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Alyson Noel

  For Dorice—the Ever to my Riley!

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  also by alyson noël

  Coming in Winter 2012 - Riley’s adventures continue in Whisper


  Questions for the Author

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  Soul Catcher[ sl ] catch·er[ [ káchr, kéchr ] n One who catches the lost souls that haunt the earth plane by coaxing and convincing them to cross the bridge to the Here & Now.

  There is nothing to fear but fear itself.

  —franklin d. roosevelt


  The second I laid eyes on Aurora my shoulders slumped, my face unsquinched, and I heaved a deep sigh of relief knowing I had an ally, a friend on my side.

  I was sure it would all be okay.

  It was in the way her hair shimmered and shone—transforming from yellow to brown to black to red before starting the sequence all over again.

  Her skin did the same, converting from the palest white to the darkest ebony, and every possible hue in between.

  And her gown, her gorgeous yellow gown, sparkled and gleamed and swished at her feet like a crush of fallen stars.

  Even though I no longer mistook her for an angel like I did the first time I saw her, still, the whole glistening sight calmed me in a major way.

  But, as it turns out, I’d misread the whole thing.

  As soon as I took one look at her aura—as soon as I noted the way its usual bright, popping purple had dimmed to a much duller violet—well, that’s when I knew we were on opposite sides.

  It was just like Bodhi had said: I had a heckuva lot to explain. My last Soul Catch hadn’t exactly been assigned.

  I stared at my feet, head hanging in shame, scraggly blond hair hanging limply before me as I forced myself to shuffle behind him. Using those last remaining moments to run a frantic search through my best, most plausible excuses—mentally rehearsing my story again and again like a panicky actor on opening night.

  Even though I’d only been doing my job as a Soul Catcher when I coaxed and convinced a whole lot of ghosts to cross the bridge to where they belonged, there was no denying the fact that I’d been told to look the other way—to mind my own business. To not get involved by sticking my semi-stubby nose in places where it most certainly didn’t belong.

  But did I listen?

  Uh, not exactly.

  Instead I charged full speed ahead into a whole heap of trouble.

  I followed Bodhi to the stage, his back so stiff and his hands so clenched I was glad I couldn’t see his face. Though, if I had to guess, I’d be willing to bet that his mouth, free of the straw he usually chomped when the Council wasn’t around, was pinched into a thin, grim line, while his green eyes, heavily shadowed by his insanely thick fringe of lashes, were sparking and flaring as he thought of ways to rid himself of me once and for all.

  I peered under my bangs, watching as Aurora took her place next to Claude, who sat next to Samson, who was right beside Celia, who was so tiny and petite she was able to share an armrest with Royce without either one of them having to compromise or fight for equal space. And seeing them all assembled like that, waiting to hear just how I might go about explaining myself, well, that’s when I remembered the most important evidence of all.

  The one undeniable thing that required no verbal explanation, as it was right there smack dab in the front and center, visible for all to see.

  I had my glow on.

  Actually, scratch that. It wasn’t just my usual glow. It was far more impressive than that.

  As a reward for all I’d accomplished my glow had significantly deepened. Going from what started out as a barely there, pale green shimmer straight into a … well … a somewhat deeper green shimmer.

  Okay, maybe the change wasn’t all that drastic, but the thing is, what it lacked in drama it made up for in substance.

  Let’s just say that it couldn’t be missed.

  After all, I’d seen it.

  Bodhi had seen it.

  Even Buttercup had looked right at me and barked a few times as he wagged his tail and spun around.

  All of which I took as a pretty good sign that the Council would see it too—from what I knew of them, they didn’t miss a thing.

  I relaxed, pushed my hair off my face, and thought: How bad can it be when my glow is so clearly minty green?

  But then I remembered what Bodhi had said about consequences and actions—about the Council’s ability to give and take at will. Insisting that because of my failure to follow orders, it was really quite possible that by the time we were done, neither of us would ever glow again.

  Knowing I had to act fast, do whatever it took to get them to see my side of things, I charged straight ahead.

  I had no time for trouble. No time to waste.

  Just moments before I’d learned something extraordinary—had heard about some mysterious dimension where all the dreams take place—and I was determined to find it.

  Besides, I was pretty sure Bodhi couldn’t be trusted. The fact that he found me a burden wasn’t a secret.

  When it came right down to it, it was every man, er, make that ghost, for himself. So I squeezed him right out and took center stage.

  He gasped in astonishment. Tried to push me away. But he was too late, and I was too fast, and before he could do anything more, I was already standing smack dab in front of the Council, pushing aside any lingering fear.

  Fear was for sissies. Of that I was sure.

  It was time for me to tell them my side of things.

  My story. My way.

  And I was just about to begin, when I noticed the way Aurora’s aura grew dimmer, as the rest of the Council’s followed suit. Darkening in a way that made my mouth grow so dry, and my throat go so lumpy, the words jammed in my throat.

  I stood shaking. Mute. Watching as Bodhi—my guide—the one person whose job it was to help me—shook his head and smirked. Leaving no doubt in my mind just how much he’d enjoy watching me burn.


  The next thing I knew, Bodhi had leaped right before me, and said, “Hi!”

  Chasing it with a dazzling smile—one that showcased his dimples and made his eyes gleam. And as if that weren’t enough, he then shifted in a way that shamelessly allowed a chunk of wavy brown hair to fall into those eyes and tangle with his extra thick lashes—just so he could sweep his bangs off his face and smile again.

  It was a Hollywood move.



  Spurious (thank you, word-a-day calendar!) in the very worst way.

  The kind of move that either makes your heart flutter, or makes you go blech. And seeing Bodhi do it, well, it just made me feel weird.

  But when the move didn’t win him the reaction he’d hoped, when the members of the Council didn’t swoon all over themselves, he shifted gears, cleared his voice, and looking directly at them, uttered a very serious-sounding “Hello.”

  To be honest, I was a little embarrassed by the double greeting, but before I could do anything to stop him he said, “As you know, Riley, Buttercup, and I ran into a little trouble recently, and …”

  He rambled.

  Oh boy, did he ramble.

  He rambled in a way that was nothing but a bunch of bippidy blah blah to my ears. />
  Rambled in a way that made my head go all dizzy and squeezy.

  Rambled in a way that wasn’t the least bit effective—or at least not where the Council was concerned. And I knew I had to stop him before it got any worse. So the second he paused, I jumped in to say, “I think what Bodhi means is—”

  He swung toward me, glaring in a way that was half rage, half horrified disbelief. But it wasn’t enough to stop me. Not even close.

  But before I could even get started, Royce, with the dark wavy hair, smooth dark skin, and glinting green eyes that amounted to the kind of breath-stealing good looks usually reserved for movie screens, said, “That’s enough, Riley.”

  I froze—too afraid to look at Bodhi—too afraid to look at anyone—those three simple words stopping me cold. Not once in my ridiculously brief twelve years of life had I heard that phrase used for anything other than to stop me from some type of behavior an adult found extremely annoying.

  An awkward pause followed, broken by Celia, who stood beside Royce, her usual cornflower blue glow once again beaming at full force when she said, “There is no need to continue. No need to make excuses or explain. We have seen everything.”

  I nodded. Gulped. It was all I could do.

  My eyes locking on Samson’s deep violet ones as his hands clasped either side of his seat. “You acted on your own. You acted willfully, wildly, you ignored Bodhi’s instructions, and put yourselves in great danger.” He rose to his feet and stood rigid before me. “In the future we ask that you consult with us first before you go off on your own. No matter where you find yourself on the earth plane, you must never forget that we are but one telepathic message away.”

  He shot me a stern look, Bodhi too, the two of us frozen, unsure what to do, when Aurora said, “There is no need to fear us. We are here to offer guidance, support, and assistance if you find that you need it. And while I know you are eager to advance, you must trust that each and every assignment has been carefully selected to match your level of progress.” Her gaze locked on mine, making sure I understood, before she went on to add, “That said, you have still managed to succeed where many other Soul Catchers have failed. Congratulations.”

  Bodhi softened, as a whistle of air I didn’t even know I’d been holding escaped from my lips. And when I glanced down at Buttercup, I watched as he raised his rump high and let loose in a flurry of wiggles—an overdose of cuteness. I found myself wishing he’d stop.

  There was no need to overdo it. Not when I’d just been acknowledged—no, scratch that—not when I’d just been congratulated by Aurora, who I was pretty sure was the Council’s queen bee.

  I’d put myself in danger. I’d taken great risks. I’d done the exact opposite of what Bodhi had ordered—and look where it got me:

  Glowing before the Council.

  Graciously accepting great praise.


  The word spun through my head.

  I wasn’t in trouble. All was okay. Actually, it was better than okay. Once again, I’d succeeded where others had failed.

  I knew it.

  The Council knew it.

  And my glow proved it.

  It was Bodhi who needed the attitude adjustment. Me—I was at the top of my game.

  I reveled in my success, reliving the praise over and over again.

  My thoughts interrupted by the melodic lilt of Aurora’s voice when she added, “It is obvious that you are in need of greater challenges in the future, so we will do our best to provide them for you.”

  I nodded, arranging my face into the perfect expression of humility, saving the victory dance for later.

  My attention was soon stolen by Claude, whose long, slim fingers fiddled with the scraggly beard that stopped just shy of his waist, as he said, “And so, in light of all that you have accomplished, we agree that you two are in need of a break.”

  I glanced at Bodhi, taking a sidelong peek at the brand-spanking-new sneakers I was sure he’d manifested just for this meeting, the dark denim jeans that pooled around his ankles in that cool-guy way, his slouchy blue sweater that skimmed his lean form, making my way up to his ridiculously cute face, which, just the sight of it alone, caused my throat to go all lumpy and hot as an unexpected wave of nostalgia for all that we’d shared threatened to swallow me whole.

  As much as I’d longed for a new guide (pretty much since the moment Bodhi and I met), just when I was about to get one, well, I could hardly believe our days of Soul Catching together were coming to such a quick end. After this meeting, we might never see each other again.

  For some strange reason, the thought didn’t spark the kind of joy I would’ve expected. If anything, it did just the opposite. It made me feel all twisty and turvy and a little bit empty.

  But, as it turns out, I was wrong.

  Dead wrong.

  The Council had other ideas.

  “Take a break from Soul Catching,” Aurora said, nodding in a way that made her hair dance and swirl. “Take some time to relax and enjoy yourselves.”

  My face squinched, unsure how to take that.

  I mean, hadn’t I just been congratulated?

  And didn’t that sort of praise mean I could skip a few grades and move on to the kind of big, scary ghosts the experienced Soul Catchers dealt with?

  It was Celia who set me straight. “While we are all quite delighted with your performance, Riley, and while it’s clear that we’ll need to find greater challenges for you, we think you could use some time off.” Her tiny hands fluttered at her waist like a hummingbird before a feeder. “And once you’re sufficiently refreshed, we’ll happily send you and Bodhi on your next assignment. We are delighted with the way you two work together. Clearly you bring out the best in each other.”

  I gaped. And I’m talkin’ the bug-eyed, jaw-to-the-knees kind of gaped. I mean, seriously? Bring out the best in each other? Was she kidding? Had any of them actually reviewed the footage of Bodhi and me attempting to work together?

  All we did was fight!

  And argue.

  And willfully oppose each other every chance that we got. The only times we ever pitched in, rolled up our sleeves, and put our vast and varied differences aside was after things were so far gone we had no other choice but to rely on each other.

  But apparently that wasn’t all. Oh, no, they were a long way from done, because right as I was still reeling from that, Royce piped in and said, “While we take some time in choosing your next assignment, you and Bodhi, and yes, even you, Buttercup—” Royce’s eyes sparkled when Buttercup, upon hearing his name, licked his chops and wiggled his rump once again. “—you should all enjoy your time off. Spend some time with family. Visit with friends. The important thing is for you to rest up and recharge. Don’t worry, we’ll find you when it’s time for your next assignment. But for now, you are released.”



  Undeniably dismissed.

  And yet, even though I’d heard every word, all I could do was just stand there and gawk, watching as Bodhi and Buttercup shot across the stage and made a mad dash for the door. Suddenly paralyzed by the horrible realization that, unlike me, they had other, better places to be.

  The Council had vanished—just poof and they were gone. And knowing it was lame (not to mention pathetic) to keep standing there long after everyone else had vacated, I hung my head low and retraced Bodhi’s and Buttercup’s steps.

  The dismal truth of my existence blooming before me: While I may have excelled at Soul Catching, I was a total failure when it came to having an afterlife.

  My social life was even deader than I.

  I had no friends. No hobbies. No place to go other than my own room.

  And while it’s true that my parents and grandparents were Here, it’s also true that they were busy with their own afterlives.

  The Here & Now was nothing like the earth plane. I didn’t need anyone to pay my bills, prepare my meals, sign permission slips, drive
me around, or just generally look after me in a shelter-food-and-money kind of way. Everything I could possibly want, and/or need, could be had simply by wishing it—which meant that other than dropping by to check in and say hi, my family was no longer responsible for me.

  They’d moved on.

  And the pathetic truth was, from what I’d seen, my grandparents were way more popular than I.

  I slammed through the door and hurled myself outside, determined to do whatever it took to get myself an afterlife.


  The first thing I saw when I pushed through the door was that Bodhi and Buttercup had waited for me.

  Bodhi leaned against the iron stair rail, a dented green straw wedged between his back teeth, while Buttercup sat at his feet, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.

  I ran toward them, dropped to my knees, and hunched my shoulders ’til I was nose to nose with my dog. Giving him a good, long scratch between the ears, and smiling when he closed his eyes and sunk his head low, feeling just as contented as he. So immersed in the moment, so overcome with the thrill of them waiting, that all of my earlier sadness melted away.

  While it was true that I didn’t have much of an afterlife, at least I wouldn’t have to go it alone.

  I cleared my throat, knowing I should say something nice. Nothing too mushy, I’d never been comfortable with that sort of thing, but still, I wanted to show the full extent of my gratitude. Let them know how happy I was to find them both there.

  My lips parting, just about to speak, when I saw the way Bodhi’s knee jiggled—the way his thumbs tapped hard and fast against the rail—and I knew I’d misjudged the whole thing.

  Bodhi had no interest in hanging with me. He was still in guide mode. Waiting was an act of duty.

  Perhaps even pity.

  He was just making sure I had somewhere to be—that I wouldn’t make any more trouble—so he could head off on his much-anticipated vacation with no further thoughts of me.

  I was the very last item on his to-do list.

  A terrible realization that made all the nice words die right on my tongue. While the words that sprang up to replace them were anything but.