When I returned to our table downstairs, Otter was sitting with Nathan, chewing on her owl necklace. She jumped up as she saw me. “What happened?”
Nathan looked up too. “I don’t see any red marks or injuries.”
“She wouldn’t hurt me,” I said as I joined them. “I just told her about what happened and she went to break up with him.” I shrugged. “That’s the story as I know it.”
“She just went to break up with him?” Otter asked. “Just like that.”
I leant forward on the table. “I don’t want to gossip but she said she wanted an excuse to break up with him so she wasn’t even angry.” I put my hand on Nathan’s arm. “She’s all yours.”
Nathan grinned big and wide. “I’m pretty sure I have the best cousin ever.”
His smile tugged at my heart and it was all I could do to give one back instead of letting the tears take over. I didn’t know how I was supposed to live in a world without him in it. He was a friend, a cousin, but also a brother, a guide, strength, comfort, and a place to take cover.
I spent the rest of the day as I had before, not listening in lessons and trying to keep an empty head, having no idea if my feeble attempt at rebellion was getting me anywhere.
I went back with Nathan after school, unsure of what was going to happen when I arrived home to Grace and Angela. It had been over a week since my fight with Grace but I knew my step-mother was the champion of holding a grudge.
Collapsing in his beanbag with a drink, I just watched Nathan potter about.
“I’m glad that’s over,” he said, kicking Edward’s beanbag in beside the one I was occupying. “First days back after half term are the worst. Though I suppose it wasn’t that bad.”
“Hmm,” I agreed. “It was alright.”
He looked at me. “What’s wrong? You’re being even more quiet than usual.”
I bit my lip. Now was probably my best chance at this. I needed to know what was going to happen when I was gone in case the whole Hereafter thing didn’t work out or I wasn’t allowed back to Earth. I needed a little closure.
“I was just thinking about the future and stuff.”
He chuckled. “You think too much.”
I sat up a little. “Do you have a plan?”
“You know like, what you want to do, what sort of house you want to live in and where, how many children you’re going to have?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Does anyone really have a plan?”
“You don’t have any idea of what you’d like?”
“I have vague notions. Why?”
“I was just wondering. I realised I have no idea what you’re plan is post-uni.”
He laughed. “That’s because I don’t either. You think I know how my life is gonna go? No one knows that.”
No one, that was, except me. I shrugged. “What about a family? You want a family don’t you?”
“Well yeah, that’d be nice. But that’s just so far away I guess I haven’t spent much time on it.”
I sipped my drink. “Fair enough.”
“What about you?”
I almost spat my drink back into the glass. “Me?”
“Yeah. Have you thought about this stuff?”
I shook my head. “No, not really.” And it was no use doing so now.
“Come on, you must’ve done. Why else were you asking me? Give me something.”
“I . . . I wanna be an aerospace engineer but you already know that.”
“And I know you can achieve that.”
I felt a little spark of pride at his words. “Well what else is there?”
“You gave me a list. House, family, partner.”
I shook my head. “I haven’t thought that far ahead. I don’t think I should.”
“Err . . .” My heart started up a rhythm of panic and I fought to keep my breathing calm. “I’ve already got something to strive for. I’ll figure out the next part when I get there.”
He nodded. “Now I think about it, I’d like to live next door to you.”
“Yeah?” I had to force it to sound chirpy and sunny when it wanted to come out gloomy and grey.
“Yeah. Then our kids can make a hole in the fence and play.”
“Kids?” I only had enough restraint for one bright happy word at a time.
“Yeah. Why not? That’d be cool. We would’ve liked to live next door growing up. Hell, we’d like that now. Our kids have got to be as close as we are, continuing the glory of the Walters-Angel reign. Or whatever your name becomes.” He smirked.
I breathed slow and long before speaking, getting a grip over my emotions. “Who said I’d take someone else’s name? Just because I’m a woman?”
He held up both his hands in surrender. “God, no. Not at all. Because you’re you and you hate your surname don’t you?”
I squeezed my hands tight together. “I dunno. I guess it’s not so bad. It’s part of who I am. I don’t think I could give it up so easily.”
“Maybe you’ll get together with some cool guy who’ll take your name. I reckon that’s gonna get more popular. I wouldn’t have an issue changing mine to something awesome.”
“What if it’s something rubbish?”
“Then nah, I’ll make family line excuses.”
I sighed and looked into my lap, uncomfortable with the way he was examining me.
“Was that really what was wrong?”
I nodded. “Yeah. It really was. I just . . .” I looked up at him again. “I know this sounds stupid but I love you, Nay. And I don’t think I say it enough.”
He gave me a sad smile and opened his arms which I went into in a heartbeat. “Trust me, you can never hear that enough.”
I went home just before dinner and cringed as I opened the door, waiting for yelling or footsteps or something but there was nothing. I felt my eyebrows come together as I stepped into the hall way. When I shut the door behind me, Grace appeared at the top of the stairs. I gave her an awkward wave and she trotted down to meet me.
“Hey.” I tried to smile but it felt wrong on my face.
“I didn’t think you were coming back,” she said, too soft and quiet.
“Of course I was coming back. I live here too.”
She just shook her head. “I’m sorry about before.”
“I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have shouted at you. That wasn’t right of me.” I looked about me before bending down and taking her hand. “Gracie, I believe you now.”
Her eyes went wide. “You do?”
I nodded, the smile coming easier now. At least there was one person that could know half of the truth. “Yeah. I just didn’t understand it before. Winnie’s for real and I also know what she is.”
“She’s not imaginary.” Grace crossed her arms.
“She’s definitely not imaginary.”
Her face dropped in innocent curiosity. “Then what is she?”
“Can you keep a secret?” I whispered.
“She’s your Guardian Angel.” I winked.
Grace’s mouth opened wide in a smile. “I knew it!”
That was all it took to be friends again. I spent the evening with her, not making excuses about homework like I usually would. I sat and coloured and played princesses and read her a fairy story when she went to bed. My heart gave a little sigh when I saw my tiara sitting on her desk.
“That was lovely of you, Abz,” Dad said when I joined him and Angela on the sofa again.
“It was nothing.” I shrugged. “I want her to have good memories of her sister growing up. I don’t want her to remember me as boring. I’ve not done her much good so far.”
Dad grinned. “Well you’ve got a lot of time left. She’s gonna need you around for the next ten years at least.”
“Yeah,” I gulped, heart stuttering. “I guess so.”
When Angela got up to make a cup of tea, I snuggled under Dad’s arm, taking a deep breath of his woody aroma.
He chuckled. “Been a while since my big girl wanted a cuddle.”
“Yeah.” I sighed. “I’m sorry I stormed out. I’m sorry I ran to Mum’s.”
He shook his head. “It’s okay, Abz, really. You came back.” He kissed the top of my head and I shut my eyes. “That’s all that matters.”
I slept poorly and awoke at 06:36, the flash of light still burning in the back of my eyes. I jumped up and tried to forget it. There was nothing I could do. Today was Tuesday and marked five weeks since I’d seen the flowers. Five weeks I’d been alive that I should’ve been dead. I couldn’t be angry. I was living on borrowed time. I just wished I knew how much of it was left and how much I’d wasted obsessing over the flowers.
I didn’t have to get to school until after break but I went in for second period because I knew Otter and Nathan had a free. I wasn’t going to wander around the house all morning when I could be with them. All time was precious now.
It felt good to walk to school, the warm breeze playing with my hair, the sun beating down hard. It was much safer for me to walk, though 06:36 had been hours ago so I was in no danger.
I arrived in the common room ten minutes before lesson change but found Otter already sitting there. “Hey!” She grinned as she saw me. “What you doing here?”
“I woke up early and got bored,” I told her as I sat down. “Thought I might as well come sit with you.”
“We finished what we were doing so we left early. I like the look of this year’s course.”
“Yeah?” I shuffled in my seat. “You rethinking your career prospects?”
“Nah,” she scoffed. “It’s not that good. I still think TV is my calling, though I have no idea what to go into.”
“Producing?” I suggested. “Though I’ve gotta admit I dunno what that includes.”
She laughed. “Me either. I guess I’ll figure it out.”
I rested my head on my hands and looked at her. Her face was always smiling, her heart good and pure. There were few people as beautiful inside and out as Ottillie Lloyd. She must’ve been destined for greatness on Earth as she hadn’t been taken. Though I hoped she never would be.
I shook my head and sat up a little. It was insanity that I was thinking in terms of angels and spirits and the Hereafter now. What happened to sense and science and Earth?
“We’ll still be friends,” Otter blurted out into the short burst of silence. “After school I mean?”
“What? You think I’d just ignore you?”
She bit her lip. “You might make science friends and go off to a super cool job and forget all about me.”
“Otter.” I grabbed her hand. “I still remember you pouring paint all over yourself in pre-school, how could I forget you?”
She looked away from me for a moment. “I’m just terrified this is going to be it and we’re going to look back and realise everything’s different.”
My mouth felt dry. “Well . . . everything is going to be different. But I’d never ignore you.”
“You’ll come visit me whenever you can?”
“Of course.” I had to promise it and if I was still here with her I would. Knowing what I knew about the length of my life, I knew I wouldn’t leave for uni at all. I wouldn’t even finish my A’ levels. All my hard work was after all this, for nothing.
Well not nothing, if anything, that’s what’d got me into this mess. If I could go back and do it differently though I knew I wouldn’t. I had struggled to ignore my teachers for one day; I couldn’t do it for months or even years. It just wasn’t who I was. And I guess that was the reason that either Heaven or Hell wanted me. I hadn’t been told which. It didn’t matter to me. All that mattered was that they were taking me. Whatever they believed, that made the angels demons.
Otter gave my hand a pulse. “I love you, Abz. It would kill me to lose you.”
Tears sprung into my eyes before I could stop them but I saw that the same thing was happening to her and that made me give a little laugh and squeeze her hand back. “I love you too.”
She wiped her eyes with her other hand. “How stupid are we?”
I nodded. “So stupid.”
“It’s not even time.” She shook her head. “I’m just getting ahead of myself.”
“That’s okay,” I said but it was quieter. My heart was trembling. “I’ll always be with you, Otter. I promise.” And it was one I hoped I could keep.
In physics at the end of the day, I found myself staring at Curie’s writing as she took notes, wondering how many days it was going to be until her hand traced across the label I’d already read. I couldn’t know how sad my death was going to make her. Having sat next to her all year I hoped that at least she’d notice and miss my presence beside her, even if we seldom passed a word between us.
I pulled my eyes away from her book as she gave me a weird look and instead fixed them on Mr Williams. I was listening, unlike yesterday, but not making notes of my own, more enthralled with the passionate way he spoke about physics. He was the sort of man who was born to be a secondary school teacher; endlessly patient with bottomless enthusiasm and a quick wit.
When we were given a work sheet and Mr Williams sat back down, I turned to Curie. “You’re lucky you know.”
She looked at me with wide brown eyes but that wasn’t surprising. Up until now it was as likely that she was going to talk to me as it was that I was going to talk to her. She tucked some thick, dark, coffee coloured hair behind her ear.
“You’re getting closer and closer to the point in your life when people will start to appreciate your name and I’m getting closer and closer to the point in my life when people will stop appreciating it.” That at least, was the truth.
“What do you mean?” Her voice was raspy, like she only used it on special occasions.
“You were named after Marie Curie weren’t you?”
“I think when you get to uni people will find that insanely cool. I spent my entire primary school life with a really cool surname. But later on, not so much.”
She smirked. “It’s not so bad. Angel was probably used as a pet name for someone hundreds of years ago and it stuck. It’s likely that all my ancestors did was live by a ford. At least you get an idea about what yours were like. Surnames weren’t always passed down, they used to mean something.”
Unfortunately for me, apparently mine was going to mean something again too soon.
I struggled around for another topic of conversation, wanting her to have something of me to remember, other than the image of me in her peripheral vision. “Do you have any brothers and sisters? Perhaps an Albert or an Isaac?”
She skimmed right over my attempt at humour as though she hadn’t even detected it. “No. It’s just me.”
“Me too. What do you think of the stereotype that we’re spoilt?”
“It’s a load of crap. Bronte’s a lot more spoilt than me and she’s got an older sister.”
I smiled. “I totally agree.”
Talk after that, seemed to come easier, though not effortless. I felt a pang of guilt that I’d never tried to be her friend before. Based on one physics lesson it seemed like we would get along well and could’ve been great friends, though it was too late for that now. At first, it was as though Curie wasn’t one-hundred percent sure how to talk to me, though we were more alike than I’d ever realised. I was lucky I’d met Otter and had a cousin in this year group. Who knew what my social life would look like if I hadn’t, or if it would even exist?
Even though I had few friends and acquaintances, I must’ve made some sort of impact at this school based on all the flowers that were going to be placed around the Suddich sign any day now. Maybe it was because I was the first on the register in most of my lessons and people felt they knew my name so they should pay their respects. Or maybe it was just because death was terrifying and they wanted to do something to make themselves feel better. There’s nothing like someone your own age dying to drive the terrible truth home that you’re only mortal and it’s going to happen to you too.
For some sooner than others it seemed.
I’d wondered for a few days now when I couldn’t get to sleep at night, far too nervous that this time was going to be the time, if knowing about an afterlife, the Hereafter, would even help. It wasn’t helping me but I supposed it could’ve helped others. I contemplated whether I should’ve told someone that life didn’t stop on Earth and that there was more, like people often dreamed.
But who would believe a crazy girl who could see a patch of flowers that weren’t even there?