DARK ANGELS • by Jim Doran

Autumn is a terminal season. It signals the end of many things — vacation, summer, longer days. In my case, autumn also brings about the termination of my employment. Today is my last day at what the locals call “the green store.” After Halloween, the olive-painted shop is the only building open at the cider mill. The sign on the window says the doughnuts are fresh, but they’re at least a week old. The age of the cider? Don’t ask.

I work at the farm through the summer to pay for tuition at Cedarville University. Since I commute to school, I continue to work during the fall to pay down my student debt. The fact the green store then closes for the season before finals is perfect.

On my last day at the shop, the sun perches on the horizon near five o’clock, bathing the displays with a golden glow typical of a late November in Ohio. The store generally stays open until six, the owner arriving fifteen minutes before closing time. But at 5:10 this final day, I’m alone without a customer. The display floor is as silent as a college campus on midwinter break.

I grimace at the homework on my laptop — a computer program that refuses to traverse my double-linked list. While pounding keys, I hear the chime ring, and a young boy enters. He’s no older than ten with a bowl cut and pale features. Thin but not lanky, the kid has on an Ohio State University sweatshirt and faded jeans.

He stops inside the door and studies the shop. I wait for his parents to enter behind him, but he’s alone.

After altering the loop syntax, I start my program again. While my algorithm executes, I focus on the scrolling output but address my small shopper. “May I help you with something?”

“Just looking.” The voice is lower than I expected.

The program crashes a second time, and I mutter a string of obscenities long enough to lay down from here to Detroit. Louder, I call out to what likely will be my last customer of the year. “We close at six.”

“I have to find a present for my mom.”

The boy roots around in a barrel of plastic Halloween displays marked fifty percent off. I return to my assignment and modify a few instructions. Sadly, nothing changes when I rerun it.

I’m frustrated with the assignment, so I turn my attention to the only other person here, to make sure he isn’t shoplifting. “Dude, do you have a parent?”

The child reaches down into a wooden barrel. “Yes, but I came here alone.”

Now he has my attention. I’m irritated at my homework, but I have a soft spot for pint-sized humans. “Do you need help?”

“No, I think I have it.”

The kid is referring to the barrel’s items. He tiptoes up on his sneakers to reach into the container while I examine his tennis shoes. They’ve seen better days, but I’m not picking up a runaway vibe. Not that I’d know.

“I mean do you need a ride somewhere? Or a place to stay?”

“Got it!”

The child beams as he retrieves a rubber bat decoration. Moving his arm up and down, he forces the rodent’s wings to flop around without grace. His controlling motion makes the bat look dead, not scary.

The boy strides to the counter, holding his treasure high. If he’s a runaway, he has better things to spend money on than Halloween leftovers. Still, I want to make sure.

“Tell me about your parents. Where are they?”

“We can’t let my mom see this.” The kid holds up his find. “She loves bats. Even more than birds. She told me they eat mosquitoes and do all sorts of good stuff for us. She calls them her dark angels.”

“Dark angels, huh?”

He hands his newfound gift to me. “Yeah, how much does this cost?”

I notice the price sticker is missing. “Do you mind getting another one? This one’s lost its price tag.”

“No problem.”

As the boy jogs away, I rerun my program, and this time, the assignment runs flawlessly. How? I have no idea. I review the code, remove my extra statements, and my homework executes to completion once more.

The door chimes and grabs my attention. A middle-aged woman steps inside from the cold—her arms wrapped around her chest. Like an arrow to its mark, she advances toward me.

The bat is still lying on the counter. I want to ring up the kid first, so my attention shifts to the child. No one is there. I scan the store, attempting to locate my other customer. “Hey, kid? Where are you?”

No answer.

The woman approaches. “I don’t think anyone is here.”

I survey the three display tables, the barrels of discounted products, and the single freezer full of cider against the wall. I would have known if the child had left. “Weird. A boy was just here.”

“He must have snuck out when you were—”

The woman interrupts herself and reaches for the rubber bat on the counter. “Hello, little guy. I came here for a bag of doughnuts, but I may have to buy you too.”

I tilt my head. “You like bats?”

“Always have. I used to tell Stephen…” She falters, and her eyes crease. “Sorry. Stephen was my son. He died earlier this fall.”

Lifting her chin, she continues. “I used to tell Stephen how useful bats are. Did you know they eat more than a thousand mosquitoes an hour? Some find them ugly, but I adore them.”

A cold sweat breaks out on my forehead as I anticipate what she’ll say next.

“I call them my dark angels.”

Whether it’s his five novels of his Kingdom Fantasy series or his multi-genre short stories, Jim Doran aims to entertain his audience with every word. He’s been published in Every Day Fiction, Havok, and several anthologies. When he’s not writing, he’s usually enjoying the seasons in Michigan or playing a board game.

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