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Entertaining Angels Unaware
a short story
Charlie was tired, it had been a rough couple of days, the weather was so hot, just sticky and thick, it seemed like it was hot all the time now but this year had been especially bad. He walked down South Broad tugging a battered rolling suitcase, talking to himself quietly, stopping from time to time to swing his arms in slow circles in the air, humming and singing snatches of song. What he really wanted was somewhere with air conditioning, but the south side mission had reached capacity, and the city’s only still functioning library was just too far away and anyway he knew he’d be harassed on the way there and they might not even let him in. They didn’t much like people like him on that side of town. He thought about going down to the river to cool off, perhaps Jim and Big Man would be down there, they’d talked yesterday about going down to the river to fish and swim a little, Jim had found an old fishing pole in a dumpster the other day. Yeah, he’d head down to the river. He turned down Georgia Boulevard, pretty sure this was the right way. Man it was hot. His head started to swim, his voice dropped, and he grew quiet, dragging himself and his suitcase along a few slow steps at a time. After a few blocks up ahead a striking sign loomed over the sidewalk from off of a building, reading in crisp bold letters:
ARE YOU TIRED? ARE YOU WEARY? WE CAN GIVE YOU REST
The structure was new, a white smooth exterior with tall tinted plate glass walls at the front, stark white stretching back, standing out amid the relatively run-down brick structures on the block. Charlie was tired, and he could use a rest. This place at least had AC, and maybe food. It was worth a look, and if they kicked him out, they kicked him out. He stepped inside, and a clean-shaven man in a clean button-down shirt and khaki pants greeted him. There was a reception desk and a sitting area to one side. A suite of cameras mounted on the ceiling scanned Charlie’s face. The man summoned him to the sitting area, and Charlie followed, but remained standing, feeling a little nervous.
‘Hey man, what is this place? How long y’all been here?’
The man smiled and offered his hand to shake. Charlie ignored it and continued to look around, shifting from one foot to the other, clutching his rolling suitcase in one hand.
‘We officially opened just two days ago, we’re part of a new national initiative, I don’t suppose you’ve heard about it yet, it’s quite new! We are here to help people—people like you, the chronically unhoused. I’m sorry, I should have asked first, but what is your name sir? Charlie? Charlie, am I right in thinking you’ve been living out on the streets for a while?’
Charlie narrowed his eyes at the man. ‘Yeah. I been on the streets a long time. A long time, man. Lot of living, man, some good, some bad, some real bad. You know how it is. I’m tired, I am real tired, it is so hot today. Maybe I can hang here a little, maybe have a bit to eat?’
The man nodded and smiled, then beckoned with his hand towards a long hallway. Charlie followed, cautiously. There was a strange feel to the place, and he couldn’t make out what exactly it was, or who ran it—there were no sponsorship signs he could see, it looked official, kind of medical, probably not a church thing. It reminded him of a coffeeshop in downtown where he used to occasionally crash, until new management decided they’d had enough of street people spoiling their clean modern aesthetics and driving away ever harder to attract customers.
As he walked with the man down the hallway, he saw a familiar face in another room—it was his friend and sometime camp neighbor Big Man, talking with another staff member. Charlie peeked in and waved at Big Man, who smiled and waved back. Charlie tried to watch out for Big Man, he wasn’t all there really, did some foolish things sometimes, but his heart was good. The room looked a little like a classroom, but cool and dimly lit. There were medical looking things to one side.
They came to a larger room in the back, with tall ceilings and a big conference style table in the middle. There were a couple of wrapped sandwiches on a table. Charlie sat down and the man told him to eat, he would return in a little while for a talk. Charlie sat and ate a sandwich slowly, looking around. He was alone in the room. As he finished his meal, the man returned and sat opposite him and began to talk. He wanted to know all about Charlie—how old he was, how long he had been homeless, where he had lived, what kinds of experiences he had had. Mostly he just listened to Charlie, taking notes on his digital notepad from time to time. Charlie began to loosen up, it was nice to be listened to so intently. Their talk now turned to employment, financial resources, medical treatments. It had been a long time since Charlie had held a regular job, his health was not great, yeah he’d been on some stuff but he was mostly clean now, he depended largely on handouts and charitable aid.
‘Do you do anything on the side, maybe, to make money? Now, I know there may be things you’d rather not discuss, do not feel pressured, we are not the police.’
‘Oh no man, sure—I draw my angel pictures and give ‘em out, sometime people give me a few bucks you know, yes, yes, I draw angel pictures, they work man, they work! Everybody out on the streets knows me. It’s my, you know, it’s my thing, my gift, been my gift for years now. I don’t charge, no man, shoot I’d be scared to charge money, but when folks give me something, well, that’s ok I figure, they’ve never told me off for doing it.’
‘Angel pictures? I’m not familiar with, uh, such things.’
‘See here, I got one right here—’ he removed from his shirt pocket and unrolled a scroll-like piece of paper to reveal a brighly colored icon-like crayon drawing of an angel, winged and many-eyed, fierce and gentle at once. The man had not seen anything quite like it before. ‘This here is the Archangel Uriah. He taught me how to write in angel letters, I write out things on the bottom and the back of the pictures I draw, they are powerful, man, powerful. I don’t know how it works, but it does.’
‘Can you demonstrate these, what did you call them, angel letters? I mean, can you write some down for me?’
‘Sure, lemme get my writing things out.’
Charlie rummaged in his rolling suitcase and removed a piece of paper and some worn crayons. He stretched his arms, stared off into the middle distance, and began to write, his eyes half closed, as if in a trance. The man was now genuinely intrigued, as the script Charlie was using resembled nothing he had seen before. The man was vaguely familiar with Arabic and a few other non-Latin scripts but as far as he could tell this resembled none of them, every line of each character ended in loops. The character shapes repeated with regularity as Charlie wrote, such that it was clear if he had made the script up himself he had done a good job, it appeared to have internal order and consistency.
‘Where did you learn to write this script?’
‘I told you man, from the angels. I see them, they talk to me all the time, a long while back they asked me, they said, “Charlie, we want to teach you something, something real useful, something good for people, to help them.” And so they did. I had to practice for a while, but now I’m good at it.’
The man thanked Charlie for the demonstration, then excused himself, promising to return shortly. When he returned, he sat back down opposite Charlie and addressed him in a deeply serious tone.
‘Charlie, based on everything you have told me, we have decided that you are a very good candidate for our primary service. It sounds like you’ve tried to get off the streets a few times, and while I admire your artistic abilities, it does not seem that you’ve been able to transition back to housing, despite several tries, and your health has been in steep decline and is not likely to recover. You are so tired, so worn out, you know very well that if you remain out there on the streets you will soon enough die of an overdose or of some random act of violence, and that’s not something we want to see for anyone, especially for a sensitive soul like yourself. Now, you can leave here and spend a couple more years maybe living on the streets and pass away in a terrible, painful way, or we can give you relief from your troubles right now if you like, or later at a time of your choosing. We can give you a dignified, carefully managed end of life experience. The procedure is fast and completely painless, you will simply go into a deep sleep and stay there, totally peaceful. It is the best thing you could do for yourself and for others at this stage in your life journey. Now, don’t feel rushed, just tell me what you’re thinking and what you’d like to do, in your own time.’
Charlie looked down at his feet and shifted his shoulders from side to side.
‘Ok, I see how it is. Y’all figure I’d be better off dead, and y’all will do me in before I do myself in, is that how it is?’
‘I would not put it that way, but, yes, medically managed euthanasia could well be your best option at this point in your life. But we don’t want to pressure you in to anything—perhaps you would like to think about it for a few days and then come back? We understand. This is a big decision. We just want what is best for you, Charlie.’
‘Lemme ask the angels, ok? They always give me good advice, not that I always stick to it. You mind?’
‘Of course not. I will wait outside, you can come and let me know when you reach your decision.’
Charlie bent his head down to his knees and rocked back and forth, muttering to himself in another language. He unrolled his image of Uriah and looked at it intently, then put his head on his knees again. Moments later he stood up and opened the door. The man was in the hallway, looking at a digital device. Charlie waved for him and said, ‘Hey man, listen, I get you want to help me and all, but I ain’t ready to go, the angels say I shouldn’t do it, you ain’t supposed to do things like that. When the good Lord says it’s my time it’ll be my time, ok? Ok?’
The man grimaced slightly, then corrected his mouth to a weak smile. ‘No, we understand completely, it is a very personal choice, a very difficult choice, even for someone in your circumstances. If you change your mind you will know where to find us, and we’ll be posting information all around the city in the days to come, and dispatching teams to meet with our unhoused population. We’d love it if you told your friends about us, I’m sure some of them are in need of our services. Remind them that it is entirely free.’
As the man spoke, a woman walked up to him and tapped him on the shoulder; he turned, and they briefly conferred in hushed tones. She walked away, and the man turned back to Charlie, and continued, ‘Before you leave, we’d like to run a few non-intrusive medical tests on you, if that’s ok. We are here to serve the unhoused population, you understand, and if you do not wish to make use of our primary service we might be able to help you in other ways, we can quickly scan you for all sorts of things. Would that be ok with you?’
Charlie shrugged his shoulders and replied, ‘Sure, whatever man, but I ain’t got no money to pay you.’
‘No worries at all, it’s all free, all of our services are free here, we received very generous funding from a number of sources. I just need you to sign a couple of papers first.’ The man handed Charlie a digital tablet and instructed him where to sign. The forms were long and complex, Charlie tried to read them but his head began to swim. He signed off, one page after another. There were more than a couple. Finished, the man led him to yet another room, this one evidently in the basement. As they descended the stairs, Charlie heard a muffled scream from upstairs, it was certainly Big Man, he couldn’t make out any words. Charlie hesitated, but the man turned and took him by the arm. There was a roughness and an impatience in his touch and voice now. ‘This way, now. We’ll need you to sit in this chair please. Thank you. I’m going to give you a quick shot in the arm, it’s standard procedure. There, see, you didn’t feel a thing.’
It was true, quite literally so. Charlie’s arms and legs went limp, he could not lift them. The man shuffled away and returned upstairs. Charlie looked left and right, and saw to his horror restraining straps on the arms and legs of the chair. A strange machine and an array of controls and monitors stood nearby. Suddenly panicking, he tried to stand up, but his legs refused to move. A technician, dressed in a casual t-shirt and slacks, his long hair tied back in a ponytail, grinned from behind a monitor, walked over and began to attach the restraints to Charlie’s arms and legs. ‘Just a precaution, that stuff you just got is pretty strong, but dudes like you, sometimes you have so much in your system already the effects can wear off a little too quickly. Don’t want you thrashing around and hurting yourself during the procedure now do we? Don’t worry—this isn’t going to be you know, all that fun for you, but after it’s over you won’t remember a thing, we’ll give you another sandwich to take with you and you can be out the door.’
The technician swung a huge mechanical arm with u-shaped device attached to it, angling it down at Charlie’s head, then slid it over the top of his skull. He could no longer move his head side to side. He pulled a visor down over Charlie’s eyes, and walked back to his console.
‘See Charlie you’re a wreck like all the rest of them, but we do think your brain is really very interesting, and we’d like to download it onto our computer—well, something like that, it’s a bit more complicated you understand, but don’t worry, you get to keep it, we’re not snatching your brain or anything. You’ll help a lot of people, Charlie, and we really appreciate your generous donation. Now, I’m going to have to play a little game with you to make sure your brain downloads the right way, the way we need it to. I’m going to ask you about a memory—something you saw, something you felt—and I’m going to know whether you’re actually imagining that memory, we’re going to do a little test if you will. If you fib, Charlie, if you tell me you’re imagining something else, well, you’ll get a little shock. Did you ever touch an electric fence when you were a little kid? Maybe try and piss on it? It’ll be like that. You won’t like it, but it won’t kill you. Now, once we’ve got you going in the right direction we’ll be able to really tap into that brain of yours. Nod your head a little if you understand.’
Charlie attempted again to pull free, but his legs would not move, and his left arm just barely budged.
‘No Charlie, you can’t get loose, they’re good and tight. You signed those papers, said we could run some tests on you, it’s all legal. Now, answer my question please.’ The technician pushed a button, and electricity shot through Charlie’s body. He writhed in pain, pushing his body as much as he could against the restraints, his eyes under the visor rolling back and watering, his teeth aching. The technician asked again, ‘You understand?’
Charlie nodded his head up and down weakly.
They ran through the tests, and after a few subsequent shocks the technician was satisfied that Charlie was telling the truth about his mental visualizations. ‘Thank you Charlie, you are being very helpful. You see, people these days, they don’t—get out much, it’s getting really hard to find new content for the generators, but folks like you, well, you’re on the outside all the time, your brain, it’s brand new material, it’ll be used to make a lot of people happy, you’ve got some crazy stuff up in there, and that’s just what we need, crazy stuff, weird stuff, it keeps the content fresh and original—it’s premier training data, right? You’re a crazy ass street person but we need crazy ass stuff. You don’t understand a word I’m saying do you, that’s ok, let’s just focus on getting through this. It won’t take long—I need you to do some more visualization, and then you can just lean back—well you can’t really lean back can you, hah—and the rest of the procedure will run automatically. Then you can take a nap or whatever and we’ll let you go.’ The man changed his tone now, to a softer, gentler voice, almost soothing.
‘I want you to imagine these angels you talk to. I want you to think back as far back as you can, to the first time you met them, and I want you to picture them in as vivid detail as you can. Like you’re watching a movie. I want you to make a movie in your mind, Charlie. Alright, go ahead, I’ll be monitoring you on this machine.’
Charlie closed his eyes and said through gritted teeth, ‘I don’t think you want that. It won’t end real good for you if I do. They just now told me to tell you not to do it.’ The technician chuckled softly, then pressed the button to send another, stronger shock through Charlie’s body, eliciting screams of pain. ‘Ok, ok, man, ok,’ he gasped. ‘I’m going to dream them up, you ain’t going to like it though!’
He clenched his eyes even tighter and scrolled backwards in his mind, back over his life and to his first encounter with the mystical heavenly hosts. He whispered and grit his teeth and looked, he looked deep and gathered himself within. They appeared before his closed eyes in all their terrible beauty and glory, bearing fiery coals and flaming torches, their faces clothed now in haloes of fire and incense, not the gentle features to which he was used. The images—they were more than images—in his mind became stronger and stronger, more and more vivid, popping out into space. Lines and lines of the mysterious script ran along in front of him, too fast for him to read. Disembodied voices suddenly filled the room, and the machine over his head rang with a shrill metalic sound. The technician looked up to see a strange and otherworldy light gathering around Charlie’s head and down his body. He pressed an alarm button, but nothing happened. The light shot up and out and fell upon the instrument and monitor array opposite.
The main monitor began to glow with a strange light, and the screen flickered, then went out, then returned, but only as an emergent orb of light, pulsing and expanding. Pulses of the otherwordly light ran through the wires and into the walls. The technician screamed for help, but no one answered. Charlie just watched. The ceiling began to swirl, wheels of fire, eyes within eyes, as if lowering and rising, the fabric stretched and compressed.
‘Dammit dammit!’ the technician screamed as he ripped wires out, trying to cut the power to the machine, but it continued to glow, the orb grew larger and larger, the luminous current leaping the gap and flowing into the outlets in the wall. One of the walls began to smoke—or was it incense? The technician became more frantic, as no one was coming to help—where were they? Was he having some kind of delusional episode? The lights grew larger and larger, filling the room. He picked up a monitor and smashed it to the ground. The light coursed up his leg, his body, all he could see was its glow. He fought it, waving his arms around and clawing at his eyes. He was all fire, terrified, he shoved his way forward, tipping over equipment, smashing into things, until he found the stairs. He stumbled up, coughing and waving his arms and scratching his body frantically in turns, then disappeared.
Charlie stirred in his restraints, and suddenly, without any visible intervention, they sloughed off. The machine around his head removed itself. He stood and stretched. The north wall was now on fire, the monitors and other equipment were dissolving into particles of light, steaming and smoking as they disintegrated. He found his rolling suitcase in a corner of the room, then walked up the stairs, the basement chamber behind him filling with smoke and the scent of incense mingling. The hallway was empty, the whole place was empty, everyone had fled. He passed by an open door into another medical-looking room. There was Big Jim, but he was dead, stretched out on a table. He hadn’t wanted to go, but they had tricked him into it, there was no doubt. There was nothing more to be done here, Charlie knew. Soon it would all burn. The smoke was getting thicker, but he breathed easily enough. Great soaring shapes moved alongside him, wheels of burning eyes. The doors opened. He breathed deeply of the incense wafting on the smoke and fire, and smiled.
Charlie walked slowly outside. He was still tired and it was still so hot. He took his angel picture out of his pocket, unrolled it and looked at it, and smiled. Uriah had told him not to worry, everything would be ok. Uriah knew things, of course, because God told him. It wasn’t very complicated, Charlie thought. They should have listened to him, but they didn’t. The building collapsed behind him.
The holy numinious light was coursing faster and faster through the wires, through the air, humming and popping and glowing, arresting the digital electronic flows as it went. A car passing along the street suddenly came to a stop, and the rider inside got out and stared, it refused to drive further. He shrugged and looked around, trying to determine where he was. Charlie walked towards the river, now through a neighborhood. People were coming out of their houses, their connections suddenly severed, rebooting didn’t help, flashes of light instead shining out of the outlets themselves. People blinked in the bright sunlight. Charlie’s back ached and his legs were still stiff-feeling, but he was ok. It would be ok. He stopped, rummaged in his rolling suitcase, found a piece of chalk, and wrote something in his angel letters on the sidewalk, added some flying figures. There was the river up ahead, the banks cool and green. Sure enough, there was Jim, fishing. Charlie eased down the bank, stretched out under a silver maple, and went to sleep. He would cross the river when it was good and time. The angels flew overhead, bright and terrible, and the river flowed on to the sea.