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.
“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.