Catalysis, Part VI


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Scene Title Catalysis, Part VI
Synopsis “All we have to believe with is our senses.” - Neil Gaiman
Date January 15, 2021

Situated at the edge of the water and looking south, it’s easy for those in Brenda’s Bar and Griddle to ignore the ominous wall of smoke and ash to the east. The patches of blue sky that peek through puffy white clouds in the southern side of the sky create a much less oppressive feeling for the diners enjoying late-afternoon waffles or getting started on an early happy hour.

It’s harder for Isa to ignore the headache she’s had all day. Earlier she’d taken some Advil but it has done nothing to touch the feeling of tightness around her eyes, that knot of pressure that she feels at the base of her skull, or the prickle of heat across her cheeks. Touching her own forehead with the back of her hand, she wonders if she’s coming down with something.

Part of her knows it’s something far worse.

“I’ll be in the basement. If you have any questions, ask Shaw.”

Isa’s declaration isn’t an unusual one — she often prefers to work downstairs crafting her moonshine. But today, she has an ulterior motive: to be alone away from the clatter of forks and knives, conversation, and laughter… she’s not in the mood for any of it. And the basement is cooler and further removed from the smell of smoke and fire — enough to irritate anyone but for Isa serves as a painful reminder of what she has lost.

The hostess is a new one, and Namiko isn’t here today to help show her the ropes. Still, the woman is bright and there are servers to help her out, Isa tells herself as she heads down the stairs. As she descends, she can feel the drop in degrees, and for once, she welcomes it, like one walking into an air-conditioned room from the sweltering heat of a New York summer.

This was Isa's element, whether she liked to admit it or not. The service industry, its banter, the ebb and flow of customers is all the woman knew for much of her life when working. But the debilitating effects of what was going on with her physically had made her grouchier than usual.

Retreating to the basement, to the cold was so against everything Isa had known her whole life it wasn't hard to believe that she was still experiencing a wicked case of culture shock. A burn on her arm that's healed, from holding her arm to a flame one night. Just for a second… the tiny mark in the crook of her elbow now a totem of sorts. She rubs the spot as she looks around the room and hangs her head. Stumbling over to a nearby table to guzzle down a pineapple like moonshine.

Her vision blurs and Isa's hand slams down on the table to stop herself from swaying. "Fuck!" She screams.

Meanwhile, Upstairs

Friday nights are busy nights at Brenda’s, and while it’s still early, there’s work to do to prepare for the eventual crowd. Especially with a new hostess to train and without Namiko’s quick feet and thinking to help the servers out when they get slammed. It certainly doesn’t help that Shaw has a headache.

Still, he’s been through far worse than a headache, he tells himself, as he writes out the specials for the evening on the blackboard that sits by the hostess stand. Two waffle specials and two drink specials will do, advertised in cheerful neon colors that stand out against the black slate background.

As he writes, he notices that the sound to his left, closest to the bar where an early happy hour has started, seems dull. Muted.

Shaw spares the new trainee any extra guff as they're prepping for the Friday night rush. With Namiko off on another gig too - one that her parents are always supportive of - he's glad to be at Brenda's even with the dull throb tapping away inside his skull. He's felt worse, far worse, but he's also felt better. His tongue clicks behind his teeth as he works on the curve of the dollar sign denoting the price of the second waffle special (try it with orange marmalade), realizing he's unsatisfied with the size. Too large. Gaudy.

He reaches for the towel flopped over his left shoulder to use for a wipe when the first thing to note is the change of sounds. An unsuspecting Shaw shakes his head a bit, blinking rapidly and turns to looks left like it's not him, it's the happy hour crowd that's gone quiet.

The sound increases slightly by virtue of facing it, his right ear compensating for the lack of hearing in the left. One group of young men, their eyes up on a soccer game displayed on one of the televisions, jumps up, yelling and pounding one another on the backs as their team scores what’s likely the winning goal and breaking a tie with just a few minutes left til the final buzzer.

His ear doesn’t feel congested or stuffed up, which could account for it, but he doesn’t have time to mull it over for long before one of the bartenders appears in front of him, handing him a brilliant blue cocktail topped with an orange slice hanging over the edge of the glass, rimmed in rainbow-hued sugar.

“Hey boss. Taste this and tell me what it’s missing,” the young mixologist said. “I was thinking we could add it to the specials menu but it’s not quite there.” She looks around, maybe for Isa for the other owner’s opinion on the drink. “Isa downstairs?”

When Shaw takes a sip of the drink, it’s missing everything, as far as his palate tells him. There’s the slight ethanol burn that comes from strong alcohol, but it tastes like nothing — not even like the ‘nothing’ good vodka is supposed to taste like.

Meanwhile, Downstairs

When she slams her hand down, it feels like slamming it onto a stove. The nerve endings in her palm and fingertips instantly shriek to life in a way they never did with her ability, even when she was flame itself. For an instant, the counter seems to glow where in the shape of her hand, red-hot like an ember. The air above it wavers, making her think of the way hot pavement on a summer road creates that mirage of a shimmering puddle of water. No doubt the air shimmered around her, once too, though she was too close to the flame to see that trick of heat and air.

Isa lifts her hand to stare at it, splaying her fingers, expecting to see flames, or at the least red, angry flesh, just as she did when she held her arm to the flame that night. But her palm is pale as it always is, and still devoid of the magic of fire and all the destruction that comes with it. The livid pain still screams — she’s never felt herself burning for this long without any damage to show for it — there are no blisters, no charred skin, not even smoke except for the faint smell of smoke that permeates everything, even down here below ground, from the wildfire to the east.


From his vantage point, Shaw has to squint a bit to catch the score on the television. But not having followed the majority of the match thus far leaves him only with a ghost of a smile upon seeing patrons joyful and celebrating. He's still distracted by the lack of sound in his ear when approached. Shaw jumps a tiny bit; she'd come from the currently soundless side. "What? Oh. Sure," he remarks agreeably. "Yes, don't worry. She'll be back up soon enough."

Himself sounding unworried, he takes the sip of the drink. Pauses. Takes another sip. A puzzled expression layers over the otherwise blank one. "What's in the drink?" asks Shaw, trying not to be loud but volume raised a little in attempted compensation and looking down to the colorful cocktail. But the slow-dawning realization that he doesn't taste anything, not even the most obvious flavors of the orange and sugar, tick off a mental checkbox. Before the mixologist can give the parts added, he hands the glass back hurriedly. "Actually, hold on to that. I'll be right back." Assuredly so, his tone wishes, but a tweak of unease in his expression notes otherwise.

He scans the large dining room for another now more familiar face in the form of the plain clothes Yamagato security detail assigned to the Wesley-Khans ever since their meeting with Kimiko Nakamura.

Alicia frowns, taking the glass back and lifting it to taste it herself from the other side of the glass, wondering if she made it too weak or possibly burnt out his tastebuds with too much of the vodka. She shrugs and watches him go before she turns to examine his handiwork on the sign.

The two members of the security team are in their favorite booth, one where they can keep an eye on the front door and back door easily. It’s been the epitome of a cush job so far, with all the coffee and waffles they could ever hope for. The one facing his approach lifts his brow, setting down the coffee cup when it’s clear that Shaw is seeking them out.

“Anything wrong, sir?” he asks, glancing over at his partner, then back up to Shaw. As he does so, it becomes clear there is a lot wrong. Shaw’s visual field is suddenly shot through by pinwheels and spirals of colors — the colors are of the same palette of what he should be seeing, but it’s as if someone swirled and spun the colors of a photograph of the bar together, like an old-school screensaver on a Windows machine.

At the same time, Shaw’s entire left side is seized with pain, and a keening sound like a banshee shrieking blasts through his left ear, so muffled just a moment before.

Doing his best not to sway as he walks, Shaw isn't drunk from that one sip of vodka heavy cocktail. But with his left ear unoperational, headache and muffled sounds making him feel like he's been swimming underwater, the man can barely convey to the pair of Yamagato security detail his worry. "I- Isa… p-please check on her," groans Shaw as sweat starts to bead on his brow, "Something's wron—" Words cut off, replaced by an inarticulate yelp of pain as he buckles down the left and drops to his knee roughly before collapsing to the floor. He claws with his fingertips at the table top while a thin wheeze from his clenched jaw is all the communication left to escape the rictus of pain in his features.

The sensory overload continues its barrage for a few more seconds. Shaw sees movement in the kaleidoscoping array of colors as the two security guards jump up. The sound of shoes on the floor sounds like gunfire for a moment, as one of the two do as he tells them to, running in the direction of the door to the basement. The smell of the coffee, knocked over by Shaw’s stumble into the table and spilling out on the hard surface, overpowers everything else, and the pinwheels and starbursts of color shift — no longer the softened palette of the view, but something different. Dark, inky tendrils spiral, and when he closes his eyes, he can still see them.

“-ing 9-1-1,” says the guard who’s stayed with him, her voice booming loudly without shouting. Behind his eyes a second hue, scarlet, blooms and curlicues amongst the black — if it weren’t frightening, it would be beautiful, Shaw has time to think to himself, before everything goes black.


The woman cries out and swears, staring at her hand in shock. Probably some sort of PTSD, that's what she thought. But something made her pause, fear growing in the pit of her stomach.

What was wrong with them?

Isa tries not to scream, instead she just lets out a long, and exasperated sigh of breath.

The feeling of burning spreads, from hand to arm, shoulder to back. The pain overwhelms every sense, so much she barely registers the sudden blossom of a different sort of pain behind her left eye, not heat but intense, throbbing pressure that causes her vision to blur. The color red swims in her vision, and some part of her mind thinks of the cliche, seeing red, but Isa finds fault with that maxim.

There’s no room for anger at the moment. All she knows is fear.

She turns to head for the stairs, stumbling and falling to her knees when her feet refuse to do what she wants. The scream she stifled just moments before parts her lips, and she cries out for help. The chance someone will hear is poor — the music and noise from the bar and restaurant above will make it too hard to hear her feeble cries. Her hands dig at the ground beneath her to try to force herself forward in a crawl.

Isa never hears the door open and the hurried footfalls of the Yamagato security officer rushing to her aid. She doesn’t feel his hand on her wrist, or his voice trying to rouse her.

The red has faded to a deep, senseless black.

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