I sensed that I had arrived before I had opened my eyes. The place in my imagination hardened into reality. The cool silence of the gym changed to the faint sound of Lillian humming in the kitchen. My feet were no longer on the hard mat but instead buried in the fluffy rug in the middle of my living room.
“Oh!” Lillian’s voice was startled. “Scarlett! I didn’t know you were back!”
I opened my eyes and focused on her with a triumphant smile. “I wasn’t. I did it!”
My words were not particularly explanatory but she immediately grasped what I meant and her face lit up in celebration as she bounded across the room to grab my hands.
“That’s great! So you figured it out?”
“It’s about emotion.” I grinned, “I was overthinking it before.”
She laughed. “That sounds about right.”
“I am glad you finally figured it out.” The new voice was calm and measured but it still made us both jump in alarm.
Lillian shrieked in shock. “What-?”
We spun around to see Gabriel casually sitting back on the sofa, regarding us levelly.
“What the hell?” I snapped. “I don’t care who or what you are, you can’t just appear in my house! You could have at least knocked on the door.”
“What would be the point of that?” He asked coolly.
“Well for one, you wouldn’t have risked me having a heart attack,” I growled, trying to appear composed despite the adrenaline still pounding through my system.
My comment did not seem to concern him as much as I thought it should. He simply shrugged.
“We all end up in the ground eventually. You have already had longer than most.”
Lillian had shrunk back behind me. She was working hard to appear unruffled but I knew her well enough to see that she was frightened.
“This is the man you met before?” She asked me, “Gabriel?”
His eyes flicked to her. “I see you still have your resident ghost.” He said offhandedly, “You know, you could get rid of her any time. It’s nothing a quick exorcism wouldn’t solve.”
I had tried to keep an open mind about him before but his comment instantly sent me into a rage.
“How dare you!” I hissed. “She is a person and my best friend. You go anywhere near her and I’ll-”
“Ok!” He held up his hands, not quite in apology but definitely showing he was backing down. “I didn’t mean to offend; I was just suggesting that perhaps it would be better… for all parties involved.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lillian snapped, clearly offended despite his words.
“Well you’re not supposed to be here, you know,” Gabriel said, looking at her critically. “Ghosts are pretty much just a mistake, you should have moved on when you died. It looks to me like you’ve been hanging on for a while.” Lillian was still dressed in the clothes she had died in over two hundred years ago.
“That’s nonsense,” I argued immediately. “They move on when they are ready.”
I didn’t like the way Gabriel was looking at me; I could sense a hint of condescension in his gaze.
“To an extent… yes.” He said. “But surely you must realise that they would be ready much sooner if there was someone there to help them. To guide them through the process of death. There are so many ghosts around, many lost and broken perhaps forever because of people like you, messing with the natural order.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I demanded angrily.
He stared at me for a moment, perhaps weighing up what to say.
“Imagine for a moment that when you first died all those centuries ago, you stayed dead. Instead of rising and becoming that… foul creature, you became a full reaper and did the job you were meant to do.”
I grimaced, unwilling to consider his scenario. I also objected to him calling me foul, even if I was currently human.
“I never signed up for any job.” My voice did not sound as firm as I wanted it to.
He shrugged casually and spread his hands out in front of him. I noticed for the first time that he was wearing a bottle green waistcoat with an elegant gold chain tucked into the pocket. It had been a while since I had seen someone so formally dressed. These modern times were so much more casual than the past.
“That doesn’t mean anything.” He said. “Think of all the people you could have helped.”
“Help how?” I couldn’t see how my presence would really help anyone. Lillian had been with me for years and she was no nearer to moving on than when she had first died. I voiced these thoughts, shooting Lillian an apologetic look.
Gabriel remained infuriatingly calm. “Not everyone moves on. Some are content to just… drift. But what about the ones who are confused? Death can be very traumatic; not everyone is in their right mind afterwards. Some don’t even realise what has happened to them. Are you suggesting that we should just leave them to fade away?”
He had me trapped and he knew it. Of course, I didn’t want them to fade but, I was just one person. I couldn’t help everyone, even if I tried.
Over the years I had helped more than a few ghosts, often those I had stumbled across by accident. Usually, most of them didn’t much care about talking to me anyway. They were content to live their lives (or deaths), sometimes keeping watch over their living family members or guarding a place that was important to them in life. Occasionally I helped them out with communicating something important, like with Nick’s brother, Darren. This wasn’t always wise, however. For normal people unaware of the supernatural, getting a message from a dead loved one could be very traumatic.
A lot of the time, it was better to not open old wounds and let them heal in peace. Nick had been a special case. For one, he was already aware of the supernatural world. Secondly, I knew that he never would have stopped searching for his brother if he hadn’t gotten answers. It would have consumed him, haunted him for the rest of his life.
“Of course I am not suggesting that.” I finally answered Gabriel. “But it would be impossible to help everyone.”
“That is why there are a lot of reapers.” He said.
“So why am I needed at all then?” Surely someone else could fill my place.
My question made him unexpectedly angry. “Were you not listening to me before? It’s your destiny, in your blood! I-I was supposed to-” He broke off looking frustrated.
It was the first time I had seen him really flustered. I sensed that perhaps he saw me as some kind of personal failure. If he was the one who was supposed to bring me into the reaper fold, and instead I had turned into a draugr and disappeared… that didn’t look good for him.
Suddenly his face smoothed over, becoming a cool and impenetrable mask once again. “Still… no matter, things will work themselves out soon enough.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lillian cut in. She had been unusually quiet up until this point but now her voice was like ice.
Gabriel ignored her; he was still staring at me. His blue eyes were like glaciers as they bored into mine.
“You should practice your powers.” He told me. “So you can use them as they should be used.”
I didn’t like him telling me what I should do and I didn’t like him disregarding Lillian. I chose not to comment on it though. I didn’t want him to have any more reason to think about her, in case he wanted to try one of those exorcisms he had mentioned before.
Despite my growing dislike, however, I couldn’t deny that I wanted to learn more about my powers. Even if I didn’t use them how he planned, I would at least be able to protect myself.
“Will you show me?” I asked, keeping my voice neutral.
“Scarlett?” Lillian hissed quietly behind me. “What are you doing?”
I glanced back at her, trying to telegraph my thoughts in my gaze. I wasn’t fooling for his nonsense; I was simply trying to learn more. She met my eyes and nodded once to show she understood. At least, I hoped that was what she was saying.
Gabriel raised an eyebrow. “Just like that? You want to join me?”
“Of course not.” I snapped, abandoning my pretence of niceness. “I am not agreeing to anything, I just want to learn what’s going on.”
His calm demeanour didn’t slip but I sensed something dark brewing behind the charade.
“Fine.” He said, holding out a hand. “Come with me and I’ll show you.”
I made a show of glancing down at myself. I was still in my pyjamas.
“I need to change first; I cannot go out like this.”
The smallest hint of humour curled his lips, although his eyes remained cool.
“Didn’t seem to stop you before.”
I chose to ignore the quip. “Will you wait whilst I get ready?”
For a moment I thought he would refuse and simply disappear, but instead, he inclined his head and settled back in his seat.
“Ok,” I said uneasily, glancing back at Lillian. “Hey, why don’t you go and see if Amir is ok?” I suggested. I didn’t like the idea of leaving her alone with him. I was sure he had the power to do unpleasant things to ghosts. Even something as simple as my energy draining trick could have dire consequences for her.
She gave me a calculated gaze as if to say I hope you know what you’re doing. I hoped so too, but at least I could make sure that she was safe. I smiled in encouragement and with a swift nod she left.
After ensuring that Gabriel would remain in his spot on my sofa I had a record-breaking shower and dressed quickly in warm clothes. I wasn’t sure what we were doing, but I wanted to be prepared. There was no way I was having a repeat of our first meeting where I almost froze to death.
When I emerged fully dressed with my hair firmly secured in a tight ponytail, Gabriel appeared to have not moved an inch. He was still reclining in his seat; legs stretched out and crossed in front of him.
“What’s the plan?” I asked.
He stood smoothly and moved towards me. I felt a pang of uneasiness; he was much taller than me.
“First.” He said, waiting to speak until he was directly in front of me, “We need to work on something.” He held out his hands, his fingers were long and pale. “Take my hands.”
“Why?” I couldn’t help being suspicious. The last time I had touched him, I had been transported across town.
“We’re going to be invisible.” He said.
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Seriously? I am pretty sure I can’t do that.”
He let impatience leak into his tone. “You can’t do it because you haven’t tried. Now, take my hands and pay attention.”
I fought back a snarky comment, aware that I was trying to learn something. He didn’t strike me as the type of person who would unnecessarily mess around. Reluctantly I took his hands; they felt cold against my skin.
“Now, shut your eyes and try to imagine becoming… unnoticeable.” He frowned slightly. “It is not… true invisibility; you don’t have the power to make the light go through you. It’s more… like you slip out of awareness. Blend into the background, become like the ghosts. Present but unseen.”
This was difficult for me to imagine as ghosts had always seemed very real and solid to me. Still, I closed my eyes and tried to do as he asked. A long minute passed.
“How do I know if it’s working?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking.
“You have to focus and then you should be able to… feel it.”
I could feel my jumper starting to make my neck itch. I could feel the smooth skin of his hands and I could feel his cold but strangely odourless breath on my face but… I couldn’t feel anything like he described. My eyebrows drew together with the effort.
“This might take me a while,” I muttered.
He sighed. “Here, I’ll help you.”
A strange sensation spread from where our hands joined, up to my arms and across my body. It was barely noticeable like I had stepped into a slightly cooler room. I opened my eyes and looked down but I could still see both our bodies.
“Oh, I am not sure…”
Suddenly the room lurched around me and I found myself standing in a busy hospital corridor, hands still joined to Gabriel. I braced myself for the shock of the people around us but everything continued as if we weren’t even there.
“Oh!” I said. My voice caught in my throat, barely a whisper but still, Gabriel frowned at me.
“Don’t break my concentration. It is easy to hide myself but it’s much harder to cover you, you’re too… alive.”
The reality of our location sunk in and I looked around. I tended to avoid hospitals when I was a member of the undead, too much fresh blood around was tempting. Now, however, I just had my weak human senses. I breathed in the faint chemically smell of disinfectant and wrinkled my nose.
“What are we doing here?” I asked hesitantly.
Releasing one of my hands he took out a gold watch from the pocket with the chain and glanced at it briefly.
“Our job.” He told me, setting off along the corridor. He kept hold of my right hand and I started to protest before I realised that he was simply maintaining the grip to keep me from being seen. I could still feel the faint coldness coating my skin.
We were in the emergency ward, I realised. As I watched the big double doors flew open and a group of people rushed in, pushing a stretcher bearing a young girl. She looked to be in her twenties but it was difficult to guess her exact age as she was covered in what seemed to be an impossible amount of blood. I braced myself for a wave of ravenous hunger which didn’t come, leaving me disorientated for a moment.
“Car accident victim.” One of them called to another, “Serious trauma to the head, chest and abdomen. Probable internal bleeding and possible spinal damage.”
They took her into a side room surrounded by curtains and we followed at a distance, keeping her in view as the emergency doctors and nurses worked to save her life. I have seen many wounds over my long lifetime, so experience told me that she was unlikely to make it. Still, I held out a small sliver of hope, having seen the miracles that modern medicine could accomplish.
This small hope was quickly extinguished when Gabriel glanced down at me and said, “Do you feel it?”
For a second I didn’t know what he meant... until I opened my mind and felt the strange pulling sensation, drawing me towards the girl. It was right in the back of my mind. Something subconscious but definitely real, telling me that the bright thread of her life was unravelling, coming to an end. It raced through its final moments; flaring brighter like she was fighting, trying to keep her grip on the land of the living.
I wasn’t sure where this monumental struggle was taking place, certainly not in front of me. The girl herself was completely unconscious, oblivious to her surroundings. The struggle was deeper, perhaps in her very soul if such a thing existed. I sensed that despite the huge strength of her effort, the girl was on the losing side of the battle. She could not overcome the huge damage to her body. Biology worked against her, dragging her down beneath the waves towards the waiting darkness.
I let my eyes drift out of focus. I knew where the gristly scene in front of me was heading; I did not need to witness the details. How many deaths had I personally witnessed over the years? I was a little ashamed to say that I couldn’t even count. Many of them had been my own fault but, not all.
The world was a dangerous place for humanity. Wars, disease, accidents, did it ever end? No, I thought. Every time they dream of some magical solution to one of their problems, a new problem appears with even more insurmountable obstacles. Death was not something that could be avoided forever. Still, that didn’t stop us from trying.
Finally, after what felt like hours but was probably only minutes, the girl’s death was clearly announced by the frantic beeping of the machines she had been hooked up to. The medical team swarmed around her, trying to bring her back from the inevitable but I could see that it was too late. For one thing, the girl was no longer occupying her body. Instead, she stood a few meters away, looking around in fearful confusion.
Her ghost did not show any of the traumas her living body had endured. Instead, she looked as she last remembered appearing, most likely how she was in the car in the instant before the crash. Her curly red hair fell around her shoulders, lighter than mine but similar in length. She was dressed in a navy blue sweater and jeans, not bad as far as eternal fashion choices go. Her skin was now very pale, almost translucent although I could see her form solidifying as the last vestiges of life energy flowed from her body.
Suddenly the reality of the situation fully hit me and a wave of sadness made me catch my breath. I had seen many deaths, but none since I had been human again. That made it worse somehow like I knew how easily it could be me. This girl had just been going about her daily life, none the wiser that she was in her final hours or minutes. Would she have done anything differently? I wondered… if she had known what was going to happen?
Gabriel was pulling me towards her and I followed a little reluctantly, bracing myself for the girl’s reaction. She had not spotted us yet and was currently following a nurse, trying to ask where she was. Of course, the nurse could not see or hear her so she simply kept walking, oblivious to the distressed spirit.
“Hey!” I said, trying to attract the girl’s attention. I sensed that this was perhaps not the most sensitive way to greet someone who had just died, but I couldn’t think of anything better. Most of the ghosts I spoke to were already comfortable with the idea that they were dead.
She spun around and her eyes met mine. I could read the fear and confusion clearly written in her expression and I felt a pang in my chest. Although they looked nothing alike, I was reminded a little of Lillian. Of course, Lillian had been murdered and her confusion had quickly given way to rage. This girl just looked lost.
“Hi, I’m sorry I was wondering if you know where I am?” She asked, looking a little embarrassed despite her unease.
I glanced at Gabriel in panic but he remained passive, letting me take the lead.
“I’m really sorry.” I blurted, not knowing how else to say it. “But you’re dead.”
Surprise and annoyance flickered through her eyes. I could see that she didn’t accept my words.
“Never mind, I’ll just ask someone else.” She muttered, turning away.
“No, wait!” I called, reaching out toward her instinctively. Something in my voice made her turn back to me, looking unsure. “I’m sorry.” I said again, “I didn’t know how to tell you gently, but it’s true. That’s you, over there. You were in a car accident.” I pointed back across the ward where her body still lay on the gurney, just visible between the curtains. They had just stopped working on her and a doctor was solemnly declaring the time of death.
She followed my gaze and let out a kind of choked gasp. “That’s me?”
“Yes. You were in a car accident.” I repeated seriously. “I don’t think it was your fault, I heard them saying something about a drunk driver.”
“Not… my fault?” She breathed faintly. I could see her eyes filling with crystal tears that could not fall. “I don’t remember it. I was in driving to the…” She frowned, trying to grasp the details of her life. “I was just going to the shop for some… milk. I start my new job tomorrow; I wanted to make sure I had a good breakfast…” I watched as the reality of the situation hit her. There would be no new job, no breakfast.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated again, apparently unable to stop saying those two words. I searched but there was not much else to say. A terrible thing had happened. It was unfair and I felt it was too soon, but there was nothing that could be done.
“So… what now?” her voice was innocent, almost childlike. She expected us to have the answers for her.
“Well…” I hesitated, “Apologies, I didn’t get your name before?” It felt rude to keep thinking of her as simply the girl when I was trying to help her through her own death.
“Oh, um my name is Meghan.” She shrugged self-consciously, “You can call me Meg for short.”
“Right, ok… well, Meg… um, I don’t really know what happens now. I guess… if you feel ready you could think about moving on?” I tried to put confidence into my voice but it came out unsure and hesitant. I never really knew what happened to ghosts when they left, only that they didn’t come back. Darren had certainly looked happy about whatever he saw on the other side in the instant before he disappeared.
“Move on?” Meg said in a small voice.
“Yeah, like to whatever’s next. I don’t know for sure about heaven or anything but I am pretty sure that whatever it is, it’s better than here.”
“Oh. Will my grandparents be there?”
I glanced at Gabriel but he just shrugged so I kept my answer noncommittal.
“Maybe, I don’t know anything for sure but… I think there is a good chance you might see them. Only one way to find out, I suppose.”
To my surprise she nodded, a measure of calm spreading onto her face. She was taking all of this exceptionally well, I thought. In her position, I would be kicking and screaming, doing anything to claw my way back to life.
With a jolt, I realised that I had actually been in her position when I died the first time around. Although, I couldn’t remember a thing. If what Gabriel had said was true, some combination of blood, magic and will had brought me back, causing my dark rebirth as the draugr.
Reluctantly I dismissed the thoughts from my mind. Something like that was not possible for Meg, and even if it was… something told me that it wouldn’t be right. I didn’t know her well, but I sensed that she was a kind and gentle girl. She would be unsuited to a life of violence and bloodshed.
“Is that for me?” Her voice cut into my thoughts. I followed her gaze but saw nothing but the empty corridor.
“Yes,” Gabriel answered for me, smiling for the first time.
Meg moved towards whatever she saw with an almost dreamy look on her face. It was as if her earthy worries had suddenly been forgotten, cast aside like they no longer mattered. Maybe they didn’t. I felt a sudden urge to call her back but I quickly suppressed it. It wasn’t my place to stop her, the decision was hers alone.
The further away from us she moved, the fainter her image became. In the instant before she disappeared completely, she turned to us and smiled. The expression lit up her face, making it beautiful.
“Thank you.” The words were faint but audible, then I blinked and she was gone.
“Oh, that was easier than I thought it would be.” I acknowledged.
“That’s not always the way,” Gabriel admitted. “But most of them just need a little guidance. It’s unusual for them to stay very long.”
I knew that already. I didn’t very often come across ghosts older than Lillian. Normally those that stayed for so long had some serious unfinished business. We had never figured out what Lillian’s was. At first, I had thought it would be justice for her murder, but that hadn’t been it. Everyone she had known in life was long dead and she had no direct living descendants. I suspected that like me, she just loved life too much to let it go. The urge to keep going was strong enough to overpower almost everything else.
She always said that she was content with her existence but I sometimes wondered if it was more a case of being trapped with few options.
The disappearance of Meg had made me unexpectedly melancholy. I had only known the girl for a few minutes but it seemed like her passing should be recognised somehow. I knew that it wasn’t my job. Undoubtedly she would have family and loved ones who could mourn for her properly.
Everything had happened so quickly, did they even know what had happened yet? Where were her parents? Whatever they were doing, nothing would prepare them for the dreadful news they were about to receive.
What would happen if I died? The thought slipped insidiously into my brain. I had not needed to seriously consider the possibility of dying for a long time. I had always imagined that it would happen suddenly in some fight or battle, so I wouldn’t see it coming. I had made arrangements for such possibilities so that my accumulated fortunes could go and hopefully do some good in the world if I no longer needed them.
But, what about now that I was human? I had never ever considered that potential pathway; humanity had always been closed to me. For the first time, I really thought about what would happen if I couldn’t change back. Would I grow old? Catch a disease? The thought made me feel cold. I wanted to go out fighting in some far off and distant future, not slowly withering away in some hospital bed, seeing the end looming nearer and nearer. My time felt suddenly limited, I could almost feel it slipping away.
I knew that growing old could have some benefits. I could find someone to be with and grow old together. I could have a family, children, and grandchildren even. Still, the thought didn’t really appeal to me as much as I thought it would. I had already made peace with the idea that I would never have those things. Plus, I couldn’t imagine myself in some cosy suburban existence. I wasn’t the kind of person who could be really excited about bake sales and gardening.
Sure, I could settle somewhere for a while and slip into a role, but it was always with the knowledge that I could move on whenever I chose. I had limitless time to explore and try out every option. So what if I spent a year, a decade or even a century in some meaningless occupation? There would always be more time. Perhaps it was selfish of me, but I enjoyed that reality and I wanted it back.
“I need to go,” I said to Gabriel. I had work to do if I wanted to get back in control of my life.
He looked a little surprised but he didn’t argue.
“Just think about one thing for me.” He said. “If we hadn’t been here, what do you think would have happened?”
I frowned. “I am sure she would have realised that she was dead eventually.”
“But how long would it have taken? Would she have known that the accident was not her fault? What if that haunted her forever? She might have been unable to move on.”
I was pretty sure he was being a little overdramatic to make his argument, but I did concede his point. It was helpful for us to be here.
“Ok. You’ve made your point.” I sighed. “But now I have got some things I need to do.”