It took everything I had to convince my best friend Maggie to come to the football game. Football is not Maggie’s thing. It’s not mine either, even though my brother, Casey, played for years until that became impossible due to A-word (I still didn’t like saying the word angel) circumstances out of everyone’s control. But more on that later. I was going because I wanted to see Ryan Sloboda play. More accurately, I wanted Ryan Sloboda to see me seeing him play. Maybe that would jump-start something and he’d get off his butt and ask me out, which he’d been working up to for months. Ryan is still pretty backward in the socializing area.
Plus it was the day before my fifteenth birthday and I was feeling optimistic. Maggie’s neutral about birthdays, but me—I like to do them up big. Cake-and-pony big. Well, maybe not an actual pony. But celebrate. Be happy. Tomorrow your brother might bite the dust driving you to the hospital because your mom’s boss had been poisoning you (more on that later, too) and come back as your guardian angel.
Trust me. It could happen.
So eat the damn birthday cake if someone makes you one, which hopefully someone will.
But as I couldn’t exactly tell Maggie that my brother was a heavenly being now, I asked, “What about the boots? Too much?” meaning my red cowboy boots I had just shoved on my feet. I waited while she furrowed her eyebrows and thought it over, dramatic-like in that way she preferred.
We were sitting on the floor in my room, going over Appropriate Football Outfit Choices Guaranteed to Get Ryan Sloboda to Take Notice. Maggie is obsessed with finding me the perfect signature style even though I have informed her that I am more eclectic when it comes to fashion.
“Eclectic” is one of my new favorite words. It means derived from a variety of sources, which means it is perfectly fine to wear my red cowboy boots with a denim skirt instead of jeans, and also okay for Maggie to help me cover it with black lace, and top it with my plaid button-down, sleeves rolled up to the elbows.
“I think you’re pushing it,” Maggie said in her absolutely certain tone. Maggie is Absolutely Certain about most things.
I reminded her about Ryan Sloboda’s social awkwardness. Plus, even with a button or two undone, there is not much to see. But like I say, I am an optimistic girl.
“Skirt’s good, though, right?”
“I guess,” Mags said, kind of quiet. She poked at the black lace, tugging it here and there. “Long as you don’t go skydiving in it or something.”
Maggie rarely expresses shock at what the universe spits out. That’s just how Mags is—an embrace-the-world-bythe-horns girl and proud of it. Yesterday she justified failing her Spanish II quiz by observing that the universe probably wanted her to be more sympathetic to the plight of undocumented workers. (“Now I know how hard it is to be in a strange land and master a new language.”) My opinion was that she had forgotten to study, which was also the case. But the stuff that’s been happening in my universe is a tad harder to digest.
The truth is this: my brother and his angel boss, EMT/bartender Amber Velasco, had spread their wings over the atrium at the Galleria Shopping Mall to save me from the evil Dr. Renfroe. When you think of comic-book bad guys, true villains, you think of them as handsome in a sinister way, just maybe not so hairy. On the other hand, Dr. Renfroe was comic-book classic in that he was charming and very good at lying. He poisoned me and experimented with memory drugs on my parents and a bunch of innocent oldsters at Oak View Convalescent. But Casey swooped in before I splattered in a public demise at the hands of Dr. Renfroe and his partners in crime. Amber snagged the Bad Guy. A happy . . . ending?
Here’s the problem: I can’t tell Mags, my best friend in the entire crazy universe, the truth. Instead I have to stick to the far-less-believable story that we attempted a crazy skydiving stunt right before Christmas. And that in the process, we accidentally helped bring down a crime ring that wanted to weaponize Dr. Renfroe’s memory drugs.
Luckily, people’s memories are sketchy enough on their own. That’s what Casey says, and he should know, given his weed-addled brain. But I agree, what with us all watching YouTube videos and downloading Internet porn (like my brother used to do before he ended up on Heaven’s payroll, not that he gets paid). Besides, being famous for weird stuff only lasts so long at school. Take a deep breath and some idiot is sending a picture of herself in her underwear, and her boyfriend is forwarding it to the entire student body.
Plus Casey still looks like Casey. Not that I ever thought much about what angels would look like. But I guess if I did give it pause, I would picture them in white sparkly outfits or maybe invisible or wearing halos. Not sleeping in the room down the hall from me, passed out in a Mountain Dew T-shirt next to half-eaten Jack in the Box tacos.
I hate that I have no alternative but to lie to Maggie. Maybe someday I can tell her the truth—that Casey isn’t quite Casey anymore. I’d tell her all the rest of it, too.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the angelic world, it’s that there are rules. Flying under the radar is a big one. Meaning: Do. Not. Tell.
All I could do was ramble about how many buttons I should leave undone, and did Maggie think we should paint our faces red and blue in the Spring Creek colors? Which is more school spirit than I normally work myself up to, and definitely more than I had last year when I was still at Ima Hogg Junior High.
I couldn’t talk about how people had basically forgotten the whole Galleria thing because there had never been a trial. Someone had paid Dr. Renfroe’s bail, and he’d disappeared without a trace. I couldn’t talk about Manny, the owner of Manny’s Real Tex Mex in Houston—the shady criminal who was blackmailing Dr. Renfroe—because Manny had also conveniently vanished. I couldn’t talk about how Casey was effectively grounded from using his wings in public or that the guys who caused the whole mess weren’t ever going to be dragged to justice.
It was easier to think about my boots. Which, by the way, I loved. They’d been a gift from Amber Velasco after my old Ariats had been destroyed, since that was how Renfroe had been slipping the poison into my system.
“Ryan is going to pee his pants,” Maggie said, perking up once we had declared my outfit and me a finished product.
“What’s that about Ryan?” asked my brother.
There he was, in my doorway. Now that he was an A-word (I definitely never said angel around Maggie), my brother was pretty light on his feet. Pretty nosy, too.
“Get out,” I told him.
“I’m taking you and Maggie to the game.” He lounged against the doorpost, looking perfectly put together in that way he had now. My brother’s (mostly) previous weed habit had made him a bit fleshy. Not that it mattered then. Back before this whole mess started he was a mostly do-it-yourself operation in the romance department.
Now that he was no longer exactly human, he sported tidy hair and a toned six-pack, among other things. I found this not only annoying but also supremely unfair.
“Maggie’s dad is taking us.”
“Not any more. Call your dad, Mags. Tell him he can stay home in the La-Z-Boy and watch Nat Geo. He doesn’t know jack about football.”
What Mags didn't know: Casey had his own reasons for taking us, aside from dogging my every step. Lanie Phelps was cheering tonight. Lanie Phelps: my brother’s ex two times over. First, she dumped him after he quit football and took up weed when our family life fell into the cesspool. They made up afterward. Of course they did. Because Lanie had no idea she was essentially dating a dead guy and that part of the reason she wanted to jump his bones was the A-word pheromones (my phrase) he put out unless he concentrated on pulling them back. Which he rarely did.
To Casey’s credit, their current breakup had been his doing. He didn’t talk about it, but I knew he thought he was protecting her from the inevitable.
I knew better. Breaking up wouldn’t be any protection at all. I just think he figured if Lanie hated him, it might ease things when Management finally plucked him to wherever they pluck angels once they’ve finished their earthly duties. Not that I was such an expert on these matters. Just that I shared a bathroom with him and he drove me to school every morning. Also, I’d been his sister my entire life. My brother had never been the deepest of thinkers. It wasn’t hard to follow the workings of his pea brain. Even now.
Plus everyone’s favorite EMT/bartender Amber Velasco had probably insisted he sever ties with Lanie. More than once I’d heard her refer to Casey’s relationship with his twotime ex as “imprudent and potentially dangerous.” Which was a sophisticated way of saying that he needed to stop hooking up with her in the back of our Merc.
Bosses acted boss-like, even if they were angels.
Which brings us to the game: matters were compounded a few weeks ago when Lanie started seeing Donny Sneed, the varsity quarterback who, while not the brightest star in the sky, was basically a nice guy. Not that this made my brother any less pissy about the whole matter.
Which I totally understood.
Plus, it was football. Casey missed playing like you’d miss an arm or a kidney.
Luckily (ha ha), our parents were currently too preoccupied trying to decide if they should stay married to notice that their son—who had helped save their lives, not that they exactly knew that—had changed in like a million ways. On the rare occasions they did question something, he made up excuses. Like the other day when Mom looked Casey up and down and back up again, poking a finger at his muscly arm, clearly flummoxed, and finally said, “Have you been taking supplements or something? You know that Creatine is dangerous, right?”
That he still toked up now and then did not enter the discussion. Yes, it turned out that angels could do drugs if they felt like it. Drugs seemed vastly inappropriate, especially considering Casey’s boss was still theoretically a member of the medical community. But who the hell knew what Amber Velasco thought? She was also a bartender. No one ever asked me. No one ever asked my opinion. No one dead, anyway.
“Can I ride in front?” Mags asked.
I tried to kick her. Casey blocked my leg with his.
“We’ll all sit up front,” he said. “We’re all skinny.”
“Goodie,” I told him.
“Skinny?” Mags said. “You’re sweet, Casey.”
“Just stating the facts, ma’am,” Casey said, which made Mags blush. I shot daggers in his eyes. He shot them back.
Maybe he figured being a dickhead would work on me, too. That I would be happy to see him go. That when the inevitable happened, Lanie Phelps wouldn’t be the only one who didn’t miss him. I decided to focus on encouraging Ryan Sloboda out of his social awkwardness. At least it was something that had a chance in hell of coming true.