The woman is holding a large teddy bear who is holding a small pink heart that says We Love You Beary Much! in a wide, curling font. Her eyes are red and puffy and her nose is raw; I wonder if she’s sick, or if she’s been crying.
Experience says it’s probably both.
I’m afraid we won’t be needing this, she says, thrusting its smiling face at mine. I take the bear from her and examine it carefully. It looks new, but I see a few spots in its fur where something —tears, maybe— has stained it a darker shade of brown. I try to remember if tears are sterile or not. After a moment I realize that the woman is staring at me, so I start to smile to make the situation less uncomfortable, but then I realize that smiling is probably not the thing to be doing right now. I just do nothing instead. She holds her hands out, palms upward, and jerks her shoulders back.
Well? She says. Well? I ask. Are you going to refund me?
I look back at the bear and watch as the wet patches begin to fade, leaving the fur pristine and golden brown. I bite my lip and take a quick glance back at my companion standing behind me. It doesn’t move. I’m sorry but I can’t take this back, I say, screwing my face into an I’m sorry look. She stares at me, arms still out. Are you serious, she says. Yes, I say, it’s store policy. All sales are final. She blinks and lowers her arms and I scratch behind my ear nervously.
My son is in a coma, she says.
I suck the air in through my teeth; it’s a reflexive thing, something I do whenever I get uncomfortable. I tell her that I’m sorry for her loss. I know it’s not the right thing to say, but honestly I don’t know what the right thing to say is in this situation. I’m sorry your son is in a coma feels a little on the nose. I keep the I’m sorry look on my face and try to hand the bear back to her, but she doesn’t take it. You’re really serious, she says. Yeah, I say, I’m sorry but we just can’t accept returns.
My son is brain-dead, she says. What the hell am I supposed to do with this?
There’s a high, thin ringing in the air around me and a dull ache starts to spread across my forehead; the woman looks like she’s about to cry. I hate it when customers cry. It always makes me nervous. I set the bear down and put my hands up in an I wish I could help gesture. I really am sorry, I say. I wish I could help, but it’s the hospital’s rule. Anything returned could have a contaminant on it, and we can’t really risk getting people sick, you know? Her face goes red and her eyes get wide. Oh, fuck you, she says, much too loud for the tiny space we're in. People perk up in the lobby, listening. I start to say something to calm her down, but before I can she grabs the bear and throws it at me. It’s a good shot. It bounces off my face and lands face-up on the ground, still clutching its heart, still smiling. The woman isn't. The hell with you, she says. The hell with you, and this place, and that stupid fucking bear! You people, she says, clenching her hand into fists.
You people took my boy from me.
I freeze. A cold sweat creeps over the back of my neck and my mouth works up and down. I glance back at my companion for some help but I just get the same fathomless stare as before. Gosh, I say, and then I trail off into silence, nervous and wordless. Her hand is dangerously close to the snow globes, so I begin to edge around the counter, ready to make a dash in the event that she starts throwing things again. She bursts into tears instead, bracing herself against the countertop. I’m sorry, she whispers, the words coming between sobs and desperate, shuddering breaths. She repeats it a few times, each one quieter than the last.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry.
She sinks down into a crouch to grab the bear, but she’s crying too hard and just sort of stays there. More people in the lobby pop their heads around the doorway, curious and eager. Hospital drama is fascinating when it's not yours. My head is throbbing and the ringing is so loud I can barely concentrate, but I do my best to ignore it. My companion watches as I go around the countertop and crouch down next to the woman. Mr. Weisz has a pretty strict No-Touching policy with the customers, but he’s gone home for the day and I really don’t know what else I could be doing in this situation, so I put my hand on her shoulder and she leans into me. She sobs so hard she starts coughing, and I squeeze her shoulder and she squeezes my hand. Eventually her crying slows and she manages to takes a few deep breaths. I offer her a tissue from a pocket pack I have lying around and she blows her nose.
I’m sorry I yelled at you, she says, and that I threw the bear at you. I know none of this is your fault. I help her to her feet and tell her it’s okay, I understand, and hey if you’re going to throw anything at me it might as well be a stuffed animal. I don’t know what to do, she says quietly. I just don’t know what to do. I really am sorry I can’t let you return the bear, I say. She laughs and wipes her nose on her sleeve. Oh fuck it, she says. What’s another twenty bucks on top of thirty thousand? I look at the bear, and then I look at her. What’s your son’s name, I ask.
Drew. Andrew. His name is Andrew.
The ringing starts to fade and I glance back at my silent friend. I pull out a twenty dollar bill from my wallet and hand it to her. Here, I say. She shakes her head. Oh, no, she says, I couldn’t. That’s sweet, thank you, but no. I keep it held out. No, really, I say. Take it. I’d like to buy your bear. A sad sort of smile comes onto her face and she takes the bill and puts it into her pocket. Okay, she says. Thank you.
I’m afraid she’s going to start crying again, but instead she gives me a hug and takes a few more deep breaths. Okay, she says again. Okay, I say. I pick up the bear and go back around the counter. The woman watches me and shakes her her head; she’s grateful, she says, that there are people like me in the world. I don't know what to say to that, so I just say good luck with everything; she nods and thanks me again and then she turns quickly and heads out to the lobby. As she goes, I see something shimmer into view in the corner of my eye, gliding between stacks of cards and candy, a tall creature with metallic black skin and gleaming wings that paint the walls and merchandise gold with their light.
It’s immense in the tiny space of the shop, neck bent against the ceiling tiles, its back broad and muscular, its arms long and toned. Its eyes are pools of liquid mercury, bright and reflective and silvery, and around its bald skull a slow halo of fire flows and ripples like reeds in water. Its naked body is like a wrought-iron statue come to life —taut and neuter and unblemished—its motions as precise and exacting as a clock. Look after her, I mouth, and it nods - slowly, gently - and follows her out. The golden light fades back into pale fluorescent; the people in the lobby return to their waiting. I take an aspirin for the headache and glance back at my companion in the corner. It stands there, grave and silent, a thousand stars wheeling across the darkness of its body, a distant constellation of galaxies, a little piece of the night sky.
I take the bear and put it up high on one of the display shelves, and then I sanitize my hands.
The angels came after the accident. It was the end of summer; the nights had started to get cold and the first brown leaves could be seen here and there in the trees. I was eighteen and my girlfriend’s parents had left town for the weekend to visit some family in Fort Lauderdale, leaving behind money for food and an extracted promise not to get into trouble. My little brother and I snuck out through the window, clambering down the old oak tree in our yard and boosting each other over the fence before racing through the lamplit streets to where Laurel was waiting for us. The three of us blazed a trail through the evening, smoking and drinking and dancing with our friends Connor and Samantha and a few others from school. Then I was in the hospital.
I went in and out of consciousness a lot in the beginning. It’s not like falling asleep, or fading to black like they do in the movies. You’re there on the hospital bed, and then you’re there again but it’s later and lights are flashing overhead and there’s the squeak of wheels and people are standing over you telling you everything’s going to be okay and then you’re there again, back in your room, back on your bed. No one told me what had happened, not at first, only that there had been an accident. Later, I would go over the events in exhausting detail—endlessly repeating and repeating each moment for a rotation of faces, a blur of names—but in that first week I could get only fragments. How the call had come from an old lady who got up early to buy some cat food. How the paramedics had loaded me into the ambulance smelling like scorched rubber and hair and flesh, how the cars had been smashed so tightly together it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. How the other driver had died instantly. How I probably should have died, too.
The collision was bad, very bad, they said; I had glass scattered through me like grass seed, deep in my muscles, my lungs. The doctors had found most of it in their first set of surgeries, but there was something hiding in my skull, something they’d missed; it was tiny, barely a millimeter across, but they said it was causing bleeding, which was causing pressure, which was causing the blackouts, all of which was bad, very bad. They said they didn’t know what the extent of the damage was just yet. It was a miracle, they said, that I was alive at all.
No one mentioned the thing standing in the corner.
They ran a lot of tests before the surgery. The doctors talked to my parents, using words like incision and hematoma and prognosis. My parents barely spoke. The nurses told me I’d be fine, just fine, that I’d be up again in no time, just you wait and see. It was hard to stay awake, hard to focus; my head was pounding and my thoughts and time kept getting away from me. Deep down I was pretty sure I was dying. It seemed unfair, I thought, to be dead when there was so much left to do in the world. I asked a nurse if she agreed that it was unfair die at my age, and she gave me a sad smile and said yes, yes it is, but I should just get some rest and try not to worry about all that right now. I had someone watching over me, she said. I told her I knew what she meant. The visitor stood next to the bed, each eye a trail of patient fire, its body an endless chasm of space and time, unwound ribbons of stars and shimmering quasars, the boundless deep between them all. As they prepped me for surgery, the anesthesiologist told me not to be scared. I told her I wasn’t; I had an angel by my side. She said that was good, good, now take a deep breath and count backwards from ten, nine, eight, seven...
I see the woman again in the cafeteria. She’s sitting at one of the center tables with a cup of Lipton tea, charging her phone in one of the outlets the cleaning people use to plug in their floor waxers. Her curly brown hair is hidden under a steel blue beanie. Her fingers drum on the tabletop; her angel stands behind her, carved out of onyx and iron. I pay for my slice of pizza and my soup and sit a few tables away. I eat. After a while I realize that she’s noticed me, and I give a little wave, and she half-waves back. She almost seems as if she’s going to come over and say something, but she just puts her hands on her cup and sits there staring into it. I wonder if I should say something to her, if I should try to help or comfort her. I eat my food instead.
At the end of my shift, a father and his two young boys come into the shop to look for a card for their mother. He tells the boys to pick one out; they rummage reluctantly down the stack, picking out the blandest one we have in stock. They bring it to their dad, who gives it to me and asks if I have a pen he can borrow. As they all sign it, one of the boys sees the bear on the shelf and points it out to his brother, giggling. He suggests they could get it for mom. She’d love it, he says, smirking. The father glances at it, shakes his headl no. It’s kinda stupid, he says, don’t you think? He turns to me. I mean, come on. Be honest. Who would want something like that? I don’t know, I say, frowning. People like different things.
I tell them it’s display-only anyway, so it doesn’t really matter. Then they leave and I close down the shop.
The air outside the hospital is clear and bright. The moon hangs big and full in the clear blue sky like a silver fruit, pockmarked and greying but still tempting, still beautiful. I decide to walk home. I cut through the park, staring up at the golden-red leaves on the maples, breathing in the cold, crisp air, smelling the faint scent of earthy decay. A young boy with blonde hair is weaving through the trees and browning grass, yelling and smacking the branches with a stick, running in chaotic spirals and jagged lines. My eyes drift over the scene. I stop. The woman is sitting on a nearby bench wearing a grey polar fleece vest, absently watching the boy as he plays. Her angel stands behind her, colossal in the open air, a giant carved from fire and metal and light. A grey sedan pulls up to the sidewalk and parks with its hazards on; a man with greying-brown hair and a blue blazer and jeans gets out and walks over to her. They talk. The boy runs over and hugs him around his knees; the man bends down and picks him up, tousling his hair and smiling. The child laughs.
The adults talk a little longer, their gestures subdued, their faces flat. The boy starts to fuss and squirm in the man’s arms, wriggling and trying to break free; they say their goodbyes, and the man takes him to the car and puts him in the backseat. They pull away—hazards still blinking—through the light, around the corner, down the street. The woman sits back down, watching until the car is out of sight, and then she pulls out a pack of cigarettes and taps it in her hand. She lights one and takes a pull, resting her elbows on her knees and blowing the smoke out through her nose in a grateful sigh. I look at the two of them together, the watcher, its ward. Too late, I realize that she's seen me, that I've been caught staring again. I suck the air in through my teeth and give a small wave and walk over. You have to stop spying on me, she says. I’m not, I say. I mean, I guess I am, but I don’t mean to be.
She has a nice laugh. It’s quiet, low and gentle, like a secret. I know, she says. I was joking. Oh, right, I say. Sorry. She laughs again, smaller this time, and shakes her head. You really don’t need to apologize to me either, she says; if anything I should still be apologizing to you. Right, I say again, smiling. Sorry. She takes a long drag of her cigarette and blows the smoke out through her nose. Her eyes are heavy and red-rimmed and her face is pale. The hat is pulled down low over her forehead. Want to sit, she asks. I could use the company. Sure, I say. I can sit. I settle on the bench next to her, my angel behind me, hers behind her, two shadows outstretching their makers.
She offers me a cigarette. I say thanks but no, I quit a long time ago. Me too, she says. Me too. She takes another drag. She seems older. Smaller. I think back to my parents, the way they stared at me in the hospital, their helpless, hopeless faces, the silences that filled their mouths like water. Are you okay, I ask. She shrugs. I don’t know, she says. No. Do you want to talk about it, I ask. She shakes her head; she nods. She shrugs. I look at the stick on the ground, its bark stripped and ragged. Was that your son, I ask. She nods. He’s cute, I say. He seems like a good kid. He is a good kid, she says with a distant smile. What’s his name, I ask, leaning back against the bench as I try to get comfortable. Joshua, she says. He just turned five. She looks up past the trees, at the sky, at the moon; I follow her gaze. Have you told him yet? I ask. She doesn’t respond.
She finishes her cigarette and crushes it tenderly under her heel. She lights another one and stares at it as it burns. Was that your husband, I ask. She bobs her head sideways, yes and no. Ex, she says. We got divorced a couple years ago. You know how things go. I nod. I guess I do, I say. There's a minute of silence between us as the wind rustles the trees, plucking a leaf and sending it tumbling gently across the ground in front of us. We watch it until it meets up with a larger group and is lost in the mix. An ambulance siren rises and falls in the distance, getting closer, closer. Can I ask you a favor, she asks. You can say no. Sure, I say, what do you need? She finishes her cigarette and stands, dropping it to the ground next to its fallen brother.
Would you meet my son?
Recovery was slow. There were more tests. More scans. The doctors put each new finding into categories of good and not-so-good; mostly the news was good. They said the bleeding had been localized, hadn’t done too much damage, and the doctors were nothing less than a crack team of surgical geniuses; I was lucky, they said, that everything had gone the way it did. It could have been so much worse. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so I didn’t. My parents didn’t either.
Later tests turned up some not-so-good things. My short-term memory retention was pretty shot, they said, and it could come back, but it also could not, or it could come back but not all the way. The headaches and the tinnitus were another thing that was not-so-good, as were my fine motor functions; I would walk, they said, I might even be able to do things like jog or play sports if I worked at them. I just might have trouble writing. And I definitely couldn't drive again.
As if I would.
Laurel came as often as she could. Connor and Sam came by a couple times, bringing some recent magazines and comic books they knew I’d like. Laurel brought in some stuff covertly retrieved from my bedroom, wrapped in the jacket I’d left at her house. Fantasy, history, horror, sci-fi. Things to keep me busy, to take my mind off everything. Through the hospital window I could see that summer was ending; the leaves were growing redder, the grass browner. Laurel would be leaving for Michigan soon. She asked me if she should stay, that she’d be willing to delay a semester if I needed her around; I told her no. I told her I didn’t think it was her fault, any of it, that she shouldn’t think so either. She said she didn’t know what to think. She said she was just sorry, so sorry that it happened. That she’d give anything. Everything. Anything to make it unhappen.
She kissed me and told me she loved me.
Her schedule got busy; college was coming up fast. Preparations for the future needed to happen. First a day passed, then a week, then another. She was always sorry, always tender when she visited, but we both knew our time was up. Her love grew sadder, distant, like the way you love a tragic painting or a song that always makes you cry. On her last night before she left, she stopped by to tell me she’d be back as soon as she could, that she’d write, that she’d call as soon as I was back home. She lay on the bed next to me, the two of us barely fitting, her head resting on my shoulder, our fingers intertwined. The visitor loomed over the two of us, watchful and peaceful and silent. I asked her if she could keep a secret. She said yes.
I told her everything.
She didn’t keep her promise. They ran more scans, more tests, checking frantically for some missed damage, some secret chunk of metal or glass or blood that could explain what she’d told them, what I'd told her. My parents’ visits became filled with forced smiles and strained silences and unfinished questions. They took away all my books, my magazines, my comics, the notes that Laurel had written to me. The notebook I’d been trying to write in. They evaluated me again and again, each new doctor asking me about how I was feeling, what I was thinking, could I tell them about the night of the accident, what happened before it, what happened after. Was it in the room with us. Was it angry. Was it sad. Was it saying anything, telling me to do anything. Could I draw it for them, no, well then could I describe it to them. No one understood when I explained it. No one believed it was real.
There were no more hemorrhages. No hematomas. No clots. No shrapnel. The MRIs and CAT scans came back clean. Toxicology came back clean. The doctors started to use words like psychosis and delusion and neuroleptics. My parents did their best to understand me, and when then that failed they tried to reason with me. Eventually they just yelled at me. I couldn’t blame them. They were drowning, lost at sea, and I was the water drowning them. They prodded and begged, asking if maybe I’d been speaking metaphorically or high on painkillers or temporarily insane, or if I was just lashing out because deep down I was bad, just bad, if maybe all that troublemaking and rebelling had metastacised to my heart. My visitor stood there through it all, unmoving, unmoved, watching and waiting as I tore my family apart.
Eventually I gave in. I told them what they wanted to hear.
I watch the woman from across Andrew's hospital bed. It's easy to picture what she was like when he was younger: fussing with his hair, wiping the crust from his eyes, straightening and tucking in his sheets. He looks about nineteen, maybe twenty; even now, laid out in the cold fluorescent and hospital gown he’s handsome, muscular and tall, with a shock of sandy blond hair and a strong jaw. A light band of freckles runs over the bridge of his nose and down either cheekbone, scattering like motes of dust at the edges. His forehead is strong and intellectual and his face is relaxed and smooth. The life support systems chime and hiss rhythmically, pumping blood through his veins, air through his lungs.
She starts talking, telling me all about him. How well he plays piano. How there’s a scar on his arm from their visit to Florida. How he was always able to make her laugh, no matter how mad she was. How he had come home for the weekend, just because, just to say hi, I love you. How she’d been so proud, just so proud of him. Her hands trace his fingers, lifting them, holding them, her lips touch his forehead gently. Her focus shifts, lost somewhere deep between the room and her memories. The heart monitor beeps in perfect rhythm, a metronome with no music, a clock ticking down to nothing. Her angel stands over both of them, crowded between the oxygen canisters, its back arched, its muscles taut, its eyes molten light.
He’d slipped in the shower. She’d stepped out to buy some bagels and coffee and come back to find him face down, the water running, mixing with his blood. They’d been in surgery for hours trying to save him, trying to get the blood to his brain and the water from his lungs, but he was too far gone. The woman rests her head on her son’s chest, listening. I remember the first time I ever heard his heart, she says. It was so tiny, so fragile. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. She leans back, wiping a sleeve across her eyes. She stares at her son, her face pale and taut. I know he’s gone, she says. I knew it before they came out of surgery. The doctors told me I could have some time with him to say goodbye. They told me they’ll wait until I’m ready, and then they’ll switch off the machines, and his heart will stop, and that will be that. But I just keep thinking, you know? How could I ever be ready for this? How could I ever let that heart stop beating?
The angel’s fire flickers across the displays, touching her son’s face, lighting her hair with a golden halo. I don’t know what to say, so I just sit there with her in silence, the two of us staring at her son together. She bows her head, her hands clasped around her son’s as if in prayer. She stays like that for a long while. I watch the heart monitor as it peaks and drops and peaks again. Her voice cuts through the noise of the machinery, so quiet that I almost miss it. What about Joshua? She says. He’s only five. How am I supposed to make him understand? How do you tell a little boy that his brother is gone? I run my hands through my hair as I think about it. I don’t know, I say. I guess you tell him the truth. Tell him it’s okay to be sad, and even though he’s gone and things are bad and will be bad for a long while, it’ll eventually be okay.
She leans back and snorts. Come on, she says. You don’t really believe that feel-good shit. I glance back at her angel as it stares down at her, dark and fiery and strong. I shrug. No, I say, not really. But I guess you learn to make it okay. You’ll learn to soften the edges around the hole he left. She thinks for a moment, then nods and rubs her eyes. Thank you for coming to visit him with me, she says. I don’t even really know why I asked you. I just felt like you understood, you know? The way you looked at me. Gosh, you must think I’m so crazy, she laughs. I shake my head. Not crazy, I say. Not crazy at all. She stares at her son for a while before turning back to me. Do you have any brothers or sisters, she asks. One, I say. A brother.
I had a brother.
The sergeant was a heavyset man with a quiet voice and a portable tape recorder. He told me he was there to take my statement, that I should tell him all the events leading up to the accident, or at least all the ones I could remember. I told him I might not be the best person to talk to; there were a lot of big gaps and I didn’t think the testimony of a person who just had brain surgery would be considered very valuable. I said that last part was a joke. I don't think he found it funny. He asked me if I had any questions before we began; I asked him if he’d spoken to Laurel, if she had to give a statement as well. He said he had, and she did. What did she say about that night, I asked. What did she say about me? He told me it was an ongoing investigation, so he couldn’t say anything one way or the other. I must have looked hurt because he patted me on the shoulder and told me not to worry, she’d said good things. My parents, too. All good things. Everyone knew this was a hard time for me; no one was placing any blame. He just needed to hear it all from me.
I told him what I’d pieced together, flashes of image and sound, fitful and sparse. How I’d parked my car down the street so we could start it without waking up our parents, how Micah had almost fallen out of the tree as we climbed down out the window, how we’d laughed about it as we drove to Laurel’s place, windows down, music playing. How we’d been there all night, drinking, dancing, talking, even after everyone else had left and Connor and Sam had disappeared into some dark corner of the house to sleep; how Laurel and Micah and I had laid on the grass and talked until the buzz had worn off and our clothes were soaked with dew. How we’d taken the backroads home, our windows down, breathing in the cool morning air as the sun burst through the ink-black trees, how the tires had kicked up rocks and dust behind us as we drove. How I’d had a song from the party playing through my head, the same melody surfacing and resurfacing like a paper boat caught in a whirlpool. How Micah had fallen asleep in the seat next to me, his hair still damp from the morning grass.
When you hurt your head it’s common to lose some time, as if the moments surrounding the injury just never happened. I don't remember the pickup coming around the curve too fast, losing control, heading straight for us. I don't remember the impact, or how the other driver was thrown from the car. I don't remember how they found my brother cradled in my arms, how I refused to let him go even as they tried to get me onto the stretcher, into the ambulance.
My parents had to tell me.
When you hurt your head, your mind forgets how to hold onto the things it's been told, no matter how important they are or how they make you feel. You ask the same questions, hear the same answers, ask the same questions again, receiving each old, tired bit of information like it’s new. I kept asking for Micah, how he was, where he was, and each time the memory of what my parents told me would fade away, slipping out of my skull like water out of a cracked bowl. I’d ask again, and then I’d watch confused as their eyes filled with tears, startled as their breath caught and their voices shook with grief and frustration; I’d ask them what was wrong. Then they would fill the slate in my head with grief and I would wipe it clean again.
I gave the sergeant all the details I thought mattered. By the time I was done, my head was aching and I felt hollow and grey. He switched off the tape and asked me if I had any other questions. I asked him if I was in trouble. He said he couldn’t give me an official answer, so I asked him for an unofficial one. He thought about it for a while, his face showing an emotion somewhere between discomfort and sadness, and finally he told me no, he didn’t think I was in trouble. More than anything, he said, he was just sorry it had happened; I seemed like a good kid and my parents seemed like they were good folks too, not people who deserved this.
He wiped his forehead on his sleeve and told me that he’d lost his daughter to cancer a couple years back; they’d done everything they could for her, paid for every kind of treatment the hospital had, but at the end of the day there are things you can control and there are things you can't. He’d tried so hard to make sense of it all in the aftermath, he said, but sometimes things just happen, you know? I said I did know, and told him I was sorry for his loss. He nodded and wiped his forehead again, and then he told me he wanted me to know everything would be okay. I wanted to ask him how okay he really thought things would be for an eighteen-year-old whose sudden inability to write was the least of a long list of new problems, but I thanked him instead and told him I’d keep it in mind, as much as I could. He nodded and collected the recorder, smiling the sad, distant smile that everyone used on me now. That’s when I saw it, fading in behind him like smoke.
He had a visitor, too.
Pale and gaunt, its long bony wings and silken white feathers were folded neatly behind its back. Its face was impenetrable, a smooth clay mask with two bottomless holes where its eyes should be, its mouth little more than a thin horizontal slash above its chin, a small bump for a nose. It towered over the both of us, filling the room around us with strange, ethereal light; there was a ringing in my ears, dizzying and confused, growing louder and louder, engulfing my head and my thoughts in bright white noise. Through the noise, I heard the sergeant ask me if I was feeling okay, if he should call a doctor or a nurse. The thing turned toward me, cocking its head to one side, its lipless mouth still, its eyes empty and expressionless.
The ringing faded and I realized I was speaking, smiling, telling the sergeant I was fine, just fine, thank you. I was just tired. I apologized for startling him, telling him this was just all very hard for me. My brain was still in the healing stages —you know how those are— and sometimes weird little moments like that just happened. He relaxed a little and bobbed his head apologetically. He told me he'd reach out to me if anything came up, and then he thanked me for my time and left. His visitor lingered a moment, its head twisting side to side like some enormous bird of prey, and then it stalked out of the room after him and disappeared back into the shadows.
I miss the last bus home. The woman offers to drive me, but I tell her I was planning to walk anyway. The night is crisp and cloudless, a field of sparkling diamonds on dark velvet cloth. The light from the street lamps puddles onto the sidewalk and spills over into the street in overlapping circles of gold. My angel expands from my heels, stretching itself along the walls and through the gaps in the overpass fences, reaching upwards, outwards. It blends itself with the night, spreads itself over the world like a blanket; the sky becomes filled with shooting stars and swirling galaxies, forming, separating, colliding — beginnings and endings repeated again and again in eternal loops. Right above the treeline, two massive, bright moons look down over the buildings, over the earth, over me.
In the morning I take a quick shower and grab an early bus into work so I can stop by the cafeteria for breakfast. The room is already full when I get there: nurses just off from overnight shifts, doctors in early before the daily rush, families visiting their loved ones before work or school. Patterns form and dissolve in front of me as I eat my bagel, the lines of each individual life coming together in constellations of interaction: intersecting, redirecting, tangling themselves together in knots around the hospital, around each other.
I finish my breakfast and clock in a little early; after an hour or so Mr. Weisz arrives with his usual good morning and his cup of coffee. We talk for a little bit and then he tells me he heard about the incident, and asks if everything is okay. I tell him I took care of it, that it wasn’t a big deal, just someone having a rough time who needed a little help. He asks me if anything got broken; I tell him nothing that won’t heal eventually. He gives me a funny look when I say that, but he doesn’t press the issue. That’s why I like Mr. Weisz. He takes everything in stride.
I see the woman and her son again in the afternoon. She looks exhausted, overwhelmed and crumpled, her eyes red, her nose raw, her face pale and drawn; her son looks sad and small and confused, as if he's seen something terrible he can’t quite understand yet. They walk through the lobby and out into the bright autumn sunlight, the doors to the vestibule sliding shut behind them, opening ahead, shutting again. The angel’s wings spread and its feathers flutter lightly in the breeze as it steps onto the curb, the light of its fire undiminished by the brightness of the day. The three of them turn a corner and disappear around the side of the building. I stand behind the counter looking at all the cards, the flowers, the stuffed animals; I stare out at the people in the lobby as they wait for news of their friends and loved ones, some of them anxious, some of them calm, some talking and laughing, some reading, some pacing. I picture Andrew in my mind, not as I saw him but as she did, young and strong and limitless in his capacity, working hard to be something, to be someone, beautiful and brilliant and wonderful to behold. I look over to my angel, the everlasting sea of stars in the middle of the store, and then I scrawl out a shaky be-right-back sign and run out of the hospital.
For a moment I’m afraid I’m too late, but then I see the angel rising high above the rows of cars, the two of them walking hand in hand just ahead. I call out to Joshua and they both stop and turn as I jog over. I crouch down next to him and he looks up at me, confused and unsettled, still holding tight to his mother’s hand. Hey, I say, I wanted you to have this. I hold the bear out to him. He looks up at his mother silently, waiting for her response. It’s okay, she says. It’s a gift. She gives him a strained smile and he slips his hand gently from hers and takes the bear, his eyes dark and serious, his mouth set in a hard line. I stand and turn to the woman. She nods, sad and distant. Are you going to be okay, I ask. I don’t know, she says.
She bends down and picks up her son with a groan. He holds the bear out so he can examine it better, staring at its smiling face, its golden fur, its bright pink heart. Thanks, she says. For everything. It’s okay, I say. Good luck. I head back to the curb and watch as they drive away, the boy with the bear, the mother at the wheel. She gives another nod, a little wave, and then they’re gone. The air is clean and clear; I hear the rumble of cars on the freeway, the faint chirping of birds in the trees, the hum of the hospital’s generators. I head back inside. I greet the customers as they come in, bag up their purchases, hand them their receipts; through it all, my angel stands just behind me, always there, always watching, deep and limitless and eternal, a human-shaped crack in the world.
The three of us lay head to head, pinwheeled in the grass of Laurel’s yard, the dew soaking into our clothes and hair. Laurel shivered and I sat up and took off my jacket, draping it over her and giving her a kiss before lying back down. It’s so quiet, she said. I love it when it’s quiet. The sky spun pleasantly from the beer, the branches of the willows creating feathered spaces of black against the stars. Micah sighed, happy and tired and drunk. Where’d Connor and Sam go, he asked. Laurel pointed toward the house. I told them they could sleep in my brother’s room, she said. He won’t mind. I smiled and stretched my arms out, one to her, one to Micah. I’m glad we could do this, I said. I’m glad we got to do one last thing before everything changes. Laurel kissed and nuzzled my hand. Micah snorted. Don’t be so dramatic, he said. You’re just going to college. Still, I said. Still.
The stars blurred and I realized I was crying. I closed my eyes for a moment and felt the cool wind on my cheeks as it dried the spots where my tears had rolled down. I took a drag from my cigarette and looked over at my brother as he stared up at the sky; I realized he was crying too. I laughed. Micah frowned at me defensively for a moment but stopped when he saw my eyes, the tear tracks on my face. He laughed too. What’s so funny, Laurel asked, eyes still closed, still smiling. Nothing, I said. It’s just great to be here with both of you. Laurel bumped the top of her head against mine. Your brother’s pretty cool, she said. I’m glad he could come. Me too, I said. Me too. Micah didn’t respond. The moon crested and fell as the sky shifted slowly from black to purple to grey to blue; we lay there as the night became morning and the beer wore off and our mouths dried out from the cigarettes, the three of us thinking about the future, about each other, full of potential, full life and love, all of us bright and beautiful and radiant and limitless, each of us shining brighter than the stars.