This is the first round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For these first submissions, it’s the letter “A”.
Readers will have a month to vote for their favorite and points will be assigned to each writer. For each letter, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the second of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “A”.
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Copyright 2020 – Perry Broxson
(2,080 words – approx. reading time: about 8 minutes based on 265 WPM)
My work requires that I keep a low profile; that I fly under the radar, so to speak. I’m tasked to monitor, to gather intel, and to report promptly to Management.
There are two big no-nos in my profession. Number one no-no: Blowing cover. Number two: Intervention.
This is the story of how I broke the rules. Both of them. This is the story of how I lost my wings.
As a Watcher, it’s my job to surveil a single soul until Management, in its infinite wisdom, decides its eternal fate. A soul can inhabit a thousand hosts, or just one – this is above my paygrade. It’s strictly Management’s call.
Back around the time Genghis Khan was conquering great swaths of Eurasia, Management tasked me to track Soul #93,416. Over the last millennium, I’ve observed a total of 42 incarnations of this soul. When I was first assigned this project, Soul 93 (for short) inhabited a peasant fish-monger in Scotland. Angus was conscripted into the Battle of Neville’s Cross to fight with Robert the Bruce. It was his arrow that penetrated the skull of Lord Huntercombe, the opposing commander, and changed the course of history – liberating the Scotts from the English.
Why do I recount this tale? Because it was my quick action, as a Watcher, to report that the host of Soul 93 was plotting a defection. The night prior to the battle, Angus and his three mates planned to steal horses from the livery and flee. After I submitted my briefing to Management, action was taken. Management dispatched a whore to pleasure the men throughout the night. Come daybreak, the men were rallied into battle by Robert the Bruce himself.
Not all human hosts are this memorable. During the Dark Ages, Soul 93 inhabited a series of doomed infants, plague carriers, and short-lived miscreants. Despite spates of boredom and ennui, I reported all incidences, great and small, to Management. I must confess, there were times when I expected direct intervention from Management. For example, I watched as an almond-eyed Arab girl, named Nurah, was kidnapped by Bedouin raiders. With God’s speed, I flew to Management and breathlessly reported the atrocity. I was commanded to return to my station and watch. I obeyed. I watched as Nurah was repeatedly raped. I watched as she bled out in the searing desert sands, calling for water, for her mother, for Allah, for anyone.
Upon reflection, I now believe that it was this event that set the course for my ultimate rebellion. It was the suffering. The senseless suffering. It seemed illogical, sadistic, and gratuitous. I received my first reprimand when I asked Management: “Why do they have to suffer?” I was not being facetious or insolent. I truly wanted to know.
Management threatened me with Expulsion. Such a punishment is reserved for the most subversive and seditious. In all of Watcher history, only one angel has been subjected to Expulsion. I was present when it happened. An old comrade of mine – a Watcher named Lucifer – received the ignominious penalty. He was defrocked – his wings torn from his body. Then, he was cast out of Heaven, remanded to the terrestrial realm.
Watchers tremble at the prospect of Expulsion. To be sure, we appear as fierce, winged warriors; but in truth, we are little more than timid bureaucrats. We wait, we watch, we report . . . we are powerless beings. Impotent sycophants. Spies. Slaves.
It was during the Renaissance that my pity for human hosts turned to admiration. My charge, Soul 93, inhabited a Venetian painter named Bellini. He was extremely talented, as well as pious. He turned down countless lucrative vanity projects from patrons. Exclusively, Bellini turned his hand and heart to Christly themes. He obsessed over the crucifixion of Jesus, painting the pitiable passion scene in every imaginable perspective.
The Pope was so impressed with his work, that he asked Bellini to paint his portrait. Bellini refused, stating that his talents were given by God, and would only be used to glorify God.
The Pope had him crucified.
Bellini was only 33 years old when he was tortured to death in the square of St. Peter’s Basilica. Afterward, his body was savaged by wild dogs.
Bellini could have recanted, begged forgiveness, painted the Pope’s portrait and received laurels and treasures; but he did not. I watched it all. Every wretched minute of the ordeal. Bellini writhed in the heat of the day, shivered in the chill of night. For seven days he hanged, for all to see, to mock, to pity. And at no time, did he waver.
How could I not admire a creature so committed?
It should be said, however, that not all human hosts were this noble. Soul 93 inhabited an executioner in 18th century France. His name was Sanson. He decapitated thousands in the cradle of the guillotine. The beheadings, I became inured to. It was Sanson’s sadistic torture of a half-wit named Damien that sparked my sympathies. The fool made the quixotic error of attacking King Louis with a penknife. He was summarily sentenced and remanded to Sanson’s charge. I watched as Sanson fused the man’s hand to the penknife, using molten sulfur. I watched as Sanson stripped away flesh with hot iron tongs. I watched as Sanson attempted to quarter the knave by tying his ankles and wrists to four horses. When the stubborn limbs refused to separate, I watched Sanson hack at the joints with his sword. Lastly, I watched the king’s executioner open Damien’s torso and set his guts on fire with wine-soaked straw. As the crowd cheered, I watched Damien cry out, pleading for death.
That was the first time I intervened. No, I didn’t swoop down from the sky and save the doomed fool. That would have gotten me defrocked and expelled. I simply asked one of the four horses to kick the man, and the horse obliged. The hoof smashed Damien’s skull and killed him instantly.
In my subsequent report to Management, I left this out. It was a lie of omission. My first official infraction.
Over the ensuing centuries, I committed more of these infractions. But none so bold as the one I now recount.
Her name was Zoey. I suppose it still is. Soul 93 began its inhabitation of Zoey 22 years ago. Zoey is like no other host I’ve observed. She is kind, contrary, coarse, and gentle. She is frail, hardened, humorous, and anarchic. She has tattoos that celebrate the most disgraced Watcher, Lucifer. She has shaved her tresses and eyebrows in protest of beauty and pierced her skin in defiance of pain. She loves the world and yet, she has declared open war on the world.
I watched her intensely. Not for a single second of the last 22 years could I take my eyes off of her. She fascinated me with her complexity, intrigued me with her authenticity. She so captivated me that I could no longer simply watch from afar. I felt I must stand in her presence, bask in her energy. On impulse, I entered the sandwich shop where she worked. When she smiled and asked for my order, I stammered, and could not speak. Her aura dazzled me, stunning me into a psychedelic stupor.
From behind the counter, she pointed her long black fingernail at me and sang: “You look like a vegan lentil lunch wrap. Onions and avocado. Carrot juice and a side of baked beet chips. Cool?”
“Cool,” I said.
She smiled, showing her black lipstick and white teeth. “Care to donate to the Pygmies of the Congo? They’re being exploited, you know; forced to mine Tantalum – an element used by Big Tech to make stupid Smart Phones.” Zoey pointed to a jumbo pickle jar at the end of the counter. On it, was a photo of four Pygmies. In it, a few meager dollars and coins.
“Sure,” I said, and dropped a five in the jar.
She handed me the sandwich and shoveled extra beet chips onto the biodegradable plate. “Namaste. May this ethical food edify your body and nourish your soul.”
As I searched for a seat in the crowded café’, I noticed an old woman with a black briefcase. She smiled at me and said, “Sit here, darlin’. I won’t bite.”
“Okay,” I said. “If you don’t mind.”
She snatched a beet chip off my tray and said, “Hello, handsome. I almost didn’t recognize you without your big, beautiful wings. We Reapers are so envious. We’d kill for wings. ”
It hit me. “Grim,” I said, “is that you?”
“Busted,” Grim said. “Do you like my disguise? I can’t wait to get out of these slingback shoes, and this brassier is torture.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked, filling the seat in the booth. “What is the Grim Freaking Reaper doing in a vegan sandwich shop in Manitou Springs, Colorado?”
Grim patted his black briefcase and said, “Time’s up. Management is recalling a soul. I’m here to collect and deliver.”
“A soul. Which soul?”
Grim reached into his bra and pulled out a ticket. “Soul number 93,416.”
“That’s my soul,” I said. “The soul I watch – have watched, for a millennium. Why wasn’t I notified?”
“Management,” Grim said, shaking his white-wigged head. She then checked his watch and looked at the front door. “It’s showtime.”
A gaunt man in a green hoodie barged through the door, jangling the welcome bell. He shoved past customers and confronted the quirky girl behind the counter. “I’ve got a gun,” he shouted. “Give me all the money in the register.”
Zoey punched some buttons and the drawer jerked open. She handed the man the cash and said, “Use this to get help . . . use it to heal.”
“I am, sister,” Hoodie said. “I’m going to help myself to a healing dose of schwack.”
Grim unsnapped the gold latches on his briefcase, anticipating the payload.
“What’s happening?” I asked Grim. “He’s got the cash. It’s over.”
Grim corrected his crooked wig and said, “Keep watching, Watcher.”
Hoodie pointed his pistol at the donation jar. “That too.”
Zoey looked at the jar with a photo of the Pygmy family taped to it. “No,” she said.
“Bitch,” the tweeker shouted, “I ain’t playin’. Gimme that cash.”
“No,” she repeated, grabbing the jar and clutching it to her chest.
“You wanna die for . . . what? . . . twenty bucks?”
“It’s enough money to buy a mosquito net for one Pygmy . . . to prevent malaria . . . to save a life.”
The gaunt man leveled the gun at Zoey’s heart. His hands quaked; his voice quavered. “It ain’t savin’ your life, hippy bitch.” His trigger finger spazzed and the gun went off.
That’s when I intervened. I flew to the girl and ensconced her in my wings, shielding her. The bullet bounced off and struck the gaunt man between the eyes, exiting the back of his green hood.
In the pandemonium, people fled, leaving me alone with Grim and Zoey.
“Well, well, well,” Grim said, poking the dead robber with the open toe of his shoe. “We’ve got us one turd-blossom of a problem. And by we, I mean you, Watcher.”
“I wasn’t thinking,” I said. “I just reacted.”
Zoey looked at me with awe. “You’re an angel,” she said. “My guardian angel.”
“This is bad,” Grim said, adjusting his bra. “Real bad. Management is going to flip its shit.”
“Listen,” I said, thinking on the fly. “You need a deliverable . . . a soul. Why not take his?” I pointed to the cooling body.
Grim laughed. “Don’t be fooled by this white wig, Watcher. I am not senile.”
“Could you do it?” I asked. “Is it even possible to switch souls – get it past Management?”
A devilish smile spread across Grim’s powdered jowls. “Anything is possible, Watcher,” Grim said, stroking my gossamer wings, cooing jealously. “Tell me, Watcher, what’s in it for me?”
Wingless, I now walk the earth. I no longer watch from above. I don’t look down on mankind. I am among you, earthbound, grounded, a casualty of gravity. I am flightless; I am an outcast, cast out, a castaway. It is in this exquisite exile, that I have finally found my freedom.
Freedom, as I have come to realize, can be a lonely pursuit.
Perhaps . . . I will look up an old friend.
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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