Grandpa’s warning words ran through my head.
Once they depart, the spirits leave behind a void that needs to be filled, often at the expense of the living.
This is exactly how I felt now. Empty and missing Sariel more than ever. The more I remembered, the more I wanted him near. But what if there was danger in giving myself to the angel? There was fear, each time I did so, most recently when I was faced with the fear of losing Daniel, something that Grandpa had warned me about. A feeling of dread spread through my body, like the frost lacing the windows of the train. What would happen now? I wanted to ask my companion, but it was turn for Uri’s eyes to fall shut. I was tasked with keeping watch of our whereabouts and was supposed to wake him when we reached our destination.
I was so wrapped up in my thoughts that had it not been for the fact that the majority of the passengers were disembarking at our own journey’s end, creating an impossible-to-ignore commotion, I would’ve made us miss our stop. I shook Uri awake and helped him sling his backpack over his shoulder. I then took his hand in mine and pulled him out before the train started to move again. We got out in the nick of time. He shuffled behind me, still half asleep.
Outside, merchants selling gadgets and trinkets lined the sidewalks, while others walked in haste, shoving past them in a trance as if the former never existed. I coveted them having an agenda, a clear path to follow. As far as I could tell, we still lacked a plan. The turmoil abated as we entered the city streets. By then Uri was fully awake and walked fast and with unsurpassed confidence, dodging the onslaught of rushing amblers and leaving me behind.
“Where are we going?” I called out, once the distance between us grew too wide.
“To the park,” he said, and paused to wait for me to catch up. He reached for my hand and pulled me forward. “I’m gonna need your help because I’ve got no clue what to do next.”
“Still no plan? Seriously?”
“My portion of the plan was to get us here,” he said. “It’s your turn to get involved because frankly, I’m drawing a blank.”
I was out of breath by the time we found a suitable bench in the heart of the park. The surrounding trees reached their crooked arms in all directions, poking through thick morning fog and forming a porous fence between the urban jungle and us, two lone souls dwelling in the Elysian Fields encircled by layers of concrete walls.
“We need to find where Daniel is. I need you to try to make contact with him since you are the one who saw him last. I can’t seem to be able to get through,” Uri explained. “My brain is all fogged up,” he said, looking around. “Just like this park.”
“What do I do?”
“It is simple. Just think of him and wait for visions,” Uri said, squatting next to me, his gaze scattering in all directions. “You have to really focus to go deep. I’m here to keep watch so you don’t have to worry about being interrupted.”
“But how do I know the difference between my imagination and an actual vision?” I asked, thinking of Paula, the most disciplined teenager I knew, trying to rummage though her instructions, but my memory vault remained shut.
“It’s no different than when you connect with the angel,” Uri said, and cleared his throat. I kept staring at him.
“What? I’m just assuming.”
“I know you are more skilled than most of us mortals, but please promise me you are not able to read my mind!”
“I promise, cross my heart. I only see what you want me to see and even that takes effort. Besides, what I do isn’t all that prodigious. Most people could learn to do what I do if they wanted to. It’s actually not that hard, only takes practice,”
Uri squinted his eyes at a passerby that entered our field, crossing the park. My eyes trailed his silhouette, while my fingers tapped a wooden plank of the bench as if that alone would make him move faster.
“Here we have a perfect opportunity to practice discerning fact from fiction,” Uri said.
“You know how we tend to put labels on things all the time? Try to just look at the guy without throwing any of your own preconceptions over him. What does it look like he’s doing?”
“Home?” I guessed with a shrug.
“You don’t know that.”
“This is pointless. Of course I don’t know where he’s going. Do I look like a prophet?”
“It’s simpler than that. He’s walking to the other side of the park. Period. End of story.”
I snorted. “Duh. That’s obvious.”
“That is all truth is. Obvious simplicity. People make things complex and then get lost in the chaos they themselves created,” he mused, and then continued, “Okay, let’s dig a level deeper. What might he be thinking about?”
“How in the world am I supposed to know that?”
“Take a guess! Be bold.”
“No clue. Why don’t you enlighten me?”
Uri looked at me with his crystal blue eyes and then stood up to look at the man. He contorted his body to match the man’s posture and took a few steps to imitate his walking rhythm. “Mind and body are one,” he said over his shoulder. “The man has a guilty conscience. He’s fighting with himself, can’t find peace.”
“Reminds me of Stan.”
“Reminds me of most people. He’s specifically thinking about something bad he has done. It preoccupies his mind. He’s trying to escape. See the wobble in his step? See the hunch? This is a hunch of remorse.”
“And you can see all that just from the way he walks?”
“You start with the closest thing to a fact you can find—thoughts that feel right, pieces that belong with the story you’re building—and then the rest falls into place.”
“And you get it right each time?”
“Let’s just say it’s a bull’s-eye at best, educated guess at worst,” Uri clapped his hands once. “Ready to contact Daniel?”
I nodded. Resting my palms on my lap, I closed my eyes and tried to conjure the vision of my brother’s face. For weeks, after last seeing Daniel, I did my best to train my mind to forget him. The tall wall of resistance I’d erected between us made it difficult to bring him back at first. But when his big green eyes began to come through the haze, they seemed as real as if he were standing right in front of me.
Keeping my eyes closed, I nodded to Uri. “I’ve got him.”
“What do you see?”
“Just his face, mostly eyes.”
“Anything around him?”
“No, nothing. Only darkness.” Just then it occurred to
me that I could expand my scope of vision. I panned around but seeing nothing tangible, I returned to Daniel’s face. “Wait! Now his eyes are closed.”
“Good. You’re on the right track. He’s sleeping.”
I opened my eyes, “This is pointless. I don’t know how to do this.”
“But you were doing fine! C’mon, Eve, don’t give up now. Please try again.”
I closed my eyes again, but my self-doubt made it harder to focus this time. I kept seeing the hospital and nothing new would come to my mind. “I’m afraid I’m confusing memory with vision, Uri. I see nothing other than that dreary clinic.”
“Well, I guess that’s where we need to go.”
“But he was gone when I woke up the next morning.”
“It’s a big building,” Uri said.
“You have that much faith in me?”
“You see the hospital. I see nothing. Only darkness, cables, and a blurred body. If we put two and two together, it makes sense that he’s somewhere in there,” Uri said, joining me on the bench. He was scanning the space with acute concentration. “Cold?” he asked, looking into the distance.
“Freezing,” I said, turning toward him. “And hungry. Could we please find some warm place to eat? I have money.”
“Not yet,” he replied, still looking ahead. “The air feels frozen. We should wait until it thaws,” he said, squeezing my arm in comfort.
Of course it feels frozen. Because it is winter and we need to eat something warm, I thought but kept it to myself. Uri was by far the most eccentric person I’d ever met. Besides Daniel. No wonder they once were friends. The thought that there was someone other than me, with an even more peculiar way of looking at the world, was comforting. Especially now that I had lost Ben.
“Okay. Let’s go now,” Uri said, signaling me to follow him.
We traversed a few city blocks at Uri’s rapid pace until I stopped in my tracks, pulling Uri by his hood. He turned to me with a puzzled look and I pointed toward a plump red-haired woman standing on the edge of a street in front of us, waiting for the light to turn. I recognized the nurse who had kept denying Daniel’s existence.
“Bingo!” Uri asked me to wait by the nearest building while he snuck up behind the unsuspecting woman, briefly matching her stomp, and pulled a large envelope sticking out of her brown tote bag. He was by my side before the nurse reached the other side of the busy street. Grabbing my hand, he led us in the opposite direction. Once we were a safe distance away, he said, “This is what I mean about good timing. And this,” he shook the rolled-up envelope in front of our faces, “this was just begging to be taken.”
We settled in a milk bar, a diner that served a limited menu, usually a soup and a main meal that rotated each day of the week. Despite the paltry offerings, the food in such places was always made from scratch and very tasty. I ordered tomato soup while Uri requested the goulash.
The pale sun streaming through the windows had just about reached its highest point in the winter sky, which at this time of the year was not very high. I thought of my parents sitting down to lunch at my grandparents’ house. I had left them a short note, attributing my absence to joining a student-organized tutoring circle in preparation for school tomorrow. As much as I disliked making up stories, I didn’t want Mom to worry in vain, and in my heart I promised myself that if I succeeded at bringing Daniel home, this would be the last time I fictionalized anything. I asked Uri if he thought we would be heading back before the end of the day, but he said he didn’t know. He and I sat side by side, the smell of food making our stomachs growl, and opened the envelope.
Inside we found a small pile of papers, a brief letter and three pages of handwritten notes related to an experiment performed by a doctor whose name looked familiar, despite the difficult handwriting. The envelope was addressed to him, bearing a stamp, CONFIDENTIAL, in bold red lettering. Based on the letter, Uri and I surmised that the nurse was delivering a report to her superior who was attending a medical symposium in the city when we intercepted her. The letter referred to a series of unusual events outlined in the report that had commenced yesterday in the early evening hours in reference to a particular patient. The thus far predictable and controllable state of the patient had been disrupted, with the subject’s vitals and mental responses reaching an alarming state. The nurse requested the doctor’s prompt return to the testing chamber where the subject was being held.
“Testing chamber,” I said, looking at Uri. “Sounds dark and secretive.”
Lines of medical jargon filled the accompanying report, and while it was difficult to penetrate through the details, it pointed toward a project at the hospital supervised by the doctor that had tested the responses of a patient endowed with some form of Extra Sensory Perception.
The nurse emphasized that the subject, whose name was never mentioned, had been on a series of drugs, as ordered, with the aim of upholding the subject’s stable and docile condition until the doctor’s return. Then, at about 16:22, the subject began to display symptoms of violent agitation in the form of seizures, significantly disrupting the stability of his vitals. Heightened brain activity was recorded, despite heavy administration of tranquilizers minutes prior to the event. The
second wave of seizures commenced at around five o’clock in the morning, when the subject’s eyes opened wide, and he tried to rip the monitoring cables from his body. A double dose of sedatives had been administered, but before the subject receded back into the docile state, several times he repeated a word that sounded like the female name “Evelina.”
Uri and I looked at each other with dread. Our eyes returned to the page.
Ever since this morning, the subject’s brain wave activity had been closer to that of a waking state rather than sleeping, though no bodily movement or changes in heart rate had been noted. Here again, the nurse requested the doctor’s prompt return and advice, as the subject’s responses made no sense to her, and she did not want to damage his internal organs by administering stronger doses of drugs or upping the intensity of the electric currents that kept his heartbeat from fading. The report ended with an appendix listing drugs and their dosages, a timed log of administration, and an alarming statement that raised the hair on my arms. If all else failed, the nurse suggested a procedure that would sever certain nerves in the subject’s brain and prevent future seizures. But of course, that remained to be discussed, and the final decision would be at the doctor’s discretion.
“What are they planning to do to him?” I asked, my face as pale as the whitewashed wall behind me.
“I don’t know. But this is highly disturbing,” Uri said, shoving the papers back into the envelope with a bitter expression on his face. “This is why we waited in the park. We needed to get these in our hands. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t even sick. These monsters are only interested in what he can do.”
“Part of me wishes I didn’t know this much. He’s been drugged, poked, and prodded. An electric current? Reading this has made me lose my appetite.”
“You need to eat. We have a long night ahead,” he said, picking up a knife and checking its sharpness with his thumb.
“He knows we’re coming,” I said, stirring my soup that was no longer steamy. “That’s hopeful.”
“You know how to get there?”
“I know the name of the place. We can look it up on a city map. I also know how to enter in through the basement in the back.”
“Perfect,” he said, stabbing a piece of meat with his fork.
Two hours later we stood in front of the hospital, hands in our pockets, clouds of steam vaporizing in front of our faces. There was much commotion in the front, people in white uniforms rushing about, patients walking in and out, and visitors standing outside smoking cigarettes. A couple of cargo trucks rounded the corner to get behind the building.
“We need to wait until it gets darker. Otherwise it is too risky. Everyone will see us,” Uri said.
“Can we pretend we are just visitors and take a look around?”
“No need. I think I know where Daniel is.”
“Where is he?”
“In the basement. When you mentioned the back entrance, it finally clicked.”
“What if the doctor gets there before us?”
“Maybe you could, you know, use your special talents and see?” I said, and then suggested we get some hot tea in the motel cafeteria across the street. Despite the sunny skies, the temperature outside was subzero.
We entered the cafeteria. The smell of lunch still lingered in the air, but besides us there was only one person behind the counter. Looking across that empty room brought back memories. I would never have guessed that I would return here in three months’ time, once more planning to break into the clinic.
We ordered our tea, a plate of sliced bread and cold cuts, and Uri closed his eyes, one hand on the envelope, and focused until droplets of sweat began forming on his temples.
“The nurse is confused by the disappearance of her damn report. And she hasn’t found the doc yet. He’s not at the conference anymore,” he said and opened his eyes.
“Any of them across the street?”
“Don’t think so.”
“How much time do you think we have?”
“We have enough,” he stated with conviction. I believed him.
I pulled out Daniel’s notebook and showed Grandpa’s drawings to Uri, twirling the feather between my fingers. Uri leaned forward and tucked loose strands of his hair behind one ear.
“He is a true artist.”
“Do you think he knows about the angel? He seemed to react strongly one time when I barely mentioned I dreamt of one,” I asked, pointing the sharp end of the plume at the hovering figure behind the soldier with a rifle pressed to his chest.
Uri’s eyes widened. “He probably knows more than he admits,” he said, closing the notebook and sliding it toward me.
“And this? Do you think it belongs to Sariel? Do you think he left it for me?”
“If I was an angel on a mission to seduce a girl, that’s what I would’ve done. Unless, of course, a swan flew into your room at night.”
I smiled. “I often wonder what it would be like to be him, to have wings and fly.”
“Well, this one can’t fly. I can tell you that much.”
“Why are you so against him? And please save your protection speech. This is my life and I will do with it as I please.”
“Just trying to save you from an epic disappointment.”
“I didn’t know you were such a pessimist.”
“I’m not a pessimist. More of a realist.”
I laughed. “One thing is for sure, and that’s that none of us—not you, not me—are realists. If anything, we are idealists.”
Uri shrugged. “Fine by me. Just remember that he is dark and fallen before you commit yourself,” he said, picking on a slice of bread.
“But has it ever crossed your mind that the punishment was too severe and that the whole darkness thing in general is overblown? The angels were sharing sacred knowledge with human women. What’s wrong with that?”
“It was dangerous and you are indeed an idealist.”
“Why was it dangerous?”
“They interfered in human affairs and promised something they couldn’t deliver. Angels and humans don’t mix, just like oil and water don’t mix. You can’t cross there and he can’t cross here. It will be futile if you try. It will only lead to suffering. Why not just be content with what you have here closer to the ground? Is that not enough?”
“You are right. It is not. This world is boring and flat. And I happen to believe in love, as a force that makes everything possible. Even for oil and water to mix.”
“Have you ever considered that your version of love might be different from his?” Uri asked.
I squinted my eyes at him. “Why do you have to be so cynical? Do you even know what love is?”
“That has nothing to do with what I know or don’t know.”
“Well I think it may. Is lack of love the reason why you ran away from your life and your name?” I asked, and immediately regretted saying it. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
“Maybe that’s the crux of my problem. I was never loved. Mommy and daddy were never there to give me that. You’re right. What do I know?”
“No need,” he said, and began impaling pieces of ham on his fork.
“You remind me of Daniel,” I said quietly. “He told me you and him were of the same kind. I often wonder what he meant,” I said, with more tenderness this time.
The earlier aggravation was melting off Uri’s face, but his voice still carried an edge. “Knowing how driven you are, I bet you’ll figure it out.”
“Why are you being so secretive? You warn me of danger in one breath and then when I ask for clarity, you clam up.”
“Listen, Eve,” Uri put away his fork, leaned closer and lowered his voice. “There are things that when explained will do absolutely nothing because you don’t have the whole picture yet, only certain parts. Your mind will misinterpret what I tell you, your imagination filling in the gaps. And we already know the disastrous consequences of that. When people take action based on fear or assumptions they only create more chaos. Because they still feel wounded and victimized by their stories, be it abandonment or harassment or feeling unloved or whatever, their emotions are not healed so they go on hurting others and spreading the harm. This only perpetuates the cycle of misery for themselves and others.”
“Then could you please tell me more about my whole picture? Maybe that could help me make better decisions. I take it you know more than I do?” I asked.
“Eve, can’t you see the beautiful paradox of it? I can walk next to you but it would be no good for me to tell you what to do or how to do it. No one can walk this path but you. This is why Daniel went on his quest. It was through the journey and facing the darkest parts of himself that he found his self.”
“Yes but Daniel almost died!”
“True. But if you live according to what others tell you, you are dead inside. Also his sister had come searching for him, in the meantime perhaps salvaging a lost part of her own soul.”
“But we don’t know how the story will end,”
“Why should we? Life would be boring that way, don’t you think? There would be no real stakes.”
I thought for a moment about what Uri had said. “So it’s true what Grandpa said. It all begins with knowing ourselves.”
Uri nodded. “That’s the true awakening. It’s not about finding what makes us the same but rather what makes us different—finding that essence that is distinctive from everyone else. If you don’t have that, you become a copy of someone else.”
“Funny. And we concern ourselves with how to fit in.”
“You sound like you know who you are,” I whispered.
“I do,” he said. “And you are very close to finding out yourself.”