They say that the afterlife is paved out for you with either a staircase or a highway, like two halves of an identity: Who we are when we are born and who we are when we die. The consequences differentiate whether you take the left path or the right. But for many the paths begin to blur, leaving us with a duality governed between the balance of good and evil. Everybody has the option to do good as they are capable of doing evil, yet it is those who have the capability to combine the two into one and force them to work together that hold the most powerful control.
The elevator comes to a halt and I regulate my breathing. In and out. In and out. There is a staleness to the air and my fist closes on the sword I found downstairs. As the doors in front of me open, my heart feels as if it is about to spring from my chest, on a mile long sprint that my mind and body struggle to keep up with. I’ve felt like this many times before over the past few days. That this is my moment, that it all ends here. But this time it is different. This time I am not questioning myself. Nothing feels out of the ordinary and I know for a fact whether I die here or Jackie and this organization does, it will all be over in an hour at most.
I swallow hard as I take a step out of the elevator. Finally, I can say that I am ready and actually believe it.
The halls are silent as my bare feet step casually along the cold marble floor. There are countless glass partitions separating office from office, each one holding a long desk and a half a dozen chairs. Everything is so immaculate, put together like not a soul has touched it for years and like it’s on display for tourists at some local museum. But I can imagine the traffic that bulls down these halls and through these rooms on any other day. Men in sharp suits and creases in their pants. Women with phones attached to their ears while they jot down the latest information on a new target. For a moment, I could even imagine my mother in one of those chairs in the office, sitting across from Reginald Peters, going over files about how best to move to Sunset and begin their mission together. Ugh, it just makes me feel sick to my stomach. I bite my cheek to pull my focus onto something else.
The hall stops at a pair of double doors. This is it. From the blueprints I scanned over downstairs, I know this is Jackie’s office and glimpsing through the narrow windows in the doors, I spot her. At her desk, hunched over a document like it’s just another night doing overtime at work. Just the sight of her makes my whole body feel like fire.
I take a deep breath, my one hand on the door handle while the other keeps a firm grip on my blade. The strong hold makes my hands shake and I decide to spin the weapon in my grasp. First the blade straight ahead then so it is along my forearm. Back, forth. Back, forth. Another deep breath and I open the door.
I can’t say if Jackie expects me or not. I would have thought she’d jump, gasp or at least look up at me as I step inside. Instead, it’s as if she is so fixated on the document in front of her that she can hardly strip her gaze away from it to see the immediate doom that is now feet from her position. There’s a part of me that wants to chuck the blade in my hands at her head—quick, seamless. No, I want her to see it. I want her to tremble and flinch, unable to comprehend anything that is going on around her. Because of this, I wait for her to look up at me.
And she finally does. Her eyes flash. She’s not angry. It could be shock that I am standing there, but it could also be amusement of some kind. Maybe I’m being careless. There’s always the possibility that I’ve walked straight into one of her traps.
She takes a deep breath and looks past me, out the door as if unfazed by my ability to bypass the man. Maybe I should take that as a compliment.
“Where’s Arthur?” she says finally, cupping her chin with the back of her hand.
“Grovelling downstairs,” I say. “That is, of course, if he wasn’t stupid enough to try to follow me up. Just one weak guard after the other.”
“You have broken into my company, you have made countless attempts at ruining it from the insides… Have you killed Arthur?”
I shake my head. “No, but I will have simplified your payroll by the time this is all done and over with.”
Jackie chuckles. “Your arrogance is amusing. I think it would be worth understanding that I’m the one with the gun.” She motions to the firearm next to her on the surface of the desk.
I raise the small sword in my hand. “Should we bet on who has the quicker reflexes?”
Jackie’s face darkens and I relish it. I may not have been able to read her when I first stepped in, but I know this expression. Jackie has never shown me her true fear. Now thinking about it, all the times she feigned worry for me during our missions over the year, it all seems as phony as broadway theatre when compared to this.
“You killed my parents, you targetted my family and now it is your time to face the consequences.” I step towards Jackie, my hand ready to let the sword fly if she even looks over at her gun. “You know what the funniest part of it all is? As destroyers we’re taught that the best way to get our point across is to rip imaginary holes inside of our targets, to make them feel an emptiness that no matter how hard they try, they can’t fill, destined to live a long, agonizing life…” I shrug my shoulders. “Or whatever you want to call this hell you live in.”
“We can still work together,” Jackie says, an urgency to her voice.
I smirk. “There never was any ‘we’ was there? It was only you—Paragon—looking to screw anybody who you thought you could take advantage of.” Jackie doesn’t say a word as I make it in front of her, only the desk separating us. “But you… I’m willing to take a step out of the box.”
“Paradise has its price.”
“Paradise?” I repeat with a chuckle. “Do you think this is what it is all about? Ruining people’s lives, hunting them down and tarnishing their reputations so that one can finish off their days looking back at the illusion that we pretend was life?”
“We were bringing those who hurt others to justice!”
“Tell me, Jackie, were you bringing my mother to justice when you threw her into the Alto household knowing full well what you had planned for her? Were you bringing her to justice when you let Reginald Peters come after me just to regain some control over my mother? Were you bringing her to justice when you had Daniel Lee keep an eye on me and stalk me just to figure out where my mother was?” I don’t let her answer. “No, you were trying to suffocate a fire that had broken out a long time ago.”
“Don’t lie to me, Jackie. I’ve had enough of it from you for a while. It seems lately, the people who should be brought to justice are those playing the puppeteers. And for me, I’m cutting those strings right now.” I motion for her to stand up and meet me on the other side of the desk.
Jackie’s body language has changed drastically in the little time we’ve been together. For a woman who had been much more focused on her document when I first stepped in, she is now actually shaking. Hands pressed to her front, arms close. Even as she walks, she struggles to have that confidence in her stride. Legs adjacent, back straight? Nope. Jackie has turned into an old woman right before my very eyes. Good. That’s exactly how I want her.
I watch her fingers as they slide across the surface of the desk. My hand clutches the handle of the sword as they near the gun. If she even thinks about trying to go for that gun… But she doesn’t. She covers her face with her other hand, crying in her palm. Her fingers on the desk slide out of sight…
Then there is a buzzing noise. The lights go out and there is an odour in the air. I can’t place it. It’s strong, toxic and makes my head pound. It comes fast and hard and finally I can’t stand it. In the darkness, I drop to the ground and the world around me slips away.
Waves, water, the sounds of seagulls nearby. I lay face down, listening to the ambience. I can smell the salt in the air, I can almost taste it too. Where am I? I expect to feel hard wood under me but I don’t. It’s hard all right, but not solid. Sharp. Grating. It isn’t until I take a deep breath that I inhale it and feel it in between my teeth.
And I’m not cold. I’m actually really warm. Even though my eyes are closed, I can feel sunlight on me, like a spotlight. I finally open my eyes and the realization hits me with enough force that I actually stop breathing: I am not in Jackie’s office anymore. I’m on a beach and the more I look, the more there is to see. Palm trees shoot into the sky next to me. A great, white and blue canopy softly ripples in the breeze high above in the sunlight. Perhaps Jackie transported by unconscious body out of the facility and off to some island. It is an abysmal possibility, but I dare not cast it aside.
I turn my head slowly, my surroundings slowly coming into focus the longer I stare. The beach is empty of people. I am the only person there—
About a yard away I spot somebody. It’s a blurry figure, but it’s somebody.
“Excuse me?” I say, but they don’t answer. I brush off the sand from my shoulders and stop dead when I realize I am not wearing what I wore back at Jackie’s. I’m in a purple tank top and skinny jeans. There’s something painfully familiar about it. I run my hands along the fabrics, a chill crossing my spine. I know this from somewhere…
I stand and get closer to the person. The closer I get the more I see. It’s a woman. Her back is to me, but even so I can see she’s a wee bit over dressed. A heavy silk gown hangs from her shoulders with a train that’s been covered in sand.
“Excuse me,” I say again and grab the woman’s shoulder.
I recoil as the woman turns to face me. Hair the colour of the beach itself and as real as the sand beneath my feet. But it is the similarities in our jaw structure and our lips that pull me up short. I take a step back in an instant. It’s my mother and as much as I miss her and want to touch her, I am afraid of her too. What if this is another one of Jackie’s tricks?
“Delilah,” she says, arms spread out ready to embrace me. I take another step back, ready to jump back if need be. I feel like a horrible daughter if this really is my mother. I want to hug her, but I can’t. I won’t lower my guard.
“What are you?”
“Darling, I’m your mother.”
It sounds like her. It looks like her. Hell, she even dresses like her. I trace the gown she’s wearing, remembering the wedding dresses we looked over time and time again before she died. She was always such a fan for lace.
Still, I say, “No.”
“No, my mother is dead,” I say, taking another step back. “I watched her die—” I come up short and it is as if it all comes at me in great force. That’s where I am. I look down at my clothing. It’s the same thing I wore that very night.
“Delilah, what are you doing?”
I meet my mother’s eyes again and I can see the pain she holds and it is as if I can read her mind.
“What am I doing?” I repeat. “I’m finishing everything. For me, for you, for everybody.”
I feel my face redden and my eyes narrow. “Why? Because I have to stop them.” From fear of this woman to anger and frustration like that. How can she not understand this? Of all people, she should not be the person questioning me about this! “How dare you ask me something like that. No one is safe and I have to be the one to stop Paragon. It’s me.”
“It’s you, what?” My mother is not angry, though the more I look at her, the more I can see something else: pity. “This isn’t what I wanted for you, Delilah.”
I chuckle. “What did you want for me? What? Follow in your footsteps and try running from them?” I want to add that we all saw how that worked out, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
“What are you planning on doing exactly?” she asks me, but I don’t look at her when she speaks. Then she adds, “Going to kill Jackie, is that it? Destroy her like she destroyed us?” She shakes her head in disapproval. “Look at yourself, Delilah. You’re losing it all, losing everything I ever wanted for you. And just think about how much you are going to lose if you go forward with this. I lost everything when I killed your father—”
“It’s not the same.”
She puts her hands on my arms. “It’s exactly the same. Whether you love the person or not, you still kill that innocence inside of you.”
“I’ve killed before,” I mumble, still not looking at her.
“There’s a difference between doing something in shock, out of loss. And it’s another thing to do it deliberately.”
I yank my arm back. “I did this all for you and I can’t walk away from it now.”
I turn around and start walking away from my mother. She doesn’t stand still, though. She is right at my side, tugging at me, telling me it is not the way.
“What is the way?” I yell, spinning around to face her again. “Run away and hope for the best? Wait for them to follow me and my family and hope that it all works out again? I’m going to need more than some hope to get this out of my life because your way showed no proof of working!” My head is shaking, my whole body is and I want to throttle her so badly. Why can’t she see that she is not right here? “I am going to find Jackie and I’m going to show her how powerful a destroyer can be.”
“You’re going too far.”
“You have no clue how far I’ve come.” I turn around and walk away, my mother not following me this time. I can hear her. She’s telling me how she never wanted this for me, that I need to allow life to be its own scales and not to force balance like The Nest brainwashed me into believing.
And before I know it, the world is turning black and I am slipping into darkness.