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.”
Victor’s head was pounding again.
“Tonight?” he asked, not for the first time since Eli had explained his plan.
“Tonight,” confirmed Eli, plucking the pen from Victor’s grip. “I considered dissolving the epinephrine directly into saline and having you administer it intravenously, since that would give a more reliable distribution, but it’s slower than the EpiPens, and dependent on better circulation. Besides, given the nature of the setup, I thought we’d be better off with a more user-friendly option.”
Victor considered the supplies. The EpiPen would be the easy part, the compressions more difficult and more damaging. Victor had CPR training, and an intuitive understanding of the body, but it was still a risk. Neither pre-med clusters nor innate skill could truly prepare a student for what they were trying to do. Killing something was easy. Bringing it back to life took more than measurement and medicine. It was like cooking, not baking. Baking took a sense of order. Cooking took a flare, a little art, a little luck. This kind of cooking took a lot of luck.
Eli took up two more EpiPens, and arranged the three in his palm. Victor’s gaze wandered from the pens to the warmers to the ice. Such simple tools. Could it be that easy?
Eli said something. Victor dragged his attention back.
“What?” he asked.
“It’s getting late,” Eli said again, gesturing beyond the bags of ice to the window behind the sink, where light was bleeding rapidly out of the sky. “Better get set up.”
* * *
VICTOR ran his fingers through the ice water, and recoiled. Beside him, Eli slit the last bag open, watching it rupture and spill ice into the tub. With the first few bags, the ice had crackled and broken and half dissolved, but soon the water in the bath was cold enough to keep the cubes from melting. Victor retreated to the sink and leaned against it, the three EpiPens brushing his hand.
They’d talked through the order of operations several times by now. Victor’s fingers trembled faintly. He gripped the lip of the counter to still them as Eli tugged off his jeans, his sweater, and finally his shirt, exposing a series of faded scars that hatched his back. They were old, worn to little more than shadows, and Victor had seen them before, but never asked. Now, as he faced the very real possibility that this would be the last conversation he’d ever have with his friend, curiosity got the better of him. He tried to shape the question, but it wasn’t necessary, because Eli answered without prompting.
“My father did it, when I was a kid,” he said softly. Victor held his breath. In more than two years, Eli had never once mentioned his parents. “He was a minister.” There was a far-off quality to his voice, and Victor couldn’t help but notice the was. Past tense. “I don’t think I’ve ever told you that.”
Victor didn’t know what to say, so he said the most useless word in the world. “Sorry.”
Eli turned away, and shrugged his shoulders, the scars on his back warping with the gesture. “It all worked out.”
He stepped up to the tub, his knees resting against the porcelain front as he looked down at the shimmering surface. Victor watched him watch the bath, and felt a strange mixture of interest and concern.
“Are you scared?” he asked.
“Terrified,” said Eli. “Weren’t you?”
Victor could vaguely remember a flicker of fear, a matchstick’s worth, fluttering before being gutted by the effects of the pills and the whiskey. He shrugged.
“You want a drink?” he asked. Eli shook his head.
“Alcohol warms the blood, Vale,” he said, eyes still fixed on the icy water. “That’s not exactly what I’m going for here.”
Victor wondered if Eli would actually be able to do it, or if the cold would crack his mask of ease and charm, shatter it to reveal the normal boy beneath. The bath had handles somewhere beneath the icy surface, and they’d done a walk-through before dinner—neither had been terribly hungry—Eli climbing into the then-dry tub, curling his fingers around the handles, tucking his toes under a lip at the foot of the bath. Victor had suggested cord, something to bind Eli to the tub, but Eli had refused. Victor wasn’t sure if it had been bravado or a concern for the state of the body should this fail.