Sunday, July 19

Visiting old Ghosts: Touched by an Angel (Oct 2004)

Riley flexed and stretched tired fingers and rubbed the back of his neck. His muscles were sore from sitting in the same position for almost a full day, and his vision had started to blur whenever he looked at the same spot for more than ten seconds. He had not had proper sleep for more than a week now, enraptured with ideas and plots that had taken over his conscious mind. He could now get that long-overdue rest without worrying about that mouse of an editor plaguing his voice message box. After a bit of refining he would call that little pest and tell him he could start arrangements with the publisher. Riley got up, leaving a deep indentation on the cushioned seat. He did not want to stop working, but he was in sore need of a caffeine boost. He was beginning to see double, and the room, messy as it already was, looked like a hellhole straight out of one of his stories.

The kitchen was no better off. Empty pizza boxes lay in stacks on the kitchen counter, some having been there for a few months. He was also running out of clean mugs; the sink was laden with unwashed ware, the dishwasher broken down and forgotten. The one he was using to fill cold coffee was already crusted with a stain that would not come off so readily. It was all her fault. If she hadn't left, this place would not have fallen to such a sorry state. The kitchen had been her domain, not his, and she had left it as easily as she had left him –Riley poured the last of the black, thick liquid and exited the kitchen as quickly as he could, not wanting to linger there lest ghosts of unwanted memories come and haunt him. Already he could feel their silent, hungry fingers grasping at him, pulling him down to a place he had long since forsaken. No, he had to finish his story. He had no time to go back to that awful place. Yes, he had to go back to work. Sick, sadistic readers were hungry for his book. He would rather indulge these tormented souls than face his memories. Engrossed in his battling thoughts, Riley neglected to notice the box of books lying in his path. Riley stumbled forward like an eight-month-old trying to run without knowing how to walk, his neck jerking painfully back. He lost his grip on the mug, and its momentum saw it hurtling toward his writing table, sending coffee splashing all about its path. Of all the places it could fall, the mug just had to land on the typewriter. The loud crack of ceramic hitting metal jarred Riley to his senses. He got up to his feet and rushed to the table that occupied half of the living room, but what was done could never be undone. Riley's heart sank deeper than he thought possible when he saw the typewriter. His typewriter. Pieces of the broken mug lay scattered all about the old equipment, but most were lodged between the keypads. A dark blotch was spreading on his finished manuscript, smearing the ink into an unreadable mess, but he did not even glance at his damaged work.Riley burned with anger, a strong surge of emotion he thought he had long buried. He lifted the heavy chair and flung it away, partly to vent his anger, but mostly because he did not know how to react to this loss. The sound of breaking glass pierced the night air, but Riley was too numbed to care what he'd hit. He did not even feel the gust of strong wind that invaded the room, sending papers flying madly, wet with the tears he could not cry, and cold as his stone heart that was now covered with ice. The tempest that raged inside of him was by far greater than the midnight storm that found its way into his home through the broken window.
* * *
"What do you mean you can't fix it!"The question that came out as an enraged snarl mirrored his emotion. This shop was the one place in the whole state that serviced old modeled typewriters, but the little rabbit in front of him was saying he couldn't do anything. After tearing the phonebook apart looking for options, Riley had nowhere else to go. This mothball-smelling shop in the middle of a town he had never heard of before was his only hope. Now it felt like he was being denied life itself, and after losing so much, he couldn't handle anymore loss."Just name your price." The rabbit shook with every word that came out of Riley's mouth. "I…I can't. There's too much damage! And we don't have the parts –""Well get the bloody parts!" He could no longer contain his anger. The rabbit shirked away, cowering as he faced the bigger man's wrath. His thin, leathery neck almost disappeared into the safety of his neatly pressed striped shirt. "This model is very old. An antique." He paused, searching for proper words that wouldn't offend this large hound dog with fiery hair and smoky eyes. "I have another just like this. You could –""If I wanted another one I wouldn't have come to this stinking rat trap in the first place!" Riley grabbed the typewriter from the counter and stormed out of the dimly lit shop, leaving behind a shaken but immensely relieved rabbit. Cold autumn wind blasted onto Riley's face as he yanked the door open, but he ignored the biting draft just as he ignored the pain in his still tender palm. The broken mug had done more than hurt his heart.Clutching the typewriter tightly till its metal edge bit into his ribs, Riley walked without a particular destination. His steps were uneven, sometimes quickening, sometimes slowing down to almost a crawl. His unclasped long coat whipped about madly, his untucked shirt flapping like a fledgling trying to take flight, deepening its permanent creases. Riley looked about when the wind no longer bit deep into his bones. His surroundings were unfamiliar; shady trees filled most of the landscape, with brown and golden leaves crowning each broad trunk. Leaves were falling here and there, giving up life to rejoin the earth as autumn gave way to winter. Sunlight glinting off a flat, dark surface just beyond a dense cluster of trees hinted a lake, or a pond at least. Riley had never been to this remote, sleepy town before, but he assumed he was standing on the grounds of a park of sort. Now that his anger was almost spent, Riley felt suddenly tired and empty inside. The emptiness was a familiar companion that was almost welcome. By feeling empty he could crawl back to the impenetrable fort he had built almost two years ago. But his legs ached too much for him to walk any further. Riley paced to a bench facing the lake and sat down feeling much older than his twenty-six years. Under the shade of a large oak, he stared at the lake without seeing its still waters. Instead, he was seeing something deeper, further back within his past.Riley stroked the typewriter resting on his lap, feeling its familiar indents and elevations. The surface of some of the buttons was smooth with wear. Right then he felt like throwing the bloody thing away into the river, but his body refused to budge an inch. He felt betrayed. Why must the typewriter break down, leaving him just as she had? Why had she betrayed him in the first place? She had promised to always be there, but she had lied! Without thinking, Riley stroked his chin. A few weeks' growth of beard sliced into his inflamed palm, but he invited the pain willingly. She had hated facial hair, but wasn't here anymore. Why should he care?No, he was not ready to return to that place. Riley then diverted his thoughts to the irony in his life. Once he had been so confident that with money he could do anything. Apparently he couldn't be more wrong. Money could not repair his typewriter, and it certainly hadn't stopped her from leaving him – "What are you looking at, Mister?"Riley snapped back to the present. The source of the voice that had so rudely jarred him back was an imp with a crown of golden hair. Riley looked around. The sun was already casting long shadows. Which stupid circus owner had let loose this wide-eyed beast? Trying not to be obvious, he gave this newcomer a closer look. Bright blue eyes were studying him back without a hint of fear. The white gown she was wearing looked new; surely someone was having a birthday party nearby. But upon closer look Riley spotted something wrong. The base was dripping wet, as if she had been playing in the lake. He had not heard splashing noises to betray her presence. Odd. "Mister?" She tilted her head to show her curiosity."What?" His sharp reply startled the little imp, but he had never been good with children. Riley sighed. She did not show any signs of running away. Instead, she clambered up the bench and seated herself beside him without being invited. Her proximity unnerved him, not from the coldness of her skin, but from the shock of human contact. He had long ago given up on other people, seeing them as less than human, barricading himself deep within his emptiness. "Is that yours?"Her little fingers neared the typewriter, but Riley jerked it away. Broken as it was, no one could touch his typewriter, especially a shameless imp! She touched her chin in a contemplative manner."Hmm. You love it very much, huh? Had something like that once, you know." She did not sound like a curious six-year-old. "What? A typewriter?""No. Miss Cynthia." Riley forced himself not to be curious. "She's my doll." She had answered his unspoken question.Despite himself, Riley could not help but ask, "What does that have to do with a typewriter?" "I loved Miss Cynthia and carried her around. Aunt Eleanor said my mom gave Miss Cynthia to me when I was very little." At the word 'mom' she gave a distant, wistful look. She leaned closer with each passing minute, chatting away as if she had known Riley all her life. Riley edged further but let her speak, not actually hearing her words as he didn't care for little girls' dolls. But he decided to cut her off when she was saying something about a boy named Bobby hiding her doll and not returning it."What's your point?" "I lost Miss Cynthia but I have Jenny and Alice and Bobby and Elsa." She suddenly came closer and spoke in a lower voice. "Don't tell anyone. I like Jenny the most but not Alice. She smells funny. I'm Callie."Like all children, this one had a tendency to jump from one topic to another, but he did not have to ask her about all those names to know they were her friends. Human friends. Her incessant prattle didn't hold any meaning for him, but the message her words carried shook his emotional fort to its foundations. He had lived his life much longer than this young brat lived hers, but she had shown so much more wisdom in dealing with life and loss. Riley could no longer hear the little girl talking. In his mind he saw his great fort crumbling to dust, and for the first time, the stone heart encased in ice deep within the solid structure began to pulsate with life. As he absently stroked the typewriter, memories came flooding in, unstoppable now that the gate had broken away. Sarah smiling at him when he woke up every single day. Sarah sleeping within the safety of his arms, their bodies a perfect fit. Sarah watching him as he tried hard to concentrate on his writing. Sarah's sweet voice floating from the kitchen as she sang while cooking the Italian spaghetti he loved so much. Sarah waiting on the sofa in front of the television when he arrived home late at night, insisting on waiting for him even though he had warned her he would be late. Sarah shaving him with great care, slowly but surely sliding the sharp blade on his jaw. Sarah waiting excitedly as he opened the wrapping that concealed his typewriter. Then Riley saw Sarah on the hospital bed with an intravenous line attached to each hand. He saw her slipping away, yet he could not do anything for her but watch as the cancer gnawed at her bones and other organs. How many nights had he stayed awake for fear of her going away without saying goodbye? And then he saw the casket lowered into the ground, the finality of the scene always keeping him awake on his empty bed.Blaming Sarah for leaving him had been the simplest way to deal with her death. By being angry with her, he could forget her suffering and his helplessness. Anger had fueled him, helping him wake up every morning on a bed much too big for him alone, had been his companion that filled the empty void inside. But Riley could no longer blame Sarah, not after what this girl had made him see. Neither could he blame the cancer that had stolen her away from his arms. Now he felt like he was the one betraying her by refusing to face reality. Added weight on his lap told him the girl was resting her head there. He looked down and saw her sleeping, and he did not know what to do. Sarah would have known.As Sarah's face returned, a surge of emotions long buried and forgotten burst from the depths of his soul like an active volcano erupting after a millennia lying dormant. He welcomed these strong feelings as he had never done before, and for the first time since Sarah's death, Riley embraced life. He looked down. The girl was shivering. Without moving much, Riley took off his coat and blanketed her small frame. She turned and smiled at him. "Are you a writer Mister? People don't walk around with type…typewriters."Riley smiled. He had forgotten how, having been so used to wearing a permanent glare to mask his loss, driving people away in the process, but this girl's sleepy voice, so trusting, made him remember. "Will you read me your story Mister?"Riley did not have the chance to answer. Little Callie had snuggled deeper and was fast asleep. He smoothed straight, silky hair from her face and leaned back, letting memories of Sarah take over his very being. Callie was nowhere in sight when Riley woke up. He was comfortably blanketed by his warm coat; she must have had covered him with it while he was sleeping. He had not felt the little girl slipping away, but he assumed she must have gone back home, wherever that was. When Riley stood up to stretch stiff muscles, he found a small shoe at the foot of the bench, its black surface shining in the morning sunlight. Callie must have left it behind.Riley searched the area for the nearest house. Maybe people around here knew the little girl and would know where she lived. He had to return the shoe; it was the least he could do to return the immense favor she had unknowingly done him. He was more than hungry when he finally found a big house filled with children running about. A sign at the gate had read 'Osler Community Orphanage'.A middle aged woman, her hair tied in a neat bun and her apron stained with brown gravy, answered his polite knocks at the main door. The lines on her face told him she was made to smile. She was not smiling now though, but looked at him with controlled suspicion. Riley unconsciously smoothed his hair. He must have looked like a common crook with unkempt beard and hair and clothes full of creases. "Sorry. I'm Riley O'Brien, and I'm looking for a little girl named Callie. I'm wondering if you know her?" Those were the most polite words he had uttered since Sarah."Sorry, sir. There's no Callie here." The slight pause between words revealed that she was not telling the whole truth. It was only natural to protect those under her care from perfect strangers. "She left this," he offered, holding out the little shoe.The woman took out a pair of glasses from her shirt pocket and put them on. She gave the shoe a close inspection. "Sorry. I've not seen this before." The woman sounded agitated somehow. She made a show of closing the door to end the conversation, but Riley pressed the door against the wall. Her strength was no match to his."Wait. She said something about something. A doll. Miss Cynthia?" Blood drained from the woman's face.
* * *
As Riley sat in front of the computer, eyes fixed on the glaring monitor, he made himself think of the conversation he had had with Mrs. Eleanor Green, the lady from the orphanage. He had reasoned out later that his experience with Callie had only been a dream, a hallucination at best, but everything felt too real to be a mere dream. Her weight, her warmth, even her shiny golden hair had been all too real. But there was no denying what he had gone through was an outright impossibility.Mrs. Green had brought him to her office and had taken out a piece of newspaper for him to read. It was dated November 19th, 2001, a good three months back. But the picture of a little girl and the headline that accompanied it had had him taken aback. "Girl found drowned in lake" was the single-line title, written in big, bold letters, but Riley had found himself doubting the printed article. Callie's smiling portrait had gazed back at him, mocking his senses and sanity. Impossible, his mind had shouted over and over again. Bloody impossible! Riley smiled softly at the memory. Miss Cynthia returned his gaze from beside the computer. It looked as if it had seen better days, an eye sewn back to its original place, and both arms crudely sewn back at their shoulder joints. The doll was smiling back at him, its wide eyes staring, never blinking, and never living. It had taken much persuasion on his part to get the lady to part with it, as the doll was something of personal value to her, but he had to have it for his latest project. Riley gave the doll a secret little smile. The sound tapping of buttons on the keyboard, fast and constant, filled the silent night.
* * *
Riley stood still in front of the tombstone, suspended in a moment of silence as he bowed in reverence to the gentle serenity that floated all about the hilltop cemetery. A cool breeze caressed his smooth face and made gentle waves on his neatly pressed blue shirt. The event that had transpired at the lake still made him question his sanity of that moment, but he believed now things happen for a reason, just like what Sarah used to tell him as she lay helpless on her deathbed."Hey, kiddo. It's me, Riley." He felt more comfortable talking out loud even though he knew no one would be listening. "I brought you Miss Cynthia. Remember her?" Riley took out the doll, looking much more decent now after having it cleaned up thoroughly and repaired by professional hands. With deeper reverence than he would normally give an inanimate object, Riley settled the doll against the gray stone tombstone. He spent a moment looking at the doll in silence, wanting to say much more, but unable to say anything appropriate. "And remember you asked me to read you a story? Well, I've written a new one, and it's already on sale. My editor said it's the best I've ever written, and it's totally different from my previous books. He always says that to keep me writing. So I want you to decide if it's any good or not. It's about a man who thought life had given up on him, who had given up on life, and it took a little girl to jolt him back to the real world. I named the story 'Touched by an Angel'. "Before I go on, I want to thank you. I don't believe in ghosts, and I don't believe in spirits. To me, dead is dead. But my wife Sarah used to believe in angels, and she told me once whenever a child dies, that child becomes an angel. So I guess you are an angel, Callie. And you've helped me a lot. You've made me see life in a different way, and made me believe that things really do happen for a reason." Riley's eyes gazed everywhere but at the tombstone. Unshed tears were starting to pool behind his lashes. "The shoe they never found, it's intended for me, wasn't it? I hope it was."Riley sat cross-legged on the grassy ground in front of Callie's resting place on the hill overlooking a vista of newly sprouted green leaves and grass and a silver line of the river sparkling in the soft afternoon sun. As he opened his book and read the first chapter, he envisioned a little blue-eyed angel looking down at him, smiling as she held Sarah's hand and guided her to the place where she belonged.