I’d just turned around to watch the pretty balloons. I liked the pink one best. It reminded me of bubblegum. I’d been trying to think of something I could promise Mommy I’d do if she’d buy me one. Maybe clean out from under my bed or maybe straighten the shoes in her closet. But it had only been a second that I’d stopped and thought about it. Now, my mommy was gone. Tears clouded my vision and I let out a panicked sob. She’d warned me I could get lost in the crowd if I didn’t keep up. Normally I held her hand when we were in crowds but today she was carrying an armload of her books. It had been my responsibility not to lose her. But I had. Where would I sleep? I glanced nervously around at the people covering the busy streets. The Arts and Entertainment Festival had brought people from all over to our small town. Reaching up to wipe my eyes so I could find a police officer to help me, I sniffled and for a second forgot my crisis when the smell of funnel cake reached me.
“Don’t cry, I’ll help you.”
Frowning, I studied the boy in front of me. His blond hair was cut short and his big friendly eyes looked concerned. I had never seen him before. He didn’t go to my school. Maybe he was a tourist. Whoever he was, I knew he couldn’t help me. He was just a kid too.
“I lost my mommy,” I muttered, feeling embarrassed that he’d caught me crying.
He nodded then held out his hand. “I know. I’m going to take you back to her. It’s okay, I promise.”
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I thought about his offer. Could he help me? Two sets of eyes looking for a police officer were better than one, I guess.“Um, if you could just help me look for a police officer so he could find her that would be nice.”
He smiled at me like he thought I was funny. I hadn’t been joking and nothing about this was cause to smile.
“I really know where she is. Trust me,” his hand was still outstretched toward me. Frowning, I thought about all the reasons this was probably a bad idea. He couldn’t be much older than me. Maybe he was like seven at the most. But he seemed so sure of himself. Besides, he wasn’t an adult stranger. He wouldn’t kidnap me.
“Okay,” I finally replied, slipping my hand in his. His face appeared to relax. I sure hoped he didn’t get us both lost.
“Where are your parents?” I asked, suddenly realizing maybe they could help.
“Around here somewhere,” he replied and a small frown touched his forehead. “Come with me,” his voice was gentle but firm. He kind of reminded me of an adult.
I kept up with him as he wove a path through the bodies in our way. I tried to glance up at people as we hurried by to see if I recognized anyone but I wasn’t having any luck.
“There she is,” the boy said as he stopped our pursuit and pointed a finger toward the sidewalk up ahead.
Sure enough, there was my mommy and she was really upset. A scared look was on her face as she grabbed the arms of people passing by and spoke frantically to them. I realized she was looking for me. Needing to reassure her I pulled my hand from the boy’s and took off running in her direction.
Her big, round, terrified eyes found me and she let out a sob then began to call my name, “Pagan, Pagan, Pagan!”
My eyes opened and the ceiling fan greeted me, the sun streamed in through my window and my frustrated mother banged on my door.
“You’re going to be late for school. Now get up right this minute”
“I’m awake. Calm down,” I called out in a voice hoarse from sleep and forced myself to sit up.
“Finally, I swear girl, you’re getting harder and harder to wake up. Now hurry up. I’ve made pancakes for breakfast.”
“Okay, okay,” I muttered and rubbed my sleepy eyes. I’d had another one of those dreams. Why was I dreaming about snippets from my childhood and why was I just now realizing that the same boy helped me out in each of my traumatic experiences? I had forgotten about that day at the festival, getting lost. But it had happened. I remembered it now. And that boy... he’d been there. Why was he so familiar?
My bedroom door opened softly and my concerns vanished at the sight of Dank stepping inside my room. He’d started using my door instead of just appearing out of nowhere and scaring the bejesus out of me. It was a small request that he always tried to honor.
“She’s making pancakes... do you think she’d let me have a few when I show up to pick you up for school?”
His voice was deep and hypnotic. Even now, I wanted to sigh and bask in the warmth it sent through me. I stood up and closed the short distance between us. Stopping right in front of him I placed both hands on his chest and smiled up into his startling blue eyes.
“Until Leif shows up you’re not exactly her favorite person. You know that.”
He frowned and I hated that my mother was being so difficult. I didn’t like making him frown. But unfortunately with my exboyfriend suddenly missing my mother was blaming it on me breaking up with him for another guy. It isn’t like I can tell her the truth. She’d think I was insane for real this time and I’d never be let out of the mental house.
“Hey,” Dank said reaching out a hand to cup my face, “stop it. This isn’t your fault. Besides we both know I don’t need food. Her pancakes just smell incredible.”
It can come in handy when he read my emotions. Then other times it annoys me to no end.
“Well, maybe if you would explain to me what exactly you meant by ‘Leif isn’t human’ then I wouldn’t feel so guilty.”
Dank sighed and sank down on my bed pulling me onto his lap. His blue eyes still held a trace of the glow that ignited in them when he took a soul at the body’s time of death. I wrapped my arms around his neck trying very hard to keep the serious expression on my face. When he was this close it was hard to think coherently.
“I told you that I’m not completely positive what Leif is exactly. All I know is he has no soul. That’s the only thing I know for certain.”
I tucked a lock of his dark hair behind his ear and decided to give pouting a try.
“Well, what do you think he is?”
Dank raised his eyebrows and a sexy dimple producing grin appeared on his face. “Pouting, Pagan? Really? I expected more from you than that. When did my girl go all underhanded on me...hmmm?”
I shoved his chest and stuck out my tongue, “That isn’t underhanded.”
His amused laugh sent shivers of pleasure down my spine. “Yes, Pagan it is. I don’t like for you to pout. You know that.”
“PAGAN, GET DOWN HERE AND EAT! YOU’RE GOING TO BE LATE,” my mother’s voice loudly carried up the stairs.
“Go eat. I’ll be outside in twenty minutes to pick you up,” he whispered in my ear before kissing my temple and standing me up. I put my hands on my hips to argue but he vanished before I could get a word out.
“Just because you’re Death doesn’t mean you can get away with being rude,” I hissed into the empty room just in case he was close enough to hear me.
With an annoyed humph, I headed to the bathroom to get ready.
“You’re not going to have time to sit down and eat breakfast if you intend on making it to first period before the bell,” my mother said frowning as I walked into the kitchen.
“I know, I’ll just take a pancake with me,” I reached for one of the pancakes she’d piled on the plate in the center of the table and felt instantly guilty for taking so long to get ready. She’d obviously went out of her way to make a nice hot meal for me to start my day and all I had time for was to grab a pancake and eat it on my way out to Dank’s Jeep.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I overslept. Thank you for this,” I said leaning in to kiss her cheek before picking up my book bag off the kitchen table.
“I need to get you an alarm clock,” she mumbled and pulled out a chair to sit down.
“I promise tomorrow I’ll get up thirty minutes earlier. Put the left overs in the fridge and we’ll heat them up in the microwave in the morning and enjoy them together.”
She didn’t smile but instead frowned into her coffee cup. Dangit, she knew how to make me feel bad.
Pulling out a chair, I sat down knowing I’d be jumping right back up in less than three minutes but I wanted to make her happy and I wanted to ask her about my dream.
“Do you remember when I was a kid and got lost at the Arts and Entertainment Fair?”
She set her cup down and her forehead wrinkled in thought. I hoped my forehead didn’t wrinkle like that when I got older. Other than the forehead thing though, I wouldn’t mind looking like my mother at her age. The short pageboy haircut made her dark hair look shiny and her legs were hot for an old woman.
“Um...I think so. OH! Yes, the time I had my hands full of books and you were supposed to be holding onto my skirt. God, that was terrifying. I remember the moment I realized your grip was gone and then I turned around and you weren’t there. My heart stopped. You probably shaved five years of my life off that day.”
So it had been real. Mom’s dark brown eyes peeped over the rim of her coffee cup as she took a sip. I wanted to ask more but the frown on her face stopped me. Her attention was fixed over my shoulder at the window. Dank was here. I hated her thinking my relationship with him had something to do with Leif disappearing. The fact was I’d never got a chance to break up with Leif. He’d vanished before I could. But telling her that would make things even worse. If I didn’t know that Leif wasn’t human then I’d be worried too but I knew the truth.
“I gotta go Mom. Love ya,” I called out heading for the door. I didn’t want to listen to her lecture me on being more concerned about the fact Leif had run away.
“It’s almost time”
I stopped and stood frozen on the front steps of the house. My hand reached out and gripped the cold iron railing. I knew that voice.
“Pagan.” Dank was in front of me instantly. Lifting my eyes to meet his I shook my head to clear it.
“Did you... did you see anyone or ...um, anything?” I stumbled through my words, still reeling from the voice spoken directly in my ear.
The blue color in Dank’s eyes went from their normal brilliant blue to flickering orbs.
“Pagan, your eyes,” he reached out and cupped my face with his hands as he studied me. Death wasn’t supposed to fear anything; yet I could see it in every crease of his frown. The fact that his eyes looked like blue flames meant something.
“What about my eyes?” I asked in a panicked whisper.
Dank pulled me up against him tightly, “Come on, we’re going.”
I let him all but carry me to the Jeep and even put me inside and buckle me up.
“Dank, tell me what’s wrong,” I pleaded as he kissed me softly on the lips.
“Nothing. Nothing that I can’t fix,” he assured me and pressed his forehead to mine. “Listen to me Pagan, you have no reason to worry. I’ve got this. Remember what I told you. What Death protects can’t be harmed and baby,” the pad of his thumb caressed my cheek, “you’re the only thing I protect.”
The shivers I never seemed to be able to control when his voice dropped an octave and went all smooth and sexy seemed to make him happy. He always gave me a sexy smirk when I shivered.
“Okay, but I heard a voice. In my ear. Like when you talk to me but you’re far away.”
Dank tensed and he took a deep breath. “You did?”
I nodded and watched as he closed his eyes tightly and an angry snarl vibrated against his chest.
“No one gets that close to you. No thing gets that close to you.” He kissed the tip of my nose and then closed the door before appearing in the driver’s seat beside me. I sure hoped he wasn’t so otherwise occupied that he wasn’t paying attention to what my mother was doing. If she was looking out the window just now then things could get complicated.
“She’s already closed off in her room writing,” Dank said as he cranked the Jeep and pulled out onto the road. I didn’t ask how he knew what I was thinking. I was used to this by now. I couldn’t worry about anything without him knowing. He was obsessed with fixing all my problems. Normally that would frustrate me but right now with the problems I had looming I needed him.
“What did the voice say?” His voice was tense and I could tell he was trying to control the angry hiss that amused me when it was brought on because of jealousy. Right now it wasn’t amusing. At all.
“It’s almost time,” I replied, studying his reaction. His left hand tightened on the steering wheel as he reached over and rested his hand on my thigh.
“I’ll have this handled immediately. I didn’t see anything but I felt it. The moment you froze, I felt it. It isn’t a soul. It isn’t a deity. It is nothing that I’m familiar with but that leaves only a few things it can be. And I promise you Pagan that not one of those things is a match for me. So stop worrying. I’m Death, baby. Remember that.”
I let out a sigh and covered his hand with mine.
“I know,” I replied and began tracing hearts on his hand with the tip of my finger.
“I missed you last night,” he whispered in a husky voice.
I smiled down at his hands as he flipped it over and clasped mine in his. I liked knowing he missed me.
An amused chuckle was his response.