2
 
His unassuming nature, Boy Scout honesty, and quick willingness
to lend a hand or loan a buck earned him a town full of buddies.
 

 
1901 - Divisional


        A fter my Awakening, an irritable Romal left me in Divisional instead of taking me to Haven. He muttered, “Then wait here,” and took off. Then, as if in reply to something, although I hadn’t said a word.

        Centuries earlier, after I woke from my seventh life, Romal had said, “all right, then stay.” After my eighth, he had said, “So be it, then remain.” Both times, like now, he had left me in Divisional.

        This time, I shouted, “Hey, Romal, you’re hearing voices. I never said I wanted to stay. Romal? Romal? Aw, forget it.”
 
        I envisioned a pillow and stretched out. Whatever was causing Romal’s crankiness, it had nothing to do with my ninth life. Not a chance. I had lived a decent life, despite my lousy gender. A thousand times I had told Romal to give me Yin lives only, but Romal never listens. He picks out cords connect-ing to Yang, and then he complains when I mess up.

        This time, though, Romal had nothing to complain about. As Gavin, I had made a few mistakes, but they were teensy mistakes, the kind Romal usually fixed with a lecture while I pretended to listen. For sure, I hadn’t hurt another Player. Not directly. I sure hadn’t shot anyone. Just the opposite. I stepped in front of the gun, and that stupid Peter Taylor ended my life.

        Despite a few details I might have overlooked while rethinking my life as Gavin, I knew two facts for certain: One, my life ended in a noble act; I had saved Murdock’s life by sacrificing my own. And two, Romal would never agree with number one; somehow, he would give my noble act a bitter slant.

        Centuries ago, after completing my first life, Romal hollered about a ripple effect, blaming me for the death of my crew, as if I had forced the men at gunpoint to board the ship. When I brought up Free Will, Romal rubbed his temples as if his head hurt, not from his own hollering, but from my arguing.

 
        Just thinking about his short fuse made me glad that he had left me...left me in my favorite spot in Divisional. It’s a good distance from the Awakening Field’s hustle and bustle, yet it’s close enough to the Earth’s dimension for a front row view of their solar system. From here, I can watch the comets whirl, the stars explode, and the planets spin like gigantic tops—all the planets, from Mercury to Neptune and the three planets beyond that the Players have yet to discover and name.

        Most Souls don’t share my appreciation. They wake, celebrate, and leave for Haven. To them, this section feels desolate and lonely, which is a bit melodramatic, but that’s how everyone describes it, everyone except me and Counters. But Counters don’t count; they’re too precise to describe anything right. I once asked a Counter a simple question, “If Saturn melted, would the ring dissolve?”

        The Counter rambled on and on about ice particles, chilled velocities, and frozen gas. Everything cold. I waited to hear a yes or a no, but instead, I heard furthermore, if, and unless. My eyes glazed over in a fog of boredom.
When the Counter asked if I understood, I nodded. The second I nodded, my sparks twinkled brightly in their changed color—the color of lies.

        The Counter laughed. I don’t know what he found funny about my polite lie, and I still don’t know if Saturn’s ring would dissolve.

        Whooshummm. Earth rumbled past, so I sprawled out for sweet daydreams. No use thinking about weird Counters and irritable Guides—or my life as Gavin. All lives are too brief to make any difference anyway.

        “Hello, Zia. Are you waiting for Romal?”

        I jumped up, excited by the presence of my best friend, Awen, Order of Messengers, a seven-foot, dark blue Soul with thick, black lights atop his head. “Romal wouldn’t take me to Haven,” I said. “That’s a bad sign, isn’t it?”

 
        Awen didn’t seem to hear me. He peered at something beyond me, something across space. I wondered why he hadn’t come to my Awakening, but I didn’t want to put him on the spot by asking. I just wanted to do whatever Awen wanted to do. My green shoulder nudged into Awen’s blue chest, and together, we surveyed the galaxy. Earth, covered in swirling particles of whites and grays, pressed against a navy backdrop glittered with stars—a heavenly view for Awen and me. Nothing else mattered.

        “Are you waiting for Romal?” he asked again, strangely and quietly. Way too quietly.

        I backed up to study my friend. “Awen, you just asked me that. Awen?”
       
        His distant gaze neither fell to me nor tracked the Earth. His robust blues were fading, nearly transparent. “Awen, what’s wrong?” I tugged on his arm. “Tell me what’s wrong.” Conflicting hues of confusion recolored my sparks.

        Awen noticed and his face grew sadder.

        Damn, how I hate the tattletale sparks. “Awen, don’t worry about me. I’m fine. But you—Well, you don’t look too good. What happened?” Then it hit me, and it was so obvious, I smacked a palm against my forehead. “Awen, you have a terrible message to give to some poor Soul, don’t you? That’s why you look awful, right? Hey, I know you’re a caring Messenger, but you care too much. They caused the bad news, not you. Quit taking their problems so much to heart. Just deliver it quickly, like ripping off a bandage.”

        Awen stared into space, no doubt reworking some god-awful message into a softer blow. He’s a sympathetic Soul, the best in his Order, but he’s also a Dyad, which stinks. His other half is Ereo, which also stinks. Romal said that Dyads have specially designed relationships when they’re in play. Always. It’s some dumb rule, strictly for Dyads, supposedly to protect them, which makes no sense. Awen can protect himself. He doesn’t need Ereo flitting in the background or hovering overhead. It’s annoying. I had to train myself to ignore her. Good training, too, or I might have noticed her absence before that moment. “Hey, Awen,” I tapped him, “where’s your sidekick?”

        Instantly, inky-blue sparks streaked his cheeks.

        “Aw, jeez, sorry, sorry.” I zoomed across the region, east then west, in a zigzagging search for Ereo.

        I found no trace of her.

        I swept to Awen’s side, reached up, and blotted the blue from his face.

        His eyes scrunched tight as if he were bearing an unbearable pain.

        “Talk to me,” I said. “Is this about Ereo? Did she abandon you? You can tell me. I’ll understand. Whatever she did, it’s not your fault.”

        “Zia,” he whispered with so much buttery softness, I dizzied.

        “Yes, Awen?”

        “I know your Soul.”

        “Yes, go on.”

        “I know you intend no harm.”

        “Yes, go—Wait. Wait. Harm? Harm?”

        “We are friends and that will never change.”

        Uh-oh. Dread surged, kicking away balance. I stumbled backwards. “Your message is for me? ME?”