There are moments in our lives where our actions are completely uninhibited, where we throw caution to the wind and reveal our true selves to the world. It is a moment of absolute vulnerability peppered with aspects of conviction and bravery. This was one of those moments.
I stared at my sister as she bobbed face-down in the stream, her blonde hair spilling around her head like an angelic halo. I collapsed to my knees and reached down to retrieve her, pulling her stiff body into my arms, and cradling her against my chest as I absently rocked back and forth. The tears flowed from me like a failing levee—raw and unrestrained. My hand caressed Emerson’s cherubic face: her lips cracked and blue, blood already pooled underneath her eyes in dark circles. I gently closed her eyelids and kissed her forehead, her skin cold and clammy. Running my fingers through her tangled hair, I repeated the same words aloud, barely conscience that they were from my lips. “I’m so sorry, Em...”
Abel’s strong hands gripped my shoulder from behind, his fingers digging into my skin. Physical pain was not an emotion that registered at that moment—I was already broken.
“Colette,” he said softly.
I simply shook my head, my eyes refusing to stray from Emerson. “I can’t...can’t process this. If she’s gone, then I might as well be. Our family...we don’t work without her.” My words were heavy, registering between short gasps of air.
Abel dropped beside me on the grass, sighing heavily. “We should tell your parents-”
“Tell them that what? That she’s dead? How do you even say those words to a parent?” My lip trembled as I envisioned the near future— walking into that house carrying the corpse of my three-year-old sister as my parents cried in hysterics. I gagged at the prospect and covered my mouth, turning my head and dry heaving on the grass next to me. When I turned back, I saw something register in Abel’s eyes, a flash of a memory he had long since suppressed. My eyes widened. “Oh shit, Abel...You had to do that when Sebastian died, didn’t you? You were the one that found them?”
His jaw hardened, but when he glanced down at Emerson, his green eyes were glassy. A deep sigh escaped his body, his face a sea of conflicting emotions. “There are things Colette that I didn’t want to involve you in... things that aren’t easy to explain...things about me.”
I placed a soft kiss on Emerson’s cheek. “Abel, whatever it is you are trying to tell me can wait. I’ve got to do the impossible. I’ve got to...tell Mason...that his little sister...” I swallowed hard, trying to summon the courage to finish my sentence. “Isn’t coming home.”
Abel placed his hand gently under my chin, turning my face to his. “Except she can.”
I frowned at him. “W-what are you saying?”
He took Emerson from my arms and placed her gently on the ground beside me. “I’m saying I can change that. I shouldn’t and things will never be the same, but I’ll do that---for you, for your parents, for Mason.”
I placed my hand upon his, meeting his intoxicating gaze. “Do it,” I urged, my voice filled with conviction, oblivious to what I was even asking for. “Help her, please.”
He nodded and took a deep breath before kneeling over her, rubbing his hands. He looked up at me solemnly. “I tried to do this before---with Sebastian and Genesis. It didn’t...” His words caught in his throat.
“Please try. Whatever it is you can do, just try,” I whispered, a fresh flow of tears streaming over my cheeks as I chewed nervously on my lip.
His hands hovered over Emerson’s chest and he closed his eyes, his forehead wrinkled with concentration. His lips moved ever so slightly until a white ball of light started forming between his palms. I stared in disbelief, trying to figure out what the hell was happening. Numerous questions were streaming through my head, but I was really concerned with only one aspect: the outcome. Once the illuminated globe had reached the size of a beach ball, Abel pulled his hands together and placed them over Emerson’s heart. It took far too long for my liking and I’m certain I only succeeded in annoying him with my frantic pacing, but after a few moments, he stood and stepped away.
“What did you do?” I asked him quietly, my eyes still fixed upon Emerson’s body.
I huffed but said nothing. And then, just as I was ready to ask again, I noticed the transformation. Her wet, dull hair had dried, each strand shiny and full of body as it fell in cascading golden waves around her small shoulders. Her skin transitioned from purple to soft peach with rosy undertones and finally, her small chest started rising once more as air returned to her lungs. When she sat up, her blue eyes sparkled and a familiar, mischievous grin spread across her face as she noticed me standing over her.
“Did Mase find me yet?”
An animal-like sound tore from my throat, a distorted cry of relief. I swept Emerson into my arms, one hand cradling the back of her head. I sniffed her hair, comforted by the scent of her cotton candy shampoo. My eyes flickered to Abel’s and I smiled with gratification, mouthing a quick ‘thank you’ as we headed toward the house.
WE WALKED through the front door five minutes later, Abel shuffling uncomfortably behind me and Emerson. “Mom? Dad?” I yelled out.
They rushed into the front hallway with Mason following behind. “Momma!” Emerson squealed, throwing her arms around my mom.
“Oh god, Em! You’re soaked!” she cried, patting her dress.
“Where was she?” Dad asked, turning to me.
My eyes sliced to Abel, then back to my dad. “She was out by the stream at the back of the property.”
His eyes became saucers. “Emmie! You could have got hurt!”
The sound of toenails clicking against the hardwood floor signaled the arrival of Samson, eagerly wagging his tail as he ran over to Emerson and saturated her face with dog kisses. The group of us laughed collectively before Samson noticed Abel standing behind me. His demeanor quickly changed, the fur on his back bristling as a deep growl grew in his throat.
I nudged him away with my foot. “Samson, knock it off!”
Dad grabbed the dog by his collar and led him out of the room. “I’m so sorry, Abel. He’s not normally so aggressive.”
“We have a sordid past,” Abel joked.
Mom cracked a smile, then nodded at me. “Go wash up for dinner, Coco. Abel, care to join us?”
He raised an eyebrow and glanced at me. His eyes studied mine, trying to get a read of my emotions. Finally, he opened his mouth to answer. “I don’t think-”
“He’d love to,” I interrupted. I needed answers, ones only he could give. “Come on.” I grabbed his hand and led him through the front hall. “Bathroom’s this way.”
Once in the hall bath, I brought his hand to my cheek, caressing it gently against my skin. “I don’t even know what to say,” I started, my face crumbling into a mask of despair.
He gave a small smile before pulling away to lather soap on his hands. “You don’t need to say anything. We don’t have to discuss it,” he said, running them under the faucet.
My jaw dropped. “Umm, your hands just formed a white ball of light that brought my sister back to life! We’re discussing this!”
He turned off the water but didn’t answer, his eyes dissecting me in the bathroom mirror.
“Well?” I pressed.
Drying his hands on a towel, Abel spun around and brought his face just inches from mine. “I can’t tell you just yet,” he whispered, his voice husky.
“What?” I snapped, furrowing my eyebrows.
He took a deep breath. “I’m asking you to trust me. Please?” His green eyes held such desperation, as though anything other than an affirmative answer would crush his soul completely.
I bit my lip. “Tell me something. Anything.”
“It’s no coincidence that you’re here, Colette. That we met...that there’s this connection, fire between us. We’re more alike than you realize. I can feel it within you.” He brought a hand up and cupped my cheek, before letting it fall and brush lightly over my shoulder.
I exhaled deeply, my cheeks turning to fire. ” “What are you saying, Abel? You’re speaking but your words don’t make sense.”
His teeth scraped his bottom lip. Those lips were so damn beautiful—so comforting, so perfect. I could lose myself in them every time they touched my skin. His arms suddenly shot out and grabbed me by the shoulders, forcing me to stare into his hypnotizing eyes. “Colette, there are things about me that inherently put you in danger. If something happened to you, I would be judged.”
“What the hell does that mean? Why would something happen to me?”
The pad of his thumb traveled gently over my lips to my chin. He hesitated, but finally, the words spilled from his lips. “I’m a reaper. It’s my job to accompany the souls that pass from this world to the next so that they can await judgment. I’m not supposed to interfere, but obviously, I don’t always listen—as you just saw. I can alter perceptions through coercion, and I can heal.”
“U-um...” I stammered, trying to remember how to form words asmy brain processed his revelation. Finally, I just blurted out the first cohesive thought that came to mind. “Are you fucking with me?”
His eyes danced with amusement. “If I were, this wouldn’t be my preferred method of ‘fucking’ with you. I’d rather entertain the literal definition.”
Holy crap! My heart started pounding furiously in my chest. “Me too,” I whispered hoarsely.
He smiled and brushed the hair back from my forehead as his eyes fell to my neck, down my collarbone, then swept over my chest. He leaned in and just before I felt his lips press against mine, I heard my mother’s voice calling from the kitchen.
“Guys, it’s time for dinner!”
I cleared my throat and retreated out of the bathroom, easing the sexual tension between us. He followed me into the dining room and took a seat next to Emerson while I sat across the table. My mom brought out a large bowl of salad, a platter of lasagna, and a tray of freshly baked garlic bread.
“Guests first,” she said, nodding at Abel.
“Thank you, guys, for having me,” he said, filling his salad bowl.
“Are you kidding? It’s the least we could do to show our gratitude,” my dad replied.
“I didn’t do much really. Colette was the hero of the day.” Abel’s eyes flickered to me, fully drinking me in. I felt my cheeks start to flush as a small smile crept over my face. His refusal to take credit for my sister sitting at that very table made me speechless.
“I’d say her affection for her siblings is one of her finer attributes,” my mom said with a smile. “Do you have any siblings?”
“Fuck!” I muttered. I put a hand over my mouth as my parents both glared at me. “Sorry, it’s just that that’s not a good topic for Abel.”
“It’s okay,” he assured us, smiling softly. He looked at my mom and munched his salad thoughtfully for a moment before replying. “I had a brother...Sebastian. He died last year.”
Her jaw dropped. “Oh my! I’m so sorry! Colette hadn’t told us.” “It’s alright, really. I don’t mind talking about it.”
“It takes a lot of courage and strength to go through something so tragic like that at your age,” my dad said. “I can only imagine how difficult that loss was and continues to be for you and your family.”
“Thank you. It’s something that still weighs heavy on our hearts.”
“I’d imagine so,” Dad said solemnly.
“So, you and Colette know each other from school?” Mom asked, her eyes twinkling with curiosity.
Abel finished his bite of lasagna and patted his mouth with his napkin before responding. “Yes, Ma’am. We have a couple of classes together.”
“And your family is from Savannah? It’s quite different than Chicago, but we’ve found it to be a lovely town full of historical anecdotes and architectural character. Especially with many of the homes here, such as this one.” My dad gestured around the room.
“Well if it’s history you want, Savannah has it. And this house as well.”
I frowned, uncomfortable with the direction in which the conversation was heading. “Abel’s really talented when it comes to music,” I interjected. “His band plays over on River Street sometimes.”
“Colette, shush. Don’t interrupt him,” my mom scolded. She turned back to Abel. “What about this house?”
I cleared my throat. “Can we talk about something else, please?Anything else?”
“The family that lived here previously...well, they had a daughter that passed away.”
“She was a friend of yours?” Mom asked, her face an empathetic canvas of emotion.
“Yes, and my brother’s girlfriend,” Abel replied, his piercing green eyes fixed on me.
Okay, that was it! I dropped my fork on my plate and pushed my chair back. “I’m done,” I announced briskly, walking into the kitchen, and throwing my plate into the porcelain sink. From the dining room, I could hear Abel apologize before excusing himself. Seconds later, he appeared in the kitchen and leaned against the sink with a quizzical look on his face.
“Uh, what the hell was that all about?”
“I should ask you the same! Seriously, why bring all that up? Hasn’t today been dramatic enough?”
Abel frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. “Are you saying that’s my fault?”
“I’m saying that since I’ve moved here, my life has been seriously messed up. That has everything to do with you.”
He scoffed, his jaw tightening as he shook his head. “Wow. You’re unbelievable!” He stormed out of the kitchen, his footsteps heavy against the wood floors.
Instantly, regret washed over me. He had just saved my beloved sister’s life and I was berating him for openly sharing his past? How was it possible that in such a short period, Abel Campbell had embedded himself so deeply under my skin?
“Abel, wait,” I muttered as I followed him.
He had already reached the front door, pulling it shut behind him. Seconds later, I reopened the door and stepped out on the front porch, greeted only by the dense fog of that unseasonably cool August evening. Abel had mysteriously disappeared.
I PLOPPED down on my bed in defeat, exhausted from the day’s chaotic events. I had just closed my eyes when my cell started ringing. I stared at Kinsley’s name on my caller ID, contemplating whether to answer or send it to voicemail. What could I possibly say to my ex-bestie that I had hurled punches at just hours earlier? I bit my lip and begrudgingly accepted the call. “Hello?”
“Hey,” Kinsley said softly into the phone. “How’s Emerson? My dad said you guys found her by the river?”
“Something like that,” I muttered.
“Is she okay?”
I nodded, numb inside as I remembered her lifeless body floating face-down in the water. “She’ll be fine, I think.” I wasn’t sure what side effects accompanied someone being resurrected from the dead, but I knew enough to understand that it violated all laws of human nature and would inevitably come at a steep price.
Kinsley sighed into the phone. “I’m not good at this stuff, and it’s even rarer that I’m acknowledging my shortcomings, but I’m sorry for punching you. I might have...overreacted a bit.”
I snickered. “You think?”
Silence. For a moment, I thought she had hung up, but then I heard the rhythmic vibrations of light breathing filter over the phone speaker. “Can you do me a favor?” she asked after a moment.
“Teach me how to throw your right hook?”
“Ha! You’ve got a surprisingly good punch yourself!” I said with a laugh.
“Yeah, my dad made me take this self-defense course a few years back.”
“Well, I’d say you kicked ass and took some names.”
“Much like everything else I do,” she said smugly.
Ah, there was the girl I knew. For a moment, I thought I’d lost her. But then, as with everything else that had happened that day, I was surprised once more.
“Still friends?” she asked, a hint of uncertainty in her tone.
I smiled to myself. Kinsley Miller was genuinely concerned about preserving our friendship. Hell had frozen over! “Of course.”
“Good! I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
“Yep, bye Kinsley.”
As soon as I hung up, I heard knocking on my bedroom door. “Come in.”
Mom’s brunette head peeked around the door. “Got a minute?”
I bit my lip, bracing for the forthcoming lecture. “You’re going to come in regardless so why bother asking?”
She huffed and sat down on the corner of my bed, her grey eyes pensive. “Today was difficult for all of us. It's one that I know will haunt me forever.”
I frowned at her choice of words. “But Emerson’s fine, Mom.
Everything turned out okay-”
“Did it? Everything didn’t seem ‘okay’ between you and Abel.”
“Can we not talk about him, please?”
She smiled. “That stubbornness can be attributed to your father’s side.”
“I’m not being stubborn,” I mumbled. “I just don’t want to talk about it.”
“Why? Because you’d have to admit fault?”
I groaned. “So, you heard us?”
“The boy’s got demons, Colette. He lives every day of his life knowing that he’ll never see his brother or friend again. Heaven forbid, but can you imagine if the roles were reversed and that was your reality with Emerson or Mason? You’d be destroyed! If you want my opinion, just the notion that he’s even willing to discuss it is admirable and brave.”
“Well, I didn’t ask for your opinion, did I?”
Mom’s eyes flashed and she rose to her feet, shaking her head in disgust. “Colette, I love you to the ends of this Earth and back and forgive me for saying this but...sometimes you can be an absolute bitch. My sympathies are with Abel on this one.”
My mouth dropped open as I watched her retreat from my room. She was missing the back story of me being haunted by our house’s deceased former occupant, but logistically she did have a valid point. Add to that the fact that Abel had essentially resurrected my three-year-old sister from the grave and I knew I was defeated.