The streets were already decorated with twinkling, white Christmas lights on every tree. Shop windows were decked out with holiday cheer. The streets smelled of warm fudge and mountain taffy from the candy shops littered around every corner. Snow was drifting down lazily and sticking to our coats as we walked the streets. Wyatt held five shopping bags already in his hands, full of Miranda’s purchases. An icy breeze made my numb nose throb. I ducked down into the scarf I’d wrapped around the bottom part of my face several times. I was not accustomed to this weather. Our winters in Florida never got this cold. Leif pulled me close to his side. “Come on, let’s go into this coffee shop and get something to warm us up.”
“Good idea. I need a break from these bags and I’m pretty sure Miranda won’t find anything in there to buy.” I laughed at Wyatt through the scarf covering my mouth.
I reached up and pulled it down, glancing up at him.
“You’ve got to be kidding. You know she can find something in any store we step inside. So far we’ve been in five stores and you are holding five bags.”
“Pish posh,” Miranda said with a wave of her furry gloved hand. “What are all these cute little stores for but to buy things?” Leif chuckled behind me and we all went over to a table. I sighed as the warmth of the coffee house seemed to thaw out my frozen nose. It was the only body part I hadn’t been able to cover up.
“What do you want?” Leif asked, taking off his scarf and hanging it and his large black down coat on the chair beside me.
“Caramel latte with whipped cream,” I replied. He turned and joined Wyatt at the counter and I glanced over at Miranda.
“My nose feels as if it may fall off from frost bite,” I grumbled and rubbed it with my gloved hands.
She nodded and rubbed hers as well. “I know what you mean. Now that I’m inside and not focused on the shopping, I feel the numbness.”
I started to say something else when I noticed the soul standing at the counter watching people order with a confused expression. Now I knew what they were and why they always looked so lost and confused, and I wished I could do something to help them. They could have lived more lives if they’d only moved on. Instead, fear had held them back and all they could hope for was to wander, lost.
“Who are you looking at as if you want to cry?” Miranda asked, poking her chin out over the scarf wrapped around her neck.
I jerked my gaze away from the soul and stared back at her, “No one, I was just lost in thought.” Miranda glanced back over her shoulder but all she saw were Wyatt and Leif walking back toward us, holding steaming cups of coffee.
Well, at least everyone’s but Leif’s, his would be hot chocolate.
“Here we go. Let’s see if we can get the frozen blood in our veins moving again,” Wyatt said jovially as he put Miranda’s latte down in front of her. I took mine from Leif and took a small sip, needing to have some warmth flow through me. Miranda took her mug and held it to her nose. I giggled and Wyatt rolled his eyes.
“Laugh all you want but it feels good.” I studied my cup and decided I didn’t care how silly she looked, I wanted to warm my nose too. The cup’s heat felt wonderful to my nose.
“You Florida girls sure have a hard time with a little cold weather.”
Miranda lowered her cup and stared at Leif incredulously. “A little cold? Are you crazy? It’s like thirty below out there!” She whined and held the cup back up to her nose.
“Um, no. Actually, it’s only twenty degrees out there. Not even close to being below zero.”
I put my cup back down on the table. “Um, that’s like ten degrees below freezing so I’d say it’s much colder than a little cold.” Miranda smiled at me for coming to her defense and shot Leif a smug smile. Leif’s arm slipped around me and I let myself pretend for now that my life was normal: that I loved Leif and my heart wasn’t damaged beyond repair because I was in love with someone I couldn’t find and feared I never would again. My best friend’s tinkling laughter and her happiness to be surrounded by friends and shopping seemed so normal. I could pretend I was whole. I could pretend I was happy and I could pretend a lost soul hadn’t just wandered through the wall behind Wyatt searching through the people around him for someone who might have the answer to his problem. No one could help him now. My fake smile was harder to hold in place, but I did because ignoring the supernatural around me was what I’d been doing my entire life.
* * * *
“I’m thinking we shouldn’t be going out tonight. I mean, I know it’s not exactly ideal to hang out in a cabin with your parents, Leif, but it’s icy out there.” Miranda was frowning as she looked outside the window on her side of the Hummer that Leif’s parents had rented for us to use while we were here.
“We’re inside a monster, baby, no worries.” Wyatt leaned over and kissed Miranda’s neck, making her giggle. I gazed back toward the road in front of me and away from the happy couple in the back.
“Wyatt’s right, Miranda. My parents rented this vehicle so we could get around easily in the icy weather. Besides, the Pancake House is not something you want to miss. Piles of pancakes covered in any topping you can imagine. I’m drooling just thinking about it,” Leif replied, grinning.
“UGH! I’m going to be like a thousand pounds when we leave here. All we do is eat. If you make me stop at one more of those mountain taffy stores I think I might run screaming the other way.” Miranda pouted in the back seat.
Wyatt laughed. “Or you’ll go taste test every sample they have.”
Miranda teasingly punched his arm. “Oh hush. Don’t remind me of my weakness and the damage I’ve done to my hips.”
“I like your hips just fine.” Wyatt replied in a low husky whisper we could clearly hear up front.
“Okay, you two, I’m going to make you walk to the restaurant if you don’t cool off back there,” Leif warned, flashing them a smile in the rearview mirror.
I kept my attention on the road as the falling snow seemed to get heavier. I touched my seat belt and a small stab of pain pierced me as I remembered Dank standing in my hospital room telling me my seat belt had saved my life.
Yet, my mom had said I’d been thrown out for not wearing my seat belt and not wearing it had saved my life. I would have been crushed had I been left inside the car. The memory of a heavy weight being on my chest making it hard for me to breathe hit me. I’d been in the car when it’d finally stopped rolling. I’d thought I would suffocate from the heaviness on me. Then I’d been taken from the car and laid down on the grass. The pain had been so intense I couldn’t open my eyes. How had I gotten out of the car? Someone had gotten me out. Someone had unbuckled my seat belt and lifted me out of the crushed car and laid me safely on the grass. I’d never asked him about the seat belt again.
Now, as I rode along the icy mountain roads it slowly dawned on me. The someone who’d taken me from the accident had to have been the only person who knew I’d been wearing my seat belt. Why had I not asked him again? I’d forgotten about his knowledge I’d been wearing my seat belt.
Leif had shown up and I’d let myself forget the wreck and the events leading up to it.
“You okay?” Leif’s hand slid across my leg and took my hand in his.
I masked my pain and turned to give him a reassuring smile. “Yes.”
He nodded toward the snowy evergreens outside my window. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I nodded because he was right, it was, but also because it gave me an excuse to keep staring off into the darkness.
“LEIF! WATCH OUT!” Wyatt’s voice broke into the soothing quietness of the Hummer like a bullet and Leif jerked the vehicle off the road and skidded up against the side of the mountain before coming to a full stop only feet away from the car that had just hit a patch of ice and flipped right in front of us.
Leif jerked open his door. “Call 911!” he yelled back at us and Wyatt jumped out of the vehicle with him. I reached blindly for my purse, not wanting to take my eyes off the smoking car in case I saw them. The souls who would walk away from it, if the crash had killed the passengers. I’d know soon if they’d died…wouldn’t I?
“There has been a really bad wreck in front of us.” Miranda’s voice came from behind me and I knew she’d found her phone and already made the call. I dropped my purse and crawled over to Leif’s seat to get out of his door, since my side was jammed up against the mountain. Sparks started flying from the upturned car and Wyatt grabbed Leif’s arm and pulled him back.
“No man, stop,” he said and Leif appeared torn as to whether he should try to help them or back away. Sparks and smoke so close to gasoline meant at any moment the car would catch on fire and possibly blow up.
“BACK UP!” Miranda yelled, jumping out of the car and running toward us with the phone in her hand.
“The lady on the phone says to back away. The smoke and sparks are a bad sign and she said the paramedics and fire trucks are on their way but they don’t need more injuries to deal with, it won’t help the people in the car.”
“She’s right, Leif, come on. Back up.” Leif glanced frantically back at me.
“Move back, Pagan,” he called. Before anyone could react, the fire ignited and the car in front of us went up in flames. A scream echoed in my ears and I cringed at the thought of the people inside we hadn’t been able to help. Frozen in horror, we all stood there and watched, unable to do anything to save them. Miranda’s wails were muffled by Wyatt’s soothing voice. Leif’s arms came around me and pulled me back farther from the heat of the flames. I let him pull me away but I didn’t take my eyes off the car. I needed to see if they were dead.
“Don’t watch, Pagan,” Leif’s voice was in my ear softly pleading. He didn’t understand why I had to watch and I couldn’t tell him.
Then I saw him. He stepped out of the darkness and walked directly into the fire. I broke free of Leif’s hold and ran toward the fire. He was here. Dank was here.
“Pagan, NO!” Leif’s voice called from behind me.
“STOP HER!” Miranda called out in a panicked voice, but I couldn’t stop. Dank was here! He was in there. The fire wouldn’t hurt him. I understood now. Arms wrapped around me and pulled me back as I fought against them.
“No, stop, I can’t — I need to get there! I need to see,” I begged as I struggled against Leif’s arms while never taking my eyes off the burning car. Dank emerged with two people by his side. It was a young couple. I started to call out his name as Leif held me tightly in his arms, unyielding.
“Please, please let me go. I need to go,” I begged, watching as Dank stopped and stared back at me. His eyes were a glowing, brilliant blue in the darkness as he watched me struggle and call out to him from Leif’s arms. He was there, so close, and the people beside him stood staring back at the burning car they had just escaped. He turned from me and with a wave of his hand all three of them were gone. I watched in horror as the darkness returned. The car continued to burn and I heard fire trucks drawing closer.
“Come on, Pagan, come back, baby,” Leif whispered in my ear.
“They’re dead,” I whispered, knowing why Dank had come.
Leif pulled me against him and held me in a tight hug. I let him. He had no idea what I’d just seen. No one did. All they saw was the burning vehicle. I had just seen the beautiful soul who had stolen my heart emerge from the darkness and take the souls of the people inside the burning car. He wasn’t a normal soul. He’d always told me he was different. I understood now what he meant. He was different.
His existence was cold and lonely. A sob wracked my body and I crumpled against Leif’s body. I wept at the realization that Dank was never given a chance to love. He lived within the sadness. He had to walk hand and hand with death. I heard Leif’s voice attempting to comfort me but I couldn’t accept his words. Nothing he said made any of this okay.
Dank wasn’t given a chance at life and happiness. My breathing came in gasps from the pain shooting through my heart. It was all too much. I had a limit and I was positive I’d just reached it.
“No, sir, she isn’t hurt. We weren’t close enough to the car and we all were wearing our seatbelts when I ran the Hummer into the mountain. She isn’t handling what we just witnessed well….” Leif’s voice trailed off.
An unfamiliar voice spoke from behind me. “She needs to be taken in and given some meds to calm her down. That kind of emotional trauma can leave devastating effects.” I tightened my hold on Leif. I couldn’t go to the hospital now. I didn’t want to see more sickness or lost souls. I shook my head violently against his chest.
“She’s terrified and I can’t just let her go without me. I can’t leave her.” I heard Leif argue.
“You can ride with her but she needs some medical attention. This is not a normal way of dealing with something like this. The other girl is handling it well. This one seems to be losing it.”
“Okay, but I’m not letting go of her.” Leif said with finality to his voice.
“I don’t want to go to a hospital,” I said, panicked. I pushed away from Leif, trying to get away so I could run to someone safe; someone who wouldn’t make me go. No one understood what I would see there. What I’d seen tonight.
“No, don’t,” I heard Leif protest and I thought for a moment he was talking to me when I felt the prick of a needle and the world went hazy before it faded to black.
* * * *
“No, they gave her a shot to knock her out. I tried to stop them but it happened before I could do anything.” I heard Leif’s voice in the darkness.
“I’ve called her mother and she’s terribly worried. I told her not to come. I’m having us flown out of here in a few hours.” Mrs. Montgomery’s voice sounded concerned.
“How are Miranda and Wyatt?” Leif asked before fingers gently caressed my arms. I knew it was his touch.
“Both are doing fine. Miranda’s fine. She’s very worried about Pagan. I reassured her Pagan was just resting.” There were a few minutes of silence. I let the caressing touch from Leif comfort me. It helped fight the horror I was only barely containing. I knew there was pain waiting for me but I wasn’t ready to face it.
“Honey, is she always this unstable? I realize it was a horrible thing to witness, but for her to completely fall apart like this, well, do you think she has some mental issues you might be unaware of?” Leif didn’t say anything at first and I wondered if he’d shook his head or shrugged.
I heard him sigh. “I don’t know, Mom,” he said quietly.
Leif always seemed completely blind to my problems. I’d always wondered if he’d just not noticed the way I’d stare and watch things he couldn’t see. Then there were my major mood swings he always seemed to overlook. Maybe he’d seen more than I realized. A swell of panic tightened my chest as I realized that I may be losing Leif too. This time he wouldn’t be able to ignore my serious issues. I wasn’t normal. I never had been.
“You may need to really think about your relationship with her. It isn’t healthy to get involved with someone who is this emotionally vulnerable. People this weak emotionally can be dangerous.” Leif‘s hand stopped caressing my arm.
“I didn’t ask your opinion. Don’t say things like that about Pagan ever again. Do you understand me? Nothing is wrong with her that is dangerous or harmful. She just feels deeper than others.”
I thought of how deeply I loved Dank and I couldn’t argue with him. I did feel more deeply than was normal.
“I’m sorry, honey. I shouldn’t have said anything but this is just concerning for a mother, that’s all. I want what is best for you. Make sure she is.”
I wanted to open my eyes and say ‘Listen to your mother.
I’m not good for you Leif,’ but I didn’t. Because I was selfish and scared.