“I don’t want to die.”
“You just told me you did.”
“Well, I don’t want to stay dead.”
She rubbed her eyes, rested her forehead for a moment on the steering wheel, and let out a groan.
“I need you, Angie. If you don’t help me—”
“Don’t you dare spin it that way—”
“—I’ll just end up trying by myself again—”
“—and doing something stupid I won’t recover from.”
“We can get you help.”
“I’m not suicidal.”
“No, you’re delusional.”
Victor tipped his head back against the seat. His pocket buzzed. Eli. He ignored it, knowing it would be a matter of moments before Eli contacted Angie instead. He didn’t have much time. Certainly not enough to convince her to help him.
“Why can’t you just...” mumbled Angie into the steering wheel, “...I don’t know, OD? Something peaceful?”
“The pain’s important,” explained Victor, inwardly wincing. She wasn’t so upset at what he was doing, then. Only that he was involving her. “Pain and fear,” he added. “They’re both factors. Hell, Eli killed himself in an ice bath.”
A grim, triumphant smile itched on his lips as he played the card. Victor had known that Eli wouldn’t have told Angie yet. He was counting on it. The betrayal showed in her eyes. She got out, slammed the door, and sunk back against it. Victor followed, rounding the car. He drew tracks in the snow as he went. Through the partially tinted glass he could see her phone on the driver’s seat. A red light flashed on its front. Victor turned his attention toward Angie.
“When did he do it?” she asked.
She looked at the film of snow on the concrete between them.
“But I came by this morning, Vic. He looked fine.”
“Exactly. Because it worked. It will work.”
She groaned. “This is crazy. You’re crazy.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“Why would he...”
“He didn’t tell you anything?” prodded Victor, shivering in his thin jacket.
“He’s been weird lately,” she mumbled. Then her attention narrowed. “What you’re asking me to do... it’s crazy. It’s torture.”
She looked up, eyes blazing. “I don’t even believe you. What if it goes wrong?”
“What if it does?”
His phone buzzed angrily in his pocket.
“It can’t,” he said as calmly as he could. “I took a pill.”
Her eyebrows knitted.
“Eli and I,” he began to explain, “we isolated some of the adrenal compounds that kick in during life-or-death situations. We fabricated them. Essentially the pill acts like a trigger. A jump start.”
It was all a lie, but he could see that its feigned existence impacted Angie. Science, even completely fictional science, held sway. Angie swore, and tucked her hands into her jacket pockets.
“Fuck, it’s cold,” she muttered, turning toward the building’s front doors. The engineering lab itself was a problem, Victor knew. Security cameras. If something did go wrong, there would be footage.
“Where’s Eli now?” she asked as she swiped her access card. “If you’re in this together, why are you here with me?”
“He’s busy relishing his new status as a god,” said Victor bitterly, following her through the key-coded entry, scanning the ceiling for the red light of recording equipment. “Look, all you have to do is use the electricity to turn me off. Then turn me back on. The pill will do the rest.”
“I study currents and the effects on devices, Victor, not people.”
“A body is a machine,” he said quietly. She led the way into one of the electrical engineering labs and flicked a switch. Half the lights turned on. Equipment was stacked along one wall, a variety of machines, some that looked medical, others technical. The room was full of tables, long and thin but large enough to rest a body on. He could feel Angie waver beside him.
“We’d have to plan it out,” she said. “Give me a couple weeks, and maybe I could modify some of the equipment in here for—”
“No,” said Victor, crossing to the machines. “It has to be tonight.”
She looked aghast, but before she could protest, he took the lie he’d started, and ran with it.
“That pill I told you about... I already took it. It’s like a switch, whether on or off depends on what state the body’s in.” He met her gaze, held it, and sent up a silent prayer that she didn’t know half as much about hypothetical adrenal compounds as she did about circuits. “If I don’t do this soon, Angie”—he winced for good measure—“the compound will kill me.”
He held his breath.
His phone vibrated again.
“How long?” she asked at last.
He took a step toward her, letting one of his legs nearly buckle under some imaginary strain. He caught himself on the edge of a table with a grimace, and found her gaze as the buzzing in his pocket stopped.
* * *
“This is mad,” whispered Angie over and over as she helped bind Victor’s legs to the table. He worried that even now, with the machines around them humming to life and her busy winding the rubber strap around his ankles, she might back out, so he doubled up in fake pain, curled in on himself.
“Victor,” she said urgently. “Victor, are you okay?” There was pain and panic in her voice and he had to fight the urge to stop, to soothe her, and promise it would be okay.
Instead he nodded, and said through gritted teeth, “Hurry.”
She rushed to finish the knots, showed him the rubber-coated bars on the table where he could put his hands. Her halo of red hair had always looked electrified, but tonight it rose around her cheeks. Victor thought it made her look haunting. Beautiful. The first day they met, she’d looked like this. It had been hot for September; her face was flushed, and her hair had a life of its own. He’d looked up from his textbook and saw her, standing at the entrance to LIDS, clutching a folder to her front as her eyes wandered over the room in an appraising way—lost but unconcerned. And then they landed on Victor at his table with his book, and her face lit up. Not full-wattage light, but a steady glow as she crossed the room, and slid without preamble into the seat across from him. They didn’t even talk, that first day. Just passed the same hour in the same space. Angie had later referred to the two of them as concordant frequencies.
“Victor.” Her voice saying his name drew him back to the cold table in the lab.
“I want you to know,” she said as she began to fix sensors to his chest, “that I will never, ever forgive you for this.”
He shivered under her touch. “I know.”
His coat and shirt were cast off on a chair, the contents of his pockets set on top. Amid the keys and a wallet and a pre-med lab badge, sat his phone, the ringer turned off. It blinked angrily at him, flashing first blue and then red and then blue again, and so on, signaling it had both voice mail and texts waiting.
Victor smiled grimly. Too late, Eli. It’s my turn.
Angie was standing by a machine chewing the nails off one of her hands. The other rested on a set of dials. The machine itself was whirring and whining and blinking. A language Victor didn’t know, which scared him.
Her eyes caught on something, and she took hold of it, crossing back to him. It was a strip of rubber.
“You know what to do,” said Victor, surprised by the calm in his voice. Everything beneath his skin was trembling. “Start at the low setting, and go up.”
“Turn off, turn on,” she whispered, before holding the rubber above his mouth. “Bite down on this.”
Victor took a last deep breath, and forced his mouth to open. The strap was between his teeth, his fingers testing their grip on the small table bars. He could do this. Eli held himself under. Victor could, too.
Angie was back at the machine. Their eyes met, and for an instant everything else vanished—the lab and the humming machines and the existence of EO and Eli and the years since Victor and Angie had shared a milkshake—and he was just happy to have her looking at him. Seeing him.
And then she closed her eyes, and turned the dial a single click, and the only thing Victor could think of was the pain.
* * *
Victor fell back against the table in a cold sweat.
He couldn’t breathe.
He gasped, expecting a pause, a moment to recover. Expecting Angie to change her mind, to stop, to give up.
But Angie turned the dial up.
The need to be sick was overcome by the need to scream and he bit into the rubber strap until he thought his teeth would crack but a moan still escaped, and he thought Angie must have heard, and she’d turn the machine off now, but the dial went up again.
Victor thought he would black out but before he could, the dial turned up and the spasm of pain brought him back to his body and the table and the room and he couldn’t escape.