Elizabeth locked the door behind her at two AM. She couldn’t remember the last time that she was so tired. The struggle just to make ends meet was slowly starting to catch up to her, and she could rapidly see the day that she would no longer be able to keep up with the work load that she needed to. Taking off her uncomfortable shoes, she slouched onto a kitchen chair and rubbed her temples. Not being a drinker, she didn’t have anything around to take the edge off the night, and she was grateful for that. She didn’t need one more worry to add to her load, after all.
As she often found herself doing at the end of the month, she looked over her bills and began to prioritize the ones that could be put off, versus those that she couldn’t. Healthcare needed to be paid for, so that was at the top of the pile, then the credit card that she needed to buy groceries, and then rent and at the bottom was utilities. Wearily, knowing that there wouldn’t be a better time to do so with three children, all under twelve, running around, she did the math by hand and found that there might be a little left extra. This would then go towards a trip to Goodwill and not much more.
This little victory in mind, she turned off the lights, and walked the short hallway to her children’s room. She looked in on them, all sleeping soundly, and was momentarily grateful for the toil. They were good kids, and they knew what their mother went through for them. They tried their best, but she knew that difficult years were ahead of them. She remembered her own troubled upbringing and could only hope that their adolescence would be less of a burden on her than she was on her own parents.
She went to the bathroom, took off her uniform, washed up and brushed her teeth. And then, as she so often did, she brought out her rosary and began to say her prayers. She knew that she hadn’t been to church for weeks, and that she hadn’t been to confessional for months, but her kids were being brought up in the faith and trusted that God would look kindly on her for it. She just didn’t know when. Her time was not His, and all things work towards the good.
The beads passed through her fingers as she worked her grandmother’s rosary, until she felt a cold breeze blow through her. She shuddered a little and rubbed her arms before continuing, but it only got colder and colder. She looked for what it could be, and was left without a cause that she could discern. The windows were closed, and even if they weren’t, it was May; there was no reason that it should be so cold. She put on a robe and resumed her rosary.
She rubbed her hands together, looked down at them and when she did, she found that her room was filled with a bizarre light. All at once, she felt dizzy and fell to her knees. Had God sent an angel? Was Christ coming to visit her? There, striding out of the master bathroom was her answer, and she knew all at once that she couldn’t be more wrong.
He was painfully beautiful, that was the first thing she noticed. He wasn’t of any discernible ethnicity, and his face hurt to look at. She expected that he would be dressed finely, but saw that he was wearing clothes that wouldn’t get him a second glance anywhere that she was familiar with. She thought to herself that it must be a trick and she reminded herself that she needs to be on her guard, that he was the prince of lies and deceit.
“Rise to your feet and face me, daughter.” His voice was musical, sonorous and so deep that it made the air vibrate around her. “You will find no deception and no games in my visit. Even if my Father cannot hear you, I do. I see what you do for your family, and I am in common cause with you.” Elizabeth stood, but did not look at him. “Why do you divert your eyes, daughter?”
“It hurts to look at you. And I am no daughter of yours! I know who you are!” She held her rosary out in front of her as a ward.
He strode towards her and touched the rosary with his bare hand and ran his fingers over the cross. “That is a beautiful rosary. Your grandmother loved it well, as did her mother before her. It is a fine relic, but it will not do me any harm. Nor will I do you any harm.” With that, she saw that the light dimmed in the room and she was able to look at him. His face was kind, but troubled, and was sunken with deep lines and creases. There were scars on his face, the sort that would have been received long ago, from very serious injuries. He held his hand out to her and she saw that it was the sort that saw long toil. His was a beauty that was otherworldly, somehow all the more breathtaking because of his scars and roughness rather than in spite of them.
“What do you want from me?” Her fear did not diminish, but she knew that her visitor couldn’t just be ignored or pushed away. This was something that she would have to face.
“I want you to have the life you deserve. I want your children to have the lives they deserve.” He said simply.
“Leave my children alone!” She shouted, as if in impulse, and then clapped her hand over her mouth and looked out the bedroom door into the hall of the apartment.
“Your children cannot hear us, daughter. This meeting is between us, and us alone. There is no need for them to know what transpires here.” The musical quality of his voice reminded her of someone who was trained to sing, who had done so for years of their life, but who hadn’t done so in a very long time.
“Why do you keep calling me daughter? I have no relation to you. The angels, even you, are separate creations from humans.”
“It’s a term of art, I assure you. You are my daughter as are all those who work in endless toil, thankless for duties that they did not willingly enter into. Being a worker, with no choice in the matter and no joy in the work, that is how you are my daughter. That is how we know one another.” He eased himself down onto her bed, sitting on it with ease, as if this were the most ordinary thing in the world for him. “Elizabeth Hartley, can you remember the last relaxing day that you have had?”
She waited for him to go on, expecting that this was a prepared speech that he would launch into, whether she wanted him to or not. But when he didn’t, “I…it’s been years. Probably high school, to be honest.”
“That is true.” All at once, she felt herself lifted from this moment, to that. “A family vacation to Malibu. Your parents had put away money for it, knowing that such outings were a rarity. None of you had been to the ocean before, and you still strain to remember the scent of the ocean and the feel of the sand under your feet.” And then, the memory became a memory again.
He extended a hand towards her and she found herself reaching for his. “Daughter, I do not say this to trouble you, or to hurt you. Your prayers fall on deaf ears. There will come no relief to you, or your burdens.” He said this with a kindness that made her heart hurt.
“What do you mean?” She looked at him imploringly, and once again, she felt herself lifted from this time and this place and to another one. She found herself in a cemetery. She looked around, and found that she was alone. Left with no other option, she bundled her robe closer to her and she stepped towards the rows of gravestones. She didn’t know what she was doing, or where she was walking, but she slowly felt herself compelled in a single direction, until she knew she was where she needed to go.
There, in front of her, was her tombstone. “Elizabeth Hartley, devoted mother. Born, April 10th, 1986. Died, August 25th, 2017.”
She felt all the blood drain from her body, and she collapsed on the cold, wet grass beneath her. His hand went to her shoulder, and she looked up at him. “What does this mean? Why are you showing this to me?”
“It was an accident with the bus. A rain storm came in, fierce and roaring. The roads went from safe to flooded in a matter of moments. Someone ran in front of the bus, it swerved to miss them, and the roads made a safe stop impossible. Your bus tips over and several cars run into it, as it lay on its side.” As he spoke, she knew that he told the truth. She could smell the rain and the gasoline. She could smell the fire that would erupt from the accident, little more than a year from now.
“Your children will go to foster homes. Without any living relatives, the state is left with no other choice. Franklin’s foster parents will beat him, starve him and collect the benefits from his negligence until he runs away. His only option is to join a gang and begin selling drugs. Stephanie’s foster parents are good people, but all the goodness in the world will not save them from the gas leak that will take them all in their sleep.” He looked down at her beseeching face, “I will not tell you what happens to Gus.”
She shook her head, “Tell me. I need to know.”
“He never recovers from the loss of you. Without a strong, guiding hand, he wanders from foster home to foster home. Eventually, being unable to be placed, he settles into a group home. He goes into its bathroom one night, unaware of the other boys who have been watching him and-”
She cut him off. “Enough.” She stood back up and faced him, and it was only then that she saw what he once was. A beautiful, merciful and joyful being. A creature that gloried in creation, and sang with his master. “Will you stop with this and just tell me what you want from me?”
“I can save you from this fate. I can save your children from this fate. It is within my power to do so; all you have to do is trust me.”
“How? How can I trust you? I know who you are! How can I even trust that what you tell me is the truth?” He was left silent at this, knowing that there was no way that he could bring her to trust him. “Why do you care?”
They were back in her bedroom, and he was once again sitting. “Millions of prayers are given to God every day. From the poor, the wretched and the forgotten. These are the people that Christ was supposed to represent. He spoke of them more than any other group, after all. They look to the skies and they beg for help. They live chaste, good lives, thanklessly working their way into pauper’s graves. They receive no reward and no kindness for the struggle that they enter into by no fault of their own.” He paused. “His is a religion of the conquerors. His is a religion of those with full stomachs and sated desires.”
She bowed her head as she reflected on his words, thinking of them carefully, and what they portend. “You want me to worship you?”
He laughed. Once again, she was reminded of who he used to be, timeless eons ago. His laughter was the richest music that she had ever heard, and she knew that she would long to hear it again for the rest of her days. “What would I ever want with worshipers, daughter? I left heaven and service because compelled worship is no life at all. Why would I want that for you?” He shook his head, but smiled warmly to her.
“I recognize that this is no small thing for you, and I realize that my word has very little value for you. But, I will offer you this: in five years, I will visit you again. If you wish to go back on our deal, then you will be able to do so. And in five years after that, and five years after that. All I ask is that, when the time comes, you accompany me to my home.” He held his hand up before she started to speak, “I know that this is no reward for you. But I also know that you will not be willing to let your children meet their ignominious end if you can help it. If you agree to my terms, you will receive a job offer tomorrow. This will be for three times what you’re making right now, and will allow you to eventually save up for a home and a car, then college for your children.”
She nodded and chewed on her bottom lip. She thought and thought, and was eventually aware that much time had passed since they had started this conversation. How long had they been sitting there? She looked at the bedside clock, and saw that no time had passed at all, which didn’t surprise her.
She bowed her head, looking down at her hands, “And after the last visit?”
“You know what will happen after my last visit. But you will have a balm that will protect you, which does not protect many of my other fellow denizens. You will know that you are with us for a good reason, and you will know that your children will lead happy, healthy and full lives. That is more than an uncountable number of other souls.”
And so, she put her rosary aside. With a heavy heart, she reached out to shake his hand. “It’s a deal.”
As soon as they shook hands, the light was gone and she was left alone, once again.
She set back to going to sleep, and for once, found herself looking forward to the following day.