Surrender to Madness

Submitted into Contest #136 in response to: Write a story where hard work doesn’t pay off.... view prompt

13 comments

Urban Fantasy Sad Speculative

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

She was the last person I expected to see.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’ve been waiting years for this moment, Kate,” Jane said with a gleam in her eye.

A teenager jumped out of the rusted red Chevy, face ashen with his mouth open wide as he held the phone up to his ear. I turned around, bile burning in the back of my throat as my dead body greeted me from the pavement below. It happened so fast: tires screeching on the road behind me, a horn roaring at me to move, and my dog’s whimper mourning me in the last seconds of my mortal life. 

As the ambulance pulled up beside us, Jane stood beside me, her posture perfect, shoulders back, and neck exposed. “I made sure that kid would hit you, you know.”

* * *

The pearl gates opened in front of us, exposing the Spectral City floating above the clouds. Massive homes dotted the landscape of the foothills, streets sparkling in the sun as we walked over bricks made from glass. In the center of the city stood a resplendent tower forged of crystal, a massive monolith built by the archangels themselves.

Jane led me inside a bar, where a cluster of musicians strung at their instruments as drunken patrons stumbled in and out. The air reeked of smoke, mixed with a minor scandal and a touch of desperation as the souls of the departed celebrated their afterlife. My chest tightened as she ordered us drinks. Scotch on the rocks. Her favorite.

“I don’t understand it. Is this heaven?”

She raised her glass, clinking it with mine as she tilted her head back, gulping the amber liquid in one swift motion. “Don’t be silly, Kate. No one calls it that. It’s simply the Spectral City,” my stepmother said, taking the drink she ordered for me and sipping on it.

“There you go, criticizing me again.”

She peered over the rim of her glass, her expression pinched as she cast a sidelong glance in my direction. And just like that, I was a child again. After my mother passed away unexpectedly, my father eventually remarried Jane. Our family more than doubled in an instant, yet even with two younger sisters, my childhood was a lonely one. Isolation befriended me as a constant companion, with regular visits from criticism and insecurity.

“You were always so sensitive. Definitely not something you picked up from your father,” she said, waving her hand at the bartender.

A knot formed in my belly. How had I died so young? Barely thirty-four. Oh, dearest Hadley, how I wish I could say goodbye. Life had a unique sense of humor, first stealing my mother away from me, and now yanking me from you. Doomed to spend an eternity with the woman I loathed more than anyone else in the entire world, I ordered a Victory HopDevil IPA from the bartender.

* * *

The Spectral City in the sky afforded every luxury we desired: sunny days, comfortable twenty-two degree Celsius weather (they banned Fahrenheit in the afterlife), and unlimited Thin Mints Girl Scout cookies. During the first few weeks of my occupancy, I socialized with the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Mother Teresa, and Heath Ledger. The rules of time and space were different, too. One day in the Spectral City was a mere minute on earth. And although long days in an eternal paradise sounded enticing, boredom eventually crept in like an unwanted guest.

Hollywood got one thing right in the movies: the spirits of the dead walked amongst us. They granted angels in the Spectral City unlimited access to visit earth, simply as passive observers. My first visit back was the day of my funeral.

Zachary (not Zach, because he disliked it when people shortened their names) held the umbrella in the air, a shield from the rain above as the sky cried for him. Formerly a fierce stoic, I studied the hard lines on my husband’s face as he grimaced, imprinting them in my mind, hoping he’d find the strength to smile again someday. 

Hadley clutched his hand, tears gently crawling down her face and lingering on her dimpled chin. She stared at the quartzite tombstone, each side decorated with purple roses resting in beds of Lily grass. Only seven years old, now motherless in an unfair world. Would she suffer the same fate, at the mercy of a cruel stepmother and half-sisters that treated her like a black cat on Halloween?

“Daddy?”

Zachary looked down, his stare dull and distant. “Yes, sweetie?”

Hadley bit her lip. “Why did mommy leave us? Does she not love us anymore?”

* * *

Overachievers, listen up: they divided angels into classes. Only the most devoted achieve Archangel status—think Muhammad, Isaac Newton, and Buddha. However, anyone can apply to become a Guardian. It’s like the middle class of the Spectral City.

“Name?” the Secretary angel asked. He wore a full-bottomed peruke (you know, those white wigs with long, tight curls popularized in Europe during the seventeenth century). Careful not to offend George Washington’s long-lost cousin in front of me, I stifled a giggle.

“Kate Blair,” I said, tucking my long brown hair behind my ear as I cleared my throat.

He scribbled on the clipboard, looking up at me periodically behind his round spectacles. “Reason for application?”

During the annual winter solstice party, Paul Walker explained the role of Guardians: angels who walked the earth, using their powers to maintain balance between the forces of good and evil. For every devastating act against humankind, Guardians protected the innocent, healed the sick, and inspired hope in times of darkness. The Secretary granted provisional Guardian status to angels who provided a remotely decent reason to become one.

I inhaled a steadying breath, calming my pulse to speak. “I’d like to watch over my daughter. She’s only seven, without her mother.”

The Secretary inspected me, his eyes wandering up and down as he jotted more notes on his clipboard. He tore a number from the ticket dispenser, handing it to me and motioning to the adjacent waiting area with stainless steel chairs. As I waited for my turn to take the eye exam, Jane stopped in front of me, her hands resting on her hips.

“What in the afterlife are you doing here, Kate?”

Heat flushed through my body as I stood up to face her. “I’m applying to be a Guardian angel.”

She snorted, crossing her arms as she leaned on one leg. She often stood this way when lecturing me as a child. Whether to scold me for chores left unfinished or to punish me for arguing with my stepsisters, I always disappointed her, even now in death. “You’ve got some nerve. Guardian angels do good. You won’t last five minutes.”

As my muscles tensed, I closed the gap between us, the stench of scotch dancing from her lips to my nostrils as she exhaled to challenge me. But I wasn’t a girl living in her house. Not anymore.

“You’re wrong. I’m going to make sure Hadley lives a good life. That she knows how much I love her, even when I’m gone. Something you could never accomplish alive.”

* * *

At first, learning how to channel my Guardian powers excited me. I walked with Hadley every day, saving her life hundreds of times over the years. One summer day while she rode her pink bicycle (you know, the ones with multi-colored streamers on the handles and a bell with a basket), a random car spun out of control nearby; I sent it in the opposite direction to a guardrail. Another time, she swam in the ocean with her friends, finding herself engulfed by the violent waves crashing around her; I sent a friend after her, their hands connecting as Hadley gasped for air. 

Protecting her was the simple part.

As a passive participant in the major milestones of Hadley’s life, the weight of an elephant pushed down on my chest for every missed opportunity: her first “girl flu,” learning how to drive, her high school prom, and graduating from college, just to name a few. It was like window shopping in a mall, admiring the sparkling clothes on mannequins as they invited you to buy them, only to open your empty purse with no money to spend.

However, nothing prepared me for what happened on her special day. 

“Wow. You look incredible.” Zachary stood in the doorway, his mouth slightly open as he looked at his little girl, all grown up. The years treated him well, peppering his black hair with specks of gray, crinkled lines now settling on his handsome face. Oh, how I wished I could have been there to love and to hold him again, even if just for a moment.

Hadley smiled wistfully, looking back at him with a twinkle in her eyes.

Pressure swelled above my nose as Zachary approached her, holding a blue ribbon in his fist. “I have something for you,” he said.

“What is it?” she asked, her hand resting on her heart.

He turned her around to face the mirror, tying the ribbon into soft tresses of hair as she clung to the sides of her white dress. 

“Something borrowed and blue. Your mother wore it on our wedding day. You look just like her.”

Hadley turned to hug her father, tears streaming down her face as she closed her eyes. “I wish she was here.”

Zachary held her head in his hands, wiping her cheeks with his thumbs as he spoke. “She’s with you like you have no idea.”

She turned away from him, her lips pressed into a thin line. “No, she’s not. She left us.” 

My arms trembled as I stood with them, not here but far away, reaching but not quite feeling. “No Hadley, I was taken,” I said, my silent words suspended in the surrounding air.

He rested his hands on her shoulders, squeezing them gently as he looked at her reflection in the mirror. “Have faith.”

A long, inaudible sigh escaped from her lips as she picked up her dress, walking towards the door. “Thanks, daddy. But I don’t even know what that is anymore.”

Zachary rubbed his scruffy chin as she closed the door behind her. He sat on a chair, staring out into the ocean, watching as waves crashed into the sand on the beach. I guided the warm breeze through a cracked window, gently brushing his face, his eyes fixed on the space where I sat beside him.

“Faith is believing in what you can’t see, baby girl.”

* * *

My body ached from the heaviness that pulled on me from every direction. In the years that followed, Hadley spiraled into a darkness unfathomable. Tears locked away for decades finally escaped from their icy prison. Dejected and broken, pills in a bottle became her refuge, a quiet solace from the highs and lows of a shattered, mortal life. Did she have the fortitude to find the light, or would she indulge in a sweet surrender to madness?

Grabbing my wrist, Jane spun me around to face her. “What did you think would happen, Kate? Really.”

The Fountain of Life sprayed holy water into the air, creating a mist that hovered around us. Her jutted chin taunted me, my stomach hollowing out like it did when she chided me as a child. How did we even get here?

“It’s just a divorce, Jane. It’s not like how it was back in your day.”

“You know that’s not what we’re talking about here.”

Jane tightened her grip around my wrist as I pulled away. “What about the jobs she can’t seem to keep? Or the kids she lost custody of? The rent she can’t pay?”

I closed my eyes, clutching my head in between my hands to drown out my stepmother’s words. Feeling small again, my chest strained as the pressure welled in between my eyes. Hadley wasn’t a little girl anymore; she was all grown up. And as hard as I tried to shield her from the dangers of the world, I couldn’t protect her from herself.

My breath hitched when I found Hadley in front of me, lying on the floor in a dark alley. Black mascara marked the tracks of her tears, painting her face in a mask of denial. I knelt beside her, rubbing a hand on her back, wishing I could hold my little girl like I did when she was seven.

“I’m here, Hadley. Everything’s going to be alright.”

Her breath transformed into a dense fog as she sighed. “Show me.”

My heart raced inside my chest. Could she hear me? “What, Hadley? Show you what?”

Empty eyes gazed at the stars in the sky, black holes reflecting the emptiness from beyond. “Show me that heaven’s real. Show me you’re here,” she said with a sob.

I prayed to the angels in the Spectral City as I tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, the same way Zachary used to. It always made me feel better, just knowing someone was there, even if the pain was mine and mine alone. Red and blue lights flashed behind us, my heart heavy as the police pulled her from a puddle of vomit.

* * *

The Secretary stood beside me as the elevator floated upward, ascending higher and higher inside the massive monolith. The quickening beat of my heart kept me company as we stood in silence. In all the years I’d lived here, they forbid angels from entering the Crystal Tower: it was invitation only.

“Can you tell me again why I’m being summoned?” I asked, a bead of sweat hanging from my brow, holding on, afraid of falling.

“Seraph Helena would like to discuss the status of your Guardian application with you.”

“Okay.”

Who was Helena? The angels rarely spoke of the seraphim, celestials of the highest order who lived in the Crystal Tower. What did she want with me? My muscles tensed as I reflected on the last few decades. I shielded Hadley from all the dangers of mortal life on earth. She’d lived past my age, with children of her own. Every other Guardian simply received an envelope, congratulating them on their promotion into the middle class of the afterlife. Had I failed?

When the elevator stopped at the top floor of the tower, the Secretary escorted me into a throne room made of crystalline glass. Leering faces—cruel and harsh—watched me walk by, their blank gazes amidst pallid skin. We strode through two enormous metallic doors into a vast chamber constructed of crystal, upheld by pillars that sparkled with the light shining from a hole above us. 

The cold marble floor stung at my bare feet as I walked towards her. There, lounging on an onyx throne with her legs crossed, was Helena. She wore a blue dress that reminded me of the ocean’s waves, contrasted by long, curly blonde hair tucked underneath a crown made of moon crystals etched with runic symbols. 

“You’ve arrived,” she said.

I cleared my throat to speak. “Are you… God?”

She wrinkled her nose, turning to the Secretary. “Why does everyone always ask me that? What blasphemy do humans learn on earth?”

“Apologies, your grace,” the Secretary said with a bow.

She waved a hand at him. “Leave us.”

The Secretary turned on his heel, bouncing as he exited the room, his white wig slightly crooked. 

A chill traveled down my spine as Helena shifted her icy gaze in my direction. She was a vision of haunting beauty and utter devastation, a dealer of death, dressed like a daydream.

“You are Kate Blair, yes?”

I nodded.

“No reason to be afraid, my child. I’m here to congratulate you.”

A fluttering sensation filled my stomach. “Am I a Guardian, then?” Suddenly, I felt taller, as if I could achieve anything I wanted with hard work and dedication. Perhaps I exceeded expectations, warranting a personal invitation.

She pursed her lips as she stepped down from the dais. “Not exactly.”

“I don’t understand.”

As she sauntered towards me, she opened her hand, revealing motes of magic that glimmered around a glowing envelope. “Here.”

“What is it?”

“Based on your… performance, we’ve promoted you to a Special Ops division, reporting directly to me.”

I tilted my head. “So, I’m not a Guardian?”

A smile spread slowly over her face. “No, you’re a Reaper.”

My chest tightened at the revelation. “Like, the Grim Reaper?”

Helena rolled her eyes as she placed the envelope in my hand. “Don’t be silly, Kate. There’s only one of those.”

“So, what exactly am I supposed to do?”

She chuckled, looking at me with wild eyes that burned like the sun above us. “You collect souls, my darling. Starting with the one you’ve hurt the most.” She pointed at the envelope.

My stomach roiled as uncontrollable flashes of heat crawled underneath my skin. Decades of death transformed into lifetimes of learning as bile collected in my throat, begging to escape. Her name elegantly written in cursive font, she was the last person I expected to see.

.

.

.

Hadley Blair

March 12, 2022 01:26

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13 comments

Shea West
18:41 Mar 17, 2022

J.C. The amount of time I have in a day in relation to the amount of time I need to read all the stories is not the same! So apologies for the delay in which I got here to this one in particular. I really love a dark story and a speculative one at that! I would even argue that there's some satirical elements to this piece with all of the famous folks and what not. (But not so much that it overshadows the entirety of theme.) I have questions: Why did Jane make sure that kid hit her? Who is Jane? Why's she so salty? Why did Kate jump?? (She...

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J.C. Lovero
21:29 Mar 17, 2022

Hi Shea! Oh my goodness, thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. Don't worry - I 100% feel you... there are so many good stories and not enough time to read them all! Jane is Kate's stepmother. Sorry if it wasn't clear in the story. I basically pictured her like Lady Tremaine from Cinderella in my mind. Jane and Kate didn't get along - so basically, Jane was happy to be her Reaper and collect her soul. I don't think Kate jumped... but if that's how you interpreted it, that's great! I think fiction is open to interpretatio...

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Shea West
21:32 Mar 17, 2022

Right, I didn't want you to interpret those questions either but those were my takeaways... I like to spurt them out loud in case any other readers thought them too🤣🤣🤣 Conspiracy theorist, but in the fun way.

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J.C. Lovero
22:14 Mar 17, 2022

Awesome! Thanks again for the feedback.

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Alex Sultan
11:32 Mar 17, 2022

What a great story - a bit sad, and dark, but it all flows so well. Like everyone has said, you nailed the word choice for this piece. I think the world-building on the spectral city is great, too. I really liked the line about the black cat, and I think my favourite part is where they're talking about the grim reaper, and Kate is told: "Don’t be silly, Kate. There’s only one of those.” I'd like to read a part 2 🙂

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J.C. Lovero
21:22 Mar 17, 2022

Hi Alex, Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! I always appreciate your feedback. I'm glad you enjoyed the world-building here, as well as the descriptions! This is definitely one of my darker pieces. As for the grim reaper... don't worry, I don't think we are quite done yet with the lady of death :) Looking forward to reading your next story!

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Clyde Laffan
23:17 Mar 14, 2022

Now, this was dark! I loved it. From the killer intro - which made me do a double-take and I had to reread to the sad and unexpected ending. Best line: "a dealer of death, dressed as a daydream." Just magic.

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J.C. Lovero
23:30 Mar 14, 2022

Thanks Clyde! I appreciate the time you took to read and comment. Helena is actually inspired by Hel from Nordic mythology. Many Google images depict her as a combination of beauty and horror, so I tried to weave that into the description. Glad it worked!

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Riel Rosehill
10:47 Mar 12, 2022

Oh my heart... Firstly: awesome read. Really, so well written (I'm high key jelous of your vocabulary) and a real gut-punch at the end. I'm a sucker for that. Also, I love your take on heaven and the angels - takes me back to my first week here on reedsy! There were so many great lines I am hard pressed to pick a favourite, it is just a beautiful piece of fiction. I loved the description of the Seraph, ending "a dealer of death, dressed like a daydream." (but I could NOT not read it in Taylor Swift's voice - "honey I'm a nightmare, dressed l...

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J.C. Lovero
12:58 Mar 12, 2022

Hello Riel! Thank you so much for taking the time to read my story and comment. I'm always trying to improve my writing and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm really into fantasy so the concepts of angels and heaven is always a favorite for me to explore. And it's not just you - I love Taylor Swift :) Glad that description of the Seraph resonated. Zack is one of my favorite authors on here, so I'm honored you found me because of him. He's got some major talent, something I aspire to model. PS - I had to Google how to say the "girl flu" without...

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Zack Powell
02:53 Mar 12, 2022

Wow, J.C.! First of all: I think this is the strongest piece I've seen from you, language-wise. This was gorgeous. At one point, I had to actually start making a note of all my favorite lines (of which there were many). I don't even know where to start with this one. The hook at the beginning was so crazy that I HAD to keep reading until I got to the end. No stopping, no breaks in between. And the premise of the story. So, so, so good with the characters that you gave it. I think a concept like this could've easily fallen flat with lesser c...

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J.C. Lovero
03:16 Mar 12, 2022

Hi Zack, Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I always enjoy hearing from you each week - we're like Reedsy penpals! I appreciate the compliments. I really enjoyed the character Death from another story and decided to bring her into this one, now giving her a name for this week's protagonist. I'm glad you liked the characters-it was fun for me to spend time with them. As always, I look forward to see what you come up with next week, as well! Loved your story for this week's prompt, by the way. Hit me so hard since it felt s...

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❀Leo Fall❀
17:12 Apr 13, 2022

One, I love the description of Helena. "..a dealer of death, dressed like a daydream.." Woah. That's just, amazing. She sounds super powerful. Two, I feel so bad for Kate. I'm way too young to be responsible for children, however I get attached to people easily. I understand wanting to protect a loved one no matter what it takes, even in death. Three, ouch. She's gonna collect souls, starting with the ones she's hurt, I kinda get that. But realizing that her first to collect is her daughter.... Ack. Four, Blair- that's the name I go by in r...

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