Several quiet minutes passed as the eating halls thinned and emptied, and then Victor lost patience and kicked Eli under the wood table. His eyes drifted lazily up from his food.
Eli’s face slowly, slowly, began to open, and Victor felt his chest loosen with relief as Eli’s darker self peeked through.
“Do you believe in them?” asked Eli, drawing patterns in what was left of his soup.
Victor hesitated, chewing on a piece of lemon chicken. EO. ExtraOrdinary. He had heard of them, the way people hear about any phenomena, from believer sites and the occasional late-night exposé where “experts” analyze grainy footage of a man lifting a car or a woman engulfed in fire without burning. Hearing about EOs and believing in EOs were very different things, and he couldn’t tell by Eli’s tone which camp he fell into. He couldn’t tell which camp Eli wanted him to fall into, either, which made answering infinitely harder.
“Well,” prompted Eli. “Do you believe?”
“I don’t know,” Victor said truthfully, “if it’s a matter of believing...”
“Everything starts with belief,” countered Eli. “With faith.”
Victor cringed. It was a kink in his understanding of Eli, the latter’s reliance on religion. Victor did his best to overlook it, but it was a constant snag in their dialogues. Eli must have sensed he was losing him.
“With wonder, then,” he amended. “Do you ever wonder?”
Victor wondered about lots of things. He wondered about himself (whether he was broken, or special, or better, or worse) and about other people (whether they were all really as stupid as they seemed). He wondered about Angie—what would happen if he told her how he felt, what it would be like if she chose him. He wondered about life, and people, and science, and magic, and God, and whether he believed in any of them.
“I do,” he said slowly.
“Well, when you wonder something,” said Eli, “doesn’t that mean part of you wants to believe in it? I think we want to prove things, in life, more than we want to disprove them. We want to believe.”
“And you want to believe in superheroes.” Victor’s voice was carefully devoid of judgment, but he couldn’t smother the smile that crept across his mouth. He hoped Eli wouldn’t take offense, would only see it as good humor—levity, not mockery—but he didn’t. His face snapped shut.
“Fine, yeah, it’s stupid, right? You caught me. I didn’t give a shit about the thesis. I just wanted to see if Lyne would let me get away with it,” he said, flashing a rather hollow smile and pushing up from the table. “That’s all.”
“Wait,” said Victor. “It’s not all.”
Eli turned, dumped his tray, and walked out before Victor could say more.
* * *
Victor always kept a Sharpie in his back pocket.
As he wandered the aisles of the library searching for books to kick-start his own thesis, his fingers itched to take it out. His failed conversation with Eli had set him on edge, and he longed to find his quiet, his peace, his personal Zen, in the slow obliteration of someone else’s words. He managed to make his way to the medical section without incident, adding a book on the human nervous system to one he’d already picked up on psychology. After finding a few smaller texts on adrenal glands and human impulse, he checked out, careful to keep his fingertips—permanently stained from his art projects—hidden in his pockets or under the lip of the counter while the librarian looked over the books. There had been a few complaints during his time at Lockland about books being “vandalized,” if not outright “ruined.” The librarian looked at him over the stack as if his crimes were written on his face instead of his fingers, before finally scanning in the books and handing them back.
Back in the university-issued apartment he shared with Eli, Victor unpacked his bag. He knelt in his bedroom and slid the marked-up self-help book onto a low shelf beside two others he’d checked out and altered, silently pleased that no return calls had been placed on any of them yet. The books on adrenaline he left on his desk. He heard the front door open and shut and wandered into the living room a few minutes later to find Eli flopping down onto the couch. He’d set a stack of books and stapled printouts on the university-issued wooden coffee table, but when he saw Victor come in, he reached instead for a magazine and began to flip through it, feigning boredom. The books on the table were on everything from brain function under stress to human will, anatomy, psychosomatic responses... but the printouts were different. Victor picked up one of them and sank into a chair to read it. Eli frowned faintly as he did it, but didn’t stop him. The printouts were captures from Web sites, message boards, forums. They would never be seen as admissible sources.
“Tell me the truth,” said Victor, tossing the pages back onto the table between them.
“About what?” asked Eli absently. Victor stared, blue eyes unblinking, until Eli finally set the magazine aside, sat up, and pivoted, setting his feet firmly on the ground so he could mirror Victor’s position. “Because I think they might be real,” he said. “Might,” he emphasized. “But I’m willing to consider the possibility.”
Victor was surprised at the sincerity in his friend’s voice.
“Go on,” he said, offering his best trust me face.
Eli ran his fingers over the stack of books. “Try to look at it like this. In comic books there are two ways a hero is made. Nature and nurture. You have Superman, who was born the way he was, and Spider-Man, who was made that way. You with me?”
“If you do even a basic Web search for EOs”—here he gestured at the printouts—“you find the same divide. Some people claiming that EOs are born ExtraOrdinary, and others suggesting everything from radioactive goo and poisonous insects to random chance. Let’s say you manage to find an EO, so you’ve got the proof they do exist, the question becomes how. Are they born? Or are they made?”
Victor watched the way that Eli’s eyes took on a sheen when he spoke of EOs, and the change in his tone—lower, more urgent—matched with the nervously shifting muscles in his face as he tried to hide his excitement. The zeal peeked through at the corners of his mouth, the fascination around his eyes, the energy in his jaw. Victor watched his friend, mesmerized by the transformation. He himself could mimic most emotions and pass them off as his, but mimicking only went so far, and he knew he could never match this... fervor. He didn’t even try. Instead he kept calm, listened, his eyes attentive and reverent so that Eli wouldn’t be discouraged, wouldn’t retreat.
The last thing Victor wanted him to do was retreat. It had taken nearly two years of friendship to crack through the charming, candy shell and find the thing Victor had always known lurked within. And now, slouching around a coffee table stacked with low-res screen shots of sites run by grown men in their parents’ basements, it was as if Eliot Cardale had found God. Even better, as if he had found God and wanted to keep it a secret but couldn’t. It shone through his skin like light.
“So,” said Victor slowly, “let’s assume EOs do exist. You’re going to figure out how.”
Eli flashed him the kind of smile a cult leader would covet. “That’s the idea.”
“How long were you in prison?” asked Sydney, trying to fill the quiet. The sound of digging, when combined with Victor’s absent humming, wasn’t helping her nerves.
“Too long,” answered Victor.
Her fingers hurt dully from gripping the shovel. “And that’s where you met Mitch?”
Mitch—Mitchell Turner—was the massive man waiting for them back in the hotel room. Not because he didn’t like graveyards, he told them emphatically. No, it was just that someone had to stay behind with Dol, and besides, there was work to do. Lots of work. It had nothing to do with the bodies.
Sydney smiled when she thought of him scrounging for excuses. It made her feel a fraction better to think of Mitch, who was roughly the size of the car—and could probably lift one with ease—being squeamish about death.
“We were cellmates,” he said. “There are a lot of very bad people in jail, Syd, and only a few decent ones. Mitch was one of them.”
“Are you one of the bad ones?” asked Sydney. Her watery blue eyes stared straight at him, unblinking. She wasn’t sure if the answer mattered, really, but she felt like she should know.
“Some would say so,” he said.
She kept staring. “I don’t think you’re a bad person, Victor.”
Victor kept digging. “It’s all a matter of perspective.”
“About the prison. Did they... did they let you out?” she asked quietly.
Victor left the shovel planted in the ground, and looked up at her. And then he smiled, which she noticed he seemed to do a lot before he lied, and said, “Of course.”