Cowan was walking in the woods the first time he saw Angel. He was really looking for a haunted house the real estate lady told his parents was back there and he’d walked further into the woods than he’d ever gone before.
There was an inch of snow on the ground except where the sun came through the trees for most of the day. In those places the ground was muddy. Cowan felt the crisping of the snow under his boots and looked at his footprints, wanting to remember what they really looked like when he could really see them.
He took off the wrap-around sunglasses he wore to hide the holes where his eyes had been, thinking maybe the sunglasses stopped what he used to see from getting through. He still smelled the woodiness of the trees, still felt the cool air on his face and his breath misting as he exhaled. His breath didn’t look right, though.
That was because of the Cap.
Dr. Hargitay said the Cap was best at least until they were sure the cancer didn’t come back. After that, Dr. Hargitay told Cowan’s parents, maybe they could transplant.
But until then it was the Cap.
Cowan didn’t like it. It itched.
Cowan’s family moved closer to the hospital that previous winter. Mom and Dad wanted to be with him more and this was the only way to do it. Cowan knew there were lots of other kids whose parents had moved closer to the hospital, but few of those kids ever came out.
He sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
When Cowan showed up in his new school after Spring vacation, Kevin, who wasn’t even in his class and had stayed back twice, followed Cowan all over the playground, just walking behind him and sing-songing “I can’t See, I can’t See” until Cowan ran back into the school. Ms. Flanders heard him in the boys’ room and sent in Mr. Horly, the janitor, to see if everything was okay.
Because Cowan couldn’t cry – Dr. Hargitay explained that when they removed his eyes they had to take lots more out. The cancer, he told Cowan, had done more than attack his eyes – Mr. Horly told Ms. Flanders everything was okay.
The next day Kevin and three other boys, their arms locked over each other’s shoulders like high school football champs, walked behind Cowan all of recess, their four voices singing Kevin’s “I can’t See, I can’t See” song. Cowan knew the playground monitors and teachers were around. He could see them. Maybe they didn’t help him because they didn’t know if he really could see them. Maybe they felt if they were really, really quiet, he wouldn’t know they were there because of the Cap. It was brand new. Not many people besides Dr. Hargitay and his friends understood it. Cowan heard Dr. Hargitay talk about light being electric and magnetic vibrations in space and how the brain didn’t need eyes to sense those vibrations, that the Cap could do it, but Cowan didn’t understand.
But that didn’t matter to Cowan. On the third day, what mattered was Kevin and his football buddies spending half the recess following him around.
Cowan turned to face them. Kevin laughed and his buddies laughed and they sing-songed louder, “I can’t See, I can’t See.” Cowan took off his glasses and unhooked the Cap. Only Dr. Hargitay, Mom and Dad knew what Cowen looked like without the Cap. Dr. Hargitay said it didn’t matter and Mom and Dad never told.
Two of the boys screamed and ran. One got sick and wet himself. Only Kevin stood his ground, staring at Cowan but saying nothing, swallowing hard and snuffling until Cowan walked away.
Ms. Flanders called Cowan’s parents. Cowan, she told them, was terrorizing the children on the playground. Cowan, they told her, would be punished.
That night, after dinner in the kitchen, Mom said he must never take off the Cap. Dad rearranged cookbooks on the shelf over the stove but said nothing, only nodding at things Mom said. They took him to Dr. Hargitay who did something so Cowan couldn’t take the Cap off again. “For your own good,” Dr. Hargitay said.
The next day Cowan caught some kids staring at him. He wasn’t sure which hurt more, the Cap or the other kids’ stares. Every time he caught them staring they’d quickly turn away and watch him from the corners of their eyes, facing front, their hands on their books and their heads towards the board, but their eyes over to the sides or their heads tilted just enough so he could tell.
He got back at them, though. When he caught them staring, he’d hiss at them or growl. Sometimes he’d spit. A few times he’d tense his fingers until his hands looked like bird claws and he’d scratch them.
Nobody, not even Kevin, dared fight him. They were frightened of the Cap, with its red, yellow, and turquoise lights flashing, the lightguides glowing on and off, and always the black holes, hidden by his wrap-around sunglasses, where his eyes used to be. Nobody wanting to fight him made Cowan feel a little better.
Sometimes, when Cowan felt alone or angry or like he wanted to cry and knew he couldn’t and even if he could no one would let him, he’d show them.
He’d take off his glasses and show them.
He’d show everybody.
Except Leonard Houde. A few days after Ms. Flanders sent Cowan home, when Cowan was standing by the fence on the playground and keeping to himself, Leonard walked up to him.
“Hi,” Leonard said.
Cowan growled and hissed.
Leonard said, “Yeah, well, hi,” and walked away.
Ms. Flanders was always sending Leonard into Mrs. Billingsly’s office. It seemed to Cowan Ms. Flanders sent Leonard to Mrs. Billingsly’s office whenever anything happened Ms. Flanders didn’t like. It didn’t matter if Leonard was the one who did it or not, Leonard was the one who’d go. She sent Leonard to Mrs. Billingsly’s office the first day Cowan came to class. Cowan remembered that. Cowan walked in and Ms. Flanders introduced him to the class. Somebody laughed and threw a wad of paper at Cowan. It didn’t even come from Leonard’s direction but Leonard say “Hey” and Ms. Flanders said, “Mr. Houde, get your things and get out” so basically Leonard walked out as Cowan walked in.
Cowan wanted to say something but Ms. Flanders said “We behave in this class, Cowan.” Was Leonard being punished for Cowan’s being there?
Leonard waved and smiled at him as he walked out.
It bothered Cowan that Ms. Flanders always sent Leonard to Mrs. Billingsly’s office because Leonard was the only kid who’d been anything like nice to him. Cowan figured Ms. Flanders hated Leonard. She was nice to Cowan but only because he wore the Cap, not because of anything else. He figured if he’d been another kid, somebody without the Cap, he’d go see Mrs. Billingsly pretty often, too.
So because Cowan didn’t have any friends, and because even the grown-ups were afraid of the Cap, Cowan walked in the woods behind his house all by himself that Saturday the first time he saw Angel. His mother said he had to be at the hospital in an hour so he could go play until she called him.
The house, when he found it, didn’t look haunted. It looked like a dump; big and green with brown trim, most of its windows broken and a wrap-around porch. The highest windows had no glass in them at all.
“Hey, is there anybody in there?” he yelled. “My name’s Cowan Barnes and I came out here to play.” He waited. “Hey, anybody home?”
Nobody answered. Cowan picked up a rock and threw it at the house. It bounced off the side.
A big, old spruce stood in front of the house. He folded his sunglasses in his pocket and leaned against the tree, taking deep breaths of its Christmassy smell. He remembered, where he used to live, he leaned up against a spruce tree and his mother yelled at him because his hair got all sticky. He patted the tree and felt the sticky sap on his hands, then got angry because he didn’t have any hair left to get sticky. All he had now was the cool metal skin of the Cap, its blinking lights and glowing little wire guides where curly blond hair used to be. There was no one around for him to growl at so he smashed the Cap against the spruce. The bolt of pain reminded him of the cancer and he cried, which hurt even more because there was nothing left to cry with.
He lifted his head. Something was wrong. His vision blurred, but not like when he had the cancer. Back then things just got fuzzy and never cleared. Now he saw two pictures of everything; one like always but only black and white, the other one a mash of different colors and a little to the right of the first. It was like when he first woke up with the Cap and Dr. Hargitay had to make adjustments.
Cowan waited for the mashed color images to blend into the black and white. When they didn’t, he got scared. He wanted to cry again but that hurt too much, so instead he reached for the black and white spruce. It was there and it was solid. then he reached for the mashed color tree. It wasn’t there. His hand went right through it, except he saw a black and white hand go through the colors and saw a mashed color hand go through the air a little to his right.
He laughed and experimented. Soon he got the hang of it. All the mashed color things were like shadows. He could walk through the colored shadows like they were nothing at all, only the black and white things were real.
He started back home, careful to walk through the colored shadows and not the black and white things. Most of the time he wondered whether or not to tell Dr. Hargitay.
This was fun.
That’s when he bumped into Angel.
Cowan saw what looked like a blurry, mashed black and white dead old tree trunk with two scrawny branches to his left and a clear, multicolored, almost burning tree with two huge branches full of glowing leaves to his right. He walked into the multicolor tree and fell back onto the ground. When he looked up, the multicolored tree was staring down at him. Only now it had huge wings which reached up and out behind it. It looked like it was kneeling down, trying to figure him out. Over to the left, Cowan saw what he thought might have been a blurry, black and white, dead old tree bending like it had knees. That was wrong. Trees didn’t have knees. When he really looked at it, it didn’t look like a tree at all, it looked like a tall man’s shadow with wings.
To his left, what might have been a scrawny, dead branch reached down to him. In front of him, something with three fingers, no thumb, and which seemed to be on fire, came towards him.
Cowan got up and ran. Between the things he could see, between what was real and what was not. All the way home.
Cowan’s mother said nothing except to ask him if he had fun in the Woods.
When they got to the hospital, Dr. Hargitay hooked a computer into the Cap and said, “The external representation and the internal reality are out of sync.” then to Cowan, “Wow, I’ll bet that must have been scary for a while, huh?”
Cowan said nothing.
“I’ll bet you could still remember which was which, huh?”
Cowan looked at Dr. Hargitay with black sockets where his eyes use to be.
“Okay, Cowan, tell me what you see.” Dr. Hargitay turned back to his computer and made adjustments without waiting for Cowan to speak. “That’s right. The black and white is the object, but just the shape and form, the blur of colors is what the object is, content and context.”
Dr. Hargitay typed at his keyboard and the real image and the mashed color image came together again, the colors swarming over the black and white like moss climbing a rock. When Dr. Hargitay finished, everything had a single, colored image again. He and Cowan’s Mom talked while Cowan played in the waiting room. There were some other kids there with their parents. Kids who weren’t in Cowan’s school, with parents who didn’t live close by.
Cowan didn’t go into the woods for a week. When he did, he saw Angel. Cowan yelled, “Who are you? What’re you doing here?”
If Angel noticed, it didn’t respond.
“Hey, you! Hey, Turdhead, I’m talking to you!”
Angel stood still in the forest without acknowledging Cowan’s presence. Cowan made his hands into claws, took off his sunglasses, growled and ran at Angel.
Angel didn’t move until Cowan ran into him and fell down. When Angel did move, it was as before, kneeling down and reaching out to Cowan.
This time Cowan didn’t run. He’d done his best. It’d always frightened the kids at school and sometimes even made Ms. Flanders turn away and leave him alone.
So Cowan looked. Angel was all red. It had a head and there were two black eyes. At least Cowan thought they were eyes. They were two large black ovals that touched at the top of Angel’s head. Each went down the side of the head to almost where ears might be, except Angel didn’t have any ears and no nose or mouth. Angel had the shape of a grown-up, but skinnier, which Angel wasn’t, but Cowan didn’t know how else to describe it. It was like somebody had taken a Gumby and pulled it too much and the Gumby never went back to normal.
Angel’s hands were three pointy fingers which didn’t have any knuckles, nor did Angel have any feet. It looked as if its feet were buried because its legs ended in spikes which punched into the ground. What Cowan liked most were the two huge bat-like wings which came out of Angel’s back. Angel wasn’t really tall – Cowan thought it was only a little taller than his Dad – but Angel’s wings looked big enough to cover both his Mom’s and Dad’s cars if they were parked end to end.
Angel reached down and wrapped a hand around Cowan’s arm.
Inside his head, Cowan saw himself walking into Angel the first time, then running at Angel this time. It was the first time he’d seen himself without his sunglasses, saw the two empty eye-sockets looking out.
He turned away but the image stayed in his mind. He couldn’t blink it away and the more he saw it, the more it made him want to cry, which he couldn’t which made him want to cry even more.
Angel’s eyes changed color. They were blue, deep, deep blue.
Suddenly Cowan saw the woods as they were in winter, quiet and snow laden. The pictures went light to dark and back quickly. Deer made their way through the snow and rabbits and squirrels ran about. Quickly the snow melted and trees and flowers bloomed. Insects buzzed. Cats and skunks and raccoons wandered in and out of view. The trees’ leaves changed color and started to fall.
Cowan looked into Angel’s face. “You’re showing me the seasons, aren’t you.”
A moment later Angel’s eyes were black again and there were no more pictures in Cowan’s head.
“Who are you?”
Angel’s eyes turned blue.
“Hey, Cowan? Who you talking to?”
Cowan jumped and Angel let go. Cowan fumbled for his sunglasses before getting up.
“Who you talking to, Cowan?”
Leonard wore black high-top Keds with broken laces. His jeans needed patching, as did his jacket. His hair needed combing and there was dirt on his face and hands.
“What d’you want?”
Leonard shrugged. “Nothing. Just walking. Saw you running at something and thought maybe somebody might be trying to beat you up. Thought maybe I could help you.”
Angel walked away.
“Nobody wants to beat me up. Everybody’s scared of me.”
Leonard looked down and kicked some dirt. “I’m not.”
“That’s because you’re stupid.”
Leonard, never looking up, kicked some more dirt. “Lots of people say so.” He looked at Cowan and held his fists up. “But nobody ever said I was afraid.”
Cowan took his glasses off and growled. Leonard hit him on the jaw. The punch knocked Cowan to the ground. When he looked up, Leonard had his hand out, offering to help him up just as Angel had earlier.
“You going to knock me down again?”
“You going to make me?”
Cowan shook his head no, and took the hand Leonard offered. They stared at each other a few moments then Leonard said, “Can I touch your Cap?”
“You really want to?”
“Yeah. I think it’s neat.”
Cowan leaned his head towards Leonard. Like a blind man reading someone’s face, Leonard ran his tiny hands gently and carefully over Cowan’s Cap and through the lightguides. Not even Dr. Hargitay’s touch had been as soft. When he was done, Leonard asked, “Do you think I could get one?”
“I think you have to have cancer first.”
Leonard didn’t answer right away. “Oh.”
“Want to go back to my house and get something to eat?”
They talked about kids at school until they got to Cowan’s yard.
“So who were you talking to back there?”
“I don’t know.” Cowan described Angel to Leonard.
“Wow, neat. You saw your guardian angel.”
“You didn’t see it?”
“Nope. That what lets me know it’s an angel. You tell anybody else about your angel?”
“Yeah… Not! Everybody knows I’m sick. You want them to think I’m stupid, too?” Cowan winced. “I don’t think you’re stupid, Leonard.”
“I know. Neither do I.”
“I mean crazy stupid. I don’t want people to think I’m nuts. Don’t you think I’m nuts?”
“Nope. Maybe it’s that metal on your head. My Dad’s got some metal in his head and he’s always hearing stuff. He’ll be walking along then grab us and knock us to the ground and shout ‘Incoming’. My Mom said it’s because of the plate in his head. She says it’s not so bad. She says sometimes, if she rubs his head just right, it’s like being on one of those dime rides at the grocery store. I’m not sure what she means by that, but it sounds funny.”
“Did he have a cancer, your Dad?”
“Naw. This happened when he was in some war. I think my Mom told me it was a grenade. Can you see your angel now?”
Cowan looked around and back into the woods. “No. I think it left when you came.”
“Gee. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry. If it’s really my angel, it’ll come back.”
Three weeks later there was no snow any more and most of the buds had turned to leaves on the trees. Cowan’s Mom and Dad were grateful Cowen had finally made a friend and Leonard, in return, had become a regular guest at the Barnes’ house.
Cowan and Leonard were out in the woods when Cowan stopped them both.
“What is it, Cow?”
“My angel,” Cowan whispered. “It’s over there.”
Cowan pointed. “See it?”
“Nope. Looks like it’s all yours. Want to go over and say hi?” Leonard didn’t wait for a response and walked in the direction Cowan pointed.
“Hey, wait up. It’s my angel.” When they were close, Cowan took the lead and touched Angel.
Angel’s wings unfolded and his eyes turned blue as he returned Cowan’s touch. In his mind, Cowan saw stars burning in the rich blackness of space.
“What’s going on?” Leonard asked.
“It’s giving me pictures.”
“Oh. Hey, ask if it’s an angel.”
“Are you an angel?” Cowan asked.
Angel’s eyes went from blue to gold. Pictures of all sorts whirled in Cowan’s mind, each stopping for a moment then moving on. Cowan felt as if Angel were skimming through some huge encyclopedia in its head.
“What’s it say?” asked Leonard.
“I don’t think it knows what an angel is. I’m getting all sorts of pictures, but nothing like an angel.”
“Tell it what one is, Cow.”
Cowan began picturing an angel in his mind. The only one he’d ever seen was on an old CD his parents had by somebody named Dan Fogelberg. On the CD, the angel was a woman with blond hair, a white robe, white spots where her eyes should have been, big white feathered wings, and, what Cowan remembered most, gold handcuffs and chains. As he remembered the only angel he knew, the picture grew in his mind.
When he got to the handcuffs and chains, Angel’s eyes went from gold to red, not quite the same color as its skin, but close, and in Cowan’s head the handcuffs and chain grew coarse and large. The pictures of the CD angel blended with an image of Angel for a second. Cowan felt sad and wanted to cry. As quickly as the pain came, it was gone, the picture in his mind replaced by the CD angel, without chains, flying in the black, starred night. As he watched the picture in his head, the CD angel turned into the one in front of him.
“Well?” asked Leonard.
“I still don’t think it’s an angel, but that’s as close as we’ll get.”
“Find out if it’s from Heaven.”
“Yeah, I think it is. It always shows me pictures of outer space. That’s where Heaven is, isn’t it?”
“Hey, maybe it’s an alien. Ask if it’s an alien.”
Cowan showed Angel all the pictures he knew of aliens from comic books and movies.
Angel’s eyes twinkled until Cowan was done.
“Nope, nothing like that.”
Leonard considered, nodded, then giggled. “Hey, find out if it’s a guy or a girl.”
Cowan giggled, too, then thought of his mother and father. He made the pictures go back an forth in his mind. Angel’s eyes went brown then back to blue. Inside Cowan’s head, the pictures of his mother and father merged. All their features unique and separate, yet somehow Angel managed to make them into one beautiful whole.
“I don’t think it’s either. I think it’s both.”
Angel’s eyes continued blue. Inside, Cowan saw pictures like in science books, one-celled creatures dividing themselves in two, then other animals, things like flowers, only flowers that moved, with parts reaching out to other parts, and where they touched things like seeds were being sent into the wind to become other walking flowers. Next he saw things from the oceans, things he didn’t know he knew, but seeing, understood, things growing large until smaller versions of themselves separated from the original and left, leaving the original free to begin the cycle again, and lastly, Angel showed Cowan itself, its wings folding, its belly swelling, until a second Angel grew out of the first; head first, wings folded, eyes sparkling all different colors at once.
“No,” said Cowan. “Some things are both. They have kids that way.” Angels’ eyes flashed like a signal beacon – gold, brown, blue, then black. “I think it’s okay if we call him a boy though. He doesn’t seem to mind.”
“Oh.” Leonard strained to see something of Angel but nothing came. “What’s he doing here?”
Cowan made a picture of Angel in his mind. Next he made a picture of Superman flying around the Earth, coming through the clouds and landing.
Angel’s eyes flashed red. It let go of Cowan’s hand and moved off into the woods. Cowan sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
“You okay, Cowan?”
“Yeah. Just a little sad. Angel didn’t tell me why he’s here. I think it’s not a good thing, though.”
“I can’t. He left.”
Leonard sat in Dr. Hargitay’s waiting room. Mr. and Mrs. Barnes sat with Cowan in the examining room.
Cowan had drawn a picture of a human brain, rough but accurate and detailed. Cowan drew lines. “Here,” he told Dr. Hargitay. “From here and here to here.”
Dr. Hargitay straightened up as he stared at Cowan’s drawing. “The visual cortex, from pre-optic ganglia straight back to the occipital lobes.” He looked over at Mrs. Barnes. “You’re right, Cowan. that’s an excellent guess.”
“It wasn’t a guess.”
“Cowan,” hushed his mother.
Dr. Hargitay shook his head. “No, no. He’s quite right. It’s too accurate to be a guess. How did you know that, Cowan?”
“What grade are you in now? Second? Third?”
“I’m starting third grade this fall.”
“Where did you learn about the Cap?”
Cowan shuffled on the examining table. He looked towards the door. “I read about it. Online.”
Mrs. Barnes apologized, “He’s been doing a lot of reading lately.”
Dr. Hargitay thought about that then unhooked the computer feed and helped Cowan down. “Well, keep it up, Cowan. I can use the help. Would you mind waiting for your folks outside, please?”
Before Cowan was out the door Dr. Hargitay said, “He’s a clever boy, Mr. and Mrs. Barnes. Very clever. He’s got some good ideas, he does.”
Cowan cleared his throat as he opened the door. “Don’t patronize.”
Dr. Hargitay paused and stared at him. “Yes. Quite.”
Mr. Barnes said, “I’ll wait outside with the boys.”
Cowan sat beside Leonard. “So?”
“I think we either have to stop seeing Angel so much or we need to be careful who we share what with.”
“With whom we share what.”
“What did he say, Cow?”
“He said Angel’s right about the modifications to the Cap.”
Mr. Barnes sat across the room and picked up a magazine.
Leonard nodded at Cowan’s father. “You didn’t tell them about Angel, did you?”
“I’m blind, Leonard. I’m not nuts.” Cowan looked at his father and spoke up. “Hey, Dad, how long do you think Mom’ll be with Dr. Hargitay?”
Mr. Barnes looked at Dr. Hargitay’s door as if he’d never seen it before. “I don’t know, son,” he sighed. “At this point in my life, I’m just along for the ride.”
A few hours later Leonard and Cowan were out in the woods. They walked side by side. Leonard had a backpack on. In it were two books Angel wanted the boys to read. One was Robinson Crusoe. The other Pilgrim’s Progress. “Where’s Angel?” Leonard asked. “I’m getting tired. Doesn’t he know about ebooks? Used to be every week new books. Now it’s every day new books.” He sang “I’ll never be your beast of burden.”
“If I had eyes, I’d roll them heavenward.” Cowan stopped then strode in a new direction.
“What is it? Did you see Kevin or something?”
“Naw. My Mom found out Kevin goes to live with his Dad each summer. It’s Angel. He’s over there.”
“Cut it out. You know he can’t hear you. He can only talk when he touches you. and then only if you can see him.”
“I know.” Leonard kicked some dirt.
Cowan placed a hand on Leonard’s arm. “I’m sorry, Leonard.”
With neither boy realizing it, Angel came over to them and touched Cowan’s shoulder. His eyes flashed blue.
Leonard yelped and fell to the ground.
“Lenny, you all right?”
Leonard shook his head. “I don’t know, Cow. that was real weird. Kind of like, all of a sudden my mind had all these pictures.”
Inside Cowan’s mind he felt the blue-eyed quiet and rest, Angel’s ‘Hello’. He focused the thought as Angel had been teaching him to focus, concentrating until each thought became a picture in his head. He made a picture of Angel’s ‘Hello’ and shrunk it down in his mind, placing a distinct black abyssal around it as a border. The feeling of Angel’s greeting remained, although Cowan felt it smaller in his head.
“Here.” He held his hand out to Leonard.
Leonard’s eyes glazed over but didn’t shut. “Wow. this is great. What is it?”
“What do you see?”
“I’m not sure. Clouds, I guess. Like in a movie, when you fly through them in a real bright sky.”
They moved through the clouds and far below the ground was orange but only in patches. Everywhere else the ground was mottled gray.
Angel flew into the picture, a brighter and more colorful Angel than what Cowan saw and Leonard imagined. Angel flew and dove and landed on an orange part of ground. Little angels came to him and surrounded him, jumping and flying, their little angel eyes blinking like little rainbow caps on all their heads.
Other grown-up angels entered the picture. They flashed but only black and white. They pulled the angel children away, eventually getting to Angel and flying him high into the sky, higher and higher until they passed through the clouds. As they took Angel further and further away from the little angel children he grew somewhat less colored, less distinct than the Angel Cowan saw and the one Leonard imagined.
Cowan, his voice quiet like in a theater or a church, said, “Why didn’t you fight them, Angel?”
But nowhere did Angel fight them or struggle. They lifted him so high that none of them could travel higher, then threw him into the stars. Multicolor, twinkling stars. All the black and white angels folded their wings and dove back to their slate colored planet.
The pictures in Cowan and Leonard’s minds showed Angel’s world again, but now colorless save the slate shaded ground.
The Angel in their minds stretched up into an earth-like sky, his wings opening and closing until his spear-like feet came loose from the ground. Higher and higher he flew. The Angel in their minds began to fade.
Leonard frowned. Cowan saw the blue sky and clouds breaking up and sliding into the surrounding abyss. Angel’s eyes flashed from blue to red and he knelt on the ground, as if tired, exhausted.
Both Cowan and Leonard felt it. Leonard kicked at some grass. Cowan sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
Angel stood up and rubbed Cowan’s back. His eyes flashed all their colors and it felt like Angel was tickling Cowan inside Cowan’s head. Cowen tried to shrug Angel off but Angel held on until Cowan laughed. then Angel took Cowan’s hands and placed them palm up with Cowan facing Leonard.
Leonard said, “It’s getting late.”
“I know. I think Angel wants us to play a game, though.”
“Hey, I know this one.” Leonard placed his hands palm down, lightly on Cowan’s. As he did, Angel placed both his hands on Cowan’s shoulders. His eyes went to blue.
Cowan’s mind filled with colors. Leonard’s legs went soft. He clenched Cowan’s hands for support. The colors resolved into blue mountains heavy with pink and orange clouds. The mountaintops were buffeted by sun-bright snow and winds. Both boys recognized bird songs but from birds neither knew.
Angel held Cowan. Cowan, glancing on either shoulder, saw Angel’s hands turn blue and his wings open. Without knowing why, he shouted, “Hold on, Leonard,” and, as if Angel had given them a cue, they flew into the night.
Kevin and some of his friends were huddled on the playground the first day of school, waiting. Leonard and Cowan sized up the opposition from the playground entrance.
“You know,” said Leonard, “this’ll be the third year he’s stayed in the same grade. He’ll be in Ms. Shea’s class, same as us.”
Half the playground away Kevin and his friends started, “I can’t See, I can’t See.” Their chant continued until they stood next to Cowan and Leonard, Kevin towering over both them and his own friends. “My Dad told me about you, Barnes. He said you’re just a freaky little blind kid and I’m not afraid of any freaky little blind kid. Do you hear me, Barnes? I’m not afraid of you anymore.” Ms. Flanders and Ms. Shea turned and walked away.
Cowan stood and looked at Kevin and his friends, neither saying nor doing anything. Leonard shuffled off and left him alone.
Kevin pushed himself up against Cowan. “Hey, you too stupid to know when I’m talking to you?”
“I know you’re talking to me, Kevin. I just don’t know what to do about it.”
One of Kevin’s friends offered, “Going to take your glasses off again? Huh, freaky Mr. No-eyes? Going to take your glasses off again?”
Cowan looked at him. “No. I wouldn’t do that.”
Kevin pushed Cowan. “So what you going to do?” He started the chant again, pushing Cowan with each emphasized syllable. “I can’t See, I can’t See.”
Cowan, measuring the beat of the other boy’s words, stepped aside as Kevin pushed and Kevin fell to the ground.
He got up with fists clenched. “You’re dead, freaky no-eyes. You’re dead.” He started dancing around Cowan, his fists up and ready to strike.
From deep within the playground Leonard screamed, “I can see. Ms. Shea, Ms. Flanders! I’m watching you walk away.” He took out his mobile. “I can see and I’m documenting this.”
Kevin and his friends turned. Cowan took the opportunity to move past them onto the playground. Close to the middle of the playground stood Leonard, facing Cowan and Kevin, his little index finger extended and pointing at them. Immediately in front of him were Ms. Shea and Ms. Flanders, their backs to Cowan, Kevin, and his friends but facing Leonard.
“Look, Ms. Shea. Look, Ms. Flanders. I can see and soon the whole world can, too.” He watched his mobile’s screen.
Even from where he stood Cowan could see the expressions and colors of the two teachers faces as they turned.
Ms. Shea grabbed Leonard’s outstretched hand. She and Ms. Flanders walked briskly, Leonard in tow and hopping all the way. They gathered Cowan, Kevin, and the others and brought them into the school, dropping the horde in Mrs. Billingsly’s office. “So begins another fine year,” Ms. Flanders mumbled as they walked out.
“A little dramatic, don’t you think, Houde?” Cowan said. He turned to see Kevin staring at him, staring at the Cap, his eyes bright and curious, not dull and malicious.
When he realized Cowan was staring back he said, “I’m not afraid of you, Barnes.”
A few Saturdays later Cowan and Leonard stood deep in the forest by the haunted house, Angel behind them, one wing over each of them, protecting them from the cold, autumn rain and wind, the three of them staring into the sky. Angel’s eyes were deep brownish-red, the color of dried blood. Cowan saw Angel’s thoughts clearly and hand-in-hand gave them to Leonard.
“You know what he’s telling us, don’t you?”
“Don’t say it, Leonard.”
Angel, his eyes still red, gave Cowan a picture of his colors fading, washing away, until his image against the sky and woods dissolved.
Cowan pushed Angel’s wing away and stepped out into the rain. “No!” He knocked off his sunglasses and started thrashing at Angel’s wings as the rain splashed the Cap and ran down his face. “I won’t let you. I won’t let you!”
Leonard reached for Cowan’s arms and Cowan fought back. They were rolling on the ground, covering themselves in cold mud and wet leaves, their little fists and tiny feet striking out wildly as they screamed at each other.
Suddenly they were apart and hanging in mid-air, two wet kittens being carried by an invisible cat. Angel, his eyes flashing all their colors, held Cowan and Leonard each in a three-fingered hand.
Angel’s eyes steadied, changing slowly from blue to gold to red and back. In his mind, Cowan saw the black and white angels throwing Angel out, banishing him from their world to this one.
“I’m sorry, Len.” He reached out. When he and Leonard touched, Angel put them down.
Leonard picked up Cowan’s sunglasses and handed them to him. “I don’t think Angel wants to die, Cowan.”
“Everybody’s gonna die. My Mom told me that.”
Angel’s wings reached back out and over the boys. He drew them in close until both boys could feel him against them, the heat of his body keeping them warm and dry despite the storm. Slowly, he motioned them back to where Leonard’s bookbag lay.
Keeping them under his wings, his eyes went from red to blue as he opened one of the books and handed it to Leonard.
“The Mysterious Traveler” started Leonard, “by Mark Twain…”
That next Tuesday, as Ms. Shea formed reading circles. Kevin shoved something into his desk.
“What was that, Kevin?” Ms. Shea stared at Kevin, sitting in the back and cramped in the desk she’d given him. “Kevin? I asked you a question, Kevin.”
Ms. Shea walked over to Kevin’s desk. “Please give me your ‘nothing’, Kevin.”
Some of the kids chuckled. Kevin’s face got red. Cowan, watching, saw Kevin retreat into his already too small seat.
Ms. Shea stood over Kevin, one hand on her hips and the other palm up in front of his face. “I want that ‘nothing’ now.”
Slowly, almost mechanically, Kevin reached inside his desk and pulled out a rolled up comic book. His eyes remained fixed forward and vacant as he handed it to his teacher.
“You know I don’t allow this silly trash in my classroom, Mr. Sumone,” she said.
“What comic is it?” Leonard asked.
“Something wrong with your nose, Mr. Houde?”
“It’s an honest question, Mrs. Shea,” Cowan said. “What comic is it?”
Sighing and staring at the ceiling, she unrolled it. A man in an 18th Century European soldier’s uniform in some kind of treasure room graced the cover. Three moon-eyed dogs sat before him, each one larger than the last. Behind the three dogs rested three chests of coins. The smallest dog’s chest held copper. The middle dog’s chest held silver. The largest dog’s chest held gold. The title read “Classic Comics Presents ‘The Tinder Box’.”
“That’s a good story, Kevin. You should read Anderson’s original version,” said Cowan.
“Oh my yes,” added Leonard.” ‘Fyrtøiet’, from his ‘Eventyr, fortalte for Børn’.”
“You can find it in the library, Kevin, in ‘The Classic Fairy Tales’.”
Kevin growled quietly, “Fuck you.”
Ms. Shea grabbed Kevin by the collar and shook him free of his desk.
“I’m witnessing this, Ms. Shea,” yelled Leonard.
“Good. Good.” She dragged Kevin to Leonard’s desk and pulled him free, as well. “Go. Go right now. You, too, Cowan. All of you. To Mrs. Billingsly’s office. I don’t have to put up with this.”
She threw them out the classroom door and slammed it behind her. Cowan and Leonard shook themselves off and looked back in through the window. Kevin looked into the classroom too, turning away only after Ms. Shea threw his comic into the trash. As he turned Cowan met Kevin’s eyes and wondered if there was something wrong with them, something that wouldn’t let Kevin cry, as well.
Ms. Shea looked out the window, saw them standing there, and yelled at them to get to Mrs. Billingsly’s office.
Mrs. Billingsly hung up the room-phone as they ambled in. “You boys wait right there for me, understand?”
Leonard said, “If you’re too busy right now – ”
She picked up the outside line and stared at Kevin. “Who’s home today, Kevin? Anybody going to be able to come and take you away?”
Kevin stared at the floor and shrugged. “I don’t know. I have to go pee.”
Mrs. Billingsly sighed, “Go ahead. Just come straight back.”
Cowan watched the door close behind Kevin. “Last year I hated him. Now…”
“I know,” nodded Leonard. “Me, too. What’s Angel doing to us?”
Angel’s scarlet body glowed but not as brightly as Cowan remembered. He had each boy in an arm.
At Cowan’s request, Leonard was reading from An Encyclopedia of Things that Never Existed.
As Leonard read, Angel made shapes dance in Cowan’s head. As Cowan watched the shapes spin, a new thought peeked out from behind a griffin that Angel created. Cowan looked into Angel’s face as he brought the thought out from behind the mythical creature’s image.
Angel’s eyes turned blue to red, then finally to black. He put both boys down and walked away.
“What happened?” asked Leonard.
“I know what Angel’s doing to us.”
Leonard closed the book. “Which is?”
“Ms. Flanders, Ms. Shea, even Mrs. Billingsly. They’re teachers, right?”
“But whose teaching is really teaching us? Whose teaching is changing us?”
“Oh, my god.”
“And isn’t change what teaching’s really about?”
“But wait, it gets better. The kids that those teachers are teaching, they don’t like either of us.”
“That’s learned behavior. They learned it from Ms. Flanders, Ms. Shea and the rest. Those people said they were teaching elementary materials. Their vectors are the fundamentals but what they’re really teaching is hate, prejudice, to fear the unknown, the different.
“Angel teaching us to understand, to empathize, to have compassion. Those are his vectors and consider what we’ve learned in less than a year’s time.
“You’re missing a crucial piece. If your life is a teaching, and your teaching a vector for life, would those who are your students also be your destroyers?”
“Have you ever seen Angel consume anything? He exists and any existence requires some method of refueling, regeneration.”
“We’re his regeneration. His existence continues through us.”
Angel’s color faded a little more.
Cowan looked up into Angel’s eyes. “That’s it, isn’t it? You’re not a teacher like here. You’re dying because now you have somebody to teach. Now it’s okay for you to pass on because now you’ve given everything you ever really had away.”
“Nicholas of Cusa,” Leonard said. “All we really have is our knowledge of ourselves.”
Angel placed his hand on Cowan’s face, careful not to touch the lightguides or the sunglasses. Cowan reached over to Leonard as Angel’s eyes went blue to brown to blue. Pictures formed words in their minds.
“Destroyers, not. Children, are.” Angel’s eyes went brown again, a little longer this time, and his hand on Cowan’s face went brown, too.
Leonard sniffed. “That’s why he isn’t afraid of death. That’s why he welcomes it.”
Angel sat on the ground. The two boys sat on his legs, close against him. “Cowan?”
“What does Angel smell like?”
“I don’t know.”
Cowan filled his mind with pictures of everything he could think of which he could smell. He smelled dog fur, wet and dry, then his Mom’s makeup and perfume. Dad’s aftershave. Peanut butter. Fresh mowed grass. Garbage. The ocean. His hospital room before he got the Cap. Grandpa’s pipe. When he went to visit a farm. Cookie dough. Spaghetti cooking. Pizza. Ice cream. School paste. Crayons. Dog and kitty poo. Everything.
When Cowan finished, Angel placed his hands on him and turned his hands brown. Both boys inhaled deeply, their breaths a sigh of recognition, as if the air around them was filled with the perfumes of familiarity.
Angel held them like that, his hands staying brown until Cowan sneezed. A moment later, Leonard wiped tears from his eyes. Angel stood and the two boys slid from his lap. He went back into the haunted house and they followed.
They sat together in Angel’s attic, going over some proofs which Angel had explained to them, their backs to a western facing dormer trying to capture the last rays of light before the sun set. It was difficult, not because the proofs were complex but because Angel could barely send pictures into Cowan’s mind anymore.
Something crashed downstairs.
“What was that?”
“If we were at my place I’d say my Dad again. I’ll go check.”
Before Leonard got to the door they heard Kevin calling up the stairs. “Hey, who’s up there? Could it be my two best pals, Lenny and Freaky Cowan No-Eyes?”
Other voices laughed.
Cowan looked around them. “This isn’t good, Leonard. I don’t think we can talk our way out of this one.”
Leonard leaned out the window and came back in. “Give me the papers.” He folded and stuffed what he could in different pockets. “We’re over the bathroom, right? The window’s knocked out of that room and it’s right under the cornice.”
“We’re three stories high, Leonard!”
“Come on, come on. this window’s a dormer and you can reach from the sill to the cornice. Just hold on to the edge and swing in. We can do it when they’re right at the attic door. Then we’re out and away before they know what happened.”
“What about Angel?”
“If I can’t see him you think they will?”
Kevin and his friends began banging their way up the stairs.
By the time Kevin and his friends got to the door. Leonard was out the window and Cowan was on the sill.
Leonard splayed his arms and easily caught the ledge. “See, Cowan. No problem.”
Cowan was out the window holding onto the sill when Kevin grabbed his arm. Cowan pulled diagonally and down, using Kevin’s strength against him. Instead of letting go Kevin held on tighter, rolling out the window and over Cowan, holding on all the way.
Their combined weight moved them too fast and to one side. Leonard reached for them and missed by a foot. Cowan screamed.
He fell in slow motion. Leonard’s voice came to him over a great distance, Leonard’s words slowed and paced by Cowan’s own heartbeat.
He watched Kevin’s friends fill the attic as they fell, Kevin’s friends’ eyes wide and their voices as dulled as Leonard’s. Somewhere beside him Kevin screamed and clutched him.
He heard everyone’s breathing, loud and volcanic. Bracing winds of cold slithered past him, moved through his clothes and found his skin as he fell. He wondered when he and Kevin would plop in the snow.
Then he felt himself stopping, staying stationary in the air. Kevin was suddenly pressed tightly against him. Cowan felt great arms around him, supporting him. He heard the constant, steady whoosh of great wings above him.
And his mind filled with pictures. Colors. Places. Words and thoughts. People. Beings. Creatures Angel had seen over a hundred thousand lifetimes.
Slowly, the bright pictures began to fade as Cowan saw the ground slowly rise to greet him. Beside him, Kevin snuffled and tears iced his face.
The pictures in Cowan’s mind continued to fade. The sound of the wings grew soft as he felt the snow compress beneath his feet. He heard sounds in the house and felt more than saw Leonard standing beside him. He began clutching at Angel, trying to hold him, trying to find him. “Don’t go away. Don’t go away. Please don’t go. Please.” He sank to his knees in the snow, holding onto the tips of Angel’s wings as Angel shared the brightest stars in the Universe, the greatest lessons, the strongest colors as his body dissolved away.
He had a single picture then, a single overwhelming picture filling his mind. He saw Angel’s world, colorless, lifeless, just moving through space, black and white even though the universe around it was filled with colors; blue, red, brown, gold and others Cowen had never seen in Angel’s eyes before. He saw Angel walking towards another black and white world, another Earth, an Earth of only shape and form, devoid of context and content. Then there was Angel, looking different in his mind but Cowan still knowing it was Angel he saw.
As he watched, the Angel in his mind gave birth. Two smaller Angels emerged. He looked and, even with his Cap, he recognized the young Angels as himself and Leonard. The Earth was going dark, like Angel’s world. Angel motioned his children towards the black and white Earth and the universe of colors filled it until there were context and content to support the shape and form.
At the door to the house Cowan heard people breathing. Leonard, behind him, whispered, “My god.”
The picture in Cowan’s mind blazed bright and a small picture of his father formed in the corner. “Ride, not.” The picture of his father faded away. “Participant, Journey, Life, must be.” then the greater, blazing picture was gone. Angel’s wings slipped gently from his fingers.
Cowan fell forward and cried.
Sometime later it was dark. The stars were out and could be clearly seen above the trees in the night sky.
“Cowan? You okay?”
“Yeah. Kevin still here?”
“No. He told his friends to go home, to find friends their own age and to leave him alone.”
Cowan nodded. “Angel’s gone.”
“I know. We saw.”
“Right before he died, you could see him. I never really knew what he looked like until the end.”
Cowan sat up in the snow. Their breaths wisped above them in tiny, moisture laden clouds. He patted the snow and listened to the sibilance of its hard cracking surface beneath his hand.
by Joseph Carrabis