I perched on the edge of an old motel, the roof’s shingles broken and shifting beneath my feet. Underneath me, I could hear the occupants of one of the rooms arguing loudly about something trivial. I didn’t care enough to find out exactly what. Too bad I wasn’t here for one of them; their banter was quickly becoming annoying.
“Slow day,” I commented. Anything to cover up the noises.
“Easy for you to say,” Eli replied.
I looked over to where he was sitting next to me, his position an almost mirror image of mine. Except for the wings. Where I had mine closed close to my spine, Eli’s were sprawled open to their full expanse, absorbing rather than reflecting the light from the fading sun. They were the brightest part of him, stretching out from his shoulders in twin rays of silvery light. The rest of him was dominated by black, from his hair to his eyes to his clean-cut clothing. In contrast, his usually pale skin looked gray and sickly. He met my eyes and I could see myself reflected in them like glass: just as dark, but faded somehow, as if my shade of black had gone through a washing machine too many times.
“I’ve got six more today,” he continued, rolling his shoulders so that his wings shifted and rippled—light imitating molten silver. I almost smiled. Fifty years and he was still testing them out, still enjoying the inhuman and coveted power of flight. It was one of our few perks.
“What kind?” I asked. I didn’t really care—a death was a death no matter what form it came in—but it kept him talking and I was bored.
“Mostly accidents,” Eli said, scratching absently at his hairless chin. “You’d think they’d learn to be more careful,” he laughed once at his attempt at a joke and then sobered. “There is one though…” Eli looked down and started to pick at the hem of his pants. His normally bright face was suddenly crumpled and upset, but he didn’t continue.
I held back a sigh with difficulty. Eli was close enough to me to know that I didn’t usually indulge in emotional conversations. In our line of work, there wasn’t much room for emotion. But his dejected pose was so different from his constantly cheerful disposition that I felt the strange need to comfort him.
“What is it?” I tried to sound warm and sympathetic, but those were two tones that I rarely felt a need to use and they fell flat.
Eli glanced up at me, surprised by the invitation. “Well…” he began with trepidation. His eyes darted back and forth between mine, searching for a sign that I really wanted to listen.
“What’s wrong, Eli?” I pushed, a little sharply. If I wasn’t ready to hear him out, I wouldn’t have asked the question.
He visibly gathered himself and sat up straighter, facing me fully. “My next job. It’s going to be hard.”
“Hard?” I asked, confused. None of our jobs were ever hard. It was always a simple matter to fly in through a window, Mark our target, and leave, undetectable by human eyes.
Eli went back to staring at his shoes. He looked like he wished he’d never started talking. “Not difficult to complete,” he clarified. “Just…” he waved his hands in the air, searching for the words. Finally he gave up and blurted, “She’s a nine-year-old girl. Leukemia.”
Oh. That kind of hard. This time, I let my sigh escape. Eli was only fifteen in human years, and he hadn’t been at this half as long as I had. For him, emotion was still a factor, and though I knew that compassion was something that he would do better to let go, I couldn’t bring myself to squash it out of him as harshly as I normally would. He was still just a kid.
I closed the gap between us and placed a hand on his bent elbow. The gesture surprised him more than my initial question, but I ignored his shocked expression. “It would happen anyway, whether you were the Marker or not,” I told him gently. “If not you, they would have sent someone else.”
Eli’s hands went back into overdrive, flailing around frantically in his customary, overexcited way. “Sure,” he agreed, “but this one is me and I can’t help feeling that I’m causing it. The accidents are one thing, it’s not like I’m the one driving their cars, but the kids… I Mark them and that’s it,” he snapped his fingers for added emphasis.
In a far corner of my brain, I could hear the echo of Eli’s words in my own voice. Questioning, always questioning. But that was back when I still had the strength to care.
“She’ll be better off,” I reminded him. The words were not empty comfort; we’d both seen heaven. Brief glimpses of it, anyway.
“I know that. It’s everyone else I can’t stop thinking about. Their parents and family.”
“Stop thinking about them,” I commanded. “You’ll drive yourself crazy.”
“Too late,” Eli muttered, his tone so petulant that I nearly laughed.
“Honestly,” I told him, “think of the upside. That little girl is sick. It will be such a relief for her. And in the end, her family will follow and she’ll be waiting.”
“I know it. But that won’t make it any easier for them now.” Eli took a deep, steeling breath and I saw some of his concern slip away, mercifully covered by callous. It would take time, but eventually he would grow out of his tendency toward empathy. He’d be okay. Eventually, we all learned to be okay.
Eli stood, his toes curled around the edge of the motel’s roof. “I’ve got to go,” he said shortly. His face had gone from disturbed to stony.
If asked, I would have said that I was proud of the advice I’d given, but Eli obviously didn’t see it that way. He’d wanted sympathy, not a lecture. That was okay. Ultimately, he would thank me. We had plenty of time.
I took advantage of Eli’s vacated spot and stretched out my own wings. “Be careful,” I quipped.
Eli laughed humorously at the ridiculous notion. “Sure,” he scoffed, rolling his eyes like the teenager he was. “See you later, Jadin.”
I nodded, wondering how much later he really meant. I probably wouldn’t see him again until he was done being annoyed at me. That was okay too. Most of the time I preferred to be alone.
Eli bent his knees, preparing to spring, but I interrupted his take off. “Eli.”
He looked at me, his irritation now clearly stamped across his face. He raised a politely inquisitive eyebrow while his toes curled and uncurled around the ledge, eager to push off into flight.
“I bet hers will turn Pink.”
Unconsciously, Eli fingered the compact leather pouch at his hip, identical to the one resting on mine. “You think so?”
I nodded resolutely. “Absolutely. Little girls are always Pink.”
Eli’s expression softened until he looked about nine years old himself. I didn’t begrudge him his reaction. Pink was special. Only a rare kind of innocence caused the Dust to turn Pink, but there was no doubt in my mind that this girl would be included. There would be a very special place waiting for her.
“Good,” he said with a sigh. I could hear both relief and resignation in that telltale puff of air. Then, reluctantly: “Thanks, Jadin.”
He didn’t give me time to reply. Before I could even think of giving him another dull, indifferent nod, Eli had thrown himself off of the roof. He plummeted, whooping loudly like he had ten stories of air below him instead of two, like there was a swimming pool beneath him instead of the hard asphalt of a parking lot. At the last second, he pulled up, rocketing toward the sky in a series of spirals and loops. Finally, I smiled. It was inevitable, really; Eli could pull a smile out of a morose donkey.
By the time Eli was completely out of sight, the last of the sun had disappeared with him. The moon it left behind was low and timid, but it was early still; when I left for my own job, I knew that it would be bright and high, watching over the scene with a critical eye.
“The money was here. Right here. How could it have gotten lost?”
Without Eli’s voice, I could hear the occupants of the motel again, their ridiculous argument still going strong. It was so tedious. Their lives were so short. Why did they always waste so much of it by bickering? If they could see me, I might have gone in there to tell them so. The sudden appearance of an angel might make them more appreciative. The shock might even shut them up—an added bonus.
“So if it couldn’t be lost, I must have taken it, is that it?” The male’s voice was high and reedy, barely lower in pitch than the female’s.
I couldn’t listen anymore.
With an aggravated groan, I straightened out of my crouch. Strictly speaking, I still had some time before I absolutely needed to leave for my assignment, but I wasn’t going to be taking advantage of my rare free minutes by staying here. I unfurled my wings to their full and expansive length, letting the slight breeze feel its way around them. I didn’t bother to mimic Eli’s theatrics. Instead, I simply bent my knees and used them to spring me away from the roof. My wings caught an air current and propelled me forward.
I angled myself upward, flying toward the moon. Other than that, I had no particular direction in mind. I could go now, stop at my target’s house before she left it for the night, but I was fighting that. Unless I couldn’t avoid it—if the person was dying in their own bed—I didn’t like to Mark them in their homes. It was an uncomfortable feeling, invading their private space just so I could begin the process of their deaths. Besides, regardless of all that I’d said to Eli, I had to admit that my next job wasn’t going to be easy either.
Which meant that I’d better get it taken care of as soon as possible.
I changed my trajectory and aimed myself on a definite path. The girl’s house wasn’t very far from where I was now. If I was quick, I could be finished in just a few minutes. No time for questions. No room for regrets.
The world stretched out beneath me and I focused on it, sending my mind to a safer place. The southern Californian city I was working in was built in the desert and nestled in a valley. Even in the dark, with only headlights and street lamps for illumination, Yucca trees were obviously the dominant foliage, grouped in expanses of sand. It was a pretty, if slightly run-down place, perfect if you liked hot, arid summers and winters where the true source of cold came from the blasting wind. The weather didn’t mean anything to me, but, personally, I enjoyed it. Small enough not to be crazy and confusing, but large enough that the term ‘small town gossip’ could never be applied to it. It was my kind of place.
I flew over a dark construction site where new houses sat in various stages of development. There was barely room for a decent apartment building in the space they’d chosen, but that didn’t seem to matter to the contractors. It was a shame. Soon, all of the desert would give way to structures and the city would turn crazy. Across the street from the site was another neighborhood, also fairly new, comfortable, but not upscale. My destination.
The exact house I wanted wasn’t hard to find; it was the only two-story huddled in between a set of smaller houses. The outside shutters were bright and happy, obviously the work of a home decorating project. Light fell out of the windows into the street and when I perched on the roof near the chimney, I could smell food cooking in the kitchen. Altogether, it was a cheerful place.
Bending forward over the edge, I scanned the length of the house, searching for an open window. When I didn’t find one, I glanced ruefully at the siding. If I had to, I would simply pass through the walls, but that was a last resort and I didn’t want to. It was too invasive, another line of privacy I’d rather not cross, and what’s more, it was too alien. I was not human, but I had been human, and my mind preferred my body to behave like a human whenever possible. It was demeaning to have no more form or purpose than a ghost.
In one last, desperate attempt to keep some dignity, I dropped off of the roof and flew a quick circle around the house. There were only two lit windows on the second story: one, a blessedly empty bathroom, the other a sparsely furnished bedroom. I stopped outside of the room, keeping myself level with tiny, regular motions of my wings which I stubbornly refused to distinguish as something as silly as ‘flapping.’ Behind the pane of glass was my target, her back turned, long red hair spilling down into the small of her back in messy waves. She was rummaging through a closet, shifting through hangers with pale, well manicured hands. Blissfully unaware of my presence.
I drifted closer, my own hand outstretched. Silently, I placed my open palm on the glass and gave it an experimental sideways push. Mercifully, the window slid easily in its frame. Unlocked. Usually, this knowledge wouldn’t make any difference. Humans couldn’t see me, but they always noticed when their inanimate objects started moving. Inducing that kind of fear was unprofessional and unnecessary, something to be avoided at all costs. But having the girl’s back to me made me bold. If I worked fast enough, I could probably get the window open and then closed again behind me before she turned around. And if she did notice a slight breeze, or swivel before I could cover my tracks? Well…it wasn’t as if she would have much more time to contemplate earthly anomalies.
Carefully, I began to slide the glass aside.
Then I froze.
There was another person in the room, a woman that I had not noticed before. If I had to guess, I’d say it was the girl’s mother, but it was only body language that gave her away. Her posture was protective; even from a few feet away, she angled unconsciously toward my target, looking concerned and trying hard to hide it. Otherwise their looks were too different to immediately identify her relationship to the red-headed girl.
Now that I was paying attention, I could hear that they were talking.
“Chris isn’t going with you, is he?” the woman asked.
I could see the girl’s reluctance before she even turned around; her shoulders stiffened and her hand clamped a little too tightly on the shirt she’d chosen. She faced her mother with a “Why?” that was more resigned than inquisitive. She was a pretty girl, despite the smudged ring of unnecessary makeup around her bright, but sleepy, hazel eyes and the halo of frizzy bed hair on her head. Right now her expression was cautious, ready to stubbornly face whatever objections her mother obviously harbored.
The point blank sight of her reminded me of the exact reason why this job would not be easy. I knew what that face would look like in only a few hours, full of a terror that in reality would last milliseconds, but to her would feel like a lifetime. After that there wouldn’t be anything left. No writhing, or bleeding, or screaming as her body slowly and painfully gave out one piece at a time. Her death would be instantaneous, the angle of the other car just right to leave no room for suffering. It was my only consolation. Because for the first time in a long time, I had to admit to myself that I didn’t think this girl should be the one to die. Usually, I didn’t think about that. It made no difference who deserved it. Death, like life, was rarely fair. But just this once, I wished that fate had gotten it right.
They continued arguing, the girl’s challenge fiery, the mother’s need to press her point clear. What a waste. This was undoubtedly their last conversation and they were throwing it away on something as trivial as boys. There were much more important things in the world. Too bad they never realized that until it was too late.
“Mom,” the girl said, sensing her victory at last. “You have to trust me.”
“I trust you."
For a split second, the mother’s mask slipped. I could see the full worry she was feeling, how much she loved her daughter, how badly she was going to suffer after tonight. And I saw what I’d missed before. There was a resemblance between these two people, understated, but there. There was a softness to their cheekbones, an imperfect curve in their lips, a strength in their jaw lines that was undeniably similar. They were the things, no matter how subtle, that the mother would see every time she looked into a mirror for the rest of her life.
I broke sharply away from the window, hovering indecisively for a moment before bolting away. I didn’t like to think of it as running, but at that moment, I couldn’t call it anything else. Damn Eli. If it weren’t for him I wouldn’t have to call it anything. This was a difficult job, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t have done it unhesitatingly if he hadn’t started talking about families, resurrecting old ideas. Never think about the others’ grief, that was my one rule, a rule that I’d been forced into learning the hard way. Now this one relapse was making it feel like I was new to the job all over again.
I flew on in a frenzy through the dark night until I realized how ridiculous I was being. Nothing had changed except my own perceptions, and what did those really mean anyway? I still had a job to do. Throwing a fit wouldn’t change her fate. I took a deep, decisive breath and pushed the feelings aside. There was no room for them.
Slowing down very deliberately, I circled back.
By now it would be too late to go back to the house, so I would have to employ my original plan and Mark the girl at the party she was headed to. The idea was only slightly more appealing than the thought of Marking her in her own home. Or so I thought, until I actually reached the party house. How could anything, even a bedroom visit, be worse than witnessing a party? The loud music (if it could even be called music), the alcohol, the trash, the probable visit from law enforcement even though the next nearest house was an acre away—it was all nothing more than human kind’s tribute to immaturity and stupidity.
I found a tree, bare in the winter cold, and rested on one of its delicate branches to wait. My new position did not improve the view; it looked like someone had decided to redecorate the house in plastic cups. They were vibrating slightly in the bass pulse streaming out of the walls and into the surrounding neighborhood. I could feel the throb of it through the soles of my bare feet as it rushed up the tree trunk. There were people everywhere, inside and out. None were passed out or sick yet, but by the looks of things that wouldn’t last much longer. Though I felt no qualms about calling Eli a kid, the truth was that I wasn't much older than him in the physical sense. If I were alive, I would be part of the target audience for this sort of event. I tried to imagine myself, surrounded by other late-teenage bodies, obvious and oblivious, and couldn't do it.
Gritting my teeth against the chaos, I adjusted the pouch on my hip and opened the drawstring slightly, just enough to reach a finger inside. The feel of the Dust was familiar, anchoring. The girl would get here soon, and then this entire situation would be over and I wouldn’t ever have to think about it again. Best of all I’d be out of this tree and away from that god-awful thumping.
It wasn’t my target I saw first, but the person she was walking with: an African American girl who was wearing a blinding blue shirt that was hard to miss even in this mess. The girl herself was much more nondescript in all black clothes that were amazingly appropriate, though she could have no real idea why. She had forgotten her jacket, a fact which instilled more sympathy in me than I could afford to feel. As I watched, she placed her no-doubt numb fingers in her friend’s pocket. Sudden anger flared up inside me. She trusted the other girl so easily, without any idea of how cruelly that trust would be betrayed in only a few short hours.
She wouldn’t mean it, but in the end that would be cold comfort. And it didn’t change my opinion. She, the person who would commit the cardinal sin of drunk driving, was the one that I should be here to Mark.
But she wasn’t, and I watched with cold resolution as the pair of them came towards me. After all, the girl in blue wasn’t really the only one to blame. My target was intelligent; I could see that in the quickness of her eyes as she assessed her surroundings. When they were finished reveling in this madness, she would recognize her friend’s drunkenness. Yet still she would ride home in the passenger seat of the girl's car. Barely two blocks later there would be an accident, a perfectly avoidable event for someone with a clear head. And that would be that.
They walked conveniently under the tree and I added a thumb to my pouch, pinching up some of the Dust, waiting until she was directly below me. When she was in position, I sprinkled the contents over her head like dusting powdered sugar over a pastry. My job was done.
I was more than ready to get out of here, but the force of sheer, habitual curiosity kept me in place. The Dust would not turn pink for this girl; the very fact that she was here for a party cancelled out that kind of blind innocence. Still, I wanted to know. Observing the Dust’s colors was as close to a hobby as I could get.
But before I could see the hue, the girl looked up, her eyes rapidly scanning the tree and sliding right over me. Slowly, her expression became confused, as if she’d expected to see something up here and couldn’t understand why she didn’t. Maybe someone had called her name and she was looking for them. Why she’d be looking in a tree was beyond me, but I couldn’t come up with another logical explanation for her actions. It was like she’d actually been responding to me.
Intrigued, I leaned forward. No one could feel the Dust, any more than they could see us. There had to be a simple motive, but none of my weak explanations seemed like reasons for her to reach up and pat her hair and then stare at her fingers as if she thought they’d come away stained. Impossible as it was, there was no denying that the girl had felt something. What did that mean? This wasn’t something I’d ever encountered before. Was it even significant at all? I wasn’t sure, a state of mind that I was uncomfortable with.
I dropped onto a lower branch, sincerely interested.
"You okay?” the girl in blue shouted through the music, aware of her friend’s preoccupation.
The girl nodded absently and they walked on.
I watched her as she left, awed and full of questions. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. She turned around one more time, and did another thorough search through the branches. This time, her eyes widened in shock and something close to horror. I would have been desperate to know what she had found if I hadn’t seen something equally horrific, something that turned the previous incident obsolete.
The way she was standing caused the moonlight to bounce off of her hair, illuminating the fine sheen of Dust that glittered there. It hadn’t faded like it usually did, mere seconds after landing on a target. It rested there, bold and demanding, taunting. I’d gotten my wish. I could clearly see the color the Dust had turned, and the sight of it made me feel like I'd jumped and left my wings cl.
So much for my slow night.