The girl who sits next to Lily is named Elizabeth. She doesn’t shorten it, claiming that her old nickname is a little weird, and that she’s pretty sure she’s done using it outside of a very specific context.
She has no smell.
The lack of scent throws Lily off. In fact, everything about Elizabeth throws Lily off. She looks familiar, for some reason, like Lily should know the curve of those cheekbones and the flesh of those lips. She looks confident, but in a weird way, like she isn’t sure if she’s allowed to be confident. Her eyes are a deep, fiery brown, but Lily wants to picture them red-gold, for some reason.
On her other side, Theo coughs. His smell turns a little dry. Startled, Lily turns back to him and blinks.
“You were staring,” he whispers.
Oops. Lily casts one more glance at Elizabeth, who smiles in the strained, uncomfortable way that people do when they’re being looked at too closely. Then, face burning, Lily laces her fingers together and stares down at her thumbs.
“Smooth,” Theo says under his breath.
“Please shut up,” Lily hisses.
The door slams open, and the classroom goes silent. A startled, electric tang drifts past Lily’s nose, and she turns to watch as the infamous Mrs. Zhang stalks into the room.
Mrs. Zhang is a small woman. She maybe reaches Lily’s nose, and Lily isn’t especially tall. But despite her small stature, Mrs. Zhang is a force. The wrinkles on her face carve deep, darkening her stern, imperious glare. She walks with a cane topped in shiny, heavy brass, and she wears clothing from fifty years ago--wool coats with big buttons and charming, military collars. She looks like short, Chinese Jackie Kennedy. She even styles her salt-and-pepper hair like it’s still the nineteen sixties.
The electric tang turns to sumptuous, fatty respect. Lily thinks she might drool.
Mrs. Zhang’s three-beat gait carries her to the center of the classroom, where she stands, feet shoulder-width apart, chest up and out, hands clasped over her cane, and surveys her students. She squints for a long time, and then takes a breath.
“Good morning,” she says coolly. “I am Mrs. Zhang. You have probably heard of me.”
But, yes, everyone has heard of her. Except for maybe Elizabeth, who tilts her head to one side in consideration.
Mrs. Zhang is the oldest teacher in the school. She’s old enough to have pictures of herself roving around with the Yellow Power and Black Panther movements, which she displays proudly on her desk. Everyone knows not to mess with Mrs. Zhang. She will tear guts out, show off the bloody entrails, and then put them back inside a person to fit better and stronger than before. And she does it without coffee.
Everyone who takes her classes passes, but they pass because she’s unrelentless, not because she’s easy.
“The rumors are true,” Mrs. Zhang says, idly rubbing one wrinkled hand. “I am the strictest teacher you will ever have, and that includes the time you may spend in university. But I am not unfair, and I am not unkind. You will all pass calculus, and you will do it splendidly.”
Elizabeth makes a little humming noise, some kind of acknowledgement or surprise or eagerness, and every eye in the room goes to her. She immediately cowers.
“No, no,” Mrs. Zhang says. “Don’t apologize, Elizabeth. A reaction is good.”
Elizabeth stiffens. Lily wonders if the other girl’s cheeks are hot.
“For those of you who are wondering,” Mrs. Zhang continues, “yes, today is a syllabus day. To be successful, you must understand the expectations that our school district has for you, the expectations I have for you, and the expectations you must set for yourself.”
Lily blinks. That certainly puts a new spin on the whole business. She feels Theo scoot infantessimally closer to her, like Mrs. Zhang’s presence makes him nervous and he needs moral support.
Like a whip, Mrs. Zhang snaps her head towards one corner of the classroom. “Eric and Wendy!” she barks. “Please pass out the syllabi that I have left on your desks.”
They hop to it, scrambling as though they hadn’t even seen the papers there. Lily smells something dark and sweet and old, like wine. It’s stronger and more sudden than the other smells, and it dissipates quickly while the ambient scents continue to waft and linger. Narrowing her eyes, Lily waits for her copy of the syllabus and watches Mrs. Zhang in her periphery.
Elizabeth tilts her head again, gazing far away like she’s heard something familiar.
There are two extra syllabi, and Mrs. Zhang holds out one hand so Eric and Wendy can drop them in her palm. She tucks one behind her back, and Lily smells the wine again for a moment. Then, with a stuffy sniff, she shakes out the other copy and begins reading from it.
Mrs. Zhang reads the syllabus like it's scripture. She gestures like a preacher and pauses like a pastor, putting special emphasis on the parts that describe expected work load and class participation. At some point, she brings out the hand that should have been holding the second extra syllabus, and Lily blinks in surprise to see it empty. Mrs. Zhang hasn’t been standing by any convenient horizontal planes.
Rome rises and falls in the time it takes to go through Mrs. Zhang’s syllabus. It’s four double-sided pages long, and she adds commentary almost every sentence. Lily wants to fall on a legionnaire’s spear by the end of it.
After the bell rings, Mrs. Zhang sends the class away with a stern sigh. And then Lily remembers that the hallways will smell bad, so she sighs too.
She follows sluggishly as Theo heads for the door, grimacing when a classmate pulls it open and lets in the stench of the school. It isn’t as bad as before; now that the shock of first hour has worn off, the smell is cooler, cleaner, and calmer. It’s still a lot though, and Lily wants to just curl up in a practice room with Theo and soak in the warm smell of butter that hangs off him. Or she could sit with scentless Elizabeth.
Theo is passing through the door when Lily feels a callused hand wrap around her wrist.
“Wait!” breathes Elizabeth. “Lily and Theo, right?”
All three of them stop in the doorway like the thoughtless teenagers they are.
“Yeah,” Theo replies, when Lily says nothing. “That’s us. What’s up?”
Eyebrows scrunched in worry, Elizabeth lets go of Lily’s wrist. She tips her face down, flustered. “Um, do you guys have Non-Western World History next?”
“Yes,” Theo answers. His confused expression melts into a kind smile. “Need help getting there?”
“That would be really nice, actually. Yeah.”
Theo tilts his head towards Lily and wraps an arm around her shoulders. She can feel the flex of his jaw against her temple as he grins. “No problem. You can help me make sure Lily doesn’t get lost.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Lily grumbles. She does like being tucked right up against Theo though. He is heaven for her nose.
Still scowling, she lets Theo drag her out and watches in the corner of her eye as Elizabeth follows them.