The Angel of Death discovers something unexpected at a crash scene.
|Death walked around the carnage of the Jeep Cherokee, his steps crunching on autumn leaves and broken glass.
Even after all these years, the extreme silence in the aftermath of a crash still struck him.
After the screech of brakes, the scream of twisting metal, and the thunder of impact, there always seemed to be a moment of perfect silence. Clarity.
Then, the soft hiss of the radiator, the belch of the engine, the crackle of flames...
The acrid smell of burnt rubber and gasoline cut through the night air. He knelt beside the young driver, the only person who hadn't been ejected in the crash. The boy's green eyes stared sightlessly. Already gone. Death placed his hand on the boy's chest and pulled out the glowing orb of his soul. He dropped it in the pocket of his coat like loose change.
Next, he took the soul of the girl who lay a few feet away. She'd smacked the pine tree so hard it knocked the bark off in one place.
A third passenger was regaining consciousness. He struggled to his hands and knees, despite the gaping wound on his forehead. Death passed by him, only absently touching him to check his charge. Humans were like their cell phones, their life forces measured in percentages. The boy was at 33%. They'd meet again another day.
There was another here. He felt her. Death frowned, searching. Had to find them all, or there'd be Heaven to pay.
Ah, there she was, her broken body draped like a ribbon across a tree limb. He flew to her and was surrounded by the overpowering metallic scent of her blood.
Such a shame. She was lovely.
Gleaming dark hair, pale, flawless skin, full lips...he bet every boy at her high school would mourn her. He placed his hand over her heart, ignoring her bubbling, sucking chest wound.
Her eyes flew open. One pale blue eye and one brown stared up at the sky.
Death paused. How utterly perfect she was.
Then she looked straight at him.
"Az?" She whispered, then fainted.
He swirled away from her like a kite string escaping a child's hand, then hovered above the trees, staring down at her.
How long since anyone had said his angel name? He scarcely remembered it himself.
Azrael, once powerful as any of the archangels, had been shunned by his brothers and demoted to God's janitor, removing the mess these humans made of their lives. Thanks to Lucifer.
He had thought only angels knew his name. She wasn't angel, fallen or otherwise, or he'd feel it. She also wasn't demon. Those filthy creatures wouldn't dare address an angel, even a disgraced one.
She was human, and he'd misunderstood. She couldn't see or hear him. Azrael almost laughed. For the first time, he was grateful for the solitude of his job, grateful no one was around to witness the angel of death getting the shit scared out of him by a dying teenage girl.
He swooped back down and placed his hand on her chest.
There was no way.
Her life force read 88%.
Azrael stared at the beautiful face that shone ghostly white in the moonlight and whispered, "What are you?"
Azrael sat in the corner of the trauma room, unseen by the doctors and nurses who bustled in and out. The girl lay small and still in the bed, attached to a myriad of whirring, beeping machinery, looking far worse for wear than he knew she actually was.
The room reeked of alcohol and pine cleaner and was freezing. He watched the oxygen cap over her trach fog with each breath. He’d visited often that week, though he didn’t think she’d seen him because the brace around her neck wouldn’t allow her to turn her head. So, he was surprised when pointed toward him and wrote something on the small dry erase board in her lap to show the nurse.
The nurse turned and looked right at him. She frowned. “What man? Do you see him now?”
The girl cut her eyes without moving her head and wrote something else. Curious, Azrael rose to see what it was. The nurse looked toward the chair again, but he was right behind her. They stood nose to nose as she told the girl, “There’s no one there.”
Azrael smiled. The nurse shivered and walked straight through him to leave the room, pulling the curtain closed behind her. He approached the bed. The girl’s mismatched eyes showed no fear as she met his gaze.
“Who are you?” he asked.
She wrote Freya Johnston on the board, and he frowned. “What are you? How can you see me?”
She shrugged and wrote, “I am nobody.”
Azrael shook his head. He didn’t believe that for a minute. “Do you know who I am?”
She hesitated, staring at him. Her eyes were so startling, even for him-someone who’d seen both heaven and hell. One a pale, silvery blue and the other a rich chestnut. Lovely. He mulled her name over in his mind.
Also lovely and unusual. Very few things could arouse his curiosity anymore, but this girl had his complete attention.
She wrote on the board. “Death.”
There was no fear in her eyes, no pleading. Just resignation. His admiration grew.
“How do you know that?” he asked.
She shrugged again, then wrote, “I don’t know.”
Another hesitation, and she erased the board with the bandage on her hand and wrote “Dying?”
He shook his head. “No. You will be fine.”
She lifted her shoulders, eyebrows raised, as if to say, So, why are you here?
“You said my name at the crash. Do you remember it?”
Another long, searching look. She frowned beneath her oxygen mask and picked up the pen. She wrote Azrael?
He nodded, musing. For whatever reason, he believed her. Azrael leaned a little closer. “Are you afraid of me, Freya?”
She shook her head and wrote, “You feel familiar.”
Azrael realized that she did too, though he could say with certainty he’d never seen her before. Curiouser and curiouser.
The curtain jerked open and he almost pulled away. He was used to being unseen in this world and this calico girl had him disoriented. The nurse, however, didn’t see him. It was the same one who’d walked through him before. She moved around Freya’s bed to check her temperature and blanched when she looked at Freya’s white board. Freya slid her bandaged hand across it, erasing a wide swath down the middle. The nurse opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again, setting her lips in a thin, grim line. She worked hurriedly, scribbling in her chart. Azrael could almost smell her unease. She hurriedly changed Freya’s dressing over the hole in her throat and left again.
Freya coughed. Then she coughed again, her breath making a wheezing sound through the hole they’d cut in her throat. It took Azrael a moment to realize something was wrong. Her coughing and gasping had caused a corner of the carelessly packed gauze to get sucked up in the trach tube. Each gasp further sealed her airway. Her beautiful eyes grew wide with panic and her fingers fumbled at her throat as the bells and whistles of her machines began to shriek in a jarring frenzy.
Azrael did something he never dreamed he would do--he reached and plucked the gauze from her trach.
Her beautiful eyes shone with tears when she gasped an unobstructed breath just as her nurse and another burst into the room.
It wasn’t really interfering, he told himself as the nurses checked her over. They would’ve done the same thing and she wouldn’t have died. He’d merely saved her from suffering. But it certainly wasn’t something he’d have done for another human.
Her nurse adjusted the gauze around the trach and had the nerve to chide Freya with a “Don’t mess with that.”
Rage flashed over Azrael. He grabbed both Freya’s and her nurse’s wrists. For an instant, in the nurse’s mind, she was the one trapped in the hospital bed, choking because of some stranger’s carelessness. She experienced it exactly as Freya had.
The other nurse cried for help as Freya’s nurse clawed at her throat. Her eyes bulged in horror.
Abruptly, Azrael released her. She staggered backwards, sucking in deep breaths and almost fell through the curtained doorway in her attempt to escape.
Azrael turned his attention back to Freya. Her eyes shone with gratitude and she did something inexplicable--she tried to take his hand. Even more inexplicably, Azrael materialized so she could.
He’d never been touched like that, not ever. He marveled at the feel of her soft, warm hand in his. Angels didn’t touch, and certainly no humans would have ever wanted to hold the hand of the angel of death.
She was no human--not entirely anyway. Azrael was certain of that. But whatever she was, she provoked dangerous things inside him--savage protectiveness, fatal curiosity.
He’d been tortured and exiled for Lucifer’s rebellion, though he had taken no part. His silence had been enough. And he knew that punishment would be trivial to what the punishment would be if he was discovered with this girl. Azrael couldn’t bear that agony again.
And yet, for a moment, he also couldn’t bear to let her go.
If Azrael had possessed the healing touch, he would’ve given it, but Freya healed remarkably on her own. One nurse told her she must have a guardian angel.
Her alcoholic mother appeared sporadically, as did her friends. They had visited often at first, especially the boy who had also been in the crash, but those visits tapered when days became weeks. At night, she would call Azrael’s name and he would always appear.
Azrael told himself every day that he wasn’t going to visit her anymore, that the risk was too great. But every night, he found himself at her bedside again. A strange friendship was borne of their mutual aching, biting loneliness. Her presence was something he began to crave.
Freya made it from the trauma unit to another floor, then to the rehabilitation hospital next door. Her eyes had glittered with tears when the doctors at the first hospital had told her she might never walk again, but they had underestimated her.
When Azrael visited her the second week in the rehab hospital, she was standing beside her bed, anticipating the alarm that would ring three seconds after she tripped it by getting up. She punched in the code to deactivate it and gave him a sneaky grin. “I’ve been watching them do that.”
“Are you supposed to be up?” he asked, dismayed.
“I got this,” she said, and took a few shuffling steps. Azrael materialized and followed her like an anxious mother followed a lurching toddler. She paused once, then resumed, not stopping until she touched the wall, then turned and headed back to her bed. Her cheeks were flushed, but she gave him a triumphant smile that was so beautiful it took him a moment to speak.
Azrael asked her something he’d never dared ask before. “Freya, how do you see me?”
She gave him a goofy grin and pronged her fingers at her face. “Wid my eyes!”
The angel of death gave her a facepalm, but couldn’t quite hide his smile. “I meant, how do I appear to you?”
Her expression grew serious. Hesitantly, she said, “Well...your head is a yellowish-white skull. You have glowing red eyes….”
“Really?” he asked. “Ugh.”
She gave him a long, sympathetic look, then burst out laughing. “No, not really. You’re so gullible. You’re actually kind of … beautiful.”
The next night, she presented him with her phone. “It’s just an app called Sketch Artist,” she said apologetically. “It’s not exact, but it’s not a bad representation.”
Azrael stared at the screen. Dark hair, square jaw, thickly lashed sea-blue eyes, full lips. He raised his eyebrows. “I am good-looking, huh?”
She rolled her eyes. “To die for, Az.”
Freya not only walked again, she danced. She prospered. After she was released from the hospital, she graduated high school and started nursing school. Her friendship with Azrael remained strong and he visited her often over the next few years.
He was there the first time she raised the dead.