I remember the first time I saw her. I was six, and on my first visit to London. My mom had taken me to Hanleys in Covent Garden to buy me a toy. Now, I can’t recall what it was, but on the way back to the hotel there was an emergency on the Underground train.
She was so beautiful with shoulder length red hair and a slight curl. She wore an almost shockingly demur shoulderless scarlet dress and carried a discreet briefcase. I say shockingly because it should have seemed sexy with her bare shoulders. It was elegant rather than sexy. She was a princess rather than a floozy.
She delivered a baby. A girl. They were right in front of us in the car, and the baby was very premature. I only know that because it was on the news. My parents were obsessed by the BBC and it was on all the time we were in the hotel room.
Concert Pianist Delivers Baby in Tube.
Her name was Penelope Spring. My mother was also a pianist and knew her vaguely. They had both played at a competition as accompanists a few years earlier. She was tall and thin, and probably on her way to a gig, or a rehearsal. She reminded me of one of the angels in the proscenium of Wigmore Hall. Mom had played there the night before.
Mom tried to shield me from the scene, but I saw it all. The water, the blood, and the tiny baby with goo all over her. It put me off having babies a little. I haven’t really had the chance to test that, since one requires a man’s involvement. No, I’m not a virgin, but even at 26, I haven’t been with a man longer than six months.
I was devastated when she died in a plane crash a couple years later. The plane lost pressure and plunged into Lake Erie.
I saw it.
I was living in the east suburbs of Cleveland at the time, right near the lake shore, not far from where I live now. During recess, there was a boom, and I looked up, only to see the plane disintegrate on the way down. No one survived. A few days later, it was announced that she was on the flight. I’ve been obsessed with her ever since, especially when I learned that we had the same birthday. I own all her recordings. Some are out of print, but my mom had them. There is something eternal in her playing, something that moves the soul. Transforms it.
Now that I’m a working pianist, too, I listen to them anytime I need inspiration. I wish there were more.
Why is this important to me now? She saved my life when I was 12. It was a simple thing. My parents were taking me to a Cleveland Orchestra concert and I had become separated from them. A young woman stopped me from stepping into the street just as a bus careened past. I would surely have been dead.
She looked younger than before, but it was surely her. Maybe she was 15 or 16. She told me off for trying to go into a busy street without looking and helped me find my parents who were actually quite nearby. It was unmistakably her, although mom said she saw a resemblance, but it couldn’t be her.
She recognized me, too. I am sure of it.
That was 14 years ago. I can’t be certain, but I feel like I have seen her again several times. Never close up until today. I was out running in a Metropark, when I started approaching a woman running ahead of me. She ran with a weird gait, almost silently, as if she was struggling to keep in contact with the ground. I could tell that she could run much faster than she was. I thought I was bold with my running attire, but she was wearing about as little as she could without being obscene: a purple running bra with matching tight shorts. She was perfectly muscled, lightly tanned, and her red hair was pulled back in a ponytail.
I was training for a 10K trail race, so I was pushing hard, but she made it look so easy. Our builds were similar, although I was a little taller, not quite a Nordic amazon, too thin, with blonde hair and blue eyed, and I tanned a more golden color. I was the image of my mom in her twenties.
I think she heard me coming up behind her, because she took off, apparently not wanting to be passed. I was pushing a little harder than I should trying to catch her, and not paying much attention to the terrain. We were running through the forest along a cliff edge, when I tripped on a branch and rolled towards the cliff.
She caught me.
I don’t know how she reacted so quickly. One instant she was 20 feet ahead of me, the next she was between me and the cliff.
She flew. No, I don’t believe it either, but that is the only explanation short of teleportation.
Alice, she said her name was. Alice Forlaine.
“Emily Dewhurst,” I gasped, still in shock. She was the same girl who had saved me in Cleveland.
She remembered me. “I have an eidetic memory,” she explained. “I remember everything.”
“Alice,” I started. I remembered something vaguely. I had heard of a girl named Alice when I was in high school who was an amazing pianist, but had never taken a lesson. She could read anything at sight and memorize it. Alice Forlaine. She was a few years ahead of me. “You aren’t the pianist from …”
“I’m not a pianist,” she interrupted. “I do play, but not professionally.”
“I’ve heard about you. We went to the same high school.”
“Maybe.” She obviously didn’t want to talk about it.
“Did you know you look just like Penelope Spring?”
“Who?” I could tell she was lying. She knew.
“The pianist who died in a plane crash about 18 years ago. My mother knew her. She was the body-model for Lana Forlaine – from the video game. You must have heard of her.”
“Actually, my name is Lana Alice Forlaine, but I go by Alice, so people don’t ask me about the game. I’m rubbish at it. My old housemate played all the time.”
“You look amazingly like her.”
“Lana, or what’s her name …?”
“What happened to your eidetic memory?”
“Penelope Spring. If I look like one, I look like the other, well, without the digital breast enhancements. Are you OK? If so, I need to get on with my run. I’ve got 15 more miles to do before it gets dark.” She had told me too much and was trying to get away.
“Do you want to have dinner together? I owe you. You just saved my life … again.”
“Do you like pizza? Do you know Luigi’s?”
“Yes. How about 8 o’clock? That will give me a chance to shower.”
She sprinted off, almost not waiting for my answer. Luigi’s seemed like an odd place. The pizza was good, but one didn’t normally eat in there. There were only three tables, and I had only ever sat at one while I was waiting for a takeout. It also wasn’t in a great part of town. I finished my run, rather more carefully than I had started. I’d had only a couple more miles to run, then it was home for a shower and dinner. I didn’t know what to wear. A dress was too formal. Tights and a black sleeveless blouse with ties at the top. A little cleavage, which was about all that I could boast anyway.
Why was that an issue? I was having dinner with someone who looked exactly like a person who I adored, that had died 18 years earlier. I wasn’t on a date.
I arrived early and sat at the table furthest from the counter. I didn’t want to be overheard. It also gave me a good view of the door. Alice arrived, looking even more apprehensive than before. She was even more beautiful than Penelope was the first time I saw her. We had almost dressed to match, although her blouse was shoulderless, much like the scarlet dress. Simple, but this time, hot. She didn’t want to be there. We ordered drinks and a pepperoni pizza to share. We seemed to have like tastes.
I didn’t know what to talk about while we waited for our order. I knew she didn’t want to discuss Penelope Spring or Lana Forlaine. I couldn’t remember what sequel the game was in. I recalled that they were casting the role for a feature film. But that wasn’t a topic she would want to discuss.
“So what do you do?” I blurted out, searching for something, an awkward conversation starter.
“I own a small farm,” she said looking around agitated. “We have … I have some horses.” She tapped her fingers nervously and looked around again, not at the counter, at the door, as though she was expecting something to happen
“Who is ‘we’? Are you married?”
“My old housemate,” she replied. “She died about six months ago. The horses were hers.”
“I’m sorry.” I’d stepped in it already.
“No, she had been dying as long as I knew her. Cancer. I knew what I was getting into when we bought the farm together.”
I heard a loud noise outside. A pop, like gunfire. And another. Not too close, but not far enough away for my liking. Alice froze. She reached out and squeezed my had as if she knew what was going to happen next.
What happened next was, a boy, probably 16 or 17, staggered through the door clutching at his bleeding chest. I could see the family resemblance with the owner, a 40-something Italian with a paunch. He might have been Luigi’s son. The boy spilled onto the floor. He was losing way too much blood. Alice looked around, twitched, and what followed, I don’t understand.
I felt Alice let go of my hand. I blinked, and in the fraction of a second that my eyes were closed, Alice had transformed into a scantily-clad angel with beautiful large burgundy wings the color of her hair, dressed in the same shade of purple that she ran in, but with a huge jeweled sword with which she turned and cleaved the soul out of the boy’s body. She had a brief word with his soul before my eyes opened again with Alice still clutching my hand, a solitary tear dribbling down her cheek.
As the owner, cradled the boy’s lifeless head in his arms, crying and beseeching God to save the boy, Alice calmly pulled out her phone and called the police and ambulance. “We should stay until the police come,” she said flatly.
“Did you know …” I began, wondering how she could remain so calm.
“No,” she interrupted, as if she didn’t want me to voice the question.
The police arrived and cleared the scene as the ambulance approached. The boy was dead. There was no hope for him. We gave our statements and the police guided us from the building.
“I’ll give you a lift,” Alice insisted, pulling me to her car, right next to mine, which was blocked in by the ambulance. She didn’t ask where I lived and pulled out in completely the wrong direction. I waited, but she knew where she was going. “I’m going to cook for you,” she finally explained. “And I want to hear you play.”
I hadn’t told her I was pianist. “How did you know?”
“I’ve seen your name on concert programs.” Of course, and she didn’t forget anything.
It was about a 10 minute drive to her farm, and the silence in her car was palpable. Alice was no longer nervous. This seemed more like dread. When she arrived, she showed me her piano, which was a Steinway concert grand, overkill for a “non-professional” pianist. The room was large, a converted barn with a high ceiling adjoining the main part of the house. It was like her own little concert hall, but with couches rather than chairs for seating.
“Take some time to get used to the piano,” she said, “while I cook some dinner.” She didn’t ask what I liked or if I had any food issues. I was mildly allergic to shellfish, but nothing else.
It gave me time to decide what to play for her. A bookcase held a variety of music scores, all pristine. Of course, she only needed to look at them once. They weren’t dog-eared like mine. I’m horrible at memorizing pieces. I do it physically rather than visually. I know what a piece feels like, but that means I have to play it a hundred times. If the rumors were true. Alice only needed to see a piece once, and she could play it perfectly.
I resolved to play something for her from memory. I was about to premiere a new piece by a composer who I studied with at university, and it would be nice to give it a dry run with a small audience.
Alice summoned me to the dinner table. She had made an artichoke lasagna, which was my favorite dish that my mother made. Alice had made it with homemade pasta. It was delicious, and I told her so, but what I didn’t ask was how she could make it 15 minutes. She’d had to prepare it for about an hour and then cook it in the oven for 45 minutes.
“How did you know?” I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders and smiled for the first time. We talked about nothing in particular: food, her horses. She wanted to teach me to ride and thought she had the perfect horse for me, a gentle gray mare.
Then it was concert time. I played the new piece: Gavin Beamish’s Rising Moon. I played it well for the most part. There were a couple of small inaccuracies, and one section that was a little slower than I had planned. Alice was ecstatic. She loved hearing pieces she didn’t know.
“Would you play for me?” I asked boldly.
After feigning annoyance, Alice relented. Was her choice of music a coincidence? Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, my favorite recording of Penelope Spring. She didn’t play it exactly the same, but it was equally exquisite.
Afterwards, she turned to me with a serious look in her bottomless blue eyes. “You’ve witnessed something that wasn’t allowed.”
“You playing beautifully?” I asked, confused.
“No. At Luigi’s.”
“What did I witness?” I asked. I needed her to explain it to me.
“You saw something no living human is allowed to see … and live.”
“Does that mean you are going to kill me?” I asked, suddenly terrified.
“No,” she answered, “not necessarily.” The dread from earlier had turned to a quiet confidence. “I need something from you: an unconditional commitment.”
“I can’t tell you what it is. You have to agree or not.”
“What if I don’t?”
“That remains to be seen. Let me assure you that what you are doing is expressly for me, at no personal cost to you. It’s not, strictly speaking, illegal or immoral.”
It was as if I was on trial.
“I’m the one on trial,” Alice said, as if reading my mind.
“I am,” she said, answering my thought. “What I did was illegal and premeditated, and you are an innocent, but you saw what only a dying person may see. I should have freed your soul on the spot. I didn’t. Now I have to pay the consequences. I should also say that we aren’t alone here. I’m just the only one with a human form.”
“Can you answer one question?” Was she Penelope?
“Nto yet. I would need your answer first.”
Did I have anything to lose? Would I lose my life if I didn’t agree?
Alice didn’t answer that. I had to assume that all the beings in the room could hear my thoughts.
“And you would be right,” she said.
“Who is in the room?” I asked.
“Answer first, and I can explain everything, well, most everything.”
“Okay, I will do whatever you want me to, unconditionally.” She was wrong. I had everything to lose, if I said no. I could lose my life.
Alice paused and looked out into the room. “I’m giving her my unconditional trust. You know someone has to do it. Why not her? I’ve known her most of her life. She won’t let me down. She knows what the penalty is.”
I had guessed right, I presume.
“There was one alternative,” Alice said to me. “You could have been made to forget it, but that might have had other consequences.” She paused, and added, “Everything has consequences, and not all are predictable. For example, you might have forgotten how to play piano, or just the piece you were learning.”
“So what do you need of me?” I asked.
“First, I’ll tell you who is in the room. Michael, the archangel, Gabriel, also an archangel, Pistus-Sophia, my guardian angel … and friend … and one other, Obediah, who could make him or herself known to you … and will, someday, but I’m not at liberty to introduce to you now.”
“I can tell you first,” Alice continued, “that I am your … well, part-time guardian angel. Not everyone has one, but you are special even to have me part-time. I am also an angel of death. I reap souls. That is what you witnessed today. I lured you there to see it. I needed a friend and you were the logical choice. Only my best friend can do what you are going to be called on to do. My best friend died six months ago, and I am finding it difficult to make new ones and keep out of the public eye at the same time.”
“So you are Penelope Spring,” I interrupted.
“I was, but her body died and I was reborn as Alice Forlaine.”
“But you would only be 18.”
“Alice Forlaine didn’t exist before she was ten years old. Her life was … um, backdated. Technically, she doesn’t exist now. Which brings me onto your commitment. This body will die someday. When it does, whoever I become will need to take over the … let’s call it wealth … that I will need to live without relying on earning a living. That would be too public.”
“Wouldn’t you just go to heaven?” I asked.
She chuckled, and it is my guess that the whole room laughed, since Alice took so long to continue. I didn’t get the joke. “You, Emily Dewhurst, will be the caretaker of this fund until it passes on to me in my new life. At some point, someone named Penelope Dewhurst will reveal herself to you as the heir to this fortune. That will be me. I don’t know how old I will be. Six? Okay, that’s what they tell me. Only one of us in this room is omniscient.”
“I shouldn’t have said that,” she added. “Don’t think about what that might mean.”
She shouldn’t have said that. Now I will think about it. She intended that. Alice isn’t very good about keeping rules. “Dewhurst. Is that significant?”
“It may make proving it to a lawyer easier. It will appear that we are relatives.”
“Is that all I need to do?” I asked.
“And keep my secret.”
“I can do that,” I said. “It won’t be easy. Could you do me a favor?”
She knew what I wanted. “I can’t show you myself as a death angel. I would have to kill you. Once is too many times. As a guardian angel … Okay, they have given me an option. It is against the rules. The problem is that if I’m touching the ground or anything man-made, I’m human, but my wings are invisible. If I’m not, I’m invisible. But there is one way. We must go outside though.”
We went out by the stables, and Alice stripped down to bare skin. I heard a celestial choir above me, and I looked up to see a host of robed angels. Then came the trumpets from the rooftop, or above the rooftop to be exact. Alice stepped gracefully into the air and shown like the sun with great burgundy wings. Awestruck, I fell to my knees.
“The heavenly hosts salute thee, Emily,” proclaimed Alice, “and it will come to pass that you will have a daughter, and she will be called the clever one, the red angel, Penelope.”
“How will this be since I do not know man?” I asked, echoing the bible. Penelope Dewhurst, significant?
“You have been blessed by the Holy Spirit, Emily,” she said. “In nine months you shall bear fruit.”
Alice looked beyond beautiful, effortlessly flapping her great wings to remain aloft. Hers were larger than the others. I struggled to see her in the light. Eventually, I had to look away. The trumpets sounded again and the choir faded into the distance. When it was all quiet again, I peeked up to see Alice’s bare feet, legs, everything.
“Sorry about that,” she said. “That was the only way I could do it. I had to give you a proclamation, to portend a miracle. I’m sorry I didn’t have a robe with me. I don’t do those very often, and you didn’t give me enough notice to have a new one fitted. The last one was a bit too racy.”
“A miracle?” I asked. I had stopped listening at that word.
“You are now pregnant.”
“Oh. Thanks. Another virgin birth. I would have preferred the old-fashioned way.”
“You asked, and that was the only option. Think of it this way, you’ve been knocked up by the Holy Spirit. That’s an honor. I told you that you were special.” She didn’t hide her cynicism very well.
“Penelope Dewhurst? Does that mean you have only seven years to live?”
“I’m destined to live forever. I just need to change bodies once in a while. I guess it will be sooner rather than later. It’s a pity. I liked this one.”
“Did you plan this?” I asked.
“They don’t tell what my proclamation is until I give it. I was as surprised as you were when I uttered it.”
“And you expect me to be your best friend now?”
“For the rest of your life. We had better get used to it. We have seven years to get to know each other before I become your daughter. It means I can come out of the shadows instead of stalking you. Besides, I’ve got some matchmaking to do. We need to find you a Joseph. Can’t have a Mary without a Joseph.”
Cynic. “I think I would rather pick my own husband.”
“And how has that been going for you?”
Double-cynic. “What about the fact that I’m not a virgin?”
“It’s irrelevant. Hey, I want to show you something. Let’s go inside.”
It was a little off-putting that she made no move to clothe herself.
“Sorry, I’m used to it,” she explained, still not clothing herself. “If I’m flying, I’m nude. I fly a lot.” She jumped in the air and disappeared, only to reappear at her front door. “See?”
“Don’t you get cold?”
“It’s one of the perks of being an angel and human at the same time. I don’t feel the cold unless I want to.” She opened the door and led me in. On top of the piano was an imposingly large book. It wasn’t there before. “I want you to read something.”
She opened to a seemingly random page.
Was it good for you? It was for me.
“What is this?” I asked.
“It’s my Pan-Angelica. All angels have one. It’s basically the Holy Spirit, our spiritual guide. It’s your man.”
“So I’ve had sex with a book.”
“That remains to be seen.”
“What do you mean?”
She shrugged. That was an annoying habit.
“It means that either I don’t know the answer or I can’t tell you even if I wanted to.”
“Which is it?”
She shrugged again. “It is getting late, and your car is still at Luigi’s. I have a number of spare rooms, if you want to stay the night. You can even stay in my bed if you want. I’ve got a meeting.”
“I don’t need to sleep, if I don’t want to.”
“Where is this meeting?”
She pointed up and winked. “Actually, I’ve got to dash. Make yourself at home.” She ran out the front door and disappeared into the sky, not telling me where the bedrooms were.
I took a look in the Pan-Angelica.
Down the hallway on the left. The first room is the best. Penelope won’t awaken you when she returns.
I turned the page.
Take Misty for a ride in the morning.
I had never ridden a horse before and didn’t know which was Misty. I turned another page.
Sleep well, your bathroom is across the hall.
I was suddenly very tired. The bathroom had a new, unopened toothbrush in it, as if I was expected. I could barely brush my teeth before dragging myself to bed. I slipped off my clothes and before I knew it, I was enveloped by exquisite silk sheets, dreaming of the most incredible sex I’d ever had. I couldn’t remember what the man looked like, but every cell of my body shivered with ecstasy. I awoke in the morning drenched in sweat, more relaxed than I had ever felt in my life, with the smell of bacon frying in the air.
I had to admit. It was good for me, too.