Conway & Clara
Updated: Mar 27, 2021
After my third failure I was assigned to Conway Marlowe. The theory was that children are the easiest to watch over in this day and age. They get into more smaller scrapes, but they're more pliable and easily swayed from disastrous events.
The bigwigs upstairs thought I couldn’t handle the adult versions anymore.
Conway Marlowe is in the fifth grade and has discovered that girls don’t actually have cooties, which is why he ditched his bratty kid brother at the bus stop after school to walk Megan Baxter to her front door.
Please don’t let her hate me, he prays, projecting his thoughts to anyone who could listen.
“Just don’t push her in the mud,” I say, stepping over a slushy puddle on the sidewalk as I trail behind him. The winter had been a wet one so far, and I hated it. There'd been snow, which was pretty for a few hours at most, but that turned to brownish, icy soup all too soon.
It's not that I can’t do the job. Humans are easily persuaded. Most of them prefer our route, where they don’t wind up dead. My problem is that I just don’t care. People are boring. I certainly was, up until the last bit.
The interesting moments — toe-stubbings and noggin-bumpings, the broken bones and broken hearts — are few and far between. Humans can barely pay attention to themselves, yet I’m expected to pay attention all day, every day. Any street crossing could mean death — that was mistake number one. I thought he’d seen the bus coming. As for number two, who doesn’t expect there to be sharks in the ocean? I couldn’t tell her to stop swimming if she wants to every damn morning. That got me stuck on playground duty.
Kids tended to be easier. Most have two parents also looking out for them, plus teachers and siblings and nannies. For kids we’re backup.
“So, what did you pick for your history project?” Conway asks Megan.
Megan, looking thrilled to have been asked, says, “I wanted to write about the effect the feminist movement had on fashion through the twentieth century, but Mr. Idsman said that was too broad a topic so I chose the 19th amendment instead.”
“Know it all,” I say.
“Oh,” says Conway, deflating a bit.
“Run home while you still can,” I advise him.
It isn’t that Megan's not a great girl. Conway just doesn’t function at her level.
“What was the nineteenth one again?”
The only Amendments he knows are the first and the second — his father rants about them daily — and a bit about the fifth from watching The Client, but most of what he remembers of that issn't right.
Megan rolls her eyes. Like a mother telling her spawn not to put straws up their nose for the millionth time, she says, “It gave women the right to vote.”
“Oh yeah,” says Conway.
“Well? What about you?”
Conway gapes at her. He hasn’t thought about it. "So don't use it as your conversation starter, ya dingleberry," I say.
Then he perks up with a light bulb moment. “The Apollo missions.”
Oh, he's good.
Megan, also impressed, asks, “All of them?”
“Just eleven. No, twelve. Twelve is my favorite.”
Megan nods. “It’s too bad we con only do American history. Otherwise you could write about Yuri Gagarin or Valentina Tereshkova.”
“The first male and female astronauts in space,” says Megan. “They were Russian.”
Conway's eyebrows pull together, confused. “Then aren’t they cosmonauts?”
“Right, cosmonauts,” says Megan.
Megan smiles happily at Conway. Conway blushes.
With a burst of courage more from adrenaline than confidence Conway says, “Want to go to the park?”
“Today?” Megan asks.
Conway shrugs like it doesn't matter.
Megan says, “I'm going to start my paper right now, but wanna go before dinner? I can stay out until it starts getting dark.”
“Yes,” says Megan.
Megan unlocks her door with a key she keeps on a chain around her neck and steps into the foyer.
“Thank you for walking me to my door, Conway.” As she slips inside she adds, “I’ll see you at six!”
He stares at the door for a full three minutes after it clicks shut.
“She’s got you, hasn’t she? Don’t choke, buck-o.”
Most people only ask for help when they think they need help, and it’s not usually for something we can help or even hope to change. Guardian angels are pointless. Ineffectual. We only have the power of coercion, like a voice that carries into awareness from a dream. We can't do anything about dead family and friends, divorce, or depression. We whisper in their ears at night that it will be okay, it will pass, they will meet again, with no guarantee that our charges will hear us or listen. We’re band-aids over the sucking chest wound that is life.
I don’t see how I can change anything for the better. Even if people listen to you once, they’ll just make the same, and different, mistakes a few minutes down the road. Keep them from forgetting their keys? They run a red light five minutes later.
For a dull, clumsy mortal Conway is easy. He only asks for his dad to love him like he did Leander, Conway’s little brother. Well, half-brother. I have absolutely no power over that. If the Narcissists That Be had any sense, Conway’s dad and stepmonster would have Don’t-Be-A-Douchebag angels hanging over their shoulders to tell them “emotional abuse is still abuse” and “don’t hate your twelve-year-old son, dickweasel.”
But the the gods above don’t care. They just want us to think they do.
What Conway asked for that I could help him with was crap like don’t let me forget my homework or should I wear my red shirt or green shirt (and that was a no-brainer because I loved red, and it went nicely with his dark hair).
Conway trudges a quarter mile down the street to his home, an ominous-looking, three-story Victorian house with vines and tall windows. It looks dark, like sunlight doesn’t reach it. If I didn’t know for a fact there aren't any ghosts in residence I would have said there was no way it isn’t haunted.
My last charge, a forty-something with dyed blond hair and a fake tan named Margery, had a haunted house. The ghost loved to hide the cutlery. In hindsight, it might’ve been trying to help her. It threw a bit of a fit when she killed herself. It might also have been her late husband. I never asked.
I’d tried with Marge: told her every night that life was worth it, that she had a lot going for her. But telling someone life was awesome doesn't work if you don't believe it yourself, and it's no substitute for medication. She never listened when I nudged her toward a therapist. I hope she's happier wherever it is people go. I didn't go there when I died — they recruited me straight away.
Drafted, really. Not like I had a choice.
Conway usually got off the bus with Leander and they walked home, with Leander taunting Conway.
He’d say, “I hate your hair. Mine’s not ever gonna look like that, is it?”
Or: “How come you always wear that ugly red shirt?”
And: “Dad’s gonna get me the new Aesteron game and you can’t play it!”
Conway would respond, “It won’t”, or “Because”, and “Okay”.
Then Leander, with all the pomp of a fat king, would say, “Good” or “Doofus”.
I’d have beaned the kid if I could. I wanted Conway to get angry for once, and knock in some sense. Stupid, meek, way-too-nice little Conway never even raised his voice at Leander. He never listened to those suggestions, either.
At the house Leander would saunter off to watch flashy, super-powered cartoons on TV. Conway would head up the stairs to his room. The flight up to the third floor creaked, and Conway was often yelled at for it. He tried to avoid the creaky parts but the whole staircase creaked.
Today, however, Conway’s step-mother meets him at the door.
She latches onto his jacket lapel and yanks him inside the house.
Leander’s mother is the embodiment of the seven deadly sins. She’s mostly slothful and gluttonous, lazing about all day long and calling on Conway or Conway’s father to wait on her. She peers through curtains at neighbor’s houses and cars and lives, thinking: why doesn’t my garden look like that? And: She eats like a whale! How is she that skinny? And: I wish John had Frank's body. I should make him run more. Most of her envy's curtailed by her bloated pride. She might envy her neighbor’s husbands, houses and cars, but she lives to show off hers. Lust got her involved with Conway’s father, John (not that I’d consider that sinful), but it was greed that made her marry him.
She loves John and Leander in the same way she loves anything that was hers. Which is why she can’t stand Conway, the one thing in the house that isn’t, and why today she is wrath.
The door hadn’t slammed shut before she's yelling at him.
“You love to ruin my good days, don’t you Conway? Thirteen by Thirty was on. But I missed it. Is there enough sense in your empty head to know why, Conway?”
She pauses as though waiting for an answer but Conway is an expert at momsters. He says nothing. She sneers at him.
“You always have been slow. Leander walked home from the bus stop. Alone. While you were off with your little girlfriend anything could have happened to him!”
She towers over Conway, pointing with her index finger. She jabs it at him to punctuate each sentence.
Conway looks away from her.
“Don’t ignore me,” she snarls. “Explain yourself!”
He shrugs and takes a step back.
“That’s all you’ve got to say for yourself?”
“Tell her what-for, Conway,” I say. “Stand up for yourself.”
“You abandoned your own brother for some floozy down the street. Your brother. My son. You know what kinds of freaks are out there, just waiting for their chance! Just like your mother —”
I say, “Oh, no you didn’t.”
“Don’t,” says Conway.
“Your mother,” the step momster continues, “Who abandoned her own child and —”
“Shut up,” Conway says.
“What did you say to me?”
Conway does the smart thing and says nothing. Leander’s mother is angry, that's for sure, but she is also enjoying this. I can feel it. She gets some thrill from having this sort of power over someone. Conway is smarter than me. He stays quiet. I want him to stop being smart. I want him to snap.
“My mom’s not —”
“Not what, a criminal? A whore?”
Conway clenches his fist.
“Little boy wants to hit a woman, does he? You’re the same garbage she is. You’re a danger to me, to Leander. John should send you away before you hurt anyone!”
“Fight back! Don’t just take this!”
Conway bites his lip and glares, his eyes brimmed with tears.
“Go to your room,” she says. “Don’t come down for dinner.”
Hands on her hips, she silently dares him to make a move.
“Spike her tequila with arsenic.”
The tendons in Conway’s neck stand out, and he shakes.
“Shit,” I say. “I mean, forgive and forget, Conway. And you’ve got homework.”
Conway backs down and I’m positive it isn’t because of me. He unclenches his fists and drops his gaze to the floor. He turns away and heads up the stairs. Leander stands in his doorway, his expression vicious and bratty. He smiles and sticks out his tongue before shutting his door.
“What are you waiting for! Get to your room. Now!” The step-momster still watches Conway from the bottom of the stairs like a hawk watches a field mouse. Her yell spurs him onward and upward.
Conway has the third floor to himself, unless they have guests. The master bedroom, complete with a Jacuzzi tub, takes up half the second floor with Leander’s room next to it.
Leander has a TV with a the latest gaming systems and shelves overflowing with violent movies. Broken R.C. vehicles lay on the floor. Leander’s is a room to be envied. If I could I’d move in there and play G.T.A. for days.
But I'm stuck with poor, forgotten, boring Conway with his plain, dull room full of used books about all the people he’d rather be and maps of all the places he’d rather live.
He spends the afternoon in his room, playing a blue handheld game he’d taken from Leander’s room when his brother had gotten a newer model. He scribbles the first sentence of his paper in sloppy cursive in his notebook: In 1961 President JFK said we would go to the moon before the end of that decade.
At 5:45 he sticks his head out his door. The TV in Leander's room is on. The sound of water pouring into the tub roars through the walls from the master bedroom.
He hugs the banister going down the stairs. The second to last step creaks loudly and he pauses, but no one comes out. Conway makes it to the front door, and has turned the knob when Leander appears behind him with a handful of cookies and a soda.
“Mom’s gonna be pissed,” says Leander.
Conway sighs and faces his brother. “Your mom doesn’t have to know.”
“'Course she does. Are you running away?”
“I'm going to the park with Megan.”
“I'm telling mom you're gone.”
“C’mon, Lee,” says Conway. Breakin’ out the nicknames. Kid’s getting desperate. “Can’t we make this a secret? Between brothers, you and me.”
“Why would I want a secret with you.”
“I'll give you a bag of M&M's if you keep it,” Conway bargains.
Leander peers at him, suspicious. “Peanut butter or regular?”
“Whichever you want.”
“Ugh, fine. I'm gonna get my coat.”
Conway shakes his head. “I can't buy them now, I'm going to the park.”
“I'm going too,” Leander says.
“Tell him to piss off,” I say.
Conway raises his hands, trying to reason with the little bugger. “Stay here. I'll get you the candy tomorrow. You don't even like the park.”
With a glare, Leander says, “I do too. I'm coming or I'm telling mom.”
“But we already made a deal!” Conway raises his voice, then realizes he has and goes back to whispers. “Fine! Come on! But you're staying at the playground.”
“Pushover,” I say.
The park is named Two River park. It does not have two rivers. It has one lake with one stream and the misfortune of existing in neighborhoods of people who dislike the outdoors. Kids came to the park, largely unsupervised, and did all sorts of kid things that adults would frown upon.
Like going on dates.
Megan meets them at the entrance and if she is surprised to see Leander she doesn't show it. As they walk with him to the playground, Leander takes the lead. Conway and Megan don’t say much. Leander does the talking for them.
“Conway got in trouble for walking you home,” Leander tells her first thing.
“He did? Why?” She asks.
Conway blushes. He wishes for Megan to never learn about his step-mother.
“Nothing I can do about that, kiddo. Just don’t tell her.”
“Mom doesn’t want me to walk home alone,” says Leander. “She says the predators will get me. I told her there aren’t any bears or mountain lions, but she doesn’t listen. So I have to walk home with Conway, even though I hate him.”
Megan frowns. “I’m sure you don’t hate your brother.”
“'Course I do.” Leander crosses his arms and Conway rubs his face with his hand, like his dad does when he's frustrated.
“I bet this weekend mom takes me ice skating and not you and we’ll get chilidogs.”
“Good for you,” Conway says. Megan looks at Leander crossly, wondering how in the world any kid is this bratty. Megan is an only child. She doesn’t know what it's like to have siblings, so she isn't sure this isn't normal sibling behavior, since Conway doesn't seem that bothered by it.
Megan decides she is overreacting.
She also decides she doesn’t like Leander.
“I don’t like chilidogs,” she says. “They make people smell like pigs.”
Leander frowns at her at the same time Conway smiles.
I decide I like Megan.
“Go play on the playground, Leander,” says Conway.
“Oh, come on. You’ve got your candy. Just go swing or something!”
“I wanna go home and play Master Wizard 9000.”
The embarrassment Conway feels rolls off him in waves.
“I told you you didn't want to come!” He digs into his pocket for the blue handheld game. “Here.”
“Hey! That's mine!”
“So go play it.”
“But I already beat it.”
“Beat it again. We’re gonna walk around the lake.” Conway turns to Megan. “Okay?”
“Yeah,” she says, eager to get away from Leander. “We’ll be back soon. Next time we’ll get together on a weekend so you don’t have to come with.”
“Whatever,” says Leander.
Conway feels a thrill at the words “next time”.
The day is icy and cold. The lake isn’t frozen all the way yet. I think about giving Conway some privacy but I don’t think Conway knows what all the adult stuff is. He just likes Megan and wants to spend time with her, so it's not like I'm intruding. Much. I stay.
“I want to be an astronomer,” says Megan. “Maybe an astronaut. I don’t know. I want to go to Mars.”
“That would be so cool! I want to see Jupiter up close. But I think it’s too far away.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty far. Have you seen the Science Museum’s scale model of the solar system? It’s across the whole building. We should go next weekend. I’ll ask my mom to take us.”
Megan takes that opportunity to grab Conway’s mittened hand with her own. I think he's about to have a heart attack, but he keeps his cool.
“You should learn more about the cosmonauts,” says Megan. “They put the first everything in space, pretty much.”
“Sure,” he says. If she told him to shove snow down his shirt right then he would.
“My dog’s name is Laika. You know who Laika was, right? She was the first thing to die in space. That’s what I don’t like much about the Soviet part of the space race. They killed too many things. Apollo 12 was cool, but my favorite was 17. I think we should go back, but my dad says there’s enough to do right here on earth. I don’t think he gets it. I mean, it’s space. What’s cooler than that? I want to — oh my god, is that your brother?”
Megan yanks her hand out of Conway’s and points across the lake.
If I had a heart it would have stopped.
Conway is slow to look over. He had been trying to build up the courage to kiss Megan on the cheek. She was so smart, he'd thought. She must have been the smartest girl in the whole grade. I’d wanted to tell her it takes two people to have a conversation. But Conway’s not that great at conversation, so Megan talking enough for the two of them was fine.
When he does look, he immediately takes off running.
I can run faster than Conway, so I am already ahead of him. Megan jogs behind us.
I stop at the edge of the ice.
Leander is out on the lake, forty feet from the shore. His leg has broken through the ice, leaving him stuck and struggling. The ice around him cracks. He cries and waves his arms at Conway.
“Don’t move, Leander!”
Megan screams when Leander breaks through again. He manages to stay on the edge of the ice, but the water is past his hips and he's bawling.
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” Leander cries. “I just wanted to practice skating!”
“Don’t move!” Conway yells again. Leander keeps struggling.
Conway grabs Megan’s arm. “Go get help.”
She takes off at a sprint. Conway looks back to Leander. Debating.
“You better not be thinking of doing what I know you’re thinking of doing,” I say.
Leander splashes around. He’d never stay above the surface long enough for help to get him. Leander can’t swim. He’d be sucked under and they wouldn’t find him again until spring.
“At least you won't have to worry about him anymore.”
I’m going to lose another one. I’m a terrible guardian angel. I’m a terrible person.
“Don’t you dare go out there,” I say, sending as much will into my plea as I can. “Don’t go out there Conway. You don’t have to.”
I can’t be held accountable. They can’t blame me for this, can they? Free will my butt; I'm going to be blamed for this.
Conway takes a deep breath and steps onto the ice. It crackles like gravel under his foot.
“Wait for help!”
I snatch at the back of his coat but pass through it and trip forward onto the ice.
“Conway, stop!” I pull deep into my coercive power. He staggers and slips but doesn't stop. He slides toward the hole where Leander flounders. I follow.
“He isn’t worth it! He’s not!”
Conway mutters to himself, or to Leander, a constant litany that disrupts my power.
“It’s okay,” he says. He projects the words through his thoughts to me, like any other plea to me for help. “I’m coming. You’ll be okay. I can do this.”
“No you can’t, Conway! You can’t do this! Leave him! Help will come!”
Would help come? I don’t know if Megan has gotten any. They might not save Leander even if they show up. But can Conway help, or will there just be two bodies to drag from the lake?
One more to my tally.
This is way beyond praying for help. A simple “look both ways” or “watch out for that alligator” won't suffice.
Twenty feet out Conway stoops down. He uses his elbows and knees to scoot forward, spreading out his weight.
“You’ve got it, Conway,” I say. “Almost there….”
I reach Leander and his hole in the ice first. Leander has a hold of the edge. He tries to pull himself up but the ice breaks when he puts weight on it. His skin is a polished, glacier-blue and when he gulps in air he gets water as well.
Five feet from the hole Conway lays down. He pulls off his mittens and coat. He takes one of the sleeves, wraps it around his hand, then tosses the jacket out as a rope.
“Grab on! I’ll pull you out!”
Leander tries but his purple-blue fingers can’t hold it.
“Wrap it around your hand,” I tell Leander. He doesn’t listen. I whirl to Conway. “Tell him!”
Conway inches forward. “Leander! Twist it around your hand!”
Leander doesn’t listen to him, or doesn't hear him. He splashes and fumbles with the sleeve.
“I’m going to tie it to you, okay?”
Conway reaches forward and grabs the sleeve. Leander’s hand takes hold of Conway’s wrist, yanking on him in desperation. I leap forward and stomp through Leander’s arm. “Let him go! He’s trying to save you!”
Conway keeps calm. He gently but quickly slips from Leander’s grasp and says, “I’m going to tie this to your wrist, Leander. Hold still for me, okay?”
He holds Leander’s arm, ties a double knot around his wrist, then eases backwards to pull him out.
I feel Conway’s explosion of fear first, then I feel the ice around him sink. We both freeze. I hop backwards as the ice crumbles and he falls into the water. He almost slides under the ice but hooks one arm on the still-solid edge.
I kneel at the edge and as, sputtering, Conway keeps hold of the coat tethering him to Leander. He clears the shards of ice around the edge next to him, then pulls his brother to the edge and tells him to hang on.
“How long does it take to get help?” I pace and curse Megan under my breath.
Conway grabs the back of Leander’s coat. He kicks, not putting more weight on the ice, and heaves Leander onto it.
I bend down by Leander. “No more swimming, kiddo. Time to come out now.”
As Leander scrambles with his arms Conway dunks under the water, gets a hold of Leander’s knees, and pushes him up. It takes two more tries but Leander crawls onto the ice --- and the ice holds! He scrambles away from the hole, Conway’s coat still tied to his wrist.
In the water Conway doesn’t struggle. He clings to the edge and goes still.
“Conway?” Leander shivers, sopping wet and unsure what to do. His teeth chatter, framed by blue lips. His skin matches the white of the ice.
“Go to the shore, Leander,” says Conway.
“Go,” I whisper in Leander’s ear. He takes one step backwards, then turns and runs. He whips around and stands with his toes edging the ice, once he reaches solid ground.
“You’re doing great,” I tell Conway. “It’ll be okay.” I want to reach out and actually help. What the hell use am I if I can’t do anything? I refuse to be nothing more than a glorified cheerleader.
“Take off your coat, Leander!” yells Conway. Leander complies, stripping out of the heavy, soaked fabric.
Conway's skin has turned the color of the blue-grey sky. He scissor-kicks his legs and uses the momentum to get out of the water. The ice caves again, and again, and Leander — dripping in just his t-shirt and soggy jeans — cries on the shore.
Conway mutters, “It’ll be okay, I’ll be fine, I’m fine, I can—”
He kicks with all his might. He crawls out of the lake onto his stomach, dragging his hips out, then his legs—then the ice refuses to hold him.
The ice collapses beneath him. He slips under the water with hardly a splash.
A trail of bubbles dances up through murky water.
My breath wedges in my throat. I wait for him to resurface.
And wait, and wait. Where is he?
Leander screeches from the shore, yelling, “Conway!” over and over and I want to deck him.
I watch the trail of bubbles dwindle, disappear.
Then I jump in after him.
Conway drifts away from the opening in the ice into the dark, away from me. He is conscious, holding his breath, and I ask, “What the Hell are you doing? You can’t give up now, idiot child! Swim!”
He looks up as if he heard me. He peers through the water through glazed eyes. Our eyes met, and I see him, his life, his future—
High school, paint-chipped lockers and girls and inklings of love like wisps of smoke.
An open, crack-webbed road, a rusted sound from a rusted car and a coastline, a city, towers of light. I see John’s face, older and angry, in the middle of an argument I can’t hear.
I see tattered apartments and squeaky-chaired college lecture halls, and tests, and hand-quaking coffee nights. Alcohol dazes and hungover mornings and greasy breakfasts.
I see faces, freckles and noses and eyes and scars and ears and lips and wrinkles, and faces.
I see aging and graves and cradles, a rumbling of voices, and the paper-cut-cleaving of growing up and loss.
I see everything I never got and everything he could have, fading away.
He has to get out. His future has to happen. They will pull him out, he will tell Leander he was never going near water again, not even the shower. He’ll promise his dad he is never letting Leander out of his sight again ever. He will kiss Megan’s cheek.
He will kiss more of her, and others after her.
But it's all fading. A trail of bubbles tumble from his mouth and dance toward the light.
I never wanted this job. I don’t care about anyone who gets to be alive while I'm not.
No one had cared enough to give me a guardian angel.
I’d been left on my own to make my own mistakes and die, slow and painful, and they never even found my body. I didn't get a guardian angel to tell me don’t trust him. Don’t listen to him. He doesn’t love you. Run.
I never got my future. I never got to grow old. Never got to go to college or get married.
All I got was a week thinking I’d found love, a swamp grave somewhere no one would ever look, and a cold case about a missing, runaway girl. Even when I was alive no one thought I had a future.
Conway will get his future. This is why I have this job. I have to care.
But fuck caring if it won't help Conway, if Conway isn’t supposed to live. I won’t let them make me care just to have him die.
It's been done before, angels affecting the world. Shernihaza even had a couple kids. It can’t be that hard.
I fly through the water to Conway. I reach out to him and will my hand solid, to grab him, to touch like I used to touch people. It goes through him.
I try again, fail again.
I scream, swear at this ineffectual form. I curse the heavens for letting me die, becoming useless. That is the problem. I'm not alive. I won't ever be again. But Conway is alive.
I will my hand to touch Conway, instead of for my arm to be solid. I reach for him again, I reach for his past, his future, and his present.
My fingers close around his tiny, cold arm.
I pull him to me and swim for the hole in the ice, the dull glow above us. I hope, for the first time since I was alive myself. I hope he’ll be okay.
“You’ll be fine,” I say. “You better be fine.”
Conway looks up at me, eyes glazed, and then we break the surface.
I’d hoped for a gasp of breath but there's nothing. His shirt snags on the edge when I shove him out of the lake onto the ice. It doesn’t break. I get his top half out.
Then a rescue-worker on a sled pulls him all of the way out, off the ice. There are trucks and lights and the sirens, and Megan crying next to a police officer and her mother at a picnic table, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. I tread water, leaning my arms over the ice to stay afloat, until the ambulance pulls away. I climb out of the water and walk ashore.
Maybe it's phantom pain of the life that was amputated from my soul when I died, but I can feel adrenaline pumping through me. My hands and knees jitter and my stomach fights with my heart.
The sound of wings, like a flock of sparrows, is the only warning I get before he appears, standing next to me. I think of them as men, but they are not-men. He's tall, with black skin and hair, and a glow like phosphorescence in a cave.
“Hey, Gabe,” I say.
With a voice like the hum of power-lines in the rain he says, “Clara.”
“I’m guessing you’re not here to give me a medal.”
“You’re being reassigned,” says Gabriel.
“What a surprise,” I said. “I refuse.”
“You've no choice in the matter.”
I cross my arms. “Free will only applies to the living?”
“You broke the rules.”
“It’s fine for Maria and Azariah, but for Conway and Clara it’s against the rules? Or Gemma? Haven’t you had some fun conversations with the living before?”
“You know actions are judged individually.”
“So send me to Hell.”
He sighs. “No one's angry,” he says. “You did what you thought was right. But we feel you're better suited to a different task.”
I frown. “I’m not being assigned someone else?”
“Come into the office tomorrow.”
“I’m needed here.”
“He doesn't need you,” says Gabriel.
I'm all set to say “we’ll see,” and just not show up, but I know how wrong Gabriel is.
"I’m staying here.”
Gabriel stares at me, inhuman.
“Almost dying isn’t going to make his life better. I'm here for a reason.”
“We can give him a new guardian.”
I laugh. “You think I trust you yahoos? Where was my guardian when I needed one? No. I’m here, and I am staying here.”
I don’t let him to reply. I focus on Conway, blip out of existence at the park, and appear at the hospital. Leander and Conway, both wrapped in blankets, share a room. John and his wife are there.
Conway is conscious, his thoughts fuzzy and bloated.
“I just wanted to practice my skating,” Leander tells his mom, who holds his hand.
“It’s okay, honey,” says the stepmomster. “You didn’t do anything bad. We can go skating next weekend.”
“Don’t wanna,” says Leander.
“Is she okay?” asks Conway.
John furrows his brow. “Who?”
“The woman that got me out of the lake. Is she okay, too?”
I smile. No wonder Gabriel showed up. I could be in deep, deep shit.
It was worth it.
“Son,” says John. “There wasn’t a woman. The firemen pulled you out. It was a miracle you weren’t carried away by a current.”
“It wasn’t a miracle,” Conway insists. “It was a woman. They didn’t find her? She could still be in the lake! You have to go tell them!”
“Calm down,” says John. “Get some rest. It’s been—it’s been a long day.”
Conway opens his mouth to argue but I step into the room. He smiles, goes to speak, but I put my finger to my lips. His eyes bulge when I cross the room and no one else notices. I touch his hand with mine, and he feels it. I feel it. I’ll see to it that he lives to be an old man, or he’ll die trying.
“Everything's okay,” I tell him.