If she could stay alive that long.
The phone rang again, and Sydney set the lighter aside and dug the device from her pocket.
“Hello?” she answered.
“Hey, Syd.” It was Mitch. “Everything okay there?”
“I’m almost done with the papers,” she said, taking up the lighter and setting fire to another page. It was the blue-haired girl. The same blue, almost, as the lighter itself. Sydney watched as the girl’s face curled into nothing. “Are you going to think up more ways to keep me busy?”
Mitch laughed, but he didn’t sound very happy.
“You’re a kid. Just watch some TV. We’ll be home later.”
“Hey, Mitch,” said Sydney, softer. “You... you’re coming back, right?”
“As soon as I can, Syd. Promise.”
“You better.” She lit another page. “Or I’ll drink all your chocolate milk.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” said Mitch, and she could almost hear the smile in his voice before he hung up.
Sydney put her phone away, and lit the last page. It was hers. She touched the lighter to the corner and held the paper up so the fire ate its way along one side before swallowing the photo, the paper-thin version of the girl with short blond hair and water blue eyes. It burned right through her and then there was nothing. She let the fire lick her fingers before she dropped the page into the sink, and smiled.
That girl was dead.
Someone knocked on the hotel door, and Sydney nearly dropped the lighter.
The knocking came a second time.
She held her breath. Dol stood, made something like a growl, and put himself squarely between her and the hotel door.
The knocking came a third time, and then someone spoke.
Even on her toes, Sydney wouldn’t be able see out of the peephole, but she didn’t need to. She knew the voice, knew it better than her own. She lifted her hand and brought it over her mouth to stifle the surprise, the reply, the sound of breathing, as if she couldn’t trust her lips with anything.
“Sydney, please,” came Serena’s voice through the door, smooth and soft and low.
For a moment, Sydney almost forgot—the hotel and the shooting and the broken lake—and it was like they were home and playing hide-and-seek, and Sydney was too good and Serena had given up, or gotten bored, and was imploring her little sister to give up, too, to come out. If they’d been at home, Serena would have said she had cookies, or lemonade, or why didn’t they go watch that movie Sydney had been wanting to see? They could make popcorn. None of it was true, of course. Even then, Serena would say anything to coax her little sister out, and Sydney wouldn’t mind, not really, because she’d won.
But they weren’t at home.
They weren’t anywhere near home.
And this game was rigged, because her sister didn’t have to lie, or bribe, or cheat. All she had to do was say the words.
“Sydney, come open the door.”
She put aside the lighter and stepped down from Victor’s book, and crossed the room, pressing her hand against the wood for a moment before her traitorous fingers drifted over to the doorknob, and turned. Serena stood in the doorway wearing a green pea coat and a pair of leggings that vanished into heeled black boots. Her hands were braced against the frame to either side. One hand was empty, and the other held a gun. The hand with the gun slid down the door frame with a metallic hiss before coming to rest at her side. Sydney cringed away from the weapon.
“Hello, Sydney,” she said, as she tapped the gun absently against her leggings.
“Hello, Serena,” said her sister.
“Don’t run,” said Serena. It never occurred to Sydney to do so. She couldn’t tell, though, if the thought had been there and bled away at her sister’s words, or if she was brave enough to have never considered running, or if she was simply smart enough to know she couldn’t outrun bullets twice, especially without a forest and a head start.
Whatever the reason, Sydney stayed very, very still.
Dol growled as Serena stepped into the hotel room, but when she told him to sit, he did, back legs folding reluctantly. Serena strode past her little sister, surveying the ashes in the sink, and the carton of chocolate milk on the counter (Sydney had silently resolved to drink it—at least some of it—if Mitch didn’t come back soon), before turning back to Sydney.
“Do you have a phone?” she asked.
Sydney nodded, her hand drifting of its own accord to her pocket and retrieving the one Victor had given her. The one that matched his, and Mitch’s. The one that made them a team. Serena held out her hand and Sydney’s hand held out itself, depositing the device into her sister’s palm. Serena then walked to the balcony, where the doors were still open to vent the smoke, and lobbed the phone over the railing and into the night.
Sydney’s heart sank with the rectangle of falling metal. She’d really liked that phone.
Serena then shut the balcony doors and perched on the back of the couch, facing her sister, her gun resting on her knee. She sat the way Sydney did, or rather, Sydney sat the way she always had, with only half her weight, as if she might need to dash up at any second. But where Sydney’s perching looked coiled, Serena somehow made the act look casual, even lazy, despite the weapon.
“Happy birthday,” she said.
“It’s not midnight yet,” said Sydney quietly. You can come up and stay through your birthday, Serena had promised. Now she smiled sadly.
“You used to stay up until the clock turned, even though Mom told you not to because she knew you’d be tired the next day. You’d sit awake and read and wait and when the clock struck midnight you’d light a candle you’d stashed under the bed, and make a wish.” There was a coat draped on the back of the couch, the red one Sydney had thrown off after Victor told her she had to stay behind, and now Serena fiddled with one of the buttons. “It was like this secret birthday party,” she added softly. “Just for you, before everyone else could join in and celebrate.”
“How did you know?” asked Sydney.
“I’m your big sister,” said Serena. “It’s my job to know things.”
“Then tell me,” said Sydney. “Why do you hate me?”
Serena held her gaze. “I don’t.”
“But you want me to die. You think I’m somehow wrong. Broken.”
“I think we’re all broken,” said Serena, tossing her the red coat. “Put that on.”
“I don’t feel broken,” Sydney said quietly as she tugged on the too-big sleeves. “And even if I am, I can fix other people.”
Serena considered her sister. “You can’t fix the dead, Syd. EOs are proof of that. And besides, it’s not your place to try.”
“It’s not your place to control people’s lives,” snapped Sydney.
Serena raised a brow, amused. “Who taught you to sing so loud? The little Sydney I knew could barely chirp.”
“I’m not that Sydney anymore.”
Serena’s face fell. Her grip tightened on the gun.
“We’re going for a walk,” she said.
Sydney cast glances around the room, even as her feet followed Serena toward the door with the same simple obedience that had possessed her hands to offer up the phone. Treacherous limbs. She wanted to leave a note, a clue, something, but Serena got impatient and grabbed her sleeve, shoving her toward the hall. Dol sat in the middle of the room, whining as they passed.
“Can I bring him?”
Serena paused, and ejected the magazine of the gun to check the number of rounds.
“Okay,” she said, snapping it shut again. “Where’s his leash?”
“He doesn’t have one.”
Serena held open the door and sighed.
“Follow Sydney,” she said to Dol, and the dog sprang to his feet and loped over, pressing himself against the girl’s side.
Serena led Sydney and Dol down the concrete stairs that ran beside the elevator, all the way to the parking garage, an open-walled structure pressed against the Esquire’s spine. The place smelled like gas, the light was dim, and the air was biting cold, a sideways wind ripping through in short, sharp gusts.
“Are we driving somewhere?” asked Sydney, pulling the coat close around her.
“No,” said Serena, turning on her sister. She brought the gun up to Sydney’s forehead, rested it against her skin, between her watery blue eyes. Dol growled. Sydney brought a hand up and rested it against his back to quiet him, but didn’t take her gaze off Serena, even though it was a struggle to focus her vision around the barrel of the gun.
“We used to have the same eyes,” said Serena. “Yours are paler now.”
“I like that we’re finally different,” said Sydney, fighting back a shiver. “I don’t want to be you.”
Silence fell between the sisters. A silence full of shifting pieces.
“I don’t need you to be me,” said Serena at last. “But I need you to be brave. I need you to be strong.”
Sydney squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m not afraid.”
* * *
Serena stood in the garage with her finger on the trigger, the barrel resting between Sydney’s eyes, and froze. The girl on the other side of the gun was and was not her sister. Maybe Eli was wrong and all EOs weren’t broken, at least not in the same way. Or maybe Eli was right and the Sydney she knew was gone, but still, this new Sydney wasn’t hollowed out, wasn’t dark, wasn’t truly dead. This Sydney was alive in a way the other had never been. It shone through her skin.