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His Old Stomping Grounds
THE PEOPLE on the bus didn’t treat him like last night’s trolley passengers had. In fact, no one paid him a single iota of attention save a woman waiting with him for the Blue Line at E Street, who kept smiling sideways at him and finally said, “That suit looks really good on you. I like your boots, too. I like men who take care of themselves.”
He glanced at her, surprised (he had never been paid such a compliment before during his mortal life), and returned the smile along with a nod of thanks. She boarded the next car up when the trolley arrived. He, stepping into the one in front of him, took a seat.
He felt good. He had made no efforts to do so as a mortal, then wondered why he had always felt like crap.
The doors closed and the train got on its way for downtown.
Surrounding him were mortals. Their hearts were beating, their lungs were filling with air and emptying, their livers and kidneys and spleens and bowels were working to keep them alive, despite their indifference and, sometimes, outright hostility towards those vital bits and processes of their persons.
He gazed ahead at a large woman seated three ahead across the aisle. She was a chain smoker and had cancer, his angelic senses told him. She could rid herself of the cancer if she quit, but her indifference to her own life, which was overwhelming, coupled with her addiction to nicotine, which, astonishingly, wasn’t as strong, doomed her.
Two seats ahead of her sat a young man who had beaten and raped his girlfriend in her dormroom last night. He didn’t feel guilt for his actions, but fear: fear of getting caught, that she would go to the police. Across from him was a biker covered in tattoos who had scammed his mother out of her retirement and had blown it all in Vegas. He too wasn’t feeling guilt; he was thinking of who else he could con.
Calliel warned him that this would happen.
“If you thought you were a misanthrope before, get ready.”
“How do I fight that?”
“By realizing that nothing has changed and that as a mortal you were, essentially, right about them, about people. The only difference is that you can see it now. You don’t have to guess.
“There are people, Ray, and there are persons. The former ain’t gonna change no matter what. The latter have a shot to—a long shot, to be sure, but a shot nonetheless. Concern yourself with persons. Deal with people.”
He sighed and nodded. “Wounded men. Wounded women.”
He glanced to his right. His seatmate was a young Hispanic woman with a large overstuffed backpack on her lap. A person.
“Were you talking to me?”
He smiled wistfully and shook his head. “Forgive me. No, I wasn’t.”
He went to look away, but she said, “I like your suit.”
He chuckled. “I’ve ridden this trolley for almost thirty years and today I receive not one, but two compliments! Fancy that!” He glanced at her backpack. “Are you a student?”
She nodded. “SDCC.”
“Do you like it?”
She shrugged. “It’s a means to an end, I guess.”
“And what end would that be?” His angelic senses could tell him, but he held them off. He wanted her to surprise him.
“Peace Corps,” she said enthusiastically. “I want to help indigenous people in
learn business techniques, microloans, that sort of thing. I feel like it’s my
He couldn’t keep his angelic senses from informing him that she was telling the truth, so strong was her desire to follow that path. She had indeed surprised him.
“Your calling,” he said. “A holy purpose specific to you. Is that you?”
He knew how she wanted to answer, but wanted to see if she had the courage to admit it publicly.
She considered for a moment, then nodded. “My mom tells me it’s the only way to get to Heaven.”
“A wise woman.”
“I think so,” she said, smiling.
“Please forgive me, but you don’t seem to be the typical … well …”
“I’ve never been.” She went to say something else, but stopped and shrugged. “Oh, well …”
“Oh, well. I take it you weren’t too popular with your peers in high school.”
She shrugged again. “They’re all learning how to beat the clock. I’m over it.”
“Do you follow your calling?”
He chuckled. “I … did. But …”
He considered. “I definitely am now, and … well, let’s say far more … properly.”
“Mind me asking what your calling is?”
He looked into her eyes. “Guess.”
She surprised him again. “Give me your hand.”
He held up, then presented his right hand to her, palm up.
She took it in both of hers and squeezed it purposefully after he rested it on her backpack. She gazed down at it.
Her face darkened. She looked away from it. Fear colored her eyes and flushed her cheeks. She tried to hide it.
“Sorry,” she said, releasing him. “My mother always gets on me for being too forward with strangers. I was just kidding. I can’t tell anything by reading your palm. I was just messing around.”
She was lying.
She gave him a glancing smile that told him she wanted him to move his hand away. He did.
Calliel had told him that a mortal’s range of spiritual senses could vary widely, from being totally stunted to those approaching that of an angel. This girl had more up her sleeve, he considered, than she was fully aware of or willing to admit to herself.
In any event, it was clear that she didn’t want to continue chatting, so he let her be.
Could she sense that he was an angel of death? Could she sense some lingering trace of Oblivion on him? What was it that had caused her to become fearful? He held himself off from knowing.
She got off with him at the SDCC stop. She gave him a quick look, said, “Bye …” and jogged into the Starbucks across the tracks.
He watched as she disappeared inside. A person.
He didn’t fear walking onto the campus he had worked at for thirteen years. Those who knew him when he was alive and saw him now would not “see” him; or, if they did, would soon forget it or discount it in the stream of their waking day.
B Street, as he had countless times
before as a mortal. The sun felt good on his back, and the flowers covering the
bushes at the entrance of SDCC gave him pause. He bent to take a bloom in,
reflecting that when he was a mortal he had never done such a thing, even when
a tiny part inside him called out for him to.
It was those tiny, insignificant moments, it turned out, that counted the most.
Lory Hall, where he used to work, was one of the first buildings one came upon from the front entrance. McCowen Hall, where the Philosophy, History, and Religion departments were, was to the right and could be accessed from here by taking a sidewalk he had rarely used. He stepped on it and continued on his way.
The campus, while looking the same as it always had, felt different. Better. More hopeful.
Or … perhaps it was he who had changed. As indeed he had.
The sidewalk led through a well-tended garden of banana palms and eucalyptus before meandering into the quad. The morning was cool and the air fresh. He spied McCowen Hall, perhaps a hundred yards away yet, and unbuttoned his blazer.
Students sat here and there, books or electronic items in their grip. Several were gathered in a circle, guitars in hand, playing what sounded like a folk song. Others tossed Frisbees or leaned against shade trees. A young couple sat under one of them and kissed.
He had missed this college. It only now came to him how much. He had taken it utterly for granted while a mortal, and now felt intense regret.
“Thank you, Lord,” he whispered, “for bringing me back to this place. I am sorry I treated it so callously. It kept me alive and was—is—truly a lovely campus. Thank you for the chance to see it again.”
Warmth filled his tummy and compelled him to take a deep breath of air. He knew he had been heard.
He continued towards his destination.
He had never visited McCowen Hall while a mortal. It was a lovely and imposing five-story stone structure fronted by colonnades and huge regal wooden double doors, like entering into a castle or palace. For that reason it had long ago taken the nickname “The Palace.” It was a registered historical edifice, erected in 1909, and considered one of
San Diego’s finest
architectural treasures. Still, because it housed the Philosophy and Religion
departments, he had refused even to step inside it.
He grabbed the large handle and pulled. The big door came open with surprising ease.
He stepped inside.
It was cool and spacious in here, and smelled like decades of learning and stacks of books. He stepped aside as students hurried in behind him, watching them as they scampered up curving staircases against opposite walls to the second floor, which featured a facing balcony and library that looked out onto this foyer. Students sat on couches neatly arranged left and right. Their voices were a muffled and pleasing echo.
“What a lovely place,” he murmured, and made for the right staircase. Dan McQuinty and Religious Studies were on the second floor.
Dr. McQuinty’s office, according to the department secretary, was at the end of the hall. She had glanced at him blankly, and he realized that she had known him while alive.
“Thank you,” he told her. He looked back when he got to the door. She was already back to work as though he had never interrupted her.
He hadn’t known her, even her name, which was Suzanne Larkette.
He left the office and made his way down the hallway. At the end was a large cathedral-style mullioned window. To the left were stairs. Students were hurrying up them. He stepped out of their way and looked at the door to the right. On a brass placard was:
The secretary told him he was in, so he knocked.
“Come in,” returned a muffled male voice.
He opened the door and stepped inside.
Professor McQuinty was upper middle-aged and bald. He wore a bow tie that didn’t match his blue-and-white-striped shirt, and had a paunch over gray dress slacks held up by suspenders. He stood next to a roll-top desk covered in books and papers, several of which were in his grasp. He glanced left over reading glasses. “Yes?”
He froze. His eyes grew wide.
Professor McQuinty absentmindedly dropped his burden and turned to face him.
“Professor … Wilms?”
“It’s good to see you again.”
Dr. McQuinty, his face white as a ghost, took his glasses off, but kept hold of them like they were his last dissolving link to sanity. He said then exactly what Calliel said he would say, which Calliel said had been uttered every single time that he had had such an encounter:
“You … you’re … dead …”
He came in fully and closed the door and faced him. “Yes. Yes, I am.”
Dr. McQuinty reached for his heart, as though it were seizing.
“You’ll be all right. You aren’t hallucinating. You’re in good health, both physically and mentally, and very much spiritually.”
Professor McQuinty’s next question was another Calliel said was inevitable:
“How … how is this … possible?”
“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, my good professor—” he inclined his head—“than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Dr. McQuinty’s momentary smile disappeared under the crushing weight of disbelief. “It … appears so. Yes …” With a shaking hand he dropped his glasses on the pile of papers and took a cautious step towards him. Another inevitable question came: “Are … are you real?”
“Of course I am.”
He took four steps and held out his hand. Professor McQuinty stared down at it. With great trepidation he took it.
“I … I … don’t … I …”
“I’m an angel. We’re real. And so is God and Heaven and the afterlife.” He chuckled. “Obviously.”
“Yes … yes … obviously … obviously …” Dr. McQuinty hadn’t blinked once.
“I need to talk to you about one of your students. Please, Professor … sit.”
He released his hand and stepped back so the professor could get past him to the other desk closer to the door.
Dr. McQuinty gave a confused and discomposed nod and shuffled weakly to his chair, which he sat in as though it might have thumb tacks on it. He hadn’t looked away from him once. “Wh-Which student?”
There was a seat against the left wall under a small Picasso reproduction. He sat in it after pulling it closer. “Deanna Franks.”
Another slight, quick-lived smile. “Deanna. What a great, great kid.” Fear pulled his jowls down. “You … you’re not going … She’s all right, isn’t she? What are you going to do to her?”
“I’m going to save her.”
The fear on Dr. McQuinty’s face colored with the sickly gray of disgust. “Her parents.”
“It’s not just them,” continued the professor. “It’s that entire culture. Her church … that ... that joke of a high school. It’s toxic … malicious.”
“It’s why I’m here.”
Professor McQuinty stared. “Should … should I fear you?”
“So why do I? Why … why do I feel that you … please forgive me …”
“There’s nothing to forgive.”
“… So why do I feel that you are fearsome?”
“I’m an angel of death.”
Dr. McQuinty stared.
“I end things so that better ones can be born.”
“ ‘Things,’ ” said the professor. “Does that include … people?”
“Does that include … me?”
“Not at this time, no.”
“Can you see the future?”
“It is an imprecise ability. Free will exists, just as you’ve always argued. The future is never set. You live your calling, Dan. That is all that counts, no matter what the future holds for you. Continue to do that. It has made you a moral, sensitive, and sensible man.”
Dr. McQuinty nodded blankly. “I have so many questions …”
“I know. They will have to wait. I’m here for Deanna. I need to know how she is getting up here without getting caught.”
“I’m sorry … can’t you tell? After all, you’re … you’re an angel. Couldn’t Jesus see what people were doing, even if they didn’t tell him?”
“I had the opportunity to learn when I arrived. While that might have eliminated the footwork, it also would have eliminated the chance to give you aid and assistance. Learning is a decisive act. One can often do greater good by taking the slow way round to knowledge.”
“A decisive act … I see. Knowledge … yes, yes. I quite agree. Quite … yes …”
The professor held up, then glanced down at his feet. It was the first time he had looked away from him since he came in.
“Her father …” He shook his head. “He’s … a monster.”
“He’s driving her up here?”
Professor McQuinty nodded. It looked like he might be sick. He swallowed with obvious effort and gazed up at him.
“He’s made some sort of deal with her.”
“That’s what I think. But I should be clear—she’s never told me. Not once. She’s so sweet and quiet and eager to learn. I’ve tried broaching the topic. I mean, I’ve danced around it, what I think might be going on, that is, far, far around it…. It’s just … I mean, I don’t know … I can sense it, you know? I swear to God if I knew, if I ever found out for sure, I’d put that jackass away for good and push for the judge to throw away the key. Please believe me, Dr. Wilms. I’m not lying.”
“I know you’re not.”
“While she’s been with me … while she’s working … I look for … evidence. You know, bruises or scratches. If he’s doing what I think he’s doing to her …”
“Dear God,” gurgled Dr. McQuinty. “Dear, dear God. To his own daughter! His own daughter! I must report this! I must!”
“No, Dan—” He reached and lightly grasped Professor McQuinty’s wrist as the professor went to stand. “You must not go the authorities. If you do, Martin Franks will face consequences that will not change him and will do further harm to Deanna.”
“I must do something!” he yelled. “I have a moral and legal responsibility!”
“You have fulfilled both. You are speaking to an angel of Almighty God. Martin Franks will not face an earthly judge and the trifling consequences of earthly law. The Ultimate Judge has sent me to impose … well, let’s just say it will be a much harsher sentence.”
The sea of white in Dan’s eyes was evidence enough that he understood.
“I’m going to give you a gift, Dan,” he said, standing. “There’s nothing to fear …”
“Wh—What are you d-doing?” grunted Professor McQuinty, leaning back fearfully as he approached.
He gently touched the professor’s forehead with his index finger. Dr. McQuinty’s eyes rolled up into his head, and he passed out in his grasp. With care, he lowered his head to the desk.
“Emily is in Heaven, Dan. Multiple sclerosis did not defeat her. She’s waiting to hold you again, just as she held you every day for thirty-five years. When you wake, you’ll remember the vision of her, and her words. Let them inspire more of your great work.
“I am Deanna’s tutor now. She will no longer be coming to see you. Know, Professor, that she is safe. Know it in your heart of hearts. Know that justice is coming for the monster. Know it. Rest well. It’s really good to see you again.”
He gazed down at Dan McQuinty’s serene face, and released him.
He quietly left the office and closed the door behind him.
He was making his way off campus when inspiration came:
Go to her.
He turned for Lory Hall.
He opened the math office door five minutes later and stopped, surprised.
Seated at the secretary’s desk wasn’t Betty Landis, who had been the department secretary for many years, but the young woman—the “ditz”—who had subbed for Betty when her husband died. This was the poor woman whose life he had made a living hell.
She gawked at him after doing a double-take. “You … you’re …”
He closed the door. He knew that this time of day was very quiet, that few students visited and that the professors were almost always out in lecture.
Like Dan McQuinty, her gaze was pinned to him. Her mouth hung open as he approached her desk.
“Please forgive me,” he said. “I never learned your name while I was alive. What is your name?”
She struggled to speak. “N-Na … N-Natalie.”
“Natalie … where is Betty?”
“Sh-Sh-She … had a stroke. Last m-month.”
The news touched him far more than he ever would have anticipated.
“She’s still alive?”
It is time for her to die, my raven. Go to her.
He stared at Natalie. He thought it was Betty he was coming to see; now he knew it was this person.
He had treated her like dirt. Less than dirt.
Here was his chance to put it right.
“Natalie,” he said, “I must say something to you …”
He let himself see who she was. A hard worker. Punctual. Friendly. Loyal. Always willing to do a little extra to help out. A newly married bride. A husband who had recently fallen on hard times and couldn’t find work. A strained relationship with her family, especially her mother and older sister. A deep desire to be a mystery novelist. A photography buff and micro-brew aficionado. Loved guacamole but hated tomatoes. True to herself, but unable to find the courage to take that final step to start living her calling.
He came around the desk. She pushed herself away.
“I am very, very sorry for how I treated you, Natalie. It was inexcusable. If you can ever find it in your heart, please forgive me.”
She stopped pushing her chair from him, as though fear had paralyzed her legs. He loomed over her.
“There is a place in each of us,” he continued, “so unique, so personal, so powerful that it has the ability to change the very fabric of reality. In the center of it is a dark jewel. I want you to find that jewel and touch it. I want to show you how to get there. It will give you the courage you’ve been looking for. Please, Natalie—” he held out his hand—“please … take my hand.”
This she did, but only after a full minute of staring at it. When she finally grasped it, her eyes closed and a soft smile formed slowly on her lips.
He lowered her hand with care to the desk and released it. Her eyes stayed closed, but she did not go limp with unconsciousness. She looked like she might be meditating. He turned and walked to the door and opened it. He glanced over his shoulder at her one more time, and then at this place—this place where he had spent a healthy chunk of his life.
He smiled sadly, then left.