by John Pegg
Like a fury, the swollen clouds let the cold front loose as the storm slammed into the house. Edward stood from his chair and went to the window. Gusts of snow blew to the ground, sticking in random piles. Earlier, the weather station talked about a major snow storm approaching, but it was late February and in Indiana, the snow was always gone by the next day.
He threw another log in the fireplace sending amber cinders flicking against the black stone. The fire lit the room in a soft, orange glow. Edward opened a cabinet, found his cache of gin and made himself a dry martini before settling back into his chair.
Edward didn't expect much from life. He had his job at the local dry cleaners and it provided enough income for his home, food and books. Sometimes he wondered why he was alone. He hoped to someday meet that special person, but for right now, he had his fire, his drink, and his book.
The ice in his martini popped - a reminder of its presence. He picked up the cold wet glass, took a slow sip and let the salty liquid tease his lips before setting the glass back down. Edward ran his hand along his pant leg, wiping the condensation off.
The fire crackled and a distant thump resonated from somewhere in the house. Edward inspected the room, making a sweeping motion with his eyes. He had no pets and it was unlikely he had visitors. He waited to hear the noise again, and after a couple of minutes he shrugged his shoulders and went back to his book.
There it was again. It was the same noise as before, only heavier. His eyes looked towards the ceiling directly above him. Whatever made the noise, it sounded like it came from far off, upstairs somewhere, or maybe from the attic? There was a small round window up there - was it possible it blew open? Edward hung his book over the arm of the chair, sighed, and rose to check it out.
Edward went up the stairs that led to a hinged attic door. He slid the lock free and a moment later he was inside the dark room. He found a light bulb dangling from its cord and gave it a twist, bringing the attic to life. Boxes stuffed with various objects, such as old lamps, trophies and picture frames, were stacked in chaotic nonsense. The piles of junk produced oblong shadows along the walls, swaying with the movement of the hanging light bulb.
After a path was made through the boxes, Edward checked the window. It was sealed tight. Just as his mind started to question where the sound came from, he saw a black shadowy mass creep up the wall in front of him. It was a shadow of a man, which meant someone was standing directly behind him. Someone so close, he should be feeling their breath upon the back of his neck, but he felt and heard nothing. The blood coursing through Edward's veins felt like sludge, pumping hard.
Edward swallowed and turned around, dragging his feet on the wooden floor. There before him stood a man dressed in a stiff black suit. The man was handsome and bore a stately sense of character. Then he noticed something peculiar about the man. He was partially translucent and yet somehow reflected various objects from the room. It was a most bizarre sight.
"Hello, Edward," he said, with a warm buttery tone.
Edward was dumbstruck, his mouth agape.
The stranger wore an amused look upon his face. "Edward, please sit down. We have much to talk about and such little time."
Edward sat down on a box, fortunately filled with books, rather than pointy trophies. His fight or flight mechanism seemed to fail him. Edward finally spoke. "Are you a ghost or something or...?"
"Not quite," the man waved his hand. "No, Edward, I am something else. Something a bit more spiritual you may say."
"Are you an angel?" Edward asked, as his eyes grew a little wider, his stupor waning.
"Yes, I am. And that is the reason why I have come to you tonight. I have been given an assignment from the Higher ranks which involves you, dear Edward."
"Me? Why me?"
The angel smiled, looked skyward and shook his head as if thinking, 'That's what they all say.'
"The 'why' isn't important, Edward. It's the 'what' that's important."
"So what's the what?"
"A reward," the angel replied.
"Yes, reward. But in order to receive it, you must complete the task I give you, precisely." the angel said.
Edward didn't know what to think. He had never witnessed any supernatural experiences, had never won the lottery, had never seen a miracle, so this talk of a reward quickly began to warm his thoughts.
"Okay...so what are the tasks?" Edward asked, his eyes fixed upon the angel's kind face.
The angel leaned forward, "Now listen carefully and remember to follow the directions exactly as I say." The angel went ahead with the instructions. "First, you must..."
"Hold on a second!" Edward jumped up and raced out of the attic knocking into the hanging light bulb making it swing wildly from side to side.
The angel just stood there, listening to the frantic opening of drawers and clanking of utensils from the lower level of the house. After a minute, Edward was back with a blank piece of paper and a pen. "Okay...sorry...go...on," he said huffing in between each word.
The angel smiled and went on, "Very well, Edward. First, you must...."
Edward squinted his tired eyes as a ray of sunlight painted half of his face. He must have fallen asleep while he was reading in his chair. His back and neck ached and his head felt like a truck was parked on top of it. How many martinis did he have, anyway? Two green olives rested at the bottom of an empty glass. He remembered having only a single.
Other than the body aches, there was something else present that seemed to nag at the back of his mind. Boggled, Edward lifted his drowsy body from the chair. He heard something crinkle like the sound of dry leaves as his foot touched the floor and saw it was a ruffled piece of paper. He bent down and picked it up. It looked like a letter penned in the shaky hand of someone with Parkinson's disease. He held the paper closer; his vision blurred in and out and as it cleared, he recognized the hurried handwriting.
It was his own.
Edward walked to a window and peered outside. He saw the snow had already melted away, aside from a few dirty mounds. It was just as Edward thought, nothing was out of the ordinary, except, of course, the piece of paper in his hand. The instructions made no sense and he read them again:
1. Go to Bernie's Sporting Store, buy a life jacket and put it on before 11:34am. You may take it off only after you have completed the third task.
2. Go to Everyday is Friday Café. Order a cheese danish. Leave at 1:15pm, exactly.
3. Cross the street as soon as you exit the Everyday is Friday Café, don't forget to look both ways before crossing the street.
4. Meet the angel at the house at 5:30pm.Your reward will be waiting for you.
"A reward?" Edward pondered. He began to remember certain events from the night before. He remembered an angel bringing him the instructions. His memory was all coming back. Follow the instructions and receive a reward. Edward wondered what kind of a reward an angel would give? He quickly dismissed treasures and money - an angel wouldn't bring those kinds of gifts. It had to be something bigger.
Edward checked the time, 10:36am. Then he reread the list of instructions. He rushed to a closet, threw on his winter coat and snatched his car keys off the kitchen counter and headed for the garage. He had an hour to get to Bernie's Sporting Store.
He couldn't help thinking how absurd his morning was going to be. He opened the door to his Ford Taurus, got in and closed the door. Silence wrapped around him like thick mold. He squeezed his hands on the cold steering wheel unable to turn the ignition. The anticipation made his legs quiver. He was either a madman or the luckiest guy in Indiana. Edward took a deep breath as he inserted the key into the ignition. A moment later, the Taurus was speeding down the street.
Bernie's Sporting Store was located on the other side of town. Edward was thankful it was a Saturday morning since there were hardly any cars on the roads yet. Even with the snow storm the night before, the roads were clear and free of ice. "So far, so good," he thought.
He pulled the Taurus into the parking lot at 11:05am. He was making great time.
Edward entered the store and strolled past neatly stacked rows of soccer balls, cleated shoes and baseball bats. He came upon the angler and boating aisle - only to find bare racks containing a couple of packets of fishing line and one three foot rod. It was the middle of February and boating season was long forgotten.
Edward searched up and down the aisle and found not a single life jacket among the dusty shelves. There had to be more water sport goods than what he was finding. Edward ran around the store hoping he had missed something but he kept coming up short. He went back to the boating aisle for one last check and he glanced at his watch.
"Crap!" Edward shouted.
Just as he yelled, a short, bald man wearing a red vest poked his head around a forest of skis at the end of the aisle.
"Um, can I help you, sir?" the man asked through thick glasses.
"Yes! Yes, you can help me!" The man winced as Edward came crashing down the aisle.
"I need a life jacket. Do you have any life jackets here? I need to buy one, right now!" Edward said, ignoring the rising volume of his voice.
"Umm, I think we might have one in the back somewhere. I can go check for you."
"Yes, go now!" Edward made a motion of shooing the man away. "I need a life jacket right now!"
The little man hiccupped and disappeared through two swinging metal doors that led to the stock room. Edward checked the time again. 11:30am. He paced and wiped a line of sweat from the side of his face. 'What was taking him so long?' he thought.
"That's it, I can't wait any longer." As he raised his hands to bust through the gray steel doors, the bald man bumbled out with an orange foam vest draped over his arm.
"Here you go, sir, I had to go all the way to the top of the..."
"Hurry! Give me that life jacket!" Edward grabbed it from the man and hugged the life jacket as a little girl would hug a lost baby doll.
Edward didn't think to take his coat off before trying to squeeze his bulky arms into the holes. He was out of time, he had to get the jacket on now.
"What size is this? A kids small?" Edward asked as he thrashed about.
"Uh, no it's a kid's large. It's all we had back there," squeaked the little man.
Edward punched his arms through the small holes with all his strength and felt the blood squeezed from his limbs. It felt like he had two giant blood pressure cuffs pumped to the max.
"How much for the jacket?" Edward asked, barely able to talk, let alone breathe.
"I believe, those are $12.99. I can go check for you-"
"No! No, that's fine!" Edward fumbled for his wallet with stiff arms, fished out a twenty-dollar bill and threw it at the man. "There, that should cover it, " Edward said and he bolted for the door.
People in the parking lot stared at a man running from Bernie's Sporting Store wearing a bright orange life preserver. As if mimicking an airplane, Edward shot past them nearly clothes-lining a couple of kids with his protruding arms. He weaved around the cars in the parking lot until he located his Taurus.
Once inside the car, Edward checked his watch.
"I did have the jacket on before 11:34am, right?" Edward whispered to himself. For a while, he just sat there in the car, mostly wishing the little bald man would have found him a large life jacket. Edward took a deep breath, or at least tried to, and started the car. If he left now, he'd arrive at Everyday is Friday Café with extra time to spare. He was hungry for a danish, a cheese danish to be exact.
Everyday is Friday Café was packed with the lunch crowd, and Edward drove around the parking lot searching for a vacancy. Edward resigned to parking a block away from the Café. His hands were numb from the lack of blood to his arms. The clock on his dashboard read 12:22pm. His timing was good but he knew better from his last visit at Bernie's.
Edward walked up to the Café, opened the door and stepped into a warm air current. A happy little bell jingled and confetti rained down on top of Edward's head. Every person in the joint turned towards him and cheered in unison, letting out a harrowing "Woo-Hoo!" The cheers gave way to laughter when the people noticed Edward's jacket was really a life preserver.
"Man overboard!" Someone yelled from the back and the place erupted.
Edward huffed as confetti covered his entire head but he couldn't raise his arms high enough to brush it off.
"Free Willy!" The whole restaurant went wild as hands slapped tables sending silverware to the floor.
A waitress, holding back her smile went up to Edward. "Smoking or Non?"
"Non, please," Edward grunted as he shook confetti out of his hair.
"I'm sorry, but we only have smoking available."
"Then why'd you give me a choice?"
"I don't know, habit I guess? We have a place at the bar available. Will that do?"
"Whatever, I just need a seat."
"Excellent, right this way," She turned and Edward followed. As he passed each table on his way to the bar, Edward couldn't help bumping people's heads with his rigid arms. Edward hoped his reward was worth all this.
The waitress pointed to a seat at the bar and smiled with her eyes.
"Yes, that'll do fine. Thank you." Edward said.
Edward sat down, relaxing his arms across the bar.
"What can I get ya?" The bartender asked, drying a glass with a white towel.
What Edward really wanted was a stiff drink, something to calm him down. But that would have to wait until tonight.
Edward cleared his throat and said, "I'll have a cheese danish."
A man wearing a loud shirt next to him asked, "What did he say?" Another man said, "I think he said, 'Cheese danish?'"
The bartender stared at Edward for a confirmation. Edward nodded.
"Okay, one cheese danish, coming up." The bartender turned, suppressing a smile.
Edward glanced at a clock below a television airing a black and white movie, Humphrey Bogart was yelling at some chick on a river boat.
The next hour or so was going to be agony. Edward watched the television, zoning out the mocking voices.
"Where's my danish?" Edward thought to himself. The bartender was no where to be found. Edward rapped his tingly fingers on the bar counter. He thought about hunting the man down, but wasn't in the mood to rouse the crowd.
After about forty-five minutes, the bartender returned carrying a steaming cheese Danish on a ceramic plate.
"Be careful, it's hot," the bartender said as he set the plate on the bar.
"What took you so long?" Edward asked.
"Hey, you know what? I actually went out of my way by going to a grocery store to get this, your special order cheese Danish. I figure it's the least I can do for the underprivileged."
Edward stopped arguing and wondered what the bartender meant by the word, Underprivileged? He could only imagine what he probably looked like to everyone around him as he focused on the steaming volcano Danish, lava-like cheese oozing from its side. He only had a few minutes to gulp it down.
"Thanks," Edward said as he picked up the Danish. But he couldn't bring his hand to his mouth.
Chuckles from people at the bar echoed like surround sound. He felt hot inside, his face turned red. There was only one way to eat the Danish; Pie-Eating-Contest style. Edward dived down as if he was the World Champion, burning his lips and tongue.
"Oh! It's hot!" Edward bellowed with a mouth full of runny cheese. He sucked in a breath and gobbled down the rest.
"Dude, you're insane. Hardcore," a man behind him said, laughing, and slapped Edward on the back.
Edward checked the clock. It read 1:14pm. He vaulted out of his seat, clubbing a few patrons as he turned and headed for the door. He stepped outside into the cold, leaving the hysterics behind. The third and final instruction he had to complete was to cross the street. That seemed too simple. Wasn't there something specific the angel told him to do? Edward couldn't bend his arms enough to dig the instruction paper out of his pants pocket. He scanned his memory, his heart thumping. Now the time was 1:15pm!
"Look both ways!" Edward recalled.
Edward ran to the edge of the curb, pushing an elderly women out of his way.
"Hey!" The woman cried out as she fell hard to the concrete.
"Sorry," Edward apologized in a rush, as he looked left then right, and bolted across the street. Cars honked and careened out of the way leaving behind streaks of black rubber. Edward's feet skidded to a stop on the other side. The muscles in his arms burned from the strain of constantly holding them straight out. Cars that had nearly crashed into each other, squealed off, their drivers shouting curse words.
Edward ignored them, for he knew what he had accomplished. He laughed, and with stinging arms, peeled off his life jacket. It was time to go home. He smiled because it was time for his reward.
Edward pulled into his driveway, his heart overwhelmed with fervor. He was so busy during the day he didn't have time to stop to dwell on what his reward might be.
As he stepped into the house, he threw off his shoes and made his way to a chair in the study. It was the same place where all the craziness started, so he was naturally drawn to this room. He would wait here until 5:30pm.
The house was silent except for the ticks and tocks of the grandfather clock in the hallway. Edward wondered if he should call out but what would he say? "I'm here, Mr. Angel guy, where's my reward?" Anything he'd said would sound stupid. And so he waited.
The clock struck five. Edward, with his head resting on his arm, continued to be patient while he watched the shadows on the walls weave into phantom shapes with the setting sun.
Were the shadows moving more than they ought to be? For a moment, he thought he saw inky figures with tall legs and skinny arms, one flitting behind a lamp shade and another behind a bookcase. It was such a long day and Edward was tired. His eyelids began to feel leaden.
A thump sounded and Edward's eyes popped open. For a split second, he thought he saw black shadows in the form of people surrounding him. Edward shook his head and rubbed his eyes. The room seemed darker than it should be since the sun wasn't set yet.
Two more thumps resembling shoes with heavy soles came from somewhere in the hallway. Edward stood up and walked in the direction of the noise. The angel had arrived earlier than he said he would. He knew he shouldn't be frightened, but there was a chill in the air that tickled his neck. As he entered the hallway, another THUMP brought his attention to the top of the staircase where he saw the outline of a man peering down.
Edward swallowed, "Hello?"
The figure said nothing, never breaking its stare. Edward wondered if it was the same being that entered his attic the night before. Edward casually walked to the foot of the stairs and flicked on the hallway light. From the torso down, Edward could tell the figure was wearing a suit.
"Hello, Edward," the figure said. It took two careful steps down the stairs, revealing the familiar face of the handsome angel.
"Hey," Edward said feeling somewhat relieved after recognizing the angel.
"Hello," the angel said and it took another step down. "I tried to do my best but I'm afraid I have failed you."
"What do you mean, failed? I did what you asked, what about the reward?" Edward asked.
"I'm sorry to inform you, Edward, but there is no reward. There never was one." The angel was now halfway down the stairs. A sulfuric odor began to hover in the air. "It was all a lie."
"A lie? What was the point of tasks you gave me? What do you want with me?" Edward's eyes watered, thinking he saw the angel flashing a crooked smile.
"Edward, I need to take you with me, tonight. I hate having to take the soul from a human, it's so painfully awful to bear. But long ago, after the great fall, God punished me with this position, and I absolutely hate it. The list I gave you was actually my feeble attempt to not have to kill you myself. I was hoping you would have an accident, but somehow you survived the car trip with your arms unable to steer well, which frankly amazes me, and you also survived crossing the street in front of the cafe." The angel took a few more steps down. "Both times, you were seconds from your death, yet you survived. Now, however, your time is way past due." The angel was now at the foot of the stairs, inches from Edward. Edward could smell the angel's sickly sulfur breath.
"Maybe my time isn't really up, then?" Edward said. Something was different about the angel from what he saw the night before. He tried taking a step back but an invisible solid force held him firmly in place. Edward stared at the angel, whose face was now displaying an look of twisted pleasure; eyes like two bright blue marbles gleamed in the dim light.
"This can't be!" gasped Edward.
"Actually, Edward, every word I've spoken tonight has been lies." The angel clutched Edward by the shoulder, dropping him to his knees.
"I thought you were my guardian angel or something? I thought..." Edward began to writhe in pain, feeling his soul unzipping from his body.
"No, I am not your guardian angel. I am quite the opposite. You humans are so easily mislead." The angel closed his eyes and clamped down hard.
Edward screamed as the last inch of his soul was extracted and his world slipped into darkness.
The angel, Eblis, stood over Edward's lifeless body, sprawled out at the foot of the stairs. His timing was flawless. Another soul was lost and completely removed from this world.
All of a sudden, a crash like thunder filled the whole house. Eblis, looked down the hall as a perfect replica of himself stared back. It was the angel, Raphael.
Eblis began to transform back to his natural state, black eyes filling deep sockets, his face dry and pitted. He no longer shared Raphael's appearance.
"You're too late," Eblis said with an evil grin.
Raphael's eyes locked on Edward's body. "What did you tell him?" Raphael asked.
"Enough lies to keep him from running and he believed every word." Eblis replied. "Hey, Raphael, next time, don't tell your plans for the whole world to hear. We carefully noted everything you discussed with Edward in the attic. You know we are everywhere and we have excellent hearing."
After Eblis finished speaking, the floor began to shake and he morphed into a twisted black form, streaking past Raphael, leaving behind a rotten stench. Four other black shapes screeched and fled from the dark corners inside the house.
Raphael cried out and raised his hands, "Oh, Edward! You were never shown the true reasons for your tasks. The chain of events at the sports store, why you had to wear that hideous life jacket which is the reason why the bartender felt sorry for you and the reason the bartender took so long to get the danish and the perfect timing of running into an old woman at the edge of the street, who was about to step into traffic. She was saved because of you, Edward, and you will never know it. May God's grace be with you, dear Edward. May He show you mercy that knows no boundaries."
Raphael dropped a crown, which was known to humans as a reward for unusual tasks and bent down and cradled Edward in his arms. He knew Eblis was cunning but he never thought he would pose as himself. Eblis had destroyed another soul, but Raphael vowed to never let it happen again.
© 2007 John Pegg
Bio: John Arthur Pegg, born in 1976, is one naughty, twisted writer. He sleeps exactly six hours a night with a notebook and pen (sometimes used as a pillow) always within arms reach. His stories sometimes border on the grotesque, slightly macabre side, sometimes on the bizarre, light side, with twists that are sure to surprise anyone who aren't expecting the usual. John wants you to reach out and taste his words.
E-mail: John Pegg
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