“You asked me if I ever wanted to believe in something. I do. I want to believe in this. I want to believe that there’s more.” Victor sloshed a touch of whiskey over the edge of his glass. “That we could be more. Hell, we could be heroes.”
“We could be dead,” said Eli.
“That’s a risk everyone takes by living.”
Eli ran his fingers through his hair. He was rattled, unsure. Victor liked seeing him that way. “It’s just a theory.”
“Nothing you ever do, Eli, is meant to be theoretical. I see it in you.” Victor was very proud of verbalizing the observation in one try, considering his level of inebriation. Nevertheless, he needed to stop talking. He didn’t like people to know how closely he watched, matched, mimicked them. “I see it,” he finished quietly.
“I think you’ve had enough.”
Victor looked down at the amber liquid.
The moments that define lives aren’t always obvious. They don’t always scream LEDGE, and nine times out of ten there’s no rope to duck under, no line to cross, no blood pact, no official letter on fancy paper. They aren’t always protracted, heavy with meaning. Between one sip and the next, Victor made the biggest mistake of his life, and it was made of nothing more than one line. Three small words.
“I’ll go first.”
He’d thought about it in the car on the way back from the airport, when he asked why not? He’d thought about it as they ate lunch, and then as he walked around campus, finishing his coffee, thought about it all the way back to the residence halls and the upperclassmen’s apartments beyond them. Somewhere between the third and fourth tumbler, the question mark had become a period. There wasn’t a choice. Not really. This was the only way to be more than a spectator to Eli’s great feats. To be a participant. A contributor.
“What do you have on you?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
Victor quirked a pale eyebrow, unamused. Eli didn’t do drugs, but he always had them, the fast way on Lockland’s campus—and Victor wagered any campus—to make cash, or a few new friends. Eli seemed to see, then, where Victor was going.
Victor had already vanished back into the bathroom, and emerged with the bottle of whiskey, which was still very full.
“What do you have?” he asked again.
Victor sighed, crossed to the coffee table and swiped a piece of scrap paper, scribbling out a note. See the books on the bottom shelf.
“There,” he said, handing it to Eli, who frowned. Vic shrugged, took another swig.
“I worked hard on those books,” he explained, steadying himself on the arm of the couch. “They’re poetry. And they’re a better suicide note than anything I’d be able to come up with right now.”
“No,” said Eli again. But the word was distant and dull, and the light in his eyes was growing. “This isn’t going to work.” Even as he said it, he was walking toward his room, toward the side table where Victor knew he kept the pills.
Victor pushed off the couch, and followed.
* * *
Half an hour later, lying on the bed with an empty bottle of Jack and an empty bottle of painkillers side by side on the nearest table, Victor began to wonder if he’d made a mistake.
His heart jackhammered, forcing blood too fast through the veins. His vision swam and he closed his eyes. A mistake. He sat up suddenly, certain he’d vomit, but hands pushed him back to the bed and held him there.
“No go,” said Eli, easing up only when Victor swallowed and focused on the ceiling tiles.
“Remember what we talked about,” Eli was saying. Saying something about fighting back. About will.
Victor wasn’t listening, couldn’t hear much over his pulse, and how could his heart pound any harder? He was no longer wondering whether or not he’d made a mistake. He was certain. Certain that in twenty-two years of life, this was the worst plan he had ever come up with. This was the wrong method, the fading, rational part of Victor said, the part that had been studying adrenaline and pain and fear. He shouldn’t have washed the amphetamines down with whiskey, shouldn’t have done anything to dull the nerves and senses, to ease the process, but he’d been nervous... afraid. Now he was going numb, and that scared him more than pain because it meant he might just... fade.
Fade right into death without noticing.
This was wrong wrong wrong... but that voice was drifting off, replaced by a spreading, sinking—
It could work.
He forced the thought through the dulling panic. It could work, and if it did work, he wanted the chance to hold the power, the evidence, the proof. He wanted to be the proof. Without it, this was Eli’s monster, and he was merely the wall off which Eli bounced his ideas. With it, he was the monster, essential, inextricable from Eli’s theories. He tried counting tiles, but he couldn’t keep track. Even though his heart was straining, his thoughts seeped in like syrup, new ones pouring through before the old had left. Numbers began to overlap, to blur. Everything began to blur. His fingertips felt numb in a worrying way. Not cold exactly, but as if his body were beginning to draw its energy in, to shut down, starting with the smallest parts. The nausea faded, too, at least. Only the rushing pulse warned him that his body was failing.
“How are you feeling?” asked Eli, leaning forward in a chair he’d pulled up to the bed. He hadn’t had a drink, but his eyes were shining, dancing with light. He didn’t look worried. He didn’t seem afraid. Then again, he wasn’t the one about to die.
Victor’s mouth felt wrong. He had to focus too hard to form the words.
“Not great,” he managed.
They’d settled for a good old-fashioned overdose for several reasons. If it failed, it would be the easiest to explain. Also, Eli could wait to call it in until they’d entered a crisis zone. Reaching the hospital too early meant it wouldn’t be a near death experience, just a very unpleasant one.
The numbness was eating its way through Victor’s body. Up his limbs, through his head.
His heart skipped, then slammed forward in a disconcerting way.
Eli was talking again, low and urgent.
Each time Victor blinked it got harder to open his eyes again. And then, for a moment, fear crackled through him. Fear of dying. Fear of Eli. Fear of everything that could happen. Fear of nothing happening. It was so sudden and so strong.
But soon the numbness ate that, too.
His heart skipped again and there was a space where pain should have been, but he’d had too much to drink to feel it. He closed his eyes to focus on fighting back but all the darkness did was eat him up. He could hear Eli speaking, and it must have been important because he was raising his voice in a way he never did, but Victor was sinking, straight through his skin and the bed and the floor, right down into black.
TWO DAYS AGO
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
Victor heard something break, and looked down to find he’d clutched his drink too tightly, and shattered the glass. He was gripping shards, ribbons of red running down over his fingers. He opened his fist, and the broken glass tumbled over the banister into the hotel restaurant’s shrubbery seven stories below. He looked down at the fragments still embedded in his palm.
He didn’t feel them.
Victor went inside and stood at the sink, picking the largest shards of glass out of his skin, watching the fragments glitter in the stainless steel basin. He felt clumsy, numb, unable to get the smaller pieces out, so he closed his eyes, took a low breath, and began to let the pain back in. Soon his hand burned, his palm painted with a dull ache that helped him determine where the lingering glass was embedded. He finished extricating the pieces, and stood staring at his bloodied palm, shallow waves of pain rippling up his wrist.
The word that started—ruined, changed—everything.
He frowned, turning up his nerves the way one would a dial. The pain sharpened, spread to a pins-and-needles prickle radiating out from his palm, down his fingers and up his wrist. He turned the dial up again and winced as the pins-and-needles became a blanket of pain across his body, not dull but sharp as knives. Victor’s hands began to shake but he continued, twisting the dial in his mind until he was burning, breaking, shattering.
His knees buckled, and he caught himself on the counter with a bloody hand. The pain switched off like a blown fuse, leaving Victor dark. He steadied himself. He was still bleeding, and he knew he should get the medical kit they’d brought up from the car for Sydney; not for the first time, Victor wished he could trade abilities with Eli.
But first he wiped the blood from the counter, and poured himself another drink.
TEN YEARS AGO
LOCKLAND MEDICAL CENTER
Out of nothing came pain.
Not the pain Victor would later learn to know and hold and use, but the simple, too-human pain of a poorly executed overdose. Pain and dark, which became pain and color, and then pain and glaring hospital lights.
Eli was sitting in a chair by Victor’s bed, just as he had been in the apartment. Only now there were no bottles, no pills. Just beeping machines and thin sheets and the worst headache Victor Vale had ever experienced, including the summer he decided to raid his parents’ special collections while they were on a European tour. Eli’s head was down, his fingers clasped loosely the way they were when he prayed. Victor wondered if that’s what he was doing now, praying, and wished he would stop.