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The Girl's Guide To Earning Your Wings

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This is the first rule: I can't touch them. I can't hold their hands, or let them cry on my shoulder, or grab 'em by the scruff of the neck and shake 'em, even though sometimes I really think that's what they need.

I'm telling you this because nobody told me. I had to figure it out the hard way when I tried to hug a girl in a frat house in Indiana and her arms went right through me. I felt like I was gonna hurl, and she looked like--well, like she'd seen a ghost.

And I guess she had. Ghost, angel, same diff.

We don't really haunt places, but if we ever start, I totally have dibs on the Viper Room.

This kid's name is Yancy, and that's gotta be part of his problem. He's sitting on this pile of rocks on the south coast of Connecticut, dangling his sneakers in the cold water of Long Island Sound. It's 1994. Some dopey rock star is going to kill himself in a couple of weeks, and that'll be like the green light for a lot of people like Yancy here. Yancy won't do anything dramatic like shoot himself. He'll just drink one beer too many some night, and another one after that, because it's the only thing that helps. And then he'll decide to see if it's still too cold to go swimming. He's been warned all his life about the undertow around here, but he'll forget. Or pretend to forget. He'll go quickly, but it'll feel very slow.

Here comes the second rule: we can't tell them the future, even when we can see it as plain as the freckles on a pretty girl's face.

The boy's sixteen, right? So I'm sixteen, too, when I perch on the rock next to his. I have on jeans with holes in the knees, just like his, but mine are black. I will go only so far to fit in with the times. I sit very still and let him notice me slowly, like something coming out of the fog.

"Do people call you Yance?" I ask him.

He blinks. "Uh, do you go to Waterford High?"

"I asked you first."

"No, they don't."

"No," I say, "I didn't."

You don't have to do this, I hope you understand that. You don't have to intervene, or interfere with life on the ground at all. Maybe you're too shy. Or too tired. Maybe you just really, really like Heaven and you want to spend eternity riding that one Ferris wheel on the boardwalk over and over and over again. Nobody is required to be a guardian angel.

Me? I just get really bored sometimes. It's not like I'm a nice girl or anything. I don't do it out of the goodness of my heart.

Yance has a squished pack of Marlboro Lights in his pocket and he takes one out and lights it. He doesn't offer the pack to me. Rude. I pick at the knees of my jeans and watch the water go swooshing by below us. "The thing is," I say, "High school ends."

"Sure," he says, but he doesn't even look up from the water. He doesn't believe me, and why should he? Being sixteen, right now, I can remember how it felt, like a thousand pinpricks underneath my skin. Like it would never stop unless I tore myself open.

"I hear college is less shitty." I flick a pebble into the water. "Not that I'd know. But, hey, listen, the minute you turn eighteen you can go down to the Greyhound and take the bus to..." I squint at him. "Montreal, I guess? Jeez, it's cold up there, though."

He blinks at me from under his heavy eyebrows. His eyes are red-rimmed from smoke and wind and refusing to cry. "How'd you know I wanna--"

"You wanna go there because you like your French class. You hate every other subject in school except driver's ed. Last summer you got beat up three times: twice by your older brother and once by three guys from the swim team. You draw little crucifixes in the corners of all your homework, which kinda makes people think you're creepy. But for what it's worth, I'm pretty sure you're not a creep," I tilt my head and look him up and down. "I'm not a big fan of the stringy-haired look, but hey, it's your funeral."

Yance's face has turned white except for the eyes and two bright spots in his cheeks. The cigarette twitches between his fingers. "Who the fuck do you think you are?" he snaps.

I stand up and smile. And I show him.

Rule number three: Be very, very careful with your wings. Think of them as a treasure. You know, a Gift from God.

Surprise, surprise, I don't always do what I'm told.

Maggie and me, we got the dye from a nice tailor in exchange for a bunch of seashell jewelry. We spent a whole afternoon crammed together in the tiny little bathroom at my place, and we ruined both our skirts and broke the ceiling fan, but it was totally worth it the next day when we went to the cold pizza breakfast buffet. Don't take this the wrong way, but it's too bad you weren't here yet. You should've seen everyone's face when we marched in. Two girls, hand in hand, with fishnet stockings and wings the color of blood. It was radical.

Unfortunately, it didn't last. The color was already changing by dinnertime, from crimson to a cozy candy-heart red, like the white was somewhere inside, trying to shine through. By the end of the week, it had faded to this crazy color halfway between hot pink and Pepto-Bismol. As you can see, it stuck.

Which brings me to rule number four: God's never as funny as he thinks he is.

As soon as Yance gets an eyeful of the whole wing setup, he backs away from me, scooting as far as he can toward the edge of his rock. Fantastic. He's gonna fall into the water right now, and it'll be all my fault. If I don't get my butt kicked out of Heaven, that'll be a miracle.

"Calm down," I tell him, in my best tidings-of-great-joy voice. "I'm not one of the scary ones. They didn't even give me a flaming sword."

Usually this is where they ask if they're dreaming, or if they're high, or if this means they have to start going to church. This boy, though, he just looks at me with his big eyes and I get to watch him figuring it out. "You're, like, a dead girl," he says.

"For a while now," I say.

He nods. The tears he hasn't cried yet are shining in front of his eyes. "Were you like me?"

I would really like to lie, but even little fibs are frowned upon. "Nah, Yance, I was way cooler." I sit back down, keeping my wings out so the wind can play in my feathers. "And way stupider. I never learned to skateboard. I never got to go to New York and see a band at CBGBs. I never even worked up the nerve to eat sushi."

"I don't care about any of that stuff."

"Well, come on, even I didn't really care about the sushi." He doesn't smile. "Listen," I say, "I know that you don't care about school, and this town is lonely, and your parents kind of suck, and you don't know anyone who understands you. I'm not gonna pretend I understand you. So you don't have to believe me, despite the fact that I obviously have awesome cosmic knowledge."

He rubs his face very hard with the end of one floppy flannel sleeve. "Cosmic knowledge?"

"Can't tell you."

"'Course not," he says, and he makes a sound that might be a snort, or a sniffle.

"Just trust me, you don't have the choice you think you have. It isn't like you get a boring life or no life at all. It's a boring life for now, and maybe an awesome party later. This doesn't have to be the only world you know. There are buses to Montreal, Yance. There are boys there who play guitar." He shoots me a doubtful look. Okay, guess again. "There are boys there who play hockey?"

He blushes as pink as my wings and doesn't say anything. We sit for a minute. He keeps twisting his hands on top of his knees. There are no boats on the water or anything, it's just moving with the wind. It's never this cold in Heaven and I would never say I missed it.

"Eighteen is kind of far away," he says, and his voice cracks in a way that makes it sound exactly like mine. I can feel it hurting in my throat.

"Oh, Yance, sweetie," I say, "I know. But take it from an expert: it's even further going the other direction."

I stay until he's done crying, and then I walk off into the sunset.

This wouldn't have worked on me. I didn't listen to anyone when I was a kid, you know? True, I never had any supernatural visions. Well, only once. I thought the carpet was yelling at me. Shrooms may have been involved. And I wound up in Heaven in spite of all that stuff, even though it wasn't my personal idea of heaven until Maggie turned up with her boots on.

But now that I know there's a happy ending--I know the ending to almost every story--I think these kids should relax and enjoy the rollercoaster as long as they can. Whatever they're going to grow up to be, whether they turn out gay or straight, punk or metal, capitalist pigs or techno-guerilla revolutionaries, I always want to get them to chill out. Just be people. Just be.

And, yeah, maybe it's a little easier not to sweat the small stuff when you're already an angel. So I try to keep it simple, when they ask me what to do instead of dying. I would never tell anyone to hike to Mecca or follow the Ten Commandments. Some people like the Golden Rule, but even that's more words than you really need to say.

This is the fifth rule, and it's the only rule I've ever really wanted to follow: Love always wins. The universe is built that way. Love always wins.

Did I just say that? Somewhere, God is totally laughing at me.