A light in the sky that was different from the sun attracted Tracy’s attention to the west. In front of the clouds on the horizon there appeared to be a second sun below and to the left of the first, but the new light was bright white instead of golden. Tracy straightened and pointed. “The Light.”
She stepped to Ashley’s side, gently turned her around, and took her hand.
Ashley’s face glowed. “Oh, it’s beautiful.”
“Do you feel that?” Tears welled up in Tracy’s eyes as she felt things she didn’t want to feel. She had known people who had died while she was still alive, and their voices sang to her now. But there was one voice that shined brighter than the rest. It encircled her with love. It shined with forgiveness.
But Tracy did not want to be loved. She wasn’t ready to be forgiven. She wasn’t ready to forgive. Still, whether she wanted them to or not, they remembered and loved her. Come join us, they sang in a song without words. It is time.
But a voice deep inside Tracy replied with anger, fear, sadness and confusion, pulling her away. It told her she did not belong in the Light. She didn’t deserve it. And no matter what the voices inside it sang, this was not her time. The Light was not here for her. It was here for Ashley and Josh. This was their time, not hers.
“Do you feel it?” she asked Ashley again.
“Uh, huh, Grandpa is there.”
“And you?” she asked Josh.
For a long while Josh didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Love radiated off his face in a soft glow and tears streamed down his cheeks. “I never thought I’d see my cousin Mark again. He died from cancer when we were both twelve. It’s good to see him so happy. And my Uncle Finn, and my great-grandparents. It’s . . . amazing.”
Tracy nodded. Josh was right. It was amazing, even if it wasn’t for her.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Mack grumbled.
“Doesn’t he . . . ?” Josh began to ask.
“No,” Tracy whispered. “Someone who loves you has to be there, and Mack doesn’t have anyone like that.”
“Not even a grandparent?” Josh whispered back.
Tracy shook her head.
She held Ashley’s hand, pulled her forward, and then let her go. “Go on, Ashley. Go to your grandpa. It’s time for you to shine.”
Ashley took one tiny step forward. Then she stopped. “But what about my mommy? I promised I would wait for her here.”
“It’s okay,” Tracy replied. “She’ll know where to find you. Your mother is good, right?”
“She’s the best in the world.”
“And all good people go to the Light when they die, so your mother will find you there.”
Ashley took another tiny step forward.
“Good thing you’re going,” Mack said, his voice rising teasingly, like a roller coaster rising ever so slowly before the rush of a steep drop. He smiled. “More cotton candy for me.”
Ashley stopped and licked her lips. “Cotton candy?”
“Ashley, you don’t need—” Tracy started to say.
Mack interrupted her. “And there’s the merry-go-round. And the hot dogs. All you can eat . . . with ketchup.”
Ashley grinned. “I promised Mommy I would wait here.”
Tracy placed her hands on Ashley’s shoulders and looked into her eyes again. “Don’t listen to Mack. He’s nothing but trouble.” Mack harrumphed, but Tracy ignored him. “The Light is where you belong. You know how the best stories end with ‘happily ever after?’ Well, the Light is happily ever after. You deserve to be there, not here. This is just a theme park, and everything we feel here—it’s just an illusion. It isn’t real. It’s fake, just like everything else here. Only the Light is real. It’s where all good people belong when they die. It’s where you belong, Princess Ashley, where every story ends with happily ever after.”
“I know those stories,” Mack said. “First, they’re all a load of crap. Second, they talk about living happily ever after. This is the real world, the world of the living, not the Light. That’s the world of the dead. Besides, it’s not like that old Light doesn’t come back. It comes back over and over. You’ll have a chance to go to it again, but once you go that’s it. You can’t come back. No one ever does. This is your only chance to enjoy the Amazing Lands Theme Park like no one else. Stick with me, kid, and I’ll show you what real fun is.”
Ashley smiled at Mack. Mack grinned. Tracy shook her head. This was ridiculous. Ashley belonged with her grandfather. She belonged with the people who loved her. Tracy shouldn’t have to convince Ashley of that. “Josh, tell her.”
“Tell her what?” Josh asked.
“Tell her to go to the Light. You didn’t die trying to save her just so she could spend forever going on rides and eating hot dogs.”
Josh looked to the side and narrowed his eyes. He slowly ran a finger over his lips. The others waited. “You’re right,” he finally said. “Ashley does belong in the Light.”
“See?” Tracy told Ashley.
But then Josh added, “We all do.”
“What?” Tracy could not believe what she was hearing. “By ‘we’ you mean you and Ashley.”
“No, I mean all of us. You said you didn’t want to leave a job half finished. You tried to save Mack, but you couldn’t, so you want make sure he gets to Heaven. I tried to save Ashley, but I couldn’t, so I need to make sure—”
“You need to make sure Ashley gets to Heaven. With you.”
“And with you.” Josh stood face to face with Tracy. He was very close. Too close. “That must be why I’m here, to help you go to the Light.”
Tracy glared at him and gritted her teeth. “I. Don’t. Need. Your. Help.”
“Maybe not,” Josh replied. “But I’m still not going without you.”
“But you have to. Ashley—”
“Yay, I’m staying.” Ashley skipped over to Mack and took his hand. Mack smiled victoriously and led her back toward the table by the food stand.
“I don’t think there will be any hot dogs left now,” Mack said. “But in the morning, you’ll see. More hot dogs than you can eat.”
“What do you think you’re doing?” Tracy shouted at Josh.
Josh ran his fingers through his hair again and let out a deep breath. “I know you’re not staying for Mack, but I still haven’t figured you out. I don’t know if you’re scared—”
“Hey, I’m not scared!” Tracy wished she hadn’t screamed that. The sudden twist in her voice sure made her sound scared.
“—Or if you have some of that ‘unfinished business’ ghosts are supposed to have—”
She shook her head and waved the suggestion away. “No unfinished business.”
He raised a finger to his chin and then lowered it again. “You’re hiding something.”
“I am not!” Tracy shouted. “GAA! I don’t need someone to rescue me, okay? I’m fine. I’ve been here with Mack for years. I don’t know what your problem is, but I don’t need you. Ashley is the one who needs you.” She leaned in close and whispered, “If you don’t take her to the Light, she’s going to end up like Mack. She’ll be stuck her forever. Is that what you want?”
Tracy pursed her lips and gestured toward Ashley in a way that said, “Well, then, what are you going to do about it?”
“I’m perfectly willing to take Ashley, but not without you.”
“But I can’t go,” she whispered, “because Mack will never go.”
Josh stared at her, and for a long time he didn’t reply. He crossed his arms and smiled. “You say you’re not giving up on Mack. Well, I’m not giving up on you.”
The Light started to fade, taking with it the singing that sounded like laughter and the glow that shined like love.
“Will it come back?” Josh asked.
“Why, do you want to go now?” Tracy hoped his answer would be yes, but he just shook his head. She sighed. “It will come back the next time someone is ready to go to it. That’s why it was here, because you and Ashley were ready to go.” A few seconds later the Light was completely gone. Tracy sighed. “You should have left. You were supposed to go. I wanted you to go.”
Josh shrugged. “We don’t always get what we want in life.”
“This isn’t life.”
He tried to take Tracy’s hand, but she again let go of the illusion that was her hand, and his fingers slipped through hers.
“I guess we don’t always get what we want in death either,” she heard him grumble as she walked away.