18 Truths is the sequel to 18 Things . . . and it’s coming January 28, 2014. Keep in mind that the following prologue and first chapter is a sneak peak and although the book can stand alone . . . I highly recommend reading 18 Things first! Or you’ll spoil all the fun 🙂 Seriously, SPOIL ALERT . . . don’t keep reading unless you’re one of those crazy people who skips to the end of a book first!
Lying is unbearable, betrayal is inevitable, and choosing which path to take is impossible.
Olga Gay Worontzoff ended her senior year as an eighteen-year-old girl totally in love with Nate, enjoying their new romance and about to attend the university of her dreams. Now she’s spending her summer in the weird subculture of the Underworld, with charmingly witty and powerful angels, and problematic demons, trying to rescue Connor, the best friend and secret crush she was unable to save during a freak accident.
But Nate has other things on his mind, mainly Grace. She’s their first assignment as joint spirit guides, and Olga’s feeling hurt and jealous. His mysterious behavior has Olga questioning everything she believed about him and now she must decide whether to stick to their plan, or follow her heart.
Unfortunately, a series of mistakes threatens everyone around her and plants Olga in the center of cosmic events much larger than she ever imagined.
Only one thing is for certain: the chilling truths uncovered during her journey will leave no one untouched.
“For, after a certain distance, every step we take in life
we find the ice growing thinner below our feet,
and all around us and behind us
we see our contemporaries going through.”
–Robert Louis Stevenson
Truth: Every morning when I woke up, the biggest truth I’ve ever faced landed like a grenade in my heart. I never said this when I had the chance: I love Olga Gay Worontzoff with all my heart, soul, mind, and body.
Okay, maybe not body because we never touched outside of handholding and hugs, and usually because tears were involved on her behalf, not in an “I want you” kind of way at all. But I digress, which happened a lot lately since there wasn’t much to do here other than have silly conversations with myself.
Now, where was I?
Oh, false: It’s better to keep your feelings to yourself so you don’t ruin your friendship. What a bunch of crap. I couldn’t believe for twelve years I freakin’ ate a pile of that shi—
Um, I mean, crap. That was one of Olga’s favorite words, a word I used a lot these days as I worked on my language.
It was all I thought about in Juvie. No, not sh—crap. Although maybe if I had said a few less ‘bad’ words, then maybe I wouldn’t have ended up here. But I seriously didn’t think the Big Man Upstairs cared so much about that stuff as he did people. Otherwise, he would’ve sent me straight to Hell like I probably deserved.
But, like I was saying, every morning I woke up after another weird dream that usually involved me yelling at Olga to hurry, like I was the white rabbit and she was Alice, and then my truth hit me again like a ton of bricks. I was dead, and I never once told Olga I loved her, was in love with her.
And now? Too late.
I didn’t know if she survived the freak boating accident on Lake Michigan that involved lightning and hypothermia and took my life, but even if she didn’t, she was in Heaven. I knew this because she was an angel even on Earth. But me? I was stuck in Juvie, one of the four realms of the Underworld, reserved for teenagers like me who were undecided about the whole God thing at the time of their unfortunate demise.
I squeezed my eyes closed, trying to shut out my agony. Here was another truth: there were tears after death, at least where I resided. Sean and Kyle would probably revoke my Man Card for admitting I cried, but I figured I had nothing to lose at this point. Okay, that was only half-true. I could still lose my soul.
Even if this part of the Underworld was temporary until judgment or whatever, there was a terrifying finality to it. I tried to focus on Godly things to get me through, but Olga filled my thoughts instead. Not always the PG version either.
Truth number three: I regret dying a virgin.
Most people thought I wasn’t one. In a twisted turn of feminine power events, this girl Denise, who I had dated for three weeks during the beginning of junior year—an all-time record high for me—claimed we slept together after we broke up. I didn’t dispute the rumor because One, we did get about as close as you can get to sleeping with someone without actually doing the deed, and Two, why would anyone deny something like that?
I climbed off my cot in the darkness and stood. It was always dark here, with very little light. I paced around, going stir crazy once again.
I can’t take this anymore.
My roommate yawned luxuriously, and I was thankful for the sound of something real. I threw my pillow at him.
“Wake up, Sunshine!” His real name was Bo, a seventeen-year-old like me. He died in a car crash, so cliché.
Bo reciprocated my gesture, and a pillow fight ensued. “I was having a really good dream, Conner.”
Truth: all good things must come to an end.
“Sorry,” I told him. “But breakfast waits for no man.”
The Underworld would be unbearable if I didn’t have some friends here, but one thing I had always been good at was making people love me. I just sucked at loving them back. Loving someone required faith, something I obviously never had; otherwise, I wouldn’t be in this predicament right now. But I did have faith in Olga. Her friendship was like a good rock ballad, something I used to sing myself to sleep with to keep the nightmares away.
Bo and I headed outside. I never imagined the Underworld while I walked among the living, but even if I did, it wouldn’t have come close to this. Juvie kinda felt like being shipped to a boarding school for rednecks. You might be a redneck if . . . your parents send you to a boarding school where you live in tents. Yep, there was a bunch of tents for us to stay in. When I first arrived and met Bo, I observed, “Man, this place is intense.”
Ha ha ha! In tents=intense. Well anyway, he laughed and that pretty much sealed the deal on our bromance.
Everybody had a roommate in Juvie, an accountability partner as Leo stated. Leo was our angel headmaster, in charge of the two thousand teens housed in Camp Fusion. Juvie was divided into many camps with one angel in charge of each. My home at Juvie was just one small fraction of this plane. And if you thought two thousand teens were a lot to handle for one angel, then you haven’t met Leo. Besides, there was a lot less opportunity for sinning here, so two thousand-thirteen- to-nineteen-year-olds camping together wasn’t such a big deal. Since we were still fully human, with um, human desires, Leo said the same commandments we should’ve followed on Earth applied here.
There wasn’t much else Leo explained to us though, only that we weren’t fit for Heaven or Hell, so we were in a holding cell of sorts. We’d forever remain the age we were when we died, had daily assigned chores, and still attended school. Although there wasn’t much separation of church and state here. In fact, most of our studies focused around religion.
Bo and I made our way past the community bathrooms on our left, the red barn with animals in it to the right, and then headed down the path lined with fields of wild flowers. The actual school sat on a pristine lake that was always the perfect temperature for swimming despite the absence of the sun to warm it. Old oaks and manicured hedges lined the sidewalk leading up to the school’s front entrance. Just inside, to the left of the foyer, was the cafeteria.
I opened the glass door and called, “Honey, I’m home,” like I owned the place, because that was how I rolled. A year ago, when I stepped into Camp Fusion High for the first time, my arms and legs felt like Jell-O. I was terrified at the uncertainty of what might go down in Juvie. Plenty of time had passed since then, and I’d regained my title as Most Popular. Oh, sure, I went through all the phases before finally acclimating myself to this new environment—shock, disbelief, bargaining, guilt, acceptance. Waking up in a place like this had been a complete mindfreak. I still hadn’t made it around to hope yet. Hope would be seeing Olga again, and that was never going to happen. I’d heard of heartbreak, but I never knew your heart could literally break into a tiny million pieces, repeatedly, with each remembrance that the one thing you lived for was gone forever.
Damn, this sucked. I still couldn’t believe I’d never told her. I thought about that lame question teachers used to ask us as an icebreaker on the first day of school: “If you only had one day to live, what would you do?” I’d always come up with some bullsh—crap answer. Seriously, Leo should create some sort of shock collar for me to break my cursing habit. Must be the sailor in me.
If I could just have one more chance, I knew exactly what I would do: tell Olga I was in love with her. Hell, if she walked through the cafeteria doors right now, I’d probably drop down on my knees and ask her to marry me. Forget about the no marriages rule in Juvie.
I wondered if she had a man now, if she survived. She had to survive though, right? I should’ve had a lifejacket on. I remembered bits and pieces of that day. Maybe my submission to all things reckless had angered God and that was why I died. Olga had tried to save me, and I remembered that, too. She probably thought she failed, but then again, if I would’ve died a few years later, I wouldn’t have been a teenager anymore and would’ve been sent straight to Hell, so in a twisted way, she did save me. I still wasn’t very comfortable with this God stuff, but Bo told me that was okay. He said if we could just trust we were all here for a moment and that was real and something had to cause all that—then that made a great first step.
I had a while to figure it out, I supposed. I sought out God in my studies—though we didn’t have teachers here; class was more like homeschooling ourselves. There were plenty of books…Olga would’ve been happy to know that. I was pretty sure her idea of Heaven included an unlimited supply of books and coffee.
So, I tried to figure out the God stuff. I mean, He was real, obviously. But Leo told me my job now was to get to know Him, and I had no idea how to do that. I mean, the Dude didn’t even visit! I just wished I would’ve had my, “Luke, I am your Father,” moment a little sooner in life. Then, if Olga was in Heaven, I would’ve been there with her. Pretty much, before I died, the only religion I knew had been Star Wars. I didn’t claim to be an expert on much, but nobody could deny my status as a Jedi Master when it came to all things created by George Lucas.
I figured if Darth Vader could overthrow the emperor at the last second and still be saved, then maybe that was what Juvie was all about. God wasn’t through with us yet. We all had a little bit of Luke and Vader in us; we just had to choose which one we were going to listen to the most.
Bo took a seat at the picnic table and poured himself a bowl of cereal. “What’s eating your brain? You’ve been quiet since we stepped in here.”
“Star Wars,” I answered through a mouthful of chocolate chip pancakes. Piles of food mysteriously appeared on the tables at mealtimes, but then they also magically disappeared after an hour, so you had to be quick.
“Dude, that horse is dead. Time to put the stick down.”
The orange juice I sipped squirted out of my nose a little as I let loose a laugh. “Look around, dude. Reality has absolutely no place in my world.”
I got sidetracked by the sight of Julia eyeballing me from across the table with those big baby blues of hers. She had the look of a girl who knew she was exceptionally beautiful and knew that you knew it, too.
“What?” I mumbled.
“You have bed head.”
Julia reached over and smoothed down my hair. We’d been going steady for four weeks now, my new record. Our courting was proof we weren’t trying to create a Utopian Society here by any means. So far, our relationship had been filled with happiness and disappointment, confusion and clarity, and all the other things, good and bad, that made dating interesting.
She leaned away from me, shaking her blonde-streaked brown hair as she plopped back down on the bench. Her yellow sundress gave her an angelic glow, but this one was no angel, which was what I liked about her. Julia was about as far away from Olga as I could get, so there weren’t many reminders about the girl I lost when we hung out together.
“You sleep well, handsome?” Her waggling eyebrows seemed to suggest to everyone else at the table that we fooled around last night before our midnight curfew.
“Sure,” I agreed, but my tone conveyed otherwise. Last night was the first time we advanced past kissing and rounded second base, so I should’ve had sweet dreams and all that. I didn’t know why, but I felt so guilty afterwards. Okay, so I lived in the Underworld and was much more aware of sinning or whatever. But that wasn’t really what bothered me. It felt like I cheated on Olga, which sounded crazy since I was never gonna be with her.
“Aw, what’s wrong?” Julia asked in her annoying, puppy dog voice.
“I dunno,” I answered, bringing my best analysis of the situation I was in to the table.
Julia shot me a dirty look, but Bo intervened and started telling her about the weird dream he had last night. We all had weird dreams here, and we told them in detail, almost like ghost stories around a campfire.
I got so lost in deep thought about my Olga dreams that my brain had to travel a few dimensions back to present when the food disappeared and Julia called my name.
She stood behind me now, wrapping me in a hug. It didn’t even come close to producing the warmth Olga’s arms had once held for me, but it was the best substitute I could find here.
Stretching my arms above my head like a cat, I stood and faced her. “You’re hot,” I said ruefully.
She laughed. She had a nice laugh.
“How do you view our relationship?” she asked.
The weight of our four-week courtship settled upon me at last. Here was Julia. In an otherwise miserable existence, she’d brought a little light to my life of late. But she wasn’t Olga. She was a carefree indulgence on my part. Did I hope my attraction would bloom into something more like love at some point? Sure, but I wasn’t holding my breath.
“I’m crushing on you, girl. You know this.”
My answer possessed a nugget of truth, but her eyes flashed for a second and I was pretty sure I pissed her off. Clearly, she viewed me as more already.
“It’s just that, like, it feels like there’s this invisible wall between us. Can we talk about the accident?”
“No,” I deadpanned.
“Conner, please. You’ve never opened up to me about it, and I think it would help us grow closer. I told you my death story.”
She talked about dying a lot. She was an artist and into painting all these watercolors depicting her drug overdose. In truth, I’d experience never-ending shame if I died from swallowing too many pills. What a stupid way to die.
“What’s there to dissect? I took my annual first spring sail on Lake Michigan with my best friend. Lightning struck me. I wasn’t wearing a life jacket, and the voltage and hypothermia formed a deadly combo, inducing cardiac arrest.”
Truth: just the thought of that day made my throat close up. I knew now how wide, high, and deep this galaxy was, but this conversation had a way of making me feel claustrophobic.
Julia eyeballed me again, probably trying to gauge my mood to see if she could push me, but all I gave her in return was a glassy stare.
“Why does it take so much effort to even make cracks in you? Why do you act this way? We’re here to heal. You can’t do that by bottling everything up.”
I felt my body bending away from her without actually moving. “Ugh, Julia. I don’t know. Maybe I can’t let myself move on because I don’t know what happened to Olga. Did she die too? Is she in Heaven? Did she survive the accident? Is she happy if I’m gone? Because honestly, even though people here constantly surround me, I feel alone and I don’t know why that is other than my best friend isn’t here with me. And that’s what keeps me up at night, all the dreams about her. But there’s also not a damn thing I can do about it, is there? Because nobody likes to give us real answers around here.”
There was a gleam in her eyes, like she understood. “Thank you. I just wanted you to acknowledge the elephant in the room. You’ve put Olga on this pedestal, and I’m never gonna live up to your hero. I’m tired of competing. You can’t date a memory, but you can date me.”
I couldn’t help myself. This was my Achilles’ heel—I couldn’t stand to have anyone angry with me, so I leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “You’re right. And I do want to date you, okay?”
On her tiptoes, Julia pressed her forehead into mine and we saw eye to eye, literally and figuratively. I’d become that good at lying—able to look someone in the eye and still bear false testimony. Our lips touched briefly, and as we hugged, I promised myself I’d truly focus on Julia. I’d focused all my thoughts on Olga, and it was time to get them back . . . because she wasn’t coming back.
“Oh, looks like we have an audience, honey.”
I twisted to get a look at what she saw behind me.
“Olga?” I whispered. I dropped my hands from around Julia and turned to face Olga completely.
“Olga?” I repeated, this time at a regular volume but my voice cracking. Then I shouted, “Olga!” and ran to her.
It turned out that my first impulse wasn’t to drop down to my knees and propose. Instead, I touched her. I wanted to make sure she was real. Lifting her off the ground, I swung her around and around again.
Truth: God, if this is a dream, I don’t want to wake up.
“You can’t change the truth,
but the truth can change you.”
*One month ago*
Growing up, when I thought about spirit guides, I thought of the Native American legends and Disney movies portraying bears, horses, and wolves who offered advice and comfort to the heroes in stories. I definitely never imagined I’d become a spirit guide, or that they were even real.
I crossed my legs again, the torn vinyl seat cover scratching against my thigh, and flipped through the same Stone Soup children’s magazine for the fifth time. If I didn’t occupy my hands, I might break down the light brown door where Dr. Judy waited with a black hole, ready to suck away the future I spent the past year building for myself.
“What’s taking so long?” Nate asked in a not-so-quiet voice, brushing a muscular arm against my own, sending chills down my spine.
Behind us, a secretary sat at a desk in the receptionist area, noisily working over a piece of gum like a cow chewing his dinner, and I could smell the cinnamon flavor from my seat.
“Shh,” I answered him, trying not to blush—something I should have been able to manage since I’m dead, but nope. Amazingly, our bodies were carbon copies of when we were alive. The only thing really changed was that we could walk through walls and appear at random places, just by willing ourselves to go there, which was pretty stinkin’ cool.
“Why?” He trained his blue-green eyes on me, making me itch to go back in time to twelve hours ago.
Back to Lake Michigan, him serenading me with the Summertime song he wrote about us, strumming his guitar. Back before we knew we’d been dead for the past year.
Pretty much back before everything suddenly became so complicated.
“They can’t hear us, remember?” He gestured around the therapist’s office waiting room.
I uncrossed my legs and snatched glances at the other people in the waiting area. One teen girl like me clenched her hands together in a worrying knot. A man with a Detroit Lions ball cap pulled low sat next to a tiny elderly woman wearing a blue scarf around her neck, looking lost and frightened. I blinked back tears, thinking about my parents visiting my therapist for grief counseling.
When I say therapist, I do so using air quotes in my mind because Dr. Judy isn’t a real one—she’s a spirit guide like us . . . well, like we were going to be. I wasn’t even sure what the job entailed, but Nate and I were about to find out. Dr. Judy was our spirit guide after we died, we just didn’t know it until today. Or that we were even dead! I was having a hard time processing that truth.
I studied Nate, the weight of the world on his shoulders, making him slump in his seat. Yup, it had been one of those days.
“Do you know any good jokes?” Nate asked with a half-crooked smile. “Because I could sure use one right now.”
I took his hand in mine and squeezed. “We both could, but nope. Witty sarcasm is more my thing.”
Nate leaned toward me and pressed his forehead against mine, his coffee colored hair slipping over his left eye. I felt his breath on my lips, the fresh scent of spearmint washing over me. Somehow, everything about Nate reminded me of my favorite things.
I sighed, not wanting to disappoint him. “What did the ocean say to the sand?”
His eyes lit up. “What?”
“Nothing, it just waved.”
Snorting, he shook his head.
“Well, whaddya expect? The only jokes I know are from popsicle sticks.”
He clung to me, and I held him tight, reveling in the feel of all things safe and good wrapped up in his tanned arms.
“What are you thinking about?” Even the sound of his voice soothed me, like gentle, peaceful waves rolling into the shore at sunrise.
I shifted uncomfortably in the thinly padded seat and lifted my hands, running them through his silky hair, then letting the strands fall to his shoulders. “I’m just thinking how this place used to be my safe haven and now it just feels like, I dunno, a black hole sucking away my future. We don’t have a future anymore.”
For the past year, Nate and I had been in a state of Limbo, completing a list of tasks Dr. Judy suggested so that we could learn our life—er, death lessons—and find true happiness again before entering Heaven. Apparently, I accidentally killed myself when I took a bottle of pain pills while feeling guilty about Conner, my best friend, who died in front of my eyes. I was unable to save him and blamed myself for his death.
Nate unintentionally killed himself while drag racing another kid from his school at the end of his junior year, all because he was upset about having to move to Grand Haven, my hometown. He found out today the other kid died, too.
After discovering we were dead and all this other stuff, entering Heaven seemed selfish when we left a wave of destruction here on Earth. Both of us had just witnessed, for the first time, our families grieving for us because of our stupid choices. Becoming spirit guides and helping others with unfinished business seemed fitting considering our circumstances.
Nate placed a finger under my chin and tilted my mouth to his. His lips were warm and soft. Usually, I wasn’t a big fan of PDA, but we remained invisible to the ‘living’ people in the waiting room. Being in spirit form had its advantages.
“Olga Gay Worontzoff,” he whispered after slowly breaking away from our kiss.
The worst thing about my life when I was alive, up until Conner’s death, was my horrible name—named after my grandmothers, of course.
“As long as we’re together, we’ll always have a future.” Nate’s words scorched my ears, warmth spreading through my insides.
I sat up straighter and placed my hands on his broad shoulders, giving them a squeeze. “You’re right. This is still just so hard to take in. I like my structure, ya know? And suddenly, my life has entered this frenetic pace where I don’t even understand what’s happening or—”
Nate’s watch beeped, making me jump. We could roam Earth—the real one, not the fake one we’d been living on during our alternative timeline for the past year—one last time until midnight. At first, we just wanted to visit our families and friends. But not being able to interact with them was too depressing, so we spent most of our hours walking around the town we loved so much. I felt caught in some twisted version of Cinderella. At the stroke of the clock, my remarkable fortune would return once again to unfortunate circumstances. I mentally kicked myself. I should’ve known the past year was too good to be true.
Dr. Judy opened the door to her office. “Oh good, you’re here.” She seemed surprised, like we had a choice in the matter. “Are you ready to go?”
I slid my hand down to Nate’s and held it as we stood together.
“No,” Nate answered.
“You can’t stay here.” Dr. Judy eyed us cautiously.
Nate nodded his head. “We know, but we hoped to speak to you about becoming spirit guides.”
She frowned at us for a moment. “Well then, come on in.”
My eyes wandered to the waiting room, then to Dr. Judy, who followed my questioning gaze.
“Oh, I get to pick when they can and can’t see me. One of the perks of the job.”
She ushered us in and closed the door. The room still came equipped with the furnishings I’d grown accustomed to: two wicker cushioned seats, a desk and a leather chair, and a recliner. I didn’t know why, but I expected her office to look different now.
As usual, she took a seat behind her desk in the middle of the room, and Nate and I sat in the two chairs in front of her. “First, do you understand what you’re saying? What you’re signing up for?”
“Sure,” I said. “Spirit guides . . . we help people, or spirits, or whatever. We nudge them in the right direction, like you did with us. Only, we can’t tell them they’re dead. We have to trick them, let them believe they survived their accident and are still among the living.” Okay, I might’ve delivered my answer with just a tad bit of resentment.
Dr. Judy gave her head a small shake, and I didn’t blame her. Even to myself I sounded too immature for this job.
“It’s so much more than that. Let’s start out with a few things you need to know.” She folded her hands on top of the mahogany surface.
Her tone sounded world-weary with a touch of skepticism. I wondered if this was how I’d sound after dealing with ghosts caught in the in-between for a few years. Even if I did get sick of my new profession, it’s not like I could tell my boss to take this job and shove it.
Dr. Judy sighed loudly, drawing me away from my thoughts. “This is no cake walk. Spirit guides, unlike angels, do not possess any special powers. We answer to the angels, and they in turn answer to God.”
“So you think we’re not . . . capable?” I chose my words carefully, because I didn’t want to hurt Nate’s feelings. He’d already been hurt enough today.
Dr. Judy hung back in her leather chair and gave an exasperated sigh. “I didn’t say that. In fact, I think you’re more than capable, despite your young age. I was very impressed with how you progressed in Limbo, as was my boss. So I do think I could pull some strings with my rank and get you an assignment even though you are teenagers. But first, I want you to understand what you’re signing up for. A spirit guide, unlike an angel, was once a human being, like me and like the pair of you, if you become guides. They lived their life, performed their tasks and died, then crossed over to the other side, but not into Heaven. We’re part of the Underworld, a region that is beneath the surface of the world. It’s where departed souls go who aren’t allowed in Heaven. We’re connected to the Heavens and the Earth, but we have four distinct regions down here.”
Four? She’d only mentioned Limbo and Hell to us at our meeting earlier today. My creeped-out level raised a few notches. “So we’re not in Hell, but we’re not far from it?”
She held up her slender hands. “Relax. Yes, the Hell of the Damned is one of the regions, but you’re not in danger of being sent there. Well, not right now anyway. Hell is in the deepest part of the Earth, existing solely as a state of torture. The chance for redemption there is lost. The other three parts of the Underworld are intermediate states. Right above Hell is Purgatory.”
Nate peeked at me from the corner of his eye. “But you said we’re not there either.”
Dr. Judy shook her head, her wavy butterscotch hair slipping over her shoulders. I’d always admired her hair. Even though she wasn’t an angel, she sure looked like one. My appearance was far from that description. With my long red crazy curls and fair skin, I looked like the vampire chicks that were all the rage these days.
“No, you’re not,” Dr. Judy answered in her sweet voice. “Purgatory is like a waiting room for Heaven. There are good souls in there, but they weren’t Heaven-ready for various reasons, but they also didn’t have any unfinished business. Neither do the souls from Juvie.”
I put my elbows on my wobbly knees and dropped my head in my hands. “Say what?”
“Juvie is also for souls who aren’t eligible for entry into Heaven yet, but not because of their choices, but rather for lack of choice. Unclean souls of teenagers are there.”
Dr. Judy waited patiently as we tried to digest all this.
I felt like I was drowning. Is that where Conner was? He’d been my best friend since kindergarten; if he happened to get some God into his life during the twelve years I knew him, I would’ve known. We told each other everything and were hardly ever apart until high school when his girlfriends began to steal away his time from me. But to my knowledge, he was sort of an agnostic. He took a very scientific approach to the world. Whenever I told him God loved him and had a plan for his life he’d say, “Prove it.” Likewise, when his band mate Kyle argued with me that there was no God; Conner would also respond with, “Prove it.”
And if I was honest with myself, my motives for wanting this job weren’t as pure as Nate’s. I couldn’t shake the feeling Conner needed my help.
“So Olga and I didn’t go to Juvie either because we believed in God.”
I exhaled with relief, glad Nate still had the presence of mind to ask more questions. To be honest, Nate and I hadn’t talked much about God this past year. Not that I was surprised he believed in God, because we did talk a lot about having faith that things would work out in life. Plus, he’d attended church with his parents every week just like I went to Catholic mass with mine. In retrospect, I didn’t have to question him at all about having a spiritual life because I just knew from the way he acted . . . unlike some people in my life. Like Tammy.
Tammy. I hoped becoming a spirit guide meant I could go visit my friends sometimes.
But first, I needed some more questions answered. “Okay, we’re not in Juvie. But you did state at our meeting this morning that we’ve been in a state of Limbo for the past year. What does that mean, exactly?”
As I looked up, Dr. Judy fixed her gaze on me. “That’s right. You’re in the realm closest to Earth, called Limbo—a place of alternative timelines mimicking a person’s experiences on Earth. This place is for souls who need to go through the after-death purification process, for those who accepted God into their lives and were sealed for the day of redemption, but then died while backsliding, or falling into sin, and therefore, they could not ask for God’s forgiveness and receive His grace.”
Her explanation made sense. I committed suicide, albeit not intentionally, and Nate decided to drag race when he was upset. We definitely didn’t have that whole dying with grace thing down. Still, I wasn’t happy about being tricked with the alternative timeline thing. It would’ve been nice to receive this information a year earlier, even if Dr. Judy claimed we were both too depressed to hear the truth back then.
“So,” Dr. Judy continued. “Spirit guides like me help people in Limbo find their joy, peace, and grace again. Then they are free to move on to Heaven. There are very few cases in which people actually choose to stay here.”
I exhaled. “But you stayed here, right?”
Dr. Judy’s mouth dropped open, then closed, and we all sat silently for a few seconds. “More like sentenced. Limbo or Purgatory wasn’t a choice for me, so the angels told me I could become a spirit guide to avoid Hell.”
The hairs on my arms stood up. Hearing about this type of stuff in Sunday school class was one thing; it was another thing to find yourself living it, so to speak. “Do you mean you were told the truth from the start? That’s not fair at all!”
“Life isn’t fair, Olga. Build a bridge and get over it.”
My posture stiffened at her sudden coldness.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you. It just gets monotonous explaining these things day in, day out. But I know you still have a lot of questions, so go ahead. I’ll try to be patient.”
I cleared my throat. “So, the souls in Limbo are the only ones eligible to enter Heaven now?” I asked, still trying to comprehend all of this. “Well, I mean, as soon as their purification process is done?”
Dr. Judy rubbed her tiny forehead. “Yes, and as spirit guides we continue to learn and spiritually advance while helping others learn the life lessons they never had a chance to learn while living. Since we were once human ourselves, we are well aware of the problems they’re facing. We were concerned with similar matters not so long ago. ”
She had that faraway look in her dark green eyes, and I wondered what she was remembering, if something haunted her like Conner’s memory haunted me. The wrinkles around her mouth were set deeper than I remembered.
Nate grabbed my hand. I looked down and noticed his knuckles were white despite his tan. To know he was scared of something for once felt oddly comforting. “Once we receive our assignments, how will we know what to do?”
A smile stretched across Dr. Judy’s face. “Prayer. It plays an important part in the life of a spiritual guide, for more than one reason. You should know that since we’re in the Underworld, there are even more demons and temptations here than on Earth. You are closer to Hell and they want those lost souls for Satan just as much as we want them for God. You should perform a protection ritual every morning when you wake up to safeguard yourselves against undesirable encounters with them. If you’re not choosing to move on to Heaven, there’s always the chance of being damned to Hell if you are led astray. That’s the most important thing you need to understand here tonight. If you take the oath of a spirit guide instead of going to Heaven, your soul will not be safe until Jesus returns. And no one knows when that will happen. It could be tomorrow or in five thousand years.”
“So, this is our mission, should we choose to accept it? And this message will self-destruct in sixty seconds?” Nate sounded grim, but I also detected this weird hint of anticipation in his voice.
Dr. Judy tilted her head to the side, and I squeezed Nate’s hand.
“Um, yeah, we don’t have much time to decide this, right? I mean, you told us our time was up at midnight and we’ve already been here a half hour.”
She glanced toward the wall clock. “I have my next appointment in fifteen minutes. So yes, you must decide quickly.”
I rubbed my chin with my free hand. “Now, when you say appointment, I assume it’s with someone in Limbo, since it’s so late here on the real Earth. But that’s the thing, how are you counseling my parents and stuff when they’re not dead?”
She nodded curtly, like she expected my question. “Just as there are different levels of rank among the angels, even among the demons, spirit guides are part of a hierarchical system as well. Some are limited to this plane, which is the case for all newbies like you, but some can go back and forth. I operate on a higher vibrational frequency, so even though I’m not human when I’m on Earth, people sense my presence and perceive I am.”
Again, I felt impressed by Dr. Judy. Nate twisted in his chair and lowered his head to mine like he did in the waiting room. “Now that we know what the stakes are, I won’t blame you if you back out. You didn’t kill anybody else. You should move on to Heaven.”
My gaze darted to Dr. Judy, wanting her to back me up that Nate really didn’t kill anybody, but she busied herself by flipping through a book on her desk.
“You so didn’t kill that kid. The car crash was an accident.”
Nate shook his head, and I knew there was no use trying to get through to him at the moment. I hesitated before saying aloud I still wanted to be a spirit guide, beginning to reconsider the wisdom of going straight to the pearly gates. Heaven would be so wonderful and probably make me forget all about Nate and Conner. But I didn’t want to forget.
“I’m all in. Wherever you go, I go. Remember what Dr. Judy said earlier? Our souls are tied together.”
He paused. “I’m flattered, but are you sure you have your priorities straight?”
“He’s right, Olga,” Dr. Judy butted in, her voice so calm it almost had the power to cure the hurricane-sized headache gnawing at my fried brain. “Yes, you were connected through your bond during Limbo, but you can choose to sever that bond at any time, much like a spouse can decide to get a divorce. There may be consequences, but your free will is still intact and your decisions are your own. Shouldn’t you have some sense of self-preservation?”
I frowned at her, wondering what consequences she referred to, but then I decided I didn’t care. Turning to Nate, I said firmly, “I love you. I’m not leaving you.”
He leaned down and gave me a quick peck on the lips. I let out a silent breath of relief. I had started to worry he wanted to get rid of me. But this was the guy I did eighteen outrageous things with during the past year when I turned eighteen. Things like riding the biggest rollercoaster in the U.S., wedding crashing, firewalking, and hardest of all, going sailing again. Conner was struck and killed by a deadly combo of lightning and hypothermia the last time I was on a boat. He was the bravest person I’d ever known, and I was tired of being scared.
I met Nate’s eyes and touched his face, my fingers lightly caressing his cheek.
“I love you,” he whispered before turning his attention back to Dr. Judy. “We’re ready to take that oath now.”
Dr. Judy motioned for us to stand as she did the same. She held out a Bible and told us to put our right hand upon the surface and to repeat after her. I anxiously shifted from one foot to the other as she opened her mouth to speak, and we echoed the prayer.
“Heavenly Father, I surrender myself completely to you. I take a stand against all the workings of Satan. I put on the girdle of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the sandals of peace, the helmet of salvation, the shield of faith and take in my hand the sword of the spirit. I put off my old human nature and put on the new nature of spirit and truth with courage. Blessed Holy Spirit, I pray you would fill me. I pray I would be a mighty spirit guide to pull down strongholds and cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself against God. Help me to be aggressive enough to smash the plans of demons. Give me a spirit of love and a sound mind. I pray in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ with thanksgiving and humbleness. Amen.”
Nate rolled his shoulders. “So, where do we go for our first assignment? I say, bring it on, Satan! I’m ready to kick some demon butt!” He yelled the words, not sounding very humble at all.
We turned our heads in unison as a loud crash sounded through the walls. A simple wooden cross hanging above Dr. Judy’s bookshelf began slowly swinging back and forth like a pendulum. I gasped when the cross began to rotate in a slow circle, picking up speed until it spun on the wall like the arms of a possessed clock.
“Be gone, in Jesus’ name!” Dr. Judy shouted. “Or I will call upon our guardian angels to torture you and drag you back to the pit of Hell from which you came!”
I did a double take, glancing back to the spinning cross on the wall, and searching for whatever Dr. Judy screamed at. Squelching the surge of terror rising up from my gut, I scanned the room, but found nothing.
Abruptly, the cross stilled, scraping the wall as it slowly slid back and forth, then eventually settled into its original position . . . as if I’d imagined the entire incident.
I turned to Nate, and he reached out and touched my shoulder hesitantly, his eyes wary as he asked Dr. Judy in a strained voice, “What the heck was that all about?”
She shook her head. “That is just one of the many demons I warned you about. Do not provoke them. They are more than ready to take on a newbie in a fight.”
“But why couldn’t we see anything?” I stared at the crucifix on the wall.
“Some can choose to make themselves invisible, so beware; you never know when you’re being watched.” The phone rang, and with a sigh, she stepped toward her desk to answer the call.
Nate wrapped his arms around my waist, holding me close. “You still want to become spirit guides after witnessing that little freak show?”
I didn’t even hesitate this time. “Yup, you can call me crazy, but love makes you do crazy things.”
He grinned, then leaned down for a kiss, but Dr. Judy’s shriek made us both freeze.
“What do you mean she’s dead?” she demanded into the phone, her face devoid of all color. “How did she die?”
I swallowed hard. Nate and I glanced wide-eyed from one another to Dr. Judy, wondering what was going on as she slumped into her leather chair and put her head on the desk, crying. No, not crying, bawling. Nate and I both moved to stand behind her, our hands embracing her shoulders, waiting. I could hear someone talking on the other line, but I couldn’t make out the words.
Finally, Dr. Judy lifted her head and flashed me a devastated stare before mumbling into the phone. “No, Riel. I have two new recruits I want assigned to my daughter. You and Ash will be their case handlers . . . uh-huh . . . the teenagers . . . I know . . . I’ll send them to headquarters now . . . thank you.”
She hung up and just looked at the phone for a moment, like she was trying to will the call to not be true somehow. “My eighteen-year-old daughter is dead.”
I crouched down and wrapped Dr. Judy in a hug. “I’m so sorry.”
“How?” Nate asked.
My mouth dropped open slightly, shocked at his insensitivity.
He looked at me, then seemed to rediscover his common sense. “I’m sorry. I just meant that she’s so young. Was it an accident like ours that’ll mean she’s coming to Limbo?”
Dr. Judy didn’t look angry at his questions. She didn’t look like anything but numb. “Yes, she’ll be coming to Limbo. Grace will be your first assignment.”
“Us?” I frowned in disbelief. “Are you sure we’re qualified for this?” Becoming a spirit guide to your boss’s daughter seemed like a pretty big first assignment, and I felt like there should be some job training involved first.
Dr. Judy stood up, walked to the other side of the room, and opened the door. The waiting room had disappeared. Now the entrance exposed a small pond, and an ancient building looking like Roman architecture stood across the way.
“Olga and Nate, I believe you’ve become spirit guides for such a time as this. You’ll be my interns. I’m always here if you need my help, and I’ll expect a daily report on your progress, but you must go now.” She ushered us out of her office. “Oh, and please, don’t make me regret trusting you with this.” With those parting words, she slammed the door firmly behind us.