Palo Alto Weekly 29th Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Young Adult

Time of the Angels

By Caroline Bailey

About Caroline Bailey

I live in Palo Alto, and just finished my junior year at Palo Alto High School. Some of my favorite things in life (in no particular order) are poetry, history, chocolate, novels and dance.

It is likely clear to readers from the Palo Alto area that I wrote this story as a response to the recent suicide cluster in my school district. "Time of the Angels" is about invisible heroism, and a kind of quiet superpower -- the ability to see the thoughts and feelings of others -- which I have often wished I had. Thank you very much for reading my work, and I hope you enjoy it.

 

Judge's comments

In "Time of the Angels" -- one of the most creative and playful submissions we received -- a young guardian angel learns to clip her own wings, literally, in order to tie herself to earth and those who need her here. I loved this story for the charm of its narrator and the thoughtful exploration of the pressures young adults face. There is a little magic here, in so many ways.
— Meg Waite Clayton

The day I turned sixteen, Mama came into my room wielding an iron and a kitchen knife as the sun rose over the horizon. "Zara?" she said softly. "It's time to wake up."

In truth, I'd been awake for nearly an hour, with nerves churning my stomach into a pit of foam. It was the day I would learn how to cut my own wings--tradition called for this lesson on an Angel's sixteenth birthday, when we are supposed to become independent.

"Morning, Mama," I replied, feigning calm as I rolled into a sitting position. Out of the hole in my open-backed nightgown grew two wing stubs nearly a foot in length. This was unusually long, which made me uncomfortable--wings grow especially fast when they sense something is wrong. I pretended to ignore this as well.

Mama saw through my nonchalant façade. "Don't be nervous," she said as she plugged the iron into the wall. Her voice held the same authoritative tone as it had when I was little, fleeing from her as she tried to snip my wings. "It's not going to hurt anymore than it ever has."

"Unless I mess it up," I mumbled.

Mama gave me a stern look. "Don't be dramatic, Zara." She waved her hand in front of the iron. "Good. It's getting hot."

I wasn't really afraid of burning myself, or even of slicing down too low. Physical pain is not so acute for Angels as for humans. My fear was of a sensation that always occurred just after Mama sliced my wings off, and they began to dissolve into the morning air. It felt a bit like the drop in your stomach when you realize you've forgotten something important, only lower and deeper, as if a part of my soul had been split apart and spirited away while the rest of my body sunk further into the Earth.

For some strange reason, today I was worried where that part of my soul would go. Now that I was responsible for the knife, would I be responsible for the piece of myself it cut away?

I cleared my thoughts. Mama was right, I was too dramatic. I gestured towards the iron. "Show me," I commanded my mother.

She placed the iron in my left hand, showing me how to hold it at a good angle. "Always be careful with heat," she told me. "Too close, and your wings will melt. Too far away, and they'll be so stiff the knife won't cut through."

I did as she instructed, then picked up the kitchen knife in my right hand. Starting on my left shoulder blade, I sliced across my back. The wing stubs each fell onto the bedspread behind me. My soul quivered anxiously. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred. Slowly, the wings faded away into the air, like sugar in water. Some lighter part of my soul floated off with them, allowing the rest of me to settle into the Earth, to become caked in reality.

"Excellent." Mama flashed a tight smile, retrieving the iron and knife. "Now, get ready for work. I'm leaving--you can come whenever you're ready."

"Yeah. Of course." Once she's out the door, I go into our shared bathroom and examine my back. The waxy outlines of wings remain, but they're easily covered up with a T-shirt. Not that it matters, anyway. No one will see me today.

We don't know exactly why cutting Angels' wings ties us to the Earth. It's accepted that losing our wings allows us to walk invisible among humans and shields our homes from their sight. My mother and I live in a small, forgotten house, in a town where nobody knows we exist. It's better this way, for Guardian Angels. Our role--you could even call it our profession--is simple enough on the surface: protect the humans, from nature, from one another, from themselves. Invisibility makes that task infinitely easier. You wouldn't believe how adverse the human race is to the protection of their own souls.

- - -

My mother and I focused most of our attention on a school haunted by train tracks that ran along the south side of its campus. Every morning at eight o'clock, the distant thunder of approaching mechanization echoed past the football field and into the PE locker rooms, reverberated from Foreign Language to English to Math, and rang down the hollowed hall of the Performing Arts Complex.

I waited outside a Spanish classroom that day as the train passed, among a group of students crossing their arms against the cold. The December air layered itself into thick shades of frigidity, freezing the students into a breathless pause. Throughout the school, a similar hesitation occurred in students and teachers alike. It was a dreadful anticipation that no one dared give voice too, because words wield too much tipping power in the delicate balance of the human psyche.

How many young people had stood on those tracks in the dead of night, waiting for the brute power of machinery to snuff out their lives like candle flames? I had lost count. There were too many blurred lines and stacked years and besides, who would want to remember a figure that grim anyway?

Today, blessedly, the train moved onwards, its pathway unhindered by fallen objects, until its steel cries faded off into the distance. A sigh of relief settled over the school, and the day resumed.

What was it Mama and I did here? We watched. We waited. We tried to prevent disaster before it struck.

The Spanish teacher opened the door with a sweep of warm air, and students filed indoors. Five minutes later, class began. Uninterested in mastery of the Spanish language, I scanned the classroom for anything out of the ordinary.

Humans are different from Angels in three ways. The easiest to understand is our wings. The next is our invisibility. The third difference is more complex. It is best defined as the ability to see humans not as they are, but as they view themselves to be. Which is, arguably, a far more accurate depiction of the human psyche.

Nearly all humans distort their image in some way, at some time--usually small things like miscalculating their weight or the size of their pimples. But these perceptions come and go, and most people do not fret about their self-image so consistently that their perceptions turn an Angel's vision into a kaleidoscope of pictures and problems.

What Guardian Angels look for are the people whose altered perception of themselves is both exaggerated and frequent. Teenage girls who gain fifty pounds every time they eat a meal. People who scream constantly at the top of their lungs or walk around nude while no one seems to notice. Men who fantasize about beating their wives every time something upsets them.

I circled the classroom. The students were talking amongst themselves, at the instruction of the teacher. One girl, in the second row from the back, was talking into empty air.

I walked over, curious, and found a backpack on the floor with no apparent owner. For a moment, I wondered if I'd stumbled upon another Angel--but Angels can see one another just fine.

I watched the empty chair for the rest of class, and never once did the invisible student's illusion flicker. I had never encountered a human so utterly bent on not existing. At one point, however, she signed a quiz sheet, and I got a name: Sofia Chen.

By the time class ended, I'd decided to follow her. But as the bell rang, Sofia picked up her backpack, causing the blue satchel to vanish with her. The students filed out of the door, and Sofia Chen was gone, swallowed up by the torrent of humanity.

- - -

I didn't find Sofia again until a week later, while circumnavigating an art class. A paintbrush floated in midair, gently caressing a canvas with strokes of color.

My invisible girl. It had to be.

I walked over to get a better look, and felt chills run down my spine as I thought I saw my own reflection in the oil paints. But closer observation quieted my uneasiness. The winged girl in the picture had darker hair and smaller eyes. It was not unusual, also, for a human to draw an Angel--assorted sightings throughout the years, of Guardians who neglected to trim their wings, have ingrained our image deep within the human conscious.

I sat down behind Sofia, determined not to lose her again. I noticed that her cloak of invisibility did not extend to the faint shadow she cast, and decided I would follow that.

The class period stretched on for another hour, while I watched Sofia's painting come to life. It was odd, I thought, that a girl who yearned so desperately to go unseen would enjoy painting in colors that vivid and painful and bold. It seemed that the urge to create something more bright and enduring than one's own fragile self transcended even the deepest insecurities.

The bell rang, setting Sofia in motion. She washed off her brush in muddy water and handed in the painted angel, evidently finished, to her teacher for grading. After swinging her backpack up onto her shoulders, where it began to vanish just like the rest of her, she headed for the door. Eyes trained on her shadow, I followed.

- - -

Sofia Chen lived a long way from school, for a girl who walked all the way home. She crossed the tracks about a mile down from the school's southernmost corner, just as the sky was darkening and I began to worry about losing her shadow in the cover of night. As disconcerting as this was, I snuck a nervous glance out at the tracks as we crossed, but was greeted by only empty steel and fading sky. I turned my attention back to Sofia.

We reached her house just as I was beginning to lose her in the darkness, her front door opening and closing behind her. I did not go inside, not wanting to risk spooking Sofia by shutting the door behind me, and instead waited by the kitchen window. Alone in her house, I watched Sofia Chen begin to appear, piece by piece, as she poured over her homework. Time ticked forward. From where I stood I could see only her curtain of black hair, catching a glance of her profile a few times when a car drove past and Sofia turned to look anxiously at the door. Eventually, however, she gave up on whatever savior she was waiting for, and left the room.

I found her bedroom window eventually, after losing her in the depths of the house. She fell asleep quickly, as the hour was late, and I was just turning to go when a car rumbled into the driveway. Sofia's mother, a tired woman in a tired suit, walked through their front door. I watched her go to Sofia's room, pull the blankets more tightly around her, and kiss the girl goodnight. But it didn't matter. Her daughter was too far slunk down into oblivion to notice.

That night I would apologize to my mother for getting home so late. I would try to explain what I had seen, what I was doing. But Mama cut me off with a blank look.

"You don't have to explain yourself, Zara," she said. "We're Angels. This is what we do."

I nodded curtly. "Right," I muttered. "Goodnight, Mama."

Already turned back to the newspaper she had been reading, my mother didn't respond.

- - -

Three weeks would pass. Some days I followed Sofia, but often I didn't. An invisible girl is hard to pin down.

The fateful night occurred several days past Christmas, in early January. I woke up in a cold sweat, groping for blankets and desperate to get warm. I realized a pair of fully grown wings had sprouted from my back.

I sat for a moment, mesmerized. I knew this sort of thing could happen to Angels, in emergencies, but I had never considered it happening to me. Finally, a thought jerked me from my spellbound state. Sofia.

I ran for the door, tripping past my mother's bedroom door and falling into the night air. My wings felt clumsy and heavy, more of a burden than an assistance. I made my way towards Sofia's house, running in the general direction of the train tracks to guide me there. Off in the distance, I heard the sound of an approaching train, and I turned my head out to the tracks. A streetlamp illuminated a place about thirty yards from where I stood. In its yellow pool of light, a disembodied shadow was waiting.

I started to sprint.

Vaguely, I heard a shout, and looked up to find a policeman running in the same direction I was, only from the other side of the tracks. But he was too far away.

The train neared. It shielded me from the policeman, but not from Sofia, who must have seen us both. Her invisibility flickered. She took a step towards the train, towards me.

Meanwhile, I was running. I was flying. My wings stretched out behind me as I catapulted into Sofia, seconds ahead of the oncoming train.

Sofia fell to the ground. The policeman was almost there, and I turned to run.

I didn't notice I'd been hit until I saw my feet beginning to dissolve.

I fell to my knees, but they didn't exist anymore, and I landed on my face in the gravel. I flipped over, watching as my body began to erase itself, thinning into the air just like my wings when Mama clipped them each morning.

I was dying.

Somewhere in front of me, I heard the tones of the police officer talking. Sofia said nothing.

In a moment of selfishness that is allowed to the dying, I hoped she saw me save her. I hoped one day, she would admit to someone a girl with wings shoved her out of certain death.

I hoped she recovered.

I hoped she wouldn't recover so well she'd mind if they called her crazy for believing her Guardian Angel saved her life.

I hoped until nothingness washed over me.

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