dedicated to Tracie Shirley
I finished tucking Cody in. I handed him his teddy bear and bent down to kiss him goodnight. We had had a long day celebrating his birthday at Disneyland, and he was exhausted.
I turned to leave the room when he called to me. He wanted me to read to him a story, his favorite one with an angel named Milo.
“Don’t you think we should skip reading tonight?” I asked. “It’s late. We’re both tired.”
“Please, Mommy,” he said. “Read to me.”
I picked up the book from his nightstand and read. When I was finished, he asked me if angels really existed.
I remember laughing. I had asked my mother that same question when I was a little girl. I gave Cody the same answer she gave me.
“Cody, angels are special creatures made by God to protect us. Each person has a special angel to watch over him or her.”
His brown eyes widened. “Even me?” he asked.
“Yes, baby, even you.” I giggled and pinched his nose. “You don’t think God would let my little boy walk around without an angel, do you?”
“I guess not.” He smiled. “What do angels look like? Do they really have wings?”
I smiled again. These were also questions I had asked my mother.
“Baby, angels are all around us. They look just like us, so it’s important to be nice to everyone we meet because anyone could be an angel.”
“Even Mr. Peters?” he asked. “He’s such a mean old man. I don’t think he likes kids.”
Mr. Peters was an elderly man who lived across the street from us. He used to be friendly and would wave to all the children as they passed by his house on their way to school. But that was before his wife had died two years ago. Now, he spent his days sitting on his porch, drinking bottled beer, and yelling and cursing at anyone who walked by. Frankly, he gave me the willies, but my neighbors seemed to accept him as lonely and crazy. Everyone tended to ignore him.
“Yes, I suppose even Mr. Peters,” I said.
“What about the wings? If someone is an angel, what happens to their wings?”
“You don’t miss anything. Do you?” I laughed and kissed his chubby cheek. “Baby, some angels choose to stay in heaven with God. And they get to fly around with their wings. Others volunteer to come down here to earth to help us. These angels have God remove their wings so that when they are on earth, they look just like us.”
“Does it hurt them to have their wings removed?” he asked.
“I don’t know, little man. But grandma used to tell me that the angels down here have scars on their backs where they once had wings.”
“Hmm.” Cody murmured. He yawned.
“It’s time for you to go to sleep, sweetie. I love you. Good night.”
I turned off his night light and strolled to the kitchen to get a glass of milk before bed. I opened the refrigerator, pulled out the carton, and noticed it was almost empty. Cody and I would need some more milk for our cereal tomorrow. We lived in a safe neighborhood, and the store was only two blocks down the street. I decided to hurry and go. I suppose I could have waited until morning. I don’t know why I didn’t.
The store was practically empty when I got there. I grabbed a basket and scurried through the aisles tossing in milk, bread, and eggs. When I got to the checkout line, there was an old woman in front of me fumbling to retrieve her money from her large purse. My heart began palpitating, and an empty feeling set in the pit of my stomach. A voice inside me told me to just leave my groceries and get home. Something was wrong. But I ignored the feeling and waited for the old lady to finish. After I paid for my stuff, I hurried home. I was vaguely aware of the screaming sirens in the night.
I was a block away when I smelled the smoke. My stomach churned when I turned the corner onto my street and saw a group of neighbors huddled in front of my house. Plumes of smoke poured from the bathroom window on the side of the house, and I could see the flames devouring the curtains. I learned later there had been an electrical short.
I ran to the door, but I couldn’t find my key. My heart raced, and I began screaming, “Somebody! Help me! Please! My baby is inside!” I squeezed my eyes shut and began praying.
Suddenly, the door flew open and knocked me down. Mr. Peters rushed by me. He had Cody in his arms. He dropped my son on the lawn and then fell onto the grass and began rolling around. His shrieks pierced the night air. His bathrobe had caught fire, and he was trying to put it out.
Breathless, I scrambled to turn on the hose I use to water the lawn and directed the stream at Mr. Peters. The fire died, but Mr. Peters remained on the ground, unmoving.
The firefighters and ambulance arrived. As the emergency workers lifted Mr. Peters onto a gurney, the remainder of his charred bathrobe fell to the ground.
“Mommy, look!” Cody pointed. His eyes were wide and staring. “Look at his back!”
I had to do a double take. There they were, right under his shoulder blades… two long scars that looked like they might have once held wings.
Kelly Charlton works as a high school English teacher in Southern California. Her favorite authors include: Charles Bukowski, J.D. Salinger, and Ray Bradbury.