The angel lets Elena out of the house for two hours to go to her friend’s birthday party.
Such reprieves come few and far between, and Elena jumps at it, even if she can’t remember exactly how old Brie is this year or if she’s the friend who doesn’t drink or the one who doesn’t smoke. She wonders if the angel suspects something, but she doesn’t have the energy to be cagey anymore. What’s coming is coming, whether the angel knows it or not.
At the corner store, she flips through racks of greeting cards, trying to find one that conveys birthday wishes both vague and kind, until the angel clears her throat. She doesn’t say anything, but Elena understands all the same. Time is precious, and Elena is wasting it. She pays for a plain card printed with pastel balloons and a bouquet of daisies and they leave the store, Elena walking in front, the angel trailing just behind.
Brie takes the flowers and card with gracious noises that sound sincere enough to Elena—at least as sincere as the gift in the first place. Elena moves past her into Brie and Ayaulym’s townhouse. There are half a dozen wine bottles in various states of emptiness on the table, but the angel is watching, so Elena contents herself with a paper plate of carrot sticks and ranch and a small corner slice of birthday cake.
Ayaulym excuses herself from the cluster of people around the beer keg to come greet Elena herself. “I’m so glad you could come!” she says, clasping Elena’s forearm. “And that you brought your angel!”
Elena turns to look over her shoulder. The angel goes everywhere with her, like a brand. When she’s too far away Elena feels that distance like a missing tooth or a hole in the heart. Right now, she’s standing in the corner among the pile of partygoers’ shoes. Her hands are folded in front of her, barely peeking out from the hems of her robe’s long sleeves. Her hair and skin are the same silver-white as her robe, and she shines, all of her, like a beacon against the dimmed lights of the townhouse. Under their stares, the angel inclines her head. Ayaulym sucks down a breath. “Wow,” she says, and repeats, “Wow. Did you know I used to paint, too? I wish it was me that—” Then she seems to remember that Elena is there and not, perhaps, entirely receptive to what it is that Ayaulym wishes. “But you, how are you holding up? You look tired. She’s taking care of you, isn’t she?” Her look pierces Elena to the core, and suddenly Elena wonders what she looks like to Ayaulym. Did she remember to check her hair before she left her apartment? Did she brush her teeth or put on lipstick? What shirt is she wearing, and does it have paint stains on it? She remembers, too late, that Ayaulym has asked her a question. Ayaulym clucks, rubs Elena’s arm once more before letting go. “I know it’s hard, love. But just think of all you’ve accomplished because of this.” She shakes her head and spreads her arms wide, as if to embrace Elena’s prestigious clients, her museum exhibitions, the very existence of the angels themselves. “Without her, where would you be now?”
But then someone calls for Ayaulym to help with the recalcitrant sound system. Ayaulym peels herself away from Elena with a smile of apology, and they’re both saved from Elena’s answer to that particular question.
Ayaulym gets the music pumping and the living room’s shag carpet becomes a dance floor. Elena would like to dance. She doesn’t know when she last went dancing—before the angel, probably. She used to go out one or two nights a week back in college. But now her neck and shoulders ache from the hours she spent in front of a canvas yesterday. Today. Did she sleep last night? The angel lets her sleep most nights, luckily. Otherwise Elena grows useless too quickly, drunk on her own hours of wakefulness. She stands behind the couch and leans against it with her hips. Not dancing, but present.
“We don’t have to stay,” the angel says, in her ear. A moment later soft silver-white hair falls against the blade of Elena’s shoulder. “They don’t really understand what you’re going through.” The angel’s hand, cool as marble, huddles on Elena’s neck. “How strange you must seem to them now! Sanctified and set apart.” Her breath is as cold as her skin. “But we don’t have to go, either. No one can create all the time!” She lets go, glides silently away from Elena. The sudden absence of her touch drives the breath out of Elena and she grasps with both hands for the back of the couch. How would she live if she got what she wanted, all alone in an echoing world? “Only the greatest geniuses drive themselves down that road to madness. You should enjoy yourself tonight.”
“Thank you,” says Elena, though the words cling to her tongue like bile. She ghosts along the edge of the living room, avoiding swinging arms and hips, and ducks into the kitchen.
There’s another divine in there, sitting by himself at the high-top table next to a tray of pretzel crackers and hummus. His angel isn’t right there with him, but she can tell what he is anyway. She knows his look. The angel must be somewhere nearby, at some point of apogee before its orbit bends back inward. How terrible and wonderful, to have some space between you and your angel, even just for a little while. What would it be like to have that space forever? Nausea stabs up into Elena, and she focuses on the divine instead of his phantom angel. He clutches a violin case on his lap, hands clawed around the edges. For a dizzy moment, she thinks she should have brought her drawing pad and a couple of pencils with her. She could have done some figure work of the dancers, the clots of conversation. The lonely divine in the kitchen. Then she squashes that thought and sets it aside, though its hooks linger. “Hi,” she says, and the divine startles.
His name is Joel and he works with Brie at the college. He’s played the violin since he was four years old, and his angel only arrived when he was in college. Being granted divine inspiration later in life doesn’t really correlate with the quality of work someone will produce. She tells Joel so, and he bobs his head, looking at the violin case and not at her. What she does not mention is the shorter life expectancy for divines like them, as if their adult bodies never learn how to channel the whispers of the angels into art and out away from themselves. Where they do the most harm.
Elena doesn’t know why she thought she’d have anything to chat about with Joel. She grabs a fistful of crackers and mutters a goodbye; he doesn’t respond.
The angel waits for her by the door. “Let’s go,” says Elena, and grabs her jacket out of the front closet. The angel smiles and follows her out into the flickering light of the street.
Back at Elena’s place, the angel adjusts the lighting in the area she has marked off as the studio. It’s not a proper studio, not at all, just the corner of the living room that sees the least traffic, but it’s functional. Elena has painted beautiful and terrible things there, thanks to the angel’s help. But today she walks past into the kitchenette. There’s no beer in the fridge, of course, but Elena has stashed half a bag of chips in the cupboard. She walks back through the living room, crunching loudly, and collapses on the couch.
The angel says, “Elena—” just as Elena turns on the TV. The screen crackles with static for a moment before the intro to Elena’s favorite show resumes; sometimes the TV doesn’t work, if the angel is angry enough, but Elena hasn’t pushed her too far yet tonight.
She knows she shouldn’t test the waters like this, not if she doesn’t want the angel to suspect what she’s planning. But her brittle heart cannot paint for the angel tonight, will not. If she paints, surely her painting will betray her far more than her refusal could. So she slumps on the couch and crunches so noisily that she can barely hear the characters on TV. She can’t remember any of their names anyway, or what’s supposed to be happening with the story.
Finally the angel sighs and turns off the light over Elena’s easel. Then she sits next to Elena on the couch, her great long legs folded at an acute angle to fit her in place. Elena can feel the chill of the angel’s skin through the sleeve of her blouse. Ideas, images great and small, palettes of color swirl behind her eyes, and suddenly she has lost her appetite. She makes herself eat anyway, wiping her greasy fingers on her pants, until the show is over. As soon as the credits begin to roll the angel says, too lightly, “Elena. You weren’t put on this earth only to take up space.” The couch cushion shifts, and then cool fingers brushes Elena’s frayed hair around the shell of her ear, back toward her haphazard ponytail. “Nothing truly worth having is easy. Is it?”
“No,” says Elena, but neither that single word nor any other is enough to encapsulate the churning in her mind right now. What makes something worth having? Beauty? Prestige? Elena’s happiness offers none of these things, but the angel is right: that, too, will not be an easy thing to have. She pushes up from the couch. “I’m going to bed.”
The angel’s silence chases Elena all the way into her bedroom. She fixes her ponytail and then fastens the hair back away from her face with a half-dozen clips before crawling into bed. The potato chips twist in her stomach like a knotted fist.
In dreams Elena wonders: did the angel come to her, or did she make the angel herself?
She’s always been a painter, but of course in school she tried her hand at sculpture and pottery and fabrics and the rest of it. Did she, on a caffeine-fueled deadline bender, shape the angel’s strong arms and angular face? Did she shape those long-fingered hands and give life to the too-still eyes? In the haze of half-sleep, she imagines that the angel was her first divinely-inspired creation, the egg and the chicken alike.
She doesn’t want to remember, or wonder, or think at all. Ideas pound against the inside of her eyelids, needing to be let out. But she lies in bed, chasing sleep till her heart pounds and her sweaty sheets cling to her legs. The angel must still be close by: just outside the door, or sitting on the toilet lid in the bathroom on the other side of the wall. Elena’s hands twist in the sheets. She counts to ten, then counts to ten again. And again.
When even numbers boil away as steam in her mouth, she gets out of bed. Just one more time. She can do it. She has to do it.
She doesn’t see the angel when she sits down at her easel, but she knows she’s close by. Watching. Her hands shake as she selects her pencils. Maybe this is a bad idea. Maybe she should go back to bed, pray for sleep until morning comes and cool daylight drains the night’s fever. She almost convinces herself to forget the whole thing, pencil lead hovering just above the canvas.
Then the angel, behind her, nudges her elbow. Lead strikes canvas, and Elena spirals both inward and outward. Universes of color and opportunity explode behind her eyes, and raw emotion dredged up from the core of her provides the cosmic background radiation. Moving so fast in two different directions, it’s no wonder it’s so easy to rip herself apart at the canvas and let the images spill forth. There is an ecstasy in serving as an angel’s medium, she can’t deny that, but whenever it embraces Elena it comes robed in sackcloth.
When her pencil finally leaves the paper and drops to the floor, Elena finds herself on her knees in front of the easel, gasping and trembling. A drumbeat pounds in her temples and the hollow of her throat. Her left eye burns; she’s probably broken a blood vessel there again. She wants to look at what she’s done, but she doesn’t want to want that. She squeezes her eyes closed as long as she can bear it, then cracks them open.
The sketch is: a woman, lying on her side on a divan, cradling her entire body around the gentle curve of a guitar. She holds it like a dying lover or a prodigal child, and the folds of her dress and the spill of her hair whisper their secrets on the mysteries of faith. The sketch is: as beautiful as heartbreak. The sketch is: something that Elena can stare at and feel nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Like looking at the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling through a telescope, or on the face of a glossy postcard. Maybe that’s not the sketch’s fault. Maybe that is and always has been the inevitable aftermath of feeling everything all at once.
And the sketch is one more thing, too: the kind of work Elena would have sold her soul to create, once upon a time. As it turns out, her soul never needed to be sold to make art like this. Just held, a little too tightly, by someone with cold hard fingers.
“It’s going to be a masterpiece,” says the angel, whose cool breath strokes the back of Elena’s neck. Of course it will be a masterpiece. They always are. But the angel keeps talking. “You could even start painting it now. It’s already almost four in the morning; it’s not as if there’s much more sleep to be had tonight.”
Elena looks down at the floor between her knees. She puts her hands down on either side of her legs and pushes up. She does not shatter into dust and ash when her full weight rests on her heels. “I’m done,” she says, staring over the angel’s shoulder, and staggers into the kitchenette.
There’s a bottle of Jack tucked behind the cans of soup in the cupboard. Elena’s fingers close around the bottle’s neck, and she flinches a little at the feeling of the cool smooth glass under her hand. Divines aren’t supposed to drink; alcohol can cloud the signal, muffle the muse. But she’s already done her part for the night, and the angel busies herself with tidying up the studio corner again so that she can pretend not to see.
Elena makes sure to clink the bottle on the doorknob on her way into the bedroom. The sound rings out unmistakably, daringly, through the apartment. The angel looks up, nostrils flaring, but Elena shuts the door between them.
Elena awakes to sun pouring in through her open window.
What time is it? Today is Saturday and she was supposed to meet her mother and Noah for brunch. She doesn’t keep a clock in the bedroom and her phone is charging in the kitchenette. She slams through the door out of the room and stops short.
The angel stands beside the kitchenette counter, holding a coffee cup in both hands. The smell of it churns Elena’s stomach, and steam rolls off the top. Hot and fresh.
“Good morning,” says the angel, and holds out the cup. Elena takes it automatically, and when the angel’s fingers brush against her own, they have stolen a fraction of the coffee’s heat. They feel almost human, infused with warmth, but still hard and smooth. “I sent a text to your family to let them know you wouldn’t be able to make it. You need your rest.” The timer on the stovetop chimes, and the angel turns aside from Elena to rescue a fresh waffle from the waffle iron. “You must be hungry,” she says, and deposits the plate onto the counter, between a waiting glass of orange juice and the bottle of store-brand syrup. She drops a pat of butter in the middle and lays a fork and knife next to it, atop a carefully folded napkin.
Elena stares at the waffle. The butter melts and drips into the waffle’s honeycomb pattern, soaks into each dimple and divot. She needed to see her family this morning, to absorb whatever strength they could offer her. With or without the angel there. It’s not as if she can tell them what she’s planning anyway; she doubts they would understand. Everyone wants an angel of their own. They think they know what it means to have one. But it isn’t something that you can know—it has to be experienced to be understood. You don’t know what an ocean is until you’re at the bottom of one.
And you don’t know how hard you can swim until you reach for the surface. Months, years, of panic and desire press against her back. She still has to do this, family or not. And she’ll do it today, before her lungs give out. She sits down in front of the waffle, cuts a bite off, inspects it. The butter-drenched batter droops on her fork. “I should keep more fresh fruit in the place,” she says. “I wish I had some strawberries to put on top.”
“Why, Elena!” The angel brightens. She loves to be needed. “I’d be happy to run down to the corner store and bring some back for you.” She scoops the plate out from in front of Elena and tips the contents into the garbage. “There’s plenty of waffle mix. I’ll make you a fresh one when I’m back.”
She plants a cool kiss on Elena’s forehead, and Elena very carefully does not flinch. When the angel steps back, she even smiles up into the hard marble face. Up close, she can see the cloudy gray veins beneath the surface. “You’re so good to me,” Elena says, and a needle of guilt deflates her plan, just a little. “Thank you. My wallet is on the shelf by the door.”
The angel smiles back, but doesn’t acknowledge Elena’s feigned gratitude as she swoops out of the apartment. She knows what she is and how good she is at it.
Now it is Elena’s turn to be good for something, all on her own.
A few brisk strokes of red paint on the apartment floor, just inside the front door, and Elena bids her security deposit goodbye. It’s certainly no masterwork, but it will serve its purpose, and that’s what art is supposed to do, isn’t it? From a squirt-bottle hidden under the sink, Elena sprays herself with a mist of cool water, purloined from the Catholic church two streets over after her neighbor’s daughter’s christening. On her phone, Elena pulls up the same page she has looked over in so many private browsing sessions. She stands beside the kitchenette counter and waits.
She loses count of the minutes by the time the angel walks through the door with a paper bag wrapped up in one arm. She stops short in the middle of the painting Elena has left on the floor and looks up. The bag drops to the floor and vomits bruised strawberries. When she speaks, her sorrow flays Elena to the core. “A pentagram, Elena? Really?”
Elena doesn’t answer, but looks down at her phone. “Lord have mercy,” she says. She has a whole host of religious beliefs to turn to next if Catholicism fails. But this is the closest to what she grew up with, and this is where she starts. “Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. God, the father in heaven—”
“Elena.” Elena breaks eye contact with her phone’s screen, just for a moment. The angel’s bare foot lifts, extends over the red lines of the pentagram, and then Elena’s mouth is too dry to continue with the litany. “Do I look like a demon to you?”
The angel’s hand closes around Elena’s phone. Elena snatches her hand away just as cracks form in the screen and the case gives way with a screech. The twisted wreck drops to the floor between the angel’s feet, and she shakes her head. Marble hair shifts left, then right. “After all I’ve done for you. I didn’t think I would ever see the day.” Elena steps back, but the angel catches her wrist. She doesn’t squeeze, not like she did with the phone—instead, her thumb strokes the back of Elena’s hand. “Do you remember what you were, before I chose you? The third-rate scribbles, the paintings not fit to grace the back side of a brick wall?”
Her other hand cups the back part of Elena’s head, like a hat Elena should never have tried to take off. Together they sink to the floor and Elena’s head finds the angel’s lap. Tears, half-frozen slush, drip from the tip of the angel’s nose and rain down onto Elena’s hair. She is so foolish. She is nothing without her angel. The angel is the best part of her, the only part worthwhile, and the angel has no recrimination, only words of comfort to whisper into Elena’s ear. No one else is there for Elena, but the angel is. No one else understands her, but the angel does. No one else can help her realize her true worth, but the angel can.
“Have you ever heard of an anchorite, Elena?” the angel asks, and Elena shifts her head against the angel’s knees: no. Smooth fingers stroke the hair that clings to the back of her neck. “No, of course you haven’t. It’s not a common arrangement these days, but once it was an honored way to truly and fully consecrate one’s life.” She shifts to lay her hand along Elena’s arm. “There’s no need to brick you in completely, of course. Not like in those more primitive days. But an apartment is a very suitable sort of modern cell, one you can inhabit very comfortably while I leave to fetch food and supplies and whatever else you won’t be able to get for yourself—”
In Elena’s mind she is already blissfully ensconced under lock and key, in her angel’s protection. But the animal instinct in her brain kicks in, and she swings her arm at the angel. Her forearm strikes the angel’s, hard enough to bruise Elena down to the bone. She groans in pain, but the angel withdraws her hand in shock, and then Elena can think straight again. She scrambles to her feet, tosses her head to wake herself up from the cool, easy comfort of the angel’s promises.
Her eyes fall on last night’s sketch.
“No!” says the angel, but Elena is already on the move. She grabs the wet paintbrush from the pentagram as she goes and slashes an angry red line across the image’s face.
She pants as she stares at it. The angel goes very still. Waiting to see what Elena will do next? Elena doesn’t know. She does know that there is still a salvageable masterwork painting beneath that red line, that the paint will dry and she can hide the mark under a fresh layer.
She strikes again with the brush, a jerky curve this time, an orbit bent by the density of its center of mass. There are two more tubes of paint between the easel’s legs—she seizes these and ejects a splatter of black and orange that covers the woman’s arm and half of the guitar. With her bare hands, she smears the paint together, hiding more and more of the sketch.
Finally she breaks her paintbrush in half and drives it through the canvas itself. The broken end tears a short wound before falling through and dropping to the floor on the other side. Shoulders heaving, Elena wipes her hands on her pants and straightens up from her work.
No one will mistake this piece for something angel-inspired. The original sketch peeks through here and there: a corner of the woman’s mouth, her bare feet with curled toes. But the paint obscures most of the line work, and the colors ooze a bloody brown where they meet. The ripped canvas is a scowling, accusatory eye in the tableau, and Elena meets its gaze squarely. Some accusations shouldn’t be denied, and Elena would not turn aside the truth here for all the masterworks the angel could work through her to make.
But where, after all this, is the angel? Elena looks around. Her angel stands beside the door, on the other side of the pentagram, her back flat against the wall. Her nostrils flare and her eyelids flutter as if she does not dare to blink.
And Elena thinks, only for a flicker, that she understands the angel. Just a little.
When the painting dries, Elena drives a nail into her bedroom wall and hangs it up across from her bed. Then she sets a new canvas up, and putters around choosing paints, holding ideas one up against the other to see what takes. The angel trails around the apartment after her, sullenly and silently. When Elena turns on the TV to watch with her morning coffee, the angel turns it off; Elena picks up a book instead. When she decides to drive to Antonetti’s for lunch, she discovers that her keys are missing, and the angel stands by the door with a tight smile and folded arms. So Elena takes the spare out from the kitchenette junk drawer to lock the door behind her, and walks down to the corner sandwich shop instead.
When Elena comes back, she washes the smell of onions and salami off her hands. Then she settles into her seat at the easel. The angel steps forward, but Elena holds up one hand. “No,” she says, “I don’t want that. I don’t need that.” And the angel retreats back by the door. She’s as bound to Elena as Elena is to her, of course.
Elena lifts the pencil. “Nothing you can create on your own,” says the angel, “will compare to what I can show you.”
“Okay,” says Elena. And she draws.