For some people, death is a bad thing. They regret the decisions which led up to it, they dread what will happen in the next life. Some people even live their whole lives fearing the moment when they slip from one reality to another. For me it was a wholly different matter. In fact, an Angel made sure that dying was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I'd grown up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee with my six older brothers and one older sister, but we'd come to our cabin in the mountains for the summer. When I say we, I mean my father and two of my brothers who were closet to me in age. Despite the Depression, my father refused to give up his cabin out here; it was far more valuable to him than food was. It was a tradition that once we turned sixteen we would go with dad in the summer to his home-away-from-home in the Appalachia's. It was sort of a rite of passage in our family. Anyway, he taught us to hunt and kill animals for their meat or hide -nothing too big, mostly deer and the occasional puma.
Only now it was just us four. And next year there would only be three of us. My brothers all have their own lives now, you see. Soon they'll all be takin' their kids hunting on their 16th. But I guess I'm not ready to grow up just yet. Much against the efforts of my mother who seems Hell-bent on finding me a wife. She seems to think it unsuitable for a man of twenty years of age to not even have a proposal planned for the near future. It's not that I don't want one, just that I haven't found a girl who I want to spend the rest of my life with. And it's not as though I haven't had any female company in my life, but none that mother would particularly approve of. And certainly none that I was in love with. Call me a damned woman, but I guess I was just a romantic at heart.
Currently I was hunting, riffle in hand and senses sharpened in pursuit of a fleeting deer. Silently and stealthily, I stalked my prey through the dense forests of the Appalachian mountains. I was quite a skilled hunter and the poor creature really hadn't got a chance. I raised my gun and took aim, training my line of fire on the deer's head. A straightforward kill-shot with no added misery for the critter.
Just as I was about to pull the trigger, the deer suddenly bounded off into the undergrowth in a panic. I cussed under my breath, wondering what had sent it into such a frenzy; I was sure I hadn't made any noise. A shuffling sound nearby alerted me to the presence of something pretty big and very close. I turned slowly around to investigate the noise further, keeping my riffle raised in case I needed it.
I edged forward slightly in an attempt to see through the trees; a mistake a should have known not to make. A few feet away stood a giant brown bear with its head raised to the sky. I struggled to keep my breathing even, despite the feeling of panic that washed over me, knowing that anything more would be enough for an animal of close range to hear. But as I moved my foot -all but a quarter of an inch- a twig snapped and the bear's head whipped around. My heart pounded against my chest as the bear started towards me. Its deep black, soulless eyes blazed into me as its limbs carried it forward in a powerful stride. All my senses screamed at me to run, to get as far away as possible from the animal that would surely kill me, but my mind told me otherwise. And for once I decided to listen to my brain. My father had taught me that if an animal was about to attack, you should play dead. I just prayed that I would only be playing.
The animal paused just in front of me and sniffed deeply, considering. I crossed my fingers and prayed to The Almighty that it would decide I was harmless and leave me alone. Apparently though, it didn't. Letting out a ferocious roar which almost deafened me, it reached out its paw and swiped all two hundred and twenty pounds of me off my feet, sending my gun flying out of my hand in the process. I landed on the ground at an awkward angle and felt my breath being knocked out of me. Despite not being able to breath, I dragged myself off the ground and started to run towards my gun but, no matter how fast you are, you can't outrun a bear. I'd barely taken two steps when it was on top of me again. Its claws slashed unforgivingly at me once...twice...three times until, for no apparent reason, it stopped and sniffed the air intently. Seeing an opportunity I dragged myself, with difficulty, from underneath the bear. With blood pouring from deep gashes in my arms and scratches on my face, I scrambled to the cover of a nearby tree. Breathing hard and in pain all over, I realised I was scared. Terrified in fact. Because I was about to die.
I don't know why the grizzly let me get that far away before coming after me. It was fun I guess, I'd done the same thing a couple of times with deer when I was younger. If that was why, I wondered briefly if it was some sort of Karma Whatever the reason, it took it less than thirty seconds for it to find me leaning against the tree trying to recover my breath. It growled threateningly in my ear, causing blood trickle down from my still ringing ear drums. I felt dizzy but right at that minute, fainting was not my biggest problem. One of the bear's huge shoulders rammed me backwards into the tree, which wobbled like it was going to fall over, and a loud cracking sound rang out from my collar bone. I cursed in pain, lashing out at the bear with my good arm. My clenched fist collided with its head and it stumbled slightly before roaring again and dragging me onto my back underneath its giant paw. It towered over me like a giant, dark demon sent to kill me. Leaning over, it scraped its razor sharp teeth along my chest, tearing off strips of flesh. The pain was enough to make me scream out loud, and I did. The grizzly raised a paw and was about to bring it down to crush my skull- I couldn't watch any more. I didn't like to admit it but I, Emmett McCarty, had given up. I knew I was going to die and I had no intention of watching it. As well as that, I really didn't have the strength to keep my eyes open open any longer.
I waited for the crunching noise that would end my life, but it didn't come. At first I thought it was over -that it had already killed me and this was death. But then came a shriek of fury and the sound of two animals fighting. I assumed that they were trying to decide who would get my carcass. It didn't really matter to me which one won; I would die either way. I could feel my consciousness slipping already and somehow it seemed like I was falling further into the darkness which surrounded me. One of the bears screamed in terror and a huge thump ensued -the fight was over. It didn't last long. Any second I would feel the winning animals sickening breath on my face before it tore me to pieces. Hopefully I'd be dead before it came to that.
But as I waited for the bear to eat me, I was overcome by the strangest feeling that I was...flying. The only explanation I could come up with was that I had died. Still, it wouldn't hurt to look. I peeled back my eyelids, which felt like they'd been weighted down, and that's when I knew I was dead. Because when I opened my eyes, I found myself looking up into the most breathtakingly beautiful face of an angel. My angel.
Her face was twisted in a look of distress and something a little more than discomfort...more like physical pain. But it was also determined, and I had no doubt in my mind that she would do whatever it was she was so set on. Despite everything about her expression that should have been unattractive, she was still indescribably stunning. Her skin was flawless, the palest I had ever seen and her eyes were exact oval shapes, framed by thick dark lashes. They were a jet black but instead of being soulless, like the bear's, they seemed to go on forever and they held the same fierce determination as the rest of her statuesque face. She had glossy golden hair which lay about her perfectly snowy-white face and billowed out behind her as she moved. Her movements as well were so elegant, so graceful that I hardly felt she was moving at all.
Eventually I realised that she wasn't flying, but running. Running at such an immense speed that all the trees of the forest simply blurred into one. Not that I cared about the trees, or even looked at them; it was impossible to when I couldn't stop staring at my angel. Although my eyes fought against me to close, I just couldn't bear to miss one second of her immaculate face. I won that battle and somehow managed to keep my eyes open the entire time I was in her arms.
Suddenly it occurred to me that we had been running for a very long time. I wondered why she didn't spread her glorious wings and take flight. She could easily sweep over the tree tops and glide into Heaven. Maybe Heaven was farther away than I'd been led to believe. But I was content just to look into my angel's face and I would happily stay that way forever. It wasn't even so hard to ignore the pain when I had her to focus on. Occasionally she would glance down at me and smile sadly, the worry still evident in her eyes. That made me sad though. I didn't want her to be worried. I tried to tell her that I was alright but I couldn't -I was using the last of my strength just to gaze at her. So we moved on in silence, presumably on our way to Heaven.
And then she brought me to God.
In some ways, He was just as I imagined Him; Wise eyes which I felt could see into my very soul and tell my darkest secrets, and the way the dimming sunlight seemed to make Him glow in all His Heavenly glory. But in other ways He was totally unpredictable. Like how He had wavy golden hair which flopped over His face and no white beard. But most importantly how He looked so troubled, He had such a disapproving and intense expression. That wasn't how God was supposed to be. Wrathful, merciful, vengeful or angry, of course. But not confused or worried; something was wrong here. Heaven on the other hand was entirely backward, it was a well furnished mansion with high ceilings and large, multi-paned windows. My angel had set me down on a giant white bed with fluffy, cloud like pillows. Although I didn't have much interest in the nature of my surroundings when I had two divine beings in my eye line.
I struggled to watch the scene unfolding before me, but I could feel my attention waning. It was like something from a play being performed by heavenly actors. My angel was clutching at His arm, a heartbreaking expression on her face, her mouth was moving but I couldn't hear what she was saying. God frowned and shook His head at whatever she was suggesting. A sorrowful sob escaped her lips as she begged Him, "Please." Her voice broke in the middle of the word along with my heart. It was the first time I'd heard her speak; her voice was incredible. It rang out sweeter than citrus and lingered in my ears just as the fruit did on my tongue.
"Rosalie," God started, looking at her sadly. Rosalie, I thought, the perfect name for the perfect angel. "I can't do it; I promised myself never again." He shook His head again, as if He was shaking whatever thought He was considering from His mind.
"You have to!" She pleaded, placing her hands on His chest. She glanced at me, so quickly I almost thought I'd imagined it, and then turned back to Him with an expression so determined and so desperate that God Himself could not refuse her. Then she whispered words to Him that made tears spill down my cheeks, "Please, please save him."
That had done it. God's internal conflict was resolved and His face fell into utter weariness. His lips moved almost like He was saying a prayer before He answered her, reluctance dripping from His tone.
"All right Rose, I'll do it. Just let me get some morphine from my study." And with that He was gone. I didn't see Him leave because my eyes simply couldn't follow Him at that speed. I had to blink to banish the dizzy spell that threatened to overwhelm me, but my eyes wouldn't open again. I just didn't know how to fight it any more. I was barely able to think, let alone keep my eyes held open.
"It's okay," The soft musical voice sliced through the silence in my mind as sharply as if it was a blade. It startled me slightly but comforted me at the same time, "I will stay with you, I promise. It will be over soon." I didn't understand her words as they swam around in my head, but I held on to them, just to keep a small grasp on reality.
"Did you find it?" she asked in a worried tone and I knew God had returned.
"Yes..." He trailed off, his voice too seemed to have only the purpose of sending me to sleep. There was a prick in my neck which I barely felt -the pain was non-existent when compared to my earlier animal injuries. "And now we wait."
I don't know how long I lay there -time seemed to twist out of proportion. It could have been seconds or it could have been years. All that I knew to be true was that time was running out; I could feel my heart slow and my breathing fall with it. I wouldn't be allowed to stay here forever, eventually I would have to leave this periphery.
"Carlisle, his heartbeat." My angel's voice floated, lighter than wisps of air, around my mind.
"The morphine hasn't spread enough yet, it won't have taken effect-" This time the words teased at the very edges of my consciousness, not quite registering. They distorted and the more I tried to think about them, the more they reverberated around in the empty space where thought should be.
"There's no time, he'll die if you wait! You have to do it now!" The absolute terror in her tone was the only thing which saved me from the darkness which almost engulfed me.
Then came the cool breath on my neck and the faint whisper, "I'm sorry, my son." A twinge of pain struck my neck as something razor sharp slashed into my veins. The time of judgement had come. It wasn't like the legends I'd heard, but surely God was testing me -my blood, my heart- to see if I was fit for the golden gates of Heaven.
My life flashed at an insane speed -some good memories, mostly bad: I was six and playing with my brothers. Eight and I pushed a girl into the mud. Fourteen, my first kiss with the same girl. Sixteen, the first time I went hunting. Nineteen, being yelled at by Mrs Pickles, the butcher's wife. Twenty, and staring up into my angel's face -glorious even though my memory did it no justice. All of it, I was sure, God could see and from it he would make his decision. The pain ebbed away and the razor sharp object withdrew. God had seen my life and now I awaited His verdict.
That's when the fire began. Tongues of flame started to lick their way through my veins, to scorch and burn everything in their path. The agony coursed through me like a river of fire, washing over every other sense, blacking out feeling. Everything but pain. It was all I could focus on, there was no way to escape it. This torture was unbearable, wrapping around me, encapsulating me and refusing to let go. I was drowning in heat and every time it seemed to cool down slightly, it light up again, bursting out hotter than before, dragging me back in. I was being endlessly pursued by the fire into the depths of Hell and the place where time had no bounds.
So that was it, I had been banished to the pits of Hades and I would suffer here for the rest of eternity. The only difference from this and what I had been told was that the fire was internal -the flames rose within me and burned from the inside out. It made no difference, however, to the temperature or the level of pain. I understood why I was in Hell, of course; I had had a little too much fun in my twenty years. My mother always warned me that I enjoyed life too much, and I supposed I wished I had listened to her now. But all of that I could deal with, all of that was bearable. What I could not accept, and knew that I would not be able to take when the time came, was the inevitability of my angel being taken from me.
At this point I realised that I could think and see once again, although the torment did not lessen. I was more aware and I could feel the presence of my angel beside me, holding my hand. I knew that something so sacred, and perfect, and innocent could not possibly be allowed to stay in a place of such suffering. I knew all that and yet foolishly allowed myself to hope that she would not leave me, that she would stay with me forever and then maybe, just maybe I would be able to stay sane.
But then the time came for God to take her back to Heaven. He entered the room and came over to study me, He was sad when His eyes met mine, and almost pitying. He turned to my angel and spoke to her, but I didn't hear His words. My heart ached in pure anguish because I knew she would be gone and I wouldn't see her again. The pain very nearly surpassed that of the fire.
However, to my surprise He left us alone. I had never felt such joy in all my life and I knew that nothing would ever rival it. The same thing happened several times and every time I worried that He had come to take her away, but all He did was check on me, say a few words and leave. I started to believe that those rumours of a merciful God were true. I knew I would never doubt Him again because Hell couldn't be so bad if you get to keep an angel with you.
Eventually things started to change; the fire began to retreat -slowly, but surely- from my fingers and toes. I thought, at first, that I was imagining it, but as my hands started to be purged of the torridness I was sure I wasn't dreaming. I was confused then; what was causing this strange lapse of warmth? At the same time as this, my heart started to speed up and the atmosphere in the room changed. My angel grew excited and called for God to come back, she grabbed my hand and looked into my eyes encouragingly.
"Don't worry, it will be over soon. Everything will be fine I promise." She smiled a heart-breakingly beautiful smile and she had my trust entirely.
All the while the fire was drawing back, leaving my limbs feeling numbed, but still the pain didn't subdue, it merely...moved. It seemed to become concentrated on both my throat and my heart. The pain intensified until I could hardly feel the rest of my body -only the torment in my heart. I writhed around where I lay, my back arching in absolute agony. Excruciating pain caused me to cry out, as my heart raced forward with incomprehensible speed. It lurched and leaped as I shrieked in terror, not able to think of anything but the pain. I wanted to die again, I wanted to be ripped apart by the bear. Anything, anything, would be better than this.
And then my heart reached it's climax, flipped once more and was still. And so, it turned out, it would stay for the rest of eternity. The pain was gone now, only a scratchiness, as dry and barren as a desert remained to plague my throat.
I inhaled deeply and felt the air rush into my lungs, but I had the strangest sensation of not needing the oxygen I drank in. I was confused by the sudden disappearance of the fire and I decided to find some answers. But again, I had a strange feeling of deja vu as I opened my eyes and saw my immaculate angel only inches away from me. The pure beauty of what I saw startled me and I flinched back slightly, meaning only to move backwards but instead I found myself halfway across the room with no effort on my part. I was crouching on the ground in the corner and I felt a hiss escape uncontrollably from my lips.
I was frightened by my new-found strength and reactions; I just wanted someone to tell me what was going on. Across the room, God was holding my angel back, looking threatened and protective at the same time. But she shook Him off, walking cautiously forward towards me her hand outstretched. I hesitated before rising slowly from the floor and walking towards her too. I was astounded that she looked even more ravishing than she had when I'd last seen her. I felt a lump form in my throat at her heavenly beauty. Unconsciously, I had reached out my hand too and now our fingertips were only inches apart. A spark of static energy fizzled between our skin in the second before we touched. Her skin was as soft as it looked and felt amazingly cool and comforting on mine. I smiled shakily as I looked up into her eyes and found her looking back at me with the same intense expression. Her golden eyes smouldered as she smiled back at me and her lips parted to speak words which chilled me with ecstasy.
"You're safe now. I will take care of you." She whispered and I believed her totally. I would do the same for her, for now and for ever. I was convinced of one more thing now -I was wrong about Hell. God must have changed his mind about where I belonged, because this was most definitely Heaven.