Al Bruno III
for my mother
It ended as it began, with an abrupt transfiguration and flutter of wings.
* * *
The air in Rousedower’s Tavern was thick with cigarette smoke. The patrons were college students and middle-aged bohemians; both groups were lured here by the promise of cheap beer and easily ignored acoustic bands. Barry Moore tired to look casual as directed Jimbo and Mike to a corner table.
When the waitress brought the menus, Barry watched while his friends debated over the exchange rates between American and Canadian currency. They didn’t have a lot of either after pre-paying for the motel room and they still had to have enough left over to make the trip back from Montreal to the SUNY Albany Campus. Barry grimaced a little at the thought of four more hours crammed into Jimbo’s Dodge Charger.
“Well?” Mike Proctor straightened his glasses. He was the tallest of them; his face was far too small for a head so large. He preferred to wear tie-dyed shirts and heavy boots. He looked like the Frankenstein monster had collided with a hippie commune, “Where is she?”
Barry made a show of scanning the crowd; he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror above the bar; plain looking with shaggy hair and an easygoing smile. “I don’t see her. She must be running late.”
“I can’t believe you’re making us do this man.” Jimbo Lord wore mostly black, because he’d learned that black was slimming. Sadly Jimbo had never learned that diet and exercise were even more slimming. “I mean we’ve come all this way, can’t you just admit it?”
Barry shook his head, “Admit what?”
“You’ve been telling us about this girl for almost a year.” The waitress brought over a bowl of popcorn and Jimbo dug in, “This perfect girl. Come on. Admit it so we can drop this charade and hit some strip clubs.”
“Topless…” Mike half-spoke, half-sang, “…and bottomless.”
“Guys she’ll be here.” Barry said. The waitress came back and took their drink orders, two beers one soda.
Mike looked over the menu again, “What are the wings like?”
Barry shrugged. The door opened with a long drawn out squeal as another group of college students filled the air with raucous laughter. The band finished their first set to scattered applause and made their way to the bar.
“I thought this was your little love nest?” Mike asked,
“How can you not know what the wings are like?”
“I never tried them all right?”
Jimbo shook his head sadly, “Look. Just repeat after me… There- Is- No- Phoebe- Reischl.”
“You can tell her that soon enough.”
“Lord have mercy. We have got to break you of this.”
Barry took a drink of his soda, “Break me of what? She’s real.”
Mike shook his head, “I need evidence. We have not seen one picture of this girl and you have not received one phone message. Not even an email and believe me we’ve looked.”
“How far do you think he’s going to take this?” Mike wondered aloud, “Should we settle in and order something?”
Jimbo nodded sagely, “Even in the midst of an intervention, there is always time for curly fries, and wings.”
Mike smiled, “You’re like the Sun Tzu of junk food.”
“What intervention?” Barry scowled, “I don’t need an intervention.”
In his third year of college Barry had moved off campus, of all the applicants he’d looked into for a roommate Mike Proctor had seemed like the one least likely to murder someone in their sleep. Jimbo Lord had come to help Mike and he’d never really left; when he wasn’t working or trolling for ‘babes’ on the Internet, he was planted on their couch. It didn’t take them very long for them all to become friends, and it didn’t take Mike and Jimbo long to figure out that their newest friend didn’t have much luck with the ladies.
When the waitress returned to their table she asked, “More drinks?”
Mike and Jimbo ordered curly fries, hot wings and more beers.
“You know what I think?” Mike smiled, “I think what you need Barry, is a night with a professional.”
“Hey!” Barry said.
“Hang on a minute here.” Mike continued, “I don’t mean some skank, I mean a night with one of those high class hookers you always see dead on CSI.”
“So many things were wrong with that last statement...” Barry said.
“Look, you’re among friends here.” Mike frowned and looked around the bar, “Friends and Canadians. Just admit you made her up so you wouldn’t seem so lame.”
“Yet in doing so you became lamer.” Jimbo said.
The door squealed again and in the silence, everyone at the table seemed to look up at once. Barry felt his entire world tilt sideways. A woman stood in the doorway, she wore jeans and a bomber jacket covered with faded decals; her dark hair was pulled back in a knot. Her smile practically glittered as she waved and headed over to sit down at their table. It was Phoebe, there was no mistaking her.
But that's impossible, Barry thought. She doesn't exist.
* * *
…They congealed in the forgotten places: those abandoned or given over to entropy and solitude. Ritually blinded and squealing like newborns, they meandered from burnt-out houses and empty storefronts through the alleys and side streets of Montreal. No one saw them, no one dared…
* * *
“Sorry I’m late. You wouldn’t believe what it took for me to get here.” Phoebe shouldered out of her jacket and bulky purse and sat down beside Barry. She touched his arm with easy familiarity and kissed him on the cheek. She extended her hand to the men across the table from her, “You must be Mike, and you must be Jim.”
Mike shook her hand, “As I live and breathe… heavily.”
Jimbo kissed it, “Please call me Jimbo.”
Phoebe’s giggle sounded just the way Barry had imagined.
The band made their way back to the stage, spent a few moments arguing about a chord and then started playing. Several of the bar’s patrons took this as a signal to leave, the door squealed again.
Both of Barry’s friends had dated extensively through college. Mike tended to specialize in damaged goods. He’d just recently broken up with a girl with attention deficit disorder- in truth she hadn’t so much broken up with him as simply wandered off. He’d rebounded quickly enough and was now dating a bi-polar political science major with a passion for student protests and flicking lit cigarettes at strangers.
“So you’re Phoebe…” Mike said.
The waitress had brought over their food but none of the men at the table seemed to notice. Phoebe looked over the hot wings before choosing a particularly plump looking one, “That’s what it says on my birth certificate.”
Jimbo leaned forward, “You didn’t happen to bring it along did you?”
It was different for Jimbo, he found all of his girls on the Internet, he regularly visited a dozen or so message boards and convinced women to come and visit him with his mastery of the written post. Jimbo’s most recent conquest had presented herself as a bi-curious nineteen year old African-American college student. When she’d arrived she’d turned out to be a thirty-something white woman with badly died hair and prison tattoos. Since Jimbo described himself in his messages as a ‘John Stamos-type’ he really didn’t have the right to accuse her of being a liar. Somehow they really hit it off anyway and she spent the weekend with him- everything was going great for Jimbo until her husband showed up.
“So…” Barry watched her eat, “So…”
“You guys don’t mind do you? I’m starving.” Phoebe spoke with her mouth full. She set the bones from one wing down and grabbed another, “You know how I get when I’m working Love Bug.”
Barry flinched at the sound of the nickname he’d imagined her calling him, he’d never told anyone that, no matter how much he might boast about her personality or bedroom techniques.
Jimbo laced his fingers together, “And what do you do for a living again?”
For all their misadventures at least his friends were out there in the trenches, Barry tended to keep his head down and concentrate on studying for his anthropology degree. Oh he’d tried his hand at meeting girls on campus, but somehow they either sensed his fear of rejection or his lack of money. The only girl he’d managed to get two dates with had ended up trying to recruit him into a cult- as if he had that kind of time and money.
There were plenty of bars around campus too and Barry had tried the scene but no matter what he did he seemed to just fade into the background. Except of course for that one day he’d worn those new shoes on a rainy night. Barry still cringed at the mental image of him walking into the bar, slipping on a patch of wet floor and crashing into the trio of stewardess at the bar. Sometimes he could still hear their bilingual cursing.
“I’m a commercial artist, mostly boring stuff like ad copy and signage.” She explained, “But I make a lot of extra scratch doing Star Trek themed oil paintings and selling them at Sci-Fi Conventions.”
Mike gave Barry a disbelieving glance, “Really?”
The lead singer of the band paused, his brow furrowing as he tried to remember the next lyric of 'Stairway to Heaven.' The drummer launched into an impromptu solo to try and drown out the heckling.
“Oh yeah, and you would not believe what some fans would pay to have them selves painted in as a member of the Enterprise’s bridge crew. I mean I’m no Dru Blair but people seem to like my work.”
How could she know all this? Barry wondered Am I going crazy?
Almost one year ago he’d invented Phoebe Reischl to make his friends stop trying to send him off on blind dates with the girls they didn’t want. It wasn’t that Barry hadn’t tried his luck a few times. The guys always told him that at the very least he could look upon these as ‘practice dates’; but after one of the girls brought him to her high school reunion and introduced him as her fiancé, Barry had had enough.
One winter weekend he’d gone to a science fiction convention in New York City, semi-annual ritual- weather and funds permitting. When he got back home he told his friends he wouldn’t need any more blind dates. He’d just met a girl named Phoebe, and his heart belonged to her. She was perfect girl, perfect for him in only the way an imaginary girlfriend could be. The only drawback was she lived in Canada but Barry had told Mike and Jimbo that he knew he could make it work.
“... isn’t that right Love Bug?”
Barry started, “What?”
Mike smiled, “Earth to Love Bug. Your sweetie was just telling us the story about how you met.”
“Oh?” Barry looked at her, at the quiet affection in her eyes, “Oh yes.”
“Love at first sight.” She said, “And to think if you hadn’t held that elevator for me I might have ended up going to dinner with that fan-film guy.”
“Everything…” Barry paused, his mouth felt full of saliva, “…everything happens for a reason.”
Jimbo asked, “Barry said you were thinking of branching out into other styles of art.”
“Well I’ve gotten a few requests for Babylon 5 stuff but I can never get the spaceships right…”
In a matter of a few months Phoebe Reischl became more than a cover story- she became a talisman against the lonely grind of study and work. She became an excuse to pull back from the dating scene for a while. So what if the girl at the coffee shop smiled at him? After all, she was no Phoebe. So what if Barry found himself alone on the holidays and he just walked in on his roommate having sex with the same coffee shop girl under the Christmas tree? He had Phoebe.
Well not really but he had the idea of Phoebe, the idea that the perfect girl was somewhere out there waiting for him.
But she was here now; living, breathing and unconsciously running her fingertips along the length of his arm. For Barry the whole bar had ceased to exist, Jimbo and Mike were like phantoms. Phoebe caught him looking at her from the corner of her eye and blushed a little; she brushed a stray lock of hair aside and said in a stage whisper, “You’re staring.”
“They didn’t think you were real.” Barry said.
Mike said, “And for that we apologize, we just thought you sounded a little too good to be true.”
“She is.” Barry stroked the curve of her chin, like he’d always imagined.
Phoebe caught his hand and nibbled on the ridge of his knuckle, “You’re sweet.”
Jimbo leaned back in his chair, “You two need a room?”
“We have one.” Barry said, dangling the motel room key before her, “Unless you’d rather go back to your place?”
* * *
…their masters called them the Ophanim. The name was a cruel, knowing joke. They slowly found each other and began traveling in groups. The cool March wind fluttered over the mutilated black wings that were nothing more than gnarled fists of cartilage and bone that sprung from their backs. They were dressed in tatters and rags; every scrap had been scavenged or stolen. The Ophanim might have wept at their state but their minds were as broken as their bodies…
* * *
They left Mike and Jimbo back at the bar and called a cab. When Barry had held the door of Rousedower’s Tavern open for Phoebe he had glanced back at them, the envy in their eyes was almost physically palpable. They looked like they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
Barry could understand that, especially now when she was snuggled against him in the cab, her hand on knee shoulder. Her body was soft yet toned, a dancers' physique- but not the kind of dancers Jimbo and Mike were planning to go see tonight. Phoebe described herself as a ‘lapsed ballerina’, she hadn’t taken a formal dance lesson in years but she still kept up the routines of practice and exercise. It still made her sad sometimes that she had never had the money to continue her studies.
But she never said any of this, Barry thought, I said it. I imagined her saying it! None of this makes any sense.
“Phoebe.” He said, “What was the name of that school in Europe you were going to go to?”
The cab slowed to a stop, Phoebe rummaged around in her purse until she found her wallet. She flashed him a mischievous smile, “I can’t believe I’m paying for your booty call.”
“Booty?” Barry let her pull him from the cab and lead him back to his room. He hardly felt the chill wind or the half ice, half slush that splashed around his feet; he hardly felt anything except for the terrified thudding in his chest.
She steered him along to the side of the building, to room 377, “Open up.”
“How did you know what room I’m in?”
“You flashed your room key at me remember?” She gave him a little kiss
“Uh…” Barry blushed, found the room key and led her inside.
She caught his hand as he reached for the wall switch, “Do we really need lights?”
“Do you want a drink?” Barry asked as she moved closer, pushing him against the door, “We have sodas in the cooler.”
“There are just two beds in this room. Was one of you boys going to double up?”
“I brought a sleeping bag. I was going to sleep on the floor.”
“You’re too nice.” Phoebe pulled her blouse over her head; the bra she wore was powder blue lace. The clasp was on the front, she took his hands and led them to it, “Maybe that’s why I’m so crazy about you. A girl can feel safe with a man like you.”
Barry was shaking, he felt like a teenager again, all clumsy and cornered. She kissed him and pulled him down onto the bed.
They didn’t pull the covers back; they barely thought to nudge the luggage onto the floor. “How… why are you here?”
“How could I stay away?”
* * *
…the Ophanim knelt clumsily in the melting snow and ice. Their faces were like smeared paintings, somehow wizened and beatific at once. When one shuddered from the cold, they all shuddered. They all waited for the last of their numbers to arrive. Long ago there had been dozens of them but now there were only seven. Every year their numbers dwindled further…
* * *
The first bar they went to left Mike wondering if Canada had a Better Business Bureau he could complain to. The gaudy neon signs had promised 'EXOTIC DANCERS' but none of the women that had graced the stage had been able to dance very well and neither Mike nor Jimbo considered stretch marks or missing teeth to be exotic.
The wind and the cold were even worse than before; it battered them as they crossed the street to the car. “Where to next?” Jimbo asked.
“Let’s call it a night.” Mike waved his hands, “The only person having a good time right now is Barry.”
“I still don't believe it.” Jimbo said, “No one can be that... that... Wow.”
Cold and miserable they climbed into the car. Mike sat in the passenger side, trying to warm himself by flapping his arms. Jimbo started the car and turned the heater and defogger up full blast.
“Man, that girl had the prettiest eyes didn’t she?”
“The stripper? The one with the razor burns?”
“I mean Barry’s girl. Jeez, it doesn’t even sound right saying that…”
“Yeah.” Mike smiled, “I’ve always been a sucker for green eyes.”
“Blue.” Jimbo corrected, her eyes were blue.
“No. Green. You colorblind or something?”
“They were totally blue, they had bits of gold in them. They almost shone, it was like…” Jimbo frowned, “… like they weren’t even real.”
* * *
Barry stirred with a smile. He had forgotten about this part, about the good part after the other good part; to fall asleep holding your lover close, to gently doze off feeling someone’s heat radiating back at you.
I can’t let this end. I’ve got to get an engagement ring. I’ve got to find a justice of the peace. Do they have those in Canada? Barry smiled and reached across the bed to draw her in close again. Hey! Where is she?
Barry sat up and saw her in the bathroom, standing naked before the mirror and preening. She kept turning on her heel, trying to examine the reflection of her back. Her skin was smooth and flawless; it reminded Barry of a statue, the perfect girl cast in marble. Remember this, Barry thought to himself. Keep this memory it someplace safe where nothing can tarnish it. Remember this.
“Finished dreaming?” Phoebe grinned at him, her dark eyes flashing, “Do you want to go get something to eat? Should we talk about what we want to do tomorrow?”
“Come back to bed. That’s all I want.”
Switching off the bathroom light she climbed back onto the bed and draped herself over him, “We should get dressed before your friends come back.”
“Maybe they won’t come back.” Barry kissed her shoulder, “Maybe they hooked up with someone.”
“Yeah, right.” She started to laugh and then stiffened, “Did you hear something?”
Phoebe got out of bed and peered out the motel room’s bay window, “What was that?”
“I didn’t hear anything.” Barry got out of bed and put his arm around her, “What’s wrong? Hey you’re shaking like a leaf.”
Phoebe fell back into his arms, “We’re not alone.”
“They’re back already?” Barry peered out the window, usually you could hear Mike’s car from a block away thanks to his crappy muffler.
“I have to tell you.” She crossed her arms over her chest, “You deserve to know.”
“I don’t have to know anything.” Barry said, “All I know is I’m happy. I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy before.”
Phoebe started to cry, Barry tried to hold her but she pushed him away. Hurt and a little stunned he watched her rummage around on the floor for her clothes. Eventually she gave up and slipped on Barry’s castoff shirt.
“What’s wrong?” Barry asked again.
She sat down on the bed and drew her legs up to her chest, “Do you know that over 70% of Americans believe in angels?”
“But we’re in Canada…”
* * *
“It must be contacts.” Mike said, “Chicks are vain like that.”
Jimbo said, “Or you could be wrong.”
“No. I know what I saw.” Mike frowned, “I’ve been ogling girls for years. We should check on him.”
With a sigh Jimbo put the car in gear and started driving, “He’s not gonna like us interrupting.”
“Yeah well he’ll get over it.” Mike said, “Something’s not right. Something’s not right with her.”
“Well duh. Look who she’s dating…”
* * *
“You’re what?” Barry pulled his jeans on as he listened to her speak.
“An angel but not in the way you understand the term.”
“You’re beautiful and fun and the greatest sex of my life.” Barry fell to his knees, “Please don’t be crazy.”
“Belief has power and every generation has its own mythologies to give us form.” Phoebe said, “Most people now call angels to them, they don’t even realize they’re doing it.”
“The Divine Spark? Psychic power? I’ll never know but Love Bug you have to understand that my kind fall to Earth as incomplete dreams, weak and empty.” She shivered, “You were different and you believed so much. Usually one dream means so little.”
“No I meant why are you talking like this?” Barry said, “You’re real.”
She pressed herself against him and then retreated across the room, “You know better than that. Until tonight I was just a story you told yourself at night before you fell asleep.”
“But you’re here.”
“I couldn’t resist your passion.”
“And so you just… made yourself into Phoebe?”
“No. All I ever was is this. Your moment, your dream made it real.”
Barry ran his fingers through his hair, “This is insane.”
“At first I was just going to make my own way in the world, loose myself in it, but as soon as I had this flesh… it ached for you.” Phoebe crossed her arms over her chest, “I was stupid, I put you at risk but I had to find you. I should have run far away.”
“All right.” Barry started pacing the room, “Let’s say this is true. Let’s say that my wanting you to be real made you real. Then who cares? I love you. You love me too Right?”
“Do you really think this hasn’t happened before? That there aren’t others out there waiting to be born?”
“Look, this is all new to me.”
“Do you really think the masters of this world would ever allow such a thing?”
“I don’t understand… Masters?”
“Barry.” Phoebe drew herself up to her knees, “You should go. They don’t care about you, not really. We both only get one chance. Most never even have the courage for that.”
There was the sound of a commotion outside. It almost sounded to Barry like a crowd of unruly children was making its way up the street, bickering and laughing as it toppled trash cans and clamored over parked cars. But this commotion was punctuated with strange howls and stranger curses.
An edge of panic crept into her voice, “Walk calmly out to the street and then start running. Find your way back to your friends and your old life.”
He approached the window and parted the curtain.
Phoebe pulled him back, shaking him in her urgency, “The Ophanim.”
“I don’t matter. I didn’t even exist until tonight. Go. Go home and find a girl that loves you a little more than you love her and be content.”
Barry stared disbelievingly at her. The tears in her eyes were genuine enough but was she really just a ghost created from his loneliness? If he ran and hid, like he’d spent so much of his life hiding from one thing or another, where would that leave him? What would that leave him with?
The howls were louder now and he could make out whole words now. Vows of cruelty and lust. The motel room door started to shake and rattle. The glass of the bay window squealed and cracked. Shadows curled like smoke in their wake but they weren’t enough to hide from Barry the faces of the things; their desiccated bodies and empty faces. If Phoebe was birthed in a single dream then these creatures could only have been pieced together from the choicest nightmares.
“Go.” Phoebe sobbed, “Hide. Please.”
Barry grabbed her by the hand and dragged her back into the bathroom. There was a window there made of frosted glass and painted shut. He locked the bathroom door as he heard the bay window give way to a chorus of eager howls.
“Please don’t do this.” Phoebe begged.
“These Orphans…” Barry grabbed a towel off the rack and hefted the plastic trash bin.
“Ophanim, They’re called the Ophanim.”
“These things- what will they do to you if they find you?”
Phoebe looked away, “It doesn’t –“
The bathroom lights flickered and faded in time with the voices of the creatures. The bathroom window was shoulder level, Barry smashed out the glass, clearing the fragments away as best he could and laying the towel over the sill. “Come on.” He held his arms out to help her, “Climb.”
She climbed up, for a moment she was close enough for an embrace; the scent of her fresh sweat and fading perfume wafted over him.
How can she not be real? How?
The bathroom door was shuddering on its hinges, pushing away from the frame with a riot of cracks and snaps. Shriveled, broken hands tore at the air. Barry watched Phoebe slip from the window and land on the ground below with a pained yelp. He moved to scramble after her, and felt the damaged edges of the window bite at his clothes and the skin beneath.
For a moment he was tumbling end over end, then he hit the ground and there was a flash of light. Barry’s vision swam in and out of focus. His head ached; his body was alive with a cold itching. He had landed in a snow covered shrubbery, crushing it.
Phoebe pulled him to his feet, “We have to keep running.”
“…running… …Ophanim…” Barry started to move, his first footstep landed in a puddle of half frozen water, “…cold! Cold! Police, we need to find the police.”
Snarls filled the air; Barry looked back to the broken window. Phoebe said, “The police can’t help me. No one can.”
Barry took her hand and started running, “I’ll be the judge of that.”
* * *
…outrage knotting their faces the Ophanim threw themselves out the window, ripping out sections of the wall in their zeal. They were used to prey that was half-complete and half-conscious, still weak and terrified from birth. The Ophanim’s quarry never ran. Their quarry never had the chance to hope.
That drove the ruined angels into a frenzy that was beyond their masters’ control. Why should this quarry be different? Why should this quarry dare to escape the same torments that had marked them?
They would not allow this…
* * *
Two blocks later their bare feet were numbed by the snow and ice. They tried to flag down cars and taxies but the drivers wouldn’t even slow down for them much less stop.
“Why won’t anyone…” Barry jumped back onto the sidewalk as a car nearly clipped him, “Hey!”
“They’re still close.” Phoebe said, “The human race has been trained to look away from them.”
“This is nuts.”
“Just go, leave me.”
“I said no.” Barry offered her a quick desperate smile, “I meant no.”
Phoebe started to return it, “I never could win an argument with you.” Then her expression became pained.
“Are you really an angel?”
“For lack of better word.”
The streetlights began to flicker and fade, familiar snarls filled the air. Barefoot and freezing they started to run again.
* * *
“Brakes!” Mike shouted.
Jimbo slammed his feet down on the pedal. The tan dodge Charger twisted sideways. Jimbo’s mind was filled with visions of being t-boned but the streets were eerily empty. The only oncoming traffic he could see was Barry and his Canadian girlfriend and they were running for their lives.
But from what?
A knot of shadows streamed up the road behind them, the traffic lights and shop signs flared like lightning and went out. There were shapes in the darkness, trying to see them clearly made Jimbo feel faint all over again.
Mike opened his door and leaned out, “Get in!”
“What are you doing here?” Barry pulled Phoebe into the backseat the Dodge. She slammed the door closed.
“What am I doing here?” Mike sat back down, “What are you doing here?”
Jimbo hit the accelerator and sped off, he kept glancing back in the rearview mirror, “What are those things?”
“I’m sorry.” Phoebe was hunched over in her seat, “I’m made you all a part of this. I’m sorry.”
Barry lifted his hand up and closed it into a fist, staring intently, “Remember that parking garage we almost got pulled over by?”
“What is happening here?” Mike demanded.
“What are those..?” Jimbo’s eyes widened.
Phoebe said, “They’re getting closer.”
That was all Jimbo needed to hear, he gunned the engine.
* * *
..despair had made them relentless, loss had made them cruel. Their prey was stretching from their grasp, their prey was being helped when no human in their well honed blindness should have been able to do more than cringe and swoon.
The Ophanim’s thoughts were splintered, most only sought to complete their task so they might return to the void that imprisoned them. Others felt trills of fear at the thought of their masters’ displeasure should their prey escape…
* * *
“I said what are they?” Jimbo sounded hysterical.
The ride had been brief; no police cars gave chase even though they had abandoned the rules of traffic lights and speed limits to the wind blocks ago. No cars appeared in their path to block them or careen in their wake. “They’re monsters.” Phoebe explained, “That’s all you need to know and whatever you do, don’t let them touch you.”
“This just gets better and better.” Mike said, “I knew you were too good to be true. I just knew it.”
The parking garage was a long rectangular structure of worn gray stone; the lights were dimmed and the gates for incoming traffic were locked down. During the day the garage handled the overflow of cars from the nearby hospital but at this hour of the night it was deserted.
“We’re here.” Jimbo stopped the car and turned in his seat to stare out the back window, “Barry?”
Barry was still staring intently at his clenched fist; his mouth was a thin bloodless line.
Phoebe touched his shoulder, “Love Bug?”
He glanced at her, his expression softened, “I was thinking.”
Mike waved his hand in front of Barry’s face, “We’re here now what?”
“Phoebe and I are getting out of the car and you guys are going to get back to the States.”
Jimbo breathed a sigh of relief, “Sounds good to me.”
Mike snapped, “Shut up. That does not sound good.”
“I don’t have time to argue.” Barry was halfway out the door.
“I don’t know what’s going on but I don’t trust her or any of this.” Mike said.
“Just go. Save yourselves.” Barry had hold of Phoebe’s hand and dragged her from the car; she winced as her back brushed the upper part of the Charger’s doorframe. There was a patch of red between her shoulder blades. It was slowly expanding.
“Guys, I have to do this alone.” Barry said, “You can’t help me.”
“We’re not leaving you.” Mike walked around to Jimbo’s side of the car and pushed him aside so he could retrieve the tire iron from under the seat.
“Are you sure?” Jimbo said, “He sounds pretty serious.”
“Shut up!” Mike said again.
“What are you going to do Love Bug?” Phoebe asked.
He grinned at her “Don’t be afraid. And listen guys I need you to-”
The Ophanim burst out of the darkness around them, shadows bleeding in their wake. Their papery voices were laughing and mocking. Barry pulled Phoebe towards the parking garage. “Run!” He shouted.
A gnarled hand caught Jimbo on the bare flesh of his arm. He mewled and tried to twist away but it was already too late, his skin, muscle and bone collapsed and trickled like ash to the ground. He fell back towards the safety of the car but a second snarl of grimy, twisted fingers caught his face. His voice rose for a brief piercing moment and then became silent.
Mike swung the tire iron catching one of the Ophanim on the side of the head and hitting another in the chest. Each blow brought a satisfying crunching sound as he dodged and waded through them, making his way to the parking garage. He was trying to curse but the words had run together into a stream of nonsense. One of the creatures brushed its fingertips along the sleeve of his jacket; the fabric blackened and curled away like a leaf in a fire. Mike brought the tire iron down on the attacker’s skull and slipped around to the other side of the Charger. He could see Barry and Phoebe receding further and further into the parking garage. It looked as though they were making their way to the stairwell.
One of the Ophanim scrambled across the hood, tackling Mike, he felt the creature’s hand grasp the back of his neck, and then sink through to the bone as the flesh crumbled away.
The Ophanim pulled Mike’s head free with a hiss of victory.
* * *
My friends are dead. The realization was enough to slow Barry’s pace on the stairwell. My friends are dead because of me- because of us.
He looked ahead to Phoebe, her pace had slowed as well, but that was because the wound on her back was spreading and swelling. Barry knew what that meant and it gave him the strength to keep moving. He hurried to her side and gingerly slipped his arm around her waist.
“Come on.” He said, “Almost there.”
“Something’s wrong.” Phoebe said, “… hurts.”
“I know.” Barry said, “But we have to hurry.”
Four floors below them he could hear the sounds of pursuit. The car alarms for the few vehicles on the lower levels screamed to life then dwindled in the Ophanim’s wake. Barry could hear the door to the stairwell swing open and the sounds of their impossible voices echo up after them.
“It’s not too late.” Phoebe said, “Just leave me.”
“No.” Barry put one arm around her back and another lifted her up by the legs. There was another flight of stairs to go, could he carry her that far?
I have to. He thought as he felt the swollen, weeping mass between her shoulders pulse and shift.
“Something’s wrong.” She said again, her voice a whisper.
Barry kept his breathing steady and counted the steps until he reached the topmost level of the parking garage, the rooftop level. The voices of the Ophanim were close behind him now; he could hear the cold anger in their voices. Was it his imagination that made him hear Jimbo’s and Mike’s voice in that chorus?
Don’t look back. Keep moving. Almost here.
“Oh no.” Phoebe looked around, the dark cloudless sky seemed to press down on them; this entire level of the parking garage was empty and full of shadows. It was as though she realized where she was for the first time. “What are we doing here?”
Then a burst of pain robbed her of breath, she felt the growth begin to split apart.
Barry carried her running full out the last few yards to set Phoebe down at the very edge of the parking garage’s roof. He risked a glance down at the sheer drop, nothing spectacular but enough to kill a man.
“I’m sorry.” Phoebe said again. “I’m sorry I caused this.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for.” Barry said, “You were worth it. You always were.”
The pain in her back became a fire. The growth tore her skin to shreds as twin appendages slipped free and shivered in the cold March air.
“Don’t fight it.” Barry said.
“Fight it? Do you know what’s happening to me?”
“Of course.” Barry kissed her one last time before standing up and shielding her. The door to the stairwell burst open and the Ophanim spilled out onto the asphalt. They jabbered and hissed and moved forward as one; their certainty made them slow, made them relish every footstep.
Phoebe’s new wings pulled free from their casings and shook the moisture of their birth away from their pale white feathers with a single shudder. “What is this?” She whispered.
“If I could imagine you in the flesh…” Barry began, “…then I can imagine you away from here. If I can call you out of longing then I can long for something better than these monsters for you.”
“Love Bug.” She breathed. Barry felt her arms touch his back.
“I doubt you could carry me, even if those weren’t new wings.” Barry said, “Just go before they realize. I think they’re waiting for me to beg.”
“If you love me you will. Otherwise this was all for nothing.”
Barry stepped away from her moving towards the Ophanim. He wished he was holding Mike’s tire iron, or could find a weapon within easy reach but it was too late for that now. He needed to buy her just a few more moments. He was surprised that he didn’t feel afraid, or hopeless. After all hadn’t he expected to dwindle away to nothing? To die old, alone and sickening in some hospital bed? Wasn’t it better to die on a night like this?
He found himself surrounded. Barry thought of Phoebe in the bathroom, staring at her reflection in the mirror. He gave the Ophanim a grim smile and told them, “Nobody messes with my girl.”
* * *
It ended as it began, with an abrupt transfiguration and flutter of wings.