Chapter 1 – The Hiker – Ante Mortem
Tears fell from her cheeks like the raindrops falling from the dark, swollen clouds that obscured the sky from horizon to horizon. Her gray, tattered, ankle-length dress whipped about her in the wind, and was soaked through. But her long, dark hair lay dry as though there was no wind or rain. Indeed, no rain touched her skin, not where her simple dress’s straps left her shoulders and arms bare, not where her wind-blown skirt exposed her calves. Only her dress and sandals were touched by the elements, the swiftly running creek in which she stood.
She had no need for clothing to protect her from the elements. Nothing of this world had touched her for longer than she could remember. Even so, her skin was cold, but not due to the wind or rain.
Moments ago, lightning had struck a tree not far from her—she knew the distance to the tree to the foot, to the inch, to the smallest fraction of an inch. Not because she wanted to, but because it was a site of immediate death.
She wept for the all the living things killed outright in that tree. The father robin burnt to char in midair as he returned with a gullet full of food for his five chicks. The mother robin impaled by a piece of bark, a piece of natural shrapnel, as she brooded their chicks, trying in vain to shield them from the rain and wind.
And for those who would die in the seconds, minutes, hours, and days to come as a direct result of the lightning. She knew to the tiniest fraction of a second how long it would take for each of the chicks to die. For each of the thousands of living things that made the tree their home. The tree would die as well, though its final, true death would take three months, five days, twenty-one hours. . .
She gritted her teeth, squeezed her eyes shut. Forced the countdown to the tree’s end from consciousness. Likewise the family of squirrels who made their home in a hollow left by a fallen branch not far from the robin nest, the numerous centipedes, beetles, myriad of flying insects, and the colonies of moss that hung from the tree’s branches.
Surely many of the animals that had made the tree their home would survive, but they were unknown to her—she could take no solace from their good fortune for the lightning had not marked them for death. To her, they were as invisible as to any other. . .
She was no person.
Suddenly she felt an unearthly, glacial grasp on her right shoulder.
A voice produced by no larynx rasped, “It is time.”
Without looking over her shoulder at the black-robed figure standing there, or at the hourglass she held in both hands, she replied, “No, there are thirty-eight grains left.”
She looked down at the broken body of the young hiker at her feet. The torrential downpour had weakened the earths hold on the rocks along the gulley’s rim where the man had been walking. His weight had caused them to slide apart from one another, and him to tumble twenty or so feet down into the creek. He had come to rest face up, but had broken his right ankle, bruised several ribs, and hit his head on a rock, knocking him senseless.
If the water in the creek weren’t rising because of the rain, he would have no doubt have eventually regained consciousness. Stumbled back to his car. Or called for help using his cell-phone.
But the ever-deepening water would soon cover his face.
When it did, he would drown.
If she did not touch him, did not release his soul from its Earthly bond before the final grain of sand fell in her hourglass, did not release his soul before he died, his soul would remain bound forever to his body. He would become a ghost. Knowing he was dead and unable to move onto his final, natural destination, unable to interact with the world around him, he would slowly go insane.
His insanity might give him the strength to affect the physical world. He might become a poltergeist, and in his insanity terrify and possibly harm anyone unlucky enough to pass nearby.
When only thirteen grains of sand left remained in her glass, she knelt in the creek beside him. Her black tresses fell into the water, framing his face, unmoved by the running water that was killing him as it filled his lungs.
His eyes opened and found hers just inches above his face. There was fear there, having nothing to do with the physical facts of his situation, if he even understood them.
But he knew he was looking into the eyes of his Death.
A change came over him as her right hand moved toward his chest, as the last few grains of sand fell in her hourglass. His mouth moved, and though only bubbles escaped, she heard his last words. “You’re so beautiful.”
Her hand came to rest open-palmed on his chest, and as the last grain of sand in her hourglass fell, Robert Anthony O’Callaghan died.
Chapter 2 – Robert Anthony O’Callaghan – Post Mortem
In a moment lasting twenty-eight years, five months, three days, and a number of minutes and seconds that held significance only to Bobby and those who loved him, everything that he was, had ever been, had ever hoped to be, flooded through her.
His newborn son wailed as only a baby could. The doctor held Jonathon Quigley–Cassie’s grandfather’s middle name–O’Callaghan up to Bobby as though for his inspection.
Every one of their friends who’d already had children had told him all newborns were ugly except to their parents. Bobby pursed his lips, and couldn’t help but think, “Nope, even when they’ve wiped all the blood and goo off you. . .”
He looked down at Cassie, whose beautiful hair was plastered to the side of her head with sweat, and who was panting like she’d just run one of her marathons, “Look, love, you’ve given birth to a wrinkled, hairless little monkey.”
She swatted at his thigh with her hand, but clearly didn’t have the strength for a serious effort. “But he’s our perfect hairless little monkey,” she replied with a smile as the doctor handed little Johnny to her to hold in her arms for the first time.
“With this ring I thee wed,” Bobby said as he slipped Cassandra’s wedding band onto her long, delicate ring-finger. He looked up and saw tears of joy threatening in her beautiful green eyes. Her red hair, a much more lovely red than his frankly orange hair, framed her face.
“With this ring I thee wed,” Cassie said as she slipped an identical band on his finger.
His right arm hurt, but for some reason, he didn’t care. His mouth felt like it was full of cotton, and there was an almost overpowering taste of blood-iron.
A voice he couldn’t identify said, “Your son’s very lucky, Mr. and Mrs. O’Callaghan. People who are sober during accidents like your son’s. . . Well, their bodies often fight the accident instead of just going with it and come out much worse for it. And people with a blood alcohol content as high as your son’s usually aren’t wearing their seatbelts.”
“Well, we really tried –”
Bobby thought, Mom, why are you crying?
“– to drill into him the importance of always wearing his seatbelt.”
Some corner of his mind was still clear of the pain and drugs and understood. He had driven home. Or tried to, even after Greg and Bill had tried to convince him he was too drunk to drive.
But that one coherent corner of his mind couldn’t tell him if he actually managed to say, “Oh, Mom, I’m so sorry,” out loud, loud enough for her and his dad to hear it.
Every moment of Robert Anthony O’Callaghan’s life, every self-perceived success and failure, all his joys and pains, all the pride and all the guilt, even memories that he didn’t know were still part of his mind and soul surged through her.
His entire life flashed before her eyes, past her ears and across her skin, just as it had for him, but only in a matter of heartbeats.
Her right hand, as it always did when the deceased’s soul blasted through her, came to rest between her breasts, where there was no heartbeat to be felt.
When her vision cleared of the memories of Bobby’s life, she saw him standing in front of her, in the rapidly rising creek, on the far side of his body. His corpse.
As she stood, she saw the rushing creek water flow through his insubstantial form.
The falling rain pass through him.
The wind carry a leaf torn off a tree above the gulley through him.
Her motion caught his attention, and his eyes, which had been staring at his body, met hers.
She saw concern in his eyes.
Knowing him now as intimately as she did, she knew his concern was for her.
“Miss, are you all right?”
The dead often didn’t understand where they were, their situation. Their minds blocked out their death, the minutes and even hours leading up to it.
Unlike them, Bobby O’Callaghan knew he was dead. She could see the memory of the painful fall down the side of the gulley in his eyes. The desperation as the water rose around him, unable to lift his head as it began to flow into his mouth, into his nose.
But his first thought upon rising from his body was of her, of the tears still running down her face.
Even if she had not known Bobby O’Callaghan’s soul, she would know from this what his final destination would be. Where he would spend eternity.
And then he saw her companion behind her. For an instant he recoiled in fear, taking a step, and then another, back away from her. Again, she felt the ice-cold, skeletal hand on her shoulder.
At this, Bobby took a step forward, his hands flexing, the incorporeal muscles of his torso tensing. He meant to protect her, to fight on her behalf.
If she asked him to.
No, this one would not be cut down by her companion’s scythe. Would not spend eternity in Hell.
This one was destined for Heaven.
Again, her companion rasped, “It is time.”
Bobby’s eyes narrowed.
“He means it’s time for you to move on.”
“Move on to where?”
She lifted her hourglass in both hands, and as she did, the sand began to glow. Within moments, its buttery light illuminated the entire gulley. It was warm, brighter than the sun, and infinitely more comforting.
Human eyes, living eyes, would have been blinded by the glass’s light, if it were meant for, could be seen by, the eyes of the living. In any case, there were no living eyes here.
But Bobby was exalted by the light, and he stepped toward it.
Bobby O’Callaghan had caused his mother such pain the night he had driven drunk. And he had felt such guilt for that one stupid act. But he had been a good man.
Perhaps precisely because he had felt such guilt.
The upper base of the glass blocked the glowing sand, its brilliant light, from her direct view.
It was not meant for her.
It was meant for Bobby.
Bobby took a second step toward her, and as he did, his form began to fray. With his third step, he trod into his forgotten body.
He was little more than a wisp of smoke.
Even to her eyes.