Lighting a cigarette in the chill of the harsh October wind, Janet inhaled with a long pull, closing her eyes with rapture as the smoky flavor of the Camel danced behind her teeth. Blowing the smoke out in a few solid rings, she looked back at the party raging inside her boyfriend’s house. She’d been on the second story when she decided she needed some fresh air, so she’d done what had seemed natural at the time.
She’d opened a window and climbed out onto the slanted roof, dropping down to sit and smoke in peace while the dull bass rocked the very foundation of the building. Looking up into the night sky, she stared at the pale moon, hiding behind a few errant clouds as if ashamed of it’s nudity. She smiled and took another drag from her cigarette.
“Mind if I have a puff?” A girl asked, causing Janet to jump a little, sliding down the shingles a few inches.
Looking behind her, a girl that couldn’t be older than eighteen was standing in a yellow sundress, a simple red cardigan covering her bare arms to prevent the cold from seeping in. She had a pale face and blonde hair, pulled into six pigtails, each dyed a different color. A small black star sat below her right eye, a tattoo that must have stung something fierce when she got it. Her smile was warm enough, her hands held behind her back as she stood six feet higher than Janet at the apex of the roof.
“Sure,” Janet said, fishing into her hoodie for her lighter. “You need a smoke too, or you got something better than Camels?”
“I prefer Marlboro reds actually,” the girl said, walking down the slanted roof carefully until she was next to Janet. She pulled a pack of reds from her inside her cardigan and patted the pack of cigarettes a few times to make it easier to slide one out. “So what’s your story? Why are you out on the roof when there’s a rager going on inside?”
Janet snorted. “My boyfriend is getting on my nerves. He keeps trying to get me to drink so he can try and get into my panties. He denies it, of course, but I overheard him talking with a friend of his that can rig card games. Shortly afterwards he suggested a drinking game based off of hands of poker. I bowed out, slipping out here to avoid him for a while.”
The girl hummed as she slid a slender white cigarette from her pack, holding it daintily between two fingers as she held it out for a light. Janet flicked her butane lighter on and singed the end of the cigarette, smiling as the girl lifted the smoldering cancer stick to her lips, puffing quickly to make sure the flame wouldn’t die out. Watching as the girl pulled out the smog from the burning embers, Janet smiled as the girl blew an impressive cloud of smoke through her nostrils.
“Never could stand doing that,” Janet said. “Always gave me a headache.”
“It takes some getting used to,” the girl said with a smile. “So you never said your name?”
Janet put the cigarette in her mouth, wiping her hand on her jeans before holding it out. “Janet McCoy, artist extraordinaire. I’m a junior in the local Art School, where my boyfriend is a Teaching Assistant.”
“My names Shiv,” the girl replied, shaking Janet’s hand. Seeing Janet’s raised eyebrow, the girl chuckled. “It’s a nickname.”
“Strange nickname…” Janet commented.
“My family gives each other nicknames that rarely make sense,” Shiv said with a careless shrug. “Mine is just a joke about something I did when I was like four…”
“Okay…” Janet said, puffing on her Camel. “So you liking the party? I’ve never seen you around before, so it must be one of your first with us…”
“Yeah, it’s neat. I’ve mostly been spending tonight out here, the house is too loud and too hot.”
Janet quirked an eyebrow, her eyes darting up and down the girl. She didn’t seem dressed for this kind of weather… in fact, she didn’t have any shoes on! As soon as Janet’s eyes fell upon them, Shiv chuckled. Janet looked up and reared back.
Shiv had somehow moved forward, her skin now ashen and gray, her hair dirty and lifeless. Shiv’s eyes were gone, replaced by a crushing darkness that seemed even worse when looking at her taut skin. Before Janet could say anything, Shiv swiped an arm, raking ragged nails across her face. Janet screamed as her vision was suddenly clouded, blood spurting from the ribbons of flesh that were hanging from her skull. Before Janet could do anything else, she felt the burning end of a cigarette stab into her left eye, being pushed in until the ashy tobacco, smoldered against her watering eye.
Janet instinctively swiped in front of her to ward off another attack, but found that nothing was there. Opening her one good eye, she wiped away the bloody ash from her face as she scanned the rooftop for a sign of Shiv. Several people down below, standing under the eaves of the roof, had wandered out into the yard and were calling up. Janet reached out to the wall, slowly rising to her feet so she could climb back inside, when a flicker of movement danced out of the corner of her bad eye. Turning her head, she screamed even louder as Shiv’s hands lashed out, punching into Janet’s shoulder with enough force to send the girl toppling down the slanted roof to the grass below.
Janet hit the ground with a wet thump, a small crack issued forth from somewhere deep in her neck that instantly made all the pain go away, save for a gnawing pang similar to hunger, nibbling at her weak, listless limbs. Several people swarmed over her, James and Brandon from the Campus Crusade for Christ among them.
“Janet?” James asked, the reed thin man asked, his wispy moustache decorated with moisture taken from the sips of beer from the plastic red cups. “Janet, is that you?”
“Urrr…” She groaned, her vision blurring, the figures standing around her illuminated by the moonlight shining down. Double vision plaguing her now, her one eye widened as she saw Shiv, leaping from the roof with a silent screech.
She hung mid-air for a moment, gravity seemingly uncaring for it’s normal laws of order. Twin wings unfurled from her back, the cardigan splitting and falling down her body, being caught by one of her bare feet as she flapped a few times, feathered wings white as freshly fallen snow and silent as an owl’s flight. Her eyes, predatory things that made Janet feel inconsequential, peered down at her over a face that was set in a horrid grin. She flapped off, screeching into the night, the sound a barn owl would make mid-flight. A few students looked up, but Shiv had flown into the thickets surrounding the home, masking her alien nature from them.
Janet fell into oblivion with a distant pain, far off cries of an owl and the worried whispers of her classmates wrapped around her like a threadbare blanket.
Janet woke up in her hospital room, sweating despite the cool air pumped through the entire floor. The dream had been so real, as it’d just happened yesterday. Looking down at the supports holding her fractured legs up off the bed, and the clock across her darkened room, she could see that it’d been nine days as of an hour and half ago. She was partially paralyzed, her lower half completely numb and useless to her.
Her upper body had been salvageable after twenty-two hours of surgery, her vertebrae replaced with porcelain copies that supported her damaged spinal cord. Turning her head as much as she could, she looked out the window. She was on the second floor of the hospital, and just outside her room was a tall oak that rivaled anything she’d ever seen. One of the nurses said she’d seen it struck by lightning, damaged by fire, and cut back by overzealous workers; every time the resilient nature withstood the abuse and came back stronger than ever.
“That’s what I want you to do, dear,” the old nurse said as she’d replaced the painkillers that fluidly slid into Janet throughout the night. “I want you to try and bounce back from this. Don’t let it get you down.”
“But I’ll never walk again…” Janet had grumbled.
“But you can still sing, and appreciate the beauty of nature… that fall could have easily killed you, and the infection to your face was one of the worst we’ve dealt with here at East Stag in years!”
Janet fluttered her eyelid behind the bandages, the swath of wet cotton soaking her ruined eye in antibiotic fluids in order to combat the infection that had taken hold of her body for the first five days of her residency at East Stag Memorial Hospital. It’d eaten away most of her cheek, and made it nearly impossible to talk without accidentally biting her tongue. She drooled constantly, and hated the looks her visitors gave her when they came by. Disgust mixed with pity… now there was a downer.
But she was set to have some skin grafts to help with that, and her sister had said that’d help with her self-confidence. She may never grace the cover of a fashion magazine, but she’d look human again.
Wincing as she heard the same damn owl from the last two nights, she looked over with her one good eye and stared at the snowy white creature perched on the branch near her window. It had deep, dark eyes, and a smattering of dark spots under it’s eyes that were almost like freckles. It’s beak was a luminescent white thanks to the moonlight, and the tuft of furry feathers sticking out from it’s chest seemed to give the creature an almost proud stance.
Janet hated it.
“What do you want?” Janet grumbled through the closed window. “I don’t have anything for you. Go away!”
“What about me?” Shiv asked from the foot of the bed, causing Janet to shriek in both surprise and pain as she jolted from the sudden appearance. Shive was perched on the support bar at the end of the bed, barefoot and in a sundress, down white wings half-folded around her thin frame. Her eyes, an amber that practically glowed in the low light, gave her an unearthly quality that made her all the more alien.
“So I didn’t imagine things… thank God!” Janet said, blinking her eye a few times to make sure the winged girl wouldn’t disappear. “They said I was seeing angels and that it was likely due to brain damage.”
“No,” Shiv said, bringing up her hands, fingers ending in hooked sickles that she used to clean a bit of meat from between her teeth. “They’re right on both counts. You do have brain damage, and I am an angel.”
“Bullshit. Then why’d you try to kill me?” Janet didn’t know what the morphine was doing to her, but the conversation was strangely lucid.
“I did try, didn’t I? Been doing this for nearly two-hundred years and I mess up a simple enough job,” Shiv chuckled, reaching into her bosom, her heaving breasts confined within the white sundress releasing a pack of Camel cigarettes. “Want a smoke?”
“God, yes…” Janet said, eyeing the strange woman warily. Shiv hopped from the bed, slowly descending to the floor where she opened the pack with a slice to the wrapping, before fishing out a filtered stick.
Janet happily took it, smiling as Shive brought out Janet’s lighter from that night to spark the cigarette to life. Janet sucked in the sweet toxicity, sighing as she released a cloud of smoke through her nose. Shiv chuckled mirthlessly, earning a strange look from Janet.
“What’s so funny?” Janet asked around her cigarette.
“You,” Shiv said, smiling down at Janet. “You look a fright, seem to be barely holding onto life with the last vestiges of strength you have, and you just now blow smoke out of your nose. It’s like you want to get a headache.”
Janet tried not to laugh, as it hurt her neck, but she smiled as best she could. Slowly inhaling the soothing mist, she stared Shiv in the eyes. “Why’d you do it?”
Shiv shrugged, looking down at the pack of cigarettes in her claws. “It’s my job. I can… smell… when it’s your time. It’s like you ripen, ready to be plucked from the tree in a way that ends the beautiful struggle going on, allowing me to bring your spirit to it’s next step in the grand scheme of things.”
“So you’re here to kill me?” Janet asked, dread creeping up her back.
Shiv shook her head slowly. “I killed you ten minutes ago,” she said, bringing a needle from behind her. “Just enough to do the job that I originally started, before the doctors stepped in and defied the way the world works.”
Janet stared at the needle, blinking back a tear. “Will it hurt?”
“Your cause of death will be listed as a blood clot that traveled to the brain,” Shiv said. “It’s painless. I’ve caused you enough pain, I believe.”
“So you’re the angel of death then? Why did you look all…” Janet asked, thinking back on what she saw on the rooftop.
“Disgusting? It’s what people expect from an angel of death,” Shiv replied, taking the cigarette from Janet’s mouth, flicking the ash away. She put the stub to Janet’s lips as the girl’s eyes widened. “For what it’s worth, I’m sure you would have made an amazing artist. And your boyfriend was a prick. He’s already got a girl on the side.”
“Can you kill him for me?” Janet joked, her vision fading.
“No,” Shiv said after a moment. “But the girl he’s with will be doing it for us both in about three weeks.”
“Oh,” Janet said, closing her eyes. “I guess that’s… good then.”
The night nurse came into the room, the scent of smoke having attracted her. She looked in and saw the cigarette hanging from Janet’s lips, smoldering with a dying light.
“Janet! You can’t smoke in the hospital! How did you even get cigarettes?” She asked, walking up to the side of the bed, reaching down to grab the cigarette from Janet’s cooling lips. It took the nurse only a few moments to realize that Janet wasn’t breathing.
Outside the snowy white owl hooted once more before taking flight, soaring away and off towards the forest. It had what it’d come for, and no longer needed to remain on the weathered oak any longer.