Vengeful, page 15
Patrick shook his head. “What fifteen-year-old boy would rather have a book—”
“Would you rather I asked for a car?” asked Eli, flashing a crooked smile.
Patrick clapped him on the shoulder. These days, Eli didn’t flinch.
His attention fell back to the anatomy textbook. Perhaps his interest wasn’t strictly normal, but he could afford this small divergence.
At fifteen, the personality he’d crafted was nearly perfect. The day after he arrived, Patrick and Lisa had enrolled him in school, and Eli had realized the hard way that a six-month crash course in normalcy was a pale foundation of what he’d need to survive. But it was a big school, and Eli was a quick study, and soon charming, focused, clever had not only been cemented, they’d been joined by handsome, friendly, athletic. He ran track and field. He aced his classes. He had a winning smile and an easy laugh, and nobody knew about the scars on his back or the shadows in his past. Nobody knew that it was all an act, that none of it came naturally.
* * *
LISA’S laughter rang through the house like bells.
Eli could hear it over the classical music in his earbuds as he did his chemistry homework. A few moments later, Patrick knocked on the doorframe, and Eli hit Pause.
“You guys off?”
“Yeah,” said Patrick. “Show starts at seven, so we shouldn’t be back late. Don’t work too hard.”
“Says the professor to the student.”
“Hey, studies show that variation is good for retention.”
“Come on!” called Lisa.
“I put money on the counter,” said Patrick. “At least order a pizza. Steal a beer from the fridge.”
“Will do,” said Eli absently, already hitting Play.
Patrick said something else, but Eli didn’t catch the words over the concerto. At nine, he finished his homework and ate leftovers at the kitchen counter. At ten, he went for a jog. At eleven, he went to bed.
And fifteen minutes later, his cell phone rang, a number he didn’t recognize, a voice he didn’t know.
“Is this Eliot Cardale?” said a man.
A stillness formed in Eli’s chest. Not the kind he’d felt when he pushed his father down the stairs. No, this was colder, heavier. The weight of finding his mother floating in the tub. The exhaustion as he sank like a stone to the chapel floor.
“I’m afraid,” continued the man, “there’s been an accident.”
* * *
ELI wondered if this was shock. He sat on a flimsy plastic chair, a social worker at his side, the doctor straight ahead, an officer looming like a shadow. The cops had come to the house. Driven him to the hospital, even though there was nothing to see, or do. Dead on arrival. On impact, according to the doctor.
“I’m sorry, son,” said the cop.
God never gives us more than we can bear.
Eli laced his fingers, bowed his head.
It’s up to us to find the purpose in the pain.
“The driver didn’t survive,” continued the cop. “Toxicology’s still out but we think he was drunk.”
“How did they die?”
Eli realized, too late, that he’d asked the wrong question. A shadow crossed the doctor’s face.
“I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t—it’s just—I’m going to be a surgeon, one day. I want to save lives. I just—I need to understand.” He balled his hands into fists. “If you don’t tell me, I’ll lie awake, wondering. I think I would rather know.”
The doctor sighed. “Patrick suffered a cervical fracture of C2 and C3,” he said, touching the bones at the top of his own neck. “Lisa sustained a massive concussion, which resulted in an intracranial hemorrhage. In both cases, it would have been nearly instantaneous.”
Eli was glad they hadn’t suffered. “All right,” he said. “Thank you.”
“They didn’t name a guardian,” said the social worker. “Do you know if there’s someone you can stay with? Until we get things sorted out?”
“Yes,” he lied, digging out his phone. “I’ll call a friend.”
Eli rose and walked a little ways down the hall, but didn’t bother dialing. There was no phone tree this time. And no point in pretending. Eli was popular, well liked, but he had always been careful to keep a measure of distance. Too close, and someone might see the seams in his facade, the subtle but constant effort of pretending. Better to be friendly, without being friends.
Eli returned to the social worker and the cop. The doctor had left. “I need to get some things from my place,” he said. “Could you drop me off there?”
He let himself into the house, listened to the sound of the patrol car pulling away before he closed the door. He stood for several long seconds in the darkened hall.
And then turned and slammed his fist into the wall.
Pain flashed through Eli’s hand, up his arm, and he hit the wall again and again until his knuckles split open, and blood dripped down his wrist, and he could breathe.
His legs folded under him, and Eli sank to the floor.
After everything, he was alone again.
God never gives us more than we can bear.
Eli told himself there was a plan, even if he couldn’t see it. There was a purpose to the pain. He stared down at his bloody hand.
Stupid, he thought.
It would be hard to hide from the inevitable social workers, the school, the hundred eyes bound to latch on to every misstep, every crack in his persona.
Eli got up and went to the bathroom, rinsed the split knuckles under the sink and bandaged his hand with calm precision and steady fingers. He met his gaze in the mirror and forced the lines of his face back into their proper order.
And then Eli went to his room and began to pack.
NINETEEN YEARS AGO
THE SIXTH AND FINAL HOME
“HERE we go.”
Eli stood in the doorway, holding a box of books. The room was simple, empty save for a window, a narrow bed, and a desk.
“Bit sparse, I know,” said the landlord, who insisted he call her Maggie. “But the windows are double glazed and the shower down the hall is hot.” She gave him a measuring look. “Awfully young to be living on your own, aren’t you?”
“I’m emancipated,” explained Eli.
It had been the easiest route. He was nearly sixteen. Not many people wanted to take in a teenage boy, and Eli had no interest in becoming a ward of the state. His parents were dead. Patrick and Lisa were dead. The former had left him only scars, but the latter had left him some money—not much, but enough to cover living expenses so he could focus on finishing high school. Get into a good college.
“Thanks, Maggie,” he said, crossing the threshold.
“All right, Eliot. You let me know if you need anything.”
The wood floor creaked under her feet as she ambled off, creaked under his as he set the box on the desk and unpacked, arranging his schoolbooks in a neat stack.
“We are so sorry, Eliot,” the principal had said.
“We have counselors,” added the dean of students.
“Let us know how we can help,” echoed his teachers.
“Please,” Eli had begged them each in turn, “don’t tell anyone.”
Normal was such a fragile thing, so easily upset by even good intentions.
And so, under the guise of him wanting to grieve in peace, they kept his secret.
Eli unpacked the last two books—the battered Bible and the anatomy text. He set King James aside and sank into the chair, drawing the textbook closer.
It’s up to us, he thought, to find the purpose in the pain . . .
Eli opened the heavy tome and paged through until he found the drawings of the head, and neck, the tracery of the brain, the delicate column of the spine.
Find the purpose.
He began to take notes.
FOUR YEARS AGO
WHEN Stell returned the next day, Eli didn’t
He kept his head bowed over the file he was studying, had been studying for the better part of the night.
“I see you’ve decided to cooperate.”
Eli gathered the papers back into a shallow stack. “I need a computer,” he said.
“Absolutely not,” said Stell.
Eli rose from the chair and carried the file to the fiberglass divide. “I spent months researching my targets. Confirming their abilities. Tracking their movements.” He let the file fall from his fingers, paper sloughing to the floor. “You want me to do the same work from inside a concrete box, with nothing but basic information. This,” he said, gesturing to the pages at his feet, “is not enough.”
“It’s what we have.”
“Then you’re not looking hard enough,” snapped Eli. He turned his attention to a photo on the floor. “Tabitha Dahl,” he said, scanning the paper. “Nineteen. College athlete, young, social, active, adventurer. Suffers a massive cardiac event due to an allergic reaction while hiking. Friend is able to resuscitate her. She makes it to a hospital. And then—she disappears. Parents file a missing persons report two weeks ago.” Eli looked up. “Where would she go? How would she get there? Why is there nothing here about the friend she was with? How did she think and feel in the direct aftermath of her accident?”
“How are we supposed to obtain that kind of information?” asked Stell.
Eli threw up his hands. “She’s nineteen. Start with social media. Hack the texts she sent to friends. Get into her life. Get into her head. An EO isn’t just the product of their catalyst. They are the product of the person they were before. The circumstances, but also the psyche. I can help you find Tabitha Dahl. With the right insight, I can probably make a decent guess as to her power, but I can’t do any of that with five pieces of paper.”
A long silence followed. Eli waited patiently for Stell to break it.
“I’ll get you a computer,” he said. “But access will be restricted, and the system will be twinned. I will see everything you search, as you search it. And the moment you go off-book, you will lose more than just your tech privileges. Are we clear?”
“I could do more than postulate,” said Eli, kneeling to retrieve the papers. “If you let me out . . .”
“Mr. Cardale,” said Stell. “I want to make something very clear. You can help us from inside this cell, or from inside a lab, but you will never, ever see the outside of this facility again.”
Eli rose to his feet, but the director was already walking away.
SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO
ELI made his way across campus, his collar up against the fall chill.
Haverford was a good school—not the best, but certainly the best he could afford, and close enough to commute from the boardinghouse. It was also massive, sporting a population that could rival most towns’, and a campus so large that two months in, he was still discovering buildings.
Maybe that was why he hadn’t seen the chapel sooner.
Or maybe, until now, the trees had simply hidden it, red and gold leaves obscuring the classic lines, the simple spire, the sloping white roof.
Eli’s steps slowed at the sight of it. But he didn’t turn around. The pull was subtle, but persistent, and he let himself be drawn to the steps.
He hadn’t set foot inside a church in years, not since God became more . . . personal.
Now, as he stepped through the doors, the first thing he saw was the stained glass. Red and blue and green light dancing on the floor. And there, before the window, a stone cross. His palms began to tingle. Eli closed his eyes, willing back the memory of a deep voice, the whistle of the leather belt.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” said an airy voice.
Eli blinked, and glanced sideways, and saw a girl. Slim and pretty, with wide brown eyes and honey blond hair.
“I’ve never been religious,” continued the girl, “but I love the look of the buildings. You?”
“I’m not big on the buildings,” he said with a wry smile, “but I’ve always been religious.”
She pouted, shook her head. “Oh no, it will never work between us.” The false sadness broke back into a smile. “Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt, you just looked sad.”
“Did I?” Eli must have slipped, let the truth show through. But in an instant, he’d recovered, and turned the full force of his attention, and his practiced charm, on the girl. “Were you studying me instead of the building?”
Light danced in the girl’s eyes. “I’m more than capable of admiring both.” She held out her hand. “I’m Charlotte.”
He smiled. “Eli.” The bells rang once around them, and Eli held out his hand. “Have you had lunch?”
* * *
MAGGIE had appeared in the doorway of Eli’s room the week before, a basket of laundry on her hip. “It’s Friday night, Eliot.”
“And you’re sitting in here doing calculus.”
“Biology,” he’d corrected.
Maggie had shaken her head. “All this work and no fun, for a boy your age, it’s not normal.”
That word. Normal. The center line of his calibration.
Eli had looked up from his homework. “What should I be doing?” he asked, one eyebrow raised to hide the earnestness of the question.
“Go to parties!” said Maggie. “Drink cheap beer! Make bad choices! Date pretty girls!”
He leaned back in his chair. “Do pretty girls count as bad choices, or are those two separate things?”
Maggie rolled her eyes and walked away, and Eli turned back to his paper, but he’d taken the words to heart. He’d gone to one or two frat parties, plastered on a lazy smile and sipped awful beer (which honestly felt like a bad choice).
But now, he had Charlotte.
A relationship, Eli had learned, was a universal shorthand for normal. A societal stamp of approval. Dating Charlotte Shelton in particular was more like a gold seal. She was old money, the breeding so deep she didn’t even notice it lining her every seam.
She was cheerful, and pretty, and spoiled—she lived in the school dormitories, but only because she wanted an authentic college experience. Not that that desire for authenticity extended much beyond a single twin bed and a communal hall.
Charlotte came to Eli’s boardinghouse once, and only once, and on her insistence. She knew he was an orphan (a word that seemed to generate in her an intense protective instinct), but the threadbare truth wasn’t as romantic. He’d seen the pity masquerading as sympathy.
“I don’t love you for your stuff,” she’d insisted. “I have enough stuff for the both of us.”
But after that, they didn’t share a life—Charlotte just pulled Eli into hers.
And he let her.
It was easy.
It was simple.
She adored him.
And he enjoyed the attention.
Charlotte liked to say they were a perfect fit. Eli knew they weren’t, but only he could see the jagged sides, the empty spaces.
“How do I look?” she asked as they climbed the steps to her parents’ house—mansion—for Thanksgiving, sophomore year.
“Stunning,” said Eli automatically, pairing the word with a wink. Charlotte fixed his tie. She ran her fingers through his dark hair, and he let her, his own hand grazing the bottom of her chin, tipping her face up for a kiss.
“Don’t be nervous,” she whispered.
The door swung open, and he turned, half expecting to see a butler, a grim old man in coattails, but instead he found an elegant, older version of Charlotte.
“You must be Eli!” said the woman brightly as a slim, stern man in a well-tailored suit appeared at her back.
“Thank you for having me,” said Eli, holding out a pie.
“Of course,” said Mrs. Shelton warmly. “When Charlotte said you didn’t have plans, we insisted.”
“Plus,” said Mr. Shelton, shooting Charlotte a look, “it’s about time we meet the boy our girl’s been so taken with.” They started down the hall, Charlotte and her mother arm in arm.
“Eli,” said Mr. Shelton, putting a hand on his shoulder, “why don’t I give you a tour while the ladies catch up.”
It wasn’t a question.
“Of course,” said Eli, falling in step behind the man, who led him through a pair of doors into a private study. “This,” he said, “is really the only room that matters.”
He opened a cabinet and poured himself a drink.
“I can see why Charlotte likes you,” he said, leaning back against his desk. “She’s always had a weakness for charity cases. Especially handsome ones.”
Eli stilled, his easy manner stiffening a fraction. “Sir, if you think I’m with Charlotte for her money or her station—”
“The truth doesn’t matter, Mr. Cardale, only the optics. And they don’t look good. I’ve done my homework on you. So much tragedy—you handle it with poise. While I admire how far you’ve come, the fact is, you’re tracking mud into my home.”
Eli’s teeth clicked together. “We can’t shape our past,” he said. “Only our future.”
Charlotte’s father smiled. “Well put. And that’s what I’m offering you. A bright future. Just not with my daughter. I’ve seen your grades. You’re a smart young man, Eliot. Ambitious, too, Charlotte tells me. You want to be a doctor. Haverford is a decent college, but it’s not the best. I know you got into other schools. Better schools. I assume you couldn’t afford them.”
Eli stared, amazed. He was being bribed.
Mr. Shelton pushed off the desk. “I know you care about my daughter. Hell, you might even think you love her . . .”
But Eli didn’t.
If Mr. Shelton was better at reading people—or if Eli hadn’t made himself so hard to read—he might have seen the simple truth. That Eli didn’t need persuading. That Charlotte Shelton had always been, for him, a vehicle. A way to move through the world on an upward trajectory. What her father was now offering, if he was truly offering it, was a true chance for meaningful change, a great gain for a minor loss.
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