I watched her walk up the stairs and then I was alone. I didn't want to be alone. I wanted to let the last couple of hours stretch out so that I never had to act again. I could just sit here and build color-coordinated castles and forget that I was different, that I had a job.
Being around Danni made that simultaneously easier and more difficult. Easier because Danni's innocence obliterated difficult thoughts. When I concentrated on her, I could forget that the texture of the jeans against my legs was rougher than my real clothes, that the sneakers on my feet pinched my toes uncomfortably, or that when my sleeve pulled up, the brand around my wrist stood out starkly against the light-colored fabric. It was a joy to be exposed to something so unpolluted. At the same time though, Danni made me remember that all of the other little girls I'd ever gone to see I'd been required to Mark. I never got to see their smiles or watch their eyes light up on the brink of an accomplishment. It was refreshing to peek into Danni's future and see an old, grey lady, not a ten-year old whose bike had strayed too close to a car.
Alli's was a different story.
I looked at her and I could feel the nearness of her death like I'd been able to feel every Mark I'd ever been assigned. The vision hadn't changed. I was still the figure at the root of her demise. The details were no less indistinct, but that made sense--I still didn't know how I was going to do it. I knew when though: tonight. As soon as I could stop procrastinating and get on with it. This was the perfect set up. I'd known it the moment she'd offered to take me to someone else's house with minimum supervision. There wouldn't be any more playing around. I'd do it, one way or another, and then I could go home.
I turned around and continued to dismantle the structure in front of me. Alli didn't need to spend her last night cleaning up blocks.
I was just tossing the last of the mess into its container when she called my name. "Jadin? Could you come up here please?"
I hesitated. I'd said my goodbyes to Danni already. But my feet obeyed Alli despite my brain's protests.
I followed her voice to the end of an upstairs hallway and into an explosion of stuffed animals and lacy fringes. Danni was sitting up in bed, looking genuinely upset.
I raised a questioning eyebrow at Alli, who was standing at the foot of the bed.
"Danni thought she heard a monster," she explained.
"I see." I heard the softening of my own voice and savored it. "Under the bed?" I bent low as if to check.
Alli shook her head. "He's too fast for that."
"If you look under the bed, he hides in the closet," Danni agreed.
I met Alli's gaze and wordlessly moved to the closet. "Together then. One…two…"
"Three," we said. I threw open the closet door and Alli crouched underneath the runner of the bed. We made a show of looking around, and then I closed the door and Alli stood up.
"See?" Coming out of me, the question might have been sarcastic, but from Alli, it was entirely comforting.
Danni nodded, but she still looked wary.
My role complete and eager to leave, I walked to the door. Danni waved at me as I went and I returned it because she was irresistible.
I traced my path back down the hallway and then looked back, hoping that Alli would be following. I paused when I saw her hovering over the bed instead, tucking a blanket around Danni's shoulders.
"Do I have to?" I heard Danni plead. She still sounded upset and I wondered if I needed to be worried about her sixth sense.
Alli smiled maternally. "All sweet little ones need their rest."
"Even Mr. Jangles?" she pushed an overstuffed toy cow into Alli's vision.
"Especially Mr. Jangles," Alli said and kissed the toy on the head.
Then she bent to kiss Danni too, and I understood everything.
I didn't know why I hadn't noticed it before. The pieces were there--the need to please, the insistence on responsibility, even the mild rebellion that drove her to drunken parties and vapid boys. Maybe it was simply the vulnerability of this moment, the sadness on Alli's face, the way her hand gripped at the blanket. In reality, it looked nothing like the photo on her desk, that happy memory of not one little girl, but two. The only similarity was Alli's protective arm, and it sparked something deep inside of me.
I had a very vivid memory of that day. First the quiet. Then the splash, still quiet, barely noticeable. The screams. The older girl who had her back turned because she had barely been older than Danni and didn't know any better. It was the one I'd stayed to watch, the one that had made me question why them? The one that had made me decide to quit asking.
It was no wonder I felt so strangely about Alli, why her death bothered me so much. She'd been with me from the beginning, ever since I'd Marked her sister.
Quietly, I walked back down the stairs. I was rocked. I'd buried that history long ago--so well that it had taken me this long to even recognize the girls in the picture. Which one of us had this particular death changed more? Alli, who made the point of babysitting now because she'd missed that one vital moment? Or me, who spouted correctives at Eli when he felt now exactly what I had felt that day? Me, who had wondered at such senseless loss but was cold enough now that I was planning murder. I couldn't even compare the two. We were the same in a way I would never wish on anyone.
I heard her coming back down the stairs and I watched her, searching for the girl she had been. I couldn't see it. I wasn't the only one who'd worked to bury the history. I thought, very briefly, of what it would be like to tell her that I understood. Except that I didn't want to talk about it, and I doubted from her resolute refusal to answer my question about why she babysat that she would either. Mostly, I didn't want her to know that I'd been there. I already blamed myself enough for the both of us.
"Thanks for that," she said, and fell heavily onto the couch.
I hadn't been exaggerating when I'd said that no one could steal Alli's spot light, no matter how cliche it had sounded. She was so vibrant and I noticed it more, not less, each time I saw her. It was especially true now as I watched her with new eyes, but looking closer, I could tell that something was bothering her. Maybe not the same something that was on my mind, but there was a reason she was only 'mostly' okay. She was sitting with her head tilted back, the top half of her hair tied back to keep it out of her face. Her eyes were closed and I wondered if she was aware of the crease that marred her forehead. That small sign of discontent was my only consolation, but I still didn't like to see it.
"You can sit down, you know," she said, and now she was watching me too. I'd almost become accustomed to her open gaze, to the way it made me so oddly aware of myself. I let her do it. Soon I wasn't sure she'd want to look me in the eye, let alone watch me like this.
I sat on the other end of the couch, but put my back to the armrest so that I could still face her. Now that she was undistracted, I could again recognize the hint of sadness she was carrying. She'd become open around me, but this she was trying to hide.
I thought I could guess the reason, and I was desperate for a distraction so I asked, once again: "Did you-?"
"Sleep well?" Alli cut me off with a mocking grin. "There are a million other questions in the world. You could ask me about the weather, or school."
"Did you want to talk about school?" I retorted, a bit annoyed.
"Not really," she admitted.
"Well then. Did you?"
She breathed an aggravated breath out of her mouth. "Not really," she repeated, but then she held up an admonishing finger. "But not for the reason you think."
"So you haven't had any more dreams?"
She sighed, this breath more resigned and less directed at me. "Believe it or not, Jadin, sometimes the real world can put bad dreams in your path too, no supernatural elements required."
I couldn't begin to understand. My whole world was based on what she deemed the supernatural. Even what I'd just learned about her touched outside of human parameters.
She was doing it again, subverting my expectations. She was awfully poised for someone who was going slowly crazy. Not that it mattered. She'd said herself that when they'd come back, the visions had been worse. She might be taking advantage of a reprieve, but that didn't mean the next time wouldn't be the trigger and then who knew what would come?
Who was I kidding? My excuse about her visions was wearing rapidly thin.
"Real life is bothering you?" I asked redundantly.
"It does do that, from time to time," she said dryly, becoming bored with my slowness.
"It will get better," I promised automatically.
She smiled slightly, and an emotion like pride crossed her eyes. "Yes it will," she said, though her voice didn't quite match her expression. "When is always the question."
Soon, I wanted to answer, but all of these cryptic preparations were wearing me out. I thought of her here, at the end of her life, upset over something I couldn't venture to guess. But I could guess, couldn't I? Or at least, I could assume. I might not be able to believe that the visions were bothering her anymore, but now I had new knowledge. And it was something tangible--a reunion she must long for and would certainly appreciate, a decent goal to wash away the foulness of my deed. And maybe even something to make me believe for real that killing her tonight would be doing us both a favor. One excuse was much like another, I found, and I needed one desperately.
In the silence as I thought, I heard a noise upstairs, the creaking of bed springs.
"Is she not asleep?" I asked Alli, who'd gone back to staring at the ceiling almost wistfully.
She made an amused noise in the back of her throat. "Not yet. She'll be down in a little while, asking for water or something. Happens every time. She likes to test boundaries."
"I can imagine," I agreed.
"Of course, she'll probably be asking you," she said, that mischievous twinkle back in her eyes. "She seems to have found a new favorite."
I felt blood rush to my cheeks in an unprecedented sensation of warmth. I remembered Danni's arms around my neck, soft and fragile, and then I was thinking about the job again, about how those hands had latched on to me and not Emily. Dangerous, I told myself. And useless. So useless to think about the lives I'd touched, to put myself back into that vulnerable, sad mindset that I'd scabbed over with layer after layer of logic. It was bad enough to have been reminded of Alli's sister. I'd never be able to separate the two again.
"What?" Alli asked me, her tone suspicious.
"What do you mean?" I asked, unclenching my teeth.
She gave me an overly patient stare. "I know that look. That's the I-just-remembered-that-I'm-too-miserable-to-smile look."
"There's a look for that?" I tried for lightness, but my heart wasn't in it anymore.
"It's your trademark," she answered with a wink.
A wink. What a ridiculously personal thing to enjoy at a time like this.
That was when I knew it was time to stop speculating and preparing and time to figure something out. It wasn't going to get easier. I was doomed anyway; this experience was going to cause permanent damage, probably had already. I had my reasons, as polished as they would ever be, and now I needed a method.
I shifted on the couch because I couldn't do anything from way over here. I considered her pale throat, how delicate it was. I wasn't completely sure about the strength of these hands, but I thought they could probably do the job. I watched her eyes as I leaned in, testing myself and her. I waited for fear to kick in, or some animal instinct of danger. And her eyes did grow dark, but the emotion in them was far from fearful. When she leaned in to me too, I shot back.
I saw hurt for a split second before she lowered her gaze.
"I'm sorry," she muttered.
I shook my head, unable--or unwilling?--to read my own feelings.
I heard the footsteps on the stairs first. Danni peered shyly over the railing.
Alli saw her and her face transformed. It might have taken time, but she wasn't lying about loving that little girl. "Right on schedule."
She rose and went once more to the stairs.
"What's the matter?" I heard her ask.
"I can't sleep."
They disappeared and I felt my heart beat quicken. My Marker's instincts were screaming in my head and I knew that my time to sit with her was over. No more tests. It was time for goodbyes.
I stood up. I was ready. I walked past the stairs, heading to the most obvious place: the kitchen, where the weapons were. I could hear their voices drifting down to me, quiet noises of what must have been reassurance. It made me think of the photograph, of that one lapse of attention and how I could fix it. I crossed the threshold of the kitchen with renewed resolve.
It was a nice room, sleek and highly functional, but not ultra modern. The knives were conveniently displayed in an understated butcher's block. I crossed the room and selected one that was long, but not overly thick. I stared at the black handle and the silver blade. It seemed so plain for such a task.
I placed it carefully in the sink where it wouldn't be immediately obvious and waited.
I looked out the dark window, framed in curtains covered in stitched watermelon slices. I half-expected to see Eli standing outside. Jadin, no. His lips would form the words and I would turn away.
I turned away now, because Alli was calling my name, looking for me.
My fingers itched. I imagined them light again, no more heavy flesh, no more brands on my wrists. And I sighed. No, there wouldn't be marks on my wrists, but the scars inside would never fade.
"Jadin?" Alli asked. Still searching.
I opened my mouth to call, but I couldn't do it. If she walked away, maybe I'd just let it go for tonight.
But of course, she came to me.
She peeked her head around the corner. "What are you doing in here?"
I shrugged. She already thought me odd so there was no reason to fake an excuse.
Her amused smile confirmed my thought. She walked to the refrigerator, took out a water bottle, and cracked the seal.
"The Montgomerys should be back soon," she told me. "Maybe we should leave a book open on the table or something." She was trying for humor, but I was past humor.
"You're doing it again," she frowned.
"Alli," I started, but what was I going to say? I'd made her promise to listen to me later, when we were both where we were supposed to be, but what could I say to comfort her now?
She heard the tone in my voice and came to stand beside me at the sink. "What?" she said it so tenderly that I knew she was thinking about the promise too. She thought now was the time to listen.
So I talked.
"Thank you." It was the first thing in my head, maybe the only thing that mattered. Because she'd taken care of me. Because no matter the damage, she'd reminded me that there was a different way. Apathy only went so far; it couldn't be my shield forever. That was something I was going to have to deal with, when I was home, but maybe that was for the best. When I responded to her questioning gaze I left all that out. "For bringing me here," I simplified.
She relaxed and smiled. "I told you. All you needed was to get out of the house."
I shook my head, envying her simplicity. But it couldn't have always been that way. She must have taught herself, after her sister. I wished she had time to teach me.
I shifted so that I was standing in front of her; the fortunate result was that she faced me fully and put her back to the sink.
I kept my eyes off of the knife so that she wouldn't follow my gaze. She would have too, she was watching me that carefully.
"I mean it," I pressed. These were my goodbyes. I was crazy to think I'd get anything else. How could I expect her to let me explain afterwards, promise or not? "You're a good person." I paused to let that sink in. "You don't deserve to be so sad."
Her eyes flashed at that and her mouth opened, probably to ask me exactly what I saw underneath that well-crafted front. I held a finger up to stop her, and miraculously, she stopped. I took another step toward her, closer to the sink.
We were so close now, closer than I'd ever allowed us to be, the lengths of our bodies lined up. I remembered the way she'd leaned toward me on the couch, her intention impossible to misinterpret, and I mimicked the motion.
"Just remember that, okay?" I said, my voice rough, my stomach sick with nerves. I reached around her, trapping her to the spot while I found my weapon and gripped it. With my other hand, I held her waist to keep her still.
"Okay," she agreed, her breath coming hot and fast as she tilted her head towards me.
I was taller and my frame eclipsed hers as I leaned down. Was this part of the deception, or part of the goodbye?
I kept my eyes locked on hers. She was nervous, but only in an anticipatory way. No terror, which was a small gift.
She closed her eyes.
I placed my lips on hers and the tip of the knife against her back.