This is a ranch-style bungalow with an attached garage and a white picket fence. A wisp of smoke rises from the chimney above the sleek, snow-covered roof and a shoveled driveway parts extensive lawns. A spiral wrought-iron sign sporting a commercial Santa cheerfully announces "The Smiths," but the piéce de résistance is the holly wreath hanging on the double oak doors. At this time of year, plastic holly with red glass baubles is de rigueur.
Let us take a closer look.
An oxygen molecule nears the wreath's crimson bow. This is a bonded pair of atoms who have been together as long as anyone can remember.
Do they approach the bungalow as a random act? Or are they Brownian-nosing, coming from a desire to keep up with the Joneses? Ox tells Jen she is in her nesting phase and can't help herself. Jen says she's always wanted a home with twin beds and wall-to-wall broadloom. Like teens drawn to a soda shop, Ox and Jen feel the pressure to move to suburbia.
Ox and Jen cross the red velvet ribbon. They've finally left their three-story walk-up behind.
They enter a dead air space on a holly berry and immediately run into old friends, who warm them up. In the vestibule they see other couples they know; nitrogen, mostly--generally quite civilized--and a few other bonded pairs of oxygen. A solitary argon, his nose in the air, sulks in a corner, refusing to mix with anyone.
Ox and Jen mingle.
They admire the décor. They have a martini. They chitchat.
A nitrogen couple glance contemptuously across the room. Ox and Jen follow their gaze. A big, black carbon is consorting with two simpering oxygen atoms. Jen has never gone in for interracial marriage or polygamy herself, but she would never be so rude as to stare and whisper.
The carbon dioxide make their way to another room. The nitrogen snicker.
Ox and Jen are dawdling over their drinks when they overhear a hush-hush conversation. A whisper of scandal.
"An oxygen free radical," the one nitrogen is saying. He is impeccable in his black suit and narrow tie. "In the next room."
"A free radical?" Shocking. Her string of pearls offsets her little black dress. "Political?"
"A home-wrecker. Seducing oxygens," he confides. "Breaking up bonded pairs."
She raises an eyebrow over her cocktail.
"Ménage-a-trois," he whispers. "Ozone."
"Here?" She turns to show off her configuration, just so. "I thought that sort of thing only happened downtown. In the industrial area."
"Or up in the stratosphere." He nibbles his olive and says with significance, "High flyers."
She agrees with a wistful sigh.
Ox is incensed. "Holier-than-thou," he says to Jen, perhaps a little too loud.
The nitrogen looks Ox up and down, then quickly hustles his partner away.
Jen is insulted by the insinuation that their kind is unstable. She makes an excuse to leave the vestibule for one of the interior rooms. It has dark woodwork and a wet bar. Ox orders a Photon Torpedo.
"It has nothing to do with us, Ox," Jen says. "We're a perfectly respectable bonded pair."
"There's nothing wrong with being social," Ox retorts, eyeing another nitrogen couple.
Jen shushes him. "Ox."
"We don't want the rumors to start up again."
"You know. Just bring your voice down a little."
"Rumors about what? About how explosive some couples can be when they split up?"
"Oxygen couples. You know how the nitrogen are."
"Hypocrites. Have they never heard of nitric acid?" Ox lifts his head. Hey, buddy!" he calls to the nearest couple. "What about ammonia?"
The nitrogen turn their backs and move away.
"Come on, Ox," Jen says. "Let's go deeper in, where it's warmer. You've always liked life in the fast lane." Ox embarrasses her in a crowd, but she can't leave him. A few too many Photons and he'll be saturated. How many times has she had to make excuses when he stops behaving like an ideal gas?
At this moment, the room chills. Everyone looks up. Where once towering pillars of frost separated windows open to the brilliant night sky, now a vast crystal of snow has landed like a gleaming, hexagonal space ship at port.
"Come on, Ox," Jen insists.
"Just a minute. Look."
"I see it," she says, tugging his elbow. "I'm getting cold. Let's go before we slow down so much we can't get out of here."
Jen's words come too late. In a gush, the crystal melts and the room is awash with sailors on leave: dihydrogen oxide--as bad as the carbon dioxide. Worse, they drink. Roving hydrogen ions, bold as brass, are on the town, looking for action, or a cute, unattached oxygen atom.
"Come on, Ox!" Jen is frightened. She's never seen molecules in this state, so closely packed and fluid. They are invaders from the outer limits of the atmosphere. Will they still obey the rules of her safe world?
"You go on without me," Ox says. He tosses back his drink and eyes a couple of hydrogen ions in the crowd.
"Hang around, then," he replies. "This could be fun."
One of the hydrogen ions, small but muscular, with a tattoo of an anchor on one shoulder, barges between Ox and Jen. "Hey, sweetie, can I make you a drink?" he says to Ox.
Jen can see that Ox feels the pull of his charm.
"Ox!" Jen cries. Hydrogen are jet setters and they're not often single. When the second ion slips onto the bar stool next to Ox, Jen feels the structure of her whole world tumble to pieces around her. "Ox, what are you doing?"
"Come on, babe." One of the hydrogen ions turns to her. "How about a little peroxide? Blondes have more fun."
She slaps him for his impertinence.
"Come on, honey," Ox says as he allows the sailors to pull him away. "Give it a try. Why fight destiny?"
"It isn't destiny, Ox. You have a choice--"
"Do I, Jen?"
"I may think I do, but--Jen--if an atom as insignificant as me has free will," Ox calls over his shoulder, "what are the implications for the universe?"
"I don't care," she cries. "Stay with me!" But it is too late. Ox has changed. Jen sees with a sinking heart that Ox and his two new lovers have found their own solution.
But what about Jen? All the fear and shame and embarrassment of suddenly being alone at this stage in her life explode inside of her. She lashes out in fury at the injustices of fate.
"Ox is gone!" she cries. "He's gone!" Impulsively, she wreaks vengeance on any atom unwise enough to find itself close by. Then with a moan, she collapses into a heap of disheveled self-pity, a mere shell of her former self.
The nitrogen snicker.
"You're better off, you know." A solitary voice filters into her consciousness.
She lifts her head and sees an entity swathed in a halogen glow. It is Argon, transformed by the energy of her outburst into a being of heavenly radiance. He is the only one to stand beside her, the only one who hasn't fled her wrath.
Jen dries her eyes. It's true. She feels different. Lighter, more energetic.
"Ox was a boor. You really are better off without him." The old argon nods sagely.
"You're right," she realizes. "Why didn't I leave him sooner? What was I afraid of?" She's a free radical now, and she feels her own power.
"Of course! Ox was wrong. You can be anything you want."
"Why not? Join old moneybags over there. He's unattached."
"Certainly. Or, go into the antique business. Iron atoms are prolific," he says.
"Marry outside my race?"
"I have it on good authority that several carbons, oxygens and hydrogens are organizing a commune. You could go organic."
Jen nods her head slowly, thinking of the possibilities. And the politics. "I could be an oxide with almost anyone."
"That's the thinking! You have the choice, Jen. Take it."
The nitrogen snicker.
"Free will," she muses.
"Yes, Jen. Free will."
Then Jen smiles. She knows what to do. With her explosive power, she gets exactly the reaction she wants.
Let's see who has the last laugh.
This story originally appeared in On Spec Magazine.
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