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A strange pressing sensation, that’s how it started. Elizabeth moved her hand away from her full, pregnant belly, but still the phantom pushing feeling continued, even stronger than before.
“Theo…” She shook her husband awake. “I think it may be time.”
Theo slung an arm across her torso and mumbled without even bothering to open his eyes.
Pain shot from her bellybutton down into her legs, twisting as it crawled toward her toes. She let out a gasp and wrapped her arms around herself to try to keep from screaming.
Theo shot upright, an expression of concern tugging at his worn features. “How can it be time? The due date is more than a month away. It’s too early.”
Elizabeth nodded. Tears fell onto her pajama bottoms, splashing the happy, pink clouds.
“Okay, okay. Let’s go. Everything is going to be okay, honey. It’s gotta be.”
She let him pull her to her feet and usher her to the car parked outside on the curb, but somehow Elizabeth couldn’t believe her husband’s promise, no matter how much she wanted to.
* * *
“Eclampsia,” the doctor said with a frown. He stood at the end of Elizabeth’s bed and studied her chart.
A million thoughts raced through Elizabeth’s mind, but the only one that mattered was will my baby be okay? She bit her lower lip to keep the tears at bay. If she was going to get through this, she’d need to be strong.
“We’ll take good care of you.” A nurse smiled as she pushed an IV into the back of Elizabeth’s hand. “Everything will be all right.”
“The baby has to come out now. The OR is just finishing up with the last cesarean. As soon as they’re done sanitizing the room, you’ll be headed in. I need to go help them get ready, but I will see you again soon.” The doctor dashed out, even though there was so much Elizabeth needed to ask. Everything was moving at the speed of light, too fast to contemplate. This definitely wasn’t the birth plan she’d envisioned.
“Smile. You’re going to meet your baby today.” The nurse squeezed Elizabeth’s hand.
Minutes later they wheeled her into a sterile room engulfed in white and metal. It looked more mental ward than maternity. Theo had been made to wait out in the hall. They’d pushed throw-away scrubs and a hospital mask his way, told him to change, said he could join her once they had begun. But she needed him now, needed him to whisper jokes in her ear as the anesthetist shoved a long needle into her spine, needed him as they moved her from the gurney to the operating table, as they put up the curtain and sliced into her abdomen.
And she knew even before the monitor beside her started beeping wildly out of control, even before someone shouted “BP’s 240 over 160 and climbing fast” and several other someones hovered above her, injecting things into her arms, pressing other things into her chest, speaking loudly and moving swiftly.
Please let my baby be okay, she prayed even though the words couldn’t find her lips. And the last thing she heard before it all faded to static was the sound of her newborn taking that precious first breath and crying into the chaos that surrounded them.
Everything went white.
* * *
The unyielding wall of white surrounded her like an embrace, absorbed her, became her. Nothing existed except for the vast blankness. She drifted through it, a mere ripple in the endless ocean. Time passed, but not in any discernible way. She didn’t know where she was or why, but she also didn’t think to question this new plane of existence. It, like she, just was.
The milky infinity at last separated to reveal the silhouette of an enormous city on the horizon. And this city was made of all the most spectacular colors in the sky’s repertoire—pinks, purples, oranges, yellows, blue—an impossibly beautiful structure built of sunrise. Flanking the ethereal village stood two soaring gates made of the finest yellow gold and dotted with pearls, each of which loomed larger than the distant moon.
The current carried her forward, but before she could pass through the gates, a figure materialized to bar her entrance.
“Elizabeth,” it said, and at once she remembered who she was and how she had come here.
I died—the acknowledgment flooded her awareness, but it did not make her sad. Her body now formed around her, but it felt clunky and foreign.
“I am Peter,” the man said as his body also materialized before her—a dimpled chin, wavy blond hair, and long limbs. The perfect likeness of someone she knew very well. Theo.
“You look exactly like my husband, but how?”
“I made myself familiar to give you comfort, for we have much to discuss.”
“Am I in Heaven?” she asked, already sure of the answer.
“Yes. Do you remember how you died?”
Elizabeth thought back to her last moments on Earth. A cry escaped before she could choke it back. “Please tell me, Peter—is my baby okay?”
“Yes, she is. Your sacrifice saved her.”
Her? I had a girl? Tears of joy sprang to her eyes. As magnificent as her new home had proven, she also couldn’t bear the thought of never knowing her daughter, of leaving her baby without a mother, leaving her husband without a partner.
Peter placed a hand on her shoulder, and although she couldn’t feel it, the gesture still brought comfort. He waited until her racing thoughts slowed, waited for her to work her situation out, and continue their conversation.
“So is this it? Do I cross through those gates, and never see my family again?” She raised both arms to motion toward the gates—so tall they appeared to carry on forever into the sky.
“Your life is over, yes, but this is not the end of your journey. You are not ready for Heaven, Elizabeth.”
Fear took hold as she murmured, “Are you sending me to that other place?”
Peter chortled. “No, no, not at all. But, you see, you aren’t yet ready to cross through those gates and become a Pearl. Your heart is still tied to the world. To live here, your heart must be free and ready for paradise.”
“I… I don’t understand.”
“You’ve proven your capacity for great love by sacrificing yourself in order to save your daughter. You also miss her and need her in the same way she will need your protection as she goes through life. While I cannot undo what has already been done, I can send you back to Earth. You will be transformed into a special kind of angel, a protector.”
“You’re making me a guardian angel?”
“Yes, so you can watch over your daughter and know your sacrifice was not in vain, so you will complete your unfinished business, and so that you will be ready. Come with me. I will make everything clear.”
* * *
Elizabeth blinked, and when she opened her eyes again, she found herself in the hospital room from before. The scents of hand sanitizer and baby formula mingled in the air, saturating her consciousness. Across the room, a stooped figure hunched over in a chair crying softly.
Theo, the real Theo. She rushed to his side and reached for his hand to give it a squeeze. But her fingers passed right through his.
“Remember, you don’t have a body anymore. It will take some getting used to.” She turned to face the angel, taking in his tall, lanky frame and dark features. He no longer held Theo’s form.
“But I can see. I can hear. I can smell. How am I able to do all that without a body?” She tried once again to caress her husband. He was so close but so unattainable—pure torture.
“You have the senses you need to do your job. Nothing more.” Peter’s expression was solemn as if he had chosen to hold back something important. Elizabeth was just about to ask for clarification, when a petite nurse entered the room pushing a large cart in ahead of her.
“Somebody wants to see her daddy.” The nurse’s peppy voice did not match her worn expression.
Theo raised his head and wiped the backs of his hands across his face. “I don’t know if I’m ready…”
“Ready or not, this baby needs you. You’re all she’s got now.” The nurse gave him an apologetic tilt of the head and pressed the baby into his arms.
“But that’s not true,” Elizabeth argued. “I’m right here. She has me. Theo, you have me.”
Theo stared straight ahead, seemingly unable to glance down at the child who had so recently replaced his wife as the number one person in his life.
“Honey, it’s okay. You can love her. You need to love her. For me,” Elizabeth pleaded while Peter steepled his fingers in front of his chest.
Theo sniffled and ventured a glance toward the pink bundle that squirmed in his lap.
“That’s it,” Peter whispered. “Keep talking to him.”
She took a deep breath and then told Theo that she was here, that she loved them both so much, that everything was going to be all right. By the time she had finished what she needed to say, a smile had overtaken her husband’s sullen expression.
He bent down to kiss the baby’s forehead. “It’s just you and me now, baby. You and me against the world.”
The baby cooed and suckled on her receiving blanket, and Theo chuckled softly.
“But I can’t call you baby forever, can I? You need a name.”
Elizabeth bent over Theo’s shoulder to look her newborn in the face. “Please name her Daisy,” she whispered. “I always wanted a little girl named Daisy.”
Theo perked up as if he’d heard her simple plea. A moment later Elizabeth’s suspicion was confirmed when he lifted the baby toward his face and said, “You know what? I think I’ll call you Daisy.”
* * *
As soon as the words escaped Theo’s mouth, the scene around Elizabeth began to dissolve.
After a brief journey through the incredible whiteness, Elizabeth once again found herself standing next to Peter outside of the gates to Heaven. His true form was still a shock to her.
“Why did you bring us back here? I thought I wasn’t ready for Heaven yet?”
“That’s true, but before you can officially begin your duties, you need to learn what’s allowed and what isn’t allowed. You need to know the rules.” Peter paced back and forth before the gates. “First of all, there are four types of beings. There’s God, then there are angels like me and like you now too. We also have humans and Pearls.”
“Pearls? I’ve never heard of that before.”
“Pearls are the luckiest beings there are. They are the people who have completed their earthly journeys and are able to retire forever beyond those gates. They live side by side with God in perfect bliss.” Peter gave a wistful sigh and fixed his eyes on his charge.
“What about angels? Don’t you—I mean, we—get to be in Heaven too?”
“We are separate, eternal servants. It is our job to help humans fulfill their potential. Most of us never get the chance to cross over.”
“Most, but not all?” She drummed a finger against her lips as she waited for Peter to explain.
“Not you, Elizabeth. Protector angels are special. Once their charges achieve their potential, the protectors are invited to join them where they too become Pearls.”
“So what you’re saying… One day Daisy and I will enter Heaven together?” her voice cracked as emotion swept over her.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“Has his own protector. You will see him again on the other side when you are both ready.”
“So when they die, we’ll all be together again? Just like Nana always told me growing up.”
“N-n-no, that’s not exactly accurate,” Peter stuttered. “There’s no guarantee one life will be enough.”
Elizabeth’s eyes crossed as she attempted to make sense of that.
“Most people need tens, even hundreds, of lifetimes to get it right. Very few are able to transcend after their first attempt.”
“Are you talking about reincarnation?” Elizabeth asked.
Peter nodded. “That’s one word for it, yes.”
A tremor worked its way through her body, but Elizabeth pressed on. “So if Daisy doesn’t make it to Heaven this time, will she go to Hell? Will she be born again?”
“Hell is not a place you need to worry about. In fact, it’s not a place at all. And with you at her side, Daisy will do well. I’m sure of it.”
While Elizabeth wanted to know more about Hell, she was far more interested in learning about how she could fulfill her guardian angel obligations and give her daughter the best possible life. She waited for Peter to continue.
“If Daisy isn’t ready after this lifetime, she will be born again, yes. And you will stay with her as many times as it takes for her to be ready.”
“Even if she’s not my daughter anymore?”
Peter closed the distance between them and stopped just inches from her face. He fixed his gaze on her and said, “You aren’t her mother anymore, but what you are is so much more special than that. There is no closer bond in existence than that of a protector and her charge. When you and Daisy at last get to meet inside those gates, it will be as if you are two halves finally merging into a whole. You will have the perfect friendship for all of eternity. There is no greater gift that anyone could receive.”
Elizabeth was sure she spied a tear welling up behind Peter’s eyes, but he turned away quickly and redirected their conversation.
“Do you have any questions?”
“I don’t think—”
“Then it is time.” Peter’s snap transported them back to her old house.
Night enveloped the room, yet Elizabeth had no trouble making out the tiny form in the bassinet—the baby’s chest rising and falling in perfect syncopation to her father’s soft snores.
“Call if you need me,” Peter instructed before disappearing from sight.
Elizabeth stood in place. This was the first moment in the rest of her eternity, and she wanted to get it perfect. She padded over to the edge of the lace-trimmed bassinet and leaned forward, sucking in the sweet scent of her little girl.
“Mommy loves you, little baby,” she sang, trailing immaterial fingers over Daisy’s rosy cheek.
The baby’s eyes opened at her touch, and a smile lit her small face.
An enormous sense of love took over Elizabeth’s entire being. She understood exactly what Peter had meant when he called Daisy her soulmate. And she knew right then that an eternity could never be long enough.
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