WATER, BLOOD, AND THICKER THINGS
Victor readjusted the shovels on his shoulder and stepped gingerly over an old, half-sunken grave. His trench billowed faintly, brushing the tops of tombstones as he made his way through Merit Cemetery, humming as he went. The sound carried like wind through the dark. It made Sydney shiver in her too big coat and her rainbow leggings and her winter boots as she trudged along behind him. The two looked like ghosts as they wove through the graveyard, both blond and fair enough to pass for siblings, or perhaps father and daughter. They were neither, but the resemblance certainly came in handy since Victor couldn’t very well tell people he’d picked up the girl on the side of a rain-soaked road a few days before. He’d just broken out of jail. She’d just been shot. A crossing of fates, or so it seemed. In fact, Sydney was the only reason Victor was beginning to believe in fate at all.
He stopped humming, rested his shoe lightly on a tombstone, and scanned the dark. Not with his eyes so much as with his skin, or rather with the thing that crept beneath it, tangled in his pulse. He might have stopped humming, but the sensation never did, keeping on with a faint electrical buzz that only he could hear and feel and read. A buzz that told him when someone was near.
Sydney watched him frown slightly.
“Are we alone?” she asked.
Victor blinked, and the frown was gone, replaced by the even calm he always wore. His shoe slid from the gravestone. “Just us and the dead.”
They made their way into the heart of the cemetery, the shovels tapping softly on Victor’s shoulder as they went. Sydney kicked a loose rock that had broken off from one of the older graves. She could see that there were letters, parts of words, etched into one side. She wanted to know what they said, but the rock had already tumbled into the weeds, and Victor was still moving briskly between the graves. She ran to catch up, nearly tripping several times over the frozen ground before she reached him. He’d come to a stop, and was staring down at a grave. It was fresh, the earth turned over and a temporary marker driven into the soil until a stone one could be cut.
Sydney made a noise, a small groan of discomfort that had nothing to do with the biting cold. Victor glanced back and offered her the edge of a smile.
“Buck up, Syd,” he said casually. “It’ll be fun.”
Truth be told, Victor didn’t care for graveyards, either. He didn’t like dead people, mostly because he had no effect on them. Sydney, conversely, didn’t like dead people because she had such a marked effect on them. She kept her arms crossed tightly over her chest, one gloved thumb rubbing the spot on her upper arm where she’d been shot. It was becoming a tic.
Victor turned and sunk one of the spades into the earth. He then tossed the other one to Sydney, who unfolded her arms just in time to catch it. The shovel was almost as tall as she was. A few days shy of her thirteenth birthday, and even for twelve and eleven twelfths, Sydney Clarke was small. She had always been on the short side, but it certainly didn’t help that she had barely grown an inch since the day she’d died.
Now she hefted the shovel, grimacing at the weight.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said.
“The faster we dig, the faster we get to go home.”
Home wasn’t home so much as a hotel room stocked only with Sydney’s stolen clothes, Mitch’s chocolate milk, and Victor’s files, but that wasn’t the point. At this moment, home would have been any place that wasn’t Merit Cemetery. Sydney eyed the grave, tightening her fingers on the wooden grip. Victor had already begun to dig.
“What if...” she said, swallowing, “...what if the other people accidentally wake up?”
“They won’t,” cooed Victor. “Just focus on this grave. Besides...” He looked up from his work. “Since when are you afraid of bodies?”
“I’m not,” she snapped back, too fast and with all the force of someone used to being the younger sibling. Which she was. Just not Victor’s.
“Look at it this way,” he teased, dumping a pile of dirt onto the grass. “If you do wake them up, they can’t go anywhere. Now dig.”
Sydney leaned forward, her short blond hair falling into her eyes, and began to dig. The two worked in the dark, only Victor’s occasional humming and the thud of the shovels filling the air.
TEN YEARS AGO
Victor drew a steady, straight, black line through the word marvel.
The paper they’d printed the text on was thick enough to keep the ink from bleeding through, so long as he didn’t press down too hard. He stopped to reread the altered page, and winced as one of the metal flourishes on Lockland University’s wrought-iron fence dug into his back. The school prided itself on its country-club-meets-Gothic-manor ambience, but the ornate railing that encircled Lockland, though striving to evoke both the university’s exclusive nature and its old-world aesthetic, succeeded only in being pretentious and suffocating. It reminded Victor of an elegant cage.
He shifted his weight and repositioned the book on his knee, wondering at the sheer size of it as he twirled the Sharpie over his knuckles. It was a self-help book, the latest in a series of five, by the world-renowned Drs. Vale. The very same Vales who were currently on an international tour. The very same Vales who had budgeted just enough time in their busy schedules—even back before they were best-selling “empowerment gurus”—to produce Victor.
He thumbed back through the pages until he found the beginning of his most recent undertaking and began to read. For the first time he wasn’t effacing a Vale book simply for pleasure. No, this was for credit. Victor couldn’t help but smile. He took an immense pride in paring down his parents’ works, stripping the expansive chapters on empowerment down to simple, disturbingly effective messages. He’d been blacking them out for more than a decade now, since he was ten, a painstaking but satisfying affair, but until last week he’d never been able to count it for anything as useful as school credit. Last week, when he’d accidentally left his latest project in the art studios over lunch—Lockland University had a mandatory art credit, even for budding doctors and scientists—he’d come back to his teacher poring over it. He’d expected a reprimand, some lecture on the cultural cost of defacing literature, or maybe the material cost of paper. Instead, the teacher had taken the literary destruction as art. He’d practically supplied the explanation, filled in any blanks using terms such as expression, identity, found art, reshaping.
Victor had only nodded, and offered a perfect word to the end of the teacher’s list—rewriting—and just like that, his senior art thesis had been determined.
The marker hissed as he drew another line, blotting out several sentences in the middle of the page. His knee was going numb from the weight of the tome. If he were in need of self-help, he would search for a thin, simple book, one whose shape mimicked its promise. But maybe some people needed more. Maybe some people scanned the shelves for the heftiest one, assuming that more pages meant more emotional or psychological aid. He skimmed the words and smiled as he found another section to ink out.
By the time the first bell rang, signaling the end of Victor’s art elective, he’d turned his parents’ lectures on how to start the day into:
Be lost. Give up. give In. in the end It would be better to surrender before you begin. be lost. Be lost And then you will not care if you are ever found.
He’d had to strike through entire paragraphs to make the sentence perfect after he accidentally marked out ever and had to go on until he found another instance of the word. But it was worth it. The pages of black that stretched between if you are and ever and found gave the words just the right sense of abandonment.
Victor heard someone coming, but didn’t look up. He flipped through to the back of the book, where he’d been working on a separate exercise. The Sharpie cut through another paragraph, line by line, the sound as slow and even as breathing. He’d marveled, once, that his parents’ books were in fact self-help, simply not in the way they’d intended. He found their destruction incredibly soothing, a kind of meditation.
“Vandalizing school property again?”
Victor looked up to find Eli standing over him. The library-plastic cover crinkled beneath his fingertips as he tipped the book up to show Eli the spine, where vale was printed in bold capital letters. He wasn’t about to pay $25.99 when Lockland’s library had such a suspiciously extensive collection of Vale-doctrine self-help. Eli took the book from him and skimmed.
“Perhaps... it is... in... our... best interest to... to surrender... to give up... rather than waste... words.”
Victor shrugged. He wasn’t done yet.
“You have an extra to, before surrender,” said Eli, tossing the book back.
Victor caught it and frowned, tracing his finger through the makeshift sentence until he found his mistake, and efficiently blotted out the word.
“You’ve got too much time, Vic.”
“You must make time for that which matters,” he recited, “for that which defines you: your passion, your progress, your pen. Take it up, and write your own story.”