Read an Excerpt
Angels on Fire
A Romantic Urban Fantasy
By Nancy A. Collins
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Nancy A. Collins
All rights reserved.
Lucy wasn't sure whether she was going out for some fresh air or to commit suicide until she finally stepped out of the stairwell onto the roof. But upon the sight of the heavy night sky, as impassive and uncaring as the eye of a baked fish, she decided to cast her vote for extinction.
If only there'd been some stars. Maybe then she would have laughed at her folly and pain and gone back downstairs to her apartment and resumed her life pretty much as it had been the day before. Just without him, of course.
But there were no stars to be seen on that night—or any night in the decade since she moved to Manhattan. She had gone so long without catching sight of the heavens she often wondered if they were still there. New York City and its surrounding boroughs threw off so much reflective light, it muted the sky. Even on a clear night, such as this, only the moon could be glimpsed with the naked eye. The last time she'd really seen stars, now that she thought about it, was three years ago. Had her mother been dead that long?
She remembered standing on Mam-Maw's back porch after the funeral—only it wasn't Mam-Maw's place anymore. Cousin Beth owned it now. She'd modernized the kitchen, updated the plumbing and done all the things that the house had desperately needed done in the fifteen years since Pappy passed on.
But even with the alterations, there were still fragments of Lucy's childhood peeping out at her here and there: the cast-iron bottle-opener in the shape of a bulldog's head bolted to the kitchen door-frame; the Bavarian cuckoo clock Pappy brought back from Germany after the Second World War; the blue willow plates lined up edge-to-edge along the shelf in the dining room. These touchstones of her own private mythology were far more comforting, in their way, than the bevy of cousins clustered inside the house.
As she stood on the back porch of the house she had grown up in, Lucy could hear Beth in the kitchen (after all, it was her house, now), making sure there was enough coffee. Lord knows, you can't have Methodists over after a funeral and not have enough coffee to float a battleship. Although she liked her cousin well enough, she and Beth had never been particularly close, and the years she had spent away—first at college, then in New York—had done little to bridge the distance between them. She had left Seven Devils behind, while Beth had stayed. That alone spoke volumes, even if the cousins did not.
So Lucy stood on the porch of what had once been her grandparents' house, truly alone for the first time since arriving at the Little Rock airport the day before. She quietly watched the sky as twilight lengthened into night. She was surprised at how the stars filled the sky. She didn't remember the night being so of them full as a child. But then again, as a girl she had never imagined she would ever live in a place where the stars could not shine ...
The scream of a passing police siren pulled Lucy back to her current surroundings. She blinked rapidly, allowing the stairwell door to swing shut behind her. After a day of absorbing the summer heat, the black tarpaper was slightly soft under her feet, as if she were walking on the back of a beached whale.
She had been on the roof only once or twice before. The last time was the previous Fourth of July. She'd thrown a barbecue with some friends and watched the fireworks over the East River. That was shortly after she met Nevin. Funny how all the events in her life were qualified as to whether they occurred before or after she first met him.
She scanned the roof, unbroken by skylights or chimney pots. After a decade spent living in the Lower East Side, it was strange to see so much empty open space. The building was relatively new for the neighborhood—only dating back to the 1920s—and towered at least two stories over its neighbors.
As her eyes swept the area, she spied a couple of disposable syringes near the fire escape, the orange plastic caps clearly visible. It didn't surprise her that junkies came up there to shoot, but she couldn't help feel a surge of disgust. No place was safe from those fuckers. At least they didn't shit up here. That was what the lobby was for, after all.
"Motherfuckin' bitch! Don't fuck with me!"
Lucy glanced over the waist-high retaining wall to the street below. A crack whore was screaming at one of her sisters-in-trade. They were about to come to blows over the only working pay phone left on the block.
One of the ever-present dealers trotted out from a nearby bodega and cursed out the women in Spanish, shooing them away like pigeons. The dealers didn't like it when the crackheads and junkies acted up on their turf. While the cops had long since given up cruising for drug crimes, disturbing the peace was another matter.
Lucy shook her head and returned her gaze to the skyline. There was a world of difference between New York and Seven Devils, and yet they had proven so pathetically similar. For all their touted sophistication, New Yorkers were just as fucked-up and shallow as the bow-heads and jocks she'd endured at Choctaw County High. Nevin had proven that to her in spades.
She closed her eyes and rubbed her brow, as if by doing so she could massage him out of her brain. She could still see the cruelty in his smile— as devoid of care and thought as the used syringes scattered at her feet. Had there ever been anything besides the void in his eyes as he closed the door on her—or had it been an elaborate hoax from the start?
That's what she got for getting involved with another artist; creative people always ask for trouble when they mix love and art. She'd learned that more than once at college. She thought she'd smarted up since then. But Nevin was so handsome, so vital—so inspiring. She thought she'd finally realized the romantic fantasy all artists secretly nurse: the Muse. Someone who understands the artist's needs, shares their passion for culture and experimentation, and inspires them to create great things.
In Nevin she thought she'd finally found her Soul Mate. She introduced him to the artist's collective she belonged to, and together they labored on installations for the group shows. Granted, most of the ideas were hers, as well as the physical labor, but she didn't grudge Nevin his credit. After all, he was her muse. They were fighting together in the trenches—and that's all that mattered.
That evening, upon arriving home from work, she'd found a letter waiting for her from the collective, notifying her that she'd been voted out of the group. The proposal had been put forward by Gwenda, a humorless trust-fund baby whose specialty was faux intensity. Her art consisted of making collages from glossy fashion and fetish mags, smearing a layer of black paint over the images, then gluing down "found" typography such as MURDER and JUMBO EGGS before putting a final layer of lacquer over it. Gwenda bankrolled the collective's installations and held a great deal of influence with the steering committee, and she had made it clear on more than one occasion that she considered Lucy's work too "commercial" and "accessible," and therefore not proper art.
As Lucy read the letter, her entire body trembled. She'd thought she would be free of Gwenda's type after high school, but they continued to dog her steps—ambulatory Barbie Dolls that couldn't be satisfied with their country clubs and sororities—they had to pollute the art world as well. Well, she wasn't in high school anymore, and she wasn't going to take being fucked with in such a heavy-handed manner!
Lucy succeeded in keeping her mad-on all the way to Gwenda's co-op in Gramercy Park. As she hammered on the bitch's door, she was so pumped full of righteous fury she actually felt good. However, her exhilaration came to a crashing halt when, to her surprise, Nevin opened the door. They stood there for a moment that could not have possibly been as long as it felt, staring at each other in dumb surprise.
The resulting scene was so loud and nasty that the tenants on the floor above left their apartments to peer over the railing of the stairwell, muttering amongst themselves. It ended with Lucy being escorted from the building by a tired-looking doorman while Gwenda shrieked she was going to press charges if she ever saw Lucy anywhere near her again.
When they got to the lobby, the doorman let go of her elbow and sighed as he took off his cap and smoothed back his hair. As he fished a Marlboro out of his shirt pocket, he'd given her a firm yet sympathetic look. "I'm supposed to call the cops when shit like this happens," he said. "But you look like you've had a shitty enough day already. I don't see no point of makin' things worse. Go on home, lady."
She'd muttered a quick thank you and slipped out the door. As she headed back below Houston, the fires of her anger receded, leaving only ashes in their wake. The idea of going home to an empty apartment was enough to make her physically ill. She didn't want to face the thousand and one tiny reminders of the love she thought she'd shared with Nevin. A love, she now realized, that had been a cruel, cynical lie. At least as far as one of them was concerned.
It was then that Lucy realized that she had nowhere else to go, no one else to turn to. Since she started dating Nevin, what few friends she had in New York had gradually fallen away. It hadn't concerned her at the time. After all, she had Nevin, didn't she? Who else could she possibly ever need? Once she returned to her apartment building, she did not pause at her floor, but continued climbing the crumbling stairs until she reached the roof; which brought her, full circle, to staring at the empty sky and remembering the night of her mother's funeral.
As she stood looking out at the city, she understood that she had been deluding herself all along that the passion she felt for Nevin had been mutual. He was no more than a highly polished mirror, reflecting what she wanted to see. What she thought was love was merely a reflection of her own emotion, not the real thing. Unfortunately, the pain she was feeling at that moment was all too real.
She walked over to north-east corner of the roof and looked down at the apartment building's garbage cans and recycling bins. Even six stories up, she could still smell the sour reek of rotting food. As she wrinkled her nose in distaste, her brain calmly noted how the only thing keeping her from plummeting eighty feet into a pile of broken bottles, empty orange juice cans and coffee grounds was a three-foot-high barrier.
She closed her eyes, trying to blunt the terrible ache inside her, but it was no use. She was so tired. No. Not just tired. Weary. Yes, that was the word.
She was weary of dealing with shit. She'd spent her life slogging through torrents of it. It had started, as all things do, with her family. Then, one after another, came religion, school, work, the government, then various lovers and supposed friends; all of whom had shit of varying colors and quantity to dump on her, so that it all ran together into a foul, hindering mess designed to drag her down and choke the life from her. Of course, moving to New York—the biggest shit pot of them all—hadn't made things any sweeter for her. Was this all she had to look forward to? A lifetime of struggle simply to keep her head above a torrent of raw sewage?
Could she do it? Could she bring herself to defy every instinct hardwired into her being and turn her back on the madness once and for all? It would be so simple to surrender herself to gravity—to savor the split-second of freedom suspended between sky and pavement, free from all that had gone before and with nothing more to fear—for there was nothing left to concern her except her death.
Lucy glanced back down at the courtyard below, and was mildly surprised to discover she was already standing atop the narrow ledge of the retaining wall. The fact that she didn't remember climbing up worried her more than the possibility of her losing her balance.
As she blinked back the tears in her eyes, a sudden gust of wind caught her off-guard. She pinwheeled her arms as her right foot slipped into empty space. As she reeled atop her unsteady perch, she found herself thinking of the church bell.
Back when she was little, her family had attended church in a modest brick structure that would have been otherwise unremarkable except for the bronze dome that sat atop it like a verdigris-encrusted derby. It was there she came to know religion, if not God. The faith of her fathers smelled of dust and tasted of warm grape juice. It seemed to be largely composed of old people, tedium, and uncomfortable clothes worn only once a week. As far as she could tell, church was something to be endured in order to attain the pleasures of the Sunday table: deviled eggs, smothered chicken, snap peas in pot liquor and sweet tea.
The first thing anyone saw upon entering the church was the vestibule and cloak room. A narrow set of winding stairs in the corner of the foyer led to the choir loft overhead. There were two doors flanking the pulpit, the one to the left led to the minister's office; the one on the right was the bell room, although there were other things in there as well— mostly spare hymnals, choir robes, and the three-quarter-size plastic Nativity scene placed on the church lawn during Christmas. Lucy never actually saw the bell itself, just its rope, which dangled like the tail of an animal through the hole in the ceiling. The rope was thick and white and smooth to the touch. Now that she thought of it, the bell-rope had looked more like an umbilical cord than a tail.
It was Brother Peacock's job to toll the bell, just as it was Brother Hutchinson and Brother Landfair's job to serve as ushers, and Sister Helen's to play the organ. There was a good reason Brother Peacock was assigned the task of ringing the bell. He was not a young man, but neither was he small. A farmer like her father, he was rawboned and as weathered as a rockface, with hands big enough to hide a Bible. Even so, the momentum created by the bell as it swayed on its rocker arm was so strong it occasionally lifted him onto tip-toe.
She could see Brother Peacock as plain as day, even though he'd died long before she graduated high school, pulling on the rope, making the bell sway back and forth so that the clapper struck the interior rim. She could hear the tolling of the bell, as loud as ever.
One Sunday, when she was about three years old, Brother Peacock smiled and motioned for Lucy to draw closer, showing her where to grab the rope. She peered upward, trying to see through the narrow hole cut in the ceiling and catch a glimpse of the bell. Brother Peacock gave the rope a mighty tug, then quickly stepped back and let go of the pull. The moment Brother Peacock released his grip, Lucy sailed upward as if pulled aloft by the hand of God. She felt no fear, only delight. And she knew, at that very moment, that this was how the angels flew. Then, as quickly as it had begun, Brother Peacock resumed control, and Lucy had no choice but to drop back to earth.
She had come closer to experiencing God during that brief moment than she ever had seated in the straight-back pews. But there was no way she could have explained that to her parents. She was too young and lacked the ability to express herself. Even if she could have, it still would not have changed things.
By the time she was old enough to enter elementary school the church's directorate voted to remove the old bell and replace it with a public address system that played taped carillons. It even chimed out 'Joy To The World' during Christmas time. The day the old bell was removed, the diminishment of her faith began. Odd that she would have forgotten that until this moment. But with the resurgence of the long-buried memory came a flash of insight so simple in its profundity she couldn't help but laugh. As far back as she could remember, whenever she dreamt of flying, the sensation she experienced in her sleep was not that of swimming, as everyone else seemed to describe, but of being plucked from gravity's relentless grip and drawn higher and higher—to the very vault of Heaven. To think that such a small thing, that happened so long ago, had stayed alive in her dreams without her being aware of it. With a laugh, she regained her footing and hopped back down to the safety of the roof.
Excerpted from Angels on Fire by Nancy A. Collins. Copyright © 1998 Nancy A. Collins. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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