My eyes open, lifting to the night sky, hundreds of thousands of tiny stars poking through an inky blackness. The longer I stare the more that appear, as if from nowhere, entire galaxies emerging from the vastness. I pull myself upright, hand sinking into earth, and, as I rise, my fingers curl instinctively, clenching a fistful of sand. A rush of water thunders in my ears—waves pounding the shore—and a familiar ache grips my chest.
A figure approaches, its wraith-like, ethereal glow illuminating the space between us. I stand, legs sinking beneath me, wobbling and unsteady. Wind thrashes my hair, whipping it in my eyes, lashing my face.
I shove it away, blinking, searching for my voice. "Who are you?"
He stops, and we stand silent, still, eyes focused on one another.
A devastating awareness washes over me. "You're one of them, aren't you? An Angel of Death."
"Are you taking me to Hell?"
"Because I'm not going," I assure him, finding strength in this unwillingness to confirm my newest and greatest fear—that I'll die before I can save Seth, the angel who lost his place in Heaven for me. "I'm not leaving. Not until I find him. After that you can take me anywhere you want. But I have a job to finish first, and I won't let anyone stop me."
"It isn't your time," he says, voice cool, matter of fact.
My jaw tightens at the realization. I'm not dead. I'm not dying. Not going to Hell. Not tonight, anyway. "Then why are you here?" I ask.
An audacious smile. "To glimpse the one who will change the world."
A furious wind blows. I struggle to inhale, choking on salty air, the pressure mounting in this star-swept sky. I restrain whatever hair I can grasp, eyes narrowing. "What?"
"You're chosen. Called to a higher purpose."
And suddenly the beach is full of them, an endless, gleaming assembly. A gentle hand brushes my shoulder. I turn toward Seth, and that faint glow emanating from the Guardians now radiates from me. I'm one of them.
One by one they fade, disappearing from earth, slipping into shadows.
"What does he mean?" I ask Seth, shouting beyond the roar of waves—the impending storm. "I don't understand."
But, when I blink again, everyone has vanished. I'm alone.
I awake with a start, gasping, suffocating on nothing, desperate for a breath that will satisfy. Fingers feel along the top of the nightstand, fumbling, searching for inhaler as my chest tightens. I force the air out of my lungs and take a quick puff, holding the medicine as I count to ten.
It's getting worse.
I drag fingers through tangled hair, catching knots and snarls. There's barely any left. It's just . . . gone. Everything is gone.
My head hits the pillow, and I wipe my tired eyes with the base of my palms, finding them cool and wet.
It's like it never ends.
The room swims into focus, a shiver traveling the length of my spine. I draw the feather-filled comforter all the way to my chin, but the frigid mountain air refuses to dissolve into heat. I roll on my side, fluff the pillow, evoking images of sunlight and warmth and summer. But there's only darkness. The hugeness of the empty bed, swallowing me whole.
I sit up, head pounding, gather the bedding and haul it to the living room. I adjust the thermostat in the hallway, step softly, following the sound of Carter's quiet snoring. My bed is made on the floor between couch and coffee table, and I wrap the comforter around my body, curling into it.
Carter rolls over, blankets rustling.
And I wait for it. Every night like the one before.
"You can have the couch," he whispers, voice thick with sleep. "I'll take the floor."
"I'm fine." But the truth is: I don't deserve the couch, to be comfortable, to feel safe. Not after what I've done—what I let happen. Sleep should never come so easy.
"You sure?" he asks.
"Go to sleep, Carter."
His fingertips find my cheek in the darkness, brushing it softly.
I watch the ceiling, waiting for exhaustion to consume me, for this world to drift away. Seconds. Minutes. Hours. Days. It all feels the same.
I close my eyes, breaths slow and even, willing sleep.
And, just before I slip under, a voice: "Don't worry, Gee. We'll get him back."