“You didn’t wait long enough,” he whispered when he was sure Eli wasn’t busy with God.
Eli looked up. “You stopped breathing. You almost flatlined.”
“But I didn’t.”
“I’m sorry,” said Eli, rubbing his eyes. “I couldn’t...”
Victor sagged back into the bed. He supposed he should be thankful. Erring too early was better than erring too late. Still. He dug his fingernail under one of the censors on his chest. If it had worked, would he feel different? Would the machines go crazy? Would the fluorescent lights shatter? Would the bed catch fire?
“How do you feel?” asked Eli.
“Like ass, Cardale,” snapped Victor, and Eli winced, more from the use of that last name than the tone. Three drinks in, high on the wave of discovery, before the pills kicked in, they’d decided that when they were done, Eli would go by Ever instead of Cardale, because it sounded cooler, and in the comics heroes had important, often alliterative names. So what if neither one of them had been able to think of any examples? In that moment, it seemed to matter. For once Victor had the natural advantage, and even though it was the smallest, most inconsequential kind of thing, the way a name fell from the tongue, he liked having something Eli didn’t. Something Eli wanted. And maybe Eli didn’t really care, maybe he was just trying to keep Victor conscious, but he still looked stung when Victor called him Cardale, and right now that was enough.
“I’ve been thinking,” started Eli, leaning forward. There was a barely contained energy to his limbs. He twisted his hands. His legs bounced a little in his chair. Victor tried to focus on what Eli was saying with his mouth, not his body. “Next time, I think—”
He stopped when a woman in the doorway cleared her throat. She wasn’t a doctor—no coat—but a small nametag over her heart identified her as something worse.
“Victor? My name is Melanie Pierce. I’m the resident psychologist here at Lockland Medical.”
Eli’s back was to her, and his eyes narrowed on Victor, warning. He waved at Eli dismissively, both to tell him to get out and to confirm that he wouldn’t say anything. They’d come this far. Eli rose and mumbled something about going to call Angie. He closed the door behind him.
“Victor.” Ms. Pierce said his name in that slow, cooing way, running a hand over her mousy brown hair. It was big in that middle-aged, Southern way. Her accent was unplaceable but her tone was clearly patronizing. “The staff here told me that your emergency contacts couldn’t be reached.”
What he thought was thank god. What he said was, “My parents, right? They’re on tour.”
“Well, in these circumstances, it’s important for you to know that—”
“I didn’t try to kill myself.” Partial lie.
An indulgent twitch of her lips.
“I just partied a little too hard.” Total lie.
A lean of her head. Her hair never moved.
“Lockland’s pretty high stress. I needed a break.” Truth.
Ms. Pierce sighed. “I believe you,” she said. Lie. “But when we release you—”
“When is when?”
She pursed her lips. “We are obligated to keep you here for seventy-two hours.”
“I have class.”
“You need time.”
“I need to go to class.”
“It’s not up for discussion.”
“I wasn’t trying to kill myself.”
Her voice had tightened into something less friendly, more honest, impatient, normal.
“Then why don’t you tell me what you were doing.”
“Making a mistake,” said Victor.
“We all make mistakes,” she said, and he felt ill. He didn’t know if it was an aftereffect of the overdose, or just her prepackaged therapy. His head fell back against the pillow. He closed his eyes but she kept talking. “When we release you, I’m going to recommend that you meet with Lockland’s counselor.”
Victor groaned. Counselor Peter Mark. A man with two first names, no sense of humor, and a sweat gland issue.
“That’s really not necessary,” he mumbled. Between his parents, he’d had enough involuntary therapy to last several lifetimes.
Ms. Pierce’s patronizing look returned. “I feel it is.”
“If I agree to it, will you release me now?”
“If you don’t agree to it, Lockland will not welcome you back. You’ll be here for seventy-two hours, and during that time you’ll be meeting with me.”
He spent the next several hours planning how to kill someone else—Ms. Pierce, specifically—instead of himself. Maybe, if he told her, she’d see that as progress, but he doubted it.
TWO DAYS AGO
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
The drink dangled precariously from Victor’s freshly bandaged hand as he paced. No matter how many times he made it from one wall of the hotel room to the other and back, the restlessness refused to ebb. Instead, it seemed to charge him, a mental static crackling in his head as he moved. The urge to scream or thrash or pitch his new drink against the wall came on suddenly, and he closed his eyes, and forced his legs to do the one thing they didn’t want to do: stop.
Victor stood perfectly still, trying to swallow the energy and chaos and electricity and find in its place stillness.
In prison, he’d had moments like this, this same shade of panic peaking like a wave before crashing over him. End this, the darkness had hissed, tempted. How many days had he resisted the urge to reach out, not with his hands but with this thing inside him, and ruin everything? Everyone?
But he couldn’t afford to. Not then, not now. The only way he’d even made it out of isolation was by convincing the staff, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was normal, powerless, no threat, or at least no more of a threat than the other 463 inmates. But in those cell-locked moments of darkness, the urge to break everyone around him became crippling. Break them all, and just walk out.
Now, just as then, he folded in, doing his best to forget he even had a power to wield against others, a whim as sharp as glass. Now, just as then, he ordered his body and mind to still, to calm. And now, just as then, when he closed his eyes and searched for silence, a word rose up to meet him, a reminder of why he couldn’t afford to break, a challenge, a name.
TEN YEARS AGO
LOCKLAND MEDICAL CENTER
Eli slumped into the hospital chair beside Victor’s bed, dropping a backpack to the laminate floor beside him. Victor himself had just finished his last session with the resident psych, Ms. Pierce, in which they had explored his relationship with his parents, of whom Ms. Pierce was—unsurprisingly—a fan. Pierce left the session with the promise of a signed book and the sense that they’d made serious progress. Victor left the session with a headache and a note to meet with Lockland’s counselor a minimum of three times. He’d negotiated his seventy-two-hour sentence down to forty in exchange for that signed book. Now he was waging battle with the hospital bracelet, unable to pry it off. Eli leaned forward, produced a pocket knife, and snapped the strange paper-plastic-hybrid material. Victor rubbed his wrist and stood, then winced. Nearly dying, it turned out, had not been pleasant. Everything hurt in a dull, constant way.
“Ready to get out of here?” asked Eli, shouldering his backpack.
“God yes,” said Victor. “What’s in the bag?”
Eli smiled. “I’ve been thinking,” he said as they wound through the sterile halls, “about my turn.”
Victor’s chest tightened. “Hmm?”
“This was indeed a learning experience,” said Eli. Victor muttered something unkind, but Eli continued. “Booze was a bad idea. As were painkillers. Pain and fear are inextricable from panic, and panic aids in the production of adrenaline and other fight or flight chemicals. As you know.”
Victor’s brow creased. Yeah, as he knew. Not that his drunken self had cared.
“There are only a certain number of situations,” continued Eli as they passed through a pair of automatic glass doors and into the cold day, “where we can introduce both enough panic and enough control. The two are in most cases mutually exclusive. Or at least, they don’t have much overlap. The more control, the less need to panic, etc. etc.”
“But what’s in the bag?”
They reached the car, and Eli tossed the item in question into the backseat.
“Everything we need.” Eli’s smile spread. “Well. Everything but the ice.”
* * *
In fact, “everything we need” amounted to a dozen epinephrine pens, more commonly known as EpiPens, and twice as many one-use warming pads, the kind hunters keep in their boots and football fans in their gloves during winter games. Eli grabbed three of the pens and lined them up on the kitchen table beside the stack of warmers, and then stepped back, casting one sweeping motion over it as if offering Victor a feast. Half a dozen bags of ice leaned against the sink, small rivers of cold condensation wetting the floor. They’d stopped for it on the way home.
“You swiped this?” asked Victor, lifting a pen.
“Borrowed in the name of science,” countered Eli as he took up a hand warmer and turned it over to examine the removable plastic coating on the back that served as an activation mechanism. “I’ve been shadowing at Lockland Med since freshman year. They didn’t even blink.”