FIVE YEARS AGO
THE night Victor died, Sydney couldn’t sleep.
Dominic had taken a handful of pills, washing them down with whiskey before collapsing on the couch, and it was only a matter of minutes before Mitch, bruised and bloody and a thousand miles away, sank into his own fitful doze.
But Syd sat up, with Dol at her feet, thinking of Victor’s body in the morgue, of Serena’s charred corpse in the Falcon Price lot, until finally she gave up on sleep entirely, tugged on her boots, and snuck outside.
It was just before dawn when Sydney reached the Falcon Price project. The darkest part of the night, Serena used to say. The time when monsters and ghosts came out.
The construction project was marked off with crime scene tape.
Sydney folded herself small and slipped behind the plywood fence, into the gravel lot. The police were gone, the noise and lights were gone, the chaos of the night reduced to numbered markers, and drying blood, and a white plastic tent.
Inside that tent, Serena’s body. What was left of it. The fire had been hot—hot enough to reduce most of her sister to blackened skin and brittle bones. Syd knew the fire was out, but as she reached a hand into the charred remains, she still half expected the bones to burn her. But there was no heat, no warmth, no promise of life. Half of the bones had already crumbled, others threatened to fold under the barest touch, but here and there a few pieces retained their strength.
Sydney started digging.
She just wanted a token, something to remember her sister, a piece to hold on to. It wasn’t until she was elbows-deep in the scorched heap that she realized what she was really doing.
Looking for a way to bring Serena back.
* * *
SYDNEY started dying, but only in her dreams.
The nightmares began when they left Merit. Night after night, she’d close her eyes and find herself back on the frozen lake, the one that had cracked and broken and swallowed her and her sister up three years before.
In her dreams, Serena was a shadow on the far shore, arms crossed and waiting, watching, but Syd was never alone on the ice. Not at first. Dol stayed close, licking at the frozen ground, while Dom and Mitch and Victor formed a loose circle around her.
And in the distance, walking toward them across the lake, a man with broad shoulders and warm brown hair, an easy stride and a friendly smile.
Eli, who never aged, never changed, never died.
Eli, who made every hair on her neck stand on end in a way the cold never did.
“It’s okay, kid,” said Dom.
“We’re here,” said Mitch.
“I won’t let him hurt you,” said Victor.
They were all lying in the end.
Not because they meant to, but because they couldn’t make it true.
The lake made a sound like branches breaking in the woods. The ice began to splinter beneath their feet.
“Get back!” she called, and she didn’t know if she was talking to them or to Eli, but it didn’t matter. Nobody listened.
Eli made his way across the lake, coming for them, for her. The ice stayed smooth and solid beneath him, but every time he took a step, someone else disappeared.
The lake shattered beneath Dominic.
Mitch sank like a stone.
Dol crashed and went under.
Victor plunged down.
One by one they drowned.
And then she was alone.
“Hello, Sydney,” he said.
Sometimes he had a knife.
Sometimes he had a gun.
Sometimes he had a length of rope.
But Sydney’s hands were always empty.
She wanted to fight back, wanted to hold her ground, wanted to face the monster, but her body always betrayed her. Her boots always turned toward the shore, slipping and skidding as she ran.
Sometimes she almost made it.
Sometimes she wasn’t even close.
But no matter what she did, the dream always ended the same.
FOUR YEARS AGO
SYD sat up with a gasp.
She’d woken to the sound of cracking ice, the hiss and snap of a lake giving way. It took her a moment to realize the sounds hadn’t followed her out of her dreams; they were coming from the kitchen.
The sound of cracking eggs.
The hiss and snap of bacon in a pan.
Sydney’s parents had never made breakfast. There was always food—or at least, there was always money for food, in a jar by the sink—but there were no family meals—that would have required them to all be in the house at the same time—and unlike in the movies, no one was ever woken by the smell of breakfast, not on Christmas morning, not on birthdays, and certainly not on a random Tuesday.
Whenever Sydney woke to the sizzle of bacon or the pop of a toaster, she knew that Serena was home. Serena always made breakfast, a veritable banquet of food, way too much for them to eat.
“Hungry, sleepyhead?” Serena would always ask, pouring her a glass of juice.
And for a groggy moment, before the details of the room came into focus, Sydney almost leapt from the bed to ambush her sister in the kitchen.
Sydney’s heart quickened. But then she saw the strange apartment walls, and the red metal tin on the unfamiliar nightstand, containing all that remained of Serena Clarke, and the reality came rushing back.
Dol whined softly from the edge of the bed, obviously torn between his loyalty to Syd and his canine love of food.
“Hungry, sleepyhead?” she asked softly, rubbing him between the ears. He gave a relieved huff and turned, nosing open the door. Sydney followed him out into the apartment. It was a rental, the eleventh one they’d stayed in, the fifth city. It was a nice place—they were always nice places. They’d been on the road—on the run—for nearly six months, and she still walked around holding her breath, half expecting Victor to send her away. After all, he never said Sydney could stay with them, after. He had simply never told her to leave, and she had never asked to go.
Mitch was in the kitchen, cooking breakfast.
“Hey, kid,” he said. Mitch was the only one who got to call her that. “You want food?”
He was already dividing the eggs onto two plates, three for him and one for her (but she always got half the bacon).
She plucked a strip from her plate, split it with Dol, and looked around the rented apartment.
She wasn’t homesick, exactly.
Sydney didn’t miss her parents. She knew she should feel bad about that, but the fact of the matter was, she felt like she’d lost them way before she disappeared—her first memories were of packed suitcases and long-term sitters, her last were of two parent-shaped shadows leaving her behind in the hospital after the accident.
What she had now felt more like a family than her mother and father ever had.
“Oh…” Mitch had that look on his face, that carefully blank look that adults got when they were trying to convince you everything was fine. They always assumed that if they didn’t tell you a thing, you wouldn’t know it. But that wasn’t true.
Serena used to say that she could tell when someone was lying, because all those unsaid things hung in the air, making it heavy, like the pressure before a storm.
Sydney might not know the full scope of Victor’s lie, but the wrongness was still there, taking up space.
“He just stepped out for a walk,” said Mitch. “I’m sure he’ll be back soon.”
Sydney knew Mitch was lying too.
He pushed his empty plate aside.
“Okay,” he said, producing his deck of cards. “Draw.”
It was a game they’d been playing since the first few days after Merit, when the need to keep a low profile clashed with the urge to go out, and Victor’s absences meant Syd and Mitch spent a lot of time together (and the good-natured ex-con obviously had no idea what to do with a thirteen-year-old who could resurrect the dead).
“What would you be doing,” he’d asked, “if you were…” He let the question trail off.
Sydney knew he was thinking home but she said, “Back in Brighton? I’d probably be in school.”
“Did you like school?”
Sydney shrugged. “I liked learning.”
Mitch brightened at that. “Me too. But I never got to stay in one place long. Foster care and all. So I didn’t care much about school … but you don’t need that to learn. I could teach you…”
Mitch colored a little. “Well, there’s lots I don’t know. But maybe we could learn together.” That’s when he drew the deck from his pocket. “How about this—hearts will be literature. Clubs is science. Diamonds is history. Spades is math. That should give us a good start.”
“And face cards?” asked Syd.
Mitch flashed a conspiratorial smile. “Face cards, we go outside.”
Now Sydney held her breath and pulled a card from the center, hoping for a king or queen.
She got a six of clubs.
“Better luck next time,” said Mitch, pulling his laptop over. “Okay, let’s see what kind of experiments we can do in this kitchen…”
They were halfway through creating a homemade lava lamp when the door swung open, and Victor walked in. He looked tired, his face tight, as if he were in pain. She felt the air go heavy on her shoulders.
“You hungry?” asked Mitch, but Victor waved him away and sank into a chair at the kitchen table. He took up his tablet and began absently swiping through. Mitch set a cup of black coffee at his elbow.
Sydney perched on the counter and studied Victor.
Whenever she’d resurrected an animal, or a person, she’d done it by visualizing a thread, something floating in the darkness. She pictured grabbing that thread and pulling it toward her, drawing them back into the light. But when it was done, she never really let go of the thread. Didn’t know how, really. So she could feel it now when Victor was home, and when he was out pacing the city, could feel it still, no matter how far he went, as if his energy, his stress, vibrated up the invisible rope until the tremor reached her.
And so, even without the heavy air, the way Mitch looked at Victor, the way Victor didn’t look at her, she knew that something was not right.
“What is it, Sydney?” he asked without looking up.
Tell me the truth, she thought. Just tell me the truth.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked.
Victor’s cold blue eyes drifted up, meeting hers.
His mouth twitched into a smile, the way it did when he was lying. “Never better.”
THREE YEARS AGO
SYDNEY wove around the base of the tree, sunlight dappling her skin.
She’d drawn a face card—the queen of diamonds—but the weather was so nice she would have played the spade Victor had slipped her just to get out of the apartment.
Behind her eyes, Sydney saw him buckling against the door, saw him fighting back a scream as his body curled on the floor. There had been pain, too, a jolt of something straight through her chest, and then darkness, but that part didn’t haunt her.
Victor haunted her. His pain haunted her. His dying haunted her.
Because it was Sydney’s fault.
He had been counting on her, and she’d let him down.
She’d brought him back wrong.
That was the secret. The lie.
“It feels like dying.”
Sydney kept her eyes on the mossy ground as she paced. If anyone looked her way, they would probably assume she was searching for flowers, but it was late spring, the time when baby birds flung themselves out of the nest and hoped to fly. Not all of them made it. And Sydney was always searching for things to revive. Subjects to practice on.
Sydney already knew how to reach inside a body and pull it back to life. But what if the thing had been dead for a long time? What if the body wasn’t all there? How much did there have to be, for her to find the thread? How little?
Dol snuffled in the grass nearby, and across the field Mitch leaned back against a slope, a battered paperback open on one knee, a pair of sunglasses perched on his nose.
They were in Capital City, as hilly as Fulton had been flat, a place with as many parks as skyscrapers.
She liked it here. Wished they could stay. Knew they wouldn’t.
They were only here because Victor was searching for someone. Another EO. Someone who could fix what she’d broken.
Something cracked under Syd’s foot.
She looked down and saw the crumpled body of a young finch. The bird had been there awhile, long enough for its small body to sink into the moss. Long enough for the feathers to fall away and a wing to come detached, the brittle bones shattering like an eggshell under her shoe.
Syd sank to her knees, crouching over the tiny corpse.
It was one thing, she’d learned, to breathe life back into a body. Another thing entirely to rebuild the body itself. You only got one chance—Sydney had learned that the hard way, threads unraveling, bones crumbling to ash under her touch—but the only way to get stronger was to practice. And Sydney wanted to get stronger—she needed to get stronger—so she curled her fingers gently over the bird’s remains, and closed her eyes, and reached.
Cold rippled through her as she searched the darkness for a thread, a filament, a wisp of light. It was there somewhere, so faint she couldn’t see it, not yet. She had to go by feel instead. Her lungs ached, but she kept reaching, knew she was almost, almost—
Sydney felt the bird twitch under her palm.
Flutter, like a pulse.
Sydney’s eyes flew open, a faint plume of cold brushing her lips as the bird was rising on unsteady wings. Buffeting itself up into the branches of the tree.
Syd rocked back on her heels and let out a shaky breath.
“Well, that was quite a trick.”
Her head snapped up, and for a second—just a second—she found herself staring at a ghost. White-blond hair, and ice blue eyes, a dazzling smile set into a heart-shaped face.
But it wasn’t Serena.
Up close, the girl had higher cheeks than her sister, a broader chin, eyes that danced with a mischievous light. Dol’s lip curled a little, flashing teeth, but when the stranger held out her hand, the dog sniffed it cautiously, and then calmed.
“Good boy,” said the girl who wasn’t Serena. There was a lilt in her voice, a kind of music. Her eyes flicked up to Sydney. “Did I scare you?”
“No,” she managed, her throat constricting. “You just looked—like someone else.”
The stranger flashed her a wistful grin. “Someone nice, I hope.” She pointed up to the branches. “I saw what you did there, with the bird.”
Sydney’s heart quickened. “I didn’t do anything.”
The girl laughed, a light, airy sound. And then she crossed behind the trunk of the tree. When she reappeared on the other side, she was someone else. Only a second had passed, a step, but the blond girl was gone, and Sydney found herself staring into Mitch’s familiar face.
“It’s a big world, kiddo,” he said. “You’re not the only one with talents.”
She knew it wasn’t really him. Not just because the real Mitch was still reading across the field, but because of the accent that ran beneath his voice, even now.
The stranger took a step toward Sydney, and as she did, her body changed again. Mitch disappeared, replaced by a lanky young woman in a peasant skirt, her loose blond curls pulled up in a messy bun.
The girl looked down at herself. “This one’s my favorite,” she said, half to herself.
“How did you do that?” asked Syd.
The stranger raised a brow. “I didn’t do anything,” she said, echoing Syd’s words. And then she broke into a smile. “See? Isn’t it silly to lie when we both know the truth?”
Sydney swallowed. “You’re an EO.”
“ExtraOrdinary. That’s what they call—us.”
The girl mused. “ExtraOrdinary. I like that.” She looked down, and chirped in delight. “Here,” she said, retrieving a tiny bird’s skull from the grass. “You’ve seen my trick. Show me yours again.”
Sydney took the skull, which was no bigger than a ring. It was unbroken, unblemished—but not enough.
“I can’t,” she said, handing it back. “There’s too much missing.”
“Syd?” called Mitch.
The stranger drew a folded bookmark from her back pocket, and a pen from her curls. She scribbled something down the side, and held it out.
“In case you ever need a friend.” She leaned in close. “Girls like us got to stick together,” she added with a wink.
Mitch called Sydney’s name again.
“Better go,” said the stranger. “Wouldn’t want the big guy to worry.” She ran her fingers over Dol’s muzzle. “You look after our girl,” she told the dog.
“See ya,” said Syd.
Mitch was waiting for her across the field. “Who were you talking to?” he asked.
Sydney shrugged. “Just some girl,” she said, realizing she hadn’t asked for a name. She glanced over her shoulder, and saw the stranger still leaning back against the tree, holding the little white skull up to the light.
That night, Sydney put the number in her phone.
The next, she sent the girl a text.
I forgot to tell you. My name is Sydney.
She held her breath and waited.
The reply came a few seconds later.
Nice to meet you, Sydney, it said.