The Angels and Jo-Jo Mason

by Donna Burgess

The youngest one stands on the peak of the roof, which is not very high for the house is small and squat. Jo-Jo is six, blond and pretty. His seven brothers and sisters are not pretty, and they hate him for being what they wished they were.

“The angels told me to climb up high,” he tells Jack, the second oldest, of a squashed face and no-color hair.

“This isn’t nearly high enough, if you want to meet angels, stupid,” Jack shoots back. “The water tower over yonder, now that’s where you need to go.” He motions across the brambly yard to the aqua-blue tank that looms like a spindly-legged giant or a flying saucer just readying for flight.

Dejected, Jo-Jo scrambles off the crest and slides on his ass downward to the edge of the roof where the ladder stands, waiting.

Tonight, he will sleep until the angels come. Tonight, they will scold him with voices that sound like snakes hissing and will threaten his Mommy with gouges to her eyes and things ever uglier, like drowning in the murky, forgotten pool out back, an automobile accident or something that is unseen and bites from within. It will be his fault, if he doesn’t reach the angels.

Angel voices make Jo-Jo’s ear warm, and he wakes. He stares into the heavy darkness for a moment, searching for a silver slip of moonlight between the drapes. Nothing. Once, when the angels first came, he woke Pete across the room, but Pete is eleven, boney and sharp as scissors, and he belted Jo-Jo hard in the chest.

The snake-hiss voice comes again, nothing more than breath chopped into syllables.

“Tomorrow. Or we come for Mommy. An angel’s promise.”

Then the voice of the angel and the stale breath that accompanies it vanished. Jo-Jo lies awake the rest of the night, tears making the hair above his ears wet and cold. He wonders how he might get to that first ladder rung at the tower, twenty feet up. Dad’s ladder is tall, but it is also very heavy. Perhaps it might appear where it needs to be, like before.

Squashed-faced Jack loves to scare the smallest one. He smiles at the cruel darkness and waits for tomorrow.

The mist clings to the grass and brambles like a dingy blanket as Jo-Jo starts out toward the blue flying saucer. His breath plumes from his small mouth like a balloon; it will be hours before the sun touches this part of the valley.

Sometime deep in the night, he decided that was what it was: a flying saucer, not a watertower. A flying saucer would get him closer to where needs to be.

The ladder stands just where he needs it. Maybe the angels are nice, after all.

The climb is a long one for a boy of only six. The rungs are slippery with dew. His sneakers slip here and there, and once, when he is ever higher than the peak of the house, he hangs for a moment by one small hand.

His thin arms and short legs grow tired quickly, and he stops every dozen steps or so. He sighs and looks around him, at his home below, at the ground, so green now that the dingy blanket is gone.

The first good resting point is the catwalk that encircles the tower. He sits there a while and examines his palms. Blisters are forming along the flats of his hand and watery pink blood gather in the small pockets. Perhaps this will be high enough. He waits for the angels to come.

Or the saucer to take flight.

Neither thing occurs.

From high up, he watches Becca, Charlene, Roxanne, Chloe, and Cynthia (who is almost eight and sometimes nice to him) walk down the dusty drive to meet the school bus. He wishes a moment that Charlene will not come home from school. She pinches him with her sausage-fingers and leaves hateful little bruises like purple dots in his arms and thighs.

He banishes the thought; the angels might hear his mind.

Jo-Jo ascends over the blue dome of the watertower/flying saucer. Climbing is scary and he does not look down again until he is at the very top. He scoots on his butt to the center, confused a moment. Where is his house? He turns slowly.

The sun is warm up here and too bright, and the air smells sharp like the chemicals that the planes spray on the fields. He can see every thing: the school where he will go in the fall, where teachers will be kind to him and he will go almost all day without seeing this brothers and sisters. Maybe by then, the angels will be tired of him and will leave him alone.

He sees Mommy come out the back door. She calls his name, and her voice is small and tinny, like that of the fairies he catches in pickle jars and beg to be set free. Next comes Pete, who is home this week because he made a fire in his locker and the teachers do not want him around. Jack follows. He never goes to school anymore and hangs around all day to make Mommy upset.

Jack points and Jo-Jo waves to Mommy and waits for the angels to come.

Mommy rushes, stumbling across the uneven carpet of the yard and fields toward the tower. Jack and Pete follow. Jo-Jo thinks he can hear them laughing.

He peers over the edge as much as he dares, down at Mommy’s upturned face, which is now very white. Her eyes are large and dark, like the holes in the face of a Halloween mask.

He slips and begins to slide the gentle slope on his hip. Finally, he stops himself with the rubber sole of his shoe, his heart like a frightened rabbit in the cage of his ribs.

Mommy falls over, holding both hands over her own heart, as if it has tried to escape. Pete and Jack kneel beside her. They look like they are hurting her, shaking her shoulders, smacking her face.

He is too late, and angels do not break promises, he knows. He stands, for once a giant in this world and seeing all. He jumps forward, as far as his small, trembling-tired legs will allow him.

For a moment, he is an angel, too.

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