Ironically, since the attacks, the sunsets have been glorious. Outside our condo window, the sky flames like a bruised mango in vivid orange, red, and purple. The clouds ignite with sunset colors, and I’m almost scared those of us caught below will catch on fire too.
With the dying warmth on my face, I try not to think about anything other than keeping my hands from trembling as I methodically zip up my backpack.
I pull on my favorite boots. They used to be my favorites because I once got a compliment from Misty Johnson about the look of the leather strips laddering down the sides. She is—was—a cheerleader and known for her fashionable taste, so I figured these boots were my token fashion statement even though they’re made by a hiking boot company for serious wear. Now they’re my favorites because the strips make for a perfect knife holder.
I also slip sharpened steak knives into Paige’s wheelchair pocket. I hesitate before putting one into Mom’s shopping cart in the living room, but I do it anyway. I slip it in between a stack of Bibles and a pile of empty soda bottles. I shift some clothes over it when she’s not looking, hoping she’ll never have to know it’s there.
Before it gets fully dark, I roll Paige down the common hall to the stairs. She can roll on her own, thanks to her preference for a conventional chair over the electric kind. But I can tell she feels more secure when I push her. The elevator is useless now, of course, unless you’re willing to risk getting stuck when the electricity goes out.
I help Paige out of the chair and carry her on my back while our mother rolls the chair down three flights of stairs. I don’t like the bony feel of my sister. She’s too light now, even for a seven-year-old, and it scares me more than everything else combined.
Once we reach the lobby, I put Paige back into her chair. I sweep a strand of dark hair behind her ear. With her high cheekbones and midnight eyes, we could almost be twins. Her face is more pixie-like than mine, but give her another ten years and she’d look just like me. No one would ever get us mixed up, though, even if we were both seventeen, any more than people would mix up soft and hard, warm and cold. Even now, frightened as she is, the corners of her mouth are tipped up in a ghost of a smile, more concerned for me than herself. I give her one back, trying to radiate confidence.
I run back upstairs to help Mom bring her cart down. We struggle with the ungainly thing, making all kinds of clanking noises as we wobble down the stairs. This is the first time I’m glad no one’s left in the building to hear it. The cart is crammed full of empty bottles, Paige’s baby blankets, stacks of magazines and Bibles, every shirt Dad left in the closet when he moved out, and of course, cartons of her precious rotten eggs. She’s also stuffed every pocket of her sweater and jacket with the eggs.
I consider abandoning the cart, but the fight I’d have with my mother would take much longer and be much louder than helping her. I just hope Paige will be all right for the length of time it takes to bring it down. I could kick myself for not bringing down the cart first so Paige could be in the relatively safer spot upstairs, rather than waiting for us in the lobby.
By the time we reach the front door of the building, I’m already sweating and my nerves are frayed.
“Remember,” I say. “No matter what happens, just keep running down El Camino until you reach Page Mill. Then head for the hills. If we get separated, we’ll meet at the top of the hills, okay?”
If we get separated there’s not much hope of us ever meeting anywhere, but I need to keep up the pretense of hope because that may be all we have.
I put my ear to the front door of our condo building. I hear nothing. No wind, no birds, no cars, no voices. I pull back the heavy door just a crack and peek out.
The streets are deserted except for empty cars parked in every lane. The dying light washes the concrete and steel with graying echoes of color.
The day belongs to the refugees and raid gangs. But at night, they all clear out, leaving the streets deserted by dusk. There’s a strong fear of the supernatural now. Both mortal predators and prey seem to agree on listening to their primal fears and hiding until dawn. Even the worst of the new street gangs leave the night to whatever creatures may roam the darkness in this new world.
At least, they have so far. At some point, the most desperate will start to take advantage of the cover of night despite the risks. I’m hoping we’ll be the first so that we’ll be the only ones out there, if for no other reason than that I won’t have to drag Paige away from helping someone in trouble.
Mom grips my arm as she stares out into the night. Her eyes are intense with fear. She’s cried so much this past year since Dad left that her eyes are now permanently swollen. She has a special terror of the night, but there’s nothing I can do about that. I start to tell her it’ll be all right, but the lie dries up in my mouth. It’s pointless to reassure her.
I take a deep breath, and yank open the door.
Chapter 1 angelfall by Susan Ee
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We’re in the air.
I cling tighter, and he shifts me so that I’m holding on like a kid with my legs wrapped around his middle. He’s warm even as the ocean wind blasts against my back. We pick up altitude to a frightening height, but his arms around me are secure and I can’t help but feel reassured.
That feeling doesn’t last long. Between Raffe’s wings, I get glimpses of what’s behind us.
Tipsy or not, the angels have no trouble lifting off into the air. The sight of demon wings must have incited them because there are more of them chasing us than we saw on the beach. They fly up through wisps of fog lit by pinpoints of firelight as we glide over the black waves.
Angels are supposed to be beautiful creatures of light but the ones chasing us look more like a cloud of demons spewing forth from the mist. Raffe must be thinking something similar because he tightens his grip around my waist as if to say, “not this one.”
He banks into a turn, flying farther away from the shore to where the mist turns into a blanket. He glides lower toward the water where the fog is thicker and the waves are louder.
We’re so low, the sea sprays over me as it surges. Water swells, turning into whitewater and rolling below us. It feels like mile after mile of black and raging surf.
Raffe zigs one way, then the other. He makes sharp, unexpected turns after going straight for a while. Escape maneuvers.
The fog is so thick that there’s a chance the angels are chasing shadows. The roar of the waves and wind means the angels can’t hear Raffe’s wings as they pump powerfully through the air.
I’m shivering against his body. The icy spray and ocean wind are freezing me to the point of not being able to feel my arms around his neck or my legs around his torso.
We glide along in silence, slicing through the night. I have no idea how close the angels are or whether they’re even on our tail any more. I hear and see nothing in the fog glow. We take another sharp turn toward the ocean.
A face pops up in the fog.
Behind it, giant wings with feathers the color of mist.
He’s too close.
He slams into us.
We spin out of control, bat wings tangling with feathered ones.
Raffe whips his wing with its extended scythes and gouges into the feathered wings. The blades rip through the layers of feathers until they catch on the angel’s wing bone.
We all tumble together in a mass as we fall through the air.
Raffe stabilizes us with great sweeps but he can’t fight with his wings and fly too. He untangles their wings as the angel reaches for his sword.
Raffe doesn’t have a sword.
And he has me—a hundred pounds of dead weight that can only mess up his balance and fighting technique. His arms are holding me instead of being free to fight. His wings need to work that much harder to keep us in the air.
My only thought is that I am not going to end up truly dead this time in Raffe’s arms. I am not going to be one more wound on his soul.
The angel pulls out his sword.
Having trained with the staff, I know there are weapons that need distance to be used effectively. The sword is one of them.
Right now, the angel has enough space to reach back and skewer us or raise his sword and slice us. But if he was hugging us, a feeble cut would be the most he could do.
It’s just water. It’ll be cold as hell, but it won’t kill me if I fall.
Not right away, anyway.
It’s amazing how many times we have to go against our survival instincts to survive. I grip my legs even tighter around Raffe’s middle and push my upper body away from him.
His arms give way in surprise before they tighten back around me. That’s enough time for me to lean out and grab the angel’s sword arm in one hand and his high-collared tuxedo shirt in the other.
I lock my elbow and hold his sword arm to keep him from swinging toward us. I sure hope he’s not strong enough to crush my shoulder socket. With my other hand, I yank him forward.
It all happens within a second. If the angel had been expecting that move, there’s no way he would have let me do it. But what attacker expects his victim to pull him closer?
Without his wings fully in his control to balance him, I manage to pull the exceptionally light angel toward us.
Up close, his sword is less of a threat for skewering, but Raffe is forced to fly awkwardly to avoid shredding his wing on the blade. We teeter in the air, not far above the black waves.
Raffe holds me tight with one arm while using the other to fend off the angel who is trying to punch him.
I lean over and grab the sword’s hilt. I don’t have a chance of getting it away from him, but I might be able to distract him from his fight with Raffe. And if I’m really lucky, I might even convince the sword that an unauthorized user is trying to lift it.
We grapple in the air, awkwardly dipping, then gaining a little altitude, bobbing and twisting up and down above the water. I manage to grab the sword’s hilt with both my hands and although I can’t move it from the angel’s grip, I can angle it.
As soon as I do, the sword suddenly becomes heavy, so heavy that the angel’s arm flags.
“No!” the angel cries. There’s real horror in his voice as the sword threatens to drop from our hands.
Raffe slams him with the fist of his free arm. The angel lurches back.
His sword drops. And disappears into the water.
“No!” he cries again, horrified disbelief in his eyes as he looks at the dark water where his sword sank. I guess they don’t have scuba-diving angels to retrieve swords and other valuables from the bottom of the ocean.
He roars a war cry at us, bloodlust in his contorted face. Then he charges.
Two more angels appear out of the thick mist.
Not surprising, with all the noise the first angel is making, but my heart jumps anyway when I see them.
All three come at us. Raffe spins around and flies toward the open sea.
There’s no way he’s going to outfly them with me weighing him down.
“Let go,” I say into his ear.
Raffe holds me tighter like there’s no room for discussion.
“We’ll both be safer with me in the water than weighing you down during a fight.” Still, he holds on. “I can swim, Raffe. It’s no big deal.”
Something large slams into us from behind.
And Raffe’s arms jar loose. I shove away.
That first moment of falling feels like slow-mo, where every sensation is amplified. A sheer knee-jerk survival reaction makes me flail and grab the first thing I can.
One hand grabs air. The other hand grasps the tip of a feathered wing.
Having my entire weight on one wing, the angel twists and goes out of control. I channel all my panic into the grip.
We plunge into the ocean together.
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