Something Deadly This Way Comes
The hot sun seemed to go right through me, reflecting off the aluminum bleachers to warm me from my feet up as I stood beside Nakita and cheered Josh on. He was running the two- mile in an invitational, and they were doing the last bit right on the track. The front three runners had begun to pick up the pace for the last hundred yards. Josh was ahead, but the guy behind him had saved some push for the last bit, too.
“Go, Josh! Run! Run!” Nakita yelled, and surprised, I lowered my camera to look at her. The dark reaper didn’t especially like Josh—she’d almost killed him once—and her excitement was unusual. Her pale face was flushed, and her eyes, usually a faded blue, were bright as she leaned forward and grasped the chain-link fence between us and the track. She was wearing a pink top with matching pink nail polish to hide her naturally black nails. Open-toed sandals and capris helped her blend in, and she looked nothing like one might imagine a dark reaper, capable of “smiting” lost souls.
I was dressing down today—at least for me—in jeans and a black, lacy top. My hair, though, was its usual purple-tipped cut, hanging around my ears, and I still wore my funky yellow sneakers with their new black laces with skulls on them. They matched my earrings.
“He’s right behind you!” the angel in disguise shouted, and her matte-black amulet sparked violet at its core. More evidence she was excited. Shaking my head, I turned back to the race, bringing my camera up and focusing on the finish line. I snapped a picture for the school paper as Josh squeaked over the finish line. My smile was full of a quiet satisfaction that he’d won.
“He won! He won!” Nakita exclaimed, and I gasped when she pulled me into jumping up and down with her. I couldn’t help but give her a hug back, breathless as I caught my balance. She certainly wasn’t acting like one of heaven’s hit squad, as excited as if she was Josh’s girlfriend. Which she wasn’t. I might be. Maybe.
“Barnabas.” Nakita shoved his feet where he reclined two rows above us. “Josh won. Say something!”
The former light reaper pushed his hat up and gave her a dry look. “Whoopee,” he said sarcastically, then pulled his long legs closer and sat up, squinting in the sun. “Madison, you were going to work with me today on hiding your amulet’s resonance.”
Grimacing, I looked down at the jet-black stone cradled by silver wires that I wore around my neck. Besides giving me the tactile illusion of a make-believe body, hiding me from black wings, and giving me my connection to the divine, my amulet sang. Sort of. Mimicking a natural aura, the black stone rang like a bell that only the divine could hear. Anyone who knew how to listen could find me in a second—be they friend or foe. Which might be a problem if I was out trying to keep my own people from killing someone, and which was why I needed to learn how to hide it. After hanging out with Josh, of course.
“She can do that later,” Nakita said primly. “He won!”
I felt a twinge of guilt. I had promised to work with him after school, but I’d forgotten I’d also promised Ms. Cartwright I’d take pictures of the track meet for the school paper, too.
“Sorry,” I said softly, and he shrugged, making no effort to hide his boredom.
For all his sour attitude, Barnabas had been on earth longer than Nakita and therefore had all the subtle nuances of human behavior to fit in with the track moms and cheering girlfriends better than Nakita. His lanky build and faded T-shirt only added to his sigh-worthy looks, but Barnabas truly didn’t have a clue how good he looked. Nakita didn’t know why guys followed her around looking for dates, either. That the two of them hung out with me had the popular cliques cross-eyed. “This was his only race,” I offered hesitantly, and Barnabas leaned back, stretching out on the warm bleacher to put his hat over his face.
Turning back to the track, I snapped a picture of Josh as he accepted the congratulations of his teammates. Sweat made patterns on his shirt, and his blond hair was dark with it. He was the only one apart from Barnabas and Nakita who knew I was technically dead; not only had he been there as I had died, but he had held my hand during the whole thing. Yep, I was dead: no heartbeat unless I got excited or scared, no need to eat—though I could do it in a pinch to fit in, and I hadn’t had so much as a nap in months. It had been fun at first, but now I’d give just about anything to enjoy a juicy hamburger and crispy fries. Everything sort of tasted like rice cakes.
“I didn’t know you liked sports,” I said to Nakita as Josh waited for the runners to pass before crossing the track to talk to us through the fence.
“We have contests,” she said. “This has the same appeal.” Her gaze went from the runners to the moms chatting among themselves, barely conscious of the meet at all. “I came in third once, with the blade,” she added.
Barnabas snickered, his face still hidden under his hat. “Real good with that scythe, eh?” he muttered, and she smacked his foot.
“And where did you place?” she asked him hotly.
Sitting up, Barnabas watched Josh, his eyes not seeing him but the past. “They didn’t have contests when I was in heaven.” I winced. Barnabas had been kicked out of heaven before the pyramids had been built.
“Sorry,” Nakita said, surprising me with her downcast eyes.
She usually took every opportunity to needle Barnabas about his fallen status. According to Nakita, Barnabas had been kicked out of heaven because he’d fallen in love with a human girl.
“Hi, Josh,” I said as he scuffed to a halt behind the chain-link fence.
“Almost lost that one,” he said, breathing heavily. When he smiled at me, I felt warm inside. We’d been dating for a while, and his smile still hit me hard. And his kisses, even more.
“But you didn’t,” Nakita said, back to her serious self again. “It was a good run.”
Josh gave her a quizzical look, probably wondering at her earnest expression. “Thanks,” he said, then wiped the sweat from his neck. I hadn’t sweated in months. Not since I’d died.
“Is that your last race?” I asked, already knowing.
“Yup.” Josh waved to the guy calling him from the finish line. “I gotta go, but do you want to go to The Low D with me later?” The Low D was the local hangout, short for The Lowest Common Denominator. Three Rivers was a college town, and the students got the joke even if no one else did. His eyes rose to take in Nakita and Barnabas. “All of you?” he added somewhat sourly. It was hard to find the time to be alone with Josh between school, my dad, my job at the flower shop, and don’t forget being the dark timekeeper, stealing every free moment of your day and night. One might think that not needing to sleep would give you tons of time, but it didn’t.
Already guessing my answer, Barnabas sighed from under his hat. It was likely going to be after sundown before I practiced shielding my amulet’s resonance. But a quiver went through me, and my heart, or at least the memory of it, gave a hard thump and went still. “Sure,” I said, smiling. Small word, heavy in significance.
Josh stuck his fingers through the mesh, and I touched them. Josh and I had been through a lot together, especially considering our rocky start when I was his pity date at prom. We were doing good now, even with the dark timekeeper stuff butting in. Smiling with half his face and looking charmingly beguiling, Josh pulled back, finally turning to face his friends as he walked away. Nakita was scowling when I turned around.
“You promised Barnabas you’d practice,” she said, surprising me.
“It’s okay to put off practice to watch Josh run, but it’s not okay if I want to socialize a little?” I asked.
It was reaper logic, and I knew I couldn’t win. Sad thing was, she was probably right. Turning away, I sat on the bleachers to wait for Josh. Barnabas was behind me smelling of feathers and the back of clouds—and yes, the back of clouds do have a smell. Ignoring me, Nakita went to stand at the fence, watching the stragglers come in. I wondered if she ought to go out for cross-country, then squashed the idea. She was here to protect me from myself, not learn how to run the two-mile.
But all thoughts of practice and The Low D left me when, without warning, a blue ink seemed to pour from the sun, hitting the earth and boiling up like smoke. It bled across the ground, washing over people oblivious to it, turning me cold. In the time it took to pull my head up, the blue had risen to encompass everything.
Puppy presents on the rug. I’m going to flash forward.
My heart gave a pound and stopped as a quick wash of fear slid into me. The last time I’d flashed forward to see the future, I had cried at the stars and felt like I was going to die. Then I fell into someone else’s mind and lived out the ugly moment when they began to kill their own soul. That had been almost a month ago, and I didn’t know what scared me more—that I might have to live through that hell again, or that the seraphs were giving me another chance to prove that killing a person wasn’t necessary to save their soul—and I might screw it up?
According to Grace—my annoying, often missing guardian angel and heavenly liaison—although the seraphs didn’t cause my flash forwards, they could stop them or make them come early, sort of screen them to make my transition to a fully functioning dark timekeeper easier. It wasn’t like I had a real teacher, having been dumped into the position. You’d think that the seraphs themselves would take on the job of assigning reaps permanently, but apparently angels had a hard time figuring out what was now, what was then, and what was to be, and it took a human to understand time. I happened to be in charge of the bad guys, the ones that killed people before they killed their souls. I’d rather be in charge of the light, who tried to stop the killing, but that’s not what had happened.
Voices faded in and out through the blue mist as I waited for the future to take me. “Madison, you can practice at The Low D,” Nakita said, kicking the fence to make it shudder. “The distraction will be good. Barnabas, it’s no wonder she never learns anything with you, teaching her at midnight on her roof.”
I clutched at my knees, terrified that if I moved, I’d find myself convulsing on the ground. The moment when a soul begins to die is traumatic, and it rings through the time lines and into the future, causing the flash forwards. The deeper into the future, the hazier the vision is, ranging from a crystal clarity to a murky nothing that only voices could penetrate. Which meant that if I was the first timekeeper to flash forward I didn’t necessarily have the advantage. Ron, the light time-keeper, might flash later, but clearer, and pull the reap right out from under me.
“Guys?” I whispered, and then gasped when the entire track with its runners, coaches, and blue lawn chairs was suddenly superimposed with a scene that was possibly a hundred miles distant and probably days into the future. And though I clutched at the ribbed heat of the aluminum bench, I also stood on a chalk-decorated sidewalk, staring at a three-story apartment building with old cars out front and a busy road behind me, traffic at a standstill. There was fuzzy blue haze at the edges of my vision and around every person, like a second aura.
The night was an awful mix of orange and black as the building burned, flames leaping high to show clusters of neighbors huddled together, dogs barking, and people screaming. Fire trucks spewed air scented with diesel fuel to the curb, which billowed up and warmed my ankles. Roaring. Everything was roaring. And then I realized it was the blood in my head as heartache gripped me.
Johnny is still in there.
The thought echoed in our shared mind. Terror that belonged to the girl whose body I was in filled me, and I felt myself stand, wobbling on the bleachers. I was flashing forward, living someone else’s nightmare. This was when her soul started to die, when something so bad happened that she forgot how to live. I was the only one who might be able to save her.
“Johnny!” I shouted, and Nakita turned to me. I could see her shock, and the image of a burning building grew behind her and melted into the reality of the track meet.
“She’s flashing,” I heard Barnabas say, and his hand clamped over my arm, keeping me from running forward as the girl whose mind I was in bolted. In my vision, I ran through the cars, dodging firefighters trying to stop me, the blue haze rising from people like a fog. In reality, I felt my heart pound as I locked my knees and swayed so I wouldn’t run as well. I left Johnny alone. He was asleep. I waited until he was asleep after Mom left for work. Oh, God. Mom is going to kill me when she finds out! I don’t understand. How can there be a fire?!
“Johnny!” I whispered as the girl screamed, then jumped when a heavy hand clamped on to my arm, and both the girl and I turned.
I blinked, wavering when I saw Barnabas behind the frightening image of a fireman in full gear, his breath hissing as he tried to keep me from going in. The crowd in the bleachers was standing, cheering on the last of the runners fighting it out. In my vision, the fire screamed, a surreal counterpoint to the terror filling me. Barnabas’s hand was on my arm, and he peered at me in sympathy.
“Johnny is in there!” I said, and the fireman stared, his expression hidden behind the face mask. “Let me go. Let me go! I have to get in there!”
As one, the girl and I twisted in Barnabas’s/the fireman’s grip, and as one, we were hoisted into their arms. I tried not to fight, knowing it wasn’t real, but the girl’s terror was mine.
I had no heart to beat in my solid, make-believe body, but memory is a funny thing, and I felt the echo of a pulse as Barnabas carried me, taking the jarring steps down the bleachers and to the cooler shade below. The night bathed my heated cheeks, scorched by sun and fire as Barnabas set me on the ground, and the blue haze that clouded the image of the distant future billowed from the fireman, but not the angel. “I’m sorry,” both Barnabas and the fireman said, for two different reasons.
Behind the fireman, I could see an ambulance. The lights were off and I felt my life end when they put a small, covered body into it. The sheet was pulled over it all the way. For an instant, she didn’t know what that meant, but I’d been in a body bag before, and somehow, when nothing I was thinking could reach her, this did.
“Oh, Johnny!” we sobbed as the reality hit her. In my vision, I started to cry as I watched the flames eat the roof of my room, but my tears were for Johnny. He was gone, and I cried for both Johnny and his sister as I had a vision of his round face and Transformer pajamas. He’d had fish sticks for dinner. I had been so mean, eating the last one when I knew he wanted it.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” I sobbed, my throat tight as I hunched against the bleacher support/side of the fire truck. Nearby was a fireman, giving me half his attention so I wouldn’t run away. Nakita was superimposed on him, making sure no one came close enough to know what was going on. Behind her, the blue sun shone down on the track meet. They were setting up the next race amid the blaring of loudspeakers and the honking of trucks as a new water tanker came in. My brother was dead. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have left him alone. I got up, or at least I did in my vision. I was starting to find the way to dissociate myself from it so I could just watch, making the heartache in the girl easier to bear. Barnabas holding me might have had something to do with it, too.
My fingers traced the name of the city on the fire truck: Baxter, CA. My gaze rose and I saw the street sign: Coral Way. My heart pounded as I realized I had some control of this memory that had yet to be lived.
“Here you go, Tammy,” a smoke-smudged man said, draping a blanket smelling of too much fabric softener over my shoulders. I shivered, unable to speak, but I had a name now, and that would help. “Your mom is coming,” he added, and Tammy’s panic slid through me anew.
Oh, God. Mom. I turned to the fire in a panic. I wanted to undo this, but I couldn’t. Johnny was dead. It should be me there, not him. Not him!
“Madison?” Nakita said, and I blinked at the man as his features melted into hers. “Are you all right?”
I had to run away, leave. Facing this was too awful, and the guilt made it hard to breathe. I should be dead, not Johnny. He was my brother, and now he is dead. Because of me. It should have been me. It should have been me!
Barnabas was calling my name, and I gasped as the two realities—one real, one yet to be lived—clashed violently. The blue tint flashed red, and then the future vanished. The echo of my heart pounded, and I stilled it as I stared up at Barnabas, Nakita, and . . . Josh. Above me, people cheered the last runner to cross the line. It was over. I had flashed into someone else, lived the foretold death-strike of her soul, and . . . survived.
I swayed, trying to shake the guilt and heartache over the girl’s brother’s death. Tammy. Her name was Tammy. Her belief that she caused her brother’s death still rang in me, a despair so heavy that it crushed all else and denied her soul the love it needed to survive. She would run, mentally if not physically, from those who would help her live again, and her soul . . . would wither and die long before her body did. Fate, the seraphs called it, but I didn’t believe in fate.
The old dark timekeeper, Kairos, would have sent Nakita to kill Tammy without a thought, taking her soul to save it at the expense of her life. Ron, the current light timekeeper, would, in turn, send a light reaper to stop the scything, saving her life at the cost of her soul, gambling that she would somehow learn to live again. But I wasn’t the old dark timekeeper, and I was going to use the opportunity to prove to the seraphs that fate could be sidestepped and we could save her life as well as her soul. All we needed to do was show Tammy a different choice.
Smiling weakly, I extended my hand. Josh took it, pulling me to my feet. I brushed off my butt and shivered in the shade. I gazed across the track, remembering the vision of billowing smoke and fire leaping as if it was a living thing. Silent, they waited.
I looked at them, seeing Barnabas’s knowing resignation that this was not going to be as easy as I wanted it to be, Nakita’s fear that I was going to ask her to do something she didn’t understand, and Josh’s eagerness to do something, anything, different.
“You guys up for a field trip?” I asked.
As one, they all exhaled, Josh grinning widely. “And how!”