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A Danyael story
Start at the beginning of the Danyael series
I needed a place to go. I'd lost sight of the angel almost immediately after driving out of the parking lot. The last I saw of it was its skinny legs flashing in the orange lamplight, and then it was gone. The jagged glass of the broken windshield almost gouged my eye out as I poked my head up, trying to spot the creature in the darkness. I swerved across the road and had to sit down quickly so as not to crash. The car wasn't really going that fast, but I didn't know how much more abuse it could take. It has been pushed to its limit already, and no matter how loyal a pizza delivery vehicle it might have been, it hadn't exactly started out in tip top condition. Sometimes things just break and there's nothing you can do about it.
After that I just drove straight away from the hospital as fast as I could. On my way out I jumped a curb back onto the road. It wasn't a getaway tactic. One of the headlights had smashed in the collision earlier, and I couldn't see where I was going in the parking lot. I banged my head on the ceiling of the car as I flew over the curb, and heard the car's undercarriage grind across the concrete. It kept going though. Despite my expectations and fear, no black helicopters burst into view with a spotlight on me. I didn't even see any flashers go by in either direction. The car had acquired a leftwise wobble after going over the curb, and I had to jerk the wheel to the right to stay on the road. I'm amazed I wasn't spotted and pulled over for that alone.
Fifteen minutes of weaving and veering along the road saw the immediate wash of adrenaline fade. It took all of my remaining energy with it. I felt like my bones had bungee cords attached to them and were slowly but surely being pulled down into the center of the earth. Gravity itself weighed more heavily upon me. I needed a place to go and sleep and think. Home wasn't an option. It would be way too easy for the cops to find my address. I couldn't go to Alicia's either, that would be their second stop. There was nowhere for me, nothing I had carved out in life, no niche for me to rest in; there was nothing in front of me but darkness, through which I could not see.
It all boiled in my brain until I tried to distill it down to what I really wanted. I wanted not to get thrown in jail, and I wanted . . . something with the angel. I didn't know what. Some kind of closure I guess? I'd never known what it wanted, what its aims were, I'd only followed where it pointed. Now it wasn't pointing anymore and I didn't know what to do without it. The fear of the thing was still strong in me, making my gut tighten and cringe away from the idea that I'd defied it. It was gone, but I knew that we weren't finished with each other. We couldn't be.
All of my life I had suffered from the fact that life has no neat endings, no completion of a story arc that signifies some change in the protagonist. The angel flying away into the night was not an acceptable ending to this story for me, and I was damned if I was going to just let it finish there. But in order to see it through, I needed my freedom. When I thought of freedom, only one person sprang quickly to mind. Everyone else I knew was bound up in the same red tape of life that I had been. It kept them safe, but completely unable to help me. Hell, they probably couldn't even really SEE me anymore without that filter of red normality, I'd gone so far off the straight and narrow. No, the only person I could think of that was nearly as far removed from the system was the King of Winter.
Getting back to that vacant lot was a pain in the ass. The car made a terrible noise every time I needed to make a sharp right turn, and there were a lot of right turns along the fastest way back. I finally gave up and just hopped on the highway to take the long way around. It took me back up north of the lake and then south again, along the shore, but it minimized the horrible shaking and growling of rubber on metal that made my head pound even more. Keeping my eyes open was even more of a chore than finding my way back. Luckily the freezing wind through the busted windshield helped me stay awake. A few times broken bits flaked off of the remnants of the glass and sliced me as they flew by. That really woke me up.
The streets were lined with the cars of people who probably lived in the area, so finding a spot required driving a few blocks down a side street. I ended up just finding a kind of square of concrete next to someone's garage. The concrete had two fat rusted pipes coming up out of it, so I guess it was over a gas line or something. I was definitely not supposed to park a car there, but it was empty, and suddenly leaving a car on a random patch of concrete didn't seem like such a bad crime to me. My guess is that a gas truck needed to pull up to the pipes sometimes, which is why it was concrete in the first place. Who knows though, I'm not an engineer, and I didn't really care. I didn't really even care if the car was still there when I came back. The need for rest ate at my brain and stomach, making my head pound and my gut sour. I shuffled along the sidewalk toward the lot, hoping the King would let me into his castle.
The crate gate was closed when I walked up, so I kind of kicked at the bottom of it to make it rattle. Some snow trickled down off of the top of the fort and went straight down the back of my shirt, but I was so tired I didn't care. There was no answer, so I kicked it again, and then had to jump back as the gate flopped down toward me. I slipped on the slick ground and landed on my back, giving my head a good smack on the hard ice of the lot. My ears rang and the dark opening in front of me shattered into a hundred pieces of nothing, filling my vision.
The world was a collection of swirling dark and white fuzzy shapes in front of me. I knew that I should probably get back up, but I couldn't remember why. The ground was cold, but my body seemed far too heavy to lift without a compelling reason. The world was a warm of black blobs and white, each trying to eat each other and draw me down into the depths, or up into the cold wind. I could hear what sounded like "Hruuuuunnnnnggghhhhhh . . . .hhhhhrrruuunnnnggggggg".
The strange sound made me curious enough that I began to focus on the white blobs more than black, and as they began to coalesce into a human field of vision, I realized the noise was me. Even after I figured that out I couldn't stop making the noise for another minute or so. Finally I managed to get it under control, the moans turning into just raspy quick breaths. The white blobs had been the steam from my breath reflecting the streetlamp near the lot. I watched the puffs of steam float up in bursts, each expanding out in slow motion like that video of a nuclear detonation that gets played all the time whenever someone wants to sell you on the horrors of science gone too far.
The first time I tried to get up I failed miserably. I tried to sit up, but my stomach muscles just wouldn't contract. I did a little baby crunch and then flopped back down. The second time didn't go any better; I didn't even get off of the ground. My feet felt heavy laying there, so I managed to kick my left leg across my right and turn over onto my belly. From there I was able to kind of scooch up onto my face and draw my legs in across the ice. That gave me the leverage I needed to at least get to my knees. When I did the King was standing in the open doorway of the castle looking at me.
He had the shovel slung up over his shoulder and his coat was hanging open, showing a few dozen scarves hanging loose across his chest. Now that I could see better, the doorway wasn't actually all dark. The King was framed in a soft flickering orange glow. The orange light mixed with the washed out neon of the streetlight to make the King look like some kind of unearthly spectre. The lighting and the scarves reminded me of Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol, as if he were some lost soul appearing to warn me to change my path. I had a feeling it was too late for me.
"Are you high?" The words were spoken in a harsh tone, and I imagined that the quick jets of steam from his mouth were sharp enough to cut. The King took a step out of the door way and leaned down a bit to get a better look at me. My face was bloody from all of the cuts I'd received, and my clothes were soiled and tattered. I'd guess that my eyes looked dull, flaring wide and blinking rapidly to try and focus on his face. There was a few days worth of stubble all over my head and face, my body rejecting my attempt at a fresh start, yet again. I wouldn't be surprised if I'd pissed myself in my broken mental state at some point during the night; I had no idea.
He wrinkled his nose though, so I smelled bad enough that a man with no regular place to bathe was repulsed. I swayed back and forth on my knees in front of him. I wasn't sure whether or not I wanted him to hit me in the head with his shovel. The sudden dark end of everything might have been a relief. Sadly for me, instead he jabbed the shovel into the snow and bent over to grab me under the arms and help me to my feet. I tried to mutter out a thank you, but stumbled on my words a few times until I gave up. The iron tang of blood filled my mouth, and a burning pain told me I'd managed to somehow cut my tongue. Maybe I bit it. Who knows?
The King of Winter put my arm around his shoulder, and with his help I managed to stagger inside. He brought me over to a few milk crates that had a blanket covering them, in front of a small square loose brick fireplace. A cheery fire roared on the bricks, and the heat brought pain to my face, setting all of the nicks and slices on fire. As the King went to put the gate back in its place, I looked around. There were actually three fire places in the fort, which was all one big room inside. Each of the fires was below a broad length of steel pipe that had been built into the snow packed ceiling, so that the smoke billowed up the pipes instead of flooding the room. I could see that the walls had been carefully frozen during construction, probably with water, not just packed snow. An old palette in the corner with a few sleeping bags on it made up the King's bed, from which I had probably roused him. A single old metal framed kitchen chair with torn upholstery sat next to one of the fire places. On it sat a copy of The Golden Bough by James Frazer.
I leaned in close to the fire and closed my eyes. The King crunched across the snowy floor beside me, and I felt the boxes sag a bit as he sat down. "So, why'd you wake me up? Just had a need to see the inside of the castle?"
A hundred terrible lies flashed through the space behind my lids, some terrible in their obviousness, some terrible in their cleverness. In the end, though, simple weariness drove me to the truth. "I've been serving the whims of an angel. Now the police are after me, and I'm tired. I need a place to stay."
The sound of air whistling through a large gap in rotten teeth filled the room. "An angel's been telling you what to do, and now the cops want you?" I nodded mutely. "Just what did you do?"
I replied, "At first I thought I was there to do good. I was excited, you know? I had a guide in life, so I felt like I could finally accomplish something. I've never been good at accomplishing things. But . . .it didn't want me to do good. I've done bad things. Very bad things." The words tumbled out of my mouth like water falling from a dam. I felt like the words themselves were moving my jaw as they poured out, rather than the other way around. My voice sounded dead, absent of the heat of life and interaction. He said, "Start at the beginning. Tell me everything." So I did.
When I finished speaking, he was quiet for a long time. His breathing was regular and slow, and I thought he might have fallen asleep while I related what I felt to be an incredible tale. It would not have been unexpected or shocking to me if he had. That was the sort of engagement I expected of other human beings. After a while he said, "So, what are you going to do about it?"
I tried to shrug, but my shoulders had stiffed too much while I was sitting, and it came out as more of a jerking twitch. Even through my exhaustion I realized that it probably looked more like I was starting to have a seizure than answer his question, so I said, "I don't know."
The King of Winter got up and started to pace back and forth behind the fire. "How can you not know what you want to do? An angel just told you to kill your girlfriend, and you don't know what you want to do? C'mon, man! There's got to be some goal or desire ticking in there somewhere." He reached up with a fist and rapped on his own head a few times. "Are you a man or just a lump of not quiet dead yet flesh?"
This time my shrug was more pronounced, and I felt it got the message across clearly. I was having a hard time following along with what he was saying, and had to run over each sentence in my mind a few times before it stuck. "The angel flew off. My life is a wreck. What am I supposed to do?"
He gave a barking laugh at that, and replied, "Oh no, you're not getting off that easy. I'm not telling you what you should do. That's what got you into this mess in the first place."
I opened my eyes and stared at him blankly. The angel had gotten me into this mess, pretty clearly. What the hell was I supposed to do, finding an agent of the Holy Host in an alley? Not listen to what it said.
When he looked at me and realized that his words weren't sinking in, he continued. "Look, you said you have trouble accomplishing things, right? You were at a job you hated but kept anyway because it was easy. You stayed with the same girl, even though she was terrible for you, not because you wanted to stay, but because you couldn't make up your mind. Your life has been a study in the avoidance of choice. Even when you started doing things you were giving up your free will, to an ideology if not a person. Shit man, haven't you figured it out yet? If you're pushing the gas pedal and take your hands off the wheel, someone else is going to grab it, and God knows where they'll steer you.
"Ah, Christ, people always think about losing their freedom of choice to dictators and tyrants. People give UP their free will to ideologies every day, and just become robots fulfilling a set of protocols they don't even understand." He ran his hands through his hair as he paced back and forth, nearly raving. "The trick of it is, they ARE making choices. Every time you do something, you make a choice. Half the time when you DON'T do something you make a choice. You can't avoid it. You can't give up your free will, no matter how hard you try. Even if you're just going with the flow, you're just trying to dodge the bullet of responsibility. Well, you got yourself into this mess, how are you gonna get out of it?" He continued to rant, but at that point, I'm pretty sure he was talking with himself more than with me.
I lay down sideways on the milk crates and pulled my legs up onto them as best I could. Curling my legs up to my backside was painful, and I finally settled for having one leg hanging down off of the side of the crates. I stared into the fire and closed my eyes, listening to the rise and fall of the King's voice. It wasn't long before sleep took me.
The morning came and went with me still passed out on the crates. It was late afternoon before I finally opened my eyes and groaned. I was covered in dried blood from my cuts, and my muscles were knotted and stiff. I couldn't straighten my left leg at all. The fire had gone out sometime during the day, though, and I was freezing, so I forced my eyes open. The King was sitting in his chair, reading his book. He didn't look up from it when I started slowly writhing around, trying to get my limbs to behave.
With considerable effort, I managed to get to a sitting position, hunched over my knees and staring at the floor. Try as I might, I couldn't straighten my back and neck, so I was sort of stuck in that position. I tried to sit still and just breathe for a few minutes to make sure I wasn't going to die or something. The King had pulled a garbage bag off of one of the upper windows, and light was streaming into the castle, making the ice and snow sparkle. After a few minutes I managed to rock forward off of the crates and get to my feet. I still couldn't straighten though, and stood there bent over like Quasimodo.
"I've been studying all night, trying to figure out a way to advise you. After all, I'm the wise man you've sought counsel from on your quest." The King's voice sounded fresh and excited. I'm pretty sure he was up the entire night, but he sure didn't look like it. I shuffled myself around so I could look at him with his nose buried in the book. "The decision is yours, of course, it has to be, but I think I know what you need to do. Things have to come full circle. You need to face the angel where you found it."
Actually what I really needed to do was get a shower and a change of clothes. Epic confrontations with otherworldly beings weren't exactly on my to-do list. What the heck was I going to do to an angel? I was in the mess, and chasing the thing down wasn't going to get me out of it. I shook my head, or rather, tried to shake my head. The effort it took to actually turn my head to the side was so great I ended up just kind of bobbling it back and forth a bit.
"Umm...thanks for the place to stay. I'm gonna go now." My voice was soft, strained through a swollen throat and dry mouth. It took me two tries to spit out the words. The King of Winter snapped his book shut with a loud crack and stood up to see me off. He opened the gate and gestured out into the bright afternoon light. I took a few steps out, shielding my eyes from the harsh sun reflecting on the snow. Then I got hit in the face with a snowball.
I stood there spitting out the cold powder and trying to blink it out of my eyes, and began to shout mumbled meaningless phrases. A few kids stood near the end of the lot, staring at me in a bit of shock. I guess they expected the King to come out, and had instead gotten a bloody torn clothed crazy hunchback. Yelling, I tried to run toward them and wave my hands, but I only managed a few hopping steps. I yowled in pain as my muscles protested. It did the trick though, because the kids took one look at me and ran off as fast as they could.
When I turned around the King was standing there, shovel in hand. He saluted me with it, and said, "Good luck." Then he trotted out into the lot and started scooping up fresh snow and making small walls to guard his fort. I guess it had snowed while I was asleep.
The walk back to the busted car was painful and slow. My left leg had a hard time bending at all, and walking hunched over isn't easy. I thanked God the car was still there when I got back to the gas pipes. Then I stopped, and deliberate took back my thanks. Then I flipped the bird up at the sky and got it. It started, which was even more incredible.
Whatever I was going to do, I needed to get cleaned up, and the only place I felt like I could do that was at home. The drive was short, thankfully, passed without incident. I was afraid of being pulled over, driving the wrecked car during the day, but I didn't see any sign of the cops. The jerky wheel forced me to stay in the slow lanes on the highway, but that was ok. I was basically bent almost double in the driver's seat, looking through the steering wheel at the road. The residential streets were a little bit better, as there wasn't much traffic on them during work hours.
About five or six blocks from my house, the car made a low pitched groaning noise, and then gave a big rattle. It sounded like one of those guns that shoots ping pong balls out. Then the engine turned over a few more times and died. The car drifted forward another fifty feet and stopped. I didn't even bother to try and start it again, just opened the door and kind of fell out onto the road. The sun had melted most of the snow and ice on the pavement, so I ended up just laying in a small stream of water running down the center of the road. That got me to my feet fairly fast. I stumbled down the street toward my place, and behind me the car slowly rolled forward into the deep ditch. I didn't look back.
Story and image by Nick Bergeron, Copyright 2009