The room is deathly cold, the chill so deep it seems to reach into my chest and squeeze the empty space where my soul used to be. But what’s worse than the cold? The smell. The air’s so heavy with cleaning chemicals that my stomach turns with queasiness. But even that’s better than the fucking beeping of the machines, the maddening equipment that turns this simple human hospital into its own kind of hell.
What a terrible place to die.
“It hurts,” Lucy whispers, her lips barely moving.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” I tell the older woman, holding her hand gently.
She winces, her head thrashing from side-to-side on her bed. “I’ll be leaving soon?”
“Yes,” I lie, and the word tastes sour on my tongue.
That infernal beeping swallows me whole for one painful second, echoing louder and louder in my mind. Goosebumps erupt on my arms and my breathing quickens. I hate that damned beeping. It reminds me of what it was like when I was watching my own child die.
What the fuck is wrong with you? Focus! Don’t go down that path…
“I trust you,” the older woman says, drawing me back to the present.
I look down at her, seeing past her attempt at a smile. It's more of a grimace, really, but I don't blame her. I understand what she’s going through better than most people. I know that when the suffering gets this bad, it becomes impossible to force a smile when all a person wants to do is sob and beg for a release from the pain.
She’s been suffering for so long, she's probably forgotten what it feels like not to hurt.
Mrs. Lucy Meyer has been in the hospital ten times this year. Every time they’d patch her up and send her home to a life where nobody visited her, and where the staff at the nursing home did the bare minimum to keep her alive. Not only that, but she still didn’t get a break from the pain.
If I were her, I’d have trouble smiling too.
“Soon, you’ll go home, you'll feel better, and life will be good.” I squeeze her hand, lying through my teeth.
Her eyes close. “Everything was different when Brian was alive.”
The love of her life. Her soul mate. The man who had brought her family together and gave her purpose.
I lean down and kiss the top of her head. “You’ll be with him… one day.”
My palms grow clammy and I struggle to breathe. This is the moment that makes my stomach turn, the one that haunts me late at night.
But it has to be done. This is my job. I can do it quickly or drag it out—the end result will be the same.Closing my eyes, I call my magic to me. I pull energy and life from the dying woman, siphoning it from her like a glowing stream of blue. An intoxicating power rushes through me, filling me with strength. It grows with each second that passes until, at last, I’ve stolen every last drop.
The machines in the room go wild. My eyes open. She’s gone.
Taking a shaky breath, I become invisible and step back. I can’t look at the woman. I can’t do anything but stand there, overwhelmed by the intoxicating high that comes from filling myself with her life-force.
At the same time, I'm consumed by a deep loathing of myself and what I've become.
The room floods with doctors and nurses. They try to bring her back, and I watch, silent tears rolling down my face, knowing the truth. Their energy is wasted. She’s already dead, her life-force tucked snugly inside me with the others.
I don’t know why I do it to myself, but I stand in the corner as the minutes roll past. I remain until they call her time of death and place a sheet over her face. Still, I stay, looking on in silence.
The doctors and nurses leave to get the paperwork in order, and I step forward. Drawing the sheet down, I let my head drop and give a prayer that wherever she’s going, she can forgive me for my sin. I hope she’ll see Brian again in the afterlife.
I’ve been there. Some people get their heart's desire, and others get screwed.
I leave her room and walk down the hall, my legs shaking in reaction. I'm invisible, but the staff teeming in the hall automatically veer around me, as if they feel my force. I slip into one of the storage rooms, where I make myself visible again. I dry my eyes, and wipe the lingering tears from my face. I don't cry every time anymore, but the more I got to know my victims, the harder it hit me.
I think I might be a masochist, though, because I keep taking the time to get to know them. Somewhere in my twisted logic I think I can give them a little happiness and comfort before I kill them. The fact that it fucks with my mind is the karma I deserve.
Don’t kid yourself. You deserve a hell of a lot worse.
Inside me, I feel her life-force moving around, thrashing, bumping into the others that I've been holding. Waiting. This is the time when most Reapers absorb these lives, making themselves stronger, prettier, or whatever-the-hell they want. But not me, because my job isn’t done.
Straightening my spine, I take a deep breath, and leave the room.
I'm not watching where I'm going when I crash into a wall of muscle. I know it’s Dr. Brad Hunter before I look past his muscled chest and up to his smirking face. This doctor is so fucking beautiful that when I look into his pure blue eyes, I get one second when my life doesn’t suck, one second when I feel human again.
“You okay?” he asks, his smile faltering.
I step back from him. “Yeah, of course.”
His stare is far too keen for my liking. “Because you’re always fine, right?”
I look down and smooth the pale blue blouse I wear over my white skirt, buying myself a minute to restore my mask of indifference. “I’m just busy, lots of patients wanting my time. You know how it is.”
For a moment, I get the uncomfortable feeling that I’m being assessed, like one of his patients. But after a heartbeat, he shifts and the moment’s gone.
Brad speaks, his tone nonchalant. “I imagine using your voodoo magic all day’s pretty exhausting.”
Raising a brow, I glance up at him and force myself to sound insulted. “It's not voodoo. I’m a healer. There’s a difference. I may not use scientific instruments or modern technology, but my talents are still real."
Brad grins, and I realize he was trying to get me fired up. The chiseled lines of his face, and the scruff of his beard draw my eyes. I like the way he smiles. Somehow, it makes him even more handsome, in an unexpected way. His smile cracks through his arrogant, condescending doctor personality and shows he’s a person too.
Not that I’d ever tell him that.
“Excuse me,” I say, “places to go, people to see.”
As I move to walk past him, he catches my wrist. “I’ll be grabbing dinner in the cafeteria soon, and I could use some company.”
I smile at him sweetly, which only makes him eye me suspiciously. “Maybe Connor and Ajax will join you.”
Pulling free of him, I refuse to look back. I can’t. If I do, he’ll know that I’d love to have dinner with him, flirt, and act like a normal person. And since I hate admitting that to myself, I definitely don’t want to admit it to him.
Butterflies grow in my stomach as I step on an elevator and give a fake smile to the nurses stepping off of it. The feeling intensifies as the doors finally open onto the children’s ward, and I walk down the hall.
Outside his door, I stare without moving. This is it. I have to do this.
Plastering on a big fake smile, I turn the handle and walk in. Henry’s parents look at me and frown, and it takes everything inside of me not to look at the pale child. I already know he’s bald, a result of the chemo. I know his eyes are vacant, his fight with cancer almost lost.
“Hello,” I greet them. “I’m Jules.”
The woman stands. Her hair is a mess. She’s overweight and wears wrinkled clothes that are a size too small. She didn’t even bother with makeup, either. It’s like she had given up.
It hurts to see her. That was me in another life. Even though now I’m younger, with long blonde hair, curves in all the right places, expensive clothes, and high heels, I’d trade places with her in a minute if it meant getting my old life back.
If it meant getting my family back.
She takes the hand that I extend to her and glances at my badge. “I’m sorry… uh, you work for the hospital?”
I force my fake smile wider. “Here at Mercy Angel, we believe in doing everything in our power to save lives. I’ve been told that your son has been given a terminal diagnosis. Cases such as his often get referred to me. I’m what is known as the hospital healer. When traditional medicine fails, sometimes I can find a path to heal in a different way.”
The husband shifts in his chair, anger coming from him in waves. Even the chair creaks in protest. “So, first your doctors tell us there’s nothing more they can do for our son, then the hospital sends in a quack? What assholes!”
I release his wife’s hand and turn to him. He doesn’t show the signs of suffering like his wife, but his anger is masking deep pain. “I understand that what I do doesn’t make sense to many people, and it’s easy to mistrust something you can’t see. But I believe I can help your son, if you give me the chance.”
The mother wraps her arms around her waist and looks like she’s trying to hold herself together, as if her arms could fix her broken heart and her aching soul. “I don’t understand… what is it that you do?”
“It’s simple. I hold his hand, and through my touch, I use my healing abilities to try to shrink his tumor. Sometimes I’m able to give a person more time. Sometimes I can save their life. I never know until I use my abilities to look within the person.”
I don’t tell them that I’ve already been in this very room, and looked within their child as he slept. I don’t tell them that cancer is in every inch of his body, consuming it.
“Will it hurt him?” the woman asks.
Her husband stands up so fast the heavy chair slams against the wall. “You can’t actually be considering this shit!”
She turns toward him with her fists clenched in the rage of a mother trying to protect her child. “I don’t care if it’s shit. If it doesn’t hurt him, it’s better than sitting here watching him die!”
I’m shaking. I wish I wasn’t, but I am. I remember feeling as desperate as she is. I remember saying that I’d do anything to save my own child’s life.
“It doesn’t hurt,” I tell them again. “If I fail, it costs you nothing, or him nothing. And if I succeed… well, it could change everything.”
“Do it,” the mother says, her gaze swinging back to me.
I nod and go to stand beside him. For the first time since entering the room I look at the child. He’s so weak. So thin. So sick. The whole time we’ve been talking beside him, he hasn’t once reacted.
Death has this child in his sights.
“When I’m working, I can’t be interrupted,” I tell them. “Your son and I may behave strangely. Please ignore it. It’s normal.”
“Of course,” the mother responds, even though I can tell she’s confused. She looks to her husband. “We’ll stay quiet and not interfere.”
Again, I nod and turn back to the child.
I’m so sorry.
Reaching out, I touch his hand. Instantly, his suffering washes over me, and I have to choke back the tears that well inside me. This is the kind of pain few people will ever feel in their lives. It’s a crime that a child should feel it.
Closing my eyes, my hand moves over him. Suddenly, I can see within his body. The cancer is like a monstrous creature in my vision, a black tangled power that weaves around and through his bones, that floats in his blood, consuming every inch of him.
I take several deep breaths, knowing what’s to come. Knowing that I deserve it.
Using the golden light I stole from the old woman, I carefully pour it inside of him like a trickle of a faucet. When the golden light touches the black monstrous substance, the light wins and the dark mass vanishes. I continue to move through his body, easing the golden light into him, bit by bit.
At first I only feel an aching through my body, and then the real pain begins. The dark energy that I’m removing from the child tears into my belly like a knife and cuts through my organs, through my bones, through my heart, but I push through the pain. I’ve gotten rid of so much of the cancer, but not enough. If I leave any of it, it’ll come back, and when it does, it’ll take his life.
I keep going. My mind is in another place, searching the child’s body for the cancer. I’m crying, tears coming so fast that I can’t see, but I don’t need to see to take care of this child. I keep going even when I feel my knees hit the ground. I’m sobbing and shaking, but still I keep going.
When the golden light is done, I go to the blue light within me and continue to pour it into the child’s body. That was the life of a man whose mind had already left his body. His family cried over the shell of a man. I held their hands as they looked at a person who hadn’t yet lived a full life. When they left to get some air, I killed him.
When I’m done pouring everything of that man inside this body, I can feel that the child’s almost better. After surgery and more chemo, he might just live a full life.
Might isn’t good enough. The might is why I keep going.
I turn to the green life inside of me. She was a woman with bright blue eyes and dreams for the future. She was also a woman who would not survive the night, whether I came for her or not.
But my killing her? It was a shock to her husband. He cried, demanding to know how she went from fine to dead within hours. No one would have any answer that would soothe his heartache.
I only took a few hours from her, sped up the inevitable, but even that knowledge didn’t ease my guilt.
I regretted that she was alone when she died. Her husband wasn’t given the time to mourn her, or even see her go downhill. She was there and gone in a flash.
The last of her life-force leaves my body. I’m shaking, searching within the boy to be sure. And when I’m done, I know with absolute certainty that the cancer is gone.
He’s going to live, hopefully a long and healthy life.
I lift my hand and collapse as darkness swallows my vision.
A small boy speaks from somewhere far away. “Mom? Dad? Where am I?”
I feel tears running down my face. You’re alive. And safe.
Suddenly, I’m standing in the darkness of my mind. And I know what’s going to happen even before he shows up. I’m in trouble.
Sure enough, seconds later Drake appears before me. He’s a big man, both tall and muscular, who wears expensive suits that scream money. He’s also middle-aged, and yet, looks to have taken very, very good care of himself.
If only people knew the truth about how he stays so young-looking.
I stare at him, my stomach turning. Every instinct inside of me screams to cower from him, or kneel before him. But I’ve already learned that’s part of his power, part of what makes him so dangerous.
Because this man… he’s the one who made me what I am.
“Why do we keep meeting like this?” he asks, his tone condescending.
I cross my arms over my chest, but the words leave my mouth before I can stop them, “I didn’t invite you into my mind.”
He smirks. “I knew the moment that I took you into my clan that you’d be trouble, I just had no idea how much.”
“Yes, you did,” I tell him.
I know I speak the truth. All the other Reapers are harsh people with a thirst for death and blood. They relish taking lives and using them to fuel their magic. Their magic makes them stronger, more beautiful, and immortal.
None of them even considered using their Reaper power the way I do.
I know for a fact that Drake turned me into a Reaper out of boredom, or at least I think that’s why he did it. There may be other reasons, but I haven’t figured those out quite yet.
He circles me like a shark circling its prey. “Healing patients is annoying, Jules. People suddenly get better, and they’re out of my hospital. It costs me money, and it’s irritating. But when you save lives… well, that brings up far too many questions. I’m not in the business of miracles, and one of my clan shouldn’t be either.”
I don’t tell him that I had to. That my weakness for children led me to do such a risky thing, because he already knows.
Standing up straighter, I look out into the darkness. “Sorry, Drake, I’ll work on it.”
He stops to stand just in front of me. Tucking hair behind my ear, he holds my gaze. “Out of all of my children, you fascinate me the most. But don’t mistake my fascination for weakness. If you put us at risk of exposure, I’ll swallow your soul and use your bones to pick the tendrils of it out of my teeth.”
I swallow. He’s done it before. I’ve seen it.
“Yes, sir,” I mumble.
He fades from my mind, but I remain in the darkness, my thoughts consumed by terrible things I can never escape.