"The Kindness of Strangers"
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Sorry this has been so long in coming – I've been sick with bronchitis since October and haven't really felt like writing until today!
Whenever he had the chance, Gabriel came to Earth, to the plane of existence where humans lived. He liked to watch them, often spending hours sitting on a park bench or in an uncomfortable chair in an airport. Or he'd walk the streets of a major city: London, New York, Chicago, Denver. It didn't matter, as long as there were lots of people.
Ironic, really – he'd spent so many centuries hating and resenting these people for even existing, for holding a special place in The Creator's heart. But now, having lived as one of them, he understood. Though they may enjoy The Boss's favor, their short lives weren't easy. So much suffering and illness and uncertainty, things that angels never faced, never worried about.
The place he had come to today was called Cleveland. It was snowing here now, big fat fluffy flakes. Gabriel briefly allowed himself to feel the cold, and actually shivered as an icy wind from the lake whipped his long black coat around him. Disappointingly, the streets were almost deserted today. Must be the weather keeping everyone inside, he mused.
On Euclid Avenue, there was a convenience store where Gabriel sometimes bought the local paper. He looked in the window and saw that it was empty aside from the clerk, a young freshmen at Case Western Reserve who hoped to be a doctor one day. Her head was bent over a thick textbook, her long black hair curtaining her face. When he pushed the door open, the little bell above it jingled and she looked up at him and smiled.
"Hey you," she said. It was what she always said when she saw him; he had no idea why.
"How's it going?" he asked, taking a copy of The Plain Dealer from the newspaper rack.
She shrugged. "Pretty quiet today."
"Yeah, I noticed." He put the paper on the counter and dug around in his pocket for change. "Didn't see too many people out there."
She shrugged again. "Thanksgiving."
"Ah." He had completely forgotten about the holiday.
She peered past him, out the window. "Damn," she said quietly. "He's back."
"Who?" Gabriel turned to look and saw a homeless man huddled in the doorway, seeking shelter under the overhang. He wore a long, tattered coat and a hat was jammed down on his head. Strands of gray hair poked out here and there around the edge.
"Cops chased him away three times already," she continued.
"Why not let him stay?" Gabriel asked.
"Mister Henderson doesn't like it… says he's bad for business." Mister Henderson was the owner of the little convenience store. "Not much business today, though," she continued.
Gabriel was still watching the homeless man. "His name's Alan Becker. Used to work in the rubber plants down in Akron, but when they closed back in the seventies, he came up here looking for work. Spent the rest of his life doing odd jobs. When his wife got cancer, he lost everything – money, car, house – paying for her care. Now she's gone and he's homeless."
This wasn't the first time that he'd told her the life story of some random person, and she shook her head. "You make up the most interesting stories about people," she mused, for that was what she thought he was doing. "Tell me mine."
He turned back to her and sighed. He wished she wouldn't ask, but she always did… and his answer was always the same.
"Your story isn't written yet." Which wasn't exactly a lie; things could still change. The Boss sometimes deviated from His Plans for reasons that were known only to Him.
"All right," she agreed, laughing. "Let me know when you finish it."
"Yeah… I'll do that."
The bell above the door jingled as someone else came in. "Boy it's cold out there!" the new arrival said, rubbing his arms and stamping his feet.
"About time you got here, Pete," she said amiably. She made a sweeping gesture, taking in the entire empty store. "Can't you see I'm swamped?"
Pete laughed. "I hope I can handle it all by myself!"
"Yeah, well that's it for me," she said, closing her textbook and stuffing it into her book bag. "I'm outta here."
"Any special plans?" Pete asked as he took off his coat and came behind the counter.
"Back to my apartment for a Swanson's frozen turkey dinner, and then more studying." She suddenly remembered something. "Oh, wait – almost forgot." She quickly rang up the price of Gabriel's newspaper and put his money in the till. "Now you're all set," she told him with a smile.
"Thanks." He folded the paper and stowed it away in an inside pocket of his coat.
"You're going to spend all day Thanksgiving studying?" Pete continued, incredulous.
"Yep," she agreed. She pulled on her heavy winter coat and slung the strap of her book bag over her shoulder.
"All work and no play make Jen a dull girl," Pete said, and glanced at Gabriel for confirmation. "Right?"
Gabriel shrugged. "I don't think she's dull."
"See?" she asked, vindicated. She came out from behind the counter and turned briefly to stick her tongue out at Pete.
"It's just not right," Pete persisted. "No one should be alone on Thanksgiving."
"Don't worry, Pete – I'll live!" Her hand was on the door.
"Be careful out there," Gabriel said suddenly. "There's… you know… all kinds of people hiding in alleys… waiting to grab young girls like you… and stuff."
She rolled her eyes at him. "You sound like my parents!"
"Your parents are right!" he retorted, and she laughed.
"See you guys later!" With that, she was out the door.
"Hey, have a happy Thanksgiving," Pete said as Gabriel followed her out.
"Yeah… uh… you too."
Outside, the angel stood on the sidewalk and watched her until she turned the corner and was out of sight. He would have liked to follow her, but he knew that he wasn't supposed to interfere in The Boss's Plans.
Even if it was Thanksgiving.
He knew what that holiday meant to the people who lived on this particular part of the Earth, and he wondered how thankful her family would be, this year and in years to come.
He tilted his head up to look at the sky.
"I've always obeyed, always done what You wanted." His voice was bitter. "But You can't make me like it."
A moment later, the sidewalk was completely deserted. A flock of iridescent white doves fluttered skyward, dancing between the fat white snowflakes that continued to fall.
There were hands grabbing her tearing her coat her clothes hurting her please don't please stop oh please a knife –
Jen stood in the alley, watching the three men who were crouched over a young woman lying in the bloodstained snow. They were doing terrible things to the poor woman, but for some reason she wasn't very concerned about it. It didn't have anything to do with her, after all.
She gradually became aware of a presence behind her, and she turned and looked into the blinding white light surrounding the Angel of Death.
And understood everything.
"Hey you," she said, and smiled.
Later, Gabriel stood on a large snow-covered porch on another street in another city, this one called Pittsburgh. The streets here were just as deserted as the place he had recently left, but this area – Shadyside, it was called – was quiet and suburban.
He wondered briefly what he was doing here, what had compelled him to come to this place.
No one should be alone on Thanksgiving.
It wasn't his holiday, but he found that he didn't want to be alone nonetheless… nor did he particularly want the company of his own kind at the moment. They had never lived as a human and so they just wouldn't understand.
He put his finger out and pressed the button by the door. He heard the faint chime of the doorbell from within the house, and then approaching footsteps and the sound of the door being unlocked.
The door opened, and Ben Finkelstein stood there, regarding him with a puzzled expression. He obviously didn't recognize Gabriel in the guise of a mortal, without his wings and his elaborate robes.
"Can I help – " Ben began.
A little red-hair girl came running into the foyer, eager to see who had come to visit. When she saw the angel, her eyes widened in surprise.
"Gabriel!" she exclaimed happily, and threw her arms around his waist.
"Hey, Kiddo," he said, patting her head.
Gabriel saw recognition fill Ben's eyes. "Please, come in," he invited, ushering the angel inside, into cozy, reassuring warmth and the tantalizing aromas of cooking food.
"I hope I'm not imposing – " he began.
"Don't be silly – everyone will be glad to see you!" Ben assured him.
"Maureen!" Ben called over his shoulder. "Better set another place at the table!"