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By the time the first bell rang, signaling the end of Victor’s art elective, he’d turned his parents’ lectures on how to start the day into:

Be lost. Give up. give In. in the end It would be better to surrender before you begin. be lost. Be lost And then you will not care if you are ever found.

He’d had to strike through entire paragraphs to make the sentence perfect after he accidentally marked out ever and had to go on until he found another instance of the word. But it was worth it. The pages of black that stretched between if you are and ever and found gave the words just the right sense of abandonment.

Victor heard someone coming, but didn’t look up. He flipped through to the back of the book, where he’d been working on a separate exercise. The Sharpie cut through another paragraph, line by line, the sound as slow and even as breathing. He’d marveled, once, that his parents’ books were in fact self-help, simply not in the way they’d intended. He found their destruction incredibly soothing, a kind of meditation.

“Vandalizing school property again?”

Victor looked up to find Eli standing over him. The library-plastic cover crinkled beneath his fingertips as he tipped the book up to show Eli the spine, where VALE was printed in bold capital letters. He wasn’t about to pay $25.99 when Lockland’s library had such a suspiciously extensive collection of Vale-doctrine self-help. Eli took the book from him and skimmed.

“Perhaps … it is … in … our … best interest to … to surrender … to give up … rather than waste … words.”

Victor shrugged. He wasn’t done yet.

“You have an extra to, before surrender,” said Eli, tossing the book back.

Victor caught it and frowned, tracing his finger through the makeshift sentence until he found his mistake, and efficiently blotted out the word.

“You’ve got too much time, Vic.”

“You must make time for that which matters,” he recited, “for that which defines you: your passion, your progress, your pen. Take it up, and write your own story.”

Eli looked at him for a long moment, brow crinkling. “That’s awful.”

“It’s from the introduction,” said Victor. “Don’t worry, I blacked it out.” He flipped back through the pages, a web of thin letters and fat black lines, until he reached the front. “They totally murdered Emerson.”

Eli shrugged. “All I know is that book is a sniffer’s dream,” he said. He was right, the four Sharpies Victor had gone through in converting the book to art had given it an incredibly strong odor, one which Victor found at once entrancing and revolting. He got enough of a high from the destruction itself, but he supposed the smell was an unexpected addition to the project’s complexity, or so the art teacher would spin it. Eli leaned back against the rail. His rich brown hair caught the too bright sun, bringing out reds and even threads of gold. Victor’s hair was a pale blond. When the sunlight hit him, it didn’t bring out any colors, but only accentuated the lack of color, making him look more like an old-fashioned photo than a flesh-and-blood student.

Eli was still staring down at the book in Victor’s hands.

“Doesn’t the Sharpie ruin whatever’s on the other side?”

“You’d think,” said Victor. “But they use this freakishly heavy paper. Like they want the weight of what they’re saying to sink in.”

Eli’s laugh was drowned by the second bell, ringing out across the emptying quad. The bells weren’t buzzers, of course—Lockland was too civilized—but they were loud, and almost ominous, a single deep church bell from the spiritual center that sat in the middle of campus. Eli cursed and helped Victor to his feet, already turning toward the huddle of science buildings, faced in rich red brick to make them seem less sterile. Victor took his time. They still had a minute before the final bell sounded, and even if they were late, the teachers would never mark them down. All Eli had to do was smile. All Victor had to do was lie. Both proved frighteningly effective.

* * *

VICTOR sat in the back of his Comprehensive Science Seminar—a course designed to reintegrate students of various scientific disciplines for their senior theses—learning about research methods. Or at least being told about research methods. Distressed by the fact that the class relied on laptops, and since striking through words on a screen hardly gave him the same satisfaction, Victor had taken to watching the other students sleep, doodle, stress out, listen, and pass digital notes. Unsurprisingly, they failed to hold his interest for long, and soon his gaze drifted past them, and past the windows, and past the lawn. Past everything.

His attention was finally dragged back to the lecture when Eli’s hand went up. Victor hadn’t caught the question, but he watched his roommate smile his perfect all-American-political-candidate smile before he answered. Eliot—Eli—Cardale had started out as a predicament. Victor had been none too happy to find the lanky, brown-haired boy standing in the doorway of his dorm a month into sophomore year. His first roommate had experienced a change of heart in the first week (through no fault of Victor’s, of course) and had promptly dropped out. Due either to a shortage of students or perhaps a filing error made possible by fellow sophomore Max Hall’s penchant for any Lockland-specific hacking challenge, the student hadn’t been replaced. Victor’s painfully small double was converted into a much more adequate single room. Until the start of October when Eliot Cardale—who, Victor had immediately decided, smiled too much—appeared with a suitcase in the hall outside.

Victor had initially wondered what it would take to recover his bedroom for a second time in a semester, but before he put any plans into motion, an odd thing happened. Eli began to … grow on him. He was precocious, and frighteningly charming, the kind of guy who got away with everything, thanks to good genes and quick wits. He was born for the sports teams and the clubs, but he surprised everyone, especially Victor, by showing no inclination whatsoever to join either. This small defiance of social norm earned him several notches in Victor’s estimation, and made him instantly more interesting.

But what fascinated Victor most was the fact that something about Eli was decidedly wrong. He was like one of those pictures full of small errors, the kind you could only pick out by searching the image from every angle, and even then, a few always slipped by. On the surface, Eli seemed perfectly normal, but now and then Victor would catch a crack, a sideways glance, a moment when his roommate’s face and his words, his look and his meaning, would not line up. Those fleeting slices fascinated Victor. It was like watching two people, one hiding in the other’s skin. And their skin was always too dry, on the verge of cracking and showing the color of the thing beneath.

“Very astute, Mr. Cardale.”

Victor had missed the question and the answer. He looked up as Professor Lyne turned his attention to the rest of his seniors, and clapped his hands once, with finality.

“All right. It’s time to declare your thesis.”

The class, composed mostly of pre-med students, a handful of aspiring physicists, and even an engineer—not Angie, though, she’d been assigned a different section—gave a collective groan, on principle.

“Now, now,” said the professor, cutting off the protest. “You knew what you were getting into when you signed up.”