Zed took my hand and we went back to my car where we sat stationary for a moment.
“We could go somewhere?” I asked.
“Where? You wanna be talking to no one?”
“Oh yeah.” I looked at the strange one storey off-white building in front of us. The sign said Sweet Gardens which seemed a bizarre name for what I guessed must’ve been some sort of florist or garden centre. It had a poster in the window that said Café Inside! “I don’t have to talk. I’ll just listen. We could go for a cup of tea. You said you liked tea.”
“Not on the Earth realm I don’t.”
My eyebrows came together. “Why?”
“It wouldn’t look too great if some poor soul saw a cup floating now would it?”
“Oh.” The hot feel of embarrassment crept up on me. “I guess not. You can hold stuff?”
“Course. If a truck can hit me, I can lift a tea cup.”
I opened the car door and climbed out, having an idea. “We’re going in the café,” I said to Zed’s bemused look. “I’m just not buying you anything.”
He chuckled. “Fine. What you gonna do when you wanna ask me a million questions?”
I fished my phone out of my pocket. “No one will look if I’ve got this pressed against my ear.”
He pointed to me. “You, Amelia, are a genius.”
I smiled and though he was dead and there were flowers for me on the side of the road, I felt collected and in control. Grabbing my purse from the car door where I’d shoved it, we entered the coffee shop.
Zed went and sat down on an old looking sofa as I went and ordered myself a cup of tea. There were cakes and biscuits that any other day I would go wild for but I didn’t think my stomach could handle anything right at that moment.
As the lady behind the counter whose smile seemed too wide fetched my tea, I looked around. The café was sweet, like the name had suggested. The walls were cream and decorated with paintings and little plaques with sayings about tea, coffee, and cake. There were various mismatching tables and chairs and a few armchairs too. Zed had sat himself on the only sofa in the building. Other than us there were two older couples chitchatting, a mother with a small child on her lap, and a man sitting at his laptop with a disgruntled look on his face.
I huffed as I sat down next to Zed, pushing the cold screen of my phone against my ear. Being away from the flowers had done wonders for my nerves. I didn’t feel jumpy or like screaming anymore.
“So back to my question.”
“Yep.” He sat up.
“Would you be hurt if you got hit by that lorry in your physical form?”
“The short answer is no but you want the full blown angel explanation don’t you?”
“Okay. So we live in another realm called the Hereafter.”
“Hereafter?” My eyebrows met. “I’ve never heard it called that before.”
“That’s because you’ve never talked to an angel before.” He winked at me. “If you look it up it means from now on or life after death. Less offensive, see. Life after death. Because in my opinion I’m alive.”
“All at the same time.” He nodded. “I’m Schrödinger’s cat. You love physics stuff, right?”
I gave a short burst of laughter. “This is not physics.”
He smirked. “So in the Hereafter I exist completely, just minus a beating heart and some other crap like that I don’t need over there. But we can still feel pain if it’s extreme, like the lorry, not that there are lorries in the Hereafter. It takes something quite drastic to dispatch us. But here on the Earth realm I don’t think I’d be hurt. I don’t exist here.”
I crinkled my nose up. “Dispatch?”
“Yeah. Funnily enough you can dispatch an angel.”
“No, just get recycled.”
“Like I said, a lot’s going on. But forget that for now. That’s too much. We’ve got a long time to talk about the details.”
“Okay.” I took a sip of my tea as I thought of my next question. “So you just exist in the Hereafter as what, Guardians did you say?”
“Again, yes and no. Some people are Guardians but not all. I’m a Messenger. I don’t wanna be running around after humans on Earth all the time.”
“I’m human. You’ve been running around after me.”
“You’re a special case.”
“So what do you do exactly?”
“I pass messages. It’s really that simple.”
“Is the Hereafter really big or something?”
“Big yes, but it’s more because of the warring factions.”
I felt my eyes grow wide. “There’s a war in the Hereafter?”
He shook his head. “Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But yes. True. You’ll probably recognise the names of the factions.” He pressed his lips together to hide a smirk. It didn’t work well.
I raised my eyebrows. “Heaven and Hell?” I scoffed. “Okay, I’m starting to believe this isn’t real again.”
“No, no.” He put his hands on the table. “Listen, listen.”
I leant forward to display my enthusiasm.
“It’s not what you think. It’s not all good: halo, wings, harp. Or all bad: horns, fire, brimstone. It’s nothing like how you humans depict us. It’s not as clear cut as good and evil and right and wrong. It’s a lot more complicated than that.” He blew out a puff of air. “I’ll try and give you the simple version for now.”
“I do hope you mean it when you say you’ll give me details later.”
“I do.” He smiled. “It’s just . . . god it’s everything. There’s a lot going on over there.”
“So what are they fighting over?”
“Heaven wants to help and protect humans. That’s their main goal. Hell disagrees. They don’t wanna work and help humans because they feel they’ve done their time. They want to rule and act like a god. Heaven has always ruled the Hereafter. Hell wants to change that.” He took his hands off the table and put them in his lap. “Heaven is the name of the organisation by the way. When people started to rebel, they called their organisation Hell as a joke.”
“Hilarious.” I rolled my eyes.
“What else were they supposed to call themselves? Rebels? That’s pretty crap.”
“Which do you belong to?”
He held his hands up. “I’m just a Messenger. I try and stay out of it. But if you had to push me, Heaven.”
“Really?” I leant back on the sofa again. “I would’ve had you as a rebel sort of man.”
“Maybe I used to be, Amelia. Maybe I used to be.” He grinned. “Next question.”
“Okay.” I pushed some fringe off my face. “So Guardians. What do they do exactly?”
“Pretty much what you expect. They watch over you, make sure you don’t do anything stupid, that sort of thing.”
I pressed my lips into a thin line. “How? You said you can’t see them.”
“You can’t. You would never know you had one. You know when you just get a really bad feeling or you get a gut instinct about something?”
“I can’t tell you exactly. I never learnt. They sort of . . . sway their wards to stay out of trouble and whatnot, mostly. You know when we first met and you had a bad feeling about me and you took off as fast as you could?”
“That was your Guardian. He wanted to speak to me.”
“What?” A little pulse of anger short round my body. “He used his powers for that?”
“I told you, Amelia, we only call ourselves angels. We are the most imperfect bunch around.”
“Oh great. What a helpful lot you are. Does anyone ever sway their, whatever you called them, to do something bad?”
“Ward. And no, not usually. You still have your free will. They can’t make you jump off a building or anything like that. If you really want to do something you’ll do it, no matter what your Guardian wants. But they’re trained a specific way. They do seem to really care for their wards.” He shrugged.
“So every human has a Guardian?”
“Yeah. A Primary and a Secondary. Primaries are older and fully trained. Secondaries are sort of learning on the job.”
“You might only have one for a while if they’re waiting to give you a Secondary. That can happen. Oh!” He leant towards me. “I heard Grace can hear Winnie.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. It took me a moment to find my tongue. “Winnie’s . . . ?”
“Grace’s Guardian.” He nodded. “It’s amazing that she can hear her. Like I said before, some people can sense us but it takes someone really special to hear us.”
“I was oblivious.”
“All you science girls are.”
I put my hand to my forehead, a heavy feeling dragging my heart down. “I feel terrible. I can’t believe Grace was right. I told her she was making Winnie up. Not for one minute did I think any of it was real.” I shut my eyes. “I’d go home and apologise but I don’t want to face them.”
“You don’t have to. Go wherever it was you were heading before you descended like a tornado on the flowers.”
I nodded. “Mum’s. Yeah. You’re right. I’m gonna go there. It’s the only place I wanna be.” I groaned. “What do I say to her?”
“What do you mean?”
“About all this stuff. She’s gonna know something’s wrong.”
“You don’t have to tell her anything.”
“But what about Otter? I do have to tell her everything. We promised. Just today we decided that. I can’t change that now.”
He bit his lip. “Do you really want to tell her? It’ll make her life more complicated. She’ll want to know more like you do and she’ll be thinking about it all the time. It’s actually a pretty detrimental thing to tell someone about the Hereafter.”
“So?” I crossed my arms. “How come you’re allowed?”
He grimaced. “I haven’t been given explicit permission but I figure what harm can it do? You’ll be one of us soon enough.”
All at once I didn’t seem to have enough breath in my lungs. “What?”
He cocked his head to the side. “I thought that was obvious. I’ve been telling you over and over that we pushed your death back. I didn’t mean back years. I meant weeks. I thought you would’ve picked up on that, science girl.”
I shook my head, hair flying everywhere. “No. No. I don’t wanna die.”
“Even after all this stuff I’ve said about a life after? It’s not game over, Amelia.”
“I can’t . . .” I grabbed for his hand with my spare one and squeezed hard. “I can’t leave them.”
“We all have to go sometime.”
“Later. Much, much later. Please. I can’t. I’ve got dreams and plans.”
“Why now? Why so soon?”
He wet his lips. “I don’t really wanna say. You won’t like it.”
“You have to tell me!”
He took a deep breath in through his nose and let it out again. “You know when people say ‘they were too good for us’ and whatever when people die?”
“Well it’s sort of true because only the best get taken before their time.”
“What do you mean?”
“Take me for example. I was taken by Hell because I’m a good negotiator. They needed me. They took me.”
“They . . . took you?” My heart felt like it was slamming against my ribs.
“Yeah. They organised my crash. So you were wrong, Amelia, it wasn’t my fault.”
“But you said it was.”
“In Earth terms it was. I was going too fast, turned too fast, hit a tree.”
“But . . . how was that them?”
“But you said Guardians didn’t do terrible things to their wards.” My words came out too fast.
“They don’t. They don’t see it as a terrible thing if you’re needed. They see it as . . . winning I guess. To make your ward good enough to be needed in the Hereafter, that’s pretty spectacular.”
The café seemed too small all of a sudden and I was gasping for breath. “No, no, no.”
“It’s okay, Amelia.” He shushed me and I took a moment, remembering we were in public.
“What’s so good about me? I’m not the best. I’m nowhere near the best. I know so many people who are better than me. I’m average. Actually, I’m boring. Far, far, too boring. You saw. I don’t even like parties.” The pleading was growing more desperate in my voice and I was inching closer and closer to him.
He put his free hand on top of our clasped ones. “You’re anything but boring. You’re an engineer.”
“No, no. I don’t know enough about any of that stuff. I want to be an aerospace engineer! I’d be much more useful after learning about that. So much more. You know what? I’d be most helpful right at the end of my life because then I’d really want to help. Honestly and truly. You can sign me up when I have great-great-grandchildren and I can hardly walk or see.”
“It’s your practical mind they need, Amelia, that’s ready right now.”
“But I’m not ready. I’m not ready at all. There’s so much more I can learn. I can do so much better!”
“They need you now.”
“What for? Why now?”
“I told you.” His voice was quiet. “There’s a war on.”
I grit my teeth. “No!” I was snarling it. “That is not okay! Who gets to decide that? I don’t want to fight in their war. I don’t wanna do anything of the sort!” Blood was pulsing in my ears and behind my eyes and in my forehead. I couldn’t think straight. “I don’t want to die!”
Zed looked around but no one was paying any attention to us. They were all deep in their conversations or their baby or their laptop. “Don’t think of it as dying. It’s a whole new life.”
“A life I don’t even want. I want to stay here with Mum and Dad and Otter and Nathan. I don’t want to go there if I’m going alone.”
He gave a tiny smile. “You won’t be going alone. You’re lucky. You know one person there. Most people don’t get that.”
“Lucky?” I spat the word. “Oh yeah. I’m so lucky to have my life ripped away by some monsters. I’m so lucky to know I’m going to die soon. I’m going to be watching the clock waiting. Every single moment for the rest of my apparent short life is going to be agony. Nothing’s worse than waiting. Apart from grieving of course. And I get both. Well thank you very much, Zed.”
“It’s not my fault.” He grabbed my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes. My phone nearly jumped out of my hand. “Amelia, calm down. You don’t want people to start looking. It’s okay. Everything is okay.”
I yelped as my phone vibrated on my ear. Zed hopped backwards and everyone turned to look at me. I felt my face burning even hotter than it already was as I answered, the picture being of Mum on her birthday earlier in the year.
“Abia!” She shrieked so loud I had to pull the phone back. “Where have you been? Your dad said you stormed out! What’s wrong?”
My heart lifted at the sound of her voice, though too loud it may have been. It felt like months since I’d seen her. It felt like she could take this all away and make everything alright again. “Mum.” I smiled, even with all these conflicting emotions raging around my body fighting for attention. I just couldn’t help it, my love for her spilled over. “I’m fine. I’m having tea in a coffee shop on the outskirts of Suddich. I had a fight with Grace and I had to leave. After I’m done here I’m coming home. To yours. Is that okay?”
“Of course it is. Of course it is. As long as you’re alright.”
“I’m fine,” I said, unsure if I meant it. “See you later.”
Zed was giving me this soft little smile as I pretended to dial another number and put the now hot phone against my ear again.
“She really loves you, huh?”
“Like I said before, I’m all she’s got. I can’t leave her, Zed. I just can’t.”
“I’m sorry.” He sighed. “This is out of my control.”
“You can tell them to stop.”
“That won’t work.”
“Okay then, what can I do? There’s got to be something I can do to make this stop and go away. Is there a deal I can make or something I can give them? Anything. I don’t care. I just need to know how to make this stop.”
“You don’t make it stop, Amelia. You can’t.”