This is a story loosely inspired by a writing prompt that I will leave in the comments.
As usual, feel free to critique. Your comments always help me to improve.
Carly paid no attention to the textbook she was paging through as she waited for her apprenticeship mentor to arrive. She was late, Annabel was always late. Carly shivered in the waiting room of the Human Resources Department and rubbed the goosebumps on her arms. This place always gave her the creeps. HR was brightly coloured and overly cheerful, much like everything in the afterlife. Even the receptionist was a special blend of caffeine and Disneyland, the motivational posters on every wall suggesting you ‘have your best day’, didn’t help.
Carly’s hair wafted around her face as the air in the waiting room shifted around her. She looked up just as Annabel made her entrance.
“Hey, how’s my favourite student?” She said, tendrils of mist rising from her body and twisting away into the room.
“Christ, I wish you’d use the door, it makes me jump every time you apparate in.”
Annabel shrugged and fell into the chair opposite, removing a folder from the bag on her arm.
“Are you ready for your final assessment today?”
“As ready as I can be since you haven’t told me what the assessment is about.” Carly said, throwing her textbook on the seat next to her.
Annabel’s giggle chinked off the windows. “When do I ever tell you? Where would be the fun in that?”
Carly rolled her eyes. “Please don’t joke, you know what happens if I fail this assessment.”
“Of course I do. You fail, you can’t join the Human Conservation League, you can’t become a Guardian, subsequently, you are considered useless as a resource for humans and are thrown into the fiery pits of Hell.” Annabel said, flashing her perfectly straight, white teeth at Carly.
“Great, thank you for the reminder.” She said, sarcasm lacing her words. If she hadn’t come to like the annoying little pixie, Annabel’s levity might have angered her. So far, she had scored top marks in every one of her assignments and was doing well at something for the first time ever, she wasn’t going to question her methods now.
Annabel sprang from her seat. “Shall we go and visit Claude then?” She asked, her eyes glistening with excitement.
Annabel and Carly apparatted into Claude’s now familiar living room where he was sat reading an oversized broadsheet paper. Two of his Guardians, Jacob and Tom, played cards at his feet. Tom sat up straight, throwing his cards into the centre as they appeared.
“Is my shift over already?”
“You’re hardly three hours into it Tom.” Said Annabel. “You don’t clock off until lunchtime.”
Tom huffed and collected his discarded hand. “Did you peek at these?” He said to a stony faced Jacob who sat opposite.
Jacob looked and dressed like he had lived in the nineteenth century. His manners were impeccable to the point of being ridiculous and he held himself with a certain air that Carly found intimidating, especially since he had a tendency to silence. It’s considered impolite to ask about someone’s death, so she had never asked him about his life either. She imagined him puffing a pipe, embroiled in Sherlock Holmes style mysteries and nodding a lot.
Tom was the opposite, a scruffy, bearded man with the look of a redneck Santa Clause. He was irritatingly loud compared to Jacob’s restrained Britishness but they seemed to compliment each other perfectly as a team of Guardians. They never left Claude’s side, they wouldn’t, even if they had been allowed to.
“Everything been alright here?” Annabel asked.
“Fine, nothing happening except Sunday morning papers.” Tom said, pointing a thumb at Claude over his shoulder. “I should imagine we’ll be like this for a couple of hours yet. Everything ok at HQ?” He asked, always keen to hear of any misdemeanours.
“Well,” Said Annabel, equally keen to share her news as she leaned in conspiratorially. “You know Hilary Banks, old man Banner’s Guardian don’t you?” Tom nodded with wide-eyed interest. “She’s been given her final warning today, apparently, she let him fall asleep at the wheel again and he hit a tree.”
Tom clapped his hands, laughing heartily. “I’ve always hated Hilary, the old crow, I hope she gets sent below next time. She shouldn’t be allowed to take care of the elderly, do you remember when she lost Mrs Bird?” He looked at Carly. “The old girl had dementia and was always walking out of her home and turning up miles away in her socks. The last time she wandered off they never did find her, she just vanished into thin air. Hillary Banks couldn’t care less, was always leaving the poor girl alone. She was supposed to keep her safe in her own little world where she was happy.” He said, shaking his head. “Blamed everyone else of course when she turned up here, on the other side, dazed and confused. Hell couldn’t happen to a nicer person in my opinion.”
“I know, good isn’t it?” Annabel said, jumping up and down, clapping her hands.
“I can’t stand people who don’t take their job seriously.” Tom said. “Why apply if you don’t want to help the living?”
Carly looked on, chewing her nails and willing her nerves to settle. “Am I allowed to know what the assessment is yet?” She blurted, unable to wait any longer.
Annabel looked around, put her mentor face on and cleared her throat. “Yes, of course. Let’s get on with it. Right, here we are.” She said, holding the folder open. “Candidates are required to demonstrate the correct procedures to adopt should their human charge become aware of them. The candidate must simulate a situation where the human becomes cognitive of them and follow procedures to remedy this.” She closed the folder and looked at Carly.
Carly thought about this for a minute, mulling the meaning of the assessment over. “So basically, I have to mess with Claude’s head so he suspects I’m here and then manipulate him so that he either doubts his sanity or forgets all about it?”
“In a nutshell, yes.” Beamed Annabel. “You’ve got it in one.”
“Did you two have to do this?” Carly asked, looking between Tom and Jacob, her voice shaking.
“Yes ma’am.” They said in unison.
Annabel dropped the folder back into her bag. “So, as usual, Claude is your study aid. He’s served you well so far so treat him nicely please.” Holding Carly by the shoulders she turned her towards the newspaper wielding legs on the settee and pushed her forwards.
Carly stared at Claude over his paper. She had grown attached to this human, she’d been with him for a year now and watched as his Guardians moulded the path he took. They rarely interfered with his decisions, Claude was a good egg and they merely tipped the scales in his favour occasionally. Carly was lucky to have been assigned this human as her training subject, you didn’t always get such a good one to practice on, or such dedicated Guardians to learn from. She had heard the tales of Guardians who went mad with boredom and messed with their human’s lives for fun; causing arguments with their partners, piling on the pressure at work and whispering in the human’s ears until they snapped. She also knew what happened to them when HR found out.
Carly was reluctant to mess with Claude’s head, ignoring the fact that she would be breaking the code of conduct, it seemed immoral somehow, like she would be betraying him. She was part of the team that looked over him, kept him safe.
“Doesn’t this go against everything I’ve been taught up until now?” Carly asked. “It’s been drummed into me that I must be invisible, never do anything to alert the humans to my presence and here you are asking me to do the exact opposite. Is this a test to see if I’ll go through with it?”
“Trust you to suspect that Carly.” Tom laughed. “It’s not an obedience test, this is the one time you’ll ever get permission to play ghost pranks on your human. Make the most of it.”
“No pointers please Tom.” Snapped Annabel. “She has to do this alone.”
Carly looked back at Claude while she considered what to do. She had been shown how to move objects in the human world many times, this trick was necessary to keep these clumsy humans safe. It had taken weeks of practice to be able to transfer her core essence to her hands so she could physically touch something. She’d made so much progress since then and it felt like the right time to practice her skill. She willed her essence to pool in her palm and then reached her fingers out towards Claude’s paper, gently tugging it down as he read. Claude snapped the paper back to it’s original position, not noticing her effort to distract him. Carly flicked the paper on the front cover to get his attention. Claude partially closed the paper to look behind it, shaking it back into place again, frowning. Carly then flicked the back page of the paper and Claude again looked around, leaning forward to look at the floor and then up to the ceiling as if searching for something fallen. She could feel the unease pulsing from him and she struck the paper again and again, desperately sorry for the anguish that was now plain on his face. His shaking hands folded the paper and placed it on the settee.
“W-who’s there?” He said, looking around wildly.
Carly swept the paper from the settee and Claude jumped up, fixating on the crumpled broadsheet as he backed away towards the living room door. Carly leapt over and slammed it shut before Claude could reach it, his high pitched screech tugging at Carly’s humanity. He was panting and looking wildly around the room, stumbling over his own feet as he turned. She dug deep and forced her essence to pulse around her body, awakening her cold limbs and charging a glow that humans could see. She felt alive again and a wave of sadness washed over her for the short human life she lost. She knew the instant she became visible as Claude backed up to the wall and slowly slid down, holding fistfuls of hair. She pulled her essence back in and rushed over to him, shuddering and curling up like a baby. She placed her hands on his temples and closed her eyes, forcing her will onto his. Steadily the shaking slowed and his breathing returned to normal as he fell into a deep sleep. Carly took her hands from Claude’s head and stood dizzily, grabbing a chair for support.
Applause greeted her as she turned to look at the three Guardians, Annabel leapt over and threw her arms around Carly’s neck, squeezing tightly.
“Well done Carly, I knew you could do it.”
“Not bad at all.” Said Tom reaching out and shaking her hand.
“Yes, quite a good result I’d say.” Said Jacob, bowing slightly.
Carly glanced down at Claude. “I hope he doesn’t remember any of that when he wakes up.”
“He won’t, and we’ll remove any memory of him waking up on the floor too.” Annabel reassured, her darkened eyes reflecting Carly’s guilt.
“If we’re done, do you mind if I go back to the other side? I’m knackered.”
“Of course not, you pop back and I’ll come and find you tomorrow for your first day as an official Guardian. Well done Carly, you did great.”
Relieved, Carly took one last look at Claude, closed her eyes and disappeared from the room.
The stillness in the Claude’s living room was deafening for a few short moments after Carly had left.
“Right Claude, she’s gone. You can get up now.” Said Tom. “I think that was the best one yet. Maybe we could arrange an Oscar for you.”
Claude sat up on the floor and rubbed his temples. “I think we underestimated her abilities, she’s given me quite a hangover.”
Annabel walked over to Claude, placed her hand on his forehead and closed her eyes. “That better?”
“Much, thanks.” He said rising to his feet and stretching. “I’m glad it’s over though, It’s so hard pretending that I can’t see you guys. You’re going to have to stop cracking jokes I’m not allowed to laugh at, it’s not fair.”
“It’s fun to watch you try and keep a straight face though.” Said Tom, elbowing Jacob. “Isn’t it?” Jacob grunted a response that could have meant anything.
“Thanks, can we get back to normal now or are there any more special apprentices I should know about?”
Annabel closed her folder and tucked it under her arm. “Not that I’m aware of, if we need anyone else to pass with flying colours we’ll let you know. This one was a special favour to the Head of HR, her great great great niece apparently, she didn’t fancy explaining to her relatives why she was thrown into the fiery pits of Hell. I can’t say I blame her.”
Claude dropped onto the settee, crossed his ankle over his knee and stretched his arms over the back. “Ok, well, don’t forget that my fee is now payable.”
“I hadn’t forgotten Claude, one month of extra luck coming up, as usual.”