Afterlife Page 48

“To the mortal plane, dumbass. But he comes here only when he has a purpose. Like trying to help a lost wraith find his way. Stuff like that.

Christopher doesn’t haunt.”

“Like you, you mean?”

I intended that to be a jab at Maxie, to point out that she hadn’t surrendered the mortal world entirely either. But she nodded, solemn and sweet. “If I know you’re coming with us, then I can let this place go at last. Even — even Vic.” She gazed down at the spot on the carpet where Vic had once sat to summon her. “That’s going to be hard, but I can do it.”

“Why me? You and I know each other, I guess, but we’re hardly best friends — ”

““ll let Christopher explain.” Maxie practically sparkled with anticipation. “Ready?”

I couldn’t answer that question without knowing what I was supposed to be ready for. “Maybe?”

“Fade out with me. Come on.”

For some reason, it was difficult for me to fade out this time, where it never had been before. Maybe it was a little like trying to fall asleep when it’s important to get some rest, so of course you lie awake for hours. But as Maxie turned into a pure glow, I managed to follow her lead. Slowly the 130 world around us turned into nothing but blue — gray mist, a mysterious haze that had no up, no down, no center, and no boundaries. Maxie’s glow twinkled slightly amid the swirling mists, then was gone.

Okay, Bianca. Her voice wasn’t something I heard so much anymore — just something I perceived without really knowing how. You have to Jet go.

Let go of what? Everything.

You mean, Lucas and my friends — No, 1mean, EVERYTHING. Of yourself just pull it all tight within yourself and then . .. Jet go.

What was that supposed to mean? Without much optimism, I tried doing what Maxie said. As I tried it, though, I started to get some sense of it — and then I let go.

It was terrifying. Like discovering you had the ability to make your heart stop beating, or to make gravity stop working. To turn every law of the universe upside down. There wasn’t any blue — gray mist now; there was only total nothingness, both alien and yet weirdly familiar, like something so vast that I’d simply never been able to see it before, though it had always been around me. I floated free within my mind — or something’s mind not entirely myself any longer.

Will I ever be able to get back? At that moment, it seemed like there could be no returning from something like this. Was this what lay on the other side of the traps? Lucas, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize what this would mean.

Then I heard another voice, deeper and masculine: “Be here.”

Instantly, I was myself again. I stood on ground, saw light, had a body. As I blinked, this new place took shape around me, and at first the only thing I could do was stare.

How can I describe it? I stood in the heart of a city, amid an enormous bustling crowd, that was simultaneously the most terrifying and the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. A brilliantly painted Greek temple stood in front of us, next to a squat, sturdy stone turret and, beyond that, a small grove of plum trees with thick clouds of clover beneath the branches. Beyond them were skyscrapers, houses, tents, hills, a castle, a chalet — every kind of structure and landscape imaginable, some glorious, others in ruins. Next to the cobblestone road Maxie and I stood upon wound a small, silt 131 brown river, rushing so rapidly over rocks that I felt sure, if I fell in, I would be swept away by the current. Around us thronged people in all kinds of dress, from jeans to Victorian finery to Bedouin robes to togas. They could see me — a few glanced my way — but nobody approached. My old timidity in crowds had returned a hundredfold, so I was grateful.

As I looked down at myself, I realized I Wasn’t in the pajamas I’d died in any longer. “It’s my green sweater!” I said. “I could never fmd it after we moved to was my favorite — and hey, thesejeans — I loved them, too, but … didn’t I outgrow them?”

“Pretty much everything You’ve ever lost can come back to you here,” Maxie said, preening in a thick furry coat. Her hair was sleekly bobbed now, and she wore shiny silver shoes with buckles — the height of flapper fashion. This is what she’d looked like when she was alive, I realized, when she’d been at her happiest. ““ll warn you now — that includes some of the bad stuff along with the good stuff. You just never know.”

Now that I’d wrapped my mind around something as mundane as our clothes, I began to comprehend the broader implications of what we were seeing. “Maxie, are we . .. no, this can ‘ t be heaven.” I felt sure heaven Wouldn’t be quite so dirty, and despite the beauty of many of the buildings around us, this place was filthy. Magnificent and yet vaguely disgusting — actually, it reminded me a lot of my first impression of New York City.

“You have not yet reached paradise,” said the masculine voice. “This is a place of refuge, I think, but I would never claim to understand it. It’s best to accept where we are on its own terms.”

I turned to see him — dressed in his nineteenth — century finery, with his long, thick brown hair. He was an adult, but not quite middle — aged yet or, at least, he hadn’t been when he died. His solid, firm — jawed face was like those I’d seen in old — fashioned paintings of great soldiers or admirals, going into battle beneath improbably beautiful skies: broad shoulders, slim waist, firm gaze, and piercing eyes.

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