The cold milk made Aaron’s teeth ache as he spooned cereal into his mouth, careful not to dribble anything onto the front of his shirt.
He glanced across the kitchen table at his little brother, Stevie. The boy, who was supposed to be eating frozen waffles, was rolling a Thomas the Tank Engine train back and forth in front of his untouched plate.
Aaron was about to tell the boy to eat when his mother entered the kitchen, a smile on her face that reminded Aaron how lucky he was to have her as his mom.
Lori Stanley was actually Aaron’s foster mother, but her smile, and the way he felt about her, made that fact inconsequential. As far as he was concerned, Lori Stanley was as close to a real mother as he would ever know.
“How’s it going here?” she asked cheerfully.
Stevie didn’t respond, engrossed in the repetitive movement of his train.
“We’re good,” Aaron said through a mouthful of sugary cereal.
He needed to finish up or he’d be late for school.
A few more quick bites and he was done. He grabbed his bowl and stood to take it to the sink.
“It was nice, wasn’t it?” Lori asked as he crossed the kitchen. She stood beside Stevie’s chair. The boy didn’t notice, but that was just how Stevie was, lost in his world of autism.
“What was?” Aaron asked, absently placing his bowl in the sink and turning back toward his mother. He wondered if he’d need his jacket. The calendar said it was spring, but it was still cold.
“This,” Lori said, her eyes becoming sad as she gestured around the kitchen.
“Yeah, I guess,” Aaron answered carefully. “Are you all right?”
His mother shook her head, slowly at first, but gradually with more passion. “No,” she said, her voice cracking. “No, I am not all right.”
And suddenly Aaron knew exactly what was wrong.
His mother was dead. So was Stevie.
This life was dead.
Lori looked at him, her eyes awash with tears. “Do you miss it?” she asked, stroking the little boy’s hair as he continued to play with his train.
Aaron found himself crying as well. “Yes,” he whispered, wanting to go to her, to have her take him into her arms and tell him that everything was going to be fine. But something stopped him … something denied him that comfort.
“It got bad so fast,” Lori said. Wisps of smoke began to waft from her body.
“Lori!” Aaron cried as the smoke became darker, thicker, and tongues of flame appeared atop her head like a fiery crown.
He tried to move but couldn’t, some unknown force preventing him from going to her aid. Fire completely engulfed her now, and smoke obscured the kitchen, but Aaron couldn’t look away.
“So fast,” the blackened skeleton said once more. Sizzling fat ran from its empty eye sockets in a mockery of tears. Her burning fingers still patted Stevie’s hair.
“It’s going to get worse,” the little boy said unexpectedly, lifting his attention from the train to fix it upon Aaron, his gaze suddenly very much aware. “A lot worse.”
Then Stevie started to play with his train again.
As he, too, began to burn.
Aaron Corbet awoke with a start, and stifled a scream before it could fully escape his lips.
He blinked repeatedly, his eyes somehow watering from the smoke of the blaze that had consumed his mother and brother.
“Aaron?” asked a voice in the semidarkness of the bedroom.
He turned his head slightly on the pillow, expecting to see his girlfriend, Vilma, but instead he looked into the worried eyes of his dog, Gabriel, who lay on the mattress beside him.
“Bad dream again?” the yellow Labrador asked in the gravelly dog voice that Aaron had no difficulty understanding.
“Yeah,” Aaron said, reaching over to rub the dog’s golden-brown ears. “But I’m all right now,” he lied.
He was about to ask the dog where Vilma was, but as the murkiness of sleep began to recede, he remembered that she had gone back to Lynn, Massachusetts, to visit her aunt and uncle.
Aaron wished that she were here with him now; he could have used her arms around him, the warmth of her body pressed against his. Her very presence was enough to chase away any nightmare’s lingering effects.
While he loved Gabriel, a Labrador retriever was no replacement for a hot girlfriend.
“Getting up now?” Gabriel asked, sitting up, his thick muscular tail thumping against the bed. “Breakfast?”
“Not yet.” Aaron reached up and gave the dog’s blocky head a final pat, then turned over on his side, pulling the blanket around his ears. “It’s still early. Let’s see if we can grab a few more hours of shut-eye.”
Gabriel sighed with disappointment but didn’t argue, settling down almost immediately. Aaron listened to the dog’s breathing grow slow and heavy as Gabriel drifted off once more.
But sleep eluded him.
He tried to clear his mind, to focus on his dog’s steady snore, but all he could see when he closed his eyes was the vision of his mother and brother in flames, their ominous warning echoing in his ears.
“It got bad so fast.”
“It’s going to get worse.”
“A lot worse.”
Vilma Santiago opened her eyes to the early morning, thinking that things were the way they used to be, that nothing had changed at all.
That the past few months had been only a bad dream.
But, really, it was her old life that seemed like a dream.
She lay on an air mattress on the floor of her cousin’s bedroom and gazed up at the ceiling, at the cracks in the plaster that had always been the first things she saw when she awakened, when this used to be her room. She remembered all the times she’d lain there, early in the morning, before the rest of the house began to stir, wondering what the day would have in store for her.
School, homework, chores, making sure her younger cousins weren’t getting into any trouble. She’d never really thought about that life as she’d lived it, believing it all so predictable, so boring and inconsequential.
If only it could be that way again.
Vilma quietly rose from her bed, careful not to wake the little raven-haired girl who slept soundly in the bed next to her, wrapped in the Disney Princess bedding she’d received the day before for her seventh birthday. She picked up her clothes and shoes, and tiptoed to the bedroom door. Vilma hated to leave yet again without saying good-bye to the little girl, but the last thing she wanted, or needed, was a scene.
Her abrupt departure from the household six months ago had created enough problems, although Vilma didn’t see what choice she’d had. Her life had changed so dramatically since she’d become involved with Aaron. Since she’d learned what she really was.
Vilma stepped out into the hallway, quietly pulling the door closed behind her. She stood for a moment, breathing in the comforting aroma of freshly brewed coffee, then bent down to place her sneakers on the floor and pull on her jeans.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” asked a voice from behind her.
Vilma zipped her pants and turned to find her aunt Edna standing at the end of the hallway, in the doorway to the kitchen, her bathrobe wrapped tightly around her.
“Yes, please,” Vilma said, keeping her voice low. She grabbed her sneakers and followed her aunt into the kitchen, into the full smell of the morning brew.
“How did you sleep?” Edna asked as she poured coffee from the full carafe into a mug.
“Fine,” Vilma answered. Between the birthday party and the stress of being back home, she had been so tired that she probably could have slept soundly almost anywhere.
Vilma pulled out a chair and sat at the kitchen table as Edna set the steaming mug down in front of her.
“Thank you,” Vilma said, pulling the coffee closer, feeling its soothing warmth in the palms of her hands.
Edna retrieved a carton of cream from the refrigerator and grabbed a square metal canister filled with sugar packets from the counter. She placed both on the table, pushing them toward Vilma, then turned back to the stove to fill another mug with coffee. Silently, she sat down across from her niece, blowing on the scalding liquid before taking a short, careful sip.
Vilma added two sugar packets and a generous amount of cream to her cup, then took her first drink as well, closing her eyes and reveling at the strong brew. Coffee always tasted better in this house. It was as if the environment added a special ingredient that couldn’t be found anywhere else.
Maybe it was love. There had never been a day that Vilma had not felt wanted or cared for here. After her mother’s death, her aunt and uncle had brought her home with them from Brazil and had treated her as one of their own.
“Can I make you something? Some eggs or toast?” Edna asked, interrupting Vilma’s thoughts.
“No, this is good.” Vilma smiled, cupping the hot mug.
“It’s not a bother,” her aunt reassured her.
“I know, but I’m fine with just the coffee. Thanks.” She smiled again as she lifted the mug to her lips for another sip.
They continued to sit in silence, each wrapped in her own thoughts. Vilma knew the questions were coming, and she dreaded them. They’d been kept at bay yesterday with the excitement of Nicole’s party, but there was nothing to hold them back now—the questions about where she had gone and what she was doing with her life. If only there were easy answers. If only Vilma could tell her aunt the truth. But Edna would never understand—couldn’t understand.
Vilma’s life had changed dramatically. Her understanding of the world and how it worked had been totally flipped upside down and sideways.
Normal didn’t exist anymore, at least not for Vilma.
“Are you leaving today?” Edna asked in a seemingly casual tone.
Here it comes.
“Yeah. I have to get back.”
“To him?” The disapproval was obvious in her aunt’s voice. “To that Aaron boy?”
Vilma set her mug on the table. “Please,” she begged, “why can’t we just enjoy each other’s company without—”
“You leave us in the middle of the night, I don’t hear from you for weeks. How should I act, Vilma?”
Vilma could understand how it must seem to the woman, but the truth was so much worse. How was she to tell the woman who had been like a mother to her that she wasn’t even human, that she was the offspring of an angel and a mortal woman? And how could Vilma tell her aunt that there were forces out there … angels … Powers … that wished to see Vilma and other Nephilim like her dead?
The answer was simple: she didn’t. It was better, safer, to keep her family in the dark.
“I know how this must seem, but you have to trust me,” Vilma told her, looking away into her coffee mug, not wanting to see the disappointment in her aunt’s eyes.
“Your uncle thinks that I should force you to tell me what you are doing,” Edna said, gripping her coffee mug so tightly that her knuckles had gone white. “Tell us where you are living, and with whom.” She released the mug, bringing it halfway to her lips before stopping. “He believes you owe us that at least. We’re your family, Vilma. We should know these things.”
Vilma knew this conversation was going nowhere good.
“I’m sorry,” she said, bending down to pull on her sneakers. “I’m sorry that I’m disappointing you, but you really need to trust me on this.”
“How can you expect us to trust you when we know nothing about your life now?” Edna retorted. “You’re practically a child. And that boy didn’t even finish high school! What do you know about the world—really know about the world?”
If only you really knew about the world, Vilma thought. Really knew about the world. She stood and leaned in to give her aunt a quick kiss on the cheek.
“It’s better that you don’t know,” she said quietly.
“If you’re in trouble—,” her aunt began, eager to help in any way she could.
“I’m not in trouble, but I really need to be going,” Vilma interrupted. She retrieved her fleece jacket from the back of the cellar door, where she’d hung it the day before, and slipped it on.
“When will you be back? Will you at least call to let us know if—”
“I’ll be in touch,” Vilma said quickly, anxious to leave before things truly got out of hand. She loved her aunt but knew that tears would be coming soon.
She opened the back door, wondering if there would ever come a day when she could share the reality of her new life with her aunt and uncle. She desperately wanted to tell them everything, but it was too dangerous.
Aaron had lost his own foster family to the forces surrounding the revelation of what he was; Vilma was not going to risk the lives of her family.
“Vilma,” her aunt called out.
She turned to look at the woman standing there in her bathrobe, eyes damp with tears.
“We love you very much; if there’s anything we can do to …”
There was nothing Vilma wanted more at that moment than to bare her soul to her aunt. “I love you too, Aunt Edna. Tell Uncle Frank that I love him, Nicole and Michael, too,” she said instead, then stepped out the door, closing it firmly behind her before she, too, started to cry.
It was early, and Belvidere Place was eerily quiet, most of the inhabitants of the short dead-end street still fast asleep.
Vilma walked to the far corner of the backyard, where prying eyes, if there were any, would not be able to see what she was about to do.
She glanced back toward the house to be sure her aunt wasn’t watching from a kitchen window, then closed her eyes and took a deep breath, allowing the power that resided inside her—a power that she had suppressed while with her family—to flow up, and out of her body.
A pair of large feathered wings grew from the flesh of her back, passing like smoke through her clothing without causing so much as a tear. Flexing the powerful muscles in her shoulder blades, she fanned the air, stirring a small cloud of dust and dirt. It felt good to stretch after her wings had been furled for so long—a thought that would have been totally alien to her six months ago.
It was time to return to the place that had become her home since she’d accepted what she was and the purpose she served on the planet.
Vilma thought of the abandoned school in the western part of the state, seeing all its details in her mind’s eye as if she were looking at it through a window.
That was where Aaron would be waiting for her.
That was where she wanted to be.
And with that thought, she folded her wings about herself, their feathered embrace holding her tightly.
And from where she once stood, she was gone.
As if she’d never been there at all.
© 2011 Thomas E. Sniegoski