Authors: Sarah Wynde
Natalya Latimer’s ability to see the future has been as much curse as gift. Knowing that she would someday find his dead body destroyed her relationship with her best friend and lover. But when it finally happens, nothing turns out the way she expected it to and suddenly she’s flying blind, with no gift to tell her where she’s going.
Copyright © 2013 Wendy Sharp
A Gift of Time
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events is coincidental.
All rights reserved.
“He’ll kill her. Please, can’t you help me?” The woman tried to tug on the doctor’s white-coated arm, but her hands passed through him as if he were as insubstantial as air. She stared at him and then backed away, turning to the nurse.
“Why won’t you listen to me?” she begged. “You have to find her.”
Rose wrinkled her nose. She shouldn’t have stopped in the emergency room. The noise and chaos had drawn her in, but she liked visiting the hospital to see the babies, not the people in pain.
And this poor woman seemed to be in agony. She hadn’t even realized she was dead yet.
Sirens in the distance grew louder. Another ambulance was arriving. Nearby voices sounded increasingly urgent, but the noise didn’t drown out the words of the begging woman. “I told her to run. I told her not to say a word. You have to look for her. Please, please, please listen to me.”
Rose stepped forward, her feet moving as if disconnected from her brain. Her brain was telling her to leave, to go upstairs where she could coo over the little ones in peace.
“They can’t hear you,” she said instead.
The woman spun, staring at Rose. She wasn’t old, but her eyes held the weary look of one of life’s punching bags and tired lines dragged down her mouth.
“He calls her the spawn of Satan,” the woman said, her hands clenched into fists. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
“He sounds like a jerk,” Rose answered matter-of-factly. A man in green scrubs rushed through her and she stepped closer to the woman, moving out of the doorway and into the room where the medical staff labored over the woman’s body.
The woman choked out a surprised laugh. “Can you save her?” she asked, her frantic voice calming.
Rose opened her mouth to answer honestly. She was a ghost herself. As the woman would soon discover, ghosts were practically helpless in the world of matter. Nothing either of them could do would make a difference to anyone still living. “Yes,” she heard herself saying. “Yes, I can.”
“Oh, bless you.” The woman’s shoulders sagged in relief. “Thank you so much, thank you—I can’t tell you—it means so much—I’m so grateful.” Tears shone in her eyes, but didn’t spill over.
Oh, dear, Rose thought, feeling a tug in the center of her chest. What had she done?
Much later, tromping her way through Ocala National Forest, Rose tried to be philosophical about the whole thing. The tug felt sort of like needing to pee. Not that she’d had to use a bathroom any time in the past several decades, but she remembered the sensation. First, a subtle message, a gentle push that said perhaps it was time to get up and go somewhere. Then a more insistent awareness. Now a sense of pressure, impossible to ignore.
She would have stayed far away from that emergency room if she’d had any idea what she was getting into. It was the holiday season and for the first time since her death, she wasn’t trapped in the house where she’d died. She’d had plans. She wanted to visit her childhood church and listen to carols, wander around town and admire the decorations, drop in on friends, ghostly and otherwise—not trudge through the woods.
If only that ghost had stuck around long enough to answer Rose’s questions. But she’d faded away in the midst of showering Rose in profuse thanks, leaving Rose with nothing but an increasing sense of urgency, a tug pulling her farther and farther into the middle of nowhere.
And then it stopped.
Rose stopped, too. She looked around her. Dappled light drifted down through trees draped in grey, wispy Spanish moss. The dense forest might have felt primeval to a stranger, but Rose had grown up in the days when visiting the cool springs made summer bearable. It felt as much like home to her as her own backyard. But what was she doing here?
The brush next to her stirred and Rose stepped quickly away. Black bear? Coyote? The moment of panic faded as she remembered she had nothing to fear from wildlife. Besides, the brown shape crawling out from the undergrowth didn’t look like any wildlife she’d ever seen.
“Oh, my,” Rose murmured. She took another step back and then a step closer. “Oh, dear.”
The girl lifted a dirty, tear-streaked face. Her pinched look and the shadows under her eyes made Rose think she hadn’t eaten in far too long, but the determined set of her chin said she wasn’t giving up. She wobbled as she pulled herself to her feet, staring directly at Rose, her eyes wide.
“Good morning,” Rose said brightly. “I’m here to rescue you.”
The little girl didn’t answer. She blinked a couple of times, but her expression didn’t change.
“Sadly, I don’t know how,” Rose admitted, opening her hands. Even as she said the words, though, the tug started again, pointing Rose deeper into the forest.
Rose touched her chest, feeling the softness of her pink sweater under her fingers. She wouldn’t have thought that was the right direction to go at all. But the pull didn’t feel like a sensation she wanted to ignore.
“All right,” Rose said. “Off we go then.”
She smiled at the girl and the girl stepped in her direction, her face awed, lips parted, eyes alight with wonder.
They were off to a good start, Rose thought with satisfaction.
Natalya Latimer hummed as she drove down the dark and winding road leading to her cottage.
Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of something. When the snow lay something-something.
She wasn’t sure why that song was stuck in her head. She hated Christmas. Worst holiday of the year. Except maybe for Valentine’s Day, but at least that was a one-day excuse to eat chocolate. Christmas was just a reminder of all she’d lost, all she’d never had, all she never would have.
Sometimes knowing the future sucked.
She could remember how magical the holiday used to be: the lights, the music, the anticipation, the excitement, the love that surrounded her, flowing like warm honey. She shouldn’t complain, she knew. She was lucky to have the family she did. But the magic didn’t exist without children to believe in it, and Natalya would never have children of her own.
Still, this year hadn’t been so bad. Her brother Zane was delighting in his role as father-to-be. Her brother Lucas seemed to be adapting to his unique family structure. Her father Max had glowed with the joy of having all his children home, and a grandchild on the way. And her sister Grace had planned the day to the dotted i’s and crossed t’s. The holiday hadn’t been special, not the way it ought to be, but it was pleasant enough.
Her eyes narrowed, and she put a hand up to shield them. Lights—and not the Christmas decoration kind—glared ahead of her on the road.
That was odd. This road, her road, wound along the edge of the Ocala National Forest and led to a dead end. Eight houses were tucked into the trees, bordering a small lake, one of the many that dotted the region. But she wouldn’t have expected any of her neighbors to be out this late on the evening of Christmas Day. The only light she should see ought to be her own car’s headlights separating the blackness.
And then her breath caught in her throat and her heart froze.
A sheriff’s car, door open, lights on, stood at the side of the narrow road. It was parked carelessly, half blocking her lane, half slanted into the grass.
Ten years ago, she’d foreseen this night.
She’d been waiting for it to arrive ever since.
She took her foot off the gas pedal and let her car glide to a halt behind the other. Dread flowed through her like acid, turning her muscles to jelly. For a moment, she dropped her head and let it rest against the steering wheel, fighting the urge to cry or scream.
Christmas Day? Seriously? The universe must really hate her.
Her fingers shook as she turned the key in the ignition and fumbled her seatbelt open, but her eyes were dry as she opened the car door and stepped out.
She knew exactly what would happen next.
She’d walk around to the side of the sheriff’s car. In the darkness, the overhead light bar’s swirling blue-and-white would cast a surreal aura over the road, the trees and grass no more than a blur of green and brown as she saw the dark-soled shoes and the long legs of Colin Rafferty, her ex-boyfriend, lying face-down in the dirt and grass.
She’d rush to him. His tawny hair would be curling at the nape of his neck, longer than usual, and she’d feel the soft tickle of it against her fingers as she slid them along his skin, searching for his heartbeat. She’d force his body over, struggling to shift him, already realizing it was too late.
There’d be no pulse. She’d feel the cool and waxy texture of death under her warm touch. His skin would be tinged with grey, his lips turning blue. She’d smell death in the air, waste in more senses than one.
Ten years ago, that was all she’d known.
The knowledge had destroyed her life.
Tonight, if she tried, she could probably capture more. When it came to the near future, her sight was as clear as the memories of her near past. If she let herself think about it, she would know everything that would happen next: the phone calls, the ambulance, the deputies showing up, the hushed voices, worried faces. The funeral, his grandmother’s grief.
Instead, she took a deep breath and tried not to think. Slow and steady. She’d get through this miserable night as she had so many others: one heartbeat at a time.
But as she rounded the front of her car and stepped onto the grassy verge of the road, her feet stopped moving. She blinked and then blinked again, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. The lights, the surreal colors, Colin down on the ground—all that was right. But a shadow crouched over him, too small to be human.
She gasped in uncertain horror and the shape turned toward her, revealing a face, pale and dirty, topped with disheveled dishwater blonde hair.
Human, definitely human, Natalya realized with relief. But young. What was a child doing here? As she paused, the child’s hands dropped off Colin’s chest and she—he? it?—scrambled away and into the darkness.
“Wait!” Natalya called, hurrying forward along the length of the car. “Come back.”
She should go after the child. It was too late to help Colin. But as she reached him, she dropped to her knees anyway, ignoring the sharp gravel pressing into her flesh as she felt for his throat. Under her fingers, the outer edge of the trachea was solid, resilient, and it took barely a moment for her to find the throbbing carotid artery next to it.
He had a pulse.
His skin felt warm.
And he was stirring, lifting his head off the ground, his eyelids fluttering open and revealing his grey eyes.
“Nat?” He sounded dazed. But his words were clear, not slurred or faint or heavy with pain, nothing indicating a medical emergency. “You’re here. What happened?”
She rocked back onto her heels as he pushed himself to a sitting position. “You tell me. What is this, Colin?” Anger simmered in her tone. Was he playing a practical joke on her?
But there was no smirk and no “gotcha” in his voice as he repeated, “You’re here.”
He reached for her, wrapping his hand around the back of her neck and tugging her forward, drawing her closer until his firm lips took hers. Startled, Natalya opened her mouth to protest but he smothered her words with his kiss.
For a split second, Natalya resisted, and then she melted. She kissed him back, her lips hot under his, the taste and smell of him filling her senses, so familiar and yet so long denied. His lips explored, caressed, his hand twining into her long hair. She felt the warmth of his touch tingling along her scalp, the pressure of his arm against her back, the heat of desire stirring in her veins.