I had no idea that death was going to be like this. True, I experienced floating out of my body and looking down with grim fascination at the scene below. I—or my body—was sprawled in the middle of the street, next to a mangled bike. People surrounded me, some panicking, others just gawking.
That's not me, I kept saying. This is just a dream.
Still, in the back of my mind, I knew it was all true. I barely had time to berate myself for trying to cross that intersection at rush hour when I was drawn toward that bright light at the end of the tunnel I had heard others describe. Had I been looking at it through my regular human eyes, I probably would have been blinded. But I was able to stare directly at it, studying its sparkling rainbow patterns as if it were an entire galaxy of shattered light. It enveloped me with velvety warmth that I could practically taste.
The light shrank as I drew closer to it until it hovered before my face, no larger than a candle flame.
"Are-are you God?" I whispered. I struggled to hide the sudden guilt I felt. My family dragged me to church every Sunday and I even attended Catholic school—I was going to be in eight grade in the fall—but I always felt stifled by traditional religion. This wasn't something I shared with anyone, especially not my parents.
The light flickered. "What your kind perceive as God is very limited. God is everything you can see and not see." The voice tinkled through my mind like ice chimes.
I continued to stare at the light, which wavered and stretched at varying intervals. I thought I caught the glimmer of a reflection, of a person perhaps but I couldn't tell if it was male or female. "I am one of the Nymm," it continued. "You may not have heard of us. The entire universe is our home but we often choose to become guardians of certain planets. You can call me Brellion since your kind has always had a need to name everything."
"My kind? You mean humans?"
Brellion's light blinked, as if in a nod. "You went by Shelby Tanner when you were alive, is that correct?"
Brellion's words stroked me with a sudden chill. I'd forgotten I had died! I looked down at myself and gasped.
My entire body, which was clad in a filmy robe of white light, glowed with a subtly golden aura. Brellion expanded slightly, becoming a smooth surface against which I could see my reflection. Something was different. I still looked basically the same only more. . . vibrant. That was the first word that came to my mind. I had been a normal looking kid with green eyes and brownish-blonde hair. But those darn pimples! I might as well as been born hunchbacked or with horns growing out of my ears for all the ridicule I received for my stubborn complexion. Now my skin was clear, dewy even. My eyes were greener, a deep emerald shade, and my once frizzy, mousy hair was smooth and held a sheen like twilight.
I must return to Earth and show my classmates what I look like now! Maybe the boys will finally find me attractive.
My reflection vanished as Brellion's light faded back to a candle flame. Where exactly was I? It seemed to be a void of nothingness. Where was Earth from here? Was this heaven? It didn't look like the heaven I'd learned about in school and in church.
"This isn't heaven," Brellion said, apparently catching my thoughts.
My body stiffened in fear. I hadn't been that bad, had I? How could I—
"It isn't that either," Brellion continued with rapid flickers. "Most people either go to an alternate realm that they perceive as heaven or are reborn again on the world you left. You, Shelby, have been chosen to become one of us."
"One of. . . the Nymm?" I swallowed and sank to the ground, whatever this ground was. Even in this newer, apparently stronger body, this was too much for me to take in. How could I be chosen for something like this? I was just an ordinary kid. . . maybe even less than ordinary. I'd been bullied in school, wasn't a particularly good student, and my only talent was drawing. What were the Nymm thinking?
"Do not doubt yourself, Shelby. We see that which you cannot.
"We Nymm have many different occupations. Some of us help form life and enable it to evolve on potential worlds while others become guardians to sentient, planet-bound creatures. That latter, Shelby, will be your task for now. Come with me."
For the first time since coming here—wherever "here" was—I felt a tingle of excitement. Brellion's light expanded, engulfing me in a tingly, velvety warmth.
I blinked and nearly fell over as my surroundings came into focus. I was standing on a plateau, overlooking a strange valley. The landscape was dotted with countless lakes of varying sizes. Sprinkled amongst these, like perfect bubbles, were several glass domes. Plants of some kind that reminded me of those sea growths that I had seen in an aquarium back home blanketed the land: they were multi-hued with delicate shades of pink, lavender, and violet. Strange creatures darted about. They looked only vaguely human but longer-limbed and slender as if they had been stretched. The hair on many of them was long and shaggy, extending down their backs like a lion's mane. The bodies of these beings were unclothed but coated with a soft down. Their coloring ranged from golden brown to rich mahogany.
It was twilight, the sun low in the east, its light melting over everything like thick butter. The sky was a rich green and decorated by five moons of varying sizes.
I'm on another planet! My legs felt suddenly weak; I plopped down upon a tuft of prickly, purple grass.
"That's right," said Brellion, reading my thoughts. The sound of his tinkling voice jolted me. I'd forgotten all about him! "This planet, Terren, is on the opposite arm of the Milky Way galaxy from Earth. This will be your temporary home during this assignment. Follow me. You can fly and no one will be able to see you."
I took a deep breath and stood with more grace than I had been used to back on Earth. Elation filled me as I lifted off the ground, chasing after Brellion's small, blinking form.
It's like I've died and gone to Neverland, came a stray thought before a brief twinge of melancholy struck me. I did die.
I pushed that from my mind and focused on the joy of flight. It was much like the experience I've had while dreaming but much more real: I could feel the cool wind, tinged with pleasant but unfamiliar scents, against my face, breezing through my hair.
Brellion led me to one of the lakes where one of those alien creatures was swimming. I settled on the shore and peered closer. It appeared to be female. Her coloring was deep nut brown but her hair-mane was a pale honey shade, her vast eyes, which slightly tilted up at the corners, were a nacreous blue-green that glowed against the darkness of her skin.
I remained locked in place, staring. An alien. I was looking at an actual alien! She was beautiful but so strange, like some artist's surreal depiction of an exotic human.
"Her name is Keeryen," said Brellion. "She is around your age and will be your charge. While you are here on Terren, you will find that you can understand their language."
"Keeryen's not that different from us. . . I mean, my kind," I stammered.
Brellion's vague form brightened. "That's because we—the other Nymm and I—have helped many of the sentient beings in the universe evolve into the same basic form, with some variations. That includes Earth humans like you."
Before I could ask any more questions, Brellion began to fade. "I leave you now with Keeryen. Take care of her and learn as much as you can during your stay." His voice faded away along with his light.
Not knowing what else to do, I settled onto the bank and watched Keeryen swim. Her strokes were long and graceful, as if she were performing some sort of secret meditation or ritual.
I felt a sudden sense of bored wistfulness. Was that all I was supposed to do? Just watch?
I froze when Keeryen's eyes seemed to lock onto mine. A chill seeped into me when she smiled with long white teeth. "Hello." The word wasn't in English but I could understand what she said. Her voice held a hint of music.
I looked around but didn't see anyone else. "Y-you're talking to me? I-I didn't think it was possible."
"Yes, you do look like a ghost—I can see right through you—but I know that you're there."
I swallowed as she strode from the lake. Water droplets glittered darkly golden against her down and hair. I gasped, studying her height. She was at least twice mine, even though Brellion has said we were basically the same age, but extremely slender, almost all neck and limbs. She plopped down beside me.
"I was trained at an early age to see spirits, including those that call themselves the Nymm." I stared at her, astounded that she knew the term. My people had never learned it. Or maybe that's what they meant by angels and such. Warmth filled me as I reminded myself I was now one of them. "My mentor explained that, now that I was coming of age, I'd be getting my own guardian. And I see that's you. I'm Keeryen, if you don't know that already."
I nodded. "Shelby."
She cocked her head. Her brilliant eyes held an incandescence similar to the brightening moons. "If you don't mind me saying, you are a strange looking species. Are all of your kind that small or can you change your size?"
I found myself biting back a burning retort concerning her size but held back. "I'm actually average for a girl my age," I said. "I came from Earth, a planet that is far from here." A shiver swept through me as I uttered those words. The sun had set but a sixth moon, a deep pinkish-gold and the smallest so far, was gliding above the horizon.
"Were you a Chosen One too?" The wind was toying with Keeryen's hair, rippling it across her eye-dominant face.
"Chosen One?" I shook my head. "I was ridiculously average. What is a Chosen One anyway?"
She blinked and turned her head from me. "That's what I am. Every generation a Chosen One is selected, usually female. I-I'm glad you came because I could use a Guardian now."
"Why?" I tried to touch her arm but my hand passed right through her. She must have felt me because she turned back. "What happens to the Chosen One?"
Keeryen's gaze dimmed slightly. "I-my body contains essences that help nurture any newborns."
"Essences?" I struggled to comprehend this, feeling as if I were suddenly back in Mrs. McCormick's math class, unable to make sense of a problem.
Keeryen nodded. "Something inside me gives others different strengths."
I tugged at a lock of hair. "This all sounds very strange. We don't have anything like that on Earth. . . where I'm from." I was surprised when a sudden, wistful feeling struck me. If only we did. Perhaps I would have been smarter and prettier.
Keeryen made a noise that sounded like a sigh. "How fortunate! I suppose your people don't value perfection as much as mine."
I shook my head. "They do. Believe me." I thought of my classmates, the girls who were constantly dieting and studying themselves in the mirror. "Perhaps we just don't have the technology yours have. But what about your parents?" A sudden warmth touched my eyes and emotion gripped my throat as soon as I'd released those words. I couldn't seem to form tears—perhaps that was part of being a Nymm—but I suddenly ached to cry. How were Mom and Dad handling my death? And my little brother Brian, who was only six? Would he still remember me when he grew older? Recall the tickling fights we used to have or how I—I flushed suddenly—used to try to ditch him when I was with my friends?
"My parents. . ." Keeryen's distant voice drew me back. "I don't even remember them. I was selected as an infant and have lived at the Temple ever since." She stood and brushed loose wisps of grass from her downy limbs. "I'm due back now. It's getting late."
She began striding toward an exceptionally large glass bubble-edifice that I guessed must be the Temple. Her slender form created multiple, confusing shadows in the congealing, iridescent light of six moons.
I followed Keeryan into the Temple. The rounded walls, made entirely of what appeared to be opaque crystal, glowed with a soft golden light.
Keeryan was greeted by a small group of beings that resembled her except that they were slightly taller. I stood still, feeling as if I were holding my breath before I realized that I didn't have breath to hold. Could they see me? If they could, they didn't acknowledge me; their focus was on Keeryan. They lay her upon a smooth stone slab and one of them placed a glass rod against her temple. It was quickly filled with an incandescent, honey-colored substance. Was that an essence?
This lasted for several minutes. I simply watched them, wondering if I should do anything, interfere. Was this harmful to Keeryan? Where was Brellion?
When the others were finished, they poured the essence into a glass bowl where it softly glowed like liquid light.
Keeryan remained still with her eyes closed. She looked pale but was breathing steadily so I knew that she wasn't dead. The others took away the bowl of essence and brought her a platter that steamed. Fragrant but unfamiliar scents filled the room. I peered closer, curious to see what kind of food these aliens ate. There was something that looked like a pile of curling purple leaves held together by a viscous substance and sprinkled with some kind of seeds. Next to that gelatinous globs mixed with morsels that may have been the rounded tops of large mushrooms.
Keeryan ate slowly, using a clawed utensil that grabbed the food. The others watched her. Didn't that make her uncomfortable? When she was finished, they whisked away the tray and helped her to stand.
"You are tired," said one in a whispery voice, taking Keeryan's arm. She merely nodded and allowed herself to be led away.
A queer, unexpected melancholy clenched me. I had grown up as the only late-night person in a family of early birds. Mom would always yell at me to get to bed but I always had another preoccupation such as teasing Brian or to finish a painting I was working on.
I ached to hear Mom's voice now.
I wasn't sleepy—I probably never had to sleep again—and I didn't feel like I should accompany Keeryan to bed. Perhaps now I could explore her world.
I willed myself from the Temple. In an eyeblink I was flying over the alien landscape. Glowing lights from countless crystalline structures glittered like glass shards against the brilliant moonlight. The multiple moons wove the surrounding forests into a confusing array of shadows.
I swept across a dark, moonlit ocean until I reached the vibrant dawn that appeared in a misty flare of garnet and dark gold. The ocean lightened to a rich emerald shade, a hue deeper than the sky. There were three continents and countless islands. I was stunned by how clean everything was, compared to Earth. Lush forests and jungles, filled with unfamiliar wildlife, dominated most of the land. These people didn't seem to have much technology although they traveled long distances in what I later learned were "floaters," steam powered vehicles shaped like small boats, except that they rode the air instead of water.
I didn't interact much with Keeryan over the next several days since the others kept her occupied with lessons. The evening I had first met her had been her free day, which she received once a month. It was on the evening of each free day that her essence was taken.
I could sense Keeryan's annoyance at the constant attention she received but the vitality she had lost during the Essence Taking was gradually returning. Soon it would be time for another.
I entered her dreams during this time. In most of those, she was gradually shrinking away while one of her guardians drained her with a glass rod. "Keeryan!" I called to her. She'd stare up at me with her vast eyes before vanishing completely and awaken.
I hovered beside her and attempted to place a comforting hand on her shoulder, only to have it pass through.
"What will happen to me, Shelby?" she asked one morning after such a dream. "I don't know how long I'll last if I have to keep giving away my essence."
I didn't know what to say. A sick feeling squirmed within me. It was my job to help Keeryan, wasn't it?
On her free days, we spent much time together since she didn't seem to have friends. I joined her for swims but could barely feel the water. I emerged just as dry as I'd entered. Although I enjoyed Keeryan's company, the wistfulness of longing refused to leave. I wanted to see my family again, something that my charge would never have since she'd never met hers.
Why couldn't I just visit Earth? I thought on one of Keeryan's busy days. Since she was occupied much of the time, I didn't think it would hurt if I popped back there, just for an instant, just to see my family and how they were coping.
Could I do that, now that I was a Nymm?
I closed my eyes and focused on the house I had lived in all my life. I was jolted by the sensation of intense speed. In seconds I was standing on solid ground. I opened my eyes. Was this Earth? It couldn't be. . .
I was in the middle of a city, surrounded by silver, cylinder buildings that grasped for the sky at incredible heights. I didn't know that they could structure buildings that high. Bullet-shaped objects—vehicles?—were shooting amongst these buildings in neat lines, at speeds that made me dizzy. The sidewalks, which also had a clean, metallic look, were jammed with countless people. All, men and women, were wearing what looked like loose, cottony tunics that fell to knee level. The styles were all similar; the only thing that differed was the colors, a blinding array of them.
This can't be Earth! I must have projected myself to the wrong planet! But the late morning sun felt the same and I could see the sliver of a crescent moon hovering in the blue sky straight above. It looked like Earth's moon. . .
"Nearly a hundred years have passed on your home world since you've been away," said a tinkling, familiar voice. Brellion? Had he not merely been a light-shimmer, I would have embraced him.
But then his words registered. A hundred years? I felt grateful no one could see me for my legs felt suddenly weak.
"H-how is that possible?"
"The time difference between worlds," was his reply. "True, you have been living for weeks on Keeryan's world, which equals nearly a hundred Earth years."
I swallowed. "And my family?"
"They have passed on to their versions of the Afterlife."
Grief filled me. "Will I ever see them again?"
Brellion flickered. "In time. But you mustn't linger too long here. Time is passing on Terren and she needs you."
I blinked and found myself standing beside Keeryan. She was lying upon her bed, a hammock woven of golden fibers. A heavy rain was falling outside, pounding against the Temple's thick glass walls and sliding down all sides in great waterfalls.
Keeryan wasn't merely asleep. I could feel a weakness within her. Her color seemed faded. How long had I been gone? Guilt tore at me.
I placed a hand on her cheek. My hand slid through her. She opened her eyes, eyes that now had lost their intense glow, seemed dull.
That warmth that I'd learn to accept as my Nymm tears touched my own eyes. "I'm so sorry," I whispered. "It's my fault. I was gone too long."
Keeryan forced a smile. "It has been a while. I did miss you. This is what eventually happens to the Chosen One once our essences run low. We die early so the younger ones may live richer lives."
I thought hard. It wasn't fair that she was dying! Just like it wasn't fair that I died.
I couldn't let her. Wasn't there anything I could do? Especially since I had abandoned her to look for my family? I was a Nymm after all. . .
An idea occurred to me. Could I become one with Keeryen, add my strength to hers so that she could live longer? I closed my eyes and slid into her. I could feel my mind joining with hers, our thoughts and memories entwining.
We fell asleep and dreamed of a place where our worlds had blended.
After several days, Keeryan was feeling much stronger, well enough again to return to her studies and continue giving of her essence. The others marveled at the beautiful murals she painted over the Temple's opaque walls, a latent talent that she had recently discovered. Her pictures were of a strange, faraway world with just one moon and buildings that reached for the sky. She often dreamed of this place.
It was a world called Earth, a planet that none of her people had ever heard of. They promised to postpone her Essence Taking for a while so they could learn about it from her.