Aziraphale had left the room, and Crowley was alone.
He was going to get a cup of cocoa, something to sip as he and Crowley discussed the latest developments in their work with young Warlock Dowling. Crowley, though, restless and a bit nosy, started to wander around the angel’s back room, looking at all the books and trinkets on the shelves and tabletops.
There were the Wilde first editions, some of Aziraphale’s most treasured belongings, placed neatly in their glass cabinet, protected from dust and curious hands; various books of prophetic and religious significance; some small statuettes and what-nots, gifted to him by acquaintances and colleagues and friends over the years; and loads of other odds and ends Crowley couldn’t exactly identify.
But then, on the far end of a bottom shelf near the backdoor, Crowley saw something he had never noticed before. A wooden chest, very old, but also very clean. Not a spot of dust or a single scuff marked its polished surface. It had a shiny brass latch which lifted easily and noiselessly under Crowley’s careful touch. Inside, he found something unexpected.
Dozens of small, smooth rocks, some the size of his fist. Many smaller. A few larger. All lying on a bed of browned grass, the kind you might find in a child’s Easter basket or in a Nativity set. Some had yellowed googly eyes pasted to them, and some also had little tufts of gray or black hair.
“What in Heaven...” he murmured, lifting one out to examine it, but quickly dropping it back in place and closing the chest--nearly silently thanks to a small miracle--when he heard Aziraphale clear his throat on reentering the room.
“What is it, dear?” Aziraphale asked.
“Oh, er,” Crowley said, spinning around suddenly. “Nothing, just...looking around.”
“Um-hmm,” Aziraphale intoned, taking a sip from his mug as he made his way over to his seat. “I see you’ve found my collection.”
“Collection?” Crowley asked, unable to produce a proper response.
“Well, one of them, you see,” said Aziraphale, and rather than sitting, made his way over to where Crowley was standing and opened the chest.
He peered inside sadly.
“They’re essentially immortal,” he said, almost inaudibly.
“Pet rocks,” said Aziraphale. “Popular in the last half of the last century.”
“No, the bit about them being immortal,” said Crowley.
“Oh, that,” Aziraphale said with a slow sort of nod. “You see, a pet rock cannot die. You don’t have to feed it, water it, take it out for walks. Seems like a fun pet, but you see, the problem is they’re essentially immortal. They outlive their owners. They’re damned to an eternity of watching their loved ones die.”
“Angel...” Crowley said quietly, uncertain as to whether or not Aziraphale was serious, or in his right mind.
“At least, that’s what Mrs. Thornton from across the street told me one evening,” Aziraphale went on.
“Mrs. Thornton? The...the stripper with the acid problem who worked across the way in the seventies?” Crowley said, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, taken aback by Crowley’s response. “I had her over for tea one afternoon. She needed a place to hide for a few hours. You remember how her husband was.”
Crowley scowled. “Yes. I remember. I’d have liked to have run him over with my car a time or two.”
“Just once would have been enough.”
“A few more times for good measure,” Crowley said, quite serious.
“Anyway, I had her over for tea, and it was like she knew something terrible was bound to happen. She was talking about pet rocks, her pet rock specifically, and she told me that, that they’re essentially immortal and they’re damned to watch their loved ones die.”
“A bit morbid,” Crowley said, leaning against the wall by the shelf, looking down into the chest at what he was now certain must have been at least fifty pet rocks.
“Yes,” sighed Aziraphale. “Anyway, before she left, she told me, ‘Mr. Fell, you know, I can’t be certain how I know or what makes me think this, but I think you’ll outlive me.’” He cleared his throat. “And I told her, ‘No, that’s not true,’ you know, because I couldn’t let her think that was right. And it was so peculiar. She told me if and when anything happened to her, when she was gone, she wanted me to have her pet rock.”
“So hers is in here?” Crowley asked.
“Yes,” said Aziraphale. “It’s this one, actually.”
He pulled out a rock about the size of his palm, with a hand-drawn face with squinty eyes and its tongue sticking out and hair drawn in a rough, jagged line just above its eyes.
“I had no idea what a pet rock was at the time, so I asked. She laughed and told me how she could never trust herself to take care of anything living. The last goldfish she’d had, she said, jokingly of course, committed suicide just so it didn’t have to deal with her anymore. So she got a rock.”
Crowley chuckled, the sound tinted with melancholy.
“She passed a week later. Overdose. Her husband threw all her things out to the road in boxes. Well, two boxes. That’s all she had. All she could afford, really. And on top of the first box, as if by some Godly miracle or a chance of fate, this lovely little fellow was seated right on top. On top of her dancing boots, actually.” He laughed softly, and sniffled. “I’ve got those, too, actually.”
“You what?” Crowley laughed with him.
“Upstairs. I’ll show you that collection some time, too, if you like,” said Aziraphale.
“You collect the possessions of dead people,” said Crowley slowly, sobering.
“Yes,” said Aziraphale. “Only the ones that really meant something to me, the ones that really made an impact.”
“These rocks, then,” said Crowley, “every owner meant something?”
“Everyone means something, my dear,” said Aziraphale. “That’s why I let so few people in.”
He looked at the rock in his hand, turning it over a few times, and he let out a heavy sigh as he placed it back in the chest and closed the lid.
“I’m so sorry,” said Crowley. “I...”
“But of course, you know how it is,” said Aziraphale with a small sort of smile. “You’ve been here just as long as I have.”
“Yes, I suppose I do,” said Crowley. “You form attachments and before long they’ve broken off again.”
“Well,” said Aziraphale, looking up at him, “I think that’s enough of that for now. Would you like to go out? A walk? Dinner?”
“Sounds lovely, angel,” said Crowley, and they walked out together.