While I’m picking the lock, it’s clear to me why all my friends have abandoned me, even the shadiest ones . . . Cameras pointed in every direction, there are two cars parked outside the house, and a few ‘THE OWNER OF THIS PROPERTY IS ARMED’ signs posted around the front and back all screamed at me to stop. What I’m doing is dumb. But it’s the only way I know I’ll get them to show up again. Crazy or not, there’s not even a drug that has made me see the otherworldly being again. Nothing except the breath before a deathly experience.

Exhaling a stiff breath, I twist the knob and let myself inside. They probably think I’ll back out. No way. I intend to get their name this time. I smile and start making a racket by shoving random stuff into my pocket. I’m pretty sure I even stuff the salt-and-pepper shaker somewhere in my jeans.

Floorboards shift and creak behind me under heavy footsteps. I slowly turn, vase in hand, to face the druglord of this slump of a neighborhood. The gleam in his eyes is barely eroded by the age in his features.

The gun gazing right at my face only has as much hesitation as its wielder. I wave at the stranger and set down the flower vase to free my hands. “You might have to cock it,” I tell him, wiping the nervous sweat from my upper lip. He stares at me, his peppered brow furrowed in confusion and anger. “Your gun. Cock it, and aim it at my chest.”

“You must have a death wish, kid. You know I can’t let you leave alive. ’Less it’s rolled in one of these rugs.” 

“I’ve died before.” I smile. “Didn’t take.” I don’t tell him I know exactly who he is and where his reputation lands him. That’s exactly why I chose him. He doesn’t need to know that. And he doesn’t need to know that was the first time I caught a glimpse of what I’ve been searching after since. A sign of something . . . beyond.

“Is that why you’re here, then?” He raises the gun and points it at my head instead. “’Cause if that’s the case, boy, I can grant your wish.” He cocks the gun and steadies his aim. “’Night-night.”

He’s about to squeeze the trigger and I squeeze my eyes shut.

I wonder if I’m imagining things or if the pause—the shock of seeing the line between life and death—gets longer every time. Truth be told, it’s a matter of time before I end up in another hospital, marked off as crazy once again. Or end up dead trying to prove there’s something out there I can’t see and refuses to acknowledge me.

As the second stretches, I fear I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe I am crazy. And maybe the couple of times I’d been saved from falling back into Death’s arms were mere flukes.

“What the—” The old man grunts and collapses to the ground.

A figure towers over his body, skin translucent. I would’ve jumped with joy at my success, but the hooded figure charges towards me and wraps its gloved fingers around my throat. It’s the only thing keeping my insides from spilling out of my mouth as the room whirls around us. Gravity knocked out of the equation entirely, my feet leave the ground and the dining room folds in on itself.

A woosh of stiff air fills my ears, but everything is otherwise silent in the distortion. I struggle to draw in a breath, as though my lungs are frozen.

There’s no time to take in the colors and walls and furniture. I only know I’m hurled to the ground of my own apartment because I hit the table by the balcony door with enough force to knock the breath out of me.

“If you do something like that again, I will throw you out the fucking window, you—What are you doing?”

I cling to the windowsill as I lift my head a few inches above it to look down. “Checking how high the drop is,” I tell the red-faced stranger. “See if it’s worth it.” I attempt to get to my feet. “I’m scared of heights.”

They smile for the first time, but it makes my heart sink and my skin go cold. “Good to know.”

“Yeah, I regret this al—”

They drag me by my collar back out onto the balcony. After a glance over the edge, they shake their head. “No, not high enough.” Their jaw clenches and something pops in their body.

Startled by the pain in their hazel eyes, I stammer out an “Are you okay?” and wonder if they got hurt trying to save me; I kept putting myself in danger, but I never thought about what that could mean for them. 

Something white unfolds and stretches out from between their bare shoulders. The new limbs twist one way and the other before flapping once, shaking the feathers into place.

“You-You are an angel.” It explains a lot, and was actually my third most sound guess.

The celestial creature gives me a look. “Angels know Hell, too.” Before I can ask for mercy for whatever they’re about to do, they grab my arm, and we take off into the air.

“Whoa—” I choke back on a shriek as the wind rushes against my ears, face, clothes, hair. I can’t see where we’re going but I know we’re going straight down.

I finally force my eyes open with the ground zooming towards my face. As I’m jerked back up towards the sky, the angel laughs and says something I can’t hear. The hood has been blown off their head, revealing their shaved head. We fly up higher than the building and my ears start to pop. I’m convinced they’re going to kill me. As black dots start obscuring my vision, we stop. My stomach and heart jolt at the same time as we start dropping.

The descent is worse, and they don’t bother opening their wings until the last possible moment. They don’t quite ‘set’ me on the roof; I roll for a few yards, scraping my arms, knees, and probably my face. With all my exposed skin stinging, I weakly roll over to one side and start puking up the junk food and candy I had earlier. “An-gel,” I manage to choke out.

“That’s right.” They shoot me a glare. “And I’m a guardian angel, not a healer,” they say. “What if I’m not quick enough next time? You could die, Griffin. Are your stunts worth your life?”

I stagger to my feet but decide not to join them at the edge of the roof. “I had to know you’re real.” They shake their head in disbelief. Ever since I died, I’ve been trying to see them again. To talk to them. I have so many questions, and yet they’re so ready to brush me off like a pest. Is that what we are to their kind? “What does it matter to you if I die for real anyway?” I ask. “Shouldn’t that be what you want? To not be stuck with a lowlife like me?” The angel’s jaw sets and they lift their hood back over their buzz-cut head. “That’s how it works, isn’t it?”

With a sigh, they get up from the ledge and turn. “There’s something you might want to know,” they say, so softly I barely hear them. “I’m a guardian of the dead, not the living.” They glance over their shoulder at me. “You’re a walking miracle, but if you’re so ready for a one-way ticket to Hell, I’ll gladly stay out of the way next time, so I can do the job I was meant to do.”

Their wings spread out. It’s hard to see much of anything against the sun, but I swear the tip of their wings curl up toward something over their head.

W-Wait,” I say, stumbling forward, knowing they’re about to leave. “At least tell me your name. Am I worth that?”

They pause. “Zuriel.”  They turn their face to look at me, and I am mesmerized by the way their eyes glow white, irises completely submerged in the light of their being.

I squint. “Is that—” I start, but what feels like a thousand suns stabs into my retinas. Blinded, I blink several times, looking around until my vision clears, but Zuriel is gone once again. “Dammit.” I didn’t even get a chance to ask anything. But maybe that was their plan all along.

When I try the door to the staircase, it’s locked. Hands still shaking from the drop, it takes me a while to pick it. “I’ll be seeing you again, Zuriel,” I say to the air around me before I start making my way down the steps. “Thank you for encouraging me to face my fears, you terrifying, beautiful creature.”