I was happy.
I ran the thought through my head again, just to be sure. It was such a foreign idea that I felt compelled to check and double check. As Alli moved away, leaving the ghost of her hand behind, I decided to quit checking and just let myself feel it. There was no better way to ruin such an emotion than through over-analyzing.
It felt good to be out here in the open air, away from the family moments that I had to fight to get through, and yet not detached or alone. I even thought I could begin to understand those moments. Though they inevitably made me feel like an outsider, I couldn’t judge them for loving each other. In fact, after what I now knew about them, I only admired them more for their affection.
I watched Alli as she finished her conversation and made her way back to me, and considered that concept of love. I wondered what other subjects she had lined up to ask me questions about. I knew she’d have more ideas, many of them personal, because she really wanted to know. I didn’t mind. I wouldn't admit it aloud, but I liked the way she could make me talk and the way she listened. With her, I didn’t feel like an outsider. I looked at her, and understood that the small things--the arch of an eyebrow, a sparkle of intuition--were enough to make up a whole world. I thought that I was still too selfish for love, but if anyone could change that, it was Alli. I could only hope that she would let me.
The Elder came from nowhere. Or maybe he’d been there for some time, and I’d simply been too distracted to notice. The first thing I did notice was how solid he looked, nothing like the shimmering existence I’d noted in Eli. The second was the knife he was holding. It was long and thin, the hilt ending in snail shell curls: an elegant weapon that was more akin to a dagger, the kind that just last night I’d imagined in my own hand, more worthy than my clumsy kitchen knife. I knew what was coming. I’d been on the other side, planning the same moment, and I recognized the intention instantly. I could have moved. I was close enough. I could have lunged for Alli and knocked her aside. But by the time I was done noticing details, it was over. The Elder employed a single, efficient motion, and the knife disappeared between Alli’s ribs.
Alli crumpled in reverse. First her eyes blinked out like someone casually turning off a T.V. Then her top half listed, caught between forward momentum and a sideways fall as gravity called it to the ground. Finally, her ankles gave in to the compulsion and her body sprawled awkwardly on the yellow grass.
I thought I was screaming. Surely, that was the cause of the tearing sensation in my chest, as if all of the air there had been violently thrust up and out. But my ears told me that it was quiet. There were no sounds, no sensations other than the panicked galloping of my heart to indicate that anything had happened. I wanted to go to her, but my long habit of deference kept me in place. Did I have permission to go that close? I looked up at the Elder, hating my weakness, my position of submission, the fact that I felt betrayed. I imagined an ugly expression on his face, and hoped the cruelty there would spur me into action. He only looked bored. Inconvenienced. Like someone forced to visit distant relatives on their day off. He barely looked at me. When he did, a touch of fatherly disappointment marred his indifference. Then he was gone. I didn’t see that happen either, because my eyes had traveled back to Alli, searching for a gasp, a twitch. Anything.
When he was gone, my paralysis broke. I rushed to Alli and put two fingers under her jaw, then ignored what they were reporting.
I shook her shoulders, touching her where she had touched me. I could still feel the warmth of her hand, affectionate and soft. “Alli?” I whimpered. The word became a sob, a small broken noise that was more savage in my ears than any scream. “Alli, please,” I begged, my last resort.
They were useless gestures and I’d always known it. Her eyes were fixed open, blank and flat, no room for humor, or kindness, or even that quick flash of temper she’d never hesitated to use against me. There was a string of blood that led from her mouth and slashed across her cheek, as vivid as the strands of hair that trailed themselves brazenly over her forehead. Her body was still, as if the hard core of her had overtaken all of the soft lines, freezing her in an endless moment.
I didn’t need these details to tell me the truth. I’d recognized it immediately, because that was my job. She’d been gone before she’d fallen.
I could feel myself shaking, my vision blurred, as if my heart was no longer tethered and was seeking an escape. This was it, the part I never stayed for, the part I’d talked myself out of barely twelve hours ago. I’d held Alli and I’d imagined what Danni might find, and it had been nothing like this, this horror of utter quiet. It was too much. There was a fracture in my mind preventing full comprehension. I couldn’t reconcile the promise of hope and possibility that had existed just minutes before with this broken body. They were mismatched puzzle pieces, impossible to merge.
My brain went into overdrive, trying to do something-- anything--useful. I reached forward to move her, to roll her over and hold her in my lap so that her face wouldn’t be pressing into the dead spikes of the grass. The position was awkward, because the knife was still there and I didn’t want her to have to lay on it. I couldn’t touch it. That was probably the one useful thing I could actually do, and I simply couldn’t bring myself to touch it. I settled for closing her eyes and wiping her mouth.
With her eyes closed, it settled on me. The mismatched puzzle pieces suddenly weren’t so mismatched anymore. They were both pieces of Alli. And Alli was here, lying dead in my arms. I heard the sobbing noise again, first small, and then another, bigger, louder, as if I could blot out her silence by creating enough noise for both of us. I cried over her shamelessly and knew that I’d been wrong about love.
It took me time to make the obvious connection. Thought returned slowly. When it did, I could only think of how I didn’t want this to be true, how I couldn’t imagine that she’d smiled at me for the last time. It was enough to quiet my jagged breaths. She would never laugh or tease or touch me again. Because Alli wasn’t here. But I knew where she was.
I stood and looked around wildly, examining the area for signs of the next step. They had to be here.
“Emily!” I screamed, shattering the silence. “Emily, take me back!”
I paced in a small loop, waiting, searching, but nothing happened. Maybe it would take another moment for Emily to come back. Maybe it had been too long. I was starting to panic. The return of logic reminded me of the unflinching perpetrator of all this, the cold, bored look in the Elder's eyes. There must have been a reason, a plan. He had to have killed this girl, source of so much wondering, with a purpose. It was the only thing that made sense. I knew where Alli was, but not why he'd wanted her there. I didn't know what might be happening to her now. I couldn’t leave her in that place to face it alone.
“Eli!” I cried, desperately.
That's when I knew I’d been abandoned. If Eli wouldn’t come, no one would. It was my punishment, the equivalent of making me stand in the naughty corner. I felt childish rage to go along with it. It wasn’t fair.
It didn’t matter. I was running out of time. I couldn’t process all of the implications, not with Alli’s body lying at my feet, but I knew that I was running out of time. She was up there alone with her murderer. It had always been my job to walk her through this part, and they’d separated us. They were keeping us separated. I needed to get to her now.
Determined, I knelt back down beside her. Even knowing that I needed to hurry, I felt my actions slow down and grow gentle as I faced her once more. The realization ripped through me again, dragging more tears to my eyes. I brushed her hair away from her face. I kissed her temple, lingering.
“I’ll be right there,” I promised. "I won't leave you alone."
I blocked out the revulsion of the action, the sensation of the indifferent spiral handle, the sense that I was creating a violation worse than the original wound, the fact that I had to tug hard, and removed the knife.
With its help, I followed her.
I didn’t need a Leader. I knew the way.