Chapters 1-10

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Chapter 1

"I don't want you driving alone."

Kate leaned against the pew in front of her, pretending to pray to a god she didn't even know. The lingering aroma of incense filled the air, and the bells chimed the hour. Her mother had never worshipped in a church like this, but Aunt Teresa said Melanie would have appreciated the ritual. Kate didn't argue the point, figuring one ser­vice was as good as another. "I'll be fine," she told her aunt. "I'd like to stay a little while longer."

"Leo told me you'd say something like that." She placed a hand on Kate's shoulder. "Take all the time you want. We'll be waiting in the car out­side, and we'll drive over to Alana's house together." With those words her aunt drifted down the aisle, her purple silk jacket billowing behind her as she headed towards the exit.

Kate exhaled, the breath catching in the pockets of her cheeks. Her fam­ily had been hovering over her for three days now, fearing she'd fall apart like a dandelion gone to seed. They should have known better. She didn't grow up to be fragile. Her mom had seen to that. They way they acted, it was as if they had never met Melanie or her daughter.

She slipped from her seat and approached the coffin. Grateful it was closed, she placed her hand on the varnished wood. The ring on her middle finger sparkled in the light of the candles, a small cabochon crystal inlaid within a silver band. It had been her mother's favorite ring, and ever since she was a child it felt like magic to her. And now it was hers, along with a lifetime's worth of personal possessions she had never wanted to inherit.

Caring little for proprieties, she leaned over the casket, as if trying to hug her mother one last time. "Mom, why now?" she whispered. "You still had so much you wanted to do." It still was impossible to accept she was gone. A heart attack, they said, just past her 50th birthday. It was even harder to comprehend that this was the last time she would ever be with her.

At that moment, a woman's voice startled her. «Aleira. It is time to go home.»

She opened her eyes and straightened up. Gazing around the chapel, Kate was ready to challenge whoever had dared to disturb her. Her com­plaint was forestalled when she realized no one else was there.

Suddenly feeling foolish, she returned to her seat and gathered up her possessions and the program that featured her mother's smiling face. If she was late to the wake, they'd be sending out a search party.

***

Grief competed with concentration as she struggled to do her job.

As she typed, she had to hit the delete key over and over to erase typos. It was an open secret that the partners were considering downsizing her team. Knowing that everyone was under scrutiny, she had no choice but to push through her grief to get everything done. Just focus, she urged herself.

When she stopped writing for a moment, gathering her thoughts, the voice from the church returned, like a specter hovering at the edge of her vision, reminding her to go home. Even now, as she read her email, it was as if the speaker was there, whispering over her shoulder. Twice she had turned her head suddenly, as if she'd catch someone behind her, but no one was ever there.

It made no sense. There wasn't really anyone talking to her. She hadn't ever heard voices before, and she was pretty sure she wasn't losing her mind. Then again, her quick internet search on the topic of "hearing voices" was simultaneously unproductive and depressing.

Was it grief, perhaps, or was she being haunted?

She didn't believe in ghosts, so she wrote it off as a product of stress and exhaustion. The weekend was coming up, and she could relax then.

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