|Autumnal Equinox 1998|
J. P. Edwards is a native of Missouri, where she derives the inspiration for her novels. Recently, she has taken to writing stories of darkness and hope.
E CAME, AS HE ALWAYS DID, at a quarter to midnight, a pale wraith of memory to torment her. Tonight she was waiting for him, her ritual prepared, a brightly colored mound of pills spread across her candle-lit vanity in front of his picture and a bottle of Jack Daniels uncapped and ready to pour. It was time.
She'd come to terms with his haunting, knowing she deserved it, punishing herself with it. The tiny room was littered with the evidence of her guilt, sketches and paintings of his final agony and the angels who'd watched him commit the ultimate sin, all hung haphazardly along the otherwise bare walls or leaning crookedly against the small cot and weathered vanity in what had been her home for a year now, since she'd been old enough to leave her parents.
She'd begun to rely on his nightly visits, struggling with the need to know what he wanted, yet unwilling to let him go, her days a grey shadow of dreamy nothingness that revolved around those nights. Her withdrawal from reality had cost her the few friends she'd had, the job she'd hated and any semblance of a life that might have existed before. She would leave nothing behind to show she'd even existed; no friends, no family, no mourners.
Each night he watched her silently, just standing there looking at her with sorrowful eyes, until she thought she would go mad with the need to know what his presence meant. She knew he wanted something, had known it the entire year since he'd died. It was as if every moment of that painful year had culminated in this one moment in time, this single night, the anniversary of his death. This night, they'd have been old enough to marry. This was the night she would join him.
He was almost glowing this evening, as if the mood of her obsession had changed, heightening the effect of the livid bruise circling his neck.
Tonight something was different.
He shook his head at her in reproach and motioned her to the window. She obeyed, moving to stand in the opening, the sharp night breeze caressing her fevered skin. Her gaze roamed the clustered houses and dark streets, seeing nothing noteworthy there, then her eyes were drawn upward, fearfully, to the outcropping of huge rocks where the guardian angels statue stood over the peaceful hamlet, a long-forgotten monument to the founding fathers. A shiver clawed its way up her spine. The statue was glowing with the same eerie light that surrounded him.
The angels had watched over them for as long as she could remember. Set on a rocky ledge far above, their base was surrounded with bushes of pink and white rose bushes she'd planted herself as a child, when she'd first discovered the faint pathway that led to them. There were three of them, twelve feet tall and carved from the purest white granite. Backs against the craggy rock, they each faced a different direction, their enormous wingspan surrounding the small valley in security.
At least she'd always thought of it as security, until the night she'd found him there, hanging by a rope around his neck from the outstretched arm of the center angel. He'd shattered every hope of safety for her that night. The darkness had swallowed her then, and would not set her free. She'd never gone back.
With a whisper of chimes, he was gone. She frowned; his visit had been unusually short. But a flicker of movement drew her gaze back to the window, down to the fog-darkened street. He stood there, beckoning, smiling that sweet little smile he always used to get what he wanted. She was tempted to ignore him, but her body moved of its own accord, out of her room and down the stairs, until the cool night air surrounded her again, flattening her thin cotton shift against her pale skin.
The street was deserted, as one would expect of any small town near midnight. He waited to make sure she was following, out to the city limits and the almost imperceptible dirt trail that led from there up the hill to where the angels stood their watch. It had been their secret place, where no one else ever went, the pathway and clearing long forgotten and overgrown since her youth. They'd laid claim to it as children, and kept it as their own.
The smooth, asphalted street was kind to her feet compared to the rocky path that drew her inexorably upward, her steps moving slowly, reluctantly, as if in a trance. She didn't want to go there; yet she couldn't help herself. The night he ended his life, and hers along with it, was the last time she'd ventured this way. She'd hated him, and hated herself more, certain she could have done something to prevent it.
She turned a corner in the fading path, more than halfway up the hill now, and from there she could see them, seeming to smile down at her in welcome as she approached. He moved ahead of her quickly now, no longer in her line of sight, yet she plodded onward, sure now that the previous year had been but a tormenting prelude to the anniversary of his death.
Stepping into the clearing at the angels' feet, she was inundated with memories, the crisp smell of pine needles smothering her. This place had been a second home to them, for picnicking and playing and listening to music. They'd created a haven there in its neglected confines, a place to be free, a place where there was only love. She could escape her desperately clinging mother; he could escape the abuse of a father who cared too little. Until the night she'd found him hanging here, she had called this place sanctuary. She hadn't been back here since.
A fluttering demanded her attention, the frayed piece of rope that still hung from the extended wrist of the center angel, whose calm stone face denied her dark betrayal. They were no longer the guardians of her youth.
A chill raised the hair on her neck and she turned to find him behind her, the mournful look on his face shredding the few remaining pieces of her heart. Stooping to pick up a long-dead white rose caught in a crack at the base of the statue, he cupped it in his hands and breathed on the crumpled parchment-like leaves until they unfolded into a beautiful blooming flower, watching her yearningly. Silently, he held it out to her. Her eyes filled with tears.
"Please talk to me." The words rushed out of her mouth before she could stop them, and hung in the still night air, trembling with need, anger and fear.
His face was a study in regret. "There is so much I need to tell you."
Shock gripped her with bony fingers. All these months without a word and finally he spoke? "Oh, my God."
"I don't have much time." His eyes, a watery shade of cerulean blue, captured her gaze. "I need to touch you."
Trembling, she backed away from him, until her legs came up sharply against the ragged edge of one of the stones they'd dragged there long ago for seating. She sat, the scent of the rose she held overpoweringly sweet. Anger blossomed within her chest.
"Don't you know it's been driving me crazy, trying to hear you?" The question shot out like a dart, painfully cutting.
"I couldn't stand to leave you." Crystalline tears gathered in the corners of his eyes and slid silently down his white cheeks. "I didn't know it would be like this."
For a long minute she stared at him, uncaring of his tears. He deserved a little of her pain, after all. "Did you think about me at all?" Her bitterness poisoned the words, making them brittle enough to break.
"I've thought about you every night, watched you suffer, and known I was the cause. I've tried to touch you..." Even now his hands reached out for her, fingers curved into fingers of need.
"But why?" Her words formed themselves into a wailing that came from deep within her, all the anger, fear and loneliness released from its bondage to flood upward and outward. "How could you?"
He slowly unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off. Deep purple bruises marked every inch of his chest and upper arms, every bit as grisly as the angry welt around his neck. Her gasp echoed around the small clearing as her eyes clung to a patch of congealed blood gathered around his ribs.
"Yes, they're broken," he answered her unspoken question. "I told him it was the last time he'd ever lay a hand on me and I ran. I was hurting, and drunk...and I came here." Pleadingly, he held out his hands to her again, palms open and vulnerable. "I would never have done it otherwise. The pain was so bad." He began to cry in earnest. "He didn't love me, you know. My father never loved me."
She went to him then, kneeling in the dirt in front of him and opening her arms, not knowing if she could touch him and not caring. Then he was next to her, their bodies fitting together as they always had. But he was so cold.
She shushed him softly. "I love you, baby. That's all you needed."
"It wasn't enough then," he mumbled into her shoulder. "I had to stop you, tell you it wasn't your fault."
Her gaze rose to the stone faces of the angels above them, a taunting symbol of her lost hope. They were coldly beautiful in their winged glory, the two on the outside facing opposite directions, blowing long granite horns, and one in the center, her arms outstretched as if in benediction. With a frayed rope hanging from one slender wrist.
"I didn't mean to do it." His voice dropped to a whisper, deep sorrow written across his pale face. "Please forgive me."
"Of course I forgive you. I love you," she said simply, reaching up to run the back of her hand down his frigid cheek. "And I want to be with you, now. Tonight. I'm ready."
The clock on City Hall began to sound midnight and the sadness on his face was replaced with an expression of utter peace tinged with regret. In the instant of its final knell, she heard a sound like a thousand voices raised in song and felt the wind begin to growl softly around them, blowing the long, blonde strands of her hair across her face. He rose, drawing her up with him. "You can't be with me. It's not your time." Smoothing away the tangling hair, he pressed his chilled lips to hers gently before putting her away from him. "You have to stay. For me and for all the things you have yet to do."
"You can't leave me again," she cried desperately, clinging to his arm. "Oh, God, please don't leave me."
The trees rustled around them, with a sound like wings unfurling. The air grew warm and the clearing lightened to almost day-like brightness, laden with the spicy scent of suddenly blooming roses. Following some imagined movement, she looked up to meet the most radiant eyes the color of the shifting emerald and sapphire of a tropical sea, the eyes of an angel that looked through her, all the way down into her very soul and accented by a single tear. Her hard planes softened to incandescent flesh, the center angel smiled at her, a smile so pure and joyful that she couldn't help but return it, even though her heart was breaking.
"Goodbye, my love." With a gentle kiss, he stepped away from her and surrendered himself to the fingers of the wind, and the embrace of the angel as she bent down to pick him up in her arms, her swirling robes surrounding him protectively. "I will always be with you." He smiled at her and molded himself into the sculpture, his soul a wisp of light flowing upward until it was gone.
She cried as she watched him go, not for him, but for herself and the year she'd wasted. It was time to start living again, to leave his death in the past and carry his love with her into the future. Even as the tears coated her cheeks, a smile blossomed slowly at the realization that she was finally free of the darkness she'd hoarded for so long.
Finally at peace with her past, she left the clearing and started down the hill eagerly, ready to bring herself and his memory back to life. She would be back to see him often and tend their garden again. The angel raised her eyes heavenward once more as her body stiffened slowly, until she was once more a carving in stone, cradling a peacefully sleeping boy in her arms.© 1998 J. P. Edwards, all rights reserved
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Premier Issue 1998, Updated September 30, 2004
BLOOD ROSE is Copyright © M. W. Worthen.
"Angels Weep at Midnight"