Eli's expression was a perfect mirror of the horror that rose up in me as I uttered the words. Saying it aloud made it real. Irrevocable.
"Jadin," he said, his voice very quiet. "No."
I couldn't stand to hold his gaze any longer. There wasn't just horror there, there was fear too. Not of what I'd said, but of me.
Suddenly, Eli was standing in front of me, forcing me to look. I waited for him to reach out and touch me, a gesture I'd come to associate with giving comfort, but he didn't even try.
"Jadin," he repeated, and then he breathed deeply, as if gathering his words. "I know-"
"No, you don't know," I snapped. I'd tried to avoid snapping at him before, but now I didn't hesitate. "You don't know what it's like, you don't know what I'm going through, you don't-" Don't know how much it hurts. But I didn't want him to know that.
I waited for his anger to flare up. It had to be in there somewhere. A shouting match would have been such a relief right now, far better than stewing over these thoughts and emotions that I couldn't release, let alone solve.
Eli didn't take the bait. If anything, he became calmer, until even his dismay was only a shadow. "I was going to say," he told me with the unmistakable patience of a parent to a child, "that I know how hard this is for you. But this isn't the way to fix it. There has to be another way."
I fell back against the tree, deflated and ashamed.
This was the hardest decision I'd ever come to make. And the irony was I didn't even have much of a choice. The possibility had been in my head from the start. I'd been terrified that the Elder was going to make me kill her, and every part of me had rebelled at the thought. So when I'd looked into Alli's future and seen myself actually doing it, it had been too much to take. I could still feel myself repressing the full implications of that vision. But it had made sense. I had panicked not because I couldn't do it, but because I knew just how capable I was. It would be so much easier to kill her than to stay here indefinitely. What would I do here? Sleep on the couch, be the dark shadow in the room, argumentative and uncomfortable? Until Alli died in whatever natural way was prescribed? I simply could not fake it for that long.
I knew this. And I had already acknowledged the incredible aptitude for selfishness that would allow me to do such a thing at the expense not only of her life, but my own. I knew I could do it. Anything, anything, to get out of here. But I didn't want to. Once I crossed that line, I would never be the same. I would have lost that last piece of humanity--the true kind, the kind that resided not in this heavy body, but in the soul--that I had left. I knew all of this with absolute certainty. I even knew that I would be miserable for the rest of eternity. Yet I'd seen it. And what was the point in even trying to fight when I knew that I would give in? When I couldn't even see through to a natural death because my action was blocking the way? I was already beaten.
When I made no move to keep talking, merely staring past Eli through the window of the house, he filled the silence.
"It's like you always told me, right? Like that time I had to Mark that girl on her graduation night, or the mom right after she had her baby. It's not our fault. We aren't murderers. It's just nature. We're just part of the process. It's natural. Don't taint that."
Had I told him those things? It sounded more like something I had told myself, again and again until my task sounded forgivable, even right. I envied Eli for still being able to believe that. For being naïve enough to swallow my stories whole until they'd taken root inside of him, a stunted tree trying desperately to spread its spores before it withered.
"Is it murder," I asked as Alli moved across the window, her hair trailing gracefully behind her, "if it's mercy?"
I looked up at Eli and watched his brow crease. Up close, his eyes looked ragged around the edges. I thought that if I focused on that discrepancy, I'd be able to see right through him. It was a disturbing idea, but much easier than imagining that he could see through me.
"I give, Jadin. What are you talking about?" That patience was back in his voice, but I could finally hear frustration too. He didn't want me to talk, he wanted me to listen.
"She sees things, Eli. Things about us."
"Us," he repeated blankly.
"Humans aren't supposed to see the things we see. I can feel it too," I placed a hand on my skull, trying to identify the sensation of intrusion deep in my brain. "It's too big for this body. People aren't supposed to know what we know. There's a reason all they can do is speculate. But Alli, she sees the deaths. And if it's bothering me…"
Already I could feel the shift in my determination. Maybe I was desperate enough to do this solely for myself, but this gave me an almost noble reason. I'd be doing her a favor, ultimately. I waited for Eli to fill in the gaps and support me wholeheartedly.
"Better dead than crazy?" he finally said.
"Exactly," I breathed out in relief, understanding only then that I'd been silently pleading with him. Of course Eli understood. After all, he'd been eating up my excuses for years.
Eli looked back at me with no steel in his eyes, no more horror. There was only a sadness deep enough to turn my legs weak. "Isn't that her decision to make?"
I opened my mouth, waiting for words that my brain couldn't find. So I went back to my old standard and let anger drive me. Not because I was angry with Eli, but because anger was the singular emotion capable of obliterating conscious thought.
"Her decision? You think we should let these people make decisions? These same people who willingly get into cars drunk? They are the murderers."
"Maybe. But they're also the people who choose to drive their friends home instead."
A burst of orange light suddenly lit Eli up from behind. In that brief moment, I really could see through him. I'd known, or at least sensed, that this was possible, but seeing it actually happen had my stomach back in nauseous knots. I'd always known that Eli was different than I was, younger, more adaptable, and more prone toward healing than bitter self-hatred. But we'd always been angels together. I pulled my hands out of my pockets faster than I would have thought this body capable of moving and clutched at the tattoos on my wrists. Mostly I'd ignored their existence. I didn't need a reminder that I didn't belong. But now, in the dark, I couldn't see them, couldn't even feel them with the pads of my fingertips and panic rose up in me.
It all lasted for a split second. Then Eli launched himself out of sight. Only the telltale creak of branches told me where he'd gone.
Alli stood in the doorway, framed by the warm light of the house. Warm now that the moment had passed and that same light wasn't doing it's best to shatter all of my illusions.
"Jadin?" she called quietly. I might have expected frustration, but she only sounded resigned.
I could have stayed quiet and given myself time to get over the conversation I'd just had. It wasn't easy seeing her, much less seeing her as she actively sought me out. But I didn't want to heal. I wanted to plunge on ahead and think as little as possible.
"I'm here," I stated.
Her head snapped around in the direction of my voice, but her eyes still searched for me in the shadows. Obligingly, I stepped forward.
"Hey," the relief in her voice was unexpected, but obvious.
She came towards me, leaving the door open behind her and letting her eyes adjust to the low light. I kept my eyes fixed studiously on her, fighting the urge to see if Eli was still there. I wasn't the first one to look up, though. As Alli got closer to me she slowed, hesitating, and her eyes slid upward cautiously. She let me see the look of confusion on her face when she was done scanning, an expression that told me that she was sensing Eli, but not seeing him. The distinction didn't seem to make her any happier.
"I thought maybe you'd run off again."
"No such luck," I replied as lightly as I could manage, adding a shaky grin for good measure.
"Well, I'm glad," she admitted and I was surprised to see that, yes, she really was. More than that, I was surprised that she'd let me see that. So far our relations had mostly been based on snide comments and uncomfortable, cautious exchanges. Now, not only had she shown me her unease in Eli's presence, but I could see that her face was relaxed, more open than I'd ever seen it. More open, I suspected, than she showed her parents on a daily basis. It was a change most visible in her eyes; it made the hazel color that I was used to seeing as flat disks change into something more fluid, more responsive to her emotions. All together, it made her look much softer.
Not usually the thoughts you'd expect as a killer scoped out his victim. But I wasn't a killer yet. And nothing would happen to change that this evening. Soon. When my nerve caught up to my mental resolve, but not tonight. So I pushed the details of my plan deep into the dark recesses of my brain, the place where my supernatural knowledge tickled but couldn't break free, and locked it away. I doubted that would allow my sleep to go any smoother tonight than it had last night, but it would do for now. I could act for a little bit longer.
"I've decided I'm not going anywhere," I assured her. "Your couch beats a park bench."
She laughed with only a little hesitation. It wasn't something that people would usually joke about, but she knew me well enough already to know that 'usually' didn't apply.
"Come back in. My mom's home. And the table's all ready."
I crinkled my face in a show of reluctance.
"Come on," Alli insisted. "She won't bite." And without the usual offering and waiting for me to agree, or, more typically, to disagree, she grabbed me by the hand and started pulling me inside. Her grip was firm and strong, her fingers pleasantly warm. I let her pull me as I'd let her help me up, concentrating on the sensation rather than resisting it. I was fairly positive that Eli's parroting of the word 'comfortable' was far out of my reach, but maybe 'accustomed' wasn't unattainable.
At the thought, I looked subtly back over my shoulder. Eli didn't need to hide, so he was easy to find in the bare-branched tree. His expression, however, was not easy to read. The sadness was still there, but there was something else as well. Incredulity maybe? Something negative that was most definitely directed at me. I noted the moment when the confusion shifted into something I recognized: that puzzled, but determined expression he wore when he was asking me questions about the job and wasn't happy about the answers I was determined to give him. I mouthed 'goodbye' because it was the least I could do, but I wasn't sure he saw; I was pretty sure his attention, like mine, was focused more resolutely on mine and Alli's linked hands. I squeezed my hand over hers, wondering at the delicacy of her fingers until we were inside again and she released me.
I was reminded very quickly of why I'd bolted outside in the first place. It was as warm in here as the spilling light had suggested, but in the middle of it, it was more of an oppressive than a comforting warmth. I loosened my jacket, but knew that the actual temperature had little to do with it.
Alli had moved immediately to her parents, completing a happy domestic portrait as they juggled glasses and plates. I tried to plant a smile on my face that would let me at least look like I belonged in that contented group, but it didn't come out right. Deliberately, I moved forward anyway. I needed to make an actual effort to get close and stay close to Alli. Sometimes confidence was something you simply had to fake.
Alli's mom met me as I approached the table, a wide smile on her face that couldn't quite hide the calculated once-over she was giving me. I could see Alli over her shoulder, watching us with interest. I felt the bizarre urge to wink at her as if she were my partner in a conspiracy.
"Jadin," Alli's mother said, her voice welcoming. "It's good to see you."
"Mrs. Moore." I inclined my head in a polite acknowledgement, then froze. Alli was staring at me intently, and too late I realized my mistake. Had she ever told me her last name? I looked away from her, hoping to hide the fact that I'd noticed anything at all. I would have to remember how sharp she was. I couldn't keep getting away with inadvertently dropping hints that I wasn't normal.
"You can call me Debbie," the older woman offered. "Or whatever makes you comfortable. Come sit down."
I could feel all of their eyes on me now, watching inquisitively. It was like the spotlight sensation all over again, but softer. They were merely centering their attention on me, not targeting me. It was not an altogether unpleasant sensation, but it was one that made me very wary of my actions.
I moved towards the table with the rest of them and gingerly sat on the prettily carved dining chair. It wasn't an expensive chair, just nice enough to tell that they were comfortable without being ostentatious.
On the table, I saw that the box Mr. Moore had brought home had been thoroughly dismantled to reveal an assortment of sandwich options--different sliced meats and cheeses were arranged systematically around rolls placed directly in the center of the round table. It wasn't the kind of meal I'd expected, judging by the well-lived in quality of the dining room, but the family sat down around me with the ease of familiarity. I watched them curiously. With their attention on the table, it was very much like I was invisible again. I settled into my old mode of observation like someone else might slip on a favorite sweater. They assembled their meals efficiently, barely hesitating over all the choices. Conversation started to bubble up around them: small questions, how was work, school? Nothing that would yield any uncomfortably personal responses. Their voices filled the air, expanding into the atmosphere in a way that the smell and forced companionship of the food alone could not accomplish. They were, as Eli had said, a nice family.
One which was apparently quite picky, or so it seemed when I noticed that some of the dinner options remained completely untouched. Then I got it. The large variety, the friendly but highly impersonal conversation--this was all for my benefit. And they had obviously done it several times before. It made sense if I was only one in a line of Mrs. Moore's 'guests.' Of course I was. Because they were more than a nice family. They were good people too. It was no wonder then, that Alli was so remarkable to me. If more people like them inhabited the human race, I would have formed a wholly different attitude about it. The thought was accompanied by a heavy dose of bitterness.
Next to me, while her parents chatted casually, Alli reached a hand out and pushed the food closer to me with an encouraging smile. A smile of my own crept up, as unbidden as the numerous dark thoughts that often flitted through my head. It was a bit amused and more than a little grateful and created an expression that felt strange on my face. I reached out and started purposely taking food from the untouched piles. It was the very least I could do.
"How old are you, Jadin?"
It was such a simple question, but one that I had no idea how to answer. I told her, "Eighteen," because I was pretty sure that was the right answer. It was also the closest I could come to the truth. It had been so long since I'd bothered to think about my age that I had succeeded in forgetting it entirely, but that number did strike a chord.
"Why did you go to the school?" Mrs. Moore asked me. We were still in the dining room, but it was just the two of us now. I could hear Alli and her father in the living room, laughing and making the occasional racy comment at the television. Across from me, Mrs. Moore had her slender fingers wrapped around a gently steaming coffee cup. The pose made her look--intentionally, I was sure--very soft and kind, like the kind of person you'd happily spill secrets to. In truth, the power dynamic was no different than it had been when I'd last met with the Elder and I had to be just as careful.
I shrugged, searching for the character that would suit my purposes best. "I guess I just wanted to see what it was like." Unequivocally horrible. "I'll bet they wouldn't let me enroll though?" I added with as much mock sorrow as I thought I could get away with.
Mrs. Moore shook her head. "Technically you're an adult. You don't even fall under the parameters of my job."
I sat motionless, unable to tell if this was good or bad. Probably it didn't matter. If I'd read her right, those limitations would hardly stack up to her need to help.
She studied me for a moment, closely enough that I started to wonder if she doubted my sincerity. Whatever she saw, it confirmed my impression of her. "You don't have anywhere to stay?" she asked, but I could already tell that she'd made up her mind. I had seen that identical determined look on Alli's face more times than I cared to count. Another similarity I would rather not have noticed. "No family that you're…out of contact with?"
Eli's face fluttered unbidden through my mid. "No," I said, and this time the sadness was much too real. "I'm on my own."
The next thing I knew I was back upstairs in the room next to Alli's--an office that had been rendered nearly unusable by the newly erected air mattress in the middle of the floor. Mrs. Moore came in behind me, the same blankets draped over her arm that I had used on the couch the night before. It was still relatively early, but I could see tired lines etched into her face. I could imagine the same marks on my face: fine lines at the corners of my eyes and mouth, dragging them down, making my skull feel sunken. She handed me the blankets and I folded their softness protectively against my chest.
"I'll be home tomorrow," she said, a mild warning, "so you'll have some company. And you're welcome to any other activities you can find." She pointed at the well-stocked book shelf, then at the computer. I imagined a full day trying to pander away my time with leisure and wanted to scream.
"I'll see you in the morning. Sleep well."
"Thank you," I replied.
She left me alone and, instantly, I dumped the blankets onto the mattress.
I'd done it. I was here. I'd secured a legitimate excuse to be near Alli. And I had no idea what to do now. Which was laughable, of course. There was really only one thing left.
I didn't know that Alli was standing in the doorway until she loudly cleared her throat. I'd been standing in the middle of the room, my head in my hands, fingers rubbing at my temples. I looked up, startled, and tried to neutralize whatever dark expression I was sure was on my face.
"Everything settled?" she asked. If she was concerned by my posture, she hid it well.
"You could say that."
Her eyes commenced an automatic roll. "A simple yes or no would do. Everything you say is so ambiguous."
"It keeps people guessing," I said, and that unsolicited grin was back.
"Yeah, well, I'm too tired to translate." I could tell that she was. She'd wiped off her makeup, which brightened her face, but also revealed heavy shadows under her eyes. "Do you need help?" She pointed to the tangled pile of fabric.
"You don't have to," I said uncomfortably, which only got me a pointedly annoyed look. "Okay," I amended, giving in.
She moved next to me, close enough that I could smell the soap she'd used on her face, and expertly untangled a single blanket. "You take that side."
I obeyed, walking around and grabbing the other edge of the blanket. She started to shake it out and I clumsily tried to follow suit.
"You know," Alli said conversationally. "This is the first time we've ever had anyone stay with us who's about my age."
She nodded. "Usually they're younger."
"How old are you?" I asked.
"Seventeen. My birthday's in the summer so I'll still be seventeen when I graduate." A wistful expression crossed her face. "Just a few more months."
"And then what?" I asked, very quietly. These weren't things I wanted to know, but I couldn't seem to stop asking.
She shrugged. "I really don't know. I put in some college applications, but I haven't decided. I could do what my mother does, maybe, or therapy. I like to talk with people." Another shrug, a hint of frustration, and then an unconcerned smile. "I still have some time. No hurry right?"
I hid my face by tucking in the blanket. My chest felt as if it were being squeezed from the sides, an immense, unmovable pressure. It wouldn't be my fault, I told myself vehemently. With or without my help, she wasn't going to make it to college.
"I'm sure you'll figure it out," I answered, straightening up. She was watching me.
"Yeah…" she tossed me another blanket. "I should take you out tomorrow," she said. The sudden shift to such a light subject made my head spin.
"Take me out?"
"Yeah, you know, go out, have fun." She laughed at my blank expression, a clear, genuine sound. "Don't worry. I'll show you." She tucked in the last corner with a flourish. "There. I'll see you tomorrow. Later though, I promise I won't wake you up this time." She waited for a response. I couldn't smile anymore, so I just nodded.
She left, closing the door behind her, and my head fell back into my hands.
Much later, I lay in the dark, staring up at the ceiling. I knew everyone else was asleep. I could feel it in the atmosphere--even breathing, quiet minds.
I could do it now. It would be easy. I'd creep down the hallway and hold a pillow across her face until she stopped struggling. I could find a knife in the kitchen and she would never even know what had happened until she woke up in black clothes. She might not even know it was me.
Instead, I rolled over, Alli's image stuck in my brain. Not as she was now, but as she had been in that picture on her desk, happily hugging the other girl. I closed my eyes and wondered how I was going to be able to live with myself.