A Short Story
By Liz Schneidewin
Angel emerged from the bedroom. She wore no shoes and stepped softly so as not to wake the writer. The manuscript, she was certain, would be somewhere in this little unit. But a cursory glance had not uncovered it the night before and her urgency to leave before the dawn arrived overruled her sense of curiosity. It was easier to leave without a word, she had been told, but her conscience was prodding her into leaving a note as some small consolation for her deception. She searched the room for a pen and some paper. Digging around the detritus of the desk near the window, she found both. She leant down to scrawl out her words but the pen refused to spill its ink on such a tawdry task. She tossed it into the bin beside the desk. That’s where she found the manuscript.
It must have fallen off the edge of the desk and landed in the bin. Angel had observed in the past that writers could be eccentric, recalling some who had neglected their masterworks for days, even months on end, before finally remembering to send them in to the publisher. She reached into the bin to retrieve the beloved object. Clearing away some of the mess from the side of the desk, she laid it down reverently, and was surprised by the tear that fell from her eye. For just a moment, she stood quietly next to it.
Then she she remembered what she needed to do and resumed her search. On the nearby kitchen table, she found a pen shaped like a banana and sat down to write her farewell note. She did not hear the footsteps behind her.
“OK, lady. Drop the banana and no-one gets hurt,” said a gruff, slightly Australian edged voice in an American accent.
Angel turned with a fright. ”Jonathan?”
“You were expecting someone else, maybe?”, this time he attempted an Inspector Clouseau-type French accent and waggled his eyebrows.
“I did not think you would be awake,” said Angel, her own accent hard to nail down.
“I’m not,” smiled Jonathan. “I’m still asleep. So are you. We’re in bed right now, about to wake up and do very naughty things to each other.” He moved towards her.
“You should go back to bed,” said Angel.
Jonathan picked the banana-pen out of Angel’s hand and held it to his top lip like a moustache, “My thoughts precisely,” he Groucho Marxed. Then he took her hand and pulled her slowly but determinedly back towards his bedroom.
Angel did not move. “I must leave,” she said.
“Not until we do what you came here for,” he leered, hopefully.
“I have already done that,” Angel explained.
“Have you?” Jonathan carried on valiantly, “Did you enjoy it?”
Angel’s eyes mirrored her patience.
“You went to sleep,” she said.
“And I intend to make it up to you, right now,” he assured her. He still could not believe that he had met this gorgeous creature and that she had been willing to go home with him. And what had he done? Fallen into a deep, peaceful sleep almost instantly.
“That is not necessary,” said Angel.
“Maybe not to you.”
Angel took a step further away from him, her eye on the dim light pushing towards the edges of the door. “I really must leave.”
“The sun’s not even up yet,” said Jonathan.
Angel took a further step back. An edge of command crept into her tone. “You should not be awake.”
“Why not?” asked Jonathan.
“You need to rest,” she said.
“I’ve rested enough,” he told her.
Angel was quite bewildered, but then she had a sudden idea, “I will make you orange juice,” she decided.
“Orange juice?” asked Jonathan.
“Is good? Yes?” She asked.
Jonathan did not like the way this conversation seemed to be heading. “I don’t want orange juice,” he said.
“What do you want, then?”
Jonathan took a step towards her,
“I want what every man wants,” he told her. “I want you to come to bed with me, right now.” He felt the tone was right but realised that he was wearing the baby duck onesie pyjamas his brother had given him as a joke last Christmas. He gave it a shot anyway.
“I want to touch you and hold you and taste your skin with my lips. I want to lie with you all day on crumpled sheets and talk about the ocean. I want to be with you. Just be with you. Today.”
“I cannot stay,” Angel said, her head turned towards the door that held back the early morning.
“You are married! I knew it!”
“There is no-one,” she assured him.
“Then stay,” he pleaded.
Jonathan let his confusion win,” But, I thought you wanted – “
“That is not what I am here for.”
“Well, what then?” he blurted. “My stereo? My TV?” he pointed around the room at the few electronics he owned, all of them cheap, badly made and most of them broken.
“Go right ahead,” he said. Then he flopped into the kitchen chair and willed it to swallow him whole.
Angel made no move to apologise. She did not move. She just stood there, staring at the doorway.
“I cannot explain,” she said. “Time is short.”
“And getting shorter,” said Jonathan from his slump. He had meant the comment to sound like an ironic joke but instead it tolled inside his mind like an ancient bell. The terrible pain was looking for a way back in.
“I am sorry,” said Angel.
Jonathan leant back in his chair, furious with the world that had dared to give him even the smallest sniff of hope before snatching it back again. Then he saw the manuscript sitting on his desk. He stormed over, scooped it up into his hands and, once more, dropped it squarely into the rubbish bin.
Angel stepped in front of him.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“What do you care,” he answered.
“You must not,” she said.
“It’s rubbish,” said Jonathan. “I’m putting it where it belongs.”
“It belongs to the world,” Angel cried out.
“And the world shall have it,” replied Jonathan. “It’ll make terrific compost.”
Angel dove to retrieve it. She wrapped her arms around it as though trying to make it feel better.
“When it is published – “, she began.
“Published?!…” he exclaimed. Perhaps he really was still just sleeping and having the weirdest dream of his life.
“It has not been published yet,” Angel explained.
“And it never will be,” said Jonathan.
Angel was horrified. “You do not understand.”
“Oh, I understand, all right. I’m obviously an amazingly slow learner but I’ve had the lesson beaten into me, word by word, by every rejection letter sent to me from every publisher in the world.”
Angel was amazed.
“But your book is published! They do not reject your book.”
“Oh, yes. Yes, they most certainly do,” said Jonathan.
He tugged open one of the desk drawers and gathered up a stack of letters, some of which spilled onto the ground. He took up the nearest one and cleared his throat. “Dear Sir…” he read from it. “Thank you for your submission. We regret to inform you…” he peeled the top letter from the pile and threw it to the floor. Then he read the next one. “After due consideration…”, and the next, “That we are currently unable…”, and the next, “to publish your manuscript”. One by one he read the heart of each rejection letter and flung it onto the ground. “Oh, and my own, personal favourite, “I wouldn’t line my birdcage with this inexcusable dross, you poor excuse for a human being.” I’m thinking of getting that one framed. Get the picture? No thanks, no way, no chance, not now and not ever.” He picked up the remaining letters in a great crooked pile, and tossed them at her feet.
“But someone must publish your book,” said Angel.
“Who?” asked Jonathan, beginning to enjoy his tirade, “There’s no-one left. They’ve all read it and they all, without exception, hated it.”
“But this book. Your book. It’s the most important book ever written. It must be published.”
At last, Jonathan thought he was beginning to understand what was happening.
“What medication are you on, lady?”
“It must be so,” said Angel.
“According to whom?” asked Jonathan. He folded his arms across his chest and demanded an answer.
Angel held the manuscript as though it needed to be protected from him she stared at him as though she had never seen him before.
“Perhaps it is not finished yet,” she reasoned.
“I’ve rewritten and revised it at least a dozen times. This is as good as it gets, honey, let me tell you.” He took it back from her and plonked it on the desk next to the typewriter he had written it with.
“But with time – “Angel began. Jonathan burst into laughter.
“Time! That’s a good one,” he gasped.
“What do you mean?” asked Angel.
“I mean – you gorgeous bag of crazy – that time… Is… up! Six months ago, I was given six months to live and six months later was yesterday! This cake, my dear, is completely baked.”
She blinked at him.
He went on, “This cookie has crumbled. The fat lady has cleared her throat. The timer has reached the end. Tick. Tick. Tick. Ding! I am now, officially, temporary!”
That oughta do it, he thought to himself.
“I know you are dying,” said Angel.
She said it as though it was a simple fact of the day, like having eggs for breakfast. She made no attempt to pity or to comfort him. Those were the only two reactions he ever saw when he broke the news to people these days and he loathed them both in equal measure.
“How do you know that?” he asked.
“There is nothing to fear,” said Angel.
“Easy for you to say,” said Jonathan.
“Death is necessary,” said Angel.
This made Jonathan pause.
‘Well,’ he thought, ‘I was waaaay off on this one’…
When Jonathan had first seen Angel in the coffee shop the day before, she had looked to him like a normal person. Her soft hair was streaked with light from the window behind her; her bright eyes were tinted with the sparkle of an emerald and she was extraordinary in a way he couldn’t quite describe – but she was, he thought, as far as he could tell, normal.
She was holding a map in her hands. Not one on the screen of a smartphone or tablet, but an actual map made of paper. It looked brand new and he wondered where she had got it from. She was spinning it around and around on the table-top in front of her, tipping her head from side to side as if trying to get a better view. Then she turned, ducked down, smoothed the map flat along the speckled stone floor near her feet, stepped up on the chair and gazed down upon it from above, like an eagle.
“Can I help you find something?” he said to her.
She looked up from the floor, straight into his eyes, and smiled. He almost dropped his order pad.
They had spent the entire day together in the Café where he worked. As customers came and went, Jonathan took their order, and served them their preferred style of coffee. But the moment each had left, there she was, and there was he, and there they were, together.
It was a conversation like he had never had before. There were words, certainly, plenty of them. But, behind the words, he had the sense of something else being said. Like a very old song he knew he had not heard before but somehow knew the words to all the same.
They talked until he had finished work and then crossed the street to the nearest bar. They continued to talk as he ate his meal. And then they danced. She danced like he had never seen before, like someone who had read about dancing, but never had the chance to try it for herself. Her arms swung around wildly, her feet trampled around the space from one side to the other. She was delighted and delightful all at once and soon he found himself following her in a wild, whirling, spinning, foot-crushing journey across the dance-floor. They danced for hours like that. Uninhibited. Unaffected. Like two children at a grown-up wedding whose parents were looking the other way.
Afterwards, they had walked together to Jonathan’s house. And then…
He had fallen asleep.
Suddenly he saw how stupid he had been. Who was this woman he had only just met? She had said her name was Angel. What kind of a name was that? Fine for pretend vampires on TV maybe, but not all that great for an actual person.
Now he saw it all clearly. The café, the bar, the dancing, the… afterwards… that he would probably remember later. How had he gotten into these ridiculous pyjama’s?
“We all die,” she said to him. There was another tear forming in her eye.
“Some sooner than others,” he snapped. Me, for instance.
“Yes.” She replied. The tear emerged and rolled down her cheek. Then she pulled herself together, and reminded herself of the reason she was there.
“You must keep trying,” she told him.
He saw that she was staring at his abandoned manuscript.
“You are not alone,” she said.
‘Here we go…,’ he thought.
“You are never alone,” she said.
“Comforting,” he replied.
“There is nothing to fear,” she assured him.
“But fear itself?” he quipped.
He knew what was coming next. He knew the type. He had met them before, and he hated them more than any other kind of person he had encountered over the last six months of his miserable little blip of a pointless existence. Bloody True Believers!
“The creator is with you,” she told him.
“And also with you,” he spat back at her. “Listen, Sister Crazier-than-thou, I’ve heard it all before, you know.”
“The creator knows that you suffer,”
“Oh, does he?”
“That’s mighty grand of him,”
“He suffers with you.”
His mind screamed.
“Does he?” said Jonathan, “Does he really?”
He looked her square in the eye and decided that this time he would say what he truly wanted to say to people like her and he would not hold back and he would not show mercy. He took a deep, deliberate breath and grabbed his anger by its fiery mane.
“Is your god dying?” he said. “Does your god feel the chemo coursing through him, stripping his veins, cell by cell, until he feels like he’s inside out? Does he feel the stinking poison strangling his organs, murdering his body just slightly slower than the nightmare disease itself? Does he feel the stabbing, tearing headache that never goes away from the golf-ball sized tumour inside his brain that cannot be removed? Is that what he feels, your god!?”
Angel nodded as though she understood, “You have cancer,” she said to him.
“Well, thank you for letting me know,” said Jonathan, “And here I thought I was putting myself through chemotherapy for the sheer joy of vomit!”
Angel reached out to Jonathan and touched him on the cheek.
“The creator loves you.”
“And look at all the lovely gifts he’s given me.” He brushed her hand away.
“You are made in his image.”
“Really, he looks like this?” screamed Jonathan. He reached up and tore the beanie he always wore away from his head. Underneath it was a patchwork mess of bruised skin and hair stubble that obscured the throbbing, tortured veins beneath. He was inconsolable.
“Does your creator have cancer, too? Does your bloody almighty still have his own hair?”
Angel reached out to touch the skin patches on his head. Her touch felt warm but far away, like the light of a distant sun.
“The creator knows that you are in pain.”
“Well, if he knows – your all-seeing; all-knowing; all-suffering god, why doesn’t he do something about it, huh? Why doesn’t he, oh, I don’t know, send me an angel with a miracle cure. Or better still, get rid of cancer completely? Do away with death, all together? Why doesn’t he do that, huh?”
“All must die that they may live again.”
“And there we have it, ladies and gentlemen! There it is. The moment we’ve all been waiting for. The cosmic consolation prize! Are you dying young? Are you suffering endlessly? Is your life generally a huge bag of crap? Ta dah! In the end you get to go to heaven!”
Angel pulled back from the ferocity of his words.
“I did not say that,” she said.
“But you were going to, weren’t you? Sooner or later you were going to say it. You god-bother-ers are all the same.”
Angel quietly informed him, “I have only one day.”
“I’ll bet,” said Jonathan, “Day pass from the secret cult for a recruitment drive?”
“That is all we are given,”
“…Then you drag some poor sop back with you clutching nothing but a bible and his fat credit card before you slam the gates shut again.”
“That is not why I am here.”
Jonathan had exhausted himself almost beyond argument. “No?”
“I wanted to meet you,” said Angel. I have been watching you. Waiting for the right time.”
“Oh, great, my own personal psychopath.”
“We are always watching,” said Angel.
Jonathan felt a grimy chill creep along his back.
“We watch, and one day, we choose,”
“Freak,” said Jonathan, without vehemence. His exhaustion had reached upwards through him and was beginning to drag him down into himself.
“We are given the choice,”
“Choice,” said Jonathan, almost fully submerged in his exhaustion.
His eyes were trying to close themselves but he fought back from their eventual surrender.
“We exist for an eternity, but we may live for a day,”
This was something Jonathan had never heard before. He found his interest rising despite himself.
“Or a single day,” said Angel, turning again towards the creeping light of the encroaching dawn.
“Tough choice,” said Jonathan, bemused and slightly curious as to where this particular brand of madness was heading.
“I chose to live,” said Angel, turning back to him.
“Bully for you, sister,” said Jonathan, punching the air with his fist and taking his seat for the show. Crazy, he had found, could be quite entertaining, at least at first.
“My day is almost over. The beginning brings the end.”
“A single day to touch, to taste, to smell, to feel what you experience over years, decades.”
“What are you banging on about?”
“We see all. But seeing is all. We watch, but we cannot touch. To touch something is to know that it is real.”
“We are the watchers. We are eternal. Until we choose not to be.”
“We see everything. Every yesterday, every today, every tomorrow, as it is, was and ever shall be. We watch and wait, without the touch of time, only events that pass, one after another or before, leading to the last or from the next. We are always in the now but never in the here, until we make our choice. But we must choose carefully. I chose this time to be my here and now. I chose you.”
“Well, thanks for that,” said Jonathan. Then he realised he understood what she wasn’t saying. “Oh, my god. You think you’re an – “ He couldn’t bring himself to say the word.
“It is what you call us,” said Angel.
“No, what we call you, are nut jobs.”
“You do not believe me?”
“What’s to believe? It’s obvious, isn’t it? The proof is standing here, right before my eyes, a bona-fide, god-fearing, wing flapping, gossamer farting, angel.”
“I know it is difficult to understand.”
“Oh, no. I get it completely. You’re an angel who lives for just one day sent by god to offer me orange juice and not have sex with me.”
“Yes,” she stated, gravely, then added, “You must believe me.”
The seriousness of her answer began to concern to Jonathan. He took pity on her.
“No,” he said, “What I must do is get you some help.”
He reached for his phone to call his own psychologist. At least he could introduce Dr Rosen to someone she could actually help, for once.
“I came here to meet you.” Angel tried to explain.
“Don’t you know?”
Her eyes did not waver from his. He suddenly felt a terrible weight descend.
“My book?” he asked.
Angel nodded. “The most important book ever written.”
“Ok.” Said Jonathan. He considered dialling 000 instead.
“When your book is published,” Angel assured him, “it spreads through the world like wildfire. Thousands of lives are changed or saved because of what you have written.”
“The book of a thousand rejections?” said Jonathan.
Angel nodded again, gently, simply, “The book that saves the world.”
Jonathan did not know what to say.
He tried several times, but still could not answer her. Finally, he walked over to the desk and picked up the discarded manuscript. “This book?”
“Yes,” said Angel. She looked at the pages carelessly tossed in his grasp and tried to make some kind, any kind of sense of what was happening.
“Have you read it?” asked Jonathan.
“I have heard its words spoken by the voice of the ages.”
“I see,” said Jonathan.
She gazed longingly at the stack of paper in his hands.
He adjusted his grip and pushed it towards her.
“Want to?” he asked her.
Angel could not believe that this moment had finally come. The moment she had hoped for.
“To touch something is to know it is real,” she breathed and reached for the manuscript.
He passed the pages to her. She let the stack fall open at any page it wanted to and turned her eyes downwards to read for herself the words soon to be spoken by eternity.
She read aloud. “And the shimmering angel took his hand and said to the trembling priest, “I’ll show you heaven,” she said and she began to unzip his –“She stopped reading suddenly. She blinked. She flicked to the next page, and the next, and the next, her expression a shifting, growing picture of disgust and dismay.
“Something the matter?” asked Jonathan.
“This is not right,” she said, searching back and forth through the pages, unable to believe what she was seeing.
Jonathan shrugged, “Sounds about right to me.”
“These are not the right words,” said Angel.
“They’re the ones I wrote,” said Jonathan, feigning surprise.
“This is the wrong book,” said Angel.
“Don’t see any others, do you?” said Jonathan, pretending to search the room with his eyes. He had never imagined he had this kind of cruelty in him before this moment.
“Read it and weep,” he told her. “The publishers certainly did.”
“This cannot be,” said Angel. “Where is the other book?”
“To my knowledge I’ve only written one, and you’ve got it in your hands.”
Angel let go of the pages and they slipped to the ground like a waterfall of lost hope.
“I have come too soon,” she realised.
“For what?” asked Jonathan.
“The creator warned me to choose my time with care,” she said, turning away.
Jonathan sighed and shook his head, “Your ‘god’ again?” He said. How could anybody be so ‘taken in’ by the patently ridiculous claims made by religions, he wondered.
Angel sunk to her knees, the last of her resistance draining out of her. He could not help but pity the poor creature crumpled before him. He reached over and rubbed her back soothingly.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I was wrong,” she moaned.
“You wouldn’t be the first,” he comforted.
Slowly she raised her head towards the brightening, goldening window.
“It is too late,” she said.
“I’m sorry to break it to you,” said Jonathan.
“The dawn,” said Angel.
“You’re not an angel,” said Jonathan, “And do you know why?
“To soon,” said Angel standing and walking slowly across the room in the direction of the glowing light.
“I did not wish to hurt you,” she said, and stood still.
“Because there is. No. god,” said Jonathan.
At that moment, a thin stream of sunlight broke through a crack between the venetian blinds of Jonathan’s front window. It spread across the room and lit up a small patch of skin on Angel’s shoulder. Angel threw her head back. She screamed, but it was more than just a scream. It was a sound like Jonathan had never imagined. The sound was unbearable, unhearable. It was trying to break through her skin, to replace her, to become her. It was a sound beyond sound that spoke of ultimate, endless, eternal, indescribable pain. The shriek of a dying star tearing itself back into the strips of hydrogen from which it was formed.
And then, all around her, every object not attached to the ground lifted in the air and spun around the room. It turned slowly at first, but then faster and faster, gradually pounding the space inside like a deadly, twisting tantrum.
Jonathan felt himself lifted in the air as well. He was pushed into the vertex of the room where the walls met the ceiling. He tried to struggle or even breathe but he was pinned in place, something solid and intangible pressed against him, shielding him from the deadly storm of debris that tore the room apart right in front of him.
And then everything stopped spinning and the room crashed into itself.
Jonathan fell too, but slowly, as though he was being lowered, cradled downwards gently to the floor. The sound had stopped. The girl had collapsed, but she was still carefully holding him in one her wings.
“I am so sorry, said Angel. It was her voice, but it no longer came from her lips. The air around her spoke her words.
“No,” said Jonathan. Seeing is believing, he had heard people say. But only at the cost of our favourite lies.
“I was supposed to have left by now,” said Angel.
“This can’t be…”
“If I had hurt you…” she said, but did not find the words to finish the thought.
Then she unwrapped her gossamer wing from around his body and drew herself to back up to her feet – her feet, that no longer touched the floor. Bowing her head, she folded her wings towards her and then stretched them out as far as she could in the confined space of Jonathan’s wrecked unit. Then slowly, smoothly, starting at the very tips like a candle glowing from the first touch of a lit match, her wings began to burn away.
“Angel,” said Jonathan, the word no longer just a word.
“I end now.”
“No,” said Jonathan.
“It is all we are given,” said Angel through the air of the room. Bright purple smoke wound around her, blue fire licked along her wings.
“No, said Jonathan, again. He swung his head around. A fire extinguisher. A wet towel. Something…
“One day,” spoke Angel.
“Please,” cried Jonathan.
“It is not enough,” said Angel, the fire searing closer and closer to her body, leaving a terrible nothing in its wake.
“No!” Cried Jonathan, he ran towards the bright blue flames. He would burn with her, if he could. But the fire was cold.
Angel reached out and held his grasping hands in her own. It was like being restrained by a tree.
“Please,” begged Jonathan.
“Don’t be afraid,” spoke the Angel.
“Don’t leave me,”
“All things die,” spoke the Angel.
“I need more time,”
“Even angels,” spoke the Angel.
The fire had reached her shoulders and was crackling silently, relentlessly along her arms, down her legs, slowly unmaking her.
“At least”, she said with unmistakable joy, “I was here. I was with you. At last I know that it is all true. It is all real. To touch something is truly to know it is real.”
“What’s real? What’s true?” demanded Jonathan, trying to make sense of what she was saying. “What are you talking about. Do you mean here? Are you talking about the Earth?”
“No…” spoke the angel.
She turned to him, the last of the frigid flame engulfing her, taking her away. The shape of her body, the delicate curve of her neck, her smile.
“Heaven,” she said.
And then she ceased to exist.
There was silence.
And then, a sigh filled the room. The sigh of a deep, and unknowable sorrow. It came from somewhere and everywhere and nowhere all at once. And then it was gone.
Jonathan pulled himself to his feet and stumbled backwards into the debris field that had once been the inside of his house. He fell over. His hand landed on something.
It was a shoe. A shoe that had been worn for only one day. To touch something, he realised, is to know it is real.
For a while he just lay there, holding it in his hands.
Then he pulled his desk back up onto its feet, set up what was left of a chair behind it, returned his battered but still working typewriter to its usual place and wound a piece of paper between its rollers.
The sound of the typewriter was all that could be heard.