When I was a kid, I used to see things.
Now, every kid sees things once in a while – that chair piled with clothes suddenly becomes a hulking monster in the glow of the nightlight, that sort of thing – but sometimes, I’m still sure that the things I saw were real. Call me crazy, but it’s true. There was a whole month where I could see some oily, black, tentacled thing under my bed, and, on a separate occasion, a shrouded figure would huddle in my closet every full moon and whisper things to me in the dark. And the things came true. It told me one night that my auntie was going to die that night. The next day my dad got the phone call saying that she’d had a pulmonary embolism and choked to death in her bed. There was a funeral, my auntie was cremated, and the next full moon the shrouded thing and I sat together and cried. It never came back after that night.
I wouldn’t have even thought of seeing the angel as anything special, except that I held its feather in my hand; other people could see it, too. I was walking down a street uptown, searching the shops for something to buy for a girl I had a crush on. Susie Bancock, I still remember her name; she’d invited the whole class to her birthday party. I was nervous and felt sick as I walked among the bright, twinkling lights of the stores, glancing in each window and trying to decide what the perfect gift would be. In one shop window I saw an elaborate and elegant doll’s house, carved look like the old Victorian that my family lived in, except that it was purple and not the plain, eggshell white that our house was. Inside, wooden dolls of mother, father, brother, and sister all sat around a dinner table, father carving the wooden Christmas turkey. Up in the attic, it looked like someone was lying in bed, but it was dark and I couldn’t see for sure. I dismissed the idea of the doll’s house because it was for little kids and we were almost in fifth grade – we weren’t kids anymore. Besides, it was too expensive.
In another store, there were figurines made of glass with bright jewels sparkling in candied light. There was a turtle, a ballerina, an angel with a golden trumpet. I knew Susie liked to dance, but again, the figurines were too expensive and I had to walk on by.
It was snowing, I remember that. Big flakes that gave you sloppy kisses on the cheeks and stuck to your eyelashes. I made sure no one was watching before I caught one on my tongue. It tasted like engine exhaust and dust.
It was in an alley between the Ben Franklin and some hardware store that I saw the angel. The cold and the thought of Susie opening my present and smiling at me had put me in a kind of daze, and it wasn’t as if I was expecting to see it, but it would have seemed strange to me if it hadn’t been there. I know it sounds odd, believe me; even as I sit here typing it some twenty years later, it sounds odd even to me. But there was a an angel in the alleyway.
When you read about angels, or when you hear stories on TV about alleged angel encounters, you get a whole different impression of them than when you finally meet one. In the stories people tell you, an angel is always showing up on a crashing airplane or after a train derails. The last thing you’d expect is to see one in a place as mundane as a derelict downtown alley in Small Town, USA. You also don’t expect them to be chained up.
It looked like a man, or at least, man-shaped. It wore a cloth toga like you see in the old paintings, but it was stripped to the waist. Its arms were chained to the walls at either side of the alley. The chains were black and barbed and the manacles were nailed into the angel’s wrists. It was on its knees with its wings lying limp in the dirty snow, looking gray and trodden-on. While in some ways it looked eerily close to a human, its body was leaner and its limbs were a little too long; the wings and the glowing, Raphaelite halo on its head indicated to me it wasn’t just a man.
The angel’s head was slumped down and to the side; I didn’t know if it was alive anymore – but I could see my perfect gift for Susie Bancock right there in front of me. One of the angel’s feathers had been plucked out, I assume during the struggle, and lay in the snow only a few feet away. I looked around, but no one else on the street seemed to see the angel, they were just walking right past out of the hardware store or the Ben Franklin laden with plastic sacks.
I summoned up my courage, balled my hands into fists, and crept into the alley. My boots crunched in the snow, but I still tried to walk as stealthily as possible. I stooped to pick up the feather and had it in my mitten-clad hand when the angel stirred. Standing this close, I noticed that there were welts and huge cuts in the creature’s back – whip lashes. My heart leaped into my throat and I nearly lost all my will and ran away, but something stuck me to that spot. Perhaps it was terror, or perhaps it was the expectation that the angel would speak to me like the shrouded thing in my closet had done. It raised its head and looked at me through the long, golden locks of hair obscuring its face.
It didn’t speak. It screamed.
Whenever I watch one of these modern horror movies – you know, where the creepy ghost shrieks at the unsuspecting protagonist and their mouth and eyes go all black and huge – I’m reminded of the angel. Its face was so contorted in agony and terror that it looked like it was going to unhinge its jaw. And the sound it made…
I can’t describe it. There are no words.
I took the feather and ran.
I didn’t sleep that night. My stomach hurt.
The next day, I spent two hours at Wal-Mart picking out the perfect gift bag, tissue paper, and a bow. I settled on a birthday card that was emotionally non-committal. I wrote in it that it was an angel feather and could grant wishes. I didn’t know if it could grant wishes, but it seemed to make sense at the time. I was late coming home from school and had to do some fast talking so I wasn’t grounded for Susie Bancock’s party.
I was nervous the whole time at the party. I showed up clinging to the gift bag like it was a life preserver and only reluctantly gave it up to the gift table, already piled high with boxes and bags. Susie Bancock was the popular girl, every boy liked her. But I was sure my gift was the best.
There were games, most of which I didn’t understand or want to play, so I hung around in the background and nobody noticed me. There was food – sloppy joes and chips and relish trays. I was too nervous, so I just took a few polite bites. There was cake, of course, but I don’t remember what flavor it was. At last, Susie Bancock opened her presents.
I was nearly sick by this point, so I don’t remember what gifts she got when she tore into the decadent wrapping paper. Finally, she got to mine. She pulled out the tissue paper while I clenched and unclenched my fists. She reached into the bottom of the bag and fumbled around. I bit my lip and practically vibrated with anticipation. At last, she pulled out the feather.
I thought it was going to be the special thing that I knew it was: I thought it might radiate white light and a holy chorus would break out in song. Instead, it just looked like a feather, about the size of an ostrich feather and that same muddy gray from the alley. Susie looked at it, trying her hardest not to sneer at it, while the other children snickered under their breath. I tried to shrink as small as I could, tried to turn invisible.
“Thank you?” was all she said. I don’t think she meant to phrase it as a question. She didn’t read the card, and I was relieved that she didn’t.
I left the party shortly after that. Nobody saw me leave.
I’m not entirely sure if Susie Bancock ever read the card, but I know that soon after she wasn’t in school anymore. I found out that her father got a promotion and her mother published a best selling children’s book. They became very wealthy and Susie Bancock started going to a new private school, I think overseas someplace. I never saw her again.
I never saw the angel again either. I went back to that alley a few times looking for it, but it was never there. I don’t know why I wanted to find it. Maybe I wanted to apologize for stealing its feather, maybe I wanted to bawl it out because its feather granted every wish but mine. I always turned away, cold and scared and angry.
I also stopped seeing things.
I lost my own parents shortly thereafter. The commuter train they were riding to work derailed and everybody aboard their car had died, smashed to pieces as they barrel-rolled down the embankment.
The ceremony was closed casket.
Among the personal effects the funeral director gave to me – in a quart-sized Ziploc bag, no less – were their wallets, keys, jewelry…
And a single feather.
Andrew Slinde is a purveyor of novels, short fiction, and screenplays. He currently lives in Des Moines, Iowa, and co-habitates with 3 apex predators.
You can find more of Andrew’s work at his website here!