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*Opening Scene: Introduces the protagonist, establishes primary conflict, setting, tone, and briefly introduces an important secondary character. Chapter 1: Day 0, Saturday Night Declan I’m pretty sure I just died. Or I am dead. Either way, no one noticed. I’m not even sure I noticed. Here’s what I got: I remember leaving the gym just after 8:30 pm. Our school was going nuts in the stands because the star forward, Derek, twisted his ankle minutes before the close of the first half. And if he was down, I was up. No one wanted to see that, especially me. While our school’s version of LeBron rolled on the floor, clutching his ankle and whimpering like a toddler, our coach plodded to his side. Like the other benchers, I half rose in pseudo-concern. None of us court-side liked Derek, least of all me. He is the worst kind of high school star: arrogant, cruel, and popular. He'll probably grow up to be a lawyer. Those types usually did. Coach Johansson looked at Derek, me, back at Derek, and swore under his breath. “McAllister! Tape!” This was better than the “McAllister! You’re up!” I expected. We were both in denial. I also remember smacking the metal bar of the gym’s double doors as hard as possible in pursuit of the all-important tape. I recall the rasping screech it made as it disengaged and opened, the cool air in the stairwell, and how quiet it seemed after the raucous noise of the gym. All of these things are pretty clear. My memory of them is sound, yet somehow, I’m on my side, at the bottom of the stairs, with blood and agony before me. I should be dead. Tentatively, I tried to move, but everything protested, especially my head. It felt like that one shitty grape at the bottom of the bag that's all gross and squishy. Only it's my head and not a grape. How bad could it be? I mean, I’m thinking clearly. Right? Unable to move my head normally, I checked out the damage with my hands, forcing my fingers through syrupy hair to the surface of my shrieking scalp. Riding the curve, my fingertips gingerly followed the slickness to its source. I wondered what they would find. Scrubs--- or Gray’s Anatomy? Then, just above my neck, just when I thought I would escape permanent damage, a sharp, jagged edge of bone distorted the smooth surface. My hand recoiled. Definitely Gray’s. Kids and babies always die on Gray’s. On Scrubs, they recover and break out into song and dance. Then the pounding in my head deepened, matching the pounding in the stands. Who would hear me over that? No one. BOOM. BOOM. By the third BOOM, my lungs started their own panicking beat. shallowquick.shallowquick.shallow… Asthma. And my last sip of air was gone. Some people freeze when freaking out, others flail about. I think they call it the fight or flight instinct. I’m a flier; It’s just easier.....until my body craps out on me mid-flight. Then my brain has to do the flying. So, while my body gulped for oxygen, my mind searched for a lifeline. It found something else instead. Blood. Mine. Looking more like a spilled Slurpee than my life force, blood splatter dripped down the burgundy paint covering the hall and splattered across the face of our mighty mascot, Leopold the Lion. Like someone had slit his throat and left him hanging there to mock us. My bad. Spatter, not splatter. Thank you, Dexter. Very helpful right now. Bizarrely fascinated, I watched one thick drop as it oozed down Leopold’s muzzle, around the bend of the railing, and drip dropped onto a metal step. It contributed to a slight but distinct trail of bloody pulp and bony shards littering the lower treads. My chest lurched, and the gasping got worse. And the tunnel vision started. My mom, always the optimist, believes basketball will improve my stress-induced asthma, and maybe it would ---if I ever actually played. Still, I question this theory. As if playing a game could ever really mimic the stress of life. I didn’t have the heart to tell her why the coach let me join. Two words: height and history. Like most adults, he foolishly believes height equals ability. He’s hoping I’ll wake up one day and know how to control my limbs. In my father’s case, this was true. In mine, not so much. Coach is more hopeful than I am, or more deluded. Giving an 18-year-old kid severe asthma and a six-foot, four-inch frame seems like a sick joke to me. For now, I use an inhaler. And since they have yet to sew pockets into athletic apparel, it unfortunately lies in my PE locker. Yeah, stupid place, I know. Only I would survive a 20-foot fall down a staircase to end up dying of an asthma attack while three hundred people sit a hundred feet too far away from me. Since I couldn’t move, I let the blackout happen and just prayed my body would jump-start itself. Darkness pulled its blanket over me. Under it, I saw death. My first one. *** I always thought I would feel myself die rather than watch it on a big screen. It was as surreal as it sounds. But between 8:32 and 8:38 pm, while my body lay rebooting at the bottom of the stairs, I viewed a short film by Fate. The camera opened up at the top of the stairs, where, lying in wait, was a tiny unassuming puddle. Only my giant foot could’ve found such a minuscule pool. My shoe slid across, my feet jetted out, and then the real show began. I saw my skull connect with the sharp corner of the third stair and then dribble, with more accuracy than me on the court, down each and every step until it smacked on the floor. In real time, I missed the pain of the fall. In black and white slo-mo, I winced with each silent hit. Dying isn’t exactly what I thought it would be. Not that I sit around pondering my demise. I am not that morbid. Still, one has certain expectations: loved ones, a tunnel, bright lights. I blame Netflix. Well, no dead relatives appeared, no tunnel, no bright lights, and no Chicken either (my Corgi, who liked to chase garbage trucks). Not even my dead father showed up. What the hell? Another expectation failing to materialize---heightened senses. In the last moments of life, they say images flash before your eyes. But does this happen to everyone? Do blind people suddenly get to see stuff at the end? I saw jack. I think I smelled Snickerdoodle cookies, though. Weird. Besides the smell of cookies and the visual vacuum, what happened to me during those brief moments can best be described as being underwater in warm, possibly pink, water. Yeah, I’m a guy, and I like pink. It’s comforting. And I love water. I practically live in it during the summer. On days when it’s too hot to sleep or eat, when the sun has burned every cloud out of the sky, I would lay at the bottom of the neighborhood pool and look up. Through my warm blue filter, life’s peaceful. This is how dying felt. The world floated by me in a warm pink pool, and I watched. Separate. Just for a second or two. No pain, no gasping. Nothing. Then a voice. In my head. Actually, it was my voice, but it was high on confidence and very polite. You’d be surprised at how much these two things can alter the human voice. However, the instant I recognized it as mine, I also knew it wasn’t. It was so quick, so sure---two things I am definitely not. And I guess it had to be both because of what it proposed. “Declan. I need you to be calm and listen carefully. We don’t have much time. I’m an angel, and you just died. You should be in Heaven, but I’ve delayed things to offer you a deal. Are you ready?” I nodded even though I wasn’t ready. How could I be? Dead?! Then I felt something begin to tug at me, trying to free itself from my core. Like my body was a shoe and the foot was trying to pull itself out. Dead. But the voice continued, eerily calm and self-assured. “Demons walk the Earth preying on humans, and they are getting stronger and more ruthless. Angels have the power to destroy them, but we need to be corporeal—we need flesh to fight here. Since you are young, strong, receptive, and dead, you are uniquely qualified to help.” There it was again. He said dead. And every time he said it, I felt the disconcerting tugging again. His words carried on over my thoughts; he didn’t have time to stop and explain. “If you agree to help in this cosmic battle, your soul will be sent back to your body with an accompanying warrior angel. For 30 days, you’ll share existence. Two spirits, one body. You’ll have control of the body during the day to be with your family and friends, and he’ll come forward at night to readjust to being human and to prepare your form for its future.” He paused in his monologue before delivering his final sales pitch. “You’re very lucky, Declan. Unlike most humans, this deal actually gives you the opportunity to have closure. Do you how many souls would die to have closure?” Did he just make a pun? What is happening? This has to be a dream. Assuming success, he barreled on. “Marcus, the angel joining you, will review the finer points with you once you return together. Our pocket in time is about to close; I need an answer. Do you want 30 more days? Do we have a deal?” Was this guy for real? I took my voice back and blasted him. “Deal or no deal?! Is this some kind of twisted game show?” “This is not a show or a game, Declan. I need an answer.” He was right, I could feel it. A force was pulling me from my core. And part of me wanted to go with it. Like I said, I’m a flier. But then those loved ones came for me, only they weren’t the dead kind. I saw my mom’s face, and my little sister’s chubby smile. I knew my answer. “Deal!” “One final thing. You can’t tell anyone. It is a rule that must not be broken.” Then the voice was gone. So I can’t tell anyone I'm dying, and there’s no briefcase of cash. Awesome. *** Then the movie ended, and I found myself at the bottom of the killer stairs, breathing regularly, my soul securely laced back up in my body, and---alone? Gingerly, I sat up and did a mental recon of my condition. I could move my neck, and my head had lost its squishy grape effect. My body screamed, but so far, my head only had my voice in it. I wondered how long that would last. Assuming this was real. Like a rubbernecker at my very own train wreck, I retraced my fall and began to grease my body back into motion. Well, if I did die, I wasn’t dead anymore. I reached for the railing to help me stand and noticed a nasty-looking hairball on the corner of the last step. Of course, I picked it up. I had to know. You’d think watching endless crime shows would prepare me for gore when I experienced it in real life. I even pride myself on being able to eat while watching the morgue scenes. Yet, when I picked up the dripping hairball by one brown strand, my stomach lurched. “I’m holding my effing scalp.” I turned it and my mouth dropped open. “Oh, look. There’s a little bit of brain. Nice.” Normal me would’ve clicked into heaving asthma mode, but post-mortem me breathed deeply and cleanly. Confused, I inhaled again. But my throat was wide, and my chest clear. My ribs, my diaphragm, everything moved freely. I was healed! Was my head? While one hand held the gooey brain nut, the other tentatively sought the jagged wound at the back of my head. I don’t know what I expected. I watch a lot of TV. Maybe I was sent back to life with an open, oozing head wound, destined to walk the face of the Earth like a zombie. The deal I made didn’t involve many details. I had no idea my fingertips would find a bald spot. First, think hair, and then a smooth spot the size of a ping-pong ball. It felt shiny and new. Fan-freaking-tastic. I paused in this madness and wrote a single’s ad for myself: Recently deceased 18-year-old SM seeks equally athletically challenged SF. Must love the outdoors, music, and hats. I had great hair. It was my one vanity. “Hey, Romeo, get up. You’ve got to clean this mess up before anyone shows up.” Without my permission, my head jerked toward the double doors I entered minutes ago. This was not the same voice. The other voice was mine. I expected this warrior angel to use it, too. But he didn’t. And it felt very weird (and very wrong) to have some other guy’s voice in my head. This new voice was deeper and gruff. It felt so alien that I glanced left and right, seeking a body for the words. “Hello?” “Keep looking, Sunshine. Only this time, don’t use your ears. Use your head.” Literally or metaphorically? He spoke again, his voice thick with sarcasm. “Check the reflection. Maybe you’ll see me instead of you.” Naively, I leaned forward and peered at the windows lining the hall. In the dark, they acted more like mirrors and the face they framed was pale, but mine. And I looked pretty good. All things considered. Maybe I didn’t die. Perhaps I have a minor concussion. Can concussions cause you to hear voices? “Concussions don’t usually involve brain matter and pieces of skull.” Auditory hallucinations brought on by head trauma? “Try again, Doc.” Demon possession? “Not a good Catholic boy like you. Isn’t that what you blame the plague of virginity on?” Finally, I found my head voice. “You don’t sound very angelic.” Should angels mock? “Would it help if I sang?” “I just didn’t expect sarcasm from He-Who-Sees-the Face-of-God.” “Were you expecting Nicholas Cage?” The voice changed and became Cage’s husky tone. “The blood, what does it taste like to you? Describe it to me.” He snorted and then channeled Travolta’s Michael. “I’m not that kind of angel.” Are there streaming services in Heaven? Do they only show lame angel movies from the ‘90s? As I pondered that question and the 7000 others free-ranging in my brain, I had the odd sensation of my head moving without my permission. It oriented on the Leopold murder scene and the bloody puddle at the bottom of the stairs. The dude could move me. Like, drive my car without permission. It was very unsettling. I thought about my chances of taking him in a fight. “Relax, kid. Your asthma is gone, isn’t it? Everything will be okay. Just clean up the mess before someone comes looking for you and finds this.” My hand gestured to the stairs as a match to his thoughts. I yanked it back in and held it tightly with my other hand. “Stop it!” “Then get moving.” “I’m trying. But you’re not exactly helping.” He wasn’t. But I wasn’t either. We were both trying to move the body at the same time and it had the odd effect of canceling out all productive movement. If anyone had the unfortunate luck to stumble on me, they would’ve thought I was having a seizure. Tears stung my eyes and a scream threatened to break free from my clenched teeth. Finally, alpha-angel sensed my building panic and let go. Seconds after he released his grip, I got us vertical. I felt better now that my limbs were mine again. “No one is going to come looking for me. My mom’s at home, totally pregnant, my stepdad is on a business trip, and my friends are at home” Self-pity can be addicting. I paused to glance at my watch and then continued my internal vomit session. “Coach’ll miss me only because he needs tape for Derek’s ankle. No tape, no chance of winning. Heck, I don’t think I’d miss me either.” This last bit was more of a mind whisper, and I didn’t expect him to hear it. “Being unimportant has its advantages.” “Cool. Thanks.” My words stopped, but my mind kept spewing. If I was so unimportant, why was my body needed? God can take anyone He wants, right? But He chose me. And He chose this jackass. Mentally mouthing off is how teenagers stay freaking sane. Take it away from us, and the precarious balance needed for cohabitation with adults is destroyed. Unfortunately, this system breaks down when you share a body with a second conscious being. Two invisible iron hammers slammed into my chest, bringing with them panic and the inevitable gasping. Then, just as quickly, they lifted. I caught the whimper before it escaped my lips. What did I get myself into? Seriously, how do you call social services for this one? “Respect, Kid.” The voice growled. I swallowed my fear and tried to think what might have caused such a response. Oh. I called him a jacka--- *Note to Self: He can hear everything in my head.