A Thin Slice of Heaven, Charleigh finds herself straddling two worlds. On one side, she experiences the present: her room at the castle, for example, with all the modern conveniences. On the other side, she is pulled through the veil to witness spirits of people who passed away decades - or centuries - earlier. In Chapter 19, she finds herself descending into the dungeons of the castle, where she encounters malevolent spirits. It is only Sean's sudden appearance that rescues her from their confines.
Afterward, they are atop the castle parapet. In this scene, Charleigh asks why the people remain in the dungeon long after they are dead. The text in bold has been bolded for the purpose of this discussion (and does not appear in bold in the book):
“What’s happening, Sean?” she asked, resting one hand against his forearm. Her voice was quiet, subdued by her experience. “I’ve never seen ghosts before—never even come close to seeing one. And then I come here and I—I just don’t understand this warped sense of reality.”
He leaned his head close to her ear. “I will try my best to explain it to you.”
She turned in his embrace and wrapped her arms about his neck. Between Ultana, the bizarre spiritual reenactment of a massacre and counter assault, the men assigned to guard her room, and now the dungeons, she wanted desperately to escape the castle. The only thing that held her there, that made her feel as if all the experiences were somehow, in some inexplicable way, worth it, was looking into Sean’s eyes. “Please do explain, Sean. Make me understand.”
He gazed at her for a long moment, his eyes a beautiful shade of green in the light of the moon. He no longer appeared angry or frustrated but calmness had returned; a serenity she wished she felt as well.
He smoothed her hair, his eyes following the silky, short strands. “In the most ideal of circumstances,” he began, “a soul knows when they are departing this world, even if the human psyche does not. Take old age, for example, or a long, debilitating illness. The soul begins to prepare for the afterlife and as the time draws near, the person begins to slip in and out of the two realms…”
“You mean in and out of consciousness?”
“Not quite. You see, the soul begins to see through to the other side. Perhaps they see people they loved who had passed on before them. They waver back and forth betweenst the living humans here and the spirits there. It is the natural progression of things so when they pass, their soul is not in shock.”
His hands had moved to her upper arms and he stroked them lightly as he spoke. The air should have been cold and her sweater inadequate but she found herself completely warmed by his energy, as she had from the very beginning. Her throat, which had dangerously constricted in the dungeons, was now open and her breathing had returned to normal, unrestricted by any of the mucus that had developed so quickly. Though she hadn’t taken her allergy medicine, it was as if she had and now she breathed in the Irish air as though it was an antidote to her ailments.
“Then there are other times,” he said, his words slowing as he kept his eyes locked on hers, “when mortal death happens quickly—too quickly for the soul to be fully prepared. So what happens is the soul enters three stages before emerging on the other side.”
“I’ve never heard this before.” She cocked her head and though she truly didn’t want to seem doubtful, she knew from the way he tilted his head back to look at her under veiled lashes that he had picked up on her skepticism.
Despite the tense air between them, he continued softly, “In the first stage, the person does not know he or she is no longer here in physical form. They continue to go through the motions of living. Some of the souls in the dungeon remain in that stage, though it has been centuries for some of them.”
“So the men asking for water or food—” She shook her head as if to rid herself of the memory, though she knew it would never go away. Sean was right; she should never have wandered into that dungeon but, regrettably, it was too late now to take back the experience.
“I am sorry, darlin’, but their souls have not yet processed that they are no longer trapped.”
The image of him after the Christmas counter assault loomed in front of her; the soot, the grime, the odor of battle. Then she thought of the man with pustules covering his skin and of the others, emaciated and starving. “Are the conditions of their souls keeping them the way they appeared to me? I mean—”
“Aye,” he said. “When their souls finally shake off their mortal stress, they will become whole once again.”
“The light that I saw—it wasn’t a white light, but was it—could it have been—spirits beckoning—?”
He appeared to be in anguish over her question. “No, m’ Leah. The light was attempting to trap you in the dungeons.”
“Because there is evil on all planes and the dungeons are no exception.”
“Then can’t we free the prisoners—the good ones?”
One hand found her cheek and he cupped it against his palm. She leaned into it, closing her eyes. As the silence continued, she opened them to find him watching her. There was sadness in his eyes. “It is not for us to do.” He took a deep breath. “There are others, far stronger than either of us, who will venture into the dungeons and help each soul move on. It will happen one soul at a time, when each of their times has come.”
“Aye,” he said, a gentle smile creeping across his face. He brushed a lock of hair from her forehead. “Angels.”
“Then that’s the second stage?”
He gazed above her head for a moment as if looking at the landscape and the skies beyond the castle. “The second stage,” he said after a deep, cleansing breath, “is moving back and forth between the realms. A prisoner in the dungeon, for example, will begin to see family members—people they love—in the cell with them. At first, they will not believe their eyes. They will not accept them. But their loved ones will continue to return until they are ready to let go.”
He pulled her slightly away to kiss her on the tip of her nose. “It cannot be you or I trying to convince them to move on,” he said tenderly. “It must be someone they trust, someone they loved in that lifetime—or another.”
“Don’t tell me we’ve lived multiple lifetimes.”
“I daresay that is a conversation for another time.”
She drew a hand to his cheek and softly brushed the skin. Her eyes followed his jaw line, the soft curve of his lips as he smiled, the faint crinkle along the side of his nose, and his eyes. She hoped she would never forget his face.
“And then the third stage,” he added, “is acceptance.”
His words brought her back to the subject. “Realizing they’re dead.”
“There is no death,” he admonished kindly. “Just transitions.”
“But, what you’re saying…” She stopped. She had been about to say that she’d been taught about Heaven and Hell but looking into the eyes of a spirit, she knew that everything she’d believed about the afterlife had been turned on its head.“Every soul is different,” Sean continued. “Some may see angels; some may sense God. Some may be greeted by mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers… Others by someone they loved; someone who loved them. No matter what a person’s life was like, there is always someone they loved and someone who loved them.”
More than a decade ago, I was with a dear friend as she suffered the final stages of a fatal illness. She was in a hospice facility and as I sat by her side, I noticed when she awakened, she often looked beyond my shoulder. Many a time I turned around, only to find no one there. Yet she continued to look in that direction as if she was watching someone.
When I asked her about it, she said her sister was right there. She was amazed that I couldn't see her. Her sister, however, had passed away several years earlier.
When I spoke to the hospice staff about it, they said it often happens with people who are nearing death. They begin to see people they knew, loved and trusted from their lifetime - people who were no longer alive. Each of the hospice workers had come to the conclusion that these spirits were there to help the person transition to the other side of the veil.
It made perfect sense to me. After all, who better to help a person to the other side than someone who had gone on before them - someone they loved, someone they knew, and someone they trusted?
Spoiler Alert: If you have not yet read A Thin Slice of Heaven, stop here.
As Charleigh is speaking with Sean, she does not yet realize that she is already dead. She is, in fact, suffering the same fate as those in the dungeon. Her death happened quickly within hours of arriving at the castle. It is because she died and went through the veil that she is able to see and experience Sean and the other spirits. She is in the first stage - not knowing she is dead.
Sean knows this and he also knows that she must progress through the second and third stages before she fully understands and accepts her own fate.
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