Hi there! I just wanted to say that I hope you are doing well. I genuinely wish for you to be having a happy day, and that you are get the chance to find smiles too, even if it's just in the little things :)
"Close your eyes."
"When I say, look straight where I'm pointing you."
I let myself lean into the hands on my shoulders and waited for the command.
I opened my eyes and let them fall straight ahead, taking in everything at once until they settled on an obvious target. It was a teenaged boy, shooting competent baskets at a garage-mounted hoop.
"It's okay," Olivia soothed as she felt my tension. "What do you see?"
I took another breath and focused on the young man until his future blurred in front of me. I took in what I needed to, and then looked away.
"What do you see?" Olivia repeated. She sat next to me in the driver's seat of her parked car, one hand left on my shoulder for the sake of comfort rather than instruction.
"A bad fall," I answered. "From the roof of his house."
"That's what I see too," Olivia approved. "How long?"
I had to pause. "I've never done that before."
"Maybe not consciously. But think about it. It's in there."
I thought. Or rather, I let the new, alien part of my brain think for me. It scanned through the grisly image my Guardian ability had shown me, but it focused on details I hadn't bothered with. I had only seen the fall and, worse, the landing, the last breath. Yet he was wearing nearly the same clothes with no discernable amount of facial hair growth between now and the day of his death. The seasons were the same, and so was the expression of almost-summer eagerness I still remembered so clearly.
"A couple of days?" I replied, and Olivia smiled.
"Excellent. Remember, you control it, not the other way around."
She sounded unerringly like one of my professors, totally confident in her knowledge of her subject of expertise, and just as assured of her ability to pass that knowledge on to others.
"Thanks," I said. "I'll try to remember."
Until Olivia had started showing me, I'd thought I had found some control over this particular ability. It tuned out what I'd really learned to do was suppress it, which wasn't the same.
"Good," Olivia said. "Now tell me how you'll save him."
I turned in my seat to face Olivia fully. What she was wearing reminded me forcibly of the first time I'd seen her at the mall: a dark racer-back tank and tight-fitting jeans that creased against her leg where she bent it. Combined with her unexpected demand, it felt like my first week back all over again.
"Save him?" I asked her.
"Of course. That's what you're here to do."
"I know that," I half snapped, but while I'd learned that Diane was inclined to square up in the face of my unpredictable outbursts, Olivia had no time for them.
"So figure it out," she retorted. "What are you going to do?"
She stared me down until I backed off and put my energy to better use. Not that I had a clue how to answer her question.
"I could…Well…" I went through my memory of my vision as sparingly as I could. "I could, I don't know, catch him?"
Olivia's look was scathing. "You do have a human body, you know."
"Maybe. But what causes the fall? Would you be going to the right place?"
"I don't know, Olivia," I said. It could have been the sarcastic beginning of another outburst, but really it was just defeat. My fingers went up to rub my eyes. Today, that was just a stress response; I had left my contacts in my room. The gloves, however, had stayed on.
Olivia softened. "Look harder."
Only a gracious person wouldn't have called my tone a pout. "I don't want to."
"I know. But what's the point of a tool if you don't use it?"
I held in a groan in favor of a quiet sigh. "Okay."
I looked at the boy again. He was really quite good, and time after time the ball flashed through the net-less hoop. If I looked at him in that other way, I saw him falling, saw the awkward way his neck landed. It was ridiculous, really, just the right combination of bad luck to cause such a tragic result from not even that high up. And with a start I saw that he really wasn't that far up, not even on the roof in fact, but that he would fall from the ladder he was using to climb up.
"I'd have to meet him at the ladder," I told Olivia. "He can't go up at all."
"Why?" Olivia pressed. "What's wrong with the ladder?"
"It wobbles," I said, and I didn't need Olivia's next prompt to go looking for the source of that defect.
It turned out to be easy to find. The scene opened up before me like clouds parting in the swirl of a crystal ball. The death was the ending, but it wasn't the full story. It started much earlier, with a boy who liked to climb up to the roof at night to sneak an occasional cigarette or just to lie back and look at the stars. The ladder itself had been there for a while, nearly forgotten by the house's other inhabitants. Which was why the boy had yet to notice that a gardener had knocked into it on a recent visit, dislodging the foundations the ladder's longevity had dug into the earth. With the ladder out of its usual position, the boy would climb, overbalance, twist, fall.
The answer Olivia wanted was so simple.
"I fix the ladder," I pronounced triumphantly. "Or I lay it down in an obvious way so that he has to fix it himself."
"Excellent," Olivia gave me a smile that went beyond proud professor. "It's not just the dying, Alli. There's a chain of events. If you can find the weak link in the chain," she gestured at the boy, "he gets to keep playing."
That made me think of Ben and his relentless Gameboy, and Shayla, who was past the chance to play.
"And if you can't?"
Olivia's smile turned rueful. "That's why I told you this wasn't an easy life."
I turned my back on the boy. "Then why bother?" I asked bluntly.
I'd been wondering for a while. Though Diane and Olivia's company was absolutely predicated on their using me as a source of recent information, there had also been a good deal of mentoring happening. Olivia didn't just believe what she was saying for herself, she was passing it on to any other Guardians she could get her hands on.
Olivia gave this the respect of a long moment of thought.
"By now, I guess a lot of it is habit. Not that I don't think I should be using what I have to help, you understand. But once you get going, you get caught up in it, even if it's hard."
"At first? I just wanted to do it right. To make sure it was the way it was supposed to be before…"
"Before John?" I supplied.
She didn't agree, but she didn't tell me I was wrong, either.
"You knew him, didn't you?" My question was vague enough that I didn't have to give Diane away. And if Olivia asked, I could point to the way her whole body tensed when I said his name as a source for my presumption.
"I knew him," she confirmed. "He was my friend."
I fixated on the way she said "was," on the use of that past tense and how that had come to be the only way to refer to John at all.
"I'm really sorry," I said, the apology bursting free. "I just didn't have a choice. I didn't mean for it to go so far, honest."
"I'm not blaming you, Alli," she put a hand on me, reassuring, but brief. "Of course I wish it could be different. That none of what you told me had to happen. But in the end, the truth is best."
"Okay," I said, and thought it was over.
Against the odds, Olivia continued. "I said 'was' because I don't think I could have called him my friend anymore, even if he were still around. Not after everything he'd done to so many people I know."
"It's not a position for everyone," I said. I was thinking of how I'd told Olivia I hadn't had a choice. And I hadn't. But not just because John was a danger. It was also because the sensation of wearing that costume of power had made it so easy.
"You walked away," Olivia said, seeming to read my mind. "That makes you different."
It was meant as a compliment, and one I needed more than I might have thought. Still, Olivia looked so sad I could feel the sting. It was impossible then to ignore the way she'd called John a friend, the softness around the letters. It told me more than I wanted to know or even imagine about him. She was grieving, and I recognized the flavor of her grief.
"Twenty minutes," Olivia said, nearly herself again. "And then we'll go fix that ladder."
Twenty minutes turned out to be exactly enough time for the teenager to go inside and come out re-clothed and with his family: two parents and a younger sister. They got into their obviously just-washed car and sped away. I didn't know if Olivia could see that too, or if she would have gotten out of the car no matter what. Together, we moved to the side of the house, Olivia as if she owned it, me ruining the illusion with half an eye open for the neighbors.
It was clear where the ladder dipped haphazardly, in the light at least. I opted to fix the position of it myself, in case the boy didn't do it right while he was slinking in the dark. Olivia stepped back to let me lead and smiled with approval when I nodded my satisfaction.
"Congratulations," she said. "You saved him."
The rush that came over me was what I imagined it might feel like to skydive, all starfish limbs and blazing wind from my stomach to my teeth. A high worthy of addiction. Then the ground rose up to meet me.
"What if it gets moved again?" I whispered shakily. "Or what if I moved it into the bad spot. What if—"
"Alli," Olivia's firm hands on my forearms stopped my building rant. "You do what you can. It's more than you could do before. That's the opportunity we have."
I wasn't entirely convinced, but it didn't seem like Olivia was trying to convince me so much as the both of us.
"You do what you can," she insisted. "Okay?"
I nodded. "All right."
We made our way back to the car and began the trip back to my dorm. We hadn't gone very far, just enough distance that I wouldn't call this area part of the college town environment; it hadn't taken Olivia long to find an example of what she wanted to show me. She had made the trip to see me in good humor, and if she insisted a little too hard that she was this attentive to all the Guardians she connected with, I knew it wasn't all about my unique position. Unless Olivia was an extremely talented actress, she truly cared about the people she'd been able to find. No amount of long practice could hide it. She'd come up just for the weekend though and was going home again after dropping me off.
"So how do you think they're doing?" Olivia asked as she yielded at a left turn.
"The angels. Your Eli and the new would-be Guardians."
"He's not my Eli," I countered, though her use of "would-be" bothered me more.
"Your Elder then," Olivia conceded.
"I'm not really sure if he's my Elder, either. It's not like I was up there very long—less than a day."
Olivia gave me an odd look long enough that I began reaching for the steering wheel.
"What?" I asked when she looked away.
"I was just trying to decide whether I envied you."
"Wait," I said, the revelation coming to me randomly. "You were there for a while. A long while. You did the job for real."
"Do you think they're managing the job now?" was her only response—a question with a clear answer and a clear directive to leave the rest of it alone.
But if Olivia would rather talk about the angels, I wished she's let us talk about her, because it still hurt even to think about them. Sometimes I even thought it hurt more since finally meeting other Guardians.
"I have no way to know," I all but sulked. "I haven't talked to them since."
"Did you really want to?" Olivia actually laughed.
"I was there. They wouldn't have gotten anywhere without me. So, yes. I would like to know that I didn't go through all of this for nothing."
Olivia let me stew for several minutes, which was probably wise. When she did speak again, it was in a much gentler tone.
"You do know," she said, "that their ignoring you is probably the best possible proof they've got it together."
"What do you mean?" I inquired obediently.
"If they're doing it right, of course you haven't seen them. They aren't leaving you behind, they're following the rules. Probably tying up loose ends while they're at it. Busy, busy, busy."
"You think?" I didn't like the hope in my voice.
"You know them best. What do you think?"
I thought of the few angels I actually did know—barely enough to qualify as a sampling of personalities. Except that the desperation in all of their eyes had been exactly the same.
"I think they're trying," I concluded.
"Whatever it takes," Olivia agreed.
By definition, that no longer included me. It couldn't if they were following rules and didn't want to admit they'd broken one to get me here. It still hurt anyway, but not as much as it always had, not with the same lonely zinging through my nerves. For the first time, I could see a path that might lead toward forgiving them.
Olivia dropped me off in the parking lot closest to my dorm with promises to catch up with me soon. I wondered how much longer she planned to keep me under her wing. Or maybe it was under her thumb. With Diane, I might have been able to tell, but Olivia was much too subtle.
While we'd been gone, the sun had started to set, and the lights had begun to pop on around campus one by one. The air was clear, and things felt…good. It was an exceptional and calming sensation.
"Someone's happy," Gabi remarked as I came into our room. She was stretched out on her belly on her bed, a textbook in front of her, but her phone in her hand, headphones plugged into the jack. Her blond hair fell in elegant curves around the frames of her glasses, large squares with pink frames. She didn't blink twice at the sight of me without my contacts in.
I smiled at her. Happy wasn't exactly the right word, but I didn't plan to argue with her.
"Hey, I found a new concealer today," she pointed out her own forearm, where the name of her ex was boldly tattooed. Right now there was no sign of it, a testament, I was sure, to the new makeup she was referencing.
"Wow," I said, bending closer to inspect her arm. "You must have used half a bottle."
"One squeeze," she proclaimed. "I could have bought four meals for the money it cost, but it was worth it. Want to try?"
I pulled hesitantly at the edge of my gloves. I thought of Diane's and Olivia's insistence on showing their bands off. I didn't know whether, if I did take the glove off, I wanted to do it to leave the bands as exposed as my eyes or to let Gabi help me.
"Maybe later. Then I'll buy you one of those lost meals," I told her to buy myself time. "Thanks."
Gabi nodded and plugged her headphones back into her ears.
I eyed her fondly for a brief moment and then turned to my desk. There were things I could stand to be doing to ease myself out of the weekend, but the thought was less than appealing. If I'd been wondering about the usefulness of school before, the feeling was worse now. I pulled out my own phone instead, where a text from Eve was waiting for me.
Ready for Monday? it asked.
It was mild enough, and not accusatory at all, though it reminded me that I hadn't answered the phone the last couple of times she'd called. Busy with school, I'd said. Really, it was that I didn't know how to invite Eve into my newfound social group—if she caught wind of our similarities, I was sure she'd call it a cult instead—and I didn't want to keep feeding her lies of omission either. I was doing my best to compose something equally mild to send back to her when there was a knock on the door.
It was a soft knock, nearly a question mark in its own right and quiet enough that Gabi didn't look up from her phone. The delicacy let me know it was Olivia, who never felt the need to announce herself with flair. I opened the door with as big a teasing smile as I dared bestow on her.
"Forget something?" I began.
But my smile fell. My hand wrapped tight on the doorknob even as my stomach clenched around itself and forced my heart up into my throat.
It was an angel, but it wasn't Olivia.
"Jadin," I said.