My little brother loved angels. I don’t know how it started, but I can tell you it began about the time Anthony was five years old. Out of the blue, he asked dad to buy him a Los Angeles Angels baseball hat. It was a red cap with a gold halo hovering over the letter “A” on the front panel. It didn’t seem an odd request since most kids his age were getting into baseball and sports, but I did wonder how a kid living in Baltimore – the heart of Oriole country – started liking a west coast team.
Turns out, Anthony never had any interest in baseball. He just wanted the hat because of the logo on it. And the hat was only the beginning.
By the time Anthony was seven, his room was full of angel figurines, books, and pictures. There wasn’t an empty inch of space anywhere on the walls, ceiling or floor that wasn’t covered or buried under something that reminded him of angels. Every time we walked through a store and he saw something with an angel on it, he begged for somebody to buy it for him. Mom and dad ignored most of his requests, but even the occasional yes starts to build quite a collection over two years.
When Halloween came around that same year, Anthony got himself a pair of pink fairy wings. He called them his “angel wings,” and he wore them around the house for years before they completely fell apart. I thought he looked silly, but I didn’t give him too hard a time about it as long as he didn’t wear them outside or take them to school. There was no way I wanted to be known as the brother of the “weird kid” at school. It was enough my family knew that Anthony was a little odd, I didn’t need my friends finding out about him and his pink wings.
A couple more years went by, and Anthony’s angel fixation continued. I thought it would go away with time, that he would get tired of it or move on to something else, but it didn’t. Instead, it got more intense. He was a few days shy of his tenth birthday when he pulled me aside and whispered in my ear that he had actually seen an angel. He told me it was his guardian angel and she had revealed herself to him a few months earlier.
“Have you seen angels before?” I asked him.
“Angel,” he corrected. “Just the one. And, no, I haven’t.”
“So, what makes you so special you get to see an angel?”
“She told me that I might be a guardian angel someday, that they’re watching me closely, but I have to show her that I’m worthy.”
“How do you do that? What would make you ‘worthy?’”
Anthony shrugged, then said he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
I told mom and dad what Anthony said. He scared me and I didn’t know what else to do. I wasn’t afraid that he would hurt anybody or anything like that, but I thought my little brother was losing his mind and someone should know about it. Mom told me not to worry. She thought that maybe Anthony was just trying to “figure himself out,” whatever the hell that meant.
“Be patient with him, David. Dad and I will keep an eye on him.”
They didn’t understand there was more going on than just ordinary kid stuff. I tried talking to them a few more times after that, but I couldn’t make them see what I was seeing. Eventually, I gave up trying.
Six months later, Anthony started building his new wings.
The pink fairy wings were long gone by this time, having fallen apart beyond the ability of tape and string to resurrect, so Anthony decided to make himself a better pair. He wanted something that wouldn’t break or tear easily like the Halloween costume wings.
At first, he tried using a bamboo frame because he thought it would be strong and flexible, but the bamboo strips kept splitting whenever he tried to staple or nail anything to them. Next, he tried balsa, figuring it was the lightest material and would be easy to wear. Turns out, balsa broke too easily. Through trial and error, Anthony settled on thin strips of pine that let him shape the wings the way he wanted without splitting or breaking. He soaked them in water until they were flexible enough to bend, shaped them, then let them dry out in the patterns he wanted. When he was finally happy with the frame, he layered in a thin sheet of chicken wire between the pine braces.
Then came the feathers.
This part turned out to be a major ordeal. Anthony refused to go to a craft store and buy feathers – or any other material for that matter – for his wings. He insisted every feather had to be real, and it had to come to him as a “gift of nature.” I don’t know why he felt that way, but he meant it when he said it.
For the next three years, Anthony picked up every feather he found around our neighborhood. He would bring them home and add each new acquisition to his project, using a hot glue gun to apply the feather in perfect alignment with all the others he had already found and attached. The feathers were mostly pigeon since that was the most common bird around our house, but there was also an assortment of duck, goose, gull, and several smaller birds. There were even a few long brown and black feathers that had come off a dead pheasant he found in the road.
“That’s a pretty good haul,” I told him the day he found the pheasant. He had several dozen feathers he had removed from the dead bird.
Anthony just nodded as he dropped the collection next to the half-finished wings that had by this time become a permanent fixture in our garage.
“Why are you making those, anyway? You tryin’ to be like Icarus?”
“Daedalus,” he muttered.
“Daedalus. He was Icarus’ father. He built the wings. Icarus just wore them.”
“Okay,” I said, a bit cross at being corrected by my younger brother. “Daedalus, then. Why do you need the wings?”
“Guardian angels need wings. I’m just getting prepared,” he told me, pulling out his hot glue gun and laying out the pheasant feathers in the order he wanted them.
A few seconds later, I became invisible to him as he worked to add the new feathers. He was like that. When he worked on his wings, nothing else in the world existed except the wood, the feathers, and the glue gun. Knowing better than to try and continue our conversation, I left him alone.
When he was eleven, Anthony told the family he wanted us to start calling him “Angel.” No explanation, no discussion, he just marched into the living room where the rest of us were watching television and made the announcement.
I refused. I told him he was just being stupid. Before I could say anything more, Mom took me aside and asked me to be more understanding.
She said, “Anthony is going to be who he is going to be. If he wants to be called Angel, we should do as he asks.”
So, I started calling him Angel. For Mom, not for him. I still thought he was being stupid. His name was Anthony and that wasn’t going to change just because he didn’t like the name anymore. I shouldn’t have given in. What I should have done was punch him in the face, tell him to grow up, then go into the garage and burn his stupid wings.
But I didn’t do that. I pretended it wasn’t a big deal. I pretended everything was normal.
And two more years went by.
When Anthony … Angel. When Angel was thirteen years old, he finished his wings. I was in the front yard, mowing the lawn. It was a Saturday. I remember that because Saturday was the only day I ever mowed the lawn.
It was already ridiculously hot even thought it was only about nine o’clock in the morning. I was sweaty and trying to hurry up and finish so I could go back inside and hide from the heat. I turned the mower around to cut another row of grass and I was facing the house. That’s when I saw him up on the roof over the driveway. Angel had his wings tied onto his back. His arms were outstretched to the sides and he had slipped his hands into some sort of leather straps he must have added that morning. At least, I had never noticed them before. If I had, I might have had some idea of what he was up to.
I let go of the mower, the engine dying as soon as I released the deadman’s handle. The sudden silence as the engine rumbled to a stop only added to the surrealness of the moment. I stared at him while he adjusted his grip on the straps. I couldn’t move; didn’t know what to do.
“David!” he called down to me. “She said I’m ready! I’m an angel!”
Angel leapt from the roof before I could react, holding his wooden wings out as far as they would go. The distance to the ground wasn’t great, but the driveway was concrete, and Angel had so much faith in his wings he never tried to break his fall. The useless wood and feathers tied to his back did nothing to slow him down.
Angel is gone now, and it’s my fault. I didn’t force him to jump, but I did nothing to prevent it either, despite the fact I had eight years to figure out what he was planning. I was his brother. His big brother. It was supposed to be my job to keep him safe.
I failed him.
“I’m an angel,” were his last words. But he was wrong. He wasn’t an angel. He was a confused child.
Those wings weren’t real.
Although, the only thing that gives me any comfort during the long nights when I lay awake and remember his last moments – leaping into the air, eyes turned up to the sky and a big stupid grin on his face – is a single thought:
Maybe they are now.
G. Allen Wilbanks is a member of the HWA, and has published over 100 short stories in Deep Magic, Daily Science Fiction, The Talisman, The Colored Lens, as well as several other magazines and anthologies. He is the author of two short story collections, and the novel, When Darkness Comes. For more information about the author, please visit his website at www.gallenwilbanks.com.
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