Epilogue: Chapter Forty-One (Life Actually)

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As it turns out, I can still talk to Noah.

Not that I find this out by trying or anything. No, Noah crashes in on me, fedora and all, right there while I'm sleeping in Riley's bedroom. I sense him before I see him.

As much as I loathe doing it, I pry my eyelids open. Noah stands a few feet away from the bed where Riley is asleep beside me. I say a silent thanks that we're the picture of innocence, fully clothed and not making out. That would be more than a little awkward. Still, Riley's arms are around me, our bodies curved together the same way we fell asleep. If I move at all, or if I speak to Noah out loud, I'll wake him.

I owe you a lot today, and don't take this the wrong way, but I'm a little busy right now. I think these words, testing to see if Noah can still hear my thoughts.

"You're napping. It seemed like a good time for us to talk."

His idea of good timing is obviously light years away from what I think it is. Shouldn't he be getting David settled back in to The Life-After? Maybe pop in on some other second-timer who needs his guidance? I'm good right now. Better than good, really. I'm also doing exactly what he told me I should be doing, which is enjoying my relationship with Riley. You'd think the guy could let me savor this whole love thing in peace.

Noah hears all that, too. He chuckles, a sound I know reaches only my ears. "No one said you had to stop spooning." He's being downright saucy, and he continues before I can call him on it. "It's better we talk while Riley is asleep, since I have a feeling you'll be with him all day. We won't wake him up, and I won't be here long."

Hallelujah, I think. Noah can tell I'm teasing him now. I didn't expect his visit, and I'll never admit it to him, but I find it strangely comforting that I can still see and hear him.

"You need to talk with Selena."

He takes off his hat, a gesture that contradicts what he just said about not staying for long. He's definitely settling in until I agree to what he wants me to do, and I no longer find his presence quite so comforting. Barely two hours have passed since I was given a new lease on life, and he's dredging up the ghosts of my past.

Yes, the situation with Selena is entirely my fault. I won't deny that. I've extended an olive branch, though, and this hardly seems like the moment to make our friendship status a high priority.

We've talked. It didn't go so well. I close my eyes and show him my memory of me speaking with Selena at Diamond Lotus Yoga. I also left a note in her mailbox to apologize. I'm not going to stalk her. If she wants to talk, she'll find me.

"You left that note two weeks ago. If you meant your apology, you'll find her." Terrific. He's using his no-nonsense tone.

I try to remind myself just how grateful I was for Noah only a couple of hours ago and fight back a grimace. Even though I truly did mean the words in my note to Selena, finding her is the last thing on my mind today. The vision of the future Noah showed me at the beach this morning also told me our friendship will eventually be restored. I'm confused why this would be urgent.

I'm just asking for a little bit of time. I open my eyes again and give Noah a pleading look. Even the rest of today would be good. I need to let it sink in that I didn't go back to The Life-After this morning. This has changed everything for me.

"It has," he agrees. "It's also changed your role here in The Before."

I squint at him. My role? I thought I was normal now?

I don't like the lopsided half-smile that appears on his face as he considers my question. "In some ways, yes. In others, not at all."

I can always count on Noah to speak in riddles. You'd think he would have told me this at the beach instead of waiting for the least opportune moment possible.

Out with it. I hear my impatience blazing through in each syllable.

"You've evolved," he explains. "That means your energy is at an even higher level now."

I consider his words. As usual, he's trying to tell me something without saying it. He wants me to work it out on my own.

A higher level like yours? I'm certain I don't like where this is going. So help me if I'm on the right track, because my mind might spontaneously combust.

"It's higher than it was, but not quite like mine. You won't be able to hear thoughts like me, for example."

That would be the single most useful perk of a higher energy level, if you ask me. It figures this isn't part of the deal.

But I'm here in The Before. It's a struggle to keep my thought-voice from becoming frantic. You told me this morning I'm staying here and living out the rest of my life.

I bite down on my lip while I wait for his response. If he takes this new hope and life away from me, I don't know what I'll do.

"Correct. You'll still be here and live a long life with Riley. You're also something like an apprentice advisor now, of sorts. You're being asked to guide others when they need it."

My mind goes blank for a second or two until I finally absorb what he's said. My first instinct is to burst out laughing at the idea of me guiding anyone, but I think better of it. Noah is either completely serious or he has the world's best poker face.

Who am I guiding?

"You'll know when the time comes."

Awesome. We're back to the cloak-and-dagger mystery stuff. Shouldn't he be able to just tell me these things now?

Noah hears me and speaks again. "For now, focus on talking to Selena, and pay attention to the people you run into."

I guess that's all I'm getting out of him, because his gaze flits away from me, signaling the end to our discussion.

Riley stirs beside me, and I turn my head so I can see his face. I watch his peaceful mask of slumber transform into a contented expression. When I glance over at Noah again, he's already gone.

"You're awake." Riley's voice is quiet and raspy. He opens his eyes and his lips curve into a smile so sweet, I might actually melt into a puddle of mush. I like this life a lot.

"Mmm-hmm. You're awake, too." I shift in his arms so I'm facing him and curl up as close as I can.

"I didn't sleepwalk to my door and dream you were here, then?" He traces the contour of my cheek and jaw with his thumb, and I find it impossible to focus my mind on anything but him. The things he can make me feel with even a feather-light touch are beyond comprehension.

"Nope," I manage to say. "I'm here in all my barnacle glory." I loop my arms around his neck to illustrate my point.

"I like you as a barnacle." He kisses the tip of my nose, then raises his head up to study me. "There's something different about you today."

"Different?" Can he sense the energy change in me? I meet his eyes, which are lit up like it's Christmas morning. I wonder if mine look the same way.

"You're brighter somehow," he answers. "I can't quite explain it, but you seem happier than you were last night."

When I saw him yesterday, I thought I was losing everything. This morning I was given a brand new world. He's more in tune with me than he could imagine, even if I'll never be able to tell him what the real difference between last night and today is.

"I was drained last night," I reply. "I do feel brighter today." Neither of these statements are lies.

I run my fingers up the back of his neck, then give my hands free rein to tousle through his hair. There are no words in any language that can describe what it feels like to know I can do this anytime I want to. If a heart can explode from pure joy, mine's going to ignite like the brightest fireworks and light up the universe.

Riley tilts his head down and brings his mouth tantalizingly close to mine. I see pink and gold sparks of our energy join together in a cosmic dance, the colors growing more vibrant with each passing second.

My lips press against his, and the conversation I just had with Noah is pushed straight to the back of my mind. Who can blame me? I have the best good-morning kiss of my existence to enjoy right now, and eighteen years of holding back on life to make up for.

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