Vicious, p.12
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       Vicious, p.12

           V. E. Schwab
 
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  “Hi, Eli,” she said.

  “I’ve heard a lot about you,” he said.

  Sydney didn’t say anything, because Serena had never mentioned Eli until the phone call, and then she’d only called him a friend. Judging by the way they looked at each other, that wasn’t the whole truth.

  “Come on,” said Serena. “Put your stuff away and then we can all get to know each other.”

  When Sydney hesitated, Serena pulled the duffel from her sister’s shoulder and walked away, leaving her alone with Eli for a moment. Sydney wondered why she felt like a sheep in a wolf’s den. There was something dangerous about Eli, about the calm way he smiled and the lazy way he moved. He leaned on the arm of the chair he’d been sitting in.

  “So,” he said. “You’re in eighth grade?”

  Sydney nodded. “And you’re a sophomore?” she asked. “Like Serena?”

  Eli laughed soundlessly. “I’m a senior, actually.”

  “How long have you been dating my sister?”

  Eli’s smile flickered. “You like to ask questions.”

  Sydney frowned. “That’s not an answer.”

  Serena came back into the room holding a soda for Sydney. “You two getting along?” And just like that the smile was back on Eli’s face, broad enough that Sydney wondered how long until his cheeks would start to hurt. Sydney took the drink and Serena went to Eli and leaned against him, as if declaring allegiance. Sydney sipped the soda and watched as he kissed her sister’s hair, his hand curling around her shoulder.

  “So,” said Serena, examining her little sister, “Eli wants to see your trick.”

  Sydney nearly choked on the soda. “I … I don’t—”

  “Come on, Syd,” pressed Serena. “You can trust him.”

  She felt like Alice in Wonderland. Like the soda must have had a little drink me tag and now the room was shrinking, or she was growing, or either way there wasn’t enough space. Enough air. Or had it been the cake that made Alice grow? She didn’t know …

  She took a step back.

  “What’s the matter, sis? You were pretty eager to show me.”

  “You told me not to…”

  Serena’s brow furrowed. “Well, now I’m telling you to do it.” She pushed off Eli and came up to Sydney, wrapping her in a hug. “Don’t worry, Syd,” she whispered in her ear. “He’s just like us.”

  “Us?” Sydney whispered back.

  “Didn’t I tell you?” cooed Serena. “I have a trick, too.”

  Sydney pulled away. “What? When? What is it?” She wondered if that had been the thing stuck in Serena’s laugh the night she told her about raising the dead. A secret. But why didn’t her sister tell her? Why wait until now?

  “Uh-uh,” Serena said, wagging her finger. “Trade you. You show us yours, and we’ll show you ours.”

  For a very long moment, Sydney didn’t know whether to run, or feel elated that she wasn’t alone. That she and Serena … and Eli … had something to share. Serena took Sydney’s face between her hands.

  “You show us yours,” she said again, smooth and slow.

  Sydney found herself taking a deep breath, and nodding.

  “Okay,” she said. “But we have to find a body.”

  * * *

  ELI held open the front passenger door. “After you.”

  “Where are we going?” asked Sydney as she climbed in.

  “On a road trip,” said Serena. She got behind the wheel and Eli took the backseat, directly behind Sydney. She didn’t like that, either; didn’t like that he could see her but she couldn’t see him. Serena asked absently about Brighton Commons as the university buildings beyond the car gave way to smaller, sparser structures.

  “Why wouldn’t you come home?” asked Sydney under her breath. “I missed you. I needed you and you promised you weren’t gone but—”

  “Don’t dwell,” said Serena. “What matters is that I’m here now, and you’re here, too.”

  The structures gave way to fields.

  “And we’re going to have a ball,” said Eli from the backseat. Sydney shivered. “Isn’t that right, Serena?”

  Sydney glanced at her sister, and was surprised to see a shadow cross Serena’s face as she met Eli’s gaze in the rearview mirror.

  “That’s right,” she said at last.

  The road got narrower, rougher.

  When the car finally stopped, they were at the seam between a forest and a field. Eli got out first, and led the way out into the field, the grass coming up to his knees. Eventually he stopped and looked down.

  “Here we are.”

  Sydney followed his gaze, and felt her stomach lurch.

  There, tucked amid the grass, was a corpse.

  “Dead bodies aren’t that easy to come by,” explained Eli lightly. “You have to go to a morgue, or a cemetery, or make one yourself.”

  “Please don’t tell me you…”

  Eli laughed. “Don’t be silly, Syd.”

  “Eli shadows over at the hospital,” explained Serena. “He stole a cadaver from the morgue.”

  Sydney swallowed. The corpse was dressed. Weren’t cadavers supposed to be naked?

  “But what is the body doing out here?” she asked. “Why didn’t we just go to the morgue?”

  “Sydney,” said Eli. She really didn’t like the way he kept using her name. Like they were close. “There are people in a morgue. And not all of them are dead.”

  “Yeah, well, we didn’t have to drive half an hour away,” she shot back. “Aren’t there any fields, or abandoned lots, near the college? Why are we all the way—”

  “Sydney,” Serena’s voice cut through the chill March air. “Stop whining.”

  And she did. The complaint died in her throat. She rubbed at her eyes, and her hand came away with black smudges from the makeup she’d put on in the cab as it wove its way toward the University of Merit. She’d wanted to impress Serena by looking grown up. But right now, she didn’t feel grown up. Right now, she wanted nothing more than to curl into a ball, or to crawl out of her own skin. Instead she stood very still and looked down at the corpse of a middle-aged man and thought of the last time she’d been with a body (she didn’t count the dead hamster in school because no one even knew it had died and it was small and furry and didn’t have human eyes). The memory of the morgue, of the cold, dead skin against her fingertips. The chill like taking a large gulp of ice water, so large that the shiver ran down to her toes. It had been harder to make them dead again. She’d panicked. The woman in the morgue had tried to get up off the table. She hadn’t thought about what to do next so she’d grabbed the closest weapon she could find—a knife, part of an autopsy kit—and driven it down into the woman’s chest. She had lurched, then slumped back to the metal slab. Apparently raising the dead didn’t mean they couldn’t be killed again.

  “Well?” said Eli, gesturing at the body like he was offering Sydney a gift, and she wasn’t being very grateful.

  She looked to her sister for answers, for help, but somewhere between the car and the body, Serena had changed. She seemed tense, her forehead crinkling in a way that she’d always tried to avoid because she said she didn’t want wrinkles. And she wouldn’t meet her sister’s eyes. Sydney turned back to the body, and knelt gingerly beside it.

  She didn’t see what she did as raising the dead, not really. They weren’t zombies, as far as she could tell—she didn’t have prolonged exposure to her subjects, aside from the hamster, and she wasn’t sure how a zombie hamster’s behavior would differ from that of a normal one—and it didn’t matter what they’d died of. The man under the sheet in the hospital hall had apparently suffered a heart attack. The woman in the morgue had already had her organs removed. But when Sydney touched them, they didn’t just come back, they revived. They were okay. Alive. Human. And, as she found out in the morgue, as susceptible to mortality as they’d been before, just not the form that killed them. It perplexed Sydney, until she remembered the day on the froze
n lake when the ice water had swallowed her up and she’d reached for Serena’s leg and been a fraction too late, too slow, to catch it—come back, come back—and how badly she’d wanted a second chance.

  That’s what Sydney was giving these people. A second chance.

  Her fingers hovered over the dead man’s chest for a moment as she wondered if he deserved a second chance, then chided herself. Who was she to judge or decide or grant or deny? Simply because she could, did that mean she should?

  “Any day now,” said Eli.

  Sydney swallowed and forced herself to lower her fingers onto the dead man’s skin. At first, nothing happened, and panic swept over her at the thought of finally having a chance to show Serena, and failing to do it. But the panic fell away when, moments later, the ice-water chill flooded through her veins, and the man beneath her shuddered. His eyes flew open and he sat up, all so fast that Sydney went stumbling backward to the grass. The once-dead man looked around, confused and angry, before his eyes locked on Eli, and his whole face contorted with rage.

  “What the hell is—”

  The gunshot rang in Sydney’s ears. The man fell back into the grass, a small red tunnel between his eyes. Dead again. Eli lowered his gun.

  “Impressive, Sydney,” he said. “That’s quite a unique gift.” The humor, along with that horrible false cheer and fake smile, was gone, wiped away. In a way, Eli wasn’t quite as frightening, because she’d always been able to see the monster in his eyes. Now it had finally stopped hiding. But the gun, and the way he held it, made him scary enough.

  Sydney got to her feet. She really wished he would put the weapon down. Serena had retreated several feet, and was toeing a patch of frozen wild grass.

  “Um, thank you?” said Sydney, her voice wavering. Her feet slid backward through the grass without her meaning to. “Are you going to show me your trick now?”

  He almost laughed. “I’m afraid mine lacks the showmanship.” And then he raised the gun, and leveled it at her.

  In that moment, Sydney felt no surprise, no shock. It was the first thing Eli had done that seemed right to her. Genuine. Fitting. She wasn’t afraid to die, she didn’t think. After all, she’d done it once. But that didn’t mean she was ready. Sadness and confusion coiled in her, not toward him, but toward her sister.

  “Serena?” she asked quietly, as if maybe she didn’t notice her new boyfriend was pointing a gun at her little sister. But Serena had turned away, arms crossed tightly over her chest.

  “I want you to know,” said Eli, fingers flexing on the gun, “that it is my grim task to do this. I have no choice.”

  “Yes, you do,” whispered Sydney.

  “Your power is wrong, and it makes you a danger to—”

  “I’m not the one holding a gun.”

  “No,” said Eli, “but your weapon is worse. Your power is unnatural. Do you understand, Sydney? It goes against nature. Against God. And this,” he said, taking aim, “this is for the greater good.”

  “Wait!” said Serena, suddenly turning back. “Maybe we don’t have to—”

  Too late.

  It happened fast.

  Shock and pain hit Sydney in one loud blast.

  Serena’s voice had stolen her a moment, a fraction of a moment, and as soon as she saw Eli’s fingers tighten on the trigger Sydney had cut to the side, lunging for a branch as the gun fired. She had the broad stick in her grip and swung into Eli before she even felt the blood running down her arm. The branch knocked the gun to the ground and Sydney spun, and ran for her life. She reached the edge of the forest before the shots started again. As she tumbled through the trees, she thought she heard her sister calling her name, but this time she knew better than to look back.

  XXXIII

  YESTERDAY

  THE ESQUIRE HOTEL

  VICTOR stood very, very still, as he listened to Sydney’s story.

  “Is that everything?” he asked when she was done, even though he could tell it wasn’t, that by the time the account left Sydney’s lips, it had bites taken out. He had watched her pause to filter out the specific nature of her power every time she opened her mouth. In the end she’d only conceded that she had an ability, and that her sister’s new boyfriend, Eli, had demanded a demonstration, and then tried to execute her for it—execute, that was the word she used—but that was all. Executing EOs, Victor’s mind spun. What was Eli playing at? Had there been others? There had to have been. The stunt in the bank with Barry Lynch, how did that tie in? Had he contrived a scene to kill the man in broad daylight?

  A hero? Victor now scoffed at the word. That’s what the paper had been so eager to call Eli. And for a moment, Victor had believed the headline. He had been willing to play the villain when he thought Eli was actually a hero; now that the truth of his old friend was proving itself to be much darker, Victor would relish the role as opposition, adversary, foe.

  “That’s all,” lied Sydney, and Victor didn’t get mad. He didn’t feel the need to hurt her, to pry the final truths loose—he couldn’t blame her for hesitating; after all, the last time she revealed her powers to someone, she’d nearly died for it—because even if she wasn’t telling him everything, she’d told him something vital. Eli wasn’t just close. He was here. In Merit. Or at least, he had been a day and a half before. Victor propped his elbows on the counter and took in the small girl whose path had crossed his own.

  He had never believed in fate, in destiny. Those things lurked too close to divinity for Victor’s taste, higher powers and the dispensation of agency. No, he chose to see the world in terms of probability, acknowledging the role of chance while taking control wherever it was possible. But even he had to admit that if there was a Fate, it was smiling on him. The newspaper, the girl, the city. If he’d possessed even a fraction of Eli’s religious zeal, he might think God was pointing him on a path, a mission. He wasn’t willing to go that far, to buy in, but he still appreciated the show of support.

  “Sydney…” He tried to suppress his excitement, forcing a calm he didn’t feel into his voice. “Your sister’s college, what is it called?”

  “It’s U of Merit. On the other side of the city. It’s huge.”

  “And the school apartment, the one your sister was staying in. Do you remember how to get there?”

  Sydney hesitated, picking at the bagel still in her lap.

  Victor gripped the counter. “This is important.”

  When Sydney didn’t move, Victor took her by the arm, curling his fingers over the place she’d been shot. He’d taken away the pain, but he wanted her to remember, both what Eli had done, and what he could do. She froze beneath his touch as with his free hand, he tugged the collar of his shirt down so she could see the first of the three scars made by Eli’s gun.

  “That’s two of us he’s tried to kill.” He let go of her arm and his shirt collar. “We got lucky. How many other EOs haven’t? And if we don’t stop him, how many other EOs won’t?”

  Sydney’s blue eyes were wide, unblinking.

  “Do you remember where your sister lives?”

  For the first time, Mitch spoke up. “We won’t let Eli hurt you again,” he said over his glass of chocolate milk. “Just so you know.”

  Victor had opened Mitch’s laptop, and pulled up a campus map. He turned the screen toward her.

  “Do you remember?”

  After a long moment, Sydney nodded. “I know the way.”

  * * *

  SYDNEY couldn’t stop shaking.

  It had nothing to do with the cold March morning and everything to do with fear. She sat in the front seat and navigated. Mitch drove. Victor sat in the back and fiddled with something sharp. It looked to Sydney, who’d glanced back once or twice, like a fancy knife that could be flicked open or closed. She turned forward and hugged her knees as the streets went by. The same streets that slid past the taxicab window a few days before as it took her to Serena. The same streets that slid past the window of Serena’s car as she drove th
em to the field.

  “Turn right,” said Sydney, making a concerted effort to stop her teeth from chattering. Her fingers wandered to the spot on her arm where the bullet had passed through. She closed her eyes but saw her sister, felt her arms around her, the soda can cold in her hand and Eli’s eyes on her when Serena said Show us. The field and the body and the gunshot and the woods and—

  She decided to keep her eyes open.

  “Turn right again,” she said. In the backseat, Victor opened and closed the knife. Sydney remembered hating it when Eli sat behind her, the weight of his eyes on the back of her seat, on her. She didn’t mind it now with Victor there.

  “Here,” she said. The car slowed, and stopped along the curb. Sydney looked out the window at the apartment buildings that hugged the eastern edge of campus. Everything looked the same, and that felt wrong, like the world should have registered the events of the last few days, should have changed the way she had changed. Cool air blew against her face and Sydney blinked and realized Victor was holding the car door open for her. Mitch was standing on the path to the apartment, kicking a loose piece of concrete.

  “Coming?” asked Victor.

  She couldn’t will her feet to move.

  “Sydney, look at me.” He rested his hands on the car roof and leaned in. “No one is going to hurt you. Do you know why?” She shook her head, and Victor smiled. “Because I’ll hurt them first.”

  He held the door open wide for her. “Now get out.”

  And Sydney did.

  * * *

  THEY made an odd picture, knocking on the door to 3A: Mitch, towering and tattooed; Victor in head-to-toe black—less like a thief and more like a Parisian, groomed and elegant—and Sydney, sandwiched between them, in blue leggings and a large red coat. These clothes had appeared this morning, and still felt dryer-warm. They even fit a little better. She particularly liked the coat.

  After several rounds of polite knocking, Mitch removed a set of picks from his coat pocket, and was busy saying something about how easy these school locks were in a way that made Sydney wonder more about his preprison life, when the door swung open.

 
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