The hours before dawn are the quietest. Streetlamps outside flashed on and off like giant strobe lights before giving out and revealing sights above previously unseen. Looking toward the dark expanse of the winter sky, patched with yellowish snow clouds, I watched banks of clouds glisten with silver and beyond them, faint stars like pinholes float across the void. I listened to the whisperings of the air, my breath appearing and disappearing over the pane. With my fingertip, I wrote Daniel’s name on the glass and then watched it fade into transparent nothing.
“There’s no one there, only the night,” I said, looking up again.
“Strange things are in the air, I can feel it. My whole body is on alert.”
“Do you think it’s because of the angel?”
“Do you think he will return?” I turned to Daniel and began walking toward his bed.
“That will depend on you.”
“Ever since the dreams started, I feel more alive; life has more depth, more meaning. I don’t know if I want it to go back to what it used to be, I—”
“Remember that he’s a fallen angel, Eve. Fallen. Not a guardian.”
“Fallen doesn’t have to mean evil or dangerous.”
“They lusted after human women and revealed their secrets to them,” he said. “The comingling was forbidden. This is why they’d been cast into the pit of Tartarus.”
“Maybe they were called fallen, because they fell in love?”
“No one can stop you from doing what you want, Eve. But it is obvious that the one you call Sariel wants something from you. And he has great forces behind him. All I can do is warn you,” he said, and lowered his body onto the pillow. His skin looked almost see-through.
“I’m probably getting you more exhausted with my questions,” I asked, sitting next to him. “I’m like that doctor.”
Daniel smiled. His lips were chapped and his lids as heavy as his breath. I brought the glass of water to his lips and he drank until it was half empty. I only managed to take one tiny sip, still not used to its repulsive taste. The candle had almost burned down to its base, its quivering flame feeding off the molten pool of wax. I set the glass down and laid my head by Daniel’s side, listening to his breath, my ears soon picking up the distant cries of a child. I thought I was imagining it until I heard a fist pounding on a wall, followed by rushed footsteps on the floor, probably belonging to a nurse.
“She cries every night calling for her mother. She’s been left here to die.”
“Makes me think of a boy I met in the hospital years ago. He ate too many green apples and got sick so his parents took him there. But they never came back for him. The boy would come to my room and hold my hand when Mom used to read me stories,” I said, and sank back into silence.
Daniel stirred and began speaking, his voice almost a whisper. “Before the nurse and her alcoholic husband adopted me, I met a little girl in a hospital. Her mother used to come to read to her. The boy held her little hand and imagined how it would feel to have a sister and a mother.”
“She wanted to adopt him. But Dad wouldn’t let her,” I said, tears wetting my face and his pajamas.
“It’s like she knew. . . . A mother can sense when her child is near.”
“She still thinks of you, Daniel,” I said through a curtain of tears. We were both shivering. “Why is it that the moment things come together, everything has to end?”
“I don’t know,” he whispered.
No longer indecisive, I leaned forward and enclosed his thin body in a cocoon of my embrace. Daniel’s thin arms wrapped around me.
“It is time you let me go, Evelina. Let everything find its place. Return home, be with your family, and know I will be close when you think of me.”
“How can you say such a thing?”
“I can feel the sleep approaching. I don’t want to fight anymore. You brought me so much happiness. You don’t even know—”
“Please, stay, Daniel. Don’t go yet,” I was sobbing.
“I will never leave you. As long as you remember me, I will be close. I promise,” he said, making me completely fall apart. “You are the best sister I could ever ask for.”
“Daniel, are you really leaving me?”
“I can never leave. Remember? Nothing ever dies. It’s just a long sleep,” he said, and the light in the room dimmed until fizzing lightly in its final effervescent exhale, the candle gave up its flame. A moment later I smelled the acrid trail of drifting smoke.
I lifted my head and looked at his face, now illuminated by the faint light of the approaching dawn. A purple vein on his right temple pulsated softly under his translucent skin. I glanced toward the window and saw an inkling of blue in the sky—a placid lake with floating clouds of pink cotton.
“I love you, Daniel,” I whispered.
It seemed that he was trying to say something but was struggling, his body quickly fading.
“Daniel?” I lifted my head to look at him once more, trying to read his lips.
He opened his eyes and looked at me one last time. “Nothing ever dies.”
My head was pounding from crying so much; I felt exhausted and even speaking was a struggle now, like climbing a steep wall. So I curled into him, inhaling his faint scent, offering my warmth in return.
“Sariel,” I whispered before sleep took me away. “Help Daniel. And I shall be yours forever.”
Daylight stung my eyelids like the burn of a direct flashlight. I sensed a commotion in the air. I tried to move but couldn’t, feeling pressed down as if by the weight of heavy sandbags. Resigned, I exhaled, sinking back into the veiny obscurity inside my lids. But not for long. I heard a loud noise, a door slamming, and my eyes blinked open. I saw a fogged window with milky stains on its surface. Low hanging clouds, dispersing bright autumn light. My skull hurt and my head was spinning. I inhaled and curled my fingers over the coarse texture of linen sheets, and pressed myself up. I was alone in a hospital room. Parts of the walls were scraped down to the cement and stained with rust. The room looked much worse in daylight. A crooked clothing hanger stood by the door, still holding my jacket.
“Daniel?” I called into the empty room, but of course got no reply. At least not the one I was hoping for. The doors opened and in stormed a plump middle-aged nurse wearing a white uniform and garish makeup.
“Finally, she wakes up. Grab your jacket and come this way,” she motioned with her plump arm, “Time for you to go. Here,” she reached out her hand. “Let’s go. Now.”
“Where is Daniel?”
“Are you coming or not? Your mother is in the hallway.”
Slowly, I put on my jacket. “Where did you take him?” I asked, causing the nurse to lose her patience.
“As far as I can see, there is no one here,” she turned with open palms, before pointing her finger at me. “So hurry out or I will report you to the head of security. And if you think I’m not nice, wait until you meet the man. Out you go!” she said, grabbing me by my shoulder.
I shrugged off her hand and slid off the gurney, nearly falling over as it slipped away on its rusty wheels. I opened the doors and left the room, the nurse following closely at my heels. Out in the hallway, I saw Mom pacing nervously.
“Eve! What happened? We’ve been looking all over for you!” Mom looked as if she was tallying whether it was more appropriate to be angry or concerned. She chose the latter. As usual.
Placing one of her chubby arms on her hips, the nurse pointed at me, as seemed to be her custom, and ordered my mother to take her unruly daughter before she caused any more trouble. In her eyes, I could have just as well been an arsonist or a murderer.
“Let’s get out of here before things get worse,” Mom said, eyeing the nurse and taking my hand.
“But I can’t leave him here,” I cried to Mom.
“Daniel!” I said, as if stating the obvious.
The nurse wrung her arms over her generous chest. “What did I say?” The nurse served me a deathly glare.
“What happened to him?” I challenged her again, feeling more confident with Mom around.
“Who’s Daniel?” Mom asked.
“Listen, child,” the nurse said, her finger approaching. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I do not know who you are or who Daniel is. Now out of my hospital.”
Mom yanked my hand and began walking away, dragging me behind her, away from the nurse. “Eve, this behavior is unacceptable. What in the world possessed you?”
“I’ve been trying to explain, but you’re not letting me!” I shouted. “Where are we going?”
“To the car. Your father and Rena are waiting.”
“What about Grandpa? I need to see him!”
“You can’t see him. He’s in ER.”
“Why?” I stopped abruptly, halting her momentum.
“He needs another surgery.”
“They said it’s an infection,” she replied, a dark cloud obliterating her strained forehead. “So you see why I am so stressed? And now this?” She let go of my hand and began walking without me.
“Mom, but this is . . . this will help you understand. Mom, just wait here, please? I’ll be right back.”
Mom called after me, but I was already halfway up the stairs that led to the second floor. Almost knocking over a nurse carrying a tray of food, I ran down the hallway and stormed into the room where I had spent most of last night.
The room was cold and bleak like a hollowed tree trunk in a winter forest. Daniel’s bed was empty; there was nothing on the crooked hanger, the water pitcher was gone. I ran toward the object of my pursuit fixed atop the metallic surface. With my nail, I peeled off and placed in my pocket the thing that at least to me held the proof of Daniel’s existence—the remains of the white candle. I placed the hardened wax inside my pocket, walked out of the room, descended the stairs, and entered the hospital lobby. The red haired nurse stood there scribbling something on a notepad. Upon seeing me she abandoned her task to personally walk me out before releasing me into the hands of my disheveled mother like a criminal.
Not saying another word, I hung my head and entered the car. Mom shut the door behind me and taking a seat in the front blew out a long sigh.
“Where is my watch?” Rena barked as I sat next to her. “You stole it!”
“The notebook!” I yelped in response, unfastening the watch to give back to my livid sister. “I left it in the motel room. Did anyone find it?”
“Eve, please,” Mom said in a tired voice, her head sinking into her palm. “Your backpack is in the trunk. Enough already.”
“But the book fell behind the bed! Did anyone find it? It had a black cover—”
“Didn’t you hear what your mother said? Enough. You are grounded for a week,” Dad said, and I knew it was the end of that discussion.
Rena grinned ear to ear. I didn’t see it, but I could feel it in the way she moved her body, as if carelessly dancing on the seat next to me while I mourned the loss of a treasure. I pressed my lips together, feeling the urge to let it all out with a river of tears, but I wanted to be stronger than that. I wanted to be stronger for Daniel. I needed to think clearly and come up with a solid plan. Too many questions were left unanswered, and an innocent life had vanished without a trace—the life of my brother, the brother denied to me since before my birth.
I gazed at Mom’s hand in front of me as she searched for a place to rest it in order to bolster her fatigued head, and noticed it was shivering. Dad, as usual, was grinding his teeth, and Rena acted as if she had won something of incredible value now that she had been proven right. Her younger sister, that little smartass, finally got the punishment she deserved. I exhaled and sank in the seat, casting one last glance at Rena who sat behind Dad, and preparing for the drive that I knew would take a torturous eternity.
The strike came out of nowhere. Rena screamed, Mom gasped, and Dad slammed the brakes, causing the car behind us to hit our back end. I watched it unfold in slow motion, feeling a surge of adrenaline shoot through my veins and sharpen my senses, but I remained calm and reactionless through it all. The glass next to me shattered into pieces, and the jagged rock catapulted in front of my face, landing on Rena’s lap. Her hands were covering her ears. I felt drops of liquid stream down my cheek and when I reached out to touch my face and pulled my fingers back to look at them, they were crimson red.
Dad guided the car to the side of the road and stormed out of it, shutting the door behind him. Mom was soon unbuckling her seatbelt, leaping from the car, and opening my door to crouch beside me, gathering me into her arms. But I didn’t feel anything. The accident had released a load of tension, and in a strange way I felt better, as if the impact had adjusted our flow after the muddled morning, setting my destiny on a new course.
I got out of the car, and taking advantage of a private moment with Mom, I addressed her while she held a kerchief to my bleeding temple. It was only a scratch.
“Please don’t think I’m crazy. It is enough that Rena does.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy, I just think you haven’t been your usual self lately. First you want to go to a cathedral at night to pray, and then you break into a hospital. Churches
and hospitals are the two places that repel you most, Eve. You shouldn’t be surprised that I’m concerned. I don’t understand what’s gotten into you.”
“I would tell you if you let me explain.”
“Then tell me. For goodness sake, tell me.” Here I was, exactly where Daniel stood last night, on the juncture of revealing the truth and breaking a promise. It was not an easy decision. My stomach churned, my heart fluttering against my ribs. “Eve?”
“Remember the boy we met at a hospital by the sea when I was little? The one who held my hand, the one you wanted to adopt?” Mom arched her brows and nodded her head. “Do you remember his name?”
“His name was Peter,” she said, “Why?”
“Are you sure?” I asked, feeling her words seep out my hope like a pierced balloon quickly losing air.
“Yes. Why?” She looked at me, puzzled. Dad called to Mom, motioning for her to join him. “You’ll tell me later.” She excused herself and walked away, leaving me standing on the side of the road.
Rena bent over in her seat, looking out the open car door, and staring at me spoke one devastating word “Lunatic.”
But her word didn’t hurt as much as did Mom’s response. The boy’s name was Peter. How could I have forgotten it? And what did that make Daniel? A product of my imagination?
I brought my hands to my head to steady the flurry of thoughts. With my throbbing temple, it was a dizzying combination. What if Rena was right when she called me a lunatic? Wasn’t a lunatic someone who goes insane around the time of the full moon? I bent over to try to meet my sister’s gaze. I had the sudden urge to appeal to her, to have a conversation, not an argument. I wanted to ask her at which point last night she had noticed that I was gone, but she had her headphones on and was looking the other way. I reached in and picked up the rock she had placed on the seat next to her. Rubbing my fingers over it, I looked at its brown surface. There were a few red dots smudged on one side—my blood.
I paced around the car, hyperventilating, teetering on the edge of insanity. What was real? I tried to concentrate on what I was seeing so as not to let my thoughts take over. I glanced toward my parents. Dad was writing something on a piece of paper, the woman from the other car was talking to Mom and pointing at something in the distance. Then I looked at our car. The window on my side was missing.
I studied the rock again, and then the street and the intersection, watching the light go from green to yellow to red. I tried to determine where the rock could’ve come from. Spinning around on my heel I looked at the trees lining the sidewalk until I caught a glimpse of a black coat. He was hiding behind a tree.
A bare, gnarled hand was holding onto a tree trunk, a man’s cold eyes fixed upon me as an impish leer spread across his face. There was no doubt in my mind as to who had cast the stone and caused the accident.
The old man tipped his hat at me.
Time stopped once more.
I read his lips.
I will find you.