Eight years earlier
The heavy draft carried the petrichor in its icy tendrils, through the ancient dorm room window, and across Samantha’s sleepy eyes. She had that dream again – about the brown-haired boy in the blue fleece jacket who sometimes looked at her from across the cafes or from the bus stop. The fleeting reveries kept her warm.
It was raining. She pulled herself out of the warmth of her private cocoon and, eventually, to the bus stop. It was too late to see him now. The only ones on the later bus were strangers in reds and blacks – school colors and the dark hues of winter wools. They stood near the black street lamp near the sandstone tower, under a grey, naked tree. The gentle thunder of cars on slick pavement filled the silence where earbuds and sleeping mouths made no noise.
The bus arrived, crawling to the curb, throwing open its rubber-lined doors that still dripped rain from across the town. It was the cheery bus driver, and he told Samantha that she looked pretty, and she blushed as she scuttled to her seat. She opened her phone to text her mom and saw her face – her blushing, aqua-eyed, crow-eyed face with a mess of browns and bad red highlights from Halloween. In the corner, she saw her friends in a photo, mouths stuffed with bad veggie pizza, and she smiled. Perhaps the waking world isn’t so bad, she pondered.
The engine was loud as the bus pushed up the steep, winding hills. Samantha watched the pedestrians from the window as they herded themselves into modern and gothic styled buildings. A tiny black sports car swerved in an intersection. A bicyclist cut a van off. Two men talked too loudly about an exam they’d taken. She leaned her head against the window and watched as traffic slowly zoomed through a three-way intersection near the chapel and a research building.
She always hated this intersection. Frustrated drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and bystanders all came together in one constant fight for passage. It was a collaboration of rage in one square, and she did not envy the cheery driver. They waited. A horn blew. Samantha almost closed her eyes, but she was too vigilant. They were just about to clear the stop line.
And it happened. It finally happened. A young blond man in bright khakis had been walking through the lines of the crosswalk, and a fat white SUV plowed right through him. Samantha clenched her eyes and screamed. She opened her eyes. The bus had stopped, and the bus driver looked down the aisle – as did everyone else. She turned and looked at the intersection. No bloody mess. No guts on the asphalt. The SUV zoomed down, and the boy stood on the corner.
Looking at her.
With all the shock that she’d had seeing him being smooshed by one of the many morons on the campus with drivers’ licenses.
“What’s wrong?” the driver asked.
She ran to the door of the bus, and he threw open the wet doors. Samantha stepped onto the sidewalk, and the bus slowly crawled away. Once she could see across the narrow street, she saw the man, still watching her with wide eyes.
“Do you see me?” he asked.
Samantha nodded. She wanted to ask “Are you all right?” and “What happened?” but her jaw trembled too hard to form words. Her knees were all that could move, and even they could not be stopped.
The man crossed the intersection again, dodging the cars in his even pace. “Don’t try to talk to me,” he said. “Just walk to that garden over there. Put your headphones in.” Samantha hesitated. “I’m not going to do anything funny. I promise. Come on.”
She waited a moment as he walked over the sidewalk. Who was he? What happened? He was as shocked as she was a moment ago, but at that moment, his face seemed delighted and bright. A girl in a suit dress looked Samantha over with wide eyes and a furrow brow, but Samantha shouldered past her. No one walked to avoid the man.
The dead garden beside the technology research building still dripped with the morning rain. A pedestal stood in the center with Latin written along its base. Archways with vines of once-beautiful roses were the only entrances into the small haven. The man walked over the mud, leaving no footprints, and sat on the wet metal bench. Samantha stood before him.
“You know, if you put your ear buds in, people will think you have a phone call,” he said.
“Who are you?” she asked with no nonsense in her tone.
He half-laughed and closed his eyes for a moment. She waited. Her patience was running thin, but he smiled and looked at her with bright light in his silvery eyes. “I am Lester, an angel of Heaven.”
Samantha half-kicked into her turn and stomped to the archway. Whether she went straight for the clinic or to class, she wasn’t sure, but she wasn’t going to waste another second with this hallucination or nut bag or whatever he was. She turned in the archway, and he was suddenly before her.
“I am an angel, Samantha Bell, and I have been looking for you,” he said in a louder, deeper voice. The thunder in his growling tone raised the hairs on her back and arms.
In her panic, she whimpered, “I guess God is not omniscient after all, eh?”
“He is,” he hissed, and all hints of smiles vanished, and Lester’s arms began to bulk and glow. “I did not say I was God, and I, too, am running out of patience. You are needed, Samantha, and quickly.”
She closed her eyes. Samantha had not believed in God or angels or any of that nonsense since dropping out of her private Christian school. This was just a terrifying hallucination. She would just have to wait it out. Maybe someone slipped something in her drink the other night. Maybe something was poisoning Dickson Lake. Salem was poisoned by that plant and led to those witch trials, so it wasn’t extraordinary.
“Samantha,” he said more calmly, “if you don’t listen to me, the demons will come after you next.”
“Oh, the demons?” she half-whispered.
“Miss Bell?” a voice called. She turned quickly and saw her ecology professor, who watched her from the sidewalk with his suitcase dangling from his wrinkled, tired arm. He lifted his glasses and waved with his free hand. “Is everything okay?”
Lester was gone. Samantha resisted running to her professor’s side and stayed her pace to a half-jog. “I don’t feel very good.”
“Oh, well, the flu is going around,” he said.
“I think I need something else,” she said. Samantha looked around once more. The hallucination was nowhere to be seen. “I’ll, uh, see you in class.”
“Not if you’re not feeling well,” he said with a grin. “Feel better.”
She planned on it. Samantha waved and took the long way to the clinic, down a crosswalk near the abandoned soccer field, and through the narrow antechamber filled with STD and pregnancy pamphlets. On the third floor, the receptionist had her sit and fill out papers, and a psychologist took her in. Within the hour, she had six prescriptions for anti-anxiety meds and sleeping pills with a gentle “come back if it get worse” from the doctor.
And it did. It got much worse.