The first constructive thing I did was steal shoes.
By the time I had managed to get within two streets of the girl’s neighborhood, I had actually figured out how to walk without looking, and mostly even feeling, drunk. Left foot, tiny balance check, right foot. It was easier than I’d thought, despite the extra hundred pounds that seemed to have settled on me. In fact, even that horrid sensation was slowly dissipating. Miraculously, my body remembered all of this; it was adapting much faster than my mind.
My feet had been a different story from the start. The numbing that was a direct result of the cold had quickly been superseded by the cruel textures of the road and sidewalk. It hurt to move. I might have spent most of my time in rough trees or on hot roofs, but it just wasn’t the same. Either my wings had held most of my weight, or my sense of touch simply hadn’t been as strong as it was now. Judging by my reaction just to the smell of grass, I was willing to bet that the latter was true. Before, my senses must have been insulated, a thin barrier like plastic wrap separating me from the world. I filed this fact away as a scientific observation, something to watch from the outside rather than something to feel and experience any more than strictly necessary.
I found the shoes unguarded on a porch, lying out as if to dry. I hated doing it, hated to admit that I needed something from this place. I even hated the act of stealing, of bringing myself down to the level of one of their common criminals. But I wouldn’t be here for long, and in the meantime I needed whatever advantage I could get. Morality had very little to do with all of this. So I ignored my inner protests and snuck quietly up the steps. They were only sandals, and too big at that; I had to grip the thong with my toes to keep them on, but it was better than nothing.
With my feet finally relieved if still cold, I was able to walk with more purpose. It was remarkable how consuming a small annoyance could be. Now that it was gone, I could concentrate. With renewed vigor, I struck a definite path for the girl’s house. I could do this. The cold, dark morning still broke through my clothes and the pain in my stomach still stabbed at me, but none of that really mattered. It would all be over soon enough. As little as I wanted to trust the Elder’s timetable, it was all I had to hold on to.
Sooner than I had expected, I was standing across from the girl’s house. From here I could see her window, the place where just last night I had hovered and eavesdropped. I couldn’t see inside now; I was only just tall enough to see over the car I was standing behind. It was humiliating to be grounded this way. I wanted to be up there, looking in, figuring things out on my own power. Was she sleeping in there? Awake? Enjoying her family and beating heart? Did she understand just how close she had come--how close she still was-- to death? Could she feel me out here, selfishly ticking down the minutes of her life so that I could go back home?
It was all too exhausting. The sheer number of my questions were hard enough to handle when I’d been me. Now I was stuck in this body, a fickle cage of flesh and flowing blood, and the burden of my thoughts was almost too much. This physical brain was smaller, less willing to think. I could feel a protective barrier around it like the one that had once surrounded my body. This mind didn’t like the cosmic knowledge I’d brought with me, and it certainly didn’t want to help me think up any answers.
Annoyed, I leaned against the hood of the neighbor’s car and watched the house in silence. I knew how to be patient, but this body didn’t; already my legs were beginning to ache from staying in one position. I was convinced that she had to come out sometime, but I also knew that I’d be lucky if it was 8am. And it was a Saturday, a quintessential lazy day. Maybe she wouldn’t come out at all today. I groaned, one of the first sounds I’d made since my arrival. It echoed strangely in my ears, fuller than before.
At last I gave in and sat on the raised brick planter behind me and stared despondently at the ground. I could feel the impossibility of my task settling in. It really would be easier if I pushed her.
I sighed, another sound that rushed oddly against my eardrums. I wondered what my voice would sound like, but was too cowardly to open my mouth and find out. Resigned, I looked up, ready to continue my vigil. I couldn’t see the house though, the car was in my way. What I could see was my own reflection in the tinted glass.
I couldn’t help reaching up to touch my own face, watching in fascination as the hand in the window did the same. It was a stupid gesture. I knew the person in the glass was me. But it was also unlike me in such subtle ways that I was compelled to check. I looked brighter somehow, which I thought was ironic since my wings weren’t around to cast that glowing light. I picked up on the difference eventually: I was pinker, fuller in the face and less sallow. I kept staring, trying to convince myself that this was a bad look for me, wrong, more proof that I didn’t belong here, but it wasn’t. In fact, it felt right enough to scare me. This was something I remembered. Unlike all of the automatic movements and functions which my body had taken over on its own, this came from my own, long disused memories. I knew this face; I’d seen it in reflections and thought about what it looked like all those years ago. It was mine, all except for the eyes, which even in life had been dark. The eyes I was using now glinted in the sunlight, little disks of silver in a hue that I recognized. It was muted, no denying--any stronger and it would scare the humans--but the color was definitely that of my missing wings. They hadn’t abandoned me after all. I watched myself smile and that was familiar too.
I forced myself up in an abrupt motion, ignoring the protest in my muscles. I wasn’t here to admire my reflection.
I leaned against the car again, eliminating any possibility of seeing myself while I stared at the house. It hadn’t changed. I tried to zone out and wait as if I didn’t actually have an interest in the outcome. That was the way I usually worked, but I was too thrown off to employ that method now. Every little muscle inside of me was pulled taut, ready to act. I was wound too tight for sitting still. At the same time though, I was tired, mentally and in that new, achy, physical way. It wasn’t a good combination.
For just a minute, I let my eyes close. The darkness was soothing. There was no pressure here; as long as I stayed this way, I wasn’t obligated to watch for anything. The girl’s mane of red hair might have been dominating my mind, but giving my eyes a break from actual sight allowed me to imagine that when I opened them, this might all be over. I broke away from that fantasy before I could let it get the best of me. No point in wishful thinking.
Time passed, painfully, but it passed. It got to the point where I could barely feel my feet, yet I stayed stubbornly, refusing to even shift position. Finally, after hours of early morning light that felt like an eternity, the street started to wake up. Voices started drifting through open windows, people came out of their houses, venturing outside only long enough to enter the shield of their cars. It was all reassuringly typical. I was used to standing on the outskirts watching life go on around me while I waited for the opportune moment to make my move. People ignored me and I observed them with varying degrees of disinterest. The intriguing sensation of sun warming the back of my neck didn’t change that.
What did finally catch my attention was the presence of a boy the approximate age of my target walking up the street. He could have been aiming for any of the houses, but I was desperate enough to have something happen at that place to assume that he was going for the girl’s. Luckily I was right. I shifted, straightening up eagerly. What I was going to do with this new addition I had no idea. Adding another player to a drama I was merely meant to watch wouldn’t really change anything. Still, I watched him closely. Maybe he would at least break the monotony and give me a better plan.
I had my eyes locked on him and the house when he turned to enter the driveway, then did a double take and looked directly at me. At first his gaze didn’t faze me, until I realized that he must have seen me in his peripheral vision. He’d seen me. Just like all of these other people could see me. How horrible to be so exposed, every action plain for anyone to see. The boy was watching me suspiciously and, in retrospect, I couldn’t blame him. How many of these other people had noticed me and thought me strange for standing here unresponsive for so long? People didn’t like things like that. Those were the kinds of actions likely to get police involved. I could feel my clumsy heart again, beating fast and hard. How many more times would I allow myself to be taken by surprise by this body before I learned to control it?
To alleviate the tension flowing between us, I pulled myself upright and off of the hood of the car where I’d been leaning. For good measure, I dropped my eyes submissively. It was not a position that I was used to or one that I liked. Inside my chest, anger was building up, hot behind my pounding heart. It was infinitely preferable to the general confusion I’d felt all day, but I couldn’t give in to it because I couldn’t afford to start a scene. So I backed off, gritting my teeth as I did so.
"Excuse me.” The voice from behind me could only be described as snobby, used to getting its way.
Startled, I turned to find a blond girl with her arms impatiently crossed. She looked to be no more than 13 except that she was holding car keys in her hand. The expression on her face was one of utmost contempt, directed squarely at me.
“Do you mind?”
Head bowed and shoulders hunched like a scolded child, I stepped further away from the car.
“Sorry,” I mumbled as the girl pushed past me with a roll of her eyes.
The sound of my voice made me wince, and not just because of how it hit my ears. The robustness, the life behind that sound was so unnatural and wrong that I immediately vowed not to speak again until I got home. But if I had to hear it, I would have wanted any other word to be my first. Not an apology, not a word of submission to this spoiled, naïve brat.
She took off in the car without even waiting for me to give her space. The vehicle’s absence left me with a better view of the house. The boy had decided to ignore me and was walking up the path to the door. He would knock like it was nothing and be admitted inside because he belonged. Even if he was a stranger, there was a good chance he could make it past the threshold. Me? I could knock too, I supposed, make up some excuse. I’d been around, if not a part of, people long enough that I was sure I could find a plausible reason. But what then?
I had no idea, and that annoyed me. So rather than hanging around and ending up on the neighborhood’s creep radar, I took off. I could come back. It wasn’t like an hour, or even a day would make any difference. How unlucky did you have to be to brush with death twice in 24 hours? No. ‘Soon’ would be more than that at least. No matter what everyone else insisted, I knew that ‘soon’ had a very flexible definition.
Walking again, all of my muscles started protesting. They hurt when I was still, hurt when I moved them, there was no pleasing this body. Fantasies about sitting down and resting started to crawl into my head. I had the feeling though that if I stopped, I might not be able to get back up so easily.
I put some space between me and that infernal house and then stopped beneath the speckled shade of an under-grown tree. There was a group of boys playing basketball a few houses down, too close for comfort except that they weren’t paying any attention to me. Good enough. I needed a minute to myself where I could breathe in peace. Ever since I’d landed I’d been focused only on getting this over with. Now, I allowed myself a full two minutes to consider what had happened to me. It didn’t help much. If anything, taking that path of thought made things worse. There were enough questions about my assignment--why me?--to rival the number I had about the girl. It only confused me more.
I closed my eyes again. Quietly, I explored all of the little aches all over my body, isolating the feelings so that they didn’t overwhelm me all at once. Better. Mind over matter and all of that. My mind had always been strong, but without any actual matter to control I’d forgotten.
Standing like that, I heard her before I saw her. Her voice drifted around the corner, a sound but no actual words. I strained harder but I still couldn’t hear specifics. I grimaced in disgust. The one sense that had been acute, able to hear through building walls, was now dull. Why was it that every time this girl came near me something bad came up?
I opened my eyes and watched her approach on the other side of the street, arm in arm with that boy. So much for the stranger theory. As I watched him, the world shifted. It was like a tunnel through time and I could see the boy both now and in the future. It happened abruptly, but it didn’t bother me very much. I knew this formula; it was like the way I usually learned about my targets, except that this vision was much farther in the future. I watched the older version of this boy--old, but probably not as old as he hoped he’d be. He was graying in what little hair he had left and much heavier from spending too much time behind a desk. In a setting that I interpreted to be his office, he suddenly clutched at his arm and keeled over. Heart attack.
It was over as quickly as it had started and I was back to watching them turn the corner. It made sense, in a way. How else was I supposed to know exactly how to manipulate the girl if I didn’t have information about her new method of death? I pushed the phenomenon away as more information and another reminder, like the tattoos on my wrists, and focused on the moment.
Almost as soon as they came around the corner, the girl locked eyes with me, effectively ending my personal thoughts. I knew that she could see me--I was unlikely to ever forget that again--but the feeling of her eyes roving over me was uncanny. And she was so bold about it too, literally taking in every inch of me as she stared. I felt my toes flex, a movement that used to be meant for pushing me into the air. Now it was just the signal of a pathetic wish to hide. I doubted that I could even reach the branches of the tree above me, let alone pull my weight up.
Her intensity didn’t waver. It was really no wonder she was meant to be one of us. I could see the patterns of it now, girl or not. From the way she’d unflinchingly held her own against her mother, to the completely certain look on her face when she’d caught a glimpse of me last night, it was clear how determined and strong she was. I still didn’t think she was cold enough to survive as a Marker, but the spark was there, more vibrant than the subtle, soothing one that resided inside of Emily.
Eyes still locked on me, I saw her lips move. I still couldn’t hear her, but this time it wasn’t difficult to guess what she was saying. Of course she’d made the connection between last night and me standing here right now, she was intelligent enough. She probably thought she was going mad, seeing things. Ironic, considering what the Elder had used as his main argument for getting me down here. The boyfriend didn’t care about the girl’s concerns or her words. He was too worried about the perceived threat of the boys up the street. So stupid. I only knew bare facts about the girl, and I could see both her distress and the fact that she wouldn’t let go of his arm for just anyone. The male ego was such an obstructive thing. At least it caused her to look away.
She was apparently in the mood to humor him. Instead of being annoyed at his inattentiveness, she rewarded him with a kiss, warm and sweet.
I felt my eyes widen in their sockets at the sight. So stupid. Not the boyfriend this time, but me. I should have seen it sooner. If I had, I wouldn’t have spent the entire morning aimlessly staring. I could have come up with a real plan. She was a person who cared about other people. Not in the popular kid kind of way that excluded those that didn’t meet a certain standard. It was more like a legitimate desire to show kindness to anyone who needed it, to give anyone a chance even at her own expense. Why else would she have gotten into the driver’s seat last night? She’d been protecting her friend, not herself.
I’d already decided that she was an unusually decent person. Now I understood that her interactions with others was how that trait showed itself. Which meant that hiding in the shadows and stalking her would never be enough to do my job. She was likely to repel me if I kept this up, especially now that she’d seen me once. But if I inserted myself openly into her life….
I spun on my heel and hurried away, around the blind corner before she could turn and engage in another staring contest. Initiating social contact went completely against my personality and instincts. But that was okay. I could learn to act. I would pretend to be a three-legged dog if it got me out of here five minutes sooner.
This was the easiest way.
But I still had to remind myself three more times before I could gather the courage to step inside the school gate. The disturbing motion produced an actual physical sensation: a clenching of my stomach and a watery feeling in my legs that made my head go light. Gingerly, I placed a hand over my stomach. With my luck I’d be rid of this disorientation-induced nausea just as I was ready to leave. It was uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as my current surroundings.
Over the past couple of days, I’d been through some disturbing things as I’d reacquainted myself with my living body. I’d been irritated and sore, with the nasty sense of fine dirt particles covering my body and a disgusting sour taste in my mouth. Come Saturday night, after wandering for countless hours, I had been reintroduced to the rejuvenating miracle of sleep after unwillingly succumbing to fatigue on a park bench. Rejuvenating it might have been, but that unconscious state left me feeling even more vulnerable than visibility had. And it hadn’t cured all of my pains either, physical or otherwise.
Yet even after all of that, I didn’t think I could possibly sink any lower than high school.
It was like the party all over again, just without the drinking. There was no music, but the sheer amount of people made it just as noisy; the mass of bodies was nearly unbearable. I had literally taken one step inside the property and already I’d lost count of how many times I’d been bumped and jostled by teenagers coming in after me. The contact made me shudder. I did not like the sensation of being touched with my senses so raw and receptive. I was only too glad that my uniform covered up most of my skin. I rubbed at my wrists through the fabric, reminding myself of the markings and of my place. I could handle this. I was above it. I breathed in deeply and started walking in the direction I knew the girl had taken.
I had actually been here for hours. I’d stood and watched the morning crowd and heard the first bell shatter the quiet with a sound that was more of a buzz than a ringing. I hadn’t gone in though--it had seemed much too overwhelming. Then I had lost sight of the girl as she moved towards the middle of the school, and I had an even better excuse not to enter. Blending in wasn’t a problem, but the instant I started wandering around like I didn’t know where I was going, I would undoubtedly be noticed. The crowd I was using as cover now, one that had included the girl arm-in-arm with her once blue-clad friend, had left campus around noon and were now returning. If I was doing this today, now was my only choice. I couldn’t decide if it was better or worse than the morning. In the morning there had been more people, but they’d been quieter, zombie-like and half asleep. Now they were loud and lively, playing and shouting as they blended into the other crowds on campus.
Tucking my limbs in as close as I could to my body, I turned where I had seen the girl turn not long before. I caught sight of her immediately, far in front of me but impossible to miss. I’d spent so much time obsessing over how to deal with her that I could likely identify her silhouette in a dark room. Finding her bright hair in the daylight was nothing. I followed the swishing tail of her braid, ignoring everyone else and especially ignoring that light-headed sickness which I was coming to associate with nerves.
At the ramp of a trailer which the school board had the nerve to call a classroom, she and the other girl paused, chatting before going inside.. I felt my lip curl up in disgust at the sight of the friend. Part of it was contempt for what she’d almost done, the rest was anger for leaving me to complete what she should have in the first place.
I kept walking until it was my turn to cross the threshold. I didn’t hesitate as I had at the gate, but brought my foot easily from the hard board of the ramp to the barely softer carpet inside. This part I wasn’t worried about. It wouldn’t be hard to claim a seat and pretend that I belonged. I could think of about five excuses on the spot for why the teacher didn’t know about me, all of them involving a paperwork crossover. It would undoubtedly mean annulling my vow not to speak, but I could get over that if I absolutely had to.
I let myself widen my range of vision and take in the classroom. It was a history class probably. There were maps all over the walls, but then again, the names of the months were strung over the board in Spanish. The desks stretched out in front of me and all faced to the left. There was a teacher’s desk directly across from me at the other end of the room, with a man sitting in it working on a computer. The whole thing was ill-lit and smelled old. Other than the teacher, the girl, and a few other students, it was empty, but it was a relatively small space which only got smaller as I looked around. This was my first time indoors, and already the lack of clear skies was making me jumpy.
The girl was sitting near the front of the room, in the second row. Her choice didn’t surprise me. The spot was close enough to the teacher to show that she was interested, but far enough from the front that she wouldn’t be hounded about it by other students. It fit perfectly with my growing perception of her. She was twisted around in her seat, talking with animated features to her friend. She caught my eye by accident and the look of recognition that crossed her face was alarming. She knew me, and she would never let me deny it. That was okay, I told myself. It gave me a way in.
I wanted to walk towards her, sit close, and begin the process of becoming someone she would want to pay attention to, but the thought of going further into the room stopped me cold. Instead, I took the seat closest to the open door and stared blankly at the neck of the person in front of me. Afterwards then, when we were both back outside and I could breathe, I’d pretend I needed help finding another class. That would be as good an introduction as any, better really, if I was right about her instincts to be friendly.
There was a soft thump next to me, the sound of a body throwing itself into a chair. Startled by the nearness of the sound, I turned. There she was, sitting sideways in the desk next to me and wearing a bright smile that completely nullified that first suspicious expression.
“Hi,” she said, extending her hand across the aisle to me. “I’m Alli.”