The Cost of Knowing follows Alex, a teenage boy with the power to see the future of everything he touches. When this power shows him that his younger brother’s death is imminent, Alex tries to spend as much time as possible with him, all while knowing that danger is always present when you’re a young Black man in America. Heartbreaking, yet so powerful, The Cost of Knowing will sit with you long after the last page.
Dear Martin meets They Both Die at the End in this gripping, evocative novel about a Black teen who has the power to see into the future, whose life turns upside down when he foresees his younger brother’s imminent death, from the acclaimed author of SLAY.
Sixteen-year-old Alex Rufus is trying his best. He tries to be the best employee he can be at the local ice cream shop; the best boyfriend he can be to his amazing girlfriend, Talia; the best protector he can be over his little brother, Isaiah. But as much as Alex tries, he often comes up short.
It’s hard to for him to be present when every time he touches an object or person, Alex sees into its future. When he touches a scoop, he has a vision of him using it to scoop ice cream. When he touches his car, he sees it years from now, totaled and underwater. When he touches Talia, he sees them at the precipice of breaking up, and that terrifies him. Alex feels these visions are a curse, distracting him, making him anxious and unable to live an ordinary life.
And when Alex touches a photo that gives him a vision of his brother’s imminent death, everything changes.
With Alex now in a race against time, death, and circumstances, he and Isaiah must grapple with their past, their future, and what it means to be a young Black man in America in the present.
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Chapter 1: Scoop’s 1 Scoop’s
I PICK UP THE ice cream scoop, and the vision begins.
I see a familiar light-skinned hand with knobby knuckles and dirt under the nails, passing the scoop I’m holding into a new, unfamiliar hand as dark as mine. This new hand is amply lotioned—no ashiness in the crease between the index finger and thumb. The nails are clipped short. A glittering, diamond-encrusted ring indicates this man must have more money in his wallet than I’ll make in my entire life. But the most telling detail, the revelation that might affect my future, lies in the background. Behind the two hands, sitting on the grass, is the sign that hangs over the front door of this place—the one that says SCOOP’S. In my vision, someone’s leaned it carelessly against the white siding, which is coated in a thin layer of green and black grime, the kind that builds up over months of neglect.
Scoop, the owner of this place, is going to sell the business.
I blink, directing all my focus into darkness, the abstract, nothing. I breathe. I think the word stop, and silently, I command the vision to end. When I open my eyes again, I’m looking down at the scoop in my hand. I’m back to the present day, turning the scoop over in my fingers. Only a second has gone by in the real world, even though I just watched a twenty-second vision. They always last only a moment.
I blink back into reality, still staring down at the scoop in my bare hand, and I briefly consider telling Scoop. But what would it change? What good would it do?
When you own the shop, you can make the rules, he’d say.
He’s never listened to my ideas before—not when I suggested we invest in a shelving unit so we can finally organize the supply boxes obstructing the hallway, not when I suggested we buy blackout curtains for the front lobby so the afternoon sunlight doesn’t turn this place into an oven, since we’re a damn ice cream shop and we can’t operate at ninety-five degrees without jacking up our refrigeration costs. Nah, he won’t listen to me, and even on the off chance that he does, Scoop doesn’t do anything without asking a million questions first. And my only answer to the inevitable question, “How do you know for sure?” will be “I can see the future,” an idea so ridiculous that I didn’t even believe it until I got out of that hospital and it started interfering with my daily life. I can’t touch anything with the palm side of my hands without seeing what will happen to it in the next few moments. The longer I touch it, the further into the future I can see. With most things, I can make the vision stop a split second after it begins, so it’s more like a photograph flashing in my head, but if I want to see further, which is rare these days, I can let it keep going for as long as I’m touching it.
I’ve picked up this scoop so many times working here. I’ve seen myself holding it while I’m wearing a tank top and my arm is glistening with sweat. I’ve seen myself holding it with my long sleeves tucked over my knuckles as the front door swings open and gusts of snow flurries fly in behind a customer who has no business buying ice cream in that kind of weather. Then it changes hands—a white hand is scooping ice cream as customers enter in tank tops. More kids staring from the other side of the counter in bathing suits and sunglasses. Then, gradually, people coming in with their hands red from the cold, fingers curled around hot coffee cups, ordering through the scarves pulled up over their faces. Two summers. Two winters. I’d say Scoop has about two years left before this place goes under. Two. I’ll have graduated and gone off to college by then. And even if this place closed tomorrow, there’d still be no point in trying to warn him.
I’ve tried to alter the future too many times to think it’ll work anymore.
I remember a vision I had during a camping trip three years ago—a vision I’ll never forget. Me, Aunt Mackie, my little brother Isaiah, my best friend Shaun, and his little sister, who’s now my girlfriend—Talia—spent a weekend at Starved Rock State Park out in Oglesby. Aunt Mackie was grilling hot dogs, and she asked me to put the bag of buns on the picnic table. I picked them up and caught a vision of Isaiah slipping on the bag, falling, and breaking his arm. So, despite the risk of flies and flying charcoal pieces landing on them, I took all the buns out of the bag, left them open on a plate, and tossed the bag in the garbage.
Crisis averted, I thought.
But then Aunt Mackie asked Isaiah to run the trash to the dumpster. The crumpled-up little bun bag rolled out at some point while he walked, and on his way back, his foot found the slippery plastic.
Another time, while walking past a construction site, I tried to prevent a beam from falling and bursting a fire hydrant, which I’d touched, by yelling up at the foreman to watch out! If he hadn’t been distracted, he might have caught it.
No matter what I do, it doesn’t help. The mess happens anyway, and I just end up embarrassed, often because it looks like I caused whatever I’d been trying to prevent. So I’ve stopped trying. Better, and less humiliating, to just lie low and let fate happen.
That’s the real reason I don’t tell Scoop what I saw. Whatever I say, whatever I do to stop it, this place is doomed.
“Alex!” snaps that commanding voice from the kitchen door. I jump, dropping the scoop into the dirty sink water, sending an explosion of suds in all directions, soaking the front of my apron and dousing my face.
God, ew, a little got in my mouth.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” he apologizes. Before I can say I’m okay, he’s moved on. “Ross is going on break soon, so I need you up front.”
I drag my dry forearm across my face, pull off my other glove, and remove my glasses. The vision flashes. One of me wiping my lenses off on a shirt I’m not wearing. One I don’t even own yet. I’ve touched my own glasses so many times that I must be at a few months into the future with visions of them. I make the vision end, and I do exactly what I just saw myself do—wipe them off. It’s become routine for me. Touch item. See vision of exactly what I’m about to do with the item. Do exactly what I saw myself do in the vision.
“Daydreaming again?” asks Scoop. His voice is quieter and kinder this time.
Sure. Daydreaming. That’s the closest thing to it that he’ll understand, so I nod. I grab the hand towel hanging above the sink and wipe my hands before removing my soaked dishwashing apron. I hang it up by the sink to dry and sigh as the full weight of Scoop’s words sinks in, heavy like an anvil on my chest. I need you up front.
I hate working up front. Not because I don’t like talking to customers—I’m actually pretty good at that part, and the customers are usually nice. They’re mostly young parents with kids under ten, who are in and out in a few minutes. And the kids are almost always well behaved and happy while they’re here because, hey, they’re getting ice cream. Nah, I hate working up front because it means touching a million items with my bare hands.
It’s an anxiety minefield out there.
Visions fly through my head with everything I touch, like one of those old-school slide-projector things—every tap of the register screen, every dollar I count, every spoon I pick up, every hand I brush while giving out samples, every cup, every cone, every scoop. I can’t focus on all of that and do my job. I can’t constantly be thinking of what’s going to happen and stay focused on what is happening. It’s too much.
“Can I go back to dishes after?” I ask. Dishes. My safe place, where I can wear my dishwashing gloves and live vision-free for a while.
A droplet of dishwater that was caught in my coily hair races down my forehead, and I wipe it away and sigh, anticipating the answer.
“Sorry, champ,” he says, although with his accent, it sounds more like “shamp.” He leans against the doorjamb with his arms folded across his black apron and explains, “After Ross takes his break, I’ve got Ashlynn going home. I need you up there till you’re off at six. Okay?”
It’s going to have to be okay.
I can already feel my heart rate picking up speed, that racing adrenaline that makes me jittery like I’ve had six cups of coffee and a Red Bull. On really bad days, my mouth gets dry and I start sweating. Sometimes it happens for no reason. Sometimes it happens if I’m anxious about something that would make most people anxious, like an exam, or speaking up in class. Sometimes it happens because I’m with Talia. Today, it’s happening because I have to do my job. Just the thought of going out there to the front counter freaks me out. It’s pathetic. I’ve been working here for four years. I shouldn’t be this afraid anymore. What kind of man am I? Come on, Alex. I steel myself, pinching the skin on the back of my hand, which is supposed to help with anxiety.
I used to be able to wear cheap latex gloves up front. We used to have to wear them while scooping, as mandated by the health department. I’d put them on, cancel a quick vision of them, and go the rest of the day blissfully unaware of my—I don’t even know what to call this—disorder? Affliction? Curse? I used to wear them home, stealing extra pairs when I could, desperate to keep my brain quiet for as long as possible. But after a few weeks of wearing the latex ones, their protection started to wear off. The visions started coming back about ten minutes after I put them on, and the discomfort of sweaty palms, and the strange looks I’d get in public, began to outweigh the respite they gave me. Eventually, I gave up on them. Now, all that works are those heavy-duty reinforced polyurethane dishwashing gloves that I’m leaving behind in the kitchen right now.
I take a deep breath and follow Scoop through the tiny hallway, which is crammed to the ceiling with unlabeled boxes of flavor powders, industrial cleaning products, ice cream toppings, napkins, and spoons.
This whole place is a fire hazard, a fall hazard, and an accessibility nightmare. Scoop sometimes sends me back here to put bottles and boxes away where they actually go, so we can have access to the handwashing sink on the wall behind the mountain, just before scheduled inspections. And it’s always me, because I can squeeze my five-foot-seven, 140-pound ass into places some of the others can’t. I shouldn’t have to watch vision after vision of supplies I don’t need, just to find some damn napkins. Not when I’m getting paid the same eleven dollars an hour as everyone else.
But I can’t dwell on that or I’ll get even more jittery and irritable. The quickest way to get through this day, like every day, is to take a deep breath, keep my head down, keep to myself, and keep my hands closed and close to me. I fold them against my shirt and slip between the boxes and the wall. Damn, I swear it gets narrower and narrower every time I walk through here. I keep my eyes on the back of Scoop’s head and follow him out to the front counter, where the sunlight has already started cooking the employees. It smells faintly of sugar and dairy products.
The novelty of smelling ice cream all day wore off by the end of my first week. Now I barely smell anything. But I’ve heard that’s normal. Aunt Mackie used to work in a movie theater, and she said eventually she stopped smelling popcorn when she walked in. After a while, it just began to smell faintly of butter substitute and hard work.
There’s only one customer out here—a bearded man in his early thirties in shorts, a striped T-shirt, and expensive sunglasses. He’s pulling a sample spoon out of his mouth and taking forever to decide on a flavor.
Ashlynn, who stands what feels like a foot taller than me and who always wears a too-tight brown ponytail that’s creeping her hairline farther back than any twenty-year-old should have, glances over her shoulder at me with that jaded smirk of hers. Ross, the malnourished Dracula-looking guy whose eyes always look like he hasn’t slept in years but somehow always ends up right at the front at the scooping counter, is feverishly tapping his foot, hands on hips, watching the man with the sunglasses, his eyes quietly urging the man to make a decision.
Scoop decides to bail him out.
“All right, Ross,” he says, motioning toward the hallway with two fingers. “You’re on break. Ashlynn, you’re scooping till Ross gets back.”
Shit. That puts me at the register.
Calm down, Alex, I tell myself. Just three more hours and you can go home and nap this stress away.
Ross can’t get his apron off fast enough. He turns from his post behind the counter, yanks his pink apron over his head, and has a cigarette and lighter out before he even reaches the hallway. Ashlynn nods and moves dutifully to the counter where Ross was standing. The customer, who’s now watching Ross leave in the middle of the transaction, seems unfazed and points to a tub of green ice cream in the corner. Ashlynn never speaks unless she absolutely has to, so I’m sure she’s relieved to be able to scoop ice cream and hand out samples with minimal conversation except “Welcome to Scoop’s,” “Which flavor?,” “Cup or cone?,” “What size?,” and “Have a great day.” That means I, on the other hand, am stuck at the register, touching everything—clicking buttons, counting cash, swiping cards, getting preordered ice cream cakes out of the freezer, distributing receipts, and handing out coupons and allergy info sheets. And I have to explain all the time that “yes, sir or ma’am, some of our flavors do have artificial colors and sweeteners, but they’re all FDA-approved.” It’s the same answers day after day.
Our only gluten-free flavor is strawberry.
No, strawberry isn’t vegan. Coffee and vanilla are our only vegan flavors.
Yes, the coffee is caffeinated.
Vanilla isn’t GMO-free, but the sweet cream is.
No, the sweet cream isn’t vegan. Only coffee and vanilla.
I slip on a bubblegum-pink apron and pull my cobalt-blue visor down low on my forehead, canceling the visions for each, right after I see myself hanging both of them up at the end of my shift. I sigh and adjust the visor so it rests comfortably. My hair is cut short—a fade on the sides and slightly longer coils on top. I was relieved I didn’t have to carry an Afro pick and pocket-size styling gel anymore when we switched from baseball caps to visors last year, another expense that Scoop decided would be more effective at keeping us employees cool than blackout curtains. Apparently you lose 20 percent of your body heat through your head or something? I don’t know.
In the corner of my eye, I see Ashlynn turn to leave down the hallway.
“We’re out of spoons,” she grumbles. “I’m going to find more in the back.”
As soon as I’m left alone out here, the front door swings open, and I take a long, deep breath and log into the register, clicking my name and typing in my four-digit PIN.
I punch 1. Vision of me pressing the 0 on the register. Stop. I punch 0. Vision of me pressing the 0 again. Stop. I punch 0 again. Vision of me pressing the 4 on the register. Stop. I punch 4. Vision of the register’s welcome screen. Stop.
“Hi, welcome to Scoop’s,” I say to whoever just walked in, as the register lights up with my name.
Welcome, Alex Rufus.
Shit, it’s hot in here. It’s three in the afternoon, and the sun is blinding through the west window, beating down on the whole area right behind the register where I am. Sweat is already beading on my forehead, but I put on my most convincing smile and look up at the customer. A woman about my height with short reddish-brown hair and bright green eyes walks over, looking like she stepped right out of a J.Crew catalog. The redheaded little girl holding her hand looks like she’s about seven, but she’s sucking her thumb with the enthusiasm of a jittery toddler. When they reach the counter, she buries her face in her mom’s stomach and puts all her focus into her thumb.
“Hi,” I say, trying to ignore the slippery suction noises coming from the little girl’s mouth. I’m sure this woman and her daughter are both cool, but I need them to get the hell out of here with those mouth sounds.
“What can I get you?” I ask. The woman is staring past my head at the board behind me as if it’s changed in the last five years. Literally the only thing that’s ever changed is our prices. She must be brand-new here.
“Canna get a child’s size cone for Mabel, and a single scoop fer me?”
Her accent is either Irish or Scottish—I can’t really tell. She’s reaching into her brown leather purse, fishing around for something to pay with, but I’m missing information.
“Which flavors, ma’am?” I ask.
“Oh!” she exclaims. “What’s the pistachio flavor like?”
It tastes like pistachio, I wish I could say.
“It’s nutty and a little less sweet than the others,” I have to say.
God, it’s so hot in here. I have to remove my glasses and wipe the sweat out of my eyes now, but it doesn’t help much because my arms are already dewy. I end the vision of me putting the glasses back on my face. I use her indecisiveness to step away from the register, where the sun is beaming through the window, and stand behind the ice cream counter instead. I rest my hands on the cold metal shelf behind the glass for some relief, until the room fades to black and I see an image of this place drenched in darkness except for moonlight. I see the window, and the summer moon is outside in the sky, shining down on this place. It’s peaceful after hours, and cool, and I long for that kind of quiet right now.
But I can’t savor this moment forever. I concentrate and command my brain to end the vision. The sunlight zooms at me like I’m flying toward a light at the end of a long tunnel, and suddenly I’m back in the shop, behind the counter, and the J.Crew woman is staring at me expectantly, as if she just asked me a question.
“I—I’m sorry,” I say, without missing a beat. “Could you repeat that?”
“Oh, I asked if you go to school nearby. You sound so well-spoken.”
Well-spoken? I’m talking about ice cream flavors here, not quoting MLK. But I know what she means. People tell me all the time that I’m “well-spoken,” as opposed to however they were expecting me to sound.
“Thanks,” I say.
She smiles at me and asks, “Canna try the caramel peanut butter pretzel?”
I pick up a plastic sample spoon and see a vision of it being thrown into the dirty spoon bin in just a few moments, and when I cancel the vision and the real world comes zooming back, I’m staring down at the ice cream flavors. I scoop out a tiny bit of the caramel peanut butter pretzel, not really caring that there’s not a single piece of pretzel in the sample, and hold it out to her. She takes the spoon without touching my hand, thank goodness. Every vision I can prevent is an act of precious self-preservation.
“Oh, that’s delicious!” she marvels. My head is spinning. My temples are throbbing. I’m dizzy.
I miss the days when my gloves used to work.
I finally get through scooping a scoop of caramel peanut butter pretzel into a cup, and a scoop of cookies and cream into a cone for Mabel, and get all three of us back to the register so they can pay and leave and take Mabel’s thumb-sucking sounds with them. The mom hands me a twenty-dollar bill. Dammit. I have to count back two fives that I see are about to get stuffed into her purse, and two ones that are about to be dropped into the tip jar.
“Thanks.” She smiles at me. “Mabel, say thank you to the nice young man.”
Mabel looks up at me through her straight red bangs and blinks a few times in gratitude. I’ll take it.
“My name’s Ena,” the woman says with another grin. “Mabel and I are new to Chicago. I own a consignment shop down the street. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s called Mabelena’s?”
I don’t care. I can’t care. I don’t have the energy to care. My eyes are throbbing. The pressure in my sinuses is crushing. Ena and Mabel are kind, and I should probably be glad that they came in instead of some entitled asshole who’s a hair trigger away from asking to speak to a manager. I suddenly feel guilty for hating this interaction so much. I should be grateful.
“I’ve heard of it,” I finally say.
An explosive crash behind me rattles my ears, and I flinch. I look to my right to see Ashlynn standing behind the counter, looking over her shoulder at me with huge eyes. The empty plastic napkin dispenser lies in pieces on the floor next to her.
“Sorry,” she says, her voice monotone and unwavering as she kneels and picks up each plastic shard and heads back down the hallway to retrieve the broom and dustpan, leaving me alone in here with Ena and Mabel again.
I turn back to Ena, whose eyes are still bright and trained on me.
“You have excellent customer service skills. In this industry, that’ll get you far,” she says, glancing around the room before reaching into her purse.
I may live in Naperville now, west of Chicago, but I was born and raised in East Garfield Park, where people don’t reach into their bag at the register after paying unless they’re about to rob the cashier. I flinch and step back reflexively, and Ena looks up at me with a hint of confusion on her face. She pulls a single business card from her purse and holds it out to me.
“I just wanted to give you this,” she says. “Come over to Mabelena’s and apply if you ever get tired of working for”—she leans in close and lowers her voice to a whisper—“Scoop. Met him in here a couple times myself. If you ask me, you should be the one running this place.”
This woman has clearly been here before, scoping the place out. Maybe she’s the mysterious buyer that Scoop will eventually sell to? But the person I saw in my vision grabbing the scoop was Black. Whatever. I’ll be outta here before any of that happens. I have to keep reminding myself not to care what happens to this place. The pope could buy it and it wouldn’t change a thing about my life.
I take the card with trembling hands and a polite “Thanks,” and Ena turns and guides Mabel to the front door. I force the vision of me throwing the card in the garbage can under the register to end. When I zoom back into reality and find myself staring down at the card in my hand, I toss the card in the trash. I’m alone at the front counter, so I do what I always do when I have a moment to myself—allow my brain to torture itself with “what-abouts” and “what-ifs.” Did I throw away that card because I saw the vision first? Or did my vision happen because I would’ve thrown the card away anyway, even if I was normal? If it’s the former, are these visions altering my life timeline? Could I have had a different future without them? What happens if I pick the business card out of the trash and don’t throw it away again? I guess it wouldn’t do anything because the vision was that I would throw it in the trash, and that happened already, whether I pick it out of the trash or not. But what if, just to see what happens...
I lean down and pick the card out of the trash and force the ensuing vision to end—the vision of my hand sliding it into my pocket. I’m back to reality, and I glance around the room as if I’m about to test some unwritten rule of the universe by trying this. I lean down, hold the card over the trash, and begin to spread my fingers to let it go, and just as it’s about to fall from my hand, Scoop’s voice explodes through the hallway.
“Hey, what was that noise, huh? Did something break?”
I hear Ashlynn’s dry voice from down the hall.
“Broke a dispenser. Sorry.”
“Another one?” asks Scoop, stepping into the front room and marching up to the ice cream counter. He looks over to the other side, where the full napkin dispenser sits intact. “That’s the second one this month! Those are thirty bucks apiece, Ashlynn. Be careful, please!”
He’s clearly frustrated, but his voice breaks at that last “please,” and something tightens in my chest. When I first met Scoop, his smile was bigger, his eyes were brighter, and he weighed about thirty pounds more than he does today. His glasses didn’t used to have scotch tape around the bridge between the lenses, and he didn’t used to have dark circles under his eyes. I remember sitting across from him four years ago, at the round blue table that’s still right here in the lobby. I was eleven. My résumé was a joke—I mowed Mrs. Zaccari’s lawn for a few months and vacuumed around the house for Aunt Mackie whenever we’d visit—but my mother insisted I have a résumé, even if I was asking a childhood friend of hers for a job tidying up his ice cream shop’s break room once a week. So there I sat at that little blue table, heart pounding, as Scoop—then I called him Mr. de la Cruz—pretended to scrutinize every word of my list of qualifications before shaking my hand to make my employment as official as under-the-table work can be.
That day seems like forever ago. That was a year before I lost my parents. A year before I woke up in that hospital bed seeing my very first visions, of what would become of my hospital blankets and the IV drip bag. A year before I started frantically googling what the hell these visions were, why I was getting them, where they came from, and how to get rid of them. Google can be hella scary. I found whole forums full of people with “visions” who said their premonitions were from God or Satan or their “higher self.” None of them wanted to get rid of theirs.
They just wanted to charge people for their services.
So I googled. I searched. I read. I prayed. And, after months, nothing.
I catch myself staring out into the lobby at that little blue table until Scoop’s voice throws my train of thought off its tracks.
“Hey!” he snaps, startling me. I clutch the card a little tighter in my hand.
“What’s that?” he asks me, nodding to my hand with his chin. I look at the card, and then at the trash can, where I’m supposed to leave the card. If I leave it there, I’ll have proven my vision wrong. I look back up at Scoop, and when his eyes narrow slightly and he takes a step toward me, I realize I can’t leave it in the trash. He’ll pull it out, read it, figure out I’ve been offered another job, and hire my replacement before I can quit.
I end up slipping the business card into my cargo shorts pocket and whipping up a lie.
“A therapist just walked in. We got to talking, and my parents came up.”
Scoop’s eyebrows soften and his shoulders fall a little. His dark eyes blink a few times, searching mine.
“Sh-she,” I stutter for maximum believability, “she gave me her business card... in case I need it.”
Scoop folds his arms across his chest, takes a deep breath, and stares at the ground as if he’s trying to find words. You could get Scoop talking for hours about literally anything, but when I bring up my parents, my mom especially, his childhood friend, he locks up. Freezes. Can’t get the words out, or doesn’t want to. Sometimes I wonder if he remembers her at all. If he ever thinks of her. Maybe when this store goes under, he’ll pretend it never existed too. I turn my attention back to the register, pick up a nearby rag, get through the vision of me dragging it across the counter, and then drag it across the counter. I shut my eyes and pray to whatever name the greatest force in the universe goes by that I can make it through this shift without having to touch anything else, and that miraculously, no customers will come in for the next two and a half hours.
And then the front door opens again.
“Hi, welcome to Scoop’s,” I say, focusing all my attention on making my voice sound less exhausted than I feel. I drop the rag and look up at the front door. A girl slightly shorter than me steps into the shop in all black—ripped jeans pulled up to waist height, a crop top that leaves about half an inch of midriff right in the front when she turns to close the door behind her, and combat boots. She grins up at me with a knowing smile framed by bubblegum-pink lips. All of her hair is tucked up into her hat, but I’d recognize those big brown eyes anywhere. Relief washes over me like rain across the wildfire of stress I’ve been battling all morning.
“Hey, Tal.” I smile, genuinely, for the very first time today.
You ever just be standing somewhere—like at a bus stop or something—and someone gets the giggles, and everyone around them starts smiling, and then you start smiling, and maybe even suppressing laughs, just because they are? That’s how it works with Talia—her laugh, her smile, the way she flips her hair. The whole room feels brighter, and for a split second, I forget how miserable I am.
“Hey, babe!” She beams, clasping her hands in front of her and rocking side to side. She glances up at Scoop.
“¡Hola, señor de la Cruz!” she exclaims, a bit too loudly for the space of this lobby.
“¿Cómo estás, Talia?” he says with sparkling eyes. “¿Cómo está tu mamá?”
“¡Bien!” She smiles.
Talia’s always been like this—always smiling and bursting with energy. But she’s bouncier than usual today, even for her. Her whole face, the color of a perfectly toasted marshmallow, is pinker than usual. Maybe it’s from the summer heat. But her eyes are twinkling, like she has something important to tell me.
“You good?” I ask her.
What we used to ask each other after my parents died. After her dad left. After we lost Shaun. Whenever we really need to check in with each other. You good? is code for Tell me everything.
“Nah-ah-ah.” She frowns, holding up her index finger and pretending to pout as she looks away. I roll my eyes and sigh. Oh, right. Spanish.
“Yo no sé,” she says, rolling her eyes. “¿Estás bien?”
Talia’s been trying so hard to teach me Spanish, throwing phrases at me constantly, leaving sticky notes all over Aunt Mackie’s stuff whenever she comes over to study with me after school, pointing to random objects when we’re out in public and quizzing me on whether I know the Spanish word for it. I can’t keep up. Nothing sticks. I appreciate it, though. I’ve always wanted to learn a second language, and since Talia speaks Spanish fluently, it might as well be that one. It’s a great addition to my résumé. Mom would be proud. I hope.
“Hey,” she says, “are you listening?”
“What?” I ask. Shit, I was lost in thought again. “Oh, sorry. I mean... ¿qué?”
Talia takes in a deep breath and opens and closes her hands, which she does whenever she’s decided to just move on and not make the situation an incident. She’s on to the next sentence before I can correct my error and ask ¿Estás bien? instead. She’s talking to Scoop again.
“¿Te importa si hablo con Alex por un momento?”
“Sure,” he says in English, nodding at me before switching back to Spanish. “En realidad, Alex, Ashlynn me ha estado pidiendo más horas últimamente, así que si quieres irte a casa ahora y dejarla tomarse las últimas horas de tu turno, siéntete libre.”
All I got out of that was Ashlynn’s name and the word for “hours.”
“What?” I ask. But Talia’s halfway through an eruption of squeals and jumping up and down. She reaches over the counter, grabs my hand, and guides me around to the front of the store. Her hand feels hot—blistering, like I’m touching red coils on a stove—and a vision overtakes me that’s more powerful than all the others I’ve been through today. My chest feels like it’s being squeezed in a vise. Talia is standing in front of me, looking up at me with those captivating eyes of hers. Her dark curls just barely touch her shoulders. Her black sundress flutters slightly. It’s night outside, and I can feel a gentle breeze against my skin, with the moon high above us. This whole place is bathed in moonlight. No, harsh yellow light. Lots of harsh yellow lights, actually. I think they’re cars, passing by slowly, crawling down the street. We’re on the sidewalk, staring each other down. It’s cool enough outside to raise goose bumps on my arms, but my heart is pounding with fear and shame and regret. I look at Talia’s eyes. They’re traced with the blackest liner I’ve ever seen her use. Big black circles and huge lashes. Dark lipstick. Dark everything. And, the scariest part, Talia is looking at me like she wants to kill me. Like I’ve done something unforgivable. Like it’s over. I don’t recognize her. She’s never looked at me like this. Even as I watch her in this vision, glaring at me like she’s trying to drill straight through my head with her eyes, I know she’s actually standing in Scoop’s ice cream shop right now, holding my hand, but I don’t know if she’ll hold my hand like this tomorrow. I don’t know if she’ll look at me the same way next week. I don’t know if we’ll be together next month. I don’t know if I’ll have her number in a year. But this moment, standing with her on the side of the road, with her looking at me like she doesn’t know me, with searing hatred in her eyes—I don’t want to know when that moment is coming.
I don’t want to know what happens after that.
When I return to the ice cream shop, I’m gasping and pulling my hand from hers.
“Hey, you good?” she asks, looking over her shoulder at me in confusion where her smile used to be.
I’m not good. There’s a lump in my throat that I can’t swallow. My armpits are soaked with sweat, and my right eye is burning from a sweat droplet that’s fallen into it. It’s getting harder and harder to find the differences between my visions and my anxiety attacks.
I think this time it’s both.
I breathe and try to think. I’ve never seen her look at me like that—like I did something horrible, like I really hurt her. Like she never wants to see me again.
Are we going to... break up soon?
I don’t want to think about it. We’ve been fine. We’re fine!
I blink, trying to steady my breathing so she doesn’t get nervous and think something’s up. I look at her to see if it’s working.
She reaches for both my hands, and I flinch away before she can touch me.
Her eyebrows sink down, and the look of disappointment in her eyes breaks me.
“Tal, uh,” I say, scrambling for control of my words, “I’ve, uh, been feeling kinda sick. I don’t think I should be holding your hand.”
What kind of man has to make up excuses not to touch his own girlfriend?
And... how long can I go without touching her?
I’ve never had to before. I’ve always just cancelled the vision before it took over.
I don’t know exactly when that night is coming, but at least I know I’ve got some time. As far as I know, she doesn’t own a black sundress—I’ve never seen her in one anyway, and at some point her hair is supposed to go blue. I’ve seen it. She’s going to dye it electric blue soon, and then brown again. That should give me a while until we’re somehow standing on the side of a road jammed with traffic, right? But what happens if I see what happens after that? What happens if I find out that’s the night we break up? What happens now that I’m too scared to even touch her, and she thinks I’m mad at her or something and my fear causes her to break up with me?
“Oh, uh... okay, then,” she says.
Talia tries not to let it bother her by smiling at me, but her eyes betray her. My heart is still pounding and my head is spinning. I’m relieved when she keeps talking.
“Scoop said Ashlynn wants to take your hours,” she says cheerfully, leaning in so close to me I can smell her shampoo and whispering, “Which means we can head back to your place early. Come on. Let’s grab some ice cream and get the heck outta here. We’re burnin’ daylight.”
“Okay,” I concede with a sigh, still reeling from that vision. How am I supposed to keep from touching Talia without her figuring out something’s wrong? “Just let me get some cash out the ATM for bus money first.”
“No need. I drove your car here so you wouldn’t have to take the bus.”
I smile, but inside, my heart sinks. The bus is so much cheaper than gas, and it requires me watching zero visions of my steering wheel and gear shift, so lately I’ve been leaving my car—my little 2001 Geo Metro—at Aunt Mackie’s house. I don’t know when I’ll be comfortable enough with it to call it my house. Maybe when my parents come back from the dead and start living there too.
“Thanks, Talia,” I say instead.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide for
The Cost of Knowing
By Brittney Morris
About the Book
In the wake of his parents’ deaths, Alex discovers he’s gained the ability—or curse—to see any object or person’s future with a single touch. The longer the touch, the farther into the future he can see. Now sixteen, Alex has endured the constant assault of visions he is powerless to prevent, including the death of his best friend, Shaun. Alex lives with deep guilt and dread that manifests as debilitating anxiety, panic attacks, isolation, and the refusal to touch anyone. This includes his girlfriend, Talia, for fear of confirming their looming breakup. In his world, Alex not only has to fear the racism that kills Black boys like him and his younger brother, Isaiah, but also the consequences of his touch. Even an ordinary photograph can trigger a horrifying prophecy like Isaiah’s impending death. While Alex knows he cannot stop the inevitable, he is determined to break the curse and help Isaiah live out his last days with joy. The Cost of Knowing explores the experiences of young Black men in America, including the weight of feeling like their futures are set in stone and the Black boy joy that is possible despite it all.
1. Throughout the novel, Alex feels ashamed about his anxiety and fear; he asks himself what kind of man he is, feels nervous about sharing his feelings with Talia, and keeps his visions a secret instead of asking for help. Describe where this shame comes from and how his attitude toward anxiety evolves. Explain your answers using examples from the book.
2. After Shaun’s funeral, his mom, Maria Gomez, struggles to buy groceries and pay rent. She receives disability checks, but they are not enough. As a young Black man, Alex feels pressure to provide for Maria and Talia since they no longer have Shaun to help care for them. How do you think identities like race, gender, and socioeconomic status affect the process of grieving a loved one?
3. What was the significance of the photo Alex touched? Do you think that if he had touched a different photo, he would have had the same vision of Isaiah’s death?
4. Alex is convinced people don’t truly want to know future milestones because the “not-knowing is what makes life meaningful,” but one of the first things Isaiah asks after learning Alex’s power is how his life will play out. Why does Isaiah insist? Would you want to know your future? Give reasons for your choice.
5. Alex and Isaiah are stuck in two manifestations of grief and anxiety. Use examples in the book to compare their experiences and their powers. What are the benefits and setbacks of each power? Which would you rather have and why?
6. Lying in bed staring at the photo of his family, Alex’s mind races through the what-ifs that could prevent Isaiah’s death even though he knows his visions are certain. But we learn their great-great-grandpa Buddy Lyons “could touch anything and see all potential outcomes of his next decision,” which suggests the future is not mapped out and decisions do affect outcomes. Alex’s decisions could not prevent Isaiah’s death, but they could affect how Isaiah spent his last days. Do you think there were decisions that could have saved Isaiah’s life? How far back do those decisions go? Are they the decisions of a single person, a group of people, or an institution? Explain your answers.
7. “How do you bring joy to someone who just wants to be left alone?” Alex presumes that Isaiah stays in his room because he doesn’t want to socialize, yet Isaiah’s biggest wish is to explore and make friends. Once they bond, the brothers realize there is so much joy to be shared between them despite their trauma. Reflect on a time when you felt alone but didn’t know how to ask for help. Or reflect on a time when you assumed someone wanted to be left alone. What cues did they give off that made you think this? What would you have wanted others to do for you when you were feeling down? What do we owe our loved ones when it comes to vulnerability and compassion?
8. In a tense conversation with Isaiah, Alex thinks about Shaun, his laughter, and his gift for knowing what to say in any situation. Alex wants to emulate Shaun. Who is someone in your life who you’d like to emulate in tense situations? What skills or personality traits stand out?
9. Alex is terrified of taking Isaiah to the cemetery because he knows that event will bring them closer to his brother’s death. That moment in the graveyard is where they let their guards down and learn about each other’s powers. Do you think their conversation could have happened anywhere? Use examples from the book to describe what the graveyard symbolizes and why it’s an important setting.
10. A recurring theme in The Cost of Knowing is exploring what it means to be a Black man and the expectations set by society, culture, and family. Alex evaluates his dad’s definition as he’s placed in circumstances that highlight contradictions. Do you think it’s possible to craft one definition that applies to every Black man? Explain your answer. Using examples from the book, what role do the women play in upholding or deconstructing a definition?
11. Isaiah’s visions grant him the knowledge to trace his ancestry back to the Unguzi tribe of West Cameroon. Many Black Americans cannot trace their family trees that far back because slave traders kidnapped families and separated them upon arrival in the Americas. Isaiah can even name their ancestor, Daniel Alby, who “bought his own freedom in 1818 and the freedom of his family.” Why were Black families separated? How did this action contribute to the oppression of Black people? Consider your own racial identity and how far back you can trace your own family. What power lies in having access to family history? What would it mean to be able to learn about and from your ancestors? If possible, use examples from the text to support your conclusions.
12. “‘Because the world remembers what he asked for. What happened to our ancestors is still punishing us, too. In more ways than one,’” Isaiah explains to Alex. This quote adequately sums up intergenerational trauma and how the decisions and experiences of our ancestors affect us. Do you think that breaking intergenerational trauma is the responsibility of one person? How did Alex’s and Isaiah’s ancestors and their powers help the next generation get closer and closer to breaking the curse? What do the brothers do differently that makes their attempt at breaking the curse successful? Explain your responses.
13. Alex’s and Isaiah’s powers are intrinsically connected to their family, but are they connected to their Blackness and how Blackness is perceived in America? How did their family’s fears and powers shift with their environment? Facing their fears through joy broke the curse, but does it take away the weight of racism? Do you think it’s possible other families have curses too? Would you define white supremacy as a curse? Explain your answers.
14. Alex is so scared of losing Talia that his anxiety causes him to replay visions of their breakup. Using examples from the text, how do you think his worrying becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? What would change if he lived in the present and was honest with her?
15. The book delves into mental health specifically for Black boys and men and the pressures they feel to be strong and fearless. Yet Talia still struggles with Shaun’s death, and Aunt Mackie is presented as the picture of strength. Alex sees her as someone who “substitutes duty where sadness should be.” Share your thoughts on what that quote means and what Alex learns from Aunt Mackie and Talia about mental health.
16. While the origin of the “Karen” meme is hazy, it’s been recognized online as a nickname for white women who call the police on Black people for doing ordinary things like selling water on a hot day, hosting a barbecue at the park, or simply jogging down the street. Discuss the significance of naming one of the characters Karen. How does this character weaponize her white privilege and how are some white women complicit in acts of racism?
17. Aunt Mackie reminds Alex that “‘Joy in the midst of oppression is its own kind of bravery.’” What does she mean by that, and why does Alex keep repeating the mantra to himself? Does bravery look different across race and gender? Explain your answer. What does bravery mean to you?
18. Discuss the differences in structure and style between the epilogue and the interludes featuring the husband and wife. Who are they? Why don’t they have names? Why is their story repeated throughout the novel?
19. Do you agree with Aunt Mackie’s claim that sharing the curse of knowledge is “‘gon’ be hard to do, until they live it. . . . You can’t make her understand, baby. You live this every day. I live this every day’”? What difference would it make to share the burden of knowing? Explain your rationale.
20. When Alex calls out Karen at Isaiah’s funeral, she is seemingly more upset that Alex calls her a racist than by Isaiah’s death. She attempts to generalize the experience and say that she too lost her son, even though it is in no way comparable. Discuss why you think she acts this way. Is being called racist more harmful than experiencing racism? Explain your answer.
21. “What kid should have to live every day in the shadow of four hundred years of bondage and another hundred of lesserthan-dom? Black kids, apparently. But then, how is a Black kid supposed to be a kid?” Alex asks. From this quote, what do you think “lesserthan-dom” means? Despite the pain, fear, and trauma, provide examples from the book that show Isaiah and Alex getting to be just kids. What obstacles did they encounter that almost prevented these moments?
22. Comment on the exchange between Alex and Takaa in the graveyard and their use of the Akoose words “Kunze” and “Kə̂ŋ.” What themes from the book can you connect to this exchange? What emotions did you experience as Alex met each of his ancestors and saw Isaiah in their dad’s arms?
1. Read the 2015 Vox article “What exactly is a microaggression?” written by Jenée Desmond-Harris (https://www.vox.com/2015/2/16/8031073/what-are-microaggressions). In small groups, discuss scenes from the book that you identify as microaggressions and how they fit into the definition. How do microaggressions compare to what Alex calls “accidental racism”? How are microaggressions connected to the book’s title?
2. Consider the role Mrs. Zaccari played in the murders of Isaiah and the Black boy that hopped the fence at the Martins’ house. While she didn’t enact physical violence, she was still complicit. Alex connects her behavior to the “he looked at me complaint [that] got Emmett Till killed almost seventy years ago.” He wonders, “Have we really made so little progress since then?” Write a reflective essay that answers his question. Compare real-life cases like that of Trayvon Martin, a Black boy shot and killed by a neighborhood watch member, and Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man killed while jogging in his neighborhood, to the events in The Cost of Knowing. Include reflections on your race, gender, and socioeconomic class and how this affects how you choose to live in the face of injustice.
3. Music plays a big role in the story, from providing peace to finding a common ground to educating listeners. While people like Mrs. Zaccari refuse to look past their assumptions to understand the power and sophistication of rap, Alex assures us “Shiv doesn’t do anything by accident. The Rush has six references to a concept called the ‘black gold rush,’ the spark of mass incarceration in the nineties, before I was born. I learned things from that album that they won’t teach us in school.” Find a song that teaches you something you didn’t learn in school about a social injustice and then find at least three further resources on the topic. Be prepared to present it to the class.
4. “‘You said yourself anxiety is different for everybody,’” Isaiah tells Alex. “‘So why can’t our visions be different for everybody?’” The Cost of Knowing offers an emotional and accurate representation of anxiety and its very real physical repercussions. Research the symptoms of anxiety and discuss how anxiety manifests in the characters. Do you ever feel anxious in your life? How does it manifest? How do you cope? Alex provides some coping mechanisms that help him. Find at least one more example or use an example of your own. Work together as a class to compile a collaborative zine with resources on anxiety, including coping mechanisms and how to seek help and support.
5. While Shiv Skeptic’s song “The Game” is about video games, the meaning of the song seems to transform as Isaiah sings the lyrics directly to Alex: “So many lives to live. So many ways to die. So many ways to play. So many ways to say goodbye.” Knowing Isaiah’s power, do you think he suspected something would happen to him? We have access to all of Alex’s inner thoughts and perspective, and we know his goal was to offer support and joy to his little brother. What do you think Isaiah’s goals were even if he didn’t know he was going to die? Keep those questions in mind and rewrite the concert experience from Isaiah’s point of view.
Guide written by Cynthia Medrano, Digital Services Librarian at Heartland Community College and member of the 2022 Rise: A Feminist Book Project Committee.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry.