If I thought about it hard enough, I could remember dying. I could remember the thin scratchy mattress beneath me and the way candle light filtered into my eyes in pinprick bursts. I remembered my head too hot and my feet too cold, both coated in sweat that ran in rivulets propelled by violent shivering. I remembered the abject terror of understanding that a body could not continue to function the way mine was. I remembered the relief of falling asleep.
And yet, I could not think of a single thing that I would say to this girl when she joined me.
I should have made Emily tell me exactly what to say. None of this, be gentle because she’ll be overwhelmed trash. I needed actual words.
Gentle wasn’t my style under the best of circumstances. Even with a script, I’d be lucky to fake any kind of sympathy. I felt sorry for her, sure, but my own death was long behind me and sympathy was overrated in this line of work. It was like Eli: the sooner he got over his feelings, the better. Since this girl was stuck with me, she was going to get a taste of that philosophy very quickly. That still didn’t give me permission to do exactly what I wanted with her, namely dragging her to the Elder as quickly and quietly as possible and washing my hands of this whole thing. I had to come up with something, some explanation that would convey that not only had she just died, but she’d also just been recruited as a Marker.
Aggravated, I threw my head back against the tree trunk. It was easier to feel angry and resentful than to give in to my true emotions. Helplessness mostly. I didn’t know what to do. I hated that. It went against everything I’d ever taught myself about doing this job. Every time I learned not to think about the consequences of what I did, I was assigned a job like this and I felt like Eli all over again, naive and weak-hearted.
Stoking my anger to hide the rest of it wasn’t hard. All I had to do was look around me and my frustration peaked. It was such a disgusting show of human immaturity, the dark side of all of their actions. The noise, the booze, the occasional fight, the frequent kisses and inappropriate touches. Didn’t they know how they looked? Like wild animals, abandoning all humanity in favor of basal instincts. And the girl was in there, wasting her last few moments in the filth. What was she doing? Drinking? Dancing while some boy groped at her like his own property? At the very least, in a little while I could be reassured that I’d be taking her away from behavior like that forever. Put that way, I was almost glad her friend in blue was being left behind. Living like this would be an appropriate punishment.
I waited in my tree for them to come out. I imagined them, staggering and incoherent. I considered flying off, ridding myself of this stagnant air for a few minutes before I had to come back and take care of business. Unfortunately though, I wasn’t built like Emily. Emily could sense the instant of death like a ringing in her ear, and was there to take their hand and Lead them tenderly away. No, like my personality, my abilities were harsher, less defined. I knew that when I sprinkled the Dust onto someone, they would die very soon, but the actual moment of parting was lost on me. On any other day, that was my biggest perk.
When they finally appeared, I didn’t even care about playing my part anymore, I just wanted to get this over with and get out of here.
I had to admit that their appearance surprised me. I had expected an unconcerned gait, totally unaware what each of their steps was bringing them closer to. What I saw was the girl practically holding up her friend with an anxiety that shocked me. The girl was not drunk, not even close. Her eyes were bright and clear, taking in every shift in the ground as she escorted her friend. Briefly, I wondered what had happened. Then I remembered it didn’t matter.
This was almost worse than the original scenario I’d latched on to. The girl had her full mental capacities intact and she was still going to get into the passenger seat. It made my level of concern drop by a few solid degrees.
As they came close to the tree, I shifted, standing up and pulling myself higher in the branches. I knew now for sure that she had seen me the first time. She was nearly one of us, and the veil between us would be thin. There was no need to disconcert her again. Not to mention that the longer she spent staring at me, trying to get a better look, the longer I’d have to stay here. She’d get her chance for a closer look soon enough.
The girl did glance up as she went past, but it was a fleeting gesture. When there was nothing to see, she moved on, over the grass to find the car they had come in. Relishing the chance to stretch, I followed them, hovering far enough behind that the girl wouldn’t sense me and turn around. As soon as she let go of her friend, the blue-clad girl fell against her car. Not an encouraging sign.
“You sure you’re okay?” the girl asked.
Her genuine concern amazed me. Despite spending a night at that party, this girl was a good person, a good friend. After tonight, guilt would eat the girl in blue alive. The funeral would be standing room only, full of classmates and family and even teachers. They would say the usual, heartwarming things about her, but for once, they might actually be deserved.
This should have been Emily’s job. The girl was meant to be a Leader; she would have been the most soothing angel of death in existence.
The simple sentence pulled me out of my thoughts. That wasn’t right. The girl in blue was supposed to drive. I felt a moment of panic at the plan gone wrong, but then I relaxed. Things like this happened. When you least expected it, the good qualities in a human would sometimes show themselves. Sometimes there was an unexpected will to live that gave a person a few more minutes, or on-site CPR by a stranger that even let the target make it to a hospital. In the end it never mattered. We didn’t Mark near-death experiences. When I reached out with my extra senses, I could still feel the girl’s death, close like a tap on the shoulder. This was nothing to be concerned about.
So I followed their car, waiting for the crash: the squeal of useless brakes, the shriek of metal as the two hulking pieces of iron collided. I could feel nerves touching me again now. This was my moment, my turn to talk. I still hadn’t settled on a script. All I could hope was that I didn’t screw it up too badly.
The car screeched around the corner, bathing the little vehicle of the girl in its bright headlights. I could see her face in the rearview mirror, wide eyed and terrified. They tried to swerve, but failed. When the car hit there was sickening crunch and then a loud pop as something inside the engine gave way.
I looked on in horror, completely frozen. My job I could do, but this…this was too much.
Without thinking, I spun around in midair and took off, higher and higher into the sky, abandoning the scene of the accident to those who were better qualified to handle it.