Brandon stood at the edge of the precipice, ready to leave this world behind. I could see his intentions, and I didn’t want to get too close for fear of provoking him further, but I had to remind him I was there. “Brandon,” I called tentatively. He turned his head slightly, just enough so I could see his mouth. He whispered something I couldn’t hear. I swallowed. “You can’t…”
I couldn’t think of what to say next. Nothing I said could have been a valid argument. If I were in his shoes, I would want to go too.
He said something else to the air in front of him. I wished I could see who he was talking to. Finally, he moved forward, and I shouted in an incoherent jumble of panic. Brandon’s left foot stretched over empty space; his right followed. He hung there for a breathless moment, then he opened his arms, and I was reminded of those images you’d see of Jesus standing in front of Heaven, warm and welcoming. He even had the light: There it was, silhouetting his figure like a halo.
This is it, I thought. I’ve lost him. I’ve lost the last of my family.
But then something amazing happened, and he didn’t disappear beyond the cliff-edge. Brandon wrapped his arms around the glowing figure he’d been speaking with moments ago (I could see it now) and then turned away from his guardian angel. With a tear-filled smile, my brother stepped back onto solid ground.
My eyes flickered to the figure beyond. Dan—his name was Dan—smiled quirkily and waved at me before fading away… like he’d never even existed.
I yanked my gaze away from empty air to find Brandon now standing in front of me, his hand on my shoulder. He smiled. “Thanks, Al.”
My lungs expanded so rapidly it almost hurt. “Fo-for what?”
Brandon laughed. I’d never thought about it before, but his laugh was endearing—in a little brother kind of way. “For giving me something to live for.”
My face burned. “Yeah? Well, I guess you owe me an explanation, then. What’s been going on with you? Why haven’t you answered my calls, you freak? What was that? What were you talking about just now?”
By the end of it, there were tears in my eyes. Manly tears. Brandon raised a knowing eyebrow, but he didn’t comment.
“I’ll explain in the car. Let’s go home, yeah?”
I knocked him in the head. He seemed to take that as a yes and walked off to where we’d parked our vehicles. As soon as we were both in his car, he sighed. “I think you already know the gist of it.” He hesitated, glanced at me, and asked, “…Right?”
I thought about it. “Yeah—yeah, I uh… I think I do. The… dream?”
He nodded. I wasn’t going crazy, then.
Brandon was referring to last night, when… something had happened. It was a dream, I’d swear—but it was vivid, and it was what led me to this place, to finding my brother with an angel on our childhood cliff. What sort of people have a childhood cliff, anyway? That’s dangerous as hell.
But the dream… It began like a normal dream. I found myself in our family’s old church, up in Maine. I hadn’t been there in years, but dreams don’t care; the service went on, droning in the background of my vague dream thoughts. Then one of the thoughts became an angel. That’s not too strange, is it? Not in a church. It stood there in the aisle, next to my brother. That was normal. This was all normal.
“Go on,” the angel said, which jarred me. Voices aren’t supposed to work in dreams. “Talk to him.”
I slowly turned my head to meet my brother’s eyes. He was crying. His eyes were red. It looked like he’d been having a bad time. Next to an angel? This guy could complain about anything. I thought that, but every molecule in my body was aware of the discomforting change in atmosphere now that these two were in the room.
My brother crossed his arms and glanced away, a younger Brandon’s signal that it was time to go home. “You’re being unfair, Dan.”
Dan? I tried to get a good look at the angel’s face, but it was all a blur of miscellaneous colored light.
“You never talk. You’ll be sad forever if you stay.”
“But I’ll never see him again. O-or dad, or mom, or Aunt Patty, or…” Brandon seemed to run out of family members.
The angel put a hand on his shoulder. “They’ll be fine. Hell doesn’t exist. You can do better.”
My dream-ridden brain finally caught up with the conversation. ‘Wait a second, Bran—you’re not doing what I think you’re talking about doing.’
He didn’t seem to hear me. Instead, the dream changed; we were on that cliff-side, with that silhouette standing beyond the edge. It only lasted a moment, so short a time I’m not sure if I was meant to see it—but then I woke up, and I panicked.
Now here I was.
Brandon started the car. “He was… hounding me about it.”
It was a long story.
“Look—I can’t fully explain it. Religion is mostly all wrong, but partly all right, and I’m your guardian angel.”
“Nice summary of your non-explanation, Mr. Angel Man,” Brandon moaned, arms crossed tightly. His voice reverberated off church walls and empty pews. It wasn’t the same church as my dream; it was just the closest one he knew of, and he hadn’t known what else to do. “Please just tell me why you’re here. Why you chose now to come see me?”
Dan the angel sighed. “I want to… take you home with me.”
Brandon couldn’t believe his ears. “What, to Heaven?”
“Yes,” Dan exclaimed, then reddened, like he’d broken some rule. “It’s your only chance, Bran. Very few people end up like… me.”
Brandon stared at him silently. A man walked in just then, but he was able to ward him off with the generic ‘I’m praying’ excuse.
“Praying won’t do anything,” Dan told him.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I told you—religion isn’t right. You can’t just pray to the ‘one true God’ and get a free pass into bliss.”
“Clearly,” Brandon muttered, squeezing his arms tighter.
“The criteria aren’t that simple.”
“But I can take you home with me. That’s what angels are for. I couldn’t do anything until now because I’m supposed to let you take your own path—”
“—but your path lead to nowhere. Do you realize that? It leads to nothing. You may as well be an atheist, if they were right…”
“I am an atheist. Dan—”
“But Heaven is more amazing than any silly human myths can tell you—”
“DAN, SHUT UP!”
Dan shut up.
Brandon closed his eyes. “You can’t just turn up and tell me all this at once. Let me absorb just… the fact that you exist. Please.”
Dan’s facial features immediately softened. “Okay. Sorry. I know you don’t like that kind of pressure.”
“You’re a jerk of an angel, you know that?”
Brandon’s guardian angel just shrugged, smiling that quirky, almost apologetic smile of his. “There’s no such thing as perfection.”
Dan followed Brandon around for the next two months. Within that space of time, Brandon refused to answer my calls, responded to texts with bland, ‘yeah I’m whatever’ responses, and took a lot of sick days. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t worry too much until that dream. It wasn’t super weird behavior for him, and I thought maybe he’d gotten a girlfriend.
Me and my excuses.
The two of them often talked as if life was normal. Brandon said he was actually really happy while they were together, just… very uncomfortable whenever Dan brought up his proposition.
“It’s that or humanity all over again.”
“Is that what’ll happen to Alex?” Brandon grilled him. “Is that where my mom is? A baby somewhere?”
“That’s not how it works,” Dan muttered.
“Well, how does it work?”
Dan shook his head. “English is literally insufficient in explaining the concept.”
“I speak a little German.”
“The human brain literally cannot comprehend it.”
It does sound silly, Brandon admitted as he recounted these conversations to me. But at the time, with this… being just… standing over him, looking somehow frustrated and patient and not patronizing all at the same time—it didn’t take long for him to start taking it seriously.
“Can you at least bring Al with us?”
“I basically have a plus one thing going on here, alpha dawg. I’m your angel, not his.”
I was unaware until this conversation that Dan had nicknames for my brother. Should I be creeped out? Flattered? Indifferent? Brandon refused to breach the subject.
Dan did occasionally have these confrontations with him in dream form. It was the only way, Brandon informed me, that he could come close to showing him what he was missing out on. It was in the middle of one of these that Dan finally decided to make Brandon talk to me about it. It’s when he showed him one of our childhood hideouts, a classic form of manipulation if I ever heard of one.
“Technically, all forms of social interactions are manipulations,” Brandon pointed out.
“This was deliberate and you know it,” I argued.
Deliberate or not, it worked. Brandon got in the car and started off just around the time that I did. He talked to Dan at the cliff. When he became aware of my presence, his resolve broke. “I couldn’t leave you alone,” he told me. “We’re young. You’re… you. Who knows what might have happened?”
“I guess what really jarred me was that it was exactly like the last time.”
“On his third anniversary.”
Brandon stood at the edge of the building, ready to leave this world behind. He’d been thinking about it all year. It was his fault. He had killed six people, one of which he would have happily died for.
It wasn’t his fault, of course. I tried to tell him, but he was convinced.
He’d tried to end it two times before, both on the same day of the year. Both times without letting any of us know. Neither time had been particularly creative; but this time, he stood at the top of the very building it happened in, on a very cold day, in a very sour state. It was symbolic. It made it less uncertain.
He took a deep breath, then blew out the steam, imagining it as cigarette smoke drifting away from his unhealthy lungs. There was no one around. It was just the wind and his thoughts, and the sounds of distant traffic. “Oh,” he murmured to himself. “D’you need help with that?”
“It’s no problem. I’m just waiting for a friend.”
“Careful, Miss, don’t trip.”
Brandon pushed the toes of his right foot over the edge. He could feel the updraft tickling his nose, rustling his unkempt hair. It had always been unkempt. He just never cared for looking presentable, ever since he could understand why mom told him to brush his hair every day, and not to wear his bright blue shorts with his bright red shirt. He thought it was silly to care what other people might think of his appearance on a casual, day-to-day basis.
“Hey, Mr. Markus. Yeah, I know I’m a good kid.” He closed his eyes. “Shut up.”
Left leg up.
Left foot down.
Left foot up.
Brandon opened his eyes as he stumbled. He yanked his arms away from whoever had just pulled him back and swung around with an angry fist. “What the f—”
Olive knuckles froze within inches of their mark. Dan smiled. “You almost fell. Good thing I was here, huh?”
Brandon’s hand shook. “No…” he breathed. “N-no, this isn’t real. I’m hallucinating. I-it’s just my brain’s survival instincts… k-kicking in…”
He closed his eyes and counted to three in his head, backing up as much as he dared, then opened them. Before him stood his closest friend in all his leather jacketed, old jean-wearing, curly-haired… winged glory. As he watched, eyes glued to the soft, white hump over Dan’s left shoulder, Brandon could’ve sworn it had always been there, shifting as naturally as a man’s right bicep. He had always glowed, Brandon reasoned. This was… normal.
Dan laughed briefly. “H-yeah, angels really have wings. You can, uh, stop staring now.”
Brandon slowly allowed his gaze to slide back over to Dan’s face. “You’re an angel.” It sounded like a statement, but no one listening could have mistaken it for anything other than a dazed question.
“Nooo…” Brandon turned, dragging his hands over his face as he devolved into groans and sat down on the ledge. “Uugghh no.”
He heard Dan sit down next to him, felt something soft brush his arms. “It’s real, buddy. It’s real.”
Brandon hadn’t taken Dan’s accident too well. The guy had been his foil—the hare to his tortoise, the nurse to his Juliet, the Phineas to his Ferb. They didn’t hang out quite as much as you’d think that would entail, but Brandon didn’t really hang out with anybody.
That’s why we left him alone after the fire. It’s why we didn’t wonder when he didn’t come to the funeral, and why, when I did finally come check in on him, I didn’t ask him any questions. That’s the sort of relationship we’ve always had, me and him. We loved each other, but only as much as introverted brothers are wont to do. I respected his solitude, and he respected my occasional emotional breakdown.
As it turned out, Brandon was there when it happened. He blamed himself for it, in fact. He was smoking outside the university, waiting for Dan to be done giving the “newbies” a tour. An old woman walked by carrying a heavy load—a stack of boxes full of what looked like tye-tied shirts—and Brandon, being just the nicest guy, offered to help.
He admits he was bored, but maybe that’s just an excuse for what happened next. On the way in, he tripped briefly and dropped his lit cigarette right into the open box. It seemed to go out upon hitting the fabric, but he couldn’t be sure… He was about to set the box down and check when some official-looking guy walked over and took it from him.
“What—hey! I was helping with that!”
The man chuckled. “It’s a nice thought, kid, but Angella doesn’t need any help from you.” He gave the woman a knowing smirk that Brandon didn’t understand… and didn’t want to understand. The man and Angela started throwing sly comments back and forth, but Brandon didn’t pay enough attention to care to remember.
He was about to cut in and ask for his cigarette back when he remembered that he wasn’t actually supposed to be smoking indoors… and this guy was a dean. He recognized him now: Rick Markus, a big stickler for rules. Not wanting to get in trouble—especially not when he was supposed to be at home already—Brandon laughed off the situation and went back outside.
The fire alarm went off ten minutes later.
He waited outside while students and faculty evacuated, anxiously watching for his friend. When Dan didn’t appear for two minutes, Brandon took out his phone and called him.
He waited another five minutes. He could see flames in the uppermost windows. Sirens everywhere. He called again.
“Brandon! Are you outside?”
Brandon practically choked on relief. “Dan! Where are you? Are you outside? Please tell me you’re nearby. I’m still out here, I—”
“H-hold on—” Dan went into a brief coughing fit before shouting something unintelligible with the phone away from his face. When he came back, his voice was hoarse. “I’m in the library with—” He was cut off by another bout of violent coughing.
“I need you to tell me—Felix, get away from—”
Brandon dropped his phone and ran into the building. Someone tried to stop him, but it barely registered. The library. He’s in the library. I gotta find a safe path to the library.
Needless to say, he didn’t get there in time to save Dan. He met up with Dan’s tour group halfway there, and they told him Dan had been crushed under a falling support beam. He was panicking during the whole event, so he couldn’t give me details. Suffice to say, he ended up saving the rest of Dan’s extra credit kids.
By the time the group was out, the building was practically decimated. Policemen and firefighters were gathered outside. Friends and presumably family stood by, crying or hugging or begging an officer to do something. All the freshmen to-be gave Brandon their condolences, or a sad look; or they burst into tears and ran for someone in the growing crowd to the sound of their name.
No one payed any attention to my brother after that. No one knew, or would ever know, what had started the fire. No one noticed my brother as he walked away from the wreckage. No one cared enough to ask if he was going to be all right.
A Letter From The Author
My Brother’s Angel was a short story written in response to a prompt (to tell a story in reverse) in my most recent creative writing class. It was my only fully completed work at the time that I was proud of. It is, in fact, the largest project I’ve ever felt is of publishable quality.
I’ve been hoarding it on my laptop with the vague feeling that putting it out anywhere would mean I’d “lost” it. In truth, though, it’s pretty much worthless if it never sees the light of day.