Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 8
Stories
The Frankenstein Diaries
by Matt Rotundo
The Angel's Touch
by Dennis Danvers
Accounting for Dragons
by Eric James Stone
End Time
by Scott Emerson Bull
Limbo
by Stephanie Dray
Horus Ascending
by Aliette de Bodard
From the Ender Saga
Ender in Flight
by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Laws and Sausages
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The Angel's Touch
    by Dennis Danvers
The Angel's Touch
Artwork by Liz Clarke

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
-- Luke 12:6-7

The elevator stops on three as I'm going up, and an angel gets on. He has a terrible time finding room for his wings and arranging them to his satisfaction, standing right up by the buttons to make room for them, and they still bump against the ceiling. He smells sweet and funky like singed feathers baked in honey, and he glows like the elevator buttons. I huddle in the other front corner and try to act casual. He follows me off at six and down the hall, all the way to my apartment.

"Brian Stark," he says. "I'd like a word with you."

"You have the wrong guy," I say, sliding the key in the lock, turning it, and leaning on the door. But the door won't budge, not one little bit, like a brick wall.

"No, I don't," he says. "Don't lie to an angel. It angers us." He brushes my cheek with the feather tip of his glowing wing, and I scream, or try to. The scream won't budge either, lodged in my throat like a cork in a bottle, and I strangle on my pain. I brushed up against a Portuguese man-o-war once in the Gulf. That was a lover's kiss compared to the angel's touch. "I've come to ask you a few questions about Melanie Waters. Are you going to let me in or not?" He smirks, sniffs. "You have free will, after all. Yes, or no?"

"Yes," I gasp. My door flies open, and I fall into my apartment screaming.

He steps over me and slams the door behind him. He frowns at the ceiling fan whirling lazily near one wing and it stops dead, the paddles falling like a blossom wilting. He stands with his back to the sofa against the long wall and spreads out his wings, knocking over a table lamp with a crash and then crushing the glass on my Monet print. He rests his wings on the back of the sofa and seems to relax a little. I stand before him and tremble.

"Do you love Melanie?" he asks.

"Love her? We broke up a couple of years ago. She dumped me. We were only together maybe three years." I start to suggest maybe, just maybe, he does have the wrong guy, but think better of it. My cheek is still on fire.

"Is that a no?" the angel asks.

"I'm not sure. Could you tell me why you're asking?"

"She's about to die, so she's being judged. Weighed in the balance." He holds up imaginary scales suspended from one of his perfect hands, eyes them like a cat eyeing a canary cage, a smile like a crescent moon. "Is she . . . religious?"

All I can think of are a few yoga classes, making fun of TV preachers. "Not -- not exactly."

"Exactly not, I should say. No faith." He eyes the imaginary scales once again. "That leaves good works and the high regard of others to weigh in the balance. And mercy, of course." He smirks and sniffs again. "Her good works are, as you are aware, nothing exceptional. She was asked if there might be a single soul in the vast universe who still loved her, and she came up with you. I told her I doubted it, but she was quite sure that you were her best bet. Her only chance, you might say."

I had told her I would love her forever, no matter what; that should she ever change her mind, all she had to do was call and I'd come running. Guys say crap like that. Who knows if we mean it? She never called, of course. But now there's this . . . this angel in my living room. The smell is starting to make me nauseous. There's something like spoiled chicken underneath the sweetness. I need a drink of water.

"You want something to drink?" I ask.

"I don't partake of material substance."

"Is that a no?"

"Don't get cute with an angel," he says, his wings coming off the sofa.

I back up against the wall with a thud. "I wasn't. Honest." A wing hovers ominously, then withdraws. I desperately change the subject. "I guess Melanie's in a lot of trouble, huh?"

He smiles. "No more than anyone else. You're all being judged all the time. That's how we achieve" -- he almost touches the tip of my terrified nose with a wingtip, but stops just short -- "justice." He draws out the final syllable in a hiss, like something sizzling. "We weigh everything, then act judiciously." His feathers rustle like a dry wind through a dead cornfield. His eyes glow and never blink.

His head is beautiful like a snake's, with smooth, graceful lines -- hairless, featherless. The feathers start at the base of the neck as a down. Skin and feather are the same marble white. He could've stepped down from a tombstone. He wears no clothes and has no discernible genitalia. No discernible humanity. He's the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life. I'm afraid I'm going to piss myself.

No matter what our problems in the past, I can't leave Melanie's fate to this nut. I clear my throat, try to stand up straight, to keep my voice steady. "I loved her, sure. Still love her, I mean. I've always wished it had worked out. I really thought she was the one." It's true. Not every single second, but there were times when she wasn't smoking or sneaking or promising to quit -- times when her passion almost met mine, like we were meant to be together. Those were the best times of my life.

"She slept with other men," the angel says.

He doesn't have to remind me, but I've come to terms with that. "Man, one time, and they were really drunk, and I was being a total jerk at the time, and --"

He shakes his head. "Men. And the time you know about -- that you've forgiven -- she was sober, and your bad behavior never entered her mind."

Even if he wasn't an angel, I'd know he was telling the truth. Part of me always suspected. I believed her only because I had wanted to. "That lying bitch!" I say. It just comes out. Guys say crap like that sometimes.

The angel gathers in his wings and starts for the door. "Thanks for your time. We'll be in touch."

"Hey! Wait! Come back! You can't just leave!"

He whirls around and stretches out an imposing wing aimed at my other cheek. I fall to my knees. "Please?" I whimper. He likes that.

"That's better. Show a little respect. You want details? Very well. As you have always suspected, you love Melanie more than she loves you. This is because she has always loved Warren, with whom she's had an ongoing affair, hoping he would someday leave his wife Ursula. But of course he never did. The encounter you know of with Clifford was just a pathetic attempt to make Warren jealous. We see a lot of that sort of mess. It almost sorts itself out."

"Almost?"

He points a fiery feather at my groin, makes a little curlicue in the air like a kid playing with a sparkler. "Warren's prostate problems prompted his abrupt exit from the material plane some months ago."

"You -- you killed him?"

He looks at me like I'm a complete idiot. He fills me completely with the knowledge of my idiocy. "We kill every living thing. Even the little sparrows. If you had paid attention in Sunday school instead of drawing pictures of spaceships, you'd know that. No faith. That's your problem, too. What do you people need with spaceships after the mess you've made of this planet? Not to mention your so-called personal lives."

I'm not prepared to defend the human race, or myself either. I'm terribly curious, however. I think I want the whole story, or maybe I don't, but it's like a car wreck, and I can't look away. "What kind of guy was this Warren character? Did I ever meet him?"

"You picked Melanie up at the airport after a conference in Cleveland. She introduced him as a colleague who also attended. They actually spent the week in Cancún. He was a selfish pig, quite successful."

"And Melanie loved him?"

"To distraction."

"But he loved his wife?"

"Not particularly. He preferred having both wife and mistress."

"So what's going to happen to Melanie?"

"The 'lying bitch'?"

"You caught me by surprise. Sure I'm . . . upset. That doesn't mean I don't care what happens to her."

"How touching. She's attending to matters herself, now that she's finished" -- smirk, sniff -- "praying. She fell to her knees, asked if anyone in the world could possibly still love her. I was dispatched to find out -- to answer her prayer. It's one of my duties. I believe you answered the question quite succinctly."

"You can't tell her that."

"Too late. I already have. She asked herself and God -- I don't know why she had to drag Him into it -- 'Dear God, would Brian still love me if he knew the truth?' and she actually heard, though she thought she only imagined, your very words, in your own voice. Amen, as we say."

"What's she going to do?"

"She's weighing the efficacy of pills or gas. She's reading drug labels at the moment, but the print is too fine, and her tears make reading difficult. She'll end up going with gas."

"You have to stop her!"

He draws himself up like a cobra about to strike. "I what?"

"I mean, would you please stop her?"

"I'm not that sort of angel, thank God. You need an angel of mercy. You could --" smirk, sniff -- "pray for one. Or, since you love her so, you can do it. Go ahead, Loverboy. Save her." He bursts out laughing, a hawk-like screech, and leaves, slamming the door behind him.

I run out in the hall, but there's no sign of him except for his funky smell. What the hell kind of angel is he? But I don't have time to think about that. I run back in and call Melanie. I get her machine. She's screening, of course; she always screens. I imagine her, head in the oven, listening. "Melanie, this is Brian. I want you to know I love you. I have always loved you. And I always will love you. No matter what. Got that? I'm coming over."

It usually takes twenty minutes to get to her place, but I make it in fifteen, even though my elevator gets stuck on three, and I have to run down the stairs, and I miss every light, and her buzzer is busted, so I push every other button and beg, plead and cajole someone into letting me in -- careful not to pray or even mention His name. The elevator in her building is out of service altogether. I sprint up the stairs and bang on her door, breathless, gasping. "Melanie! Let me in!" I shout. I'm about to knock the door down, standing on the other side of the hall, set to charge, wishing I had shoulder pads, when she opens the door, her phone still in her hand.

"I got your message," she says. She looks awful, like she's been crying for days, her hair a rat's nest. She's wearing a big t-shirt from Maine with lobsters all over it. I bought it on a camping trip, one of our golden times, when she wasn't thinking about Warren, I guess. "I was going to kill myself, and then I got your message. I love you too, Brian. I really do. Come in."

She reaches across the threshold and grabs my hands. I step inside and take her in my arms, holding her close, never wanting to let her go. My eyes sting with tears of joy and from the gas. She's thrown all the windows open -- that's what took her so long to get to the door -- but the smell of gas is still pretty strong. The place is a total wreck.

"I'm so glad you're here," she says, clinging to me with a passion I never felt from her when we were together. "I told myself, if he comes, he really, really loves me. Oh God, I'm so glad you're here."

"Me too," I say, holding her close and kissing her. She returns my passion and tenderness, as if, like Plato said, we're two halves of a single being, reunited, made whole. It's a dream come true. My tears of joy reach my wounded cheek, and I wince in pain.

"What did you do to your cheek?" Melanie asks, touching it lovingly, her face full of concern. But I'm grateful for the pain that has brought me her love. It's true. I have always loved her.

"It's a long story," I say, not wanting to go into the whole angel business and spoil the moment. If I tell her about the angel, then we'll have to talk about Warren and all of that, stir up feelings that don't matter anymore. Warren is dead, and I am alive, and Melanie is in my arms. Maybe I won't tell her about the angel at all. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, right? There's no reason she has to know.

"It looks awful," she says, still peering at my cheek, squinting at it. "You should have it looked at."

"I will. I will. I can't believe --" I can't stop kissing her. It's all true. I'm absolutely crazy about her. I will never stop loving her. I don't care about the past, only this moment together, and all the moments to come. I tell her this and more, in a rush of relentless adoration. I've always held back before, not wanting to face the fact she didn't love me as I loved her, but now those days are over.

Maybe it's too much, all at once, such an outpouring of love and devotion, that makes her feel like she has to confess when she never had before. Maybe she, too, has always been holding back.

She looks into my eyes. "I love you too, Brian. That's why I have to tell you something. There's something you must know."

I feel dizzy. I'm not sure whether it's the gas or a sudden instinctive panic. "It can wait," I reassure her.

"No, no, I need to tell you now. I owe you the truth. I can't let you love me without you knowing who I am, how I deceived you. It wouldn't be fair."

"I know the truth. I know who you are. Life isn't fair. It doesn't matter. Honest. Trust me."

"You're just saying that. You don't know. There's something I've never told you."

She breaks from my arms and paces back and forth, weaving a little. I'm starting to get a headache from the gas. Even though we're standing by her open door, it's still pretty strong. There's no circulation in her place, and I'm breathing heavily after all the stairs I just climbed, not to mention our passion. I start to turn on her ceiling fan, and reach for the switch, but notice the blades lying on the floor in a heap. Melanie has stopped her pacing and is digging around in the pockets of a coat hanging on a peg by the kitchen. "I'm going to need a cigarette for this," she says. I groan inside to hear she's started smoking again, but I try to hide my disappointment, bracing myself for her confession, trying to decide if I should tell her about the angel or not, when I realize what's about to happen.

"Stop!" I scream.

The cigarette is in her mouth, the lighter in both hands. She tucks in her chin in a gesture I remember from the old days when I dared to come between her and lighting up. Maybe I should just let her do it, I think for a split second -- blow us both to kingdom come. "The gas," I say, and her eyes open wide with comprehension.

"Damn!" she says, throwing cigarette and lighter to the floor. She's wobbly and green.

"Let's get out of here," I say. I put my arm around her waist, snare her coat from its peg and hustle her out the door.

I take Melanie to my place, get her cleaned up, get some food in her, put her to bed. I clean up the mess the angel left. It turns out that the screws holding the fan paddles in place unscrewed themselves. It takes me an hour, but I find every last one. I'm standing on a stepladder tightening the last screw when she comes out of the bedroom in my bathrobe. She looks beautiful.

"What are you doing?" she asks.

"Putting the blades back on."

"Mine fell off too. Ker-plunk. What makes them do that?"

"You didn't see what caused it?"

"It just happened. I had my eyes closed."

"Praying."

"I don't know if you'd call it praying. I was out of my mind with grief. Would you get down from there? You're making me nervous."

I step down from the ladder, take her in my arms. "Is this better?"

"Much. Oh Brian, you've been so good to me. There's still something I have to tell you."

I've had a little time to think about this, and I've decided there's no hiding from the truth. "No there isn't. I already know. You were upset because Warren died of prostate cancer and never left Ursula after all those years. You only slept with Clifford in a pathetic attempt to make Warren jealous. But when you tried to think of one person in the universe who might still love you, you thought of me. I know everything already."

She pushes herself away from me, gathers the robe tightly around her. "Brian, you mean you knew about Warren all along?"

"No. I just found out a few hours ago."

"How? Did you have someone following me?"

"Of course not. An angel told me."

"That's not funny. Tell me how you know."

"I told you. If you'd had your eyes open you would've seen him too. He was at your place. That's why the fan blades were on the floor. He doesn't like them because of his wings or something. He just backed out all the screws -- zip! I'm surprised you didn't smell him. You can still smell it in here actually. I think it's gotten into the sofa cushions. We'll have to change them."

She's staring at me, wide-eyed, speechless, faithless like the angel said. She'll never believe I saw an angel, not ever. I have about two seconds to convince her I'm not totally insane.

"Clifford told me," I blurt out. "I promised him I wouldn't let on to you. I went round to his place, all jealous, and he told me about Warren."

"That was ages ago, and yet you stayed with me," she says. "And, oh no, when you met him at the airport that time . . ."

"When you went to Cancún."

"You knew about that too? How did you ever manage? I don't understand. You never said a word."

I can see this isn't entirely a good thing in her eyes, pointing to a pathological spinelessness, but what's the alternative -- spouting nonsense about an angel showing up at my apartment in answer to her prayers? "I -- I had faith in us," I say. "I always believed things would eventually work out."

She embraces me, seemingly accepting this sophism. She points at the wall. "What happened to the Monet?"

"I'm tired of the impressionists, aren't you?"

Luckily she is, and we go shopping together for a new print.

While we're out, a terrible storm blows in. Acting on an hours-old complaint about a gas smell, Melanie's landlord goes around to her place, finds all the windows open with the rain pouring in, the carpet ruined with burns and melted wax from some depressive late-night ritual of self-loathing, the brand-new ceiling fan on the floor in pieces, and a smell like bad chicken and cigarette smoke.

Long story short, Melanie is evicted and moves in with her true love, me.

And it's wonderful, except for one thing.

She can't get over that I supposedly knew about Warren all along, so conversations like this become the staple of my day:

"So when I signed up for that dance class on Wednesday nights and bought the shoes and leotard and everything, but never practiced even once, you must have known I was meeting Warren. There was one time he stood me up, some stupid thing with Ursula he couldn't get out of, and I just sat in the car and cried. You were so sweet when I got home. You could tell I'd been crying. I told you I fell doing a difficult move, and you iced my ankle. You must've known, and yet . . ."

Yeah. Saint Masochistic Brian-the-All-Knowing must've known and now gets to hear it all. It seems her life has been one long furtive attempt to screw Warren. There are no details she sees fit to spare me. Blow jobs in elevators, previous suicide attempts, daydreams about murdering Ursula, shrinks she's gone through attempting to deal with her obsession. "I spent weeks talking to Daphne about whether I should tell you or not, and it turns out the whole time you already knew."

Turns out.

One evening -- after a vivid account of her meeting Warren in a Target parking lot for a quickie and her subsequent remorse she couldn't go shopping with him -- she's so upset she has to take to bed.

I bang my head on the kitchen cabinet. "God, I can't take this anymore!"

"And how's that mercy plan working out for you, Loverboy?"

Apparently anything passes for prayer these days. I smell him before I actually turn and see him. The scar on my cheek, not quite healed after months, begins to throb. I once saw a marble cemetery angel that had been worked over with a sledge hammer. I wondered why anyone would do such a thing. I'm beginning to develop a theory. But all I have is a wooden spoon, and he still scares the crap out of me. "It's doing okay."

"So you were taking the Lord's name in vain, were you? You didn't really mean what you just addressed to Him?"

There's something a little different about the angel today. A little less smirk maybe. My kitchen's small. Last time he was here he would've pulverized the spice rack, but now he's got his wings tucked in like a pigeon's. "I only meant that her obsession with her dead lover can't be good for her healing, and I only want what's best for her."

"Oh my. You're almost getting good at this."

"Good at what?"

"The Lord's work, of course." Smirk, sniff. "Mister Mercy, I call you." He smiles.

I think it was a sledge hammer. It might've been a chain saw. A jack hammer. "Thank you," I say.

"Nasty work, mercy. You couldn't pay me." He screeches with laughter. Angel humor, I suppose. "But I didn't come to exchange pleasantries. You're in the brotherhood now, so to speak. I must keep you informed. Justice, as you know, thrives on truth."

"And what truth would that be?"

"She's screwing Clifford again."

"You're kidding."

He gives me a brotherly, you're-a-total-idiot look, and my wound begins to ooze. "She confronted him about telling you about Warren, which he denied at first, but, opportunist that he is, eventually confessed to it when he realized she saw it as a strange bond between them, an erotic one as it turns out. Surprise, surprise. Oh yes, she sneaks cigarettes in the basement. Her pack is on the circuit box."

He watches my reaction with the greatest interest, like a cat watching a songbird. I try to emulate his marble serenity and choose my song carefully. I know this creep. This is definitely a trap. "Clifford. Tsk. Tsk. She must be terribly unhappy."

His eyes narrow. "You're concerned about her?"

"Of course. I suspect she's consumed with self-loathing."

His feathers ruffle. "As well she should be. You should return her fate to me. Much easier on everyone, wouldn't you say?"

I smile. I couldn't possibly contradict a member of the brotherhood. I just smile what I hope is a merciful smile. I'm glad there are no mirrors in my kitchen, or I'd gag on my own sweetness.

He's aghast. "But she's hopeless. Completely faithless. A wanton Jezebel."

"Confused, heart-broken, a victim of a patriarchal society that teaches her to loathe her own sexuality." As pissed as I am at Melanie, I'm not going to let this harpy have her. He can't wait to wrap her up in those fiery wings of his and teach her a lesson she'll never forget. "I'll talk to her."

"You'll talk to her?"

"Yeah. That's what I said. You got a problem with that?" I don't know where this comes from, but it's all I can do to keep standing after the words leave my mouth. I fully expect him to incinerate me in a heartbeat.

But he doesn't. He steps back. He opens up the window and flies away as if he'd been a pigeon on the windowsill.

Over dinner I come right to the point. I tell her an angel has informed me of her latest indiscretion with Clifford, and I have just one question to ask her.

"An angel?" she says. "Are you out of your mind?"

"Have you been screwing Clifford?"

"Well, yes. It was stupid. But an angel, Brian, really -- "

"I haven't asked my question yet."

"I thought you just did."

"I don't have to ask about Clifford. I already know about that. Like I know about the pack of cigarettes on the circuit box. My question is, have you ever been faithful -- to anyone?"

She hesitates. "That depends upon what you mean -- "

"It's a fairly straightforward question."

She stops to think, boyfriend by boyfriend. "Well, since you put it that way, I don't suppose I have, actually."

"So it's not anything personal then? In fact, I would be foolish to expect anything else. You cheated on all your boyfriends with Warren, and with Warren on everyone else. Why should things change now that Warren has exited the material plane?"

She gives me a baffled look. "I guess you could look at it that way."

"I prefer to, yes."

"And you're cool with that?"

I shrug. "I'd rather not hear about it."

"I thought this angel tells you everything I do." I note the slightest dip in her skepticism. How else could I possibly know?

"He'll only tell me if I care."

"You didn't care about Warren, apparently."

"I didn't know until the angel told me. I only dragged Clifford into it because I knew you wouldn't believe an angel and I didn't want to lose you. But it doesn't matter if you believe. Look. Warren was an ass. He's dead. He has nothing to do with us anymore. But how about I trust you? I mean, Clifford? C'mon."

She smiles. "You know what I think? I think you're the angel."

"Maybe I am." Smirk, sniff, kiss.

This marks a dramatic turning point in our relationship that I can't fully explain. The Lord moves in mysterious ways. We've remained completely devoted to one another for many wonderful years now. Melanie's even quit smoking.

There's no way to be sure of course, short of consulting with the angels. But why in Hell would I want to do that?


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