“Guardian” by Jenna Kauffman

   Brightness flashed behind my eyelids. As I slowly opened my eyes, the light only got brighter. My scream went unheard as a car rushed towards me. I shut my eyes again tightly, still screaming as there was a “whoosh.” I slowly opened my eyes again only for there to be…nothing.

   I looked around me. The distant sound of cars passing underneath me let me know I was on a bridge. I was alone.

   I didn’t know how I had gotten there, or even why for that matter. The only thing I could make myself do was analyze my surroundings. I had no idea what time it was, but it was dark out so it had to be late. And another thing that I noticed right away was that it was cold. Extremely cold.

   I stood up, looking over the ledge of the bridge. The traffic was slow, only one or two cars passing every five minutes, if that. I waved my arms at the on-coming cars but none of them seemed to notice me. I was still trying to grasp exactly where I was.

   “Hey!” I shouted as loud as I could through the gate on the bridge as another car passed beneath. But they drove on, not having the slightest inkling I was even there. I sighed.

   “There’s no point,” a voice said suddenly next to me. I jumped and turned my head to see a guy now here with me.

   “Where did you come from?” I asked. “Do you know why I’m here?”

   “I woke up just over there,” he said, pointing. I looked to where he pointed and noticed the end of the bridge where it dipped down onto its own road. “And you’re here because… well, look.”

   He then started to walk further down the bridge, toward where he claimed to have awakened. Just before the bridge ended, he stopped and pointed down. It was where the underbrush was, I assumed, but it was too dark to see anything.

   It took me a moment, but finally my eyes adjusted. And once they did, I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I slowly backed away from the edge of the bridge. The guy noticed this then looked behind me.

   “Hey, you better…”

   He didn’t get to finish his thought as I heard the whir of wheels behind me. I quickly turned around to see a car coming right at me, but I couldn’t react fast enough. As it got closer all I had a chance to do was put my arms up before suddenly feeling a gust of wind. The next thing I knew, the car was just continuing down the road, having no signs of hitting anything. It was then that I realized that it went right through me.

   “I… wait, what’s going on?” I asked the guy, beginning to freak out. It was then that I thought about what I had seen in the underbrush. “What was that? That couldn’t have been me down there, if I’m right here. How did that car go through me? Oh my God, am I…. am I dead?”

   He frowned a little at this, and my eyes widened. He was quick to speak once noticing my reaction. “Not exactly.”

   “Not exactly,” I repeated, deadpan. “Then what’s going on? Why can’t anyone see me, and how did that car go through me? And why did I just look down at my own body?”

   He didn’t answer any of this. Instead, he started to make his way off the bridge and down the slope of the hill towards the underbrush. I furrowed my eyebrows.

   “What are you doing?” I asked, and even though I didn’t know, I chose to follow him anyway. He was my only hope of understanding any of this.

   “Showing you,” he stated. “I suppose we could have just jumped off the bridge. It would have been quicker, plus it’s not like we can get hurt anyway.”

   “So why didn’t we?” I asked. He shrugged.

   “I figure you’re already freaked out enough. Plus, you probably still think you can get hurt even though you just had a car pass through you with no more than a gust of wind being evidence that it did. Correct me if I’m wrong.”

   I didn’t say anything, mainly because he had a point. But in my defense, I still didn’t realize what was going on.

   As soon as we got to my body, however, I had more of an insight as to what was happening.

   “I knew it. I’m dead,” I said, looking at my slumped form. My body was either covered in bruises or dirt—I couldn’t tell which. I had a feeling it was both.

   “No you’re not,” he said, not accepting my statement. I raised my eyebrows at him.

   “Then what? Will you please tell me what the hell is going on?” I asked, getting frustrated now. I wanted to cry. This was just too much at once. Why couldn’t I remember anything?

   “You’re in a coma,” he clarified. “You’re still technically alive, but… your soul has left your body. Considering that those guys nearly beat you to death, it’s not surprising. But it could be worse.”

   “How?” I asked, but he didn’t answer this question either. All he did was sigh. “Okay, look, there has to be some way we can get help. I don’t want to die. While I may not know how I got here, I at least know that much. Isn’t there something we can do?”

   He mumbled something, but I couldn’t catch what he said. It took him a moment before he spoke coherently.

   “Help is probably on the way. You’ve been missing for three days now. And you had a cell phone, so…”

   “Wait, how do you know all of this?” I asked. Then I thought of another question. “Do I know you?”

   “Personally, no,” he said. “But…”

   Suddenly, I remembered something else he just said and interrupted him. “Hey, wait. Did you say I have a cell phone? I can call 911! Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”

   “Wait, I don’t know if you can,” he started, but again, I didn’t wait for him to finish. I got closer to my body and started to dig into the pocket of the jeans I was wearing. After searching three pockets, I began to lose hope when all I had found was a stick of gum and a scrap piece of paper but upon searching through the fourth pocket I found it. A cell phone.

   I quickly looked at it, noticing it was still on and still had some battery left. I quickly punched in the three numbers that everyone in America knew by heart. I then held the phone up to my ear and waited.

   The guy’s eyes widened and you could tell this clearly came as a shock to him. I sighed in relief once a person came on, asking about the emergency.

   “Hello, this is…” I trailed off, suddenly realizing I couldn’t even remember my own name. “Look, we need help! There’s a body on the side of the highway in critical condition and we need an ambulance right away! Please, I don’t know where I am but it’s on the side of a highway somewhere…” I trailed off, looking around for some type of sign before spotting one. “Highway 52! We’re on Highway 52 and we need help!”

   This is the time where I should say that the person on the line heard me and responded with a “Help is on the way!”

   But sadly, that didn’t end up happening. Instead, all I heard was the person asking what my emergency was again. And again, and again, and again. Then they said “Hello?” a final time and when they got no response, they hung up the phone.

   “Wait, what? No! No! We need help! Please!” I was screaming out everything I could, hoping they were still there. But soon enough, I heard the beeping on the line to tell me that they were officially gone. Soon after that, the phone went off. The battery died.

   I gasped, pulling it away from my ear in shock. The guy was still looking at me, but now his expression changed from surprise to sympathy. I didn’t make eye contact.

   “This can’t be happening!” I exclaimed, throwing the phone to the ground. I slowly got off of my knees and lay down on the ground, feeling hopeless. “This can’t be happening.”

   “They couldn’t hear you,” the guy stated, breaking his silence only to point out the obvious. “I have no idea how you were able to pick up and dial the phone, but this is for sure—people can’t hear ghosts.”

   “So I am dead then?” I asked, repeating the eternal question. He shook his head.

   “Still in a coma,” he said. “If help doesn’t come soon, though, you will be.”

   That sentence is what broke me down. That’s when I started to cry.

   Or, well, I guess I should say tried to but then soon realized that I couldn’t. The guy soon informed me that we weren’t able to cry real tears.

   “I don’t understand,” I said. “I didn’t deserve this. No one deserves this. Even the most horrible person in the world doesn’t deserve this. I want to go home. I don’t know where that is, but I want to go home.”

   The guy sighed, sitting down next to me, and held out his hand. “Well, at least you’re not alone.”

   I looked at him, only to find him looking down at the ground. When he looked back up, it wasn’t at me but instead at my dying body. “If there was something I could do to get help or bring you back, I would. If anything, though, you have more power to do that than I do.”

   “What do you mean?” I asked, sitting up. When he stayed silent, I sighed, “Okay, look…I’ve realized you’re not big with answering questions, but can I at least ask you a simple one? One that you should know since you know more about what’s going on than me?” When he nodded, I asked, “What’s your name?”

   He finally looked at me then, not at my body but actually at me, before answering. “Nick.”

   “Nick,” I repeated. “Well, Nick, even though I have a feeling we already met, it’s nice to meet you. I’m…” I trailed off. I still couldn’t remember my name.

   “You’re Ashley,” he said for me. I raised my eyebrows at him but he just shrugged. “We have met before. But look, while I can’t tell you everything now, you’ll find out soon. But now is the time that I have to say goodbye.”

   “What? Why?” I asked. That’s when I first heard the sirens. They were very low, meaning they were still a good distance from here, but I could still hear them. “Wait, is that…”

   “Yeah,” he said, standing up then holding a hand out for me to do so as well. “There’s the help you called for. I’m guessing the person who answered tracked your call and well, they’ve found your location.”

   “But wait…this is good, isn’t it?” I asked, smiling even though I could tell something was wrong. “They’re going to help us, Nick! Help is on the way!”

   “Yeah,” he agreed. “They’re going to help you though Ashley. Not me.”

   “Why not?” It was then that I realized something. “Where’s your body, Nick?”

   He gave a small smile. “They’ll find it, don’t worry. Look, they’re almost here, so…everything will be explained fully to you soon.”

   “Wait. Nick,” I said as he started to walk away. He turned back to me. “Will you be the one to explain it to me?”

   I could tell he didn’t want to answer, but he gave me a small smile anyway. “Maybe.”

   I closed the distance that he had made between us and gave him a hug before kissing him on the cheek. “I’ll see you on the other side.”

   He didn’t say anything to this and instead surprised me by giving me a tender kiss on the lips. I smiled once we both pulled away before watching him walk away. He walked back up toward the bridge where we had both came from.

   I saw him give me one last smile before everything went black.

***

   Beep. Beep. Beep. That’s all I heard as I opened my eyes—the same continual round of beeping. I was almost as clueless as I had been upon waking up on the bridge. But this time, I knew a little more, like my name…and Nick. And I knew for a fact that the woman sitting to the left of me happened to be my mother.

   “Mom,” I whispered as soon as I came to. She had been looking out the window, a distant look in her eyes. But once I spoke, she immediately looked at me and started to tear up.

   “Oh, thank God,” she said, standing up from the chair she was sitting in to lean over and hug me. I started crying too, her sadness getting to me. “Thank God you’re alright. I was so scared that you weren’t going to wake up.”

   “What happened?” I asked once she pulled away from me and sat down again. She grabbed my hand to let me know she was there with me and looked into my eyes.

   “You were kidnapped,” she started. “You went with your friends to the mall and went off by yourself to go into your favorite store, and you never returned to them. They called your father and told us what had happened. They knew something was wrong because you hadn’t tried to call them to let them know where you were. When they checked, your car was still in the mall parking lot. They called the mall security and couldn’t find you anywhere in the mall. Turned out a group of men had kidnapped you for ransom but when your father had someone take it to them, they were there without you. And when we asked them where you were, they said they…t-they dumped you on the side of the r-road somewhere…”

   I could tell that it was getting hard for her to go on, so I told her she could stop. I could figure things out from there.

   “We looked for you everywhere, had a search team come and help, but no luck. Then, we got a tip that someone called 911 from your cell phone but didn’t say anything. When they tracked the call, they found the location of your phone and when the police got there they found you as well.”

   “Oh Mom,” I said, leaning up to give her a hug but realized I couldn’t because it hurt too much. She shook her head at my actions.

   “Don’t strain yourself,” she said. “You have a few broken ribs and apparently sprained your ankle. Along with having a few cuts and bruises.”

   I nodded, knowing not to test her. A few moments after she finished explaining things to me, a doctor walked in.

   “Ashley. It’s good to see you that you’re awake,” he said. “You put us all in a scare. You were in a coma for around a week.”

   “A week?” I asked, not believing this. It seemed as if I woke up not too long after I had spoken with Nick. But the doctor nodded.

   “Yes. Can you tell me what month it is?” he asked. I thought about it for a moment before I remembered.

   “It’s… June,” I said, not really sure about the answer. But I soon realized I was correct when he nodded.

   “Yes, that’s correct. Now, are there any questions you have for me? I’m sure your mother filled you in with what happened. But after having a few tests done we noticed you had a concussion and some head trauma. Is there anything you need help remembering?” he looked up at me then, a serious look on his face. I looked down at my hands which were lying on my lap in front of me.

   “I… I think I’ll remember things after a little while,” I said. “I mean, I recognized my mother and since she’s told me what happened, it’s slowly coming back to me. But…I can’t really remember what happened when I was kidnapped.”

   I decided to refrain from telling them I was somehow outside of my body during my coma because the last thing I wanted them to think was that I needed attention from the psych ward.

   “That’s completely normal. When someone goes through a traumatic event like you have, the brain goes through a mechanism to keep the person from remembering it,” the doctor explained. “You may remember it as time goes on, though, if you allow yourself to. But Ashley, I must ask you one serious question. Do you remember anyone else being kidnapped with you?”

   I was hesitant with answering this question. “No… why?”

   The doctor then walked over to my bedside.

   “Does this boy look familiar to you at all?” he asked, taking out a picture. Once I looked at the picture, my eyes immediately began to water.

   “Ashley, what’s wrong?” my mother asked me after a few moments of silence. I shook my head. “Have you seen him before?”

   “No…” I croaked out, pushing the picture of Nick away from me. He couldn’t be. He just couldn’t.

   Nick couldn’t be dead.

   “The police found him some distance away from you,” the doctor said. “Near the bridge above the highway.”

   “They think he was taken as well, honey,” my mom said, clearly knowing more about the situation than I did. “Was he?”

   “I…” I started, but then thought back to what Nick had said to me when we were invisible.

   “You’re in a coma,” he clarified. “You’re still technically alive, but…your soul has left your body. Considering that those guys nearly beat you to death, it’s not surprising. But it could be worse.”

   It could be worse. Meaning, I could have been dead.

   And then when he mumbled something afterwards, it had been in response to if there was anything we could do. And there wasn’t—at least not for him, anyway.

   “Wait… how do you know all of this?” I asked. Then I thought of another question, “Do I know you?”

   “Personally, no,” he said. “But…”

   But what? He was probably about to tell me that he had been kidnapped as well, but I didn’t let him finish.

   I quickly looked at it, noticing it was still on and still had some battery left. I quickly punched in the three numbers that everyone in America knew by heart. I then held the phone up to my ear and waited.

   The guy’s eyes widened and you could tell this clearly came as a shock to him. I sighed in relief once a person came on, asking about the emergency.

   It had come as a shock to him because he hadn’t been able to pick up the phone because he was dead. I was still technically alive so I could still touch and handle things.

   “If there was something I could do to get help or bring you back, I would. If anything, though, you have more power to do that than I do.”

   Because I could pick up the phone, I had more power. He didn’t because he was dead.

   “Yeah,” he agreed. “They’re going to help you though Ashley. Not me.”

   “Why not?” It was then that I realized something. “Where’s your body, Nick?”

   He gave a small smile. “They’ll find it, don’t worry. Look, they’re almost here, so…everything will be explained fully to you soon.”

   And that’s why they couldn’t help him. They found his body, like the doctor said, but they couldn’t help him.

   He was already gone. That’s probably what gave him the courage to kiss me.

   Nick was wrong, though, when he said I had more power. Because really, he did. He knew what had happened. He remembered the kidnapping. He remembered me being there with him. He remembered everything.

   “Yeah, I may have helped you remember but you helped me with something too,” I suddenly heard. Coming back to reality, I realized my mother and the doctor had gone out into the hallway to discuss something. Looking to where the voice came from, I spotted Nick sitting on the windowsill in my room.

   “What was that?” I choked out. He frowned at me, clearly not liking my sadness. He stood up and walked over to me, placing his hand on my cheek.

   And then suddenly I had a flashback.

   I was in a dark confined space, and it took the roar of an engine to make me realize I was in the back of a car. Or a van, more like it. Once my eyes adjusted more, I noticed Nick was there with me. And he was crying.

   “Hey,” I said. “It’s going to be okay.”

   “How do you know that?” he asked. I couldn’t really comfort him physically seeing as my hands and feet were tied together, as were his. But I could mentally.

   “Our parents will find us,” I said. “Knowing my dad, he’d give them above and beyond what they’re asking for us just to have me back. The same with my mom. And if your parents really love you, they would do the exact same thing.”

   He didn’t say anything to this, but I knew this meant that he agreed with what I said.

   “Just stay calm,” I said. “We’ll be out of here before you know it.”

   “How do you know?”

   “I just know. But things will get worse before they get easier,” I said. I then looked at him. “Are you prepared for it?” Suddenly, the van stopped. “Because it looks like it’s coming sooner rather than later.”

   “What are we going to do?”

   “I have no idea,” I said honestly. “But I’ll go first, okay? And then while I release my kung fu fighting moves on them, you make a run for it. I’ll be right behind you.”

   That got a small smile out of him.

   “I’m Ashley, by the way.”

   “Nick,” I heard him say just as the van door slid open.

   That’s where the flashback ended. I was then back in the hospital room with Nick still there, looking at me.

   “I was pathetic, I know,” Nick said. “But you were a real comfort to me. You gave me strength when I needed it.”

   “What happened after that?” I asked, not really wanting to know. But I went ahead and asked anyway.

   “Well, you went first, like you said you would,” Nick explained. “But after a few minutes of watching the three people that took us beating you, I couldn’t take it. I somehow escaped from the ropes they tied me up with and jumped on one of them. That distracted them from beating you. You were lucky, though, because their beating got a lot worse with me. And they lasted a lot longer too. After about ten minutes, that’s when the gun shot rang out.”

   “They shot you?” I asked. He nodded.

   “Yeah, but I mean, it was better me than you,” he said. I shook my head.

   “Why would you say that? It’s not fair! Now you’re dead and I’m not. I shouldn’t have lived,” I said. “If you hadn’t jumped on them then you might still be alive.”

   “Hey, hey,” he said, wiping my tears away. I had just now taken realization that he was able to touch me.

   “Wait…how are you doing that?” I asked.

   “I honestly have no idea,” he said. “But I came back to visit you one last time. I had promised you that maybe I would see you, and…I couldn’t let you down.”

   “Where are you going?” I asked. He laughed.

   “Believe it or not, the big guy up there wants me,” he said, pointing up. “But what I want to know is, will you be okay here now?”

   “No,” I said, being honest. “Why would I be? You’re leaving, and you clearly don’t deserve to.”

   “Well, I need you to be Ashley,” he said. “I can’t leave until you say you will be. But believe me when I say I can get awfully annoying after a while. I’ll annoy you in order for you to give the okay if you don’t.”

   I laughed sadly. “I know I hardly even know you, but it feels like I won’t be able to make it here without you.”

   “I’ll always be with you, Ashley,” he said. “Just in spirit. Ironic, huh? You won’t be able to see me, but I’ll be here.”

   “Promise?” I asked. He nodded.

   “Promise,” he said. “Now, will you be okay?”

   I smiled sadly. “I’ll be okay.”

   “Good,” he said, wiping away another tear from my face. “Don’t cry, please?”

   “I can’t make that promise,” I said. “But I said I’ll be okay, alright? Now go. I’m sure He’s expecting you.”

   “He can wait,” he said, leaning down to me. He gave me one final kiss. “I’ll see you, Ashley.” He then walked toward the door, before turning around again, “Actually, I’ll be with you.”

   “I’ll be with you, too, Nick,” I said.

   Like he had done before I had woken up here, he gave me one last smile before leaving the room and my sight for the last time.

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