I left the health department at the end of another scoreless day. Worried, I didn’t at first notice the young demon on Church Street.
“Hey.” He was scruffy and slouched against a sculpture of two kids playing leapfrog. “Hold on. I know you.”
His horns barely poked out from his dreads. A low demon. The entire town was below my talents. I was only here at my overseer’s insistence that I transfer from Atlantic City. She said it would give me some breathing room to rethink my commitment to the divine host.
I continued walking. After a long day in heels, I wanted to get home to give my feet a break and let my wings stretch out.
“No wait!” the man called out, grabbing my edge of my blouse. “Remember me? I’m the son of your mom’s demon friend.” Not wanting to be rude, even to a dark one, I remained silent but picked up the pace in the hope he would drift away.
“Your mom invited mine to her book club, trying to branch out and be more inclusive and all,” he said, trotting alongside me. “Hey, so I know you’re all about helping people and stuff, and see, I’m kind of down on my luck. My boss is a real tightwad and I need the bus fare to get to Plattsburgh. Could you help me with, like, an Andrew Jackson?”
I turned and stared. He was dressed Burlington-style, with ratty cargo pants, a “Climb High” t-shirt under an unbuttoned flannel shirt. Lots of hemp jewelry draped around his neck.
“My mother is the Angel of Truth. There’s no way she’d have anything to do with a demon,” I told him. “Or a book club, for that matter.”
He laughed. “Okay, got me,” he said. “But I do need to get to Plattsburgh.”
Unlike seraphim, demons easily mix falsehoods with verity. While he was obviously lying about my mother, I wasn’t sure whether he spoke truthfully about wanting to travel to Plattsburgh. It was the kind of town where people still washed their dishes with phosphate-filled detergent, burned leaves when the danger of forest fires was high and knocked out their neighbors’ teeth on the weekends. With the population already so rotten, it was scorched territory for dark ones looking to get their talons into humans.
But it was also where my predecessor in Burlington, Urizel, was transferred. The feathers along my shoulder blades rippled with irritation.
“I miss the big guy,” he said.
“Urizel?” I asked. “I never thought demons were fond of seraphim.”
“Honestly, it’s more of a competitive issue.” He sighed quietly but stopped his breath suddenly, noticing I was watching him intently. “There’s nothing better than a day up against the dude. What you see here — ” he swept his hand down Church Street, indicating Girl Scouts planting flowers around a tree and a group of college students handing out brochures supporting healthcare reform “— didn’t exist before him. So I’m going to Plattsburgh. Gotta go where the power is.”
“So the demons are already writing me off?” I asked. Not that I blamed them. My accomplishments so far included convincing a graduate student not to plagiarize and dissuading an old woman from stealing her neighbor’s doorstep-delivered newspaper. In Atlantic City, my clients were murderers and drug dealers.
“Oh, don’t take it the wrong way,” the demon said with a sheepish smile. “You know us demons. Always up for a challenge.”
“I’m not against challenges myself,” I said. The demon smiled at me ingratiatingly, believing he was scoring one for the dark team by convincing me to hand over a piddling $20, but he was giving me a glimmer of an idea.
Seraphim focus on humans. At the end of each day, we log into SCALE to report our successes in getting people to make divinely inspired decisions. For each positive outcome, we receive one point.
How many points would one earn for influencing a demon to our side? I wasn’t sure, but it must be enough to wrangle a transfer to a city with even more problems than Atlantic City. Like Cleveland or Detroit.
My feathers, cloaked from his eyes, smoothed against my back. I would stymie this demon from traveling to Plattsburgh and work him over to our side. He would be my ticket out of this town.
“I’ve heard wonderful things about Urizel. Of course, I’ve got $20 for you,” I said, the sound of helpfulness ringing in my voice.
But then my tongue suddenly felt cold and my saliva congealed like refrigerated oil. I was about to lie, something I had never tried before. Even though I realized my falsehood would achieve a greater good by bringing this demon to the light, the words fell thick and muffled from my mouth.
“But I- I don’t have it on me,” I stammered. My skin turned to gooseflesh and the urge to tell the truth nearly overwhelmed me, but the impulse skittered away when I remembered my failing score.
The demon didn’t appear to notice my stumble and cocked his head at me hopefully.
“Meet me tomorrow at 9 a.m,” I told him, and scribbled an address on a piece of paper.
The demon took the slip with a sly look. His black eyes carried flecks of silver in them, something I had never seen before in a dark one.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
I started to laugh. Joshua, as in God is Salvation. “You’re kidding me.”
“Helps me fit in,” he said, smiling. “I already know your name — every demon in Vermont knows who you are.” A thrill traveled down my arms and through my wings. He gave me a wave as he sauntered toward the steeple rising above the end of Church Street.
At my lakefront condo, I logged onto SCALE, the Seraphim Calculator of Achievement, Logistics and Elevation. Seraphim must check in daily to report our activities and receive new assignments.
Before SCALE, we reported our activities personally to our overseers, who themselves decided on scores for our earth-bound activities. Most seraphim felt SCALE erased the subjective nature of the old system, for even overseers had favorites. On SCALE, a point was a point, regardless of one’s standing in the hierarchy.
For “Human Interaction,” I wrote about meeting with a government bureaucrat in the health department who was considering slashing benefits to poor families. I dressed as a lobbyist and mindtalked him through keeping the benefits intact. Unfortunately, the man stank of sausages, dulling my enthusiasm. By the time I left, he hadn’t made up his mind.
I considered reporting my conversation with Joshua under “Unearthly Interactions,” but what if my overseer ordered me to drop contact with the demon? While some seraphim and demons have working relationships, they can be fraught. I felt uneasy, remembering my most recent conversation with Yaziel. She had harped on my last Atlantic City mission, claiming it illustrated how I was slipping from unity.
The problem with seraphim? An unhealthy addiction to protocol. The AC mission was successful: I convinced a petty gambling organizer to stop backing dogfights. Yaziel objected to my methods, despite my argument that the lives of twenty-odd dogs were nothing compared to the soul of a human. Yaziel only grumbled and talked about the seraphim’s new animal-rights mandates until I was ready to bite the heads off some chickens to relieve my boredom. The overseers used to be all “Go you!” when you pulled out pestilence as a way to guide humans toward goodness, but now they required three online forms just to approve a boil upon a murderer.
I logged off from SCALE, which informed me I was 10 points behind my quota for the month, and stood on my balcony to watch the sun dipping behind the Adirondack Mountains, darkening like bruises before the blood-red sun.
I unfurled my wings, feeling the lake breeze ruffle through the feathers. As I sighed with relief, an old saying popped into my head: “Darkness falls, brightness calls.” It was something my mother often repeated, although I was never sure I understood it entirely.
The Angel of Truth, my mother was honest to a fault. Seraphim, she would explain, are no more bound to goodness than humans. Some pretend we’re incapable of making bad decisions. That’s not the case. Seraphim don’t like to talk about the ones who fall.
Yet if seraphim fall from grace, surely demons rise to the light — and I realized I finally understood the saying after all these years. Joshua will be my test and my salvation, my hugely wicked score on SCALE.
As the sun descended, the light deepened, staining the white feathers of my wings as red as a demon’s heart.
The next morning I waited for the demon at the address I had given him the day before. My plan was to rely on the force of my superior skills to convince Joshua to heed the call of brightness.
I stood under a spreading oak tree, with several cows staring at my wings fluttering in the light summer breeze. Since I arrived early, it wasn’t worth the energy to cloak them from outside eyes.
The tree sat at the base of a small hill, with the columns of a Vermont version of Monticello rising above it. In the distance, the silver gleam of Lake Champlain flashed against the horizon. I studied the gravestone beneath my heels. Only a few words were readable: “Mary,” and “helpmeet.” The dates were indecipherable, washed away by centuries of Vermont’s harsh weather. I supposed I really shouldn’t have been standing on old Mary’s marker, but the ground was damp and my heels were getting slimed. I saw why the property owner wanted to dig up the cemetery; it really was a lovely site, except for the graves.
“Wow,” a voice breathed behind me.
I whipped around, hitting Joshua in the face with the tip of my right wing. His eyes danced with silver sparks.
“Never seen an angel before?” I immediately shielded my wings from his eyes. His look, as if he wanted to own my wings, brought a queasy feeling to my stomach.
Joshua shook his head. “I have. It’s just been a long time … and I forgot how beautiful seraphim feathers look in the sunlight.”
This demon was already feeling the pull of brightness. This mission was going to be a snap, I decided.
He looked slightly more reputable, with his dreads tied neatly behind his back.
“So, what are we doing here?”
“You want to get to Plattsburgh, right? I just have this appointment, then we can stop by the ATM and I’ll give you the $20,” I said. This time the lie slipped off my tongue with greater ease, with the words sounding only slightly muffled.
“Sure,” Joshua said, smiling in a knowing way. I pressed my purse tightly against my side, as if that could shield the $300 dollars inside my wallet from his dark senses. I didn’t know whether demons could pick out untruths.
The door of Vermont’s Monticello opened, and my human assignment emerged: Archie Price, hedge fund billionaire and would-be gentleman farmer. He bought the 450-acre estate two years ago, and had told a few people he planned to tear up the cemetery in order to build a swimming pool near his house.
Archie Price was in his mid-30s, with a strong jaw and a hard handshake. He looked me up and down as if he had never seen a woman wearing heels in the middle of a country cemetery.
I introduced myself as an advocate for several local families, which in a way was true. My assignment from Yaziel was to convince Price to give up the plan and leave the sacred ground in peace.
“Are you an attorney, Miss?” Archie asked.
“Of course she is,” Joshua interjected. “I’m her paralegal. Joshua.” His lie was spoken effortlessly, and I had to focus on Archie to hide my admiration.
“Here’s what I’m proposing,” I started to tell the human, while I prepared to mindtalk. Mindtalking combines words and images, spoken directly into a human’s brain. It relies heavily on visual images, while the old seraphim have the skill to add emotions into the mix. I reached out to a corner of Joshua’s mind, pulling him into the effort. Seraphim can work together to make mindtalking even more powerful, bringing more of the divine host to humankind. I was betting that Joshua, being an unearthly being, would be compelled by my superior power into helping me mindtalk Archie Price to the right decision.
Once he did that, Joshua would be one step closer to the light.
A cemetery at dawn; “Hallowed ground”; the scent of incense and peace; an acorn falling to the ground; “The cycle of life.” I sensed Joshua’s mind joining mine; it felt hot and alive, different from the placid, calm minds of seraphim.
I continued, feeling his mind latching onto my mindtalking images. Wind whispers through the oak leaves; “Reward;” an image of Archie Price receiving heavenly honors; “Blessings falling into your hands;” the drip of water on the ground. The water seeping into the earth.
My palms felt sweaty. The sun was now higher and hotter, and the synthetic fabric of my dress stuck to my torso. I wanted to remain with pictures of sacred ground, but my mind wandered. I imagined myself buoyed in cool water. A feeling of peace lapped across me, as if I were floating, alone, my ears swallowed by liquid, blocking out the cows and muddy ground. The stress of failing quota washed away, sailing off in a slowly twirling eddy. Even though I knew I was going in the wrong direction, I couldn’t help myself. The feeling of water pulled on my thoughts, and I transmitted them into Archie’s mind.
Water forming a perfectly, silver-surfaced pool. A calm viewing pond. Looking into the depths. Clear blue waters. “Swimming through life.” Archie Price sweeping his arms through cool waters.
I shook my head and snapped out of a trance. How did I get from feeding him images of a peaceful slice of hallowed ground to … Archie Price doing laps in a gigantic swimming pool?
I glared at him, and he gave me a smile crossed with a frown, as if he were saying “oops.”
Archie Price shook his head. He looked bewildered, but the corners of his mouth crept up. “I came expecting a lawsuit,” he said. “But I like what you’re proposing: an even bigger pool than I had planned. An Olympic-sized pool will look great here. I’ll have the graves moved to another site on my property.” He looked at his watch. “Got a teleconference in a few minutes. Catch you later.”
“Wait —” I called out. I imagined entering this failure in SCALE and fear stabbed my stomach. I would lose what points I had earned since arriving here.
I turned to Joshua. “You jerk.” The words felt hard, a diamond formed from fear and embarrassment.
“Honestly, it wasn’t me. You were thinking about the swimming pool before I even joined in,” he said. The sparks in his eyes grew bigger, his eyes almost glowing with delight.
His smug face and dancing eyes provoked a feeling of violence within my heart. I wanted to wipe that smile with Mary’s headstone. I took a step toward him, my fists curled, when he asked me in a conversational voice, as if unaware I wanted to bash his head against a grave marker, “Why do you do it?”
“What?” My wings unfurled, beating the air. I didn’t bother to shield them.
“All that,” he said, gesturing to my wings. “Why do the seraphim thing at all? I mean, what’s the reason for it all? Why do we bust our chops against each other every day? It doesn’t seem to do much good, when the balances are added up at the end of the day. Why not work for what you believe in – like helping Archie build his swimming pool?”
This low-caste knew nothing about seraphim.
“It’s His will,” I snapped.
“Right. So when was the last time you talked with Him?” Joshua’s eyes darkened.
I had never talked with Him, and I didn’t know a single seraphim who had. Even my mother would get cagey when the issue came up. It was the sort of question — where is He? — seraphim avoided asking. I wasn’t about to tell Joshua that.
“Asshole.” The curse was a revelation: it skimmed off a layer of my anger. As I flew toward Burlington, I made a note to try cursing again.
That night I drank an entire bottle of red wine. My wings drooped over the edge of my balcony. Fuck it, I thought, before passing out.
A gentle touch awoke me. I looked into the grey eyes of Yaziel, who found me asleep on the balcony with my wings displayed for all to see. My head pounded.
“I’m worried,” she said.
“You couldn’t send me an email?” I mumbled. It was a stupid question. The host monitored all email, instant messaging, phone calls. Nothing over an electronic line was unwatched by seraphim. She came in person because she didn’t want the host to find out. My watch glowed 3 a.m.
“I’m hearing odd chatter, and you didn’t log into SCALE tonight. I wanted to make an off-the-record visit.” Yaziel studied my wings intently, as if searching for some flaw. Feeling self-conscious, I folded them tight across my back.
“What kind of chatter?” I wondered if she heard about my cursing and lies.
“There’s talk of a high-ranking demon who’s been called into Burlington to take down a seraphim.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I replied, thinking of the tiny horns butting from Joshua’s Dreads.
Yaziel’s grim expression relaxed. “So you haven’t had contact with demons?”
“No, not at all,” I lied. This time, the words left my mouth without effort.
My overseer nodded. “Maybe this is related to Urizel.” Yaziel straightened up, and cast a disapproving look at the empty wine bottle. “Log into SCALE tomorrow morning, add a note you were sick tonight. I don’t care why you didn’t check in,” she said, unfolding her wings and preparing to leave.
I nodded. Perhaps I could avoid disclosing my failure with Archie Price by playing the sick note.
Yaziel perched on my balcony railing, like the figurehead on a ship, and it reminded me of Joshua’s question.
“When was the last time you talked to Him?” I asked.
She wobbled for a moment, then recovered so fast I wondered if I imagined it. Yaziel turned to look at me sharply. “I don’t need to talk to Him. He’s with us every day. That’s what SCALE does — it helps us interface with Him.”
The idea seemed ridiculous, and I looked at her in disbelief.
Yaziel frowned. “We are judged by the divine, regardless of His methods.”
It seemed like Yaziel hadn’t talked with Him either.
The morning light was strong by the time I woke up. My head ached and my throat felt caked in crumbs, but I started making coffee and considered whipping up a smoothie. Anything to delay logging into SCALE. What would happen if I just stop entering my Human Interactions, or receiving my assignments? Joshua’s question looped around in my head: What was the point of all this? Seraphim striving to meet quota. The overseers constantly divvying out assignments. But why? Did He even care or monitor the system Himself?
I took my coffee to the balcony and looked across the lake, toward Plattsburgh. Urizel was probably having a ball in that hellhole, racking up the points and even pushing his score above the quota.
A feeling of rage surged through me as I considered the unfairness of my situation. If anyone should have been transferred to Plattsburgh, it was me.
“Fuck you!” I screamed, and a charge shimmied down my wings. My second spoken curse felt even better than the first.
When the air chopped in short breezes, I worried Yaziel had heard my swearing and had come back to check up on me.
Dark pinions fluttered slowly by my balcony. It was Joshua. I always imagined demon wings would resemble bat wings, fleshy and dry, but his feathers sucked in the light, as if a tiny black hole was stationed before me. It was hard to remove my eyes from their darkness, a deep color that wanted to be touched, like velvet or fur.
Joshua languidly settled himself on the chair next to me.
“Well?” I said, resisting the desire to rub his wings.
“You were upset yesterday and I wanted to check on you,” he said.
I wondered why he cared. If no one has seen Him, wouldn’t that be a victory for his kind? But then it occurred to me that maybe the dark side had the same problem.
“So I guess Satan must think it’s funny the seraphim aren’t in touch with Him,” I ventured.
Joshua shook his head. His wings were now shielded from my eyes. Except for the tiny stubs of horns, he could have been a graduate student at the University of Vermont.
“I wouldn’t know. We’re not in touch with His enemy, either. That’s what got me thinking about all of this.”
So Satan was also MIA.
“Seraphim and demons, we’re all just wandering around the earth, with no big plan or Someone looking out for us?”
Joshua shrugged. “There’s SCALE.”
“What do you know about SCALE?”
“We have the same program.”
“The Seraphim Calculator of Achievement, Logistics and Elevation?”
Joshua grimaced. “Well, we call it the Satanic Calculator of Achievement, Logistics and Elevation, but yes, it’s the same program.”
Sitting at my computer, he logged into a Website with a front page that looked exactly like SCALE. He clicked past the first screen to the database, which also appeared identical to the seraphim’s. There was even a place for him to enter Human Interactions and Unearthly Interactions. I checked the fine print at the bottom to make sure it wasn’t a trick. As Joshua had said, the site read “Satanic” instead of “Seraphim.” As I wondered about the meaning of the light and dark using the same program, my eyes drifted to Joshua’s score.
It was freaking huge. So huge I started to tremble. I remembered what Yaziel told me about a high-ranking demon. Could the evil ones change their appearance? A demon with that many points would be centuries old — and if Joshua truly was one of the old ones, his horns should have been as wide as his wingspan.
“Don’t worry about my score,” he said. “With demons, it’s all about getting ahead of the crowd. Anyway you can. Watch,” he told me.
With a few commands, he called up a data entry page listing hundreds of demon names accompanied by blinking score boxes. He moved his curser to the box next to his name. In a keystroke, the frightening number disappeared. A second later, he typed in a number that was twice as large. “See?”
If Joshua could alter his score so easily on his software program, could that be the answer to my dilemma? I didn’t want to be punished for a few bad weeks. Everyone deserved another chance to make things go their way, regardless of what the rules said.
“Log out of your program,” I commanded. I bumped him out of the chair, and sat down in front of the computer. After logging into SCALE, I looked up at Joshua. His eyes were dancing. I told him, “Get me into that data entry page. If it’s the same program, you’ve got to be able to do it on the seraphim program.”
Joshua studied me. “Are you sure? Really sure?”
“Of course,” I said. This trick was going to be my salvation.
The data entry page appeared with a list of seraphim. I scrolled down, catching sight of my mother near the top; Yaziel was in the middle. My name hovered near the bottom, along with some seraphim assigned to other do-gooder cities like Portland, Oregon and Santa Fe.
What I was about to do wasn’t cheating. I had worked harder than most seraphim to talk goodness into humans, and I deserved better than Burlington. Just one little click would assist SCALE in realizing that as well.
I couldn’t expect to double my score and get away with it, but if my score shot up by one-quarter, would anyone notice? Probably not, I decided. Yet my fingers felt cold and trembled slightly as I typed in my new score.
As I pressed enter, the screen wavered and my name disappeared.
“What? No!” I yelled, my hands frozen on the keyboard. “What just happened?”
Joshua shivered, then rubbed the top of his head.
“Stop that!” I commanded. “Help me – something went wrong with the program. My name isn’t on here anymore.”
“I can’t help,” he said, shaking his head. I glanced at him in astonishment and then noticed why he was rubbing his crown: His horns were gone.
Then he unfurled his wings and I gasped. They weren’t black any longer.
“It’s not so bad being a demon,” he said. “They don’t care about your score, or really anything, actually. When the seraphim started asking me to take on .. Special jobs, I thought, why not? The horns were a drag. You should have seen them a few years ago.” He made a wide gesture with his arms.
“You’re working with the seraphim?” I said.
Joshua cleared his throat. “You were already halfway to falling. You know what demons say, `Darkness calls, brightness falls’.”
My head started aching. It felt like two holes were being drilled in my skull. It was so painful, I couldn’t muster the energy to correct him.
“Interesting,” Joshua watched me carefully. “Horns on the temple. Premium placement. SCALE — the dark version — thinks you’re going places. Look at your wings.”
The pain was so intense, I didn’t have enough energy to shield them. Black like tar, my wings looked ready to cause some damage. It pleased me, somehow, even though the throbbing was getting worse.
“You’re an asshole,” I informed him. “And you’re getting rewarded for it?”
He smiled, flapped his snowy wings, rubbing in his ascendency. “Look, you’re going to have time to think about this. Who has heard from Him? Or His enemy?”
It wasn’t a question I was meant to answer. I groaned, trying to follow him as red-hot pokers seared my temples. He continued, “Did they ever exist? Who knows? Who cares? All either side has is —”
“SCALE,” I interrupted.
“Yup. It’s all seeing, all-watching. I was bored being a demon. Time for a change. I started talking with the seraphim, and they loved the idea of helping a dark one see the light.” He was studying the computer screen, and smiled when the screen flickered again. His name replaced mine and even had a few points next to it.
“And the demons?”
He raised his eyebrows. “You have to ask?”
Of course they would be pleased, getting a seraphim to cross to the dark side. “Not about me, about you,” I managed to say. Two sharp horns had broken through my skin, and as my hands ran over their points, they cut the truth into me: I had fallen victim to my own naiveté about the divine host.
“Most of them were once seraphim. They starting asking too many questions about Him, or getting sloppy …” he lingered, his voice reminiscing about what must have been his own story and was now mine. “SCALE makes it easier to move between light and dark. If you want, you’ll get back to the light.”
His glib answer enraged me, and I launched myself toward him. As my fist smashed his nose, the solid feeling sent a burst of pleasurable energy through my arm. My wings thrummed with the pleasure of finally allowing my aggression an exit.
With the pain receding, I walked to my living room mirror. The new hardware was not only black, they appeared carved from onyx, shiny and harder than sin. I tested my shielding powers, attempting to cover both my horns and wings, and to my surprise, both vanish without much effort. Joshua must have let me see his small horns so I would think he wasn’t a threat.
My horns were already a good six-inches long. Good, I thought. I want to be a threat. A feeling of serenity floated through me, riding on relief – no more quotas — and untrammeled anger. It was like going shopping and finding The Outfit. The one that was made for you, waiting for you to arrive. The horns and black wings felt fucking great.
I didn’t need to hang around this town any longer. I was done with Burlington.
I perched on the balcony. Screw bus fare. I pointed my dark wings toward Plattsburgh, and flew.
Aimee Picchi is a freelance writer with a focus on business stories. She has had one previous story published in the University of Vermont literary journal Vantage Point. Before freelancing, Aimee worked at Bloomberg News for nine years, where she covered beats ranging from software to television. Her current freelance assignments have ranged from writing for the Boston Globe to editing and researching for Columbia Business School.