An excerpt from
The cold air whispers past, turning my tears to icy droplets against my cheeks. Still, I remain motionless before the words etched in the granite stone. I’ve stared so long that they’ve become nothing but a meaningless jumble of lines and squiggles. I don’t want to move for fear they will right themselves again.
Josh’s hand in mine is my one source of warmth and strength. He squeezes, patient as the Angel he is. He knows how difficult it is for me, visiting my own grave.
Finally, I slip my hand from his and kneel on the ground, which still isn’t completely grown over with grass. My fingers trace the years on the stone: 1998–2014. It’s such a short time to have lived my life.
I squeeze my eyelids shut, releasing the built-up moisture that blurs my vision, then notice something set at the base of the stone. I tentatively reach to retrieve it, trembling as I hold up a small shell.
Josh kneels next to me, folding me into his arms and pressing his lips to the top of my head. He always knows what I need.
“It’s beautiful,” he says into my hair.
I swallow so I can force the words past the swelling in my throat. “Noah and I found it on the beach in Vancouver when I was ten and he was nine. We argued about who got to keep it. I just thought it was pretty, but Noah was convinced it had magic powers.” The smile tugging at my mouth feels unnatural and stiff, like my skin is turning to stone. “Mom said she saw me find it first, and Noah got mad and kicked at something in the sand. He fell and twisted his ankle. I gave him the shell and told him he had the power to make it better. I still remember how he threw his arms around me.”
“Huh. A nice gesture from the kid.” Josh kisses my hair again and stands, offering me a hand.
I try to ignore the sarcasm in his voice—it isn’t like it’s unfounded. Josh has no memories of Noah, and has only seen his actions lately. But it’s nearly impossible not to defend my brother. Maybe I could laugh it off if my family was getting along all right. But from everything I’ve seen on my visits, they’re falling to pieces.
Time to change the subject.
“Are you sure you don’t want to see yours?” I ask, turning toward the rolling hills and the rest of the uniform graves. We died at the same time in the same place, so his grave is probably here, too.
“I doubt my dad sprang for this place,” he says with a laugh, but I can hear the edge in his voice. “Besides—being with you now, in Heaven? That’s what I call living. That’s all I want.”
This time I smile, slipping the shell into my pocket and entwining my fingers with his. “Then let’s go back. We should get to work, and I’ve had enough self-torture for today.”
I concentrate and the warm bubble of light envelopes us both. When Ms. Alvarez used to transport me this way, it was tight and uncomfortable. Apparently, that was just Ms. Alvarez—it’s actually quite nice when I do it myself. Not that she ever told me I could.
That wasn’t the only information she chose not share.
“Home sweet home,” Josh says, breaking away and flopping down on a squishy leather sofa he conjured a few days back. Our dog, Tommy Two, jumps into his lap, yipping happily.
I roll my eyes at Josh with a sly smile. I like to tease him about his choice in furnishings, which never match the rest of the décor. Everything I conjure is light in color with cotton or satin textures. I guess it is a bit girly.
A remote control materializes in Josh’s hand and I slip between him and his view of the giant-screen TV. Our knees press together as I place my hands on my hips. “Give a guy an inch…” I tease.
He tosses the remote into the air where it disappears and pulls me down on top of him, sending Tommy Two running and making me squeal.
“There are things I’d rather do than watch TV,” he says in a husky voice that sends a hum down all my nerve endings. Before I can respond, his lips are on mine and I lose myself in the scent and feel of Josh.
Unfortunately, I recognize what he’s doing. “I love you for trying to distract me,” I say between kisses.
He pulls back with a sigh and lets his thumbs skim the tops of my shoulders, where my robes have slipped down to reveal bare skin. I try to concentrate despite the tremors this sends through my body.
“Hmm?” I never knew how beautiful my name sounded until I heard Josh say it.
“I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.”
The words warm me from the inside because I know he’s not just talking about being an Angel in Heaven. “But?” I ask, knowing there’s more beneath the surface.
“But,” he says, sapphire eyes boring into mine, “you aren’t.”
“It’s not you,” I say, climbing into the seat next to him and reaching for a piece of hair to twirl.
“I know. It’s your family.” Gently, he slips the hair from my fingers and brushes it away from my face. He purses his lips like he wants to say more, but doesn’t know how.
I pick at the fabric of my robes, concentrating on that instead of his intense stare. “They can’t get past my death. You should’ve seen the dark circles Mom had yesterday. Dad’s been working late every night, longer and longer hours, and then there’s Noah.” I stop there because it hurts too much to say out loud what Noah has become. That would make it real.
Josh squeezes me into his side. “You can’t blame yourself.” His words are clipped, punched out one by one with care. I can tell he’s holding back.
“He isn’t that guy, Josh. He never did that stuff—not when I was alive. He’s hurting, I know it. And I know I can’t help that I died, but he’s hurting because of me.”
“Your friend Emily is heartbroken, but she didn’t do anything self-destructive.”
“She moved away. Besides, she’s not family.” The argument comes out automatically because it’s what I’ve told myself over and over again.
“Yeah, she moved away. Because of Noah.”
“That’s not fair. He’s always had a crush on her. He just came on a little strong, so she was…uncomfortable.” I recall finding Emily at her new apartment closer to the community college. She’d started early after graduating early—she was always ahead in school. After listening to several conversations between her and her mother, I gathered the whole family had moved because Noah wouldn’t leave her alone after my death. “Stalking,” she’d called it. I didn’t visit her again after that.
“Noah makes his own choices, just like I did.” Josh’s fingers find a spot under my chin so he can pry my face up to look him in the eyes.
I keep my gaze cast downward. I wasn’t thrilled with the choices Josh made, either, but he changed, and Noah can put an end to his bad behavior, too. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing. You didn’t, either, especially when you had that horrible demon ‘guiding’ you.”
“Keira didn’t control my behavior before or after I died. I did. And just like me, Noah knows exactly what he’s doing.” Josh’s voice is hard and he won’t let me go, so I finally meet his scrutinizing look with a glare.
“He feels abandoned by me,” I say, shoving my way off the stupid leather couch. “He’s self-medicating to make the hurt go away.”
Josh snorts. “Yeah. That’s why he’s started dealing, ditching, and drinking, too. I suppose that’s also why he acted like an ass to that kid the other day.”
I wince, feeling like I’ve been punched in the gut. Josh had been with me on that visit. He’d seen the whole thing, just like me. Noah and his friend had cornered some guy and his girlfriend after school. I can still see his buddy, Hale, stepping in front of the girl, grabbing her ass, and saying, “I can pay more than this dick.”
Instead of coming to her defense, Noah had backed him up. The boyfriend had looked so nervous. Hale shoved him in the chest and Noah laughed the whole time Hale wailed on him.
Then came the worst part. The girl pulled her cell out and tried to call for help, but Noah knocked the phone out of her hand, distracting her with more lewd comments.
He and Hale high-fived while I sobbed and screamed at Noah. Josh held me back so I wouldn’t intervene.
We’re not allowed to interact with Noah.
Mr. Griffith made it quite clear: I’m allowed unrestricted access to my family and friends as long as I don’t reveal myself or intervene in their lives, under penalty of losing my visitation privileges. Supposedly revealing my fate would “make things more difficult for them.”
I don’t get it. How can things get worse than they already are? But when I try to protest, Mr. Griffith gets that sympathetic look in his eye and changes the subject. Usually to potential Antichrists and how to find them.
But how can I concentrate on saving strangers when I can’t even help my little brother?
“Noah’s not a bad guy,” I say, my voice cracking, just like the image of my brother in my mind.
“He’s a prick.” Josh stands and pulls me into his arms again. This time I go limp and let him hold me, but I don’t embrace him back. I lose the battle with my tears, which fall hot and heavy down my face.
“Look,” Josh continues, “I just don’t want you feeling responsible for his actions.”
My hand slides inside my pocket and I rub the smooth surface of the shell, remembering Noah’s nine-year-old, puppy-dog eyes. “I know I can’t control his choices,” I say softly.
But I’m not sure I believe it.