By Eric Raglin
Celine couldn’t believe her brother named his kid after himself. Since when did Mike grow such a big ego? Then again, Celine hadn’t seen or talked to him in eighteen months. A lot can change in that much time. But the name thing didn’t really matter. What mattered was that Celine—childless now at 21 and probably forever, given how things were going—was finally an aunt.
The public library was her go-to place for free internet and fantasy paperbacks, and there she sat between the bookshelves, staring at the first Instagram picture of Michael Jr. The boy was pink and wrinkly with a surprisingly long shock of black hair. The caption declared him a seven-pound-three-ounce miracle. A miracle Celine would never see in person if her life didn’t do a full one-eighty.
A sob welled up inside her. She covered her mouth to muffle it, not wanting to cause a disruption and get kicked out of the library. The security guard had already escorted her off the premises last week for panhandling near the circulation desk, and he’d take any excuse he could find to do it again. Outside, the fierce winter wind blew horizontal sheets of slush. The gusts had nearly whisked away Celine’s tent that morning. She’d lined the wet nylon floor with rocks to pin it down, but there was no telling if the tent would still be there when the library closed.
All at once, the narrow space between bookshelves made her feel claustrophobic. Short of breath, Celine stood up, unzipped her coat, and rushed past the common area toward the restroom. The door didn’t have a lock—the library didn’t trust people like her behind locked doors—but she made do with what little privacy the restroom afforded. After splashing her face with metallic-smelling sink water, she looked at herself in the cloudy mirror. Dozens of purple scabs adorned her face—“junkie constellations,” a homeless shelter volunteer had called them (one of many reasons she’d never gone back to the place). But her teeth were even worse: black around the edges, gray at the roots, and stinking of chemical rot.
She imagined leaning over Michael Jr.’s crib with that grisly smile and being met with terror. His scream would destroy her. Still, she had to see him, and that meant finding a way to hide the damage the past eighteen months had done to her mind, body, and soul.
Her family knew nothing of it. She’d simply slipped out of her parents’ house one evening and never returned. They probably figured she’d been murdered or trafficked on the way to her Intermediate Painting night class. The truth still involved shady people, but not the type to pull women into vans with tinted windows. No, these people were art school soon-to-be-dropouts selling Oxy to pay tuition. These people were Celine’s friends. If Celine did get to see her family again, she’d weave them an explanation of her absence that didn’t involve such friends: An explanation that would quell her parents’ anger and lay their suspicions to rest. With any luck, they’d welcome her back home with open arms. Not that her luck had been holding up as of late.
Celine closed her eyes and listened to the restroom’s buzzing fluorescent lights. The electric noise gave her a headache, pain pulsing through her throbbing jaw. Every muscle in her body felt either tight and knotted or loose and useless. She steadied herself on the sink and cried. It was obvious what she needed to feel right again. Hopefully her last fifteen bucks would be enough to get it.
She checked the weather app on her phone; a cold front was coming. The slush outside would freeze soon. And even though the library was still open for another four hours, Celine hurried out into the cold, off to see a certain man.
Doug didn’t like when Celine came in through the car shop’s front entrance, so Celine shot him a text and waited out back. The ice had downed a power line running through the alley, and the wind had built to a piercing gale. Small, sharp snow crystals stung Celine’s face. Her thin cotton gloves did little to keep her fingers from purpling.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she said. “C’mon, Doug.”
The one good thing about standing out in a blizzard was that she could more easily ignore her withdrawal symptoms. The cold numbed her headache and lessened her fever, or at least seemed to. And full-body shivers distracted from her nausea. Her coat leaked puffs of insulation from a dozen different holes, making it easy for body heat to escape. Her camp was two miles away, far enough that she’d be black with frostbite by the time she got there on foot. If Doug made her wait any longer, she’d have to enter the car shop through the front door. What did it matter if he got pissed? He’d tolerate the transgression so long as Celine remained a loyal customer.
That was when Doug finally opened the back door. He squinted at the blowing snow, his brown mustache twitching in displeasure. He wore a blue mechanic’s jumpsuit stained with many years of grease. A patch on the breast read “William,” the name he used for his more legitimate business dealings. He gestured for Celine to follow him inside. She practically ran after him, stepping on his boot heels as they walked to the break room together.
“You look cold, Celly,” Doug said, flopping down on the black leather couch. He removed his gloves and tossed them into the concrete corner.
“Yeah, I had to wait outside,” Celine said. She hoped her tone wouldn’t drive up Doug’s ever-fluctuating prices. It was a mystery how the man decided what a hit would cost on any given day.
“What do you think would happen to me—or you, for that matter—if a bunch of scarred-up junkies lined up outside my shop?”
Celine waved her hand as if to say I know and excuse her pissiness. “What can fifteen get me?”
Doug slumped his head and laughed. “You’re kidding me, right? Nothing. It gets you nothing. But listen, the new guy I hired part-time is useless. Didn’t show up today. You know how to replace a transmission? You do that for me and I’ll give you enough to keep you high for a couple days.”
Celine didn’t realize she was crying until Doug’s eyes softened. He scooted to the far side of the couch and patted the cushion beside him. Celine sat down. Her legs felt like jelly. She imagined how nice it would be to take a nap back there in the relative warmth, the hum of Doug’s minifridge soothing her to sleep while clipped-out Sports Illustrated swimsuit models watched over her from one wall and pictures of Doug’s mother smiled down from the other.
“Maybe that’s for the best,” she said, scratching at her arm’s dry skin. “I need to quit. For my nephew.”
“Never heard you mention a nephew before,” Doug said, eyeing the wall clock.
“Born today. I . . . I want to be clean before I see him.”
Doug stared at the wall, sniffed once, and tapped his temple with a greasy finger.
“Listen,” he said, turning back to Celine. “Got something that might help you with that. How much money did you say you had on you? Fifteen bucks?”
“Well, consider that a down payment. You can pay the rest when you get clean and get a job. And trust me, this thing’ll get you clean. I . . . hmm . . . ”
Doug’s gaze drifted to the floor. He blinked quickly as if weighing a decision. Celine put a hand on his shoulder, but Doug pulled away.
“Don’t,” he said. “I hate when people—”
“Sorry, sorry,” Celine replied. “But what is it? Please.”
“Okay, I’ll show you, but you can’t tell a fuckin’ soul. And . . . and you should know that it’s a powerful solution, but not a perfect one.”
“Sure, yeah, what is it?”
Doug took a deep breath and puffed out his cheeks for the exhale. He clapped both hands on his thighs, then got up.
“Follow me,” he said. “And, for the love of God, don’t scream when you see it.”
The office door had three separate locks: deadbolt, padlock, and keypad. Given that Doug stored his drugs in a different room with only two locks, Celine had to wonder what was inside this one. Maybe there was a safe full of cash, or maybe Doug trafficked in goods even worse than the ones he sold Celine.
While waiting for him to unlock the door, Celine’s body warmed under the whirring garage heater. Her withdrawal symptoms returned as she thawed out. A throbbing pain pounded a steady rhythm between her eyes and tremors coursed through both hands. Doug finally got the door open, but blocked the way with his body.
“Like I said, be chill, okay?” he warned.
Celine nodded, then frowned. The oily musk pervading the garage had vanished. The smell of honeysuckle and spring rain wafted out of the mystery room. It smelled too much like the real thing to have come from a plug-in air freshener. The aroma brought Celine back to her childhood wandering her family’s flower garden, listening to the soft patter of rain against her jacket, and watching her father tend to the tulips. She felt the peace of that memory as if it were happening once more. Her eyes watered.
“You coming?” Doug snapped.
Celine shook herself out of it and followed him into the room. Doug bolted the door shut as soon as she was inside. It was then that Celine understood why he’d warned her not to scream.
It—whatever it was—stood tall enough that its head scraped the ceiling. Chains held its pale wrists and ankles, which leaked a fluid that looked like a melting sunset. Blood? Two massive wings hung from the creature’s back, white feathers scorched black at their ends. Its solid gold eyes bulged out like an insect’s. Holding its gaze for more than a few seconds made Celine’s heart pound as if it might explode, so she looked away.
“What is it?” Her voice shuddered.
“What’s it look like? It’s an angel, Celly.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t think . . .”
Doug laughed nervously and picked up a Rubik’s cube from his desk. He twirled it in his hand for a few seconds before setting it down again. Celine stared at the angel through her peripherals, afraid to look at it head-on; the creature took up more than half of the room.
“How did you get it?” she asked.
“You don’t want to know,” Doug said. “But listen, this thing is a literal miracle worker. My mom—bless her heart, I love the woman—has leukemia. Excuse me, had leukemia. Cleared up a few days after I injected her with angel blood. Purity rooting out corruption. That’s what the book said. Anyway, mom is doing great, uh, minus a few side—”
“Can it cure me?” Celine got close enough to Doug that she could feel his body heat.
“Damn right it can,” he said, taking a big step back. “But like I was trying to say, there are side effects.”
“Meth has side effects, too. But you’ve been selling that to me for—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. But the angel’s side effects are . . .” Drops of sweat trailed down Doug’s forehead. He wiped them off and turned away from the angel. “Ah, fuck it. You’re not going to care either way, are you?”
Celine shook her head.
Doug sighed. “Well, let’s get this over with. Show me your teeth.”
Celine hesitated, then tugged down her lower lip to show the ruin of crumbling enamel and gums pocked with gray sores. Doug winced, then rummaged through a desk drawer until he found a pair of pliers. He turned toward the angel, which thrashed in its chains as if anticipating what was to come.
“Right, Celly,” Doug said. “Let’s get you some new pearly whites.”
The angel screamed like a Nazgûl. Celine was sure a customer outside would hear. Or worse yet, the angel’s brethren. She imagined a celestial army converging on the car shop, armed with flaming swords and God’s ceaseless wrath.
Doug wore ear protection as he stood atop the squeaky folding chair and ripped out the angel’s teeth with pliers. Tangerine blood sprayed his jumpsuit, but he didn’t pay it any mind—just pocketed each tooth like a lucky penny and kept working.
A sweet floral aroma emanated from the angel’s wounds. The smell calmed Celine, but it wasn’t enough to fully suppress her terror. Pressed into the corner of the room, she watched the carnage with unblinking eyes. She imagined the angel escaping its chains and tearing the office apart, splattering every wall with the viscera of sinners. But the creature’s thrashing diminished with each tooth Doug extracted. When its Nazgûl howls became harmonic whimpers, Celine’s fear faded into a vague pity. An ulcerous pain settled in her gut.
Doug removed the final tooth and stepped down from the chair. He grabbed a greasy towel from his back pocket and wiped sweat and blood from his face. His breaths were ragged.
“Like I said, the fifteen bucks is just a down payment. I don’t do this shit for under a thousand.”
“A thousand?” Celine balled her hands into fists.
“It’s a lot easier to save that much when you’re clean, and it’s a lot easier to get clean when you’ve got angel teeth. You want these things or not?”
“Do you . . . have to take mine out, too?”
A visible shudder ran through Doug. It was harder to rip teeth out of a human being—and a friendly acquaintance, no less—than something as monstrous as the creature behind him.
“You want to be part of your nephew’s life, right?” he asked.
Celine’s eyes welled with tears. She breathed deep, readied herself for lightning-hot agony, then nodded.
“That’s what I figured,” Doug said. “Now, open your mouth.”
By the fifth molar, Celine wished she’d stayed out in the blizzard and let her fingers, toes, and face blacken with frostbite. At least then she would’ve been numb to all the pain.
But the torture didn’t last long—Doug worked as if he were trying to beat a Guinness World Record—and what followed was the antithesis of pain. When Doug slid the first angel tooth into place, it doused the fire that scorched every nerve in Celine’s body. A tingly, floaty sensation replaced the burn and caressed her gums. Celine wondered if Doug had slipped her some fast-acting opiate, but no: He’d only inserted the tooth, which slithered into place and rooted itself as if it had a mind of its own. With each one that followed, the sensation mounted into something more transcendent than Celine had felt on any drug. Joyful tears ran down her cheeks. Residual fear vanished like smoke carried off on a honeyed wind.
Doug placed the final tooth as if it were the topper for a wedding cake. Puffing out his cheeks, he stepped back to admire his handiwork. He grinned, then covered his mouth.
“Shit, your pearlies look better than mine now,” he said. “I could use some whitening strips. Let’s get you to the bathroom. You can clean the blood off your face and take a look in the mirror.”
Bathed in a haze of endorphins, Celine smiled and followed Doug out of the office. She gazed at the slumped angel on her way out. All at once, the reality of what she’d done threatened to evaporate her high.
“Don’t,” Doug said, shutting the door and triple-locking it. “It’s best not to look back. Trust me.”
Celine closed her eyes and did what she’d done so many times in art school to steer herself clear of a bad trip. Light danced behind her eyes. Effervescence coursed through her veins and tickled her pleasantly from the inside. The angel faded from memory, at least for the moment.
Doug led her to the bathroom. In the mirror, Celine examined herself: neck drenched in blood, chin clumpy with purple clots. But her teeth—oh, her teeth! Toothpaste-commercial-white and immaculately straight.
“They look beautiful,” Celine said, jostling one of her new incisors. It held firm.
“And I don’t even have a dentistry license,” Doug said. “Changes your whole face, doesn’t it?”
Something else had changed, too. Celine leaned closer to the greasy mirror.
“My scabs,” she said, scratching one of them. It came off as a dry red flake. The skin underneath was soft and smooth with no signs of scarring.
“Please, God, don’t pick that shit off yourself while you’re in here,” Doug said, shaking his head.
“Sorry, I’m just—”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s amazing. Listen, I’ll be calling you next month. We can space out the payments, but I want two hundred bucks by the first, okay?”
Celine grinned at Doug in the mirror: “I know you hate when people touch you, but I’d love to give you a hug right now. I’ll have your money.”
“Good, good,” Doug said, turning as if to leave and then stopping. “And uh, have fun with your nephew.”
Celine beamed, her new smile stretching so wide that it felt like her face would break. It was time to pick off the rest of these scabs in the alleyway, wipe away the blood, and then call her brother for a ride.
The car ride into the suburbs was dead silent. Celine alternated between smiling to herself and then remembering how she’d gotten that smile. It was hard to suppress joy for long, though. Her withdrawal symptoms had vanished. There was no longer that demon inside her screaming for its next fix. The teeth had made sure of that. The angel . . .
Celine must have looked insane with her ever-vacillating expressions. Mike glanced over at her every other minute, eyebrow raised and mouth curled, but refused to speak. The silence could only last so long, though. It ended when they reached a particularly long red light. Snow came down in thick flakes, carpeting the pavement and slowing traffic in all directions. The van ahead had its emergency lights on, too—stuck on the incline and going nowhere fast. Mike sighed, tapped the steering wheel as if it might speed up time, and finally turned to Celine.
“I just don’t understand,” he said. “All this time . . . Two years.”
“Eighteen months,” Celine corrected.
“Whatever. Too damn long.”
Celine’s eyes widened. Mike never swore. Or, if he did, it was a habit he’d picked up in the time she’d been away. Sadness consumed her as she thought of all she’d missed: going bowling with Mike each Sunday after church, painting along with her mother during Bob Ross reruns, and arguing politics with her father any chance she got. She even missed the not-so-great parts: the church’s shitty live “rock” band, her mother’s criticisms of her painting technique, and her father’s tendency to give her the silent treatment after they argued.
“You were gone all that time and never thought to tell us what was happening?” Mike asked. “Where were you, anyway?”
Celine had rehearsed an answer countless times. A dozen believable stories were fleshed out and ready to be performed, but suddenly she couldn’t access any of them. Or at least, couldn’t translate them into words. The strangeness of this day had scrambled her.
“I’ll wait until we get to mom and dad’s,” she said. “I’d prefer not to explain it twice. Will Michael Jr. be there?”
Mike squinted as if assessing how Celine knew about the baby. But he shook his head in lieu of responding to her question.
“Assuming we don’t get stuck in the snow, we’ll be there in five minutes,” he said. “Better polish up your lie.”
Celine’s face flushed with heat. She turned toward the window and pretended to watch the snowfall.
Celine’s mother cried and screamed. Her father sulked and tried to hide his wet eyes. Mike tuned everything out and texted frantically on his phone. It wasn’t the worst possible homecoming, but it was far from the best.
“Do you know how worried we’ve been?” Celine’s mother asked, voice leaping wildly between pitches. “We filed police reports, we hired a private investigator, we prayed every—”
“Janice, stop it,” Celine’s father said, grabbing a beer from the fridge.
Celine hoped her father would defend her from the barrage of questions, but that hope was short-lived.
The man sat on the couch, cracked open his beer can, and continued: “Celine will give us the full story when she feels comfortable.”
His eyes were a cold, piercing blue. The eyes of a cop in an interrogation.
Celine averted her gaze and looked at the Christmas tree at the center of her parents’ living room. Plenty of gifts sat below the tree, but none with her name on them. Had they assumed she was dead after all this time? The thought was too painful, so Celine looked to the top of the tree where the angel ornament rested. It looked nothing like the angel she’d tormented, but the memory of its screeching agony flashed in her mind. She blinked to clear it away. When she opened her eyes, the angel ornament twitched. Celine jumped.
“What’s wrong, Celine?” her father asked, half-standing.
Hand over her heart, Celine noticed the family cat Merv brushing his face against the tree. The angel ornament hadn’t moved on its own. Of course it hadn’t.
“Nothing,” Celine said. “I’m fine. Sorry.”
“Listen, Celine. Your clothes look and, frankly, smell like they’ve seen better days,” her father said. “Why don’t you wash up and change into some fresh ones from your old room—if you remember where that is—and then come talk to us?”
Celine blushed as she examined her sour jeans and stained sweater. It had been weeks since her last trip to the laundromat. In the financial battle between clean underwear and her next hit, the latter had almost always won. To think that now dry socks sounded nicer than a cloud of meth swirling around her lungs. It was strange and wonderful, courtesy of a mutilated angel.
“I’ll get changed,” Celine said. “But I want to see Michael Jr. when I get back. Angie’s bringing him over, right?”
Mike opened his mouth to respond, then closed it and swallowed hard. He nodded. Sweat slicked his brow.
Celine was a stranger in her old home. She excused herself to change into the clothes of someone more familiar.
Her room hadn’t changed since she’d last been inside it eighteen months ago. Back then, she’d been living at home and taking studio art classes. She’d wanted an apartment of her own, but college was expensive. Her parents’ nagging was the price she’d paid for free room and board. Celine, why don’t you choose another major? Celine, when are you going to get a job? Celine, Celine, Celine . . .
Wrapped in a fresh bathrobe, Celine scanned the room. There was dust atop the dresser, a crusty dish on the nightstand. Her mother had always been insistent that Celine clean up after herself, so it didn’t surprise Celine that the dish—certainly her own—was still there. She smiled and shook her head. But something about the room saddened her. The air smelled musty, ancient, tomblike. The residence of a woman now dead. Assuming her parents let her stay for a while, she’d spruce up her bedroom and take better care of it than she ever had before. Her mother would poke her head in but find no mess to complain about. They’d exchange a smile: Her mother’s brittle and adorned with crowns, and Celine’s perfectly angelic.
Still, there was no guarantee Celine would be welcomed back. If she told them the truth about her absence, they’d forever see her as a lowlife. But if she invented a more glamorous story, they’d know she was lying; her father was practically a human polygraph machine. The third option was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” This approach was quintessentially Midwestern: a theatre of buried secrets, heavy silences, and polite restraint. But it didn’t feel right. No option did.
Celine was crying again. How many times had that happened today? She wiped her cheeks, sniffled, and then walked to the dresser. Gripping the dusty handle and opening the drawer, she pulled out an Estes Park sweater and some drawstring sweatpants. They draped over her frame like a bedsheet on a broomstick, but they’d have to do.
Then, the backyard motion sensor light activated, shining through the sheer curtains. Her parents and brother whispered to each other in the living room. Maybe Angie and Michael Jr. were coming in through the back door.
That notion evaporated as soon as a shadow passed across the window. The figure was too tall to be Angie. Too tall to be human at all. Its head extended far above the top of the window. It paced back and forth, lurching but soundless. Celine only saw it in profile until it stopped for a long moment, then turned to face her. She gasped as it revealed the sprawling silhouette of wings. The feathers ruffled violently, not by some incidental gust of wind but by the seething of flesh beneath.
Celine concealed a scream and bolted. When she entered the living room, trembling and tense, her father raised an eyebrow.
“Celine, your clothes. Did—”
“They don’t fit,” Celine said, her words spilling out too fast. She took a breath and slowed down her speech. “I . . . I lost some weight. They’re all too big.”
Her father squinted, looking her up and down. His eyes lingered on her teeth.
“Yeah, you do look different,” he said in a way that didn’t agree with her story, but rather invited more questions.
The front door clicked open. Celine ran backward, an involuntary flight response, and tripped over the wooden coffee table. Her ribs smashed into the table’s corner. She let out a yelp, clutching the wound and writhing on the floor.
“Celine, why the hell are you so jumpy tonight? Get up,” her father demanded, setting down a second beer can and bending down to help her up.
Suddenly, Celine looked up to see Angie entering the house, a blanketed bundle in her arms. Angie beamed and rushed over to greet Celine.
“God, I’ve missed you so much,” she said, hugging Celine with her free arm. The woman’s eyes glistened with happy tears.
Angie’s words soothed the pain in Celine’s side. The woman had always been so sincere in her kindness. It felt good to know at least one person was happy to have her back.
“This is Michael Jr.,” Angie said.
Celine looked at Angie’s bundle. It was him. She couldn’t believe it. Her nephew was real.
Celine held Michael Jr. for a long time. He was still the amoxicillin pink of a newborn, but his eyes were open now—deep brown with a starlight sparkle. Celine rocked him gently and held his gaze. His gummy smile melted her heart and filled her eyes with tears. Peace. Pure peace. Celine’s body didn’t cry out for poison. Her mind didn’t stray to the monstrous silhouette she’d seen from her old bedroom. She wanted to stay in this moment forever—just her and this beautiful boy.
Mike sat beside Angie on the couch, whispering to her with a hand cupped over his mouth. Celine’s mother sat on the recliner with eyes closed, mouthing a silent prayer. Celine’s father prepared a pot of coffee for the long night ahead. The air felt thick with anticipation, like a soldier’s finger on the trigger. Its heaviness threatened to puncture Celine’s moment of serenity, but she could endure it as long as Michael Jr. was in her arms.
It was the window above the TV rattling that ripped Celine fully out of the moment. No one else paid the sound any mind, but it grew louder and more violent as if the glass might burst any second. The knowledge that it was blizzarding outside did nothing to halt Celine’s paranoia. What if it wasn’t the wind shaking the glass? What if that angel really had escaped and come to hunt her down? How well could a quarter-inch of glass protect her? For once, she hoped she was having a hallucination.
The stench of a freshly-filled diaper brought her back to reality.
“He needs a change,” she said, standing up with Michael Jr. in her shaky arms.
Mike leaned forward as if to pop up and stop her, but he eased back into his seat when Angie grabbed his arm. Mike’s eyes followed Celine as she walked to the bathroom.
Despite the bathroom’s smallness and Michael Jr.’s pungency, Celine found it easier to breathe with the door closed. Everything felt better when it was just her and Michael Jr. in a windowless room, free from the gaze of angels hungry for blood and family members hungry for terrible, terrible answers. She set a towel on the floor and rested him atop it, then searched the cabinet for diapers. After finding a fresh one, she unbundled the boy from his pale yellow blanket and removed the diaper he’d soiled.
It was only when she lifted his butt that she noticed the feathers. Downy clusters across his upper back: white, soft, and tiny. She hoped they’d come from the blanket’s stuffing, but her gut twisted at the other possibility. She hesitated before plucking at one of the feathers. It didn’t peel away from Michael Jr.’s sticky flesh; the quill was firmly embedded inside him. The skin around it whitened when Celine pulled.
Again, she wouldn’t scream. She refused to. Her family would interpret her terror as a sign of mental instability. A sign that she posed a threat to Michael Jr. They’d seen her jump at the sight of a swaying Christmas ornament and flee at the sound of an opening door. Two strikes against her already. She wouldn’t earn a third. No—she’d finish changing the diaper, go back out there, and face her family, calm and collected.
The diaper change was lightning fast and far from perfect. She fastened the diaper too loosely, but it would have to do. She wrapped the blanket tightly around Michael Jr. next. No feathers poked out from the bundle, but even with them hidden, she couldn’t pretend they weren’t there. The universe had given her plenty of signs tonight. She could no longer ignore them.
She took a deep breath, put the bathroom in order, and carried Michael Jr. back into the living room. Her father was pouring cups of coffee for everyone. Somberness choked the room.
“All fresh and clean,” Celine said. With shaky arms, she handed Michael Jr. to Angie who smiled and mouthed a thank you.
“Sit down,” Celine’s father said. “Have some coffee.”
He thrust a cup into her hands, a few drops spilling over the rim. Celine sat in the armchair farthest from the still-rattling window. Her body trembled even worse than it had earlier while waiting in the cold outside the car shop. She steadied her hand and raised the cup to her lips. Everyone watched as she sipped. The coffee scorched her throat and filled her chest with heat. Sweat beaded to the surface of her neck like a suffocating scarf. Every pore on her body burned. How wonderful it would’ve been to strip naked and flee into the night, to cool the overheated engine that was her body in pure animal distress. But there was no more avoiding it now. The Christmas tree angel gazed down at her with eyes that judged and loved and loathed and commanded. Celine had to tell the truth, even if it meant this would be her first and last time seeing Michael Jr.
“So,” she said. Everyone leaned in. “I should probably tell you where I’ve been . . .”
The world was calm again. No howling wind to deafen nor blowing drifts to blind. Outside the car shop, a blanket of virgin snow sparkled in the rising sun. Customers seeking oil changes would drive up soon and muddy the white, but for now, the snow was perfect. Celine stood at the front door, breathing crisp morning air and grazing her foot across a fluffy snowdrift. She carved gentle swirling patterns into the surface, determined to enhance the beauty rather than spoil it.
Her father had given her a ride and parked across the street, his engine still running for heat. He watched her every move. She’d told him she wanted to apply for a job here, which wasn’t entirely untrue. Doug worked himself to the bone and would likely welcome extra help from someone who wouldn’t rat to the cops about his side hustle. Celine couldn’t replace a brake pad or even a headlight, but she could learn. However, she had another motive for coming here, too. Something far more important.
Doug pulled into the lot five minutes before seven A.M. When he saw Celine out front, he rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, then lumbered in her direction.
“What’s up, Celly?” he asked. “Actually, don’t answer that. We’ll talk inside. Has to be quick though. Some guy’s dropping off his beater in ten.”
Before following Doug inside, Celine looked to her dad in his truck and smiled. His expression was stern as ever, but he raised his coffee thermos and nodded at her. Celine turned away and entered the car shop.
“So, what is it, Celly?” Doug said, pulling on some work gloves. “You already got the thousand bucks for me or what? No other reason for you to be here given that you’re clean and cured.”
“Actually,” Celine said. “I was hoping I could apply for a job.”
Doug did a double take. After a pause, he walked behind the cash register and silently counted the drawer.
“You don’t know anything about cars,” he said after finishing with a stack of tens.
“Okay, then don’t hire me.”
Doug glanced up, smirked, and set down the stack of fives he’d just picked up.
“It’s too early for games, Celly. What the hell do you want?”
“I want to see the angel again. I want it to forgive me.”
Doug’s smirk faded. His tense shoulders seemed to deflate. He cleared his throat as if something more than just phlegm were blocking it. Whatever count he’d had on the drawer was forgotten. He shoved the stack back in the cash drawer before slamming it shut, then flicked through his keyring until he found what he needed.
“You and me both,” he said, and for once, his voice sounded tender, haunted. “I . . . I’ve been trying, you know? Not sure what I have to do to . . . Anyway, maybe you’ll have better luck. Let’s go.”
Somehow, the angel clung to life. Gallons of yesterday’s blood had congealed on the floor, the color and consistency of honey. Its sweetness was more floral than sickly. The creature barely lifted its head when Celine and Doug entered the room. Maybe it could sense their intentions and knew they didn’t plan to torture it further.
Celine approached without hesitation and looked the angel in its golden eyes. Her knees trembled and her stomach boiled, but she refused to flee. Her life could not go on if she did. She reached out for Doug’s hand behind her. This time, he didn’t recoil at her touch. His hand was cold and calloused, but it gave her comfort. She hoped her hand did the same for him.
“Angel,” she said, and the word sounded silly coming from her mouth. The creature probably had a name and a thousand years of torment behind it. But Celine was doing her best with what little information she had.
“I’ve done horrible things to you,” she continued. “Unforgivable things. And yet here I am begging you for forgiveness. Because of you, I have a future again. I have my health. I have my family. My nephew.”
Celine drew in a shuddering breath. Doug squeezed her hand, his touch no longer cold.
“I can’t enjoy all you’ve given me unless you forgive what I’ve taken,” Celine said. “But I know it’s stupid and selfish to ask. If you aren’t willing to do it, I . . . I’ll give back your teeth. I’ll . . .”
The angel raised its head so abruptly that its thick chains rattled. Celine backed into Doug. He gripped her shoulders and seemed ready to pull her out of the room at the first sign of danger. The angel leaned forward as far as its restraints allowed, then opened its cavernous mouth. Inside was the white-barbed flesh of its tongue and the craters of vacant gums, jellied with orange gore. Celine backed up a step further, convinced the creature would bite her, but then she saw them: The crowns of new teeth rising into place, populating the angel’s mouth with fresh ivory. The teeth rose fully into place, then popped loose all at once and pattered to the syrupy floor. Another set rose swiftly behind them, then tumbled out just the same. The cycle repeated again and again, and each time, Celine wanted to back further away but found herself too entranced to do so. Finally, with hundreds of teeth littering the floor like shards of milky glass, one last set rose . . . And stayed in place.
The angel smiled. Then it clenched its fists and broke its chains as if they were made of paper. It exhaled a heavy breath. Doug gagged, covered his mouth, and staggered backward, but Celine stayed in place as the breath lifted her hair. It smelled of lilacs on a summer night.
The angel’s weakness had all been theatre, but Celine’s fear vanished regardless. She knew she’d been forgiven. All she’d had to do was ask.
About the Author:
Eric Raglin (he/him) is a Nebraskan speculative fiction writer, horror literature teacher, and podcaster for Cursed Morsels. He frequently writes about queer issues, the terrors of capitalism, and body horror. His debut short story collection is NIGHTMARE YEARNINGS. He is the editor of ANTIFA SPLATTERPUNK. Find him at ericraglin.com or on Twitter @ericraglin1992.