The instant Jonah let go of his grandfather’s hand, his shadow jerked him backward, hard—like a parachute suddenly braking a skydiver’s fall, but in reverse.
Okay, that was a bad move, he thought.
|To read Angeling from the beginning, see the table of contents at the Angeling book page.|
Instead of rising toward the Light, Jonah found himself being dragged down, swallowed by his shadow. Everything in him screamed to breathe, but there was no air, only a suffocating coldness. He had wanted to save his shadow-self; instead, he was drowning with it, and he had the sickening thought that this, finally, was what it was like to die.
He was shocked, then, when the enveloping darkness shattered in a rush of splashing water and air and light—a dimmer light than the Light he had just left, but bright enough to flood Jonah with relief, and hope. He gasped and coughed and shook the water from his face. More water rained down on his head. He looked up and saw an enormous angel pouring water on him from its cupped hands—or the statue of an angel, he realized with relief; it was the centerpiece of the fountain in which Jonah found himself floating.
And the fountain stood in the middle of the lobby of Aventa Regional Hospital, at least according to the big sign on the wall.
Before he could even begin to make sense of that, though, his grandfather shot out of the water right in front of him in a great whoosh, just like when they used to go swimming at his lake cabin.
“There you are,” Grandpa Zograffos said. “You decided to take the scenic route?”
“I’m sorry! I know that was a stupid thing to do—”
“I wouldn’t call it stupid,” his grandfather said, using a hand to wipe his face as he tread water. “Scramble-brained, reckless, muckled, mole-sighted, and stupid is more like it.”
“You said you wouldn’t call it stupid.”
“On further consideration, I changed my mind.”
“Grandpa, you’re the one who fell off a roof trying to get a badminton shuttle!”
His grandfather squinted at him. “You think that was stupid? You shoulda seen some of the things I did when I was your age. Amazing I lived long enough to fall off that roof.”
People were passing through the lobby without giving Jonah and his grandfather a second glance, as if they were figures in a dream.
“I’m dead, right?” Jonah asked, watching a woman walk right past them with a couple of little kids. Maybe the woman ignored Jonah and his grandfather out of politeness, but surely the little kids would have at least turned to look. “None of these people can see us, can they? But I can still see you, and I know you’re dead. Are we ghosts, or what?”
Grandpa Zograffos just snorted and made his way to the edge of the pool, where he pulled himself onto the low, octagon-shaped wall. He moved as easily as a kid, and kind of looked like one, too, in his bare feet. Jonah followed. His sopping wet clothes left a large puddle on the floor; his grandfather, by contrast, sat there in his painter’s clothes as dry and composed as if he’d just stepped out of an air-conditioned limo.
“Death wears many masks,” his grandfather said cheerfully. “Some of the people walking around here are more dead, in their own way, than both of us combined.”
“Grandpa, you know what I mean!”
“You mean are you dead enough for tax purposes? Show me your bellybutton.”
“Your bellybutton—you know, that funny little giblet down around your middle.”
“The SciFi channel didn’t mention anything about bellybuttons during its in-depth report on near-death experiences,” Jonah muttered as he stood and lifted his t-shirt.
Grandpa Zograffos peered at his stomach. “If you’re relying on the SciFi channel as your authority on the afterlife, then you’re in for a few surprises. Hmm. What do you know? You have a bellybutton.”
Jonah served up his best Well, Duh! look and dropped his shirt.
Grandpa Zograffos rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well, that’s a mystery.”
“Why do you have a bellybutton? Obviously you died, or I wouldn’t have been sent to bring you Home. But dead people don’t wear bellybuttons.”
“Okay, I’m afraid to ask, but why not?”
“Bellybuttons are a mark of blood-and-bones birth; after your blood-and-bones body dies, your soul is embodied by Light or Shadow, so no bellybutton.”
“So I’m not dead?” Jonah asked. He moved into the path of a young woman and raised his hand for her to stop, but she stared through him impassively and never broke her stride. He stepped out of her way at the last second, not quite ready to test the whole passing-through-people thing.
“If you weren’t dead, you’d be suited up in your battered old body, not wandering around some hospital lobby. That’s the mystery.” He looked at Jonah intently. “But a more pressing question is: Why did you turn back toward your shadowling?”
Jonah stared at him for a moment. “Why did I turn back toward my shadowling?” He looked away. “I don’t know why.”
He had thought he knew, at the time; he had thought he was saving the fighter in himself. When he was younger, he spent the ride to school imagining that he was wearing a robotic exoskeleton, like in the Iron Man movies. He imagined it being jet black, because nothing says, “I’ve got a grudge against the world, but squashing you just might make me feel better” like black. He didn’t pretend that sort of thing anymore, though, maybe because he didn’t need to pretend. Maybe that Iron Man exoskeleton had become a part of him. And when he had looked into the eyes of his shadowling, he had thought that the strongest part of him would be destroyed if he let go of it.
But now that explanation seemed as empty as the ashy form of his shadowling, so he didn’t say anything about it.
His grandfather placed a hand gently on Jonah’s shoulder and drew him closer, close enough to look straight into his eyes.
“This matters, Jonah,” he whispered, and Jonah thought he saw something of the Light dancing in his eyes. “This is important. Do you know why?”
Jonah shook his head.
His grandfather spoke as if secretly into his ear. “Because you can’t go Home still attached to your shadowling. You have to let it go. You have to drown the thing, before it drowns you.”
Jonah considered that for a moment before whispering back. “Um, I thought I already did,” he said, tilting his head toward the fountain. “Isn’t it—back there?”
His grandfather slowly shook his head. “You ever heard of a ghost with a shadow?”
“What do you mean?” Jonah asked, but then he followed his grandfather’s gaze. The shadowling was right there in plain sight, attached to his feet as if it were any ordinary shadow. But once spotted, it shrunk, pulling itself into the smallest possible puddle of gray under Jonah’s feet.
Jonah shivered. It was worse than finding a leech stuck to your leg.
“Okay,” he said in a low voice, trying to stay calm. “Okay. What do I do to get rid of it?”
His grandfather squeezed Jonah’s shoulder. “Well,” he said, “the fountain would be quickest, but I’m afraid if we go back that way, your shadowling might try drowning you again. Which is why it would be good to figure out why you couldn’t let it go. Fortunately, I know just the place to do that. It’s a bit of a detour, but it’s also probably your best shot at getting Home. And we should leave now, before that shadowling of yours gets any funny ideas. You’re in danger until that thing is good and drowned.”
He stopped and followed Jonah’s gaze, which had been drawn to a woman hurrying through the lobby, her long black coat and long black hair flying out behind her. She was moving in a sort of limping jog, hobbled by her high heels.
Jonah’s mouth hung open. “Mom,” he said as she strode by, oblivious to his presence. “Mom! MOM!”
“Speaking of the trickery of your shadowling,” Grandpa Zograffos groaned. “That explains why it spit you out here. Jonah, she can’t see or hear you—”
But Jonah was already following her, dodging around people as best he could, considering they couldn’t see him. The way he moved felt so natural, it was hard to believe he was dead. He looked down and saw hands and legs that looked real—he even had on sneakers, the same ones he had been wearing at the time of the accident.
When he glanced up again, he was looking right into the face of a pudgy-nosed, squinty-eyed man. Jonah yelped in surprise as he and the man passed through one another. There was a slight tug, and then it was over, except for a faint odor of cigarettes, garlic, and gorgonzola cheese.
Eww, Jonah thought, and then he spotted his mother talking to someone at the reception desk.
“And you are—?” the receptionist was asking.
“I’m his mother,” his mother answered in her snappy I’m-Losing-My-Patience voice.
“Sorry, I meant your name, ma’am. I just need to collect some information for insurance purposes.”
His mother spelled out her name, Catherine Joy Zograffos, spitting out the letters faster than the woman could type. Her face was a tight mask, her lips pressed tight.
Jonah approached to within an arm’s length of his mother. He wanted to touch her, to reassure her with his presence; better yet, he wanted her to reassure him, like she used to do when he was little. But he didn’t even try; he knew his hand would just pass through her arm. He was still a little grossed out about walking through the smelly man.
He turned. There was his grandfather, shining faintly, lit up from inside by the Light; he cast no shadow. “Come on,” his grandfather said. “You don’t want to be here for this.”
“How can you say that? She’s your daughter.”
“Yes, which is why you should believe me.”
The woman behind the counter had seen something on the computer that made her pause.
Catherine leaned over the counter. “What’s going on? The school said he got hit by a baseball, but that doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that you call an ambulance for, unless they were overreacting.”
“I can’t tell you anything, because I don’t know,” the woman said. “But I’m going to page someone who can help you.” She picked up the phone.
“Jonah,” Grandpa Zograffos said, “there isn’t anything you can do for her right now—she’s too anxious to sense anything illuminated by the Light, and you’re too Shadow-bound anyway.”
“I have to try.”
“If you really want to help your mother, come Home with me. You’re going to be more present to her there than you could ever be here, ghosting around. It’s what she would want you to do, if she knew.”
“She would want me dead?”
“No, of course not! But she would want you to be happy—and she would want you to be safe. And you’re not going to be either of those things here. Not as long your shadowling is still feeding off you.”
“I can handle the shadowling.”
“You still think so, even after it nearly drowned you? No one gets rid of their shadowling by themselves, Jonah.”
“Anyway, this has nothing to do with shadows,” Jonah snapped.
“You think it’s all about protecting your mother.”
“That’s right. What’s going to happen to her if I die?”
“You think you have to keep protecting her from your father, even though you haven’t seen or heard from him in more than two years.”
“He could come back. And then who will be there for her? Because no one was there when he was punching holes in walls and pushing Mom around. You weren’t there. I was. I was the only one there.”
He immediately regretted blaming his grandfather. But if the comment stung, his grandfather didn’t show it, nor did he try to defend himself. The shadowling under Jonah’s feet, however, swelled and darkened, like a tick growing fat on the blood of its host.
The receptionist hung up the phone and told Jonah’s mom that it would be a minute, if she wanted to have a seat. Catherine cast a skeptical eye over the waiting area, with its large couches and stacks of magazines, no doubt thinking that nothing in a hospital was ever just a minute.
Grandpa Zograffos spoke to Jonah again, kindly. “You promised yourself you wouldn’t let anything hurt your mother again,” he said. “All right. You keep that promise. And I promised someone that I would see you Home, so if you don’t mind, I’ll stay with you as long as you choose to be with your mother.”
That wasn’t the response Jonah had expected. “I don’t mind,” he said. He looked away, suddenly embarrassed.
He hadn’t meant to say quite so much.
~ ~ ~
Catherine found a seat on a couch across from two women who looked like they’d been there a while—empty soda cups and tissues and gum wrappers littered the area around them. Probably somebody had told them it would just be a minute, too.
Jonah half-knelt in front of his mother.
“Mom,” he said quietly, “I’m here.”
She had been jiggling one foot and staring out across the waiting area with a far-away look, but now she sighed and reached for an outdated copy of Southern Living magazine. “Let’s celebrate the peach,” the cover suggested.
In a moment you’re going to find out I died, Jonah thought, and you’re reading about peach cobbler. What was Southern Living even doing in the waiting area of a Midwestern hospital? Life was strange, but death was even stranger. Because how weird was it that he was about to witness his mother being told that he was dead?
If he was dead. He didn’t feel dead. Plus, there was the fact of his bellybutton. He quickly checked to see that it was still there, which it was—his one shred of hope of getting back home. Back to his real home, not the “Home” Grandpa Zograffos kept talking about. He hadn’t liked the new apartment when he and his mom first moved in, not the worn green carpet, nor the smell of cooking oil in the dim hallways. But they had been making it home by filling it with all their old familiar stuff: the tatty love seat, the wind chimes on the balcony, his mother’s keys on a hook by the door and her fuzzy slippers by the couch. The place was even beginning to smell more like home. Burnt toaster waffles in the morning, burnt microwave popcorn in the evening. And faint traces of his mother’s perfume when she walked in the door.
This other “Home” he didn’t know anything about.
“If I ever get home, I promise to never complain about your burnt toaster waffles ever again,” he said to his mother.
She turned a page and glanced over at the reception area with a look of annoyance.
Watching her face was like seeing her for the first time. It was a face lightly lined by stress, worry, and sadness—but also a lot of laughter. Especially in the last year, Jonah realized, they’d done a lot of teasing and joking around. Something in her had lightened in the last year.
Jonah bit his lip. “I wish you could hear me. All of a sudden it seems like I have a lot to tell you.”
One of the two women seated nearby sighed deeply. Dressed in a floral-print muumuu, she reclined in an overstuffed chair with her head tilted back, her hands folded across her round stomach, and her short legs splayed out.
“What time is it now?” she asked her companion.
“Hasn’t been five minutes since the last time you asked. Stop bugging me,” the other woman answered. Her large eyeglasses reflected the gigantic television mounted on the wall.
“But I feel awful.”
“Shh. They’re going to interview one of the survivors.”
“I might throw up any minute,” the splayed-out woman said, moaning. “Georgina! Go check on how long it’s gonna be, plee-eaze! I can’t take this anymore.”
The other woman tore her eyes away from the television and huffed. “I already did. Don’t you have any sympathy for other folks who might be worse off than you?”
“Like who would that be?”
“Me—I gotta put up with you.”
The two women cracked up at that.
Life is weird. Death is weirder. But these two take the cake, Jonah thought. His mother was peeking at them over the top of her magazine.
“Seriously, Prissy, it could always be worse,” Georgina continued once she had composed herself. “There’s a kid back there that got whacked in the head with a baseball bat.”
“Serious?” Prissy exclaimed, impressed.
Georgina nodded. “Last time I went out for a smoke, some of them orderlies were telling me all about it. He was hanging on by a thread, they said—and they sure didn’t look too hopeful. So settle down and count your blessings!”
Catherine Zograffos, whose magazine had fallen into her lap, jumped out of her seat. She opened her mouth as if to say something but then snagged her purse off the couch and flew toward the reception desk, her coat billowing behind her.
“What’s with her?” Georgina wondered out loud.
“I don’t know, but she’d better not be cutting in front of me,” Prissy answered.
Jonah stood and kicked the couch in frustration, but his foot just passed through it with the barest sensation of resistance.
“This is so unfair!” he shouted. The shadowling flared, as if in affirmation.
Grandpa Zograffos bowed his head a little; his face was grim. “Yes, it is,” he said, and he turned to follow his daughter.
~ ~ ~
When Catherine Zograffos was pregnant with Jonah, she decided to have a natural childbirth—no drugs or unnecessary medical interventions. It turned out to be some of the most painful hours of her life; each contraction had felt like someone was trying to rip her apart. But at the same time, it had been exhilarating, because she knew her pain and hard work were bringing a new life into the world.
Losing Jonah was like that, only in reverse.
The white-haired, well-dressed woman who intercepted her by the reception desk wore an ID tag that identified her as Pamela Reed, family crisis counselor. The word “crisis” was Catherine’s first sign that things were much worse than the phrase “accident playing baseball” might have initially suggested.
The second sign was the firm hand that Ms. Reed placed on her back as she guided Catherine into a small room filled with comfortable chairs and tissues, and then closed the heavy door. There was another woman in the room, a nurse by the name of Phoebe Weaver. The look on her face was the third sign, and it terrified Catherine.
“What’s going on?” she barely managed to ask, after Ms. Reed had steered her into a seat.
Ms. Reed looked her right in the eye. “What do you already know about what happened to your son?”
“The school said he was playing baseball and he was in an accident, that’s all. I came right away. Someone from the school was going to meet me here, but we must have missed each other. Is he going to be okay?”
Ms. Reed folded her hands together and pursed her lips. “This is going to be hard to hear, okay?” She paused to let that sink in; Catherine had frozen. “Your son was hit in the head with a baseball bat, hard enough to crack his skull and cause massive bleeding in his brain. Then shortly after he arrived here, he went into cardiac arrest—”
“Is he dead?”
“His heart is beating without assistance,” Pamela said.
Catherine breathed out loudly.
“But,” Pamela added, speaking carefully, “what concerns the medical team is the fact that it took forty-five minutes of CPR and defibrillator shocks to get there. So we can hope your son will recover, but I want to prepare you for the possibility—”
“What are his chances?”
“My understanding, Ms. Zograffos—and I’m trying to be truthful with you here—is that because of the degree of bleeding in the brain, and because they’re detecting only minimal brain activity, the doctors are not optimistic.”
Catherine put her hands up to her face, covering her eyes. She was very still for what seemed like a very long time. Her body began to shake, silently; and finally she let out a deep sob.
Jonah stood by helplessly. His throat felt swollen, like he needed to cry but couldn’t. Could ghosts cry? His grandfather’s hand on his shoulder was warm, and it steadied and strengthened him.
“Grandpa, we have to do something,” he whispered. He had never heard his mother cry like this—a low, animal moan that rose from deep within her and filled the room. Her back hunched, her face still hidden by her hands.
Jonah glanced at his grandfather and saw tears on the old man’s face, which shone more fairly than ever.
“Yes,” Grandpa Zograffos said. “And maybe we can.”
“How? You said she couldn’t sense us.”
“She’s wading neck-deep through a black river of grief; it’s taking everything she’s got just to stay afloat. What we need is an angeling—”
“What’s an angeling?”
“A little angel—a blood-and-bones person who senses the Light. Someone who stands with one foot in this world, and one foot—or even a little toe—in our Home. Someone to be a bridge. Someone like her.”
He nodded toward Phoebe Weaver, who was leaning forward on the edge of her easy chair, her hands held in front of her mouth, watching Catherine with a look of intent concern.
“Maybe you’re too Shadow-bound to see,” Grandpa Zograffos said, “but the Light dances around her like sunlight on water.”
He bent his knees a little and jumped. He rose through the air, doing a slow cartwheel until he was hovering upside down over Phoebe. He looked like an astronaut floating in zero gravity, hanging there. Slowly he descended until his face was near hers, and he held out his hands and whispered something. The Light inside of him sparked and flared, illuminating her face.
Phoebe had not moved and had barely breathed for several minutes, but now she made a small noise as she rose from her seat and went to Catherine, reaching out to touch her arm. Catherine let it rest there a moment before grabbing hold of Phoebe’s hand, and then pulling her into an embrace.
“It’s going to be okay,” Phoebe told her.
Catherine sobbed harder, gasping for breath like she might drown in her own tears. But after a few minutes, she took a last shuddering breath and was still.
“It’s going to be okay,” Phoebe said again; and even as she said it, she wondered where the words were coming from. They were words to comfort her, as well.
Grandpa Zograffos landed lightly near Jonah.
“How did you do that?” Jonah whispered.
“The laws of physics are more like general suggestions when you’re dead.”
“No, I meant how did you get that nurse to do what she did? What did you say to her?”
Grandpa Zograffos looked at Jonah in surprise. “Why, I told her that all would be well, of course!”
“How do you know that?”
Grandpa Zograffos spread his arms wide, in a grand gesture of invitation. “If you come Home, you can see for yourself.”
Ms. Reed had left the room and now came back with a glass of water for Catherine, who was still breathing deeply.
Jonah said nothing in reply to his grandfather, so Grandpa Zograffos pressed his case. “You know, going Home doesn’t take you away from those you love; it brings you closer to them. Close enough to touch.”
Jonah lifted his shirt to show his bellybutton. “What about this?”
“If your brain reboots, you’ll have to come back, unfortunately.”
“Kind of like all those people they interviewed on the SciFi channel, right? They all came back.”
Grandpa Zograffos nodded.
Jonah hesitated. His mother was blowing her nose and apologizing for crying. Phoebe said something that made her laugh, just a little, through her tears.
And huddled beneath his feet, his shadowling tried to look smaller and weaker than it really was, even as it sucked life from him.
His mind flashed on the time he and his grandfather had gotten stranded way out on the lake at the cabin up north. Jonah had been seven or so. They’d gone fishing after supper, and they’d cast their lines without catching anything until the sun sat low and fat on the horizon. But when it was time to head back, his grandfather couldn’t get the motor started, leaving them no choice but to row for the cabin in the dark. Jonah remembered a blanket of stars in the sky, their wobbly twins reflected in the water below, and his grandpa pulling at the oars for nearly an hour, telling jokes and stories the whole time.
This was like that, wasn’t it? Just another dark lake to get across.
A dark lake populated by carnivorous, soul-sucking shadows, but still.
As difficult as it would be to leave his mother, the more he thought about it, the more obvious the choice became. He wasn’t doing her any good here, and his shadowling would only grow stronger the longer he lingered. On the other hand, his grandfather really wanted him to head Home, somehow drowning his shadowling along the way. And Jonah trusted his grandfather more than anyone, his mother included.
“All right,” Jonah said, without taking his eyes off his mother. “How do we get there?”
Grandpa Zograffos clapped a hand on Jonah’s shoulder. “We take the elevator.”
Jonah stared at his grandfather a moment, in case he was joking, but Grandpa Zograffos just patted him on the back and slipped through the wall, which made a sound like ripping paper as it yielded. Jonah sighed, rolled his eyes, and followed.
However this all turned out, someday, someone at the SciFi channel was going to have a lot of explaining to do.
~ ~ ~
The way Catherine finally managed to stop crying—which she had to do, if only because her face was becoming a raw mess of tears and snot, and the muscles in her chest and abdomen were so sore—was to start asking questions. Right away, though, Phoebe held up her hand.
“I’ll answer all your questions in a moment, but there’s something else we should discuss first—a new brain therapy that we’d like to try on your son. The thing is, we need your consent, and time is kind of a factor.”
Catherine leaned forward. “What is it?”
“It’s called combinational lazaroid therapy. The press are referring to it as the Lazarus therapy, which is a bit sensational. Basically it uses artificial aminosteroids called lazaroids to prevent—or even reverse—brain damage.”
Pamela jumped in. “But Ms. Zograffos, I have to caution you not to get your hopes up. This therapy has just been approved for study in humans; your son would be the first to try it. And there are risks, of course—”
“How can there be risks when you’re saying he’s probably going to die?”
“It could be only partially successful, for instance, so that while your son wouldn’t actually die, he wouldn’t make a full recovery. Or he could appear to fully recover, but have unexpected side effects.”
Catherine looked over to Phoebe questioningly.
“The animal studies have been very encouraging,” Phoebe offered. “The odds of success are still small, but Doctor Howell feels it’s worth a shot. If you consent, of course.”
Catherine didn’t ponder the question more than half a second before reaching for her purse to find a pen. “Just show me what I have to sign.”
~ ~ ~
Jonah and his grandfather made their way through a maze of hallways to the hospital’s main elevators.
Grandpa Zograffos waved Jonah forward. “Press the button.”
“How? My hand goes right through anything I touch.”
“There are two elevators here—the one they’re waiting for,” Grandpa Zograffos said, nodding towards the handful of people gathered there, “and the one we’re waiting for. Just humor me.”
“Do I press up or down?”
Grandpa Zograffos rolled his eyes, and then slowly pointed upward.
“Okay, okay, just checking,” Jonah muttered. He pressed the button, which lit up.
The elevator arrived almost immediately with a ding, and its doors rattled open. Several people got off and a few people got on: a nurse holding a coffee, a large woman in a wheelchair, an old man pushing it. Grandpa Zograffos followed, and Jonah followed him, stepping carefully around the others.
“Three, please,” the woman in the wheelchair told the nurse, who pressed buttons for the third and fourth floors. Jonah noticed the hospital only had five floors.
“Which floor is ours?” he whispered to his grandfather. It was so quiet in there, he couldn’t help whispering, even though he knew none of the others could hear him.
“The elevator will take you where you need to be.” Grandpa Zograffos whistled a few bars of a song Jonah didn’t recognize. “They used to play music on elevators. Don’t you think they should play music on elevators?”
“Um. . . .” Jonah hadn’t ever given it any thought.
“What’s an elevator but a bunch of strangers stuck in a small box hanging over a really deep hole?” Grandpa Zograffos went on. “Seems to call for music.” And he whistled a musical flourish.
The elevator deposited the others on the third and fourth floors, and the doors slid closed with a disconcerting finality.
“You may want to hold on,” Grandpa Zograffos advised, gripping the railing that encircled the elevator with both hands.
Just then, the elevator shuddered, making a revving noise; with a lurch, it shot straight up at a speed that made Jonah’s knees buckle, forcing him to the floor.
That turned out to be a good place to be, because within seconds, the floor tilted as the elevator changed course, moving sideways now. Jonah went skittering across the floor before he managed to grab hold of the railing and carefully pull himself to a standing position. The digital readout of the floor numbers was a blur.
He glanced over at his grandpa, who was calmly standing in a corner of the elevator with his hands on the railing and his feet braced against the rocking and twisting of the floor. He looked like the captain of a ship standing stolidly at the helm in stormy seas. Jonah had been about to ask whether the roller coaster quality of the elevator was normal, but by the unperturbed look on his grandfather’s face, he guessed it must be.
Gripping the railing tightly, Jonah carefully edged his way over to his Grandpa Zograffos, pausing briefly when the elevator made a stomach-dropping loop-the-loop.
“This doesn’t seem very safe,” Jonah remarked, struggling to keep his balance.
“Fortunately, you’re already mostly dead, so I wouldn’t worry about it,” Grandpa Zograffos replied with a smile.
“If I’m already dead, then why do I feel like I’m going to throw up?” Jonah asked. As if on cue, the elevator spun around several times very quickly before suddenly dropping, causing Jonah’s feet to fly into the air. After he’d regained his footing, he added, “Actually, why do I feel anything at all? I thought I left my body behind in the hospital.”
“You did,” his grandfather replied, leaning into the wide turn the elevator was making. “But your soul is used to perceiving the world through a body, so it’s making one up for you. It’s like what happens when people lose an arm or leg—they feel a ‘ghost limb’ for a while, right?”
“Yes, they do. But in your case, you’re feeling a whole body—a ghost body. Complete with nausea.”
Jonah grimaced as the elevator shot off in yet another direction.
“Then none of this is real? It’s all a trick of my mind?”
“I wouldn’t say that. Everything you’re seeing and hearing and feeling is very real. But until the Light clarifies your soul and drowns your shadowling, the reality you’re experiencing has to be translated into a form you can understand.
“It’s like your video games. At bottom, the game is just a long series of zeroes and ones—switches being turned off and on. But you’d never be able to play the game if you had to interpret that stream of ones and zeroes directly; there’s just too much information passing by too quickly. So the computer translates the code into images you can understand and interact with. Make sense?”
“I think so,” Jonah said, frowning in a way that suggested he wasn’t entirely sure. “What about you? How much of you is—translated?” The last time he’d seen his grandfather had been in a casket at the wake, four years ago. But the man standing before him sure looked like the man Jonah had known before that: the bony, sun-burned nose, the strong, calloused hands, the twinkling blue eyes.
“I’m not bouncing around the afterlife in paint clothes, if that’s what you mean. But this is really me, your old Grandpa Z.”
“Who can’t help making a rhyme.” Jonah smiled, then shook his head. “I have so many more questions—”
The elevator rattled violently, as if it were traveling over railroad ties without the benefit of rails—or wheels.
“Like,” Jonah continued through gritted teeth, “when are we going to get there?”
The elevator made a few last hops, flipped over a few times, and finally jolted to an abrupt halt after striking something solid with a loud, bone-jarring bang. Jonah had to peel his face off the wall.
“It’s a good thing the laws of physics are more like suggestions around here,” Jonah muttered.
“Just be thankful this elevator worked at all.”
“Uh . . . why?” Jonah groaned as he found his footing.
“Otherwise we’d have to take a stairway to heaven,” Grandpa Zograffos said, barely keeping a straight face. When Jonah looked at him quizzically, his grandfather whistled a few bars of the Led Zeppelin song.
Jonah groaned again. “Please . . . stop . . . now.”
The elevator had come to rest slightly askew, the floor tilting slightly toward the back. It made an ominous hissing sound.
“Okay, question two,” Jonah said, staggering away from the wall. “Where exactly are we?”
The elevator dropped an inch with a loud clunk, its bell dinged, and the doors rattled open. The view was obscured by a curtain of steam rising up from somewhere beneath the elevator.
Grandpa Zograffos made his way to the entrance, gripping the side of the doorway to steady himself.
“Only one way to find out,” he said. He waved a hand dramatically toward the opening. “After you.”
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P.S. Here’s an easy peach cobbler recipe from Southern Living magazine.