It’s not much later that we wrap-up the meeting. Veronica and her crew are the first to leave but not before she tells me it was fun and thanks me for the 'cool experience'. After that the others start to go and I say goodbye to everyone but Anna. I'm flooded with relief when she sticks around to help me clean up.
Even after twenty minutes of resetting the store and sweeping up the salt, the spookiness of the event sticks with me. I am jumpy as I set the alarm and lock the door.
The wind sweeps by us when we step out into the night. The power of the storm is evident all around. Large branches litter the ground. The air is cool and pungent with the scent of wet dust. In the distance the sky becomes brilliant with a spectacular display of lightning strikes. I cringe when the thunder sounds crashing down.
As the rumble fades, I turn to Anna and ask, “So what just happened here?”
“You feel it too?” she asks, eyes flashing. “I thought I was the only one…”
“Oh, I definitely feel something: Wonder? Confusion? Fear? I mean we just experienced something monumental and I'm not even sure that that thing is gone. The thought that it might still be hanging around makes my skin crawl.
“What I don't understand is how everyone else could go from quaking in their shoes to laughing the whole evening off. I mean that girl, Amanda, was so scared she was almost crying and yet she left excited and chipper without a care in the world. What I want to know is how did she forget it so fast? How could they all just dismiss it? Why does it seem like I am the only one still concerned about what the freak happened here?”
Ann slips her arm around my shoulders as a ghost of a smile turns her lips. She gives me a reassuring squeeze. “Now, now…” I realize I'm on the verge of tears again and I force my emotions down as she explains, “It’s because they didn't see it like you did. They only experienced the reality of the lights going out which was easily attributed to the storm.”
“And the noise? That terrible taunting noise?”
“Concealed by the human mind and forgotten. When something unusual happens we instantly question our senses asking was that real? Did that really happen or did I just imagine the whole thing? It’s a survival technique we learn really early on with the ability to filter away any curiosity that doesn't quite fit in with our given reality.”
I draw a deep breath. “How do you feel?”
“Uh, well, alarmed,” she says ticking it off with one raised finger, “I certainly don't want to do that again. And curious,” she says as she lifts another finger, “by our quick success at contacting something out of the norm and fascinated that our little group seemed to have the power to focus unlike any other group I've worked with.”
She turns and gives me a smile. “But whatever happened tonight is over now. Let it go. Oh and I almost forgot. I am also charmed by the fact that there is a resident ghost and that you can communicate with her so easily.”
I smirk. “Well, it usually isn't like that.”
She shrugs. “I guess then there is something other than just the storm in the air tonight.” And as that last word tumbles out of her mouth the sky seems to open as a drenching rain begins to fall. We squeak and scamper to our waiting cars. I don't know if it was our conversation or the cleansing cold rain but I find, that like the others, my fears have dissolved and only a light happiness fills my center as I drive home.
The next day is crazy busy with a sold out Meet-Your-Totem-Animal workshop in one conference room at eleven and a packed Stop-Stress-Eating-and-Smoking-With-Hypnosis at noon in the other. The store is packed with customers. There is even a line waiting at the counter where Cordelia, Heather and Anna work to process each transaction.
I watch Anna a moment and am instantly impressed with how easily she seems to have mastered the whole routine before I return to the back and unpack the new stock. By four, traffic has slowed to a point that I feel comfortable sneaking off for some meditation time.
I go to the unlabeled door, and when I am sure that no one is watching, I quickly fit the key into the lock and step into the old janitor's closet. I flipped the light switch and click the door locked behind me. Instantly the sounds of the store muffle. The low light is comforting as I settle on the oversized pillows and think about what I want to work on.
I decide to begin with a deep breathing technique that leads up to opening up my chakras and listening intently to Spirit. I practice regularly and like anything, practice make perfect so I am deep into my subconscious in no time. Soon I am filled with peace and contentment. After awhile I move my attention to the spot deep within my head between by ears knowing that sometimes there is a voice waiting to speak. Today it is silent. The only voice I hear is me.
After the exercise, I decide to make the journey to my sanctuary. So I go through the steps to visualize the empty room with the soft, black couches, and as I focus, the white marble stairs materialize. I move down the staircase one step at a time, deeper into my subconscious, into my sacred space.
The huge bed still waits dressed in green silks and oversize pillows stitched with green glass beads but as comfortable as it looks I prefer to lounge on the floor. I note the large silver crucifix that gleams from the wall, the glowing ruby at its heart and the green glass vase with its collection of iridescent peacock feathers but curiously a shoulder-high statue now sits beside it. I pause to run my hand over the beautifully carved onyx cat before going to the reflecting pond and settling on a large pillow. I breathe deep and let my ego rest as I close my eyes and relax. Soon I'm wrapped in comfort and am floating.
I open my eyes to find that I am in a bed in a room I've never seen before. I sit up and glance around. The room is small and very efficient. I realize I must be in a hotel room. I get up and go to the door and find a pool outside and beside it a magnificent garden.
The sun is shining and it’s a gorgeous day. I go out onto the patio thinking about looking for a suit so I can go for a swim when a rustling in the hedge next to me catches my attention. I turn to see a small white bird struggling to get free from a piece of string wrapped around its foot. I extract the bird from the trap, careful not to hurt its leg or its wings. When it’s free, I open my hand, but instead of flying away, it just lays exhausted in my palm so I carry the bird back into my room and offer it some cool water.
The bird dips its bill into the water and then tilts its head back to allow the water to run down its throat. I marvel at how fragile it seems, running my fingers over its wings, smoothing its feathers until I feel it, under my hands, begin to change. It morphs and I gape, and the very next second I find myself face to face with a six-foot, white-winged angel wearing only a white swath of cloth.
I am so startled that when he collapses, and he is very male, I almost don't break his fall but I do and I am able to get his arm over my shoulder and help him to the bed where he collapses.
“Your kindness will not be forgotten,” he tells me. Then he takes a white envelope out of somewhere, I'm not sure where he was hiding it, and holds it out. “I charge you with taking this to Bartamous in the utmost room of the building next door. Tell only him where I rest.” Then he closes his eyes and passes out.
I look at the angel, then down at the letter in my hand as I wonder if I should deliver it like he asked or sit here beside him. As I watch him, his breathing evens out to become a soft snore, so I turn my attention to the letter. The front is blank. It isn’t address to anyone. I turn it over and take in the seal on the back that makes it look rather impressive. He said to take it to the building next-door. How hard could that be?
The angel murmurs something low as he turns, his brow smoothing in his sleep, and as I gaze down at him I decide to do it. Quietly, I slip from the room, determined but a little scared too, careful to lock the angel in as I go out to the street and discover that the hotel room is hulking next to an enormous, pristine mall. I follow the wide walk, skirting the building following the walk until I find the door. Then I draw a resolute breath and push my way in. Immediately I collide with a group of midgets, or at least that's what I think they are until I take in their round faces, white beads and the pointed hats that set me wondering why they are dressed like garden gnomes. The group parts and flows around me as they go out the door. I think there must be twelve or thirteen of the little guys bobbing by me. I wait until the last of them walk past before I lift my eyes and take in the hubbub.
High above me small birds or large insects, and I really hope they are birds, buzz in small groups overhead. Right in front of me, blocking the entrance, two tall, thin, gray humanoids wearing matching silver jumpsuits stand locked in a debate. I whisper, “Excuse me,” as I brush by and am rewarded with startled glances from their huge dark eyes.
Ahead is a queenly, breathtakingly beautiful woman dressed in an extravagant old-fashioned gown. She is surrounded by what appear to be members of her court, all of them dressed in the same shade of blue as her gown. To my left is a man with a long mane of green hair. He flashes a smile of square, yellow teeth when he catches my eye. Then he lets out a breathy nicker before he calls, “Hey, I don't think I've ever seen You this way before…”
I turn and hurry through the crowd dodging a trio of large trolls and what I'm sure is a goblin. A backward glance proves he is trouble when I see him lift his nose and wrinkle it as he scents the air. I duck behind a man with two small horns on his head and clomping cloven feet. Then I spot the escalator and dash up it.
When the escalator comes to an end, I hop off to find the floor above is not as crowded. A tall, slim man with a long, narrow face and pointed ears casts me a curious glance as he shuffles by. I find the ascending elevator easily and ride it up to the next level. This floor is quiet and much more like an office or apartment building with neat hallways running off away from where I stand.
I continue up, going floor after floor, until the escalator ends and I find myself standing in a huge room that looks a lot like a bank. I am the only one here besides an innocuous looking guy behind a podium in the center of the room. He doesn't look up when I walk toward him so I'm able to look him over and take in his slight frame, large crooked nose, Buddy-Holly-glasses and balding head before I say, “Umm, I have a message for Bartamous?”
“From whom?” he asks though he still hasn't bothered to really acknowledge that I'm even there.
I send my eyes over the room taking in the long counter behind him and the tall walls bare but for a small mirror set in a twisting gold frame. A step closer to the podium reveals that he is working, adding symbols to a ledger. I watch his pen squiggle making marks in the strangest script I've ever seen. “Uh, I didn't get his name.”
He looks up and fixes me with eyes, huge and dark. “Well hand it over.”
Suddenly I feel like a mouse that's just found itself before an enormous owl and it takes every ounce of courage for me to squeak, “I can only give it to Bartamous.”
His mouth stretches in what I think is a smile. “I am he. Hand it over.”
I reach into my bag with a trembling hand and relinquish the envelope which he rips open with an oversized thumbnail. Then it’s like I've ceased to exist, his interest is so intensely focused on the letter. So when he flips it to the second page I began edging toward the door.
“Halt,” he commands and I freeze and wait as he reads for what seem an extraordinarily long time, until he's read the last word on what seems to be the eighth or ninth page, though the envelope didn't feel that thick when I'd handed it over. Then he lifts his eyes back to mine and asks, “Where is Azuriel?”
I am struck dumb under his eyes and can only shrug which seems to exasperate him and I notice when he pauses to pointedly draw a sharp breath before asking very calmly, “The one who gave you this letter?”
“He was injured and is resting in the hotel below.”
“A human with such wings… I haven't had such a problem in a very long time. What to do? What to do?” he mumbles as he takes off his glasses and cleans them. When he slides them back into place he glances down at me. I see an idea bloom into certainty as he gazes into my eyes. “You are Rachel, I take it?”
“How do you know my name?”
“It seems you have inherited something quite troubling and I can’t have you running around, going places you where never meant to be, even if you are a kind-hearted girl…”
“I don't understand. Why do you care where I go to in this hotel?”
A smile turns his mouth. “That's what you see this place, as a hotel?” He doesn't wait for me to answer. “That actually is sort of amusing.” The look in his eyes warm a little. “Well then just think of me as a maître who's had several complaints about your trespassing...” He slips off his glasses and runs his hand over his face. Then he gives a little nod. “I know. I’ll just have to seal your wings.”
“My wings?” I ask and I'm astonished when I glance over my shoulder to find a pair of enormous white wings sticking out of my back. “But why? How?” Questions tumble from my mouth but the words freeze when his lips part and start to move. At first I don’t hear anything, except maybe a gentle stirring in the air. Then his words hit me with a boom, crashing against me with such force that my ears begin to ring. The foreign words seem to gather a mass of their own as they resound around me and encircle me with their power. Then I am lifted off my feet as a bolt of hot pain splits my back and I whither as my wings come alive and burrow deep into my body.
I scream but even as the sound breaks from my mouth, it’s over and I am released to fall to my knees on the ground. I am panting. My face is wet with tears. But when I look back up at Bartamous I find the pain is gone and I am in the room still and quiet. He offers me his hand and pulls me to my feet and I still haven't found my voice when he takes a cloth out of his pocket to wipe my face. When he steps back, I throw a glance over my shoulder to see that my beautiful wings are now a measly three feet in length.
“Accept this.” His voice is firm. “For your own good I shall hide the truth within you that your flesh will be the keeper of a great and terrible secret.”
I just look at him.
“Well, do you accept?”
“Do I have to?”
“Worse things will happen if you do not. There are many walking your realm that would love to take your wings to replace the ones they had ripped from their own backs.” I must make a face or something because he puts power behind his word this time when he barks, “Do you accept?”
“Yes.” My voice is raw when I reply, “I accept.”
“Don't cry, you can still travel. You will even be able to come here if need be. You just won't be able to ascend any higher.”
A tear rolls down my cheek and he reaches out to catch it on the end of his finger. “There, there, don't cry. After all you do have other talents ….” His eyes fill with sympathy. “Here, reach out your hands.” When I draw back, he smiles. “I will not harm you. I'm just going to activate this for you. You know, help it along a little. Right now it is just an ember of potential but I'm afraid you will probably need it sooner than later now that your wings are clipped.”
“I thought you said you sealed them for my protection.”
“Even I cannot see how your future resolves itself. Like your psychics, I can only take an educated guess. So many things shift and change depending upon the choices you make. Reach out your hands.” This time his voice is a command that I cannot resist. In fact my hands rise and reach out to him on their own volition. He takes them in his and draws them to his mouth where he blows warmly on them, and for a second, I swear they warm and seem to glow.
Then he releases me. “Okay, that's it. Go child. You have completed your task. Return to your duties,” he tells me with a wave of his hand as he turns back to the book. He is already reading when he adds, “Oh and on your way down, stop on the third floor. Someone there has been asking after you.”
I turn and hurry out of the room. This floor is quiet the only sound from my tromping feet and my noisy sobs. Tears blur my eyes as my emotions crash inside me but I find the escalator without any trouble. I begin to calm when I step on the platform and take it down. When I reach the next floor I feel like me again and my curiosity gets the best of me when the escalator spits me out on to the third floor. This time, I slow down and take a look around as I make my way across the space. I pass a corridor and when I pause to glance down it, I notice that the door at the end is standing ajar. For a moment I think I see someone who looks very familiar step out before being called back inside and the sight causes my curiosity to bloom.
I abandon the escalator and walk down the corridor to the door that is still partly open. The voices coming from inside are so familiar that I can't help but push the door open, and much to my surprise, I find my Great-Aunt Elsa and my grandparents in the room on the other side. They are all here together in this room on the third floor so I visit for a while before I say goodbye and go back. Only this time it feels different when I ride the escalator down to the next floor.
I look up to see a giant moon, hanging low in the sky. It is a glorious sight, riveting in its beauty. I gaze up mesmerized until the escalator shudders. It gives a small, alarming groan and trembles under my feet. I grab the side, rubber grip firm under my fingers, holding on tight until the ride smoothes out a few feet lower. The escalator softly chugs moving me downward. I release my grip on the side and glance up again only to find the moon is small. It has shrunk so much in size it has become completely unremarkable. Confusion floods me, eyes on the small glowing orb as I ride down wondering at the oddness of it for I’m sure that is not the same moon I’d observed only moments before. A few feet lower, I witness the oddity again as the moon becomes huge and glorious once more. I am still pondering it when the escalator comes to an abrupt end, thrusting me out onto the second floor, into an area awkwardly occupied by a large desk and three odd-looking men.
I frown at them. They completely ignore me but I am so confused by what I'd just witness, and by the fact that the way down now seemed to be blocked, I forget them and turn to peer back up the escalator. I contemplate how one moment it can flow from all the floors and in the next end in this small space. I turn to study the barrier and realize that it seems to be large ductwork that loops around forming a wall. I am still contemplating what to do as I turn my attention to the three men who still act as if they haven't seen me. All three have dark hair and are dark complected. The longer I look at them the more familiar their faces become until I realize the first guy who was at first nondescript, now looks just like the guy who played Monk, as he sits at the desk inventorying an array of odd items. The taller one, whom as I watch appears to look more and more like Benicio Del Toro, is talking on an old-fashioned phone. “That's right he's near.” The last, is a little guy who is the spitting image of Danny Devito. He listens, then instructs the Del Toro look alike, “Tell him someone is looking for Azuriel.”
“He said someone is looking for Azuriel,” replies Del Torro. “Okay, I'll let him know.”
“What? What?” The little guy growls.
The tall guy covers the reserve with his hand and says, “We're on hold while they plug us through…”
The Devito character shakes his head and begins pacing as he mutters, “Don't tell me I've gotta go up there. Christ, I already know I'm going to have to go up there and work him again. Why do we have to be the ones he always calls?”
“Pst. We're on,” says the tall one.
The small guy goes still for a moment before he does an odd hop to the top of the desk where he stands to press close, ear to the phone. Then he says, “That's right, tell him they're up on the top.”
“That's right,” the tall one relays, “up on the top.” They pause to listen again and then the tall one says with a nod, “Retrieve him.”
The small guy puts his face in his hands and howls.
“Okay, I'll tell him.” He slides the receiver back onto the old-fashioned phone sitting amid the debris on the desk.
Then as I watch, their features begin to shift and the longer I stare at them, the more they begin to resemble toads. They become more than I can handle so I switch my attention back to finding the way down. That's when I am struck with the realization that while descending I'd been shifting through dimensions! That's why the appearance of the moon kept changing. I turn and go back up the escalator again, only to turn around and ride it back down, and this time, to my relief, it goes all the way to the first floor. When I step off, I rush through the crowd and out of the mall. I hurry back to my hotel room only to find the door has been bashed open, the room completely ransacked, and the angel is gone.
I stand there for a moment blinking at my stuff that is now strewn across the floor. I realize that I left my purse up on the third floor with my relatives. In that moment my cell begins to ring. “Hello?” I answer.
“Hello Dear,” says my grandma. “It was lovely to see you. You left your purse here but don’t worry. We will keep it safe.”
“I love you, Rachel. Don't forget we are here. Call whenever you like.”
A loud banging on the door wakes me and I sit up wiping the drool from my chin thinking wow, what a weird dream. When I hear Cordelia call, “Rachel, are you in there?”
The staff has strict orders not to interrupt me when I'm in my closet. Unless I've been in an extra long time and it’s apparent that I've fallen asleep which has happened from time to time. I dig out my cell and read that it’s four pm. My hands feel strange, my palms are tingling. The sensation persists even after I work my fingers to get the circulation flowing again.
“Come on, Rach. I'm going home.” Cordelia has never been one to hesitate. I open the door and reality washes over me in the ringing of the phones and the customers waiting at the counter. The dream stays with me and in between all of the distractions I write it down, capturing its many details as I replay it again and again in my thoughts.