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Chapter 4, Part 1



Arial Curled Up


      The scribble-scratch of pencils created a white noise far too soothing for Stephen's taste. His second cup of coffee had the consistency of tar and enough sugar to make his teeth throb, but it was proving useless against his grogginess. He'd fallen asleep quickly enough, but hadn't managed to stay there; his dreams had been far too vivid, plucking him from sleep with contemptuous ease. He'd stolen to the threshold of his room more than once to stare at those feathers dragging to and fro against the carpet, keeping time with her breathing.
      Stephen drew in a long breath through his nose and sipped from his mug. The freshmen were all staring with fanatic concentration at their exams. Tales of a boy caught cheating earlier in the day had whipped them all to their best behavior. He hadn't even needed to issue a few good-natured threats to get them to calm down—surely one of the signs of the Apocalypse.
      No, that wasn't funny anymore.
      The algebra II/trig exam beneath his fingers blurred, and he glanced out the window at the pearl gray sky, worn and cool.
      Proclaiming something and facing its impending arrival were two different things entirely, Stephen concluded, thumb chafing the soft-grip barrel of his red pen. He had discussed the Apocalypse and the validity of John's visions in Revelations in countless theology classes taught to restless teen boys, but like many other priests he'd been known to make the occasional homily treating Revelations as an allegory. The angel lying in his bed changed all of that, yet as a leaf drifted from the branch of the maple leaning over the window Stephen found he still couldn't believe in an end to the Earth. That man could bring about his own extinction with the ill-timed use of weapons of mass destruction, certainly; that man could eventually outlive his ability to adapt and fall with Darwinian justice to some catastrophe, perhaps, though he was less apt to confess to that thought aloud... but that the agents of the end of the human race weren't human or even alien, but Biblical?
      Somehow, he'd always believed God would give them enough time to get it right.
      The bell for the end of second period rang and Stephen started. He stood and tapped his fingers on his desk. "All right, guys. That's it. Say your prayers and hand 'em over."
      Papers piled onto his desk, some deposited with obvious reluctance, others with an amusing celerity. Stephen patted the edges of the pile until only a few unruly corners remained, then sat again for the fifteen minute break. He should be grading... but instead, he watched the leaves fall from a tree numb with cold.

***


      Asrial jerked from sleep, clawing at her throat, wings sweeping up to bang against the ceiling. The air was so heavy—she couldn't breathe, she was dying. Gravity pressed on all of her limbs, and her chest caved beneath its force with every exhalation. The angel folded her wings around herself and waited to be extinguished.
      When her end didn't come, she stifled a sob. She had almost believed the events of the past day had been some phantasmagoric dream, but the sheer reality of the items around her, the lack of clarity of their edges, the solidity of matter almost completely disassociated with its spiritual component... the list went on and on, and left no room for doubt.
      Asrial dipped her wings to chest level and rested her hands on them, cocooned in feathers. The pallid sky was just visible through the slit of a window above the bed's rude headboard. She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand and slowed her breathing, pulling carefully at the thick air. She'd thought Shamayim uncomfortable, but the First Heaven could not compare to Earth. She barely felt God's presence at all.
      The room around her was small with few effects. The bed was narrow even for one person, clean but with a decidedly dilapidated air. A simple table beside it held a drinking glass, a battered lamp and a worn, yellowed book. A narrow closet took up half of one of the walls, and a little chest another. The plain cream wallpaper was peeling near the floor, and the only decoration hanging was a bronze cross, taller than it was wide.
      Asrial found the austerity of her surroundings reassuring. It reminded her of her dwelling in Heaven. And the blankets, though worn, were soft with a pebbly weave. They smelled ever so faintly of human musk.
      Human.
      Asrial shivered and slid out of bed. The chill seemed to bypass her thin chiton altogether and she paused, torn between bringing the blanket and leaving it and its enticing but somehow threatening odor.
When she entered the common room, her wings tightly mantled over the blanket. The room was barren, its friendliness leeched away by the cold hearth. Unlike the bedroom, there was clutter here: books left open and scattered on a desk, the coffee table and the mantle, colored afghans on the battered couch and rugs on the wooden floor.
     Another cross hung above the mantle; this one had a man hung suspended from it, his body shrunken and his attitude one of patient suffering. Her hands clenched on the blanket and she turned away. What a gruesome thing to decorate a wall with! Did all humans worship such misery? It was obscene!
      Lighting the fire was similar enough to the way she did it in Heaven that Asrial managed well enough. Her skin itched for a bath, her wings for the open air. Investigating the doors leading from the common room revealed a small bathroom with a tub, but she could not comfortably turn in the room even with her wings folded.
      She uncovered a thin metal basin in one of the kitchen cabinets and dragged it in front of the fire. Moving the coffee table, the angel walked from the kitchen to the basin, filling it with heated water. She tried to hold herself aloof from her surroundings, but could not help the thoughts that crowded her mind: the ingenuity of the kitchen faucet, like the pumps at the well sites but neater and far more efficient; the short box alongside it that held the coolth, and even had a plate of shaped ice. Even the packets of hot cocoa: had last night's drink come out of this paper sleeve?
      Pouring the last pot of water into her basin, Asrial slid the medallions through their holes on the shoulders of her chiton and let the fabric fall to her feet. She stepped into the basin, cupping the water and pouring it over her body.
     Somehow it did not clean and refresh as the waters of Heaven had.
      Asrial squeezed herself to a seat in the basin, beads of water on her skin glowing with reflected firelight. She lifted her head to the twisted figure over the mantle. Hadn't the human son of God been tied to a cross and left to die? She'd heard the story once from the lips of a choir-member. Crucified, they called it. Horrible, horrible custom. Only humans would think of and tolerate such a thing.
      Why was she here? Asrial dipped her fingers into the water pooled above her stomach. It was already growing tepid. She sighed, her gaze drifting around the room. A spot of white and gold drew her eye on the floor and she focused on it: a feather.
      Asrial leaped from the basin, water splashing. She dove to her knees beside the feather and picked it up: heavy, with a solid rachis. It could be no one else's. Frantically she arched both wings before her and spread them as far as she was able, moving each feather one by one until on her right wing no resistance met her flexion. She grabbed her wing arm and pulled it down, fanning the coverts in a plane parallel to the floor, and saw the empty spot in the second shelf of her greater wing coverts.
      Her skin had tightened in her panic. Angels didn't lose feathers. Not even Fallen angels.
      "Dear Master," Asrial whispered. "What is happening to me? Am I dying?" She ran a hand over the spread feathers and jerked away as another covert came loose. Her body seized and a small choked sound escaped her closed throat.



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