The way the streets are packed full of people sweating in the summer sun reminds me of the battlefield, where we had been pushed so close together that when a soldier fell, their corpse landed on whoever was next to them. I’ve had trouble with crowds since then, but I am here today by necessity.
Today is the memorial.
It was Marcia’s idea to honor the dead, and she planned the whole thing, picking the venue, the caterers, even the flowers. That was before we realized her wound was infected, before she started rotting from the inside out. Now she is part of her own memorial, another picture in a plain wooden frame, another soul sacrificed to kill Jackson.
So many people dead, but at least he’s one of them. He’s gone now.
I slip between the packed pedestrians, drawing in my breath so I don’t brush against anyone. If I think too much about the people around me, I won’t be able to handle it, so I fix my gaze on the ground and count my steps, hopping over the cracks in the sidewalk.
On field trips in elementary school, we sang “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” as we walked, and there were always a few kids who would step on the cracks on purpose. Everyone thought they were cool.
As I walk, I feel someone’s gaze on my skin, crawling like a line of ants over the knobs of my spine and along my collarbones. Unease curling around my ribcage, I stop, look up, scan the crowd. There’s no one, just the bright, sweaty bodies of joggers and commuters and school children pushing in around me. My heart pounds; bile creeps up my throat. Everyone is too close.
Then, as I’m turning my head back down to the ground and retreating into my thoughts, two people step away from each other, revealing a face I thought I’d never have to see again.
Palms beginning to sweat, I push forward, trying to reach him, but the crowd swells shut. This can’t be real. No no no no no no. People curse at me as I shove them aside. I don’t care. When I reach the spot where I saw him, he’s gone. Maybe it was just my imagination, I try to reassure myself. It was just a fear turned into a vision by the people pressing in around me. But I can still feel his gaze, prickling over my whole body.
Tipping my face up to the sky, I push my palms into my eyes, counting to four with each breath. I feel the crowd parting uneasily around me.
He’s not real. I killed him, stabbed him through the heart, cut off his head, burned the parts of him in five different fires. I’m imagining things. Then a hand on my shoulder.
“If you were looking for me,” it’s a voice that’s all too familiar, smooth like a sea snake gliding over the ocean floor, “you didn’t look very hard at all.”
A sob builds in my throat as I uncover my eyes to see Jackson staring down at me, a cruel smile twisting his thin red lips, cutting across his face like a knife wound. His pale hair falls around his eyes. I swallow, “You’re dead.”
Jackson laughs, “I’ve always wanted to fake my own death.”
I try again, “You’re not real.”
“Nope,” he holds out his arm, “Pinch me. I’m very much alive.” He laughs when I recoil, and drops his arm to his side. “Come on Brianna, think about it.”
I do think about it. How did we not see it before? Another sob tightens my throat. His soldiers didn’t drop dead when I killed him, like the prophet said they would. They kept fighting for another hour until, finally, they all turned and retreated. “Oh well,” we had said, wanting to bask in our victory and grieve for our dead, “maybe the prophet was wrong.” But the prophet is never wrong.
Jackson must see the horror on my face, because he laughs again, “You really didn’t suspect anything?” He sounds incredulous.
I clench my fists.
“Silly you!” Jackson says. I creep my hand towards my dagger, sheathed and resting in the pocket of my hoodie beside my phone. “My soldiers were sloppy. They didn’t execute the plan very well. You should’ve realized it was all a fake.”
“What was the plan?” I ask him, hoping to keep him distracted.
“Oh it was simple. You really should have seen it coming. I was shocked when you didn’t figure it out.” He reaches out and knocks on my head, smirking, “You, with that brain of yours, should have figured it out. We had a shapeshifter take my place. When you killed him, I transmitted to my soldiers that they should retreat. As you may remember, they did not.” He winks, then frowns, “It was very frustrating.”
My hand is wrapped around the hilt of my dagger, my fingers struggling to unsheathe it. “But why didn’t the shapeshifter change back when I killed him?”
Jackson waves a hand through the air, grinning, “A simple, often-forgotten piece of magic. Really, I expected more of you. You should have seen it coming.” He presses his finger to the tip of my nose, and I hold my breath, not daring to move, the dagger unsheathed completely. He leans close to me, “And don’t you dare pull that dagger on me here, Brianna. We’re in the middle of the street.” He arches one eyebrow, “The police don’t know who we are. They don’t know about magic, or our war. When I call them on you for pulling a knife on me, they’ll still lock you up.”
I snarl, “Alright, would you like to go somewhere more secluded to die?”
“No, no.” Eyes bright with mirth, he flicks his wrist and smiles. “Don’t bother adding a stop to your trip just for me! I know you have someplace you’re trying to go. Just bring me with you there, I don’t mind.”
“If you think,” my spit flies into his face as I shout at him, “that I’m going to bring you to a memorial for people you and your minions killed, then you are out of your mind.”
The crowd parts wider around us, people giving us wary glances and tugging away their children. Jackson laughs, “A memorial? How quaint.”
The sobs that had built in my throat are gone, replaced by the rough texture of rage. “You killed them!” I shout, pulling out my dagger and pointing it at him. I don’t care what the people around me think. “We wouldn’t have to have the memorial if you hadn’t killed them.”
He rolls his eyes, “We’re in a war. Killing is the whole point. And you and your kind killed plenty of my soldiers.”
“Your soldiers are brainwashed husks of human beings. They don’t count.”
“Keep telling yourself that.”
I am aware that he is playing me. I know it, but I still launch myself at him, a howl tearing itself from my throat. Jackson laughs. The people around us scream and run, falling over in their rush to get away.
Jackson pulls out a dagger too, and it glints in the sunlight as our small blades hit each other. “You have terrible duel etiquette,” he tells me, slashing at my wrist, “you didn’t even bow.”
I don’t respond, biting my lip and blocking his blows. I feint left, then jab at his inner arm, near his elbow.
He dodges, “Nice one.”
Sirens wail in the distance, getting closer. The sound spurs me on. If the police are going to arrest me, I want it to be for murder. I lunge and stab at his chest, twisting away from his blade. My increased furiosity changes him too, and the mocking smile falls from his lips, replaced by a snarl. His eyes gleam with hatred as he fakes high and then swipes low with his dagger, slicing open my leggings and opening the skin of my thigh.
I feel blood soaking the fabric of my pants and dripping down my leg, but I don’t let it stop me. I slash a deep cut along the top of his bare bicep as he pulls his arm away.
The sirens blare louder. We’ve created a large gap in the crowd of people, who, though they don’t want to be too close to us, all want to watch the fight unfold.
Jackson jabs his dagger toward my face but I swat it away and catch his wrist in one hand. His tendons flex under my palm. His other hand comes up and scrabbles at my face, pressing against my eyes and scratching long white lines over my cheeks. I slash blindly at his arm with my dagger while I bring my knee up into his groin. He grunts and pulls his arm away from my face to clutch his stomach.
Seizing my opportunity, I pull his dagger from his hand and toss it into the street, away from the crowd, and shove him down onto the ground, pinning him with my arm across his throat. He looks surprised, then smiles. “You’ve got me,” he wheezes, his arms falling limp on either side of his head.
The police are here, sirens wailing behind me. “Drop your weapon,” a man shouts at me, “Put your hands in the air.”
Instead I sink my dagger into Jackson’s chest, feel the blood spurt onto my hand, watch the life drain out of his eyes. My heart pounds. His does not.
I extract the dagger and push it between his ribs another time. I realize I’m screaming. My tears fall onto his chest. I raise the dagger again--even though he’s already dead, I want him to suffer--but before I can stab him any more, there is a bang, and a sharp pain in my back, and I slump over.
For a second, everything is black, but then I’m above it all, drifting away from my dead body lying on top of Jackson’s on the ground, the dagger still in my hand. A policeman lowers his gun.
I have become another one of the souls sacrificed to kill Jackson, another corpse stacked up, but he’s finally dead. I killed him for real this time.
The police swarm around our bodies, shielding us from the crowd’s eyes, though they aren’t as eager to watch us now that our blood is spreading across the pavement.
As I get higher and the scene below me shrinks, I wonder if my comrades will add me to the memorial.