She's No Angel (But She Tries)
Written by Woodclaw :: [Monday, 05 January 2015 18:03] Last updated by :: [Tuesday, 20 January 2015 10:00]
Author's note: This story has been a long time coming. Originally it was inspired by “Rise of the Guardians” and it was meant for Christmas 2013, but I wasn't able to finish it in time, so it went on the backburner. I'm not going to retale how 2014 was a complcated year for me, but it was and I took this story out of the closet only a week before Chirstmas 2014. This time I decided to see it through and post it no matter what. I know I'm late for Christmas, but I hope you'll enjoy it nonetheless.
It was almost midnight on Christmas Eve and, in her little suburban home, Nicole was alone. Laying down on the overstuffed couch, she eyed the small table at the other end of the living room, all set for a never consumed Christmas dinner with her husband Robert. Looking at the golden band on her hand she sighed heavily. She loved Robert so much and – she was sure – he loved her at least as much, but being an army wife sometimes meant moments like this. Robert was an Army Ranger and, right now, he was serving in Afghanistan with the rest of his company. They had chatted just a few days ago and he had been sure he would be back to celebrate Christmas, but apparently it wasn’t meant to be. According to what Nicole knew, Robert’s unit had been sent on a long range patrol just two days ago and they didn’t return yet.
Trying to clear her head she stood up and started to put plates, silverware and glasses away. The mechanical gestures took her mind away from her worries for a bit. Then she walked into the small kitchen and sliced the roast in smaller pieces before stuffing it in a couple of Tupperware containers. While she was doing that the old clock on the wall started to ring the twelve rings of midnight.
“Well … merry Christmas to m-” A loud crash from the living room cut her short, she jumped and dropped the open Tupperware, spilling the roast juice over the floor tiles.
Not sure what to expect Nicole looked around, her eyes wide with fear, and grabbed the kitchen knife she just used to cut the roast. The weight of the blade in her hand calmed her down a bit. She was no soldier, but Robert had taught her a trick or two and she tried very hard to stay in shape.
Peering from the corner of the door, Nicole saw the table flipped over and a dark brown silhouette on the floor. There was no sign of entrance, nor anything else was out of place.
Nicole prowled forward, keeping herself behind the furniture as much as possible – not that her couch would offer much protection from a bullet. As she crept closer, she swallowed her fear and jumped out keeping the knife blade forward in front of her in a semi-professional looking guard stance. What she found wasn’t what she expected.
Laying on the floor was a burly, old man with hands wide as pans and hard as old wood. While he had a bit of a beer gut, he was also quite tall, with broad and powerful shoulders. His eyes were surrounded with many wrinkles and separated by a vaguely beaky nose, while the rest of his face was hidden by a long, immaculate, white beard – which made Nicole immediately think of Santa – and framed by equally long white hair. His clothes were the weirdest bit. He wore a large reddish-brown fur coat running all the way to his shins, a thick dark green shirt – closed with medieval-looking bone studs – and a similar colored pants beneath a tall belt, a pair of heavy leather boots with a fur trim and a wool hat, currently on the floor, completed the picture.
The man’s breathing was erratic. Nicole took a step back as she noticed that he was clutching his chest and a dark red stain was spreading under his finger. After a moment of hesitation her paramedic training kicked in and she knelt next to the wounded man, trying to check his pulse with her right, while fumbling for her cell with the left.
Her light touch woke the man up and he grabbed Nicole’s wrist with a strength and a gentleness that she didn’t expected in someone apparently so old and big. He looked her straight in the eyes with a piercing gaze, made more intense by his icy blue eyes and spoke softly: “No … doctors … please.”
Nicole’s head started to spin, there was something very wrong with the way she was feeling. For some reason this man made her stomach twist in a way she hadn’t felt since … her childhood. The man let her wrist go and the dizziness subsided.
“No way Mister. You need some medical attention right now!” she said in a stern and professional tone.
“Please …” the man coughed and his hand was dotted with a few droplets of blood, “Please, Nicole … listen to me.”
Nicole froze and her eyes widened again, her voice trembled as she asked: “H-how do you know … me?”
“Come on … Nicole … it hasn’t been … that long … Remember.” he said while his eyes shined again.
Nicole felt the same stirring sensation, as if something wonderful was about to happen, as if she was 6 once again and it was Chris…
“No way.” she whispered under her breath.
The man tried to laugh, but all he managed was to get another fit of cough. “I’m very … glad that you … didn’t … squander my gifts.”
“You can’t be him.” Nicole said, trying to convince herself.
“Why not … There are more … things in heaven and earth … Than are dreamt of … ”
“Well,” Nicole retorted while still unsure about what to do, “Quoting Shakespeare doesn’t help your cause.”
“Why not,” the big man coughed before continuing with an air of wounded pride, “I gifted those lines upon him.”
Nicole’s eyebrows arched in a weird way.
“Do you really think that I brought … physical gifts? Mine are far more … precious and rare.”
“Like what?” Nicole answered, the whole situation was starting to feel more and more surreal.
“Like … wonder, hope, happiness … even love … sometimes. My gifts are the kind that make people smile one more time, to keep them hopeful one moment longer.” he said with a voice that became weaker and weaker.
Nicole gave him a little slap, “Hey! Stay with me! I’m not going to let you die on my carpet.”
“Death … no … I cannot die … yet. I have something for you: a story and … gift.”
Nicole stood silent, but unconsciously let her cell slip back to her pocket.
“As far as I can recall – which is quite far – I’ve been … tasked to bring gifts of … beauty and happiness into the world. There are … others … like me, yet there are also people opposed to us.”
“Like who?” Nicole muttered, interrupting, “The Grinch?”
The old man made sneering sound, like he was attempting to laugh. “The Grinch. He’s … just a young punk … No, I’m talking about things much … much more … darker and malicious. The kind of things that prowl the edge of your dreams …”
Nicole shuddered, feeling something like a premonition of impending cold and sadness.
“One of them is my nemesis … a lonely being of darkness and cold, who feeds on fear and despair. He struck me down, so he can feast on what will be coming next.”
Nicole listened as attentive as she could, but she couldn’t shake the sense of impending cold. Something in her could sense the incoming storm and her body tried to steel itself as she asked: “Why did you come here? To me?”
“In all the world … there are few people who … might feel what you are feeling now. That sense of dread is the reason. It’s because you can see … this.” as he breathed these words he brought his left hand over his mouth and puffed gently. There was a creaking sound like ice breaking, but gentler, with a ring of silver on silver in it. As he brought his hand back there was a gigantic, incredibly complex snowflake in the middle of it.
Nicole watched in amazement how the snowflake reflected the light, shining with a silver and blue hue. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s magic. My magic … this is how I bring my gifts to the world. I’m too … weak to wield it now … I need someone to be the guardian of this night. Nicole … would you answer this old fool’s prayer and accept this gift?”
Nicole backed away from the man, uncertain about her feelings, her sense of dread battling with amazement and a fair bit of anxiety. As out of this world as this whole scene was, she had just witnessed something amazing and she was genuinely starting to believe that the man laying on her carpet was, in a sense, Santa Claus.
Hesitantly, she reached with her index finger and touched the snowflake. Surprisingly it wasn’t cold, but rather slightly warm, almost matching her body temperature. She felt something like a hum pulsing through it.
Looking at the man, she saw a weary smile touch his lips. The kind she had seen sometimes as a paramedic, on the face of those rare people who had accepted their fate, for better or worse, and had no regrets. It was a smile who told her a lot and something she couldn’t ignore. She gently held the snowflake and felt its pulse getting attuned to her own breathing. “What do I have to do?”
“Just believe and … remember the … wonder.”
Nicole was about to ask again, but the fluttery feeling suddenly became more intense and didn’t stop. She felt a sense of elation and excitement. She shook like a leaf in the wind and her eyes filled with tears. As her breath got more frantic, she clutched her fingers and the snowflake shattered in a shower of a million white pinpricks of light.
Nicole watched with a hint of worry as the lights floated to the floor. She opened her mouth to speak, but a cold wind suddenly swept up the light and twisted around her body, lifting her from the floor.
The wind howled around Nicole – who tried to move, but couldn’t free herself – but the rest of the room was left mysteriously untouched. As the intensity grew, Nicole felt as if her body was pulled from the extremities and, in a way, it was. She wasn’t especially tall, but she was athletic and long-limbed. As her limbs started stretching and her joints popped, she grew from her usual 5’6” to a full 5’10”. Now she looked comically thin, like a shadow stretched by the sunset light.
The wind got weaker and Nicole’s feet touched the floor again. She stumbled and grabbed the back of the couch to steady her now overstretched form. Aside from the lack of balance, she felt as if she was out of breath and quite light headed. She draw a deep breath and felt the cold wind filling her lungs, making her chest boom like a drum as she gasped.
Other booms followed suit in time with her heartbeat. With each boom her body grew. While she didn’t become any taller, Nicole’s shoulders became wider and more powerful, pushing against the seams of her dark shirt, then her hips got rounder and shapelier. Slowly the rest of her anatomy adapted to her new large-sized proportions, stretching her shirt and skirt, which were now at least a full size too small.
Nicole sneezed a cloud of silver wind and felt the band holding her light chestnut hair in a ponytail snapping. A cascade of immaculate white curls swept across her face. She grabbed them and her eyes were filled with amazement.
A sense of joy filled her and she felt her feet slowly lifting the floor.
“WOOOAAAHHH!” she screamed, as she floated and tumbled midair.
Nicole flapped her arms, steadying herself a bit. Slowly, she stretched her legs and touched the ground with the balls of her feet. She looked down at the old man, who now seemed older, but also much more real and solid. “How-”
The man coughed, but his breathing seemed a bit more regular. “I gave you a gift, how to use it is up to you. Your imagination will shape it.”
Nicole looked at her hands – opening and closing her now longer and bigger fingers – she knew that she had a new responsibility now and that she wasn’t up to it, at least for now. Closing her eyes, she tried to think about what kind of person might take the dark being head on.
As an image formed in her head, Nicole floated again – but this time she didn’t stumble – and calmly breathed another puff of icy cold wind. The cloud swirled around Nicole’s body faster and faster, until her whole form was engulfed by the icy trail and the shape of her clothes started to blur.
A moment later she landed and the cloud disappeared. Her new attire was as far from the sober dark shirt and wool skirt as her current frame was from her old, long-limbed self. Her now muscular calves were encased in a pair of dark red leather boots – reaching a bit over the knee – with medium heels and a white fur trim at the top; the rest of her legs were bare, revealing fantastically shapely thighs. Above that she wore a long-sleeved, tight, red minidress – hemmed with white furs at the wrists. The fabric hugged her so tightly that it revealed every curve and muscle. The top of a Superman styled ‘S’ shield in silver was emblazoned over the expanse of her chest – marking the low neckline, which showing a bit of cleavage. A long, hooded, green cloak – closed with a silver snowflake pin – draped around her shoulders, finishing the look.
The old man eyed her figure and commented wholeheartedly, “That’s different … beautiful … that crest?”
“Well,” Nicole retorted, “I figured that, if I have to be a heroine, I might as well look the part.”
“You … do …”
Nicole watched the old man attentively. Aside for the small change in his hue there were some other details that were different: first of all his shirt was now clean, the bloodstain was gone, which was quite puzzling; even more puzzling was fact that she perceived something emanating from him, like a shimmer. She blinked, but the shimmer was still there, so she tried to focus her vision instead and a wave of memories hit her like a speeding truck. Through her mind’s eye she saw a younger man taking up the mantle the same way she did tonight; she saw countless nights traveling across the sky; she saw joy, regret, love, hate and more and less. She saw a million things which condensed down into one being. She saw a naked soul for the first time.
The feeling were so intense that Nicole’s knees buckled and she dropped to the floor. The old man stumbled to help her. “You … discovered it … useful tool, but it requires… time … to adjust.”
Nicole steadied herself and looked at the old man,. As far as she could tell after her experience he had done nothing but good for many years and she knew what his heart wanted. She extended a hand over his face and gently touched his brows, her eyes shimmered. “Sleep. You’ve done much, now enjoy your rest.”
The old man slowly drifted in a peaceful sleep, dreaming of places long lost and friends never forgotten.
Huffing and puffing, Nicole lifted him up and rested him on the couch. It actually took less of an effort that she expected. He wasn’t light by any mean, but she definitely had to put less effort than expected in moving him.
‘Apparently it’s not all for show …’ she thought while reassesing the strength of her present and much larger frame.
Adjusting her cloak and sliding the hood over her white curls, she marched to the back door and walked out into the night. Once in her fenced backyard she listened for a moment, waiting for the coast to be clear. When she was sure that none would see her, she looked at the sky and felt her feet slowly leaving the ground. Instead of balancing herself or fighting this new sensation, Nicole let it flow freely and, a heartbeat later, she was rocketing through the night sky.
At about 1 Km Nicole stopped her climb and hovered for a moment, the town below her was like a quiet river and each mind was like a cobblestone below the surface, causing some bumps and waves. Some of them were more apparent and attracted her attention. She fixed her gaze on a house in the suburbs and squinted. Her point of view rapidly shifted until she found herself watching a little girl as if she was sitting next to her bedroom. The little girl was turning in her sleep as if she had a nightmare. A tear rolled from under her eyelids and wet the pillow.
Nicole concentrated harder as she tried to discreetly peek the girl’s soul. Powerful feelings of sadness, loss and weariness swept over her. Images of old hands caressing a little girl’s head intertwined with a smell of ginger and wool, and a cackle like rusty door, then a smell of disturbed earth and a sudden thump that whipped it all away as Nicole came back to her senses.
Nicole felt a tear rolling out her own eye as well. The kid had lost her grandmother just a few days ago and hadn’t really coped with her loss yet. Now she cried and had nightmares about losing her other loved ones every night.
With utmost care Nicole’s peered a bit deeper, unearthing other memories about the girl’s grandmother, they looked like old, bleached photos covered in stains. She carefully unfolded them and cleaned them – deleting the stains and breathing new colors into them – before placing them back into the little girl’s dreams.
At first the girl turned forcefully in her sleep but, in a moment, she calmed down and her breathing became more regular.
As a final touch, Nicole placed a open hand in front her mouth and breathed toward the window below. A short stream of tiny snowflakes fluttered down and slipped under the window. They popped in the middle of the room, spreading a faint fragrance of ginger. Nicole took a moment more to admire her handiwork before realizing what she’d just done.
“Why? How did I do that?” she muttered, perplexed by her own actions.
It was a strange, new sensation. Nicole felt in her heart that she had done the right thing, that she had helped the girl. Yet, she couldn’t fathom how she was able to do it. It wasn’t exactly a natural thing, but it wasn’t a foreign feeling either. It was like her ability to empathize had grown to supernatural levels giving her a greater level of insight. With that apparently came the ability to rewire them a bit, she felt – on an instinctual level – that she couldn’t directly alter a person’s thought patterns, just nudging them in a certain direction or leaving some subtle suggestions.
All of this was what she felt, she couldn’t really explain it in plain words. The closest similarity was riding a bike after years of not doing it, everything was new, yet natural to her.
The second realization hit her a moment later, what she did she did just in the short space between two breaths.
‘I’ll deal with this later.’ Nicole decided rather than keep questioning herself. Silently she floated away and looked for other ripples across the city.
A new one was fairly close, just a block away, but felt different for some reason. Nicole floated in that direction and let her new sense take over. Again her view shifted forward and she found herself watching a boy in his sleep. He looked about 11 or 12 and rather tall for his age, greasy chestnut hair and a slim profile.
Nicole felt a sort of disgust at the idea of touching his soul, the same kind she would feel at touching a mop of sweaty hair, but she did it anyway. The kid’s soul felt like a squirt of lemon juice in the eye: stingy, acrid, a bit painful, but ultimately innocuous. Simply put, he was a bully and he enjoyed it.
Nicole pinched her nose, as if she had to go deep-diving, and went a bit further. Having an early growth spurt made him uncomfortable among his classmates and made him prone to answer with his fists instead of his brain. Now, what started as an emotional response had become an encroached habit that the kid was learning to enjoy.
Nicole had a fit of rage and fought the urge to swoop down to spank the kid as hard as she could. Instead, she prowled into his memories and picked some fragments to fashion him a little nightmare to help understand what he was really doing.
‘I’m very sorry, but when it’s necessary it’s necessary, needs must.’ she thought, ‘I hope this lump of coal isn’t too much for you.’
The kid’s dream started to twist and turn in weird ways. At first he felt something next to him. His vision was blurred, but he felt the presence under him, or maybe it was above. He felt his arm raising and dropping and each time his face exploded in pain as if someone was punching him. He opened his eyes and saw his own fist smacking his face again and again. He tried to stop, but just couldn’t and the pain kept going.
Nicole silently stepped in, hid herself behind the beating-self of the kid and whispered: “I know it’s painful, but you can stop it.”
“How?” came the answer sounding half a road and half a cry.
“Just will it.”
The arm rose one more time, but never dropped, instead remained in midair trembling and the pain dulled a bit.
Nicole took the fist in her own hand with a rather firm grip and pried open the finger. The kid looked at his own hand like a foreign thing before extending it to the beaten-self, who hesitantly took it.
Nicole slipped away before the kid woke up in a drenched bed.
Galvanized by these first two experiences Nicole picked a few more ripples around. Most of times she genuinely tried to be nice, but she didn’t spare the rod when needed.
While doing this she realized that it would take her forever just to fix this city – even at the astonishing speed she seemed capable of – not to mention the whole world. As she was about to try to find a solution a really big ripple caught her eye.
It emanated from a tall skyscraper in the middle of downtown, all the way up to the top of the building. Nicole’s sight covered the distance in a blink and saw a short man, with a head of rust colored hair and a security guard uniform tenuously balancing at the top of the building, a bottle of Black Label was sitting next to him. Frantically, Nicole rushed and careened into his soul and what she saw hit her like a ton of bricks.
He wasn’t a bad man – matter of fact, he was one of most selfless human beings she would ever encounter – just a tragically unhappy one. All his life he kept giving and giving, never taking a minute for himself, always putting other’s priorities over his own. He was just spent, years of giving had starved his soul, leaving him craving for love and someone capable of returning his love and care. As he looked down into the abyss, he was fairly certain that no one would even notice his disappearance.
As he crept closer and closer to the edge, Nicole had little time to think. In a rush, she zipped at full speed toward the building. In less than a second she was right in front of the jumper with her cloak draped around her.
As the man was about to let himself go, he saw a figure materialize out of nowhere and hover toward him. Among the mists of alcohol he couldn’t distinguish much, all he saw was a dark-robed figure with a pale visage. His eye became wide with surprise, he never really believed to angels, spirit and all that stuff, but he was scarred nonetheless.
“S … Sta … Stay back!” he slurred, “I … I kn … know you’re here for me.”
Nicole gave him a puzzled look, even without probing his mind it was obvious that this man was scared to death. She tried to play along, “I’m not here for you. You can say that I’m here because of you.”
The man gulped down. “So this is it. The last moment.”
Nicole was about to reply when the realization hit her: this man thought she was the grim reaper, or something like that. Not exactly a good position for her to talk him out of jumping. “Only if you wish.” she answered, regretting her choice of words as they came out.
The man started shuddering violently, while the unreality of the situation slowly crept in his mind. Nicole took the occasion to probe into his mind, there was little time for finesse, so she yanked the first trigger she could find in his soul.
For a split second the man’s vision got crystal clear and he saw the abyss in front of him with perfect clarity. The trick scared his self-preservation instinct and he froze, just as his toes were sliding over the edge. Unfortunately, his sudden stop made him lose his balance and he fell.
A scream had barely escaped his lips before Nicole sped towards him. Matching his falling speed, she wrapped her arms around him and pulled herself up, making a midair ‘U’ turn. Even with all her care, Nicole felt the man’s momentum yanking her shoulder joints violently and she barely kept herself from shouting a curse. She floated back up, with the man – sobered up by the adrenaline – shivering in her arms and landed him on the roof behind the balustrade.
“What now?” she asked, while gritting her teeth, thanks to the pain in her shoulders.
“I WANNA LIVE!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, while crying like a baby.
Nicole pondered what to do. She could tell right off the batch that he wanted to live, not just survive. He wished for something fulfilling, but had no idea how to get it. Many years before she had been in a similar spot, just before Robert bumbled into her lif-
Perhaps she knew what to do, but she could tell that it wasn’t going to be easy.
Taking a few deep breaths, Nicole concentrated hard on her new senses. It was kind of strange, the act was familiar – like focusing to pick a specific noise in cacophony – but the sensations it evoked were alien to her.
The feelings hit her like a speeding train, around her there was a raging storm of souls that threatened to swallow her whole. Gritting her teeth, Nicole struggled to maintain her conscience separated from the rest. Phantasmal finger brushed across her mind’s eye, voices called to her in hushed tones, blots of inky blackness flew toward her at astonishing speed. Nicole knew that on the roof her body was screaming, but there was no sound where her mind was. Yet, the scream gave her something to home to. As rough as it was, it was more solid than the cacophony around her, Nicole mustered every bit of will she could and roared: “SHUT UP!”
Strangely enough it worked, giving her some kind of stability, the storm calmed down becoming more similar to a thick snowfall.
As she pushed herself across town she briefly brushed across tens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of souls, each one with its own beauty and ugliness, each different and unique in its own way each one frail yet defiant. Like snowflakes. One little snowflake was sitting at the counter of a small movie theater across town – just waiting for the time to pass, while the people inside enjoyed the their Christmas movie – and, like the man on the roof, was alone this night.
Nicole knew she couldn’t simply put them together, but did the next best thing. She probed them both and planted, as subtly as possible, a hint in both of them to go to a certain place the next morning to get breakfast and an even subtler hint to look for each other. While she had no way to know if this will work, there’s was nothing more she could do, except being there to watch.
While the man wobbly walked back inside, Nicole took her leave and floated higher and higher. Pushing herself like she just did was taxing, but she pondered that perhaps it was the right way to do things. Still she needed to figure how far she could stretch before breaking. For a long moment she wished she had some kind of safety net, she really wished that Robert was there to catch her. It was the nature of their relationship somehow, they kept falling and helping each other to get back on their feet over and over again, but this time she was alone and that scared her.
‘Duty calls …’ she thought, ‘The old man trusted me with this, I hope he was right …’
Balancing herself in midair, Nicole and ‘sat’ cross-legged, trying to relax she started slowing her breath and tried to send – for lack of a better term – her awareness outside of her body. The detachment was far less traumatic, the river was still raging around her but her ‘footing’ was more solid. She was managing to keep her mind steady among the whirlpools and currents of feeling, hopes and regrets around her. She stretched herself farther and farther brushing across the sleeping city. Many souls she encountered just needed a slight nudge one way, a little dusting over some old memories or a tiny push to overcome a moment of weakness. Others required a more personal touch, like providing a small nightmare to an absent mother and a spoiled daughter, to push the two a bit closer to each other; or giving an old man the will and strength to fight his illness a little longer, so that he could see his grandchildren once more.
Nicole extended more and more. Her mental image became long and thin, like a shadow at sunset, but the more she stretched, the more comfortable she felt. She had a gut feeling that she was doing the right thing and she relaxed, until her leg swiped against something cold, wet and somewhat slimy. Nicole sprung back and twisted upon herself like a weird origami looking down along her leg. A black spot – like those she dodged before – and was clinging to her boot and it radiated cold, in the ethereal atmosphere the blackness seemed strangely solid and menacing. Before Nicole could reach to remove she heard – or rather sensed – something incoming at high speed: another black blot aimed at her.
Nicole twisted her mental form and narrowly avoided the incoming projectile but, before she could react again, it looped and came back for her. The blot hit her in the shoulder and spun her outstretched figure out of shape, like a twisted roll of paper. Nicole didn’t feel pain, but rather cold, icy cold that cut through her skin and into the bones, chilling out the pain in the process. Her leg was already dull and as heavy as lead and her shoulder felt it would soon follow, but there was no time for that: more blots flew toward Nicole from multiple angles. Fearing for her life Nicole curled into a ball and, in doing so, her mental self spring back to her original size. The blots whizzed past her, but looped around and came back for her. Scared Nicole tried to flew away as fast as she could and the blots followed her. She pushed herself further and further, but the blots followed her matching she speed. Below her, she felt the disturbance caused by her wake; somewhere in the real world dogs howled and cat hissed at empty sky, while icy cold nightmares slither in kids’ bedrooms.
Nicole kept pushing, in spite of her weighted down leg and shoulder, but to no avail, it was like she was stuck in one spot and the blot crept closer and closer. Eventually they started to coalesce in a bigger mass a tidal wave of darkness that swept across the mindscape and loomed over Nicole. Unable to move she did the only thing she – in her inexperience – didn’t think of and dropped out of the mindscape.
Back in her physical body Nicole was about to do a quick check of her shoulder and leg when the moonlight was abruptly cut from her. She looked up with her eyes wide and saw the dark tidal wave still looming. In the physical world it was even more terrifying, its darkness wasn’t just the lack of light, it was more like a void that devoured the light around it. Yet, something looked different about it – perhaps it was just the physicality of it that made it less scary.
Nicole mustered her courage and turned to face it. The tidal wave was still there, but it was immobile as if it was studying her. Nicole pulled the green cape closer around her shoulder, over the last hour or so the freezing temperature didn’t bother her, but now she was shivering.
Before she had time to think what to do the darkness leashed out to her, thick tendrils of black shot from several points of the wave and twisted in a net around Nicole. An adrenaline fueled reaction saved her and she zipped through a small opening in the middle of the net. Other tendrils flew out and reaching for her arms and legs, Nicole twisted in midair, trying to keep them away from her. Again, others appeared out of the blue and Nicole narrowly avoided them by abruptly changing direction.
The weird dance went on and Nicole felt her body burning with the effort of keeping both her reflexes and speed so heightened. But with effort came something of unexpected, she started to notice a pattern. The tendrils were drawing her in a precise direction toward the body of the thing. Taking advantage of this knowledge Nicole sprint through the next opening and gave a sharp turn as soon as she was clear. The thing didn’t react in time and Nicole was finally free. She went into a nosedive and tried to lose it. The darkness dragged behind her at the apparently slow pace of a lava flow.
Trying to get breathing room, Nicole zipped through the city ducking into secondary alleys and using buildings as cover. No matter how far she moved the darkness crept behind her at a steady pace. Resting behind a corner Nicole peeked at her opponent, trying to figure out what to do and what she saw chilled her bones for good. A horde of people marched at the forefront of the darkness. They were as varied as possible, youngsters and old timers, rich and poor, but all had the same expression, one of infinite loneliness, craving for a human contact, but scared of it at the same time. The emotional wave swept over Nicole and she felt the need to puke and then to go and hug every one of them to tell them things were going to be alright. Realization dawned on her … perhaps it was all very simple: what she had done all night was reaching out to people, making them remember, feel, what being together was about, what if the darkness was something like … like her contrary? Nicole squared her shoulders and got ready, she flew out of the corner at a moderate speed with her hands together in front of her face like she was praying.
The horde marched forward, apparently oblivious to her presence as they were of each other. Nicole focused and kept rubbing her hands together, she felt a small build up, like electricity jumping between her fingertips. She had a rough idea of what she wished to do, it was like a concentrated version of her touching the minds from before. It was a long shot, but Nicole felt like betting on it.
The horde marched forward and Nicole kept building up the energy between her hands.
The horde marched forward and Nicole felt like something was pushing to escape.
The horde was a few step from her and Nicole opened her hands and tossed the energy in front of her.
There was no sound, just a quiet blast of icy blue light that swept the street and kept going. Miles away a man sitting in his car in front of his parents’ home suddenly took courage and walked to the door to deliver an ‘I’m sorry’ that had been ten years coming. The people stopped and many blinked like they just had a sudden wake up call. The faces grew relaxed and many looked around, glimpses of recognizing sparked around as many of the realized that they were out in the street alongside friends, families but had no recollection of they got there. None seemed to notice either Nicole, nor the tower of darkness behind them. Thinking back to this later Nicole would realized that they probably couldn’t see her unless she wished so, but at the moment something else caught her attention: when the blast touched it the darkness became translucent for a second and Nicole saw something at the heart of it.
Seizing the only window of opportunity she got so far Nicole launched herself as fast as she could into the heart of darkness. The tendrils rose around her and – on instinct alone – Nicole puffed at them. Her breath chilled the air and somehow even the darkness for a second and she plunged into the heart of it.
It was terrible, the substance around her was thick, murky and icy.
Nicole felt her limbs going still as if they were flash-frozen, but she pushed on.
Darkness clogged her throat, but she pushed on.
Tiny icy needles pierced her eyeballs, but she was already there. She hit something solid in the whole mass and pushed against it with all her weight, across the darkness into the pale moonlight.
As her body started to recover, Nicole climbed up into the sky dragging the heart of darkness with her. At the top of her climb she stopped and pulled it in front of her. Her eyes widened and her her mouth stood open as she gazed upon a small child. His body looked no older than four or five, but his gaze was older than the mountains.
All Nicole could mutter was a faint: “Why?”
There was no verbal answer, but blurred feelings swept over Nicole and she shook from the weight of them.
Tears rolled out of her eyes as a time lost tragedy played around her eyes and an injustice so great was perpetrated once again through memories that she felt ashamed for the entire humanity. What made the tragedy all the more unfair was that there was no one to make it right back then, people with the power to make it right – like the old man and now her – would come later, after the damage was already done.
Without a second thought Nicole hugged the small dark form, she tried to speak, but the words were frozen in her throat. She felt tears rolling down her cheeks and her arms going numb from the cold radiated by the dark child, but she didn’t care. All she knew was that the old man was wrong when he said that this was his nemesis, this was just a lone child looking for some love.
Nicole tried to figure out a way to fix this, but to no avail. The deed was done and there was no way for her to undo it, but … perhaps … she could still mitigate it. Looking down in the streets she saw a puddle of the black stuff that once encased the child and had a wild idea.
“Wait here.” she whispered, before zipping down and returning with a handful of black sludge.
It felt horrible in her hands, it wasn’t what she would ever call living, but it was alive nonetheless, which made it perfect for what she had in mind. One tear dropped in her hands and mixed with the black sludge, she closed her eyes and called forth memories from her childhood. Flappy ears. A wet nose. Big, dark eyes filled with love.
A faint yap made her jump and a little black and white furball curled in her hands.
The dark child looked at the puppy with eyes wide with curiosity and the small pet sniffed him response. A lap to the child nose seemed all the introduction that they needed. The child put his hands forward and Nicole passed the puppy to him smiling, no words were needed.
As the child hugged the furball, Nicole tried to make her exit, but she felt a tug at her cape. The child looked at her with anticipation. Nicole’s heart was about to melt: “I’m sorry can’t stay, I have a job to finish.”
The child’s eyes darkened.
“I would love to stay, but I can’t.” Nicole stroke the pet’s head, “But he would stay. You don’t have to be alone anymore.”
He let her go and Nicole slowly floated away trying not to look back.
Hours later a faint gray tint touched the eastern sky and Nicole landed in her backyard. She was tired, but satisfied. She was sure that she had done something good tonight and, maybe, one day she would remember some of these people when it would be her time to pass the torch. She walked into the living room and noticed that the old man was gone, a small note – written in an elaborate cursive – on the table was the only sign.
I know that you would do good. Perhaps more than I ever did.
I know it is selfish, but after so many centuries of service, I do not think that my old bones can take it anymore.
Still I believe I still have one last gift to give. For you, but not just for you.
As Nicole read the last line, she felt the fatigue from the night hitting her like a ton of bricks, she sat down on the couch and closed her eyes: “Just five minutes” she mumbled to herself, before snoozing away. A gentle breeze washed over her, wiping away her costume in a shower of icy crystals, while her body shrank back to her original form.
A knock at the front door woke her up. Nicole had no idea how long she had slept, but outside the horizon was ablaze with red light. She opened the door and blinked at the familiar man in front of her.
“Hi Beastie.” Robert greeted her with a grin. The light made him look taller and thinner than he actually was. He was still wearing his military fatigues and had three days worth of beard and even his buzzcut looked somewhat messy.
Nicole jumped him and kissed straight on the mouth. After a moment she broke off and gave him a playful punch in the arm. “How are you here? You know what: I don’t care! You didn’t call me, so you don’t deserve that kiss! I’m taking it back!” she blurted out before kissing him again.
An hour later they were sitting in the living room. Robert had time to shower and shave, while Nicole had recovered what was left of the roast.
“I’m sorry about that, I had a … interesting night.”
Robert didn’t look at the food and took Nicole’s hand. “No problem, but I have something to tell you.” They sat on the couch.
“First I have to break one rule with this. That one rule.” Robert said with his eyes low and fiddling with his smartphone.
Nicole didn’t answer, but her breath started to be very erratic. There was only one argument that was forbidden between them: children. Nicole was barren ever since she underwent surgery to remove a uterine cancer years before.
“It was during last patrol … we met this dog and it lead us to a house, it was in ruins and … the kid …” Robert tried to recap without much success, “Okay, long story short. I don’t know what came over me, but I got attached to this kid and, if you’re okay, I would like to adopt him.”
He gave her the smartphone.
Nicole only needed one look at it and knew that there was only one answer, she knew the look in the kid’s eyes – older than the mountains, yet full of wonder – and she knew the dog too.
A few hours earlier an old man in a red fur coat quietly entered a soup kitchen.
A young man with sideburns – who seemed to have both African and Caucasian blood – gave him a weird look, he didn’t recall him, but wasn’t going to shoo him on Christmas. He served the old man without asking much.
“Thanks Andy. You are really doing some good here.” the old man answered.
Andy blinked as a half-forgotten memory flashed across his mind.
The old man sat and eat with gusto.
Andy sat next to him: “How do you know me?”
The old man smiled: “It is a long story. A story for another time, right now I would like to sleep. I feel like I have not slept in centuries.”
He leant against the wall and was soon snoozing.
Andy let him sleep.