A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

Ophelia Higgenbottom's First Brief Foray into Explosions
by Joan Conley (Nov 2012)

The little girl was at her desk writing,“Princess Amenia was nine years old. She lived in an ugly old castle with a very old and boring king, and a very old and boring queen. The only time that Princess Amenia was not bored was when she was forced to take the horrible smelly bus carriage into the town to go to school. When she was in school, the evil village children taunted her and took her lunch. Her teacher did not even care.” The little girl put down the pencil. She got up and wandered around her room. She was very unhappy.

That was what her adopted mother always asked, “Ophelia are you unhappy?”

I hate my life, she thought. I am nine years old, and I don’t have any friends, and nobody ever asks me for a sleep-over, and I live in a smelly old house with smelly old parents who don’t even love me.

She threw herself backwards onto the bed. It wasn’t even a kid’s bed. It was a full size bed with a grandma bedspread, and one decorative teddy bear at the head that she wasn’t allowed to play with because it was a collector’s item. The furniture was heavy and dark. There were no bright posters of non-threatening boy singers, or cartoons, and there was very little pink or blue or color of any kind besides beige and white. All of her toys were “educational.” She was not allowed to have a Barbie doll because her parents said that such toys led young females to have “un-re-al-is-tic” views of their bodies.

“Do they think that I’ll begin to feel plastic and suddenly grow humongous breasts?” She flopped over, her arms limp and useless by her sides. Her parents believed in always using the correct scientific terms for everything which was absolutely mortifying. She felt terrible and she tried to force a cry, but it was no use; she could not conjure tears. She was however clean, well fed on the best grade of foodstuffs, and she was never punished. When she was very young she remembered having a two day screaming fit where she tore around the house smashing and destroying things. She threw priceless vases (vah-zez) to the ground, and tore pages out of a four hundred year old volume of mathematics that was irreplaceable, but she was not punished. Eventually she was exhausted and finally threw herself onto the floor in a sobbing heap, falling asleep in ever diminishing sobs. When she awoke her mother said, “We are having liver in onions for dinner. The liver will replace the nutrients that you have expended.” The little girl considered. Maybe that was her punishment. “Hunh.”

She breathed heavily and pulled herself up from her bed, arms still limp like one rising from the dead. She let her body slide off of the side of the bed until her feet hit the floor. Then she slumped to the door. The knob would not turn for her limp arms so she tried to use her foot and fell over. Defeated again. “Nothing goes right for me,” she tried to sob, but again she couldn’t get any tears to flow. “Poo.” She had heard the word at school. She had used it once in front of her parents and there had been talk of home schooling, so she had never used it again in their presence. Now lying on her back with useless arms, she gave in and tossing her head back and forth said it over and over again, her face scrunched in emotion. No one came to check on her as it was assumed that she was, “expressing her own ends in a productive manner.” There was not a single person to pull her onto a sturdy lap and give her a comforting hug. Poor little girl.

She was hungry, so she tried to open the door with her feet as she was lying with useless arms on her back like an upper body zombie.

“Useless arms, useless arms” she intoned as she attempted to grip the door knob between her tennis shoes and turn it. The knob was high enough that the girl was stretched up to it by supporting herself on her shoulders. Suddenly, the door swung open and the girl was flipped over backwards with her knee coming down hard on the corner of the heavy old night stand.

“I came to tell you that dinner will be ready in approximately five minutes depending on how quickly the bread browns,” her mother frowned.

The little girl looked up from the floor, eyes huge, biting her bottom lip.

“Are you in need of assistance?” the woman politely enquired.

The little girl shook her head in the negative, eyes watering.

“Very well,” the woman turned to go but stopped to look back over her shoulder somewhat suspiciously.

“Are you sure?” She seemed uncharacteristically concerned.

The little girl tried to smile with her lips still pressed tightly together which contorted her face dramatically, and nodded in the affirmative.

The woman raised an eyebrow and was gone.

The little girl let all her air out in one, “Owwwwwwwwwwwww,” and grabbing her knee she rolled around on the bedroom floor muttering, “Poo, poo, ppppooooo, oh, pooh!” She limped over to the mirror on her desk, still no tears. “What does it take?!” she asked herself exasperatedly. 


After a nutritionally complete dinner of steamed chicken breast—no skin, steamed cauliflower—no butter, and warm artisanal sour dough hard rolls; the little girl’s father made an announcement to her. My wife seems to believe that you are uncomfortable because you are bored in some sort of juvenile fashion, and so I have brought you a junior chemistry set which I am told will bring you hours of enjoyment.” He rose from the table and brought back a large box which contained the words, “Deluxe Kit” and “Over 500 different experiments,” and showed two children in lab coats pouring something from test tubes into a smoking beaker.

“Useful hands make use people,” her mother stated for the thousandth time.      

The little girl wanted to slam her head down on the table but instead she said, “Oh, thank-you.”

They could have bought the Malibu dream house, and the pink Porsche, and a plastic palomino with combable hair for what they spent on yet another educational toy. To top it off, her father was fairly exasperated about bringing the huge box up the ancient stairs instead of going to his after dinner reading chair, but the little girl could hardly be reasonably expected to lift it, and it most certainly could not stay on the dining room table. He manifested his exasperation by looking at the den and looking at the little girl and sighing. He eventually placed in on her bedroom floor coming no further into the room than absolutely necessary. It had been the Professor’s idea to adopt a child for ethical reasons, but it was not his idea to retain her.

The little girl waited in her room with the huge box on the floor until she heard the classical music station being switched on downstairs, then she jumped up and down on the box trying to smash it. She succeeded only in denting one side. She threw herself over it and lay with useless arms and her forehead on the rug. Eventually, from her upside down perspective, she read something on the side of the box that looked like, “make blue smoke” and thought perhaps that blue smoke might make it look as though something were on fire and then her parents would be alarmed and she would casually mock them for their panic. That might be fun.

Twenty minutes later she threw her small staple remover out of her window because it had failed to remove a single large box staple to allow her access. She kicked the box with all her might but only succeeded in lifting it a little. It came up a bit on one side, enough for her to see the piece of packing tape holding the side closed.

 “Oh! Somebody could have told me,” she groused.

Her scissors were in the desk and soon with a little struggle she got the lid off. She looked at all the beakers and test tubes and the section with glass bottles filled with various chemicals, pieces of rock, and butterfly wings. She pulled out the booklet to look for the blue smoke experiment and was producing a tolerable puff in about half an hour. Then she looked over the other items and played with the microscope and slides for a while. The downstairs clock chimed eight before she knew it. She hurried to put everything away before her mother came up to read to her. They were on The Epic of Gilgamesh which was far less boring then the papers on ethics that her father insisted on. Her mother was a classicist and read the Iliad and the Odyssey, but in the original Greek. Luckily, her mother had only a passing understanding of ancient Akkadian so the current story had to be read in English, which made it almost understandable. The girl changed quickly into her pajamas and climbed into bed. When her mother came to read, she asked the little girl if she had brushed her teeth.

“Yes.” The girl lied. Then she asked, “Can I..,” saw her mother’s raised eyebrow and winced. “May I take some of my chemistry set to show at school tomorrow?”

Her mother adjusted her reading glasses and opened the slim book, “It is yours to do with as you wish.”

She began to read, but the little girl was already making plans.

The next day at school she approached her teacher with an idea for the science portion of class. Her teacher, harried with the inclusion of seven other students for reading time, agreed absentmindedly. For the first time in the little girl’s life everything seemed to be going right. She had prepared what she would say over and over again on the school bus. She knew exactly how she would introduce the experiment to the class, how she would carefully measure the chemicals, how she would slowly pour them into the beaker, and how the blue smoke would rise slowly and beautifully from the table. It would be perfect.

Finally after reading time and a spelling test, and math time and a mixed addition and subtraction quiz, the teacher placed a small table next to her desk and motioned the little girl to come up. The little girl brought her backpack to the front of the classroom and began to set up. The other children talked at their desks or finished homework so that they could go to recess. One boy in the quiet corner broke a box of crayons into very small pieces. The teacher from the next room poked her head in the door looking for a spare copy of the teacher’s edition of the science text book.

“What’s going on?” She asked.

“One of my students is going to give the class a scientific demonstration. Why don’t you bring your class over?”

“Great. This oughta’ kill a few minutes.” The two teachers laughed.

The little girl swallowed. No backing out now. The other teacher brought her class in and all the desks were pushed back so the children could sit on the floor. The boy from the corner was brought to the front so that the teacher could keep an eye on him.

The teachers took their positions standing to one side so that they could chat about PTA night. Finally, the little girl was ready. She took a deep breath. She began explaining, as the teachers shushed the class, that she was going to do an experiment about mixing chemicals. She showed the beaker and the three chemicals that she would be using. She explained how they must be measured very carefully and added very slowly. Two boys in the front row were ignoring her as they punched and slapped each other until the teachers broke them up and threatened to move them to the back. Finally, she had all the chemicals but one poured into the beaker. She was going to add the final ingredient to the beaker, but her measuring spoon had gone missing. She glared at Broken Crayon Boy who was holding his fist closed and smiling nastily at her. She grit her teeth together.

“I can do the last one without measuring,” she thought.

She placed the little bottle of chemicals carefully against the lip of the beaker. She was about to gently tap a careful couple of milligrams into the beaker when the table was pushed into her and she dumped half the bottle into the beaker. She had five seconds for her eyes to get wide and to look at Crayon Boy before a loud “WHOOMF” and an explosion of blue smoke poured thickly from the beaker. Tears began to well up in the little girl’s eyes at the unfairness of it all until the stunned silence in the room turned into screams of amazement from the other children. Many were so excited that they jumped up and continued jumping up and down screaming and laughing. The next door teacher looked at the little girl’s teacher.

“Well! That was exciting. What’s this girl’s name?”

“Ophelia Higgenbottom,” the dazed teacher replied.

“My class all stand please,” the visiting teacher yelled. “Let’s all say thank-you to Ophelia for such an exciting and interesting science demonstration.”

“THANK-YOU OH-FEEL-EE-AH!” The classes screamed.

It was impossible for the students to calm down enough to focus on classwork for the rest of the day, so the teachers ended up agreeing to spelling test kickball. Ophelia’s spelling was always above grade level so the team she was on won. Some girl from the other class gave her a Ding-Dong saved from lunch, and a boy on the bus shared his hot Cheetos with her. She ate them even though she thought they tasted awful, and a new feeling came over her. She was really happy.

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Revised November 2012.