Chapter Eighteen

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Images of Riley flash in front of me again. I see him arriving at the beach, a surfboard in his arms. He heads toward a bluff, scanning the surf and the sand for someone. I'm pretty sure he's looking for Amanda. As he gets closer, though, he can see a crowd of people in a circle around something that's blocked from his view. When he gets behind them, he rises up on the balls of his feet to get a look at what's happening, and then he's crumpling to his knees. The noise that escapes his lips is something I've only heard once before, when I was Anna. It came from me when I realized David had disappeared.

I fight to open my eyes but they're glued shut. Next is the funeral. What I can see of the service is mostly blurry, and it's clear my attention is being called to Riley. He sits in the front row of the church, gripping the hand of a woman who might be Amanda's mother. There's anguish there, but it's muted now, like he's found the sweetly numbing embrace that only shock can give. There's something else, though, and it burns brighter in his energy than the anguish or even the grief. It takes me a second or two to zero in on it. When I do, my eyes fly open.

It's a struggle to breathe as I come back to my senses. I feel as though I want to crawl out of my skin until Noah puts a hand on my shoulder and I'm flooded with a sense of calm.

"He feels guilty about Amanda?" I ask, once I find my voice again.

"He thinks he could have saved her if he'd left the studio earlier instead of staying a few extra minutes to talk with the band." Okay, simple enough.

Noah's not done, though. "Did you see anything else in his energy?" he asks.

I shake my head, since it was obvious what was going on with Riley at the funeral. "The guilt was overriding pretty much everything."

"Look closer this time."

I close my eyes and wait until I see Riley again, still at the funeral. He's staring at Amanda's casket, but I don't look at that. Instead, I watch the sparks of guilt still in his energy and then focus in closer, until I understand what Noah means. Something isn't right with the color, and this isn't just guilt. I pick an energy spark to study more closely. The spark jumps closer to me, magnified like I have it under a microscope. This close, it seems to split into other pieces and I look at the color and vibration of each one. There's something familiar about this, something I've seen before in another vision. It was a vision of me as Anna, when I saw what happened to my energy in the week before I died.

"The color," I whisper. "What is that?"

My eyes are still closed as I watch the pinks and deep reds dance together, rolling over one another and then becoming muted and brightening again. The spark glows like a fiery ember, so bright I think it might burn me if I reach out to touch it.

"I think you know," I hear Noah say.

I want to tell him that if I knew, I wouldn't be asking him. I don't, though, because I learned a long time ago he doesn't budge when he thinks there's something I need to figure out for myself. I keep watching, wondering what it could mean, until a thought forms in my mind that makes my eyes open again.

"Riley and Amanda were a lot more than close friends, weren't they?" The words tumble out of my mouth as a question, even though I know the answer from what I've just seen. I feel myself pitch sideways, the reason for why I'm here slamming into me fast and hard. I grab on to the side of my bed.

"Yes." Noah watches me closely as I steady myself.

"How much more?" I demand. I can't be hearing what I'm hearing, and especially not when he seems so casual about it.

"He thought he'd marry her after they finished college."

"Riley fell in love with a second-timer?" I stare at him so long and so hard that for the first time I can remember, he looks away first.


"The Life-After let him fall in love with her?" He has to be kidding me. If it were possible for steam to come out of my ears and nostrils, I'm pretty sure that would be happening right now. Noah must sense it, because he finally looks at me.

"It's not the same thing as you and David." He knows exactly where I'm heading with this.

"How is it any different?" My voice is shrill, but I can't help it. Noah's lucky that my aunt is in the house and I can't do what I really feel like doing, which would involve a lot of yelling.

He opens his mouth to speak, but I cut him off. "An innocent in The Before crosses paths with someone from The Life-After who wasn't sent here to help him, falls in love, and is devastated when that person is just gone one day? Does that sound like any other life you might know? Some other cosmic accident, perhaps?"

"Are you done?" Noah asks. His voice is quiet. I glare at him, and he takes it as a signal to continue. "What happened to Riley won't end up as a cosmic accident as long as you do what you're here for."

I bring my thumb and forefinger up to pinch the bridge of my nose. This is crazy, but I don't say anything.

Noah continues. "Amanda was different from David, because she didn't stay past her time. She was here to help someone else, and she left when she was supposed to. Her path was always going to cross with Riley's."

"And you were always going to let Riley fall in love with her," I add.

"You can't help who falls in love with you, or who you fall in love with. Of anyone, I think you know that. That's why you were sent here years ago to help Riley now. We don't have to cut his life short if you do your part. But if you don't, he won't ever get back on track and his energy won't be ready for The Life-After. He'll have to die and come back as a second-timer." He tries to hold my eyes, but I look past him to my bedroom window.

"So what do you want me to do?" I watch a leaf stir on a tree outside.

"Do you remember the dead spot in your energy?"

It takes a lot of willpower not to snort at his question. Of course I do.

I turn my gaze away from the window and back to him. "I'd almost forgotten about why I'm here, but thanks for reminding me."

If he hears the sarcasm in my voice, he ignores it. "You're here to keep that from happening to Riley, so he can move forward to have the life he's meant for."

"And that means what, exactly?"

"It's your job to help him open his heart again. He needs to, or this will turn into a cosmic accident for him. Just like with you."

Just like me. What a disaster.

I fold my arms across my chest. "If I'm the one who makes that happen, though, wouldn't that mean he's opening his heart to me?"

Noah is silent for long enough to make me nervous. Finally, he speaks.

"That's exactly what it means. This is your mission here."

"To make him love me so then I can go and die on him, too? Don't you think that's going to be a problem?" I feel an ache starting at my temples. I don't know if it's from my energy being low tonight, or if it's from having to think about all of this.

"Are you questioning your mission and the wisdom of The Life-After?" he asks.

"You'd better believe I am."

"Then I'd advise you to stop doing that."

He's actually serious. I can't imagine how he believes Riley will be able to handle my death like it's absolutely nothing if he opens his heart to me. This is going to be a cosmic accident either way.

"This is insane," I tell him. "You can't ask me to do this, just so I can leave him to grieve again. It doesn't even make sense."

Noah picks up his hat and places it back on his head. "It might not from what you can see, but it does. Just trust. This is your job."

I open my mouth to argue that my job is to help Riley, not destroy him, but Noah is already gone.

"Coward," I mutter, even though I'm talking to my bed. I can't believe this is happening.

What I'm being asked to do to Riley is something I wouldn't wish upon my greatest enemy. He's already lost someone he was in love with once, which is one more time than anyone should have to experience it without knowing about The Life-After and all that comes next.

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