Victor moved through the party largely unnoticed, but not unwelcome. He earned a few second glances, but those were mostly because he rarely made an appearance at these kinds of events. He was an outsider by choice, a good enough mimic to charm his way into social circles when he wanted, but more often than not he preferred to stand apart and watch, and most of the school seemed content to let him.
But here he was, winding his way through bodies and music and sticky floors, the epinephrine pen tucked into the inside pocket of his coat, a small Post-it affixed to it that read Use Me. Now, as he found himself surrounded by lights and noise and bodies, Victor felt as if he’d wandered into another world. Is this what normal seniors did? Drank and danced with bodies interlocking like puzzle pieces to music loud enough to drown out thoughts? Angie had taken him to a few parties freshman year, but those had been different. He couldn’t remember anything about the music or the beer, only her. Victor blinked the memory away. Sweat coated his palms as he took a plastic cup, and dumped the contents into a withering house plant. Holding something helped.
At one point he found himself on the balcony, looking down at the frozen lake that ran behind the frats. The sight made him shiver. He knew for optimum results he should mimic Eli, re-create the successful scenario, but Victor couldn’t—wouldn’t—do that. He had to find his own method.
He pushed off the banister, and retreated back into the house. As he continued on a circuit through the rooms, his eyes flicked around, appraising. He was amazed at how myriad the options for a suicide were, and yet how limited the options for one with any certitude of survival.
But Victor was certain of one thing: he wasn’t leaving here without his turn. He wouldn’t go back to the apartment and watch Eli joyfully saw at his skin, marvel at this strange new immortality he hadn’t even tried that hard to find. Victor wouldn’t stand there and coo and take notes for him.
Victor Vale was not a fucking sidekick.
By his third lap around the house, he’d scored what he considered to be enough cocaine to induce cardiac arrest (he wasn’t sure, having never engaged in that kind of activity). He’d had to buy from three separate students, since each only had a few hits on them.
On his fourth lap around the house, while working up the nerve to use the cocaine, he heard it. The front door opened—he couldn’t hear that over the music, but from his place on the stairs, he felt the sudden burst of cold—and then a girl squealed and said, “Eli! You made it!”
Victor swore softly, and retreated up the stairs. He heard his own name as he wound through the bodies. He broke through and reached the second-floor landing, then found an unoccupied bedroom with its own bathroom at the back. Halfway through the room, he stopped. A bookcase lined one wall, and there in the center, his own last name leapt out at him in capital letters.
He pulled the massive self-help book from the wall, and opened the window. The sixth book in a series of nine on emotional action and reaction hit the thin coat of snow below with a satisfying thud. Victor shut the window and continued into the bathroom.
On the sink he set his things in order.
First, his phone. He punched in a text to Eli but didn’t hit Send, and set the device to one side. Second, the adrenaline shot. He’d be up to temperature, so hopefully a single direct injection would suffice. It would be hell on the body, but so would everything else he was about to do. He set the needle beside the phone. Third, the coke. He made a neat pile, and began to separate it into lines with a hotel card he found in his back pocket, a relic from the winter trip his parents had dragged him on. Despite an upbringing that would have driven most kids to drugs, Victor had never been much inclined to do them, but he had a good idea of the steps, thanks to a healthy diet of crime dramas. Once the cocaine was in its lines—seven of them—he pulled a dollar from his wallet and rolled it into a narrow straw. As seen on TV.
He looked in the mirror.
“You want to live,” he told his reflection.
His reflection looked unconvinced.
“You need to live through this,” he said. “You need to.”
And then he took a breath and bent over the first line.
The arm came out of nowhere, wrapped around his throat, and slammed him back into the wall opposite the vanity. Victor caught his balance and straightened in time to see Eli run his hand through several hundred dollars’ worth of coke, brushing it all into the sink.
“What the fuck?” Victor hissed, lunging for it. He wasn’t fast enough. Eli’s coke-dusted palm shoved him back again, pinned him to the wall, leaving a white print on the front of his black shirt.
“What the fuck?” parroted Eli with shocking calm. “What the fuck?”
“You weren’t supposed to be here.”
“You come to a party, people notice. Ellis texted me when you showed up. And then Max texts and tells me you’re buying out the coke. I’m not an idiot. What were you thinking?” His free hand grabbed the cell on the sink. He read the text. He made a sound like a laugh, but his fingers tightened around Victor’s collar as his other hand pitched the phone into the shower, where it broke into several pieces on impact.
“What if I hadn’t heard my phone?” He let go of him. “What then?”
“Then I’d be dead,” said Victor with feigned calm. His eyes drifted to the EpiPen. Eli’s attention followed. Before Victor could move, Eli grabbed the pen and drove it down into his own leg. A small gasp escaped his gritted teeth as the contents flooded his system, jarring his lungs and heart, but in moments he recovered.
“I’m only trying to protect you,” Eli said, casting the used cartridge aside.
“My hero,” growled Victor under his breath. “Now fuck off.”
Eli considered him. “I’m not leaving you here alone.”
Victor stared past him to the sink, the edge still dusted with cocaine.
“I’ll meet you downstairs,” he said, gesturing to his shirt, the sink, the phone. “I have to clean up.”
Eli didn’t move.
Victor’s cool eyes tracked up to meet his. “I’ve got nothing else on me.” And then, a ghost of a smile. “Frisk me if you want.”
Eli gave a cough of a laugh, but then his face sobered. “This isn’t the way to do it, Vic.”
“How do you know? Just because the ice worked doesn’t mean something else won’t—”
“I don’t mean the method. I mean alone.” He brought his coke-free hand to rest on Victor’s shoulder. “You can’t do this alone. So promise me you won’t.”
Victor held his gaze. “I won’t.”
Eli walked past him, into the bedroom.
“Five minutes,” he called as he left.
Victor listened to the party flood in as Eli opened the door, then cut out again when he slammed it behind him. Victor stepped up to the sink, and ran his hand along the surface. It came away white. His fingers curled into a fist, and hit the mirror. It cracked—one, long, perfect line down the middle—but didn’t shatter. Victor’s knuckles throbbed, and he ran them under the sink, reaching blindly for a towel as he wiped at the lingering powder. His fingers came across something, and a sudden shock of pain went up his hand. He recoiled, and turned to see a socket on the wall, a clumsy Post-it taped beside it that said Bad outlet do not touch seriously.