Eli looked at him for a long moment, brow crinkling. “That’s awful.”
“It’s from the introduction,” said Victor. “Don’t worry, I blacked it out.” He flipped back through the pages, a web of thin letters and fat black lines, until he reached the front. “They totally murdered Emerson.”
Eli shrugged. “All I know is that book is a sniffer’s dream,” he said. He was right, the four Sharpies Victor had gone through in converting the book to art had given it an incredibly strong odor, one which Victor found at once entrancing and revolting. He got enough of a high from the destruction itself, but he supposed the smell was an unexpected addition to the project’s complexity, or so the art teacher would spin it. Eli leaned back against the rail. His rich brown hair caught the too bright sun, bringing out reds and even threads of gold. Victor’s hair was a pale blond. When the sunlight hit him, it didn’t bring out any colors, but only accentuated the lack of color, making him look more like an old-fashioned photo than a flesh-and-blood student.
Eli was still staring down at the book in Victor’s hands.
“Doesn’t the Sharpie ruin whatever’s on the other side?”
“You’d think,” said Victor. “But they use this freakishly heavy paper. Like they want the weight of what they’re saying to sink in.”
Eli’s laugh was drowned by the second bell, ringing out across the emptying quad. The bells weren’t buzzers, of course— Lockland was too civilized—but they were loud, and almost ominous, a single deep church bell from the spiritual center that sat in the middle of campus. Eli cursed and helped Victor to his feet, already turning toward the huddle of science buildings, faced in rich red brick to make them seem less sterile. Victor took his time. They still had a minute before the final bell sounded, and even if they were late, the teachers would never mark them down. All Eli had to do was smile. All Victor had to do was lie. Both proved frighteningly effective.
* * *
Victor sat in the back of his Comprehensive Science Seminar—a course designed to reintegrate students of various scientific disciplines for their senior theses—learning about research methods. Or at least being told about research methods. Distressed by the fact that the class relied on laptops, and since striking through words on a screen hardly gave him the same satisfaction, Victor had taken to watching the other students sleep, doodle, stress out, listen, and pass digital notes. Unsurprisingly, they failed to hold his interest for long, and soon his gaze drifted past them, and past the windows, and past the lawn. Past everything.
His attention was finally dragged back to the lecture when Eli’s hand went up. Victor hadn’t caught the question, but he watched his roommate smile his perfect all-American-political-candidate smile before he answered. Eliot—Eli—Cardale had started out as a predicament. Victor had been none too happy to find the lanky, brown-haired boy standing in the doorway of his dorm a month into sophomore year. His first roommate had experienced a change of heart in the first week (through no fault of Victor’s, of course) and had promptly dropped out. Due either to a shortage of students or perhaps a filing error made possible by fellow sophomore Max Hall’s penchant for any Lockland-specific hacking challenge, the student hadn’t been replaced. Victor’s painfully small double was converted into a much more adequate single room. Until the start of October when Eliot Cardale—who, Victor had immediately decided, smiled too much—appeared with a suitcase in the hall outside.
Victor had initially wondered what it would take to recover his bedroom for a second time in a semester, but before he put any plans into motion, an odd thing happened. Eli began to... grow on him. He was precocious, and frighteningly charming, the kind of guy who got away with everything, thanks to good genes and quick wits. He was born for the sports teams and the clubs, but he surprised everyone, especially Victor, by showing no inclination whatsoever to join either. This small defiance of social norm earned him several notches in Victor’s estimation, and made him instantly more interesting.
But what fascinated Victor most was the fact that something about Eli was decidedly wrong. He was like one of those pictures full of small errors, the kind you could only pick out by searching the image from every angle, and even then, a few always slipped by. On the surface, Eli seemed perfectly normal, but now and then Victor would catch a crack, a sideways glance, a moment when his roommate’s face and his words, his look and his meaning, would not line up. Those fleeting slices fascinated Victor. It was like watching two people, one hiding in the other’s skin. And their skin was always too dry, on the verge of cracking and showing the color of the thing beneath.
“Very astute, Mr. Cardale.”
Victor had missed the question and the answer. He looked up as Professor Lyne turned his attention to the rest of his seniors, and clapped his hands once, with finality.
“All right. It’s time to declare your thesis.”
The class, composed mostly of pre-med students, a handful of aspiring physicists, and even an engineer—not Angie, though, she’d been assigned a different section—gave a collective groan, on principle.
“Now, now,” said the professor, cutting off the protest. “You knew what you were getting into when you signed up.”
“We didn’t,” observed Max. “It’s a mandatory course.” The remark earned him a ripple of encouragement from the class.
“My sincerest apologies then. But now that you’re here, and seeing as there’s no time like the present—”
“Next week would be better,” called out Toby Powell, a broad-shouldered surfer, pre-med, and the son of some governor. Max had only earned a murmur, but this time the other students laughed at a level proportionate to Toby’s popularity.
“Enough,” said Professor Lyne. The class quieted. “Now, Lockland encourages a certain level of... industriousness where theses are concerned, and offers a proportionate amount of freedom, but a word of warning from me. I’ve taught this thesis seminar for seven years. You will do yourselves no favors by making a safe selection and flying under the radar; however, an ambitious thesis will win no points on the grounds of ambitiousness alone. Your grade is contingent upon execution. Find a topic close enough to your area of interest to be productive without selecting one you already consider yourselves expert on.” He offered Toby a withering smile. “Start us off, Mr. Powell.”
Toby ran his fingers through his hair, stalling. The professor’s disclaimer had clearly shaken his confidence in whatever topic he’d been about to declare. He made a few noncommittal sounds while scrolling through his notes.
“Um... T helper 17 cells and immunology.” He was careful not to let his voice wander up at the end into a question. Professor Lyne let him hang for a moment, and everyone waited to see if he would give Toby “the look”—the slight lift of his chin and the tilt of his head that he had become famous for; a look that said, perhaps you’d like to try again—but finally he honored him with a small nod.
His gaze pivoted. “Mr. Hall?”
Max opened his mouth when Lyne cut in with, “No tech. Science yes, tech no. So choose wisely.” Max’s mouth snapped shut a moment as he considered.
“Electrical efficacy in sustainable energy,” he said after a pause.
“Hardware over software. Admirable choice, Mr. Hall.”
Professor Lyne continued around the room.
Inheritance patterns, equilibriums, and radiation were all approved, while effects of alcohol/cigarettes/illegal substances, the chemical properties of methamphetamines, and the body’s response to sex all earned “the look.” One by one the topics were accepted or retooled.
“Next,” ordered Professor Lyne, his sense of humor ebbing.
A long pause. The topic had come from Janine Ellis, whose eyebrows hadn’t fully recovered from her last round of research. Professor Lyne gave a sigh, accompanied by “the look,” but Janine only smiled and there wasn’t much Lyne could say. Ellis was one of the youngest students in the room and had, in her freshman year, discovered a new and vibrant shade of blue that firework companies across the world now used. If she was willing to risk her eyebrows, that was her own business.
“And you, Mr. Vale?”
Victor looked at his professor, narrowing down his options. He’d never been strong in physics, and while chemistry was fun, his real passion lay in biology—anatomy and neuroscience. He’d like a topic with the potential for experimentation, but he’d also like to keep his eyebrows. And while he wanted to hold his rank in the department, offers from med schools, graduate programs, and research labs had been coming in the mail for weeks (and under the table for months). He and Eli had been decorating their entry hall with the letters. Not the offers, no, but the letters that preceded them, all praise and charm, batting lashes and handwritten postscripts. Neither one of them needed to move worlds with their papers. Victor glanced over at Eli, wondering what he would choose.
Professor Lyne cleared his throat.
“Adrenal inducers,” said Victor on a lark.
“Mr. Vale, I’ve already turned down a proposal involving intercourse—”