I was five minutes late, only five minutes, but the Mentor can be quite unforgiving, as well as merciless. I tried to explain that there were some unforeseen circumstances, but he didn’t want to hear excuses — he never did. I knew the Mentor was demanding when the job was given to me … well, thrust upon me really, I never would have chosen it for myself. I was told the life I had before was gone, but it was hard to let go, and the Mentor thought that made me weak. I didn’t care, though. I wanted to remember the happiness, and the smiling faces of people I loved, but had to leave. That’s why I was late; I went back to observe them, and he knew it.
Sometimes I could see flashes of that old life; bits and pieces of faces, remnants of times that seemed more like dreams than real experiences. The Mentor told me that “my feelings cannot interfere in the job we are tasked to do.”
“Yes sir,” I said. But I really wanted to tell him to fuck off.
When I first came to the agency, the Mentor took me around to see our prospective clients. He was aloof, but I was told that I was lucky to be under his tutelage. I took copious notes, hoping to learn from the Legend, as he was called.
The Mentor told all of us recruits that this was a job that left little room for empathy. “One must maintain a cool distance from these events in order to do the things we have to do,” he said. But I could not maintain a distance, cool or otherwise.
I did understand his annoyance with me for being late this day, however. We were given a monumental assignment that was taking a toll on the usually stoic Mentor. He warned me that I would need to keep my feelings in check before we embarked on this undertaking. But how could I not feel something — how could he not feel something? No matter what the Mentor thought, I was going to use the pleasant memories from the past to calm me, to get me through this job, one that I didn’t think I was ready for.
“It’s time,” he said.
When we arrived, the destruction had already begun, but we weren’t allowed to interfere — that wasn’t our job. We just had to collect the product and move on; what happened before and after was the concern of other agencies, who had their own secretive tasks to perform. Maybe time would give me the ability to just do my job, but at that moment my feelings were all that were keeping me steady.
Nothing, however, could’ve prepared me for what I saw — it was a scene of complete and utter destruction. It was then that I knew the Mentor wasn’t indifferent or cold. He had to guard himself from the brutality of our jobs in order to survive. But I didn’t know if I could.
We watched until we were needed, then we swept in as the first ones fell. I caught one and held it close. I could hear and see the memories; flashes of births, weddings, and graduations appeared before me, and with each one there was something they wanted to remember before it was over. I heard one say, “I wish I could tell him I loved him.” Another, “Her birthday is tomorrow, and I won’t be there.” I could hardly stand it. The fear and sadness of each one was weighing me down. The Mentor came by my side, encouraging me to continue.
It seemed as if it would never end. They kept falling, but collecting them became easier and easier. We were finally finished, and the Mentor told me I did a good job.
“Can you call what we do good?” I asked him. He had no answer.
Afterward, I was not the same. No longer did I cling to the past. The happiness that I hoped would sustain me through all of this was gone, and I was left with the burden of what it is we have to do.
The Mentor told me that I had successfully passed my training period. I went from Recruit #413 to Soul Collector First Class. But it was a hollow victory, one I earned on September 11, 2001 — a day I would remember for an eternity.