There. The comforting brightness of sunlight sensed through closed eyelids. It felt so nice, that warmth on her cheeks, and on the tops her bare feet. A hint of a breeze tossed a lock of hair across her face, where it tickled her nose. Was that - yes it was. A pungent, earthy hint of wisteria from far away. And a quiet, vague chittering of sparrows.
Waitaminnit... Bare feet? Warm breeze? Wisteria? It was February, and there was a freezing rainstorm, complete with thunder and lightning, and a cloud cover so dense she'd had to mash her foot on the high-beam switch as she'd clenched the steering wheel so hard her hands cramped. The old Ford's heater made no dent in the subfreezing air, and her near panic driven clouds of breath had fogged the windshield over and over, forcing her to swipe at the inside of the glass with a balled up, soggy tissue every few minutes.
Yet that wasn't the crunch of heavy tires on ice. That was the sweet, seductive slopping of water against wooden beams. Hesitantly, she allowed her eyes to flutter open. Well, how about that? Margaret found herself sitting on a dock overlooking the most pristine lake she had ever seen. She felt at peace. Imagine that.
But this was wrong. It was winter. She was late. She had to get home or Daddy would kill her. She should get up and find a phone and call right now.
But it was so nice here, and any thoughts she had seemed to slip away as easily as they came to her.
She really wished she'd had the guts to... to what? Dang, there went her train of thought again. But whatever it was, Daddy wouldn't have approved, and he was going to be so mad she was late.
A low sputtering caught her attention, and she squinted into the dawn light. (Dawn? It was after school!) Off in the distance, she could see a small fishing boat crossing the lake heading toward her.
I always liked boats, she thought. Her Daddy used to take her out on his own father's boat, before things got bad, before they had to sell the boat, before he stopped caring. It was the coolest little boat, with a red stripe, and chrome fittings. Looked a lot like that one, in fact.
Daddy was just going to kill her for being late. He didn't like her taking the part time job playing rehearsal piano for the junior high musical, but she needed the money to pay for the repairs to this impossible hunk of junk he'd given her to drive, and he wouldn't let her get a real job at any of the stores around town like the other high school kids did. She was late, and she'd never get dinner ready in time, not with this weather making the other drivers crawl. Texans just couldn't drive on the ice, she'd sneered as she'd cut around an irritating slowpoke. She'd had driver's ed. She'd done the ice and snow simulator tape. She could deal with anything in this tank of a car. And she'd beat Daddy home, and whip up something quick so he wouldn't be so mad at her.
Angel hair pasta. That cooked quick.
That wisteria in the brush along shore was pretty. And that breeze sure felt nice, even as it carried a few pale petals onto the dock. Margaret released a little sigh of contentment, and flexed her toes.
That cute little boat with the red stripe and the shiny chrome fittings was getting closer.
A can of cream of chicken soup, a can of chicken breast meat, and a lot of Parmesan cheese would be perfect on the pasta. Fast, and Daddy liked it. Things would be okay if she could just get it all together and on the table before he walked in the front door.
A deep breath, full of wisteria, and warmth. And wonder.
How on Earth did she get here?
Margaret frowned, and the train of thought just left her again. She gazed languidly over the water, wondering what it was that she had to rush off to do.
It took just a few minutes, hardly noticed, until the little boat slowly pulled up to the dock, nudging up against the wood with a little thunk.
Margaret was thinking up nonsense words to go to the tunes of the madrigals she'd been practicing in choir lately. "Fair maid, whose shining virtues be, she dropped them off behind yon tree..." And she smiled because of the wickedness of her new ditty.
The boat bumped the dock again, and she looked at the aging gentleman climbing out. Immediately, Margaret recognized him as her dead grandfather, even though he no longer moved stiffly, no longer favored one knee, no longer carried the cane. His hair was still silver, and his skin was weathered from time, though. Just exactly as she remembered him. And those striking hazel eyes were the same, too.
"Pappy???" she said slowly, as her brain raced for some explanation. She rose to her feet, then clutched at one of the dock posts that began in the lake bed and extended above the water up to her waist. Her knees wobbled, and she was glad she was wearing heavy denim jeans and her half-sleeved Beethoven T-shirt when she sagged against the rough wood of the post. She gulped down a sudden lump of fear, or perhaps panic, and willed her voice to not shake to match her legs.
"You died when I was seven." It was an accusation, full of anger, because when Pappy died, Mama got so very sad, and things with her Daddy changed. She wasn't Daddy's little girl any more, and Daddy didn't treat her nice.
And then Mama went away.
But Pappy didn't mean to go away. He couldn't help it. Pappy'd always loved her, and played with her, and taught her about the bugs and leaves and things around the lake. A sudden tightness grabbed her heart, and Margaret said it again, wonderingly. "You died when I was seven."
"Yes darlin, I know," her grandfather said in a gentle voice. He lowered himself effortlessly to sit cross-legged on the pier, and tapped the boards beside him in invitation. Margaret blinked at him, remembering how he could barely get into and out of a straight-backed chair, and he shrugged with a lopsided grin. "Rainbow Bridge works for people, too."
Margaret thought back about her beloved dog Goldie, and how sick she'd been, and how they'd had to put her down, and how Pappy had read to her the poem about the Rainbow Bridge. And how she'd clung to the hope that one day she'd get to see Goldie again, hale and hearty and ready to play.
That means... She couldn't wrap her mind around it. Not yet. But her legs did give out, and she sank down to the pier to sit in front of her Pappy. She looked at him closely, and saw the same crooked smile, the same blue eyes. He smelled of flannel and Old Spice and the smell of the lake water. And the wink - that was exactly the same, too.
She stared hard at him for a moment, a thought just not forming. Something wasnt right with Pappy. Something...
But, no. She couldn't pin it down. The thought was gone. She gave a small shrug, then, "b-but how?". She was stammering. She didn't ever stammer. But she was now.
Laughing slightly, Pappy said, "Well darlin, who knew I would keel over from a heart attack at sixty-four?" He shook his head wryly. "I was only two months from retiring, too."
"Thats not what I meant." Tears welled in her eyes, as they often did when Pappy teased her. Why did it hurt so much when people did that? Impatient with herself, Margaret flicked at her eyes, dashing the moisture away, and then gestured with her hands, taking in the boat, the pier, and her smirking grandfather. "How is it I am seeing you? Now? After ten years?"
The blue eyes twinkled, and his whole body moved with a silent chuckle. "Hmm, I guess you could say you are dead too, Maggie." He reached out to touch her hand, but she jerked away from his touch.
"I'm 'Margaret', Pappy, not 'Maggie'. 'Maggie's' for little girls." Maggie was also what Daddy continued to call her, even though she'd made the change over a year ago. Daddy made fun of her decision to be her own person, to take claim of her own name, to be grown up.
Pappy's eyes gentled, and he took all the teasing out of his voice. "I'm sorry, my dear, I didn't know. We're way behind on current events here." He nodded once, seriously, and said, " 'Margaret' is such a lovely name. It suits you."
Tears of gratitude welled up against Margaret's wishes. That's exactly what she'd always hoped her own father would say, instead of the constant mockery. Impulsively, she shifted forward and gave her grandfather a hug. "Thank you, Pappy. I love you. I've missed you so much." And he hugged her back. That brought back a memory of a happy day when she was seven, just before Pappy died. At the lake.
This lake, she realized with a start. This lake that had been at the center of a forest fire three years ago, and no longer had those lush stands of trees as far as the eye could see.
Yet there they were. Oh, my.
She broke the embrace and wiped at her eyes again, then smiled as she took the handkerchief her grandfather offered her. Dabbing at her face, she took in a deep breath, and then let it out very slowly. She shook her head, still not believing it. "But, Pappy... I cant be dead. I am seventeen-years-old and I wasnt sick."
He put a gentle hand on one knee, and this time she didn't flinch away. That gentle smile faded, and he said, "Margaret, what was the last thing you remember?"
She thought about it for a second or two, and she still couldnt remember how she came to be at this lake. "I was in my car, trying to get home before Daddy, and there was an accident." She saw a flash of memory, of headlights, and a spinning world, and the downslope of a road shoulder, and the thick bole of a tree trunk. "But, Pappy... I couldnt have died. I remember hearing the policemen talking."
"Do you remember what they were saying?"
"Hmm, I remember them saying it was a shame and... " Margaret turned her head to gaze off across the water, her voice breaking. "And... she was such a pretty girl." Her voice became a pained whisper. "Oh God, I remember now. I was cutting around that stupid little truck, and the Ford began to spin. I hit a tree - " A look of horror entered her eyes, and she looked at her grandfather. "Daddy's going to be so mad dinner won't be ready."
Pappy grunted, a disgusted look on his face. "Your daddy better not even give dinner a second thought, the heel. He better be mourning the loss of the brightest light this family has seen in generations." He gave Margaret's knee a little comforting squeeze.
Through tears, she shook her head at him. She knew her Daddy and what his priorities were. She knew she wasn't a bright light. And she knew she was horribly lost. What she didn't know was how to put that into words. After some time, her mouth shaped the soundless word, "why".
Pappy patted her knee, then withdrew it to clasp his hands in a worried gesture. "Im sorry darlin, but it was your time to go."
She scrunched the hanky into a tight first and turned her head away from her grandfather, and hissed, "No it wasnt." She swallowed several times, barely keeping herself from sobbing. Hoarsely, she said, "I had friends, plans and a life to live."
He heaved a mighty sigh, and his eyes closed tightly for a moment. Then with an effortless motion, he stood, and extended a weathered hand to his granddaughter. "Margaret?"
She watched the light play across the light chop of the waves, enjoyed the breeze ruffling her hair. She considered ignoring him. Maybe she'd just wake up and this would all be a bad dream.
The agony of a steering wheel slamming into her chest flashed across her mind's eye, and she knew. She was dead. Pappy was dead, and he was here to welcome her.
So Margaret, too, heaved a heavy sigh, transferred the sloppy cloth to her other hand, and let her Pappy help her to her feet. Her knees were still rubbery, and she did not object when the old man put a gentlemanly arm around her shoulders to steady her.
"There's my girl," he said gently. "It's not easy to trust anyone when you're new here, but you know I'd never hurt you, right?"
She sniffled once, and glanced up at him. "Right."
A smile and a nod, and then he began to help her into the boat. "I know its hard to understand, but there was a purpose for your death. That is why I came to meet you."
Margaret numbly sank to the seat her grandfather indicated. The breeze seemed to pick up, even this little bit further into the water, and she rubbed her hands over the bare parts of her arms to warm them. Jeans and a T-shirt and bare feet, she marveled. This makes no sense. Why couldn't I have sneakers and a windbreaker, too?
She watched the old man unloop the line from the dock, then fire up the little outboard motor, and steer them off across the clear water. She watched the dock and the nearby wisteria recede, then busied herself with the rest of the scenery, enjoying the trees, and the clouds, and the waterfowl. After a few minutes travel, she glanced to the stern of the boat and found Pappy studying her intently. She forced a little smile, and raised her voice enough to be heard over the sound of the outboard motor.
"I always thought it would be bright lights and stuff like I read in one of those science fiction books."
"Sorry darlin, but it doesnt work that way."
And the motor droned on.
Pappy angled the boat toward a distant pier extending from a heavily wooded section of the shore, revving the motor to increase the pace. Soon enough, they were climbing out of the boat onto this new dock, this one wood on floating aluminum pontoons set between far-spaced posts that stuck up out of the lake water.
Margaret stubbed her toe on a board and muttered a gentle oath, and her grandfather chuckled. "Actually, you kind of landed in my version of heaven. I always told your grandmother I would be in heaven if I could just fish all day and not have a care in the world. Well, I guess the big guy was listening because here I am fishing my days away."
Margaret filed that away for future consideration. Well, if she were able to keep her train of thought any time in the future. She sure wished Pappy's heaven included size 6 sneakers. Maybe, when she figured out what her version of heaven would be, shed get those shoes.
And a big grand piano. And all the ice cream she could eat, but never gain any weight.
She followed him into the woods, up a footpath which wound above the water's edge. It smelled of moist earth and moss and decaying leaves, and the sun caught the morning dew still on the tree leaves. The drops sparkled like diamonds. There were more sparrows here, fussing noisily among themselves. The ground was soft beneath her bare feet, and miraculously, the dirt did not cake to them. Seems like there was a bonus to being dead after all. Warmth in February, and clean barefooting.
Pappy sidestepped around a fallen tree that partially blocked the path, halfway up a steep rise. "By the way," he asked, completely out of the blue, "how is your grandmother?"
"Oh," Margaret said, pulling herself back from mulling about bare feet and the weather. "She is doing fine. I saw her last week."
Pappy halted in his tracks, and Margaret pulled to a stop beside him. He was looking intently at the tree stump beside the path, so Margaret studied it, too, wondering what he found so fascinating about it.
After a few moments, the old man spoke, his voice a hoarse whisper. "Did she, ah, did she ever start seeing anyone?"
Ah, it wasn't the tree stump that held Pappy's attention. Of course. He misses her.
And "she's fine" wasn't much of a state of the survivor report.
Margaret slipped her hand into his and gave it a squeeze. "Pappy, she volunteers with the SPCA as a foster dog owner. She paints landscapes and goes to adult ed classes. She redecorates every room in the house, one at a time, and when she finishes, she starts all over again. She keeps busy." She gave the hand another squeeze. "But she isn't seeing anyone. She misses you. Your picture's on the piano, and in the den, and on her dresser."
He cleared his throat and grinned a half grin. "She said she'd wait for me."
Margaret gave him a quick hug, then released him. "She is." She peered at her grandfather's face and could see there was moisture threatening to spill from his coal black eyes. Oh, no, not tears. Time to change the subject.
"Pappy," she said, indicating the path they were following, "where on earth - er, in heaven - are we going?"
That made him laugh, and he snapped back to the mission at hand. "Oh, yes. Well, we've got to meet someone. You've got to meet someone. That's why you're here. We'd better get going". And they continued up the path, and crested the hill.
As they descended the other side of the rise, Margaret could see that, not far ahead, the landscape changed abruptly from the lush woods to craggy rocks, scrubby twisted trees maybe mesquite, maybe pines and dried, parched sand. There was a band of green meadow between the last of the lush trees and the beginning of the wasteland, and Pappy plunged into it, increasing his pace.
"Come on, Margaret," he said, glancing back over his shoulder at her even as he forged ahead. "Just a little further."
Margaret stopped short right where the grasses started. The niggling feeling at the edge of her perception that she couldnt quite grasp suddenly had a name. It was danger. Something wasnt right. Something beyond the weather, and her bare feet, and her being dead. Something beyond the schizophrenic change in the terrain, and the fact that the once gentle breeze abruptly rose to a storm-like intensity, here where the trees ended, and the wildlife that had been so abundantly noisy suddenly went silent.
Pappy, too, stopped in the wind-whipped calf-high grass, and then he turned fully toward her. "Margaret?" he said, with just a little brittle impatience entering his tone. "Lets go, darlin. Times getting short."
"Pappy", she said hesitantly, blinking at him against the grains of sand kicked up by the gale-like wind in the incongruously bright sunshine, keenly missing the chittering bird sounds of just moments before. "I dont know about this."
The old man heaved a heavy sigh, and made his way back to her. He placed a hand on her shoulder and gave it a light squeeze. "Whats the matter?" he asked, his tone clipped, a far cry from the patience and gentleness hed spoken with before. "Dont you understand? Theres someone youre supposed to meet. We need to get going before its too late."
Margaret tossed her head to get the hair out of her face. She narrowed her eyes at him, alarmed by the harsh note in his voice. She raised her voice to be heard over the whistling wind. "This is heaven, Pappy," she said. "We have all the time eternity has to offer, dont we? Why the rush?"
She took a couple stumbling steps back away from him, back into the trees. The force of the storm immediately abated for her. The roar of the wind stopped, and her hair no longer whipped about her head. She held out her hands and turned in place, once around, before facing Pappy again. "I like it here, in these woods. I dont want to go into the desert. It frightens me. I dont like the wind. And I dont have any shoes. Or a hat. Or sunglasses. Or "
And then she realized it. Pappys eyes were hazel again. Not blue, not black. Hazel.
"Or " she repeated, under her breath. Pappys eyes were really supposed to be grey. Why hadnt she remembered that before?
Something was very wrong here.
"Youre not Pappy," she whispered, in a panic.
She turned and bolted back over the ridge, intending to plunge down the hill toward the lake, to lose herself in the woods, to hop into that boat and pilot it away as fast as it would carry her, to simply get away. The old man, with astonishing speed, had her by the upper arm before shed gone twenty paces toward the water. He held her fast, in a grip so firm the seam of her sleeve tore away from the shoulder of her T-shirt when she twisted as she tried to break free.
Pain. How in the world could a dead person feel pain? But there it was, a wrenching sensation that felt like her bicep was being ripped from the bone. "Let me go!" she cried as she tried to dig her heels into the soft dirt, tried desperately to get away, to make that pain stop. She could find no purchase, and slipped, and felt as if her arm were going to be yanked from its socket. It was beyond horrible.
And now he had her by both arms.
"Margaret!" he shouted in her face, "you will come with me! Now!" He gave her a shake for good measure, rattling her teeth, and his eyes bore into hers with fiery intensity.
Shed had a rabbit once with reddish eyes, but that was different. That was the pink of an albino. That pink was cool, and piqued her curiosity in a nice way. This red was very wrong. This was a rich, throbbing color which caught the sunlight that dappled through the treetops and seemed to glow with menacing power.
"Youre not Pappy," Margaret managed to whisper, again, through the pain and the heart-wrenching sense of betrayal.
The man barked a cruel laugh. "Took you long enough to notice," he sneered. "Now, lets go." He started to pull her back over the ridge, toward the wasteland.
"No." Margaret started kicking at his legs, but he was too strong for her. He easily forced her to the edge of the tree line, back to where the wind began to pull at her hair and her clothes. "No! I dont want to go with you!" she cried out, and in desperation flung herself to the ground, which caused him to stumble to his knees.
An unearthly, throaty howl filled the air. Then a flash of white soared over her head and slammed into her tormentors chest. The old man wore a slack-jawed, shocked look as he tried desperately to scramble to his feet and drag Margaret with him across the meadow and into the wasteland.
The white shape kept making that inarticulate noise of outrage. Margaret couldnt make out exactly what it was. It was moving too quickly for that. It circled around the mans head and chest constantly, always moving, always howling. Once, as the white bundle of ferocity passed between her and the man, it brushed her arm, and she was startled to feel the silky softness of fur.
Before Margaret could ponder that, the white things yowl deepened, resonating in her head so loudly she had to reach up to cover her ears to try to block it out. Pappy jerked her to her feet as he finally got his own under him and tried one last time to drag her away.
But the whiteness worked its way up to the mans head, then it swirled around and around, digging, yowling, snarling. Pappy or the man who tried to make Margaret believe he was Pappy - began to scream. He finally let go of Margaret to try to ward off his attacker. But the whiteness was relentless.
Margaret dropped down to the ground again, then scrambled away, using her hands and feet to propel her ungracefully back into the safety of the trees. She ducked behind one, then clung to its trunk while she peeked around it to watch.
It was amazing. The whiteness never stopped moving, still swirling around the old mans head, until "Pappy" stumbled again, falling onto his back in the windswept grasses. Bloody scratches appeared on his face, his neck, his hands. Then, uttering a cry of defeat, the man scurried off toward the wasteland. The white thing dropped off, continuing to growl as "Pappy" reached the parched desert.
Wow. Margaret watched as the being that was pretending to be her grandfather disappeared into a wave of sand, swept up by the fierce winds beyond the trees. After a time, the wind abated, and when it did, there was no trace of the man at all.
She wondered if she should feel bad about that, but she didnt.
The white thing, now silent, made its way across the disturbed, trampled grass. Right toward her. She squinted at it, unable to believe her eyes. It was no, it couldnt be.
It was a house cat. A simple old alley cat, mostly white, with some black markings like a mask around its remarkably green eyes, some spots on one side, with a tail that looked like it had been dipped in an inkwell. It had one dot very like a moustache on its nose, and another on its chin, like a soul patch beard. There was a nick in one ear, and it had a scar across the bridge of its nose. A couple stray tufts of hair poked out of its sides.
A big old kitty cat.
Margaret grunted aloud, and rethought that. This was a big old kitty cat that had mauled the heck out of a full-grown man. She wondered if she should run for cover somewhere, but then realized it was too late for that.
"Hey, now," it said, in a gentle, melodious tenor voice, as if it could sense that she was about to flee, "I wont hurt you." The cat stressed the last word. "Im here to help."
Whoa. Too much. Margaret squeezed her eyes shut, counted to ten, then opened them, hoping fervently the talking cat would be gone. It wasnt. So, another twist for her to cope with in her budding afterlife. Great.
"What are you?" she asked, her voice quavering just a little despite her best intentions.
The cat stopped its advance just beyond an arms length away, settling carefully onto his haunches, then tucking his tail neatly around his front paws. His emerald eyes twinkled. He cocked his head slightly to one side, then said, "A friend."
Margaret was shaking her head, still in denial. A furrow appeared between her eyes, as the thought of running away looked more and more attractive to her. But the quick white cat would undoubtedly catch her even faster than the fake Pappy had, and hed probably be able to hurt her worse. He had claws, after all.
The cat tilted his head the other way, patiently waiting an answer. Gently, with a slight shake of his head, he added, "Youre probably not in the mood to trust anyone right now, am I right?"
Silently, Margaret nodded. She ran her hands over the rough bark of the tree. The bark felt real, familiar, solid. Before her was a freaking talking cat which had come to her rescue. Cats dont do that. Pappy hadnt been Pappy. This couldnt be a cat. There had to be a catch. The question was, how much would it hurt when it was revealed?
"Please," she tried again, miserably. "What are you?"
The cat took a moment to glance down at his unassuming little cat body before shrugging. "I told you I was a friend. What do I look like?"
"A c-c-cat," she said, her voice small and unsteady.
"Well," the cat smiled a broad cat smile, "there you go." He stood up and shook himself to free the loose tufts of fur the battle had loosened. "Man, thats itchy," he said as they both watched the hair float away on the gentle wind, there at the edge of the tree cover.
"Margaret?" The cat took a few more steps, his smile fading, until he was close enough for her to touch if she dared let go of the tree. At her startled look, he gently said, "Yes, I know your name. I said I was here to help you. I am. I know all about you." He glanced quickly in the direction their enemy had disappeared. "All about him." He took another two steps, until he was just brushing one leg. "I promise you, Im not here to hurt you."
Margaret so wanted to believe that. She hugged the tree closer, subtly pulling her leg away from the cats touch. "But how can you be a cat? Cats dont talk."
The cat looked smug. "Sure, we do. We talk all the time. Its just that people cant usually understand what we say. Here," his glance took in their surroundings, "in this place, we can understand one another."
Margaret swallowed hard. Here, hed said. "You mean, because Im dead?"
"Oh," she said miserably. She closed her eyes again, and wished she could be anywhere but here.
It didnt work, because in a moment, she heard the cats gentle voice again, asking, "Margaret, are you all right? Did he hurt you?"
Reluctantly, she looked at him. He looked so worried for a cat. Vertical lines had formed in the fur of his forehead. He sounded so sincere, so genuinely concerned about her. And he really had saved her. Margaret sighed heavily. Gotta trust someone.
In a small voice, she answered. "He hurt my arm a little when I was trying to get away, but I think Im okay now."
"Good." The cat nodded a little, relief smoothing the lines in the fur between his eyes. "In that case, we really need to be going ourselves. I hate to rush you, but you dont have much time, not after the Prankster lured you away. I have to get you back before its too late."
"Wait a minute," she said, "What do you mean? Prankster?"
The cat glanced again the direction "Pappy" had gone, then nodded silently.
Margaret shook her head, trying to understand. "What did he want?"
"You. Now, come on, Margaret." The cat bumped her leg with his head. "You have to be ready."
"Wait, wait," she said, reaching her hand out to touch the cats head. The contact sent a jolt of emotion through her. She felt reassured, secure, trusting. She felt unconditional love, and concern for her well being. A silly grin broke out over her face.
"Do you have a name?"
The cat moved his head under her hand, to encourage her to rub his it, which she did in automatic reflex. "My name isnt important. My job is."
Wonderingly, she gazed into the rich, green eyes. "You saved me from that Prankster person. What did he want with me? If Im dead, I mean, he wasnt a rapist or anything. So what was that all about?"
"Margaret " this in a warning tone, "you dont have time for this."
"Please," she said, scratching her fingers in just the right spot, and he leaned into her hand quite against his will. It was a cat thing he couldnt do anything about.
"Please tell me," she said. "Why did he look like Pappy?"
"To get your trust."
"But why did he need my trust?"
The cat drew his head back from her gentle attentions. He cocked his head and regarded her without impatience. "Margaret, think about it. He wanted you to go with him."
She threw her hands out in frustration. "But why did he want me to go with him? What did he want with me? Why did he attack me? He wanted me to go into that wasteland. It felt wrong."
The cat laughed quietly. "So many questions! Could you give me a moment to answer them?"
Margaret gave a sheepish shrug. "Okay."
"Okay, then. He needed your spirit. He attacked you because you resisted. He could only take you as long as you were willing. The moment you sensed the danger, he lost control, and the moment you felt fear, I learned of the conflict, and came to your aid. Your instincts were correct. Think about it, Margaret. What task could a higher being possibly want a seventeen year old do that couldnt be done better by someone with more life experiences?"
She wasnt sure whether to be insulted by the crack about her age, but she decided to let it go. "I was wondering that myself."
"Good girl. You were right to wonder, and right to resist."
"So, what did that thing want with me?"
"Ah, now thats complicated. Why youre here I mean "here" in heaven - well, thats a mistake. Youre not supposed to be dead yet."
The words cut through her with the force of that hazily remembered steering wheel slamming into her own chest. She felt the blood pounding in her ears, even though that couldnt be so. Dead people couldnt feel their hearts race, could they?
"Im not " she began, but she couldnt finish the question.
The cat looked so sad as he regarded her in her moment of devastation. "No, Margaret, youre not. The Prankster wanted your spirit to bolster his own with your strength, but there was more to it than that. There was something you were destined to do in your just-past life which the Prankster didnt want done, so he arranged to have you killed in that accident before your time, so you wouldnt interfere with his plans on earth. Im a spirit guide, here o keep the Prankster from taking your soul in this fragile time between your untimely death and your next incarnation."
Incredulous, she gaped at the cat. Her mouth worked a few times, but she couldnt get words to come out.
"Ah," he said, smiling ever so gently, "Im not allowed to tell you any more about your specific path. But you have to believe me, and trust me when I tell you it was a very important task. Now it will have to wait until you, in your next incarnation, can grow up. Unfortunately, by then, the Pranksters life force will be stronger, and it will be a harder task for you to beat him. But you will. Im certain of it. Youve never let us down before."
Margaret put her head in her hands. It was too much to believe. It didnt make sense. With a start, she noticed her hands were moist from the tears that were running down her cheeks. Something the cat said bothered her. She frowned at him through the tears. "Before?"
"Oh, yes," he assured her kindly. "Youve lived many lives, and you will live many more. Youre a very old soul, Margaret. A very remarkable soul. We count on you to fight a special, recurring evil." He paused to butt her leg with his head in a very catlike gesture. "Now, please, its time to go. Your time is up."
"Youre out of your hairy little mind."
A laugh from the cat as he shook his head. "No, Im not."
Margaret barked a self-deprecating laugh. "Then I am."
"No, Margaret," the cat chuckled. "I assure you, were both quite sane." He looked up sharply at the sky. "Were too late to walk. Ill have to cheat."
With that, he turned in place, and flicked his tail, and Margaret felt suddenly dizzy. She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling disoriented, and when she opened them again she found herself sitting on the dock beside the lake where she first encountered heaven. The sun was a little lower in the sky, but otherwise everything was as it had been when shed first opened her eyes here.
But she was alone. "Cat???" she called, jumping to her feet. He was not with her on the pier. A sense of loss gripped her heart. Just when shed felt shed found a true friend
Then the cats voice sounded in her head, a reassuring presence that quelled her urge to flee. "Be brave, Margaret. Its time. You will do great things."
The breeze picked up, drawing a number of wisteria petals with it. A little eddy of wind carried them toward her on the dock. A sense of peace filled her, and she closed her eyes, soaking in the warm sun and the fragrance of the flowers.
There was darkness now, and warmth, and a comforting feeling of just being. There were muffled noises beeps and clanks and indistinct voices. After a while, there was a pain, a squeezing of her head. It was a relentless, torturously slow pulsing pressure that never seemed to end, and she felt sure would make her whole self burst.
Suddenly, the overbearing binding feeling eased, and she felt cold air assault her body. The light was bright she could see the redness of it through her eyelids. Instinctively, she fought to open them. Things were blurry, and the world swam around her. She felt a rough cloth wiping her face, her head, her neck, her chest and arms. Then a sharp pain, which startled her into sucking in a great lungful of air, and then she screamed at the top of her lungs, while a rigid plastic something was stuffed briefly up each nostril.
And then, an all-encompassing softness of warm cloth, and her shivering stopped. She was laid upon a gently moving surface, softly rising and falling rhythmically, and felt a grasping, reassuring pressure on her back, steadying her in place. A rich, quiet voice said, "hello, beautiful. Im so glad to see you finally."
She gurgled and smiled, snuggling into the arms of her new mother.
Unseen, but watching from a great distance, the cat blinked his rich, green eyes in contentment and purred.