“I don’t understand,” I said, and I could hear the tightness stretched across my voice. I was close to my breaking point. I no longer knew what to think.
Eli had his eyes locked on me, his gaze mimicking the intense stare that had haunted my dreams. Emily was standing by the door, her foot wedged in the crack and her eyes nervously scanning the hallway beyond. With the three of us in here, it was very bright.
When the door had opened again, I’d still had my head in my hands. I’d been thinking of Katie, trying to remember the exact shape of her eyes, because that detail seemed vitally important. I hadn’t looked up because I still didn’t have an answer to give. I knew what the right answer was supposed to be, but I couldn’t dismiss Eli’s plea. It should have been an easy thing to ignore, but it had stuck with me, ringing inside me in a very personal way. He hadn’t even explained everything, but I could feel that Eli wasn’t exaggerating when he said the job was important. So important that the little information I had possession of kept distracting me from producing the memory of Katie’s eyes.
It had taken me a minute to register that it was Eli who’d pulled my hands gently away. Emily hadn’t even stepped into the room; she’d waved us urgently toward the hallway while she looked over her shoulder. This was obviously a jail break, but I’d planted my heels firmly. If I left now, I’d never be allowed to see Katie.
Thankfully, Eli was on my side. Emily had already started back down the hall, but he sat down across from me.
Emily had come back, opening the door again and looking at our idle state in disbelief. “Eli, come on,” she’d said desperately. “I don’t know how long we have. I don’t even know where we’re going.”
“Not yet, Emily,” Eli had replied. My stupor finally lessening, I’d looked into his eyes and seen that determination had washed away the despair that had swallowed him earlier. “She needs to know.”
And he’d told me about my job and all of the reasons I was unique.
“That doesn’t make sense,” I tried again now, trying to make him understand that his words weren't fitting together.
Eli hadn’t let go of my hands since he’d taken them from my face; I flexed my fingers spastically in his. I really was making a sincere effort to understand, but the only details I had were scattered, based off of my own, sometimes traumatic experiences, and filtered through my abrupt transition to the afterlife. What Eli was telling me wasn’t enough to get around all of that. I went slowly, thinking past Katie to the events of my last week, trying to use them in alliance with what Eli was saying instead of against it.
“In my dreams, I knew what was happening, what I was doing.” I shuddered even now, even though those had just been dreams and the reality of my situation was still ahead of me. “I was killing them,” I finished quietly. I could still feel the memory of the texture of the substance in my pouch. I hadn’t been brave enough to touch it for real, but it already felt like a stain on my fingers.
Desolation crossed Eli’s face and his grip tightened. “That’s what I thought too,” he said, his voice carefully controlled. He paused long enough to regain his composure. I was jealous of his ability; I couldn’t foresee a future in which I could pull myself together.
“It’s a beautiful lie,” he continued with confidence. Only his eyes betrayed his bitterness. “We’re always there, right before the end. We use the Dust and don’t pay attention to the colors because we think their personalities only dictate their afterlife. It works because it’s mostly true. Those visions you’re talking about, they do show death.” He leaned forward earnestly, looking over my shoulder at Emily, including her. She was making a good show of being impassive, but I could tell by the set of her mouth and how stiffly she was holding her body that she was listening closely. I wondered how much of her desperation to leave the room had been based on a fear of being discovered and how much was that she simply didn’t want to know what Eli insisted on telling. He seemed apologetic toward her, but kept going, letting her pretend while he faced me fully. “But, Alli, we’re not Markers. We’re Guardians. You had dreams because you were always supposed to be one too. You only see death because you're supposed to help stop it. ”
I let that sink in because we both needed a moment. Eli had used the term Guardian at least once already. He’d tried to keep going, but I’d gotten lost, because the term seemed far too benevolent for the suffering represented in my dreams. Listening to the rationality behind the truth only made that feeling worse. The people on that bus had died. No one had been guarding them. If nothing else, I now understood the pain on Eli’s face.
I sighed deeply, finding a connection in the only place I knew to look. “That’s why I lived.”
“What?” Eli asked, recalled to the conversation.
“The Elder,” I said, and I felt the tension in the room as we were all reminded of our positions. “He told me that I should have died a week ago. But I didn’t. Because Jadin protected me.” I’d never seen his face, but there was no doubt in my mind that it had been him that night. From the first time I’d set eyes on him, his presence had been familiar; it was what had first drawn me to him. I’d seen him at the party and it had made all the difference. “He saved me.” I knew I would always see it that way, no matter how temporary the reprieve had been.
“Why would anyone lie about that?” No one else seemed inclined to talk, so I filled the silence with that question, the only question that really mattered. I’d grown up with the comforting idea of guardian angels, and, somewhere along the line, someone had perverted that innocent idea.
Eli looked away from me, his face troubled. He shrugged, an admission of ignorance that I could tell frustrated him. “Something…about them spending too much time on earth. Hiding the truth...it's a punishment.”
I could feel the indignation on my face. Wouldn’t I have been the one to pay if Jadin hadn’t been there? I hadn’t done anything to deserve that, and I certainly hadn’t spent an excessive amount of time on earth. Considering that Eli’s dismay stemmed from his only recently finding all of this out, I doubted that this warped idea of punishment had any justice attached. My heart went out to Emily and Eli, who had been using up so much energy on a lie. I wondered if Jadin knew, but I didn’t have to think for long before deciding that he didn’t. His dominant emotion had been frustration at being trapped, both on earth and by the mandates of his self-appointed task. He hadn’t possessed the shame I saw on the faces in front of me now.
By the door, I heard Emily snort derisively. She turned toward us at last, her expression a sarcastic mask. “Let me guess,” she said disparagingly. She looked and sounded so different from the guiding angel that had brought me here that I felt myself trying to draw away from her. “The earth transport is my job.”
Eli nodded at her. “Partly. You really are a Leader, but that’s what the partnership is for. Sometimes we can’t help unless we’re physically there. We need you to take us.”
I didn’t understand their technical jargon and I didn’t have the energy to ask. I didn’t think I’d been dead for more than an hour, and already I was exhausted by the thought of staying here forever. What was I going to do? Live in this conspiracy-ridden world where the main players had been lied to and manipulated? Help people, providing I was even allowed to? Once, the idea would have seemed perfect for me. I would have called it my ideal after-life task, my justice for failing Katie, a chance at atonement that wouldn’t have been possible through an ordinary life. After this last week though—my bonus week, the one I wasn’t supposed to have had—I’d started to think that maybe I didn’t have to atone. Or at least that I could lead a life for myself with minimal guilt. Helping was better than killing, but either way felt like a trap. An ending. No more options. No more living. The idea hit me with force, as if I’d forgotten the truth and was now being punished for my lapse. I didn’t want any job, I just wanted to go home. Rather than letting it paralyze itself by dwelling on that impossibility, I dragged my mind away and thought about my other prospect. At this point, the Elder’s offer was looking good just because it meant I could take a break from my swirling thoughts.
I allowed my head to fall back against the wall and surveyed the blank ceiling. The angle was awkward; my wings pushed me away from the wall and my neck stretched uncomfortably.
“I understand why you warned me,” I said. I thought that if I let him, Eli would have a thousand other things to tell me, and I didn’t want to know. “You’re right. Being a Guardian to all of those people is important. He just kept talking about Markers the whole time. That has to stop.” I understood now, and I was grateful to Eli for risking so much to tell me. But I could learn later, when I was through processing, if I chose to stay. I felt like Eli should be spreading the word to the people who mattered, to the other angels who weren’t fulfilling their potential. Mostly I just wanted to be left alone. I’d had enough for one day.
“Alli…” Eli said in a wheedling tone. He’d heard the finality I was trying to inject into the conversation and was combating it. “That is important, but there’s something else. We need your help.”
Without looking down, I pulled my hands free. “Eli, I need a break.” I said frankly.
The pause between us grew heavy. In my peripheral vision, I saw the whiteness that was Emily lean towards me. I thought that she might have comforted me, but that would have meant letting the door shut.
“I’m sorry,” Eli said at last. “But we need you now. We’re all in trouble.”
“Jadin’s in trouble,” Emily said, and that made my head snap towards her. I felt alarm, but the look I gave her was withering. I didn’t know what she meant, but I knew what she was doing. I was tired of people using those I cared about against me. Emily had the decency to look away, embarrassed. When she spoke next, she was careful to address Eli. “He’s with him now.”
Eli tensed visibly, an impressive feat, since he’d been strung tight this entire time.
“Jadin’s here?” I asked. I didn’t appreciate Emily using him to manipulate me, but I needed to know. I thought of the Elder, telling me that Jadin wasn’t welcome. I thought of the pain in my chest and then fought very hard not to think about how he’d gotten here.
Emily nodded at me, eyes downcast. “He’s the one who convinced me to come get you.”
I was glad to hear that. It meant that I wasn’t wrong to think that he really did care about me, despite the deception. I wanted to dwell on that for a while, a good feeling in all of this chaos, but Eli wouldn’t let me.
“Alli, you’re the only one who can help us tell the truth,” he said. “It’s why you’re here. If you don’t do it now, The Elder gets his way and nothing will ever change.”
“Not to mention what happens to us,” Emily muttered quietly.
I could tell that they were starting to get upset again. The time that Eli insisted we take to figure all of this out was quickly running out. Yet amidst their panic, I felt strangely calm, disconnected. They were trapped, but I wasn’t yet.
“I don’t have to,” I declared, gaining their rapt attention. “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to do this.” That childish quality was creeping back into my voice. I let it because it was simple and because it was the best reflection of the way I felt. Big things like this were meant for big people, and I only felt small and sad. While Jadin was making plans and Eli was the new conduit for all of these revelations, I didn’t think I had the strength to stand. “The Elder,” I explained to them, “told me that I could move on.”
“Oh, Alli, don’t trust him,” Emily said, pained. “Not after what he did to—”
“No!” I put my hands over my ears, clamping down until I could only hear my own fear. My rapid breathing served as a complement to the cold feeling between my ribs. I didn’t understand my panic, but it was all I could do to keep it under control. I didn’t want to understand it. I couldn’t face hearing the end of that sentence.
I felt soft fingers on my wrists and then Eli was holding my hands again. He was calm in a way that was infecting and I let his coolness spread through me until I could breathe again.
“I know it’s hard,” he said, very kindly, ignoring my outburst. “I know that what he’s offering is a lot to give up.”
A dry sob escaped me. I still couldn’t remember Katie’s eyes.
“But you have always, always, been meant to help people. Job or no job. Here or on earth. It’s who you are.”
A parade of people ran across my mind: children I’d babysat, friends I’d helped, Eve, my parents, whom I’d worked so hard to spare from further heartbreak, Jadin. Not projects, but part of me, real lives that I’d affected because of the one that I had lost. The Elder had tried to make me forget that. He’d made me focus on the failure to overshadow the good. And I had done good, even if it had grown from a sad place. I was done living, but that was the one part of myself that I didn’t have to lose.
“My sister’s waiting,” I said in a broken voice. Broken because I could feel my decision finally looming and it felt like betraying her all over again. And because while I’d worried about not helping her, she’d been helping me. I needed to say 'thank you' as well as 'sorry.'
Eli pulled me into a hug, holding me together. “She’ll always be waiting,” he said warmly. “When you’re ready, she’ll be there.”
I let him hold me until I was ready to let go. Then I nodded against his shoulder and he pulled back. Cautiously, I stood. My legs had the strength to hold me up after all.
“Show me how I can help,” I said.