Altered – Catalyst (Chapter 1)

Chapter 1

 

Chicago, A few years from now

 

As the car skidded sideways across the grass towards the exit ramp, Wyatt’s mind returned to the day the girl in the passenger seat had first lied to him. He looked over at her as she let out a high-pitched scream, her eyes wild with terror. The sound filled him with a sense of calm joy.

He twisted the wheel and attempted to pull out of the spin, but it only made matters worse. He pulled the wheel in the other direction, pressed hard on the gas, and drove into the turn. The car straightened out and sped off of the interstate. If only Sylvie, his driving instructor, could see him now.

It’d all started with a simple text message he’d received while sitting at the kitchen table with his mother. He’d been picking at his mac and cheese while she’d rambled about college bursaries and how he needed to switch from track and field to football. He was at the far end of the table and avoided looking at her as she talked. They’d had this conversation many times before. It’s not as if he wasn’t aware that he could get a better scholarship if he played football, he just didn’t like team sports.

Wyatt had been about to tell his mother to shut up, which would have been a bad idea, a very bad idea, when his phone had lit up with, ‘text received’ and a small picture of Jessica Golde. She’d never texted him before and while they were friends on Facebook, she was friends with everyone.

He dropped his spoon back into his pasta, picked up the phone, and fumbled to put in his password. After all, he didn’t get a lot of messages and he got none from her.

This text was simple and yet was the most confusing message he’d ever read. “Hey, Wyatt. U going to Kens?” He felt a panic attack approach. How was it possible that Jess had asked him to a party? His mind whirled with questions. What party, who was Ken? What should he wear? He found himself unable to concentrate on any single one of the questions racing through his blood deprived brain.

“Are you even listening to me?” his mother said. Something in the tone made Wyatt suspect it wasn’t the first time she’d asked.

“Mom, I’ll think about it, ok?” he said, “Can I go out tonight?”

“Didn’t you say you were staying in?” she asked. “We’ve got our show recorded.” She paused and raised her eyebrow even further, a sly grin on her lips. “Who was the message from, was it Ford?” she asked, clearly figuring out that it hadn’t been his best friend.

Wyatt’s face flushed at her question. He wanted nothing more than to get to his room so he could read the message again and call Ford to discuss exactly what it meant.

“It wasn’t, was it?” his mother asked, and leaned back in her chair, with a far too satisfied grin for his liking. “Was it a girl?”

His face flushed further, and he got up from the table. “Mom, I’m done. I’m going upstairs,” he said, suddenly feeling closer to twelve than twenty.

His mother was a good person, he understood that somewhere deep in his anti-social soul. She proved it yet again by being kind enough to mostly hide her pleasure and said, “Of course you can go out.” Despite his reprieve, he knew it’d feature in a conversation later. His parents’ three favorite topics were joining football, University choices and his lack of a girlfriend. Unfortunately, but likely not coincidentally, these were also his three least favorite things to talk about.

She waved a hand at him, “We can watch it tomorrow. Do you need a ride? When are you leaving?”

“Mom, stop it. I don’t know. Whatever. I gotta call Ford,” he said and ran for the stairs. As always, he took the first one, skipped the next and then did two in a row. He had no clue why he did it, but he liked doing things in a pre-arranged order. This time around, it helped him ignore the laugh that followed him up the stairs. He dialed as he climbed and counted. Ford answered on the third ring.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Ford said, the sound of bullets and explosions in the background.

Wyatt said, “Jessica texted me, she wants to go to a party.”

There was a pause and he could picture his friend fixated on his TV, phone tucked to his ear, his one and only hand on his controller. “Someone texted you?” Ford asked.

“I get texts.”

“Sure you do. Jessica who?”

“You know, Jessica, from school. Jessica,” he repeated as if that should be clear. For him, the name alone was enough.

Ford paused and then said, “The tall blonde thing that you drool over? In no possible world has she asked you out. Who stole her phone?”

“Go jump,” Wyatt said with an excess of sensitivity. He stood up and looked in the mirror, seeing someone in the midst of a panic attack. He told himself, it’s you, not him, don’t take your insecurities out on Ford.

His friend didn’t notice and laughed. “Oh, boom, down you go.”

“What?”

“Sorry, got an awesome frag. Back to you. So, really, she asked you out? Come on, you’re smart enough to understand that’s just weird, you two don’t even talk. Whatever, assume it’s her. What’s your plan?”

“We’re going to the party.”

“You and her or you and me? I don’t go to parties. Where is it?”

“You and me and her. She said it was at Ken’s house,” replied Wyatt, his voice rising with stress.

“Which Ken? And why me, she didn’t invite me, did she? Let me check,” Ford said, and paused theatrically. “No, she didn’t.”

“I have no clue who Ken is,” Wyatt answered. His heart sank at the mere idea of asking Jessica for directions and showing how completely unconnected he was to normal high-school life. During the two year teacher strike, everyone else had formed study groups, partied and hung out. He’d studied, worked out alone or with Ford and practiced for the decathlon. As a result, he’d returned even more isolated than before.

“You’re a sad little man, aren’t you? I think your brain has gone to mush.” Ford said and was quiet for a moment. Wyatt could hear typing in the background. “You should try the inter webs, there’s information there if you look for it,” Ford said sarcastically. After a brief pause, he said, “Got it, there’s a post. It’s at Ken Murkshaw’s place, that arrogant dick with too much gel in his hair and the huge red truck. I bet he’s compensating for something with that. I hate that guy.”

“So what? Get the address, we’re going,” Wyatt replied, and sat down, despondent, on the edge of his bed, head in one hand, phone in the other.

“It’s clear why you are, I’ve seen how you look at her. Why am I, again? You forgot to tell me why you expect me to give up a night of pwning it online.”

“I can’t go to a party alone!” Wyatt cried out. It was true, he’d never make it without help.

“You’ll be with her, and you know how I feel about socializing. I don’t like it. You say you don’t, but, you’re just confused by people, so you avoid them. I actually actively dislike them. So, I repeat, what’s in it for me?”

“A free month of weight training.”

“You don’t charge me. How’s that a deal?”

“Want to keep it that way? Let’s see how well you do with one arm and no friends.” Ford had lost one arm in an accident two years earlier. He wasn’t sensitive about it and didn’t ask for help often, but a spotter in the weight room was essential. They’d became friends soon after the accident and now trained together almost every day.

Ford laughed again. He was always amused. The things that angered or frustrated others simply entertained him. He never thought twice about the past or worried about the future. He replied, “Fine, I’ll go, but only because you’ve been mooning over her for years and because I wanna see what her game is.”

“You think it’s a game? What, I’m not good enough for her?” he asked.

“You’re too good for her. She’s vacant, empty. Her only hobby is looking sexy and she isn’t as good at it as people think. But that’s not it. Why suddenly text you after years of not even acknowledging you in the hallway at school?”

Wyatt had wondered the same but wasn’t going to look this gift horse in the mouth. “Get on Skype, I need to pick out some clothes.”

There was a momentary silence on the other end of the line. “Bud, listen, I’m glad your little princess has finally expressed interest, and I’ve already said I’ll go out with you, but in no possible world will I Skype while you get dressed. We’re not that sort of friends.”

He opened his mouth to argue but then closed it. He was acting crazy, but he couldn’t help himself. He put Ford on speaker so he could stare at the text message again. Still there. Still her. He opened his laptop, went to Facebook and stared at her picture, not for the first time. “Fine. What should I wear? I don’t party any more than you do.”

“Clothes? I don’t frigging know. Wear the uniform. Jeans, striped button down shirt, untucked.”

“I’ll look like everyone else,” said Wyatt as he went through the clothing on the floor next to his bed.

“That’s the idea, isn’t it?” replied his friend.

Wyatt stared at the pile and rejected everything in it. This is a mistake, he thought, I should stay home. Little did he know how true that was or how little choice he actually had. “Perhaps I should just stay home,” he said out loud, but didn’t stop looking through his clothes.

“I can’t hear you. What are you doing?” Ford asked.

Wyatt had moved into his closet and was busy tossing shirt after shirt on the floor. Nothing looked right. “I’m in my closet,” he replied desperately.

“Is tonight the night to come out?” joked Ford.

“Funny, you’re the one everyone thinks is gay.”

“You wish. OK, clothes, buddy. Gay or not, I have more style sense than you do. Get a black t-shirt and a pair of jeans. That’s it. Make sure it’s tight. You don’t work out every day for nothing.”

Wyatt was going to argue, but he hadn’t found a single item in his closet that he’d be willing wear. Still, he hated the feel of tight clothing against his skin and couldn’t stand being restricted physically, it was one of his many minor phobias. “I don’t wear tight stuff, you know that.”

“Do you like Jessica?” asked Ford. Not waiting for a reply, he said, “You want her to want you, right? If the answer is yes, then suck it up, buttercup. Pull on your big boy shirt and flash a little muscle.”

The bottom drawer of his dresser held all the clothing he never ever wanted to wear and he found a shirt he’d not worn in at least two years. Luckily, it was buried deep enough in the drawer that it wasn’t covered in hair from his Mom’s three cats. He grimaced as he pulled it on. “Fine,” he said.

Ford asked, “So, what time are we going?”

That was a good question, he didn’t know and said so. He’d had a fear of being late ever since a teacher in grade school had singled him out when he’d arrived five minutes after class started. She’d asked him why he was late and he’d refused to answer. As punishment she’d moved his desk to the front. “Let’s get there early,” he said.

Ford asked, “Not too early, it’s not cool. Only losers show up early. What time did you say you’d be there?”

“I’ve not even texted her back,” he said, panicked again. A track meet with a thousand spectators wasn’t a problem for him, but one text message had him in a nervous breakdown. He’d forgotten to reply to her original text. “What should I say?” he asked.

Ford sarcastically replied, “How about something like, ‘yes, see you there?’”

He wanted to be snappier, cooler, but couldn’t think of anything. He wrote the text, then erased it. “What if I said ‘maybe’?”

“You’re going to play hard to get with Jessica Golde? She’s not the brightest bulb in the box, but even she’s aware that you’re not hard to get. Not for her at least.”

“Yes, but…” replied Wyatt.

“No buts, just send it,” ordered his friend.

He typed out the words, hesitated, clicked ‘send,’ and found himself sweating and breathing way too quickly as a result. “What if her first text was a mistake?” he asked.

“I thought of that,” his friend replied, “What’s the odds? I bet you weren’t even in her list of contacts. She had to go out of her way to find your number.”

“You think she looked me up?”

Wyatt could hear the grin through the phone as his friend answered, “I don’t understand why, but yes, I do. If you weren’t so focused on that pretty little body, you’d have thought of it too. Calm down, bud. I’m going to play for a while longer and pick you up later. I assume you need a ride?”

“Better you than Mom.”

“Yup, I suppose that’d make a great impression.”

Wyatt had thought the same thing, he wanted Ford there for support, but it didn’t hurt that he’d get a lift. “Thanks. Pick me up at nine?”

“Let’s make it eight. I’ll hang with your mom, she’s always good for a meal.”

Ford wasn’t wrong, when his mom heard he was coming over, she heated up some lasagna from dinner.

“You two make me sick,” joked Wyatt when the two of them were finally on the road, and pulled at his shirt, trying to stretch it out.

“Stop that,” Ford told him. “And who makes you sick?”

“You and my mom.”

“Why do you always get pissed that I get along with people. You find it strange, my brooding and solitary friend, just cause you don’t understand it.”

“So, where’s the party?” Wyatt asked, rolled up his window and put on the air conditioning. Even at nine o’clock, it was still over forty degrees and the humidity was smothering.

“Wheaton, we’ll hop on the I-355 and be there in twenty minutes, no more. You got toll on you?” asked Ford, and briefly took his one hand off of the wheel to pluck his phone out of his shirt pocket. “I’ll pull the address up.”

Wyatt grabbed the phone out of his friend’s hand.

“Hey, what are you doing?” said Ford. “Give it.”

“How about you focus on the drive and let me handle that.”

Ford slowed briefly but then sped up. With one hand, he wasn’t getting it back. “Get the directions and give it back.”

“What, you’re expecting a text from a girl? That’s even less likely than Jessica sending me a note.” Wyatt put the address into the phone and handed it back to his suddenly secretive friend as they headed to the interstate.

Wyatt watched little houses with big yards pass by on the right, big-box stores and their enormous well-lit parking lots on the left. The city was bathed in the deep purple of late dusk, roads quiet and sidewalks mostly clear. He turned on the radio and flicked channels until he came to a song he recognized.

As he sang along, he tried to not think of meeting Jessica at the party. What would he say, what did she expect of him? He’d daydreamed about it’d be like to be with her so many times and yet now that she’d asked him out, he felt completely unprepared. “Should we pick up drinks?”

“I brought Coke, it’s the back.”

“I meant…” Wyatt replied, trailing off.

“Right, first time with Jessica and first time drunk, that’s a great plan. I can picture you puking on her; that’d make a good impression.”

“I’ve drank before.”

“With your mom at Christmas dinner doesn’t count and today isn’t the day to try liquid courage. Anyhow, I don’t have fake ID.”

Wyatt discarded the idea, “I don’t either.”

Ford paused and continued. “Should we talk about other things you’ve not done before?”

Wyatt didn’t reply but his face flushed. He hoped his friend couldn’t see it in the dark of late dusk.

Ford laughed, not helping his anxiety level, “You’re kidding?” They’d never talked much about their experience with girls, or lack thereof. “You’re definitely not drinking then.” He sounded like he’d continue but was kind enough to stop that line of discussion and pointed ahead. “Need to find new directions, looks like.”

Wyatt could see flashing lights at the on-ramp, where two police cars blocked the way just before the toll-booths. As Ford turned right at the intersection, the phone directed them to return to the interstate, “Recalculating, recalculating,” the soft voice said. “Make your first legal U-turn.”

He opened the map function and found alternate directions to the party as they waited in silence for the light to turn green. He was anxious that they’d be arriving late, although he wasn’t sure exactly what would be on-time. “Come on,” he said. “What’s with the light? I swear, nothing works anymore.”

“Relax. If she has to wait, it’ll make her want you more. Show her who the boss is,” Ford said with obvious sarcasm.

Wyatt ignored his buddy, got out of the car, and ran over to push the walk button, quickly got back into the car, and took a deep breath, in an attempt to regain focus.

Ford snickered, “You know that those don’t work, right? They were disconnected when the city automated the traffic system. The buttons were left in to make people feel like they have control even when they don’t.”

Wyatt said, “I counted, it was over a minute. That’s not how technology should work, and yes, it made me feel better, so their plan worked,” he said, at which point the light changed. As they continued on their way, he gazed out the window at the few stars not obscured by the city lights. He looked at one, then another in turn, blinking twice after each switch. He was at twelve when Ford called him on it.

“Are you counting again?” asked Ford, well aware of his friend’s compulsive habits.

Wyatt ignored the question. “Whatever,” he said, but he stopped anyhow. It bothered him when people commented on it. “And, buddy, in answer to your question, I’m sure she knows who the boss is. There ain’t any possible world in which it’s me.”

Ford nodded and replied, “Meh, women like a man who pretends he’s in charge, as long as he knows he’s not. You’re perfect for the role.”

They drove the next half hour in silence. When they’d arrived, there were cars lined up along the road for a block. At the house, a guy with spiked hair and a beer in hand waved at them to park behind the house in a field. It was pitch black in the trees around them as Ford gingerly parked beside an iron-gray Hummer that dwarfed his Datsun-Z. It was the last time either of them would see the little car.

 

 

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