My grandmother stared at the wall when we came to visit her in the nursing home in Santa Fe. The smell of sickness waited outside the room but didn’t dare come inside.
“Shooting stars are angels,” she told me, as the evening shadows drew the shape of her motorized bed on the wall. Through the window, I thought I saw shooting stars, but they could have been reflections from the cars out in the parking lot.
She told me the shooting stars were emissaries of God, their holy fire igniting gasoline on deep water. She told me, and I believed, that they were angels falling, hair awash in liquid flame, too hot for any human to catch and hold.
When I awoke the next morning there were no bodies. Just deep black stains all over the road, hot when I touched them, sucking at the backs of my heels. My mother said it was tar. I didn’t believe her.
I was in my room when the angel first spoke to me.
“I come from Heaven,” it said. “I need your help.”
I didn’t know whether it was lying. I wasn’t scared even though I felt small. Small, and not fit to walk on angelic, blessed ground. In the Bible story, Moses took off his sandals, because the ground was holy. I slipped off my high tops, as a precaution.
Angels were holy, I knew.
I stared as it perched on the top of my bunk bed. I had begged and pleaded with my parents for a bunk bed, but I was too scared to sleep on the top bunk just yet.
Now the angel sat there.
“What can I do?” I had asked.
It leaned close, and I felt heat, hot breath in my ear. It was the exact smell of pinon pines in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The hot breath spoke of sprouting plants breaking through seed husks. It spoke of molten fire tearing through the foothills. It was the heat of the Earth itself, baked and cracked in the afternoon sun.
“Stay with me,” it said, and I nodded.
What could be wrong with that?
Its breath was in my ear as I played hopscotch with Jonathan from up the road, and its voice was in the sound of the wind chimes as I ate dinner with my parents. When I asked my parents to set a place for it, they just laughed. The wind chime echoed the dull quality of their voices.
I don’t think it wanted to leave me, not even when I had to go to school.
But the angel wouldn’t enter the church. It stopped at the door, moving away from the candles and Jesus, glass tears and real-looking blood around the crown of thorns and the nails in his hands.
“I won’t go in,” it said, and I shook my head. That didn’t make sense.
“You’re an angel,” I told it. Maybe the fall had knocked all the thoughts from its head.
It wouldn’t come any nearer. I thought maybe it feared that musty church smell, the pews covered in burgundy. Maybe for the angel, the church was only a pale imitation of heaven, a facsimile, a dream.
“You don’t have to look,” I said. “You can just look down at the floor.”
“I can’t go in,” it repeated, and stepped away from me.
I took its hand. I had never touched it before. Its skin was cool, like sea glass. And then it was burning me, hotter than anything I’d ever touched before, hotter than the campfires my dad made when we used to camp with my grandparents, when Grandpa was alive and Grandma wasn’t in a home. When I pulled away, there was a raised white weal, like dripping wax, in the shape of its fingers.
I did not cry.
It did not come with me when my family went to see Grandma that afternoon, either. As we left the edge of town, I saw it raise its hand.
My grandmother was sitting in one of the wheelchairs. She looked straight at the wooden cross on the wall.
“Angels watch over you,” she said.
And then she spoke of all the different angels. Angels clad in white. Angels like wheels within wheels, and angels covered in wings and eyes and the words holy, holy, holy. But she didn’t describe anything like my angel.
“Why do angels exist?” I asked.
Her hand swept my shoulder, more like a pine branch than anything else. I looked down, touched it. Her skin was soft and shiny, blurring around her wedding ring, her watch with its dotted sapphires. “Angels guard you in all your ways.”
She’d always smelled of Lysol and of baking. Now she smelled like nothing and hospital soap. The smell clung to my clothes, even after we left the home.
The angel was waiting for us once we crossed back into town. The light was fading, and its shadow was long. Its eyes were flat, like deep water, but with a phosphorescent green flame eating away in their depths.
“Who are you waving to?” my mother asked, but I could tell she didn’t expect a reply.
The next morning, the top bunk was empty. I realized it as soon as the pale light broke through my window. I climbed up, felt the sheets. They were warm, as though they’d just come out of the dryer. If I held them for too long, they would burn into my flesh. On the back of my hand, I still carried the angel’s fingerprints, scorched remnants of its passing.
I was already struggling to recall what the angel looked like. Despite my efforts to picture its face in my head, the image dissolved when I tried to grasp it, slippery as dreams after waking. I picked at the burn with a dirty fingernail.
New skin, frail as tissue paper, was already growing over the wound. It wrinkled in the morning light, like my grandmother’s hands.