Daddy’s cigarette smoke snakes through the branches of the white plastic Xmas tree. The dust of Route 11 kicked up by his flight spatters the ornaments and chokes the cherub atop surveying the scene below. Confusion balls up little Angie’s face. She could have caught all the dust and kept the Xmas clean if only she had cupped her hands just right.
Mommy’s new friend with bloodshot eyes and stubbly cheeks, Dr. S. has the needle she needs for inoculation. His arms are so much bigger and will not be warded away by her wincing in anticipation. Angie has argued that she’s not old enough, but medical wisdom prevails—all young ladies need these shots sooner than later. But she must keep it secret or else the serum turns to poison.
A sheep with horns has gone astray, but the old shepherd has encrooked its neck as a noose corrects a convicted felon. Its fleece is as white as her choir robe, out back by her church’s cellar hatch as she sneaks a toke. The minister upon discovery sermonizes sententiously, but Angie makes horns of her pinky and index fingers, and cackles like Linda Blair. She has sinned, but she will not lie.
Disembodied, unblinking eyes are pinpointed in the hollow blackness of the burrow where the frightened hide to ride out the storm. As the sky’s seams burst, the meteors shriek like locomotives braking cold on steel. Daily daubs of car exhaust have sooted the limestone trestle down from the Martinsburg row house of her cousin to which she has fled. Yet she still cannot escape the maelstrom.
Shards of reflection explode from the doctor’s face, bloated and bloodied. The head mirror, meant to aid the physician’s sight, for Dr. S. is meant to blind his patients. A good thing she was forced to return, he slavers, for it has been years since her last booster shot. But her nails have grown longer and stronger, and since the virus has already become an integral part of her, she rakes him across the eyes.
Capillaries interlace as her blood coils in joy, for all the clots seem to have cleared. Microscopic dancers—ruby, crimson, scarlet, rose—interlock to constitute the stream, pulsing to the radio’s beat, whirling in ecstasy on the Pacific Coast Highway. Her knight errant behind the wheel, if he keeps faith, yes, devilishly blond J. will be the promised one. The past stays past, for he is kind and does not ask.
A sweet-toothed child glutted on holiday candy fights to stay afloat in the sugar bowl. J., her obsequious servant, so eager to please that he echoes himself about its rim, showers more and more until fine powder flies up her nose. Each gasp, each inhalation, becomes long past less special than the one before, and she suspects surrender will succeed the surfeit. But she dares not object, and he is blind and does not ask.
A lottery ticket lies beside dirty paper plates on a torn kitchen table cloth. How will the happiness be manifest once it wins? When the odds are calculated in a moment of clarity, it all seems so foolish. Drawn one by one, the numbers have betrayed, and the gold-gilt slip of paper is worthless. J. would have stayed if only she had played the numbers differently. But never again.
The sporty little sports car, stolen in retribution, has a ruptured tank. Gas pours upon the highway lanes, the pedal pressed feverishly in the knowledge that the ride is fueled on borrowed time. What does it matter that F., who one day came into her life asking for cauliflower at the co-op, confesses his wife suspects? Somebody who is all the way down the road does not have to clean up the spill.
Statuesque Lorelei, magnificently justified, clutches the rock dotted with miniature fortresses and sweeps her free hand before it, inviting sailors to try their luck. Take, for example, well-coifed R, upstate lawyer, who navigated her through Europe and offered her pearls from the deep, and now drifts facedown. Angela collects castles by cunning. They cost her nothing, for deception has become so effortless.
This marionette’s strings seem to have been severed out of malice. His fragile legs, unsupported, waver in their motley upon a heap of discarded predecessors, all loose cords and flailing limbs. Cadavers’ eyes plead for this latest, but B. from San José well deserves it, simpleton that he is, always losing track of his Diner’s Club card. He gapes in abject horror upwards, not comprehending why all he sees is a bored mouth yawning.
Clothes, deliriously strung out on the line, dry in the trusted evening sun. Originally beige, they have become quite brown through the repetition of the cycles, for they have been washed clean in the blood…of the lamb? No, she is the lamb, so this must be the blood of the goat, which explains the acidity that erodes the fibers. Yet the detergent is too exquisite to relinquish.
The coaster’s tracks vanish into the gaping grin beneath unemotional eyes that bore like augurs. It must be the Tunnel of Love, the only amusement left in the park. She has heard the rumors, as she disappears into the humorless laughter of his mouth, that the final rails have not yet been laid, but that only heightens the excitement. He is the one castle she cannot collect.
An obscure love charm called a spancel. What terrible witchcraft has been wrought upon the brother of the castle, to whom she was traded for a handful of highs? Taunted, tortured, shackled, but he is the dope doler, until she says no more, and catching him unawares carves off his power as easily as shattering the syringe of Dr. S. Once he bleeds out, she gets high a final time and loses her mind.
The Star of Bedlam, the everlasting light in the dark streets of Palo Alto, shines out over a view of the bay. Wondering who the hell she is, she wanders closer. Perhaps if she comes bearing gifts, they will let her enter. She will offer them the frankincense and myrrh rubber-banded in Saran wrap and the fat stacks of fifties she got from…where?
Short and slender darts of light, razor-thin and influential missiles emanating from the encircling vignettes besiege the central figure, fallen angel, child of bitterness. She is the sum of these images deeply embedded in the background of black. And yet, when we shift our perspective, we catch the trompe-l’œil. What a clever artist, who, with a trick of light and shade, reveals not the constitution but the dissolution of the central figure as thousands of splinters fly from the canvas directly at the viewers, as if to take us out with her in her self-destruction.
And in our moment of realization, we glimpse the final image, left unpainted by the artist, the crèche figurine she will reluctantly surrender as the doctors will nod approval that Angel Doe is finally making progress. She will not reveal, however, who she will be once again, what she has done in her life—to her life—and will keep the secret of her suffering that there are no innocents left in the world. So one silent night, silent but for the phantoms of carols from the radio down the hall, she will gather her sheet, will knot new wings, and will perch atop a manger high enough off the floor to do the job, and before she will let herself fall, empowered by a dark, new wisdom, she will spit back at us, “This is my blood, which is shed for you, and for many, in the commission of sins. Do this, as oft as ye shall choke on it, in remembrance of me.”
Chris Cleary is a native of southeastern Pennsylvania, in which many of his stories are set. He is the author of four novels: The Vagaries of Butterflies, The Ring of Middletown, At the Brown Brink Eastward, and The Vitality of Illusion. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Belle Ombre, Easy Street, The Brasilia Review, Menacing Hedge, Wilderness House Literary Review, and other publications. His short fiction has been anthologized in the award-winning Everywhere Stories.