Inspiration: Feathery Wings by Voltaire
(Find it here: http://www.reverbnation.com/tunepak/3219204)
Twenty nine. It was a horrible number. Angel wondered where all that time had gone, and how she had managed to live that long. “Two years ago,” she whispered to no one, for no one was with her. “Two years ago, I had everything.” She finished the last of her cheap bourbon in one swallow, ran her hands through her hair, and poured another drink. She drank it in one shot and winced as it burned her throat. “Cheap shit,” she muttered, once again cursing that she could afford no better. She poured yet another drink. “Happy birthday, Angie,” she toasted. She drank until she fell asleep, slumped over in a kitchen chair, dreaming of a time long past.
Ten years prior, Angel had met a man. He was kind and gentle and they loved each other so thoroughly that they married after only two years of knowing one another. She had cried a lot: she wished her mother were still alive to meet him. Her father died suddenly a few years later of heart failure. That was when Angel and Michael had decided to start a family. Their son, Johnny, was the greatest joy of their young lives. She stayed at home with him while Michael went to work at a construction company. They weren’t rich by any means, but a happier family could not be found.
Two years ago, she had a husband who loved her with everything he possessed. Two years ago, she had a four-year-old son with sunshine-colored hair and melted chocolate eyes. Nothing could have made better the life she knew.
It was nearing Christmas of that year. Michael took Johnny out shopping for last-minute presents. It was 7:13pm, it was snowing, and they were on their way back home. Johnny had picked out a dinosaur muffin pan, more for his own delight when his mother made him goodies with it than for her own enjoyment. Johnny, utterly exhausted, slept soundly in the back.
Or, at least, they supposed he was sleeping. After all, he looked so peaceful when they finally recovered his body from the tangled ruins left of the car. The ice had been hidden under the fresh snow, and a less cautious driver forced Michael off the road. That other driver was barely scathed. Michael was badly crushed and in a deep coma.
Every night, Angel pictured her husband, bruised and swollen, lying there, the respirator keeping him alive. Was he alive? She wondered to herself often. She didn’t understand much of what the doctors said to her, but they made it pretty clear that too much of his brain had died from lack of oxygen to allow him to function. All their savings were going into keeping the machine plugged in, when, as she deduced from the doctors, he was less alive than the machine was. She never really knew if she decided or was forced by reality to let him go, but she gave him whatever peace he could have.
Angel hoped to give them some elaborate burial and ceremony with all their friends around, some grand send-off. But Angel quickly learned how much it would cost for a proper Catholic funeral, with the flowers and the readings, and for a decent burial, with the mortician and the coffins and the cemetery plots. The reality was crushing as she called the cremation agency. Scanning through the urns was excruciating. She spent the last of the family savings to pay proper tribute to her family. Their urns were on the nicest table in the apartment she was forced to move into after losing the house.
Angel went through the motions of living after that. Everything she loved was, quite literally, ash. She found herself a job as a cashier in a dollar store, then another job as a liquor store clerk when she realized she couldn’t pay the rent and eat on the same salary. The benefit of working at the latter was the ten percent discount on booze, her new elixir of life. Weekends were unbearable without it. Slowly but surely, the weekdays became unbearable without it. Depression kept her grounded enough to be able to hide her insobriety when she arrived for her shift in the morning. She drove when she clearly should not, almost as though she wanted to die. One day she almost got into an accident, and saw in the face of the woman driver and her young child in the backseat everything she had suffered since she lost her family. Rather than cutting back on her drinking, Angel decided to walk to work. She barely used the car anymore, save for grocery shopping. She was caught once with her flask during her break and was so worried about losing her job that she left it at home. The emptiness in her day warmed her to the idea of smoking, and the nicotine was almost enough to get her through the workday.
A few times, Angel had thought about killing herself. She was miserable and hated her life and had no desire to continue it. She was once a devout Catholic, and though her Faith was broken, her belief remained: she would go to hell and never see her family again if she took her own life. It belonged to God, and it was his to do with what he would, even if that meant taking everything from her. She tried not to think about why he would do so, why he hated her so. She strictly avoided thinking about whether she would go to hell for gluttony and sloth and wasting her life, even if she didn’t commit any of the “bigger” sins. After a long while, she tried not to think about God, and pretended she didn’t see the crucifix hanging over the urns. Her traditional prayers became extremely infrequent until they turned into semi-sober, one-sided ramblings addressed to Michael and Johnny. Then, they became weekly, until the weeks started to melt together and she began to do it daily in some capacity or another.
Angel pushed her old friends away until there were none left. Occasionally she would find a message on her answering machine from an old acquaintance, or a Christmas card with a hasty signature out of pure politeness. Once or twice, she would see an old neighbor or one of Michael’s friends’ wives when she was working, but she would keep her head down and stay so quiet that no one said anything to her. She was truly alone, and was content to be that way if she couldn’t have the company she wanted. She withdrew, became small, and eventually became so utterly paranoid of anyone speaking to or noticing her outside of the mandatory workplace dialogue that she would have been diagnosed as agoraphobic if she had bothered to seek the help she needed.
Angel awoke groggily to the sound of a car alarm. She opened one eye, scanning the empty bottle laying on its side before her. She steeled herself for the head-rush and sat up, wincing at the pounding in her head. She stumbled to the bathroom, relieved herself, and downed some aspirin before getting into the shower. She stood under the water for a long time, thinking of a time when Michael had been there to help her get clean and they filled the bathroom with steam and giggles. She got out finally when the water turned cold, toweled off, and donned old jeans and a baggy sweatshirt that used to be a much less faded black. She looked herself over in the mirror. “Well, you look less frumpy than usual.” She looked at her eyes, at the bags under them, and suddenly wondered when the last time she wore makeup had been. Even as a housewife, she had always lined her eyes and applied mascara. Angel knew she hadn’t done that in a long time, but she couldn’t remember when she had actually stopped. It was just one more thing that faded from her routine. Rather than think about it, she retrieved a cigarette from her purse, found a lighter that actually worked in a kitchen drawer, and took a deep drag. She finally looked to the clock to see that it was nearly nine thirty, poured herself a cup of orange juice, and rushed to the television to catch the news.
“Depressing shit,” she murmured over the ubiquitous tales of crime, violence, and war. “Like I need more depressing shit.” But she kept watching anyways, waiting for the weather for no reason other than habit. “Rain. Of course it’s rain. It’s always rain. I walk to work, so it rains all the time. Can you believe that? Heaven’s pissing on me.” She sighed, wishing Michael was there to scold her for saying such things. She took a final drag on her second morning cigarette before snuffing it out. “Look how many bad habits I picked up without you here to keep me in line,” she said with smoke. The news ended and Angel switched off the television as quickly as she could. She had made the mistake once of waiting to see what was on. At ten in the morning on a Saturday, it was nothing but cartoons, and on this particular station, it was the kind of cartoon Johnny had watched. She wasn’t about to let herself spend another Saturday crying on the couch over inane singing puppets.
Angel willed herself off the couch, grabbed her purse, and retrieved her car keys off of the hook by the door. She made her way to the grocery store before it began to downpour and ran inside as quickly as possible. She got a basket for her things and made her way to produce. In her stupor the previous night, not only had Angel realized she had nothing to eat, but she had also forgotten to make herself dinner. It was a splurge to be sure, but she still reserved one special thing for herself, and that was a birthday dinner. She took a package of mushrooms, skipped onions, celery, and carrots, and got an avocado, cilantro, jalapeño, and tomato for guacamole instead. On her budget, she couldn’t have everything, so she chose her favorites. She circled the produce several times, waiting for people to clear away from the things she was interested in. Someone brushed up against her at one point and nearly made her drop her basket. She shuddered later at the physical contact and steeled herself. “Don’t make a scene, Angie,” she whispered to herself. “Don’t get noticed.” Looking around, that was when she spotted the apples. A great pile of them, precarious and green, beckoned her with promises of salads and pies and caramel and anything else she could possibly desire. Apples were her weakness, and she headed toward them as soon as no one was near them. The pile was massive and promised to topple if the wrong apple was chosen. “Who the hell puts this stuff out? Shit.” She whispered a curse and scanned the pile for some close enough to reach without falling into the bin and free enough to maintain the fragile balance. She put down her basket, grabbed a produce bag, reminded herself to be inconspicuous, and reached for the first apple.
When she had just barely touched the first fingertip to the shiny skin, Angel watched in horror as the mass toppled down, sending apples throughout the produce section and all the way to the nearby doors. She dropped the bag and covered her mouth with a hand, already starting to weep. She could feel all of the eyes on her, all of them burrowing into her, judging her, mocking her. She turned to run and ran precisely into the chest of a very tall man in a red apron. Her eyes were so blinded with tears that her pathetic attempts to escape were easily thwarted and she finally began to sob.
“Ma’am, it’s alright. I don’t know why you’re so upset.” The voice was deep and kind. Angel could feel herself starting to shake and covered her face with her hands. She felt someone touching her hands, trying to draw them from her face, and fought as best she could. “Look, ma’am, it’s not even your fault. Come on, dry those tears and have a look.” For some reason, maybe the sweet calm of his voice, Angel obeyed. She sniffled and turned, noticing that absolutely no one was looking at her. Looking back at the apples, she saw a small boy, no more than four, holding a green apple. He was very upset as his mother scolded him and tried to pick up apples with a few grocery employees. “See, no big deal.” Angel turned back to face the man before her. He was head and shoulders taller than her, with deep set eyes the color of the summer sky.
“Th-thank you,” she managed to say, wondering how it was that she was suddenly so much less upset. “I… I feel so silly. I’m sorry for running into you. I just…”
“It’s alright, ma’am. I understand. Say, you look pretty shaken up. You look like you could use a coffee. We have a break room.”
“No, no. I really should be going.” Angel shook her head and avoided looking up.
“Come on. I would feel a lot better if you didn’t just leave.” There was some pleading in the voice she didn’t recognize. It took her a moment to realize what it was: compassion. Not pity, but true compassion, a caring. No one cared about her anymore. Still stupefied by the gesture, she didn’t even hear herself accept before he led her to the back of the store, grabbing her shopping basket along the way.
“Thank you for this,” Angel began, sipping at the coffee before her. She had never really liked the stuff, but Michael had been fond of it, and so she got by on sugar and cream. She was still trying to find an excuse for her actions.
“It’s alright. You looked like you needed it.” He sipped his own coffee. “Do you want to talk about what’s bothering you?” Angel looked into her coffee, as though seeking some deeper meaning therein. She took a deep breath.
“Distracted, I guess. A lot on my mind.” She fidgeted with her wedding ring.
“I… I don’t want to overstep any boundaries, ma’am, but… I feel like I recognize you from the papers a few years ago…” Angel looked up at him, at the sad expression he wore, and nodded. “I’m really sorry…” He trailed off, not knowing what to say.
“It… it’s alright,” she lied, swallowing back tears. It was funny, she had expected tears would not be coming this easily after so much time had passed.
“You don’t really sound alright…” Angel, rather than telling him to mind his own business like she normally might have, wondered why she found herself nodding sadly in response. “Can I tell you something?” She nodded again, looking up into those bright sky eyes of his. “I lost my father years ago. I loved him so very much. It’s like joy died that day. And I kept it all bottled up to myself. It’s not good to keep it all inside. It eats away at you. It puts you in a dark place, with dark thoughts.” His eyes were distant and Angel imagined storm clouds rolling over his bright eyes and darkening all he saw. “I don’t want to depress you with the details, but you wouldn’t believe how much better I am, how much more complete, since I found someone to talk to.” Angel nodded respectfully. “Here,” he offered her a card from his wallet. “It’s a support group for people who’ve lost… meets Friday nights.” He began to look nervous.
Angel looked up at him and took the card. “I… thank you. I really appreciate it. I’ll look into it.” Angel wasn’t quite sure why she said that, save that she sensed something genuine about her new friend, some concern and depth of feeling that far surpassed the small connection they had. He didn’t look at her, but she stood and walked up to him. “I really mean it. I haven’t been in a good place for years. I didn’t even know a group like this was around.” She read the card again. “Look, I have to get going. I have a lot to do. But thanks. I hope I see you around.” She offered her hand, and he shook it.
“Take care of yourself, Angel.” He smiled, as though the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders.
“Same to you.”
Something felt new inside of Angel as she made herself dinner. As she thought about a drink to go with her meal, she decided for the first time in far too long a time to have tea. She put on some light music and sat by the window, watching the rain splash into the puddles on sidewalks, awnings, and streets. That night was the first that she did not drink herself to sleep in what she supposed was more than a year. Her entire week stayed that way, actually, and she slowly started to open up to those she encountered at work. Everything built up in eager anticipation for Friday night, when she sheepishly knocked on the door of the back room of the local Methodist church’s community center to find the support group a few minutes into session. She introduced herself and sank into a seat and listened. It wasn’t until two weeks later that she managed to tell some of her story, and that was when, looking back at it, she could say that things really turned around for her.
Angel went on to become more involved in the group, and as she healed, she began to help others to mend themselves as well. She volunteered at a depression and suicide prevention hotline to council people all around the country. After a couple of years of doing that, she was approached by a group that had visited her support group, one that traveled the country giving motivational and inspirational talks. It was an easy choice for her to make, since nothing kept her really rooted to the city she was in. She packed up the little she had, got some of her new friends to help her make something to hold her family’s ashes safely during travel, and set off. She eventually re-settled to work at as a counselor for troubled teens. Through letters and emails and continued correspondences, she realized she had, through her work, saved hundreds.
Angel thought often of the man who she had met but once in a grocery store, whose name she had long forgotten, and of how her new life was made possible by him. She had gone back to try to find him, but it was like he had never been there. So Angel, with faith renewed, thanked God for sending him to her and prayed for him, for her guardian angel.
You are a disobedient son, Azrael, the Voice said. It was like a conscience, forever scolding and guiding from within. Things were not meant to be this way, psychopomp. Fate did not mean for this course.
A pair of sky blue eyes flashed as the man who heard the Voice looked in the mirror of a dingy subway bathroom. Azrael closed his eyes, trying to ignore the Voice, but It persisted in Its questioning. “I know.” The Voice sighed. “She was meant to die.” He had seen the images before, of a distraught woman running out into the rain, getting into her car with tearful, blurry eyes, and running head-on into an eighteen-wheeler. “But she was capable of so much more. And she has earned her place with her husband and son now. Think of all those she has saved.” He wasn’t sure why he still bothered to argue. He had been trying to argue his point for years, to no avail. The Angel of Death was not supposed to have such compassion.
You continue to defy fate. Don’t you wish to ever Ascend? The Voice was sad.
Azrael was sick of the taunting. He had played this game for years. Letting the illusion he had worn for millennia dissipate, he could see the battered, dirty wings growing from his back, bound in heavy, rusty chains. “I just want to go home.” He hung his head, his sky eyes clouding over. “I’m sorry for disobeying, Father, but… just once, I wanted someone to live… to really live.” He sighed, exhausted. “I’m so tired of death.”