Part 1 Ella held Dana and Daniel in her arms as they watched their home burn. Their parents called out for their children in the blaze. A dozen officers had to hold them both
Ella held Dana and Daniel in her arms as they watched their home burn. Their parents called out for their children in the blaze. A dozen officers had to hold them both back as the firefighters battled the inferno. The black smoke rose into the blue purple-streaked sky. Three helicopters hovered above, just out of the way of the smoke.
Dana and Daniel’s tiny fingers dug into the skin of her belly, cold and electric points on her skin that went deeper than her bones.
Though the flames cheered, a few words overpowered them: “they are in there!”; “get the fuck out of my way!”
Flames shattered the second-floor windowpanes. The cops and firefighters winced and covered themselves with their arms or took cover behind a car or a firetruck. The kids turned their heads into Ella’s belly to shield their eyes.
They’re so young.
Ella bent over enough so that her lips were level with their ears, but she had nothing to say. She hadn’t the words to comfort them or herself. And it hurt.
“Mommy,” Daniel whimpered. He put his face into her side, gripping at her shirt. Dana stared forward, her expression difficult to read.
As much as she wanted to say something, anything, the sparks that travelled from her brain to her lips disappeared.
“Ms. Ella?” Dana spoke.
“Are my mommy and daddy going to be okay?”
She didn’t have an answer. The scent of the smoke, the sirens, the panicked voices, and the screams of their parents filled her. Her bones shook under the pressure. Tears came down her cheeks.
“I don’t know.”
The words came, but she had no idea where from. Her hands tingled. Maybe the siblings where squeezing her arms that hard.
Ella just watched the flames consume the home.
Something brushed against her leg.
Her attention went right to it, and so did the kids. Dana swooped down and held the grey and black tabby cat like a baby, buried her face in its tummy and wept. Daniel reached over and scratched its head. Ella could tell the boy tried to hold back tears, but they came anyway.
“Pepper,” Dana muttered.
Ella looked over to the blaze: streams of water arched in the sky, smoke twisted ever upward, the red and blue lights flashed. Their parents were coaxed back to the other side of the street, where two ambulances were waiting.
The twins scratched their cat, their eyes fixed forward.
“Mommy,” Daniel whimpered.
Pressure built up in her chest. There isn’t much I can do for them.
The sound of the ambulance door being slammed shut somehow passed the roar of the inferno and reached her ears. Dana stepped forward as if to follow the ambulance as it pulled away. Daniel stood by Ella.
“They will be okay, Dana,” Daniel said.
“No, they won’t,” she cried.
“Dana, stop it.”
Dana looked up at Ella. “Let’s follow them. We’re okay. We can go see them.”
Ella went blank, then, What do I do? If there’s too much shock, they won’t move on as easily. Worst case scenario is that they refuse to accept it, and remain bound here. But, maybe seeing their parents will help them accept the facts and move on.
“Okay,” Ella said. “We can go.”
Smiles formed across their lips. Dana turned and faced the blaze again, then took a few steps toward it. Daniel grabbed her shoulder, “Not that way.” Dana seemed to be on the verge of asking why, but her expression softened.
Ella knelt down and held out her arms. “Each of you get under one of my arms. Hold the cat tight, okay?”
They were puzzled, of course. It wasn’t in every instance that Ella had to take to the sky, but maybe doing so would give the children time to calm down, to accept their fates. It was all she could do besides hope. Dana adjusted the hold on Pepper, walked under her arm, and looked at Daniel.
“How will we follow Mommy and Daddy?” Daniel asked.
“I’ll let you in on a secret.”
“What?” he asked.
“I can fly.”
The words felt like a lie, yet they were not.
“You don’t have wings,” Dana said.
“Well, some times you have to learn to fly without wings. I did.”
“You’re weird,” she retorted.
“I’m not weird. I’m unique, thank you,” Ella said with a genuine smile.
She took the pair and cat in her arms and picked them up. They weighed almost nothing, all things considered. “Are you ready?”
“Yeah,” Dana jiggled.
Daniel just nodded.
“Okay. Clear for take-off.”
Ella turned away from the fire, ran a dozen or so feet, and pushed off the ground. The twins screeched when they passed the tree tops.
“You can fly,” Daniel said. Dana continued to shriek, muttering what could have been words that shattered before they passed her lips.
The lamps and other lights formed patterns the higher she got.
“How high can you go?” Daniel asked.
“I can go to the clouds.”
“How about space?” he asked.
“I’ve never been that high before.”
“Well, after we go to my mommy and daddy, can you try?”
“I don’t see why not.”
His eyes gleamed.
She felt lighter, like nothing was tethering her to the ground.
“We need to see Mommy and Daddy right now,” Dana said.
“I know. I was talking about after.”
Ella took a moment to look down and find the ambulances. Its lights stood out, even among the others. She flew down and followed it to the hospital, which was the same one she was born in. She landed and watched the paramedics wheel them into the ER. The kids followed the medics through the bright white hallway. Screams reverberated off the walls from some other part of the ER. Doctors and nurses went about their duties, their eyes revealing a mix of defeat and determination. A young nurse, she had to be fresh from school, leaned against a wall in apparent exhaustion. Her coat was covered in blood.
I’m not getting out of here anytime soon.
One of the medics took their mother into one room, and their father was taken into the next room. Dana and Daniel stopped in the hallway between the two rooms, and held the others hand. Pepper seemed content in Dana’s embrace.
Danny wiped his tears with his arm.
“We will wait for them to get better, okay, Danny?” Dana said.
He just nodded.
This is fucked up. Ella’s chest tightened up, the smell of smoke present in her nose. Okay, just play this by ear. I know what to do. I fucking hope I do.
The pair peered into the room where their mother was taken. Dana turned her gaze to Ella, as if to ask for help without words. She walked until their mother was visible.
The oxygen mask fogged up with each breath she let out, her gaze shifted between one of two nurses who connected the monitoring equipment to her.
“Where are my babies?”
Both of them stopped and winced.
“Where are they?”
The nurses turned to each other.
“They didn’t make it.”
“They’re on their way, right?”
The nurses exchanged bewildered glances.
“Oh, God, my babies!”
“Mommy, we’re right here,” Danny cried.
“Yeah. We’re okay. So, don’t be sad, okay,” Dana said.
Ella was more than certain the nurses did what they could, but they were certainly better equipped for their task than she was.
Danny turned around. “Can’t she hear us?” Then, he faced his sister. Dana let go of his hand, walked over to Ella, and looked up at her. Her brows furrowed, her bottom lip quivered, and tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Did—did we. . .die?”
Ella wiped away the tears, but more came. “Yes. Yes, you did.”
“What?” Danny asked.
Each word that was to follow would weigh as much as the Earth itself, but they would come, and they would have to be said.
“You didn’t survive the fire. Neither did Pepper.”
Dana looked down at her cat and held her tighter. Pepper headbutted Dana.
Danny walked to the threshold of the tiny room, turned and looked at his sister, then back to his mother, and eventually wandered to the room his father was kept in and just stared.
I can only stay with them until they move on. That might not happen for a while.
There is another task for you, Death said.
Ella looked up and down the hallway for the source of the voice.
“Where are you?” she whispered, then realized the question was redundant.
There is a soul in need of comfort.
“Just tell me where?”
You must go to the fourth floor on this structure. Finding them will prove to be a simple task.
Ella went to Dana first and said she would return; she just nodded her head. When she told Danny, he just stared at her, blinked, and returned his gaze to his father.
Ella made her way through the ER. When she turned a corner, she passed through a female nurse. There wasn’t any sensation, but it was still strange. Just ahead was a set of double doors that lead into another lobby. She put out her hand to push open the door, but her hand went through it, as if it were just an illusion. She stepped through the doors, expecting to see nothing as she passed through the material.
As odd as it was, she had something to do. The other lobby wasn’t as morose and bright white. To the left was a shrine: a table with plastic candles, flowers, and a statue of Jesus with his hands stretched out. It was strange to think that this was likely one of the few places in the building where there was some semblance of peace.
She followed the signs to the elevator, went to press the button, but her finger passed through the plastic. A hand went through her stomach, pressed the up button, and passed through her again.
What the fuck?
A man with black hair, glasses, and lines in his forehead stood behind her. He seemed worse for wear. A moment later the doors opened, and a man and two small boys walked out. Ella walked through them and into the small room. The doctor pressed the button labeled 4.
Fourth floor, she thought.
The button with the number four lit up, and the elevator opened up to the fourth floor faster than she anticipated. As she stepped out of the elevator, Ella felt something pull her. No, not pull. It was like standing on a steep incline. She walked down the white halls, through the passing staff. The hall felt like it flattened out when she stopped in front of room 414.
This is the place.
When she stepped into the room, the cold cut through her. It was the chill of fear, and the heavy air of loneliness. A curtain was the only thing that separated her and whoever was ready to die. Her fingers tingled, then her body felt weak.
They don’t have much time left.
Tears came down her cheek. She wiped them away.
I can cry later.
Ella stepped through the curtain. A boy, no more than eleven, had tubes running from machines and clear plastic bags to his veins. Tubes went into his nostrils, and her eyes followed them to the respirator. Above him to the right was the screen that displayed all of his vital signs. His heart rate was 60 per minute, and it looked like he struggled to breathe. A twinge of pain gripped the right side of her head.
“Are you. . .the nurse?”
The pain in her head vanished.
What the hell do I say?
“No, not really.”
The words didn’t feel like a lie, but the fact that they hurt coming out wasn’t going away.
“I am going to. . .die?” he asked.
The subtle noises made by the machines went silent. She heard a beating in her head and somehow, she knew it wasn’t her own.
“You won’t be alone. That’s why I’m here. I’m Ella.”
Tears streaked down the boy’s cheeks. “I don’t…want…to go.”
She walked to him and held his hand. “I’m here. I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
“What about my mommy and daddy? I don’t want them to be sad.”
“You can visit them, to make sure they won’t be, and so that way they know you’ll always be with them.” The words cut like razor blades that trimmed everything from her vocal cords to her lips.
The beginnings of a smile started to form on his lips, though he sniffled.
“If I can see them when I want, I will be happy,” he said.
“You can see them anytime you want.”
Ella leaned forward and kissed him on his forehead. The boy let out a final breath. The machine that once showed a zig-zag line displayed a flat one; the machines produced a shrill beep. Two nurses hurried into the room a second later and immediately started CPR. One rushed back out, calling for a doctor.
The boy’s body blurred for a moment before he rose out of it and leapt off the bed. He rushed to Ella’s side.
“It scares me, too,” she said, holding out her hand. He took her hand with both of his. “It’s time to go.”
They left the room, passing through the staff that came to resuscitate him. He looked back for a moment at the scene, then back to her. The boy didn’t appear disturbed, but seemed to understand what happened.
“I’m ready to go,” he said.
The hallway was tense, nurses and other staff scrambled to the room. Ella made her way to the stairwell, and passed through the door.
“What is Heaven like?”
“Well, I haven’t been there yet. I have to help people like you first.”
“Oh. I bet it’s really pretty.”
Ella passed through the emergency door. The air seemed to do him some good. She didn’t notice that she could see every star, not just the ones bright enough to be seen, but the swath of stars and colors that spread across the sky.
I’ll be up there, eventually.
“The sky is really pretty. Is that Heaven?”
“Only part of it.”
“How do I get up there?”
“Well,” she knelt down, “you have to flap your arms really hard.”
“Really?” he tilted his head.
“Really, really. But it helps to jump up.”
He stared at her for a second, “okay.” The boy jumped off the ground and flapped his arms with all he had, and steadily rose upward. “I’m doing it! I’m flying.”
“Keep going until you get to the stars.”
“Okay. Thank you very much for everything.”
She waved, he turned away and made his way upward. Ella watched until she couldn’t tell if it was his arms flapping or a star twinkling.
“See you later, kiddo.”
She whipped away the tears and looked back at the entrance to the ER.
“I still have work to do.”
That is one year stricken from your sentence.
“What do you mean?”
For each soul you send, one year is taken from your sentence.
“How many years do I have?”
When one takes their own life, or perished with deep grievances, they remain on this world to suffer. This is not the way of existence. This is not the purpose of life.
“Then what is?”
Understanding. There was much for you to know, but you stopped that. If you had lived a decade longer, you would not have to endure this trial. You must send no less than forty souls, and only then will you go to the stars and beyond.
Ella gazed back up into the night sky.
“Then I have a task to do.” She hurried back to children waiting for her assistance in the hospital.