“YOU READY to do this, Kody?”
I smiled at Heather, her pretty face bright and straight blonde hair perfect. “Yeah, I’m ready if you are.”
She tossed the manila file holding the name of the person we’d deliver to heaven onto her desk, knocking over a Hello Kitty pencil sharpener. The office was filled with a collection of old desks, each one piled high with trinkets and junk the eight reapers who worked here had collected to remind them of the era they once lived in. The room’s resemblance to an old police station from a TV show I’d never heard of was ruined by some of our more juvenile aspects, like Hello Kitty.
Smiling, Heather held out a hand to me. “Let’s motor.”
I straightened her sharpener, then took her hand. As one, we teleported to our location in the human realm.
I never got tired of traveling that way.
During my living years, magic had been somewhat of an obsession of mine, from Harry Potter to illusionists and card tricks. I’d even mastered quite a few of the latter. But now, as a reaper working for God—oh yes, He is real—I could actually perform real magic, like turning off lights, conjuring things, and teleporting.
Real magic was so cool.
We rematerialized in a strange house, and I looked around, tensing as I took in the simple but cluttered space, noting the hospital bed with a sleeping woman in the middle of the living room, the cats, the books, and another woman sleeping in a chair.
Immediately I went on alert for coldness on the air—the surefire sign that shades were nearby.
Shades were souls stuck in limbo—also known as purgatory or the nothingness between earth and heaven—the spirits of humans who had not moved on to heaven for one reason or another.
Unfortunately, shades acted like magnets to their corrupted counterparts, the wraiths—shades that had discovered the ability to possess recently dead bodies and reanimate them to “live” again. I’d encountered both forms of spirits before, and I needed to stay on alert for them anytime I entered the human realm. Apparently, shades had been seeking me out since my death, hoping I had a solution to the agony they suffered in purgatory.
Long story there.
My heart raced, and thankfully I felt no cold. I heard nothing but the blip blip blip of medical equipment.
Heather and I had not been followed.
“You sure you don’t wanna take this one?” Heather offered, letting go of my hand and examining the house we’d entered.
If her expression or tone had been anything but nonchalant—like judgy, sad, or disapproving—I would’ve been flustered and upset. But I knew my friend didn’t feel any of those things. In fact, genuineness rolled off her in waves, wrapping around me like a toasty blanket on a chilly winter morning. All honesty and goodness, Heather simply didn’t want me to miss out by hogging all our cases. She was all about everything being fair.
Something we totally had in common.
“No, I like watching you. I’m learning a lot,” I insisted.
Heather grinned, her nose wrinkling impishly. “Okay. I’ll do it.”
Her acquiescence to my somewhat truthful statement sent a wash of guilt through me. A reaper was supposed to help souls cross over to heaven, but I hadn’t delivered the Touch for almost a month now.
I was a little afraid I might’ve lost my touch—no pun intended.
Sound asleep in the hospital bed in the living room, Cindy Young was jaundiced, thin, and frail. She’d fought breast cancer for almost a year. After chemo she discovered that, sadly, it had metastasized in her liver. Several weeks ago she’d been given months to live, but now she had only seconds. When Heather delivered the reaper Touch, her spirit would awaken beside us while her body remained behind.
As it always did, a surge of deep sadness hit me witnessing Cindy’s suffering, the sounds of her raspy breathing like a stab in the heart.
The leader of our teenage group of reapers, Slade, once said that I soak up all the sadness around me, like a sponge of sorts. Other people’s sadness becomes my sadness, their fear, my fear.
The more time I had on this job, the truer those words had proven.
Lying asleep in a recliner on the other side of the room was another woman, covered with an afghan and two cats. She was asleep, so I felt no emotions from her. The cats stirred and one glanced up, seeming to look in our general direction. But we were in our natural reaper state, invisible in the human realm.
“Do you think animals can see us?” I asked Heather, studying the gray tabby. The cat tilted its head to the side and meowed as I spoke.
“Not exactly sure,” Heather said, glancing at the woman who would soon lose her sister or best friend—I didn’t know the nature of their relationship. “But I’ve seen my share that seem to sense us. Or maybe they sense a spirit ready to move on, or they literally sense death.”
I reached out to the cat, and she meowed again. “It’s okay, kitty. We’re here to help.”
Settling back down, the cat curled into the sleeping woman’s lap.
When I looked up, Heather was watching me. “What?”
She shrugged, flipping her long blonde hair behind her shoulder with a perfectly french-manicured hand. “Nuthin’. Ready to do this?”
Though it was God’s will, it was a sobering moment, ending someone’s earthly life. I had to remind myself every time, they were going to a better place.
As Heather approached the dying woman, I held my breath, remembering what Slade had explained to me recently while we’d fed ducks at a pond.
Whether or not I delivered the Touch, during a crossover, the dead literally drained me of what Slade had called my “healing energy” in order for them to be calm enough to accept their death. Even people “ready” to move on ran a gamut of emotions, from scared to hopeful, but those frantically clinging to their human lives took the most. Supposedly love, or more specifically agape—the Greek word for the love of mankind—was the key to preventing them from taking my energy.
Easier said than done.
So as Heather rested her palm on the woman’s shoulder, I looked around the room, at how cozy it would be without a hospital bed, and tried to picture Cindy as a healthy woman, alive and happy…. Maybe as a friend I knew. I concentrated on love and a willingness to help my fellow man, hoping Cindy wouldn’t drain me too much.
When a reaper delivers the Touch, it is the very act of God’s holy spirit separating the soul from the body. Concentrating on Cindy as Heather reached for her—Cindy is one of God’s children—I sucked in a breath. Though a mere bystander, I felt the sharp tear of energy the instant it happened, and the opal ring on my right index finger warmed. A tiny surge of energy left me.
I blinked a few times, only mildly disoriented.
Okay, maybe I’m getting the hang of this.
Breathing easier, I concentrated on the woman sleeping in the chair. She hadn’t stirred from sleep, but the two cats in her lap seemed to be staring right at me. When I tipped my head curiously, they resumed their busy task of snoozing.
Had they felt the Touch too?
Heather returned to my side. “Well, she should be here any—”
“Who are you?”
We both turned at the unfamiliar voice to see the woman who’d been lying in the bed standing before us, her face open and curious. The turban that had been covering her head was gone, and slowly red hair began to curl and twist out of her scalp, cascading down her back just as her hollow features filled out. In the span of several heartbeats, freckles dusted her now rosy cheeks, and her frail body plumped, now vivacious and curvy.
Spirits always resembled the person’s inner perception of themselves, regardless of what a mirror said. Cindy was lovely, with a kind face and inviting eyes. I could imagine her laughing as she graciously welcomed us into her home as guests, not reapers there to take her soul.
“We’re here to escort you to heaven,” Heather said.
One of the big rules of being a reaper was never telling a spirit more than they needed to know, but getting to heaven was the best theme to go with in these dark times.
There was an epidemic on this planet of people not believing in God or heaven or anything other than the existence they led on a day-to-day basis in the fleshly world. Maybe it was war, political upheaval, suffering, the rat race, or just apathy that pushed people away from God. Or maybe it was those who used the word of God to manipulate others—like what happened to me when I’d been alive. Convinced I was destined for hell because I was gay, my mother sent me to a camp to be “cured.” Of course, it hadn’t worked, and ultimately she’d been wrong, because now I spent my afterlife as one of God’s direct servants.
Sadly, humans like my mom didn’t always see things with open hearts. Everything was either right or wrong, black or white. In reality there was a whole world of gray out there, and by refusing to see it, many believers pushed good people away from trusting God. Such lack of faith caused many souls to get stuck in limbo as shades, lost in between life and death—that was the real hell.
Mankind’s general loss of faith made our job as reapers all the more difficult.
When a newly dead spirit rejected the belief of God’s grace or refused to believe we could get them to heaven, they clung to the mortal realm—and drained even more of my energy than the Touch.
Thankfully what the spirits took, my boyfriend Max Shaw could give back to me.
Max had this well of warmth and power inside him—a physical manifestation of his love for me—that replenished what others took. That’s why together we’d decided I would not deliver the Touch until he was back on the job with me.
“Heaven?” Cindy repeated, bringing my thoughts back to her.
I could feel her doubt but also fearful hope tugging at her mind.
“Yes, ma’am,” Heather replied, smiling.
“Heaven is real?” Cindy said, a small disbelieving smile crossing her face as she looked back and forth between us.
Slowly I stopped feeling the pull of her spirit, and her faith allowed me to breathe easier. I smiled, then Heather and I both answered, “Yes, it is.”
Cindy looked at the sleeping woman with the two cats. “See, Jenny, I told you heaven was real,” she whispered, wiping a tear from her eye. To us, she said, “Jenny’s my wife.”
I smiled wider. I’d never helped anyone on my LGBT rainbow cross over, and it felt extra special, sharing the reward for a good life that maybe she—like me—had never thought to see.
A part of me wanted to tell her I was gay too, that I had a boyfriend named Max who I loved very much and that God loved us just the way we were. But I didn’t feel any of the doubts that had once plagued me, the guilt or the pain. Cindy’s file said she was sixty-two, so maybe she’d already worked through those feelings decades ago. Or maybe she’d never had them. Either way, I said nothing as Heather materialized a door.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
Cindy looked back at Jenny, and now the gray cat was staring directly at us.
“I think it can see us,” I told Heather telepathically.
Heather glanced at the cat, but it was licking its paw absently now. “Nothing would surprise me, Kods.”
I smiled. Heather had never called me “Kods” before. Only a few friends in my lifetime had ever shortened my name, mostly my sister, and it left me with a feeling of genuine affection and friendship.
“She’ll be okay, won’t she?” Cindy asked, looking at her spouse and bringing my attention back. Then her thoughts filled my mind. “I haven’t been a good wife to you for a long time, Jenny. All you do is care for me and before that, your mother.” An image of Jenny and an old woman flitted through Cindy’s mind, and I wondered if this was what Slade experienced when he talked to people.
“She deserves to be able to live again,” Cindy said aloud. “Not just as a nurse, but as a woman, a friend… and a lover.” Her last unspoken thought faded like a whispering wind through the trees. I felt another shiver work through my body as Cindy took the last step to letting go of this life.
Heather rested a hand on Cindy’s shoulder. “She’ll be okay. Trust me.”
Face serene, Cindy smiled and nodded. “Okay.”
“Ready?” Heather said again, already guiding Cindy toward the open door. This door was red and square, practical somehow, just like Cindy, I presumed. Kelly and Sarah also conjured doors for their charges, but Heather had an uncanny intuition about the types of doors people would be most comfortable with, a gift I wanted to emulate when I was back delivering the Touch.
Beautiful white light gleamed on the other side, cheery and welcoming. Heather led Cindy through and I followed, the door closing behind us.
Delivering souls to God in heaven wasn’t a job I would’ve predicted for myself when I’d been alive. But there were a lot of things I’d learned to let go of from my human life. On this side of death, I’d finally found purpose and meaning, friendship and love. Though I still had a lot to figure out, I was proud of who and what I had become.
And dare I say it?
I was happy.
“WELL, I’M gonna play some Sims before I meet up with Slade for training,” Heather told me when we reappeared in the dorms, where we and the other six members of our teenage reaper gang lived. It was a pretty cool setup, with a fun common area, a fully stocked kitchen, and hallways branching off to all of our rooms. “Wanna join me?”
I shook my head. “Nah, I’m gonna check on Max.”
Concern crossed her face. “How is he doing?”
I forced a smile.
Recently, I’d disobeyed Slade’s orders and followed my sister Britany into the human realm, where she and her drug dealer boyfriend Zack had passed out on heroin.
The whole thing had turned into a giant mess.
First, Heather showed up to reap Zack because he’d actually OD’d, but before she could, a vast herd of shades had arrived—drawn by my presence—and knocked me to my knees in unbearable pain. Hundreds of voices screamed at me for help, an agonizing Dante’s Inferno playing out in my brain.
Then six wraiths had ambushed us—because wherever a large group of shades were, the wraiths were sure to follow.
One of the wraiths possessed Zack’s newly dead body and then stabbed and killed Britany so another wraith could possess her. When I pushed the undead thing off my sister, the wraith had sucked a shocking amount of power from my body, converting itself back into a normal spirit.
It nearly killed me.
While Max revived me with his inner light, he’d called for Meegan’s help, and she’d sent the former wraith to heaven. Max’s power then formed a force field around us to keep the rest of the wraiths away. Thankfully, Slade had arrived with broadswords and his big black wings to dispatch the wraiths and save the day. Then I had a chance to resolve some things with Britany’s spirit before she moved on to heaven. In a shocking but selfless act, Meegan had ended her decades-long run as a reaper and took Britany’s place in heaven, giving my sister a second chance to live out her human life.
Meegan’s departure had devastated Max.
He’d been on hiatus from reaping, but I’d seen a big improvement in the past few days.
Hoping he’d go on assignment with me again soon, I answered Heather as honestly as I could. “He’s better. He told Slade a while ago that he was ready to go out, but Slade said they needed to have a private lesson first. Hopefully he clears Max for fieldwork and then starts training us together, like he promised. It’ll be nice to find our new normal.”
Heather smiled. “Good. I mean, I’ll miss having a partner. This job is more fun when you don’t have to do it alone. You’re lucky to have him.”
Her statement took me by surprise, or maybe the sudden wash of sadness rolling off her startled me. “Thanks.” I hesitated, then asked, “Is everything okay?”
“I don’t know.”
She studied me for a moment, and I did the same to her. She just seemed… off.
“Well, no, I guess it isn’t okay,” she finally said. “I broke up with Tristen.”
My jaw dropped. “You did? Why? What happened?”
She looked away as she chewed her lower lip.
“Never mind,” I insisted. “It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me. It’s none of my business.”
She sighed heavily and brushed her long blonde hair off her shoulder. “No, it’s okay. I haven’t told anybody yet. I just don’t wanna deal with explaining why to everybody. It’s nobody’s business.”
“I’m sorry I asked.”
“It’s fine. I can tell you.” She pursed her pink-glossed lips and exhaled sharply through her nose, as if psyching herself up. “It’s just that all Tristen thinks about is sex. I’m sick of it.”
“Oh,” I said, startled. “Was he pressuring you?”
She threw up her arms. “Everyone’s been pressuring me my whole life. When I was alive, all my friends had done it. They kept telling me that if I didn’t, then all the guys would think I was a prude and that I’d never get a boyfriend. But I want to be a virgin when I get married. I know it’s old-fashioned.” She shook her head, as if scolding herself. “You probably think I’m stupid.”
“No, I don’t,” I assured her. “There’s nothing wrong with saving yourself for marriage.”
“My friend Hayley used to tell me to take the poop hole loophole.”
“The poop hole loophole,” she repeated, eyes widening as if I should know. “If you only do it in the butt, you’re still a virgin.”
I didn’t know if I was shocked or amused. “Is that a thing?”
“Sure,” she assured me. “For lots of girls.”
“I don’t think it’s true.” I frowned.
“That’s what I told her. I said if that were true, then gay guys were all virgins. I told her she was dumb, and she called me an uptight church girl. And that’s what Tristen said. That I was too uptight.”
Max and I hadn’t gone all the way yet, but we sure enjoyed what our hands and mouths could do. Together we’d decided we weren’t virgins because hetero definitions of sex and virginity didn’t apply to us.
Not wanting to talk about the details of our sex life, however, I offered, “Tristen shouldn’t pressure you.”
“I know, that’s why I ended things,” she said. “He’s all upset and depressed now. But he just doesn’t get it. Boys never do. All guys think about is sex. I mean, look at you and Max.”
I flinched. “What about us?”
“You guys are always doing it.”
Hot waves of embarrassment flushed my face and spilled down my back, but I managed to spit out, “W-why would you think that?”
She studied my face and quickly put a reassuring hand on my arm. “Don’t look like that. Nobody’s laughing at you guys. But you share a bedroom with one bed. We’re not stupid.”
When I’d first arrived on the team, Slade had not allowed Max and me to be alone, doing everything in his power, both covert and obvious, to keep it that way. We’d managed one glorious romantic night together in a beautiful pavilion in Alaska that Meegan had created for us. But we weren’t stupid. Slade doubtless knew about it. That’s why we assumed that night had been a one-shot deal.
But after Meegan moved on, Slade had not resumed his strict “doors open at all times” policy. Maybe because Max had been catatonic in his grief, and Slade knew being together refueled us both. So far, Slade had made no move to oust me from Max’s room.
I couldn’t deny how happy that made me, being able to be alone and intimate with Max—physically, yes, but more importantly, mentally and emotionally.
But the idea that everyone knew Max and I were intimate, and were possibly talking about us, mortified me. No one had teased us, because Max was in mourning, yet they all knew what we were more than likely doing at night—and what we were doing never got old.
But that was private.
I didn’t think Heather was judging me, but hearing her casually mention how everyone knew was so embarrassing!
“I guess it’s easier for you and Max, being both boys. Guys are always horny and when they score”—she did air quotes—“they’re cool. But with girls it’s different. If we put out, we’re sluts. If we don’t, we’re prudes. It’s like damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” She looked at me and shook her head. “Never mind. You’re a guy. You just wouldn’t get it.”
“Actually,” I said, fighting down my embarrassment to help my friend. “There’s a stigma like that with gay guys too.”
Her brows rose. “Really?”
“Yeah, guys who… you know?” I cleared my throat, face fully on fire now. “Um… bottom a lot, they’re looked at like they’re dirty or sluts, but if a guy tops a lot, then he’s manly and cool.” I hadn’t experienced much of the gay world, but I’d picked up a few unpleasant details on different apps and the handful of times I went to Koko’s, the gay bar near Union College.
Heather studied me in confusion. “Tops and… bottoms?” Then her face lit up, eyes wide and lips in an O of understanding. “Ohh, I get it. Bottoms.”
I squirmed. Now that she realized what I meant, was she trying to figure out who did what in my and Max’s relationship? I didn’t think she would, but I knew how inventive my own imagination could be.
Best not to think about it or I’d really die of humiliation.
“I guess you do get it, then,” she said crossing her arms and shaking her head. “It’s not fair, right? Why is everybody so quick to judge and point fingers at everyone? What people do or don’t do is none of anybody’s business.”
And then I felt suddenly relieved, my embarrassment lessening. Heather wasn’t like the brothers at Camp Purity, wanting to hear all my intimate thoughts and details. She was just my friend, going through personal stuff that all of us kids struggled with every day. And I was ever so grateful she’d confided in me.
I touched her arm. “No, it isn’t fair. Life would be easier if everyone respected one another’s differences and their privacy. Apparently the afterlife isn’t all that different.”
“Word,” she said, raising her fist for a bump, which I returned with a smile. “And like I told Tristen, he can think I’m a prude all he wants. I’m done. And I don’t know if reapers can even get married, but I’m gonna be a virgin if I do.”
Smiling, I gave Heather a tight hug. “Good for you.”
Heather squeezed me back, and I could feel my love for her, my philia—the Greek word for brotherly love—and hers for me in return. Having lacked it for so long, I understood the value of true friendship and support. I’d found the best forms of it with Max and my new reaper friends. Remembering how I’d pushed the strength of my love into my sister, I offered the same energy to Heather. Rather than the way the spirits drained me, when I pulled back from her—my genuine friend—I felt revived.
“And I think we could get married if we wanted,” I told her, wondering if Max would ever want that.
Her face brightened, and she cocked her head to the side, staring up at me. “You think so?” She definitely seemed to be in a happier place than a moment ago.
Shrugging, I rubbed her arms, not really stepping out of the hug. “Sure. Why not? We’re still the same people on the inside that we were when we died. We still want the same things.”
Hadn’t Max said as much to me that first night, when I’d been so broken, wanting to escape my problems in death? And hadn’t all those problems followed me anyways?
Max always did have a powerful intuition.
“I want to wear white and mean it,” Heather insisted.
“Well, if Tristen doesn’t respect that, then you made the right decision.”
“Thanks.” She stepped out of my hug. “Well, anyways, I gotta meet Slade soon, but I wanna check on my Sims.” She was obsessed with that old computer game.
“What kinda training are you doing with him?”
Her grin widened. “Swordsmanship.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Like whatever is coming, I can be your first line of defense.”
Unfortunately, I already knew what was coming.
“Later, Kods,” she said, waving cheerily before she teleported away.
I smiled back. “Later.”
War was coming.
The cold October night in the human realm when Max and I first met—him my reaper and me his charge—a wraith possessing a dead human’s body told him a war was coming. Slade had never refuted that, and now he was spending individual time with each of the reapers, preparing all of us for more than a spiritual fight against apathy, but literal battle.
Each of us reapers was a loner in one way or another, both in our living lives and this one. Perhaps that was an important trait when chosen for the job. But we needed to start changing that and work together.
When Slade and I had been at the pond, he explained a prophecy given to the archangels about a healer and a protector—the pair destined to heal the lack of faith in the world.
I’m the healer and Max is the protector.
I’m supposed to take the recently dead and the shades to heaven, while Max uses his light power to protect us from wraiths.
We still had no idea how to do that.
Or if I could physically survive it.
Deep in thought, I headed to the room Max and I shared to see if he had returned from his lesson with Slade.
A meow sounded at my feet.
Smiling, I leaned down and picked up our fluffy orange house cat, Herman. “Hey, kitty, kitty.”
Herman purred like a motor and I settled him over my shoulder like a baby. As I walked I petted his soft fur, lost in thought.
Somehow knowing Heather and Max would have my back whenever I began to fulfill this “higher purpose” made me feel more confident. Though strange to be the subject of prophecy—and I often wondered if prophecies were self-fulfilling, like Dumbledore told Harry Potter—it also felt right.
After all, Max had been protecting me since the instant we met. Saving me from suicide, from wraiths, and fueling me with the warm light he created from deep within.
While Cindy hadn’t drained me too much—I’d really concentrated on cultivating the agape love this time—I didn’t know if I’d ever have the strength to help shades get to heaven, let alone face another wraith.
But knowing Max had always been there, would always be there for me, made anything seem possible.