The flute music danced into Angelina’s ears. She stopped walking. It sounded happy, like children playing. She thought of Pan flutes, too. Angelina put down her grocery bags and massaged her hands as she looked for the source. Saturday was grocery day, and she had four bags loaded down with food for the week. Her shoulders were killing her.
She didn’t see anyone with a flute. Buskers usually hung out on the fringes of the park, not the middle, where they could get cross-traffic from business people on lunch. She was in the middle of the park, near the fountain.
A trio of kids ran past her. One had a happy birthday balloon tied around his wrist. They chased each other around the fountain, laughing and dancing in time with the music.
Angelina hefted her bags. She didn’t have all day. She was about to say the hell with it when she saw him. The flute player sat on the wall behind the lion’s mouth that poured water into the fountain. He straddled the lion statue, a pose that Tarzan might have taken if he’d ridden the king of the beasts.
The bags came back down, without Angelina even thinking about it. “How… bizarre…,” she said. The flutist looked to be about six foot two – it was hard to tell with him sitting down, from far away – with long, brown dreadlocks hair that reached past his shoulders, long fingers, and black, horn-rimmed sunglasses with round frames. He wore a snake mottled with brown and tan diamonds on his shoulders that slithered and sniffed at the air. He seemed mesmerized by his music, or at least really into it. His fingers danced like the feet of mad Cossacks on his instrument. The tune livened up, drawing Angelina’s interest.
She couldn’t be too long. She had milk and other stuff that would go bad. Angelina walked over to the fountain and stood in front of the flute player. He left a crocheted red and yellow cap next to him on the wall where people had dropped ones, spare change, and a flyer for a church prayer meeting.
Without thinking about it, Angelina dropped a five into his cap. The flutist bowed his head. He changed tunes to something more funky. It was less peppy, more funky. Angelina frowned. She’d heard it before. Maybe Hendrix.
She nodded her head in time with the music. The words came to her. She murmured, “Fly on my sweet angel… fly on through the sky…” The flutist smiled and nodded. Angelina grinned. She sang louder, “Fly on my sweet angel… forever I will be by your side.”
He finished his song, put down his flute and clapped.
A few other people clapped, too. Angelina covered her mouth with her hands and waved at everybody. People laughed. A few put more ones into the flute player’s hat. The kids sang, “Fly on, my angel! Fly on, my angel!” and ran in circles around the fountain.
Angelina dropped a five in the flute player’s hat. “You play beautifully,” she said.
“Thank you very much.” The flute player had the voice of a kind old man, like she imagined her grandfather would have had. He turned his face toward her, without lifting it. Behind his sunglasses, she saw milky white irises. He was blind. “And you have a beautiful voice, miss Angelina.”
Angelina’s blood ran cold. That, however, wasn’t kind. Angelina’s hand snuck inside her purse to her tear gas. She checked her surroundings. No one watching her that she could see. “How do you know my name?” she demanded.
“We’re old friends, my dear. You don’t remember, because you’ve been on Earth too long.”
Angelina had a flash inside her head, like an idea that just hit her, but she couldn’t form the words for it. He was telling the truth. Angelina held her head. She wobbled on her feet.
“It’s all right. You might want to take a sip of that water you have in your bag.”
Two bottles of Aquafina were in her bag. She bought them for the gym later because the store was out of water filters. “You followed me.”
“I’m blind, child.”
“A friend of yours, then, with a cell phone.”
“And I knew you’d come over and give me a five dollar bill?” Angelina’s mouth dropped open. “I really think you should have some of that water,” he said.
Angelina took out her half gallon of milk, struggled to rip open the top, and drank deep gulps. Children playing nearby was a lot less charming than it was a few minutes ago. The snake looked weird now, not beautiful.
The flute player laughed. “This isn’t funny!” she snapped.
“I’m sorry, child. You had a better sense of humor in Heaven. I suppose living down here has made you jaded. I hadn’t thought of that.”
Another flash. She felt like she was floating. Angelina had always loved the stars and the sky. She had a tattoo of an angel on her hip. She grit her teeth. “Who are you?”
“Please. Sit down and we can talk. We can walk over next to the security kiosk in the middle of the park if that makes you more comfortable.”
Her food was spoiling. She had to get home. She didn’t want to be near this strange man with the kind voice, lovely music, beautiful snake, and words that were driving her mad. Her subconscious was banging at the back of her forehead, saying the words, home, father, brother, family. “No.” Then she blurted, “Tell me who you are.”
“My name is Daniel. You’re an angel. I’m your father. I’m here to help you find your way back to Heaven.”
Angelina gassed him.
Or tried to. She pulled the canister and pushed the button down, but it stuck. It didn’t matter. Daniel, his snake, and his flute were gone, not to mention her five dollars. Angelina looked around. The kids were still playing, including the one with the balloon. No one was paying attention to her.
Angelina gathered up her things and walked home. Fast.
Angelina never knew her parents. Her born name was Jane Doe, found in a box behind a dumpster in west Philadelphia. The nurses named her Angelina. She was adopted as a child by a retired couple, and grew up mostly happy, usually healthy, and wondering why she’d been left to die as an infant.
Her hands were shaking as she unlocked the door to her house. Her roommate Keith opened the door for her. “I just got home. I—hey. Are you all right?”
“No, I’m not all right!” She told him the story about what happened. By the time she was done, Keith looked like he wanted to hit somebody. “And then he vanished. I wanted to tell a cop, but I didn’t know what to charge him with.”
“You weren’t followed on the way home?”
“I got in a cab once I was on the edge of the park. I don’t think anyone followed me.”
“Son of a bitch… I’m sorry, Angel.”
“Look, I know that’s my nickname, but let’s not use it for a while, okay?”
“No problem. Do you want me to walk you home for the next couple of days? I can bug out early from work.”
She wanted to say no, but she still felt pretty shaky. Besides, what was the down side? She owed Keith a six pack of beer? “That’d be great. Thanks, bud.” He gave her a hug, and they put away the groceries together. They were about halfway through when she asked, “What gets me is, what if he’s right?”
Keith laughed. “You know, I was just thinking the same thing. I mean, you work for the Food Bank. You teach yoga to kids on the weekend. You’re a peach. If anybody in this world’s an angel it’s got to be you.”
Angelina thought about the weed she’d smoked in college, the speeding tickets she’d never paid in Nevada, and the wild time she’d had at a friend’s bachelorette party last year. “Yeah, well, not as much as you think. I meant taking me back to Heaven. How does he pull something like that off?”
Keith shrugged. “In ‘Meet Joe Black,’ Brad Pitt just walks over a bridge. Up one side, down the other, and he’s gone.”
“But shouldn’t I have some choice in it? I mean, one, absentee father, and two, I didn’t ask to go anywhere. Why can’t he show up and help me with my love life or get us some more funding at the food bank?”
“It’s probably easier to get you into Heaven.”
She handed a prepackaged lunch box to a man who wasn’t much younger than she was. By the look of him, he had just been released from rehab, or jail, and was on some kind of work release program. He was way too skinny for his height. He’d made a wristband out of shoelace with the words “day by day” written on it in Sharpie marker.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Have a good day,” she said, and meant it.
Daniel from the park came next. He didn’t have his snake today, or his flute. Angelina summoned every bit of good cheer she had in her body not to call the security guard. “I remember you. Can I get you something to eat?” she asked cooly.
“A little soup would be fine. Thank you.” The young man next to Angelina started putting together a plate for him. “I’m sorry about yesterday. We got off on the wrong foot.”
“It happens every day in the city. Getting off on the wrong foot.”
“Yes. Well, I’m still sorry. You need to know that what I said yesterday is true.”
Angelina handed him a tray with soup and a roll. “You know the old saying. We’re all angels. Some of us forget we have wings.”
Daniel gave her his weird “Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror? Really looked at yourself?”
Angelina frowned. “Where is this going?”
“I think what you just said is more true about you than you realize. Good day, ma’am.”
Daniel left the line. He found a place to sit and ate lunch in peace. Angelina told the security guard to keep an eye on him. Just a feeling, nothing more. They were friends, and he said he would.
Angelina took a break from the food line and went to the restroom down the hall from the kitchen. No one else was inside. A small pot of flowers sat on one side of the counter. A pretty air freshener sat on the other.
Angelina looked at herself in the mirror. Blue eyes, red hair, frizzier than she would like, but not bad today. Tired. Not needing this bullshit. Angelina looked into her eyes. “Why am I even in here?” she asked. She replied to herself, “Because I’m curious. Because something about that nut job sounds true to me.”
How did she really feel? Past the skin, what was she looking at?
“I’m a tired girl in the city, but I like my life,” she murmured. She didn’t want someone who came walking in to think she was nuts. “I like my job. I like the food bank. My friends are here. The city’s a pain but it’s trying. There’s a lot of good in the world. I believe in it.”
As Angelina blinked, it felt like a film lifted off her eyes. She saw wings. Transparent, feathered, and the color of sunlight through rain. Her wings. She gasped, and the wings snapped into full glory. Angelina felt that floating sensation that she’d had when she talked to Daniel in the park.
She blinked again and it was gone. Angelina covered her mouth with her hands.
She walked into the hallway. She tried to do it again. Angelina looked at the kid who had been working the steam table next to her. He was in his low twenties, a college sophomore. She saw the casual smile on his face, the way he made cute little waves at the kids. She tried to look into his heart.
Wings. Transparent, made of light, like hers. They were smaller than hers, white, tinged with blue the color of the sea on the edge.
Angelina let it go. Part of her heart leaped. She’d always wondered why her parents had abandoned her. They hadn’t, and that thought filled her with joy. At the same time, what did it matter? Would she have been as kind, as generous, if she hadn’t grown up grateful for the people who’d cared for her growing up?
Angelina looked for Daniel. He’d already gone. Daniel said he wanted to take her back to Heaven. Angelina had too much love to give here. She wasn’t done on Earth.
Angelina went to the park again after work. Angelina told Keith not to worry, that she felt better and would walk home on her own. Keith pushed back for a bit, but she told him firmly that she was fine.
On the way she saw wings on police officers, taxicab drivers, students and shoppers. White wings. Black wings. Wings tinged with rainbows and wings in ultraviolet. All of them were beautiful. The more soulful people seemed to know they had them, which really wasn’t much of a surprise. Daniel was playing his flute on the lion again. Now that it was on her mind, the lion reminded Angelina of Aslan from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The snake was around his neck, too, and it swayed to the music as he played.
Angelina walked up to him and put a dollar in his hat. Daniel chuckled. “You gave me a five last time, young lady.”
“And you acted like a jerk. ‘Dad.’ You’re lucky I didn’t give you a nickel. I have a soft spot for buskers.”
“It is what it is.”
“The founding principle of Buddhism,” she quipped. “I’m here to tell you that I’m not going anywhere.”
Daniel hit a sour note on his flute. “But you’ve seen the wings. You know what you are.”
“I know what everyone is.”
“But they can’t see them. They belong here. You don’t!”
“I belong here because they belong here.” She was talking like a crazy person. Angelina thought she’d write a poem about it later, called ‘Embrace the Crazy.’ “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Help guide people to the light?”
“I… well, yes.” She folded her arms. “Don’t give me that attitude, young lady. You weren’t sent here. You fell to Earth by accident. I’ve been searching the planet for you since you vanished.”
“And I’m in a place where I’m doing good and surrounded by love.”
Daniel shook his head. “I don’t know if I’d say ‘surrounded.’ You can do more good in the blink of an eye in Heaven than you can in a year here.”
Angelina held up her dollar. “What’s more helpful? Volunteering your time, giving love, or writing a check?”
“It depends on whether your last name is Gates.”
“Did you know Bill Gates was someone’s secret Santa last year? He gave them a charity donation, and a book and a stuffed animal. The card was signed ‘from Bill.’”
Daniel said, “Be that as it may, Angelina. I answer to a higher power. So do you.”
“Free will says not yet I don’t.”
Daniel and Angelina stared at each other. Angelina’s expression said she grew up in the city and he shouldn’t mess with her. Daniel’s said he’d walked the earth looking for her for twenty-four years, and he had nothing but time.
A man sitting on a bench nearby folded his newspaper. He came over and lifted his hand. He asked, “Forgive me for eavesdropping, but are you two for real, or is there a hidden camera?”
Daniel said, “I’m going to show you something.” He played a string of notes on his flute.
They floated about 300 miles above the Earth. To her right, Angelina saw the International Space Station. It was over Australia now, and it was night. Daniel and Angelina’s wings glowed in the light of the stars. Daniel swept his hand below them and lifted it up towards China.
Angelina could see dots like fireflies flying from city to city. There were dozens of them. Hundreds. They flew almost too fast for her to see. Angelina realized that if she wanted to, she could fly as fast as any of them. “Are those angels?” she asked.
“Every last one. Every time they land, they’re helping someone else, in some small way. I’d say each of them is helping someone new every second of every day.”
“That’s a lot of people,” she admitted. “My turn.” Angelina clapped her hands.
They were back on Earth. Back in the park, in fact. Daniel wobbled on his feet as he got his bearings. “How did you know how to do that?” he asked.
“The same way I didn’t panic when you pulled us around the world. I went with it.”
“Smart girl.” Angelina started walking, following the path around the park. Daniel followed her. The park was the same as it always was at this time of day. Business people were heading home from work and students were either studying or catching a quick jog before their next class.
“Are we going anywhere?” Daniel asked.
“Isn’t patience supposed to be a virtue?” she asked.
“Just curious,” he said, properly chastised.
At a sandwich shop across the street, Angelina bought a turkey hoagie, bag of chips and a bottle of water. She walked over to a homeless person sitting at the edge of the park.
“Hi Barney,” she said. She gave him the food.
“Miss Angelina! Oh, you didn’t have to do that.”
“Pshaw. You know me. I didn’t see you at the food bank, so I thought I’d check up on you.”
“I had to go see the doctor. It’s a long walk to the free clinic.”
“You doing okay?”
“Just a little cough. They give me some antibiotics.”
“Okay. Get better. I’ll see you at the food bank.”
He held her hand. “God bless you.” He looked at Daniel. “Is this your friend?”
“It’s a pleasure,” Daniel said.
“Very nice to meet you,” Barney said.
Angelina and Daniel started walking again. “So?” Daniel asked. “In the time that took you could have helped hundreds of people. You could nudge people toward doing the right thing, be that quiet voice that reminds their conscience, helped them in other ways.”
“Barney needs a friend. A social worker is helping him get back on his feet. He needs someone to smile at him, look him in the eye, and treat him with dignity. A little nudge isn’t going to give him that.”
“You could nudge someone else to do it.”
“He doesn’t need a nudge. He needs a person.” Angelina wanted to add ‘you dumbass’ but she didn’t think it would help her make her point.Daniel said, “Let me show you want you can do better than giving someone a sandwich.”
Angelina blinked. She and Daniel stood on a rooftop in the middle of a ruined city. In the distance she saw a puff of smoke rise up between buildings. To her right and left, she heard mechanical clatter. People shouted. Other people screamed.
Angelina covered her mouth with her hands. “Oh my God. Where is this?”
“Aleppo.” Daniel gestured to his left. “Over there are loyalist troops.” He gestured to his right. “Over there are the rebels.” The building shook. Another puff of smoke rose in the distance. Daniel gestured toward where the smoke was. “And right over there is a family of four, trying to get out of the fire zone. Do you want to get them sandwiches or shall I?’
Angelina hit him in chest. “Stop being an asshole or I’ll shove that snake up your nose.”
“You can do good here, Angelina. What do you want to do?”
Angelina acted on instinct. She closed her eyes.
When she opened them, she stood next to a frightened-looking man, low thirties, with a bandaged shoulder, carrying a child in his right arm and holding a bag of diapers in his left. His wife, late twenties, was holding the hand of a teenage son. The son looked too old to be holding his mother’s hand, but was drawing comfort from it just the same.
She walked alongside them. Two cars up, someone had left their keys in the ignition and abandoned a Honda Civic. It wouldn’t get them far, but it would get them out of here.
“Look,” she said.
The man didn’t hear her voice, but he looked. “Everyone get in. Thank God. It’s a miracle.”
Daniel stood next to her. “Ahem.”
The mother looked around. “Did you hear that?”
“Get in!” her husband called.
“Go to the right at the end of the block. That’ll keep you away from the battle,” Angelina said.
“I think we go right,” the mother said.
The Civic peeled out. Angelina hugged her arms as mortar fire flew over their heads.
“They’ll make it. Today,” Daniel said.
“Shut up. I’m going home,” Angelina said, walking away from him.
“That’s the idea.”
“My home! With Keith and my cat!”
“Food for thought, Angelina.”
She covered her ears with her hands and closed her eyes tight. Home. Take me home. I want to go home. Get me back to Philly, damn it.
Angelina made her way home with tears in her eyes. Helping the family in Aleppo had strengthened part of her that she’d never used before. She’d spread her wings. She felt like a superhero wearing an invisible cape. She hated it.
A father walked his daughter home from the dentist across the street. She couldn’t have been more than eight. He held her hand. Angelina noticed her little brown shoes and the books she carried under her arm. He walked with small steps because his daughter had just had a long day at the dentist, and he didn’t want to rush her on the way home.
A harried businesswoman walked past Angelina, talking into her Bluetooth with one hand while adjusting an overflowing bag of groceries with the other. Angelina tried to help her. “I’ve got it, thank you,” the woman said. She was Angelina’s age and height. The woman smiled. Her expression fell away and she said into the Bluetooth. “Right. But we can’t meet schedule unless the training seminar happens before the fourteenth…”
A teenager on a skateboard cut her off as she was about to cross the last street before her apartment. “Sorry!” he called. Angelina watched him go. He didn’t have a school bag. He did have a new friendship bracelet around his wrist that he kept looking at. That was why he’d almost hit Angelina.
Keith was making a big pot of pasta with his homemade sauce as she came in. “Hi, Angel. How was your day?”
Angelina flopped down in her favorite chair. Milo the Cat jumped into her lap. “I saw two different ways of looking at the world,” she said.
“That sounds neat. What did you learn?”
“That people need help. They try hard. And love is everywhere.” Milo purred, shoving his head under her fingers. Pet me already. Angelina scratched his ears in his favorite spot.
Keith said, “Well. It sounds like you had a good day, then.”
“Not really,” Angelina said. “I know which one I like better, but I don’t know where I belong.”
Keith looked up from the steaming container of red sauce. Which smelled incredible, by the way. “That sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it?”
“Well, I can do more good in one than the other.”
“Maybe. But there’s good, and there’s good, right? You can run for president, too, but I don’t see you doing that.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Unless you do want to run for president, and maybe you do, think globally, act locally.” He stirred the pasta. “You’re not moving out on me, are you? Because it would suck to go looking for a new roommate.”
That night, Angelina stood on her fire escape, looking up at the stars. You couldn’t see many in the city, but she’d camping in a state park once, and seen thousands of them. Tens of thousands. It reminded her of seeing the angels, each one doing good deeds every second.
“Ahhhh,” she sang, middle C. Angelina liked music. “I wonder if angels like music, other than harps,” she said aloud. You talked to yourself, when there was no one else, when you were an orphan.
She could feel her wings fluttering behind her. They wanted to fly. She wanted to do more good. Then she heard purring and felt a soft tickle walking around her ankles. Milo was wondering why she was out here. He hated the fire escape, but he wanted attention more. Angelina looked at him. “Did you always know what I was, and just not tell me?” Milo just rubbed up against her. His green eyes were steady and sure. “Well, at least one of us knows what his horizons are. Good for you, cat.”
She had an idea. Angelina carried Milo back inside. She changed into her favorite black jeans and black shirt. She turned off the lights, went back outside, and went for a flight.
The next day at lunch, Daniel showed up again at the soup kitchen. Angelina beamed when she saw him. She was wearing the same shirt she’d worn last night, one with little crystal beads that formed stars on it. “Hello, Mr. Daniel. Today we have tomato vegetable soup. Would you like some?”
“That’ll be fine. Thank you.” Angelina nodded to the student volunteer next to her. He started preparing Daniel’s tray. “Have you thought about the little stroll we took yesterday?”
“I thought about it all last night.”
Daniel frowned. “Do my ears deceive me, or do you sound strangely chipper today?”
“It’s not strange to my friends. I’ll bring your tray over and we’ll talk.”
Daniel still didn’t look happy. Angelina had the feeling he’d been making reservations for her with the celestial choir. She collected his tray and led him to an empty table near the end of the line.
“Last night I did some more good. I stopped three muggings, helped six kids study for college, comforted a lonely old woman, reminded a couple to use birth control, gave a triathlete strength to keep swimming, and kept someone from driving drunk.”
“Well, good for you.” Daniel didn’t sound happy yet.
“Then I went to bed. This morning, instead of t’ai ch’i, I helped a mother get her kids off to school, then flew over to Camden and encouraged a homeless person to get some support.” Daniel held his cane. He was losing patience. “I made that soup myself. Aren’t you going to have any?”
“Angelina. I came here for a reason.”
“Well… ‘dad,’ if you really are… it’s time to let your little girl fly on her own.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You showed me yesterday that I don’t have to go to Heaven to help people on Earth. So I didn’t. I’m my own superhero now. I can help people right here. My pay job is my secret identity.”
Daniel stamped his cane on the floor. “This isn’t a game, child!”
“I didn’t say it was! But if you believe things happen for a reason, then there’s a reason I got lost. I’m not supposed to go home yet.”
Daniel froze. “You’re truly serious about this.”
Angelina took a breath. She nodded. “More than I’ve ever been about anything.”
Daniel chuckled. Then he laughed. Then he dropped back his head and laughed so hard people turned to look at him. Angelina didn’t know if he meant it or he was putting on some kind of mocking show for her. When he recovered, he was dabbing at tears in his eyes. “The Almighty truly does work in mysterious ways. I’ll need to ask Her about that when I get back. Maybe She wanted to teach an old angel something about service.”
Angelina smiled uneasily. “You’re not mad?”
“I’m confused, but I don’t think it’s any more confused than people are with the way things work.” He reached for his cutlery and found the spoon. “I think I’ll try some of this soup before I go. It does smell delicious.” He held out his hand. “Fly on, Angel. Be good.”
Angelina shook it. Her stars glittered under the fluorescents. She said, “Keep playing that flute. I’ll listen for it while I’m out doing my thing.”
Daniel nodded. Angelina went back to the food line, helping one person at a time.