Chapter 5

Petra the housekeeper swept through the cluttered kitchen of 107 Crotchett Street with a half-empty pot of oatmeal.

“You vex me,” she huffed. “You children and your fake food.”

“Koo-Bars aren’t fake food,” argued Gordy who, as far as Petra was concerned, had eaten an intolerably small helping of oatmeal. “Here, try it!” He broke a corner off his bar and offered it to Petra who turned up her nose.

“Who cooked that?” she said. “Nobody cooked that! A machine cooked that!”

Bea gave Petra a sympathetic shrug, finished her own oatmeal, and walked into the living room. Michael-Dan, perched on the back of the sofa to give him a height boost, hovered busily over Kitty’s hair with barber shears, making carefully calculated snips as glossy black tresses, some a foot long, fell to the floor.

“I can’t believe you have any hair left,” said Bea. She fingered Kitty’s remaining hair which, even after such a drastic clipping, still fell to mid-back.

“It was dangling in the petri dishes in microbiology,” explained Kitty. “Contaminating the specimens. I had to get rid of some.” She peeled more wrapper away from the koo-bar she was holding and took a bite.

“You should stop eating that stuff,” said Bea.

“Pheomelanin!” exclaimed Nola, slamming a book shut.

“Excuse me?” said Bea.

Nola reopened the book, flipped a few pages, and jabbed repeatedly at a term in the glossary. “Pheomelanin,” she said, “is the pigment that makes red hair red, and Gordy’s getting more of it every day!”

“Gordy! Quit the koo-bars!” demanded Bea.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Gordy, feeling his hair as if that would help him gauge its redness. “Food doesn’t change your hair color…and besides, what’s wrong with red hair anyway?”

“This is nuts,” said Bea. She scooped a wad of Kitty’s hair off the floor and glared accusingly at it. “You guys are totally addicted, and there is something very wrong with this picture.” She threw the hair on the floor and stormed out of the living room.

“One quadratic equation!” said Odin, looking up from his computer as Bea stomped across the marble floor in the front hall. “Surely you have time for one!”

“Odin, I’ve got bigger fish to fry,” stated Bea without pausing in her dogged trek for the front door.

“Hang on,” Odin said. He shoved the laptop into his backpack and stood up. “I’ve got a Chaos and Fractals seminar. I’ll come with you.”

Bea continued to march single-mindedly down the front steps and nearly collided with Bob the fruit-cart pony.

“Have an apple Bea?” offered Bill, offering her a choice rosy-red orb from his fresh bounty. “Odin?”

Odin happily accepted, but Bea replied “No thanks,” and paused briefly to run her hand across Bob’s back and his now-fluffy extra protrusions. “I…what the heck?”

Bea stopped short and stared at the bump on Bob’s back where her fingers were still entwined in a fresh, soft tuft of what looked for all the world to be feathers.

“Doesn’t seem to be bothering ‘im,” said Bill, almost apologetically.

“Well at least that’s good,” replied Bea giving the feathers a ruffle. “But seriously…I’ve gotta go talk to Hort. Now.” And, at a break in the traffic, she ran across the street to the Mervin Frostly science building, with Odin on her heels.

Bea and Odin threaded their way through a lobby full of chattering students.

“Bea,” called Odin from behind, “Hang on there a sec’—you’ve got fuzz on you.”

Bea turned as Odin plucked something from her jacket. He was inquisitively eyeing a bit of yellow fluff that he had pinched between his fingers.

“Let me see that!” she said, just as a boisterous cluster of students suddenly shifted behind Odin, causing him to lose his grip on the fluff, and his backpack, which hit the floor with a whomph.

“Dang!” said Odin, diving for the backpack, while Bea lunged for the yellow fluff, which was now drifting toward the indoor garden.

“It is a koohoo seed!” said Bea, snagging the fluff out of the air and holding it close for inspection.

Odin, meanwhile, had unzipped his pack and removed the laptop, which he was now gingerly opening on the ledge of the indoor garden.

“I have a touchy hard drive,” he said, as he punched several keys to test that no damage had been done.

“Cripes…I forgot to save that file. It better not have crashed.”

Odin entered a couple of clicks on his track pad and The Beatrix Flannery Reel played jauntily from the computer.

“Thank goodness for auto-save,” sighed Odin, slumping a bit in relief.

“Nice tune,” said a bearded student in an army jacket. “I like it. But dude…that plant’s totally…like, engulfing your laptop.”

“Odin!” cried Bea. “It’s koohoo!”

Several tendrils bearing fresh green heart-shaped leaves hovered in spirals around the raised screen of Odin’s computer, and another was creeping over the top. Odin snatched away his computer, which was still playing merrily. Bea grabbed the dancing tendrils of koohoo and pushed the surrounding philodendron leaves out of the way to see if she had it all before pulling it out of the planter, roots and all.

“Who planted that there?” demanded Odin, casting a suspicious eye at the garden while clutching his laptop protectively. “Someone needs a better grasp of symbiosis.”

“No one planted it,” Bea replied. “It planted itself. Look—I’ll see you later…I have to take this to Hort.”

She ran up the stairs and entered the lab to see Hortensia staring intently at several strips of white paper striped randomly—at least it looked random to Bea—with smears of green, brown, and yellow.

“Tie-dyed bookmarks?” asked Bea.

“Chromatography,” Hort corrected her. “See how each color stops at a certain point? Each one of those represents an analyte in koo-bars.”

“Analytes,” repeated Bea. She shifted the rogue koohoo plant to her left hand, and with her right held one of the strips up to the light of the window. “And this tells us exactly what?”

“Well,” replied Hortensia, “it tells us several things. One—that koo-bars contain most of the same worthless dreck they put in other processed junk foods, and two—that it turns out there really is koohoo extract in the things.”

“So,” said Bea, “Kitty, and Gordy, and Bob the pony…they really are eating…this?” She stuck the plant in front of Hortensia’s face as if it were a bouquet. “Like this batch that I just pulled out of the garden downstairs?”

“It got out!” exclaimed Hortensia, taking the plant from Bea’s hand. “There must have been more parachute seeds!”

“There were,” replied Bea. She pulled the seed-bearing yellow fluff from downstairs out of her pocket. “Here’s another one.”

Hortensia took the parachute seed and sealed it in a plastic bag. “Well,” she said. “They’re in an isolated terrarium now. Let’s hope we found all the escapees. And as for this guy,” she continued, tucking the wayward batch of koohoo into a vacant pot of soil, “it won’t be feeding the mice. They’re officially out of the study.”

“Why?” asked Bea.

“Let me show you,” said Hortensia. She approached a large terrarium on the counter next to a window, and Bea followed. “The results have been, to say the least, disturbing.”

At first Bea saw nothing but a glass enclosure full of mice acting mousy—standing on their hind legs to sniff for food, climbing over each other to nab the choicest spot in the nest, and stretching and flexing strange miniature…wings. Not all, but several of the mice now sported these very unmouselike appendages.

Hortensia lifted the wire lid off the terrarium and reached in to pluck out a rodent—one with unnatural shoulder nubs—from the exercise wheel. As she did so, a neighboring mouse suddenly unfurled a full six-inch spread of bat-like soaring apparatus and, with wobbly uncertainty, rose into the air above the mouse container.

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