by Elen Essem
In the future, the Moral Law lets people kill their enemies to boost their reputation.
Zhoujian Chan and Marianne Sang lead different lives, all except for one thing--they've both killed someone. Zhoujian stood up to a student at school, ending the life of a malicious bully. Marianne murdered a homeless man who pursued her at night. Their actions are accepted by a society that promotes violence to show strength and conformity. The society convinces people that, by standing out and speaking with one's fist, they can fit in and feel wanted. When humble Zhou and headstrong Mari are singled out for being individuals, they are taken to an island. Here in isolation they are stripped of any identity, the government's idea of the ultimate punishment. But once the two realize they don't need violence to belong, they revert to their peaceful ways and devise a plan to head back to their corrupt homeland and change people's frame of mind. Can Zhou and Mari reverse human error, or will they pay with their lives?
"Every man is equal in the plight of murder and individualism can perish for good, creating an equal state for all mankind."
--The official Moral Law
The meeting room swelled with heat. A single fly buzzed about people's heads, making the situation more uncomfortable than it already was. Not to mention the room was on the twenty-fourth floor, where the sweltering temperature was magnified by the mid-August heat wave. Men and women wore stiff suits and skirts, their faces taut and worn. Everyone was tired of hearing Reginald Marcus speak.
Reginald Marcus, a man with ebony skin in his mid-fifties, adjusted his tie and cleared his throat. He gestured animatedly at the charts and graphs, explaining Marcus Enterprise's latest advancements in the field. The CEO of a popular engineering company that specialized in manufacturing aero-engines and providing IT and consulting services, Marcus had a bit of an ego. But that wasn't to say he didn't care about his company workers. Anyone who knew him said he was kind, but once he started discussing business tactics he could be competitive and even discourteous.
Shihong Chan sat directly across from Marcus. He was quite the opposite of Marcus, with a cold personality and an unnerving indifference about him. No one liked him very much, but since he was the company supervisor he was almost always seen with Marcus. Shihong looked stiff and pale compared to Marcus, his thin face gleaming with displeasure. Dressed in a black business suit he regarded his T-44 carefully, his dark eyes scanning the room. The sunlight glanced off his scarlet tie, which cast an eerie red glow over Marcus's torso.
"Mr. Chan, what do you think? I'd love to hear your opinion," the CEO practically gushed. The people in the room shifted apprehensively.
"I think it's fine," said Shihong dismissively, gazing evenly at Marcus. "I have no reason to criticize it."
"That's settled, then," said Marcus as he beamed. He clapped his hands together and everyone in the room jumped, except for Shihong. Shihong flinched slightly, but he stretched his lips over his teeth in what was supposed to be a smile.
No one missed the awkward handshake the two men exchanged. As the others filed out, Marcus made a point to approach Shihong.
"How are you, Shihong? How's your wife doing?" Marcus asked politely, searching his friend's face.
"She's not feeling well, mostly in pain," replied his supervisor.
At this, Marcus laughed and clapped him on the back. "The baby's due any day now, right? I do wish your family luck, my friend, I really do. I remember when my wife had our first. I couldn't sleep for weeks after little Glory was born, she cried so much. But it's worth it, Shihong. It's all worth it in the end."
Shihong nodded. "I'm sure it is, Reginald. Thank you."
Reginald Marcus was found dead the next day.
"You can't make me!" the student roared. "No one can tell me what to do!" His massive frame towered over the young woman. Sweet and vulnerable, with large eyes and ruby-red lips, the woman nearly buckled from his words. Zhoujian didn't blame her. The student, Austin, was not someone he'd pick a fight with. But then again fighting wasn't his thing, and it never really had been.
"Austin--Mr. Gage, please--!" the teacher stammered, stumbling back. She never got to finish. In three quick strides, Austin was at her desk. Before she was could say anything his huge ham-like fist shot out and smashed into her chest. There was a ghastly heart-stopping crack; she toppled back, all the way over the chair, her head striking the desk with a solid thwack. The class cheered as she lay motionless on the floor, her skirt risen up to reveal smooth skinny thighs. With a sick feeling in his stomach, Zhou looked on. He refused to join the others. No, he couldn't, not looking at the tights she wore, the polka-dotted ones with the roses. There was a large run in them now, thanks to Austin, or perhaps it was done by the hand of a former student. Abuse towards teachers was not uncommon.
He swallowed hard, trying to ignore the jeers, the furious jab from a nearby classmate who demanded he join in. I can't, he thought, glancing at the teacher's pantyhose again. She was young and quite pretty, and he could easily imagine her walking through the aisle at a store, pushing her cart along, until she stumbled upon that very pair. They're perfect! she would declare, whether to herself or to no one in particular. And then she would try them on and fall in love with them. They would be something she could look forward to, miniature budding roses in the sea of violence she witnessed every day at work. Perhaps she experienced it as well. Perhaps it explained the tear.
Perhaps, Zhou thought, swallowing again, she's dead. Then she won't get to wear those ever again. And her happiness was all for nothing.
A shrill, tinny sound interrupted his thoughts. It was the bell, dismissing class. There was a collective shuffle as people gathered their backpacks and electronics. No one glanced twice at the teacher. Some didn't even bother to glance once. They all filed out loudly, obnoxiously shouldering and punching one another. Their voices were raised, deafening, proof that reassured themselves as well as everyone else that they were in control. That no one could ask anything of them.
Zhou quietly followed, the last out. Always the last. He wasn't a leader, but he wasn't much of a follower either. He was nobody, a drifter, a person who went by the beat of their own drum. An outcast.
At his locker, he dumped his backpack and retrieved a sack from the very back. He didn't dare bring his backpack to lunch. That was an open invitation for someone to steal his things, which had happened on more than one occasion.
"Aww, poor virgin," muttered a girl. Zhou peered around the locker door and saw a girl standing there, her own locker open. She shook her head, smiling venomously. He didn't smile back. "Always so cold!" she whined, frowning and blinking her eyes rapidly. False eyelashes, loaded with glitter, batted against her rouged cheeks. "Why you no smile?" she teased, pouting and batting those lashes again. He said nothing. He slammed his locker shut, his backpack safe within, and turned away, his sack lunch gripped firmly in his hand.
"Poor virgin!" she called after him, tripping in her sky-high pumps. "You've never hit anybody! Never even killed somebody! What do you do, anyway?"
"Whatever I choose to do," he answered simply, not bothering to turn around. Then he turned the corner, leaving her. But that didn't keep her words from bothering him. He really was virgin, which meant he had a clean slate. He'd never harmed anyone, at least not purposefully. Once, when he was small, he accidentally whacked the tetherball too hard at recess. It'd swung all the way around the pole before connecting with his playmate's head. The boy actually passed out from the impact. Zhou remembered the teachers praising him, thinking he'd done it on purpose.
He'll be a rough kid, that one, they'd exclaimed. No one will be able to tell him what to do. Oh, he'll have no problem fitting in whatsoever.
Of course it didn't turn out that way.
On the way to the cafeteria, he passed a row of red and black lockers. He saw his reflection in them, pale and skinny. He wasn't tall, but neither was he short; more so he remained somewhere in between. His hair stuck up at weird angles, jet-black and untamable. He always dressed nicely for school, in a clean T-shirt and jeans, his shoelaces double-knotted so no one could untie them. Dark almond-shaped eyes beneath fine-framed glasses gazed back.
The best way to lose your 'virginity,' everyone knew, was to kill someone. Zhou thought about this as he turned into the cafeteria, which was abuzz with people. The noise echoed like white static, a swarm of angry bees. Drowning it out, he remembered that not even Austin had murdered yet. It was a rare way to lose it, though eventually everyone killed someone they didn't like. If Zhou murdered someone, he'd be the talk of the school. The famous one, the boy every girl wanted to kiss. Popularity got you a date faster than anything else.
He had never kissed a girl. A senior in high school, and he'd never kissed a girl.
Well, he thought, if it means I have to kill someone, I guess I can wait a little longer.
"Ma! Are you here?" Zhou made sure to leave his shoes in the garage. His parents were adamant about clean floors.
A small woman padded out of the kitchen. Barefoot, she wore a flowery apron and a frown. Her dark hair was styled in a pixie cut, showing off the jade earrings Zhou's father had given her for their anniversary. "I'm not deaf," she huffed. "I can hear you." She wiped her hands on her apron, leaving streaks of what looked like blood. "Did you go to the grocery store like I asked?"
"Yeah, I have the sacks in the car still..."
"Good," said his mom, cutting him short. "Could you get them?"
"I was going to drop my backpack off first. In my room."
"Oh, good," said his mom again, not looking at him. She headed over to the counter and faced the cutting board. With a sigh, she lifted a large, scaly thing that gleamed with coagulated blood. It was a fish. She'd stopped gutting it to talk to him. "Your dad comes back late. I'll be making supper. I've already told didi to do his homework, but could you check on him?"
It was Zhou's turn to sigh. Jing was his little brother, eight years old and a raging terror. "I will," Zhou promised. His mother beamed. He turned and headed upstairs in pursuit of Jing, passing an array of family pictures and good luck charms. His parents were second generation Chinese and they sometimes spoke Mandarin in the house. Sometimes. His Mandarin was about as good as a four-year-old's. His brother's was even worse. Their parents mainly spoke Chinese when they didn't want the brothers to know what they said, yet even they struggled when they went to China for holidays.
Jing's room was the first on the left. There was a muffled thudding noise behind the door. Whomp! Whomp! Whomp! Zhou didn't even bother to knock. He grabbed the knob and yanked the door open.
The room had a domed ceiling, and its dark walls gave it a cave-like appearance. Nothing matched, either. The curtains were ragged gray, bought at a garage sale, and the bedspread was bright orange. Posters of AK-47s and 50 calibers plastered the walls. There was even a knife encased in a glass box. It was Jing's favorite; the 13-year-old swore he'd use the knife to claim his first Catch.
Zhou closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Didi, where'd you get those posters?" He let the question out in one, big sigh. He already knew the answer. He'd spotted the posters crammed carelessly in his backpack a week ago, no doubt won at school after a close gamble. Gambling, at eight years old!
Jing scowled. He was a skinny little creature, wearing boxing gloves and a pout. The pout would've been cute on any other child, save for the massive punching bag that hung from the ceiling. It swayed in the center of the room like a pendulum. Zhou was reminded of a Newton's cradle, a childhood gizmo that'd transfixed him from the start. But this time, it wasn't a tiny silver ball that put the others in motion. This time, it was his brother that swung the world out of balance. The eight-year-old was anything but innocent.
"Go away, Zhou! You ruin everything." Jing rolled his eyes. He tore off his gloves and stuffed them in his backpack. "What? Stop watching me!"
"Where did you get those posters?" Zhou pressed.
"What posters?" his brother retorted, turning around and carefully peeling the posters from the wall. He slid them in his backpack with steady hands.
"I'm not leaving until you tell me where you got those posters!" Zhou demanded.
"Or what?" huffed Jing. "You'll tell on me?"
Maybe it was the expression on his little brother's face, that slender jaw clenched too tightly like a man's, or maybe it was his hands curled into miniature fists. Whatever it was, something snapped inside Zhou. He was the older brother, the protective one. And so he took it upon himself to march straight past Jing and retrieve the posters from the backpack. He gripped them threateningly, between both hands, his face expressionless.
"ZHOU!" Jing screamed. He tackled his brother, or at least attempted to. His fists, well-trained for their size, pummeled Zhou's legs and thighs, but that didn't stop Zhou from crumpling the posters into a ball and throwing them under his feet. As he stomped on them, over and over again, Jing clutched his head and wailed like a banshee.
"Zhou, don't!" cried Jing, tears actually running down his cheeks. Zhou paused and looked at the battered posters. They were ruined beyond repair.
"Is there a match?" Zhou spat, anger clear in his voice. "I'm going to put these outside and light them on fire!"
"No, Zhou, please!" Jing begged. "I won't do it again, I promise!"
"No gambling? No possession of...of these?" Zhou folded his arms, not lifting his foot off the posters. Jing fell to his knees and tried desperately to pry them out from underneath, but Zhou stepped on his fingers. He howled and fell back.
"I'm showing these to Ma." Zhou scooped up an armful of poster and stood. "Don't follow me."
And Jing didn't.
When he got downstairs and revealed the posters to their mother, she simply sighed and set down the knife she was using to clean the fish. "Your father won't correct him. He thinks it's good practice."
Zhou, worried for his mother, patted her shoulder. "Do you need help with cooking, Ma?" he asked.
As he helped chop vegetables and prepare the sauce, he could see the large plasma-screen TV in the next room. It was on the local news and showed a picture of the teacher, the one whom Austin had attacked. Piper Fields in hospital, doctors expect her to recover scrolled along the bottom. So Austin hadn't killed her. At least, not yet. But that didn't stop him from attacking somebody else.
She wasn't even five foot, but Marianne Sang had a fiery temper. Small and slender, with huge brown eyes and sleek black hair down to her waist, she was a force to be reckoned with. To prove the point, she was currently standing in the middle of her AP English class, one hand on her hip and the other pointing rudely at another pupil's face.
"But you can't prove that," she said in a loud, high voice. "Plus you just stated the same thing twice. Don't think that just because you word it differently the second time, you'll sound smarter. It doesn't work, boyo."
Her opponent, whose brown hair stood up in spikes all over his head, gulped. He resembles a hedgehog, Mari mused.
The bell rang and the entire class continued to gape at her. No one moved. The teacher, a little unnerved at her brusqueness, dismissed the class with a cough. Everyone trudged out, shuffling their feet almost shamefully. Mari was infamous for her lack of a filter. She simply didn't have one. She spoke her mind, an almost dangerous trait nowadays, and she didn't give a care in the world what others thought of her. She was a free spirit; she glided in the sky, untouchable, with wings that lifted her above everyone else.
And now she used those wings to float out the door, her spirits high and her thoughts elsewhere. After school, on the bus ride home, she rolled the window down to stare at the bleak clouds overhead. She stuck her hand out and wiggled her thin fingers, feeling the cold air move between them. Autumn was coming and the trees shone magnificently in an array of crimson and gold. The air filled her lungs, awakening her.
She hummed quietly to herself, oblivious to the sounds of car accidents all around her, of crashing metal and shattering lights. The bus driver avoided the swerving cars, cursing every time he did so. People who drank threw away their opportunity to gain their Catch. She'd seen people drive under the influence, desperate to escape the pressure of killing someone. Though it was a rare few who broke, those who did felt obliged to finish it off themselves. Ultimately, they would end their own life instead of take another's. Dying virgin was the worst thing that could happen to you. Even sweet, fiery-tempered, daydreaming Mari knew that.
Yet she was still virgin.
Just as the bus approached her apartment, the driver swore and the bus lurched viciously to the side. A car hurled out of its driveway, tires screeching on pavement, before spinning uncontrollably in the street. Not wanting to see what would become of the driver, Mari flew down the bus steps and onto the sidewalk. The bus peeled out and a split second later, Mari heard a tremendous crash. She knew without looking that an oncoming car hadn't stopped in time. Instead of turning to stare, instead of imaging the aftermath, she simply turned her face to the sky. She began to sing, her arms spread wide, spinning around in a circle. She danced and spun her way towards the doorstep. The lawn was littered with broken bicycles and neighbors' toys, as well as the cheap, inflatable pool that was known for leaking water onto the path.
She sang in an incredibly clear, beautiful voice. It held the whispery tones perfect for a lullaby, yet she belted it loudly enough that it projected like a professional's.
"Pretty lady, why is the rain coming down today...coming down today? Pretty lady, I've got a gun coming your way...coming your way..." She slid the key in the door and rattled it. It took a few tries before it ever opened. "Gonna slip into your room...gonna hold the gun to you...gonna make you bleed since there's no tomorrow for you." The door finally popped open. She grinned broadly, showing a pearly smile. "Gotcha!" she said aloud.
There was a scurry as two thin figures emerged from the dimly-lit living room. Two little boys, their eyes wide and gaunt as though they were starving, appeared before her. The smaller one had dark, tousled hair and a mischievous air about him. The older one, still younger than Marie, was better groomed with close-cropped hair and a polo shirt that had a dark stain in the corner.
"Hey guys!" laughed Mari, sweeping the littler one into her arms. Marcel was nine, the baby of the family, and Mari always joked that she liked him best. Milton, the serious one of the three, rarely smiled in public. But today his lips were curved up in the smallest of smiles. He was thirteen, one year away from high school, yet his intelligence was well beyond his years.
"How was today, Mari?" asked Marcel. He was impossibly tiny for his age. Milton teased him, saying he hadn't hit his growth spurt yet. Outside the house, Milton didn't have much of a character. He often kept to himself, silent and unmoved. But around his family, the boy was transformed without the pressure of society lingering over him. As if to prove this, Milton scooped his younger brother in his arms and ground his knuckles into the top of his head, laughing evilly. "Stop!" yelped Marcel, too small to escape the onslaught of noogies. "Help, Mari!"
Mari laughed. "Milton, stop doing that to your brother! And my day was good, Marcel," she added as the smaller boy stumbled free, scowling. "I corrected another idiot once again."
"You think everyone's an idiot," Marcel protested, tugging on her sleeve.
"What time does Dad get back?" she asked, pulling Marcel towards the kitchen. Milton trailed behind, looking serious once more. "I don't know how late he gets off tonight. He's working at Kolab's restaurant again tonight." Kolab Chey, the only other Cambodian in town. Kolab had helped their father when he came to the United States. Their mother had died in the never-ending border wars between Thailand and Cambodia, leaving their father, Charya Sang, with three children and a suffering business. Mr. Sang had made the greatest decision of his life. He left behind his home country where he had met and married his wife, where he had started a career and fathered three children, and set off for an unfamiliar country with the rest of his savings. It had been just enough, but as a result Mr. Sang spoke very little English and made hardly enough money to support his children. He had kept his leaving a secret, so as to not be labeled a coward for not joining the war, but his children had been a priority above all else. If his wife could be lost to war, so could his children. And that, he most certainly couldn't afford.
Mari opened the pantries, searching for something to feed her brothers. It was only four o' clock, but her brothers' appetites were impossible to keep up with. She found their main supply of rice, a bag that was less than half full. The small white grains stared back at her sadly. Beside her, she heard Marcel's tummy growl.
"I work in an hour," she sighed, checking the clock. She would join her father in Kolab's restaurant and stay there until closing. Today was her shorter day. Normally, she was running back to the restaurant directly after school, barging in the middle of crowded tables and Kolab's round, flustered face, at which she would shout, "Tell me what to do!" in Khmer.
And Kolab would reply, "Get to work, girl! Your father's in back, busy in the kitchen, and you can serve tables!" Kolab was short-tempered and stern, but in a way she was like Mari's mother. Almost, but not quite. Her mother had died when she was twelve. Marcel had only been three, and so his memory of their mother was limited. Now, at seventeen, Mari missed her more than anything, but she had the determination and stubbornness to build herself a better life because of her father's sacrifices.
Mari watched as Milton stepped in to aid their brother. "I think there was some dry cereal somewhere. You like Crinkle Puffs, rights?"
"I hate Crinkle Puffs," Marcel pouted, folding his arms.
Milton hesitated a moment, his eyes skimming the near-bare counter. "I can add rice milk to make it sweeter, since we have no sugar. How does that sound?"
Marcel's eyes shone, and he clambered on top of the cushion that was fastened to a kitchen chair.
Mari had limited time to do homework before she headed to The Ivory Elephant, Kolab's restaurant. She hurriedly finished an American History project, which focused on terrorist attacks in the past. In the schools, they were taught that a plane never struck the once grand Twin Towers of New York. That it was all computer generated and that the buildings were eventually torn down because of relocation. Mari had it all explained through drawings and paragraphs. Her family didn't own the T-44, which was the latest personal device. "Better without it," her father had snorted. "Four is an unlucky number, and having two fours is the worst luck!"
Mari skipped supper as she changed into work clothes and headed to the garage, where she lifted her bike from its rack. The garage door was left open, broken and unable to go down. Old wood scraps and metal bits littered the cement floor, and there was a dry splash of white paint in one corner. Her father had lost the only family car, which the bank had repossessed, due to his inability to make car payments. Besides The Ivory Elephant, he also worked as a construction worker and on the weekends helped a family friend at the local gas station.
Her small, thin frame struggled to support the bike, but she managed to set the pink contraption on the ground. Hot pink, with gaudy tassels that adorned the handlebars, along with an oversized banana seat (with the awful yellow color to match), Mari's bike was well outdated and juvenile.
"Milton, I'm going out! Take care of Marcel!" she called. She heard a muffled reply from within the house and, without further ado, pedaled out.
When she pulled in front of The Ivory Elephant, a small restaurant decorated with two large elephant tusks by the door, she glimpsed Kolab through the musty windows. A short woman, not much taller than Mari, with a ponytail cropped to her shoulders and a hard, dark face. Behind her looked to be a crowded restaurant again. Mari took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, before parking her bike in front and marching straight in.
"Mari!" Kolab exclaimed, in that harsh bark of hers. "Get to work!" Kolab had thick forearms from lifting plates and her two small sons at home, but her stout structure didn't make her any less pretty. She had long lashes and her eyes were smaller than most of the Khmer people, but she had a kind of determined beauty about her.
Mari found herself scrubbing dishes the rest of the evening, in between burning her hands on hot plates and once having her foot accidentally trod on. Her hair came loose from its ponytail and sweat glistened on her golden-brown skin. She plunged her hands in the soapy water again and again, till her skin chafed and the rest of her turquoise nail polish wore off.
She was wiping a particularly hard piece of grit off a dish when she heard a commotion. Leaving the plate in the water, she dashed out into the main dining area--and immediately regretted it.
Kolab stood face to face with an angry customer, whose red face told Mari all she needed to know. There was going to be a fight.
"Sir, please sit. I want no violence in this place," Kolab said heatedly, folding her arms. Her biceps flexed, so big after carrying heavy objects and managing the restaurant.
"Your daughter told off my nephew in school today! Huh! Like she could get away with that!" the man shouted, pointing an accusing finger past Kolab, straight at Mari.
Mari froze. Surely he couldn't mean...? And then it dawned on her. The boy with the hedgehog-like hair in English class, the one she'd walked all over. Not that she had cared at the time. Silly Mari, she thought furiously, scolding herself. Always saying whatever you want to and never thinking of the consequences.
"I will NOT have some little virgin act like she's made the most Catches! And especially not towards my nephew, not towards Alec. Alec is no coward and will make a Catch before she ever does!" The man's face was dark and flushed. He glared at Kolab, as though the anger reflected in his eyes alone would be enough to let her know how he felt.
Kolab's own black eyes flashed. "I'm sorry if that's how you feel, sir, but--"
"Don't let her back around my nephew! I repeat, I've already told Alec to make his first Catch, tomorrow! And it'll be that girl!" He looked straight at Mari.
Mari felt the pit of her stomach drop. Her blood had suddenly changed to ice. It lodged in her veins, sharp and lifeless, stealing her breath away. The stupid, blundering boy she'd one-upped at school was planning to kill her. He was going to make her his first Catch.
But before she could voice her concern to Kolab, before she could cry out in despair, Kolab had seized the man and trapped him in an effective headlock.
"You want to threaten my daughter again, mister?" Kolab growled in his ear. The man struggled, his face turning red now for a different reason. Mari watched as the red turned into blue. He was choking, slowly.
"Get off me, lady! I'll make sure Alec Catches that little brat, if it's the last thing I--!"
He never got to finish. Kolab twisted the man's head so fast; there was a resounding crack! as his neck broke. His limp body fell to a heap as Kolab threw it away from her, disgust plain on her face. "Anyone else want to hurt my daughter?" she called menacingly, daring someone to contradict her. No one moved, though a lady shifted at a nearby table. "Good," said Kolab, and as she moved away from the body and glanced towards the windows, no doubt awaiting the officials who would document her Catch, her eyes caught Mari's.
Mari had no idea what would happen at school now. Would Alec really try and kill her?
As though reading her mind, Kolab gave her a short, curt nod and returned to work.
The sound of footsteps could be heard, stomping up the stairs before the front door slammed open. A thin-faced, thin-lipped man stood there, his eyes narrowing as he surveyed Zhou and his wife in the kitchen. Zhou's mother smiled and called out to the bitter man whose hair was thinning on top. She waved the cluster of spinach she'd been washing.
"You're back early!" she called as he bustled over. He gave his wife a possessive hug, a deep kiss on the lips that made Zhou uncomfortable. Zhou started to turn away, planning to head upstairs, but his father stopped him.
"How was school?" Mr. Chan barked. His voice was short, unpleasant.
"Good," was the first thing that came to Zhou's mind. He wasn't particularly fond of his father. After all, Shihong Chan was known for one of the most devious Catches of all time. His name was infamous all around the world, and Zhou cared little for the fame that came with it. Shihong Chan, also the executive director of Chan Enterprises, had murdered his former CEO in cold blood. Some claimed that Shihong had been assigned the secret project to kill Reginald Marcus.
After Marcus was found slumped over his desk, dead, people suspected Zhou's father immediately. Shihong Chan was renown amongst his coworkers as an aggressive, short-tempered man. The corporation shut down at once, only to resurface with Shihong Chan as the new CEO. By then, the country's president and administration had recently passed the law regarding Catches and Misses, the official Moral Law: Every man is equal in the plight of murder and individualism can perish for good, creating an equal state for all mankind.
Therefore Shihong Chan had made the first memorable Catch ever recorded, setting unreal goals for humble, unobtrusive Zhou. His mother had several Misses on her record, which was a disappointment to the media. Zhou's mother was unable to live up to the name her husband had made for himself. But Zhou was as determined as ever to avoid his father's limelight.
Zhou stared at his father's hardened features, his face pulled too tightly and his eyebrows furrowed in judgement. Then he turned and bolted up the stairs, past the door where he could hear young Jing defacing the punching bag.
Zhou wanted to be a mechanical engineer one day. He loved math and could calculate numbers like no one else. But he didn't want to work for Chan Enterprises, which was his family's goal. He wanted to get away from all the fame his name carried and establish a new firm under a different title.
He sat at his desk, vivid red and orange light flooding its surface. His prized lava lamp had bright globules floating around in it, intriguing him. Next to it was a Newton's cradle, which had first interested him in the laws of physics and science itself. His math homework lay partially finished before him. He couldn't seem to concentrate, unable to get Austin, Mrs. Fields, and his father out of his mind. Their faces swam vividly in and out of his vision like apparitions. Before long, he realized he'd been drifting off to sleep. Blinking away a headache, Zhou turned off his lava lamp and plunged his bedroom into darkness.
He woke the next day to a distant pounding. At first he mistook it for his ongoing headache. He lay still and listened a little longer, concentrating on the popcorn ceiling of his bedroom. Maybe it was thunder? A split second later, as the pounding progressed, he realized it wasn't thunder. And it wasn't his headache, either. He grabbed his glasses off his bedside table, which had lain on top of a book, A Beginner's Guide to Thermodynamics, and hurried into the jeans he'd discarded on the floor earlier. In a dazed, half-asleep state Zhou made it down the hall, still yanking his pants over his hips. He reached Jing's bedroom and pounded on the door.
"Didi! Open this door, now!"
Jing, either unable to hear him over the pounding of the punching bag or just simply ignoring him, didn't reply.
Zhou set his jaw, annoyed, and pulled out a paperclip which was fairly good at picking locks. After about a minute, the door popped open.
As soon as he stepped into the room, he heard a scream and glimpsed a projectile hurling through the air. Zhou ducked in time to avoid a dart. It landed neatly in the wall behind him, embedding itself in a portrait of the family.
"You idiot!" Zhou yelled. "That could've been my face!" He hurled himself at Jing, who coiled back like a spring and slammed into Zhou with such force it rattled his teeth. Zhou stumbled back, swearing in Chinese, unable to comprehend his eight-year-old brother's strength. He was sure Jing had broken his arm.
"Where did you learn to hit like that?" Zhou eventually managed, a bit out of breath. "You know the Moral Law doesn't apply to you until you're sixteen."
"Only eight more years," said Jing nonchalantly, shrugging.
Zhou studied his brother for a moment, speechless. He didn't want to believe what he was hearing. Young, corrupted Jing was no longer the sibling Zhou had pushed on the swing out at recess. He was no longer the small, tousled-haired boy who collected bugs and boldly announced that he wanted to study spiders. When he was a baby, the brothers had taken a bath together, their father snapping pictures. But now that Jing was gone, replaced by a cold life decoy that wreaked havoc in its wake.
Zhou nodded, still unspeaking, and turned and walked out of the room.
In biology class, Zhou found himself in the humid environment of the school greenhouse. The greenhouse was located on the roof, making it the hottest location in the entire school. His hands caked in dirt, his own skin reeking of mud and sweat, he worked silently over the plants. His fingers nimbly turned the pages of his textbook, reading up on plant diseases.
As he reached for the potting soil, having finished identifying various diseases on the plants, another hand brushed his. He glanced up, startled, and found himself staring into impossibly large brown eyes. Framed by long thick lashes they gazed back intently, as though unaware of their intrusion. They were set in a small heart-shaped face and belonged to a girl his age. She had honey-brown skin and full pink lips, and a wide but cute button nose.
The girl tucked a strand of black hair behind her ear, revealing two piercings in her lobe: a pearl and a small gold ring. "What are you looking at?" she asked, taken aback by his staring. When she spoke, Zhou noticed the perfect Cupid's bow curve of her upper lip. "You're in my physics class, right?" the girl asked. She had a pretty voice. It wasn't soft, but rather loud and clear and somehow still feminine. However she eyed him wearily and her assertive tone wasn't welcoming.
"I am," said Zhou, surprised that she would recognize his face. He didn't think anyone paid him attention.
The girl nodded once, her expression blank, before turning to her notebooks.
When the bell rang, students fled the greenhouse. Eager for the day to be finally be over, Zhou leapt up and accidentally knocked over a plant. Its plastic container cracked on the hard floor, spilling the dark soil everywhere. Zhou stared at the tangled, sprawled roots that were reddish brown against the black dirt. He sighed and went to work, finding the spare plastic pots in the cabinet and replanting the leafy mass. He had his fingers tangled in the roots when he heard someone approaching.
"Well, what have we here? Zhou, of all people?" drawled a cruel, familiar voice. "Or should I say, the Zhou Chan? How's your record?" A careless laugh echoed in the sweltering greenhouse. Zhou's blood ran cold. "Killed anyone yet? Your dad sure upped the ante, from what I've heard."
Austin Gage sauntered casually between the tables, sneering and gripping something. It took Zhou a second to recognize it as a knife. Jing's knife, his favorite one.
"Where did you get that?" Zhou asked, his voice shaking. He was frozen, rooted to the spot, the plant still wrapped around his hand. He knew he looked stupid.
Austin threw back his head and laughed, rolling his eyes. Apparently he found Zhou stupid, too. "Your little brother lent me this beauty. I told him I was going to make my first Catch tonight."
How ironic, that Jing's knife would be used to kill his own brother. Zhou swallowed. He wasn't ready to die, not yet. His dream of becoming a mechanical engineer, of starting his own firm without his father's interference, still needed to bloom. And he'd have to be alive to do it.
"I'm sorry, Austin," said Zhou, carefully walking sideways towards the biggest cabinet in the greenhouse. To Austin, it would look like he was backing away. But Zhou made sure to angle his body in the right way to reach the cabinet. He knew what he needed to beat Austin.
Austin took the bait. "Scared, Zhou? Is that why you're sorry?"
"No." Zhou knew he had to choose his words just right. Anything to bide him more time. Sweat rolled down his face and back, glistened on his arms and seared there like fire. He begged himself to think straight. "I'm sorry that you want to do this. Why do you choose me, Austin? To be your first Catch? What about Cody, or Darius?"
"There's no competition in Cody. He's the worst quarterback this school's seen in centuries." Austin spat on the ground. "As for Darius, well, he's just not a bookworm like you are, Zhou. I mean, look at you--you're smart and you have all the answers in your head. And you're smart enough to write them all down on paper. I don't need you alive to steal your papers, but it'd sure help if you weren't here to see me do it."
Zhou spotted what he needed, propped up against the cabinet. It was hidden in the shadows. Good, right where he needed it.
"Nobody will notice if you're dead," continued Austin, casually flipping the knife in his hand. "Say goodbye, Zhou Chan!" With that, he lunged at Zhou. The blade glinted; Austin wielded it expertly, aiming straight at Zhou's chest.
But Zhou was ready. He sprang right at Austin, grabbing the shovel from behind the cabinet. He parried the attack, keeping as much distance between him and the knife. The long handle allowed him to put all his force behind it. He smacked Austin in the forehead with the flat side. There was a metallic bang. Austin stumbled back, swearing.
Zhou leapt forward again. The edge of the shovel made contact with his opponent's head, creating a deep gash. Austin yelled, his face contorted in pain, but he lashed out with the knife and slashed Zhou's thigh.
This time it was Zhou's turn to cry out. His vision blurred as pain shot through his leg. There was another flash of steel. He blocked it too late; the blade sliced his chest, right above his heart.
With one last burst of strength, Zhou wound up and swung the shovel. It arched in the air before colliding with Austin's head. The boy's eyes widened in surprise. The knife clattered from his grip as he fell backwards, his face a frozen mask of disbelief. Zhou threw the shovel aside, feeling sick to his stomach. He limped over to Austin and fell to his knees, grasped his classmate's wrist and checked for a pulse. Bile rose in Zhou's throat. There was no heartbeat. Austin was dead.
Zhou gagged. He ran from the greenhouse, to the nearest bathroom back inside the main building, and vomited. He retched until there was nothing left, just violent dry-heaving that left him winded.
He flushed the toilet, then propped against a sink outside the stall. His face stared back at him in the mirror, pale and sweaty. His hair was matted with dirt. His head throbbed and stung. He frowned, watching himself in the mirror, and raised a trembling hand. His reflection imitated him. He watched as he drew his hand away from his head. It came away with a dark, wet stain. Austin had nicked him on the head. It was a shallow cut, but it was incredible that it wasn't deeper.
Austin would have killed him. That much was clear. Zhou took several deep breaths, struggling to calm himself. How did a person recover from this? He had made his first Catch. He took off his glasses and wiped his eyes, tasting salt. Soundless tears trickled down his cheeks. He washed his face, willing the tears, the grief, to vanish.
He decided he wouldn't claim it. It would go undocumented, but he wasn't his father. He was no murderer.