The Wingless Angel - Chapter 1
It is possible for you to survive in Hell long enough to be rescued. Hell is by no means a permanent stay; by all rights, it is a purgatory sentence. If you realize the error of your ways to God’s satisfaction, then He can, and will, attempt to save you. Unfortunately, as part of God’s bargain with the Devil, He has no divine power in Hell. Instead, only an Angel can rescue you afterredemption. Due to the massive amount of people being sent to Hell and the defensive structures the Devil has created, this has become an extremely difficult task. The following guide serves as a resource for your time in Hell to ensure you last long enough to be rescued.
Silton squared up two thick stacks of fresh twenties on his dresser. On top of one lay a handwritten note in black marker that read: “Sorry for the mess.” The other,wrapped in a tight rubber band, barely fit into his jeans pocket.
The liquor store sat across the street from Silton’s apartment. That’s why he moved there. This way, when he drank, he only had to hold himself together for a few minutes to get more.
The usual wastes of life dotted the sidewalk in front of the store: Curby, an Asian woman trying to sell plastic bags to everyone who passed; Lester, a wino so hardcore his chapped lips bled purple; and Skinny Chad, the meth head. Skinny Chad was the worst. He might have still been in his teens, but he looked at least thirty years older. The kid’s constantscratching left skin craters with tiny scabs that pocked his cheeks, and his clothes hung off his brittle frame like a tarp over unfinished construction. But his teeth were the worst part of him: jagged and eaten away by the meth, they looked like cracked ice. Every time Silton saw them, he had to run his tongue across his own teeth just to make sure they were still okay.
Like everything else in town, the liquor store looked tired. Chipped tiles dotted the ceiling, a water pipe leaked to a stagnant puddle in the corner, and dust lined the bottles of liquor like new-fallen snow. Silton went straight for the good whiskey. His hand fit snugly around the grip of the big bottle. He always thought that meant something, like the stuff was made specifically for him.
Brian, the happy drunk who owned the store, always greeted his customers like he hadn’t seen them in years. At first this annoyed Silton, but soon it became comforting, like he belonged to a drinking team and Brian was his coach.
“Silky-Silty, my boy! How the hell are you?” Brian asked.
“Great,” Silton droned. “Everything’s just great.” He plopped the bottle down on the counter sounding like it might have cracked but didn’t.
“You know, I meant to tell you,” Brian continued, “my buddy at the VFW wanted me to invite you to the Soldiers’ Spaghetti Dinner next week. He said it’s free for all vets, put on by the local Presbyterian Church up over the hill.” He scanned the whiskey while talking. It cost something, but Silton paid no attention to how much.
“Great, Brian.” Silton pulled out the fat wad of twenties, unfolded several from the rubber band, and tossed them on the counter.
“Let me guess, you ain’t gonna make it?” Brian asked.
“Nothing gets past you . . .” Silton said as Brian wrapped the bottle in a brown paper bag.
“That’s what I thought.” Brian smirked. “I’ll get you to one of these dinners someday.”
“Have a good one.” Silton turned, striding toward the door.
“Hey, hey! You gave me way too much!” said Brian as he fingered through the cash.
“It’s yours, Brian,” Silton said without turning. “You’ve always been better to me than I ever was to myself.” With that, Silton disappeared between the dusty shelves.
“Well, thanks!” Brian said, smiling stupidly with his head cocked to the side as he put the extra cash in the register.
A stiff breeze drifted across town, only interrupted by the occasional dust devil. The idea of the tiny tornadoes used to fascinate Silton, until he moved out to the desert. Things are never quite what you think they’ll be like,he thought.
Skinny Chad sat up against a rusty newspaper vending machine a few yards down from the store. Silton turned and walked toward him.
The meth head looked half-asleep, in that quasi-limbo state when the high is wearing off. His body, tired and twisted like a soft noodle, shuddered as the breeze blew by. The slow metabolism of chemical junk in his body kept him drifting in the spaces between sleep and wakefulness.
“Hey, Chad,” Silton said, kicking him. Skinny Chad let out a grunt, and his eyes opened like he hadn’t seen light in years.
“Here you go.” Silton handed him a thick portion of twenties. Chad’s spine rippled when he saw it, and he sat up straight for the first time that day.
“Thanks, man . . . thanks, man . . . this is gonna . . .”
“Shut the hell up,” Silton said. “I don’t have time for you. Just promise me something.” Silton leaned in close to the stinking kid.
“Sure man . . . sure . . .” Chad said, sitting up as straight as he could.
“I want you to go to the thrift store and buy some clothes. When you’re there, you’re going to beg the manager for a job. And no matter what job he offers, you’re gonna take it. Then go get some food and check into the motel. That should be plenty of money to get you to your first paycheck. Don’t you dare buy a rock and smoke it down by the drain shaft. This is all for you man . . . all for you. I’ll know if you don’t do what I told you. I’ll ask around. And if I find out you bought drugs, I’m gonna come back here and kick the rest of your teeth out.”
“Oh no, oh, you got it, man, you got it! Don’t have to tell me twice.” Skinny Chad cracked a smile, showing his shattered-glass teeth. Disgusted but satisfied, Silton stood up and walked away from the kid.
It occurred to Silton that he might have just done something horrible. He figured Chad could buy around thirty grams of meth with that cash, and if he did, it’d probably kill him. Just another junkie offed by his own habit, a morbid set-up for sure. But morality swings to extremes when one is near the end. People either become desperately charitable hoping to create some lasting joy in the world, or recklessly dark trying to destroy everything around them. Silton figured he’d caused enough destruction for one lifetime, so he opted for the former on this, his last day.
Silton had slid down far during the past year, much faster than the three before. It seemed he dropped a peg on the decency ladder with each month that passed. Now he held on to the last rung of his humanity, just a few loose fingers away from becoming one of the dusty, rag-wearing people he passed going to and from the liquor store every day. He divided the rest of the twenties between Lester and Curby. Curby gave him a fistful of wrinkled plastic bags in exchange, and Silton laughed out loud at her gesture.
His apartment, old but clean, wasn’t terrible. A small room resting at the top of three flights of stairs held a bed in the corner, a tight bathroom, and a closet with mirrored doors that tried to make the place look bigger, but failed.
Silton had the desk up against the mirrored closet so he could stare at himself while he drank, stare at the man he’d become. He cracked the seal on the bottle and took the first swig. It burned his throat like bleach, and he smiled at the pain.
A quarter of the way through the bottle, Silton looked over at a picture on the shelf. Covered with a thin layer of dust, it looked like everything else did in this town: tired.
A photo of a spouting fountain tucked in a lush park rested in the cheap wooden frame. Silton’s smile was wide and toothy in the picture. Kay had that pouty look on her face, like she didn’t want to be there, even though she did. The sun sat high in the afternoon, and the sky looked beautiful and still. It had been a perfect moment, he thought. But not for Kay. “Nothing can be perfect,” Kay would always say. Her belief was, once you call something perfect, you’re on your way to killing it.
Kay thought complacency came with thinking everything was perfect. She thought that perfection let you relax, stop trying, and let your guard down. That’s when you stop paying attention to the road for a second; that’s when everything gets ruined. So instead she called it “almost perfect.” It was her way of keeping life near the middle, away from the extremes that destroy all good things.
“Almost perfect,” Silton muttered as he looked back to the mirror. His expression, pained and sad, longed for another time. He looked pathetic, like anyone would remembering a moment so far in the past, a moment so much better than the present. The image of his weakness reflected back into his eyes, and it angered him. Another swig later, and he planted his fist square in the middle of the mirror. It spider-webbed and spit out shards of glass onto the desk and floor, some embedding in his knuckles.
“Damn!” He got up, cracking a few shards under his feet, and pulled up his mattress. His Glock 31 lay there, cold and ready. He loaded it, laid it on the desk, and sat back down. Blood ran down his hand onto the ceramic black handle of the gun. Silton could smell his blood, and he thought the scent paired nicely with the whiskey.
The bottle, half gone, numbed the burning in his throat as his body gave up trying to reject the alcohol with pain. This was the sweet spot, the time when the drunk train hit its long, easy straightaway.
He opened the desk drawer, empty except for one thing: a never-framed commendation letter from his commanding officer. The line he liked most jumped out at him as if typed in bold print:
“For selfless valor in the face of incredible odds, for implicit application of medical skill in the line of fire resulting in the salvaging of three lives.”
“Implicit,” he thought. Not the right word, and “salvaging” seemed a bit inhuman, but his sergeant was no writer. That didn’t matter. Silton understood what he meant. Silton had been there. It wasn’t a good memory by any stretch, but one that stuck like stiff concrete in the path of his life. Heremembered his hands digging through guts and bone like a gardener would dirt and weeds. He patched bullet holes tight with gauze, splinted bones straight with scraps of wood, and tried to stuff innards back into bellies before they sprung out again. This was Silton’s odd gift, the ability to see such trauma to the body just like damage to a car. No emotion, no panic, no hesitation. It can either be fixed, or it can’t.
Another quarter of whiskey went away to that place he wanted it to go. The cuts on his fist tried to dry up, but the alcohol had thinned his blood, so they kept a light trickle. His tremors came and went, but mostly went, and soon Silton could hold the gun steady. He licked his lips, tasting the bitter spices of liquor, and figured his last meal had been pretty good, considering. He lifted the gun and placed the end of the barrel to his naked chest. He wanted to save his brain for some future pathologist to slice like lunchmeat. Maybe in death someone could figure out what was wrong with him, and Silton could help save other soldiers.
The gun felt cold, and sent chills across his skin.
In that instant, Silton noticed his rippled reflection in the cracked mirror. So many versions of himself stared back. Silton looked the same in all of them. It wouldn’t have mattered which path in life he took, they all ended here. Each one of his reflections could have been another him, another time, another place—but they all looked the same now: drunk with a gun to his chest. This gave him a moment of comfort. Like life wasn’t really in his control. Like it never was, and maybe it wasn’t supposed to be.
The hammer fell and the gunpowder exploded. The sound temporarily deafened him, pressing a shockwave of air up against the soft inner bones of his ears. The red-hot gas escaped from the barrel and hit him first. It burned a deep cigar stain into his chest. Silton only felt this in an indirect way, like watching it happen to someone else. The bullet cracked his sternum much like he’d cracked the mirror, and the impact started him back off his chair. The shot made its way through a forest of veins and arteries like a mad logging crew. His heart had no argument for the bullet, and its meaty valves folded and spread into odd directions before they exploded out of his back.
The chair gave way and Silton crashed to the ground. His blood quickly sought out the cracks and crevasses on the floor, the dirty rug underneath his bed turned deep brown, and the wall opposite him shone bright red with sticky flesh clinging to it.
Silton turned his head to the dusty picture on the shelf: the park, the fountain, Kay. But he couldn’t see it; his view was obscured by his new line of sight from the floor. He’d wanted that picture to be the last thing he saw before he died.
“Almost perfect,” he muttered. “Almost fucking perfect.”
AND watching from above, in the bright blue depths of Heaven’s Eye, God frowned.