You’ll know them when you see them.
It’s not that they really stand out – not in beauty, not in size. Some people expect them to have wings, God knows why, but they wear ratty sneakers instead. They take the subway like the rest of us, swiping their MetroCards with tired eyes, balancing their briefcases on their knees as they ride. Some have motorcycles, cars, even limos, but only the wealthy ones – those penthouse dwellers who bought their apartments back when Manhattan was all crime and no one wanted to be near Hell’s Kitchen. They weren’t afraid, though. Why should they be? They’ve been around for an eternity. They’ve seen it all. No one can touch them.
Maybe that gets boring. I wouldn’t know.
No, the way you can pick them out in a swarm of people is by the tired golden glow that surrounds them, the drooping magic that weighs them down and makes them more and less than the rest of us. We don’t resent them, and we sure as hell don’t envy them. We know them as angels, and their job is to take care of us, to protect and guide this miserable melting pot we call humanity. It is what it is. We don’t question it. We take advantage of it. We go to them with worries and crises alike. No problem is too big or too small if you’re desperate enough. When they’re in a good mood, they’ll pull a little vial out of their briefcase, we’ll swallow the contents, and, just like that, all is as it should be. Or maybe we just believe it is. It’s not an exact science. It’s not science at all. It is what it is. We accept it.
When they’re in a bad mood, though, that’s when you have to watch out – when you have to look for the knife in the briefcase, the gun in the glow, the poison in the mind. I once saw a woman in a bar on 42nd – eyes frantic, hands shaking – make her way over to one of them. He was a seemingly ordinary man, suited and exhausted. If you looked closer, however, you could see the purple bags weighing down his eyes, lines creasing his brows, and a glow surrounding him, the faintest I’ve ever seen. It fizzled and burned, alight with something dangerous and destructive. He looked as though he could shatter at any moment. She should’ve known better. She should’ve seen the inevitable.
The place was poorly lit, nearly empty. The bartender was washing glasses in the back; each wipe created a grating squeak. The angel clearly had worries of his own, judging by the way he kept muttering the same word over and over: Mercy, mercy. His perch on the barstool was precarious, as though he was ready to bolt at any moment. You don’t ask for help from someone who needs it more than you. But what can I say? We’re human.
“Help me,” the woman commanded – we never ask, we play by our own rulebook – sliding onto the stool next to him. “My boyfriend’s cheating on me. Fix it. Make him pay.”
The angel huffed, downing the shot in front of him. He couldn’t get drunk, none of them can – maybe he just liked the burn. I didn’t ask. We never ask. “And I’m stuck here. So we’re all living a goddamn tragedy,” he retorted.
“You have to help me. I order you to help me.” She lifted her chin, and from there, the ending to her story was clear.
He just looked at her. It all happened in an instant, in the breath it would take to damn or forgive. Those are the only two options, from what I’ve seen. The world isn’t black and white. These days, it’s all black.
The woman doubled over, clutching her stomach, a scream erupting from her lungs as though it was pulled. Foam dribbled from her mouth, a kind of river filled with secrets and mercy, mercy. The angel smiled without humor, lit a cigarette. The bartender kept washing, each squeak matching another scream, tempo precise, and I just watched from a table in the corner. I did nothing. I’m only human.
That’s the thing, isn’t it? That’s the kicker. My grandfather told me once that the world wasn’t always this way. Before all of this, before these beings descended in the name of a hopeless cause, it was the humans who were suffering.
I took a walk through Central Park last night and saw only angels huddled under trees for warmth, only angels left convulsing on the pavement. They glare at you, with something more than anger and less than pity when you look at them. They see every facet of you. They see those dark shadows you’re so eager to hide. I’ve learned to stop looking.
We’ve sucked the light out of them, I think. I don’t know if I care. I don’t know if anyone does. We never ask.
Apathy’s a learned trait. It’s easy to play a game without winners.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.