When Detective Stell asked Eli about his thesis, he explained that it had been his, until Victor usurped it, went behind his back and started working with Lyne. And then he leaned in, and told Stell that Victor hadn’t been himself the past few days, that something was different, wrong, and that if he survived—he was still in ICU—they should all be very careful.
Eli’s thesis was waived, in light of the trauma. Trauma. The word haunted him through his police questioning and his academic meetings all the way to the school-sanctioned single apartment they’d moved him into. Trauma. The word that had helped him crack the code, helped him pinpoint the origins of EOs. Trauma became a kind of hall pass. If only they knew how much trauma he had sustained. They didn’t.
He stood in the new apartment with the lights off, and let his backpack—they’d never searched the car for it—fall to the floor beside him. It was the first time he’d been alone—truly alone— since he’d left the party in search of Victor. And for a moment, the gap between what he should feel and what he felt snapped shut. Tears began to stream down Eli’s face as he sank to his knees on the hardwood floor.
“Why is this happening?” he whispered to the empty room. He wasn’t sure if he meant the sudden and ferocious sadness or Lyne’s murder or Angie’s death or Victor’s change or the fact that he was still here in the middle of all of it, unscathed.
Unscathed. That was exactly what it was. He had wanted strength, begged for it as the ice water leached the heat and life from his body, but he’d been given this. Resilience. Invincibility. But why?
EOs are wrong, and I am an EO, so I must be wrong. It was the simplest of equations, but it wasn’t right. Somehow, it wasn’t right. He knew in his heart with a strange and simple certainty that EOs were wrong. That they shouldn’t exist. But he felt with equal certainty that he wasn’t wrong, not in the same way. Different, yes, undeniably different, but not wrong. He thought back to what he’d said in the stairwell. The words had spilled out on their own.
But it’s a trade, Professor, with God or the devil...
Could that be the difference? He’d seen a demon wearing his best friend’s skin, but Eli didn’t feel like there was any evil in himself. If anything, he felt hands, strong and steady, guiding him when he pulled the trigger, when he snapped Lyne’s neck, when he didn’t run from Stell. Those moments of peace, of certainty, they felt like faith.
But he needed a sign. God had seemed, in the past few days, like a match-light next to the sun of Eli’s discoveries, but now he felt like a boy again, needing sanction, approval. He pulled a pocket-knife from his jeans, and clicked it open.
“Would You take it back?” he asked the dark apartment. “If I were no longer of Your making, You would take this power back, wouldn’t You?” Tears glistened in his eyes. “Wouldn’t You?”
He cut deep, carving a line from elbow to wrist, wincing as blood welled and spilled instantly, dripping to the floor. “You’d let me die.” He switched hands and carved a matching line down his other arm, but before he’d reached his wrist, the wounds were closing, leaving only smooth skin, and a small pool of blood.
“Wouldn’t You?” He cut deeper, through to bone, over and over, until the floor was red. Until he’d given his life to God a hundred times, and a hundred times had it given back. Until the fear and the doubt had all been bled out of him. And then he set the knife aside with shaking hands. Eli dipped his fingertips in the slick of red, crossed himself, and got back to his feet.
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
Eli parked on the street.
He hadn’t trusted hotel garages since an incident with an earthshaking EO three years earlier. It had taken him two full hours to heal, and that was only after he managed to dig himself out of the rubble. Besides, the check-ins and checkouts, tickets and tolls and barricades... garages made quick exits impossible. So Eli parked, crossed the road, and passed through the hotel’s elegant entry, a stone and light marquee announcing Merit’s pride, THE ESQUIRE. It had been Serena’s choice, and he hadn’t been in the mood to defy her. They’d only been there a couple days, since the mishap with Sydney. He’d really hoped the girl would bleed to death in the woods, that maybe one or two of the bullets he’d fired after her would find skin instead of wood and air. But the drawing in his pocket—and the dead-undead-dead-again Barry Lynch suggested otherwise.
“Afternoon, Mr. Hill.”
It took Eli a moment to remember that he was Mr. Hill, and then he smiled, and nodded at the woman behind the front desk. Serena was better than a fake ID. He hadn’t had to present any ID, in fact, when they checked in. Or a credit card. She did come in handy. He didn’t like being so dependent on someone else, but he managed to twist it in his mind, to assure himself that while Serena made things easier, smoother, she was sparing him effort that he was more than capable of exerting, if necessary. In this way, she wasn’t essential, only terribly convenient.
Halfway to the elevator, Eli passed a man. He made a quick mental profile of the stranger, half out of habit and half out of a gut feeling of wrongness, a kind of sixth sense acquired over a decade of studying people as if they were all spot-the-difference pictures. The hotel was expensive, sleek, the majority of its clientele in suits. This man was wearing something that might pass for a suit, but he was massive, tattoos peeking out from his pushed-up sleeves and collar. He was reading something as he walked, and never looked up, and the woman behind the desk didn’t seem concerned, so Eli shelved the man’s face somewhere in mental reach, and went upstairs.
He took the elevator to the ninth floor and let himself in. The suite was pleasant yet sparse, with an open kitchen, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a balcony-aided view over Merit. But no Serena. Eli tossed his satchel onto the couch and sat down at the desk in the corner where a laptop sat on top of a daily paper. He woke the device and, as the Merit Police database loaded, pulled the folded drawing from his pocket and set it on the desk, smoothing its corners. The database gave a small chirp, and he entered through the digital back door Officer Dane and Detective Stell had set up for him.
He then scrolled through the folders until he found the file he was looking for. Beth Kirk stared at him, blue hair framing her face. He stared back at her for a moment, and then dragged the profile into the trash.
TEN YEARS AGO
Eli was sitting in the school-sanctioned single apartment, eating Chinese takeout from LIDS, when the report came on the news. Dale Sykes, a custodian at Lockland University, had been involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident while walking home from work the night before. Eli speared another piece of broccoli. He hadn’t meant to do it. That is to say, he hadn’t set out in his car with the intent to kill the janitor. But he had unearthed Sykes’s rotation schedule, and he had gotten in his car at the same time that Sykes clocked out of his once-a-week night shift, and he had seen him crossing the road, and he had sped up. But it was a series of circumstances lined up in such a way that any one of them could so easily have shifted in a matter of seconds and spared the man’s life. It was the only way Eli could think of to give the janitor a chance, or rather, to give God a chance to intervene. Sykes wasn’t an EO, no, but he was a loose end, and as Eli’s car drove over him with a thud-thud, and that moment of quiet filled Eli’s chest, he knew he’d done the right thing.
Now he sat slumped in a chair at the kitchen table while the story played out on-screen, and looked over his Chinese food at two stacks of paper. The first was made up of his own thesis notes, specifically early case studies—Web site stills, testimonies, and the like. The second stack held the contents of Lyne’s blue folder. Eli’s theory on the causation of EOness was there, but Lyne had added his own notes on the circumstances and factors used to identify a potential EO. To near death experiences the professor had added a term Eli had heard him use before, Post-Traumatic Death Disorder, or the psychological instabilities resulting from the NDE, and another one that must be new, Rebirth Principle, or the patients’ desire either to escape the life they had before, or to redefine themselves based on their ability.
Eli had crinkled his nose at the second one. He didn’t like recognizing himself in these notes. He had a good reason for reading them, though. Because what he’d felt when he drove over Dale Sykes was the same thing he felt when he tried to end Victor’s life. Purpose. And he was beginning to figure out what that purpose was.
EOs were an affront to nature, to God; that he knew. They were unnatural and they were strong, but Eli would always be stronger. His power was a shield against theirs, impenetrable. He could do what ordinary people couldn’t. He could stop them.
But he had to find them first. Which is why he was combing through the research, pairing Lyne’s methods with the case studies, hoping one of them would give him a place to start.
Victor had always been better at these kinds of puzzles. He could take one look and see the connective threads, no matter how thin. But Eli persisted, scouring his files as the news in the background came and went and came again, and finally he found it. A lead. From a newspaper article Eli had saved on a whim. A man’s family had been killed in a freak accident, crushed to death. It had happened only a few months after he himself had nearly died in a building collapse. Only his first name—Wallace— was given, and the paper, which came from a city about an hour away, called him a local. Eli stared at the name for several minutes before digging up a screenshot of an online forum, one of those sites where 99.5 percent of the people are hacks looking for a little attention. But Eli had been thorough, and printed it off anyway. He’d even found a list of members who belonged to the site. One of them, a Wallace47, had only posted once on a buried thread. It was dated last year, between his own accident and that of his family’s. All it said was No one is safe near me.