They didn’t know it yet, but these were their last goodbyes.
It was something that they should have seen coming. The woman was old. She’d had a good, long life, but it was over now. Surely they had to know how frail their hopes were. But it was easy to forget how blind humans could be, how determined they were to believe that they were the ones in control. I knew better.
I hovered just inside the open bedroom window, toes barely touching the floor. Completely invisible. There were only two others in the room now, the old woman and her adult daughter, sleeping in a bedside chair with her head resting near her mother’s hand. My job was easy: get in, Mark the target, get out. Still, I lingered, waiting for the daughter to wake up. Not out of compassion—the woman would die whether or not I hung around to watch—but from curiosity. When she woke up, would she be distraught? Would she sense my presence and try to make the most of these last moments? Or did she care? Maybe she’d be one of those just waiting for her mother to die and leave behind a large sum of money. Judging by the run-down state of the lamp-lit room, the protective posture even in her sleep, I was betting that this one would be a touching farewell, unmarred by greed or finances, regrets or missed opportunities.
The old woman sensed me before her daughter did. Her vacant stare suddenly cleared, and acceptance touched her eyes for the briefest second. She knew what was coming.
Gently, she rubbed her daughter’s hair, bringing her out of unconsciousness.
The daughter blinked and then started upright, searching the room in confusion. Then she remembered where she was and she rubbed wearily at her eyes. “What time is it?” she mumbled.
Her mother shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said in a deceptively strong voice. “I can’t see the numbers.”
The reminder caused the daughter’s forehead to crumple. She leaned forward and read the bedside clock out loud “Eleven-fifteen.” She grasped her mother’s frail hand. “It’s late. You should go to sleep.” It always interested me, the way the roles of children and parents became reversed in the end.
The woman ignored the suggestion and again, I saw it in her eyes. She knew that if she went to sleep, she wasn’t waking up. She reached her hand up and brushed her fingers across her daughter’s forehead in a way that felt like a long-held tradition. “I’m proud of you,” she said.
I knew it. Humans were so predictable.
The finality of the words scared her daughter. Panic flew into her eyes. “That’s good to know,” she said, attempting a brazen laugh.
“I’m serious,” the woman scolded.
“I know,” the daughter hung her head, hiding budding tears. “I know you are. You’ve never made me doubt that you’re proud of me.”
The woman laid back on her pillows with a satisfied smile. “Good.”
The tears were flowing freely now. “You’re the best mom, you know.”
They both laughed, watery, half-hearted chuckles.
“Just do me a favor.”
The daughter nodded emphatically. “Anything.”
“Be patient with Tyler. I know you want to kill him sometimes, but he’s still young, he’ll grow out of it if you guide him.”
Her mother pointed a stern finger. “You have to learn to be patient. I did. Why do you think you survived past sixteen?”
More forced laughter.
The mother looked suddenly to the nightstand next to her, where a pitcher and an empty cup stood.
The daughter took the hint. She picked up the pitcher and attempted to pour a glass of water. The pitcher was empty.
With a frown, she stood. “I’ll fill it up.” She copied her mother’s gesture and ran her fingers across the old woman’s forehead. “Stay here.”
Her mother nodded. All of us knew she wasn’t referring to staying in bed.
With the daughter gone, I made my move. I floated toward the bed and reached into the leathery pouch strung onto my hip. Inside, the consistency was like very fine sand. I ran it through my fingers experimentally, enjoying the texture. Then I clasped my thumb and forefinger around some of it and withdrew my hand. Very carefully, I sprinkled the Dust over the woman. It landed on her nose and cheekbones, staining them with a glittering blue that was already starting to fade. Through it all, the woman never even flinched.
I spun in mid-air and flung myself out of the window on powerful wings. She would be dead by morning, but I didn’t need to stick around any longer. It wasn’t part of my job description.