My wings soared out behind me, lifting me away from the gory scene below without the need for conscious thought. I had missed the sensation of them on my back, the surety of their strokes.
It seemed like it should be such an effortless transition, one that happened thousands of times a day. In theory, it should have been even easier for me, who had now made the journey twice. Still, for all of my pining to go home, I’d lost touch with the reality of what that really meant. I’d forgotten exactly how light you needed to be to fly, as if there was hardly enough of you to function properly, to be real. My nose felt stuffed with fabric; the scent of the grass, of Alli’s hair and skin, had faded into blankness until I could hardly remember their potency. The supernatural knowledge that had been cooped up in my human brain spread out luxuriously, filling me up.
It was jarring to be made into this being again, to be brought back to myself. Life had spoiled me far faster than I’d ever believed possible.
I wanted to go back. The urge surged through me so strongly, so suddenly, that I actually paused in mid-air. Now I would have to make a cognizant effort to do anything more than hover. It wasn’t logical. This had been my true form for far longer than I’d ever spent alive on earth. It was my reality. Yet my regret had nothing to do with logic.
For a precious moment, I let myself hover, breathing it in, reliving the last few moments in the hope that setting things straight would help me push past the fog. The Elder’s aim had been better than mine. The blow I’d dealt myself had been clumsy and my body had fought violently. The decision to kill myself had been easy, obvious. How else was I supposed to get back if no one would take me? But in that moment, panic had raged through my dismayed mind as the life--the good--I’d finally found was ripped away. I felt the tremors of it now as if the longing was a physical entity all its own: a lost child who screamed because they were convinced they would never reconnect with their parents. Helpless and irrational. I’d clawed at the grass, relishing the solidness of the ground, trying to hold on. I’d seen a flash of Alli’s hair, speckled with the yellowed blades. It smelled not like shampoo, but like her house, that warm and inviting place. I’d breathed that in deeply and finally felt calm. I’d unclenched my hand, closed my eyes, and listened to my heartbeat until it faded into silence.
In the air, I opened my eyes and gingerly rolled up my sleeves. The tattoos were gone, their job finished. My wrists looked naked without them and it made me sad. My clothes were back too, the black uniform that I’d left on the floor in Alli’s office. My pouch was still missing. My feet were bare. The visuals helped. The brands were gone because that time was done, a memory to savor later. I took a deep, shuddering breath. The action wasn’t the same; it didn’t have the same weight and purpose, but it helped. I’d made this choice for Alli and I wouldn’t take it back if I could. I let that determination replace the fog and that unquenchable desire to return and started flying.
I knew the way back, but I didn’t know where to go from there. I headed to the lounge area purely out of habit; it had been my usual flight path when I’d come back with free time. Nothing had changed. It was the same space, the same sparse collection of angels milling around and talking quietly. Talking sadly. They looked exhausted. I didn’t know any of them and I was sure that beyond the inevitable rumors, none of them knew anything about me. Still, I flattened myself against an inconspicuous wall without venturing further inside.
I thought about the last time I’d been here, the convictions that had been put into my head: that it would be black and white, that Alli had to die, that, considering the mental consequences, it would be better for her. I made myself think, really think, past the ache of grief, about why I was so panicked, in such a rush to get to Alli.
Technically, everything had worked out the way it was meant to. Alli had died, albeit much later than scheduled, and now I was back in my place too. But they hadn’t wanted me back and that was where the logical progression of events stopped. Allowing me back on earth had been an abomination to begin with, the marks on my wrists proved that. So why leave me behind? To punish me? Why was separating us so important? And then there were the other facts, the ones that hurt. Alli hadn’t just died. She’d been murdered, suddenly and violently by the person who was meant to guide her. Fear flickered through my sorrow. He was in charge of her now. In charge of the girl who was an anomaly in so many ways, all while Alli was alone and unsuspecting. Why was she so important? Where was she now?
I tried to make the connections, but my thoughts floated uselessly in my newly-expanded mind, bouncing off of each other but never adhering. I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew that Alli was alone and vulnerable. It was supposed to be my job to explain this world to her, and now I couldn’t even offer her the comfort of a hand to hold.
I dropped my head into my hands and tried to breathe again. I felt fragile, as if I was only the shed skin of my physical body, easily torn.
When I felt the tap on my shoulder, I looked up sharply.
Emily was standing in front of me, arms crossed, silently watching.
“Emily,” I breathed out in a rush of unexpected relief. My own voice came back to me at half volume, muted in my ears. My emotions found a new target, but were no less complicated. Mostly I was glad to see her, if for no other reason than because she was a familiar face. But at the same time, I didn’t associate her with good things right now. I had called to her and, for the first time in our partnership, she had ignored me. She had never done that before, no matter how annoyed or hurt by me she was. There was also the matter of the way she was looking at me. She was by no means happy to see me. That wasn’t by itself unusual, but there was less of her usual petty anger now. She seemed pained, her face drawn and tense.
“So,” she said finally, apparently tired of surveying me with cautious eyes. “You made it.”
It was a simple statement, but I winced as the memory of sickening, sharp pain sliced through my chest. I closed my eyes and tried to shake the sensation before it could overtake me again.
“Don’t worry,” Emily said. “The confusion will pass soon. Your mind needs time to adjust.” The words were straight from the script, but her tone lacked the sympathy she’d use for any other soul. If she’d been acting anything like herself, I’d have said she was mocking me.
“Why didn’t you help me?” I asked, my tone quiet and hurt. I let her hear it.
I looked up just in time to see her stricken expression before she turned away. Her mouth pressed closed tightly, a visible barrier against whatever it was she didn’t want to say.
“What about Eli?” I pressed. “Where is he?” If I’d thought that anyone might find me, it was Eli. He would be on my side.
For some reason, this sparked her. Rather than retreating further inward, she snapped out in a way that I was so accustomed to, it helped to abate my feelings of displacement.
“Look, I didn’t ask to get roped into this,” she said, freeing her arms in order to gesticulate pointedly. “First you go off on this crazy mission, and then Eli goes poking around and stirs up who knows what, and then the Elder is asking me to take him places…” her eyes went sad but she hurriedly gathered back her indignation. “I didn’t ask for this!” she repeated, and her expression dared me to object.
I took in her defiant face and responded to her anger with some of my own. It was just like Emily to make everything about her and her personal inconveniences. Her strident voice cut sharply through my dulled senses and made my blood run hot. I opened my mouth to argue, urgency pushed aside to make room for this familiar battle. Neither did I, was what I fully intended to tell her, but the words that spilled vehemently from my mouth were: “Neither did Alli.” There was more waiting behind that, more proof that Emily had no right to be upset compared to Alli, but in the pause I used to gather steam, Emily deflated.
I saw her face fall before she covered it with her hands. Dumbfounded, my mouth full of bitter words, I watched her shoulders shake.
“I’m sorry,” she said miserably. “I didn’t know. He just asked me to come with him and it’s not like I could have said no. I didn’t know what he was planning until it was too late.” She stopped, breathing hard. I could feel a new sickness in my middle. Alli’s death wasn’t my secret anymore and that made it even worse. “I just feel so guilty,” Emily breathed out as if it was some horrible confession.
“Yeah,” I muttered. “There’s a lot of that going around.” I sighed hard, wishing that was enough to reconcile me to all of these emotions. If anything, I felt angrier than ever, but not at Emily.
I closed the space between us and put what was meant to be a comforting hand on her shoulder. She jumped at the contact and stared at my fingers as if to make sure they were real and then shook them off. “It’s not your fault,” I told her as gently as I could; my fury added an extra layer of conviction. It was the Elder’s fault, all of it from Alli’s death to Emily’s hurt feelings, and yet we had thus far only been blaming ourselves.
Emily didn’t make a move to agree with me, but her demeanor smoothed out into something far less desperate. I was glad. I didn’t like to see Emily’s confidence warped like that. She was supposed to be the sane one in this partnership.
“I took care of her,” she said. “He didn’t want me to, but I put her with Eli down the hall.”
“Thank you,” I said with real gratitude. Relief washed through me as I realized that Alli hadn’t been alone after all. She’d been with Eli, who was probably a better guide than I could ever have been.
“I didn’t do it for you,” Emily said snippily. “I barely even like you.”
I shrugged, unconcerned. ‘Barely’ was more than I would have imagined. Then the rest of her words caught up with me and I felt my eyebrows knit together. “Wait. Why didn’t he want Alli with Eli?” It didn’t make sense. It was a Marker’s task to explain the job to new Markers. That was what had flustered me about Marking Alli in the first place.
Emily hesitated, but not because she didn’t want to tell me. She looked confused, as if this piece of events was as much a mystery to her as it was to me. To make up for it, she started with a simple sentence, a blunt truth.
“Jadin, Eli is in trouble.”
“I don’t know, exactly,” she said, casting her eyes down briefly. “I said before that he went poking around. He just kept talking about you and why you were on earth. He thought…”
She didn’t have to finish. “He thought I was going to kill her.” For all I knew, he might still think it had been me. Maybe that’s why he hadn’t come.
“Yes,” Emily agreed with an admirable lack of judgement. “I think he was trying to help you find a way out. He went looking for stories, precedents, anything.”
“He found it,” I guessed. It made sense. I couldn’t possibly have been the only one. There were always rumors that going to earth was possible, and rumors got started from truth.
“What was it?” The urgency was back and it turned my voice into a harsh demand.
Emily looked at the ground. “I don’ t know,” she admitted. “I wouldn’t listen. I told you, I didn’t want to get involved.”
I tried with difficulty to hold back an aggravated groan. Emily held out her hands, palms out, as if to help keep the sound in.
“It was something about the job.”
“Our job?” I asked, moving my hand to the empty space on my belt to clarify.
Emily nodded. “He kept going on about how it was all useless and that he’d betrayed people. He started to scare me. He was determined to tell you, but the Elder found out and put him in a holding cell.” She spread her hands to indicate the present time. “You know the rest.”
Emily shrugged helplessly.
I kneaded my knuckles across my forehead, trying to beat down the certainty that this was my fault. What had Eli found out that was important enough to get him locked up? Maybe even important enough to get Alli killed. This was it. The missing piece that would fix down all of these wandering components. I felt it with a conviction that frightened me. We were coming close to the truth. Not the reasons the Elder had used to get me down there, but the real facts. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t blame Emily for not getting more information. I didn’t want to know either. Betrayed. I wished she hadn’t told me that. It hit me too close, falling neatly into an emotional slot I hadn’t even known I had.
“Are they still in the cells? ” I finally asked. I fixed on that because it made sense, except for Eli’s presence. The holding cells were for new angels, a place for them to sit and think quietly or talk it out with someone. Technically they could get out if they wanted to, but since sometimes the fear of the transition could lead to violence, there was no physical way to open the door from the inside and, for most new arrivals, walking through the wall wasn’t their first thought. If I’d been thinking clearly, I might have decided to go there myself. Violent deaths were the hardest; it was entirely possible that Alli had needed that space for its intended purpose. I’d never thought of them as a prison before now, but there could be no other reason for leaving Eli in there.
“I think so,” Emily answered. “Eli will be. I know he wouldn’t leave. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him.”
The thought hurt. Eli was the most innocent person I knew. I couldn’t imagine him doing anything that he would legitimately deserve to get in trouble for. And I had to agree with Emily. Not even watching Alli killed in front of me had been enough to wipe out the deference I had for the Elder. Eli would stay in the cell like he was told, deserved or not.
“And Alli is with him,” I noted, making a list for tactical planning.
Emily shook her head. “You aren’t listening,” she chided. “I put her in the same room with Eli, but the Elder didn’t want me to. He wanted to have a personal conversation with her. He’ll find out what I did soon, if he hasn’t already.”
“Right,” I scoffed. A personal conversation, and he’d only needed to commit murder to have it.
I thought silently for a minute, fighting against the ticking clock in my head. I had too many crises to explore and I couldn’t take care of them all. At last, I took a breath and made a decision. I didn’t like it, but it was right.
“Emily,” I said, “I need your help.”
Emily watched me warily, but wasn’t objecting yet.
“Go back,” I explained. “Get them out. Make Eli leave.” It was hard, very hard, to delegate this task. I’d come up here to be with Alli. It hurt to know that there might be something happening that was more important than what had happened to her. It felt like cheapening not just hers but our combined experiences. But I needed to know what Eli was talking about. Emily couldn't do that for me; she wasn't a Marker.
“I don’t know…” Emily was saying. She’d crossed her arms over her chest protectively. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“You’re already in trouble,” I reasoned.
“Yeah, but not that bad. After what happened to you…I don’t want to be…banished,” she whispered the last word.
“It isn’t so bad,” I said, and I could hear the regret in my voice. “Someone like you, you might even like earth.”
“That’s not what I meant,” she said darkly.
“Oh.” I shut my mouth fast. In spite of everything, I had yet to imagine that ultimate punishment, another rumor that was too cruel to be believable.
“Please, Emily,” I pleaded. Maybe it was wrong of me to ask; it was too late for me, I was sure, but perhaps not for Emily. But I needed her. And I didn’t have to press to get her to see that things were bad and not about to get better. She’d already broken one rule, after all. She knew that whatever was happening here was wrong, even if she didn’t want to admit it.
Emily watched me carefully, keeping me in suspense, and then she threw her arms up in exasperation. “Fine. Why not?” She blew out a breath of air that had all the markings of resignation. “I don’t know why I’m sticking my neck out for you, but I’ll do it.”
“Because you’re a good friend,” I answered promptly, surprising us both.
“God, what did they do to you down there?” Emily asked sarcastically, ruining her own cynicism with the slight edge of a pleased smile.
I didn’t even try to answer. I’d be working that one out for a long time to come.
“I’m going to the Elder’s office. I need to know what Eli found. If there are any answers, he’s probably hoarding them there.”
“Okay.” That she didn’t try to stop me told me that my instincts were correct. If Emily wasn’t taking the chance to needle me about a decision, then she felt its weight too.
I moved away from her and snapped my wings open.
“Thanks, Emily,” I said with all of the finality of a last goodbye.
“Be careful, Jadin.”
Quietly, I took off in the opposite direction from where I wanted to be. I had to remind myself that Alli was in good hands, or would be soon. I couldn’t think of two better people to trust her with. Besides, she’d be mad at me if I set aside something 'really important, just for her.' I heard the words in her voice and pressed on with more confidence.
The Elder’s office was yet another familiar place with which I was intimately acquainted. I entered cautiously, but it was empty. I stood in the middle of the space, taking in the shelves, the hard tiled floor, the not-quite-a-throne in the middle. I thought of the last time I’d been here and let out a scornful laugh. It had taken me far too long to realize that I was being manipulated. I thought back to all of those vulnerable moments I’d spent in here, searching for consolation, and wondered if they were the reason the idea of betrayal felt so seamless inside of me.
It was time to quit acting like the sniveling victim and figure this out.
I started with the books, like the act of scanning the titles would be enough to let me digest their entire contents. I tried to think of what Eli would have done, or maybe where he might have left me a clue. One thing he had not done was go through every book, that was impractical. No. He’d made a discovery by being efficient, not blindly lucky.
I looked again, more systematically, and my eyes landed on a desk. What the Elder could need with a desk I didn’t know—it was clear of the usual mundane things like paperwork, completely empty on the top, in fact. It was otherwise unremarkable in the room; I didn’t think I’d ever questioned its presence. I walked up to it and started trying drawers. Locked. I tried again because I was at a loss and this time noticed the scratches around the keyholes. Eli had been trying to pry his way in, successfully, I could only assume. I didn’t have the tools to try it myself, or the time to look for them, and whatever was inside wouldn't be as willing to pass through the wood as my hand could. What had Eli found? What was I not supposed to know?
Behind me, the door softly creaked open.
“Ah, Jadin, you’re here,” the Elder said calmly. “That was fast.”
If he was surprised to see me, he didn’t show it. He crossed the room comfortably and sat down in his chair, ready to listen as if we’d made one of our infamous appointments.
I turned to follow his movements, but didn’t leave the desk. I knew better than to move without being invited and it infuriated me. He had me under such control and, since he was legitimately our leader, I still didn’t know if I should resent it, not even now. The other reason I stayed still was simply to hold myself together. He was sitting there so placidly, without any indication that he had recently caused such pain. Certainly there wasn’t any remorse in his expression. The leader I had known for so long—self-assured and in complete control, able to keep me silent with only a pointed glance—expertly hid the cold monster I’d seen behind that half-built house. It was there though; now that I was watching I could see it rippling under the surface, controlled only by a very short leash.
“You don’t have to snoop, you know,” he said. “If you have a question, I’ll answer it.”
“Like you answered Eli?” I countered.
“I did answer Eli,” he corrected. “I just didn’t want him telling you.”
“But,” I stammered. I felt off-center, not recovered from the shock of being caught or seeing him, Alli’s murderer, again. “Why?” that was too big a question. It covered too much and left too much room for loopholes.
The Elder smiled in that paternal way that made so many of us lonely souls feel better. He looked nostalgic. “Oh, Jadin,” he said with humor. “How many times have I heard you ask that? It gets so tiring.”
Stung, I clamped my mouth shut. He waited patiently until I found the courage to open it again. When I did, I closed it before words could escape. I’d been about to ask about Alli, but I couldn’t stand to rely on him for information about her.
“If you’re wondering about the girl, I promise, she’s fine,” he said, shattering my resolution. “Better than fine. No more nightmares, just like I promised.”
“She was strong,” I said softly. “She didn’t need help with that.”
“She needed you,” he argued smugly. “I heard you two got very cozy.”
I ignored the jibe. He was baiting me, trying to draw me away from the real issue. Still, I couldn’t help it anymore and asked, “Where is she?” because painful or not, he would know for sure.
“She has decided to move on,” he answered promptly. “She wanted to be with her sister, I’m sure you remember her.”
“She’s gone?” I felt the heat of unformed tears behind my eyes, large and blinding. It would be a relief to simply shed them, but I couldn't do that here. I had come back because I’d known she was here. Her death was a tragedy, but I’d known the secret to seeing her again. I couldn’t stand to know that the last time I’d seen her, she’d been falling. And I would never see her again. Permission or not, I turned away until I could blink my eyes clear.
Logic followed the raw emotion slowly, taking its place as a desperate balm. I couldn’t afford to get wrapped up the way he expected me to. I’d have time for that later.
I looked back, refusing to be ashamed of my feelings, and asked the question that had been nagging enough to make me think even through such devastating news. “You let her go? What about the job? She’s supposed to be a Marker.”
The Elder looked exasperated, tired of the discussion already. “What is it with you people and your job?” He asked scathingly. “It was part of the plan, Jadin. She was never going to be a Marker.”
The plan. There had been a plan all along.
“I’ll tell it to you straight, Jadin: you weren’t supposed to come back either.”
If he expected that to be a big blow, he was wrong. I’d worked that much out already. “Why?” I asked, for old time’s sake and because now I knew it bothered him.
“That’s exactly why,” he said, pointing at me. “You ask too many questions. Some people can adapt, and some can’t. I thought eventually, you’d stop feeling sorry for yourself and just do the job, but it never worked.” He stopped, looking genuinely bothered, though for my sake, or for the sake of his plan, I couldn’t tell. “I knew I’d have to tell you soon, before you became a liability. Sometimes I have to--I had to tell Eli, though I never imagined he’d be a problem. And sometimes something convenient like the girl comes up and the problem takes care of itself. I knew you couldn’t handle it. I knew you’d look for a way out.”
I was listening so intently my head hurt, and this last sentence sounded like a shriek. “You wanted me to kill her?” I didn’t have to phrase it as a question. It was obvious. It was why he’d driven me crazy with words like 'soon,' why he’d made such a point to talk about Alli’s mental health. Because if I wouldn’t do it for myself, he knew I would do it for her. He knew me that well. And he’d been absolutely right. At least now I knew that I’d been absolutely right about being punished. I’d just managed to avoid committing the crime.
“Obviously that didn’t work," he continued like I'd never spoken, "and I had to make adjustments.”
I swallowed back a scream at his definition of 'adjustments.'
“But I’ll tell you everything now. It doesn’t matter anymore, now that the girl is gone and that hiccup has been smoothed over. And then afterwards, we’ll talk about what you’ll do next.”
He sounded like a professor explaining an assignment he’s given every semester for a decade.
“Just say it,” I spat. “I’m tired of playing games.”
He held my gaze with piercing eyes and a mocking smile and began in that patient, unassuming tone: “The Markers are useless. Your job is a lie.”