Naturally, I followed her.
It was the last thing she wanted, I knew, but I was loathe to let her out of my sight.
I had a plan now, finally. I'd thought that knowing how it would end, the revised manner of her death, would at least set me on a path, and I'd been right. Now all I had to do was wait until the present caught up with the vision. I didn't like it. In fact, the feelings I had for the knowledge of what I'd seen, spurring me on to the inevitable conclusion, came close to hatred.
The unplanned opportunity to actually stay inside her house was a convenience I had never expected. It put me close, close enough to get the job done when the time mercifully came. Too close. Because she was inside her house. Not her physically, but her essence, that indescribable thing that made her who she was. The way she moved in the kitchen, the carefree way she used the furniture--not like I had, with apprehension, amazed by the comfort of a cushion or the cocoon of a blanket, but with absolute assurance that when she let her body fall, something familiar would catch her. It was all of the little things that her parents would miss when she was gone. It was the exact thought that had made me flee from her window that first night. Having a path didn't take those thoughts away; it only made it more difficult for me to hide them from myself.
So I wandered up the stairs, following the breathy sounds that told me she was crying. Keeping her in sight and talking about the present helped to keep me distracted. That was key because I knew one thing all too well: I was too selfish to let doubts sway me. I would follow that path despite all of the little details that I noticed when I was alone in this house. And besides, anything was better than petty tears over a boy. When Alli came with me, she'd see. In the meantime, I didn't need my conscious bogging me down.
I reached her room, the door partially open. I started to walk in, but then remembered that she preferred a warning and knocked. If I wanted to stay close, I needed to follow at least some of her rules.
The noises stopped abruptly. I heard her clear her throat and imagined her wiping her eyes futilely. When she didn't say anything, I pushed the door wider, peering quizzically inside.
"Alli?" I asked quietly. She was sitting on the edge of her bed, face turned away from me. "Alli, I'm sorry. It was none of my business." It really wasn't, but the question had been out of my mouth before I could stop it. It wasn't even that I cared about her relationships, I just couldn't help my own curiosity as to why she picked those particular people. Alli was so different in every other respect. Normal people--especially those her age-- did not help others who had repeatedly insulted them, let alone make a real effort to help them feel welcome. I'd been watching humans with disgust for so long and I would never have expected to find such compassion. So why did she squander it on the ungrateful people around her? Now I knew that it wasn't anything conscious. She was only acting on selfish impulse, a natural characteristic. It made me feel better, somehow, knowing that she wasn't a complete saint.
Alli still didn't answer. She didn't even look like she was going to try to answer me any time soon. I pushed the door open the rest of the way and strode inside. I wanted to stand in front of her and force her to look, but I stood to her side instead, giving her the choice. She probably didn't want to look at me right now. I certainly wouldn't.
"Alli?" I said again, softly, sincerely. I'd been goading her the entire time I'd been here, but she seemed so strong, I never thought she'd actually break. It surprised me, after all of the horrible things that I'd seen and blocked out, how much the sight of her pain bothered me. Up close, in a body that I knew was capable of feeling just as intensely, I was relearning the real meaning of the word 'empathy.' Perfect timing. I reached a hand out, contemplating touching her. My fingers hovered in the air and then fell of their own accord. I couldn't bring myself to do it.
Alli finally turned. I expected her face to be tear-streaked, but composed. It wasn't. Her features were devastated and, strangely, frightened. I noticed for the first time that she was wearing a mask too. If all of that confidence was a shield, what was really underneath?
"I'm sorry," I tried again.
"Just go, Jadin," she said, her voice raspy. "I don't want you in here." She wiped at her eyes only to have more tears immediately well up.
"Okay." I reluctantly turned to go, realizing too late that my invasion of privacy went further than opening a door unannounced. This was her room, her space, her safety zone. I'd never had cause to bother with things like that before. So many rules. I would never catch up.
But I'd only made it a step into the hall before she was calling me back. "Wait."
My new jacket made a disturbingly loud swishing sound as I looked back at her.
"It isn't you," she said. She wiped her eyes again and this time they stayed successfully dry.
I cocked an incredulous eyebrow at her and was rewarded with a slight grin.
"Okay, so it's not all you," she admitted. Quietly, she watched me as she thought, her eyes raking across me in a way that left me feeling naked.
"Can I ask you something?" she finally said.
"You want my opinion?" I asked, unbelieving. Words to that effect were what had led us up here in the first place.
She was still studying me, contemplating. "Would it be crazy if I said that I have a feeling you'd understand?"
"Yes," I answered with an ironic laugh. Still, I edged my body back into her room. "May I?" I was careful to ask, gesturing at her desk chair.
She nodded and I sat on the rotating cushion as carefully as I could.
"So what's on your mind? Other than how much of a jerk I am?"
She gave me another of those genuine, yet cautious smiles, but this one faded fast. "Do you ever have nightmares?"
I swiveled uncomfortably in her chair. The answer was, unequivocally, yes. Last night, the rejuvenating yet frightening entity that was sleep had treated me to vivid insight into my own subconscious. It had been so personal though, and contained details that I simply could not share with her if she were to ask. "It happens," I vaguely concurred.
My suspicious stare was answer enough.
She shrugged unashamedly. "You were upset this morning."
I remembered now, much as I wished I didn't have to. I swiveled all the way around, putting my back to her. I brushed my fingers over the objects on her desk--laptop, binder, scattered pens, and a picture of what must have been Alli as a young girl, an even younger girl smiling at her side. I stared at it longer than I should have. "Is that important?" I asked, trying not to make it sound unkind. I simply wanted the subject off of me.
"It's just that I had one too."
I circled back to look at her and was again surprised by her expression. Her eyes searched my face, desperately seeking comfort.
"Do you want to talk about it?" The words fell awkwardly from my lips, unused to escaping.
She visibly shuddered. "Did you see that news program downstairs?"
I shook my head. I'd been too engrossed in her reactions to my prying questions.
"Bus crash," she explained, her voice growing quieter with each word. "That was my dream too. Only I was on the inside. I was…" she trailed off, but I thought I had a pretty good idea of what she'd seen. My fingers reached instinctively for the absent pouch on my belt, as if they sensed work. "And then it was on the television. After I'd seen it. Like a premonition."
In her eyes I could now see what that mask had been hiding. She was unraveling, grasping with increasing failure to the remaining shreds of the real world. Except what she was seeing was the real world too, and that knowledge was stubbornly pressing for attention. She was going mad.
I stood up and this time placed myself directly in front of her. When my hand rose into the air I leaned forward and placed it squarely on her shoulder, ignoring my intrinsic desire to pull away. She was warm and soft, but I could feel the strong muscle underneath my fingers. I squeezed lightly and her skin adjusted to my touch. It was so much different from being touched. There was power in the gesture, a firm understanding that I was causing something which was undeniably intimate.
I found her eyes with mine. "It will be okay," I told her fervently. "I promise."
Alli stared back at me with an expression of caution, as if sensing that our versions of 'okay' didn't quite match. She opened her mouth, perhaps to protest, but the sound of a honking car horn made her turn to the window instead.
"That's my dad's car," she said with recognition. "But I thought you said he'd let you in."
Guiltily, I pulled my hand away from her. "He let me in and then needed to run to the store," I offered, but it came out sounding more like a question. I wasn't about to tell her that the window to her downstairs bathroom opened easily if you applied the right amount of pressure.
Her exasperated look told me that I didn't have to explain. "Why would you do that?"
"No one was home," I said simply. Part of me hadn't believed that if she found me outside again she'd invite me back in. "It wasn't for long."
I couldn't decide if she was angry or bemused. "What am I going to do with you?"
I shrugged helplessly. I'd heard that one before.
She sighed, exaggerating the sound. "You know, if you'd just stayed with me, you wouldn't have needed to add 'breaking and entering' to your skill set."
I held my palms up, weighing her options as if on a scale. "Breaking and entering…High school…."
A key made a distinct jingling sound in the lock downstairs and we both turned our heads.
"Alli?" a male voice called. "Are you home?"
"I'm up here, Dad," Alli replied. She wiped her face again to attack the remaining redness. "Come on. I'll introduce you."
I nodded without enthusiasm. This setup would be perfect if Alli's parents weren't in the picture. It was hard enough to be stuck here, but I was worried about handling myself around authority figures. My track record so far had been precarious.
Alli stood and led the way out of her room. When we got to the top of the stairs she said, "Thanks, Jadin. I don't know what's going on, but it helps just to get it off my chest."
"Any time you need to talk, I'll be here," I answered, surprising myself by genuinely meaning it.
We walked down the stairs and were greeted by a refreshing blast of fresh air from the open door. The feeling made it difficult to continue ignoring my lingering claustrophobia.
A moment later, a man who was undeniably Alli's father came through the door carrying boxes that had a deli's logo pasted on them. He caught my eye first, astutely examining my descent of the stairs, but he didn't look surprised to see me.
"Hi, Daddy," Alli said warmly, and she went forward to receive a kiss on the cheek. "This is Jadin. He's, um, Mom's guest."
The man nodded, "Yes, she told me to expect company." When he looked at me again, his eyes were warm and comforting. It was the exact same expression Alli had worn when she'd picked me up off of the curb. "Make yourself at home, Jadin."
"Thank you, sir."
"Ooh, I like this one." He gave Alli a playful poke in the ribs with his elbow. They shared a look that had 'inside joke' written all over it and I cast my eyes to the ground uneasily.
Without paying me more attention than a slight gesture from Alli that indicated I should follow, they closed the front door and moved off to the kitchen. I trudged behind, feeling clumsy and unbearably noisy. My guard was slipping. It was so easy to allow myself to be comforted. I couldn't deny that I wanted that. Two days ago I would have called such actions pity and shunned them. Now, all I could imagine was how nice it would be to sit Alli down and get some of this off of my chest. As the thought passed through my head that warmth which I had found so alluring turned stifling. It was too much, being this close to their contentment, knowing what I was here to do.
I needed to get out. While they turned into the kitchen, I found a convenient back door and threw myself out of it into the cool air. I closed the door quietly behind me and breathed in deeply, so deeply that it was painful. The desire to take flight, to heave myself away from the solid ground, left a sour ache in my chest.
I was in the backyard, a moderately sized, symmetrical paddock surrounded by a wooden fence. There wasn't much to it, only grass, a tree just large enough to cast shade, and a faded old swing-set that looked too rickety to be safe. I tried to imagine Alli on the swings, looking like she did in that picture on her desk, playing with the other girl. I couldn't see it. There was something blocking any positive emotion, an unpleasant aura around the photo that left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't want to dwell on it.
Walking to the base of the tree, I stared longingly up into the branches. I placed my hands around the lowest limb and gripped until I could feel each individual fissure in the rough bark. I pull upwards with as much strength as I could muster, but could only succeed in lifting my feet a few measly inches from the ground. I wasn't strong enough to lift my own body weight or swing my legs up to grab the branch. My palms came away red and stinging.
More frustrated than ever, I leaned moodily against the trunk instead. From here I could see inside the house, inside the dining room, in fact. Alli and her father were setting the table--four sets of dishes--and chatting easily. Watching her like this, from the outside again instead of up close, I was really surprised that I hadn't seen that she was hiding something before, and I didn't think it was just about the dreams. Alli was totally different around her parents, brighter, non-combative. With me she was quick to argue, to defend her position and knock me down whenever possible. That was true from the interactions I'd seen with her parents too--stubbornness like that didn't fade away on cue--but her disagreement with her mother about her boyfriend had been so much milder than even the mere discussions we'd had. She hadn't wanted to keep fighting. She'd been trying to keep the peace. Why she should bother remained my dominant question. And I couldn't deny that I wanted to find out. I might not have understood Alli's attachment to her friends, but I could certainly see why anyone would be drawn to her.
It was dangerous, so very dangerous to my mental health to admit that I liked her. I'd spent a long time training myself not to care, and now here she was, complex and intriguing and decent. My job was never pleasant, but this time it was going to hurt.
At first I mistook the sound for the wind. That it could be a voice was too strange to be believable. Then it repeated and I distinctly heard my name.
I craned my neck, looked up into the tree, and there was Eli, perched there like the world's largest crow.
"Eli!" I pronounced his name with a smile and probably much too loudly. I couldn't help it. I was too glad to see him, glad that I could see him. But my burst of joy quickly faded, leaving a much darker emotion in its place. I wanted so badly to be up there with him, separate from this place so that I could analyze things rationally. His presence reminded me even more starkly of what I was missing. I lowered my voice and tried to reduce the movement of my lips in case anyone looked outside. It might not even matter. For all I knew, at this point Alli could see Eli too. "I didn't think I'd be seeing anyone."
"Me either," Eli said, his face fresh and excited. "I'm glad to see you. You look so different." He was pointing at my jacket, a rare splash of color that still felt alien even to me. That wasn't all that he meant, though. I could see the difference too. There was something ephemeral about Eli that had never existed before, a fuzziness around the edges. I might be able to see him, but we were not the same anymore.
Eli let me examine him for a moment, and then he asked, quietly, "Are you okay?"
I couldn't even force a laugh at the absurdity of such a question. I saw no need to pretend for Eli. "No."
"Is it…" I could actually see Eli's tact losing a battle with his curiosity. "Is it like you remembered?"
That wasn't really a fair question. I saw this world every day, so I wasn't surprised by advanced technology or other such marvels. The rest of it had been so jarring because it had long slipped from my mind. "You would remember better than I would."
"Maybe," he didn't try to hide his wistful expression. It made me angry. If he wanted to take my place, he could have it. I certainly wouldn't complain. I looked away, back at the house. I waited for fresh anger and the sad reminder that Eli produced to strengthen my resolve, but I only felt tired.
"Nice family," Eli remarked, following my gaze.
I wanted to snap back at him, but I carefully held my tongue. I took enough of my personal trauma out on Eli. I settled for, "Why are you here, Eli?" No one had actually called this exile, or even punishment, but I had the feeling that I was only seeing Eli because he'd been given permission.
When he hesitated, I looked up. Reluctance marred his features.
"I was sent."
I didn't have to ask by whom and Eli didn't give me the chance to ask why.
"He's worried that you're taking too long. That you're getting comfortable."
"Comfortable?" I spit out incredulously.
Eli put his hands up defensively. "His words, not mine."
I tried to remember a time when I'd been more offended. It was like he'd reached down and slapped me. As if it was my fault I was still here. My choice.
"I know you're supposed to be waiting, Jadin, and that you can't do much to change that," Eli said gently. "But it has been a while. It's unnatural, her holding on for so long."
"Nothing about this is natural."
He nodded in sympathetic agreement, but something else was bothering him. "I don't understand any of this. I don't understand why I'm checking up on you, or why you're here, or how you can be here, or....anything."
With my mood heightened the way it was, it was tempting to call him out on his naivety. Except how could I do that, when I had no answers myself? Maybe it would have made sense to ask, maybe I would even have been justified, but I'd never even considered it. I'd long ago learned my lesson about asking for reasons.
I breathed deeply, trying to hold back my aggravation. It was no use. "Don't worry," I said, focusing on what was in front of me. "You tell him that it won't be much longer."
Eli's expression brightened. "That's some good news, finally. How do you know?"
"Because," I said, my tone flat and disturbing even to my own ears. And then it rushed out, my chosen path, the decision that had been tearing at my soul: "I'm going to kill her myself."