|A Gift of Time
Author: Wyndes PM
In the quirky small town of Tassamara, FL, paranormal gifts are taken for granted. Natalya's gift has always been bleak, though - she can see the future, but changing it seldom works for the better. But when a future she's known about for years doesn't happen the way she expects, what else will change in her life?Rated: Fiction T - English - Supernatural/Romance - Chapters: 16 - Words: 36,278 - Reviews: 57 - Favs: 4 - Follows: 12 - Updated: 04-30-13 - Published: 06-26-12 - id: 3036333
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Colin rubbed his chest. He should quit driving around aimlessly and go home, take an antacid for this indigestion, get some sleep. It had been a long day. But the stillness of the night and the feel of the engine humming near him soothed him like nothing else could. He loved the solitude of the quiet roads, the control and power of having his hands on a steering wheel.
He'd been waiting to die for a dozen years now. Most of the time, he didn't think much about it. It was what it was. But tonight he couldn't escape from the thought and the memories.
He hadn't wanted to believe back then, not at first. Nat had been pale and shaking, eyes luminous with tears as she told him of her premonition, her words spilling out in half-finished sentences, broken phrases. He'd just gotten his first job as a deputy with the sheriff's department and they were supposed to be celebrating.
Not that the job had been a surprise. The Rafferty family had a long history in Tassamara. Colin's father had been sheriff until his early death and Colin had always planned to first become a deputy and then run for his father's old position. He was a shoo-in, he knew. Half the town would vote for him automatically, by virtue of being related, and the other half worked for his father-in-law. Well, future father-in-law. Back then, he assumed that by the time he ran for election, he and Nat would be married. It was as sure a thing as that the job of sheriff would be his.
As it turned out, not so much.
Nat had been adamant. If he took the job, he'd die in uniform. She'd find his body. He needed to turn down the job, look for something else, give up his dreams of a law-enforcement career.
But Colin had seen too many of her premonitions come true. He'd argued. He could give up being sheriff, but then he'd just die in some other uniform. He could refuse to take any job that required a uniform, but then he'd die in a Halloween costume some year when they'd forgotten the whole thing.
Sure, he could live a life other than the one he wanted, but he'd still die in the end. Nat bitterly called him fatalistic, but he preferred to think of himself as pragmatic. Like it or not, the future couldn't be avoided.
It was just too bad Nat's visions didn't come with date-stamps.
He rubbed his chest again, wishing he hadn't let himself be tempted by Maggie's chocolate cake. And then he narrowed his eyes. What was that? His headlights had caught something by the side of the road, an odd-sized mound. Had someone been dumping trash?
Where was he anyway? He'd been driving on remote control, his mind roaming through his memories, the real world just a backdrop to his thoughts. This paved road, lined with trees, could be almost anywhere on the outskirts of town.
He slowed the car, but he was already past whatever it was that he'd seen. He glanced in the rearview mirror, but the darkness behind him was solid. Sighing, he slowed further and flipped his car's flashing lights on, hoping the light they shed would give him a glimpse of the object as he pulled to the side of the road and stopped. It was probably nothing. Maybe an animal that would be gone by the time he got back. But he couldn't match the quick snatch of sight to anything in his mind's eye. Not a bear, too small. Not a raccoon, wrong color, wrong shape. A dog?
As he turned to look over his shoulder, raising his right arm to rest it on the back of his seat, a sharp stab of pain broke into his concentration. Gasping, he dropped his arm, turning his hand to push on his chest as if pressure would relieve the tension, hunching his shoulders into the hurt.
So this was it.
He tried to take a deep breath, but could only suck in shallow gasps of air.
Heart attack. Had to be.
He should call in, get himself an ambulance. Despite the pain radiating down his arm, he reached for his radio transmitter.
And then the agony eased.
He shook out his arm.
He still hurt, but not like he had.
Had he moved oddly? Pulled a muscle? Maybe pinched a nerve somehow?
Sweat on the back of his neck was rapidly cooling and he didn't feel well, sort of fuzzy and shaky, but the stabbing misery was gone, leaving the dull grinding pain of his previous indigestion.
He let out a relieved half-chuckle. Just paranoia. He'd turn into a hypochondriac before the end, he suspected. Well, anyone would. He'd had a long time to get used to the idea of dying young and he still hated it.
As he started to back up the car, he spotted a mile marker and grimaced. Damn it. He knew where he was now. This road led to the lake that Nat lived on. It was a dead-end, with a small cluster of houses that overlooked the water at the end of a long stretch of forest, trees almost overhanging the road. It was a peaceful area and a pleasant drive, but under the circumstances, not a place he wanted to be on.
He'd check out whatever it was that he'd seen and then he'd get out of here. Head home. Get some sleep. Put the events of the day behind him. Do his best to shove the memories back down where they'd been buried and leave them there. Forget about…another stab of pain had him squirming and scowling.
Fuck it. He really needed an antacid.
But then he blinked, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. He slammed on the brakes. Not that he'd been going fast. He'd been backing up, after all, and there was plenty of room. But the lump that he'd seen had moved, had raised a head, and that was blonde hair and those eyes looked blue in the glare of the flashing lights, and holy shit, that was a kid.
He fumbled with his seat belt, swallowing hard to fight an uneasy stomach, before finally managing to step out of the car.
His brain was fighting itself, two competing thoughts battling for attention.
Half of his mind, the logical part, was concentrating on seeing a kid by the side of the road, this road, after dark on Christmas Day. At least a mile away from any house, and he'd know if any children had been reported missing. Who were Nat's neighbors? He knew most everyone around here. Could the Summers, an older retired couple that kept to themselves, have visiting grandkids? Or could the child be a lost camper? Nearby Salt Springs had campgrounds that were always busy for the holidays—but how would she have gotten all the way over to Tassamara?
But the other half of his attention was devoted to what was happening to him. The pain was back, intense and churning. He put a hand on the car, bracing himself, hoping the cold metal would break through the fog of agony that was clouding his vision. It didn't. He could barely feel it. His hands felt far away, disconnected, almost like they weren't part of his body anymore, which had become just a burning mass of pain centered in his chest.
He took a few more steps, trying to force his brain to work. Child. Must help. Must get help. Radio. Car.
But it was too late.
The pain was over.
Rose was not best pleased.
Her moment of triumphant relief at having found help was gone in a heartbeat—or the lack of one—as she watched the sheriff's body crumple to the ground like a scarecrow falling off its post, knees collapsing first and then tilting face forward until it hit the ground.
His spirit still stood, fist pressed against his incorporeal chest.
Rose would have liked to say all the bad words she knew. "Fiddlesticks," was what came out.
The sheriff smiled at her, warmth lighting up his grey eyes, as he let his fist fall. "A fine kettle of fish, my gram would say."
"You couldn't have waited maybe twenty more minutes?" Rose asked.
He looked down at his sprawled body, his smile fading. The girl had darted back into the underbrush at the side of the road when he got out of the car, but she was creeping closer now, wide-eyed and uncertain.
The sheriff rubbed a hand over his chin. "Yeah, this not good timing," he muttered. "Not good at all." He glanced around the dark road, the indistinguishable forest and sighed. "Nat should be along any minute now, though."
Rose tilted her head in question, but he didn't explain, crouching next to his own body across from the little girl. As he tried to look into her face, the girl reached a tentative hand to his back and patted it gently.
"Who is she?" he asked.
"I have no idea."
"And who are you?" He stood, his intent gaze transferring to Rose's face.
She fluttered her eyelashes at him. "Rose Harris." Was it insensitive to flirt with the man right after he'd died? But it had been a long time since she'd talked to a handsome stranger. Not that he looked like a stranger. She'd seen him in the bistro a few times without paying much attention but those grey eyes seemed mighty familiar. She tried to remember if she'd heard his name mentioned.
"Are you a, whatdyacallit, shinigami?" he asked.
"A what?" Rose blinked, perplexed.
He ran a hand through his hair, looking sheepish. "Too much manga, I guess. Um, a reaper? Like on the television show?"
"I must have missed that one," Rose answered, wondering what show he was talking about. She'd have to ask Akira.
He tried again. "Are you here to escort me to the afterworld? Like the grim reaper?"
"Excuse me?" Rose looked down at herself, at her peach skirt and sleeveless blouse, and then back up at the sheriff. She might be a ghost, but she didn't think she looked like Death. She put her hands on her hips. "Do I look that bad?"
"No, no, not at all," he replied quickly, with an easy smile. "Prettiest hallucination I've had all day."
Rose dimpled at him. Much better. And his smile gave her the last clue she needed to his identity. "You're a Rafferty, aren't you?"
"Colin Rafferty, yes."
"Michael's boy?" Rose asked, trying to put together dates and ages. He was young to be sheriff, probably only in his early thirties. Had she known his grandfather or his father?
He shook his head, the grey eyes wary. "My father was James."
"Oh, my." Rose clasped her hands in front of her. "Did he marry Louisa?"
"Yes." Colin drawled the answer, long, slow and suspicious.
Rose clapped her hands twice. "How wonderful. And did they live happily ever after?"
"They died when I was ten," Colin answered shortly.
"Oh." Rose dropped her hands. "I'm sorry to hear it." She eyed him uncertainly. "Were they happy before they died?"
He paused before answering. "I think so, yes."
"Good enough, then," she said brightly. "Ever after's sort of a demanding length of time, anyway, don't you think?"
His lip lifted in a half-smile. "If you say so," he agreed. At his feet, the little girl was tugging at his body, pulling on his arm, trying to turn him over. Colin looked down at her before turning back to Rose. "What's with all the questions? Shouldn't you know who I am?"
Rose raised her eyebrows. Back when she'd been alive she would have, but it was hard to stay on top of the town gossip when you were a ghost.
"I am dead, aren't I?" Colin went on, sounding slightly impatient. "And you're here for whatever comes next?"
"Oh, no." Rose shook her head emphatically, blonde curls bobbing.
"No?" He stuffed his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels, looking surprised.
"I mean, yes, you are dead," she told him. "But I'm not here for you." She nodded at the little girl, who had both hands under Colin's torso and had him half turned over. "I'm hers, I think."
"Hers?" Colin looked from the girl to Rose and back again. "Her what exactly?" he asked.
Rose sighed, reminded of her frustration. "Her useless spirit companion?" she suggested. "I was drawn to her, but I've mostly just been following her through the forest."
Colin's brows drew down in confusion. "Why?"
"She refuses to pay attention." Rose could feel a pout pulling at her mouth. Christmas was almost over, she'd missed all the celebrations and she was quite, quite tired of the dark woods. Although probably not as tired of them as the little girl was. "I'm sure she can hear me. Most people can. But she won't listen. It's very tiresome."
"Is that typical, though? I mean, is that what I'm going to be doing? Following some living person around, watching them?"
Rose couldn't help smiling at the dismay in his voice, but she reassured him quickly. "No, no, this isn't the afterlife. I'm—well, it's a long story." She thought briefly about telling him the details, but then said, "Look behind you." She lifted her chin to indicate the direction.
He glanced over his shoulder. "Whoa! Where did that come from?" He stepped away from the cloudy passageway that floated a few feet behind him, smack in the middle of his car.
"That's your door. You can go through it anytime."
"Go through it?" he asked.
"That's right," she told him. "Step into it and you'll move on."
"Move on where?"
His lips tucked down. Rose could see that he was frustrated by her lack of helpful information so she said, "Imagine trying to describe flying to a baby bird that just broke its way out of its shell." She pointed at his body. "That's your shell." She pointed at the misty doorway. "That's the way to the sky. All the words in the world won't help you picture it."
"Is it really—" he started.
"Fluffy white clouds? No," she interrupted him. "I understand clouds are cold and wet, anyway, not nice at all."
He nodded. He looked down at his body. The little girl was touching his face now, soft touches, but as he watched, she scowled and slapped him. Hard. His body didn't respond, of course, but he flinched, almost as if he could feel the impact. "Poor kid," he said. "Is she going to be okay?"
"I don't know." Rose answered sadly. As impatient and annoyed as she'd been with the girl over the course of their long day together, she'd grown to admire her determination. The girl was bruised and scratched and she had to be hungry and exhausted, but she kept trying. Still, Rose could hear a hint of a whine in her own voice as she added, "It's not easy to help someone who won't listen."
"I hate to leave her here like this," Colin said. He looked back at the mist. "Will I see my parents over there?"
"Most likely," Rose said. "But there's no rush, you know. You can stay here for a while." Maybe she shouldn't have pointed out his passageway. She didn't really want him to leave her alone with the girl and his cooling body. She wasn't scared of the dark—once you were dead, not much was truly frightening—but it might be a long, lonely wait until someone found them. She liked having company.
"Ow!" Colin exclaimed and doubled over, pressing his hand to his chest again. "What the hell?"
"What is it?" Rose asked. "Are you all right?" His ghostly shape had been as clear to her as his physical shape, but abruptly, it was fading, becoming almost translucent. Then it solidified again as he straightened, still holding his arm across his chest.
"What was that?" he asked, voice a whisper of sound, before shaking his head and saying in a stronger tone, "That hurt."
Rose reached out to him anxiously, putting a hand on his arm. It felt reassuringly solid to her. Ghosts faded away sometimes, but not usually so quickly. It took years. The boys in her backyard had been fading for decades. And it didn't seem painful, not that Rose wanted to try it herself.
Still, his reaction looked like a response to physical pain. But that didn't make sense. Ghosts couldn't get hurt. Spirits didn't feel sensation the way that living bodies did. Rose said as much to Colin, worried.
"Well, that hurt," he said matter-of-factly. "It hurt a lot." And then he groaned, throwing his head back, the muscles along his jaw tightening as he clenched his teeth.
"Sheriff. Sheriff!" Rose tried to tighten her grip on his arm, but her fingers closed on empty space, her nails digging into her own palm as he disappeared. "Sheriff!" she screamed.
What had just happened? Where had he gone? She whirled around, looking desperately for signs of him or a spirit-eating monster, but there was nothing. Even the cloudy doorway was gone as if it had never been.
But the little girl was sitting on top of his body, her hands pressed against his chest, and her face squinched up in an effort-filled grimace. And then she fell forward, gasping, just as his head jerked up and his mouth opened in a gasp of his own.