2009 Barrett Winner
1st Place Dan Hidalgo
The cashier looked up from the counter with his zombie eyes.
"There's no price tag on this shirt," he said flatly.
Steve inhaled deeply, and then let a sigh escape from his lips. "I know," he replied, "that's what I've been trying to tell you. I found it over on that rack," he gestured, "with those other shirts. Now, I really like this particular shirt and I don't really care if it is on sale or not. I just want to buy it."
The cashier held his scanning gun and stared at his register screen as if an answer would spontaneously appear.
"I can't tell if it's on sale or not without a bar code."
Steve glanced at the line of people waiting behind him. It was growing longer. Making a concerted effort to not raise his voice, he turned back to the cashier.
"Fine. That's fine. Just charge me the full price then. I really don't care. I just want to buy this shirt and be on my way."
The cashier looked back down at the shirt and reached forward. For a moment, Steve thought that he was going to press the buttons on the register, but instead he picked up the phone next to it.
"Manager to register 3, please."
Steve's shoulders slumped.
The manager stood behind the cashier, spinning a large key ring back and forth on her finger. The cashier had explained the situation, and then held the shirt out to the manager for her inspection.
"There's no price tag on this shirt," she determined. "I can't tell if it's on sale or not." Steve didn't reply, knowing that there was no way that he could without using three or four different obscenities. Instead, he stared at the manager, hoping that perhaps she might pick up some common sense through osmosis. He could almost read her mind as she calculated the ratio of how much she was being paid to how much trouble this purchase was causing. It didn't take long.
"Give it to him for the sale price," she said as she drifted to the next register. Steve closed his eyes and smiled slightly. Thank God for the path of least resistance.
As soon as he arrived home, Steve tried the shirt on again. He stood in front of the hallway mirror, admiring the way that it looked on him. It was the perfect shade of cobalt blue with tastefully arrayed, thin stripes running down its length. It was bold without being too flashy. It drew your eye, but not to the point where it screamed, "Look at me! I should be the center of attention!"
In short, it was the perfect first date shirt.
Normally, Steve was a jeans and t-shirt type of guy outside of the office. But opportunities like a first date with someone like Rebecca were few and far between. All of the single guys at work (and a substantial percentage of the married ones) would have given nearly anything for just a shot at a woman like that. Steve had no illusions about their relative social standings. She was out of his league and he knew it. Yet by some miracle, she liked him and agreed to dinner with him on Friday. But he knew that if this was going to go anywhere, he would have to play it perfectly… from the topics of conversation to the clothes that he wore.
Well, at least he had that last base covered. He might not be an expert on fashion, but he knew that this might very well be the sharpest shirt he had ever seen. Just looking at it made him feel more confident about his date. In fact, he was so focused on the shirt that he almost didn't notice the angel standing in the room behind him.
He couldn't say just how exactly he knew the figure behind him was an angel. It certainly didn't look like any of the angel figurines his mother kept around the house. No, this angel reminded Steve more of his high school math teacher, Mr. Chalker. Much like his former instructor, the angel was of average height, with an average build, looking to be in his mid-50's. He wore a plain black suit and tie, and carried the weary expression of one who spent far too much time trying to explain things to people who didn't want to listen.
Yet there was a glimmer in his eye, hinting at a certain drollness in his demeanor.
There was nothing about his outward appearance to suggest that he was in fact an angel, yet on some basic level Steve immediately knew this to be true. It was one of those things you don't think about… you just know. Much in the same way you know that water is wet or that the night is dark. It just is.
They stood silently regarding each other for a few moments. Finally, Steve spoke.
"Um… who are you?"
The angel held up his hand. "Please," he said in a dry voice, "don't act as if you don't know. Recognition of me and my kind is hardwired into the brain of every human. You know who and what I am. So in the interest of brevity, I hope you won't mind if we dispense with the 'are you for real' part of this conversation."
Steve thought about this for a second. "Ok, so you're an angel."
The angel gave a brief nod.
Steve gestured at the angel's jacket. "So do you have wings under there?"
The angel spread his hands slightly. "Yeah. That's usually how it works."
"Can …I see them?"
The angel rolled his eyes. "How would you like it if someone asked you to take your pants off to prove that you were a male? How does that sound?"
Steve held up his hands. "Whoa, I wasn't trying to offend you. It's just… well this is a lot to take in. I haven't gone to Sunday mass since I was a kid and now there's an angel in my apartment."
The angel exhaled softly. "It's all right. No offense taken. I sometimes forget the effect that my appearance can have on your kind. This type of reaction isn't exactly unusual." "All right then." Steve paused for a moment. "So… do you have a name?"
The angel shrugged slightly. "Nothing that I would care to hear you try and pronounce. Why don't we just keep it simple and have you call me Angel?"
"Ok, Angel it is. Not exactly the most original name you could come up with, but I guess it'll do. So tell me Angel, why are you here?"
Angel took a step forward and pointed at Steve's chest. "I'm afraid I need to take that shirt."
Steve's eyes widened. "What? Why? I just bought this shirt!" Angel closed his eyes, considering how best to proceed. Finally, he just spit it out. "Because that is God's shirt."
Steve looked down at the shirt, then back at Angel. "God… wears shirts?"
Angel shook his head wearily. "You know, it's amazing that you can communicate anything at all with that variety of grunts that you call a language. The concept that I am trying convey to you is that the shirt is of God. It is made of His very essence." Steve frowned to himself. It wasn't just his appearance. Angel was also just as condescending as Mr. Chalker. He rubbed the fabric between two fingers. "That's funny. I thought it was made of cotton."
Angel raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "Ah… humanity's rapier wit. I'm ever so glad that the Creator saw fit to include that in your makeup."
"Just like I'm glad He included sarcasm in yours," Steve said as he crossed his arms. Angel crossed to the living room window and gazed at the darkening sky. "Do you want to know something? Sarcasm only appears in those of us who have extensive contact with humans." He turned back towards Steve. "Now I wonder why that could be."
Getting the feeling he wasn't going to win this argument, Steve stayed silent.
"The bottom line," Angel continued, "is that for reasons which are quite complicated, that shirt is not supposed to be here. I need to take it back."
Steve thought about the shirt, and then thought about how green Rebecca's eyes were.
"Tell you what. I'm a pretty bright guy. Why don't you try explaining these reasons to me?" Angel chuckled ruefully. "I suppose taking my word for it would be too much to ask." Steve pulled up a stool from the kitchen counter and sat down. He gestured for Angel to continue.
"All right, all right. But you need to realize that some of these concepts don't translate very well. You'll just need to try to follow as best you can." Angel then walked to the counter and dragged one finger along its surface. He held the finger up to Steve. "See that? Dust.
Do you know what dust is made of?"
"Yeah. It's mostly dead skin isn't it?"
"Exactly. As your skin cells die, they flake off, break apart and float down to any exposed surface in your apartment. Now I want you to imagine that this apartment is the Earth, and the apartment directly above you is Heaven. Every day, as God goes about His business, little bits of Him flake off and settle as well. But here's the thing… there's a different set of rules upstairs. This," he patted the counter, "is a physical realm. Up there," he pointed at the ceiling, "is a spiritual realm. Nothing up there has any physical attributes. It's a completely different kind of existence. Are you following me so far?"
"I get it. Like when you die and only the soul can leave while the body stays behind."
"That's right. But the flip side of that is that while on Earth, nothing can exist without a physical component. The soul needs a vessel, and it's the same way for those little bits of God. Although it's really not supposed to, every now and then a little bit of it will filter through His floor, which is your ceiling. But as it passes from upstairs to down here, a bit of translation occurs. This purely spiritual substance takes on a physical form. And the form can be anything. It could be a flower, a piece of furniture, a ham sandwich, or… even a shirt."
Steve arched his eyebrow and raised his arms. "So this shirt is actually a tiny bit of God that fell down from Heaven?"
Angel shrugged. "Well, more or less. An accurate description of the process would take years. And given the limitations of the human brain, would be like trying to explain calculus to a dog."
"OK, I get it. You're smart and we are a bunch of stupid apes. You don't need to belabor the point. But you still haven't told me why it's so important that you take this shirt back." Angel spread his hands. "Those are the rules."
"The rules? What rules?"
"God in Heaven. Man on Earth. That's the way it is. That shirt, being part of God, doesn't belong down here. It has to go back upstairs."
"What kind of justification is that?" Steve asked. "If it's so stinking important that this shirt stay in Heaven, why did Mr. Omnipotent let it come down here in the first place?" Shaking his head, Angel said, "Hey, I don't make The Plan. I just serve It."
"That still doesn't make any sense."
"Well, it's like this," Angel said. "When you are at work, has management ever implemented a policy that made no sense to you whatsoever? A policy that seems to have no regard for logic or reason at all?"
"Well, like it says in the Lord's Prayer… 'on Earth as it is in Heaven'. What are you going to do?"
Steve thought about this for a moment. "Well… what happens if I don't give it back? Do you smite me or something?"
"No, we haven't been in the smiting business for quite some time now. The official policy is that all returns of these articles have to be completely voluntary. It's that pesky 'free will' clause."
"So you're telling me that if I decide not to give the shirt back, nothing will happen to me?" The barest trace of a sardonic grin danced across Angel's face. "Well, nothing from me, anyway. You see, whenever you take something from where it belongs, and put it somewhere it doesn't belong… let's just say there are consequences."
Steve stood up. "What kind of consequences?"
"Impossible to tell. Omniscience is a bit above my pay grade. But as I said before, that shirt just doesn't belong here. Its presence for any prolonged period of time is detrimental to what you call 'reality'."
"Reality? What could happen? Do you mean the world could end or something?"
"Oh no," Angel replied, "nothing that disastrous. The fabric of space and time won't be torn asunder. However, it might get a little… wrinkly."
"And what happens then?"
Angel walked over to Steve's desk and placed a hand on his computer. "Have you ever had a computer virus? Do you know how the software can get glitchy?" Angel waved his arms at the apartment. "Same thing. Things won't work like they're supposed to. But as for the specifics, I couldn't begin to guess. All I know is that the longer you have that shirt, the more pronounced the effects will be."
Steve had no doubt that Angel spoke the truth, and almost told him he could take the shirt. Then he remembered how Rebecca's voice sounded when she laughed. "But I only need the shirt until Friday."
Angel sighed. “Of course you do. All right, here’s my card. Call me when you are ready to come to your senses.”
"What? That's it? You're just going to give in like that?"
"Yes," Angel said, "yes I am. I've been doing this job and dealing with your kind for far too long to waste my time trying to convince you. I could lay out reason after logical reason why you should relinquish the shirt, but in the end you will convince yourself that you need that shirt to bolster your confidence. Even though, and I can assure you, she is just as nervous as you are."
"Well, I wouldn't expect you to understand."
"Oh, I've been around humans enough to understand perfectly. I was ancient when your kind was rubbing sticks together to make fire. I understand that there are certain absolutes about human behavior, and this is one of them. You can be told, but you won't believe. If I were to put a sign on a wall that said 'Wet Paint – Do Not Touch', do you know what your very first inclination would be? You'd reach out and touch the wall. And when your finger came away stained green, you'd look at it and say, 'Yep. That's wet paint all right'. So no, I don't expect you to give me the shirt right now. I'd be shocked if you did. But I am also perfectly sure that it will not be long before you are calling me back, begging me to relieve you of this burden. If there is one thing I can say about humans, it's that you are consistent."
"Look," Steve said, "I promise that the second the date is over, you can have the shirt back. But really, I just need it until then. Just until Friday."
Angel chuckled dryly, and suddenly… wasn't there. Steve couldn't be sure, but he thought he heard a few fading words. "Whatever you say."
Steve stood, alone in his apartment, marveling at how the shirt looked in the fading daylight.
"Just until Friday…"
Steve sat upright in his bed, wrenched out of a dream of Rebecca. His eyes searched the room wildly. Something had awakened him, but what? And what was that smell? Dimly, his sleep-fogged mind realized that he smelled raspberries. Raspberries? Where the hell was that coming from?
Quickly, he got out of bed and checked his room. Nothing seemed to be disturbed. Suddenly, a terrible certainty fell over him. The shirt was gone. Stolen. It had to be. He dashed to his closet and threw the door open, fully expecting to see an empty hanger, still swinging from the theft of the shirt.
But it was still there. Looking as perfect as ever. Steve sighed in relief, and then inhaled deeply. There it was again… raspberries. Shaking his head, he walked into his living room. It would be some time before he was relaxed enough to fall back asleep. Perhaps he would just watch a little television to help him calm down.
He sat down heavily on his couch, his hand instinctively grasping the remote from its usual spot. The screen lit up with a soft glow as he hit the power button. Blankly, he watched images flash by as he flipped through the channels. Abruptly, he stopped.
The picture didn't look right. Even on his high-def television, it looked too clear. It looked less like a transmission than a window. He looked at his cable box to see what channel was on… only to discover that the box was dark. It had never even been turned on. His eyes returned to the screen. Yes, the image was still there, still perfectly clear. The scene before him was set in a diner, late at night. A solitary customer sat at the counter talking with the cook. With a start, he realized that the customer was Jimi Hendrix, and the cook was Elvis. His hands shaking, he turned up the volume.
"I'm telling you," Jimi said, "there is no way government intervention in the economy can do anything but prolong the recession."
"Maybe," Elvis replied, "but until they get a decent offensive line, it won't matter if they have a good quarterback."
"Well not if you put gelatin in the batter. A good cheesecake has eggs, cream cheese, sugar and vanilla. Nothing else."
Exasperated, Elvis threw his hands up, grease from his spatula spattering the wall. "I don't care what you say, those refurbished ink cartridges never work as well as new ones." Jimi laughed heartily. "All right, we'll just have to agree to disagree. Can I just have my usual, please?"
Elvis grunted and reached into the cooler, pulling out a balloon-animal platypus. "You want that on rye?"
"Of course, man. You know, I gotta tell you, I have no idea how you manage to slice that so thin."
Grinning, Elvis laid the fluorescent blue balloon on his cutting board, his fingers probing it for just the right spot. "A sharp knife, mama. A real sharp knife." The screen went blank.
Steve sat motionless for some time, not even blinking. Had he been dreaming? He looked around the room. No, he was quite awake. It was only then that Angel's words came back to him.
"There are consequences."
Is this what he meant? Dead musicians on a television that wasn't even turned on? The phantom scent of raspberries lingering in the air? Steve tried to wrap his brain around the idea, and only succeeded in giving himself a headache. Standing up unsteadily, he decided to take an aspirin and go back to bed.
Stumbling into the bathroom, he turned on the light. He pulled the bottle of aspirin out of the medicine cabinet and shook a couple capsules into his hand. He tossed them back and drank water from the sink to wash them down. Shuffling his feet, he turned the light off and walked back to the hallway.
Stumbling into the bathroom, he turned on the light. He stopped suddenly and whirled around. Hadn't he just left the bathroom? He rubbed his eyes wearily. He definitely needed to go back to bed. He shut out the light again and walked out of the bathroom.
Stumbling into the bathroom, he turned on the light. "What the hell?" He looked at the doorway to the hall. Nothing unusual there. He stuck his arm through the doorway. He saw it reach into the hallway, just as a person would expect it to. He turned the light off again, and stood motionless. The bathroom was completely darkened, except for the soft moonlight shining through the window. Cautiously, he set one foot outside of the bathroom.
Still nothing unusual. With infinite slowness, he took another step forward.
Stumbling into the bathroom, he turned on the light. "Oh come on now!" he yelled.
"What is this? Huh? Is this some personal purgatory I have to suffer for keeping that stupid shirt? I said I'd give it back! Why can't you cut me just a little bit of slack?" Steve paced across the bathroom several times, shaking his fists at the air. "And why the hell do I keep smelling those damn raspberries? It doesn't even smell like real raspberries! It's artificial, like a candle, or air freshener, or…"
Shampoo. That's what it was. It was that raspberry scented shampoo his mom had bought him for Christmas. But why was he smelling it? He pulled the shower curtain aside, and looked at the bottle. Still closed. So why was the scent of it filling his nostrils?
Stepping back, he caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror. He did a double take and stared at his reflection. There was something wrong. Really wrong.
His nose was gone.
There was no pain, no wound, just a blank spot above his mouth where it used to reside. He inhaled through the nose that wasn't there, and was rewarded with a fresh blast of that fake fruity odor. Still staring into the mirror, he turned his head slightly to the side.
There it was. His nose was casually crawling along the side of his head, grazing in his hair like cattle in a pasture. Sensing the attention, his nose looked up and waved cheerily with one nostril.
He straightened up, swallowed heavily, and walked into his living room. Somewhere in the depths of his mind, he gave silent thanks that he didn't loop right back into the bathroom.
Instead he walked to the phone and quickly dialed the number that Angel had left.
The phone didn't even ring before Angel's voice answered. "I'll be right there," was all Steve heard before the line went dead. Setting the phone down, he returned to his bedroom to look at the shirt one last time. He tried to come up with something to say. Something profound that could adequately reflect what had just happened. Finally, his mouth opened and a single word trickled out.
The rest of the week passed with agonizing slowness. The feeling of elation that he experienced when Rebecca first agreed to go out with him had been replaced with a sort of crushing sense of foreboding, similar to what a condemned man would feel on the eve of his execution. What chance did he stand without that shirt? The charcoal gray dress shirt he now wore was fine and perfectly acceptable. Perfectly acceptable and perfectly boring. As the week came to an end, time suddenly accelerated and seemingly without warning he found himself sitting across from her in the restaurant. God, she looked prettier than ever. The way her hair cascaded down her shoulders, the way her eyes twinkled, it was almost too much for him to even look at her.
She wore a basic black dress (which looked better on her than a designer gown would on a supermodel) and only the barest hint of makeup. Oddly, his eyes couldn't help but keep returning to her earrings. He had never really had an eye for fine jewelry, but there was something about those simple gold hoops that captured his attention. Perhaps it was the way they framed her face. The overall look was simply breathtaking.
"Steve, are you all right?"
"Huh? What? Oh, I'm sorry… I was just kind of lost in thought for a moment there." She smiled demurely. "Oh really? What were you thinking about?"
In spite of the warning his brained screamed out, a torrent of words spilled from his mouth.
"Just about how absolutely incredible you look. And why on Earth someone so amazing would even be seen in public with someone as ordinary as me."
"Oh, Steve…" she said, blushing slightly.
"No, seriously. I feel like a teenager going out on his very first date. You're so beautiful that it's actually intimidating. Your dress, your eyes, your hair, even your earrings. I can't take my eyes off of them."
A slightly nervous look crossed her face as she reached up to her ear. "Really? You like them?"
"Yeah. I do. I really do."
She laughed quietly. "Well I'm glad. You have no idea how big of a hassle these things are.
If you only knew what I had to go through to get them…"
Impulsively, he reached out and placed his hand over hers. "Look, all I know is that I am an incredibly lucky guy to be here with you tonight. And I hope that this is the start of something special."
Her eyebrows furrowed. "What?"
Steve's stomach sank. "Oh God, I'm sorry. I just said too much, didn't I? I… I just wanted you to know…"
She shook her head. "What? What? I can't hear you very well."
Steve felt his eyes go wide. With a trembling hand, he pointed behind her. "Um, that's because your ears are gone."
Following his finger, she turned and saw that her ears had crawled behind her head and joined together, fluttering away like some demented butterfly. Those perfect gold earrings glistened in the candlelight as they flew towards the kitchen.
She quickly stood up, knocking her chair over in the process. Her face crimson, she stumbled for the exit. "I'm so s-sorry," she stammered. "I just wanted everything to be perfect tonight."
Then she was gone. Steve could only watch as she ran outside. Through the window he could see her running around wildly chasing her wayward ears. She seemed to be screaming something at the sky. He couldn't hear anything, but he would have sworn he saw her lips shape the word, "Angel".
Turning his head, he suddenly realized that the restaurant had gone completely silent, and that every set of eyes was fixed upon him. He shrugged as he poured the rest of the bottle of wine into his glass. "Yeah," he said as he lifted the glass, "that paint was wet, all right."