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Vice reporter Mary H.K. Choi previews debut novel Emergency Contact — see an exclusive excerpt and cover

The book, about young love in the digital age, is available in March 2018

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Aaron Richter

Wired Magazine published an article last year about the everyday social media lives of teens, written by culture reporter Mary H.K. Choi. In profiling a small group of subjects in-depth, Choi spent time with adolescents across the country to nail down their particular habits with precision and intrigue. And the article was a hit — Choi even filmed a segment on CBS This Morning to talk about her illuminating reporting experience.

Now Choi, the current culture correspondent for Vice who has also written for GQ and New York Magazine’s The Cut, has emerged with her debut novel — and in many ways, it’s an extension of that widely-read Wired article. Emergency Contact, due for a March 2018 release, is a contemporary exploration of young love, a romance colored by phone addictions and low-battery laptops that mixes biting of-the-moment humor with a clear-eyed take on the emotional disconnect characterizing much of our digital age.

“When you talk about young people and their relationships with their phones, you inevitably get statistics on how unhappy social media makes them or else how dangerously addictive and neurologically altering the experience can be,” Choi tells EW of her ideas behind Emergency Contact. “In this book I wanted to explore this idea of how we’re constantly surrounded by friends, followers, family, and famous people — but that it’s still possible to be alone. In fact, often the ambient chatter only contributes to this untethered, anonymous feeling.”

Choi has exclusively shared the book’s cover with EW, as well as an enticing excerpt.

GG (illustrator); Lizzy Bromley, Simon & Schuster for Young Readers (designer)

Choi described to EW how she and her team settled on a cover and why she believes it perfectly reflects the book: “To me, this cover is dreamy. It started with the hair. That was a whole Tumblr hunt in and of itself. It had to be big. It had to be winding. It had to be Asian. The background was also always going to be millennial pink, a.k.a. the trendiest color of the past few years, since it’s somehow both warm and cool which casts everything in a wistful light. The title treatment is inspired by hand-painted signs since a slight nostalgia only adds to that mood. For Penny and Sam, Lizzy Bromley, the incredible designer at Simon & Schuster, hired this amazing comic book artist, GG, who lives out in the boonies in Canada. When I saw the option where Penny and Sam were both on their phones but facing away I knew that was it.”

Continue reading for an exclusive excerpt.

Excerpt from “Emergency Contact,” by Mary H.K. Choi

PENNY

When it came to perspiration, Penny had a problem. Not that she stank of BO or anything. It’s that from March to around October she was invariably damp. She could feel the pool of moisture collecting in each underboob, and her sweat mustache beaded up no matter how urgently she wiped it away.

It didn’t help that she was dining al fresco in 100-degree heat downtown where the good shady patches had been staked out by the pushy and hyper-vigilant. Penny scanned the crowd. Hell really was other people.

Other than her car, Penny had no sanctuary. When Jude was out or at Mallory’s, she couldn’t relax, knowing that the two-headed monster of “best friends since we were six” could turn up as soon as Penny got comfortable. Penny wasn’t a covert crack addict or a compulsive masturbator, but she didn’t have an appreciation for privacy until she shared a room with a girl who could go to the bathroom with the door open while naked and eating pretzels dipped in hummus. Penny had to get away. She hopped into her Honda and headed downtown, paying five bucks for parking to sit on a splintery bench in the blazing heat for a disappointing seven-dollar Korean taco and a six-dollar blended “horchatalatta.” She wondered if the rest of early adulthood would be like this — avoiding roommates, getting ripped off for bad fusion food, and the peculiar loneliness of being smothered by people she didn’t want to spend time with.

Penny got up to toss her soggy paper plate in the garbage. There were an unseemly number of bars on either side of her — a Disneyland Main Street for day drinkers. The snack had been a bust, but the people watching was stellar.

A scrawny kid peeled off from the masses and almost ate it. Penny reached for her phone too late. She could never grab it in time for the good videos. Sweat ran down her back and seeped into her underwear elastic. The kid staggered over to the sidewalk and planted himself under a tree. He was gulping for air, a marooned fish on dry land, and his face was blinding white. Maybe it was heroin. Penny rubbed the inside of her elbow where her heroin vein would be and then poked her forearm, leaving red circles. She should have worn sunblock. She watched the boy, slumped against the trunk, pull up his black T-shirt sleeves to fashion a sort of tank top. Man, he was skinny enough to be a junkie, and his arms were covered in tattoos.

The kid shoved back his hair, revealing his face. Except it wasn’t a kid. It was Jude’s uncle. Uncle Sam. Hot Uncle Sam. Hot Uncle Sam who was possibly OD’ing on opioids right in front of her. She had to do something! Oh God, she was in no state for altruism. Penny quickly pulled her hair into a bun and grabbed a breath mint from her go bag.

Priorities, Penny. Save the man from dying. Nobody cares about your breath.

She glanced back at Sam to see if he had stirred. He was probably in the throes of brain death now, drawing his final breaths while she was faffing.

What do I do? What do I do?

How to save a dying man:

  1. Call Betty Blackwell. What? How was her only readily available resource an outdated local TV ad for a criminal defense attorney?
  2. Ignore him. Christ, he’s not your uncle! Ugh. But he was Jude’s. And Penny liked Jude even if she talked way too much.
  3. Go see if he’s dead already.

Penny ran across the street to his lifeless body and peered into his face.

She hoped she wouldn’t drip sweat on him.

He definitely seemed dead.

And, for the record, the tattoo on his biceps wasn’t a chess piece. It was the head of a stallion with its eyes covered in a sheet. What did it mean?

Focus, Penny. Shit.

“Sam?” She kicked his heel gently. They both still had on the same shoes.

SAM

It was a face he knew and couldn’t place. He stared and tried to focus.

Friend or foe? Friend or foe? Do I owe you money? Are you friends with Lorraine? Please don’t be friends with Lorraine.

Sam closed his eyes again, embarrassed. Her voice was gentle. It was a nice voice.

“Sam, are you alive? It’s Penny.” She sounded far away.

Sam felt another kick on his foot, and he groaned.

“I’m Jude’s friend,” said the shiny face with the bright red lips.

“Who’s Jude?” he croaked.

“Your cousin.”

“Niece,” he corrected.

“Are you dying?”

He nodded and tried to slide his phone out of his pocket without passing out.

“Is Jude coming?” He didn’t want her to see him like this. He hated the thought of anyone seeing him like this.

“No.”

Thank God.

A Biggie lyric teased the corners of his brain.

Something about heartbeats and Sasquatch feet.

“Sam, WHAT’S happening? YOU look HORRIBLE.”

His hearing kept going in and out.

His heart was going to burst.

Thudthudthud.

I’m dying, dead.

Deaddeaddead.

“I think I’m having a heart attack.” He closed his eyes.

“Shit, shit, shit,” she said. “Shit.”

And then.

“Hello? 911?”

Sam thought it was funny how everybody greeted the three-digit number they’d called. As if they had to ask.

“My friend’s sick. I don’t know. Yeah, I’m here with him.”

Sam felt a wave of nausea. He hoped he wouldn’t have to puke in public.

“Sam … um.”

“Becker,” he told her.

“Becker,” she said. “Twenty-one I think.”

Sam nodded.

“No,” she said. “I don’t know. At least I don’t think so …”

He felt her cold hand on his arm. He opened his eyes.

“Sam, are you on drugs?”

I wish.

He shook his head.

“No, no drugs. Um … shortness of breath, cold sweats …”

“Stabbing pain in my chest,” he said.

“Stabbing pain in his chest,” she repeated.

“Like a knitting needle,” he said.

“Like a knitting needle,” she repeated.

“Mm-hmm,” he heard her say. Followed by, “Yeah, I guess the knitting needle is going through his chest.”

Exactly.

Sam nodded again.

“Okay, thank you. Bye.”

Sam thought about how people on TV never said good-bye. And then he wondered why people only thought about the dumbest things as they lay dying.

Sam felt Penny sit down next to him.

“Sam, wake up.”

“I am up,” he whispered.

She was staring at him intently.

“Are you sure you’re not on drugs?”

He glared at her before realizing — inappropriately — that she was kind of cute when she made eye contact. Cute enough that he was bummed out that she was watching him die on the street.

“Positive,” he said.

She wiped his wet brow with her T-shirt sleeve, which was already damp. He saw a flash of bra and glanced away.

“Sorry,” she said. “I don’t know why I did that. I’m supposed to keep talking to you until they get here.”

The cogs in his mind picked up steam.

“Wait, shit. Did you call an ambulance?”

She nodded. “Knitting needle?” she reminded him. As if 100 percent of knitting-needle-related incidents (imagined and otherwise) justified an emergency vehicle.

“Call them back!” he ordered. His heart hammered harder. “Call them back!” he repeated. “I can’t afford an ambulance.”

She stared at him for a beat, grabbed her phone, and marched away. A thousand years later, she returned.

“I called them.” She crouched in front of him with her hands on his shoulders. “Though yours is an incorrect response.”

Despite his stupor, Sam bristled at her word choice. “Incorrect”? Was it “incorrect” to be broke?

“Wait, can you do this?” She stuck her tongue straight out.

He stuck his tongue out.

“What’s the thing with the tongue and heart attacks?” she yelled impatiently, as if he were deliberately keeping diagnostic information from her. “Shit, I think that’s for a stroke.” She pulled out her phone and searched helplessly.

He drew his tongue back into his mouth.

“Okay,” she said, breathing deep. “Don’t die, okay?”

He nodded.

“Promise me,” she said.

He nodded again.

“You know what? Try to slow your breathing … one Mississippi … two Mississippi … Say it in your head.”

He focused on breathing.

“Did you eat today?”

He shook his head.

A Styrofoam drink container was thrust into his face. The straw smelled cinnamony and was covered in red lipstick.

“It’s not very good,” she told him.

He took a sip.

Horchata. Cold. Sweet. And she was right — it was kind of gross.

“Did you drink a lot of coffee today?”

He nodded. Same as every day.

“Do you have radiating pain?”

He shook his head. She read off her phone.

“What about numbness?”

He shook his head.

“Sam?”

Sam nodded. He was Sam, it was true.

“We’re going to take a walk now.”

He shook his head.

He felt her grab his arm and sling it over her shoulders. She was soaking wet, and where his sweaty bare arm met her neck it was slippery. He put weight on his legs so he, a grown man, wouldn’t have to be carried by some lady again.

“I’m going to take you somewhere so someone can examine you, okay? I’m parked real, real close. Walk with me. Please?”

“Okay,” he said.

***

Fifteen minutes later, they were in front of a MedSpring Urgent Care.

The AC was blasting and Sam was soaked though otherwise calm. He wanted badly to go home and take a nap.

Penny was silent. Even in his peripheral vision, she seemed agitated. Her hands were clutching the steering wheel so tight her knuckles were white. He couldn’t believe that Jude’s mute, macabre roommate had saved his life. He wondered if he’d have to get her a small taxidermied spider or something for her efforts.

“I’ll be right here,” she said, staring straight ahead.

Sam didn’t want to explain to her that he couldn’t afford ambulances, hospitals, or the cheaper emergency clinics in shitty strip malls.

“I’m fine,” he said.

“No you’re not.”

“I don’t have health insurance,” he admitted.

“Oh.”

“I swear to God I’m fine now,” he said after a moment. “I don’t know what that was. Probably heat stroke.”

“Have you had heat stroke before?”

He shook his head.

“Did you know that if you’ve had heat stroke once, your brain remembers the circuitry so it’s easier for you to get heat stroke again? Maybe way easier than before?”

He shook his head and recalled her earlier jokes about apps making apps. She was obviously a huge nerd.

“So … ,” she said. Penny’s dark eyes were shiny, and pink bloomed on her cheeks. “Wait, did you have a panic attack?”

“What? No. I don’t have panic attacks. Never in my life.” Jesus, give a girl WebMD and she starts thinking she’s a physician.

“You had a goddamned panic attack,” she said, turning away from him again. “The sweatiness, the heart-attack feeling. Oh my God!” She slapped the bottom of the steering wheel with her left hand. “It’s obvious. And you didn’t eat today. Caffeine. So dumb!”

“Okay, hold on.” He threw his hands up. “Why are you so angry?” Sam reached out to touch the back of the hand closest to him, but she jerked away, exhaling noisily.

“I’m sorry,” she said, shoulders slumping. “It’s adrenaline. Rage is my usual fear response.”

“That,” he said, “is a nifty quality.”

Nifty?

“I know,” said Penny. “Everybody just loves it. Ugh.” She groaned, rubbing her face and smearing lipstick across her chin.

He nodded. He didn’t know what to do about the lipstick. Maybe he’d get away with not saying anything until he got home.

Penny handed him a bottle of water. He took it gratefully.

Then she grabbed her black and gray camouflage backpack from the backseat, plopped it onto her lap, and rummaged through it. She handed him a small bag of raw cashews from a blue zippered bag filled with other small, compact snacks.

“Uh, sometimes it’s triggered by caffeine or low blood sugar with me,” Penny said, explaining the snack.

Okay, he had to tell her.

“You’ve got lipstick everywhere,” he said, pointing toward her chin.

She angled the rearview and sighed again.

In another compartment of her bag, this time from a black zipper bag, she pulled out a small packet of moistened wipes. A green, plastic cable tie sprang out of it and onto her lap.

“EDC,” she said, quietly putting it back.

“EDC?”

“Everyday carry,” she said. “Stuff I have on me all the time. Go bags, for emergencies.”

“As in, an apocalypse go bag, go bag?”

“Correct,” she said.

There was that incorrect, correct thing again.

“But I have this on me every day. Usually, the EDC community are guys with concealed firearms and flashlights, which I think is dumb since we have phones with a flashlight function…” Penny trailed off. Sam had wondered why chicks had such big bags. He figured it was their makeup, not soft cases filled with doomsday rations and zip ties of varying length.

“Snacks are important,” he said. “And you can never have enough plastic cables.”

“Are you making fun of me?” she asked.

“No.” He shook his head vehemently and took another handful of cashews. “Not at all. I respect the shit out of it. Your EDC saved my ass.”

She had a small scar above her left eyebrow and he wanted to ask about it. Maybe she’d had some bizarre things go down in her life. It would explain her whole style.

“Did everything sound all underwater?” she asked after a second. Her lips were wiped clean, and Sam noticed they looked better without that gunk on them.

“Underwater?”

“When you were passing out.”

“Yeah, muffled.”

“Yeah, I get that.”

“My girlfriend’s pregnant,” he said suddenly, startling himself.

Penny tilted her head.

“Well, she’s my ex.”

“Whoa,” she breathed.

“Yeah. I still love her though.”

“Ugh.”

“She cheated on me.”

The confessions wouldn’t stop. He wanted to show his gratitude for the ride and the snack and the not making him feel crazy when it was clear that he was. Except at no point did his vocal chords just step in line and say thank you.

“Wow,” she said.

Penny’s fingers inched toward his. Sam thought for a fleeting moment that she would hold his hand, but instead she went for a couple cashews and was extra careful to avoid touching him.

“The first one is the worst. By a lot,” she said, crunching. Sam wasn’t sure if she was talking about panic attacks or pregnant ex-girlfriends. Not that it mattered.