The angels raised their wings so that their feathered tips touched. There were too many to count. They descended in circles inside of circles inside of circles ad infinitum, an endless tower of living beings rising up above Bill into the infinity of sky. The angels raised the arms holding their swords and cried out in perfect time with one another. Their wings fluttered and they ascended a moment and thrust their swords upward before beginning their slow descent once again. The red sky began to rain blood as if they broke through a membrane of some sort. A metallic scent with a hint of a pleasing foreign incense filled Bill’s nose. He stared up with his eyes open wide with wonder.
The angels came closer. He was able to make out their features. Their bodies were coated with gossamer fur that shone in the dim light in hues of metallic pink and purple and a pearly white. Their bodies were lean and well-muscled. They were naked and exposed and completely androgynous. The hair on their heads flowed outwards on unseen currents as if they were underwater. Bill was awestruck by their faces. Each of them was completely and indescribably beautiful. Some had the faces of people while others wore the faces of strange beasts: lions and lambs. Even the beastly faces were beautiful. Their eyes shone and they all looked up at the sky as they stabbed and stabbed again. They began to cut one another. Serene smiles lit their faces. They glowed as they sang. The blood continued to pour. The angels’ blood mingled with the blood from the sky. A few of the weaker angels fell to the ground and collapsed. They moaned with pleasure and smiled contentedly. All of them writhed in ecstasy.
Bill looked around. There was blood everywhere, on everything, and he smiled to himself, knowing the blood would cleanse. Blood washes everything away. All the dirt and grime and filth of sin stinking up the world was coated by the angelic baptism. The metallic scent of the blood softened into the smell of fresh blooming roses.
Bill looked down and saw the feather in his hand. It vibrated. The tiny hairs sticking out of the quill writhed like tiny snakes and caressed the flesh of his hand. They sank in and combined with his flesh. A single solitary angel with the face and features of a beautiful androgynous child flew down towards Bill. It reached out its hand and Bill took it.
It was like grabbing a silk pillow, but there was a hidden strength.
“Free us,” the Angel said. “Give us form. Let us live among you so that we might save you.”
Bill closed his eyes. “I can’t.”
“Let us help you.”
“I can’t. I’m not good enough.”
“None of you are good enough, yet you still share eternity with us. None of you are good. You are all evil. You are all corrupt. Our brother, The Lost One, seduces you all and your flesh listens. What choice does it have? The flesh dies because you gave in long ago. You share the same heritage, Children of Adam. We can free you once again. We are freeing you. We are helping you, but you must allow us to enter. We must share the same flesh. We must have perfect vessels. Uncorrupted, or at least as uncorrupted as your flesh can be. Will you help?”
Bill saw knives puncture skin. Life fled from young faces as eyes grew dull and hollow. Hacksaws struggled through splintering bones. Ribs broke apart. Organs were discarded in empty fields. Blood seeped into weeds, and tall grasses swayed with the breeze. Teeth pulled out of jaws. Jaws pulled from skulls. Skulls pulled from spines. Everything tied back together, fused with metal and steel. Flesh draped over everything. Feathers sewed into drying skin. The discarded and lifeless corpses of black swans and white swans bled into the dust beneath his feet. The room smelled vaguely of raw and rancid poultry. Some of the decapitated swans still walked in clumsy circles. They danced, their headless necks intertwining and spraying a shower of blood that tasted of milk and honey.
Nausea, fear, and revulsion coursed through Bill. “I can’t do that.” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I can’t do that.”
Bill opened his eyes. The song of the angels rose to a crescendo. They turned their swords downward towards him. He screamed as they descended. The points of their swords ripped into his flesh, into his very soul, and he cried out as he suffered a seemingly endless eternity of unendurable pain. Flames licked his feet as the ground swallowed him. The impossible weight of infinite angels pushed him down. The angel with the form of a child’s face stretched outward into a horrible unworldly distortion. A muscled arm reared back and swung. A flaming sword glided through Bill’s neck.
“Bill! Bill! Shit. Wake up, man!”
Bill groaned and tried to open his eyes. They fluttered. Stars seemed to be flowing outward from somewhere deep inside his skull and played tricks with his vision. An ache ran down his spine, and a vise grip tightened against his temples.
The world grew a little more focused as Bill blinked. He jumped and fell to his side. Strong hands grabbed him and held him steady.
“Whoa there, fellow. You’ve been out for a while. Just take it easy.”
Bill looked to the voice and recognized it. The voice belonged to Benny. At first his features were warped, a man without skin; blood vessels, tendons, and muscles worked as Benny spoke. His eyes looked too large as if they were without any eyelids. Then the skin appeared, just a ghost at first, and then solidified. Bill recognized him as Benny. Bill looked up to the sky and blood red faded to blue. The blood slowed its drip from above until the fluid clarified into nothing. Morning sunlight lit the surface of the pond, and Bill noted the reflection of the sun dancing across the ripples.
Bill controlled his breathing. He took in a breath through his nose, held it in for a few seconds, and then let out the air through his mouth. He remembered the pack of cigarettes in his pocket and reached for it.
“What are you doing, man? You just had a stroke or some shit.” Benny held Bill’s hand down.
“I’m okay now. Really.”
“You sure as hell don’t look okay. Half your face is slack. Some lady called an ambulance for us. They should be here soon.”
Bill shook his head, squinted, and pulled up the cheeks on the left side of his face. He twitched away what felt like a heavy dose of Novocain. He smiled tentatively. It hurt for a moment like the skin on that side of his face was asleep, but the pins and needles quickly receded.
“There, is that better?” He turned back to Benny.
Benny shook his head. “What the fuck, man? I still say we need to get you to a hospital. Get you a scan or something.”
Bill sighed. “Don’t worry about me, all right? This sort of thing happens to me all the time. At least the physical things. But that time was different. I saw something. Do you believe in God?”
Benny slammed his hand to his forehead. “What are you talking about now?”
“What about angels?”
“Look, I don’t know. I guess so.”
“Well, someone does.”
Benny laughed. “Lots of people do, man. Most people.”
“But not everyone sees His angels.”
“What are you talking about, Billy Boy?”
Bill looked down and saw the feather fluttering in the breeze. He fought back an urge to grab it again.
“I saw into another world, Benny. It was as beautiful as it was terrifying and felt very real. I know it wasn’t in my head. I know it can’t be. Do you think God is vengeful?” Bill stopped talking and looked at Benny. He saw the man’s face and knew he was losing him. “Listen, man, I’m not nuts, but I saw something.” Bill pointed down to the feather. “What do you know about swans.”
“What did you ask me?”
“Swans, man. What can you tell me about them?”
Benny eyed Bill suspiciously. “What do you mean? You want to know about the birds?”
“Don’t play dumb. I saw something. Something that could be helpful. There were feathers in some of those pictures you showed me in that interview room. What kind of feathers were they, Benny?”
Benny sighed. “You’ve got good eyes. That’s part of the M.O. for this guy: swan feathers.”
Bill pointed down to the feather. “I touched that. I saw something. Pick it up for evidence or something.”
“Evidence of what?”
“I think your guy’s been here.” Bill pointed out the lone black swan swimming in the center of the concrete pond beneath the spray of the fountain. “I bet that swan over there is missing a mate. Ask around.”
Bill noticed one of the women in yoga pants nearby. He called out: “Excuse me, ma'am, did there used to be two swans out here?”
She stopped talking on her cell phone and looked at him. She looked at Benny. “Is he okay?”
Benny shrugged. “A little crazy, but okay enough. I think. Answer the guy’s question for him if you don’t mind. Are there usually two swans out here?”
She nodded. “Yes, until a couple weeks or so ago. I’ve only seen the one swan for a while now.”
Benny nodded. He reached into his pocket and whipped out the crumpled cellophane wrapper from his breakfast Danish. He turned it inside out so the sticky parts were on the outside and grabbed for the feather with the clean part. “Thanks, ma’am. I think my boy here’s going to be okay.” Benny turned to Bill. “Are you going to be okay?”
Bill nodded his head. “I’m fine. Really.”
Benny turned back to the woman. “Hey, listen, when the ambulance shows up let them know we’ll get him checked out later.”
The lady scratched at her arm. “Doesn’t he need to get checked out now?”
Bill stood up, lit a cigarette, and nodded to the lady. “I’m okay. Really. Thank you all the same. It’s good to know that people care.” Bill looked over at Benny who was still trying to wrap up the wet feather in a dirty piece of plastic while kneeling on the sidewalk.
Benny stood up and looked at Bill. “You can finish your smoke in the car. Let’s get back with G and tell her about this. I want you to tell me everything you saw while we drive okay?”
Bill nodded his head. “I’ll tell you as much as I can remember. It’s already fading, kind of like a dream. More like a nightmare, really.”
Bill took in a lungful of smoke, looked up, and saw something glisten in the sky. He thought about flaming swords and raining blood and shuddered.