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.

 

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The broken pen

The purple petunia plant was

yanked

out of the dark brown earth.

Its petals

fell

and

drifted

away,

near the blacktop.

A girl runs to the

grassy yard

—but—

on the way, she

steps

crushes

presses

the smallest petal,

pushing it into

the asphalt.

Cracks appear, they

split

fracture

sever

the petal.

The purple bleeds,

staining the asphalt

a shade of

sangria,

all of the ink

spilled around

the broken pen.

 

Grandma’s Bread

Clouds in the sky are not as fluffy

as Grandma Bert’s homemade rolls

when she mixes

the flour

the yeast

the salt

the warm olive oil.

No, the washing machine

does not receive

the attention

of the secondhand bread machine

she found at a yard sale

so many years ago.

Today I am far away,

I can’t pop by Lakeview Drive

to answer a craving

and see the dusted-white apron

hanging on the coat hook

in the bathroom.

No, I only enjoy the

salty

buttery

flakiness

if I happen to dream.

But last night

they were whole wheat.

Third grade

We had to write a story. They were in our group, and they wanted to be princesses. You knew we were birds. Little hummingbirds. Chirp chirp chirp on your neighbors’ trampoline. We bounced. We flew. Is nine years old too old to play pretend? Mrs. D said we had to write a story with the other girls. Them. The girls who dreamed of being beautiful princesses locked in a castle. But we were birds. They took control. Too assertive for young princesses, but still. We kept the real story in our heads. But. The birds needed to be heard. I took your pinky finger, and I squeezed. You screamed. I screamed. The birds finally sang. Mrs. D yelled at us, so everyone could see that we were villains. But on paper, we were princesses.

Grocery List

You walk to the store, list in hand. Eggs. The bright artificial light from the new Walmart hurts your vision. Milk. Your eyes close as you remember the old local grocery store. Bread. When you were six and momma sent you without a dollar in your hand, but Max and Janet said go ahead take what you need you’re okay you’re okay you’re okay. Pepto bismol. You were fifteen and hungover, but they still comforted you as you threw up all over their shiny plastic tile floor. Toothpaste. “When you get out of this town,” they told you, “you need to look like you can belong.” They slipped an extra tube into your bag that day. Stationery. They gave you cards. Letters. Learning to say Thank You Thank You Thank You for everything. You crumple the list and slowly sit, swollen feet resting on the parking lot pavement. How can you stay here as a mother in this fading fading fading town