Paper Angels: A Novelby Billy Coffey
Andy Sommerville seems no different than others in his rural Virginia community, but what sets him apart is that his best friend is an angel. The angel is God's answer to a childhood prayer Andy offered to a twinkling star that his deceased mother once called "the door to heaven." The first angelic proclamation instructs Andy to find the wooden keepsake box in his
Andy Sommerville seems no different than others in his rural Virginia community, but what sets him apart is that his best friend is an angel. The angel is God's answer to a childhood prayer Andy offered to a twinkling star that his deceased mother once called "the door to heaven." The first angelic proclamation instructs Andy to find the wooden keepsake box in his grandparents' attic. Over the years, he directs Andy to fill it with apparently meaningless objects from twelve people with who Andy randomly crosses paths.
Andy's world is turned upside down when a brutal attack leaves Andy burned and the boy he loved as a son dead. At this crucial juncture, the angel abandons him to loneliness and pain. All that remains is the wooden box Andy has always kept safe, and a new angel, who will use its contents to reveal truth to him as a result, he discovers the defining truth of his life, new hope in the community he loves, and greater trust in the God who sustains him.
The story is told from Andy's hospital bed, where he awakes feeling God has abandoned him. Without being preachy or saccharine, the author brings the small town to life and reveals a spiritual secretthe presence of angelsthat helps a wounded man discover the defining truth of his life, place new hope in the community he loves, and trust totally in the God who sustains him.
Author of Fairer than Morning
author of Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide? 'Cause I need More Room for My Plasma TV
In his second novel, Paper Angels, Coffey once more shows his talent for using simple lessons to reveal profound truths. His writing hooked me with the first pages, and didn't let me go until the last secret was revealed."Richard L. Mabry, MD, Author of Lethal Remedy and the Prescription for Trouble series."
Combining a country-boy's sensibilities with a storyteller's imagination, Billy Coffey imparts grace to his readers. PAPER ANGELS is a troubling tale of a tender people navigating difficult times in a tenacious place, where hope digs in its spurs and flat-out refuses to quit. PAPER ANGELS is a testament to community as a healing place."Karen Spears Zacharias, author of Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide? 'Cause I need More Room for My Plasma TV
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Paper AngelsA Novel
By Coffey, Billy
FaithWordsCopyright © 2011 Coffey, Billy
All right reserved.
In the Black
It was a point of pride to the citizens of Mattingly, Virginia, that our town was the most boring twenty square miles on the planet. The running joke was that Mayor Jim Willis should have that printed on a sign at the town limits for everyone to see. Something simple and honest, just as we all were—Welcome to Mattingly, Where Nothing Ever Happens. What had happened the previous weekend had never occurred in our town, and thank God for that. That’s why the headline in the following Monday’s Gazette was the size normally reserved for catastrophes and political elections (which, to Mattingly folk, were usually one and the same). ONE DEAD, ONE SOUGHT IN GAS STATION ROBBERY, the banner read. The subtitle—shocking act leaves owner hospitalized—summarized the 893 words of the piece that took up the entire front page and most of page two as well.
It was much later that I read the article and the two dozen or so others written over the weeks and months after the incident. I still have them pasted into a scrapbook that sits on the shelf in my living room. The facts of the story are all there, the who and what and when. Not the why, though. Like most things in this life, the why came later.
At the time I was giving no thought to headlines or justice. I was in the black then, left to wander through a strange land spread out inside me, an in-between place that was not as bad as hell but not as good as heaven. Confusion and unconsciousness didn’t imprison me as much as they provided comfort. They were another bandage to cover another wound that could have just as easily festered into death. Many of the townspeople trickled in and out of my room during that time. They sat with me and prayed for me and gave their own account of what had happened. I heard them as if we were on opposite sides of a closed door, not clear but understood well enough. I found the near death that gripped me no different than the near life I had lived. I said nothing to my neighbors and gave no indication I was aware of their presence. I felt a pain worse than that of my flesh, a pain even now I doubt can be fully spoken.
When I finally awoke it was to a different sort of darkness, this one lighter but colder. Emptier, even. The lights above me dimmed and rippled. Everything felt heavy, like I was being held underwater. Noises entered through an open door to the hallway—phones rang, voices gossiped. Labored coughs echoed from a distant room. Shadows walked past. Then my nurse appeared to officially welcome me back to the world.
Kimberly Simms was a regular in my gas station. She stopped by every morning for her bottle of juice and a newspaper, both of which she said she never finished because work got in the way. A pretty brunette just two years out of college, she already carried the strong soul and slumped posture that seemed a requirement in the health-care profession. I always thought doctors and nurses were soldiers in a war where often a stalemate was the closest thing to a win.
“Well now,” she said, “my night’s starting off right. Nice to see you in the land of the living.”
I looked up at her, which was all I could do. Anything more seemed impossible. “Wish I could say the same,” I answered, and then smiled in an attempt to make Kim believe I was kidding. “What time is it?”
“Little after seven in the evening. You’ve been out quite a while, Andy. Days. Thought I was gonna have to start going to the Texaco every morning.”
“Timmy’d like that,” I told her.
“He’s already been by.” She moved closer to check my monitors and me with the easy grace of practice. “Trust me, he wouldn’t like it. Poor guy was a wreck. How are you feeling?”
It was her turn to smile, a small grin that couldn’t help but grow into a soft laugh despite herself. For years I’d seen Kimberly Simms the customer, the young girl who visited me every morning and whom I’d known since she was in pigtails and carrying around her dolly. She was a kind soul even then, and it was no small feat that she had managed to hold on to that kindness through her teenage years and now into life as an adult. Yet in that hospital room I saw for the first time the girl I’d known as the woman she had become. No wonder the young guys in town were jumping over themselves for the chance to put a ring on her finger. For the moment, Owen Harlow was the lead horse in that race. He and Kim had been dating for about seven months.
“We’ll take care of your burns,” she said. “You’re now my official project. Well, you and Mr. Alexander down the hall. I’m not letting either one of you out of my sight.”
I tried to lift my head. Gravity took hold and pulled it back to the pillow. Streaks of silver light shot across my eyes. Kim pushed a button to raise the upper part of my bed and asked me not to move.
“Keeping an eye on me shouldn’t be that much of a problem,” I said. “I don’t feel like I’ll be up and running anytime soon.”
“Don’t you worry,” she said. “We’ve bandaged up your face and your right hand. Your burns weren’t as bad as they could’ve been, which is very good. But you have a pretty good bump on your noggin, and that’s not so good. The doctor will stop by a little later on. He’ll talk over some things with you and we’ll change your bandages. You’ll be seeing some other people too, specialists and whatnot. I’ll make sure you’re fixed up good as new, Andy.”
“I know you will.”
Kim’s smile turned into a look of concern that bordered on remorse. She cleared her throat in the hope it would make it easier to say, “Jake wanted me to call him as soon as you woke up, night or day. Guess I’ll go do that.”
“No,” I said. “Please don’t. I don’t want to talk to Jake right now.”
“I know you don’t, Andy.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “But it’s part of his job. He needs to get a statement from you as soon as you’re able. He’s got the tape from that video camera you put up, but he’s still gotta talk to you. Whole town’s in an uproar over what happened, especially since one of them’s still on the loose.”
I smiled and shook my head. A few years ago my insurance guy told me I had to put one of those video cameras in the store. Some kind of new regulation or something. I’d laughed at him, mostly because the only thing it’d be good for was watching me sit there by the register all day. Turned out I was wrong about that.
“Just give me a bit, Kim,” I told her. “Please? No need to bother the sheriff until tomorrow. I won’t be forgetting what happened anytime soon. I just don’t want to talk about it right now.”
The thoughtfulness that ruled Kim’s personality was now working against her. I could see the emotions scuffling in her eyes. Which was more important, her job or her friend?
“I’ll get in trouble, Andy. You don’t want that, do you?”
“No,” I said. “No, I don’t want that. ’Course, I coulda said the same when a certain sixteen-year-old girl ran outta gas up near Happy Hollow and asked a certain owner of a gas station to help her out so her daddy didn’t catch her out where she wasn’t supposed to be.”
“You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?” Kim’s shoulders slumped as she said that, proof that sometimes our sins don’t just find us out, they find us out again and again.
I shrugged and managed a grin. “Not if it comes in handy.”
“Okay,” she sighed, “I suppose I can bend the rules a bit. But only if that makes us even.”
“Even Steven. Thank you, Kimmie.”
She took a step back and regarded me. “Are you in any pain?”
“Some,” I said. Which was a lie. But it was nothing I couldn’t handle and nothing Kim or anyone else could fix.
“We have some pretty strong meds going into you, so they’ll help. Might make you a bit loopy, but I don’t think you’ll mind.” She gave me a wink that either said she was kidding or she was not. “You up for some food? Might do you some good.”
“No, but thanks. Not very hungry right now.”
“Okay. You get some rest then. I’ll be right outside, and I’ll check on you in a bit. In the meantime, you just hit the button there if you need me.”
I nodded. Tried, anyway.
Kim gave me a last squeeze on the shoulder and lowered my bed, then moved toward the door. She stopped just before leaving and turned toward me. The dim lights seemed to focus on the tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Andy,” she said. “I truly am. This shouldn’t happen to anyone, and especially someone like you. I just don’t…” Kim tried to finish her sentence, but she couldn’t find anything to add that would make things better.
“Thanks, Kim. And don’t feel bad. I don’t understand much right now, either.”
She offered a weak smile and walked out toward the direction of a pained and elderly cough from a nearby room. I settled into my pillow and let my eyes gaze upward. My thoughts dwelled on all the other people who had over the years found themselves in this bed. People separated by age and beliefs and circumstance, but who had all found a common bond in staring at that very ceiling and repeating the same words I’d just said.
I don’t understand.
Instead of letting myself try, I let the medicine sink me back into unconsciousness.
When I woke again, evening had given way to darkness and night had settled in. My head felt like old leather that had been stretched and then pinned under the sun to harden. I was swollen from the neck up, held together by tape, gauze, and a thin layer of ointment I assumed was supposed to soothe my skin but only made me feel like it was crawling. Kim had said they would change my bandages the next morning. I began counting the hours.
A horrible thought came to me then, one that in the midst of the shock and darkness I had not considered. I inched my hands toward my face. Bandages began at my chin and ended at the top of my head, leaving me with openings at my eyes, nose, and mouth to exercise my senses. Poetic, I supposed, that I would become the invisible man. I pushed down harder on my face. Then my head.
Nothing. I felt nothing.
The fire had incinerated my beard and hair.
There are times in life when so many big things pile up that it takes only one small thing to tumble them all. Realizing I’d lost the hair I’d had my entire life and the beard I’d worn almost as long was that small thing. The guy who torched me had failed to kill me, but he had succeeded in rendering me naked before the world. I would have preferred the former to the latter.
“It’ll grow back, Andy. If you want it to, that is.”
I jerked my head to my left and winced as skin wrinkled around my neck. There in the wooden chair not three feet from my bed sat a woman. A denim shirt rested untucked over her faded khaki pants. Long brown hair was held in a ponytail by what looked like a leather tie. A thin strand of gray had escaped to the front of her right ear, wanting nothing to do with its less experienced kin. She watched me with her legs crossed, exposing a thick pair of nurse’s shoes that hung untied from her feet. The one propped in the air made a smooth circular motion, as if she were waiting for something to happen.
I tried to clear my eyes. “Caroline?” I asked.
“No,” the woman answered. “Who’s Caroline?”
She shifted her weight to the left and scraped against the vinyl seat, watching me with a look of someone who had seen too much but chose to hope anyway. Her gaze then turned downward to a folded piece of paper in her left hand. She pulled a pair of scissors from her shirt pocket and began cutting.
I watched as small white slivers fell onto a wooden keepsake box that sat balanced on her lap. The hinges looked worn and rusted by age, and the wood—I could make out the look of oak even in the shadows—had been worn smooth. Pockmarks and dings decorated the sides and top, marks of use rather than decoration. It was not a large container but neither was it small, just enough for whatever means most. Such boxes were common in the South and often passed down from one generation to another. I had one myself. Actually, one very similar to that one. Very similar indeed.
“Where’d you get that?” I said.
“There now,” she said. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“What?” I asked.
“Talking. From what I understand, getting you to do that has been quite a chore since you got here. But you spoke a little with Kim. That’s a good start.”
I followed her eyes through the cracked door toward the hallway. Kim was sitting at the nurse’s station talking on the phone. I couldn’t tell what she was saying, but her words were clipped and to the point. I heard an exasperated “Owen” and thought of the few dozen young men in town who would love to know there might be trouble in paradise. She looked up in our direction and then down, covering her forehead with a hand.
I turned back to the woman beside me. “You give me that box,” I told her. “You don’t have any business with that. That’s mine.”
“I didn’t peek,” she said. “Promise.”
The slivers continued to fall, one, three, seven.
“Stop that,” I said.
She did. Both the paper and the scissors disappeared into her shirt pocket. She looked at me again, waiting.
“Where’d you get that box?” I asked.
She motioned to the table with her eyes and said, “It was sitting right there when I got here. Someone must have dropped it off for you.”
Jabber, I thought. It had to have been Jabber.
“Well, it was left for me,” I said. “Not you.”
I rubbed my hand against my leg to try and calm the imaginary needles that pricked it. The woman leaned forward in her chair and placed her hands on the box. “You’re right,” she said. “I’m sorry, Andy. I just needed to borrow it.”
“So you could do what?”
“Get you to talk.”
I balled a fist and took a deep breath. The pain of both calmed me. I looked through the door again at Kim. She sat watching us.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“My name is Elizabeth Engle.” She stuck her hand out as she said it. Mine remained at my leg. “You can call me Elizabeth.”
“Well it’s very nice to meet you, Ms. Engle. Now would you please do me the courtesy of returning my property to the table here and explain what you’re doing in my room? Or would you rather I push this here button and have Kimmie kick you out?”
“Oh, Kim wouldn’t kick me out,” she said. “I’m here for you, Andy. You’re my job.”
I snorted through the gauze around my mouth. “And what job is that? Sneaking into patients’ rooms, rummaging through their stuff, and then scarin’ them half to death?”
“I snuck in because I didn’t want to wake you,” she said, raising one finger, “and I apologize for making you jump”—two fingers—“and I said I didn’t peek”—three fingers.
Elizabeth rose from her chair and returned my box to the table. She set it down carefully, almost reverently, and patted the top of it twice. Then she returned to her seat beside me and leaned forward.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“To make you feel better.”
“You a doctor?”
“No, not really.”
Elizabeth left her answer vague. A wave of nausea washed over me. As if being Kentucky Fried Chickened wasn’t enough, now I had to have my brains scrambled, too.
“You’re a shrink,” I said.
“More adviser than shrink.”
“Well I don’t need an adviser, I just need to go home.”
“You will,” she said, “when you’re ready. Which isn’t quite yet. There are wounds no one sees, Andy. It’s the job of the doctors and nurses to mend the ones that are visible, and it’s my job to mend the ones that aren’t.”
“I have invisible wounds, huh?” I asked. “That you’re gonna mend?”
“And how are you gonna do that?”
“By listening to you.”
“You’re gonna sit there and listen to me and play with your scissors and paper?”
“That’s right,” she said.
I grunted. “You’re crazy, lady. I’m not in the mood for any New Age psycho bull. I don’t share my feelings, and I’m not gonna get in touch with my inner self. I don’t wet the bed, I don’t dream of my mama, and there is no way, no way on God’s earth, that I’m gonna talk to you about why I’m here.”
I expected her to say something smart, something gooey with kindness and understanding, but Elizabeth said nothing. She simply reached forward and gently put her hand on my own.
“You don’t have to talk about any of that, Andy,” Elizabeth said. “You can just talk about whatever you want. I promise.”
When she smiled it was a beam that fell on me like cool rain on a hot day, the sort of shower that makes you lean your head back and stretch out your arms so you can gather in as much of it as you can. A rare smile. Caroline’s smile. And in that moment Elizabeth managed the impossible. She melted me and yet held together what little of my heart was still alive. I had never seen this woman, didn’t know her, and yet I felt as though she had always known me. I would have been frightened to death if it hadn’t felt so good.
But just as quickly as she had drawn me out, my hurt drew me back in. The anger that had gripped me refused to let go and dug its claws into what was left of my flesh, reminding me that I was right to feel its hotness. That I deserved it. That it was mine.
I drew my hand away from hers. “There’s nothing you can do for me,” I said. “I’m not going to talk to you.”
“Yes, there is,” she said, “and yes, you will. Who’s Caroline?”
“That’s none of your business,” I said. “I appreciate you stopping by, Elizabeth, but I don’t want you here. I don’t want me here. All I want to do is be left alone until someone tells me I can leave.”
“Well, see, that’s the thing.” Elizabeth straightened herself and crossed her legs again. “Turns out I have a lot of say in how long you stay here. Those invisible wounds can be pesky.”
“That’s bull,” I said.
“You really think so?” Elizabeth smiled again, teasing me. “Try me. I’ll keep you here until the Rapture if I have to.”
I started to offer the sort of bullish grunt men are famous for, the kind that saves them the trouble of actually having to say Who do you think you’re talking to? But at that moment Elizabeth took hold of my hand again and squeezed, and the snort I was about to offer lodged itself halfway up my throat and refused to budge. A mild panic began to build. Half of me saw her as just someone else to keep at arm’s length. The other half, the half that not only let her take my hand again but keep it this time, whispered that her presence could be all that was keeping me tethered to whatever hope was left in my life.
Then I considered what had happened and whose fault it was. His—the Old Man’s. And God’s by proxy. But I decided that I shared much of that fault, not through my actions but through my trust. For letting Eric inside.
I turned away from her and looked at the wall in front of me. For the next hour neither of us spoke. Elizabeth returned to her paper and scissors. I was tired and angry and hurt. Elizabeth didn’t need to be a counselor to see that. What she didn’t see, what she couldn’t, was why. When I finally spoke, it was more out of surrender than acceptance.
“We talk about only what I want to,” I said without looking at her. “And if you tick me off or try to ask me stuff that’s none of your business, I’ll throw you out of here myself. I wasn’t much of a sharer before, and I ain’t one now. Especially to strangers. I’ll do what I have to just to get back home and away from here. But I’d rather stay mad because I have good reason to be mad, and I’d rather feel guilty because I should feel guilty. Those are my choices to make.”
Elizabeth shrugged. “Deal.”
Silence again. More staring and cutting.
“What now?” I asked.
Elizabeth set her scissors and paper aside and pointed to the box on the table. “How about that?” she asked. “Seems pretty special. Might be a good idea to start with what you think really matters before we go talking about what you think doesn’t.”
I looked at her and shook my head. “No offense, but that’s one of those things that ain’t your business. It wouldn’t make much sense to you.”
“It doesn’t have to make much sense to me, it just has to make sense to you.”
I was about to refuse again but then heard a noise from down the hallway, a small echo that both mixed with and stood out from the calm commotion of chatter and ringing phones. Someone was whistling. I thought at first it was my imagination, a consequence of returning to the world. But it persisted, grew louder as it approached.
“Do you hear that?” I asked her.
The melody was both oddly familiar and not, like a memory that had yet to occur. I knew that song. No, I thought, not song. Hymn. One I’d last heard sung by my grandmother nearly fifty years ago—
Shall we meet beyond the river,
In the clime where angels dwell?
Shall we meet where friendship never
Saddest tales of sorrow tell?
The whistling stopped and morphed into a shadow that loomed just outside the doorway. For a moment I thought Death itself had come for me. “Mercydeath” is what came into my head, though I had no idea what that meant. But the face that peeked around the corner was not Death. It was worse.
The Old Man walked through the door and leaned against the foot of my bed, then let out a slow and painful exhale. His faded hospital gown was just one prop among the many I’d known. I supposed he had designed that one in order to offer me some sense of unity, like the people I once saw on television who had shaved their heads in support of their cancer-stricken loved ones. He dragged an IV line behind him, though the pole it should have been connected to and the solution bag that should have hung from it were missing. A visitor name tag was stuck to the gown in the middle of his chest. old man had been written on it in blue crayon.
“Hiya, Andy,” he said.
Fury that had wedged in a dark place inside me for three days kindled then sparked.
“I’m sorry it had to be like this,” he said, “but I’m not sorry that it had to be. Do you understand?”
“No,” I muttered. “No…I…don’t.”
“Andy?” asked Elizabeth. “Are you okay?”
Her words were mere echoes in my mind, another voice from the other side of the door. The Old Man looked at her and then to me.
“I know you’re mad,” he said, “and I know you’re hurt.”
“Andy?” came the echo.
“I need you to trust me one more time. I’ve never given you cause to doubt me before, have I?”
“Andy, who are you talking to?”
“Everything I’ve shown you from then until now, every little thing, comes down to this.”
“—Andy,” I heard Elizabeth say, “I need you to—”
“—listen to me,” the Old Man finished. “I need you to let this lady—”
“—help you,” said Elizabeth. “Whatever’s happened, you still have—”
“—now. That’s what matters. God sent her.”
“Stop it,” I moaned. “Please just stop.”
Elizabeth took her hand from mine and muttered an echoless “I’m sorry.”
“No,” I told Elizabeth, then I reached out for her hand without realizing I had done so. “Not you. Not…it’s him.” I pointed a trembling finger of my bandaged hand toward the end of my bed. “You did this,” I shouted to him. “This is your fault. Where were you?”
Elizabeth returned her hand. “Andy,” she said, “please try to relax. You’ll bring Kim back in here, and I need you to stay with me. Okay?”
The Old Man said nothing, and in that silence was an absence of more than mere words. His presence seemed gone as well—the humor, the lightness, the sometimes unbearable ease. Instead I saw in his eyes a satisfied weariness, the sort that would come by traveling a long road and finding a peace in the walking. This, I considered, was his final lesson to me—that life was not as much one beautiful lesson after another as it was a succession of hard places that must be endured. What beauty and ease we searched for in this world would be found not in open fields or along peaceful shores, but in the crags and crevices of the mountains we climbed.
“It’s time for me to go, Andy,” he said, “but don’t worry. This isn’t good-bye. You’ll see me soon.”
The Old Man turned away and continued his stroll down the hallway, among the living and the dead and the both.
“Come back here,” I pleaded, but all I could manage was a whisper that could carry no farther than Elizabeth’s ears.
I covered my face with my hand and sobbed. Elizabeth took my head in her free hand and guided me into her shoulder.
“Andy,” she whispered, “tell me who was there.”
“I can’t,” I whispered.
“Yes, you can.”
You still have now. That’s what matters.
No. Nothing mattered. Not now.
Trust me one more time.
God sent her.
I felt Elizabeth’s warmth, the soft touch that somehow held me tight. It had been years since I’d last felt a touch like that. Not since Caroline. Lovely Caroline. She was gone now, there but gone, close and yet worlds away. Like everyone else. After all that time, I thought I had accepted that. I thought it was good and I was fine, but it wasn’t and I wasn’t. What I once had had now been taken away. All that was left was the warm embrace of a woman who reminded me of what could have been but never was.
“Tell me,” Elizabeth tried again.
It was then, my soul broken, that I shared my secret. Finally and fully after all those years. Told to neither confidant nor friend, but to a stranger who held my brokenness against herself.
“My angel,” I said.
I sunk my head deeper into Elizabeth’s shoulder, shocked at my own confession. I could only hope that somehow the words had come out muffled against her shoulder, that just as I’d spoken them the phone had rung or the air had kicked on and she hadn’t heard me. That way, she would ask me to repeat it, and I could say something else. Anything else. But Elizabeth had heard me. She’d heard me clear.
“Oh,” she said, “is that all?”
She chuckled at her own wit and gently patted my head. The sensation was not unlike being hit with a sledgehammer. Evidently all the tape and gauze served more as a barrier for germs than any real sort of protection. But I neither flinched nor uttered a word of protest. I would have endured that pain for eternity and a day if it meant I could stay right where I was.
Elizabeth released me and returned to her seat, careful to keep her hand on mine. There was nothing flirtatious in that small act, no hint of romance or desire. But it was magic just the same.
“You gonna take me to the rubber room now?” I asked.
“Sorry, no. It’s occupied at the moment by a guy who thinks he sees the Tooth Fairy.”
The heaviness between us was shooed away by laughter. It was the one thing I needed and the one thing I didn’t expect.
“All the same,” I said, “maybe you should reserve some space.”
“Why’s that? Do you think that’s where you belong?”
I shrugged. “You’re the counselor. I can guess you don’t hear a lot of folks saying they see imaginary people.”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows and asked, “Is that what he is to you? Imaginary?”
“I know it ain’t normal.”
“Normal?” Elizabeth followed the word with a soft laugh. “Well, I guess that depends on who you are. Some people would think you’d had your brain baked along with your head. Others would give you a clap on the back and ask what took you so long to share the obvious. It’s all about what you believe.”
“Didn’t know what I believed was important,” I said.
“What a person believes is the only thing that’s important.”
“Then what do you believe?”
Her eyes widened. It was a question I don’t think Elizabeth had anticipated. With her free hand she stroked the wrinkle that had appeared in her khakis. “That’s a question you can ask if I’m ever in that bed and you’re ever in this chair.”
“Ah,” I said. “Gotcha. Me patient, you doctor.”
“Well, Doc,” I said, finally comfortable enough to settle back into my bed, “congratulations. You’ve managed to get something out of me no one ever has.”
“I think there’s more than one thing no one’s managed to get out of you,” she said. “But for now, let’s concentrate on this one thing. So this ‘angel’ has been around for a while?”
I let out a very long and very slow exhale. “Yes,” I said. I was determined to keep my answers short as long as I could, testing to see if this new ground I was walking upon was solid or quicksand.
“When did you first see…it?”
“Him,” I corrected.
“Right, sorry. When did you first see him?”
There was a part of me that still begged for quietness. Enough had been said already, more would only lead to trouble. Elizabeth must have sensed my wariness, because at that moment she said, “It takes a lot of courage to open some of the doors in life, Andy. It takes even more courage to walk through them.”
Maybe that was true and maybe not, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t in much shape at the moment to either open or walk through a door. I had been beaten and burned, poked and prodded. I had been educated. Not just in the nastiness of the world, but in the suddenness of it. I’d lived most of my years in a town where nothing much ever changed, and yet in the span of five minutes everything had. The Andy Sommerville who went to work three days ago and had nothing to worry about except a loose nozzle on the gas pump was gone. I didn’t know who or what had replaced him, and I didn’t know how to find out.
I need you to listen to me. I need you to let this lady help you.
The Old Man had said that. The same Old Man who had said so many other things over the years. Who had kept me as much company as I’d ever known and encouraged me and made sure I kept to…well, maybe not the straight and narrow, but the closest thing to it. And though at that moment I despised him with a hatred only the Devil himself could appreciate, he had never been wrong. Not once.
“My parents died when I was ten,” I told her. “It was my daddy’s fault. He was a drunk, and a mean one at that. I remember hiding behind the couch while he beat my mama with his belt because she’d taken his drinking money to buy me clothes. I hated him. He was the worst man I’ve ever known.
“One day he comes home from work and starts drinkin’ like usual, and he runs out of beer. Says he’s driving to the store. Mama says, ‘No you’re not, you’re too drunk.’ So he makes her drive him. I wanted to go, too. The thought of being alone made me scared. But Mama said no, that they’d be right back.” I paused, not sure how to finish the rest, and then decided to go ahead and say it. “Guess she didn’t do a good enough job driving, because when they left the store he was behind the wheel. He ran a red light and got T-boned by a beer truck. Can you imagine that? My drunk dad gets hit by a beer truck.”
Elizabeth said nothing.
“Both of ’em died right off. Least I got that. They didn’t hurt. That was all saved up for me, I guess.”
“What happened to you?”
“We were living up in Richmond then. I loved that city. So big and bustling. It swallowed me up, and I liked that feeling. But I couldn’t stay after that. The only kin I had left were my grandparents on Mama’s side who lived here in Mattingly. They came for the funeral and then brought me back here with them. Been here ever since.”
“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said, and she said nothing more. That alone endeared her to me. Life was full of tragedy and there was no reasoning with it. Sometimes I’m sorry is all you can say because it’s all you should say. That was when I thought my new ground was solid.
“It was tough,” I told her. “Real tough. I got settled well enough on the outside—got to school and made friends and all that—but on the inside I was broken.
“I turned eleven about a month after I got here. My grandparents decided to go all out to try and make me feel better. Like I was a part of something, you know? They wanted to make their family and their town my own, so they threw a party and invited all my friends. That was a great day, it really was. But deep down I knew I couldn’t be given more than what had been taken away, and I think everyone else knew that, too.”
“Nice of them to try,” she said.
I nodded. “It was, and I loved them for it. But all it did was prove to me that I’d lost everything. I was in bed that night staring up at the ceiling, and I got an idea. I figured that Daddy took my mama away from me, but God must have allowed it. I didn’t deserve that to happen to me. So I figured by all rights God should send me someone else. Not someone to replace Mama—no one could do that—but someone who could help me just the same. Someone who could understand. So I got out of bed, went to the window, and looked up at the Big Dipper.”
“The Big Dipper?”
“Mama always said the second star from the end of the handle was the door to heaven. ‘That’s where the answers to our prayers come from,’ she’d say. To this day I don’t know where she got that, but I was willing to give it a shot. I think I’d have tried anything at that point. It was hanging right there in the sky, right for me. I stood there and looked at that star for the longest time. Then I prayed. Prayed like I’d never prayed before. And when I said my amen…”
“What?” Elizabeth asked.
I cleared my throat. “When I said my amen, that star…winked. I swear it did. It was there like normal one second, and then all of a sudden it sorta puffed up and shined and then shrank right back down again. I thought it was my eyes playing tricks on me. I don’t know. Maybe that’s exactly what it was. I was hurtin’. Sometimes when you’re hurtin’ you see things that aren’t so.”
Elizabeth looked down and smiled at the wrinkle she was smoothing out. The way she did it, so calm and smooth, enchanted me. “And how long did you have to wait for your answer?” she asked.
“Not long. I woke up later that night and rolled over, and he was just standing there by the window staring at me.”
“What did he look like?”
“Just normal, I guess. Old. No wings or halo or anything like that. He said, ‘Hiya, Andy.’ He just stood there for a bit, and he was gone. I thought I was dreaming until I saw him again the next day. He started his thing right after that.”
“Yeah,” I said with a shrug. “Don’t really know how else to put it. He just kinda…shows up. From time to time.”
“Why?” Elizabeth asked. “Is there a reason?”
“I don’t know. He tells me stuff. Tells me to pay attention to something or gives me advice. Sometimes it’s a warning.” I said those words and trailed off, thinking of the one warning he never bothered to offer. “He seems to get a kick out of it. No one can see him, but sometimes he’ll be dressed different or doing something to try and blend in. Sometimes it’s a costume or a suit, sometimes not. He always wears a bracelet on his wrist, though. Always. Thin and black. Silk, I think. It’s nothing fancy. Actually looks pretty cheap to me, but I can tell it means a lot to him. I’ll catch him rubbing it sometimes, especially when he doesn’t think I’m looking. It’s crazy.”
“That’s interesting,” Elizabeth said.
“Sometimes it’s like he shows up for no reason. Just to talk or whatever. Other times it’s when something’s either happening or about to. Not something life changing, just something he thinks is important. Like a lesson. He told me that early on.”
“Told you what?”
“That his job was to get me to pay attention. He said that everything means something, no matter how small it is. ‘The familiar is just the extraordinary that’s happened over and over,’ he told me once. He also told me I’d need the box.”
Elizabeth and I both looked at the wooden container on the table.
“This box?” she said.
“He told me to go up in the attic and find it. My grandparents kept everything over the years, but I’d never seen a box. He told me exactly where to look, and there it was.” I kept my eyes on the box. It was the only friend I had left. “The Old Man told me to always keep this handy. He said I’d need it in the end.”
“Need it for what?”
“He didn’t say. The Old Man’s never been one to offer much in the way of specifics.”
Elizabeth kept her eyes on the box and began rubbing my hand again. I knew what she was thinking, what she wanted to say. Counselors were much like lawyers in their reluctance to ask a question to which they didn’t know the answer. She studied my eyes and then decided yes, she would anyway.
“What’s in the box, Andy?”
Everything I’ve shown you from then until now, every little thing, comes down to this.
This was the moment when I had to make a choice between keeping the secret of the Old Man in the shadows where it had always been or daring to drag it into the light.
I let go of her hand. Elizabeth didn’t draw it back but kept it where I could find it. Without a word I reached over with my good hand and grasped one end of the box. Elizabeth took hold of the other end. Together we lifted and set it between us. I felt the top of the box and moved my hand around its edges. Close to opening it, but not quite. No one had ever seen the inside of my box, not even the Old Man, but that wasn’t what weighed on me. It was the fact that if I were to open my box, I would open me. “The Old Man said I’d need this in the end. Guess this might be the end.”
“Every end is just a new beginning,” she said. I didn’t believe it and didn’t say so.
Elizabeth’s hand went to the latch. With a soft click she pushed it up and out of the way. The box creaked and popped, reluctant to give up its secrets, and then it surrendered to her just as I had.
She slid both hands to the sides of the box and peered inside. I could see her eyes darting over the contents, trying to find a plausible explanation for the madness inside.
A baseball cap sat top down on the left side of the box. Never worn—the price tag was still on the underside of the brim. Sitting inside the cap was a small bundle of dead pine needles, each about three inches long and wrapped inside a letter to Santa Claus. I suspected that if Elizabeth opened the letter and picked up the needles, they would disintegrate in her hand. A small wooden cross, two inches long, rested beside the bundle. Its wood was dark and thick, its edges sharp. Laying on top of the cross was half of a fingernail painted in the brightest red I had ever seen, red like fire, like the color of an October sun yawning its good night over the mountains. Or red like anger, as the case may be. A lime-green golf tee sat near the brim of the hat, its bottom caked with dirt I’d never trodden upon. They were all gifts in their own right, whether they were given or taken, but the tee especially was one. I just didn’t know that yet. Covering the tee was a folded and worn business card with a smiley face on the front that always managed to make me cringe rather than imitate. be happy!! god loves you!! had been written below the smiley face, though I still wondered if the one had any bearing on the other.
Beside the hat on the other side of the box was the sort of slingshot you used to see in the movies, right down to the rubber hose and the Y-shaped end of a tree branch. The hose had grown brittle over the years, a victim of the constant taking out and putting back in. It had been shot once (and oh my, what a shot it had been) and then stolen, though I’d justified that since with the fact that I couldn’t steal what was already mine. A paintbrush rested atop the slingshot—I could still see white paint near the bottom of the bristles. A small stack of five paper napkins had been folded and tucked into the corner. They had never been used, as evidenced by the crisp Dairy Queen logo on the fronts of them. They were held in place by an undelivered envelope to a stranger I had seen once but never again, though I was still looking for him. If Elizabeth had chosen to pick it up, she could have felt the letter inside. alex was written in pencil on the front. I never got his last name. I didn’t see the piece of bubble gum but knew it was in there somewhere, probably stuck to the bottom or along one of the sides. I could still smell the watermelon, like an air freshener of a long-ago autumn day.
And there, right on top of it all, right there to remind me of what I could never possibly forget, was the pewter angel—Eric’s key chain. It stared at me with wings outstretched and trumpet blowing, shouting to the world not that a king had been born but that a boy had been killed, that Eric was gone and there wasn’t anything that would bring him back.
Elizabeth peered around my hand and into the box. Her hands didn’t move toward it, but her eyes touched everything inside. “I don’t understand,” she said. “What is all this?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Memories, I guess. Signposts of some of the people I’ve met and some of the things he’s shown me. That’s what the Old Man would say.”
“What would you say?” she asked.
“It’s junk, really. I used to think it all meant something, but there’s nothing of value in there.”
“He said you’d need these one day?”
“I don’t know. Don’t make much sense to me, really.”
Elizabeth kept her eyes on the contents, moving from one object to the other. I saw her mouth grow into a hidden smile, saw it tighten into thoughtfulness. Saw it draw in like she were about to cry. She nodded and smiled, then looked over to me. “Makes sense to me,” she said.
“What do we take out of this world, Andy?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“No, you’re wrong. We take one thing with us—the narrative of our lives. You’re not flesh and bone as much as you are a story, a first chapter and a last and everything in between. In the end, Andy, your story is all you have. And that’s why it needs to be told.”
“Looks like my story ends with a question mark,” I said.
“Oh, I doubt that. You haven’t told me what brought you here, but there was a reason behind it. Maybe the reason is in that box.”
“I know why this happened. It doesn’t have anything to do with that box. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything. I know you have to help me, Elizabeth, but I promise I just don’t see what you can do.”
“I don’t have to help,” she said. “I want to. But you have to let me.”
I looked at Elizabeth’s face and then down into the box. The fingers of the good hand I had left slipped over the objects inside. I touched them and touched my memories—times when everything had been good and right and solid. Not like then.
“I’m willing to play along, but just so you’ll let me leave.”
“Good,” Elizabeth said. She smiled again and patted my arm. “That’s good, Andy.”
“Where do we start?”
She reached into the box and rooted through its contents, finally settling on the slingshot. She carefully lifted it from the box without disturbing anything else and held it up to me.
“Let’s start here,” she said.
A chuckle managed to escape through my bandages.
“What?” Elizabeth asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just remembering. He hadn’t been around for very long then.”
“The Old Man?”
I nodded. “I hadn’t been with my grandparents very long, either. Like I said, they were great people. Mennonites. Nothing wrong with that, but boy, they were strict. No television, no radio. The phone was a necessity, but an evil one. I hated living like that at first, but it actually ended up doing a lot more good for me than harm.”
I shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Taught me to slow down, I guess. I couldn’t listen to the radio, so I listened to myself. And I couldn’t watch television, so I watched my grandparents. How they lived, what they did, what they believed. And the birds. I watched the birds. Grandma loved her birds. Grandpa put up a bunch of feeders and houses and baths to draw them, and Grandma tended to them. We’d walk through the yard in the evenings and she’d point out this tree and that, and where the birds were, and what they ate and where they went. Our whole backyard sounded like a symphony. Robins, jays, mockingbirds, cardinals, you name it. But it was the purple martins she loved the most.” I paused, remembering, and finished, “That’s what got me into trouble.”
Elizabeth leaned back in her chair and said, “Well you know I gotta hear about that.”
She smiled again, smiled that beautiful smile, and I offered a pained one back.
And I began my story.
We found the egg beneath the purple martin house beside the pear tree. It was small, barely the size of my pinky, yet it seemed as though gallons of bright yellow yolk oozed from the hole that had been pecked into it. Grandma stooped down to study the egg, then held it up to show me.
“What happened?” I asked.
She looked up and shielded her eyes against the setting sun. The martin house was about three feet square and sat atop a metal pole that stretched nearly twenty feet in the air. Eight nesting holes were carved into the front. Two on the top row bulged with feathers and grass.
“The sparrows have come.”
Excerpted from Paper Angels by Coffey, Billy Copyright © 2011 by Coffey, Billy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Billy and his wife, Joanne, live with their two children in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. A product of his small-town locale, Billy counts as assets his rural authenticity, unwavering sense of purpose, and insatiable curiosityall of which tend to make his front porch a comfortably crowded place.
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