Authors: Melissa Cunningham
Wracked with guilt, I cover my face, hiding from the terrible emotions that overwhelm me. I don't even try to be quiet as I sob. My shoulders shake as an agonized moan tears from my mouth. “I need to go.” My voice is raspy with desperation.
“It's not over yet,” Gram answers, staring straight ahead. Her mouth is in a tight, thin line, like a cruel taskmaster, and she makes me stay to witness the agony I've caused.
I groan again, glancing over to my mother. I can't do this. I can't watch the people I love hurt so terribly.
Gram smiles sadly. “I'm
The minister stands, and the music stops. “My dear friends. I welcome you to the funeral services of Alisa Kristine Callahan.”
He goes on to tell stories about my life. Stories from my early childhood to my preteens. I'd quit going to church when I was thirteen, and I'm surprised he has any memories of me at all. I decided at a young age that since God didn't seem interested in me, I wasn't interested in Him. My mother tried bribery to get me to go, but she quickly gave up. She wasn't about to embarrass herself by dragging a screaming teenager through these sacred double doors, and I wasn't about to get dressed up for religion.
The minister continues. “I remember when Alisa was about ten years old. She came running in one Sunday morning and ran straight into my arms, begging me to perform a marriage ceremony between her and Stephen Keiths right away. She'd fallen in love and didn't want to lose him to anyone else. Poor Stephen didn't even know he was engaged.”
Stifled chuckles erupt from the audience, along with strangled sobs.
I remember that conversation. I also remember Stephen with his hazel eyes, his lovely smile, and sandy blond curls. Is he here now? Oh, I hope not. I turn in my seat and search for his face, finding him eight rows back. He's seventeen now and on the football team. He sings in the school choir, and is still as beautiful as ever. My chance with him is gone.
When the minister finishes, my aunt Karen stands and gives the eulogy. I haven't seen her in a long time, but I'm glad she's here today. She keeps her speech short and tells about my birth, about me growing up, and how much she loved me. She talks about my talent in music and how sad I'd been when my friend Natty died of cancer.
My mother sobs, and her shoulders quake as she hides her face behind her hanky.
I move over to kneel at her feet, gazing into her tired blue eyes. “Mom, I'm sorry. I'm
sorry.” I rest my cheek against her thin, cool fingers, and breathe in the smell of her. So familiar, so soft. Like lilacs.
She can't hear me, but she lifts her head. Tears swim in her eyes, along with a look of surprise. She glances toward my dad, then back at her hands, and smiles through her tears.
“I love you, Mom,” I say fervently. “I'll fix this. I
I will. Please don't be sad.” I place a kiss on her tear-streaked cheek. Her blue eyes sparkle, and I know that somehow she knows I'm here. I move over to my dad and do the same thing, getting a similar reaction. Then I kneel before my brothers.
I take Tyler's hand first. He's the youngest. Only twelve. Tears stream freely down his cheeks, and he doesn't bother to wipe them away. He's combed his dark hair neatly to the side, and his tie is remarkably straight. I wonder who helped him. That was always my job.
“Tyler, I love you,” I whisper. “Don't be sad.” I stroke his cheek, and memorize his face, the color of his eyes, the cowlick in his bangs. “I'm gonna miss you, and... and I'm really sorry I did this. I wish I could go back.” I kiss his head and squeeze his hand. He doesn't act like he senses anything, but I hope with all my heart that he does.
I take a deep breath and turn to my older brother, Derek. He's almost eighteen. A man. He and I look the most alike with his dark, golden hair and his chocolaty eyes. His mouth, set in a rigid line, doesn't even twitch when I touch him. He keeps his arms tightly crossed, his gaze hard.
I whisper that I love him, that I'm sorry, but he is totally unresponsive. I can't get through no matter what I say. Maybe it's because we always argued during my life. Maybe it's because I said hateful things to him the last time we were together, and he told me to quit being a baby and feeling sorry for myself.
The guilt is a hard, jagged rock resting firmly in the pit of my stomach, but I deserve that misery. I altered my family's lives, and I can never fix it, no matter what I promise, no matter how hard I try. I killed myself, and I can't go back.
I tell Derek goodbye then back away, my heart ripped, shredded, and lying at his feet.
A limo takes my family to the cemetery and I ride with them, holding my mother's hand. No one says a word. I stand by my grave. A dark, muddy gaping hole. Actually, it's covered in fake green grass, but I can imagine the dirt beneath where my body will lay forever. Cold. Alone. Rotting. I hate cemeteries.
Holding back a sob, I beg God to perform a miracleâto let me live again. I stand thereâraw, open, bleeding, and no one can stop the flow. I'm forced to hear it all, feel it all, and experience it all.
Finally Gram turns to me, places her hand on my arm, and closes her eyes. Two seconds later, we stand before the entrance of
Brecken holds the phone to his ear. It's after midnight and he'd been asleep when his cell rang. Jill's voice pushes back the darkness of his basement bedroom. He isn't the least bit irritated at her call.
“I missed you, baby,” she says. “I had to call and tell you so.”
Brecken's eyes are heavy, and he is still half-asleep, so he answers in a soft whisper. “I always miss you.” He keeps his eyes closed and rests the phone on his pillow.
“I figured. Want me to come over?”
“Naw,” he says, rolling over on his mattress. “I'm too tired tonight. I'll see you at school tomorrow.”
“Oh, I won't be there.” Her voice dips and he can picture her bottom lip jutting out in a pout.
There's a slight pause and then a breathy laugh. “Well, I'm going to a conference thing, but I can't talk about it right now. It's kind of a secret. It's supposed to be super cool though, so if it is, I'll tell you all about it when I get home.”
“Why is it secret?” Brecken asks, annoyed that he'll have to spend a whole day without Jill to distract him. “What's the big deal?”
“I don't know, silly, but I promised not to talk about it, so I'm keeping my promise. Well, I better go before my parents get home.” She kisses into the phone and tells Brecken she loves him.
A wonderful feeling of warmth envelopes him and he knows he will never care about anyone as much as he does Jill. “You too. See you later.” The reflective light of the screen darkens, leaving him to ponder the strangeness of a secret conference no one can talk about. A thread of nervousness tickles his mind, but he pushes it away. Jill is smart. He doesn't need to worry about her. She isn't usually so secretive, but... whatever.
He's too tired to think about it.
~A Way Out~
Emotionally drained and totally exhausted, I fall onto my bed in
. How is it even possible for a spirit to be so weary? I could sleep forever. Unfortunately, that is not an option. Instead, I lie in my Hansel and Gretel cottage and stare at the swirling blue ceiling. It looks like Earth's sky, and as serene as it's supposed to be, it doesn't help me feel any better.
I face the wall and try not to think about my terrible, hopeless situation. Raphael told me I would feel this way when I returned from my funeral, that I would be worn-out, restless, and unable to feel at peace, that I would need rest. But all thoughts of rest and relaxation fly away the moment my roommates come through the door.
“Yeah, he's leaving. I can't believe it! I'm
jealous.” Shana exclaims, all excited, gesturing wildly as she speaks. “Oh man. What a dream!”
I sit up. “Who's leaving?”
“Anthony Wiser. He's going to Earth.” She plops on her bed and opens her manual.
My mind begins to spin. Someone is leaving this place. He's going back to Earth. For good? “To be born again?”
“Man, what an idiot,” Deedre mumbles as she drops down on her bed. “There's no such thing as reincarnation, stupid. Not like people think.”
“He's going to be a guardian,” Shana says, closing her book and studying me with a serious expression.
With narrow eyes, slitted and cold, Deedre watches me, her mouth turning into a sardonic grin. “You don't even know what that means, do you?” For some reason, this gives her undeniable pleasure.
“Oh shush, Dee,” Shana says before turning back to me. “Anthony finished his courses and now gets the chance to pay back his debt. He gets to be a guardian. You know, to help someone on Earth. If he succeeds, he'll get to live in Elysium.”
“Elysium?” I've never heard of it, but if that's where Gram lives, move me in!
“Yeah,” Shana answers. “You know. Heaven? Paradise?”
“That place you couldn't get into?” Deedre sneers.
I ignore her. I don't care what they call it as long as I get live there too. “Can anyone be a guardian?” Hope blossoms in my chest.
“No.” Cinder states with finality. These are the first words I've heard her utter. Her total lack of enthusiasm makes me wonder if she is one of those unfortunate souls missing out.
“Well,” Shana says, “It all depends on your situation, but I bet if you talk to Raphael he'll tell you if you qualify. We could go now if you want.”
A moment later, we stand in the airy hallway outside Raphael's office. Bright light shines through the high windows, reflecting brilliant color off the marble tile. If
is this beautifulâand it is slowly growing on meâhow much more wonderful will Elysium be? I can't wait to get there, and I am willing to do anything and everything to make that happen.
I take a deep breath and knock. The door opens.
“Well, hello girls. What can I do for you?” Raphael waits with his hands clasped before him, his feet bare. Once again, I'm shocked by his overpowering brightness, his beauty, and the love he radiates.
“Alisa wants to know if she can be a guardian,” Shana says before I can even open my mouth.
I glance at her with an irritated frown. She shrugs and keeps smiling.
“Is that so?” His face searches mine, and it feels like he can see right through me. “Come in, Alisa, and we'll discuss it. He shuts the door on Shana, and I am on my own.
Raphael shows me to a chair and from the look on his face, I'm sure he'll tell me I don't qualify. I mean really, who wants someone who killed themselves to help them out of a sticky situation?
“So, Alisa. Tell me. How are things?”
“Fine.” I plaster a fake smile on my face, determined to act my way through this little charade, but if he can really see inside me, he'll see a damaged, broken, miserable soul. I'm not really fine at all.
“You have an interest in becoming a guardian?” He reclines in the armchair, the curve of a smile barely lighting on his face. His green eyes focus on mine, and suddenly it feels like he can see my heart, my sins, my weakness, and especially my desperation.
For a moment, I just sit there, my mind blank, yet I'm full of shame. “To be honest, I'm not even sure what a guardian is.”
He nods in understanding. “It is a grave responsibility. You are given charge of a person on Earth and you're to help them through a very difficult situation. You are not told what their obstacle is beforehand. You must figure it out through inspiration and meditation. Then you must help them overcome the obstacle. If you succeed, you are allowed to pass on to Elysium. It is more difficult than it sounds.”
It actually sounds really hard to me, but I'm willing to give it a try, because the thought of being stuck
for eternity is not an option.
“I'd like to do it. I know I have a lot to make up for, and I want to help someone else so they don't make my same mistakes.” Since my funeral experience, I have realized with terrible clarity the gargantuan mistake I've made. I want to go back to Earth. I
to go back.
With a sad, loving smile, he says, “We'll discuss it at our next board meeting and see what everyone thinks.” He squeezes my hand and the heat from his touch sears through me. All the guilt I've ever known feels dredged up and on display.
My heart sinks, and I pull my hand away, not wanting him to discuss me with
My heart sinks. Anaita is probably on that board and she certainly won't let me go. She'll probably relish the thought of torturing me in her class forever and ever.
After my conversation with Raphael, timeâwhich is hard to judge anywayâmoves slower than ever before. The torture of waiting for the board's decision eats at me until I think I'll pull my hair out... which I can't really do.
I am sure they'll say no.
I go about my usual schedule, another class being next on the list. I amble along beside Shana as we make our way down the path. Cinder and Deedre follow behind. When we step into the classroom, I head for the back row. Shana always sits at the front, but she doesn't put up a fuss when I pass that row and keep going. I find a seat as far from the teacher as possible and slump down, hoping to become invisible.
Anaita stands at the front like an avenging angel, light and power radiating from her very fingertips. During class, she locks eyes with me, and I pray she can't read my thoughts. I make every effort to keep my mind blank, which really isn't hard. There isn't anything of consequence in there. I'm lucky enough that she doesn't pick on me today. Small miracle.
When class ends, I hurry to the door, determined to be free.
I'm not fast enough.