One count, two count, three count.
He started pumping again, trying not to think about the breaking ribs and the fact that Eli still looked thoroughly, undeniably dead. Victor’s arms burned and he resisted the urge to cast sideways glances at his cell phone, which had tumbled from his pocket in the struggle to extricate Eli from the tub. He closed his eyes, continued counting and pressing his intertwined fists up and down and up and down and up and down over Eli’s heart.
It wasn’t working.
Victor took up the second pen, and plunged it into Eli’s thigh.
One count, two count, three count.
For the first time, panic filled Victor’s mouth like bile. He swallowed, and resumed compressions. The only sounds in the room were his whispered counts and his pulse—his pulse, not Eli’s—and the odd sound of his hands trying desperately to restart his best friend’s heart.
Trying. And failing.
Victor began to lose hope. He was running out of chances, out of pens. There was only one left. His hand slid from Eli’s chest, shaking as his fingers curled around it. He raised the pen, and stopped. Beneath him, sprawled on the tiles, was the lifeless body of Eli Cardale. Eli, who showed up in the hallway sophomore year with a suitcase and a smile. Eli, who believed in God and had a monster inside just like Victor, but knew how to hide it better. Eli, who got away with everything, who had slipped into his life and stolen the girl and the top rank and the stupid holiday research grant. Eli, who, despite it all, meant something to Victor.
He swallowed, and drove the pen into his dead friend’s chest.
One count, two count, three count.
And then, somewhere between Victor giving up and reaching for his phone, Eli gasped.
TWO DAYS AGO
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
Victor heard the tread of barefoot steps behind him as Mitch came into the room. He saw the hulking figure in the reflective sheen of the windowpane, felt him the way he felt everyone, as if they were all under water, himself included, and every movement made ripples.
“You’re wandering,” said Mitch, meeting Victor’s gaze in the glass.
It was a small, familiar phrase, one Mitch had often used when he’d found Victor staring off between the bars, squinting faintly, as if trying to see through the walls to something in the distance. Something important.
Now Victor blinked, eyes sliding from the window and Mitch’s ghostly reflection to the fake wood floor. He listened to Mitch’s footsteps recede into the kitchen, the soft sound of the fridge opening, a carton being taken out. Chocolate milk. It was all Mitch wanted to drink now that he was out, since they didn’t have any at Wrighton. Victor had quirked a brow, but let the man have his whims. Prison left a hunger in you, a craving. The exact nature of the want depended on the person.
Victor wanted something, too.
He wanted to watch Eli bleed.
Mitch leaned his elbows on the counter, and drank his milk in silence. Victor thought his cellmate after getting out might have a plan of his own, people he’d want to see, but he had only looked at Victor over the hood of the stolen car and asked, “Where next?” If Mitch did have a past, he was clearly still running from it, and in the meantime, Victor was more than willing to give him something to run to. He liked making people useful.
His gaze eventually wandered past Mitch’s reflection to the Merit night, the ice in his nearly empty drink clinking as the glass shifted in his grip. The two had been in each other’s company for a long time. They knew when the other wanted to talk, and when they wanted to think. The only problem was that more often than not, Victor wanted to think, and more often than not, Mitch wanted to talk. Victor could feel Mitch beginning to fidget under the weight of the quiet.
“Quite a view,” he said, tipping his glass toward the windows.
“Yeah,” said Mitch. “Been a long time since I’ve seen a view that grand. Next place we go, I hope it has windows like this.”
Victor nodded again, absently, brought his forehead to rest against the cool glass. He couldn’t afford to think of next, or after. He’d spent far too long thinking of now. Waiting for now. The only nexts in his world were the short, quick ones standing between him and Eli. And they were falling away so fast.
Mitch yawned. “You sure you’re okay, Vic?” he asked, returning the carton to the fridge.
“Night,” said Mitch, wandering back to his room.
Victor watched Mitch go in the glass, before two pale smudges— his own eyes, ghosted against the darkened buildings—brought him back. Victor turned away from the wall of windows, and finished his drink.
A folder sat on a side table beside the leather couch, a handful of papers escaping from within. A face gazed steadily out from a picture, the right eye and cheek obscured by the folder’s front, and Victor set the empty glass on the table and flicked the cover back to reveal the rest of the face. It was the page from the copy of The National Mark he’d bought that morning.
CIVILIAN HERO SAVES BANK
Below ran the article on the young, precocious man who had been in the right place at the right time and had risked his life to stop an armed robber at a local branch.
Smith & Lauder Bank, a landmark in the northern financial sector of Merit, was the site of a foiled robbery yesterday when a civilian hero put himself between a masked assailant and the money. The civilian, who wishes to remain nameless, told authorities that he noticed the man behaving suspiciously several blocks from the bank, and that a bad feeling was all that led him to follow. Before he reached the bank, the man pulled on a mask, and by the time the civilian caught up, the robber had already plunged inside. In a fearless display, the civilian went in after him. According to the customers and employees trapped inside, the robber at first appeared unarmed, but then proceeded to fire an undetermined weapon up at the stained-glass ceiling, shattering it and raining shards down on the captured populace. He then took aim at the bank vault, but was derailed by the arrival of the civilian. The bank manager reports that the robber took aim at the civilian when he tried to intercede, and then chaos erupted. Shots were fired, and in the mayhem the customers and employees managed to escape the building. By the time the police reached the scene, it was over. The robber, later identified as a troubled man named Barry Lynch, had been killed in the firefight, but the civilian was uninjured. It was a bad day with a happy ending, a remarkable display of courage by a citizen of Merit, and there is no doubt the city is thankful to have such a hero on her streets.
Victor had blacked out most of the article in his usual fashion, and what was left, was this:
a site a civilian hero nameless, a bad feeling fearless unarmed and in the mayhem uninjured. It was a remarkable display
It had calmed something in Victor, the blotting out of the words, but the revised state of the article didn’t change the fact that several things about it were clearly amiss. First, the robber himself. Barry Lynch. Victor had had Mitch go scrounging, and from what little they could dig up, Barry had several EO markers. Not only had he suffered an NDE, but he’d racked up a string of arrests in the months following, each for theft with an unidentified weapon. The cops never found it on his person, so he was let go; Victor had to wonder if Barry was the weapon.
Even more concerning—and more intriguing—than a potential EO was the photograph of the civilian hero. He had asked to remain nameless, but nameless and anonymous are not the same, especially where papers are concerned, and there, below the article, was a picture. A grainy photo of a young man turning away from the scene and the cameras, but not before casting a last, almost cocky, glance back at the press.
The smile on the man’s face was unmistakable, young and proud, the same smile he used to flash Victor. The exact same smile.
Because Eliot Cardale hadn’t aged a day.
TEN YEARS AGO
Eli took several gulping breaths, cradling his chest. His eyes struggled open, fought to focus. He took in the room around him, the view from the blanketed floor, before leveling his unsteady gaze on Victor.
“Hey,” he said shakily.
“Hey,” said Victor, fear and panic still scribbled over him. “How do you feel?”
Eli closed his eyes, rolled his head from side to side. “I... I don’t know... I’m fine... I think.”
Fine? Victor had cracked his ribs, broken at least half by the feel of it, and Eli felt fine? Victor had felt like death. Worse than. Like every fiber of his being had been plucked or torqued or twisted or cramped. Then again, Victor hadn’t died, right? Not the way he was certain Eli had. He’d sat and watched, made sure Eliot Cardale was nothing but a corpsicle. Maybe it was shock. Or the three shots of epinephrine. That’s what it had to be. But even with shock and a nowhere near healthy dose of adrenaline... fine?
“Fine?” he asked aloud.
“Can you...” Victor wasn’t sure how to finish the question. If their absurd theory had worked and Eli had somehow acquired an ability by simply dying and coming back, would he even know it? Eli seemed to know the question’s end.
“I mean, I’m not starting fires with my mind, or making earthquakes or whatever. But I’m not dead.” There was, Victor could hear, a faint waver of relief in his voice.