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Prologue
Autumn, 2008

Through the fire door's reinforced glass, the intruder studied the ceiling's dome mirror mounted across the hall. As anticipated, the VA's hospice corridor was empty at this time of night. With the heavy door cracked and secured with one foot, the stranger disengaged the latch with duct tape.

The intruder then slipped into the first hospice room and approached the only occupied bed. A frail patient, the chosen target, twitched as if in troubled dreams. Good, the intruder thought—he's still here. A quick glance at the clock confirmed that the time—3 a.m.—was perfect. Withdrawing a vial from a backpack, the stranger removed its protective cap and pierced the seal with a skinny syringe. The needle sucked to the appropriate level. Then, with a touch from experienced fingers, the intruder expelled a few drops. That brought a smile-an air bubble wouldn't matter, but might risk the desired effect. Besides, one should never get sloppy.

At the stranger's touch, the patient's eyes fluttered open and squinted at the tiny light that probed his failing eyes. In a voice that was no longer strong nor commanding, the patient whispered,

“Are-you an angel?”

The intruder grinned, pleased that fabricating a plausible lie would not be required. “I am.”

“Have you come to take me?”

“I have.”

The patient drew a shallow breath, his head slipping sidewise on his pillow. Drawing another ragged breath, he closed his eyes, as if prepared for release. With a latex-gloved hand, the intruder grasped the man's withered arm and shook it gently. Bones. He was nothing but bones encased in what felt like a dry cell-thin membrane. The patient's eyelids stuttered open again.

The intruder risked a little more volume, lest the patient not follow the instruction that would provide the stranger with a powerful thrill. “Look! You must look at me. Focus on my eyes. Then I'll take you where you've been longing to go.”

The patient did as the 'angel' told him to do.

After selecting the appropriate IV line, the stranger delivered the precise measure needed to send the old soldier on his final mission. The patient locked eyes with his savior, staring, unblinking, at the angel of death. The intruder felt a whoosh of adrenalin and watched as that last spark of life faded.

When it was over, the stranger silently gathered all trace of the visit and slipped unnoticed into the hall, removed the duct tape that enabled escape, descended the stairwell, and vanished into the night.

Across Town
“Jonathan! Don't touch that! Never touch Gram's equipment!”

Jonathan jerked his hand from the shiny dial, fearing that it might shock him.

“You want to kill her? Gram could die if you mess up her stuff.”

Jonathan's mother continued to scold him. He looked fearfully from his mother to his beloved old Gram. He dropped his gaze to the floor, clutching his hands behind his back.

The old woman's eyes flickered open. Her left hand that had lain limp on the bed made a small circular motion, beckoning him to her side. A crooked smile formed on her blue lips. Jonathan's mother rolled her eyes, then grudgingly consented for him to get closer. Shyly, he inched toward her face. Gram mouthed I love you through the side of her mouth that still worked. He grinned in relief.

Jonathan's mother interrupted with a jerk of her head. “That's enough. Go outside. Or go play with your toys. Gram needs to rest.” Reluctantly, he backed from their presence to escape the sights, sounds and smells he did not understand. He felt scared and alone.

As he trudged toward the door, a sharp rap interrupted his thoughts. “Get that, will you?” Jonathan's mother called after him. He tugged the door open.

A lady in a white uniform grinned down at him. “Master Jonathan! Just seeing my favorite five-year-old brightens my day. Are your folks home?” Just hearing Master added to his name made him feel special, even though he didn't know why she always said it.

Jonathan stepped back and made room for Gram's favorite nurse. It tickled him that Mrs. White always wore white clothes. He grasped the hand that she held out to him and led her into their old dining room. Now it was used for Gram's special bed.

Jonathan's mom scowled at the calendar on which was scribbled Gram's stuff. “We weren't expecting you until tomorrow.”

“I'll be on vacation, but I didn't want to leave without telling your mom and dad. The Visiting Nurses will be sending a substitute. May I speak to your parents, please?”

When mom nodded, Mrs. White approached the bed. Grandpa rose from the chair where he always sat beside Gram. “Good afternoon, Mr. Murdock.”

“It's Robert!”

“Of course. Thank you, Robert.” Then Mrs. White turned to Gram and patted her hand. Gram smiled with her eyes the way she did for special people. “I'll be away for a week, but a substitute will visit. I've told her all about you, and she knows just what to do. She's very experienced and anxious to meet you.”

“No men. None of those male nurses!”

Mrs. White turned to Grandpa. “Of course not, Mr. Murdock, ah, Robert. Everyone at the VNA knows Mrs. Murdock's preferences. Your instructions will always be honored.”

“Will she have the key? Someone's always here, but just in case…”

“Your house key is in the packet I bring to the house.” She held up a fat folder, with folds on the bottom, that was tied at the top with string that made an 8. She unwound the string, reached in and produced a tiny blue envelope. She slid the key onto her hand. She lowered her hand to show Jonathan too. “She'll bring this folder with her.”

Jonathan's mom cleared her throat. He hated when she did that while glaring at him. “Perhaps you could remind Jonathan that he shouldn't touch Gram's equipment?”

Mrs. White stooped to his level. “You know that, right?” she said softly. Even her eyes smiled at him. Standing she patted his head, just once, like she did whenever she told him what a great helper he was.

“I'll see myself out.”

As soon as the door closed, Jonathan's mom frowned at him. Mrs. White's magic was gone. He scurried outside.

Out back, he sank onto the cracked cement stoop that abutted his mom and grandparents' house. A loose piece of blistered paint drifted onto his shoe. A chilly wind swirled fallen leaves and chased a torn plastic bag across the scrap of neglected backyard. He shivered. Scrunching his knees to his chest and, rocking slightly, he buried his face in his hands and wept for his Gram.

As the chill from the concrete seeped through his jeans, he shivered uncontrollably, yet was unable to move from the spot. In time, long shadows inched past his toes toward the fence as the daylight retreated. Why he hadn't heard the approaching footsteps, he didn't know, but magically his grandfather appeared by his side. The big man sat down with a grunt. With his arm around Jonathan's shoulder, he snuggled the child against him. His coveralls smelled faintly of gasoline, his enormous rough hand covering Jonathan's shoulder with its warmth.

“She didn't mean nothing, boy.” He paused for a minute. “Your mom's, well, upset. Not at you. She worries too much about your Gram. She works too hard, trying to keep your Gram here at home. Doesn't get enough sleep.”

Jonathan stole a look at Grandpa who seemed to be watching the clouds. “I didn't mean…”

“Well of course you didn't.”

“I just wanted to help.”

“You can. You are. Just by keeping her company, talking to her, letting her know that you love her. That's a lot. But son, I want you to remember something very important.” He paused. “Look at me.”

Jonathan peered up at Grandpa whose face appeared dark against the bright sky.

“Don't ever forget how much Gram loved-loves you. Try to remember the good times you had. Because nobody's ever completely gone as long as someone remembers and cares. You got that?”

“Is she going to die?”

“Not today. Or even tomorrow. Doc says not for some time. But we all go to heaven when God calls our name. And someday we'll all be together in heaven, just like Jesus promised. We just need to believe. Do you understand?”

Jonathan nodded his head to make Grandpa feel better, even though the child did not understand.

©2017 Nancy A. Hughes. All Rights Reserved.

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