Death Angel (Chapter Seventeen)

SHE DIDN'T HURT. DREA THOUGHT SHE PROBABLY SHOULD be hurting, but she didn't. That was okay, because she wasn't a fan of hurting.

Everything seemed distant and unreal. She knew she should be trying to get up, that there was an urgent reason why she should run, yet she had no desire to move. Moving didn't seem to be an option, anyway. Maybe after a while she'd get up.

No, no, she couldn't lie to herself, even now. Especially now. She was dying. She knew it, and it was okay. If she'd had a choice, yeah, she'd keep trying, but choice had been taken away and letting go was almost a relief. She could feel herself dying, feel each breath coming slower and slower. Her heartbeat-was her heart even beating? She couldn't feel it at all. Maybe it had stopped. That was okay, too, because it had just been going through the motions since her baby died and it was tired of the act.

Her baby… She hadn't named him. She'd been in shock from blood loss, close to dying herself because the doctor hadn't been able to stop the bleeding, and they had taken the tiny body away. No one had ever brought any birth certificate forms for her to fill out, because he'd never taken a single breath. Stillborn. That was the term for it. He'd been so still when he was born, even though, up until an hour before, he'd been entertaining himself by turning flips and trying to kick her ribs out. Then there had been the sudden, severe pain, and the bleeding that soaked her clothes. She didn't have a car, she didn't even have a license, because she wouldn't turn sixteen for another month and she was at home by herself. By the time she got to the hospital, it was already too late. Her baby never had a name.

The memories floated in and out of her head, as vivid as if she were living through the experience all over again, except this time when she saw his little body she knew that soon she'd be joining him in the nothingness of death. Soon, sweetheart, she promised him.

Her vision was weird, all foggy and dark, but abruptly there was a face in front of her, a face she knew. She saw those dark opal eyes that had been both dream-come-true and nightmare to her, the strong bone structure, the lips that she knew were soft and gentle. She had been terrified of him, yet now she wasn't. Now she wanted to reach out and lay her hand along his jaw, feel the scrape of his beard stubble, the coolness of his skin overlying the heat of muscle, but her arms wouldn't work. Nothing worked.

Was he really there, or was she seeing him the same way she'd seen her baby? She heard a whisper of sound, an odd echo of the promise she had made just a moment ago. Watching him, she also felt the echo of an emotion she'd thought she would never feel again, and she wanted to tell him, she tried to tell him, but her vision was going even darker and she couldn't really see him any longer.

Then the light came, a bright pure light behind him that seemed to grow and grow until he was nothing but a silhouette against it. She saw something, something at once beautiful and terrible, and she knew it had come for her.

"Angel," she whispered, and died.

DEATH WASN'T SUPPOSED to be like this. It was supposed to be nothing. She seemed to be hovering, looking down, watching him get something out of her purse, take her laptop, but none of that meant anything. Then a strong compulsion began pulling her away from the scene, taking her somewhere else, but she had no sense of distance or speed or even really moving. It was more like a transition, as if one instant she was one thing and the next instant she was something else.

Drea kept waiting for the lights to go out, for her sense of consciousness to shut down. She kept waiting for the nothing, though she wondered how she'd know, since only consciousness could comprehend the lack of consciousness and self. But her thoughts remained, her sense of self remained, and it was all very confusing.

So maybe there was no nothing, maybe there was something. Maybe death really was more of a passing than an end. Well, if that were true, wouldn't she be someone else now? Or would she always be herself, just somewhere and someone else.

In that case, wasn't there supposed to be some sort of tunnel, with a bright light at the end of it, and people who had loved her and were already dead should be waiting to greet her, right? She'd seen a bright light, and she'd seen something that she thought was an angel, but she'd never seen an angel before so how would she know if that was one? But there was no tunnel, no line of people waiting to greet her, and she began to get agitated.

"Where is everyone?" she asked irritably, the sound curiously flat, as if she hadn't really spoken and hadn't really heard anything. This didn't make sense. If she existed, then she had to exist somewhere, and she didn't seem to be anywhere. There was nothing around her, nothing and no one.

If death turned out to be a lack of being rather than a lack of consciousness, well, then, that sucked.

"Where am I?" she snapped, unable to control her annoyance. She'd gone years without showing any temper at all, but here she was dead for just a few minutes and already she was losing control.

"You're here," a woman's voice said, and abruptly Drea was there, in an actual place, though she had no idea where that place was. She stood on a rolling green lawn, with fragrant grass soft beneath her feet. The air was rich with the scents of spring, and at such a perfect temperature that it was neither warm nor chilly, but was almost indecipherable. She could hear the drone of bees, and see a bright kaleidoscope of flowers, huge beds of flowers, dotting the landscape. There were trees, and a blue sky dotted with white clouds, and a sun. There were buildings gleaming whitely in an indefinable distance. She saw all of that, and the absolute harmony of it was so beautiful it almost hurt to look around her. What she didn't see, despite the voice she'd heard, were other people.

"I can't see you," she said.

"Ah, give it a moment. You came very fast. Give time a second to catch up." With that, a woman came into view. She was about Drea's age, slim and glowing with health, her dark hair pinned up in a haphazard way that looked completely charming. What was disconcerting was the way she came into view, because while she didn't just appear out of nothing that was almost what happened. It was as if she had lifted aside a curtain and stepped onto a stage with Drea, parts of her becoming visible before the rest of her did.

Other people began appearing, also stepping onto the stage, and with every second that passed Drea saw more and more people, some of them there with her, others walking around and going about their own business. Nine more people joined her and the woman, standing in a loose circle around her. Were they real, or was her dying brain hallucinating? She didn't know if she herself was real anymore. She touched herself, to see if she still had any substance or if all she had left was a sort of cellular memory of what she had been. To her surprise, though her sense of touch felt oddly off, she seemed to retain a physical body.

Another strange thing was the almost physical sense of…of peace; that was the only word that came to mind. Peace. She began to feel soothed and comforted, and safe.

Gradually she noticed something about the small group of people surrounding her. They all seemed to be her age, roughly thirty, all fit and healthy, all of them attractive even though she could see at least half of them had features that, before she died, she would have said weren't attractive at all. Now they were. It was that simple. Her eye could make the distinction between attractive and unattractive, but her mind couldn't. But her eyes didn't operate independently of her brain, did they? Her brain, then, still had the ability to understand the difference between beauty and ugliness. Was her mind, then, somehow a thing separate from her brain? She had always thought mind and brain were the same thing, but…they weren't.

Another thing. When she looked at these people, she could sense what they had been before, and that was confusing as all hell because some of them hadn't been the same sex they were now. The woman who had spoken first was the least confusing, because her image was somehow more solid, less blurred by the overlay of a recent carnation, as if it had been a very long time since she had been anything other than exactly what she was now. Drea concentrated on her, because that gave her mind and eyes a rest. She was tired, and dealing with conflicting layers was more than she could handle right now.

"You see them," the woman said, faint surprise in her tone, and by "them" she didn't mean just the other people, but all their other layers of existence.

"Yeah," said Drea. There was a wealth of communication going on here, things understood beyond what was actually said.

"So soon. You're very observant."

She'd had to be, to survive. All of her life she'd watched and studied, judging the best approach to take to get, first, what she needed to live-food. Later, when she was older, she'd studied people more deliberately, to decide how she might manipulate them to get what she wanted.

"Why is she here?" a man asked, not in a nasty tone but in true puzzlement. "She shouldn't be here. Look at her."

Drea looked down at herself, though she couldn't honestly tell what she was wearing. Clothes, yes, but the details were so vague she knew only that they were there. Or, was he seeing the stains of her life layered over her the same way she saw their lives? The details of her life reeled through her mind and she saw them as a film of dirt overlying everything she was and did. Anger flared; she'd done the best she could to survive, and if he didn't like it-

Just as abruptly as it had flared, her anger died and was replaced by a wash of shame. She'd never done the best she could do. She'd been very skilled at manipulating men to get what she wanted, she'd been a damn good lay, she'd used sex as a weapon, she'd lied, she'd stolen, and though she'd been very good at all of those things, none of her decisions had been based on the best of anything, except maybe the best of two bad choices. She had certainly never looked for a good choice.

She looked squarely at the man, reading him. He'd been an undertaker, she saw; he'd made a living from death, helping families through the grieving process by walking them through the traditional steps. He'd seen everything; he'd prepared bodies ranging in age from babies to the very old. He'd taken care of people whom hundreds had loved and mourned, and those no one had mourned. Death held no surprises for him, and no fear. Death was part of the natural order of things.

Because he'd seen so much, he'd long ago lost any blinders he might have had. He saw people as they were, not as they wished they had been.

He saw what she was, and he knew she was worthless. Worthless. Without worth. She had no excuses, no defense. She bowed her head, accepting that she shouldn't be in this place of peace. She didn't deserve it. Everything she'd ever done, everything she'd touched, was poisoned by her lack of regard for anyone except herself.

"She's here for a reason," said the woman, though she looked just as puzzled as the man. "Who brought her here?"

They all looked at one another, searching for answers, but there didn't seem to be any. This was a…a tribunal of sorts, Drea thought, though not a formal one. Perhaps a better description was "gatekeeper." Today was their turn at the gates, to guide people to their correct places.

Except this wasn't her correct place, she thought miserably. She'd never done anything to earn this place. The ignominy of being unwelcome made her ache with embarrassment. This was the good place, and she didn't belong here because she wasn't good. Yet, she hadn't come here on purpose. Maybe it was stupid of her, but she didn't know how she'd gotten here, and she didn't know how to leave.

It stood to reason that, if this was the good place and she didn't belong here, then she belonged at the bad place. Perhaps the great nothing she'd expected was the bad place, the true end with no form of continuing life, but perhaps that was wishful thinking and there was a really bad place, the way the fire and brimstone preachers always said there was. She wasn't religious, never had been. Even as a child she'd thought, Yeah, right, because her own life was proof that no compassionate spirit was holding her safe.

And maybe this wasn't heaven the way it was traditionally imagined, maybe the setup wasn't the same, but there was definitely goodness, and peace, so maybe this really was heaven. Or maybe this was the next life, and only those who had proven themselves worthy got to go on. For the others, like her, there was no going on, no continuity of her spirit or soul or mind.

She looked at her life again, weighed it, and found herself wanting.

"If you'll show me how to leave," she whispered wretchedly, "I will."

"I would," said the woman with some sympathy, "but someone evidently brought you here and we need to find out-"

"I did," said a man, striding up to the group and joining the loose circle, with Drea standing in the middle. "Sorry to be late. Things happened very fast."

The others turned to look at him. "Alban," said the woman. "Yes, they did." Drea wondered if Alban was his name, or a greeting. "There are extenuating circumstances?"

"There are," he said gravely, but he smiled at Drea with piercing sweetness, and his serious dark eyes searched every detail of her face as if committing it to memory, or reaffirming some old memories.

She stared at him, knowing she'd never seen him before, but there was something so achingly familiar about him that she felt she should know him. Like everyone else there, he seemed to be about thirty, as if prime adulthood was the oldest anyone ever got. She looked for those layers that would tell her about him, but like the woman, he was mostly free of the blurring overlay of past lives. He drew her, somehow. She wanted to be close to him, wanted to touch him, yet there was nothing carnal about her longing. Pure love welled in her, poignant in its simplicity, and unconsciously she held out her hand to him.

He smiled and took her hand, and it was then that she knew. Beyond all doubt, beyond reason, she simply knew.

Tears welled in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks, but she smiled through them as she clung to her son's hand, lifted it to her lips, brushed a gentle kiss across his knuckles. This was her son, and his name was Alban.

"Ah," the woman said softly. "I see."

Drea didn't know what the woman saw, and in that moment didn't care. After all these years of empty pain, she was holding her son's hand and looking into his eyes and seeing the spirit that had once resided, however briefly, in her baby's tiny form. This form wasn't the one her baby would have had, these features weren't what he would have grown into, but the essential part of the person…yes, this was her child, who had lived after all, just in another existence.

"She loved me," Alban said, still smiling that perfect, radiant smile. "I could feel it, and you see how pure it was. When I was leaving her and coming back home, she tried to save me by offering her life in exchange."

"That shit never works," said the undertaker, in the weary, slightly cynical, but sympathetic tone of someone who had seen the same heartbreaking scene played out many times, always with the same result.

"Gregory!" said the woman in a tone that was both amused and an admonishment. To Drea she explained, "He hasn't been here all that long, this time, so he-"

"Still remembers a lot," Drea finished for her. She couldn't help smiling, because Alban was smiling and holding her hand, and no matter what happened now everything was okay.

"She meant it," said Alban, and he duplicated her action of a moment before, taking her hand to his lips and lightly kissing her fingers. "She was a child herself, just fifteen, but she loved me enough to sacrifice herself to save me. That is why I brought her here, because though there has been a lot of darkness in her life, there has also been love of the purest kind, and that deserves a second chance. I stand as witness."

"I say yea," said a blond woman, tall and willowy. "There was love, she wears it still. I stand as witness."

"And I," said a man. His layers said that he'd endured a lot, that his previous body had been bent with a painful deformity that had confined him to a wheelchair for most of his life, but here he was tall and strong and straight. "I stand as witness."

Of the eleven people surrounding her, three thought there was no point in giving her a second chance, but even those three were free of any sense of malice. They simply thought she didn't belong there. She didn't resent them, because there was no room for resentment here even though there was evidently room for disagreement.

The woman stood there for a moment, her face lifted slightly to the sky, her eyes half closed as if she were listening to some song only she could hear. Then she smiled and turned to Drea. "Your mother-love, the purest form of love, has saved you," she said. She touched Drea's hand, the hand that still clung to Alban's hand. "You've earned a second chance," she said. "Now return, and don't waste it."

THE MEDIC WAS packing up his bag because there was nothing he could do, nothing that could have been done even if he'd been there when the accident happened. Blue and red and yellow lights strobed the highway above, while blindingly bright emergency lights had been rigged to shine down on the car. People were talking, radios were crackling, and the rumble of the wrecker's engine gave a bass underlay to all the other sounds. Still, he heard something strange, something that made him stop and cock his head, listening.

"What?" asked his partner, pausing too, and looking around.

"I thought I heard something."

"Like what?"

"I don't know. Like…sort of like this." He demonstrated, taking a quick, shallow breath of air through his mouth.

"With all this noise, you heard something like that?"

"Yeah. Wait, there it was again. Didn't you hear it?"

"Nope, not a thing."

Frustrated, the medic looked around. He knew he'd heard something, twice, but what. It was coming from his left, from the direction of the wrecked car. Maybe a branch had finally snapped under the strain, or something.

They had covered the woman's body with a blanket, draping it over her as best they could, given the fact that she was pinned to the seat with a damn tree through her chest. God, this one was bad. He tried not to let it get to him, but he knew this was one he wouldn't forget. He didn't want to look at the pitiful sight again, but, damn it, there was that sound for a third time and it was coming from that direction, for sure.

He stood, leaning closer to the wreckage, straining to hear. Yes, there it was. He heard it-and he saw the blanket move, as if the fabric was being sucked in a little, then blown out.

He froze, so astonished he literally couldn't move for two long, very long seconds. "Shit!" he said explosively, when he could move again, when he could speak, and he whipped the blanket back from her face.

"What?" asked his partner again, leaping to his feet in alarm.

It was impossible. It was fucking impossible. Still, he pressed his fingers to the side of her neck, feeling for a pulse. And it was there, though he'd have sworn on his life that there hadn't been one just minutes ago, but now he could feel the beat of life under his fingers, faint and rapid, but there.

"She's alive!" he yelled. "God! Get a chopper in here! We got a live one!"