The angel's got a thousand eyes and they're all looking at TJ.
He guesses it's an angel. That's what it said it was. Or that's what it told him it was. It didn't really say, TJ guesses, 'cuz it didn't make any sound. There were just words in his head, all a sudden, without any kinda sound or sight or shape except an understanding of their meaning. It sorta burned, but not in a bad way.
He figures it can't really speak with sound 'cuz it hasn't got a mouth as far as he can tell, just all those wide brown eyes, movin' and spinnin' round each other and never blinkin'. It's like a Ferris wheel got tangled up with a couple other Ferris wheels but the cars are eyes and the whole things on fire. Kinda.
TJ's all soaked through and shivering still, 'cuz apparently the angel can pull his body outta the river and pull the riverwater outta his lungs, but it can't dry his clothes off. Or maybe it could, if he asks, but he can't figure out if that would be rude or not.
He wants to get home before Dad, so he can sit by the radiator and have a cigarette in the house and not have to explain why he's got half the water from the Missouri with him. But it's bad manners to leave when someone's in the middle of talkin' to you, and he figures it's probably double bad if that someone just saved your life, and triple bad if that someone is an angel of the Lord. He can't even imagine what Ma would say, if he just up and walked off right now.
So he tries to pay attention.
Hearing the angel is hard, but in a way that feels good. Like the burn in his legs when he runs, except instead of just his legs, it's his whole body, or, more than that even, his whole self. The angel's sayin' lots of grand sounding things, about destiny and purpose, a higher calling and his own free choice, watching over him and waiting for the right time and love and repeating history and hope.
TJ's brain is starting to go a little fuzzy trying to hold it all in. It's like being drunk, on the good whiskey Cecily lifted from her grandad's cabinet that one time, not the cheap shit beer they usually get Armani's older brother to buy them. Everything feels far away and a little funny. An angel pulled him from a river. He was dying and then he wasn't. The angel wants something from him. He wants to laugh, but he doesn't have to think about if that's rude or not, he knows it is.
Something warm is dripping from his nose, and he thinks it must be runny from the cold, except when he wipes at it with the back of his hand what comes away is red.
TJ wakes up in his own bed and tries to pretend to himself the angel and the river and the blood was a dream. He lies there for a moment, tellin' that to himself over and over, but he's never been much good at lying. Always gets caught, even by himself.
When he finally gives in and opens his eyes, he just about shits himself. There's a boy's face hovering over his own, just a few inches away. The eyes are wide and brown and very familiar, but that doesn't stop TJ from startling so bad he rolls back and off the side of his bed, knocking his head on the hardwood.
"Jesus," he mutters, once he's got his breath back. The angel tilts its head at him. It looks like a boy now, instead of a burning storm cloud raining eyes. A boy about his age, scrawny and brown-skinned and with those same eyes, just set still in a face under thick eyebrows and a few pimples. It's followed him, crawling onto his bed to keep peering at him by leaning over the side.
"NO," it says, "NOT QUITE. NOT EVEN CLOSE, REALLY." TJ can't tell if it's serious or if that's supposed to be a joke. He doesn't know if angels make jokes, doesn't know if they can. He wonders if it'll smite him, for taking the lord's name in vain. Ma'd say it'd serve him right.
It's making actual sound now, but there's still something about its voice that burns on the way down, makes him feel warm all over. "ARE YOU OKAY?" it asks, forehead wrinkling in concern.
"Yeah," TJ sighs, "I'm alright. Just hit my head." He tries to sit up, but the world spins a little and he has to catch himself on the bedframe to keep from flopping right back down.
"HERE," the angel says. And then it reaches out to cup the goose egg growing on the back of his head, and before he can even finish wincing from being touched there a white-hot flash sears through his skull, and he gasps and his whole body jerks and he sorta notices that the angel has to reach out and grab his arm with its other hand to keep him mostly upright. And then the heat is gone. So is the dizziness, and the pain, and the goose egg.
TJ gently touches the back of his own head, where it felt like he got stabbed and then felt like nothing had happened at all. His fingers brush against the angel's and he pulls back.
"What was that?" he asks, voice ragged.
"I HEALED YOU," the angel says simply.
"Then why did it hurt?" TJ asks, trying to swallow something down, but his throat is dry.
The angel shrugs, looks sad for just a second, and says, "HEALING USUALLY DOES."
TJ hasn't really got anything to say to that, so he just shrugs outta the angel's arms and heaves himself to his feet.
TJ's starvin', so he makes the angel follow him down to the kitchen. He musta slept for hours, 'cuz it's dark outside the window. He pokes his head outta his room real quick to make sure the coast is clear. The door to Dad's room is firmly shut, and the house is quiet, so TJ gives the angel a thumbs up and waves it out after him.
Downstairs, TJ doesn't bother with the kitchen light switch. He likes the nighttime too much, feels safer in the dark. The soft yellow slice of light that comes out the fridge when he opens it is good enough. The angel wanders over to stare out the window above the kitchen sink while TJ digs out grape jelly and bread and peanut butter. He can tell it's gettin' antsy, that its just waitin' to give him the speech it started at the edge of the river. He's not sure what it's waitin' for. Maybe it feels bad about him passin' out and thinks he'll have a better chance with something in his stomach. Maybe its waitin' for him to ask.
He asks it, "Do you want one?"
The angel turns to look at him and the sandwich he's holdin' out. Then it just keeps lookin', so he repeats himself, and then he starts to feel like maybe he's askin' a dumb question, so he starts rambling. "I mean, uh, I guess I don't know if you eat, really. But I thought'cha did, or, I mean, thought angels did, you know? In the bible. The Old Testament part. At Sodom, I think? Or Gomorrah. One of 'em. Or maybe that was God. Or maybe I'm just remembrin' the whole thing wrong," he mutters, huffing a quiet laugh that he hopes doesn't sound too nervous.
The angel blinks, finally, real slow, and then holds it's hand out. TJ puts the sandwich in it, relieved, then turns back 'round to make one for himself. "YOU ARE NOT REMEMBERING WRONG," the angel says, slow and quiet, the way you talk when you're bein' gentle. "IT HAS BEEN MANY CENTURIES SINCE A HUMAN LAST OFFERED ME FOOD."
"Oh," TJ says, turnin' back to the angel as he finishes spreading jelly and slaps his two pieces of bread together. The angel's still holdin' its sandwich, just starin' at it like it's made of gold or some other precious thing. TJ feels like maybe he did something wrong, except he's pretty sure the opposite's true, and he doesn't know why anyone would look at PB&J he made on wonder bread the way the angel's lookin' at it. He kinda can't stand it, so he shoves his own sandwich in his mouth so he's talkin' with his mouth full when he says, "Ya gotta bite it, ya know."
The angel laughs, just a small laugh, but TJ didn't know angels could laugh at all. The sound makes his bones feel 'bout as sturdy as the jelly in his sandwich. He leans against the counter. The angel finally takes a bite, and it closes its eyes again, the way you do when you're eatin' somethin' real good and all you wanna focus on is tastin' it. It's ridiculous. It chews real slow, swallows, and says "THANK YOU" in that same quiet voice.
"Don't mention it, uh-" TJ says, and then realizes suddenly he doesn't even know what to call it. Ma really would cuff his ear if she could see how bad his manners have slipped. He pushes that thought away.
"You got a name?" he asks the angel. It sorta smirks at him, and he doesn't get why 'till the angel opens its mouth and makes a sound it shouldn't be able to make with a human's mouth, one that sounds the way honey tastes. "Right," TJ says, noddin'. Angel will have to do.
He watches the angel eat the rest of its sandwich in those same slow, savorin' bites. Makes himself another and wolfs it down before the angel's half done and hopes that's not rude of him, but he really is hungry. It looks so happy eating that he makes himself wait 'till its finished the whole thing and licked the stray smears of jelly off its fingers before he lets himself say, "I didn't know you could do that, ya know, make yourself look different," with a wave at its body.
The angel looks down at itself. "YES," it explains, "I SHOULD HAVE DONE THIS BEFORE I APPEARED TO YOU. I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN YOU WOULD NOT YET BE READY TO BEAR WITNESS TO A TRUE ANGELIC FORM. MY APOLOGIES."
TJ sniffs, remembers the copper tang of blood in his nose, says, "No harm done." Then he thinks for a minute about the parts of what the angel just said that weren't an apology and says, "Wait, what do you mean I'm not ready yet?"
The angel snaps its head up and TJ's heart sinks. This is the question the angel's been waitin' for him to ask. He's not real sure he wants the answer.
"AS YOU GROW INTO YOUR ROLE AS PROPHET," it answers, "YOUR MIND WILL EXPAND. YOU WILL BECOME CAPABLE OF PERCIEVING MUCH MORE OF THE TRUE NATURE OF THINGS. AREADY YOU CAN SEE MORE THAN THE AVERAGE HUMAN. ONE LOOK AT MY ANGELIC FORM WOULD HAVE KILLED MOST OF THEM."
"Oh," TJ says, 'cuz he's not real sure what else to say. And then, "Sorry, uh, my role as – did you say prophet?"
TJ lets himself slide slowly down the kitchen cabinets behind him, sinkin' to the floor. He puts his head between his knees and breathes. Tries his best to count sevens while he does.
He feels the angel's hand light on his back, its fingertips ghostin' over him through his t-shirt. "ARE YOU HURT?" it asks, and all TJ can do is shake his head.
TJ doesn't know how to turn down bein' a prophet. He's pretty sure he remembers at least one of 'em tryin', in the bible, but it didn't do 'em much good, in the end.
He thinks he mighta freaked Angel out, just a bit, 'cuz it didn't really say much else about the whole prophet thing, just kept a hand on his back 'till he got his panicked breaths evened back out to a normal rhythm, then took his hand and guided him back upstairs to his room. It tucked him into bed like a kid, but he didn't really mind. It was kinda nice, feelin' like somebody was lookin' after him again.
It's less nice now, with the angel just hoverin' over him while he's tryin' to fall asleep. He's got as many questions for it as it has eyes in it's true form. He thought it might have somethin' better to do than watch him sleep, but it seems content to just stand next to his bed and keep those brown eyes fixed on him.
He sighs and cracks one of his own eyes open to look at it. It shoots him a small smile. He gives in. "Do you sleep?"
The angel looks surprised. "I DO NOT THINK SO. I HAVE NEVER TRIED."
"Try now," TJ suggests, scootin' over to one edge of the bed. "It's too weird, tryin' to sleep with you standin' there and starin'."
"OH," the angel says, and starts to reach for the bed before it hesitates, like it's not sure TJ really meant what he said. He sighs and pulls the covers back, pats the mattress.
The angel gets into bed slowly and settles on its back, eyes still wide open, limbs stiff at its side. It's kinda unsettlin', like that. Looks like a corpse. TJ pokes it in the arm.
Touching its bare skin gives him a little static shock, but in a nice way. It turns its head to look at him, and TJ realizes that it's very close to him again. He swallows. "C'mon then," he says, "Get comfortable."
The angel's brow furrows as it studies him, like it's not really sure what he means, and TJ feels kinda sad for it. Finally, it nods and rolls over so it's lyin' on its stomach, turnin' its head again so it keeps lookin' at TJ. And then it reaches out the arm closest to him and takes one of TJ's hands in its own. His breath stutters.
"I FEEL COMFORTABLE KNOWING YOU ARE SAFE," the angel says, and then it closes its eyes. TJ really thought he was gonna have to tell it to do that part, what with all the unbroken eye contact and refusing to blink. He gently rubs the back of the angel's hand with his thumb and it does something he wants to call purring, even though it's not a cat. TJ nestles down in his blankets and falls into an easier sleep than he's had in months..
Dad's already gone when he wakes up, and the angel's still there, layin' right where he left it like it hasn't so much as twitched all night. TJ swears when he gets a look at his clock, manages to catch himself in time to switch from "Goddamnit" to "shit," though. Then he hauls his ass outta bed and digs around his dresser for a t-shirt without anything too stupid written on it.
"I gotta go to work," he tells the angel, as it watches him get dressed. He thinks about tellin' it to turn around, but he's pretty sure that just 'cuz he can't see any eyes in the back of its head don't mean they're not there, and he hasn't got anything it hasn't already seen a billion times before, if it's been watching over humanity since the beginning of creation or whatever.
"OK," is all the angel says.
TJ glances up at it as he ties his shoe. "So, are you just gonna hang out in my bedroom all day or…?"
The angel does another one of its quiet laughs and then says, "NO. I WILL GO WHERE YOU GO."
Grover gives the angel a funny look when it shows up with TJ, but he doesn't say anything. Grover's never cared too much what TJ does while he minds the roadside stand the old man sells his vegetables out of, as long as he's polite to everybody who comes by. He's pretty sure Grover doesn't even make a profit with the thing, or need to, just has it 'cuz he doesn't know what else to do with all the tomatoes and squash he grows. He's also pretty sure Grover only offered to give him a few bucks an hour to keep an eye on it so he could keep an eye on TJ, at least a little bit. He always liked Ma a lot, definitely enough to try watchin' out for her son after she couldn't anymore, but TJ tries not to let himself think about that too much.
The angel wanders around for a while, pickin' up all the tomatoes that have gone just past the right side of ripe, and when it sets them back down they look perfect again, so TJ doesn't have to go around chuckin' any of 'em over the fence. Since he didn't have time for breakfast, TJ picks out a watermelon and busts it open on the corner of one of the wooden tables.
"C'mere," he calls to the angel, and it does, quick and curious. TJ scoops the heart outta the melon and offers it. "Try this."
The angel does, and its eyes go even wider than they already are and it sucks the juice off its own fingers. It plops down in the dirt with him and they scoop the rest of the melon outta the rind with their hands.
TJ thinks he should feel weirder about watchin' an angel dribble watermelon juice down its chin and onto its shirt, but he doesn't. It just feels nice, to sit here with someone. Everyone looks at him different, since Ma, it's like they can't really see him, behind this big-awful thing that happened to him. He can't say he doesn't feel seen by the angel.
But he knows it can't last. Grover's out in the fields, ridin' around on his tractor, and no one ever comes by this early, so TJ feels safe enough to pull out a cigarette and take a few drags, get himself steadied. He offers it to the angel, half 'cuz not sharin' feels rude and half just to see what it'll say.
It just shakes its head, but TJ raises an eyebrow and says, "What, you gonna tell me angels can get cancer?"
The angel glares at him, but there's no heat in it. "I DO NOT WANT TO SET A BAD EXAMPLE."
TJ snorts. "A bad example for who? Me? Don't'cha think it's kinda late for that? I'm already smokin' 'em." The angel still hesitates, but TJ can see the curiosity on its face. He grins, "I know you're wonderin' what they're like."
The angel shakes its head even as it's reachin' out to take the smoke from TJ's hand. "WONDER CAN BE A DANGEROUS THING."
TJ laughs. The angel puts the cigarette up to its mouth and breathes in. It hasn't really got the hang of it, keeps its mouth too open, but it coughs anyway, and TJ laughs again and claps it on the back.
"I PREFER THE WATERMELON," the angel says as it hands his cigarette back, so TJ reaches up and swipes a peach off the table they're leanin' against.
"Here," he says. "You'll like this better. 'S lot closer to the watermelon. Promise."
The angel takes the peach and TJ lets himself watch it enjoy the first few bites before he takes a deep breath and makes himself say "So, about this whole prophet thing."
He can't look at the angel straight on while he's sayin' it, 'cuz he's a coward, but he still sees it straighten up in the corner of his eye. Sittin' at attention. Didn't it say somethin' yesterday, about bein' a soldier of heaven?
He keeps his eyes fixed on the orange tip of his cigarette as he talks. "Thing is, my Ma made sure I knew my way 'round a bible before she…" he swallows, gives his cigarette a bitter smile before he keeps talking. "Well, I'm sure you know, you said you been watchin'. 'S what you do, right? Hang around prophets before they become prophets."
The angel nods in his periphery. He wants to ask it how long it's been watching him, how many others came before him, if it likes what it does, if it even has a choice in somethin' like that. Instead he shakes his head, makes himself focus.
"Point is," he forges on "I read 'bout the prophets. And bein' one? Well, it kinda sounds like a shit gig."
The angel doesn't say anything, so TJ keeps talking. "I mean, I can't remember anythin' good ever happenin' to any of 'em. They're always watchin' their city get burned down, and everybody they know get tortured, and gettin' treated like a loon 'cuz the Lord's got 'em runnin' 'rond lightin' their own hair on fire and shit."
His voice is shaking now, in fear or anger or both, and the angel still doesn't seem like it's got anything to say. He turns on it.
"And here's the thing about all that. I don't got a city for y'all to burn, and I already watched the person I loved best die, slow and awful with her lungs full o' tar, so nobody here would be surprised if I went loony. Sometimes I think they're all just waitin' 'round for it to happen, so none of 'em would listen to single goddamned word I had to say, even if it was prophecy from on high."
His face is warm and wet. He wonders if he's bleedin' again, but when the angel reaches out and brushes his cheek there's no red on its fingers. It's just tears. He flinches back from it. And it looks sad.
"What?" he asks it. "Aren't'cha s'possed to be down here convincin' me or somethin'? Where's that grand speech o' yours? You ain't got anythin' else to say to me 'bout destiny and plans o' higher powers and shit that's more important than lil ol' me?"
"YOU ARE IMPORTANT, TJ."
He laughs, and it comes out wet-sounding. "Yeah? Well maybe I don't wanna be. Why're you here now? Why not six months ago? You could'a saved her. Don't tell me you couldn't've. Why wasn't she important enough to save? She prayed for it. Hell, I prayed for it. Every night. And nobody answered. She fought right up 'til the very end. 'Til your stupid god let her die. Took her."
His whole body's shaking now and he has to stop talkin' 'cuz he's chokin' on sobs. The angel's looking at him with those big eyes, sad and somethin' else too. It's not pity. He almost thinks it's understanding.
"WHY DID YOU STOP SWIMMING, TJ?" it asks. And that brings him up short.
"What?" he manages through his tears.
"YOU FELL INTO THE RIVER YESTERDAY. YOU DID NOT JUMP. BUT UNDER THE WATER, YOU STOPPED SWIMMING AND LET THE CURRENT TAKE YOU. YOU STOPPED FIGHTING."
TJ stares at it. He remembers the cold rush of the water all around him. The way his clothes pulled him down, like all the metaphorical weight around his neck suddenly made physical. He remembers the moment he wondered what would happen if he just gave up, let himself be too tired to keep trying to push his head above the surface. When he let go.
The angel's the one who looks away for once, like whatever's on his face is too much for even it. It turns its half-eaten peach over in its hands.
"IT IS IN THE MOMENT WHEN YOU STUMBLE, WHEN YOU CAN NO LONGER WALK, WHEN YOU LAY DOWN READY TO DIE, THAT THE LORD OFFERS TO CARRY YOU."
TJ doesn't even think he feels angry anymore. Just hollow, and tired, and bitter, and oh, he guesses, actually still a little bit angry. He spits in the dirt.
"Well, what happens if I decide I can walk just fine after all? You gonna toss me back in the river where you found me?"
"I DO NOT UNDERSTAND."
"What happens if I say no? 'Cuz I'm sayin' no. D'you just fuck off back to heaven now?"
The angel frowns at him. "YOU WILL NOT SAY NO."
TJ stiffens. "I know you said somethin' yesterday about this bein' a choice so-"
"IT IS A CHOICE," the angel interrupts, "I WILL STAY ON EARTH WITH YOU AND WAIT UNTIL YOU CHOOSE TO ANSWER YOUR CALLING, BUT YOU WILL CHOOSE TO ANSWER IT." It sounds almost sad, when it says, "THEY ALWAYS DO."
TJ doesn't have anythin' to say to that, just spits in the dirt again.
TJ hates the idea of thinkin' anything good coulda come outta what happened to Ma, but he has noticed that most o' the kids who used to pick on him at school have slacked off. Nobody's heartless enough to shove around the kid whose mom got lung cancer, even if he is queer and bad at pretending not to be. Well, almost nobody.
TJ lets himself swear good and hard when he sees David comin' up the dirt road towards 'em. It's dusk and they're halfway home, him and the angel, and he knows he's faster than David, could probably go across the field and up Ms. Feldman's fence and loop around the back way and make it, but he doesn't know if the angel's gonna slow him down. Its human body isn't what he'd call athletic-lookin'.
David smiles at him, big and wide and mean, and TJ decides they're just gonna have to take their chances runnin', grabs the angel's hand and starts to pull it outta the road, but it doesn't budge. TJ looks back at it.
It's standin' there starin' David down. "YOU FEAR THIS BOY," the angel says.
It's not a question but TJ answers anyway. "Well, yeah, he'll do his best to beat the shit outta us if he catches us. So let's not get caught." He tugs on the angel's hand again. "C'mon."
The angel looks at him and then it lifts its free hand up to his face, brushes its fingertips gently along his cheek. He holds his breath.
"BE NOT AFRAID," it tells him. Then it lets go and steps forward, towards David.
And then it explodes.
Maybe bursts is a better word. It comes outta its human skin in flash of heat and light. It's a pillar of fire and TJ can taste ash. Its thousand eyes are back and each one is a million swirling shades of brown, like churning earth, and looking into them feels like falling. The air around the angel is electric and there's lightning dancing over TJ's skin. TJ thinks this is not just an angel, this is an avenging angel. And this is the most terrible thing I have ever seen. And also the most beautiful.
And then it's over. Just as sudden as it expanded, the angel shrinks back into a boy's shape at TJ's side.
TJ's brain doesn't feel quite so liquefied this time. More like it's turned the consistency of silly putty and its bein' stretched out. It doesn't hurt, though. And TJ realizes he could keep lookin' at the angel. That his brain, or maybe its his soul, could keep stretchin' to make this glimpse of the infinite fit. That this is what's bein' offered to him. That if he stops fightin' it, stops tryin' to live his life his own way, gives in to this calling, he gets to see this. He gets to see more. Not just a split second's glimpse of one angel, but whole visions of Truths. Revelations. He can taste them on his tongue and his mouth is watering.
The angel's lookin' at him, it's eyes just the one shade of brown again, and it looks sorta resigned, like it knows what hit's comin' and it's just waitin' for the blow to land.
TJ touches his own face, under his nose, checks for blood. There isn't any.
"He still alive?" TJ asks, jerking his chin at David where he's lying in the road, curled on his side like a baby in a womb.
The angel looks surprised. TJ knows this isn't what it expected him to say.
"He gonna be okay?"
"THAT DEPENDS ON THE DEFINITION OF 'OKAY.'"
TJ rolls his eyes. "Are you even allowed to do stuff like that?"
TJ frowns. "Are you gonna get in trouble?"
"NOT RIGHT NOW."
"Right. I guess we should drag him outta the road, at least." He starts toward David, but the angel flaps its hand abruptly, and David vanishes. TJ makes a stuttering noise.
"I SENT HIM TO HIS HOME," the angel explains.
TJ huffs. "Well, if you can teleport people then why the hell are we walkin' home?"
The angel makes a noise somewhere between distress and desperation. It's starin' at TJ with its big eyes full of confusion and disbelief and maybe hope. He's gone off script.
TJ understands now, why the angel was so certain he'd say yes to bein' a prophet. He can feel a pull in the back of his brain, the tips of his fingers, the soles of his feet. He can feel how easy it would be. How enlightening. He could stop worryin' 'bout how late Dad gets home every night and how even though he doesn't get pushed around much anymore he's still only got the two friends and Armani can't even look at him without pity on her face anymore and how he's gonna get lung cancer and go in an awful way just like Ma but he can't quit smokin' 'cuz the smell reminds him of her. He could stop missing her. He could let himself be emptied of all that, become a vessel for knowledge of things so bright they burn. Fulfilled. And it would be so easy. So much easier than living his own life.
TJ knows all that, and he also knows Ma never backed down from a challenge. Knows she said the right thing to do is almost always the harder thing to do.
He knows the angel said it could stick around 'til he caves.
TJ smiles at the angel. It's a tired smile, but it's real.
The angel stares at him for a long moment. And then, slow and careful, it smiles back.