16. Angel

Perched in the darkness and waiting, Steve cannot decide whether or not he really has heard the chirps of the crickets in the tall grass growing up around the graves, or the mournful cooing of a dove ever before in his life, or whether these sounds are simply new because they are ringing loudly through the churchyard air, he is sitting (still as one of the corpses below him) against the wings of a prostrate, crumbling angel. The noise feels strange to his straining ears; his world is full of car horns and shattering plates, the sort of chaos that a person is born into and hardly ever notices, if only because it is their own personal chaos, their own, secret hell. He can feel the bony finger's of the midnight breeze catch at the neck of his shirt –- he has dressed to match his surroundings, black as ashen river tar –- and he shifts, hooking an arm around one of the mossy wings and lifting himself up, up, up –-

Then he is riding on the breeze, sitting on the shoulders of the fallen and feeling the night air rush past his face, and for a moment he is the child that he ought to be (would have been, if things had been different), face like a beacon, a lightning-flash of sanctuary in a vile storm. The boy raises his arms to the sky, echoing the statue, but his expression is like a breath of air, enough to turn a butcher from the blade. Here he is pure, innocent, and happy; his purpose in coming here is forgotten for an instant, lost to the ceaseless whispering of the trees and the soul-cleansing calls of the barn owl. Perhaps, he thinks for a moment, this is what sanctuary feels like. He realizes that he has been holding his breath, and exhales with a cry of joy. He does not hear the gasping, grinding moan or feel the reluctant rift arching it's way in gossamer threads through the very heart of the stone. He is oblivious (happy) even as gravity forces the upraised arms (older than stone should ever live to be, and far too cruel for it's years) snap and pull him down.

The worst things in life are so sudden that they are nearly painless.

He can almost feel a wound opening up in his mind as his seat goes out beneath him. For a moment, Steve feels like his soul is heavy as rock, pulling him down, and the boy wonders if this has all been a dream, and if he is really just stone, sinking quickly into darkness, and the unfathomable abyss of the continental shelf. But then his chin jerks towards the moon and his eyes are flickering between the blurring stars, and he tumbles to the earth.

Then his vision swims back into place and he is on the ground, back spine screaming in agony that hardly seems like it should belong in a human body because it is so damn strong that he can't seem to feel anything else. He shifts with tight shut eyes, bites his lip and holds back a scream because god it feels like his skin is ripping and he can't stand it, why didn't he just die, and stills, breathing fast and trying to quiet the mad thumping of his heart.

He remembers on summer when he discovered a tiny nest of rabbits (still downy soft and white as doves) in the shed behind the house. The boy had stroked each tiny creature, watched them huddle close to one another in the little scrape, saw how they loved one another, siblings, blind and deaf but together all the same. There had been beauty in that moment; yes, perhaps envy as well; but there was also something else. It was something entirely new, a feeling that he could not quite place. It made his fingers tingle and his chest feel warm, like it had filled with the dying rays of a summer afternoon. He had lifted one of the delicate creatures up, holding it in the palm of his hand, stroking the fur behind it's ears - and then that feeling (liberating, raw, vibrant and thrilling) had taken a hold of him and he had closed his hand over it's tiny nose, felt it weave and struggle, weak as a kitten, against his hand. There was no effort in holding it, or blocking it's nose and mouth, only instinct, and morbid curiosity. Then, suddenly, he realized that the animal has gone still as a stone. It's sides had stilled, and the heartbeat - he could recall its rhythm, frantic under the pads of his fingers - had gone, drifted away into the ripe red poppies and bleeding hearts that his mother had planted in the garden. He had settled the little corpse back into the nest and pulled out another kit, felt its breath ghost over his fingertips. That night, he dreamed of roses crushed between his palms; tonight, the beat of his heart echoed the frantic, fading beats of their pulsing lungs as they struggled for air, and as they succumbed.

Then, Steve cannot stay on the ground; he bites his lip, feels his teeth meet in the middle, and rolls onto his side. His gasp –- and the wave of crashing, stabbing torment that follows it –- is sharp and jagged. Then he is crouched beside the massacred angel, hands slipping gently over his legs, back, and chest - he is not so ignorant, anymore, as to think that he is infallible –- to check for breaks or blood, feeling the blood well up in his mouth from a fresh-punched hole in his tongue. His fingers come away clean - at least he thinks so, because his eyes are still swimming (from a concussion or from tears he can't quite tell) and the night suddenly seems darker to him, the moon less welcoming, and the calls of the dove patronizing laughter. Suddenly, he longs for a rifle to shoot the mirth from its song.

Steve limps forward, running the edge of his painfully abraded palm along one arm of a stone cross, and gazes at the ruined angel. It seems sadder than before, pitiable, even, now that he has crippled it. Now it is limbless, wingless, and neglected, dissolving into the history of mankind; soon it will be nothing more than a pile of rosy marble dust, and - perhaps - a memory. Maybe, if it is lucky, he will allow it that much. He gambols forward unevenly, reaching out to run his hands over the somber expression. His fingers linger over a cheek, a nose, a lip...

Then a flash of anger strikes him, because the face is proud, unchanged, infallible; all the things he envies, but can never truly be. Steve spits, snarls, and jams his shoulder against the statue's chest, presses with all his might –- and he feels the marble give, watches ankles collapse into dust, and hears the stone seraph plummet from its pedestal. He limps forward and gazes on the ruined face, the unidentifiable plateau of rubble, and feels a fire light somewhere deep within, intimate and close to his heart. It is a familiar burning, something that he has almost missed.

I have fallen, he thinks, chin pressed close to the ridge of his chest, but I will not have fallen alone.