Monday, April 17, 2017

Free Chapter from Angel!


[Note: I'm writing the denouement of the sequel to Angel, so I thought in order to
celebrate I'd post chapter one here. Enjoy!]

~~*~~

Calliel
~~*~~
FIFTH AVENUE, San Diego. I was there now, and I couldn't help but laugh. For Calliel ... he's just there, occupying space where a nanosecond earlier there was nothing but space!
No one on that fucking sidewalk notices! No one looks his way, no one blinks in surprise, no one rubs their eyes, dumbfounded—nothing!
He's surrounded by people on all sides! How can no one not have noticed that?
Then again, I wouldn't have noticed either. Not then. I was just like these people. I found myself almost as fascinated by them as him. I reminded myself that I was witnessing the past, and stopped trying to interact with it. It was dead and gone—just like I was about to be.
Of that, I knew it—death—was coming: me hurtling down into the dark sea, and that it was only moments away, in the present. But this wasn't memory I was experiencing. I never experienced this in the past—Calliel's appearance. I was having a vision, one that gently pushed me to trust it and let it engulf me fully.
"I want to be there when it comes. When death comes," I said. "I want to be there for that last moment. I want to see myself splash down into the sea."
I couldn't believe myself. I couldn't believe I actually wanted to be there, falling in blackness, to feel that fatal, final burst of pain. I briefly entertained the notion that my faculties had been taken over (by Calliel? by God?), and that I was no longer myself, or sane. I took a moment to remind myself: Calliel said I would feel no pain when death came. I clung to that and went back to the notion that I was insane.
But I knew I wasn’t. If anything, here and now, at the very end, I was more myself than I had ever been at any other point in my life.
"I want to be there when it comes. When death comes." That's what I had said. And I felt in answer a very gentle, almost grandfatherly reply:
Yes.
I felt it. And it wasn't just a yes. What it was I can't describe, and don't care to try. In any case I was swallowed—no, cradled—by the vision, and I trusted.
The sensation of falling, of flipping and twisting, of cold howling wind dissipated, disappeared.
~~*~~
He was dressed in a dark brown longcoat and cowboy boots and carried himself like a hero. The drizzle falling on him didn't seem to affect him one way or the other. He marched up to the intersection, where he waited with a gathering crowd. The WALK sign flashed, and he crossed. At the other side a man loudly accosting passersby for change approached and said, "Dollar?"
Calliel smiled. "What would a dollar buy you?"
"That's none of your fucking business!" yelled the man, who stalked away.
Calliel followed him. "Wait! Hold up!"
The man stopped and wheeled about, glaring.
"You're not homeless," said Calliel.
"What the fuck you want with me, man?"
"You're living with your sister and haven't found work in three years."
"Now how the fuck would you know that?" demanded the beggar, who drew up close, his eyes crazy.
"You're an artist—a poet."
The man pulled in even closer. "I don't know who the fuck you are, but I'll cut you and let you bleed out all over this sidewalk, you hear me? I don't give a fuck if I go back into the system, fuck you!"
Calliel didn't seem intimidated. (Why would he be?) He reached inside his pocket and pulled out a clean, crisp twenty dollar bill.
He didn't take it out of his wallet. I don't know if he even had a wallet. He pulled the cash out of his pocket just as if he'd wished it there, or knew in advance that he'd be facing this man.
"Tell you what," he said. "Take this twenty. But don't spend it on food or rent or booze. Spend it in there—"
He motioned with his head at the used record and CD store just a couple doors away.
The man looked, turned back around. "Why the fuck would I do that? I need to eat. And my sister is about to kick my black ass to the curb if I don't give her rent!"
"Take this twenty and spend it in there. Get a CD. Take it home and listen to it. Then write a poem—the first poem that comes to mind. Work on it till it’s finished. I don't care if it takes you all night or the rest of the week. Do it with all the love that's in your heart, and I promise you all your worldly needs will be taken care of, your sister's too."
The man stared at him as though at a lunatic. He backed up a step. I yelled, "Do it! Do it, you dumb motherfucker! C'mon! Take it! Take it!"
Of course, no one could hear me. Because I wasn't really there.
Calliel extended his hand with the twenty in it. "Take this twenty, write that poem, and then come back here with it and have the first person you see at the cash register read it. I promise you this twenty dollar bill will come back to you ten thousand times over."
I'm not sure the man actually heard the end of Calliel's declaration, because he snatched the twenty out of his hand before he finished speaking and hurried out of sight, shouting, "You're a crazy motherfucker!"
"Do it!" I repeated. "Do it, you ... god-damn!"
Being an angel is a high-stress occupation, I decided right there. It must be like social work or teaching (which was my chosen career), with just as much rejection and burn-out. I wondered if God had to deal with frazzled cherubs coming to Him and saying, "I can't do this anymore. Those asshole humans don't listen!"
But Calliel didn't seem fazed by the encounter. He watched the man disappear into the crowd and then kept walking. At the trolley stop he sat. The southbound Blue Line pulled up minutes later; he boarded it and sat again.
He seemed to know where he was going, and why wouldn't he? The trolley lurched forward and he visibly relaxed.
I watched him from my vantage point over the empty seat across the aisle from him. I floated like a helium balloon. Or—it felt like floating. In any case, I didn't have a body. I was more like an unseen point of consciousness, one that was attached to him. Where he went I went.
I used to ride this trolley five days a week. I wondered how many times other "points of consciousness" were there in times past, and if they saw me, and if so what they thought of me, if I'd made an impression on them. What would they have seen?
I didn't want to think about it anymore, because I knew, and compared to the angel sitting there, gazing out, I had to have looked pathetic, hopeless. Because I had been.
Oh, don't get me wrong. I wasn't a gangster, and I didn't dress like a bum. I had spent my life as a researcher and teacher, and dressed as such: usually a nondescript sweater over a long-sleeved shirt, usually white, and brown slacks, usually corduroy. I washed every day and smelled clean. I was a citizen, harmless and harmlessly attired.
And being a citizen means having a body that merely takes up space and is in no way remarkable. It means anonymity and conformity and dressing appropriately in order to maximize both. It means doing what all citizens are supposed to do, which is to simply and quietly wait for death.
For most of the latter half of my life I was a great citizen.
Calliel wasn't dressed as a businessman, nor was he dressed like a tourist. And he certainly didn't look like the riff-raff everywhere around him: the gangsters with pants halfway down their asses, the hobos and bums, or the rest—of which I had been a card-carrying member—in their forgotten and forgettable get-ups.
Calliel was no citizen, and his clothes, and the way he wore them, showed it.
The trolley stopped, and on it stepped a woman with wild, frazzled brown hair and deep wrinkles under a heavily made-up face. She spied him and sat next to him as the doors closed and the trolley got on its way.
I wondered what would happen if someone sat in the empty seat I invisibly hovered over. Would I be inside the person? Would I feel what they feel, hear their thoughts? I wished someone would come and sit here so I could find out. But as luck would have it, no one did.
"Have you heard the Word of God?" asked the frazzled woman.
Calliel glanced at her. "What Word would that be?"
"The Word!" she cried, happy at the chance to preach. "The Word!"
"The Bible," said Calliel. "Is that what you're referring to?"
" 'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believeth in Him shall not perish but haveth eternal life.' That Word!"
"God has only one son?" he asked, puzzled.
"One and only one," said the woman solemnly.
He nodded contemplatively. “No daughters?"
"Only a Son," said the woman with a trace of irritation in her voice.
"But aren't we all children of God?"
"Of course ... of course we are," said the woman with more irritation.
"But if God had one son and no daughters, how is that possible?"
She held up, exasperated, then just pretended not to have heard the question.
"Have you acknowledged Jesus Christ as your Lord and Sav—"
"Your husband drank himself to death five years ago," he said.
During my life, I was accosted by these religious whackjobs probably twice a month. You didn't make conversation with them or look even remotely in their direction. They'd try to make me talk or look at them, and I refused. Eventually they’d get up and leave. Not all the time, but enough to tell me it was an effective strategy.
Never had I seen one of them speechless like this woman was now.
"You remember him fondly," Calliel went on, "but you really shouldn't. Carl was an asshole, which is what you thought of him when he was alive. He is no more."
He patted her hand, which rested on her knee.
"Neither belief nor the Bible nor going to church will get you into Heaven, Kendra. Want to get into Heaven? Have the courage to be a quiltmaker. That's what you've always wanted to be ever since you were sixteen and your grandmother showed you how. That's what you were put on Earth to be—"
And that’s all the advice he got out.
Kendra lit up like a July Fourth fireworks display that goes up all at once. It isn’t worth recalling everything she shrieked save the repeated (and I do mean repeated) charge of, "STALKER! YOU'RE A STALKER! YOU'VE BEEN FOLLOWING ME AROUND! STALKER! STALKER!"
Calliel sat unfazed. He gazed at the woman, his countenance a mix of pity and annoyance.
The trolley got to the next stop, and it was there that police boarded and hauled her off in handcuffs. She had lost her mind, or what was left of it. "DEVIL! YOU'RE THE DEVIL! SATAN! SATAN! HE'S SATAN!"
The trolley's doors closed, muting her shrieks, and the train lurched forward once again. Calliel gave short smiles to folks who turned to look and identify "Satan." One woman couldn't keep from staring at him; for her trouble he held up both index fingers to his temples and gave a playful growl, baring his teeth. She turned away, horrified. He chuckled.
Ten minutes later, at one of the stops in National City, an MTS security guard boarded. Like a kennel full of Pavlov's dogs, the entire car pulled out their trolley passes or ticket stubs. All but Calliel.
The guard got to him, grunted lifelessly, "Ticket or pass, please.”
Calliel gazed up at him, then produced a pass from the same pocket that he had the twenty dollar bill.
The security guard took it and swiped it in his handheld verifier-thingy. He stared at the thingy's screen for a long time, his eyes growing steadily wider, then goggled at him in amazement.
"Really?" he said breathlessly, and absentmindedly handed the card back.
"Really," said Calliel, pocketing it. "Tomorrow morning, eight o’ clock, Qualcomm. Can you make it?"
"Of course," said the guard, whose face now fairly glowed. "Thank you ... Thank you so much ..."
"Calliel," said Calliel.
"Calliel," said the guard, who vacantly walked away. By the time he got to the woman in the next seat up to verify her ticket stub, his countenance had darkened back into stoic indifference, as though his encounter with him hadn't happened.
I never found out what that guard saw when he swiped Calliel's trolley pass, and I never got a good look at the card itself. The guard got off at the next stop, and I never saw him again.
At H Street in Chula Vista, Calliel got off.
H Street was (had been) my stop.
Early evening had fallen over the city. He gazed up at the leaden sky, then made his way through the drizzle towards the buses. Ten minutes later he boarded the 903. That was my bus. He extracted a bus stub from his pocket (why not the magical trolley pass? I wondered. After all, they were valid on the buses as well) and showed it to the driver, who responded with a blunt snort. Calliel marched to the back and sat. I was tugged along behind him, and came to a floating rest beside him.
I studied him.
He was a good-looking man (cherub, whatever), late 30s or early 40s, with short light-brown hair, hazel-green eyes, and a long nose set between high cheekbones. He had a strong chin and his face was clean-shaven.
He was tall and fit, broad-shouldered and slim-waisted. I wondered if all angels were in similar shape, and how they stayed that way. Was there an angel's fitness club in Heaven, a Gold's Gym-type outfit they all congregated at (pardon the pun) to keep toned? Or perhaps one of the rewards of getting into Heaven was a permanently cut physique?
I hadn't asked him these things, and now regretted it. It seemed a stupid thing to focus on—his physical traits. I hadn't done it, not once, while I knew him, in all the times we were (or were about to be) together.
My life on Earth was very quickly drawing to a close, and was, for all intents and purposes, over. Shouldn't I be thinking about God, or what lay ahead, what the future held for me, or if there was going to be a future at all? I was about to die—and yet here I was admiring an angel's physique!
(And no, he didn't have wings or a halo.)
I considered my soon-to-be-crushed physical form. I was no looker, but I wasn't ugly, either. I was a fairly plain-looking man, five-ten, with slowly graying and thinning brown hair and sharp blue eyes. I was a little soft in the middle, admittedly, but nothing you'd call fat. I had walked this Earth with a strong back and legs, but the choices I'd made the last thirty-plus years of the sixty-three I'd gotten had worn on me like acid rain, darkening my gaze and turning the corners of my mouth down. Aside from the odd cold or flu, I hadn’t been sick a day in my life. But those choices made it look like I was within walking distance of death's door, even though I never was: a pale countenance, sloped shoulders, and rigid hips. Students had long since labeled me "Dr. Death Ray" (my given name is Ray), not only because I had been an uncompromising hardass, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but also by my endlessly sullen demeanor, which is always, necessarily, a bad thing.
The true terminal disease of my life had been my outlook on it, my worldview: a malignant, grotesque, swelling tumor I displayed proudly for three decades.
I stared at Calliel, who had closed his eyes.
Was he praying, or was he merely tired?
He opened them when the driver pulled away from the curb. He was one of only two passengers aboard. The other was an old woman sitting halfway up. When the bus slowed to a stop at a light, he got up and sat across the aisle from her. She looked his way, and smiled warmly.
"I knew you'd come back," she said.
He put his hand on her shoulder. "How are you, Nora?"
"Oh, fine, just fine," she replied. "Just headin' home. I knew you'd come back. Always knew it."
"How long has it been?" he asked.
"Lord," she laughed quietly, "seventy years? I was only seventeen; now I'm eighty-seven. But look at you! It's like no time passed at all! You're just the same! No surprise there, I suppose ... and no surprise that you're back. I always knew you'd come back ..."
Her smile didn't fade as she said, "You're here for me, aren't'cha?"
"There's nothing to fear," he said, squeezing her shoulder gently.
"I'm not afraid," she said. "Not anymore, at least. Not about that. Not since the last time I saw you ..."
"That's my girl."
He looked ahead, then back at her. "Your stop is coming up, so I need you to listen very carefully to me, Nora, all right?"
The old woman nodded.
"I want you to keep walking even after you lose your cane, do you understand? Don't look for it, and no matter what, don't look behind yourself. Okay?"
He gazed briefly at the silver cane leaning against the empty window seat, then back at her.
She nodded. Her smile had vanished, replaced by what I could only call fierce resolve.
"You won't need the cane after you lose it, so don't worry about it. Let it go. You just keep walkin’, Nora. Keep lookin’ ahead and keep walkin’. When you get to the gates of your apartment complex, go on through. You'll feel real scared at those gates, and when you get to them you'll know why. But go on through anyway. Can you do that for me?"
She stared at him without blinking for a long time, then nodded.
"Will you be with me, Calliel?"
He shook his head sadly.
"Will God?"
"That's entirely up to you," he said. "Ask for Him, and He'll be there. I promise." He looked at the cane again, then back at her.
She caught the glance, gazed at the cane, then got it. Her face, like the trolley security guard's earlier, lit up.
The bus slowed, stopped. She got up to leave. The driver lowered the handicapped landing so she wouldn't have to use the stairs. Calliel stood to help her, and escorted her off. He opened her umbrella, handed it to her.
She grabbed his arm, then reached up and kissed his cheek.
"Will I see you again?" she asked. She seemed utterly without fear.
"Go through those gates, Nora, and you'll see me again. I believe in you. You’re very strong."
"Are you here to help someone else like you helped me all those years ago?"
He nodded.
That seemed to reassure her enormously, and she patted his arm and hobbled off.
He reboarded the bus. The driver waited for the handicapped access ramp to secure itself, then pulled away from the curb.
Calliel sat in the seat Nora had occupied. She waved at him as the bus accelerated away. He waved back, then closed his eyes again.

~~*~~

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