“Yeah,” I said, totally wigged out. “So, are you the oracle that came into… whatever when Grandma Piperi passed?”
A few moments passed and then she sighed. “Yes, I did… unfortunately. I was never big on Fate and destiny, you see? And visions… well, they suck most of the time.” Kari looked at me, her obsidian eyes narrowing. “You’re supposed to be here.”
“I am?” I squeaked. Aw, man…
She nodded. “You are. This—I’ve seen this. Like I knew I was going to meet you, but I had no idea it would be here. See, oracles don’t know when the passing of their own time will be, which blows.” She laughed again. “Gods, I know what’s going to happen.”
Now that caught my attention. “You do?”
Her smile turned secretive.
My fingers dug into my sweater. “And are you going to tell me?”
Kari fell quiet, and did it matter now that she was making little sense? She was an oracle and I was dead. Wasn’t a thing I could do about anything, right? Shaking my head, I took in the rest of my surroundings. I couldn’t see where the river led to; it flowed to where was nothing but a deep, black hole. To our right there was a small opening, and a strange, bluish glow emanated from whatever was beyond this place.
“Where’s that go?” I asked, pointing at the light.
Kari sighed. “Back up there, but it’s not the same. You’re a shade if you go that way, and that’s even if you can get past the guards.”
“The guys on the horses?”
“Yep. Going down or up, Hades does not like to lose any souls. You should’ve been here when someone tried to make a run for it.” She shivered delicately. “Gross.”
A commotion by the river had us turning around. Kari clapped her hands together. “Sweet gods, finally!” Kari took off toward the ever-increasing throng of people by the river.
“What?” I hurried after her. The guards on the horses were forcing people into lines on both sides of the river. “What’s going on?”
She looked over her shoulder at me, smiling. “It’s Charon. He’s here. It’s Paradise time, baby!”
“But how do you know where you’re going?” I struggled to keep up with her, but when I reached the fringes of the group, I froze. Oh, crap.
“You just know,” Kari said, pushing past those who I assumed had no money for passage. “It was nice meeting you, Alexandria. And I’m about ninety-nine percent sure we’ll meet again.” Then she disappeared into the crowd.
Too busy with the scene unfolding before, I didn’t pay attention to what she said. The boat was larger than they showed in paintings. It was massive, like the size of a yacht, and a lot nicer-looking than the busted old canoe image I was familiar with, painted a bright white and trimmed in gold. At the helm was Charon. Now he looked like I expected.
Charon’s slight form was swallowed by a black cloak that covered his entire body. In one bony hand he held a lantern. His shrouded head turned toward me and even though I couldn’t see his eyes, I knew he saw me.
Within seconds the boat was swarmed and gliding down the River, disappearing through the dark tunnel. I had no idea how long I stood there, but finally I turned away and hurried through the crowd. Everywhere I looked, there were faces. Young and old. Expressions bored or stunned. There were dead people wandering around everywhere and I was alone, utterly alone. I tried to make myself as small as possible, but I bumped a shoulder here, an arm there.
“Excuse me,” an old woman said. A gaudy pink nightgown dwarfed her frail form. “Do you know what happened? I went to sleep and… I woke up here.”
“Uh.” I started backing off. “Sorry. I’m as lost as you.”
She looked perplexed. “You went to sleep, too?”
“No.” I sighed, twisting away. “I was stabbed to death.”
Once those words left my mouth, I wanted to take them back, because they made everything real.
I stopped outside the throng of people and stared down at my bare feet. I wanted to smack myself. I really was dead.
Lifting my head, my eyes found the strange blue light. If what Kari said was true, then that was the way out of this… holding area. Then what? I’d be a shade for eternity? But what if I wasn’t really dead?
“You’re dead,” I muttered to myself. But I started toward the blue light. The closer I got to it, the more drawn to it I was. It seemed to offer everything—light, warmth, life.
“Don’t go toward the light!” A voice yelled, followed by laughter—mischievous, beloved laughter. “They lie about the light, you know. Never go toward the light.”
I froze and if my heart still had been beating, which I wasn’t sure about, it would’ve stopped right then and there. As if moving through cement, I turned slowly, I couldn’t believe—didn’t want to believe what I was seeing because if this wasn’t real…
He stood only a few feet away, wearing a white linen shirt and pants. His shoulder-length, blond hair was tucked back behind his ears and he was smiling—actually smiling. And those eyes, the color of the summer sky, were brilliant and alive. Not like the last time I’d seen him.
“Alex?” Caleb said. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
All my muscles sprang into action at once. I took off toward him and jumped.
Laughing, Caleb caught me around the waist and swung me around. It was like a dam bursting open. I turned into a fat, bawling baby in under a second. My whole body shook; I couldn’t help it. It was Caleb—my Caleb, my best friend. Caleb.
“Alex, come on.” He set me on my feet, but still held me close. “Don’t cry. You know how I get when you cry.”
“I’m… sorry.” Nothing in this world was going to break my boa constrictor hold on him. “Oh, my gods, I can’t believe… you’re here.”
He smoothed my hair back. “Missed me, huh?”
I lifted my head. “It’s not the same without you. Nothing is the same without you.” I reached up, placing my hands on his cheeks and then in his hair. He was flesh and bone. Real. There were no shadows under his eyes and his gaze didn’t hold that weary look they’d had after Gatlinburg. The tags were gone. “Oh gods, you’re really here.”
“It’s me, Alex.”
Pressing my cheek against his chest, I started crying again. Never in a million years did I think I’d get to see him again. There was so much I wanted to say. “I don’t understand,” I murmured against his chest. “How can you be here? You haven’t been waiting this entire time, have you?”
“No. Persephone owed me one. We were playing Mario Kart Wii, and I let her win. I cashed in my favor.”
I pulled back, wiping the tears off my face with the back of my hand. “You have the Wii down here?”
“What?” He grinned, and oh gods, I’d thought I’d never see that grin again. “We get bored. Especially Persephone, when she’s down here during these months. Usually Hades doesn’t play, thank the gods. He freaking cheats.”
“Wait. You play Mario Kart with Hades and Persephone?”
“I’m kind of a celebrity down here, because of you. When I first… arrived, I was taken straight to Hades. He wanted to know everything about you. I guess I kind of grew on him.” Caleb shrugged and then he pulled me back in for another one of his mammoth hugs. “Gods Alex, I wanted to see you again. I just didn’t think it would be like this.”
“You’re telling me,” I said dryly. “What… what is it like?”
“It’s not bad, Alex. Not bad at all,” he said softly. “There are things I miss, but it’s like being alive, only not.”
Then it struck me. “Caleb, is… is my mom here?”
“Yes, she is. And she’s really nice.” He paused, pursing his lips. “Really nice considering she hasn’t tried to kill me this time around, you know.”
I felt nauseous, which was strange since I was supposed to be dead. “You’ve talked to her?”
“Yes. Seeing her the first time was really weird, but what she was when she had us isn’t who she is now. She’s your mom, Alex. The mom you remember.”
“You sound like you’ve forgiven her.”
“I have.” He wiped away the fresh tears gathering on my cheeks. “You know, I wouldn’t have in life, not really. But once you finally accept the whole dying thing, it kind of enlightens you a bit. And she was forced into becoming a daimon. They really don’t hold that against you down here.”
“They don’t?” Oh, gods, I was going to start crying again.
“Not at all, Alex.”
Some of the guards were gathering close to us. I focused on Caleb, hoping they weren’t going to pull us apart. “I have to see her! Can you take—?”
“No, Alex. You can’t see her. She doesn’t even know you’re here, and that’s probably for the best right now.”
Disappointment swamped me. “But—”
“Alex, how do you think your mom would feel if she knew you were here? There’s only one reason why you’d be here. It would upset her.”
Dammit, he had a point. But I was here, which meant I was dead. Wouldn’t I be seeing her soon anyway? So that logic failed with me.
“I’ve missed you,” he said again, and it brought me back to him.
I clenched the front of his shirt, and words I wanted to say spilled forth. “Caleb, I’m so, so sorry for everything. What happened in Gatlinburg and… and I didn’t really pay attention to what you were going through afterward. I was so stuck on myself.”
“No. I am sorry. Then what happened to you. It wasn’t fair. None of it was. And I’m so sorry.”
Caleb lowered his forehead to mine and I swore his eyes glistened. “It wasn’t your fault, Alex. Okay? Never think that.”
“I just miss you so much. I didn’t know what to do after you… left. I hated you for dying.” I choked up. “And I just wanted you back so bad.”
“But I don’t hate you. I love you.”
“I know,” he said again. “But you need to know that none of that was your fault, Alex. This was meant to happen. I understand that now.”
I laughed thickly. “Gods, you sound so wise. What the hell, Caleb?”
“Death made me smart, I guess.” His gaze searched my face. “You don’t look any different. It just seems so… so long since I last saw you.”
“You look better.” I traced my fingers down his face, pressing my lips together. Caleb looked marvelous to me. There wasn’t a hint of all that he’d suffered. He seemed at peace, fulfilled in a way he hadn’t been when he was alive. “I just miss you so much.”
Caleb squeezed me tighter and he laughed. “I know, but we need to stop with this friendship bonding crap, Alex. First we’re tortured by daimons together and now we’ve both been stabbed. That’s taking the ‘we do everything together’ to an all-new high.”