The Novice
By: Steve Carr

Enveloped in a cloud of Greyhound bus exhaust fumes, Alex Langley coughed into his cupped palm, then spat a wad of green phlegm onto the bus station waiting platform. He shifted his weight from one booted foot to the other, trying to ease the stiffness in his legs. Chilled by the late November air, he zipped up his field jacket and stuck his hands in the pockets.

There was a cacophonous clatter of passengers boarding and de-boarding the buses lined up along the platform. A man's voice boomed from a loudspeaker, announcing the bus arrivals and departures.

The ground trembled slightly. The bus station sign hanging above the buses swung slightly back and forth. As the bus driver pulled a duffel bag from the luggage compartment of the bus arriving from Cincinnati, Alex stepped forward.

"That's mine," he said, showing the driver his ticket.

He hoisted the bag onto his shoulder and headed for the exit. At the curb outside the station he threw his bag into the back seat of Yellow Cab, got in, and told the driver, "Take me to the Harrison Hotel."

*

The hotel room smelled of stale smoke and disinfectant. The cracked walls were painted a light gray, the same hue as clouds on a rainy day. A dark green comforter with a prominent hand-stitched repair of a tear near its middle covered the single bed. The pillowcase had the imprint of someone's greasy head. A dresser with a large mirror attached lined one wall. The mirror looked diseased; its glass had worn away like necrotic skin in several spots, revealing flaking silver and bare wood. A folded yellowed cotton towel and wash cloth were on top of the dresser. A plastic framed picture of wildflowers hung on the wall near the door. Alex tossed his duffel bag onto the bed, then removed his jacket and threw it on top of the bag. The stench of his own body after the long bus ride wafted up from his sweat-stained shirt. He removed his boots and clothes and stood in front of the mirror. His white feathery wings unfurled from his back and rose up behind his head.

*

Snow flurries danced in the cold wind. They sparkled in the glow of the street lamps. Trying to protect his face from being battered by the weather, Alex walked along the rubble-strewn sidewalk with his head bowed and his chin tucked in. He kept his hands in his jacket pockets; his fingers in his right pocket toying with the piece of paper he had carried with him all the way from Cincinnati. His footsteps echoed against the crumbling brick warehouses that lined both sides of the street. An armored car passing by slowed and drove alongside him for a minute, then sped on. Two blocks on he found the address of the warehouse he was looking for. Above the door a red neon sign flashed the word, "Earthbound." He pushed the door open. His senses were assaulted with booming disco music and the aromas of sweat and alcohol.

Politely, he pushed his way through the throng of young men and women. Their faces were illuminated by the flashing red and white light cast from rotating balls hanging from the ceiling. Those with wings, had them spread, their feathers flittering in the breeze being blown by large fans standing in each corner of the cavernous room. On the dance floor the movements of their bodies matched the pulsating music. He stopped and watched.

"You're new here," a beautiful young woman with her wings spread wide, said to him.

"Yes, I am," Alex said. "I heard about this club when I was in Cincinnati and wanted to see it as soon as I got off the bus. Am I that obvious that I'm new here?"

"Not particularly, other than you still have a coat and shirt on."

"Where can I leave them if I take them off?" Alex said.

The young woman pointed to the opposite side of the room. "The coat check is over there. Come find me after you've checked your things."

"Okay," Alex said. He started toward the coat check then turned and left the building.

*

Standing on the dock, Alex watched the snow fall on the turbulent, icy gray water.

A woman no taller than four feet was leaning against a streetlamp and smoking a cigarette in a jewel encrusted holder. She wore a white mink coat, skintight jeans and cowboy boots. She had long brown hair that was being tousled by the wind. Her face was thin and in the lamplight her thick makeup gave the appearance she was wearing a mask. She stared at Alex with piercing dark eyes. "I saw you at the club. Are you looking for a friend for the night?" she said.

Alex curled the piece of paper in his pocket around his index finger. "I was looking for a place to get something to eat."

"There's an all-night diner nearby. I can take you there."

"Thanks," Alex said. He walked up to her. "I'm Alex. What's your name?"

"Claudia."

Together they walked along the dock for two blocks then turned up a street where the facades of several small apartment buildings had fallen into the street. Inside the interiors of the exposed apartments, the furniture and other clutter was in heaps. Alex and Claudia climbed over the fallen bricks and masonry until they reached the diner at the end of the street. Its bright fluorescent light shone through a large plate glass window, lighting the snow covered sidewalk that led to the door.

Black and white checkered tablecloths covered the two tables in the middle of the diner, with three booths along the window on one side and a long counter on the other. The walls were blindingly white. Three pictures of Mt. Fuji hanging on the walls hung askew. A man and woman sat in a booth arguing in whispers.

Alex and Claudia sat at the counter. On the other side of the counter a large mirror covered the wall. The two looked at their reflections while they talked.

"Where are you from?" Claudia said.

"I came here from Cincinnati, but it's not where I'm from."

"Why did you come here?"

The waitress, wearing a black dress with a checkerboard apron, placed glasses of water and menus in front of them. "Let me know when you want to order," she said, then went back to wiping glasses and placing them on the shelves on the wall at the side of the mirror.

Alex took the piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. "I was told this man, Simon Laster, could help me."

"Help you?"

"I'm a fallen angel," Alex said.

"Aren't we all?" Claudia said.

The glasses tinkled as a tremor shook the restaurant.

*

Sitting on the edge of his bed, Claudia took off her boots and threw them in a corner.

Alex stood at the window looking out at a town square. A large bronze statue of a soldier on a horse lay on its side across a snow covered pathway. He turned around as Claudia was removing her clothes. "I'm not used to snow."

"It only snows at night," Claudia said. She tossed her clothes onto her boots and climbed under a starched white sheet. "In the morning it'll be like spring. That's the way it is here. When we get up I'll take you to the botanical gardens before the heat rises."

"I'm not staying the entire night," Alex said. He walked across the room, stepping over mounds of clothing and pieces of broken bric-a-brac. At the bed he removed his underwear, drew in his wings, then got under the sheet. "I've never stayed all night with anyone."

Claudia put her hand on Alex's hard chest. "What was the name of the guy you're looking for?"

"Simon Laster."

*

In the pre-dawn quietude the streets were eerily silent except for the reverberating sound of Alex's boot steps. The snow had stopped falling and what was on the ground lay still like a blanket; the wind had ceased also. He took the route back to his hotel suggested to him by Claudia. Most of the way there were empty shops and stores, their windows cracked or missing; shattered glass littered the sidewalks. At his hotel he stopped and gazed appraisingly at the new hairline crack that started at the base of the building and traveled up the front of the building all the way to the roof. In the lobby the potted rhododendron lay on its side, the dirt spread out on the threadbare dark blue carpet. The desk clerk was sound asleep, sitting on a stool behind the check-in counter. He walked up the six flights of stairs to his room and went in and turned on the light.

The picture of the wildflowers had fallen onto the floor, its plastic frame broken. He closed the door, picked up the picture and tossed it onto the table. As he removed his boots and clothes, the aromas of Claudia's expensive perfume wafted up from his exposed skin. He stood in front of the mirror and stared at his reflection as his wings arose from his back.

He opened his duffel bag and took out fresh clothes, his toiletries bag, and a cigar box of postcards of Cincinnati. With his wings fully spread, he placed everything on the dresser top, wrapped the towel around his waist and carrying the wash cloth and the toiletries bag went to the bathroom at the end of the dimly lit hallway.

The bathroom smelled of mildew and roach spray. Strips of mottled dirty yellow wallpaper was peeling from the walls. He placed the bag on the lip of the chipped porcelain sink and turned on the hot water. After waiting several minutes, the water that flowed out was still brackish and cold. Above the sink there was an outline left by a mirror, but no mirror. He shaved his light blonde stubble while staring at the wall. He then removed the towel and draped it over the rod from which hung a tattered plastic shower curtain, then turned on the shower that sprayed into a bathtub ringed with dirt.

Alex climbed into the shower and let the cold water wash over his body. He dried off, then wrapped the towel around his waist and went back to the room.

He retracted his wings and began to dress as pale morning light shone hazily through the dirty window. As he stood in front of the mirror brushing his curly blonde hair, a sheet of paper was shoved under the door.

He picked it up and read the elaborately cursive writing written on it.

*

A warm, moist breeze brushed Alex's face as soon as he stepped out of the hotel. Small streams from the rapidly melting snow ran along the gutters. Water dripped from the eaves and awnings. The streets were cleared of snow; long cracks in the pavement, like slashes from a knife, were exposed. People spilled out of the apartment buildings and crowded the sidewalks, jostling one another in their hurry to get wherever they were going. Alex removed his jacket and flung it over his shoulder and stepped into the flow of pedestrians.

In the city's center skyscrapers tilted toward each other, many of their windows covered with plywood. Sunlight glistened on their metal surfaces. Overflowing dumpsters and trash cans lined the sidewalks. The pungent aroma of rancid meat and rotting garbage hung in the air. In the increasing heat the melted snow evaporated. Awash in humidity, Alex began to sweat. It ran down his spine and between his legs in rivulets. He followed the directions on the piece of paper, finding his way to the train station.

He went through the revolving doors and entered the terminal. Packed with people, the tumultuous cacophony was almost deafening. Alex made his way through the turbulent crowd until he arrived at the train station diner. Crowded with frenzied passengers shouting their orders to overwhelmed waitresses, it took several minutes for Alex to spot the man described on the paper. He was sitting alone at a small table against a back wall. There was an empty chair on the other side of the table.

Alex jostled his way through the throng and sat down in the empty chair. "I'm Alex Langley, a novitiate assigned to Cincinnati. You're Simon Laster?" he said to the man.

"Yes, I am. The woman you are acquainted with, Claudia, found me very early this morning and said you were looking for me."

Simon's raven black curls framed a perfectly shaped face. His skin was as smooth as porcelain. His sky blue eyes were luminescent.

"I left training and went into hiding six months ago. I'm now earthbound and have lost all of my powers but I'm still an angel and not mortal. I was told by another angel in hiding in Cincinnati I should come to this city to meet you and start my life anew," Alex said. "I need your guidance."

Simon gazed at him thoughtfully. "Why did you give up being an angel?"

"My desire for love is greater than my desire to be an angel."

"There are many earthbound angels in this city who can guide you if you choose to stay, but this city is decaying and in constant chaos. As you can see, many people are leaving, including me," Simon said. "I'm boarding a train in fifteen minutes."

"Where are you going?"

"I'll ride the train until I find a place that suits me. There's a disco called Earthbound where many of our kind can be found."

"I know of it," Alex said

"Begin there," he said. He then stood up. "I have a train to catch."

"Before we part," Alex said, "Is it true you're over two thousand years old?"

"Much older," Simon said.

*

Snow and sleet slashed sideways in the night wind. Alex raised the jacket collar around his neck, tucked in his chin, and trod through the deepening snow. As he reached the row of warehouses, the ground rumbled, breaking off bricks from the buildings, sending them crashing into the snow. He entered Earthbound and weaved his way through the gyrating, sweating couples dancing in the rays of flashing strobe lights until he reached the coat check. He removed his jacket and shirt and handed them to the angel behind the counter. As his wings unfolded from his back he scanned the dance floor. The angel he had met before was standing alone on the edge of the dance floor.

"Would you like to dance?" Alex said.

"So, you've returned to Earthbound at last," she said.

"So I have," Alex said.

THE END

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