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Chapter 12, Part 1



      Chris had tried to sleep after the priest's departure and spent the subsequent two hours with the green glow of the alarm clock's numbers reflected on her staring eyes. At four-thirty she gave up and dragged the box out from under the bed, then kneeled on the carpet in the middle of the room. She tore the knot from the ribbon and threw the cover off the box. The cool breeze from the open window tousled her hair and ruffled the edges of the loose papers inside.
      She seized on the framed picture near the top of the pile, baring her teeth. Coworkers laughing at a picnic. She flung it aside and rifled through the box. Photographs. Drawings painstakingly etched with crayons. Charity awards. Her Confirmation certificate. At some point she stopped looking at them and simply sat in the middle of her bitter memories, grinding her teeth.
      Her eyes burned, but she refused to cry.
      "There's a demon downstairs. In my kitchen."
      No one was listening, but Chris went on. It had been a long time since she'd felt overwrought enough to talk to herself... and all she could do was repeat. "There's a demon downstairs in my kitchen. In my kitchen. A demon."
      The flutter of wings at the windowsill pulled her eyes from the security badge she'd worn at the hospital. There was a black bird there, a sleek one with iridescent plumage and a yellow eye.
      "A demon," she told it.
      It cocked its head.
      "A demon in my kitchen. He says there's a God."
      It seemed far more acceptable to talk to a bird than to herself. People talked to animals all the time. Chris said, "But I stopped believing in God a long time ago."
      The bird clacked its beak, and Chris frowned. "There can't be a God. There is no God!"
      The words had too much weight; the bitterness of the years that had produced them betrayed them. Chris sighed. She stood, retying the sash around her waist, and cautiously approached the window. The bird mantled its black feathers, but did not fly away.
      "You're plucky, aren't you? Don't you get scared?"
      The bird said nothing, only canted its head again, then hopped around to face the other direction. Drawn as if by the force of inevitability, Chris looked out the window.
      There were four horses on her lawn. Horses.
      "What the hell...?"
      One of them was so dark she could barely see it, but it was without question the largest. The starlight slid all over its glossy hide as if it were oil-slick. Beside it a smaller, gaunt horse mouthed her grass absently, its ribs standing sharply against its moon-white side. A stout horse the color of new blood danced in place beside another, a more retiring creature an unappealing yellow-dun in color, shadows nestled deeply in the sunken hollows of its hips.
      "Let me guess. It has something to do with my infernal visitor," Chris said, lips stretching back in a scowl. "I've had enough of it. No horse is going to chew on my five thousand-dollar landscaping!"
      The bird eyed her as she pushed herself from the window and stormed downstairs. In minutes she was on the front lawn facing the impromptu herd.
      "Shoo!"
      The black horse lifted its head and regarded her. Regarded her. As if it could understand her. Chris had no idea what gave her the impression: it had not shifted its stance, nor did its impassive face change.
      The bird glided down from her windowsill to land on the black horse's withers. Chris's hands balled into fists at her sides. "I don't care why you're here or what you're doing, but I want you to go away. And stop eating my Kentucky bluegrass!"
      The white horse hesitated, then pulled away from its meal. Then they were all staring at her, including the bird.
      Chris glared at them defiantly, but their distinctly otherworldly scrutiny unmanned her. She turned her back on them and sat, pressing her face into her hands. "Damn it. Damn it!"       A nose whuffled at her shoulder.
      "Why did this have to happen? I was satisfied with my life. Sort of. Enough that I could live it. Now I have a demon in my living room, and ghost horses in my front yard, and the Apocalypse coming in a few days, and God... God muscling back into it. Where He's not wanted! Damn it!"
      The nose pressed at her shoulder again insistently. Wearily, she leaned into it. "I bet you know all about it, right? Ghost horses know those things. But I don't think I'm ready for any of this. There's a wound in me that's too torn to heal."
      The yellow horse whuffed again into her ear, and Chris stopped, frowning. Then she stood suddenly and turned. "You know where he is. Or where he'll be. Don't you. The loon who's going to lead the angels. Don't you?"
      The horses did not exchange glances, but she somehow knew they'd consulted with one another. The yellow one with the sunken eyes and hips regarded her intently.
      "You do." Chris raveled her fingers in its dirty-straw mane and pulled herself awkwardly onto its back. Her robe tangled in her legs and she tugged at it until she could sit up; the horse had an impressively broad barrel for something that had looked so sickly. "Take me there."
      The yellow one blew out a soft breath, then turned and trotted away from her house. The grackle squawked once, like a rusty door opening.

***


      Raphael retrieved the feather from the dark, warm stone, straightening slowly. In the incense-clouded light of the stained glass windows, he ran his fingers along the edges of the barbs, lingering on the ones glued together by beads of dried blood, inexplicably solid. Gabriel's footsteps had long since ceased to echo in the hall.
      Attention focused on the feather, Raphael drifted back down the passage to the cliff outside. He found himself airborne without remembering his decision to leave, winging toward Shamayim with the covert clutched in his hand.
      The Gate to the First Heaven was unguarded. He flew through it, lighting on the opposite side, blinking. The web of camps was lifting into the air, legions of sparkling gold and iron following a mote of dazzling brilliance far above them.
Raphael sat on the cliff's edge, leaning forward. His gaze dragged toward the flat disc of the sun, swaddled in thick gray clouds that dulled the morning sky to the color of lead, then dropped back to the exodus. He counted the angels leaving as one by one they were swallowed by the far-away Gate to Earth.
      Then they were gone, and he was alone.
      He looked again at the feather, caressed its edges, then opened his hand and tossed it into the fragrant spring breeze. It skidded gaily away, batted by conflicting winds. Raphael watched, entranced, thought that the wind should have more feathers.
      More feathers. What good was a healer who divested angels of their feathers? Raphael's fingers felt sticky, but when he checked there was nothing on them. He shivered, then drew his wings forward, over his shoulders, encasing himself in them.
      And then his hand slid forward, rested on one of the wing coverts. He tugged... then jerked hard. He gave that feather to the warring breezes. Rotating the wing-arm so that he could spread the feather shelves parallel to the cliff, Raphael calmly began to pluck. In a burst of blood and dust they gave way, pristine white, one by one.
     "I will live," Raphael said, tossing that one. He chose another. "Or I will not... I will live... or I will not—"
     Tears ran from his unblinking eyes, but he hardly noticed them.



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