Inventing Angels

by Maria Wickens

Flowers growing at cemetery

(This story contains suicide.)

“It would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.”

― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The weeds sprout fast around Finn’s gravestone.

“We should put in a permanent planting to keep it tidier,” Dad muses.

“Lettuce,” I say.

Finn mouths “You freak” at me. When I switch the angle of my gaze, he teleports stage left, back into my new line of sight.

“Rabbits.” I point to the rabbits toward the east side of the graveyard. “They would hang out here for the lettuce. I’d like rabbits hopping over me if I was buried here.”

The last thing I want is to be interred in this miserable town, but I guess this is not the time to express a wish to be buried at sea.

“Okay.” Dad sounds uneasy. Perhaps because he thinks the lettuce idea is crazy, or the thought of burying another member of his family is intolerable.

My mom is in this graveyard too. She died in a car crash. For the past two years, my dad and I visited her on the first Sunday of each month. Now we cap off our special day with a duty visit to Finn Huckerby, the boy whose brutal murder I was forced to watch.

“Lettuce,” muses Dad. “Sure, everyone loves rabbits. Cute idea.”

“Rabbit shit covering my final resting place?” Finn complains. “What’s cute about that…” He continues in this vain, making his point that not everyone loves rabbits.

Dad reaches for some water, takes a sip, and sits back, resting against Finn’s gravestone. He will ask how I am holding up in a minute. I will respond with an enthusiastic okay, whereupon Dad will think, No, no, you’re not.

It’s our ritual. Other girls bond with their fathers over breakfast at IHOP; my dad thinks reliving the heart wrench of losing Mom will bring us closer. Now he thinks we owe Finn Huckerby some care and attention too.

Finn’s family are inbred meth addicts and drug dealers who couldn’t care less about the upkeep of his final resting place. My dad is the high school principal who thought Finn showed promise despite his shabby homelife. I have no idea what he saw that I have totally missed.

Dad stares into the space where Finn stands. “We should talk about that night sometime. Keeping it bottled up must…” Pause while he contemplates words big enough to express the abyss in which I exist. “…trouble you greatly,” he settles upon.

The night I nearly died has devoured my future and most of my sanity. My psychologist diagnosed PTSD, dissociative disorder, and survivor guilt. If she knew I still saw Finn, she would add schizophrenia to the list and double my meds. If she got to know him, she would strike survivor guilt off my chart. I have no reason to feel guilty over Finn.

Anyway, I’m not entirely sure I did survive. This Sunday afternoon might be a comforting dream. Perhaps I’m still dying on the floor of the cabin, dreaming I escaped Finn’s dead body next to mine.

This is what my father means by troubling.

“You were the lucky one. You got away,” Finn tells me in a petulant tone. He wraps around me like oily smoke, overpowering my senses with his misery.

“I’m not ready to talk about it yet,” I say to my father.

He doesn’t want to know either. My medical report states it was a brutal sexual attack. Dad shouldn’t know more than that; it would kill him. Finn’s autopsy wasn’t public but there are rumors Finn’s body was so badly decomposed, most of him isn’t even in the grave my dad tends so diligently.

Finn asked me to tag along on an errand that night. He didn’t say his errand was a drug drop for his stepfather. Nor did he know the drug drop was a set-up to lure a victim to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Waiting in the cabin was a six-foot-five psychopath.

“I didn’t know,” whispers Finn. “How was I supposed to know it was my night to die?”

Over the duration of his haunting, Finn has never once apologized for taking me with him. I went because I had a misguided crush. Finn was the town bad boy, and I always had a soft spot for James Dean. Less so now.

“It would not have been my choice to spend an eternity where the only person who can see me is an unrelatable freak either.” Finn reads my thoughts, bouncing back from his momentary dolefulness. For a dead person, Finn is usually pretty up.

Dad’s lips continue to move, and I realize we are still bonding.

“I’m okay.” To give him stronger reassurance, I add, “I’m happy.”

Eventually we slip back to half-normal conversation. Dad loses the worry dent in his forehead. I want to say sorry for the weight my madness imposes on him, but that would just remind him to ask if I have taken my meds today.

Bored with a topic that doesn’t involve him, Finn fades into whatever void he occupies when he isn’t haunting me.

He reappears as we are walking back to the car park. He stands directly in my path. I smell his muddy decay, and I know if I attempt to walk through him, Finn’s cold anger will press against all my senses. I abruptly halt.

“The monster’s waking up,” he says with an urgent tone.

“You’re not here.” I try to will him away.

“Who’s not here?” says Dad unhappily.

I step into the hellish pain of Finn’s anguish. I beat a path through his agonized spirit for the sake of my dad’s worry lines.

“Nobody,” I say as Finn’s voice reverberates in my chest.

“He’s waking up! Our monster is waking up!”

I fall, exhausted, into the car but Finn is there too.

“I have to give you this message, and apparently I have no choice but to wait until you take it seriously.”

“Is this some kind of divine warning?”

Finn’s laughter rings out in the car. “What is it about your pitiable life that makes you think you have any kind of higher power looking out for you?”

“Are you talking to me?” Dad asks, knowing very well I am not but giving me an out.

“I am completely fine.” I put my hands to my ears and close my eyes. I concentrate on song lyrics to drown out any thoughts of that horrific night that resurface whenever Finn is around.

My mom loved Burt Bacharach. When the truck smashed into Mom’s car, she was probably playing Burt. I tune in to the music and it floods my head.

’Cause I’m never gonna stop the rain by complaining

Because I’m free

Nothing’s worrying me

The words wash away my memories temporarily, but my mom still feels a long way away. I miss her so badly. What kind of spiteful God sends asshole Finn Huckerby back to haunt me and keeps my mom? The universe is screwed up, no lie.

* * *

Thwack. I jerk awake. It’s early Monday morning. Thwack. Like a demented paperboy, Finn throws a rolled-up newspaper toward me.

“Dammit,” I grumble. “You are not supposed to have a corporeal presence. How are you doing that?”

“I am unable to comment on matters of metaphysics,” says Finn.

I open the paper and stare at it for a long, long time. Uncharacteristically, Finn stays silent. Finally I fold up the newspaper and hand it back.

I read the news today, oh boy,” Finn mocks my tendency to protect my mind with song lyrics distracting me from uninvited memories. When I try to slap him, my hand swats right through him.

Metaphysics, my ass. He has no finer understanding of his situation than I do.

“When will I hear a bell ring?” I sigh, and he stares at me blankly. “Another angel gets its wings.” Still blank. Understandable. If Finn had never been born, we all would have lived better lives. He has no reason to connect to It’s a Wonderful Life.

“When this is finished there’s just ending. Nothing, hon. You know that from that halfhearted suicide attempt you screwed up after…” He stops and even fades as if he, too, drifts back to the cabin when we remember that night. “Even nothing is better than this.”

He’s right. I would welcome a dark void of nothing.

Finn waves the newspaper at me. “You wouldn’t talk to anyone so the police stopped looking. And now…”

“Now he’s killed somebody else,” I finish dully.

Flashback. Hiding in the cornfield beyond the cabin, smelling the rain rising from the damp earth, hearing the sound of the cornstalks whispering to the wind and my tormentor bellowing. “I’ll find you. We have unfinished business.”

I outwaited him but it wasn’t the end. And I still hear his voice. He haunts me too.

“Is he coming after me?” My voice shakes asking that question.

“I’m a figment of your imagination, not omniscient.” Metaphysics again. That’s his easy out.

I pull my knees up under my chin and hug myself, shivering.

My attacker told me Buddhists believe hearing is the last sense to die. A monk recites a tantric chant from The Tibetan Book of the Dead to ease the transition to enlightenment for the dying. It echoes after death into the bardos.

The devil in that cabin wanted me to hear his rumbling, deep voice long after I’d lost hope. What kind of evil weaponizes Buddhism to torture the dying?

I overpower the basso voice that rumbles in my head with BJ Thomas singing Burt Bacharach.

The blues they send to meet me

Won’t defeat me

“I wish I could mend this,” Finn says with a note that might be regret if he were half human. “I think I’m supposed to help you do the right thing because I owe the universe for a few bad choices.”

I guess you get a little more personal insight when you’re dead and have time to dwell on the reasons why you are in purgatory. A few bad choices? Finn still leans toward understatement.

“It’s coincidence.” I tear the newspaper to shreds and scatter the confetti under my bed. “Our devil left town. Our monster hasn’t woken up. He isn’t—”

“Hungry again,” Finn finishes my sentence. The words freeze my heart. My injuries included bite marks. Sometimes I dream he is eating me alive.

“Is he…”  I try not to think what it means that they didn’t find Finn’s body intact. “Is he real? Is he a demon?”

“He’s human. Just one of your more evil humans. This is your chance to finish this for both of us.”

Finn floats above my bed, cross-legged like a wise guru.

“No,” I say emphatically. “I’m not going back to that night for anyone. Now you’ve delivered the message, and I understand what it means. You can go now.”

“Apparently,” says Finn slowly, “I can’t. I don’t know why. I have no reason to be here. I want to go; I know you don’t like me much now.” There’s that lean toward understatement again. “But you have to talk to the police. Help them find him before he kills again. You won’t forgive yourself if more people die.”

“I can’t help you,” I insist sullenly. “And I don’t have to forgive myself anything.” I can hear Dad moving downstairs. Soon he’ll be shouting at me to come to breakfast. “You deserve the hell you live in, Finn. Not just for that night. You were always a bad person. Now get out of my head while I get dressed.”

Finn snaps his fingers and disappears. The finger-snap is new. He’s starting to add affectations to his little creep show. Great.

I bypass my father’s good morning and make a grab for the coffeepot. I need a jumpstart of caffeine. Tawdry, I know that I need to jack up on coffee and NoDoz to face the outside world each morning.

I look up from pouring the coffee, realizing Dad is opening the newspaper I ripped up in my room. Somehow the newspaper has been pieced back together. Behind him Finn grins like a jack-o’-lantern. I lower my head onto my forearms on the table and wait. Dad folds the paper and when I finally look up at him, he can’t hide his expression or the tears shining in his eyes. It breaks my heart.

“You have a lot to talk about,” says Finn happily. His words fill the gap as Dad tries to find the right words to open this canister of trouble and pain. “This will be over soon. Goodbye and good luck.”

Finally Dad manages to say: “Something bad has happened, and I think you need to know about it.”

I glare at Finn for forcing us into this, and I realize he hasn’t vanished yet.

“Drat, I’m still here,” he murmurs. His perplexed expression almost makes this worthwhile.

With the devil holding the strings that move us, I think the plan is for the two of us to descend the steps of Hell, repairing the evil done to us. The odds of redemption are low for Finn, but the Fates have decreed he must accompany me on a mission—just as he delivered me into evil on the night he died.

That’s a more balanced universe for you.

“Buckle up now,” I tell him. “You’re in for a bumpy ride.”

Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story