The Elder was not old. Physically, at least. In those terms, he was only a few years older than I was, a pretty-faced brunette who looked like he could belong to any college frat. It rankled somehow. I thought, and not for the first time, how much easier it would be to take orders from some gray-haired, self-righteous old man who at least looked like he’d earned respect.
The person I stood in front of now was lithe and youthful and looked like he’d actually be a fun person to hang out with had normal circumstances applied. His real name was John, plain, ordinary John, though none of us would dare to use it even behind his back. The only gray on his person were his clothes, a dull uniform that looked like mine except for the color. No one else wore gray. That was his color, his symbol of power, his demonstration of authority over both Leaders and Markers. That the Elder did deserve the respect of that symbol, or at least demanded it, no matter what he looked like, only made the ruffled feathers worse.
We were in a place that he liked to call his office. It was a dark, paneled room with a high ceiling that reminded me of a library complete with shelves, but it had all the atmosphere of a command center. My feet felt comfortable on the cool floor, at home. And why not? I had stood on this very spot so often that I could practically feel the imprint of my toes on the tile. I was surprised no one had written my name on it yet.
“Calm down, Jadin,” the Elder said now in response to my frantic and unclear attempt to explain what I’d just witnessed. His tone was just slightly too superior to offer comfort. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
I knew that I had rushed in here babbling, out of my head, embarrassing myself. I took a deep breath, trying to calm my nerves, to strengthen my weak knees. It was a reflexive reaction, no more necessary than the construct of a physical office around us with doors and locks for the illusion of privacy. Psychologically, I knew that. Emotionally, the action still helped me to find my balance.
“The Dust didn’t work,” I said, repeating myself now that I was lucid. “Nothing happened the way it was supposed to. She didn’t die.”
I could hear the confusion in my voice but made no attempt to hide it. He could afford to hear it. I’d get it out of my system, then he could solve the problem. I was just the lackey.
The Elder straightened up. He had been reclining in a comfortable looking chair that was just off center enough to disqualify as a throne.
“Jadin,” he said again, and I felt my familiar irritation with him resurface. His voice was unintentionally patronizing, like a father assuring his silly son that no, monsters were not under his bed. I knew that he was actually trying to calm me, but that only made it worse. “That happens sometimes. Maybe someone got there in time to help her, but soon…”
I shook my head vehemently, hearing in his words the same useless justification I had used as the reason the girl had been the one to drive.
“You don’t understand,” I insisted. “She didn’t even get hit. She probably just got up and walked away.”
It took an impossibly long second, and then I saw his eyes flash with real concern. “There was no accident at all?”
“Nothing that would have harmed her. The person in the other car, maybe, but I didn't Mark them.”
“And you’re sure you Marked her Black?”
“Yes,” I said it firmly, eager to get my point across, tired of being doubted.
I knew that something was wrong and I wanted an answer. I didn’t understand exactly how, or even why, I just knew that this situation was different. No, not just different--bad. A threat to the established order. Such a juvenile thought, such an oversimplification, but it was what I felt all the same.
The Elder closed his eyes and shook his head in a minuscule gesture that was more powerful than any of my violent protests could ever be.
I let him think in peace for the barest minute, then I asked: “What happens now?”
The words were as familiar as the floor under my feet. The echoes of them bounced lazily against these walls. “What next? What do I do? How can I fix this?” All spoken in my voice, that instrument which without fail betrayed all of my insecurities. They were all questions I’d uttered before, standing here trying to figure out why. The Elder had tried to help, tried to work through every question I’d ever had about this job with me like he’d been old enough to be a therapist when he’d been alive. In the end, I’d learned that hardening myself was better. I told myself the things I told Eli and things were easier. Until tonight. Until Alli and her good heart and Black Dusted hair.
Even now I looked to the Elder for support, though why I thought that he could help me now when he never really had before I wasn’t sure. Still when he opened his eyes and I saw hard determination instead of compassion, I felt an undeniable surge of disappointment.
“She has to die,” he said in a tone more final than any executioner’s ax.
The Elder stood up, his silvery wings casting a reflective halo of light around his face as he moved towards me. It was daunting, that light; it created shadows in a way that made him look much more sinister than heavenly. In that strange moment I knew that my personal concerns meant nothing. Whatever he was about to say would amount to only one thing: I had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now I was simply collateral damage. If Eli and I had switched places, the same thing would be happening to him. I hadn’t overstated when I’d called myself a mere lackey.
The instance was over as quickly as it had appeared. When he came close to me, his eyes were soft again. That alone was such a contrast to his last words though, that the shadow of my premonition did not fade.
“Death would be easier for her.” I detected sympathy, but couldn’t decide if it was real. “If not…she’ll start to see things that she shouldn’t. Visions of us. Dreams. It’s probably already started, but it will get worse. Eventually she’ll go mad.”
Like she saw me, I thought. Yes, that would be enough to drive anyone mad.
“It would be more merciful if she were here.”
I thought about that, thought hard, but before I could come to a conclusion, the Elder placed a hand on my shoulder. He looked at me like he was waiting for something to happen, waiting for me. It was such a subtle form of manipulation that I responded before I even realized what was happening.
“What do you need?”
His grip on my shoulder tightened and I understood much too late that I had been trapped, masterfully played.
“I need you to make sure it happens. She’s your target. Finish your job. Be there like you should have been to explain things. It’s for the best.”
“You want me to watch her?” I asked.
It was a question that came out sounding flat, without inflection. I did not want to watch her, stalking her until she finally tripped and hit her head too hard. This single person had already had far too much of an impact on me. What would happen if I had to dedicate my every waking moment to her? No amount of mock therapy would be enough to undo the damage.
“Watching from a distance isn’t going to be enough.”
It took me a second to register what he’d said. I was too caught up in my depressing thoughts. When they did sink in, I understood with immediate and terrible clarity. The knowledge caused me to physically recoil. I took a violent step backwards, breaking his grip on me as I threw up my hands in useless protest.
“You want me to actually push her in front of the next bus that’s supposed to run her over?”
The incredulity in my voice barely concealed the panic. I was not a murderer, or at least that’s what I always told myself. If he made me do that, I would have no lie to protect myself with. I let the other implication in his words—the only way I would be physically capable of pushing—fall to the back of my mind. It was too horrifying to contemplate, too demeaning and unnatural.
The Elder’s eyes flashed like I’d offended him. “I would never ask you to do something so drastic. That would be against who we are. I only mean that you should steer her in the right direction. If her next encounter—which will be soon, I promise—happens to be with a bus, just make sure she’s at the right station. We'll worry about the fact that she's a girl when she gets here.”
It was his casual reference to the influence I would have that made the thought in the back of my head become a stark reality. What he was talking about wasn’t something I could accomplish from up here. What he was talking about was sending me to earth.
I felt myself shrinking, my body bending in on itself like I’d just been punched in the stomach. I would have let myself fall down all the way, I would have groveled at his feet, if I thought it would have done any good.
“Please,” I heard the word crawl out in a whimper. All I could think about was that party, the noise and sweat and bodies and ignorance. “Please don’t make me go down there.”
He didn’t even acknowledge my desperation. “It won’t be for long. Like I said, the next time won’t be far away, not after she’s already been Marked. By that time, she’ll be happy to get away,” he tapped at his head, reminding me of the visions in a gesture that I really thought he meant to be funny.
I straightened up, put steel behind my voice. “Please. This isn’t my job. Send Eli if it’s going to be so easy.” Send anyone but me.
“I can’t trust Eli. He’s too sensitive.”
Too sensitive. Now that was a joke. Right now I felt like one huge, open nerve.
“I’ll send for Emily. She’ll take you.”
I bowed my head, in shame, in defeat, but mostly because I simply had no more strength to hold it up. The order in those two simple sentences was unmistakable. There was no way out.
I didn’t know if the Elder was God, but he was certainly the boss and I was at his mercy.
I met Emily by the arch, the entrance to a sort of indoor lounge area that was supposed to be a common gathering ground for all of us. It was a place where you might see any number of angels, talking and socializing during our off hours. The problem was that our off hours rarely coincided when we had space between jobs at all. Very rarely did we ever get to meet; it was the reason Emily had been so angry when I’d pulled her away from her boyfriend. This structure too was unnecessary. We didn’t need lounge areas and dorm rooms. But human habits didn’t die as easily as humans themselves. Some angels clung to the opportunity to feel more alive. I tended to avoid the room.
I walked up to Emily, feeling oddly empty. I thought that I should have something with me—a sack to carry my possessions, a coin in my pocket, any kind of reminder of home to take with me. But I had nothing. Apart from the clothes on my back and the pouch hanging on my hip, I was utterly unattached.
Emily saw me coming and looked up. I had been ready for this, ready to bear my shame in front of Emily, but the expression in her eyes killed any sense of preparedness I’d been able to conjure. It was pity, raw and strong, and I felt the unforgivable urge to slap it from her face. The hatred that would replace it would be familiar, manageable. Anything but this.
“Don’t,” I snapped, lashing with my tongue instead of my hand.
She ignored me in that infuriatingly understanding way that had probably landed her her job. Rather than lashing back like I’d thought—hoped—she would, she placed a hand on my face in an intimate gesture that had been off limits for us for a long time. “Oh, Jadin,” she breathed, pity turning into real sadness. It wasn’t sadness on my account, exactly, just for this entirely warped situation.
Warped and, as far as I knew, unprecedented. This was the stuff of rumors, of bad Hollywood movies. Sure we’d all heard that a Leader could Lead both ways, could turn a spirit into flesh again like some nightmare come alive by just retracing the path back to earth. It wasn’t even something we tried to hide from the newly deceased, it sounded that ridiculous. And besides all of the technicalities, who would want to go back? Life was the harder part of the journey. I wondered if Emily had even really known that she could do it before the Elder had ordered her to. Probably not. Probably she and Glen had shared a laugh about it and then she had never thought about it again. Until now.
It was easier to take control of things than to just ride it out, so I kept my voice sharp in the face of Emily’s emotion. It felt good to exert some power after being lodged firmly under the thumb of the Elder.
“Don’t you dare tell me that it won’t take long as if that will make it okay,” I warned.
“I wasn’t going to,” Emily said, and finally there was a snap in her voice, a flash of irritation in her eyes. She took her hand away and took a step back, reaching up to nervously twirl her hair.
“I don’t understand this,” she said after a heavy pause. “I was there. You had everything planned out. What went wrong? Why this?”
I shrugged. There wasn’t much else I could do.
“This isn’t fair,” she said matter-of-factly. “You shouldn’t have to go.” She sounded genuinely upset, but I noticed that she didn’t jump up to take my place either.
I let a frustrated breath of air escape me. If I let this go on for much longer I was going to break down again. I wouldn’t let Emily see me in the state of panic I’d been in just moments before I’d come to meet her. “Yeah, well, it’s not exactly on my top ten list. Can we get this over with?”
Emily nodded but she didn’t make a move to leave. “Just a minute. Eli should be here soon.”
“Eli?” I asked, utterly at a loss to describe what he had to do with this.
“Yeah. I told him what was going on. I thought you’d want to say goodbye.”
I continued to stare blankly. “Why would I want to do that?”
Emily tilted her head uncertainly. “He’s your friend, isn’t he?”
I could only look at her curiously. It wasn’t something I’d ever considered before, though I talked to Eli more than anyone. He definitely hadn’t been in my thoughts at all when I’d been contemplating my moment of departure.
I didn’t get the chance to explore the concept now, either; Eli did not make us wait long in uncomfortable silence before showing up. He landed quietly between us, his lack of noise a testament to his feelings. The world that he could usually compress into a joke had just been shattered.
Eli looked at me stolidly. I could feel him searching for words and repeatedly coming up empty. Finally he settled for a blunt, “This sucks.”
I couldn’t help but smile, even if it was pained; Eli was irresistible. “That sums things up nicely,” I agreed dryly.
“I’m going to take your sector while you’re gone. Don’t worry, I promise I won’t slack off.”
“I won’t worry,” I said honestly.
“Maybe I’ll even see you around, check in once or twice.” Eli sighed, making a sound that was exaggeratedly depressed. “I’ll miss you, man,” he said and held out his hand expectantly.
I took it, wondering if he would be so eager to shake my hand if he’d known that I’d tried to throw him to the proverbial wolves in my place.
We stood for a little while together while I quietly took in my last few seconds of home.
“It’s getting light,” Emily said gently.
I looked around. She was right, the sun was beginning to break, turning the darkness pale around us. Soon our arrival would be too obvious. Even if I’d wanted to prolong things, waiting was no longer a possibility.
“Okay,” I said. I reached inward, searching for the shield of apathy I’d worked so hard to build. I found it and latched on hard. I would need it.
I shook my head. “Let’s go.”
I reached for Emily, waiting for her to take my hand in her gifted grip and Lead me back to earth. Back to life. What a sick joke.
Emily looked me over and her eyes landed on the pouch at my hip. Instinctively I covered it with a protective hand. I caught Eli’s gaze and saw his eyes widen. He understood about the pouch in a way that Emily couldn’t.
“You can’t take it with you, Jadin,” she said, and when I gripped tighter, added, “I have my orders too. It doesn’t belong there.”
“Neither do I,” I spat. So much for apathy.
Emily only held out her hand, waiting patiently.
Reluctantly, painfully, I untied the leather cord. It was like being stripped of a badge or rank. All of a sudden this felt more like exile than an assignment. I pulled it off of my belt loop, held the strangely weightless item for a precious instant. Then I handed it over, not into Emily’s outstretched palm, but to Eli.
His response was such an admiring look that I couldn’t hold his eyes.
“Protect that,” I told him sternly.
“With all my being.”
Without waiting for any other last minute delay, I latched on to Emily’s hand. She gave me one more sad look, then unfurled her wings and took off, dragging me along.
Our assent lasted only a moment before becoming a downward plunge. It wasn’t a remarkable trip. There were no flashing lights or parting clouds to indicate that this journey wasn’t just one more trip from my home to earth. At first I even enjoyed the wind whipping at my face. The change was subtle. It started as a pulling in my chest, separate from the stomach-churning quality of our descent. It was as if there was a banded cable inside of me and now it was being stretched to its limits as Emily wrenched me further and further away. I could feel it fraying, the quality of it becoming weaker and weaker until finally it snapped altogether. What it left behind was like a leaden weight, growing in size and heaviness for an unbearably long time until it was physically painful to carry. I was dismally aware that my wings were becoming ineffective, that Emily was carrying us both. Then my feet met the ground.
I landed upright, but immediately fell to my knees. I doubled over helplessly, gripping my chest. I could feel the rhythmic vibrations of a heartbeat pounding against my rib cage, pulsing in my ears and my neck and my wrists. I wanted to claw at my torso, to tear out the source of these unfamiliar tremors, but my arms were too heavy. Everything was heavy: my head, my arms, even my clothes felt like they were dragging me down. I felt raw and vulnerable, exposed. All of my senses were overrun. The grass underneath me was pungent in my nose, prickly and unpleasant against my bare feet. There was a gnawing, sick feeling in my stomach that made me gag. Mostly though, I was aware that I was cold; I could feel goose bumps on my arms and shivers along my back. I realized that I was crying, pain, shock, and fear attacking me all at once. If this was life, why did people fight so hard to hold on to it?
I stayed bent over and forced myself to take deep breaths. Real breaths that brought air into a real body that needed it. It was hard to think around the pounding noise in my head, but the deliberate motion did help. The tears stopped and I wiped their loathsome remnants from my face. It was hard to move my arms to do even that, but I knew that the weight of my limbs was something I was going to have to get used to. Kneeling here and letting myself suffer wasn’t going to help. With determination, I pushed myself up and willed my rebellious new muscles to stand up straight.
Gingerly, I reached back and felt between the dip of my shoulder blades. Empty. My wings were gone. I felt a deep grief that was like mourning for a loved one and had to fight back more tears.
Looking around in the dawning light, I found that I recognized my surroundings. I was standing at the accident site. It wasn’t obvious that there had been an accident apart from a dented light pole and a scattering of crushed glass, but the place was imprinted on my memory. Emily was gone. I was alone and grateful for it. I didn’t need another goodbye and I most definitely did not want anyone to see me like this.
Finally, I took one last calming breath and started walking. Where, I had no idea. To the girl’s house probably, but that could wait. Now I just wanted to move until I could put one foot in front of the other and trust that I’d remain upright.
Unconsciously, I began to rub at my numbing fingers. My toes were worse, cold and in pain as they scraped first through the dry grass and then against the rough cement of the sidewalk. I noticed the markings when the movement of my hands caused the cuff of my shirt sleeve to pull back. Curious, I paused and rolled the sleeve up. Underneath it, an intricate pattern of woven black, exotic-looking lines circled my wrist in an unbroken ring. Pushing back my other sleeve revealed its twin, identical in every respect.
Handcuffs. I named them with an inexplicable smile that I could not interpret.
This wasn’t my world. Even though I was standing here, a human once more, I was still inescapably tied to that other place and the job that had sent me here. This farce wasn’t my idea, but I’d been sent a reminder anyway. I was shackled and I was not going to be allowed to forget it.