MY NAME is Max Shaw and I’m dead.
Well, I assume that I’m dead.
I stood in the middle of the road, staring at the hunk of folded metal that used to be my mother’s minivan. The sounds of sirens echoed in the distance, the whine growing louder as they drew closer to the scene of the accident. But nothing could drown out the terrified screams from my date, Debby Kowalski.
“Max! Max! Answer me!”
My lifeless body lay sprawled across the hood of the white pickup that had just T-boned us as I drove through the intersection on a green light.
At least I thought it had been green.
Above me the heavy signal light changed, casting green and red lights across the wet spots of the intersection’s pavement. My lane had a green now, so did that mean it had been red before, or maybe yellow? I’d only had my driver’s license a few weeks.
Had the accident been my fault?
I rubbed my forehead, trying to recall what color the light had been, but I came up blank. I’d been so distracted in my head that I hadn’t been paying attention.
So much for defensive driving.
Though a sophomore, I’d just left prom with my upperclassman girlfriend, and we were on our way to after-prom at the school gym. Even now, as I took in the surreal scene before me, my mind wasn’t on giant sumo wrestling games or the Velcro wall my friends were so excited about. It was obsessing over what Debby had whispered to me on the dance floor: “My parents aren’t home. Maybe you should spend the night.”
Yet instead of possibly losing my virginity to a girl, I died.
What kind of messed-up kid was I that I was less afraid of the latter?
Debby’s haunting wails as she screamed my name brought me back to this strange reality. I looked for her, but I couldn’t see—Oh my God! She’s trapped in the van!
“Debby!” I ran forward and a cold wind rushed over me, her name disappearing in a frosty cloud on my lips.
Above the minivan, a dark, shadowy form appeared out of nowhere. Swirling like an aura, the shadow seemed to suck the air right out of my lungs. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, fear itching down my spine.
Whatever that thing was, and no matter the risk, I had to help Debby.
The command came from behind me, and it was delivered in a firm, authoritative voice.
Powerless to do anything but obey, I froze in my tracks just as an arrow whizzed overhead.
The arrow collided with the shadowy form, causing a burst of icy air to blow my hair back and flutter my clothing.
I looked over my shoulder to see who the heck was shooting an arrow in the middle of town, but the flashing lights of a squad car barreling toward me blinded my vision.
My arms rose at once, bracing for impact with the police car, but someone yanked me clear mere seconds before I was struck.
Heart racing, I watched the cops slam on their brakes, parking a safe distance from the wreck. The dark shadow had disappeared, taking the chill in the air with it. Other cars had stopped, and a man helped Debby break free of her jammed seat belt. Thank goodness she was alive!
Out of harm’s way, I studied my rescuer with the spooky voice. I was a tall—well, I’m five eight in my tuxedo rental shoes. I was hoping to gain a few inches this summer like Dad said might happen. Regardless of my somewhat limited height, I had to crane my neck to make eye contact with the big, imposing man who’d saved me from dying a second time tonight. Then again, if I was dead, the car would’ve passed right through me like it did with ghosts in the movies, right?
I kinda regretted not finding out.
Unsettling gray eyes studied me back, and long blond hair framed a face both weary and handsome, maybe even wise if one could describe a face that way. The man was dressed oddly too, wearing a long brown duster and snug blue jeans. He had on road-worn biker boots and a rather large opal ring, which caught the light in a kaleidoscope of colors. There were tattoos peeking out from the V-neck of his T-shirt too.
And he had a giant crossbow in his hand.
I didn’t quite know what to make of him, and though he was rather intimidating and my corporal body was bleeding out on the hood of a pickup, something about his presence left me feeling serene. Calm, even.
He startled these musings by speaking. “Do you know what’s happened?”
I scoffed and pointed at the chaos surrounding us. “Um, duh. I’m dead.”
Lips pursed in a sympathetic yet somewhat amused smile, he nodded. “Okay, good. C’mon, then. It’s time to go, kid.”
“Wait! What was that thing?”
“That’s way above your pay grade, kid.”
Insulted by his abrupt dismissal of my question, I shook my head. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Are you ready to go?” he asked calmly.
“Go where? I don’t know you and you won’t even answer my questions. What was that dark thingy and how did your arrow hit it? And what are you doing with a crossbow in the middle of suburbia? Don’t you know there’s a school less than a mile away?”
He slung the crossbow over his shoulder, answering the last one. “Yes, I know there’s a school nearby.”
I stared at him, waiting. “Well?”
He cocked his eyebrows. “Well, what?”
“You’re not going to answer any of my questions?”
“No, kid, I’m not.”
“Not even one?” I said stubbornly.
The smile that cracked his face traveled to his eyes, softening them. He placed a large hand on my shoulder and looked down at me. “Fine. The arrowheads are dipped in holy water. That makes them a little more unique. Satisfied?”
Umm, not remotely!
As if determined to head off any further inquiries, he asked me once more, “Are you ready to go?”
I glanced back at Debby, her perfectly applied makeup streaked from tears as she battled with one of the officers to get closer to my body. She’d lost an earring, and the corsage I’d given her was being mangled in the struggle, the pink petals spilling across the pavement. Though playing out right before me, it was almost as if someone had turned the volume down, and I was watching it all from farther away. I could barely make out what Debby and the officer were saying.
I faced the mysterious stranger. “Where am I supposed to be going?”
His hand had never left my shoulder and an icy, yet warm feeling spread out from his touch. “It’s time to cross over, Max.”
I had no idea how this dude knew my name, but I wasn’t going anywhere with anyone until I knew who he was and where he intended to take me. Shaking off his hand, I squared my shoulders. “So who are you supposed to be? The Grim Reaper?”
A smirk cut through his handsome face. “No, not exactly. Do you see a scythe?”
I glared up at him. “Are you an angel?”
He shrugged, twirling the opal ring on his right hand. “Something like that.”
“What does an angel need with a crossbow?”
“It comes in handy.”
“So you’re going with vague, then? That’s not very helpful. Well, if you’re an angel, you don’t look like one.”
“Do you always judge a book by its cover?”
That irked me, mostly because he’d struck a nerve and most of mine were raw, seeing as I’d just died. My parents always said I should be a lawyer because I never backed down from an argument—even with a biker guy claiming to be an angel.
I mean, where were his wings?
“First of all,” I began, my frustration mounting, “how do I know I can trust you, and frankly, why do I need you to take me anywhere? Maybe I wanna stay here and be a ghost. Maybe I can find my own way to heaven.”
“You can’t, kid. The only way over is with me.”
“I find that hard to believe.” I crossed my arms. “You don’t even have wings or a halo. I’m supposed to believe God has tattooed angels in need of a haircut and shave who go around shooting holy-water-laced arrows at ice-cold shadows? No, not buying it.”
“You actually felt the cold?”
Once more amusement flashed in those gray eyes. “Interesting.”
“How is that interesting?”
Naturally, he didn’t answer.
“What is your name?” I wanted to know.
He crossed his arms, mirroring my stance as he looked me over, head to toe. It might have been unnerving, seeing as he was twice my size and rough around the edges, but he didn’t scare me. Maybe I wasn’t thinking this through, but hey, I was already dead, so what could he do to me for mouthing off?
“Slade,” he finally said.
“You should try leading with an introduction next time,” I told him. “Might get a more cooperative response outta people if they knew your name.”
“Duly noted.” The crimson lights of an ambulance flickered over Slade’s face as he continued to scrutinize me. Wavering under such an intense stare, I looked back at the wreck as an EMT threw a blanket over my body. Something dark and final settled in my guts.
I was really dead.
Any bravado wilted and my arms drooped. Watching the scene held a strange similarity to seeing something through a rearview mirror. I could watch it all happening right before me, but I knew, deep in my bones, it was much farther away than it appeared. And the longer the seconds ticked by, the farther away I seemed to become and the less vivid the colors were. I could almost swear the world had gone sepia and gray.
“Crap,” I muttered when Debby picked up my torn and bloody coat from the ground, clutching it to her chest. “I guess I won’t be getting my deposit back on that tux.”
Slade laughed, the sound tangible and immediate as the real-life scene continued to fade.
“What’s so funny?” I wanted to know.
“Don’t get too many kids worrying about their prom tuxedo rental when they die.”
I stared at the accident and tried to make out the muffled words of those around the scene. But it was like they were all inside an aquarium, and I couldn’t understand them anymore.
“So this is it?” I clarified. “I die on my prom night, just another statistic for the six o’clock news? I have to admit, this isn’t how I pictured it.”
“You’ve actually thought about how you would die?”
Glancing up at him, I shrugged. “Sure, hasn’t everyone? I figured I’d be bald and old, married with kids.” I kept some of the more personal details to myself, like maybe I might not have a wife, per se, maybe more of a partner. But this guy was a stranger, and I was already troubled by these backward thoughts I’d been having, so I didn’t intend to share any of them with him. Even if he was an angel like he claimed.
“If you say so,” I said dismissively, still measuring him for trustworthiness. “So the Big Guy sent a biker dude with a crossbow to take me to heaven? Again, not how I imagined things going down when I kicked it.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to disappoint,” he said. “How about we call heaven option A?”
My brows shot up on my forehead. “Does that mean there’s an option B or C?”
“Okay, shoot,” I said, second-guessing my word choice while talking to an armed man.
“Option B, you become a shade.”
“Which is?” I said rather impatiently. Seeing as they were wheeling my body away, I didn’t imagine there was too much time to make up my mind which retirement package I should choose.
“Like a ghost, wandering the planet, stuck in between life and death, never being able to contact anyone and slowly being driven insane. Some call it purgatory or limbo, but it isn’t exactly pleasant. It’s a real-life hell.”
“That’s out,” I said at once. “What’s behind door number three?”
“You can work for me.”
“Helping the newly dead cross over.”
Slade chuckled. “Now that part of the employee handbook I can’t share yet.”
“Naturally,” I scoffed. “What’s in it for me?”
“If you help enough people, you won’t need my help passing over if you decide to.”
“Do I get a crossbow?” I asked, glancing at the weapon, intrigued.
“No.” He shook his head, drawing my attention to his face. When I glanced back down, the crossbow had vanished.
I relented on the weaponry with a shrug. Sensing there was something going on between us but having no idea what it could be, I asked, “Why would you even offer me that option?”
“You’re special, kid. The recently dead who lose their life in an accident usually say variations on the same things: ‘Why did I have to die?’ or ‘I’m not ready to go.’ But not you. You’re taking this a lot better than I expected when I arrived.”
“I’ve always been ahead of the learning curve.”
He sniffed in amusement again. “So what do you say? Do you wanna stick around this realm and help me help people?”
Option C sounded better than going into the unknown. At least I would still be close to things I could wrap my head around. And anytime you took a test and didn’t know the answer, weren’t you supposed to pick C?
“All right, why not?” I said, nodding. “But you’re sure I can’t get a crossbow?”
Slade gave me a good-natured slap on the shoulder. “Yeah, Max. I’m sure.”