Rona instantly regret being so short with Angelica. She had come off as bitter and rude and Angelica hadn’t deserved that. But how dare Heaven ask her for a favor after all of this time? They abandoned her, marooned her on Earth—granted, they could have done much worse, but that was beside the point—and she had accepted her fate. In fact, she was just beginning to relish it. She had learned to navigate the ins and outs of Earth pretty well; how to mind her own business and stay out of trouble; how to stay unattached and uninvested. Most importantly, she had learned how to look out for number one. And now they were asking her to look out for some kid that she had never even met. No thank you. She didn’t owe heaven any favors. It wasn’t like they’d done her any.
She caught the first bus that showed up and planted herself in the rear seats. Fatigue began to set in, so she rested her head on the window. She did miss Angelica’s company, but she didn’t want to hear any more about this mission nor entertain any more fantasies of returning to Heaven. She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.
“Just hear me out,” said Angelica.
Rona jolted. “Angelica! What the hell?”
“I’m just asking for you to listen for a moment,” said Angelica.
“I’ve heard everything you have to say and the answer is still ‘no’. What part of ‘no’ do you not understand the N or the O?”
“I didn’t tell you that the human that Hell is after is only a 14-year-old boy.”
Rona thought for a second. “Still not doing it.”
“Why not? I don’t understand,” said Angelica.
“Because Heaven doesn’t need me. They’ve gotten along for the last nine-hundred-sixty-three years, seven months, fifteen days, twenty-two hours, and eight minutes without me; and they’ll get along for the next millennium without me.”
“But, Rona, if you don’t help there might not be a next thousand years. There might not be a tomorrow. This mission is that important.”
“Maybe it isn’t. Have you guys even thought this through? I mean what if this is just an elaborate hoax by Satan to keep you guys chasing shadows while he goes after the real prize?”
“Personally, I think that’s what the war is. I think he’s trying to keep us occupied while he goes after the child. In fact, I don’t think that they even know that we know about the human. Without you we’re in trouble.”
“You’ll think of something, Angelica,” said Rona with a yawn.
“You are the plan. You’re my first and only pick for the job. And you’re this child’s only hope.”
“I don’t know, Angelica. I just ca–” Rona began, but then something caught her eye. She wiped her eyes in bewilderment.
“Okay, don’t freak out,” said Angelica, motioning for Rona to be calm.
“Why is that bear playing the saxophone?”
“You mustn’t overreact.”
“This is a dream,” said Rona in sudden realization. She looked out the window and saw that the bus was driving underwater. One of the dolphins made an obscene gesture at Rona with his fin. A handsome merman with ripped abdominal muscles swam up beside Rona and kissed the glass.
“You were sleeping so peacefully,” said Angelica guiltily.
“You’re inside my head,” said Rona.
“I didn’t want to wake you…”
“You invaded my dreams!”
“I know it’s a breach of trust but we needed to talk…”
“GET OUT OF MY HEAD!” shouted Rona.
She awoke to see everyone on the bus staring at her. It was morning. She’d been riding on that bus for the entire night.
Although the bus had driven her across town and back before finally dropping her off near her home, Rona relished the extra rest. It had been the best sleep she had gotten in weeks. She picked up the morning paper before making her way up to her condo. She turned the key and opened the door slowly, half-expecting Angelica to pop out from behind it. But the place was as empty as ever. Rona couldn’t subdue a little disappointment as she stepped in and closed the door. She took a shower, changed clothes, and ordered some blueberry pancakes delivered from the bakery down the street. They turned out to be just the right amount of delicious. She sat down on the couch and read the newspaper.
The economy was still in the tubes, the troops hadn’t come home yet, and there had been another environmental disaster. She turned the page and saw that her little barroom skirmish, the night before, had made the paper. There were no real details and no one apprehended. Yawn. She turned the page again and saw the image of a mother draped over the casket of her teenage daughter whom had been killed in a car accident. Rona winced from the pain on the mother’s face. No one should have to die so young. Then again, everyone died young in comparison to Rona. This world was already screwed regardless of the war between Heaven and Hell. There was nothing she could do about that, right? She threw the paper in the trash.
She popped a VHS tape of General Hospital into her VCR before lying down on the couch. Usually the exploits of Luke and Laura were enough to ease her mind but she found herself unable to pay attention. All she could think about was how much she missed Heaven. Her time on Earth was littered with bad memories; memories that would often hijack her mind and heart without warning. Wouldn’t it be nice to go home and leave all of this pain behind? She pushed those thoughts from her mind. She had a million reasons why she couldn’t do this mission.
Though, at the moment she couldn’t think of any.
She heard a noise and sat upright. “Angelica,” she said, trying to hide her excitement. “Angelica?” No one was there; she was still alone. She sighed. Maybe Angelica couldn’t appear inside of her apartment without being invited. Rona was a little fuzzy on some of the laws of the Aegis, but it was a possibility that that was one of them. So she went for a walk. She sat in the park until the sun went down, before returning home. She placed some B.B. King on the record player. The thrill is gone, he crooned from the speakers. She flopped down on the couch. I guess Angelica isn’t coming back, she thought. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so harsh to her.
The thrill is gone away from me.
Although, I’ll still live on.
But so lonely I’ll be.
“I feel like I just orbed into 1985.”
Rona smiled. “You’ve been in my apartment for two seconds and you’re already judging?”
“Just making an observation. I do love this song, though.” She swayed with the rhythm as she moved through the apartment. “He doesn’t play it much Up There. Don’t you have any amenities?”
“Sure. I’ve got running water, indoor plumbing, a stove, heating. You have any idea how much easier refrigerators have made my life? I even have a color television. That’s all of the amenities I need,” said Rona, sitting up to look at Angelica.
Angelica was seated in a chair at the counter inspecting Rona’s toaster. “You do know that there are later models of telly being produced now. And DVD players.
“What do you know about any of this stuff?” Rona laughed.
“Well, I like to stay current on all of the human’s little inventions and gadgets. I find it simply fascinating that they’ve shown such ingenuity. Ooo an answering machine; I haven’t seen one of these in ages! How long have you lived here, anyway?” She ran her fingers along the textures of one of the paintings on the wall.
“Not sure. What year was the Watergate scandal?”
“How do you pay for all of this?”
“I don’t mean to pry,” said Angelica.
“It’s okay. I’ve got some accounts and assets in different places. You don’t stick around for over 900 years without learning a few tricks of the trade.”
“Bravo,” said Angelica with a delighted smile.
“You hungry?” asked Rona as she made her way to the kitchen.
“No, I’m okay.”
“Oh, I forgot, you don’t eat,” said Rona, as she rummaged through the refrigerator.
“This jacket is smothering me,” said Angelica. She removed her white jacket to reveal two beautiful white wings. She gave them a good stretch before relaxing them and sitting down on the couch. Rona hopped up onto the counter with a half-eaten bag of marshmallows.
“So,” said Angelica. “Have you considered–?”
“An—Rona, why not?”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“That isn’t the real reason.”
“Yes, it is.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“I most certainly am,” said Rona through a mouthful of marshmallows. “I’ve been waiting a long time for the Powers-That-Be in Empyria to ask me to do something for them, just so I could say ‘no’. I’ve wanted to stick it to you guys for quite some time.”
“You wouldn’t just be sticking it to us, you’d be ‘sticking it’ to everyone and everything in existence.”
“You guys can have your war—my money is on you guys—and then you can come and find me when all of this is over. You don’t need me, you’ll do fine.” Rona paused and thought for a moment. “Just do me a favor and let me know when things get heavy so I can pack a go-bag.”
“You can’t run from this.”
“I can and I will,” said Rona, tipping the bag of Marshmallows so that they flowed into her mouth.
“We won’t win without your help.”
“Can we talk about something else?”
“No, we can’t!”
The force of Angelica’s voice jolted Rona. She stared at her friend, swallowing her food without chewing. The apologetic expression on Angelica’s face was sincere enough to melt away Rona’s momentary resentment.
“You can lie to me, Rona, but not to yourself.” While Angelica’s expression had softened, her tone had not. “I understand that you’re hurt, and angry, and you feel alone, but you’re not a nihilist. I refuse to believe that you would allow the destruction of so much just to spite Heaven. I refuse to believe that. What is the real reason, Angerona?”
Rona let out a sigh and hung her head. “I can’t do it, Angelica. I don’t trust myself to be able to do it,” She took a deep breath. “I can’t handle that kind of responsibility. I can’t take on another Charge. You remember what happened last time I was a guardian. What if something like that were to happen again? What if I fail? I can’t live with that. Not again. Find someone else. Someone better.”
“Oh, Rona,” said Angelica. “I would not have come to you if I didn’t think you were the right person—the best person for the job. I need you to see that. Your past experiences, be they your victories, or your defeats, have molded you into the person you are today. You have to let go of the past in order to embrace the future.”
“Take me back with you,” said Rona, coming over resting her head on Angelica’s lap. “I would be more help to you guys on the battlefield in the Celestial Realm.”
“I can’t,” said Angelica with a frown. “You’re needed here. This is the most important job in the world. Quite literally. I need you to say ‘yes’. Then you can stick it to Heaven once your mission is complete and you’re back in Empyria.”
Rona laughed. “Oh, Angelica, you know I’m gonna’ do it. I’m just not ready to give the official word yet. I just need some time, I guess.”
“Very well,” said Angelica rising from the couch, her body passing through Rona’s.
“Wait, wait,” said Rona, “Don’t leave now. I mean, could I get you some tea or something?”
“Rona, there are other matters…”
“Stay. Just for a little while. Please.”
Angelica sat back down. “Some tea would be delightful.”
They spent the next couple of days together, just catching up. There was no talk of war or the mission.
It was the happiest Rona had been in a very long time.
The girl fled in terror. Fear had given her speed she hadn’t known she possessed as she sprinted down the alley, almost slipping on the rain-soaked concrete. The rain made it even more difficult to see in the moonless night. She didn’t know where she was or what direction she was going. She tried to call for help, but the all-out sprint had sapped almost all of her available breath. The streets were almost empty as she came upon a homeless man sweeping the street with a broom.
“Help! You have to help me!” she pleaded. The silver-haired, dark-skinned man looked at her in surprise, but didn’t respond. “You gotta’ help me. Please.” The man continued to stare at her without saying anything. The girl peered over her shoulder. She could hear them coming.
She tried to lose them by running around as many corners as she could without going in circles, but they were right there on her heels. She reached for her cell phone and dialed “911” but the phone slipped from her hand. She thought about kneeling down to pick it up, but the danger looming not far behind caused her to change her mind. Instead she screamed: “Help! They’re going to kill me! Please, somebody help!” as loudly as she could before continuing to run.
Her legs grew weary, her breathing difficult to control. Her heart threatened to leap from her chest. But she couldn’t stop running. They’d catch her! They were too fast. They were too strong. Their faces…their eyes…they weren’t human! The girl knew they would hurt her. She climbed into a nearby dumpster and pulled the top shut, trying to control her breathing—trying to silence her heartbeat. She couldn’t see them but she could hear them moving around outside. She covered her mouth to hide her whimpering. And she prayed as tears streaked from her eyes. She prayed.
Then something ripped the lid from the dumpster and she found herself staring into those eyes.
Pitroth liked to make an entrance. His loyal followers had gathered inside of the building, chanting and awaiting arrival. He fed off of their energy, the chorus of their voices invigorated him. He would make them wait a little while longer. He pulled the hood over his head, completely concealing his face, while he contemplated the perfect way to appear before them. Should he appear from flames, or merely from smoke? Should he darken the room and then appear from the shadows? He could always make his voice appear first, booming from all directions, causing his crowd of Infernal to search frantically for him before he appeared before them. Bombastic displays of power further enthralled them to him, further intoxicated them. It made them thirsty for power and he became their reservoir.
But these were just parlor tricks, not real power. He hadn’t shown them his true power yet. But soon he would show them. Soon they would all see the heights to which he could rise…that was it! It was time to be seen.
“Infernal!” Pitroth’s disembodied voice echoed from every wall in the hall, causing silence from the gathered followers. From smoke, he appeared amongst them. They stepped aside, making way for his entrance. “Infernal!” he boomed again. They inclined their heads towards him and began to chant in low voices. Pitroth began to levitate above them. His followers couldn’t help but look up at him, as they fell to shocked silence. Pitroth floated slowly across the hall, and up onto the balcony as his followers watched. He landed and peered down at them. Each of them was clad in black hoods and that concealed their faces, but he could feel their gaze on him. It didn’t matter what he said or did from this point, he had them; their attention, their admiration was his.
“Infernal,” said Pitroth, “We have acquired the final sacrifice.” The crowd began to chant. “And tonight, one of you has earned the right to become a full-fledged member of the Infernal. Peter, step forward.” One of the hooded figures began to move to the front of the crowd. The others parted to allow him through. All the while they chanted at a low rumble. The hooded man kneeled. “Your faith has proven worthy. Do you accept him as your lord, your savior, your master?”
“Yes!” said Peter.
Pitroth smiled beneath his hood. One of the Infernal brought him his staff. He aimed the end at Peter and let forth a blast of energy. The beam hit Peter and he fell to the ground convulsing. The blast hadn’t hurt him, in fact, it had done nothing at all. Peter was repeating the movements that he had seen other Infernal do during the ceremony a dozen times before. Peter had been an Infernal for some time now; since the day he had first partaken. This was just a formality, but a necessary one. There was power in ritual.
A crowd of Infernal gathered Peter up and lifted him high into the air. The crowd departed, carrying Peter above them as he lay still. From the corner of his eye, Pitroth saw a figure clad in a red hood staring at him. Unimpressed. Judging. As always. “Now it is time for you to do your part,” he told the Red Hood. Wordlessly, the Red Hood departed.
Pitroth could feel his power growing.
There was nothing that could stop him now.
Rona found Elimu sitting under a big tree. He had been fiddling with something, but had stopped when he’d seen Rona. He hid the item behind his back.
“What was that?” asked Rona, with a mischievous smile. She lunged at Elimu who dodged behind the tree just in time.
“It’s supposed to be a surprise,” he said, peeking out at her from behind the tree.
“I hate surprises,” said Rona, placing her hands on her hips.
Elimu laughed melodiously. “What is life without a few surprises?”
“Give it to me.”
“Ah-ah, close your eyes.”
Rona did. Elimu came up and placed something smooth in the palm of her hand. She opened her eyes and saw an onyx stone almost the size of her palm sitting in her hand. In the middle of the stone was a perfectly rendered carving of an elephant.
“Do you like it?” asked Elimu.
“Oh, I love it!” said Rona leaping into Elimu’s arms, wrapping her arms around the back of his neck, and kissing him on the lips. “Where did you get it?”
Elimu pointed to the sky. “The stone came from up there. Like you. I carved the elephant myself. You remind me of the elephant.”
“Have I put on weight, my Love?” asked Rona, turning her head to look at her back side.
The sound was the closest to Heaven Rona could ever hope to get again.
He kept laughing until she joined in. She hit him in the chest with what she thought was a light tap.
“Ow! You see, that is why. You are so strong. The lion may be the king of beasts, but it is the elephant who is the queen. She leads and protects her tribe. As mighty as the lion is, he does not dare attack the elephant. She is the most powerful of all of the animals. And you, like her, are powerful.”
Rona smiled. She kissed Elimu as passionately as she could, but she could sense that he was deep in thought. “What is it?”
“The elephant never forgets,” he said. “And I want you to always remember me.”
Rona released her embrace. She stared into Elimu’s dark brown eyes. She held up the stone. “I will never ever lose this.”
Elimu laughed. He smiled at her the way that only he could. “Someday I want you to throw it away.”
“What? No. Never.”
“Someday, when you are ready I want you to toss it as far away from you as you can. One who will live as long as you will amass many stones. And you will not be able to carry them all. Some, you will need to throw away.”
“I want to keep it because you gave it to me.”
“Remembering me, this moment, is all that matters. Not the stone itself. One day I will be in your past. Tossing the stone away will not mean forgetting the past, only no longer carrying the weight of it. Instead, carry me here.” He pointed to her heart. “But do not toss it away today, because I worked very very hard on it.”
Rona roared with laughter.
“But someday. When you are ready.”
Rona wrapped her arms around him and kissed him.
The sudden appearance of Angelica behind her interrupted Rona’s day dream. She slipped her lucky stone back into her pocket where she always carried it.
“Say I agree to this mission thing or whatever, are you sure you can get me back into Heaven?” asked Rona, turning around to face Angelica. Angelica drew an “X” over her heart and raised her right hand in oath. “Protect the kid, that’s all? No super-hero stuff?”
“Keep the child safe. That is all,” said Angelica, her face lighting up in anticipation—literally.
“Okay. I’m in.”
“Yippee! Welcome back, Guardian Angel.”