This time, the angel was wearing white.
She was bright and beautiful with sympathetic eyes and a comforting smile. She held my hand the whole time with a gentle pressure that I had no doubt would clamp down mercilessly if I tried to struggle. I didn't. I wasn't quite sure why, as going quietly wasn't exactly in my nature. But the angel had used that smile, and when she'd said "follow me" in an irresistibly musical voice, I'd put my hand voluntarily in hers. I had the vague notion that I should probably be railing against some strong emotion, but my mind was disconnected from such concerns and I let it watch. I was merely curious because she was wearing white. If she'd been in black like the others from my dreams, I would have been terrified.
The angel led me into a hallway that immediately reminded me of dorm rooms on television, but with much more expensive taste. It was lined on either side with doors set far apart from each other. It smelled flat, somehow, indescribably bland. My nose reached for a scent to name but couldn't find one.
"This way," the angel murmured, and I looked up at her because her cool confidence had shifted into uncertainty. She let go of my hand and moved down the hallway, seeking out a door at the far end. She reached her hand out. She turned the knob, but didn't pull. I heard a soft curse, jarring in her lovely voice.
She came back to my side and took my hand even more pointedly than before. There was determination on her face now, and somehow that was even more comforting to me than anything else about her. The expression suited her.
"This way," she repeated, and this time she sounded sure. She brought me just a few steps down the hall and chose the second door. "You should be in here." She opened the door and escorted me over the threshold like a polite partner on a date. The room was dim, lit only by the light from the hallway and a soft glow inside that revealed cushioned benches along the walls. Still no smell.
The angel smiled her smile again, a look that managed to maintain its sincerity despite the fact that it was obviously well-honed. "Wait here," she said. "Someone will come talk to you soon."
She waited to see if I'd respond, or maybe decide that now was the time to fight. I only stepped a little further inside, still disconnected, still obedient.
The angel closed the door and disappeared.
I scanned my surroundings and decided it was time to stop fooling myself.
I knew that I was dead.
I'd known it unquestioningly since that pain had exploded inside of me. What had it been? Heart attack? Embolism? Neither seemed a likely option. I only knew that it bordered on cruel to expect someone to live after such anguish, no matter how brief.
And it had been brief. I'd barely registered the shock of it before the white angel was there, lifting me high. And now here I was, in this sterile place and with a different pain in my chest that was the manifestation of suppressed panic. I put my hand on my breast bone, a place where my bruise should have screamed, but didn't, and tried to hold it in. I doubled over with the effort as it bubbled up inside of me, threatening to leak through my skin. Because if I had needed any more evidence of my condition, it existed in this fact: I wanted to go back. I longed for it. Not casually like wanting the newest gadget, but in a visceral way that was causing me more fear than my actual situation.
I closed my eyes and Jadin's face rose in my mind, hopeful, waiting for me because I was important to him. I thought of nearly kissing him and missing my chance, my last chance, and profound sadness joined my fear. I hoped he was okay, but I doubted it. I knew what he was going through, not only witnessing a death, but one that was so sudden and shocking. So shocking that grief took time to catch up, and by the time you knew it was there, it had filled you up and you were drowning in it. I wanted to apologize, to go back and apologize for inflicting that pain on another person. At least Jadin would take care of me, I knew that. He would be gentle with me and be with my parents.
My eyes snapped open.
I couldn't think about them and hope to keep my wits.
That was something that I craved desperately: I wanted to think. To sit down for sixty seconds of logic, even if it could only lead to one conclusion. But while my emotions were expanding inside of me, building to the point of chaos, my mind still felt severed from the facts. I was here in my body, able to hold myself and walk instead of existing as an incorporeal soul. I was breathing, but I wondered if I really had to. I felt as if I were still in a body, yet I also felt ephemeral--too light, like I was dizzy without the accompanying nausea, ready to float away as the sky spun above my head. I was missing an anchor to tie me down, that determination by which I defined myself. I tried to push through the fog to find it.
I started small and focused on the details around me. I was in a narrow room, just large enough to escape being claustrophobic. The benches that I had noticed earlier were backless, more like cushioned window seats. They lined the middle of the walls, leaving enough space to create corners by the door and the far wall. The light was faint, and, like the lack of scent, subtly different in a way that was more disturbing than any enormous change could be. Instead of glowing with a tinge of yellow like a fading bulb, this light shimmered silver and cast wavering reflections on the walls. I looked up, searching for the source, but the ceiling was blank. Blissfully distracted by the mystery, I stepped further inside and looked for a nightlight instead. I leaned down to peer into the corner and immediately flung myself back to the door, my fear reignited and flaring hot in my throat.
I wasn't alone. In the corner was another angel, his loose-hanging wings silvery bright and shining with that eerie glow. He was wearing black.
For the first time, I felt like I'd been thrown into a nightmare. The sensation was intense, overblown like the rest of my emotions. I raked my hands against the door without taking my eyes off of him, searching for the knob, but I couldn't concentrate long enough to find it. I waited for him to stand, to notice me, and…what? Attack? That didn't make sense. The worst thing the black angels had ever done to me was make me question my own mind. They had never posed a physical threat. And with the evidence right in front of me, the mental threat was negated too--it was hard to keep believing that I'd ever been crazy. I took three deep breaths, forcing calm over my body. I had enough going on without perpetuating old, and possibly pointless, fears.
Stubbornly, I looked again, studying him, ready to protect myself if necessary. It wasn't. In fact, the angel didn't even seem to have noticed me. He still sat there, making himself small in the corner, knees drawn up to his chest, face hidden against his knees. He looked sad. Sadder than me. Sympathy drew me towards him and I let it because it was familiar. It felt like me.
When I was close enough to touch him, he startled me with a sudden movement. He released his knees and clasped his hands violently over his ears.
"I know," he muttered. "I can't. I'm sorry."
I couldn't stand to see any more pain. I put my hand gently on his forearm. He startled like my touch was electric, looking up at me with wide, frightened eyes.
I gasped and pulled back just as forcefully. This wasn't just any black-clad angel, this was my angel, the one who had presided over all of my haunting dreams. I thought my body might throw itself at the door again, but all I felt was relief. In a perverse way, it was good to see a familiar face. It was like finding an old friend in a crowded place, even if we didn't always get along.
He was staring back at me. The sadness of his body language had concentrated in his dark eyes and made him look younger than he was. The light of his wings spilled out around him and created a sense of ethereal beauty. A thought struck me and I reached a hand around to my own shoulder blades. There were wings there, folded up tightly like a plastic rain poncho that hadn't yet been unwrapped. I could hardly feel them. They were so light I hadn't noticed them on my own back, and my sense of touch registered only a coolness like smooth stone. When I imagined unfolding them, they responded, crinkling outward until their tips reached just beyond the width of my back. The level of light in the room increased slightly.
The angel still had his eyes on me, watching my awe with something like nostalgia. "You're here," he said. He sounded disappointed.
I nodded. There wasn't much else I could do.
"Do you know where here is?"
Another nod, but this one was hesitant. I knew what I was. I was a little fuzzy on where.
"That's good," he said earnestly. "Some people become very confused."
"I feel confused," I admitted. "Or at least…" I tapped my fist against my forehead, at a loss to explain the scattered quality of my thoughts.
"I understand," the angel said. He had relaxed a little bit. Talking to me seemed to be helping him; the desperation on his face had dissipated slightly. "The transition is rough, especially when it happens so quickly. Your mind is trying to protect itself."
"It doesn't feel like it," I said, ignoring his wealth of information so that I didn't have to add more questions to my list. There were connections aching to be made here. If I could do more than feel that, I knew I could figure out what they were. As it was, my mind seemed to be hindering more than helping.
"Sit down, Alli," he said, gesturing to the corner opposite him. I left his use of my name alone too. I thought he'd been in my head long enough to have earned that one. "Give yourself some time."
I followed his advice, curling my legs under me until I hit the floor. My wings wouldn't let me sit flush against the wall. I was already feeling better. Seeing him again was helping me to tether my thoughts, because I'd thought about him so much already. It helped too, just to have someone else around.
"Who brought you here?" he asked.
I shrugged noncommittally. "A lady. She was wearing white."
This seemed to cheer him up. "I knew it," he muttered under his breath. "Thank you, Emily." He smiled, unfolded from his protective pose, and asked me, "Did she tell you anything?"
"Just that someone would come talk to me soon," I answered without inflection. I was distracted because, when he'd adjusted his position, I'd noticed his bare feet, long and pale and contrasting starkly against his black clothing. And this wasn't the first time I'd seen that contrast. The black clothing, the dark features, that surreal and timeless beauty. This angel was just like Jadin. And two and two made four.
"Oh my god," I said, with no less wonder than I'd felt discovering my wings. My hand traveled to cover my gaping mouth. The anchor finally settled and I had my connection. "He's one of you."
The angel's face registered surprise, but he didn't ask who I was talking about.
"The whole time?"
I watched him do it and hoped that the gesture would help reveal my feelings on the subject. For once, my emotions were calm, politely waiting for my newly-restored mind power to do its job. Should I feel hurt? Betrayed? Maybe, but my dominating emotion was one that felt like gears slipping seamlessly into place. It all made sense now, every awkward sentence, every vague comment, each time I'd seen sadness or anger flash out for no discernible reason, even the connection I'd originally made between him and my dreams. All of it could be explained by the bizarre truth: Jadin was an angel.
"Don't blame Jadin," the angel in front of me implored. "It's not his fault."
"I…don't," I conceded slowly. If anything, I could feel my positive feelings towards him expanding. He had shown me such kindness, listening to my fears, when all the while 'homeless' had been a gross underestimation. Then the angel's defensive tone registered and another gear clicked. "Is your name Eli?"
His shocked face was nearly comical; it painted an outward picture of what I was feeling inside. "How did you-?"
"Jadin told me about you." It had been the last thing he'd said, our last conversation. I would miss them.
"He did?" Eli's thus far sober face brightened from the inside.
We sat quietly while Eli beamed. It was easy to see that this was an expression that usually resided on his face.
"Who are you?" I blurted when I could no longer hold it in.
"Not just us," Eli said, levity vanished. "You too."
He gestured at me suggestively and I looked down at myself for the first time. In the light of my own wings, I saw my new black clothes. Belted at my waist was a small leather pouch, soft and worn. Eli was wearing two.
I closed my eyes to focus on steadying gulps of air to avoid another panic attack. When I opened them, I locked my gaze onto Eli's.
"Tell me everything," I demanded.
But Eli shook his head violently. "There isn't time. I've wasted too much already. He won't leave you alone for long."
"He?" I tried, and Eli went as far as to lean forward in an attempt to shush me.
"Listen. I figured some things out. I was trying to help Jadin, but…" he waved his arms around us grandly, exaggerating the motion until it could only be read sarcastically.
I followed the motion of his hands and revisited my surroundings, trying to see them through the eyes of someone who knew them like Eli must. I made a list: the sparse furnishing, the lack of any light except what we ourselves could generate, Eli's self-protective position in the corner. And when I'd rushed to the door in panic, scraping against the panels, I hadn't found a door knob. And if I had, would it have been unlocked? Looking at Eli's earnest face, I knew the answer completely. This was a prison cell. I decided to keep my mouth shut and listen.
"All of us," Eli continued, pinching his shirt to clarify the pronoun, "we have a job to do. It's important."
I nodded, understanding. I'd known for a long time what the people in my dreams had been doing. I palmed the leather pouch I was wearing, remembering its role. I wasn't happy to be part of it. I didn't want to be involved in other people's deaths. Didn't I get any time to cope with my own? A sick feeling seeped into my chest, as if that place of pain had decayed and gone sour inside of me. Suddenly, violently, I wanted Jadin here with me. I wanted him to be the one to hold my hand because he knew. And now I knew, and I wanted to tell him that it had been okay to be afraid.
"Not that," Eli said, responding to my agreement with vehement anger and eyeing my pouch with disgust. His expression made me wonder how Jadin could ever have seen him as just a kid. This was not an immature look, it was one that betrayed a depth of feeling possible only through long suffering. "Markers," he gave the word a sardonic twist, his hand clutching spasmodically around one of his own pouches. "Like it could ever matter. All those years. All those people."
I was losing him. He was swirling down into his own emotions and far away from the sense of urgency he had passed on to me. If his news hurt that badly, I needed to know it. "Eli," I said, leaning forward onto my knees to make him focus on me.
I lost my bid for attention to a noise in the hallway. It was so light that it took me a moment to register that I was hearing footsteps. They walked past our door and I held my breath. Both of our heads turned as the sound continued further down the hallway, passing us by. Eli cursed, jumping up in alarm. Down the hall, a door opened. I knew without asking that they were looking for me. When the white angel--Emily, if Eli was correct--had promised me a visitor, I hadn't cared, I'd imagined it as part of the process. That assumption could still be correct, but Eli's anxiety was making me nervous.
"I blew it," he said despondently, the tone not matching the agitation on his face.
I didn't know how to express how incomprehensible such a statement was to me. He might not have finished telling me everything, but he had been the one to ground me, to make me feel a little more solid and like myself. He'd given me back my ability to think, a real gift. How could I have faced the footsteps with only raging emotions to guide me?
"Just," Eli said, calm again, but resigned. "Try to remember what I said. Do you remember?"
"Our job is important," I echoed unhappily.
"It is," Eli insisted. And when the footsteps turned and hurried back to our room: "Don't let him convince you otherwise."
Before I could ask what that meant, our door burst inward. It smacked the wall in a way meant to be startling, like a parent who is simultaneously trying to catch their child in a compromising position and scare them out of it.
The angel who stood in the doorway didn't look like a parent. He was only older than me by a few years, early twenties tops, but he wore even that age on a youthful face. He was well-built, broader than either Eli or Jadin, but altogether, his physical appearance was hardly imposing. Still, Eli pulled away from me and hung his head low. He retreated inward, his body seeming to shrink until he was the terrified person I'd found in the corner again. I thought that he wanted nothing more than to curl back up on the floor.
I refused to be startled, but truthfully, I was glad to be in the corner myself. There was something intimidating about this plain person. I did not want to go near him. My instincts screamed at me to stay as far away from him as possible.
He looked between Eli and me, and I saw that he was annoyed. I was supposed to be down the hall, but Emily had brought me in here to be with Eli. That much I knew, but I didn't understand why it mattered and that scared me. It was like taking a final after only attending half of the class. I was missing something important.
The negative emotion on his face was brief; when his gaze settled on me, his light eyes softened. "Hi, Alli," he said, his voice warm, his bedside manner practiced and comforting. "How are you holding up?"
Bewildered by the contrast between his softness and the way the hairs on my neck stiffened when I looked at him, I shrugged. "Confused," I said in a small voice.
"Well, that's normal," he said, echoing Eli. "Why don't you come out of there and we'll talk?"
His voice was so compassionate, it made me want to cry. How long had I been here? Fifteen minutes? Twenty? Not long enough to have gone through the process of feeling sorry for myself. But this angel looked so genuinely regretful about my situation that I suddenly saw how horrible this was, how permanent. I pinched myself, once, because I had to try. All the same players were here, why couldn't this just be another, more elaborate dream?
"I don't want to," I said. The words reminded me of Danni arguing about eating broccoli and the fact that I would never again be the one to coax her into doing it. But even if the words were childish, I wouldn't take them back. I didn't want to go with him because he made me feel small and because leaving this room meant taking the next step in this world. There would be no going back.
"I know it's hard," he said sweetly. Too sweetly, I decided. It wasn't helping me to trust him the way I was sure he'd planned. "I'll help you get through it." He waited while I continued to kneel on the floor. Then his softness cracked and impatience leaked through. I was glad to see it; I didn't like him using that pity against me. "Eli, why don't you help her up?"
Eli didn't hesitate and I didn't blame him; I knew an order when I heard one. Eli bent, keeping our faces close so that only I could see his encouraging smile, and placed a hand under my elbow to pull me straight.
With no other options, I walked forward cautiously. I felt lost again, hardly up to the challenge of defying him. I stopped between the two of them.
"What about Eli?" I asked.
"I'll chat with Eli later."
I didn't look back to see what Eli thought of this. I could recognize a threat, too.
I followed the angel into the hallway and he closed the door behind us. In what seemed a pointless maneuver, he took us only as far as the door Emily had rejected. We went inside to an identical space as the one we'd just left, and sat down on opposite benches, facing each other. I pulled myself onto the bench and scooted as close to the wall as I could. I didn't want to be alone with him, and the thought of having our knees touch made that sickness overtake me again.
Thankfully, he left the door open. The extra light from the hallway let me see his face clearly. What I saw was that he had a prepared speech he was waiting to attack me with and I didn't think I could handle that. I didn't care what he said, he couldn't comfort me. All he made me feel was out of control and sad. I didn't need comfort in an inconsolable situation. What I needed were answers. I needed to know why Eli had tried so hard to put me on my guard.
"Who are you?" I asked bluntly and saw his annoyance flare up again.
"I'm called the Elder," he said, as if that explained anything. "But that's an archaic title. You can call me John."
"You're the leader?" I pressed, ignoring his offer and forcing him to be more specific.
"Of the Markers?"
He couldn't hide his surprise. "Yes."
He opened his mouth, preparing to begin whatever he had ready, but I wasn't going to let him gain control.
"Is Jadin coming?"
This floored him. His shock ran down his frame, slackening his face and eliminating the attitude of power he'd been trying so hard to cultivate. I could feel him deciding what he was going to tell me, judging how much more I knew and what he could still manage to regulate. He pulled himself back together slowly. His eyes burned hot with an anger that was the aftermath of embarrassment. He'd thought he held all the cards.
"No," he said finally. "Jadin will not be joining us."
"Because he is not welcome here. He broke the rules."
"I want to see him," I insisted.
The Elder laughed. The sound was jarring, echoing strangely in my ears and rubbing me raw inside. "You wouldn't if you knew what he'd done."
I couldn't help myself: I took the bait. "What did he do?"
He smiled unpleasantly. Instantly, I regretted my words, but I'd already swallowed the hook and had no choice but to listen.
"Alli, you were supposed to die a week ago."
My breath stopped. I tried to start it again subtly, but I knew he'd seen. He was watching me, judging the effect of his words. I looked away to create the illusion of privacy. For some reason, even though I'd ended up here anyway, this hit me hard, harder even than learning who Jadin was. So very much had happened in the past week. I'd grown and changed, made decisions and learned about myself. The mere thought of never having had that time made me shaky. I couldn't get past the idea that, now that it had happened, I was done growing. I was dead. What if the person I had been last week was here instead? What if that accident had been the end? That struck me as a very sad place to stop growing. So much wasted potential. What could I have been a month from now? A year?
He was doing it again, saying just the right thing to aggravate my sensitive condition. He was doing it on purpose.
"What does that have to do with Jadin?" I asked, as if my mind wasn't reeling.
"Jadin went down there to finish the job."
I snapped my head around. If he was lying, he was doing a good job hiding it. "But…" his face was completely frank, without even the traces of insincerity that had made me distrust his sympathy. Yet this news hadn't hit me the way the other revalations had. Those had been self-evident truths, like riddles that seemed insultingly obvious once you knew the answer. Not this. "I don't believe you," I declared.
"You don't want to believe me."
"Jadin never hurt me," I argued stubbornly.
He shrugged. "Not for lack of trying."
This, for some reason, carried that missing ring of truth. I thought of the way Jadin had used to push me away, his distress, the cryptic questions and promises. I knew now that most of that stemmed from his discomfort from being on earth, but how much of it had been disguised guilt? Still, he hadn't hurt me, and I didn't doubt that he honestly cared for me. And if he'd planned to kill me, why wait so long? Why help me through bad dreams and let me see his vulnerabilities? To get on my good side? Maybe, but that didn't make the feelings between us false.
I shook my head to clear it. I was going in circles. He was making me go in circles and he knew it. From the very beginning, he'd made me question myself. He might have been the leader, but he was also a bully. Letting him make me uncomfortable only played into his hand.
I decided to drop the subject. Jadin's intentions mattered far less to me than his actions. "You didn't bring me in here to talk about Jadin," I said, which roughly translated into 'get to the point.'
"No," he agreed, transitioning seamlessly from mildly taunting to strictly business. "I came to talk to you about what happens next. I'm sure you don't want to stay in this room forever."
Forever. Such a long time. "I guess not," I admitted, though I was still terrified of what came next.
"Then, when you're ready, I'll help you move on."
"To heaven, as you might call it." He shrugged again, uncaring. "At any rate, it won't make forever seem so bad."
"So this is like Limbo?" I asked, because clearly this was the best possible time to discuss theological theories.
He chuckled, genuinely amused. "Think of it as a lower level of management."
It sounded nice, letting go after all of this awful emotion, and maybe getting a chance to deal with it all in a place of rest. Unfortunately, he'd used the word 'management' and that made me think of jobs and reminded me of Eli. I was upset with myself for forgetting so quickly; while he'd been pushing, I'd thought Eli was over doing it, but it still hadn't stuck. It was hard to ask. I sensed an easy path and I was tempted to take it. Yet the idea of responsibility spoke to me too personally, and I'd all but promised Eli.
"But what about…" I used my hands to indicate my clothes since I didn't know the right words to describe it. No one had told me. "My job?"
He breathed out in exasperation, like we'd been arguing about this for hours. He didn't say anything, only crossed his arms and waited expectantly.
"I mean…" He was so intimidating it made me doubt my conviction. "My job is important. I need to do my job. Don't I?" I realized that his impassive face had forced those last two meek words out of me, so I repeated it more strongly. "I need to do my job."
He let the silence stretch out and then asked, casually, "You had a sister, didn't you?"
I felt my stomach drop in an all too familiar way. I crossed my own arms protectively; it made my wings stretch strangely against my shoulders.
"Katie, right?" he continued. I wanted to rip her name from his oily tongue. "Drowned when she was five. You were, what, eight years old?"
He was watching me closely again, enjoying himself because he was winning the game. He'd won the game. How could I compete with the memory of my sister?
Then, softly, earnestly, he asked, "Would you like to see her again?"
My heart leapt up so hard it was nauseating. Hope drilled a lightning bolt through me and made my eyes prickle. "Could I?" I asked, disregarding the fact that I couldn't trust him, that I was being shamelessly manipulated. Dying might just be worth it if I could hold Katie. Apologize.
The Elder leaned forward. "She's waiting up there."
I covered my face with my hands and wished that he was not witnessing this.
"It's your choice," I heard him say. "You can stay here and join the Markers. Do your job." I didn't have to look to imagine his derisive sneer. "Or you can move on and be with Katie."
I didn't understand exactly how, but I knew that this was wrong. It was what Eli had worked so hard to warn me about. I was so angry at him, for putting that obstacle in my way. I wanted to go. I wanted it nearly as much as I wanted to go back home, only this was truly possible. Only Eli's words held me back and it was an extremely thin leash.
Across from me, I felt the Elder stand. "I'll let you think about it," he said in that imperious tone, the one that brooked no argument and strongly suggested that there was a right answer.
Then he left and shut me in.