Heroine

I see my guardian angel. She is sitting on the curb sucking bad coffee out of a hole in the lid of a paper cup. I am carrying groceries out to my car and there she is. It had been years, but of course I recognize her instantly. Still, she looks different. She hasn’t aged; I don’t know if angels do in fact age—she’ll probably look 18 forever—but she looks the worse for wear. Her eyes are sunk deep in their sockets, and she has dyed her hair black, in stark contrast to the bright, diffused light that wraps around her. She looks unhealthy; her sickly yellow skin belies her natural radiance and is pulled taut around her bones.

I try to find the words, but instead I stare. It is cold. She pulls her knees close to her body, her hands wrapped around the cup for warmth. I watch her narrow shoulders rise and fall; with every breath she exhales light. I am about to say something, I don’t know what, I can feel it on my lips when she calls me by name and asks me for a ride. I say nothing. I look around the parking lot, in all directions. I look up at the gray sky.

There is no one there.

* * *

Now that I think about it, it’s been almost 20 years since I’d seen my angel. I was just a kid, seven or eight years old. I had leukemia.

After the chemotherapy sessions, I would come home and the radiation sickness would hit me—waves of nausea and blistering fevers would set in. My mother stayed by the bed the entire time, but only rarely was I aware she was in the room. I was asleep, dreaming. Violent dreams, dreams that no one should have.

It was during the worst of these dreams that she would come to me. She never said much, but she didn’t have to. She was there, she was known. Even though it was just a dream, I knew that she was as real as anything else I had experienced. As real as my mother quietly sobbing when I woke up in her arms. As real as my sweat-soaked sheets and vomit-stained clothes.

I lived through it, though. I don’t know if it was my angel’s doing or just luck, but my older brother turned out to be a perfect bone marrow match. There was an operation where the surgeons opened up his arm and took out the healthy white blood cells from his bone marrow and put it into my bones. I got better after that.

The night before the operation, the one that saved my life, I had my last dream with the angel. My brother, he was in the dream, too. He never said anything, but I know he saw her.

I always meant to ask him about it. His funeral was the last time I thought about my angel.

* * *

She tucks her wings tightly against her, in order to get into my car. As we drive off I notice she is shaking—trembling, really—slumped up against the door leaning away from me. I want to say something, but to be honest, I am afraid. It starts to rain, and she reaches out an unsteady hand to trace the path of rivulets of water that run down the window in front of her. The water rolls from drop to drop, seeking out other water, safe harbor to safe harbor, before it runs down to the street below.

She says nothing, so I take her home. It wasn’t always this way, but now I live alone. So I do not hesitate to open the door and let her in. She asks me where the bathroom is. I point to the door and for some reason I follow her; she does nothing to discourage me. Once in the bathroom, she drops to her knees, adopting almost a posture of supplication. I am quiet. For a second I actually think that maybe she is about to pray—something I haven’t actually seen anyone do since I was a child. Maybe she’s here to pray for me.

Instead she produces a syringe. She eases the plunger back, leaning over the toilet, carefully drawing the water in, measuring it. For the first time I am prompted to speak.

“There’s clean water over here in the sink.”

She laughs uncomfortably. “I guess you’re right. This is just habit. It doesn’t really matter because the water gets boiled anyway.”

“Oh.” This is just habit, I understand is what I seem to be saying as I nod my head. But I don’t understand.

 “Can I see that lighter, the one in your pocket?”

“Sure.” I don’t ask how she knows I had a lighter in my pocket.

I reach down and hand her the lighter. She pauses for a moment. I notice her tics have become more pronounced. Sweating, shaking, drawing short deep breaths through her nose.

“You don’t need this lighter, do you?”

“Don’t worry about it—I can get another one.” It’s a three-for-a-dollar, red plastic lighter. Polite of her to ask, I suppose.

She pulls her hand back and smacks the lighter on the edge of the porcelain. The metal casing in front of the flint pops off and she reaches into the lighter, picking something with her fingernails. She then rolls her thumb casually over the flint. I step backward. The flame is now almost six inches high.

“Don’t worry,” she says, amused by my being startled. I think I see the trace of a smile on her face, which makes me look away. When I look back she is fumbling with a tablespoon and something wrapped in tinfoil. When she gets the foil open, it contains something that looks dirty. It crumbles easily and when it does it has the consistency of ashes. I have never actually seen it before, but I know what it is.

“Do you want some?”

No, I don’t. I decline with a wave of my hand. She picks the syringe up off of the floor next to her and squirts some water into the spoon. It gets mixed with the brown ash, stirred in the spoon with the needle. She stands up carefully, holding the spoon level, so as not to spill anything. She moves over to the counter next to me and puts the syringe down. The lighter is now in her right hand, the huge flame dancing and heating the spoon from underneath. The heat makes me lean away. Within a few seconds the mixture is bubbling. She trades the lighter for the syringe and begins stirring the spoon again quickly, before drawing up some of the caramelized mixture through the hollow needle into the syringe. She holds the syringe up to the light and judges the amount carefully, before setting it back down on the counter.

I look over and she has pulled her arms into her shirt. She bites the corner of her lip, while her arms struggle underneath the fabric. In a few seconds she begins to pull her bra out of her sleeve, a feat I have seen countless females perform, but never thought about the mechanics of. I’m wondering if she has to work the straps around her wings and how.

But before I think about it too much, I realize why she’s taking it off. Without pulling the bra all the way off her arm, she twists the strap around her arm, pulls it tight and begins rapidly flexing her arm. She breathes deeper.

When she stops moving, she holds her arm out straight. She is pulling the strap tight around her arm with her teeth, and the tag from the bra hangs near her mouth. I notice: 34C. I immediately feel guilty for having done so.

Then I see her arm. In the dirty mirror in front of her, the hollow of her elbow. A relief map of scar tissue. I don’t know what I was expecting, after all I had seen building up to this. She catches me looking.

“You know, you can do this for years without any visible sign if you always use clean needles,” she says with surprising audibility considering she has a bra in her mouth. “I never have any clean needles.”

The bra falls out of her mouth. Then she laughs, I mean really laughs, before she jabs the needle into what’s left of her arm.

* * *

My brother had a scar, identical to one I have, running the length of his left arm. From the operation. I’ve worn long sleeves almost all of my life. I just don’t want to be asked about it. It’s annoying. When someone notices, you can’t just tell them what it is. You have to tell them the whole story, or else they feel unsatisfied and ask about it later. And you’re supposed to find the whole ordeal worthwhile when you see the look of forced sympathy on their face.

I can never tell them the whole story.

And I feel the same way about my brother. It hasn’t been that long since his death. Occasionally, someone who hasn’t heard will ask about him and then I have to tell them even though I don’t want to talk about it right then. I think that someday I will want to talk about it, though.

* * *

It takes a couple of tries with the needle before she finds a vein. I imagine that it would be hard for her to find anything under those scars. But she does find it, and when she does, blood squirts in a thin stream out from her arm on to the mirror and spotting the white sink below. Blood registers in the syringe, before she plunges the stuff deep into her arm. There is an instant just before she pulls the needle out, where her body seems to collapse into itself. She drops the syringe, flecking more blood on the bathroom floor. Her eyes roll back into her head and she begins swaying—back and forward again on her delicate feet. I reach out to catch her but at the last possible second she regains her balance. The bra drops out of her mouth and hangs limply off her arm… I don’t think to say that she looks visibly relaxed at this point would quite complete the picture. She has stopped shaking, but the sweating, it seems even more intense.

Then surprisingly, she collects herself, if only for a moment. She staggers forward, out of breath and drapes her arms around me. Unable to do anything else, I hold her, as consoling as I can be, but the image of me wrapped around her frail but radiant body keeps me from gripping her too tight. She seems so weak, I am afraid that if I blot out the light coming off of her it may never return. Her head is buried in my shoulder, bobbing up and down. I can’t tell whether she is laughing or crying or both. I ask her if she is all right. I ask her what she is doing here.

I ask her why she does this to herself.

She leans her head back, and looks up at me. She says that “Sometimes, you listen and you listen to people’s problems, the same problems, until you’re listening but all you’re really thinking is how you would like to push them down a flight of stairs.”

I pull back as much as I can and still hold her up. She takes a deep breath, expanding her wings before she pulls them back in again. She moves in closer, and with a free hand begins running her fingers through my hair.

“But you…” she hesitates, “you were different. You were a child.”

I have nothing to say to this. Her eyes roll back into her head again, and I pick her up and carry her out of the bathroom.

* * *

In the absence of light, she fills the living room with her presence. I lay her down gently on the couch. There is a blanket folded over the back of the cushions, and I drape it over her, being sure to tuck it around her arms and feet. She doesn’t seem to be present, but her eyes are still open wide, glassy. I don’t want to leave her like this, so I turn on the television. She rolls over on her side to watch, her dim halo flickering in and out with the images on the screen, like some private dialogue between them. I brush the hair out of her eyes and examine her one last time before I go to bed.

But I don’t sleep. I lay there, sweating, the sheets pulled halfway down. For a while I don’t think anything. Or at least I try. I wonder if I should ask her about my brother. I think about why I’m still alive and he is not. I think about my leukemia, and try, unsuccessfully, to remember what it was like. Then I wonder why she’s here, if there is a reason, and what it has to do with me. I think about what is wrong with her.

I get up a couple of times to use the bathroom and check on her. Maybe pull her blanket up a little bit higher. But when I return to bed, things go right back to the way they were when I left.

Then at some point in the night, I don’t know when, she crawls into bed with me. She wraps her arms around me and almost immediately I fall into a deep, dreamless sleep. Or maybe I just died for a while. But in the morning, she’s gone.

With no one else to talk to and for lack of anything better to do, I get up and clean the bathroom. I wipe away the blood, and carefully, I throw away the syringe.

-Mark Hemingway is a writer in Washington DC.

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