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Excerpt

Excerpt

Halo

Our arrival didn’t exactly go as planned. I remember it was almost dawn when we landed because the streetlights were still on. We had hoped our descent would go unnoticed, which it mainly did, save for a thirteen-year-old boy doing a paper round.

He was on his bicycle with the newspapers rolled like batons in plastic wrap. It was misty and the boy was wearing a hooded jacket. He seemed to be playing a mental game with himself to estimate where exactly he could get each paper to land. The newspapers hit the driveways and verandas with a thud, and the boy smiled smugly whenever he estimated right. A Jack Russell terrier barking from behind a gate caused him to glance up and alerted him to our arrival.

He looked up just in time to see a column of white light receding into the clouds, leaving three wraithlike strangers in the middle of the road. Despite our human form, something about us startled him—perhaps it was our skin, which was as luminous as the moon or our loose white traveling garments, which were in tatters from the turbulent descent. Perhaps it was the way we looked at our limbs, as though we had no idea what to do with them, or the water vapor still clinging to our hair. Whatever the reason, the boy lost his balance, swerved his bike, and crashed into the gutter. He scrambled to his feet and stood transfixed for several seconds, caught between alarm and curiosity. In unison we reached out our hands to him in what we hoped was a gesture of reassurance. But we forgot to smile. By the time we remembered how, it was too late. As we contorted our mouths in an attempt to get it right, the boy turned on his heel and fled. Having a physical body was still foreign to us --- there were so many different parts that needed to run concurrently, like a complex machine. The muscles in my face and body were stiff, my legs were trembling like a child’s taking his first steps, and my eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to the muted earth light. Having come from a place of dazzling light, shadows were foreign to us.

Gabriel approached the bicycle with its front wheel still spinning and righted it. He propped it against the closest fence knowing that the boy would return later to collect it. I imagined the boy bursting through the front door of his home and relating the story to his stunned parents. His mother would push the hair back from his forehead to check his temperature. His father, bleary-eyed, would comment on the mind’s ability to play tricks on you when it has time to wander.

We found Byron Street and walked along its uneven sidewalk, scanning for Number 15. Already, our senses were being assaulted from all directions. The colors of the world were so vivid and so varied. We had come from a pure white world to a street that looked like an artist’s palette. Apart from color everything had its own different texture and shape. The wind brushed against my fingertips, and it felt so alive I wondered if I could reach out and catch it. I opened my mouth and tasted the crisp, sharp air. I could smell gasoline and burning toast mingled with pine and the sharp scent of the ocean. The worst part was the noise. The wind seemed to howl, and the sound of the sea beating against the rocks roared through my head like a stampede. I could hear everything that was happening in the street, the sound of a car ignition, a slamming screen door, a child crying, an old porch swing creaking in the wind.

“You’ll learn how to block it out,” said Gabriel. The sound of his voice startled me. Back home, we communicated without language. Gabriel’s human voice, I discovered, was low and hypnotic.

“How long will it take?” I winced as the shrill cry of a seagull sounded overhead. I heard my own voice, which was as melodic as a flute.

“Not long,” Gabriel answered. “It’s easier if you don’t fight it.”

Byron Street rose and peaked in the middle and there, at its highest point, stood our new home. Ivy was immediately charmed.

“Oh, look.” She clapped her hands in delight. “It even has a name.” The house had been named after the street and byron was displayed in an elegant script on a copper plaque. We would later discover that the adjoining streets were named after other English Romantic poets: Keats Grove, Coleridge Street, Blake Avenue. Byron was to be both our home and our sanctuary while we were earthbound. It was a doublefronted, ivy-clad sandstone house set well back from the street behind a wrought-iron fence and double gates. It had a gracious Georgian façade and a gravel path leading to its flaking front door. The front yard was dominated by a stately elm, wrapped in a tangled mess of ivy. Along the side fence grew a profusion of hydrangeas, their pastel heads quivering in the morning frost. I liked the house—it looked like it had been built to weather any adversity.

“Bethany, hand me the key,” said Gabriel. Looking after the key to the house was the only job I had been entrusted with. I felt around the deep pockets of my dress.

“It’s here somewhere,” I assured him.

“Please tell me you haven’t lost it already.”

“We did fall out of the sky, you know,” I said indignantly. “It’s easy for things to go missing.”

Ivy laughed suddenly. “You’re wearing it around your neck.” I breathed a sigh of relief as I slipped off the chain and handed it to Gabriel. As we stepped into the hallway we saw that no expense had been spared in preparing the house for our arrival. The Divine Agents who’d preceded us had been meticulous in their attention to detail.

Everything about the house suggested light. The ceilings were lofty, the rooms airy. Off the central hallway were a music room to the left and a living room to the right. Farther along, a study opened onto a paved courtyard. The rear of the house was an extension that had been modernized and was made up of an expansive marble-and-stainless-steel kitchen that spilled into a large den with Persian rugs and plump sofas. Folding doors opened onto an extensive redwood deck. Upstairs were all the bedrooms and the main bathroom with its marble vanities and sunken bath. As we walked through the house, its timber floors creaked as if in welcome. A light shower began, and the rain falling on the slate roof sounded like fingers playing a melody on a piano.

Those first weeks were spent hibernating and getting our bearings. We took stock, waited patiently as we adjusted to having a physical form, and immersed ourselves in the rituals of daily life. There was so much to learn and it certainly wasn’t easy. At first we would take a step and be surprised to find solid ground beneath us. We knew that everything on earth was made up of matter knitted together in a complex molecular code to form different substances: air, rock, wood, animals. But it was very different experiencing it. Physical barriers surrounded us. We had to navigate our way around these barriers and try to avoid the accompanying feeling of claustrophobia. Every time I picked up an object, I stopped to marvel at its function. Human life was so complicated; there were devices to boil water, wall sockets that channeled electrical currents, and all manner of utensils in the kitchen and bathroom designed to save time and increase comfort. Everything had a different texture, a different smell—it was like a circus for the senses. I could tell that Ivy and Gabriel wanted to block it all out and return to blissful silence, but I relished every moment even if it was overwhelming.

Some evenings we were visited by a faceless, white-robed mentor, who simply appeared sitting in an armchair in the living room. His identity was never disclosed, though we knew he acted as a messenger between the angels on earth and the powers above. A briefing usually followed during which we were able to discuss the challenges of incarnation and have our questions answered.

“The landlord has asked for documents regarding our previous residence,” Ivy said, during our first meeting.

“We apologize for the oversight. Consider it taken care of,” replied the mentor. His whole face was shrouded from view, but when he spoke small clouds of white fog appeared from beneath his hood.

“How much time is expected to pass before we understand our bodies entirely?” Gabriel wanted to know.

“That depends,” said the mentor. “It should not take longer than a few weeks, unless you resist the change.”

“How are the other emissaries coping?” Ivy asked with concern.

“Some are adjusting to human life, like yourselves, and others have been thrown straight into battle,” replied the mentor. “There are some corners of the earth riddled with Agents of Darkness.”

“Why does toothpaste give me a headache?” I asked. My brother and sister flashed me stern looks, but the mentor was unfazed.

“It contains a number of strong chemical ingredients designed to kill bacteria,” he said. “Give yourself a week, the headaches should pass.”

After the consultations were over Gabriel and Ivy always lingered for a private discussion and I was left hovering outside the door, trying to catch snippets of the conversation I couldn’t be part of.

The first big challenge was taking care of our bodies. They were fragile. They needed nourishment as well as protection from the elements—mine more so than my siblings because

I was young; it was my first visit and I hadn’t had time to develop any resistance. Gabriel had been a warrior since the dawn of time, and Ivy was blessed with healing powers. I, on the other hand, was much more vulnerable. The first few times I ventured out on a walk, I returned shivering before realizing I was inadequately clothed. Gabriel and Ivy didn’t feel the cold. But their bodies still needed maintenance. We wondered why we felt faint by midday, then realized our bodies needed regular meals. The preparation of food was a tedious task, and in the end, our brother Gabriel graciously offered to take charge of it. There was an extensive collection of cookbooks in the well-stocked library, and he took to poring over these in the evenings.

We kept human contact to a minimum. We shopped after hours in the adjoining larger town of Kingston and didn’t answer the door or the phone if it happened to ring. We took long walks at times when humans were occupied behind closed doors. Occasionally we went into the town and sat together at sidewalk cafés to observe passersby, trying to look absorbed in one another’s company to ward off attention. The only person we introduced ourselves to was Father Mel, who was the priest at Saint Mark’s, a small bluestone chapel down by the water.

“Good heavens,” he said when he saw us. “So you’ve finally come.”

We liked Father Mel because he didn’t ask any questions or make any demands of us; he simply joined us in prayer. We hoped that in time our subtle influence in the town might result in people reconnecting with their spirituality. We didn’t expect them to be observant and go to church every Sunday, but we wanted to restore their faith and teach them to believe in miracles. Even if they stopped by the church on their way to do the grocery shopping and lit a candle, we would be happy.

Venus Cove was a sleepy beachside town, the sort of place where nothing ever changed. We enjoyed the quiet and took to walking along the shore, usually at dinnertime when the beach was mostly deserted. One night we walked as far as the pier to look at the boats moored there. They were so brightly painted they looked like they belonged in a postcard. We reached the end of the pier before noticing the lone boy sitting there. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen, but it was possible to see in him the man he would someday become. He was wearing cargo shorts that came to his knees and a loose white T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. His muscular legs hung over the edge of the pier. He was fishing and had a burlap bag full of bait and assorted reels beside him. We stopped dead when we saw him and would have turned away immediately, but he had already seen us.

“Hi,” he said with an open smile. “Nice night for a walk.” My brother and sister only nodded in response and didn’t move. I decided it was too impolite not to respond and stepped forward. 

“Yes, it is,” I said. I suppose this was the first sign of my weakness --- my human curiosity drew me forward. We were supposed to interact with humans but never befriend them or welcome them into our lives. Already, I was disregarding the rules of our mission. I knew I should fall silent, walk away, but instead I gestured toward the boy’s fishing reels. “Have you had any luck?”

“I come out here to relax,” he said, tipping up the bucket so I could see it was empty. “If I happen to catch anything, I throw it back in.”

I took another step forward for a closer look. The boy’s light brown hair was the color of walnuts. It flopped over his brow and had a lustrous sheen in the fading light. His pale eyes were almond shaped and a striking turquoise blue in color. But it was his smile that was utterly mesmerizing. So that was how it was done, I thought: effortlessly, instinctively, and so utterly human. As I watched, I felt drawn to him, almost by some magnetic force. Ignoring Ivy’s warning glance, I took another step forward.

“Want to try?” he offered, sensing my curiosity and holding out the fishing rod.

While I struggled to think of an appropriate response, Gabriel answered for me.

“Come away now, Bethany. We have to get home.”

I noticed how formal Gabriel’s speech pattern was compared with the boy’s. Gabriel’s words sounded rehearsed, as though he were performing a scene from a play. He probably felt like he was. He sounded like a character in one of the old Hollywood movies I’d watched as part of our research.

“Maybe next time,” the boy said, picking up on Gabriel’s tension. I noticed how his eyes crinkled slightly at the corners when he smiled. Something in his expression made me think he was poking fun at us. I moved away reluctantly.

“That was so rude,” I said to my brother as soon as we were out of earshot. I surprised myself with those words. Since when did angels worry about coming across as slightly standoffish? Since when had I mistaken Gabriel’s distant manner for rudeness? He had been created that way, he wasn’t at one with humankind --- he didn’t understand their ways. And yet, I was berating him for lacking human traits.

“We have to be careful, Bethany,” he explained as if speaking to an errant child.

“Gabriel is right,” Ivy added, ever our brother’s ally. “We’re not ready for human contact yet.”

“I think I am,” I said.

I turned back for a final look at the boy. He was still watching us and still smiling.

***

When I woke in the morning, sunlight was streaming through the tall windows and spilling across the bare pine boards of my room. In the beams of light, dust motes swirled in a frenzied dance. I could smell the briny sea air; recognize the sounds of gulls squawking and the yeasty waves crashing over the rocks. I could see the familiar objects around the room that had become mine. Whoever had been responsible for decorating my bedroom had done so with some idea of its future occupant. It had a girlish charm with its white furniture, iron canopy bed, and rosebud wallpaper. The white dressing table had a fl oral stencil on its drawers, and there was a rattan rocking chair in one corner. A dainty desk with turned legs stood against a wall beside the bed.

I stretched and felt the crumpled sheets against my skin; their texture still a novelty. Where we came from, there were no textures, no objects. We needed nothing physical to sustain us and so there was nothing. Heaven was not easy to describe. Some humans might catch a glimpse of it on occasion, buried somewhere in the recesses of their unconscious, and wonder briefly what it all meant. Try to imagine an expanse of white, an invisible city, with nothing material to be seen but still the most beautiful sight you could imagine. A sky like liquid gold and rose quartz, a feeling of buoyancy, of weightlessness, seemingly empty but more majestic than the grandest palace on earth. That was the best I could do when trying to describe something as ineffable as my former home. I was not too impressed with human language; it seemed absurdly limited. There was so much that couldn’t be put into words. That was one of the saddest things about people --- their most important thoughts and feelings often went unspoken and barely understood.

One of the most frustrating words in the human language, as far as I could tell, was love. So much meaning attached to this one little word. People bandied it about freely, using it to describe their attachments to possessions, pets, vacation destinations, and favorite foods. In the same breath they then applied this word to the person they considered most important in their lives. Wasn’t that insulting? Shouldn’t there be some other term to describe deeper emotion? Humans were so preoccupied with love. They were all desperate to form an attachment to one person they could refer to as their “other half.” It seemed from my reading of literature that being in love meant becoming the beloved’s entire world. The rest of the universe paled into insignificance compared to the lovers. When they were separated, each fell into a melancholy state, and only when they were re united did their hearts start beating again. Only when they were together could they really see the colors of the world. When they were apart, that color leached away, leaving everything a hazy gray. I lay in bed, wondering about the intensity of this emotion that was so irrational and so irrefutably human. What if a person’s face was so sacred to you it was permanently inscribed in your memory? What if their smell and touch were dearer to you than life itself? Of course, I knew nothing about human love, but the idea had always been intriguing to me. Celestial beings never pretended to understand the intensity of human relationships; but I found it amazing how humans could allow another person to take over their hearts and minds. It was ironic how love could awaken them to the wonders of the universe, while at the same time confine their attention to one another.

The sounds of my brother and sister moving around in the kitchen downstairs broke into my reverie and drew me out of bed. What did my ruminations matter anyway when human love was barred to angels?

I wrapped a cashmere throw around me to keep warm and padded barefoot down the stairs. In the kitchen I was met by the inviting smell of toast and coffee. I was pleased to find myself adjusting to human life --- a few weeks ago such smells might have brought on a headache or a wave of nausea. But now I was starting to enjoy the experience. I curled my toes, enjoying the feel of the smooth timber boards underfoot. I didn’t even care when, still only half awake, I clumsily stubbed my toe on the refrigerator. The shooting pain only served to remind me that I was real and that I could feel.

“Good afternoon, Bethany,” said my brother jokingly as he handed me a steaming mug of tea. I held it a fraction too long before putting it down, and it scalded my fingers. Gabriel noticed me fl inch, and I saw a frown crinkle his forehead. I was reminded that unlike my two siblings I was not immune to pain.

My physical form had the same vulnerabilities as a human body did, although I was able to self-heal minor injuries like cuts and broken bones. It had been one of Gabriel’s concerns about my being chosen for this in the first place. I knew he saw me as vulnerable and thought the whole mission might prove too dangerous for me. I had been chosen because I was more in tune with the human condition than other angels --- I watched over humans, empathized with them, and tried to understand them. I had faith in them and cried tears for them. Perhaps it was because I was young --- I had been created only seventeen mortal years ago, which equated to infancy in celestial years. Gabriel and Ivy had been around for centuries; they had fought battles and witnessed human atrocities beyond my imagination. They’d had all of time to acquire strength and power to protect them on earth. They’d both visited earth on a number of missions so they’d had time to adjust to it and were aware of its perils and pitfalls. But I was an angel in the purest, most vulnerable form. I was naïve and trusting, young and fragile. I could feel pain because years of wisdom and experience did not protect me from it. It was for this reason that Gabriel wished I had not been chosen, and it was for this reason that I had.

But the final decision hadn’t been up to him; it was up to someone else, someone so supreme even Gabriel didn’t dare argue. He had to resign himself to the fact that there must be a divine reason behind my selection, which was beyond even his understanding.

I sipped tentatively at my tea and smiled at my brother. His expression cleared, and he picked up a box of cereal and scrutinized its label.

“What’ll it be --- toast or something called Honey Wheat Flakes?”

“Not the flakes,” I said, wrinkling my nose at the cereal.

Ivy was seated at the table idly buttering a piece of toast. My sister was still trying to develop a taste for food, and I watched her cut her toast into neat little squares, shuffle the pieces around her plate and put them back together like a jigsaw puzzle. I went to sit next to her, inhaling the heady scent of freesia that always seemed to pervade the air around her.

“You look a little pale,” she observed with her usual calm, lifting away a strand of white-blond hair that had fallen over her rain gray eyes. Ivy had become the self-appointed mother hen of our little family.

“It’s nothing,” I replied casually and hesitated before adding, “just a bad dream.” I saw them both stiffen slightly and exchange concerned glances.

“I wouldn’t call that nothing,” Ivy said. “You know we aren’t meant to dream.” Gabriel returned from his position by the window to study my face more closely. He lifted my chin with the tip of his finger. I noticed his frown had returned, shadowing the grave beauty of his face.

“Be careful, Bethany,” he counseled in his now-familiar older brother tone. “Try not to become attached to physical experiences. Exciting as it may seem, remember we are only visitors here. All of this is temporary and sooner or later we will have to return. . . .” Seeing my forlorn look made him stop short. When he continued, it was in a lighter voice. “Well, there’s plenty of time before that happens so we can discuss it later.”

It was strange visiting earth with Ivy and Gabriel. They attracted so much attention wherever we went. In his physical form, Gabriel might well have been a classical sculpture come to life. His body was perfectly proportioned and each muscle looked as if it had been sculpted out of the purest marble. His shoulder-length hair was the color of sand and he often wore it pulled back in a loose ponytail. His brow was strong and his nose arrow straight. Today he was wearing faded blue jeans worn through at the knees and a crumpled linen shirt, both of which gave him a disheveled beauty. Gabriel was an archangel and a member of the Holy Seven. Although his clique ranked only second in the divine hierarchy, they were exclusive and had the most interaction with human beings. In fact, they were created to liaise between the Lord and mortals. But at heart Gabriel was a warrior --- his celestial name meant “Hero of God” --- and it was he who had watched Sodom and Gomorrah burn.

Ivy, on the other hand, was one of the wisest and oldest of our kind, although she didn’t look a day over twenty. She was a seraphim, the order of angels closest to the Lord. In the Kingdom, seraphim had six wings to mark the six days of creation. A gold snake was tattooed on Ivy’s wrist as a mark of her rank. It was said that in battle the seraphim would come forward to spit fire on the earth, but she was one of the gentlest creatures I’d ever met. In her physical form, Ivy looked like a Renaissance Madonna with her swanlike neck and pale oval face. Like Gabriel, she had piercing rain gray eyes. This morning she wore a white fl owing dress and gold sandals.

I, on the other hand, was nothing special, just a plain, old transition angel --- bottom of the rung. I didn’t mind; it meant I was able to interact with the human spirits that entered the Kingdom. In my physical form, I looked ethereal like my family, except my eyes were as brown as river stones and my chestnut brown hair fell in loose waves down my back. I’d thought that once I was recruited for an earth posting I’d be able to choose my own physical form, but it didn’t work that way. I was created small, fi ne boned, and not especially tall, with a heart-shaped face, pixielike ears, and skin that was milky pale. Whenever I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror, I saw an eagerness that was missing from the faces of my siblings. Even when I tried, I could never look as removed as Gabe and Ivy. Their expressions of grave composure rarely altered, regardless of the drama unfolding around them. My face always wore a look of restless curiosity no matter how hard I tried to look worldly.

Ivy crossed to the sink holding her plate, as always moving as though she were dancing rather than walking. Both my brother and sister moved with an unstudied grace that I was incapable of imitating. More than once I’d been accused of stomping through the house as well as being heavy-handed.

When she’d disposed of her half-eaten toast, Ivy stretched out on the window seat, the newspaper open in front of her.

Excerpted from HALO © Copyright 2010 by Alexandra Adornetto. Reprinted with permission by Feiwel & Friends. All rights reserved.

Halo
by by Alexandra Adornetto

  • Genres: Fantasy, Paranormal, Romance
  • paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Square Fish
  • ISBN-10: 0312674368
  • ISBN-13: 9780312674366