“Come on, Syd,” pressed Serena. “You can trust him.”
She felt like Alice in Wonderland. Like the soda must have had a little drink me tag and now the room was shrinking, or she was growing, or either way there wasn’t enough space. Enough air. Or had it been the cake that made Alice grow? She didn’t know...
She took a step back.
“What’s the matter, sis? You were pretty eager to show me.”
“You told me not to...”
Serena’s brow furrowed. “Well, now I’m telling you to do it.” She pushed off Eli and came up to Sydney, wrapping her in a hug. “Don’t worry, Syd,” she whispered in her ear. “He’s just like us.”
“Us?” Sydney whispered back.
“Didn’t I tell you?” cooed Serena. “I have a trick, too.”
Sydney pulled away. “What? When? What is it?” She wondered if that had been the thing stuck in Serena’s laugh the night she told her about raising the dead. A secret. But why didn’t her sister tell her? Why wait until now?
“Uh-uh,” Serena said, wagging her finger. “Trade you. You show us yours, and we’ll show you ours.”
For a very long moment, Sydney didn’t know whether to run, or feel elated that she wasn’t alone. That she and Serena... and Eli... had something to share. Serena took Sydney’s face between her hands.
“You show us yours,” she said again, smooth and slow.
Sydney found herself taking a deep breath, and nodding.
“Okay,” she said. “But we have to find a body.”
* * *
Eli held open the front passenger door. “After you.”
“Where are we going?” asked Sydney as she climbed in.
“On a road trip,” said Serena. She got behind the wheel and Eli took the backseat, directly behind Sydney. She didn’t like that, either; didn’t like that he could see her but she couldn’t see him. Serena asked absently about Brighton Commons as the university buildings beyond the car gave way to smaller, sparser structures.
“Why wouldn’t you come home?” asked Sydney under her breath. “I missed you. I needed you and you promised you weren’t gone but—”
“Don’t dwell,” said Serena. “What matters is that I’m here now, and you’re here, too.”
The structures gave way to fields.
“And we’re going to have a ball,” said Eli from the backseat. Sydney shivered. “Isn’t that right, Serena?”
Sydney glanced at her sister, and was surprised to see a shadow cross Serena’s face as she met Eli’s gaze in the rearview mirror.
“That’s right,” she said at last.
The road got narrower, rougher.
When the car finally stopped, they were at the seam between a forest and a field. Eli got out first, and led the way out into the field, the grass coming up to his knees. Eventually he stopped and looked down.
“Here we are.”
Sydney followed his gaze, and felt her stomach lurch.
There, tucked amid the grass, was a corpse.
“Dead bodies aren’t that easy to come by,” explained Eli lightly. “You have to go to a morgue, or a cemetery, or make one yourself.”
“Please don’t tell me you...”
Eli laughed. “Don’t be silly, Syd.”
“Eli shadows over at the hospital,” explained Serena. “He stole a cadaver from the morgue.”
Sydney swallowed. The corpse was dressed. Weren’t cadavers supposed to be naked?
“But what is the body doing out here?” she asked. “Why didn’t we just go to the morgue?”
“Sydney,” said Eli. She really didn’t like the way he kept using her name. Like they were close. “There are people in a morgue. And not all of them are dead.”
“Yeah, well, we didn’t have to drive half an hour away,” she shot back. “Aren’t there any fields, or abandoned lots, near the college? Why are we all the way—”
“Sydney,” Serena’s voice cut through the chill March air. “Stop whining.”
And she did. The complaint died in her throat. She rubbed at her eyes, and her hand came away with black smudges from the makeup she’d put on in the cab as it wove its way toward the University of Merit. She’d wanted to impress Serena by looking grown up. But right now, she didn’t feel grown up. Right now, she wanted nothing more than to curl into a ball, or to crawl out of her own skin. Instead she stood very still and looked down at the corpse of a middle-aged man and thought of the last time she’d been with a body (she didn’t count the dead hamster in school because no one even knew it had died and it was small and furry and didn’t have human eyes). The memory of the morgue, of the cold, dead skin against her fingertips. The chill like taking a large gulp of ice water, so large that the shiver ran down to her toes. It had been harder to make them dead again. She’d panicked. The woman in the morgue had tried to get up off the table. She hadn’t thought about what to do next so she’d grabbed the closest weapon she could find—a knife, part of an autopsy kit—and driven it down into the woman’s chest. She had lurched, then slumped back to the metal slab. Apparently raising the dead didn’t mean they couldn’t be killed again.
“Well?” said Eli, gesturing at the body like he was offering Sydney a gift, and she wasn’t being very grateful.
She looked to her sister for answers, for help, but somewhere between the car and the body, Serena had changed. She seemed tense, her forehead crinkling in a way that she’d always tried to avoid because she said she didn’t want wrinkles. And she wouldn’t meet her sister’s eyes. Sydney turned back to the body, and knelt gingerly beside it.
She didn’t see what she did as raising the dead, not really. They weren’t zombies, as far as she could tell—she didn’t have prolonged exposure to her subjects, aside from the hamster, and she wasn’t sure how a zombie hamster’s behavior would differ from that of a normal one—and it didn’t matter what they’d died of. The man under the sheet in the hospital hall had apparently suffered a heart attack. The woman in the morgue had already had her organs removed. But when Sydney touched them, they didn’t just come back, they revived. They were okay. Alive. Human. And, as she found out in the morgue, as susceptible to mortality as they’d been before, just not the form that killed them. It perplexed Sydney, until she remembered the day on the frozen lake when the ice water had swallowed her up and she’d reached for Serena’s leg and been a fraction too late, too slow, to catch it—come back, come back—and how badly she’d wanted a second chance.
That’s what Sydney was giving these people. A second chance.
Her fingers hovered over the dead man’s chest for a moment as she wondered if he deserved a second chance, then chided herself. Who was she to judge or decide or grant or deny? Simply because she could, did that mean she should?
“Any day now,” said Eli.
Sydney swallowed and forced herself to lower her fingers onto the dead man’s skin. At first, nothing happened, and panic swept over her at the thought of finally having a chance to show Serena, and failing to do it. But the panic fell away when, moments later, the ice-water chill flooded through her veins, and the man beneath her shuddered. His eyes flew open and he sat up, all so fast that Sydney went stumbling backward to the grass. The once-dead man looked around, confused and angry, before his eyes locked on Eli, and his whole face contorted with rage.
“What the hell is—”
The gunshot rang in Sydney’s ears. The man fell back into the grass, a small red tunnel between his eyes. Dead again. Eli lowered his gun.
“Impressive, Sydney,” he said. “That’s quite a unique gift.” The humor, along with that horrible false cheer and fake smile, was gone, wiped away. In a way, Eli wasn’t quite as frightening, because she’d always been able to see the monster in his eyes. Now it had finally stopped hiding. But the gun, and the way he held it, made him scary enough.
Sydney got to her feet. She really wished he would put the weapon down. Serena had retreated several feet, and was toeing a patch of frozen wild grass.
“Um, thank you?” said Sydney, her voice wavering. Her feet slid backward through the grass without her meaning to. “Are you going to show me your trick now?”
He almost laughed. “I’m afraid mine lacks the showmanship.” And then he raised the gun, and leveled it at her.
In that moment, Sydney felt no surprise, no shock. It was the first thing Eli had done that seemed right to her. Genuine. Fitting. She wasn’t afraid to die, she didn’t think. After all, she’d done it once. But that didn’t mean she was ready. Sadness and confusion coiled in her, not toward him, but toward her sister.
“Serena?” she asked quietly, as if maybe she didn’t notice her new boyfriend was pointing a gun at her little sister. But Serena had turned away, arms crossed tightly over her chest.
“I want you to know,” said Eli, fingers flexing on the gun, “that it is my grim task to do this. I have no choice.”
“Yes, you do,” whispered Sydney.