be a formal presentation by the new Head of School with parents invited in September,’ he added.

There was a polite smattering of applause and a fair few calls of ‘Well done, Lin!’ as she went up to the plinth to accept the academic prize. Mr Dunster gently shook the girl’s right hand and presented her with a thin, orange-and-white booklet. He flicked the front page open so that she could admire the sticky-back label with the oak tree crest:

Byfield School

Linda Newman

Academic Award for Third Year Pupils

Dated: 14th July 1969

Signed: DJ Humford, Headmaster.

‘Revision Notes for Ordinary Level Chemistry!’ cried Lin, ‘Thank you! Thank you so much!’

‘Now Linda,’ Michael said happily, ‘If you would like to turn to page thirty-two and read out what it says under section 3.5 to class, I thought you might like to help me prepare hydrogen chloride. Would you like that?’

Linda beamed from ear-to-ear, ‘Would I? Yes, please!’

Michael switched on the gas tap and lit the Bunsen burner with a wax taper. The gas burned with a blue flame tinged with yellow, a flame that grew stronger when he opened the collar around the base of the burner to let in more oxygen.

Linda moved closer to him and started to read, as the other children looked on, transfixed:

‘Hydrogen Chloride, HCl, is a colourless gas with an irritating smell.’

There was a chorus of laughter from the benches as the children conjured up irritating smells, wrinkling their noses in disgust. A delighted Mr Dunster joined in the fun, ‘Ha! Ha! Carry on!’

‘The gas is very soluble in water,’ continued Lin, ‘and heavier than air. Hydrochloric acid is a colourless solution. Concentrated hydrochloric acid contains about 35% hydrogen chloride. The acid turns blue litmus red.’

‘Very good, Linda,’ remarked Michael, ‘I think I should prepare the gas now, don’t you?’

‘I think you should, Sir!’ she laughed, loving her moment of stardom, stage centre, ‘Hydrogen Chloride is prepared by the action of concentrated sulphuric acid on sodium chloride.’

Mr Dunster carefully turned the ground glass stopcock, releasing the oil of vitriol over the rock salt in the round-bottomed flask. The round-bottomed flask, firmly-mounted, yet loosely-fitted. Nothing happened.

‘And the chemical equation, Linda?’ he asked, positioning the Bunsen burner under the flask.

‘NaCl +H2SO4 > NaHSO4 + HCl,’ she recited.

The acid in the flask began to bubble ferociously as the rock salt dissolved. Linda shut the book and moved closer to watch. Colourless gas poured off the boiling liquid, passing through the bent tube from the flask and collecting in the gas cylinder. Lin was several inches shorter than the chemistry teacher; she noticed the irritating smell, and coughed.

Dunster turned to face the class:

‘Because hydrogen chloride is heavier than air,’ he explained, ‘the gas can be safely collected in the covered gas cylinder.’

The experiment was over. He went to turn off the gas tap. The rubber bung on the flask worked loose. Hydrogen Chloride gas poured out of the open flask.

Linda coughed and sputtered. Felt the gas dissolving in her watery eyes, the acid tears streaming down her cheeks. Her eyes hurt, she rubbed her eyes, couldn’t see. She went to scream, couldn’t; the acid etched her mouth, her nostrils bled. She fell into Michael’s arms, collapsed in Michael’s arms.

Michael wailed.

Dr Goodman appeared at the doorway, with Mr Gunn and Mr Scruton.

Linda lay pretty, still, but barely breathing in Michael’s arms.

Esme was dead. Esme died last week.

He couldn’t let her go, wouldn’t let her go, carried her to the first aid room with Dr Goodman. Ena Smyth called for an ambulance, then called the Police.

Bunsen was nowhere to be found.

And all the children cried…

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