Graying the Lines

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Chapter 1

Submitted: June 28, 2018

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Comments: 4

A A A | A A A

Submitted: June 28, 2018

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Chapter 1


 

It was eerie in a way but so beautiful. I listened to the wind call my name as I lay in the grass beneath the oldest willow. The branches were so full that they hung and brushed the ground, creating a secret space among them, known only to those who, like me, have a tendency to let their curiosity get the better of them. A trait “good” white angels were not supposed to have. I considered that as I gazed down into the pool. On the surface, it lay calm and still, and for most, I imagined, the reflection of the sky behind them would be enough to hold their attention. For so many, it was a reflection of the most common beauty that lies around them. But those people would have been deceived. There was a whole new world beneath the ripples when you paid attention. Beneath the surface, I eventually discovered, plays a flickering scene of the hustle and bustle of life on Earth. The swirling image is always changing. One minute it could be a man, drinking himself to death over a heartache, or a woman, selling herself for drugs on a street corner, hoping not to be judged. Scenes from Earth, of people who might need an Angel to kick them back into shape. It sobered me, watching these people, made me sad I supposed. But it also fascinated me. These people, these lives, they were so full. They had every opportunity and the whole world to explore. How did they come to be so lost?

 

As white angels, we’re supposed to jump at the chance to help these “poor souls.” My father used to talk about his days as a Dispatch Angel. He used to brag about the people he’d found, turned around, and made their lives oh so much better. That was the job anyway, finding people who had “strayed from God” and guiding them back. He wouldn’t admit to it sober but sometimes if he’d been drinking he would speak of some of the ways he would “guide” these people. Some of them were stubborn, needed a “special kind of guidance.” Some of them, by the pieces I’d put together, he’d guided right off the side of a cliff. That was around the time I made a point to avoid him when he drank.

 

"LANI MARIE PETERSON, I SWEAR, IF YOU ARE IN THAT GARDEN AGAIN!"

 

"Oh, shoot!" I shot up as the panic hit. I was supposed to be in training. I hoisted myself off the ground and trotted away as my father yelled again.

 

"DON'T MAKE ME COME IN THERE AFTER YOU, LANI!"

 

I shook my wings out and took off for the gap in the back corner of the cement that encompassed the garden. My father would be at the front gate, and although it was always locked it was still forbidden to linger near it. The rules surrounding my secret escape were tighter than most, and as you will find out shortly, white angels have always been big fans of The Rules.

 

As soon as I was in the clear I kicked off the ground and flew low towards the School.

 

"There you are!" Maria, exclaimed as I stepped through the door and sat between her and Isaac in the small and very bright room our classes were held. "I was starting to worry you’d gotten the rosary again." She lowered her voice enough for the rest of the class to miss it.

"I might when I get home." I sighed, trying to catch my breath. "But he can't do anything to me while I'm in school at least."

 

"Maybe," Maria nodded. "But you should stay with me tonight, my parents will be away." Maria was a tall wisp of a girl, with dark hair, that made her bright caramel eyes stand out even more. I admired her eyes. They always made my mossy green ones look dull in comparison. She was one of the kindest, most understanding people I knew.

 

“Thanks,” I gave her a small smile before changing the subject. "So what did I miss? I turned to ask Isaac. He shook his head.

 

"Nothing much so far. They've just turned on the SimClouds. Haven't even started to explain it yet."

 

Isaac was the complete opposite of Maria. He was big and bulky with dark skin and an intimidating gaze. But he was always gentle. He wouldn't hurt a fly unless it put someone he cared for in danger.

 

The door to the classroom banged open as the AIT Instructor strolled in. The light chatter of teenagers puttered out as he looked around. His eyes landed on mine. I tried to look away but he caught me before I had the chance.

 

"Lani," a tight-lippedgrin cracked his face. I had to force my feathers not to rise. "So glad to see you've made it here okay." I commanded myself to nod back. "I understand that people are late sometimes but let's not make a habit of it, alright?" He spoke to the class.

 

“Yes, Mr. Peterson,” the class chorused back.

My father, Marcus Peterson, is the head of the AIT program. Which means I get, absolutely. No. Break.

 

He cleared his throat and resettled his feathers, placing them in their neat, high-folded place. "So. As I’m sure you are already aware, today is a very important day, and for most of you, will be your last in this classroom." Now the already quiet air in the room became cold with nervousness. "This is a serious matter," He continued. "Today you will be tested on your sense of right from wrong, your ability to judge a situation and act accordingly, and your ability to resist the many temptations one is faced with on Earth. This test will show us whether or not you’ve learned anything in your time here,” He looked at a select few of us sharply. “Those of you wishing to be Dispatch Angels, today will make or break you.” The room had gone still. “Each of you will go through three different scenarios." His eyes scanned the room as he paced. "And in each, you will be put up against yourself, your fears, and your knowledge of good and evil, to do what you have been taught is right and lead the humans in your charge to make the right decision. Regardless of what they might say to the contrary." He stopped pacing at this moment and looked straight at Isaac, just as he blew a bubble with his gum. Bad decision. It made a loud pop and everyone's attention turned to the layer of pink across his lips and jaw.

 

A look of complete and total terror took over his face. He sat there, still as death, as if he thought if he sat still enough he could disappear. I knew I certainly wanted to.

 

"Mr. Clayton," he said.

 

"Yes Professor?" Isaac mumbled through the sheet of gum.

 

"You are aware of our policy on gum in Classes. It is quite simple." Isaac still hadn't pulled the gum off of his lips. "You do know our policy, correct?" Isaac nodded. Mr. Peterson continued to walk towards the desk that Isaac, Maria and I shared. His wings shook nervously. I laid a hand on the back of his wing to steady him. The professor, on the other hand, was steady as a rock.

 

"Well," he said to Isaac. "Do it then."

 

Isaac looked around nervously.

 

"Swallow it! I will not have it polluting my classroom." My dad looked at him intently. Isaac took a deep breath and gulped. My hand went to my throat. I hated when he made people do that. And though my dad was feel very small.

 

"Very well." The professor coughed once, shuffling his wings as he turned to walk back to the front of the class to continue his introduction to the SimCloud. It didn't need much of an introduction.

 

 

When the simulations started, people quickly forgot about Isaac’s incident. The tests were the only things we could think about now. You’re not supposed to talk about it but if you’re lucky you can coerce some of the graduates to tell you a thing or two. They put you inside a room made entirely of screens and projected images.  You’re told to navigate each simulation correctly to move on to the next one. Make a mistake, and your trial ends there. There are no redos.

 

One by one we were entered into the system, our names and our parent’s status and job. And one by one I watched pairs of wings disappear through a curtain into the Cloud. Were told that the AIT instructors watch you on a laptop connected to cameras on the inside, although they keep that very hush-hush. Technology isn’t typically allowed in the Realm. It’s only a distraction from our proper duties. This room is also the most advanced technology our mostly electronic-free realm contains. The Elders don’t like it to be public knowledge, but most students know it was the humans who created this technology first. It may have something to do with why we use so little of it.

 

I sat next to Maria in a blindingly bright room behind the curtain, watching the instructors flit about, calling off names and checking people off their lists. We’d been told that the Elders would be coming to observe secretly and everyone around me looked nervous. The Elders, also known as the Archangels, were the angels in charge of the realm and keeping things in order, other than being the most powerful angels in rumor. That tends to leave children and adults shaken.

 

The only place to sit in the waiting room were two large wooden benches on either wall that resembled church pews. The kind with rough, grainy wood that scratched the back of your knees as you sat down and caught on the bottom of your dress as you stood up. The wood had been painted a dark shade of brown, and they were the only dark thing about the room. It had no windows but bright white lights covering every surface. The ceiling was made of them, so many you could not look up without seeing little, colored spots in front of your eyes. They hung from the walls, spaced evenly, not one of them a single inch off. Even the white tiled floor seemed to be emanating light. I felt like I’d been put under a microscope.

 

Those who could, sat on the rough benches, wringing their fingers or twirling their hair. My stomach seemed to be angry with me too, but surely not for the same reasons. Because the simulations were due to last all day, you were sent home after you completed them. My father would be waiting there to scorn me. I shuddered and bent my wings forward to try to cover the little pink patches underneath my feathers. Every young angel knew what that meant, though most pretended not to and wouldn’t be kind to one speaking of it. When one of us stepped out of line, however that may be, it was the parent’s job to rip feathers from our wings as they see fit. Some of them, it seemed, took much pleasure in this.

 

"I bet Teresa doesn't have any of those," Maria scowled, rubbing at one of her own. I tucked my wings behind my shoulder blades and lifted my head.

 

"Does Teresa even know what punishment is?" I forced a lighter tone. Teresa Palmer was a spoiled brat. Her mother was one of the better-known Dispatch Angels, one with the highest number of “rescued souls,” as the Realm called them. Her father had an important job up in government, "working for the Elders,” she used to say. But no one worked directly under the Elders anymore. They hadn’t been seen by anyone in years.

 

But Teresa was the kind of girl who took everything too seriously, never allowed herself, or anyone around her to make mistakes. Other than that, she was stubborn about the rules and talked down to her peers for making any kind of indiscretion. We used to be friends too, my father thought she’d be a good influence on me. But she shunned me the first time she saw the pink of my wings and pretended not to notice me since. She always wore her thin brown hair, up in a bun, because she thought it vain otherwise. Her khaki skirt covered her legs down to her shins and her blouse was always fastened to her neck. Her parents were just the same and took it upon themselves to correct anyone who thought differently.

 

"Peterson?" A grey-haired, instructor with a clipboard, came through the curtain as he called my name.

 

I shouldn’t care so much, I mostly complained about the whole training program. But I found it suddenly difficult to breathe. This test was pass or fail, a one time gig. If I fail and I lose my place in the program and I’d never be able to leave the Upper Realm. I’d have to work as a sorter in the Realm’s never-ending library. Or worse.

I rose in slow motion, pushing air out of my lungs. Maria gave me a comforting pat on the wing and a "good luck" grin.

 

I was ushered through the curtains.

 

The simulation room was the complete opposite of its antechamber. Immediately the darkness swallowed everything and I could barely see my own wings at my sides. My feathers stiffened as a voice crackled overhead.

 

"Lani, can you hear my voice?" it asked. I gulped and nodded.

 

"Yes, I can hear you."

 

"Good." He cleared his throat to continue, a heavy boredom in his voice. "I'm sure you know how this works. You will be put into three different simulations consisting of one or more persons in need of your guidance. You must discern the right path and guide each person towards it. Remember, you do not pass on to the next phase if you cannot convince your charge to do the right thing, or if you, yourself, do not perform the necessary actions. If any of your charges or yourself choose poorly, that is an immediate fail, understood?" If I were less nervous I would have rolled my eyes.

 

They make everything sound so clean here, they pick each word so carefully.

“Understood,” I confirmed.

 

"Good. Let's begin."

 

I had to cover my face from the lights that flashed before my eyes. When they adjusted, I looked around. I stood in an Elementary school playground. Boys played basketball and girls sang schoolyard rhymes while jumping rope. Everything looked perfectly normal, as normal as human customs could be anyway. Then I turned around.

 

"Get out of my way, ass-hole."

 

"Yeah, get out of his way fucker."

 

"You're such a faggot!"

 

A small boy stood nearly swallowed by his book bag, underneath a basketball hoop. Three larger boys stood around him, pushing him back and forth between them. His glasses fell to the pavement but thankfully didn't break.

 

Swearing was, of course, frowned upon where I come from. Our teachers told us using violent language was a gateway to violent behavior, especially when directed at another individual. It’s funny, some of the things they teach you here, no one cares about this rule behind closed doors.

 

I walked up to the group and picked up the boy’s glasses, handing them to him and stepping in between the kid and his pursuers.

 

"Hey! Give the kid a break," I said to the boy in front. I was taller than the three of them but they were heavy and lumbering.

 

"Yeah?" he sneered back. "And what are you going to do about it?" I tried not to let myself be baited by his response. I knew what I was seeing was only a simulation, but I found myself affected by the scene, nonetheless. While the four boys before me weren’t real, the anger I immediately felt towards the bullies most definitely was.  

"He didn't do anything to you, go pick on someone your own size." I ignored his goading and repeated the language we’d been taught to use. Clearly, this particular phrase had no effect.

 

The tallest boy looked at me and scoffed. "Yeah, like I haven't heard that one before!"

I tried not to be swayed. "Maybe,” I gave him that. I took a breath and set my head on straight. “But don't think that means you’ve won.”  I sat back on my hip and crossed my arms. His beady eyes and cocky attitude irritated me more than I expected it to. I would have to try something of my own now. I leaned forward to look him in the eye. "Just because you were picked on when you were his age, most likely because you were self-conscious about your weight. . ." I noted, pausing to let it sink in. The boy tried to hide his obvious shock. "That doesn't make it okay to pick on people smaller than you. I'm sure you can find other ways to deal with your insecurities. Try an anger management class on for size." It shouldn’t have given me this much satisfaction to see the look of shock on his face. As angels, we are instructed to contain our emotions at all times, but it was so rare I was allowed to fight back. I would admonish myself for enjoying this later.

 

The boy in front was silent but his friends were less so. They did their best to stifle their laughter. I decided I'd have a little more fun while I could.

 

"What?" I looked at the two of them. "You think this is funny? Don't laugh at other people’s expense. That makes you no better than he is." Not expecting to be turned on, that shut the two other boys up a bit. I wasn’t sure where this was going if it would escalate. They were all silent for what seemed far too long before one of the gangly boys spoke again.

 

"Dude, maybe we should just go. It's not fun anymore," the shorter of the two said to the boy in front.

 

He took one last look at the kid with the glasses and said; "You got lucky this time but don't expect it again. You have to learn how to stick up for yours-" before he could finish his thought, the scene went black.

 

When the lights flashed on again I stood in a dimly lit hospital room. There were no sounds except for the eerie beep of the heart monitor and the barely audible, shallow breathing of an ancient woman lying on a in the middle of the room. There were IVs connected to her arms, and air tubes in her nose. I could tell by the level of the apple-juice in a cup on the bedside table that it hadn't yet been touched.

 

I took a step towards the bed on unsteady legs, guessing at what was to come. The monitor went flat and the body on the bed twitched once and was still. I stood still for a moment, waiting.

 

"Tha- that's me," I heard a clear voice from behind me. I turned. The woman stood by the foot of the bed, looking down at her own body in shock. Without all of the IV cords and oxygen pipes attached to her she really was lovely.

 

Then she looked at me. "Are you my Angel then?" She asked me.

 

It surprised me for a moment, then I remembered being told some of the things the humans believed about us. That we were their protectors and would come to bring them to Heaven, was a common one. We’d been taught in these situations that it was important to keep appearances. "Yes. I am," I said to her. Her shocked expression softened a bit. She slowly walked towards me and steadily took hold of my arm. I tried not to flinch, tried not to pull away, but the unusually tight grip she had and the “not quite real” feel of her hands rattled me.

 

"Are you here to guide me into the beyond?" She asked me, her eyes round with innocent wonder. I didn't understand the reverence in which humans talked about the afterlife. Sometimes if you live a good, full life, God supposedly welcomes you to join us in His world or become an angel yourself. So they say anyway. I've never seen it happen. Those humans who don't become angels, they exist only in an alternate reality, inaccessible to angels as well as live humans. And there’s nothing special about it. No golden gates, no rubies or pearls. No nothing. Nothing changes, except now you’re dead.

 

"Of course," I said slowly, putting as much comfort and kindness into my voice as I could force. They look up to us, idolize us. It is important to them for us to keep that image. I looked around for the door that was supposed to mark the presence of death. I could not now or ever enter such a door. Angels were not permitted to pass on. Our government always had told us it was dangerous. It was unknown and no one has ever gone through to the other side and come back successfully, and all of that crap. But I had another notion about that rule. Even when I was a fledgling I was aware of the taboo of peeking behind the curtain.

 

"There," I pointed to a wall where a grey-green door had appeared a moment before. I could tell it was the one. A dull, white, glow, pulsated from underneath it and from behind the hinges.

 

Her face turned to the door, but her grip on my arm didn't loosen. She started to walk towards the door. I felt the urge to go with her, to see just what was behind that door for this poor, sweet, old lady. But I had to remember I was being watched.

 

"Oh, um, I'm sorry, I can't go through with you," I explain hesitantly. She looked up at me, frowning. I remembered what the AIT instructors had said about humans passing over. The “great beyond” could be a scary concept for them. "But you will be fine. This is your door. It was meant only for you to provide a safe passage to the other side." Those weren't really my words. They were what the instructors had taught us to say. It didn't taste quite right on my tongue. The words were too stiff, so disingenuine.

 

"Oh, okay then." She nodded slowly, taking a deep breath. She approached the door. I watched as she turned to look at me, at her "Guardian Angel" one last time. Ever so slowly, she turned the knob. The dull glow became a more blinding light. It did look just like how it was always described in the books, in the stories. But something was off. I could almost see it behind the glow as she let the door swing wide. I should have stayed where I was. I should have kept a straight face, for the cameras at least, if not for the woman in front of me I was supposed to be taking care of. But I couldn't help it. Curiosity got the better of me. I stepped forward towards the door and peered inside. I was about to warn the woman of whatever it was that I saw, a shadow of some kind, but before I could she stepped over the threshold and it slammed closed inches from my face. The room went black again.

 

When the lights went on once more, for the third and last time the scene was already bright with sunlight. I stood outside of a tattoo parlor in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a busy city, and right in between two giggly-giddy 19-year-old girls.

"Come on, Lani!" One of the girls turned to me. I didn't recognize her but I assumed for the purpose of the simulation she was supposed to be my friend. "Let's go! I'm so excited we are finally getting tattoos!"

 

It was often spoken of as a sin to permanently mark or damage the skin God gave you. This was something every dispatch angel had stories of. At least once or twice in your career you’d be tasked with preaching this lesson to a “rebellious” human. Based on their stories, the easiest way to this was to tell about the beauty they already had. They would use long and delicate words to flatter them, to convince them that this kind of colored scarring was not worth the price. I’d seen pictures in our textbooks of the kinds of tattoos humans got. I used to blush at the crude drawings of half-naked ’ arms, or the provocative quotes and pictures of the devil on a woman’s shoulder or back side. I had wondered why anyone would even want something like that printed on their body, it seemed so pointless.

 

My first thought was that this should be an easy test. I didn’t realize how wrong I would be. Wordlessly, I followed the girls as they pulled me inside. The lobby was spotted with a few random teens and young adults, flipping through booklets or talking to men and women of all shapes, sizes, and designs, balancing sketch pads on their knees or hips.

 

"Oh, my gosh! Look at this tiger!" The other girl in my group exclaimed. "If I got this on my arm then Adam Levine and I could have matching tattoos!" She clapped her hands together dreamily. Adam who?

 

"Which one are you gonna get?" She asked excitedly. I knew somewhere what I was supposed to do. I should start telling her to leave, that this was wrong, that she should never mark up her body like this. But the words were stuck deep in my throat. The more I looked around the tiny shop, the more I forgot what I was here for. I was awestruck by the drawings covering the walls. All this color, all this beauty. All this art. I’d never seen anything like it.

 

I found my voice before I knew what I was saying. "I like this one," I said pointing to the picture of the hand tattoos on one of the first couple of pages of the binder she’d picked up. This particular tattoo was of a rose that bloomed on the first knuckle of the thumb and spiralled downwards, tracing itself into patterns along the finger as it wrapped itself up and came to rest in a swirl on the inner pad of the thumb. I liked the motion it had, it almost looked like the stem itself was moving.

 

By this time I had completely forgotten I was in a simulation. I was entranced by all of the artwork I saw around me. Everything at home was so white, so plain, and this was mesmerizing.

 

"Well, come on then!" The girl said excitedly as she pulled me towards a thin, well-muscled woman with a ring through her nose that quite reminded me of a bull, and a tattoo of a wolf, with its head thrown back on her left shoulder. The ring and the tattoo gave her a look that was both tough and graceful at the same time.

"Alright, which one ya want?" She asked me, smacking her gum. I pointed to the rose. She studied it for a moment and then gestured towards a room in the back behind a thick black curtain. "Go take a seat back there," she said. "I'll be with ya in a sec."

 

Quietly I obeyed. I walked towards the back of the room, pushing back the heavy curtain and examining the space behind it. The room was cluttered with drawings all over the walls, some on crumpled pieces of paper, old newspaper corners perhaps, some even appeared to be drawn on old paper napkins from a restaurant I'd never been to. I sat down on a black leather stool in the middle of the room and set my hand flat on the table in front of me. Soon enough the woman with the nose ring pulled back the curtain and came to sit down across from me, preparing the ink.

 

"Okay, are you sure you want to do this?" She asked halfheartedly. She must have had to ask that question a dozen times a day. "It's a permanent tattoo, it will be there for the rest of your life. And it will hurt like hell," she added. I didn't think the pain could be that bad. I knew pain. All the Pluckings, all the spankings, all of the old school punishments they could think up every time one of us took just one step out of place. I could handle the pain. And as for the permanency, I found that I liked the idea. I liked the fact that it would always be there, a constant in my life. I liked that there would at least be one part of me that was entirely my own doing.

 

"Yeah, I'm sure," I answered.

 

"Okay, then here we go." The needle whirred to life making an obnoxious high pitched buzzing sound. I watched without fear as slowly, it neared my skin and then... blackness.

 

I could tell immediately something was wrong, even before the lights came back on in the SimCloud. I examined the backs of both of my hands but there was no ink on them of any sort. It came back to me in horror that the instructors had seen all of that. They knew.

 

I heard the cool, deep, voice of the simulations instructor come in over the loudspeaker.

 

"Lani Peterson," he said slowly. I could picture him up there in his little black booth, clipboard in one hand, pen in the other, coffee in the cup holder in the armrest, writing down every step I took. And every mistake I had made. I knew I had made a mistake, a big one, probably one they didn't see very often. I’d let my emotions take over me and had let the human girls go on with their choices. And I knew how I'd have to pay for it later.

 

"Thank you, Lani, you may leave," the instructor stated distantly. I nodded and turned to escape through the curtain which hung at my right. As soon as I stepped back out into the blinding white of the waiting room, I picked up the pace. I knew Maria would want the details but I didn't want to talk about it. Not now. I would have much worse things to deal with at home.

 

 


© Copyright 2019 Mica L. Rich. All rights reserved.

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