The Last Good Angel
“Lily! You are such an angel.” Keisha’s mum threw a heavy arm around me and pulled me into a tight embrace. I could barely breathe. “Was it ten A-stars?”
“Eleven,” I muttered. Even though we were in a library in August, on the hottest day of the year, there were a handful of people inside. Now they looked up to see me being swallowed alive by my best friend’s mum and drowning under a wave of embarrassing compliments. They smiled proudly too, as if they knew me.
Keisha rolled her eyes at me in apology. I wriggled out of the bear hug and smoothed my clothes down, trying to downplay the compliments. Having eleven A-stars was like wearing a ‘kick me’ sign on my back. It also put me in competition with Diana. And being in competition with Diana wasn’t a good plan.
“Can I help you find something, Simone?” I asked Keisha’s mum as I straightened my name badge.
Keisha’s kid sister kicked at the front desk, repeatedly, right below a stack of precariously balanced returned books yet to be re-shelved. Each kick gained force and momentum. I frowned at the four-year old, who was normally cute with her black braids and thumb-sucking routine, and shook my head, telling her no.
She stuck her tongue out at me and kicked again. I felt a prick of irritation. I deepened my frown, really wanting to tell her off, but Simone was still raining cringe-worthy compliments from her wide mouth and expecting me to offer congenial explanations on how I’d achieved such an ‘outstanding achievement.’
“I suppose you won’t be working here much longer,” Simone continued. “To maintain those grades, you’ll need more time to study.”
I gave Simone my full attention.
‘Welcome to the Lily show,’ Keisha mouthed, stifling a giggle.
“I like working here,” I said. “I’ll always work here. As long as Mrs. White wants me.” Now I really sounded as if I needed a good snog and a drunken night out. When I closed my eyes at night, I could still smell bonfire from the party we’d had on GCSE result’s night. I’d woken the scent of marshmallows in my hair and smoke-smelling bed sheets. I didn’t wash them for a whole week, savouring the smell that reminded me of the end of one chapter of my life and the beginning of something new, something different, something exciting, something…something. If only it would start.
The tower of books fell, thudding to the floor.
“Ow!” Keisha’s sister grabbed her foot. “Lily pushed the books over on me!”
“I did not!” I shook my finger at the little girl.
“It’s ok,” Simone said. “Of course you didn’t, Lily. But I do think that’s our cue to leave. It’s the end of the summer. Lori has a lot of pent up energy.” She gathered up the child into her arms. “I’m sorry to leave you with all the mess.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I dropped to the floor to gather the books.
On her way out of the door, Keisha signalled she’d call me later.
I carried the stack of books to the gloomy rear of the library, wishing I could be outside, enjoying the last days of summer. Keisha and I could ride our bikes to the park, have a water fight with some of the boys from our year. But, even though the library might not be the best place for my street cred, I liked it here. It was calm and peaceful and it allowed me to think.
But I didn’t want to contemplate my navel right now, or the deeper meaning of life. I needed a distraction from my over-analytical mind. Max. I couldn’t stop thinking about him; the adorable, partial smile that had curled one half of his lips when he’d said goodbye to me for the summer. He’d seemed so sad. And I’d been reading into the moment for the last six weeks, building it up in my mind, making it something it wasn’t.
The darkness of the rear aisle deepened. A shadow blocked out the light and stretched into the aisle, the tip of it reaching the edge of my flip-flop.
I pivoted on my foot. A tall figure jammed up the entrance of the aisle. It was only a couple of meters away.
Not an it.
I ignored the whispered warnings in the back of my head and stepped towards the figure, plastering my service smile on my face. I was in a library in the middle of Woking. Bad things didn’t happen in libraries in Woking with people all around. When I was only inches from the towering shadow, it still didn’t budge.
“Uh, excuse me.” I injected some force into my voice. To show him I wasn’t intimidated. I might be a mere teenager, but I could still handle myself. I’d taken self-defence classes after school last year. I could knee someone where it really hurt.
“So sorry,” the voice said, stepping back to let me pass. A voice incongruous to the dark shape. A crisp, well-spoken voice. Polite, respectful, from another time and it burst the bubble of fear that had been building.
I stumbled past him, out of the dark aisle, into the light, losing a flip-flop on the way. Reaching out a hand to steady myself, I tried to slide my foot back into the flip-flop. I missed, and felt like a total idiot. The guy emerged from the aisle. Light from the window revealed his face. I stopped trying to get my flip-flop back on and just stared at him. Stupidly. I really hoped I wasn’t drooling. He was…gorgeous. Movie-star gorgeous. Dark and tall and handsome with an aloof air about him that could give Johnny Depp a run for his money. My mouth refused to work, my tongue refused to work and I’d totally given up on my flip-flop.
He stepped towards me. I craned my neck to look at him. He wore nothing but black. Black t-shirt, black leather jacket and heavy black boots. Even his hair was black, and his skin deeply tanned skin. I could just picture him on a Harley, riding the highways of the American mid-west, cruising along in all that black, if it hadn’t been for the perfectly enunciated, crystal clear British accent. It made me want to watch my double tt’s. Butter. Not Budder.
“Excuse me,” the guy said. “I did not intend to startle you.”
How formal. And adorable. Like something out of a gothic horror novel. Goosebumps erupted over my skin. I shivered.
My mobile vibrated in the back pocket of my cut-off shorts. It would have to wait.
“That’s ok.” I slid my foot successfully back into my flip-flop. A few dancing cheerleaders in my head waved their pompoms in triumph. “I just don’t run into many people in dark alleys all that often.” I attempted a joke. An air of normalcy returned.
He smiled. Disarmingly. I blushed.
“I was looking for some help,” he said.
“The front desk is…” I leant backwards to catch a glimpse of the front desk. Mrs. White wasn’t there. “Never mind, what do you need?”
He already held a book in his hands, a hardback with an elaborate cover. I cocked my head to read the title: The Encyclopaedia of Demons and Demonology. The cover showed a picture of Satan, all red raw, scaled skin, wide black pupils filled with fire, horns and the swishing forked tail. Beside Satan was a horse, which would have been beautiful if it weren’t for the blank white eyes. I couldn’t decide if it was evil or just terrified. Draped over Satan’s lap lay a full-breasted woman, clothing torn to shreds, a trail of blood leaking from her lips.
“That’s quite some book,” I said.
The guy turned the book around and covered the picture with one large palm, as if embarrassed to have been caught reading it. It was a more interesting choice than most.
“It is not quite what I need.”
He gave me an evaluating stare. I felt his eyes travel down my neck, lower, and wondered if I felt entirely comfortable under such scrutiny in broad daylight. Maybe he wasn’t actually looking for a book. The thought made my mouth go dry.
“Lily, I am looking for some history books.”
My hand went to my name badge. He hadn’t been staring at me, he’d been reading my name. The badge was pinned to the strap of my vest top. A sliver of my bra was exposed. I pulled the top upwards, but it sunk down immediately under the weight of the badge. Next shift I would wear less revealing clothes. And as soon as I was alone I would move the badge to the belt loop of my shorts.
“Um…anything in particular?” I asked, trying to feel normal, trying to act normal. Why wasn’t I acting normal? “I think we need to narrow it down a little.”
He smiled. Then laughed. A deep throaty sound. I didn’t know a laugh could sound so nice. “I am interested in finding out more about Woking and its history.”
“Ah.” I walked down the aisle back to the centre of the library, towards the light, the noise and the absence of Mrs White. “That, I can do.” He followed me, silently, those heavy boots treading softly, my flip-flops flopping loudly.
I led him to the History aisle, ran my finger along the spines until I found the appropriate book. It only took a minute, but it felt like an eon and I could feel his eyes watching me the entire time. I pulled out the book and handed it to him. As he took it, our fingers brushed. I noticed his were long and thin. A surprising jolt of electricity snapped through my fingers. I almost stumbled at the power of it, but he made no comment he had felt it too. I massaged my hand, trying to free my fingers of the intense feeling. He thumbed through the pages of the book. I looked up at him under my eyelashes, trying to study his face, trying to figure out what he was thinking, feeling, wondering if his heart was pounding too.
“Is it for a school…” He had one of those faces of indeterminate age. “…or uni project or something?”
“Something like that,” he replied, nose still in the book. The demonology book was still tucked under his arm.
My phone vibrated again, and as the guy was nose deep in HG Wells monuments and War of the World aliens that had arisen in Horsell Common, I pulled it out of my back pocket.
I’m back!!! Can’t wait to catch up – M xxx
The message was from Max. Max.
I took in the exclamation marks and the three kisses, wondering about their intentions, over-analysing every letter…wondering…how Diana was. But of course Max would want to see me, he’d been away for the best part of six weeks and we had loads to catch up on. He kissed me on the cheek all the time, that’s all it was, those little x’s.
I sighed, deeply, and shifted my attention back to the guy in black who was interested in demonology and the history of Woking. But he wasn’t where I’d left him. Or, rather, he’d moved.
Mrs. White bustled by holding a newspaper. She had a tissue in her other hand and wiped at her eye.
“Is everything ok Mrs. White?” I asked, walking towards her. Was she crying? Why was she crying?
She shook her head, slapped the newspaper on the desk so loudly that the two people on the computers looked up. “Too much murder in the world.”
I glanced at the newspaper. A bold headline screamed about a young murder victim. London probably. I didn’t see any more of the story before Mrs. White picked up the paper and hurled it towards the bin at her feet.
“Was it someone you knew?”
She shook her head, pressed the tissue to her eye. “No, no I didn’t know the victim. But it’s all just so sad.”
“It is.” But people are murdered every day. Well, maybe not here in Woking, but London potentially. Definitely in the cities in America. All those guns…And if you went crying at every headline in the paper…well, life would be…awful. “Can I get you a glass of water or something?”
“No, no, I’m fine now. You go about your business.” She shooed me away with both hands. “But Lily? Please will you call me Serafina? That is my name after all.” It must have been the hundredth time she’d asked me.
I smiled. “I’ll think about it.” She’d always be a ‘Mrs.’
I turned back to the stacks, intending to search the shelves for the guy dressed all in black, to see if he needed anything else, to engage him in lame small talk where I could totally embarrass myself. It would be worth it, just to look at him again. I had the amusing idea that I could hang him on my wall, like a picture, just to be the object of my idolisation. But he was no longer in the library. I couldn’t find him anywhere. I’d missed him leaving. He hadn’t said goodbye. Did I expect that he might?
I walked back to the information desk and sat down, deflated and feeling out of sorts. The heat of the summer pressed against the large, open windows. Mrs. White sat at her computer in her calf-length floral skirt, two inches from her whirring fan. The sounds of the town drifted in through the windows; the shouts of the kids outside, running in the streets; someone busking with a guitar, voice cracking at the high notes; a sneeze from somewhere at the front of the library, one of the reading desks. Summer allergies.
I couldn’t quite lay my finger on why, or perhaps, more accurately, which of the whys were the biggest cause of the restlessness that had me drawing flick diagrams on a scrap notepad. Was it that Mrs. White embodied the maternal figure I’d always craved? Were my feelings for Max running so deep now that I couldn’t think of him without feeling the fluttering in my stomach? And God, what a stupid, predictable cliché! Or maybe it was the let-down of the meeting with the gorgeous guy in black. The last few days I’d felt something was on the horizon, and when I’d woken up this morning I’d been sure that this day, this day right now, was going to be the beginning of the rest of my life and that a new experience, a new acquaintance, a new some-kind-of-anything would be the cause. Maybe it was just the end-of-summer blues.
The last people in the library left, letting in a breeze as they did. It was a mum and daughter, the mum promising ice cream from the fancy new gelaterie around the corner. I waved at the girl.
The mysterious stranger in black weighed on my mind, tantalising me with images of faraway worlds and undiscovered places; motorbikes and wide-open highways that incited an alluring sense of freedom. Or, with the say he spoke, perhaps he’d be more suited to being the lord of a manor and throwing lavish parties and courting me in a flowing gown. If Max was off limits, maybe I’d fantasize a little about the guy in black; someone different, someone exciting, someone dangerous. And then I realised he’d taken the books. Both of them. And I hadn’t scanned them out. Mrs. White was going to have a fit. I hoped he would bring them back, and not because I was scared of Mrs. White, but because maybe I’d learn his name, who he was, where he was from, something.
I sat at the deserted information desk and skimmed through the latest James Patterson. I read the same sentence five times. A mosquito whined in my ear. I swatted it away and watched Mrs. White place a wet paper towel on the back of her neck. Enormous sweat patches leaked from her armpits. Her perm was uncoiling and beads of moisture gathered on her cheeks where her glasses met her skin. I found my thoughts turning to Max, about when I would see him, about how it would be. During the next hour, my flick diagram took over all sixty-four pages of the spiral notebook.
After an hour of stewing I decided it was time to actually earn the money Mrs. White was paying me. I picked up the book in front of me, her fan ruffling the pages, and held the cover open. After scanning the barcode through the library’s computer, I added it to the overflowing return’s trolley, hoping that I wouldn’t create a sudden avalanche of the printed word.
I pushed the trolley around the corner of the desk. Mrs. White fanned herself with the recovered newspaper, bar the sensationalist murder story which was balled in the bin.
“I can’t quite get over this heat.” She pulled at the v-neck of her blouse.
“We need to get some air conditioning.”
“I don’t think it’s on the council’s list of priorities.” She ran a brush through her damp hair and tied it up in a bun. “Do you need help? There’s a lot of books there.” She pointed to the full trolley.
“I’ve got it.” I left her at the desk mopping her forehead with a paper towel. Pushing the trolley of books around the corner, I took out my mobile again.
I’m back!!! Can’t wait to catch up – M xxx
I hadn’t replied yet. He’d be waiting for an answer.
I had an image of us laughing together, arm and arm as we strolled out of the cinema. It would have been a romantic comedy. And then Max would stop suddenly, place his hand gently on my arm and swivel me towards him. Then his lips would be on mine…
Get a grip, Lily! Who was I kidding? He and Diana had been together for two years, nothing was going to get in the way of that.
It took me an hour to unload the trolley. The last book belonged to the mythology section. Nothing as exciting as the book the guy in black had been looking at; no flesh-eating Satan and wild horses and damsels in distress. This one was about the Greeks. As I slotted it into place, I caught sight of some of its neighbours. The hardback covers glistened with vibrant images. I stopped to pluck one from the dusty shelves.
Demons, Vampires and Fallen Angels.
I stifled a chuckle.
A large Pentagram adorned the front cover, alongside a full moon with a howling wolf. Mist covered the twilight ground and headstones dotted the cemetery setting. It had all the allure of a low-budget horror movie.
I skimmed through the pages and it fell open at a list of fallen angels. I began to read:
Abadon – according to the Zohar (which is where this spelling is found), Abadon describes the infernal hierarchies and the nether world.
Abadona (the repentant one) – one of the rebellious Seraphim who later repented his sins against the Creator. But according to Christian doctrine, the fallen angels can’t repent because once they’ve sinned against God their essence is totally corrupted by evil.
I figured all three references referred to the same fallen angel, the information gathered across time, places and religions. I looked up Seraphim. Apparently, it was an order of angels, the highest ranking one belonging to the ninefold celestial hierarchy – whatever that means – and relates to light, ardour and purity. I flicked through the pages again until I found something more interesting.
Lucifer – translated as “light-bearer”… and it is used in various places in the Vulgate Bible as a reference to the planet Venus, a sign of the Zodiac, and “the aurora.” The use of the Morning Star metaphor is symbolic of the fall of the light-bearer – as the morning star vanishes in the daylight, so the devil fell from heaven.
Maybe Lucifer wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Maybe he was just misunderstood, a young angel, a teenager, like so many of us today trying to make the right choices in a world of bad decisions. My Dad had spent some time with demonology, the relics and art pieces mostly, on account of his job. Fascinating stories, but that’s all they were, stories. I slammed the book closed and replaced it in its slot.
“It’s a quiet night, Lily, we don’t both need to be here.” Mrs. White approached and patted my arm. She walked me to the front door. “You’re young. The night is young. Go and have some fun.”
Dusk fell as I left the library. The end of summer and the nights were beginning to close in a little earlier. A full moon hovered in the darkening sky and the roads filled with couples and families heading to and from the many restaurants. I didn’t hang around. I walked back to my apartment in the New Central building in less than ten minutes.
Clutching my mobile, I opened the main front door and went directly to the post slot. Nothing but junk. I slipped down to one of the leather sofas that decorated the foyer and contemplated texting Max. I still hadn’t replied. I didn’t know what to say. How should I respond to those three kisses? He’d would come over right away if I asked him. Dad was staying in London tonight. Some function at the museum. Said he’d sleep on his pull-out in his office. Max could be here in ten minutes. We could talk. The opportunities would be there. My right thumb tapped out a message before I’d really thought it through.
Long shift at library. Gonna crash tonight. Glad your back. X
I clicked send before I could chicken out. And then felt stupidly disappointed as I made my way to the stairs. Before I’d climbed the three flights my phone vibrated. He’d replied already.
No probs. Get some sleep. But don’t leave me waiting too long. I’ve missed you. X
And then I couldn’t stop thinking about him, and his kissable lips that I could never pull my eyes from.
For Christ’s sake, Lily! I mentally slapped myself.
My thumb rested over the keypad, wondering if I should change my mind, text him back, say something bold, out of character, something really ‘out there,’ something that maybe Diana would say. I sighed, disappointed in myself. I just wasn’t that person.
I didn’t text Keisha either. I hadn’t told her anything about my feelings for Max and I wasn’t about to start now. She’d be supportive, of course, but I didn’t want to see the pity in her eyes when she would remind me the third member in our trio already had a girlfriend.
Opening my front door, I dropped my keys on the table and plugged my phone in to charge. I turned it to silent. I’d see Max soon enough and I wanted to prolong the bitter sweet agony of it all. Torture myself with fantasies that he might actually like me back, before I heard all about how much he’d missed Diana.
A pot plant on the hall table crashed to the floor, spilling crumbs of dirt in a wide circle. I frowned at it. Pot plants didn’t move of their own accord. I was sure I hadn’t nudged it when I’d plugged in my phone. Looking down the hall, I double checked to make sure the windows were closed. I sighed as I made my way to the kitchen for the dustpan and brush, then dumped the whole mess in the bin. I was ever any good at keeping plants alive anyway.
I spent the evening solo, jiggling a leg to try and expel the restless feeling I couldn’t quite shake. Flicking through the available programmes on Netflix, I finally settled on an episode of Supernatural. I purposefully avoided glancing towards my silent mobile charging in the hall.
After midnight, when the infomercials dominated the TV channels, I went to bed. I thought I would toss and turn, thinking of Max and how I really felt. But I fell asleep immediately and didn’t dream of Max at all. Instead I dreamt of riding on a Harley on a wide highway, clasping the waist of a person clad all in black, feeling the wind in my hair and on my face. The expanse of the desert highway instilled peace and hope, filling me up with inspiration, almost as if I could spread my arms and fly. Until the moment the shadow appeared. Great, big, leathery wings descended from the sky and flew above me, the motorbike and the person clad in black, casting an eerie, netherworld shadow upon the earth and striking terror in my heart.