Why were they all traveling together like that, anyway? I swipe the handbook off the nightstand and bend the soft cover between my hands. That other Asian girl—was that her sister? Did her sister really just leave her there to save her own ass? Cold, man. Is that what these abilities do to them? Turn them into animals that know it’s all about survival of the fittest—
Because the situation already isn’t uncomfortable enough, 2A, the neighbor to my right, apparently has a guest of his own for the evening. I can feel the bedpost knocking against mine through the wall and scramble to grab the TV remote before the moaning starts. Static, static, static, news, game show rerun…I settle on The Price Is Right and turn the volume way up. This damn freak—I should have just left her, hoped to find one closer to Phoenix. She’s pricked every last one of my nerves with this act of hers, trying to pretend she’s all innocent and sweet to work me over, to put me in this exact place where I feel like I have to make sure she doesn’t have to deal with an ugly thing like that.
There has to be something in the handbook about PSFs being willing to pick up a kid instead of me having to drive to Prescott to drop her off. I don’t like the way my brain keeps circling back to wondering if I should give her one of the pillows or a blanket or if she can send an electric charge through the bed frame and kill me while I’m sleeping.
There’s a brief description in the book about what each color represents, but nothing about the theories of what caused the “mutation,” as they so eloquently put it. Abilities fluctuate in strength and precision depending on the individual Psi. Great. Of course life hands me the one that’s strong and precise enough to KO a car.
It’s sort of amazing to think that for as long as this has been going on, they’re still not any closer to figuring out what caused it or how to fix it. The rest of us would love if Gray would remember he’s supposed to be fixing the economy, too, not just pouring money into research for this supposed virus. What does it matter if we save the “next generation of Americans” when we can barely keep the current one going on what little we have? Nobody wants to have kids these days, not when it means potentially losing them a few years later. Birth rates are way down; there’s no immigration into or emigration out of the country because they’re terrified of the virus’s spreading. The future is all they want to talk about these days, not the present. Not how we fix things now. How will America move forward after losing an entire generation? the radio broadcasters want to know. If the Psi can be rehabilitated, how will they handle being reintroduced to society? asks the New York Times. Is this the end of days? cries the televangelist.
Maybe we all die out and the freaks inherit the world. No one seems to want to suggest that possibility, though.
There’s nothing about a PSF pickup in the handbook, of course, though there’s this: If you feel like you are in imminent danger and the Psi you are pursuing is classified as Red, Orange, or Yellow you can request backup from nearby skip tracers through the network. The Psi Special Forces unit and the United States government are not responsible for any reward disputes that may follow.
So…that’s ruled out, seeing as I still have zero access to the skip tracer network.
I roll off the bed, walking the long way around the freak to get to my food hoard and mini-fridge. As I slather peanut butter on the stale bread, I tell myself, Tomorrow you’ll be eating steak. Pizza. Whatever you want. Right now, though, I just feel exhausted at the thought of having to deal with all this again tomorrow. I can’t even psych myself up with the mental image of throwing the bills in the air as I jump on Phyllis’s crappy-ass bed, letting them shower down around me.
The beer might as well have been NyQuil. Gone are the glory days of high school, when I could down bottle after bottle after the Friday-night football games and then stay up late enough to watch the sun rise from the roof of my buddy Ryan’s house. One and done.
I don’t want to think about Ryan, though, or any of them. They left me behind, vanished into a world of black uniforms and secrets. It’s fine. I swear it is. Sometimes, though, I just wish one of them had fought to take me with them. It’s hard to be the person who gets left behind, and never the person who gets to do the leaving.
I’m just starting to drift off to sleep, the handbook open across my chest, when the game show ends. At some point, I must have dozed off, because the next things I’m aware of are Judy Garland’s unmistakable crooning and her big brown eyes meeting mine as I squint at the screen. It’s that famous song about the rainbow—lemon drops, birds, all those nice things. She’s flanked by her little dog and a sepia-toned Midwest sky. The next time my eyelids flutter open, the house is in the tornado, crashing down.
I pat around the bed, searching for the remote just as Dorothy opens the door of her house to the Technicolor world of Oz.
It’s…somehow nicer than I remembered. My dad forced me to watch it with him when I was a little kid, maybe seven or eight, and all I remember thinking was how stupid the special effects were compared to those in the action movie I’d just seen in the theater the night before. I hated everything, even the way Dorothy’s voice seemed to wobble when she talked.
And I swear, the minute that big pink bubble appears and the good witch, whatever her name is, appears in that froufrou dress, I feel the bed jerk as the freak handcuffed to it twists to get closer to the screen.
I prop myself up on my elbows, peering down at her in the dark. She’s rearranged herself so she’s sitting awkwardly on her knees. I know the handcuff must be digging into her skin, but she doesn’t seem bothered by it. Her face is reflected in the TV’s glass face, and even before the Munchkins start singing and parading around, I see her eyes go wide and her lips part in a silent gasp. She’s riveted, like she’s never seen anything like it before. That seems impossible. Who hasn’t watched The Wizard of Oz?
It keeps her quiet and occupied—and to be honest, I’m too lazy to get the remote from where it’s fallen on the floor. So I leave it on and switch off the light on the nightstand. I try to sleep, but I can’t. And it’s not that the TV is on too loud, or that it’s too bright—I actually want to watch this. My brain wants to puzzle out why my dad was so hell-bent on getting me to sit through the whole thing. Like with everything he else loved, I’m searching for him in it. A line he borrowed, some kind of philosophy he gleaned from it…and really, all I can see is how this candy-colored world must have made him happy on the days he could barely bring himself to get out of bed.