Cass expected the one year anniversary of Johnny’s death would be hard; at least as hard as her attempts have been to move on in life without her husband. She didn’t expect to be haunted by him, seeing him everywhere. The more she fights these images, the stronger they become, until something must give… her sanity or her faith.
In order to move on, she must confront her past. In order to confront her past, she must accept her future. Her past and future will collide, leaving either devastation or awakening in its wake. The choice is hers: return to the Path she’d left behind all those years ago; or forge her own future, regardless of the consequences.
This debut novel from Michaela Mills tackles the subjects of grief after the loss of a spouse, finding love again, and allowing oneself to face both the past and the future head-on.
Read Chapter 1 Now
Johnny Wilson knew he had died. That much was apparent. He could even vaguely recall what happened. What he couldn’t understand was where he was and why he was here. He was always rather agnostic about religion. He supposed his parents were Christians; they celebrated all of the standard Christian holidays, but never focused much on their religious aspects. When he’d been in high school, he joined a church youth group to be with a girl he liked, but it never really clicked for him. That was pretty much the extent of his religious endeavors.
Cass, his wife and love of his life, grew up in a rather diverse and free home, and she seemed to share his views on religion, though it wasn’t a subject they’d spent much time discussing. This left him confused about what was now happening to him.
There were beings here with him. He had no other word for them. From what he could tell, they called themselves Guardians—and he could almost hear the capitalization of the word—but they seemed to do nothing but hinder everything he thought he should be doing. They tried to explain things to him, not through words but through imagery and senses. Yet still, nothing really made sense.
He could still see Cass through the fog, and over time the sight of her became stronger. He’d watched her mourn, secluding herself away from friends and family. He’d watched her throw herself into her work, and he worried for her even more. And he watched as she slowly started to take back her life and begin to move on, building a life for herself without him.
From the presences around him, he gathered he was not allowed to contact her, at least not yet, but that hadn’t stopped him trying. Oh, how he tried! He even got through a couple of times, or so he thought. The problem was, Cass freaked out every time she sensed him. Then, the Guardians would intervene and his chances to calm her or explain anything to her were vanquished.
If he had a mouth, he would have cursed loudly. He needed to communicate with Cass. He needed to find out why he was here, why he was able to still see what was happening in the world to which he no longer belonged.
Johnny was over wanting to be alive again. That sure took some time, but he knew he was at that point. He couldn’t change the past. When he looked at the world beyond, it seemed as though he were looking at it through a heavy mist. However, he noticed that lately, the mist seemed to be thinning, granting him more chances to access it—and most importantly, to access Cass. He didn’t want her to be frightened, and if he’d only be allowed enough time to calm her, he knew he could take away the fear.
Those damned Guardians! More and more, they were frustrating and angering him. They wouldn’t give him answers, but they wouldn’t let him get the answers for himself. At first, he’d thought if he was patient, it would all come clear to him; but so far, nothing was bringing about any clarity. Instead, he watched from afar as his wife struggled to live her life without him.
Johnny imagined himself sighing as he used to do when he was exasperated. His chest would rise as he inhaled, and he could feel the hairs of his mustache and beard flutter in his exhale. He could imagine the feeling as if it were real.
He watched as another man slowly worked his way into her life. It was unfair, and he knew it; Ryan had been a part of Cass’ life long before Johnny entered the picture. Ryan always hoped for more than friendship from Cass, which was confirmed when Ryan tried to kill himself when Cass announced she was getting married. Oh, she said it wasn’t a suicide attempt—that he’d just overdosed on a bad batch of his drug of choice—but everyone else knew better. What was it? Cocaine? Heroin? Johnny couldn’t remember. What he did know was Ryan hadn’t really intended on dying; it was just a pathetic attempt to draw Cass in.
At the time, Johnny was pretty disgusted by the whole thing. He’d done his best to be supportive of Cass—she’d been incredibly upset—but, in the end, he couldn’t bear the game playing and went back to Chicago to wait for his fiancée to return. Of course, there’d been no certainty that she would return. He knew Ryan had asked her to stay, but ultimately, she chose Chicago and Johnny.
Ryan withdrew some from her after that, though they still talked a few times a month. He’d started dating someone and it had seemed pretty serious. Cass was over the moon for him; at least until she met the woman—girl, really—at the wedding.
Johnny reluctantly gave in to Cass’s request to make Ryan one of the groomsmen. He’d agreed, mostly to make the point—to both himself and to Ryan—that Ryan no longer held any threat. Johnny had won. Ryan brought his girlfriend Kara to the wedding where Cass took an instant dislike to her. She’d tried to hide it, but everyone could tell. In the end, Cass was right to distrust her and once again, Ryan hit bottom, though he handled it better.
Ryan started a band, and from everything Johnny heard, it was going pretty well. Johnny was glad because things were going well with Cass; she didn’t need pulling back if Ryan went downhill again.
Johnny long suspected Cass’ feelings for Ryan were deeper than a standard friendship. He called her on it once, though she denied it. She’d emphasized they’d been friends for nearly thirty years; they’d been through a lot together. Johnny made a point that this was possibly the reason they were more than friends. Ultimately, Johnny fell back on the old adage, that actions speak louder than words, and her actions never led him to believe she harbored any romantic feelings for Ryan.
Johnny looked at the Denver skyline and wondered why so many people thought it was so beautiful or impressive. He supposed they had never seen the Chicago skyline. It just didn’t feel right to be hanging here. He knew he was supposed to be somewhere else, Heaven—or whatever it was called here. If this was where souls went, why weren’t there more around? He’d sensed a few, but not nearly the numbers he would have expected given how many people die in an average day.
Once again, he became overwhelmed by a sense of frustration. Owning it was all he could do. The frustration filled him, expanded his senses, and he could feel himself swelling and swelling, until he thought he might explode. All he could see was red. Then, abruptly, he began falling.
He fell and he fell, then his descent slowed and he sensed one of the Guardians. For the first time since he’d been here, the Guardian attempted to truly communicate with him. It only took a bloody year! It projected an actual thought using language, though it took Johnny a moment to realize what was happening.
“You are still so full of emotion, Lost One,” the Guardian said. “It is rare for one who has been here so long.”
Johnny was unsure how to go about responding. He hoped saying the words in his head would be enough. “I do not understand what’s happening; why am I stuck here? I don’t belong here. I should be elsewhere—Heaven or something! I led a good life. I was moral and good. And why do you prevent me from speaking to my wife? You’ve all alluded she is some magical key to me being stuck here, yet you deny me the ability to talk to her to find out why!”
The Guardian’s presence swelled before responding. “This is an interim world, Lost One; a catching ground for souls unable to make the journey to the Beyond. You cannot go to the Beyond without your loved one’s help.”
“That doesn’t make sense! How can she help if she’s out there while I am here? How can she help if you won’t let me speak with her?”
“Lost One, your frustration is felt, but we are not here to interfere with Worldly issues. We’re here to enforce the rules governed by our Lord and Lady.”
“Lord and Lady?” Johnny’s voice took on a note of bewilderment.
“Yes. The Lord and Lady. The High Ones. They are our Masters. We are here to obey, protect, and enforce their set of laws.”
“What laws? What rules? None of this makes any sense!”
The Guardian’s voice took on a tender tone. “Have you noticed how the veil thins?”
Johnny was becoming increasingly impatient as the conversation continued. He wanted answers and instead he got hyperbolic interjection. “What do you mean? This misty film between here and the world?”
“When you begin the journey of crossing to the next realm, you are brought here, to this Nether Realm, for safe-keeping until your loved ones enable your path to the Summerland, where you are to await your journey of rebirth.”
“Nether Realm? Summerland? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Hear me, Lost One, for this is of utmost importance to you and your soul.
“When your physical body ceases its existence, you are brought here, to us, in this ephemeral form. The form you have now is meant to be transient; you are here in waiting.”
“Why are you only telling me this now? Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?”
“You and your kind have become lost to the Path. There are some who have stayed true to the Lord and Lady, and the Ways, but many have fallen from the Path. The one you seek from your old world, Cass, used to follow the Path but ceased. Our position is not to guide or lead the souls who are lost to this place, but simply to guard against infractions of the Laws.”
“So you are saying Cass—my wife, the woman I’ve been trying to contact on the other side—used to follow this ‘Path’ of yours? What Path is it?”
“The Path of Love and Light. Those who follow, know.”
Johnny thought maybe he was beginning to understand, though confusion still clouded his thoughts. “So these rules, can you explain them to me? Why can I see and hear Cass but not hear anyone else? Why can she sometimes see me? Why is the veil thinning? What does any of this mean?”
“Patience, Lost One. You must have patience.”
“Why do you keep calling me ‘Lost One’?” Johnny threw back, his patience thinning in opposition to the call for patience.
“Because you are Lost.”
“Is Summerland like Heaven?” Johnny asked.
“The concept of ‘Heaven’ is not unlike the Summerland, although it is not truly like it either. The Summerland is another waiting ground, but completely unlike the Nether Realm. The souls who wait in Summerland are waiting to be called back to the Physical Realm. There is no chance of rebirth from the Nether Realm, Lost One. Here, you are doomed to an eternity of waiting for your Path to be shown to you. There are many Lost Ones here. Surely you have sensed them?”
Johnny thought about this for a while. He sensed a lot of things in his time here. “Yes,” he said cautiously, “I have sensed other presences here.”
Silence filled the space between them, and he was afraid the Guardian would share no more wisdom.
“Please,” Johnny implored, “I know you are not a guide, but can you tell me what I’m supposed to do? If I’m unable to contact Cass, how can I get her to show me the Path?”
Yet more silence from The Guardian.
“The veil thins, Lost One. Soon, very soon, the veil will be all but non-existent. At that time, your being may freely cross back over into the world—but, this is not advised.”
“You mean… I’d be like a ghost?” Johnny was always somewhat skeptical of ghosts and poltergeists, but since he’d been trapped here in this Nether Realm—on top of seeing how frightened Cass had been on the occasions he’d tried to reach her—his skepticism waned considerably. “Can I take any kind of physical form?”
“Some of the Lost Ones find ways to inhabit physical forms, though it’s only temporary. It is very difficult to find a host, especially a willing host. Trying to force your way is forbidden by our Laws, though some Lost Ones have attempted it.”
Possession, like those exorcism tales, I bet. “What are the consequences of going against your Laws?”
“It is not permitted to state the consequences that may befall an offender. I would assume you would not wish to be confined to the Nether Realm eternally.” The Guardians tone took a lift at the end as if it were a question to which they already knew the answer.
Johnny would have shivered if he had a body. He didn’t know what Summerland was like, but he had to believe it was better than here; and at least in the Summerland, he had the hope of being sent back into physical form. He’d never really given the concept of rebirth much thought, but suddenly, it was of utmost importance to him that he be able to be reborn into the world.
“So, when this veil thins, allowing a cross over, will I be allowed to communicate with Cass?”
“If they are receptive to you, loved ones can be contacted.”
“But how do you know if they are receptive? And this veil…”
“You ask many questions; it’s not my place to set about your education.”
“Please, I’m just trying to understand.”
“I will explain the veil, but then I must return to my station.”
“Thank you,” Johnny replied, gratitude attempting to overtake his frustration.
“To understand the veil, you must understand Time. There is an ebb and flow here, not always felt. In the Physical Realm, time appears to be linear. However, Time is cyclic. Just as you are born to the Physical Realm, then enter the Summerland and are reborn to the Physical Realm to begin the circle anew, so it is with Time.
“A circle has no beginning and no end; however, the circle of Time has specific moments which are revered above others. One of these moments, celebrated by those who follow the Path, is a holiday called Samhain. Also known as Halloween, it is a moment in the circle of Time where the veil between the two realms thins to nearly being nonexistent. Any soul who has passed to the Summerland or who is trapped in the Nether Realm, can visit the Physical Realm. Those in the Summerland can also cross to this Nether Realm, but not the other way round. Samhain is drawing near, which is why the veil has thinned.”
Johnny tried to process everything he was being told, but despite all the information, he was still confused.
“So, you’re saying I’ll be able to communicate with Cass at this Samhain and she can help me move on to Summerland?”
“In essence, yes—but only if your loved one is receptive to you.”
“And is that the only time the veil thins?”
“There is one more point: a year and a day after your death, the veil also thins. This time is also coming.”
“Great! So I have two chances to pass over and freak Cass out.” Johnny muttered bitterly. “And what is it—exactly—she needs to do?”
“I have spoken too much already,” the Guardian said.
“No, please, you can’t stop there; not when I’m so close to understanding!” Johnny begged. He was completely overwhelmed, both by information and his renewed frustration.
“I do have one last thing to say before I must leave,” the Guardian said.
Johnny waited for the Guardian to impart his last piece of wisdom, but it didn’t come. The Guardian fell silent.
“Hello?” Johnny called.
“Lost One, I must leave. I am summoned by the Great Lord and Lady. Your ‘year and a day’ is very soon. You will know you can cross when the veil turns to mist. It will be this color…”
A haze of green enveloped Johnny.
“Your loved one must turn back to the Path in order to lead you to the Summerland and…”
The last of the sentence faded, but Johnny felt he had enough of the gist of what the Guardian said. Now he just had to figure out a way to convince Cass to return to ‘The Path’. He only hoped Cass would know what that meant.