I’m working on a ten-year-old. The mother hovers anxiously, shadow playing dark halo to her baby’s head. “Ten years old, only ten years old,” she repeats as a mantra over my head.
The angel kneels next to me, invading my personal space. “Adaeze.”
“Not now,” I mutter. The kid is unconscious.
“You can help her.” The angel’s voice echoes softly through my head, as my body is invaded by air fluttering from wings. It’s like flying. I used to love that feeling.
“I am helping her,” I say through gritted teeth. Go away, Sera.” I’ve never seen an arm this bad. It may have to come off.
The kid takes a deep breath and freezes. My heart stops until I realize that everything around me has become still. I look up and away from the terror frozen onto the mother’s face. I stand and abandon the kid, the mother, and the angel.
I resent sunsets. They remind me that everything beautiful is fleeting. With time suspended, the sky melts in layers of eye-burning pinks and oranges. The psychedelic sky has converted distant mountains of dull brown to purple and blue.
I walk past a mutilated car door, over to the side of the bridge. The railing is smooth and wet-looking. I rest my forearms against the cool, painted metal and wish for a crack or a nick that I could chip away at.
The bottle of oregano oil that I keep stashed in my pocket is something I pull out more from habit than need. Harsh pepper sears the underside of my tongue and then climbs up my nose, smelling like Christmas. It overrides the melted metal and burnt glass of the accident and overpowers the flavor of stopped time, which mingles in the passageway between the nose and tongue like grace-flavored lollipops.
The angel steps up to the rail beside me. Being in her presence always makes me feel like I’m wading through warm dunes of baby powder.
I started seeing Sera when my brother was born. Enda had a lot of health problems when he was a baby. It was part of God conditioning us, warning us not to get too comfortable having Enda in our lives.
I hate the angel for letting my brother die. Yearning to embrace the peace that she radiates makes me feel disloyal to Enda.
“Why now?” I want to know. “You’ve been bugging me to heal people for years. What is so important about this girl?” I ask but I already know the answer. I can feel another bit of my soul slipping away with every person Sera guides me to heal, and that I refuse to. I don’t have much of myself left, but I like it that way. The less of me that there is, the less of me that can hurt.
“We’re just friends,” I mumble.
Manny’s my partner. If I look for him, I’ll probably find him frozen over a bleeding octogenarian. He says he doesn’t discriminate, but he tends to help old people first. “You kissed him,” Sera says.
I rub the gooseflesh on my arm, raised by her palpable amusement. “No I –” But I did. I remember. And there was no excuse. I hadn’t even been drunk.
Manny had been leaning against the van after work, waiting to drive me home. He was flipping through a pack of baseball cards that he keeps in his pocket at all times. He’s been collecting his entire life, so he has some good ones. There’s a 1984 Kirby Puckett that I’m determined to rescue. When Manny stopped flipping through the pack, I knew he wasn’t looking at a card, but a photo of his daughter that he keeps stashed in the pack.
“Hey,” I said when I reached him. “Take me to McDonalds.”
Manny sighed. “No.”
I grinned. “Yes.”
The restaurant is only a few blocks from work but he hates taking me there because I like to pick at a salad and make fun of fat people.
But he can’t say no to me (or anyone else, I’m not special.). He ordered me a salad and himself a large order of fries. We sat at our usual spot, at a fake bar set-up, with a view of people ordering. “Look at that one,” I said. “If she ever needed to haul ass, she’d have to take two trips.” I nibbled at a dry square of iceberg lettuce. Bunnicula must have gotten to the tiny carrots before I did – they were mostly white.
Manny shot me a mock glare. “I hope my Mama doesn’t walk through that door…”
I couldn’t help myself. “Why? Does she make Jabba the Hutt look anorexic?”
“You are never, ever meeting her.” He laughed and then changed the subject. “Espy just got braces. Her teeth hurt.”
I felt my cheeks get hot. I’d be nice to his mother, no matter how fat she was. I reached out my hand, and he handed me his pack of cards. I found Esperanza between Carlos Peña and B.J. Upton. The photo is four years old, taken before he and Jasmine had divorced. It’s the last picture of Espy, Manny said once, without resentment in her eyes. She’s six years old in the photo, with missing teeth and long dark braids. She’s wearing her softball uniform. Manny’s MVP.
I tried to picture braces over the gap in her teeth. “Did you spring for the invisible ones?” I’ve never met her, despite Manny trying to set up a meeting several times. Outside of basic calming shit while I’m splinting a broken arm or two, I don’t really know what to say to kids. Besides, I don’t like to get too personal with my partners and refusing to meet Esperanza is an easy way to keep an emotional distance from Manny who only seems more decent, the better I get to know him. Unlike most people. Unlike me.
“Yeah. You don’t really notice them too much. But she says they hurt. She has a boyfriend too.” He sounded a little lost.
Manny had an elbow propped on the bar top, resting his head on his hand. I was facing the counter, but he was facing me. He had one foot hooked onto the rung of my stool, arm draped over his thigh. When I turned to say something comforting, I felt encircled by his long limbs and pulled in by the intensity of his dark eyes.
“I think I’ll get some ice cream,” I said. I shot a glare at my salad, any excuse to pull my gaze away from his. There was no line at the counter, but I didn’t want to move. Manny radiated heat and safety. I handed the photo of Esperanza back to her father. His hand closed around mine, warm and strong.
I thought I got a hold of myself before I looked up, but when I did, Manny was looking into me, not just at me. He saw me, and he didn’t run screaming away. My paper-thin defenses dissolved. The half of my body closest to him, tingled. The other half of my body wanted to. I kissed him.
That essence of Manny, the joy of being near him, intensified. I knew in that moment that he loved me as much as I loved him. And his love would never melt away like ice cream or sunsets.
“Stop it!” I step away from Sera. “I didn’t feel all that,” I say. “You’re embellishing.” She steps toward me, her face gentle. “You’ve been suppressing how you feel about him.” Her voice turns stern. “I don’t lie. You know better.”
I fight off a flood of remorse and shame. I look away. “Whatever.”
When I was nine and Enda five, he received a lifelong ban at my friend Joan’s house after his first visit to their garage. Joan’s parents, and mine, tried to explain to him why it was a bad thing to let all of the snakes and rabbits out of their cages.
Enda heard none of it. He stood with legs planted, hands on hips: Peter Pan facing down an army of Captain Hooks. “How dare you,” he said, cutting at Joan’s parents with indignant eyes. “How dare you put those animals in cages?” He spread his arms and threw back his head. “They need to be free!”
By thirteen, Enda had modified the treehouse and the garden shed, turning them into animal hospitals. For his trouble, he received countless bruises, bee stings, and a variety of animal scratches. Sera would help me heal Enda from whatever his patients inflicted on him throughout the week.
One day, we were one our way to school, when Enda spotted a stray cat in the neighbor’s tree. I groaned when I saw him starting to climb. “Come on. You can get the cat later.”
The locker next to mine belonged to a cute guy whose name I didn’t know yet but that I knew was destined for me. Even though I hung around my locker after every single class, and before and after school, the only time I saw him was first thing in the morning. I hadn’t gotten the nerve to mumble anything other than good morning yet, but I was working on some interesting things to say. Hi, I’m Adaeze, was as far as I’d gotten but I was convinced that, as an opening line, it was too cliché.
Enda made it to the lowest branch. “I’ll catch up,” he called down. “I almost have her.”
I hesitated. Mom was paranoid about us walking together — me, because I was a girl, and Enda because he was a flake. I sighed. He was thirteen. He could make it to school on his own for once. I couldn’t convince my feet to move, though. “Just leave her,” I called up. “You’re going to be late.”
“Go,” he said, calmly stepping up onto the next branch.
“Fine,” I said, and went. I was almost an adult. I didn’t have to keep chasing after some little kid.
I don’t know how long he was up in that tree before the cat took a swipe at him, and he fell out of the tree, but Mom was pissed when I got home. He had scratches on his arm from the cat and a sprained ankle from the fall. I was lucky it wasn’t any worse than that.
That night, I read to Enda like I did when he was little, although definitely not a story I would have chosen back then. We sat up against his backboard. feet in front of us, his left foot propped up on a pillow. I was hoping that my penance would banish some of the guilt I was pretending I didn’t feel. At the same time, I smarted from the two-week grounding I’d gotten. I couldn’t believe how paranoid my parents were. Enda wasn’t going to die because I didn’t walk him to school one time.
“He could see Bonzo’s anger growing hot,” I read. “Hot anger was bad. Ender’s anger – what?” I was pulled out of the story by Enda’s tug on my braid. “Oh, right. “En-duh’s anger was cold, and he could use it. Bonzo’s was hot, and so it used him.”
I looked up when I Sera’s soft presence. “We have to heal Enda again,” I said. “He fell out of a tree this time.” I left my neglect out of the conversation, as I didn’t feel that it was relevant.
Sera shook her head. “We can’t heal him.”
“See? This is what you get,” I told Enda. “You’re too reckless.”
“What?” His eyes moved back and forth from me, to where Sera stood. He couldn’t see her but he could see where I was looking and he knew about Sera.
“We’re not healing you this time.”
“Really?” He looked confused and sad. “I feel kind of sick.”
He had been quiet since the tree incident. I figured his ankle was bothering him. “Why can’t we heal him?” I asked Sera. “Is it because he did this to himself? Because he got me grounded?” This last bit was said with a tinge of hopefulness. It would be nice if God were on my side. My parents weren’t.
Sera’s eyes were sad. She shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
“Really?” Guilt knotted up in my stomach. “It’s kind of my fault,” I admitted grudgingly. “Can’t you even heal his sprain?”
She hesitated. “I can heal his ankle,” she said.
The way she looked at me made me uneasy, but I shrugged. “Okay.” How bad could cat scratches get? There wasn’t anything else wrong with him…
She healed his ankle but she wasn’t there when he started to get paranoid and to hallucinate. She wasn’t there when he was misdiagnosed. She wasn’t there when my brother died. I’ll never forgive her for that.
“I was there.” The sunset frames Sera in its golden light. I lean against the bridge rail, trying to summon strength from its cold hardness. I search my memory, looking for Sera. Nothing. A black hole, angel-less, Godless.
Only a couple of weeks after Enda fell out of the tree, I leaned toward Sera over my brother’s hospital bed. A sadness that emptied me of hope spilled out of her eyes. “I need you to help me,” I said. “Help him.”
Spit bubbled at the corners of Enda’s mouth. Circles under his eyes made his cheeks sag. He looked a million years old.
“It’s his time,” Sera said, and I remembered all of the times I’d heard her say that. All of the times she’d had me heal people, and all of the times she’d stopped me. I’d been able to accept it when those people had belonged to someone else. Her sorrow had always been a balm for my helplessness. Now it made me angry.
“He’s thirteen…” I looked at him. His face was flushed, but his eyes were shining; they were focused on the angel.
“I can see her,” he said. “Hi, Sera.”
She smiled down at him. “Hello, Beloved.”
He reached out to touch her face. Another presence made itself known. A light spread throughout the room, brighter than my eyes could take in. I closed them, but the intensity shone through. The corners of my heart gladdened, despite my despair. The light didn’t dim, so much as become invisible to my eyes. Here was the originator of the love that flowed between my brother and me.
“God,” I whispered.
He reached out His hand to me. Although I was several feet from Him, I felt the caress — the stroke of my hair, compassion that soothed my mind.
Enda stood up on the bed, a warm glow seeping through his skin. Joy and peace softened his features, taking age, leaving wisdom. He leapt for God, who caught him with a laugh that was deeper than my ears could hear. It shook me to the bone. Enda laughed too.
Then there were two Endas. One lay on the bed, eyes closed — an ugly, empty shell. I turned my gaze to the other Enda. He was all glow. Just beauty, no body.
Bitter sorrow slashes my throat. I hang onto the bridge rail but I’m blind with rage and sorrow. Comfort softens the air, wrapping itself around me. I try to fight it, like I have for years, but I’m too weak. I inhale the proffered peace, through my skin, into my soul.
It feels like I haven’t breathed in forever, and as I take in Sera’s solace, all of my carefully cultivated coldness melts away. I expect to feel weak without it but instead I feel strong and whole. I don’t know if I can forgive the angel, or God for taking Enda, but I think I can forgive Enda for leaving me.
I move away from Sera’s embrace, parting the wings that she wrapped around me. The girl sleeps. I can’t look at the mother; I know too well, how she feels. My bag lies open, forsaken. I crouch next to it but I don’t look inside. The tools in it are useless. God –
“What do you need me for…” I hear no inflection in my voice; feel no movement of my soul within my body. “God could do this Himself if He wanted. So could you.”
Sera stands next to the mother. They look down on me. The mother is a pillar of petrified distress. Sera’s face is compellingly peaceful. “Wouldn’t you like to be a part of her healing?”
“Ten years old, only ten years old,” her mother had repeated, only a few moments ago, a hundred years ago. The girl is tan with lots of long dark hair spread around her head. Her lips curve up at the corners. I wonder what kind of dream God is giving her right now. If she were awake, she definitely wouldn’t be smiling. I avoid looking at her burnt and broken arm.
I take out the bottle of oil again then roll it around in my hands. The oil is Manny’s habit. I adopted it because it distracts me from the bleeding, the writhing, the death that I see every day. It helps me ignore Sera, standing over my shoulder, nudging me. I set the bottle aside.
The girl starts breathing again, and the world gets loud. Horror overtakes the emotional numbness that had taken over my body. “Wait, wait! I haven’t decided yet!” I shout.
The girl’s mother stares down at me. “Decided what?”
Panic roars through my blood. I hear it screaming through my eardrums. I want to run, but I close my eyes instead. “Please, God,” I whisper. Anger at God and pity for the girl war within the pounding of my heart; the clench is rage, the release is mercy. “Please, God.” A familiar focus breaks through sound of thrumming blood, smoothing out my heartbeats until betrayal and forgiveness are almost one.
The girl’s arm is black. Bones poke through flesh with no regard for grace or humanity. I stroke the length of mangled flesh and bone. A kiss from God flows from the top of my head to the tips of my fingers.
Compassion for the girl overwhelms me. The person who refused to help her seems so far from who I am. Love flows freely through my veins and into hers, healing her internal injuries as well as her external ones.
The girl’s eyes are still closed. I stroke her brow and catch the tail end of her dream. The heat of the sun shines through the curtain of water, warming us, though the spray is cool. We dive through the fall of water, into the sea below. Dolphins with tattoos made of dancing rainbows, welcome us with shrieks of laughter.
The girl stirs, bringing her healed arm up to touch the space between her eyes. “Mom?” She rises a little, resting on her elbows.
“I’m here.” The woman is in Mom Mode. She keeps her voice calm and authoritative. She doesn’t react to the total healing her daughter has received. No doubt Sera has done her work on the woman’s mind so that she has forgotten how badly the girl was hurt. “Can I hold her?”
“Yeah, go ahead.” I’m surprised. Most civilians don’t ask. Parents are often the biggest obstacle to overcome when I try to help a kid.
The girl looks at me over her mother’s shoulder. She is bemused, but there are worlds of personality in her eyes. I look at her, and I know why Manny includes that particular photo with his baseball cards. Pictures, especially posed ones, rarely capture a person’s true essence. I stand.
Her eyes follow me. I wonder if she remembers the dream she was just having with the dolphins. I wonder if her dad has mentioned me to her. Mentioned that I refused to meet her. Of course the girl I almost refused to heal was Manny’s daughter. A long, siren scream echoes in my head.
“Espy! I saw the car — Espy, are you alright, baby?” Manny approaches. Adrenaline makes his long-limbed gait unusually graceful.
Esperanza’s mother is helping her daughter to stand. “Dad! I’m okay.” This last part is muffled by a mouthful of her father’s shoulder.
“You’re okay?” His voice goes from panicked to relieved. “You’re okay, you’re okay…”
He spots me. I can feel his relief battling the grief and terror that his body is experiencing as his mind grapples with the fact that she almost wasn’t okay. Just the idea that she might have – and the joy, the sheer joy —
I smile at him and he smiles back but immediately pulls his focus back to his daughter. Then he notices his ex. He reaches out for Jasmine and they hold each other, Espy between them, battling the near miss of grief. I take advantage of the woman’s distraction to size her up without her noticing. She’s short and a little chunky, although with an innate dignity that is intimidating.
I step away, allowing the unit to have their moment. The fresh breeze of time suspended has blown away on the wind. The reek of burnt glass climbs up my throat. Blood and fear make the air sting with desperation. Bodies, some attended to, some abandoned, litter the road.
“What.” I turn away from Sera, hoping, though I know better, that she takes the waver in my voice as anger rather than shame. I almost didn’t heal her, Manny almost lost his little girl, I almost let down the only person in the world who –. All of the almosts inch up my arms and settle like a nettle necklace around my throat. And he’d have never known. But I’ll know forever. I’ll never not know.
“What do I do?” I ask, hating the desperation in my voice. I’m surrounded by people who need help but I can’t move.
Sera stands beside me and brushes a hand over my hair, following my ponytail to the tip. She tugs gently, tickling my skull. “Forgive yourself.”
(This story was previously published in the Eclipse Literary Journal in 2009. This was the first short story I ever wrote from beginning to end, so I have edited it for clarity but kept the spirit of the story, including the soap opera ending.)