Jul 2 2013 10:00am
Take a look at the short story “The Monsters of Heaven” by Nathan Ballingrud, from his upcoming collection North American Lake Monsters (we have a review for it here!) out on July 16 from Small Beer Press:
These are love stories. And also monster stories. Sometimes these are monsters in their traditional guises, sometimes they wear the faces of parents, lovers, or ourselves. The often working-class people in these stories are driven to extremes by love. Sometimes, they are ruined; sometimes redeemed. All are faced with the loneliest corners of themselves and strive to find an escape.
The Monsters of Heaven
For a long time, Brian imagined reunions with his son. In the early days, these fantasies were defined by spectacular violence. He would find the man who stole him and open his head with a claw hammer. The more blood he spilled, the further removed he became from his own guilt. The location would often change: a roach-haunted tenement building; an abandoned warehouse along the Tchoupitoulas wharf; a pre-fab bungalow with an American flag out front and a two-door hatchback parked in the driveway.
Sometimes the man lived alone, sometimes he had his own family. On these latter occasions Brian would cast himself as a moral executioner, spraying the walls with the kidnapper’s blood but sparing his wife and child—freeing them, he imagined, from his tyranny. No matter the scenario, Toby was always there, always intact; Brian would feel his face pressed into his shoulders as he carried him away, feel the heat of his tears bleed into his shirt. You’re safe now, he would say. Daddy’s got you. Daddy’s here.
After some months passed, he deferred the heroics to the police. This marked his first concession to reality. He spent his time beached in the living room, drinking more, working less, until the owner of the auto shop told him to take time off, a lot of time off, as much as he needed. Brian barely noticed. He waited for the red and blue disco lights of a police cruiser to illuminate the darkness outside, to give some shape and measure to the night. He waited for the phone to ring with a glad summons to the station. He played out scenarios, tried on different outcomes, guessed at his own reactions. He gained weight and lost time.
Sometimes he would get out of bed in the middle of the night, careful not to wake his wife, and get into the car. He would drive at dangerous speeds through the city, staring into the empty sockets of unlighted windows. He would get out of the car and stand in front of some of these houses, looking and listening for signs. Often, the police were called. When the officers realized who he was, they were usually as courteous as they were adamant. He’d wonder if it had been the kidnapper who called the police. He would imagine returning to those houses with a gun.
This was in the early days of what became known as the Lamentation. At this stage, most people did not know anything unusual was happening. What they heard, if they heard anything, was larded with rumor and embellishment. Fogs of gossip in the barrooms and churches.This was before the bloodshed. Before their pleas to Christ clotted in their throats.
Amy never told Brian that she blamed him. She elected, rather, to avoid the topic of the actual abduction, and any question of her husband’s negligence. Once the police abandoned them as suspects, the matter of their own involvement ceased to be a subject of discussion. Brian was unconsciously grateful, because it allowed him to focus instead on the maintenance of grief. Silence spread between them like a glacier. In a few months, entire days passed with nothing said between them.
It was on such a night that Amy rolled up against him and kissed the back of his neck. It froze Brian, filling him with a blast of terror and bewilderment; he felt the guilt move inside of him, huge but seemingly distant, like a whale passing beneath a boat. Her lips felt hot against his skin, sending warm waves rolling from his neck and shoulders all the way down to his legs, as though she had injected something lovely into him. She grew more ardent, nipping him with her teeth, breaking through his reservations. He turned and kissed her. He experienced a leaping arc of energy, a terrifying, violent impulse; he threw his weight onto her and crushed his mouth into hers, scraping his teeth against hers. But there immediately followed a cascade of unwelcome thought: Toby whimpering somewhere in the dark, waiting for his father to save him; Amy, dressed in her bedclothes in the middle of the day, staring like a corpse into the sunlight coming through the windows; the playground, and the receding line of kindergarteners. When she reached under the sheets she found him limp and unready. He opened his mouth to apologize but she shoved her tongue into it, her hand working at him with a rough urgency, as though more depended on this than he knew. Later he would learn that it did. Her teeth sliced his lip and blood eeled into his mouth. She was pulling at him too hard, and it was starting to hurt. He wrenched himself away.
“Jesus,” he said, wiping his lip. The blood felt like an oil slick in the back of his throat.
She turned her back to him and put her face into the pillow. For a moment he thought she was crying. But only for a moment.
“Honey,” he said. “Hey.” He put his fingers on her shoulder; she rolled it away from him.
“Go to sleep,” she said.
He stared at the landscape of her naked back, pale in the streetlight leaking through the blinds, feeling furious and ruined.
The next morning, when he came into the kitchen, Amy was already up. Coffee was made, filling the room with a fine toasted smell, and she was leaning against the counter with a cup in her hand, wearing her pink terrycloth robe. Her dark hair was still wet from the shower. She smiled and said, “Good morning.”
“Hey,” he said, feeling for a sense of her mood.
Dodger, Toby’s dog, cast him a devastated glance from his customary place beneath the kitchen table. Amy had wanted to get rid of him—she couldn’t bear the sight of him anymore, she’d said—but Brian wouldn’t allow it. When Toby comes back, he reasoned, he’ll wonder why we did it. What awful thing guided us. So Dodger remained, and his slumping, sorrowful presence tore into them both like a hungry animal.
“Hey boy,” Brian said, and rubbed his neck with his toe.
“I’m going out today,” Amy said.
“Okay. Where to?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. The hardware store. Maybe a nursery. I want to find myself a project.”
Brian looked at her. The sunlight made a corona around her body. This new resolve, coupled with her overture of the night before, struck him as a positive sign. “Okay,” he said.
He seated himself at the table. The newspaper had been placed there for him, still bound by a rubberband. He snapped it off and unfurled the front page. Already he felt the gravitational pull of the Jack Daniels in the cabinet, but when Amy leaned over his shoulder and placed a coffee cup in front of him, he managed to resist the whiskey’s call with an ease that surprised and gratified him. He ran his hand up her forearm, pushing back the soft pink sleeve, and he kissed the inside of her wrist. He felt a wild and incomprehensible hope. He breathed in the clean, scented smell of her. She stayed there for a moment, and then gently pulled away.
They remained that way in silence for some time—maybe fifteen minutes or more—until Brian found something in the paper he wanted to share with her. Something being described as “angelic”— “apparently not quite a human man,” as the writer put it—had been found down by the Gulf Coast, in Morgan City; it had been shedding a faint light from under two feet of water; whatever it was had died shortly after being taken into custody, under confusing circumstances. He turned in his chair to speak, a word already gathering on his tongue, and he caught her staring at him. She had a cadaverous, empty look, as though she had seen the worst thing in the world and died in the act. It occurred to him that she had been looking at him that way for whole minutes. He turned back to the table, his insides sliding, and stared at the suddenly indecipherable glyphs of the newspaper. After a moment he felt her hand on the back of his neck, rubbing him gently. She left the kitchen without a word.
This is how it happened:
They were taking Dodger for a walk. Toby liked to hold the leash—he was four years old, and gravely occupied with establishing his independence—and more often than not Brian would sort of half-trot behind them, one hand held partially outstretched should Dodger suddenly decide to break into a run, dragging his boy behind him like a string of tin cans. He probably bit off more profanities during those walks than he ever did changing a tire. He carried, as was their custom on Mondays, a blanket and a picnic lunch. He would lie back in the sun while Toby and the dog played, and enjoy not being hunched over an engine block. At some point they would have lunch. Brian believed these afternoons of easy camaraderie would be remembered by them both for years to come. They’d done it a hundred times.
A hundred times.
On that day a kindergarten class arrived shortly after they did. Toby ran up to his father and wrapped his arms around his neck, frightened by the sudden bright surge of humanity; the kids were a loud, brawling tumult, crashing over the swings and monkey bars in a gabbling surf. Brian pried Toby’s arms free and pointed at them.
“Look, screwball, they’re just kids. See? They’re just like you. Go on and play. Have some fun.”
Dodger galloped out to greet them and was received as a hero, with joyful cries and grasping fingers. Toby observed this gambit for his dog’s affections and at last decided to intervene. He ran toward them, shouting, “That’s my dog! That’s my dog!” Brian watched him go, made eye contact with the teacher and nodded hello. She smiled at him—he remembered thinking she was kind of cute, wondering how old she was—and she returned her attention to her kids, gamboling like lunatics all over the park. Brian reclined on the blanket and watched the clouds skim the atmosphere, listened to the sound of children. It was a hot, windless day.
He didn’t realize he had dozed until the kindergarteners had been rounded up and were halfway down the block, taking their noise with them. The silence stirred him.
He sat up abruptly and looked around. The playground was empty. “Toby? Hey, Toby?”
Dodger stood out in the middle of the road, his leash spooled at his feet. He watched Brian eagerly, offered a tentative wag.
“Where’s Toby?” he asked the dog, and climbed to his feet. He felt a sudden sickening lurch in his gut. He turned in a quick circle, a half-smile on his face, utterly sure that this was an impossible situation, that children didn’t disappear in broad daylight while their parents were right fucking there. So he was still here. Of course he was still here. Dodger trotted up to him and sat down at his feet, waiting for him to produce the boy, as though he were a hidden tennis ball.
The park was empty. He jogged after the receding line of kids. “Hey. Hey! Is my son with you? Where’s my son?”
One morning, about a week after the experience in the kitchen, Brian was awakened by the phone. Every time this happened he felt a thrill of hope, though by now it had become muted, even dreadful in its predictability. He hauled himself up from the couch, nearly overturning a bottle of Jack Daniels stationed on the floor. He crossed the living room and picked up the phone.
“Yes?” he said.
“Let me talk to Amy.” It was not a voice he recognized. A male voice, with a thick rural accent. It was the kind of voice that inspired immediate prejudice: the voice of an idiot; of a man without any right to make demands of him.
“Who is this?”
“Just let me talk to Amy.”
“How about you go fuck yourself.”
There was a pause as the man on the phone seemed to assess the obstacle. Then he said, with a trace of amusement in his voice, “Are you Brian?”
“Look, dude. Go get your wife. Put her on the phone. Do it now, and I won’t have to come down there and break your fucking face.”
Brian slammed down the receiver. Feeling suddenly light-headed, he put his hand on the wall to steady himself, to reassure himself that it was still solid, and that he was still real. From somewhere outside, through an open window, came the distant sound of children shouting.
It was obvious that Amy was sleeping with another man. When confronted with the call, she did not admit to anything, but made no special effort to explain it away, either. His name was Tommy, she said. She’d met him once when she was out. He sounded rough, but he wasn’t a bad guy. She chose not to elaborate, and Brian, to his amazement, found a kind of forlorn comfort in his wife’s affair. He’d lost his son; why not lose it all?
On television the news was filling with the creatures, more of which were being discovered all the time. The press had taken to calling them angels. Some were being found alive, though all of them appeared to have suffered from some violent experience. At least one family had become notorious by refusing to let anyone see the angel they’d found, or even let it out of their home. They boarded their windows and warned away visitors with a shotgun.
Brian was stationed on the couch, staring at the television with the sound turned down to barely a murmur. He listened to the familiar muted clatter from the medicine cabinet as Amy applied her makeup in the bathroom. A news program was on, and a handheld camera followed a street reporter into someone’s house. The JD bottle was empty at his feet, and the knowledge that he had no more in the house smoldered in him.
Amy emerged from the kitchen with her purse slung over her arm and made her way to the door. “I’m going out,” she said.
She paused, one hand on the doorknob. She wavered there, in her careful makeup and her push-up bra. He tried to remember the last time he’d seen her look like this and failed dismally. Something inside her seemed to collapse—a force of will, perhaps, or a habit of deception. Maybe she was just too tired to invent another lie.
“I’m going to see Tommy,” she said.
“Sure. The redneck, if that’s how you want it.”
“Does it matter how I want it?”
She paused. “No,” she said. “I guess not.”
“Well well. The truth. Look out.”
She left the door, walked into the living room. Brian felt a sudden trepidation; this is not what he imagined would happen. He wanted to get a few weak barbs in before she walked out, that was all. He did not actually want to talk.
She sat on the rocking chair across from the couch. Beside her, on the television, the camera focused on an obese man wearing overalls smiling triumphantly and holding aloft an angel’s severed head.
Amy shut it off. “Do you want to know about him?” she said.
“Let’s see. He’s stupid and violent. He called my home and threatened me. He’s sleeping with my wife. What else is there to know?”
She appraised him for a moment, weighing consequences. “There’s a little more to know,” she said. “For example, he’s very kind to me. He thinks I’m beautiful.” He must have made some sort of sound then, because she said, “I know it must be very hard for you to believe, but some men still find me attractive. And that’s important to me, Brian. Can you understand that?”
He turned away from her, shielding his eyes with a hand, although without the TV on there was very little light in the room. Each breath was laced with pain.
“When I go to see him, he talks to me. Actually talks. I know he might not be very smart, according to your standards, but you’d be surprised how much he and I have to talk about. You’d be surprised how much more there is to life—to my life—than your car magazines, and your TV, and your bottles of booze.”
“Stop it,” he said.
“He’s also a very considerate lover. He paces himself. For my sake. For me. Did you ever do that, Brian? In all the times we made love?”
He felt tears crawling down his face. Christ. When did that start?
“I can forget things when I sleep with him. I can forget about . . . I can forget about everything. He lets me do that.”
“You cold bitch,” he rasped.
“You passive little shit,” she bit back, with a venom that surprised him. “You let it happen, do you know that? You let it all happen. Every awful thing.”
She stood abruptly and walked out the door, slamming it behind her. The force of it rattled the windows. After a while—he had no idea how long—he picked up the remote and turned the TV back on. A girl pointed to moving clouds on a map.
Eventually Dodger came by and curled up at his feet. Brian slid off the couch and lay down beside him, hugging him close. Dodger smelled the way dogs do, musky and of the earth, and he sighed with the abiding patience of his kind.
Violence filled his dreams. In them he rent bodies, spilled blood, painted the walls using severed limbs as gruesome brushes. In them he went back to the park and ate the children while the teacher looked on. Once he awoke after these dreams with blood filling his mouth; he realized he had chewed his tongue during the night. It was raw and painful for days afterward. A rage was building inside him and he could not find an outlet for it. One night Amy told him she thought she was falling in love with Tommy. He only nodded stupidly and watched her walk out the door again. That same night he kicked Dodger out of the house. He just opened the door to the night and told him to go. When he wouldn’t—trying instead to slink around his legs and go back inside—he planted his foot on the dog’s chest and physically pushed him back outside, sliding him backwards on his butt. “Go find him!” he yelled. “Go find him! Go and find him!” He shut the door and listened to Dodger whimper and scratch at it for nearly an hour. At some point he gave up and Brian fell asleep. When he awoke it was raining. He opened the door and called for him. The rain swallowed his voice.
“Oh no,” he said quietly, his voice a whimper. “Come back! I’m sorry! Please, I’m so sorry!”
When Dodger did eventually return, wet and miserable, Brian hugged him tight, buried his face in his fur, and wept for joy.
Brian liked to do his drinking alone. When he drank in public, especially at his old bar, people tried to talk to him. They saw his presence as an invitation to share sympathy, or a request for a friendly ear. It got to be too much. But tonight he made his way back there, endured the stares and the weird silence, took the beers sent his way, although he wanted none of it. What he wanted tonight was Fire Engine, and she didn’t disappoint.
Everybody knew Fire Engine, of course; if she thought you didn’t know her, she’d introduce herself to you mighty quick. One hand on your shoulder, the other on your thigh. Where her hands went after that depended on a quick negotiation. She was a redhead with an easy personality, and was popular with the regular clientele, including the ones that would never buy her services. She claimed to be twenty-eight but looked closer to forty. At some unfortunate juncture in her life she had contrived to lose most of her front teeth, either to decay or to someone’s balled fist; either way common wisdom held she gave the best blowjob in downtown New Orleans.
Brian used to be amused by that kind of talk. Although he’d never had an interest in her he’d certainly enjoyed listening to her sales pitch; she’d become a sort of bar pet, and the unself-conscious way she went about her life was both endearing and appalling. Her lack of teeth was too perfect, and too ridiculous. Now, however, the information had acquired a new kind of value to him. He pressed his gaze onto her until she finally felt it and looked back. She smiled coquettishly, with gruesome effect. He told the bartender to send her a drink.
“You sure? She ain’t gonna leave you alone all night.”
“Fuck yeah, I’m sure.”
All night didn’t concern him. What concerned him were the next ten minutes, which was what he figured ten dollars would buy him. After the necessary negotiations and bullshit they left the bar together, trailing catcalls; she took his hand and led him around back, into the alley.
The smell of rotting garbage came at him like an attack, like a pillowcase thrown over his head. She steered him into the alley’s dark mouth, with its grime-smeared pavement and furtive skittering sounds, and its dumpster so stuffed with straining garbage bags that it looked like some fearsome monster choking on its dinner. “Now you know I’m a lady,” she said, “but sometimes you just got to make do with what’s available.”
That she could laugh at herself this way touched Brian, and he felt a wash of sympathy for her. He considered what it would be like to run away with her, to rescue her from the wet pull of her life; to save her from people like himself.
She unzipped his pants and pulled his dick out. “There we go, honey, that’s what I’m talking about. Ain’t you something.”
After a couple of minutes she released him and stood up. He tucked himself back in and zipped his pants, afraid to make eye contact with her.
“Maybe you just had too much to drink,” she said.
“It ain’t nothing.”
“I know it isn’t,” he said harshly.
When she made no move to leave, he said, “Will you just get the fuck away from me? Please?”
Her voice lost its sympathy. “Honey, I still got to get paid.”
He opened his wallet and fished out a ten dollar bill. She plucked it from his fingers and walked out of the alley, back toward the bar. “Don’t get all bent out of shape about it,” she called. “Shit happens, you know?”
He slid down the wall until his ass hit the ground. He brought his hand to his mouth and choked out a sob, his eyes squeezed shut. He banged his head once against the brick wall behind him and then thought better of it. Down here the stench was a steaming blanket, almost soothing in its awfulness. He felt like he deserved to be there, that it was right that he should sleep in shit and grime. He listened to the gentle ticking of the roaches in the dark. He wondered if Toby was in a place like this.
Something glinted further down the alley. He strained to see it. It was too bright to be merely a reflection.
“Son of a,” he said, and pushed himself to his feet.
It lay mostly hidden; it had pulled some stray garbage bags atop itself in an effort to remain concealed, but its dim luminescence worked against it. Brian loped over to it, wrenched the bags away; its clawed hands clutched at them and tore them open, spilling a clatter of beer and liquor bottles all over the ground. They caromed with hollow music through the alley, coming at last to silent rest, until all Brian could hear was the thin, high-pitched noise the creature made through the tiny O-shaped orifice he supposed passed for a mouth. Its eyes were black little stones. The creature—angel, he thought, they’re calling these things angels—was tall and thin, abundantly male, and it shed a thin light that illuminated exactly nothing around it. If you put some clothes on it, Brian thought, hide its face, give it some gloves, it might pass for a human.
Exposed, it held up a long-fingered hand, as if to ward him off. It had clearly been hurt: its legs looked badly broken, and it breathed in short, shallow gasps. A dark bruise spread like a mold over the right side of its chest.
“Look at you, huh? You’re all messed up.” He felt a strange glee as he said this; he could not justify the feeling and quickly buried it. “Yeah, somebody worked you over pretty good.”
It managed to roll onto its belly, and it scrabbled along the pavement in a pathetic attempt at escape. It loosed that thin, reedy cry. Calling for help? Begging for its life?
The sight of it trying to flee from him catalyzed some deep predatory impulse, and he pressed his foot onto the angel’s ankle, holding it easily in place. “No you don’t.” He hooked the thing beneath its shoulders and lifted it from the ground; it was astonishingly light. It mewled weakly at him. “Shut up, I’m trying to help you.” He adjusted it in his arms so that he held it like a lover, or a fainted woman. He carried it back to his car, listening for the sound of the barroom door opening behind him, of laughter or a challenge chasing him down the sidewalk. But the door stayed shut. He walked in silence.
Amy was awake when he got home, silhouetted in the doorway. Brian pulled the angel from the passenger seat, cradled it against his chest. He watched her face alter subtly, watched as some dark hope crawled across it like an insect, and he squashed it before it could do any real harm.
“It’s not him,” he said. “It’s something else.”
She stood away from the door and let him come in.
Dodger, who had been dozing in the hallway, lurched to his feet with a sliding and skittering of claws and growled fiercely at it, his lips curled away from his teeth.
“Get away, you,” Brian said. He eased past him, bearing his load down the hall.
He laid it in Toby’s bed. Together he and Amy stood over it, watching as it stared back at them with dark flat eyes, its body twisting away from them as if it could fold itself into another place altogether. Its fingers plucked at the train-spangled bedsheets, wrapping them around its nakedness. Amy leaned over and helped to tuck she sheets around it.
“He’s hurt,” she said.
“I know. I guess a lot of them are found that way.”
“Should we call somebody?”
“You want camera crews in here? Fuck no.”
“Well. He’s really hurt. We need to do something.”
“Yeah. I don’t know. We can at least clean him up I guess.”
Amy sat on the mattress beside it; it stared at her with its expressionless face. Brian couldn’t tell if there were thoughts passing behind those eyes, or just a series of brute reflex arcs. After a moment it reached out with one long dark fingernail and brushed her arm. She jumped as though shocked.
“Jesus! Be careful,” said Brian.
“What if it’s him?”
“What?” It took him a moment to understand her. “Oh my God. Amy. It’s not him, okay? It’s not him.”
“But what if it is?”
“It’s not. We’ve seen them on the news, okay? It’s a, it’s a thing.”
“You shouldn’t call it an ‘it.’”
“How do I know what the fuck to call it?”
She touched her fingers to its cheek. It pressed its face into them, making some small sound.
“Why did you leave me?” she said. “You were everything I had.”
Brian swooned beneath a tide of vertigo. Something was moving inside him, something too large to stay where it was. “It’s an angel,” he said. “Nothing more. Just an angel. It’s probably going to die on us, since that’s what they seem to do.” He put his hand against the wall until the dizziness passed. It was replaced by a low, percolating anger. “Instead of thinking of it as Toby, why don’t you ask it where Toby is? Why don’t you make it explain to us why it happened?”
She looked at him. “It happened because you let it,” she said.
Dodger asked to be let outside. Brian opened the door for him to let him run around the front yard. There was a leash law here, but Dodger was well known by the neighbors and generally tolerated. He walked out of the house with considerably less than his usual enthusiasm. He lifted his leg desultorily against a shrub, then walked down to the road and followed the sidewalk further into the neighborhood. He did not come back.
Over the next few days it put its hooks into them, and drew them in tight. They found it difficult to leave it alone. Its flesh seemed to pump out some kind of soporific, like an invisible spoor, and it was better than the booze—better than anything they’d previously known. Its pull seemed to grow stronger as the days passed. For Amy, especially. She stopped going out, and for all practical purposes moved into Toby’s room with it. When Brian joined her in there, she seemed to barely tolerate his presence. If he sat beside it she watched him with naked trepidation, as though she feared he might damage it somehow.
It was not, he realized, an unfounded fear. Something inside him became turbulent in its presence, something he couldn’t identify but which sparked flashes of violent thought, of the kind he had not had since just after Toby vanished. This feeling came in sharp relief to the easy lethargy the angel normally inspired, and he was reminded of a time when he was younger, sniffing heroin laced with cocaine. So he did not object to Amy’s efforts at excluding him.
Finally, though, her vigilance slipped. He went into the bathroom and found her sleeping on the toilet, her robe hiked up around her waist, her head resting against the sink. He left her there and crept into the angel’s room.
It was awake, and its eyes tracked him as he crossed the room and sat beside it on the bed. Its breath wheezed lightly as it drew air through its puckered mouth. Its body was still bruised and bent, though it did seem to be improving.
Brian touched its chest where the bruise seemed to be diminishing. Why does it bruise? he wondered. Why does it bleed the same way I do? Shouldn’t it be made of something better? Also, it didn’t have wings. Not even vestigial ones. Why were they called angels? Because of how they made people feel? It looked more like an alien than a divine being. It has a cock, for Christ’s sake. What’s that all about? Do angels fuck?
He leaned over it, so his face was inches away, almost touching its nose. He stared into its black, irisless eyes, searching for some sign of intelligence, some evidence of intent or emotion. From this distance he could smell its breath; he drew it into his own lungs, and it warmed him like a shot of whiskey. The angel lifted its head and pressed its face into his. Brian jerked back and felt something brush his elbow. He looked behind him and discovered the angel had an erection.
He lurched out of bed, tripping over himself as he rushed to the door, dashed through it and slammed it shut. His blood sang. It rose in him like the sea and filled him with tumultuous music. He dropped to his knees and vomited all over the carpet.
Later, he stepped into its doorway, watching Amy trace her hands down its face. Through the window he could see that night was gathering in little pockets outside, lifting itself toward the sky. At the sight of the angel his heart jumped in his chest as though it had come unmoored. “Amy, I have to talk to you,” he said. He had some difficulty making his voice sound calm.
She didn’t look at him. “I know it’s not really him,” she said. “Not really.”
“But don’t you think he is, kind of? In a way?”
She laid her head on the pillow beside it, staring into its face. Brian was left looking at the back of her head, the unwashed hair, tangled and brittle. He remembered cupping the back of her head in his hand, its weight and its warmth. He remembered her body.
“Amy. Where does he live?”
“Tommy. Where does he live?”
She turned and looked at him, a little crease of worry on her brow. “Why do you want to know?”
“Just tell me. Please.”
He slammed his fist into the wall, startling himself. He screamed at her. “Tell me where he lives! God damn it!”
Tommy opened the door of his shotgun house, clad only in boxer shorts, and Brian greeted him with a blow to the face. Tommy staggered back into his house, due more to surprise than the force of the punch; his foot slipped on a throw rug and he crashed to the floor. The small house reverberated with the impact. Brian had a moment to take in Tommy’s hard physique and imagine his wife’s hands moving over it. He stepped forward and kicked him in the groin.
Tommy grunted and seemed to absorb it. He rolled over and pushed himself quickly to his feet. Tommy’s fist swung at him and he had time to experience a quick flaring terror before his head exploded with pain. He found himself on his knees, staring at the dust collecting in the crevices of the hardwood floor. Somewhere in the background a television chattered urgently.
A kick to the ribs sent Brian down again. Tommy straddled him, grabbed a fistful of hair, and slammed Brian’s face into the floor several times. Brian felt something in his face break and blood poured onto the floor. He wanted to cry, but it was impossible; he couldn’t get enough air. I’m going to die, he thought. He felt himself hauled up and thrown against a wall. Darkness crowded his vision. The world started to slide away.
Someone was yelling at him. There was a face in front of him, skin peeled back from its teeth in a smile or a grimace of rage. It looked like something from hell.
He awoke to the feel of cold grass, cold night air. The right side of his face burned like a signal flare; his left eye refused to open. It hurt to breathe. He pushed himself to his elbows and spit blood from his mouth; it immediately filled again. Something wrong in there. He rolled onto his back and laid there for a while, waiting for the pain to subside to a tolerable level. The night was high and dark. At one point he felt sure that he was rising from the ground, that something up there was pulling him into its empty hollows.
Somehow he managed the drive home. He remembered nothing of it except occasional stabs of pain as opposing headlights washed across his windshield; he would later consider his safe arrival a kind of miracle. He pulled into the driveway and honked the horn a few times until Amy came out and found him there. She looked at him with horror, and with something else.
“Oh, baby. What did you do. What did you do.”
She steered him toward the angel’s room. He stopped himself in the doorway, his heart pounding again, and he tried to catch his breath. It occurred to him, on a dim level, that his nose was broken. She tugged at his hand, but he resisted. Her face was limned by moonlight, streaming through the window like some mystical tide, and by the faint luminescence of the angel tucked into their son’s bed. She’d grown heavy over the years, and the past year had taken a harsh toll: the flesh on her face sagged, and was scored by grief. And yet he was stunned by her beauty.
Had she always looked like this?
“Come on,” she said. “Please.”
The left side of his face pulsed with hard beats of pain; it sang like a war drum. His working eye settled on the thing in the bed: its flat black eyes, its wickedly curved talons. Amy sat beside it and put her hand on its chest. It arched its back, seeming to coil beneath her.
“Come lay down,” she said. “He’s here for us. He’s come home for us.”
Brian took a step into Toby’s room, and then another. He knew she was wrong; that the angel was not home, that it had wandered here from somewhere far away.
Is heaven a dark place?
The angel extended a hand, its talons flexing. The sheets over its belly stirred as Brian drew closer. Amy took her husband’s hands, easing him onto the bed. He gripped her shoulders, squeezing them too tightly. “I’m sorry,” he said suddenly, surprising himself. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Once he began he couldn’t stop. He said it over and over again, so many times it just became a sound, a sobbing plaint, and Amy pressed her hand against his mouth, entwined her fingers into his hair, saying, “Shhhh, shhhhh,” and finally she silenced him with a kiss. As they embraced each other the angel played its hands over their faces and their shoulders, its strange reedy breath and its narcotic musk drawing them down to it. They caressed each other, and they caressed the angel, and when they touched their lips to its skin the taste of it shot spikes of joy through their bodies. Brian felt her teeth on his neck and he bit into the angel, the sudden dark spurt of blood filling his mouth, the soft pale flesh tearing easily, sliding down his throat. He kissed his wife furiously and when she tasted the blood she nearly tore his tongue out; he pushed her face toward the angel’s body, and watched the blood blossom from beneath her. The angel’s eyes were frozen, staring at the ceiling; it extended a shaking hand toward a wall decorated with a Spider-Man poster, its fingers twisted and bent.
They ate until they were full.
That night, heavy with the sludge of bliss, Brian and Amy made love again for the first time in nearly a year. It was wordless and slow, a synchronicity of pressures and tender familiarities. They were like rare creatures of a dying species, amazed by the sight of each other.
Brian drifts in and out of sleep. He has what will be the last dream about his son. It is morning in this dream, by the side of a small country road. It must have rained during the night, because the world shines with a wet glow. Droplets of water cling, dazzling, to the muzzle of a dog as it rests beside the road, unmenaced by traffic, languorous and dull-witted in the rising heat. It might even be Dodger. His snout is heavy with blood. Some distance away from him Toby rests on the street, a small pile of bones and torn flesh, glittering with dew, catching and throwing sunlight like a scattered pile of rubies and diamonds.
By the time he wakes, he has already forgotten it.
“The Monsters of Heaven” copyright © 2007 by Nathan Ballingrud. Originally published in Inferno, 2007.