Bad Angel

I received a fan letter a few days ago from parts unknown, the way of the internet.  He’d read Circuit of Heaven and End of Days with pleasure and had scored an old copy of The Fourth World he planned to read next.  “Keep up the good work,” he concluded his kind and much appreciated letter, and I told him about my last published novel, The Bright Spot, published under a pseudonym to trick Barnes & Noble (who mattered in those days) to putanother book of mine on the shelves when I’d proven myself a poor product with paltry sales.

After my fashion, I have kept up the good work, writing several short stories that have found their way into the world and a few novels that haven’t despite the effortsof more than one literary agent to persuade publishers that this time Danvers will sell big enough to justify their blessing, small print run, and lukewarm support.  I’m rather fond of these orphaned efforts, and I’ve never written for the money.  I have enough glowing reviews of my seven novels under my belt to feed any author’s ego for some time to come, and my opinion of capitalism is well known to anyone who’s read my work.

Inspired also by friend and fellow author Tom De Haven‘s serial novel project I highly recommend, King Touey available at his blog Café Pinfold, I’ve decided to publish my favorite of these orphans here on my blog, in six parts for the next six weekends before Christmas.  For easy reading, the program Send to Kindle will translate it and send it to a Kindle reader on computer or phone or whatever for free, or you can read it off the blog.

So here it is, just in time for the holiday season, a gift to my readers, no strings or price attached, though comments are always appreciated, a new novel, Bad Angels.  It’s an urban fantasy, a comic romance, one from the heart.  Thanks for reading.

 

Chapter 1:  Look at Me

 

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Bird thou never wert—

Percy Bysshe Shelley, from “To a Sky-Lark”

 

Wings.  You might think they sound wonderful.  But this human town isn’t made for wings.  Not if you’re trying to go unnoticed like Shannon.  She’s fallen, rebel, outcast, whatever term suits.  Angel.  Don’t get too excited.  It’s not that great.

She’s been looking for a lone drunk for an hour, but people seem to be actually taking this designated driver thing seriously.  Nobody’s cut off from the herd.  Nobody’s in that sweet suggestible zone, putty in her hands.  Putty enough to get her out of here.

She saw the twinkling in the eastern sky, now just turning a dusty rose.  They’re on her trail.  Why can’t they give it up, let the world turn, let humans keep screwing up like they do best, mucking along?  No.  They’re angels.  They know best, or think they do.  And they want her back where they think she belongs so they can explain to her how she doesn’t fit in.  They’re afraid she’ll damage them, the humans, but Shannon likes humans.  As a matter of fact, she likes them a Hell of a lot better than most angels.

Her wings are killing her, ace-bandaged, inside a hollowed-out backpack.  She’d love to slip out of this elastic death grip and leap into the sky, wheel herself right out of this urban river valley, like a cartwheel in the sky, but that’s what they’re waiting for, circling high, watching for her dust.  She needs a human to get her out of this mess.  No damage, she promises.  Just an interesting experience.  Memorable.  Then totally forgotten.  She always feels bad about that part, but it’s for the best.

She reminds herself it was her miscalculation with a human that got her into her current situation.  She knew she should really be moving on.  She knew her pursuers would soon be onto her, but she’d hoped to persuade Bradley—a bold individualist who insisted on both syllables to separate him from the herd of mere Brads—to travel with her, maybe meet up somewhere in the mountains.  He was so stuck in his nowhere life, she thought it might do him good.  He was good company, and wouldn’t it be nice to have someone she could really talk to?  That meant leveling with him, but then it took her all night to work up her nerve, to talk herself into thinking he wouldn’t totally freak when her little secret was revealed.  “Trust me,” he kept saying.  Right.  She unfurled her beauties.  He thought he was just going to see tits.

“What the fuck are those?” he said, not a promising first impression.  They usually dazzle or they don’t.

“Wings.  Wanna touch?”

He leapt out the window.  She still can’t believe it.  All night working up to it, and he jumps out the window, and she’s the one with wings.  It was only the second floor, his garage apartment behind his parents’ house, but he must’ve twisted his ankle.  He hobbled down the cobblestone alley, lurching into trashcans like Frankenstein’s creature, scared of a girl.  Warn the villagers!  She started to follow, swoop down and have a little conversation with Mr. Trust Me ending with forget me, when she saw the telltale twinkling, trussed herself up, and hit the streets.  Too late she realizes she’s forgotten to make him forget, but she can’t worry about that.  How can it hurt the man to see a little wing?  A few centuries ago, and he’d be falling to the ground and praying.  She hates that.  One of many reasons she prefers to hang in the 21st.  She walks into the wind.  The all-night bars are closing.

Drunks work best.  You can get them to do anything and forget it all after without too much bother.  Sometimes when you can’t remember what you did drinking, it’s because you were hijacked by an angel for a bit of business or mischief.  What were you thinking?  Maybe you had help.  You’ll never know.  What kind of uptight town is this she can’t find one lone vulnerable drunk on a Sunday dawn?

Then, like the chimes of freedom she hears it—the sound of keys hitting pavement, a mumbly “Aw fuck!”  Male.  Young.  Perfect.  She sniffs the air.  He had the vegetarian lasagne and lots of chianti.  Two, three blocks north.  He’s still looking for his keys on all fours when she finds him.  He’s not even close.  She picks them up.

“Looking for these?”

He looks up at her bleary-eyed.  He really shouldn’t be driving.  Too bad.  She’ll help.  “You’re so beautiful,” he says.

“Yeah.  Thanks.  I get that a lot from your demographic.  Look.  Could you give me a ride, seeing as how I found your keys for you?  I’m Shannon.”  She smiles, bending his will a little.  It doesn’t take much.

“Sure, I guess so.”  He’s on his feet now, swaying like a palm in the breeze.  He’s maybe thirty, a little taller than her five-nine.  Cute in an alt-veg-artgeek sort of way.  Lean and fit.  Maybe he runs when he’s not drunk.  Standing is his current athletic challenge.  “I’m George Stewart.”

“Pleased to meet you, George.”  They’re next to a small park.  Tall trees loom in the gloomy gray light.  There’s a statue of a standing soldier standing in for all the dead in some stupid human misunderstanding.  His back looks a bit lumpy, perhaps winged.  She searches the treetops. “We should really get going.”

“I’m not so sure I should be driving.”  He slurs this sufficiently to leave no doubt.

“This your car?”

He bobs his head in the affirmative, throwing him a little off balance.  She steadies him,  puts the keys in his hand, his thumb on the unlock, points and squeezes.  He wants her to.  The car winks at them.  It’s an old black Civic, looks like a slightly rusty crow.  It’s a four-door.  The rear passenger door is red.  The backseat’s piled high with stuff.  She hangs onto his hand and lends him a little clarity, a little more, a little more…  That ought to do it.  Don’t want him becoming obsessed.

“You’re doing fine, George.  C’mon this’ll be fun.  Here you go.  Behind the wheel.”  She maneuvers him in, fastens his seatbelt, and goes around.

He’s adjusting to being more or less lucid again.  He’s looking around, noticing things.  “Don’t you want to put your backpack in the trunk?  You don’t look very comfortable.  Or I can make room in the back.”

Doubtful.  The shadowy shapes in the back are arranged precisely with no wasted space. “How sweet.  I’m fine, George.  Let’s go.” She sniffs.  She cracks the window.  Turpentine.  Oils.  Our boy George is a painter.  Good.  She usually gets on with artists.  For a while anyway.  She doesn’t linger.

“Maybe you should drive,” he says.  “I had a lot to drink.”

“I don’t drive.”

“Really?  Never?”

“Really.  Never.  But I can help you drive, George.  Look at me.”  She hates being so direct, but some of the shadows in the trees are moving.  She’ll have to change her plans, George’s too.  She was hoping for a simple lift to a cemetery.  Now she’ll need a place to hang out of sight for a while.  “Do you live close by, George?”

He nods, lost in her eyes.  He’s going to tell her she’s beautiful again.  Connected like this, she has a sense of him.  He’s a good but lonely soul.  The connection works both ways, she reminds herself.  Enough with the eyes.

“You can drive us there, George, and I’ll spend the day with you.  How does that sound?  I bet you’re wide awake now, fit as a fiddle, a skilled and competent motorist.  Now, George.”

He drives.  Maybe she’ll be lucky.  Maybe they aren’t sure what she is.  She’s pretty covered up.  Downwind.  Maybe they won’t follow.  Maybe she’s just spooked herself, and no one’s following her.

The shadows fall out of the treetops and swoop in the side mirror closer than they appear there, which is plenty close enough.  She spots four.  It’s probably a band, a dozen.  Angels love dozens.  This isn’t her day.  George’s either, apparently.  Fortunately she doesn’t believe in fate, predestination, all the rest of it, and whatever happens, he’ll forget.  She’ll see to that, or if she can’t, the band of angels on her ass will.  For both their sakes, she hopes it’s her.  They never just erase a memory, they have to leave a little something in its place, a little gift, to help.  A surprise, like a time bomb.  Fools rush in, and angels don’t like to tread, but it’s angels sending fools into the lost cause, the crazy religion, the doomed affair.  And don’t get her started on politics.  You think God talks to idiots?  It’s angels they’re talking to, poisoning their minds with misplaced certainty.  “Take the Interstate, George.”

“I just live a mile and a half from here.”

“Interstate, George.  Quickly.  West.”

He turns onto the Boulevard, and the bright lights have her pursuers flying higher, but she knows they’re still there.  She rolls down her window, so she can hear and smell better, though they can too.  Pretty soon, with any luck, that won’t matter, but stopping’s not a good idea.  She’s not sure how bad they want her.  The streets are nearly deserted.  They might try to pluck her at a light.  She listens to the rhythm of the traffic light relays and does the math.  The lights are timed at 31 though the speed limit is 25.  Humans.  You gotta love them.  That’s the angel story anyway, and she guesses it’s true.  Angels have a natural sympathy with humans, a protectiveness even, you can call love.  But sometimes, face it, love stinks.

“Keep it at 31.”

He obeys so precisely she feels bad, or maybe he knows the lights.  When they hit the Interstate she has him cruise at 75 until the sun is up, and she can relax a bit.  Top speed for an angel without some serious wind assistance is 45, and that’s a sprint.  They probably gave up when he hit the entrance ramp.  Angels hate Interstates.  She could be anywhere now.  If she hung out in the Renaissance—not a bad time to be an angel—she never would’ve escaped that band.  That doesn’t mean she’s safe to fly.  They’re up there somewhere, flying high, hoping she’ll do something stupid.  It’s a cloudless spring day.  They’d spot her for sure.

George is driving with slightly more awareness than the cruise control.  Humans become like sleepwalkers when they drive for a while.  She almost hates to disturb him.  “Okay.  We can go to your place now if you want to turn around at the next exit.”

He nods amiably, but then he thinks about it.  “Wait a minute.  Who are you?  What’s going on?”

He must not have been as drunk as he seemed.  Now he’s a little too clear-headed.  It’s a delicate balance, which is one reason she shouldn’t pull stunts like this.  Poor guy.  “I told you.  Shannon.  Shannon… Angel.  I found your keys.  I want you to take me home.  You’re cute,” she adds desperately.  She can’t tell him to look in her eyes.  They’re going 75.  Still, he’s way too drunk to drive and doesn’t know it.  She can’t just release him.  He could die.

“Look.  I’m not that drunk anymore.  I’m not that cute.  I need to know.  What are we doing here?  Why did you have me get on the Interstate?  I live in town.”

He’s wondering why he did it, why he listened to some random woman who picked up his keys.  She misjudged his drunkenness, she figures, because he seemed so unsteady, on the verge of passing out.  An amateur.  “You don’t drink much, do you?”

“No.  Don’t change the subject.”

She sniffs, trying to get past the turpentine and the Chianti.  His hormones are in an uproar.  “Have some kind of upset?  That’ll raise the adrenalin levels, make you focused in spite of the alcohol, but make you drunker in a way too.  Sadness, loss, heartbreak?”

He cuts her a look.  “My girlfriend dumped me if you must know.  So what am I doing with you?  This isn’t like me.  I’m sorry.  Where do you want me to take you?”

“Your place.”  She tries to make this sound like that’s been his intention all along and there’s no turning back now.  This would work with a lot of guys.  Not George.  Not tonight.

“No, I can’t do that.  C’mon.  Where do you live?”

She tells him the truth.  “I’ve been wandering for a while.  I need a place to stay.  I’ll be leaving at sundown.  I promise.”  Moonrise actually, but suspects that might spook him.  Most humans would rather not know what the moon is doing or the doings of those who do.

He’s easy to read, a pretty open guy, and drunk too, which makes it easier still.  There’s a moment where he imagines her homeless and hesitates, but it’s not enough.  He’s not heartless, but he’s not stupid either.  She wants it too bad.   If she were him, she’d so not take her home.  “No.  I don’t think so.  Where do you want me to take you?  Motel?  Bus station?”

They’ve reached the first exit where he can turn around and head back into the city.  They’re way out, and it’s early Sunday, but there’s still a growing tide of inbound traffic.  Lots of trucks.  It’s starting to stink.  Good.  That’ll drive the band up higher.  He takes the exit.

“How’s this?” she suggests reasonably.  “Take me to your place.  I won’t come in.  I’ll leave once you’re inside.  Promise.”  She didn’t realize how weird this would sound until she says it.  She’s tired.  She just made a play for a guy who jumped out the window, and now she’s holding up a drunk artist whose girlfriend just dumped him.  This isn’t her best game.  Disasters, by contrast, were easy to work.  No subtlety required.  You don’t have to explain what you’re doing there when everyone’s fucked.  Navigating the everyday is way trickier.

“What?  No!”  He pulls off into a truck stop instead of returning to the Interstate.  “Get out here.”

Oh brother.  Anger.  That’s what it is, what has him so focused and willful.  “Why’d she dump you?”  She asks real nice.  He needs to get it out.  That’s one of the things angels do—she did—console.  Not that she was ever very good at it, though angels generally work the extremes—burning cities and the like.  This is her first truck stop.

“She said I was ‘unrealistic.’  But she’s wrong.  I don’t take extremely strange women home, no matter how beautiful they are, or how nice and sympathetic.  Even if I’m broken-hearted and drunk.  Out.”

She ignores his outburst.  He seems like too nice a guy to transfer his anger at his girlfriend to Shannon for long, especially since he’d be unconscious if it weren’t for her, their wills still entwined.  She’s sympathetic, naturally.  She’s an angel.  “Unrealistic!  What do humans know about reality anyway?  What reality does she think you don’t grasp?”

He’s surprised at her ferocity.  He likes that apparently.  Angels can be too intense for some people.  “Money.”

She has to laugh.  “Money isn’t real.”

He glares at her.  Humans are always cranky about money.  But really.  It’s one of their weirder rituals.  They invest it with all this power and act surprised when the more powerful it grows, the weaker they become.

“This isn’t going to work,” he says, “drawing me out about my problems, so that I think you’re all sympathetic, so I take you home, and then… I don’t know what.  Whatever.  It’s not happening.  You have a phone?”

She shakes her head.  “No phone.”

“What is it with you?  You don’t drive.  You don’t have a phone.  Look.  You can buy a cheapie phone in there.”  He points at the truck stop.  He digs in his wallet, pulls out some money and holds it out to her.  Its stench fills the car like he cut a fart.  “Call somebody you know, call a cab, something.  But it’s not me.  I’ve had a bad enough day already, and that was yesterday now.  Understand?”

This guy—too sweet for his own good.  If she were a predatory nutcase like he fears, this sweetie-pie could never toss her, and if she were scamming him, showing her the money isn’t his best move.  She’s not budging either, but at least she’s trying to do the right thing—after doing the wrong thing by dragging him into her problems in the first place.  She just didn’t want to die.  She’ll make it up to him somehow, starting with not letting him drive on his own.  He finally puts his money away.

She tries again. “I do, I do understand.  Believe me, George.  But I can’t use a phone, or money, and even if I could, there’s no one to call, no place to go.  C’mon George.  You have to go home anyway.”

But he doesn’t have to show her where he lives.  “Who can’t use a phone?  Money?  Believe me, they’ll take anybody’s money in there.  Out.”

Nothing for it but the truth.  “I can’t do that.  You can’t drive back to town without me.  You’re not as drunk as I thought you were, but you’re way drunker than you think you are.  I’ve kind of taken over a tiny little corner of your will since you weren’t much in control of it.  Think of it as a matchbook slid under the leg of a wobbly table.  If I let you drive off, the connection’s broken, and well, I don’t want to get graphic, but the table might fall over.”  Matchbook’s a metaphoric understatement.  Angels don’t like to lie outright.  Unless they have to.  If George is a table, she’s somewhere between two and three of the legs and a few of the floorboards, the foundation of the building, and the will to remain standing.

What are you talking about?”

“Look at me, George.”

No.  We’re not doing that again.”  He glares out the windshield, his hands on the wheel.

She considers a persuasive hand to his thigh, but that’s more her than him.  Reasonable.  Perfectly reasonable.  It’s how humans fancy themselves.  “Fair enough.  Okay.  How about this?  You keep the keys.  We both get out of the car, you lock it, and we take twenty paces from the car and then walk back, so we both know you can drive safely.  If you still want to go without me, I won’t stop you.  Promise.”

“You’re crazy.”  He says this not without a touch of fascination.  You don’t get to be an artist by being perfectly reasonable all the time.

“C’mon.  Humor me.  I sorta got dumped last night too.  Don’t you want to stretch your legs?  Be a responsible driver?”

He glances at her briefly from the driver’s seat.  She puts as much beautiful beseeching into the moment as an angel can muster, and angels can do some serious beseeching.  “All right.  All right.”  He takes the keys out of the ignition, holds them tight in case she hoped to snatch them from his grasp.  “Just like you said.  We get out at the same time and close our doors.  Okay?  Remember your promise.  Count of three.  One. Two. Three.”

She releases him just as he opens his door and steps out.  He doesn’t even notice she hasn’t bothered to move.  He starts out strong, full of overconfidence, the door standing open, then starts to weave, lurch.  He stops.  He’s lost count, his bearings, his balance.  He turns to look over his shoulder, and ends up falling on his ass.  The horizon refuses to remain horizontal.  He’s having a little trouble getting up as a result.  He’s dropped his keys again.

She almost leaves him there.  That would be the truly angelic thing to do, if she were really going to care about his future welfare.  He’d make it home somehow.

But then she’d have to take her chances on one of these truckers starting to take an interest in the babe with the backpack and the drunk.  She walks over to George.  Ten paces.  More than she thought he’d manage.  He’s a determined fellow, though he’s abandoned rising for the moment, watching her approach, sitting in an oily patch.  She crouches beside him, puts a comforting arm around his shoulder.  Her wings strain against the bandage, instinctively moving to envelop him, protect him, poor pitiful human thing.  “So what do you think, George?  Want to drive on your own?”

“What are you?  What’d you do t’me?”

“Later.  We’re attracting attention.  C’mon George.”  She picks up his keys again.

A couple of truckers are ready to offer their assistance, to Shannon especially.  They move in.  “Miss?” one of them calls.  She can smell their intentions even over the truck stop bacon frying.

“We’re fine,” she says.

She helps George to his feet.  Poor guy gets dumped, drops his keys, gets hijacked by an angel, finds himself lying in a truck stop driveway, drunk as a skunk.  She’ll have to find a way to make it up to him, some unexpected good fortune, a happy coincidence.  She lets her mind wander, thinking of possibilities, fails to concentrate.  Almost upright, he slips on the oil and grabs at the backpack.  Out pops the top of her left wing.  It fills his vision.  He gasps.  His eyes open wide.  All the better to look into.  She doesn’t give him the chance to say no, turning his gaze from wing to eyes with a sharp turn of his chin.  “Look at me, George.  Your place.  Now.”

He almost sprints to the car, and they’re off, back into the city with the growing tide of traffic.  Too bad it’s Sunday, or there’d be more.  Rush hour is perfect cover.  Angels would just as soon fly over rush hour as a human would shower in sewage.  Weird, violent air currents, a relentless, toxic stench, miles of miserable humans persisting in their folly—rush hour has it all.  As luck would have it, there must be a wreck up ahead on this beautiful Sunday morning.  The traffic moves slow, then slower.  Then creeps along in fits and starts like a dying animal.

He’s silent for most of the journey.  The numbing start and stop of clogged arteries, rolling and squinting into the rising sun—it doesn’t require much of his attention.  George is thinking hard.  She’d like to expose her wings to some of these rays but doesn’t want him to get another peek.  More evidence for his calculations.  The more he remembers, the more he’ll have to forget.  If she waits too long, if the memory is too intense, bits remain to mess with his head.  They’re nowhere near that point, but she doesn’t like to take chances with humans’ memories.  It’s who they are.

Finally, he says, “You’re an angel, aren’t you?”

“Why do you say that?”

“The wing.”

“I know it looks like a wing, but—”

“It’s a wing.  I’m an artist.  I’m— I’m into wings.”  He looks over, eyeing the backpack, like he’s trying to will some x-ray vision.  “What I saw?  Classic angel wing.  Attached”—he reaches around with his right hand, touches his own left shoulder—”right here.  To the flesh.  It was real.”

“No kidding?  Fate, huh?  Destiny that we should meet, angel and artiste.  How romantic.  Fortunately, I don’t believe in that stuff.  You have quite the eye for detail from such a brief glance.  Are you sure—”

“Like I said, I’ve seen a lot of angels.  Drawn them, painted them, cast them in bronze.”

“But angels aren’t real.”

“I know that.  You still haven’t answered my question.  Are you an angel or not?”

He wants to know so bad, and it’s wrong to lie.  Unfortunately, the will thing works both ways as long as they’re connected, and it’s been a while now.  She likes him.  A lot.  “Okay.  I’m an angel.  I’ll be gone by sundown, and you’ll forget all about me.”

He’s delighted.  “I knew it.  I’ve painted every angel in the museum.  There was something about your face when I first saw you…”

“You were practically unconscious when you first saw me.”

He turns to her.  She can’t tell him to keep his eyes on the road.  They’re at a dead stop in dead traffic, waiting for their next chance to crawl toward the rising sun.  His eyes widen again.  “May I paint you?  Please?”

“You mean, like a portrait?”

“Yes, of course, but…  The wings.  May I paint your wings?”

He’s past the beautiful thing apparently.  Now it’s the wings.  Her beauties.  He did ask so nicely.  It would make him exceedingly happy, and she longs to set them free.  “Sure.  Why not?  You’ve got all day.  I need some sleep first.  Have you got a south window, a big mirror?”

“Yeah, why?”

“I’m starving.”

He doesn’t even ask, he’s so happy to be taking an angel home.  Why can’t she find a happy medium?  Bradley was way too scared, and sweet George isn’t half scared enough.  He just got hijacked by an angel on the lam, and he’s acting like it’s his lucky day.  She hopes she doesn’t end up jumping out his window.

 

 

 

Chapter 2:  Her Enormous, Humbling Wings

…My heart in hiding/Stirred for a bird…

Gerard Manley Hopkins, from “The Windhover”

 

 

She can’t imagine what the dumping girlfriend could’ve been talking about.  Just because he lives in an old machine shop fronting an alley with gargoyles peering down from the roofline and a small one perched on the mailbox—does that make him unrealistic?  Gargoyles were an adolescent passion, he says.  “Waterspout monsters that ward off evil sounded pretty cool to me.  I wanted to put them on the house.  My folks didn’t go for it.  These are kind of falling apart.”

“What are they made of?”  Though they look stone, they smell like…

“Wood.  Stumps.  They were free.  Real ones were stone or metal.  I couldn’t easily manage that, but I carved a lot of stumps.  Then I sort of discovered wings.”  He unlocks the door and steps inside, beckoning for her to follow.  It’s gloomy until he crosses to the south wall and draws back curtains revealing big glass doors opening onto a walled garden.  The room floods with morning light, and everywhere are wings.  Sculpted wood like the gargoyles.  Cast bronze.  Photos.  Pastels.  Pencils.  Oils.  Sometimes lone wings, sometimes a pair.  Sometimes attached to a bird.  Often as not, to an angel, usually female.  She notes the anguished faces, the drooping posture.

“Spend a lot of time in cemeteries?”

He nods, watching her take in his work, turning on a few strategic lights.

“Me too,” she says.  He doesn’t ask why.  He doesn’t want to interrupt the process.  She’s still looking, moving from piece to piece.  He’s an artist, all right.  There’s him, the art, and someone notices.  That’s real.  If you missed the money in there, most artists do, or it shows up when they’re dead, like maggots to a corpse.  Girlfriend was wise to dump him.  He’s better off dumped.  Unrealistic?  Not unlike having your latest jump out the window and flee when you reveal your beauties.  This is who I am!  Wanna touch?

Maybe she’s not the best one to judge the situation.  Most angels love to judge, so she avoids the tendency in herself.  She isn’t most angels, doesn’t want to be.  She’s fallen.  She’s thrown in her lot with humans.  Which is why Bradley jumped out the window and George is sharing his beautiful art:  She revealed herself of her own free will, not because she was told to by the myriad angels above her.  David Byrne calls Heaven a place where nothing ever happens.  It’s worse.  Angels see this as their special gift.  Unquestioning obedience, neither knowing or asking why, silent links in a chain.  Peace, they call it.  Not knowing what they do.

So there’s no art like this in Heaven.  There’s no art at all.  Art’s a human thing, all about knowing what you’re doing, or trying to, though nobody really does.  Shannon loves it.  All that human uncertainty.

George’s place is mostly one big room, a kitchen on the west wall, a bathroom next to the northeast entrance.  Thrift store furniture, a bit chaotic but pleasant, mostly serves to hold up pieces of art.  There’s a stuffed bookcase.  Art books and bird books and angel books, no doubt filled with lies, but maybe he was only looking at the pictures—all those naked wings.

The art is everywhere.  As she makes her clockwise trip around George’s personal gallery—George’s mind, George’s mind on wings—she’s totally blown away by the art, by the incredible odds the guy she managed to flash a little wing to would be this guy.  Girlfriend must’ve made this journey too, but she couldn’t have seen what Shannon sees and just written him off as “unrealistic.”  Maybe she’s not giving girlfriend credit.  Maybe she saw exactly what she was dealing with and had to cut him loose, to fly.  Maybe she’s afraid of heights, or something’s weighing her down.  Shannon doesn’t judge—but she’s often curious.  It’s easy to see why someone would love this man, not so easy to see why she’d let him go.  Money?  He doesn’t exactly keep his poverty a secret.  Nor his talent.

A wooden angel sits on the toilet tank, a young female, her wings pressed close against body and thighs, turned away but stealing a glance over her shoulder, her beautiful little face framed by the top of her wing.  Innocent, sexy, curious, concerned—she watches George pee every morning.  If her little wooden sister could talk, what would she tell Shannon about her creator and host?  She wonders how he feels about all the angels he’s made, what it’s like to meet one who’s real.  Is it as good for him as it is for her?  She doesn’t marvel at the coincidence.  Coincidences follow angels around like dew on grass.  Dust follows dust is the angel expression.  There may be another angel in this somewhere.  She sniffs but only smells herself.  Pungent with pleasure.  The man, the art, the moment.  She’s kind of stinking up the place.

“You’re really good, George.  These are so beautiful.  Everything.”  They’re in the middle of the room, and she sweeps her hand around, prompting a fresh cramp, mid back, just below the left wing, radiating pain.  She wants to gush some more but doesn’t.  He’s wound up enough already.  The man needs to sleep.  She needs to put sweet George to bed and get out of this damn bandage.

He beams at her approval.  “Thanks.  Can I get you anything?”  He leans in the kitchen direction.

“You already have.  We have all day, remember?  First we need to sober you up.  You going to sleep in those clothes?”  They’re nice except for the Chianti stains on the shirtfront and the oil smear on his butt and thighs, the torn knees.  Date clothes, now dumped clothes, demoted like him.  If it were her, she’d burn them, but angels can be weird that way, the whole material/immaterial thing.  Rituals R’ Us.  Has to be an existing fire, of course, something of a pain these days, not to mention dangerous.  She peers out at the garden.  It’s laid out on an east-west line.  There’s an inviting pool of morning light in the west end.

“I don’t need to sleep right away.  I’m fine,” he says, studying her, his new subject.  He must know every line of her face by now.

“That’s because I’m still holding you up.  The matchbook under the table leg, remember?  How soon we forget the lessons of the truck stop pavement—but this little matchbook’s tired.  Where do you sleep?  Only known cure for drunkenness.”

He points out a heap of clothes, a mattress somewhere at the bottom of it she’d suspected of being a bed.  “You can sleep on the bed,” he says.  “I’ll take the couch.”  He points at another pile of clothes.  “Sorry.  I just did laundry.  Let me get this stuff out of your way.”

“No, no.  Don’t worry about me.  I’ve spotted a place in the garden I like better.  Where’s that big mirror?”

“On the bathroom door.”

“Did you put it there?”

“What?”

“Did you hang the mirror?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Use a screwdriver?”

“In the drawer on the left.”  He points to the kitchen.

“No.  I don’t need a screwdriver.  Did you use one?  Not a drill or anything.”

“Just a regular screwdriver.”

“Good.  Is it okay if I take the mirror out in the garden?  I won’t hurt it.”

“Sure.  Why?”

He’s fascinated.  His desire to fathom angel mysteries is touching, but touching an angel isn’t that hard.  Angels are easy.  She might as well share, answer his questions, make him happy like she wants to do.  He’ll forget it all later, but she likes telling him about herself, even if there’s not much point in it.  “Sunlight on the old wings.  Essential angel nutrition.  The mirror’s for those hard to get at places, gives you a little extra.  Also helpful for catching discreet rays through a window when outdoors isn’t an option.  Angels are sun gluttons when we get the chance, and I don’t get nearly enough chances.  Now get to bed before I lose the light.”

“Can— Can I see them first?  Just a quick look?”

She doesn’t have to ask what.  She’s surrounded by a serious wing nut’s shrine.  He’s been studying her the whole time, trying to imagine what’s under the backpack, reconstruct her beauties from the briefest glimpse.  “Okay.  Get in bed first.”  He sits on the edge of the bed.  “Close your eyes until I tell you.”  They close.  Don’t get in the habit of telling him what to do, she reminds herself, but she needs this moment.

Now.

She yanks off tunic, bandage, and phony backpack in one long overdue spasm of liberation.  Finally.  She loosens her wings slowly, lets her cramped muscles, bones, and tendons relax, then shakes out her crushed feathers.  Angel dust sifts to the floor.  Phosphorescent to angels for an hour or so, it leaves an odor slightly funky to angels, but sweet to humans.  If the band ever tracks her down to this place, they’ll know she’s been here.  The scent lingers.  George will be smelling angel for a while and not remember why, haunted by a vague longing for something lost he never had.  Can’t be helped.  Should inspire some interesting art.

She does a quick glance around, checking clearances, then unfurls.  Omygod.  She sighs, gasps.  She flexes, stirring the air.  Oh baby.  Sweet relief.

She remembers George, still sitting on the side of his bed with his eyes closed, basking in the breezes from her wings, waiting for the all clear.  God, he’s adorable.  She starts to tell him to go ahead and open his eyes, but he doesn’t want to see her tits.  She turns around and displays her beauties in all their glory, like an eagle posing for a coat of arms.  “You can open your eyes now.”

“Aaah!” he says.  She doesn’t have to ask what he thinks.  That’s the awe in awesome he’s uttered.  She smiles.  It’s nice to be appreciated—angels, who claim no vanity—are all horribly vain about their wings, and Shannon’s no exception.  She arches them prettily, then fans out, and flutters, does a little riffle like a shimmy, showing off.  He gasps.  It sounds positively sexual.  “Thank you,” he whispers.  “Thank you.”

“Aren’t you going to ask to see my tits?”

“What?”

“Go to sleep, George.”  She releases him and turns.  There’s a moment where his bleary eyes take her in, and then he plummets into laundry and oblivion, his innocent head nestled on paint-streaked jeans, his feet still on the ground.  All his clothes seem to have gotten intimate with the media—stained, torn, streaked, speckled, burnt.  He’s still in his drunk clothes, poor dear.  She’s sure he won’t mind.  They were probably his best before he met Shannon.  She takes off his shoes and hoists his legs onto the bed to join the rest of him.  He is that cute, turns out.

She roots around and finds a pillow and slides it under his cheek, kisses the other, forgetting her wingtips and knocking a canvas askew, startling herself.  She straightens it with her wing, a couple of others while she’s at it, then carefully tucks in her beauties before she upsets anything else.  She takes a deep breath.  She’s safe, and she’s free, a rare combination.  She likes it here.  It’s tempting to fantasize.

While the artist sleeps, she looks again at the dozens and dozens of wings.  She tries to imagine what this must be like for him, the real things in his studio, now lousy with angel dust.  She can’t help but feel inadequate.  She can’t live up to her beauties.  No angel can.  Even George’s doleful mourning angels, looking all angelic, the answer to your prayers.  They don’t know anymore than you do.  The best they can do is care.  Believe otherwise at your own risk.  With wings, you can fly.  That doesn’t make you good.  Any more than, say, being a good golfer or singer does.  Good thing he’ll forget.  She’s promised him a portrait.  Then that will be that.  It’s better that way.

She checks out the garden—grass in the middle, beds around the perimeter, herbs and flowers mostly, neatly tended, an iron gate in the southwest corner.  She surveys the skies, the other buildings.  Because of a couple of well-placed trees, no one has a sight angle into the west end of the garden except from directly above, a tiny risk in the daylight when the band will be flying much too high to spot her in the middle of the city.  Sweet.  Her own private Eden.

She goes to the mirror and removes the screws, using the remnants of George’s will still embedded in the metal to rotate them counterclockwise, one by one.  He said she could.  He wants her to.  Fortunately, he soaped them and he’s strong-willed, so they turn easily in the old door, but she’s still fairly exhausted by the time the last one drops into her palm.  She’ll let George screw them back in.  She leaves them under the watchful wooden eyes of the toilet tank angel.

She carries the mirror into the garden, smiling at the low eastern sun shining in below a lanky winged elm.  There’s a wooden bench, probably placed here to take advantage of the morning light.  It smells like George and a woman, probably the girlfriend.  There are mug rings on the arms.  She slides it to the side out of the sun’s path, props the mirror against the western wall, positions it carefully, and kneels before it in a bed of ivy, her wings fanned out around her, bathed in sunlight.  Sweet warmth.  Each feather rejoices.  She’ll get at least a couple of hours of clear sunshine.  She can use it.  It’s been mostly clouds the last few days, and she didn’t want to risk flying above them.  Good thing too.  The band’s probably been circling awhile.  These things take time to arrange.  Let them circle away.  She’s found her little Eden.  She lowers her head to her knees and falls asleep to the sounds of twittering birds and the paws of a cat nervously pacing the garden wall, all eyeing her beauties, her enormous, humbling wings.

At times like this, when she gets to sleep peacefully on Earth, she’s grateful not to be in Heaven, to be fallen to this lovely place where anything can happen, and usually does.

 

The sun’s almost overhead.  Her wings are half in shadow.  She’s deliciously sated, warmed, refreshed.  She takes in a deep breath and catches his scent.  George.  She opens her eyes, looks into the mirror, and sees him over her shoulder, staring at her butt as only an artist can stare.  He’s at an easel.   He’s drawing her.  He hasn’t noticed her eyes are now open.  If they meet, even in a mirror…  Better not.  She raises up, covering her chest with crossed arms, stands and turns, drawing in her beauties.  There he is, bright-eyed and washed clean.  She takes his breath away.

He smiles warmly. “I didn’t want to wake you,” he says.  “I figured you could use the sleep.  You said you’ve been wandering.”  He turns the drawing pad to a fresh page and picks up a stick of charcoal.  That’s how he’s made.  The world takes his breath away, and he draws it, sculpts it, molds it.  He makes bold, quick sweeping strokes.

“You remember that?”

“I wasn’t that drunk.”  His eyes are fixed on her torso.  His hand moves, flutters.  He goes at it with his thumb, his eyes darting back and forth between her and the paper.

“So you keep saying.  Can you explain why you passed out cold when I let you?”

He laughs, remembering.  “I was overcome by the sight of you.”  He’s only half kidding.  His eyes compare her to what he’s drawn.  He looks into her eyes and smiles, and she forgets to look away for a few timeless moments.

She could get herself into serious trouble here.  “How long have you been up?” she asks.

“A couple of hours.  I ate, I ran, I showered.  Do you need to use the shower or anything?”

“No thanks.  I’m good.  You ran?”

“I run every morning.”

“How long have you been—”  She nods toward the easel because he’s still doing it, drawing her in quick, confident motions, his eyes now mostly on the drawing.  She’s effectively posing now.  Topless Angel in Jeans.  There’s more than art in his eye and scent.  Make that Hot Topless Angel in Jeans, thank you very much.

“An hour or so.”  He makes a few final gestures with his thumb, wipes his hands on a rag, and flips over the pad.  “Wanna see?  The light was perfect.”

She comes around to look, standing beside him as he shows her, turning each page of the sketchpad.  He’s silent again, watching her, waiting for her nod before he turns the page, though this time he’s not just watching her reaction, he’s looking at her.  She hears his breathing, smells him, knows where this is going, but she can’t take her eyes off the drawings.

She expects only her wings, her plumage, and there are those that seem to flutter off the page, whole pages of details, structures, joints—trying to see inside her, to see how her beauties are made.  The man knows his wings and has a precise eye.  Then there are several of her torso, studies in how she’s put together.  They grow more intimate, more detailed.  The next to last fills the page, some portions are quite meticulous.  He’s apparently been working on it for a while.  It takes in the whole scene—the wall, the mirror, the kneeling angel, with some subtle shading on the angel’s jean-clad butt and the soles of her bare calloused feet—everything but the artist staring at a sleeping angel for over an hour.  No wait.  There he is in the mirror, enthralled.  The angel’s eyes are closed.  The last sketch on the pad is a frontal view of wings, crossed arms, and jeans-clad thighs in one gesture, one perception.  That’s her, all right.  Maybe she should put some clothes on.  “These are wonderful.  Have— have you seen my clothes?”

“I brought them out, actually.  I was putting away the laundry.  I thought you might want them, though they don’t look too comfortable.”  Her tunic, ace bandage, and phony backpack are folded on the bench, her shoes, leather split-sole ballet slippers, on top.  They scream angel to anyone who’s paying attention, but other shoes are too heavy and useless for landing on some marble saint’s head in the middle of the night.  She’d rather go without shoes altogether, but you can’t get away with that anymore.  He scoops up the stack and offers it to her, looking away.

She plucks the tunic and shoes from his hands.  “Just these.  I don’t want to truss up the beauties till I have to.”  She drops the shoes to the grass and slips the tunic on.  It’s basically a large apron that wraps and ties in the front.  The jeans are as much camouflage as clothing.  Most angels wouldn’t wear them, too heavy.  She doesn’t get to fly enough for it to matter.  She steps into the shoes, checks herself in the mirror.  “Okay, done.  I can’t believe you put away the laundry too.  Are you always so industrious?”

“Just stuffed it in some drawers.  I don’t do a lot of folding.  I am kind of jazzed up I guess.  Ever since I came out and saw you in the sun… You—  You’re incredible.”  Now that she’s not half naked he thinks it’s okay to look at her like that, and she’s not exactly scowling back at him.  He says, “I took a bunch of photos.  Is that all right?”

“Listen to you.  Most guys wouldn’t ask.  Sure.  I said you could paint me.”

“You said I could paint your wings.  You seem to be on the run.  I didn’t know if photos would be okay with you.  I backed them up online.  Heavily encrypted, of course.”

“Photos won’t matter.  Backups won’t matter.  Encryption won’t matter.  You always so thoughtful?”  They will all be gone when she wills it so, like she was never here.  Erased.

“I figure I owe you.  You saved my ass.”

She has to laugh at that.  “What are you talking about?  I’m the one who snatched you off the street and dragged you into my troubles, had you sitting on your ass at a truck stop halfway to nowhere before you knew what hit you.  I don’t usually do things like that, by the way.  Sorry about your clothes.”

“I hated those clothes.  If you hadn’t come along, I would’ve driven on my own.  I’m not that good a driver sober.  I would’ve smashed up my car, maybe hurt somebody.”

She remembers him on all fours.  “You wouldn’t have found your keys.”

“I would.  I was determined to drive.  Bethanie said I couldn’t, shouldn’t, whatever.  I was feeling a little crazy.  I was going to show her.  Stupid drunk.  I thought—  Doesn’t matter what I thought.  I was going to drive.”

Bethanie must be girlfriend.  Shannon doesn’t ask.  Shannon’s not interested, which is to say, she’s too interested.  “You never would’ve made it.”

“Can angels tell the future?”

“Well, no.  Not any I know anyway.”

“Okay then.  You saved my ass.”

“Even if that’s true, I was only trying to save my own in a thoroughly selfish manner.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“A theologian.”

He laughs.  A cute theologian who can laugh at himself.  How often do they come along?  “So how’d you do it?  I do it?”

“We sort of joined forces.  I lent you my soberness, while we were connected.”

“Was that what that was.  Felt nice.  You want some coffee?” he says.

She beams at him.  “I thought you’d never ask.”

“So you eat human food?”

“It’s complicated.”

“I like complicated.”  He does.  She can see that.  His eyes sparkle just saying the word.  It’s part of what the wing thing is about.  A hand’s complicated too, but he has one of those.  It’s not Other.  That’s part of it too.  She’s not human.  He likes that.  She likes humans.  That makes them both weird.  Maybe that’s the attraction.  Was that what that was.

“Okay.  On our own, angels just need water and sunshine.  But when we’re hanging with humans, we accept the offered social gesture, usually a stimulant or depressant.  Coffee, wine, birthday cake.  An angel like me who hangs out with a lot of humans, gets a taste, you know, for certain things.  I love coffee, but you have to ask me, so it’s a social thing.  You want me to have the coffee, so I can.”

Can?  What do you mean can?”

“I told you it was complicated.  The short version—to do human things, I need human will.  Like the mirror.  You said I could remove it.  I found your intention in the screws to hang the mirror and reversed it, but it had to be okay with you.  Understand?”  She twirls her fingers counterclockwise.

He watches them twirl.  Her fingertips.  “I— I think so.  What do you mean angels like you?”

He doesn’t miss a thing, this one.  Here goes.  At least they’re on the ground floor, though he could hurt himself if he tries to vault the wall.  This is where the Satan alarms go off for some. What is it with you humans and Satan?  You turn out guys like Bernie Madoff, and think you need Satan?  George doesn’t seem like the type, but you never know.  She knows her story by heart:

“Fallen is the common term.  I prefer flown the coop.  It’s like this:  There are angels.  There’s a whole complicated hierarchical society, all based on the notion that the tip-top angels—we’re talking a handful of exceedingly weird individuals—regularly talk to God, and they pass the word down.  Some of us doubt this is still true if it ever was and have dropped out.  There are bands of angels who try to round us up as traitors, which we’re not.  We’re not saying there isn’t a God necessarily or that somehow someway some kind of angels might not talk to Him or Her, but it’s not them, it’s not us.  I’m an angel, but I don’t know any more about God than some TV preacher, and if you believe those guys, and you have a credit card, all the angels in the world aren’t going to help you.”

He hangs on every word, like one of his gargoyles.  He takes it all in.  Too bad it won’t stay, can’t stay.  She won’t even be a sweet memory.  “How many are there like you?” he asks.

“No idea.  We’re not organized.  No Facebook page.  We’re not a movement or rebellion or anything.  It’s rare for me to see another.  There’s a lot more of them than us, but I’ve gotten pretty good at eluding them.  They’re very predictable, and they always have to wait for word from above when anything strange happens.  So I try to give them strange.”

“Like coming here?”

“They might’ve figured that one, but you’re not so easy to find, and I won’t stay long.”

“You can stay as long as you like.”

No.  She can’t.  Tempting, but impossible.  “Thanks.  That would be sundown.”

“So what would they do to you, if they caught you?”

“Short version?  Caged.  Always.  Don’t you want to talk about something else, like the coffee we’ve wandered away from?”

“Gotcha.”  He makes coffee.

She watches him.  When she was telling him her story, he was taking it all in, like her troubles were the most important thing in the world.  He cares.  Not like angels, who are so afraid of forgetting what’s most important, that it’s never going to be some troubled sister.  Too bad he won’t remember, won’t care for long.  Not bad for him.  He’ll be a lot better off.  Not bad for her either.  She just met the poor guy.  She can’t just come along and screw his whole life up and feel good about it.  He’s humming while he’s making the coffee.  She can almost feel the pleasant oscillations of his happiness, her momentary reward and his.  He’s delighted she’s here.  So’s she.  It seems unfair she’ll remember it, and he won’t, but what good does it do to remember the impossible?  Why should she care if he forgets her?  Felt nice.

She sits on the couch, watching the sun’s progress, calculating.  Six hours till sundown.  She has to leave.  Has to, has to, has to.  No loose ends, no exceptions.  The scent of coffee fills the room in a whoosh.

“Cream or sugar?”

“Do you have honey?”

“Yes.”

“Raw?”

“Yes.”

“Delicious!”  She delights in the intentions of bees.  A most pleasant buzz.  An angel joke.  She considers sharing it with George.  He might even get it.  While he’s pouring coffee, he’s talking amiably about an expedition to the cemetery where some of these paintings were done.  A picnic.  She weighs the risks.  It’s practically on her way.  She can’t believe how well everything is going.  Dangerous complacency got her into this mess in the first place, she reminds herself.  Don’t get too comfortable.

She looks out at the garden, and there’s a woman smiling nervously back at her.  George sees her and beckons her in.  She slides open the door and steps inside.  She holds a fistful of tarragon in a stranglehold, her eyes riveted on Shannon’s wings.  “I’m sorry,” she says.  “I didn’t know George had company.  Hi.  I’m— I’m Zoe.  Are— are those real?”

 

 

Chapter 3:  The Aimless Life He’s Been Leading

O what can ail thee, knight at arms,

Alone and palely loitering?

—John Keats, from “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

 

 

Bradley Wendt can’t believe he’s sitting in a Patient First on a Sunday morning.  This should teach him a lesson.  What was he thinking?  Why would a woman like Shannon have ever had anything to do with him?  A few walks in the woods bird-watching, then it’s take me home with you?  There had to be something seriously wrong with her.  She was too nice, too empathetic, too beautiful—he should’ve known something was wrong.  Like the Belle Dame, the Keats thing.  He looks around.  They still haven’t given him anything for the pain shooting up his throbbing leg, a constant reminder of his terrifying experience.

The wings.

He can’t get them out of his mind.  They were huge.  Impossible.  Unfolding, opening up, spreading out, huger and huger.   White.  Moby Dick white, like they almost glow…  He shudders.  He’s got to stop thinking about them.  He’s never been so scared in his life.

But he saw what he saw.  Of that, he’s certain.  Bradley’s not some flaky dreamy cuddly dumpling.  He’s a realist.  What was she though?  What the fuck was she?  With those wings.  She seemed so nice, so sensitive when he met her down by the river.  He was working a temp job downtown, and one of the other workers said there was a heron rookery close, check it out, so he went, and there was Shannon.  She was a really good listener.  It was uncanny, actually, how she almost seemed to know what he was thinking sometimes.  Now he knows why.  That’s all that ever really happened.  They walked, and they talked.  Not that he wasn’t interested.  He was, but—  Now he knows why he hesitated.  She isn’t human.

The waiting room’s big and sunny.  He’s glad of that.  His place felt so dark and cramped when she opened up those huge things, growing right out of her back like roots out of the ground.  It was deeply disturbing on altogether too many levels to deal.  The weirdest thing, the part that made it so upsetting, was that somehow she wanted to show him, that she thought he might want to see them.

She wanted him to touch them.

He shudders and tries to focus on the here and now.  It’s over.  She’s gone, though his place still reeks of her, a smell he used to really like, but now it just reminds him of those wings.

Beautiful stranger turns out to be alien/monster/freak?  Angel?  Right.

Enough.

It’s a slow morning at the Patient First.  There was a snotty-nosed, hacking, sneezing, coughing kid in here earlier, but he and his mother went away awhile ago.  Thank God.  There’s still a woman who seems to have lost her meds or taken too many of them.  She keeps stacking and restacking the magazines, muttering to herself.  He doesn’t mind.  He doesn’t want to read them.  They’re all stupid gossip rags.  The woman can’t seem to decide whether Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt should go on top.  You can pitch them all in the trash as far as Bradley’s concerned.  Or the recycling, whatever.  He doesn’t do magazines.  They’re too shrill and excited about stupid shit.

“Ms. Rainthorpe,” the nurse calls, and the woman rises, turns the whole stack of magazines facedown and walks away from them.  Bradley doesn’t bother to remind the nurse about something for the pain.  What would she give him?  Tylenol?  That’s not going to do the job.  He’ll need something more serious.  He’s borrowed crutches from a neighbor, and he hates them.  How do people manage?  He wonders if he broke something, if he sprained it.  He can’t go into work like this, drugged up, in agony, hobbling about on crutches.  He could fall down the stairs, die.  He can’t risk it.

He sees himself stretched out on his parents’ couch surfing the big screen, his mother asking if he needs any more iced tea, his dad simmering but unable to say a word about his injured son, the victim of a terrible fall.  He has no idea what he’s going to tell people about how it happened, why he jumped out his own window.  It is his window, even if it is behind his parents’ house.  He does pay rent.  Maybe not as much as the place is worth, but still.  He is their son, and it’s a tough economy.  They’ve been making the student loan payments, but that’s only temporary.  You don’t want to get on the bad side of those loan people.

A man sits down beside him.  He didn’t hear him come in.  A whole waiting room, and he picks the chair next to Bradley.  That can’t be good.  Bradley reaches for the stack of magazines.  Kate Winslett.  He doesn’t get the deal about her.  He prefers a classic beauty.  Like Shannon.  Whatever else she was, the woman was absolutely beautiful.

“Your leg must hurt terribly,” says the man next to him, and Bradley’s forced to deal.

Bradley’s not into talking to strangers, but he seems to attract their attention anyway.  His eyes meet the stranger’s, and he forgets what he’s going to say.  The man is beautiful, with large blue eyes and smooth, delicate skin.  He shakes Bradley’s offered hand.  Bradley’s surprised.  He’s not much of a handshaker.  He doesn’t even remember sticking his hand out there.

“Peter Arrowsmith,” the man says.  “Pleased to meet you.”

“Bradley Wendt.”

“Yes.  Bradley.  Your poor leg.  That must be very painful, a jump like that, the hard, unyielding stones, with nothing to break your fall.”  There’s something weird and melodious about Arrowsmith’s way of talking, as if any moment he might burst into song or laughter.

“Excuse me?  Do I know you?”  Bradley hasn’t told anyone about the jump.  This guy maybe saw it happen?  What’s he doing here?  His parents weren’t home, thank God, or else he never would’ve taken Shannon to his place.  They return later today.  His parents are incapable of minding their own business as far as Bradley is concerned.  Their very word:  “We’re just concerned, dear.”  He can’t make them stop.  He hasn’t tried very hard.  Without them, he would just be ordinary.

Arrowsmith peers at him intently.  “We just met, just now.  You’ve had quite the experience—a gateway, perhaps, to a possible future awakening—I sense that hunger in you—but first, more than anything, I imagine, you want your leg healed and the pain to cease, so that you can forget about it?”

“That’s— That’s why I’m here.”  Bradley tries to sound optimistic.  He wishes the nurse person would come back. Where does she go anyway?  This Arrowsmith character is starting to get on his nerves.  Anybody who starts talking about awakening is not somebody Bradley usually wants to talk to.

“I’m so glad to hear you say that.  Look at me.”

Bradley’s about had it with this weird guy who, now that he thinks about it, is still hanging onto his hand with a firm grip.  Uh-oh.  He should’ve known, a guy this pretty.  He looks down, away from the intent gaze.  Definitely not interested.  Oh boy.  Ballet slippers, no less.  He looks up, and their eyes meet, and his leg quits hurting immediately, just like that.  Pain gone.  Completely.

“There, there,” Peter Arrowsmith says, withdrawing his beautiful hand, “isn’t that better?”  There’s a piece of paper in Bradley’s palm, the name of a popular drug written on it.  “You might want to ask your doctor about it,” Mr. Arrowsmith suggests and smiles.

Bradley’s aware this is just a tiny bit weird, because he’d thought he came in here first thing on a Sunday morning about a pain in his foot?  Ankle?  Leg?  But they seem fine.  He waggles them.  Hmm.

He looks at the name on the paper again, remembers the ads:  Unhappy, lost, frustrated people aimlessly wandering dark city streets, find their way to rooftops, treetops, mountaintops, fly above the clouds, find a new sense of purpose and direction, but first they have to ask their doctors about Enlyten.  Today.  The voice that rattles off the side effects talks a bit like Arrowsmith.

“You remember Shannon, don’t you?  The exquisitely beautiful but deceitful creature who’s made you so unhappy that you’ve ended up here seeking medical help?”

“I guess so.”  There’s something not quite right about this version of events.  He does remember her.  She did make him unhappy.  Did she deceive him?  There was something important Mr. Arrowsmith was leaving out of the story.  There was something she wanted to show him.  Wings.  He… jumped?  What a crazy notion.  Bradley Wendt jumping out a window.  Ridiculous.  He gets scared on ladders.

Mr. Arrowsmith continues.  “You will likely never see her again—she’s a faithless, flighty creature—but if you do, I don’t expect you to face her alone.  Do you have a cell phone?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want me to see it?”  He holds out his hand.

“Yes.”  Bradley’s not sure why he says this, because he’s not entirely sure it’s true, but he’s still so grateful for the relief from his pain he can’t deny Mr. Arrowsmith anything.  It’s weird he can’t remember the pain, but still, he feels so much better.

“Turn it on for me, won’t you?”

He means the cell phone.  There’s something really strange about Mr. Arrowsmith.  He’s totally helpless and powerful at the same time, which makes no sense at all.  Bradley turns on his phone and places it in Mr. Arrowsmith’s upturned palms.

“How helpful you are.  Do you want me to always know where you are, Bradley?”  He’s holding Bradley’s cell like it was a baby bird or something, so that the glow from the screen fills his cradled hands with light.

Something keeps telling Bradley not to be scared—not himself certainly—for he’s scared shitless anyway.  His knees feel like jelly.  If he wasn’t sitting down he’d fall down.  “Yes,” he says again.  He’s absolutely positive he doesn’t mean it this time, but it’s the only word he can remember, the only one that feels right and true and acceptable.  Worthy of the moment.  He wants to say yes.

Good.  I’m so glad to hear you say that.  Did you know whenever your phone is on, the world knows where you are?  Isn’t that interesting and marvelous?  The modern world, filled with human invention.  Like spiders.”  He places the phone in Bradley’s hand, clasping it in both of his for way too long.  “You shouldn’t remember Shannon at all, of course.  It saddens me to say it’s typical of her sloppy and dangerous dealings with people that she should leave such a memory behind to trouble you.  But since it’s there, perhaps we can turn it to good purpose, perhaps prevent future misfortune befalling others like yourself.  You can be my eyes.  Should you see her again, don’t approach her.  Call this number and leave a message for me, Mr. Arrowsmith.  Peter.  You may call me Peter, if you want.”

He releases Bradley’s hand and shows Bradley his alabaster palm.  A number is written there.  He’s pretty sure it wasn’t there before.  “Don’t you want to put that in your memory?” Peter asks, nodding to the phone, still there in Bradley’s hand, still on, telling the world where he is, though he no longer has any idea himself.  Who is he, anyway?  Bradley wants to run, but he wants to be here inside Patient First with Mr. Arrowsmith, to be healed, to be better.  He said so, he remembers, and made Peter glad.  When he enters the last digit into memory, the number fades from Peter’s palm.  Bradley feels a dull headache, but that too, abruptly passes.

“It has been a pleasure, Bradley.  Should you need to remember, you’ll remember.  Otherwise, you’ll forget.”

“Forget?”

“Me.”

 

“Mr. Wendt.  The doctor will see you now.”  The nurse smiles at him.

He returns Kate Winslett to the stack unread, rises and walks to the open door.  He looks back at the empty waiting room.  It’s like he doesn’t even remember just sitting there.  Another symptom of the sorry state of his mind.  He’ll have to remember to tell the doctor.  He’s glad he’s come to get some help.  He wonders where he found the wherewithal to act, so unlike him and the aimless life he’s been leading.

“Mr. Wendt, you’re forgetting your crutches.”

“Those aren’t mine.  Why on Earth would I need crutches?”

Enlyten, the doctor tells him, is not for everyone, just everyone who asks apparently, for he leaves with samples, a week’s supply, feeling better about everything already.  He looks for a brunch place.  You’re supposed to take it with food.

He has one nagging thought, however, as he drives slowly through his familiar neighborhood, weighing the merits of this place and that, a thought both unsettling and persistent.  He can’t say why or what has prompted the feeling, and it’s not as if it’s the first time he’s suspected it, but this time he knows it:  He’s a coward, through and through.

The more he thinks about it, the more it nags at him.  He can’t remember why exactly, but the certainty remains.  He wishes he could remember.  Something about wings.  Something about Moby Dick?  Can’t be.  He wrote a paper on it once.  B-.  He had a terrible crush on that professor too, longed for her to think of him as an A+ kind of guy.  The story of his life.

But that was all about to change.  Here we go.  Huevos Rancheros!

 

 

Chapter 4:  Meet Mia Morrow

And long we try in vain to speak and act

Our hidden self, and what we say and do

Is eloquent, is well—but ’tis not true!

—Matthew Arnold, from “The Buried Life”

 

 

 

Bethanie Carew has always wanted to be someone else, the woman she is when she runs.  No history, just pavement, trail, beach, doesn’t matter, moving through time one foot after the other.  The woman she’s been pretending to be with George.  She’s explaining this to her best girlfriend, Carla.  They’re running.  They run every Sunday morning.  It’s how she met George, running.  All sorts of people run.  They cross paths, their lives entangle, their bodies too eventually, sometimes.  Like her and Carla, not the bodies part, but their lives.  They’ve been running together since high school, still do with the help of Bluetooth, Bethanie in Richmond, Carla in Dallas.

“You gotta tell him the truth,” Carla says again.  Him is George.  Truth is a complicated concept.  Truth about Stefan, for example, Bethanie’s former lover, friend, older man she’s grateful to for so much, including a place to live for the last few years or so.  And a job.  Stefan doesn’t know anything about George and vice versa.  In reality, Stefan doesn’t know much about Bethanie either, and much of what she’s told him isn’t true.

“So I just quit my job, find a new place to live, and hope George will accept me as I am?”

“You don’t have a lease?”

“Get real.  Stefan thought it would be unseemly.”

“What?”

“Un-seemly.”  Bethanie gets a dirty look from a woman waiting for the bus.  A running cell phone shouter, is there anything more obnoxious?  Carla seems to be in traffic, however, and this is their time together, and it’s important.

Carla’s the only person in the world who knows who Bethanie really is.  More or less.  She’s kept a list in her head of the lies she’s told Carla over the years.  There are three.  She did sleep with Jay that time, she’s never been hang-gliding, and you don’t need to know the third one, because it’s the last, and it doesn’t really matter anyway.  It helps Carla lives in Dallas, and Bethanie doesn’t talk to her every day.  No lease had been Bethanie’s idea; unseemly, Stefan’s gracious excuse for her.  For leases you need references, credit checks, deposits.  All that unseemly stuff.

“I still don’t understand why you dumped him,” Carla says.

“He just sold a piece, and he wanted to celebrate it with me.  He was getting all serious.  Like I might be the one.”

“Can’t have that.”

“I’ve been lying to him, Carla.”

“So you don’t deserve him.  So you said.  At least you gave this one your name.”

“It was some run for something or other.  We had nametags.”

“I still don’t understand why you dumped him.  You lie to everyone.”

“I pretend.”

“Same difference.  What does George think you do?”

She’s not sure why.  It’s always Carla’s favorite question—and she remembers them better than Bethanie does—all her professed professions, none of which she actually is, a clerk in Stefan’s running store.  “A paleontologist.”

There’s honking or laughter on Carla’s end.  Carla’s running laugh sounds like a tinny buffalo snort.  “Why on Earth did you tell him that?”

“He was interested in bones.  I thought it’d be a connection.”

“Bones?”

“Anatomy.  Birds.  Wings.  He told me bird bones are hollow but incredibly strong.”

“Sweet.  I thought he was a painter.”

“He makes wings, all different media.”

“Wings.  Like on birds?”

“Birds.  Angels.  Lots of angels.  He’s really good.  I can’t believe the things I said to him.  He deserves better than me.”

“Got that.  No circling back.  I thought you met him at the store.”

“He came into the store later, after we met running.  Fortunately Stefan wasn’t there.  I told George I was part time, did it for the discount.  I told him being a paleontologist doesn’t pay well, and I’m between digs.”

Between digs!”  Definitely laughter.  Usually she’d be laughing with her.  She knows why Carla asks about her phony careers.  Why does Costello ask Abbott, “Who’s on first?”  Not this time though.  It’s not funny anymore.  Nobody’s on first and never will be.  Who would they be with, after all?

Bethanie’s starting across the Boulevard Bridge, the James River running high below, whipped up and frothing, swirling, brilliant in the morning light.  She told a guy once she was a river raft guide in West Virginia.  She talked him through a Class-5, borrowing details from some hotdog who came into the store.  That was a wild night.  That was key.  A night.  One performance.  What’s the harm?  Plenty when one day leads to another.  She’s told Stefan so much bullshit over the years, he must think his memory’s failing.  I thought your mother was from Cuba…  Where did I get the idea you’d met Dylan?

Except for the paleontology thing and some phony family history—no relatives living—she didn’t do any of that stuff with George.  A lot of times she didn’t tell him anything just to keep from lying to him.  She was all quiet and mysterious and deep and private—and that had been wonderful—but then he started falling in love with her, and she realized she was still lying to him.  She wasn’t that quiet, private running paleontologist he thought she was.  She was a liar.  She couldn’t imagine a worse thing happening to a sweet, artistic guy like George than to fall for a lie, so she broke her silence and pretended to be somebody she knew he’d hate, some shallow grasping insensitive bitch who would suck the life out of his artistic soul and leave him lying in the gutter, good as dead, better off without her.

Unfortunately, whoever else Bethanie may be, she’s not her—she’s not that bad news—and now she wishes she hadn’t been quite so awful.  She wants Carla to tell her to stick to her resolve, that George is still better off without her, because, truth is, she’s still a liar, but instead Carla keeps asking her why she dumped a guy who was falling for her.  Some friend.

“How’s Steve?”  Bethanie asks.  She probably should’ve asked thirty minutes ago.  It’s been pretty much all George the entire run.

“Steve’s Steve.  We’re going to brunch.”

“You’re really lucky.”

“I know.  You are too.  You just don’t know it.  Gotta go.  I’m here.  Just time to hit the shower.  Love you.  Call later if you need to.  Bye.”

“Bye.”  And that’s that for another week.  Bethanie won’t call.  Carla and Steve will have margaritas with the brunch, sex in the afternoon.  That’s what they do.  She can’t crash that with her stupid self-inflicted troubles.  Carla complains about the sameness.  Bethanie tells her she’s lucky.

She listens to her own footfalls, her breathing.  Traffic’s light on Sunday.  As she ascends into Byrd Park, she hears the dogs in the dog park.  She’s thought about getting a dog.  She likes dogs.  You can’t lie to a dog.  It doesn’t have to get all complicated.  Stefan would be okay with it.  He and his wife used to have a dog who died before the wife.  If Bethanie got a dog, would he be Stefan’s dog too?  Stefan would be all over wanting to walk with it and play with it and run with it…  If they had a dog together, would that make her his wife?  She remembers why she’s never gotten a dog.

At this point, she usually laps the track in Byrd Park, but she heads straight for the Fan instead, taking the Addison Street bike/ped bridge over the freeway, then over to Grove.  She just wants to see if George’s car is still where it was last night.  She hopes he didn’t try to drive.

She heads up Grove a few blocks, but his car’s not parked where it was. This is where they finally fought, and she walked away.  You can’t dump a guy and drive him home.  She’s certain it was here.  There was a lawn lion stalking them the whole time.  There it is—on its tiny veldt.  He’d joked about it.  He was happy.  He’d just sold a piece.  She felt—  That’s when she knew she had to let him go.  He made her laugh one too many times, made her want to confess.  Can’t have that.

The car’s impossible to miss with that red door.  She went to the junkyard with him to get it after somebody slid into his parked car during the last snow storm.  She’d never been to a junkyard before.  She had a wonderful time.  Okay, so they were both falling.  All the more reason.  There’s a loneliness about lying, that with each lie, you know anything real is just receding in the distance, like a runner who’s faster than you.  She’s mostly succeeded in not lying to George.  Telling the truth, not so much.  Paid professionals couldn’t drag it out of her.  Why should George be any different?

So his car’s not here.  What now?  She keeps running.  His place is maybe a mile.  She was surprised he drove, but it’d been raining, and she thinks he had in mind going somewhere after dinner.  He doesn’t like to drive and usually walks or bikes.  She’s heading toward his place from the west.  His car might be blocks from there.  She might miss it, but if she spots it, and it’s okay, then he’s probably okay—that way anyway—and she can quit worrying quite so much, feeling quite so guilty about him.

She almost misses his car on a side street close to his alley entrance, the red door almost concealed by a small maple.  She circles it.  Looks okay.  He was lucky to get a parking place so close to home in the middle of the night.  She really thought he would just walk, and she feels a fresh wave of guilt over what could’ve happened.  She should’ve stopped him.  She shouldn’t have been so awful.

There’s a sweet smell in the air, like something blooming close by.  It’s a comforting smell somehow, oddly familiar, and it makes her want to linger.  She has no place to go, no place to be.  She has Sundays and Mondays off.  She does some stretches, using George’s car for balance, giving her an excuse to peer inside.  His easel’s not there.  He must be working outside.  He’s always working, totally dedicated.  He doesn’t lie to anybody about who he is.  He couldn’t if he wanted to.  She wishes she could be like that.  Just be herself.

“Do you know the owner of this vehicle, perhaps?”

It’s a man, a striking man in weird clothes, especially for the warm spring weather—a big overcoat worn like a cape, a big scarf around his neck.  She’s a tower of sweat in a scoop tank and shorts.  “Peter Arrowsmith,” he says, offering his hand.  He seems familiar somehow, but she can’t quite place him.

She gives him a polite nod, and he puts the hand away inside the coat.  “No,” she says.  “Are you looking for him?”

“What makes you think it’s a him?”

She laughs.  “Look at that door.  How many women would drive around in a car like that?  With all that stuff in the back?”

He doesn’t take his eyes off her.  He doesn’t care about the car.  She still can’t place him, but surely she would remember a guy like this.  “You’re a student of human nature as well as an athlete.  You must run a great deal.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Your breathing.  You speak effortlessly, even after great exertion.  I watched you run.  You have a tireless stride.”

He can’t have watched her for more than a block or two.  The sight angles are wrong, even if he was standing at the corner.  He must know she’s lying and wants to keep her talking, or he’s interested for other reasons.  “I run some.  And you?  Look at you.  You must be a model or an actor?”  That would explain where she’s seen him before.

“I’m an investigator.”

“Of whoever’s car this is?”

“Perhaps.”

“How come?”

“I can’t compromise his privacy to a stranger.”

“Of course.  I’ll be running now.”  She turns.

He leans toward her.  “Wait.  Please.  Are you sure you want to leave?  I’m sorry.  I didn’t catch your name.  Look at me.”  There’s something in his voice as well, something almost familiar.  Definitely sexy.

She wants to look at him.  He’s nice to look at, but who is it she wants to be when she does? When Bethanie pretends, it’s like it just comes to her—both the necessity and the role she plays—like this guy, out of nowhere.  She pretends when the real Bethanie would be afraid of being stupid or being rejected or being just somehow wrong.  But a pretend person is flexible, can adjust to the situation, can be just who the other person is looking for, the one they want to talk to.  Not her.  Who would want to talk to her?

Arrowsmith is investigating George, and as lovely as this strange man is, that can’t be good for George.  Maybe she can help, maybe she can make up for breaking his heart.  She looks into Peter Arrowsmith’s eyes.  Deep into his eyes.  He wants her to.  She’ll lure him away from George, like one of those mother birds on nature shows pretending to be hurt.  She’s not pretending to be hurt.  She’s pretending something easier.  Interested.  Very interested.  The smell she noticed earlier seems to be coming from him.  It’s not like flowers, more like the vapors from some exotic tea steeping.  An aphrodisiac.  Eyes as blue as empty skies.

“My name is Mia Morrow.  Now that I think about it, I may have seen this car around a time or two.  Let me run home and shower and change.  We can meet somewhere, you can buy me brunch, and we can discuss it.  You can tell me about being an investigator.  How’s that?”

It’s hard to read his look, a mix of confusion and delight, as if he knows she’s lying but likes the lie.  Or maybe she’s projecting that.  She enjoys being Mia.  “As you wish,” he says.

He’s playing a role too.  If he’s just an ordinary insurance investigator or something, she’s a Russian cosmonaut.  She’s curious why he’s lying.  That’s different—her trying to see through someone else’s lies.  Mia likes different.  Bethanie usually goes for the great wide opens, like George, like Stefan.  It’s not a stretch to call Peter weird.  Mia likes weird.

“What do you do, Mia?” he asks.  “When you’re not running?”

Carla’s question.  She’s glad he’s asked.  Mia is her work.  “I’m an actress.” (She did take twelve acting classes in middle school with a Mrs. Braewater who claimed she’d been on Broadway).

“How splendid.  You must tell me all about your work as well.  Where shall we meet?”

Bethanie’s a little afraid she’s in over her head with this guy.  Fortunately, Mia’s not afraid of anything.  She names the most expensive restaurant she can think of, a French place a few blocks from the store, a test to see if the guy’s really interested.  “Do you have a car?  It’s about three miles.”

He smiles.  He has quite the smile.  “I don’t drive.  I’ll manage.”

“Good.”  She runs off, never doubting Peter will meet her there.  Mia’s not a doubter.  Mia believes in herself.  That’s because she’s not real.  She’s invented for the occasion, like a crimson chameleon on a red, red rose.  Just the thing until it wilts or you grasp the thorns.

God, what an image.  Mia’s quite the drama queen.

 

Home is Stefan’s home, a 1930′s cape cod.  He used to live here with wife Rachel, and then she died, leaving Stefan and a million nick-nacks collected from their travels.  Bethanie cleaned the house when she was doing houses for a while, telling him she was a singer who would soon be going on tour.  They had a long time to talk about her singing career while she dusted all those nick-nacks, each one with another Rachel story hanging off it like a cobweb.  The tour never came.  They became lovers, she moved in, then they weren’t lovers, but she still remained, though she quit dusting.  He didn’t seem to mind.

Stefan doesn’t seem to mind much of anything except that Rachel his wife is gone.  Bethanie reminds him of Rachel.  He told her so the day they met.  She doesn’t know how because she’s seen plenty of pictures, and they don’t look anything alike.  Rachel was short and smiley.  Bethanie’s 5-11.  Okay 6.  A couple of inches taller than Stefan.  She used to search for clues in the stories, but they don’t sound like her either.  Except she ran too.  Like Stefan.  The store had been Rachel’s idea.  Bethanie’s pretended a lot of things with Stefan but never pretended to be his wife.

Stefan’s in the kitchen making yogurt.  “How was your run?”

“Fine.”

“Carla?”

“Same as always.”

Carla came to visit once after a convention in DC.  Bethanie held her breath the whole time afraid something would contradict one of her many lies to Stefan.  Except for Carla’s inappropriate laughter at Stefan’s mention of Bethanie’s non-existent brother’s tragic death at sea, it went well.  The two of them really hit it off.

He’s been watching a thermometer.  He pulls it from the pan, adds a glob of yogurt and whips up the lot, pours it into a row of containers.  He does this every single Sunday she’s known him.  Rachel used to do it.  The recipe is written in her handwriting.  Sometimes it’s like living with a ghost.  Bethanie waits for the ghost to give it up, tell the poor guy to move on, but ghost never does, or he never listens.  “Want to get a bite after you shower?” he asks.

“I have a brunch date.  I ran into an old friend.”

He gives her an odd, searching look.  Old friend isn’t a phrase she uses often.  She always gives her invented old friends names, like the guy who owned the river raft livery where she never worked was Jackson, went by Mad Dog.  The vague “Old Friend” seems to have caught Stefan’s attention.  He nods to himself.  He puts the saucepan with whisk in the sink, fills it with water, seals the yogurt jars and stows them in their special incubator.  He says into the refrigerator, stowing the rest of the milk and the starter (brand specified by Rachel).  “Do you mean George Stewart, or is this a different old friend?”  He straightens up.  When he lets go of the refrigerator door, gravity closes it.  Thunk.

“You know about George?”

“For some time.”

“We broke up last night.”

“I thought you really liked him.  You were so happy for a while.  You barely touched the floor.”

“How did you even know about him?”

“People tell me about you.  They think I don’t know.  That you’re misleading an old man.”  His voice quavers on old man, he steadies himself on the countertop, clutching his heart.  She’s supposed to laugh.

“You don’t know,” she blurts out.  “I lie to you all the time, constantly.”  She’s imagined saying this so many times.  She can scarcely believe she actually has.  She’s stunned.

He’s not.  “Oh I know.  I’ve always known.  I don’t believe anything you tell me.  Except in fun.  Except one thing:  You told me once you loved me.  I shall carry that with me to the grave.”

Except in fun.  Could that be true?  “Once.  That hardly seems fair.”

“It was enough.”

“No.  I mean, you never told me at all.  Not even once.”  She remembers saying it to him.  It was mostly true, partly to see if he’d say it too.  He didn’t.  Rachel might hear.

“You’re right.  I showed you instead.  Poor thing.”

“You still are, aren’t you?  What are you driving at?  Why are you telling me now you know I’m a liar if you’ve always known?  Sick of my lies?”  She still can’t imagine why she confessed.  Something’s going on.

“Certainly not.  I hate to give them up.  Especially the marvelous embellishments.  Thing is.  I had a visitor just now.  You’re not having lunch with just some old friend, are you?”  He’s gentle, not accusing.  He doesn’t see himself the victim here.  He’s looking out for her, as usual, but there’s something else.  She thought she knew all of Stefan’s secrets.

“No.  I don’t really know who he is.  It’s this weird guy named Peter Arrowsmith who was snooping around George’s car.  He’s up to something.”

“And what do you want from him?”  He says this with startling intensity.  It’s Stefan’s style to joke in the face of adversity.  If he’s grim, it must be grim indeed.

She considers Arrowsmith’s deep blue eyes.  What was it she saw there?  It was like he was trying to hypnotize her.  Or maybe he had.  “I haven’t the faintest idea.”

Stefan visibly relaxes.  His familiar smile returns.  “Maybe that’s a good thing.”

“There’s more to this guy than he’s letting on.”

He shrugs.  “Then you’ll have that in common.”

“I’ve already lied to him.  I’ve told him I’m an actress named Mia Morrow.”

“Ha!  Lucky fellow.”

“You’re a sweetheart, Stefan.”

“Ah!  Now I have two lies to believe in.  Keep it up, and I shall die happy.”

“So how did you know?  How long have you known about me?  That I’m a liar.”

“Oh don’t be so hard on yourself.  You’re not that good a liar.  I was flattered you’d bother to lie to me.  An angel told me, if you must know.  When you first came.”

She laughs.  She thinks he’s joking.  “And why would an angel talk to you?”

“Because I cried out in despair.”  He’s deadly serious.

All the air seems to leave the room.  He’s serious.  She can hear a bird singing outside, wild with spring.  Stefan came close to killing himself, he told her once, the spring when she first showed up.  Birds probably sang then too.  That was a fairly rough patch.  She wasn’t exactly tuned to the birds either.  One of the things that got her out of the funk she was in was cleaning the house of someone worse off than her.  “An angel told you I was a liar?”

“He said you weren’t always who you seemed to be—a girl who likes to tell stories—but that you meant no harm, and I should give you a chance—just not believe you.”

“A chance?”

“A job.  He thought the place could use a cleaning.”  He laughs.  “But I can see you don’t believe me.  No reason that you should.  Just remember this with him:  What matters, no matter what he says, is what you want.  Never let him decide anything.  That will save you a lot of trouble dealing with him.”

“What are you talking about?  Who visited you?”

“My angel.  Yours too, apparently.  Peter Arrowsmith.  He wanted to know what I knew about George.  He didn’t think I’d tell you.  I didn’t think I’d tell you.  I wouldn’t usually tell anyone about him.  These are rather special circumstances.”

“That’s impossible.  I just left him.  He said he didn’t have a car.  I ran here.  How could he possibly—”

“He flew.  Wings, Beth.  He has wings.”

“Get out!”

He shrugs.  “You’ve been warned.”

 

 

Chapter 5: The Angel in the Mirror

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

—Emily Dickinson

 

 

 

Shannon likes Zoe Snow, a longtime friend of George’s who starts out fairly terrified to be conversing with an angel over coffee, but puts up a brave front.  Gradually, as she comes to realize Shannon’s not the sort of angel she learned about in Catholic school, and as she sees her friend George being so relaxed even flirtatious with the angel, her fear slips away.  A snoot full of angel dust doesn’t hurt either.

The place stinks of dust.  Shannon could use some fresh air, but the humans are delighted to be snorting her calming, seductive stench.  Some get addicted.  (The lotus eaters?  The dust.)  It doesn’t always work, as Bradley dramatically demonstrated, but they’re very sweet, these two.  They want to like her, want to protect her even.  She’s one lucky angel.

The coffee that George poured his heart into, wanting her to enjoy it, to feel welcome, caresses her tongue like a hot kiss.  She’s been wandering a long time, from mistake to misfortune and back again.  She likes these people, but then she always does.  Like humans.  Too much.  They’ll be her undoing, lingering here, enjoying coffee.  But why else is she here on Earth if not for such moments?  It’s a human place.  Anyplace but Heaven.

When an angel doing her duty returns to Heaven, she rejoices.  No matter what.  They start you out going to times and places where it’s easy for an angel.  There aren’t that many people, and they believe in you, usually do whatever you say, no questions asked.  You deliver your message and fly away.  There are no security cameras or x-ray scans.  You’re the fastest thing on the planet.  There are no drones or heat seeking missiles.  Easy duty.

Her second mission she appeared unto a clutch of awestruck soldiers, mostly fourteen or fifteen, and exhorted them to fight on for whatever cause had them gashed and bleeding and looking half-dead already.  She didn’t want to know why.  Good angels don’t.  Not their concern.  But deep down she felt in her hollow angel bones that God couldn’t want her to be doing this.  When she returned, she only pretended to rejoice.  Pretending’s not a long-term strategy in Heaven, so she knew young that she would fall.  She tried to learn as much as she could about Earth before she made her break, volunteered for the riskiest duty.

It’s a bit trickier deploying angels in the modern world, especially post 9/11.  Only a handful ever come here, too risky.  So when she fell, she came here, like hiding in the briar patch.  She wouldn’t last a week in the Middle Ages, the skies practically swarming with her brethren, and she likes it better here anyway.  It grows on you once you know your way around.

The garden, turns out, is Zoe’s.  Shannon should’ve figured it isn’t George’s.  There’s no art, no angels among the herbs.  It’s Zoe’s scent on the bench.  She lives in the house west of the garden facing the side street.  George’s alley runs alongside her place.  They’re both thirtyish, feeling like they’ve grown old.  It seems like a nice age to Shannon.  Kind of how she thinks of herself.  The age thing is different with humans and angels—one of many reasons it’s never supposed to work out if they hook up.

George has been telling Zoe about Bethanie breaking up with him, as a lead up to Shannon’s finding him on the street.  He’s gotten a little bogged down in the details of the dumping—it’s the first chance he’s had to tell the story.  “It was like she was another person,” he says.

“I could never figure out who she was,” Zoe confesses. “You seemed to like that Miss Mysterious stuff.  I didn’t trust her.  I tried to talk to her about the Hobbits?  What paleontologist doesn’t want to talk some Hobbits?  She was all like, I really couldn’t say and Opinions differ.  I’ve been with women like that—with their Secret Stories and Stuff They Can’t Talk About—not with you anyway.  The story’s always disappointing, and the stuff they won’t talk about is exactly what you need to know to survive the experience.”  She laughs nervously, adds to George almost as an afterthought, “Kristin and I broke up again.”  She shrugs.

“When did you get back together?”  George apparently missed the whole thing.

“Tuesday.  Boring.  Let’s change the subject.  So how did you guys meet?” she asks like Shannon is George’s new girlfriend.  Her curiosity’s been looking for an opening for quite a while.  It’s the beauties.  She can’t take her eyes off them.

They haven’t been talking about the elephant/angel in the room­ because Shannon’s been leaning on their wills a little to give herself some space to enjoy her coffee, and for everybody to be all happy before she gets to the bad news—that she’s just passing through, not here to change anybody’s life, just keep her own.  George needed to vent about girlfriend anyway, though Shannon’s already sick of hearing about her, and Zoe needed to get past her initial shock.  It helps Zoe’s a good Southern girl and doesn’t want to be rude.

Shannon answers Zoe’s question: “I used him when he was drunk to get away from a band of angels on my ass.  I’ll be leaving when the sun goes down and the moon comes up.”

“Oh.  Why then?”  She asks this like she understands the using George part and the band of angels part, which she doesn’t.  She’s treading water, grabbing for a scrap of sense.  She understands the sun and moon.

Shannon finds her very brave.  “I’ll fly over the river in the moonlight, making me hard to spot.  My wings shed a dust phosphorescent to angels.”  She gives her wings a shake, dumping more dust.  “Smell that smell?  That’s me.  That’s angel shit.  Sunshine in.  Dust out.”

Zoe makes a face at the image.  Angels aren’t supposed to say shit like “shit.”  “You’re not what I expected an angel to be.”

“I’m kind of off the reservation.  The official line is our shit doesn’t stink.  You’re free to believe what you want, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.  We’re just creatures—different creatures.”

She nods.  “So how did George save you?”

Save?  Did she say save?  Zoe’s quite the romantic.  Shannon’s afraid she’s going to be a disappointment.  “He gave me a ride out the Interstate to lose the band, then brought me here, let me catch some rays in the garden.  If I’m lucky, they don’t know where I am, but they’re probably keeping a close eye, circling.  It’s a cloudless day.  I’d be spotted for sure.  Angels, like eagles, have remarkable vision.  Moonrise is my best plan.”

“So you have to stay cooped up all day?”

“Can’t fly.  Can’t show the wings.  At least I have good company.”  She feels guilty for wasting their time on a day they won’t remember.  “You haven’t asked me why a band of angels is after me.”

“I thought you’d tell me if you wanted.”

Shannon smiles.  “I appreciate that.  I was different, didn’t fit in, and I quit.  You’re not allowed to quit.  I’m not trying to hurt anybody or change the world or anything.”

Zoe nods.  “I get that.”

“I thought you might.”

“I’m glad George could help you.  George is a really good guy.”

George ignores this testimonial and its implications.  He doesn’t want to revisit the next logical question, what would happen to Shannon if she’s caught, any more than she does.  He says to Zoe, pointing to one of the larger angel paintings on the wall, “I wanted to show her her view of the river.”  The perspective is from behind the angel, above her head and wings.  She’s facing downriver, toward the city beyond.  This painting, more than all the others, touches Shannon, captures something about being an angel, about being her anyway.  What does she know about being a proper angel?

“Oh God!” Zoe wails.  “A picnic in Hollywood!  I love that idea!”  She turns to Shannon.  “Please! Please! Please!  I have brownies.  I have—  I have grapes!  George?”

George smiles, looks at Shannon as sweetly as the bees.  “I have peanut butter.  More honey.  I can make sandwiches.  It’s a special celebration, an important social event.  I want you to come.”

He understands this angel thing maybe a little too well.  This is how angel stories go.  Angels reveal too much of themselves, and humans control them by twisting their intentions.  Shannon doesn’t feel so much twisted as embraced.  “What are you celebrating?” Shannon asks.

“Meeting you.”  Now he’s the one looking into her eyes.  He sees yes.  Absolutely.  “I’ll put the rest of the coffee in a thermos.”

Zoe beams her approval on this exchange, especially the lingering look.  Their combined will is like a couple of glasses of wine to Shannon’s angel will.  She lives to please.  It would make them so happy.  Her too.  “Yes,” she says against her better judgment.  If she had any of that, she wouldn’t be fallen.  Her consent makes Zoe shriek with joy, music to her ears.  But when Shannon wraps herself up in her ace bandage and starts to stuff her beauties into her bottomless backpack, Zoe makes a horrified face and retching noises.

“Zoe’s a fashion designer,” George explains.  “She thinks you can do better.”  Zoe’s nodding her head furiously.  The potty mouth’s one thing, but does she have to dress herself out of a Dumpster?

“Let me dress you,” Zoe says excitedly.  “I cut hair too.”  She makes a critical survey of Shannon’s tangled locks, a crumpled frown on her face.  Personal grooming can be a challenge when you’re fallen, and angels aren’t so much into the coif as humans.  There’s maybe three hairstyles in Heaven.  All dowdy.

“Okay,” Shannon says.  “If you want.”

Zoe beams like the full moon.  Her eyes are enormous.  “Want?  This may be,” she says, both hands pressed to her heart, “the best day of my life.”

George too has a look in his eye, an added encouragement if any’s needed, that maybe Shannon’s doing some good here.  He needed to get over his girlfriend, who obviously wasn’t right for him.  His look says, Girlfriend?  What girlfriend?  I’ve got a date with an angel.  Zoe’s look says, Me too!

Shannon wonders what her look conveys, wonders if they can read her.  This won’t be as you imagine.  I’m terribly sorry.  I’ll selfishly keep all these memories to myself and leave you nothing.  She smiles.  They don’t want to see through or inside her.  She’s an angel.  Look at those beauties.

Zoe’s fingers plunge into Shannon’s hair and massage her scalp.  “What would you say to a shampoo?”

“Yes.”  Of course.  Whether she needs it or not.  Angels are extremely sensitive to touch, don’t touch each other much.  An angel’s palms, she was told as a child, were made to touch each other.  Humans, who are all about their hands, touch so nicely, when they mean to.  When Shannon gets the chance to hang out in a city plaza and just watch humans, she loves to watch them touching each other with their hands, gesturing like they’re reaching out to touch what they mean to say.  Angel conversations are rarely worth the effort.  Angels don’t chat.

Zoe sends George to her place with a list of clothes while she lathers Shannon’s head in the sink, an experience Shannon finds glorious, Zoe’s caring fingers intending each hair to be clean and happy and ready for something new, sprouting from a wet happy head.  Shannon would’ve been content if she’d only gotten out all the bug debris and heron shit.

Working around the wings presents challenges to Zoe and her shears and razors and combs she enjoys meeting with great skill and concentration and a few impressive contortions, wrapping herself around one of the beauties to get to some remote spot she wishes to snip.  She’ll never get the dust smell out of her clothes.

Shannon delights in being the recipient of such good intentions.  She’s sitting beside George’s kitchen table.  George makes sandwiches at the counter, watching Zoe’s progress, smiling his approval.  He sits down at the table, sketching, letting her and Zoe do most of the talking, mostly about general angel stuff Shannon told George before.  Zoe has more questions about the hierarchy, especially those at the top.  He keeps sketching as she describes the Seraphim to a wide-eyed Zoe.  She wonders which he’s drawing, her or her words.  He finally puts down the pencil.  She’s not a subject anymore.  She realizes she’s constantly aware of him.  And vice versa.  But then, she’s the angel in the room.

“How did you end up in Richmond?” he asks her.

Zoe hovers in front of her making finishing touches.  Shannon must remain perfectly still.  “Flew.”

“C’mon.  From where? Enough about angels.  What about you?  I want to know about you.

She looks at him out of the corner of her eye.  Zoe doesn’t want her to move her head.  It was easier to look away when his eyes were in a mirror.

Eyes forward, she tells the tale.  “Okay.  I was on a cruise ship headed for Virginia from Bermuda on its way home.  There was a party going on.  Most everyone but the crew was drunk, and I said I thought it was a costume party.  I managed to have a pretty good time.  I danced.  Not particularly easy for an angel.  I ate a piece of a little boy’s birthday cake.  I spent the early morning hours with a homesick Filipino bartender who missed his wife and kids, talking about home.  He knew I was an angel.”

“How did he know?” Zoe asks.

“Some people do.  Maybe he met one before.  Once you smell the dust, it makes you sort of susceptible or receptive.  He wanted me to be an angel.  He was open to the idea.  He needed somebody to talk to who was neither passenger nor crew.  He couldn’t be himself with either one.  When the boat docked, I jumped ship and flew up the river with the dawn to a heron rookery downtown the bartender told me about.  He said he’d seen an angel there before.  Big birds make good cover.  I found the backpack, already had the bandage.  I hung out there a few days, caught a lot of rays.”

“So you were like homeless?”  Zoe’s looking at her all concerned, comb and shears clutched to her chest.

“Yeah.  I’m not from around here.  Home’s a long way off, and that’s not where I’m going.  I’m not exactly welcome there.  We done?”

Zoe steps back.

“Why were you on the cruise ship?” George asks.  Always that eye for the missing detail.

“I fell.”  She tries to say it clean, but the voice breaks up a little.  She usually doesn’t talk about this kind of thing with humans, tries to keep things light, usually doesn’t talk about herself at all.  She hasn’t done what she usually does ever since she met this guy.

Their eyes meet.  He doesn’t ask.  He knows she doesn’t want to talk about it.  He doesn’t need to know the details.  Why your own kind would knock her out of the sky over the ocean in a violent storm.  The incredible odds against that boat being there, miles of ocean all around—and her landing in the swimming pool in the driving rain.  The odds against him being the one drunk on the street looking for his keys when she thought she was definitely done for.  One lucky angel.  Angels have a saying, If it looks like a miracle, it’s likely an angel.  Humans have a similar saying about ducks.  This doesn’t quack like mere luck.

Zoe hands her a mirror.  “You like?”

The angel in the mirror wants to look like this forever.  Cared about, fussed over, rescued—just like some human woman—teary eyes and all.  “Very much.”

“Let’s dress you, then.”

 

By the time they pull into the cemetery in Zoe’s car, Shannon has a whole new look.  A high-collared forest green cape manages to cover her wings without looking too goofy.  It’s anchored to her wingtips, so it won’t blow out of place.  Fortunately, cemeteries are one of those places people dress oddly—because they’re a priestess, because they’re in a movie, because they’re in mourning, because it’s Halloween or some dead man’s birthday.  Humans and their clothes delight Shannon.  Zoe is delighted to have dressed and clipped an angel.  The do is maybe a little too Amelia Earhart, but George seems to like it a lot.  A whole lot.

Who is she kidding?  He’s totally fascinated with her.  Zoe—who never liked the old girlfriend and is a little fascinated herself—is all for the idea.  Shannon lets it fly its course, since she’ll soon be forgotten, and she’s having so much fun.  Is there a law that says angels can’t have fun?  Several actually, but they’re all angel laws, and at this point, they can’t bury her any deeper.  She likes her human pals.  She likes humans.  She only wishes…  But angels don’t wish.  If you want something, want it.  A wish is a desire you can’t believe in, that you know to be impossible.  There’s no point in wishing.

They take her to the angel in the painting, at the bottom of Hollywood Cemetery.  George explains his process to the curious Shannon.  She likes his passion for his work.  To capture the stone angel’s perspective—or the perspective of someone slightly taller looking over her head—George had to hold a camera at arm’s-length and stand tippy-toe (he demonstrates, hamming it up for her) to get the shot.  He then composed the painting from the photo, though he painted most of it here.  “I wanted to get the weather and everything.  The whole experience of standing here being her day after day.  I could’ve used some wings to get the right angle.  Want to see?”

He’s standing behind her.  He carefully slips his hands through the twin slits on either side of her cape, finds his way beneath her wings to her waist.  He grasps her firmly and hoists her up, almost tossing her into the air, expecting her to weigh as much as a human woman.

“My God, you don’t weigh a thing!”

“Hollow bones.  Like a bird.”

“Of course!”  Theory meets practice.  She isn’t just some woman with wings.  She lays her hands on his.  He isn’t just some man with hands.

“But don’t worry.  I’m not fragile.”

Shannon surveys the stone angel’s view.  The river and the city lie before her, though the painting tricks you.  With such a view, you just assume she’d be looking at it, but she’s not.  If you look at her face on, she’s unaware of the river, the city.  Her eyes are downcast, fixed on the man in the grave.  Typical angel move.  Did the man even remember her when he died?  Probably not.  In the painting, storm clouds are building, the light mesmerizing, alarming.  She imagines George standing here on tip-toe as a storm approached.  All for Art!  Such a human.

Today is cloudless and warm, almost too warm in this cape, but way better than bandage and backpack.  Such freedom is a sweet luxury.  She opens the cape a little and lets her beauties sip a little sun.  The island park across the water is teeming with people delighting in the warm spring day.  George is still holding her aloft.  “Isn’t it beautiful?” he says.

She sighs in pleasant agreement.  She likes his touch, the way he holds her, so bold and confident for a human.  It’s all those wings he’s drawn and made and studied.  He must think he’s half angel.  He must think she’s been sent to him special.  Lucky for him, he’s all human.  Half angels are an abomination.  That’s angel for kill on sight, though she’s never heard of a credible sighting.  The genetics are a long shot.  Lucky for him, she wasn’t sent.  Generally, when an angel is sent, it’s not a good thing.

She hates to say it.  “You can put me down now, George.”

He does, but his hands linger.  He’s on the rebound, vulnerable anyway.  She’s on the rebound—or something.  There was no bound to begin with really.  Bradley wanted to talk.  His life was at a crossroads, lots of crossroads.  He’s practically a crossroads collector.  She was a good listener.  She was lonely.  She’d said, “I’m sort of at a crossroads myself.  Can we go to your place?”

Could be worse.  She could be stone, staring at death all day while life flows by.  But is it any better just to watch it flow—or limp down the alley like Bradley?  When do you dive in, Shannon?  When do you drown?

Zoe spreads out a blanket, and they have a picnic of brownies, peanut butter and honey sandwiches, grapes, and a thermos of coffee with yet more honey to celebrate their meeting.  Zoe takes Shannon’s picture and several with George—”closer, closer, put your arm around her”— then has George take her picture with Shannon behind her, chin atop Zoe’s head, cape open, flashing wing.  By looking out toward the river, hunching over, and spreading her wings, Shannon creates a half-dome tent with her cape.  Zoe and George huddle inside, and Zoe takes a timed shot with the camera balanced on a shrub.  This takes several trials and errors.  They’re all laughing and happy.  Even Shannon.

Angels don’t laugh much.  There are no angel comedians.  Shannon feels like she could be the first, high on her own dust.  She could be totally hilarious—if the audience really, really wanted to laugh.  Like these two.

“How old are you?” Zoe asks her.

Always a tricky question.  “How old do you think I am?” Shannon replies.  This gets George’s immediate attention.

“Twenty-eight?” Zoe says.  “Twenty-nine?”

“Exactly,” Shannon says.  She probably should’ve lied.

“Really?” George asks.  “It works the same?”

“Well no.  I’m the age I want to be, so I am the age I seem until—  Until I decide to age, to die.”

“Why would you do that?” Zoe asks.

“To live,” she says.

George is thinking hard about this.  Shannon lets him think, lets him wonder about her.  For now.  Just now.  One now after the other.  She should stop it now.  She could stay right here till sundown, perfectly safe more than likely, or safe enough.  Zoe and George could go back to their lives—two friends nursing breakups, picnicking with their favorite angel:  The stone one staring at the dead guy.  No Shannon.  Not a trace.  George is looking at her.  It would be easy.  He trusts her.  She should…  She can’t.  Not yet.

Zoe wanders off to get a closer view of the sweep of the river and rapids and to leave George alone with Shannon.

“You don’t have to leave tonight,” he says.  “You can stay as long as you like.”

“As long as you like,” she says, an angelic formality.  Means nothing.  Rank decides everything.

“That would be a very long time,” he says.

Angels tell lots of stories about angels and humans getting too close, warnings for all ages.  They become friends, they go on an adventure that ends badly, they fall in love, they become obsessive, passionate lovers, they bear young who are neither angel nor human, Heaven nor Earth, here nor there—cursed by the love that created them.  These stories inevitably end unhappily, miserably for all concerned.  Why?  Every angel knows why.  It’s because an angel’s love is not her own, an angel’s love is God’s alone.  Seriously.

This is one of the ideas Shannon is rebelling against.  A jealous God?  A God against love?  Count her out.  Bring it on.  Whatever.  It’s just wrong.  But George isn’t some abstraction.  He’s on a head-on collision course with reality, and that’s not what she had in mind at all when she helped him find his keys.  She has to stop this now.  He’s falling, and she’s fallen—it cannot work.

“You’re going to forget me,” she says.

“No, I never—”

No.  Listen to me.  Please.  You won’t want to.  You won’t mean to.  But you will.  I’ll remove myself.  It will be as if I was never here, never intended to be here.  Understand?”

“I have pictures.”

“They’ll be gone.  Undone.  Even if they weren’t, you wouldn’t know to look for them.  I’m sorry it has to be this way, but—”

“Forget that,” he says and pulls her mouth to his and kisses her.  Decisively.

This presents a problem.  She kisses him back.  Luxuriantly.  He’s so happy, so passionate, and such a good kisser.  But she kisses him because she wants to.  She wraps him up in her wings and presses him to her, and she wants him.  “Look at me,” he says.

Oh shit.  No, no, no, no…

“Oh my God!” Zoe screams.  “Come quick!”  She’s standing on the bluff, motioning wildly toward the river.  They run to see, and Shannon spots him immediately, a kid in the water, slipped from the rocks upstream, hurtling downstream into serious, rock-filled rapids, without a boat, without a lifejacket, without a chance, his parents watching it happen, totally helpless.

Shannon doesn’t think about it.  That’s always been her problem.  She can’t ignore it.  She steps out of her jeans, shrugs off her beautiful new cape, and falls toward the water in a power dive, using her momentum for speed, swooping low above the water, riding the updraft over the hot rocks, going as low as she dares.  She’ll only have one chance.  He’s right at the top of the worst of the whitewater now.  “Hey kid!” she screams, “Wanna fly?” and his wide open eyes wheel around to her, he raises his arms, and she seizes them, jerking him out of the water just before he smashes into a huge boulder, pushing with her wings for a burst out of there, the water churning with bone crushing force, splashing her face and wings.  The boy’s right shoe is sucked from his foot and shoots downstream and under.  Shannon clears the water and hugs the island shoreline, and drops him improbably into a shallow still pool downriver where people are already running into the water to rescue him.

They all saw it happen, saw the angel save the boy, but they can scarcely believe it.  That boy survived by some— some miracle.  That’s close enough, isn’t it?  Forget the wings.  They don’t matter.

Wrong.  Not for them maybe, the innocent bystanders.  But her.  The angel.  Now she’s really done it.  Maybe they can bury her deeper after all.  Angels aren’t supposed to intervene in human affairs without direct orders from above.  To do otherwise is to defy the will of God.  If the boy was going to die, it was meant to be—because it was happening.  Shannon figures if God wanted things to work out that way, He should have told Zoe and George ixnay on the icnicpay, but no one will care what Shannon figures.  Those who claim to talk to God will no doubt have a different take.  Their God doesn’t speak pig Latin.  Their God doesn’t have a sense of humor or compassion.  Their God doesn’t have a heart.  She’ll have eternity to recalculate.  She’s never talked to God, not that she knows of anyway.

She flies under a busy pedestrian bridge that crosses over to the island, wheels around, spreading a little more oblivion among the onlookers, though some will have lingering miraculous memories anyway.  Some of them will take them seriously.  Can’t be helped.  Hopefully, it won’t screw them up too bad to know there are angels, even bad girls like her who occasionally save a life without being told, just because it’s life, just because she can.

The band has probably already spotted her.  Sure enough.  She sees their reflections in the water.  Maybe a quarter mile overhead and falling.

Her only chance is to get out of here the way she came, so Zoe and George have to know what’s going on a little longer, so they can want to save her ass.  If she really cared about them, would she let them?  Last she saw, they were watching from the bluff.  She flies low through an empty parking lot behind a couple of ugly buildings, over train tracks, paralleled by an old canal.  At first no cover at all.  Then the woods return.  She makes her way up the narrow canal, trying to eke a little cover out of overhanging trees.  She scares up a heron that flies along beside her, croaking like a dinosaur.

The cemetery is somewhere above her to the right, but she can’t see exactly where.  She’ll have to expose herself to view to get there.  She banks left, circling out over the river, and sees she’s overshot the mark.  She heads back downstream when one of the band hits her hard in the back and sends her tumbling.  She plunges under the chilly water and lets it carry her downstream.  She hauls herself onto a rock, her beauties wet and heavy.  She shakes them furiously.  A pair of angels are headed upstream converging on her in a V.  There are more, certainly, above and behind, but they’ll attack in pairs.  It’s safer that way.  She keeps shaking.

She hops, last moment, from rock to rock, and manages to keep her balance as one of them clips her, and she spins.  She gives one last furious shake, leaps, beating hard, managing to climb toward the bluff where a tiny Zoe is still screaming.  Shannon clears the water, then she’s hit again and falls into the woods, landing hard in the middle of a trail.  There’s a sharp pain in her right wing, and she wills it away.  A mountain biker coming off a hill, spots her lying in his way and skids off the trail, tumbling down the ravine into the canal.  She staggers to her feet.  Angels light in the trees, on the trail all around her.  They start toward her.  They won’t speak, won’t listen.  That would risk contamination.  What if she made sense?  That would ruin everything.

Then she hears human feet pounding down the trail.  It’s George, running fast.  He knocks one of the hollow-boned angels out of the way like he was made of papier mâché , they all fly up in a panic, and George scoops Shannon up in his arms and keeps running, accelerating.  Even George can’t outrun a band of angels, but they can’t touch George without word from above, any more than Shannon could save that kid.  Difference is, word will come.  That angel he just knocked on his ass is the leader of the band, in the chain of command.

They’ve done it now.

They reach an open stretch.  An embankment covered with crushed rock slopes steeply up to the cemetery.  You can just see a Confederate flag peeking over the edge.  That’s where the stone angel is—and Zoe’s car.  George starts churning up the embankment, rock flying everywhere.  The band dives at them, hitting and grabbing at her when they can, hoping he’ll shed her to save his skin.  Not George.  He falls to his knees and slides, scrabbles on the rock until he finds his footing and makes it to the top, unceremoniously throwing her into the back of the car and screaming at Zoe to drive.  “Head for the Interstate,” he tells her.  The wail of their squealing tires fills the cemetery.  All eyes are on them.  There will be a lot of forgotten moments today.

A pair of angels land on the roof, try to reach inside for her, George grabs an angel arm and twists hard, and they’re gone.  The car slithers out of the narrow, twisting cemetery roads and shoots out onto the street, sliding as it turns, flying downhill like a roller coaster.  No one has to tell Zoe to drive fast.

George turns to Shannon in the backseat, cradles her face in his bloody hands.  His hands are criss-crossed with deep cuts from the rocks, bleeding profusely.  He doesn’t seem to notice.  “Are you all right?  I saw you fall.  I was afraid…”

She hardly knows what to say.  Battered and bleeding?  Deliriously happy?  Totally screwed?  Mix and match?  Fallen.  Saved.  Alive.  She settles for, “I’m fine, really.  Sometimes we take a fall.”

She kisses his bleeding palms to ease their pain, to heal them.  “I’m fine,” she says.  “I’m fine.”

Zoe pulls onto the Interstate and zooms out of town.  Shannon doubts they can drive fast enough.  The car’s covered with dust, visible for miles.  No telling how many bands will be after them now, passing them off, one to another.

“Listen,” George says.  “I want you to promise me something—that forgetting thing you were telling me about?  Promise you won’t.”  He’s still turned completely round.  He really should fasten his seatbelt.  Their hands are clasped together, all four entwined, bloody.

She could tell him he doesn’t realize what he’s asking, what it means, but that doesn’t matter, because it’s already too late.  He doesn’t have to ask her.  She’s already begun to live.  “I promise,” she says.  “I never want you to forget me.  I’ll never forget you.  I’ll fight for your memories.  They’re precious.”

“Fight who?”

“I think that’s whom.  Basically everybody on the angel front.  Would you get mad if I told you it isn’t too late to back out?”

“Furious.”

“How about if I asked you to put on your seatbelt?  The driver thinks this is NASCAR.”

He kisses her softly on the lips, presses his cheek to hers, and releases her hands, turns and buckles up, smiles at her over his shoulder, and that’s that.  There’s a smear of blood on his cheek—his, hers, both.  Angels are no strangers to blood, but it’s usually not theirs, and never mingled, if they can help it—the pure and the profane.

She can’t fall any farther now, though if there’s a way, she’s sure she’ll find it.

Zoe holds up a couple of feathers.  “These came off when you ditched the cape.  Sorry.  You want ‘em?”

“That’s okay.  Keep them.”

“Thanks!” Zoe beams at her in the rear-view mirror.

If Zoe ever makes it to the Renaissance she could sell those for a tidy sum.  These days she’d have to pass them off as fallen from some unidentifiable migratory bird blown off course, nesting in a strange land.

For Part Two go here.