Read The Best Things in Death Online
Authors: Lenore Appelhans
Jones, Julian. Memory # n/a
Tags: The Best Things in Life Are Free, Iceland
Julian watches the pale December sun peek sluggishly over the horizon. This is his first time on Earth, and he allows himself to feel everything, even the bitingly cold breeze. He is amazed by the intensity of the sensations that wash over him. He has experienced winter wind a million times over, but only via the memories of humans, and he hadn’t expected it to be so sharp. His every cell pulsates with life, and he knows that he’d do almost anything to be able to stay here, to not have to return to the bleak monotony of Level Two.
He pauses to clap the snow off his gloves before pushing open the weathered wooden door of the restaurant. Once inside, he’s greeted by an enormous crab plaque hanging on the wall. Like most places in Reykjavik, the ceiling is low, the room is cramped, and the decor is quirky, a mix of piscatorial trophies and brightly colored woven nets. He loves it beyond reason.
“Table for one?” a man asks him in Icelandic. Julian nods. As an angel, he understands every language on Earth, but to be able to speak fluently like a native, he has to concentrate. His mind is elsewhere, though, and he can’t be bothered.
The man snatches a menu from the stack under the crab. “Right this way.” As Julian follows him, he glances at the tables they pass, searching for Mira. It is early yet for lunchtime, but the place is nearly full.
Then he sees
and his whole being is shocked into numbness again. Felicia sits with her father and a girl with shoulder-length blond hair. Her nose is buried in a guidebook. Though he has thought about her countless times—how could he not?—he hasn’t been this close to her since her all-too-brief visit to Level Two years ago. Now that fate has brought them together again, the air around him takes on a sweetness he never imagined possible. He wants to go up to her. He wonders if she’d even recognize him if he casually said hi. His appearance hasn’t changed, but hers has. He whistles under his breath. She is certainly not twelve any longer.
A polite cough brings him back to his senses. Mira. The fingers of her left hand idly caress the stem of a wineglass. She wears a black leather minidress with a triangle cutout that exposes her midriff, and thigh-high black boots. Her rainbow-colored hair sticks up in short spikes, making her resemble a punk-rock porcupine.
He stops in front of her table and the waiter raises an eyebrow in a question. Mira tells the waiter in flawless Icelandic that Julian will join her. The man shrugs, sets down the menu, and stalks off.
“Are you checking up on me?” Mira asks, pouting. Instead of sitting across from her, Julian settles in next to her. It affords him a perfect view of Felicia.
“No. Eli sent me.”
“What does he want?” Mira sniffs.
“What do you think? He wants you to come back.” Mira and Eli have had more lovers’ spats than there are stars in the heavens, and Julian is frankly surprised they remain committed to each other. The Morati aren’t known for being particularly monogamous. Julian has had plenty of affairs. But no one has inspired an urge in him to fight to be exclusive.
“And he sent you.” Mira’s tone is as chilly as the weather outside.
Mira drinks down the rest of her wine with her eyes closed. Then she looks pointedly over at Felicia’s table. “I’m busy too. I’m on a mission.”
Alarm bells go off in Julian’s head. “What kind of mission?”
“Reconnaissance. The council has an interest in that girl over there. Felicia something. See the one with the long dark hair and the boring outfit?” She nicks her head in Felicia’s direction. “God only knows why, though. She spends hours every day at the Blue Lagoon with her friend Autumn. It’s painful.”
“What’s your problem with the Blue Lagoon?” Julian asks.
Mira wrinkles her nose. “It’s for tourists. We locals make the trek out to the Rjúpnabrekkur.”
“So you’re a local now. After a week.”
“Someone needs to tell that girl that she doesn’t need to pay a preposterous entry fee to experience the joys of Iceland’s thermal springs. Hasn’t she ever heard that the best things in life are free?” Mira lounges back in her chair and motions for the waiter to bring her another glass of wine.
Julian agrees that humans don’t appreciate the wonders of nature as much as they should. But geothermal pools can be temperamental when not regulated as the Blue Lagoon is. In his role as a spirit guide in Level Two, Julian once had a human charge who died in a thermal spring accident. He scans through his memories for the name of the boy. Arent. Julian closes his eyes and the scene unfolds before him in terrifying detail. He shudders and snaps his eyes back open. He must have relived that memory with Arent a hundred times before the boy had finally come to terms with it and moved on. It was often that way with the more violent or painful deaths. Of course, that was all in the time before the council set up the net architecture to harness the power of human souls for their own purposes. He hasn’t had to do that distasteful work for years. “Maybe she doesn’t want to risk a rush of scalding water boiling her alive,” he mutters.
“Can’t hurt me, so I don’t care,” Mira says. She goes on to chatter about how exciting it is to stumble upon a solitary pool in the wilderness and claim it for your own, but Julian is only half-listening. He’s more interested in observing Felicia. Her food has arrived and she is obviously relishing her meal. In between bites, she cuts off morsels of her fish sampler and insists that her friend and her father taste them. Her enthusiasm is so endearing, Julian wishes she’d offer her fork to him.
He interrupts Mira’s nature-appreciation monologue. “What does the council want to know about her?”
The waiter brings Mira’s wine, and she waits until he leaves to answer Julian’s question. “I am supposed to be on the lookout for chinks in her armor. Weaknesses they can exploit.”
Julian finds himself irrationally protective of Felicia, and he doesn’t like the sound of that. “But to what end?”
Mira sizes him up. “She’s supposedly the key to the next phase of the council’s plan to break into the higher levels.” The council has always been especially vocal about how unfair it is to be condemned to Level Two. It’s been four years since the first successful attempt to travel to Earth. Julian remembers the day well, because that was the day he met Felicia and was changed forever.
“So you follow her around all day.”
Mira shrugs. “A lot of good that has done me. She’s unrelentingly cheerful and easy-going. At this rate, I’ll have nothing to report.” Julian wonders at the wisdom of tasking someone as self-absorbed as Mira with a job that requires analyzing the subtleties of human interaction. In the short time that he has been observing Felicia’s table, he has noticed something off about the friend, Autumn. Her gestures are exaggerated, and her smiles don’t quite reach her eyes. He doesn’t point this out to Mira, but files it away for future reference.
Mira sips her wine in silence as they wait for Felicia’s party of three to finish their meal and polish off a dessert course. When Felicia’s father asks for the bill, Mira stands up and dons a thick white faux fur coat. “Let’s go,” she says. Julian follows her past the other diners and the crab plaque. Mira materializes a fistful of krona and scatters it on the counter before exiting.
Once outside, Mira and Julian duck behind an awning and wait for Felicia to emerge. Felicia’s father is first to step out. “Be careful, girls,” he says. He juts out his elbow in case his daughter or her friend slip on the ice. They pick their way carefully down the street and enter a shop.
“Ugh,” Mira says, leaning against the adjacent building. “More touristy crap. Go in for me, will you?”
He’s only too happy to oblige, but he hides it with a grimace. “Must I?” She waves her hand, sending him off to follow Felicia.
He slinks into the shop and positions himself behind a column of magnets and key chains. Felicia stands with Autumn in front of a wide selection of hand-knit sweaters. They debate the relative merits of each design while Felicia’s father tortures the shopkeeper with his broken phrasebook Icelandic. Felicia finally chooses a white hooded cardigan with moss green accents, and her father pays for it. As Felicia opens the door, the shopping bag tucked under her arm, Julian grabs a key chain in the shape of a puffin that declares
. He pockets it and exits the shop behind the others.
“What did she buy?” Mira asks him.
“A wool sweater.”
“More boring pieces for her boring wardrobe.” Mira spins in her swing coat and Julian sees that it’s covered in tiny iridescent snowflake sequins. “If I were allowed to make contact, I would offer up my services as a stylist.”
“How generous of you.”
“I am fabulous, am I not?” she laughs, and the sound of it rings out like tiny bells. Autumn turns and glares in their direction, as if she can’t stand the happiness of others, while Felicia slides in long, elegant strides on the slick pavement, holding on to her father’s arm.
Mira and Julian tail them back to Felicia’s hotel. The three disappear inside for a few minutes before Felicia and Autumn come rushing out to catch a bus. “That’s our ride to the Blue Lagoon,” Mira says. She materializes a pair of tickets and they board, turning their faces away as they pass Felicia and Autumn.
During the journey to the Blue Lagoon, Julian watches Felicia. She peers out her window in wonder, her chin resting on her hand. She is the only person on the bus who shows any interest in her surroundings—everyone else hunches over their electronic devices and takes advantage of the free Wi-Fi—and it makes Julian warm to her even more. The squat, colorful buildings of the capital give way to a flat expanse of blindingly white snow. The bleakness reminds him greatly of Level Two and how much he longs to escape that realm for good. But at least here there is rocky outcrop every so often to break up the monotony.
When the lagoon appears before them like an oasis in the desert, the steam from its deep blue water rising into the cold atmosphere, Julian can’t help but gasp at its beauty.
The bus disgorges its passengers, and they descend upon the ticket booth like happy locusts, with the exception of Mira who saunters over like a lazy queen bee. She pays the entry fee with a deep sigh and they collect their electronic bracelets and head toward the café. Mira chooses a table next to the plate-glass windows that overlook the water.
“I’m going for a swim,” Julian declares.
“Don’t get too close to Felicia,” Mira warns needlessly. “We don’t want her to suspect that we’re spying on her.” Much to his chagrin, Felicia is oblivious to his presence. Felicia shouldn’t notice him, of course, but he wishes that she would.
Julian quickly changes into board shorts in the men’s locker room and takes the required shower. He strides across the outside patio and sinks into the gloriously warm water, which is the consistency of salty milk. He paddles out toward the center island and waits for Felicia and Autumn to appear. While he does, he admires his dramatic surroundings: the mountains in the distance, the moss-covered rocks near the lagoon itself. He spots Mira, with her crazy statement hair and her disdainful expression, framed in the window of the café. He shakes his head. Why the council would ever select her as a spy is beyond him. He would be a much better choice.
Then Felicia walks out in a purple bikini, her arms swinging confidently at her sides. Behind her, Autumn lumbers awkwardly in a blue swimsuit and hugs her arms to her chest. As soon as they get into the water, Felicia splashes Autumn and Autumn splashes her in return. They laugh as if it’s the funniest joke in the world.
They continue to frolic in the lagoon. They take turns caking silica mud on each other’s cheeks and shoulders and then dip into the water to rinse it off. They float side by side on their backs, holding hands. They dance and spin and make faces at each other.
A group of four teenage boys approaches them in the water, jostling each other to get close to Felicia. One of them asks Felicia how she’s enjoying her time in Iceland. Despite being way out of these boys’ league, she smiles kindly at them and animatedly tells them about her day trip to the black-sand beaches of Vik. Autumn remains silent and gains none of the boys’ attention, nor does she seem to expect it. Instead, she looks vaguely irritated by their presence, as if she’d prefer to have Felicia all to herself.
One of the boys, a stocky type with a ruddy complexion, whispers something into Felicia’s ear and touches her neck. If Julian were close enough, he’d slap the boy’s hand away. Felicia merely laughs and passes the boy a camera—the kind built specifically for use underwater. She puts her arm around Autumn, and the two pose for a picture, cheek to cheek.
The stocky boy laughs.
“Ich mach mir den Leckerbissen in Bikini klar. Ihr konnt euch ja um die Hackfresse streiten.”
Felicia’s face clouds over. She must understand German and that the boy staked his claim on her and told the others to fight over “the troll.” She marches through the water and grabs her camera. “Go to hell.”
They look at her in surprise and sheepishly wander away. Felicia’s a feisty one, that much is evident.
Felicia and Autumn stay in the water another hour or so until the sun dips below the western horizon. After he showers and changes clothes, Julian finds them again in the café, a few tables down from where Mira sits, applying bloodred lipstick with the help of a diamond-studded compact. Felicia eats a sandwich while Autumn listlessly pushes salad around on her plate.
“Nice swim?” Mira asks in a tone so haughty that Julian has to smirk. Mira rolls her eyes. “While you were ogling our target, Octavia paid me a visit. I’ve been recalled. The mission parameters have changed.”
“Oh really?” Julian tries to feign disinterest, but Mira looks at him knowingly.
her,” Mira teases him in a singsong voice.
“No, I don’t,” Julian says. But after observing her today, he thinks maybe he could love her. If he ever got the chance to know her. He has to find a way to get that chance.