Angeltown – Katie Bushman ’22

The angel lived on the seventh floor at the Embassy Suites off Route 81. Nobody knew exactly when it had moved in. Local legend said that it had been living there for centuries, but the fact that the hotel hadn’t been built until the ’90s suggested otherwise. Numerous theologians had tried to decipher why it had selected that specific hotel as its home, but the only reason they could figure out so far was that they offered free breakfast.

Pilgrims traveled from all over the world to offer up their problems and questions to the angel. The people of Angeltown, Virginia, had tried to make a profit off of the tourism, but when a store selling cheap plastic angel trinkets had burned to the ground, it was taken as a divine sign that someone up there disapproved. Local clergymen wisely nodded and spoke of Jesus in the temple. Local firemen shook their heads and spoke of faulty wiring.

With the exception of their otherworldly visitor, Angeltown was nothing particularly special. The faded sign on the highway bore the misspelled greeting Welcome to Angletown, and no one had bothered to fix it. The annual Fourth of July ice cream social hosted by the church was the most exciting event of the year. Summers were hot, winters were snowy, and gossip was traded freely at monthly PTA meetings. For the most part, the average citizens of the town forgot that there was an angel in their midst.

And that seemed to suit the angel just fine. Even on days when the hotel was fully booked by pilgrims begging for a glimpse, it would occasionally politely inform hotel staff that it would not be taking visitors today. For the most part, though, it was a fairly sociable creature. That didn’t mean it was necessarily a helpful one. Most people came to have questions answered or troubles banished or illnesses cured, and while occasionally wisdom was dispensed and miracles performed, other times pilgrims left with stranger things — a bubblegum wrapper with the number of the local pizza delivery service written on it, a plastic dinosaur, a joke about a very old woman and a very small dog.

It is worth mentioning that this angel did not look like one might expect. This was no Christmas-pageant angel with fuzzy white wings and a golden halo nor a chubby-cheeked Raphaelite cherub. This was a true seraph, with the head of a lion and six wings covered in eyes like fire, wonderful and terrible. That being said, its otherworldly appearance was tempered somewhat by the terrycloth bathrobe it insisted on wearing.

I was very young, perhaps six or seven, the first time I met the angel. My mother’s mother was watching me for the day, and she thought it might be fun to visit the hotel. We waited in the lobby for what seemed like hours. At last, a lady came over and told us that it was ready to see us now.

I held my grandmother’s hand as we rode the elevator to the seventh floor. We walked down the blandly carpeted hall until we came to door 711. My grandmother unwrapped one of her habitual cough drops and popped it into her mouth before knocking.

Come in, a voice said. Or at least I think it did. I still can’t quite figure out whether it says things out loud or if its words are piped straight into our minds. Either way, the voice was impossible to place. It could have been young or old, male or female. I’m not even sure if it was speaking English, but I could understand it.

The door swung open of its own accord, and we stepped in. The room was nothing special. It was the same as any other hotel room — two neatly made full beds with white quilts, a desk no one was actually going to use, those lamps that have outlets right in the base, a TV with a channel guide on the stand, a coffee machine with Styrofoam cups still in plastic wrappers. The only remarkable thing was the angel itself, standing near the heavily curtained window, and even that was not as remarkable as one might think, at least to a child of my age. I wasn’t old enough to know that things weren’t supposed to look like that, and so I was no more taken aback than any child would be at seeing an elephant or giraffe for the first time.

The angel didn’t smile, but I somehow knew it was happy to see us. Hello, Gertrude, it said to my grandmother. Who have you brought with you?

My grandmother handed the angel a gift bag, out of which it pulled a scarf I had seen her crocheting. Waves of delight rolled across the room. The two of them talked for a long time, sharing gossip like ladies at a hair salon. The angel gave me this sort of golden puzzle ball to play with. It called room service, and it and my grandmother drank tea while I had apple juice and cookies. At last I started to whine because my favorite television program was starting at four and I didn’t want to miss it, so my grandmother bid the angel farewell and we took the elevator back downstairs.

That visit turned out to be the cause of the first big argument I witnessed between my parents. My mother, a devout Catholic and generally a trusting person, thought there was nothing wrong with me visiting the seraph. My father, who probably would have been an atheist had he not lived half a mile from irrefutable proof of God, was less thrilled. The whole time they were yelling at each other, I hid under a blanket fort, crying. My father stormed out, and my mother came in and held me and told me it wasn’t my fault. The next morning, my father made me chocolate chip pancakes as an apology.

It took them six more years to get a divorce. When it happened, they took me to counseling and told me they still loved me, no matter what. My mother took me to Disney World and my father painted my room in his new house a lurid shade of pink that I adored. I guess they were afraid of causing me emotional scarring, or something like that. Truth was, even at such a young age, I had known for years that we would all be happier if they didn’t live together anymore.

A decade passed. I went to a college far away from Angeltown, and didn’t think of the angel at all until the second week of my senior year, when my grandmother passed away. I was sitting on the floor of my boyfriend’s room when I got the call. I distinctly remember the feel of the wooden boards against my bare legs — it was the only thing I could focus on as the rest of me went numb. Mark asked me something once I’d hung up the phone, but I couldn’t hear him over the buzzing in my ears.

“My grandmother died.” It was easy to say, because it didn’t feel real yet. It seemed impossible to me that something as simple as cardiac arrest could take away my strong, wise, indomitable grandmother.

“Giselle — oh my God. I’m so sorry.” He knelt next to me, putting a hand on my arm, but I brushed him away.

I stood up, unsteady on my feet. “I need to go.”

He tried to catch my hand. “Are you sure you want to be alone?”

It was more than a want; it was a need. The presence of another person, and Mark in particular, suddenly felt suffocating. I needed to be somewhere, anywhere else. I wanted to be nowhere at all. “Yes.”

“Giselle, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I snapped, with probably more venom than was warranted. It was a lie I was tired of telling.

“At least let me walk you home.”

That night, I pulled the covers over my head and cried like a little kid. The next morning, I bought a plane ticket to Virginia and threw my clothes into a suitcase, not caring if they got wrinkled. That afternoon, Mark came to say goodbye.

“Just call me if you need anything,” he said, one hand tapping nervously against the doorframe.

“Okay,” I said, knowing full well I wouldn’t be calling him.

“I mean it. I… I worry about you.”

I scoffed. “You don’t have to do that.”

“I think I do.”

He meant well, but for some reason it made me incredibly angry. “I don’t want to have this conversation right now.” I tried to edge past him with my suitcase, but he blocked the way.

“Well, I do,” he said. “You’re my girlfriend, and I—”

“Well, maybe I don’t want to be!” I snapped. I regretted the words as soon as I said them, but I didn’t take them back.

He stared at me, his mouth opening and closing like a goldfish a few times before he spoke. “You — what? Are you — are you breaking up with me?”

“Yes,” I said. I hadn’t planned on ending things that morning, but it was too late to change my mind now. “I am.”

He ran a hand through his hair. “Giselle. Can we talk about this? You’re just upset, and maybe—”

“Goodbye, Mark,” I said, and left him standing in the doorway. I felt numb as I walked down the hall. It was the right thing to do, I rationalized to myself. This was the kinder way to end things. This would be better for him.

When the flight landed, I had a dozen messages from Mark. I deleted them without reading them. Didn’t he realize he was better off without me?

The next day, my phone started buzzing during the funeral, Mark’s caller ID scrolling across the screen. I stared at it, my eyes aching from the absence of tears, and turned it off as I stood to receive communion. The cantor sang Ave Maria, and the church reeked of incense and dying roses.

The church was within walking distance from my mother’s house, so I skipped the reception to lie on my bed. It was too hot to sleep. I scrolled aimlessly through social media, registering nothing, because I was too tired and too sad to do anything else. A text message popped up at the top of the screen, and I hesitated before clicking on it.

giselle please pick up the phone i just want to talk i’m not asking you to change your mind but i just want to know what i did wrong bc i don’t understand and i don’t want to end things like this

goddammit you can’t just disappear like this!

and if you don’t want to see me ever again i won’t bother you anymore but please just let me know that you’re okay

jesus just answer me

i love you, okay? and whatever i did, i’m sorry

I turned off the phone and let it fall to the carpet. I rummaged under my bed until I found the crocheted giraffe that my grandmother had made for me when I was little and fell asleep with it clutched to my chest, still wearing my funeral dress.

Later, my mother and I were cleaning out my grandmother’s house, rooting through drawers and closets and stuffing trinkets into boxes, when I came upon a bulging grocery bag. I peered inside to find a patchwork blanket of crocheted granny squares. Safety-pinned to it was a note in my grandmother’s handwriting, reading, for Elemiah.

“Who’s Elemiah?” I asked aloud.

My mother glanced at the note. “The angel,” she said.

It had never crossed my mind that the angel might have a name. “Should I deliver it?”

“Sure,” my mother said, and went back to sorting through Christmas decorations.

And so, the next day I made up my mind to go to the hotel. The woman at the reception desk almost seemed surprised when I said what I was there for. “A pilgrim? We haven’t gotten one of those in a while.”

I frowned. I had thought that the hotel was still stuffed with guests clamoring to see the angel.

I took the elevator. A man with a briefcase got on with me in the lobby and got off at the third floor. He was replaced by a woman in pajamas who got on at the fourth floor and off at the fifth. I was alone when I arrived at the seventh floor.

The hallway leading to the angel’s room was much shorter than I had remembered. I hesitated for a moment before knocking on the door. It all seemed so unceremonious — I felt as if I should genuflect, or cross myself with holy water.

Come in. The door opened.

I entered. The room hadn’t changed at all. And there was the angel, in all its strange and ordinary glory, blinking at me with its multitude of eyes. It said nothing.

I cleared my throat awkwardly. “Hello. Mr., um, Elemiah? I, um, have something for you. From my grandmother. Gertrude Winston? I came here with her once. She passed away. I found this at her house.”

I don’t remember the angel getting up and taking the quilt from me, but it must have, because suddenly it was holding it and not I. It regarded it for a moment, emanating a sort of warm sadness, then said, Thank you.

          “No problem,” I said, wiping my palms on my dress. I felt very awkward standing there. I didn’t know what else to say, or whether I should say anything else at all.

Would you like to stay for tea?

          I had been planning to work on the garden that morning and didn’t know if I really had time to stay for tea, but I figured it was bad form to refuse an angel. “Sure,” I said. “That would be lovely.”

Once again, there was that palpable feeling of happiness rolling off the seraph, even though the expression on its lion’s face didn’t change. Please have a seat.

I sat on the bed across from it. There were suddenly two styrofoam cups of steaming tea on the bedside table — it wasn’t as if they had appeared out of thin air, or at least I didn’t think so, but rather that they had been there this whole time and I was only now noticing them. I took one and took a sip. It was cheap, bitter black hotel tea, the kind you drank more out of necessity than desire and pretended you were drinking something more pleasant all the while.

It didn’t ask me how I was. Instead, it told me. You’re lonely. You miss Mark.

          I stiffened. Who was this angel to go around telling me truths about myself I didn’t want to know? “That’s not true.”

The angel laughed. You humans are a funny sort. I can help you, if you want.

          I fidgeted. “I think I can handle myself. Thank you, though.”

The angel regarded me. It was a strange feeling, having all those eyes on me. I can help you, even if you don’t want.

          “I really don’t think that’s—”

Mark will call you tomorrow at ten. Don’t ignore him. Don’t keep putting off that appointment, either. Change your major — you’ll be happier. It’s going to snow a lot this winter, but in a pleasant way. Oh, and your grandmother says hello.

          I blinked at it. “Thank you,” I said, not sure whether I believed anything it had just said and knowing there was no point in taking his advice. I put the cup of tea back on the table and stood up. “I’m really sorry, but I have to be going now.”

I had just turned to go when it said, Don’t kill yourself.

          I froze. Sat back down. And burst into tears.

There, there. Things will get better.

          How had it known? No one knew I had been thinking anything like that. Not my mother, not my friends, especially not Mark. I had tried so hard to keep my composure calm, to create a façade of happiness, to try to ignore thoughts of the bottle of pills in my desk drawer. And now here I was, sobbing in a hotel room with an otherworldly being.

It will be alright, child. Have faith. There is so much to live for, and there are people who can help you.

          I don’t know how long I sat there, crying. At some point it gave me a hankie and I blew my nose, loudly. Eventually I composed myself enough to stand up. “Thank you,” I said again, and this time I meant it.

May the Lord bless you and keep you. Until we meet again.

          The next morning at ten, Mark called me. I picked up, and cried for an hour, and told him that I was sorry and that I loved him. As soon as we hung up, I picked up the phone again and made an appointment to see a therapist.

The seraph was right — things did get better. I changed my major. Mark and I eventually got married. I didn’t think about the bottle of pills in the medicine cabinet anymore.

I didn’t visit the hotel again until years later, when I was in town visiting my mother, now a grandmother herself. I asked for it at the reception desk, and the young man working there frowned at me. “Room 711, you say?”

I nodded. “The angel’s room.”

He shook his head. “I’m afraid that room is vacant. Mr. Elemiah moved out years ago.”

I stared at him. It didn’t seem like that could be possible. The seraph seemed like a constant — after all, what was Angeltown without its angel? “Pardon?”

“I’m sorry.”

I blinked and shook my head. “No, no, it’s fine. Do you — do you know where it went? Or why it left?”

“I don’t rightly know where it went,” he said. “As for why it left…” He shrugged. “We got rid of our complimentary breakfast program.” He squinted at me. “Your name wouldn’t happen to be Giselle Winston, would it?”

I nodded, unsure of how he would know. He raised his eyebrows. “It left something for you, actually.”

I had no idea how to react as he disappeared below the desk, rummaging through doors. For me? Why me, of all people?

He finally reemerged holding a soft parcel wrapped in white tissue paper. “Here you go.”

I took it from him, and sure enough, my name was written on a note pinned to it. Slowly, I opened it to find the blanket my grandmother had made. A lump formed in my throat at the sight of it, and I pulled out the note that was nestled beside it, written on a cough drop wrapper.

For the baby, it read. P.S. Thank you for taking my advice.

And for the second time in my life, I broke down crying at the Angeltown Embassy Suites.