Sarah can’t believe she’s dead. But apparently she is, because no one can see or hear her—at least not until her formerly dead brother Jesse shows up!
Jesse explains the mission: to save their father who’s stuck in this ominous shadow land between life and death. But Jesse’s broken the rules to come meet Sarah and the demons are sticklers for rules. Now they want their due—Sarah and Jesse. A story best described as a twisted Wizard of Oz meets the afterlife in a coming of age tale where the Dark side disguises itself as the Light, and a Fallen Angel falls for Sarah.
Paranormal Suspense at its finest, the first book of the Shadows and Light series.
Targeted Age Group: 18-70
Genre: supernatural romantic suspense
The Book Excerpt:
The furious beeping of alarms and sirens filled the room and bounced off the shiny white walls, a cacophony of sounds and flashing lights overwhelming her senses. Raised voices, all shouting out her name, stilled to just one. “We’re losing her,” yelled a deep male voice.
That, and a soft pop, more a feeling than a sound, like stepping on bubble wrap, was the last thing Sarah remembered on earth. She opened her eyes and saw that she was up near the ceiling, looking down on a crowd of people gathered around a gurney, machinery encircling it. It was quieter now; she could still hear the commotion below, but somehow it came to her thick and muffled, like a layer of cotton between her and them.
“Call it,” she heard a voice say, and the reply, “Time of death, two thirty, Monday, August fifteenth.”
Confused, she moved closer. A girl was on the gurney, and she looked familiar. Puzzled, Sarah noticed the cross around her neck. It was her on the gurney, her body, familiar as an old friend. I must be dead. Holy crap! She tried not to freak out, to bring her mind back around to what had just happened. She vaguely remembered an epic headache, a rush to the hospital, and people holding her arm telling her it would all be OK. Well, it’s obviously not OK. Still, she felt surprisingly good—infused with energy and not at all scared or worried that she was apparently dead. It felt as if that body lying there below her just didn’t matter anymore. Wow, this is just like all those shows on near-death experiences. They weren’t lying! Sarah looked around her. I wonder where the light is, or the tunnel . . .
Losing interest in the scene below, Sarah looked down at her hands. The same as always—covered with the freckles that went along with her auburn hair, but were the bane of her existence. There was a big scar on the left one from her typical tomboy roughhousing with her brother, Jesse. That scar had always made Sarah self-conscious. Especially after the biggest jock in school made fun of it in homeroom. I thought we were supposed to have new bodies in the afterlife . . . What’s going on? Sarah’s religious upbringing hadn’t prepared her for anything like this. Well, at least I still have a body of some sort. She turned around slowly, drifting down to the floor as though her old memories of gravity took precedence over her new state. Her feet touched solid ground like they always had. Just as she was thinking she might as well go on out of the room, she heard her brother’s voice in the hallway.
“Sarah, I’m out here. C’mon, we don’t have much time!”
Startled, she jumped and moved toward the sound. Jesse! She realized she was walking, just as she’d always walked, and breathing too and the wonder of that along with her brother’s voice, struck her. It’d been two years since she’d seen him, two long years since he’d died at age nineteen after being hit by a drunk driver. It had destroyed their family and almost destroyed her. Though Jesse was four years older, they’d always been very close. Siamese twins, her mom called them, when Sarah was young.
“Jesse,” she called, “is that you?”
Excited, she turned the corner and there he was, looking just as she’d seen him last, with an ear-to-ear crooked grin and his hazel eyes sparkling. “Ah, Sarah, I’m glad you’re here.”
She rushed into his outstretched arms, trying to understand this, trying to take in the possibility that she really was here with him, in an afterlife—her beloved big brother.
“Oh my God, Jesse, is it really you? I’ve missed you so much, how can this be? Am I really dead? Is this Heaven? What’s going on!” The questions poured out of her. Her joy at seeing him again when she’d dreamt of it so many times was overwhelming. Tears streamed down her face as she touched his cheek and his soft brown hair, all the while aware of his effort to hold still to allow it. In death, as in life, Jesse was still squirming with impatience.
“Sarah, chill! It’s for real and yes, I’m really here, but we’ve got to hurry. We haven’t got much time.” He shifted from foot to foot just as he always did. He saw her puzzled look and went on. “No, it’s not Heaven—but we’ll go over all that later.” He held her at arm’s length, assessing her, and took a deep breath, smiling.
He didn’t look like a ghost; he was just as solid as ever, a look of love on his face at her obvious confusion.
“Welcome to Shadow Land, Sarah—at least that’s what I call it.” Jesse shook the dark hair from his eyes with a jerk of his head in an all too familiar gesture and Sarah laughed just seeing it again.
“I can’t freaking believe you’re standing right in front of me!” she exclaimed, too excited to think. Jesse just laughed.
“It’s taken me a long time to figure things out in this place, Sarah, but I need to get you up to speed quick.” He steered his sister by the arm down the hallway, in an obvious hurry, and began to explain.
“We’ve only got three days, Sarah, that’s it. Three days here after we die, then we move on—into the Light or the Darkness—unless we’re stuck here. That’s why I need your help—cause Dad’s stuck here.” Jesse rushed the words in his hurry to get them out.
“Dad’s stuck? What do you mean ‘stuck’?” She couldn’t quite grasp this; she was still barely able to comprehend her new state.
“Because of what he did to himself,” Jesse said, waving his arms, visibly frustrated with her blank stare. “And because he followed the wrong people afterwards who led him further away. I need you to talk to him, Sarah, because I can’t.”
Now it was all coming back: what happened before her own death. Her brother Jesse’s brutal loss, followed shortly afterwards by their father’s suicide. Her poor dad, a good man, compassionate and kind, was driven to despair after Jesse’s death. Despair deep enough to take his own life. Sarah thought about her dad, how he’d gone from the man she’d known to somebody who could commit suicide.
“But what can I do, Jesse?”
“Well, I need to find him and then you need to go in after him. He won’t be able to hear me because I’m not from here anymore. But he will be able to hear you.”
The misty form of the hospital hallway had suddenly morphed into the parking lot outside, and they stood together for the first time in two years.
“Tell me what I need to know, Jesse. Help me understand.”
And he began to explain the mysteries that all mankind had pondered for two millennia.
“We just aren’t supposed to harm ourselves, Sarah. We each have a path to follow, a destiny. If we interfere with it, we can screw things up. But it’s always our call; we can still choose to go out that way.” Jesse appeared thoughtful, and different in some way. Sarah couldn’t quite place what it was.
Now the flashbacks started coming up fast: the terrible shock of losing Jesse compounded with her Dad’s almost unbelievable death; walking around feeling like her guts had been shredded, grief so deep she wanted to die just to escape it. Their deaths had left her mom and her alone. And suddenly Sarah felt a stab of sorrow that her mom had now lost her too. But Jesse was special. He’d been their golden boy, the perfect child in the Brandon family. She’d been the good little sister, trying her best to stay below the radar, comfortable with that. Not that she didn’t want any attention; it just felt right to stay unobserved. Jesse loved the spotlight; Sarah, not so much.
“When Dad first got here, he was ashamed because of what he’d done,” Jesse said sadly. “The bad things here noticed him right away. He stuck out—a big ball of negative emotion and those give off their own vibe. Negative attracts negative.”
Sarah had noticed this all her life and it was good to get confirmation.
“So, these people pretended to be nice and called out for Dad to follow them,” said Jesse. “Basically they tricked him.”
Oh no, this sounds bad! Her head was spinning. She’d had bouts with insomnia all her life, nights of praying she could fall asleep before daylight, just so tired, but with her brain whirling faster and faster like a hamster on a wheel. It felt like this now.
Sarah looked away from Jesse’s face and suddenly noticed they’d somehow drifted into a new area. A dense foggy gray landscape surrounded them, a wide dirt road was under their feet, and she could only see clearly about 300 yards in any direction. Mist shrouded distant objects, scrub brush and stunted pine trees stretched off as far as she could see into the horizon, lining the road, which rose gently ahead of them. The sky was a uniformly dark gray.
“These bad elements here—they weren’t the greatest types to follow,” Jesse continued sadly, shaking his head. “The people they used to be weren’t real nice. Maybe not quite evil enough to be noticed by the dark side, but bad enough. I think I know where they took Dad though—closer to those foothills way over there.” He pointed. “And we just need to get him back to neutral ground and headed in the right direction.”
Sarah was listening, but as Jesse talked, she was feeling her face and hair, touching her arms, looking down at her legs—yep, all there, but still, just un-freaking-believable!
They were walking slowly down the road now and Sarah could feel the rocks and pebbles under her feet, feet that had served her well on earth. Sarah had always loved to walk. She had to ask about this: “But how can we be walking, Jesse? I mean, aren’t we supposed to float or fly like angels?”
Jesse laughed. “Actually, once you get the hang of it, you can ‘think’ yourself to a place you want to be—especially you, Sarah—you can still think yourself back to earth. I can’t do that anymore. I’ve got to get permission to go back there.”
Sounds sweet, I want to try that!
Jesse bent to pick up a rock and threw it, scuffing his feet in the dust and then stamping them, sending puffs of it billowing up. Always playing! “Stop!” Sarah sneezed.
“Bless you. That’s also why I need you, Sissy.” Jesse grinned, using the nickname he gave her as a child and turning his palms up in a “voila” gesture.
“Why?” coughed Sarah. “Can you please stop stomping! You’re making my head hurt.”
“I. Need. You. To. Talk. To. Dad,” said Jesse in slow speed. “Because he can’t hear me or see me now. You’ll still be able to talk to him, at least until your three days are up.”
The road rose gradually before them, and the brush and trees began to drop away.
“I also can’t get too close to where Dad is now, just in case. It’s hard to be side by side with any kind of darkness; I’d stick out, and be noticed right away. I might’ve got permission to come here, but I’m on my own if I get caught by them.”
“Just in case, what? Who would notice you—caught by who?” asked Sarah, her panic rising. Since Jesse’s death, she’d developed phobias—everything from believing everyone around her would die, to driving across bridges. She knew this was kind of silly, but she still couldn’t shake it. Then after Jesse and her dad both died, she’d lost all her courage and, instead of standing up to the world as she’d always done, she’d retreated, small, scared, and uncertain. Her fearless personality had been just another casualty of death. And for everyone who knew and loved the former Sarah, this was almost as great a loss as Jesse and her dad.
“I told you before Sarah, the bad things! Focus! The bad things would notice me! You’ll be hard for them to see because you’re still in-between, still in your three-day time-period, but me, they’d spot me easily. I bet if you held still, they probably couldn’t see you at all! Like I said, some are just mean people, but some aren’t people at all.”
What? “Well, what are they then?” Sarah asked uneasily. None of this seemed real. Maybe she’d wake up any minute. She rubbed her face roughly with both hands and the thought came to pinch herself in that soft fleshy place right below the armpit. “Ow!” she yelled, while Jesse made a disgusted face. She felt the brain-fog clear a little more, but she was still right there. It’s not a dream!
Jesse hesitated. “I don’t want to talk about that just yet.”
“Are you kidding me?” yelled Sarah. “Seriously? You lay all this on me and then decide when to dole out the most important stuff?” Her joy at seeing Jesse had somehow given way to their annoying habit of brother-sister bickering. He always liked to withhold information in some “secret superiority of the elder sibling” mindset. And it was as frustrating now as it had always been on earth.
Sarah’s head was finally clearing and, although she was mad and confused at her new state, she wanted to trust Jesse. But why does he always have to push my buttons! Jesse knew way more about this place than she did. Sarah looked around her uneasily. What am I going to do, turn around and go home? After Jesse’s death, she’d had to adjust: to go about daily life with her ginormous grief, tread softly between her devastated mom and dad, and yet never give up. Somehow she had adjusted, if you could call it that. She just hoped she could do the same now. She sighed, releasing some of the anger. OK, get it together, Sarah, it’s all good—and Dad needs help now. Her dad hadn’t adjusted quite as well as she had. Somehow she had to help him.
Jesse’s confidence in this new role of “afterlife tour guide” was wearing down her fear bit by bit and Sarah tried to relax.
“Look to the left over there.” Jesse pointed. Far in the distance, across the foggy, scrub-brush-covered plain, she could barely see the dark outline of steep, craggy bluffs. The clouds above them were black and boiling, like the sky just before a tornado. Just looking at them gave her an intense feeling of foreboding. Sarah shuddered, and Jesse nodded knowingly. “Those are the foothills. Of fire,” he added with a sideways glance at her. “This strip of land we’re on, this is neutral territory, part of Shadow Land. And over there far to the right are the foothills of Light. The farther you go, either direction, the more you can feel the area you’re nearing. There’s a line on each side no one crosses without permission.”
“Why don’t any of us know about this?” asked Sarah.
Jesse shrugged. “I don’t know. But no one knows until they get here. All I do know is that the Dark and the Light are closer to us on earth than we knew. Not up or down, more like sideways.” Jesse gazed steadily at his sister, serious now. “And there’s a war going on, one we didn’t really know about either.” Sarah digested this information quietly.
As they’d walked and talked, she thought she’d seen movement occasionally, further ahead or off to the side of the road. She’d turned to look but saw only dark shadows or sometimes a light gray shape. Now fear was definitely replacing her earlier excitement at seeing Jesse. She tried to squash it down. She also suddenly realized she was starving. How strange. She was always hungry on earth, but she didn’t expect it here, in the afterlife.
“Tell me more about this place, and the people here,” she said. “What are those things I keep seeing over there?” Sarah pointed past the edge of the wide road toward a shape that now stood quietly in a little clearing on the left.
“C’mon, Sis, you might as well see for yourself.” Jesse took her arm and pulled her. The closer they got, the more terrified she grew and her guts clenched as she squinted to see. It was a woman. Denser than a shadow but lighter gray and solid looking, she stood staring straight ahead, arms at her sides. Jesse walked directly to her as Sarah dragged her feet trying to slow down her trajectory, which would put her face to face with the woman.
“Jesse, stop!” Sarah hissed, alarmed.
“Sarah, it’s OK,” Jesse stage-whispered. “You’ll see.”
The woman looked lost and slightly out of it, just not all there. Her dark hair nearly covered one hazy blue eye and her clothes were as gray and nondescript as the rest of her. A few feet away, Jesse finally let go of Sarah and stepped directly in front of the woman, leaning unflinchingly close to her cheesy, whitish-gray face.
“Hello, ma’am, are you lost? Can we help you?” He spoke loudly, as if to an elderly deaf person. Jesse wasn’t two inches from her nose, but still she stood, unaware, staring into space. He snapped his fingers twice in front of her eyes. She didn’t move, didn’t blink.
Puzzled, Sarah took a step closer. “Can’t she hear you?” she whispered. And at the sound of Sarah’s voice, the woman rolled her milky eyes in her direction, fixing them on her. “Eeeee!” Sarah squealed, jumping back from the vacant stare now leveled directly at her.
“He loved me once,” mumbled the woman. “I have to find him. I know he still loves me.” Horror swept through Sarah as she realized the woman could interact with her but was locked in some tortured world of her own making. She’s like a zombie! Sarah noticed dark liquid dripping from the lady’s slit wrists and suddenly understood she’d killed herself. Filled with dread at this vacuous monstrosity that used to be a woman, she backed up, wanting only to get away from her, tripped, and sat down hard in the dirt. The woman just stood there, unaware.
“Oh, Sarah,” Jesse sighed, though he was instantly by her side. “Sorry, but some things never change.” His sister’s occasional clumsiness was a family joke. He offered her a hand. “No, she can’t hear me, but as you can see, she can hear you. You probably won’t be able to get her to understand anything though. This is why I need your help with Dad. He’ll be able to hear you too and he should be able to understand. This woman’s stuck here, locked into her past.”
“Oh my God!” cried Sarah, walking away fast, wanting distance between her and the zombie woman. Zombies were one of Sarah’s current obsessions—or maybe they were another phobia. Luckily they weren’t real.
While she stopped to brush herself off, Jesse explained that these Shadow people can “think” themselves back to earth and search for whoever they’re thinking about. So they pop up from time to time where they used to live or work.
“This is what a ghost really is, Sarah. Anyone living in this woman’s house on earth will see her when she comes back, and think she’s a ghost.”
“Wow. I understand,” Sarah replied, her voice trembling. She wanted to jump into Jesse’s arms just like she’d done when she was little, but she did her best to be brave. “But it’s just too freaky!” She was still shaking.
The more Sarah learned, the more her fear escalated. The up-close-and-personal introduction to the zombie woman and the thought of many more like her brought terror rushing up into her chest; she hadn’t felt this helpless and scared since Jesse was lying close to death in the hospital. Yes, she wanted to help her dad, but— “I can’t do this, Jesse,” she exploded. “I don’t know the rules, I don’t understand anything about this place, and now I’m too scared.” She hated to be Debbie Downer all over Jesse’s parade, but this fear felt far worse than dying. That was a piece of cake. Sarah was officially overwhelmed.
“I just can’t!” she sputtered. “You don’t understand. I’m not the same as when you were with me back on earth. I’m scared now—of everything!”
Jesse put his hand on her shoulder, his face really sad for the first time. “I know Sarah.”
Silent, lost deep in thought, Jesse stood, hands in pockets and head down. Oh no, he has more to tell me! More than anything, Sarah needed one of Jesse’s famous pep talks. Like the time he got her to drive her Dad’s ‘66 GTO. Her dad had just restored and painted the sweet muscle car of his dreams. She’d only had her driver’s permit, but Jesse, self-confident and the king of pep talks, said of course she drove well enough to park it in their narrow garage. But come to think of it, the way that ended—a destroyed fender— didn’t seem a whole lot different than what was going to happen here. But even if she didn’t believe it, she needed a pep talk. Boy, do I ever need a pep talk.
“You can do it. You’re Dad’s only chance,” said Jesse, intensity shining in his eyes. He didn’t go on and on about it, but she knew it was true. Still, this was an awfully short pep talk.
She thought about her dad. The guilt Sarah carried over his suicide, even into this new afterlife, made her feel physically heavy. Although she knew she was light enough to float, it felt like lugging around a backpack full of rocks. Her fear that her self-absorption and misery over her brother’s death had turned her into a selfish, bitter person, one who had no time for their father, was like hot molten lead permanently poured into her soul. Why don’t people leave this crap behind when they die?
They should’ve all clung together after Jesse’s death, comforting one another. Instead, they each retreated into their own private hell, not helping each other, not even speaking. Sarah truly believed this is what caused her dad to take his own life; he’d felt utterly alone. She felt so guilty over this. She owed him. She simply had to do what Jesse was asking, no matter how scared, no matter what awaited in her three-day journey. I just have to do this, for Dad. Sarah didn’t know whether the lump in her throat was from fear or sadness. Maybe it was both.
The road in front of them curved into the distance and faded away to the left. Slowly, Jesse and Sarah climbed back onto it and headed on their way. They walked quietly for a little while, both lost in thought. Sarah knew she had no choice. It was going to happen whether she wanted to help or not. “OK Jesse, I’ll do what I can,” she said, still terrified, yet slightly more resigned to the idea.
It seemed as though the formerly barren landscape was suddenly populated with movement—wispy gray shadows and denser, darker forms were migrating across it further ahead. They stood out in the stillness of the flat plains. Sarah squinted, trying to focus on them, and noticed the occasional building and house now dotting the horizon line, gnarled trees towering above them. This confused her and she pointed at the nearest one.
“How are there houses and buildings here? Who built them?” Sarah was hungry and getting tired now too, but there was too much to learn, too much at stake to give in to mundane weaknesses like that.
“Those are just more thought forms, Sarah. Like the lady we just left who can think herself back home if she tries hard enough, they can also ‘think’ their former homes into being.”
Sarah felt like her head might explode. “Do you mean to tell me that they can create a replica here of their houses? What about when they think of their loved ones they left behind?”
Jesse stopped, frowning, and scuffing a foot in the dirt. He glanced at her, as if to gauge her response, and she could see he didn’t really want to tell her, especially after her reaction to the zombie woman.
“Um, actually, they also can create their loved ones here too.”
“You can’t be serious!” she cried. This was unreal.
He sat down on a boulder at the side of the road, and sighed. “I know, right? Well, I guess it’s more of a shell. I’d call it a wisp. They can’t talk, and they’re a lighter color than the others; that’s how you can tell. They also wander around or just walk back and forth, without purpose. They can only do what the thought that created them had them doing.”
Sarah was dumbfounded. “You mean if people here just think about someone really intensely, it creates them?”
“Yep.” Jesse nodded. “And the same goes for their houses or even their old jobs. So you might see factories, gas stations, or deli’s here, places where they used to work on earth.” Sarah was speechless. “I guess it makes them more comfortable to be in their old familiar spots,” Jesse said.
Sarah noticed a strange symbol on the boulder where Jesse was sitting. She’d been seeing it a lot since she’d gotten here—carved into rocks and trees. It looked like a circle with a jagged lightning bolt running through it horizontally, with what looked like an eye and an arrow pointing in the direction they were heading. “What’s this mark I keep seeing?” she finally asked, pointing at the rock face beneath his legs.
“I’m pretty sure that’s the symbol for the caves, where Dad’s at. At least I think it’s where he’s at. These carvings are a sort of roadmap for the in-between people—the ‘not so good, not so bad’ ones,” said Jesse.
Sarah filed this away, shaking her head, and watched as Jesse rose slowly. Probably from the weight of everything he hasn’t told his poor sister.
On and on they walked, Jesse explaining the whole way, Sarah’s fear warring with her curiosity. The fog had lifted and, as they crested another long sloping hill, Sarah could see the road twisting away into the distance and the line of souls moving slowly down it now, each on his or her own journey.
It felt like they’d been walking most of the afternoon, but Sarah wasn’t as tired as she knew she should be. The sense of time passing was all wrong for the length of road they’d already traveled and she asked Jesse about it.
“Time is different here, Sarah,” he explained. “It goes by way faster than on earth.”
Sarah sensed Jesse’s mood lightening and wondered why, since hers was growing darker by the minute.
“I’m happy to be with you again, Sarah,” he finally said with a smile. “Aren’t you happy?”
Sarah hated to disappoint him, but a growing sense of dread was all she felt now; what if she lacked the ability to do what needed done? “Oh Jess,” she sighed, “of course I’m happy to see you. I’m just not too happy about these circumstances. You’d better start thinking of a plan, something we can do to get Dad back. And you’ll have to tell me what I need to do.” Jesse nodded, trying to reassure her, but it wasn’t really working.
Sarah noticed an intersection up ahead, and they’d passed another one not long before. A smaller road forked off to the right and she could see a group of people together, walking down it. Puzzled as they came abreast of it, she asked Jesse: “Why are those people going that way?”
Jesse turned to look. “I call those the roads to nowhere; that’s the second one we’ve passed. Some people just go the wrong way.”
“But how do we know we’re going the right way? Do you remember this from when you were here before?”
“Yeah, I do, but even if I didn’t, can’t you feel it?” Jesse stopped, head tilted as if listening.
Sarah stopped too and considered this. Yes, I can feel it! In wonder she turned to Jesse. “I can!” she blurted. “I know for sure it’s the right way, I can feel something pulling me in this direction. But don’t they feel that too?”
“They feel that pull too, Sarah, only not in this direction. Their pull is taking them that way.”
“I don’t understand.” Sarah said apologetically.
“Those that know the truth, they go one way and everyone else, well, they don’t.”
“What is the truth?” asked Sarah quietly.
“That we are all one.” Jesse told her. “That we all come from the Light, and return to the Light.”
“What about all the different religions. Who’s right?” Sarah persisted.
“All religions are valid as long as they respect life and seek the Light. The Light goes by many names, Sarah. And you have to be very evil to belong on the dark side.”
She thought about this deep concept and it rang true to her.
One glance behind her told her they’d been moving farther and farther to the left and closer and closer to those dark foothills. Was this dread she’d been feeling the past few miles because they were too close now, too far from the neutral territory of Shadow Land? And what is that smell? It stank like sulfur, burning tires, and rotting road-kill. Closer and closer they came, past huge jagged outcroppings of rocks and boulders, seemingly stacked by a giant’s hand like toy blocks.
“Listen,” Jesse whispered grimly, one finger in the air.
The sound of a million voices carried faintly across the rough boulders. Screaming and groaning—it sounded like the gigantic, undulating agony of humankind expressed as one voice.
What is that? Sarah worriedly squinted ahead, trying to see.
Bored, Azeel the high commander of the demonic hierarchy stood beside his master watching the line of timid souls hurrying past below. Suddenly Azeel perked up at a young woman coming down the line, a woman he innately sensed was one of “theirs”. After all, he was the demon in charge of Lust, and she was extremely attractive in all the surgical ways money could buy. She also had long blond hair, a low-cut T-shirt, a very short skirt, and dancer’s legs.
The master caught sight of her too and, with a flick of his finger, sent Azeel and two other sentinels down. Diving and swooping low, they landed on each side of the young woman, who screamed and fought hysterically. A demon held each arm and it was obvious the one directly in front of her was of higher status. The ornate medallion he wore glinted dully. The others wore nothing.
Towering over her, Azeel inserted one claw into the V-neck of her T-shirt and, with a quick downward motion, ripped it in half. The woman screamed and tried to shrink back as he sliced her undergarments away. Next the demon leaned his grotesque face down and sunk his teeth into the soft flesh, tearing at her and pulling out a fluid filled sack as she screamed in agony. As he spat it on the ground, all three demons chuckled; this had excited them. Groaning in pain and horror, the woman collapsed, but was jerked upright by the demons on either side.
Then Azeel, his medallion swinging, crouched down and began the rape. His large scaly wings lay tightly against his back, and his muscles bunched. The woman emitted a low inhuman cry, as the demon’s eyes rolled in ecstasy. The woman shrieked once more. When he was finished, he nodded at his two subordinates, and they began to take their turns.
Azeel smiled up at his master for this small favor and bowed, his medallion swinging. The being on the throne nodded back graciously as Azeel wiped off the blood.
Azeel looked back at the girl, watching as his subordinates stretched her between them like a human rag doll and gripped her tightly with their claws. A garbled moaning could be heard from the woman occasionally, her eyes wide with agony and shock.
Azeel smiled at the sight of his subordinates’ escapades and felt his own excitement rising again. There was plenty of time. After all, she was unable to die and was theirs for eternity.
The road ahead of Sarah and Jesse swept abruptly to the left and narrowed by the minute and suddenly they were in a canyon, steep walls of rock surrounding them. With no escape possible, the sounds and smell nearly overwhelming, Sarah almost panicked as they caught up to the line of people ahead. The bottleneck of the path through the canyon now left only room enough for single-file passage. The cacophony of human voices grew louder and louder and Sarah heard a single scream ring out, a woman’s cry of pain, somewhere just ahead.
“We’re too close,” she whispered, terrified by the proximity of whatever lurked just behind the rock wall. This was too real, too intense—no longer just a Bible study concept she’d zoned out to in church as the minister droned on and on. Sarah turned to go back—it was fight or flight and flight was the only option. Jesse grabbed her arm.
“Shh . . .” was all he said.
Frozen with dread, she followed his upward gaze.
Just ahead on their left, carved high into an elevated outcropping of stone sat a gigantic rough “throne” and on it sat a being that she knew was the antithesis of all that was good and of the Light. Oh dear God! And then it turned and looked directly at them.
The long, sinewy face was terrifying in its absence of all compassion or human understanding. The cold reptilian eyes narrowed, weighing and measuring the line of souls who cringed and hurried past. Good God, I’m going to be snuffed out once and for all, here on this path while wearing my favorite platform shoes! Epic Fail. Is this really it? The end? Sarah froze, still as a rabbit in a fox’s sight, and Jesse pulled her forward by the arm. She could not take her eyes from that hideous face and, as his gaze wandered over them, she saw that it settled on one of the residents ahead of them in line.
“Shh,” Jesse softly warned her again.
The hatred coming from those cruel eyes was implacable and a faint sardonic smile pulled the thin lips up at the corners. With a flick of one hand, a horde of grotesque, bulbous gargoyle-like winged creatures flew upward and outward from their perch around the throne. Arching gracefully overhead, they dove toward the unfortunate soul in front of them. His agonized screams split the air as their claws buried themselves deeply into his back and shoulders. They snatched him up, biting and tearing at him in midair, blood and gruesome chunks thumping and splattering back on the path. Even though people were in this new form, their bodies apparently could still be torn apart and could still feel pain. Sarah’s breath stuck in her throat as she dodged the falling pieces. Nearly insane with terror, all she could think of were the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz—her greatest childhood fear.
Jesse crouched low and pulled her behind him, lightly stepping around the bloody intestines of the unfortunate soul whose screams were still fading away into the distance.
Stiff with fear, Sarah didn’t think she could even move, but somehow she did, following close behind Jesse, sliding through the gore in her platform shoes, but moving fast, the sound and smell of that terrible godforsaken place fading with each step. Focused on putting distance between the demons and them, neither Sarah nor Jesse spoke for a good ten minutes. She felt dizzy as the walls of the steep canyon opened suddenly into the wide gray sky, the narrow path broadening into the road again. As they slowed, she realized she’d been holding her breath, afraid of being heard by the demons. The shock left her numb; she’d never seen intestines up close before!
Sarah felt the tears come up all at once and sobs of anguish and relief washed over her.
“It’s OK now, Sarah,” Jesse comforted, putting his arm around her heaving shoulders.
She wiped her eyes, looking up at him finally. “I had no idea,” she said shakily.
“No one does.” Jesse answered. “It’s pretty bad, I know, the first time you see it for yourself.”
They sat down side by side, a little way off the road, backs against a tree, while she gathered her wits.
Jesse sighed, forearms on knees, and tossed a pebble he’d picked up. “When I first saw it, I was as shocked as you.” He gazed into the distance, unseeing. “They don’t seem to notice the good people who go past. Somehow they’re allowed to walk right by. But those who they recognize as their own—well, look out. They grabbed a guy right in front of me the day I came through. I ’bout crapped my pants!” Jesse chuckled, and went on. “They sure are butt-ugly too, aren’t they? They were beautiful once, but after their fall, as punishment it was decreed that their outsides match their insides. I guess their insides must’ve been pretty bad!”
Sarah managed a tiny smile. “Look at me,” she told him, holding out her shaking hands. The adrenaline was fading now, leaving her weak and even dizzier. Her stomach suddenly growled again, loudly, and Jesse laughed.
“Hungry?” he asked.
“How come we still feel these earthly sensations here, like pain—and hunger? I’ve been starving since I got here, and now my legs are like Jello and I twisted my ankle! How come it’s the same feelings here, just like when we were alive?”
“Well, it’s an in-between place,” Jesse explained. “We’re still sort of attached to our old selves, and we aren’t at our final destinations. Once you get to the Light, you’ll only feel the good stuff. How you doing now, you OK?” Jesse leaned over solicitously and patted her head with a big-brother gesture she’d seriously missed.
“I still just can’t believe I’m really here with you, with all this.” She swept her arms open to encompass the surroundings. She’d forgiven him for their little meltdown earlier. “As scary as that just was, seeing you again was almost worth it. I’m just glad you were here with me through that. I can’t even imagine going through it alone.”
Jesse smiled. “Yeah it’s pretty rough. Well, we’ve got to get moving, Sis.” He stood, brushing himself off, and stuck out his hand to help her up. “We’re not too far now.” The road stretched out before them again, and in the distance, fading into the horizon, she could see more low hills up ahead on their left. Jesse pointed them out. “I think that’s where Dad is, in those caves up there.”
“We don’t have to go past anything else, like back there, do we?” asked Sarah.
“No, just the caves, and I’ll tell you what to do. They’re just people like us in there, but meaner and mostly dumber. And Dad will be able to hear you. I’m hoping we can get him quick and be out of there ASAP.” Jesse hesitated. “I’ve never been there, but I have heard them called the Caves of Consequence, I guess because they draw that certain type of person, and maybe that’s their path.”
Sarah digested this, looking worried.
“I want to get back to the Light as soon as I can; I know what I’m risking here.” Jesse looked hard at Sarah and she stared back, understanding for the first time what they were up against. “Let’s just say I don’t want to spend any large chunk of time back there,” Jesse said solemnly, gesturing with his head at the abomination behind them.
Sarah’s mind seized on that thought, and she began to shiver. First just a little, like when you stay too long in a cold swimming pool, then all over, until the shivers turned into full-body spasms—like the time she’d locked herself outside in the dead of winter with no coat. Maybe it was a delayed response to what they’d just been through, but she believed it was the very thought of that place, and the involuntary terror of her soul.
On they walked, through the semi-barren landscape dotted with a few houses. They passed the occasional person on his own journey, and Sarah caught glimpses of others far ahead, but for the most part, it was just them now on this section of the road. Finally she saw a larger building up ahead and, as they got close enough, she could read the sign: “DINER.”
“C’mon,” Jesse said, “let’s see if we can’t quiet your stomach!”
What? We can eat here? This is a real restaurant? Sarah stumbled as Jesse pulled her toward the entrance—the familiar generic-restaurant exterior of a thousand similar places on earth. Jesse stepped over the threshold and held the door for her to follow.
Rows of booths lined the walls to the right in the large room, and directly in front of them was a wait station with a sign on a pedestal: “Please be Seated.” Just across from that, there was a long counter with low stools where a man’s back greeted them. A couple of large coolers lined the wall to the left of the bar; “Self-Serve,” said the sign above them. A bowl of fruit sat on the counter, the dingy gray overlay on the red apples obvious in the artificial light.
The soft sounds of silverware clinking filled the air and Sarah glanced into the larger room from which it originated. Several of the booths held customers, three men and a woman close by, each sitting alone. Several other people in the rear looked dazed: a man and woman seated together and a young guy with round glasses, blinking bewilderedly. The woman closest to Sarah stared straight ahead, eyes blank as a china doll’s. One of the men picked sullenly at a piece of pie on a small white plate in front of him. The other man was tapping impatiently with a knife on his glass of water. The third man sat staring out the long window that nearly covered one wall, lost in thought or maybe simply trying to make sense of this new landscape in which he’d found himself. Jesse stood beside Sarah, both of them taking it all in.
Jesse informed her—in a whisper—how some felt the pull of this journey stronger than others, which maybe explained the dawdling types.
Suddenly Sarah caught movement out of the corner of her eye, in front of them.
A waitress, a lighter blue-gray color with blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, placed a glass of Coke on the long countertop. She turned and walked the ten paces back to the soda machine, picked up a new glass, bent down for ice from a hidden cooler, and proceeded to fill it with soda.
As Sarah watched in horror, the full glass the waitress had just placed on the counter blurred and grew dimmer and dimmer. As the waitress turned to make the repeat trip, it disappeared just before she set the new Coke on the counter in its place. Again she turned—ten steps over, bending for ice, filling the glass—and again the Coke on the counter wavered and disappeared, just before she set the new one down.
“Oh my God,” blurted Sarah.
“That’s what I meant by a wisp,” Jesse whispered. “Someone who loved her dearly created her here just by thinking about her. Maybe they created this whole place, who knows. They may have owned this family restaurant on earth and that waitress was their daughter. It’s hard to say.”
Sarah stared, open mouthed. The girl was oblivious, just an automaton, a thought form created from some anguished parent’s memory. Sarah thought she’d lost her appetite over this, until Jesse walked to the big glass-fronted cooler on their left and slid open the door. She followed him hesitantly, leery of the man at the counter and the girl behind it. But neither one of them paid them the least bit of attention.
She didn’t want to take her eyes off of them, but then her stomach growled again, and that was that. OOOH, this is a dessert cooler! I guess my weight doesn’t really matter as much anymore . . . There were single slices of pie and cheesecake on the shelves as well as whole pies boxed for take-out. Sarah’s mouth watered at the cherry and blueberry, but when she saw the fat strawberries in their gel with whipped cream along the edges, that was it! As Jesse held the cooler door open, she reached in for it. She was even getting used to the gray color overlaying everything in Shadow Land; in spite of it, the pie still looked good.
Jesse chose a piece of cherry and led the way to a booth in the far corner, away from everyone. Eager to take her first bite, Sarah shook her silverware out of the cheap paper napkin. She placed the napkin on her lap, near to drooling over her favorite pie. Pie was twice as good when you were really hungry. She leaned in to smell it, but couldn’t catch a whiff. Sarah cut into the flaky crust, and, pushing it onto her fork with one finger, balanced a huge chunk of pie; crust, one fat strawberry, and a gob of whipped cream, and oh so carefully ladled it into her mouth.
She closed her eyes in expectation as the cool forkful of pie hit her taste buds and—YUCK! It tasted like cardboard and paste, with maybe a little extra mystery texture thrown in! Sarah exhaled loudly, manners forgotten, mouth open, and crumbs flying, working to chew and swallow the nasty stuff.
Jesse grinned, watching her—he knew! Slowly he chewed his own pie, also working to swallow it. “Yeah, it’s pretty bad,” he agreed nonchalantly.
“What in the world is wrong with it? It looks just fine,” she managed to choke out through the mouthful of cardboard mush.
“It only looks like strawberry pie,” Jesse said. “There are no good tastes here in Shadow Land. Like I told you, the good feelings, the good food, all of that good stuff, is waiting in the Light. This stuff here is flavorless, odorless, and colorless. Like those apples over there—gray. But it will fill your belly at least.” Jesse chewed grimly.