In the bright light beyond the door, Annie can see other shadows waiting for her, but right now, there’s only Gilbert’s warm smile and his hand stretched across the threshold.
She grasps it tightly and steps, more than is pulled, over in to another world.
Next thing she knows Baby Eve is being crushed between her and Gilbert and Nina and George and Annie is gasping with relief and tears, Nina and George mumbling it’s okay in her ears over and over.
(There is one, noticeably absent. She knew he was lost forever. No special favors.)
She lets Nina take Eve out of her arms to hold her, and while the loss stings at first, Annie’s arms are tired – so tired – and when she wraps them around herself, looking at all the people gathered here to meet her, she notices Gilbert is still standing next to her, waiting.
“Did you know I’d be here?” she asks, curious, and he drops his head, a breath of a laugh escaping him.
“Unfinished business,” he says, and Annie feels tears behind her eyes, a dryness in her throat, and chokes it back.
“I’m glad,” she says and catches his smile.
It’s a busy world, the afterlife – her gran and granddad, her too-young aunt, Nina, George, Baby Eve, even the social worker whose name Annie forgets again after it’s told her. She never did go back to help her, but it seems alright now. She misses her parents, but it doesn’t seem like such a long wait now.
The afterlife, or whatever this is, does not seem like it did all the other times she was here; long corridors full of doors leading to terrible pasts. Holding cells like a jail and parades heralding her destruction. But then, she wasn’t supposed to go through those doors.
It’s green here, and full of sunlight, and there’s a park bench Annie likes to sit on and watch everyone. Sometimes Nina and George come by with Baby Eve, but mostly they give her space here, because there is one person Annie will never see, not here, and the space here lets her forget.
Lia has no such qualms. Finds her one day, out of the blue, and Annie is surprised at how young she still looks, no trace of her prophecy or destruction in her eyes this time. Only content.
“You can’t wait forever,” Lia says, and Annie laughs, because here, “Forever means nothing, you know.”
“It does though,” Lia says. “Have you thought about how much time has passed since you came through?”
(Less talk of death here than Annie would have expected, but then – that is a part of life.)
“I’m sure they’re fine,” Annie says, more to reassure her sudden conscience than from any true belief. “The Old Ones are gone, no babies to worry about, just Hal and Tom.”
“And Alex,” Lia says, never one to forget the girls who died too young. “There’s Alex. Can you see it all playing out again?”
“Why does this matter?” Annie asks, annoyed that her peaceful park bench has been disrupted, annoyed at Lia being here when Lia reminds her of the one thing lost forever.
“Because you’ve already moved on, Annie,” Lia says, and there’s a truth to it Annie flinches from. “You don’t have to worry about vampires and werewolves anymore, and you don’t want to.”
“I miss him,” Annie says, and that is true, and Lia knows it.
“Nothing forever about that,” Lia says, and Annie relaxes, meets her eyes. “Do you miss them?” she asks. Lia smiles her strained smile, and Annie suddenly feels terribly lucky.
“Forever,” Lia says, and Annie understands the difference.
Her little park bench is still her place, but one day Annie decides to seek someone else out – finds him exactly where she expected. Even here, in the afterlife, there is music, and Gilbert is ignoring an older man who keeps insisting that disco was the height of music.
Poor Gilbert, she thinks, and steps between them.
“So sorry, must go,” she says to the other man and Gilbert’s startled look doesn’t stop her, but she links their arms together and walks with him towards the exit, feeling his gaze heavy on her head.
“Missed me, did you?” he asks and Annie smiles, tucks their arms together tighter and steps through the door. She can feel her park bench from here, but there’s so much more to this place than she expected. More than dark corridors, more than quiet park benches.
“Unfinished business,” she says.