Where before Serena’s world had bowed beneath the strength of her will, now it simply bowed. She didn’t have to argue, she didn’t have to try.
She felt like a ghost.
And worst of all, Serena hated to admit how easy and addictive it was, getting her way, even when it made her miserable. Every time she got tired of trying to make people fight her, she would slink back into the comfort of control. She couldn’t turn it off. Even when she didn’t order, even when she only suggested, only asked, they did it.
She felt like a god.
She dreamed of people who could fight back. Of wills strong enough to resist her.
And then one night, she got mad—truly mad—at the boy she was seeing, at the stupid, glazed look in his eyes that she knew too well, and when he refused to fight her, refused to deny her, because for some infuriating reason she couldn’t order him to do that, his desire to bend superseding any attempt at violence, she told him to go jump off a bridge.
And he did.
Serena remembered sitting cross-legged on her bed and listening to the news, her friends huddled on the comforter around her— but not touching; there seemed to be a thin wall separating them from her, fear, or maybe awe—and it was then she realized that she wasn’t a ghost, or a god.
She was a monster.
* * *
Eli examined the small blue card the girl had slipped in his pocket the night before. On one side she’d written the name of a café off the main library—the Light Post, it was called—along with a time, 2 p.m. On the other side, she’d written Scheherazade— she’d even spelled it correctly. Eli knew the reference, of course. Arabian Nights. The woman who told the sultan stories and never finished at night, lest he kill her. Instead she drew the stories over until the next day.
As he made his way through U of Merit’s campus, he felt hungover for the first time in a decade, his head heavy and his thoughts slow. It had taken him most of the morning to drag fully free of the girl’s compulsion, to think of her as a target. Only a target.
He slipped the card back into his pocket. He knew Serena wouldn’t show up. She’d be a fool to come anywhere near him after last night. After he’d admitted his intentions. And yet there she was, sitting on the patio of the Light Post wearing sunglasses and a dark blue sweater, her blond hair wisping around her face.
“Do you have a death wish?” Eli asked, standing beside the table.
She shrugged. “I’ve done it once. The novelty must be wearing off.” She gestured to the empty chair across from her. Eli weighed his options, but he couldn’t exactly kill her in the middle of campus, so he sat down.
“Serena,” she said, sliding the sunglasses on top of her head. In the daylight, her eyes were even lighter. “But you already know my name.” She sipped her coffee. Eli said nothing. “Why do you want to kill me?” she asked. “And don’t say because you can.”
The moment Eli’s thoughts formed they were sliding across his tongue. He frowned as the words spilled out. “EOs are unnatural.”
“You said that already.”
“My best friend became one, and I saw the change. Like a devil had climbed into his skin. He killed my girlfriend, and then he tried to kill me.” He bit into his tongue and managed to stem the flow of words. Was it her eyes, or her voice that was compelling him?
“So you go around blaming every other EO you can find,” said Serena. “Punishing them in his place?”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “I’m trying to protect people.”
She smiled behind her coffee. It wasn’t a happy smile. “Which people?”
“The normal ones.”
“The natural ones,” pressed Eli. “ExtraOrdinaries shouldn’t exist. They haven’t just been given a second chance, they’ve been given a weapon and no manual. No rules. Their very existence is criminal. They aren’t whole.”
The thin smile fell from Serena’s red lips. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that when a person revives as an EO, not all of them comes back. Things are missing.” Even Eli, blessed as he was, knew that he was missing pieces. “Important things like empathy and balance and fear and consequence. Those things that might temper their abilities, they’re missing. Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me you feel all those things the way you did before.”
Serena leaned forward, setting her coffee on a stack of books. She didn’t contradict him. Instead, she said, “And what is your ability, Eli Ever?”
“What makes you think I have one?” He spat the words out as quickly as he could, filling the need to speak. It was such a small victory, countering like that, but he knew she registered it. And then her smile sharpened.
“Tell me your power,” she said.
This time he answered. “I heal.”
She laughed, loud enough that one or two students glanced over from tables across the patio. “No wonder you have a wicked sense of entitlement.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, your gift doesn’t impact anyone else. It’s reflexive. So in your mind you’re not a threat. But the rest of us are.” Serena tapped the stack of books, and Eli could make out psychology titles mingled in with the English books. “Am I close?”
Eli wasn’t sure he liked Serena very much. He wanted to tell her about his covenant, but instead he asked, “How did you know I’m an EO?”
“Everything about you,” she said, sliding her sunglasses back on, “is chock full of self-loathing. I’m not judging. I know the feeling.” Her watch gave a small beep, and she dragged herself to her feet. Even that simple motion was lovely and fluid, like water. “You know, maybe I should let you kill me. Because you’re right. Even though we come back, something stays dead. Lost. We forget something of who we were. It’s scary and wonderful and monstrous.”
She looked so sad in that moment, ringed with afternoon light, and Eli had to resist the urge to go to her. Something fluttered in him. She reminded him of Angie, or rather, how he had felt around Angie before everything had changed. Before he had changed. Ten years of staring across the chasm at the things he’d lost, and now, looking at this girl, it was like the chasm was shrinking, the gap pulling closed until his fingers could almost—almost—skim the other side. He wanted to be close to her, wanted to make her happy, wanted to reach across the rift and remember—he bit down again until he tasted blood to clear his mind. He knew the feelings weren’t his, not entirely, not naturally. There was no going back. He was the way he was for a reason. A purpose. And this girl, this monster, had a dangerous, complicated gift. It wasn’t a simple compulsion. It was an attraction. A want to please. A need to please. They were her feelings filtering through him, not his own.
“We’re all monsters,” she said, taking up her books. “But so are you.”
Eli was only half listening, but still the words began to trickle through him, and he pushed them violently away before they could settle in his mind. He got to his feet, but she was already turning away.
“You can’t kill me today,” she called back. “I’m late for class.”
* * *
Eli sat on a bench outside the psychology building, his head tipped back. It was a beautiful day, cloudy but not gray, cold but not bitter, and the breeze that tugged at his collar and wove through his hair kept him alert. His mind was clear again, now that Serena was gone, and he knew he had a problem. He needed to kill the girl without seeing her, without hearing her. If she were unconscious, he mused, then he might be able to—
“Aren’t you picturesque.” The voice was cool and warm at once. Serena clutched her books to her chest and looked down at him. “What were you thinking about?” she asked.
“Killing you,” he said. It was almost freeing, not being able to lie.
Serena shook her head slowly and sighed. “Walk me to my next class.”
“Tell me,” she said, weaving her arm through his. “At the party last night, how were you going to kill me?”
Eli watched the clouds. “Drug you and push you out the window.”
“That’s cold,” she said.
Eli shrugged. “But believable. Kids get drunk at parties. After discretion, their balance is the next thing to go. They fall. Sometimes out of windows.”
“So,” she said, leaning against him. Her hair tickled his cheek. “Do you have a cape?”
“Are you mocking me?”
“More of a mask type, then.”
“What are you getting at?” he asked as they reached her next building.
“You’re the hero...” she said, finding his eyes, “...of your own story, anyway.” She started up the steps. “Will I see you again? Do you have me penciled in for a redo sometime this week? I just want to know, so I can bring my mace. Put up a fight at least, for realism’s sake.”
Serena was the strangest girl Eli had ever met. He told her so. She smiled, and went inside.
* * *
Serena’s eyes brightened when she saw him again the next day.
Eli was waiting on the building steps in the late afternoon with a cup of coffee in each hand. The dusk smelled like dead leaves and far-off fires; his breath escaped in small clouds as he held one of the coffees out to her, and she took it and slipped her arm through his again.