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Excerpt from The Most Precious Substance on Earth by Shashi Bhat, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Most Precious Substance on Earth

by Shashi Bhat

The Most Precious Substance on Earth by Shashi Bhat X
The Most Precious Substance on Earth by Shashi Bhat
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2022, 272 pages

    Paperback:
    Jun 2023, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Ahima
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The problem with these fantasies is that I never actually get past the reading part, so I don't know what I'm supposed to describe to Ronald. To diffuse the situation, I type the letters LOL.

What's so funny? Ronald asks.

I try to think of something provocative to ask him. I write, How old were you when you lost your virginity?

There's a long pause before he responds, Haven't we had this conversation before? Which doesn't make sense because Ronald and I have certainly never had this conversation before, or even this kind of conversation. Our imaginary dates have remained pretty tame and educational, what with my Encarta facts. It occurs to me that I am not the only teenager Ronald talks to on the internet.

He starts typing long strings of barely legible text filled with a shocking number of typos. It's sort of sickening, and I feel a cloud mushrooming under my ribcage as I realize he's describing all the things he's going to do to me, except I don't understand most of the terms. I open up a separate window to look them up on Urban Dictionary.

He begs for a response. I'm thinking of his pictures and how he could be a guy that works at my dad's office. My dad could be right there in an adjacent cubicle, entering formulas into his computer with the Lord Ganesha desktop wallpaper, working overtime for the money to send his daughter to medical school. I haven't yet told him that I plan to get an English degree and specialize in pre-1800 literature.

Ronald's words grow more garbled. He's employed the F-word at least four times. Then there's a pause. He must be waiting for me to say something. I consider the keyboard and then type the letter m repeatedly so it seems as though I'm moaning, and I follow it with exactly seven exclamation points.

You are so beautiful, Ronald types, though he spells beautiful wrong. I assume he's looking at my pictures. He says, Are you still having a terrible day? Let me come over and comfort you.

Through the library door, I see Amy and her boyfriend in the hallway. They are facing each other, hunched over sideways as they peel the floor together, in a long, unbroken strip. They move slowly, focused on the ribbon of varnish that passes through their collaborating hands and curls and trails behind them.

It's possible that Ronald is talking to four different girls right now, four different fourteen-year-olds typing covertly in their high school libraries before catching the bus home. One by one they must sign off, until he's left with a single girl who ... does what? Answers the phone and talks to him? Invites him home?

Okay, I type to Ronald, I can be home in fifteen minutes. I give him my address to enter into MapQuest.

I can't wait to see you, he types. I don't let myself think about what he means by the word see.

As I leave the library, I spot Amy and the boyfriend turning the corner at the end of the hall. I head in the other direction, toward my locker. On the way, I notice the door of the English office is partway open.

When I knock on the door, Mr. Mackenzie tells me to come inside. I shut the door behind me and begin speaking without making eye contact. I count the posters of authors that line the top third of the room's walls.

"I just wanted to apologize for class today," I say to him. He's wearing one of his blue shirts and standing, half resting on the desk. The other English teachers have all left. I realize I've never been alone in a room with Mr. M.

"That's all right," he says in his infinitely understanding way. "You've just got to stop being distracted in class. I know you love this stuff."

My backpack almost drops from my shoulders when I hear him use the word love. I walk up to him and say, "I do love this stuff. I love books. I'm even trying to get through Beowulf, though I admit it's going a little slowly ..."

This is the full text of the first chapter of The Most Precious Substance on Earth by Shashi Bhat. Copyright © 2022 by Shashi Bhat. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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