It was all because of the car that ran over Mr. Snuffles. It wasn't anyone's fault, exactly. He'd sneaked out the back door one morning. That wouldn't have been too bad, but then he'd dashed into the road. Had Jimmy not been learning how to drive, he'd have been able to stop in time or swerve to miss the poor cat. But he didn't and now Mr. Snuffles lay on the side of the road, with all nine of his lives rapidly passing.
Jennifer ran from her house and picked him up, but it was too late to call the vet. He'd been named after her favorite character in a childrens' show when she was three and been her constant companion ever since. Now he was gone. Jennifer's mother came out and did her best to comfort her little girl. Not so little now, fifteen, but still crying over her best friend. She helped her daughter wrap the poor cat in a towel, then in a plastic bag.
“We'll bury him at the vacation house. He liked it at Grandma's and it will be good to know he's still there.”
Jennifer tearfully agreed, and so it was that Mr. Snuffles rested in the deep freeze, awaiting the family summer trip and his ultimate fate.
In the meantime, high school beckoned. There was homework to be done, tests to be taken, boys to giggle about and parties to attend. Life, for everyone who wasn't Mr. Snuffles had to go on.
One way life went on was for old people to get older. The cranky, strange old woman across the street, a German war bride, was finally moving to assisted living. She, and her husband, had moved to the neighborhood when it was first built, way back in the 1950's, and settled in for the long haul. He'd died, years ago, but she'd grimly hung on to her independence until old age, and the urgings of her children and grandchildren, finally forced her to move. She couldn't take the accumulation of all the years junk with her. The family had selected what they wanted to keep, and the rest was for sale.
Despite her reputation for crankiness and order, she actually had a soft spot for Jennifer. She'd seen Mr. Snuffles fate, and knew how much the girl missed her cat. So the morning of the estate sale, before the dealers arrived to scoop up the best bits, she hobbled across the street and rang the bell.
“Mrs. Jones,” Jennifer's mother answered the door, “What are you doing here?”
“Ist your daughter here?”
“Ach gut. I have something for her. Something I think she vill like.”
“Oh, well please come in. How is the move coming along?”
“I don't know. The Towers are a nice enough place, but just old people. It's like a prison or warehouse. Everyone just waiting to die. I thought I left that behind mich in Germany.”
“I'm sorry. We'll visit, if that will help.”
“If young Jennifer could, she's always been such a gut girl. Anyway, I must get back.”
Her mother called down to her children, “Jennifer, it's Mrs. Jones. She wants to see you, and”
Jennifer raced up from the rec-room. She'd learned one scary Halloween, when she'd been the only one of her friends willing to brave the consequences that Mrs. Jones' crankiness and fearsome looks belied a soft heart and friendly character. She said, “Mrs. Jones I'm sorry that you're leaving. Did you need my help for something?”
“In a way I do. Please come mit me, I haf something for you.”
Her mother nodded at her, and Jennifer helped the old lady back across the street. They entered her house and Mrs. Jones painfully lowered herself onto one of the stuffed chairs in the living room. Then she pointed to a wooden box that sat on the other side of the room. It was a shipping crate the size of a footlocker from the late 1940's when she and her husband had come to America.
“That is for you, my dear. Use it vell.”
“May I see what's in it here?”
Jennifer opened the lid and looked at the contents. They were books. Dusty old hand-written books.
“Mrs. Jones, what are these?”
“They were my great grand-vaters. From his laboratory.”
Jennifer opened the one she held and tried to read it. “It's in German. I don't know German.”
“Not German, Schwabish. Bring it here and I'll read the first few words. You'll soon learn.”
“It's an ancestor of English. Not Hoch Deutsch.”
Jennifer took the first volume to Mrs. Jones. The old woman opened it and began to read, “Experiments in the reanimation of dead tissue.”
“What?” Jennifer asked, “What is this?”
“Didn't you know, I am a descendent of the great Dr. Baron von Frankenstein. These are his journals.”
“Did he really do it? Make dead things live again?”
“I don't know.” Mrs. Jones smiled at her, “But it might be fun to try.”
“But why me? Surely your family.”
Mrs. Jones reached over with a shaky age-spotted hand and tousled Jennifer's hair.
“Ach, I had these from my mother, she from hers, and she from hers. With a sacred charge to guard them. Not let them be used for evil. Mein daughter, she'd just sell them. I trust you.” She paused, “Besides, this way I know I'll have at least one visitor at the Towers who wants to see me.”
Jennifer regarded the crate with awe. “Thank you Mrs. Jones. I don't think I can carry all that by myself.”
“I know just the thing. There is a wagon in the garage, my son's. Take it.”
“Is that OK with you?” Jennifer had heard about the tragedy of Mrs. Jones' son from her parents. He'd disappeared into the jungles of Vietnam, never to be seen again. His parents had kept his room intact, almost as a shrine, pending his return.
“Yes, I'm sure he'd agree. He was a good boy and would have liked you.”
“He'd have been older than my father.”
Mrs. Jones gave her one of her cryptic fleeting smiles, then replied, “That's true.”
Jennifer brought the wagon around to the front door. Then by first unloading the crate, moving it to the wagon and then reloading it was able to take the books away. By then the crowds had started to arrive so she could only wave goodbye to Mrs. Jones.
That evening, Jennifer paged through the first volume. Despite Mrs. Jones' reassurances the German didn't suddenly spring to life for her, and the archaic Schwabian dialect gave the online translation programs she could find fits. There were a few words, “rot”, “blut”, “muskel”, “vene”, and “arterie” that she could guess. There were detailed and beautiful anatomical drawings that were drawn in the Baron's delicate hand. She studied these intently. Then about halfway through the volume she noticed something. It was now written in English. She paged backwards to find where the language switched and came to this passage near the beginning.
“My assistant Igor has been passing copies of my notes to my rival Count Melindorf. Since neither he nor the Count read English, I shall take advantage of my time in London and continue in this barbarous and uncouth language.”
Jennifer smiled to herself. This was going to be much easier than she thought.
It was probably just as well. Mrs. Jones hadn't lasted long in the Towers. The news came the next day when Jennifer and her mother were getting ready to visit her. The empty house across the street went up for sale that afternoon.
A few days later, in the morning, on a school day, and at breakfast, Jennifer surprised her parents. “I think I'd like to go into medicine.”
Her mother perked up, “A nurse?”
“No, a doctor.”
“Why the sudden change, Sweetie-pie?”
“I don't know. It just came to me last night.”
“You know, you'll have to take a lot more science, and math.”
“And do well at them.” Her father grumpily added, while her annoying little brother snickered at the thought.
Jennifer said, “You'll see.”
“I hope so,” her father, suddenly serious, continued, “if you're willing to work hard at it, I'll talk to the guidance counselors. Get your schedule for next year changed.”
So far, Jennifer had been put in the “nice girl” track. Enough courses to get into a junior college, and some sort of business job after that. It would let her tread water until she met the right man. Or at least a man willing to marry her. It would have firmly cemented her into the pink collar ghetto.
“I've never thought much of pre-algebra as a final course in mathematics, and just learning to use a word processor is not a good class in computers.” His unhappiness at his daughter studying that limited curriculum was evident in the tone of his voice. “I've always thought you could do better if you wanted to.”
Jennifer's resolve survived into biology class. They were dissecting frogs today. Like most of the 'nice girls,' she had opted for a computer simulation instead of the real thing. It was only the boys, who sniggered and joked their way through it, and the few nerdy girls who braved the smell to see what the real insides of an animal looked like, who dissected actual animals. She started to join her friends, then stopped and walked to the teacher.
“Can I join one of the groups that is really dissecting animals?”
Mr. Jefferson did a double-take. He didn't, as a matter of principle, approve of simulated dissections. Nonetheless, he followed the district policy, and that was laid down by politicians. “You would?”
There was one team of the nerdy girls that was missing a student. There were only two students on that frog instead of the three or four that were mandated. Mr. Jefferson asked, “Mary and Amber, would you be willing to have Jennifer join you?”
“Do we have to?” Mary and Amber enjoyed working together.
“Yes, unless you have some very good reason why not.”
That Jennifer had been a 'C' student and they 'A+' students wasn't quite good enough.
Their reserve lasted all of ten minutes. Up until Jennifer had a turn with the scalpel and delicately laid open the frog. She quickly identified the liver and heart, then with Mary's help pulled the intestines to the side to see the blood vessels behind them. Mr. Jefferson remarked that it was one of the best presentations he'd ever seen a student team do.
Amber asked, barely keeping the astonishment from her voice, “Where'd you learn that?”
Dr. Frankenstein's lab notes would be the truth; he had worked with frogs before trying bigger things. That was so clearly unacceptable that Jennifer skirted the truth and said, “I looked it up in study hall. I wanted to be prepared for class.”
Jennifer had another advantage. She had taken art, and while her drawings were in the normal blocky badly scaled high school style, they were far better than either Mary's or Amber's. Some training was better than none. Thus, between the three of them, Amber and Mary turned in their normal and Jennifer her first, one hundred percent on a lab report.
Jennifer's father proudly taped it to the refrigerator, and called the guidance counselor the next day.
Biology class was moving on to the highlight of the term, dissection of fetal pigs. This time Mary and Amber insisted that Jennifer join them. She was glad to. What had started out as an accidental seat assignment was developing into a solid friendship. The study habits Jennifer was learning from her nerdy friends were helping her grades no end.
Not that the benefits only went one way. While Jennifer wasn't of the 'cheerleader class' who could make or break a girl's social status on a whim, she was reasonably popular, and some of her popularity rubbed off on Mary and Amber. They were even invited to a party, and, for once, not invited out of pity. Not only that, but they no longer had to eat lunch alone, at the nerd's table.
Dissecting the pigs was a two-week long dive into the smelly gross insides of a preserved animal. The preservative didn't easily wash off, and Jennifer's little brother took to wrinkling his nose and teasing her about it at dinner time. She replied by wiping her hands in his hair. This was, if anything, even grosser, but at least the smell of little brothers washed off.
It wasn't until halfway through the pig that Mary and Amber noticed something very unusual about Jennifer. She really knew her anatomy. There were details that even Mr. Jefferson missed when he walked around the groups brave enough to dissect, that she would point out.
“Jenny,” Mary asked, “where did you learn this, and don't tell me study hall. We were all doing math last time.”
“I have this book, these books, at home. They're all about anatomy, and um,” she paused, “a few other things as well.”
“Can we see them?”
Jennifer couldn't say no to her friends. So that evening, after dinner, the doorbell rang twice. First for Mary and then a few minutes later for Amber. After chatting quickly with Jennifer's mother and father, they went to her room.
Jennifer pulled the shipping crate from under her bed and opened it. “These are the books. They're very old, but”
Amber took the first one and tried to read it. “It's in German. You don't read German, do you?” The high school used to teach German, before budget cuts forced them to pare the foreign language program down to Spanish. They would have removed that as well, but there were enough Hispanic students that they couldn't.
“I know a little, now, but they're mostly written in English.”
Mary carefully sounded out “Experimente in der Reanimation von abgestorbenem Gewebe,” and the said, “That doesn't mean experiments in reanimation, does it?”
Jennifer nodded, “Yes. It does. Experiments in the reanimation of dead tissue.”
“And the name inside,” Mary continued, “That's not really Frankenstein?”
“It is. My neighbor Mrs. Jones gave them to me. She was his great-granddaughter. These are his lab-notes.”
Amber laughed, “Do you think they'd work?”
“I'd like to try. Bring back my cat Mr. Snuffles.”
“That's not possible. He must have been insane.”
Jennifer then sat between her friends on her bed and showed them what she'd found. An hour later, when her mother knocked on the bedroom door and said that her friend's parents had arrived for them, they were still engrossed in the notebooks. Whatever was there, no matter how ill-conceived or incorrect, wasn't insane. Jennifer closed the book and put it back in the crate.
Amber sat there, slightly stunned, “You know, Jenny. It might just work. We'd have to be careful with that much electricity, but it might work. Why don't you see if you can visit my house tomorrow and we can discuss it.”
“In the lab?” Mary asked.
“Where else.” Amber's parents were chemistry professors. As long as she promised not to blow the house up or set it on fire, they let her use the basement for her 'laboratory' and even found or bought her supplies. Her experiments had been pretty tame so far, but that was about to change.
Jennifer told her mother at breakfast, “I'm going home with Amber today.”
“Studying and a science project. We're going to enter the science fair.”
Her father perked up and asked, “What's the project?”
“Can't tell you, it's top secret.”
He returned to reading his paper and said, “Makes sense.”
Her mother said, “Bobby has a soccer game, so I can't pick you up until late. Did Amber's parents approve?”
“They won't mind, and Mary will be there too.”
Her father looked up from the morning paper, and said, “I'd like to talk to Amber's parent's again. They seem such a nice couple. Tell you what, I'll pick you up on my way home from work. Where does she live?”
Jennifer hadn't thought of that, but a quick dive into the school directory was all it took to find Amber's address. Her father said, “She lives on the far side of the school district. Near the Towers, where old Mrs. Jones was going to live. I might be a little late for dinner, Marge. If the traffic's bad.”
School dragged by for Jennifer. Even the one class, biology, that she shared with her friends seemed to take forever. Pre-algebra was painful, now that she studied and had worked ahead in the book to understand what Amber and Mary were saying. The second hand on the clock that counted the time in study hall, one that usually ran all too fast, dragged so slowly that Jennifer thought she could barely tell it from the minute hand. Then they were all back in homeroom for the closing, announcements, and dismissal. The principal reminded them that there would be a school dance next week, the Fall dance, that it wasn't a prom, and would be highly chaperoned. Then he let them loose.
“Jenny?” Susan, one of her old friends said as they walked to their lockers, “Do you think Tommy will ask you out?”
Jennifer hadn't thought that far ahead. Right now, with her plans, boys were a distraction. “He might, but why wouldn't he ask you Susan?”
“I think he likes you.”
“It's up to him.”
“What's up to me?” The boy in question, a junior, exuded the confidence of a young man who was good-looking and knew it. He'd made his varsity letter that year in football and was considered a hot prospect by the state universities. There'd even been a big-ten scout nosing around practices. He leaned on the wall next to Susan's locker and smiled at the two girls.
Susan collapsed into a confused stammer, while Jennifer looked him in the eyes and said, “Whether you asked me to the dance, or not.”
“I might, what'cha doing this afternoon? Got my license, we could go park somewhere, you know.”
Jennifer remembered her mother ranting once when she'd been especially angry with her father that 'parking' had led to her having to get married. She said, “I'm studying, biology. With my friends.”
He smirked at her and made a double entendre, not that he knew the phrase, “I'd like to study biology too, with you.”
Jennifer flashed him a smile, “Not this time. It's for a science project. Gotta bounce.” Then she left him and Susan behind.
Amber and Mary were already waiting in the bus line when she found them. Amber asked, “What took you so long?”
Mary gushed, “What a hunk.”
Amber added, “Just wish his brains were as good as his bulging muscles. Did he ask you out?”
“As if. 'Let's go and park somewhere.' I can't even.” Jennifer started giggling, and was joined by her friends.
“Still,” Mary said, “Those muscles, and that smile. I wish he'd smile at me.”
The big yellow school bus squeaked to a stop just off the main road, near the old folk's home known as the towers. Amber lead Jennifer and Mary off.
“My official stop is closer on the street,” she said, “but it's faster to walk from here. We'll cut through the garden and down Elm street. Be home in no time.”
Several elderly inmates of the Towers were sitting in the garden as the girls walked through it. Jennifer suddenly stopped and stared at one of them.
Mary asked, “What is it, Jenny?”
Jenny slowly approached an ancient woman, a woman with a fierce looking face that belied her friendliness.
“Jennifer, what a surprise. I thought you were going to visit me sooner.”
“I was told you were dead.”
“Oh, that explains it. There vas another Mrs. Jones. They mixed up the names.”
“Good! What a mess.”
“So Jennifer, who are your friends?” Mrs. Jones pointed at them with a shaky hand.
“Mrs. Jones, this is Amber Gross and Mary Gentile. They're going to help me with that project.”
“What project, the notebooks?” Mrs. Jones grabbed Jennifer's wrist tightly, “Can they be trusted?”
“Yes, they're my best friends.”
Mrs. Jones relaxed, then she studied the two girls. “I know you,” she said to Amber, “your Girl Scout troop visited last week. Und I've seen you walking through the garden. Wave next time, ve don't bite.”
Mary asked, “Jenny, is she the woman who gave you the books?”
Jennifer nodded, “Yes.”
“I never met a Frankenstein; always thought they were made up.”
Mrs. Jones added, “I was a von Volkstein before I married. My great-cousins, the last von Frankenstein's, died in Flanders in 1917.”
“Wasn't your fault Mary.” Mrs. Jones gave her a rueful smile, “My mother didn't like them anyway. Said they were stuck-up Prussian martinets.” Then she bid the girls farewell and wished them success with their project. Her final words were, “Let me know when you make the first pink solution. I'd like to see it.”
Amber, Mary and Jennifer spent an enjoyable afternoon reading the recipe. It was written for an enormous scale, starting with a hogshead of distilled or clean rainwater.
“That will never work,” Amber said, “We'll have to scale it down.”
Some of the ingredients were easy to find, but many were decidedly oddball. It took several passes through search engines to find modern names.
Jennifer scowled, “Red Cinnabar? Eight Drachms. What the heck's a Drachm?”
Mary laughed, “Mercury sulfide. Amber, is your dad going to let us play with that? It's poisonous.”
Amber pulled a dusty bottle from a shelf. “It was grandpa's. A Drachm is an old measure of weight. Look it up.”
Jennifer's fingers were the fastest on her phone. “3.8879346 grams.” She laughed, “It says that's three scruples.”
They laughed at that and a good time was had by all.
Jennifer's father arrived, all too soon, to pick up his daughter and take her home. While she was packing up her stuff, his cell buzzed. Bobby's soccer game would be late.
He asked her, “Mom and Bobby will be late. What would you like to do?”
Amber, hearing this, asked her parents, “Mom, Dad, could they stay for dinner?”
“Not this time sweetie lambkins, there's your brother's concert tonight. Charlie would be hurt if we weren't there.”
“He wouldn't miss me.”
“Yes, he would. You know that.”
Amber was crestfallen, but perked up when her parents said, “Tomorrow or the next day would work for us. What do you think?”
Jennifer's father replied, “I think either would work, but let me check with Emily. Make sure there's nothing I've forgotten. Jennifer will call.” He noticed her give an exasperated shrug, “Text you when we know.”
“Dad, you're so old fashioned. Nobody uses text messaging anymore.”
“Whatever, in any case, we should go.”
They said goodbye, and once they were in the car, he asked her, “Where now bunny rabbit, Bella Italia?”
He expected her to agree to their favorite pizza place. She surprised him by saying, “Could we stop by the Towers first? I'd like to say hello to Mrs. Jones.”
“Isn't she,” he paused, “dead?”
“No, we met her in the garden on the way here. It was a mix-up. There was another Mrs. Jones.”
“Good grief, she must have been upset that we didn't visit like we said we would. Thought we forgot about her immediately.”
He drove the car around the block and parked in one of the visitor spots. Then he and Jennifer checked into the building. There was a desk and guard at the front door who called up for Mrs. Jones.
After they signed in he said, “She's in room 420. Take the elevator to the floor and it's to the left.”
When the knocked on the door, Mrs. Jones answered. Her voice was beginning to reflect her frailty, but the greeting was unmistakable.
“Velcome, come in please.”
Jennifer's father began, “I'm so sorry, we thought-”
“Jennifer explained it to me this afternoon. These things happen.”
“Still, I'm sorry.”
“Vell, it's just as good that you're here. My grand-niece Gertrude is looking for a place to stay as an exchange student. She's about Jennifer's age.”
“Really? Jennifer, it might be fun to have a foreign student here. For how long and what do we have to do?”
“A year or so. Paid for, so all you have to do is sign the paperwork and my nephew, her vater will handle the rest, including the costs.”
Jennifer's father asked for to see it. Mrs. Jones handed him a thick sheaf of papers, some in German, but mostly in English. A yellowing black and white photograph of a teenage girl was stapled to the upper left corner. He sat down to read them.
Jennifer looked at the photograph from over her father's shoulder. “That's an old photograph. Don't they have color photos in Germany?”
Mrs. Jones chuckled, “They do, but it has to be black and white to fit the regulations. Great ones for regulations and order, these Germans.”
As her father read the papers, he asked, “Does she speak English? I had a little German in high school, but beyond 'wie geht es ihnen' and 'was ist los?' I'm lost.”
“Alles das night fest gebunden ist.”
“Everything that isn't tightly tied. You asked what's loose. Never said it was a good joke. She speaks English every bit as well as I do.”
After he finished reading, he turned to Jennifer and said, “It looks like these are in order, pumpkin. Would you like a German visitor for a friend?”
Jennifer shrugged and said, “Why not? It should be fun.”
Her father signed the paperwork exactly where Mrs. Jones said he should. When he handed it to her she smiled, chuckled darkly, and said, “Sehr gut.”
Jennifer asked, “I wonder if she'd like the pizza at Bella Italia?