At the edge, I looked back. Instinct told me not to—if I dared the moment would surely burst. I’d be left sitting alone on that impersonal bed, with a wish so strong I’d managed to delude myself into believing it was real.
Amazingly, it wasn’t a delusion. I could have turned a full circle, pinching myself as I went, and the moment would still be here.
It left me with a complicated sensation. I’d been trying to prepare for a long mental convalescence, and it was almost unbearably shocking to have that burden whisked away. My body buoyed as it moved, ready to float without that damaging weight. That new person inside of me, the one I didn’t like, was quiet. She’d been born, and I couldn’t change that, but she was still an infant. On earth, at home, where things made sense, where things had only just been starting to bloom for me, I thought that I could keep her swaddled up. I could grow again instead of receding into submission.
The other side of it was the heady, guilty awareness of getting exactly what I wanted. I knew this wasn’t the way things were supposed to go. A lot of people were murdered, and they had to stay. The angels up here had to stay, even though their world was about to be changed. Who was I to be singled out? It felt like cheating, like giving up, like the worst kind of irresponsibility. And still I knew that wouldn’t stop me. I thought of the person I was saved from becoming, of my parents, saved from the trample of police through the living room. They wouldn’t need to sit through yet another funeral, surrounded by people I barely knew, and maybe they didn’t either. Listening to summaries of my life as if long eulogies could fill in the gap of my absence. They couldn’t. I’d been to a funeral like that and I knew. I could erase that from their futures. I could go home, and sit in my bed, and stare at my backpack hanging from my chair as I thought about everything I’d learned about myself, the good and the scary. And then I could get up and apply it. And if it got to be too much, I could come back and hug my pillow, or sit with my family until thoughts of that rushing sensation that had taken John ebbed. I would get to live.
The only thing that could have made me look back was Jadin. Jadin who wasn’t coming with me, whose face had shown sadness and regret, but no jealousy. Jadin who had no doubt orchestrated this, for me, to let me do the selfish thing. Jadin, my friend and more, saving me from myself one more time.
The distance between us was mere feet. It seemed so inconsequential, but he wouldn’t cross the space and neither would I. I could feel the ghost of him on my body, a second skin, a pressure on my lips. It felt like it belonged there, a place holder until we could come together again. We had been bonded irrevocably by this experience and had been lucky enough to find that we cared for each other too. I wanted to eliminate those few feet and drag him with me. How could I leave him, knowing what he faced, knowing how much it was going to hurt him? I wanted our promised time. I was getting what I wanted, but at a price. A big price. It was nearly too much to sacrifice. How many more people would ever mean so much to me?
I could tell he’d been waiting for me to turn back, hoping for it. His face lit up when I met his eyes. It was less the flash of a firework and more a low ember, warm and slow. He read my face, the reluctance there, and a reassuring expression settled on him. Telling me it was okay, urging me to take the gift he was offering. When he was sure that I would, that I wasn’t planning to run back to him, he smiled. It was the barest upward turning at the corner of his mouth, but it shone happy through the sadness of the moment, impossible not to mimic. And it was just for me. He raised one hand in a stationary wave.
I raised my own.
Stepped out into the sky.
Even with my decision well and truly made, it was hard to let Emily Lead. When gravity began to take me, my wings furled up and out, behaving unconsciously. I felt them spread and the word mistake arrowed through my mind. What a thing to give up. I relished the sensation of flight while I could, which wasn’t long. Soon we were falling. It felt like what I imagined it might feel like to strap a boulder onto your ankle and drop into the sea. The pressure was crushing, the fall inevitable, my link with the upper world growing thinner and more distorted as I went down and down.
I let out a whuff of surprise when my feet found solid ground. I’d expected it to be jarring, but it happened softly, no more violent than jumping out of bed. Still, I went down and I realized that my body was the boulder. It continued to drag until I was on all fours, hands scraping asphalt, a stray pebble digging an indent into my knee. Had the ground always been so rough, or rocks so sharp? I could feel my heart again, could hear it in my ears, and it seemed to scream in its own panic, unprepared to be whole again after being damaged. Tears dripped onto my hands, hot and stinging like a match burn. That word 'mistake' filled me. It pushed against my lips, distending them, but not breaking through.
Grief overcame me, heavier than my limbs, which were already recovering as if I’d merely climbed out of a pool. It wasn’t the shock that did it, but the overwhelming certainty that I was alone. All alone. I’d left behind the only person who could understand, who would have known how to help me work through this. My mind was trying to wrestle the truth into an isolated steel cage. My knee hurt and my head throbbed and my hair was in my mouth. It was hard, this world. It was claustrophobic and huge all at once, and I’d actually chosen to come back to it.
I cried all of the tears that had deserted me since I’d been killed. It took a while.
It was Jadin who got me up. He didn’t whisper some remembered sentiment in my ear and he definitely wasn’t here to move me physically. I had to do that on my own. I did it slowly, pushing with my hands until I was on my knees and the asphalt had left red indentations and dirt on my palms. I pushed again until my knees let my feet take over. I straightened as much as I could into a sky that had become as thick as bath water. I did it because Jadin had. He had picked himself up with nothing but the promise of pain and confusion ahead. I had more than that to rely on, and he was part of the list.
On my feet I fought off a bout of nausea, brought on mostly by the fact that my body was swaying like it was caught in an earthquake. I tensed my muscles and it eased. I looked around and saw for the first time that it was dark, which was part of the reason I was alone. That was a good thing. If there had been cars, they would have run me down and I wouldn’t have noticed. The rest of my surroundings registered more slowly, blocked for my mind’s protection. I was standing in the middle of the street that ran through the growing housing tract, staring across at the pristine model homes. The colorful banners that served the dual purpose of decoration and advertising seemed impossibly vivid, even in the dark. It had to be late, because their fancy porch lights were off, done with the show for the day. My eyes strayed to look for trees, hoping for wings. I imagined doing that for the rest of my life.
I knew what was behind me. I didn’t turn to see the house with its backwards yard and flags in the ground where a pool might go. I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want to know.
I took a step, just one. When I didn’t fall, I considered that a resounding success. I took a few more, bare feet scraping against the road, knee sore from where the pebble had dug in. It was cold, and my stomach gnawed with hunger.
That was the thought that made me remember. In the middle of the road, with my heart loud and my arms dangling weakly, I thought of my father standing over the stove and felt warmth melt me through.
My dad would have cooked dinner for four, probably after left-over crepes for lunch. I doubted anyone had eaten it. They would have been worried, staring at the two empty seats, merely suspicious at first, then increasingly nervous. They would have called Eve, who would only have been annoyed with me until she answered their call and learned what was happening. Everyone would be waiting for me. They would be angry at me for causing the worry. They wouldn’t know the truth. They didn’t have to know the truth. I would. I would know as I hugged them and smelled my dad’s after-shave, as my mom wrapped thin but shockingly strong arms around me and squeezed. Eve would frown and refuse a hug to teach me a lesson. Then she would invite me to a movie night when I was done being grounded.
It was a hard world, but I was headed towards the good stuff.