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Everyone’s a Chemist
by KJ Hannah Greenberg



Jordan shook his head. Across his screen, gaudy-colored, auditorily-fortified advertisements for chemists paraded. In the 1970’s, it had been popular to declare one’s self a “therapist.” In the 2010s, everyone wanted to be considered a “writer.” At present, the fashionable career choice was “chemist.”


The young man recalled a coffee shop conversation that he had had with Janet and Emily, his older sisters. Beyond positions as hazardous waste scientists or as materials engineers, there existed many jobs for “chemists.” Janet, for instance, worked a bench for an industry giant. Emily, conversely, taught high school science. Jordan shook his head to clear it of all references to that meeting.


Shrugging, he pivoted his chair so that he could look at the two aquariums on the bookcase behind his desk. One was filled with a clutch of recently hatched boop noodles and the other held the shed skins of the two mature noodles that he had sold a few days ago. His hobby was profitable.


Turning back to his keyboard, Jordan sighed. If only his love life could become equally rewarding, he would be happy. For the moment, his intimates included Nancy, a clever girl, who was more interested in smoking specific leaves than in finishing college and Bridget, an interesting young woman, who claimed to all (involuntary) listeners that she could neutralize the effects of any substances that she inhaled, injected, absorbed via patches, or otherwise integrated into her body.


Nancy was a pretty redhead. Bridget was a natural blond. Neither mademoiselle, though, appreciated Jordan’s completed chemistry degree, let alone his ongoing graduate work in toxicology. Only his former fraternity brothers had ever sought his scientific insights and those boys had only done so when they had wanted to avoid the fees concomitant to seeking advice from conventional doctors.


Jordan exhaled noisily. The romantic gleanings from his night class, too, had been meager. Brenda was a married forensic scientist. Jamie was a lesbian pharmacologist. Seppi, who taught chemistry basics online, insisted that committed relationships were passé, and Alana, a chemical engineer, was allergic to dander (Jordan was a companion to two cats and to a small dog in addition to raising reptiles.)


Be that as it may, one evening, when Jordan and his classmates were waiting for their geochemistry professor to appear, a sobbing Brenda entered the hallway to their classroom. Her bruises and sling said more than her words ever would.


Brenda’s husband had assaulted her while he countenanced that “a noteworthy per cent of the world’s population casts doubt on Western parameters for ‘home’ following death.” Her spouse had added that “given the masses’ allowance for the actuality of dubious, ethereal residences, fatality, per se, becomes the physical forfeit of a retaining wall, and ‘home’ becomes bereft of most of the fortifications that keep out unwanted entities.” In other words, he believed himself sanctioned to brutalize Brenda since she had forfeited his protection upon becoming a successful professional.


Alana began coughing.


Jamie, who ran to embrace Brenda, exclaimed that partners ought to shield each other from mistreatment, not dispense it.


Seppi stage whispered that Brenda’s husband “got away with murder” because, as the county’s coroner, he had the authority to do so, or at least to misdiagnose it.


Brenda accepted a cola from Jamie, who was still muttering. Jamie called out that, “men are evil.” Upon noticing Jordan, she announced, “yet, there are exceptions.”


For his part, Jordan dredged up unused tissues from his pocket. He offered those sorry wipes to Brenda.


When the lecturer arrived, she looked at the huddled group and explicitly excused all of them from that night’s recitation. She promised to email her lecture notes to them.


Over hot chocolate, at the same diner, where Jordan had once talked about the business of chemistry with his sisters, he sat with his classmates, who they offered Brenda compassion as well as ideas for self-served justice. It was only when Jordan tendered that he had a permit to house a saw-scaled viper that the women became attentive to his contributions. Ironically, he had meant his offering to be a distraction as serving up empathy was not one of his strengths.


Jordan iterated how he ordinarily fed that snake frozen pinkies or live rabbit kits. He revealed, too, that the pet was housed in a locked, escape-proof tank. He said nothing, though, about how that cage, itself, was secreted in Jordan’s second bedroom or about the legal and moral ramifications of anyone mixing it up with his ruinous pet.


After everyone paid their tab, the group dispersed. Brenda went home with Alana.


The following week, when the evening lecture had ended, Jamie confronted Jordan. More exactly, she ambushed him outside of the door to their classroom.


“Take me home with you.”


“I’m good to study alone. Thanks.”


“No, not that.”


“Complimentary, but I thought you bat for the other team.”


“I do and do so proudly.”




“I want to see your snake.”


“The reptile.”


“The one with entirely lethal venom.”


“You mean the one whose venom kills within minutes of a bite and whose venom, typically and almost immediately, rots all of the flesh surrounding the site of any puncture?”






“But it’s sooo interesting that you own that animal.” Jamie frowned. She hated pandering.


“Jamie, I appreciate your interest in my pet, but ‘no,’ ‘no,’ and its sister, ‘no.’”


“I’ve devoted my life to understanding the chemical processes that take place between living organisms and contaminants. Your snake and its venom would make a great topic for my final paper.”


“We’re enrolled in geochemistry.”


“Right. I knew that. Take you out for a coffee?”


“Bribing me?”




Over cinnamon rolls and cappuccino, all on Jamie’s bill, the two spoke. As Jordan had assumed, Jamie had remained indignant on Brenda’s behalf. What he hadn’t foreseen was that Jamie was broadcasting her complaints about domestic abuse to all listeners, willing and otherwise or that Bridget, who had been a semi-willing listener, was Jamie’s cousin (talking to disinterested parties appeared to be a trait than ran in that family.)


A few days later, it was the poorly edited pictures on a local newspaper’s website that alerted Jordan to Jamie and Bridget’s collusion. In one of those images, near the corpse of a man, who had been tentatively identified as Brenda’s husband, Bridget lay curled in a ball, clutching a hand that bloomed odd shades and that was missing several fingers.


Jordan grabbed his stomach; he was suddenly, severely nauseous. A few nights ago, he and Bridget had engaged in private partying. As ever, she had spouted off about being able to offset the contaminants in anything that they might consume. Jordan had no idea whether or not Bridget actually had been able to neutralize all of the acids and bases that they had shared. She had left his apartment long before he had woken up. What’s more, when he did wake, he had had a very bad hangover.


No matter, it looked as if that she had, somehow, managed to get him to divulge the code to the lock on his guest bedroom’s door. Jordan hugged his stomach, again, but retched, nonetheless. Whereas he had been sober since that private party, the pictures on his screen returned him to the worst of whitecaps.


After cleaning himself up and crawling to his couch, Jordan considered that if Bridget had handled the snake, she ought to be dead. Even so, it was as though someone had known to give her a timed injection of DNase. His girlfriend seemed to have merely lost digits and to have merely suffered excruciating pain instead of dying. All the same, few doctors were familiar with the optimal protocol for treating saw-scaled viper venom.


It was likely that whoever had administered the catalytic enzyme to Bridget, hence saving her life, was someone who understood the uses, effects, and actions of drugs. Jordan had his suspicions about the identity of that individual.


Groaning, he hobbled to his spare bedroom, where he verified that its door had been unlocked. Most often, he checked that security device only when he fed his snake. Meaning, he checked it only every fortnight or so. Prior to the incident, no one other than him had ever tried to enter that room. Anyway, he substantiated that the saw-scaled viper’s cage was indeed empty.


Jordan returned to his sofa. Before the news report publicized the recent death and maiming, which had been probably caused by his viper, he knew that any emancipation of his critter could result in grave danger. Such snakes are relatively small. Plus, their coloring enables them to camouflage in urban environments. Only their “sizzle,” the sound that they produce before striking, ever indicates their presence.


Alternately muttering and cursing, Jordan stumbled to find his snake hook, his thick gloves and his hoody. He felt green. No matter, the gongs-on pressed him to find his reptile.


And yet, a note that had been shoved under his apartment’s door froze his flight. The communication had been fashioned from letters cut from advertisements. It contained no signature.


In colorful bits of varying fonts, the letter claimed, “the snake is dead. I wanted to milk it, but I nearly lost a hand, so I crushed its head with the handle of my longest knife. Eventually, I’ll repay you for its value and for the cost of the licenses you paid for to own it.”


Jordan put down his things and again sat at his desk.  He gagged. Only spittle came up.


The snake might be dead, if the note was to be believed, but so was Brenda’s husband. Unless the news agency had had a reason to create the gory photos, he might still be tried as an accessory to murder since the snake’s records could be traced back to him.

Local forensic officers only needed to: identify the cause of the deceased’s death, figure out which among many possible toxins had been injected into the dead man’s body, and search certain government files to see which citizens had permission to own a saw-scaled viper. It was improbable that the creature had been illegally trafficked since persons who sold tigers and turtles on the black market were unlikely to handle such highly venomous beasts.


In spite of the relative ease of a search for the snake’s owner, no investigation was completed. Furthermore, nothing led any official to Jordan.


Unbeknownst to Jordan, before contacting a divorce lawyer and before moving her belongings to Alana’s home, Brenda had deleted many of her husband’s files. Brenda could not have cared less that her actions might be construed as damaging vital evidence. In fact, she had not limited her erasure to the items with which her abuser had been personally tasked, but had extended her reach to documents sitting in state and federal folders. Consequently, according to the government, Jordan had never owned a saw-scaled snake.


Jordan never learned why he was not subpoenaed. All that was made known to him after the murder and disfigurement and after his class completed graduate school was that: there was a lucrative postdoc in toxicology waiting for him at another university, Brenda had abandoned academia to work at a women’s shelter, Jamie, Jamie’s wife, and Bridget had moved to Japan, Seppi had received a pay raise, and Alana had been promoted to a group manager position.


Nancy moved with Jordan to where the university was offering him a postdoc. Intermittently, they discuss marriage. She’s no longer in banking, but in publishing, having discovered the joys and agonies of small presses. Nancy still smokes a variety of herbs. Jordan, though, no longer participates in her or in anyone else’s “parties.”


Jordan brought his danger noodles along to the new town. He has not reapplied to import an exotic viper, preferring to focus on raising clutches of more common snakes. Only in his lab does the chemist study unusual neurotoxins, cardiotoxins, hemotoxins, and cytotoxins.




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