Ending 2010 #FridayFlash by sharing my first published story. “Archangel” was published January 2010 by a gentleman who has become one of my best writing friends, Jim Bronyaur. Thanks, Jim, for making 2010 my Year-of-Getting-Published and Happy New Year to all my Twitter friends!
Clenching the bed sheets in his fists, and releasing a moan from his lips that only he (and one other) could hear, Jack Ridley pushed the thorny brambles and branches out of his way, twisting a serpentine path through the cumbersome forest.
Eventually, the trees thinned and he emerged from the thicket into a clearing.
The grass was brown here, the blades brittle and curling. The sky was granite gray and, although the prospect of rain looked promising, not a drop seemed forthcoming.
The heat was oppressive. Ridley’s clothes clung to his sweaty body. He pushed a wet strand of gray hair out of his eyes.
Ridley sighed and thought: I’m tired. Just as he perceived his weariness, he spied in the distance a convenient and comfortable-looking bench. He wobbled over and plopped down on it. He leaned back, lifted his head and gazed into the unimpressive sky.
A rustling sound startled him, and jerking his head toward the forest, he saw her.
The child glided onto the lawn. Her hair was deepest copper. She had an upturned nose and the tips of her ears were pointed, almost pixieish. She wore a crisp, white cotton dress; no wrinkles or stains marred its perfection.
Wings sprouted from her back. The wings themselves were marred. They were dingy and torn in places. They appeared to be made of some sort of fabric. Ridley thought of children playing angels in Christmas pageants, but as he stared at the things, he thought he saw them move.
“You’re Jonathan Ridley,” she said, glancing at him from a short distance.
“Everyone calls me…”
“Jack,” she said. “I know.” She ambled over and sat next to him, taking his hand. She looked at him with chestnut eyes. “My name’s really Zipporah, but everyone calls me Mehitabel.”
Jack groaned, rubbing a sudden tender spot on his inner arm.
“They’re giving you another shot,” said Mehitabel.
Jack stopped massaging his arm and looked around. “Where am I?”
“One of the In-Between Places.” Mehitabel’s gaze drifted across the lawn. “You’ve been wandering the In-Between Places for days.”
Ridley stirred restlessly and stared at Mehitabel, feeling agitated. “What am I doin’ here?” He might’ve asked this question a hundred times before, but he couldn’t remember.
“Waiting,” she replied. “Deciding.” She saw his face become angry. Large, wet tears began dropping from her eyes as distant thunder sounded beyond the trees.
He softened and squeezed her hand lightly. “Don’t cry, Mehitabel. I’m just bone-tired. Those woods were hard to get through.”
“They always are,” Mehitabel said mysteriously.
“What did I do to deserve this?” he asked. As soon as the question left his lips, there came to him a recollection so terrible that he pulled away. He slid off the bench and onto the lawn, sobbing. “Oh, God!”
“You killed some people,” said Mehitabel. And the way she spoke them, the words were like freshly honed knives, sharp and eviscerating. “A man you worked for paid you to kill.” Tears continued to drip from her dark amber eyes, and where they fell, the grass became a vibrant green and tiny violets bloomed.
Jack stood. He looked at Mehitabel and she ceased crying.
“You want to know the choice?” she asked.
A feeling of déjà vu crept over him and he looked around anxiously.
“Please don’t run away again.”
“I’ve been running away?”
Mehitabel nodded. “Through the In-Between Places. There’s not many left. As we go down, we get closer.”
“Down?” Jack glanced back at the forest behind them, then toward the path ahead. He didn’t discern any slant to the landscape.
“We’re traveling Downward.”
Again, Jack felt a stomach-lurching rush of familiarity. “You’ve told me this before.”
“Several times,” Mehitabel said. “Each time you get afraid or angry and run away. Into another In-Between Place.”
A breeze began blowing. It carried on its breath a whisper of screams. Mehitabel turned suddenly in its direction and trembled.
“What’s that?” Jack asked. He shrank from the sound and stumbled forward, flopping onto the bench. He buried his face in his hands.
“Where you’re going,” she said.
Jack looked up. She was crying again.
A shuffling sounded in the bushes. Mehitabel sprang up and raced toward the spot; then stopped, her face alarmed.
“He’s not yours yet!” She began chewing her fingernails, nervously. Although she seemed frightened, Jack sensed she was also quite angry.
“What’s the choice?” Jack asked.
“You won’t run?”
“I hope not,” Jack said, shivering in the shrieking wind.
“You must accept punishment, some of which has already been paid. Then you move Upward.”
“No. First, you go to the waiting place. There you begin making atonement.”
“Purgatory,” whispered Jack. “What’s it like?”
“I’m not allowed to tell. Repentance must be based on trust.”
“Would you follow me on ahead?”
Mehitabel twisted her hands. “I can’t go much further. My power wanes the closer we get.”
“You’re an angel.” When Mehitabel didn’t answer, Jack continued. “Can you return with me?”
“Until we reach the place you call Purgatory. There I leave you.”
“I guard the Downward Way. Seek the wanderers and make the offer on behalf of the One Who Waits.”
“You live here?”
“Always.” Her huge brown eyes were sad.
Jack frowned. “I know what’s gonna happen. I’m gonna be tormented by those people I killed.”
Mehitabel pointed in the direction the wind emanated from, the terrible cries echoing still. “You’ll choose that?”
Jack suddenly doubled over, heaving with the effort to breathe.
“Your agony!” Mehitabel gasped, eyes wide. “Choose! Quickly!”
Jack hung his head, squeezed his eyes tightly shut and cried out: “I’m sorry! I accept whatever is due.”
In a dark hospital room, a monitor wailed as it flat-lined. A man named Jack Ridley breathed his last.
His eyes opened on a sunny glade carpeted with violets and he smiled. He heard a rustling of feathers and looking up, saw the flitting shape of a sparrow on the wing.