Reaper Page 14

“You were grounded, and you went out drinking anyway. Sabine just got arrested for the same thing and you saw her in that place, but it didn’t sink in, did it? You went out and partied, and Tod paid for it. You got him kil ed! ” Her legs folded and she dropped to her knees on the carpet.

Nash walked through me and sank to the floor with to her. He wrapped his arms around her and they cried, apologizing to each other over and over, mourning me together. And I could only watch, my fists clenched in frustration, separated from them by death, and life, and the devastating knowledge that things could have been different—but that would only have made them worse.

I sank into Nash’s chair, but the cushion didn’t squish beneath my weight. In my current state— present, but powerless—I couldn’t even affect the damn furniture, much less my family. I was no good to them like this. What was the point of making sure Nash lived, if he and my mom were both going to blame him for my death?

I had to take the job. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of killing people for the remainder of my afterlife—I wasn’t even sure I could actually do it—but I couldn’t let them spend the rest of their lives thinking he was responsible for how I died. Not when the truth was the other way around.

I left them like that, crying and forgiving each other for shouting what they thought was the truth. Bonding over my death.

In the living room, I stopped cold in the middle of the floor when my gaze landed on what I’d missed before. The cake. On the coffee table. The candles looked burned, and I knew I would have smelled them, if I were really there.

I moved forward slowly, dreading what I’d see, even as the understanding sank in. The cake would be chocolate, with cream cheese frosting between the layers. The same every year, because it was my favorite.

And there it was, printed in blue letters, in my mother’s own curly cake script.

Happy Birthday Tod.

Today I would have turned eighteen.

I waited for the last bus of the evening with three other people, then stepped up through the folding doors when they closed behind the woman in front of me. The bus swayed beneath me as it rolled forward, but I wasn’t jostled, like the other passengers. As if the rules of physics that bound me were a little less precise than they should have been. I was only kind of there, thus only kind of on the bus, and I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I was only one deep breath away from falling through the seat and onto the road, where the highway traffic would barrel right through me.

The bus stopped down the street from the hospital, and I didn’t ful y relax until my feet kind of hit the concrete and the bus rolled away. Two blocks later, I passed two EMTs unloading a man on a stretcher on my way into the waiting room, wishing like hell I could feel the air- conditioning or smell the antiseptic and bleach.

Levi sat facing the entrance. Waiting for me.“Well?” He stood as I approached, forced to project determination in my bearing, since he couldn’t hear my bold, confident footsteps.

“I’m in.” And I would talk to my mother, even if it got me fired. I hadn’t expected an afterlife, so I wouldn’t be losing much if I died again—for real this time. At least this way she would know the truth.

“I thought you would be.” But Levi’s smile was slow, his thin brows slightly furrowed, and I understood that he was connecting more dots in his head, and he didn’t seem particularly bothered by the picture they formed.

“Let’s go make it official.”

I still couldn’t feel the wind.

Levi swore that when I got better at dialing up and down my corporeality, I’d be able to feel and smell things without becoming visible or audible. But that level of competence was obviously going to take more than two days’ worth of practice.

For the moment, I was stuck with an all-or-nothing physicality, and since

“nothing” had been deemed good enough for last night’s shift on the nursing home circuit—hopefully my first of many—I figured “all” would work for what I had planned for the morning.

The house looked brighter in the daylight. A little nicer, but no bigger.

There were still only two bedrooms and still only two occupants. I was still both dead and homeless, and the previous day spent wandering through town and watching Nash unpack between video games did nothing to make those facts of the afterlife more appealing. But the chance to talk to my mom and set things right made everything else worth it.

Assuming I didn’t give my mother a heart attack.

In the shadow of the front porch roof, out of sight of most of the neighbors, I closed my eyes. I focused on what I should be hearing and feeling.

The porch beneath me. The sweltering July heat. The buzz of bees hovering over a flowering vine climbing the porch post.

I thought about what I wanted. Day-to-day interaction in the afterlife is all about intent, Levi had said. Once you’ve gained some control, if you intend to be seen or heard by someone, you will be.

And I damn well intended to be both seen and heard.

Then, suddenly, I could feel it. All of it. Even the sun baking the backs of my calves, the only part of me not shielded by the porch roof. My smile was equal parts relief and triumph as I jogged down the steps, my own footsteps echoing in my ears. I nearly laughed out loud when my finally ful y corporeal body cast a long shadow on the grass.

But both my laughter and my confidence died a moment later, when I stood at the door again. No matter how I approached the issue—and I’d thought of nothing else for the past two days—I came up empty. There was just no good way for a dead son to greet his mother almost two weeks after his funeral.

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