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I leaned back to give my brothers room to get back to their seat in the pew. Sun shone in through the churches stained-glass windows, if I remembered right it had been raining during my confirmation and during both my sisters as well. I settled back down as my brothers passed and all attention turned to the bishop as he said the final prayer, even the furry black monster perched on the back of one of the pews. It sat with cat-like grace but was about the size of our neighbor’s golden retriever that freaked out whenever it was around. It looked something like a racoon, a little pudgy but the similarities ended there. The creatures tail was long and thin, stretching all the way to the floor and it had pointed, swept back ears that rested against the back of its head. Three long, narrow toes on each equally long, narrow foot kept it atop the back of the pew. I couldn’t see it’s face but from experience I knew it had two, bright yellow eyes and no nose or mouth to speak of.
“God our Father made you his children by water and the Holy Spirit: may he bless you and watch over you with his fatherly love” the bishop said.
“Amen” I replied with everyone else. It was somewhat comforting seeing it in the church and not bursting into flames while prayers were being said. Granted I had seen worse things not burst into flame either, so maybe it didn’t mean that much.
“Jesus Christ the Son of God promised that the Spirit of truth would be with his Church for ever: may he bless you and give you courage in professing the true faith” the bishop said.
“Amen” said the congregation, but one amen was a little late. Gabriel was new to church and still learning. He had moved in with his aunt and month ago and the creature had come with him, Gabriel called it his ‘friend in the forest’. Everyone else just figured he had an imaginary friend, but I was used to seeing things other people couldn’t.
“The Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples and set their hearts on fire with love: may he bless you, keep you one in faith and love, and bring you to the joy of God’s kingdom” the bishop said.
“Amen” I said, watching the creatures head turn left and right, like it was scanning the room. It was the only creature of its kind I had met that could talk. Once it saw me watching it while Gabriel played on the playground with my brothers. All it did was sit next to me and say that they were good friends of Gabriel’s. I was so shocked I didn’t think to say anything back until we had gone home. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem like a threat.
“May almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” the bishop said.
“Amen” we said, rising up off the pews. Confirmation was done and that meant it was time to eat the mountains of food waiting in the general-purpose room.
The confirmation service had been exactly the same as when I had done it and the post-confirmation supper was shaping up to be the same way. The same food was piled up on the same rickety folding tables as it had been before, people sat in the same uncomfortable plastic chairs and talked about the same sports teams has they had done before. All the kids, now free to release the energy sitting on pews seemed to give little kids, ran around and shouted until someone’s mother shushed them. All but one. Gabriel was off sitting in an empty side of the room, gently petting the creature’s ears and talking to it. I was too far away and the rooms volume had risen above dull roar so I couldn’t hear what he was saying.
“Annabelle” a voice behind me said. I jumped a little and turned to face Gabriel’s Aunt Mary. She was taller than, although that wasn’t much of an achievement, with brown hair that passed just below her ears and wore a simple blue dress. Every time I had met her she seemed exhausted and today was no difference. “Do you know where your mother is? I want to thank her again for inviting us”.
“If she’s not by the food now she will be soon, she has a thing for bring the perfect hostess no matter where she is” I said, looking back over my shoulder at Gabriel and the creature. “How’s Gabriel doing?”
“Oh better, better” she said, but I couldn’t help catch the pained look in his eye as she saw him petting air. “I had an imaginary friend at his age. You know what’s funny? He says it likes you” she said
“Really?” I asked. It had only said a handful of words to me, I couldn’t imagine why it would like me.
“Yes, it doesn’t like anyone else apparently. Dr. Slotnik says it’s a coping mechanism, so it’s fine” she said and then looked like she immediately regretted saying it.
“Did Gabriel enjoy the service?” I asked, politely changing topics.
“I think so” she said, looking back over to him. “He likes Sunday school too, he’s making friends it’s all going well, I think he really likes it. His mother loved church before-“ she said, stopping the middle of her sentence. “Oh there’s your mother!” she said quickly, hurrying away from me as fast as she could.
I watched her go for a second then turned my attention back to Gabriel. I didn’t know much about Gabriel, only that he was great at hide and seek, was terribly shy and had a creature following him around. The smell of the buffet was tempting, but I walked away from it and to the empty little corner of the room were Gabriel and creature sat. “Hello Gabriel” I said, crouching down onto my heels and feeling quite glad I decided to wear flats.
“Hi” he said, looking down at the ground and gripping the fur on the back of the creature’s neck.
“Do not be scared” the creature said, even though it had no mouth. Its voice was light and raspy, like a breeze blowing through dried leaves. “Annabelle is a kind person”.
“He’s right” I said.
Gabriel’s head shot up and he looked from me to the creature. “You can hear him?”
“I can see him too. He’s got pointy ears right here” I said, taking a chance and rubbing the tips of the creature’s ears. It did not respond, seeming like a very tolerant cat. “Is he your pet?” I asked.
“Nuh uh, pets don’t talk. He’s my friend” Gabriel said, starting to pet him again.
“How’d you make such a cool friend?” I asked, trying to focus on Gabriel and not pair of yellow eyes staring at me.
“He lived in woods behind my house in Georgia. We’d play together and he’d sleep with me when it got dark” he said happily
I blinked a few times, what was a kid that young doing sleeping in woods? My mother wouldn’t even let my brothers sleep in a tent the backyard. “That sounds fun” I recovered. “Do you want to go get some food, it’s not going to stay warm forever”
“N-no” he said, gripping the creature’s neck again.
“No one is going to be angry with you for taking food” the creature said again, turning its yellow eyes to Gabriel.
Gabriel screwed his eyes shut and sat completely still, even as the creature nuzzled his arm. “Do you want me to go get you some food?” I asked. “There’s hot dogs and hamburgers and potato salad, I can get you anything you want”
A few seconds passed before Gabriel cracked one eye open. “It’s…it’s not the red hot dogs is it?” he asked.
“We have brown hot dogs. They go great with mac and cheese” I said with the best big-sister smile I could.
“I…I guess…a hot dog…and some mac and cheese maybe” he said, looking like he thought it was the wrong answer.
“One hot dog and grilled cheese, I’ll be right back” I said, standing up and making for the buffet table. I grabbed one of the last hot dogs and piled a generous portion of mac and cheese onto one plate and made one up for myself with a little of everything so I could share with him if need be. On my way back though I found trouble had moved in while I was gone. My oldest sister Melody had gotten annoyingly political over the last year and that had led to an unending series of arguments with our father. They had both moved to the quiet part of the room and judging from Melody’s Stubborn Scowl and Dad’s Angry Neck Veins they were about to get into again. “Here’s your food” I said, swooping past them and holding out his plate in an attempt to distract him. It didn’t work.
“He’s mad,” Gabriel whispered, eyes huge and face pale.
“Not at you,” the creature rasped, putting his front paw on Gabriel’s lap.
“He’s gonna get really angry,” Gabriel said, grabbing his shirt and twisting it around his hands.
“Then let’s go outside,” the creature said, tugging on his leg.
“Can’t go outside alone,” Gabriel said, voice thick with uncried tears.
“I’ll be with you, you won’t be alone,” the creature insisted, tugging harder.
“Aunt Mary says you don’t count,” he said, twisting his shirt so tight I thought it would tear.
“I do,” I said, crouching down to his level. “You know, I bring my brothers to the playground to play with you, so I’m allowed to bring little kids places,” I said, finally pulling his attention away from the brewing fight. “So, we can go outside together and since your friend is coming it’s extra okay.”
Gabriel looked from me to the creature and apparently decided that that made sense because he ran for the nearest door with the creature right behind him. Before I followed I pulled out my phone and sent a text to my other sister, Tammy. If anyone was going to be paying attention to their phone, it was Tammy. I told her to tell Mary that Gabriel was upset and I brought him outside so no one would panic about a missing kid. I picked up the plates and went after them, thankful that it was a sunny day out.
Gabriel was using his nervous energy to climb a tree and the creature had sat itself on a nearby bench. Since giving a hotdog to him while he was sitting a branch seemed like an awful idea I sat down next to the creature to watch him climb.
“He still doesn’t listen to me,” the creature said.
“People don’t always think straight when they’re scared,” I said, not sure what to say. When the creature did not reply, I decided to feel brave again. “Why are you hanging around him?” I asked.
“I was once like him,” the creature rasped, not even looking at me. “Frightened. Hurt. Broken. I will stay with him until he is not,” it said simply.
In the time it took me to think of something to say back Mary came running out the door. “Hi Mary,” I said as cheerfully as I could, giving her a little wave.
“Are you alright Gabriel?” Mary asked.
“You’re not mad are you?” Gabriel asked, cowering up in the tree.
“No no no, of course not sweetie,” Mary said hurriedly. “I just want to make sure you were okay, you can keep playing,” she said, sitting down behind me and forcing the creature to move. “Thank you so much,” she said, patting my leg.
“It’s no problem, sometimes a kid needs to run around,” I shrugged as the creature sat at my feet, looking up at Gabriel.
“I was worried, more people came than I thought,” she said, taking a deep breath to calm herself. “Thank you,” she said again.
Apart from the creature at Gabriel’s side the rest of the supper passed normally. People ate, laughed and congratulated my little brothers. When it was over we loaded the plates and leftovers into the car and made the short trip home. I changed out of my Sunday best into jeans and a long-sleeved blouse. My brothers made nuisances of themselves while I tried to catch up on some homework I had been neglecting. A few hours later I was as finished as I was going to be and started shoving papers into their right-ish folders when Mom walked up to me, holding her hand over her cell phone.
“Annabelle, it’s Mary, Gabriel’s aunt, she needs you to go over and watch him for a few hours,” Mom said.
“Now?” I asked, looking out the window. It was mid-spring; the sun had set a long time ago and the boys were already getting ready for bed.
“It’s an emergency, I’ll wake your father and have him drive you over,” Mom said.
“Don’t bother, I’ll just walk it,” I said, shoving everything into my backpack.
“You know I don’t like you out after dark,” Mom frowned.
“It’s four streets away mom, it’ll take longer if I have to wait for Dad to get up. Besides, I don’t want to listen to Melody’s carbon footprint lecture again,” I said, throwing my backpack over my shoulder.
“Text me when you get there and when you’re leaving and be careful,” Mom said,
“The most dangerous thing out there is a skunk Mom. I’ll watch out for white stripes”. That wasn’t entirely true, I had run into a few nasty things in our neighborhood at night. None of them had survived the encounter with me, so I really wasn’t that worried. I jammed my hands into my pockets as I made my way to the sidewalk, my path lit by half a moon and a few dozen streetlights. There was still a wintery chill in the air and a few mounds of snow stubbornly hung on at the end of driveways an under trees. I jammed my hands in my pockets and quickened my pace, realizing I had forgotten a hat as the cold nipped at my ears. It wasn’t long before I was at the little apartment complex Mary and Gabriel lived at, a few four-unit buildings clustered around a parking lot filled with cars Dad would call clunkers. I found the address and climbed the stairs, knocking on the door and sending Mom a text while I waited.
“Thank you so much for coming,” Mary said when she flung open the door, already in her boots and coat.
“It’s fine, it’s not that far,” I said, shucking off my coat and hanging it on a hook. The front door was right in the living room, Gabriel and the creature sat on a floral-print couch while cartoons played on the TV.
“I don’t think he’d feel comfortable with anyone else, it will only be for a few hours,” she said, grabbing her purse and leaning in close to me. “I have to go bail my cousin out of jail and police upset him. I wouldn’t have asked otherwise,” she said, leaning back and jamming a hat on backwards. “I’m going now Gabriel, Annabelle is going to look after you, she’ll put you to bed and I’ll be back in just a few hours,” she said, waving at Gabriel and closing the door behind her.
“So…when do you go to bed?” I asked after Gabriel and the creature stared at me from the couch.
“After Spongebob,” Gabriel said.
“Where’s your bedroom?” I asked and Gabriel pointed to a door behind me. “Good. I’m going to do some homework. Tell me if you need anything,” I said, dropping my bag on the kitchen table and searching through it for the right papers. Tammy and Melody had taken all the babysitting jobs in the neighborhood, so I wasn’t quite sure if I was doing it right, but Gabriel sat quietly and watched TV while I did my homework so it seemed to be going well.
“Annabelle,” the creature said, pulling my attention away from algebra. It was perched on the arm of the couch, long black fingers gripping the fabric tightly as it started at me. “Should I worry about the police?”
“One stopped Mary’s car a week ago and Gabriel was terrified, but Mary was not. Are they something I have to protect him from?” it asked.
“I don’t…should we be talking about this in front of him?” I asked.
“He is asleep.”
I stood up and made the short walk into the living room. Gabriel was indeed asleep, laying on the couch wrapped in the creature’s long tail and cuddling it close. I sat down in a chair and turned off the TV, Spongebob’s laugh could get on my nerves. “No, they’re not a threat to him, he’s just a kid. Why is he afraid of them?" I asked.
“His parents did not like them,” it said, having shifted around to face me. Gabriel made an uneasy noise and the creature reached down to stroke his brow with two fingers.
“How did you two even meet? He said you lived behind his house,” I asked, feeling goosebumps raise on my arms that had nothing to do with the temperature.
“Most of your kind cannot see me,” he said, turning away from the now-quiet Gabriel and facing me again. “Those that can usually run when they see my eyes. Gabriel did not. We met when we both took shelter from a rainstorm under the same tree. When he learned I could talk he would not stop asking me questions. It had been a long time since I had spoken to another creature and I had forgotten how pleasing it could be.”
“You would just talk out in the woods?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“No. Gabriel has the same urge to build that the rest of your kind does. On good days, he would build things and I would help him cut logs and branches. On bad days he would just sit and stroke me, telling me about his favorite television show if he was able to talk,” it said, reaching down to stroke Gabriels forehead again when he whimpered again.
I felt a knot form in my stomach as I listened. If he was able to talk? I had walked into some kind of horrible situation and I knew I had to tread carefully. Then my mouth went and blurted the first question that came to mind. “What happened to his parents?”
“I tore them to shreds,” it replied.
I felt my mouth go dry and I broke out in a cold sweat. It had admitted to murder as casually as saying it had taken the last cookie from the package. My eyes were drawn to the narrow fingers stroking Gabriels brow, the looked so weak and spindly, but they must have been strong enough to kill. Was that why Gabriel was so panicky? Had he seen this thing rip his parents apart? Thoughts and questions flooded my mind as I gripped the arm of the chair, watching the creature watch me. After a while one managed to force its way past the fear. “Why?”
“Every creature in the world has laws. The law of the fish says they have thousands of children and hope a few survive. The law of the birds say that they will build a nest and throw their children out of it so they will learn to fly. Your law says that you will watch over your children and teach them how to survive. His parents broke that law. In many ways. In horrible ways,” it said, a note of anger creeping into its raspy voice.
“So you killed them,” I said after I swallowed a few times to clear my throat.
“Yes. When I was harmed as he is, I killed the man responsible and it healed me. I hoped killing those who harmed him would do the same, but it did not,” it said.
My heart started to slow down as I processed what it had said. Gabriel had not been scared of the creature at all. He had been scared when my father was angry, he was too scared to get food, scared of breaking the rules to go outside alone. I looked down at him, all wrapped up in the creature’s tail and my brothers telling me he was the best at hide and seek was suddenly a lot sadder. “So you’re just staying with him?” I asked.
“Yes. Until he is better,” it replied.
“How are you going to know? You don’t even know what the police are,” I said.
“You see things others cannot, is it so hard to believe I can see things you cannot?” it asked. “Mary is good for him, your brothers are good for him, the doctor is good for him, you are good for him. I can see him healing and I will know when he is whole”.
I swallowed again, meeting the creature’s eyes and feeling the panic fade. “If you have any other questions, I’ll be happy to answer them”.
“That is why you are good for him” it said.
After that he helped me get Gabriel to bed and stayed with him. I was too rattled to do any more homework so I sat down to watch TV until Mary came back around midnight. I told her everything had gone well and she thanked me a dozen times and tried to pay me, but I ducked out before she could find the money. Down on the street I pulled out my phone to tell Mom I was on my way back when I noticed the creature watching me from Gabriels window. Normally a pair of bright yellow eyes looking out from a kid’s bedroom would have made me worried.
Now I was just glad there was someone else out there on the side of the angels.
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