On A Wing & A Prayer

by Jill Corddry

 

Most days the line at the downtown soup kitchen stretched around the block an hour before it even opened. Today–an unexpectedly windy, chilly day of the kind that usually drove those in need inside for more than mere sustenance–the line was a good three-quarters of what it should be.

Angela would know. She’d been in charge of The Church of Mary’s soup kitchen for over three years. A glance at her best friend Lorna, slicing donated day-old bread, showed a mirrored surprise. Still, the huddled masses needed to be fed; her concerns would need to wait until later. Three-quarters of the expected people would still demand one hundred percent of her attention, so Angela returned her focus to the veggies on her chopping board. Lunch wasn’t for another three hours, but she had plenty to prep.

Before long, the homey aroma of stew stirred around the large, functional kitchen, the steady whish-chip of knives against cutting boards the only chorus she needed; both filled her soul. Her hopes and dreams for their future successes seasoned every dish she created.

The lunch rush was almost to capacity, and so her worries over the low breakfast turnout faded. There were a million reasons for a lower than expected count that morning. And it wasn’t like any of the food had gone to waste. Angela pushed the concern aside and walked among the regulars, checking on their plates and refilling coffee mugs. She made a point to greet new faces, making sure they felt welcome to join the family for meals every day until they were on their feet again. Making sure she meant every word she said.

It took all her will every night, once she was home alone, not to cry.

She remembered her first few weeks as a forced volunteer with shame. Other than mumbles of “you’re welcome,” when they thanked her for the meager meal, she’d been too embarrassed to speak to anyone. She’d kept her eyes on the pot or on her feet, especially afraid of those who seemed lost in their own worlds.

With one harrowing, but ultimately rewarding interaction, she’d come to realize the men and women who screamed at nothing, who swung wild fists at the flies, they told tales of their lives in the only way they knew how; in between the gibberish and spittle-laden curses lay truths of hardships and trials that she could never understand. It was as if the lights were suddenly turned on in her heart. Her path had been there all along. All the drugs and barely consensual sex, the short, repeated stints in jail, the rehab, the counselors telling her it wasn’t her fault her daddy was never around…all of those mistakes led her to the one place she belonged.

Laughy Larry, he of the far-seeing eyes that never actually focused on his current surroundings, was now her favorite regular; she always set aside a few extra sandwiches for him to take on his wanders. His stutters and wild words promised in their own way the food would be shared with those who refused to set foot inside the church. He even crossed his heart every time.

From that moment of epiphany, Angela looked everyone in the eye, saw them as people. She had a ready smile, an open ear, and two strong shoulders. She could provide strength where it was needed most. Her enthusiasm and persistence found the church numerous new sources for food, and not one-offs, but regular donations, allowing them to open daily for three meals.

And now she was in charge of the entire program. She who’d never held a steady job, or a steady anything or anyone, she was in charge.

Fall passed with gusts of cold winds and the soaking rains and sleets that heralded the arrival of winter. This was the slide into the most challenging season for Angela and the kitchen. Fresh fruits and vegetables were difficult to obtain, and needed the most. Many of the meals she cooked had to be made with canned goods. The weather also meant more homeless were seeking shelter, straining their resources. Angela and Lorna were determined not to let a single person leave hungry, though, even if that meant they were handing out pb&j or ham & cheese sandwiches by the end of the night. Everyone had a full stomach.

There were many evenings, though, that even after the dinner crowds had taken seconds, there were leftovers.

Angela hadn’t seen Laughy Larry in a couple weeks, and he’d never missed more than a day or two in a row…all due to his “wanderin’ ways.” Her worries from earlier in the season burbled in her stomach, rotten bubbles of acid and questions.

Two weeks before Christmas, the crowds were surprisingly, shockingly low. Angela feared for the lives of many of the regulars who she knew were unable to find beds in the local shelters. She and Lorna begged the church where they operated to open their doors on these especially cold nights, but the city waggled its mighty fingers and wouldn’t allow it. Most of the parishioners hadn’t objected to the city’s rulings. They “allowed” the soup kitchen to soothe their souls, but only if their goodness was confined to the basement; out of sight, out of mind.

Angela bit her tongue until she almost split it in two. The hypocrisy burned. No one needed those pews overnight.

But this was one fight she wasn’t going to win, and the look in the pastor’s eyes told her to drop it or she would possibly lose all her support from the community. Her shoulders were heavy, heavier than they’d felt in years.

She wanted a high.

Lorna caught Angela’s eye during a quiet moment and jerked her head toward the back hallway. Once they were away from the other volunteers, she gripped Angela’s hand. “You’ve noticed it, too, right?”

“Huh?” Angela blinked away the desire. It hadn’t come in months and was sharp, needy. Hungry. “Uh, noticed what? Do we need something?”

“Yeah…people…” Lorna leaned closer as someone pressed past them toward the restroom. “It’s five days until Christmas. Now, sure, I mean, I’m hoping that somehow everyone got the spirit in them and decided to find their ways home, to their families. But honey, you can’t tell me that’s what’s happening for reals.”

“I’ve noticed. Been noticing since September. Not sure what to do about it. There’s been nothing on the news about attacks or anything. I even went to the precinct a few blocks away last months. They don’t care–big surprise–but said they’d ‘keep an ear out’ for anything.” Angela hugged her oversized cardigan closer. “One nice officer–seen him patrolling around here, buys the guys doughnuts sometimes­–said he’d noticed a lot less people sleeping on the streets the past little bit, though.”

“Just worries me, hon, that’s all. Oh, hey, I see Louis and Berta out there. Gonna make sure they take extras for the others in their camp.” Lorna hugged Angela and grabbed the paper bag she she’d prepared earlier this afternoon, then took off for the main dining room calling out, “Louis, don’t you even think of leavin’ here without this, you get me?”

Also noticed it’s the most out-there folks who’ve gone missing, Angela thought. She followed Lorna, grabbing the coffee pot as a guise for coming into the dining room. Not that she needed an excuse. She did a mental head-count, looking out specifically for certain regulars and semi-regs, and extra-specially for those who needed this place the most. Those of the rants and uncontrolled gestures.

Only three sat scattered about the half-empty dining space: Maurice, Shelly, and Ronnie.

Three out of more than a dozen merely a few months ago.

Angela refilled mugs, placed her free hand on shoulders, giving a quick squeeze of support, as she pointedly maneuvered closer to Shelly. The woman sat huddled in the corner–not unusual–various sweaters and scarves wrapped around her shaking body. This was also not unusual. Guttural muttering crept outward, more than just vocalization. Shelly caught her eye, didn’t let go until Angela was seated next to her. Then her hands fluttered about, birds freed from a suffocating cage.

“It’s there. Out there. In the dark. They come. Winter is nice. I like the snow, to make snowmen, angels. We dance then, in the snow, in the wind. It calms the wind, calms the butterflies. They come at my face!” The woman, whose age was somewhere between twenty and fifty, gripped Angela’s hand, “Do you understand, dearie? They come. To make angels. Sweet, deadly angels.”

Shelly closed her eyes, rocking back and forth, still holding onto Angela’s hand with a grip tight as ill-fitting shoes. “It came for them. It came for all of them. Tonight we dance. With butterflies and devils.”

Before she could comprehend any of Shelly’s words, the woman gathered her bags and dashed for the door.

And Angela followed her, not even stopping long enough to grab her coat from the back. She stumbled only once on the slick sidewalks as she looked frantically for the direction Shelly had darted.

Angela caught up with the woman not far from the camp she called home, creeping along the back until she saw Shelly crawl into a make-shift tent and pull down the flap. Her sweater was soaked and her hair clung to her face in uncomfortable strings.

Dormant thorny vines pulled at her, scratching her cheeks and hands, snagging her clothes. This time she slipped on the wet ground, muck and mud coating her entire left side. Still Angela kept her focus on Shelly’s tent, trying to stay out of sight of everyone else. She crouched behind a low shrub, sticky and miserable. I’m doing this for Shelly. For Larry. For all of them. It’s just for a little bit. You can handle it.

As she plotted just what exactly to do next, the roar of an engine–no, three engines–approached. Angela pulled further back into the shadow of the trees, away from the harsh headlight piercing through the secrets of the camp.

The inhabitants grew agitated, moaning, keening. Some ran. Some fell to the ground, hiding behind their hands.

These were not unknown visitors, then. Unwelcome, perhaps, but familiar.

Angela kept watch, wishing now that she had her phone to record what was happening, if for no other reason than to reassure herself this was real.

Three men and a woman emerged into the sleet, all dressed alike in long trench coats and short, slicked hair. They observed for several minutes, unmoving, shoulders straight, hands clasped behind their backs, like every military movie Angela had ever seen.

What in the grace of all that’s holy?

“That one. And that one,” the woman said, pointing at the fleeing, frightened residents of the camp. “And make sure you get the one inside that tent.” The tall woman glanced at each man, making sure they understood their assignments, and retreated to the lead car.

Guess she’s the one in charge. She vowed to keep a closer watch on the woman, not that she trusted any of them. But she’s the one causing all this pain.

The three men split up, zeroed in on their targets, oblivious to everything else around them. It was over before Angela could do more than scurry toward a better shelter. All three targets acquired. Including Shelly. The woman had been hauled from her tent by her ankles; she screeched incoherently and clawed, a wild animal captured.

Spared, the remaining residents hid in their tents or scurried off into the dark. Angela saw Shelly and the two others carried, slung over broad shoulders toward a large black van.

It’s now or never…

Angela moved along the outskirts of the camp, keeping the van in sight. Once all three of the residents had been unceremoniously tossed into the back and the door closed, she ran. Like she’d never run before. The doors of the van opened more easily than she expected, flinging open more than the crack she’d intended. Not even locked or anything. Perhaps no one thought anyone on the inside would bother trying to escape.

“Come on! Hurry!” Angela hiss-whispered. All three captives stared, muttering, screeching, grabbing and pulling at the air. She glanced around as the van growled to a start. “Shelly! It’s me. Come on! We have to go!”

The three residents grew silent, in voice and motion, slumping and sliding to the floor of the van, their eyes half-closed.

“Shelly?” Angela flew off her feet as arms wrapped under her pits and around her waist, locking her in place. No struggle freed her. A sharp prick snapped through the coating of mud on the sweater, and she was tossed into the back with the other three, landing with a thud against the side of the van.

She scrambled for the door, but her body no longer responding in a timely manner. The air around her grew dark, sparkling.

 

*****

 

Pain.

It was more effective than any alarm clock.

Angela sat up, fell over, and pushed herself up again. Her arm was sore. Her head hurt, throbbing like that time she’d tried to give up coffee, but worse. Way worse.

Shelly! Concern pushed the discomfort away. Mostly.

Blinking, Angela looked around. She was alone.

A chair scraped against the floor toward her.

Not alone.

Angela scooted backwards until the nearest wall was against her back, eyes not leaving the uniformed man standing at attention next to the door. Not leaving the assault rifle casually slung over his shoulder.

“Where am I?”

His gaze flicked her way for a second, then returned to staring at some point on the wall across from him.

“Can’t talk? Or not allowed to?” Angela rose to her feet, watching his reaction. His fists clenched, his jawline tightened.

“Afraid of me? You’re twice my size. What could I possibly do to you?” She walked toward the man, steps measured. “I’ve never even held a gun…”

The door swung open. “Sit, Ms. Carson. You’re making the lieutenant twitchy. That won’t end well for you.”

Angela sat. It was the woman from the camp. Her long strides were punctuated by hard click-taps of her fashionably sensible shoes. Her dark hair was swept back, revealing bright blue eyes under sharp eyebrows. “You’re in a lot of trouble, Ms. Carson. Care to explain yourself.”\

She shook her head. “Not really.”

“Do you know who I am?”

Angela shook her head again. “Not really.”

The regal woman sat across from her. “Do you plan to say anything else?”

“Not. Really.”

“Then I’ll do a little talking and see if we can’t find some common ground.”

“You seem to know all about me.” Angela crossed her arms to hide her trembling hands and leaned back, heart about to explode. “How about your name?”

“That’s a good start. You can call me Ring.”

“Ring?”

“It’ll do for now.” Ring matched her pose, leaning back, one perfect eyebrow amusedly arched. “You know those three or do you perform random–failed–rescue attempts on a regular basis?”

“So you admit to kidnapping them?”

Ring froze. The lieutenant behind her shuffled his feet, boots squeaking on the scuffed floor. “Helping them,” she corrected.=

Angela stared, then summoned every bit of courage she’d ever possessed and ever would. She snorted and rolled her eyes.

The woman froze again, her icy eyes narrowing. She tucked a stray bit of hair behind her ear. “Fine. Come with me.”

“No.”

Ring stood and jerked her head once at the lieutenant. He was at Angela’s side in a second, a strong hand around her arm, hauling her to her feet. “Now,” Ring said, “will you cooperate or do we have a problem?”

Angela shook the man’s hand off her arm. “Lead the way.”

The three of them marched out of the interrogation room, Angela very well aware of the powerful weapon less than two feet away from her head. Her knees wanted to shake, but they were too afraid. Instead she looked around the very boring, very obviously non-descript hallway, hoping to glean something from the names next to the rooms, or from a peek through a partially open door. But nothing made any sense.

They stopped at mission control. Looking literally like something out of a movie. It was massive. It was impressive. It was ridiculous.

It couldn’t be real…

But it was. And she was in the middle of it. She only hoped Lorna would continue to do their good work at the soup kitchen once she was discovered dead, dumped somewhere. Maybe never found. Because this was the kind of thing she saw in the movies and on TV. The kind where the nosy person didn’t make it out of the secret military or government facility alive.

More than a dozen people sat at long rows of computers, headsets concealed most of their faces. They tapped at keyboards and

Large screen lined the walls, each with a view into what Angela could only call a holding cell of some kind. Though the faces starring in their own personal shows were washed, shaved, and groomed, she recognized most of them. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she saw their mouths moving, their hands fluttering, as they bounced from wall to wall.

Shelly was there. As was Larry.

Through dry lips, she croaked, “Why?”

Ring turned partially toward her. “They have something we need.”

“So you took away their freedom? What could they possibly have? They don’t have anything.”

“We brought them in off the streets. Offered them shelter, food, a place to clean up.” Ring leaned gracefully against a corner. “We study them. To learn what secrets they’re holding onto. Maybe it will even bring them peace.”

“Peace? Secrets?”

“You really don’t know, do you?” Incredulity clouded her voice. “Here I was afraid we’d have to hold onto you, too. But we could let you go, and no one would ever believe you.”

“Um…huh?”

That sharp prick hit her in the arm again. That’s going to smart in the morning. If I live to see morning…

 

*****

 

Angela knew she should stop. Knew what might happen if she was caught again.

But every night she visited a different camp, particularly interested in those who seemed a little more off perhaps than they’d previously been. Or those who’d been a part of only their world for as long as she’d known them. Those were her focus now.

A few weeks into the new year, Lorna commented that she seemed so dedicated, vowing to step up her involvement as well. Angela smiled and hugged her friend. This place would be in good hands should anything happen. And she’d taken a few precautions should that anything happen.

One glorious spring evening, Angela trailed behind Ronnie. He’d been agitated for the past week, stammering more incoherently than usual. When she’d approached him at dinner his motions grew so wild that she backed off. Then made her plan.

He didn’t go home.

He wandered. Like Larry had done.

She followed, keeping close enough to see him, far enough that he couldn’t see her. The game continued on for more than an hour, and Angela was glad she’d worn her sneakers. They trailed through field and sparse woods. It seemed as if Ronnie was following a path only he could see, one that only a bee could create, meandering pointedly around populated areas, through copses of trees covered with fragrant buds, over hills lush with young grasses.

And so they came to a wide space. No trees to hide her. No houses to call for help should she be discovered.

A light shone where no light should. Music called, yet it wasn’t for her.

Ronnie danced. He talked animatedly with the air, an air that glowed, an air that spun and wove about his body. An air that had never smelled so sweet. So dangerous.

For on the Spring Equinox, under the dim light of the crescent moon, Angela saw the mushrooms popping up through the dark land. Knew they made a circle. One she carefully stayed on the other side of.

She watched as Ronnie bowed and drank and smiled. Tiny electric sparks buzzed and spun around him.

Angela took a deep breath of the magical floral air and crept away, walking until she reached a main road, enjoying the feel of the breeze against her face, the touch of summer to come in the lingering warmth of the night.

The next day, Ronnie wasn’t in line when the soup kitchen opened. A first since their first day. He didn’t come for lunch or dinner. Lorna made concerned noises, and Angela promised to follow up with the police in the morning.

But she knew. She knew Ring had found him as well, adding him to her puzzle, hoping maybe this time she’d found the right blend of crazy, the final piece to the puzzle she was creating without knowing what the picture looked like.

She understood now what the woman meant when she claimed, “They have something we need…” Larry, Shelly, Ronnie, and how many countless others had stumbled across that faerie ring? How many secrets had they learned, only to lose them, and so much more, when they returned from their time with the fae? What riches must be locked in their brains. Riches that were coveted by so many.

Still, she could almost forgive Ring.

Angela thought back to her time with the elegant woman. How she’d tucked an errant bit of hair behind her ear. Her decidedly pointed, non-human ear. How many years of her life had she dedicated to finding that other half of her, that part that wasn’t human, the part that called to her in dreams and on the whispers of spring rains? What had it taken, what cost to involve the government–Angela didn’t want to know whose government was funding that prison–to open a door to the not-quite-unknown?

She’d recognized the longing in her slightly angled eyes, those bright blue eyes that hid the truth about her real mission, maybe even from herself.

Talk about daddy issues.

 

The end

 

Image by pixabay

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