The CEO Who Could Fly, But Didn’t Want To
Quotidianly, Phazrael Chang walked into Hazel’s Side Bar Restaurant, pushing aside a solid thirties-era door. The walls were freighted with tintypes of a poised, time-frozen middle class, all picnics and spinets and pinafores, harking to an era when the men—then the public face of pale humanity—all wore solid mustaches and seemed to share the same round hat. (Nostalgia. Noun. From the Greek nostos, to return home, and its partner algos: pain.) The Side Bar had been designed with Art Deco interior, and its every featureless curve and confident molding seemed to describe, as with a blind seer’s fingers, a futurist trajectory toward a kind of burnished, hill-borne Jerusalem. The Side Bar was new, as such things were reckoned in Prairie Lick, and Phazrael loved it as much as he loved anything having to do with food or optimism, which was distantly, with an anthropologist’s wistful passion.
Phazrael breathed, troubled. There was something new here today. Something in the air, reckless and worrisome—a tension he hadn’t felt in eight slow years. He took in the restaurant at a glance: thirty-two diners, most of whom he knew, and who knew him. Nothing from them but familiar noises: Three people coughed at once, on a backdrop of murmurs. Someone lit a cigar at the bar, eight cubits away. “I bet she’s here to see him,” said one particularly distinct voice (male, nervous: Nathan Martin, 54, a clerk at the E-Z-Go Mart on Collinswood. Divorced, with one grown child. From the timbre of his voice Phazrael could see that Mr. Martin would die in a hotel fire in seven years).
The odd feeling wasn’t from the reporter, either; he could read her clean through. She waited in the high-backed satin couch, which lay in an open area across the room, diagonally from the entrance. She had long brown hair, a light green business suit, cream blouse beneath. Phazrael squinted: thirty-four, unmarried, childless. He could have seen her death if he’d wanted to, but it was a long way off and he wasn’t interested enough. They wouldn’t be talking about her anyway, and he tried to avoid directly facing human needs. Complicated hair, a pointy face, pale eyes. Phazrael couldn’t tell if she was attractive or not. He had no sex organs and didn’t know how libido colored such estimations.
She hadn’t seen him yet. (The joy of obliviousness! Hail ignorance!) Phazrael stood for a second, relishing this moment of not-knowing, of hopeful guesswork before crushing certainty. He wanted her to be surprising, but humans rarely were. For all the free will they’d been given, they rarely seemed to exercise it—staying in the same jobs, living among the same people, finding one conventional slot and staying put. The sense he’d gotten of the reporter over the phone had given him little hope.
So where was this new odd air coming from? It was like a puzzle with a time limit: the philosophical equivalent of a lit fuse. Phazrael wrinkled his nose and decided to wait for whatever it was to make itself known. No reason to hurry.
The reporter flipped through a notebook, bent in curiosity. She had laid out her brown raincoat and two folders on the couch. A handheld tape recorder (as if you could capture a voice) lay on the coffee table, beside a cell phone that was face up, probably to show her the time.
Phazrael had wanted to be punctual, but as he’d walked out of the office a peanut shell, of all things, had appeared from stage right, blowing down the sidewalk in the afternoon breeze like a little boat. There was a big storm passing to the south; all the omens pointed. He’d watched the shell for almost half a block as it slid, skipped, yawed, an inch or so at a time, until it finally capsized off the curb near the Greeley Street bus stop. Even then Phazrael couldn’t look away, frozen in abulic conflict over whether to right the nutshell and send it skiffing further, watch it lie there helpless and full of potential, or simply decide enough was enough and walk away. By the time Phazrael had chosen the third option and looked up, the sky was watercolor gray, the sun preempted, the air transubstantiated to mist. Late! And he walked at top speed all the way to Hazel’s, eight blocks, pulling his overcoat tight around him, pumping his arms comically, ignoring the familiar itchy discomfort of the huge wings sprouting from his back which fought to free themselves from under his coat with every footfall.
Now Phazrael paused, dripping a trifle on the cool black tile. He wanted to go straight to the reporter, understood the urgent need for apology, but a table blocked the most direct route. An old man sat there, bald and sour-faced, and having nineteen months to live (coronary thrombosis, in his car, a roomy Dodge something). He was eating a soup redolent with barley, tomato, basil, and sodden crackers. But the man (Morton Blandish, his name came now) was paused, his half-filled spoon poised over the center of the bowl, his left hand—the one holding the spoon—held precariously close to a salt shaker placed near the table’s edge. His head tilted toward his right hand, which housed a twice-folded newspaper—weddings and obituaries. Under his right hand were piled the other sections—sports, money, world—which jutted many inches and curved down from the table as if preparing to leap to the floor.
Which way to go? To the right, letting a finger trace the table’s oaken curvature, gently brushing the bumps of the salt shaker with the back of the left hand? Maybe even spilling the saltshaker, seeing it smash to the floor, anomalous and fascinating? Or left, letting one wrist bump against the day’s news, feeling the papers bounce against his sleeve, with the give and take of the trees they’d been a few months prior? With choices like these, how could anyone decide what to do? How could people bear to sweep past it all so quickly?
He chose left. Though he loved statistical improbabilities—such as a saltshaker brained on the floor and leaking crystals—they were better, ipso facto, unplanned. Too, there was something even more compelling about the transience of the day’s events, already forgotten beneath Morton’s hand. The trees-turned-pages called out for a compassionate touch, and it wouldn’t cost Phazrael a thing.
“Hey, Phaz!” said Rachel, the greeter, a woman of twenty-six who, though sporting her tasteful caterer’s uniform, had long red hair tumbling toward her waist, dark mascara and a pierced nose; the signs of amiable small-town rebellion. Irony hung even in the way she was folding silverware into napkins—in the open, instead of furtively behind her lectern. As with many open-faced types, Phazrael could see her future already, as easily as glancing down a wide hallway: that she would meet someone passing through (tall, Irish), would fall, marry, and settle down, though she’d never live further away than New Orleans. Late in her life she would cruise to Europe with her husband and two daughters, and would pass the cliffs of Dover on a perfectly sunny day. She would swear never to forget the sight, and five months later, at the age of 56, she would succumb to leukemia. Phazrael could see all of this, but he couldn’t understand the final scene. Why was she smiling? And why would she remember those distant cliffs ahead of everything else? How had her heart settled here?
“Got another interview?” said Rachel. “It’s getting so I can spot reporters.”
A server walked behind them, carrying a cold and odd-tasting breeze. That was it! Phazrael would have caught his breath if he’d been mimicking human behavior. “Who’s that?” asked Phazrael. His own voice, he noticed, had grown excited. Interesting.
Rachel looked back. “That’s Stephan, the new guy. I’d wave him over but he’s pretty focused. I’m sure you’ve seen him around. He just came back into town. He’s been at Auburn.”
Here he was; the new trouble-charged element. Phazrael looked at the young man’s retreating head: sandy hair, 22, a brief glimpse of a clenched-looking face, two bright freckles on his left temple and . . . nothing else. Phazrael actually couldn’t predict anything about him. It was tantalizing, like snatching at air. He would die, of course, and death was even close to him, but like a polite neighbor, with an almost gingerly grip. If most people’s lives were brightly lit hallways, Stephan’s seemed to take a sharp cloudy turn early on—a turn Phazrael had never seen, and so couldn’t see again. To his own surprise, Phazrael’s heart quickened at the presence of Stephan, the anomaly. Was this fear? Curiosity? Love? They all felt the same in this body. How did anyone ever distinguish? It was a distracting question.
He wanted to rush over to Stephan. He wanted to touch this unusual person and get his whole unpredictable story, to feel the sensation of such a person’s voice; a fresh steed for his ear’s anvil and stirrup. But no—rushing was the problem with angels, with humans, with everything. Best to take things as they came. That was his ironclad, life-saving rule: no pushing.
“Will she want something to eat?” asked Rachel, gesturing with a bundle of silverware.
Phazrael looked. The reporter’s left knee was pistoning absently. “No. A drink.”
“Okay. Knock ‘em dead, tiger,” Rachel said, and almost punched him playfully on the arm. Her fist stopped a breath away from contact and then, after poising for an uncertain moment, she went back to folding silver into napkins. Phazrael heard it as he walked away: jing-cling; clank. He had moved to talk to Rachel and now his way was clear: no table blocked him, and anyway Morton was collecting his things. Phazrael walked straight to the couch, his hands curled longingly around phantom spoons.
“Hello!” said the reporter. “Thanks for coming in this weather.”
Phazrael never understood what weather had to do with anything. “You’re welcome,” he said. And with a bit of trepidation, he removed his overcoat.
The wings sprang out, the way they always did when they’d been confined, and as the reporter’s mouth opened weakly he could read in her eyes the story’s lede:
Prairie Lick, LA—In dim enough light, Phazrael Chang looks like an average businessman with a tailored navy suit, an understated tie, and carefully managed hair. But in brighter conditions it’s hard to know which you notice about him first: his bright blue skin, suitable for a Hindu god, or his large feathered wings, which stretch twelve feet tip to tip and…
The restaurant silenced itself duly, then resumed its chatter with a new undertone of muffled speculations. He folded his wings behind him, and she composed herself and smiled, sweeping her raincoat towards her and patting the couch: thap-thap. “Well, let’s get this interview started, okay?” She clicked on the tape recorder. He sat, and the couch, which was antique and stiff, made faint crinkling sounds. “You’re Phazrael Chang. Did I get that right? So, first thing, where did you get that last name? I mean, you’re not Chinese or anything!” she laughed.
You’re wrong, he thought. I am anything. “I was born without a last name, so I chose it for business purposes. It was supposed to be inconspicuous.”
He sighed. “It’s the most common name in the world.”
“I would have thought an angel would have better wisdom than that,” she said, then tilted her head defensively. “You are an angel, right? A fallen one?”
How he hated this question! If he said “yes,” she would assume he occupied the popular definition of the word; that he had left heaven (and what was that, anyway? Heaven and hell? As if the gradations had ever been that precise!), and that there was some tragic or romantic tale behind his current estrangement. That he’d fallen in love with some woman, or envied human beings and their capacity to feel things. Ridiculous. He didn’t even love humans that much—it’s hard to love anything that so consistently disappoints you. And love? That was what he’d been trying to escape. An angel is an agent of love, trapped by it the way a corpuscle is trapped by an artery. Angels were born in cosmic fire and set obsessively loose, never to stay still or be reignited. It was a kamikaze mission from the start. Though they did not die, angels could burn out, becoming robotic and devoid of will, doing nothing but going instantly wherever they were needed, loving unconditionally and on cue. Surely there was more to existence than that. And anyone who suggested he was being selfish and therefore evil didn’t understand that the world had more than two categories—which meant, alas, he was the least popular with the people who most wanted to believe in him.
“Yes,” he said, hardly listening to himself. “I’m an angel, but not a fallen one.”
The ceiling drummed with insistent rain. They both looked up briefly. No leaks; the roof would hold.
“So what brings you here?”
Sometimes even trite questions are good ones. What Phazrael loved these days was watching anything that didn’t ask for his help: grass peeking through a sidewalk; a spontaneous trash fire; the chance collision of an old hamburger wrapper with a barbed-wire fence; the determined limping of very old dogs. There was so much to see and notice in Prairie Lick that he’d given very little thought to going any place more exciting. Although the people had been something of a letdown, the world itself and all its ephemeral zigzags had so absorbed him that in eight years he had barely explored, to his satisfaction, the six blocks between his home and his work.
“I like working with people,” he said. “They’re so unpredictable.” How ironic it would be, he thought, if lightning cracked right now.
Stephan walked by carrying a tray of fajitas, and Phazrael almost jerked his head to look closer. Calm down, he told himself. You’ve got plenty of time to meet him later. Nothing you’re feeling is worth rushing for. Don’t be suicidal. Don’t be a blind angel.
She smiled politely and continued, looking vaguely at her notes. “You’re the CEO of Prairie Lick Extruded Plastics, right? PLEPCo? Been there for eight years. And since then you’ve greatly expanded the business, which was originally industrial parts—flywheels, bottles—and you’ve moved it also into an intense focus on . . .I can’t believe this . . .on those little things at the end of shoelaces. What do you. . .”
“Aglets, they’re called.” Didn’t reporters ever look things up?
“. . .and the company continues to grow. You’ve got the shoelace-and-aglet market all sewn up in the southern US and you’ve begun to expand abroad, and even with less concentration on the corporate contacts you used to have, the board is happy with the dividends. Have I got all this correct?”
“So I have to ask. Why shoelaces? Is it an obsession or something?”
He wanted to tell her the truth: it wasn’t the shoes. It was the aglets. Those invisible little haloes of plastic, quietly and selflessly buffering workaday laces from the early ruin of fraying. But again it was almost the shoes, too, in a way he’d never quite been able to express. From the moment humans had stepped out of the trees and started peering around, Phazrael had thought there was something pathetic and helpless about them. Those weak eyes! Those frail spines! Their bodies so soft and hairless, their infants so killable, their birth process so deadly! But especially he’d been shocked by the humble slowness of their feet: how were they ever going to outrun anything hungry and determined? And yet how else could they expect to get around? Worst of all, what could such ungainly creatures ever hope to pursue? It seemed to him from the beginning that the tragic essence of humanity was their hunger for motion, coupled with the fact that they were poorly equipped to accomplish it. So: enter Phazrael, soi-disant Angel of the Human Foot and Other Hobblings of Potential. It wasn’t exactly the shoes; it was feet and aglets. And it wasn’t an obsession. It wasn’t even a job title. It was an habitual vocation, which to an angel is as strong as a promise. That was really why he was here: force of habit. Maybe tomorrow people would be different, and could see things his way. Failing that, maybe next year. If he didn’t extend himself too much, he could afford to wait.
But he couldn’t tell her this. In her eyes he could see that she wouldn’t understand, or that even if she could understand she didn’t have the time. Deadlines, a flight back. She was a creature of motion. The wings question was inevitable.
“Why does everyone ask me that?” Phazrael said, reverting to a script his vice-president, Kecia Collins, had suggested a few years back. “Surely you, as a woman, know that there’s nothing odd about obsessing over shoes.” He tried to time it right—it was a joke, not a greeting, and went by different rules—and though he remembered to smile at the end, he thought he’d left too much of a lag.
But it worked. The reporter laughed and said, “Good point!” and made notes. This was something else Phazrael didn’t understand. Some women liked shoes, some women didn’t. Some men had shoe fetishes, others did not. The reporter herself didn’t care for shoes and should have known that what he’d said was inaccurate. If she’d asked, Phazrael could have listed fifty cultures, past, present and future, where such an assertion wouldn’t even make sense. But humans never had time for such discussions. They had to use shortcuts to get any kind of thinking done efficiently, before they all died and the next set of humans took their place.
“So here’s the popular question,” she said. “You’re obviously . . . different. The skin, those wings. Everyone’s curious.”
“I just want to be judged by my management skill,” he said, on script.
“But don’t you ever want to just . . . you know?” She made a two-fisted busting-out motion.
“Did you. . .ah, see my interview on Oprah? It was several years ago, but. . .”
The reporter smiled. “That was going to be my next question. What happened there?”
The board had outvoted him: go on the show. It would be good for business, promote the company. And maybe, Kecia had pointed out, it would kill people’s interest in his novelty and help them to just see Phazrael as a guy who sold extruded plastics, and who just happened to have wings he never used. They’d get fewer random calls. Kecia could focus on her main work more. Phazrael’s own mistake may have been that as his date approached he became aware that he would be addressing millions of people who were receptive to what he had to say. How many chances do you get to sound a nation-sized clarion?
“Do you ever fly?” Oprah had asked, leaning forward, concerned but polite, exuding sensitivity. She knew the answer but posed for everyone’s benefit.
“No,” he’d replied.
The audience gasped and muttered. News to them! “Why not?” He could see Oprah’s skill then: she actually asked what people were thinking, was the natural voice of a million conventional wisdoms. Talk to her and you’d be talking to everyone.
“I can’t tell you,” he said.
“Sure you can,” she said, and smiled with pure beneficence. “We’re dying to know.”
He opened his mouth to reply, but at this time he was still freshly exiled, and that stray thought—talk to her, you’re talking to everyone—reminded him of God; something about the room—the unduly bright lights, the intensity of the cameras, every eye on him, every inch of floor electrified—reminded him of the Gold Chamber of the Holy Presence. The host’s face so assured, so strong and trusting. He thought, for one dangerous second, that he could truly unburden himself. He was frightened by his own desire to be unburdened. How terrifying, to need so much of everyone!
Even as he opened his mouth, though, he realized he was about to speak in the angelic tongue. It was instinct. The only way he could think to answer Oprah’s question, and the question after that, and the next one and all the questions forever, was to use the most powerful language. But he caught himself in time, for an angel’s heart is like a tiny sun, and the speech of angels exposes the heart. The verb “to be” causes sonic booms; the merest whisper of “I love” has bred wildfires. If he started a sentence with his fiercest “I want,” he could picture the black void opening up, the building imploding, blood and bones; more suffering on top of the world’s overbrimmed portion. So Phazrael bit his tongue and stayed silent, fighting his urge to speak his deadly longings. Oprah kept asking him questions, but he didn’t really hear them; he was focused innerly. Eventually they cut to a commercial and thanked him goodbye, Oprah’s face clearly registering frustration. Kecia later reported that while sales hadn’t gone up, non-business calls had plummeted. “That’s how you kill hype,” she told him. “Just get out there and suck on national TV. It pays to keep your mouth shut.”
The fresh cold, the odd taste: Stephan walked by again and Phazrael, ignoring his own advice, really looked this time. The boy was built round and folded, with a kind of permanent hunch. But unlike the reporter, he held himself casually and had a soft face. There was a confidence that suggested that whatever gave him a reason to live, it wasn’t going anywhere. Perhaps something burned inside him as well. Something so tireless it could afford languor.
“I’d rather die young than alone,” said the reporter, finishing some other thought.
“What?” asked Phazrael.
“That’s what Oprah said after you left.” She peered at him. “I thought you knew.”
“No,” he said. “I never watched it and I didn’t ask.”
“I could have guessed,” said the reporter. “You didn’t look happy.”
What he wanted to ask was, Would Oprah have said the same thing if she was pretty sure she could live until doomsday? He wanted to go back in time and ask everyone in the audience, Do you believe in predestination or free will? What if I told you that free will is just the dark side of fate? And what happens when a piece of grit slips through God’s fingers and has nowhere meaningful to go?
“I didn’t invent entropy,” he said, and ended the interview.
Phazrael was relieved when the reporter left. But he found it impossible to think in Hazel’s, with Stephan moving around nearby. So he walked back to the office through the rough rain, trying to enjoy the way it played across his body like a massage. But his mind was troubled. Why am I so distracted by Stephan? he thought. Am I in love? Am I lonely? How can this be?
An hour later, Phazrael found himself still standing in the PLEPCo parking lot outside his office building. The rain had stopped some time ago and he hadn’t even noticed.
Phazrael woke the next morning, not in his apartment, but on top of the Cutler Hotel. He found himself curled fetally around the broken heating vent with his back to the brick shack housing the elevator mechanism. His wings splayed carelessly. He’d been dreaming about the old days working in the Great Gold Chamber, where purpose electrified everyone and God’s presence was deafening. Then Phazrael woke, undeafened, cold, and ten stories above Greeley Street’s 8 a.m. traffic. He was horrified. How had this happened? Stephan, perhaps?
He was able to compose himself enough by nine o’clock to attend a meeting, but even after he called his secretary, George, and asked him to find all the information he could on some young Auburn graduate named Stephan who’d just moved here, Phazrael was still distracted. The meeting was a standard monthly report. Jason Staggers, Head of Southeastern Operations, was presenting a growth chart.
“As we can see here,” he said, pointing with a little yellow dot of light emanating from his keychain, “all of our areas of production experienced growth last quarter, and the aglet market is in double digits. Except here . . .” he added, pointing to a line at the bottom, “where the Sparkle Aglet’s demand has fallen sharply from its already low initial position.” Jason formed these words with some relish, and when a gust of air-conditioner air rattled the slats and caused a little sunlight to break into the room briefly, the determined way Jason glimpsed the outside made Phazrael sure that if he’d been able to, Jason would have flung all of PLEPCo’s Sparkle Aglets out that very window.
Fallen sharply. How depressing and inevitable. Phazrael had known the Sparkle Aglet wouldn’t take off. He’d known it even as he’d argued for its design: a simple aglet, spangled with glitter, to make dull business shoelaces glint in the usual fluorescent lights. Everyone had fought him, and acceded only when it became clear he wouldn’t back down. Now there was proof: no one older than twelve wanted sparkly aglets. Phazrael was disappointed anyway. He’d had dreams of corporate hallways filled with reflected lights, small shiny objects that winked and called attention. He’d had some hope that, with this invention, people who tied their shoes would take a moment and notice what they were doing, how gravely pleasant it was. But he realized now that even if the sparkle aglets had succeeded, their mission would have been vain. There was nothing, however compelling, that humans couldn’t learn to ignore. His own life was proof of that.
Ultimately he and the board agreed to cancel the Sparkle Aglet (“and put a stake in its heart” was how Jason put it), but the word “fallen” nagged at him and he asked his secretary to hold his calls, then he stood in his office, looking out the window, thinking again about the roof of the Carlton, trying not to notice the twitch of his wings.
He preferred to think of himself as “drawn” rather than “fallen,” to put the blame on gravity and the lure of inertia, where it belonged. Perhaps this is why he had never fallen very well. In his first few years of expatriation, even after swearing never to live like an angel again, never to help anyone selflessly or give in to the temptations of martyrdom; even after he thought he’d discovered something like mortal balance, he’d still found himself flying in his sleep. He woke up in haylofts, on the tops of buildings, on fire escapes, in the crotches of trees—never the same place twice, never on a predictable schedule, but about once a month and always above ground. He heard honking one morning and opened his eyes to find himself hanging upside-down, swaying over a major intersection with his ankles hooked between the pole and the lights.
That lapse had been too public and worrisome. After that he began tying himself to the bedposts and strapping his wings tight against his body, though they always managed to wiggle free by morning. The binding was enough to keep them occupied, however, and in the six years since, the worst waking he’d experience had been when the bed had flipped in the night and he opened his eyes in deep shadow, staring at dust bunnies a bedpost’s distance from his nose. But that had been four years ago, and eventually he didn’t have to tie his wings or even do anything at all. He hadn’t flown at night since. Until today.
But the other troubling part had been the dream. He’d been reliving the terror of the Gold Chamber where he’d tendered his resignation. As a fairly omniscient CEO, he tried to keep his expectations loose because he understood how his employees felt sometimes when they needed to leave. When you are resigning from a job you were expected to love, and your boss, whose system is hidebound, knows about it ahead of time and also knows exactly why you’re leaving and what you’re going to say, the resignation process is an exercise in the pain of stating the obvious. In the case of Heaven—that most inflexible of organizations—it also involved profound shame. I wanted something different. I could see the future and the job I was built for was killing me. He could hear his own sentences echoing back the way they’d sounded when he’d entered the presence of the Almighty in the Bold Chamber; shrill and muffled, like cries for mercy, a victim yelling above the beating. Phazrael had crawled in backwards, one hand over his eyes, his wings shading him against the heat and intensity of the Holy Presence; the customary and only safe procedure. It was something that throbbed through you, the way a bystander feels the bass drum in a parade: a raw martial and elemental power that not only disapproved of expatriation, but couldn’t even understand it. The excuses had tumbled out of him at random, impossible to synthesize, and in the end all he could really say was I’m sorry, but I failed; I failed everyone. Even then, he didn’t say fall.
In his Mercy, the Almighty was waiting for him to come back, would reaccept him in a second. But in his Holiness, the first move would have to be Phazrael’s. So far Phazrael had resisted all temptations to rapprochement. Today he wondered why. After eight years of exile, he hadn’t collected much except a series of memories, like the one about the peanut shell. It would be nice, he realized, to share some of these memories with someone else. God had shut his door, and he could no longer even see other angels. He understood their need for distance; rushing to help him would be a waste of mercy. So was that his hope—that some human somewhere might be able to survive his most honest expression of need? Did he actually think Stephan, just by being mysterious, might be that impossible a person?
He stood there until closing time, when Phazrael’s secretary knocked, waited, and slipped a note under the door: SORRY BOSS! NOTHING MUCH ON STEPHAN WAKELY. GREW UP HERE, LIVES WITH HIS PARENTS ON MAYFLY LN. DAD’S AN AUTO DETAILER, MOM’S A SCIENCE TEACHER AT PLHS. STEPHAN WORKS WEEKDAY LUNCH & MORNINGS SAT/SUN, AND RACHEL SAYS HI. HAVE A NICE WEEKEND! –G. Phazrael stayed in his office and read the note over and over, the way he had long ago when he’d been remembering the names of his colleagues, sounding them aloud as if the words themselves were magic: Anixiel, Charbiel, Colaptiron, Kemuel, Saranana.
After another night of dreams, a night where he’d actually tied himself into bed and still couldn’t sit still, Phazrael decided he couldn’t wait anymore. He drove—actually drove—the company car home and then out the next morning, to get breakfast at Hazel’s and see Stephan. He wasn’t sure what he’d do next. He drove because he felt too edgy to walk and maybe, he thought, if he drove slowly it would be almost as harmless. He kept the chest belt unlatched, though. It forced his wings into painful positions. He was anxious to see Stephan working, of course, but on the drive there he took time to enjoy the slant of morning sun across the dust on his windshield, which at certain angles stellated the motes and turned the whole windshield opaque, a galaxy up close. He had to shield the glare with his hands to squint at the road. But he made it to Hazel’s and parked right next to Rachel’s car—which, he noted, was still emitting warmth. They’d just opened.
Rachel was bustling past her lectern when Phazrael came in. She looked up, startled: the angel for breakfast?
“Where is Stephan?” he asked, and Rachel looked confused. It felt odd for him to voice a sentence that implied a need. It was the opposite of his usual conversations. If a lie was a socially necessary falsehood, “Where is Stephan?” displayed a socially unnecessary truth. Just saying it made Phazrael feel redundant.
“I don’t know,” said Rachel. She checked the lectern, which held and open menu and a watch. “He’s fifteen minutes late, but you know, he just started, so he’ll probably come in soon.” She looked out the window to the street. “He’d better.”
Phazrael felt it before he thought it, felt it like a cold earthquake inside him: He’s already leaving! It’s happening too soon! Whatever instinct taught him to read people sensed it now: death’s arrow singing somewhere to the north. (Mayfly Lane was north.) He rushed out the door to his car and pulled away. He didn’t say goodbye. He failed to observe two pigeons in the parking lot across the street, fighting over a donut. He didn’t smell the burning odor that meant Rachel’s car would soon need a new transmission. He didn’t have time.
He drove to Stephan’s house, wings straining and thumping against the doors. He felt all the angelic temptations rising under his scapula: speed, altruism, power. He fought most of it down, but the urges that leaked through were still intoxicating, like a whiskey kindling his head. He almost ran off the road twice and when he arrived he stumbled out of the vehicle like a drugged acrobat who is graceful only by accident. He’d never been to Stephan’s house, but if he’d been in any less dizzy of a state he would have felt awful about how he was spurning the magnolia tree, the leaf-strewn walkway, an unpainted porcelain rabbit, hunched and blind; all the front yard’s plaintive transiencies. Phazrael unstoppered his eyes and all the buildings turned wavy and translucent, and off in the back he saw Stephan in his bedroom, dying.
Stephan was almost naked, clutching his swollen sexual organ, and had a belt around his neck that was attached to a strong hook on the wall. Stephan had bucked an inch too far in the throes of pleasure, had slipped from the bed, and the noose had tightened too much. He’d thought at the time, I’ll fix that in a moment; first let me finish. Because the thrill of asphyxiation, the sexual surge of walking the line between danger and joy, was the greatest drug Stephan had ever found. He’d done this many times this year and what surprised him was that this time was the best: a happy, as it were, accident. It wasn’t until he was closing in on his pleasure—enjoying the anoxic crush on his throat while he squeezed himself ever tighter—that he realized shadows tinged the edges of his vision, his world was obscured by stars; too late! And what was that blue-skinned angel-looking man from the restaurant doing here, bending over him with a face so sad? But no, it no longer resembled that guy. . .
Phazrael was so fascinated by Stephan’s small but reliable self-contained circuit of pleasure that he didn’t even notice he had “turned invisible” or had “walked through walls,” as some might have put it. He almost freed Stephan with a single nail-cracking word. But as he leaned toward Stephan, Phazrael saw his reflection in Stephan’s eyes and jumped back. His own face had been so caring, it was a shock. He had simply taken on the burden of being an angel again, and the unthinking selflessness of it made him gasp. He almost cried: years of abstinence, and look how he rushed to the drug that could kill him! Yet it had been so sweet . . .
Instead, Phazrael stood over Stephan, hands cradling his face with helpless longing, reading Stephan’s body and trying to memorize it. For uncertain moments, Phazrael found himself frozen in awe. What it must be like, he thought, to have all your blood rushing to get to one place! For your whole body to tingle and explode; to really feel passion, and not merely trace it through memory. It must be something to have a joy you could depend on. (Depend. From the Latin to hang. Something like a rope, to catch you if you fell.) I understand your loneliness, Phazrael told him silently. I know what it is to live a life buffeted by wild joys you can never express, keeping silent because no one will understand. You’re not alone. I envy the intensity of your wanting. What should he do? If he saved Stephan, he would be violating the way he’d determined to live. No pushing. No need. But if he let Stephan die, mightn’t he lose something hard to recapture? A potential friend? A customer for his favorite laces?
In Stephan’s upturned face—turning blue now, like Phazrael’s own—Phazrael read that while Stephan found himself dying, he was picturing Phazrael as Rachel, and then imagined Rachel sprouting wings, a well of understanding and thrilling warmth. This too was amazing: how much joy Stephan could derive from a mere cliche! Even Stephan had ways of avoiding thought. How dispiriting, such weakness, and how compelling.
It was the cliche that got to Phazrael. A long-untouched chord of mercy sounded throughout his body, and he broke the nail with a thought, wincing even as he did so, unwilling to see the effect of his own obscene generosity. He felt heat rush from inside him and he gasped as it left. An angel can’t win. Eight years of fighting it, and he was still trapped by the architecture of compassion.
He opened his eyes, and saw that Stephan wasn’t moving. He lay on his floor, propped up awkwardly against his bed, his head almost touching the bedroom wall. Stephan’s lips were parted, revealing a blue tongue. His hands and face were also blue, his wide eyes purpled with burst blood vessels, his penis dark and red and decreasing in size. His neck was swollen and almost flowing over the cord that bound it. His underwear was soiled where his bowels had emptied upon death. Phazrael had waited too long and it was beyond his power to do anything more. Why had he rushed over here? What pain goaded him so? Why couldn’t he have continued to take life as it came?
Phazrael straightened himself and left, confused as if after a long sleep. He admitted it: he felt alone. A bird flew by and he recalled that sometimes death attracted angels, who clustered around the scene, bent in fascination. Maybe some of them were here now, unseen. As he walked away across the Wakely’s yard, leaving the car behind, he looked to the sky and silently called their names—Anthriel!, Baragyal!, Hananazel!, Zagzagel!—unaware that he was walking an inch above the ground.
David Dickerson is a regular contributor to This American Life, and his work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Gettysburg Review, Camera Obscura, and Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.