Floof doesn’t have feathers. He barely has wings, although the stunted appendages on his back had been given that name. The others laughed and called them buffalo wings, and once they had doused him with a large amount of red pepper. He sneezed for a week.
So now he tries to avoid his brothers, much as he can. When he isn’t watching Pick—and tearing his hair out as a result—he finds a gloomy little cloud to hide in and reads a good novel, or maybe even watches a bootleg DVD on his secondhand laptop.
Today is not a day for novels or movies. Today Pick has a big show, and this means a lot more hair-pulling for Floof. He dashes to and fro above the anthill-like commotion, tripping on gusts of wind and bits of clouds.
At last the preparations are finished and the crowds trickle in. Pick sits on his favorite motorcycle, wearing his star-studded cape and an open-face helmet with goggles.
He will attempt to jump his motorcycle over a combine harvester, into a muddy pen containing an enraged bull, and then escape the bull on foot through a quagmire of quicksand. This is fine entertainment for the discerning redneck.
Floof will attempt to not pull out the rest of his abused hair or chew his fingernails clean off.
Just one more show, he whispers to himself repeatedly. One more show that Pick must survive, before Floof reports to the Maker at the annual meeting.
The crowds are in place and the announcer tells them the incredible feat that Pick will perform. There is a cacophony of shouts and whistles and applause, which intensifies as Pick revs the raspy engine.
Then a plume of dirt sprays out behind him and he streaks toward the ramp. Floof’s stomach lurches, he grips his hair, and the insane little man on a motorbike goes sailing over the combine.
Pick lands in the mud and the bike slips out from underneath him, sending him headlong into the mud like a plane into the ocean (the plane isn’t just a simile—it was how Floof lost his previous assignment.)
But he’s up, up and running, and the bull gives a snort and a stomp. Pick hits the quicksand and wades in, and the bull locks his target and thunders ahead.
Floof has gone beyond his fingernails and now gnaws on a couple fingers, watching from above, ready to snatch Pick out of danger if the bull gets too close.
And then it gets too close, Pick is floundering, and Floof dives for him. His aim is off. He flies too close to the bull and his baggy trousers snag on one of its horns.
In a moment so short it can hardly be called an instant, Floof is flung into the mud and Pick is trampled. The bull turns around and gores him for good measure, then plods away in a huff. A shocked silence falls over the crowd and important people shout into phones and radios.
Floof, covered in mud but invisible to the humans, wobbles to his feet and watches a reaper suck up Pick’s soul with a divine vacuum.
“Hey,” the reaper says. “You the guardian?”
True to the tradition of bad moments, an isolated little rain cloud wanders over and starts drizzling on them.
Floof stands in the rain and watches the reaper take a transport cloud to the heavens.
“Oh dear,” he says with a sigh. “This will not go over well.”
In a futile attempt to forget his failure and feel less worthless, Floof finds a novel in the backseat of someone’s car and takes it to a cloud just a bit drier than the rainy one. But it isn’t quite dry enough, and after just a few pages the words blur and Floof throws the book out.
He spends the rest of the day thinking what he might say to make his failure look less pathetic.
The others already know, by the time Floof straggles along the streets of gold toward the meeting room. They throw taunting comments at him, from the sides, from above and behind and every which way.
“Hey Goof! Mike said he’d paint a picture of your epic fail so you can remember it for all eternity. Isn’t that nice of him? Not every day the Saint of Naked People on Chapel Ceilings offers to paint a picture for a useless angel.”
“Haha, look at the Bumblebee, he’s still got bullshit all over his face. Oh wait. He’s always been that way.”
Floof ignores them and keeps walking. He takes his usual seat—a narrow ledge in the stone wall, in the darkest corner of the meeting room. Guardian angels file in for the next several minutes, chattering mostly about Floof’s latest fumble.
A youngster who is possibly Floof’s only friend notices him in the corner and squeezes through the crowd to stand by him.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“Not your fault, Walter. Thanks for not joining in.”
“Well you know, it’s statistically improbable for you to have exactly zero friends among this bunch.”
“Is that the only reason you became my friend? Statistics?”
“Of course not. Oh, shhh, here he comes.”
The massive double-doors at the far end of the room swing open, letting a dense mist crawl across the floor. Everyone falls silent, bowing their heads.
The Maker walks in, twice as tall as any angel, with a beard to his belly, and he carries a covered box-shaped thing. Undoubtedly his latest invention.
This is one of two days a year that he comes out of his laboratory. The other is his tactical meeting with the archangels, and they take up all the time with talk of rogue bands of demons and counterstrikes and such. So the guardians get to see the latest inventions. Last year it was a car that ran on water, but the Idea Publishing Committee had deemed it too disruptive to the fragile economy on earth and pushed back the release several decades.
“Good morning, my fine furry friends!” the Maker booms.
Someone in the middle of the room clears his throat. “Um, excuse me. These are feathers.”
“Oh right. Same difference. How are y’all doing? It’s been a while.”
The Maker’s radiant smile beams across the room, illuminating Floof’s face.
“Floof!” he shouts. “So good to see you! I hear you lost another human.”
The room fills with snickers and Floof shrinks against the wall. He feels as if he might throw up. It doesn’t help matters that a few nearby angels are arrogantly munching on chocolate bars.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. That was the plan all along, yes sir it was. Daredevils are just asking for it. We’ll find you something easier for next time.”
The Maker sits in his giant rocking chair and it creaks as he pushes off the floor with his bare toes. The other guardians give their reports, mostly successful but with a few inevitable failures. He listens, maybe halfway, and when they all finish he congratulates everyone for not being demons yet.
“Now, the important stuff.” He jumps out of the rocking chair and grabs his covered box. “I’ve been working on my most ambitious project yet. I call it…Mankind 2.0!”
With a flourish he lifts the cover to reveal a pair of slightly humanoid creatures. They are a bit taller than humans, almost as tall as the average angel, with huge black eyes and oblong heads. Their smooth green skin kind of shimmers in the light from the Maker’s beaming face.
“Well? What do y’all think? Floof?”
“Uh, er, they look very interesting.”
“Do you think they’re too outlandish? I thought of going with a light purple, but green just has a more natural feel.”
“I like them, but the humans might freak out.” And they’re prototypes, like me. Do them a favor and destroy them when you release the main version.
The Maker strokes his beard. “Hmm. Quite right. I might tweak their biological systems so they can survive on a different planet. Oh, Mars would be perfect. They would complement the landscape nicely.” His laughter shakes the building. “Get it? Because Mars is red and they’re green…”
A few of the angels laugh with him and then there’s an awkward silence.
“Okay, thanks guys. That was good. Keep being awesome.”
The Maker tucks his box of Mankind 2.0 under his arm and goes back to his laboratory. The angels walk and fly out in a murmur of voices and feathers, leaving Floof alone in the corner.
With a sigh he pushes himself off the ledge and plods across the now empty room.
In the Angelic Direction Office, the guardians who lost their assignments stand in line to receive new ones. This is the only place in the heavens where Floof is generally left alone. The others are so ashamed of just being there that they wait in silence with bowed heads.
“Hullo there, Floof. Nice to see you again.”
He gives Tamy a halfhearted wave. She is the only cheerful thing about this office. Although he isn’t sure if he could call her a friend, she always treats him kindly, as if she can sympathize with his plight. Of course, she is too perfect and beautiful to ever make a mistake, being one of the youngest angels.
When he reaches the counter she leans across and pats his shoulder. “Cheer up there, old chap. We’ve got a nice easy job for you, a big improvement over that stressful daredevil business.”
“I just want something I can’t get wrong.”
She smiles and hands him a scroll. “Here are directions. There’s a rich old woman in England, and she’s been praying for years that her jewels will be safe.”
Floof blinks. “Jewels? Is that a euphemism of some sort?”
“Oh heavens no.” Tamy laughs. “Her jewelry. A couple burglars have broken in recently but were scared off by the alarm. Your job will be to make sure nobody steals the jewelry.”
“What about the old woman? Doesn’t she need a guardian angel?”
“She already has one…at least the records say she does. I don’t know who it is, they’ve been watching over her family for so long the original assignment papers have gone missing.”
He frowns. “So my new job is guarding shiny things?”
Tamy nods, with the mother of all angelic smiles. It was in fact her smile that the term was invented for.
“All right then. I guess I can handle that.”
“Sure you can. Have fun!”
Floof shivers as his transport cloud descends through the gray clouds and mist over London. He would have preferred to fly, but the long distance between earth and the heavens is too tiring for his small wings.
The cloud lets him off on the roof of a mansion and then zooms heavenward. He hugs his cloak tighter around his shoulders and stares out over the green landscape. A cobblestone drive encircles a fountain in front of the house, and rows of neatly trimmed shrubs line the road all across a field to the highway.
Floof takes a deep breath and adjusts his quantum state, allowing him to drop directly through the roof and several floors of the building. He lands on the ground floor in the enormous entryway.
A giggle echoes around him and he turns in a full circle without seeing the culprit.
“Who’s there?” he asks.
“I should ask who you are, since you dropped uninvited into my house.”
“I’m a guardian angel.”
“Really? You don’t look like one.”
Floof sighs. “I know. I’ll just go now and do my job. I’m here to guard the old woman’s jewels so they don’t get burgled.”
“Oh dear, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to tease you.”
He catches a glimpse of movement with the corner of his eye and turns to see an angel step out from behind a magnificent set of curtains. She walks with a slight limp, and her wings are like his—featherless and small. She wears a jagged skirt trimmed with a variety of heavenly baubles, her hair is trimmed to the level of her chin, and she has a nose ring. Very unusual for an angel, as most jewelry and especially piercings are prohibited.
“I’m Kee,” she says. She stops a couple paces from him and leans forward, peering at his face. “I know you from somewhere…”
Floof doesn’t know what to say, so he makes an unintelligible sound and becomes embarrassed instead.
“What’s your name?” Kee asks.
“Floof. I was one of the prototypes. I’ve heard there was one other, but they said she died long ago.”
She laughs. “So everyone truly believes she’s gone? That’s fantastic.”
“You’re the missing prototype, aren’t you? Why don’t I remember you?”
Kee takes a step back and crosses her arms. “Probably because you were made when I was already a guardian, and I’ve always kept to myself so meeting you was always very unlikely.” Now she frowns at him. “I faked my death to get away from all that drama and elitism. You better not tell anyone about me.”
They stand a moment; Kee stares at Floof and he stares at the floor. The moment grows longer and the old woman comes down the stairs with her chauffer.
“Didn’t you hear me?” the woman shouts. “I said we are going to the hat shop.”
The chauffer gives a refined smile and says “Yes ma’am, of course,” and he holds the front door with one hand while opening an umbrella with a practiced flick of the wrist.
“I’d better…go.” Kee inches toward the door.
“Oh, yes. It was nice to meet you.”
“Go guard those jewels and I’ll find you later. I’ll show you around and talk too much like I usually do.”
She twitches, blinks twice, and then dashes out the door.
Floof gathers his scattered thoughts and emotions, and follows the directions in his scroll to the room where a large safe holds a preponderance of the old woman’s shiny things. He sits in a corner and spends the rest of the afternoon thinking mostly about Kee.
He wakes with a start; Kee is stooped over him and slaps him again with the tip of her wing.
“Oh dear, sorry, I got tired.”
“I’m sure you would have woken up if burglars came to steal the jewelry.”
“Nobody came did they?” Floof jumps up and peers around her at the safe. It seems to be safe. He chuckles inwardly at the idea of a safe being kept safe.
“Nobody came. Come on, I’ll give you a tour. This house is amazing; there are even some secret passages.”
Kee takes his hand and pulls him through the ceiling, and into the attic of the tower on the corner of the house. It’s a small round room with a sloped ceiling that goes to a point. A few pieces of furniture sit forgotten with a thick layer of dust.
“This is where I come to be gloomy,” she says, resting her elbows on a windowsill. “You can see for miles when the air isn’t full of mist. But I like watching the mist. The way it curls and drifts back and forth.”
“How long have you been here?”
“I started as a guardian angel to the old woman’s great-great-great-grandmother. They have lived such boring and comfortable lives that they all died of natural causes, and I’ve stayed to look after their children.” She sighs. “But the line is ending. The old woman doesn’t have any children.”
Floof almost asks if the old woman has grandchildren but stops himself because he realizes it’s a stupid question. Instead he asks, “What will you do next? Will you go back to heaven for another assignment?”
Kee turns and leans her back against the window. “I won’t go back there. I suppose I’ll find someone else to protect. Not everyone has a guardian angel, you know. The system is skewed in favor of the rich and famous, and people who follow certain beliefs. But what about all those poor Hindu children?”
“I never thought of that.”
“And what will you do, after the old woman dies and her jewels no longer need to be protected?”
Floof stares down at his feet. “I don’t want to go back. But I think I have to.”
“Of course you don’t have to. Come with me!”
“What about my duties as a guardian angel?”
“Psh, you can do your duty without checking in with the overlords.”
He thinks about that. It hasn’t really occurred to him that maybe he can do his best to help people without being regulated and assigned by the Angelic Direction and Holiness Department. But it sounds wonderful. It sounds like freedom.
“I’ll think about it,” he says.
They tour the house and talk for the rest of the day, and eventually sit by a cold fireplace and read a book together. Floof has not felt so calm in a long while. Kee is giving him quick looks and turning away even quicker when he notices her.
Night falls and they continue talking, and the jewels are forgotten until a faint sound of breaking glass comes from downstairs.
Floof jumps up and drops through the floor, into a parlor off the main entrance. Kee joins him, and her wide eyes glimmer in the moonlight.
“It was on the other side of the house,” she says.
“Right below the jewel room.”
“I think we have burglars.”
They rush through the wall and across the cold foyer. A pair of human figures in black slink through a doorway and up the stairs. Floof almost catches up to them, but trips.
“Damn these stairs,” he mutters, and they begin smoking. “No, wait, I didn’t mean it. I un-curse the stairs.”
The smoke stops, and by the time Kee helps him to his feet the burglars have made it to the jewel room. They slip inside.
“This always happens to me,” Floof says. “I’m hopeless.”
“No, you aren’t. You just move too fast. Slow down a bit and pay attention.”
They climb the rest of the stairs and tiptoe through the wall. The safe is still shut, and the burglars are nowhere to be seen.
Floof leans through the door of the safe and gasps. “How is this possible?”
Kee joins him and they stare at the empty shelves. “Those were some really fast burglars,” she says.
“Damn the burglars,” Floof cries.
A shriek echoes outside the house, and the angels rush to the window. Two black figures writhe on the lawn, emitting smoke that makes graceful silver curls in the moonlight.
Kee claps her hands. “You got them!”
They drop through the floor and run through the wall, across the grass to the burglars, who are now beginning to emit an orange glow from what appear to be cracks in their bodies.
Floof is about to un-curse them, and then their masks burst into flames and their faces become visible. Twisted, evil things with blazing eyes that glare at the source of their torment. Floof shudders but clenches his fists and tells himself he can handle the situation.
“Youuuu,” the first demon hisses.
“I didn’t expect this,” Floof says, trying not to appear shaken.
“Un-curse us!” the other creature wails.
“Why? You’re vindictive and malicious things with no purpose but causing pain. And…apparently stealing jewels.”
“Shouldn’t you be taking the moral high ground, angel? If you kill us, you’re just as bad as us.”
“Isn’t that what villains always say right before they die?”
“We promise to never steal jewels again, even though we are the best jewel thieves to ever creep about. Just withdraw your curse!”
“Even if you kept your word, you’d just turn to stealing money, or paintings, or souls, or something else valuable.”
“Of course we would. Do we look like we would turn good? Bah, goodness is so boring.”
“Then enjoy damnation.”
The demons disintegrate into ashes with a final harmonic pair of screams. Floof picks up the sacks of jewelry and heads back to the house.
At last, the clumsiest guardian angel in existence has succeeded. He smiles, and Kee pats him on the back.
“See,” she says. “You’re not hopeless.”
Six days pass and the old woman is dying—finally, Kee says, but then she claps a hand to her mouth and apologizes.
“She just wasn’t happy anymore,” Kee explains. “I mean I think she will be relieved to move on from all the pain of growing old.”
Floof nods. They stand in the corner, watching the old woman, her two friends, and her doctor. She insisted on dying in her own bed, so they brought a bit of the hospital to her.
A lawyer has been looking at the jewels, which will mostly be auctioned off to raise money for some charity that supposedly helps people. This is the end of Floof’s assignment, and he still hasn’t made up his mind about what he will do. It seems wrong to abandon the authority he has served for thousands of years.
But he can’t take his mind off Kee. She’s become his first real friend, the first being he really trusts. The days have been filled with conversation, to the point that they know each other nearly as well as their selves. It feels more like heaven than heaven does.
The old woman says some unintelligible last words to her wizened friends, and then passes away. A reaper comes down a minute later and vacuums up her soul, and then the doctor notices and pronounces her dead.
The friends shuffle out and meet the lawyer in the hallway, where the business of liquidizing the old woman’s assets begins.
“I’m free now,” Kee says. “Will you come with me?”
Floof shrugs and bites his lip.
She pokes his shoulder. “How much convincing do you need? Didn’t the other angels tease you all the time? Wasn’t it miserable?”
Kee leans forward and kisses him on the lips.
“…of course I’ll come with you.”
They walk out of the house into the damp air, and they fly south together, toward the sun and the Hindu children who need guardian angels.