Like The Prose 2021 – Day 30

Once again, Like The Prose has come to an end. I managed to submit all thirty stories on time but didn’t always manage to post them on this website on the day they were written (hence posting Day 30 a day late).

Day 30’s theme was beginnings – which got me thinking, how would someone cope with having to begin life as a different version of himself or herself? The American TV series ‘Quantam Leap’ (1989-1993) dealt with a character who woke up in a different body every day, and there are several novels which deal with a similar premise, such as ‘The Seven Lives of Evelyn Hardcastle’ by Stuart Turton or ‘Every Day’ by David Leviathan.

But what if my protagonist wasn’t human? I decided to write this one about an angel who is forced to experience something new when he temporarily relinquishes his angelic powers because he’s fallen in love with a human woman. It’s my own take on the morality plays from the middle ages.

Beginning

It was gone six o’clock when Marie finally finished her shift at the homeless centre. Wrapping her scarf around her neck for protection against the chill November air, she left the building, longing for the warmth of her tiny flat and the companionship of her cat. She loved what she did at the centre, but it wore her down sometimes. It was good to know she was providing a service for people who needed it, but it could be a thankless task – lots of rough sleepers would far rather be given a bottle of whisky than a mug of hot soup. Nevertheless, she tried to dole out smiles along with the soup and sandwiches. Any of those lonely individuals could be her parents or grandparents, her brother or sister-in-law, her nieces or nephew.

A blond, young man passed her on the street. “You’ve been doing a great job in there!” he called and she felt instantly encouraged. She continued on her way, not noticing the three youths following her at a distance; oblivious to a dark-haired man who watched from the shadows, smirking at the assault that was to come.

“She doesn’t deserve that.” The blond man spoke quietly at his darker companion’s side. “You had your chance with her years ago, and you lost. Leave her alone, Samael.”

“You’re somewhat overprotective for a ministering angel,” the demon replied contemptuously. “Isn’t your job merely to lift fallen spirits – metaphorically of course –“ he sniggered at his own joke – “and soothe fevered brows?” Before Joel could answer, Samael continued, “Don’t tell me you have feelings for this human! You know the rules forbid it.”

Joel listened with only half an ear, one eye watching the street and the youths who were creeping ever closer to Marie. She’d heard their footsteps now and turned fearfully, trying to gauge whether to run.

At this point, Joel could bear it no longer. Dropping his visible persona, he shimmered into the gap between Marie and her pursuers, shielding her from their view with his feathery wings. The would-be assailants paused, baffled. Had she disappeared down a side street? Meanwhile, Joel escorted Marie to the safety of the bus stop, keeping her out of human sight until the bus arrived and she climbed aboard. He retained his hidden presence until she had reached her destination, walking her to her front door without her realising that he was there.

As Marie’s front door clicked shut, Samael grabbed hold of Joel’s shoulder. “You’ve gone too far this time – you know we don’t interfere with the course laid out.”

“So you weren’t getting involved yourself when you pointed those thugs in the girl’s direction?” Joel challenged.

Samael pretended not to hear.

“I’ve done nothing wrong!” Joel protested.

“Well, we’ll let the Boss decide, shall we?” And Samael parted the veil that separated the world of men from the spiritual realm and dragged Joel into the Boardroom.

*

“Is there a reason why the two of you are here?” The archangel looked sternly from one to the other.

“This junior“ – Samael struggled to conceal his disgust – “has developed a romantic attachment for a mortal.”

“Well, this is most irregular,” Raphael sighed, clicking his fingers. A golden book hovered in the air before him. A slight nod from the archangel caused the book to flip open, pages turning of their own accord until the section Raphael wanted was on display. “Let me see… Hmm… A young lady named Marie Fellows who works at a homeless shelter. I can understand the attraction: you both spend your time ministering to others. Is there any reason why a friendship should not be cultivated?”

“It’s against the rules!” Samael hissed.

The archangel settled his gold-rimmed spectacles more firmly on his nose and peered over the top of them at the demon.

“That’s not the case,” he said mildly. “In the past, there were some unfortunate incidents when supernatural beings – on both sides – pursued carnal relations with men and women…” For a moment, he was lost in thought. “The mythologies called their children demi-gods,” he mused.

“I’ve done nothing improper,” Joel insisted.

“Yes,” Raphael agreed, “I can see it all written down here. You feel affection for her; you think she’s pretty;” – the junior angel blushed – “but you haven’t introduced yourself or said anything about your feelings. May I ask what your long-term intentions are?”

“I… I’m not sure,” Joel stammered. “I think I’d just envisaged watching over her for the rest of her life.”

“But you know there’s no such thing as a guardian angel? That idea’s merely a human fabrication because they like to think they’re special enough to warrant the attention of a being whose sole purpose is to protect and guide them,” Raphael declared. “What you’ve described sounds remarkably like the institution the mortals call marriage. Are you telling me you would relinquish your wings for this woman?”

Joel hesitated, torn between his longing to look after Marie and his desire to serve the rest of humanity.

“I think this is a moot point,” Samael interjected. He glared balefully at Joel. “If he has feelings for this person, then he’ll be neglecting his care of the others in his assigned district. Surely he should be moved elsewhere and another appointed in his place?”

Joel’s heart stood still at the thought of never again seeing his beloved. “I don’t want to stop helping other people,” he said slowly, “but I don’t want to abandon Marie either.”

“I believe there is a way you can do both.” Raphael twitched a finger and the book’s pages turned again. “If she can fall in love with you – without knowing your true identity – then she will have bound her destiny to yours and the two of you could eventually have what’s been known as a ‘mixed marriage’.”

The junior angel looked up, scarcely able to believe what he had heard.

“However,” Raphael warned, “there are rules which must be followed: you have twenty-four hours to win her heart; and for that length of time, you will be stripped of your angelic powers. You will spend one day in her company in the guise of a human, and if she offers you a kiss before the day is over, you will be deemed to have won her heart.”

Joel’s wings sagged again. How could any human fall in love in only one earth day?

Beside him, Samael smirked. “I take it that if the angel’s unsuccessful, he will be reassigned?”

Raphael nodded. “Your success or failure will be recorded in the book,” he told Joel. “For the time being, your powers will be kept here –“

A golden casket appeared before him. Raphael motioned with his finger and Joel felt a strange sensation as if his angelic power were being squeezed out of him and into the ornate box. Was this what it felt like to be mortal? To feel so weak and unsure, so unknowing?

“Take him back to the world of men,” Raphael instructed and Samael dragged Joel through the curtain once more, depositing him in an unceremonious heap on the ground.

“Make the most of your next twenty four hours,” the demon hissed in the angel’s ear, “because I still have my powers and I’m going to see to it that the woman you’re so fond of gives herself to me and not to you.”

*

Dawn was just breaking as Joel arrived at the homeless shelter. How did the humans manage? he thought. As an angel, he was used to keeping going all the time – never sleeping, never eating, never having to relieve himself; but just eight hours or so as a mortal had exhausted him. He’d never imagined what it would be like to have a body that didn’t repair itself either. Gingerly touching his jaw and shoulder, he thought again of the man who’d assaulted him. It was much easier to restrain someone if you were invisible and had superhuman strength. Now he knew where the phrase ‘As weak as mankind’ came from!

The notice outside the shelter proclaimed that Saint Peter’s was ‘Open 24/7’. Joel pushed the door open and stepped inside, wondering how to offer his services.

The elderly lady sitting at the desk by the door clucked sympathetically when she saw him. “You’ve been in the wars, haven’t you? Let me find the First Aid box.”

It was a novelty to be ministered to rather than the other way around. Joel let the kindly soul inspect the cuts and bruises he’d sustained as he patrolled the streets, wondering why these people kept going in the face of such adversity. At least he was normally immune to physical damage, but these mortals constantly put their own lives at risk when they chose to interact with the lost and lonely on their streets. He felt a fresh surge of pride for Marie and her co-workers as he realised how difficult their task was compared to his own.

By the time Marie arrived, Joel had consumed several cups of tea and three rounds of toast, all while making breakfast for whoever else wanted it. No longer able to know instinctively what troubled people’s hearts – that kind of empathy was locked away with his other powers for the time being – he had discovered that listening to them was a powerful way of gleaning information. Beryl, the woman who had attended to his injuries, had lost her husband over six months ago. She could have let bitterness consume her, but instead, she’d chosen to devote her time to helping others. Justin was the nervous looking man in charge of the kitchen. He’d been partway through catering college when he’d suffered a nervous breakdown and dropped out of his course. He’d lived on the streets for a while himself after that, relying on handouts from passing strangers, until eventually he’d plucked up courage to walk through the hostel doors and ask for a bowl of soup. He was now renting a room in another volunteer’s house and trying to complete his catering qualification part time.

As for the homeless themselves… Joel didn’t need angelic powers to see that they were broken and dejected. A strong aroma of alcohol accompanied some of them, and most of them were unwashed and unhygienic, but the shelter welcomed them all. He felt humbled by the humans’ capacity for kindness.

*

Marie’s first task that day was to sort the donated clothing in the stockroom upstairs into different types and sizes. They had a new volunteer – a blond man who looked vaguely familiar – and he offered to help her straight away. As they checked pockets and examined labels for sizing, she found him asking her questions about what had motivated her to do this kind of work. She didn’t normally tell people her life story, but this stranger was incredibly easy to talk to; besides, she somehow sensed that he wouldn’t judge her, so she told him about her wild student days and how she’d got involved with ‘the wrong man’.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she said at one stage. “Anyway, the upshot of it was that by the time I did my Finals, I was six months’ pregnant. I somehow scraped a pass and we moved in together, but Sam drank a lot and he was a mean drunk – you know, violent.” She paused momentarily, her face etched with pain. “A few weeks before the baby was due, we got into a fight and he pushed me down the stairs – he’d been drinking heavily all day.” She swallowed. “I lost the baby…”

She’d lost a lot more than that, crying uncontrollably for months afterwards, hating herself for not walking away sooner from a man who’d treated her so badly. Anti-depressants had numbed her to the pain for a while, but eventually she’d wanted to clear her head and start living again. It had been a painful process, but two years further down the line, here she was.

“Thanks for listening,” she told the blond stranger.

Joel smiled sympathetically. “Any time.”

*

It wasn’t until she and Joel were sitting down to take their lunch break together that the new vicar from Holy Trinity arrived. She’d never seen him before, but he introduced himself straightaway, telling her how pleased he was that the centre was doing the Lord’s work by caring for the poor. Forgetting all about the blond man she’d been getting to know, Marie stared into the vicar’s eyes, mesmerised by his devilishly handsome features, feeling her heart flutter when he took her hand in his and pressed it warmly. Almost before she knew what was happening, she had agreed to go for dinner with the reverend that evening so they could discuss fund raising ideas he’d had for the centre.

Joe’s hope cooled with their soup as he heard Marie making her plans.

“Until later, then,” the vicar said, turning to go. He paused just long enough to let Joel see his true features: disguising himself as a man of God was one of Samael’s favourite subterfuges.

*

“Do you think it’s wise to go out with someone you don’t know?” Joel asked as Marie was collecting her things together at the end of the day.

She pulled out a mirror and applied lipstick. “It’s not a date – it’s talking about helping the centre. And it’s really none of your business anyway.”

If he’d still had his powers, he would have cloaked himself with invisibility and stood watch over her while she and the reverend dined in an unpretentious restaurant a few streets away. As it was, he was forced to stand outside, peering in through the window every so often to check that Marie was okay. He knew Samael would not be content with merely stealing Marie away from him: he would try to hurt her in some way to make Joel suffer.

*

Not being able to hear what was said at the couple’s table when normally he sensed people’s thoughts and feelings and could hear audible voices over a span of several miles was making Joel nervous. Peeping through the restaurant window once more, he saw Marie rise to visit the ladies’ room. Seconds later, a waiter delivered drinks: something alcoholic for Samael and a large mug that Joel knew would contain hot chocolate – Marie had confided to him earlier that she didn’t eat dessert but loved to round off her meal with a hot, sweet, chocolatey beverage. As he watched, Samael made a stirring motion above the mug with his finger. Even without his angelic powers, Joel knew instantly that the demon had drugged the drink.

He was on the verge of barging in and pouring the mug’s contents on the floor when Marie returned from the ladies’ and began sipping her drink. Joel watched her with a heavy heart. He knew that Marie hadn’t dated anyone since her miscarriage (how much she’d told him in their brief time together in the stockroom!) and he was worried that she might be led astray too easily tonight. It was obvious to him that Samael had evil intentions; but would Marie be able to resist the demon’s charms when they were so attractively packaged?

*

When they left the restaurant some fifteen minutes later, Marie let the reverend take her arm, surprised at how unsteady she felt on her feet. She must be more tired than she had thought because she hadn’t drunk any wine and yet she could hardly walk in a straight line.

Joel followed at a distance. He was certain Samael knew of his presence – all supernatural beings have a sixth sense that alerts them to each other’s proximity – but he felt compelled to keep Marie within sight, just in case Samael tried to harm her in some way.

Instead of taking Marie to the bus stop, Samael had obviously talked her into walking all the way home. They crossed the road with Joel following and entered the park. Joel quickened his pace slightly, an uneasy feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. He had to protect Marie – even if it meant losing the challenge he had been set.

The pale moonlight of the November sky cast night time shadows on the path in front of Marie. Her head was as fuzzy as it had been when she was taking her medication so that she felt as if she was wading through treacle as they walked along.

Suddenly, the reverend stopped. “Do you know the real reason why I asked you out tonight?”

His question surprised her. “To talk about the centre,” she said stupidly.

“I don’t care about the centre.” Now he was beginning to reveal his true colours. “What I want is you.”

His hands were grabbing for her in the dark. She froze in terror, suddenly back in the past with Sam’s hands moving over her in the same way.

“You know you want it.”

Was that Sam’s voice or the reverend’s?

“No!” she forced out, but his hand had grasped her wrists and he was forcing her backwards, pressing himself against her aggressively, his eyes full of malice. How could she have ever thought him handsome?

“Please! I don’t want to…”

His hand struck her and pain exploded across her cheekbone. He’s going to kill me! she thought wildly.

“Leave her alone!” Joel faced his rival bravely. He still ached from the earlier street assault, but he had to do something to help Marie.

Samael smirked as the defenceless angel approached. Using every ounce of his supernatural strength, he let his fist connect with Joel’s face before throwing him to the ground and delivering a few well aimed kicks. Powerless to protect himself, Joel took the full impact of his rival’s heavy boots, gasping as his head exploded into a galaxy of stars. Meanwhile, Samael stared with satisfaction at the bloody, beaten mass before him, then turned back to his prey – only to experience a burning, stinging sensation in his eyes that made him recoil in shock.

Marie held her pepper spray in front of her defiantly, her other hand clutching her mobile phone. “I’ve just called 999,” she told Samael, “and there’ll be a police car here in a couple of minutes.”

The demon melted away into the darkness, satisfied that he had at least prevented Joel from achieving his reward. Meanwhile, Marie gazed at the figure on the ground, her heart welling with gratitude for what he had done.

“Thank you,” she whispered, gently kissing his cheek; and at that moment, Joel felt angelic strength flowing through him once more as his body began to repair itself and the air glowed with the miracle of love.

Above his head, invisible wings unfurled.

It was definitely the start of something wonderful.

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