OKAY, it was not Engall’s fault. Well, it was sort of his fault. Okay, it was mostly his fault, but who could have predicted it would have turned out that way?
So he’d said no to a party—didn’t that make him a good guy? Cristina said, “Hey, Engall, you’re making yourself crazy! Come with me; Chandler’s throwing a thing!”
“Chandler?” He tried to sound casually disinterested. It was hard.
“Yeah! He actually told me to invite you personally!”
Oh wow. That was a good thing, right? Chandler was smart and funny and cute and…. Stop it right there, Engall.
“I may come over when my homework is done,” he said stiltedly, not wanting to talk about all of the good and bad things about Chandler, his physics lab partner, right now.
Cristina rolled her eyes. “You do that, Engall. Just don’t stay here all night.”
So he didn’t. He got shot in an all-night gas station instead.
He’d just wanted some goddamned M & Ms—not even the illegal kind! He was up late, studying, it was too late to go to the party (he told himself), and he wanted some goddamned M&Ms, so he left his little crappy apartment in the Howe/Hurley apartment warren and went down to the corner Circle K to get himself some goddamned chocolate. And walked straight into a fucking robbery. In an only mildly shitty area of Sacramento.
It was all so surreal. He’d been pondering his trig problems in his head and wondering if the engineering degree was really worth it, especially when he liked history so much better, and checking out his shoes at one in the fucking morning. He could see the gum on the sidewalk, and the oil slick that doubled as pavement, and the cracks in the street. He could see the way the anemic blue light of the Circle K flickered so badly he was actually hoping for a seizure, and he could see the blue jeans and black Converse sneakers of the other person in the minimart.
The person who was not getting out of his way.
The person who was shouting at Engall like Engall had just clawed up and down on his last fucking nerve.
The person with the ski mask and the gun.
“Oh shit,” Engall said. “I should have gone to that party after all.”
And that was when he got shot.
He got shot in the head, which meant that basically his meatsack dropped immediately and twitched, and Engall sort of rose above himself and looked down at the whole affair. The guy with the ski mask took off, the clerk behind the counter—an elderly Indian man with a pained, stoic expression, like this had happened before—was crouched down in a puddle of his own piss, and Engall?
Well, it wasn’t like he’d been that good-looking to begin with. Six foot three and gangly as hell, he’d had ginger hair, green eyes, and freckles. Everywhere. If he went outside in the summer it was like an invitation to the blister-balloon gods, which was just as well because he preferred to do his sweating indoors, in a gym, where he would never feel obligated to take off a shirt and reveal a physique sculpted by string beans and chocolate. His nose was too long, his jaw was too bony, and all the orthodontia in the world couldn’t change the fact that when he smiled, his teeth were a little too large. His ears stuck out like pitcher handles, even at twenty-three.
Still, for all his plainness, and the way he’d avoided mirrors when he was alive, he looked a lot worse dead.
“Oh fuck,” he muttered—or it felt like he muttered. “I didn’t even have a chance for my life to pass before my eyes! Goddamn it. My childhood was pretty goddamned choice, if I say so myself!”
It had been, too. Two parents who loved him, an older brother and a younger sister who also (mostly) loved him. A house, a backyard with toys, a dog, water fights, camping trips, and a room he shared with his brother, who still liked model trains and action figures as much as he did when they were young and didn’t mind playing chess with him when he wanted to.
Of course, the last four years in school hadn’t been all that exciting—that whole “party like a rock star” part of college had been, on the whole, a magnificent lie that he’d never gotten to partake in—but still. It would have been nice to have said goodbye to Mom and Dad, at least in his thoughts, before he got his head spattered across the dirty tiles of the Circle K.
“You didn’t get a chance to say goodbye?” The voice was indignant, and Engall stopped looking down at his pathetically twitching body and looked around. “You didn’t get a chance to say goodbye? You weren’t even supposed to be there! Hell take it, boy, why the hell weren’t you at that party?”
Engall was literally turning circles to find the owner of that voice, and since he was newly dead anyway, he was well on his way to becoming dizzy when the voice—which was sort of a reedy tenor and barely older than his own—said impatiently, “I’m up here, genius!”
Engall looked up and saw an angel.
“You’re an angel,” he said, which, all things considered, was one of the stupider things he’d said in his life, much less his death.
“Was it the halo or the wings that gave it away?” the angel said irritably. The wings were pretty spectacular—they were mostly a wing-shaped aura, and at the moment, they were sort of an exasperated, twitchy maroon color. The halo, though—well, it was sort of tarnished, and the angelic head it graced was… well… mussed. It was mussed. The angel’s robes were crooked and ill-fitting, and the angelic hair—sort of nondescript, sandy brown—was mussed, and not in the attractive boy-band way, either.
“It was the sarcasm,” Engall snapped. “I always expect my angels to sound like bitchy roommates on their periods.” Sort of like his roommate two weeks ago. He felt another pang of loss. Poor Cristina. She was such a total sweetheart—his parents had loved her, his sister had idolized her—and she’d be devastated to find out he was dead. Besides, she’d gone through four roommates before him, and they’d all flaked out on her one way or another, and she’d been so relieved that he was reliable and didn’t keep trying to get in her pants that she’d let him have all the chocolate milk and did the dishes, even when it was his turn, without complaint.
“Well, yes, I’m irritated,” the angel snapped back. “You weren’t supposed to be here! You were supposed to be at the damned party! You had this test nailed, not that you were going to need it, because you were supposed to become a history teacher and not a bloody engineer, and you were going to make that decision after you hooked up with the love of your life at the frickin’ party!”
“The love of my life?” Engall said cautiously. “Really? How… um… what’s she like?”
The angel looked at him levelly. “Cut the crap, Engall. We both know that’s not happening.”
Engall wondered if his ghost form blushed as unattractively as his human form, because he knew that was what he was doing at present. “Um, I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Angel, sir. If I were to find the love of my life, I’m sure she would be a nice gi—”
The angel was rolling his eyes heavenward and shouting to unseen forces. “See? See? This is why we need to start smiting people! He was supposed to be going to a party and he ended up here, getting his brains blown out in the search for chocolate! Please?”
The angel grunted. “Yeah. They always say that.”
“What did they say?” Engall asked hesitantly.
“They said we don’t smite people,” the angel told him sourly, and then, in a purely mocking voice, he said, “‘But Dagiel, that’s not what we do-oo.’” Dagiel stuck his tongue out at the heavenly forces that were, and then turned his attention back on Engall.
“They also said you got a do-over.”
“Heaven gives those out?”
Dagiel the angel glared at him. “Apparently they do when stupid college students skip parties where their soul mates are because the stupid powers that be make them afraid to admit who their soul mates are. Yes. Sometimes, Heaven gives those out.”
Engall felt some optimism welling up from his toes. “So, a do-over, right? Can I start by calling my folks to tell them I love them?”
Dagiel’s look at him was pained and almost patient. “You really are the sweetest puppy in the pound, aren’t you? Yes, baby boy, you can start your do-over by calling your parents, but there are a couple of other caveats that you need to hear before we get to that part.”
Engall turned around and looked for his body and the Circle K, unsurprised to see that both were dissolving into mist. “I hear you,” he muttered. “Caveats. Let the do-over begin!”