It had come early this year, which meant I had to work on school nights with my little rag, polishing the brass of the outer tower inch by inch until it shown. It was cold, but there were worse jobs, and certainly worse paying ones. I had just finished polishing the glass topped dome when I saw it, a faint white glow down in the bowls of the tower.
It could be gas. It didn’t look like gas, but you don’t take the chance with any sort of fire in the tower. The year I was born, there was a leak in the the third tower, and it ended up almost burning down the synagogue. I was sure had gone over the lines a week before, making sure every little brass snake was complete and smooth and without dents or leaks, adjusting each gasket until it was tight. I was good at this. Heck, I was the best. Still, no taking chances.
I would have to go down the stairs anyway.
My leg doesn’t like going down stairs for some reason. Up stairs, no problem, but even the small flight from the dome to the first entrance left my hip considerably more sore than it had been when I had stood at the top. No helping it. I had learned to live with it.
The brass handle was cold, even through my gloves. Everything would be cold in this tower until tomorrow night. Hopefully.
I lifted my small contained lamp and turned the handle. The light reflected off the gas lines, casting shadow is odd places and illuminating corners that should have been in shadow. This didn’t bother me like it once did, but with the strange light it seemed more threatening and strange then it used to be. I glanced down the stairs and saw the source of the light. Two floors below, something glowed.
It was definitely not a gas leak. First of all, I would have smelled it and high tailed it out of there. Second of all, gas leaks don’t look like they’re breathing.
I’m not a scardy-cat, but you try being alone in a tower with an unknown possibly living something and act totally normal. My mind tried to remain calm and rational. My body had other ideas. As I walked down the stairs, each soft pad of my boots seemed to send a million echoes of the brass walls of the tower. I found myself wishing I had oiled my leg earlier. My hands, already soaked in sweat from polishing suddenly started sweating again. Good old fight or flight response, I guess.
It was probably the fact that I avoided looking at the something as I crept down the stairs that kept me from figuring out what it was before. Then it was there, and I couldn’t avoid looking at it.
He-she-it-I couldn’t tell, because it was completely bald, was curled up on the floor. The wings covered most of its body, except a pair of scruffy boot toes. Then there was the glow. Every part of it except the boots was glowing, not like the bright firey white-blue of gas lamps, but a soft silver, like one of those weird funguses I had seen a textbook once.
Its eyes were closed. It was asleep.
So what do you do when you find a sleeping, glowing angel in the tower you are supposed to be cleaning?
I cleared my throat. Loudly.
The angel’s eyes snapped open. It rose to its knees, then saw me and stumbled to its feet. It was odd, seeing an angel stumble. You expect them to just sort of glide to their feet, what with the glow and the wings and all. I suppose those wings get in the way and probably don’t do much for your balance. Anyway, this wasn’t your typical angel. It was wearing a badly fitted leather jacket and a pair of torn jeans.
The angel had already leaped off the stairway when I realized what had happened. It floated to the distant floor, landing in a crouch so I could only see its wings. I waited, it wasn’t like I was in a hurry. It would find out soon enough.
The angel tried the door handle. The door handle wiggled but wouldn’t turn.
The angel swore, kicking the door, which remained obstinate.
“Who locks a door from the inside!”
Then it looked up at me. Not it, she. Her voice had clearly been female. I could feel here whitish eyes boring into me, even from as far away as the floor. Then she lunged for the stairs and climbed the upward spiral of them toward me, probably taking the steps four at a time. I took advantage of this time to block the stairs, one hand on the banister in front of me.
I tried to look calm and composed, and yet non-threatening as the angel bore down on me. It wasn’t easy. Despite the clothes and the swearing she still looked very much not human and very much ticked off. I had heard of angels but I had no idea what they could do. The she stood in front of me, wings outstretched and I wondered if she would just lung for me and try to find the key.
“Can you please open the door?”
The angel’s tone was even but I could catch a few more swear words under her polite talk. My papa has a way of talking like that, when he’s really angry that just makes you do stuff. When I was little it usually sent me crying to my room. But I was eighteen now, not five, and this angel had come into my tower without permission. I wasn’t going let her get the best of me.
I took a deep breath. “Why are you in here?”
“It’s cold in here too.”
“I can’t go anywhere else.”
“Point. Want to come stay at my house for a little while?”
The angel blinked. For a moment, the glare was gone and she just looked confused. I don’t blame her. I was confused myself as to why I had gone and asked that. Then her eyes narrowed. Her irises blazed bright blue, while the black holes of her pupils bored into me.
“Who are you working for?”
I shrugged. “Nobody. You know, its the holidays? Spirit of giving, and all that?”
The angel laughed, a hysterical giggle that definitely didn’t make her sound like a celestial being. “You can’t honestly think I believe that. Christmas is nice and all, but it doesn’t make people change as much as they think.”
“Well, so what? You’re interesting. I’ve never met an angel before, and honestly you can’t expect me to pass up on the opportunity to get to know one. Besides, your the one to come into my tower, and you don’t really look that good. You look cold and I’m guessing your hungry, and despite what you think, Chanukah starts tomorrow and my families going to have a whole bunch of extra food that they aren’t going to miss.”
The angel had been trying to say something all during my little speech, but now she just looked confused again. Then she nodded. Bobbed her head at me and looked at me like I was the one who was weird. Well, score one for the honesty that usually gets me in trouble.
I nodded back and started up the stairs again. I could see the moving reflection of the angel’s glow on the brass walls, following me.
“You can fly, right?”
“Then you can follow me home. I live at 432 Blane Road, seventh floor, gold curtains with black lions on them. Knock on the window and I’ll open it.”
I wasn’t going to tell my parents. It’s not that they would refuse someone in need, even someone as strange as the angel. Something inside me wanted this to be my angel, my secret. Kind of selfish, I know, but sometimes I feel the holiday season is equal parts generosity and selfishness.
We were at the top of the stairs now. My hip complained that I had climbed them too fast. I opened the door and I turned to look at the angel again. She was still looking at me all confused.
“What’s your name?”
“Jill,” she said.
The angel nodded, and then she opened her wings and lept into the air. She landed on the next building, and looked back at me as if to say hurry up.
I picked up my polishing tools and started down the stairs. Jill, huh? Kind of a normal name for an angel.
* * *
I was half worried that the angel (well, Jill, but it was hard thinking of her of anything else than the angel) wouldn’t be there when I said a quick good evening to my parents and dashed off to my room under the excuse of washing up, but when I ripped open the curtain the first thing I saw were her glowing blue eyes, which were still telling me to hurry. She was perched on one of the rungs of the fire escape, clinging to another with one hand.
Tugging the window open was a bit hard. The angel couldn’t help me with it without falling, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether my papa wouldn’t come in to see what was taking me so long. Fortunately this didn’t happen and the angel sort of tumbled with a flap of her wings. She was making a distinctly un-angel-like face when she landed on my carpet with a thump, but at least she didn’t knock anything over.
I put a finger to my lips, then whispered “I have to get dinner, but I’ll be back soon, okay? Hide my closet if you here anyone coming.”
The angel just bobbed her head.
I told my parents I was working on Renee’s present so I wanted to eat in my room. Then I told them I was so hungry from working on the tower that I wanted a big bowl of stew. It was easy enough to sneak in an extra spoon. Good thing that it was so late that they had already eaten, and I had done this sort of thing before.
When I came back into my room, the window was closed and there was nobody in the room. I felt stupid for a moment before I realized that the angel must be in my closet.
The door of my closet creaked open and the angel—Jill—emerged, looking a bit dusty and like she might bolt at any moment. Then she looked at the tray of food I had brought, and her expression got significantly brighter. I had just set it down before she attacked the stew, hardly stopping for a breath between spoonfuls. It was looking like there wasn’t going to be any left for me, but she stopped about three quarters of the way through before gobbling up the rest of the toast.
When she finished, she scooted into the corner by the closet and pulled her wings up over her, peering out a me from under them. She still glowed, though it wasn’t as obvious as it had been in the near complete dark of the tower. She pointed at my desk, which was shrouded in darkness.
“You work,” she said. “On what?”
I was about to tell her that it was none of her business (that’s what I told most people), but then I realized that I probably had no right to withhold information, seeing as I’m the one who got her here. Besides, if she was going to tell me anything I’d better give something out. She didn’t seem like the articulate type.
“It’s my workbench. I do clockwork, trinkets, stuff like that.”
“You’re a clock-worker?”
Now, it might have been just me, but I thought she sounded a little bit impressed. I guess it was logical, good clock-workers are considered true artists, none of that messing around with splattering paint. They can make something that is both beautiful and useful, and they can make things that seem to magically come to life. Too bad I wasn’t one.
“No,” I said. “Small stuff only, like fixing pocket watches and working with gas lights. To do the real stuff you have to get apprenticed and my papa doesn’t really want that. He wants me to go to university and learn real sciences before I make any big choices.”
The angel just kept staring at me. At least she blinked once in a while. I don’t think I could have handled it if she didn’t. I guess she hadn’t spent much time around people so she didn’t know it was really creepy. I looked at the floor for a while, waiting for her to speak.
“Why don’t you?”
“Get apprenticed. You’re father isn’t forcing you not to, is he?”
“No, it’s just that he’s my father and I love him, and he’s right, partly. I just don’t know.”
This was true. It wasn’t like being “handicapped” automatically made me a prodigy or anything, and if you wanted to get a good job the U was probably the only option. And they taught clock-work there. Sort of.
The angel nodded.
“I love my mother too.”
Then she curled into a ball and pulled her wings over her head.
After making a mental note to teach her how to end a conversation properly, I tiptoed over to the closet and pulled out one of the spare wool blankets in my closet. It wasn’t as warm as the fur blanket on my own bed, but I figured that those wings provided a bit of extra insulation. I laid in over her inch by inch, expecting her to jump up any minute, but I guess she felt safe or she was too tired to care. She still glowed faintly through the holes in the blanket. I wondered how I was going to sleep with her in the room.
I hit the gas switch, and the sleeping angel bathed my room in a soft white glow. I burrowed under my covers, but after a few minutes of suffocating I decided I could deal with my living nightlight. I stared at the white glow on the ceiling. I had school tomorrow, and despite the angel in my room and the dull throbbing of my leg. I hadn’t even told her about it.
When I woke up in the early morning, the window was open and the angel was gone. I stubbled out of my bed and slammed the window shut, cutting off the stream of cold air that had woken me. Then I crawled back into bed and lost consciousness again.
I tried not think about the angel the next day. School proved a poor distraction, however, even if middle term tests were arriving soon. I thought of asking Renee, but she was in only one of my classes this year and I couldn’t think of a way to ask her anything without seeming too suspicious. I had never been interested in The Disaster the way she had.
Home was entirely different. It was the first night and we would soon be deluged by my papa’s family. It wasn’t that I was unhappy to see my cousins, or that I didn’t enjoy frying an unholy amount of objects in oil or spending two hours talking over dinner, but I kept wondering wether the angel would come back. Perhaps she was tapping at my window now and getting no answer. But resistance was futile, and I was soon swept up in the happy preparations. It was nearly midnight when I stumbled back into my room with a plate of latkeh’s that I had managed to swipe.
My brain protested the thought of doing anything that required it to work, so decided to make sure my leg was working properly. I lit the gaslight above my bed and removed my kit from under it. I had just begun polishing the brass surface when there was a tapping at my window.
I pulled aside the curtains and the angel was there. I tugged the window inch by inch, my lethargic muscles protesting with each tug. The angel entered in much the same manner as she had before, albeit a little more graceful. She stared at me, and for one second as was confused. She was looking me over more than usual, especially at my leg.
My leg. I was standing in my underwear with my brass metal prosthetic leg in full view.
I dashed back to my bed and pulled my pants on. When I recovered, the angel was holding the plate of latkeh’s and poking at one with a fork.
“Latkeh’s. They’re basically potatoes and onions fried in oil.”
The angel poked the latkeh again, then took a bite. She finished them as fast as she had finished the soup the night before. When she had finished, she resumed looking at me like I was some sort of wierdo. I defied her, examining ever inch of her feathered glowing self. She had a pendant on, I noticed, a clear drop of class. Finally, she spoke.
“The lakehs. They’re a Chanukah thing, aren’t they?”
I sighed, relieved. “Yes. We only have them on the first night though. Otherwise we’d all get heart attacks.”
The angel’s lips twitched
I gestured out the two blue-white blazes in the darkness outside my window. “Every night, they’ll light one more until on the eighth night all nine of them are lit.”
The angel bobbed her head in that particular way of hers.
“And your leg? What happened to it?”
Well, so much for avoiding that topic.
Why did I have to tell her?
The angel just looked at me, expecting. After all, she was winged and glowing. Why shouldn’t I be more forward about my own “handicap?”
“When I was born, my leg was all funny. The muscle or bone or something was formed all wrong, and it was already infected. They couldn’t fix it, so they had to cut it off.”
I glared back at the angel, daring her to say “I’m sorry”.
Nobody knows what exactly The Disaster was. It happened hundreds of years ago, before we had build our cities that ran on the steam and gas from inside the ground. All I know that there was big explosion and then more big explosions. The first of the explosions was bad and it killed a lot of people, but it was the ones that came after that were important. Those were the reasons people like Jill started getting born. But people tend to forget that most of the kids that were different because of the disaster weren’t like Jill.
They were like me.
The angel was just staring at the floor now. She was going to say sorry, I knew she was. I decided to cut her off before she could.
“What about you? How did you get here?”
The angel’s gaze rose up from the floor, but she wasn’t looking at me. More like to the side of me, like she was seeing something I wasn’t.
“My mother raised me. She made sure I learned about how the world worked, but we couldn’t go out because of well-you know,” she shrugged a wing. “When people like me get older, we usually get taken in by the government. They want to learn about us. I guess that isn’t bad, but I didn’t want it. I don’t want to be examined. I want to live. So I left”
“How? It’s not like you can live normally.”
“There are other people...like me. I think in the wilderness there might be others.”
“And your just going off rumors?”
“I have nothing else to go off.”
We didn’t say anything more that night.
I owe a debt to Renee. When we both were six years old I told her that Santa Claus did not exist, thus ruining her childhood forever. This has condemned me to go Christmas shopping every year, a punishment I probably deserve. I was a little brat back then.
Only Renee’s idea of Christmas shopping is to take the train to the sketchiest possible artesian market in order to get “real” presents.
I fingered the only thing I had bought, a small angel charm. Of course it wasn’t like my angel. Renee was staring out the window happy as can be, nestling paper bags in her lap. Her own present from me was lying, still unassembled on my workbench. I didn’t know if I would be able to finish it before Christmas. It was harder than I expected. I would stare at the pile of gears and want it to work but it wouldn’t.
“What do you know about angels?”
Renee turned to me, her face still glowing red from the cold and her triumph.
“Well...you mean like real angels or-”
“The real ones. The ones that happened because of The Disaster.”
“Why so curious now?”
Renee shrugged. “I really don’t know that much about them either. I guess they’re supposed to glow, kinda. I’ve heard that some of them have...abilities.”
“Healing people, turning metal to stone, things like that.”
“You mean magic?”
Renee shrugged again. “Like I said, it’s hard to tell. People who’ve never seen gaslights might think they’re magic too.”
When Jill stumbled through my window on the second night of Chanukah, I knew it was her last.
“I have to go,” she said.
I brought her a sandwich which she devoured, then she resumed her staring at me habit. I asked her if she wanted another sandwich. She swallowed.
“You know,” she said. “My mother told me that people like me can do special things.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What things?”
The angel shrugged, much as Renee had earlier. “I don’t know really. But I…I need to thank you in some way.”
She put her hand on mine, and I felt a brief jolt, like a train stopping. Then nothing.
I could still feel my leg, hard and metallic against my hip. She had already started for the window.
She turned to me, eyes questioning. I hardly noticed their glow anymore.
“Let me get you something for the road, okay?”
She nodded, and I brought her back another sandwich and an apple in cloth bag.
Then she was gone for the last time, and I never saw her again.
It was a silly idea really, expecting her to heal me. To make me normal. But special is so unglamorous when it means a sore hip when you go down stairs. Even though I am proud of myself, there was still this silly part of me that wanted to be special like her.
I stared at the pile of gears on my desk. Just a pile of gears that I couldn’t fit together. Except…
What if I did that? The springs and gears and bits of metal at my desk suddenly began to assemble themselves in my mind like they never had before. It was a simple matter of getting this spring to hit this piston. One at a time, like a puzzle coming together.
It took me the rest of Chanukah to finish it. When it finally lay on my desk, gleaming, I was half-afraid it wouldn’t work. But when I turned the key, the little mechanical bird began to hop about on my desk and sing. The tune was one of Renee’s favorites, a haunting but hopeful melody that people sang in the days before Christmas. It looked like a real bird, almost.
I want to live.
I couldn’t give it to Renee.
I unlocked the door quietly. My parents were asleep already, and they would certainly be curious as to why I was sneaking down stares in the middle of the night.
The wind got under my coat, biting my already freezing ankles. I wanted to go inside. I lay the bird down. Someone would find it, someone who needed more than Renee did.
The towers blazed, nine magnificent pillars of blue-white light against the night sky. They would be dark tomorrow night. They’re horrible waste of gas.
I looked up at the cold night sky.
Edited by Yukiko, Jan 05 2012 - 11:34 PM.