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Haunted

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Sometimes the world’s so loud.

Crowley always rolls his eyes when I say that but it’s true, at least to me. As an angel in the third, and lowest, choir I am closer to humanity than my angelic brethren of the first and second choirs. And that means I hear everything – I couldn’t sleep even if I needed to – humanity’s prayers, cries for help, curses – I hear it all.

Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones hear nothing but the Father – they see nothing but Him and burn with passion of their love of the Father Almighty.

The second choir – the Dominions, Virtues, and Powers – govern the order of the universe and rarely interfere directly with humanity. They leave the actual work up to us – the third choir of principalities, archangels, and angels. Not to mention the absolutely ridiculous amount of paperwork involved for us lesser angels.

I mean, it’s absurd really, I had tried to explain to Gabriel at one particularly tedious staff meeting. Why should I have to submit two separate reports for one act of divine intervention just because the intervention involved more than one mortal?

Gabriel, with his typical arrogance, hadn’t listened.

“And that surprises you?”

I blinked and looked back at Crowley. I had been explaining (not venting, angels are above venting, thank you very much) about my latest staff meeting to my demonic counterpart.

Crowley grinned and tapped his wine glass against my own. I could see the amusement in his eyes despite those ridiculously flashy sunglasses he always insisted on wearing. His latest pair had a deep ruby cast to them and gleamed red in the dim lights of the crowded pub.

“Too much wine, angel?” he said, raising a dark brow.

“Not quite enough, I think,” I said, frowning down into my glass. Crowley merely smiled and refilled my glass.

It was a miserably cold, January evening. Crowley was in fine form; he had just finished his latest assignment – something about that blasted Internet and “trolling” – and was now preening over his success as he tried to explain the inner workings of the “worldwide web” to me. I let him brag; it really was a clever scheme and as long as no one was physically hurt…well, who was I to interfere? Crowley’s superior, a duke of Hell named Hastur, had always sounded like a particularly vicious sort. I certainly didn’t Crowley to get on the bad side of a demon like that.

We had agreed to meet up for drinks in one of the more popular pubs that had television sets; Crowley had been following the upcoming Challenger launch with great interest and was hoping to catch the broadcast. From the packed pub it looked like many others had the same idea – the BBC nine o’clock news was supposed to show the launch from earlier that day.

“And now they’ll be stuck deleting spam email for days! And the sheer bad will radiating from it is just the thing to get Hastur off my back…”

I didn’t answer – my gaze was locked on the television set. Several others turned to look at the news and the pub noise rapidly faded.

“Angel, are you listening to me? You just went white as a sheet, which is saying something since you’re already so bloody pale…” Crowley’s voice trailed off as he followed my gaze to the television set. The noise and bustle of the pub was now replaced with utter silence as the words fell like a hammer.

“Reports are coming in from Cape Canaveral…Challenger has exploded…all lives lost…”

“Bleedin’ Christ,” murmured one man.

“God Almighty,” said another man, shaking his head in disbelief as the television replayed the Challenger exploding into a fireball.

A young woman crossed herself while several men removed their hats.

After the news moved on to other stories the pub noise gradually returned, although at a more subdued level.

I looked back at Crowley. He was staring into his wine glass, his sharp jaw clenched and mouth turned down into a scowl.

“Are you alright?” I asked gently. I knew how much Crowley had been looking forward to the launch.

“Me? I’m just fine and dandy,” Crowley said, tossing back the last of his drink. His detached attitude didn’t fool me in the slightest.

Unsure of what I could possibly say, I said the only comforting thing I could think of. “They’re at peace now.”

Crowley looked up then and I tried hard not to flinch at his furious gaze which even his shades couldn’t hide.

“Oh, that’s ssssssso comforting, angel,” he snapped.

“Crowley, that’s not what I meant,” I said, stung but refusing to back down. I had never been intimidated by Crowley and wasn’t about to start now. “I only meant…”

“What, that it’s ‘eneffable’? Well, try telling that to the families of those poor sods that got blown up today.”

“That’s not fair!” I protested.

“No, that’s not fair,” Crowley said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the television. “You don’t know what lossssss is, angel, ssso don’t try the sanctimonious act with me.”

Crowley stood and grabbed his jacket, pulling it on with fast, jerky movements. “You don’t know anything about grief or loss, angel. You just hide your bookshop like a coward. Tell me, where were you and your fellow angels when those poor bastards got blown to bits?”

Shocked, I said nothing as Crowley stormed out. I watched him go and then turned to look around at the packed pub. No one had noticed; everyone was talking about the unfolding disaster.

Crowley and I had our disagreements – in past centuries they usually ended with one of us being discorporated – but Crowley had rarely been so vicious. I felt cold all over.

I sighed and poured myself another glass. I was determined to watch the rest of the news, even if it meant one more memory that I couldn’t forget.


 

I had hoped that I could escape out of the unexpected staff meeting the next day, but Gabriel with typical perfect timing had decided to summon me at the last moment. Unable to seek out Crowley and already unsettled by the distress I could feel radiating from the doomed shuttle launch, I had no choice but to obey.

And now here I was, sitting in a staff meeting of all things. I shifted uneasily – I should have been back on Earth, not sitting in yet another useless meeting that would accomplish nothing. Gabriel had decided to meet with all of the principalities of the continents and was now droning on about quarterly earnings and target markets.

“Aziraphale, am I boring you?” Gabriel’s waspish tone cracked like a whip, snapping me out of my thoughts.

“What? Oh no, of course not. Please continue,” I stammered, trying hard not to blush under Gabriel’s annoyed look.

Seraphina, the Principality of Africa, cast me a worried glance. I felt a bit better when she gave me a gentle smile; she was one of the few angels in my choir that still took our roles as guardians of countries seriously.

Giving me one more annoyed look, Gabriel continued.

“The Principality of North America is busy with monitoring the situation in Florida. I’m sure you’ve all heard by now of the unfortunate incident.”

Incident. So that’s what we’re calling it these days? I shuddered as I started down my clasped hands. When had we become so distant – so cold – from Creation?

“I’ll need all of you to assist with the cleaning up of this. The Enemy will be taking full advantage of the situation so any damage control you can do in your respective principalities would be helpful.”

“Any questions?”

The six other angels and I shook our heads. Please, just let me get out of here, I pleaded to no one in particular.

“Right then, dismissed,” said Gabriel. He looked as though he were going to say something to me but was distracted by an angel coming to him with a stack of forms to sign.

Relieved, I rushed out of the meeting room before anyone else could stop me. I slowed as I neared the massive window that allowed angels to look down at humanity. Well, it wasn’t really a window but that’s the best way to describe it. It was really more of an invisible barrier between the material and spiritual realms.

Seraphina joined me instead of following the other angels. She remained silent as we both gazed down at the world through the invisible barrier that separated Heaven from Earth.

“Are you well, Aziraphale?” she asked softly. “You always seem so troubled, so distracted, these days. It’s like you can’t wait to return to Earth,” she added playfully.

“Well, it’s just…” I faltered, hating the idea of lying to one of the few angels that was actually pleasant to be around. “Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing down there,” I said, pointing to the slowly spinning orb that was the world.

“I do know what you mean,” said Seraphina, her green eyes soft with understanding. “The world’s changed quite a bit, hasn’t it? But you’ve always been so fond of people, Aziraphale. Surely that’s not the only thing troubling you?”

I looked away, suddenly feeling horribly guilty. What could I say? How could I possibly tell her – tell anyone – that I was not only on friendly terms with a demon, but I found myself questioning the Divine Plan more and more as the centuries marched on? The twentieth century was horrible – two world wars, a near-nuclear war (and oh, how Crowley had lamented that – so unoriginal, he had exclaimed) and now this latest disaster.

They say that the Morningstar fell because he refused to serve in Heaven, but at least in Hell you had nothing to lose (at least that’s what Crowley always argued). When you hit rock bottom, there’s nothing left to hope for, Crowley once told me.

But an angel can fall. I could Fall. Crowley was right – I was a coward. I suddenly felt utterly alone as I gazed down at a world that seemed so foreign to me despite having lived on it for thousands of years.

“I had better go,” I said, avoiding the question. “It was good to see you, Seraphina. Take care.”

Seraphina frowned but nodded and stepped back.

“Godspeed, Aziraphale,” she said softly.

“Thank you, Seraphina,” I said before flinging myself through the ether and back down to Earth.


 

Normally flying is something I love – but today I couldn’t find any enjoyment as I soared over the dark waters of the Atlantic.

As the clouds thinned I saw the Florida coastline began to emerge. It was an overcast, grey day with a strong tailwind; a particularly strong gust nearly threw my off course but I was prepared. I tucked one wing and banked, spinning as I dived to get some speed. The clear water of the ocean was rushing up towards me but I pulled out of the dive about fifty metres from the surface.

I couldn’t see anything – no signs of survivors.

Disheartened, I glided to the coast and landed lightly on my feet.

A whirl of dark feathers suddenly caught my eye and I turned quickly. Maybe Crowley had -

“Oh, it’s just an eagle,” I said out loud to myself, slumping in disappointment.

“Well, that’s not a very warm welcome, is it?” said the golden eagle, puffing up its feathers in annoyance.

I blinked. Talking to animals was something both angels and demons could do, but it wasn’t talking in the literal sense. It was a bit like speaking through thoughts. And animals, unlike humans, could discern our true natures despite being disguised as humans.

“I beg your pardon, I thought you were someone else.”


“Hmmph, well if I’m not welcome…” the eagle said, preparing to take off.

“No, wait, don’t go!” I exclaimed, suddenly desperate to talk to anyone, even if it was an eagle.

“I am sorry. Please forgive my rudeness.”

The eagle lowered his wings and gave me an appraising glance with its piercing eyes. I remembered an old Medieval legend about eagles being able to look directly into the sun and casting out any of its young that were not able to do the same. I tried hard not to blink.

“Well, I must say you’re much more polite than your fellow angels. Been down here long?”

“Since the Beginning.”

“Ah. Well, I saw you flying earlier – I suppose you’re looking for the wreckage of that giant plane?”

“Yes, have you seen anything?” I said, trying not to sound too hopeful. Maybe there had been survivors after all.

The eagle shook his head.

“My eldest daughter – she’s just learning to fly – told me she saw what looked like fire fall into the ocean – near there,” said the eagle, pointing with his wing.

“Did your daughter happen to see any people, any at all?” I asked even though I knew it was a pointless question – it was impossible for any mortal to survive such a plummet.

The eagle shrugged (at least, as much as an eagle can shrug). “I don’t think so. Humans aren’t meant to fly. When will they learn?”

I smiled even though I felt slightly ill. “Can you blame them? Flying is wonderful.”

The eagle cocked his head at me, peering at me with brilliant amber eyes. “Yes, it is. You’re not bad yourself; that banking turn and dive you did earlier was incredible.”

“Thank you,” I said, blushing.

“Right, I’m off then. Hungry mouths to feed, you know.” The eagle shifted and spread his wings out, the feathers gleaming gold in the weak sunlight that had managed to break through the clouds.

“Good luck to you,” said the eagle, thrusting himself into the air. To my surprise he gave me a playful swipe to the back of my head with his wing, tousling my hair, before climbing.

“And groom your wings!” The eagle called out as he circled overhead once. “You’re making the rest of us look bad!”


 

“…. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’

I had returned to the pub two days later and there was complete silence in the air as the crowd listened to President Reagan’s final words as he addressed his country and the world.

I truly hoped they touched the face of God. I often felt that God had turned his face away from the world. But that wasn’t for a lowly angel like me to know, Gabriel had told me when I had tried to inquire about the pilots’ final destinies. Only God Himself knew that.

After the speech ended I considered ringing up Crowley but decided not to. Crowley sometimes fell into black moods that would take him days to come out of. Those were bad days, days when I was suddenly reminded that Crowley was a demon. But I knew he would come out of it in his own time – and to be honest I wanted some time to myself as well.

I reluctantly returned to my bookshop. It was late and dark and I really didn’t want to be alone but had nowhere else to go, nor anyone to talk to.

Once inside I locked the door and didn’t bother to turn on any lights. I knew the shop’s layout like the back of my hand and managed to find a way to an empty armchair. Once sat I stared out at the dark window, listening to the wind howl.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world,” I murmured, suddenly remembering Archimedes’s boast.

Pride goeth before the fall…I had been so fond of that quote but now the words burned like hot ash in my throat.

I couldn’t help anyone – free will was a divine right of humans (as well as angels and demons). I couldn’t save anyone.

Loneliness isn’t supposed to be an emotion angels feel, but then again angels are also not supposed to covet rare books, enjoy sushi restaurants and fine wine, and find more in common with a demon than his fellow angels.

I stared at the dark interior of my bookshop, suddenly feeling so alone. I drew my knees up to my chest and rested my arms on top of my knees, staring into nothing.

Without really thinking about it my wings unfolded and I wrapped them around myself protectively. Crowley had once pointed out that I couldn’t hide from the world forever and bury myself in my books. But then, I sometimes felt that Crowley did the same by his reckless rush for entertainment; he always had to be going somewhere – doing something. Crowley relished the rush of technology and science, of ideas and human innovation. I tried to keep up, really I did, but the world was changing too quickly for me to keep pace.

And things were so much more complicated now – Crowley had always said from the Beginning that there was no black and white, just shades of grey. One person’s idea of good was another person’s evil. The greatest crimes had always been committed by people who had truly thought they were doing good.

I knew that – the Holocaust had driven that point home with horrific brutality – and yet….

If that were true, that there really was no good and evil, then nothing really had any objective value. Friendship, honour, justice, courage, love…I had seen those qualities demonstrated in the most horrific circumstances by people who would put us angels to shame. If those things were real, then surely, surely there must be some real, pure goodness in the world?

Maybe that was why Lucifer had fallen, I thought, shivering as I pulled my wings in closer. Maybe the Morningstar had known that humans would one day surpass angels in grace and had refused to acknowledge humanity’s special place in Creation. And so he had fallen, taking a third of the angels with him.

Crowley had once told me (during a bout of extreme drinking) that he hadn’t meant to Fall. And I believed him.

“You don’t know what loss is, angel.”

Crowley’s words echoed in my end as I pressed my face against my arms. I had seen many humans adopt this pose when distressed and now I understood why – it was comforting in way, like being held. Only there was no one to comfort me. Just razor-sharp memories that wouldn’t go away.

One downside of being an angel is a perfect memory. I couldn’t forget the horrors I had seen…the screams…the weeping…even if I had wanted to. They danced in front of my closed eyes, mocking me. I dimly realised my eyes were damp but didn’t care – there was no one to see me.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, unsure of whom I was even speaking to. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”

Sometimes the world’s just too loud.