Darla White is four years old.
A song on the radio is momentarily interrupted by static, causing James to frown briefly at the dusty, old thing before going back to giving Peter a wide berth.
Vicki literally sees the blond family out, tracking them with a polite smile until the door closes in their wake. As the door snaps shut, she looks down at her daughter still wrapped around her leg like a vine, heaving a sigh that balances precariously between resignation and an odd sense of pride.
"What am I to do with you, huh?"
Darla flashes her pearly whites, an unspoken 'who, me?' on her lips, and hugs her mother closer. Vicki shakes her head at the display, the scale tipping towards resignation, and, without saying another word, she heads for behind the counter, drag-walking all the way. Each step jostles Darla, much to the girl's delight, even as she fights to keep a hold of both leg and sparkling wand. The latter winks in irony every time the light bounces off the glittering star at the top.
Gabriel says nothing, and Peter merely blinks at the pair moving to stand next to James.
"Couldn't you have gagged her or something? I could hear her all the way upstairs."
"Customers," James explains again, gesturing at Peter. "Most p-people frown at child abuse like that. It would've b-been bad for business."
"I'm sure that Mr –" Vicki says, throwing a prompting look at Peter over her shoulder.
Peter clears his throat, almost going as far as to adjust his collar, too. "Barrington – Peter Barrington," he supplies weakly.
"I'm sure that Mr Barrington would've been willing to turn the blind eye if it meant a little peace and quiet while enjoying his coffee. Right?"
"Erm," Peter fumbles for words as well as with his coffee mug. "I suppose so?"
"See?" Vicki throws out her arms in an 'I told you so' pose at her son before offering her hand to Peter. "I'm Vicki White, owner of this – establishment."
They shake hands, a brief, perfunctory up-and-down that is interrupted by small hands reaching up to get Vicki's attention.
"I wanna say hi, too!"
Vicki obeys, bending down to pick up Darla with a groan and plops her down to sit on the countertop. The girl seems even smaller sitting next to Peter.
Darla White is still four years old.
Another song on the radio is interrupted by static and James frowns again, reaching out to twist a knob, but as the interruption is just as short-lived as before, he leaves it alone with a bemused expression.
Darla shuffles a little, no doubt trying to get comfortable on the hard surface, before turning the full force of her attention on Peter. She seems completely enthralled, her vivid green eyes wide with interest now that she finds herself away from the realm of make-believe and at eye height with this strange, new person.
Peter looks at her in return, eyes just as wide, but more out of discomfort than curiosity.
Darla just keeps staring, unashamed like only a child can be, her head slowly tilting to the side. Despite wanting to introduce herself, she sure is taking her sweet time. She seems more shrewd than shy, like she is looking into the very depths of Peter's soul, weighing his worth, and Peter hunches over a little.
Just when Vicki opens her mouth, most likely to berate her daughter for staring like so, the girls says, "Hi," in a levelled, doll-like voice, her head tilting to the other side as if a change in point of view will offer new insight. "Who are you?"
"I'm Peter Barrington," he repeats even weaker than the first time around.
"That's your name, silly," she giggles, her whole body moving with amusement.
"Um." Peter blinks. "Erm?"
"That's alright," the girl offers in consolation, patting Peter's hand. "You'll find out. My name is Darla White, and I'm a warrior princess, and I'm five years old! How old are you?"
Darla White continues to be a little girl, extra year or not, and I am so not amused that I can literally feel my funny bone shattering into pieces.
The radio sputters and dies, much to James' confusion and he immediately starts pushing buttons at random.
"Alek," Gabriel says almost hesitantly. "You might want to calm –"
I look at him, letting every little emotion that runs through my mind sharpen into daggers. He jolts, not quite scared but definitely feeling uncertain.
"You." I point a rigid finger at him in accusation.
This time, he takes a step back – then another when I follow with a step forward, and so we continue to move until we've moved through the back wall and into one of the restrooms. There are three stalls, all empty, and the room is big enough that our footsteps would've echoed had we been able to make sounds like that. Instead, the room is a silent contrast to the approaching storm.
Gabriel suddenly stops, letting me almost crash into him if not for the fact that he grabs me by the shoulders before it can come to that. We end up standing toe to toe, and, after slight adjustment to consider his height advantage, nose to nose.
"You," I repeat as it bears repeating. "You knew."
"I didn't, not until a couple of days ago. Trust me, I was just as –"
"Trust you?" I snort. "I'll never trust you again – and this time I mean it! I don't know how you found out, but if it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be here right now – oh, this reeks of one of your little games. I can't believe I fell for it – I can't believe I forgot that you're nothing but that selfish, little creature that wanted a playmate for all eternity! Clemency? As if you'd ever –"
The door opens, cutting me off, and Peter comes in, determined and angry looking at first, but as soon as the door closes behind him, it closes on both crutches and leaves him alone with uncertainty. Aside from turning our heads to look at him, neither Gabriel nor I move much, and it must look slightly deranged, the way I'm seemingly posturing at thin air.
"So," he starts, not meeting my eyes. "Darla – the witch – I guess that was… unexpected?"
"Au contraire, Peter. I had fully expected her to be an overgrown toddler. Did I forget to mention that? Silly me."
A familiar scowl settles between his eyebrows. "Don't patronize me. You never told my anything but the bear minimum, so how am I supposed to know what to expect?"
"You never told him?" Gabriel asks, voice intoned with disbelief.
"It's pretty damn difficult telling someone something when said someone insists on ignoring you – this isn't my fault." I narrow my eyes at the reaper. "It's yours."
"How am I responsible for Darla's age? How on earth is this my –"
"Everything is your fault! The Global Financial Crisis? Your fault. The Water Crisis? Your fault. Socks divorcing left and right? Your fault!"
"Stop being so melodramatic; it doesn't suit you."
I am just about to deliver an eloquent retort when Peter decides to hike up his big-boy pants and steps forward. "There really is a reaper," he says, hands gripping his belt for strength. "Either that or you've gone completely –"
"Don't," I warn him. "There is a reaper, the most conniving, cruel reaper to have ever existed. His name is Gabriel."
Peter nods to himself, his left eye twitching noticeably, hikes his pants up to the level of a fashion no-no and moves even closer. "Hallo," he says awkwardly to the empty space three steps away from where Gabriel is standing. Gabriel responds with a greeting of his own, very politely, but of course Peter can't hear him. After a few beats of silence, they both turn to look at me expectantly.
"Oh no," I say, shaking my head. "I'm not your personal carrier pigeon."
Despite not being able to communicate, their respective eye rolls sure seem to be carefully coordinated.
Peter huffs. "And yet you have no problem asking me to be your personal messenger?"
"Of course not – that's you, not me."
"Don't be a jerk," Gabriel sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"I think I'm entitled to be whatever the hell I want. Besides, it's not like making introductions matter, not when we're all about to go on our merry way."
"We're not giving up –"
"Have you forgotten the roadblock in the shape of a five-year-old witch? Because if so, I know at least a dozen ways of literally imprinting it directly into your cerebral cortex."
Gabriel slips into his default frown, hands automatically finding their way to rest on his hips. He sighs again, this time from all the way down in his diaphragm and lets the air out through his nose like steam from a kettle. "Clemency –"
"Forget about Clemency!" It's very satisfying to interrupt what would no doubt have been a beautifully crafted speech designed to both smooth out all of my worries and inspire hope, judging by the way his entire face curls in towards his nose – and then Peter drops a bomb.
I blink in shock, Gabriel following troop, and we're both kind of staring at Peter with our mouths pursed in silent incredulousness.
"What?" he asks, inching a step back. "Am I not supposed to ask that?"
"Am I not –"
"No, no, back up – did you just ask who Clemency is?"
"Yes?" His wavers a little at the end, the exclamation points that should've been there curling into a question mark due to the lack of a spine. He fiddles with his belt again.
"You've met god knows how many spirits throughout the years, and you've never heard of Clemency before? Also, why are you practically shaking like a leaf?"
He scowls weakly, but it's a scowl nonetheless. "Excuse me for being wary of the angry spirit who just killed the radio. And no, I've never heard of her, hence the question."
"Not her," I correct him, feeling it surreal even having to do so; everybody just knows about Clemency – at least everybody dead, and, I'm assuming, all witches that may be hiding wherever. "Clemency is the act of pulling a spirit from Limbo."
Peter's scowl is smoothed away by confusion, leaving his eyes slightly wide. "You mean sending a spirit to heaven? I thought that just happened on its own?"
"Not push, pull – as in bring back to life."
His eyes go from slightly wide to full-blown in the span of a second. "What – like resurrection?" He twitches like the revelation is running circles around his mind, never standing still long enough to let him catch a hold of it. "How?"
"I just told you. Clemency is –"
"No," he interrupts me, which is very impolite. "How is it done? You're dead."
"Really? Wow, that's news to me. Please enlighten me some more."
His hand twitches, probably itching to lash out, but he keeps all of his limbs in check and just glares. "You know what I mean. I've known you for close to two weeks – your body must be six feet under and rotting. How does it work when there is no body?"
"If I knew how, I would've done it a long time ago."
"Knowing how something is done doesn't mean that you're able to do it," Peter states oh-so-wisely. "So this is all about you two wanting to be brought back to life?" He gestures vaguely between me, and where he must think Gabriel is standing, which is a complete miss.
"Clemency is for spirits only – and don't ask me why, because I don't know, okay? It doesn't matter anyway," I say, feeling every year since my death pilling onto my weary shoulders. "Not when Darla White is barely out of her diapers."
"I suppose you're –"
"Don't give up –"
"Alright! One at a time, please," I cut them off. This has the potential to become very annoying really fast.
Peter opens and closes his mouth a couple of times, taking several running starts that stops before the first step, only to suddenly blurt out, "It's really hard to know when to speak when I can't hear – what was his name again?"
"Gabriel – his name is Gabriel."
Said reaper slides in front of me, blocking my view of Peter and wearing his trying-to-convince-you face. "Alek," he says heartfelt and all that. "You can't give up now. Darla's age has nothing to do with her strength. You felt the wards; you know she's strong. We just have to adjust the plan a little."
"There is a plan? So far we've just – no, Peter, I'm not talking to you."
Peter almost clams up, leaving enough space for a few grumbled words to slip through. Gabriel continues instead. "Of course there is a plan. We have a witch to persuade, haven't we?"
"That's not a plan; that's a goal."
"You're not actually entertaining the thought of going trough with this, are you? I can't be the only one thinking this is creepy – she's young enough to be my granddaughter!" Peter pops his head through Gabriel – literally through him, much to the displeasure of the reaper who steps out of the way. "Well, in any case, I won't be a part of this. It was bad enough to begin with, but now –" Trailing off, he heads for the door and reaches for the doorknob, but lets his hand hover over it without making contact. He looks over his shoulder expectantly.
"What?" I ask. "I'm not going to stop –"
"Hold on," Gabriel jumps in. "C'mon, don't you want to at least try? It's Clemency, Alek – what's the worst that can happen?"
"How about the emotional scarring of a five year old? She's just a kid…"
"We'll be careful, okay? This is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; don't throw it away. Besides, it's not like you have anything better to do."
Ignoring the juvenile jab, I ask, "Why are you so insistent on pursuing this? I should've asked myself this from the very beginning but – you won't get anything out it; quite the opposite, in fact."
To say that I should've questioned his motive earlier is a gross understatement, but I often find myself forgetting who Gabriel really is, having grown accustom to his presence, however trying it is. But this, chasing after Clemency, should've triggered a lot of warning bells. I can't imagine him letting go, not with his previous track record. "So why? Why do you keep pushing?"
He adverts his eyes, the mood turning sombre before he looks up with determination. "I'm trying to make amends."
His words feels like a sucker punch to the abdominal, the sudden pressure forcing several organs to huddle up in fear and twisting around each other in search of comfort. Psychosomatic though it may be, it still takes my breath away and leaves behind a vacuum of unresolved issues.
Gabriel knows it, too, that bastard.
"I need air."
"You don't breathe," Gabriel points out, earning the label once more.
"Shut up – I need to be alone." I look at the door where Peter is still hovering, eyeing the door as if he is just about to make a run for it. "I –"
"Yes, I heard," he grumbles. "I suppose you expect me to sit around and wait for you to – whatever it is you're trying to do. But I won't. I've already told you that I won't take part of this, so goodbye, good luck, and please don't ever –"
"How about you go sit in the diner instead, eh?" I suggest, channelling the face of that radio-killing spirit that had him shivering not moments before. It works, Peter stiffening before his face turns sour and he storms out in a snit, but I'm confident that he'll stay put. If not… then I won't have to make the decision myself.
With one last warning look at Gabriel, I disappear, letting myself dissolve and squeeze through the cracks in space. When I open my eyes again, I'm in the middle of nowhere and next to a cow.
The cow is happily chewing on some grass, completely unaffected – obviously, as it can't see me, but for the first time in a while, not being seen is actually bothering me.
It's a beautiful a day; the wind gently caressing the scenery while the sun is happily encouraging life to grow within its warm embrace. I feel neither, not really, and even the smell of both grass and bovine are but an echo of remembrances. It really has been a long time since I've felt so detached from it all, having been perfectly fine with deluding myself that echoes of smell and touch are proper substitutes for the real deal.
Clemency would change everything; it would mean getting drenched in the rain, shivering in the cold and sweating during the summer; it would mean getting hungry by the smell of pork tenderloin in tomato sauce with cauliflower rice on the side, and not just being able to appreciate a lingering scent; it would mean breathing, blushing, falling asleep; it would mean the world. However, it would also mean going through Darla, a five-year-old girl who never asked for any of this.
Gabriel was right about one thing though; the girl is undeniably strong. She must be, having weaved such strong wards, but does her otherworldly prowess equal the strength to carry the weight of the afterlife on her shoulder?
"That's crux of the problem, isn't it?" I ask the unresponsive cow. "When I'm back to flesh and blood, assuming she is even capable of Clemency, others will surely follow. And let me tell you this – I'm far nicer than some spirits."
The cow chews happily still, staring unseeingly into the distance.
"Then there is the matter of Gabriel," I continue, putting aside the fact that I'm laying out my thoughts to a creature that wouldn't even understand the thoughts of the living. "I don't know what, but he is up to something. He's far too… insistent – and, yes, I know; I'm a major fool for not taking the time to think this over before tagging along like an idiot, but in my defence, it all seemed so circumstantial. Besides, I never really thought we would be here, having found a witch. Can you believe it? A witch? It's crazy.
"And now an innocent child is caught up in whatever he is plotting. I wouldn't put it past him to let her existence slip if I don't play my part, so perhaps it would be better to go along, you know, to protect her?"
The cow flicks its tail.
"You're right – if Clemency truly awaits down the road, it's just a bonus for acting all noble, of course. It really would be the selfless thing to do. Right?"
The sun is moving in a lazy arch across the sky as time passes by. There is something meditative about observing the cow moving back and forth between tufts of grass, the grass obviously greener on the other side and it's not afraid to go after what looks juiciest. It's truly the most agreeable cow I've ever met.
While Clemency is definitely worth a shot, the emotional recoil will probably be a metric ton of disappointment, but it beats an eternity of wondering what if. Also, pursuing Clemency will allow me to keep Darla from harms way.
Yes, protecting Darla will be my priority, Clemency a close second.
Making up my mind, I bid the cow a fond goodbye and return to the diner at the blink of an eye. Gabriel is lurking in one of the corners, his gaze snapping to meet mine when I materialize an arms length away from Peter. Unfortunately, Peter doesn't react so calmly, knocking over his coffee cup as he startles out of his chair.
"Are you alright?" Vicki, now clad in an apron and sans children, asks, reaching for a dishcloth lying at the sink.
I gesture towards the restroom, bidding Peter to follow and then head for where Gabriel has just disappeared through the wall.
"Ah, yes – I'm – I'm fine… I, erm – I just need to go to the restroom," Peter says, the sound of his shoes telling me that he is right behind me.
Back in the restroom, they both turn to look at me with expectancy and, in Peter's case, a surly scowl.
"Couldn't you've made a less dramatic entrance?"
"Here is the plan," I say, ignoring his griping. "We'll do this – but! We'll do it with Darla's wellbeing as our first priority. If even a single strand of hair of hers is bend out of shape, I'm pulling the plug, okay? I repeat: Darla is –"
The rest of my words are squeezed out of me by the crush of a reaper wrapping himself around me, my face squashed into his neck which – no. Just no. "I swear to god, Gabriel, I will rip out your trachea with my teeth if you do not unhand me this instance."
Gabriel steps away, grinning like a fool with his teeth like a tombstone parade. A shiver runs the course of my spine.
He is most definitely up to no good.
"Good choice," he says trough that infernal smile. "Now we just need to figure out how to go about this, but first things first – we should probably find some lodging for Mr Psychic there; it's getting kind of late, and this won't be done in just a day or two."
I nod my agreement and turn to Peter, who is not looking happy at all.
"I don't like this."
"We'll make sure Darla is safe, alright?"
Peter shakes his head and moves to the –
"Hey! Where do you think you're going?"
Throwing a scowl over his shoulder, he answers, "I figured you'd make the selfish choice, so I took the liberty of asking Vicki about a place to stay. There is a motel about twenty minutes further down south, and I'm rather tired."
"Huh, that was easy," Gabriel comments, practically beaming. "That's the first step out of the way."
"Let's just hope the rest will be just as effortless."
"I sincerely doubt that," Peter says in a hush, leaving with hunched shoulders.
When all of this is over, and if everything works out in my favour, I have to buy him something nice as a thank you.
Now, however, we have to get this show on the road.