What I Got for Valentine's Day
LEARNING TO WAIT
His special friend Ryan wasn't to be found; maybe he was at one of the pools or in the Dreaming Coil. No one ever sent a dream strand his way, unfortunately. But for some reason, the brown-haired human liked watching other people catching their strands. Finnian thought the sight rather boring, since he couldn't see other people's dreams, but many of the departed souls found it endlessly fascinating.
He heard humans moving behind him and let his attention stray a little as he half-listened to their conversation. There was an immense plot of trees in this part of the Middle Tier; he would be well hidden from their gaze unless he decided to reveal himself.
"So she's not moving? She's just going to sit there?" The man sounded incredulous.
"Reckon so." This was a woman voice, with one of those Earth accents that Finnian found so appealing. "She's just gonna wait for her husband to show up."
"But that could be years! Decades, even."
"Wahlll, Ah tain't so sure about that. Womenfolk outlive their hubbies by quite a mile. But men kinda tend to fold up like cut flowers without water once their wives pass. They rely on the ladies to do all the hard work for 'em. So when their wives up and leave, well, they just can't handle the workload--or the solitude. Could be we'll be seeing him here in a few months."
The man snorted. "Oh, please. Men are a lot tougher than that."
"Honey, if we had money up here, Ah'd be making a wager that Ah'm sure you'll lose." The woman's voice was deeply amused, filled with the sure knowledge of womankind. Finnian eased closer and stared around a tree bole at them.
The woman was a redhead, although not with the same jewel tones of his own hair, the strands liberally streaked with silver. From what he'd gleaned from conversation with other humans, that meant she had spent many decades on the planet below. Although her face was creased with those funny human lines--what were they called? Wrinkles?--there was a fey youthfulness about her that said she'd never let a few folds in her skin get in the way of her fun.
The man beside her was taller by several inches but it was spoiled by the hunched position of his shoulders. He bore a fretful look as if he wasn't quite used to the peacefulness of Heaven yet. "Look, Mrs. Thornhill "
"Brad, Ah keep telling you to call me Gladys."
Brad flushed, a reaction Finnian watched with interest. The woman was teasing him, an undertone to her words that hinted of more than friendly intentions. It was a little like the fugue he experienced with Anifiel but not quite.
"There, that wasn't so hard, was it?" She wound a spotted hand around his elbow and Finnian watched the red tide sweep all the way up to his eyebrows. Verrrrry interesting.
Brad pulled away. "I don't think you should be doing that here."
Thornhill, I think you're a nice lady and all. But it doesn't seem right,
"No, that's not it at all. I mean, I like talking to you and everything. You know so much more than the girls I knew back on Earth and I'm really flattered by the attention "
"Yes, Ah got the feeling you didn't get much of that kind of attention when you were alive, did you?" The slight emphasis she gave to the word "attention" caused that fiery blush again.
"It's not that. I had a girlfriend "
"Um hmmm." The sound conveyed both polite interest and dismissal, as if she didn't think much of any girlfriend he might have had.
"But it just doesn't seem "
"Does it bother you to be with me?"
"Do you like mah company? Ah certainly like yours."
"I do. You're really nice and sometimes it's like I don't notice how old you are." He flushed again. "I'm sorry. I guess that was rude."
"No offense taken, sugar. But, you know, Ah don't feel old--not any more," she replied thoughtfully. "No more aches or pains. No arthritis. If Ah don't feel old or think of mahself as old, why should you?"
Brad licked his lips. He was obviously trying to find the flaw in her argument. Finnian could see there was a definite attraction between the two of them; he honestly didn't understand why Brad would be balking like this. "But it's really uncomfortable when you flirt with me like this."
She raised silver eyebrows. "Is that what Ah'm doing?"
He glanced at her uncertainly. Her expression was bland although her eyes gleamed with wicked amusement. "Aren't you?"
She cocked her head. "Brad, what is it you're afraid of, exactly? That people will talk? That you'll shock the neighbors? The only opinion that matters up here is God's. I doubt that he'd allow bigots or fools up here."
"I guess not."
She gazed at him pensively, all seriousness for the moment. "You remind me a little of mah first husband. Steven was so handsome but shy as all get out. Ah practically had to throw mahself into his lap to get his attention. Yet he was such a passionate and sweet man underneath it all. Ah was almost sure Ah'd run into him when I got up here." She sighed. "He died so many years ago. Maybe he moved to the Upper Tier before I got here."
Brad shook his head ruefully. "That's why I don't understand why that woman would wait. She could ascend to the Upper Tier; spending her time just looking over the clouds for her husband seems a waste of time."
"But we don't have time here, Brad. We have eternity. And, while Ah loved Steven, it didn't stop me from enjoying mah life and finding other men to love and marry. But, for this woman, Ah think her husband was IT for her the love of her life. Why shouldn't she wait?"
The man appeared to think it over. "Maybe you're right."
"Sugar, Ah know Ah'm right. Used to drive my husbands crazy." Gladys smirked.
"But about Abigail "
"She'll be fiiine. Don't worry about her. It's not like anything will happen to her."
"You think the Angels will let her just, you know, sit there?"
"Probably not. But that woman's got a backbone of steel. Ah could tell that right away. She may not be southern like me but Ah recognize a fellow stubborn streak when Ah see it. Besides, like Ah said, it won't be long until her husband joins her."
Brad shook her head. "I still don't believe that."
Gladys gave him another of her shrewd looks. Whatever she meant to say after that was lost as she and Brad moved out of earshot.
Finnian didn't wait to hear any more. Giving his wings a powerful downbeat, he soared into the air. If the woman was waiting for her husband, there was only one place she could be.
Abigail shifted on the grassy knoll. She wasn't uncomfortable, exactly. However, boredom was definitely setting in.
The view was lovely and changed subtly from moment to moment in a way she couldn't define in precise terms. The flowers altered in shade and seemed to sway in a nonexistent wind that she could almost feel. The clouds assumed fascinating shapes that appeared to be like nothing in her experience.
People came by all the time. Some stared at her. Wondering if she was a kind of welcoming committee, they engaged her in conversation until they realized she had nothing to say to them. There was such a variety of people here, more than she'd ever known back when she was alive. If nothing else, it helped to pass the time.
She was tempted to give it up and see the rest of Heaven. The talk she heard from other people who'd been settled here longer than she was tantalizing. The Dreaming Coil, with its slender strands from sleeping humans arching through the air to its waiting recipients in Heaven, was the most fascinating thing she'd ever heard.
But Drew was mourning her. Her vision could still penetrate all the way down to Earth and, when she concentrated, she could see her former husband going through his daily routine with a decidedly miserable slump to his shoulders. Then he would come home and sit forlornly in front of the closet, staring at her clothes.
Watching him do this for the umpteenth time, she sighed. "Drew, what are you doing? You never cared about what I wore when I was alive. Whenever I put on something new, you'd always say the same thing. 'You look fine, honey.' Honestly, I could have pranced around in nothing but a G-string and a veil and you would have said the same silly thing."
The chirpy voice came from behind her and she started, turning her head to see who had addressed her.
Standing on the impeccably green grass was one of the most striking Angels she had ever seen. He wore a short tunic that came down to just above his knees and left his shoulders and arms bare. He looked like a teenager, though he had none of the gangly awkwardness of any growing child she'd ever known on Earth. The typical feathery wings were folded primly behind his back, flowing down in a waterfall of white to his heels.
Radiant blue-green eyes were set in a gamine, heart-shaped face topped with the most incredible red hair she'd ever seen. She used to paint when she was younger and her mind tried going through the various shades--carrot, auburn, Titian, sunset, carmine, scarlet--before giving up in confusion. It was like rubies but then again was of no earthly red she knew and it made her oddly dizzy to try cataloging it.
"Oh! Hello, there. Um, who are you?"
He flashed a pearly white smile and she found herself smiling back. "I'm Finnian. And you must be Abby."
She pursed her lips. "Only my husband ever called me that," she said reprovingly.
"Really?" He plopped down on his stomach beside her and stared over the edge into infinity. Abigail was curious. Due to a few overheard snippets of conversation, she had been told Angels couldn't see to Earth; even humans lost the ability after awhile. But this one acted as if he could see what was happening below the cloud cover.
"Has the Guardian sent you to convince me to leave again? I told him "
"Oh, I'm not here because of him," Finnian countered. "I wanted to talk to you."
"To me?" He nodded and flashed her another smile.
My, he was a friendly one. Abigail had seen only a few Angels and always at a distance. She wasn't really sure what they did--only that they helped human beings in their path somehow. She didn't know why she would need help after she was dead. Surely she shouldn't have to worry about any of that self-help nonsense they seemed to go in for so much back on Earth these days.
Anyway, the winged Heavenly beings seemed just a bit aloof to her. She didn't want to admit it but they intimidated her. However, this little boy acted so sweet and charming. It was impossible not to feel relaxed around him.
"What did you want to talk to me about?" she prodded.
"Well, I don't understand why you're staying here. The rest of Heaven is so beautiful. Don't you want to see it?"
"Of course I do. The Dreaming Coil, the Forest of Contemplation, the Path to Inspiration and so on. They sound lovely."
"Then why ?"
"I'm waiting for my husband. Then we can explore them all together." She sighed; she was so tired of explaining this.
"Yes, I've heard that. But why would you wait for him? You could look at them and come back when he shows up here."
She surveyed him coolly. "And when would that be? You don't know, do you?"
Finnian peered up at her. "No. And I wouldn't be--"
"--allowed to tell me if you did. Yes, I gathered that much." She smiled at his uncomprehending look. "You really don't understand, do you?"
"No. That's why I wanted to talk to you." He sat up on his butt and crossed his legs, peering intently at her. She had the feeling he was trying to see through her somehow. It was a curious sensation but not an alarming one.
"Why would you wait for him? I mean, was he so wonderful? Was he a warrior, like Anifiel?"
"Anifiel?" The name wasn't familiar. Was he another Angel? Had she seen him?
"Anifiel, the Commander of Heaven's Army," Finnian explained. "I'm his consort."
Abigail flushed slightly. She was the old-fashioned sort. She wasn't certain what a consort was but it didn't sound quite proper. "Oh. That's very nice, I'm sure."
"I suppose," Finnian shrugged. She had the impression that he didn't want to talk about it. "Is your husband a warrior?"
"Drew? Oh, goodness, no!" she laughed. "He couldn't even get into the army; a twisted arm from when he fell from a rooftop fixing a shingle kept him out. Drew is a salesman. Used cars. He's very good at it. Sometimes I joked that he loved his job more than me. He certainly saw more time on the lot than with me."
Finnian's nose wrinkled in puzzlement. "So he didn't like spending time with you?"
"No, that wasn't it at all. We were happily married for fifty-one years. When he was home, he almost never talked about work. He was always so happy to leave it behind him and rest in the quiet of the house. Well, as quiet as it could be with five children."
"You had children? We have some here in Heaven," Finnian beamed.
She nodded sadly. "Yes, I've seen some of them. Their parents must truly miss them."
"But they're very happy here."
The implication was clear. "And you think I could be happy, too."
"Of course you could! This is Heaven!" Finnian stated it as if this should be obvious to anyone with brains.
"I'm sure I would. But Drew wouldn't be happy if he came and didn't find me here. He's not doing so well as it is." She gestured to the Earth below.
"Oh?" Finnian peered over the edge again. "I can't see. What does your husband look like?"
She laughed softly. "Well, most people wouldn't think of him as an oil painting. He's just barely over five feet two inches. He's also a bit pudgy so that made him seem even shorter. He stoops a little and he's lost most of the ginger brown hair he had when I first met him."
"So you wouldn't call him handsome?"
"Not movie star handsome, no. Honestly, I used to dream I'd marry Cary Grant or someone just as good looking."
"Gorgeous film star from my day. They don't have movies up here in Heaven, do they?" she asked.
"No! What are movies?"
"Moving pictures with sound. They used to be in black and white when I was younger. Nowadays they're in color and they do so many amazing things with them; it's hard to believe." She shook her head in wonder.
"They filled my head with such dreams. When I was a girl, I used to fantasize about taking trips around the world to see those places they showed in the cinema. But, once I was married, Drew and I had to content ourselves with seeing foreign countries in films. Not foreign films though; Drew used to say he didn't go to movies in order to read."
"Did you like these foreign films?" Finnian said the words as though tasting a new kind of sweet.
"I did. Drew didn't."
"So you didn't agree on everything?"
"No two people ever do. Just because we were married for years didn't mean we didn't have our disagreements."
"But aren't man and wife supposed to be as one flesh?"
"One flesh, perhaps. One mind--not so much," Abigail stated, the faint irony in her voice unmistakable. "That would have taken all the fun out of it, wouldn't it?"
He goggled, the surprise and lack of comprehension completely apparent. "So you didn't always get along. But he loved you, didn't he?" There was a childish eagerness in the question that was quite endearing.
"Yes, he did. Even when he would always bang the door. I would tell him not to but he would always do it."
The puzzlement was back. "But why would he do that? It sounds wrong to me. Why would a person who loved you always do something you wouldn't like?"
"It was just his way, Finnian. But it wasn't out of meanness. I had habits that irritated him, too. I would occasionally leave my hairpins in the bed or they would fall out of my hair. He would lie down and they'd jab him in tender places. In later years, he would make a big production of going over the bed with a magnifying glass to hunt for the darned things." She chuckled. "In spite of that, every now and again, one of the little beggars would catch him by surprise. And then would he be ever so angry with me!"
"Angry? How could you love each other if you were angry?"
She shook her head. "It's part of being human, Finnian. I know anger is one of the seven deadly sins. But humans are prone to it. Life would be a much purer thing without it--but it would be so dull, too. And anger, well, it's like sadness or despair. It's a way of letting you know that something in your life is wrong, that it needs fixing."
"But you say your husband always banged the door. And you always left hairpins. So neither of you ever fixed these things, did you?"
"No. As I said, these were just our way of behaving. Some things about people don't change. If you could remake people completely to suit yourself, they wouldn't be the people you fell in love with. A substantial part of what they are would be gone and what would be left wouldn't be someone you could love.
"But that's not to say that he and I remained the same all our lives," Abigail added musingly. "A lot of things that go with youth fall away--impatience, callousness, insensitivity, harshness--and you become different as time goes by. And the fact that the different person you turn into and the different person he turns into can still love each other is like a miracle."
Finnian's face was a study in bafflement. Then he nodded, slowly, with a trace of It wasn't sadness, not as she would know it. With human sadness came human despair which led, absurdly, to hope. Hope that destiny could be changed. That wrongs could be righted. That there was something to be done--even if nothing could be done. It was what led humans to many of their greatest achievements and most horrible errors.
"I was made to be Anifiel's consort," he murmured.
"Made? You mean you were actually created?" She tried to imagine that. As a churchgoing woman, she had known with absolute certainty that humans were made in God's image. How did He go about creating Angels?
"Yes. I wasn't given any choice in the matter or any of what humans call free will," he continued in that odd not-quite-sad manner. "The Creator made me to be with him."
"Is that such a terrible thing? So many humans go bumbling through life searching for their ideal mates and never finding them. I suppose it must be lucky to have the uncertainty settled right from the start." She didn't know why but she wanted to comfort Finnian.
He peered sideways at her. "Is it? Having no choice? Having to be with him without being allowed to decide for myself? Loving him and being forbidden to love anybody else?"
"Forbidden?" she asked with shock. That couldn't be right. Would God--or the Creator, as they called him--have laid such a heavy command on this sweet boy?
"Well, not forbidden, exactly. But Anifiel claims me for his own and wouldn't let me be with anyone else. He claims we're meant to be perfect for each other. But sometimes I wonder if it's what love is."
"Human love isn't perfect. But surely love in Heaven should be," Abigail floundered. She was definitely getting in over her head here. What did she know of Heaven? She'd barely ventured into it.
There was that not-quite look again. "You don't believe that."
No, she didn't. Somehow Finnian understood. And Abigail wondered that he could understand.
"Maybe love is supposed to be what you have with Drew," Finnian probed. "That's why you're waiting for him, isn't it?"
"Yes. Drew isn't perfect. Neither was I. But we loved each other and he's miserable without me. And I can't let him get here and not find me waiting. It would be so terrible for him."
"And you wouldn't mind if he banged the door in Heaven?" Finnian teased.
"I wouldn't. I never minded before, really, unless I had a headache. He would always apologize afterwards because he never meant it and it would all be forgotten by the time we sat down to dinner. So I shall sit here and wait for him to arrive and then together we'll see what this place is really like."
Finnian made no protest this time. Indeed, he said nothing at all. Instead, the strange look on his face disappeared as he stood up. It was replaced by a determination that made her oddly uneasy.
"Where are you going?" Abigail asked.
"Forward, I hope. Thank you, Abigail." Before she could ask why he was thanking her, he bent and gave her a swift kiss on her skin that sent a flush of heat over her skin she could feel everywhere. Then there was another of his sun-brilliant smiles.
The kiss was the
most shocking sensation, unlike anything she'd ever felt under Drew's
plodding if tender caresses. In the wake of it, Abigail was speechless,
unable even to articulate a thought. When the dazzling light of his
smile vanished from her eyes, she found that she was alone.