Casual, I decided, was the best way to go. Casual suggested I was totally unsuspecting. Non-threatening. Just a clueless angel, spending an afternoon off at the park and enjoying her own company.
It was a hard sell.
There wasn't a lot of foot traffic in the area; the place was well-shaded, but we were edging fast towards summer, and it felt more like a day to test out air conditioning than to be hanging around outside. Still, there was enough movement to make me flinch every time someone came near me. I kept my head down and avoided eye contact solely because it was too scary. I wasn't sure exactly what I was afraid of, considering there was no mystery as to what the people who found me would want to do to me. Maybe it was just a suspicion that I would know for sure who was looking for me when I saw them. I doubted I'd be able to hold it together, to keep it casual, if I had to watch them coming.
So I flipped blindly through the magazine Diane had given me, some vapid celebrity rag, and worked on controlling my face whenever I heard footsteps.
Scary as it was, tense as my body was coiled, even the haunted-house thrill of suspense wore off after long enough. It simply wasn't sustainable. The reality was that we could be here for days. When the most we could get was "in the afternoon," the best we could do was make assumptions that they wouldn't be likely to wait long. We didn't know for sure though, and my brief hiatus from school could easily become a dangerous separation. I knew it, but I knew I would stay no matter how long it took. We were in it now. We'd set off our chain of events, and it wasn't even safe for me to go about my days without my new entourage. I'd made up my mind, and now I just had to make sure that acting casual didn't turn into not paying attention.
I put aside the well-intentioned magazine and pulled my phone from my pocket instead. It wasn't much better, but it gave me something familiar to do with my fingers and helped me feel a little more normal. I wondered where Diane was, but didn't dare look around. I didn't want to draw any attention to her, not because I worried about losing my nearby back up, but because she'd come so close to being a target herself. She was on this side of the road with me solely because she was the closest we had to another plan. I hoped that if anything changed, she'd let me know instead of trying to manage it alone. Her lack of fear through all of our talks made her brazen and made me nervous.
I was worried about Jadin too. Not because he was alone with Olivia; I thought they'd gotten over it enough to be civil and had close enough to the same goals to work together. I wasn't unconvinced, though, that he wouldn't do something drastic to compensate for this unplanned separation. Part of me regretted that I'd let him go. I wished very much that we could do this together this time. If nothing else, it would save us the trouble of catching up on communication all over again. We'd only just caught up, and I so liked the page we'd landed on. Having him separated made the ghost of missing him rise back up. It felt unequivocally horrible to know that the best path meant that the feeling wouldn't be just a memory for long. I had to save my feelings for later and lean on the fact that we would have a later, no matter how long it might last. If I didn't bat worries about him down, it could become a dangerous distraction.
I made myself look up and do a scan of my surroundings, then went back to scrolling aimlessly through social media platforms I'd largely abandoned. There were high school names to wade through, and a few from college. People whose lives were on a somewhat more predictable trajectory. I gave them only brief attention; I wasn't in the best mood for avoiding judgement. I did stop on one name—Eve's, whose picture was complemented by a round green circle. She was online, which meant I'd get a response if I reached for one. I had to. I had a list of people I wanted to check in with, just in case. It was an overwhelming urge that made me feel more anxious than actually sitting here. My parents were on the list, but that could be a conversation that would break me. How was I supposed to say even a potential goodbye when I already knew from bitter experience how they'd react to their child being hurt? Eve was safer, and just as necessary to my peace of mind.
I checked again to confirm that traffic patterns hadn't changed. The family gathering that had been setting up when we'd gotten here was in full swing and laughter bounced over to me.
How's Jack? I sent Eve's way.
Her response was encouraging and immediate. We're good :) and then: Jack says hi.
I smiled, and if it came out wistful or even envious, she couldn't see. Hello to him, I responded.
I started another sentence. Stopped. Eve's name lit up to show she was typing, then she stopped too. That was my fault, I knew. I'd made us awkward, exacerbated the inevitable process of growing up and apart that was natural but didn't have to be permanent. I'd needed new friends for my new experience and maybe she did too, but I wasn't okay with it being an impenetrable line.
I lifted my fingers again, and what came out was not the light check in I'd hoped for.
If I wanted to wear the contacts forever, what would you do?
This time there wasn't any indication that she was typing. My phone rang.
"Something you want to tell me?" Eve asked in lieu of 'hello.'
"I was hoping," I returned, "that you might tell me it would be okay."
It was more than I'd given her in a while, and far from the ugly, angry tone that had been my only tool the last time we'd talked about this. She sat with my request for a few minutes while I listened to her breath and the sounds of someone, Jack I was sure, shuffling in the background.
"Is this about him again?"
To her credit, she made the question genuine. If there was any judgement in it, it wasn't against me.
"Actually," I corrected gently. "This time it's more about me."
She thought, and I let her. If we were together, she'd be searching my face with that new, mature eye. I hoped what she might see was some maturity in turn. After all, no matter how things panned out with Jadin, I'd never escape living with myself.
"You really like all of that?"
More rustling. This time, I knew, she was gesturing as if to point at all of me. It wasn't just the eyes, and she knew it.
"I think," I told her, "I'm going to give it a try."
"Okay, Alli," she said. "Okay."
"To answer your question," she continued. "If you want to wear the contacts forever, I won't stop you. But."
"I reserve the right to laugh at you if it just gets too ridiculous."
"Oh, Eve," I winced and said it before I could stop myself. "You are going to lose it when you see my tattoos."
"You got a tattoo?" Her voice was shrill with shock, but still contained no judgement.
"Oh my God," she replied, calmer through the sheer force of loving exasperation. "Where?"
"That's better than some answers I could imagine," she declared. "Well, I guess I did always want you to loosen up a little. Just do me a favor and wait until next time to tell me if you have any weird piercings, okay?"
I chuckled with warmth and relief. "Fair enough. But only if you'll agree to be on my side when it's time to tell my parents."
"Deal," she agreed with finality. "You're feeling better, aren't you?"
"Yes," I replied with liberating honesty. "I am."
"Good. I'll call you soon, okay? You can tell me about any other body alterations you're planning to sneak in."
I laughed again, because I could. "Sounds good. Take care of yourself, Eve."
We hung up, and for a little while, I just stared at my phone's blank screen. The light around me was starting to turn to evening shades; the afternoon was ending, and I couldn't help but feel positively about it, even if that meant we'd be starting over again tomorrow. The light was enough for me to see my reflection. I was smiling. The burden I'd just put down was enough to make anyone smile.
It was in the reflection that I caught the glimpse of a new color, one that stood out from the fading pink of the sky and was closer than it had any right to be. Seeing it, having a moment's warning, stopped me from screaming out right, but not from jumping when a hand closed on my forearm, just above my band.
I was halfway off the bench before I could focus properly, before I even registered that I'd stood up. Fear raged over me in a wave that took me by the throat.
"Alli, it's okay. It's just me."
"Tess," I breathed, and then breathed again to calm my racing heart. "You scared me."
"Sorry," she said.
She still had her hand on me, tugging me down until I was sitting again. That was the first strange thing I noticed.
The second was obvious but took me a minute to articulate. Plain and simple, she looked different. In the motel room, she'd shaken my hand, but otherwise she may as well have been a ghost. Though she was touching me now, I hadn't felt her weight settle on the bench next to me, which had contributed to my startle. Still she looked like she should be able to touch me. Except for her wings, whose peaks were visible over her shoulders, she looked like she could be any normal person out for a summer stroll, whole and approachable. Human.
"Can," I asked with a quick look around, "can people see you?"
She looked amused by my confusion. "I'm not really here," she explained. She let go of me to hold up a bare wrist. "When I'm like this, people can't see me unless they need to."
"Unless they're dying," I clarified unnecessarily.
"Yeah. It's a pretty handy trick. Imagine if a Leader could help with the actual saving part too. An extra pair of hands, a distraction. Everything ends up feeling a lot more possible, doesn't it?"
"It does," I agreed, and tried not to think of the people who hadn't had that advantage. "That is handy. You've all learned a lot already."
"The incentive is pretty high."
I nodded and did another quick surroundings check. We were in the middle of a lull in foot traffic; there wasn't anyone nearby to see me talking to myself, let alone anyone malicious. I was still on edge though, from the surprise, and from that other thing I still couldn't quite pin down about Tess. Jadin had been no help when I'd asked him about her. I suspected that was because he'd correctly read my spark of jealousy and was being especially cautious. More than that though, I thought he was just oblivious to this particular concern. Whatever was striking me about Tess, he didn't feel it.
He'd been right though, when he'd said that Tess was part of the team. Really, she should have been here the whole time. I expected that Tess knew it too.
"We're doing a stakeout," I informed her.
"Oh?" she replied. "Seems like you've learned a lot too."
"Not enough," I admitted. "We were working on it today, but it looks like the day's over."
Tess made a noise of assent that lacked all enthusiasm. In fact, apart from her grabbing me to start, she hadn't shown much interest in this moment.
"Jadin's around," I said, "if you're here to talk to him."
"I know," she assured me, and pointed in the general direction of the buildings where Jadin was waiting. "But actually, I wanted to talk to you."
"Oh?" I felt my eyebrows try to raise to my hairline and ignored the way my heart clenched. "Eli has a message for me?"
It was the only explanation, and one I wasn't ready for. I was afraid of what he might want to say to me, after what I'd left him with.
"Eli doesn't know I'm here."
I chuckled with too much vigor. "There's a lot of that going around. Poor guy."
"Yeah," she agreed, and looked away from me.
It wasn't a comfortable gesture. In profile, her jaw looked tight over clenched teeth. She looked frustrated and uneasy in her new form. And she was still so distractingly familiar.
"I'm sorry," I interjected, "but do I know you?"
Tess looked back at me. Her eyebrows raised in a more graceful arc than I could ever manage, but her eyes were less inquisitive than they were watchful.
"It's just," I floundered. "You look so familiar. It's been bothering me since the first time."
"I don't think we've met," she said. "I came after you."
I shook my head as if to shake off the embarrassment of being caught out. "No, of course not. Maybe I'm just thinking of some crazy dream."
Tess made a sound that might have been called a laugh if it didn't have such a dark tint. "You sound just like me."
"Blaming it all on a dream."
This time I knew I didn't succeed in hiding my self-consciousness. My face grew warm and it was all I could do not to look over my shoulder toward my friends. I hoped Jadin would see Tess soon and come end this awkward episode.
"I'm sorry," I said. "It's been a rough couple of days."
"Don't be sorry," Tess said, softer, soft enough that I was reminded of what her job entailed. "One time—when I was alive, I mean—I had a dream. Worst one of my life, probably. There was a bus crash. I was Leading so many people. And when I woke up…"
"When you woke up, you found out it wasn't a dream," I finished for her, voice small and shaky.
She nodded. "I remember it so vividly. I'll never laugh at you for mentioning dreams."
"It happened to me too," I told her. "I thought I was going crazy, but it turns out, I was just dying."
I still wasn't sure which was worse. That day in my living room with Jadin on my couch and the news report about the bus crash between us wasn't one I'd forgotten.
I watched Tess and I felt that pull. She felt it too, or she wouldn't be here, talking to me when there were so many other members of our team. Something was trying to make sense, something that I might just be able to see if I looked with the buried part of me that made the visions work. But here, sitting next to Tess who was only visible to people who needed her, I felt very, very human.
"What's going on, Tess?" I asked outright. "I'm really tired of guessing. If you know something I need to know, I want you to tell me."
"That's why I'm here," she promised. "But…"
"Can it not be here? I'm feeling a little…exposed. And you do look like you're talking to yourself." She gestured towards the trees and the family gathering that was still running.
That was true, but I didn't think that was the reason she looked so urgent, or so nervous.
"I'm okay with that," I stated. Challenged, really.
"Please," she insisted. "It's private."
It was. Against my better judgement, I agreed with that. This, this one, unexpected piece of the puzzle was between me and Tess. It was important. Important in the same way that this unsuccessful fishing trip was important. I would have gone with her instantly if she was doing a better job of looking me in the face.
Tess saw me dithering.
In a motion that seemed like a last resort, she leaned into me. Her dark hair brushed my face as she whispered in my ear. Three words, as hard and as clear as her new appearance. Three words that made up my mind.
I pulled away from her and met her eyes steadily.
"Okay, Tess," I said. "Okay."
I held us in place long enough so that I could text Diane while Tess watched impatiently. Diane would be mad. They all would. They'd have to live with it.
My message sent, I followed Tess off of the bench and into the depths of the park.