I had literally thousands of incidents to choose from, but my mind inevitably settled on Alli’s sister. I’d suppressed the memory for a long time, and had succeeded so thoroughly that I hadn’t even recognized the girl in the picture on Alli’s desk. I hadn’t had a choice but to push it away; the incident had haunted my every moment, rendering me useless. It was the time I’d learned to truly believe, not just to suspect, but to know, that the death of that little girl was on my hands. It was when my counselling appointments with the Elder had slowed to a halt because I’d decided that apathy made the strongest shield.
I couldn’t hold back the memory now. I let it wash over me, using my grip on the desk to keep me grounded.
It had been a beautiful day. The recollection always started there, with a bright blue sky and verdant grass, with trees in full bloom and me, a black spot in the neighbor’s overhanging branches, marring it all. I’d been sitting there for a while, watching the ripples of the pool underneath me, the sunlight sparkling off of the undulations caused by the filter. I focused on that, because it was too hard to stare at that tiny gap in the surrounding fence, just big enough to reveal that the latch hadn’t clicked.
I’d refused to go in the house, even though I was cutting it very close to the event. They’d left the screen door open though, and I could hear the two girls inside, impatiently begging to be allowed out. One of them, the older one, pressed her face up against the screen, cupping her hands over her eyes and teasing herself further with the inviting view. Finally, the mother had relented, and the bathing suit-clad girls spilled out of the door, one redheaded and tall for her age, the younger one tending towards brunette and holding deflated water wings in one fist. She spread her arms and spun in a wide circle, happy to be free. Her smile was bright, but her body seemed tiny and fragile. I’d closed my eyes against that smile. Maybe I should have appreciated how happy she was, but I couldn’t get past how innocent she was, how unsuspecting that anything in the world could douse that smile.
From the house, I’d heard what was clearly a mother’s voice: preoccupied, but stern in all of the best ways. “Stay in the grass until I get out there. Alli, keep an eye on your sister.”
And yes, she had said Alli, but I’d seen so many Alli’s I never would have been able to extract just one from the blur.
Obedient, the girls meandered around the yard, avoiding the fence. Alli, her hazel eyes no less fiery than they would ever be, cast impatient glances toward the pool before settling her attention on a group of over-grown flowers by the side of the house. Her sister—Katie, I would learn later—wasn’t happy with the choice. While Alli squatted down to examine a plant, Katie tugged at her.
“Alli, let’s swing,” she entreated, leaning in the direction of the compact swing set that took up what was left of the yard.
“Not now,” Alli muttered.
“Please,” Katie tried, and when that didn’t work, she tugged on the strap of Alli’s bathing suit. “Push me,” her command bordered on a whine. She pulled at the strap again, stretching it until she lost her grip. The strap snapped back, creating an audible slap against Alli’s skin.
“Ow!” she exclaimed, equal parts hurt and angry. Alli finally turned, and she gave Katie a decided shove. “Go play by yourself,” she demanded, and turned back to her stubborn contemplation.
Indignant, Katie walked off, and the sick feeling in my stomach told me that I had dawdled too long. Slowly, I pried open the top of my pouch, feeling the softness inside with my fingertips. No matter how many times I did it, I was always surprised by its silkiness; there was a luxurious quality to the substance that warred against its intended purpose. I didn’t want to use it; the unfairness of this job had paralyzed me with something very like sorrow. I didn’t know why. I’d been doing this for countless years. This was not my first little girl. Maybe it was just that I wished it could be my last, an end to the cycle of victims with forgotten names.
I’d looked at the screen door, willing someone to look outside. I marveled at the sister, who was letting a ladybug crawl across her hand. She didn’t understand that she’d just experienced a final parting. She was innocent too.
By the time I’d looked back at Katie, she was inside the fence. I didn’t know why she’d chosen to wander over there. Maybe the glitter of the water had attracted her and she’d only meant to look until the fence had pushed open. It didn’t matter. She was inside and I gathered my strength to glide down from the tree, landing soundlessly on the concrete behind her. There were floating toys and beach balls spread across the concrete, but Katie ignored them. She walked right to the edge of the water, bunching her toes over the edge the way I might grip a rooftop ledge before a takeoff.
I was close enough to see her eyes, and in them was a bright sense of curiosity. No fear. No regret. No conception of the life she wouldn’t get to have. I sighed deeply, grieving for her. It was too late for me to leave before it happened. I’d have to watch. In some ways, I thought it was the least I could do.
I moved behind her so that I didn’t have to see her face. Katie had bent low enough to put her hand in the water; she was making abstract swirling patterns with her fingers. I put my fingers back into my pouch and this time brought the Dust out. Katie stretched her arm out, her toes curling tightly for the sake of balance. I reached my arm out and let the Dust fall onto her. Awash in a shower of pink, she fell forward, as if the weight of that silky substance had taken her by surprise.
The splash was small, too small to immediately alert anyone. It was Alli who turned, quickly, but not fast enough. She ran to the house, screaming for her mother, and when the other screams had started, I’d learned her name. I’d bolted for my tree, breathing hard, the gasps close to sobs. I’d meant to leave, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d pushed her, and the conviction weighed me down until flight seemed impossible. It was different than Marking someone in the morning who was meant to die that night. I’d been there. It wasn’t a mistake I planned to let myself make again. But for now, I did stay, taking in the aftermath of my actions and feeling very alone.
Standing in the present, my feet back in contact with that intimately familiar floor, I put the pieces together slowly. I’d spent the last ten years regretting that one moment and now I could finally see the whole picture. And what I saw was how close I’d been, close enough to push her in. Or to pull her back. I’d been right there, instincts screaming at me, and I’d bottled them up because it was too hard to continue to examine them.
“I was right there,” I said aloud. My mind had clawed its way back to the present, and I could see the Elder in front of me again, watching as if he could see the movie playing inside my head. “I could have saved her. I was supposed to save her,” my voice was full of awe as this truth shattered through whatever was left of my shields. “I was supposed to save them all.”
“Not all of them,” he said quietly, surprising me. He’d been watching me so passively, I hadn’t expected any more input. “Some of the older ones, some natural problems….the best you can offer is comfort.”
And suddenly, I recognized him again. There was the empathy I’d relied on for comfort. There was something else too, something I’d never seen before, or at least hadn’t noticed. He didn’t just pity me--he felt that distinction on a personal level.
“You know that,” I said, an accusation. I could understand now. The word 'Marker' had put a dam across my mind, but without it, the structure collapsed. Those instincts I’d suppressed came flooding out, splaying behind my eyes in an obvious pattern that begged me to connect the dots. Of course he understood. How else could he, alone out of all of us, know the truth? He wasn’t just our leader, he was one of us, the only Guardian who knew what he was. In the midst of my shock, I began to feel the danger in this revelation. He was the only one, and he’d kept it that way for a long time.
“It’s not as glamorous as you think,” the Elder said, rewarding my deduction with a small nod. “You get stuck on the idea of saving people. You think it’s noble. But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes you’re too late. Sometimes you can’t change the path, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes they die anyway.” His eyes were sincere, but unfocused. I’d accidentally stumbled onto a wellspring of emotion that I’d been unprepared for. I was powerless to do anything except let him ride it out. When he was through, his attention snapped back to me abruptly; that well-controlled person was back and I doubted I would see the version of him that I knew--and had even respected--ever again. “In the end, it’s kinder this way, easier for you.”
“You can’t mean that,” I said incredulously. He couldn’t possibly have done this job—have done the right job—and really believe that.
“You can’t really be that naïve,” he countered. “Tell me honestly that you feel better right now, knowing how close you were, and I’ll concede the point.”
I stayed quiet, because his wording was too perfect to allow me to argue. No, I didn’t feel better. I’d wanted the truth for so long, but now that I had it, I felt not an assuagement, but a rationalization of the guilt that had racked me. It was good to know. I suspected that, after this, when I’d calmed down, I’d be grateful. But I didn’t feel better.
“No,” he said, responding to my silence. “It’s easier to believe that you’re helpless than to know that you were right in front of Alli and still couldn’t save her.”
“Don’t!” I shouted, an outburst of fury that put any previous incarnation of anger I’d ever experienced to shame. At last, I let go of the desk, rushing close to him, because words would not be enough to express this. The desperation that had been building in me this whole time burned off. I’d found something I cared about more than my own self-pity. “You don’t get to talk about her!” By some miracle of my subconscious, I’d stopped too far away to touch him, which meant I was also out of his reach. Not that he seemed inclined to move. My outburst hadn’t made him do more than briefly raise his eyebrows.
“You murdered her. You knew what we were and you killed her anyway. How could you? Don’t you feel it?” I placed my hand on my chest, at a loss to describe what was inside me, that source of every 'why?' I’d ever uttered in this room. It was deeper than conscience and it had saved me from doing his dirty work. But as I looked at him, I knew the answer: if he had ever felt it, he didn’t now. I watched his impassive face and saw the detachment that I’d never have been able to achieve. I could never make him feel Alli’s loss because he was past feeling.
“You’re making this overly complicated,” he said, exasperated. “The simple truth is that girls are very difficult to manage. They’re more sensitive to all of this. They're better at sensing the truth, and they figure it out faster. So yes, I killed her. I killed her to put an end to this mess you started, and to get her out of the way before I had to have yet another of these wretched conversations. She was only going to get more receptive the longer she spent with you, the longer she had bad dreams. I wasn’t about to wait after I knew you weren’t going to do it.”
This latest nugget--that Alli was by no means the only girl who’d ever been Marked Black--rolled off of me. Convenience. Alli was gone because he hadn’t wanted to deal with her, despite the fact that he might have had 80 more years to avoid the matter if he’d just left her alone.
“And me?” I challenged, though I hardly cared anymore.
“You I was perfectly happy to leave on earth. You could have enjoyed your punishment, if you hadn’t been so stubborn.”
“Punishment? For doing what you told me?” I nearly laughed at the faulty reasoning. It was easier than considering the impossibility of staying there without Alli, living happily, making a life.
“Punishment for breaking the rules,” he said. “We haven’t been Guardians for a long time. You’re not supposed to go to earth. You’re not supposed to know.” The Elder shrugged, as if he were helpless. “I try to be reasonable. I only tell if you force me to. I give you options. I would have let you stay. But I can’t let you stay here.”
The last barrier slipped away and I saw the naked truth. He’d been systematically getting rid of dissenters for a long time--filtering out the girls, manipulating the rest of us. All to promote a disgusting lie. All to protect his position. That title was probably the last remaining thing he cared about.
I knew what came next. Silent, I stood tall, defiant, shedding the last of the meekness that had made me yield to his presence. I’d rejected earth; I wasn’t good enough for heaven; there was only one option left.
The Elder responded to my new body language by standing, making himself taller. He opened his mouth. I stared him down, forcing him to watch my eyes. His lips began to move.
Then the door opened.