That last insult was the last straw. “How dare you!” she yelled. Her hand smacked him upside his head multiple times as her mouth frothed on variations of the same insult. Little bastard! Dirty bastard! Stupid bastard! Blasphemous bastard! Ángel started crying. Lillian restrained her mother’s hand, if not her mouth, until she finally shouted the old woman down.
“You will not talk to my son like that!” she yelled. “Stop it, Mother! Stop it!”
Her mother jerked her hand free from Lillian’s, and then walked out of the furnace, their bomb shelter when the Harknesses flew overhead. Ángel still cried, and didn’t want to move.
“Come on, baby. Come on. Grandmamma’s just scared.”
“She’s never liked me, Momma! She hates me!”
“Well, I love you, Ángelito,” she said. Calling him Ángelito usually calmed him down, and it began to work. “Grandmamma loves you, too. She’s not always good about showing it. Come on, baby. We need to get out of here.”
It wasn’t that Lillian was anxious to see what the Harknesses did to her quiet little apartment. But she knew what came next. After a house had been targeted for revenge, and left for dead, a WaComm came around in short order to pick out the spoils. WaComm was short for Geier Wake Committees, an ad hoc group of wanderers that cleaned up the mess left after a Harkness strike. They usually arrived within a couple of hours. Lillian wanted to take what few possessions they had and get her family away. WaComms were an unsavory lot.
Her mother was already upstairs in the apartment. Part of the roof had come through the ceiling. A joist cleaved the TV in half. In general the ceiling was full of holes that looked into the grey night sky. Plaster and shell casings littered everything.
“Well, someone got their revenge,” Lillian’s mother said. “I wonder who you pissed off.”
Lillian ignored her. She followed Ángel into his room. He stared at a pile of shredded paper that used to be the stack of books he kept at the end of the bed. In his mind he saw all the characters from his books scattered from the structured lives they had lived within their bound confines. If he took the book pieces and stuck them together somehow with glue or tape, would the characters find themselves in a new world? Would they learn how to cope in their new landscape, grouped with unfamiliar characters from other books? The problem solving provided a brief distraction, until his mother put her arm around him and gently led him out of what remained of his room. Part of the wall between his room and the living room had been torn away.
Lillian and Ángel went into her room. She wanted to find a few mementos to take with her – a ring, a plastic card, a couple of photos – useless keepsakes that had meaning for her. A dark shadow startled them. Ángel gasped. The shadow turned around.
“You survived?” said the shadow.
“Who are you?” Lillian said, clutching Ángel from behind, shielding as much of him as possible with her bare hands.
“Wow, I so can’t believe you survived,” the shadow said.
“I said who are you?”
“I’m nobody, ma’am, nobody at all. I saw what they did to this place. I can’t believe you lived through that.”
“We hid in the cellar.”
“In an old furnace.”
“Ah! That explains it. Don’t think I’ve ever heard that before, and I’ve heard a lot, believe you me, I’ve heard them all.” He stepped more into the light and they could see his face better. He was unshaven, had thick eyebrows, and wide blue eyes that sat on either side of a large nose. His hair was salt and pepper, but he looked younger than his grubby appearance allowed.
“My name is Gabriel,” he said, with a small smile on his face. “Don’t be frightened of me. I’m not packing.”
“Well I am, buddy!” Lillian’s mother appeared behind them with a gun pointed over Lillian’s should and right at the man’s forehead. She held steady. His smile vanished and he put his hands up. Each held a yellowed, translucent object.
“I mean you no harm,” he said.
“Then what the hell are you doing here? Where’s the rest of your Committee?”
“Oh, no, ma’am! No, I’m not from the WaComm. I just scavenge for little things here and there, alone. It helps me get by.”
“Yeah, right! You were sorry to see us still alive, because we were supposed to be your dinner, huh?”
WaComms cleaned house very thoroughly. They even took the bones for soup later, so the story goes.
“Well, I’m not giving you a second chance, buddy!” She held the gun firm and steady. “So get out of here and go away!”
“Ma’am, please. I don’t eat people. I’m not from the WaComm. I’m a vegetarian.”
“Sure you are, until you get to the thigh bone. That’s what they do, is eat the thighs off people, like giant drumsticks.”
“Mother, please,” Lillian said.
“Look, I have your Harkness. Or what’s left of it, see?” He wiggled the yellowed, translucent objects in his hands. “I found them on the floor behind you. That’s all I’m carrying, honest. I have nothing else.”
Lillian recognized the two wings of her Great Aunt Matilda’s old yellowing Harkness in the man’s grimy hands. Threads dangled from their jagged edges. Ángel, still clutching his one remaining book, the one he took with him to the basement, wanted to take the Harkness wings.
“Ángel!” his mother called out.
“Here, you want them?” Gabriel said.
“Stand back!” Lillian’s mother ordered.
“I’m not going to take anything, since you all lived. Honest, I’m not! Swear to God. Please.”
“Alright,” Lillian said, still clutching Ángel. “But just leave us, OK? Just let us be.”
Sad eyed, he began to walk towards a hole in the wall that used to separate Lillian’s bedroom from the kitchen. But then he noticed what Ángel was clutching.
“Is that the book he’s got?”
They stared at him. Lillian’s mother still had the gun trained on his forehead.
“That looks like that book! Is that how you knew the Harknesses were coming to get you, from reading the book?”
“What does that mean?” Lillian’s mother growled. “We told you to beat it!”
“No, wait, Mother. What do you know about this book?”
“That’s the book, ma’am. The book. It explains it all. Everything. There are only so many still around. Most have been destroyed.”
“It told me,” Ángel started in a tenuous voice, “about how rubbing the Harkness angel sends a signal which they home onto and then they go and they blow up the place that sent the signal.”
“Yeah, that’s right. That’s how it works.”
“What the hell are you two talking about?” Lillian’s mother said, getting irate. “The Harkness goes after people who did something bad to other people. It’s revenge. That’s why it’s called an avenging angel, in case you didn’t know!”
“No, ma’am. No, that’s not how it works at all. These plastic statues can’t read your mind. You can think and think and think about whatever you want, but it won’t know what you’re thinking about. It can’t do that. But it does send out a signal, just like your boy said. When you rub it,” he started massaging the two wings with his thumbs, “like this, it senses it with these little wires you see here, right? And then it sends a signal to the Harkness people. Whoever rubs their Harkness too much, they send out the helicopter and blow them up. That’s what they do.”
Ángel nodded his head.
“What a load of bull!” Lillian’s mother said. “I’ve heard enough from this guy. He’s gonna get it! Say goodbye!”
“No!” Ángel said. “He’s telling the truth! That’s what I read in the book. If you rub it too much, they think you’re a troublemaker and they kill you. That’s what it says in the book.” Gabriel nodded.
“When did you read this book?” Lillian asked.
“Long time ago. I found it in another house that had been bombed by the Harkness helicopters. I never knew what happened to those people. I didn’t see their bodies. I’m pretty sure I got there before the WaComm did.”
“Helicopters? A Harkness is a helicopter?” Lillian’s mother said.
“Sure. Haven’t you ever seen one? Well, maybe you haven’t,” he said, with a faint smile. “If they catch you looking, they kill you on the spot. They don’t want the secret to get out. But it’s just a giant helicopter. They usually travel in groups of three. But they do have an angel painted on their bellies, though.”
Everything in Lillian’s being and soul told her that the whole Harkness thing was a load of malarkey. What was a plastic statue supposed to do for you, anyway? Still, though, she clung to her great aunt’s story about the real Harkness angel that appeared in the sky one day, thundering judgment over a trembling land.
“Look,” Gabriel said, “it can be, you know, kinda dangerous here, you know? I think we should, like, get out of here, before the WaComm shows up. And they’re packing, seriously packing, ma’am,” he said, looking at Lillian’s mother. “Theirs will make yours look like a toy.”
“It’s got it where it counts, buddy!”
“How did you get here?” Lillian asked.
“I drive a cab during the day. I drive at night with the lights out, so they can’t see me. There aren’t any police out after curfew, only Harkness helicopters. We can go to my place. It’s just on the outside of town.”
“The hell we will!” Lillian’s mother said.
“Mother, this man is clearly no threat to us.”
“Sure, until he leads us to an open pit and roasts us!”
“I told you ma’am, I’m a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat. And I certainly wouldn’t eat people.”
“Mother I think we should go with him.”
Ángel nodded in agreement. The man’s face had a calming effect on him. Lillian saw this and trusted her son, who had, after all, saved their lives.
To be continued. . .
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.