THREE SECONDS. THAT WAS ALL.
The man in the black leather jacket had looked down for just three seconds to read a text message on his phone. And in the interim, his five-year-old Houdini of a stepdaughter Chloe had unstrapped herself, climbed out of her car seat, and slipped out of sight—nowhere near the doorway of the office where he was to meet his contact.
Just three lousy seconds!
His mouth went dry.
He scanned the streets, sidewalk, between cars, to the left then right then a quick three-sixty. Despite the thorough sweep, which took all of two seconds, he didn’t see her.
She didn’t answer, but he spotted her. Way down the street, her auburn pigtails bouncing with each step.
“Chloe! Wait!” He slammed shut the back door of his Focus. Didn’t bother to lock it.Ran up the sidewalk—fast. But the little stinker was fixated on a black cat luring her across the imaginary border that separated the gentrified arts district of Carleton Village and the slums of East Brentwood.
The cat bolted around the corner at the sound of the man’s agitated shouts. Both hands outstretched, Chloe giggled and ran even faster.
He nearly tripped over an uneven seam in the sidewalk as he ran, his heart going faster than his feet.
A pair of SDPD squad cars with flashing red and blue beacons raced past Birch and came to a screeching halt somewhere around the corner of Lamont.
The little girl turned the same corner and vanished behind the red bricks of the apartment building. Straight onto Lamont.
“Stop, Chloe!” He’d gained but was still several steps behind.
The sound of a policeman shouting filled his head. Could things get any worse? He ran even harder.
It all happened within a matter of seconds.
Three lousy seconds.
That's what it took for him to round the corner and make out the figure fleeing the pimped-out Honda Civic that had crashed into a hydrant. The gunman shot at the cops, who now stood behind the open doors of their angled cars.
The man in the black leather jacket leapt at Chloe.
Over his shout, the shouts of the police, the screams of frightened pedestrians, came a deafening pop! whose impact toppled him.
A sudden chill overtook him as a crimson pool expanded around his face, now planted on the cold concrete sidewalk. He tried to speak, stretched his fingers towards Chloe. Felt nothing but the cold pumping though his entire body.
Life didn’t flash before his eyes.
He heard more gunshots.
The last thing he saw was Chloe lurching back, her pigtails flailing to the side. As though in slow motion, she was falling.
He never saw her hit the ground.
AS A REAPER OF THE THIRD LEGION, Nikolai—Nick, as he preferred to be called these days—had attended to more human deaths over the last thousand years than he cared to. Countless lives and memories snuffed out like the wick of a candle. It had all become routine, meaningless.
The ability to traverse the entire planet in the blink of a human eye had long grown commonplace, its charm lost somewhere between King Malcolm II’s victory in The Battle of Mortlach and Guttenberg’s invention of moveable type. These days he spent most of his time assigned to the northern hemisphere, one of the least active territories on earth.
As for leaving the planet, he typically only did that on days when he escorted a soul to the Terminus.
A day like today.
Nick waited while the OR surgeon continued trying to save the little girl from multiple gunshot wounds.
“My husband was killed,” the beautiful woman standing in the door said, her voice breaking. “She’s all I have.”
“We can’t keep her going like this,” the surgeon said gently.
“She’s not even five.
“I’m truly sorry. But it’s time to let her go.”
“No!” The mother rushed forward, knocking over a metal tray and all its equipment as she reached out to her daughter. The nurse caught hold of her arms and held her back.
“Please, don’t let the last few moments of your daughter’s life end like this. Let her go with some dignity,” the surgeon said.
Nick tuned out the mother’s voice as she got hold of herself. Having to watch this sort of thing was perhaps the worst part of his punishment. Far worse than his demotion.Worse than when he was a guardian a millennium ago. He’d seen tens of thousands die horrific deaths on battlegrounds in the physical realm—even intervened and partaken in sanctioned kills himself. But at least he’d been helping rid the planet of those who’d deserved it.
This was much worse.
Nick’s reflection didn’t show in the mirror, but in it he could see the surgeon calling the time of death and switching off the EKG machine, the little girl lying pale and still, the lovely mother weeping.
And now the warm golden light that only Nick could perceive filled the room, enveloping the body. It was about to happen.
The little girl’s ethereal form sat up and separated from her expired mortal body. She looked to her mother, confused.
“Mama? Why’re you crying?”
Her mother didn’t respond. How could she?
Callous as Nick’s heart had grown over the years, these moments always wrenched it.
“It’s okay, little girl.”
She turned to him and stepped off the operating table. Had she been older, she might have reacted with panic as most do when they see the blood on the sheets, the surroundings, the grief-stricken loved ones standing over their body. But she was too young to understand. She smiled and tried to touch her mother’s head. Her hand passed right through it. She giggled and did it again.
“That’s funny, Mommy.”
Nick hated this. He should never have to take a child this young and innocent to the Terminus. He forced a smile and approached her.
“What’s your name, love?”
“Chloe.” Again she giggled, now prancing around the OR passing her hands through cabinets, walls, chairs, her mother. “Funny!”
Nick put his hand on her shoulder and her smile faded. This was the part he hated most. An expression common to people much older than Chloe replaced it. A look of recognition.Finality.
She’s too young.
She looked back to her mother, still weeping over the empty shell that had been Chloe’s body. Then she turned back to Nick with tears in her eyes.
“It’s time to leave, isn’t it?”
“Come, say goodbye to your mum. She’ll feel it, and it’ll make her happy—if only for a moment.”
“Okay.” She reached up, put her tiny hand in Nick’s. Like an electrical current, a twinge that originated from the core of her spirit flowed into his. By now he should have been used to it, but he wasn’t.
“Come on, then.”
Chloe didn’t seem to pay any mind to the fact that her mother could neither see nor hear her. She leaned over and kissed her mother’s auburn hair, tried to stroke it without her hand passing through.
“It’s okay, Mommy.”
And in that moment, her mother stopped crying, sniffled, and looked up, her eyes incongruously hopeful.
Chloe choked back a little sob and tried to wrap her arms around her mother’s neck.
“I love you, Mommy. Have to go bye-bye now.”
Her mother blinked. Nick waited a couple of seconds, then gave Chloe’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.
“The last bit, love. Go on.”
She nodded, understanding what he meant—spirits always seemed to know this instinctively when first separated from their bodies. Placing her forehead against her mother’s, she joined her with shut eyes and poured out the very last of her mortal memories, the essence of their all too brief life together.
No matter how many times Tamara had tried to explain the human need for closure, to Nick’s mind it was still sentimental. Nonetheless, he waited patiently for Chloe’s spirit to converge for a moment with that of her mother’s.
Her mother smiled, her eyes closed. It was only a moment, but she seemed at peace. When she began to cry again, Chloe kissed the top of her head and returned to Nick, sadness briefly tugging the corners of her mouth down. Then her eyes and face began to glow.
She took Nick’s hand.
Her mother’s tears and sobs penetrated the emotional barrier he tried to forge. His hand began to glow—how simple it would have been to use his healing ability and restore the little girl’s mortal life. Just one touch.
But it was not allowed.
Nick had learned—the hard way, in England, a century ago. But what good was such an ability if it could not be used where needed?
What’s the point of my existence, for that matter?
He started walking out of the room, an entirely human and unnecessary habit he’d developed from mingling with mortals over the years.
“I miss her.”
“She’ll miss you a lot more.”
“Because mortals don’t know what it’s like on this side.” For them, time was a driving tyrant: linear, merciless, flowing in one and only one direction. Why would anyone want to go through a short pittance of a life with all its sorrows—seventy, maybe ninety years—only to grow feeble and stupid towards the end? At least Chloe had been spared that.
Yet something about this premature departure troubled him unreasonably. He’d reaped the souls of children before, never liked doing it, but in Chloe’s case the pain was quite a bit more acute.
As memories from the past surfaced, Nick without thinking released Chloe’s hand and floated freely in the room. Before he knew it, he found himself standing beside her mother. The auburn hair falling over emerald eyes shimmering with tears made her look achingly beautiful.
Her weeping subsided. Her lips moved ever so subtly.
She was praying.
Again without thinking, Nick stretched out his hand, gently reached toward her face with his fingertips, taking pains not to touch her so she wouldn’t perceive his presence.
Or would she?
She gasped with a start, her face lighting up.
Damn. Nick had inadvertently touched her hair and revealed himself.
He instantly slipped out of her perception. It had lasted only a second, but she had felt his presence. Seen his face.
She bolted to her feet and looked around the room, returned to her seat when she saw no one.
“Let’s go, Chloe.” Nick took her hand.
“She’ll be all right.” He led Chloe to the door, hoping he hadn’t just lied to her.
Chloe turned back to see her mother, waved, and said, “Bye-bye, Mama.”
Nick, against his better judgment, turned and looked at the mother too. Any trace of that brief moment of euphoria mortals experience the first time they encounter an angel had been replaced by deep grief. He’d seen such pain far too often, but this was the strongest he’d felt it himself in a long time.
As though they were his own.
He hated it. Hated the fact that he was starting to feel them again.
They were alien, perverse, just...wrong!
With a shudder, he held Chloe’s hand and crossed the divide.
For more Terminus, watch the trailer on YouTube!
Coming Soon! Review of Terminus and interview with author Joshua Graham!