Someone had gone in with a red pen and added punctuation.
Victor frowned, his fingers tingling from the small jolt.
And then the moment froze. The air in his lungs, the water in the sink, the flurries just beyond the window in the other room. All of it froze, the way it had in the street last night with Eli, only it wasn’t Eli’s hand this time but Victor’s, burning faintly from the shock.
He had an idea. Retrieving the three pieces of his cell from the shower floor and fitting them back together, he typed in the message. Victor had promised he wouldn’t do it alone. And he wouldn’t. But he didn’t need Eli’s help either.
Save me, he texted, along with the address of the frat.
And then he hit Send.
TWO DAYS AGO
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
DOWN the hall and behind a door, Sydney Clarke lay curled in a nest of sheets. She’d listened to the sounds of Victor’s steps in the other room, slow and soft and even as dripping water. She’d heard the glass break, heard the sound of the tap running, and then again, the steps, drip drip drip. She’d heard Mitch, his heavy tread, the muffled conversation, only tones reaching her through the walls. She’d heard Mitch’s retreat down the hall. And then, quiet. The drip drip drip of Victor’s pacing replaced by an odd stillness.
Sydney didn’t trust stillness. She had come to believe that it was a bad thing. A wrong, unnatural, dead thing. She sat up in the strange bed in the strange hotel, her watery blue eyes unfocused on the door, stretching to hear through the wood and silence beyond. When still nothing greeted her, she slid from the bed in her too-large stolen sweats, and padded barefoot from her room and into the hotel suite’s spacious living room.
Victor’s bandaged hand was now draped over the arm of a couch facing the windows, a shallow glass dangling loosely from his fingers, only a sip’s worth of liquid left inside, and most of it melted ice. Sydney tiptoed around the couch to face him.
He was asleep.
He didn’t look peaceful, but his breathing was low, even.
Sydney perched on a chair and considered the man who had saved her … no, she had saved herself … but found her, taken her in. She wondered who he was, and if she should be afraid of him. She didn’t feel afraid, but Sydney knew not to trust fear, and certainly not to trust the absence of it. She hadn’t been afraid of her sister, Serena, or even her sister’s new boyfriend (at least not afraid enough) and look where that had gotten her.
So she sat on the balls of her feet atop the leather chair and watched Victor sleep, as if the frown lines that lingered even now would rearrange and tell her all his secrets.
TEN YEARS AGO
DURING their freshman year, before Eli had ever set foot on campus, Angie had been drawn to Victor. In some ways they were opposites—Angie didn’t seem to take anything seriously, and Victor didn’t seem to take anything lightly—but in more ways they were alike; both young, dangerously smart, and lacking in patience when it came to the usual college crowd and their juvenile reaction to the sudden freedoms from parental restraint. Because of their shared sentiments, Victor and Angie both found themselves in constant need of an out, a reliable escape from situations they’d rather not be in, people they’d rather not be with.
And so, sitting in the comfort food kitchen in LIDS one day, they devised a fairly rudimentary code.
The code was understood to be used sparingly, but always respected. Save first, ask questions later. When texted, along with an address, it meant that one desperately needed the other to bail them out, be it from a party or a study session or a bad date. Victor himself never had the luxury of a date with Angie, bad or otherwise, unless you counted the food they sometimes grabbed after bailing each other out—which Victor did. Nights spent in the same burger joint off campus, splitting shakes. He preferred chocolate but she always wanted some awful concoction, all swirled flavors and toppings, and in the end he didn’t really care because he’d never remember what it tasted like anyway, only how the cold of it made Angie’s lips redder, and the way their noses almost touched whenever they tried to drink at the same time, and how from that close up he could see the flecks of green in her eyes. He’d pick at his fries and tell her about the idiots in his study session. She would laugh, and spoon out the last of her shake, and recount how awkward her date had been. Victor would roll his eyes as she ran through the particular offenses, and think of how he would have done things differently, and of how thankful he was that someone—anyone—had pushed Angie Knight into wanting to be saved.
And by him.
It had been a year and a half since Victor had thought to use that code. The last time had been before Eli—and certainly before Eli and Angie became a fused entity—but she still came to save him.
She pulled up in the frat’s parking lot in her hatchback, right to the spot where Victor was waiting after half climbing and half falling from the same window through which he’d thrown his parents’ book. And for a moment, one very small moment, after he climbed into the car and before he explained, it had been like freshman year again, just the two of them escaping a bad night, and he wanted so badly to let her drive to their old burger joint. They would slump into a booth, and he would tell her that parties hadn’t gotten any better, and she would laugh, and somehow it would make everything okay.
But then she asked where Eli was, and the moment passed. Victor closed his eyes, and asked her to drive him to the engineering labs.
“They’re closed,” she said even as she guided the car in that direction.
“You have a swipe card.”
“What’s this about?”
Victor surprised himself by telling her the truth. She knew about Eli’s thesis, but he told her about the most recent discovery, about the role of NDEs. He told her about his own desire to test the theory. He told her about his plan. The only thing he didn’t tell her was that Eli had already successfully done it. That he held on to for a moment. And to her credit, Angie listened. She drove, knuckles whitening on the wheel, lips pressed into a line, and let Victor talk. He finished as she was pulling into the parking lot of the engineering labs, and she didn’t say anything until she’d parked, and shut the engine off, and shifted in her seat to face him.
“Have you lost your mind?” she asked.
Victor managed a tight smile. “I don’t think so.”
“Let me get this straight,” she said. The short red hair framed her face, frizzing in the winter weather. “You think that if you die, and manage to come back, you’ll turn into what, one of the X-Men?”
Victor laughed. His throat was dry. “I was hoping for Magneto.” The attempt at levity failed, the look between shock and horror and annoyance still firmly scrawled across Angie’s face. “Look,” he said, sobering, “I know it sounds crazy—”
“Of course it does. Because it is crazy. I’m not going to help you off yourself.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“You just told me you did.”
“Well, I don’t want to stay dead.”
She rubbed her eyes, rested her forehead for a moment on the steering wheel, and let out a groan.