The room was empty. The instruments were all laid out and the lights and monitors were all turned on, but the people had disappeared. The shouting and the rushing about that had been going on over her head when she'd passed out was gone; there was a distinct absence of sound. She sat up on the operating table and curled her legs underneath her, the cold steel raising goose bumps on her skin where it made contact through the rips in her clothes. Holly hugged herself, shivering not from cold, but from a general feeling of unease.
"Don't be afraid," a slightly bored voice said from the foot of the table. Holly whipped her head around. Sitting in the anesthesiologist's chair was a man, watching her. He didn't look that much older than her, may early twenties with dark features, and handsome in an unassuming way, though he had unusual violet eyes that sparked like amethyst. He had the look of a man who didn't want to be there but who had nowhere else to go. Holly thought about what he'd said.
"I'm not," she responded. And it was the truth; besides the unbalanced feeling that accompanies not having the slightest clue of what's going on, she was perfectly fine. The strange man with the purple eyes examined her face.
"You're really not. Huh." His voice betrayed grudging interest.
"Where is everyone?" Holly asked. Once again, she looked around, as if expecting the hospital staff to jump out from behind the heart monitors and IV stands.
"They're still here—sort of. If you listen closely you can hear them." He watched carefully as her eyes slightly lost focus and she concentrated.
"Yes, I think I can." Holly could hear low urgent voices and the sound of beeping. They were quiet enough that she couldn't make out any of the words. She looked back to her odd companion. "I had an accident, didn't I?" A nod. "And they're trying to keep me alive?"
"They're trying," was the dry response. He was watching Holly with an expression half amusement, half nonplus. Holly didn't really know how to take that. This guy was being so cryptic it was starting to annoy her.
"Does that mean that I'm dead, then?" This was nothing like she imagined her death would be: wearing the bloody remains of her favorite T-shirt and jeans in an empty operating room with an inscrutable companion.
"As good as," he answered.
"That's sucks," she stated frankly.
He didn't really know what to make of her calmness. From the wary look in his eyes, he was expecting her unruffled composure to break any second and for her to burst into tears.
"Don't worry," Holly reassured him, "I'm not going to start crying or anything." His dark brow lifted in surprise. Holly thought about her situation. Really, there was only one explanation for who this strange person was. "So, what? Are you my guide to the afterlife? Are you the angel of death or something?" For the first time, he smiled.
"Huh." She looked at him speculatively.
"You just don't look like the grim reaper to me. No giant scythe, so black hooded cloak, definitely not a skeleton." He actually laughed; it was a nice, full sound. It didn't match his jaded exterior.
"Pop culture icons rarely get things right."
After a moment, Holly just shrugged in acceptance and hopped off the table. Once standing, her stance was a little unbalanced—she only had one shoe; the other one must have been lost in the crash.
"Ah, crap. They were my favorite pair..." She was staring forlornly at her mismatched feet when she heard a perturbed exhalation from behind her. "What's the problem?"
"I don't understand you. I tell you that you're moments from death and no problem, but you mourn over the loss of a shoe." His outpouring of words sped up in his agitation. "How are you okay with this? It wasn't suicide, but do you have a death wish? Do you want to die?"
"Of course not!" Holly retorted. "I don't want to die. But if there's nothing I can do about it, what's the point in fighting off the inevitable? I am, of course, assuming that there is in fact nothing I can do about it." She raised her eyebrows inquisitively at him and he reluctantly nodded in affirmation. "I am not chasing after death, nor am I giving up on life—even if that life did kind of suck when I left it. I am merely accepting reality and am ready to move on to the next big thing. I just feel bad for my parents..." The thought of them made her pause. They would be brokenhearted.
"It's just that," he was saying, "very rarely will someone just take it in stride like that. And if they do, it's after a long illness or when they've reached the natural end to a long life—not when they're eighteen years old and were hit by a drunk driver!" As he spoke, his face became more animated and less of his previous cynical mask.
"Oh believe me, I'm pissed about that, but like we've already established, what can I do about it now? But what can I say?"—she raised one shoulder in a half shrug—"I'm just not one for overreactions. Unlike some people I've met..." She raised an eyebrow meaningfully at him as he frowned at her.
"Ha ha. Maybe I should take you to hell."
"Can you do that?" Holly asked in a softened voice with widened eyes, momentarily cowed.
"Oh, so now you're scared, are you? It's about time you were getting the idea." After a moment he took pity on her and added in a gentler tone, "No, I can't take you where you don't belong. And while I really don't get you, I do know that you don't belong in hell." He gave her a comforting smile.
"Alrighty then," she said, smiling back, her brief moment of apprehension already forgotten. "That's good to know. So," she looked around, kind of unsure of what was next, "how do we do this thing?" He should his head at her, still not quite believing that Holly could be as cool and collected as she seemed. He stood to take a step toward her.
"Wait a sec," Holly interrupted, holding up a hand. He waited, looking at her questioningly. "You're about to be my guide through the most important event of my life—which funnily enough happens to be my death"—he chuckled softly—"and we haven't even been properly introduced yet."
She walked over to him and held out her hand. Holly had to lean her head back to look him in the eye—he was much taller than her.
"Hi," she said enthusiastically. Pretending like they had just met at that moment, Holly flashed him her brightest, most charming smile. "It is very nice to meet you. And you are...?" She was honestly curious about the last part, since he had yet to tell her his name.
Slowly, almost cautiously he took her hand in his to shake it. His grip was warm. It was such a human trait, that warmth, that it caught her off guard. They continued a steady up and down motion of their clasped hands while he seemed to wrestle with what to say to her.
"Nox," he finally answered, "you can call me Nox." Holly noted that he was careful to avoid actually saying that Nox was his name, but merely a name she could use for him.
"Hello, Nox. My name is—"
"Holly Sullivan," Nox interrupted with just the barest hint of smugness. "I know."
"Uh huh," she drawled slowly. "And why is it that you know my name?"
"It's all part of the job," he said indifferently.
"Right, duh. Angel of death, grim reaper, whatever. I guess some insider knowledge is probably the least of the job perks." Nox snorted humorlessly, but didn't elaborate.
"Okay," Holly announced loudly, extremely conscious of the fact that they were still holding hands. "I am over this whole limbo masquerading as an empty operating room thing. Let's blow this popsicle stand."
"You are the strangest girl I've ever met."
Before Holly could reply to that, there was sharp stinging pain throughout her entire body, as if lightning had struck her chest and then radiated out through her limbs. For that split second, the empty room seemed to be filled with doctors and nurses fussing over a body on the table; the noise was deafening. Then it was abruptly vacant again, bare but for herself and Nox.
"Whoa," Holly gasped, her free hand going to grasp at her chest. "What was that?"
"What did it feel like?" Nox asked impassively. He seemed completely unmoved by her cardiac event, as if he had seen it all before and it no longer fazed him.
"Like someone tried to jump start my heart with a monster truck battery."
"You're not too far off," Nox muttered so that Holly could barely hear him.
"What's that?" she asked, still trying to slow her breathing and to shake the tingling from her fingers.
"They're trying to revive you." Another shock hit Holly and once again she was swamped by an overwhelming sensory wave that left her winded before instantaneously departing again.
"It's not going to work." Was she imagining it, or did she detect the slightest suggestion of disappointment in Nox's voice? Could it be that the angel of death didn't want her to die?
"Does it often work?" Holly puffed.
"It happens from time to time. I've been told that it feels like being electrocuted when they're using the paddles"—he cocked his head to one side, as if listening—"as I gather they are for you. Not too much longer now, I'd say." He looked at her and smiled a sad sort of smile.
It occurred to Holly that he must have a lonely existence, ferrying people off to the wherever they're supposed to go, always saying goodbye. She felt kind of sorry to leave him behind. Despite his slightly sarcastic personality, she sincerely liked him.
Nox's strange eyes unfocused, like he was concentrating intensely on a half-heard conversation from another room. Holly found his expressions difficult to read, but it looked as if he was conflicted about something. After a minute, his tense brow smoothed and with a sharp twist of his head, he looked at Holly.
"You're going back."
"What? To life?" Holly asked confusedly. "Didn't you just say that it wasn't going to work?"
"I was wrong." He shrugged carelessly.
"Does that happen often?"
"Occasionally," he answered with a brief grin. "Any second now..." Somehow, Nox seemed more anxious now that it turned out that Holly wasn't going to die.
"So I guess I'll be seeing you, Nox?" She made it into a question because she really wasn't sure.
"Hopefully not for a very long time—maybe in seventy years or so? No offense." Nox granted her a lopsided grin and squeezed her hand, which he had kept this entire time.