When he disappeared, they told me not to follow. In the Goodwill Institute for Homeless Children, we di as we are told. I clasp my hands in prayer, dig my nails deep into my hands so we could feel something.
The walls are grey. The seats are old concrete. Even the nuns wear a washed out grey habit. It was like God didn’t say ‘There shall be light’ over this place. The world like newspaper print dipped in water. Nothing thrives here. Once in the corner of the yard some children found a tiny plant sprouting up through the gravel. It was delicate and green. We watered it and kept it safe until one of the sisters came and plucked it like a tick our heads.
Kindness was a word I had only read in the dictionary, along with words like vermillion, turquoise, flowers. But fear, hatred, we know these better than we know ourselves. It is the taste of hatred that sits on our tongues every night. It is the sweaty fear that keeps you awake.
Even when one more child has been ripped from their bed, silent hands clawing at the sheets, their cries smothered out, no one hears it, no one sees it. But we know. You turn over, pull the coarse sheets over your head. Somehow, you are glad you have another day in this miserable existence.
They say to us that the saints were born from suffering. All of us here should be saints. The nuns even gave us pious names, as if this should help the process along. I hate my name, Hope. It’s bitter, hangs on at the end, promising me something I’m not allowed to have. I try to nurse a tiny sliver of it, hiding deep in my chest. But the sisters can smell it on you, and beat it from you. Everyone has the marks of the cane on their thighs and buttocks.
Gabriel is like a brother to me. He could be my brother for all I know. We don’t remember where we came from before this place. It was like you blinked, and were here, suddenly alive and awfully aware of the grey around you.
He went last night, the head sister told us at breakfast this morning that he ran away to the outside for a life of sin.
But he’s still here, I can feel him.
We have never told anyone how we can feel each other. We can share words and pictures if we feel strong. The nuns almost found out once. I fell over on the hard gravel outside and scraped my knee badly. Gabriel fell over instantly, his knee mysteriously bloody. The nuns made me kneel and pray on my cut knee for hours. I still have a scar, a bit like a heart falling sideways.
He’s asleep. It makes me feel sleepy, and once I nearly fall over during prayer. I have to find him, I feel so lost without him.
I’ve never been much of a dreamer, but sometimes Gabriel lends me his, vast blueness, fading into glorious deep magenta. I didn’t know the sky was supposed to be blue. My dreams are often me trying to climb a wall, but between the gaps blood leaks out, and I can’t keep my grip.
I start planning my escape. At dinner I steal a spoon, and at night I bend off the top and carefully sharpen it against the brick wall at the top of my bed. I also scrape my name into the walls, and Gabriel’s too. I store rations of bread traded from the other children for my few precious belongings.
They come for me the night before I decide to escape. Cold hands grasp at my throat, the deep voice of authority whispering in my ear not to make a fuss. My hand finds my weapon, and I drive it hard into soft flesh. The cry of pain is inhuman as I bolt from the dormitory. Children lie huddled in their beds, and I know they are awake, silently cheering for me. I make it outside, half way across the gravel.
There is pain, like lightning across my shoulder blades. It hits me twice more. I clutch at my head, curse, scream. It’s him, it’s Gabriel.
Darkness, cool ground against my cheek.
I feel close to him now.
When I wake, the whole room is white, blinding and clean. I didn’t know so much white existed in one place. This can’t be heaven. It is too cold, too awful. The back of my hand itches, I see a small tube leading out of it, taped secure against my skin. I reached out clumsily with my other hand to try and pull it out, only to find I’ve been restrained. I trace the small tube to a clear bag of liquid. It could be water, or poison.
‘She could be the key to this. She might be the first successful transplant without a donor.’
‘His operation went without many complications; he seemed to wake at one point. The donor tissue however has taken well to his bone structure. Only time will tell.’
‘This is a miracle, the first miracle in years!’
Someone strokes my hair almost lovingly. I struggle, twisting my head away weakly.
‘You’re our hope, our little Hope.’
I hated him, whoever he was, whatever he had done.
I next woke to find Gabriel in a bed near mine. The pain in my back is unbearable. It itches like someone is constantly pressing needles into my skin. Gabriel is lying on his front like me, to allow the air to get to our backs. I reach out from the bed; our fingertips just meet, but that contact is enough.
‘What have they done to us?’ I ask.
His eyes darken, unreadable even to me for a moment. I didn’t need to speak, but it breaks the silence.
They weren’t trying to make saints of us, no, they are trying to make angels.
Later, a man comes to the room, robed in clothes that once were brilliant and white, but look tatty and worn now. The air about him is repulsive, and the way he looks at us isn’t like we’re human to him.
‘Marvelous, simply marvelous, we want only one messenger, but here we have two. Hope and Gabriel, fitting names!’ he cries happily. He continues to speak, telling us that we are the first successful grafts to accept the donor tissue. A large wing had been found several years ago, rumours told that it was an angel’s wing. The world outside the walls is broken, filled with disease, hunger, poverty, greed, murder, rape. We are man’s salvation, we must fly to God, to prove that the remaining humanity is worthy of heaven. All we must do now is rest.
The days blur into weeks, all the time the wings from our backs grow strong, firm and beautiful, but we become thin, despite all the rich food they feed us. The veins stand out on Gabriel’s face, bluish against his pale skin. Dark circles hang under my eyes, and my mouth had become a thin line. All the time Gabriel and I talk in our heads, dreaming of blue skies, flying endlessly. When the time comes, we’ll know what to do.
The day comes sooner than we are ready. Only we know our wings aren’t strong enough, but they are desperate for deliverance. What remains of the world is falling apart rapidly. Sirens and alarms sound in the distance, along with the sounds of bombs, faint echoes of shock waves travel through the building. They dress me in silk, a flowing robe that must have cost the earth so long ago.
They lead me and Gabriel onto an open roof, and the sky above us is terrifying and wide. The priest chants quickly, dozens of nuns lined up neatly in praying, rosaries swinging from their clammy, nervous hands. A scroll has been tied to my waist, detailing a plea, names of those to be saved, those to be punished.
‘Go forth, messengers! Bring forth the love of God to purge this land, and all ascend into the glorious heaven!’
I grasp onto Gabriel’s hand. The wind feels strange through the feathers on my back. Each air current is begging to be ridden, explored.
‘I love you,’ I murmur. Gabriel’s hand squeezes hard. I have never felt more alive or whole. I spread out my wings, and leap into the air, suddenly soaring. Our bodies are so light, our wings carry us up with little effort. The sky wraps around us, becoming bluer than Gabriel ever dreamed. I tore the scroll from my waist and threw it away. I faintly hear the priest cry in outrage and despair. I smile, laugh. Gabriel laughs too.
Our wings aren’t strong enough to go the whole way. We didn’t want that, anyway. I breathe in the air, so pure and wonderful, but keep my eyes fixed on the sky above me.
Gabriel held me as we fell.