“Poor you,” teased Victor coolly. “Now if you don’t mind...” He held up the candy bar.
Eli paused midcut. “Squeamish?”
Victor shrugged. “Just easily distracted,” he said. “You look awful. Have you slept? Eaten?”
Eli blinked, and set the knife aside. “I’ve been thinking.”
“The body doesn’t survive on thoughts.”
“I’ve been thinking about this ability. Regeneration.” His eyes glittered as he spoke. “Why of all the potential powers I ended up with this one. Maybe it’s not random. Maybe there’s some correlation between a person’s character and their resulting ability. Maybe it’s a reflection of their psyche. I’m trying to understand how this”—he held up a blood-stained, but uninjured hand—“is a reflection of me. Why He would give me—”
“He?” asked Victor incredulously. He wasn’t in the mood for God. Not this morning. “According to your thesis,” he said, “an influx of adrenaline and a desire to survive gave you that talent. Not God. This isn’t divinity, Eli. It’s science and chance.”
“Maybe to a point, but when I climbed into that water, I put myself in His hands—”
“No,” snapped Victor. “You put yourself in mine.”
Eli fell silent, but began to rap his fingers on the table. After several moments he said, “What I need is a gun.”
Victor had taken another bite of chocolate, and nearly choked. “And why’s that?”
“To truly test the speed of regeneration. Obviously.”
“Obviously.” Victor finished his snack as Eli pushed up from the table to pour himself some water. “Look, I’ve been thinking, too.”
“About what?” asked Eli, leaning back against the counter.
“About my turn.”
Eli’s brow crinkled. “You had it.”
“About my next turn,” Victor said. “I want to try again tonight.”
Eli considered Victor, head cocked. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Eli hesitated. “I can still see the line from your hospital bracelet,” he said at last. “At least wait till you’re feeling better.”
“Actually, I’m feeling fine. Better than. I feel wonderful. I feel like roses and sunshine and glitter.”
Victor Vale did not feel like glitter. His muscles ached, his veins still felt strangely starved of air, and he couldn’t shake the headache that had trailed him since he’d opened his eyes beneath the fluorescent white of the hospital lights.
“Give yourself time to recover, okay?” said Eli. “And then we’ll talk about trying again.”
There was nothing overtly wrong with the words, but Victor didn’t like the way he said them, the same calm, cautious tone people use when they want to let someone down slowly, smoothing a “no” into a “not right now.” Something was wrong. And Eli’s attention was already drifting back toward his knives. Away from Victor.
He clenched his teeth against the curse on his tongue. And then he shrugged carefully.
“Fine,” he said, swinging his bag back onto his shoulder. “Maybe you’re right,” he added with a yawn and a lazy smile. Eli smiled back, and Victor turned toward the hall and his room.
He swiped an epinephrine pen on the way, and closed the door behind him.
* * *
Victor hated loud music almost as much as he hated crowds of drunk people. The party had both, and was made more insufferable by Victor’s own sobriety. No booze. Not this time. He wanted—needed—everything to be sharp, especially if he was going to do this alone. Eli was still, presumably, at the apartment, carving up his skin while he assumed Victor was in his room, sulking or studying or both. What Victor had actually been doing was climbing out his window.
He’d felt fifteen again, a kid sneaking out to a party on a school night while his parents sat in the living room and laughed at something mindless on the TV. Or at least, Victor imagined this was what it would have been like had he needed to sneak out. Had anyone ever been home to catch him at it.
Victor moved through the party largely unnoticed, but not unwelcome. He earned a few second glances, but those were mostly because he rarely made an appearance at these kinds of events. He was an outsider by choice, a good enough mimic to charm his way into social circles when he wanted, but more often than not he preferred to stand apart and watch, and most of the school seemed content to let him.
But here he was, winding his way through bodies and music and sticky floors, the epinephrine pen tucked into the inside pocket of his coat, a small Post-it affixed to it that read Use Me. Now, as he found himself surrounded by lights and noise and bodies, Victor felt as if he’d wandered into another world. Is this what normal seniors did? Drank and danced with bodies interlocking like puzzle pieces to music loud enough to drown out thoughts? Angie had taken him to a few parties freshman year, but those had been different. He couldn’t remember anything about the music or the beer, only her. Victor blinked the memory away. Sweat coated his palms as he took a plastic cup, and dumped the contents into a withering house plant. Holding something helped.
At one point he found himself on the balcony, looking down at the frozen lake that ran behind the frats. The sight made him shiver. He knew for optimum results he should mimic Eli, recreate the successful scenario, but Victor couldn’t—wouldn’t—do that. He had to find his own method.
He pushed off the banister, and retreated back into the house. As he continued on a circuit through the rooms, his eyes flicked around, appraising. He was amazed at how myriad the options for a suicide were, and yet how limited the options for one with any certitude of survival.
But Victor was certain of one thing: he wasn’t leaving here without his turn. He wouldn’t go back to the apartment and watch Eli joyfully saw at his skin, marvel at this strange new immortality he hadn’t even tried that hard to find. Victor wouldn’t stand there and coo and take notes for him.
Victor Vale was not a fucking sidekick.
By his third lap around the house, he’d scored what he considered to be enough cocaine to induce cardiac arrest (he wasn’t sure, having never engaged in that kind of activity). He’d had to buy from three separate students, since each only had a few hits on them.
On his fourth lap around the house, while working up the nerve to use the cocaine, he heard it. The front door opened—he couldn’t hear that over the music, but from his place on the stairs, he felt the sudden burst of cold—and then a girl squealed and said, “Eli! You made it!”
Victor swore softly, and retreated up the stairs. He heard his own name as he wound through the bodies. He broke through and reached the second-floor landing, then found an unoccupied bedroom with its own bathroom at the back. Halfway through the room, he stopped. A bookcase lined one wall, and there in the center, his own last name leapt out at him in capital letters.
He pulled the massive self-help book from the wall, and opened the window. The sixth book in a series of nine on emotional action and reaction hit the thin coat of snow below with a satisfying thud. Victor shut the window and continued into the bathroom.
On the sink he set his things in order.
First, his phone. He punched in a text to Eli but didn’t hit Send, and set the device to one side. Second, the adrenaline shot. He’d be up to temperature, so hopefully a single direct injection would suffice. It would be hell on the body, but so would everything else he was about to do. He set the needle beside the phone. Third, the coke. He made a neat pile, and began to separate it into lines with a hotel card he found in his back pocket, a relic from the winter trip his parents had dragged him on. Despite an upbringing that would have driven most kids to drugs, Victor had never been much inclined to do them, but he had a good idea of the steps, thanks to a healthy diet of crime dramas. Once the cocaine was in its lines—seven of them—he pulled a dollar from his wallet and rolled it into a narrow straw. As seen on TV.
He looked in the mirror.
“You want to live,” he told his reflection.
His reflection looked unconvinced.
“You need to live through this,” he said. “You need to.”
And then he took a breath and bent over the first line.
The arm came out of nowhere, wrapped around his throat, and slammed him back into the wall opposite the vanity. Victor caught his balance and straightened in time to see Eli run his hand through several hundred dollars’ worth of coke, brushing it all into the sink.
“What the fuck?” Victor hissed, lunging for it. He wasn’t fast enough. Eli’s coke-dusted palm shoved him back again, pinned him to the wall, leaving a white print on the front of his black shirt.
“What the fuck?” parroted Eli with shocking calm. “What the fuck?”
“You weren’t supposed to be here.”
“You come to a party, people notice. Ellis texted me when you showed up. And then Max texts and tells me you’re buying out the coke. I’m not an idiot. What were you thinking?” His free hand grabbed the cell on the sink. He read the text. He made a sound like a laugh, but his fingers tightened around Victor’s collar as his other hand pitched the phone into the shower, where it broke into several pieces on impact.