“So you wrested the gun from Mr. Vale.” Wrested had been Eli’s word, not the officer’s.
“I taught a self-defense seminar last summer,” he lied. “It’s not that hard.”
And then he pushed himself shakily to his feet. He was covered in blood, arms curled carefully around his ribs to hide the knife hole in his shirt. Two other officers had already questioned him about it. He’d told them he got lucky. He didn’t know how the weapon could have missed him. But it did. Obviously. Look, hole in shirt, no hole in Eli. Fortunately the cops had been too interested in Victor’s bleeding out on the hardwood floor to care much about Eli’s magic trick. One lucky man, they muttered, and he wasn’t sure if they’d been talking about him, or Victor, who had managed to avoid dying, for now.
“And then you shot him three times.”
“I was distraught. He’d just killed my girlfriend.” Eli wondered if he was in shock, if that was the thing keeping Angie’s death from sinking in the way the knife had. He wanted to care, he wanted to care so badly, but there was this gap between what he felt and what he wanted to feel, a space where something important had been carved out. And it was growing. He’d told Victor the thing he lost was his fear but that wasn’t quite true because he was still scared. He was scared of that rift.
“And then?” prompted the cop.
Eli rubbed his eyes. “And then he came after me. I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I tried not to kill him.” He swallowed, wishing he had a glass of water. “Look, do you think I could go clean up?” he asked, gesturing to his ruined clothes. “I need to go see Angie... her body.” The officer called past the yellow tape, and was given the all-clear. The ambulance was long gone. All that was left was a mess. The officer held up the tape to let him pass.
A trail of red wound through the living room. Eli stopped and stared at it. The fight replayed behind his eyes as relentlessly as the police lights, and he forced himself to veer toward the bathroom. When he caught sight of himself in the bank of mirrors, he stifled a laugh. One of those ill, halfway-to-tears laughs. Blood stained his shirt. His pants. His face. His hair. Eli did his best to wash it off, scrubbing his arms OR-style in the sink. His favorite shirt, a bold red one that Victor always said made him look like a ripe tomato, was ruined.
Victor. Victor was wrong. About everything.
“If I’m missing something, then so are you. Life is about compromises. Or did you think because you put yourself in God’s hands that He would make you all you were and more?”
“He did,” said Eli aloud to the sink. He did. He would. He had to. Whatever this gap was, it was there for a reason, there to make him stronger. He had to believe that.
Eli washed his face, cupped water over his hair until the red ran out of it. He pulled on fresh clothes, and was just about to duck back under the yellow tape across his front door when he caught the end of the young officer’s remark to another cop.
“Yeah, Detective Stell’s on his way.”
Eli paused, and stepped backward into the apartment.
“Did you know they have special people that come in if there’s an EO suspected? Some guy named Stell. I bet you didn’t know that.”
Eli turned, made a line for the back door, only to find his path blocked by a very large cop.
“Everything all right, sir?” asked the cop. Eli gave a slow nod.
“Door’s taped,” he said. “Just trying to get out of everyone’s way.”
The large cop nodded, and stepped aside. Eli was through the back door and into the small communal courtyard by the time the large officer reached the younger one. He didn’t look guilty, he told himself. Not yet.
Victor was the guilty one. The Victor that he knew was dead, replaced by something cold and vicious. A twisted, violent version of himself. Victor had never been good, or sweet—he’d always had a sharp edge; Eli had been drawn to the metallic glint of it— but he’d never been this. A murderer. A monster. After all, he’d killed Angie. How? How had it happened? With pain? Was that possible? The medical part of his mind tried to break it down. A heart attack? Would the pain cause a short-circuit, like electricity? Would the body shut down? Would the functions freeze? He dug his nails into his palms. This was Angie. Not a science experiment. A person. The one who’d made him feel better, saner, kept him afloat when his mind began to sink. Was that it, then? Was Angie the missing thing? Wouldn’t it be lovely to make the gap another person instead of a part of himself? But no, that wasn’t it. Angie had helped, she’d always helped, but he’d felt the hole before she died, felt it even before he died. The feeling—the lack of it—had only ever come in glimpses, like a cloud passing overhead. But from the moment he woke up on the bathroom floor, the shadow had settled over him, a sign that something was wrong.
Not wrong, he forced himself to think. Different.
Eli got to his car, thankful he’d parked two blocks away (less chance of getting a ticket there), and threw it into gear. He drove past the engineering labs, slowing only enough to see the yellow tape there, too—marking out Victor’s path of destruction—and the huddle of emergency vehicles. He kept going. He needed to get to the pre-med buildings as fast as possible. He needed to find Professor Lyne.
* * *
Eli strode through the automatic doors and into the lobby of the three clustered buildings reserved for the medical sciences, an empty backpack slung on one shoulder. The lobby of the center lab had been painted an awful pale yellow. He wasn’t sure why they insisted on painting labs such sickly shades—maybe to prepare the pre-med students for the equally sad palettes of most of the hospitals they aspired to work in, or perhaps on some misguided notion that pale meant clean—but the color made the place seem lifeless, now more than ever. Eli kept his head down as he made his way up two flights of stairs, until he reached the office where he’d spent most of his free time since the start of winter break. Professor Lyne’s nameplate hung on the door, letters gleaming. Eli tried the handle. It was locked. He searched his pockets for something to use on the lock, and came up with a paper clip. If it worked on television, it could work here. He knelt before the handle.
Before Victor had come back to campus, Eli had taken his discovery to Professor Lyne, who had gone from skeptical to intrigued as his theories gained weight. Eli had enjoyed getting the professor’s attention back in the fall, but it was nothing compared to the relish he felt earning Lyne’s respect. His research, now their research, had taken on a new focus under the professor’s guidance, reinterpreting the hypothetical qualities of existing EOs—the NDEs and their physical and psychological aftermath—into a potential system for locating them. A kind of search matrix. At least, that had been the charted course of study until Victor showed up and suggested that they could potentially make an EO instead. Eli had never shared this idea with Professor Lyne. He hadn’t had the chance. After Victor’s failed attempt, Eli had become too preoccupied with his own trial, and then after his success—and it was a success, missing pieces aside—he hadn’t wanted to share. He’d been watching Lyne’s interest sharpen from curiosity into fascination in a way that Eli knew well. Certainly well enough to distrust it.
Now he was glad he’d kept the new direction to himself. In less than a week, Eli’s research had ended Angie’s life, ruined Victor’s (if he lived), and changed his own. Even though the dark turn in the thesis and the ensuing destruction had both been Victor’s fault, his actions had also revealed the grim truth of their discoveries, and where they would inevitably lead. And now Eli knew exactly what he had to do.
“Can I help you?”
Eli looked up from his lock-picking, which wasn’t going well, to find a janitor leaning on a broom, eyes flicking from Eli to his straightened paper clip. He forced a casual laugh and stood up.
“I hope so. God, I’m such an idiot. I left a folder in Lyne’s office. He’s my adviser. I need it for my thesis.” He was talking too fast, the way actors did on TV when they wanted the audience to pick up on the fact they were lying. His hands were slick. He paused, forcing himself to breathe. “Have you seen him, by the way?” Inhale, exhale. “I can wait around a little while.” Inhale, exhale. “Be the first rest I’ve had in weeks.” He stopped and waited to see if the janitor would buy the story.
After a long moment, the man pulled a set of keys from his pocket and unlocked the door.
“I haven’t seen him yet, but he should be in soon. And in the future,” he offered as he turned away, “it takes two paper clips.”
Eli smiled with genuine relief, waved his thanks, and went inside, urging the door closed with a click. He let out a low sigh, and got to work.
There are times when the marvels of scientific advancement expedite our processes, making our lives easier. Modern technology provides machines that can think three or five or seven steps ahead of the human mind, machines that offer elegant solutions, a selection of contingency plans, Bs and Cs and Ds in case A isn’t to your liking.
And then there are times when a screwdriver and a bit of elbow grease are all that’s necessary to get the job done. Eli admitted that it wasn’t terribly creative, or aesthetically pleasing, but it was efficient. Their research was stored in two places. The first was a blue folder in the third drawer of the wall cabinet, which Eli removed and slid into his backpack. The second was on the computer.