“Eve? Eve! Evelina! Where are you?” Mom waved her hand in front of my face. “You barely touched your supper. Are you feeling all right?” She, Rena and I were at dinner in the motel’s cafeteria, while Dad went outside to smoke.
“Yes, Mom. I’m all right. It’s the hospital. And it’s hard to see Grandpa this way,” I said, sculpting mashed potatoes with a fork in one hand, cradling my head in the other. I’d created quite the mountain trying to devise a plan of action that would get me back inside the very place that I had just blamed for stealing my appetite. I couldn’t stop thinking about the boy.
“I know, honey. It is hard for all of us.”
“What do you think made him cry?” Rena asked with a raised brow. Grandpa got very upset before we were asked to leave. A nurse came in and gave him a strong sedative so that he could calm down.
Mom shrugged, “I really don’t know.”
“I think it’s because of whatever she said to him,” Rena pointed her fork at me.
“I’m surprised you even noticed. I thought you were admiring the cityscape,” I said to her.
“Shut up, Eve. You are the one barely paying attention, not me!” she said as Mom put away her utensils. “Always somewhere else but here. You’d better stop living in dreamland or else your delusions will land you in a room next door.”
“Rena!” Mom shouted.
“Which is where? I don’t get it. Next door where?” I inquired.
“The psych ward.”
“Rena, stop!” Mom hissed.
“I’m just sick of her constant mood swings! And you’re always buying into it! Oh, poor little Eve,” she said, making a face.
“Have some compassion for once!” Mom snapped. “Your sister isn’t well.”
“She’s probably pretending so that you feel sorry for her!”
“I don’t need anyone’s pity, especially yours,” I said, reaching for the shaker and creating a salt storm over my potato mountain.
“Smartass!” she scoffed from across the table.
“Enough,” Mom said, as Dad returned to the table. “This has been a hard day for all of us. The last thing I need is to witness this,” she buried her forehead in her hands.
The motel stood less than a block away from the hospital, a favorable detail in tonight’s quest, I thought, standing outside. Mom got us two rooms rather than one, which was also good, except for the tedious fact that I was to share mine with Rena. Still, sneaking away from one person was easier than trying to evade the watchful eyes of my parents. I wondered how Rena would behave this evening, considering our latest squabble. And then it struck me. Rena liked to stay up, listen to her Walkman, and read magazines. She would raise an alarm loud enough to wake the whole city if she saw me gone. The more I thought of it, the more absurd the whole escapade seemed.
The temperature outside was very low, freezing in fact. As the rain clouds departed, the dry frosty air returned, stilling all life, its coarse fingers pinching my exposed cheeks. I huddled inside and quietly snuck into the room I was to share with my sister. The room had vaulted ceilings and, save the red rug, was entirely covered in orange lacquered wood. Laying with her headphones on and facing the opposite wall, Rena didn’t even budge when I entered. I took it as a good sign and I looked at the clock ticking on the wall. It was five minutes until seven. Hopefully, she’d get tired soon.
I reached for my backpack and retrieved the small book. Stretching on the squeaky bed, I opened it slowly, running my fingertips over its pages. I read until my eyes fell shut and I drifted away. Seven rings of a church bell nearby reached my ears, and the book fell of out my hands. I had one hour to make it inside the hospital.
I became restless, so I put on my coat and stepped out to take another look. On the backdrop of the inky sky above rooftops towered a cathedral, its apex aglow with a cross. I heard his words echo in my mind. You will find a way.
“What are you doing outside, honey? Aren’t you freezing?” Mom appeared from around the corner, grayish-blue smoke leaving her mouth.
“Just getting some air.”
“Let’s go inside,” she said, grabbing my hand and nudging me toward the door.
“Actually, Mom . . . would you mind if I went to that church over there?”
She twisted her head to look where I was pointing. “You? In a church?”
“I feel the need. To pray.”
She looked at me in disbelief.
“Besides, I cannot go back to the room with Rena right now. She is still fuming at me. I need time alone. Please?”
“It is way too dark for a young girl to walk around alone in a city at this hour.”
I was losing hope, my intention fading like a dying bloom.
“But if you really want to go that bad, I can go with you.”
“No, Mom, it’s okay. Don’t worry about it. I don’t have to—”
“But actually, I’d like to. I could use a walk to clear my head. And it won’t hurt to say a prayer for Grandpa either. God knows we can use all the help we can get.”
I watched my plan dissolve like a cloud of steam and sighed in surrender.
Mom had me put on my wool hat as she and I traced the edges of deserted streets, the bright moon hovering over the city skyline behind clouds. We crossed the street and stepped onto a cracked cement sidewalk, its uneven planks jutting in front of my feet, making me stumble. Rows of heavy gray apartments like stone monoliths lined the street with the blue blinking glow of television screens radiating from behind yellowing lace curtains. At our next turn, the winds picked up, blowing my hair into disarray and Mom’s scarf off her head.
“What strange weather we’ve been having,” she called out, as strong gusts of air rolled over our lobes, deafening our ears. We fought our way against the wind, our hair whipping our faces. I pulled my hat tighter over my ears. We continued our silent walk until the winds subsided and a single ring of the cathedral bell reached us, announcing seven-thirty. Feeing disappointed I slowed down my pace.
“Everything all right?” Mom asked, turning toward me lagging a little behind.
“Yes, fine. Just tired.”
“We can walk slower. We are not rushing anywhere.”
“No, in fact, I’d rather get there faster,” I said, looking at her face, which I’d been avoiding since she had said she’d join me on my jaunt. Her blue eyes smiled at me with love, while her gloved hand took hold of mine, pulling me closer. The air brushed my face with nascent droplets of moisture. Up above, yellowish clouds, reflected the sulfuric light of the city, obliterating the moon’s face.
The two blocks turned out to be four, and by the time we reached the cathedral, tiny snowflakes were swirling around us like little ballerinas. Kindling lights inside tempted us with their warmth. We climbed the stone steps that spilled like terraced layers of lead onto the sidewalk. The slight indentation in their middle made me think of the masses of people that had climbed them over the years. Faith indeed can melt stone, I thought, reaching for the brass handle anchored in the massive doors, and pulled hard.
The view dazzled my eyes. Emptiness had a shape here, a definite form. It cascaded upward, like a reverse waterfall, converging at the apex, blanketing the walls with frescos and gold. The air was dense from candles and myrrh, whispered prayers and worship songs still lingering, charging it with intent. A half-dozen old women continued to kneel, bending their kerchief-covered heads over folded hands with tangled rosaries, lips reciting prayers, their murmurs rising on freshly extinguished candelabras smoking at the altars. Mom led us sideways to where a slanting shelf blazed with a hundred flames, a collective plea for miracles. The fiery semblance warmed hearts, cold hands, and cheeks.
“We should light a candle for Grandpa,” I murmured, and she nodded, pointing toward a box of unlit white candles, handing me donation money. I picked up a candle and extended its wick toward another, before anchoring it in place.
“Come,” Mom whispered, extending her hand.
She led us toward the front altar where we kneeled on a step that led to the tabernacle. I closed my eyes, letting the murmur of an adjacent prayer wash over me. Under my lids, the afterglow of candle flame became the outline of the moon, a glowing tapestry of Sariel’s descent. I fantasized about him coming to surround me with his wings.
“Ready?” Mom shook my shoulder.
“Can you wait for me at the door? I want to see something,” I said, and walked back to the field of flaming candles. My window of opportunity to see the boy was quickly narrowing, but I still had hope.
A lone figure stood facing the flames. The man turned toward me slowly. He seemed old and frail, his lips twisted in a mocking grin, gray spiky hair like needles protruding from his cheeks and chin. He wore a weathered hat and a long black coat, not unlike Ben’s, but his showed clear signs of overuse. He narrowed his eyes at me. They were dark but milky, their rims red, lids droopy. I felt a cold breeze skim my face. He held out a candle for me and shook it when I wavered, so I took it from his hands and hurried toward the exit. Mom was waiting for me by the door, her eyes closed, lips moving in supplication. I turned to look at the man again, to evaluate his strangeness from a distance, but he was no longer there. Mom made the motion of the cross with her hands and we exited the cathedral.
“Did you see the old man by the candles?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “No, I only saw you.”
The outside air smelled of pungent coal. Large snowflakes blanketed the urban landscape with a cape of purity that was quickly turning gray. I walked down the steps letting the flakes fall on my face, my warmed fingers rubbing the smooth surface of the candle in my pocket. In the other pocket, I held the poem I wrote in class yesterday. A thick ball of snow hit my chest. I heard Mom giggle so I bent down to scoop a handful of snow and worked it into a hard ball and ran after her.
Breathless and wet, with our hair and coats covered in blotches of snow, we made it back to the motel in good spirits. We stood outside as Mom finished her cigarette, me casting nervous glances at the hospital across the street.
“You know what my father once told me?” she said just as the cathedral bell started to ring, announcing eight o’clock. “He said that prolonged moments of silence mean that an angel is passing by.”
Mom and I hugged goodnight and I went to my sparsely lit room, closing the door with a click. The wall clock showed three minutes past eight. Rena was lying on her side, still facing away from me. Her bedside lamp was out, but in a kind gesture, my sister had left the bathroom light on for me. I took off my coat and reclined on the lumpy bed. Rusty springs creaked under my weight, my eyes drifting aimlessly among the cracked wooden boards of the slanted ceiling. I had no idea what to do next.
I tried to read the book but couldn’t concentrate so I closed my eyes and imagined that all the walls and obstacles that separated the boy at the hospital and me had become transparent. With my mind I made hard matter turn into liquid so that I could swim through the plasma toward the room where he was resting. Outside, falling snowflakes turned into droplets of rain, but soon evaporated, dried by the winds before touching the ground. The darkness of night receded and the stars descended closer, lighting my path, while the gales propelled me forward.
I floated across space until I arrived at his bedside, where he laid peacefully, with a serene smile. I landed on my feet and walked up to him. I could see his glowing heart beating softly underneath the thin fabric of his pajamas.
“You can light it now,” he said, and my eyes traveled to the white candle he was holding in his hand.
“But I forgot to bring matches.”
“It’s quite fine,” he smiled, and asked me to sit across from him while he positioned his body with his back resting against the wall. “Cup your hands around the wick.”
“Like this?” I asked, and he nodded.
“Breathe slowly and focus on the tip. Soon you will feel the heat rise in your body. Then you will need to project it out.”
I did as he said, breathing in and out, but without a clue as to how to perform the projecting. Minutes passed and all I could feel was my heart growing restless.
“I don’t think I can—” I said, but he put his finger on my lips.
“Don’t think. See it light up.”
I tried again, ignoring my agitated mind and deepening my breath.
“That’s it. Stay with it.” He cupped his hands around mine and looked at me with his almond-shaped eyes. “Now all you have to do is imagine the flame.” I felt a tingling rush on my skin, tiny droplets of sweat oozing out of my pores. “See it, Eve. See it now.”
His warm palms closed around mine, and the tip of the wick sparked. A small flame brightened our faces and my lips broke out into a victorious smile.
“See? You can,” he said, withdrawing his hands.
“Mind over matter,” he shrugged. “This is how it works. You can create whatever you want. What do you want, Eve?”
What do you want? His words echoed.
“To know who I am.”
“So you shall,” he said.
We gazed at each other while the candle flame grew to the size of a torch flame. The fire kept rising until it swallowed the space between us. Flames soon consumed his sheets, moving toward the paltry curtains. They licked the wooden floor and walls, heating the metal frame of his bed. Both of us were burning now. I looked at my hands and watched them liquefy. Only his eyes remained still and firm in their message.
Come. There is still time.
I opened my eyes and looked at the ceiling. Everything in the room was still, and there were no signs of flames or smoke. Rena was lightly snoring in her bed. Getting up before dawn caught up with her at last. It was a quarter to nine. I’d fallen asleep for almost an hour. I went to the bathroom to splash cold water on my flushed face. I returned to the bed and turned over the open black book that was laying face down over a pillow. My eyes landed on a passage:
Just as a candle cannot burn without fire,
Men cannot live without Spirit. . . .
“The candle,” I groaned, then quickly covered my mouth and glanced in Rena’s direction. She turned and the book fell out of my trembling hands, right in between the bed and a wall. Rena slapped her lips and folded her fingers under her cheek. I held still, frozen, until I could hear her breath settle. I reached for my coat and searched the pockets until I found it. On my tiptoes, I walked to the night table by Rena’s bed and gently picked up her watch to fasten it around my wrist. I decdided to borrow it since he asked me to bring one, though I wondered if I would even need it since I was running so late. I stood there studying the contours of my sister’s body, rising and falling like the ocean’s tide. She looked much less threatening while asleep, the sleeves of her wool sweater pulled over her palms.
I looked toward the door and then at the bed behind which the black book had fallen. The bed seemed too heavy to move to allow me to retrieve the book. Besides, the noise could wake up my sister. I decided to wait until the morning. I put on my coat and zipped it up to my chin.
Was I courageous enough to follow my hunches? Or was I following some mirage, a trick of my mind? I didn’t like the sour taste of doubt, and I remembered Punk’s advice telling me to go with my parents if I wanted to know more. I didn’t feel that what had happened today came even close to satisfying my hunger. If anything, it had only made it bigger.
My hand ventured to the doorknob. Perhaps what I was about to do would once and for all prove to Rena that her sister was indeed out of her mind. But I decided to act now and