Catalyst, p.1
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       Catalyst, p.1

           Laurie Halse Anderson
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  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page


  Part 1 - Solid

  1.0 - Elemental

  2.0 - Delayed Reaction

  Part 2 - Liquid

  3.0 - Galvanize

  4.0 - Oxidizing Agent

  5.0 - Alchemy

  6.0 - Electrostatic Forces

  7.0 - Nuclear Stability

  0.0.0 - Quantum Shift

  Part 3 - Gas

  8.0 - Photoelectrons

  9.0 - Radioactive

  10.0 - Phase Transition

  11.0 - Alpha Decay

  12.0 - Activated Complex

  13.0 - Critical Pressure



  When I walk into AP Chem, twenty-six sets of eyes follow me to my table. Twenty-six pairs of lips whisper the same question. “Are you in? Are you in? Are you in? Are you in, Kate?”

  “Well?” asks Diana Sung, my lab partner, 3.86 GPA, accepted by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

  “I didn’t check the mail yesterday.”

  “She hasn’t heard yet,” Diana reports to the rest of the class.

  Several dweeb-kings nod smugly: Ed Davis, 3.97, accepted by every single college he applied to, all fifteen of them; Omar Hakeen, 4.12 (we get extra brownie points for super-advanced honors courses), full ride to Howard University; Eric Warren, 3.84, headed to Dartmouth to study pre-med and play hockey.

  “They have a pool going. The odds on you getting into MIT are four to one.”


  Diana fiddles with the graphing calculator. “Against.”



  Published by Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England

  Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road,

  Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia

  Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

  Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand

  First published in the United States of America by Viking,

  a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 2002

  Published by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2003

  Copyright © Laurie Halse Anderson, 2002 All rights reserved


  Anderson, Laurie Halse.

  Catalyst / by Laurie Halse Anderson.

  p. cm.

  Summary: Eighteen-year-old Kate, who sometimes chafes at being a preacher’s daughter, finds herself losing control in her senior year as she faces difficult neighbors and the possibility that she may not be accepted by the college of her choice.

  ISBN : 978-1-101-54970-4

  [1. High schools—Fiction. 2. Schools—Fiction. 3. Neighborliness—Fiction.

  4. Death—Fiction. 5. Fathers and daughters—Fiction.] I. Title.

  PZ7.A54385 Cat 2002 [Fic]—dc21 2002007115

  This book is dedicated to the memory of Edith MacDonald Larrabee.

  Take my hand and walk with me in the forest.

  Part 1


  “The rate of a chemical reaction depends on the frequency and force of collisions between molecules.”

  —ARCO Everything You Need to Score

  High on AP Chemistry, 3rd Edition



  SAFETY TIP: Never carry out unauthorized experiments.

  I like to run at night. No one watches me. No one hears my sneakers slipping in the loose gravel at the side of the road. Gravity doesn’t exist. My muscles don’t hurt. I float, drift past churches, stores, and schools, past the locked houses and their flicker-blue windows. My mind is quiet and clear.

  A ghost hovers off my left shoulder. I can almost hear her breathe. I pick up the pace. She doesn’t scare me; I know I’ll win. Well, I’m pretty sure I’ll win. Chances are good.

  On the outside I am Good Kate, Rev. Jack Malone’s girl, isn’t she sweet, she helps so much with the house, so sad about her mother, and she’s smart, too, seen her name in the papers for honor roll this and science fair that, she’s got scholarship written all over her, runs pretty fast, she’s so good with her brother, why can’t all teenagers be like her?

  On the inside I am Bad Kate, daughter of no one, she’s such a bitch, thinks she’s all that, prays with her eyes open, lets her boyfriend put his hands all over her, Miss Perfect, Miss Suck-up, disrespectful, disagreeable, still waters run deep and dirty, she’s going to lose it, just you watch, I’ve seen her type before.

  Run faster.

  Sweat trickles along the bones of my face and licks my neck. Running, sweating, evaporating… I’m distilling myself in the dark: mixture, substance, compound, element, atom. The ghost is getting closer. Run faster. Push beyond the wall, push beyond my limits. My chest is flayed open; no lungs to breathe with, no heart to pound. The air flows around and between my shiny bones. My skin is silk. I take it off when I get hot.

  The first night I ran late like this, the puddles were filmed with ice. Now the trees are leafing and the roads are dry and I fly almost naked, breathless, running out of the empty night into a place where I can’t hear myself think.

  I wish I never had to stop.

  1.1 Stasis

  I take a quick shower and pull on old sweats and two pairs of socks. It’s only quarter after one and there’s no way I’m going to fall asleep, not with all the crap running through my head. But that’s a good thing. Insomnia rocks, actually. You can get a lot done if you don’t sleep. I’ve turned into a hyper-efficient windup Kate doll, super Kate, the über-Kate. I wish this had happened last year. It would have given me more time to study for my AP exams.

  I head downstairs to finish the laundry. The rest of the family does not share my passion for clean clothes. Dad (age 47; hobbies: religion, football, losing hair) wouldn’t notice if he wore the same pair of pants for a month. Toby (age 14; hobbies: trombone, soccer, masturbation) doesn’t know how to find the laundry room. I take the clean load out of the dryer, move the wet stuff over, and empty the hamper into the washing machine. I pour in the soap and set the dial to regular.

  Bad Kate mutters that they need to start washing their own clothes. What are they going to do when I go to MIT? Good Kate doesn’t mind. She thinks there is something soothing about doing the laundry, something de-stressing. Besides, I don’t leave for another four months.

  Bad Kate points out that I have not been accepted yet. She can be a real bitch after midnight.

  I carry the dry clothes to the family room and dump them on the couch. Sophia, our Siamese cat, strolls into the room and hops up on the recliner. She is followed by her boy-toy, Mr. Spock, our black Lab. He lies down in front of her chair with a groan.

  I set up the ironing board, plug in the iron, and turn on the TV to the Sci-Fi Channel. A bug-eyed, tentacled alien has just totaled her spaceship in a cornfield. (The ship looks alarmingly like my car.) A SWAT team confronts her in the middle of all that corn. Poor little alien.

  I pull one of Dad’s shirts out of the pile and iron it. By the time I’m done, it can almost stand up by itself. Nobody irons like me. As I button the shirt on its hanger, a deep, wet cough echoes down the stairwell. Sophia and Mr. Spock stare at me, their black eyes drippy and wide like cartoon animals.

  “I gave him his medicine at ten-thirty,” I say.

  Another cough, as if on cue. Sophia flicks her tail in irritation. I set the shirt hanger on the edge of the ironing board. Toby ha
s allergies, asthma, and a bad cold. It sounds as if he has a quart of pus in his lungs.

  “He needs to cough,” I remind the cat. “It clears the mucus.” I check my watch. Pause. Pause. Toby coughs again. This one is better, productive and short. And then it’s quiet. “See?”

  Sophia bends over and licks her butt.

  “Oh, lovely. Thank you.”

  I lay another shirt on the ironing board. Toby is fine. Really. I checked his peak flow when he took the medicine, and he was way out of the danger zone. I pull out another shirt and spray starch on the collar. It’s not like this could get serious or anything. It’s just annoying, all that soggy noise—disgusting.

  I set the starch can on the end of the ironing board and pin down the collar with my fingertips. When I skate the hot iron across the cloth, the starch bubbles and hisses. I press the collar, work my way around the buttons, smooth out the buttonholes, and flatten the cuffs. When the detail work is done, I lay the shirt facedown and iron back and forth, back and forth. The wrinkles vanish. Next victim.

  On the television, the battle is heating up. The alien burbles something and whips out a weapon (though for all we know it could be a tentacle cleaner). The SWAT team lobs a canister of tear gas at her feet and it explodes. The alien falls to the ground, clawing at her eyeballs.

  I stop ironing. That is a major logic flaw: no alien lifeform would be affected by tear gas the way humans are. She’s probably not even carbon based. Don’t these writers know anything? Geez.

  I iron and iron and the movie goes downhill. Dad’s shirts and khakis are hung on hangers, his jeans are folded, his T-shirts stacked in his basket with all the limp, dark Dad socks. Sophia is asleep, her nose tucked under her tail. Mr. Spock yawns. I can’t help it; I yawn back. Oh yeah, sleep . . . a good concept. But I need to finish Toby’s clothes . . . and I should finish tomorrow’s to-do list, I should run the dishwasher. I should sleep, I should sleep, I should sleep. I know I should sleep, but knowing and doing are two different beasts. I’m stressed, duh, but it’s almost over. The finish line is in sight and I can hear the crowd roaring.

  I quickly iron my brother’s pants and shirts, keeping half an eye on the movie. They’d be treating that alien nicer if they knew about the mothership idling over Idaho. Just once I’d like to see the aliens win.

  Toby’s goalie shirt is at the bottom of the pile. You should never iron goalie shirts because they melt. I turn off the iron, unplug it, and move the plug three feet away from the wall. I know it is completely illogical to think that electricity could arc from the socket to the plug and heat the iron and burn the house down, but it’s almost two in the morning and I’m feeling a little lightheaded, so better safe than sorry.

  The movie breaks for commercials that try to sell me beer, leg hair remover, and steak knives. Oh, wait, one more—the psychic hotline. Gak. Gak. Gak.

  Last scene. They have the alien in a hospital hooked up to tubes and monitors. They are transforming her. Human flesh grows and covers her sapphire scales. The tentacles recede, and blonde hair sprouts from her scalp. Eyeballs grow into their sockets. White-coated scientists nod and approve. It’s a conspiracy. She’s perfect.

  Toby coughs again. The cat wakes up and scowls.

  I pick up the basket. “I know, I know. I’m going.”

  1.1.1 Relative Density

  My brother’s room stinks of male adolescent: used socks, dirty hair, cologne, and rotting fruit. It’s too warm in here and wicked humid, ideal breeding conditions for germs. You can practically see bacteria swarming in the air. I turn on the light, perch next to the patient, and poke his shoulder.

  “Wake up, Tobe. You need more medicine.”

  He groans once and flails an arm. Toby looks a little like Dad, I guess. He’s got the brown hair, the eyes close together. His face is long and peppered with zits. His ears are finally the right size for his head, but he needs to give up on the mustache-in-training. It looks like a fungal growth.

  I shove his shoulder harder and pull back the quilt. He fumbles for it and croaks, “Go away.”

  I pull the quilt out of reach. “You are coughing up pieces of lung and it’s grossing me out. Sit up.”

  He starts to say something, but a cough strangles him. He clutches the pillow and hacks. When the spasm is over, his fingers relax. I put my hand on his forehead. It’s not a precise way to measure a fever, but people are always doing it in commercials. Toby’s forehead is oily. I don’t think that’s related to the cough.

  He blinks and sits up, leaning against the headboard. I hand him the plastic cup of green cough medicine. “Drink it.”

  He gulps it down. “Blech. That’s disgusting.”

  “It’s good for you.” I pick up a half-finished bottle of Gatorade from the floor, unscrew the top, and hand it to him. “You need to go back to the doctor.”

  He polishes off the bottle in three gulps and drops it in an ocean of used Kleenex. “No, I don’t. It’s just allergies. What time is it?”

  “Almost two.”

  “Dang. It’s late.”

  “Duh. Go back to sleep. Your clean clothes are on the dresser. Put them away in the morning.”

  He nods and pulls the quilt back up to his chin. I toss the empty bottle in the trash and start picking up the tissues that litter the bed and floor. Hiding under the tissues is this month’s Playboy folded open to a revealing interview with Miss April. Toby, suddenly awake, sits up again and snatches it away from me.

  “Don’t say anything,” he says.

  “Why bother? I don’t care. You’re programmed to like that crap. You can’t help it.”

  “Shut up.”

  “Whatever.” I carry the trash can to the door. “It’s all silicone, you know.”

  “What is?”

  “The breasts, moron. In the pictures. They aren’t real. They’re pumped with silicone, the same stuff they use to make space suits. Think about that the next time you’re, ah, taking care of business.”

  “Thanks, Kate. I feel much better now.”

  “Just don’t leave it where Dad can find it, okay? We don’t need any more fireworks around here.”

  A car rolls up the driveway and Mr. Spock barks.

  “Speak of the devil,” Toby says with a yawn.

  1.2 Atomic Family

  I jog to my room and dive into bed just as the back door opens. Keys clang on the kitchen table, then slide off and drop to the floor. I can hear Dad chuckle. Whatever tragic emergency yanked him out of here at dinnertime must have turned out all right. Maybe he talked a jumper off the ledge, or rescued a small child, or negotiated peace in a faraway country. Maybe he won a poker game.

  He turns off the lights in the family room, then climbs the stairs. He passes my room, opens Toby’s door . . . quiet pause

  . . . he closes it. He walks down the hall to his own room, whistling Bach. Another pause. Click-click. His door shuts.

  Toby and I are the proton and neutron of our atomic family unit. Dad is the loosely bonded electron, negatively charged, zooming around us in his own little shell. From the outside, we seem to fit together perfectly. From the inside, things are different.

  Enough. I am going to sleep right now. This minute.

  Any second now.

  Watch me sleep....


  I turn over and punch the pillow. My friends all have tricks for falling asleep. Sara meditates. Mitch recites the presidents, in order. Travis reviews all of his relatives: the stepsiblings, half-sibs, ex-in-law great-aunts, and third cousins twice removed by divorce, then added back by remarriage. (His parents change spouses the way some people change clothes.) Travis rarely has insomnia.

  My dad was married only once, to my mom. The marriage broke up when she died nine years ago. I have one brother, some cousins in Australia, and two living grandparents: one in a nursing home and one in a commune. Half a dozen relatives, tops.

  Still awake. Stone-cold awake. In a few hours, I will be mixing unstable chemi
cals near a Bunsen burner. That is not a pretty picture. I’m freezing. I get out of bed, open the closet door, and pull down my old comforter from the top shelf. I spread it over the top of my blankets, then snuggle in. The extra weight feels safe, the satin edge smooth like candy against my cheek.

  Still awake. Sigh. Let’s try the mantra. MIT, MIT, let me in, let me in.

  Bad mantra. It makes my heart beat faster and my stomach churn.

  Sara doesn’t understand why I’m so stressed. I should have told her. I should have told Mitch, too. Maybe even Dad. You know how you’re supposed to apply to five or ten or twenty of your top schools and then a couple of safeties Just in Case? Well, I sort of didn’t follow the rules. And I sort of neglected to tell anyone. I only filled out one application, to MIT, and I don’t sleep anymore.

  Sara sleeps fine because she’s Bryn Mawr early decision and has a hefty financial aid package. She thinks I should be positive, not fractured crazy, that I should breathe and visualize happy thoughts. Happy thoughts, happy thoughts. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My home planet. My people. Visualize opening the envelope: “We are pleased to inform you . . .” Visualize jogging on the Cambridge campus, visualize the chem lab, my goggles, my perfectly starched, size four lab coat.

  They will let me in. They have to let me in. There is no option.

  An owl hoots and I peek out the window beside my bed. The moon is up, but it’s not throwing much light. The cemetery behind our house is dark. Beyond the last row of graves, down the hill, down to the stone fence, the air is black. At the bottom of the hill there is a farmhouse, the Litch house, with one light turned on in a second-story window. Teri Litch is either up very late or obscenely early. I doubt she’s angsting about college acceptance letters. She’s probably planning a bank robbery.

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