The moment I open my eyes I know he is dead. I’ve seen enough bodies to tell the difference between a living and a deceased human. But no matter how much I wish to be the one wrapped in the fruity scent of death, I’m as always left behind. I’m the only one not allowed to leave.
The old man lying on the adjustable hospital bed, on the other hand, is that lucky. There is no turning back for him. But while the lower half of his body is covered with a pale white hospital sheet, his upper torso dressed in a pair of black silk pajamas is left exposed to the private hospital room he’s surrounded by. This is a shame, because if anything his upper body should be hidden and not only his stinky feet. No one needs to see the deep wrinkles carved into his face and the pointy white hair that makes him look like he’s been permanently electrocuted.
No matter where I look, however, there is no clue revealing the cause of his death.
I’m about to step forward to peek underneath the sheet when the twist of a shadow catches my attention. For the first time since I opened my eyes, I look up from the bed. Before I register what my eyes land on, I jump a wide step back.
Across the bed stands a woman in her middle thirties with her open palms pressed against each other in a praying position. She is wrapped in nothing but black clothes, which matches the mood of the cloudy autumn day peeking through the window behind her. But instead of having her eyes closed in silent prayer, the woman has her unblinking eyes focused on me.
“Seriously?” I press my hand against my chest to steady my thumping heart. “Can you be any creepier? For a moment I thought I was faced with Death itself.”
The woman—Xenia—rolls her eyes. “Very funny, Eliza.” She intertwines her fingers and then extends her arms high above her head, producing a shivering sound of snapping shoulder joints. “If I’m Death then what are you? A yellow canary?”
Despite it being over two months since I last looked into a mirror, I know exactly what Xenia is eying. From the top of my curly black hair, which is bound into a loose bun; across my mustard-colored long-sleeved shirt, my black jeans, to my dark brown ankle boots with a thick four-inch heel. The same clothes I have been wearing for the past nine years.
“I’m more of a bee than a canary,” I say and turn back to the deceased old man lying between us. “What happened?”
“I’m not sure. One moment he was rasping for air and the next he flat-lined. My best guess is a stroke.”
The moment she utters the word flat-lined I finally realize that something has been missing since the moment I opened my eyes. No uninterrupted beep has been alerting everyone to the stillness of the patient’s heart.
Only then do I notice that while the old man has a tacky florescent I heart Portland lighter clasped in his right hand, his left hand is lying lifelessly at his side. More importantly, the finger clip to check his pulse—the one even I know is supposed to be clasped to one of his fingers—is lying two inches further down the bed.
A second after I notice this, I also realize that something else is missing—two very specific humans.
“How come we’re in here?” I look back up to Xenia.
“If you mean our charges, mine went to the bathroom half an hour ago, so I’m guessing she’s chatting up some fellow doctors. Yours is over there.”
I follow the direction Xenia inclines her head in, which leads my eyes all the way across the private hospital room. On a beige leather armchair sits a fifteen-year-old girl. She has her legs perched in a crossed position, while the rest of her upper body is bent over the armchair’s side. In this position, all that I’m able to see is the top of her brown hair with blonde highlights and the pink flower hairpin clasped on the right side of her head.
I glare first at the hairpin, which is taunting me with the memories it holds, and then at the young human girl—aka my charge—as a whole. I have to crane my head to the side to see what she is doing. She is bent over her extended left hand while balancing a small pink bottle of nail polish in between her thumb and index finger. The moment I gather that she is busy painting her nails, I roll my eyes. What else did I expect from the Princess?
“Denise,” I call her name.
My charge, however, doesn’t move a single muscle, let alone turns in my direction. Then again, since I’m a creature invisible to humans—aka a Guardian—I don’t expect her to. I would actually find it spooky if she chose this specific moment to turn toward me.
“How hasn’t she yet noticed that her grandfather is dead?” I ask and turn back to my fellow Guardian. “We need to make her aware that the old man’s not breathing anymore.”
Xenia, however, shakes her head. “We’re not allowed to let the humans know about our presence. We can’t meddle with this.”
To further support her reluctance, Xenia takes a step away from the bed. But I can’t. Despite the old man not being my charge—a human I am sworn to protect from outside supernatural forces—I can’t leave him like this. The least he deserves is an accurate time of death.
While ignoring the bitter scent of antiseptic, I glance around the bed. My eyes stop on the metal IV stand that has a half-empty plastic bag attached to it. Perfect. Without wasting another moment, I grab the cold metal and then push it hard enough so it overturns. As the metal hits against the laminate floor a loud clang cuts through the silent room.
As expected the noise causes Denise to lift her head and look at her unmoving grandfather. Her change of position allows me a peek at her long bend eyebrows and the pudgy cheeks still clinging to what is left of her child fat. I wait for her to react to either her grandfather’s unmoving chest or the absence of sound coming from the heart monitor. All the Princess does, however, is look at the bed for five seconds and then turn back to her nails.
“That’s all?” I shake my head first at her and then at myself for ever considering that the Princess would be any different today.
With a sigh, I turn back to the bed and search for an item I can hurl at her. Then my eyes land on the finger clip and I know exactly what to do.
“That ought to get her attention,” I murmur and step over the fallen metal IV stand.
“Eliza, don’t.” Xenia also steps forward, but she’s too late.
I clasp the small finger clip back on the old man’s index finger, which produces an uninterrupted beep.
“What the…” Denise snaps her head back up. This time, however, she also lays the hot pink nail polish onto the floor beside the armchair and drags her feet toward the bed.
As she reaches my side of the bed, I move a step back to give her enough space to press the call button beside the bed. Instead of calling for a nurse, Denise grabs the finger clip and yanks it off the old man’s finger.
“I already know you’re dead, so stop annoying me.” She glares at her dead grandfather. “And don’t you dare come back to life.”
I blink, sure that I must have misheard her. But as I turn from Denise’s scowl to Xenia’s unblinking expression, it finally dawns on me what must have happened before I arrived.
“Don’t tell me she’s the one who removed the clip?” I ask Xenia, while Denise turns her back to the old man and strides back to the armchair.
“She did.” Xenia nods and for a moment we watch as the Princess sits onto the armchair, lifts her hand in front of her face, and examines her freshly painted nails. “She grumbled about the noise making her head hurt.”
I shake my head, but as I’m about to turn away from the sweet-looking-fifteen-year-old something flashes in front of my eyes. Instead of her, I see a woman in her forties sitting in the exact same position while admiring the array of rings adorning her thick fingers.
It’s nothing but a quick flash of memory, but it’s enough to send me staggering several steps back. I hit the wall with my back, but ignore the ache it causes. It’s, after all, nothing compared to the rush of energy pumping through my blood and the sharp ringing piercing through my ears.
It’s not possible.
But even as I shake my head in disbelief, I know that my gut is right. What I just saw explains why Denise has seemed so familiar ever since I first became her Guardian over two years ago.
She, Denise Sierra LeRoux, is the reincarnation of the woman responsible for why I’m stuck in the form of a seventeen-year-old.
The woman to blame for my death.