The first thing I did was call Emily.
Then I waited an inordinate amount of time for her to show up.
Any other night she might have had a legitimate reason for delaying. Maybe she was on a job, or the job was a long way away. But Emily and I were a team. If I didn't have anything to do, then neither did she. She was simply being stubborn just to annoy me.
"Emily…" I called softly, trying with difficulty to hold back the irritation in my voice. When she got here, she would claim that she hadn't heard me, that I hadn't been loud enough and we would both know she was lying. We were connected in such a way that a whisper would be enough to get each other's attention.
I leaned back against the trunk of my tree, toes clenching spasmodically around the branch I was crouched on. It wasn't absolutely essential to tell Emily now; in reality I could wait until she came here to fulfill her schedule. But if I didn't tell someone soon, I was going to crack.
Beneath me, the party was going on full swing. There were a few people passed out on the porch, and a pair who would probably have regrets tomorrow fooling around against the base of the tree. It was a testament to my disturbed mind that I barely even registered their existence.
The word kept swirling around in my head, a poisonous ooze blocking out all other thought processes. Rare as it was, we all knew what Black Dust meant, and had heard numerous stories about new arrivals. But my target was a girl. Worse, she'd physically felt me, and if the look on her face was anything to go by, I had reason to believe that she'd seen me as well. None of the stories covered that. I had a bad feeling that I was about to be scouting into unknown territory.
Black Dust for a girl. Just when I thought there couldn't be anything left to see.
Emily finally arrived then and for once, I was glad of her interruption. She seemed to float rather than fall from the dark sky before landing gracefully in front of me on the branch.
"About time," I said for the sole purpose of aggravating her. Payback for the long wait.
I watched her perfectly shaped lips curl into an unbecoming sneer. At the moment it was the only thing about her that wasn't perfect.
When people thought of angels, they pictured Emily. She was my polar opposite—light in all of the places I was dark. She wore a knee-length, long-sleeved dress that was such a brilliant white it almost crossed over into sliver. Her blonde hair was platinum with only the faintest traces of actual yellow in it, and her bright eyes were the color of peridots. Where the planes of my face were jutting and angular, hers were soft and round, creating the perfect look of innocence and ease. Only our wings were the same, silver bands of undulating light.
I had to admit that Emily was breathtakingly gorgeous. Unfortunately she knew it all too well.
She placed her tiny hands indignantly on her waist and stared down at me. "How was I supposed to hear you? And besides, I wasn't expecting anything from over here so soon."
I closed my eyes momentarily. If I could make bets on Emily, I'd be obscenely rich. Her shallowness was so predictable. But now was not the time. Never mind that we couldn't stand each other; right now, I actually needed her for real business. Getting her to see that would be the trick.
"So what do you want? It's not every day I get such a huge gap between Charges. I told Glen I had at least another hour." Her voice was melodic, even when whining, but it scraped against my nerves all the same.
"I don't care about Glen," I said with my eyes still closed.
Already I was exasperated and beginning to wonder if bursting from the pressure of my information wouldn't be preferable after all. I briefly contemplated, and not for the first time, why it was that Emily and I grated against each other so harshly. We had been friends once, and very nearly more. It was hard for me to believe that rejection and changed minds could so thoroughly change the shape of even the simplest relationships. But of course, I never could manage to see things in the same light as Emily. That was why she was a Leader while I was just a Marker.
I could practically hear her hackles rising. "Everyone knows you don't care about anyone but yourself, Jadin," she used the words like a whip, intending them to sting. By everyone she meant I. The difference caused her tongue lashing to miss its target. For her, this was still personal, and I didn't have time for her petty complaints.
I opened my eyes somewhat reluctantly. She was leaning down towards me now, her face hovering. I thought about standing up, but I didn't have the energy for a battle of wills.
"I didn't call you here to talk about boyfriends," present or past I did not add, but I knew she'd catch the implication.
Something in my tone of voice made her pause, mid-retort. "What's wrong?" she shifted subtly out of her offensive pose and suddenly she was the Emily that I'd liked again, the one it was actually possible to talk to.
"It's about the target."
Emily moved a hand from her hip to play with her long, loose hair. She tilted her head up to watch the stars as she considered. "Car accident right? Drunk driving victim?" She sighed with real regret. "Poor thing."
I nodded, trying to ignore the sympathy and failing horribly. "That's right."
"So what's the problem?"
I took a deep breath and spit out all of my concerns in three words: "She was Black."
Emily looked back at me sharply, alarm marring her face. Then, slowly, her expression changed to a kind of tentative amusement. "I can see her outfit too, but the girl's allowed to wear whatever she wants. It's bad form to tease a Charge."
She thought I was making a joke. Or at least, that's what she was trying to make herself believe. I could see that her smile wavered, her eyes were slightly pleading. The joke was just an attempt to delay real understanding. I didn't blame her.
I shook my head, speaking gently, "No, Emily. The Dust turned Black."
She hung her head in resignation, her hope dashed. "Poor thing," she repeated, and folded her legs out from under her to sit across from me on the branch. It swayed and buckled and a few of the more sober people below us looked up curiously.
"What do you want me to do?"
I threw my hands up in a gesture that was far too helpless for my taste. "There's nothing you can do. Leading her is my job now. I just had to tell you. So you knew that you didn't need to be here later."
She gave me an acknowledging grunt, but her eyebrows were drawn down in thought as she stared fixedly at her feet. "Jadin?" she began hesitantly. "You know I trust you."
I snickered a short laugh. "No you don't."
Emily looked up and her smile was close to apologetic. "Okay, I don't usually. But we are a team. Normally I'd trust you about this."
"But are you absolutely positive it turned Black and not White? Maybe in the dark…"
I thrust my arm out so that our sleeves were touching. Under the moonlight, the stark contrast between them was heightened, even more obvious than in the daylight where the sun had the chance to steal some of Emily's brilliance.
She pushed me away violently, but for once, I knew that she was not offended with me. "But she's a girl."
I held back a relieved noise, glad I hadn't been the one to say it. I shrugged at Emily in response. There wasn't much else I could do.
It was perfectly natural that Emily would think I'd been mistaken. Girls did not turn Black. Black was for Markers. White, on the other hand, was for Leaders, like Emily, tasked with Leading the recently dead into their afterlife. It was a job that required talking to their Charges, soothing them and showing them compassion until they were at least calm enough to follow. Real acceptance came later, but the Leaders were the beginning of that process and it was important that they exercised a certain amount of delicacy. Which was why Leaders were generally female. They had a feel for emotional subtlety that was rarer in men.
If the Dust had turned White, then the girl would have gone with Emily and been given a pretty white dress just like hers, a Leader's dress.
But it hadn't. Instead, some cosmic force had decided to play a cruel joke. Instead of a white dress, the girl would be given black pants and a leather pouch to hang at her hip. Instead of spending her afterlife as a Leader, the girl would be a Marker. Like me. Poor thing. The mystery of her femininity, the idea that she was about to become the only girl Marker I'd ever heard of, the fact that she'd felt the Dust, swirled together into a multi-toothed whirlpool and I couldn't seem to break through the surface to find clean air.
"Well," Emily said awkwardly. She stood up in a slow curve, oddly reluctant to get away. "I guess I don't need to be here then."
"No, you don't. Go back to Glen." I didn't use his name bitterly this time. It was a Marker's job to Lead new Markers, to explain things to them. Tonight, Emily was essentially useless. She was lucky to have the chance to get away, and I wasn't going to try to stop her from taking it.
She still seemed tentative. "Are you sure you don't need my help? When they die, people can be…difficult. It's overwhelming."
"I know it," I assured her.
Her blunt observation unwittingly touched on my real fear. I never stuck around long enough to deal with the aftermath. I was too crass for this kind of thing and I knew it. The girl deserved someone like Emily to ease her into this. Unfortunately, she was stuck with me.
"Well," Emily repeated, more solidly, "if you need anything, just call me."
I thought of her response to my first interruption and smiled. It was good to know that it really was possible to break through Emily's superficial exterior. Too bad it had taken something like this to figure that out.
Emily turned away, meaning to use the branch as a spring to shoot into the sky.
At the last second, a thought occurred to me, and I grabbed on to the hem of her dress. "Wait."
She shoved my hand off in disgust and smoothed off the wrinkles before looking around. "What?"
"What's her name?"
"Allison Moore. She goes by Alli though, so be sure to use the nickname. Most of them prefer that."
I nodded my understanding, "Thank you."
"I think I have enough." I was remembering her—Alli's—conversation with her mother. Probably I had a better grasp of her than I really wanted.
"Okay," Emily said, and without anything further, she was gone, soaring high until she was just another star.
I let my head lean back until it made contact with rough bark, and then shut my eyes again. Back to waiting. That was all right. Waiting was familiar and manageable. As soon as the girl and her friend came out, I was going to be completely and painfully out of my element.
As the disjointed bass line pounded against my ears and caused rainbows to pulse against my closed eyelids, I wondered desperately how I was supposed to tell Alli, the girl with the bright eyes and her mother's jaw line, that she would have to spend the rest of eternity exactly like me.