Angel

Gabriel West hated romance. And though he hated romance, he loved getting swept up in other adventures, always with a book in hand. So whenever he came across a hastily-added romantic subplot, he would put down the book and stop reading. It wasn’t so much that the romance was cheesy, though it was. It was that romance implied a dual partnership, spending your life with one person, being together forever. Gabriel West liked to fly solo.

***

The Indiana summer heat hit him hard, panting and sweating as music blasted through his ears while he stood outside the Kroger. His earbuds would quell the ramblings or questions of any stranger or store employee who might talk to him. Gabriel breathed in slowly to the 1-2-3-4 count of the song before grabbing a cart and going inside. He was a smart shopper. He ate beforehand. He had a list that Uncle Jesse made. He knew how to get in and out, getting the groceries quickly and efficiently. Gabriel had a routine, and nothing was going to mess this up.

He practically raced around the store, nabbing each item on the list, until he got to the last item: 12-grain bread. He pushed his cart to aisle 5, suddenly stopping because of what he saw. He gasped. Gabriel paused his music, removed his headphones, and put his phone down.

Halfway down the aisle stood a girl dressed in old-fashioned southern clothing. A cream-colored blouse. A pair of gloves on her hands. A pale yellow hoop skirt that spilled over the area. She stared at the bread, standing as still as a doll, until she turned to acknowledge him, her eyes meeting his. And in that moment, she wasn’t a doll, she wasn’t dressed weirdly at all, she was just a girl. The most beautiful girl he had ever seen.

The girl’s mouth opened and closed several times before words finally came out. “You can see me?”

“Yes, of course, why wouldn’t I be able to see you? What do you mean? Who are you?” Gabriel responded quickly and hastily, despite his usually calm, calculated way of speaking.

Her voice grew stronger. “My name is Mary Hyland. I died of smallpox in 1865. I am stuck here in 2015, where I cannot hold nor touch anything or anyone.”

“Wait, what-how-why-” Gabriel asked before being interrupted by a grungy blue-shirted employee with yellow teeth.

“Ya alraht theer, buddy? Ya tawkin to yeerself? Ya need any hayalp?”

Gabriel’s face turned a ghostly white as he realized that the employee couldn’t see the girl. Mary might just be telling the truth. But because the man was still gawking at him, he couldn’t talk to her anymore right now. Gabriel nearly sprinted out the door, down the sidewalk, the three blocks to his house. He wouldn’t remember until later that he had left his cart and his phone.

Once at home, Gabriel tried to calm himself down as much as possible. He got out his guitar and strummed to the calmer 90s songs on his playlist. But not even the guitar strumming could calm his runaway mind. So he put the guitar down and faced his thoughts. Gabriel loved to just sit and think deeply; he was very philosophical. He would often consider his future, his purpose in life. Hell, his purpose had to be more than the orphan kid who survived a car crash only to trudge through a McDonald’s job the rest of his life.

Gabriel gathered his strength and decided that he needed to face his life head-on. No more hiding in the shadows, clinging to the music, avoiding personal connections for fear of loss. He was going to go back to the store, and he would get answers. But right as he stood up, about to leave, suddenly, the girl from before was right beside him.

***

He hated the romance, of course. But then, so did she. Where Mary was from, people didn’t marry out of love. Only practicality. Love was a false hope that only hurt the heart. It was foolish to dream of it. So that’s why it surprised the both of them that during their many walks and talks, it was what they found.

***

The two couldn’t be in public together. To everyone else, it looked like Gabriel was under the influence of drugs, rambling and discussing to himself. So they left his home and his hometown and his minimum wage job, driving east for five hours until they reached Uncle Jesse’s cabin in southern Ohio, secluded by the woods and the hills, a burst of something man-made in the endless sea of trees.

Gabriel learned more about Mary, more than he picked up from her outfit, which, curiously, always stayed on. Her appearance didn’t—and couldn’t—change. He knew she was dead, of course. She was dead, and yet he was able to talk with her! They talked so much trying to figure out why she was here. And through their talks, they learned much about each other, and each of their times and places. Mary loved the idea of portable music, though it took her a while to adjust to the different genres. For Gabriel, someone who had never enjoyed much talking to other people, he loved talking with Mary. She was interesting! She was different! She was the connection he had needed for so long. When he made her laugh, he loved to see that smile light up her face. She was his light.

They could talk about anything and everything together, even agreeing to disagree on sensitive topics. And although they’d discussed many topics, today was the first day they’d talked about religion. Gabriel’s parents didn’t know what he believed, but he had read about all the major religions. And Mary, his sweet Mary, poured her heart out about her conflicting ideas of religion.

“My mother and father moved to Georgia from the north, where they had been Catholics. But while they raised me, we went to the Methodist church down on Thomason Street. They didn’t ever talk about beliefs. So I am stuck not knowing what I believe.”

“Well hey, I can maybe help with that! Jesse has an old Catholic book here somewhere if you’d wanna look at it.”

“That would be lovely.” She smiled, and he felt whole.

Gabriel dug through the cedar desk, rummaging through the drawers, until he found the book at the bottom of a stack of old newspapers. It was a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He blew the dust off the book before placing it on the table near Mary. She leaned close, running her fingers over the cover almost instinctively, and her eyes widened.

“Gabriel, I can touch it!”

She picked up the book and held it in her hands. The room filled with wind swirling around them. The pages fluttered until falling open to Section III, 1030. Mary read aloud. “All who die in God’s grace, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” Mary’s figure began to glow.

She looked up into Gabriel’s eyes. “Gabriel. My purification. My sweet angel. I can never thank you enough.” She leaned towards him, kissing him on the cheek. The glow grew brighter and brighter until, in a swirl of wind and burst of light, Mary vanished. And Gabriel West was alone again.

 

The family curse

The cabinet creaked. It scared me for a second as I snapped my eyes towards the master bedroom. Stupid, why’d you even look? I scolded myself. It’s not like Mom ever came out of her fairy tale fortress once she grabbed a handle of Grey Goose for the night.

My clammy fingers gripped the cabinet door as it opened. The vodka glistened. The moonlight filtered through the shimmery eggshell curtains, enough to see the inside of the cabinet but not enough to see my face in the mirror opposite the liquor. If there had been enough light, I could have seen the blushed, puffy, tear-streaked face staring back. There wasn’t enough light.

Student of the year. An award never given to a freshman at James Madison High. Somehow, it fell into my lap. Me, Leah Renee, for being a “model student who impressed the faculty and never failed to help a struggling student.” A prestigious award. A sparkly, shiny plaque. A ceremony. A spotlight. A speech.

“Michael, don’t forget about the ceremony!” I reminded my father two nights ago, one of the few evenings he could fall asleep on his own Tempur-pedic mattress and not out on an international business trip in a Trump hotel. He glanced over me with a dull “You know you have to talk to the assistant.” I don’t know why I expected anything different.

But when, earlier today at the ceremony, hundreds of pairs of eyes locked on me, and my eyes couldn’t find him, it sent a shock right through my body.

My body that was the only one conscious in the house, late on this Midsummer night, and I’ve finally turned to the only proven method of dealing with my father.

The cabinet creaked. The vodka glistened. The moonlight faded.

Killing two birds with one kite

I welcomed the early March air with a sharp inhale and easy grin. The cool air tingled in just the right way—not like allergies or a building sneeze, but with the newness of the soft spring grass slowly coming back to life. This feeling resembling the birth of a hatched chick, the same hatched chick from the Incubator and Eggs DIY pack Mom bought for me as a wonderful-amazing-totally cool Christmas gift when I had never so much glanced in the direction of a  freakin’ chicken. Of course, Mom forced me to follow through with every dumb thing she bought, grumbling about a lack of responsibility and focus, but I zoned out, ignoring the end of her rant. I had more important things to focus on: The Greater Indianapolis Area 10th Annual Kite Flying Competition.

When I was younger and overcome with a desire to claim something of my own, something to be mine, something that wouldn’t be mine-and-Mom’s-together, I found a faded, scratched green kite behind a pile of broken pastel sidewalk chalk. He was promptly named Kitey, as my eight years old brain so creatively named things. “Come on, Kitey, you can do this!” I encouraged as he whirled and twirled with the gusts of air, a fight against nature. We fought fiercely against the powers of the wind, my heart growing bigger, thump-a-thump-a-thumping through my chest as I solidified my part on a team that wasn’t the me-and-Mom team. Me and Kitey. Kitey and me. Nothing compared to the first perfect gust of wind we experienced together, the quickening of heart thumping as Kitey’s superpower was revealed: conquering gravity and wooshing higher and higher into the mixed-up blueberry pudding sky. Well, maybe one feeling can compare.

I crave the rush when I go to competitions, the competitions that turned from a neighborhood-childhood-meet the stuck-up kids block party to the greatest legitimate competition I’ve ever qualified for, The Greater Indianapolis Area 10th Annual Kite Flying Competition.  Of course, kite flying wasn’t my day job, and despite how much I whined, Mom always responded with the character building-it’s good for you-I never got this opportunity rant about the importance of school. My sophomore classes required so much busywork and cumulative tests to succeed, but success in school paled in comparison to entering in the biggest and best kite competition, so that’s why on this early March afternoon I snuck out of school after lunch, running-walking-skipping straight to the park, legs happy to be outdoors, kite in backpack. Kitey lived in my room now, promoted from his former place in the garage, but for my competitions, I flew the smooth, custom-built glass string kite I bought with my very own money.

At the park, I carefully removed the kite, its tendrils fluttering as I unzipped the case. As I stood barefoot with my flip flops kicked off, my feet melding with the slightly damp grass, I felt at home, my hands doing the dance they learned so long ago. Going to school was no match for flying practice.

From there, we formed a routine, my new kite and me. Every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday we left after lunch, skipping the pointless classes in favor of flying. Mrs. Tyler and Mr. Reed both pulled me in for the skipping class is bad-you have to go to school-I want what’s best for you discussion, to which I opened my mouth in a dramatic smile and in a saccharine-sweet voice responded with the of course I’ll be better-I’m so sorry-Thank you for helping me answer. At the same time, the true answer pounded through my mind, my I love the park-happy place-kites are better than school mantra that calmed me down.

But it wasn’t just my teachers all up in my face. My mom said the same thing when she found out I was skipping class, boosting her argument with insults of selfish and stupid and threats of grounding me and preventing me from flying, wait no not just threats, now she actually followed through this time!? How could she do this, just one week before the greatest competition? “Remember, you can only go outside to let the chicks roam for half an hour and make sure they come back!” she added with her I’m your mother-respect me voice. I rolled my eyes with a “duh.”

Still, not even the grounding could keep me away from flying, especially since Mom had just left for her four-to-twelve waitressing shift. I turned the doorknob, kite in my shirt, ready with the excuse of the chicks if the trailer park neighbors next door saw me outside. I unlatched the door to the coop to let the chicks free on the hill a for a little, while I unraveled my kite’s string and breathed a smile ready to fly. Little did I know that my custom glass string kite had formed a hole by being carried next to sharpened pencils in my backpack.

When I threw it up with the wind, anticipating the rush, I was met with a downward spiral straight to the ground just like Kitey did that first day. Only this time, the kite didn’t just land in the grass. This time, I couldn’t try again and ignore the fall. I had completely forgotten about the baby chicks I let out to explore the earthiness of the soft new grass. The kite tumbled down, its top point spiraling with the forceful inertia before a sudden stop right on top of two chicks, tiny enough that the blow from the kite stole their last breath.

I breathed a sob as tears spilled down my face. And I lay on the bed of grass, which somehow lost some of its softness, eyes shut but still leaking tears, clutching the other four chicks, the broken kite next to me. The beginning of the green grass felt like an end. The newness was gone.