ELI PULLED BOBBY pin after bobby pin out of his hair, and when long sinusoidal locks fell into his eyes, put them all back. He had always been a restless creature (made of excited electrons instead of cells), all too aware of something tangible ricocheting inside him, but what he felt as he sat slouched through Mrs. Abernathy's english class that afternoon was a new sensation altogether.
A feeling. A notion. A quiet, discordant hum in his bones that would not be still. It clawed to get out of boy and onto paper.
Outside, the weather was apocalyptic. Through the long, slanted windows of the classroom, the fig tree stood lonesome, swaying in the breeze, at the bottom of the gently sloping hill that the school was built on. It cast a shaky and uneven shadow onto the grass, one that had tucked Eli and his friends out of sight too many times to count.
Eli twirled a chewed pencil between his fingers as he stared at it. The contrast hurt his eyes. He missed the brightness of summer, the tarmac-melting heat. Missed driving halfway across the country with his father, Benyamin, in a rented Ford Fiesta. Benyamin dozing in the passenger seat, lips dry and parted. Eli quietly counting the miles and number of road signs and anything that could be counted as he drove. They had been heading back to Harpers Ferry, Benyamin's hometown, where Eli had spent the first few years of his childhood.
He missed the way sweat inched down the sides of his face and dried in a sticky pool of warmth above his upper lip. The cul-de-sacs and streets that curved in like concave mirrors.
The town, which should have been somewhat familiar, made Eli feel like he was walking through a dream rather than a memory. Some things had stayed the same; wooden benches in the park, tire marks on pavements where bikes once skidded to a stop, cigarette butts creating modern art on the pathway that led to an old chapel.
The rest was unrecognisable. A chalkboard wiped clean.
He missed the sound of rubber soles slapping on cobblestone; counting the steps they took as they walked to Benyamin's lab (it was actually the bare bones of a run down grocery store in disguise) every morning. The bitter smell of daffodils chased after them from a nearby field.
He missed the endless, linear road, lined with thick trees on each side, their branches overgrown and arching forward, interlinking in some places to create an upside down parabola that felt like you were walking into the mouth of mother nature.
Above you, a messy tangle of limbs and leaves—arms of lovers dying to touch each other.
Eli had imagined that kind of human contact before. Touch and flinch.
He missed wiping dust off every inch of the lab. Missed standing there beside Benyamin, significantly taller this time. His father's shoulders pulled down, closer to earth, by gravity and the secrets of the universe (both compelling forces).
They had spent their days leaning over the sole desk, covered in years worth of their workings, elbows touching, digging into the other's ribs as they jostled for room. When it wasn't each other they were wrestling with, it was stacks of wooden stools or even a whole shelving unit of tinned beans.
Eli had never particularly liked the lab. It was dusty, and cramped, and in summer the machinery was too hot to touch. But he liked what it did to his body. He liked how it made him feel on the inside, brimming with possibility and potential energy, like he was the smallest unit of a chain reaction that began at him and ended at infinity.
He liked how it dragged a younger version of his father out of hibernation through some kind of impossible time warp.
Outside the lab, Benyamin Green was a man in his late fifties, the epitome of new money with an ostentatious house in the country. Inside, he was the same person he had been sixteen years ago. Living in a dingy apartment in Harpers Ferry, running a small grocery store, a respected name among the Jewish community, member of the November Revolution. The man who used to receive telegrams from physicists like Flyorov, Dirac, Ivanenko, every week.
Eli had never particularly liked the lab. But he missed everything about it. From the overwhelming smell of burning wax and drying fountain pen ink to scribbling workings in black marker on walls (and any available metal surface) when they ran out of paper and were too lazy to buy more. From sharing a smoking pipe with Benyamin to sipping luke-warm black coffee, bleary-eyed in the early hours of the morning, and rechecking their numbers for hours on multiple calculators.
He missed the breathless urgency of the whole thing. Standing there among skewed shelves and loose sheets and the audible churnings of your own mind. It made him think of forest fires, theories that changed the world, and most often, of greatness crawling through his blood.
And only there, in the lab with his ageing, dying father, did Eli feel like the greatness was something that had always been a part of him instead of something he tried to artificially inject into his DNA.
He used to think he'd find that feeling, or at least an imitation of it, at The Imperial Academy. (It was the most prestigious boarding school in the country after all). Now, the realization of his own naivety left a bitter taste in his mouth. The academy was not a hospital for wandering souls. It was grey brick, soft moss, and thick pillars that looked like dead men's bones. It was stiff, straight lines and clean angles. No place for error.
The hum inside him got louder.
At the top of the classroom, Mrs. Abernathy stood from behind her desk and picked up a thick stack of pages. Eli couldn't count how many fast enough because she was moving in a blur of satin skirt and woolen jumper. The crypt-like smell of her perfume haunted the room as she started down Eli's aisle.
Veins spread across her crumpled parchment face (almost entirely translucent) like a disease. She smiled thinly. Her mouth, a cruel, hard thing, glinting in the grey afternoon light.
She didn't glance in Eli's direction, just dropped the essay he'd written for his summer exam onto his desk. It missed by an inch and landed on the floor instead.
Mrs. Abernathy kept walking.
Eli didn't miss the muffled laughter behind him. He sighed and leaned down to pick up his essay. The hairs on his arm stood on end as he did, crawling the way that perhaps Mrs. Abernathy's snowdrop skin crawled when she looked at him.
Stamped at the top of his essay, in starved red pen, was his mark. Forty six percent.
For a moment, the world tilted. Slid out of focus. Slid back.
Dear god, Eli thought. He'd gotten fifty in Latin (decent, if you asked him) and fifty-three in chemistry, but forty-fucking-six. It was the lowest he'd ever gotten in any subject and at least twenty percent below the average of most Imperial Academy students.
Under his percentage, Mrs. Abernathy had written in block capitals, FOCUS ON PURPOSE and underlined it three times.
Only that was the issue. Eli didn't know how to do that. Stick to one thing, answer what was asked. He floated, an untethered ship, from idea to idea, dragged in every direction by his mind that was a compass without a sense of direction.
He wondered if Mrs. Abernathy had noticed in his essay when he strayed from the purpose and didn't return. Maybe his writing slanted. His words inevitably did. They always did. No matter how hard he tried to be concise, to be true and passionate, the boredom of banality always seeped in.
That's how he went from getting eighty and ninety percent in every subject to forty six.
He bit down on a knuckle, gnawed at the hard bone and taut skin. The pencil still twirled deftly in his left hand. He tried to imagine how his father would react when he told him. Probably just smile his slow, careful smile and tell Eli it was okay.
But it wasn't. It really fucking wasn't. Benyamin had excelled in school. In Harpers Ferry, everyone called him gaon (genius). In Harpers Ferry, no one even knew Eli's name. He was merely an extension of the idea of who his father was.
The hum got louder.
When they were in the lab together, the distance between them was immeasurable—because it was nonexistent. They were equals. His father looked at him and saw something worth nurturing. His teachers had yet to see it. Eli had yet to prove its existence.
He couldn't help but feel like Faraday sitting in his cage. Only this time the electrified wire surrounding him was a brick building or, on days when reality was too much to ignore, his own skeleton. Faraday had spent two days in his cage. Eli was bound eternally to his. Caught in a relentless state of searching for shadows in the dark.
His gaze skittered around the classroom—chalkboard, bookshelves, posters, thirty four students including him—and settled on Mrs. Abernathy's moving figure. She handed Vincent his paper with a smile. Did the same to Teddy and Ryder. She even stopped by Johnny's desk.
From what Eli could see around her body, Johnny looked like a modern day Rembrandt painting: bored and elaborate against a backdrop of prettier things. His mouth twitched for a brief second at something Mrs. Abernathy said before settling back into a flat line.
It was over that quick. Mrs. Abernathy moved on. Eli turned back to his essay. But for a minute, just one infinitesimal, irrelevant minute, the tiny parenthesis that had curved around Johnny's lips when he smiled flashed in front of him, as bright and as magnetic as a welcome sign.
Eli closed his eyes. Imagined the shape one last time. Opened his eyes. He couldn't help but think of his life as a word that had yet to be defined.
The pencil, moving in a haze of wood and teeth marks, flew out of his fingers. He watched it trace a shallow arc in the air before landing on the carpet beside someone's feet. Eli wished he could catapult that quickly out of the classroom. He wanted to be back in his father's lab, discovering something, solving something, creating something.
Being educated instead of trained.
He wanted to be Faraday, Flyorov, Dirac, Ivanenko, his father. Someone. Anyone.
Get out of boy and onto paper.
His notepad, brimming with his recent (and failed) efforts at solving Hodge conjecture, burned a hole through his trousers.
He picked up his essay. Pinched his lower lip between thumb and forefinger. Dragged the soft flesh from side to side.
The hum was loud enough to shatter glass.
He set the essay back down. The first thing he'd do when he got out of the classroom was throw it in the bin.
Teddy rushed through the expansive hallways to catch up with Eli as soon as fifth period finished. Eli heard the skid of shoes on the linoleum floor before he felt a body slam into his back. Eli stumbled forward, caught only in time by Teddy grabbing a fistful of his blazer and dragging him back upright.
"Elijah, old man," Teddy said, unfazed while Eli gasped for breath, "you sure move like lightning on those little legs of yours. I've been trying to catch up for the past ten minutes." He wrapped an arm around Eli's shoulders and took him in his stride. "What'cha get on that essay?"
He had opted out of his flamboyant top hat (probably because it was in direct violation of the school uniform which consisted only of a starched white shirt, grey trousers, red tie, and black blazer trimmed with gold) but still wore his white gloves, and had a small, ornate brooch, the size of a canary's egg but possibly more costly than anything Eli owned, pinned onto his breast directly over the crest of the academy.
Where Eli's family was all new money, inherited only in recent years after the death of his grandfather, Teddy's was blue bloodlines that transcended time. Traces of it could be found centuries back, splashed like fine wine over British and Dutch family trees.
The hum reverberated through Eli again, low and bone-rattling. He was just a medium. A bridge withstanding resonance.
The thing about bridges: they only served others.
His voice came out as a hushed mumble, as if each letter was trying to clamber over the other on his tongue. "Forty-six."
A little louder. "Forty-six percent."
"Ah." Teddy gave his shoulder a squeeze. "I wouldn't worry about it, old man. Abernathy doesn't recognise your genius."
It seemed Teddy had unearthed his so-called 'genius' too early, and either didn't realize he had been wrong with his diagnosis, or was too lazy to change it. If Eli didn't know any better, he would say the latter. But he knew better. "What did you get?"
Teddy whistled through his teeth. "Forty one. Barely passed. What did you write yours on?"
"Hamlet's hamartia. You?"
"His relationship with Gertrude. Sigmund Freud style." He winked.
They turned a corner down the hallway. Here the walls were lined with brass lockers on one side, and on the other, glass cases that flaunted silver trophies and polished plaques; all of The Imperial Academy's achievements gathered in one neat sum.
Eli caught his own chestnut reflection in the lines of glinting gold. Though the memory of the sneer on Mrs. Abernathy's face made him hurriedly look away.
"So listen," Teddy was saying, "I was thinking. You. Me. Study group?"
"Since when are you into studying?"
"Why, all gentlemen are well educated."
"You? A gentleman?"
Teddy's mouth twisted into a wry smile. "What can I say, old man, I've had one helluva summer. Soiree, balls, masquerades. Politicians, aristocrats, royalty. You name it. Everyone in cravats and top hats. Surrounded by champagne, god-awful opera, and worst of all—" he pressed his mouth to Eli's ear "—ugly girls." Moving back, arms flying in a grand but nonsensical gesture, "And even after sitting through that every goddamned night for the past three months, daddy dearest thinks I'm not making much of an effort."
Understanding now, Eli grabbed a hold of one of his gloved hands. The fabric made a soft crackling sound. "Studying and wearing expensive gloves is your definition of making an effort?"
Teddy pinched his cheek. "Don't question it. So what'd you say? Study group at seven? Maybe even invite Ryder for good measure."
"He's pretty to look at."
Eli couldn't help but laugh. "All our friends are pretty to look at. Let's invite all of 'em."
Teddy pointed a finger at him. "Now you're thinking, old man."
It was already ten minutes past seven when Eli decided to start searching for his copy of Hamlet. He didn't even know where to begin. The desk in his dorm was much smaller than the one he shared in the lab with Benyamin but the principle was the same: loose graph paper everywhere, bright sticky notes forming a messy collage on the wall, deerskin journals lying open, conveniently over an ashtray. And pencils. So many bloody pencils, all ruthlessly chewed and excessively sharpened.
"Have you seen my Hamlet book anywhere?" he asked as he hunkered down to rummage through his drawers.
When he didn't get a reply, he turned to look at Vincent who was seated at his own desk. He still wore his uniform and was hunched over his work, shoulder blades sticking out of his back like a pair of snapped wings. His shirt, visibly wet, clung like lifelines to the protruding slopes.
Eli stood up. "Vincent?"
Moving over to Vincent's side of the room felt like moving to a new country. His books were all neatly stacked in one corner, transcripts bound together with string, pencils lined like soldiers along his desk. A candle burned brightly beside his tin of cigarettes. The cassette player, spitting out words in Latin, was the only thing that sat crookedly in his world of straight lines.
Eli moved closer. Vincent's hair was plastered to the nape of his neck in swirls of black. Eli put a hand on his shoulder. His skin was both hot and cold. "Vincent?"
Vincent looked up, then realising how close Eli was, jumped in his seat a little. "Christ. Don't come up behind me like that."
Eli saw the beads of sweat dotting his pink cheeks in perfect clarity. They created a rough sheen on his marble skin. Everything else about him remained hazy, flickering around the edges, drenched in gasoline and set alight.
Vincent blinked rapidly, his lashes long and wet. He looked like a child standing on a swing, due to break his neck. He looked like he had earlier that morning, sitting under the shade of the fig tree, his face consumed entirely by shadows except for the bright polygons cut out of candle light under his eyes.
Eli reached out a hand before he could stop himself and pressed the back of his fingers flat against his forehead.
Vincent jerked away. "What're you doing?"
"You look," Eli began, but paused when he saw the hard edge to Vincent's mouth, to his eyes. "Feverish. You're burning up."
Vincent tugged at the collar of his shirt. "Must be the candle heat," he said dismissively and picked up his pen again. There was something fervent and unsettling about the way he worked. Eyes fixed on the page, ears shut off from the world, his lettering small and scared looking.
It made Eli think of pressure cookers. Only the steam got out. And boys their age weren't easily converted to other forms.
"Have you seen my copy of Hamlet anywhere?" he asked again.
"I haven't." Vincent stopped writing momentarily to pull open a drawer. "Here, take mine."
Eli weighed the book in his hands. The cover was ringed with coffee stains. The corners curled inwards, pages yellow with age, the spine ripped and fraying. In his hands, history felt apart. It was the most Vincent-like thing he'd ever seen.
Then there was the cane, leaning against the side of his desk. Stark and silver.
Eli wanted to say something but he didn't know what. Wanted to ask something but didn't know how.
The sea stacked itself tall, wave upon wave upon wave, and crashed over them again, It ate their secrets, pressed glass marbles and conch shells against their unwilling lips. The kind of pill you had no choice but to swallow. The hum was back too, high pitched and wailing.
Eli's eyes darted between the sepia posters hanging above Vincent's desk. War heroes in khaki, actors from the 60's, famous playwrights. Eli wondered if Vincent ever pressed his palm flat against the jaded paper and felt their former glory writhe against his skin. If he ever let even an inkling of that power leech into his blood. Just the thought of it made Eli lightheaded.
"How did you do on that essay?" he asked finally.
"Holy shit, Vin."
Vincent didn't reply to that, but he did stop writing. His pen hovered above the page, waiting. Eli saw the way his fingers trembled as they gripped onto it for dear life. "So we're thinking of starting a study group," he said slowly, carefully, because with Vincent he never knew how to behave anymore. This Vincent Cross was not the soft, curious boy Eli had once known and befriended. He had shed his former skin and sharpened over time. "Wanna join?"
Vincent's hold on the pen slackened. "Who's in it?"
"Well, Teddy for one. We're asking Ryder and Johnny to join as well."
Vincent laughed. It was a soft, breathless sound that dissipated quickly. "Teddy? And studying? He'll just sit there and smoke. Or translate obscene French books into Latin."
Eli smiled faintly. "I don't know. He seems serious this time. It's senior year after all."
Vincent looked at him. There was something about his eyes, grey like the ashes of forgotten emperors, that grew wiser at that statement. "Yes, I suppose. Everyone wants a shot at valedictorian." He glanced away again. "I don't think I will. Join you that is. Go ahead without me."
"Okay." Eli seemed to run out of excuses to stay. Still, he rocked on the balls of his feet and searched for something, anything, to fill the cavity-riddled silence that felt like a casket being lowered on them. "Should I open the window for you?"
"Would you? Please."
Eli propped the window open, just slightly, since it had started to rain and the drops slid down the ledge and slanted into the room. With them came the sharp smell of pine needles, and again, of decaying fruit. "We'll be in the library," he said, turning his head an inch, "if you change your mind."
Vincent gave him a curt nod.
Outside, black clouds, thicker than cream, crashed together, and rolled across the horizon with thunder echoing through them. They swallowed the sun and the sky. The rain became heavier, more relentless. A threat, loud and clear, of a coming storm that would not be silenced without some sort of offering.
At the bottom of the hill, the fig tree bowed its head.