“What are you looking at?” asks one of the girls.
“Nothing,” he says. “Nothing.” His milky blue eyes stare at her briefly, then he puts a smile on his face and turns away.
His name is Angel, and he is their PE teacher. Every girl at school knows that he stares at them, especially when they are in the swimming pool. There’s nothing criminal about that, nothing inappropriate at all because they are not naked, their dark blue swimsuits are simple and decent, and everyone who has eyes looks at them. His eyes don’t bulge, and his mouth doesn’t hang open, but still his stare goes through their brain cortex and their limbic system, corkscrewing its way to the most primitive, most unerring parts of their brains. And they know what he wants. How can they not?
Angel is in his early forties. He is an unremarkable-looking man; his face with a thin moustache is unpleasant, flaccid, and his skin of some lifeless color makes the girls dread him. He walks slowly, always very slowly, and there’s something sticky about his walk, about his every motion, something greasy. It’s difficult to put it into words.
Of course, they hate him. But they can’t do anything to protect themselves; they can’t complain. What are they going to complain about? One of them has tried to, though.
“Has he ever touched you inappropriately?” she was asked then. “Has he ever made you do anything you didn’t want to? Has he ever made an inappropriate comment?” And so on and so forth.
The answer was no, no, and no. It all happened almost nine years ago. Police had a warrant to search Angel’s house then. They opened every drawer and every box. They riffled through his photo albums. They seized his computers and videotapes, looking for child abuse images, but they found nothing.
He is careful. He never tries to grab them, or peep in girl’s locker rooms as they are getting dressed, or pull his pants down in front of everyone, or do whatever other perverts supposedly do. If he did any of those things, he’d go to jail. But he waits. He’s patient. He’s persistent. He waits for his time to come. They can see it in his eyes.
He’s built such a strong wall around him that he is invulnerable. They’ve tried to hurt him this way and that. They steal and spoil his things. They say they hate him and call him shitty names, but he just shrugs when he hears. Blinking innocently, they give him a mandarin and, when he eats it, tell him they picked it up from the dirty floor in the bathroom. He doesn’t care. Each tiny insult slides down smoothly.
But this is a bad neighborhood. Street gangs, drugs, organized crime. Violence, a lot of it. Most of the girls don’t have fathers to protect them, but they have brothers. Brothers. Oh, brothers can help. They enjoy street fights, and they carry knives with them all the time. They are reckless. When law-abiding people see them far ahead, they usually walk diagonally to the other side of the street.
“But,” says one of the brothers and sniffs his nose a few times, “he must be strong. He is your PE teacher.”
“He is just an ex water-polo player,” says his sister. “He is not young. He hates confrontations. He can’t be too strong. And he stares at me!”
“At you? At you only?”
“At every girl in the pool. At every girl at school. He even stares at us when we are wearing skirts and sweaters. Even when we are wearing jackets. I always feel his eyes: in the swimming pool, in the gym, in the hallways, standing in the food line. He is a freaking pervert. You should stop him before he strikes.”
“All right,” the brother says, sniffs again, and smirks, thinking of something he loves. He loves pain and sharp metal things: needles, razors, blades. The skin of his wrists is latticed with scars. “Tomorrow night we’ll teach him a lesson.”
“A good lesson,” she says.
He sniffs again. “As good as it can be.”
Next night, Angel comes out of the subway station and goes down the street. As always, he walks slowly. There’s a corner ahead and an empty lane. Six boys follow him, hoods on their heads. They are good at street fights. One of them is shadow boxing, silently punching the air. Two of them are football jocks with massive lower jaws and formidable shoulders. Three of them have knives, but only one knows how to use it properly: it’s the boy who loves pain and sharpened metal. He really does: when he was very young, he liked to chew double-edge safety razor blades his father left in a matchbox, but never swallowed them of course. When he was ten, he broke those blades in two and placed the halves into small cracks in wooden handrails in his school, leaving the edges to stick out above the surface. So he is good at the elegant art of inflicting pain.
Angel is so careless. He never turns back. He suspects nothing.
He is still walking to the corner. So slowly, so leisurely. He thinks of the young girls from school, he always thinks of them because he is in love with them. In love with them all. He knows that it’s sick, but he also knows that he is not like other weirdos. When looking at young girls, he never thinks of sex or violence or possession. He just admires them, like one would admire a beautiful painting or a statue in a museum or a picturesque tree. His love speaks a different language than sex. You don’t think of sex with a statue or a tree even if it’s a beautiful one, right? Because even a beautiful statue or a tree is unable to make love. Neither are his little girls. They are not women, even though, having those unflawed kittens’ bodies, they can sometimes look like little ones. On the contrary, Angel loves the innocence in them, loves their freshness, their unsexiness. He adores their heads, their necks, elbows, and when he looks at their slender fingers, his heart sings. They don’t think dirty thoughts yet, and they don’t let boys feel them up, at least he believes so. Because they are not nasty yet. They are his little fragile angels. He’d like to be a trellis they stretch their tendrils to, but not more, god forbid, not more. He would never hurt them.
Every time he hears or thinks about pedophiles and their crimes, he cringes. They shouldn’t be called that. Philea means love, or friendship, or friendly love in Greek. But they are hate-filled psychopaths who can attack anyone unable to defend themselves, and not friends. They molest, rape, and kill those little kids; they commit horrific crimes. If I like my neighbor’s car, that doesn’t mean I’ll steal it and drive around for an hour or two, then intentionally smash it to pieces. He’d rather live his whole life without sex than hurt a person he loves. This is the essence of love: self-sacrifice, but not violence, not possession.
He hears the footsteps following him—some small group of ancient neurons vigilant in his animal brain registers the sound—but he doesn’t pay attention.
It was Freud who messed everything up. Freud, a mad general who ordered cannons against angels. Freudianism, an honest attempt of a clothes moth to explain all butterflies in the world. Oh, butterflies.
Suddenly, the first blow knocks his head forward. He is too confused to dodge the second one. There are too many boys around him. They circle him like sharks. Their breathing makes the air around him stuffy. All of them are big for their age, and they are as strong as grown-up men. He understands they are still kids. This knowledge makes him helpless: he could never, ever, lay a hand on a kid.
Someone’s fist leaves a bloody gash on his cheek. He tries to protect his head with his hands from the chaos of new blows, but he feels a heavy punch to the jaw, and his knees buckle. He falls. They kick him violently, again and again—from beneath they look like a dance troupe, perfectly mad, performing some fantastic folk dance—and then, after an especially hard blow flattens his face, he flows out of his body.
Someone’s foot pushes him on his back.
“I’m sure I’ve just broken his nose,” says one of the hooded boys. “Heh-heh-heh! Did you hear the crack?”
One of them takes a knife. “I’ll make him bleed like a pig,” he says and thrusts the unwavering blade in Angel’s side. Something black sloshes out onto the pavement. Black like ink.
“You idiot, you killed him!” shouts another boy.
The boy who knows how to use a knife blows his nose onto the lying man and utters a short, excited laugh.
“I just made him bleed. This damn perv won’t stare at my sister anymore.”
Angel is out of his body. He can still hear the sounds of the physical world, the voices, the thuds, the droning of the city, but they are muted. He looks around. Surprisingly, he has a 360-degree arc of vision.
He looks up at the sky and sees a running river of stars and a magnificent dome bubbling with flying creatures he doesn’t have names for. Some of them are small, some of them sing, some of them are huge like passing ships. The hooded boys whumping his body below are almost transparent, as if sculpted from ice, and he can see their minds aflame with anger, collective hatred, and the shared thrill of adventure. Their anger is bluish white, edged with orange, the beautiful color of an oxygen torch. He can see a shining, pulsing homunculus of a small girl floating in each boy’s heart. They are their beloved sisters, each one sitting in the lotus position, their teeth bared, their enormous eyes taking up half their faces.
Then he sees a woman with a cat head on her shoulders—it is the hairless head of the Sphynx cat. She has whiskers, prominent cheekbones, huge ears and slanting eyes as blue as blue LEDs. She is naked, but she is too old, too cumbersome to look sexy.
“Am I dead?” he asks her.
Her black nostrils dilate. “You need wings,” she says.
“Wings?” he asks, surprised.
She comes closer, hugs him, and he feels the touch of her warm breasts. “Every angel needs wings.”
Then small raindrops of celestial knowledge start tapping his mind. He learns that everyone is born having a purpose in this life. He learns that he was created and sent to this world to find his unique girl, to love her and worship her.
He is shown a spiritual image of her. She had to be loving and cute, mildly sarcastic at times. Thoughtful, always listening to the things that came from the depth of her soul. An animal lover who adored everything small and unprotected, including little kids. Tender, soft, with an innocent heart. It’s an ideal etched on his brain, an absolute perfection he is in love with, but the ideal is just too young.
Now he knows that one day when he was fourteen, he chose the wrong door, took the wrong street, and his life was wasted. He did not meet the perfect girl he was destined to love. He has never found her, but he still loves everyone who resembles her. A whole sunken continent of love. Since then he has remained a child in an ageing body. An inner Peter Pan under the layers of heavy meat.
Below, the boys made of living ice walk away.
Two of them leave footprints smeared in something that resembles black ink.
The cat-woman walks away. Now, there are six wings on Angel’s back. He sees them and he can feel them. They glitter like stained glass. Wow, he thinks, I can fly.
The boys below turn the corner and disappear.
He glides down and touches his body. The chest rises and falls in a convulsive spasm, but does not rise again. It’s so sad, he thinks. He takes his own hand, intertwining his fingers with the fingers he had always thought of as his. The lying body goes cold, although it’s not dead yet. He takes the broken nose between his gauzy fingers and straightens it out. The heavy bleeding stops immediately, but some blood is still leaking. Astonished, he passes his hand over the blood-stained, deformed face, and all the blood and dirt and bruises disappear. He touches his belly still spitting blood in small rhythmic pulses, and the bleeding stops there as well.
It’s amazing, he thinks. Am I a real angel now? Can I cure all the ailments of the world?
He touches his body again—what a mess, he thinks, what am I going to do with this?—and all the blood disappears from his clothes and from his skin too. Even his white shirt is not stained now. The six wings flutter behind his back. Iridescent, lace-like, rustling, whirring and shimmering like the delicate wings of a dragonfly.
He dives back into the lying body.
When he staggers to his feet, nothing hurts much. He touches his face. It is as good as new. Was it a dream? A hallucination? He knows it wasn’t. It was as real as the concrete slabs under his feet. As the river and the bridge to his left. As cars whooshing behind his back. He can still see the rows of black footprints the hooded boys left. And he can feel wings behind his back. They flutter, ready to carry him to the sky.
I’ve healed myself, he thinks. It’s a miracle. I can do magic. It means I can perform a miracle again. Yes, he repeats to himself, I can do this again. Just once. Oh God, let me perform a miracle just once.
He starts to run. He runs as quickly as he has never run since he was a boy. He still feels the six wings behind his back. He takes big leaps, like a heavy swan taking flight from water.
He gets home panting.
He is married. He can easily make love without feeling it, without breaking the protective shell of his solitude. Year after year. It’s just physiology. But he often feels shy, uneasy, looking into her eyes.
He has a daughter, a wonderful girl of seven. His daughter is ill. She is sleeping now. He comes to her bed and passes his hand over her little body, hoping to cure her. His palm can feel the heat of her fever through her pink nightie with cute rabbits. It’s the kind of heat that makes his hand cold. Still, the wild hope makes his body tremble and thrum as if some powerful engine is working inside. But nothing happens. The expression of suffering on the girl’s face doesn’t change. He hasn’t been able to cure her. He loves her more than all the young girls. And he can’t cure her. No more miracles today. Sorry. He is not a real angel.
“Sorry,” his lips whisper. “Your daddy is not a real angel. He can’t cure you.”
“Where have you been?” his wife, a big, bulky woman, asks. “You are late. Has anything happened?”
“No, nothing,” he says and turns to her. “Nothing at all.”
She looks at his face, and he wonders if she can see any bruises. He wonders if she can see the wings behind his back. She can’t. His sweet dear wife has always been blind to subtle things.
“Your shirt is dirty,” she says. “There’s snot on it!”
Next morning Angel is at school again, and every girl can feel his eyes. Nothing has changed. He hasn’t learned his lesson, they think. His nose isn’t broken. He is not hurt at all. They can’t see even the slightest bruise on his face.
He is dangerous, the girls say to each other. He can abduct and murder any of them anytime. Then he’ll be thrown in jail, or castrated or something. But deep down, they know that will never happen, so they are not scared. They are just disgusted, and their earnest disgust is stronger than any fear could ever be. They bare their teeth, and their big eyes shine with disgust, throwing expanding cones across the desks scattered with pens, rulers, math books, and pencil shavings.
It’s November now, gets dark early. The streetlights are already on. Angel is in the empty locker room, in front of a mirror. He can only see his wings under a certain angle, even though he can move each of them separately, as easily as he moves the fingers of his hand. He pulls the curtain open, turns the light off and looks again. The wings are invisible in the daylight, and in the bright electrical light. But now he can see them. They are webbed with veins, like dragonfly wings, and fragile. But they are strong enough to support his body in the air.
He is sure they are real. He can touch them. They are flexible and have a texture similar to silk. They are covered with a complex pattern of stripes and leopard spots. Why are they given to me? I’ve never done anything really bad in my life. I’ve always tried to help people when I could. Thinking logically, I’m a better person than many of them, the rest of mankind. But wings?
He loves young girls and he knows that it’s a sin. Many times he has tried to pray to be relieved of his unhealthy obsession.
He goes out of the locker room. He locks the door. He slowly walks down the long, echoing hallway of the third floor.
Can love be evil? As pure and angelic a love as mine? There is nothing angelic, Freud would have said, only heavily repressed sexuality, a repressed desire to molest, abuse, rape. What a load of shit. Can you imagine Lewis Carroll, in love with eleven-year-old Alice, in love with her sisters, in love with dozens of young girls, harming any of them? Can you imagine him even thinking of harming them? It’s the epoch, he thinks. It’s our time. Kids, beautiful like small evening clouds. So don’t blame me.
Don’t blame me.
His trainers squeak on the waxed parquet. The light is already off in the school building because it’s late. The only light comes from the white-hot streetlights outside. He walks through the rectangles of light and darkness. It’s something stroboscopic. The light suspended in air looks like smoke.
He turns the corner to the stairs and stops, seeing the hooded boys.
His heart starts racing. It’s so embarrassing to confess, but he is scared of pain. He would do anything to avoid it.
“Why are you doing this?” he asks them. “Why don’t you let me alone?”
He doesn’t see their faces but he knows them. He’s seen them playing soccer or spraying graffiti on the school walls. He’s probably chatted, even exchanged jokes with some of them. He used to wade across a living stream of small boys who shouted happily, seeing a basketball in his hand. They called him Coach then. And they have grown into this. He still can’t believe.
“You know why,” answers one of the boys. He sniffs loudly, and with distilled mercilessness plants his knee into Angel’s groin.
Yes, he knows why. Even chimpanzees don’t allow chimps from a different tribe to stare at their females. And he is definitely not from their tribe.
The boy hits him again and again.
Again and again.
Angel’s face is so soft that the boy is surprised to see that each blow leaves an indentation on it as if he were hitting a huge boiled onion. It’s repulsive. He has always hated boiled onions. He wants to make each blow as painful as possible. Each blow makes the big soft guy jerk like a puppet. The boy likes it, he feels good, but most of all he likes the depth of the darkness in his own heart. He hears voices behind his back, hears chuckling, then the voices erupt into laughter.
At last, Angel becomes as unresponsive as a sponge. If he were a sponge, they’d tear him to pieces, thousands of pieces. Last time he managed to play a trick on them.
They open one of the windows and drag Angel onto the sill.
It’s the third floor. Through the blur of his pain and dizziness, Angel can see the asphalt below and some bare lilac bushes. They push him down, and, for a split second, he becomes weightless. Then the air swallows him whole, in one gulp; he slides down a waterfall and the next moment crashes into the intolerable hardness and the smell of earth after rain.
They watch him cartwheel down. There is a moment when each of them can see six glittering wings behind his back. The wings make him look like a huge insect, a flying locust, probably. But the wings tremble too fast to see them clearly. They hold him in the air for a couple of seconds. They slow down the fall like a parachute.
“Hey, did you see that?” asks one of the boys. There is a hitch in his breathing. He has pulled his hood back, and his rough, uncombed hair stands on end. He is shaking, and his eyes are perfectly round.
“Shit. He doesn’t move. Seriously, man, he doesn’t move at all.”
“God, no! Is he dead?”
“Probably not yet. I don’t care.”
“He looks dead. Did he break his neck?”
“I highly doubt that. Look, he’s moved.”
“Oh crap. He’s alive.”
“Let’s get out of here,” the oldest says. His voice is hoarse. “Don’t run. No one should see us together.”
Next morning Angel is at school again. His neck is not broken. He is not bruised. But something has changed about him. He doesn’t look at the young girls. He doesn’t look at them at all. His gaze is juiceless and smoky. He just doesn’t care, and that makes the girls angry.
The girls know that Angel is married and has a daughter. They know his daughter is ill. Her lungs are so weak she can hardly breathe. They know she was born like that and is unlikely to live long. But they don’t know the most important thing: Angel’s daughter died last night. That’s why he doesn’t look at them. That’s why he doesn’t care. But they don’t know that, so they are confused and angry.
A crowd of bobbing ponytails shuffle behind him, walking like a flock of ducklings. They whisper, and the whispers fly over their heads. One of the girls, a fluffy blonde with spindly legs and arms, looks into a hand mirror, evaluating the quality of the circles painted around her little eyes. Yeah, the deformed eyes look absolutely cool now. Totally awesome. Then she hears a whisper.
“What?” she asks another girl, who smiles, hugging books to her chest. “Are you sure? I see! That’s what this is about.” The happiest of smiles crosses her little face. “So baby angel kicked the bucket at last.”
“Baby angel kicked the bucket at last,” repeats someone in front of her and then someone behind. They murmur the words quietly but distinctly, again and again. It’s a chant, it’s a prayer, it’s a war cry, which spreads throughout the school hallways like black ink in water. In the school hallways, which smell of waxed floors, of chalk dust, of school lunches and shiny shoes, it beats like a living heart. Angel hears the murmur, but he can’t see who it is. It surrounds him from all sides. It’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
“Baby angel kicked the bucket at last!”
I don’t deserve this, he thinks. I’m just a human being like everybody else. I know I don’t deserve this.
“Baby angel kicked the bucket at last!”
So he resumes his walk, pretending he doesn’t hear. Now he walks faster, without turning back, but the spring in his step disappears. He trots with a funny penguin walk, while his shoulders sag lower and lower. His six wings crumble and fall to the floor one by one. Then his shoulders heave, and everyone can see.
“Baby angel kicked the bucket at last!” chant the girls.
Dozens of pairs of little feet walk over the wings, stomping triumphantly.
Sergey Gerasimov lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine. His writing runs from philosophical poetry to surrealism. He is the author of several novels and more than one hundred stories published mostly in Russian. His English-language stories have appeared in Adbusters, Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, and other venues.