“Wow,” a ghostly voice echoed through the darkness. “You really know how to make an exit.” Was Kay still talking to me?
“Are you going to be trapped in my garage for all eternity?”
My demonic sister-in-law laughed. “Only thanks to your angel friend. You should really buy him a fruit basket or maybe a Starbucks gift card.”
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that.” Kind of hard to buy a gift as a disembodied soul.
“You’re not dead,” Kay said in a mocking tone. “Stupid freaking human.”
I awoke in my bed at Sky Turtle Tours. “Leo!” I called out. That was the only possible explanation. I got up, walking down the stairs. I caught sight of my reflection in the bathroom mirror. There was no light but from what I could see, my body was completely healed, with not even a single scar present. “Ok, this has to be a dream.” But even if it was, it would be all kinds of fun. The first-floor shop looked about the same, minus any products on the shelves. I made my way to the front door, letting the little bell ring as I made my exit.
“Elena is that you?” the voice was coming from the roof and it was not Leo.
Kent was on a ladder, installing something that I wasn’t able to see. “I’ll be right down.” He climbed down a wielded ladder that Isaiah had made from scrap metal. I couldn’t remember that last time I’d seen it in use. “I figure we can repaint the building, whitewash the stone to help deflect the heat. And then we have the solar panels to hopefully offset the gas-guzzling generator.
“You know how to install solar panels?” I asked, absolutely starstruck.
“It’s always been a hobby of mine,” Kent said casually. He stretched his big strong arms, using his wrists to wipe sweat from his forehead.
“What about the name?”
“Sky Turtle Tours? It’s a nice name, worth keeping.”
“Even though we don’t have a plane?”
“We could still do tours, maybe invest in some ATVs. And a ‘Sky turtle’ is just a mythical creature, we can say it’s a symbol of the beauty of the desert.” Kent smiled, his sunburned skin and blonde hair sparkling in the Arizona sun.
I cupped his face in my hands, looking deep into his eyes. I wanted so badly to kiss him, to keep him. But this wasn’t real. “Where’s Matty?” I asked sweetly.
Kent nodded, his expression flush with noticeable disappointment. “I think I saw him around back.”
“Thanks.” I walked to the back garage. Just beyond the fence, I located Matty, playing with his animal friends.
“Mama!” Matty cried.
This caused the rabbit, the spider, the scorpion, and all the others to turn, greeting me with a chorus of “Elena! You’re back!”
Matty pointed to the sky. “Daddy is home.”
“What did you say?” Tears welled in my eyes.
“Leo told me that Daddy had to go home, but Kent will stay with us.”
My heart filled with warmth, hope. I wanted this world, this reality. “Please, tell me this isn’t a dream.”
I suddenly heard a loud snap followed by a sickening crash. Matty screamed. But my voice simply vanished. I ran back to the front to see Kent had fallen off the ladder. He had been trying to carry up supplies and the weak metal could not hold the weight. I found him slumped near the sidewall. There was surprisingly very little blood, that is until he opened his mouth.
“He’s suffering the injuries that you left him with when you blew your head off,” Leo said from behind me.
I knew he was disappointed in me, maybe even ashamed.
“A broken neck, collapsed lung, in addition to the fact that you tore the breathing tube out of his throat.”
I nodded, biting my tongue until I tasted blood. “Are you here to take him?”
“Do you want me to take him? You don’t have to save him. You have your whole life ahead of you. I’ll make sure he’s safe.”
“No, please no.”
“Then you have to make a choice.”
Make a choice? “Why does this feel familiar?”
“This has nothing to do with what happened in Colorado.” Leo reached for my hand, coaxing me to stand up.
But I couldn’t. Kent was unresponsive, his eyes rolled back in his head, as he started to gasp and seize.
“Let’s say I believe you, Leo,” I said, through tears. “Why would you need to keep him safe?”
“You know why. We beat Kay but the puppeteer is still out there.”
“The devil,” I muttered. The pieces were falling in to place. “Is he really a small child or is he appearing that way just to mess with me?”
Leo rolled his eyes since the answer was obvious. “If you surrender Kent’s life, Satan will reward you and (attempt to) pull Kent’s soul into Hell. You’ll have Isaiah’s powers back, and knowing what you know, you could keep Matty safe. But if you chose to save Kent Fuller, the force of Isaiah’s power will be divided; half to save Kent and half to save you.”
“Since you had to go and eat a flamethrower.”
“I didn’t eat a flame thrower.” I turned to Leo, ready to own up to my fate. “I ate a flare gun.” I already knew this was not going to end well.
“Regardless, you’re not going to be able to speak.”
“Ever,” Leo placed his hand upon mine, ready to lead me to my final fate. “This is the final quest, there are no do-overs. So, what do you say?”
I turned to Kent one last time. “Save him, please.”
“As you wish.” Leo wrapped his wings around me, like a shell.
I recall feeling sleepy, my eyes closing before I fell to the ground with a thump. “Ow.”
I awoke in a hospital bed. “What the?” I didn’t recognize the white walls but I did recognize the various ICU equipment; heart monitor, oxygen levels, etc.
Someone was holding my hand. I turned my stiff neck to see Kent sitting next to me. Upon meeting my eyes, he burst into tears.
“What happened?” I spoke the words in my head, my mouth made the motions but no sound emitted from my throat.
“Hush now. Be still,” Kent muttered through sobs. “You were in a coma for over a month, you need to take things slow.”
“Over a month?” I froze. Not being able to speak didn’t seem like such a bad fate, in theory. In practice, it felt like I’d lost the ability to breathe. I pursed my lips, just to make sure they were still present on my face. They were, but when I tried to swallow, I noticed I was missing the majority of my tongue. I started to panic, and hyperventilate when I realized Kent was still holding my hand.
“It’s ok, Elena. You’re safe.” Kent breathed on my hand; a soft, warm stream of air. “Just breathe with me.”
With my free hand, I mimed the act of writing while reaching for what looked to be a napkin on the end table.
“Sure, babe.” Kent grabbed the napkin and handed me a pen from his breast pocket. “What did you want to know about?”
I wrote the word, ‘House?’
“Sky Turtle Tours? It’s still standing. Matty and I have been staying on-base. Your nanny friend has been super helpful. He’s been checking in every other day, helping Matty get to school…”
“Yeah, it’s just a short walk. I started walking with him as soon as I was discharged.”
‘From here?’ I motioned at the wall since I didn’t have the energy to write out ‘hospital.’
“Yeah,” Kent said with a nod, blinking tears from his eyes. “I’m in full remission.” He cupped his hand over his mouth before saying the next words.
“It’s a miracle.”
I could tell from the emotion in his eyes, he knew what I had done.
‘Do you?’ No, I scribbled that out.
‘Will you?’ No, that wasn’t right either.
‘Could you?’ Could you love someone like me? I couldn’t bring myself to write the rest. I wasn’t entitled to him. I crumpled the paper, yanking my hand away.
“I’m sorry.” I wanted to tell him to leave, have a great cancer-free life. But I’d thrown his pen across the room.
“What?” I turned to see Kent reaching for the clasp of a necklace that had been hidden below his collar. I thought it might have been his dog tags. Then I noticed the chain was brilliant silver. The polished metal caught the light like a holy relic. I figured it had to be a cross, maybe a family heirloom. But at the end of the chain was a gold ring.
Kent kissed my hand. “I won’t even try to pretend to know what you did for me or even how. Will you give me the chance to believe in you?”
I nodded, my heart racing with happiness. But I’d been through three different realities. I needed to know what was real and what was a fantasy.
“Kent,” I said out loud. The sound was like a warped, muffled cough but he seemed to know what I wanted.
“You want to know what I’ve been doing for the past month? I’ll tell you what I can remember.”
I nodded slightly, stroking my new ring. There was an inscription; a heart, diamond, and a spade with the words, “on a warm summer’s eve.”
Kent bit his lip, his face flush with noticeable embarrassment. “I guess I should explain that first. Matty told me that was your favorite song; Kenny Rogers’s ‘The Gambler.’ He said you used to sing it to him. I know singing might not be in the cards but I wanted you to always remember that song. It really meant a lot to Matty. I just realized I could have chosen a better lyric, maybe one that didn’t reference a popular brand of douche.”
I hadn’t even thought of that. “Warm, Summer’s Eve…” I doubled over laughing.
“Matty was by my side when I woke up in the ICU. He’s actually learning how to play that song on his new guitar.
“Your friend Leo’s guitar. he’s been teaching him, here in your room. Maybe you’ve heard them playing?”
I thought for a moment and nodded. I could remember hearing music in my dreams. I mimed the ‘writing’ motion, to ask Kent to give me back his discarded pen.
Kent was more than willing to oblige, although he required a cane to stand and walk the few feet to where the object landed. “Here you go.”
Pen in hand I wrote ‘roof’ on my palm.
“Leo helped finish the roof. We have solar panels, now.”
I sighed with relief, grateful that at least that part of the memory had been real. I felt calm, relaxed. Suddenly, as if on cue the door flew open.
Leo entered the room with Matty on his shoulders. My little boy screamed for joy, tossing his hands through Leo’s rainbow hair. “Mama it’s you!” Leo put him down allowing him to run to my side. “Leo said you would wake up today!”
I looked up at Leo.
He replied with a knowing nod, well aware of the physical and psychological hell I was in. “Matty brought you a present.”
Matty handed me a plastic bag from the local convenient store. “I bought you a notebook and some pens. But Leo and Daddy want to buy you a computer so you can talk like the Science Robot man!”
I raised an eyebrow. “Stephen Hawking?” I asked, silently mouthing the words.
“Yup, Stephen Hawking,” Leo replied. “A personal hero of mine. but don’t worry, we’ll get you a voice that sounds more like a Siri or Alexa.”
“Daddy said Stephen Hawking is a space superman.” Before I could ask, Matty clarified his statement. “My earth daddy.” He gave Kent a tender hug. And then he noticed my ring. “Did you say yes?”
I nodded, unable to hide my excitement.
Matty turned to Kent. “I told you! He didn’t think you’d say yes. But I always knew you would!”
I was speechless.
Leo sighed and picked up his keys. “Well, I’m going to grab some coffee. You kids have fun.”
“Have fun?” I mouthed the words, nearly choking on my own spit.
“Or not. You just spent the last few months fighting the devil and won,” Leo said patting my head like a puppy. “Now, your fate is what you chose to make of it.”
I wanted to ask if he was going to stick around, but he just walked out. It would be one more week before I was allowed to come home in a wheelchair.
Kent continued to walk with a cane. I would come to learn that he still struggled with chronic pain due to muscle damage and partial bone death. But he kept to his word, we got ATVs, hired a few tour guides. He was going to run Sky Turtle Tours.
Kent was remarkable; confident and strong. But as he slept in my bed. I could hear him sobbing.
“You need to see a doctor,” I wrote on Kent’s hand as he slept.
Part of me was afraid he would fall into addiction. I figured that was just the type of person he was; headstrong, emotional, volatile. But instead, he just worked harder.
He received an honorable discharge with a pension equal to sixty percent of his take-home pay. His ex-wife was actually not that horrible of a person and did not ask for any increase to the spousal support that had been a mandatory part of their divorce agreement.
I even had the chance to meet her. Shauna Lynn, the pretty blonde and her new husband gifted us twenty thousand dollars, an investment allowing us to advertise to the Las Vegas/Grand Canyon tourism industry.
In the months to follow, we had enough help to allow Kent to see a physical therapist. After only a single session he was given a referral to a neurologist.
His muscles were as effective as they could be, the only way to correct his chronic pain would be corrective surgery; spinal fusion, followed by partial reconstruction of his hips and leg joints. It would be a difficult process, with a long recovery. But Kent was willing, for me.
The operation took nearly ten hours. After which he was sent to the ICU, unable to awaken from the anesthesia.
The lead surgeon theorized that Kent’s body had gone in to shock. His tissue had undergone so much trauma, that his consciousness was literally afraid to return to what was left of his body. That insanity should have been my first clue.
Sitting in the ICU, I knew the real reason why Kent couldn’t wake up. I closed my eyes and focused my mind. “You can’t take him.” Kent didn’t deserve Hell.
There was no reply.
“I know you’re here!” I screamed in my head. I could feel the migraine forming. “This isn’t funny!” Matty was by my side, asleep on a chair. He was the only thing keeping me from crying.
That was when a familiar child-like voice seemed to come from all around me. “I think this is all very funny.” The demon bastard sounded so innocent. It as if he was a ten-year-old on his Dad’s computer, playing the most sadistic game of The Sims. “You can’t have Leo fighting all your battles for you. You know that, right?”
“I’ve already beaten you.”
“I’ve already beaten you,” his voice repeated in a mocking tone. “You didn’t beat me, you just sacrificed your last remaining cards to try to get me to put away the game board.” He materialized on the opposite side of the room. “But I’m not through playing.”
“Fine, what do you want.”
“Just to ask a simple question,” he said with a smile.
“Ask away.” I’d be lying to say I wasn’t nervous. I gripped Kent’s limp arm, like a child holding a teddy bear.
“Well, your first husband was your high school sweetheart. Would you like to know what happened to him?”
“He died at sea.”
“He volunteered for that deployment, he wanted to be away from you.”
“He. Died. At. Sea.” I had my memories of him, nothing else mattered.
“Do you care if he’s in hell?”
“There’s nothing I can do about that.” I hoped. It would be just like the devil to offer my first husband’s soul in exchange for Kent.
Perhaps sensing my resolve, he moved on to the next topic. “Your second lover was honest to goodness Ocean Prince.”
I nodded. “Yes, and he’s ascended.”
“You feel no guilt, for the death and demise of the father of your child?”
“I will always feel guilt. My heart will be forever broken. But where Isaiah is now, is where he was meant to be.”
“What would Kent be?” the boy walked to Kent’s side, staring me down.
Kent’s body started to convulse, violently shivering. His eyes shot open, coated in blood.
“My ride or die.” The words were cliché, but it was the truth. I cupped his hand in mine. “I want to ride with you.” I was surprised when the words actually came from my mouth. My voice was painfully horse, but those words were the truth, from the depths of my heart. Kent was so strong. He was the person I needed. But he was dying, the demon child was attempting to forcibly tear his soul from his body.
Kent kicked and screamed, looking exactly the way you would picture someone who was being attacked from the inside out.
I didn’t let go. But I did change my focus. Kent’s face was covered in sweat, so I placed my hand to his chest. “Just breathe. I’m here.”
Behind me, I could hear Matty screaming.
Somehow the screams of my child were overshadowed by the fact that Kent was gripping my hand. After being out for so long, I’d figured, he had a brain injury, or at the very least he would need time to regain his strength. However, at that moment, his body seemed to be fueled by a power that was not of this world.
Kent turned to me in silence, his movements slow and jerky, like a puppet (or zombie.) He sat up, kissed my hand, and turned to face the demon child, where he stood.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe after all the surreal crap I’d been through, I assumed there would be an epic battle. But nope. Kent punched the little demon shit in the face.
The boy actually fell backward. He even seemed surprised. “Wow, just wow.”
“I’ve killed child soldiers,” Kent said in a matter of fact tone. “First time was a teenager firing at my supply convoy from a window. I didn’t waste any time.” He paused swallowing his emotions. “When we hauled the body out, the mother and sisters were screaming. The husband, the father of the family, had died in an American prison, after bombing a remote outpost. At least that’s what the wife was shouting at me, in perfect English. Turns out she was one of those brainwashed teenagers born and raised in the USA, who came to the holy land to live as a fuck toy. She’d been there for ten years and had three kids with three different ‘heroic martyrs.’ It was all I could do to not put a bullet in all their heads.”
The demon child giggled, “That’s a strange job requirement for an engineer.”
“Deployment roles get a little blurred. I once knew a Marine line cook who had to help prep bodies for transport, icing down the corpses and pieces to be shipped out of the warzone for identification.”
“Pieces?” the boy said with a laugh. “Do you see them when you close your eyes?”
While still facing the demon, Kent reached backward for my hand. “I do.”
I understood. That was why Kent wanted to die. He was never alone. Even as he was dying of cancer, in an isolation room, his mind would haunt him.
“My favorite was when I had to shoot a retarded kid in the head,” Kent said with a chuckle. “The kid was strapped with explosives and, as far as I can guess, he was told by his old man to run at a group of American soldiers with the biggest smile.”
I could feel my jaw drop, but I kept hold of Kent’s hand.
The demon rolled his eyes. “Whatever, loser.” He walked backward, passing through the wall. “I’ll see you in fifty years.”
I wanted to ask if Kent was serious. His story reminded me of the Colorado ghost, who killed baby bears. Much like children in the middle of a warzone, the bear cubs were innocent, happy. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disturbed. But instead, I sat in bed by his side. Cuddling close, I motioned for Matty (who sat on a chair, on the opposite side of the room.)
My son had stopped crying but his eyes were still red and cheeks flush. He approached the bed on Kent’s side and reached out his arms for a hug. “Daddy?”
Kent lifted him on to the bed, rocking him in his arms. “You’re a good kid, Matty.”
I leaned over to ruffle my son’s hair. The moment was so sweet, I almost missed the sight of my pen and notebook on the floor. I left Kent’s embrace just long enough to retrieve my primary means of communication.
I returned to Kent’s side, kissing the rough stubble on his cheek as I got comfortable with my book. I proceeded to draw a series of hearts and flowers, surrounded by doodles of flames. At the bottom, I gave the work of art a comical title, “Maybe we can get side-by-side accommodations?”
“In Hell?” Kent asked.
“Sure, why not,” I replied in my notebook. “I’d follow you anywhere.”
Two weeks later, I married him on a Sunday, at a biker bar just outside of Reno. Kent was in a wheelchair, still undergoing physical therapy. But that day, wearing a suede jacket and denim jeans, he looked and felt amazing. That evening, we got stoned off our asses, while Leo babysat. He apparently told Matty that Kent and I were making a baby sister, which wasn’t far from the truth. (But still creepy as all fuck.)
My sexy blond husband and I, honeymooned at a Motel 6, making passionate cannabis fueled love on a creaky bed that had seen better days. “I was so nervous about kissing you,” Kent said in an exhausted moan, as he held me close.
Since my robot-voice-phone was on the nightstand, I just replied with a tender kiss to his sweaty chest (with a lick and love bite.)
“Can I tell you a secret?”
I nodded, with the biggest smile.
“I wanted to kiss you from the moment we first met.”
On the roof of the hospital? In my altered state, I giggled as I mimed the act of two fingers walking to the edge of a ledge, before taking a flying leap.
“Yeah, I was pretty fed up with life.” Kent laughed. “I asked God to give me a sign. I think I said, at the count of three, send me an angel, a miracle, anything to prove he was watching over me. Then I saw you, and I knew God had sent me a reason to get off the roof.”
Wow. I wiped tears from my eyes.
“Even if you were married or into chicks, I would want to get to know you, and hopefully we could be friends.”
If I was into chicks? I laughed so hard I had to sit up to catch my breath.
Kent put his arms around me, massaging my shoulders. “I just knew, that with you,” he paused to kiss my neck, “life would always be an adventure.”
Kent was the partner and friend I needed. As long as I believed in him, my beautiful blond soldier would go out of his way to try and impress me. He hosted elaborate parties to promote the business, even weddings on our land; our majestic, desert oasis.
With the help of his new friends, he got Matty to enroll at an online academy, which would allow him to homeschool.
Little by little Leo stopped visiting.
He was always greeted with open arms, but he was always on his phone checking for jobs across the country.
“Are leaving?” I asked as we sat together in the bed of his truck. I had a digital voice that I used by typing short sentences into a cell phone-like device. (Similar to what I’d seen deaf-mute people use to communicate easier.)
“Yup, heading back to Colorado,” Leo said replying to a text. “Captain Fuller says hi.”
“You’re texting with a civil war era ghost?”
“Maybe.” Leo put down the phone. “Is that a problem?” A gust of wind blew Leo’s long hair towards my face.
I automatically closed my eyes, but when I opened them again, I was surrounded by darkness. “No, oh God no,” I spoke in a whisper with my own voice. All around me I could feel cold, glass-like snow. “Why?” I screamed in pain as the icy cold wind cut my bare skin. I was back in Colorado or at least a snowy graveyard. I gasped at the sight of my breath as I struggled to my feet. That was when I caught sight of the moon. The orb of light had never looked so beautiful.
The old soldier was leaning on a grave, smoking a cigarette. “I’d be careful around my kin. Kent’s father wasn’t a good man.”
“But Kent is,” I said, quietly. the sensation of having my voice back was strange. I had gotten used to relying on Kent, Matty, (and/or my cool new robot voice) to speak for me.
“No.” I shook my head. “I will be the person he needs me to be.”
The soldier turned his gaze to the bright full moon. “So, what changed?”
I knew I owed him an apology, but more than that I owed Kent’s ancestor the truth. “I couldn’t save you. But not because you weren’t worth saving.”
He turned to me with a look of seriousness and concern. “You never even tried.”
“And for that, I’m truly sorry.” I stood up to face the soldier, my eyes meeting his smoky glance. “I know you don’t forgive me, but I’ll keep saying it because it’s the truth.”
He seemed calm, resolved. “After I died, my family fell apart. I’ve watched so many generations trying to find our way back.”
He nodded. “To find our way back to peace.”
I understood; generations of addiction, abuse, and mental illness. It all made Kent Fuller the person he was. “Kent is my husband, my friend.”
“How can I trust that you won’t give up on him?”
“You can’t,” I said with a sigh. “I know he’s going to need surgery and physical therapy, and there will come a time when his frustration will manifest as anger.” That was my biggest fear; Kent might drink, he might even hit me. “But I vow to love him through it.”
The ghost nodded. He seemed to accept my answer, but it was clear we were not friends. “You would love him, just as you loved your Ocean Prince?”
Way to hit below the belt, asshole. “Yeah, exactly.” I knew I had tried my best and I could only hope Isaiah was in a better place. “I don’t know how many years we will have, but I will be by his side.”
I stood up and approached the soldier, reaching out my hand. “I really do wish you all the best.” I didn’t want to ask him if he was going to move on. That was not up to me or even Captain Jay Fuller.
He looked at my hand, pursed his lips, and nodded. “Well, Leo says you and your family are good people. I guess the word of an angel has to be worth something, right?”
“One would hope,” I said as he shook my hand. The moment I felt the ghostly coldness I awoke in my bed, calm and refreshed. Kent was still asleep with his arms around me. “Thank you, Jay.”
I turned and kissed my husband’s lips as I slipped from his grasp. I got out of bed, to get a better look at the sunrise. The light rippled in layers of purple, orange, and blue. Actually, it was more like: red, orange, yellow, green blue, indigo violet.”
“Goodbye, Leo, Isaiah, whoever. And thank you.” The was, at long last. My happily ever after. “I won’t let you down.”