Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in over two-hundred online and print publications. His short story “Aliens” has been nominated by The Zodiac Press for the 2021 Pushcart Prize. His collection of short stories Resilience is scheduled to be published in early 2021 by Bridge House Publishing and Short Stuff a collection of his flash fiction and drabbles will be published by Chapeltown books in 2021. In addition, Something Better, a dystopian adventure, will be published by Paper Djinn Press in early 2021. All of his stories can be found on his blog: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.
Rare Earth Metals
Alex’s mother knocked on the door for a good minute with no response from her son.
Trying not to let her temper get the better of her, she said, “Alex, we need to touch base. Please open up.”
She could hear him tap, tap, taping on the keyboard of his school issued iPad. Another minute passed. Finally, she’d had enough and pounded loudly on the wall next to the door. “Alex!”
From the other side came a muted, “Okay,” followed by a distracted, “Come on in.”
Melinda ‘Mel’ Jacobs opened the door and looked inside.
Her sixteen-year-old son was hunched over his desk working feverishly on his iPad. “What are you up to?” she asked.
Alex barely missed a beat with his typing. “Homework, Mom. For Mr. Jordan.”
Mel felt a happy clutch in her throat at seeing him so engaged in his schoolwork. She was so proud him! He loved school and learning, but he also needed his privacy to concentrate, as he had been born with a tendency toward attention deficit syndrome. Hence his ‘room’, which was the closet next to the front door of the apartment Mel had lived in with Alex and his two younger sisters for the last year, ever since her husband and the kids’ father had gone out for cigarettes and never came back.
“What are you working on?”
Alex stopped typing and looked up. He was small for his age, and thin. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and had sandy hair that he kept trimmed like the mid-sixties Beatles. “I’m working on a report, Mom,” he said, sitting back and stretching. “For an end of the school year project. Mr. Jordan wants us to do a science report and give a speech on it next week. I’m doing mine on the lanthanides.”
“Really?” Mel said. “Sounds interesting.” She had no clue what her son was talking about, but liked to see him so engaged in his work.
“They really are interesting, Mom. Lanthanides used to be called rare earth metals because back in the nineteenth century, when they were first discovered, it was thought they’d be hard to find. But it turned out not to be the case. They’re not real common, but they aren’t all that rare either.” He shrugged his thin shoulders. “That’s the way it is with science, some things stay the same, and sometimes something new pops up. That’s kind of why I like it.”
It was the most Mel had heard her son talk in days, and she wanted to encourage him. “Sounds like an interesting report.” Science was never her strong suit, but she loved that her son had such an enthusiastic interest. She decided to joke with him. “But what are these rare earth metals? They sound like a heavy metal band from the ‘80s.”
Alex scrunched up his face in a pained expression. “No, Mom, it’s not like Metallica or anything like that.”
Inwardly, she smiled at his reaction. It showed that at least he was in a talkative mood. Sometimes he’d clam up and wouldn’t say anything all day long expect for the bare necessities like, “Yes” and “No” and “Maybe.”
Mel leaned against the doorjamb and made herself not reach for a cigarette. She was thirty-three years old, heavy set with short cropped brown hair, a splotchy complexion and large eyes that never seemed to blink. Even though she had a short temper, especially if anyone tried to mess with her kids, she also had a quick smile, which her children were seeing more and more of now that their father was no longer around. The only thing she’d heard from him was a quick text a day after he left telling her to Don’t hold your breath, B****, I’m never coming back. Good riddance.
Well, Good riddance to you, too, jerk face, she’d texted back.
And that was that: no more worrying about his drinking, womanizing and occasional physical abuse. Who needed it? Well, certainly not her. Even though the apartment she’d found for her and the kids to live in was small, it was close enough to her job with Kylie’s Cleaners that she could take a bus to work. They didn’t have a lot of extra money, but they had enough. Plus, the kids were doing good, that was the main thing. She hadn’t been this happy in years.
So, instead of reaching for a cigarette, she fished out two cellophane wrapped peppermints from the pocket of her jeans and extended her hand. “Want one?”
Alex took one of the mints. “Thanks, Mom.” He peeled the wrapper and popped it in his mouth, his eyes already shifting from his mother’s face back to the iPad.
Mel smiled, proud of her son. At her age…well, let’s just say that with hanging out at the mall with her girlfriends and checking out the guys who worked there, schoolwork was the last thing on her mind. “So, tell me about this rare earth metal band of yours,” she said, grinning.
“Mom! I told you!” He raised his voice, starting to get upset before catching himself. He paused and grinned. “Oh, yeah. A joke.” He smiled. “Funny, Mom.” But he meant it, Mel could tell. He was a good kid. Different, maybe, but a good kid nevertheless.
She sucked on her mint, “So tell me about those langandoodles or whatever they’re called.”
“Lanthanides, Mom,” he said, correcting her.
“Lan-than-ides,” Mel said, slowly pronouncing each syllable carefully, letting her son know she was interested. “What are they, anyway?”
Alex sat up straight and thought to himself, This will be good practice. After all he was going to be giving his speech next week in chemistry class. The timing couldn’t be better. He stood up from his desk, turned to his mom and said, “Okay, here goes…”
Mel held up her hand. “Wait.” She hurried across the living room to the tiny kitchen, grabbed a chair, brought it back and sat down. “Might as well be comfortable,” she said, smiling at him. “Okay, fire away, professor.”
Alex rolled his eyes and turned so he was facing the back of the closet. After Mel and the kids moved in, the closet had been used like it was supposed to be: to hang outdoor clothes and to store things like Christmas decorations. But after the school year started and Alex had shown such a remarkable interest in science, Mel suggested that they clear out the space for him to use to study. Alex loved the idea.
“Mom, this is the best room ever,” he’d said after they had cleaned out the eight-foot by four-foot area and put in a small table, chair and a desk lamp. He’d decorated the back wall with a big poster of the periodic table of elements, and was happy as could be to go into his ‘study space’ as he called it: a place where he could close the folding doors and have some privacy. In Mel’s mind it wasn’t much; however, to Alex it was just what he needed. “Thank you so much,” he’d told her back then. “I love it!” It’s something he’s told her many times since.
After staring at the back wall and the periodic table for a few moments, Alex turned around with a serious look on his face and said, “Okay, let’s begin today’s lesson. The lanthanides comprise elements number 57 through 70 on the periodic table. I’m going to talk about the first half, starting with lanthanum, number 57, and going through 63, europium. The others in the group are cerium, number 58, praseodymium, number 59, neodymium, number 60, promethium, number 61, and samarium, number 62…”
Mel held up her hand, “What does the number mean again?”
She noticed that Alex started to roll his eyes and then caught himself and stopped. She could tell he was loving pretending he was teaching her. His chemistry teacher in high school, Mr. Jordan, was a young, first year substitute who had taken over for the previous teacher who had left just before Christmas for medical reasons. Alex loved Mr. Jordan and talked often about one day becoming a teacher himself.
“That’s a very good question,” Alex said, causing Mel to smile. “And I’ll tell you what it means. It stands for the number of protons of the element.”
“Yes, young lady,” Alex said, getting into his role. “Protons are subatomic particles that are positively charged. Electrons are negatively charged and neutrons are, well, neutral. You should have remembered that from a previous lesson.”
Mel hung her head, playing along. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay, with chemistry there’s a lot to remember,” Alex said, standing tall now in the little closet and completely in the role of being a teacher. “The atomic number is the number of protons the atom has.” He looked at Mel. “The more protons, the heavier it is. Do you remember, now?”
She smiled. “Yes, teacher.”
Alex cracked up and started laughing so hard he nearly choked. “Okay,” he said, after he recovered. “Let get back to the lesson.” He peered out over Mel’s head into the small living room and kitchen beyond, pretending he was looked at a classroom full of students. “So, the lanthanides are referred to as rare earth metals. What exactly do I mean when I use that term: rare earth metal?” He looked at Mel. “How about you, young lady. Do you know the answer?”
At that very moment, Alex’s two sisters, seven-year-old Callie and six-year-old Caitlin, ran up from playing in their bedroom and joined them.
“What’s going on?” Callie asked.
“Yeah, what’s the laughing all about?” Caitlin wanted to know.
“Shh,” Mel said, putting her finger to her lips. “Your brother’s teaching me chemistry and about rare earth metals.”
The two sisters looked at each other, opened their eyes wide and yelled “Boring!” Then they ran laughing hysterically back to their room.
Mel watched them scamper off, then turned to Alex. “To answer your question, I don’t know anything about rare earth metals. What are they used for?”
“My, but you are inquisitive today.” He grinned. “And that’s another very good question.” Alex clasped his hand behind him in a scholarly manner and paced a little back and forth in the closet’s small space. “Let’s delve into that, shall we?”
“Yes, let’s,” Mel said, pretending she was taking notes. “Tell me more.”
“Well, primarily the lanthanides are metallic chemical elements. All of them, other than promethium, are nonradioactive. At the time of their discovery in the mid nineteenth century, they were thought to be hard to find, so the term ‘rare earth metals’ was coined to describe them. However, over the years since their discovery, it was found that they were not as hard to find as previously thought. In 1925 a Norwegian mineralogist named Victor Goldschmidt introduced the term “lanthanide”. The scientific community agreed that it was a more appropriate name and ‘rare earth’ was dropped from the description of those elements and replaced by lanthanides.”
Mel mimed taking notes. “Fascinating,” she said, and it was, especially that her son knew so much about chemistry. “Tell me more. Like…how are they used?”
“Very good question,” Alex smiled. “Let’s take them one by one.” He turned to the back wall of the closet and pretended he was writing on a chalk board. “First let’s talk about lanthanum, number fifty-seven.”
“When was it discovered?” Mel asked, peeling another peppermint. She had to admit it was interesting. She had no idea her son knew so much.
“It was discovered in 1838 by the Swedish chemist Carl Gustaf Mosander.” Alex looked at his mom (his student) and continued, “Most of the lanthanides were discovered while a chemist was looking at another element, like in this case. Moslander was looking at cerium nitrate when he discovered lanthanum.”
“Synthesizing or making cerium nitrate.”
“It’s a little complicated, but the point is that a new element was discovered based on its atomic structure.” He looked at her. “Remember in an earlier lesson when we talked about the electrons in the outer shell?”
“Not really, but I’ll take your word for it.” Mel laughed.
So did, Alex. “Okay, good. Anyway, lanthanum is used in nickel-metal hydride batteries for electric cars and in vacuum tubes. It very expensive to extract, but it’s a valuable element and serves a useful purpose.”
“Interesting,” Mel said. It was interesting, even though it was kind of confusing, but chemistry was a foreign land for her. However, Alex seemed very comfortable with it. That was the main thing.
“Okay,” Alex said. “Let’s look at some of the other lanthanides.” He turned to the wall and pretended he was writing, unaware that his sisters had snuck out of their bedroom and were now sitting on the floor next to their mother and watching. If Alex noticed, he didn’t give an indication. “Hopefully, I wouldn’t bore you with the details.” He grinned. “Number fifty-eight, cerium, was discovered by two Swedish chemists in 1803 and is used in glass polishing and catalytic converters. Number fifty-nine, praseodymium, was discovered in 1885 by an Austrian chemist and is used in fiber optics. Number sixty, neodymium, is used to make high power magnets. Number sixty-one, promethium, is used for research purposes in luminous paint, guided missiles and other applications. Number sixty-two, samarium, is used in specialized glass and ceramic applications, and, number sixty-three, europium, is used in control rods in nuclear reactors and making thin super-conducting alloys.”
“Wow, that’s a lot,” Mel said.
“Yes.” Alex nodded in agreement. “Most people take any of the chemical elements found on the periodic table for granted, but they are very important to us. I consider them the building blocks of life. And lanthanides, the rare earth metals, to me, are just plain interesting.”
Alex looked at his mom and then noticed his two sisters. He smiled and gave them a little fluttery wave with his fingers to acknowledge their presence. Mel could tell that her son was ‘in the zone’ as they say. He really did think he was teaching a class.
His sisters broke the mood by standing up and running back to their bedroom yelling, “Boring, boring, boring.”
Alex watched them leave and turned to his mom. “I didn’t even know they were there.”
Mel smiled. “They’ve been here for a while.” She was quiet a moment and then said, “You know, son, you did a really good job teaching me about those rare earth metals. Those lanthanides.”
Alex sat down on his chair and pick up his iPad. “Really, mom? You think so?”
“I do,” she said. And she meant it. “When to you have to give your talk?”
“Today’s Thursday, so next Tuesday. Five days from now.”
“Well, it soundeda really good to me.”
“You make sure you let me know how it goes next week, okay?”
“I will, Mom. Thanks, again.” He paused for a moment and then did something Mel couldn’t remember him ever doing before. He stepped forward and hugged her.
Of all the thoughts that went through her mind as she hugged him back, the one that leaped to the front was this: after all Alex had gone through in his young life, from having to live in an abusive household, to having his father leave and then having to move to a small apartment and having a study room in a closet, all in all, he seemed to be doing okay.
Thank goodness for his science teacher at school, Mel thought as she hugged her son tightly. And, especially, thank goodness for chemistry.