“SLADE ISN’T taking it easy on you, is he?” Max observed. “Second assignment and he sends you to a car accident.”
“Sends us,” I corrected, squeezing my boyfriend’s hand with gratitude.
We had materialized into the back seat of a swerving car, the stench of beer and a cheap vanilla air freshener overwhelming us. A middle-aged man clutched the wheel, jerking it to-and-fro as he tried to keep the car in his lane. In the rearview mirror, I saw his face, puffy from alcohol, eyes bloodshot and blinking rapidly.
“And a drunk driver no less,” Max muttered, flinching when the driver, one Jeremy Kane, roughly yanked the wheel again.
Nervous anticipation itched at my skin at the prospect of helping another person cross over to heaven. Though I’d spent three months training for this, Max had been on the job a lot longer, so it was wonderful having him at my side.
Especially at a time like this—hiding in the back seat of a sedan barreling down a country highway at breakneck speed. I winced when he swerved again.
This guy was gonna kill us!
Well, not really.
My name is Kody Michaels, and technically, I’m already dead.
“Go for it,” Max said as we braced ourselves on the seats in front of us when the car fishtailed once more. “He’s about to hit that tree.”
Up ahead through the windshield I saw a large oak, old and possibly broken by lightning. A sharp branch jutted out from the side—the blade waiting to claim Jeremy’s life.
Overcome with sympathy at the gruesome way this man was about to die, I rested my palm on his shoulder to deliver the reaper’s Touch, the very thing which separated the spirit from the body and ended the life. I wasn’t exactly killing him. Everyone died when they were supposed to, but it was still difficult for me to remember that. I felt bad, guilty even for doing it.
The opal ring on my finger heated with the power of holy spirit as I gave him the Touch.
A sudden rush of energy was forcefully sucked from my body.
Buckling over, I gasped.
Max gripped my elbow and teleported us from the car a millisecond before impact. We reappeared on the shoulder of the road the instant the car struck the tree. Tires squealed, glass shattered, and the large crash exploded before us.
Thank God I still had my eyes closed when that branch ended the man’s life.
For a heartbeat, the world spun and I couldn’t move, couldn’t think. I bent over and put my hands on my knees, trying to recover, shocked that I didn’t collapse.
What the heck?
I felt as if Jeremy had just sucked all the energy from my body.
“You see his spirit anywhere?” Max said, surveying the scene.
I forced myself to blink a few times, trying to understand what had just happened, and then I looked around too. “No.”
Wrapped around a telephone pole, the crumpled burgundy sedan had strewn pieces of bent metal everywhere, and glass littered the empty stretch of road. The engine choked, steaming and smoking. When it eventually died, everything around us fell silent. In the distance I heard another vehicle approaching—super hearing was a cool reaper perk. The car was several miles away, so it would be a while before the authorities arrived.
By then we would be long gone.
“Kody?” Max questioned. “Are you okay?”
“Fine, fine,” I assured him, though I felt surprisingly winded. I stood upright and tried to locate Jeremy’s spirit. We had a job to do, and I didn’t want to mess it up.
“You see anything else?” Max’s voice went unsure as he darted an anxious glance over his shoulder. My heart skipped—he wasn’t just looking for our assignment.
He was on the lookout for wraiths.
I shivered at the thought, knowing we were both on edge, waiting for an icy cold aura to announce their evil presence.
Thankfully no chill filled the air now.
I had no desire to have a run-in with the undead.
Scanning the area for my charge, I spied a tall, distraught man coming from around the back of the car. Jeremy examined the wreck, eyes wide with disbelief.
“W-what?” he muttered, grabbing on to his hair with both hands. As we approached, the hole in his chest began to close, but I don’t think he realized it.
Kind of weird, but a spirit didn’t look like a TV ghost. They didn’t wander around with an ax in their skull or a bullet hole in their chest if that’s how they died. They did at first, but then they healed, returning to their healthiest living version, a representation of how they perceived themselves. Jeremy changed from a drunken, middle-aged man to a frat boy in his midtwenties. His hair shortened and darkened, just as his paunchy belly flattened and the circles under his eyes faded.
“What’s happening?” Jeremy moaned. When he spied us, he rushed forward. “Help me! I think I was in a car accident!”
Max gestured to the car where the tree branch had impaled windshield and driver. “Yes, you were.”
“Oh my God!” Jeremy’s jaw dropped when he recognized his own body, dead behind the wheel. He raced back to his car.
“Great,” Max muttered, following the man. “We got a runner.”
I frowned at my boyfriend’s back. “Be nice. He’s in shock.”
“Sir,” he addressed our wayward spirit, “do you know what’s happening?”
Eyes wild, Jeremy shook his head, grabbing at his hair again. “No! I can’t be dead. This can’t be happening. I have a family and—” He froze midsentence, some lucidity returning to his expression. “I had a family,” he whispered, voice small and defeated.
Before Max could chime in with his signature sarcasm, I asked, “What do you mean?”
He stared at me, blinking a few times. Then, as if clarity had come to him, his demeanor changed and he calmed. “Nothing,” he answered, but I heard his thoughts as if he spoke them aloud. I had a family until Fiona left me and took the girls. But what did I expect after what I did to her?
“When did she leave you?” I asked.
Max’s head snapped around, and he gave me a funny look.
Startled, Jeremy stared at me too. “Two months ago.”
Now, I didn’t know if all reapers experienced this, being only my second crossover, but I had a deep connection with this man. A strong, urgent sense of pity and kinship. He was terrified, and I desperately wanted to help him.
Had this been what Max felt for me the night he’d saved me on the bridge?
Whatever it was, with every passing second, I felt weaker than the last. I didn’t know why this crossover was draining me more than when I’d helped the old man yesterday. But I did know heaven was Jeremy’s destination, and I would get him there.
Taking a deep breath, I indicated the car. “Do you wanna tell me what happened, Jeremy?”
“I-I,” he hesitated, swallowing hard. “I just had a few beers at lunch….”
“A few?” Max intoned and I held up a finger to quiet him. To my surprise he raised his hands, locking his lips, and throwing away the key.
The gesture would’ve been cute if the circumstances weren’t so serious.
“Well, maybe,” Jeremy began, guilt visibly weighing down his body as shock gave way to pain. “Maybe more than a few. But, it just….”
When his face crumpled, I heard the words he didn’t have the power to voice as clear as day. I felt his regret for all the after-work beers with the guys from the engineering firm, and the times that drinking led him into the arms of other women. The shame he’d seen in his children’s eyes hit me hard and sharp. And the pain he’d caused his wife….
Stepping forward, I quietly finished his thoughts out loud, “It hurts, doesn’t it?”
He nodded, lips trembling.
“Jeremy,” I began patiently, heart still racing. Forcing a deep breath and finding power from somewhere I didn’t know I possessed, I fixed all my concentration on him. “You died. You know that, right?”
He darted a look at the accident. No, no, this can’t be happening.
The car I heard earlier had finally arrived at the scene. A woman exited, phone to her ear. But her frantic voice faded as the three of us moved farther away from the human realm.
“But I’m not…,” he began.
“No,” I said firmly. “I’m sorry, but there are no buts. Only facts. You died in a car accident, and I’m here to help you get to heaven.”
The man stared at me for a full moment. “Heaven?” he whispered. “I get to go… even after everything I did?”
I smiled, my kinship stronger to this man than I expected. Hadn’t I uttered similar sentiments after my death?
“You’re only human, Jeremy,” I assured him, wanting him to have the hope Max had given me. “We all make mistakes. But God doesn’t hold grudges like humans do. He is love, mercy, and kindness. Of course you’re going to heaven.”
Still out of breath, I managed to smile. “Yes, really.”
I held out my hand and he took it.
Revitalized by his cooperation, I created a wooden door in the road.
I still couldn’t get over the fact that I could actually do magic. Obsessed with Harry Potter as a kid, when I realized I would never get a letter from Hogwarts, I’d turned to magic tricks with cards and sleight of hand. But as a supernatural being, I could conjure doors, turn on the lights with my mind, and even teleport—just like a wizard!
While magic was awesome at first, as I led Jeremy to the door, I realized something had been taken from me after giving him the Touch. Magic might be cool, but the real-world application of it took more out of me than when Max and I had practiced.
Funny, but no one had bothered to tell me that tidbit in training.
The accident had all but faded away, but swirling shapes of the road were still distinguishable, as if we were under water staring up at the surface. The door and the three of us were the only things in crisp focus.
“It will all be okay now, Jeremy,” I told him as I opened the door. On the other side, a white light blinded us for a moment. When our eyes adjusted, I gestured him forward. “It’s time.”
“Are you sure?” he asked in a childlike whisper.
Smiling, I nodded. “Trust me.”
Taking a deep breath, the man walked through.
Relief washed over me and I sighed, some of the tension leaving my body. Jeremy obviously had a lot of dragons to slay, but I had faith he would find the truth in his death he’d been unable to find in life. But it would be a long journey, because dying didn’t change a person, or magically fix them.
Heck, I was the same neurotic kid I’d always been.
Being dead wasn’t exactly how I thought it would be. Though I don’t really know what I’d imagined it to be like. An end to the sadness, the guilt? A chance to start over, unsullied and washed clean? Maybe. Maybe not. But death had been on my mind a lot when I’d been living.
In fact, I tried to kill myself twice. Once at a camp designed to “fix” me, and the other while I was in college.
The second time, Max had been the reaper assigned to take me to heaven.
Instead of letting me end my life, he’d saved me.
Now, he and I work as reapers, escorting people through the pearly gates to meet the Big Guy. And yeah, I mean God. You know? The One who created everything around us. Not everyone believed, but He’s as real as it gets.
When I’d been alive, my entire existence had felt like a disappointment to God, my family, and everyone else I cared about. How could I be gay and a Christian, I used to ask myself. Was there a way to reconcile those two things? I would never deny God’s existence and that I love Him. But I couldn’t ignore who I was on the inside either. I’d grown so emotionally and physically drained from the inner struggle, the never-ending debate in my head, that death had seemed like an easier option than choosing one side over the other.
Thankfully Max had helped me to see these two sides of me could coexist. And every day that passed I grew closer to believing him.
Once sure Jeremy was safely where he was supposed to be, I closed the door. The light and door vanished in an instant, leaving Max and I standing in the street. I felt as if I could breathe easier, some of my energy restored.
“That was different,” he observed.
“Being all super intuitive that his wife left him. Telling him he was going to heaven.” He shook his head, perplexed. “How did you make the door?”
“Um, Heather told me she walks people through a door. I thought this guy would like that.”
Max put his arm around my waist, his warm touch bolstering me. “You amaze me.”
“Why?” I fidgeted. Had I done something wrong? “Wasn’t I supposed to make the door?”
“No, that’s fine. It’s just your kindness that never ceases to amaze me.”
Sighing, I brought his shorter body in for a much-needed hug. “Thanks.”
I placed my chin on top of his head, relaxing in his embrace. His positive energy helped ease some of my exhaustion. I always felt better when Max touched me. So warm and wonderful. Reapers were cold, but Max was so warm that he made me feel warm inside every time he hugged me, almost like being alive again.
He pulled back to look up at me. “Are you okay? You seemed kinda weird when you gave him the Touch.”
I cocked my head to the side. “Did I not do something right?”
“No, you did everything perfect. Like a real pro. You just seemed….” He studied me a moment. “Off,” he eventually said.
I averted my gaze. “This crossover was a lot harder than my first one.”
Max shrugged. “It was a shocking death. Of course it was gonna be harder. Wait till you reap a little kid. Those really hit you hard.”
My stomach dropped. I hoped I never had one of those cases.
“You ready to go home?” he asked, stepping back.
Reluctantly, I let him go and sighed. “Definitely.”
Now I understood why Slade had only given me one assignment per shift. Helping people cross over was very draining, both physically and mentally. Louie had been much easier because he’d lived his life to the fullest and was eager to rejoin his deceased wife. No wonder Jeremy’s resistance had taken a toll on me. Though I knew instinctively he wouldn’t have become a shade, apparently the harder a spirit clung to the mortal realm, the more a reaper had to give of themselves in order to be successful.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something wrong.
I’d have to get out my books and study some more so I could be as good as Max. I didn’t want to disappoint him or Slade.
Max teleported both of us back to the reaper base, rematerializing us in the large library. The vast room overflowed with ancient tomes, edicts, and stories about reapers from the past. Max and I agreed an upgrade with Google would’ve made the whole process of my training more efficient, but neither of us wanted to suggest it to Slade.
I smiled at Max. “I’ll never get tired of traveling that way.”
“I know. Teleporting is so cool.”
Exhausted, I stepped away and reached for a chair to sit down.
Face bright with intrigue, Max pulled on my hand before I could sit. “No sitting down now. I wanna show you what I found yesterday.”
“Do I wanna see it?”
“Yes, you totally wanna see this,” he assured me.
We’d spent the greater part of the past three months in this library while Max taught me how to be a reaper, and he completed his punishment for interfering in my death—writing “I will never disobey the rules of being a reaper” eleven thousand times on a chalkboard. Eventually, once I’d picked up all the nuances and the things my new spirit form could do, we left the library for practical lessons. The day we started teleporting around the office had been my favorite, but the real honor had come when Slade presented me with my very own opal—the stone that helped us separate a soul from its body, then open a way to heaven.
Any spare time Max found apart from training and writing lines, he’d spent researching shades and their evil counterparts—wraiths.
“Is it about wraiths?” I asked, suppressing a shiver.
Max gave me a quick, albeit guilty smile. “Kinda sorta.”
Knowing I wouldn’t win until he showed me what had gotten him so excited, I relented and let him lead me to the farthest corner of the library, but my feet were dragging. “Kinda sorta isn’t an answer, Max.”
“I found something about shades, not wraiths, so kinda sorta is an answer,” Max countered.
Shades were lost souls that couldn’t, or wouldn’t pass over to heaven when they died.
If it weren’t for Max, I would’ve become a shade.
My guilt and refusal to forgive myself would’ve kept me tied to the mortal realm, and that’s why he’d broken the rules to save my life. I would forever be grateful because living as a shade had to be horrific. Tormented by unfinished business, they were stuck between worlds, endlessly trying to fix the unrepairable. Unfortunately, by refusing to let a reaper help them cross over, a spirit chose that life of punishment over one of peace. That was the real hell, not the one I’d learned about in church.
Sometimes a shade regretted their choice.
We’d recently learned a shade could enter a human body when its spirit departed because the corpse still had enough electrical current to be reanimated.
The moment a shade chose that type of existence, they became a wraith.
The addiction to being almost alive was the allure, but the host body eventually decayed and the shade ended right back where they started—stuck in limbo, or purgatory as some call it. The dark twisted entities always needed new “vessels.” They walked among the living in reanimated corpses, searching for the dying and even killing humans before their time in order to get one.
Talk about a real-life zombie apocalypse.
“Check this out,” Max began, leaving my side.
The instant he released my hand, I almost grabbed for it back, but Max hurried out of reach and wheeled out the large whiteboard he’d hidden behind an old bookshelf. Though the risk of discovery was minimal, neither of us thought it wise to let the others see it. One of our fellow reapers, Jake, browsed the bookshelves sometimes, but more often than not, the only one besides us who spent much time in the library was Herman the cat.
Post-its and scribbled notes covered the whiteboard. Anything he’d learned about shades, wraiths, and limbo. Plus a whole lot of questions about our boss, Slade.
Slade gave us reapers our assignments, and he got his orders directly from God. Despite his nonstereotypical appearance, Slade had to be a higher being than us humans-turned-reapers. I imagined him to be an angel of some sort, though he’d never clarified exactly what sort. While I called him an angel, I didn’t mean a chubby cherub or a glorious savior with a white robe, wings, and a halo. He was a big, blond, tattooed biker-dude, often seen toting a crossbow or a sword.
Pulling out a chair and plopping down heavily at the small library table, I noticed a new note written in blue and circled several times.
I keep meeting shades on the battlefield. They’re everywhere. Slade called it an “epidemic” and said it’s getting harder to control purgatory, but he won’t tell us why.—Ed Carter, 1921.
I pointed at the new entry. “Where did you read that?”
Smiling, he wheeled out the library cart with all the books he’d amassed and chose a dusty green one from the top. “That’s what I wanted to show you.” He took the seat next to me. “This belonged to Ed Carter. He was an eighteen-year-old who died in World War I and used to be on Slade’s team. I think we would’ve liked him a lot.”
Intrigued, I leaned in to examine the journal Max placed on the table in front of us. “Is this his diary?”
“Yeah.” Max wore a huge grin. “And you’ll never guess what?”
“He was gay too!”
“Yeah,” Max continued excitedly. “When his boyfriend died in a farming accident, Ed lied about his age and joined the Army Air Corps in 1917. That’s what they used to call the Air Force. He was only seventeen but he became a fighter pilot! Isn’t that cool?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty cool. I could barely handle my homework when I was seventeen.”
“Right?” Max sounded awed by this former reaper. “Anyway, he was kinda like me, I guess, never satisfied with the answers Slade gave him about stuff. Slade kept secrets even back then,” he went on with a twinge of annoyance.
Slade and Max had an ongoing battle of wills, Max always pressing him for information and Slade always evading answers by posing more questions. It was highly entertaining when I wasn’t the topic of said discussions.
“Ed had lots of run-ins with shades because he worked the battlefields in Europe,” Max went on excitedly. “The soldiers weren’t ready to leave because they were so young.”
A deep swell of pity filled me. “Those poor men. Can you imagine being in a war at our age?”
“Well,” Max began, attention still on the journal as he flipped pages. “That wraith did tell me there was a war coming. Maybe we won’t have to imagine much longer.”
I suppressed a shiver.
Two wraiths had confronted Max the night we met. One of them had been waiting for my body when I’d been on the bridge—thank God I hadn’t witnessed that! Also unbeknownst to me, they’d followed us. Max fought them off with a lightning power he hadn’t been able to duplicate since, no matter how much he practiced. And during the eight months Max believed me to be dead—I’d been sorting out some things in limbo with our boss Slade, and time moved slower there—wraiths had followed Max every time he entered the human realm.
I was glad they hadn’t done so on our first two trips out to reap souls.
Max pointed to an entry dated August 4, 1920. “This is the first time one of his charges refused to go with him to heaven.”
I sat up straighter, intrigued. “What does he say? Does he describe them?”
Max told me wraiths looked like black, faceless shadow beings, and until Slade explained the difference, he’d assumed those wraiths in the diner were shades. Both of us wondered what shades looked like, and if they had any resemblance to dead spirits or if they too changed into something else.
Max shrugged. “Here, this is what he wrote: Today I delivered the Touch to a man my age, perhaps a year or two older—one could not be considered a boy after what we have seen. I stopped asking Slade long ago how old my charges were, for it has become quite depressing to me. His name is Eugene and he was yet another victim of a land mine, panicked and afraid like the others. But even as his legs reappeared and the chaos of the battle faded around us, he would not come with me. He saw the door but would not enter. He ran back into the battle, searching for someone named Karl. I cannot condone my failure, and guilt and agony gnaw at my insides. My poor Eugene. What will become of you?”
“That’s awful.” The powerful need to help souls get to heaven was ingrained deep within a reaper. I couldn’t fathom how I would feel if I had to face a similar situation.
“Can you imagine?” Max’s face scrunched up. “Trying to reap souls during a battle? Totally nuts. But he never says anything about what Eugene looked like, other than the thing about his legs, so I’m gonna assume he didn’t change much. Maybe that only happens after they become wraiths?”
Not as excited about this gay reaper as I had been, I pushed my chair back, feeling the weight of more than just a loss of energy from the crossover. This whole topic might intrigue Max, but I hated talking about it.
The day I became a reaper, Slade had said, “Kody has a purpose. He has from the beginning. Just took me a bit to figure out what it was. For now, he’s gonna be a reaper.”
Those words always made my guts knot.
I had a purpose? Like what? Max seemed to think it had to do with the unique circumstances of my death. And though the wraiths had continued to follow Max, they had only confronted him the once—when I was with him.
Something he was wont to remind me of.
He also speculated I might have to help him fight these wraiths one day. But the mere idea of a spirit reanimating a corpse frightened me with thoughts of zombies eating brains, and I wanted nothing to do with any of it.
Apparently, I didn’t have a choice in the matter.
“Kody?” Max placed a hand on my arm, startling me from my thoughts.
I forced a smile. “Yeah?”
“You okay? You kinda zoned on me for a sec.”
“Um,” I began, standing up fast. The movement made my vision spin a little. “I just remembered I gotta do something for Slade.”
“Like what?” Max said, scrutinizing me in a way that made me wonder if he could read my mind. I didn’t think he could, not the way we could hear our charges thinking or Slade heard our thoughts. But Max was a highly intuitive guy, making it difficult to keep him away from the things I didn’t want to bother him with. If he knew everything that was going on, he would be so upset.
“Nothing big. I don’t wanna bore you.” I stepped out of his reach, bracing myself on the chair. Though Max’s constant warmth had revived me, I didn’t have the energy to stay and listen. I didn’t need another night of pacing my bedroom for hours—a habit Max knew nothing about—worrying about my future afterlife.
He raised his brows. “You feeling okay?”
Forcing a smile, I stood straighter. Pretending and hiding had been skills I perfected a long time ago. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just gonna go lie down. Helping people cross over takes a lot out of me.”
“Yeah, I’ll just go to my room.”
“I thought you had to do something for Slade.”
“Yeah, but I can do that afterward,” I said quickly. “You have fun with Ed.”
He assessed me for a moment, then smiled. “Okay, I’ll catch you later. Maybe I’ll bring his journal and we can read some more together.”
“I’d like that.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
When he turned back to the journal, my stomach knotted.
Lying to my boyfriend had become a habit I didn’t know how to stop.