Catalyst

28 December 2020

Rachel Wong

The leaves were stubborn, adamantly holding onto the trees from which they’d sprouted. Even after their colors shifted from jade to amber to gold, they resisted the icy wind that came soaring up the Hudson Valley and through the wide streets of Ronan, New York. They rustled in waves throughout the town, from the old Pioneer Bridge that hadn’t seen upkeep for decades and connected the farmland to the town proper, through Main Street and over the dying grass of the SUNY campus at the edge of the mountain that overlooked the sharp cliffs from the other side of the valley.
The college students and locals alike bustled through the hilly streets to their cars. Jackets had gotten thicker in the past few weeks and hoods found themselves raised. There was never much wind in Ronan—the town was too high in the valley—but when there was, the whole town was surrounded by waves of air that now shook and carried people like the leaves in neighboring villages.
Every other block, an old second-hand car was parked, families with dark hair and delicate eyes unpacking boxes and luggage from the stuffed vehicles. Children as young as 6 were carrying boxes and small bags down the street, turning their sharp chins side to side so they could look at the buildings, following at the heels of their parents. Some families labeled their boxes in hiragana, the smooth curves of Japanese syllabary. Other households used precise and organized Korean Hangul to organize theirs.
Whatever alphabet each family used to manage its belongings didn’t matter. Most onlookers wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between Chinese hanzi to Filipino Tagalong. And the locals moved around the new neighbors like water around a rock, a sea of blond, tawny, chestnut and auburn heads turning in waves to eye each noirette.
Whispers noting the new neighbors’ jade cuffs and wide cheekbones carried on the wind, murmurings that haunted the air like migrant ghosts. The hushed words tumbled and twisted around the pristine white vans that slowed to a crawl whenever they passed a group of newcomers, the Asian American families sticking out in the crowd of commuters like spots of tea on a white tablecloth.
Remy Choy saw this in the reflection of a store window and put on her sunglasses to hide her own delicate eyes, ones not dissimilar to those of the new families. She herself had lived in Ronan all of her life and, though she looked like them, did not want to attract the same attention as the newcomers.
Windows of the homes along Main Street were shuttered, or at least partly, as if the structures themselves were closing their eyes against the gusts of wind. These buildings were owned by the richer residents of Ronan—the further one was from Main Street and the town square, the grayer and older the buildings looked, with paint peeling off the façades and roofs missing shingles—but many of the elegant homes still looked worn, as if the forgotten majesty of the old bricks and porches filled with intricate gingerbread corners remained dormant underneath the layers of paint, waiting to emerge once again.
Buildings around the center of town stood strong, though most, like the roads, lacked upkeep, ever since most state funding had been allotted to the ever-growing Good Neighbor Program.
Normally, this was the type of autumn day that Remy looked forward to all year long. The air had crisped over the past few nights, leaving her fingers protesting their ungloved state on the walk over from her house. Leaves crunched underfoot and the wind howled of the weather to come.
Remy saw the boarded-up windows of The Essentials, the local beauty shop that once was filled with essential oils and farm-grown products that Lucia, the owner, made from scratch. Pasted on the door of the establishment was the printed letter “O” in scarlet ink.
A cold shiver traveled the length of Remy’s spine. As of late, businesses were regularly condemned on the grounds that the owners were undocumented Others. The red tags were a growing sight.
She did not slow her pace as she passed the storefront, pulling at her hood to further secure it over her black hair. The Good Neighbors were watching.
The familiar bell greeted her as Remy pushed open the door to the Mud Room Café, the warm air coaxing the cold from her face, her fingers, her mind. Freshly ground coffee scented the air, coupled with cinnamon, allspice and ginger, the smell that was only present when Thanksgiving neared, when the chills that accompanied the fall solstice started to settle.
The bar was in the center of the café, the solid wooden countertops forming an L with its old, yet gleaming and dependable coffee machines at the corner. To the left stood thin tables that could only comfortably accommodate one, though now, during peak hours, four were squeezed in. A small basket of gourds, dried corn and pine cones were placed at the center of each table, surrounded by sturdy chairs donated from the college’s workshop class. The seating was sleek and simple, for the people who wanted to just sit for a few minutes to drink their coffee before hurrying home to their families.
The right was for the regulars. Twinkling lights adorned the upper edges of the windows and the usually bare panes were now draped with heavy red curtains; subtle gold embroidery shimmered mysteriously under the café lights, the blasts of hot air from the heaters around the edge of the wall moving the curtains in ripples and fogging the windows. There were four tables—each one square and large enough for students to spread out their books to read, or buckle down for midterms—and each had a sign labeled “Reserved.”
Skye sat in the corner booth, the last and biggest, their usual spot when they came to the Mud Room Café. His shoulders had filled out this past summer and none of his clothes fit; his mother had conscripted Remy to help him shop—not that Skye wasn’t capable of taking care of himself. When he looked up and saw her approaching, she could see the tension fall from his shoulders. The way his face lit up was akin to the sun and it drew away the chill from her body more thoroughly than the heated café.
He lifted up his cup and turned it over at the end of the booth, gesturing at how it was empty and affecting an exaggeratedly sad expression. Remy chuckled and gave him a nod, to which he gave her a thumbs-up before returning to his work.
 She lowered her hood and waved over the barista, who was wiping down tables on the left side of the café, and stood by the stools that lined the wooden counter.
Shifting her soft, gray sweater to fall higher on her shoulder, Remy glanced at the panes of the antiqued mirrored wall behind the espresso machine, which had so many levers and buttons that the contraption could likely send a shuttle to the moon. Even with her head covered, the wind had tousled her long hair. She looked like she’d just rolled out of bed, but the weather was too cold to tie her hair up, which was the only way to make it look semi-presentable. Her slender eyes had a subtle blue ring around the iris, a characteristic her mother did not have, and one Remy often wondered if her father had. She had her mother’s sharp chin and cheekbones that gave her a look more exotic than she would have liked. Though one of the most frequent regulars of the establishment, Remy knew that more than a few gazes had followed her since she’d entered, noting her black hair and dark irises. She didn’t have to survey the room or check the mirror; the hairs on the back of her neck stood straight up.
The television in front of the mirrors sat on a trolley of polished wood with brass accents on the handles and wheels. Her eye was drawn to the gray-suited politician, Gary Umbre, who was sharply gesturing at the crowd onscreen, mesmerized in the way some people couldn’t peel their eyes from a horrific accident. A caption ran along the bottom of the screen: N.Y. Good Neighbor Director Reacts to New CDC Study Revealing Correlation of ‘Others’ to Cancer.
Though the television volume was low, Umbre’s voice seemed to boom over the speakers.
 “Good question. In the next few weeks, I will meet with New York leaders in Albany and make a motion to amend the voluntary registration of the Good Neighbor Policy into a requirement for all Others. We can’t allow the privacy of a few outweigh the lives and health of the many. The hidden, unregistered Others have fled to smaller towns upstate, where there’s lower funding and they pose a greater risk of going Catalyst. These illegals are terrorists.”
When Umbre looked out to the audience, Remy felt like he could see her through the television. Her blood ran so cold that it felt like her body was on fire. There was a glint in his eyes, accompanying his words, “And those who are discovered will be treated as such.”
Wrenching herself from the television, Remy swiveled on the coffee bar stool, trying to expel some nervous energy. Her hands hadn’t stopped shaking since she came in, but listening to Umbre’s words made the tremors stronger. She shifted to sit on her fingers; the shakes were worse before her visions, which, in a public place, could expose her, especially with the Good Neighbor white vans patrolling the streets. There were also those who would turn in their ‘friends’ for a quick, substantial reward.
She glanced toward the corner booth where Skye sat, furrowing his brows at his work; it was merely yards away, and yet even that was too far if a vision caught her off guard. Remy yearned to call out to Skye for help, for comfort, but that would only draw more attention to her.
Behind the bar, Miranda, the Mud Room’s barista, came over with two wide ceramic cups and slid them across the wood counter to Remy. “What’s Umbre yammering on about now?” she asked.
“CDC says Others may cause cancer,” Remy replied, clenching her shaking hands into fists. Sitting on them did not help stymie the tremors. “Somehow, he’s using it to encourage mandatory registration under the Good Neighbor Policy.” She wanted to shake every one of the reporters in the televised room, especially those who were soaking up Umbre’s words.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Miranda with an eye-roll. “Correlation is not causation. Everyone who ever took a science class in school knows that an Effect caused by an Other would be more widespread. If an Other caused something, there would be people dead.”
Remy flinched, but the barista didn’t seem to notice.
Miranda wasn’t wrong. Remy remembered the televised news of Hurricane Katrina, saw the giant waves as they crashed onto shore and into houses. The skies were pitch black in those snippets and Remy could not help but feel a simultaneous burst of fear and awe. No mere human could harness such power, even the person who housed it; the ocean was pulled into New Orleans in walls of water. Reports in the months after Katrina showed that police had found the body of a young Indonesian American man, the alleged Other who’d caused the tragedy, dead in his home. A reported suicide.
She remembered thinking, Lucky for him. Everyone knew what happened to unregistered Others under the Good Neighbor Policy. Grams had constantly reminded her of it since she was young. Others were sensationalized by the media, because fear and anger brought in more viewers. The Others who lost control—the Catalysts, Umbre had called them—were taken away. Or lynched.
Just having black hair could make you a target.
The media had declared years ago that Others were more likely to be of East Asian descent. Hate crimes against Asian citizens and immigrants spiked overnight.
Despite this assertion being unfounded, in her case they were right.
Out of habit, Remy darted an eye around the café; the voyeurs from before had returned to their coffee. Skye was absorbed with whatever assignment he had in front of him. There was much she could communicate with him in a single glance, but he didn’t look up.
Miranda clicked a few buttons on the remote and changed the channel to the Travel Network, flicking her hair back out of her eyes. The woman’s auburn hair was regularly done in elaborate designs; she had quite the following online. Once, she had demoed a style for Remy, showing step-by-step instructions on how to braid a hair crown. Miranda’s looked immaculate. Remy had resembled a beaver’s nest. Today, Miranda’s hair was in a low bun with little plaits weaving in and out of the twisted hair; tendrils had escaped, but Miranda made it look purposeful.
Remy nibbled on the last of the madeleine samples on the coffee bar, paying special attention to the last few bites, mulling over her words before asking, “What do you think? About what Umbre’s proposing?” she asked Miranda.
“‘It begins with identification,’ my bobeshi always said. In the last world war, she lost almost everyone she loved because of a ‘mandated registration for the good of everyone else.’ A witch hunt is what it is.” Wiping down some cups with an old towel, Miranda took Remy’s plate and placed it in the sink behind her. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Umbre starts calling for registered Others to start wearing a gold star on their clothes….”
Remy knew she could hint at her true feelings with Miranda, who was a student at the local college, and had been involved with the Activists Regarding Rights of Others, or ARRO, as they were commonly known. These students regularly protested outside of Umbre’s office in the city. They shouted and hollered, demanding the fair treatment of Others, until they graduated from the college and had jobs and families. The group was as radical as a point of view got in Ronan, possibly even the state, but members generally left the movement when they had something to lose.
She herself could never leave it behind, not with her dark features and ability coursing through her veins as it did now, the itching burn that crept up her skin wanting to be released.
“I added a double shot of espresso into your usual, free of charge. It looks like you need it.” Miranda cocked her head, scrutinizing Remy with deep auburn eyes. “How’s your grandmother?”
“Finally settling into the retirement home.” Grams had been there since the beginning of summer, but sometimes Remy still forgot.
“Right. Well, you better skedaddle before Skye falls asleep on his books.”
“Smart woman.” Tossing some change into the tip jar, Remy carried the two cups of coffee to the corner table. She came here so often and stayed so long that this lone table by the long windows in the back was perpetually reserved for her. “How’s the homework going?”
“Going,” he said flatly. Skye pushed up his glasses on his nose, a nervous habit he’d had since grade school. A thin line of green on the side of the black frames made his jade irises stand out. His expression reminded her of a painting by a French artist, the subject bent over books with a pen in hand, lips slightly parted while whatever he was thinking of processed in his mind. His dark eyebrows furrowed in concentration while he ran his hand back through his hair. A thin snake chain around his wrist shone under the café lights.
“That’s new,” said Remy, reaching for the bracelet to examine. “When did you make this one?”
He extended his arm and rolled up his sleeve. The smooth metal was threaded through a couple of chain loops and twisted back around, clasping the ends together. “This past weekend. I was trying out different styles from the metal I found at the scrap yard. I want to experiment a bit before the Autumn Festival.”
“You should make me something one day.”
“You can buy something at the Festival,” he said with a wink. “Or perhaps we can come to some sort of an exchange.” His long pale fingers reached for his cappuccino.
Remy quickly slid the sapphire blue cup out of his reach. “Seeing as you already had a cup,” she gestured at the empty mug that was at the table before she sat down, “coffee after I check this one homework of yours.”
“Fine.” Skye scratched his neck as he translated the textbook passage onto his notebook.
Waiting, Remy reviewed the calculus homework, twirling her Pilot pen, eyes scanning over each question. The warm surface of her own bright-green cup drew the lingering chill from her fingers. Her favorite café was heated and cozy, booths filled with soft cushions, bright colors and chattering. There was something pleasantly comforting in having a warm cup of coffee in her hand. Remy felt safe to get lost in thought here, in the scents of sugar, cinnamon and freshly made grounds, and drown out the buzz cluttering her head. She took a delicate sip of the hot brew before looking up to the sound of Skye dropping his pen onto the table. “Are you done?”
“Yeah, I think so.” He handed her his notebook. “Take a look?”
“Sure, just give me a second.”
She read the translation lines from the Latin passage. From the corner of her eye, she saw Skye sneak a few sips of his coffee. He licked the dark droplets left on his lips. She knew he’d detect what she had: Halloween had just passed, so the coffee now had a touch of pumpkin in the brew. Something about the clockwork of the change made her comfortable, ready to burrow under layers of blankets with a thick book.
Remy admired his handwriting, the steadiness of it, even after hours of notetaking at school; the pressure, angles, even the ink flow was smooth and uniform, calm and restrained. With her gaze skimming over his notes, the pacing creature in her thoughts slowed its gait, licking its paws, its growl low in warning.
“Other than your small tense mistake on line five, it looks good. I made a note of it. Just don’t make the same mistake on next week’s test.”
“Got it.” Skye folded up his glasses and tucked them into his shirt pocket. There were few things, Remy knew, that annoyed him more than his glasses steaming up. Through the window, Remy caught a glimpse of some leaves twirling in a small vortex across the street. Skye brushed the dark brown hair from his face, his eyes regarding her with curiosity. “What are you thinking about?”
She shook her head. “Everything and nothing, really. Umbre was having another tirade on the news.”
Skye’s eyes darkened. “I can’t believe so many people support him.”
“I think that’s the only thing scarier than knowing a man in power with those views exists.”
“Don’t think about him; you know it messes with your mood.”
“Did you hear about how more Asian American families are moving upstate?”
“Can you blame them? I would, too, if I was constantly stopped and ‘interviewed’ in the city.”
“More people are coming to this town, to Ronan,” said Remy. “That could mean more cops. More Good Neighbor vans.”
“I’m not as fierce as your Grams, but you should know that you have me watching your back. You’ll always have me.”
“You seem very sure of yourself,” she said, downing her drink more quickly as it cooled.
“Of course I am. It’s been almost 10 years and you couldn’t shake me.” Skye gestured to himself. “I’m that awesome.”
She rolled her eyes before taking a moment to steady herself, and to savor the remainders of her sweet coffee. Why did his nonchalance bother her so much? His comment seemed too sunny, almost dismissive of her concerns. She may be a bit paranoid, but she could have sworn that there were new MISSING notices posted in town almost every week.
Inwardly, she chided herself. He didn’t mean the comment the way she took it; he was probably preoccupied because of his parents.
“How is your dad?”
Skye nodded, though her question did not warrant a yea or nay. “He’s dealing.” His fingers fiddled with the stirrer on his napkin. “I know it’s a bit selfish, but I hate to go home when he’s so upset.”
Although he did not say this, Remy knew that Skye was relieved when his parents broke up. She didn’t ask how he was doing because she already knew, just like Skye knew that she needed him to push her to talk. He never told her, nor would he ever, about his relief. After knowing him for over 10 years, she could read him easily.
His parents had a turbulent marriage, staying together to raise him and his younger brother, Vincent. She knew that, as much as he wished his parents were happy and would stay together, he’d rather them be happy and apart than unhappy and technically still married. He’d felt responsible for all the years they’d stayed together and miserable, for the sake of rearing him.
Remy wanted to point out that Mr. and Mrs. Gion had stayed for both sons, not just him, but an argument along those lines wouldn’t be helpful. She touched his arm. “Remember second grade? The Christmas pageant?”
He laughed softly. “You were an angel that year.” Skye and his family took her to Sunday service when they could; that is, when her mom was cooped up in her art studio and Remy was feeling sad. On holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, they would regularly include her in their church festivities. Christmas usually entailed dressing up in the garb of a white-clad seraph. Grams did not enjoy going to church, but did so to take pictures of the variety of costumes in which Remy inevitably found herself garbed.
The pageants were strange and the costumes constantly itchy, but Remy found the distraction welcome. It had been nice to forget for a few hours about her eccentric mother, her own Otherness, to know that she was part of something stable and normal. Before Skye’s parents grew apart, they’d provided a loving home whenever Remy visited, which was easy and often, since the friends lived minutes from each other.
Skye’s younger brother, Vincent, or Vinnie, had called her jiě-jiě—older sister—since he could speak. It made Remy proud to be included. The youngest Gion had even decided to learn little Mandarin words she spoke to him, before the English and French his own parents used. He was able to talk to Grams in Mandarin more fluidly than Remy. Vinnie, until he was 12, dressed up as one of the sheep in the Christmas pageant.
“And weren’t you a shepherd?” she now said to Skye.
“I remember you picking your nose and wiping it on your angel wings because your gown was still wet from spilling water all over it.” Skye smiled. “Is that supposed to be angelic?”
“Gracefulness wasn’t high on my agenda at the time.”
“And what type of angel isn’t graceful?”
“One who was suffering from stage fright and allergies. That type.”
“Point taken.” He didn’t say anything for a few moments. She did not ask any of the pointless, repetitive questions others would, questions he didn’t know the answers to. When it was just she and Skye, they didn’t need to fill the silence—the absence of saying what was really on their minds—with chatter. A twitch of his eyebrow revealed more to her than a lengthy conversation did for others. He could sense when she was lying and she knew all of his tells.
Suddenly, she felt her heart rate quicken, heavy beats pounding against her ribs. The shaking in her hands intensified. She looked down at her half-full cup of coffee, the skin of her hands beginning to take on a slight glow.
“Skye?” Her voice echoed from far away. She felt herself thrown back, pushed by an invisible force, as if strapped into a roller coaster. Already her vision was warping, Skye only a distant face at the end of a tunnel and quickly disappearing into black.
A black room. Nothing but darkness. Against that, a rising burst of images jumped into the air like confetti. Each image, a photograph, hovered and then rushed headlong at her face like an oncoming fist, punch after punch raining down on her. It took a few hits for Remy to realize that they were all the same image.
Skye on the floor.
His feet splayed like a dropped puppet’s.
Skye’s limp body on the floor.
No, she thought. Then she did something she’d never done before: Remy grabbed the remaining mental photographs and ripped them down the middle. Again and again and again. New photographs took their place, crowding her, smothering her, pushing down, and she couldn’t breathe. There was no room for air between the images. Her throat felt dry, as if she had been screaming for hours.
And then the burning sensation in her hands spread, scorching every inch of her skin, as if someone had doused her in kerosene and tossed her into an open fire pit. Her throat made a gurgle, her lungs screaming for breath. She reached for something, anything, to stop the coming fall. Nothing was within her grasp. She plunged into the blackness.
“Remy!”
Everything was too bright; she couldn’t see. There was something familiar, a hand she knew well gripping her arm. Remy blinked, her gaze refocusing on the boy in front of her. The colors around her were off, saturated and crisp, clear as gemstones. Skye’s eyes were a deeper green than before, their hue so abrupt in the sea of reds, grays and browns in her peripheral vision that she jolted back into herself and remembered where she was.
She’d never gotten used to the return of colors when she came back from a vision.
Skye whispered, “Remy.”
She had dropped her cup onto the saucer, which had caught almost all the spill. She shook her head, trying to clear it, hands trembling when she reached up to rub the corner of her eyes, the points around the bridge of her nose. She couldn’t stop the shaking. Why couldn’t she stop?
Remy attempted to take a cleansing breath but it came out as a shudder. “What?”
By impulse, her gaze followed his around the café. Most of the customers were wrapped up in their own conversations and Miranda was clearing the countertop on the other side of the room. No one was watching.
“Tell me what you saw.”
“Not now.”
“But, Rem – ”
“My notebook,” she told him. His Adam’s apple wobbled, as if swallowing his questions. He rummaged through their piles of books and pulled out the brown notebook. She grabbed it from him and flipped to a clean page before scribbling furiously on the unlined paper, trying to get down every detail, writing so hard that she thought she might rip it. She didn’t, though, and proceeded to fill up the page, covering it with her sharp, angular writing. She dated the top corner and held it at a distance to examine her notes.
Skye set his hiking boots on top of hers. Tap, tap, tap, tap. Beat. Tap, tap. “Hi” in Morse code, the only word he’d bothered to learn from the book of codes Remy gave him for his 15th birthday. “Now tell me.” When she hesitated, he closed the notebook, took it from her hands and laid it to one side. “What happened? Anything you saw, tell me—I can help you work through it, like we’ve done before.”
“It’s not that.”
“Then what? I’ve witnessed more than enough of your dreams, glimpses and flashes become reality. I’ve read this book, your log.” He tapped the cover for emphasis. “Nothing you say can faze me, at least not for long. I’ll read it if you’d rather, but I’d like to hear it from you.”
Remy had experienced since grade school these flashes of future images. Grams kept watch over her, but only Skye was there for her when they were at school. Every time she fell into a vision, he’d cover for her, help hide her ability from everyone else, to obscure her Otherness.
How could she tell him that she’d seen his death?
Her heart was suffocating, filling her throat and squeezing her windpipe.
The thought of losing Skye was worse even than being found out, worse than being taken away, in one of those white vans forever patrolling the town.
He was the only person, besides Grams, who knew. But if she voiced what she’d seen, it would make what she saw all the more real. Then she’d lose him. “Skye, forget about it.”
“Remy.”
“I said forget it!”
His eyebrows shot up at her shout. The rest of the café was eerily quiet, everyone looking at her. She didn’t notice that she had jumped to her feet. She never shouted, never even raised her voice at Skye, who had also gone quiet. Settling back down into the booth, she noticed him pulling away, hands off the table, moving to cross his arms, and the increased distance of three inches made her chest ache more. Remy quickly caught his hand and held it tight. Was it him shaking or her? It didn’t matter. Her eyes welled while guilt quivered in her chest. “I’m sorry.”
Skye watched her face, troubled. “Was it about me?” he whispered, lips barely moving.
“Please,” her voice wavered, “just drop it. Please.”
It may have been simpler to lie—No, it wasn’t about you; the vision just really shook me up—had it been anyone but Skye. She couldn’t lie to him. Lying to Skye was not just a matter of the morality of lying to her best friend. He was a walking lie detector. Even when they were younger, he was able to discern her half-truths.
Remy had asked him how he could tell, what tells he looked for. He had shrugged it off, not knowing how to explain it. “I get a feeling. Feel a weird shiver or prickle on my neck and I just know.”
There were times, as a kid, when Remy had fantasized that Skye was an Other, too, that his affinity for veritas was his power. Despite media claims, Otherness or any otherworldly gift may develop in people with European ancestry, though it was more likely for those with Asian descent.
Mother Nature did like to keep everyone on their toes.
She’d read in academic articles about the scientific studies, how even Normals could tell when someone was being deceptive—though there were rumors of Others who had a subtle gift called Intuition. Whenever she spouted theories to Skye, he listened, but with a sad, wistful look of someone passing by a shop window and spotting something they wanted, yet would never ever have.
She stopped theorizing.
Remy knew, theoretically, that people existed with powers similar to hers. However, few trusted those outside of their own family. The Good Neighbor Policy made sure of that, with their white vans on the streets, slowing down to any who may whisper the name of a neighbor, of someone they suspected of being an Other.
Despite the influx of new Asian American neighbors, with Umbre and his administration she doubted that anyone was willing to chance it, to lose the secrecy and privacy of their own power to gain a new potential Other friend.
Looking different made you a target before you even opened your mouth. When everyone “dangerous” on TV looked like you, sometimes the best thing to do was keep your head down and pray no one would notice you.
Skye was not Other, but he was still family. If she lost him…
Her vision began to blur behind tears and she furiously swiped them away.
His hand around hers tightened almost painfully, bringing her back out of her head. The tips of her fingers were turning red but she didn’t complain. He asked again, “Did something happen to me?”
Tears fell from her face and dripped onto their clasped hands. “Stop. If you trust me, then stop.”
“Fine,” he said, though he looked far from it. After a heavy moment, he tapped his pointer on the top of her hand. Tap, tap, tap, tap. Beat. Tap, tap. “Remember. Things don’t happen exactly as they appear in your premonitions, right?” His voice softened at the word “premonitions.”
“Sometimes,” she replied, unsure. “Though, I wonder what would happen if…”
“If?”
“If you weren’t here.” She quickly added, remembering herself, “To cover for me, I mean, when I have my ‘moments.’” Remy gave a wobbly smile.
“So people would think you’re a little odd. Who wouldn’t?” he said lightly, though a frown started to set on his face. They’d talked about whether they would get into the same college one day, so he’d be able to protect her from detection. From bigots like Umbre. With his mother taking Vincent and moving to another state, and his father being, well… preoccupied with their departure, Remy was the only constant Skye had. Neither had been, or was, ready to give the other up.
“With a little luck, I’ll avoid the ‘padded white room’ type of odd.”
“If you don’t, count on me breaking you out.” He smiled, though Remy knew he would try, if he had to. Hopefully, it would never come to that.
Already the burden of keeping her recent vision a secret was weighing on her. There was no one else she could talk to, no one to ask advice about this.
Not even her mother knew about her premonitions. Grams had warned Remy not to tell her. Esther was certainly strange, but not Other. The willowy artist loved the eccentric, worshiped it even, but she had sent Remy’s grandmother to a home at the older woman’s first sign of slowing down.
Inconvenience was the bane of Esther’s flowing existence, and Remy knew her mother would see her Otherness as something that might reduce her investors, due to the controversy revolving around Others, especially since only Others could become Catalysts, the pariah of modern society: in short, “inconvenient.”
The café darkened, jolting Remy out of her thoughts.
“You ready to go?” Skye asked.
She nodded, quickly packing up her notes and books and heading out the door so Miranda could close up shop.
As the autumnal wind numbed her face, Remy found herself touching her breast pocket, where the brown notebook rode, simultaneously reassuring herself and worrying when the scene of Skye’s limp body came back to the foreground of her mind.
The scribbled notes of her vision felt unsafe on her person; until she could rip them out and put the pages with the rest, her notebook was like a grenade, dangerous and damning if found on her. People had been arrested for less.
She shuddered.
Immediately, Skye’s hand was in hers and gave a quick squeeze. I’m here. Don’t worry.
Remy thought about her Grams and how she’d coached Remy through her anxiety attacks when she was younger. Thinking about the men in the white vans, the stories she had heard about them, the coaching was a necessary tool that Grams gave her. Most children grew up and realized that there were no monsters in the closet or under the bed but, for Remy, the monsters were real.
And they thought that people like her were the true monsters.
“Find one thing you can focus on,” Grams would tell her in a soft, hypnotic tone. “Like me stroking your hand, the way the floor feels beneath your feet. Use it to ground you. Dedicate all your energy to focus on it.”
Now, taking a slow breath, she concentrated on the warmth of Skye’s hand, the heat she could feel radiating off him as they walked, the steady movement in their gait. There was something calming about walking next to him, hearing his soft breaths. Their familiar rhythm slowly drew the anxiety from her, even some of the ache she felt when thinking of her Grams in the retirement community and not at home where she should be.
Even without looking at the road, she could predict his movements, knowing when he’d stop for traffic, when he’d turn, from the cadence of his exhales against the cool air.
They found themselves walking the long way home, out of habit and, seeing Remy lost in thought, Skye’s mind called up a memory of his daring her once, to bike near the big house down the road, the more direct route home.
They were 8 at the time.
He’d told her that Mrs. Weinstein’s little terrier, the living proof that demonic terror and evil walked the face of the earth, would not be able to make it over the picket fence. That even if the tiny monster did make it over the gate, no way would it be able to catch Remy on her bike. Skye had been seven stitches, one shot and a chewed bike tire full of wrong.
When Remy finally pried the dog off, consequently losing her favorite pink Power Ranger watch (which the terrier carried home like a trophy, tail wagging), Skye came rushing towards her with gushes of sorrys and tears. He was scrawny for his age and still shorter than she by a few inches. He pulled off his favorite fall scarf from his neck and pressed it to her bloody hand. Tugging her home, he called out for his dad, throat still full of tears.
He was so anxious when she was getting patched up. Brave and stubborn Remy didn’t cry when she had been bitten—Skye didn’t think she did throughout the entire ordeal—but she looked at him and her face crumbled, as if she suddenly wanted to cry. He was quiet on the ride home. His father said, “For goodness sake, stop provoking Mrs. Weinstein’s dog by tapping the fence,” before letting Remy out in front of her house. Skye insisted on walking her to the door.
When they finally reached the side door of the Choys’ house, Remy pulled up the cord around her neck. On the necklace hung a key. Before she unlocked the door, Skye touched her arm. He felt his face scrunch up to match the twist in his chest and he looked down with his hands behind his back. “What’s wrong?” she had asked.
He shook his head, not in answer but to clear the emotions from clouding his head. “I’m sorry I dared you today. You got hurt because of me.”
“I didn’t have to take the dare,” she said, though they both knew she never backed down from a challenge.
He clasped his hands and looked away. “I understand if you don’t want to be my friend anymore.”
She had stood motionless, waiting, when he finally turned his gaze to her. The setting sun was right behind her head, giving her a halo. He wanted forgiveness, though he didn’t expect it, so he waited for her to speak. “If we were no longer friends,” she began, “who would I talk to in school?” And who would I share my dreams with, her tone seemed to add, though she didn’t say.
“So, you’d still be my friend?”
“Of course.” She rested a hand on his shoulder. Remy had done that before, but this time it felt more than right; it felt good. “I’m your friend, Skye. I don’t know how else to be.”
The memory faded like a wisp of chilled breath. Skye blinked and refocused on his surroundings.
He nudged Remy, jolting her out of her own daze. He gave her a knowing look, she—though thoroughly bundled up and weighed down by books and thoughts—smiled against the cold wind. “Did you ever walk by Mrs. Weinstein’s after the ‘incident’?”
“No,” she quickly answered, “not even once.”
To be honest, he himself couldn’t walk on that block without his thoughts going back to that day, his childish dare, all the blood. He knew he was remembering more than there actually had been. Grams would have had something to say if it were that much. But even now, red was the only color he remembered. So much red.
Back in the café, he’d wanted to punch a wall, not because of Remy’s reluctance to share, but because the thought of someone hurting her made him furious, even if that included himself. So he’d kept his mouth shut, though his mind was going fast, his curiosity begging him to ask her again.
Not much could make Remy scared and nothing could bring him focus like Remy and her pain.
A dull, dark sensation settled into his gut, one he had been holding back since the café, one that wanted to wrench Remy’s notebook from her pocket, rip it open and find the words she was keeping from him. The red was what held him back, the color that chided him for not thinking first about Remy’s safety and wishes, the color that reminded him what had happened the last time he had been anything but cautious.
“You! Stop right there.” A figure stepped out of a white van double-parked in front of the butcher shop. The man strode toward them with purpose, polished dress shoes clicking on the worn sidewalk. His suit was immaculate, pressed and straight, as if he hadn’t been sitting in a van all day. The style said “conservative” while the cut and fabric said “city.”
Since Skye’s father traveled a lot for work, he knew what that meant. With the voice Skye usually reserved for his dad’s affluent coworkers, he said, “You must be one of the new patrolling officers sent up by Umbre’s extended Good Neighbor bill. How are you, sir?”
The man from the white van came to a stop right in front of them, blocking their way. “Show me your IDs.”
“What seems to be the problem?” Skye asked. He casually slid his arm over Remy’s shoulders as he rummaged in a pocket for his wallet. Public displays of affection made people uncomfortable, he knew, and Skye was not above using this tactic to get Remy away from the agent.
“We received a tip that there was suspicious activity on this block.”
Skye felt Remy flinch.
“We’re just coming home from studying at the café. Surely, our country hasn’t dived too far into an anti-intellectual state that trying to do well in school is considered a ‘suspicious activity.’”
“I’m just doing my job, kid,” said the man in the suit. He gestured to his partner, who was wearing the same styled suit and leaning on the white van, which also looked uncannily clean and polished for a vehicle that had crossed a few unpaved dirt roads to get to Ronan. “We only investigate.”
“Is everything all right out here?” Joseph Russo, the butcher, asked, wiping his wide hands with a gray cloth as he stepped outside. Skye had seen the butcher behind the counter, carving out custom orders for his regulars, never taking a personal break while the store was open. The stout man had deep wrinkles that gave him a curmudgeonly face and his white apron was covered in blood stains. A stray spot of meat juice clung from a wisp of white hair. Perhaps, Skye guessed, that was why he saw the man in the suit tense up, and why his partner quickly appeared at his side.
“Just a routine security check,” said the man in the suit.
“Don’t you go bothering these kids, son. Their families have been here for longer than you’ve been alive.” Mr. Russo wagged his finger as if scolding a naughty child and not a government agent.
“Sir, …”
“These two grew up here, not like those Oriental Others coming up from the city.”
“What’s going on?” Miranda asked, suddenly flanking the other side of Remy. “Didn’t you two leave the Mud Room a while ago?”
The man in the suit started to look uncomfortable with the growing attention. “There’s a possible security threat. We do random stops all the time.”
“Let’s just call it for what it is: racial profiling,” said Miranda. “That’s what it comes down to.”
“Don’t you even try to deny it,” Joseph Russo said. “I saw you parked outside my shop for a half hour and you didn’t stop a single person who looked like me, but one pair of slanted eyes and…”
“It’s fine, everyone,” Remy interrupted in a soft voice. She tensed when she felt her pockets, moving over the one with her notebook a smidge faster, before finding her wallet and handing the man her student ID. “I have nothing to hide.”
The two agents barely glanced at the card before handing it back to her and heading back to their white van. Mr. Russo and Miranda didn’t move until the van pulled away.
When Skye and Remy were finally alone again, he braved a look at her. He didn’t dare to before, not while they were being watched, because he knew it would give him away, that anyone would be able to tell how nervous and scared he was, that the bravado in his voice was a sham. Her expression was stoic; she had the same poker face as her grandmother. He drew her close, his arm still around her shoulders. Any passerby would assume that they were some random young couple, not two friends clinging to each other from fear and relief.
“Are you okay?” he whispered.
“No.”
So much was conveyed to Skye in that monosyllabic word. “That’s probably going to happen more often now, due to recent events. We may have to start getting used to more Good Neighbor agents and white vans in Ronan.”
“The agents aren’t what I’m upset about.”
“They’re not?”
“Well, they’re not what I’m most upset about.”
The inside of Remy’s house was almost as chilly as outside, even though they knew her mother was home. When the door shut behind them, Remy raised the temperature on the thermostat by the fridge. Esther just didn’t bother with the heat, not when her studio was cozy enough. The white tiles on the kitchen floor were freezing, even through woolen socks. Remy squatted to rearrange the shoes on the gray frame rack by the door.
“I’m upset about Mr. Russo.”
“You mean when he was telling the men in the suits off?”
“‘Yes, she has slanted eyes but she’s not that type of Asian; she’s the good type, not Other.’”
“But you’re not…”
“Not Asian? Not Other?” She lowered her voice, even though they were inside, even though they were alone. “We both know the truth. I am what they consider to be the worst. You can’t get lower.”
“No,” he said, “you could be a Catalyst. And you’re not.”
“You know the difference between Others and Catalysts we see on TV? One mistake. Just one.” She swayed on her feet for a moment.
“What’s wrong?”
She rubbed her temples. “It’s nothing. Just a headache.”
Skye knew where the ibuprofen was: top bathroom shelf to the left. He handed two to her with a glass of water. “From the vision?”
“I watched a child become a Catalyst on the news when I was little, you know. Grams was next to me and I couldn’t understand why countless people had their phones out, recording how the boy was crying and being separated from his father, instead of helping. And those selfsame people played the innocent victim card when he lost control of his powers, as if they weren’t egging everything on.”
“Remy…”
“The boy was entered into the Catalyst Archives, Skye. That’s his entire life gone—it might as well be a criminal registry.”
“That won’t be you.”
“How can you treat a kid like a criminal when his only crime was that he wanted his daddy? How can they punish people like me for just being born the way I am?”
“Your Grams would never allow anyone to take you away or register you against your will,” he said. “Neither would I.”
“Sure.”
“You think your grandmother would not single-handedly fight off the world for you?”
“I guess it’s different, now that I don’t see her as soon as I get home. It feels different.”
“She’s in a retirement community at the edge of town, not on the other side of the world.” Seeing Remy wince again, presumably from her headache, Skye asked, “When did you eat lunch?”
“Yesterday.”
He rolled his eyes, picking up the phone to place an order at their usual takeout place. “Grams always made sure you ate, at least.”
“Because she claimed that food could basically cure anything.”
“That would be medicine I’d never mind having.”
“If she knew we were ordering takeout, she’d have a fit,” she joked. “‘Why buy Chinese takeout when you can have a Chinese cook in your house?’ Grams would say.”
Skye felt Remy slowly pull away as they bantered. She did not physically move her body from him, but he sensed her focus shift and slip away like one would from a crowded room at a party. A part of him wanted to ask what she was thinking about, what exactly had drawn her attention from him.
Perhaps that was what was really bothering him. He’d never had to ask before. And why would he? Before he could, she normally would volunteer information about her thoughts, her life, her battle with anxiety about the Good Neighbors and life in general. And though she had an excellent poker face (one that she and her Grams regularly used on him when playing cards), she did not use it on him, not when they were alone together.
She wasn’t treating him as she had for their past 10 years of friendship. She was acting less like a best friend and more like… he was everyone else.