“I’m sorry Ms. Razilee, we need to remove this tumor now, the sooner the better, we need to make sure that the margins are clean, so that we can spare as much tissue as we are able. After we are finished here I’ll have you follow my PA to scheduling, do have any questions for me?”
“No.” She swallowed hard as the sound left a throat that was so dry that words had no voice. The tears came hot and sudden, the doctor’s face a mix of sympathy and boredom. No one acknowledged her red face, or her tears, as she walked down the long dark hallway of the oncology wing, all of the inhabitants well versed in the art of denial and loss.
What did I do to deserve this? My God, why this, Why Me!
“Ms. Razilee, can I have your insurance card? The tired woman asked as she looked up from behind her plastic shield, her eyes grim, her mask hiding any semblance of sympathy. Moments passed as the woman paged through a book as big as a bible, reading passages and clicking their numbers onto her screen. Looking up with a furrowed brow she whispered “I hate to be the one to tell you this.” handing back Alex’s insurance cards. “If they do need to do a mastectomy, your insurance will pay for treatments but no reconstruction, would you like to speak with our finance department?”
“No.” Alex said crisply. Just get me the hell out of here.
How he hated hospitals, a 24-hour diner of souls many whom needed his guidance, geesh! Hospitals were far worse than gathering souls during wartime, he thought to himself. At least during wartime you were expected, and busy. Hospitals were just purgatory for the living, the dead.
Clad in the customary black of his office, hunched over like a vulture as he waited for his cue to enter the room, his hood hid any emotion, only his posture betraying his apathy for the task at hand, he waited for the ping he would get in his center. The feeling that let him know that this particular soul was one of his marks for the day. With a sigh, he perched in the shadows ready to slip this poor soul into his belt for transport and get the hell out.
“something’s off tonight. I can feel it.”
This particular soul for whom he waited, felt untimely somehow. Like it was the right soul at the wrong moment.
After processing so many over the years, individual souls had become like gardening in fall. Raking leaves into piles, each leaf a colorful individual, but just one of many to be bagged and disposed of, and tonight should be no different with the exception of this one.
He felt her.
Smooth and pensive, her presence coalesced, fleeting as a lightning flash. She drew him like thirsty lips to a glass of water as she lingered in that curious salle d’attente between space and time where the dying land in confusion before they take the final walk to the light. It was then that Azrael felt the all too familiar ‘ping’ in his center.
“Don’t fear, you are not alone,” a soft male voice proffered.
More confused than frightened, and comforted by the voice she heard, Alex walked towards the figure clad in dark shadows instead of walking towards the light at her back as most souls instinctively did. She smelled cinnamon, leather and woodsmoke.
“I don’t know where I am, but I am glad to meet you.” “Do I know you; you sound familiar somehow?”
“Step closer.” the voice replied, reassuring her as he strained to see the woman’s features through his dark mist. “Most never linger long enough for me to meet them, please stay and visit awhile.” He said from beneath his dark hood trying to see her face, which was obscured, framed by white light behind her..
“Who are you? Am I….. Why are we here?” “I need……”
“She’s flat lined, get the paddles ready!”
The air grew voluminous as the paddles of the machine were charged, all ears awaiting the shrill tone, alerting all that the life-giving weapon was fully charged and ready to hold this life right here with its powerful energy.
Alex, abducted from the quiet place she had been, was slammed back to the sound of urgent voices, and the faint smell of lemon antiseptic and burned flesh.
“Are you there? Why did you let them take me back?”
“Alex, Alex?” Are you back with us?” a masked green figure said, panting.
Her eyes refocused on the doctor towering above her, wondering where she had just been. Then she remembered that she was in surgery for breast cancer, but that voice in the shadows, she needed to speak to him again. She awoke alone, feeling lost, a soul in darkness.
The birds ceased their conversations upon his arrival, all of them actors on the green stage that had been set on his forested cliff, he the only outsider. The birds’ abrupt lack of sound a silent testimony to what they would never speak in his presence, sadly obvious to him even if he shared only the odd feather with them.
“The uniform.” He growled with disdain as he looked down at his boots, his cloak, mask, and gloves materializing around him. “Let’s get this over with so you can get back to whatever it is you do in my absence.” He said to his silent avian voyeurs, as he took his true form and drew his cloak up around his shoulders, crossing the strips of fabric that hung from the back to allow for his wings, while carefully binding his long silver braids into one long ponytail.
Why had he been called to her only to watch her go back? This just doesn’t happen, I’m in deep shit if Hades finds out, he said as he fluffed the feathers of his wings to settle his quills.
Just on the edge of a place where dark meets light, he pulled his mask on and pulled the cowl down lower, completely covering his skeletal head, then pulled on his gloves. He opened his wings one last time to full length in an exhausted stretch, savoring the breeze as it combed his feathers. It was then he heard his brother’s familiar voice at his nape.
“Brother, I have been trying to reach you for some time now.”
“I was observing an interesting case when I felt drawn by a presence I couldn’t identify, what is so egregiously important that you needed to contact me while I was down there?” “The soul I found was trapped between life and death, and for some reason, this soul lingered, she wanted to speak with me.” “I need to find her.
“Azrael, I don’t know if you heard, but the council is so divided its tearing itself apart.” “We need to see what we can do to stop them from making the wrong decision about our connection with earth.”
“Like I give a damn!” Azrael snapped.
Did humans actually need their angelic counterparts? Azrael questioned himself as the words left his teeth. He fumed over Hades and his brother’s interest in such matters. People on earth seemed to be moving away from the idea that they needed God. He needed to see proof good or bad to make an informed decision.
Death Takes a Vacation
The more Alex spoke about the idea of a vacation the more excited she became. Her treatments had ended, enough hair had grown back to hide her shame, and besides, she needed a break. She told her boss that she had decided to take a road trip.
“Yes,” she thought, “a road trip is just what I need. You never know,” she mused. “Maybe some small town would call out to me, or I could meet someone, like in the cheesy Hallmark Christmas movie.”
Full of her own happy energy, bright and early the next day, Alex drove her work truck to the rental car agency. The agency agreed to let her park her vehicle there until she returned. They had even offered to pick her up at the airport if she decided to fly back. She was given a BIG gold Chevy Tahoe that had all of the bells and whistles.
As she slid into the driver’s seat, she felt a strange feeling come over her. It was similar to the feeling one gets when given anesthesia. That cool tingling, creeping over your head as you slip under. It was scary but strangely welcoming. Another thing that struck her as curious was its license plate which read “BEW8TU1S”. The SUV was registered in Los Angeles. “Strange omen.” She thought.
After driving for hours Alex found a campground near the highway and decided to stop for the night. She found the host’s airstream and introduced herself asking for a private place to rest.
A woman in her mid 40’s with a pretty face and wavy red hair answered. She introduced herself as Alison. Alex explained that she would be there tonight, and tomorrow.
“Do you mind if I pull right up next to the grill, Alison?”
“No not at all seeing as you’re not a huge camper, that’s fine. I will run down with my daughter Keira at dusk to clean the bathrooms & showers if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all see you then,” Alex said as Alison turned to leave.
Alex was just getting the grill started when Alison had her daughter, Keira, walked up. Keira was 14 and already taller than her mother. Alex noticed that Keira was very thin and was wearing a bandana on her head. Cancer. She knew it in her heart from one survivor to another.
“Mind if we do the bathrooms early?” Alison asked. “Got a few difficult people who pulled in, and I want to make sure they all behave and follow the rules.”
“Sure, need help?”
” You don’t have to,” Alison said.
“Mom! Let her help. We can do it faster together.”
“Alex, this is my daughter, Keira. Keira, Alex.”
“Nice to meet you Keira.
The three of them went into the bathrooms and gathered the supplies from the locked cabinets under the sinks. Between Keira who took care of the men’s room, and Alison who did the ladies’ room, Alex the showers they had it tackled in 40 minutes.
“Please join me for a generous repast of hot dogs and a pretty good potato salad from Kingman, Arizona,” Alex said as they emerged from their labors. Alex was curious about Alison and her daughter and allowed the two of them space in the conversation to speak freely.
Keira was the one who bluntly told Alex (In case she was blind and hadn’t noticed) that she had just recently had a chemo treatment and it was hopeless. Alison explained that Keira was battling a form of bone cancer that was very aggressive and that the prognosis was grim.
“Keira wanted to come and be hosts at the campgrounds because she was sick of the sympathy and wanted to just be in the woods and work on her trail.”
“We both wanted away from the hospital and the chemo,” Keira said shortly.
His presence was known only by the change in the music playing from the Tahoe. Alex picked up on the change and smiled. The song was "Time' by Pink Floyd'. She had no idea how the selection was made.
“This is a special place, and one I wish to remember before I leave.” Keira said acknowledging the song playing. Those words hit home for Alex and she thought she heard someone else sigh too.
Finally, after all three had yawned, Alison decided to call it a night. She wanted to take a quick ride around on their golf cart and make sure the new campers weren’t making trouble, mentioning a man in a dilapidated sedan who was shady, and a bunch of folks in a bounder with more booze than a liquor store. She wanted to drive by them so they knew she was keeping an eye on them.
"Would you like a tour of my trail tomorrow?"
Keira thrilled at the prospect looked earnestly at Alex. "It would be nice to show someone the trail so that maybe someone could finish it, hint hint."
The next afternoon Keira met Alex at her Tahoe. Alex was just finishing a drawing of the landscape around her, enjoying the day and the raven that had perched itself above her.
“That's totally cool, Alex! Who drew it? You or the raven?” Keira asked in a humorous voice as she pointed to the noisy raven on a branch above them.
“This your friend Alex?”
“Yes, call him Azrael.” Alex said surprised by her name for the creature.
The two began their hike the raven following from the air.
Keira’s trail led through high pines with ferns as undergrowth onto a meadow complete with aspens and birch. “The ancient old willows are ahead.” Keira pointed and sprinted ahead the raven a shadow above her. The sign that Keira had painted called this area “souls’ transition.” Keira explained that she named it such because of the transition between deciduous trees and conifers. "This place is sacred to me because of the shadows cast by the trees in the afternoon, it makes me feel like I'm in an ancient church."
“I can almost hear your prayers in every step of this trail Keira, thanks for taking me.” The raven took flight again following Keira up a small rise as she pointed.
“Here is where the trail became non-existent. I haven’t had a chance to work on this part yet,” Keira said wistfully. “But it is easy enough to follow the game trails back to the stream where we started.”
The three of them enjoyed the rest of the walk in complete silence, enjoying the raven's songs and the last warm breezes of the day.
“I’ll see you later Keira, I would like some time to explore. Alex said on an inhale when they were almost back to camp, her soul wanting to savor as much of the day as possible.” Keira nodded as she trotted back leaving Alex alone with her thoughts.
It will be dark soon, Alex noticed as she walked back to the Tahoe the raven still with her. She knew Keira and Alison would be coming to do the bathrooms, a task that she was not up for tonight. Alex figured that if Keira wasn’t able, next year she would come out and finish Keira’s trail. She promised herself to take contact info from Alison when she settled up.
She was almost to the bathrooms when she thought she heard a muffled voice coming from that direction. When the Tahoe came into sight Alex’s blood went cold.
A strange man had Keira by the neck.
The man was standing at the Tahoe with Keira, a gun pointed at her side with his free hand around her waist.
“I need truck now" he said his face was a mask of rage. Alison was frozen in the doorway of the women’s bathroom looking at her daughter and the gunman unable to move.
Alex stopped before Alison or the attacker could see her. She was hoping that her squeak had not been heard as she eyed the scene. “Think, Alex! Think! How do I take him by surprise?” She surmised her only option would be to charge him, hoping beyond hope that she would reach him with enough momentum that he would loosen his hold on Keira.
How dare he take dear Keira’s life!
“My life instead,”
Alex walked back to the trail head and found a big sharp oak branch along the side.“Maybe I can club or ram the bastard before he can fire,” she schemed. It was the only option she had, hoping that Alison had her cellphone in reach.
Only seconds had passed yet Alex found that it seemed like minutes. Her mind was clear and her actions calculated. She had one shot (not a good pun she thought), she needed to rush him.
Alex burst forth with focus ramming the sharp broken branch into the man’s leg as he released Keira in total surprise. The man’s eyes met hers with a cold fury. Keira made it to her mother and the golf cart just as a shot rang out.
Alex felt the shot explode as it hit her left shoulder. The pain an electric shock, as it stopped her momentum for a few seconds. Still holding the stick with her good arm and her thigh she managed with rage and power, smiling as she looked into his dead eyes, to drive the ragged stick in deeper causing the man to drop the gun which in the struggle was pushed under the vehicle as they both crumpled to the ground.
Alex rolled onto her right-side moaning and trying to defend her head as the man stood and limped over grabbing her wrists holding them with one hand as he kicked her and struck her hard across the face.
“Please let this be over.” She whispered.
Azrael opened his dark wings as he flew down to her side. She was in a fetal position, covered with blood and her eyes were swollen shut as he coalesced in his true form.
Ignoring the now screaming man who saw him, he removed his mask and lowered his hood as he knelt over her hoping beyond all hope that she was still breathing.
With his face as close as he dared get, he called her name.
“Alex?” he said softly.
“Yesss, Azrael” she managed weakly as she shivered.
Her answer broke him as he gently scooped her up in gloved hands.
Alex felt her body being lifted, cradled by something familiar, the scent of cinnamon, leather, and wood smoke filling her nose, so bright, yet all she could see was darkness.
Death, he’s the voice I heard.
‘Finally’, she thought as she relaxed in his embrace.
” They are worth saving, you are worth saving.” He said as they disappeared in his mist.