"The poor, wee girl. Rose…Rose…can you hear me, love?"
Rose's eyelids fluttered open. A stark, white light stabbed her eyes, so she shut them again. But in that brief glimpse, she'd seen the blurry faces of two women peering down at her.
"Rose, are you with us, pet? Open your eyes. There’s a good girl. You don’t have much time."
"Rose!" The other woman spoke this time, her voice sharper in tone. Rose opened her eyes and studied the figures bent over her. Both were older women, about seventy perhaps, with flyaway white hair and white flowing gowns. As she struggled to her feet, they broke out in relieved smiles.
"Good girl. Och, Wilma, she looks so pale, the poor lassie."
"Everyone who comes here is pale, Lily. I wish you would strive to be less foolish."
"All I said…"
During this exchange, Rose glanced around at her surroundings and recognized nothing. Flat, barren land, seared in that glaring, white light, stretched to every mist-shrouded horizon. Not another living thing in sight. She breathed in the cool, pure air and frowned at the strange, spongy surface beneath her.
"Where the hell am I?"
Both ladies regarded her with shocked expressions, and the one whose name seemed to be Wilma said, "Now, now, Rose. This isn’t the best place to be using bad language."
Rose blinked. "I’m sorry. I meant—where am I? And who are you? How do you know my name?"
"My name is Wilma, and this is Lily," the taller woman answered. Lily beamed, her pale blue eyes warm and welcoming behind her glasses. Rose found herself smiling in return. Wilma continued, "You're dead. You're outside the gates of Heaven, but you aren’t allowed to go in."
Lily glanced reproachfully at her friend. "Please excuse my friend's bluntness, dear. Wilma and I are angels, and it's our job to organize people…or should I say spirits? Although I know you think you feel the same as ever, and it can be so confusing, and—"
"I'm dead?" Rose stared at the two old ladies. "And...I'm sorry. Did you say you were angels?" She narrowed her eyes and glanced from the tiny, tubby Lily to the tall, angular Wilma. Even though there were two of them, they were old. She could defend herself if they turned violent and could certainly outrun them. But run where? "Look, please, I want to go home. Where am I really?"
Lily gazed anxiously into Rose's eyes. "You...you do remember that pain in your chest, don't you, pet?"
She did recall something about a terrible ache.
"And...er...Joshua?" prompted Lily again, still with that worried frown.
Rose stared at the two women without seeing them. She remembered. Josh. She'd loved him so much. Why hadn't he loved her back?
He'd been late for rehearsal, so she'd gone down to his dressing room to find him. And had stood, frozen, as she watched him plunging into the lead violinist. They lay naked, coupling on the couch, the violinist's long, thin legs wrapped around Josh's waist. His white backside flexed as he thrust. Maybe she'd made a noise, for a shocking pain had clutched her heart, and she'd been unable to breathe. Josh had stilled, glanced behind him, and withdrawn so quickly from the girl that he'd almost pulled the condom off his erection. His rapidly shrinking erection.
"Yes," whispered Rose, "I remember."
But her misery hadn't ended there.
The girl had scurried away, clasping her bundle of clothes to her naked chest, leaving Rose to face Josh alone. Even now, looking back, Rose was amazed at her own calmness. Usually, her temper more than matched her red hair, as Josh had discovered to his cost in the past. But those had been silly arguments. Not this.
While he'd dressed, Josh's eyes had roved over her, narrowing in contempt. "You know, if you tried a bit harder with your appearance, maybe I wouldn’t be interested in fucking other girls."
Hurt and that terrible agony had clutched at her again. She had stared at Josh in silent horror as she absorbed his cruel words. He had stepped into his jeans and, with difficulty, zipped them. A roll of fat spilled over the waistband. She'd never noticed that before.
"I mean," he had continued, a sneer marring the boyish handsomeness of his face, "for God’s sake, look at you. The only time you don’t wear track pants and a T-shirt is when you’re up on stage performing. And look at your hair—always shoved underneath that stupid baseball cap."
She’d lost the ability to breathe. Her mouth dry, she had stammered, "But…I thought...you said you loved me."
Josh had rolled his eyes. "For God's sake, Rose, grow up. We had sex. That's all it was."
She was proud of her response. It had been dignified. Aloof. "I’ll see you up on stage in a minute. You’re still not getting the introduction right, and the start of the third movement, when you come in with the orchestra, sounds terrible."
He was lucky she hadn't flown at him and gouged great runnels down his sneering, arrogant face.
As Rose became aware of her surroundings once more, she felt the moisture trickling from her eyes and fiercely wiped her face with the back of her hand. She hadn't cried since she was a child. With her lips pursed, Wilma seemed to find something on the ground absorbing. But Lily, her eyes also brimming with tears, reached for Rose and enclosed her in a soft, comforting embrace.
"He was a bastard, wasn't he?" Rose whispered, resting her head against Lily's chubby shoulder.
Lily nodded vehemently. "Yes dear—though we don't like to use that word here."
Still cuddled within Lily's soft arms, Rose glanced around with wonder. "I'm…really dead?"
Wilma nodded, and Lily hugged her harder.
"How do you know about me?"
Lily backed away from Rose but still clung to her hands. "We've always known about you, my dear. It was terrible when your parents died. You were so young."
Wilma's eyes softened. "We were proud of you, Rose, always. After such a dreadful start in life, to emerge so strong and talented is a credit to you."
"When you won your scholarship to the Conservatory," Lily said, smiling, "I thought I'd burst with pride. But then..."
Drawing her hands away from Lily's, Rose finished her sentence. "But then I met Josh." Sympathetic silence ensued as she remembered what she now knew were the last moments of her life.
On stage, as she’d waited for Joshua, she'd stared out at the empty seats, to be filled that night with eager, music-loving bodies. The famous orchestra, presumably minus the lead violin, tuned up behind her. But the billboards outside screamed only two names—Joshua Davis and Rosalind Harris. She and Josh had come a long way since meeting up at the Conservatory. He played the piano superbly, and she played the flute brilliantly. A match made in heaven.
Josh. God, she'd been such an easy mark for him. A sucker. Straight out of school. A virgin. She'd fallen for every one of his lies. The biggest one being that he loved her.
His last cruel words echoed in her head. Josh didn't understand. She wore those sloppy clothes like armor, to prove to the whole world she didn't care what they thought of her. Rose gave a short, bitter laugh. The only one she hadn't fooled was herself. All she'd ever wanted was to be accepted and loved.
She’d been right all along. You couldn't trust people. Even her parents had abandoned her. No grandparents, no brothers or sisters, no aunts or uncles. They'd left her alone to face so many sets of foster parents, so many new schools, at least one a year. There'd been one horror year when she'd changed schools four times. She'd had to act tough. The bullies ignored her if they thought they couldn't get to her.
There was only one person she could trust—herself. She'd known that, for goodness sake. And that’s where she’d made her mistake with Josh. She’d let him in, let herself love him. She'd let him make her weak.
A pain, worse than all the others, had hit her, and she'd slipped into darkness.
Rose glanced at Wilma and Lily and frowned. "Why did I die? I mean, what did I die of? I'm only twenty-three."
"You had rheumatic fever when you were young, and unfortunately, the set of foster parents looking after you at the time didn't bother taking you to a doctor," said Wilma. "Then there was that very bad bout of flu recently that weakened your heart even more. I'm afraid the shock of seeing Josh..."
How had she ever let that man have so much power over her? How could she have been so stupid? Well, never again. Next time…
She glanced up at the silent angels. There would be no next time. "Why can't I get into Heaven?" she asked, suddenly remembering what Wilma had said when she'd first woken in this strange place.
For the first time, Wilma lost some of her brittle bossiness. "I’m sorry, Rose. You died before your time. You're not due to go to Heaven for many, many years."
"But it’s not that bad, love," said Lily, in a 'let's-make-the-best-of-this' tone, "You can go back to earth as a ghost and haunt that horrible Josh." Her sweet face took on a ferocious expression, and she shook her chubby fist. "That violin girl was his fifteenth one, you know. Then, after forty years or so, you can get admitted into Heaven when it’s your proper time." She beamed at Rose.
"No! I don't want to see Josh again, ever, not for one day. Never mind for the next umpteen years." Rose shook her head in desperation as she pictured her future. "Please, there must something else. I'll do anything."
Wilma cleared her throat, glancing at Lily. "There is one thing. There's a world I'm very worried about. It's going to self-destruct soon, if something isn’t done, and it's such a lovely place. You're a gifted musician. You may be able to help them by using your skills…and get into Heaven that way."
Rose nodded her head. "Yes, yes, anything. But…a world? What do you mean?"
"My dear, there are worlds everywhere, all through the universe and time." Wilma sounded bored, as if she had made this explanation many, many times.
"Oh, I see," Rose said, not seeing at all, but not caring. Anything would be better than the fate mapped out for her. "What happens if I can’t help the people on this world?"
"You come back here when you die, and we’ll find another assignment for you."
Lily shook her head vehemently. "Wilma, I think this is a dreadful idea. She could be in and out of the universe forever, trying to make things right. And I know this world you're talking about. She won't stand a chance against that king. Such a handsome young man, of course, but so stubborn…and as for his brother! Rose, love, don’t you think you could put up with haunting that Josh person? He really deserves it!"
"No, Lily." Rose tried to imagine the other world. What would it be like? People must live there, for Lily had mentioned a headstrong, handsome king. A king? Well, she'd learned her lesson from Josh. This king might be stubborn. But so was she. Besides, all she had to do was help him and his world by using her musical skills. How hard can that be? "I want to try. What do I have to do?""You’ll have to figure that out for yourself, dear," answered Wilma. "It’s your baby, as they say these days." The two angels giggled. Then Wilma grew serious, "Good luck, Rose. Now…close your eyes.”