BLOOD OF ANGELS
The night before the storm, Thea dreamed a fireball hit her house. She stood outside in the lashing rain, watching with a detached calm while the Old Clayton House burned. When she woke to dazzling sunlight and the stifling heat of a July morning in Georgia, that same peaceful acceptance was still with her. If the house burned down, so be it. It had endured since the Civil War, but everything had to die eventually. The Old Clayton House, with its shroud of ivy and history of scandals, was probably well overdue.
She went through her usual morning routine—yoga, shower, dress, breakfast—and didn’t let it play on her mind. She’d been a child the last time any of her dreams came true, and that one had been so mundane, she’d felt nothing but disappointment. She’d dreamed old Mrs. Jackson would find three dead chickens in her garden, and she did. But in a county full of coyotes and bobcats, dead chickens weren’t exactly a surprise. After the chicken incident, Thea hadn't had any more prophetic visions. There was no reason to think the fireball nightmare was anything to dwell on.
After breakfast, she resigned herself to having to drive into Milton. Her cupboards were bare of everything except coffee and sugar, and whilst she was fairly sure she could subsist on that if need be, it wasn’t a pleasant idea. Going into town wasn’t either, but she figured she could muster the courage for a quick trip.
It wasn’t that the residents of Milton were unkind, exactly. Nobody would be that impolite. But they stared a little too long and they smiled a little too much, and Thea walked through town with a string of ghosts trailing after her. Nobody said anything, but everybody knew, and everybody watched in case she cracked. Just like her mama. Just like her daddy.
Thea found herself blushing as she slipped on her sandals, as if she was already under the weight of those stares. She pinned back her fly-away hair and studied herself in the bedroom mirror. Her cheeks were scarlet and icy blonde wisps of hair already escaped her pins. She looked like a literary cliché, some fey waif living alone in a crumbling mansion, wild-haired and unable to interact properly with normal society. Not too far from the truth, she guessed. It was annoying. Maybe people wouldn’t treat her as so fragile if she looked sturdier.
She shrugged at her reflection and left the house. Outside, the sun beat down mercilessly. Bees hummed just out of sight and any idea of a storm was laughable. The overgrown gardens of the Old Clayton House were sunbaked and dying, the once-verdant and luxurious grounds left to Mother Nature to tend. There had been a gardener once, when Thea’s parents were still alive, and for a while after they died, but eventually Thea realized she couldn’t afford to keep him on and she’d left the gardens to grow wild and fade away.
She didn’t mind. Or rather, she didn’t care. Keeping the house clean and tidy was more than enough work without worrying about the garden. And, well, if the house did burn down tonight, it wouldn’t matter anyway.
Still, the driveway winding from the house down to the gate was a sprawl of thorny brambles and weeds, and she admitted to herself that she probably should care more, if only for convenience’s sake. Her battered car crushed the brambles and weeds as she pulled away from the house and she had an image of herself simply driving up and down the garden all day, smushing the tangle of thorns to mud and mulch, and smiled.
On the outskirts of Milton, in a dusty field that usually housed a few forlorn-looking horses, Thea saw a huge tent being pitched. Stuck at a stop light, she watched men scramble around the tent with a single-minded industriousness, like a colony of ants. Despite the dust swirling around, the tent was brilliantly white in the sun’s glare. A revival meeting, she guessed, and, as she pulled away, she saw a huge wooden sign propped against the fence of the field. “Experience the Healing Hands of Brother Hiram!” the sign screamed in garish, carnival letters.
She scoffed and put it out of her mind as she drove into Milton. Such meetings pitched up once or twice a year, caused a commotion, then vanished in a cloud of grit and grime again. Brother Hiram’s Healing Hands would make as much impact on the town as Mrs. Jackson’s dead chickens.
She parked outside Ada’s General Store and spent a few seconds grounding herself, breathing deep and slow. Seeing people, interacting with people, was hard. She sometimes wondered if it would be easier in a different town, one where nobody knew who she was or why her parents died. She could sell Old Clayton House, drive into the sunset, and start over somewhere new. Be a stranger, instead of just strange.
But she wasn’t sure anyone would want the Old Clayton House. She wouldn’t, given the choice. So she stayed and reserved her strength for these infrequent trips to town.
The inside of the store was cool, the shelves of produce bathed in gentle golden light. Soft music played somewhere and people shuffled around lazily, turning over peaches and plums in their hands as if they were jewels. She joined them in their slow shuffle, trying to decide what she wanted to eat. When her basket was full—of what, she didn’t really know—she went to the counter where Ada Jones had sat for as long as Thea could remember.
“Good morning, honey,” Ada said, just a little too loud, in case Thea was deaf as well as mad. “You doing alright this morning, Thea? Hmm?”
“As fine as I ever am, Ada,” Thea said.
Ada clucked her tongue as if this was terrible news. “You taking care of yourself up there? No drinking? No funny business?”
“I’ve never drunk, Ada,” Thea said coolly, “and I don’t even know what funny business is, so I can hardly engage in it.”
Ada gave her a sad, knowing look. “Well that’s good, honey. You keep it up.”
Thea promised that she would, whatever it was, and paid. Ada patted her hand as she passed over her cash, a gesture so full of well-meant pity it stung. The whole town was waiting, she thought. Waiting for her to do ... something. Because she would, they were thinking. Her mama had and her daddy had, so she would. Maybe she’d turn to drink like Joseph Clayton and slowly decay before their very eyes, become a spidery husk of a woman reeking of gin and regret. Or maybe she’d be dramatic like Eloise Clayton and drown herself in the town river, with a garland of water weeds around her neck and a bottle of pills on the riverbank. An Ophelia for the modern age—beautiful, tragic, and predictable.
Thea didn’t think she’d be like either of her parents. But she felt the weight of Milton’s expectations and wondered what they’d do if she just kept ticking along, without any dramas or tragedies.
As she was leaving, Geoff Thompson, a grizzled elder of the town, bustled in, knocking her bag from her hands. Thea dropped to her knees to retrieve her groceries, cheeks flaring red, while Geoff stood over her, chuckling lightly.
"Stocking up for the big storm, Miss Clayton?" he asked her. "Gonna be a real show tonight."
"Geoff, there's no storm tonight," Ada said. She, too, watched Thea scramble around on the floor and made no move to help. "Sky's as blue as you like. Not a cloud in sight."
"There's a storm coming fit to rip the heavens open," Geoff insisted. "Hope the Old Clayton House ain't gonna blow down, Miss Clayton."
Thea stuffed a bag of peaches into her bag and stood. "It's survived this long, Mr. Thompson. I'm sure it'll survive one more night."
Geoff gave her a smile that hovered between kind and sardonic. “Sure it will, Miss Clayton. Sure it will.”
Thea left the store feeling certain Geoff would be driving by the house tomorrow morning, just to see if the storm had washed it away.