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I am at the gates. For the first time in my life, I see them swing open from the inside. Someone walks out. He is tall, nearly six feet, and entirely black, like a shadow. The only color on him is gold, two eyes shining out from his dark face. He strides over to me, and something about the way he walks makes me uneasy. He looks like he thinks he owns the world, and I feel myself stiffen as he approaches. “Angel,” he whispers, looking down at me. A space in his shadowy head suggests a smirk. I step back; he steps forward. “I forgot to introduce myself,” he says smoothly. “My name is Nox.”
He sinks into a low bow and pauses before straightening. He extends his hand to me, and I open my mouth to tell him off. No sound comes out. The smirk spreads, and he turns his hand so that his palm is facing upwards. A dagger appears in his waiting palm, made of the same shadowy material as the boy. He observes it, tilting the blade from one hand to the other. He points it at me, and I cannot run. Slowly, excruciatingly slowly, he slides the dagger into my stomach. My hands flutter to the hilt, but I still remain rooted to my spot. He turns away and walks back to the gates. “Life and death,” he calls, not looking back. “Angel and Nox.”
The gates slam shut, and I sink to the ground.
It is 2:11 a.m. when I am woken by my watch.
I feel the slight tugging around my neck, rousing me from a hazy dream. I groan, rolling over and trapping the small timepiece underneath me. It wriggles free, slips its chain over by head, and twines it around my wrist. With one solid yank, I am sitting upright in my bed. “Now?” I whine.
The watch pulls harder, and I stumble out of bed, half-zombie with one arm extended in front of me. “Okay, okay,” I mumble as the watch guides me – none too gently – towards the bathroom. With one final, violent pull – “I said okay!” – it unwraps itself from my wrist and settles back around my neck, trapping my tangled hair against by skin. I reach around the doorframe with one hand, groping for the light switch. When I flip it up, the light nearly blinds me, and I throw one arm across my eyes. “God, why are these always so early? No one ever dies at a reasonable hour,” I complain to no one in particular.
The watch lifts slightly off my chest, and I hurry into the bathroom. In this job, appearance is important. So, eyes half-closed, I run a brush through my long, light-brown hair. Blonde would be better, but I like my hair and refuse to dye it. My grey eyes, though, are covered by a pair of bright blue contacts. I regard myself in the mirror and sigh. No time to get rid of the bags under my eyes, no time for makeup, but I’ll pass. Leaving the bathroom, I go into my closet and pull out a flowing white gown my mom bought for me years ago. She was vying for a more fitted one, but I told her angels are supposed to look like models, which I don’t. The flowing dress leaves more to the imagination. I slip it over my head, shivering as the cool silk settles against my skin.
Now I’m ready. “Excelsior,” I say, and I am engulfed in white.
I almost don’t notice when the world comes back into view. I’m in a room so white that I immediately know it can only be a hospital room. My stomach twists. These might be the worst visits – family members crying over the body, pleading with the doctors, the soul struggling to go back.
Slowly, I draw closer to the hospital bed, edging my way around weeping family. Lying there, small in the blinding white sheets, is a boy around my age. My stomach knots even more as a woman reaches out and smooths back his dark brown hair, tears trailing slowly down her face. If I’m here, he won’t be around much longer. Even as I watch, his soul rises from his body and regards the ceiling. I reach out to tap his shoulder, but before I can, he turns to look at me. No surprise registers on his face, and he asks calmly, “Am I dead?”
Taken aback, I can’t answer right away. “I – yeah. I mean yes, you have passed on.”
A smile turns up the edges of his mouth. “Done this before, have you?”
Again, I have to compose myself. “I have. It is my job. I’m a Timekeeper, someone to help you. I bring you on to the next part of life.”
He nods, sits up, and looks around, staring long and hard at each person around his bed. I wait quietly until he turns to me, brown eyes bright but not shedding tears. “Ok,” he says. “I’m ready.”
I stretch out my hand and he takes it. The room fades to white and the wind begins to rush around our ears. “So,” he says, as if we were having a normal conversation, “who are you?”
“I’m a Timekeeper,” I repeat, “someone to help you. I bring you – “
“Don’t give me that. Who are you? Are you an angel or something?”
“I guess I am.”
“What’s your name?”
The lie rolls off my tongue as a reflex. “Angelica.”
He doesn’t say anything, just rolls his eyes in my direction. “Fine. It’s Ariel.”
He looks away, satisfied, and I fire a question back. “Who are you?”
Without a pause, he answers. “Asher Carson. Sixteen. In a coma for the last” – he stops, thinks – “four days. We were moving down here when a truck cut us off, and bam!” He slaps his hands together. “I hit the windshield.”
I can’t think of anything to say, but he asks another question. “What about you? Is this like a full-time job, or are you only an angel on weekends?”
I smile, but hesitate. I’ve never told anyone about what I do before. Seeing my pause, he squeezes my hand. “Come on, who am I gonna tell? I’m dead, remember?”
“I do this whenever I’m needed,” I say. “And I do mean whenever. Like, 2 a.m., 11 p.m., during my lunch period…”
“Lunch period?” His brow furrows in confusion. “Like, in high school?”
“Yeah. I don’t live in the clouds or anything. I’m just a normal person.” He glances pointedly at my dress, then around us at the glowing white, then back to me.
“Alright,” I concede. “Not that normal.” My watch vibrates against my chest, and I squeeze Asher’s fingers. “We’re here.”
His eyes widen as he takes in the gates, towering before us. “Whoa,” he breathes.
“That’s the reaction I normally get.” He turns to me and smiles.
“Thank you,” he whispers.
I realize with a start that it is the first time a soul has ever thanked me. Before I can respond, he turns away and heads for the gates. I watch as he approaches, waiting for the gates to swing open.
But they don’t.
Asher pulls on one side, and then the other. He turns back to me, puzzled, and I shrug helplessly. “Hello?” he yells, sticking his head through the metal bars. “Dead man walking here! Kinda need to get in!”
We both wait in silence. No answer. Asher tries again: “Hello? Could someone open the gates? I’d do it myself, but I seem to have forgotten my keys—”
And suddenly, he’s standing next to me again. “What the—” He looks around, and when his gaze lands on me, I can see that he’s scared. “What’s going on?”
“I wish I could tell you,” I say, “but I’m not really sure myself. It’s always the same: pick up the soul, bring them here, go back home. I’ve never had the gates stay shut before.”
“The gates” – he breaks off and squints ahead. “I can’t see the gates!”
He’s right. The scene around us has faded to white, and as I look around, the wind begins blowing again. A thought comes to mind – a story I heard from my mom years before. “Maybe,” I say slowly, “maybe… you’re going back.”
“What?” Asher turns to stare at me again.
“My mom – she gave me this job – she said that once, when she was a Timekeeper, she brought someone back from the gates. He… he’d had a heart attack, and he was dead for two minutes. Not enough time for them to make it to the gates. She said that when the wind stopped, they were back where they started. The EMTs had shown up almost right away – they were just around the corner – and they restarted his heart! That’s the only explanation – you’re going back!”
A grin starts spreading across his face. “I’m going back?”
I nod, feeling my mouth stretch into a smile I’m sure mirrors his. The wind picks up, pressing forcefully against our backs, and his hand tightens on mine. I squeeze his fingers in a way I hope is reassuring when a sudden thought strikes me. “Hey,” I say. “You’re not dead.”
Asher looks over at me, grin still fixed in place. “That’s what I’ve heard,” he replies cheerfully.
“The only reason I told you all that stuff was because you were dead! You can’t tell anyone!”
“Hmm…” he rubs his chin with his free hand, and I feel a momentary flash of panic. Seeing it, he drops his hand. “I promise,” he replies. “As long as you don’t tell anyone about my secret lollipop fetish.”
“Deal,” I say, as the hospital room we left so recently comes back into view. Asher’s family stands close to the wall, all holding hands, as nurses and a doctor crowd around his bed. The wind subsides as I guide him into place several feet over his waiting body. I place one hand on his shoulder, one on his knee. And begin to push his soul back into his body. “Wait,” he says suddenly, grabbing my hand from his shoulder.
Turning his head in my direction, he looks at me for a stretch of time. “Thank you,” he says again.
I nod my agreement, my throat suddenly too tight for me to speak. Satisfied, he looks up at the ceiling again, and I put my hand back on his shoulder. Slowly, I bring his soul closer to his body, watching closely for anything that might go wrong. Mom told me that she had tried to rejoin the man’s soul too quickly, and his body almost rejected it. I couldn’t forgive myself if I kept Asher from living again. As he passes below my eye level, I sneak a glance at his face. His eyes are closed, his face serene, hair ruffling slightly in the breeze.
Wait. I stop; the wind from our travel should be gone by now. And now that I’m thinking about it, I notice my hair being lifted by the breeze too. Something’s definitely not right.
I lift my eyes from Asher’s soul – and there, on the other side of his hospital bed, is a swirling black vortex. Panic grips me in a tight vise, and I lean closer to Asher. “Asher,” I whisper.
His eyes snap open. “Am I back?” He lifts a transparent hand and stares at it, then looks at me, confused. I raise my hand from his leg and point over his shoulder. He takes one look and his soul goes rigid under my hand. “What is that?” he asks in a hushed voice.
“I don’t know,” I reply, equally quiet.
“Does that mean – does that mean I can’t go back?”
“I don’t know,” I repeat, feeling useless. “Just – don’t move for right now, ok?”
He nods, then freezes. “I moved,” he informs me, voice trembling.
Despite the situation, I feel a small smile break out. “I don’t think that will make too much of a difference.”
His hand snakes up from his side and finds mine, still resting on his shoulder. Eyes still on the black cloud, I take it and give it what I hope is a reassuring squeeze, hoping that he can’t tell that I’m just as scared as he is. I feel something more than fear at the sight of the darkness, though. Almost… familiarity. As if I’ve seen this before. As I watch, the swirling cloud shudders, disturbing the circular pattern. It twists and pulses, the edges abandoning their circular shape. My feeling of déjà vu only increases as the black forms itself into another shape – a silhouette, nearly six feet tall, head hanging. When the final flying particles join with the figure, it jerks its head upright and levels its golden eyes at me. All at once, my dream from earlier comes rushing back to me – the dark cloud, the mysterious figure, the deadly blade, the name. “Nox,” I gasp.
The black specks part, forming an opening in the figure’s face like a bizarre parody of a smile. “You remember me,” Nox hisses, his voice gravelly and raspy.
“Unfortunately,” I snarl.
“No need for the hostility, angel,” he says. “I want nothing to do with you. I just want him.”
He jerks his head toward Asher, who flinches and grips my hand even tighter. His fear lights a spark in me, and I lift my chin. “You can’t have him.”
Nox advances, his form fuzzy around the edges as he takes each step. “And I suppose you’re going to stop me?” he growls, smile growing dangerously wider. “I’d like to see you try, angel!”
The last word comes out as a horrible, howling screech, and Nox explodes into thousands of black particles. They gather quickly, and the cloud swoops down to Asher. Two arms appear and latch on to Asher’s arm, and he lets out a scream. Immediately the smell of smoke fills the air, and I reach into Nox’s arms in an attempt to free Asher’s. The pain hits right away; each little speck burns, as if the arms were made of flying embers, and I instinctively withdraw my hands. Instead, I grab Asher’s hand and try to wrench his arm away. The Nox-cloud emits a low growl and the hands tighten their grip. Asher screams again, a sound that tears at my heart. I dive headfirst over him and into the cloud, somehow making enough contact to knock it back from the bed. Before it can recover, I whirl around, quickly center Asher’s soul above his body, and shove the two together.
A deafening wail sounds behind me, and I am suddenly engulfed in the black cloud. Each particle bites into my skin, burning, burning. I collapse to the floor, and the cloud shrieks out the door. The lights in the room flicker, and Asher suddenly sits bolt upright in his bed with a shout. Everyone in the room runs to comfort him, settle him back into bed, thinking his cry to be one of surprise. But I know what he really said. It was my name.
His eyes dart around the room, searching for me. I watch, invisible, as family members cry and swarm. The wind rushes around me – the normal wind, not Nox’s – and I find myself back in my home.