Chemistry is a retelling of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, set in a modern high school and told from the perspective of Claude Frollo, the story’s antagonist.
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The drumbeat of Phoebus’ party still throbs in my ears as though I never left. It’s so loud I can’t hear anything else. The light from that full moon still glows through my eyelids, red like slow-burning coals. I can’t shut it out. So it doesn’t surprise me at all when I catch the sound of Peter’s voice and realize he’s been talking to me all this time, though I haven’t heard or even seen him. It’s all a jumble, whatever he’s saying, but I catch the word Esmeralda and I’m snapped out of my hellish daze.
I lift my head and blink. “What?”
“Claude, are you okay?”
I’ve been wallowing on the floor, so of course he would ask. “Just had a weird stomach cramp,” I say. “It’s better now. What were you saying?”
Peter shakes his head. He doesn’t believe me, but whatever he’s about to say takes precedence, so he gives me the benefit of the doubt. “Esmeralda is missing.”
Those three words are a flood; they wash me away. I never saw them coming, and I don’t know how to deal with them now that they’re here. “Don’t joke around, Peter.”
“I’m not joking. She and Djali have been gone three nights in a row.”
“Is that unusual?”
“Yes!” He’s overwrought. “She always comes home by midnight every night. I live with her, so I know. She wouldn’t just stay away like this. Djali needs routine or she starts to shed.”
I have no idea how to respond to this. In the first place, I’m horrified that Esmeralda is missing. In the second, I’m beginning to suspect Peter’s primary concern is for the goat. “Have you reported her missing?” I say.
“How can I?” He throws up his hands, dramatic as always. “Who am I to her?”
“Well, who’s taking care of her? Why haven’t they reported it?”
“I don’t think anyone takes care of her. She’s always been by herself. The truth is I kind of suspect she’s in the country illegally, but I don’t know. It’s never been a problem until now. Damn that Phoebus. I swear this is all his fault.”
I cock my head. “Phoebus?”
He leans in. “You know he was stabbed at that party.”
“Was he?” I hope my feigned ignorance is convincing.
“Jesus, Claude, where have you been?” Peter reaches down and helps me to my feet. “Everyone’s talking about it. He was stabbed in the back with Esmeralda’s knife. The whole school thinks she did it, and the fact that no one has seen her since only confirms their suspicions. But I’m telling you it wasn’t her. She’s not like that. She just isn’t. Someone’s done something to her, Claude. I heard some of the guys on the soccer team swearing revenge. They say Phoebus is paralyzed for life; he got hit in the spinal cord, and he’ll never play again. They say she’s not going to get away with it. I think they took her, but I have no idea what to do. I mean I haven’t got any evidence, have I?”
I can’t breathe any more. You know how in really campy films, one of the characters will realize he’s destroyed something precious, fall to his knees, and scream, “What have I done?” while pounding a fist into the ground? Yeah, I always laugh at that scene, too. But just now, I think I could do with a good, long, what-have-I-done moment. It would be far better than what I’m really feeling. It’s like my heart has stopped and every limb has fallen asleep. I’m afraid if I try to take a step, I might fall down. If I try to speak, I might scream. And if I blink, the tears gathering in the corners of my eyes will fall. Once the dam breaks…
“We have to do something.” I flinch when my voice cracks.
“I know,” Peter says. “But what? We don’t even know where they’ve taken her.”