Read Reluctant Guardian Online

Authors: Melissa Cunningham

Reluctant Guardian (6 page)

Annabelle pulls me further down the path. When I venture too close to the edge, the razor-sharp grass cuts painfully into my feet. Not in a physical way, but like a stab through my heart with feelings of shame and severe depression.

“Somebody shut that thing up!” I finally scream, covering my ears, no longer able to tolerate the alarming cries. I've never heard anything so pitiful, so agonizing.

“It's not a
dear. It's people. Souls,” she says.

I stop, frozen to the mucky stones beneath my feet.

“That's right, Alisa,” she says, turning to me. “What you hear is the wailing of anguish from people paying for their sins. People who refused to make amends during life.”

“You're kidding me.” My hands still cover my ears, but my eyes are adjusting. A short way off the path I see thin, dark arms, writhing, reaching upward, raspy voices crying for another chance, for forgiveness. My soul recoils, afraid they might touch me or contaminate me with their filth.

“Please, let's leave.” I grasp Annabelle's hand. “I don't want to stay here.”

“But you will if you fail in your mission. You can't stay in
Idir Shaol
indefinitely. You have to move on. One way or another.” For someone so small, she seems enormously strong, but I cling to her, desperate not to be left behind when she blinks away.

“There's someone you need to see.”

“Here? Who?” Annabelle pulls me further down the path.

I've become a blubbering idiot, terrified, and clinging to her. “Please don't leave me,” I plead over and over.

She stops and a dark... thing, half crawls, half stumbles toward us, the muck pulling against him like melted tar, holding him to the path. He stops before me, a bent figure carrying an agonized expression. I recognize his tortured face immediately.

“Mr. Roland.” I'm breathless and suddenly nauseous.

“Yeessss,” he rasps in a hot whisper. “You remember.”

Of course I remember... I've tried to forget, to block the memories out, but I haven't been able to. Like a dog drawn to its vomit, they always came back to me.

If anyone deserves to be here,
does. It happened so long ago, but the memories are instantly before me again, starkly clear. He molested me repeatedly, along with his own daughter, my best friend, Natasha, for over a year.

I shrink back, horrified to see him. He ruined my life. He ruined Natty's. I was only twelve—so innocent, so good, so sweet. He took all that away from me, and for a moment, I itch to spring forward, to rake my fingernails down his already marred face, to spit in the dark coals of his eyes. I'm
he's here. Glad he's miserable. I hate him. More than anyone or anything else in the world.

The hot burn of tears—that aren't really there—press against the back of my eyes as I stare. His crime was discovered, and he went to jail just after my thirteenth birthday. I never saw him again. Every night—after I heard he'd died—I prayed he was roasting in hell.

He moves toward me, reaching for my hand. I jump back with a shout. “Don't touch me! Don't you ever touch me again!”

He pulls away, scars streaking down his anguished face. “I'm sorry, Alisa. I'm so, so sorry.
forgive me. If only I'd known... ” He looks pathetic. He
pathetic. He is a wretched creature with no hope of redemption. Ever, I hope.

“I will
forgive you,” I say in a quiet growl, my jaw clenched. “Do you hear me? Never!”

“Please,” he begs again, falling to the ground at my feet, groaning, the muck stretching over his back in a tight cocoon.

I glance around at the inky darkness of this world, the heaviness of the very air. A world where no one glows with light. A world where souls live in darkness because of the terrible things they've done. He
getting what he deserves.

“No.” I take Annabelle's hand, and we disappear with a blink of her eyes.



~The Heist~



Brecken waits outside Damion's neighbor's house. He watches the couple leave for work in their Lexus, and wishes for the kind of ease these people have. How would it feel to have enough money for whatever you want? He doubts he'll ever know.

He waits ten minutes, and then creeps around the corner of the house, keeping behind the bushes that shield him from pesky neighbors. He finds the bathroom window cracked open, just like Damion promised.

With a screwdriver, he pries the screen away and then sets it down with a quiet twang against the bricks. The window is only four feet up but on the narrow side. He jumps, balancing on his hands until he hooks his knee on the sill, then slithers through, almost slipping and falling forward on this face. His shoes leave a scuff on the pristine white toilet seat.

Brecken creeps to the bathroom door and peeks out. The house is silent except for the ticking of a grandfather clock in the living room just down the hall. Thick carpet cushions his feet and he takes off his shoes so he won't leave any prints. He wiggles his toes for a moment, awed by the lushness of something that is so ordinary for some people.

Brecken turns toward the stairs. Light streams through high windows above the front door and into the living room, reflecting off a chandelier, creating rainbows on the beige walls. So beautiful, so quiet, so peaceful. So unlike his house.

The master bedroom is at the end of the hall. He stops in the doorway for a moment, staring at the four-poster king-size bed. Satin quilts grace the mattress and ornate dressers stand on two of the walls. There is a tilting, full-length mirror in one corner. He can see marble countertops in the master bath.

How much money do these people make anyway? What do they do for a living? He can't believe the luxury, the wealth, of this house. Shaking his head, he hurries over to the dresser and finds a beautiful jewelry box that matches the rest of the dark, glossy wood in the room.

Brecken lifts the lid, hating himself for what he is about to do. This is not him. He doesn't have the heart of a criminal. He doesn't want to hurt people. He doesn't want to take precious treasures that don't belong to him, but what choice does he have? What is left for him to do?

Acid fills his throat and he almost turns around to run out. Backing up, he rests his hands on his knees, breathing deeply.

to do this. He has to. There is no other way. His eyes moisten in frustration. He wipes them dry, grits his teeth, and then goes to work.



~A Visit From Heaven~



Seeing Mr. Roland brings up all sorts of memories I don't want to think about or relive, but now I can't get them out of my head. They plague me. Like gnats flying around in my mind, nipping, biting, itching. I long for the sweet oblivion of sleep, which I can't have.

My thoughts turn to Natasha. Where is she now? Why haven't I seen her? Is she happy with loved ones? Has
forgiven her father? I meander along a path in
Idir Shaol
, the cool stones hard beneath my feet. I'm not in the mood for classes, interviews, and especially my roommates.

I find a grassy knoll and sit down, my long, white robe covering my feet when I bend my knees and wrap my arms around them. I rest my chin on my arms and close my eyes, picturing Natty's almost white-blonde hair, her endearing, crooked front tooth, her bright blue eyes.

her. I actually thought that I'd be with her after I died. How disappointing. I let the hurt well up inside me like bubbling mud filling me with ache. She is up here somewhere. Does she even know I died? Or worse, does she know
I died?

Natty and I were there for each other during and after the abuse we experienced at the hands of her father. She helped me cope, and I did the same for her. When she died, so did that critical support. Everything piled up with no escape. Suicide seemed my only option, my only way to rid myself of the shame and depression. What I wouldn't give to talk to her again, to feel her sisterly support, to feel her quiet strength.

Not two seconds pass before someone sits beside me on the grass and places a soft hand on my shoulder. Too soft to be Raphael's. Did Shana see me and wander over? Or Gram? At that thought, my head snaps up, hope blossoming through me. Nothing could have prepared me for this surprise.

“Natty!” I throw my arms around her, a wave of happiness rippling through me. Radiant light bursts from her face as she smiles. All of our time together rushes through my mind. Natty has been my friend since I was three. The week after she moved into my neighborhood, my mom invited her mom to join the local bunko group. She came with her mother, and from then on, we were seldom ever apart.

Even as we grew, bunko night was still the best part of the week. We'd lock ourselves in my room, painting our toenails, whispering about boys, watching movies. She was the sister I never had. We spent every day together... until her headaches began.

It wasn't long before her problem was diagnosed.

Anaplastic Astrocytoma.

Brain cancer.


A death sentence.

“What are you d
oing here?” I take her hand and kiss it, holding it tight, just in case she decides to disappear as quickly as she came.

“You were thinking of me, Lis, and I felt it.” Her blue eyes sparkle as she squeezes my hand. “I can't stay long though.”

“Why not?” I desperately need my best girl beside me. Everything seems right, now that she's here, and I don't intend to let her go easily.

“It's just how it is. I can visit, but I can't stay.”

“You live in that big city, don't you?” I ask, envious.

She nods, but her smile is sad as she gazes at me.

“What's it like?”

With a sigh, she looks up, pondering. “It's wonderful, beautiful, and busy. I'm very happy.”

“You are?”

“You sound surprised.” She laughs and shakes her head. “Dying wasn't a bad thing. At least for me.”

“It was for me,” I answer, feeling the sting of invisible tears behind my eyes. The reaction is automatic even though I can't really cry.

Again, she nods. “That's true, but Earth-life only lasts a short while. You know that.” She watches my face and her gaze feels warm against my soul, like the sun's rays, delicate and soft. I glance at the deep green grass beneath my feet and move my toes through it. It feels alive, and I swear I can hear it singing in happiness, just to exist.

I turn to her. “I don't know anything. Nobody knows anything. I thought I would be with

“I know,” she says, socking me playfully in the arm like old times. “Silly girl. Always jumping before you look.”

Instead of chuckling like I would have in the past, I ask her the question that has been plaguing me since I came here. “Are you
happy, Natty? Tell the truth. And if you are, why? You left your mom, your home... me.”

“Yeah, but I'm still with family. My grandparents are here, and their parents, my cousins. Tons of relatives I'd never met because they lived long before me. It's like a huge family reunion. In fact, it's nice to come see you and get away from it for a while.”

She doesn't mention her dad and neither do I.

I wanted a huge family reunion too. I wanted happiness, rest, and beauty, but all I got were scary roommates who don't like me, except for Shana—and a field trip to hell.

At Natty's smile, I feel a twinge of jealousy twist inside me. I want what
has. But I was too impatient. I was stupid.

“Don't worry. You'll be a great guardian.”

“You know about that?”

“Yep. We all have guardians. Most are guardian
but sometimes, people like you get to repay their debt. It's totally cool. I'm hoping to be a guardian angel soon, but it will be for my charge's
life, not just a short stint. And for guardian angels it's always a relative, or a descendant.”

I hadn't known that. I don't know anything, and the longer I listen, the more I realize it. “I'm not sure I can do it, Natty. I'm so screwed up. I've totally ruined everything.”

“Not everything, Lis. And you
do this.” She stands up and I stand with her.

“You're not leaving, are you?”

“I have to. I only came for a minute, but I'll keep tabs on you and visit when I can. Don't worry. You'll be just fine, and we'll be together soon. Okay?”

I nod and pull her into an embrace, hating the moment we let go. With a blink of her eyes, she's gone.

Just that fast.

And once again, I'm left behind.



~The Dreaded Call~



It's a cold, rainy spring day and the wind blows with a biting ache. It has rained for the last week and Brecken's sisters have been stuck inside the house, bored and ornery. He finally sends them to their rooms, so he can have privacy to make this call.

He stares at the phone in his hand, dreading the coming conversation. It never seems to matter what Brecken wants, says, or asks for. His dad's automatic answer is always no. He doesn't even listen. Or maybe his dad just doesn't care. The hurt of numerous rejections stings, and Brecken doesn't know how to fix things.

At one time, life seemed so simple. He remembers past fishing trips with his dad, nights they stayed up late doing math homework, one-on-one basketball games of HORSE. Those days are long gone.

He dials his dad's number, almost hoping he won't answer.

He does.

“Hey, Dad,” Brecken says, hesitating.

“Hey,” his dad answers. “Can I call you right back? I'm kind of in the middle of something.”

His dad won't call back. Not because he is a liar or completely unreliable, but because he is
in the middle of something. It happens all the time. Brecken waits and waits for the call back that never comes.

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